Another story I have started while Hollow World is on a bit of a hiatus.
I pressed the call button above my head, and the stewardess nodded her head at me, mouthing the words “one minute,” in my general direction.
“Yes sir?” she asked as she finally arrived at my seat. She blew a stray strand of golden hair out of her face and then tucked it behind her right ear as she leaned down over the rather obese man that had me hemmed into my window seat.
“The wifi seems to have stopped working.” I said, more than a little irritated. For the arm and leg that I was paying to be able to update my Facebook status while I was in the air, it should work.
“I’m sorry, let me go check on it,” as she turned, I saw my co-worker two rows in front of me, Tom, press his call button as well.
I glanced around, seeing if there were any more people that looked like they were about to complain, and saw a number of call lights on. “Um, Miss? I’m in IT, do you want me to look at it, the router probably just needs a good kick.” I smiled my best I’m just trying to help smile but she turned down my offer, and reassured me that she would be right back.
Had I not been in the middle of an episode of M.A.S.H on Netflix I probably would have let it slide, well that and the fact that I was unable to sleep. A near four hour flight from Dallas to Seattle and I’d already finished the one book I had brought with me. I poured some more of my Diet Dr. Pepper into the cheap plastic cup and quickly took a sip, the fizz tickling my nose.
“Um, ladies and gentleman,” the flight attendant said over the speakers, “We are aware of the difficulties we are having with the on-board wifi and are working to fix it, so if you have hit your call light with regards to that, if you would please turn it off. Otherwise we will get to you as soon as you can.” There was an audible crackle as she hung up the microphone, followed by a low level of grumbling and a number of clicks as lights, including Tom’s, were turned off.
I turned my head back to the front of the plane and saw the stewardess talking to a man in a brown sports coat who I had last seen sitting in one of the last seats of first class. His gaze swept over the plane and for a moment, our eyes locked, before he swung his gaze back to the stewardess. I could not be sure because of his angle and the fact that I was not the best at reading lips, but I am almost positive that his next five words to her were “try not to cause panic.”
I reached up and hit my call light again, a bit worried, but not willing to show it, at least not yet, we still had almost an hour of flight yet, and I was not going to be the person that got the flight diverted.
“Yes sir?” came a voice from slightly behind me, as the other stewardess came from the back of the plane to help out.
“Uhh, I was telling,” I drew a blank as to what the blonde in the front’s name was.
“Bridgette?” Said the brunette as she took another step forward and came into a position where I did not have to awkwardly crane my neck to talk to her.
“Yes, Bridgette…I was telling her that I do IT work and would be willing to look at the wifi and see if I could fix it.”
“Well,” she paused as she looked for my seat number, “12A, I will let her know again. Thank you,” she smiled the smile of one who really doesn’t care and went to find the next call light. I watched her find another pillow for a white-haired lady before she proceeded to the front of the plane, where Bridgette still stood with the man in the brown coat. I smiled and gave a wave when she pointed at me and watched as both Bridgette and the man shook their heads.
With that, I slid into what I would have normally called my paranoia stage, and tried to rationalize their actions, telling myself that they must have company policies about letting passengers work on their hardware, it would be a security risk after all. Rationalizing done, I slipped my cell phone out of my pocket and switched it out of airplane mode, and waited thirty seconds, then another thirty, then another whole minute, waiting impatiently for my phone to receive a signal, but it did not. I scratched my head and hit the button, shutting the phone down completely. I settled back, struggling against my neighbor’s arm to try and get into my backpack, trying to reach my hard drive full of movies and other e-books.
I got a snore and a sharp elbow to the ribs for my troubles and settled back into playing solitaire, waiting for an announcement regarding the restoration of in-flight internet. After losing what felt like a dozen games straight, I looked up and saw that brown sports coat was still standing talking to the flight attendants, with one hand on the cockpit door.
“Tom,” I said, loud enough for him to hopefully hear. The kid in the seat in front of me turned and looked at me through the mess of curls that blocked his face, but I ignored him, hoping he would do the same to me.
“You paying attention?”
“I think the guy in the brown coat up at the front is a Marshal.”
“You mean the one with the waxed mustache?”
Leave it to Tom to have noticed that about the man, but, to be honest, I had caught it too. “Yep.”
With that one question, I knew I was being paranoid, but I decided to share my delusions. “He had them shut off the internet.”
“Yeah, they won’t let me fix it, I offered… Twice!”
I could see the back of Tom’s head as he shook it back and forth. “Ugh, leave them alone. Just go to sleep or something.” He said over his shoulder at me. I watched him put on his noise canceling headphones, emphasizing the end to our conversation.
I must have dozed off because the next thing I remember was being tapped on the shoulder by Bridgette.
“Sir, you need to put your computer away, we’re preparing to land.” She smiled at me as I said this, making me feel stupid for my next question.
“In Seattle?” I asked, rather sheepishly. I tried to pass it off with a chuckle, but the nervous look that briefly crossed her face said it all.
“Yes sir, we will be there shortly, please put away your computer.” With that, she walked away and did not give me another look for the rest of the flight.
I did as instructed and watched out my window as we descended towards SeaTac airport, landing without so much as a bounce. I grabbed my cell out of my pocket again, turning it on and switching it out of airplane mode again. I was concentrating so much on the phone that it wasn’t until I had given up on getting it to connect to the network that I noticed that we had stopped taxiing.
“Excuse me folks, my name is Tracy Barlow, and I’m with the US Marshall’s.” I looked up and watched as the man in the brown sport coat continued, “I hate to be the one to break it to you, but it is going to be a little while before we are allowed off of this plane.”
A chorus of gasps and whats, as well as a few words I would care not repeat, were heard, and to his credit, Tracy allowed all of them without responding, without meeting anyone’s gaze. “An event has occurred that, for the Security of our nation, will require everyone on this plane to be debriefed and questioned, so if you would all sit tight…”
The large man next to me, whose name I would later learn was Larry, raised his hand, as if we were back in grade school.
Finally, Tracy managed to focus long enough to meet someone’s gaze. “Yes Mister Thornwood?” He said over the intercom.
“You said event, what kind of event?” Larry Thornwood asked.
“Unfortunately, I am not at liberty to discuss that with you at this time. Very shortly we will be joined by TSA officials and they will take you off one or two at a time, by row. Once again, just sit tight.” He set the microphone back in the cradle and then, as a commotion behind me began, picked it up again. “Miss Kim, please sit down, if everyone cooperates we will be done with this much faster.”
“I was just going to the restroom,” came a nasally response.
“I’m sorry, you are going to have to wait at least until the TSA agents arrive.” It looked like he made to pull out his gun before thinking better of it.
More grumbling and groaning ensued and I tried my phone again, unsuccessfully. Larry had his out and was pressing buttons furiously.
“You have service?” I asked him, but he just shook his head.
“I thought I did, but nope.”
I turned back to the window and zoned out until I noticed a flashing light approaching on the tarmac from the rear of the plane. I watched as three vans pulled up and a bakers dozen blue uniformed TSA agents got out and made their way toward the front of the plane, out of my little window of vision.
It was a few minutes later when Tracy was back on the microphone, informing us that we were going to begin the questioning, and to wait until we were called before getting up. He also told Ms. Kim that she could now go to the restroom, as could anyone else that needed to, as long as we did it in an orderly fashion. It was another hour before my row was called and I followed Larry outside into the waiting hands of the TSA. I glanced around and saw Tom standing off to the side, an expression of shock on his face.
I called out to him, “Tom, are you ok?”
“Sir, we need you to remain silent until you are in the van.” The agent holding my right arm said as he guided me to the open side door of a plain white conversion van. I stepped in to find that the light was on and a man in a black suit was sitting in a uncomfortable looking metal chair.
“Nicklaus Caine, my name is Geoffrey Watt. I’m with the Department of Homeland Security, a Marshall like Mr. Barlow.” He reached into his jackets breast pocket and pulled out a leather wallet, flipping it open and showing me his badge before restoring it to the same pocket. I did a quick calculation and realized that, even if he only saw one person out of every row of the plane, that I was the twelfth person he had shown that badge to, the twelfth person he had pulled it out of his pocket for. “Please, have a seat.” He indicated another chair, of the same uncomfortable build as the one he was sitting in. I knew I was not being given much of a choice and took the seat, and watched as the TSA agents who had guided me to the van shut the door behind me, leaving me alone in the poorly lit van with Mr. Watt.
“What can I do for you, sir?” I asked, as politely as I could.
“Well, first off, I bet you are wondering what is going on.”
I nodded, “A little.”
“Well, while you were in the air, Texas declared it’s independence and…”
“Again?” I interrupted, laughing.
“Mr. Caine, this is serious. In the four hours that you were in the air, the Republic of Texas was formed and someone from within it launched a nuke at our nations capitol.”
My jaw dropped open and then I smiled. “Wow, the guys at work really went all out with this joke. I know my birthday is tomorrow and all, but the Republic of Texas? Who are you really with Mr. Watt?”
Geoffrey reached back into his pocket and pulled out his badge again, handing it to me. It was heavy in my hand, but I knew a guy back home that used to sell fake badges that were almost identical to the real things. “Mr. Caine, do you mind if I call you Nicklaus? I assure you that this is no joke.”
I opened my mouth again and then closed it, not sure of what to say.
“Now Nicklaus, do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”
“Just call me Nick.”
“Ok, Nick, let’s start with something simple. What is the nature of your visit here to Seattle?”
“Well, Tom and I are up here for a business meeting with out corporate office. They are about to switch to a Unix server structure as opposed to this archaic Windows Server 2003 that they are still using.”
Geoffrey held up a hand to stop me. I looked at him again and realized I had reached his geek threshold already. With his other hand, he pulled a clipboard from from the van’s interior wall and scanned over it.
“Yes, that’s him, we work at BladeFree Hosting together.”
“Bladefree?” He asked, his mouth screwed up as he peered at me over his glasses.
“Yeah, you see, Dell sells these servers called Blades and,” he groaned before I could finish my explanation.
”What do you and Mr. Samuels do for,” he made a disgusted face at the pun, “BladeFree Hosting?”
“We maintain a server farm, hosting any website that wants to pay us.”
“Oh, so does your company host the website for ‘The New Republic of Texas?’” He asked me in an accusatory tone.
“Ummm, to be honest sir, I don’t know, we might. I don’t really look at the sites or anything, I just make sure the servers stay up and running.”
“And how do you do that?”
“Well, in all honesty, I play a lot of Everquest. I mean if nothing is broken, there really is nothing for me to do.” I did not like how many times I was using the word honest, it almost felt like I was lying, but my brain was still in shock at the thought of a nuke being launched at DC. “Did they all die?”
“Who?” He looked over his glasses again. I could tell my question had caught him off guard, he was the one doing the asking.
“All the people in DC…from the nuke…”
“I don’t know,” his face softened for a moment, “it’s too early to tell yet.” With that being said, I watched a new wave of resolve cross his face and he began again with his questions. “So they pay you to play a game?”
“Yeah. Were they?”
“What?” He snapped, irritated at being interrupted again.
“The New Republic of Texas, was their site hosted by BladeFree?” I managed to get out. A number of thoughts ran across my brain before he answered. Had we been party to helping them organize the attack? Hell, had there been warning signs? Were we going to have to turn over our servers to Homeland Security? Was I going to lose my job?
“Yes, and we believe someone on the inside of your company made their website for them.”
“I swear it wasn’t me, I mean I freelance, sure, but I’ve never done anything for them. I mean, I would have turned it over to the FBI or something if I had seen anything like this written. I like my job, I’ve worked for those other companies and they actually expected me to do things. I mean really, I bring home six figures playing Everquest, yeah, occasionally I have to get up and restart a server, or run some diagnostics, but that's like fifteen minutes out of my week.” This all came out in one long rush, and I found myself drawing a deep breath trying to compensate for it.
“The good news for you Mr. Caine,” I noticed the switch back to formality, “we do not believe you, or Tom Samuels for that matter, had anything to do with the attack.”
“And the bad news?”
“We believe you know the person responsible, at least for the website, and we would like you to help us get close.”