Vaporware by Wayne Cunningham

Chapter 1

Sputnick stuck his head into the fake ridge on top of the sand dune and peered through a mesh window at the oval test track a half mile away. He put binoculars to his eyes and tracked up the magnified view of the curved strip of asphalt, following it through the far straight-away and up to a large garage. Through the open doors he could see five men standing around the open hood of a car. One of the men pointed out something in the exposed engine. Sputnick could see well enough into the engine compartment to realize he had no idea what the man was pointing at.

Nicholas Ballantine acquired the nickname “Sputnick” in elementary school, when his passion for space exploration identified him early on as a geek. The nickname had not originally been used in a particularly friendly manner, assigned to him by a schoolyard bully. Nicholas enjoyed being a geek and kind of liked the name Sputnick. By high school the name became permanent. As a geek coming of age in the early 90s, Sputnick knew computers inside and out, but cars were last millennium’s technology. Fortunately, he had friends.

He put the binoculars down and turned to look down the sandy slope behind him. “Hey, Rick,” he called, “come up here and take a look.” A brown, dust-covered Dodge Sprinter van was parked on an area of flat ground, out of view of the test track. In front of its open side door crouched and stood three of Sputnick’s friends, two men and one woman. One of the men, wearing a gaudy Hawaiian shirt, knelt down by a large model airplane, a replica of a World War II fighter painted grey-blue. Hawaiian shirt, watched over by an Asian man wearing a button-up white shirt that managed to remain free of the dust and dirt around, poured fuel from a metal canister through a funnel into a small tank on the plane, the fumes drifting all the way up to Sputnick. The woman, protecting her pale skin from the desert sun, sat inside the open door of the Sprinter, working the keyboard of a laptop skillfully.

“Rick!” Sputnick called a little louder, a faint tone of exasperation coming into his voice. Another man, who had been lying on the ground in a thin strip of shadow created by the front of the van, looked up. He put one hand to his forehead to shade his eyes as he looked towards Sputnick. Then he slowly pushed himself upwards, his pale face and pale, oddly muscular arms contrasting sharply with the tan and brown shades of dirt everywhere. The white t-shirt he wore, that he had

pushed up under his armpits, settled back down to cover his pale white stomach as he stood. He began to tortuously walk up the hill.

Sputnick, in an attempt to hurry him up, waved his arm in a come here gesture. Rick slowed as he started up the incline of what wasn’t so much sand as dirt, more of the same dry, hard dirt that could be seen for miles around, and that this little team had been sitting and lying in, and hating, for three days. All except Sputnick, who saw it as a sand dune in a desert, mentally playing himself into scenes as Humphrey Bogart from Sahara. He even wore a khaki button up shirt with breast pockets. Against his compatriot’s complaints that generally ran against the heat and the dirt, and how both affected them and their equipment, Sputnick inevitably advised the application of water. He bought every one canteens before this desert sojourn, and he developed an annoying habit of grabbing whichever canteen happened to be nearest when the complaints mounted, shaking it to see if there was any water left. And of course there was plenty of water left as everyone else grabbed sodas from the refrigerated cooler plugged into the van’s cigarette lighter.

After a few centuries Rick finally made it to the crest of the dune, with Sputnick pulling him down by the arm so they could peer through the canvas-covered wood structure that made up the fake ridge.

“Here, look through these,” whispered Sputnick as he handed the binoculars to Rick. “They’ve got the hood up. You can see the engine.”

“They’re like a mile away,” said Rick, “I don’t think you need to whisper." He pushed a fingers through dark brown hair, wiping away beaded sweat from his brow, then took the binoculars proffered by Sputnick. "Damn it’s hot.”

“Take a look at the engine and see if you can figure out what innovations they’ve developed,” Sputnick said in normal tones.

Rick put the big pair of binoculars to his eyes and looked towards the test track. “Hmmm,” he said.

“So, what do you think of the design? Should we get some pictures?”

Rick put the binoculars down and looked at Sputnick. He was silent for a moment. Then he picked them up again and looked towards the track. He put them down again and looked at Sputnick. “The cam covers and the intake manifold are the same as what they’ve been putting on that coupe model for the last three years. For the prototype

down there they didn’t even bother to cast a new badge or anything on them.”

“That’s it?” Sputnick sounded a little disappointed. Then, perking up, “Do you think this is some kind of decoy, and they’re testing the new model somewhere else?”

“No, that’s definitely the new model.” Rick continued in a more pedantic tone, “The headlights and grille are placed lower and there’s also that drop-off on the trunk lid. The A-pillars are also angled back more. But the way engines are packed in, you can’t tell anything just from looking at the top of it. I’d have to pull the thing apart and get in there with calipers to measure the valves and cam, and see if they’ve built anything new into the electronics.”

Sputnick perked up even more. “Then we’ll find a way to get you down there so you can pull it apart.” He picked up the binoculars and started scanning the garage. “I’m sure the locks won’t be much of a problem. They have an alarm system, so we’ll just have to figure out what kind it is, what components we’ll have to disable, maybe start a diversion for the guards…”

By this point Rick had turned over and was lying on his back, his head sheltered from the sun by the fake canvas ridge, with the rest of his body baking in the sun. “You’re crazy,” he interjected. Sputnick looked at him, expecting some explanation of why he was crazy, but that statement was all Rick had in him for the moment. Sputnick was about to launch into another enthusiastic exploration of how they could get Rick to the car, but Rick’s moment of heat exhaustion passed and he continued. “I need a minimum of 6 hours in there, more if you want the engine put back together again so they don’t know anything happened. No diversion’s going to buy that kind of time. Let me know when they start the test runs so I can time them.” With that, he got back up and ambled down the slope, back into the shade of the van.

Sputnick stayed under the canvas, looking through the mesh window in the front of the fake ridge topping the hill. Lee and Michele had done a nice job building the wood supports and painting the canvas to look like the surrounding dirt. The whole thing stood only 2 feet higher than the original ridge, and had a number of mesh windows in front that blurred any reflection from binocular and camera lenses. Although most of their talents involved hacking networks, Michele and Lee had developed some skill at building temporary structures from throwing DJ parties in whatever warehouse or unused office space they could find.

A little over an hour later the sound of a revving engine roared across the test track. Rick got up from the small sliver of shade in which he huddled and said, “Come on, Michele. Let’s go get our data.”

Michele got up from the open van door, where she had been sitting with Lee. She was particularly thin and pale, with long, slightly curled black hair, and looked completely unsuited to the great outdoors. Her hair had been tousled by the early morning work of setting up the fake ridge and the subsequent sitting around in this patch of desert outside of Las Vegas.

She and Rick made there way up to the fake ridge, under which a digital camera with a long lens and a laser range finder sat atop tripods, and a laptop computer rested on the ground. Earlier that morning Rick used the laser range finder and a protractor to make sure the markers on the test track really did indicate a quarter mile and to figure out the external dimensions of the car down there. Michele had taken still pictures of it with the camera, but now she switched it to movie mode. Video meant a lot less than actual specifications, but Sputnick insisted on it, as he knew the people who had commissioned them for this work would be impressed.

For the next four hours Rick used a stopwatch program on the laptop and Michele used the camera to record acceleration, braking, and speed tests on the test track below. Rick entered times and distances into a spreadsheet while Michele swapped new memory cards into the camera to store the video. Sputnick went down to the van where the two final members of his team tweaked parts on the model airplane.

This particular model plane was capable of remote flight, with a gas engine and servo motors that controlled ailerons, flaps, and the rudder. Nate, the Hawaiian shirt who earlier had been filling the gas tank, held the radio control unit, fiddling with the joysticks, much to the annoyance of Lee, who was trying to figure out how to attach a camera to the airplane. Even with all the heat and dirt in this desert, which inspired very casual clothing from most, Lee wore slacks belted up around his very thin waist with his white shirt tucked firmly in. Lee was actually named Richard Lee, but as Rick had been part of the group first and had prior claim to the name, everyone referred to Lee by his last name.

“Are we ready for take-off?” Sputnick enthusiastically asked as he approached.

“Please tell Nate to stop playing with the controls,” said Lee in a quietly peevish voice.

“I’m not playing,” Nate said bluntly. “I’m getting used to how they feel.”

Sputnick smiled at Nate. “I’m sure you could take a break from that, give Lee a chance to work. You had the week before we came out to fly the plane, and I’m sure you’re really good now.”

“Nope,” Nate said as he looked down at the control box and continued to move levers and push buttons.

Sputnick looked baffled, then encouraging. “Come on, Nate. I bet you’re really good now. You can probably do barrel rolls and loop-deloops and all that.”

Nate continued to play with the control box. “Nope, I didn’t spend the last week flying the plane.”

“You were supposed to learn how to fly the plane. That’s what you were supposed to be doing last week,” Sputnick admonished, in a slightly less enthusiastic tone than was normal for him.

Nate finally looked up, and fixed Sputnick with an impassive look. “It’s a toy, right? 16 year-olds fly these things. I’m twice the age of a 16 year-old so it shouldn’t be any problem, right?”

Sputnick had to concede the point. Somehow, Nate always made sense. Somehow, Nate was always right. He’d had that going for him since grade school, when teachers always accepted his excuses for late homework, and later parlayed that skill into his dating life, convincing girls they should go out with him even though, left alone, they wouldn't necessarily have entertained the idea.

Sputnick changed his focus. “How’s that camera coming?” he asked Lee.

Lee, whose face was slathered with a thick sun block, held a small black plastic disk with a lens in the middle. “I attached the antenna to the top of the fuselage, right behind the canopy.” He indicated a black rectangle of plastic neatly mounted to the top of the place. “The antenna has a base that I drilled through to make screw holes. The lens itself presents kind of a problem as I can’t find any convenient way to attach it.”

“Why don’t you MacGyver it?” asked Sputnick. As Lee’s face showed quiet incomprehension, Sputnick said, “You know, use some duct tape. Or any kind of tape, really.”

Lee now looked horrified. “Tape,” he said. He looked at the plane, at the neat job he had done with the antenna, then at the camera lens in his hand. His mind seemed to be considering if tape could do the job the way he wanted. “Tape,” he said again.

“Tape,” Sputnick said encouragingly.

Suddenly Nate was next to Lee, pushing his hand holding the lens up against the underside of the plane. He ripped a big strip of electrical tape off the spool he was holding and wrapped it around the plane and one edge of the camera lens. He pushed Lee’s hand away from the plane and wrapped another piece of tape around it, catching the other edge of the camera lens so it was firmly held in place.

“There, we’re ready to go,” he said.

Lee looked unhappily at the black stripes of tape marring the otherwise authentic looking plane, but stayed quiet.

Nate picked up the plane and carried it over to a relatively flat area they had prepped earlier as a runway. He spun the prop around with his fingers to get the engine started, and pretty soon it was turning too fast for the eye to see. The engine buzzed fairly loudly, but the noise was mitigated by a muffler system Lee previously rigged over the engine exhaust. Nate used the radio control to move the plane's flaps and ailerons up and down one more time, then revved up the engine. The plane began to move across the dirt runway, its speed increasing. Nate flipped a lever, the tail of the plane bounced up, then down, and then the plane was in the air.

“Yes!” Sputnick exclaimed under his breath.

The plane was moving away and up, further and further into the blue sky. Lee went to a laptop near the open door of the van. “We’ve got video,” he said.

The plane looked smaller as it moved further away. “Uh, don’t you think it’s time to turn it towards the test track?” Sputnick asked.

“Yeah, I can do that,” Nate said. He worked the controls and the plane turned at a very sharp angle away from the test track. At the same time it decided to dip down so that it was aiming for the ground rather

than the horizon. “Shit,” Nate said in a completely non-stressed, matter-of-fact tone of voice.

“No!” yelled Sputnick, with a real note of stress.

“Ugh,” groaned Lee, who had been staring at the video feed from the camera, clutching his stomach as he fell back from the van.

“It’s under control,” said Nate. And, indeed, the plane, off in the distance, was rising again, though still flying away from the test track. “I’ll just bring it around. But really, I don’t know what good these pictures will be. The resolution on the camera is crappy and we already got decent angles and good quality with the other camera.”

Sputnick looked at him, smiling, his eyes aglow with his own personal vision. “These will be aerial pictures. Aerial. The buyer’s going to be impressed that we had an airplane.”

“It’s the same money, either way,” mumbled Nate, but he knew better than to cast aspersions on one of Sputnick’s grand plans.

By this point the plane had actually turned around again, without the precipitous dip in altitude, and was now almost on the other side of the

test track from where it had taken off. Nate worked the controls again and the plane headed toward the test track.

“You just crossed the lower curve of the track,” said Lee, who was back to gazing at the laptop screen. “Turn right so you can follow the straight away, up towards the car.”

Nate worked the controls and the plane turned right, angling towards the garage area next to the track. But it also dipped again. This time the ridge between the test track and the van blocked the view of the plane as it headed towards the ground. Nate madly toggled levers on the control unit.

“It’s going down,” yelled Lee, then, “it’s back up. No, it’s going down again. Ahhh! Turn! It’s headed right for the garage!” Lee jumped away from the laptop again.

They could hear the faint buzzing of the plane’s engine, then a faint cracking sound, then silence. Nate tossed the control unit toward the van and stood with his arms folded. Sputnick raced up to the ridge, his feet digging into the soft sand and dirt, and threw himself down next to Michele and Rick.

“What happened?" He exclaimed.

Michele was giggling. “The plane hit the garage,” she said through the peal of laughter she was desperately stifling.

“I think it’s okay,” Rick said, with some wonder in his voice. “They’re looking away from us. The plane came from the other side of the track and that's where they're looking.”

Sputnick picked up a pair of binoculars. Two of the men down at the test track were looking at the wreckage of the plane. The other three looked and pointed across the hills. One at the wreckage picked up a piece of plastic, held it up, then yelled something to the other men. They went and grabbed a nylon cover and threw it over the car.

Michele flipped a switch on the camera. “Well, I guess that’s that.” But she continued to peer through the lens.

“How did we do?” asked Sputnick.

“Not bad,” said Rick. “They did three trials of everything, except we interrupted the 100 to zero braking tests. I’ve only got one of those.”

“Wait a minute,” said Michele, staring through the camera. “One of those guys just hooked a laptop up to the car.”

“Yeah?” said Sputnick. He and Rick both picked up binoculars and looked at the car. The cover was pulled back enough to let the passenger door open. One of the men down there sat in the passenger seat, his legs outside the car, with a laptop computer open.

“There’s a cable running from a USB port into the car,” said Rick, with mounting excitement.

“Let's see if they've got WiFi turned on!,” exclaimed Sputnick. “You guys, clean up the equipment here and get it down to the van.” Sputnick turned and ran down the hill.

WiFi was one of the reasons Sputnick was firmly convinced someone out there wholly approved of his desire to find his way into computers all over the world. When he really let his imagination run, he figured a cabal of engineers existed that built and developed computers and the Internet all for him. Early on Sputnick had learned to hack closed corporate and school mainframes, what he sometimes considered a test of initiation by this supposed cabal. When every company started connecting computers to the Internet, Sputnick found hacking much

more interesting because of the multitude of places all over the world he could go. The Internet, he figured, was a little push towards his chosen profession of industrial spy. Then the wireless networking craze hit. Sputnick was quite pleased by this new development, finding it another sign that people were actively helping him access other people’s computers.

“Lee!” he yelled as he came up. Lee looked up from where he sat in the doorway of the van. “We need to see if their WiFi is on! See if you can sniff out a network.”

Lee picked up the laptop he had used to watch video from the plane. As he started launching applications and typing he said, “That’s pretty far away down there. I could use an antenna.”

Nate had sauntered over by this time. He rummaged through a grocery bag and pulled out a can of Pringles potato chips. He popped the top and dumped all the chips on the ground. In an odd coincidence of industrial design, Pringles potato chip cans were shaped excellently and made of just the right materials to work as directional antennas to receive wireless networking signals. When Sputnick became aware of this new use for a common grocery market product, he figured his

imagined cabal of engineers had a much wider influence than he had originally assumed, extending far beyond the realm of computers.

In pretty quick time Lee was working on his laptop underneath the fake ridge top while Nate held the Pringles can pointed down towards the test track. A number of scraps of thin wire, salvaged from the radio control box that Nate had smashed open, linked the laptop and the Pringles can.

“I found the network,” Lee announced to the rest of the group, who were all watching him work. Hacking a network was much more familiar ground to all of them than using cameras, range finders, and radio controlled airplanes. Lee, however, was the acknowledged master of network protocols, so the rest watched as he typed arcane commands into his computer.

“I’m not finding any servers or routers,” Lee was talking, “but I'm definitely getting a signal from that laptop. He obviously just leaves it on." He said this last somewhat dismissively.

The commands Lee typed into his computer amounted to one side of a conversation with the laptop down at the test track. The first command merely asked "Who are you," to which the other computer happily

gave up a string of numbers that amounted to a unique address. Lee's next command suggested that the other computer keep the conversation quiet by not flashing any lights or putting any messages on its screen, then he used another command to give it a new address, one it seemed happy to acknowledge. Finally, Lee told it that his own computer was at the same address, essentially that it was the same machine. The other computer wasn't bothered by this paradox and, because it now thought it was talking to itself, gave complete access to all of its data.

“Nate, keep watching him, see if he seems to notice his hard drive doing some extra work.” Nate picked up a pair of binoculars in his free hand and trained them on the man in the car.

“Just grab everything you can,” said Michele.

Lee typed commands, causing lists of files to appear in the black terminal screen on his computer. “This directory looks promising,” he said. He typed the copy command and files began to stream invisibly from the computer way down below onto his own hard drive. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ To read more, buy the Kindle version of Vaporware on Amazon.com: http://amzn.to/cUFoi4

About the Author: Wayne Cunningham grew up in San Jose, when personal computers were sold as kits. Having gotten online in the era of Usenet, FTP, and Gopher, he did his fair share of poking around the Internet, just to see what was out there. He currently works for CNET, reviewing car technology.

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