Dallas, TX, Monday, October 25th 2027
It was a hot fall day and the sun shone through the car windows, heating up the interior. The air conditioning kept things from getting too hot and Brian felt a wave of nostalagia for cooler fall days when he was growing up in Texas. He was driving in for his first day on his job in the National Security Agency (NSA) office in Dallas.
The NSA had hired him in 2026 and he had worked in the Austin office for the last year while waiting for his security clearance review to finish. Now that he was approved for Top Secret work, he had been transferred to Dallas and he and his family had spent the last month moving and settling into their new home. His wife Alison was adjusting to the new city and Deidre was adjusting in school. With all of the stress, things were stormy at home. It didn’t help things that Deidre was thirteen and quickly becoming a teenager. There had been some door slamming and theatrics in the evening when Alison asked Deidre if her homework was finished but overall she wasn't acting out too much. Thank god, Deidre wasn't too interested in boys yet but Alison had talked with her and made sure she knew her options for staying safe from disease and pregnancy.
The exit from the freeway for the office was approaching, so he switched lanes for the offramp. The clock showed he had a buffer before his starting time, he didn't want to be late on his first day. For the last year his work had been focused on very basic network security, he was looking forward to the challenges of a Top Secret project and cutting edge cybersecurity. Sometimes he regretted leaving his job at Faithful Cyber Security, but his old employee, then his boss, Gabrielle, had gotten too odd for him. Over the last decade she had transitioned into an ideal employee, moving up into management and she was now a director in charge of research for their implementation of the trusted internet. Brian was proud of her and her progress but something seemed off about her methods. He had been offered management positions but decided to stay as a technical lead, working in the trenches on bot monitoring and automated attacks. His relationship with Gabby had stayed friendly in spite of her being his boss but there was something off about her, something had changed after the board meeting when Dr. Wilson had rejected Gabrielle’s approaches for implementing Trusted Security. She seemed distant, but he hadn’t been able to pinpoint what was wrong.
In the last two years he decided he was ready for a change and he had talked it over with Alison. She had encouraged him to look elsewhere for a job, so when the opening appeared at NSA for help with cybersecurity and cyberterrorism, he decided to apply. He was surprised that he eventually received an offer and after a lot of thought, he decided to accept. In spite of the stress and change, his wife and daughter still supported him and Alison had already found another job as an occupational therapist.
Brian looked around, putting his thoughts aside as the GPS told him the building was approaching on his right and he needed to turn into the parking lot. He had planned his route so he could make a right turn instead of having to circle back and a turn around. He liked handling his life efficiently, including his driving. As he pulled up to the front gate and the security shack he could see a security guard was manning the front gate. While he slowed, he rolled down the window and then picked up his badge and paperwork on the seat next to him.
"Good day sir, may I see your badge and authorization for this building?" the guard asked politely. However, the sidearm, the lean body and no-nonsense look on the guard’s face indicated this was more than a mall cop security guard. Brian handed his badge and the travel pass to the guard. The guard took it and went inside the guard shack to look it over. Brian took it for granted that his credentials would be checked, the last few years had made people within the government wary about who they let in.
The guard came back out and over to the car window. "Everything is in order, go to Building E, over on the left, park in the visitor's space for right now. When you are issued a parking permit you'll be given instructions on where you can park." Brian nodded and put the papers on the car seat. He started driving, looking for Building E and saw it over to the left. He turned that way and saw an area marked as visitors parking with two slots still open. He pulled into one, glancing at the clock before he turned the key off. He shook his head, remembering that electric cars shut themselves off after pulling the key but old habits died hard. Even after six months with his car, he still wanted to shut the motor off, just to make sure that it was completely off. The only software he trusted was his own, all other software was suspect until proven bug free. He grabbed his paperwork and his briefcase that contained the rest of his information and got out of the car. Again, he stopped himself from locking the car as he heard it click when he closed the door. He walked to the front door and entered into a lobby with a single desk in front of an elevator area. He saw a young woman sitting at the desk who greeted him as he walked up.
"Hello, you must be Mr. Davis, I'm glad you got here a few minutes early. Your briefcase will need to be searched and Ms. Etheridge will be down in a few minutes to escort you to the lab and offices. Security is to your right, through that door, please step through, they will tell you what's next."
Brian saw the door, marked ‘SECURITY’ and went over to open the door and walk into the office. There was a small waiting area and an office filled with people. One of them came over and motioned for him to walk through a detector on the side of the room. After the search and a search of his briefcase, he was asked to leave his cell phone. He also left his keys, which was a new to him and received three keys, for the elevator, lab and office he would be in. In the evening he would have to stop by and exchange keys before he could leave. He was a little surprised but since keys were electronic it made some sense. Who knew what kind of bugs could piggyback in if they weren't sequestered someplace out of the way?
When he went back into the lobby, there was an older woman waiting for him. "Mr. Davis, it's good to meet you in person. I'm Ms. Etheridge and I will be your supervisor for our project. Come with me, we'll go upstairs, I’ll give you your project briefing and we’ll discuss what kind of work you would be doing." As she talked, she pointed to the elevators and then started walking towards them. Brian followed her and watched as she inserted a key into the elevator button in order to activate it. "This is how you use your elevator key for activation, your key is coded to allow entry to the fifth floor only. If you have need in the future, additional floors will be activated but for right now this will be enough access. "Within a few minutes the elevator dinged and the doors opened. She said "Go ahead and get in, then I'll pull my key and join you."
He walked in and waited for her. She pulled her key and walked into the elevator. The doors closed within a few seconds after she walked in. She inserted the key into a slot underneath the keypad and the numbers lit up. When she selected the 5th floor button she said "The doors close when the key is pulled from outside, you also need the key to select a floor. It can be cumbersome at times but it helps to avoid unauthorized people from getting in."
The elevator went up without any other stops and the doors opened as the five was lit up on the display. He walked out first, waiting for her to join him. When she exited, the elevator doors closed and they were left in an entryway with a hall leading to the right. Ms. Etheridge started walking towards the hall and Brian followed her. When they got to a locked door, she used her key to let them in.
"Your key will only open up the door here and the other doors you need to do your work. If your responsibilities need increased access, you will receive a different key at check-in for your needs that day. When you come in tomorrow, security should have a parking pass for you to put on your car."
When the door opened, there was a typical office area beyond it, but no daylight from any windows. They both walked in and when the door closed, he could hear a click as it locked again. As they walked down a long hallway he could see cubicles and what looked like a kitchen area but most of the space looked like offices with doors and no windows. Many of the doors were closed, a few were open and he could see desks, shelves and people working at computers. After passing these areas, they came to an open door to a small conference room with a table and chairs for six people.
"Have a seat, I will be back in a moment with the material for your briefing. Would you like a cup of coffee, water or tea?" Ms. Etheridge asked.
"No, I'm fine, thank you." Brian went to the other side of the room and sat down in a chair while Ms. Etheridge went to get her materials. The conference room was plain, with no phone or computer in it, just a table with chairs around it. The ceiling also looked odd and he realized that the ceiling tiles were clipped. He guessed this must be a room for secure briefings, which he took as a good sign on the type of work he would be starting.
A few minutes later Ms. Etheridge came back into the room and shut the door behind her. She flipped a switch next to the door and Brian heard a click of a lock activating. She sat down at the table with a file folder and opened it up. There was several stacks of paper in the folder and the outside was labeled 'TOP SECRET'. While he had learned about classification levels and been through several security briefings he still felt a little bit like he had fallen into a spy novel. He just hoped he wouldn't have a mastermind criminal chasing after him because of his work.
As Ms. Etheridge spread the papers out, he leaned forward and focused on listening to her. She said "Based on your previous experience and your background check you will be working on a new project just starting up. As part of our lessons learned the NSA has decided to use some different approaches in our cybersecurity efforts. While our country has made progress in fighting propaganda efforts from foreign agents, we still have holes. In addition, our enemies are continually innovating while we are studying them. In order to keep up and come up with our own innovations, we are hiring people like yourself for new projects."
As she talked, she leafed through the papers and pulled one out titled '2024 Election and Disinformation'. "I suspect you are aware of the fact that propaganda continues to be aimed at our elections and using our institutions to further foreign government objectives. This report is a study on the 2024 election and the disinformation campaign that was in effect. It was successfully countered but we cannot rely on our past successes.
“We have been preparing for the 2028 election since 2025 and monitoring activities that have been active over the last few years. The Warner-Kaine Cyber Act of 2021 has helped with regulation of social media and media companies but that only forced our enemies to look at new methods of attack." She opened the folder and Brian could see pictures of memes from social media, infomercial news stories and other Internet focused stories. These articles were more subtle than in the past but he could tell that they were aimed at inflaming and divide groups.
"The troll groups push to the edges of acceptable behavior and go into hiding if they start getting too much attention. We've already got teams in place to combat these trolls and the bot armies they command but recently we've become aware of new threats." She pulled out another report, labeled "Real World Attacks" also labeled TOP SECRET. Pushing the report over to Brian, he picked it up and started glancing through it. Some of the topics were "Social engineering for infrastructure access", "Use of Commercial Drones for Terrorism attacks" and "Subversion and use of citizens for riots, terrorism and other acts". There were also pictures, which made him shake his head at the possibilities.
"You can see in the report that we have information leading us to believe that our enemies may try real world attacks in an effort to create fear and possible conditions for severe law enforcement responses. In response, we have come up with several ideas for combating these attacks but we lack resources for parts of the missions. You are one of the first people we've hired and so you will be our trial subject in vetting these procedures. In addition, you will be working with a counterpart in the military."
"A counterpart? How so? I didn't know the NSA worked with the military directly."
"We don't normally but after direction from the executive branch and congress we have been given permission to try out this new technique."
"So what will I and my counterpart be doing? I have experience in monitoring network traffic and identifying bots and other problems area but I'm not sure how that would work here," Brian said.
"You will be what we call a spotter, you will use your monitoring skills to identify threats on social media, infrastructure and other areas. The other person, a Jake Donalds, will also be monitoring, but he will be monitoring real world threats to your location and his. He is an officer in the Army and he also has experience with networks. IN addition, he will also be in charge of a fleet of drones and a squad that will be directing them. He will have the authority to use equal force to stop real world attacks," Ms. Etheridge replied.
"I would think that a location like this or a military location would already be protected, why the need for this extra layer?"
"You and Jake will start off in secure locations but after you have gone through training and monitoring you will both be moved to remote locations. This will reduce the threat to larger populations but it will increase the chance of an attack getting through to one or both of you."
"I see, so I'll be working at a remote office location."
"Yes, a home office so that you can be on call. We anticipate that as the election gets closer the number of attacks will increase and at some point you and Jake will be on 24/7 watch."
"A home office? What about my family, I wouldn't want them anywhere near a place that could be attacked," Brian said with some alarm.
Ms. Etheridge pulled out another report, titled "Real World Attack Teams: Deployment, Security and Strategic location", also marked as Top Secret. "We understand and we are preparing a location near Tulsa that will be secure for your family while providing a work place for you. We will also provide a separate place for your family to stay, if you prefer to not have them with you while working on this project."
"But, I didn't know that would be part of this job. I want to keep my family safe!" Brian leaned back, concerned about these requirements. Some of the pictures in the report had shown explosions and previous terrorist attack casualties, with the conclusion that these types of attacks could happen in the future. With drones, the attacks could happen anywhere with little risk to the attackers.
Ms. Etheridge held her hands together, and steepled her fingers while she looked at Brian. He looked back but eventually looked down as she continued to stare at him. "Mr. Davis, I understand your concerns and you do have a choice, you can quit and you family will be safe from this threat. But understand, we are confident these types of attacks will occur and you are one of the few people we have found who we think can counter them in real time. If you leave, we will have even fewer resources to fight back. You know from previous assaults what can happen. Your wife, child and you are already in danger, as is everyone else in our country. In your case, you have the possibility of fighting back and perhaps help to protect those you love. Not everyone has that option."
Brian took a deep breath and exhaled. "I don't know, I didn't expect this, I thought I would be doing office work. This sounds like I would be going to war instead."
Ms. Etheridge grimaced and said "In essence, yes, we are at war, with one key difference. Everyone is a part of this fight, just not everyone realizes it. You have been a part of it, with your work at Faithful Cyber Security and we sincerely hope that the inventions and software will make a difference in the future. Right now there isn't enough of the Trusted Internet deployed to protect us so we need more active measures. You can be a part of that and be of service to your country. Or you can sit on the sidelines waiting for others to act."
"I need some time to think on this, I wasn't prepared for this kind of responsibility."
"I understand and we thought you might need some time, others that we have recruited have also needed some time to think things over. Go ahead and finish reading these reports," she said as she pushed over the file folder, "That will give you a better idea of what you would need to fight and the high level strategy for your team. Once you finish, go home for the day and come back in two days, that should give you enough time to think things over." Ms. Etheridge stood up and said "I hope to continue our briefings in two days, if not, it was good meeting with you. You will need to contact our Human Resources department if you decide to quit.”
Brian stood up and reached out to shake her hand before she left. She shook it and then went and pressed the switch to unlock the door. Brian followed over and relocked it before going back to read over the reports. He found his hand shaking as he read through and realized the danger his family could be in. How could he put them in that kind of danger? Yet, weren’t they already in danger and in this job he could help protect them while helping others? He couldn’t discuss the classified material with his wife but he would need to tell her about the possibility of moving again and living separately for national security. He hadn’t ever wanted to be in the military and he wasn’t sure if he was ready for this type of job.
* * *
May 2028, Tulsa, OK area
Brian looked around the little house as the monitors behind him displayed his network monitoring tools. He cracked his back and stretched for a brief break, he was due to contact Jake in five minutes. He still missed Alison and Deidre but it was safer for them to live in Dallas right now. He was a little concerned about Alison he had not seen much of her over the last six months during his training and she seemed thinner each time he saw her. She reassured him that she was fine, but something seemed off. On his next visit home he planned to talk with her to find out what was wrong but that was a month away. In the meantime, he had a job to do. After the attacks that he had seen, the people hurt or killed, he knew he could make a difference. By working with Jake he had also found a better understanding of the idea of service and why military members were willing to give their life for their country.
He sat down at the computers, preparing for the video conference with his partner. He wondered what he would find this time, perhaps an attack on an electrical plant or a hack of data records. He thought of Alison one more time before he connected with Jake and started his next shift as a spotter. There was still a lot more work to do.
Photos by J.T. Harpster