I romanzi di Mario Biondi ©
Codice Ombra - Code Shadow
(1999 - The beginning)
With deep gratitude for the translator: Mr Ercole Guidi
(Guidi Online Translation)
PROLOGUE. The Project
Mount Ararat. July 17, 1997
«THE FOUNTAINS also of the deep and the windows of heaven were stopped; and the waters returned from off the earth continually, and the ark rested in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, upon the mountains of Ararat.» Thus it is written in the Book of Genesis. And thus, for centuries, droves of researchers and adventurers have been combing the slopes of the mountain in search of the sacred relics.
That day, by a singular coincidence, was the 17th of July, the seventh month of the year, yet the digital camera that seemed to be pointing at the bulk of the Ararat – 5165 meters above sea level – wasn't at all searching for traces of those vestiges. It was framing, instead, a dark-red colored aircraft in a sky dimmed by the early morning haze.
The airplane went into a steep climb, nosedived, regained a straight line, performed a very swift series of right and left turns. Its slender red silhouette cut through the air leaving behind a quasi-imperceptible trail. With the naked eye, from that distance one could gather no hints as to its true dimensions.
They were no secret, however, to the man who, inside a camper below the ruins of the feudal manor of the kurd Ishak Pascià, followed its movements with great attention with a binocular through a small window ajar. By his side, through another small half-closed window, a second man skillfully operated the camera, which through a powerful telephoto lens was recording every moment of the aircraft's activity. As always, the summit of the Ararat was majestically hidden amidst a hood of white cloudIt was a very particular fabrication: it measured less than fifteen centimeters in breadth and nearly as much in height. It flew at roughly eighty kilometers an hour. It could not have weighted more than one hundred grams. A toy, it would appear.
"Hell, the Swede's even managed to get rid of the engine buzz," muttered the man with the binocular.
"Yes," echoed the other. "We'll have to enlarge the pictures a great deal, but I'd say the top is all made up of solar panels."
"Are you sure, Attila?"
"So perhaps that contraption runs on solar power. That would be a huge step forward," remarked the other in a meditative tone.
He was a man of indefinite age between forty and fifty, rigid martial demeanor, crew cut iron-gray hair, the right eye covered with a black leather patch, waxen the other, icy. His right cheek marked by a long scar.
The other, too – a robust man of no more than thirty years, with a sallow complexion – wore a scar, but above his upper lip. It cut sideways one of his thick, drooping black moustache.
The object they were devoting so much attention to was the most advanced project of MAV, or Micro Aero Vehicle, originally financed by the US Department of Defense. And it wasn't at all a toy. Its aims were primarily military: it was a portable micro-aircraft, which could be launched at any moment and under any conditions and equipped with micro-cameras capable of scanning the terrain from above within a ten kilometer radius, sending pictures back to control. If necessary, it could wipe out an enemy position in a suicide mission.
The diminutive drone which was being followed with such a close attention by the two men sheltered in the camper, however, was no US Defense project. To finance its design was a structure of powerful men of a far different nature. So powerful as to be able to lay their hands on the American blueprints in order to have them developed toward their ends.
"If it does run on solar power," pursued the man with the binocular, "that contrivance could no longer have major range limitations. As long as the sun's out, it should be able to keep to the air."
"Theoretically," concurred the other. "If it works. And anyhow your assumption seems to me correct, admiral. That contraption is not equipped with cameras but with two miniature parabolic antennas. So it looks as if our friends are interested in communications."
But in that precise moment an unpredictable event occurred. After a last series of winding turns, the plane abruptly lost altitude and pointed toward the great Biblical mountain, against which it crashed.
"Doesn't work," remarked coolly the man with the camera.
"So it seems," returned the other, lowering his binocular, closing it and slipping it into a case on the wall of the camper.
"I'd say we're through here," concluded the operator, placing the camera into the false bottom of an inconspicuous suitcase.
"Yes, let's go. Quietly, without attracting attention, but let's try and hurry up. Go on, Gevat," concluded the man addressed as «admiral», turning to the very young flaxen bulky fellow who had been following the conversation with a dumb air and without uttering a single word. "Pack everything up, and let us be on our way."
At the end of an hour the vehicle, bearing diplomatic plates of a European state, entered Iran undisturbed across the Turkish border at Dogubayazit. Having reached comfortably Tabriz the same day, the three men split up. Attila spent the night locked up in the camper, which in the meantime had been fitted with license plates of the Republic of Georgia, and then continued alone toward the Armenian border.
That night, using the small turboprop of a private company, the «admiral» continued on instead with his young escort to Baku, the capital of Azerbaidjan.
Tokyo. July 19, 1997
In a perfectly soundproof downtown office, the westerner with mousy features seated in front of the desk seemed to draw no relief from the air conditioner, which was running instead at full capacity.
He was visibly perspiring and was in a state of considerable agitation. He looked as if he didn't know what to do with his hands, which he moved nervously to arrange the documents in the briefcase open on his lap, in the impossible endeavor of making more order in it than there already was.
"So the operation failed," said in English and in a dry tone the Japanese seated behind the desk.
"All that's wanted is a minor tune-up, Mizuki-san," ventured to object the European.
"It's the fourth time we've had to hear this. No, sir. Our organization considers the experiment over and will not earmark anymore more funds for it. You may go home, but do expect to hear from us. To us you're a burnt man, but you could still be useful to us. Listen carefully to what I'm saying to you, though: one false move and it'll be like you'd never existed. On the contrary, we shall know how to reward your silence. Now, go."
"All I'm asking is five more minutes..." pleaded the European. "There were some totally unpredictable occurrences; the condensation of humidity... But the project's still viable. Just a few final touches and..."
"Final touches? That's what you said two months ago and four months ago and all the other times that your project turned out to be a failure. Get out, get out before I lose my patience. Out!" ordered Mizuki.
"And do remember. I'm telling you one last time. One word out of place, and you're a goner. Moreover, let there be no doubt: all the rights for an eventual use of your disastrous 'Firefly' remain ours. You're free to put your other projects out for bid. But no micro-planes, in any shape or form and for any possible use. Those remain ours. If we ever decide to resume testing, we'll inform you. Goodbye, sir. And bring the regards of the organization to your fine lady and your three children.
"Don't even think of moving them away from where they're staying. They tell me the Swedish countryside is really beautiful, and I understand your dear ones like it there a lot. Should the wretched idea of moving them elsewhere ever cross your mind, we'd find out in hours and act consequently. Have I made myself clear? So long, sir.
"So long," he repeated in a threatening tone, blocking at the outset one last attempt at protest by the hapless Swede, who rose wearily to his feet and, having reached the door, vanished leaving behind an atmosphere laden with tension.
Once alone, Tatsuji Mizuki got up from his desk and went to pour himself an iced soda from the small office fridge. Behind the round, turtle trimmed spectacles his expression was unfathomable. Only a slight tremor of his fingers clasped around the glass let the degree of his uneasiness transpire.
The man who had just walked out of his office, the inept whose MAV projects he had chosen to support at any cost, had probably his days numbered. But perhaps so had he. He knew well, yen for yen, the kind of money the organization had squandered on the "Firefly" project, and he knew equally well how merciless could be the Yakuza with whomever screwed up. He'd have a hard time justifying himself.
Well, he concluded to himself as he sat down again, he'd have pulled it off. The organization could not but take his merits into account. And the issue at its heart, unresolved by the failed project, continued to subsist. Hence someone had to find a solution. And that someone could only be him: he alone, in the entire Yakuza, had an in-depth knowledge...
The soft buzzing of the desk phone interrupted his reflections. He had already regained all of his self-assurance.
"Yes?" asked he in his habitual tone of icy determination, bringing the receiver to his ear.
"A little bird alighted on my window sill the other morning and brought me some ugly tidings, Mizuki-san," he heard say to him in an English tainted with heavy German inflections. "Rather, it wasn't a bird but a bug. A glow-worm. That which the Americans call firefly..."
"I don't know what you're talking about, admiral," rejoined the Japanese coldly. "And how dare you disturb me! My secretary had strict orders..."
"Why, just minutes ago she had an even stricter order from one of your... shall we say... superiors. Mr. Takashima, to be precise. The order to put my call through to you at once. If at this time you are afflicted – and yourself in particular – by a communication problem, you cannot blame it on me but on the failure of the little project of that Swedish moron, whom you had been willing to wager your reputation on."
"How the hell..." burst out the Japanese.
"How do I know that? Well, experience ought to have taught you that I have ears and eyes everywhere. In addition to my lone personal eye. It's one all right, yet not later than the other day, at dawn, on the Turkish-Iranian border, in a rugged yet fascinating mountain site, it allowed me to behold a little production which some could consider outstanding and others objectionable. A true engineering little wonder, your Firefly. It's a real shame it doesn't work. A whiff of pesticide in the air, and the poor 'glow-worm' hits the dust."
"And you'd have another proposal for us?" asked Mizuki in a more cautious tone.
"That's what Mr. Takashima seems to think."
"Be quick about it, tell me," Mizuki cut him short. "I don't like wasting time."
"Neither do I, and you should remember it well from the times we worked together in the past. But you'll have to wait until tomorrow. I don't like to discuss my projects over the phone. And I won't be able to make it there before, let's say, thirty hours or so."
"With my... superior, however, you did talk about it."
"Not with him directly, but with a certain Mr. Shoda. You know him, do you not? I spoke with him in person, seizing upon the fortunate coincidence that your business had forced on him a brief stop-over in the capital where I now am with my bodyguard."
"Not so far, in terms of earthly globe, from the mountain of the deplorable incident of two days ago. But don't ask me more. Will tomorrow suit you, then? I can't be specific about the hour; I'll be in touch as soon as I arrive."
"I'll be waiting for you," replied dryly Tatsuji Mizuki.
Vienna. Mid-August, 1997
At the Faculty of Biological Sciences, Experimental Laboratory of Exobiology, Ingrid Lemke turned off the big desktop computer and sat back in her ergonomic chair.
She was tired. The research she had been working on for months seemed stalled. She pressed her temples with both her hands and rubbed them softly, cogitative. Her beautiful face with the delicate northern features and the blue eyes under her blonde mop-top tending to white betrayed evident signs of stress.
She threw a glance at the watch. Past seven thirty. The rooms her study gave onto through nearly always open doors were quiet. The assistants had all left. Rightly so. Good for them. She lifted the receiver and dialed an internal number.
"Are you ready to go?" she asked without preambles the forceful masculine voice that answered her on the second ring.
"No," replied her companion. "I'm not finished yet. Give me a few minutes. I'll come over myself."
"All right, I'll be waiting for you," replied Ingrid in a resigned tone.
Like her, Walter was a great hope of that university institute, and he worked on the floor below. He worked on software for wide ranging researches in the field of biology.
How long since they afforded themselves a night in the town, Ingrid Lemke couldn't even recall. Her very little spare time she devoted to her favorite hobby: the ethical-ecological association that she had founded with a web of friends and colleagues from many countries: «Milo». The «Venus of Milo», a masterpiece from the Classical world which to them represented the pureness of creation.
That of «Milo» was a strenuous battle to try and bring correctness and legality to biotechnologies studies and, above all, applications. A battle which, Ingrid new all too well, risked to be lost right from the outset. The interests connected with the use of biotechnologies were far too large to leave due room to ethical issues. And they were too weak, despite the efforts and the amount of time they dedicated to the endeavor.
All these activities practically left Ingrid no time to herself, and her relationship with Walter was suffering greatly as a result, inching inexorably toward failure.
They had discussed it several times, and had tried to deal with it as reasonable persons, telling each other that three years of life in common could not be thrown away on account of a moment of stress. Better days would come, and their relationship would blossom anew. But Ingrid did not believe it anymore.
Engrossed in her bitter reflections, the young Viennese scholar lifted the lid of the laptop that shuttled back and forth with her between home and institute. She turned it on and watched with an absent air the colorful start-up icons moving about the screen.
The «minutes» Walter had asked for would surely grow into an hour, if not more. She had all the time to check incoming emails and send out a few replies. She opened the e-mail program and retrieved the messages from her off-campus provider. A very secure provider: she didn't want anyone prying into her private activities.
She did trust her colleagues and assistants, but one could never know. Prying eyes will pry everywhere. And she had more than one reason to suspect that the activities of «Milo» had already made quite a name for themselves by government agencies and large international businesses interested in exploiting biotechnologies, as being a pain in the neck.
She quickly reviewed the senders of the nine messages in her mailbox and then she opened them. The British affiliates were asking that a protest be organized against a major livestock breeder suspected of still using illegal practices to fatten the steers.
In Belgium they wanted to organize a violent boycott of a canned food business. The Klagenfurt and Graz chapter, in her own country, expressed deep concern for a suspect high mortality of fish in a brook and proposed a watch on it. From Switzerland, a drug industry suspected of illegal use of the growth hormone. From Prague, a chemical laboratory alleged to be studying recombinant plasmide for bacteriological warfare. Guidance was being asked in order to put them in check.
These were some of «Milo»'s activities, to be always conducted undercover, instigating a monitoring or protest action and organizing it, yet avoiding any apparent direct involvement. «Milo» had to remain, as far as possible, a secret association. As for the highest level of intervention, «dissuasive» action through plant disruptions, for now it remained wishful thinking: God knew when they would have the right people, training and means.
Three other messages were of no particular moment: answers to past unimportant requests of hers. The ninth, instead, did rouse her curiosity. It was marked Maximum Priority and came from a name dissimulated under a numerical acronym unknown to her and which she did not recall having had any previous exchange of opinion or information with.
The «subject» of the message was encrypted – a simple series of alphanumerical characters –, but the last four were enough to put her on guard: .rcr. It suggested that the entire message, including the «subject», was to be decrypted using the RotaCrypt program, a small yet sophisticated codification and decryption software created by a programmer connected with «Milo». A lot more than a programmer, in fact.
Ingrid copied the text of the «subject» into the window of a word processing program and ran it through that of decryption, which deleted the .rcr extension and turned up the English phrase: Information on New World Order.
She snorted in vexation. It had never come to pass that the maniacs of the alleged scheme to instate a New World Order would send her coded messages. In their wholesale hallucination, however, there could be traced at times some hints which called for careful consideration regarding the menace of a distorted use of biotechnologies on the part of the spooky New World Order. And one of «Milo»'s primary tasks did indeed consist in investigating and unmasking activities of this kind. Then she ran through RotaCrypt also the text of the message and read it:
1. THE ANTICHRIST is about to come; it is ineluctable.
2. The way has been thrown open to him by terrible distortions that will strike the world in its globality.
a. The artificial creation of dissention and hatred amongst the peoples.
b. The unrestrained diffusion of narcissism and hedonism.
c. The destruction of moral values.
d. The elimination of the family
e. The dictatorship of a blood covenant amongst the most powerful nations.
f. The world electronic currency, in the form of a secretly codified microchip, which shall be implanted inside our body and which we shall all be forced to use for all economic transactions. With the implantation of this microchip BIG BROTHER shall control every instant of our life.
3. THE ANTICHRIST is about to ascend to the See of Saint Peter. LET US STOP HIM!
When at length Walter peeped into the study, he found Ingrid still fiddling with the message.
To bother her wasn't surely the text, a sheer hallucination, but the fact that it had been encrypted with RotaCrypt. That meant primarily two things: that the message was a fake and that her private email address was no longer secret. But it meant above all that the RotaCrypt program had fallen into very wrong hands and that, as a consequence, it could no longer be used.
Someone had got hold of it, and she had long been aware how powerful were the enemies «Milo» was up against, but now she also had a precise idea of their artfulness. How long had they been controlling their message exchanges? It didn't have to be that long.
The swapping of information between «Milo»'s affiliates was very close, hence it wouldn't have taken long to get hold of their secrets. That is why they had wanted her to know that they knew RotaCrypt: to frighten her and tacitly warn her to opt out. The work of months had gone up in smoke.
Ingrid welcomed her companion with a casual nod of her head and continued to canvass «Milo»'s databases, without stirring from her chair.
Walter watched her for a few moments with an irritated expression, and then turned on his heels and left.
Ingrid did nothing to hold him back: she was taking notes in the word processor. If earlier he had asked her for a «few minutes» which had turned into more than an hour, now it was she who could use a little extra time.
As she finished taking notes, she sent a message to Tom Minea, the computer genius who had created RotaCrypt, to inform him of what had happened. Obviously she encrypted it using another system. When at last she turned off the computer, it was past nine thirty. Only at that moment did she realize how really wobbly her relationship with Walter was.
She left the university institute and stopped at a fast food to grab a bite, and when she got home she saw that the door to her companion's study was shut. She had long learned to read that as a sign of war.
Tatra Range. August 20, 1997
Tom Minea had a complicated past, which some would have dubbed adventurous. With many successes, but also with many a burning defeat.
He wrote software programs for computers, and down the years he had specialized more and more in applications for the medical sector. Of Rumanian descent, he was born in the United States and he was pursuing a brilliant career by an important university institution of that country, when his prickly disposition had come in the way.
When he sensed that someone had no confidence in his work hypotheses, he hadn't stopped to think a moment longer: he had resigned and had holed himself up in the Tatra mountains to work in a semi-clandestine clinic with an old cousin of his, Dimitru, a Rumanian neurologist expatriate, likewise proud, if not prouder than he was. Together they had achieved other successes, faced up to other challenges, and suffered other defeats. But they were two obstinate men, difficult to bend. Tom's activities, however, were not limited to his work at the clinic. He had others, unbeknownst to most, and least of all to his singular and generous neurologist cousin.
That night, at the clinic of Dimitru and Tom Minea, a little castle holed up at the foot of the Tatra range on the Slovakian side, the situation was one of perfect tranquillity. The two patients were resting – there were never more than two –, and with them were resting the old Rumanian doctor and the two brave nuns who assisted him in the complicated work of trying to bring back amongst the living people affected by apparently irreversible coma.
But Tom wasn't resting. The only light burning in the little manor was in fact that of his study. A space literally invaded by computers and electronic equipment: keyboards, monitors, removable and optical disks, and cables. Seated behind his large work desk and as always wearing his white coat, Tom was talking animatedly in Rumanian with a friend whom had called on him at an unusual hour: one a.m. His Rumanian was tinged with a heavy American accent, but it was more than sufficient to undertake any kind of conversation, even though Tom would occasionally stumble on some words, especially in moments of agitation.
"Are you sure that circular isn't a fake?" he asked.
"Absolutely. I can't disclose the source, but it is totally reliable."
"Uhm," muttered Tom. "In that case we'd really be in big trouble. But what can we do? Even if we found out where the meeting is to take place, what could we do to infiltrate it?"
"Yes, we can do nothing for the time being," concurred the other. "But let's keep our eyes open and let's warn all of our friends. We might dig up something else and be put in condition to act."
Tom nodded and, seeing the other getting up, he did the same and escorted him to the secret passage that gave onto the open country, and allowing one to leave the manor undetected. He used it often.
Having returned to his study and picked up again from his desk the faded photocopy of the circular he had been discussing with his friend, he read it over again. Drafted in English, it said:
To the Regional and Local Directors
Security Level: Maximum
Subject: Global Surveillance System
Appendix for September meeting
Designed and coordinated by the United States, the Universal Bureau of Control is a system destined to intercept all kinds of communication - telephone calls, fax, telex, email, online exchanges - between national and local governments, large businesses, public and private associations, and even individuals.
The system shall function through the indiscriminate interception of enormous amounts of data. To this end, a secret international web of structures shall be created capable of hacking into the most important components of the communication grid: satellites, radio transmitters, ground telephone grid exchanges.
The millions of intercepted messages shall be filtered on the basis of keywords through computers called «Dictionaries», in order to identify messages of particular interest. Such keywords range from the names of the different nation states of the Earth to those of political leaders as well as of oppositions, ambassadors, diplomats, major business intermediaries, lead figures of international terrorism, etcetera. All the way down to specific expressions such as «war», «weapons», «assassination attempt», «aircraft», «ship», «train», and so on.
Each message containing a keyword shall be automatically examined for origin and destination, related telephone numbers, email addresses and so on. The information shall then be catalogued and transmitted to large databases with sophisticated crosscheck capabilities, open for consultation to the intelligence services of the countries participating in the project.
The addressees of the circular should pay particular ATTENTION to the fact that keywords such as, for example, «cocaine» (in all of its possible variants) and «mafia» (also in all of its known variants) are considered particularly sensitive. A crosscheck in the UBC's databases on these two expressions alone would be enough to obtain a massive amount of information.
BE ALERT. IF THEY ARE NOT DOING IT ALREADY, THE ENEMIES ARE ABOUT TO INTERCEPT ALL THAT OUR ASSOCIATES WILL COMMUNICATE TO ONE ANOTHER.
Tom Minea interrupted his reading and carefully placed the photocopy into a small folder, which he slipped into the false bottom of one of his drawers, closing it. He was meditative. Surely, if the circular intercepted by his Rumanian friend and companion of adventures was authentic, the world was about to face a problem. A huge problem. Two, rather: on the one hand the spooky UBC, and on the other the counter-move pre-announced by the circular. But what could he and his friends do with the meager means at their disposal?
He sat back in his reclinable chair and closed his eyes, pursuing his thoughts. All of a sudden he reopened his eyes and straightened himself up, with a deeply concerned expression. The strange message he had received a few days before from Ingrid Lemke had popped up in his mind.
Someone had hacked into one of the nodes – perhaps more than one – of «Milo»'s communication network, making the RotaCrypt program, which he himself had created, obsolete, and very uncertain the future activity of the association. Someone who evidently held a great power. The Universal Control Office? It could not be ruled out. In the messages «Milo»'s affiliates swapped between themselves there could well be more than one of the keywords indicated in the circular. He must speak with Ingrid about it. Leave for Vienna ASAP.
He then thought better of it. Nay; the news his Rumanian friend had brought to him was still too vague and unverified. No cause to alarm the young biologist so early. For the moment he would have seen to it with all the means on hand.
He was eager to see Ingrid nonetheless. The beautiful Viennese scholar appeared quite often in his dreams. Upon the bearded face of Tom Minea a bizarre expression of tenderness took shape.
He held out his right hand toward the keyboard of the computer to turn it off, but then he checked himself. He knew he'd toss and turn before he fell asleep. He must think of something else. Instead of pressing the off button, he called up on the screen the virtual chessboard on which he played strenuous games against a host of friends scattered around the world, with whom he swapped the moves by email. For want of anything better he played against the computer.
But in those days he was engaged in a passionate game against one of his fiercest opponents. A fourteen-year-old lad who lived very far from those mountains: in Italy, in Milan. And it wasn't their first game. He had taught him personally a series of moves, and now the devilish kid was using them with extraordinary aptitude. Ever since he had first been able to speak with him, a few months earlier, he had sensed in the kid a very keen mind, and that behind that clean, child-like brow, there hid a first-rate mathematical brain, yet reality surpassed expectations.
The story of how they had come to know and grow fond of one another was pure novel. Yes; in absence of the fascinating Ingrid Lemke, he would have loved the company of fourteen-year-old Niccolò Sassi right now. In the flesh, looking into each other's eyes and studying the countenance of the adversary, chess games become an entirely different affaire. He again began to study with quasi-mystical attention the position of the pieces on the virtual chessboard.
Lagos, Nigeria. September, 1997
Over the city hung a thick hood of dampness, whence like pinnacles soared the most elevated parts of the buildings.
On a sixteenth floor of the business center, behind large bullet-proof windows shielded by curtains impenetrable to eavesdropping, a meeting had been in progress for over an hour to work out a project of consortium amongst the world's most powerful organized crime organizations.
The meeting had been convened by the Japanese Yakuza, which out of that building in Lagos, shielded behind a front business, controlled the political, economical and financial life of the entire equatorial and southern Africa. Ahead of the meeting every inch of the place had been combed with sophisticated electronic devices in order to probe its complete security: no indiscreet ear could have picked up what was to be discussed.
Around the large oval glass and aluminum table sat the representatives of the American, Japanese, Chinese, Russian, South American, Turkish and Italian mob, as well as the observers of some minor local criminal groups. The discussion had reached its climax. The English used by the participants, if incorrect, was nonetheless understandable to all: more than a language, it was a jargon.
"Gentlemen," cried animatedly the Sicilian delegate. "What's being asked of our organizations is an enormous financial effort, whose profitability we aren't at all certain of. Of us Italians, in our various components, is asked a contribution of twenty million dollars. But the aims of the project have yet to be made clear to us. Neither has it been clarified to us what the weight of the different organizations in the new Consortium is going to be. And even less have we been given to understand whether this entity, let's define it «supranational», will have jurisdiction upon local activities and structures."
"It's an objection we feel we must associate with without reservations," returned in an even more animated tone the representative of the Russian, Ukrainian and Georgian groups. "The doubts exposed by the Italians are ours as well. The project, which hitherto we know nearly nothing about, is onerous. And the risks of interference with local activities are too strong."
"Gentlemen, gentlemen," replied in an amiable tone the representative of the Yakuza who was chairing the meeting. "The very purpose of our discussion is to try and come up with an initial master plan, which will be perfected in subsequent meetings, and which will lead to a statute as well as to the definition of the operational procedures, other than to the appointment of a Supervisory Committee."
"Wouldn't we be heading for a fiasco as in the case of your disastrous Firefly, Mr. Osaka?" asked the Colombian representative in an ironic tone. "It would seem that to Mizuki-san the idea cost rather dearly, isn't it so? What's he currently into? Child prostitutes in Bangkok?"
"I'm the one who's calling the shots on the project now, Mr. Medellin," rejoined the Japanese in a tone of mellifluous courteousness. "Therefore if you'd be so kind as to listen..."
For security reasons, the participants in that sort of meetings had the habit of using code names, which were changed each time. For this project had been chosen cities from their respective countries
"In view of the objections," continued Osaka, "it is opportune to reiterate that the financial effort required is only a start: further disbursements might become necessary. As for our Italian and Turkish friends, it must be clarified that they will also guarantee for the share required of the Rumanians, given their mutual operational ties. In light of the current situation, it's not possible to proceed otherwise. As for the Albanians, they'll pay in services. As it will appear evident," he continued, blocking any protest at the outset, "their participation is indispensable.
"We are aware that the cost is not inconsiderable, but so is the threat we are confronted with. The very existence of our organizations is at stake. It's no longer a matter of creating our own communication network unassailable from without, which was the object of our Firefly project, but of establishing a global control upon those of the others.
"The information on hand is unsettling. To justify what I'm saying it would suffice the very name of the danger that we are to face. It's the very reason for this meeting, as indicated in the circular sent out to everyone, which not for naught has been transmitted in print, steering clear of any form of online transmission.
"The Universal Bureau of Control, abbreviated into UBC: a Universal Control Office, esteemed gentlemen. That which science fiction writers call 'Big Brother' is about to become reality. A supranational monitoring instrument of all activities worldwide. An agency endowed with all the most sophisticated information, counter-information, defense and aggression tools. If adequate counter-attack measures are not adopted, we'll be annihilated. All of us, without exceptions."
"The usual fraud," rejoined vehemently the Turk. "The umpteenth hallucination on a variant of the phantasmal New World Order. We should be old enough by now not to buy into such old wives' tales. To pay heed to it is a pure and simple waste of time. And, given the activities of our government against the Kurds on the one hand, and to stir the attention of the European Community on the other, we Turks have bigger fish to fry. The shutting down of all casinos in Turkey, for example, will be a huge blow to our activities. You do know how much we invested in them, and..."
"No, Mr Bingöl," replied firmly the Japanese. "The UBC does exist, and if anything it represents a broadening and strengthening of that muddled system already known as Echelon, but way more powerful. As we know, Echelon was limited to five countries of the English speaking world – United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand – and as a consequence it had aroused the well known protests of the other countries, but with UBC they are moving forward, creating an interception structure potentially open to all the members of the Western alliances."
"Yes, we know that much ourselves," interposed the American. "We know where the UBC's headquarter is located and we've already moved to plant a mole in it, but with no luck, at least for now. Washington has allocated a huge sum, and that just for starters. The European Community countries are about to do the same, as they seemed committed to working out their constitutional differences; the adhesion of Japan – as Mr Osaka will confirm – is in an advanced phase of study; and so on. Mr. Osaka is right: we're running a deadly risk and we've got to respond with all possible means, cost what it may."
The representative of the Chinese Triads squinted behind his round-shaped glasses and bowed his head toward the table in obeisance.
"Would our friends let Mr. Osaka conclude his exposition? In other words, could we finally get to know what the project we'd be called upon to finance in order to hinder the UBC, consists in?"
"I'll do it in very few words, Mr. Canton," replied promptly the emissary of the Yakuza, bowing in turn his head in response to the courteous gesture of the Chinese.
"In order to thwart the surveillance activities of the Universal Bureau of Control it is of the essence that we succeed in establishing our own total control over that which I would define its very connective tissue: communications. We must be informed at all times of the findings, of the activities, and of the projects of the UBC. But I said total control; that is a control that from the activities of the UBC be extended to those of all the vital political, economical and information centers of this world. A world which by now includes a portion of outer Space.
"The explanations concerning our self-defense and counter-attack project will be laid out to you by admiral Leipzig, whom some of you already know and whom, on our behalf and with our strong financial commitment, has been working on it with his crew for sometime. As for me, I will conclude by saying that the code name proposed for the operation is 'Shadow'."
"That is, in Italian, Codice 'Ombra'. Why?" asked the Sicilian.
"Because, even though remaining hidden, we must succeed in casting our shadow over the entire world. And in order to best hide we must pollute the atmosphere, toss bogus baits. In the United States, in order to break up illegal intrusions in communication nodes, a plan is being developed of the same name: 'Shadow'. We'll see who's got the longest shadow. Please, admiral, explain to us how we'll project ours over the world."
As the room was being darkened and a projection screen lowered from the ceiling, at the opposite end of the table a middle-aged European by the stiff military tones got on his feet and, before taking the floor, let the icy gaze of one lone eye slowly pore over those present, passing one hand through his crew cut iron-gray hair. The empty cavity of the other eye was covered with a black leather patch.
The “Creature”. February, 1998
Seated behind the desk of his study, Evgenij Rudenko kept a gaze laden with anxiety fastened upon his «creature», which lay on the large table of the adjoining laboratory.
The study could have been mistaken for a small Radio-TV broadcasting station. A tangle of cables connected an array of monitors, computers, hard drives, optical disks, CD-ROM readers, scanners and keyboards on which lines of alphanumeric characters flowed ceaselessly. The heavy sliding strong door connecting the study to the laboratory was open.
The «creature», per se, was actually a relatively small object. To a normal eye it could have resembled a double computer chassis, half-painted in black and half in a very pale metal hue. Only a real expert could have perceived that it was a structure made up of two different alloys, one designed to disperse heat and the other to retain it. Yet only a super expert, with a deep knowledge of information technology and biophysics, could have divined what it was in reality.
Ordinarily, the strong door was kept open, turning the two rooms almost into one single working space. During the demonstration, instead, it would be slid shut hermetically, putting the laboratory in total isolation.
Rudenko had been working on that project for many months now, as the final phase of a study that began years before. There had been several errors, and the procedure was yet to be fine-tuned. The biological molecules didn't always behave as expected; something random would oftentimes occur in the reaction piping. In spite of his efforts, his experiments continued to yield ambiguous results, and Evgenij was experiencing actual spells of distress.
He couldn't help but mull over these errors. Had he been presumptuous? No; on that front he felt appeased. Perhaps he had brought the project to a degree of development that was far too ambitious, but that couldn't be helped: he had to do it.
His very young and beautiful assistant looked at him with an affectionate expression of encouragement.
"Do you feel up to it, Evgenij?"
"I've got to," replied Rudenko in a bitter tone. "We have no choice."
The demonstration would consist in a virtual drill of what the «creature» could actually accomplish.
The external door of the study opened. "Our guests are here, professor," said a voice behind him. "I've already showed them into the lab through the other door. The demonstration can begin." The tone of admiral Leipzig was peremptory, as always.
"I'll be right over," murmured Evgenij. Then he added in a tense tone, "Do you wish me to present the process in all of its aspects, or should I limit myself to the... positive data?"
Leipzig looked daggers at him with his one eye. Then he summoned up the fiercest and sharpest hiss he was able to modulate his voice into. "Don't you dare try any stunts, Rudenko. The organizations interested in the project must in no way withdraw their support. Else the whole thing will come to nothing, and we'll all be heading home. But, what's most important, you'll never be able to resolve your... personal issues."
"I know, admiral, I know, you don't have to keep reminding me. It doesn't do my peace of mind and my positive attitude toward the project any good. I wish to reiterate however that before we set the actual process into motion you must wait for my authorization. I demand your word."
"Not to worry, Rudenko. I know what I'm doing. You have convinced me that we're still running a few risks. But I hope the solution comes about ASAP."
"So do I, admiral. But it is of the essence that the results be checked point by point until we have the absolute certainty as to the reliability of the procedure."
"I can only hope that this certainty arrives soon. Primarily for you."
And admiral Leipzig turned around and started with martial step toward the door that connected the study to the laboratory turned presentation room.
Rudenko, having gathered the last materials he needed for the trial, followed him a few instants later. As he passed the strong door, which shut quietly behind him operated by a device handled by Leipzig, he saw that the guests were already seated on one side of the long table, in front of the screen hanging on the wall opposite.
As soon as Evgenij had taken his seat, Leipzig rose from his chair. "Gentlemen," he said without delay in his English with marked Teutonic inflections, "I'm honored to introduce to you professor Rudenko, the man who fathered the process that will be illustrated to you. Therefore I leave the floor to him directly. I've little left to say except to underscore once more how in order to complete the experiment it is essential that a relationship of total trust be established between you and us. We all could but benefit from it."
The countenances of the guests remained impassible. A glance would suffice to perceive that these were tough men, not given to emotion, capable of dealing with any situation and contingency. They were the components of the «Shadow»'s Control Committee.
"I will show you a virtual representation of how the system works," began Rudenko. And he started tapping away on the keyboard of the laptop computer that his assistant had set up for him on the table, already connected to a series of cables.
On the screen hanged on the wall appeared a giant replica of his laptop's monitor. A series of nine images divided into three rows of three.
"Virtual representation?" asked dryly the American emissary. "To what extent will this correspond to the final functioning?"
"I reckon I can put it at ninety percent," was Rudenko's cautious answer, as he tapped some other commands for the computer.
"And the other ten percent?" asked in a bellicose tone the Russian emissary.
"It surely isn't an irrelevant quota," pursued the Italian.
"The professor is aware of it and he's working on it day and night with his crew," interposed Leipzig precipitously.
"Please excuse my intrusion, professor," he continued, giving Rudenko a smile worthy of a cobra, "But I cannot refrain from saying that the latest results have literally electrified me. In my opinion the quota of imponderability that you have indicated is excessive and altogether precautionary."
«What's he talking about?» Rudenko asked himself, unable to check an expression of bewilderment mingled with authentic anguish. A deep wrinkle of anxiety furrowed his brow, which now was beaded with sweat, even though in the room it was almost cold, as the air conditioning was blowing on full throttle
"What's going on, professor?" asked the representative of the Chinese.
"Nothing, nothing, thank you," hastened to answer Evgenij, "It's only a bit of fatigue. As the admiral said, it's been more than two weeks now that I've been personally following each and every test, day and night, so as to complete and commission the actual system."
"Keep right on going," intervened with decision Osaka. "You'll have plenty of chances to better the project as much as you wish even with the system in operation. We can't put off start-up much longer. We need reality. Virtuality doesn't do it anymore. In this project I'm staking my credibility with my organization, which I've already convinced to invest a huge sum. All they're looking forward to in Tokyo is that the interested sister organizations confirm within a week the new financing required for the final tune-up."
Then, almost as if willing to ease the tension that was lingering in the room, he added in a solemn tone:
"Congratulations, professor Rudenko. Your system will allow the Consortium to fulfill its aim, by establishing a global control over worldwide communications. I've been the first supporter of this project and I've never ceased to believe in it, but I can only wish to myself that you soon succeeded in dispelling that ten percent of doubt which seems to be upsetting you so. It's also troubling for us. Please, move on with your presentation, if that is the opinion of my colleagues, of course."
"That's what we're here for," grumbled with his heavy southern accent the representative of the Americans. "Time is money. Buck up, Mr. Rudenko, proceed."