Outward: Chapter 21: Extraction

SrA Roberts drummed his fingers impatiently on one of the metal boxes mounted to the wall in the back of the van. “What time is it now?” he asked.

Ludovich rolled his eyes. “Five minutes after the last time you asked.”

SrA Roberts groaned. “Ever consider joining the military?” he asked.

“Can’t say I have.”

“Well, don’t. You think it’s going to be all exciting action-movie stuff. And sometimes it is exciting, don’t get me wrong. But most of the time, you’re stuck waiting for something to happen.”

“I’ll try to keep that in mind,” Ludovich replied disinterestedly. “Oh, hang on, that might be them.” He pulled a vibrating phone out of his pocket and answered it. “Ludovich. Yes. Yes. Understood.” He put it back and turned to SrA Roberts. “You’re good to go.”

“About time,” SrA Roberts said. He took the headphones resting around his neck and put them on his ears. He then flipped a bunch of switches on the equipment rack in front of him. He liked the Fourth Amendment as much as the next guy, but it was still annoying to have to wait for the judge to sign the court order before he could continue his mission.

The surveillance equipment silently sprang to life as it started sniffing the wireless network in the two-story home. Lights flashed as the Wi-Fi antenna mounted atop the van picked up the packets traversing the network. Packet metadata started streaming across the computer screen.

“Let’s see if our buddy is talking,” SrA Roberts mumbled quietly to himself as he checked the addresses sending packets. There was the wireless router itself, of course. There were two other addresses showing up. From the first few octets of its address, SrA Roberts guessed it was someone visiting the unsuspecting old woman who brought his or her laptop along. The other one was the mystery device he had identified the day before. So far, so good.

SrA Roberts flipped some more switches, bringing the direction-finding equipment online. Figuring out where the mystery device was transmitting from was going to be a little tricky, since most of the Wi-Fi devices in the neighborhood were sharing the same limited set of frequencies, each one turning their transmitters on and off as they decided to talk and worked to avoid talking over each other. Picking out a particular transmitter was going to be tricky, but hey, that’s what the hundred pounds of equipment he was sharing the back of the van with was for.

Ludovich watched as SrA Roberts worked, hunched over the keyboard and monitor awkwardly mounted to the rest of the equipment in the back. The whole thing was pretty well outside his domain of expertise, so he was stuck sitting in the driver’s seat.

“Drive down a few houses, then park again,” SrA Roberts said. Ludovich shifted the van into gear and moved forward slowly, finding another spot along the street to parallel park.

A few minutes later SrA Roberts made the same request. Then to go back the other way. Then to turn down a side street for a bit. Then a different side street. Ludovich dutifully complied each time, assuming the rigmarole was somehow necessary, and hoping there wasn’t some kind of neighborhood watch program in effect. Sure, SrA Roberts would probably be able to convince the cops they weren’t up to no good, but there was the chance they’d want to see a hard copy of that court order they had been waiting on, and Ludovich really didn’t want to have to come back here again tomorrow to finish their mission.

“Drive down to the cul-de-sac and park,” SrA Roberts instructed. He took off his headset and climbed up into the passenger seat.

“Any luck?” Ludovich asked.

“See that little clearing in the middle of the road up there?” SrA Roberts pointed to the center of the cul-de-sac. “There’s a suspicious transmitter somewhere in there that I want to check out.”

“How do you know it’s suspicious?”

“Do you see anyone out there?”

SrA Roberts knew that any legitimate Wi-Fi transmitters in a residential area would be indoors, or be being carried by someone. They wouldn’t just be sitting outside in the grass, unattended. And that’s exactly where the results of his triangulation suggested one was. He climbed out of the van, and Ludovich followed him.

“What are we looking for, exactly?” Ludovich asked.

“Some kind of antenna,” SrA Roberts said. “I don’t know anything more than that. Should be pretty obvious once we start looking.”

The center of the cul-de-sac didn’t provide many hiding places for an antenna, so it only took a few minutes before SrA Roberts found something unusual hidden underneath a bush. He pushed the branches aside.

“Well I’ll be,” Ludovich said.

It was small, occupying the gap between the grass line and the lowest branches of the bush. It was thin and oblong, with a curved part near the back, away from the house they had searched the day before. A thin pole mottled gray and green secured it to the ground. SrA Roberts tested it with his boot. Thin, but sturdy.

“Here, hold this,” SrA Roberts said, passing off the branch-holding duties to Ludovich. SrA Roberts took pictures of it from every angle with his phone, then forwarded them to MSgt Abernathy.

“Done?” Ludovich asked. “Mission complete, right?”

SrA Roberts shrugged. “We’ll see. Let’s get back to the van for now. There’s something else I want to try. Pull back down the street a bit so we get back in range of the house.”

“OK,” Ludovich said, turning the ignition key. “I don’t understand, though. Most people have wireless networks these days, right? Why isn’t it pointed at one of the homes here, instead of one down the street?”

“Probably because the one it’s pointed at is the only one right around here that’s completely unsecured. Path of least resistance. OK, here’s good. Let’s wait here for a bit.” SrA Roberts returned to the equipment in the back of the van.

Whatever it was, it was still connected to the old woman’s Wi-Fi network. The provisions of the court order stated that two could play at that game. He pointed the van’s antenna at the house and established his own connection to the unsecured wireless router. He sniffed the traffic long enough to figure out what IP address the mystery device was using, then launched a port scan against it while he was waiting.

The results came back completely negative. All 131,070 ports showed up as filtered. Yet since the sniffer was showing traffic coming from and going to the mystery cul-de-sac antenna, so it was definitely still up and running.

Next he tried forwarding the sniffed traffic to a protocol analyzer. It wasn’t able to figure out what operating system the device behind the antenna was using. It was either a very nonstandard networking stack, or it was being run by someone far more concerned about security than the old woman in the house. In any case, there’d be plenty of time to dive deep into couple hours’ worth of traffic the equipment collected going to and from it, as his own phone rang.

“Hungry?” he asked Ludovich after hanging up the phone again.

“Getting there,” Ludovich replied. “Are we finally done?”

“Not quite, but we’ve got a break. By the way, do you happen to know about when the hardware stores around here close?”

They returned to the cul-de-sac under cover of darkness. SrA Roberts carried a shovel with him as he headed towards the antenna. Ludovich followed behind, carrying the rest of the gear they had purchased.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Ludovich asked. He couldn’t shake the idea that what they were up to was pretty much his operating definition of “suspicious activity”.

“Orders are orders,” SrA Roberts said as he scooped the first shovelful of dirt away from the antenna’s support pole. “Alien defense means never having to worry about landscaping.”

While they had been out to dinner, shopping, and napping back at the hotel, MSgt Abernathy had been running a few checks on the neighborhood. She had verified there definitely shouldn’t have been any communications equipment installed in the cul-de-sac itself, at least as far as the utility companies and the homeowner’s association knew. She also hadn’t been able to find any known antenna designs, commercially available or otherwise, that quite matched the photographs that SrA Roberts had sent.

They may have been grasping at straws, but it was starting to look like a straw worth grasping.

“There’s no telling how far down this thing goes,” SrA Roberts said after revealing the support pole continued several feet down into the ground. He was trying to be as neat as reasonably possible, but the increasingly large hole in the cul-de-sac was probably going to attract some complaints in the morning. Not his problem, though.

SrA Roberts set the shovel down and gave the support pole a good tug. It was completely immobile. Whatever it was attached to, it was awfully solidly planted in the ground. On to Plan B, then. SrA Roberts started widening one side of the hole.

“How much longer is this going to take?” Ludovich asked, watching SrA Roberts work.

“Not much longer now,” SrA Roberts replied. “Sledgehammer time.”

Ludovich nervously traded the sledgehammer for SrA Roberts’s shovel. SrA Roberts donned a pair of heavy rubber gloves and grasped the wooden handle with both hands.

“You’re probably going to want to stand back a ways,” he cautioned Ludovich, “in case something happens.”

“Like what?” Ludovich asked, taking a few steps backwards.

“Life is full of surprises. Here goes nothing.”

SrA Roberts sidled up to the edge of the hole and planted his feet, making sure he had solid footing. He held the sledgehammer like a golf club, bringing its head down next to the support pole, then slowly arcing it back and forth to trace out a planned trajectory. He then held the sledgehammer at the top of the swing.

“Fore.”

He brought the sledgehammer down on the support pole with as much force as he could muster. The pole broke cleanly at the point of impact. The newly liberated antenna toppled backwards, landing in the hole. He was relieved to see there was no sparking or sudden explosions or swarms of robot spiders.

“Huh.” He carefully picked up the antenna assembly by its newfound handle. “That was easy.” He set it down in the grass and waved for Ludovich to bring him the shovel again. He then got to work filling in the hole with the pile of dirt he had built up next to it.

“Now what?” Ludovich asked, carrying the shovel and sledgehammer back to the van while SrA Roberts followed with the antenna-on-a-stick.

“Now,” SrA Roberts replied, “we make a beeline for base so we can figure out what this thing is made out of.”


Chapter word count: 1,827 (+160)
Total word count: 37,013 / 50,000 (74.026%)

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