Authors: James Patterson,Bill Clinton
y circle of six, all appearing before me on the computer screen. One of these six individuals—Brendan Mohan, NSA head; Rodrigo Sanchez, chairman of the Joint Chiefs; Dominick Dayton, secretary of defense; Erica Beatty, CIA director; Sam Haber, secretary of homeland security; and Vice President Katherine Brandt—one of them…
“A traitor?” says Sam Haber, breaking the silence.
“It had to be one of you,” I say.
I can’t deny a certain relief, having finally spilled it. For the last four days I’ve known that there was someone on the inside working with our enemy. It’s colored my every interaction with this group. It feels good to finally reveal the truth to them.
“So here’s where we are,” I say. “Whoever you are, I don’t know why you did it. Money, I suppose, because I can’t bring myself to believe that any of you, who have devoted your lives to public service, would hate this country so much that you’d want to see it go down in flames.
“Maybe you got in over your head. Maybe you thought this was some garden-variety hack. Some theft of sensitive information or something. You didn’t realize that you’d be unleashing the hounds of hell on our country. And by the time you
realize it, it was too late to turn back. I could believe that. I could believe that you didn’t intend for things to get this bad.”
What I’m saying must be true. I can’t believe that our traitor really wants to destroy our country. He or she may have been compromised somehow with blackmail, or may have succumbed to good old-fashioned bribery, but I just can’t believe that one of these six people is secretly an agent of a foreign government who wants to destroy the United States.
But even if I’m wrong, I want the traitor to think I’m seeing things this way. I’m trying to give him or her an out.
“But none of that matters now,” I continue. “What matters is stopping this virus before it detonates and wreaks its havoc. So I’m going to do something I never thought I’d do.”
I can’t believe I’m doing this, but I have no other choice.
“Whoever you are, if you step forward and help me stop the virus, I’ll pardon you for all the crimes you’ve committed.”
I search the faces of the six as I say these words, but the screens are too small to note any particular reaction.
“Whoever you are, the other five of you are witnesses to what I’ve just said. I will pardon you of all your crimes if you cooperate with me, if you help me stop the virus and tell me who is behind this.
“And I will classify the information. You will resign your position and leave the country immediately and never come back. Nobody will know why you left. Nobody will know what you did. If you received money from our enemy, you can keep it. You will leave this country, and you’ll never be allowed back in. But you’ll have your freedom. Which is one hell of a lot more than you deserve.
“If you don’t come forward now, know this: you will not get away with it. I will not rest until we figure out who is responsible. You will be prosecuted and convicted of so many crimes I couldn’t list them all. But one of them will be treason against the United States. You will be sentenced to death.”
I take a breath. “So that’s it,” I say. “You can choose freedom, and probably riches, with a complete cover-up of what you’ve done. Or you can be remembered as the Ethel and Julius Rosenberg or the Robert Hanssen of this generation. This is the easiest decision you’ll ever have to make.
“This offer expires in thirty minutes or until the virus goes off, whichever is sooner,” I say. “Make a good decision.”
I terminate the connection and walk out of the room.
stand in the kitchen looking out over the backyard, the woods. The light is quickly dimming outside. It’s an hour, give or take, until sunset, and the sun has fallen behind the trees. “Saturday in America” has only five hours remaining.
And it’s been eleven minutes and thirty seconds since I issued my offer to the circle of six.
Noya Baram walks up beside me. Takes my hand, wraps her bony, delicate fingers in mine.
“I wanted to give my country a new spirit,” I say. “I wanted to make us closer. I wanted us to feel like we were all in this together. Or at least get us moving in that direction. I thought I could. I really thought I could do that.”
“You still can,” she says.
“I’ll be lucky if I can keep us alive,” I say. “And keep us from killing each other over a loaf of bread or a gallon of gas.”
Our nation will survive this. I do believe that. But we will be set so far back. We will suffer so much in the process.
“What haven’t I done, Noya?” I ask. “What am I not doing that I should be doing?”
She exhales an elaborate sigh. “Are you preparing to mobilize all active and reserve forces if necessary to preserve order?”
“Have you secured the leadership of the other two branches of government?”
“Are you preparing emergency measures to stabilize the markets?”
“Already drafted,” I say. “What I mean, Noya, is what am I not doing to stop this?”
“Ah. What do you do when you know an enemy is coming and you can’t stop it?” She turns to me. “There are many world leaders in history who would have liked to know the answer to that question.”
“Count me as one of them.”
She turns and looks at me. “What did you do in Iraq when your plane was shot down?”
A helicopter, actually—a Black Hawk on a search-and-rescue mission for a downed F-16 pilot near Basra. The time between the Iraqi SAM obliterating our tail section and the bird spiraling to the ground couldn’t have been more than five or ten seconds.
I shrug. “I just prayed for myself and my team and told myself I wouldn’t give up any information.”
That’s my standard line. Only Rachel and Danny know the truth.
I’d somehow been tossed from the rapidly descending aircraft. To this day it’s a blur of spinning, stomach-churning motion, the smoke and smell of aircraft fuel gagging me. Then the desert sand rose up to absorb much of my contorted hard landing but knocked the wind from me nonetheless.
Sand in my eyes, sand in my mouth. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t see. But I could hear. I could hear the animated shouts of the Republican Guard approaching, calling out to one another in their native tongue, their voices growing closer.
My rifle was nowhere in sight. I tried to make my right arm work. I tried to roll over. But I couldn’t reach it. My sidearm was pinned underneath my body.
I couldn’t move at all. My collarbone was shattered, my shoulder badly dislocated, my arm like an appendage broken off a toy doll under the weight of my body.
So the next best thing I could do—the only thing I could do, helpless as I was—was lie perfectly still and hope that when the Iraqis arrived to claim their prize, they’d think I was already—
I grab Noya’s arm. She jumps in surprise.
Without another word to her, I rush down the stairs to the war room. Casey almost jumps out of her chair when she sees me, the look on my face.
“What?” she asks.
“We can’t kill this thing,” I say. “And we can’t clean up its damage afterward.”
“What if we tricked it?” I ask.
“You said when you delete files, they become inactive, right?”
“And the virus only overwrites active files, right? That’s what you said.”
“So?” I rush over to Casey, grab her by the shoulders.
“What if we play dead?” I say.
lay dead,” says Casey, repeating my words. “We destroy the data before the virus can destroy it?”
“Well—I’m going by what you told me,” I say. “You said when files are deleted, they aren’t really deleted. They’re just
as deleted. They don’t disappear forever, but they become inactive.”
“And you told me the virus only overwrites
files,” I continue. “So it won’t overwrite inactive, marked-as-deleted files.”
Augie, standing near the smartboard now, wags a finger. “You are suggesting we delete all active files on the computer.”
“Yes,” I say. “When it’s time for the virus to activate, it opens its eyes and sees no active files to delete. It’s like—well, here: it’s like the virus is an assassin, an assassin whose job is to walk into a room and shoot everyone inside. But when he gets inside, everyone’s already dead. Or so he thinks. So he never pulls out his gun. He just turns around and leaves, because his work was already done for him.”
“So we mark every active file as deleted,” says Casey. “Then the virus activates. It doesn’t do anything, because it sees no active files to overwrite.”
She looks at Devin, who seems skeptical. “And then what?” he asks. “At some point we have to recover those files, right? I mean, that’s the whole point—to save those files, to save all that data. So when we recover them, when we unmark them and make them active again—the virus just overwrites them then. It happens later instead of sooner, but it still happens. We’re just delaying the inevitable.”
I look around at everyone in the room, unwilling to let this go. I have the tiniest fraction of their knowledge, but the more I interact with them, the more I think that might be an advantage. They are way too engulfed in the trees to see the forest.
“Are you sure?” I ask. “After the virus does its job, are we sure it doesn’t go back to sleep, or die, or whatever? I asked you that before, and you responded by asking what happens to a cancer cell after the host body dies. Use my analogy instead. The assassin walks into the room, ready to kill everybody, and finds them all dead. Does the assassin leave, thinking his job is already accomplished? Or does he wait around forever, just in case someone wakes up?”
Casey, thinking it over, starts nodding. “He’s right,” she says to Devin. “We don’t know. In every model we’ve run, the virus overwrote the core operating files and killed the computer. We’ve never asked ourselves what happens to the virus afterward. We’ve never run a model where the computer
afterward. We can’t say for certain the virus would remain active.”
it remain active?” asks Devin. “I can’t imagine Nina would’ve programmed the Suliman virus to stop at any point. Would she?”
All eyes turn to Augie, his hands stuffed in his pockets, eyes in a focused squint, peering off into some point in the present or the past. I can all but hear the tick of the clock. I want to grab him and shake him. But he’s working this through. When his mouth opens, everyone in the room seems to lean toward him.
“I think your plan is possible,” he says. “Certainly worth trying on a trial run.”
I check my watch. Eighteen minutes have passed since I made my offer of a pardon. No attempts to contact me.
Why not? It’s the deal of a lifetime.
“Let’s run a test right now,” says Casey.
Devin folds his arms, not looking convinced.
“What?” I ask him.
“This isn’t going to work,” he says. “And we’re wasting time we don’t have.”
group of scraggly, frumpy, frazzled computer experts stares at the smartboard in the room as Devin completes his preparations for the test run.
“Okay,” says Devin, hovering over the keyboard of one of the test computers. “Every single file on this computer has been marked as deleted. Even the core operating files.”
“You can delete the core operating files and still run the computer?”
“Normally, no,” he says. “But what we did was—”
“Never mind. I don’t care,” I say. “So…let’s do it. Activate the virus.”
“I’ll delete the virus, which should activate it.”
I turn to the smartboard as Devin performs one of the few things that even a dinosaur like me could do—clicking on the Suliman.exe file and hitting Delete.
“Okay, it resisted my deletion,” says Devin. “It’s triggered the activation process.”
“The virus is active, Mr. President,” says Casey, translating. “The assassin has entered the room.”
A series of files pops up on the screen, just like the random files they showed me before, a series of boxes, the properties in a group of descending rows for each file.
“It’s not overwriting them,” says Casey.
The assassin hasn’t found anyone to kill yet. So far so good.
I turn to Casey. “You said it took about twenty minutes to look for all the files. So we have twenty—”
“No,” she says. “I said it took twenty minutes to overwrite them all, one by one. But it
them much quicker. It—”
“Here.” Devin works the keyboard, popping up an image of the Suliman virus.
She’s right. It’s moving much faster.
70 percent…80 percent…
I close my eyes, open them, look at the smartboard:
Number of files located: 0
“Okay,” says Devin. “So it didn’t overwrite anything. Not a single file affected.”
“Now let’s see if the assassin will leave the room, mission accomplished,” I say.
Augie, who has remained quiet in the corner, tapping his foot, hand cupping chin, chimes in. “We should delete the virus now—again—now that it has performed its function. It might not resist.”
“Or it might reactivate it,” says Devin. “Wake it back up,” he says to me.
“If that happens,” says Augie, “then we will run the model again but not delete it.”
I’m suddenly realizing why every move they make has consequences, why every tactic they’ve employed is subject to multiple iterations—why it was necessary to have so many test computers, so many trials.
Devin says, “We should do it my way first. There’s a better chance of the virus coexisting with the—”
An argument erupts in the room, in multiple languages. Everyone has an opinion. I raise my hand and shout above the din. “Hey! Hey! Do it Augie’s way,” I say. “Delete the virus again, see what happens.” I nod at Devin. “Do it.”
“Okay,” he says.
On the smartscreen, I watch Devin move the cursor over the only active file in the entire computer, the Suliman.exe virus. Then he hits Delete.
The icon disappears.
A collective exhalation of air escapes from the room as the world’s foremost cyberops experts gasp in wonder at the empty screen.
“Holy shit!” Casey blurts out. “You know how many times we’ve tried to erase that stupid thing?”
“About five hundred?”
“That is literally the first time that’s happened.”
“The wicked witch is dead?” Devin says. He furiously works the computer, the computer screen changing so fast I can’t look at it. “The wicked witch is dead!”
I temper my enthusiasm, suppress a wave of relief. We’re not there yet.
“Recover all the other files,” says Casey. “Let’s see if the assassin really has left the room.”
“Okay, recovering all marked-as-deleted files,” says Devin, his finger strokes like little animal chirps as he feverishly works to recover the files. “Except the virus, of course.”
I turn away, unable to look. The room is silent.
I glance at my phone to check the time. Twenty-eight minutes have passed since I made the offer of a pardon. Nobody has called. I don’t understand it. I didn’t expect anyone to confess on the spot, of course. No doubt it would be a big moment, admitting to something like this, a monumental thing, the biggest moment in a person’s life. They’d need a few minutes to consider it.
But consider it they would: the tremendous chance of being caught committing treason against America and the horrific consequences it would bring—prison, disgrace, ruin for the family. And here I’m offering a free pass, as free a pass as I could possibly offer—not just avoiding prison or the death penalty but avoiding infamy, too. I promised to keep this classified. Nobody would ever know what the traitor did. If they got paid off, which presumably they did, they could keep the money, too.
No prison, no disgrace, no forfeiture—why would anyone turn down that offer? Does no one believe me?
“Mr. President,” says Devin.
I turn to him. He nods to the screen. A bunch of files are pulled up, their properties listed in those descending rows.
“No zeros,” I say.
“No zeros,” says Devin. “The files are recovered and active, and the virus isn’t touching them!”
“Yes!” Casey punches a fist in the air. “We tricked the freakin’ virus!” Everyone is hugging, high-fiving, releasing hours of frustration.
“See? I knew this was a good idea,” Devin jokes.
And my phone buzzes in my hand.
“Get ready to do this for real!” I shout at Devin, at Casey, at all of them. “Get set up on the Pentagon server.”
“How long, guys? Minutes?”
“A few minutes,” says Casey. “Maybe twenty, thirty? It will take us some time—”
“Hurry. If I’m not standing here when you’re ready, find me.”
Then I leave the room to answer my phone.
It’s been twenty-nine minutes since I offered the pardon. Whoever it is used nearly every second of the thirty minutes.
I remove my phone from my pocket and look at the face, the caller ID.