16 Sep 43%
Tia sighed deeply, then continued speaking in a deep conspiratorial voice.
“ETTF stands for the ‘European Timber Trade Federation’ – the scariest government agency there is,” she said with the gravely serious expression on her face.
I have to admit her deadpan delivery was excellent, but the timing was terrible – I wasn’t in the mood for jokes, and she corrected immediately, switching to her normal voice.
“It’s the Extra Terrestrial Task Force. Not that we are extra terrestrial of course. I guess, adding more letters for ‘Threat Containment’ or something, would make the acronym too long. Besides, we have to actually write our reports, ink on freaking paper, like we’re in the last century! So every letter counts.”
I was crushed. Somehow I didn’t care that much about Tia being an operative of some unheard of agency. She hadn’t tried to kill me and she went out of her way to help me. So I didn’t feel betrayed in that respect. But I was really hoping she sincerely liked me. Any moment that I wasn’t thinking about escaping certain death or the global apocalypse I thought of a vague chance of getting to know her better. As socially awkward as I was, not being able to read the signs of a girl’s attention (the epic words of my first girlfriend – before she became one – were the annoyed “Do I actually have to kiss you for you to notice that I like you?”), I was certain this time that she liked me, and we might be on the way to a closer relationship, once all this blows over. Or blows up in a nuclear mushroom cloud, which, I had to admit, was a distinct possibility.
That was all a performance then. She was acting her part to get to me. I dwelled on this miserable thought so much that I didn’t go any further in my thoughts until the moment she started talking again, after the awkward pause had stretched for too long.
“Look, I promise to tell you everything on the way, but I’m guessing that we need to hurry, as the world is about to end quite soon. If what you say is true, there is an imminent nuclear apocalypse in the making, and it’s getting more and more imminent by the minute. We need to go.”
I snapped. “You don’t freaking tell me that you are a WTF agent, or whatever letters they pulled up from their asses to name it, and then follow with ‘I’ll tell you later’ bullshit!” I started that sentence still trying to control myself but have failed miserably at that honorable endeavour, and ended it shouting hysterically. “You lied to me, at the very moment the whole world has revealed its ugly and deceiving nature to me and then persistently tried to make a meatloaf out of me, right when I needed truth the most!”
I was out of breath but I wouldn’t let it stop me.
“I’m not leaving this god-forsaken parking lot until you tell me everything! And let the world go to hell! I don’t care! Maybe it deserves it… No more lies, I’m done!”
I finally run out of words to say, and air to say them with. I’m wincing now, when I’m writing it, I mean it was really ugly… I have completely lost it, I was screaming like a little spoiled girl that didn’t get a puppy she wanted for her birthday. In front of a girl I liked. That was such a facepalm moment…
While I was hyperventilating, Tia took control of the situation.
“OK, calm down. Let me help you. I will tell you everything, if you insist, but it’s going to take less time if I do most of the talking. So shut up and listen.”
Unlike a certain hysterical web designer, whose name should be mercifully omitted here, Tia was calm and focused. Her forceful words cooled me down like a bucket of ice water poured over my head. She looked at me and apparently decided that I was capable of comprehending her speech by now. That might have been an overly optimistic assumption, and judging by her eyes she knew it, but continued anyway.
“You were going to ask me some questions,” she said in the tone of a kindergarten teacher helping a particularly dim kid master counting to ten. She started counting with her fingers, as if to make it clearer for the poor stupid me.
“Why was I following you that day? Why am I here with you now? Why am I the only one here with you – where’s the cavalry? Why do I have an automatic assault rifle in my bag? What do we know about the aliens? What is ETTF? And finally, what the hell is going on? Right?”
“Well, yes, all that,” I answered in a low voice that was drained of all emotions. I felt tired. Very tired. And I take my words back – admittedly I did feel a little betrayed after all. There was no way around it.
In truth, I had another question, about how much of what she said and hinted to me was a lie, and how much was sincere. But that was a lame one, basically just begging for some reassurance. She’d lie of course.
“OK, don’t sweat, I will answer all of your questions, if you insist.”
She actually smiled. That didn’t have any effect on me whatsoever. Well, maybe a little…
And then she told me the most fascinating story I heard, well, at least since the alien story and the terrorist plot story the day before.
Apparently the NSA were the first to discover a major data leak in their top secret communication network. The hack was executed in such a brilliantly clever way, that it was only discovered by chance. And as soon as it had been, the most secret department of the internal investigations (normally tasked with discovering double agents and such) started carefully probing all of the US government communication secrets. It had to be an inside job, anything else would be plain impossible. It was so secret, nobody knew about it. The team investigating it didn’t even tell their superiors, rightfully doubting the reliability of their communication protocols.
Now that they knew what to look for, they had found traces of similar hacks in almost every system and protocol they could access. As soon as they tried to dig deeper – servers started to crash, electronics to malfunction and code to self-destruct. They could not trace the origins of the security exploits, but they could tell that they were ongoing – somebody was listening to their top secret communications in real time. This was a national security disaster of unprecedented proportions.
After recruiting the best minds from the MIT and Harvard with exorbitant fees and blackmail, they were finally able to carefully follow the trail of the leaks to the StarLink satellite internet network. Eventually they managed to trace were the leak was channeled to: they narrowed it to a tight beam from a compromised satellite. Shockingly, that beam was directed upwards, presumably towards something located at a higher geostationary orbit. They started looking for a Russian spy satellite or space station, using all their state of the art spy equipment, and still could not detect anything there. Anything at all.
Eventually they went to their superiors, and to the top people in other agencies. And by ‘went’ I mean physically went, using their legs to walk to the meetings, and their mouths to communicate. CIA had burned few of its best agents, forcing them to not use any electronic means of contact, probe the most classified systems and then physically meet with their handlers, just to confirm that similar leaks were present in top secret Russian and Chinese networks. The signature was unmistakable. As much as it was improbable, the only plausible explanation for spying at the level too advanced to even be fully grasped by the best scientists on the planet, with the information obtained constantly transmitted to space, was an active extraterrestrial operation of some kind.
Very soon a new joint task force was formed by the NSA, FBI and CIA, with liaison officers in all branches of government and the military. Nothing they do is ever communicated electronically. No phones, no radios, no emails. The military-grade quantum encryption systems they were so proud of, had turned out to be easily penetrable by the new adversaries.
She was furious by that point in her story. Her voice became sharp like a chef’s knife.
“We communicate by god-damn letters! And in code, of course, which has not to look like a code so it doesn’t attract attention. I had to memorize hundreds of code words representing all kinds of actions, threats and situations.
ETTF boss reports directly to the president, at a personal weekly meeting during his famous morning walk, so it’s not somewhere that can be bugged.
We’ve been digging for years, trying to find out what’s going on, with almost zero progress. It was decided not to touch the compromised satellite or interfere with the data leaks. Something about humanity being in a potential first contact situation, and it’s only prudent not to mess with something that we don’t understand, blah-blah-blah… Also, we have an ace up our sleeve. Most likely there is an alien asset up there – a camouflaged ship or a transmitter of some kind, whose approximate location we’ve triangulated. This information could become handy if the situation were to escalate.
But we needed to know more before coming to any rash decisions. So far the aliens have been just spying on us, we couldn’t identify any aggressive actions of any kind, nor signs of an imminent invasion or military action, and we want to keep it that way.”
“OK, that’s all very nice and interesting,” I interjected, “but how did you get involved in all this? No offense, but you don’t look like Agent 007 to me, nor like a Navy Seal, or a top-level CIA operative.” I gave her a sceptical look, not entirely convinced, since the scope of what she was saying hadn’t really matched her look, personality, and her actions since we have met.
“Yeah, well, I was drafted from the Army. I was born in a white trash family, in a dying Ohio town, where nothing ever happened and the variety of life choices available to me was limited to doing drugs, like most of my friends and classmates, working in a store for a minimum wage, or putting my father’s gun in my mouth to end the misery. We had no money, my school was shit, and the only way out that I could see was the Military. Not that it suited me well, but they were happy to have women sign up, and I had decided to give it all I’ve got, so I could stand a chance of making something of myself. It worked.
I dedicated all my time and effort to being the best even in the most trivial tasks I was given, shown initiative, signed up for every damn voluntary duty and education opportunity I could and eventually I was noticed and then quickly promoted. Being a girl in the army has its perks, at least when the higher-ups pick people for promotion among seemingly equally qualified. On the other hand, some officers and generals still think that women have no place in the military. They don’t advertise this, but are usually happy to get rid of women whenever they get a chance. Often that chance is presented by recommending those women for a new assignment or a course.
I don’t know which of those two peculiarities lead to me being recommended for the uber top secret task force by my superiors. I have moved both laterally and vertically up the Army career ladder rather quickly, until finally last year I was offered this assignment. It was a lateral move indeed, and a big step up. They couldn’t even tell me or my commanding officer what the assignment was, just that they needed young and smart people without tight family connections that could easily go off-grid. And they hinted that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, which also came with an officer’s rank and and a matching paygrade. I said yes of course, you don’t say no to an offer like that.
Any reasonably bright and fit person can be turned into a decent operative, it’s just a question of time and training. They didn’t skimp on either. I think I had the best and most universal training possible in a tight one year program.”
“No shit?” I said incredulously, affirming my reputation as a village idiot. It sounded like a scene from one of the countless Jason Bourne movies, but here she was, standing before me, just a regular girl. There appeared to be positively nothing unusual about her, nothing that would even hint at her being a trained government agent. I would bet she’s just pranking me, if I hadn’t seen the Tavor in her bag. That was a solid argument for her story being true.
“Yes shit,” she answered, “we have actually intercepted some transmissions between the cloaked ship up in the orbit and something here, on Earth. It wasn’t even in a normal radio frequency, but I don’t know much about that, our physicists do. We couldn’t decipher it of course, but we were able to triangulate the area it was targeted for.
We were extremely careful and never searched that area directly, we don’t even know what’s there, but we watched everything and everyone that enters it. We had a couple of agents posing as a gay hipster farmer wannabees, believe it or not, purchase a neighbouring farm and establish a low-tech surveillance over the place. That’s how we got you, the night you discovered the anomaly. One of the agents has followed you home, then drove straight to our headquarters in Washington DC to deliver the information personally. While you were waiting at home for your video surveillance to yield some results, we dug up everything we could on you. I was sent to tail you and if opportunity presented itself, to get to know you, and extract everything you know out of you, as they have put it, by any means necessary.”
She actually blushed at that point. Blushing looked good on her. It showed that she wasn’t in total control of herself, as if her body was betraying her a little bit. It made her look vulnerable and human. And being human has actually become a non-trivial quality, if my recent adventures was a sign of things to come.
“Un-freaking-believable…” I muttered to nobody in particular, in self-deprecating disbelief, “That’s just my typical luck: a hot girl is sent by a top secret government agency to seduce the hell out of me by any means necessary and I just tell her everything while eating a cheap meal in Tim freaking Hortons! Why couldn’t I at least have had some fun while the world was ending! God, is it too much to ask?”
God was unresponsive. So was Tia. She paused, looking uncertain for the first time that day, and apparently decided not to notice what I have just realized was actually said aloud. Tia then continued in a lower voice, as if I hadn’t interrupted her.
“I trailed you from your home to the old farm, and was following you back when you got into trouble. When you crashed I quickly dumped my car in the chaos that ensued after the accident, and went to check up on you. You didn’t look hurt too badly and were about to get out of the ruined car. I had to make a rush decision: I took a guess that if you are not a total idiot, you would be running away before the aliens nailed you, and the bus was the only option open to you at that moment. So I quickly went in, just seconds before you struggled your way out of the car. You know the rest.
I can make and educated guess about what happened next. Our guys can still use passive data analysis, it’s not all stone age with ETTF. They must have figured out your position at the log cabin via plotting unusual phone movements in the area. There aren’t many cellphones that travel in freight trains, you know. Not the ones that are powered up at least. The cabin likely belongs to the same man that drove away form the artifact in a black truck, so they assumed he was an enemy and you were lured in to become his hostage, or worse. ETTF could not lose the potentially invaluable information you have, so at that point a decision would be made to send an extraction team to get you out, if it comes to that, so we could debrief you. After they took positions and established surveillance, they must have heard shots and moved in. That would explain a second wave of intruders you encountered.”
“Oh, so they were your guys? I wondered how it was possible that after I had killed two Horsemen, six more were coming. It should not have been possible. Now I get it!”
My heart sunk. What if I had waited for them to come – I could have shot and killed a human. Not an evil alien, but a soldier that was actually coming to save me.
“Horsemen? What are you talking about?” Tia interrupted my line of thought. So the long version of my story that I just told her must have had some glaring omissions. Hell, you try telling a story this crazy and convoluted without messing it up!
“I’ll tell you in a moment. Just please finish your story first. I still don’t understand why you are here alone? Why I’m not being interrogated by now? I mean this looks more like you are answering my questions than the other way around.”
“What was I supposed to do after your little whiny ultimatum? Besides, I’m counting on reciprocity,” Tia said in a steely voice, “so you better tell me everything you know, after I’m done with my story, which I almost am. When you told me to pick you up and mentioned a sniper rifle, I knew trouble was coming, so I decided to risk blowing my cover.”
“Well,” I interjected, pointing at the bag containing her Tavor, “That part of the plan has worked spectacularly well!”
She gracefully ignored my witty remark.
“I took my rifle, in case it may prove handy. I mailed a letter containing the code words that I got in contact with you and is going to possibly help you with some engagement with aliens. But I have no way to report our position or call in the cavalry. I can only formulate so much information with those code words, and it takes days to reach my superiors. So that’s why I’m here alone.”
She looked directly into my eyes.
“Now I’ve told you everything I know. It’s your turn.”