[CONTENT NOTE: As readers know, I typically write non-fiction. But lately I’ve found an interesting space to inhabit that bridges the real world with an imagined one. And…well, this is my first short story, ever. Many thanks to Cyber Squirrel 1 for the interview on which it is based, to Marcus for connecting us, and to My Amazing Lover™ for critical feedback and boundless encouragement. ♥]
WORLD EXCLUSIVE! Interview with Cyber Squirrel 1.
Precisely at noon, a gray van slowed to a crawl on Bedford Street before stopping abruptly at Barrow. The panel door slid open and I climbed inside. Before I could find sure footing, the vehicle sped away toward Christopher Street, knocking me first to my knees and then down on my side.
The darkness was instant and total; the air felt close and thick. I would not see daylight again until the sun rose the next morning, and by then I would have wondered at least a thousand times whether I would live to see another day. But I ain’t gonna lie to you. At that moment I was abuzz with adrenaline, euphoric even, as the van lurched forward and I contemplated the hours ahead. For this was a mission like no other: Your Humble Correspondent™ had been granted an interview with Cyber Squirrel 1, Chief Minister of Information and Propaganda of the squirrel army. And I was headed straight to the enemy command center.
If you don’t know me, my name is Iris. I’m a freelance writer, and I also run a blog called Death to Squirrels. Squirrels have always squicked me as far back as I can remember, but I could never quite put my finger on why—until, that is, I really started looking into the beasties in earnest. Turns out these little shits are responsible for all manner of evils, from infecting humans with the plague (yes that plague) to destroying our homes to stealing our beer. Squirrels have viciously attacked men, women and children, and even shut down the NASDAQ stock exchange—twice. Suicide terrorist squirrels are routinely responsible for arsons and blackouts around the globe on a nearly inconceivable scale. In fact the devastation is so severe that no rational observer could possibly conclude anything other than that the squirrels are engaged in a coordinated campaign to destroy human civilization as we know it.
But just try alerting people to the true scale of the menace, and they’ll look at you like you’re the one with the problem. “But they’re so cyoooooot,” they’ll whine, and “Iris! How could you?” I have found that there is no reasoning with these people. None. They have fallen irrevocably under the spell of the squirrels, and I’m sorry to say there is just no coming back from that. Make no mistake: these humans have become enemy agents, traitors to their own kind. Some of these assholes have even declared January 21 “Squirrel Appreciation Day.” Christ.
So naturally when I first came across CyberSquirre1.com I was positively ecstatic, as I always am to discover other comrades in arms who are woke to the squirrel threat. After all, CyberSquirre1.com is an interactive website that as of this writing had meticulously documented 785 verified (“unclassified”) successful cyber squirrel attacks on critical infrastructure in the US and around the world, and hinted at many, many more.
How naive I was, people! CyberSquirre1.com is not the project of fellow activists waking the sheeple to the coming Squirrelpocalypse; it turns out the site is run entirely by the squirrels.
That’s right: they are bragging. They are taunting us. And I needed to find out why.
No one spoke a word as the van barreled forward. I’d guess we traveled about an hour’s distance from downtown Manhattan, but whether we headed North, South, East or West I couldn’t say. In the meantime someone—or something?—very gently slid a blindfold down on my face, and then a loose fabric casing over my head. But it wasn’t until the cuffs and shackles were quickly secured with impressive proficiency that the gravity of my situation hit me: no one knew where I was, not even me. And I was utterly at the mercy of the enemy rodents.
emailed with my friend Marcus a couple times last week spent many months carefully crafting my covert identity and cultivating sources on both sides of the Squirrel War, including, I am embarrassed to say, an ill-advised affair with a high-ranking officer at US Cyber Command. I was falling for him—hard—when he abruptly and inexplicably defected to Team Squirrel. But all was not lost. I finally received the communiqué I had been waiting for, in the form of a brief missive from an unfamiliar email address:
“you wanted to talk CS1?”
It was signed only “CS1.”
Shit was getting real.
I replied to CS1 by pitching a personal interview as the basis for a general interest puff piece, something that might run in USA Today or perhaps People. Ever since CS1’s OpEd in Foreign Policy appeared back in July, laying out in the starkest terms the horrifying scope of squirrel terrorism (including seven human deaths), I suspected the squirrels were undertaking a propaganda campaign to frighten and subdue the remaining human holdouts who had so far proven impervious to their weapons-grade cuteness. Or maybe they were just fed up with getting no credit for their unparalleled worldwide terror campaign while relative slackers like ISIS grab global headlines. I mean, can you imagine being at some terrorist convention with a track record like the squirrels, and all the other terrorists are like, “Cyber who?”
Either way, my gambit worked. CS1 was eager to talk. To me. In person. This was unprecedented, in every single way. I could practically taste my first Pulitzer, people!
But now that I found myself shuffling blindly toward the distinctive sound of rotating helicopter blades, my giddy excitement promptly transformed into stone cold fear.
“Where are we?” My voice sounded so raspy I barely recognized it as my own.
“East Coast of the United States,” came the reply.
This room was very dimly lit, and though my eyes had been accustomed to darkness under the blindfold, when it was finally slipped off I could still barely see. In front of me I could make out a table with a few small items… a glass of water? Yes.
“Is this for me?”
“Yes. Please drink.” The voice came from the dark shadows in the far corner, accompanied by scratching and scuffling. And what was that? Was that… gnawing? HOLY SHIT.
“Thank you,” I said, and I drank it dry. I sensed someone hovering directly behind my chair, close enough that I might have heard breathing if not for that impossible racket emanating from the corner. Despite all the worst case scenarios now playing through my mind on a constant feedback loop, the presence behind me was strangely calming. Still, probably best not to make any sudden moves. Very slowly and deliberately, I slipped my hand into a pocket, pulled out my tiny digital recorder and set it on the table.
“Is this okay?” Oh man, I was hoping that sounded brave and confident, or at least professional. And not, you know, like I was about to crap my fucking pants.
“Yes, it’s fine.” The voice from the shadows was small, just as you would expect. But it resonated with an undeniable quiet authority.
“Okay then.” I switched it on, and cleared my throat. “What is your full name, rank and title?”
“I am Cyber Squirrel 1, Chief Minister of Information and Propaganda.”
Whoa. This was it. The real deal! I held my breath for a moment, gathered my concentration and slowly exhaled. As if a switch flipped, I launched right in.
“You operate sophisticated recruitment and training programs for other animal species to support your mission, most notably birds but also snakes, raccoons and rats. But what can you tell me about your human recruits? For example, are the cyberhawks in congress helpful in diverting attention from you by wildly exaggerating the human cyber threat?”
More scratching noises. Scuffling. Shadows moved and danced, then stilled.
“Our mission is too great to conduct on our own. Targets of opportunity constantly present themselves. To take advantage of these we utilize the services of various mercenaries whenever we can.”
I nodded. “Please continue.”
“While birds, snakes and raccoons are our most prolific subcontractors, we have also used the services of elephants, caterpillars, sharks, and even jellyfish.”
Scuffling sounds. Scratching. The shadows darted and danced again. Gnawing? Yes it was definitely gnawing, who the fuck even knows on what. Could be anything from a vital piece of someone’s house to a live snake head.
“Humans are irrelevant.”
“Excuse me? Irrelevant?”
“Their efforts neither help nor hinder our mission.”
WHAT. No no no. That could not be. Humans WERE the goddamn mission—as in, the eradication thereof from planet Earth. Either I had gotten the squirrel agenda 100% wrong, or Cyber Squirrel 1 was lying to me. Well, squirrels are indeed notorious liars. Everyone knows that.
“Okay,” I said tersely. “Let’s continue. At least since your Foreign Policy article back in July, it’s been pretty clear that you want humans to know exactly what you’ve been up to. Why?”
“Humans should realize that while a cyber attack on the electric grid may indeed be a remote possibility, cyber attacks by squirrels happen on a daily basis all over the United States and even the world.”
This was plainly true, of course. “Yes,” I said, “And you know that, and I know that, but neither the media nor the government are acknowledging the existential threat squirrels pose to critical infrastructure, much less responding effectively to it. Instead, we’ve got cyberhawks shrieking about human hackers shutting down our electrical power. What do you make of these people? Are they True Believers in a coming cybergeddon—analogous to, say, climate change deniers or Iraqi WMDers—or do they have a separate agenda?” It was an attempt, however clumsy, to steer CS1 back to the subject of humans. Irrelevant? Really?
“Both,” the Chief Minister responded. “I’m sure there are some who are rattling their cyber sabers just to get a bigger budget, or media attention, or a promotion or whatever. It is an easy topic to rant on as it is the same thing everyone else is saying and no one can really prove you wrong. And there are also true believers. They truly believe that Russia, China, Iran will completely wipe us out tomorrow via cyber attack.”
I felt a tap on the back of my neck, a firm but gentle poke, really. I had no idea what message the poker looming behind me was trying to convey, but it sure as hell made me sit up straight in that chair. Was it a warning? Did I cross a line?
CS1 wasn’t finished. “Instead of comparing to climate change or Iraqi WMD, think Cold War Nuclear Armageddon that fueled the hysteria so much that you had B2 bombers in the air 24 hours a day for years flying in circles just so you could launch a counter attack if needed. That’s the sort of true believer you’re dealing with here. And Ted Koppel is definitely near the top of that list.”
“He wrote an entire book on the subject and spoke with ZERO security people.”
And zero squirrels, I thought to myself. Hahaha joke’s on you, Ted Koppel! For a brief moment I envisioned my glorious, golden Pulitzer prize, sparkling in the sunbeams on my mantle. Assuming, that is, I would see my mantle again. Maybe the joke was on me.
The scuffling and scratching revved up again, and for the first time I caught the scent of freshly hewn wood. Memories from my childhood came wafting back to me: it was the aroma of fresh cedar chips in which I had kept my sweet pet gerbil comfortably ensconced.
But I was getting nowhere with CS1. I took another shot.
“Chief Minister, you have written, and I quote, ‘If you really want to stop the ongoing, constant attacks on the U.S. electrical grid, there’s an easy way: call Orkin.’ I checked Orkin’s site: it seems purposely designed not to offer any solutions, but instead to foment hopelessness by stressing just how monumental a task it is to control squirrels. Exclusion, eviction and habitat modification are all expensive and time consuming propositions, and they essentially require eternal vigilance. Trapping runs you right into a maze of wildlife control regulations. Strobe lights, radio noise or ultrasonic sound producers are rarely effective for long if at all, and repellents are only, quote, ‘somewhat effective.’ So I have to ask: did you mention Orkin just to taunt us?”
“We are resilient. So resilient that neither your most experienced force, Orkin, nor any other pest control company, can stop us.”
Jesus. Could anything?
“Okay,” I gulped. I needed to tread very, very carefully here. “So. You agree that our cybersecurity is woefully inadequate, but that even so, the likelihood of a truly calamitous ‘black swan’ event caused by human hackers is extremely remote. Commensurate with the threat or threats, what would it actually take, in your view, to better protect US infrastructure from human cyberattacks?”
It was a Hail Mary for sure, unlikely to get me anywhere. In my long and illustrious career, I have found that asking even the most recalcitrant interview subject for an expert opinion will, on rare occasions, unleash a torrent of unguarded exhortation. It’s almost as if the opportunity to have a rapt audience intensely listening to every word is so seductive, it overrides every other consideration. But it was especially unlikely to happen in this situation. Not with a slick operator like CS1.
“Protecting yourselves from human cyberattack is relatively easy. Start with basic security hygiene. Start with a proper inventory of devices on the network.”
You could have knocked me off that chair with a feather. CS1 was gushing like a geyser!
“Move on to things like proper segmentation of networks, like separating the billing systems from the usage systems from the generating systems. Move on to keeping up with vulnerability patches. A lot of focus is put on SCADA and ICS systems that are one of kind and have a life span of 10 or 20 years with built in security issues but no way to update them. While this is a serious problem there are technologies than can be deployed to isolate these systems and greatly reduce the risk.”
Behold: mah mad jernalizm skillz!
Uh-oh. It was at that moment I suddenly realized I literally had no fucking idea what CS1 was talking about. Not the slightest clue. It turns out I had been so busy working on infiltrating the squirrel command network (and fooling around with Officer McTraitorpants) I had completely forgotten to do any basic research to prepare myself for this very moment!
I nodded quickly and sagely, as if to validate whatever the fuck it was CS1 just said. I had to think quickly. “And what about protecting ourselves from…wildlife threats?”
The clamor of scratching and scuffling rose to a crescendo, then stopped. “Protecting yourselves from cybersquirrel attack is another matter. We most often run up against devices known as ‘squirrel guards’ installed by power companies around likely targets. While you may occasionally install these deterrents on power lines, we have found ways of easily defeating them. We have methods of bypassing nearly all of them.”
The minister was getting impatient. The interview was swiftly coming to an end, and I still had no idea what the squirrels were really after. If it wasn’t the destruction of human civilization, then what were we to them? Collateral damage? “Irrelevant.”
Fuck it. It was time for a parting shot. “Well, thank you for your time, Chief Minister. As you know, many squirrel species are protected wildlife—major kudos on pulling that one off, by the way—but many can be hunted, sometimes with no bag limit. So, you know, be careful out there.”
“We are forever vigilant.” I thought I detected snickering—do squirrels snicker?
As I rose to my feet there came a shout from the shadows, no doubt as loud and strong as CS1 could muster, “Cyberwar forever!” Then the scuffling faded off into the walls, the shadows stilled.
I picked up the recorder and switched it off. The blindfold was slipped over my eyes, the casing pulled down over my head. I just stood there, numb and confused in the darkness, as shackles were locked onto my ankles and my hands secured in cold cuffs. What had me puzzled was that little “Cyberwar forever!” zinger. CS1 had been cool and calculating during the interview; why wind it up by shouting some silly slogan at me? True, I had only encountered the minister for a very short time, but it seemed so out of character. It struck me more like a sudden burst of religious fervor than a serious conversation… WAIT A MINUTE.
What if, along with their newly evolved speaking abilities, the squirrels had also found religion? The cyberattacks, the martyrdom, the wanton destruction, the unnecessary sickness and suffering and death among the squirrels and humans alike—what if all of it were exactly as senseless as any human religious act?
Well, one thing would be certain: the Squirrel War would continue unabated, but it would have nothing to do with us. We would be…irrelevant. The squirrels would gnaw in vain to appease their squirrel gods, and in return they would be met with only silence, just as we all were. And yet they would persist. #Cyberwar4ever, indeed.
The helicopter set down smoothly and I was escorted to a waiting vehicle. Still shackled, I felt myself suddenly swept up into strong arms, and lifted inside. The strong arms guided me to a seat, then strapped me in with the click of a seat belt. With one exceptionally deft motion my blindfold and casing were slipped off. And there I sat, face to face with Officer Double-Crosser.
“You sonofabitch!” I screamed, bucking wildly against my restraints. He said nothing, just let me thrash there until the inevitable recognition of futility set in. I slumped back in my seat, defeated.
“Sonofabitch?” he snorted. “Huh. And here I thought I was a ‘treasonous snake.’ I believe that was the last thing you called me.”
“Yeah, well, squirrels eat snakes. Just remember that,” I snapped back.
“Iris, just hear me out. I can’t tell you everything, but I am not working for the squirrels. I came here for you. You were part of my mission.”
The gears spun in my head as I desperately searched his face. Those eyes, I swear I would drown in them, and quite willingly, if I wasn’t careful. He looked back at me, and it all clicked into place. And now I was even more pissed off than before.
“You used me,” I snarled in his general direction.
“You hardly seemed to mind.” Aw, Jesus. My blood ran hot at unbidden thoughts of this man ravaging my body, but of course I could never let him know it. I squinted my eyes and glowered at him, desperately hoping that flushing with fevered lust would somehow pass for raw anger.
“Okay, that wasn’t fair,” he sighed. “But you had no qualms about using me to get to the squirrels, either. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
Well he had me, there. I sat sulking, still angry, as I had every goddamn right to be. But something didn’t quite fit. Getting me into Cyber Squirrel Command was one thing: he needed a journalist for cover. But getting me out alive was quite another matter, if it were ever part of his mission at all. To US Cyber Command, I was expendable the moment they got whatever they came for. Hell, I’m not even a threat to them. Sadly enough, I couldn’t hack my way out of a paper bag. With a dead squirrel claw.
“Yeah,” I admitted. “The interview was what I wanted. Except…then it wasn’t. Not really. I wanted you, Officer.”
Boom. There it was. I said it.
WAIT WHAT THE FUCK DID I JUST SAY?!
Oh, but the officer knew. He knew. He touched my lips, stroked my cheek gingerly, ran his fingers through my hair. “I needed you, to get us in,” he said flatly. “But I had to get you out. That part…well that was not officially part of the mission.”
Hot tears streamed down my face. I could not stop them. And then I was laughing like a loon. I could not stop that either. It was infectious: the officer was laughing too.
“What’s general? What the squirrels are after? General destruction of… of… everything? Is that it?”
He shook his head and chuckled. “No. I got promoted to General. At US Cyber Command.”
“I see. Very nice. But just so you know, I still don’t take orders from you.”
“No? How about if I leave those cuffs on?”
“In that case maybe we can work something out. Sir.”
Iris Vander Pluym is a New York City-based freelance writer, and fervent anti-squirrel activist.
Cyber Squirrel 1 has been in the information security industry for over 25 years. Yes, that is longer than most people have had access to the Internet.