The morning light streamed freely through the tall windows of Chip’s loft because the curtains he had bought at the thrift store yesterday were lying in the trunk of his car where they weren’t blocking out much of anything. Waking with the bright light, Chip remembered the most intense dream about a honest-to-goodness debate, chanted slogans, and an unexpected death. When he noticed that he was in bed wearing the same clothes that he had worn last night, he groaned with the realization that truth was oftentimes stranger than dreams if not fiction.
As he stumbled through his normally automatic morning coffee ritual, he thought lots about the recent past, but he also thought about the near future. What exactly does one do the day after witnessing a death? What happens to the political process when someone drops dead while participating? As the caffeine began to soak in, Chip began to calm down. Like usual, speculating on the near future was futile and he decided he could wait fifteen minutes to find out what he was going to do after he finished breakfast.
What he discovered was that he was going to do something very normal and check his text and his voice messages. He had a surprising number of messages from near strangers. Allison had written an email with a few follow-up questions. Some of his high school acquaintances had seen him at the front of the room and most of those had heard his pithy expletive-laden commentary on the situation and their emails expressed all manner of reactions, from jocularity to high dudgeon. Chip wasn’t in much of a mood to strike up some old friendships so he just archived every one of them figuring that if any of those people were worth getting to know again, then they would try again to reach him.
The voice messages were fewer and from more familiar people, but were more interesting as a result. One was from Lurlene who had left with the first wave of guilty, lucky cowards and wanted to make sure that Chip had made it home and was feeling okay. The second message was from Ellen Suffolk thanking him for all of his efforts and wanting to know where to send him a check.
Tackling these in decreasing order of triviality, he began with a call back to Ellen. He figured that if he left a voice message, he could just give her the address and be done with it. Instead, she answered the phone right away and asked him if he could come over right away. While he did feel a certain urgency about getting paid, he didn’t think that she shared the same hurry, so he wondered why she wanted him to come quickly. She didn’t seem in the mood to answer more questions, so Chip figured he would know soon enough if he just got in the car.
As he drove up Sand Hill Road without any technological assistance this time, he was able to take in more of the structure of the place. The steep limestone bluffs on either side of the road were peppered with small seeps of water coming from the rock faces. As he rounded a curve, he had to swerve to the outside to avoid a knot of safety orange pickup trucks parked not completely off to one side. They didn’t look like Iowa DOT trucks but they were definitely doing road work-type things by the side of the road. All he could see in his rearview mirror were some large tripods and Pelican cases of electronic instruments. No shovel leaning for that crowd.
He missed the driveway from gawking too much and it took him a little while to realize what had happened until his mental GPS chimed in that he should be “recalculcating” and he pulled a U-turn in the middle of the narrow gravel road. Continuing on up the driveway along the face of the steep bluff, Chip thought again of the strange tone of Ellen’s voice when he returned her call. He understood that losing valuable computer files could take its emotional toll, but she sounded a bit over the moon about it.
When he got to the door, she called for him to “Come in” and he entered the cluttered entryway that houses in this climate demand. Stepping over boots and numerous hemi-mitten pairs, Chip stepped into the warm kitchen and got his first glimpse at the look of grief on Ellen’s face. Having experienced a serious helping of grief in the past 12 hours, Chip assumed that Ellen’s had the same source as his. She probably knew Don Mockson and had heard about his death. That explained her edgy emotional state on the phone. It didn’t explain why she had asked him to come over. They had a fine client/provider relationship, but he didn’t see himself as the first best choice of a shoulder to cry on.
“I’m so sorry for your loss” he choked out, sure that phrase had been used on numerous TV dramas.
“Thank you. It’s been with me so long. It meant so much to me. And now it’s gone.”
Referring to the deceased as “it” seemed like a strange mental breakdown to have, but the human mind is endlessly unpredictable in moments of stress. He continued to try to commiserate, “How did you find out?”
“This morning, I just went down to the basement and they were all gone.”
“Wait, who was gone?”
“Nobody was gone. My videos were gone, all of my footage. Fifteen years of work. Gone.” With this she put her head down into her hands and began to shake it rhythmically back and forth for some individual source of comfort.
Chip felt like an idiot for projecting his own emotional state of being onto her and took his time allowing what she had actually said to blow away the remaining shreds of his inaccurate surmise. Eventually, she composed herself around the same time that Chip cleaned out the invalid assumptions from his mental cache of the state of the universe.
“I’m sorry for going all to pieces on you. I feel terrible that someone could come in here and just make my stuff vanish into thin air. It’s like not knowing if the chair will hold you up the next time you sit down.”
Chip didn’t think that the Pauli exclusion principle had been shaken to its foundations, but didn’t want to deliver the necessary physics lectures to make that into a reassuring sentiment. He opted instead for a medium hum that he hoped sounded comforting.
“Can we go downstairs?” He didn’t know why he wanted to see, but you don’t make it in eleven consecutive jobs without job descriptions without being naturally a bit curious.
Ellen nodded a bit numbly and led the way down the basement stairs. At first glance, everything looked exactly as it did yesterday afternoon. The large monitors, the clean desk top with the winking USB drive enclosure, the museum collection of physical video interchange formats. Proceeding in chronological order, it was only until the very end that Chip saw what had shaken Ellen so much: everything after the DVDs was gone. The neat row of external hard drives was missing. The last few jewel cases on what was now the end of the row had toppled over without their support, the newly discovered need for a bookend a subtly poignant reminder of what had been lost.
“Why would someone do this? What was on those disks?” Chip asked a bit too bluntly.
“Search me. I’ve been taping around this area for years now, on hikes and along roadsides whenever something catches my eye. I’ve tried to edit some of them together into films that can stand on their own, but they lack drama. There’s no documentary force in footage of moving specks that I know are birds. I’ve got all kinds of big lenses, but they just mean I can record bird specks from even farther away.”
Chip nodded absently as he tried to take in the entire scene, hoping that something would pop out to him like unfocusing your eyes when doing a word search, but that hadn’t worked when he was getting Highlights magazine and it didn’t seem to work now. The whole situation made no more sense at wide angle than it did on zoom.
To give himself some space to think, Chip assumed his default position in the swivel chair in front of the computer. For someone who had offloaded so much of his thinking into various computer systems over the years, it was reflexive to sit at a keyboard when there was some serious thinking to be done. It didn’t even matter that in this case the keyboard was connected to a computer that was basically off for all practical purposes. He even put his fingers onto the keys of the home row as he stared into space trying to put something, anything, together from the events of the past two days. Super strong crypto-viruses, fatal committee meetings, missing hard drives, it all made not the slightest shred of sense. Chip was as out of his depth here as he had been back in Portland after getting laid off at home and at work. Venting his frustration at not receiving any signs that made any sense, Chip pushed the keyboard back on the desk until it bumped up against the disk drive that sat in front of the big monitors.
The disk drive that sat there with its little blinking red light. Wait, why would that light be blinking? Most drives like this blinked their lights only when there was a read or write operation happening on the drive. But, as far as Chip knew, this computer wasn’t doing anything at all. It should just be sitting idle waiting for him to win the exponentially large lottery and guess the right password to unlock the virus-trapped files. But it wasn’t sitting idle. Some process was reading steadily from that drive. Chip hadn’t pressed any keys or even moved the mouse very much, but something was definitely happening without his involvement.
If he hadn’t started anything happening, then perhaps someone else had. With an exaltation of “A-ha!” Chip dived under the desk to look behind the computer. Ellen looked very confused at his behavior from the point where he appropriated the computer chair and then leapt out of it, but she kept quiet and watched as Chip turned the tower case so that its back panel was visible in the knee well under the desk.
Sure enough, Chip saw what he had expected. This computer was actually plugged in to a network cable, rather than relying on any wireless networking. And next to the plug on the back of the computer were two lights that blinked when there was activity on the network and those lights were blinking a steady tattoo of input and output over the network cable. Chip popped his head back up and blurted his next question “Where do you get your internet from out here?”
This question may seem odd to people who live in the civilized world where the pavements beneath their feet are underlaid with significant amounts of copper and glass that make bits and bytes appear wherever they want in their buildings. Out here, that is not the case. Even the power lines are noticeable in this country, extending in long rows of brown posts with short branches off to each homestead. Most people who lived in the country still had zero or one choices for broadband internet. There was slow, laggy satellite internet service or there was cellular internet service if you were lucky enough to be able to see a cell tower. Given how slow the data on his phone had come down when he was trying to find this place, it wasn’t likely that there was 4G or 5G cellular service here, so that probably meant a satellite dish outside on the south side of the house receiving signals from space and sending them back, but sending them back much more slowly.
“They put up a dish when I moved in and it still does what I need it to. It doesn’t work during rainstorms, but I can watch my grandkids in their school plays the next day.”
“Someone or something is accessing the network from this PC. We both assumed that it was completely dormant since we couldn’t see anything on our end, but as soon as you have a network connection, a computer can be set up as a server and controlled remotely from the internet.”
Ellen looked a bit surprised that her mild mannered computer that usually did her bidding could suddenly become a remote tool in the control of someone else. “Can we figure out what they’re doing?”
“We can try,” and Chip started pulling bits and pieces out of the myriad pockets in his jacket. His first thought was to plug his laptop into the same network and try to capture the traffic going by. When he followed the network cable from the computer back to its other end however, he found that the satellite modem had only a single network port on the back so there was no other place to plug in laptop. He tried to look for a wireless connection that might get him into the same place, but apparently Ellen had lived in the house long enough that wireless networking wasn’t standard issue on these networking devices.
Chip wasn’t stymied for long as he dug deep into a pocket under his forearm and came up with a device that looked like a four-pointed throwing star. Ellen was briefly concerned that this had escalated very quickly to esoteric oriental weapons, but Chip turned back to the network cable and she noticed that each of the four points had a plug on it that accepted the same kind of cord that already ran into the back of her computer.
Noticing her quizzical look, Chip tried to explain “It’s a network tap. You insert it into the middle of one of these cables and the other two points on the throwing star let you siphon off all of the data that’s flowing on the cable.”
When he had all of pieces ready, he deftly unplugged one end of the network cable and inserted it into the star tap then plugged one end of a new cable that he had found in a cardboard box labeled with the satellite internet provider’s logo back into the modem. The network protocols were resilient to quick interruptions of service like this, but Chip checked the blinking lights on the computer and hard drive to make sure that whatever had been happening was still happening. Then, he plugged his laptop through an adapter into the side ports on the tap. Opening the lid, he opened an application and Ellen could see colored lines begin to scroll down the screen.
Mostly to himself, Chip muttered, “Well, what do we have here? Encrypted VPN traffic? What cipher? Uh huh, that’s what I thought” and with a smug gotcha type of grin, Chip thumbed a key combination and set the laptop carefully down to not disturb the mass of cables running in and out of it.
“I’m capturing the network traffic now. Whoever is getting into your computer tried to hide the contents of that traffic by encrypting it. Unfortunately for them and fortunately for us, they chose to use an outdated encryption scheme called PPTP which can be cracked. I’ll just leave this running for a while to get enough traffic to make it worthwhile and then I’ll send it off for cracking.”
“I don’t want to ask, but who do you send traffic to for cracking?” Ellen struggled to use the familiar words in their new context.
“Security companies have purpose-built hardware for breaking encryption. The most open cmpanies will allow you to send them data and will send it back unencrypted for a small fee. I’ll use one of these sources to be able to look inside to see exactly what is going on between this computer and the outside world over your satellite internet connection.”
“Shouldn’t we just unplug it?”
“Not if we want to know who our hacker is. If we just shut down the computer or unplug it from the network, not only will we lose any connection we have to the perpetrators, we will also lose any chance however slim of getting the data on this computer back.”
His mention of lost data caused both of them to look over their shoulders at the empty shelf space where the rest of Ellen’s data would normally be. It seemed unlikely that a computer virus would be connected to a meatspace burglary, but it also seemed beyond unlikely that one old lady in Iowa would suffer two completely distinct forms of data loss in such rapid succession. Maybe if he could crack the code on the stubbornly unresponsive desktop computer then he could get some insight into the rest of the inscrutable puzzle he had stumbled into over the past day.
Chip stopped the network capture program and unplugged his laptop but left the network tap in place. “I’ll be back tomorrow with another small computer that we can leave in place on this network link to capture all the conversations between your computer and the outside world.”
Ellen thanked him for his help and seemed a little more steady now that something was happening on at least one of the fronts in her own personal war on data. When Chip got back in his car, he checked to see what all of the buzzing signified that he had missed while he was deeply focused on what could loosely be termed his work. There were follow-up messages from Lurlene and Allison, both of whom wished he would be a bit more prompt in his return communications in the future, and there was also a message from the Fredrickton Police Department to please call them back at his earliest convenience. After what had happened last night, Chip was sure that his earliest convenience was going to be a long time coming.