It all started with Lamneth. Yep, that's it. Basically, it's all his fault.
On November 23, 2002, the GoldGarbage travel bug (owned by HotFoot) appeared in the Double Agent geocache with a strange story about its mysterious disappearance (found on the Psittacosis travel bug page). It was placed in the cache by a SF2062, who, aside from this action, had no identity at all.
At the time, I wasn't exactly sure who SF2062 was, but I suspected Lamneth. I was extremely impressed by Double Agent, which still ranks as my favorite cache ever. So I decided to play along and make a real double-agent plot. I created a new account for Venona, took the bug in the middle of the night, and left cryptic notes on both pages. The details of the Venona account are amusing, even though they were visible only to the geocaching.com admins. Venona has a two cutout email addresses, a hometown of Moscow, Russia, and his own website.
Venona first emailed Lamneth to verify that he would be willing to undertake "activities" to regain the bug. The message was:
We have Gold Garbage travel bug. Is our hostage. If your friend wants to see travel bug again you must rescue. You will tell us you are willing to do activities for regain bug. Email us to willingness.
Lamneth agreed to the proposal. The first "activity" that Venona required was emailed to both Lamneth and Hotfoot. It consisted of the following message:
First activity is ready. Go to location and reply word.
Location: B543 TK7872 V3C6 P399
Is not cipher. You must do in 36 hours, after I will remove.
Lamneth responded incredibly quickly (in less then 90 minutes), having broken the code. He wrote:
I'm sorry, but I don't have access to B543. Perhaps you can tell me the word that was placed on Page 399 of the book Microwave Magnetrons?
Well, Venona wasn't about to let Lamneth get away with that. He responded:
I am most sorry. Perhaps you have friend who can help?
Which friend, of course, would be me. Lamneth then contacted me (the real me, this time) and asked:
Can you go look on page 399 of "Magnetic Magnetrons" by George Collins? (The call number is TK7872 V3C6) I believe there's a word written on a piece of paper or something... Please let me know.
Here I made my first mistake. I didn't act puzzled enough. I just agreed to do it. But, of course, I didn't find any note in the book, since the main Lab library is not in B543. I actually went and looked up the book, just in case Lamneth was watching me. I wrote him back, and the following exchange happened:
Most of the rest of this phase of the story is in the forums, where I wrote it. I went to B543, found the book, "removed" the note (which never got placed in the first place), and copied the title of the report next to the book, which was entitled Refractory Semiconductor Materials, and was by three Russians. I sent Lamneth a scanned copy of the note and the title page.
Here's the note:
And the title page from that report next to the book:
And there was my second mistake. I hand-wrote the note. Even though I tried to disguise my handwriting, I didn't do it well enough.
REFRACTORY is a neat word, and (as others later deduced) I chose it on purpose. By the way, at this point I had figured out the whole SF2062 thing, having discovered an interesting Rush website that tied Lamneth, Syrinx, SF2062, and Lamneth's neat star logo together.
There are still unresolved questions about this whole episode:
I wrote up the whole thing for the forums to generate a little interest for the Bay Area geocachers. Didn't take long for suspicions to be aired and general finger-pointing to begin. Very fun!
Not much else happened for a while. There was an email exchange with HotFoot, and a certain amount of speculation on the forums. Venona now appeared in the forums, and I decided that he would make all subsequent communications publicly, in the Bay Area thread.
A couple of days before I left for a cruise in December, Venona published the main cipher on the forum:
Here is next activity for retrieve Gold Garbage Travel Bug.
Decipher message below. Activity must complete before 31 December 2002.
Remember word from first activity.
CC53542911D8C8ED03836B2D39DEC61B82D46B793CA0BF60F50036015EB02363B1F31C7830264DF 7784DEAA734DBF5930D1574D876526B304F8132B8E7EAAE8D089D8425E372CA884E058F35933422 FC6C61B730A3BB3B72AAF2D68E24B90F6CBE43474D14F845CA8522AF0011B2C566A8270FFA1946A 90AE7258A27A221B277D1FBACA6488165C3C7F657FF08E25D656E7127A97B0EBC14B1803435E580
D9797E1F17FAEEC030BD5C482BFEE62EB3F719621B82D945DD2F0E6E6E8C51569BC03E5E004976C 00A4CC38017F4C4FC1E2B43F34420491278A605ECBFCE9CFF78ECEA5A810BD6A26739EE19A95B34 C05D419C00878A4F0EC987A4F952DB7C01CA2C5C6066CA6AF4A841992A6399F24E81032BDD6D688 F5EBF51F645D342B675A3D19F8E6BF340E1EA996CC07AC974430F4016925B3E8B2792B65B7BBB
There was actually a lot of thought that went into the design of this cipher. I wanted to use something that would involve the original Venona concept; that is, the re-use of a one-time pad. I wanted to avoid a "toy" cipher that would easily be solved by hand, but I wanted the cipher to be crackable in a reasonable time frame by amateurs. I also wanted to incorporate the keyword from the first "activity."
I am actually quite proud of the result. The above cipher consists of two parts: the first is the word REFRACTORY repeated and encrypted using the RC4 stream cipher; that's a professional-grade encryption job. The second part is the message encrypted using the same RC4 key, essentially re-using a one-time pad. I left a few clues in the cipher to point the way to the solution. First, the hexadecimal nature of the data was meant to suggest using computers to solve the cipher. Second, the separation of the cipher into two parts was meant to indicate the notion of parallel texts, and maybe key re-use. Third, the first part was one byte longer than the second, which would imply that it contained the key, since more than enough key material would be present to allow complete decryption of the second part.
While I was on my cruise, I logged in to the Internet a couple of times from the ship (at $0.75 a minute, I'll have you know!) and wrote a few notes as Venona in the Bay Area thread. I went to some lengths to misdirect people; I never logged in as myself (you'll note that if you go to a cacher's page it shows the last time they logged in) and tried to post at times that would be appropriate for someone being on the West Coast. I'm not sure how many people this fooled, but it was fun. Here's a picture of moonrise over St. Thomas from the cruise:
The ship is very nice, by the way. Highly recommended.
The cipher was solved in 6 days by a dedicated group of Bay Area geocachers working together. Impressive! The decoded message was:
GoldGarbage Travel Bug will be placed in Double Agent cache at 12:00 Noon on December 31, 2002. It will be removed at 1:00 PM same day if not retrieved.
There are a couple of minor mistakes here. First, Venona always referred to the travel bug as "Gold Garbage," using two words, even though the actual name is one word. This note was the only place where I slipped. Second, after a couple of days I knew that just putting the bug into the cache at the appointed time would be a huge letdown to all those who had worked so hard on the problem.
So now I had to think up something suitably entertaining for December 31, something that (hopefully) wouldn't get me caught. I initially thought of putting the bug in an (ahem) alternate but related location, but I was afraid that it would be manned. So then I came upon the idea of placing some kind of note that would point to the location of a new cache that would contain the bug. I decided to make a two-part cryptogram; one part would consist of quotations and have enough text that it could be solved using standard cryptogram techniques. That part would be placed in the alternate location the night before. The second part would be required to get the actual cache location, but would be too short to allow for easy solution.
The night before the Big Day, I placed the new cache (Double Trouble) with the travel bug in it. In doing so, I took a bit of a chance; somebody could conceivably have found it before the proper moment the next day. On Sunday I had arranged with some high-school-age girls in my church choir to deliver the note. I figured it would give HotFoot a thrill. I also placed the cryptogram in the alternate location and prepared ths cache page for Double Trouble.
The Double Trouble cache page was approved at 11:00 AM on December 31, just at the perfect time. I delievered the final note to the girls at 11:40 and arrived at the meeting place at 11:45. People were there, and nearly everyone arrived by noon. This rather threatening card was in the Double Agent cache when we got there:
As it happened, nobody even went to the alternate location! I started off towards it with Chugal (conveniently not being at the main spot when the girls arrived), but we were recalled when the note was delivered. I could easily have just placed the bug in the alternate location and gotten off without a trace!
Unfortunately, the people now had the note with the cache coordinates on it, but nobody had the longer cryptogram that held the key to it! And they only had an hour to find the cache. So, thinking quickly, I came up with some helpful hints and the group (led by The Rat) solved it without use of the long cryptogram.
Then I saw it. Disaster! I had made a mistake on the coordinates for the cache with the bug in it! About a quarter-mile worth of mistake! And everybody was taking off to the wrong location!
Pepper and I were going to drive there together. As she went to tell Claire to wait for HotFoot (who had been delayed), I grabbed a dollar bill in my car, quickly wrote a note correcting the error on it, and put it in a small ziplock bag. I was going to have to use my magician's skills to figure out how to save the situation on the fly.
When we got to the coordinates, everyone was wandering in the streets. Apparently, the coorindates were in sombody's back yard. Fortuitously, there was an object in the street that resembled the hint given with the cache coordinates. Pretending to search the object, I slipped my dollar-bill note into an inconspicuous (but not too inconspicuous) place. And if Mary hadn't been watching me like a hawk, I would have gotten away with it, too! I moved away, and after a couple of minutes Pepper found the note, and we all headed to the (now correct) cache location.
Meanwhile, I found out that Chuguy had run the license plates of the car my high-school accomplices had used, and was acting like he was going to go interrogate everyone at their house. I can just imagine Chuguy and The Rat doing Good Cop/Bad Cop on those poor kids. That, and the fact that Bill of Green Achers was acting like he was worried about getting fired for being under suspicion, and I folded.
So I confessed. I'd make a lousy criminal. But it sure was fun while it lasted!
Or is it?????