Volcano Online - Gabby Grant

PROLOGUE

Tuesday, 18 December 2001, 9:30 p.m. EST

(Central Virginia)

Ana Kane’s heart rose in her throat as the phantom door creaked open. She blinked twice and refocused her gaze on the computer screen. Someone had entered her virtual realm, and-according to his highly secure screen name-it was someone she knew. Only one person had access to that name and the encrypted program that enabled it top secret IntelNet access. But how was it possible that the Intelligence Community’s premier secure service provider had interfaced with her civilian computer? And who could have gotten hold of that moniker?

Impossible.

Ana shot a quick glance at her sleeping husband, less than twenty feet away. The baby lay dozing, cradled against his broad chest, her cherubic features bathed honey-orange in the nearby Christmas tree’s glow. Heavily-lidded eyes stirred silently as eight-month-old Isabel wriggled her way deeper into the cushion of her daddy’s gray and black Army sweatshirt.

Ana’s eyes returned to her monitor, her breathing picking up a notch.

Still there.

Hovering somewhere in the upper right corner of an E-mail she’d been typing sat a square box announcing someone cued to her instant message list was on line. But no such screen name existed on her personal contact list, only the Internet accessible ones- and each and every one of those belonged to a civilian friend.

Ana weighed her options then made a bold move. She hit the instant messaging icon and began typing with rapid fire strokes. “Hi, there.”

The volley was almost immediate. “hi”

Ana froze, as the silent chill whinnied down her spine. She shot another glance into the living room, before deciding. If she could engage him in dialogue, reveal something incriminating, then perhaps they’d have something to go on.

“Working late?” she asked.

Ana checked her watch against the monitor clock as two minutes ticked by.

Two going on three.

And then the response came, no punctuation, no capitals...

“always” Another thirty seconds. “and you”

Ana gripped the edges of her keyboard and studied the trail of messages.

“Still at the office?” she parried.

One minute passed to two, before elapsing slowly, slowly to five...

He was thinking.

The baby gurgled in the next room and turned her fat round face to the side. Mark raised a hand and dreamily stroked her coal black hair before spiraling back into a snore.

“Hello?” Ana typed.

A terrifying silence, his alias still hawking like a deafening lamb.

“Still there?” she persisted.

“always”

Ana jolted as Isabel’s stuffed dog crashed to the floor with a lilting call and the music box inside suddenly stirred to life.

Another minute passed.

“Who are you?”

He gave his screen name, the ultra secure Defense Department handle that belonged to Ana’s husband Mark Neal.

Ana’s pulse whipped into overdrive. Who was this imposter and how much did he know? Did she run the risk of pushing him further?

Ana decided to try one last dare.

“You are not who you say you are.”

One minute, going on two, three...

Ana checked her watch and resisted the urge to spring from her chair and race into the next room. Instead, she frantically grabbed for the mouse, scanned down the column of cross-communication and clicked “print selected text.” If nothing else, she would get a paper trail. With the way things had been going lately, if she didn’t, nobody- not even possibly Mark- would believe her.

Six minutes elapsed to seven as the printer hummed in response and began its paper feed.

Paper crunched and jammed in the feeder, halting mid-way in insertion. The printer let out a high pitch wail as Ana struggled with the bunched-up pages. Finally wringing them free, she looked up in a damp sweat to find that he had answered her accusation.

“neither are you, ana kane”

CHAPTER 1

DIPAC Division Chief Mark Neal dropped the stack of files onto the desk in front of him. “What I’m asking, Paul,” he said, inclining his long frame in at a tight angle toward the man seated on the opposite side of the desk, “is how in the hell this could have happened?!”

“I’m telling you, sir,” Paul Mastiff said, laying unsteady hands on top of the files and scooting the stack toward him so they formed an ineffective barrier between him and his contentious superior. “This couldn’t.”

Mastiff had just explained for the second time how the secure DIPAC computer system could not be accessed from the outside or vice versa due to the operations system firewall in place. There was no way the ultra secure Intelligence Community’s IntelNet, to which Mark’s top secret screen name belonged, could interface with the unclassified civilian service provider Ana had been using. IntelNet access was assigned