Outward: Chapter 18: Spy Stuff

The unmarked black car pulled up to the curb in front of the shopping mall. The rear door swung open. Nate Johnson hazarded a quick glance around him before climbing inside and slamming the car door shut behind him. The car pulled away.

A man wearing a black suit and sunglasses was sitting in the back seat as well. “What was all that about?” he asked Nate.

“What was what about?”

“The little head thing you did before getting in.”

“Oh,” Nate replied. “I was making sure I wasn’t being followed.”

“By whom?” the man asked incredulously.

“I don’t know,” Nate shrugged. “People.”

“Well here’s a tip,” the man replied. “If you think you might be being followed for some reason, try not to get into a car as suspiciously as possible. All you’re going to do is attract attention.”

“Hang on, who are you anyway?”

The woman sitting in the passenger seat turned around to face them in the back. “Can you two please stop screwing around back there,” MSgt Abernathy pleaded, “so we can get on with this?”

Nate had been watching TV in his apartment a few nights earlier when there had been a knock on the door. Through the peephole, he saw the distorted image of a woman in a military uniform. He cracked the door open.

“Yes?” he asked warily.

“Master Sergeant Susan Abernathy, United States Air Force,” the woman introduced myself. “This is a good time?” she half-asked, half-stated.

“Um…”

“Good,” she said, pushing the door the rest of the way open and stepped inside. “This will only take a minute.” She took a seat at his dining room table and gestured for him to take a seat, which he did.

“What is all this about, exactly?” Nate asked.

MSgt Abernathy handed him a few computer printouts from the folder she had set down on the table in front of her. “Does this look familiar?” she asked.

He looked at the papers. It was a printout of an astronomy web forum he had found last night after work. Specifically, it was a printout of a thread he started once he had created an account.

“Wait a minute,” Nate said defensively, “why is the Air Force spying on what I do online? I have rights, you know!”

“Relax,” MSgt Abernathy said, motioning for him to sit back down, “we weren’t watching you, we were watching him.”

Nate looked again at the forum thread. There had been one reply to his message.

“He’s a bit of a person of interest,” she continued.

“Look,” Nate replied, “I never met the guy, all right? I don’t even know his real name! If he’s some kind of terrorist or something–”

“No, no,” MSgt Abernathy sighed, rubbing her temples with one hand and wishing she had started the conversation more carefully, “it’s not like that. Long story short, we had hired him to do some consulting work for us, and he took the money and ran. But I’m here not because of him, but of what you had asked there.”

Nate looked again at his question. It looked pretty innocent to him.

“It’s an awfully specific question for a newcomer to an astronomy discussion site to be asking, isn’t it?” she said. “Asking about what can be seen in two awfully precise locations in the sky. Locations that just so happen to align with the celestial coordinates of Wolf 359 and Ross 128.”

“So?” Nate stammered. “I, um, was looking at the sky one night and wondering what those stars were.”

“I doubt that. Neither of those stars are visible without a telescope. And I definitely doubt you were pointing a telescope around randomly and just happened to see them, especially with the kind of light pollution around here.”

Nate fell silent.

“What I do believe, however,” MSgt Abernathy continued, “are the rumors about a little excitement with MOJO recently. Something about a couple unexpected firings into deep space right? Or, in this case, not so deep space.”

“Um,” Nate said, averting his eyes.

“Yes, I thought so. MOJO was originally built on a government contract, you know. People know each other. People talk. But they don’t normally talk with quite this many significant digits, which tells me you have closer access to what’s going on than the grapevine does.”

“Oh no,” Nate said, his face going pale, “you want me to disappear, don’t you.”

“What? No!” MSgt Abernathy exclaimed. “Do you have any idea how much paperwork…. Never mind that. I mean really, would I be telling you any of this if that were my plan.”

“I suppose not,” Nate replied after thinking it over a bit.

“I think we’re actually in the same boat here,” she continued. “We both want to know what’s going on, and since you seem to have some inside connections, I was hoping you could help me out a bit.”

Nate’s eyes widened.

Nate held out a USB thumb drive in his hand.

“This is it?” the man sitting with him in the back seat asked, taking hold of it. “This is everything?”

“Well, everything I have access to, at least,” Nate replied. “The complete set of MOJO firing system logs are on there. I didn’t want to raise suspicions too much if I started asking around a little too forcefully for other stuff, you know.”

“Hopefully it will be enough,” the man said, dropping the thumb drive into a pocket inside his suit coat.

“Um,” Nate said.

“What?”

“I was kind of expecting you to copy the files off of there and give it back.”

Behind his sunglasses, the man was probably rolling his eyes. “I’m not very well going to stick it into my computer right here without virus scanning it first.”

“I only have the one,” Nate mumbled quietly.

The man sighed and leaned to one side. He pulled out his wallet and fished out a $20 bill, handing it to Nate. “Here, this should cover the cost of getting a new one. Oh, hey, look, a mall. Maybe they have a Best Buy in there.”

During the brief time Nate was in the car, the driver had circled it halfway around the mall and was now approaching an entrance on the opposite side of the building.”

“You’re just going to dropped me off here?” Nate asked.

The man stared at him. “What were you expecting? Your car’s parked somewhere around here, right? We can’t very well go dropping you off somewhere else, can we?”

“I guess not,” Nate admitted. “So, this is it, is it?”

“Pretty much.”

“Can I ask you one question? How did you track me down in the first place anyway?”

“The web forum logs IP addresses,” replied MSgt Abernathy from the seat in front of him. “It’s not that hard to go from that to the service subscriber.”

“Oh,” Nate said.

“We’ll be in touch if we need anything else from you,” the man said as the car came to a stop at the entrance.

“But don’t get your hopes up,” MSgt Abernathy added.

Nate weakly waved goodbye before climbing back out of the car. He had only taken a couple steps towards the mall entrance before the car pulled away again.

“Tell me again why we went through this ridiculous setup?” Raskin asked as he pulled the thumb drive back out and looked at it.

“It was kind of his idea, actually,” MSgt Abernathy replied. “He got so excited when he thought he was going to be some secret government informant. It’s not like we’re going to be able to share anything we find out from him. I figured the least we could was let him have his little fantasy experience.”

“Let’s just get back to the base,” Raskin said.

MSgt Abernathy opened up the lone text file on the thumb drive. The window on the screened filled with densely packed numbers, letters, and symbols. She paged down a few screens to see much of the same. Then she saw the position of the scroll bar to the right.

“This is going to take a while to work through,” she said.

Raskin stared over her shoulder at the screen. “That’s a lot of data.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Is there anything useful we can get out of it quickly?” he asked.

“I’m not sure yet. Give me a minute to see if I can figure out the format. Because of course he didn’t think to give us the file format that this is in.”

Raskin paced back and forth as he waited, thinking. Wolf 359 and Ross 128. Both of them were nearby stars, as far as the distance between stars goes. Maybe Ganett was right on the money when he talked about aliens needing to take a star-hopping approach to reach Earth. Or maybe the home planet of whatever sent the Mackinelly Device orbited one of them. Even more of a reason to figure out what was there, if that were true. He’d have to meet with Riggs when he got back to Washington. With this information, they could probably plead some more money out of Congress and accelerate the R&D some more.

“It looks like there’s more here than just firing information,” MSgt Abernathy said slowly, her eyes darting across the screen. “Maybe more here than Mr. Johnson realized. This bit here,” she said, highlighting a bit of text with the mouse, “looks like a record of where each request originated. See, there’s a phone number for this one. That’s a northern Virginia area code, right?”

Raskin looked at where MSgt Abernathy was pointing and nodded. “Probably someone at the Pentagon.”

“But over here,” MSgt Abernathy continued, “looks like an IP address, so maybe there’s multiple ways to put in a request. And assuming that these numbers are Unix-style timestamps… hang on.” She opened up a window and started running some conversions in it. “Yep, looks like it.” She continued narrating as she worked. “And since these are listed oldest-first, down near the bottom should be our two events of interest and… would you look at that, the same IP address for each.”

“Our culprit?” Raskin guessed.

“Probably worth a visit.” MSgt Abernathy agreed.

“But don’t pack your bags just yet,” Col Newmeyer said, stepping into the computer lab behind them. “Or rather, do pack your bags, because I need to send you somewhere else.”


Chapter word count: 1,733 (+66)
Total word count: 31,661 / 50,000 (63.322%)

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