So if anyone has any thoughts, comments, constructive criticism (or the other kind, really), let me know. I'm deciding whether or not to try to flesh this out into a full-fledged "short story" or novella, and if so, what to do with it then (so, if my writing really just sucks, let me know, so I don't waste too much time on another lost cause). If it's too long or boring to bother, feel free to mention that in the comments also :-)
Aidan hated throwing things away - especially old computer equipment. But his growing collection of 1980s and 1990s server carcasses, old iOmega zip drives, and automated tape drives was spilling out of the spare room and advancing on his living-room couch.
“Ooof! Heavy piece of… oh, hi Morgan!”, he waved as he hauled an old Sun SPARCstation through the morning sunshine, out towards the green plastic dumpster.
“Hey Mister Kumar, what’s that? Finally cleaning out your closet? Is that like, an antique?”
He sighed inside - if the old Sun machine was an antique, what did that make him? He remembered playing with one almost like this at his dad’s work, back in the early 90s. Or maybe it was 1990. Morgan was 15, and sometimes far too cool to say hello - especially if any of her friends were around. Today, though, she seemed harmless enough.
“It’s an old server - a workstation actually - from about 1990. I hate to get rid of it, but I just don’t have room for it anymore, and I’m going to another auction tomorrow.”
“Oh, cool! It’s even older than me! Well, are you throwing anything else out? I can help you carry some stuff if you want”, she said, looking hopeful. He nodded, and grunted as he heaved the SPARCstation into the dumpster’s maw.
“Sure - just make sure you only take the stuff I pulled into the living room.” Morgan followed him through the front door, and picked up some old backup tapes.
“Are these VHS? God, my mom still has some of those. What’s on ‘em? Old movies?” Morgan spied another on the floor, and laughed. “Did you write this? It says ‘WTF’. Does that mean what I think it means?”
Aidan looked at the tape. It was actually labeled, ‘WTF!?’ with a black magic marker on the label. It was an old 20GB tape, which fell out of a tape-carousal system he picked up at an auction in 2002, after a dot-com storage company went bust. “No, it’s not a movie; it’s a back-up tape for a computer. Actually, I have no idea what’s on it, probably nothing, or some old bank data or something.”
Morgan looked intrigued. “So, why does it say ‘what the eff’ then?” she asked. “Can we check it - maybe it’s somebody’s diary or something?” She looked down long enough to update her location, talking quietly to her phone, “Helping Mister Kumar take his old computer junk to the trash”. Pause while she made sure everything was spelled right. “So, how can we check?”
He had wondered about that tape before, but never enough to check. But what the hell - it was a long weekend, he had nothing else to do, and doing some snooping through somebody else’s old files seemed - barely - more interesting than throwing away more old equipment. “This is going to take a few minutes to set up, I need to hook up a tape-reader to my computer that can read this.” he said. It actually only took him five minutes to get everything ready, but five minutes, it turns out, was about the attention-span of a 15 year old. Morgan’s phone was chirping and buzzing - clearly she had important places to be.
“Let me know what you find, okay? And do you think you can help me with my history homework tomorrow? We’re supposed to write an essay on India’s independence, and… “. She just smiled hopefully again.
“You do know I’m only half-Indian, right? I mean - I’m ‘Swindian’ - my father’s Swiss, and my mother’s from India, but I’m not exactly an expert, Morgan”. He wondered if Morgan’s offer to help was a plan to get his help with her paper all along, not that he would have said no anyway - her father was something of a friend.
“Well, that’s half an Indian more than my dad! Anyway, I bet you know tons, my dad says you’re really smart.” Morgan was an expert at manipulating grown-ups, and Aidan knew it, but found himself saying “Ok, ok, stop by tomorrow and I’ll help. But write a draft first, ok?” He said down and popped the tape in the drive.
After an hour, thought he knew why somebody had written ‘WTF’ on the tape. What the fuck indeed? The tape had two files - and one of them shouldn’t have been there. He turned to his notebook, and did a quick search on AES encryption. AES, or “Advanced Encryption Standard” was announced by NIST in November 2001, and he had bought a crate of equipment - including the tape - at an auction in 2002. The company that had once owned it went bust in 2001. But one of the files was encrypted with AES, and the date-time stamp on the file was from February of 1993. Impossible. It must have been encrypted with AES in 2001, on a computer with the date set wrong. Probably just an accident, but it still didn’t explain the second file. It was also dated 1993, but looked to be encrypted with DES, the old encryption standard that dated back to the 1970s, and the file was almost 4GB. If you had access to AES, which had never been broken, why would you bother using DES on another file, which could be cracked in an hour?
He decided he’d crack the DES file, and spent the next few hours downloading open-source cracking software, copying files to his home server, setting up the brute-force attack. It would take up to five hours, according to the readme, and in the meantime, he had to eat. He headed out for a very late lunch, or early dinner. Pinching some fat that was slowly growing around his midsection, Aidan made the decision to aloud: “Let’s call it early dinner, and not eat anything after that, right?”
The last bite of the enormous burrito was barely settling into his stomach, when his phone chirped. It was an automated email from his home server: the cracking software had guessed the right key to decrypt the DES-encrypted file. Looking at his watch, it was barely two hours since he’d pulled up the terminal window and started it.
Back home, he flipped on the TV in his home office, and toggled back and forth between the History Channel and the news. The news, as usual, was uniformly bad. History Channel it is, then. He turned to his keyboard and display, and opened up the folder. Oh good grief - the cracking software had spit out the encryption key, but didn’t actually decrypt the file. He used a free utility to do the actual decryption using the key - another 15 minutes put into what was probably a gigantic waste of time. His TV droned on, detailing the super-weapons of the Nazis. “World War II history never really got old”, he thought to himself. Then he laughed at his own pun.
Finally - the progress bar reached 100%, and he had his prize - with the filename, “20231117-1755.MTS.” MTS was a video format , and the file’s properties showed it was a pretty run-of-the mill 1080p video, shot with a Sony DSX-S6. And again with the screwy dates - the “date recorded” metadata showed November 17, 2022, which matched up with the obviously-wrong filename. “Curioser and curiouser, cried Alice”, he muttered. So far, he had two encrypted files that had date-time stamps from 1993 - one of which was encrypted with an algorithm that wasn’t available until 2001, and the other a video shot from a camera whose date was set to 2023. He double-clicked the file, which started playing in a window, and on his other screen, google’d the camera’s model number. No matches, although a lot of models that were close.
The video itself was a bit odd - it was a man who was obviously filming himself, standing in some kind of long hallway. The background panned wildly to the left, until the side of the hallway (tunnel?) was showing. It was black and reflective, like glass, so you could see the man’s head, with a couple of bright pin-pricks off to one side. Marks on the glass? Aiden turned up the audio.
“You can see the system is completely clear behind me, and there are only four stars visible. There are dozens of dwarfs that are visible in IR, but even those are mostly cold. I can communicate with some of the other sophonts, there’s some sort of automated translation going on.” The man turned again, and started walking down the hallway. Something about the perspective was off, like a cheap 3D movie, somehow. And what’s a sophont? He paused the video and looked up the term - the word meant an intelligent being, as smart as a person or smarter. It also turned up in some reviews of books by Poul Anderson and Vernor Vinge, and some medical terminology that he’d never heard of.
An hour later, Aiden didn’t have much more of a clue as to what the tape was, but it seemed like it might have been some low-budget sci-fi movie that never made it to editing. But it was shot in 1080p, so how low-budget could it have really been? In 2001, that would have been a really expensive camera. Maybe this really was from some abandoned film project - something along the lines of Cloverfield, with that first-person video “feel” to it. Somebody must know something - he decided to post some clips and find out.
“Great,” he thought. It’s Saturday night, and instead of going out with friends to DC for a drink - and some small chance of meeting a girl - he was exporting clips from a decade-old video and uploading them to YouTube. He put up two 20-minutes clips in 720p, and posted a plea for anybody who knew where it came from to let him know, in the description section. Maybe there was time for a beer anyway - Jay had sent him a couple of sms messages while he was working. It was definitely time for a break from the mystery of the files, and he wasn’t going to get any further tonight.
Somewhere between his fourth whiskey-and-coke, and his last, uncounted one, the Gmail icon on his phone showed up. And then the envelope icon that signified his work email appeared. He slid down the notification area - two unread messages in each account.
“Aiden, what are you doing - it’s Saturday. Plus, that really cute girl over there keeps looking at us”, Jay nagged. She was cute, or really, more pretty than cute. His phone buzzed - an sms from an unknown number. Spam again? He tapped his phone, and read the sms: “Read your emails - hurry.”
“Sorry Jay, somebody’s trying desperately to annoy me.” He tapped onto his work email, and read.
“Aiden - I’ve just sent this same message to your gmail account. You need to take down the videos you put up on YouTube, and if you’re home, leave as soon as you get this. I don’t know how you got that video - you have no idea what you’ve done. Don’t reply to this message, it’s a dummy account I created to send this email. Take down the video, and if you’re smart, you’ll delete any copy of it that you have and forget it.
- Xie (not my real name!!)”
A chill started creeping up his spine. Xie, or whatever his name was - sent this to his work email. And sent him an sms.
“What’s up? You look like you’ve seen a ghost or something”, Jay asked. Aiden showed the message to Jay. “What video? Did you post some pics of you and that girl from last year? What was her name, Mira something?”
Aiden explained, in his best semi-drunken slur, the story of the encrypted file on the old tape, and the video. “1080p my ass, nobody was recording that with a camcorder back in 2001, I think your neighbor, what’s her name, Morgan, is playing a joke on your or something. Maybe the video is a school project?”
He considered that for a second - would Morgan play a joke on him? No, but that didn’t explain the emails, and the sms. Not that it would be that hard to get his contact info, it was spread all over the web, but still. Morgan would never carry a joke this far.
“I’m gonna head home, Jay, and we’ve pretty much killed this bottle anyway.” Jay tried to cajole him into staying longer, and tried - unsuccessfully - to rally the cute girl from the end of the bar to his cause. Aiden ended up calling a taxi, and leaving his car parked at the bar. Later, much later, he realized that might have been the best decision he’d made all day.
Buzz. Buzz. Buzz. A giant mosquito seemed to be circling his head. Buzz. Buzz. Finally, he opened his eyes, and turned his head towards the sound. Turning was not something his head was quite up for, and the dizziness almost made him sick. His mobile was still ringing, on vibrate mode, on the glass coffee-table. He didn’t even look at his watch - morning sunlight was trickling in through his living-room window and onto the couch, where he evidently decided to sleep last night.
“Is this Aiden Kumar?” a man with a very slight eastern European - maybe Russian - accent asked.
Aiden tried to remember if he had given a card out last night. He didn’t remember anything, and his head felt like somebody smashed it with a velvet-covered brick. “This is me, can I help you?”
“Mister Kumar,” the man said very formally. “I believe you might have something - a data backup tape - that belongs to me. I’d like very much to get it back, and I’m willing to pay you for the trouble.”Memories of the odd sms messages, and the emails from last night, drifted up from the fog of last night.