Garrett Reilly is a bright twentysomething who works in one of the financial firms on Wall Street. He’s arrogant, obnoxious, reserved, loves making money, drinking alcohol, smoking pot and chasing skirts, and hates the military. The latter is because his older brother, whom he idolized, was killed in Afghanistan, and Garrett couldn’t get answers to questions he had about his death. Garrett grew up poor, doesn’t back away from fights - even when outnumbered or outsized - and sometimes is his own worst enemy. He dropped out of Yale when he learned his brother had died and ended up later graduating from a public university. He’s an intriguing protagonist.
Garrett also has a rare, almost unique talent for recognizing patterns - any kind of pattern, no matter how obscure. That makes him a considerable asset into his firm. And, shortly he notices that a couple hundred billion dollars worth of U.S. Treasury bonds are being sold at an alarming rate, his gift makes him a national security asset as well
Garrett can smell the profits from the Treasury bond selloff, but his boss, who was the first to spot Garrett’s talent, makes a phone call to the National Security Agency. As it happens, the NSA has been looking for someone like Garrett for its Ascendant program. Capt. Alexis Truffant, who’s as beautiful as she is capable, is dispatched to scout and recruit scout Garrett. She has no trouble spotting his flaws, but she is astonished at how quickly - and precisely - he pegs her and her assignment, despite being drunk.
After further screening and interviewing with Alexis’s boss, Gen. Kline, they decide to introduce him to some truly important people - the secretaries of Defense, State and Homeland Security. He turns down their request that he help them save the country, insulting them in the process and then sneaks out a bathroom window.
Garrett is a tough sell. But after further unexplained events — 700 residential properties flooding the Las Vegas at rock-bottom prices and power outages stemming from hacking of the electrical grid that lead to riots in Detroit and other Rust Belt cities —comes around.
He’s already figured the Chinese are behind the attacks - and calls them acts of war - but what to do about it is another matter.
Among unanswered questions is why China would try to destabilize the United States when doing so could cost the Chinese vast sums of money - as well their own economic stability. Meanwhile, the Chinese are dispatching warships and troops to strategic points.
The Defense secretary wants a shooting war, but the president, despite giving him the go-ahead to prepare, is reluctant.
He’s concerned, as he ought to be, about the number of lives that would be lost and the unpredictability of war. Besides, he still isn’t convinced that the Chinese want war. The NSA— the agency and the adviser — are at odds with the Defense secretary and want to give Ascendant a chance. Trouble is, Garrett is the heart and soul of Ascendant and half of the president’s Cabinet thinks he’s an immature jerk.
What the president ultimately wants to know from him is whether he and a team he has assembled can beat China at its own game and send it packing without a shot being fired.
“The Ascendant” is a terrific read and offers a chilling glance at the harm cyber conflict can cause when it’s well financed and well planned.
The story is compelling —this is a thriller— and the characters, except for the Defense secretary, who’s almost salivating at the thought of war, are multidimensional.
The ending, though not quite Hollywood happy, is as satisfying as is plausible.
Walt Braun is the Mercury’s editorial page editor.