Going to California

Life by the Valley — 9.6

“Hello?” said Dr. Ann, my chiropractor back in Austin. After the small talk, I explained how my jaw had been aching, and how I’d been getting headaches, and how bad I felt, and how happy I’d be with a recommendation — anything, anyone — for help in the Bay Area.

“Uh,” she said, her voice modulating as though she was waving someone down in the background on her end. “That’s very interesting. Where are you again—Bay Area, right? Well, that’s fortunate. You won’t believe how.” It turned out that not twenty minutes from my office was a chiropractic college, just on the other side of the bay, and one of the senior students there was interested in buying out their practice in Austin. My docs in Texas wanted to move back north to raise a family, and so had been looking to sell.

“It would be interesting,” my former doctor said, “if we could get you in touch with her, and you could tell us what you think — if you think she’d be a good fit for our practice.”

I agreed. She gave me the student’s number and some days later I was on my way to the chiropractic college. The doctor-in-training was young, if only a few years younger than I was. Also, she was blonde and fit and smiling with professional clarity. She was probably the most attractive woman I’d stood beside moving to California.

“How long has it been since your last adjustment?” she asked.

“Since I moved out from Austin. Maybe six months — no, nine months.”

“And how often were you seeing the Starks, your doctors in Austin?”

“For a while, maybe for a year, I was going once a week. After that, I only went when necessary — like when a guy accidentally stepped on my skull, and I had these terrible headaches until Dr. Stark — Bart; he has hands like two very gentle stones — popped the plates of my skull back in place.”


“Yeah.” I rubbed the side of my head. “I remember when I had my first appointment, they told me that it was less about having bones out of place, though that’s a common misunderstanding of the value of chiropractic. The problem is that my muscles had been trained to stress my skeleton in ways that weren’t good, and that puled my jaw out of place.”

She nodded.

“They said it might be a long time before I finally got to the root cause of why that was happening. That it probably wasn’t something as simple as ‘don’t be stressed out.’ Like, maybe my jaw was crooked on one side because my shoulders were crooked on the other side, and that was because my hips were crooked back the other way.”

“Huh,” she said, pressing her fingertips into the pained side of my head. “Was it Dr. Ann or Dr. Bart who said that?”

“They’re both very canny, but I think it was Ann.”

“And did she say exactly that, what you just said?”

“I think so. I have a pretty good memory for what people say — I hang onto the gist of things, at least. But I believe that’s what she said.”

The younger doc-in-training ran what felt like a thumb down my spine. “And did you ever get to the bottom of it?”

I think I slumped a bit. She withdrew her hand. “No,” I said.

She popped my jaw back in place and instantly I felt better, like I’d been underwater for months and simply decided to come back up. There even seemed to be more of my brain that there had been before. Colors seemed brighter.

We stopped in the lobby on the way out. “So,” she said, crossing her arms and fixing me with a sharp look. “What do you think?”

I knew what she meant. “I think you’d be a good fit for their patients. They’ll like you. You’re a lot like my old docs.” I took a breathe in. “It’s no wonder you and they started talking, really. You’ve got a lot of the qualities I miss in them.”

She narrowed her eyes and tapped a ball-point pen tucked into the front breast pocket of her lab coat. There was a red logo on its white clip, “VIRGIN”-something. A quick check once I got back to a computer connected it to a group of women who were determined to remain virgins until marriage. That was how Dr. Ann had lived until marrying Dr. Bart — maybe these two ladies met through the organization.

“Unfortunately,” she said, snapping my gaze back to her eyes, “this will probably be the last time we see each other, unless you’re visiting Austin. I graduate next month and I move shortly after that. You’re one of the last patients I’ll see here.”

“Ah,” I said, suddenly wrestling with words in my head. “My problem is that I don’t really know anyone else out here in California, outside of work. And work is…weird. Is there anyone you could recommend me to?”

She looked at me, unreadable.

“Anyone at all,” I added. “I’m really pretty desperate, I’m sorry to say. I mean, I feel great now — thank you! — but I don’t think I can go this long again without some help.” I swallowed. “I’d love to be able to get to the bottom of this thing.”

She kept looking at me. “If you’re serious,” she said slowly, “I may have someone I could refer you to.”

“I’d seriously love that.”

“Hmm,” she said. “Okay. We close down the school for the summer, but when classes start up again in the fall, the new wave of seniors will be doing what I’m doing now, working on people like you when they’re not in class in order to get enough hours in before they graduate.” She looked out behind me. “They’re actually moving the school to a new location starting next month, so it’ll be in a different place — nice, they say.” She looked back at me. “I have a friend who’ll be graduating next year. Give me your number and I’ll pass it along.”

She handed me the virgin pen and a card. “I really appreciate it,” I said, scribbling.

Taking pen and card back, she nodded, a white edifice of doctorly distance. “Good luck,” she said, and I never saw her again.

On the drive back to the office, I was elated. I could think, I had my whole mind available to me, I wasn’t in pain. I pulled into the parking lot at work, realizing that the rainy season was finally passing — the sun was teasing us with long if distant glances.

When I got back upstairs to my cube, Mary called me into her office. She seemed excited.

“As you know,” she said once the door was closed, “we’re closing in on the funding we’ll need to take this company to the next level. And after thinking long and hard about the team we need to get us where we want to be, we came to a decision: we’d like you to be our Vice-President of Marketing.”

She smiled broadly, eyebrows raised for my answer.

I thought about how my dad had always said he wanted to be a vice-president — it had been his goal to be a VP by the time he was 45. Instead, after chasing the brass ring, he spent many years unemployed in the wake of the stock-market crash ten years earlier.

“Hmm,” I said.

Mary’s smile cracked. She’d been holding it in place for several quiet seconds.

I said, “I don’t see how I’m the right person for the job.” My friend Matt would’ve taken the position in a heartbeat — it was his dream. It was my dad’s dream. But it wasn’t my dream.

Mary leaned back against her desk, the muscles of her face sliding into a set of neutral states.

I thought about the Yahoo stock price, not far from free-fall. Another crash was coming, it seemed, and I couldn’t imagine anything worse than being promoted to First Officer just as the ship was going down — even if, extending the metaphor, our ship hadn’t quite yet even set sail. It wouldn’t get me another high-ranking position somewhere else after the crash, and it might actually work against me. Better to spend my time in the engine room figuring out how things actually work — hopefully I’d be able to help fix the ship enough to keep us going, learning enough to keep myself going regardless of what happens to the market.

I only saw one viable option.

“I’m flattered that you think I could do it,” I said, “but I think you need to keep looking.”

“If that’s how you feel,” she said. “Of course.” She made a light gesture toward the door.

Back at my desk, I felt wave after wave of thrill roll up my spine. I had dodged a bullet, I felt — and I had. I would quickly come to regret the decisions that brought most of our marketing staff into the company, though I’d never once envy the guy who got the VP role.

Would I have made the same decision if I hadn’t had my jaw popped back into place? Maybe. I hope so. But I can imagine a world where I hadn’t. It wasn’t that far away, that world, even if it was a much darker place.

That was the last time I’d speak to Mary in the office, though. Weeks later her office would be empty, her name plate taken down. There was no room for her in the hot new startup world. Our paths never crossed again.

Yahoo stock had fallen 40% in the past three months, a bell-weather of the era to come, yet we were about to get $34 million to spend building a company. I had spent the past month of my life interviewing people to hire into the new organization — I hadn’t done any research or development in at least that long.

The rainy season was ending. The sun was coming out.

Goddammit, I told myself, if this place is going down in flames, I’m going to have some fun first.

And so I did. After nine months of struggling with my own doubts and inadequacies, it turned out that having fun was easy, really.

Going to California

Life by the Valley — 9.5

“Our Brad’s been a bad boy,” said Phil.

“Oh, really,” I said.

“Mucky, mucky,” Phil said. “Very poor decision-making.”

“Do tell.”

“It seems he was running a porn server in and amongst the Packet Storm machines.”

“That’s horrible.”

“And the server itself was taken from a client without their permission, and internal resources were used to secure it for public access.”

“Awesome. I mean, I can’t believe it. So what happened?”

Phil leaned forward. “Mary just had to call him — don’t know what time it was in Hong Kong, don’t particularly care. She flat-out told him about the server. He didn’t really deny it, so good on him, but then she told him he was being let go and he went completely mad.”


“Completely. Started raving, all kinds of shit — ‘You’re at least paying for a plane ticket back, how am I going to get home?’ She said, ‘That’s your problem, buddy.'”

“That is kinda cold.”

“Hey, he wanted to party for an indefinite period of time in Hong Kong when he should’ve been working, after sticking a stolen server on company bandwidth to serve up porn, I think you made your bed and put one of those little chocolates on the pillow and everything.”

“So how’s he going to get back to, uh—” I’d only ever run into him a couple of times; he had a funny accent that wasn’t English, but I couldn’t place it. “—ah, fucking South Africa or wherever?”

Phil cocked his head at me. “Really: South Africa? Well, you’re only off by a hemisphere.”

“Jeez. Anyway, what happened?”

“Well, he asked for the server back.”

“No way!”

“He did. She said no. He said, ‘Can I at least have all the data off of it? I don’t have a backup!’ So she says no, and he says, ‘But people paid me good money to get to that crap!'”

“Oh my God,” I said. All I could think of was how the Packet Storm guy has stared at the floor as he rattled off all the crazy crap he found on that server. He ended with, “Granny porn, man,” shaking his head sadly. “Granny porn.”

“‘That’s your problem,’ she says, and got off the phone.” Phil mock-dusted his hands. “That’s that.”

“Wow. So you’re in charge now?”

His glow seemed to flicker. “The Packet Storm kids will report to me, yeah. But we’ve got a lot more hill to climb before we get Radar out.”

“Mmm,” I said, and as I walked back to my cube, the degree to which I’d let myself get wrapped up in pity and politics seemed super clear to me. I’d made it to Silicon Valley, and I was blowing my chance.

The truth was I was in pain, actual serious pain, and I needed help. There was only one person I could call, even if she was three states away.

I picked up the phone.

Going to California

Life by the Valley — 9.4

Radar, our vulnerability-scanning project, still slogged along. But as the news began to spread internally about the impending buy-out and take-over and break-up, the slow-downs we’d already experienced were only amplified. We started spending more time talking about what might happen, or whether or not something was going to happen, than we did doing work. And in the face of uncertainty, when one of the possibilities was the whole thing closing down and everyone losing their jobs, a lot of people left.

Pretty soon, I realized it’d been a few weeks since I’d seen any of the Lear jet pilots in the kitchen. They’d all gone. One of our smartest guys, the lead on our work for Yahoo, actually moved on to work there with Arturo. To be fair, anyone who can glance at a slew of encrypted messages and realize that the crypto is super-weakly implemented probably deserves more money than we could pay. My team quickly lost its UI developer and our main back-end hacker. We had more and more empty offices.

It seemed like every day, just a little bit, the composition of our adventuring party changed — first by attrition and then, a month later on the other side of the deal going through, we began changing again as we brought on board the people who would help us grow out into the tech start-up it seemed we were destined to be. That is, provided Taher could scare up the money.

“Oh,” said Phil, who’d moved his office upstairs and started wearing nicer shirts, “he’ll get the money. For years, people have been begging to give Taher tens of millions of dollars. Look: the man did SSL at Netscape. The question is, what do you want to do with tens of millions of dollars, beyond spending it?”

“Pay us to do cool things?”

“Naive. But I like your style. Unfortunately, in order to get tens of millions of dollars, you need to be able to express your value very crisply, preferably in a story ending with the delivery of large, fresh stacks of real paper money.” He winced slightly. It wasn’t much, but it wasn’t an expression I associated with him.

“What?” I asked.

“We have several internal projects, but we’re probably going to have to pick one to make a company out of. It may not be ours.”

“What? No one wants to care about how to run a scanner. Most people don’t even want to know their security profile.”

“You ain’t selling me on our chances, mate.”

“But if we let people know we can do it for them, and what good it’ll bring them, they’ll pay for it.”

Phil nodded.

“Does this have anything to do with Brad?” The Packet Storm manager was back out in Hong Kong again, partying with the detectives, last I’d heard. As we pressed forward into future plans, it would’ve been great to have had good help, and the Packet Storm team could clearly help, but Brad wouldn’t let us disturb them with anything. We saw them every day, hanging out in their dark little lab, speckled in disco-ball light, doing whatever.

“You’re friends with them,” he said. “See if you can get them to step up.”

“I did, actually. I got them all in a room to talk about projects we could work on together, and whether they had any good ideas about cool ways to move Packet Storm forward.”

“Promising. And?”

“They had a great idea: get a bunch of young people, over-excited college-age kids, and get them to recategorize all the files on the site. I told them I thought that was a good idea.”

“They didn’t realize that was the idea we already had, which is why they were hired in the first place?”

“They seemed to genuinely fail to understand that.”

“Pity,” he said. “Do they actually do any work?”

“Two of them do. The other two, I’m not sure.”

“Can’t you get them to do anything?”

I sighed. “You heard of Nessus?”

Now Phil sighed. “Yeah?” he said. Nessus was a new open-source scanner that had just launched. It was free, and not many people had heard about it yet, but if they could keep up delivering vulnerability data then it could seriously threaten the chances of Radar ever launching.

“One of the Packet Storm guys asked me why we were still working on Radar. I asked him what was so great about Nessus, so now he wants to set it up and see how it works. He doesn’t think there’s any real value in running scans anyway since the good vulnerabilities all take way too long to be made public, so people already would’ve been exploited —”

“I get it. So you got him to look at the competition. Let me know how it goes.”

I usually got to work before most people. I was working more slowly than ever, and showing up early at least let me appear more diligent. A scan would have shown me to be vulnerable.

It wasn’t too surprising to hear the oonce-oonce pounding out of the Packet Storm lab, as it’s easy to stay up all night on that much Red Bull, but it was curious-making when I saw one of our young Chicago hacker dudes slumped down in his office chair, the very picture of dread and regret.

“What’s up?” I asked.

He kept staring off into space.

“Hey,” I said. “What’s up?”

He looked up at me. “Ran that scanner, man.”

“Uh huh?”

“We’ve got eight IPs in a half-rack at one of our little colos.” A colo was a co-location facility: one of many large warehouses with fat data pipes and backup power and a lot of air-conditioning. Think of these places as where the Internet actually lives. An IP is an address that uses the Internet Protocol to receive sprays of data from other addresses, likely sending their own sprays of data in response.

“Now, because I helped set them up,” he said, “I know that we’re only using four of those IPs. But when I scanned, I got responses from five hosts.”

“Does one of the machines have more than one interface?”

“No. Nessus reported the domain name lookup results for each host.” He pointed at his screen. “It’s not one of ours.”

On the screen was list of five hosts. Quick warning: These weren’t the actual hosts on the screen, but this is what the information looked like. One of those things really did not look like the other. packetstormsecurity.net mail.packetstormsecurity.net incoming.packetstormsecurity.net xxx4uuu.com files.packetstormsecurity.net

“Holy Jesus,” I said.

“I don’t know what that box is doing,” he said, turning back to a terminal window, “but it’s nasty.”

“You really don’t have to show me.”

He kept typing. His phone rang. “Hello? Yeah. No, Derek’s here. Uh huh. Okay, so what do you got?” Covering the phone’s mouthpiece, he told me, “Lineman just got to the colo. It’s super loud in there so we have a hard time hearing each other. He just got to our rack, there’s an extra machine there.”

“Okay,” I said.

“What?” he called into the phone. “Nothing? No open sessions? What kind of bandwidth is it using, any idea?” His mouth fell open. He looked at me and said, “Motherfucker.”

“What?” I said. He pointed back toward his terminal window, where he’d run his own quick lookup of the host, which can also return such useful information as the name of the person who owned that domain name.

It was Brad.

“Probably set it up last month when he was back out for a couple of weeks,” he told me. “Dude has access to the colo, he could’ve done it.” He turned back to the phone. “What kind of machine was it? 3com? No way it that one of ours. Way too rich for our blood. Pull the plug, man. Totally, it’s not one of ours, unplug it.” He twiddled on his keyboard. “Yep, it’s down. Yeah. Okay, see ya.” He kicked back in his chair, steepling his hands over where his belly might have been had he been eating more than individually packaged cheese sticks. “So you’re right,” he said. “That Nessus thing — it’s pretty good.”

“You’re back to using cell phones?”

“For some things.”

“For this?”

“Sure. It’s just Brad. He’s an asshole, fuck him.” He pointed at me. “You guys, you’re cool. We like you.”

“You should tell Phil everything when he gets in.”


I thought about it. “What kind of machine was it? A 3com box?”


“And what did the Nessus report say?”

He scrolled down in a window. “Clean. Tight. Locked-down.”

“For all his talk of being a hacker, could Brad have done it?”

“No way. It’d have taken one of us to do it.” He narrowed his eyes and said as if correcting himself, “Well, it’d take either me or Lineman.”

“Or Tom,” I said.

“I guess Tom could do it, yeah.”

“A little while back when Tom got back from Hong Kong, Brad had a server sent to him from our client, 3com, with instructions to nail it down tight.”

“You’ve got to be kidding.”

I stepped away from the door frame on which I’d been leaning for too long.

“Tell Phil,” I said.

Later that day, I swung by the Packet Storm lab but it was locked and quiet.

“Hey,” I said, sticking my head into Phil’s office.

Phil radiated what I saw for a moment as a sort of yellow, sparkling energy. I think it was the purest expression of joy I’d seen up to that point in my life.

“Come in,” he said. “Close the door.”

I sat down.