Saturday, November 3, 2007

Things are Getting Insane

Things are Getting Insane

So I'm finally getting some sleep. At 6am my cell phone starts ringing and buzzing. I roll over and ignore it. It rings a second and third time, playing some awful chimey sound. Finally Ellie kicks me. "Turn that fucking thing off," she whimpers. "It's fucking 6 in the morning."

I throw on some sweatpants and grab the phone. The cabin is cold in the morning, and I get goosebumps as I move around the room.

"What," I spit into the phone as I walk into the hall, closing the door gently behind me.

"Hi, it's me, Carrie Park, from work. I'm on my way over there. We've got to meet."

I'm silent for a moment. "What? Huh? Do you know what time it is?"

Her tinny voice is even more crackled over the cell connection. "We don't have much time. I've been working on that list all night. I haven't been able to crack the security to get to the original file. Do you have your laptop with you? If I'm right, we've got to move. Another hit is going down today, any minute even. And it's someone I know."

I stumble down the stairs to the kitchen where I left my laptop. I find my bluetooth headset so I can talk to Carrie and work the computer at the same time. Rough sounds murmur through the phone, so I figure she's driving.

"Where are you? I'm almost connected."

"I'm on 50, just past Placerville. Probably less than an hour away. You need to look at the hit list. I've got to show you something."

My still-sleeping brain processes the information slowly. "Are you nuts? You're coming here?"

I log in thru the VPN system. I'm not sure if I'm thankful or if I regret installing a high-speed internet connection at the cabin. Ellie insisted so she could have fast access to whatever it is she does online. In moments I find the list and scroll to the end.

"Listen Alex, if I'm right about this, we have a change to stop this attack. Look at the next name on the list. Professor Charles Benson. He's a faculty member at Stanford, and he was one of my thesis mentors. He also has a cabin out near Tahoe, and he's supposed to be having a student retreat out there today. It's a perfect opportunity."

"Um, what's he done? I don't get all of this. A professor?"

"Here's the thing. Apparently Benson has been working on some top-secret research project. Maybe you can access those files. My guess is that he's gotten in too deep and that's made whoever's behind this really nervous. They want him out of the picture before he can blow the whistle."

"None of this makes any sense," I start whining. "The company is doing great. People love our product. Heck, my girlfriend Ellie is hooked on our social apps. We preach goodness and fairness." I search through the secret docs but I can't find anything that mentions Prof. Benson.

"It's a cover," she says. "We're just the shell of something bigger. Do you ever wonder why you never go to Building Four? There's never any meetings in it, and you can't even look at the floor plan. I never see anyone entering or leaving, at least not from the street."

"I thought that building was all servers and only a small staff worked there."

"Well, I found out that dozens of people eat, sleep, and work there, never leaving. Something is going on in there. Listen, where can we meet?"

I look at my watch. 6:20. "Crap. I'm supposed to going hiking with Ellie this morning."

"Damn it Alex, this man could die, and we're the only ones who can stop it. He might hold the key to what's been happening. We've got to warn him. His web site lists his cabin's address for his students."

"Why do you need me? Can't you just call him?"

Carrie sighed over the phone. "You brought this to me, Alex. You have the access. We need to show him what you found and try to get an explanation. If we have to we'll threaten to expose him if he doesn't help us."

I heave a big sigh and give her my address. I don't want Ellie to be stranded so I figure the best plan is to have Carrie drive. As I hang up, the nerves start frying again. I just gave her my address, I realize. If she's not on the level, we're in trouble. Just in case, I find and load my dad's old shotgun, and place it where I can get it easily if the need arises. I take a quick shower and pack a few things in my hiking backpack. I write out a note for Ellie, apologizing for missing our planned hike.

I hear the crunchy sound of a car climbing the gravel road to our cabin. I grab the shotgun and peer out the window. I see a rusty old Corolla winding up the the path. It's not the kind of car I'd expect from a top-paid developer, but I finally make out her figure in the dim pre-dawn light.

I throw on my backpack and quietly leave the cabin. When I open the door, Carrie is hastily cleaning out all the junk strewn around the car. Trash, papers, wrappers, empty water and soda containers, just about everything.

"Sorry," she said. "I usually don't have passengers. Are you doing ok?"

She peers at me through those thick glasses of hers. I throw my stuff over a pile of junk in the back and we pull away from the cabin.

"Yeah. I'm supposed to be getting ready for a hike with my girlfriend."

"Is she a big outdoors person?"

I smile and shake my head. "Let's just say when I say 'hike' what I really mean is getting out into nature...and doing what comes naturally. It's more of an picnic than a hike." I'm not sure why I said that.

"Ah," she replies. "Nothing like nature. So she doesn't like doing anything strenuous."

I laugh at that one. "You don't know Ellie. One time we went hiking for real. She has a friend who lent her all this high-tech climbing gear. When we got to the hard parts, she attacked them like she was insane. She was yelling at me to keep up, and it ended in a big weird fight. You don't understand her. She's really intense sometimes, and other times she's a complete veg. Like her aerobics class she teaches. It's not one of those step or dance class. It's what they call 'bootcamp.' I mean she does the whole thing including the yelling and insulting. She talked me into the class once. About 15 minutes in I couldn't take it anymore and I bolted."

"Wow, did she bust you up for that?"

"Nah, she was actually cool about it. She said, 'it's not for everyone' but not in an insulting way. The rest of the people in that class looked like soldiers trying to keep in shape between tours. Some of them drive over an hour just for the class."

"That must be intimidating."

I'm silent for a moment. "You know, there's these two sides to her. The spitfire aerobics instructor is one I almost never see. It's the side I hope I never see. Usually she's all over me and wants to spend time with me. I don't think we've spend a night apart since we met."

"Sounds exhausting. This girlfriend of yours, Ellie? Is this something serious?"

I shrug. "I don't know. We spend a lot of time together, but sometimes we just don't connect. It's like we've been together for a while now and I barely know her sometimes. She's really reserved and hates talking about herself. Although she talks all the time, it's always about some gossip she's heard. She won't talk much about her past. I think some bad stuff has happened. Someday I hope she'll be comfortable enough to talk to me."

"Jeez, that sounds complicated. How long have you been together?"

"We met about eight months ago, right when the startup I was at went under. She was sorta there for me during that rough patch. In fact, she was the one who got me the interview here through a friend of hers. We just kinda moved in together after a few weeks. So what about you? Any men in your life? Any complicated relationships?"

Carrie snorts. "Right. I spend all my time at the office or on the road. And besides, I'm not exactly topping the 'hot or not' charts. I don't get guys banging down my doors."

I take a sideways glance at her. In this light she doesn't look half bad. A couple day ago at Halloween I remember that she actually dressed up as some kind of Pokemon character or something and she looked cute. "Come on Carrie. Don't sell yourself short."

"Kinda hard when you're only five-foot-one." I could see her smiling.

"You just need to get out there. Don't work so much. Be willing to meet people and smile once in a while."

"I don't have time for any of that. Relationships are complicated and messy. I mean, don't you find all your free time dealing with your relationship issues?"

I thought about that for a moment. "I guess. But I like being with her most of the time."

"What do you guys do? Do you go to art shows or the theater?"

"She mostly likes to go dancing. She likes being out there on the floor where she gets a lot of attention. Heck half the time she's just dancing out there with strangers."

"Doesn't that bother you? Do you trust her?"

"Hey, I always get to go home with her. She just likes to do some harmless flirting I guess. We're strictly monogamous, so it's not that kind of thing. We also go to Giants and Niners games. She doesn't understand a thing about them and talks on her phone the whole time, but I appreciate the effort to support my interests. So how far are we from the professor?"

Carrie reaches down and throws me a stack of paper. "It's in there somewhere. It's not far."

I look at the papers, one with gum sticking to it. "For someone who's supposed to be super brilliant, you're super disorganized."

Carrie shoots me a look as the sun begins to peek around the mountains. "I focus on what's important. Spending a lot of time organizing stuff is distracting. Every once in a while I just gather up stuff and toss it out en masse whether I need it or not."

"Ellie's the most organized person I know. I think she plans her wardrobe a week in advance."

Carrie chuckles. "Half the time I don't know which pile of clothes is clean and which is dirty."

I start feeling relaxed as the car putters through the winding hills. My first few meetings with Carrie had been awkward and intimidating. But now she seemed to be revealing another side of her.

I finally find our location on the map, and we're actually minutes away.

"Stop the car here," I tell Carrie. "We should approach on foot so we can scout out bad guys.

Carrie agrees and pulls the the car off the road. I hoist my backpack on my shoulder. We walk in comparative silence, just looking like some day hikers or hitchers. Finally we spot the professor's house.

"I only see one car," says Carrie. "Maybe his students don't arrive 'til later."

The cabin is perched on a slope above the main street. A long sinuous driveways leads up to the garage. We look around.

I hear a snapping sound then a shot.

"Shit, someone shot at us!" The snap was a bullet whizzing by our heads. I grab Carrie by the sleeve and pull her behind a nearby rock.

"Stop shooting!" I scream.

"You're not taking me without a fight," answers the shooter from somewhere up near or in the cabin.

I try to look around the rock but the sniper fires again.

"Hold on! We're not here to hurt you!"

Carrie tugs my sleeve. "Tell him I'm here. I used to be a student of his."

"I have Carrie Park with me! Professor! We're just here to talk!"

"Let me see her. No quick moves and hands where I can see them."

I look at Carrie who is pressed up against the rock. Her breath is coming fast and hard, and she looks like she's about to puke. I nod at her and motion for her to go. She slides across the rock and waves her hands. No shots come.

"Professor! It's me, Carrie! I'm here with a friend."

"Hold it right there," he replies. "I know you work for Infinitae. You're one of them!"

"No I'm not," she cries back. "I just found out about this yesterday. Please, let us come and talk to you. It might not be safe out here."

The professor is silent for a moment, and then waves to us. "OK, just hurry up."

We run up the steps leading to his house while he trains his gun on us. When we get inside, he makes me take off my pack and then pats us both down. He hugs Carrie once he feels safe.

"God, god, what has the world come to," he says as he sits down heavily on a wooden chair, and we sit on a couch. Rustic framing and furniture decorates his cabin, providing it with an Old West feel, even though it seems only a few years old. The professor is a tall, willowy man, wearing a sweater and slacks. "Carrie, it's so good to see you again. You just breezed through your dissertation and right into the industry. We had hoped you would be around for a few years."

"Yeah," she says. "Infinitae really pressed hard on me. I've got a staff, I have equipment, I can really accomplish things in a fraction of the time. Don't worry though, I'm working on throwing some stuff your way, stuff that only requires brainpower, not money."

"If I can live that long. You're here right now so you must know something."

"We only have a list," she replies, pulling the paper from her back pocket. "And you're next."

I notice that she has marked up the list extensively, drawing lines and circles and copious notes. The professor studies it for a minute.

"Yes. Loose ends, security risks, and some just competitors. How much do you know about Project Envelope?"

We look at each other. "Never heard of it."

"I had been asked to come in because some of the work I've done on signal analysis. They wanted to talk to me about building a new kind of search instrument. Something about a flexible index that could be updated millions of times a second for the most accurate results."

"That doesn't sound very novel," I comment.

"You don't understand," he replies, leaning forward and lowering his voice. "It's not the technology. It's the application. Project Envelope is about computer warfare. The index is for espionage. Infinitae is just a front for a huge military experiment. The biggest problem they have is that due to their ridiculous and unexpected success in other areas, their low profile has been smashed. Bits and parts of Project Envelope have filtered down into the main development team. Half the projects you work on either directly or indirectly contribute to Envelope. The people on this list have either found out or figured out what is going on. My guess is that Infinitae has intercepted some data indicating that they suspected. Also some of the deaths can be attributed to people who refused to sell their company to Infinitae. With their CEO's or main talent dead, those companies then have no choice but to deal."

"I don't get it," I say. "Infinitae is a successful company, why would we even need the government?"

Professor Benson smirks at us. "So, you truly believe that your main applications really rake in that much money? Or could it really be a series of government servers artificially inflating traffic? Maybe it's some advertisers who 'provide' a lot of the income, even though in reality they get very little traffic if any? Everything can be cooked. You're just not as popular as people think. At least half your income comes from the government. We're talking billions of dollars of funding."

Carrie rubs her face in her hands. "But why? Can't the NSA or whoever just get this information on their own? And why the killings? Surely it will eventually get back to them."

"I don't know. My gut feeling is that this is a rogue operation that the main government doesn't even know about. Someone is trying to prove something."

I look at Carrie and the Professor. "I witnessed the last hit. These guys are for real. We've got to be able to do something. We need to keep you alive so you can tell your story."

"If you found me here, then they won't be far behind," he says, rising from his chair. "You two are in a perfect position, inside the company. You need to find a way to get deeper inside. We need to know who's pulling the strings. Right now they have complete deniability. We need some solid proof. You might be the only hope--"

The professor stops as I hear some tinkling of glass. For a long moment he just stands there, looking blank. A line of blood seeps out his nose. He then collapses, blood flowing out of the back of his head. Carrie screams. I then see the small hole in the window.

"Sniper!" I cry out as we duck down on the ground. I hear the gunning of an engine as a car peels away. I grab the professor's rifle but the car has already disappeared down the road.

Carrie shakes the professor, but we both know he is dead.

"What the fuck are we going to do," I cry out. I feel like shitting and puking at the same time. I run my hands through my head. The blood from his headwound is pooling under his body.

"First, calm down," says Carrie. "We need to get out of here. We've got to clean this place up and leave no traces. We can't be associated with this. Infinitae would like nothing better than to point the finger at us. Remember, you were at the last hit too. Probably got on a camera."

"Shit, shit, shit. What the fuck? All the previous hits had looked like accidents."

"This one will too. We're far enough out that they could blame a stray shot from a deer hunter. If you look at the trajectory, you'll see that it's possible. Whoever made this shot is an expert marksmen. But it won't look like an accident if we leave traces."

I can't think so I just nod at her. She seems so calm. Ellie probably would have fainted at the sight of the blood. She gets hysterical when she breaks a nail. Actually I take that back. I've seen her get scraped and cut, like the time she fell mountain biking. She just shrugged it off and it turned out she needed eight stitches. Maybe I'm the one about to faint. Shit, I really need help.

We clean the gun and all the surfaces we've touched. "What about the body," I ask Carrie.

"Just leave it. Someone will eventually notice, probably on Monday when classes are back."

I nod. We run back to the car and I whip out my laptop.

"What are you doing," asked Carrie.

"I'm getting this all down. I've been posting everything that's happened on this blog I stole."

"What?? Are you nuts??" Carrie seems to be about to have a fit.

"There needs to be a record," I explain. "If anything happens to us, someone will know the truth. I'm using this guys blog from Seattle. It gets no traffic at all, so I think we're safe."

I've typed all this on the drive back. As we pull up to our cabin, I see Ellie over there fingering the shotgun, and my brother Brad is there too.


OK now it's almost 10pm. The rest of today has been hellish, but I think I'll throw this up and fill you all in tomorrow about how shitty the rest of my day has been. I'm just too mentally exhausted to type any more.

See you all tomorrow...I hope.

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