The night after the big DDoS attacks began, the Packet Storm guys came by my place. By then there were three of them, not counting Lineman’s girlfriend. Packet Storm was definitely more than any one or two people could handle, so two more guys — Shawn and Johnny, friends of Lineman’s — drove out together from Chicago to take up some slack on the site. Johnny was a rail-thin dude with short dark hair and a slim baby face, while Todd was less tall, also with short dark hair bordering, and he’d probably have a baby face if he hadn’t been rocking a goatee. His eyes seemed the sharpest of the bunch somehow.
Jim wasn’t around at my place on that evening when they came by, though he’d already met the whole gang. He’d happened to have been in town on the day when the new guys were arriving, so I’d taken him around to meet everybody. Shawn and Johnny had already unloaded a good number of crates full of vinyl, so Jim and I watched as they moved smoothly between spinning disks through a beat-up old mixer and firing off commands to some process on a remote machine through an old green-screen terminal.
“Someone found us,” said Lineman, and Shawn turned the music down a notch, chuckling not at all quietly.
“Whatcha got?” Shawn asked, breaking open a new pack of cigarettes. They didn’t really drink or do drugs — they were only about twenty-one years old, all of them, but most of the group had lived fairly rough lives back in Chicago. They’d survived, of course, but they were mostly done with drugs and drinking. The bunch of them had just been giving jobs that paid what was at the time unreasonable sums of money, for doing nothing more than having people email them the latest hacker tools, vulnerabilities, and exploits, so that’s what they were all about.
Lineman was staring into a black-backed terminal, green winking cursor in the upper left. His fingers hovered half an inch over the keys.
“Hmm,” he said, as everybody crowded around. Then in a flurry, he hammered out a bunch of text that looked to me exactly like a login prompt. Something like:
CONNECTING… adexa system 7.21 login:
“That’s just cruel,” Shawn muttered through an unlit cigarette, patting himself down for a lighter.
“What’s up?” I asked.
Lineman opened his mouth.
“It’s like netcat, but the other way around,” Johnny rushed in to say. “It’s a port listener. If someone tries connecting to you, it just accepts it, then anything you type gets echoed out across the wire.”
“That way,” Shawn added, pausing to exhale a gray cloud, “you can see how people might be trying to mess with you without having to expose a real service to them.” He shrugged. “It’s ghetto, but when you find a real person instead of a bot, it can be fun.”
Lineman’s girlfriend squealed. “He’s typing something!” she said.
“I see,” said Lineman.
The stranger typed
…then hit return. Lineman typed:
“Oh, this is gonna be beautiful,” Shawn said. “Look at him pause after the first two letters of his password showed up!”
“Why?” asked the girl.
“Because,” Lineman calmly said, “when you type your password for real, you—“
“—don’t actually see it,” she said. “I know.”
“Then why were you asking?” Johnny muttered. Shawn nodded idly and turned up the music. Jim and I took off after that, leaving Lineman staring into his terminal window, occasionally typing things back at whatever mouse he’d caught in his little trap.
A few weeks later, Yahoo and Amazon get knocked off the net by the first major DDoS attacks. A few evenings later there’s a knock on my door and the Packet Storm guys walked into my place.
“How’d it go?” I asked.
“It was awesome,” chuckled Todd.
Lineman nodded. “It was good.” They’d been interviewed for the local TV news about the attacks.
“Good publicity for Kroll,” Johnny added.
“Hey, hey,” said Shawn “I saw a Seven-Eleven coming over here. You mind if we walk over and get some stuff?”
I didn’t mind. Two blocks away, I watched three young dudes load up on canned drinks of several shapes and sizes, a few packs of menthol cigarettes, a bag of chips, and a couple of bottles of juice, nearly half of which was gone or open before we’d walked through the darkness back to my place, a non-stop stream of chattering hacker consciousness filling the night as we went.
“And the greatest thing,” Shawn said, lighting another cigarette, “was the call we got after the show.”
“Unbelievable,” Johnny said.
“We’d met and talked to this guy earlier in the day about renting his place,” Shawn went on. “It’s a huge-ass mansion, perched on a cliff looking over the 280 freeway about halfway up to the city. Five bedrooms. We weren’t sure we were gonna get it, but he saw Lineman on TV being interviewed and called immediately to tell us we could have it. Incredible.”
It was. If it were possible for mad-genius hackers to have an ideal secret lair, that was the place. They’d spend less than a year there, though, before everything fell apart, but we’ll get there.
Shawn and Johnny opened another pair of these small, thin little cans of what looked like some kind of soda, slamming them back pretty quickly. I couldn’t read the label from there, but I’d never seen it before. “Can we?” Todd asked, holding a plastic bag full of the rest of the drinks and pointing toward my kitchen.
“Sure,” I said, having no idea what he was talking about. “Lineman,” I said, turning to him. “I got a question for you.”
“All right,” he said, focused clearly on me.
“So, I’m working on this scanner.”
“It doesn’t sound like a good idea.”
“It’s what we’re working on.”
He shook his head. “You should work on something else.”
“This is what I have to work on. My problem is that I’ve been out of the game for a while. I’ve been reading a lot — I’m catching up on Packet Storm, there’s a lot of cool stuff there, of course — but I’m having a hard time with the big picture.”
“Uh, huh. And what picture is that?”
“I’m supposed to collect up all the vulnerabilities we need to scan for, and write them up, and understand how they get exploited and how to fix them. But for starters, I don’t even know how much there is. If you had to focus on the most important vulnerabilities, the most common and the most serious, how many would there be? How many things am I actually talking about?”
He thought about it.
“Less than three hundred,” Lineman said. “Right now? Two-hundred and sixty-three.” Todd and Johnny glanced at each other. “Maybe more like two-hundred and seventy. Seventy-seven. Something like that. It depends on what you think is serious. And every day there’s more.”
“But something like three hundred.”
That, I thought, was do-able. In three months, I’d covered more than four-hundred cards for a single game. In three months, I’d written — re-written — a 256-page book and colored a third of its art.
In three months, I could do the vulnerability research we needed to fuel the scanner. I could do this — it wasn’t a lost cause. I wasn’t a lost cause.
The next morning, I’d open my fridge to find that Johnny and Shawn had left a couple of their little canned drinks behind. I picked one up and read the label: Red Bull, whatever that was.
I sipped it on the short drive into work. At first I thought it was disgusting, medicinal — but there was a sick sweetness in place of the terrible after-taste I was expecting. I got fairly wrapped up in trying to figure it out by the time I got into work. By the time I was sprinting up the stairs to my second-floor office, I figured I might just like it.
It’s no mystery how most soda and juice drinks are concoctions of artificial flavors, carefully tuned and balanced to taste like something that nature might produce — like orange, or grape, or banana, or pomegranate, even when very often they don’t really taste very much like any of those things, more the idea of them. But these advertised tastes give us a context in which we can slip these artificial flavors, making them more accessible than they might be otherwise.
Red Bull said, “Screw it, I’m not even going to try to fake it.” It tasted like nothing nature might produce. It tasted like a blue laser — or maybe it tasted like what you might get if you could touch your tongue to the Internet. It was a new thing. It felt like a sign of things to come.
So at the start of the second month of our new century, I was thinking about the future when I picked up a bit of an echo from the past. I walked straight back into the Packet Storm lab room, where the four of them had come to hole up. Lineman was there, staring serenely into a screen, typing madly. Todd was rocking back and forth in his chair, tapping an unlit cigarette against his knee. The music was cranked to full disco-ball. No one else was around.
“Hey,” I said. “How’s it going?”
“Not good,” said Shawn. “Not good.”
“Feds,” he said, looking over my shoulder with a gut-punched wince. “FBI’s gonna be here in like an hour. They called Phil, and he talked to us. We agreed to talk to them if they came by here.” He chuckled. “It’s not gonna go very well.”
“What makes you think that?”
Shawn frowned. “I used to get harassed by the cops back in Chicago. Now me, I’m a white kid, right? So I got it better than most. But I know the deal. Best case, it’s not good.” He checked Lineman’s progress over the other guy’s shoulder. “E-trade got hit today at 5 AM for like ninety minutes, when everyone’s usually trading stock and whatnot. So now it’s no longer joke time. Someone’s going down.”
I nodded. “I see,” I said, raising the empty can. “I was just gonna say thanks for introducing me to Red Bull.”
He tucked the cigarette behind his ear and saluted me. “You’re welcome,” he said.
That afternoon the FBI, when asked how many agents they’ve directed to stop the attacks, said, “As many as it takes.” It was no longer joke time, as we found out almost immediately.