NaNoWriMo 2013/2016

Chapter 29

After their tense showdown, Lurlene consented to ride in Chip’s EconoBox electric while he drove. She figured it might help to make him feel better about his level of contribution to their mutual enterprise. The male ego was a fragile thing that took constant care and feeding to maintain. It was just another job that fell to women without appreciation or recompense.

Chip drove the little coupe as vigorously as he could manage as they hardly even sped through town. He had been coy about their destination in an effort to seem in charge and knowledgeable about at least one thing, but Lurlene figured out in a hurry where they were going.

“I though you said that Buck destroyed Ellen’s computer when he set it on fire. Why do we need to go there now?”

Chip winced a little as she burst his bubble of mystery, but he tried to explain, “It wasn’t her computer that Buck destroyed. As far as we know, that’s still locked up tight and waiting for Buck to make the next move. He hasn’t tried to extort any ransom from Ellen, but he did smoke one of the external hard disk drives.”

Lurlene tried again to understand. “But why do we need to go all the way out there? Isn’t everything on the internet? Can’t we just jump from computer to computer any time we want?”

“There are still some things that work best when we slide two pieces of metal together and make some electricity flow through them. This is one of them. Plugging a drive into the back of Ellen’s computer is the easiest way to make it look to Buck like there is a drive plugged into her computer. Although, now that you mention it…” Chip gazed off dangerously into space while he drove, muttering a little about “virtual drivers” and “hypervisor injection attacks” Lurlene shook her head slightly and chose not to point out that maybe she should have driven.

They still managed to arrive safely at Ellen’s house atop the bluff, but that wasn’t as much due to Chip’s remaining whit of driving skill, but rather to the fact that he wasn’t challenged by anything as dangerous as oncoming traffic. When they arrived, Chip knocked hastily on the door and turned the knob to go in since it almost certainly wasn’t locked. Most of the people who lived out in the country around here didn’t even know where the keys to their house were, much less use them regularly.

Chip hadn’t thought to call ahead before he charged off to show Lurlene just how decisive and active he could be, so Ellen Suffolk was quite surprised to see her hairdresser and her IT consultant together barging into her mud room. She rallied after the sweet smile that Lurlene shot her with a wink and welcomed them into the open living area. Ellen turned off into the kitchen and asked them if they wanted anything to drink. Lurlene never turned down the opportunity for hot beverages and Chip would have drunk a cup of coffee during his own funeral, so Ellen ended up making a pot for all of them.

Once the coffee was well on its way to being brewed and the mismatched handmade mugs had been set out, then she casually turned to Chip and Lurlene and asked sweetly “So, what brings you two here together?”

Lurlene smiled and turned to Chip to invite him to take the lead on this one. “Well, uh, we’re going to try to hack back into the computer of whoever is behind what has been happening around here. I’m going to install a file that looks like a video and hopefully the perp will try to open the file and then we’ll have him.” Chip nodded to punctuate what he thought was a masterfully brief explanation of a complex technical endeavor.

Lurlene just smiled and got even closer to the point, “We need to go downstairs and plug something into the back of your computer, Ellen.” Ellen nodded, surprised at having any further involvement beyond losing the video footage that was so valuable to her, but she seemed gratified to be able to help and she led them down the stairs and gestured for Chip to have his way yet again with her computer setup.

Chip noted that she had unplugged the smoldered hard drive and set it to the side of the desk nearest the trash can. Seeing the burnt out old drive gave Chip a brief moment of panic as he realized that the adversary might not be looking for anyone to connect another hard drive after what he had already done, but Chip just had to hope that the person on the other end was going to be anxious enough to see whatever Ellen had recorded that he would at least take a look if something new appeared. There was no telling how long that it would take that person to notice that something had changed on a distant computer connected by a poorly encrypted tunnel to, he hoped, an aging desktop computer in a crummy office building in this crummy town.

Chip despaired that his ragtag plan was held together with so much spit and dreams, but he remembered Lurlene’s encouragement to action over analysis and he slipped the thumb drive that he had prepared from its zippered pocket and slid it as confidently as he could into the socket on the front of Ellen’s own computer tower. He turned back to the other two and said “Now, there’s nothing to do but wait.”

They trooped back upstairs and spent some time with the coffee that they had previously been waiting for. Lurlene had no sooner asked “So what is it that we are waiting for?” when Chip’s cell phone, laptop, and watch all started ringing simultaneously, some of them in two different ringtones.

Chip just shrugged and said. “That.” He slung his laptop onto the high counter that limned the kitchen and flipped it open and started typing while narrating. “I set our trapdoor computer up so that it would page me once anything tried to contact it on its local network. The link that I faked on Ellen’s computer downstairs installed a root kit that went looking for its command and control servers and it must have found the little box that Lurlene dropped off for us.” Chip grimaced slightly as his mind veered too close to the memory of how it had been “dropped off”, but he was able to veer back away by focusing on what he was doing on his laptop.

He continued narrating, “So now I’m on my way to check what the command and control box says is going on.” He tapped some more keys, frowned, tapped some more, then smiled and nodded as he apparently figured out that everything looked as it should. “Right, so now I can hop from there to the office computer…” More tapping, more frowning, more tapping, then some sneering, then, “Do either of you need to know anything about the finances of the B and C Mining corporation? There’s lots more files on here than just the ones that I’m looking for.” Both Lurlene and Ellen came to look over his shoulder, but it wasn’t like Chip was playing movies or looking at spreadsheets. Instead the screen was just a black rectangle full of light gray letters and the two watchers went back to their coffee while Chip tapped away on the keyboard.

Chip started looking in earnest for the file that he had gone to all this trouble for in the first place. The video that had been played from Ellen’s computer that had started all of this had been played by the web browser, so Chip started looking in the cache that the web browser kept of the most recent files that it had downloaded from the internet. It took Chip a while to find that directory since he was less familiar with the Windows web browsers’ conventions, but he Googled his way to the knowledge he needed, but as he scanned the contents of the directory, he didn’t see anything that looked like a video.

Frustrated and a bit panicked that all had been for naught, Chip tried to find the files that would have come down to the video player extension. More searching online led him to even more deeply nested directories, but at least the files he found there were video files. The cache files had completely meaningless names made up of the digits from 0-9 and the letters from a-f, so Chip knew that they were probably a hexadecimal encoded version of something, but there was no way he knew of to interpret their meaning. Instead, Chip listed the times that the cached video files had been created and tried hard to figure out what time it was now and when it had been that Chip had managed to reconstruct the video footage and how long before that Ellen had noticed the smoke coming from her hard drive.

“Ellen, what day was it that you smelled the smoke?”

“Oh, let’s see, why, it must have been Thursday. I had been in town shopping for some straw bales to mulch my irises and that was my usual Thursday morning trip into town.”

Chip tried to process the implications of someone who only needed to visit civilization on a weekly basis, but it was too distracting for him at that moment and he shook the thought away. He went back to the laptop screen and started looking for the files that came from Thursday. Without any way to preview the video files via the tenuous connection of his laptop through the little command and control box under Buck’s desk, he started up a sequence of commands that would download all of the cached video files starting backwards in time from Thursday, then go back and take all of the files that came after that in time.

When Chip was satisfied that the file transfer was under way, he tacked on for good measure another program that would slurp off all of the rest of the files from that computer. Who knew what information from there would be useful for the late Don Mockson’s cadre of activists? Chip figured that the least action he could do for them without any analysis as Lurlene suggested was to offer them as complete a picture as possible of the legal and financial situation of B and C mining company. It was no Wikileaks, but at least he could hope to strike some blow for transparency and truth.

As the cached video files began to finish their downloads, Chip started previewing them. Since the video player was invoked whenever any video was played by the web browser, there were lots of unrelated internet videos in the cache, including one that made Chip blush so fiercely when he saw the first second of it that he was surprised Lurlene and Ellen weren’t startled by the heat shining from his cheeks.

But then, he saw the familiar blurry flapping that he had first seen in the basement of that same house at the end of a truly fraught sequence of improbable bit streams. In some ways, seeing the original digital movie file was like going back in time to a more original version of the truth than the one he had seen before. That was precisely what Allison wanted for her online report. She needed to be able to show a decent connection between the meaty reality of an endangered bird in a sandy puddle and the white pixels with a black cap and eye stripe.

Thus reminded, Chip composed a quick message to Allison, attached the video of the least tern, and encrypted the whole message with Allison’s well-publicized public encryption key. Encryption keys come in pairs with one of them that you keep secret that no one can ever know about, but that you never have to send anywhere, and the other encryption key is completely public and it doesn’t compromise any secrets if someone finds out what it is. It was a different setup than the username and password that most people have been familiar with for so long, but it had infinitely better security. It was beyond expensive for anyone but the person who held the corresponding private key to read the message that Chip was sending to Allison with the video file. People didn’t tend to send around encrypted versions of their home movies, but in this situation it made nothing but sense.

Noting that the rest of the file downloads were continuing on pace, Chip severed the connection between his laptop and the trojan plug at Buck’s office. He hoped that he had been careful enough at each step along the way to cover his tracks so that nobody could return the favor he had done for Buck Lemaire and hack back on him, but only some more time would tell.

Chip filled in Lurlene and Ellen on what was going on and what he had finally been able to accomplish. He started to pack up the various cords and cables that tended to pile up around himself every time he took out his laptop and settled in to get some work done. It looked when it was happening like Chip was deliriously happy and he just had to keep up a steady stream of string-like offerings of gratitude to the gods of technology. While he was re-coiling what looked like his prosthetic intestines, Lurlene helped Ellen take the dishes they had made over to the sink.

Chip finished just before the other two finished filling the mugs with water and leaving them in the bottom of the sink (which contained enough other mugs that Chip at least didn’t feel bad about packing up and heading out before everything was toweled dry. He thanked Ellen for the use of her basement internet for his nefarious purposes and waited impatiently by the front door while Lurlene said her goodbyes and began to schedule Ellen’s next appointment at the spa. Chip huffed silently to himself, but apparently not completely silently because Lurlene acted like she had heard him and mimed exaggerated apology and winked goodbye to Ellen.

Chip and Lurlene were laughing at each other as they walked out the door, Chip laughing at Lurlene for her obliviousness to the appropriate time for conducting haircutting business and Lurlene laughing at Chip for his unrestrained self-expression that he thought was so restrained. Perhaps the stress of the past day’s work had made them a bit giddy, especially when all of the unlikely pieces of the plan had fallen almost into place. Whatever the reason, neither of them noticed the large black pickup truck parked on the other side of the gravel road from Ellen’s driveway, license plate number CTC 848.

10 Nov 2016 2494 words