You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here, or last week’s chapters here. It started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Southern California.
From the very beginning, Joshua and Simon had taken their precautions regarding the job with Ausmann, especially because it seemed to have a government connection, and so had created their own insurance policy in case things should ever come to a weird junction like this.
While they had to leave their cellphones and any other technology in lockers on the surface whenever they descended, that only included things that looked like technology — but it was amazing what could be hidden inside of what appeared to be a regular number 2 pencil.
Simon had taken to wearing a pair of fake glasses whenever they went. He didn’t need them at all, but they were crammed with their own tech, which also served as an invisible to others heads-up display on what the other devices were collecting.
One of Joshua’s favorites for the sheer irony of it was a cross he’d wear on a chain around his neck whenever they went in. He wasn’t religious at all. In fact, he was a total atheist, but inside of the cross was more of the technology they used in order to harvest information that would be useful later. Like now. As they headed to JPL.
One of the things their devices had done was to remotely key-log everything Ausmann had typed while they were in or near his office, so they had managed to capture a few of his passwords as he entered them. They also had a remote man-in-the-middle device, and that took care of the transmission of encrypted information that had been auto-filled by the computer, where they couldn’t see it — user names, website URLs, and the like.
They were also able to log in remotely to Ausmann’s own computer, although not the network drive — but today they considered managing that part necessary.
They had come up with two plans for JPL. The first was ostensibly to check in with Ausmann, if he was there. If he wasn’t there, even better. They planned to go down to the lab alone and then… “borrow” every last bit of data they could get their hands on.
That would be a lot, too. They had managed to conceal a 5Tb thumb drive in what looked like an ordinary modern car key, but the USB connection could only be slid out after a series of very specific manipulations of the base of the key.
They had long since determined that the guards normally didn’t make people put keys in the safe except under a few conditions, all of which they had tested over time. If there were any kind of fancy keychains or extra fobs, like a rabbit’s foot or dice or even a small framed dog’s photo, it would be locked up.
But if it was just a few keys on a simple ring, they were good to go.
Of course, under normal circumstances, a regular USB drive would be pretty useless for dealing with terabytes of data. At maximum speed, it would take a USB 3.0 device about 56 hours to download just one terabyte, but Simon had estimated that they were looking at between three and four.
However, they had figured out that the computers in Ausmann’s lab transferred data much faster. An ordinary USB drive put it through at 5 megabytes per second. Ausmann’s did it at 5 gigabytes. This meant that four terabytes of data would take about fourteen minutes to copy.
Still a lot slower than in the movies, but quite doable provided they had the time — and they had already reverse-engineered the technology in order to match the throughput speed.
This time, Simon drove them to JPL as Joshua remotely logged into Ausmann’s computer one more time, to check the logs again. “Nope,” he confirmed. “He hasn’t logged on in person or remotely since the afternoon before the storm. Shit, I wish we could get to their network from here and look at the physical check-ins.”
“It looks like Plan B, then,” Simon said, and Joshua nodded.
“Plan B it is,” Joshua said, and then he started typing and tapping like a madman. Plan B was basically to forge their way in.
In Ausmann’s files, they had discovered an emergency protocol that would allow access by certain personnel in the event that Ausmann became incapacitated or otherwise compromised. Of course, the trick was that Ausmann had to trigger it remotely prior to that incapacitation.
“I don’t think he really thought that one all the way through,” Simon said when Joshua had explained it to him. “What? Dude drops dead, but triggers it first?”
“Good point,” Joshua replied.
But this was to their advantage, because it wasn’t until Ausmann triggered it that he also specified which personnel were to be admitted. Ergo, Joshua now gave access to himself and Simon under Ausmann’s emergency orders, tweaking timestamps so that it would have appeared to have been issued the evening of the storm, with the corresponding alert texts to Simon and Joshua being similarly backdated and showing at the appropriate place in their inboxes.
The extra security in that was that the messages seemed to come from “The Pasadena Social Club,” and the texts themselves read, “Bonus Birthday Brunch, just show this QR code.”
They both knew what that meant, though.
When they had first set up this plan long ago, Simon did think it through as he was wont to do, and one of the questions he asked was this: “What if we get there, think that Ausmann isn’t there, but it turns out he is?”
Joshua thought about it a bit, then had one of his brilliant flashes. “Of course,” he said. “If we got the emergency message, then we’d think that something is wrong, so we’d show up worried, asking, ‘Is Ausmann here?’ Only two answers for that, at least to us. Yes, or no.”
“Makes sense,” Simon said.
“So, if they say no, we go full on emergency protocol plan, we’re in, pan comido. But if they say yes, we turn on a dime, act all relieved, and report in as normal.”
“But with the emergency protocol stuff all hanging out there for Ausmann to see.”
“But that’s the point,” Joshua replied. “I think I can rig it so that once it’s sent, Ausmann is blocked from access to seeing any of the texts or documents or whatever. It only goes to the guards and us. That’s part one.”
“And part two?” Simon asked.
“Instant kill-switch,” Joshua replied. “I can also rig it so that if I text a certain code back, then everything gets erased instantly, like it never happened. So… kill-switch program on my screen as we arrive, you have the text on yours. If they say no, he’s not there, then I just pop up my message, too. If they say yes, I hit the button and we start acting.”
And so it was set, they received their codes, and pulled onto the grounds of JPL and headed to the entrance of Ausmann’s underground lair with no idea what was waiting in it for them.
As it turned out, he wasn’t there, and the boys made a big show of being concerned and upset as they flashed the QR codes for the guards to scan. They didn’t have any tech to turn in because they’d left it all in the car, but agreed to a pat-down search.
Of course, they kept the key, Simon’s glasses, and Joshua’s cross, then headed downstairs.
Joshua had pulled a few other tricks on their way over. For example, from about five minutes before they drove onto the grounds, all of the cameras in the complex stopped recording. They continued to display live shots with the timecode, but at the same time only sent a single frame from each camera while incrementing the timecode.
This meant that while the guards could see them, there would be no record for Ausmann to review later, except for the two cameras at the guard station, but they’d planned ahead for that one, as well.
The outside camera would see and record them, no problem, as would the inside camera, for about a minute. But Joshua had programmed the DVR to reboot when its facial recognition software spotted either of them.
This would put it out of commission for enough time for them to enter the complex, and then the camera would come back online and continue recording. Meanwhile, about two minutes into that reboot, the DVR connected to the outside camera would be fed a short bit of footage to override the actual recording — Joshua and Simon leaving the complex, with the “correct” timecode on it.
They had managed to capture the footage on a previous visit, and even dressed identically to it today so that they would match. But the end result would be that anyone reviewing the actual recorded footage would see them arrive, start to talk to the guards, and then leave shortly thereafter.
The electronic log of their check-in they could erase just as easily remotely. Meanwhile, as for the physical sign-in, which was done on paper, Simon had conjured up one of the oldest tricks in the book: disappearing ink.
In the post-plague days, no one batted an eye at someone insisting on using their own pen rather than a communal instrument, so Simon and Joshua both carefully signed and dated their check-in with the trick pen, knowing that all of the information would be gone in fifteen minutes.
They just had to take it on faith that no one else would be checking in before that, given the circumstances, so that there wouldn’t be two tell-tale blank lines where their names had been. Fortunately, none of the guards signed in on the public sheet, and Ausmann didn’t have to sign in at all.
Once they got downstairs, they went to work quickly and efficiently, knowing that the guards wouldn’t consider anything they did out of the ordinary. But just to be safe, they had hacked one of the exterior cameras that showed part of the parking lot to add a little something to it.
Not sure of the sexual leanings of the guards but wanting to be inclusive, it superimposed footage of a young and very attractive straight couple starting to get frisky inside of a Smart Car, and then next to it.
Although they couldn’t see the results, their gesture had the intended results. Within two minutes, one of the guards had spotted the couple — on the opposite bank from the one showing what was going on downstairs — and that screen became the center of their attention, especially when that couple started tearing each other’s clothes off.
It had the intended effect, though. Four bored and horny men, three in their 20s, one much older, two straight, one bi, and one gay, all focused intently on the screen and ignoring everything else.
The video distraction would run for thirty minutes. Joshua and Simon planned to be out in twenty.
Joshua logged onto the network via Ausmann’s computer, then popped in the USB drive and selected and copied everything that wasn’t part of the operating system. As the process began, the countdown timer indicated approximately fourteen minutes to go.
“God, I hope their IT motherfuckers defrag regularly,” Joshua muttered to himself.
Meanwhile, Simon was casually investigating the various physical binders in the bookcase behind Ausmann’s desk, checking them for any information on the particular Rêves they’d brought in. When he found applicable pages, all he had to do was turn them successively. His glasses did the rest of the job of imaging all of them.
They also kept the feed from the outside camera going to his left eye, in case there were any unexpected visitors.
After ten minutes, he’d made great progress, and worked his way back from Anabel almost all the way to their first catch. Meanwhile, the countdown timer was accurate for once, with just under four minutes left and “29% remaining.”
Right at the three minute mark, somebody came to the front entrance.
“Shit!” Simon snapped.
“What?” Jason asked.
“Visitor,” Simon said.
“Who?” Jason asked.
“Who?” Simon repeated, using a gesture of his eyes to activate facial recognition, then switch to the inside camera. The answer came back in a few seconds as text: “Schliemann, Ausmann Gustav.”
“Fuck!” Simon gasped. “It’s Ausmann. Doesn’t look like him, though.”
“But you’re sure?”
“The computer is. Dude is shaved bald and lost the beard,” Simon explained.
“Shit. Wish I could see that,” Joshua said.
“No you don’t,” Simon replied. “It’s not pretty. How long have we got?”
“Two minutes, forty-five,” Joshua replied. “Are they going to even recognize him?”
“They don’t need to,” Simon said. “Biometrics. Wait, hang on. They didn’t notice him come in because of the video.”
“Hallelujah, that ought to slow things down,” Joshua said.
“Shit, I don’t think so,” Simon replied.
“How do you mean?” Joshua asked.
“Ausmann just walked past where that couple is ostensibly fucking.”
“Oh. Shit!” Joshua exclaimed.
Simon watched as Ausmann stalked outside, the guards following. “Okay, they went outside,” Simon said.
“Good or bad?” Joshua asked.
“It is buying us time. Okay, you remember the emergency exit they showed us when we started here?”
“Good, because I do,” Simon said. “Time?”
Ausamann and the guards stormed back in, Ausmann gesturing wildly, then stepping offscreen.
“He’s in the fucking elevator,” Simon said. “He’ll be here in a minute.”
“Almost done,” Joshua said.
“We’re going to have to rip and run,” Simon warned him.
“Can you slow him down?”
“I… I… oh. Wait…” Simon checked and quickly accessed the elevator controls, then stopped the car.”
“Whew. There,” he said. “Tiger in a box. Let me know when you’re ready.”
“Thirty seconds,” Joshua said.
“Great,” Simon replied.
After what seemed like half a minute, Joshua announced, “Twenty seconds. God, suspense like this just makes me horny as hell.”
“Everything makes you horny as hell,” Simon replied.
“Wrong,” Joshua shot back. “Anything with you involved makes me horny as hell.”
“Thank you and no, we are not doing it at work.”
“How can you even think of sex at a time like this?” Simon demanded
“How can you not? If Ausmann finds us here stealing his shit, we are fucked. And not in the good way.”
“Well then hurr — aw, fuck!”
“What?” Joshua asked.
“Guards turned the elevator back on.”
“Five, four, three, two, one…” Joshua counted, then hooted as he pulled out the drive and hit shutdown on the computer. “Let’s get the fuck out of here,” he said.
“Follow me!” Simon told him, and they headed out the door and around the corner, running flat out as they heard the elevator ding in the distance. They came to the door that led to the emergency exit, Simon slamming through it and Joshua right behind.
Right as that door started to close behind them, they heard the sirens blaring that indicated lockdown. If they hadn’t made it through there before that, they never would have. Fortunately, as Simon knew, nothing past that point was wired up to seal.
That door led to a long corridor that came out on a hillside some distance from the campus, next to a winding and little-traveled road.
“Now what?” Simon asked.
“Time to test that ‘Come get me’ feature our car dealer was so big on selling us, I suppose,” Joshua replied.”
“Oh, right,” Simon replied. Even though they didn’t have their phones, he could still access the app on his glasses, and in a couple of moments, ECTO-42 confirmed that it was on its way to pick them up.
That was a good thing all around. For one, neither of them were sure how far or which way the entrance to JPL was from here. For another, the last thing they would have wanted to do was show up in the parking lot to ask nicely, “Please, can we get our car.”
There was a reason that they’d left all of their actual tech in there in the first place, and that was the Plan C which was the escape route whether they used A or B, or what Simon called “Plan Crap!” As in what would they do if everything went to shit, like it just had.
Joshua drove them home in his usual maniacal way, but en route one question kept bugging him, and he finally asked Simon.
“So… you said that Ausmann had shaved his head and his beard?”
“Yeah. It was freaky, man.”
“Why do you think that was?” Joshua asked.
“I don’t know,” Simon mused. “He doesn’t seem like one to make fashion statements.”
“Or one to catch head lice,” Joshua replied. “Wait… what was the most distinctive thing about him?”
“Oh…” Simon gasped, giving Joshua a look of sudden realization.
“His hair and his beard,” they both said in unison.
“Jinx,” Simon said.
“He is fucking hiding from someone or something,” Joshua said. “But what?”
“Well, I think we’ve got about four terabytes of data that might answer that question,” Simon smiled.
“Oh yeah. Oh, shit. Does Ausmann know where we live?”
“Dude, he doesn’t even know our real names,” Simon assured him. “The employment docs we submitted to him were fake as hell, since the whole job offer wasn’t exactly legit on his part either.”
“Really?” Joshua said.
“Really,” Simon replied. “Our checks from them have never gone to us in the first place, not like we’d notice. If he looks closely, he’ll see that he actually hired a 501(c)(3) that supports Peruvian widows.”
Joshua laughed loudly. “You are a goddamn beautiful fucking genius, Simon.”
“Well, I don’t know about beautiful — ”
“Shut up and take the compliment,” Joshua insisted. “When we get home, let’s dig in this dirt and take this bastard down.”
“I love it when you talk dirt,” Simon said.
They’d made it most of the way home when a call came in on Simon’s phone and the display in the Tesla showed “MASON BRENDA” and a number.
“What does she want?” Simon wondered, but Joshua gestured to stop him from answering.
“More importantly,” Joshua said, “How did she get your number?”
They drove the rest of the way in silence with the unasked question hovering between them. If some county employee could get their number, then couldn’t Ausmann? And, by extension… their address?
“We really need to find out what he’s hiding,” Simon said as they pulled into the garage, and Joshua just nodded in agreement.
* * *
Image: Adam Foster, (CC) BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons