A/N: Just in case there are any Jem fans out there who happen to read this (or for the curious.) I estimate that this fic takes place 18 months after "A Father Should Be..."
GI JOE Season 3: episode 3
"Chain of Command"
Federal Prison Camp - Herlong, California
The rusty door creaked open, allowing Beach Head and Mainframe entry into the central facility. They entered, and the door closed behind them. The keys from the doorman could be heard jingling from the other side to engage the lock, and the resulting click of the deadbolt echoed in the enclosed hallway. The two soldiers walked side by side in silence toward the guard station at the far end. The sunlight shone through the western side of the corridor. Desert sand frosted the windows, exacerbating the glare from the sunlight and obscuring the view to the world outside. The steel fibers within the shatterproof glass broke up the sun's rays, splashing the floor with polygons of light. The fans that spun overhead only served to circulate the hot air.
Beach Head took short abbreviated breaths as he loosened his collar. The stench from the stale air was so thick he could taste it. Midway, they reached the shadow cast by the northern tower. Shielded from the glare of the late afternoon sun, Beach Head glanced over at his computer operations specialist and saw that he was smiling. "What's with that stupid grin on your face, Mainframe?"
"Hmm? Oh, it's nothing… I just got a kick out of watching that warden snap-to when he got off the phone with the Attorney General."
Mainframe shrugged. "I don't know, Beach; I suppose it's for want of giving the Establishment the finger. Don't you get a thrill out of throwing your weight around as a Joe to cut through the bureaucracy?"
"No, I don't," Beach Head scolded. "Spec-Ops units such as ours go around normal channels out of a necessity to maintain secrecy. It's a responsibility not to be taken lightly."
"Lighten up Beach; it's human nature. Ever since we partook of the proverbial forbidden fruit, Man has been compelled to test his boundaries—to push the envelope. It's been the basis for human exploration, inspiration and creativity."
"It's also been the basis for exploitation, despotism and war. And it all starts with one yahoo thinking that the rules don't apply to them."
"I bet you're a blast at parties," Mainframe said with a frown. "Not everything has to be a slippery-slope." A smile revisited his face. "You know, Beach, I think I'm going to make it my personal mission to get you to loosen up once in a while."
"Now you're starting to sound like Stalker."
"Maybe I'll enlist his help, then."
Beach Head rolled his eyes. "Since we're on the subject of stupid ideas, how on earth did you to talk Flint into sending us to this prison like a couple of errand boys?"
"I'm just as surprised as you, to be honest. I just threw it out as a suggestion. I didn't expect Flint to go along with it. He said that my idea was, thinking outside of the box."
"It's times like this that I miss Duke. He would never go for this pop psychology hogwash." Beach Head paused and sneezed. "What can you tell me about this guy we're meeting?"
"As far as underground computer crackers go, this guy is as hard-core as they come."
"You think he's up to the job?"
"He's the best I've ever seen."
"I thought you were supposed to be the best?"
"I'm not a cracker." Mainframe scowled at Beach Head's ignorance of the distinction.
"ACHOO!" Beach Head stopped to blow his nose. "Why hasn't someone in Shadow Ops snatched this joker up? He's seems the type that's right up their alley."
"No, this guy is a lone wolf. He's very distrustful of authority. He claims that the government killed his father."
"Great..." The sneezing had gotten worse. Beach Head retrieved the balaclava in his pocket, and he clasped it over his head. He made sure the ski mask fit snugly over his nose and mouth."
Mainframe grimaced. "Everything alright?"
"I think they use ammonia to clean the floors here. It's irritating my sinuses." Beach Head brushed passed him.
By the time they made it to the guard station, Beach Head's coughing had subsided. He temporarily pulled down his mask while he presented his credentials. The lead guard greeted them at the gate and examined their ID's.
The guard cautiously glanced back and forth between the visitors and their photos before finally saying, "The front desk told us to be expecting you." Satisfied, he handed them back their ID cards. "The word on the grapevine is that you boys are Joes?"
"That's right," Mainframe answered.
"I did a tour back in '68 with the 101st airborne."
"A fellow Chicken Man?" Mainframe said, shaking the guard's hand. "It's a small world."
"I wonder what kind of strings you guys had to pull in order to talk to this guy outside of visiting hours?"
"The kind of strings that require discretion," Beach Head said with a dismissive tone.
The guard grinned in response. "Hooah."
The soldiers were escorted through the dim, musty cell block. Either side of the corridor was packed with jail cells. Faint glimmers of reflected light sparkled in the distance from the mirrors that the convicts used to peek around their bars.
Beach Head walked single file behind the other two as he struggled to control his coughing. Ignoring the jeers of the incarcerated inmates, he took out a clean handkerchief and dabbed the tears from his eyes. He clasped the cloth tightly around his nose to mask the smell of perspiration and ammonia. He held his breathe for most of the journey until they finally came upon a secured steel door.
"We're almost there," the guard said, unlocking the junction box. "Solitary is in the next cell block."
"Solitary?" Beach Head questioned. "He's that bad, huh?"
"No. He just tends to freak out the other prisoners. I think he prefers it. All he does is stare at his wall all day."
They came upon a narrow chamber lined by a single row of cells, only one of which was occupied. The iron gate slid open; Beach Head and Mainframe peered inside. The gaunt prisoner with jet-black hair was seated on a bunk, staring at mathematical equations written on the opposite wall. Strips of toilet paper were arranged on the pillow with strange writings on them.
Beach Head grabbed Mainframe by the arm to stop him from going inside. "No, you wait right here. This won't take long."
"With all due respect, Beach, I have more of a rapport with this guy."
"I think I can handle a computer geek."
Beach Head stepped into the cell and, in drill-instructor fashion, addressed the prisoner as if he were a grunt fresh off the bus:
"Walter Hammler." The prisoner did not respond. "I am Master Sergeant Sneeden with G.I. Joe." He paused when he saw that the introduction did not elicit a response. "I am authorized to offer you a deal to reduce your sentence in exchange for your services."
The prisoner continued to mumble under his breathe, seemingly oblivious to the soldier's presence.
Beach Head reached out to grab his shoulder, "Hey, I'm talking at you!"
"DON'T TOUCH ME!" The prisoner jerked away from him violently. "I don't like being touched."
Beach Head stepped back and sighed in frustration. He looked to Mainframe, who was leaning against the bars with his arms crossed—sporting a lopsided grin on his face. Beach Head's eyes narrowed as he gave him the signal to take over.
Mainframe entered the cramped cell. Rather than engage the prisoner, he chose to examine the equations scribbled on the wall that garnered the prisoner's undivided attention. He noticed that in the center was written a group of numbers arranged in a matrix. He picked up the limestone rock that was used as makeshift chalk and wrote a single column of numbers next to the matrix.
"There you go, Techrat." Mainframe clapped the dust from his hands. "That should give you the eigenvalues you need."
Techrat nodded as he mulled over some calculations in his head. "Thanks. My linear algebra is rusty."
Mainframe turned his attention to the scraps of paper laid out on the mattress. "What is this, a reverse encryption algorithm?"
Techrat nodded again. "Very good, Mainframe... where's Sparks?"
"He couldn't make it." He replaced the scraps neatly atop the mattress, "You realize, of course, that this code's not going to do you much good without a computer."
"I have access to the one computer they could never take away from me," Techrat said as he tapped his temple with his index finger. "The art of hacking is about thinking, not typing on a keyboard."
"You have the nerve to call yourself a hacker? It doesn't take any exceptional intelligence to write a Trojan."
"Whatever you say, Mainframe." For the first time, Techrat acknowledged Mainframe with his eyes. "By the way, how long was I snooping around your network before you and Sparks caught me?"
"Not long enough to do any real damage. Otherwise, we wouldn't be having this conversation."
Techrat snorted. "Oh, how I miss our banter. You and Sparks were the only ones who could keep up."
"If you miss it so much, why not take us up on our offer?"
"I'm not buying what you're selling."
"Techrat," he scoffed with false indignation, "I thought we were friends."
"You're still a pawn of the government."
"I don't think that's a fair characterization. You've been in the central mainframe; you've seen our mission statements. You must know what G.I. Joe is all about."
"And I'm still waiting to hear why this should interest me?"
"There is an unknown system penetrating the DoD's satellite network. We can't discern the nature of the attacks because we suspect that the cracker is tunneling in using Quantum Encryption."
Techrat narrowed his eyes. "Quantum Encryption is purely theoretical. The hardware necessary to put it into practical application doesn't even exist."
"C'mon. We both know better than that."
"Why didn't you draft Kaneda? He's the top underground theoretician in computer science."
"Perhaps, but there is another reason why we approached you that we can't elaborate on in here."
"Still, I can't imagine of what use I could be to you on the outside. Quantum Encryption cannot be cracked: It goes against the laws of physics."
Mainframe sighed as he leaned back against the wall. He gave Techrat that same lopsided grin, saying, "I suppose you're right; you should stay here, secure in the knowledge that it can't be done… or, you could help pioneer a new era in cryptography—decades before it becomes mainstream science."
Techrat laughed. Such an obvious use of reverse psychology was an insult to his intelligence. He looked away as he diverted his attention once again to his equations.
Mainframe reached over and took the scraps from his hand. "Is writing pseudo-code on toilet paper the same as the feel of a keyboard under your hands? Is conceptualizing heuristics in a drafty cell the same as inserting your Trojan into a virgin network? To watch it work from the inside, in real-time, as it quietly forces her into unwilling submission; penetrating her defenses until she finally opens up for you."
Techrat clenched his jaw.
"You said hacking is about thinking? You're wrong: hacking is about power. A hacker without a computer is like a surgeon without a scalpel, a painter without a brush—"
"How long?" Techrat interjected impatiently.
Mainframe sat down next to him on the bunk. "If you do good by us, time served plus five years probation. In the meantime, you don't so much as look at a computer outside of this mission."
He scoffed at the terms, saying, "Are you insane?"
"Either that, or you spend the rest of your sentence in here."
"You must really be desperate, Mainframe."
"Not as desperate as you, I'm willing to wager." The soldier got up and left the cell. The bars closed behind him.
Techrat closed his eyes in surrender. "I'll do it."