Going Zero by Anthony McCarten: Featured Excerpt
By Crime HQApril 4, 2023
7 DAYS LATER: 20 MINUTES BEFORE “GO ZERO”
FUSION CENTRAL, WASHINGTON, DC
On May 1, at twenty minutes to noon, Justin Amari, unbreakfasted, rumple-haired, is greeted by a welcome committee outside Fusion Central, a private complex that had sprung up near McPherson Square the year before with odd speed and mystery—“Silicon Valley Billionaire Cy Baxter Buys Block of Downtown DC, Spending More Time in City, Reasons Unknown.”
Justin spots, among the faces, Cy Baxter’s almost-as-famous-as-he-is right hand, Erika Coogan, cofounder, with Baxter, of Fusion’s parent company, WorldShare. A powerhouse, too, if in her own subtle way.
“Nervous?” Justin asks her as he approaches.
The question surprises Erika into a grin.
“I have faith in Cy, and in what we’re doing here,” she says. Her voice is pitched low, just a trace of Texas left. “But today, for sure I’m nervous. It’s big. Huge.”
Along with other dignitaries, they walk across the lobby of glass and steel, then through a pair of high-security checkpoints, before entering the super-secure area, the no-digital-dust-on-your-shoes, no-cellphones-no-laptops-no-Fitbit-no-recorder-in-your-pen-cap area, whose atrium-like center and active hub, full of dedicated teams on the ground floor overlooked by a system of gantries, has been dubbed The Void.
The scale of it still shocks him. Ice-down-the-spine stuff. A vast hall of screens, within which are rows of desks occupied by the super-smart engineers, data scientists, intelligence agents, programmers, hackers, and myriad analysts from the private and public sectors who are the foot soldiers of the Fusion Initiative. And from a dais on the first floor fit for Captain Kirk, Cy Baxter, vibrating with nervous energy and pride, looks down on his mighty works.
I’m the one who should be nervous, Justin thinks. For one thing, it’s my ass that’s on the line here today.
All the screens—desktop, tablet, cell phone, even the huge ones on the rear wall—are black, sleeping, waiting . . . waiting . . . waiting to be woken.
Justin checks his watch. Fifteen minutes and fifty-nine seconds remaining . . . fifty-eight . . . fifty-seven . . .
When he is waved forward, he walks up to the dais where Cy waits, formally suited for once, sparing today’s crowd his usual adolescent and stubbornly unretired uniform of sneakers, baggy jeans, T-shirt bearing some inspiring quote like why the fuck not?
Also waiting, Justin’s boss, Dr. Burt Walker, CIA deputy director for science and technology, he and Cy up there looking like they’ve just discovered the Theory of Everything. Also with them, less pleased, clearly not so convinced that all this is such a great idea, is Walker’s predecessor (now CEO of some threat analysis start-up), Dr. Sandra Cliffe.
To Justin, Walker looks like he’s trying to spot a ribbon to cut. Wrong era, Burt. No ribbons here. What will initiate the launch of this all-important beta test will be something as inauspicious as the click of a single mouse, which in turn will fire the ten chosen candidates in this secret trial to Go Zero, to get lost. Rapidly, they must disappear off the radar, leaving no trace. But this will not be easy: Cy Baxter and his team of cybersleuths are equipped, as no others in human history have ever been equipped, to find them, and find them rapidly.
Each of the ten participants—or Zeros, as the team knows them—has two hours, and two hours only, to get a head start: to activate their strategy, whatever it may be, after which the pursuit by Fusion will begin in earnest.
“A few quick words,” Cy says with amplified solemnity—at forty-five, he is boyish still, with a slightly forward-tipping body, weight on his toes as if poised always to take a run—“before we begin. First, thank you to our friends at the CIA for this truly historic public-private partnership.”
His eyes pass over Justin to settle on Drs. Walker and Cliffe, giving each a meaningful nod. “I’m also grateful, of course, to all of the investors who have placed their trust in us, some of whom are here today.” A nod to the array of suits at the front of his audience. “But thanks mostly to all of you, the Fusion team, for your tireless hard work and genius.”
The Fusion personnel applaud. Made up of experts in their respective fields, and equipped with immense technological weapons and wide jurisdictional powers, they number nearly a thousand here at headquarters but are augmented by thousands more personnel in the field, Capture Teams sprinkled all over the map and ready to pounce. Cy Baxter has drummed into each of them that it is the speed of these successes, as much as the means by which they will achieve them, that everyone has come to witness.
“We have serious business ahead. The next thirty days will determine the fate of a ten-year commitment from the CIA to fund this relationship, the fusing of government intelligence with free market ingenuity.” He pauses then, and seems to weigh his next words carefully. “Everything you see . . . all this”—he waves his hand to encompass the atrium and indicate the three floors of basements beneath them full of thrumming servers coddled in air-conditioned racks, the 932 handpicked personnel (each one rigorously background-checked by the CIA) stationed throughout the ops rooms, VR suites, drone bays, research facility, food court, and offices— “will be nothing if we fail. For me personally, this project is the most important work I’ll ever be part of. Period.”
Applause greets this.
“When I was first approached to see if I could imagine a public-private partnership that might lift this country’s security and surveillance powers to a whole new level, to an incomparable level, I looked at the deputy director here . . . and Dr. Cliffe, who may remember my reaction . . . I believe it was . . . right? . . . ‘You must be shitting me!’”
Laughter on cue.
“But I guess—I guess Orville Wright must have said something similar to his brother, right? Or Oppenheimer when ordered to make a bomb, or Isaac Newton when asked to define which way is up.”
He grins, a surprisingly winning smile. “You don’t know you can till you can. Right? ‘No way’ always precedes ‘of course.’ But despite our confidence, and all the hard work put in by everybody in this room, we still don’t know, one hundred percent, that we can. Hence this beta test. So let’s all get to it. Light the touch paper and see what we’ve got here.”
Extended applause. Cy loves these people and they love him right back, for ample reason.
Justin’s eyes stay on Cy as he wonders, Just how rich is this guy? No one is quite sure. His biography is opaque. Details scarce. Born where exactly? Even over this there is confusion. Cy says Chicago, but no birth certificate has been offered to answer rumors that his Slovakian mother brought this only child to the United States at seven. Recently, when the Ravensburger jigsaw people approached Cy, releasing a thousand-piecer of him—arms akimbo in front of a Bezos rocket ready to set WorldShare security satellites in orbit—folks finally gained a forum, with avid fingers and searching eyes, to do what up till then had been a purely mental challenge: assemble a clear picture of this man.
Justin has studied him from afar, collected the facts. Magazine profiles, invariably flattering, reveal a slow developer, one late to learn which fork to use, the right way to say words like niche (Cy: “nitch”). IQ of 168, though. A lonesome kid, often bullied, almost good-looking, although his small eyes were slightly asymmetric, his elbows and shins blotted with eczema. Got into computers early, then rode the tech wave. Built the garage start-up into a business valued at twelve billion dollars by the time he was twenty-six, and was off to the races. His thing, initially, revolutionary tech and social networks. Grew WorldShare from a small, friendly information exchange—“Wanna hook up?” “Sure, why not?”—into a global friendship ecosystem and from there fanned out fast, in all directions, sinking the profits into riskier ventures as if betting on swift greyhounds.
Wall Street fell in love at first sight with this future-seeing whiz kid, pipelined money into his escapades: cybersecurity, home protection cameras, alarms and public surveillance tools, even communication satellites. Midas-rich after a decade but never one to flaunt it (never photographed at Paris Fashion Week, no Hollywood friends, no giant yacht or private jet), he quietly, without undue publicity, also bet big on a green, wholesome, earthly, and even interplanetary future. Now he funds solar power research, battery life extension, and transparent cryptocurrency for the Federal Reserve, while also digging modular nuclear reactors to finally end the era of oil. What makes some people love Cy, find him so appealing, beyond his brilliance and despite his wealth, is how he truly seems to want to use who he is, and what he possesses, to aid the world when he could just, well, surf. Or rocket into space.
And not just a workaholic, he makes time for his private life: plays bass guitar in an indie four-piece and sweats at his local Palo Alto public tennis court twice a week. He has never been romantically linked with any other woman than Erika Coogan. He told Men’s Health he finds much-needed balance in meditation. He can endure the lotus position for hours, and perform ‘the plank’ exercise for well over fifteen minutes. (When the media disputed this, he livestreamed a twenty-three-minute retort.) He has emerged, ultimately, a cult hero: head and heart in twin good health.
Quite an act to pull off, concedes Justin, that in this unadmiring age a billionaire can acquire and achieve so much and yet engender so little disdain. Further proof, he is forced to conclude, of the abiding benefits of keeping whatever the hell you actually do way, way, way under the radar.
2 MINUTES BEFORE “GO ZERO”
FUSION CENTRAL, WASHINGTON, DC
“Let me finish with a thought. One last thought.” Cy Baxter pauses to survey his audience. How good he is at this, thinks Justin, how controlled. A little awkward but endearingly so, the remnants of a friendless childhood still apparent, too much time coding, unresponsive to the distant playground squeals, and then a few years later, already with a hundred grand in the bank but no date for the prom.
“Today is not just about a proof-of-concept trial or even an opportunity to show our partners”—he turns to nod at the two esteemed CIA PhDs sharing the stage—“what we can do when we pool our resources and work together . . . though it is, and we will. Today is really to welcome in a partnership years in the making, drawing together the combined resources of law enforcement, the military, and the security industry—NSA, CIA, FBI, DHS—integrating them for the first time with the hacker and social media communities, all coordinated by the brilliant intellects of the crew here at WorldShare.”
A smattering of applause here from the corporate sector.
“There they are, Fusion’s parent company! . . . And all combining to form a bleeding-edge, three-hundred-sixty-degree intelligence data-sharing matrix unlike anything the world has ever seen. So pretty cool.” Here he glances again at his CIA paymasters with a friendly collegial grin that shows just how unbelievably smoothly this has gone thus far. “So in conclusion, our almost ridiculous aim has been pretty simple: make things a whole lot tougher for the bad guys and a whole lot easier for the good guys, using the best technology we have to do it. Of course we care about privacy. Half of what we do here at Worldshare is protect people’s privacy. But if you’ve done nothing wrong, which covers ninety-nine percent of us, then you may be more prepared to sacrifice a little of that sacred right in exchange for greater security, peace, law, and order. Let me tell you who cares about privacy protections the most: wrongdoers. They need them, to hide. September eleventh forced us to rethink the delicate balance between private security and public safety. Back then, we had all the data we needed to prevent that catastrophe but we lacked the will and the means to aggregate that intelligence. Today, in this building, we draw together as never before both the will and the means.” As if running for office, he concludes with something slightly unexpected: “May God bless America and our troops! And now . . . let’s roll.”
With this, he points to a digital representation of a large analog clock projected onto the wall behind him, the final seconds before noon expiring with the sweep of a second hand climbing to join, like a clap, the hands of minute and hour.
On the stroke of noon Cy speaks the vitalizing words “Go Zero,” and synchronous with this a single mouse is clicked somewhere in the bowels of the building and a message sent to ten cell phones across America: a small two-word phrase that almost rhymes. The hiders now have two hours before the seekers set out to find them.
Copyright © 2023 by Anthony McCarten. All rights reserved.
About Going Zero by Anthony McCarten:
Ten Americans have been carefully selected to Beta test a ground-breaking piece of spyware. FUSION can track anyone on earth. But does it work?
For one contestant, an unassuming Boston librarian named Kaitlyn Day, the stakes are far higher than money, and her reasons for entering the test more personal than anyone imagines. When the timer hits zero, there will only be one winner…
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