As Steven trotted deeper into the forest, the diversity of trees narrowed to primarily tall pines. They towered overhead like immense spires that reached far into the heavens. He slowed down to soak in the ambiance. The energy of the forest was intoxicating. Every little beetle crawling on the bark, lizards scrambling up the branches, chipmunks rustling in the pine needles seemed to add to the whole as brush strokes to a painting. He found some morel mushrooms and picked a handful, shaking them off as he went to bless the Earth with their spores before he stuck them in his backpack.
Finally he arrived at a particularly large pine tree on the outer reaches of the territory he played in. Looking up, he spied his tree house high up in the canopy. Putting down his staff and hitching his backpack tighter, he dug his fingers and toes into the bark and started climbing. It got easier when he reached the lower dead limbs on the trunk, which he treated like a ladder, climbing higher and higher. Eventually he arrived at the living limbs that were denser and easier to climb on. As he proceeded ever higher his view of the forest became a cloud of green coniferous boughs.
Steven arrived at the tree house abruptly. He had built it over a year ago and was still amazed at how well it stood up to the elements. Most of the construction process was instinctive for Steven. He didn’t go by a blueprint or any drawn design of any kind, but by what seemed right at the time. The tree dictated a lot of the specifics but the general idea of it came from within him as if there was no other way to do it as he bent living branches up to form a modest woven ball that encompassed the trunk. The end result appeared like a huge, tightly woven basket with a tree poking through the center and a pair of salvaged portholes for windows. It had a pointed, thatched roof and a round hatch on the bottom. Branches stuck out of the bottom, creating a tea cup and saucer look and giving him something to grab onto as he climbed out on the tree house to build and maintain it.
On the branches just above the tree house Steven had attached a small collection of solar panels and a homemade directional antenna made out of a large soup can. He had that pointed toward the town library and wireless internet provider that was just a few miles away. The modern technology broke the general naturalistic motif of the tree house, but given that this was where he worked on his computing projects, he had little choice.
As he inspected the tree house he noticed the antenna was drooping a little, so he climbed up to it, aimed it toward the town, and tightened its attachment to the branches. While he was up there he examined the solar panels and removed pine needles that had dropped on a couple of them.
The view of the forest up that high was mesmerizing and Steven sat down on the thatched roof to admire the scenery for a few minutes. All around him he could see the tops of trees and the hills beyond them. The breeze created a gentle rocking motion in the treetops and he could feel the strength of the tree all the way to its roots. He found the sensation comforting and it helped him center himself before diving into his projects. Steven looked over his shoulder at his backpack and decided his new toys required his immediate attention.
With the deftness of one who had done it hundreds of times, he swung down from the top of the tree house onto branches below the structure and pushed the hatch in the floor up against the trunk inside and climbed up into the tree house. He peeked out to make sure no one noticed him, then closed the hatch. His tree house was well hidden, but there was always the chance that a hunter could spot it.
The interior was surprisingly roomy for such a modest tree house. The inner walls were a much tighter weave than the exterior walls. He pulled back the drapes from the portholes and suddenly the interior was flooded with light, making him wince a little. With the late afternoon sun shining in through the portholes, he had more than enough natural light to work with for most of the day.
Whistling to himself, Steven found his main perch where he did most of his work. While most of the branches emerging from the trunk within the tree house itself were pruned back, a few were kept and strung with straps made out of dried inner bark to form seats that allowed Steven to sit at the counter.
Steven tossed his backpack onto a clear spot on the counter he had built into the wall and dug into it. There was a slight breeze that caused the tree house to sway back and forth gently, and he had to put his spare pencils into a cup he had screwed to the counter to keep them from rolling off. He then eagerly dug out his electronics.
He hoped these remaining few pieces would give him the networking independence he needed so he wouldn’t have to depend on others to get files for him. He grabbed a handmade wooden box sitting among numerous wooden boxes on the counter, all courtesy of his adoptive father’s workshop, and put the JTAG in it, but kept the flash drive, wireless specifications and memory out. Those he would be using right away.
“Okay, you’re going up on the wall.” Steven mumbled as he pulled out his sketch pad and found the drawing of his parents he made after the last nightmare. He looked up on the wall of the tree house at numerous other similar drawings. He pulled a splinter out of some deadwood and fashioned it into a pin and pushed that through his drawing into the weave of the wall and stood back.
He found it odd that he would be dreaming their features so specifically without ever having seen them except as an infant. Is it possible that an infant could so precisely remember his parents? Steven couldn’t be sure. But the drawings felt right. Each drawing served as yet another motivation to continue his search for his parents. He sighed, feeling the weight of the urgency of the search on his shoulders. “I’ll find you.” Steven nodded as he sat back and looked at the drawings.
After dumping his backpack out on the little workbench, and nibbling on a mushroom, Steven pulled a large, flat, wooden box closer to him and opened its thin, hinged lid to reveal his makeshift computer. The screen was mounted to the lid, and the box contained the guts of his computer, covered by a salvaged keyboard.
Putting the mushroom on the counter, he lifted up the keyboard and inserted the memory into an empty slot on the computer’s main board, effectively doubling his capacity. He also plugged the flash drive Brandon had given him into a USB slot and then put the keyboard down. He had intended to cut slots into the box to let him access the USB ports from outside the box but had never gotten around to it.
Steven peeked under the workbench and wiggled the wires on an off-grid battery charge controller he salvaged from an abandoned hunting cabin. The wires were a little loose so he grabbed a small wrench and tightened them down. He squinted at a pair of old golf cart batteries that were tucked under the counter in a little cage and felt their wires too. The constant shifting of the tree seemed to loosen the wires over time and that was one of the first things he checked before powering up his system.
He checked the meter on the charge controller to make sure he had a full charge then flipped a switch to activate the circuit. After the diodes lit up indicating a good circuit, he returned to the computer. The little desk lamp came on when he connected the power, giving the little work area more light and he moved junk and spare parts out of the way to make more room to work.
Once he booted into his own operating system, he extracted the files on the flash drive Brandon had given him and got to work making his wireless network connection work. Being able to connect using his own computer was his last hurdle for having a fully functional tool in his search for his parents. Up until now he had been sneaking around at the mercy of others and the search was very slow as a result.
He typed a few commands into his laptop and watched as text scrolled up the screen. He had written into his system binary compatibility with many of the free systems out there so it was trivial getting drivers and software to work on his system. With the system up, he connected his diagnostic tools and put them to work back-tracing the network hardware, then sat back while he waited.
Steven pulled out the notes that had formed the foundation of much of his search. Jonah and Sally had been engineers for a computing company in Seattle and had made a discovery that horrified them enough to drop out of the computing environment altogether. Steven couldn’t get them to divulge just what that discovery was, however. But their insistence of keeping a low profile worried him.
Thankfully, Jonah had kept copious and detailed notes of his work and committed them to paper to ensure they weren’t digitally lost. Steven had found those notes in a floor safe he managed to finally unlock. After skimming over them, Steven snuck the notes to the city library to copy for deeper reading. From the notes, it wasn’t surprising that Jonah had dropped out of the tech world. He could imagine that certain people would be very unhappy he had made this discovery. That made the fact that his parents were missing all the more ominous.
After reading these texts, he opted for ultimately writing his own software to better control how every aspect of the computer worked. Doing so allowed him to bypass vulnerabilities many other systems had. His had a very specific purpose, which made it easier to lock down securely. It was absolutely necessary if he was going to be sneaking into secret networks.
The notes illuminated a scary, dark world under the hood of most computers, one that was extremely secretive and dangerous. They indicated that most software and even hardware were engineered to allow unknown hackers to freely enter into any system, regardless of the security measures put in place. A nearly undetectable backdoor existed, and from what the notes indicated, this “door” didn’t require the computer to actually be actively on. Just plugged into the power. Most modern systems never fully turned off when plugged in, which made it easy to surreptitiously utilize the computer for non-sanctioned tasks.
Someone was using these computers and spying on people on a massive scale and manipulating data and transferring resources and funds with no restrictions whatsoever. From what he saw, wars were even sparked by this dark network by exploiting the power of social media and forged messages to various diplomats. That sort of thing was easy enough already, but the power of a practically hidden network made it almost predictable. Being able to observe emails and digital conversations live and the ability to manipulate these communications without being detected gave these people tremendous power over world events.
They were people that Steven wished to avoid, but at the same time investigate. They were surely behind the disappearance of his parents and the reason why his adoptive parents were hiding out here in the hills and avoiding computers completely.
By writing his own system software, and cobble his system together from hand-picked parts, Steven was able to block most of the hardware exploits indicated in the notes and eliminate the software security holes, while at the same time opening those doors for his own exploitation. He even wrote his own microcode that ran on the central processors, closing up even more vulnerabilities.
He constructed the system specifically to enter into other computers in his search to find his parents, allowing him to access databases, medical records, real estate records, tax records and more using the very hardware and software exploits that Jonah had discovered.
He grinned at the mischievousness of it all, but there was always a chance of being discovered. However, by identifying the secret networks thanks to the notes, Steven was sure he would be a ghost out there.
A part of him was still apprehensive, however. These people detected and abducted his parents after all. But what choice did he have? If no one else was looking, what could he do? But he felt confident. His parents may have not known of the threat until too late. Steven had the benefit of the notes and their experience to be better prepared.
Steven closed the notes and put them in their own box and relaxed a bit to let the anxiety pass. He daydreamed of spring days and the fresh explosion of growth that resulted from them. Soon there would be nothing but grey skies, brown foliage and snow. He resorted to his imagination to accommodate for that, seeing green growth where snow and winter had made brown and white, making for himself his own little world amid the desolation of the season.
Inspired by his daydream, he took his sketchbook and absentmindedly sketched what he saw. Living plants, flowers, insects, and life of all sorts filled his pages, as well as things he saw in his dreams and people he knew or that stood out in his memory. It was for him a way to record what he most wanted to remember and to make sense out of things that troubled him.
As he sketched, he glanced out one of the portals and noticed that a neighboring tree had fallen, opening up the view a bit. He was happy about that; the other tree was looking rather ratty and was tall enough to cast a shadow on his solar panels during part of the day.
He started sketching the new view when a beep from his laptop captured his attention and he looked at the readings from his networking application, bouncing on his chair in anticipation. He had been trying to connect to the library’s wireless for a few weeks now but errors in the wireless software and hardware had proven difficult to overcome. Abruptly, a flood of data scrolled across the screen and Steven jumped up whooping and jumping around, causing a flutter outside the tree house as nearby birds were startled into flight.
Suddenly he froze in mid jump, a quizzical look clouding his face at something he had just noticed about the fallen tree. Steven cocked his head, his memory tickled by something out of place. He looked back out the portal at the space opened up by the tree that fell. The view of the clearing had been blocked by that dying tree and saplings that got broken by its fall, but he could clearly see it now. A large meadow with a towering, light gray pine snag poking out of the center.
His mouth dropped at the sight. He fumbled for his sketchbook and flipped through pages until he found the detailed drawings he had made of his nightmares. The vampire and werewolf were prominent along with drawings of his parents, but he had also sketched what he remembered of the clearing and the ghostly white dead tree in the center of the clearing, which remained the same from dream to dream. Excepting a few details, what he drew matched the snag in the meadow branch for branch.
“No way!” he exclaimed as he peered out the porthole, straining to see more of the meadow. Most of the view was obstructed, but the lifeless tree was easy to see. Steven sat back, dumbfounded. Memories of the nightmare flooded back and he shivered at the terror and hopelessness he felt, as well as the sense of abandonment that had washed over him. He found it hard to believe that it could possibly be a real tree.
But then, his parents were real, so why not the tree? He had no idea what the vampire or werewolf represented but his psychologist friend in town had some constructive input on that. Fear of abandonment seemed to be his predominant theory. That and separation anxiety.
Another beep from his computer distracted him. He glanced over, typed in a few commands and got to work creating a stealthy wireless connection, all the while thinking about the snag. Once he had hacked into the library’s network by way of a back door he had created while at Brandon’s using his friend’s computer, he initialized scripts on their network router that gave him unfettered and unlogged Internet access. “Yes!” He expected it to work because it was so trivial to him, but was always pleased when the pieces fell in place perfectly.
After he finished setting up his surreptitious presence on the internet, he logged into a remote corporate server he had given himself access to and activated his little private network of accounts on various servers from which to conduct his search for his parents. A little web of servers came to life, all completely unlogged and hidden from the owners.
The strength of his system was not in his own homemade laptop, but in the distributed computing power he had assembled. Sitting back, he abruptly was at a stopping point. Up until now his entire effort was getting his system to work. Quite suddenly, he had it up and humming quite nicely and waiting to be put to work. Now he had to switch gears and get into search mode. His parents were real, and anyone who lived in this day and age left a history that nowadays was logged in one database or another.
But the snag weighed on him. He was split between going out to the meadow or setting up his searches. Steven opted for the middle ground, downloading several census databases to the waiting servers and running a search program on them from the servers he had hacked into. Satisfied, he shut his laptop down and sat back. He could revisit the search tomorrow. It was time to see this clearing with his own eyes.
He looked again out the portal. What could this mean? He had never been there that he could recall. And yet he was having dreams of it. Standing up, he put his sketchbook and a handful of pencils back in his backpack, then hesitated. If the tree was real, and the meadow was real, what about the monsters? What if they weren’t psychological constructs as Dr. Dougherty had hinted at? He looked out with a little trepidation this time, not sure he wanted the answers. But, it had to do with his parents and he had to know for certain.
As he was about to climb down, the glint of sun through the window momentarily blinded him. The angle reminded him that it was getting late. He stood up and looked out. The sun was getting low.
“Oh, man!” he exclaimed, disappointed. Getting in trouble for being out too late was out of the question. Any chance of being grounded from the forest would set his search back significantly and he was so close to getting things seriously underway.
He looked at the white snag in the meadow longingly. He really wanted answers, to touch it and know that it was real. But he knew he wouldn’t be able to go right away. Disappointed, he opened the hatch and climbed out, glancing at the snag as he climbed down until the rest of the trees obscured its visibility. There was always tomorrow, he thought to himself.