A/N: Alex’s powers and new knowledge will make more sense if you go read the first story in this series: “The League of Extraordinary Women”. The disclaimers, spoilers, and other information are all in previous chapters.
Willow Rosenberg heard the front doorbell. Ugh. She was hard at work on some improvements to one of the computational algorithms in her GIS software, because some of this stuff was not well enough designed from a computational standpoint, and none of it was explicitly designed with parallel processing in mind, and some of it required really specialized techniques to make it usable in a parallel processing system because of the interdependence issues.
And really, who could be at her front door? No one came to visit her without checking ahead of time. Really, hardly anyone ever came to visit her, period.
Wow, that sounded so totally pathetic.
Anyway, her regular friends talked to her over the net, not in person. And Alex always checked ahead of time. Besides, Barb said Alex was still horribly sick from the anti-antidote stuff. So it was probably another salesman. Or Jehovah’s Witnesses. Or the College Painters people who came around every year, even though her house looked perfect. Or… maybe it was the CalPIRG people! She loved it when they came by.
She popped up an onscreen window so she could see the camera view of her front door. She had security cams on her doors and her garage and around her yard, along with all her other security stuff.
Whoa. That wasn’t a Jehovah’s Witness. And if that was a CalPIRG guy, she was signing whatever he had, even if it was a Save The Supervillains drive. Because that was the hunkiest guy who had ever come to her door. Ever.
He was wearing a massively cool leather jacket and khakis and a t-shirt and aviator-style sunglasses. He looked incredibly handsome for a guy who was probably early- to mid-forties, what with the graying hair and the rugged look and the flat stomach.
Oh God, she was getting the hots for a guy she didn’t even know!
On second thought, she was thrilled to death to be getting the hots for a guy, because so not loving the lesbian thing. After all, she would so look horrible in a crewcut and combat boots and flannel shirts. Okay, that totally wasn’t fair, because Marci in Human Resources was out, and just looked like everybody else. Except for the super-short pixie hairdo that definitely wasn’t a crewcut, and Marci looked really cute in it. Although Marci’s girlfriend was totally the dyke-y stereotype, down to the softball scholarship when she was in college, and the boots, and the crazy-short hair that was practically a buzzcut.
She took off the earjack, walked to the front door, and cautiously opened it up. “Hello?”
Handsome Guy smoothly took off his sunglasses, revealing sparkling eyes that suddenly made her knees feel weak and made her tummy flutter. He gave her a big smile that made her think about knights on white horses sweeping away helpless redheaded damsels. He was even driving a red convertible sports car that was parked at the curb! She had a sudden fantasy of him whisking her off in that sports car to a fancy dinner, after which he would take her dancing, and they would waltz for hours. Not that she knew how to waltz, but in her fantasy, he would be just that good a dancer that it wouldn’t matter.
He beamed, “You’re Willow Rosenberg, right?”
She nodded and cautiously said, “Yes…” His voice sounded, well, oddly familiar…
He said, “We’ve talked on the phone plenty of times. I’m Colonel Jack O’Neill.”
“Can I come in, Acid Burn? Or would you rather I use the name S4l1x680 out here where your neighbors might hear?”
She suddenly thought her knees might actually give out for real. Or her stomach. Throwing up sounded like a really good idea right about now. Or passing out.
He smiled, “Don’t worry. You’re not in trouble. I just came by to chat for a few minutes, and do the meet-and-greet thing. It worked for Alex, I figured it would work for you.”
“I-I’m not in t-trouble?” she stuttered.
He walked in and gently steered her out of the atrium. “Are you okay? I didn’t mean to make you pass out or anything.”
She led him into the kitchen, and she fixed herself a big glass of ice water before plopping into a seat. “I… uhh…”
He gave her one of those to-die-for grins and said, “Don’t entertain much? ‘Cause my mom would send me to my room for not offering a guest a drink, or a snack, or something.”
She finally remembered to say something intelligent. “Umm, colonel, I have no idea who Acid Burn is, other than the character from ‘Hackers’. And I know S4l1x680 was a notorious cracker and phreaker a dozen years ago, but he dropped off the face of the earth maybe four or five years ago. Bruce Schneier thinks maybe he’s in prison on unrelated charges.”
He grinned, “Jack. Call me Jack.” He stood up and opened the fridge like he belonged there. “Ooh, some diet coke for Alex. Wonder how often she flies up and visits.”
“Alex who?” she tried. “I don’t think I know anyone named Alex.” He just grinned some more, like he totally knew she was with the lying and it was just entertaining him.
He grabbed himself a regular coke, popped the tab, and sat down opposite her. “This is a nice, cozy kitchen. My place? Disaster area. Even if I get dishes washed, my son Charlie’ll make a mess whipping up something. He’s a much better cook than me, but he’s a lot messier.”
The whole horrible thing about Colonel O’Neill and his son and his late wife and the gun accident came back to Willow in a flash. Alex had moaned about that for like half an hour, since she felt so bad about it, and she had no one else to talk to about a lot of this stuff. Willow figured Alex could talk to Robyn or Nicole about that kind of stuff, and maybe even her mom, but Alex had talked to her about it, which admittedly had made Willow feel really great and even needed.
Crap. She was the confidante to a real superheroine, and she was blowing the secret identity thing massively.
He looked at her face for several seconds before he said, “Huh. I guess Alex told you about Charlie and Sarah. Or did you dig that up when you went through my DoD files?”
“I would never! I mean, there’s no evidence… I mean, I don’t! I mean…”
He grinned, “Relax, Willow. First off, you don’t need to panic just because I know as much about you as you know about me. So let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, in a land far, far away – if you were walking there instead of hopping in a car – there was this girl who was one of the best computer programmers in the country, even though she was only about twelve. And she wrote some software that my geeks tell me was elegant and creative and just too darn good for a mere kid. And she was rightfully proud of it, and she released it as freeware. And then this dork, who we’ll call, oh… how about Robert Horace Gorsky of Greenville, North Carolina, tried to steal her software and sell it as his own. And, lo and behold, S4l1x680 decided to crush his firewall, and trash his website, and search his computer, and send emails to everyone who didn’t know ol’ Robbie was ripping them off, and then let the FBI know he had child pornography on his computer, which S4l1x680 might have very cleverly planted.”
She gulped. She’d forgotten about that little incident in her past. Well, in S4l1x680’s past.
He spotted her reaction, but he just smiled. He said, “And then there was the time that one Cordelia Chase racked up an astonishing 417 parking and driving citations in a four-month period, and lost her driver’s license and also had her very expensive car towed. She claimed that she wasn’t even in town during a couple of the incidents, but every one of the computer copies of those driving citations had her handwritten signature on it. Oddly enough, it turned out that Miss Chase was, at the time, bullying that same nice little computer programmer.”
She winced. That really hadn’t been her finest moment. Even if figuring out how to circumvent the security on the city police department’s records was a really cool exercise that included a really sweet piece of programming.
He smirked, “From what we’ve been able to find out, Cordelia Chase probably deserved a lot worse than some expertly-faked parking tickets. But after Alex visited us down in Roswell and chatted with you on the phone, we kind of wondered who you were. Just like you wondered who we were. And we wondered if we could trust you, just like you wondered if you could trust us and you went poking around in a few files you’re really not supposed to have access to.”
“Eep.” She meant to say something smooth and graceful, but all that came out was a little squeak.
He said, “We put together a list of all the top telco gurus in the world, and all the top programmers in the world, and all the top network security gurus in the world. And you know what? You’re on all three. You’re one of the very few young women on the planet on any of them, and you’re on all three. Impressive. And you have an EE too, so you have the skills to hack the chips in Alex’s phone, and the phones her support people have. But there aren’t many women who have an EE, much less an EE and a CE, like you do. Still, my people wanted to believe Alex’s hacker was more likely a guy using AutoTune to sound like a girl.” He put as much sarcasm in his voice as he could, “Because nerdy cracker and phreaker types are so secure in their masculinity that they’d do that.”
She admitted, “P$ychon4ut pretty much foamed at the mouth anytime anybody even suggested he wasn’t a virile, strictly het, ultra-atheist, macho man who had dozens of girlfriends. That was how we built a profile on him and figured out who he is. It was just easier to get him convicted and put away on other charges, like stalking and date rape. He’s a real sleazebag.”
He laughed out loud. “So he’s off the threat list for now, huh? Good work.” He squared up his shoulders and said, “But I was thinking about the story Alex told us about going to another dimension and meeting six other women, all of them amazing, who were from completely different dimensions. One of them is Samantha Carter, the Air Force captain who’s with NASA. One of them has to be British, because of the whole British Ministry of Magic thing. That leaves four others. And it occurred to me: what would I do in Alex’s place? Incredible people who were incredible teammates with incredible talents? I’d bust my buns to see if I could find their equivalents in my world, and that’s who I’d try to get on my team. Which would mean that Alex’s hacker has
to be a woman.
“In my award-winning acting role as Johnny J. Jacobson, most irritating reporter on the planet, I called up three different big names in computing security, and I asked them about the female computer gurus out there. Bruce Schneier? All I had to do was say ‘young, broad knowledge base, amazing programmer, babbles like mad…’ and he said, ‘oh, you mean Willow Rosenberg?’”
He gave her a big smirk, while she winced.
He leaned forward and said, “So, I did my usual pushy thing to get my people to do what I wanted, and my people did a little checking, and the funniest thing emerged. The week you were temporarily de-CEO’ed from Red Tree Software, you had a Saturday morning appointment here. Alex Mack, of Paradise Valley. Who you’ve been telling me you don’t know.”
She gulped. Hard. She had
been saying she didn’t know Alex, and he had evidence she was lying about that one. This secret identity thing was so much harder than it sounded.
He leaned back and relaxed. “You’re the only person in the world who meets all of our criteria, and, lo and behold, you were also sought out by Terawatt. In person. She’s pretty amazing, isn’t she? But that definitely makes you our Acid Burn.”
She tried not to stammer as she asked, “W-what do you w-want?”
He smiled, “I want you to know you can call us when you need to. And if there’s some intel you need, I can get you NSA and NSC and DHS contacts so you can do it legally, or at least we can cover for you when you do it. What you’re doing for Alex is one of the most important computer activities in the world, and every other group doing computer work as important as yours has a staff of hundreds or maybe even thousands of computer techs, plus tons of government protection and security and stuff – even if my central computer group only has six people right now, not counting you, and I try not to outsource computing tasks to the big DHS pool. But if you want into a database you can’t touch, give me a call. If you want to crash a major website, give us a heads-up and tell us why, because we might have a better solution. Or we might want to get out the popcorn and lawnchairs so we can watch the fun.”
She couldn’t help giggling. Alex was right. Jack was really funny and really snarky. She sipped some of her water and asked, “And that’s all? You’re not gonna lock me up and throw away the key?”
“Fer cryin’ out loud!” he complained. “Absolutely not! I might get Walter to buy you some bigger and badder hardware, or get one of the telcos to cut you extra bandwidth whenever you want, but I’m not ruining this set-up. Maybe the best computer hacker in the world, and she wants to be on MY side? Hey, I’m not as dumb as I look. I’m keeping you and giving you anything you ask for. Same as with Alex. You two don’t realize how important you are, and how far I’m willing to go to protect you two. I’m even not putting any of this stuff in electronic files, so nobody’s ever going to scavenge our computers and track you two down.”
She asked, “So… anything I ask for?”
He said, “Within reason. I can’t get you a top-of-the-line Cray tomorrow. It would take me at least a month, and from what my IT guys tell me, you’d have to upgrade the HVAC and electricity in here first.”
She smiled and said, “I already have a parallel processing network.”
He asked, “And is it hidden in a dark cave, deep beneath the wilds of Silicon Valley?”
She grinned, “No, it’s in my living room.”
She walked him into her computer room, and he looked it over, admiring everything in there. He finally said, “This is pretty amazing. You are way better at computers than Angelina Jolie. And you’re just as pretty.”
“Me? No way.”
He smirked, “Yes way.”
Okay, the world’s hottest guy. Who’s also an Air Force flyboy who makes Tom ‘Top Gun’ Cruise look lame. And who’s also a world-saving secret agent. Could he possibly be any sexier? And he though she was pretty. Alex said the other Willow could be brave and daring and amazing. Okay…
She took a deep breath and did the most daring thing she had ever done in her life. “Umm, Jack, there is something you could do for me.”
“Yes? I don’t do taxes.”
She giggled and said, “Would you take me for a ride in that sports car? And buy me a nice dinner?”
His jaw dropped open in surprise. “You want to have dinner with me
? I’m old! I have gray hair. And a teenaged son! You’re mid-twenties, and rich, and famous, and a smoking hot redhead who tries to hide it by not wearing makeup and keeping that hair up in a ponytail. Why don’t you have movie stars on speed dial for when you want to go out to dinner?”
She tried to give him a coy smile even if she wasn’t any good at the flirting thing. “If you take me to dinner, I’ll tell you all about the little programmer girl who had hardly any friends and hid behind a computer screen for years.”
He gave her another of those knee-weakening grins. “You got yourself a deal.”
She ran to the bathroom. She figured in two minutes she could undo her ponytail, comb her hair out, put on some lipstick, and apply some mascara.
And maybe, after dinner, she could find out if he knew how to waltz.