Back to work after a long weekend sucks, doesn’t it?
At least that’s what I remember. I haven’t had a ‘long weekend’ in so many years I can’t remember the last one. This is the downside of being the Admiral, I suppose?
On the plus side, nobody beats the view from my office.
Like I said last week, I’ll be doing the double-posting each week as long as the chapters keep bouncing between what I was doing and what Cass was doing.
I was still stuck with Jamie and Evan, but it nearly got worse. I’ll let you read the chapter to figure out how.
Meanwhile Cass was kicking ass in her own way. All these years later and Mac still doesn’t believe how it all went down!
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Chapter 14: Not Another Boat!
Fort Massachusetts was a relic, preserved for posterity through constant effort against the best nature could throw at it. A D-shaped masonry structure, it had originally been located a few hundred meters from the north shore of Ship, but decades of erosion and hurricanes had swept away the land until only a few meters separated the water from the curved outer wall. Typical of construction of the period, shallow arches provided ample access to the interior.
After the near-debacle with the APV, Kendra’s infiltration plan was accepted by silent assent. One by one Evan, Jamey and Kendra slipped into the groups of tourists wandering around the fort, mingling and striking up conversations with random strangers. Drifting with the tide they made their way to the ferry landing, where a young attendant was gathering the visitors.
“Last ferry! Ten minutes until the last ferry leaves for Gulfport!” he called, then spoke more quietly to a young woman who had apparently asked a question. “If you lost your ticket, you have to pay the full fare for return, twenty dixies.”
“Not my rule, sorry.”
“Cash only. No credit, no e-deb. Ten minutes!” he called again, after the youth had moved on.
Kendra was close enough to hear half the conversation. It eased her mind a bit, but quick on the heels of that thought came a less-pleasant one: did she have any dixies? Without making too much of it, she started searching her bag. Ah, there! Not many, but enough. Emboldened, she strode toward the boat.
Boarding was simplicity itself: cross a short gangplank and she was aboard. No ticket check, nobody collecting fares, nothing. She wandered, noting the location of lifeboats, emergency supplies – all the minutiae that a trained agent does without a second thought to ensure her survival. During her tour of the boat, she managed to find both Evan and Jamey and share hurried, whispered conversations.
Neither had a ticket, of course, and neither had brought any cash.
Rookies! she thought. She’d just have to do the thinking for them. She told them each to make themselves scarce and she’d figure something out.
The ferry was punctual, at least. Ten minutes later the deck’s vibration took on a different feel, and she noticed the gap between the boat and dock growing. Now, she thought, they’ll start checking tickets.
She wasn’t far off. Within ten minutes the same loud youngster was circulating through the crowd, collecting old-fashioned paper tickets. There seemed to be just the one, which fell nicely into her plan. If there had been two, there might have been trouble, but as it was… One, she could handle and be subtle. She didn’t try to evade or dodge; she stood still and awaited him.
He wasn’t long. The natural milling of the other passengers soon brought him to the one stationary person in the room, Kendra.
She put a twenty-five dixie note in his hand. “Ah’m sorry,” she said in her best drawl. “Ah seem to have lost mah ticket.”
“This is fine, miss. I owe you five dixies.” He started digging through his pockets.
“Oh, no need fo that, you jes keep it. You work fah too ha’d.”
“Thank you, miss – ah, I didn’t get your name.”
“Deering, Wilma Deering, but y’all can call me Wilma.”
The young man – younger than she thought, apparently – stammered his thanks again before adding, “My name’s Chris Blue.”
“Why, such an unusual name!” She batted her eyelashes at him in the time-honored manner and took his arm. “How ever did you start working on this fine little boat?”
That did it. He was hooked. He spent the rest of the twenty kilometer trip with Kendra stuck to his side, unobtrusively steering him away from her fellow agents as he made his rounds, all the while making appreciative little noises at even the most banal comment.
As the ferry approached the Mississippi dock, he finally brought himself back to reality.
“I’m sorry, miss, but I have to help tie us up.”
“Oh, what a shame! And Ah was having such a wonderful time listening to your stories!” The thicker she laid it on, the more he ate it up.
“It won’t take long. Have you had dinner? I know this great little place, it’s called the Shrimp Shack, my cousin Gary runs it. They’re always busy, but he can get us in, and they do the finest shrimp and grits this side of Mobile!”
“Sounds heavenly! The Shrimp Shack? Lawdy, yes, you can take me to dinner, just give me a little time to freshen up, won’t you? A girl likes to look her best when out with such a handsome man.”
“An hour enough time?”
“Oh, more than enough.”
Chris” grin could have split his face in half. “An hour, then.” And he raced off to help tie the ferry to the dock.
Kendra found the others. “Ready boys?”
“What’s the plan?” asked Jamey.
“Get off the boat and get the hell out of Gulfport before I have to eat grits,” ground out Kendra.
Chapter 15: Electrons in The Night
“I’m really not sure about this.”
Mac was walking Cass back to her quarters. The proposition from Talbott was, on its surface, simple enough: Mac would coordinate the attempt to determine Dr. Mantchev’s status remotely by hacking into HLC’s computers. If that failed, Cass wasn’t sure what the next step would be.
Cass was enthusiastic about the project, since it was her friend’s fate they were investigating; Mac, not so much.
“Why not?” Cass queried. “I mean, best case, you get into their security remotely and we don’t have to even leave the building, right? Didn’t you tell me that you’re good at that sort of stuff?”
Mac groaned. “I guess I shouldn’t have said that so often but you’re right if it all goes according to plan then I can get in and out before they knew what hit them.”
“That’s the spirit!” gushed Cass. She needed Mac to be at her best; she knew that she couldn’t get into Security at HLC, even using her real ID.
“At least I don’t have to worry now that I’ll get in trouble if the Director found out because she already knows and it’s actually her idea, I just hope it works because I’m not good in the field in fact I’ve never been on a mission away from here and it’s kind of freaking me out just thinking about it.”
“Then stop thinking about that and let’s try to get it done here,” reassured Cass.
The terminal they had been assigned was in a community access room with three other terminals. To both women’s relief, they were all unoccupied; they wouldn’t have to take extra precautions to keep their session private. They found their terminal and settled in. Already, being in front of the screen, Mac seemed more relaxed. Cass began to hope, but caution caught her first.
“Hold it,” said Cass before Mac got too engrossed.
“Huh? What’s the problem why do you want me to stop?”
“Check the terminal.”
“I’ve been thinking. Would you say that Talbott usually supports this kind of project?”
“Um, what kind of project do you mean?”
“One brought to her by someone else, someone outside the organization.”
“Oh.” Mac was, mercifully, silent.
“Exactly. On top of that – look, I don’t know her at all, but her change of mood and perspective seems just a little bit, well, suspicious.”
“Oh,” repeated Mac.
“She assigned this terminal to us.”
“I’d be very, very suspicious of this. You’re not the only hacker she employs, right?”
“I’m sure you’re the best, but how tough would it be to monitor the traffic from the terminal?”
“Oh, that’s actually really easy, it just takes a repeater, or maybe a splitter down the connection, or –”
“My point,” interrupted Cass, “Is that it could be done easily. In fact, this terminal could already be rigged for surveillance, ahead of time, right?”
“Right. That brings us back to what I said.”
“Um. What did you say, I forgot, sorry?”
Cass sighed. “Check the terminal. Make sure it’s secure.”
“I can do that!” Mac took out her personal comp and fiddled, explaining as she did so. “I’m going to use my comp to communicate to an account that I’ll access through the terminal, I can measure how long it takes to respond, I know how fast the system should be and if there’s any sort of relay there would be a lag in the response time and if it’s a splitter and signal is being diverted I can track that too because the strength will be decreased so it’s not going to be any problem and oh shit.”
“Tapped?” said Cass.
“Tapped,” agreed Mac. “Splitter and relay both.”
“Can you get around them?”
“No if they were both programming hacks I could but the splitter is physical and it could be anywhere between here and the central network connection. But –”
“Well everyone thinks I’m a ditz I know it it’s not a bad thing sometimes it’s just that I’m better with machines than people but anyways if we ended up at that terminal –” Mac gestured across the room. “- Well, it would just be old goofy me making another mistake and there’s no way you would know that that wasn’t terminal THX-1187 is there?”
“Mac, you’re a genius!” Mac blushed but didn’t say anything, instead leading them to the terminal she’d indicated. Without saying anything, she ran the same tests as she had on the compromised one before turning to Cass and grinning.
“This one’s clean, we can use it without anyone reading what we’re doing, I’m going to have to do a little hack to get out of the local network since this terminal wasn’t set up for external links but that’s easy I do that all the time but don’t tell anyone I’d get into trouble.” By the time she took a breath she was smiling broadly. “That’s it we’re connected and where did you want to go?”
“We need to tap into Heavy Lift Corporation’s network and find out what’s going on with Dr. Lisa Mantchev.”
Mac’s skill was not exaggerated. Using a combination of keystrokes, gestures, and voice commands, she easily overrode the security HLC had set up around its system.
“Do you have any idea where the information we’re looking for might be stored, I can do a global search and try to find her name but that could be problematic, besides risking triggering an alert since if she’s really in trouble there have to be protocols set up to prevent people from doing what we’re doing, though I could take those down if I have to, but the other issue is there are going to be references to her all through the system, payroll, HR, her lab results, and sooner or later we’re gonna get kicked out of the system so where do we go from here?”
“Why don’t you try their security logs? If they’ve done anything with her, like brought her in unwillingly, they have to have a record of it, right?”
“Sure,” agreed Mac, and began her wizardry again. A few moments passed.
“Okay, there’s an entry that corresponds to her address but it’s pretty unspecific as to who went there and why, just that it was part of an ongoing investigation but that could be an interview at her home not a snatch.”
“An in-home interview doesn’t make sense. She’s at the lab every day, just about, and I know they’ve asked her questions during her workday at least once. No, if they went out to her home, they were there to grab her. Mac, who was notified of that visit?”
“Nobody, it’s just a log entry. The only person who’s accessed it is a muckety-muck in Security, going by their access codes, so someone’s in the loop on this pretty high up.”
Cass thought. “Try payroll, see if there’s something there – I know that off-site work is coded differently, I had to learn that when I started working from home.”
More fingers flying. “You’re right, there’s fifteen entries for off-site work for the time period around the notation in the security log, but that’s an awful lot of people to get one scientist, no offense!”
“Can we see the individual entries? Maybe we can narrow them down, figure out which ones were people working from home and eliminate them?”
“It’ll take some time, I have to link them to the personnel records and that can get tricky if I don’t want to leave my fingerprints all over the site.”
“Do what you need to do,” said Cass. She sat back and forced herself to relax. She was going to figure this out, but she had to rely of Mac’s ability.
“I can get them to display individually but not as a group since they’re scattered all over task codes and departments,” said Mac.
“They’re coded by department? Why didn’t you say so?”
“Is that important?”
“They wouldn’t send someone from, say, Optics to visit Lisa – she’s a bioelectrical engineer, and she works in the Power Generation department. It’s gotta be either someone from that department or Security.”
“Or uncoded,” added Mac. “There’s four of those, they don’t have a departmental code, they’re just pay entries, and pretty hefty ones too if I’m reading this right, they must have some sweet jobs to get paid that much!”
No code? Big money? Cass grasped Mac’s arm. “Those four. Can you get into their files?”
She tapped for a few moments before shaking her head. “I can’t, actually it’s not that I can’t but they don’t seem to have files, not like you do or the other regular employees, there’s not even a name listed just routing and account numbers so their pay can get to them, other than that there’s nothing at all not even a date of hire. Ooh, this is interesting, the same Security officer who accessed the log is all over their pay entries, does HLC usually have Security mess around with payroll information?”
“Not as far as I know. Mac, I think we’ve found our scumbags,” said Cass. “Now we have to figure out – wait. No, it doesn’t matter who they are, does it?”
Mac looked confused but Cass didn’t notice. She was running ideas out loud, not really looking for feedback.
“We have four people who don’t exist in the system except as highly-paid codes with no personal data. We need to know what they did with Lisa, where they took her, what’s happened with Kevin, what she’s told them – all sorts of things. Records, records, records, there have to be records somewhere!”
Cass didn’t hear Mac. “How do we find them? Dammit, it has to be simple or we’re in trouble!”
“Cass?” repeated Mac, a little more strongly.
“I didn’t want to interrupt you, you seem to be thinking hard, but I have to tell you two things, well one thing I have to tell you right away and the other can probably wait.”
“Okay, what do you have to tell me?”
“HLC is trying to trace the hack, and I have to disconnect or they’ll find out who did it and that wouldn’t make the Director happy at all and you’ve seen how she gets when -”
“Mac, shut up and drop the link!”
“Right.” Mac got them out of the system. “I can get back in when you want me to, it won’t be that hard unless they change all their protocols which they can’t do anyway not on short notice like that so we have some time before we’re permanently locked out it’ll just take a little work on my end to go through a different router and my cut-outs so that they aren’t able to trace us quickly.”
“Now that we’re safe – we are safe, right? Yes or no, Mac.”
“Good. What was the other thing you wanted to tell me?”
“Oh yeah, it’s about the records you want, I was thinking that it wouldn’t make much sense for them to keep them in the system, you see how vulnerable they are to attacks and that’s not the kind of thing you want to keep in there so if I was them, not that I am or would ever do something like you think they did to your friend, that really sucks and it’s just mean too, in any case if I was them I’d just have a paper file in a safe or something.”
Cass thought about this. “If it’s on paper, there’s no way we can get to it from here, is there?”
“Probably not, unless they’ve done something really foolish like scan it in for their own records, or maybe they made a copy of it, that might have happened, and if they did then there’s going to be a memory scan in the machine, the problem there is most copiers are standalones and not networked into anything I could hack into, which means we’d have to go to every machine and check their memories which could take a long long time even if we got in there, we’d have to pose as technicians or something.”
“Wouldn’t it be simpler if -” started Cass, but Mac had a head of steam up and just carried on.
“There’d have to be some sort of problem for techs to be called in, though, wonder if I could dump some sort of virus into the system that would affect the copiers, wonder if it would have to be a physical attack instead, maybe a nanobot, but we’d have to already be there or maybe use someone as our mule to bring it into the building, even then there’s no guarantee that they’ll call for outside help because I’m sure they have good techs there with all the servers they have, why do they need that many servers anyway?”
Mac looked up from her musing.
“We don’t want to poke around every copier, do we? Wouldn’t it be easier just to find the paper file? Assuming we have to infiltrate HLC, which it looks more and more like we will.”
“Well, if you put it that way…”
“We still have to figure out where that file would be. Got any ideas?”
“Actually, yes, if I can tease some more information out of those payroll records I might be able to tell who they reported to, or at least what department, that would narrow it down so it wouldn’t take quite as long to search, we know that it would have to be someone high up in HLC to order this, there might only be two or three names, we could get in and out pretty quickly in that case, and there’s that Security officer whose codes are all over this, I’ll bet anything that they’re the ones with the file if there is a file which I’m not entirely sure of but like you said it does seem to be the best bet if I can’t find anything online which I’ll check for before we try to do anything on the ground.”
“We’re going to do this, aren’t we?” Cass realized. “I’m not the secret agent in the family; Kendra is!”
“Guess she’ll have a little competition then.”