Fiction Topic Week
By Mike Matson
Julien swayed in his seat as the train clattered through the tunnel. He had always liked the tube, and even in the most stressful times, he found riding trains soothing. His body was lean like a runner’s, his casual clothes unremarkable, his cropped brown hair firmly in place. In his late 40s, Julien was plain in every way, the perfect look for an MoD intelligence officer.
Today however he was secretly agitated. He had sent the “emergency contact” signal ten days ago and today was the day.
Julien’s signal had sent a ripple of activity through the Russian Rezidentura, triggering pre-planned emergency procedures. His handlers had seen the signal, and provided the confirmation two days later.
To complete the three-way handshake and verify the original signal was real, the next day Julien had left the blinds open in one window. If it had been the left window it would have meant contact needed. But Julien had left the blinds open on the right window. He was requesting emergency extraction from Britain.
Today, Saturday, was the first operational window to attempt the extraction.
For three hours, he had been conducting a surveillance detection route across London, attempting to draw out surveillance teams, something he knew was damn near impossible these days with ubiquitous CCTV coverage, micro drones, and smart dust. But he was classically trained, and he had seen time and again proper tradecraft still mattered.
He had not picked up any sign of MI5’s surveillance teams, but something didn’t feel right. Is my subconscious picking up something, or am I just nervous? He wondered to himself. He was approaching his final go / no-go point where he had to decide whether to commit to the extraction.
“You haven’t picked up any matches correct?” he sub-vocalized in his throat.
“No facial recognition hits, anomalous movement patterns, or statistically significant facial expressions on any passengers,” replied his personal digital assistant through speakers on his AR glasses. His assistant, a government issued AI programmed for intelligence matters, had been continuously scanning the crowd, looking for the one item of place which might indicate he was under surveillance.
“What can you find on him there?” He tagged a fellow commuter across the way with a blink.
“Just a moment sir.” The AI snapped the QR dots lining the person’s glasses and obtained a readout: name, social media, marriage status, and an invite to contact for more information. He was a clerk at an investment house. The AI relayed it to Julien. Julien grunted.
“What about the signal traffic?” His clothing had special fibers weaved into his coat designed to intercept radio frequencies. His AI evaluated the sensor readings.
“Encrypted MI5 traffic remains higher than normal, and drone channels are in restricted mode.” Something was happening and Julien wasn’t sure if it was related to him.
His instincts from 20 years of field work were telling him to bail. A part of him knew he was violating the cardinal rule of field work – if it doesn’t feel right, walk away. There’s always tomorrow.
But he was convinced he was about to be exposed at work, if he had not been already. He had noticed subtle restrictions on his access over the last two weeks. The CI teams were onto him, or had him on a very small list of possible suspects. The noose was tightening, he could feel it.
The train approached the station. The doors opened and he decided to commit to the extraction. All he had to do was go up the escalators and as he walked out onto the street, a car would pull up and he would calmly get in. He was moments from safety. He took a deep breath. “Stay sharp,” he muttered to his assistant.
He followed the crowd and came around the curve towards the escalators. Standing to the right of the escalators was a woman with two small children. She was clutching an umbrella in her left hand. She looked annoyed as she tried to control her kids.
Jack said it a half second before Section Chief Lamb.
“He knows,” stated the AI android standing impassively next to SC Lamb as Lamb blurted out the same thing, along with a curse.
MI5’s primary counterintelligence AI assistant was watching the video feed with SC Lamb in MI5’s operation center. They had just watched Julien Burrows make an imperceptible half stutter step before regaining his composure and smoothly veering to his left down another hallway.
“Confidence level?” asked SC Lamb, although his gut told him they were right. Burrows was a pro who had grown up doing field work in the age of AI. He was trained never to make any break in his physical pattern when operational because the machines were always watching. But something had thrown him for a half second and then he had veered across the flow of traffic in an awkward manner. It was enough.
“87 percent and rising sir.”
“Attention!” Spoke SC Lamb into his throat mic. “We’ve been burned! Surveillance teams close the gap and body double him until the QRF armed response officers arrive. QRF move to intercept.”
The original plan was to take him down with his handler in the act of passing intelligence. The plan just changed on them.
As his forces expertly shifted gears, SC Lamb, tall, slim, and dressed as impeccably as any banker in London, contacted the Home Office and requested lethal force authorization – just in case.
Jack spoke up with what would later be assessed as the first inkling something else was in play.
“Sir…” Jack paused. “It appears we do not have any QRF assets close enough to reach him within the next five minutes, nor additional surveillance assets. But several Russian personnel are closing on his position.”
“What the hell Jack?” Jack was responsible for positioning MI5’s assets. SC Lamb suddenly looked nervous.
“I don’t know what happened sir, working to reposition assets now.”
Julien knew he had only seconds. He had been shocked at seeing the emergency evade signal in the form of the Russian diplomat’s wife with her kids. They somehow knew he had been compromised. Based on contingency procedures they had worked out a year before when he had met his handler in Portugal, he had one high-risk chance to escape the arrest which was probably imminent and that was the approaching in the next hallway – if they had timed it right.
He slipped off his jacket and unclipped his smart watch. As he rounded the next corner he ditched the jacket, phone, and watch. He tossed his glasses on the ground in front of him and stepped on them.
There was a short flight of stairs in front of him. He saw two men coming down the right side, almost holding hands. He made eye contact as he came up. Just as he got to them they separated and the two-part device they had been holding separated, revealing a faint blueish field. Julien’s teeth tingled as he went through it. As soon as he was through he took off running.
“He just ghosted!” yelled out a tech. Julien had stepped through a low powered EMP field designed to fry smart dust. Julien’s house, car, and cloths had been saturated with smart dust for months, billions of nano-sized RFID transmitters coded to his CI case. Everywhere he went, when he passed near an RFID reader, it had transmitted his location.
London had thousands of RFID readers installed by the police and security services which allowed for near continuous tracking of subjects. Coupled with CCTV, and insect drones following him in every public space, there was nowhere Julien had gone for months without SC Lamb, his team, and the ever-vigilant Jack knowing about it.
Julien’s code-word level access had also warranted MI5’s elite physical surveillance team to be assigned to cover him. They relied on old school hand signals to maintain contact while on target in order to defeat frequency monitoring, and they knew every street in the city better than a taxi driver – in fact they all had to pass the legendary London taxi exam to make the team.
Today the entire 30-person team had the eye, but MI5’s other teams were also active because at dawn the entire Russian Embassy staff plus family had bombshelled out of their living quarters to stretch MI5’s surveillance assets. The other MI5 teams scrambling to cover the dozens of Russians flooding the city was the cause of the radio traffic Julien’s AI had intercepted.
The Russians had been patiently preparing for this occasion. Bombshelling was nothing new. But Moscow Center mathematicians had developed specific travel routes across London designed to attack Jack’s algorithm.
The diplomats’ routes had been designed to manipulate the deep learning skills underpinning MI5’s automated CI program, and train the program to respond in an anticipated manner. Although the Russians didn’t know the program was named Jack, they had obtained part of its source code and knew how Jack operated.
The Russians had learned that deep learning algorithms could be tricked if fed enough repetitive data. And they devised a dedicated attack on Jack’s programming.
The Russians had conducted five near-identical bombshells in the last year, building up a pattern Jack would recognize. Jack anticipated where everyone was going this morning based on prior bombshells, and pre-positioned surveillance and QRFs accordingly.
This morning the Russians had introduced slight variations in the routes. Jack had compensated, recommending shifts in resources to address the changes. The math nerds in Moscow Center had calculated a 71 percent chance Jack would miss the crucial, fleeting advantage the new patterns created.
They were right.
What the route planning had done was create a temporary, surveillance-team free bubble around the tube station that developed just before Jack arrived at the station, isolating Julien with the few surveillance personnel maintaining contact with him on the train, while supporting teams were elsewhere or slowed by highly predictable London traffic.
At the precise moment, the Russians crashed the bubble, racing people into place to help Julien during the small window of advantage before Jack, SC Lamb, and MI5 realized they’d been played and could recover.
As part of the mathematical Maskirovka, a wife of a Russian diplomat who had never been used operationally before and therefore had a low score on Jack’s threat meter, was directed to stand in the tube station with her kids and carrying an umbrella. It was the warning signal.
Julien raced up the stairs and heard a commotion behind him. The two men who had ghosted him appeared to be wrestling with two men and a woman trying to get past them.
One of them the damn clerk from the tube car!
He pushed harder and hit the exit of the tube station. He had to make one of three planned rendezvous locations (RVs) within the next five minutes or he was on his own.
Turning, he walked along the sidewalk at a fast pace. Ordered to close in, the remaining surveillance team members were forced to break cover to keep up. Now Julien’s classical tradecraft kicked in, as he easily picked up two separate surface-level surveillance teams trying to reposition. He automatically recognized they were using a box pattern, allowing him from experience to anticipate where the other members were.
Julien hit the corner of the street. There was no one waiting for him, the first RV was empty.
He crossed the street and boldly pushed right into one of the arriving surveillance elements. He had guessed which team it was, whom he knew were unarmed and not authorized to apprehend a target. They blended back into the crowd, one of them making eye contact with him. He winked.
Do the unexpected, that’s the best way to beat the programming!
He knew from his training MI5’s command center would be frantically attempting to reacquire full containment. The QRF had to be only minutes away. If the pickup wasn’t at the second RV he would probably never make the third. He risked a glance upwards looking for insect drones.
“QRF 30 seconds out sir. Wasn’t expecting him to cut across the box like that. Delta element reported they were clearly made.”
“We know he was good, he’s attacking the damn procedures just like he was trained. No matter, we still have the eye and have two insect drones on him. Twenty seconds to intercept.”
Jack was not convinced.
“Section Chief Lamb, I think they are attempting a pickup. Traffic sensors indicate a car approaching from behind at high speed. They will get there before the QRF.”
“Then red light the traffic signals and gridlock that street!”
“It will take approximately three minutes to obtain Home Secretary approval and coordinate it with City of London. They will be gone by then.” SC Lamb cursed under his breath as he watched via video Julien step up to the curb. The operation was breaking down fast. But Julien was still in the middle of London. SC Lamb held the overall advantage.
An Audi pulled up to the curb with a squeal. The trunk popped open and Julien dived in and pulled the lid shut as the car pulled away.
Inside the trunk he stripped out of his remaining clothes, leaving only his underwear. The car came to another hasty stop a few minutes later and the back seat folded outward. He rolled into the back seat, helped by three sets of hands.
“Sir the trunk is thermal shielded. Two people in the back seat, one in the front. Entering the underpass now. Another diplomatic vehicle is entering from the other direction.”
“Time to reacquire the eye?” The Russians had successfully put themselves in the clear. As they had pulled away from the curb with Julien in the trunk, one of the Russians had leaned out the back window with a device he waved for 20 seconds behind them in a fan pattern. It was likely an anti-drone gun since the insect drones had dropped off the net.
All MI5 had left tracking Julien at the moment was a high-altitude drone following the car from 8,000 meters, which could not see into the underpass, but which had given them a body count via FLIR.
“Two minutes until acquisition. Normal time to traverse the underpass is approximately 10 seconds. They have already surpassed that.” Jack spoke with a clinical eye as his backend supercomputer mainframe endlessly churned through data and possibilities.
SC Lamb paced back and forth, the bridge larger than life in front of them on the screen.
“Contact! We have both cars exiting the tunnel in different directions. Total time in tunnel 47 seconds.” Lamb ordered QRF teams onto both cars.
SC Lamb was reminded of three card Monty. He wondered if that had ever been programmed into Jack. He noticed Jack was replaying the last twenty minutes of activity on a side screen, moving it forward and back time and again.
“What do you see Jack?” asked Lamb, looking at the replays going by at x8 speed on the screen.
“Not sure yet. Still working on the math. I’ll let you know if I find something.” Jack sounded pensive and distracted for a moment. Then he came back into focus. “Checking thermals on both cars…” Jack scanned the readouts.
“Both cars’ trunks are thermal shielded. I can’t tell you which car he is in.” SC Lamb chewed on his lips as he watched dashcam video from one of the mobile teams chasing to catch up.
“Sir, mobile teams are asking for permission to stop the diplomatic vehicles.” SC Lamb thought it over briefly.
“Granted. QRF are to stop both cars and seize the target.” He’d let Whitehall clean up the diplomatic mess. He figured he had some quid-pro-quo what with the Russians using EMP weapons.
SC Lamb thought back to the card analogy. Where was the third card?
The two Muslim ladies in full hijab with the small, darker-skinned child in hand walked down the sidewalk in the tunnel and watched as a car rocketed through, horn blaring. They looked at each other and kept walking.
Moments after that several pedestrians came running into the tunnel. One paused and gave the ladies a hard look, saw the child and the shopping bag full of groceries, and continued on his way, waving to the others.
The ladies continued out of the underpass, holding the child’s hand, along with their groceries, casually turning to take a flight of stairs up to the overpass. There they walked to a bus station and got on the driverless double decker bus that pulled up. The taller lady paid for all three of them and moved to the back of the bus where they talked quietly.
Fifteen minutes later SC Lamb knew the operation was well and truly blown.
“Sir, both GRFs indicate they have fully searched each vehicle and there is no sign of Mr. Burrows,” reported the lead communication tech. “The Russians are vehemently protesting their detention and claiming diplomatic immunity.”
“I fucking hate three card Monty!” growled SC Lamb. “Let them go but seize any EMP weapons.” He stewed for a few moments and the techs made themselves busy. SC Lamb spoke to Jack.
“Figure out what we missed.”
It was terabytes of data, but Jack’s processing capability and Lamb’s highly trained operators, who worked with Jack and the other systems with the help of machine-brain interfaces, pieced together what had happened in only a few minutes.
It was the shoes which first gave it away.
Reviewing body camera footage, it was a human tech Lamb was pleased to note who saw the two Muslim women were wearing men’s shoes. It was just a glimpse of a toe and heel but it was enough. The child’s face was then matched to a Russian diplomat’s child. Based on that, Jack enhanced processing of the thermal of the Audi and noticed one person in the back seat was statistically larger.
Back tracing the car’s route over the morning, Jack reviewed three dozen different CCTV views of the car in seconds. In two the angle was just right to backlight the passengers despite the tinted windows. One of them had a child sitting on their lap.
“Son of a bitch,” Lamb said with a bit of awe when Jack put the picture up on the screen. The child was a prop nobody had anticipated. It had worked perfectly.
“All right, they have a 20-minute head start. Work the bus route and follow the Russians’ dust trail, redeploy the teams into a containment net. I want teams at all the major train stations. Push his mug out to the Met Transport Police. I’m authorizing real time facial recognition on every CCTV in the city. Find him!” The SC touched the ear bud to call the Director.
After three stops the two Muslim women got out and headed into a multi-story department store. There they split up. The Russian agent had debriefed Mr. Burrows and now it was critical he got back to the Embassy. He pulled off the hajib in one fluid motion and left it behind a display, heading back outside with his daughter.
He knew he would be instantly marked, but he didn’t care, Burrow’s intelligence was in his head. He called the Embassy and provided the one-word success signal.
Burrows went up a floor and quickly walked into a women’s WC where he entered a stall with his bag of groceries. There he pulled out his instructions for his extraction. Reading them three times, he tossed the flash paper in the toilet where it instantly dissolved.
Hidden under the groceries was a reversible backpack with a set of clothes and a set of tear away paper clothing to go over it. Accessories included a wig, new glasses, cheek inserts, two burner phones, two hats, and a reversible jacket. A wallet with pre-paid credit cards and a large amount of cash was also included. The wallet had a set of IDs and pocket litter. The instructions indicated one of the burner phones had a bitcoin wallet on it.
He waited until it sounded like the loo was empty, then rushed out, eventually making his way onto the street. He powered the first burner and walked a block to a bike station and checked out a commuter bike with the bitcoin wallet. He headed for the train station, his now long black hair flowing behind him.
Burrows parked the bike and walked into the station. He used the phone to purchase a ticket and got onto the train. Once on he walked forward. He took off his jacket as he reached the gap between the first two cars. Sliding open the door, he stepped between the cars and in one fluid motion, tore off the paper clothing, revealing the second set of clothes. He pulled off his wig, dropping it all in the gap.
At the next gap he reversed his jacket and backpack. He slipped his activated burner phone into a seat back in the third car. At the gap of the third car he put on his new sunglasses which would block iris scanning, added the mustache and clip-on earing, positioned the cheek inserts to alter his facial profile, and a popped on a cap and got off. He casually walked down the platform and out of the station, living his third disguise in the last hour.
It took considerable time and processing power but eventually Jack and the team cross referenced all the CCTVs with cell tower pings, and a few weak, residual smart dust hits from Julien’s contact with the Russian IO, and located Julien on camera biking to the train station.
Once they reconstructed his movements, cell phone pings and CCTV placed him on the train which had departed for the coast two hours before. Transport police on the train had been alerted.
“You know he’s not on the train, right?” asked Jack to SC Lamb. The SC gave a curt nod.
“I know but we have to check. Good to see you’re starting to figure this game out. What gave it away?” He was mad, embarrassed, and by this point resigned to the fact Julien had gotten away.
“I understand now Julien would know we would identify the new cell phone hitting the network just after he got off the bus. He intentionally left it turned on to draw us to his disguise and the train.”
“Yep.” A pause. “I gather the use of children was something unanticipated in your programming. It burned us twice today.”
“Yes, the children were an excellent tactic. As was their possible long-term effort to condition my response to put the target in the black at the crucial moment.” While working on the active case, Jack had still been spending time in the background unravelling the mathematics he suspected had been targeting his algorithm. He was already drafting a full report on it. “That will be something I’ll be working with the programmers on for some time I gather.”
“Any idea where he is headed?”
“I’m working several scenarios but still collecting data.” Jack seemed subdued, despite the fact the android’s face could not convey emotions.
“Well keep me informed, I have to go see the Director. We are expected at the PM’s residence in an hour.” SC Lamb was not convinced he’d still have a job in two.
“Thank you for the report Director Keane. That will be all.” The group of hound-faced men and one woman turned to go. “Not you Director Simmons, I want a word with you.” The tall, graceful head of MI6 nodded at her colleagues while the Home Secretary, Director of MI5, head of Military Intelligence, and SC Lamb shuffled out. After the door closed the PM and Director looked at each other for a moment.
“Did you help him?” asked the PM. He leaned forward on his desk in interest.
“Not today. He had to make the escape on his own to sell it. But I tipped the Russians yesterday over a compromised phone line by discussing MI5’s arrest operation with my Chief of Staff.” The PM let out a long breath.
“How will he get out of the country?”
“We honestly don’t know. And we’ll do everything we can to stop him. But every service has rat lines in place to smuggle out an agent. We have them. They have them. I doubt we’ll catch him.” She shrugged. The Director tried not to look smug now that her counterparts were out of the room.
“The hypnotic implant will wear off in two years, correct? Then he’ll try to get home?” Director Keane had briefed the PM on this operation the day he was sworn in. Only eight people knew of the operation in MI6, as did the PM and the prior PM.
MI5 and MoD had been kept in the dark. Everyone’s AI was too good to successfully run a traditional dangle operation. Everything had to be perfect and legit down to the neurological level. But the very real near-term potential of conflict with the Russians had demanded the risk.
“Yes, he had agreed to the operation before his Moscow attaché posting. We did a deep hypnosis, along with intense machine-brain stimulations to create the correct neural patterns to survive lie detector tests and brain and facial deception scans.” The Director took a sip of water and continued. “When he arrived in Moscow he was a disgruntled officer who made subtle indications he was approachable. The FSB handled the recruitment. After 18 months, we posted him back here to the Russia desk.
“Once here the material he had access to was 90% real and 10% fake. The fake material was related to three MI6 or MoD recruitments of Russian agents which didn’t actually exist. We kept feeding them hints through him about the moles, but never gave him a name to pass until last week. They have been tearing apart their services for over a year.”
“Who did you throw under the bus?”
“We picked a high-ranking FSB officer who had been privy to his recruitment, but not a participant. That’s what triggered Julien to run. He knew if the FSB officer was actually a MI6 spy, then we knew he was a Russian spy.” She smiled and continued.
“MI6 has been developing a logical data trail of corroborating ‘evidence’ for the FSB to uncover now that they have a name. Days when an MI6 officer passed within 100 yards of him on the way to work. References in cable traffic, things like that. The final bit was the officer’s daughter graduating from London School of Economics this week. We picked her up yesterday and have her at a safe house, claiming her Dad is in danger. He was planning on coming to London for the graduation. It will look like he had been planning to defect, which is why Burrows had to make emergency contact.”
“What will happen to the FSB officer?”
“He’ll be interrogated, probably tortured, and eventually shot,” The Director responded coldly. The PM whistled.
“We gave up all that real information for this one operation? Seems excessive.”
“Tensions with the Russians have never been higher since they annexed Belarus. Everything is on the table. The Russians also have been led to believe they have two moles in the SVR. Burrows was able to pass along that one was likely recruited in Delhi, the other in Mexico City. Both are large Rezidenturas, it will taint everyone in them. They’ll waste years hunting for our non-existent penetrations.”
“As we did to MI5.” Director Keane nodded her head in acknowledgement of the fact.
“And they revealed today they could exploit Jack to isolate Burrows against our surveillance. That is a huge reveal for us. We already have GCHQ tearing up the math behind it.
“Once the hypnosis wears off we’ll do the reverse of what they did today and smuggle him home. After that happens they’ll realize all their AI-assisted tools to discover deception in a recruitment are flawed, and everything ever passed by Burrows will become suspect. In addition, they’ll suspect every other recruitment. We think there is at least one real penetration we haven’t identified, and this hopefully helps neutralize the problem in the future. We are messing with their source base for the next decade.”
“Jesus,” the PM breathed. He looked up at a painting on the wall, his mind wandering for a moment. “Is this protecting any actual recruitments we have?” He looked at the Director. The Director started at him and said nothing, a totally neutral look on her face. Finally, the PM nodded once. “Understood.”
“If that is all Prime Minster, I must go help with the efforts to catch Mr. Burrows.” Keane smiled.
“Yes. Good luck with that. Please keep me informed.” With that the Director walked out.
A week later…
The Mercedes pulled up to a dacha east of Moscow. As the car stopped a guard stepped forward from a group waiting for him and opened the door. Julien got out.
“Lt. Colonel Burrows, an honor to meet you,” an older man standing in the middle of the group said as he stepped forward, his hand outstretched. “Welcome to Russia, we have a lot to discuss.”
Mike Matson is a writer based in Louisville, Kentucky, with a deep interest in international affairs. He has 20 years of government experience, and degrees from The American University and the Joint Military Intelligence College, both in Washington, DC. In addition to 13 years in the Beltway before escaping to Kentucky, he has lived, studied, and worked in Brussels and Tallinn. He can be found on Twitter at @Mike40245.
Featured Image: Sci Fi City by Tom Gardner (via Art Station)