The first time that I met her was in the conference room on the top floor of the Septagon. Well, top floor sounds a bit misleading when you work in a secret bunker somewhere deep underground below Silicon Valley, California. Even those of us who work down there have no idea exactly where it is. Not only are the coordinates classified, it also takes a hyperloop vacuum tube ride through a labyrinth of underground tunnels to get to the Septagon, from any of some 35 hidden ground level entrances equipped with retinal and fingerprint scanners. The entire subterranean system was designed and built by free-thinking construction robots and 3D printers that were immediately wiped of all data and decommissioned for scrap as part of the grand opening ceremony for the building in 2024. I’ve read several credible Russian spy-hunter blogs on the Dark Web who somehow conjectured we work directly under the seventh hole of Shoreline Golf Links. I don’t know, comrades, your guess is as good as mine; try digging around that seventh hole putting green and if someone blows your head off, there’s a good chance you’re right.
Uncle Sam seems to be into the number seven these days. Seventh hole. The Septagon, for a bunker with seven walls. Only seven living people at any time know exactly where the United States Cyber Force (USCF) Headquarters is, and the executive suites are on the top floor, which is- you guessed it- the seventh floor. Maybe that’s because Uncle Sam’s luck had been running real low.
The USCF (pronounced “uskeff” for those in the know) was formed after several crippling cyberspace debacles for America that helped level the playing field of asymmetrical warfare, including China’s cyber theft of every single U.S. conventional weapons system by 2014, including detailed plans for the F-35 joint strike fighter jet (since discontinued), Russia’s successful hack of the U.S. Democratic Party during the heavily compromised 2016 presidential election cycle, the time a still-unidentified group blew up the international space station in 2019 through an elaborate climate control systems hacking operation, and the time Al Qaeda brought down the entire Internet for two agonizing days in 2021. This of course wrought more havoc on the United States and the world than any day since 9/11. I was in college at the time. It was terrifying to be amongst 7,000 college students with useless smartphones and smartwatches and zero idea how to function in real life without a working Internet. Those were dark days.
Naturally it took two years of bureaucratic nut flexing, study groups, investigations, commissions, and Congressional committee hearings to figure out that the United States needed a new military branch, a Cyber Force on par with the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard to have some capability to defend from and retaliate against folks in the cyber arena threat matrix. It took another year to decide to place its headquarters somewhere in the sub-vicinity of Silicon Valley, which to me was always a no-brainer as I followed along the debates in the news in high school and college. Why in hell would you put it anywhere else?
In a predictable sequence of events and affairs, the USCF had steadily gained in stature, to the point where it was considered the most prestigious and critical of all of the branches of the military- and also most secretive, and least understood by an American public that mostly didn’t even know what HTML was. That’s why I decided to enlist, along with thousands of other intelligent patriots. It’s why the USCF commander was considered the most important military leader of our time. Rumor has it that during a heated argument at the White House in the presence of the President, USCF General Nirupama “Nero” Patel was being dressed down by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff over something. Within minutes, irate as hell, she had orchestrated the power-down of every single US Army tank in every single corner of the globe simply by typing orders into her USCF smartphone while sitting there getting yelled at, and wouldn’t power the tanks back up until she received a satisfactorily profuse apology. I can neither confirm nor deny that I was involved in that friendly little US Army tail-pulling exercise.
Now back to the original subject. I was summoned to the fancy oak-paneled conference room with huge computer screens that spring day in 2025, having no idea what was in store. Here I was, an Indian-American, a fresh-faced Cyber Force geek recruit straight out of boot camp, 24 years old, 33 days on the job, attending my first 7th floor meeting. These usually only include the honchos unless something major was going down. Two seats away from me was a very pretty Indian girl, with long jet black hair tied into a tight ponytail, a form fitting gray suit, and that caramel tone I tend to like on my candy and on my women. The seat between us was empty. I stared at the ceiling, concentrated on keeping my heart rate down, and bravely pretended not to notice her as we all waited for the emergency meeting to start.
“Hi, I’m Manisha,” she said with a sultry Indian accent. I looked over. She was looking right at me with her hand extended in my direction. Stay calm, dude. Compute?
“I’m Bart,” I replied, taking her hand. Man, it was a strong grip. What was this pretty young foreign national thing doing so deep in the Septagon?
“You’re… Indian, no?” she asked after a pause, doing that Indian head shake thing where you can’t tell if it’s a yes or a no, approving or disapproving. A no with Indians can be a yes, as in, she could be saying, “You’re Indian, right?”
“Right, I’m Indian-American. Real name my parents gave me is Bharat,” I stammered, guessing that the name Bart threw her off. Either that or she was wondering if I was named after Bay Area Rapid Transit.
“Nice to meet you. I’m representing India on the new inter-agency task force.” Wait, there’s a new task force? And this Indian chick knows about it before I do?
The USCF General walked in the door, and everybody shut up and stood. There were about 30 people in the room, including the General, two Lieutenant Generals, and the rest of the brass, along with a few drones like me. General Patel began to speak.
“I’d like to welcome Manisha Gayatri from India here today,” she began. “Manisha is on special assignment with us. She was hired by the Indian Cyber Army after graduating first in her class from the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai, and top scored her Indian Cyber Army training class as well.” Whoa. Pretty impressive resume to go with those looks. IIT and the Indian ICA are both considered top-notch globally these days. I was nowhere near the top of my own USCF class (insert sheepish face emoticon here) or my Georgetown class. Too busy socializing with the other recruits, while playing and designing video games. Perhaps shockingly to you, designing video games is a hobby of mine.
General Patel continued. “As you know, the Russia-China alliance was able to successfully shut down an entire US Navy carrier group on patrol in the Indian Ocean last week, and the Indian Navy stepped in and helped us keep the carrier group secure during this episode while we got back up and running.” There were some snickers in the room. Ah, the Navy. The seamen let a carrier group go dark over basic sixth-grade malicious code. Should have had a few of us USCF boys on board. The U.S. government tried hard to keep the situation under wraps from the public, but some excitable Sri Lankan fishermen in the area started a ginormous global Twitter storm with photos of six powerful US warships and a nuclear submarine just drifting around in the water like sitting ducks without even their lights working.
“I just got off video conference with the President and the Defense Secretary. As you know, President Gabbard considers this an act of cyberwar and wants us to retaliate, exceedingly quietly and with extreme prejudice. There will be zero public mention of a retaliation, or even acknowledgement of the Navy incident. The Indian government was pretty pissed that this happened in their own backyard as well, and so have offered their utmost assistance. I am here to brief you on the mission, which will entail a secret joint US-India offensive operation to hack into and disrupt all Chinese military base activities on the islands in the South China Sea, over a long time horizon.” The room seemed to let out a collective gasp. I nearly choked on my latte and almost fell out of my seat. But Manisha sat there, perfectly calm with a self-satisfied smile on her face. She already knew. Before most of us. Including me. “Agent Manisha Gayatri will be leading the Indian side of the task force,” General Patel continued amongst the murmurs, “and Officer Bart Joshi will be running point for the US side.” At that point, I did really choke on my latte. And BJ never chokes.
Manisha slapped me on the back patronizingly while I coughed. “Time to put your big-boy pyjamas on,” she said sweetly. Leave it to the Indians to screw up how to say pajamas. OH, and how in the world was I chosen to co-captain one of the most important military missions that the USCF had ever taken on in its brief yet important history?
* * *
Talk about a tall order. Or: how my life was practically guaranteed to be a failure from between the next few years to the rest of my life, assuming I even survived this perilous mission. The artificial islands in the South China Sea had turned into a beastly network of real and virtual fortresses. Close to 10,000 Chinese troops and an unknown quantity of cyborgs were stationed on them in a series of naval and air force bases. These assets had been under construction basically since I was born in 2001 in order to deter China’s neighbors like Vietnam or the Philippines from making competing claims on the rich resources of the South China Sea. Russia had a bunch of troops, cyborgs, ships, aircraft, tanks, and drones based there too, and the whole thing was wrapped in a tight cybersecurity net manned by several hundred bad hombres. While neither China or Russia was officially an enemy state, their 2023 formal military alliance had been seen as an act of hostility by the United States, and set the stage for the US-India treaty alliance of 2024, the same year the USCF was formed. And just like that, there was a new bipolar world between the two axes of power forged just before the US carrier group was hacked into and shut down- the first major “hot” incident of the new 21st century Cold War. While the Indian Cyber Army (ICA) and USCF had an active personnel exchange program going, I hadn’t yet had a chance to work with one of my subcontinental cousins on anything. Manisha was to be the first. Fate and all of that.
It’s probably pretty obvious already, but I instantly developed a sort of thing for Manisha in that seventh floor conference room. Right off the bat, I always loved the Indian accent. It reminded me of Bollywood, my dear grandparents who immigrated to this country, and chicken biryani. Or a good day, during which I watched Bollywood on TV with my grandparents while eating chicken biryani as a kid in Fresno. Totally unfair to use that accent on me, right?
Of course, I had to play it cool. I had to prove to her that Indian-Americans were cool. Plus, national security and the new world order and stuff were at stake, so I couldn’t be focused on playing tongue hockey with my co-captain. It would be too big a distraction. We had an example to set for the interagency task force, which was to include over 300 full time cyber-warriors from both countries.
Apparently I had been chosen for this leadership role based on a sophisticated analysis of my keystrokes on the job. A UCSF computer program called Keystroke Analysis & Integrated Fusion (KAIF) took every single thing I had ever done on any device at work, including the speed at which I wrote emails, wrote code, hacked through systems, scrolled through reading materials, called, video conferenced, messaged or emailed other people, and even the pauses between activities, to determine my aptitude to lead and to take on a cyber mission versus everyone else. Creepy, right? I’d be more comfortable knowing that I was just being chosen as a patsy for an impossible mission that needed a fall guy. Which is what it still felt like this was, not KAIF.
We weren’t just all geeks all the time, though. In USCF basic training we had to do the physical stuff too, like running, swimming, obstacle courses, wilderness survival, making beds, and firearms training just like the other branches of the military. The difference being, we had by far the lowest physical requirements, and by far the most difficult IT skills testing. We came to be known throughout the services as Geeks with Guns.
Manisha asked to join me for lunch that first day, a get to know you sort of thing, and I obliged. The Septagon cafeteria wasn’t half bad, featuring a team of Indian chefs making authentic subcontinental chow in real tandoor ovens for the some 25% of the USCF headquarters staff of Indian origin, and whoever else. These guys spent the days pounding Johnnie Walker Black Label in the kitchen and making killer food. Don’t ask me how they get their security clearance, or avoid burning the naan.
“So you grew up in California?” she asked me as we munched on some bhel puri.
“Right. Fresno. Pretty standard upbringing. Gamer. Hacker. Tennis player. Went to Georgetown for college. Enlisted in USCF pretty soon after.”
“Similar to me. ICA recruited me out of IIT with a bunch of my classmates,” she said. “I won’t tell you my age, but I’m a bit older than you are.” Nice. I liked older women.
“How’d they pick you for this mission?”
“They put a few of us on a plane to the United States with very little notice, and said we’d be briefed when we got there. I spent some time at the Pentagon, Indian Embassy, doing a bunch of Washington meetings. Some other members of my team stayed on in Washington to do some other things.” Wait. What was that? Was she? Yes, champ, that WAS her foot rubbing up on my leg.
“Co-captains…can’t focus tongue hockey…on 300 cyber warriors,” I stammered.
“Want to get a beer with me after work tonight?”
* * *