They met in an open field at the compound with the sky bright and empty overhead. No drones or wireless signals infiltrated the space. Or so he was told. Joseph sat before his senior commanders, Mitchell and Jeanine, at a long portable table, among several other patriots, each handpicked for the militia’s most sacred mission. A private meeting held in secret. Without the usual clamor of training hours, the gunshots and shouted commands, a certain nakedness swept over the woodlands of Western Massachusetts, magnifying the rustle of tree limbs and surrounding birdsong. Joseph’s mind churned. He’d hoped to learn what the Liberty Keepers had decided to do about his niece Lucy hiding those illegals in his father’s old home for months now. The house she owned on a fluke of inheritance. Instead, his thoughts drifted, distracted by what they’d described as the government’s latest threat—invisible coils of electromagnetic waves pulsing through the air, knocking between cell towers and handheld devices, passing through skull and membrane, recording their very thoughts. Most of his fellow patriots assumed the presence of some government surveillance tracking their efforts. Now at last they’d confirmed it.
“Was only a matter of time before the Feds came around to set up shop.” Mitchell flipped around the touchscreen of his convertible laptop, displaying aerial photographs they’d taken with a camera drone. He flicked through images of a wide dirt clearing where a few nondescript concrete facilities stood among several bulldozers and excavators, the area bordered by tall security fencing. Jeanine herself had obtained a copy of the building permit from a public records site online, which the Liberty Keepers regularly checked to monitor local development projects. She lit a cigarette, flicking ash into a yellowing patch of the surrounding low-cut grass.
“New data center going up. Not twenty miles from the compound. In eighteen months or so we’ll have the NSA really up our ass.”
Joseph cracked his knuckles. “How? Without a warrant?”
Logan, one of their technical specialists, curled his lips, impatient. “The servers are too powerful to block. You even know what these damn things are?”
Jeanine filled the sudden awkward silence, tendrils of smoke escaping her nostrils as she spoke, her voice measured and detached. “Everything you do online, every text message, phone call, email you open or send, selfie upload, internet search, check deposited, stock traded, medical exam taken—every piece of information shared online lives in these centers. Government has access to everything.”
She gazed long at the others, as if they were the ignorant ones, instead of Joseph, whom she ignored. Jeanine described how centers funneled data over private fiber networks, straight into the NSA for purposes of espionage and international and domestic control. Society allowed this because they depended too much on the services—essential IT and network operations, not to mention the storage, communication, and exchange of infinite pools of data.
“Just think of how many businesses would collapse if just one of these centers went down?” A small, impish smile crept across Jeanine’s mouth, one that lightened Joseph’s heart as she continued. “Folks don’t have a clue. Each time they click on a website or hit ‘send,’ some data center receives all that personal information and feeds it to the government. Why else have these big data server farms been popping up so quickly over the last five years? Government wants more social control. They intend to collect and store as much data on us as they can.”
Marcy, another patriot, raked her nails across the sides of her gray cropped hair and shook her head, frowning. “A goddamn constitutional violation.”
Logan nodded. “Damn straight it is.” He removed his glasses, wiping one of the lenses with the edge of his T-shirt, and for a moment his face transformed, became smaller, his nose and eyes less pronounced. “Not just us they’re after either. They want our entire network of patriots. Infiltrate one and you reach them all.”
Joseph cupped the back of his own neck, the skin hot and perspiring in the high afternoon sun, the conversation heightening his malaise. Soon the government would break apart what had given him more purpose and connection than anything he’d known in years. He could not let the Liberty Keepers fail.
“Should be easy to penetrate the site considering it’s not even half built yet. What are we talking about in terms of security?”
Mitchell shook his head and flicked again across the laptop screen, pulling up another series of photos. “New site isn’t worth it. They’ll only redouble their efforts to finish it if we attack. But destroy an established site and then you actually send a message.”
He turned the screen toward them, displaying aerial shots of the proposed target. A mid-sized center of about 100,000 square feet spanning the length of an industrial park, an hour away in Worcester. Joseph squinted hard, trying to make sense of the rows of gray-white warehouses, each surrounded by smaller rectangular blocks, separate substations interconnected by long veins of thick steel piping, enormous steel fans, and cooling vents. Mitchell pointed out the larger buildings that he claimed housed countless racks of servers.
“Won’t be able to get at them directly. Security’s too intense.” He listed the extent of the facility’s strict protocols, the access permissions checked via badge readers, iris scans, and anti-tailgating measures at all entry points. Just reaching the center itself involved the near-constant presence of guards and checkpoints, vehicle crash barriers, overlapping cameras equipped with thermal night vision, and smart anticlimbing fencing that detected the touch and proximity of intruders. Even delivery trucks needed special authorization to enter the loading docks—all heavily guarded and kept far away from the server rooms. Mitchell zoomed in on one of the photographs, magnifying a large steel rectangular block and what appeared to be a water tower that stood atop a rooftop platform.
“That leaves us few options but the cooling towers.”
Others bobbed their heads in agreement as he explained further. Data centers operated twenty-four seven, the extreme amounts of electricity they required created enough heat to spark fires among their endless servers, firewalls, routers, storage systems, switches, and electrical components. The cooling towers prevented this essential technology from overheating.
Jeanine nodded. “Destroy them and you shut it all down. Lucky for us we only need to get past that first layer of security to reach them.”
Their plan seemed intact—Mitchell outlined where the explosives, remote-operated bundles of demolition-grade nitroglycerin, would be attached beneath each of the four cooling towers. Marcy would address the security issue at the front gates, using a disguised vehicle to distract and confuse the guards, while Logan and the others would utilize drones to dismantle some of the site’s security features, allowing someone to enter the equipment yard where the towers stood. Mitchell set the laptop down and gazed at Joseph.
“All towers must be destroyed. Data centers rely on redundancy. Every piece of equipment there has a backup to take its place in case one fails. No point destroying anything unless the effect is total.”
The table hushed, everyone drawn inward for a moment, imagining the destruction. Joseph thumbed perspiration from his upper lip. Darcy folded her nervous hands together, her voice tense with concern.
“Even destroying one of these centers will knock out eighty percent of the internet in half the state. Folks won’t know what to do with themselves. I’m talking mass hysteria. Pandemonium in the streets. Government won’t know how to control them.”
Jeanine nodded, her voice strong and resolute. “We have to send a message. It’s the only thing that will stop the other data centers from being built. At least for a little while before we decide on the next move.”
Heads bobbed in agreement. Logan’s eyes narrowed into venomous pits behind the wide lens of his glasses.
“Blow it straight to hell.”
They committed to an oath of silence about the mission. OPSEC protocol. Security measures mattered more than ever. Not everyone inside the militia could know in case someone decided to rat. Joseph felt Jeanine watching him, but when he met her stare, he did not like what he saw, the brooding anticipation edged in hostility, or what he heard—that he’d be the one to plant the explosives.
Around him the air electrified, seemed to hum with expectation. All eyes on him. Joseph’s heart raced. He forced himself still and stared at the tops of his sneakers as Jeanine continued.
“You’re skilled and uniquely capable. A devoted patriot. You proved that in the last mission. More importantly, your position among us makes you the right choice. Mitch and I can’t do it. Not as commanders. Been around too long. Government has too much on us as it is. Even the others here got files on them. But you’re new enough to throw off the Feds. You alone.”
Joseph beamed. Never had he felt so worthy.
“Besides, we know how they’ve taken advantage of your niece,” she said. “Mitch and I sent her a little message. The first of many.”
Joseph met her gaze, now warm and convincing, but restrained his growing excitement, careful not to appear too eager or foolish. “You believe me now?”
Jeanine smiled. “We never doubted the possibility of illegals hiding out in your family’s home. The house your father built. Countless Americans have been duped and corrupted by woke lords and social justice warriors. Antifa henchmen working on behalf of drug cartels and gangs. These liberal idiots never suspect the real agenda until it’s too late. No one understands that better than you.”
A certain buoyancy entered the upper reaches of his chest, streaks of vindication shooting from brain cavity to fingertip. He swallowed the sudden desperate impulse to know what they’d done to warn Lucy and how far they might take it, perhaps even returning the house to him. Instead, unable to control himself, he shared his own theories of how the data centers were part of the spread of illegals and the growth of sanctuary cities and government control—little worlds of conspiracy spinning across his tongue. Everything interconnected. Couldn’t they see it too?
Joseph shouldered a backpack full of explosives through the dense woodland strip bordering Worcester’s municipal data center. Less than a week had passed since the Liberty Keepers’ gathering, and now he stood waiting at the edge of the thicket, cloaked in shadow, far enough from the security cameras perched at intervals atop the tall palisade fence. The surrounding darkness offered little cover against the spotlights that stood in each corner of the facility, illuminating the large industrial warehouse space with a harsh piercing brightness that made his eyes ache. A strange hum lifted off the gray rectangular buildings just beyond the fence. He tried to ignore it, that low mechanical wail of electric currents—information siphoned from everyday lives, stolen and harnessed by government forces. His fingertips pressed hard against the wireless earbuds fit securely into the sides of his head, restless for Jeanine’s voice to come through and give him the signal to proceed.
Headlights belonging to the same small white delivery truck that had transported him to the center’s backwoods appeared along the distant curving road. Now it wound toward the gated front entrance. Joseph stilled, his pulse sprinting. The hum amplified in his mind. A thick, moist heat hung in the air, irritating the skin beneath his black ski mask. Mosquitoes fed at his neck and forearms until he smacked them away, his hands grasping again at the straps tugging around his shoulders, cautious of the weight that sagged from his back and torso. He could no longer see the white truck, the guard station was obscured from this distance, but he imagined Darcy trying to pass through, perhaps having dyed her gray hair blonde and wearing some facial prosthetics, with a fake license plate affixed to the truck and an AR-15 rifle hidden between the seats in case the situation turned on them. Joseph wished he’d come better armed, carrying more than just his .380, though it served him better for the purposes of the mission to travel light.
They’d timed things well, beginning the mission hours before dawn, during a shift change among the guards, just as packages and shipments would begin arriving. The appearance of the truck would confound them, along with the security clearance badges they’d attempt to have authenticated before Logan used his drones to disarm certain features of the security fencing and cameras. Confusion and subterfuge. Their team of five operated from different points around the facility, each taking a turn in their initial plan of distraction tactics before Joseph delivered the explosives to each cooling tower. He had twenty minutes at most. Just enough time for the truck to return and pick him up from the woods. If it all went south now, there’d still be a chance to escape, he was sure of it. Things better left undone. No one would ever suspect him unless a fellow patriot decided to rat and even then, he’d still have time to reach Canada or—
Jeanine’s voice knifed across his thoughts, loud and sharp through the earbuds.
“Dragonflies in position. Standby, Motherlode.”
He waited. Logan’s drones soon whirred overhead. Each extended a little more than the length of Joseph’s two hands, their four propellers buzzing in a frenzied whirl. Little red lights glowed from the tips of their short robotic arms like a strange assemblage of four-pointed stars descending from the blackness of space. Breaking formation as they reached the site. Four drones and a special military-grade microdrone, a tiny four-inch Black Hornet equipped with a special infrared camera that allowed Logan to identify and disable the specific utility box containing the brains of the security fence’s smart features. Jeanine used a similar device to monitor Joseph’s progress from afar. Some drones targeted the various cameras threatening his route to the towers, while others attacked from opposite points of the center, confusing the exact coordinates of the security breach. Perhaps Mitchell helped operate some of the drones. Joseph suspected that Logan couldn’t do it alone. Who else commanded their flight? Aspects of the mission he wasn’t allowed to know.
Jeanine’s voice returned, shooting adrenaline through his veins.
Joseph rushed forward, sprinting across the clearing, spotlights washing over him. He halted before the palisade fence, knowing already that its heavy, high-security steel would resist any attempt to cut or pry his way through. Instead, the fence stood disabled enough to climb over undetected. He withdrew a long, knotted rope from his sack and hooked it over a corner post, where a gap of about half a foot or more existed between the taller steel pickets that curved at pointed tips toward him. Aided by the rope, Joseph pulled himself up, planting the meat of his palm over the flat surface of a nearby support pole, grasping hard to steady his climb. He fit his other hand in a space between the spiked tips above the top rail and pulled himself up, kicked his legs high, and swung his body over, vaulting across the spikes. He landed hard on his feet with his backpack and earbuds still intact.
Inside, the site appeared as he’d studied it from aerial photographs of the area—an enormous grid of long industrial pipes connecting the gray-white blocks of substations that stood in rows around its large main central building, where the data was gathered and processed underground. Joseph collected the rope, shoving it back inside his bag. He took a path he’d spent weeks memorizing that led to each cooling tower, all four situated in the same area of the facility.
Jeanine’s voice guided him—the Liberty Keepers had not wanted to take any chances. Hers, the only voice that could lead him through it, commanding his feet to each breathless step.
“Northward fifteen feet, then sharp left. Take this right at the third substation.”
He moved deeper into the equipment yard, past long rows of warehouses, substations, and steel piping, past the utility boxes, large industrial fans, and metal-clad switchgears that funneled power through the high-voltage utility grid connections powering the cooling towers and IT infrastructure. All the electrical and systems components he didn’t understand, despite the many long hours Logan had tried to teach him the innards of the beast in a language that failed to stick in his mind.
Thick plumes of steam rose above the row of cooling towers in the near distance, dispersing high into the air like slow-moving geysers. The data center hummed, loud and incessant, dominating his senses. Infinite streams of data funneled over and through him, their vibrations left him agitated and nauseous. Energy pulsed even through the concrete beneath his feet. Information. He forced himself to keep going. Jeanine focused his attention.
“First tower. Up the staircase to your right.”
He turned and followed suit, up a long metal staircase, where he approached a raised platform perhaps eight or more feet above the ground, housing the first cooling tower. What appeared to be an enormous rectangular metal shipping container, at least seventy feet tall, stood at its center. Thick pipes extended out from its side, connecting to other warehouses and units nearby. Metal railings flanked the edges. Giant industrial fans were fixed at its corners, whirring fast. A tall gray cylindrical tower stood atop the container, exhaling wide trails of smoke. Joseph trembled, a sudden weakness filling his limbs. He gripped the railing, squeezing his eyes tight against a wave of dizziness, and breathed hard, unable to steady his racing heart. Jeanine spoke.
“You with me, Joey? Do you see that electrical box attached to the wall in front of you?”
“Yeah.” His voice caught in his throat, breathless and ragged.
“I need you to set the first bundle on top there.”
He moved closer along the platform to the utility box and bent down, pulling off the backpack and unzipping it. His hands began to shake hard as he reached inside and removed the first bundle of incendiaries. The mere sight of the explosive unnerved him—the multiple PVC pipes bound together with electrical tape and wires attached to a circuit board, switches, and several large lithium batteries. Joseph fought the sudden impulse to retch.
“You can do this, Joey. We’re counting on you. The whole nation is counting on you right now. I’m counting on you.”
The tenderness in her voice lifted him. He set the explosive into place.
“Now turn the switch,” Jeanine said.
He did so, inhaling something sharp and final into his body. A red light began twinkling from the circuit board.
The next tower was easier than the first, as was the one after that. Joseph comforted himself with the knowledge that the explosives were remote-controlled, detonated by someone else. Not him. Perhaps Mitchell or Jeanine? He wasn’t allowed to know. Somehow this lightened the burden of his task.
At last he reached the final tower, arranged the explosives, and flicked the switch.
The device blinked its red murderous eye at him.
“Last one set.”
Silence. Perhaps the mic had cut out, the earbuds’ wireless signal dropped. He hurried down the stairs and back along the path for the fence. Then Jeanine spoke, sinking his nerve.
“Security fencing and cameras powering back on.”
“Thought Logan dismantled it?”
“Couldn’t get to the other generator. Head twenty feet to your right. There’s some utility boxes by the fence. Help get you over faster. Hurry.”
Joseph ran to the spot. Two green utility boxes, each about twelve or so inches tall, stood close enough to assist his climb back over with the rope. He hopped up on one and grasped the top rail of the fence, pushing himself up and over, trying to clear the railings’ spikes but not fast enough. The side of his leg tore against one of the pointed tips, and he tumbled hard against the ground, knocking the air out of him. He pushed himself to his feet and jogged into the thicket, ignoring the blood streaked along his thigh. White-hot pain burned his ankle, forcing him into a limp.
Still, they found him in the woods. Darcy and Logan half-carried him toward the small white truck, its headlights injecting Joseph with new life. Someone threw open its roll-up door and another pair of arms pulled him inside. He vomited on the floor and a splash of cold water struck his face.
“You’re OK, buddy. You did great back there.” Logan sat before him, light catching in his glasses. He twisted shut the cap of a plastic bottle and grinned. Where was Jeanine? Joseph wanted her most. The hatch banged shut, encasing them in a totality of darkness. More doors opened and slammed. A muffle of voices and the truck lurched forward, hurling Joseph into a corner as they sped off.
A chord of explosions followed, so loud and violent that they shook the vehicle hard. Joseph imagined that they’d be caught in a billowing fireball and thrust across the sky, crushed to death inside a knot of smoldering metal. Instead, they continued to accelerate, barreling through the darkness unseen. Logan howled and screamed obscenities. Joseph moaned and coughed, choking on his own breath. His face slick with sweat and vomit. Trapped inside a black womb while the world outside rocked and burned.