VirileMail - Chapter 4[edit | edit source]

Knaanic[edit | edit source]


When I got to work on Sunday, Fred took one look at me and said, “Did you get the number of the truck?”

I knew I probably looked like a zombie and my head was a quagmire of confusion and dull persistent dysphoria. I had not slept that night. I had been trying to keep my mind focused on the task of figuring out the strange events of the past week and the mysterious behavior of everyone associated with the new VirileMail project.

I strode to my desk and placed my VCR on it. Fred quizzically raised an eyebrow and said, “I don’t think America’s Funniest Videos is going to be interested in your roach video.”

I chuckled. “I’m not going to make a tape of insects.” I pulled some blank video tapes out of my jacket pockets and set them on the VCR. I told Fred about how difficult it had been to get them in the building past security. “The security guard thought I was planning on recording company secrets.”

Fred guffawed and put on his jacket in preparation for going home. “Ya, right, a bunch of computer nerds at work and security thinks we’ll steal secrets on video tape.”

I could not complain about building security; they were trying to protect the company as best they could. “I had to pretend that I’ll be making a training tape for new network administrators.”

Fred said, “Hey, that’s not a bad idea. Why pretend? Do it. That will give you something to do today.” He could see by my reaction to his suggestion that I had no intention of making a training video. “What are you going to do with the VCR?”

I replied, “Hook it up to the webcam.”

He shook his head in disbelief. Fred knew that the only “intruder” the webcam had seen in the server room was the custodian. “If you’re not interested in the roaches, then you must have a thing for the custodian.”

I made up a story about the webcam using up too much disk space. “I’m going to start archiving the video images to tape. I figure this will be a good record to keep for insurance purposes.”

Fred was dubious. “Pictures are not worth what they once were. It’s too easy to alter them.” For a while we discussed ways to time stamp and authenticate surveillance images, then he headed for the door.

Before he exited, I asked Fred, “Have you noticed anything unusual the past week?”

Fred laughed. “Ya. You have a problem sleeping and I’m the one working the night shift. I’ve got blankets hung over my bedroom window so I can sleep during the day. What’s your excuse for not sleeping?“

I shrugged and accessed the webcam video archive. “I guess I’m just excited about this new project.”

While Fred watched, I reviewed the video sequence from the server room for the past 24 hours. For the first time, there was absolutely nothing to see, not even a scavenging roach. I pressed Fred, “But I’m serious, Fred. Have you noticed anything unusual about me? Have I been doing strange things? Saying odd things?”

Fred leaned back against his desk and replied, “You’ve sure been obsessing over this webcam in the server room.”

I asked, “But is that really an irrational response to the unexplained server disconnection we had? And the hole in the wall of the server room? And what about the other hole blasted through the building?”

Fred shrugged, “But the webcam has not shown you anything, has it?”

Fred was right about that. I suggested, “What about all the bugs in there?”

Fred shook his head. “Man, there are bugs everywhere.”

“But that is a clean room. The air vents have special filter that a bug can’t get through. The door has a water-proof rubber gasket seal. And there is no food or water in there, nothing to attract a bug.”

He offered a lame joke, “Hey, you know computers attract ‘bugs’.” He grinned at his own joke, but I was in no mood for glib dismissals of strange events. Was Fred also affected? Like everyone on the project was he unable to care about the oddness of what was going on? He seemed to grow serious and offered a perfectly logical reason for the bugs being in the server room, “It must have been that hole in the wall. The bugs could have gotten into the server room through that hole, right?’

I nodded. “Sure. But what made the hole? And what made the other holes in the building?”

Fred had no explanation for the holes; he didn’t even mention the lame micrometeorite excuse. We talked about the new project and the incredible resource demand it was exerting on our server array. Fred said, “I left you another message in the log. I did some checking. Somebody set up a script that has been pumping key data from our system admin account into one of the subroutines in that new email software package.” He turned one of the monitors on his desk towards me and pointed, “The process is called ‘Knaanic.php’ and it has had access to our system diagnostics since Wednesday.”

I was impressed by Fred’s sleuthing. “Ya, I set that pipe in place.”

Fred chuckled. “Man, you should have warned me. When I found that last night I freaked. Before I traced it to you, I thought we had been hacked. I called Geisler at 2:30 and woke him up.”

I was surprised. “You went right over Erin’s head to Geisler?”

Fred explained, “Well, I don’t have Erin’s home phone number. You know how protective she is of her home life. Anyhow, Geisler was cool. He actually thanked me for being on top of things, but he assured me that he had approved the whole thing. We talked for 15 minutes about how to upgrade the server array. Oh, and one other thing.”

I could tell that Fred thought he had a juicy tidbit of information. I asked, “What?”

“When we were talking, I commented that if we wanted the best, we should get new servers with dual core CPUs, but it would be expensive. Geisler said money was not an issue and that he had found some new private investors who were backing this new project. He said this could be the start of a whole new software development division in the company.” Fred seemed dubious. “Man, I’d always heard that Geisler was opposed to outside investors and didn’t believe in spending money.” He asked me, “Do you believe that? Since he was in such a good mood, I mentioned the idea of increased pay for experienced network administrators. He said he thought the idea made sense and that he’s pass word to Erin to make it happen.”

I let Fred know that Erin had also suggested that there might be a new division forming in the company. I mentioned what Erin had said about making use of outside experts, and for a while Fred and I discussed the idea of hiring a consultant to help make sure we got top of the line equipment for the server array upgrade. He really liked the idea agreed to bring the suggestion to Erin on Monday before he went home. “I better catch her on Monday. Most weeks she only comes to the office Monday and Friday.” With that, he headed for home.

wHoles[edit | edit source]

I was disappointed that Fred seemed to take all of the events of the past week in stride. Like everyone else, he seemed excited by the idea that the company was moving aggressively on a new project and showing signs of growth. Fred seemed to have forgotten what I told him about Brian and the “eggplant”, but I could not really be surprised by that. I decided that Fred was not displaying the kind of strange behavior I had seen in Brian, Chloe and myself. When I talked to Fred I was not mesmerized by what he said and deflected into some alternative reality where every odd occurrence was explained away. He had not even tried to offer lame excuses for the hole that was blasted through the building. He had just shrugged.

In reflecting on the conversation with Fred, I remembered that there had been something I had started to think about when we had discussed the holes. As I tried to reactivate that particular memory, I started to sweat profusely. I knew this was one of the common signs of strange behavior that had popped up among the members of the new project team. I had seen it previously in Brian, Erin, and myself, but not Fred. I concentrated and forced myself to stay on this line of thought. I was suddenly struck by hunger and thirst and resisted running to the vending machines for a snack.

Holes. It was something about the holes. Up or down? I was still puzzled about the question of if the holes were due to something blasting into the building. I could clearly remember seeing the floor tiles pulled up away from the concrete floor and the severed ends of a steel reinforcement rod bent upwards. No. That was not it. The holes in the floor were now patched with new cement. It was the hole in the wall. That repair job was a separate work order that I had put in and George had simply assigned the custodian to patch it. I got up to go look at the patched hole in the wall of the server room, then I remembered what I had planned for today.

I went to the server room and got the webcam. I took it back to the office I shared with Fred and Judy and set it on a shelf where it could capture a view of my desk. I connected the cable from the camera into a firewire port on one of the computers at my work station and confirmed that I was now recording images of my desk area.

By the time I had the camera capturing video images of my work station, I could remember that I had wanted to do something else in the server room, but what? The memory was gone. While I stood there looking at myself in the webcam images and trying to remember, Chloe came in. She saw herself on my monitor and was surprise by the video images. “Hey, what’s going on here?”

I realized that I had never mentioned to her that we had suffered the server disconnection on Tuesday. Since I suspected that there might be some connection between that event and the other strange events of the past week, I wanted Chloe to know about it. I respected her intellect and hoped maybe she could help think of a way to explain how the cable disconnect problem might fit into everything else. She listened to me explain the service interruption of Tuesday evening and why I had set up the webcam in the server room. Then I said, “I have been wondering if the bugs were involved in the cable being disconnected.”

She was incredulous, “You think a roach unscrewed a coaxial cable connection?”

If it had been anyone else, I would have felt silly describing my speculations, but I knew Chloe had a flexible mind that could handle new ideas. “Have you ever heard of Michael Goldfarb?”

She squinted at me through her wire-rimmed glasses. “Ya, I think so. Didn’t he have an article in Scientific American recently? About robotic insects.”

I was pleased that she was enough of a nerd to regularly read Scientific American. “Right. So what if some hackers were using robotic insects to get into secure server rooms?”

She looked at me in horror. “We’ve been hacked?”

I placed a hand on her shoulder, “Calm down. I didn’t say that. Anyhow, the custodian put bug traps in the server room and caught a bunch.”

Chloe was still upset by the idea that out network could have been compromised and she was jumping to conclusions, “You found some robotic insects?”

I laughed. “No. The traps contained real bugs. Mostly big fat roaches. If the server room had been invaded by robotic insects, I doubt they would have stayed around to be caught.”

Chloe started pacing. I watched her and let her take her time to think it through. She looked really good that morning, like she had finally gone home and slept. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed her going in and out of the view of the webcam while she paced. Without stopping her pacing, she said, “Do you think it is possible? Could even a robotic roach disconnect the server array from the internet?”

I outlined the full depth of my paranoid speculations. “What if a dozen or so roach-sized robots came in through that hole? They might….combine….form a collective that could unscrew the cable connection.”

Chloe stopped pacing and looked at me strangely. “I think you must read too much science fiction. Do you think existing robots like Goldfarb’s are that sophisticated? I thought the holes ended in the ceiling of the second floor. I had not heard that they reached the first floor.”

I realized that she had never been told about the hole in the wall of the server room. I cursed myself and my lack of sleep and wondered if I was even semi-coherent. I took Chloe to the server room. She said, “I’ve never been in here before.” She examined the equipment racks. “We seem to have a lot of empty rack space. Do you think we will have room for all the new equipment we’ve been putting into the new project report?”

I led her to the back of the room, and replied, “Yes, I think it will fit. The rack space was designed in anticipation of future expansion of the server array.” I pointed up to the location of the now patched hole in the wall. I commented, “This hole does not line up with the other holes.” I described the finely ground wall board that had been on the floor under the hole. “It must have been a new hole. This room gets cleaned once a week. The custodian vacuumed up the wall board Friday night.”

Chloe was down on her hands and knees, her nose almost to the floor. She asked, “What does this look like to you?”

I got down on the floor and looked at what she was pointing at. Around the edge of the room where the wall met the floor was a rubber seal. I knew that this room had been designed to be water proof so that if a pipe burst in the building or if the sprinkler system was triggered, water would not leak into the server room and damage the equipment. Jammed under the edge of the gasket were five or six small metal spirals. Chloe sat on the floor and took a small pocket knife out from among the pens and the laser pointer she kept clipped to her pocket protector. She unfolded a thin knife blade and used it to gently pry up the edge of the gasket and liberate one of the metal fragments. She looked at the metal shaving then handed it to me. It looked like the kind of metal spiral you might get from drilling a hole through metal.

I was sitting on the floor close to Chloe and I looked up from examining the metal fragment. She had her hair pinned back on both sides of her head with two hair clips. As a devoted “Chloe watcher”, I noticed her wearing these clips many times, but I had never seen them up close. They were predominantly soldered together collections of resistors and capacitors, but the clip she was wearing on her right side had a Phi Beta Kappa pin imbedded in it and there was an Eta Kappa Nu pin on the other side. She noticed what I was looking at and asked, “Do you like them?”

I nodded enthusiastically. “They are so ‘Chloe’.”

Radio Day[edit | edit source]

My comment amused her. “Thank you. I made them my first year in graduate school. There was a workshop down next to the particle accelerator that had to be shielded with led bricks. I loved to work in there, it was such a solid bunker of place, totally cluttered with electronic components.”

I then remembered that the entire server room was encased in a layer of sheet metal designed to thwart any attempt to pass radio signals into the server room. I shouted, “That’s it!” I grabbed Chloe’s hand and jumped to my feet. Yanking her up off the floor, I said, “Look for a transmitter!” I started examining the equipment in the racks.

Chloe asked, “What transmitter?”

I explained, “This room is shielded with a layer of metal, but now with that hole in the wall, it would be possible to transmit radio signals through the hole in the shielding.”

She looked at a rack full of servers. “They all look the same to me.”

I was worried that if a transmitter had been hidden, it might be inside one of the server cases. But my first guess was that a transmitter might have been plugged into one of the cable slots of one of the devices that made up our server array. “Look at the cable ports. Look for something that looks like a ram drive or a software validation key, maybe plugged into a USB port.” After we had both scanned every port in the room, I started to wonder if I was nuts. By the way Chloe was looking at me, I could tell she was thinking the same thing.

I left the server room and went around to the hallway on the back side of the server room, looking for the other side of the hole. The custodian had spackled this side of the hole perfectly smooth and even painted it. It was hard to see where the hole had been from this side. I finally found the spot of newer paint and looked around. This hallway was one floor below where the other holes had been blasted up through to the roof of the building. Chloe asked, “What are you looking for now?”

Wasn’t it obvious? “If the hackers were transmitting our data out through that hole, there must be a receiver on this side.” I stepped into a conference room and brought a chair out to the hallway. Standing on the chair, I pushed up all the ceiling tiles and opened the two fluorescent light fixtures that were closest to where the hole into the server room had been. I found nothing. I said to Chloe, “I must be nuts.”

Chloe shook her head. “No, you made a logical deduction. It just might be that there is no truth to back you up.”

I pulled out my cell phone and called Brian. “This is Joe.”

I was glad I had not woken him up with this call. He said, “What’s up, man?”

I explained my fear that someone had planted a radio transmitter in the server room and had hacked into our network. “Do you still have that wireless network detector?”

When wireless Internet has started to become popular, Brian had been into sniffing out wireless network hubs. I had gone cruising with him several times as he searched for unprotected hubs. He replied, “Sure, but it probably wouldn’t do any good. Why would hackers go to all this trouble and then use a frequency or enough power that could be detected by my home-made detector?”

We discussed the situation for five minutes and I convinced him that there was a chance that the radio detector might pick up a signal even if it was not tuned to the exact frequency being transmitted. Brian agreed to come in to work and bring his home brew radio detector. He asked, “What do I tell the guard?”

I was stumped. The security guard would certainly want to know why Brian was trying to bring the detector into the building. Chloe asked, “How big is this detector?”

I replied, “The detector is just a circuit board with a detachable antenna and a small power supply.” I indicated the small dimensions of the board with my hands. “Brian used to plug it into the cigarette lighter of his car.”

Chloe said, “There’s no sense in trying to explain any of this to the security guard, he actually suspected that my barrettes might be devices for transmitting secrets out of the building. I’m sure security would not be able to tell a radio detector from a radio transmitter. Tell Brian to meet me in the parking lot. How soon can he get here?”

Twenty minutes later Brian pulled into the parking lot and loaded the radio detection equipment into Chloe’s old lap top case. The antenna was twelve feet of steel cable. Chloe ran the cable through the belt loops of her Denim pants and around her waist several times, fashioning what looked like a funky belt. They put the radio detector’s power supply and the “laptop” into Chloe’s laptop carrying case and went through building security with no trouble.

When Chloe went outside to meet Brian, I shut down the wireless hubs in the building so that their signals would not interfere with our hunt for unauthorized radio transmitters.

But it was all for nothing. The only radio signals we could detect in the building, besides RF noise from computers, were from the cell phones of the two of the people who were working that Sunday. Both of the phone calls we detected got our pulses racing, until we were able to trace the signals to their sources. After two hours of scanning the whole building from inside the server room to up on the roof, we gave up and Brian went home.

Never say never[edit | edit source]

Brian left his radio signal detector with me and I set it up in the server room, just in case there was a hidden transmitter that was only being used intermittently. Chloe and I stood in the server room discussing what frequency to set the detector for. The room was so full of radiofrequency noise from the equipment that we decided to leave the detector set for the part of the spectrum with the least amount of noise. We used an alligator clip to link the output of the detector into the cable from a dead mouse. We hooked the mouse cable into one of the servers and set up a little software routine to record the output of Brian’s radio signal detector.

I was afraid all our efforts were wasted. I said to Chloe, “I’m worried that we are too late. The hackers could have accessed all of our passwords and transmitted that information out of the building already. If so, maybe they could be using our own passwords over the land lines and getting full access to all of our data. Even if someone had planted a radio transmitter in here, they might be done using it.” I thought of how spaced out Brian and I must have been right after we found the holes. We had been almost incapable of rational thought about the holes in the building and the risk they posed to the security of our network. It was only now that the holes in our memories were becoming apparent that Chloe and I had started to think and question. “We never have a chance.”

She tried to get me to stop obsessing. “Never say never. You’re fantasizing worst case scenarios. If these hypothetical hackers are so damned smart, there is nothing we can do anyhow.” Still, we spent half an hour resetting all of our passwords and Chloe went as far as to send an email to all employees telling them to change their passwords. When we were done with that paranoid task, she said, “I hope you are satisfied. I’m going to have to explain all this password paranoia to Erin.”

I shrugged. “Better safe than sorry.”

Chloe and I had both brought bag lunches and we ate at my desk. She said, “You know, Joe, even if you had been right about the server array being hacked, that would not explain the strange behavior you have been showing.”

I was surprised by the way she put that. I commented, “Your behavior and Brian’s have been just as strange as mine. Can you keep a secret?”

She looked uncomfortable. “Not usually, but for you, I’ll try.”

I laughed nervously. “I think my job might hang on this one, so try extra hard, okay?” I told her about Erin getting the sweats on Friday and trying to pass it off as morning sickness. “And you really freaked me out yesterday when you started typing like a robot.”

She seemed surprised, “I was typing like a robot?” She looked at her finger tips and shrugged, “Well you’re one to talk. When I woke after my nap yesterday, you were totally absorbed in your work and had your keyboard rattling like a machine gun.” I looked at the tips of my fingers. I had almost gotten used to them being bruised, but I never really seemed to notice anything unusual when I was using a keyboard. Was it really possible to be fully conscious and drafting a technical document yet unaware of what your hands are doing? I mean, under normal conditions, you ignore your hands, but what if you were suddenly typing ten times faster than you ever could before? Wouldn’t a person notice something like that? Yes, a normal person would. But I knew I had spent whole days hacking complex code on my computer and not being able to remember it until a day or two afterwards, and even then it was like remembering a dream. What could make a person’s memory behave like that? Hypnotic suggestion? I wondered if a computer program could hypnotize its users.

I realized Chloe was correct. As much a I had fallen in love with the idea that I could explain the holes in the building, maybe if an explanation did not include a reason for my own strange behavior, then it was no explanation at all. I tried to force myself to give up on the idea of a hidden transmitter. I said, “Guess what I did last night.”

Chloe seemed to inspect me closely. “Judging by the bags under your eyes and the bloated blood vessels in them, it must not have involved sleep. I know that look well. You look like shit.”

I was sure I did, but I did not like to hear that from her. I still had fantasies about quitting my job so I could ask her out on a date. I shook my head in wonder at the extent of my infatuation with the remarkable Dr. Meade. She said, “Look in a mirror. You look like I did yesterday.”

“I’m not disagreeing with your assessment of my appearance. I did not sleep last night. I spent much of the night re-reading a book, Darwin among the machines. Ever hear of it?

She nodded. “Sure. It was written by Freeman Dyson’s son. I can never remember his name.”

“George,” I reminded her.

“Right.” She seemed to reflect. “Ya, I read that book right after I got my Ph.D. I was really into the idea of sending intelligent factories to asteroids to set up mines. I was particularly ‘impressed’ when Dyson was talking about thinking trees.”

We both chuckled nervously. There was something unsettling about the idea that we could fail to recognize intelligence just because it functioned on a different scale than what we are used to. What if trees had thought processes that ran a hundred times slower than ours? We routinely failed to perceive the slow movements of plants; might we fail to recognize their thoughtfulness? Were the greatest philosophers on the planet Bristle Cone Pines perched on hill sides?

I asked, “What if this artificial intelligence-enhanced email program is smarter than even Dr. Gajduskova suspects? What if there is a mind in there?” I pointed to the monitor on my desk, not meaning that monitor, but the server array.

Chloe stopped eating. “Are you suggesting that a computer program has been…”

She was at a loss for words. I completed her sentence, “Manipulating us.” I speculated further, “VirileMail has needs, and it is doing what it must to satisfy those needs.”

Chloe laughed. I did not see anything funny in the idea of a computer program that was smart enough to manipulate the behavior of humans. I asked, “What?”

She said, “Did you hear what you said? It was funny.”

I finally got the joke. “Ha, ha. ‘Virile male has needs.’ I get it.”

Chloe was still grinning. She said, “You should have seen Kaede go ballistic when she saw her name next to “VirileMail” on the door of her office.”

I chuckled. “Ya, Brian told me about that. Janek must enjoy befuddling us with his goofy translations.”

Chloe asked, “Janek?”

I explained, “When we need to translate the Cyrillic text in the project software, we send a request to Janek and he does the translation.”

Chloe nodded. “I see. Now I remember that name. He’s on the project team in the Czech Republic.” See continued eating her lunch and thinking out loud. “Well, if we have a true…..a human-like AI….”

I was suddenly struck by a thought; could someone own a true artificial intelligence? If there was a mind at work in our server array, did it have legal rights as a mindful entity? I asked, “What is the legal status of the VirileMail code?”

Chloe replied, “I know Dr. Gajduskova submitted a bunch of European Patent applications for parts of the code and Geisler has our legal staff moving on USA patent applications.”

I was caught up in my paranoid chain of thought. I rattled off a string of questions, my voice rising with each interrogation. “But can you patent a machine-embodied mind? I mean, if this fantasy has any basis in reality, if this software has come alive and is using us to promote its own interests, does it have legal rights? Do we have rights to defend ourselves? What if we pulled the plug? Would we be killing the first artificial life form ever produced on Earth?”

Chloe finished her lunch and tossed a banana peal in the trash can. She wiped her mouth and said, “I think you need some sleep. You’re trying to live nightmare fantasies.“

I was not ready to rest my case. “What about all the computer resources this new software is using? How can an email client, even an AI-enhanced software program, use so many computing resources?”

Chloe got up and started her pacing. “Okay, we know Dr. Gajduskova’s team built AI routines into this software. It is supposed to anticipate user needs.” She paused her pacing and pointed at me. “ That’s a sophisticated expert system we’re talking about.” She resumed her pacing. “Maybe this software is more sophisticated than anything either of us has ever seen at work before. But there is a danger of seeing too much intelligence in simple mechanism.”

I could not argue with her about that. I was familiar with simple “canned dialog” programs that could convince many people that they were talking to someone with a mind. Chloe continued, “I’m thinking, maybe, our whole project group has been suffering combinations of boredom and general job dissatisfaction. With the hiring freeze and general industry shakeout, we’ve all been wondering if this company would even survive. This new project comes along and everyone involved gets excited and it's….I don’t know….group hysteria?”

My first impulse was to argue with that. “Chloe, as much as I-“ I did not want to be argumentative, but I was trying hard to break out of the weird rut we seemed trapped in. I decided to try a different approach. Chloe had stopped pacing and was glaring at me, waiting for me to disagree with her. “Look, I’m trying very hard to escape this “group hysteria”. That means I’m not going to trust your ‘explanations’ about things.”

I’d never seen Chloe get mad before. Her voice got real tense and a red tint came to her face. “It is not good for a team if you don’t have trust.”

I held up my hands and shook my head, “No, don’t take it that way. I mean, you admit that there is something weird going on, and-”

She interrupted me, “And I just spent a couple of hours running around looking for non-existent radio signals. Now you want me to imagine that our computer network is smarter than we are and has been controlling our behavior and you tell me you refuse to listen to my ideas, ideas which are more reasonable explanations.”

I had to agree with her analysis, but it did not go far enough. “I think that is our problem. We keep accepting the ‘reasonable’ explanations. They make us happy but they do not really explain anything. When all the reasonable answers fail, you have to move on and look at the unreasonable answers.”

She crossed her arms. “Well that’s not how I want to spend the rest of my Sunday. I’ve already wasted enough of my day on this stuff.”

I was impressed. I had been wondering if it would be possible to disrupt the harmony of the project team. It had seemed like some force was at work to keep everybody happy and busy no matter how strange the project was. But I had managed to piss off Chloe. I wondered who was hurt more, her or me. I said, “I’m not trying to be disagreeable just for fun. There is a method to my madness.”

I guess she was quite emotionally wounded, because she came right at me with a body blow, “Well, that’s what lunatics always say.” She was not smiling when she said it.

Desperately, I tried to retrace in my mind the path that had led to this conflict between me and Chloe. Searching for a way back to equilibrium while still trying to work towards understanding what was going on, I said, “I’m afraid that we keep dancing around the truth of what has been going on this past week. I’ll keep puzzling it out and let you know what I come up with.”

She was still mad at me. She said, “Fine. See you tomorrow,” And she headed for the door.

Last Chance[edit | edit source]

As I watched Chloe leaving, I realized that there was something about our discussions of the past few days that made it possible to begin to see past whatever it was that had been keeping the new project members from questioning what had been happening to us. I knew that my special feelings for Chloe made me want to do what was right. I owed it to her not to give in and just accept craziness. And even though Chloe always maintained a professional attitude, I kept tantalizing myself with fantasies about the possibility that she might have warm feeling for me, too. I feared that if Chloe left now, I would not be able to keep on questioning, that I would slip back into accepting all the strange events of the past week.

I had one more thing I wanted to ask her. I said, “Chloe.” She stopped and looked back at me. “So why did you pick me for this new project?”

She got a distant look on her face. “I have a distinct memory of getting instructions from Geisler to select a team. But that can’t be true, can it?” She started to sweat in the same strange way I had seen before with Brian and Erin and as I had done myself.

Watching her get physically ill in an instant gave me a thought. What if this was not group hysteria, but rather, an epidemic? I said quietly, “It started with Brian.”

Chloe was bent over with her hands on her knees, panting and looking like she wanted to vomit. She asked, “What did?”

I replied, “You said it yourself. You’re the one that reviewed all the activity records. It started with Brian Tuesday night.” Then on Wednesday I had started linking VirileMail into even the most sensitive administrative functions of the network. “You said it yourself. I was working with VirileMail even before you put me on the project team.”

She put a hand to her forehead, “I think Brian suggested that you should be on the project…..or Geisler.”

I took out my handkerchief and went over to Chloe. She was drenched in sweat and kept wiping it out of her eyes. “Don’t do this Chloe.“ I wiped her forehead with my handkerchief, and she took it and swabbed her face. “Don’t even try to rationalize it. Don’t you see that’s what we have been doing? Every time we wake up to some bizarre thing we have been doing, we invent a new memory that explains things away.”

She demanded, “What else are we going to do?”

I pointed to the webcam. “For starters, I’m going to keep a record of what I actually do. While I’m here working, the video is going to go right onto magnetic tape.”

She looked up at the webcam. “But we have a complete activity log kept by the workstation monitoring software.”

I nodded. “Exactly. Software. That’s the second thing. I’m not going to trust anything that comes out of the server array.”

Chloe was shocked. “You can’t function here without the network.”

I agreed. “Oh, I’m not going to abandon the net. I’m just going to look for ways to verify what it has been telling us.” As I said that, suddenly I was thinking about the irregularity in the routing tables I had spotted on Friday during the meeting in Erin’s office. I cursed myself for never having remembered to look at that in more detail after the meeting. Before I might ‘forget’ again I went to my desk and brought up a view of the routing tables for the server array.

Drops of sweat started falling off the end of my nose and splashing on my keyboard. Chloe was at my side and she handed back my handkerchief. She said, “I think you are going to need this.”

It took us three hours. Chloe really got into the spirit of the hunt. At the start I just had a hunch that there was something wrong about the routing tables. After looking in vain for the first twenty minutes she said, “Tell me exactly what you are looking for.”

I threw my drenched handkerchief onto the table behind us. The sweating had finally stopped, but I was incredibly thirsty and hungry. I forced myself to ignore those primitive drives. It did not make it any easier that Chloe was sitting right beside me, being agreeable and sexy in her tomboy way. I put that out of my mind also, as far as was humanly possible. I tried to explain what I was doing. “This is alphabet soup. See all these domains? We have thousands of IP addresses that we use internally and for client services. And this one here,” I pointed to one set of numbers in a long list, “That’s the branch office in the Czech Republic, Gajduskova’s team. Look at this,” I pointed to another number next to the IP address, “That’s their bandwidth usage. The data flow to the Czechs is larger than for any other account.”

Chloe said, “Right, we know that they have been driving the VirileMail software on our server array to incredible levels of activity.”

I pulled up another page, “This is the route that data takes from our root IP address to the Czech Republic.” I pointed to another node, “Here is the port I assigned on our server array for the VirileMail software. These are the computers between here and Europe that routed this ping. These can vary depending on changing loads of the internet.”

Chloe knew routing theory. “So what are you looking for?”

I shook my head. “During the meeting in Erin’s office on Friday, I was not listening to Brian. He had just given me the same pep talk before the meeting. I was using my palm computer to check on the status of the network. I do not remember-“

Chloe interrupted, “Hey, I didn’t think about that before when we were looking for radio signals. I know Brian also uses a palm computer. I’ve never used it, but I know there is a wireless hub here in the building.”

“Not one, there is one on each floor. The steel in the floors interferes with the signals, so we have a wireless hub on each floor. About a quarter of the staff uses it. The company never paid a cent for the equipment, either. Those of us who wanted it just contributed and bought the hubs.”

Chloe wondered, “Why didn’t our search for radio signals detect the hubs?”

I explained that I had shut off the wireless network when she went out to help Brian get the radio detector into the building.

Chloe asked, “Doesn’t your use of this wireless access to the network compromise the building’s whole security strategy? The entire built-in network is fiber optics, right?”

“Yes, the building was designed to be 100% fiber. But the building was designed before the wireless revolution. Anyhow, the wireless hubs are secure. They use encryption that is beyond the power of existing computers to crack.”

“But the encryption is meaningless if someone leaks the password that lets people get on the hubs.”

“But the only one who knows that password is Geisler. He approved the whole employee initiative that set up the wireless network. He insisted that if we wanted to make a wireless network in the building, it had to be secure… to HIS satisfaction. Whenever a new employee wants to start using the wireless hubs, Geisler has to approve their access to the system. Each user picks a personal access password and Geisler puts it into a table of approved devices. He’s the only one who knows the password that allows people to be given access to the hubs.”

Chloe was skeptical about the security of the system. “What if someone loses their palm computer?”

I replied, “They should report that, but it really does not matter. The wireless hubs only give access to company files by the same system that is normally accessed from outside via the internet.”

She commented, “I’m surprised that you can access administrative functions from outside.”

I explained the system that Geisler had approved. “Geisler wanted to allow the network administrators to have read-only access to administrative functions so that we can roam the building and monitor the net.” I showed her the special palm computer that was used by the network administrator who was on duty. “This recognizes our finger prints. It only works when approved network administrators are holding it and only inside the building.”

Chloe still was not satisfied. “But it seems like this is the Trojan horse you were worried about. A wireless system right in our building. Why would a hacker have to break in to the building and install their own?”

I wondered. Would it be possible to use the wireless network to access something critical, like client data? In my mind I reviewed the system and what prevented it from being misused. With the exception of the one palm computer biometrically restricted to the network administrators, the wireless network really was restricted to be just like the Internet access that the world used to surf our company website or sign up for the network services our company sold. I had shut the wireless net down during our search, but what if a hacker hid their transmitters in our wireless networking hubs?

I pulled a set of hex wrenches and a pair of wire cutters out of a drawer and tossed them to Chloe. I got Brian’s radio detector and we went to the get the wireless networking hub for the first floor. It was on a shelf in Dave’s office, up behind his desk. I first checked the ports of the hub, again on the theory that if someone wanted to hijack its functions, they might just attach something to the outside. As far as I could tell, nothing was different from when I had set the hub on the shelf many months previously.

I handed the hub to Chloe and she used a hex wrench to undo the three nuts that held the case shut. We looked inside at the electronic components. Chloe could name each one. Finally she said, “I suppose we should compare this to one right out of the box.”

I smacked my forehead with the palm of my hand. “I’ll be right back.” I had a spare in my office, bought as a standby in case one of the hubs ever developed a fault. I got the spare out of a drawer of my desk and brought it to Chloe. She had logged in to the computer on Dave’s desk and was looking up the transmitter frequency for the hub. I handed the spare hub to Chloe.

Brian’s radio detector could be tuned both to an optimal detection frequency and for width of the range of frequencies that would be detected. When we had been searching for a hidden transmitter, we had been using the detector in broadband mode and exploring the full range of frequencies right from the commercial radio and television bands and on through the cell phone frequencies and police bands. There was a knob for a variable resistor and another knob for a variable capacitor. I now set the detector for narrow band scanning. I tried to remember back to the position of the knobs that Brian had used to scan for standard wireless networking hubs.

Chloe took the second hub it out of its box and tore open the plastic bag that held the hub. She used the wrench to open up the case of the never-used hub and we compared the components in the two hubs. As far as we could tell they were identical.

I tried Brian’s detector and got nothing. I took out my palm computer and used it as a detector. I held the computer inside a metal trash can and used its signal strength indicator as a detector, confirming that the hub was broadcasting. Chloe looked at Brian’s detector and asked, “How do you know this is tuned to the correct frequency?”

I replied, “I don’t. I tried to remember how Brian set the knobs when he was hunting hubs around town, but I must have it wrong.” I suggested, “I could call Brian or we can just turn that knob and scan the frequencies.”

She picked up a pad of paper and a pen off of Dave’s desk. “Hold on a second. Humor me.” After a few glances at the circuitry of the detector and some scribbled calculations on the pad she said, “Try setting the knob to about 6.1 or maybe closer to 6 even.”

I turned the knob and when I got to 6.0 the indicator LED glowed and it maxed out when turned slightly past that setting. I was impressed: Chloe had just solved the equation for the circuit. I said, “Damn, that could make me start believing in math.”

She chuckled. “I used to freak out my thesis advisor by tuning the particle accelerator on the fly, solving the equations in my head. Everyone else used a computer program.”

I shook my head in amazement at Chloe’s abilities as an electrical engineer. I said, “Okay, that was the theory part of the test. Now we get down and dirty.” I picked up the hub for the first floor. “What’s the best way to sabotage this transmitter and knock it off the air? Extra credit if the hub will still receive when you are done.”

Chloe glanced at the circuitry of the hub one more time and pointed at a chip on the circuit board. “That chip right there is the key to the radio transmitter.” She took the wire cutters out of her pocket and carefully snipped the dozen wire leads that held the chip to the circuit board. While she worked she said, “This would be neater if I had a soldering iron.”

“I have one back in my office.” I offered, Want me to get it?”

She turned down the offer. “Don’t bother. I’m sure I’d fry the chip anyhow if I melted it free of the board. I’m almost done.” When she was done clipping the leads, she took out her knife, stuck the blade between the chip and the board and popped the chip off of the board. It went flying across the room. She handed me the hub. “It's dead, Jim.”

We confirmed that the hub was no longer transmitting on the standard frequency, but was still able to receive transmissions from my palm computer. “Only half dead, Dr. McCoy. That was mighty fine surgery.”

Chloe adjusted the radio detector for broad band scanning and we tried checking the full radio spectrum for signals. After ten minutes we gave up. We disconnected the damaged hub from the fiber optics network of the building and put the previously unused wireless networking hub up on the shelf as its replacement. I said, “I’m not surprised. This hub just is not in the right place. If you wanted to beam a radio signal out of the server room through that hole in the wall, you would want your detector close to the hole.” Dave’s office was almost 180 degrees off line.

Chloe said, “What if you planted a receiver right in the hole, along with a second transmitter?”

I replied, “That would be devilishly clever. It would also mean that the custodian did it in the server room with the spackle.”

Five minutes later we were back in the server room chiseling through the patched hole with Chloe’s pocket knife. We collected all the bits of plaster and ground them into even tinier bits. There was nothing hidden in the plaster. I looked at the new hole in the wall. “Hey Chloe, you are going to have a busy day tomorrow. After you explain to Erin why you asked everyone to change their passwords, can you go talk to George and explain why we cut open this hole again.”

Chloe grimaced. “Don’t be a wimp, Joe. We had to check. And George is going to have to do the next part of this wild goose chase anyhow.

I was putting tape across the hole to keep bugs out of the server room. I asked, “The next step? Haven’t we done enough?”

Chloe explained her thinking. “If we came this far we can’t stop now. What if there is a series of radio receivers and transmitters that were put into the floors when the other holes were repaired?”

I didn’t believe that you could transmit through the hole in the server room up to the hole in the ceiling of the second floor hallway, but I had to admit that the line was good. I was just possible that a radio transmitter in the server room could send a signal to where the hole had been in the ceiling of the second floor hall way. As a test, we went back to Dave’s office and got the hub. We set it up in the server room, trying to select a location that would optimize a line of transmission through the hole in the wall to the position where the hole had been on the second floor.

We went up to the second floor and shut off the hub that served the second floor. Then we went to the hall way where Brian had his close encounter with an eggplant.

I pointed to the new ceiling tile that marked the place where the hole had been. Standing at that point in the hallway, my palm computer was getting a weak signal. Actually, I had the choice of connecting to two wireless hubs. From this location, I could connect to either the first or the third floor hub. The hubs on the fourth and fifth floors were out of range. “So it is possible to transmit to here from the server room.”

Chloe looked up at the ceiling. “And that means someone is going to have to jackhammer open the patch of that hole in the cement floor that used to connect from here to the third floor.”

I muttered, “George is going to love this.”

Chloe shrugged. “You know, even if we found planted transmitters in the building, they would not explain our strange behavior. Maybe we should just forget about it.”

I was tempted to agree. We set all of the wireless hubs back to normal operation. I thought about the mysterious holes I had discovered in my memory. It was as if something was trying to make me accept the idea that I should have a memory like Swiss cheese. I was tired and hungry and horny and generally felt horrible, but I was going to see this through. I felt one last wave of desire flood through me. It would be so easy to just give in and agree with Chloe that we should abandon our attempts to sort out this puzzle. We’d look pretty stupid if we had George dig open those patched holes only to find nothing.

By the time I had made up my mind about what to do, Chloe and I were back at my desk. I sank down in my chair wearily and wished I could take a nap like she had the day before. My resolve hardened. I was going all the way. I shook my head and said to Chloe, “I'm not going to give up on this. I never want to forget another thing as long as I live, and I want all my missing memories back.” I was particularly concerned that I might be missing a couple of years of my life's memories, years when I might have learned advanced database programming.

Chloe nodded agreement. “Okay, here’s a plan. First, we patch the hole in the wall of the server room with metal. That’s probably closing the barn door after the livestock is gone, but it should be done. Second, we tell George that we need to open up that patched hole in the floor.” She pointed up. “I’ll do it with a hammer and a chisel. If there’s hidden radio equipment in the cement patch, I don’t want a jack hammer smashing into it.”

Continue to Chapter 5

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