Curveball Issue 27: Project Recall

Part Two: Robert Thorpe's Office

“Failed again. What the hell did great-grandfather do to this file?”

Jenny Forrest doesn’t bother to hide the frustration in her voice.

“He didn’t want the bad guys to crack it, I guess.” CB doesn’t sound nearly as concerned—in fact, he sounds bored, which frustrates Jenny even more.

“Did he want the good guys to crack it?” Her words almost come out as a snarl, and a moment later she takes a long, slow breath. “I mean, I assume he wanted you to be able to access it. But from what little I’ve learned of the encryption he used, that’s not going to happen unless you have the key.”

They’re working in Robert Thorpe’s private office. Jenny’s computer sits on one of the long tables set against the walls, tethered to the Institute’s network via a long, slender cable. The laptop’s display is mirrored on a large flat panel on the wall behind it. Jenny sits hunched over the laptop’s keyboard, blonde hair falling down in a curtain over her face, though a brief length of exposed jawline suggests she is scowling.

“Well, I don’t have a key.” CB is sprawled out in a chair in front of Robert’s desk, his feet propped up on another chair. His head leans back, his eyes are half-closed, and he doesn’t look like he’s giving his full attention to the problem at hand. “I don’t know why Alex would think I would.”

“He never sent you anything that might be used as a key?”

“He never sent me anything,” CB says. “I was keeping my location a secret, remember? We only talked by email.”

Jenny turns, brushing her hair out of her eyes to glare at him. “A key is something that would be emailed to you, CB.”

CB frowns. “Well, yeah. OK. But he never sent me anything like that.”

Jenny shakes her head. “That doesn’t make sense. You don’t just encrypt a file like this, not the way he did, and then send it to someone without making sure the person you’re sending it to has a way to open it.”

“Maybe he never intended it to be opened,” CB says. “Maybe he was pretending he knew more than he did in an attempt to force the bad guys to act more openly than they wanted. Maybe once the encryption is broken, all we’ll find is a text file that reads ‘sure spent a lot of time trying to get here, didn’t you?’”

Jenny’s anger falters for a moment. “Do you think that’s something he’d do?”

“No,” CB says. “It’s definitely something I’d do, but it’s not his style. Of course, if he was trying to outwit people who were familiar with his style—like Richter—then he might try to deliberately do something that wasn’t his style. That would be his style.”

“You are not being helpful,” Jenny says, sighing.

“Don’t know what you expect me to do,” CB says. “I’m not really on your level when it comes to computer stuff. Robert’s really who you want to talk to about this.”

“But great-grandfather didn’t send it to him,” Jenny says. “He could have, right? You all have each others email addresses and everything?”

“Yeah,” CB says, “but it’s not like we talk all the time.”

“I know. You all go off to your man-caves and hide. It’s a little embarrassing. But my point is he could have sent it to Dr. Thorpe—Robert—if he’d really wanted to. But he didn’t. He sent it to you, and he did it on purpose. He wanted you to be the one who got it.”

CB raises his head to stare at Jenny thoughtfully. “Yeah.”

“He didn’t choose the super-genius who could program a computer in his sleep—probably literally—he chose a guy who had a lot less experience. I mean, you’re not incompetent or anything, it’s just that you never needed to learn how to break encryption.”

“That’s true,” CB says. “Usually I’d just find the password when it mattered.”

Jenny raises an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

“Well I don’t want to insult the computer security professional,” CB says, “but mostly people are lazy and cultivate a lot of really bad habits where computer security is concerned. If you look long enough you’ll eventually find a password written down somewhere. Occasionally it’ll even be labeled ‘Secret Files Access’—don’t laugh, I’m not kidding. And I can… you know… push a little, and make it more likely to stumble across the one guy who has his password taped to the bottom of his monitor, or whatever.”

“Huh,” Jenny says. “I wonder if you could do that here.”

“I doubt Alex wrote down the password anywhere.”

“No,” Jenny says, “not that. Could you push your… whatever it is you do, and try guess what the encryption key is? Like, just type random crap on the keyboard and eventually stumble across it?”

The door to Robert’s office slide open, and Robert Thorpe limps into the room, leaning heavily on his cane.

“Stumble across what?” Robert asks.

CB is sitting up now, eyes closed as he tries to sort everything out. “There’s precedent for it, but—”

“Precedent for what?” Robert asks.

“I’m not sure,” Jenny says. “I want CB to guess the encryption key.”

Robert raises an eyebrow. “Oh. That.”

Jenny looks from one man, to the other, and suppresses the urge to roll her eyes. “Either of you want to share?”

A brief silence follows as Robert makes his way over to his desk and sits, leaning his cane against the desk corner. Jenny notices Robert wince slightly as he sits. CB pretends not to.

Robert sighs softly as he sinks into the thick leather cushions. “It was in Wasteland. There was a machine that my… ah… counterpart had been working on that was supposed to bridge realities. We used CB to crack the password.”

“That’s what I want him to do now,” Jenny says, pushing back a surge of excitement. “How did you do it then?”

“We brute forced it,” Robert says. “We sat him down in front of the terminal and told him to guess the password while concentrating on making something happen.”

“So this could work!” Jenny says.

Robert glances at the panel display above Jenny’s laptop. “I’m not sure. What you want to do is a lot more complicated. Passwords are shorter—and passwords back then were trivial compared to what they are today. I’ve seen CB do a lot of incredible things, but I think asking him to randomly generate an entire encryption key out of thin air in time for it to be of any use to us is more than he can deliver.”

“So you think CB’s ability would be bogged down by the length of the key?”

“Looks that way,” CB says. “We tried an experiment once. You remember, Robert, the Monkey-Shakespeare thing.”

Robert smiles. “I set up a programmable keyboard and randomly assigned characters to keys, so CB never knew what any of the keys were mapped to. And I asked him to concentrate on typing something coherent—not Shakespeare, though. I think it was the Gettysburg Address. He didn’t know what key did what, and he didn’t have a monitor…”

“So I started hitting keys at random,” CB says.

“Didn’t work?” Jenny asks.

“It worked more than I expected,” Robert says. “He actually managed to type out ‘Four score and seven’ before it devolved into random text. But it didn’t work to the degree you’d need it to.”

Jenny turns back to stare at her laptop, the scowl threatening to return. Then her eyes widen. “How do you do with a coin toss?”

“Get it every time,” CB says.

“When you do the toss? Or does it matter?”

CB shrugs. “Doesn’t matter.”

Jenny turns back to look at Robert. “That’s it, then. We just need to break down the problem into a series of very small problems, which we use to solve the big one.”

CB blinks in surprise. Robert stares at Jenny thoughtfully.

“That’s interesting,” Robert says.

“Interesting, as in ‘yes, it could work?’” Jenny asks hopefully.

Robert closes his eyes, tilts his head back, and furrows his brow. Jenny can see his eyes moving back and forth under his eyelids. Half a minute passes.

“Yes,” Robert says. “I think so. What we’d need to do is narrow the search. Do we know the length of the encryption key?”

“Yes,” Jenny says. “4096 bits.”

Robert nods. “Then we know the range of possible values the encryption key might be. So all we need to do is come up with a program that allows CB to systematically discard portions of that range until we pare it down to a small enough range of possible values—a few billion or so should do it—that we can use our computers to brute force it.”

“Binary,” Jenny says. “Binary is essentially flipping a coin—zero or one—so we have CB guess the binary string, one bit at a—“

“That’s not going to work,” CB says.

“Why not?” Jenny asks. “It’s exactly the same thing as flipping a coin.”

“No it isn’t,” CB says. “I understand flipping a coin. I don’t understand binary numbers. I mean, I know what they are, but it’s not ingrained. I wouldn’t know what to focus on when I was pushing. I doubt it would do what you want.”

Jenny stares at Robert blankly. Robert shrugs. “It’s not my power.”

“OK,” Jenny says, “what about counting. You understand counting, right?”

CB gives her a flat look.

“So what if I Put it this way: we’re trying to find a specific number between zero and… well, it’s a big number, it’s…” Jenny fumbles as she tries to find a way to put the top value of that range in context.

“It’s one thousand, two hundred and thirty-four digits long,” Robert says.

CB looks from Jenny to Robert. “A thousand doesn’t seem that big.”

“That’s not the number,” Robert says. “That’s the number of digits in the number.”

CB blinks. “OK. That’s a big number.”

“Right,” Jenny says. “Big. So picture this: I’ll set up a program that asks you to guess if the number is between zero to half of that top value, or between ‘half that plus one’ to the end. Once you choose, it’ll then ask you if the number is between the lower half of the range you just chose, or the upper half. And then again, and again, until we’ve got it narrowed down to a small enough range of numbers that it’ll be faster for a computer to do the rest of it. Could you approach it that way?”

CB thinks it over. “Yeah, I think I can manage that. I’ll have to smoke though. Sorry Robert.”

Robert shakes his head. “You and your crutches.”

* * *

The unpleasant smell of burning nicotine and tar fills Robert’s office as CB sits in front of Jenny’s laptop, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, large headphones covering his ears. An empty ceramic cup serving as a makeshift ashtray is a quarter full of ash and spent cigarettes. His right hand hovers over the keyboard, thumb resting on the space bar, middle finger lightly touching the I. CB mutters a string of curses quietly to himself as he alternates between pressing the space bar and the I key in an apparently random order.

It’s been an hour so far. Jenny thinks she might scream.

“I hate waiting,” she says. It’s not the first time she’s said it, and every time she says it again her frustration climbs.

Robert laughs. “Before you came up with this idea our best course of action would have taken years.”

“I still hate waiting,” Jenny says. “It’s just the way it goes. Also I’m a little afraid CB will get bored and quit.”

Robert laughs again. “You’d better hope he can’t hear you through those headphones. He might do it just to spite you.”

She stares at CB’s back, watching him choose between the space bar and the I key over and over again. “Is he doing his… is he using his whatever the heck it is he does? To ‘make things happen?’”

“I assume so,” Robert says.

“I don’t feel anything,” Jenny says. “I mean, when I’ve seen him in action in the past, I didn’t feel anything then, either, but I always figured it was because I wasn’t paying attention, or I was too busy being shot at, or something like that. But there’s actually nothing. No electricity in the air, no feeling of power.”

“There never is. He claims he feels something when he’s using it, but I’ve never been able to record anything. He doesn’t even register as a metahuman.”

“It sounds like you tested him a lot,” Jenny says.

“When the Guardians were active I tested all of us. I thought if we understood how our abilities worked we could coordinate better, and if we understood what our limits were we might be able to work around them when necessary. And it was. It saved our lives more than a few times. But CB’s tests were always the least useful of the batch.”

Robert studies Jenny for a moment. “Red Shift told me a bit about how he helped you train after you cocooned. One of his regrets was not being able to help you determine your physical limits. If you’re interested, I have facilities here that allow me to conduct the kind of testing I did back then. It would provide some of those answers, and do it relatively quickly.”

Jenny shifts her weight uncomfortably.

“Only if you’re interested,” Robert says. “I can understand why you wouldn’t be. It is testing, and I would keep a record of it. I don’t share that information—too many people would be tempted to misuse it—but there’s still a certain amount of risk in letting someone keep it on file, even if that someone is me. Consider it a standing offer.”

“I’ll think about it,” Jenny says. “Do you do this a lot?”

“When I have the opportunity, I make the offer,” Robert says. “I’ve made the offer to everyone else in your group. CB and Roger, of course, from way back. Red Shift accepted, which surprised me. Scrapper Jack declined, which didn’t surprise me at all. Vigilante is thinking it over, which is more than I expected in his case. Both of the agents—Mr. Grant and Ms. Hu—have accepted, which will probably complicate their lives a little, but Travers tells me they’re pretty cheerful when it comes to making things more complicated.”

“Red Shift accepted?” Jenny shakes her head. “I didn’t think anyone in Crossfire would trust anyone enough for that.”

“He’s a scientist,” Robert says. “That helps a bit.”

“Done.” CB stands up, takes off the headphones, and puts them on the table. He turns to face them, sticking a finger in his right ear and rubbing furiously. “That tone you used as a signal itches like crazy…”

Jenny and Robert stare at CB in surprise. Jenny looks up at the flat panel display, watching the clock continue to count down.

“The program says you aren’t finished yet,” Jenny says.

CB shrugs. “You said it would start beeping like crazy when I was done. Well… it’s beeping like crazy. I’m done.”

Robert looks at the terminal on his desk. “He’s right. The sample is small enough for us to take over.”

“It was supposed to take a lot longer than that,” Jenny says. “You broke it.”

CB grins. “Jenny, I’ve been pushing nonstop for the last few hours, I have the mother of all headaches, and if I had to do this much longer I was going to pick up your damned laptop and throw it across the room as hard as I could manage, so I think we should call it a win. If this works, I only broke it a little.”

“I just don’t see how—” Jenny starts to respond, then stops when Robert utters a cry of mild surprise. He stares at the terminal on his desk in bemusement.

“It worked,” Robert says.

Jenny’s complaint dies on her lips. “Already?”

“There was a match on eighty-third combination,” Robert says. He looks at CB, eyebrow raised. “Are you still pushing?”

CB shakes his head. “I stopped as soon as I heard the tone.”

“Well,” Robert says, turning back to the terminal, “I guess we got lucky. The file is open.”

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