LATE IN THE afternoon of a gray day in December, a panel truck pulled up
to the gate of a warehouse complex in a run-down section of Richmond,
Virginia. Rolling down his window, Jack Davis punched a code into the
control box, and the gate clanked slowly out of the way. Once inside, he
wheeled the truck around and backed it up against a loading dock as the
gate closed behind him.
After unlocking and raising the loading dock door, Davis threw a light
switch, revealing long rows of pallets, each stacked eight feet high
with boxes of paper plates, cups and towels. He closed and locked the
loading dock door, and stamped on the brake release pedal of a hydraulic
lifter parked against the wall. Counting to himself, he pushed the
lifter along the wall of pallets. When he reached row nineteen, he
turned the lifter and maneuvered its long tines under the pallet.
Raising it a few inches, he backed up until he could swing the pallet
through 180 degrees. Then he pulled it behind him until it was back
exactly where it had been before.
Davis had plenty of room to work, because where the pallet in the second
row should have been, there was only a large metal plate set in the
floor. Near the edge was a small hinged panel, which he unlocked with a
key to expose a biometric security pad.
When Davis pressed his thumb against it, he heard a familiar click.
Stepping back, he watched as the plate swung slowly upwards, followed by
the telescoping ends of a ladder extending up from a deep shaft barely
illuminated in red light. Grasping the ladder firmly, Davis descended
through twenty feet of reinforced concrete while the door overhead swung
silently closed above him. At the bottom, he remembered to don a pair of
sunglasses before opening an unlocked door.
As usual, even with this precaution the bright lights in the enormous
room beyond nearly blinded him. But soon he could clearly see the
endless rows of floor to ceiling metal racks crammed with identical gray
boxes. Each box displayed a row of rhythmically blinking lights, and
sprouted a bundle of brightly colored wires that ran down into conduits
embedded in the floor.
The room hummed purposefully with the sound of thousands of cooling
fans, one to a box. Davis felt more than heard the other vibrations that
filled the room, generated by the pulse of the thousands of gallons of
cooling water that every minute coursed through the collectors lining
the walls of the room, absorbing the waste heat that the racks of
computer servers threw off. No heat signature would give this facility
away from above; once warm, the coolant was directed to the water intake
of a nearby power plant, happy to take the pre-heated water from
wherever it was that it came from, no questions asked.
Walking along the perimeter of the room, Davis could look down through
the open metal grid of the floor at the first of many additional tiers
of computer servers. But that always made him a little dizzy, so instead
he looked out for the guard he was relieving. No surprise – there he
was, heading Davis’s way, more than happy to call it a day. When they
met, the guard stopped to slip on the coveralls he carried over one arm.
Like the semi-automatic pistol the guard wore in a shoulder holster,
they were identical to those that Davis also wore.
“What’s the weather like?”
“Sucks. Sleet and more of the same predicted till morning.”
“Figures. Tomorrow’s my day off.”
With that, the other man was on his way. In a few minutes he would drive
off in the truck Davis had parked outside.
Well, the weather won’t be bothering me in here, Davis thought. The
room was climate controlled to within a tenth of a degree of a chilly 54
degrees Fahrenheit, and well-insulated by the bomb-proof walls and roof
installed above. It had taken two years for a fleet of delivery vans to
carry all the dirt and rock away that had been excavated from beneath
the warehouse. The same vans had returned with cement, steel, and,
eventually, those thousands of servers, accompanied by technicians to
set them up. The process had been tedious, yes, but not a single
satellite picture had ever shown a trace of the ambitious construction
project proceeding underground.
Of course, the effect worked in both directions. With no links to the
outside world other than a voice line to his supervisor, the whole
bloody world could come to an end and Davis would be none the wiser
until after his shift was over.
Davis walked up a flight of steel stairs to the bullet proof,
glass-walled security booth attached to the wall overlooking the room.
His major challenge for the next twelve hours would be to stand watch in
that booth without falling asleep. There’d be hell to pay if he did,
because another guard, in another security room far away, would be
watching him on a video screen.
The row of video displays in front of Davis allowed him to see every
inch of the outside of the warehouse complex. Racked on the wall behind
him were a high powered rifle and a shotgun, but it wasn’t likely
he’d ever need to use them. One flip of the large red switch in front
of Davis would flood the server room with enough Halon gas to not only
put out a fire, but asphyxiate any intruder careless enough to leave a
gas mask at home. Not for the first time, Davis wished that the house
where he lived with his wife and their two small children could be as
But the government didn’t put as high a priority on protecting
suburban starter homes as it did on safeguarding its most critical
computer network facilities. Some storage facilities, like those serving
the needs of the Pentagon and the National Security Administration, were
located not far away at Fort Meade. Others, like this one, were
scattered far and wide, hidden in plain sight but highly secure
nonetheless. No way was anyone going to crack this nut. Davis was dead
certain of that.
If Davis had been able to electronically monitor what was happening on
server A-VI/147 on Level Three, though, his confidence might have taken
a hit. True, concrete and steel walls, surveillance cameras and Halon
gas were more than adequate to protect the physical well being of his
facility against anything short of a direct hit by a “bunker
busting” nuclear weapon. But the data on the facility’s servers had
to rely on virtual defenses – firewalls, security routines and
And those defenses hadn’t been enough. Someone had gotten inside.
THE NEXT MORNING, a morbidly obese Corgi named Lily was sniffing a tree
on 16th Street, in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
A cold, insistent drizzle fell on her, but Lily didn’t care, because
Lily was sniffing at her favorite tree. Indeed, the meager processing
power of Lily’s brain was wholly consumed by sampling the mysterious
scents wafting up from the damp earth, for this was also the favorite
tree of every other dog in the neighborhood.
Something was nagging at the edge of her senses, though.
Excerpted from "The Alexandria Project: A Tale of Treachery and Technology" by Andrew Updegrove. Copyright © 2012 by Andrew Updegrove. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.