« Peacemaker », Chapter Nine   

Chapter Nine

Question: Several of your contemporaries have endowed charitable trusts with billion dollar grants. They say they want to give back a little to the society that has given so much to them. Do you have similar plans?

Answer: No. My plans are very different.

Question: In what way?

Answer: That will become clear when I’m ready.

----from an interview with Dianne Morgan in People-N-Politics.mag, 2010

 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Morgan estate was located in the deep woods of northern California. Surrounded by her security guards, Dianne Morgan walked down a winding entrance road that passed through majestic trees and opened to a broad, grassy field. In the distance, the upper floors of a enormous mansion were visible.

Protected from the cold by a black, insulated skinsuit, she walked briskly along the empty road without need of a jacket. Automobile traffic was not permitted during her morning walk. She enjoyed the quiet fields, alone with her thoughts in the bright, chilly morning. She was surrounded by guards, but they remained silent.

The estate was enclosed by a fifteen-foot high red brick wall. The black steel gate quietly swung open as she approached, and the well-trained security force adjusted the perimeter around her as she passed through.

Her home was completely visible now, a huge, modern structure built into a hillside. Uniformed security guards patrolled the interior grounds, signifying a border had been crossed, a new domain entered.

The estate was both her home and workplace. Her living quarters included large, sunny rooms with breathtaking views of the grounds, but her workplace was below ground, protected from prying eyes.

*

Dianne strode into the Virtual Conference Room and sat at the head of a long table. She heard De Luca, her security man, enter and sit in a hard wooden chair a few feet to her right. She didn’t acknowledge him; De Luca never engaged in pleasantries. When she was ready to convene a virtual meeting of the Domain, the organization she had conceived and nurtured for almost seven years, she said, “Let’s begin.”

Life-size, three-dimensional holographic images of the five leaders appeared around the table. Except for a slight flickering around the edges, she couldn’t distinguish the images from real people.

Dianne tapped her fingers on the table’s polished oak surface and reached for a pack of cigarettes. She picked up the antique lighter, one of the few possessions her mother had left her, and lit up. A couple of long drags and she was ready.

Dianne greeted each member of the Executive Council as the first among peers. As the CEO of the Domain, she exercised leadership through both persuasion and intimidation. Over the years, she had taught her partners not to take meat from the top predator.

The wealth and power of the other members depended upon her, and she considered them extensions of her will. Letting her associates wait as she continued smoking, Dianne thought back with pride at what she had accomplished. She had started VantagePoint Software all those years ago with three partners: Carson, Steve and Lester. When the federal government crushed VPS, she had proposed the concept of the Domain to these three. Carson and Lester committed immediately to the idea. Steve voiced misgivings, but she played upon his hatred of the feds to win his backing.

Dianne and these three men had built VPS into the greatest technology company on Earth. Although they were very different and there were tensions among them, a mutual respect developed over the years. They overcame many challenges together, and she was supremely confident in their abilities. Her partners shared her intense hatred of the federal government, and they were prepared to follow Dianne to the pinnacle of power.

She glanced at the image of Mohammed Kateel, a tall, well-built man with a neatly trimmed beard. Mohammed was a technical genius and the overall leader of software development, which was primarily PeaceMaker. She considered him to be Ray Brown’s technical equal but without Ray’s character weaknesses.

The founders had debated long and hard whether to select Mohammed or Ray. Brushing her feelings for Ray aside, she had pushed hard for Mohammed. A tough decision, she remembered, but a necessary one. Ultimately, she prevailed and Mohammed was placed in charge of software development.

The last member of the executive team was a unanimous choice. Carmita Ordonez was only twenty-eight, but she was the best sales person Dianne had ever seen. Highly intelligent, strikingly beautiful and radiating sexuality, she could twist men to her will, power she used to dominate her victims.

Although she disliked Carmita, the young woman was a force Dianne could control and when required, release to do her bidding. Carmita could be a monster, but the Domain may need a monster.

We’ve accomplished a great deal, but the real test was coming soon.

Glancing at a computer display built into the table, she noted Lester was transmitting from London, Mohammed from Melbourne and Steve, Carson and Carmita from the same conference room in New York. She made a mental note that to improve security in the future every executive should be in a separate location.

Just then, Carmita stood up and began to remove the jacket of her business suit. Even in this meeting, every movement of her body registered with the men. A thin white blouse emphasized her breasts as she stretched to remove the jacket. Lester smiled in appreciation of the performance, while Carson discreetly followed her movements. Steve also watched her, but with a look of disgust. Carmita briefly caught Dianne’s eye and sat down, gracefully crossing her long legs.

Only one man was not mesmerized by Carmita. Dianne saw his eyes constantly sweeping the room, felt his dark, penetrating gaze when it settled on her.

Michael De Luca sat quietly, but she knew the others weren’t comfortable with his presence. It was rare for an outsider to attend a council meeting, but the Domain faced two severe threats, and the security chief’s unique talents were essential to resolve these dangers.

All the executives sat quietly, waiting for Dianne to begin the meeting. Usually, laughter and light conversation preceded the meeting, but not today. This meeting would be different. Although the members were scattered around the world, she could detect an uneasy energy in their grim faces. The only sound was the gentle hum of the holographic computer.

Dianne set the cigarette down and said, “This is not our usual weekly progress meeting. The Domain is facing two situations that potentially threaten our objectives as well as our security, so I asked Michael to speak to those issues.”

Dianne nodded to the short, muscular man sitting next to her. De Luca’s face looked mid-forties, but the hard-muscled body that filled out a dark blue turtleneck projected the silhouette of a young athlete. Thinning black hair was combed straight back, except around the back of his collar, where dense curls covered a bull neck. He would have been considered handsome, she thought, except for the small, deep-set eyes.

Tough, violent and very smart, De Luca had earned her confidence. An FBI operative for ten years, he was pushed out because his cruel style no longer suited the sleek new image the Bureau cultivated.

De Luca was sitting in a hard-backed chair slightly behind Dianne. In one fluid motion, he stood up and began to speak. “As you all know, we discovered a security breach last week in the corporate offices. PeaceMaker was under attack and notified us. Richard Kim, a senior-level developer, had detected the presence of PeaceMaker and was attempting to pin down its location. Mr. Kim was working with a new code segment that allowed Atlas to analyze itself and correct any potential problems. This Self-Analysis System generated messages that by chance were similar to a command recognized by PeaceMaker. A one-in-a-million chance, but it happened. The command was to shut down the computer temporarily. As a result, PeaceMaker briefly shut down Mr. Kim’s computer every time the Self-Analysis System was executed.”

“How could this happen?” Mohammed said, looking quizzically at De Luca. “PeaceMaker doesn’t react to a similar command, only to exactly the correct command. A command that is merely similar would be ignored.”

“We don’t understand how it happened, to be frank,” De Luca said. “Somehow PeaceMaker utilized its adaptive intelligence and generated a module of code that accepted a similar command. We ran several tests, and it happened every time.”

“We’re getting in over our head with this adaptive intelligence,” Bonini said. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it now – the freaking software is getting out of control.”

“Nonsense,” Mohammed said. “It’s just a matter of analyzing the code and finding the problem.” Appearing confident, he said to De Luca, “We’ll fix it.”

“I agree,” Dianne said. “This is just a bug, no more, no less. Let’s move on, Michael.”

With Mohammed nodding in agreement, De Luca continued, “Mr. Kim worked hard to find PeaceMaker during the day and into the evening, but PeaceMaker initiated defensive procedures that prevented Mr. Kim from isolating its code. PeaceMaker also sent us a warning message over email. We opened a link to the virus in Mr. Kim’s computer, and it was clear he was investigating PeaceMaker. We captured him when he arrived home, and we planted a cover story that will account for his absence.

“Our concern at this point is whether he alerted anyone else to the problem. We replayed all his messages and phone calls, and we don’t see anything suspicious. Unfortunately, Mr. Kim was inadvertently killed during the capture, so we couldn’t interrogate him. However, we are continuing – .”

“You killed Richard!” Steve Bonini erupted. “How could this happen? We’re not thugs.”

“All of our procedures have been in compliance with the Domain Charter,” De Luca said. “We applied the minimum force necessary to capture Mr. Kim. Unfortunately, he suffered a stroke and passed away.”

“Don’t give me that crap! Your people are supposed to be professionals. Explain the so-called minimum force you employed.”

“I don’t want to waste time hand-wringing over a nobody,” Carmita interrupted. “We’re playing for enormous stakes, and if someone gets hurt, too bad.”

“We’re not doing this for the power,” Bonini spat out. “At least, I’m not. I want to replace the criminals running our government. I won’t become one of them.”

Dianne knew Steve would be upset. So naive. Didn’t he realize that even with PeaceMaker, this would be a bloody takeover?

“Be a man for once,” Carmita said, a scowl spreading across her darkly beautiful face. “Your self-righteous attitude is tiresome.”

“Listen, most of us don’t enjoy killing or even hurting civilians,” Bonini said. “We’re doing this because we want to accomplish something good. I don’t expect you to understand that, so just keep your mouth shut.”

Before Carmita could respond, Dianne said, “This stops now.” She would have to do something soon, since Carmita and Bonini were always at each other’s throat. “Steve, I’ll look into this in detail later. Right now, I want the chief to keep moving. We have a lot of ground to cover.”

Bonini radiated disgust, but he bit back a response. Carmita’s face had turned vicious, and Bonini returned her glare. Dianne felt the tension. This was the first death of the oncoming revolution, and she knew it wouldn’t be the last.

She noted De Luca’s calm demeanor throughout the storm. Like a visiting professor, he waited for the group’s attention to return to him. Dianne admired De Luca’s professionalism and coolness under pressure. She didn’t trust him, although all his actions were loyal. Something about him made her skin crawl, but she respected his abilities.

“At this point, we have no evidence anyone else is involved,” De Luca said. “Therefore, this is now a Level Two investigation: serious, but not an active threat to our security. If we detect a more widespread involvement, even if it is just one more person, we will request a change to Level One, which would enable the Security Force to take any actions necessary. We are asking the Council to approve this plan of action.”

Carson Jones raised a question. “I knew Richard Kim very well. He reported to Ray Brown. Richard and Ray respected each other professionally and discussed issues and ideas all the time, so Ray would be the first person Richard would go to with this type of problem. I don’t have to tell you how dangerous Ray would be if he suspects the existence of PeaceMaker. Have you investigated Ray?”

De Luca quickly replied, “Mr. Brown was the first person we investigated. We checked all his messages and – .”

“That means nothing,” Jones said. “Don’t you realize Ray is a brilliant technician? Probably as good or better than anyone here.” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Mohammed stiffen. “Ray could easily communicate with Richard without anyone ever detecting it,” Carson added. “If Ray knows about PeaceMaker, he won’t quit until he finds us.”

Before Jones could continue, Carmita said, “I don’t know Ray as well as you do, but he would clearly be a dangerous enemy. If he discovers PeaceMaker, he must be killed immediately. We’re playing for the highest possible stakes. Only the strongest will survive.” Glancing across the conference table at Bonini, she said, “Being a,” she smiled, “shall we say … pansy … won’t cut it.”

“Let me try to get this down to your level,” Bonini said to Carmita. “You’re here because you can suck the cap off a fire hydrant. That’s your talent. Don’t try to go beyond it.”

Dianne groaned inwardly. Like two damn kids.

“You’re Dianne’s charity case, not me,” Carmita snarled at Bonini. “She keeps you on out of pity. You’re like an old, useless key still hanging off a key chain. Nobody remembers what you’re here for, but we haven’t gotten around to throwing you away.”

“Carmita, don’t –,” Dianne began.

“If you weren’t a woman, I’d beat the crap out of you right now,” Bonini said. “I may do it anyway. Those overstuffed boobs you must have purchased at the hardware store don’t impress me.”

“You piece of shit …,” Carmita hissed as she jumped up. Bonini pointed his finger at his crotch and said, “Go with your strength.”

Dianne was shocked to see Carmita scramble over the conference table, stand up and try to kick Steve in the head. Bonini dodged her kick, the point of her glistening shoe passing dangerously close to his head. The force of her kick left her off-balance, so Bonini, his face an angry mask, grabbed her other leg around the calf and pulled hard. Carmita fell backwards, crashing into the table, her tight skirt riding up to her hips.

Carson Jones yelled for Security as Bonini grabbed Carmita’s blouse in tight fists, ripping it to shreds as he dragged her off the conference table. Jones grabbed his arm just as Bonini was about to punch Carmita and tried to pull him away from her. As the two men struggled with each other, Carmita leaped upon Bonini and raked his face with her nails.

Bonini broke free from Jones and threw Carmita to the floor. In an instant, his knees straddled her, and he grasped her neck with his hands, but once again, Jones tried to drag him away. Two security men joined in, one pulling Carmita away and the other helping Jones restrain Bonini.

“Cuff them,” Dianne screamed.

Three additional guards were now in the room, coming to the assistance of the two original ones. Jones stepped away, breathing heavily, as the guards restrained Carmita’s hands behind her back and then Bonini’s.

As they continued to struggle with the guards, Dianne said, “Handcuff them to opposite sides of the table.”

Carmita’s neck was red while Bonini had two long scratches on his face from the fight. Between ragged breaths, they continued to curse each other.

“Shut up – both of you,” Dianne shouted.

The Virtual Conference Room quickly became quiet except for the sound of ragged breathing. Struggling to get her anger under control, Dianne glared at Carmita and Bonini. The hatred between them could threaten my plans. She saw Mohammed appeared shaken while Lester was leaning back with a small smile creeping over his face. Carson was leaning on the table, still breathing hard.

“How necessary are these two for our plans?” Dianne said.

De Luca was the first to pick up her meaning. He made a fist, and the guards drew their guns and surrounded Carmita and Bonini.

Dianne’s gaze swept the room, but nobody spoke. She concentrated on Mohammed, “What do you say?”

“I’m your partner,” Bonini cried. “We’ve worked together for twenty years.”

The room was now silent. Mohammed looked at Carson and then Lester. His eyes swung back to Dianne. “You can’t be really considering killing them.” His eyes shifted to the captives, then back to Dianne. “Although they were out of control.” He cleared his throat and said, “It was a mistake they, uh, won’t make again.” He looked at De Luca. “We need them.”

“Lester?” Dianne said, stone-faced.

Dawson’s eyes passed over the two captives, his lips forming a half-smile. “How important are Carmita and Bonini?” he said, seeming to consider the question.

Carmita stood tall and pushed out her breasts, but Dawson didn’t seem to notice.

“Lester,” Bonini pleaded. “We’ve worked together for years. You know me.”

With a shrug, Dawson said, “Your call, Dianne. That’s why you get the big bucks.”

She turned to De Luca, “And you, Chief?”

Without hesitation, De Luca bent over and whispered into Dianne’s ear. “Eliminate Bonini. He has always been the weak link.”

“Well, I couldn’t hear the chief, but my guess is you’re the tie breaker, Carson,” Dawson said.

“Please, Carson,” Carmita said. “I have talents.”

Jones looked at Bonini, who seemed confused. “We’ve known him for a long time, Dianne. He can be a hothead, but he hasn’t hurt us so far.” Still thinking, Jones said, “Besides, he’s the only one of us people actually like. We will need to project a sympathetic face.”

He turned to Carmita, who seemed to stop breathing. “She does have talents we can use.” With that, he nodded to Dianne and sat back.

“Always the logical one, eh, Carson?” Lester said.

“Dianne,” Bonini pleaded. “I’m the only one you can trust.”

Dianne stared at the two captives, thinking. Finally, she said, “Release them.”

Bonini seemed to shrink, but he mumbled, “Thank you,” as he rubbed his wrists.

Carmita straightened her dress and said, “You won’t regret this.”

At De Luca’s signal, the guards holstered their weapons and retreated to the back wall of the New York conference room.

Glaring at Carmita and Bonini, Dianne said, “Neither of you will survive another mistake.”

Then she was all business. “All right,” Dianne said. “If Ray or anyone else knows about PeaceMaker, we clearly have a Level One situation. Are we all in agreement?”

All heads nodded. Dianne said, “Chief, your request is approved. If you discover another person knows the secret of PeaceMaker, you must treat the situation as Level One.”

“Chief, you were starting to tell us … about Ray’s activities,” Carson Jones said, his breathing still labored. “Please continue.”

“We are monitoring Mr. Brown continuously, both electronically and physically,” De Luca said, now sitting in his chair. “We have placed taps in his office, his car, his home and other places he may frequent. We are monitoring all messages he receives or sends. We scrutinize his computer usage. There is an agent close by at all times.

“At this point, Mr. Brown has not done anything suspicious. He visited his family in San Francisco last week. He also spent an evening with Paul Martino, an old friend, while he was in San Francisco. However, we are also monitoring Mr. Martino and the former Mrs. Brown.”

De Luca looked about for additional questions. Bonini spoke up, apparently recovered from his ordeal. “I have to say this,” he said to De Luca. “I don’t like the way you handled the Richard Kim situation. Ray Brown may not be on our side of the fence, but he had better not have a sudden stroke.”

He only knows one way, Dianne thought, grudgingly admiring his persistence. “I said I would discuss that situation with the chief,” she said to Bonini. “You made your feelings crystal clear earlier.” Turning to De Luca, “Move on to the other problem.”

De Luca said, “VPS and the sales company computers are electronically scanned on an ongoing basis by competitors. This is normal. We scan our competitors’ computer systems regularly, and they do the same to us. It is often possible to find a hole in a security net and extract useful information.

“During the last month, a new element has been added to the scanning. The focus has been on the personal calendars maintained in the VPS and ASC network servers. Someone has stolen the schedules of everyone in this meeting, including mine. Many of our senior technical staff have been spied on, too. We discovered a rough correlation between the stolen calendars and the members of the Domain. Not exact, but pretty close.” De Luca paused briefly and said, “Someone has discovered the existence of the Domain.”

The only sound was the quiet hum of the holographic computer. Dianne noticed even Carmita seemed taken back with the news.

“Have they been able to pierce our security and locate the private calendars, or have they viewed only the public calendars?” Mohammed said.

“Starting last night, they located the private calendars,” De Luca said. “As you know, our second line of security is to encrypt the private calendars. We don’t know if they have been able to decrypt them, but we should assume they have been successful.

“However, we anticipated that problem and revised the private calendars last week. We changed many of the appointments on the calendars so it will be impossible for our enemy to locate all of us at any time. We are also using the calendars to set a trap to locate them.”

Lester said, “It’s time to increase our personal security.” He completed each sentence with a flickering half-smile, which always put Dianne on edge. “These guys are tapping into our calendars for a reason, and it’s not to arrange a Sunday dinner. I’m putting my security guys on red alert.”

“I don’t believe they know we have detected their scans,” De Luca replied. “If we start increasing security, they will realize we have discovered them, which would make our traps meaningless. Don’t change anything. In particular, don’t increase the level of security around you. Continue to use the public and private calendars as always. I will make sure the calendars provide nothing of value to our enemy.”

Lester looked around at the other executives and said, “Are you guys all nuts? Don’t you see these people are picking out a time to attack?

“Do they know about PeaceMaker?” Mohammed asked.

“We don’t know,” De Luca admitted. “We have not received an emergency message from PeaceMaker, so it seems unlikely it has been detected. We cannot be absolutely confident, however.”

“What steps have you taken to locate our enemy?” Carmita asked.

“This morning Security specified an enhancement to PeaceMaker that will detect the types of scans we have been receiving and trace them back to the source,” De Luca said. “The specification is now being displayed to each of you. Once this enhancement is implemented, we should be able to detect the origin of the scans.”

They all read the specification. “Very good,” Carmita said. “When will it be ready?”

Everyone turned to Mohammed, who was still studying the specification. Without looking up, he murmured, “Not too difficult.” He said to Dianne, “It will take us about two days to code and test it.”

“Gee, guys, you mean we’re actually going to do something?” Lester said, his head swiveling back and forth as he spoke. “I see one little bitty problem. What if our friends aren’t planning to wait two days? What if they decide to put a bullet in your head tomorrow?”

Dianne had put up with all she could take in one day. “Lester, calm down. We’re not going to let anyone shoot you, although I have been getting close to it the last few minutes. Chief De Luca has Security working at maximum levels. We’ve discreetly increased the protection for each of you, so nobody has to take any additional actions.”

“Believe me, we are all over this,” De Luca added. “Once we locate the source computer, we should be able to track down the enemy. Our plan is to eliminate them as soon as we are confident we can get them all.”

Dianne was not going to wait for any additional interruptions. “Chief, you are to keep me informed of the progress of this investigation, which is a Level One assignment. I’ll contact the council members when you’ve located the source.” Looking across the conference table, she asked, “Is this satisfactory with everyone?”

Everyone agreed, even Lester, who was clearly unconvinced but grunted his approval. The meeting continued a few more minutes as routine business was discussed. She adjourned the meeting, turned off the holographic images and thought about both problems. De Luca sat quietly in the chair next to her.

Dianne lit another cigarette, stood and paced, high heels clicking on the polished floor. De Luca sat quietly, watching her closely but remaining still. Finally, she crushed the cigarette into an ashtray, turned to De Luca and said, “We may have a traitor somewhere within the Domain.”

De Luca nodded. “It’s possible. They were able to identify so many Domain members. As you ordered last week, we discreetly kept an eye on the council members. Since we have not seen any suspicious activities, the most likely possibility is a traitor among our subordinates.” He added, “If one exists.”

She tried to read him but saw nothing. Dianne had learned years ago that he had the ability to keep all emotion off his face. Either that or he didn’t have any emotions.

“You’re probably right, but don’t assume the traitor isn’t a council member,” she said. “If someone wished to attain great power, the optimum point for seizing the Domain is rapidly approaching. We’re getting close to the time when we can control the world’s commerce.

“Identifying the source of the scanning is only the first step,” she said. “I need to understand the scope of their activities. Clearly, the most important need is to identify the traitor, which must be done quickly and without detection.” She continued to watch De Luca carefully, but his face was a wall. “Once our enemy is confident they know the identities of our people, the strike will come. They already have our schedules.”

Something about him … what is he holding back?

Staring at De Luca, she said, “The attack could come at any time. We’re in a race to gather information, and they’re ahead. We need to discover who they are and strike first.”

De Luca nodded. “I will get the information without detection.”

“One more thing,” she continued. “Don’t underestimate the first problem. You should assume Ray knows everything Richard knew and more. I would be surprised if Ray does not have a good understanding of PeaceMaker. If you find the slightest evidence Ray knows about PeaceMaker or the Domain, capture him immediately. Don’t kill him. Just get him and bring him here. I want to be clear about that.”

After a brief pause, Dianne said, “You may leave now.”

Maybe Ray isn’t involved, she thought as she watched De Luca leave. Maybe I can save him.

She waited a moment after De Luca left and said, “James Murphy, join me immediately in the Virtual Conference Room.”

Murphy, a nondescript middle-aged man with intelligent eyes, arrived a few minutes later. He was the second-in-command of De Luca’s security force.

“Tell me about De Luca,” she said.

“His investigation has been effective and entirely appropriate so far,” Murphy said. “He’s followed your orders as you intended. He hasn’t done anything suspicious.”

Murphy went into the details, and Dianne questioned him closely. Finally, she was satisfied De Luca was still loyal. Bursting with nervous energy, she paced back and forth across her office. Murphy retreated to the couch on the far wall.

“Atlas, secure this conference room, and hold all my calls,” Dianne said.

She walked to the conference table and sat, her back to Murphy. As she lit another cigarette, Ray invaded her thoughts. She had been immediately attracted to him when they first met at the university years ago. She smiled to herself. I would have taken him to bed that night, but I couldn’t risk offending him. His speech recognition demonstration was incredible, and I had to convince him to join VPS. First things first.

She took another drag and leaned back in her chair. Those nights with him had been wonderful. They shared a passion for technology and could talk for hours. The sex was great, too, and she couldn’t get enough of him.

Dianne stood up and looked across the conference room. Murphy was sitting there, waiting. A good man, one I need to keep loyal. She walked over to the couch and stared down at him. Then she kneeled on the couch, straddling him with her thighs. She leaned forward and kissed him hard, forcing his neck back against the headrest. He responded immediately, unbuttoning her blouse as he returned her passion. Dianne felt his hands caress her breasts, familiar and exciting. In a moment, she was blind to everything except the electricity of their bodies.

*

Sitting in his dark office, De Luca stared at the large display on his desk. He had installed a microcamera in the ceiling of the Virtual Conference Room. Dangerous, but he enjoyed the challenge. Now, he could see Dianne whenever he chose.

He stared at her naked, writhing body. The sounds of her passion inflamed him. He hunched forward, the display inches from his eyes, so the images would play out as he needed them to. A dark excitement grew, still under control, still waiting. If Dianne ever discovered the camera, he would be a dead man.

But she was so exciting.

*

Ray walked across his office to the windows and looked out. It was a sunny winter afternoon, with a few small, white clouds adding beauty to a clear sky. A precious day, the kind he enjoyed most. Barren trees shook from the force of the wind, but he couldn’t hear a sound. Looking down, he watched the engineers drive their shiny new cars in and out of the lot. For a long moment, he enjoyed the normal, frenetic activity below him. Reluctantly, he closed the blinds and returned to his desk.

He leaned back, now feeling melancholy. You have to play the hand you’re dealt. He thought about his sons. They both needed him, each in a different way. He had almost allowed liquor to take his life five years ago, now he had placed himself at risk again.

He decided to do one last thing today and logged into a special website as Jim Smith. The site was dedicated to parents who were dying and wished to leave a message their children would receive many years in the future. The home page was sparse, depicting a scene of a young couple with a child, walking down a forest path, slowly drifting out of sight. Could almost be that forest outside my window, he thought.

He had decided to leave a video message to his sons that would be delivered ten years from today. Both David and Brian would be young men at that point. The realization hit him hard: if this message were delivered, he would not have seen his boys grow into men. He had to explain to them and himself why he took that risk. Hopefully, they would be able to forgive him.

He thought through what he needed to say, adjusted his netcam, and began to speak, “Dear David and Brian, receiving a message from your father after all these years must be quite a shock, and I’m sorry for that. By chance, I discovered a lethal virus in Atlas, and I have decided to do everything in my power to defeat it and expose the people who developed it. I’m scared, and I thought about walking away from it. I can’t do that. Since you received this message, I must have failed. God, I hope they were stopped before they unleashed the virus.”

“It was great to see the two of you last weekend. Brian, the Forty-Niners should have won a Super Bowl during the last ten years. David, you are probably building computer systems I couldn’t even imagine. Both of you are growing into fine young men. I am so proud of you.”

He paused for a moment to compose himself and continued, “I am not very good at giving a speech, and I won’t try to do that today. I wasn’t as good a father as you deserved. I drank too much, and I wasn’t always there when you needed me. Your mother deserves all the credit for helping you grow up as well as you have. But know this. I love both of you very much.

“I guess that’s all I have to say. I don’t know what kind of a world exists in 2022, but I hope it is good for you.

“Goodbye. I wish it could have been different. Live fully and honorably. That’s all.”