Outward: Chapter 19: Inspection

“This is ridiculous,” Max Ludovich said, staring nervously at the two-story suburban home the van was parked in front of.

“Man, don’t get me started on ridiculous,” SrA Roberts said. He kept his gaze fixed on the mirror on the back of the visor as he made a third attempt to tie a Windsor knot. “I could write a book on the subject. They’d never let me publish it, but it’d be there.”

“When I applied for a job with the EPA, this is not the sort of thing I had in mind.”

“Welcome to my world.” SrA Roberts sighed and unraveled the misshapen knot.

“Hang on,” Ludovich said. He leaned over and grabbed the loose ends of SrA Roberts’s necktie and slowly began tying it properly, trying to mentally reverse the muscle memory he had developed from tying his own necktie countless times. “Try to hold still and we can get this over with.”

“I hereby promise never to complain about my ABUs again,” SrA Roberts said. “I don’t know how people manage to wear this get-up every day.”

“Ha. We field naturalists normally don’t. Only when we get roped into meeting with people. It’s supposed to make us look more official and trustworthy. Flannel and jeans don’t quite cut it for that.” He let go and considered his handiwork. “Eh, good enough for government work.”

“There’s the attitude,” SrA Roberts intoned sarcastically. “Let’s just stick to the plan and we can get this over with.”

“You are sure this is the place, right?” Ludovich asked as they walked single-file up the driveway.

“That’s what the cable company said, at least,” SrA Roberts replied, lugging a hastily-packed briefcase in one hand. “I’ll check once we get inside.”

Ludovich’s finger froze an inch away from the doorbell. “Remind me again how long I’m going to have to keep things up?”

“As long as it takes. I’ll give you the signal when I’m done.”

Ludovich sighed. “That’s what I was afraid of.” He rang the doorbell.

About a minute later, the front door opened, revealing an elderly woman with graying hair. “Yes?” she asked sweetly.

“Good evening, ma’am,” Ludovich said, “I am Maxwell Ludovich, Environmental Protection Agency, and this is my associate, Mr. Barton Roberts.”

“Ma’am,” SrA Roberts said. His free hand instinctively started to reach for his cap before he reminded himself that he wasn’t wearing it.

“May we come in?” Ludovich asked.

“Oh, yes, of course,” the woman replied with a mixture of politeness and confusion.

“You’re probably wondering what brings us here today,” Ludovich continued once the two of them had stepped inside. “We recently received a report that your home may be, um, home to a species of spider known as Argiope sidereus, more commonly known as the North American square-bodied recluse. They are an extraordinarily rare species, a prime spot on the endangered species list. And under the terms of the Endangered Species Act, we’re here to check for signs of A. sidereus activity.”

“Oh dear,” the woman replied.

“Don’t worry, ma’am, I assure you they’re quite harmless,” Ludovich added quickly. “They’re far more afraid of you than you are of them. In fact, my colleague here once had an encounter with A. sidereus not too long ago, and as he can assure you, he came away completely unharmed.”

SrA Roberts smiled limply and began tuning Ludovich’s prattling out. He casually looked around the room to assess the situation. The living room they were standing in absolutely screamed “grandmother.” Doilies were everywhere, and though the room was generally clean, there was a small pile of children’s toys shoved over in the corner. Nothing out of the ordinary.

SrA Roberts hoped this wasn’t going to turn out to be a waste of time. He hadn’t endured a two-hour drive with a guy he hadn’t met before and knew next to nothing about, except for his inordinate fascination with beetles, which had become all too painfully clear about ten miles in.

“Anyway, A. sidereus is known to prefer heights when choosing a nesting place, so we’d best start with the upstairs and work our way down to the basement,” Ludovich was saying. “Don’t you agree, Mr. Roberts?”

“Oh, yes, definitely,” SrA Roberts replied half-heartedly, shifting the briefcase from one hand to the other.

The kindly old woman led them up the stairs, past framed pictures of what were presumably her three grandsons. As he stepped up into the second floor hallway, SrA Roberts spotted a computer monitor through one of the doors. He cleared his throat and nodded his head in that direction. The signal.

Ludovich picked up on it. “Why don’t we start with that room there?” he asked the woman, pointing to the room immediately to the right of the one SrA Roberts had identified.

The woman led them on a tour through each of the rooms. SrA Roberts again tuned most of the conversation out, giving each one a cursory once-over to look for anything anomalous and, unsurprisingly, finding nothing. There was the bathroom with neatly folded decorative towels. The master bedroom with more portraits of grandchildren and, presumably, the grandchildren’s parents. The guest bedroom turned playroom, looking much like a toy store had exploded. A linen closet. And finally, SrA Roberts’s target of interest, the study.

The monitor was hooked up to a quietly humming tower sitting below the desk. One of the cables running out the back led to a pair of boxes on the bottom shelf of a bookcase, each with rapidly blinking lights. Home router and cable modem. Bingo.

“Ma’am,” SrA Roberts said as they were about to be led back down to the first floor to continue their spider inspection, “if you don’t mind, I’d like to stay up here for a bit and make sure there isn’t any, uh, webbing, hidden behind any of the furniture.”

“A. sidereus has a very distinctive webbing pattern,” Ludovich added, covering for SrA Roberts. “Meanwhile, the two of us can head down and check out the rest of the home, if that’s all right with you.”

“Oh, certainly, dear,” the woman agreed, leading Ludovich back out of the room.

SrA Roberts watched them as they descended the stairs and, once their heads and dropped below the floor, turned his attention to the computer and got to work. He nudged the mouse and the monitor sprang to life, revealing the Windows desktop. No password on the screen saver, SrA Roberts noticed. This was going to be easy.

He opened up a command prompt and typed the command to display the networking settings. Sure enough, it was a private address, no doubt issued from the wireless router on the other side of the room. Noting the gateway IP address, he opened up a web browser and typed in the address, bringing up the router’s login screen.

He tried admin/password. Login failure. He tried admin/admin. Login failure. He tried admin with an empty password. He was in.

The router’s administrative interface was poorly laid out, as was typical, but SrA Roberts only needed a few moments’ searching to find the network interface settings. Sure enough, the external IP address was the same one as the one MSgt Abernathy had found in the MOJO logs. SrA Roberts double-checked by looking at the DHCP status page. The IP address hadn’t been reassigned in over a month.

He turned to look at the router. The commands to fire MOJO at two nearby stars had almost certainly passed through it. SrA Roberts was pretty sure the kindly old woman wasn’t working on behalf of some alien invader, nor were her grandchildren. But something in the house evidently was.

The lack of screaming coming from downstairs suggested they hadn’t come across a surprise swarm of alien robot spiders, which was a good sign as far as that went, even though it meant they’d have to keep looking.

SrA Roberts noticed again the frantically blinking lights on the router and the cable modem. Something was shoving bits through the pipe like there was no tomorrow. He turned back to the computer and looked for anything that might indicate why. There was an icon in the notification area down by the clock that he didn’t recognize. He clicked it, and a large window appeared, covering everything else on the screen.

Not all of the old woman’s grandkids were of the age where they still played with colorful plastic toys, judging from the listing of active torrents being downloaded. SrA Roberts counted five recent movies, four complete seasons of TV shows, and a couple items he was unfamiliar with but, based on the titles, were the sort of thing military members weren’t allowed to let their fellow service members know they were into. He clicked the pause button on the window and looked back at the networking equipment. The blinking lights calmed down noticeably but still indicated ongoing network activity.

SrA Roberts switched back to the router’s configuration page and poked around some more until finding the list of all devices connected to the internal interfaces. He counted two, one of which was clearly the computer he was sitting in front of. The other one, however, was a wireless connection. He tore a piece of paper from a nearby notepad and scribbled down the MAC address listed, and folded it into his pocket.

He decided he had spent enough time up here. He didn’t want Ludovich stalling for time for too much longer. SrA Roberts returned everything on the computer to the state it was in when he found it, then headed down to the basement.

“All clear up there,” SrA Roberts announced while still halfway down the stairs. “Did you find anything down here?”

“I’m afraid not,” Ludovich replied, his face briefly betraying his relief that SrA Roberts had finally made an appearance. “Ma’am,” he continued, “it looks like that anonymous tip we received was erroneous. There appears to be no sign of A. sidereus in your home.”

“Well that’s a relief,” the old woman said. “I was afraid you’d be upset with me for sweeping up the cobwebs!”

“No, not at all,” Ludovich assured her. “Well, we’ve taken up enough of your afternoon. Thank you very much for your assistance, ma’am, and have a wonderful day.”

When they had returned to the van, SrA Roberts turned to Ludovich and asked, “Did you happen to notice any computers or laptops or anything like that other than the one in the study?”

Ludovich shook his head. He had been specifically asked to keep an eye out for them back during the mission briefing. “No, just the one you found.”

SrA Roberts frowned. “I think our culprit is stealing that poor woman’s Wi-Fi.”

“So what happens now?”

“We go war-driving.”

Chapter word count: 1,795 (+128)
Total word count: 33,456 / 50,000 (66.912%)

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