My dear, dear friends! I love you so much. I do want the very best for you. You make me feel such joy, fill me with such pride. Don’t waver. Stay on track, steady in God.
“The Seattle Police were able to catch three of them.” Even so, Marion hardly looked like her confident self. To Gardner, she seemed downright disappointed, although he could hardly imagine why.
“That’s something, at least.” She murmured—murmured! Normally Marion would have spouted a half-dozen ideas as to how to obtain information from them, what to do with the computers, how to expand the investigation.
“And we have the computer,” Gardner pressed. “Don’t forget that. Now we have two computers, perhaps we’ll find something useful. Jake and Jim will certainly squeeze every useful scrap of information out of them.”
“True,” Marion admitted. “I just—” Gardner waited patiently; Marion would come out with whatever it was in her own good time. “This was really just a fiasco all around. We’ve got a couple low-level drones and two computers, but what will that do for us, really? We need some real leads, and all we’ve got is Drake’s idea about the Grand Coulee Dam and some hazy thing about Light Box being installed before the problems started.”
Evening had crept down without either of them noticing. The usual post-operation rehashing had taken much longer than usual, and not only because Drake had received a concussion during his landing and was remaining in the hospital overnight for observation. His mother was staying with him. Wearily Marion passed her hand across her eyes. “I’m just tired, I guess. I’m sure we’ll get plenty out of the computers and Titan Software.”
“Go home,” Gardner told her, shuffling papers on his desk and glancing at his monitor. “It’s already late. Your kids—”
“Tom’s taking care of dinner. You’re right, though. I need rest. See you tomorrow.” She stood, bracing herself for a moment against Gardner’s desk, then made her way out. After she left, Gardner sat for quite a while in the semidarkness, thinking. Then he stood up and made is way to the flickering light of Jim’s area, where Jake and Jim still hunched over the two computers.
Continue reading.“Anything interesting, boys?”
Jake looked at Jim. “Do you see any boys here?”
Jim made a show of ostentatiously scanning the room. “Nope, no boys here. Who could he be talking to?”
“Alright, men,” Gardner amended. “Anything interesting?” Those two had their antics, but they were the best coders and hardware people he’d ever met; software and hardware alike fell before them like wheat before a combine.
“Actually, now that you ask…” Jake began, “Yes, we’ve found some very interesting things here.” He pulled the two laptops together on the desk and tapped out a sequence on both of them, bringing up identical screens. “Ever seen anything like this?”
Gardner scrutinized the screens, with their dense text. “It looks like computer code.”
“Yep.” Jim grinned. “Way to go boss, you know code when you see it! But seriously, have you ever seen anything like it?”
Looking at that incomprehensible garble of letters and keyboard characters, reluctantly Gardner shook his head. “No, but I haven’t done any actual coding since before you were born…”
“Sure, you’re a dinosaur.” Jim grinned, impish face lit by the many monitors glowing in the room.
“I bet he used stone tablets for punch-cards.”
“And fed them into what?”
“Come on, the Flinstones had a car…”
“Gentlemen, please.” Gardner kept his impatience in check. “If this is so interesting, could we please get on with it?”
“Well, since you called us ‘gentlemen’…” Jake pointed to some specific lines of code. “See, here? This is the source code for Light Box 2007.”
“Is that usual? I thought most operating systems kept that stuff strictly controlled.” Gardner thought of Microsoft Windows. They certainly wouldn’t have been looking at that source code so easily.
“In this case, yes,” Jim told him. “These two computers were running Light Box Elite, which lets the user reconfigure the OS to his heart’s content—even if he ruins it. You can always start with a fresh kernel. But in this case, the code hasn’t been modified. In both these computers it’s the same, and it’s dangerous. We think that these lines—” he indicated several disparate highlighted sections—“provide a mechanism that allows a process to elevate its privileges to root on any system running Light Box 2007.”
Gardner just looked at them for a minute. “What’re you saying?”
“In simple language,” Jake said, looking serious for once in his life, “this means that people who know how to utilize this back door will be able to become a super user on computer with Light Box 2007 on it. They’ll be able to totally control that computer.”
“And,” Jim added, “Everybody in the world has pretty much upgraded to what Titan Software would have us believe is the best operating system ever.”
“It is,” Jake objected. “It’s great. But this is really disturbing. We need to see source code for the other versions of Light Box to see if they have this back door, too.”
“If they do…” Gardner almost shivered. “Who could have put this in here? Is it specific to these two laptops?”
“We don’t know, and we don’t know,” Jake admitted. “We’ve only had these two for examination so far, but tomorrow we intend to get a factory-fresh version of all the Light Box 2007 versions and take them apart line by line if we have to. Then we’ll know more.”
“Well done, you two.” Putting his hand to his head, Gardner took a moment to imagine the ramifications if their discovery proved as widespread as he feared. “I think we need to get Drake and Marion back in here. We need to send them to talk with Titan Software, right away.”
Emily didn’t mind Tuesdays as much. This Tuesday had started out especially well; she had coincidentally met up with Frank as they both rode along the Sammamish Trail in to work, and they rode the last mile or so together. Of course, Frank was all decked out in his fancy gear, riding his Specialized S-Works Roubaix SL SRAM, leaving Emily feeling like the country cousin on her Terry Susan B hybrid. But Frank had ridden at her pace, and if Emily had pushed herself a little harder than on that last bit, if she’d arrived a little redder in the face and sweatier than usual, she didn’t regret it. It was always nice to see Frank.
Walking in, they’d joked about how all the contractors were just about done with their part of the work. Passing through Frank’s area on her way, Emily noticed that he had decorated his cube with posters with slogans like “Failure to Protect the Environment is Unacceptable, Irresponsible, and Immoral” * and “They’re Friends, Not Food,” with background pictures of pristine landscapes and cute fuzzy animals. The cubicles around him all seemed to bear similar posters.
“Into environmental stuff?” she asked, pausing as Frank settled in.
“What tipped you off?” He smiled, his brown eyes glowing.
“Oh, you know…” Emily bantered back. “I just had this feeling…”
“It’s why I ride 25 miles each way,” he said, more seriously. “I know a lot of people don’t think it’s a big deal, but without changing the way we live, there won’t be anything left for the next
generations.” Then he smiled again. “But you know that; you ride your bike to work. Good girl.”
“Yeah, but it’s only a couple miles,” Emily demurred, but felt a glow of pride. She was doing her part, after all.
“Every little bit helps. I’ve talked to people who live five minutes’ drive from work, and they still drive it. They don’t even think of taking a bus, or riding a bike, or, heck, walking.”
“I know!” Emily agreed, finding herself drawn in. “That drives me crazy. I mean, how big of a deal is it, really? And to recycle, or bring your own cloth bags to the grocery store, or buy local food…”
“You’re more of an environmentalist than I thought,” Frank told her, and his look of approval warmed Emily through and through. “We should hang out some more some time.” Catching his hint, Emily made her excuses and departed, feeling delightfully light on her feet. Frank really was a nice guy, the kind of person she wouldn’t mind getting to know better.
So the day had started out well. Emily hoped he’d follow up on his suggestion to hang out. He’d find her perfectly willing, certainly. When she’d cooled off and obtained the obligatory first cup of coffee—and established that Andy didn’t need anything, having switched to what he described as a “caffeine IV drip”—then Emily noticed the message light blinking on her phone. Nobody at work called these days, so it had to be somebody outside of Titan Software.
A customer? Oh, God, if she’d missed a customer’s call… Good morning ruined, Emily snatched up the handset and dialed voice mail, impatiently punching through what she had always felt was an unnecessarily complex system to finally listen to her message. Thank goodness it was only one.
“Hi there,” came a male voice. “My name is Phoenix Drake”—Emily snorted, losing the thread of his message for a minute—“…National Underground Network Security Agency, and my partner and I would like to meet with you, today if possible, about a matter of greatest urgency. Please call me back at…” Fumbling for a pencil, Emily swore under her breath. She listened to the message again, got the number, and dialed it.
“Hello?” A woman’s voice this time, without any helpful identifiers.
“Er, I’m trying to reach… um… Mr. Drake?” Emily didn’t trust herself with that first name.
“Oh, sure. May I ask who’s calling?”
“It’s Emily Pennyworth, from Titan Software.” Emily fiddled with her pencil nervously. Somehow phone calls always made her feel anxious, as if she was on the verge of saying the wrong thing all the time.
“Excellent! Just a second.” The woman sounded really pleased that Emily had called. Odd. A moment later, a man’s voice came on the phone.
“This is Nix Drake.”
“Hi, er—” Again Emily paused. Nix? No, better not try to say that. “Mr. Drake, I’m just returning your call.”
“Right, thanks for getting right back to me. We have some concerns about the new operating system Titan Software just released, and somebody told us you’re doing security for that?”
“Yes, I certainly am,” Emily assented, her heart sinking. If N.U.N.S. had security concerns about their beautiful new OS, they could be in some real trouble. She quickly checked her calendar and saw with dismay that meetings already filled today completely. And she had one first thing tomorrow. “I’m free tomorrow afternoon, if you have time.”
“That would be acceptable.” He didn’t sound too happy, but that was the best she could do.
“If you’d rather tell me about it now…” Emily invited. That would at least give her somewhere to start. Some idea of what the damage was. She honestly couldn’t image what they might have found in the Light Box source code—it was perfect. Emily would have sworn it was flawless, impenetrable.
“I don’t think that would be wise,” Drake disagreed. “We might have other ears listening. Will 3:00 tomorrow work for you?”
Suddenly Emily wondered if she’d just been contacted by a paranoid delusional. “Other ears,” her Great Aunt Fanny! Might as well humor him, and maybe do some checking between now and then. “That should work fine for me. Come to the front entrance and have them page me when you get here.”
“Great. See you then.” And he hung up, abruptly terminating that awkward conversation. Emily took a moment to rest her forehead on the heels of her hands. Lord, this was going to be bad. She could just feel it.
“Hunh?” Andy wasn’t all too communicative most of the time. Normally Emily appreciated that, but now she needed something to help her calm down. Something effective.
“How ’bout some Irish coffee?” After that, she would go talk to Frank. He had helped write 90% of the code and knew it as well as he knew his bike’s quirks… If a machine so perfect had any. No; if there was something wrong with the code, Frank would help her find it.
“Marion, come on,” Drake almost pleaded. “I know the Grand Coulee Dam is important. It supplies power to the stoplights. We should go and talk to them.” He looked at his watch. “It’s only 9:00. We could get there in four hours.”
“Are you crazy? It’s halfway across the state from here.” Marion asked, looking more than a little peeved. She had had to wrangle her children to school much earlier than usual, and then the twins’ daycare provider had given her a hard time for dropping them off earlier than usual.
Then Marion’s cell phone rang. “Just a second,” she told Drake, and opened the phone, still looking irritated. “Yes?” Pause. “No, Amanda, I can’t bring you your lunch. I’m sorry you forgot it, but I’m in the middle of something right now.” Another pause. “Buy your lunch, then.” Pause. Her brows scrunched together, a sign Drake had always taken as his cue to go find work somewhere else. “Well, borrow some from Kate.” Pause. “Listen, if you have to, call Daddy, but I can’t bail you out. You’re old enough to remember your lunch.” Shorter pause. “Don’t backtalk me, young lady. Listen, I’ve got to go now—” She shot Drake a look that froze him in his tracks. So much for leaving her with her little family dispute. “—but borrow money from whoever you need to, and you can pay them back tomorrow…. NO, I won’t pay for it.”
Suddenly, Drake heard his own phone ringing down the hall. He made motions to Marion and gratefully made his escape.
“Hello, Nix Drake speaking.”
“Honey, you should really use your full name. It’s so much nicer.” Geraldine had time on her hands, Drake knew, but calling him at work…
“Mom, I’m at work…”
“That’s why I called your work phone, Phoenix. Now listen, my hemorrhoids aren’t getting much better. I’ve been taking warm baths and using a squat toilet, because I heard that can alleviate the symptoms entirely…” She paused, clearly expecting some kind of positive response.
“That should help,” Drake said, not sure what else she expected.
“I hope so! That doctor didn’t seem to be doing anything. I think I’m going to get a new one, somebody who doesn’t just prescribe some weird herbal remedies. Witch hazel, my ass!”
Drake stifled a chuckle. His mother rarely swore, but this was too much. “Listen, Mom, why don’t you go try another bath, and I’ll see how you feel when I get home, OK?”
“Well…” he heard the waver in her tone and pressed his advantage. As he hung up the handset, he saw Marion in the doorway.
“Let’s go,” she said, tossing him a set of keys. “It’s five hours to the Grand Coulee Dam.”
“Four,” Drake disagreed. “If you take I-90.”
2 is much better,” Marion immediately argued. “More direct.”
“The freeway is faster,” Drake told her, gathering his gun, wallet, and other essentials. They continued the discussion out to the garage, where Marion’s purple Dodge Caravan awaited.
At the Puget Sound Energy facility at the Grand Coulee Dam, Leo Chief set down his phone with an unhappy feeling. Government visits never boded well, although PSE followed all government regulations. It made all the employees nervous, and something inevitably went wrong—sometimes disastrously wrong. Surprise inspections particularly bothered Chief, who had worked at the largest concrete structure in North America almost his entire career.
He loved the Grand Coulee Dam and the countryside around it, its hills that browned in the summer, the huge Lake Roosevelt stretching behind the vast concrete wall, the amazement on visitors’ faces as they toured the facility and watched the laser light show. He worked hard to ensure that it was in as perfect of working conditions as possible. These people from N.U.N.S. would just have to see that, and they’d go away satisfied. Chief would make sure of that.
He never noticed one of the more menial employees, one Jose Chavez, lurking in the background. Chavez had heard the whole conversation, and knew that this visit wasn’t accidental. He pulled out a cell phone, pressed a speed dial. “Blackwell, it’s Chavez. N.U.N.S. is coming here. They’ll be here in an hour.”
“You know what to do,” came Blackwell’s implacable voice. “They can’t leave there alive.”
“Leave it to me.” Chavez closed the phone and began thinking. In a facility like this, it shouldn’t be too difficult.
Leo Chief looked almost exactly like Drake had imagined on the phone. He was short, wiry, with the grizzled look of a longtime dock worker, with sparsely scattered salt and pepper hair and a no-nonsense look that brooked no objections. He definitely didn’t look excited to see Drake and Marion.
“I knew we should’ve taken the Hummer,” Drake muttered to Marion.
“The van gets better gas mileage,” Marion returned as they walked across the parking lot to where Chief waited.
“But we look stupid, getting out of a minivan. Who does that?” Drake complained. Then they’d reached Chief, were shaking hands and introducing themselves, were being ushered into the building.
“So this is the Grand Coulee Dam,” Chief was saying. “We’re the third largest electricity producer in the world. The water falls 500 feet from the spillways to the river belowDrake tuned Chief out entirely after the first few sentences, focusing on noticing anything strange about the dam itself. He thought he would be able to have some idea of what belonged there. How different could it be from the generator in their back yard? Walking through, Drake noticed one Hispanic man in worker’s coveralls seemed to appear in every room with them. Odd. He’d have to keep an eye on that guy.
Passing through one room, Drake noticed the Hispanic man dodge through an unmarked door with a furtive glance at Drake and his companions. Suspicious, Drake followed. The passageway, really more of a raised metal walkway, was narrow, lit with strange red light from below, and led off into a dim distance. Drake could hear hurried footsteps progressing along the walkway and stepped out quickly. He wanted to ask that fellow a few questions.
“Listen,” Jim coaxed, “We really need to see the source code for all the Light Box versions. Just Elite won’t do it.” He and Jake had been on the phone with Titan Software for hours, harassing and begging, trying everything to see that code. They had already disassembled the copies they had obtained, but that didn’t help much. The compiler had already done its work, leaving them with assembly code, rather than anything really useful.
“We’ll have to pull out the big guns, soon,” Jake finally admitted. “If Gardner can’t get us access to that code, nobody can.” Jim nodded in agreement as he listened to yet another polite but firm refusal. Titan Software never shared its source code with anybody outside of the company—
“Thank you, very much,” Jim told the voice, hanging up quickly. “Jake, we’re going about this the wrong way. We need somebody inside Titan Software who already has the access we need.”
A grin spread across Jake’s face. “I think I know just the person—Frank Blackwell. I met him at a University of Washington night class. Crazy as a cut snake, but good people.”
How much longer could this dim walkway go? Drake wondered. Surely Marion and Chief had noticed his absence by now and were looking for him. But now he’d come so far, he couldn’t turn back. Besides, that guy’s look before stepping through the door had set off alarm bells in Drake’s head.
Just then his phone rang, the jingling Mom ringtone that always made him cringe. “Hello?”
“Where are you?” Geraldine demanded querulously. “You’re cutting in and out, and you sound all echoey.”
“In the Grand Coulee Dam,” Drake told her, “and this still isn’t a good time.”
“I wanted to tell you that I found a new doctor, this expert on all types of hemorrhoids, at Harborview—”
“That’s great, Mom,” Drake told her. “But I really need to go.”
“Phoenix, dear, sometimes it feels like you don’t want to talk to me.” The hurt sound in her voice struck deep at Drake. Guilt immediately overwhelmed him.
“No, Mom, come on,” he pleaded, “I’m just in the middle of something…”
“That’s fine,” Geraldine opined, sounding sorrowful and lost. “I understand. Work is more important than me, and my medical issues. You just go on and do your important job; I’ll stay here, all alone, with nobody to talk to…”
“Mom…” Drake had reached a T in the passageway. Which way? “I need to stop talking now, Mom, but I do want to hear all about it, really. When I get home tonight, OK?”
“Oh, fine, don’t worry about me,” came the forlorn reply. “You know I’ll always be here for you when I get home.”
“I love you, Mom,” Drake told her, and hung up. He listened carefully, and after a moment thought he heard a heavy bang to the left along with a flash of dull white light, as if a door had slammed shut down there. He hurried down the left-hand passageway, finding the door quickly enough, but when he thrust it open, he was brought up short. The door opened out onto a ledge on the edge of the spillway, and was guarded by a rather slender-looking length of steel roping.
Gingerly, because he really didn’t like heights all that much, Drake made his way along this new walkway. He thought he could see the blue jumpsuit out further down. Glancing nervously down—he now knew, thanks to Chief, that this was another 500-foot-fall; his previous encounter a fall of such a distance didn’t brighten the prospect of another such fall—Drake noticed a strange looking black box. How odd—it almost looked like a CPU mounted out there. Why would they put something like that on the outside of the dam?
Gripping the thin railing tightly, Drake leaned over farther for a better look. Yes, it looked a lot like a CPU, and it had wires going to it from inside the dam. Odder and odder. It didn’t actually look that far down. Carefully, Drake reached out and felt his fingertips brush the cool black metal case. So close! If only he could just reach a little more…
Tightening his grip on the cable with one hand, Drake slowly lowered himself over the edge of the walk way to the outside of the spillway. Crouching stretched out, he could reach the CPU, but it didn’t have any handholds. He scrabbled awkwardly at the case, trying to free it from
its attachments and wires.
Then came a thunderous rumbling, a roar, and a gush of water over the edge of the dam. Drake’s left hand slipped from the steel railing cable under the impact as he was rushed down the sloping side of the dam with the vast flow of water. At the last moment, the CPU came free from the wall, and Drake clutched it to his chest as he went cascading down the dam wall. Oddly, all he could think of as he fell was that now he wouldn’t be able to keep his promise to his mother after all.
*Sierra Club John Muir Society, “2007 Year in Review & Action Plan 2008.”
Or: My NaNoWriMo profile.