Sea Change – Sample (Full)

Chapter One: Fair Winds and Following Seas

The island slowly shrank as we sailed away. I couldn’t see anything happening when I looked right at it, but when I went down below for a while, then came back, it was shocking to see how far we’d come. It was unnerving to watch something disappear incrementally.

I’d only spent a few days at Isla Isabela, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was leaving home. I’d come to know my way around the place; I knew the best route to get from the lagoon to town on foot, I knew which grocery store carried the good cheese, I had a favourite restaurant. And I already missed the bakery that made raisin bread in old coffee cans so it came out as a ridged cylinder.

I was nostalgic for a place I’d only visited, but it was just a way of covering up my nervousness. The longest ocean passage I’d ever been on was four days and that had seemed monumental at the time. Now I knew the Byte Bucket would be at sea for weeks, possibly close to to a month, of total isolation. I wasn’t afraid, exactly — I trusted the captain and the rest of the crew completely, and they’d demonstrated that they knew what they were doing — but it was daunting nonetheless. So I focussed on the island and tried to see it recede into the distance of space and time.

Jim “Call Me Jimmy” Houghton, ship’s cook and resident old salt popped his head out of the companionway. “Anyone mind if I load up the tunes?”

Heads shook and the captain said, “Go for it.” Jimmy disappeared and a few seconds later the opening notes of “Rock the Casbah” boomed out of speakers cleverly built into the sides of the bench seats in the cockpit. Mat, the captain, grinned at me. “We don’t stand on ceremony much on this boat, but the first day at sea is usually a dance party night.”

I frowned. “We didn’t do this on our last passage.”

Mat tossed her head, dreadlocks swaying. “We didn’t want to spook you. Besides, that was only a couple of days. This is the real thing. We ought to celebrate. Come on, Devi, let’s dance!” With that, she grabbed my hand and began to dance around the cockpit. The other crew members joined us, filling the spacious area. Tulia and Martin, the two junior sailors, danced nearby but not together in that tried and true method of high-schoolers who like each other. They were pretending that there was nothing between them, but we all knew better. I grinned at Martin and watched him blush and avoid my eyes. Tulia had been jealous of my friendship with him at first, but after she found out about my ex-girlfriend, she’d warmed up to me. And here I’d been worried that she’d be nervous about sharing a bunk room with a queer girl.

Mat and I shared an incredulous look as Jimmy appeared out of nowhere and tried to get a mosh going with Christine, the mechanic, and the mate, Isaac. They were probably half his age, but at times you’d never know it.

It was a better ride than I’d been expecting. The wind wasn’t very strong and we were on what I’d learned was called a beam reach — where the wind is blowing over the side of the boat. Isaac, the ship’s mate, had told me that it was the fastest point of sail, though it could often be uncomfortable because the ocean waves hit the boat broadside. However, today we were lucky — the swell was astern even though the wind was abeam; a perfect sail.

“Fair winds and following seas,” I said, echoing the phrase I’d heard sailors say when they wished each other well.

“Enjoy it while it lasts,” Mat said, twirling around with her arms in the air. “The one truth about the weather is that it will change.”

* * *

The dance party didn’t last long; only a couple more songs, then Jimmy went down to work on dinner and the crew settled into their routine. I tried to decide what to do with myself since my place on the boat when we were under way was still a bit ambiguous. Byte Bucket wasn’t just a sailboat, it was also the home of one of the nodes for the bizarre cloud data storage firm Really Remote Desktop, and that was why I was there. This hundred-foot sloop was my co-op job placement as part of my Computer Science degree. The server room built into the bilge was my domain, but when we were sailing my job was to stay out of the way and make sure I didn’t fall overboard.

I made my way out of the cockpit and into the main salon that was built up in front of the working end of the boat. It was a large open space with a lovely hardwood floor that was much better suited to a dance party than the cockpit, but there was something about hanging out in the cockpit at sea that just felt right. Open air, the sound of the waves — it was where you wanted to be when you were getting underway.

Inside, there was a TV and a bar, plus seating along the sides, so we spent more time here in bad weather or when we were trying to just relax out of everyone else’s way. No one was there now as I made my way to the interior of the boat by hanging on to the evenly spaced handholds along the wall. It was almost second nature now, but I still had the odd bruise from my first few days on board.

I carefully stepped down the companionway stairs facing backwards. They were steep and while most of the crew walked down them facing forward, I wasn’t keen on ending up on my butt. Down below was taken up with the galley on one side with its kitchen area and large table where we shared meals. There was a short hallway with toilets and showers along the sides, which led to the shared bunk room. That was where I ran into Martin.

“No regrets?”

He made a face. “What would be the point? I can’t exactly change my mind now.” I’d been sure he was going home when we were in the Galápagos. I didn’t know the details of his contract, but I knew he’d only signed on in a desperate bid to earn enough money to get back home after getting stranded in Mexico. I could understand the tension between wanting to get home and the call of adventure. Especially if adventure wasn’t exactly what you were looking for.

I nodded. There wasn’t any reason to belabour it — if he wished he’d made a different choice, it was too late now. “You going to check on the servers?”

“Might as well,” I said. “I should get into the habit of monitoring them daily. I’m kind of hoping I can figure out some way to get a little speed boost out of them. I know that the transfer rates I’m seeing are consistent with this application, but it’s just so hard to accept when you’re used to proper broadband…” Martin looked like I felt when the others got deep into the boat talk. “Sorry. I guess I’m just rubber ducking.”

“You what?”

I laughed. “It’s programmer-speak for thinking out loud. It’s not about conversation — you could be talking to a rubber duck.”

“Well, I’d like to think I’m more useful than bath toy, but it wouldn’t be true in this conversation.”

“I’ll try to keep my more boring conversations to myself.”

“Nah, I don’t mind being your rubber duck,” Martin said, “so long as you don’t expect anything more complex than quack in response.”

We were both laughing when Tulia came around the bulkhead. “What are you two up to? That sounded kinda dirty,” she said, grinning.

“It’s — not,” I said, still laughing. “I was going on about work and then I said I was—“

“Never mind,” Martin interrupted. “It’s too hard to explain.”

Tulia rolled her eyes at us but she was smiling. “I’m on night watch tonight, so I’m going to try to get a nap in. I hope this rubber ducking isn’t too loud.”

“Oh, god,” Martin said as she carefully walked down the passage toward the bunks, her round body jiggling as she laughed. I noticed him following her with his eyes and hid a smirk. “That did sound pretty bad.”

“Could have been worse. I could have been explaining about the interaction between the master and the slave.”

“I had no idea you computer nerds were so kinky.”

“Seriously?” I asked. “You have been on the internet, right?” He made a face and I chucked him on the shoulder. “I’m heading down to my dungeon. See you at dinner?”

“Yeah, if I don’t get bored and come down to spy on your arcane rituals first.”

* * *

Data in, data out. I’d always found watching the pattern of data flow relaxing. Once you knew what to look for you could kind of get a sense of what it was. Not specifically, of course, but between file size and transfer rate you could make an educated guess — a high res movie, downloaded from somewhere nearby; a bunch of image files, from a server further away; an album of mp3s, from someone on dial-up. It wasn’t so clear on the Bucket, since mostly we were our own bandwidth bottleneck. But I watched while a couple of movie-size files moved around and many small uploads occurred — probably desktop backups of documents.

It reminded me of pictures taken from orbit I’d seen of the Earth at night. The patterns of lights could tell a kind of story — about where there was activity, and when. Metadata, the story about the story. I liked that kind of thing.

If I hadn’t been mesmerized by the packets, I probably wouldn’t have been able to pinpoint the time it happened, but I was watching the normal peaks and valleys when, very right before my eyes, the transfer rate spiked. And it stayed up; much higher than I’d seen it before on these servers. I was pretty sure the system could handle it, but it was odd, so I pulled up the logs. There was a clear increase, but not from a single user like I’d expected. The connections were coming from all over.

I frowned. It wasn’t a typically alarming amount of traffic — certainly on a normal, contemporary database this wouldn’t even rate as unusual. But for us… Could it be the start of a DDoS?

A distributed denial-of-service attack was a standard black hat hacker’s tool for causing mischief and mayhem. Using many machines, usually the personal computers of innocent victims of malware, the attackers flooded the target with the goal of crippling their resources by overwhelming their bandwidth. Our entire business model relied on our servers being accessible to our clients — if we were down, we were losing business. Being bandwidth-challenged, we were particularly vulnerable to this kind of attack, though our distributed server network was designed to help mitigate that possibility. I wished I knew what was going on at the other server nodes.

In my orientation I’d been told that I was expected to work independently. The strength of RRD’s system was that each set of servers ran as if it were the only one; we were all each other’s failsafes. When my node was down, the others covered. If it were a deliberate attack, and each of us were overwhelmed, well, that was the point of a DDoS. Knowing whether it was happening all over didn’t really change my course of action, I just wanted to know.

That got me thinking. I looked at the data transfer graph for the last hour. The spike was obvious and it had plateaued now, which was somewhat good news. I did a little mental math — with four nodes operating at an average of n, if one failed then we’d each have an increase of roughly .25n. Not enough to account for the more than doubling I was seeing. But if they’d all failed…

I made a decision. I sent a short email to headquarters describing the spike, making it clear that I had it under control for now, but that it was concerning. I’d rather catch hell for being overcautious than let the whole enchilada go bad because I didn’t want to bother anyone.

I watched a while longer, but the traffic was stable. There wasn’t anything I could do unless things changed, so I figured I might as well go back above decks and check out the view. Hopefully the open ocean would take my mind off it for a while.

* * *

I’d missed the shift changeover from day to night and when I got up to the cockpit the night shift crew were subdued as usual. I looked out to sea as the sunset painted the sky a vivid red.

“Sailors’ delight,” Jimmy said, his hand on the windward lifeline. He turned to me. “Hungry?”

“Yeah,” I answered, only now realizing that it was true. He pointed me toward a tray of cheese, fish, and cut veggies.

“Get it while it’s good,” he said. “There won’t be fresh stuff much longer.”

I made up a plate for myself and, careful to staying out of Issac’s way as he stood at the wheel, found my usual corner to wedge into. I watched the swell come up behind us, lifting the stern as it rolled underneath us. It was still an odd sensation, such a large and solid thing as the boat being tossed around like a cork.

“Cat got your tongue?” Tulia said, sliding in next to me. I shook my head. “Everything okay?” she asked, the smile on her face dissolving into a concerned look.

I nodded. “Yeah. Well, no, but it’s just the servers. I’m fine.”

“Okay.” She didn’t look convinced, but she didn’t press it. “It can get weird out here; the solitude and insignificance. Don’t feel like you have to keep it to yourself if it starts getting to you.”

“Thanks, I think.” I made a face. “I wasn’t worried before, but now…” I grinned to let her know I was kidding.

She nodded but her frown didn’t disappear. “You get a lot of time to think out here. Maybe too much. It’s easy to get caught up in what’s to come, what might be…” She was staring out to sea with such an intensity that I looked to see what she was looking at. But there was only ocean and sky, illuminated by the sinking sun. “It’s easy to replay conversations, dwell on mistakes. There’s nothing to distract you. It can sometimes be hard to remember to enjoy the moment.”

Had something happened between her and Martin? It sounded like she was talking to herself more than to me, but it didn’t feel right to ask. She had a point, though. Was I so bothered by the strange server traffic because it was so unusual, or was it just that I couldn’t find out about the other servers? I’d never worked in such isolation before. Even when I’d had individual projects, I could at least look things up online, talk to people who had experience with similar issues. Now I was on my own, and I wondered if I were just getting lost in my own head.

And it was only our first day at sea.

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