Before I can begin to explain my life in California, there’s something else you need to know.
The summer between high school and college, after I’d turned off my board, I went to one last pirate meet-up. We would pick a day, some combination of three or four or sometimes five of us would get together at someone’s house to copy the hell out of whatever software other people had and talk about all the things we’d learned about they types of systems we’d variously been able to access.
I never one time saw anyone exchanging credit cards. I saw files discussing the security features of credit cards, but that was only interesting and not incriminatory. The only people in that extended series of circles who I ever heard of committing credit card fraud ended up getting something like what they probably deserved.
But we would copy files, and get in line to be next to copy something, and show the new kid that you could cut a notch along the plastic edge on the other side of the disk and then you can flip it over and write onto its backside. A fun few seconds with a hole punch and you’ve doubled your storage!
And before I went off to college, I figured I’d better make one last round. In a quieter moment, when the conversation had died down and the background whirring of disks being read and written had drifted into the foreground, one guy — we didn’t know each others’ real names, no joke — said, “I been meaning to ask you guys something. Why do you think we do this?”
“Because it’s cool,” I said.
He smiled. The other guy did, too. “It is cool,” he said, nodding. We were actually cool. It’s just that almost no one else knew it.
The lie that the movie War Games sold me was that if I dove deep, deep into what you could do with a computer, an alarmingly attractive girl would come along and she would think that this whole thing was really cool, and she would want to know more about it.
And okay, let’s be honest, you would show her how you’d been able to access the school’s computers and change her grade to an A in some class. She would be horrified, begging you to change it back. Certainly the girl’s existence was basically a lie, I can tell you from my first couple of years of diving way, way further into the computer than I probably should have, and if there were a girl there she would much more likely be shaking your chair and directing you to add a couple of classes to her record that she had never even taken, as long as you were at it, but change it all back to how it had been after a couple of weeks, once the college transcripts go out. Because this would have to be our secret.
There are things you can do that will crash systems. We learned this early on. It’s not pretty, and it’s not that useful unless you’re a very malicious person, but some people delight simply in being able to do it. It’s very rarely helpful in any way. But still people try, for a lot of reasons. One reason, of course, is that some systems, if you can crash them in a very specific way, you can gain some control over them. Sometimes you can gain complete control of them.
Back when I was running my board, I was never surprised when I saw someone trying to crash it. With some systems, it could be something as dumb as crashing if a user hit too many keys at the main menu, or typed some specific pattern of characters.
Most of the time I kept my computer screen off. The current session was being echoed to my monitor, and I didn’t need to see people doing things like writing email. But people could page me, and if I was around I’d type to them.
One time, one mid-afternoon, I got a long series of page requests, like ten or fifteen, startling me on my bed where I would have been reading over something like the Arduin Grimoire, a role-playing game book, for the eleven-thousandth time. I turned on my monitor. Looking at the user’s recent history, and what they were typing while I watched, it looked like someone was trying to crash my board. Line after line, someone was trying an impressively extensive list of all the crash-inducing command combinations I’d ever come across.
And now the user was pinging me. Glancing at the top couple of lines of the screen — which always reported the name of the currently logged-in user and some interesting stats about the system at large as well as the current user — I could see that it wasn’t a verified user. I asked that in order to sign up, people create an account and feel free to look around. If they actually wanted to be a user, leave me your phone number and I’ll call you back to verify that you’re a real human being. Or something. I’m not sure what I was thinking, I’m both afraid and not surprised.
So someone who’d never called in before was trying every kill command they could think of — and they had a perfectly respectible list to work with — and then tried a few more for good measure after quick-firing a bunch of chat requests at me. I didn’t give a shit about the crash commands. They could try whatever the hell they wanted to try and they would never crash my board. I was confident because I constantly beat the hell out of it, and every time I heard of a new exploit somewhere else I would check my code for the same sort of mistake. I thought it was kinda pathetic that someone would try so many dumb things. Maybe a twelve-year-old, or something.
Then the feed from the other end went silent. The cursor blinked a number of times in front of the prompt, and then the person on the other end of the line rapidly typed out, “I KNOW YOURE WATCHING”.
That stopped me.
“I KNOW YOU ARE,” it said.
“TALK,” it said.
I dropped into chat mode.
“About what?” I typed.
“CALLING BACK. PICK UP.” Then the line went dead.
Holy crap, I thought. The phone started ringing, and I pulled the receiver off the hook just after the first ring finished washing over my body, before the computer picked up.
“Hello?” I said. “This is Patrick.”
“Hey,” she said. “Hello — oh, wow. I’m really glad you picked up. This is totally great.”