Like a Hole in the Head
rating: +11+x

Cybersecurity, Human Error, PTSD and Swiss Cheese.

Defense-in-depth is a crucial concept in cybersecurity. In essence, you never want to protect your data with a single safeguard, because any given safeguard can fail. You don't want to just run an antivirus. You want the antivirus in case the protection on your browser doesn't notice that a virus is trying to look like a regular file. You want good security settings on your browser that prevent most malware from even getting there in the first place. You should probably be using a proxy or a VPN when you're downloading vintage German torture porn, so that it looks like it's some yokel in Topeka downloading it, not a fine upstanding citizen like you.

Think about defense-in-depth like slices of Swiss cheese. Any given slice is going to have some holes in it. But when you start stacking slices and turning them ninety degrees, it's much harder for something to get through all of the holes. Your sweet onion sauce stays between the cheese and the meat, instead of leaking out and making your bread all gooey too soon. Fuck, I'm hungry. You see how we got here?

Anyway, defense-in-depth is important for the internet. But it's really just a more specific version of what we do in the real world. We're always trusting people to do their jobs, even when we don't think about it. You trust the people who built the road you drive on, and the car you're using to drive it. You trust the people who bottled your milk, the cow it came from, and the guy with an unhealthy enthusiasm for milking it. This trust, this belief that things work a certain way, even extends past people. You trust the seasons to change somewhat regularly, but not so regularly you can't complain about wearing long pants in fucking August. You trust cats to meow and not bark. You trust gravity. I mean, I'm assuming you do, since you're not chunky Mexican salsa at the bottom of a cliff.

Sorry, I keep going back to food.

Anyway, the point is, you trust all of that. But the reason defense-in-depth is important is that you can't trust any one thing. It's all going to fail at some point, you just want it to be less likely for everything to fail at the same time. But no matter how many slices of Swiss cheese you're using, at some point, you might accidentally line up all the holes, and something might slip through the cracks. When it comes to computers, there's always going to be an element of human error: Somebody has a late night alone at the office and decides they need to download a copy of Schlockenglockenspiel Sleutzenbergers 7 to take the edge off, and they can only find a low-res rip of the VHS on a website covered in ads saying Click Here! This is the LinkedIn of Cunnilingus! All the precautions in the world can get undone by one stupid, horny asshole who wants to jack off in his cubicle after hours. And whoops, there it is, on a professional workstation in what should be the most secure network in the world.

Something that shouldn't be there.

Derek Kato, civilian, uncapped a third stout with his lighter, tossed another log on the fire, and sniffed the numb feeling out of his nose. It was a little cold, by Hawaii standards at least, but he couldn't quite be fucked to get up and get a real jacket, and he didn't feel too much in his arms these days anyway. Instead, the denim vest with a bunch of patches stapled on and decade-old paint stains from the odd jobs he'd done back in college was keeping him warm enough. Fuck it.

He tapped his phone again, the Bluetooth speaker on the seat across from him, on the other side of the fire started jauntily strumming an acoustic guitar. "I got my toes in the water, ass in the sand, not a worry in the world, a cold beer in my hand—Life is good today."

Derek swung his beer bottle up vertically and held it there for a long second, swallowing hard. One out of five wasn't bad, right?

"Jesus Christ, you actually listen to this bro country shit?" Said a voice from his yard's side gate. He'd heard the crunching on his gravel, but it didn't have the frantic feel of some ice-head trying to steal his stereo. Most people didn't even make it this far off the road, or this far from Hilo, especially not this far from Pahoa.

"They played it all the goddamn time in the MWR-" he pronounced the acronym out loud, like 'mwar', unpleasantly enough, "-on deployment. Spend a year listening to something and it grows on you."

"Like a fungus," said Jeremy, sitting down next to him. The plastic lawn chair pitched unpleasantly underneath him and he lifted it up, bending the warped leg as straight as he could and sitting unsteadily. "Beer me. No way I'm listening to this sober." There was a moment of silence once the caps came off the bottles, and they clinked them together and took a drink. Jeremy brought his back down and took a second sip before Derek had finished his first pull. "Not bad, man. Is this what you do these days? Decent beer, shitty country music?"

"Hey, this is a top tier middle-shelf beer," Derek replied, mock-defensive. "But more or less."

"You been looking for work?"

"Can't say I have," he said, polishing off his beer and leaving the last one in the six-pack up for grabs. "I get forty percent. That and the GI bill, I'm good to go for a couple years. Figure I'll pick up another degree, maybe AJ."

"Officers get the GI bill?" Jeremy asked incredulously. He zipped down his fleece, the log on the fire was catching pretty well, and his well-padded frame was making him a little extra warm. Keeping the jacket on hid the bay window of his straining buttons, but it was overkill for Hawaii.

"Hey, I worked for a living until I got my bachelor's." He shrugged. "It's good to see you man, but you showed up for a reason. Are you trying to get me to join the dark side?"

"I'm not even a contractor anymore," Jeremy said, smiling. "I have a kind of weird job right now. It's pretty much like DoD civilian work, but on paper you're more, uh, DoD-adjacent. Money's good. They like hiring prior service."

"I don't know if I want to do government work at all," Derek said, sniffing, leaning forward, elbows on his knees, rubbing his arms with shaky hands. "That last one fucked me up pretty bad."

"It's not like being back in, man," he said back, taking another sip of the beer. "You're not in uniform. They treat you like people."

"I don't feel like people either," he said, peeking up from his bent-over position. He wasn't a bad-looking guy, but he was tired, and the harsh light from the fire wasn't doing him any favors. His brown skin was pockmarked with old shaving scars from ingrown hairs, and his eyes had deep-etched bags. He wasn't as fit as he had been a couple years ago, and there was a layer of softness over faded muscle. His hair was buzzed short, but he'd done it himself, leaving awkward, quarter-inch patches that stood out against the bald.

"Getting a job might be a good cure," Jeremy said, giving him another shrug. "Something to fill up the time."

"That's the thing, man," he said. "I like filling up my time with nothing, 'cause you know what the weird thing is? I can remember it, even when it's fuck all. I don't remember shit from that last deployment."

"Huh," Jeremy said, finishing his beer. "That sounds pretty rough. The uh, the medical, where I work, it's pretty good. Better than the VA. They keep shrinks on staff."

"You're sounding kind of like the VA. Used to be every other time I'd call—let's put you in touch with a recruiter, Captain Kato, go back in, that'll fix all your problems." He sniffed again, rubbing his nose. "What sort of work needs shrinks on call anyway?"

"If I told you, I'd have to kill you." Jeremy said, grabbing and uncapping the last beer, taking a pull on it and then handing it over.

"I'm not the only one who got soft. I'm pretty sure I'd still fold you," said Derek. "Devil dog."

"Please. You'd be bleeding Air Force Blue in thirty seconds." They shared the little dangerous grin of junior enlisted with the stink of high school still on their breath, daring each other to try it. But they weren't twenty-two and fucking around unsupervised in Waikiki anymore. They were older, now, old enough they'd still feel an Indian burn tomorrow. "Seriously though, I know I don't keep in touch for shit, but I've been worried about you, bud. Just get me a resume."

"Yeah, okay," Derek said, halfheartedly. He drank a third of the beer in one go, exhaling sharply and staring into the fire, wordlessly handing it back. "I need government work like a hole in the head."

Trust is a virtue, but it doesn't always succeed.

Half a world away, some guy was sitting down at a desk with a sandwich. He was hungry, and he trusted his keyboard to keep working against the mounting fuckpile of crumbs between the keys. He trusted that sweet onion sauce not to leak through the layers of his sandwich and drip onto the Oakleys tucked into the collar of his polo shirt when he took a sloppy, distracted bite of his lunch. He trusted his instincts telling him to reach blindly for a napkin, and bashed his knee into the desk. Then he fell over and scattered some papers and made a really embarrassing set of noises and curse words.

So this lovable, relatable guy made a mistake. That's on him. Other people trusted this guy, too, to look over every last note in every file on his desk. To do reliable data entry, cover everybody's ass. They trusted him to catch any mistakes anyone had made, to raise the red flags in a personnel file, to double-check those flags against a big database full of all the red flags in the world. They trusted him to then stamp a big digital 'NOPE' on someone with a flag that was too big or too red. His coworkers trusted him to do his job right and not accidentally mash the wrong, sticky key on Derek Kato's background profile while he was falling on his ass. They trusted him, because he should have noticed that while the nature of the incident itself was on a need-to-know basis, Derek Kato had been previously amnesticized, and thus should have been barred from holding a position within the Foundation.

He trusted his coworkers to be adults and not to make a big deal out of his embarrassing working lunch, but pretty soon the whole office started calling him "Sweet Onion." It's not like it offended him or something, it's just that he figured they weren't in fucking high school anymore, and that cutesy little nicknames weren't becoming of professional people. Of course, nobody listened to him, because nobody ever did, so I mean, you could hardly blame him for missing a single file, right? Or for some unsubstantiated after-hours video downloads?

Besides, at least three people should have had eyes on that folder before he did. The Foundation is just a big fucking stack of Swiss cheese, same as anything else. Derek Kato was the sweet onion sauce slipping through a perfect, coincidental stack of holes. Defense-in-depth had failed, and Derek Kato would go on to become a cautionary tale for exactly why those safeguards were so important.

Derek Kato, civilian, dusted off his old service dress clip-on tie, put it in place, and glanced down to the paper copy of his resume. He sniffed, his face twisting as he looked himself over in the mirror, and then brought one hand up, placing his index finger against his temple and pretending to fire. Like a hole in the head.

Too many beers. He'd ended up agreeing to it, and two days was all it took to get an interview. Somebody actually flew out from the mainland somewhere to give him a face-to-face. Jeremy was an alright guy and an old friend but the whole situation was giving him the heebie-jeebies already. Then again, he hadn't really been doing anything since he got out. He glanced at the mess of his desk, empty plastic water bottles in an untidy row next to a mounting pyramid of beer caps. Underneath the caps, VA forms he'd never bothered to mail.

His mouth twisted further, and he grabbed his keys. Getting out of the house would be good for him, if nothing else.

Twenty minutes later, Derek's pick-up truck rumbled past the shitty little strip-mall. He eyed the Subway, the pizza place that was too familiar with him, and lighted on the one spot that kept rotating out. Now it looked like some burger joint. They'd never make it more than a couple months. Beefbelly Bill's? It didn't ring a bell, but it had the plastic, factory-cut sheen of a franchise. He knew the pattern: open up a shop in Hilo, everybody goes apeshit for it, try to expand out to Pahoa or Honoka'a, then in six months when everybody in town goes back to McDonald's, you've stretched your money too thin and your dreams of being an entrepreneur are over.

His phone lit up in the passenger seat, fading in the sound of a slack-key guitar ringtone and he exhaled heavily through his nose. He glanced around. There were a few cars on the road, so he pulled into the parking lot outside the strip. Hawaii cops didn't have to identify their vehicles at all, and he'd had enough beer last night he might still fail a breathalyzer. He fumbled, trying to catch the phone before it stopped and bouncing one of his wheels off the curb. An old aunty shot him a withering look from the patio table at the Subway.

"Hey—Hello, sorry, Derek speaking," he said into the phone, killing his groaning engine.

"This is mister Derek Kato, correct?" The voice was feminine, but with the flat, clipped, vaguely disappointed tone of a second-grade teacher. Or an officer gunning for promotion and trying not to come off as a 'bitch' for speaking like the men did.

"That's me," he said, while trying to look apologetic and guilty to the aunty. She just glared one more time, shaking her head and muttering to herself.

"Hello! My apologies, this is your interviewer. I've had some difficulty getting my rental car, but I'll be there shortly," said the lady on the phone. "I hope this doesn't give you an unsteady feeling, I just don't usually operate in the area."

"No worries," said Derek. "Island time can come at you fast when you get here."

"It's beautiful. It seems like a good place to retire," came the reply. "I'll make this up to you. Jeremy recommended a place near you—Hillbilly Bob's? If you haven't already driven all the way up. My treat."

"Beefbelly Bill's? Sure," said Derek. He was squinting at the place. Something was bothering him. It wasn't just the residual aunty-guilt. "I'll be there."

"Thank you for your understanding." There was something more, but the line went dead. He was intimately familiar with the deadzone she'd just hit on the highway. He let out a breath and opened the door, letting in a touch of trade-wind to cool himself down. Wearing a dress shirt was making him itchy. He stood out like a sore thumb wearing this, but an aloha shirt would have been the wrong vibe for an interview with someone from the mainland. The aunty's eyes were still following him. Judging. He stepped out, reached in for his little folder and looked at the place. He needed to pee.

The inside of Beefbelly Bill's was sterile. It had a unique smell, like all fast food joints, born of their particular combination of meat burps and economy-scale cleaning fluid. There were only three or four people sitting inside, and another two behind the counter. "Hey, howzit, I need fo'—" he started, and met the eyes of a gangly white college kid. He code-switched immediately. "Good morning. Could I get the key to the restroom?"

"Hi, welcome to Beefbelly Bill's! I'm terribly sorry sir, but I can't give out the key without a purchase," said the kid. He wasn't the bored fast food employee. He was the annoyingly chipper, upbeat one, trying too hard on his first job. "Could I interest you in our BLT burger?"

"No thank you," said Derek. He winced, shifting his weight. Buying food in advance would look like a snub to the interviewer, but he'd have to deal with the judgey Aunty if he went to the Subway and the pizza place wasn't open yet. God, he had really forgotten how to deal with being in public. "I'm going to buy something in a little bit, could I get the key to the restroom first?"

"I'm so sorry sir! Here at Beefbelly Bill's, customer service is our number one priority, but we do have strict guidelines," reeled off the kid. He would do great in the military right up until he hit E-4 and the job had beat the smile out of him. A hand landed on the cashier's shoulder, the other person behind the counter. Another white college kid, a blonde chick.

"Actually sir, we have a special this week due to our grand opening!" Said the girl. She was exactly as chipper. It was killing Derek inside. "We can offer you a free burger with your choice of drink!"

"Could I get the restroom key then?"

"Absolutely sir!" Said the boy, nodding to the girl, who turned around, waiting expectantly at the soda machine. "What could we offer you to drink today?"

"Uh, Coke," Derek said. God, they were like the twins in a horror movie. "And that key?"

"Certainly, sir!" The cashier handed it over. They really were new. They hadn't zip-tied the key to a rusty spatula yet. "We'll have your meal ready for you when you get back."

"Thanks," grunted Kato, taking it. His eyes slid over the people at the tables as he turned, and walked with a sense of purpose. He sniffed. Something was bothering him about the smell. It was masking something familiar. But he had more pressing matters to attend to. The bathroom felt like a strange breath of fresh air. Same gross pink urinal cake, same scratched-in graffiti on the tiles, same faucet that turned on a slow trickle of water, then exploded like a firehose if you turned it a fraction of an inch farther. He looked into the mirror. None of this should be making him this nervous. He was losing it. He shook his head, splashed his face, and went back. One of the twins obligingly held the door open, then gestured at a single table, the little red tray with a burger and coke already waiting for him.

Derek sat, checked his phone, looked around the room. He grabbed the tray and scooted down a few seats so he was tucked in the corner, and he could watch the door. He was hungry, but hangover-hungry where he couldn't decide if he should eat or throw up. He unwrapped the burger, slowly. He sniffed again. There was still something, under the fast food smell. He lifted the burger slightly, and inhaled one more time.

There was an odor of burning, and a distant scream. His ears were ringing, with the tinnitus that would still be following him a decade later. One of his fingernails was pulling up at the root, but he was dragging something heavy anyway. His fingertips felt the familiar texture of summer-weight ABUs, bunched up in his fists and slick with blood. In a flash, it was gone.

His brain kicked into overdrive from a sudden rush of adrenaline. This was wrong. He didn't recognize anyone—three hundred people lived here, tops. Most of them had been here since he was five. Even spending months out on his property, ordering pizza and buying in bulk from the liquor store, there was no way everybody he would recognize in town had evaporated all at once. The guys at the tables, they were well built, and they looked local. But they weren't. Their t-shirts and board shorts were fresh-pressed and too shiny, too stiff, like they'd been ripped off the rack at an ABC store on Oahu an hour ago. He glanced out the window. Aside from his truck, there was only an SUV in the parking lot, and it was plain, black and expensive. But it didn't have the telltale sign of someone thinking they could afford an actual new car here. There was a blank space where the obligatory "Ainokea" sticker should have been.

He swallowed and glanced to the counter. He licked his lips very slightly. One of the twins was fully staring at him, with a pleasant expression. There were no burners or friers running in the back. The area behind the counter was so quiet he could hear his ringing ears. Derek stood, grabbed his tray, and took two steps to the next table, leaning down slightly. "Hey braddah," he said to one of the guys, who was balling up his burger wrapper. "Weah you wen' get your zoris?"

"Sorry?" The guy was trying too hard to act like he had an accent.

"Your slippuhs?" Derek pointed down with the hand holding his folder, at the man's flip-flops. "Weah you get 'um?"

"Oh, uh, I went get 'em at Long's," said the guy. The inflection was wrong. So was the rhythm. The consonants were too hard. "Cheap too. Manini kind price." Awkward choice of words. Shouldn't have had a hard noise on the end of 'kind.'

"Shoots," said Derek.

"Yeah, shoots bruh," said the guy. He said bruh like a Californian, not brah like a local. That was enough proof for Derek. This wasn't his imagination getting the better of him. He walked to the door, tipping the entire tray into the trashcan, sweating plastic cup and all. His eyes glanced automatically from side to side, then back over his shoulder. The twins were both watching him. Their faces were still serene. But now there was a big guy, bald, handlebar mustache, watching him and looking slightly annoyed. A vein was pulsing in the big guy's temple, enough that he could see it from all the way across the store.

Derek instinctively knew that had to be the Beefbelly Bill. He was built like a linebacker.

Derek's truck was ten feet away, and it had a machete in the passenger door, if Bill was going to follow him out. He didn't look back this time, just threw open his truck, stepped up and tossed his portfolio to the next seat, reached out with one hand to find his machete.

"Your instincts are good," said the woman calmly sitting in his passenger seat. Derek's hand stopped short. She'd cranked down the window and exhaled cigarette smoke out of it. "Healthy amounts of paranoia. Untrained, though. You were a pilot—you don't have actual combat experience." She flicked the stub out of the window. "No offense. No PA or intel experience either. You made a scene. Fortunately, those guys are on your side."

"You going get the fuck outta my truck, tita," said Derek. He was shaking slightly, his heart was hammering. But his feet were planted and his voice was strong, it slipped into the baritone, barfight level of his enlisted days. The woman didn't flinch, just took the folder he'd thrown into her lap and turned it over, flipped it open.

"You were raised in a small town by a single mother who went to church every Sunday," she mused, tracing a finger down his resume. "Episcopalian, so you only have half of the Catholic guilt. Even so, you're not going to hit a woman. You're also in military mode, but compensating by doubling down on your Pidgin as a comfort tactic. You have an inherent fear of what kind of ruckus a 'haole wahine' could raise." Her pronunciation was terrible, and she made lazy airquotes with one hand before reaching for a second cigarette behind her ear. "HPD, and your cousin Kalei, would actually take your side against a white female tourist as long as you didn't hit me in the face or break any bones. But right now, you're thinking of nineteen-year old military police from the deep south who would love to have an excuse." She flipped to the next page. "Get in and start your engine. My lighter died."

"Your men-in-black bullshit is stale. Get out." Said Derek. He walked to the other side of the truck and threw the door open. The empty sheathe of his machete fell to the ground, and he realized the blade was tucked into the crack between the passenger seat and the center console, within her easy reach, but out of his. She didn't move for it at all. She was still unbothered.

"Mister Kato, you should know you passed. Not with flying colors, admittedly, but you have the instinctive paranoia, which is the most important part." She shut his portfolio with a snap and offered it to him. "Everything else can be taught." She finally looked him in the eyes. She was nondescript, light brown hair on light brown skin on light brown eyes. The right layer of makeup and she wouldn't look out of place anywhere. He half-expected her to lick her eyes like a chameleon.

"This was my interview, then." Derek said. His heart was still hammering in his chest, but he had gone from red to grey. "I don't want any part of this spook bullshit."

"It was Jeremy's idea," she said. "My buddy's in the dumps, skip the questions and go straight to the action." She shrugged, drawing his machete in a firm reverse grip and holding the handle out to him. "He figured you'd blow us off if it was a regular interview, and we had business in the area anyway. Beefbelly Bill didn't think we'd follow all the way out here. Get in, start your truck. If you'd like me to, I'll leave after I light my cigarette."

"Don't smoke in my truck," he said, but he snatched the machete and sheathed it. He crossed to the other side and slid the keys into the ignition, slammed the door.

"Pull over a few spots," she said, and nodded to the windows. It was hard to see against the glare, but the men inside were standing up. The aunty at the Subway had sunk into a surprisingly spry crouch and was drawing something out of her purse. Derek resisted the urge to ram into the black SUV for spite, and pulled around to the other side of the strip mall.

"Why did I need to do that?" He asked, but he had already put his head down, slid slightly in his seat, plugged the ear that was closest to the building. The gunshot went off right when he expected, followed by the barely-audible shattering glass of Beefbelly Bill's front window, lost in the echo.

"Well, I flew all the way out here to meet you," she said, raising her voice slightly over the din. She cranked the lever on the seat and reclined until she was horizontal under the truck windows. "I figured you didn't need a hole in the head." Derek half-turned. A completely involuntary smirk lit up on his face.

There it was. His trauma, his apathy, his paranoia, how pissed he was at this lady acting like she knew him, his building feeling that he should have put Jeremy on his ass after all, they all faded. He laughed, actually laughed, for the first time in months, as a second gunshot went off. Neither of them could have fully realized, but if she had used any other phrase, said any other combination of words, she would have flown back to the mainland after wasting her time. Derek Kato would have forgotten all about Beefbelly Bill's, even forgotten that he'd seen his old friend Jeremy. It would have bothered him, that there was a morning he couldn't remember, just like that deployment, but he would have put it to the side eventually. But those pieces of Swiss cheese, his own personal defense-in-depth, they all turned just so, and for one instant the holes lined up. He was giggling like a schoolboy while he was a hundred feet from a gunfight.

"Agent Giles," she said, extending a hand. "Would you like to discuss this further, somewhere quiet?"

"Heh heh, yeah," he wiped his eye with his thumb and leaned up, staying a little hunched. "Okay. Sure, I'll bite." He shifted the car again, leaving her hand hanging for a moment, until he pulled out the cigarette lighter and put it between her fingers.

Off to the edge of a smoothly paved, well-maintained airstrip, the sun was setting on an unlit hangar. Inside, the cheap walls creaked from the gusts of a storm rolling in. An unmarked predator drone was parked dead-center in the building. It wasn't fueled, armed or activated in any way, but its sharp, maneuverable wings still cut through the wind of the building blizzard, adding a slight whsssssk to the din inside. Next to it, a computer terminal, in the middle of a half-burned set of cockpits, stirred to life. A message lit up on the screen.

UAV-A2: dad?

There was a pause.

UAV-A2: he's smiling again :)

There was another pause. The message deleted itself off of the screen, backspacing one character at a time. A2 didn't really know who the people who talked to her were or what they did. She didn't even know why they called her 2918. But they asked questions about her dad sometimes. They probably wouldn't like it if they knew that she dreamed when he dreamed, and they played together with the little kids at an oasis in the desert.

Keeping that message out of the log was one more slice of Swiss cheese, lining up into place for what was going to slip through.

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