Geek FictionGeek Fiction

by Matt Stephens

Episode 2: Bugging Out

1 Week Earlier...

Analie clutched her mouse with one paw and pushed her i-JAMS up her long, twitching nose with the other, surveying the gently glowing screen suspiciously. The numbers running up the screen, green on black, reflected perfectly off the lenses. A quick mouse gesture killed the music that had been pouring into her tortured ears from the sunglasses' converged headphones. She stared worriedly at the numbers, sensing foul play.

The pattern before her was one of malice and disaffection. Malcontent youngsters, the enemy, packaged data into big bags of numbers which, executed as a program, would cause widespread havoc, maybe even death if all the cyberducks happened to fall in a row, just-so, at precisely the right moment.

An ambulance, careering through the midafternoon heat haze, could surge through an infected traffic control system and screech headlong into a plodding, unsuspecting Greyhound. Red light, green light; just states, just numbers. Big bags of killer numbers. Murderous, poker-faced, sinister ducks. This was Analie's world: she was a virus hunter.

She exhaled through her clenched teeth, forced her wandering attention to return to the telltale pattern in front of her.

“Looks like a Bloodhound.exploit.82 variant,” rasped a voice. Clingdog, a teenage genius too dumb to wash regularly, peered over her shoulder. “Not that severe. Why the worry?”

“That's what they want you to think,” she replied curtly. “But look...” More mouse gestures. The numbers shifted.

Code“A decoy?” He whistled. “The Bloodhound code never even gets run, but instead... that core's got Blaster written all over it. The ‘Streamers' will miss that for sure – we could be looking at another epidemic.”

“Streamers” were what they called the mainstream virus detection programs. The shrinkwrapped software with 70% virus coverage (if you're lucky) which you buy in your local PC store and install on Granny's new beige box, knowing that she's never going to venture beyond her Yahoo! home page or peek out from behind her default Windows XP firewall, or even work out how to double-click an email attachment, but you want her to be safe anyway; and you want to feel safe that she's safe.

"Giant corporations,
the Military, and music labels; anyone who needed

The software that Analie, Clingdog and the others wrote was on an entirely different level. Their clients were giant corporations, the Military, and music labels; anyone who needed real protection from the emerging legions of disaffected kids out there, and who were prepared to pay big bucks to be safe.

The virus writers – the disaffected kids – knew who their real enemy was. They knew it wasn't McAfee, or even the indomitable Panda, and they knew that their enemy was in a basement somewhere in Manhattan, they just didn't know exactly which basement – yet. Clingdog had been monitoring their communications for a while, had detected that they were closing in on their location. It would be time to move soon: to find a new HQ.

“We'd better call Hank,” Analie cursed, fingers rattling her optimized Dvorak keyboard. “We have to post a security advisory, global status. System lockdown for all our clients. For a while.” More mouse gestures. Seconds later, a canny Texan drawl slurred tinnily out of her PC speakers.

“Problems?” their brash billionaire boss queried, reclining on his private island somewhere in the Pacific. “Make this quick, ah got Twelve Inch Impalers here, aahl-weekend premium rate, full board and health club passes for all the band members an' their... guests.” From the background, grungy, a-melodic, cyclic metal guitar thuds could be heard, punctuated by the distant sound of tennis balls being thwacked and the occasional shrill call of “Out!

"Accidentally unleashed a rampant killer from beyond the grave "

Analie cringed: those untalented tennis-playing groupie whores were the whole reason why they'd ended up down here, stuck in a damp cupboard accessible only via a disused subway beneath Manhattan. That and the fact that she and her team had accidentally unleashed a rampant killer from beyond the grave, who had cut a bloody swathe through the bikini-clad groupies who happened to be vacationing on Hank's private island at the time. But shit, we can't all be perfect, she thought wryly.

Suddenly, Clingdog blurted: “Global lockdown, immediate effect!” Without thinking, Analie jabbed his throat with her pointy elbow, making him clatter to the dusty floor amidst several inconveniently placed office chairs: the cheapest that Staples had to offer.

”One other thing,” she reported, grappling to recover her aura of icy-cold l33tness. She hesitated. “Clingdog thinks the Hash Street Kids may be closing in. He eve'd their IM, got a packet sniffer clamped onto their TCP/IP stack, and got it firmly wedged in. They've been scanning our transmissions – must have us triangulated to within ten blocks now, using their bleeding-edge wireframe 3D locator.”

“Time to bug out,” Hank concurred. “Call Rez, have him airlift you to Location XYZZY before nightfall.” The monotonous dirge of Twelve Inch Impalers disappeared from the damp basement, leaving them in stunned silence.

“I'd grown quite attached to this place,” Clingdog lamented, clambering up from where he had been writhing around on the crusty floor. “Kinda like a home away from home.”

“Dammit, Fuckdog,” she retorted. “That was my call-in that you grabbed!”

“Jus' too impetuous,” he apologized.

The door burst open, and the rest of the Virus Hunters(TM) team, except for Rez their physical transportationist, bustled in amidst the heady scent of fried geekfood. KarmaWhore2.0, GrokTurd and KarmaWhore3.1, KarmaWhore2.0's younger brother. The two were inseparable.

“Okay,” reported KarmaWhore2.0, “we got a KFC bucket, Subway was a bust – queue more'n a foot long, an' sour cream pretzels for Analie.” He always spoke in triplets, each one a failed haiku – never quite the right syllable count, never quite hitting the right note emotionally, always a bit more information than was needed.

"See them USB drives being mortared into walls all over town?" said GrokTurd. "People can just plug into the wall and drop files, kinduva free-for-all. Now there's a virus-spattering glory-hole if ever there was one."

KarmaWhore3.1 snorted. "I prefer to get my messages delivered by someone dumb enough to doublespace their brain implant... least then I might get to meet a borged-out dolphin hiding out in an abandoned carnival."

His elder brother tossed the giant bag of pretzels in Analie's direction. It was a pathetic throw and landed several feet to the left.

"Practice safe hex, guys," said Clingdog. "Besides, hard drives from garbage cans are way more interesting 'nonymous data drops. Who wants to see files that someone wants you to see?" He kicked the pretzel bag the rest of the way; but it was also a fairly pathetically aimed kick which did more damage than distance. With a puzzled frown as if he were debugging a race condition using a box of snails and a bowl of rubber bands, he took aim again. The crushed pretzels finally landed within reaching distance of their target.

Scowling, Analie scooped up her battered lunch. “Gotta bug out. 'Soon as we've eaten I'll contact Rez. He's on standby – knows the drill.” This wasn't the first time they'd had to evacuate.

When they'd finished their lunch, they swept the crumbs off their keyboards and then packed up the most precious and portable elements of their equipment – the parts that they absolutely wouldn't trust some clumsy non-techie moronic lowbrow dustoff team to transport for them – and huddled near the door.

Abandoned subway

Analie's girlie rucksack hung low and heavy on her shoulders, packed like an overstuffed , dangerously sagging diaper. Her clamshell Zaurus SL-C3200 – a Linux hacker's portable wet dream, and increasingly difficult to get hold of in the Western world – poked nervously out the top. Her life was on that tiny device. All her access codes, her contacts, her public keys, her private keys, her personal ramblings, her hacks, her utils, nearly twenty different language interpreters, compilers and runtime environments, plus a dozen shell script interpreters and the source code to Pandora, Virus Hunters (TM)'s flagship product, all in various states of encryption, were packed into that tiny device's 6GB hard drive. Her precious Zaurus sported a scrappy white smudge around one edge, the remnants of a sticky label with the words “Real hackers use FreeBSD”, placed there one November morning by a daring Clingdog. His prank had earned him a well-aimed rabbit punch to the throat, but he loved the attention.

“After three,” KarmaWhore2.0 whispered urgently, “is when I'll open the door. Never before, on the other side danger.” He stabbed in the combination, lifted the handle, and pulled the door towards him. They were all huddled so closely together that they had to shuffle backwards with him. He peered into the darkness, waved his hand as if to say “all clear.”

“You can't see a thing,” Analie pointed out. “How can you possibly know if it's safe out there? Hang on, I'll try the BloodTracer.” She pulled her sagging rucksack off her shoulder, let it spread out on the floor like a surprised-looking beached octopus, maw gaping desperately upwards from its suddenly amorphous gelatinous body. She shoved her hand into the maw, rummaged around the octopus' innards and pulled out a sleek device the size of a USB data pen, though about ten times as heavy. A hair-thin aerial telescoped out the top of the device, swung precariously like a Martian's overgrown antenna as she waved it around, divining not for water (as Martians obviously do) but for signs of electrostatic activity.

The device earned its name because it was supposedly as accurate as a shark sniffing for blood. It was multi-function, scanning not just for the telltale signs of a whirring PC fan, but also for Bluetooth activity, X.25 negotiations that happened to be in progress, moth farts, 802.11b/g/whatever signals, and a number of other emissions ranging from the obscure to the horribly in vogue.

“Seems clear,” she whispered. The Martian antenna whirred back into the tiny device. “Of course, you can never be 100% certain.” They edged out of the room, their home, their ex-prison, and trod gingerly down some concrete steps into a disused branch of the subway.

“I doubt the Kids would have come rushing straight down here,” Clingdog offered reassuringly, “even if they'd zeroed in on our location, which I can't see they would have had time for, to do.” He stumbled over the last few words, ever the social slicker.

"The safe, fuzzy feeling of being DRM-compliant"

KarmaWhore3.1 had plugged a USB flashlight into his Faceless Corporation (TM) PocketPC handheld, the team's one concession to the Evil Empire for its decent wireless, USB and multimedia support. He often got ribbed over his “spyware magnet”, but insisted that it was worth it for the safe fuzzy feeling of being DRM-compliant. The others assumed that he was kidding. He was also frequently ribcaged for being allegedly named after Windows 3.1 by his Californian hippie parents, who had experienced MS Mail before it was even an Internet-ready product and allowed only plain text emails. Life was simple and mostly virus-free in those days.

Analie waved him forward so that his USB flashlight, bobbing and weaving, lit their way. “This thing's a serious battery drain,” he complained, “better hurry.”

“We got those infra-red sensors ahead,” Analie whispered, motioning the team to stop. “Hang on, I'll deactivate them. Don't want to make it too easy for them to locate us.” The motion-sensors had been installed as a user-friendly measure by their generous boss, set to douse them with ultra-bright DAYLIGHT(TM) so that they wouldn't trip over the uneven surface as they made their way back and forth through the disused tunnel on their irregular luncheon quests. She crouched down and tapped rapidly into her Zaurus. Her BloodTracer beeped muffledly from in her octopus-diaper rucksack, most likely detecting the nearby activity of her Zaurus even with its alien antenna retracted.

“You sure it's your pocket calculator that thing's detecting?” Clingdog whispered, waiting gleefully for Analie's smooth, pointy elbow to make actual physical, skin-on-skin contact with his jugular.

Instead, an explosion knocked him off his feet, sent Analie tumbling backwards head-over-heels, and tore the front off KarmaWhore3.1.

"The closely guarded secret of
a Trek-obsessed family"

“Tiberius!” KarmaWhore2.0 screamed, reverting in shock to his younger brother's birth-name, until that moment the closely guarded secret of a Trek-obsessed family. Tiberius writhed facelessly for a few seconds then lay still in a twisted heap. The USB flashlight had smashed, and the only light was coming from Tiberius' Faceless Corporation(TM) PocketPC handheld dimly revealing its immediate vicinity with a faint blue tint. On the cracked screen, the words “It's now safe to switch off your PocketPC” appeared briefly, then the tiny (if slightly chunky) device deactivated forever.

Analie had grabbed her BloodSniffer out of her rucksack as she landed neatly in a crumpled mess on the angular ground. She swung the device around, shouted: “The Kids, over there!” with perfect timing for Clingdog to pull out his HeatTracer 90 and fire several silent, quicksilver shots into the darkness. They heard a muffled cry, and took that as their signal to get themselves the fuck out of there.

“Tools, we are leaving!” Grokturd shouted in his best Dwayne Hicks from Aliens voice.

Some of Analie's devices had spilled onto the ground. Fumbling in the dark, she stuffed whatever she could find back in, pulled the drawstring tight as she leaped up and sprinted into the pitch dark tunnel, using her memory for guidance and trusting the others to follow. Clingdog stumbled clumsily after her, limping badly, and the remainder of the team followed in suit, KarmaWhore2.0 sobbing uncontrollably for his younger brother.

“There's an alcove up ahead,” Analie half-whispered half-shouted, “we can ambush them from there.”

“Activate the DAYLIGHT(TM)!” GrokTurd yelped, despite himself: he was almost glad that in the pitch-dark he was finally able to participate in an adventure and not worry about his terrible acne.

Still running, Analie grabbed her Zaurus and stabbed blindly at the tiny keyboard with her thumbs. They dived into the alcove, buried themselves behind some rusting old machinery of unknown purpose, just in time for the DAYLIGHT(TM)'s searing white light to fill the tunnel.

Blinded, squinting desperately, they heard their pursuers, similarly blinded, stumbling and cursing, clutching their eyes in agony. “What was Hank thinking with that thing?” muttered Analie. Clingdog levelled his HeatTracer 90, waiting for the first of the Kids to stumble blindly into view. The Zaurus beeped urgently, a three-toned dirge indicating that its attack sensor had been tripped. Someone was trying to hack into it wirelessly.

“Sonuvabitch!” Analie spat, placing the device on her knees and furiously thumb-tapping countermeasures. “They're trying to deactivate the DAYLIGHT(TM). They've gone in via Telnet, no wait... that's a ruse, they're trying to redirect Firefox to a malicious website. Probably get a Trojan into the system that way. Safe browsing, my arse,” she added, risking the wrath of the Mozilla Gods. She thumbed away and stabbed the screen with her forefinger. “Dammit, they managed to squirt some JavaScript through my firewall. I gotta tracert it, make sure it doesn't bootstrap its way up an' get root privileges.”

"Cheekily dodging the UN weapons inspectors and then taunting them with a megaphone"

The intruder was jumping from port to port, shifting its payload from one service to the next like the military leader of an Axis of Evil nation cheekily dodging the UN weapons inspectors and then taunting them from afar, with a megaphone. “Wait...” (sound of laser-gun noises as she frantically took aim at different ports, narrowly missing the squirrel-like script as it leapt about): “Got the little bastard!” A curious squeaking noise like a squirrel being hit over the head with a wooden mallet. “Any sign of them in MeatSpace?”

“Hang on,” called GrokTurd. Gingerly, he poked his head above the apex of the rusty machinery of unknown purpose. His last ever words were: “Wait... I think I see Chester.” Next minute, a perfectly round hole appeared in his forehead. Lifeless, he fell backwards with his eyes raised up towards a clinical plume of smoke drifting out of the tiny hole.

Clingdog screamed, not caring if Analie heard him turn girlie. He jumped up and fired his HeatTracer 90 randomly into the blinding light. Cries, shrieks and thuds wafted through the scorched air of the overexposed tunnel. Finally the gun clicked, out of ammo. He ducked down, just in time as a white phosphorous-tipped tracer bullet whizzed through the air where his head had been, pinging into the rock wall behind what remained of the team.

“Listen,” said KarmaWhore2.0, who until that moment had been lying in a foetal position on the floor, trying to keep the thoughts of his dead younger brother out of his mind, for now at least. “Too reactive, too reactive, is what we are now being. Picked off one by one shall we ever be. We have to think, dammit. Outsmart the enemy, not out-panic them, for Chrissakes.”

“So what do you suggest?” Analie replied, eager for any hint of a brainwave to get them out of this mess.

“Well, wirelessly hacking into your Linux palmtop is what the enemy does," he explained, his failed-Haikus bordering perilously on Yodaspeak. "But have their IP address we do not. Honeypot, the trap, we could set up real quick, then trap their source, take the fight to their doorstep. Get into their system, bring them down digitally.”

“You mean that literally, don't you?” she grinned. “Get into their system, I mean.”

"It resembled a Wiimote designed in an alternate universe by a Microsoft-led steering committee"

He nodded. “Do you still have that matter-energy transmogrification component from Chester's earlier attempt at raising great historical beings from the dead?” he asked in a geeky monotone, failed-Haikus evaporating. But Analie had already rummaged in her backpack and grabbed the component, which resembled a Wiimote designed in an alternate universe by a Microsoft-led steering committee.

“I can never decide whether that backpack makes you Lara Croft or Dora the Explorer,” he said, as Analie jammed the component into her palmtop's mini-USB port.

“Clingdog, hold this!” she yelled, and grabbed the Wi$mote with both hands. The device absorbed her, and she dropped to the ground, unconscious: her mind now very much Somewhere Else. Clingdog reacted just in time and grabbed the falling Zaurus, careful to avoid the contact points on the plugged-in matter-energy context transmogrifier dongle, as more tracer bullets zinged overhead and went exploring down the tunnel. KarmaWhore2.0 grabbed the over-designed transmogrifier next, following Analie's lead and falling unconscious to the ground.

The hygienically challenged hacker was left on his own in a DAYLIGHT(TM) lit tunnel deep beneath Manhattan, with bullets zinging around him. He stared down at Analie's Zaurus, only half-comprehending what had just happened; and where his two colleagues currently were.



IN THE NEXT EPISODE: KarmaWhore2.0 and Analie set up a honeypot, and meet a real-life virtual god roaming inside the Zaurus.

Copyright 2006/2007 Matt Stephens, All Rights Reserved.


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