Chapter One of VirileMailEdit
Hi, I'm Joe Daonet, and I'd like to share a strange story about events that took place a few years back. It's quite complicated, but I think you'll enjoy it.
I woke up late one Tuesday morning. Not that this is an unusual occurrence. As a matter of fact, it happens quite frequently. I drove to work faster than usual. It was nice until some left-lane enforcers blocked my way. I was trying to top my old top speed of 135 km/h. It wasn't meant to be; the fastest I could go was 132 km/h. Very disappointing.
I got to work just after 9. No one noticed. The network administrator who was working the night shift was asleep, with the automated network monitors doing all the work. It was a job where much of the time all you did was just sit and wait. There was time to keep up on the latest tricks in network administration and hope one day that something you knew would be useful.
"Maybe today is the day," I thought to myself. I sat eagerly in front of my laptop checking the status of the equipment. "ALL NODES ONLINE." Nope. Nothing today.
It was a few hours later that it happened. Suddenly disaster struck! I glanced for a second at my laptop and saw the node called 'WebServer' was down. I opened up a browser and attempted to access our web site. Firefox told me that there was an error connecting to the server. Panic started building up inside me.
I opened up a terminal and pinged the server's IP. Nothing.
There was screaming inside my head.
I was suddenly caught up in a haze of panic. Hackers! They had probably not only brought down our web site, but stolen all the credit card numbers, login names, and passwords, too! This was more than a disaster, the company could really suffer from this! I could get fired!
The screaming in my head increased. I tried to remain calm, despite the increasing panic that was spreading through my mind.
I tried accessing the node through the local network, but to no avail. Strange. I decided to walk over to the webserver (it was in the next room), just to make sure. And no, I don't know what I wanted to make sure of. The computer was running, no errors were showing, no messages. Double strange.
To my relief, I suddenly noticed the Ethernet wire had fallen out the cable modem. I plugged it back in, and we were online again, after a total downtime of about a minute and a half. Good grief.
But my mind would not rest. How had the server been disconnected?
The obvious answer was that someone had disconnected the cable, but who would do such a thing? And what would be the point? And how could they have gotten out of the room before I got there? Well, maybe there had just been time for someone to run out of the room and down the hall out of my sight.
I decided that this might be the kind of trick my boss might play just to keep me on my toes. I tried to call her on the phone and got her assistant, Dave. Dave said, "Network Services, can I help you?"
I was listening carefully for hints of a prankster at work. "Hi, Dave. This is Joe."
"Hey, bro, what's up?" Dave sounded normal.
I explained, "I need to talk to Erin about a service interruption we just had on the website."
"She's out of the office." I could almost hear an unsaid and resentful 'again' at the end of his sentence. Dave was so efficient that Erin usually had nothing to do at the office and often did not bother coming in. She had three kids and telecommuted most days and did not care if Dave did half of her job. Dave asked, "Is it an emergency?"
"No." I told him about the cable disconnection.
Dave was silent for about five seconds. "That's pretty weird. What do you expect Erin to do about it?"
I still half expected Dave to admit that he had disconnected the cable, but he just sounded confused about why I was telling him my story. "Nothing. I was wondering if someone was playing a joke on me."
Dave laughed. "I wish I had thought of it, but if I had done it I would have been there with a camera to get a shot of you having a heart attack."
I laughed along with Dave, but I'm sure he could tell I was forcing my laughter. "Well, I'm really just trying to cover my ass. I'll send Erin an email."
"Let me give you her home phone number." Dave was trying to be helpful, then seemed to have second thoughts. "No, wait, I'm not supposed to give that out. Look, I have a few things I need to ask her. I'll call and take care of my business, then I'll tell her you need to talk to her. Stay by your phone."
Dave cut our phone connection. I wanted to go back to the server room and make sure that nothing else had been touched in there, but I decided I could wait by the phone for a few minutes. I went back to my office and initiated a full system diagnostics run. I wondered: if Dave didn't pull the cable, who did? I started doing some serious thinking.
I seemed to remember hearing about some Trojan horse software that could get into the type of server we used, but only when there were certain types of system restarts. I checked the system log and took note of the subsystem restarts that had been triggered by the cable disconnection. Then I checked the server email accounts to see if anyone had fired off a complaint about the service interruption. I was just starting to read recent emails in the complaints account when the phone rang.
It was Dave. "I'll connect you to Erin."
Erin came on the line. "Hi, Joe."
I had never spoken to my boss on the phone before. She sounded more relaxed at home and I could hear one of her kids in the background. "Hi, Erin, thanks for calling."
"Dave says we had a server problem," said Erin.
I had thought maybe Erin was trying to keep me on my toes by having Dave disconnect the cable, but she sounded truly curious about the service interruption. "Physical disconnect. Someone must have pulled the cable connection then ran. It only took me 20 seconds to get in there."
"Shit. Who would do such a thing?" Erin sounded mystified.
There was a long silence. I still half expected she would admit to having planned the whole thing as a joke. Finally I said, "Well, I was wondering if you or Dave was playing a trick on me." I chuckled lamely.
Erin was not laughing. "Sorry, but you don't get of the hook that easy. I asked Dave if he was playing with you and he denied it. I believe him. Who else has access?"
"I did not know if Dave has access to the server." It had been a long time since I had been handed my key to the server room by Erin. Dave had been there with me in Erin's office and made me sign a form that listed all the keys I was given. "I thought you, the three net admins and the custodial staff were the only ones with keys to the server room."
"I leave my keys in my office. Dave knows where they are. Could one of the custodians have accidentally knocked the cable off?"
I was upset to hear that Erin was so sloppy with her keys, but I guess she had to trust Dave. I explained, "This isn't the sort of connection that can just get knocked off by accident. And they only go in there once a week, Friday evenings, I believe."
Another long silence. "Well, I'm grasping at straws."
I suggested, "Maybe I should call the police."
She sounded surprised. "What do you expect them to do?"
"Nothing. I doubt they would come out. But we would be on record as having reported the event. If a client lost a file or something during the service disruption, we could be facing a demand for damages. For insurance purposes, we should have a police report on record."
"No, I don't want to do that unless we have to. It would be damaging if word leaked out about this. Call the service center in India and have them report any complaints about the service failure. If and only if we get a serious complaint, then you can call the police and tell them about the cable." I thought she was too paranoid about the risk of bad press, but I kept my mouth shut. She asked, "Anything else?"
I suggested, "I could put a camera in the server room to record who enters."
This really surprised her. She asked, "You think this is going to happen again?"
"I don't know what happened this time, but you know the saying: fool me once...."
"Ya, ya. You might be right. Use your judgment. I'll be in the office on Friday. Let's meet and you can give me a full report." She cut the connection.
The Attack of the EggplantEdit
That night I had to work late. I stared extra hard, much more than usual, at my laptop. "ALL NODES ONLINE." The message did not waver. Getting bored, I decided to play Minesweeper. I played a few games but I kept losing because I was concentrating on the laptop's status message. Then I heard footsteps. I quickly closed the game and resumed my stare. Brian, one of my friends, walked in. I turned around and we exchanged greetings.
"Sorry to interrupt your work," he said, "but something strange happened to me. I know I can tell you."
What was this about?
"I was walking in the hallway when an eggplant fell on me," said Brian.
I wasn't expecting something like that. "An eggplant?"
"Yeah, just out of the blue," explained Brian. "I was quite shocked, of course. I looked up and I saw a hole in the ceiling. I could see up through that hole to another hole in the ceiling of the third floor."
"There are holes in several floors?" I asked.
"Yeah," said Brian. "I don't want anybody to find out because this was kind of weird."
"Well, someone else is bound to notice all the holes," I pointed out.
"I guess so," said Brian.
"So, I think we should tell other people," I said. "Meet me by Erin's office at 10 on Friday." It would be best for him to tell the story directly.
"That would be fine," said Brian. He left and I resumed staring at the screen. I had to stare even harder to make up for the time lost talking to Brian. As I did so, I thought about the mysterious events of that day. I wondered what would happen with all the holes. If Brian had not already reported the incident, the holes would be discovered long before Friday.
First the cable problem and now this strange story from Brian! If I could figure out what these strange events meant then perhaps I'd finally manage to do something useful.
At the end of my 12 hour shift, Fred showed up for his shift. Fred and I would be doing back-to-back 12 hour shifts for a week while Judy was on vacation. I told Fred about the website down time and also what Brian had told me.
Fred looked at me like I had three eyes. "Man, you need to get some sleep."
That was true, but I wanted to check on Brian's story. I went to the second floor and found the hole. Brian was right, I could look right up to the sky. There were chunks of tile and insulation on the floor but no sign of any plant tissue.
I wondered what Brian had done with the eggplant. He probably threw it away, I decided. I went looking for Brian in the ocean of cubicles used by the website developers. He was still there. I asked, "Did you file a work request with building maintenance about those holes?"
Brian finished typing a long line of code into his computer. Looking up he stared at me blankly for ten seconds. "Oh. Hi. Yes, I called George at home. He came in an hour ago to look at the damage. Luckily, not a single wire or pipe was damaged. He called the insurance company and then a repair crew. They'll patch the roof at first light."
Brian's eyes went glassy and he started pounding more code into his computer. He was on a roll and I hated to interrupt his flow, but I asked, "What did you do with the eggplant?"
After about twenty seconds of furious typing, Brian paused and looked around. Seeing me, he seemed startled. "Hey. What's up?"
I repeated my question, "What did you do with the eggplant?"
Brian turned ghostly white and started to sweat. I could see hundreds of tiny sweat drops glistening on his face in the glow of his computer monitor. After a ten second pause he asked, "What are you talking about?"
By this point, I was worried about Brian. He looked like he might either explode or drop dead. Still, I had to know. "You told me that an eggplant landed on you."
Brian laughed mechanically. "Ha. Ha. Ha. That's funny."
This was not at all like Brian. "Look, were you there on the second floor when something fell through that hole or did you just notice the hole after it had already been formed?"
Brian closed his eyes and clenched his fists at the sides of his head. Speaking through gritted teeth he said, "What do you mean about something falling through the hole? It's some kind of exit wound, man."
"Earlier tonight you told me an eggplant fell on you. I assumed it fell through that hole."
"You need some sleep, man. And a meal. What is this eggplant shit?" Brian opened his eyes and he glared at me with hatred. The sweat was dripping off his nose and chin and running into his eyes from his forehead. I split.
I went back to the hole on the third floor and confirmed that the floor tiles had been bent upwards. It looked like something had blasted out of the building, up through the holes. I was worried about Brian. What could account for his strange behavior?
I went back to my room and told Fred that I was going to inspect the server room for damage. In the back corner behind a rack of RAID units, there was a hole in the wall, about the size of my fist. There was a small pile of pulverized wall board on the floor under the hole. Could something that small have entered the room and pulled the cable, disconnecting our server network from the Internet? Was I willing to risk my job over some fantasy about network sabotage by an invading eggplant?
Upon arriving at work the next day, I was approached by a man in a uniform.
"We're investigating some damage to the building that happened last night," he said. "Did you witness anything of the sort?'
"No," I said truthfully, and continued to my work area.
I soon found out that, as expected, workers were busy patching up all the holes in the ceilings. They were making good progress. For some reason, I had an idea that Brian should not explain where the holes came from (though he seemed not to remember). I had told Fred but he thought it was a joke and so that probably didn't matter. It was then I saw the note on my table. It was rather lengthy, and said
- Chloe says that we should rethink our strategy. Don't get started on it yet. I've got to tell Geisler and get his approval. If you know anyone who can help, let them join. I counted l337 files that need conversion. Maybe we can use Haxor Inc.'s new distributed debugger this time. I hear Brian is good at this kind of thing.
I was baffled by this apparently anonymous note. Chloe worked here, but I was not working on any projects with her. Geisler was Erin's boss. And the note mentioned Brian.
Wait. Of course, silly me. This note was written in the code Brian and I had developed when we were in college together. You had to read off every ninth word. So the message was
- Don't tell anyone l337 haXor Brian
I was always amused that Brian bothered to append his name to his messages, since we are the only two people who knew the code. Some kind of tight-assed software engineer's mentality. Furthermore, I found his use of Internet slang, or "leetspeak", cute. (l337 haXor means "elite hacker".) Anyway, it was clear that Brian now remembered the incident and wanted the matter kept a secret. He was so sure of it he had even used the top secret code. Why? He was acting too strangely.
Now that the mystery of the note was solved, I again had nothing to do. Nothing but wait until Friday. I waited. I checked the time, and it wasn't even 10!
I waited until lunch. Still nothing had happened. At lunch I talked to Brian and he told me to stop bothering with the eggplant nonsense. He then denied even thinking of sending me a note.
That night before I left work, I talked to Brian again. I expected him to get angry, but he just said, "Yeah, that was weird. Almost a surreal experience. And mind you don't tell anyone. Funny you should mention a note, because I was going to send you a note this morning but I forgot." There must have been serious problems with his memory. Had he hallucinated and invented a vision of the eggplant? But, if so, then what caused all the holes in the floors and in the server room's wall? No, he couldn't have hallucinated everything.
Craziness. Absurdity. There were no other words to describe the situation. If I had not been half brain dead from not being able to adapt to my 12/12 work schedule, I probably would have done something constructive like take Brian out for beer and pizza so we could sort out the mysteries. Looking back on events, I still do not understand why I did nothing.
Almost nothing important happened on Thursday, except that at lunch Brian acted weirdly.
"Too early," he moaned.
Too early? How could you call 11:30 too early?
"Not meant like that," he said, turning to me. "Not good. Too early. Mind you heed the note I wrote you yesterday." Suddenly he seemed to start concentrating. He sighed, not with weariness but relief.
I wasn't sure it was a good idea, but I said, "Now, about that note."
"The note you wrote me."
"I didn't write you a note."
His memory of the topic had gone again, so I decided to drop the subject. "Well, never mind," I said. "Now, about the project we're going to start working on."
"The project?" queried Brian. "What is it?"
I was alarmed. There was no way he should have forgotten that.
"I told you about it yesterday," I said.
Brian frowned, but then assumed a knowing expression. "Oh yeah, that project. Sorry, I've been forgetting things. Everything before Tuesday night is clear, but after that my memory keeps on fading and returning. I think maybe something unusual happened on Tuesday night, or something."
Well, that was revealing, to say the least. I hoped that all his memory was available tomorrow morning when we would meet with Erin to discuss this. Even if he remembered, would he be willing? He sure didn't want anybody to know, for some reason.
(End of Chapter 1)