Chapter 13 — Carl
"Something was definitely up with those two."
"No shit. Do you want to bring Westin in?"
"I'm not sure. Did we have anything listed about his sister?"
"Nothing at all. Didn't even know he had one. Did you get a look at Carl though?"
"What about him?"
"Kid was sweating bullets the whole time. Practically soaking the carpet. He's our in."
"We still have to actually track him down though. Let’s go by his house again. That bag on his shoulder, I recognized it from his room. He’s been home since we were there. Figure out if the father covered for him."
"You got it."
If the internet is a marvel of modern technology, free wireless access to it is a genuine miracle.
I couldn’t go home. No matter what Matt said, there was no way I could chance the police picking me up, or running into my dad again. I was burning bridges left and right, but I really didn’t care. My mind was focused and clear for the first time since we’d come back. Instead of the nebulous goal of finding Blake and figuring out what to do next, I was laser-focused on my mission: return to Cyraveil.
That might not seem much better, but I’d already been there once. I knew it was possible, so it was perfectly logical to assume it could be repeated. I was following in my best friend’s footsteps here. It was the best way I could think to honor his memory.
Blake had urged us to travel out to Cyraveil Forest that night. I’d gone along mostly to humor him. A weird, teal-colored light flying around deep in the forest? He spotted it from his bedroom window, and nobody else saw it? Sure, why not. I had nothing better to do, and it was a good excuse to force Matt out of his house to join us. This was back when I idolized Matt, of course.
Not so much anymore.
I was camped out at free hotspots. Fast-food places, coffee shops, bookstores, the library. I had plenty of money if I needed it, off a card tied to my parents’ account. I’d have to make use of it as much as I could before they shut it off, and keep moving right after any use without following any kind of pattern if I could help it. Anything to avoid suspicion.
So far, luck seemed to be on my side. It was already early Saturday morning, and I’d had no trouble with the police or anyone else. I slept in the woods, under a heavy blanket and in the shelter of a particularly thick-rooted tree. Unless someone had walked straight up next to it, they’d never have spotted me.
It reminded me of the weeks I’d spent on the run with Jen, outside of Vennenport. Even with all my influence and authority, with my friendships in the court and my own personal forces, I’d still become a fugitive in that city. I’d broken up a generations-old tradition, and in particularly bloody fashion. As a rule, long-standing institutions like that really don’t appreciate getting shut down. We never should have made it out alive.
Jen, of course, wouldn’t let that stop her. She got us away, not me, straight into the fields and forests. We were still within the borders of the city’s influence, though, and had to spend our days and nights alone, in deep distrust of anyone we came across. But between my knowledge of the area and Jen’s unparalleled ability to keep us hidden and alive, we managed our way across the expanse back into friendly territory, where my troops awaited.
One word from me, and the city burned to the ground.
It might have been an overreaction, but I stand by it. That city was foul to the core.
A ping from my laptop brought me back into the present. I was seated at a corner booth in an overnight diner, where I’d spent the early hours of the day. I ordered a plate of bacon and tall soda, enjoying my favorites while I still could. Bacon wouldn’t ever taste quite this good on the other side, and soda? Forget it.
I wiped off my hands before popping the laptop open. It was fully charged again, which brought me a whole world of mental peace. I’d run down the battery a ton the night before, and being tethered down to a single spot while it charged up was seriously unsettling. Even the few seconds it took to unplug might cost me everything if I had to flee—and if I lost access to information, especially my servers in the cloud, my search would get exponentially harder.
The ping was a new email from my best contact so far. He was a guy clearly as paranoid as me, and we’d been exchanging private messages on a sci-fi/fantasy forum. We soon progressed to encrypted emails to keep off of the site’s servers. I was desperately trying to verify his story. Some of the details were wrong, but overall, he actually seemed to have a legitimate grasp of Cyraveil. I was afraid to let my hopes build up. Could this man truly have been across the divide between worlds, as I had been?
I had to know. I wanted to meet him, but he refused any offer at direct contact. Every message I sent seemed to take us a step forward and another couple steps back, as he tried to tease out my own identity in return. Caution was the name of the game, and I was determined to win. If he was some sort of plant, a mole to lure me out into the open to get some leverage, I wasn’t going to slip up first.
His newest email was disheartening, to say the least.
I think you’re just making this up. You haven’t given me any real details. Nothing that would be out of place in any two-bit fantasy novel. Until I know for sure you’re legit, I’m not saying another word on this. Quid pro quo. Send me back something real and we’ll talk again.
I wasn’t going to just take that. I began probing for real. My bag of tricks ran pretty deep. I was determined to find out his identity, no matter what it took.
The first step was to get more details on his connection and access logs. To do that, I’d need more privileges on SFFHaven, but I could only get those in one of two ways. EIther they’d deliberately give me authority by promoting me to staff, or I’d have to wriggle my way in. In a word, hacking.
There was no way I had time to actually persuade the administrators to grant me privileges. Hacking it was.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t going to be exactly easy, either. The simplest form of attack I had, an SQL injection, required them to have security holes right there on the website frontend. To my disappointment, whatever software they were running had covered its tracks properly. All inputs were sanitized, all known backdoors were closed. I’d need another vector, besides just brute-forcing my way in and stealing the database.
If the direct approach won’t work, I wondered, why not impersonation? Anyone in power, nobles or admins, never really know everyone in their own hierarchy. I didn’t need to yank out the data, if I could just have the server hand it to me cleanly.
Rain pattered down the windows as I shifted mental gears. The early morning staff at the restaurant shot me the occasional curious glance, but nothing more. I guess they were used to this sort of behavior, furious typing from someone in a corner booth. They probably assumed I was studying or something else classwork-related. So long as they still had free tables and low traffic, I didn’t expect to be disturbed.
Which meant it was time to really get to work.
A quick check of the website’s public registration revealed the owner of the domain name—and more importantly, his email address. Thanks to the regulations for the internet registry system, this information was relatively guaranteed to be up to date. Now, I just had to hope he was as lazy as any other server admin I’d ever come across.
I grabbed up the couple of databases my automated server had gobbled down over the last day of scanning, and started querying them for matching email addresses. On the second database, I got a hit, and on the third I got another, on a table that didn’t properly salt its passwords. Amateurs. Within a few minutes, I had the admin’s password—and as my lucky streak continued to mount, he wasn’t as security-conscious as whomever wrote his forum software. His password was the same for his email and his account in the database.
Unfortunately, it didn’t match the admin account on SFFHaven, which was my real target. It would take another few steps before I could access my goal, and SFFHaven didn’t provide password recovery for admin-level. I seemed to be out of technical options, but with access to his email account, I was suddenly a great deal more powerful than I had been only minutes earlier.
I opened up his mail and started searching. Any keywords related to SFFHaven, moderators, logs and users, so on. I needed to find someone else with access. Somebody I could dupe into handing over the keys. After some fifteen minutes of digging, I found another administrator who seemed gullible enough. There were multiple instances of a quick email exchange where the second admin had asked my stolen identity to do a quick password reset. They’d even mailed the password back and forth in plaintext.
I tried the last listed password, just in case, but it was a dud. That didn’t deter me. I spent a few minutes composing a message before I sent it along.
need a pw reset. cant get in and im on the road but someones emailing me about something going on. can you login and set it to changeme123
I hoped the all-lowercase and lack of punctuation would give it some sense of urgency. Emergencies usually got people to ignore the proper protocol, which was exactly what I needed. Fortunately, the admin seemed to be located on the East coast, so my hapless target was already awake and the email was received almost right away. I chomped through a cold piece of crispy bacon as a reply came back only a couple minutes later.
done. password set to changeme123
Thank god for clueless forum admins. I emailed a quick thanks, after verifying it had indeed been reset. I now had access to proper logs for the entire board, and all the members present. Time to start digging.
There was a ferocious headache building up in my skull. Probably dehydration, or maybe just hunger, but either way, it was seriously hurting my ability to read off my laptop screen.
I’d switched locations to a public library after the restaurant traffic started to pick up. A short bus ride through the pouring rain, and I was situated comfortably in the corner of the book stacks. As I arrived just after the library opened, the better chairs were actually open for once. I sank gratefully into one, opened my laptop, and returned to my search.
The email and username of my correspondent were easy enough to find, but they were both throwaway one-use names, with little to tie them back to any existing identity. Instead, I hit the jackpot when I used his most common login IP address. One check against a locating service and my jaw practically fell off my face.
It traced back to Mellbridge, Oregon. The same suburb we were in.
It couldn’t be a coincidence. I doubted he was happening to use a proxy that ran right through my hometown. The IP lookup service wasn’t more precise than a dozen miles, but it was enough. I had a way better idea of where this man was, and I could narrow it down further with some painstaking cross-referencing.
It felt like a good sign. I was on the right track. Of course somebody who had actual knowledge of Cyraveil would live in this area; Cyraveil Park and the all-important forest were here.
My eyes were getting really sore, on top of the headache. The frequent shifts of light levels weren’t exactly helping either. I tried to rest my eyes frequently, but there’s only so much I could do when I had to spend an inordinate amount of time scrolling through long lists of timestamps, dashing between social networks, trying to narrow down a single person in town.
I was tracing my erstwhile potential ally through the internet. The account he’d used to contact me was a throwaway, but by my research, it wasn’t the only one he had on the site. I started comparing login times, one by one, between users who frequented the same boards. It was only a matter of time before I’d processed it down to a pool of potential matches. One of them must be him.
Whenever I found a potential match, I’d trawl through their post history. Any signs of personal information, even the slightest detail might lead to an identity. I’d follow through on any clue. I’d delve through search engines and social networks, pick through public directories and records. Anyone I found that wasn’t living nearby I filed away for later, focusing on those potentials who were within city limits.
It was frustrating, boring work, and so far, utterly pointless. But I couldn’t give up. No matter what, I’d find this man, and he’d tell me everything he knew about Cyraveil. Then, finally, we’d go back. We’d leave this place forever.
I leaned back in my chair, closing my eyes for a much-needed reprieve. I really needed better sleep than I’d gotten out in the woods. Thankfully, it hadn’t rained, but I still wasn’t exaclty comfortable out there. I wasn’t Jen. I didn’t love trees like the Sylves. Did they worship them? I dunno. Something to figure out when I got back, I guess.
I wished I could talk to her. Every encounter since we’d gotten back was painful, marked by loss or argument. When I’d left the day before, after the police, we’d parted as friends, but there was a barrier between us. I couldn’t face her again, not when I had nothing to show for my efforts. I had to prove her wrong. Prove both of them wrong.
It was physically painful for me to hear Jen take Matt’s side. She could have stabbed me in the gut with that arrow, and I don’t think it would have hurt as much. Not in the long term, anyway. She clearly belonged in Cyraveil; why couldn’t she see it like I could? In those seven years, she’d adapted more quickly and thoroughly than any of us. Was it just because of Matt’s conviction to stay that she believed otherwise?
I was running circles in my head at this point. I’d been through this same thought process dozens of times since I’d left. I needed something new before I drove myself insane. It was painful having no one to talk to. I had my other few friends online, of course, but I couldn’t be sure which of them I could talk to. If the police had connected Matt and Blake so fast, and picked up Cyraveil off Blake’s computer, who was to say they hadn’t also followed through on everybody else in our chat room? My friends were off limits for the foreseeable future.
I was alone. I hated being alone.
Physically alone I could have dealt with, once upon a time. Conversations online were more than enough social activity to satisfy my brain most of the time, and the rest was filled by attending school. I hadn’t lived that way in a long time though. I’d adjusted to the constant connections and interactions of my life in Cyraveil, where I had men to command, civilians to keep happy, political affairs, courtships, an honest-to-god fiery romance, and an endless host of things to manage. I’d learned to thrive there, and now that I’d come back, my brain was having a hard time adjusting back down to the speed of life my old body expected.
I needed to talk to someone before I started really losing it.
I ended up calling the only person I could, the last person who I hadn’t driven away yet, that I still knew I could trust.
After a few rings, she picked up, in a sleepy, confused voice. “...Hello?”
“Hi, Sara. Please don’t hang up,” I said quickly.
Sara’s voice got sharper very fast. I was impressed. “Wait, who is this?”
“It’s Carl. Jen’s… friend. We met the other day.”
“Right,” she said, and all sounds of just waking up were already gone. “So uhh, why are you calling me at seven in the morning?”
“I’m sorry. Did I wake you up?”
“Well… yeah. Is something wrong?”
I suddenly realized how utterly pointless this conversation was. Sara didn’t know anything. What on earth was I supposed to talk about with her, if I couldn’t bring up Cyraveil? It wasn’t like my current internet stalking would seem like anything other than bizarre and creepy devoid of context.
Okay, yes, in context it doesn’t look much better, but it would all be worth it. I wasn’t hurting anyone. I’d get the information I needed, and I’d disappear from the world with no one the wiser in the end.
“No, nothing’s wrong, I just—”
“Look, Jen called last night. She said the police wanted to see you.”
Well, I guess Jen had no reservations about talking with her friends. She was braver than me, as usual. “...Yeah. Do you know Blake Svartholm?”
“Yeah. Jen told me about him,” Sara’s voice got softer, though it was difficult to tell. As nice as my phone might be, calls still never quite conveyed the full spectrum of a voice, no matter how good they could get. Nothing could replace hearing someone’s voice in person, or seeing body language, facial expressions. Cyraveil had magic that let all of that get through. Yet another reason this world sucked.
“That’s why they wanted to talk. They’re trying to find out what happened to him.”
“Oh.” Sara paused. “Do you need help?”
“...Huh? Why would I need help?” I didn’t want to get her involved unnecessarily. Jen wouldn’t want her to get in trouble, for sure. Besides, if we were going to disappear, it’d be cruel to bring Sara in closer than she needed to be. Better that her friend just vanish once again, than to force her to live with the truth, and the danger it posed.
“Well, you ditched school twice now, and the cops are trying to find you.” Sara paused. “Just offering.”
“No, I’m fine.”
“So why did you call?”
“I don’t…” How could I explain it to her, without telling her anything? This wasn’t working at all. I was just making things worse. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have called.”
“No, wait. I’m sorry. Just… talk to me?”
What should I say? Nothing came to mind.
“You still there? Carl?”
“Still here,” I said.
“Look,” she started hesitantly. “I know you guys are going through a lot of pain right now, and a whole bunch of things I can’t understand. Just remember you’ve got friends, okay?”
What had I really expected to get out of this conversation, anyway? This was going nowhere—and worse, I felt awful that I’d dragged Sara even closer into our circle.
“Okay. I have to go. Sorry for waking you up.” Before she could get in another word, I hung up. I set the phone on the table, staring at it as if it had betrayed me.
That was unproductive and dangerous, I told myself. You don’t know her. Jen trusts her, but can you? Jen’s been wrong about people before. You’ve seen the results of that first-hand, even if the scars are gone now.
Back to work. I picked up my laptop again and settled back into the comfy chair. I was going to find this man, no matter what it took.
Faster, faster. I’d set up macros to do some tasks for me. Others were too difficult to automate, and I ran through them manually. Identity after identity, person after person. I’d go through every last one of them if I had to. No one was off limits, nobody was out of reach. The world put their personal lives online, and damned if I wasn’t going to abuse that.
I relocated again a few minutes after that disastrous phone call with Sara. I’d tried to continue, but I got too uncomfortable. Too paranoid. A change of scenery helped me refocus. I found myself in a fast food restaurant again, scarfing down fries as I set back up. Soon enough, I was deep-diving databases once more, and suddenly, out of nowhere, I found him.
There he was. It was the closest thing I had to a match. His login and logout times closely matched up with the anonymous throwaway I’d been communicating with. He even lived on the other side of town, toward Cyraveil Park. Daniel Whitman, twenty-two. A student, with no particularly active friendships judging by his social profiles. Kind of a loner, by all accounts. His feed was nothing but automated birthday prompts and similar posts.
He looked like my man, but I didn’t have anything on him yet. All of his privacy settings were properly engaged, so I couldn’t get anything off of him without a connection. No way to leverage him into giving me more details, no personal information I could exploit. I’d need to get closer if I was going to force him to talk.
I went back to his friends list. One of them had to have something I could use. I started adding people at random, and quite a few accepted almost instantly. People who preferred quantity over quality. I rolled my eyes, but began delving into their posts. It still wasn’t fast enough, and I was getting frustrated by the monotony. I wrote a script, and soon my machine was automatically spinning back through their entire online histories, sucking up everything like a vacuum chewing through the dust-covered abandoned corners of the internet.
Once I had everything downloaded, it was much easier to search through their pasts, any references to Whitman. There, a mention of his home. Another to his pet. A happy birthday for his grandmother. More little missives, personal information I could use.
I went back to Whitman’s profile and attempted to login. His password was useless, which didn’t surprise me, but I had another way in now. I clicked through to his security questions, praying one would match up with the information I’d acquired.
The world was on my side again, finally. I grinned as soon as I saw the first question—the name of his first pet. The rest was just as easy.
Within a few seconds, I’d logged in as Whitman.
A few seconds after that, I had his home address. His phone number. Everything.
I leaned back against the hard plastic bench, breathing heavily. I felt like I’d just run a marathon, even though I’d been sitting still for over an hour.
What should I do next?
It hadn’t even occurred to me what to do with Whitman’s information once I obtained it. I knew who he was, and where he was, but how could I capitalize on it?
Should I try blackmail?
Worthless. Even with all his personal information, none of it really screamed blackmail material. I had no evidence, no real leverage. He’d been cagey so far, but I doubted just dropping his name into our conversation would do much. For all intents and purposes, he seemed like a pretty normal college kid who lived alone.
Coercion from behind a screen wasn’t going to work. I needed something more… direct.
My mind was already patching together a plan, even as the thought first formed. I knew where he lived. That was enough to make a move. I’d need a few things first, and a more thorough accounting of his life before I went in. I had to cover every angle, just in case. I had to be prepared for anything.
Quid pro quo, Daniel Whitman? You’re gonna regret that.
I dived back into his account, committing his entire life to memory, a man who—unbeknownst to him—had suddenly become the most important man in this entire world.