The Terminator Gene
by Will Evans
Karen Wilkes is a journalist.
Her expertise in ecology and green issues means taking on the government and some of the largest corporate organisations on the planet.
But what is the significance of the encrypted document she receives and why are so many people interested in getting their hands on it? And just what is an encrypted document anyway?
The answers to these and numerous other questions will cost many lives. Failing to answer them might just cost the Earth …
Karen Wilkes was very well accustomed to the unusual way in which her contacts behaved, but the unmarked compact disk just wasn’t giving any clues. It contained a single document. No note. No senders details and the contents just a meaningless jumble of numbers and letters.
Maybe it was just something she had done. Or not done. Or simply done wrong. Finn was always telling her, in that tone that comes so easily to fourteen year old boys, that she needed to ‘just double click it’. Well that just didn’t seem to work.
“I hope I haven’t done any permanent damage” she worried as she realised that the fourteen year old inside Kyle, the office techie, would be hardly less impressed than Finn with her lack of computer literacy. And it had nothing to do with her gender, whatever was written all over his face whenever she asked him a question.
Still, she wouldn’t have any trouble with Kyle. Something she’d learnt at a very early age. She wandered down to the basement.
“Kyle, sweet thing, would you have a look at this for me?”
Kyle swivelled to meet her approach. “What have you done now, gorgeous?”
She never could decide whether the compliment was sincere, even if you disregarded the fact that it came from a barely post pubescent, trainee member of the human race. But then, why not get it while you still can?
“Nothing “ she said. “I just tried to check what was on this CD and all I get is garbage.”
“Give it here” he sighed. “ What’s the format? PC or MAC?”
“Yes probably. You know I have very limited experience with this stuff” she admitted resignedly. “But I do know you’re the only person we have who stands any sort of a chance of fixing this for me.”
Ego on overdrive, Kyle took the disk and slipped it into his laptop with a sensual flick of the wrist. At least he thought it was sensual. Any eroticism was of course completely lost on Karen, since, unsurprisingly I suppose, she didn’t find computer technology or its minders particularly interesting.
“OK. What do we have here?” he said almost to himself.
“Straight text file. Not HTML. Not CSV or fixed. Looks like a key file to me. 32 character blocks means it’s probably DES or AES. Most likely AES.”
Karen wished Kyle had said that last bit to himself.
“Pretty unusual to use AES outside the banking community though. Maybe the sender wants to send you something pretty special. Does your husband know about this?”
“That’s lovely Kyle. And now for the English translation?”
“Well, as you probably know, AES, or Advanced Encryption Standard and DES or Data Encryption Standard are symmetric encryption technologies developed by the US government. DES gave up the ghost to a brute force hacking attack in the mid nineties. Only a complete nutter would use it now, given the security services can probably crack it in about half an hour. AES on the other hand is much more recent and dependable. The only other alternative would be PGP. It’s a system developed by Phil Zimmermann in 1991 for the asymmetric encryption of data files using the Rivest, Shamir Adelman algorithm…”
“Yes, a sound and comprehensive knowledge of history is a wonderful thing” she interrupted. “But what does it do?”
“The file you see here is part of a system used to encrypt or code a document so that only the person with this key can decode it.”
“So can you decode it for me?”
“No, no, no. You’ve got the wrong end of the stick entirely. I thought I made it completely clear. This is not the document. This is just the key to get into the document.”
Her retort was somewhat impatient. “So where is the document?”
“Well it wouldn’t be on the disk for a start, would it?”
Karen bit her tongue and waited.
“The only sensible precaution would be to send the document separately, just like they do with the PIN number for your credit card.”
“Then how am I going to recognise this document?”
“Hard to say. Could be anything; though when you open it without decrypting it first, you’ll soon recognise it ‘cos it will look like random text.”
“How will I get this document?”
“Beats me. How did you get the disk?”
“Better keep an eye on the post then.”
Karen headed for the door. “Thank you Kyle” she singsonged as it slammed shut behind her.
The email arrived two days later on a Wednesday morning. The subject line read ‘Hotel reservation’ and she nearly deleted it without reading it, thinking it was just one of the many junk emails she received each day. But a hotel reservation from a global player in the biotechnology industry? That was worth opening.
A week later she would regret, if only for a moment, ever opening that email.
The body of the email contained the following text…
Attached document may be of interest to you.
This was followed by a standard corporate disclaimer ending with the following line…
MailScan™ 3.1.9 1 attachment(s) removed for security purposes.
There was no attachment.
Maybe the sender, who appeared to be a David Maxwell, had forgotten to attach the document. Karen made a habit of that particular mistake, constantly having to follow up with an email containing the forgotten document.
Kyle didn’t usually get in until 9.30 or even 10 o’clock. Karen was waiting for him in reception. And he was late.
“Kyle I need you” she said.
Ignoring the glance he exchanged with the security guard, she took him by the arm and steered him towards the lift. On the fourth floor she guided him to her PC and sat him down in her chair. The email was open on the screen where she had left it.
“Nice to see you guys at the sharp end take security so seriously” he gestured.
She ignored him. It was a particularly easy thing to do.
“What do you make of this email?”
He took the mouse and began scanning menus and icons. His commentary took no prisoners. “Sent using SendMail 8.1.2… Mail domain is allegedly sorrensen.com… The Header indicates it came from an SMTP mail server at GeneX… Date and time look kosher... Nothing unusual that I can see.”
“Can you be certain it came from GeneX?”
“As far as I can tell, yes. I’d need to do a little research first to be sure.”
“And what did you mean when you said the date and time were kosher?”
“The times that emails display are often wrong due to a whole variety of reasons I haven’t got time to go into now, but these ones check out.”
“What does the message about an attachment being removed mean?”
The answer was bound to have a patronising edge to it. Karen decided to grit her teeth and go with the flow. It was either that or punch him. She gritted.
“When a person in a corporate organisation sends out an attachment, that attachment could have a virus. And it’s not good for business to unleash viruses on your customers. So, a lot of corporate organisations use a virus scanner to check outgoing attachments. When they find a document infected with a virus they remove the infected attachment and quarantine it. That message tells you that a file has been removed.”
“Is there any way of getting hold of the document that’s been removed?”
“No, they keep it inside their firewall. You could always email David.Maxwell@sorrensen.com and ask him to send it on a CD, but don’t use it in any of my computers here in the office when you get it.”
Kyle rose to leave.
“When will you be able to tell me whether it came from GeneX?”
“Forward me the email and I’ll try to sort it by lunchtime.”
David Maxwell parked in his usual parking place. It wasn’t that he had an assigned space, he just liked to get in early in a morning to miss the traffic and to ensure that he got his usual place close to the entrance to the laboratory block.
He applied the handbrake, put the car in first gear and picked up his sandwich box. Carefully locking and checking the drivers door he marched quickly over to the security turnstile. This particular morning he felt a little nervous as he stood beneath the security cameras and fumbled inside his corduroy jacket for his pass. He swiped it in the wrong direction twice before he realised why he wasn’t being allowed in.
The turnstile clicked and he pushed forward into the air conditioned building. The Harrison Laboratory for Plant Genetics was on the first floor. He took the stairs. He always took the stairs. Coming through the door at the top of the stairs he almost knocked over an early morning cleaner. He apologised profusely. David always apologised profusely.
Access to the lab only required a swipe but his office needed a PIN number as well. The keypad was just below the laser etched glass sign. Dr David Maxwell, BSc, PhD, LRBS. They hadn’t had room for the rest, but thankfully they had managed to get them all on his business card.
He keyed his PIN. Right first time. The breathing exercises must be working.
It was habit that made him place the sandwich box in the third drawer down and another inconsequential habit that made him hang his jacket on the coat hanger to one side of his glass office door.
And it was habit that made him notice the order of the papers in his desktop filing tray. The papers had been moved. He always made sure they were in a logical order. He was sure the top two sets of documents had been swapped.
A wave of panic came over him. He felt a cold sweat break on his neck and shoulders. His whole body tensed. He could feel his heart beating faster.
Who could have been in his office?
He stood up and leant forward on the desk. What were they doing with his papers? He slumped back into his chair. What else had they been interested in?
It could not have been the cleaners. They were only allowed into the lab directors offices when they were occupied. As far as he knew the only people who had access to the office were security. They must have been checking up on him. Or was he just overreacting. Just a guilty conscience playing games with his memory. No. He was sure the papers had been moved.
He now faced a dilemma. Should he make a preemptive strike, invent some implausible story, report his suspicions to security, walking straight into the lion’s den or should he move his plans forward a couple of days?
He sat for long minutes, controlling his breathing, staring into the middle distance, thinking through all the permutations. He worked methodically through all the possibilities. Eventually, sure of his moves, he decided to stick with the original plan. He would stay at work until Friday.
“Must keep up appearances” he thought. “Just a couple more days to go”
He switched on his desktop computer. He was calm now. You needed to be when you had to wait this long for your PC to start up. He opened his email program. There was only one email. It was a return receipt from kwilkes@PressCorp.com.
He almost exploded. David Maxwell was a man right on the edge.
Why had that stupid, stupid woman sent him a return receipt? God knows who might have seen it. His secretary was due in any moment now. What ever happened to confidentiality of sources? “Calm, calm, calm” he repeated to himself.
She must have realised that he was taking a huge risk sending her that document. He deleted the offending reply, closed his email program and then reopened it. He wasn’t sure why you did this but someone else had told him it worked and assured him that it was the only way you could be sure that your emails were completely deleted.
The phone rang.
The “Good morning, Doctor Maxwell” was automatic. He heard no reply but the static in the earpiece. He resignedly pitched a couple of ‘hellos’ back down the phone line, but got no reply. The phone was put back on the hook. Just another problem with the phones he thought as he brought up his electronic diary.
I do not read many works of fiction; however, I found this story an easy read. The main thread of the storyline is original with a number of predictable and unpredictable twists and turns. The very end of the book raises questions about some assumptions you may have made towards the end and leaves open the possibility of another story. Any more and it would spoil the story; however, if you start it is essential to finish it.
About the Author
Will Evans takes a long time to finish a book - that's whether he's reading it or writing it. And if it's one he's written, a long time means a long time, even after it's finished. Being organised and proactive never has been a key skill.
He's not really sure where the plot comes from but he is fairly sure that he has actually met most of the characters in real life - although names have been changed to protect the innocent and they have mostly been persuaded not to take themselves too seriously when committed to paper - that's the real and the imaginary characters.
He's also fairly freaked out about having to refer to himself in the third person, but I guess that's just something he's going to have to get over.