Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Technical Difficulties (22 MAY 2016)

"Hey, Pidge," IO Pidgeon turned around, minimizing the screen he'd been working on as he did. Everyone here was cleared at the highest level, but old habits die hard. He recognized the speaker as Technical Officer Jessup, one of the InfoTech guys responsible for the massive computer systems that allowed XCOM to function.

"Jessup," he said. "What's up?"

"You got a few minutes? I want to run something by you." Pidgeon raised an eyebrow. He only knew Jessup casually, but he seemed competent and confident. This reticence wasn't his normal style.

"Sure," he replied. "I need a break from staring at these IMINT reports anyway." He stood and stretched, feeling several pops in his back as he did so.

"Good. It's on my console, down in the server room." Jessup turned and lead the way, with Pidgeon following. It took them a little while, and one lift trip, down to the datacenter behind the research labs. The temperature dropped dramatically as soon as they stepped inside, and IO Pidgeon was happy for the sweater that was part of their regular uniform. Jessup didn't seem to mind, but it was probably a bit colder in England than it was in Australia.

"Here we are," Jessup said, sliding into a seat. "Pull up a chair." he gestured toward a rolling chair at one of the nearby empty consoles. Pidgeon pulled it over and dropped into it, as Jessup logged into the console, then pulled up another screen and logged in again. Pidgeon leaned forward, trying to figure out what he was looking at.

"This is the security log aggregator," Jessup said by way of explanation. "With such a large datacenter, it's best to have a centralized collection of the logs. It makes it easier to detect problems on a larger scale than a single device. It allows us to know when anyone tries to access a flagged site on the internet, for example." Pidgeon blinked, and Jessup paused to smirk at him before continuing. "Yes, I am talking about what you think I am. But that's not why I brought you down here."

"So, what is it?" IO Pidgeon asked. He continued to stare at the lines and lines of text, each composed of seeming gibberish. But finding patterns in chaos was what he did, and he was good at his job. He didn't always have to understand it to find something useful.

"I'm..." Jessup's confident explanation faltered again, and Pidgeon glanced at him. "I'm not sure. It's a feeling, really. Nothing at all that I can point to and call a problem. None of the heuristic scanners are throwing any flags, either. But something is..." he paused again, then shook his head. "Off. Something is definitely off, and it's literally keeping me up nights. It's been a week or so."

"And you're hoping I can spot something?" Pidgeon asked, his eyes back on the screen.

"Yeah. My mate Colman said that's what you intel guys do. She did some Ops time when she first joined the British Army, worked with some of your peers. She said it was bloody amazing how you could take a bunch of barely related images and garbled radio transmissions and turn it into actionable information."

"Yeah," Pidgeon said with a grin. "Never challenge a Secret Squirrel to a game of Twenty Questions or Tetris."

"Secret Squirrel?" Jessup said the phrase slowly, as though testing how it tasted.

"American slang for intel geeks," Pidgeon explained. "I liked it, so I use it when I get a chance."

"I see," the technician replied with a small smile. It was clear that he was still worried about the problem, so Pidgeon turned back to the screen.

"You can sort and filter this list?" he asked. When Jessup nodded, he continued. "Show me. Also, if you can explain what these icons mean, that'll help in detecting any patterns."

They sat there for an hour then two and three, looking at the data in various ways, sorting by date, type, system. Eventually, a couple of Jessup's colleagues joined in, and they combined the data with a network diagram. Pidgeon knew he'd never understand the depth of what these guys did on a daily basis, but he began to be sure that Jessup was correct. Something was definitely "Off". He felt that he was starting to get somewhere, and he could tell by the furrowed brows of the technical staff that they thought so too.

Just then, the intercom chirped, and a second later, Bradford's voice filled the datacenter.

"IT Staff, is Intelligence Officer Pidgeon down there in the datacenter?"

"Sir," IO Pidgeon spoke up. "I'm here, yes."

"We're changing the Watch in thirty minutes, and I still don't have your INTSUM. What are you doing?" Bradford's voice was definitely annoyed. IO Pidgeon glanced at the clock. He'd completely lost track of time.

"Shit," he muttered, then spoke up. "Sir, I'll be right up to explain in person. Something is going on, and I think it's important." Jessup stood up immediately, falling in at Pidgeon's heels, as they hurried out of the datacenter.

Bradford was waiting, arms crossed when they reached Mission Control. He didn't say a word as IO Pidgeon reported, just lifted an eyebrow. Pidgeon swallowed heavily, then started talking.

"Sir," he began, "TO Jessup came to me this morning, asking me to give him my take on a nebulous issue he'd noted in the security logs." Bradford's expression became a bit stonier, so Pidgeon decided to cut to the chase. "After looking it over and consulting with the Technical Control team, there is definitely something going on, something not good. I think..." he stopped, not really wanting to say the words. He glanced at TO Jessup, standing quietly, ready to give support, and got the nod.

"Sir, I think our systems have been compromised."

"What?" Bradford erupted. He obviously hadn't been expecting that. "What do you mean, compromised? How? By who?"

"Sir," interjected TO Jessup. "We're still investigating. Whoever it is, they're good. Really, really good. They've covered their tracks well, which is why I asked IO Pidgeon to take a look."

"Can you tell me anything useful, right now?" Bradford was furious, but the anger was no longer directed at them.

"It appears as though the infiltrator has set up a redirection proxy in one of the edge routers, and is using that as a staging point for their attack. There have been several malformed packets in traffic going to and from-" Jessup cut off, as Bradford raised a curt hand.

"Stop. Try to explain it in simpler terms. I respect your expertise, and I don't have time to learn to speak your language."

"Sir," Pidgeon broke in, "Basically, the threat appears to be coming from outside, and they're tampering with our transmissions going to and from the Nations Bank." He glanced at Jessup again, who nodded in confirmation.

"The Nations..." Bradford turned and dashed across Mission Control, toward the Commander's office.


"You mean to tell me that we've lost everything?" Bradford was on the phone after his brief consultation with the Commander. "I don't care what the records show," his voice was barely containing his fury. "This is unacceptable. We trusted you-" he stopped, fuming while the voice on the other end of the line made some excuse or other. "Fine. We will be taking this issue to the oversight committee." He shoved the phone into the receiver hard than necessary, and turned to IO Pidgeon. "Contact the Council, immediately. Tell them that XCOM is requesting a full emergency hearing. Something has to be done about this, now."

"Right away, sir," Pidgeon turned, just in time to find one of the comms officers approaching. "What is it?"

"The Council," he said. "They're calling an emergency hearing with XCOM. They're on the line in the Situation Room."