Homunculus: Chapter 25: Voice

The phone hummed skittered across the countertop. Douglas craned his neck to look at it, careful to avoid dripping any soap suds on the kitchen floor. The display showed “Restricted”. Douglas shrugged and returned his attention to the pot sitting in the sink, or more precisely the chunk of blackened, hardened food that clung to the bottom. The phone continued buzzing a few more times before falling silent.

And then promptly started buzzing again. Douglas turned his head to check. “Restricted” again, no doubt the same person. Robo-dialers at least had the courtesy to increment the number by one if nobody picked up. The phone wasn’t in danger yet of vibrating itself off the countertop and onto the floor, so Douglas continued his increasingly futile attempt to undo the previous night’s attempt to cook chili. Anyone who he had any interest in talking to knew better than to try to disable caller ID when calling him anyway.

Another silence, followed by another round of buzzing. Same caller. Douglas rinsed the soap suds off his hands and dried them on his pants. Clearly, there were only two ways to get whoever it was to stop bothering him, and he couldn’t risk shutting the phone off completely, in case it was an emergency at work. Those seemed to be happening with alarming frequency lately.

“Yes?” Douglas answered, making little attempt to hide the annoyance in his voice.

“Douglas Decker?” asked the voice on the other end of the line. It was unnaturally deep, as though someone had taken a normal voice and knocked it down a couple octaves.

“Yes,” Douglas repeated, dispensing with the attempt altogether.

“Listen carefully. You will do exactly as we tell you to do.”

“Who’s ‘we’?” Douglas hardly felt inclined to play along with whatever game the other person was playing. The pot had spent enough time soaking as it was.

“That is none of your concern. You will do exactly as we say, or the girl will face the consequences.”

“What girl?”

“Elizabeth Richardson.”

“Listen, I don’t know who you are, but this isn’t funny.”

“It is not intended to be, Mr. Decker.”

Douglas’s heart stopped. He wasn’t sure what was going on, but he guessed he wasn’t going to have time to figure it out, especially if whoever he was talking to was indeed serious. He had to act fast.

“I assume from your silence that I now have your attention?”

“Undivided,” Douglas lied, forcing himself to stay calm. He was holding his phone to his ear with his left hand. With his right, he was launching the VoIP program on his computer. He muted the volume on the computer’s speakers and dialed 911. He couldn’t afford risking whoever it was finding out he was calling the police. He’d just have to hope the dispatcher could figure out what was going on. It figured the one time he wanted someone to be listening in on his phone calls, he’d have to do it the hard way.

“Good. You will tell me the–”

“What have you done with Liz Richardson?” Douglas interrupted, raising his voice partly in anger, partly to be picked up on his computer’s microphone. He switched his phone to speaker mode and moved it closer to the microphone.

“The girl is safe. For now.”

Douglas switched it the phone back to normal mode. He knew speakerphone made your voice sound echoey, so he’d need to be careful about switching back and forth and keeping quiet when he and hopefully the police were listening. “Prove it.”

There was a brief pause at the other end of the line. “What?”

“I said prove it. You honestly don’t expect me to take you at your word when you just told me you kidnapped Liz Richardson? I want to know that she’s OK. I swear, if you’ve done anything to hurt her…” He let the threat trail off, but only because he was too angry and scared to think of anything credible at the moment.

“You are in no position to be making threats, Mr. Decker.”

“And I have no intention of giving you anything if you’ve done anything to Liz,” Douglas countered.

“Fine.” There was several seconds’ silence. Another voice came on the line, higher pitched, but only slightly so. “Douglas? It’s me, Liz. I’m OK, I promise. Just do what he says, OK?” Another silence, and the original voice returned. “Satisfied?”

“You have to turn off whatever you’re using to mask your voice. That sounded nothing like her.” Douglas felt a glimmer of hope that the kidnapper hadn’t had much experience with this sort of thing before. At least, it seemed like an awfully amateur mistake.

“Oh, right.” More silence, then a voice that was unmistakably Liz’s said, “Douglas?”

“Liz?”

“It’s me! I’m fine, we’re in my ap–” The voice was cut off.

“Your apartment? You’re in your apartment, Liz?” Repeating the street address seemed like it would be a little too obvious. Hopefully the dispatcher would be able to figure it out himself.

“It is none of–” The kidnapper stopped, then started again with the voice modulator switched back on, “It is none of your business where we are.”

“Ask her to tell me what six plus five is,” Douglas said.

“What?”

“I want to know that you didn’t just record Liz’s voice earlier and started playing it back for me now. I want you to prove that she’s there, with you, alive, and unharmed.” And to keep him on the line as long as possible, in case that would give the police time to do something. Assuming they were still listening. The VoIP program indicated the call was still connected, at least.

“Six plus five is eleven, Douglas,” Liz said over the phone. Shortly after, in his disguised voice, the kidnapper asked, “Now are you satisfied, Mr. Decker?” The modulator wasn’t able to mask the kidnapper’s growing impatience.

“I suppose so,” Douglas replied. “For now. Now, what is it that you wanted from me anyway?”

“It is very simple, Mr. Decker. You will tell me your authentication code for accessing the remote recovery interface on… em ell see arr dash arr bee one.” The voice had spoken that last part slowly. Maybe he was reading something off a piece of paper?

“Run that by me again? I’m not sure I caught all that.”

The kidnapper obliged, and this time Douglas made sure to parse the words as letters and not actual words: “The remote recovery interface on mlcr-rb1.”

Douglas recognized the name. It was one of the computers that comprised the Simulacrum’s warm backup system, located in a facility hundreds of miles away. Specifically, it was one of the two remote access points into the system, to be used only in the event of a catastrophic failure at the primary Simulacrum. The machine named mlcr-rb1 in particular was there to handle sending one of the nightly backups back to the primary site. But it’s existence — all information about the Simulacrum’s backup system, in fact — was a closely held secret. mlcr-rb1 didn’t even have an entry in Medimetics’s public-facing DNS, for instance. And the fact that it was used for remote recovery was only documented in the Simulacrum’s disaster recovery plan, which….

Douglas’s eyes jumped to his closet door. The Simulacrum’s disaster recovery plan, which key personnel such as himself had in hard copy, just in case the primary site was physically destroyed. Douglas kept his in his personal safe, which he was now starting to think was indeed broken into over the weekend while he was away. There would’ve been ample time to break in to it, especially with the right set of tools. It would explain why the kidnapper was calling him, specifically, about it.

“I’m waiting, Mr. Decker,” reminded the kidnapper.

“Right, right, hang on,” replied Douglas. “It’s not something I have memorized. It’s not like I log in to it all the time. Give me a minute to find it.”

“Find it quickly.”

“I’m going to set my phone down and put it on speaker. It’ll be faster if I have two hands for this.” Also, he wouldn’t need to keep with the ruse of switching it back and forth so his computer could pick up the kidnapper’s side of the conversation.

“Fine.”

Douglas set the phone down and opened his wallet. Hidden behind the plastic insert was a doubly-folded piece of paper that opened up to reveal a small grid filled with a random assortment of letters, numbers, and symbols. The top three rows were crossed out. It looked like a list of one-time passwords. Of course, it wasn’t. That was the idea, in the unlikely event that someone ever stole the wallet he kept with him at all times, found the paper, and figured out what system or systems it gave the passwords for. In reality, hidden amongst the random garbage were four critical passwords that he knew he wouldn’t use frequently enough to reliably memorize but couldn’t afford not to have. The one for Simulacrum disaster recovery was one of those.

“Are you ready?” Douglas asked.

“Yes,” the kidnapper insisted.

Douglas held the paper in one hand while tracing a diagonal line with his finger, starting from the fifth character in the second row and proceeding down and to the left, wrapping from one edge to another. He read off the first twelve characters his finger came across. With that password, anyone could access the remote recovery system and download a complete copy of the Simulacrum’s data.

“There,” Douglas finished. “Now let Liz go.”

“I will,” the kidnapper replied, “as soon as I can verify that you haven’t lied to me and given me a fake password.”

“And what then?”

“Then, Liz will be free to go. I imagine you’ll be hearing from her soon enough if that’s the case.”

“And if it isn’t?”

“Then you may not be hearing from her at all. Good day, Mr. Decker.” The line went dead.

Douglas immediately unmuted his computer’s speakers and pleaded to whoever might be on the other end of the call, “Please tell me you got all that.”


Chapter word count: 1,692 (+25)
Total word count: 44,008 / 50,000 (88.016%)

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