Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Operator is Missing by Paul Hamilton

A group of IT start-up employees start pulling pranks on the unpopular sysadmin, but they may have grossly underestimated her; by Paul Hamilton.

"We all despised Ramona, but I doubt any of us gave much thought to why," I say, feeling the eyes at my back.

"Would you say you've given it some more thought since then, Mr. Lloyd?"

I glare at him. "You could say that." After a moment, I shrug. "She was the systems administrator, you know? I've been in the industry nine years, never met a single sysadmin that didn't have that same bored contempt for guys like me. Guys that do the real work. She lorded over us. She clutched the security policies and doled out access permissions like a miser."

The agent is this thin, tweedy-looking prick. His suit doesn't fit. I'm guessing he got the case because he's the only one the the field office who took two semesters of compsci in college. "So you and your co-workers didn't like how she performed her job duties?"

"No, man. Listen. She just irked everyone, okay? She always wore these anime T-shirts that were too small and she talked in this nasal voice at inappropriate volumes."

Agent Gerhart wrinkles his nose. "She annoyed you?"

I sigh. "Yeah. No. I mean, that's not why, okay?" I pause, trying to pick my words. "It was the way she treated us all: like serfs to her nobility, as if the authority her role gave her over the hardware carried into the workplace. Or, even worse, into real life. She took pleasure in it, okay? You could see that.

"We all knew how much money she made. It was half what any of us in engineering pulled down. And even that was generous. There were high school kids who could add accounts and reboot servers; they'd be happy with a tenth of what she made. It was the one-two combo of someone with a replaceable skillset insisting she had more clout than the rest of us."

Thin fingers coil over the edge of the table as Gerhart pushes back, tipping his chair onto two legs. "You didn't like that she was a low-paid woman with authority?"

I lean forward as far as the restraints will allow and seethe, "Let me make this perfectly clear. It had nothing to do with her being a woman."

Gerhart drops the chair forward. His mouth squints into a quick moue and he scratches something into his notebook. I relax and blow an exasperated puff of air at the ceiling. "Maybe," I say, forcing my voice into neutral tones, "if she had just played ball with us. All she had to do was acknowledge there was some wiggle room in the company policies. At the very least if she recognized it was our team that generated the revenue..." Gerhart looks up, expectant. "Maybe it would have ended differently."

More pen scratching on paper. I sit up straighter, try to see. I can't read his tiny, sloppy penmanship from this far away and upside down. It's making me nuts that I can't see what he's writing. He sets down the pen and folds his hands over the page. "Can you give me an example of this wiggle room you mentioned?"

"Let's say you've got a guy debugging a problem on a dying application stack. It's costing the company twelve thousand dollars per hour, okay? When that guy asks for extra disk space allocation to handle his corefiles -"

Gerhart interrupts, "- Can you clarify that term?"

I close my eyes for a second. I knew he was a moron. "When a program fails - when it coredumps - it writes these huge files to disk, called corefiles. They contain all the information from the program up to the point where it crashed, which developers can use to diagnose what happened. Kind of like the code equivalent of an airplane's black box."

"Okay, got it. Thanks."

"Anyway, when that guy asks for extra disk space on his account, you don't refuse because he didn't fill out the paperwork correctly."

"Are you describing an actual incident?"

"Sure, happened about a zillion times."

"Did you get management involved?"

I tuck my top lip behind my bottom teeth. "Sorta. I mean, technically she's got corporate policy on her side, right? They can't very well tell us, 'Yeah those policies are bullshit.'"

"So what did they tell you?"

"They said to work it out with Ramona."

"And did you or any of your colleagues try?"

"Of course, man. Hell yeah, we tried. But there was no talking to her, you know?"

Gerhart does the nose wrinkle again. "Give me an example. Did you personally try talking to her?"

I shuffle around in my seat. I don't like thinking about my direct contact with her. Especially now. "In a manner of speaking."

"What do you mean by that?" he prods.

"There was this rumor," I begin, and trail off. Gerhart blinks in slow motion, waiting for me to go on. His expression says he'll wait all day to get this bit of the story. What the hell. "The rumor around the office was that she had a crush on me."

"Did she ever try to ask you out?"

I laugh. "No. No, she wasn't like that." The agent's eyebrows raise and his head tilts an inch. "She's a nerd, okay? She was shy. When I asked her about letting up on everyone, she just kind of shut down."

"Because she was attracted to you?"

I lift a shoulder. "Maybe. Who knows? But she'd start mumbling through her nose and I couldn't understand her. Eventually she'd turn red and I'd say something like, 'Whatever, weirdo,' and go back to my desk. It was super awkward."

"How many times did you try to talk to her?" His gaze darts up over my shoulder at the two-way mirror behind me. I turn, as if I'm going to see through it, and instead I'm treated to a view of my own uncharacteristic scruff of beard and reddened eyes. I almost don't recognize myself.

I turn back and say, "Not many. I don't know. A couple; three times at most."

"Did you ever interact with her in a non-professional capacity?"

"Aside from asking her to chill out? Because that was as personal as it ever got. Sure, I asked her to reset a password or two when we passed in the hallway or I'd shout over the cube wall to find out if the mail server had crashed again. But as far as me walking over to her and striking up a conversation? Asking her to cool it was the only reason I had to do anything like that."

"And yet you were involved in these -" Gerhart flips back a few pages in his book, "- 'office pranks' as you describe them?"

"Sure. Yeah. So what?"

"I'm only trying to get a sense for your relationship with Ms. Esker."

My eyebrows go up. "You think it's weird to poke some fun at someone you don't really talk to?"

"I didn't say that. I'm not here to editorialize, Mr. Lloyd. I just want the facts."

"Well the fact is, it was all harmless fun at first. I mean, she knew office morale was sinking because of her. Management looked at the gags as team building."

"Who carried out these 'gags'?"

"All of us. Garrick, Henrik, Pete, me. Even Janey got onboard. And look, before you say it, Henrik's stunt was over the line and I told him so. Early on it was all completely harmless. We're a start-up for God's sake! All that politically correct corporate HR bullshit comes after you crack the 35 employee mark." I sniff and look back at the mirror. "Anyway. Not to toot my own horn or anything, but my idea was the funniest. I re-positioned all of her Star Trek dolls into positions from the Kama Sutra. Pretty great, right?"

Gerhart doesn't laugh, or even smile. Humorless wank. He licks his lips again and lets the silence fill the claustrophobic room. "Tell me about Henrik's 'stunt'."

Here we go. "He had the dumb idea to photoshop Ramona's head onto screengrabs from porn videos. You have to understand, we all told him it was a bad idea. I even thought he had abandoned the idea when we couldn't find a picture of her anywhere. She had some kind of allergy to cameras, I swear."

"Go on."

"What do you want me to say? How was I supposed to know Henrik would root her home computer?"

The pages in the notebook flip again and the pen comes out. "Can you explain that phrase, 'root her home computer'?"

"It means gain access at the most privileged security level. If you have root access, you can pretty much do what you want with a system."

"And Henrik was able to accomplish this?"

"Sure. Yeah. Finding an exploit and dropping a rootkit isn't that hard." I catch Gerhart's question before he even opens his mouth. "Sorry. Exploits are security weaknesses that get you superficial access to a machine. Rootkits are programs that escalate the intrusion into a full-on compromise and grant privileged access."

The agent's pen taps against his tight lips. "Wasn't Ms. Esker in charge of corporate security in her role at the company?"

I nod. "Sure, yeah. But it's not all that uncommon for people in the industry to have vulnerable home computers. Have you heard that joke about the gynecologist's wife?"

Gerhart holds up a hand. "I get the picture."

"Plus, she wasn't very good at her job, remember? Anyway, Henrik got into her machine. We thought it was funny. Ironic, like you said. We messed around on it for a few hours the next morning. Just goofs, really; harmless stuff. Re-mapped common commands to do open the CD tray, changed some display settings to mess with her head, nothing big."

"And then what happened?"

"Then we found the directory."

"This was the directory with the photos?"

"Yeah. Henrik wanted to doctor pictures of her so it would look like she was a sex freak. Turned out, we didn't need to doctor these pictures at all."

"What did you do with the pictures?"

I put my palm on my chest, dragging my other wrist off the table in the process. "Me? No way, man. I didn't do anything with them. I told Henrik to kill the 'kit and bail out."

"Did he?"

"You know he didn't. He printed them out like a dumbass. Went so far as to pin them up in her cube."

Nodding, Gerhart examines his earlier notes, probably from an interrogation of Henrik. I wonder what that idiot told them. "Did you see a file containing your name?"

"You mean the love letter?"

"Yeah," Gerhart says, ice cold.

"No."

He waits. I don't give him the satisfaction.

"You didn't see the letter addressed to you? Your co-workers all say they read it."

"I'm sure they did," I say, louder than I mean to. I force myself to calm down. "I'm sure they did. They told me about it. Like I said, once I saw those pictures, I logged off. Didn't need to see any more. I still have nightmares." I snort, then feel uneasy. This guy is suffering from a sense of humor deficit.

Gerhart is quiet for a long while. Then he says, "Let's move on. Tell me what happened when Ms. Esker got to work the day the pictures were posted in her cubicle." I notice he doesn't say Henrik posted them. I wonder if that means Henrik tried to dump the blame.

"She flipped out. Come on, who wouldn't? This wasn't some photoshop joke. Even that would have been harsh, like I said. This was... Hell. I don't know. It wasn't cool, that's for sure."

"Did she know who had done it? Did she know where the pictures came from?"

"Of course. Yeah. She tore them all down, screamed at us, called us names. Packed up her stuff and left."

"She quit that day?"

"I guess she called her supervisor later. We never saw her again in any case."

"How would you describe the mood in the office following her departure?"

I hesitate to characterize it with the full truth, which was that it was like a Mardi Gras party. We made Henrik a hero. "We pretty much went back to work. I guess there was some relief, and we were a little paranoid for a few days that management might ream us out for Henrik's prank. But when no one said anything -" I lean back. "You want to know what we thought? 'Good riddance.'"

Agent Gerhart writes a few more notes, reads back a bit and then stares at me for a long time. "Let's talk about the week after Ms. Esker quit."

This is it. Composure time. Deep breaths. "Okay. Fine. It was a week to the day later."

"Tuesday?"

"That's right. All of a sudden everyone gets this creepy email. It came from the root account on the primary development server and all it says is, 'THE OPERATOR HAS NOT BEEN SEEN TODAY. I MUST HEAR FROM THE OPERATOR.'"

"Did you know what it meant?"

"We had no idea. Garrick and I spent a couple of hours trying to figure out what sent it, but the log files had been corrupted. We found a couple of self-hiding daemons and killed them, but they hadn't really caused any harm at that point. It didn't feel like something we needed to worry much about."

"You didn't suspect Ms. Esker?"

"We didn't think she was capable of writing code like that. Why would she be getting shit pay and working as a sysadmin if she could do that? It made no sense to suspect her. We treated it as a security breach from the outside."

"Wouldn't that have been her responsibility too?"

"Yeah, but this was a week later, right? We didn't have any evidence of an intrusion aside from these programs so there was no telling when it might have happened."

"And you fixed the problem that first day?"

His feigned ignorance is chafing my last remaining nerve. "Of course not. Two days later we get another email. 'THE OPERATOR IS MISSING. RESTORE THE OPERATOR. YOU HAVE THREE DAYS.' Naturally the higher-ups got their shorts in a knot about it and we had to drop everything to hunt the source down."

"What did you find?"

"We found a timed script that fired off every morning and waited for a passphrase. We deleted the script and thought we were clear."

"But the mail kept coming."

"Yep. She was good, I'll give her that. Somehow she stayed a step ahead. She'd set up this chain of sneaky scripts and daemons across all the servers she controlled. If one got found and removed, another machine's copy would restore it overnight. I mean, it wasn't sophisticated but it was clever."

"You admired the work."

"Sure. Smart stuff."

"So this went on for three more days?"

"It did. It took us too long to figure out the extent of it, to realize the effort she'd put in to ensuring her revenge."

Gerhart scratches his cheek and bores holes into the mirror over my shoulder with his stare. "So the emails keep coming. What happens then?"

"After we failed to kill the scripts or enter the password on the third day, it triggered the worm."

A fingertip goes into Gerhart's mouth and he uses the it to flip rapidly through his pages looking for a memory jog. "That's a malicious, self-replicating program?"

I nod. "It rampaged through the company network. It fished out private emails with remarkable cleverness, CC'ing them to everyone in the company. It posted browser histories from our personal laptops to the intranet, highlighting all the porn sites and timestamps in red. I could have gone my whole life without knowing Garrick had a standing 10:45 appointment with Farm-Fun-XXX.com."

He doesn't even grin. "Anything else?"

My own mirth vanishes along with my testicles. "You know what else."

"Indulge me."

I sigh. "It broadcast a link."

"A link to a webpage on a server you own and operate, correct?"

"Correct," I say through locked teeth.

"You know we found copies of all the source code for the worm on that server, don't you?"

"Yes."

"And you know the worm also gathered personal information from your company's computers?"

"So I've been told."

"What could someone do with -" he finds a page in his stupid notebook, "- social security numbers, financial account numbers, addresses, and contact lists?"

"Don't ask me rhetorical questions, agent," I spit. "You know very well what that shit is for."

"So how do you explain that?"

Here we go. I have to hope Gerhart has a sense of logic where his sense of humor ought to be. "Explain it? I don't need to explain it. It makes no sense, that's the explanation. Why would I write a sophisticated intrusion program that just happened to start counting down when my co-worker - whom I didn't even like, remember - quit? Why would I then store the source code and all the collected data on a machine only I have access to? Why would I go through all the trouble to mask the origin program on the corporate servers and then make it so easily traceable to me? Why would I stay up for 24 hours on a Sunday night trying to stop the program if it was mine to begin with?"

"Uh huh." Gerhart closes the notebook and tucks it into his jacket pocket. He rests his hands on the table. I notice he has a white indentation on his left ring finger, sad and empty like the soil beneath a pried-up rock. "When would you say you realized that Ms. Esker was capable of writing code as sophisticated as what you describe?"

"I guess once the worm kicked in. It was a shock to us all. Who can tell what's going on in some people's heads, right? I still can't believe it. She seemed way too stupid for something like that." The last words float in the air over the table, sticky and cackling. I want to suck them back in, rewind the tape.

"Something clever. Something admirable."

"That's not what I meant." I feel the sweat ring my hairline.

He nods. "Thank you, Mr. Lloyd, I appreciate your cooperation," Gerhart says, rising.

"Hey, no! Sit back down. We're not done here. It wasn't me, I tell you. It was that girl! It was her, goddammit! I'm too smart to have done this!"

Gerhart pauses on his way out, staring at the mirror and inclining his head. I know that gesture. It means, "we got him." My body goes numb and my ears ring. The door slams behind the agent. "I have a 138 IQ," I say to the empty room. The room doesn't seem impressed.

7 comments:

  1. I like that the suspense here keeps you reading to the next line, to the next paragraph. Like something or someone that seems familiar yet disappears around the corner before you get a good look, and you can't help but walk up to that corner and have a peek around.
    And, of course, revenge is always sweet...
    Nicely done.

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  2. Nice . An unusual setting. The beginning was a bit slow to my taste but then the events pick up pace and it gets more and more interesting. Well done!

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  3. Jim´s right , you keep reading & wondering. on the face of it, it may seem a dry idea, but it really works, thanks to writing skills.
    well done
    Michael McCarthy

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  4. Are we supposed to know whether the girl framed Mr. Lloyd or Mr. Lloyd was caught trying to frame the girl? It was Lloyd all along wasn't it? He was behind the whole scheme, I bet. Very intriguing. But my guess is the narrator was behind it all along. Maybe I'm overthinking the mystery, nice story.

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  5. Very nice, easy writing. I enjoyed the dialog.

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  6. Wonderful descriptive characterization. You brought us into the interrogation room.

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  7. This is awesome! Such realistic dialog and so in tune with the currents of drama that everyday life cooks up, even amongst programmers and sysadmins :) The psychological game revealed at the end makes one want to read the story over and over again, try to ring out any extra bit of understanding from the main character. I like him a lot. Have you written more, longer, with him as the narrator?
    Abby Cember

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