The case of the possessed computer
A short story by Ryan Cartwright - CC:By-SASkip to content
Published 24 May 2017
This short story is one of the adventures of the Roboteers. It is written as a blog by one of the gang. You can read more of their adventures on the Roboteers page.
When we first started out as the Roboteers, we were just interested in making robots, fixing them and mucking around with electronics. Well, that’s what we were interested in but that’s not what we did. I mean, you have to remember that Tim and I were only about five when we formed our little club so, whilst we were interested in that stuff, mostly we just talked about how cool it would be to build an actual robot. Which, for a five year old, can kind of take u a lot of your time anyway.
Once we got older, and particularly, once Sugar got fixed we got into all sorts of adventures. Tim thought they were brilliant and, of course, it was always up to me to remind him that they were, you know, kind of scary at times too. By the time Martin got involved we were well on the way to becoming the “primary children’s detective agency in town” (as Tim likes to put it).
We started off quite small, if you ignore the two earth-saving adventures that is. We found people’s lost cats and helped people setup their security systems - nothing massive just an off-the-shelf wireless camera setup - that sort of thing. To be honest I didn’t think we were going to have any more real adventures at one point. But then things started getting a little more interesting because people came to us to help them solve mysteries. Solving problems is my kind of thing - I guess it’s why I’m into computers and programming - I like nothing more than diagnosing some bug in my code. So I was probably the most excited when we started to do mysteries as well.
One of our earliest cases was pretty weird but we were able to solve it using some quite logical steps.
We were in our HQ (which was a room at the back of Martin’s shed - not as bad as it sounds) when I mentioned to Tim that we hadn’t checked the Roboteers’ email for a while. In among all the fake messages and SPAM we found a very strange one. It was from an email account called “BkngRcks” and simply said:-
V db hbpr ybh prbplr nrr fbr rrnl. V rrnlly cbhld db wvth sbmr nssvstnncr! V thvnk my cbmphtrr vs vnfrctrd br pbssrssrd. Vt bprns thvngs by vtsrlf nnd drlrtrs nll thr vbwrls whrn V typr Hrlp mr V’m drsprrntr Svmbn Wvlsbn
“That’s weird.” I said
“Yeah,” said Tim, “I mean who calls themselves BkngRcks?!”
“That’s not what I mean.” I interrupted, “The way it’s written is weird.”
“Perhaps,” Martin said, “it’s written in code”
“Obviously but why write it in code at all?” I retorted.
“You don’t think it’s genuine do you?” Tim said, apparently surprised by the very idea. “It’s nonsense, just delete it.”
“Why wouldn’t it be genuine?” Martin replied without looking up from his tablet.
“Martin,” Tim said, “you of all people should understand the idea of trolling! This could just be somebody winding us up for a laugh.”
“Yes, I do understand about trolling,” he shuddered at the word, “but either way there’s no way to find out if this is true or not without replying.”
“I’m not so sure.” I said. “The email has some clues which could help us. The sender for example: there’s a name but the email address is broken. If we tried to reply it would fail without leaving our email program.”
“So? That just means they don’t want us to find out who they are.” Tim said, “Like I said: trolling.”
“No.” I replied, “If a WUM wanted us to think this was genuine, they’d make it so we could reply.”
“WUM?” Martin asked.
“Wind Up Merchant.” I said, “It’s another name for a troll and I thought Martin might prefer us to stop using the T word.” Martin smiled at that. “Anyway, it stands to reason that if the sender was trying to get us to fall for their trap, they’d want us to reply. Otherwise what’s the point of the trick?”
“To make us look stupid?” Tim said.
“But making us look stupid would be something they’d want to happen in public, otherwise where’s the fun?” I retorted. Sometimes I wonder if these two didn’t have their head in the clouds half the time”
++THE EMAIL REPLY-TO ADDRESS HAS NO AT SIGN++
The voice came from Sugar, the Robot, who had wandered over and looked at my laptop. Sometimes I admit I forget he is real because he looks so much like a toy. I think the only one of us who doesn’t overlook him is Tim. I also think he butts in so we don’t forget about him.
“Yes I know.” I replied without looking up, “It has no top-level domain either.” Martin and Tim just looked each other so I continued, “You know the dot-com or dot-co-dot-uk bit.”
“Ohhh that.“ Tim said sagely.
“But that doesn’t mean we can’t find who sent it.” I said and started typing and clicking at the computer. “A lot of people know you can set the reply-to address for an email to anything you like. In this case they’ve set it to “Romeo2WFATRomeo”. But…”, I clicked a few menu options, “we can also see the headers which tell us which servers this email came through and the sender’s actual email addre… oh rats!”
“What?” the boys exclaimed.
++THE SENDER USED A FREE ONLINE EMAIL ACCOUNT++
“And an account called ‘DecipherTheMessage’ I finished off what he was saying, “Basically they knew we’d check and got there ahead of us.”
“So why don’t we try to decrypt the message then?” Martin said, “Couldn’t you have a go Sugar?”
++I CAN TRY++
Sugar shuffled over to the screen. But after some time he stepped back and said
++I AM UNABLE TO DETECT ANY CONSISTENCY TO THE CYPHER. I WILL NEED MORE TIME++
“Okay,” I said, “Well I need to get home anyway so, why don’t we call it a night and leave Sugar here to decipher it? I think we need to decipher the message and I have a feeling this could turn out to be our next big case!”
The others agreed to let Sugar decipher the message so we all headed off home, agreeing to speak about it at school the next morning.
The next day, Tim said Sugar had got a little further
The next day at school, Tim said Sugar had got a little further with the message. I had printed a copy off and taken it home with me and had been looking at it on the way home and this morning on the way to school.
“It’s rot thirteen isn’t it?” I said.
Tim looked a little taken back but confirmed that’s what Sugar had said. “Yes, he said it was just the vowels though. That’s why it was harder to decipher apparently.”
“Erm,” said Martin, “what’s a rot and why are there thirteen of them?”
“It’s a simple cypher, “ I chuckled, “one of the simplest actually. You rotate the letters by thirteen places in the alphabet.”
Martin looked at me like I was talking gibberish.
“Look, there are twenty six letters in the alphabet yes?” they both nodded, “Well for rot thirteen you just replace each letter with the one thirteen places away. So A becomes N, B becomes O and M becomes Z. To decipher you just do the reverse to get the real letters.”
“What happens when you get to N though?” Tim said, “N is the fourteenth letter of the alphabet so you would need letter twenty seven?”
“That’s why it’s called rot thirteen because you rotate the letters so for N you go to letter one and not letter twenty seven.”
“That still doesn’t make sense though,” said Martin, holding the printout, “because if you rotate the letters by thirteen you get ‘I qo uoce lou ceocye’?”
“That’s because not all the letters are rotated,” I said, “just the vowels.”
“Why would somebody do that?” Tim asked.
“Because of what the message says.” I answered and passed them another piece of paper on which I had written the deciphered message.
I do hope you people are for real.
I really could do with some assistance!
I think my computer is infected or possessed.
It opens things by itself and deletes all the vowels when I type
Help me I’m desperate
“You see, “ I continued, “if the computer was deleting all the vowels, the sender needed to find a way to exclude vowels from the message. So they ROT-13’d them. Clever really. They couldn’t ROT-13 the whole message because that would insert new vowels when you rotated say an N to an A.”
They just stood there for a few seconds while they read it. Then they looked at each other and burst out laughing.
“What’s so funny?” I said
“A virus!” Tim said, “all this is over a virus!”
“Or, “ giggled Martin, “a possessed computer!”
“That’s not the point really.” I said with a slight huff. I was a bit miffed they hadn’t grasped that I had solved the cypher.
“Yes it is.” smiled Tim, “Our ‘next big case’ is a computer with a virus! It’s hardly James Bond is it!”
“I don’t think it’s a virus.” I snapped, “I’ve done some digging and I don’t know of any malware that would cause the computer to act like that. There’s no point.”
“What do you mean: no point?” asked Martin.
“Most viruses exist to get something from the user or inconvenience them in some way. Although this behaviour would be a bit inconvenient it’s not like any other virus there has been.”
“So what do you think it is then?” asked Tim.
“I don’t know but I think we should take the case. If this really is the Simon in MH8 then I’m in his ICT class. I’ll chat to him then.”
Simon was one of the quieter ones in our ICT class. I couldn’t speak to him during class but I managed to catch up with him after class.
“Hi Simon,” I said cheerfully, “Thanks for your message by the way.”
He spun and looked at me. “What message?” he said.
I lowered my voice, “The one you sent to the Roboteers.”
“Wait, you’re one of the Roboteers?” He said. “I didn’t think they were real!”
“Yes we’re real and your message caught our attention. We’d like to help.”
“You believe me?” he exclaimed. I nodded. “You mean you actually think my computer is possessed?”
“Well I wouldn’t go that far just yet but, yes, we believe you are having trouble with the computer and we’d like to help. What can you tell me.”
“It’s pretty much like I said in the email. It opens files and apps by itself and removes all the vowels when I send an email.”
“When did it start happening?”
“About two weeks ago.”
“Had you noticed anything strange or different just before it started?”
He shrugged, “Not really. I mean stuff happened elsewhere of course but in my room? No.”
“Would you be able to chat with all of us after school?”
“Yeah why not?” he said and we parted company.
Later we were sitting in our HQ. Sugar was on a shelf under strict instructions to not give away he was more than just a toy robot. Sugar was to just listen and only speak or move once we had said it was safe to do so. Simon had been explaining the facts as he remembered them.
“I’ve had the computer for a while. I got it at Christmas. It’s been running fine until two weeks ago.
“What happened two weeks ago?” asked Martin.
“It started when I was doing my homework. Out of nowhere the mouse started moving on its own and it started the Notes app. Then it typed in the window saying it knew who I was and what I was up to and it would be the end of me if I didn’t stop.”
“So what were you up to?”
“Nothing really. Just been watching some YouTube videos on baking.”
“Baking?” Tim asked.
“Yeah, what of it?” Simon seemed a little disgruntled.
“Nothing,” said Tim, “I just wasn’t expecting you to say baking.”
“Because I’m a boy?” snapped Simon
“No, because I didn’t even know people put baking videos online.” Tim snapped back.
“You’ll have to forgive my friend Simon,” I interrupted, “if it’s not about robots he tends to ignore it even exists.” Tim looked like he was going to argue and then shrugged and nodded. “Now you were saying about the computer doing things by itself?” I continued, eager to hear more.
“Well that’s it really.” Simon said, “It did it again later and again the next day and every day since.”
“Have you thought it could be a virus?” Martin asked.
“Yes but I ran every virus scanner I could and nothing came up.”
There was the beginnings of a whirr from the shelf behind Tim and suddenly we all realised Sugar was about to speak. Quickly Tim coughed and Martin gestured to Sugar by putting his finger on his lips.
“Sorry,” coughed Tim, “carry on.”
“I thought it might have been someone playing a joke but I can’t see how.” Simon said, leaning forward and putting his head in his hands.
“I see,” I said soothingly. Although that got me a weird grin from both Tim and Martin. I carried on regardless. “What have you tried?”
“I spoke to my Dad but to be honest he knows less about computers than I do. I searched online and tried sending an email to the support address for the manufacturers and that’s when the missing vowels happened.”
“Go on” I said, still getting grins from the other two.
“Well everytime I type, all the vowels disappear just after I type them. It’s weird. They appear then they get deleted before I can do anything else.”
“So this didn’t start right away then? At the same time as the mouse moving by itself I mean” I said
“No, it started a few days later.” Simon paused and then said, “You think I’m mad don’t you?”
We all just looked at him. I mean how do you answer a question like that?
“Well I’m not. I’m just at my wits end. Do you have any idea what could be causing this?”
“This deleting vowels thing, is it on everything you type?”
“I guess so. I noticed when I was typing some homework up. It happened on other documents too. Eventually it got to be like everything I typed was affected. That’s why I ROT13’d the email vowels.”
“That was smart by the way.” I said, “Took us a while to decipher it but we did.”
“It was all I could think of.” he said smiling, “So what do we do now?”
Tim and Martin both looked at me. Computers were definitely my field of expertise in the Roboteers.
“Well,” I said leaning back, “if you’ve run virus checkers it’s not likely to be a virus. The only thing it could be is someone controlling it remotely. Have you permitted any remote desktop sessions or anything lately?”
“Remote what?” Simon said. That kind of answered my question but I answered his anyway.
“A remote desktop session is where you allow someone else to log into your PC from another one. They can see your screen and operate your mouse pointer as if they were at your desk. But it is disabled unless you specifically let someone in. You can’t do it accidentally and it’s very unlikely you’ve got it open without knowing it.”
“Well I’ve not heard of it let alone allowed it.”
“Perhaps someone is accessing it over the web though. I want you to try something for me. Unplug your network cable - or switch off your wireless router - and then start your PC. See what happens then. If you can type vowels and the PC is no longer controlling itself then we’ve found the problem. If not…”
“Then my computer really is possessed!” Simon said.
“I don’t think that’s likely.” I said, “Give it a go tonight and catch up with us tomorrow.”
Simon thanked us and Martin saw him out. Tim waited until Martin was back and then puffed his cheeks out.
“Well that’s a bit weird” he sighed.
“I thought it was interesting.” I said
“That’s not really surprising though is it Priya!” Martin snorted. “So do you think it is someone doing it over the web?”
“It’s a possibility,” I said “but they blooming clever if they are.”
“Why?” Tim asked.
++BECAUSE THEY ARE CONTROLLING THE COMPUTER WITHOUT SEEING IT++
“Exactly.” I confirmed, “If they can’t see it, how do they know where the icons are and how can they tell if Simon is typing a vowel?”
Tim turned to Sugar and said, “What was all that whirring about Sugar. We can’t have people knowing you are not a toy.”
++SORRY. I WAS GOING TO ASK THE CLIENT SOMETHING++
“Well next time keep quiet.” Tim suggested, “What were you going to ask him?”
++I WANTED TO KNOW WHAT KIND OF KEYBOARD AND MOUSE HE HAD++
“I’m not sure that will make any difference.” I said, “I’m sure the control is taking place within the computer, not in the keyboard and mouse.”
++IT WAS JUST A THOUGHT++
For a second I thought he sounded a little sad but it was difficult to tell with his robotic voice.
“We’ll just have to wait until tomorrow I guess.” said Martin.
The next day Simon greeted us with a sour face. That told us all we needed to know. It hadn’t worked.
“On the plus side.” I said optimistically, “We’ve ruled out a web attack. But on the downside, I can’t think what else it could be.”
“I ran another two virus scans just in case” Simon said, “Both negative.”
“What keyboard and mouse do you have by the way?” Tim asked.
“Why does that matter?” Simon retorted.
“Oh it’s just something we were talking about yesterday.” Tim said. I couldn’t figure out what he was up to. Surely he didn’t understand what Sugar was going on about last night?!
“They came with the computer. They’re just basic ones really. Nothing fancy. They’re wireless which I like as I can use the keyboard laying on my bed.” he smiled at the last bit.
“Ok that;s good to know.” said Tim, nodding sagely. “We’ll have to consider this a bit more and get back to you.”
That evening we cornered Tim about his question.
“Don’t tell me you understood what Sugar was going about?” I demanded.
“Of course not but we were at a loose end so I thought I’d ask for Sugar.”
++WHAT DID HE SAY?++
Sugar perked up a bit.
“Not much.” I said, “They came with the PC. Sound pretty generic to me.”
++ARE THEY WIRELESS?++
“How did you know that?” Martin asked, shocked.
++WHEN YOU HAVE ELIMINATED THE IMPOSSIBLE, WHATEVER REMAINS, HOWEVER IMPROBABLE, MUST BE THE TRUTH++
“What?” we all said together.
++SHERLOCK HOLMES SAID THAT. IT MEANS THAT IF THERE IS NO VIRUS AND THE COMPUTER IS NOT POSSESSED THEN SOMEBODY MUST BE CONTROLLING IT REMOTELY++
“But Simon disconnected it from the web and the weird stuff carried on!” I exclaimed.
++YES BUT THAT DOES NOT MEAN SOMEONE IS NOT CONTROLLING IT REMOTELY++
“What do you mean?” I asked.
++YOU WILL NEED TO ASK SIMON A FEW MORE QUESTIONS. CAN YOU TEXT HIM THEM?++
“Yes.” I said.
++GOOD. ASK HIM WHAT WALL HIS DESK IS AGAINST. ALSO ASK HIM WHAT IS ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WALL++
“Okay.” I said curiously. A few seconds later the message came back. I showed it to Sugar and the others. Tim and Martin were no clearer than I was but Sugar seemed much happier.
++IT IS CONFIRMED. WE CAN FIX THE PROBLEM. YOU MUST ASK SIMON TO CHANGE THE FREQUENCY ON HIS KEYBOARD AND MOUSE. THERE SHOULD BE A SWITCH UNDERNEATH THEM BOTH++
“Frequency?” Tim said.
“Oh!” I said, suddenly understanding “Sugar, that is brilliant! Hang on.” and I sent Simon another text. A few minutes later I got one back.
“Confirmed!” I said smugly. “Case solved.”
“What are you two going on about?” Martin said.
“Simon’s brother.” I said “He’s behind it.”
“How?”, Martin asked.
++HE HAS THE SAME COMPUTER AND HIS COMPUTER IS THE OTHER SIDE OF THE SAME WALL SIMON’S IS UP AGAINST++
“So?” Tim said.
“So both computers have the same wireless keyboard and mouse, both operating on their default frequencies. The fact that they are just the other side of a pretty thin wall means they are clashing with each other.” I said.
++HIS BROTHER MUST HAVE REALISED IT ONE DAY. MAYBE BECAUSE SIMON ACCIDENTALLY CONTROLLED HIS BROTHER’S COMPUTER++
“As they both have the same PC, everything is likely to be in the same place. All his brother had to do was control his PC and Simon’s would mimic it.” I said. “Easy when you know how.”
“What about the vowels though?” Martin said, “How did he do that?”
“I’m not sure but I think I can guess.” I said. I sent Simon an email with some instructions and soon got one back saying everything had worked. “That confirms it.” I said.
“Well, go on then, we’re waiting.” Tim said.
“It wasn’t on everything Simon typed just his word processor. He just presumed it was on everything because everything he tried was opening in the Word processor. The email was actually fine but I can see why he took the precaution.”
“So what was it?” Tim pressed.
“His brother installed a simple macro - that’s like a little program you use to do repetitive tasks for you - into Simon’s word processor. That just deleted every vowel he typed.” I sat back smiling, “Simon just reset his security permissions so macros don’t run and the problem has gone away.”
++SO NOW WHAT DO WE DO? DO WE CALL THE POLICE?++
“No!” we all laughed together. Sugar was brilliantly clever but at the same time he had a lot to learn.