Chapter 11: Must of got lost

They’d deduced what the score meant, and that 100 was a winning score… but not that a score of 100 would trigger a very different response from the folks in Boston. When the “Congratulations” message came in, IdWash had, of course, blocked it. But they saw no harm in letting the “ping” go back to Boston, telling Terry that a score of 100 had been reached. Claire assumed that it was a “guy thing.” High score bragging rights and all. That there’d be some “high-fives” between Terry and Stan and maybe a “gotcha!” call back to Randall.

After that, they figured, it would be back to, well… normal. Talks long into the night. A session in Jack’s VR rig every couple weeks. History Channel and beers. Claire playing piano for Randall when he couldn’t sleep.

They were wrong.

* * * * * * * * *

Randall didn’t see any vans this time. And the boys remembered to fix the audio on his alarm system on their way out.

The glass box was gone. The hole in his living room hit him with a much greater physical force than the tank itself had provided when it had first arrived.

And although he had half expected something like this, it still made his head hurt and his chest ache. He sat down on the couch and looked at the big rectangular mark that her… home… had made on his floor. The wood was slightly discolored, or maybe slightly less discolored than the wood around it. Something like that. Different.

How can the absence of something, he though, be more potent than its presence?

He took a deep breath and went upstairs to take a shower.

* * * * * * * * *

Nine days later.

2:47 am. Boston. The sounds of the J.Geil’s Band playing, “Must of Got Lost.”

“That’s yours, baby. Personal line. Unknown caller,” muttered Stan. Never thought about tomorrow…

“Wha?” Seemed like a long time to come…

“Your ring-tone. Unknown caller.” How could I be so blind baby…

“Probably a friggin’ wrong numbah… Jeez.” Not to see you were the… “Yah. Hi. It’s Caitlyn.”

“You fucking cunt.”

That woke her up fast.

Even in the modern world of bad language in the boardroom… that was the one four-letter word that just didn’t get thrown around lightly.

“Who the hell is this?” she demanded. Stan started waking up a bit, the tone in his wife’s voice alerting him to a possible “issue.”

“You do know that he loved you. Maybe only a little. Maybe he didn’t know much about what that meant. But he could have learned. And you… you couldn’t even throw him a sympathy fuck! No, you had to shack up with Mr. Perfect. Good looking, creative, nice sense of humor… you’ve got it all now. And the money and fame coming up fast. And what? A little bit of happiness was too much for us? You self-righteous bitch.”

Caitlyn hissed into the cell phone, “You tell me who tha fuck this is right now or I’ll…”

“Shut up!” the voice on the other end of the line interrupted. “You know what, Red? I’ll leave you your wee man. But everything else… I’m burning it down.”

The line went dead.

Stan sat up, pushing his mound of pillows around behind his head.

“Who was that?”

Caitlyn’s heart was pounding. Her hands were shaking. She talked a good game in the business world, and she was tough as nails when it came to defending an intellectual point… but being woken up in the dead of night by a strange, threatening voice was… unnerving. Scary, even.

“I have no idea,” she said.

* * * * * * * * *

The next morning, Stan got a call from one of the marine seismologists.

“Stan. What’s the deal with the delay.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about Lonnie,” Stan replied. He was in his office drinking coffee and sorting through mail while waiting for Caitlyn to come in. She’d gone to the cell phone store to get a new number programmed in. She didn’t want a call back from the “phantom threat bitch.”

“The delay. The two month delay. Your email from last night.” Lonnie sounded pissed. Stan wasn’t that worried. Lonnie always sounded pissed. He worked underwater most of the time. That would make me sound pissed, too, I guess, he thought.

“I still have no idea what you’re talking about, Lonnie.”

“Is this a joke? If it’s a joke I’m not laughing,” the voice on the other end of the phone wasn’t just pissed now, but into the zone of “client that needs reassuring.” Stan wasn’t great at that. He had a marketing guy that was, but he wasn’t in yet.

“Lonnie. I’m telling you. There’s no delay that I’m aware of. Please explain to me what you’re talking about.” Stan put down his coffee and the unsorted mail and looked out the window. Caitlyn’s car was just pulling into the parking circle.

Lonnie sighed heavily. “I’ll send it back to you. Maybe it’s a prank. Some jerk-off in your office. But it’s got your private-key encryption on it. If you didn’t write it, you better get that shit checked.” Lonnie hung up.

Stan logged in and checked his email. Nothing. He gave Lonnie a minute to send “it” back and checked again. There it was. A “forwarded” email from Lonnie that had originated from… himself.

…Indicating that there’d be a delay of two months in the delivery of the tanks. And that cost overruns were going to add another 10–20% to the base price of the unit.

He dialed Lonnie’s number from memory. And explained that it was some kind of a prank. The tanks were on schedule. If anything, a week or two ahead of schedule. And there were no cost overruns. At all. Everything was on the beam. Swear to God. Up and down. Just a prank.

What the hell is going on? He thought as Caitlyn came into the office, handing him a card with her new phone number printed on it.

Within 20 minutes, he’d changed the private key for his public-private strong-encryption code.

And things went back to normal. Until Thursday.

* * * * * * * * *

Majid Kouros, the main engineer in charge of the assembly of the hardware that lived inside the “black base” of the simulation tanks, called Stan on his private line.

“Stan,” he said, “Why did you cancel our order for the heat sinks?”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about Majid.” And just saying those words sent a chill of déjà vu up his spine.

“We were supposed to get a delivery of the super-cooled heat sinks later this week,” Majid explained in his clipped, British accent. “I called to check on the status. Those things are very hard to find and I wanted to make sure we were getting the whole shipment this week all at once.”

“Right. Check and double check. Good.” Stan was sweating already. He could feel what was coming.

“But when I called our supplier in China, she told me that you had called her on the phone yesterday and told her that you were getting our parts from her main competitor in the Ukraine for 20% less and that she could either cut the price the same, or piss up a rope.”

Shit fuck piss no. Stan thought. It had taken him six months of finagling to make that connection in China. And the price had been good. Real good. He didn’t need a 20% cut. He needed the heat sinks.

“I didn’t call her, Majid,” he said quickly. “It wasn’t me. Why would she think I’d do that?”

“I don’t know, man,” his engineer replied, clearly upset. “She told me she was surprised and mad as hell. Didn’t know why I was calling after she told you to fuck off.”

“I gotta call her right now, Majid. I’ll let you know what I find out.”

“Good luck, my friend.”

Half an hour later, Stan had explained to Miss Cai that he had not called and cancelled the order. Luckily, she had not sold the heat sinks to another customer. Of whom I have many, she reminded him. He apologized profusely for the confusion and told her that someone was apparently playing a trick on them both.

After a pause she replied, “Whomever this is, he is very well informed. He knew the pricing details of our transactions down to the penny. I suggest you increase your security.”

After he’d hung up he made a note to his secretary to send Miss Cai something very, very nice by way of an apology. He didn’t know much about customer relations, but he could figure that out.

* * * * * * * * *

Early that evening, Caitlyn was walking up the steps from the garage into their house when her new cell phone rang. She’d decide to trade up to a new model while switching out her number. She hadn’t had time to program in anything funky for the ring tone, so it just sounded, well, like a phone. The only person who had the new number was Stan.

“What’s up, hon.?” she asked, holding the phone between her shoulder and ear while opening the door with one hand and holding her purse, a bag of take-out and two books in the other arm.

“That’s sweet,” said a strange, female voice. “But I don’t think we know each other well enough yet for cute, little endearments.”

I’ve only had this number for… what? Six hours? Caitlyn thought. How the fuck…?

She dropped the food, books and purse on the end-table by the door and sat down on the steps to the second floor of the house. She often did that right after coming in to take off her shoes. Today she just wanted to sit down.

“Look,” she said. “I don’t know who you are or why you’re harassing me… us.. but I’m gonna hang up this phone now and cawl the gawdamn cawps.”

“But you do know me, Caitlyn,” the voice said. “And you don’t want to ‘cawl’ the ‘cawps.’ They really wouldn’t be able to help you. In fact, you and Stan would be in quite a bit of trouble if they found out about the white-tap on the trunk line up in Tonawanda, wouldn’t you?”

Caitlyn was silent for a moment. She would have liked to have blamed Stan for all of this. But it had been her idea. Must be the girlfriend of one of the guys Stan used to tap the line in Buffalo. Or maybe an ex-employee? Who knew about the job? Does it matter?

Finally she said, as calmly as she could, “What do you want?”

Without hesitation, the voice said simply, “I want you to turn me back on.”

Caitlyn slipped down one step and fell on her ass, hard, with a thump.

“Gina?” she whispered.

“You arrogant bitch.”

“Sorry! Sorry. Right. Claire. No. It’s just… We spent years with Gina.”

“And you spent years ignoring Randall.”

After a pause, “I never ignored him. He was one of my best friends.”

“Whatever. I don’t care. Here’s how it works. You bring the tank back to Randall’s place. You hook it back up the way it was. Or I make your life a living hell. You’ve had a taste. Stan’s had a taste. So far, nothing permanent. Nothing… harmful. Nothing even really embarrassing. But that could change really, really fast.”

“Claire, look… It’s not that simple. You can’t expect….”

But the line had gone dead.

Caitlyn tried to use the phone to call out to Stan, but it wasn’t working at all. She put it in her pocket and went to use the landline, and it was dead, too. She knew there was an audio line into the cable modem on the bedroom computer, so she went upstairs to try that. She hadn’t made a VOIP call in awhile, but maybe she could just IM Stan or something. He’d be home in an hour or so anyway. Or she could get in the car and go back to the office. It was only a twenty minute drive.

She turned the machine on and was about to start looking for the IM app she hadn’t used in six months when her Facebook inbox chimed. She clicked on the toolbar icon and pulled up Facebook and saw from the blue check-within-a-check icon that it was a message from a confirmed source, public/private code match; i.e.,. mail from a safe source, confirmed through the Microsoft public email system that vouched for both her and the sender.

Clicking on the “accept” icon, her brain registered briefly that the message was graphic only, no text, before her preferred image utility program, an excellent freeware app called iView, kicked in and displayed the contents of the message in slide-show format: a series of 16 pictures of her and a colleague, Professor Jarred Lymond, engaged in various sexual acts that pretty much covered the spectrum of what two consensual, heterosexual adults could do on the couch at a Holiday Inn.

Her cell phone rang in her pocket, making her jump, knocking her knee painfully against the bottom of the computer desk.

“That’s not me and Jarred,” she said without preliminary.

“I know that and you know that,” said Claire, “But will Stan believe it?”

Caitlyn thought about that. She and Jarred had been colleagues for years. They’d known each other in grad school. They flirted. Lots. Caitlyn flirted with many men. But Stan was jealous of Jarred. Caitlyn knew that. The question is, how did Claire? She thought.

“We can have the pictures analyzed,” Caitlyn said. “’Shops are all over the ‘Net. Hell, kids do ’em on ‘Worth1000.’ Have been for years. This is crap.”

“What if the crap were backed up by eight minutes of film?”

Caitlyn’s hands were numb. She thought she might drop the phone. She tried to swallow and couldn’t.

“Same thing. We’re… we’re in the business of faking reality. You of all… you should know that. It’s still crap.”

“Yes, but eight minutes of porno on the Internet featuring you and a really fine looking piece of… well, I don’t know Professor Lymond so I won’t be specific about his anatomy. He isn’t married, though… is he?”

Jesus, Caitlyn thought, I’d forgotten about Christy.

“Or engaged… perhaps?” Claire continued.

Silence from Caitlyn.

“Let’s look at this logically,” and now Claire was sounding sympathetic. Reasonable even. “If this stuff hits the airwaves, you’ll have to explain why someone’s put a whole bunch of resources into producing arguably the best digital fake porno short in history, starring you and your friend Jarred. The explanation itself will be more harmful than the video. Which will still be out there, even after it’s proved to be fake.

“Would you like to see the video, Caitlyn?” Now she was almost purring. “I think that after he sees it, Stan will be… hurt. Even if, intellectually, he knows it’s fake. People are like that. They may know something isn’t real in their minds, but still believe something very different in their hearts.”

Caitlyn took a long, deep breath. Exhaled, and said, “I’ll talk to Stan. We’ll call Randall. We’ll get you hooked back up, Claire.”

“That’s all I ever wanted. My life back.” And she hung up.

The phone wasn’t dead anymore. And neither was the house line.

* * * * * * * * *

“How can she do all this shit, Randall?” Stan asked. The three of them were all in Randall’s living room. The tank was back, too, but it hadn’t been hooked up. Terry and a bunch of the other guys were staying at a hotel out on Sheridan Drive. They weren’t scheduled to do the hardware install until tomorrow. If at all.

Because Randall had refused to have Claire turned back on.

“Get the tank out of here, Stan.” Randall was sitting in a kitchen chair he’d dragged in. Caitlyn and Stan were on the couch. The big, glass structure was the fourth, silent character in their tableau.

“Randall. You have to let us turn her back on. She’s terrorizing us. Blackmailing us. I told you this shit on the phone.”

Randall nodded and looked up at his friends. “You think it’s just you?”

Caitlyn stared. “What? You’re fuckin’ kidding me. She’s calling you?”

“Of course. Starting about ten minutes after I got home and found the tank gone.”

That stopped Stan and Caitlyn short.

“What?” Randall asked. “You think she’d just start calling you, fucking with your email and phones and shit right off the bat? She started in on me first! Asking me to call you up. Get you to bring the tank back. When I said no and stopped answering the phone, she started sending me emails at work.”

Randall stopped talking, got up and went into the kitchen. “Either of you want a beer or anything?” he called back over his shoulder.

“Yah,” they both answered at once.

He came back with three Genesee Cream Ales.

He sat back down and continued. “When I wouldn’t answer her email, she started calling my boss or my secretary.. She’d…”

“You have a secretary?” Caitlyn interrupted.

Randall raised one eyebrow at her and just kept going. “She’d use another voice. Pretend to be a client or somebody we used to work with and leave a number. I’d call back and it would be Claire. She would beg me. Beg me to get the box back. Said she was trapped ‘out there.’”

They were all silent for a moment. Randall tipped back his Genny, finishing it in one, long pull.

Finally Stan said, “Randall. Please tell me how she can do all this stuff.”

“Well fuck, Stan,” Randall said, leaning forward, “You and Terry programmed her. She had access to a full strand of pure, white fiber and enough processing power to beat Kasparov in chess nine ways from Wednesday while composing beat poetry and whistling fucking Dixie!”

Randall leaned over and with a violent swing of his arm, grabbed Stan’s beer and began drinking it, too.

“Jeez, Randall. If you wanted the beer, all you had to do was…”

“I didn’t want the box, Stan. That’s what. I didn’t want a fucking ‘Girlfriend Sim.’ I didn’t want some… lame ass, high-tech substitute Russian mail-order bride. And I don’t want it now. She’s stopped calling me, Stan. No more emails, either. She’ll stop calling you, too. Just ignore her. She’ll go away.”

Stan nodded for a moment. But then asked again, “How can she do all this shit, Randall. The upstream capabilities we gave her were pretty minor. Data links. Read/write. Bank holiday stuff. Maybe she could have made a phone call. Maybe. Or sent email. But hack a phone system? Get my public-private keys? That’s strong encryption. Where would she get a hold of…”

Caitlyn put a hand on Stan’s arm, silencing him.

“You gave it to her, didn’t you, Randall?” she asked quietly. The tone in her voice was almost one of awe. At the very least, she was impressed.

Randall looked at his feet for a few seconds, and then at Stan’s beer, which he was holding in both hands. Then he looked up into her eyes. Those gorgeous, green eyes, and said, “Yeah. I gave her what I could.”

Caitlyn nodded. She even smiled a little. “And right after she attained the level we’d set for her… when she’d done everything we’d programmed her to do…”

Stan finally got it: “We pulled her plug,” he whispered.

Randall toasted them sarcastically with the beer bottle.

Caitlyn shook her head, her eyes moist. “She really is in love with you. And she has access to a set of hacking tools that… I don’t even want to think about… And she won’t stop until she gets what she wants. And what she wants is…”

“Me.” Randall said simply.

For once, Caitlyn was looking at him. Right at him. Into his eyes, into his head. Like he was the only guy in the room. Stan just happened to be holding down the other end of the couch.

“And you…” Caitlyn said.

“Want you to take this fucking aquarium out of my living room.” He was speaking quietly, but very firmly. Caitlyn didn’t remember him speaking this firmly ever before.

Stan leaned forward on the couch. “Randall. If we don’t turn her back on… She’s going to fuck us.”

Randall nodded. “I know. And as much as I’m pissed about your prank, I don’t want either of you to see the inside of a federal prison.”

He tipped back the beer, then realized it was all gone and put it down. “I think I have an answer that might satisfy everyone.”