by Michael Bard and Quentin 'Cubist' Long
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Let's fast forward through the next few weeks. After all the
years of continuing disappointments, of people living down to
expectations, of heartaches great and small... well. Although
I still wasn't quite able to believe it, I could at least pretend
to play along until the inevitable disaster queered the deal.
Preparations. If I were an inanimorph like BlueNight, it really wouldn't matter; I could just go up, perhaps even under my own power. As it was, I'd have to spend two weeks training on the Island. I'd have preferred at least three, but somehow I didn't think they'd go for that kind of unilateral change in scheduling.
I had other things to fill my time with anyway. Ordered a new suit, the pressure kind -- custom-built (and worth every kilobuck), fit like a second skin, and I'll still have to lose the fur if I want to wear the thing without being driven psychotic by chafing. Got some rocketry info off the net, gathered the parts, built one, and (most difficult part of the process) got all the permits necessary to haul the thing around with me via airliner. Went on a road trip to Florida, collected a half-liter of water from the Atlantic Ocean. Hit Washington DC on the second leg of that trip, dropped into the Smithsonian Institution, and walked away with 10 grams of powdered rock.
I don't know... maybe writing a hundred-million-dollar check for Moon dust should feel different than paying for dinner. But it didn't, no matter how big a chunk of my liquid assets I'd just signed away. Picked up the suit along the way, plus a two-month supply of depilatory lotion that would probably last me a week and a half, given the way my metabolism works.
Oh, and I also got Derksen to mix up a fresh batch of that metabolic damper he'd used on me that time I collapsed in Wanderer's arms. If I went berserk upstairs, I'd probably end up taking myself out; while that wasn't necessarily such a bad thing in and of itself, the trouble was all the collateral damage I'd inflict along the way...
Finally the fateful date came around to meet the dryad at the Pig for pickup for my trip. I double-checked that everything was packed and then just as I was preparing to leave to give myself lots of time to arrive, my phone buzzed.
I wasn't expecting a call, not one from Harmen and Harmen; and not one at 5:15 PM. Especially not today. The way that contract was written, surcharges multiplied like tribbles for anything outside normal business hours. And it wasn't like I came cheap even during business hours, so I could be fairly confident that my client, at least, felt it was damned important.
The operator on the spot had gotten one of those typically cryptic Windows-derived error messages that I wished would just go away (but didn't expect them to, considering that there are still a few live COBOL programs out there... ). Fortunately, I had admin privileges for the H&H machine. I rode the net on in, and sure enough, the problem was a corrupted DLL; one restored-from-backup driver later, they were back in business. Which left the fun part of the job: Figuring out how that DLL had gotten corrupted in the first place. I upshifted to a tempo of 20 (that being the factor by which I'm quicker than normal), as fast as my remote connection could keep up with, and went to work.
First things first: Confirm that the error wasn't a self-inflicted wound. System logs didn't reveal any glitches in the machine's own internal activity, and H&H's resident diagnostic routines came up green across the board. Even better, my own personal suite of utilities confirmed that the machine in question had maintained nominal status for the past 511 hours straight. And that "even better" wasn't sarcastic; all those tests coming up clean allowed me to rule out bunches and bunches of possible problems.
Next item on the agenda: Since the corrupted driver hadn't been scribbled on by the machine itself, the source of the glitch had to be external, and that meant I got to play with firewalls, sockets, and pings, oh my! I brought up a different set of tools, reanalyzed the system logs from a different perspective, and threw in the logs of network and internet activity as well. Bullseye: At 2:19 PM today, some script kiddie hit H&H's poor machine with the latest download from the "Buffer Overflow Exploit" Of The Month Club. I've known about this particular exploit for seven weeks, had a solution on hand for five, and it took me three clock-minutes to install it now.
At a tempo of twenty, I live through an hour while three minutes tick away on a clock. I had plenty of time to look over my handiwork, reexamine the evidence, and see if I'd missed anything on the first pass. Turns out I had: My script kiddie actually managed to avoid triggering three of the eight warning signs associated with the particular exploit he'd, well, exploited. Veeee-ry interesting, as Arte Johnson used to say.
Ever heard of "retrograde analysis"? The term refers to a highly specialized class of chess problems, in which you have an unlikely arrangement of pieces on the board, and you have to figure out how they got there. It's intrinsically difficult, and tracing down a problem in a computer can be as bad as retrograde analysis in four dimensions. I won't go into detail -- even if I weren't under NDA (non-disclosure agreement), anyone except another technogeek would be bored stiff -- but by the time I'd finished ruling out the impossible, I was a hell of a lot more impressed with my 'script kiddie'.
I went over the logs yet again, this time seeking after evidence of a far more subtle variety than I'd looked for earlier. And no, I shouldn't have gone for the subtle clues first. It's one of the basic axioms of troubleshooting: Start with the easy stuff, and only go as complicated as you must in order to shoot the damn trouble. Anyway, the third round of analysis proved that this guy was good. Real good. Like, '99.99th percentile' good.
Not many hackers out there with that degree of skill; likewise, certain characteristics of the attack indicated that my boy was using a machine significantly higher-grade than a Packard-Dell from K-Mart, hooked up through a connection decidedly faster than your generic T-1 line. All of which, fortunately, let me rule out the vast majority of potential host sites. Candidates were clustered in the Houston tech corridor, Silicon Valley, and...
/ / / / / / / / \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \
I had to rush to catch the earlier flight than the one I needed
to meet Mr. Jubatus, but I wanted to make sure to arrive at the
Pig before him. A quick removal of critical drivers from one of
his clients was just insurance to keep him busy until I was through
with Wanderer, and to confirm his skills. Nothing life-threatening
of course, but something that would prevent data processing until
detected and replaced. It was fortunate I'd taken these precautions
as the flight ran into a headwind and arrived about fifteen minutes
late and so I arrived at the Pig later than planned, but still
before Mr. Jubatus.
After getting the usual from Donnie -- one of the side benefits of being vegetable was ease of recognition though having to show the Hassan trophy might have been part of it -- I sat down and waited, and Wanderer was quick to approach me.
"Ah, fair demoiselle! Long have I looked forward to welcoming thee again to this fair establishment."
I had heard that he did stop the accent sometimes, but evidently not today. "Yes Mr. Wanderer, I've come to pick up Mr. Jubatus for his trip."
"Be that the trip beyond this surly earth into the firmament beyond?"
"If you are talking about a hop into near earth orbit then yes, although there is a fraction of Earth's atmosphere still present at the heights we'll be at."
"Pray forgive me the inexactitude of my language, but thou hast confirmed my hopes. May this poor thespian ask a favor for not only himself, but for all the patrons of this fair establishment?"
I almost rubbed my hands together -- could it be that Wanderer was already planning to do what I had intended to con him into? "You can always ask, but I can't answer without more information, given the innate hostility of the near earth environment."
"Worry not, milady! What I would ask is a small and innocuous favor. This journey that you and he shall embark upon, it is something of a historic event, and it would be most inadvisable to allow the occasion to go unrecorded." And then a small self-contained camera appeared in Wanderer's hands, not unlike a rabbit conjured by a magician. "In particular, I believe these lupine ears of mine did o'erhear you speak of pressure suits, and needful preparations for such. When our speedy acquaintance is 'suiting up', perhaps you might preserve for posterity a visual image thereof?"
So he had figured it out. Now for a bit of innocence. "Are you sure that Mr. Jubatus won't object to photos of his shaved body? One would think that pictures of oneself looking like a naked mole-rat would not rank high on one's priority list."
I watched him blink for a second digesting that before he continued, in a slightly lower voice: "I fear you speak the truth, milady, but then I did say that this would be of benefit to all our brothers and sisters of inebriation -- yourself included. Given the atmosphere of this congenial establishment and that polished award you have with you, would it not be prudent to partake of precautions to ensure that thou'rt not blessed with the award for a second year?"
His face opened into a predatory grin that he probably expected to discomfit me. Of course it didn't work -- I wasn't an animal that he would eat. Instead I demurely smiled back and answered, "Why Mr. Wanderer, I must admit that that is a lovely idea that is not only not life threatening, but could also be rather amusing. I only wish that I'd thought of it. I am a bit of an innocent at these kind of things." Then I took the camera he offered and slipped it into my bag -- it had even been modified to survive a vacuum, my, my -- and waved as Wanderer returned to his corner and his Lupine Boy entourage.
And then it was just a question of waiting. Time passed and then Mr. Jubatus was late, as I'd expected. I'd have worried if he was on time, as that would have meant that he didn't live up to advance billing. Time passed and it wasn't until 6:30pm that he came stalking in, straight towards me. I wasn't worried as I had booked our flight back to San Francisco for 11:18pm. So I just clasped my hands and politely watched as he sped up and suddenly appeared in front of me, looking ready to breathe fire.
"Please sit down Mr. Jubatus. You are 30 min --"
"You know damn well why I'm late!"
"Please relax, sir. Letting your emotions take control of you is very dangerous, particularly in a hostile environment." This time he allowed me to finish my sentence, and put the time to use damping his anger down to simmering coals.
"And co-workers you can't trust are dangerous, too. What makes you think I want to go upstairs with an amoral --"
"I trust that you are referring to the recent intrusion into Harmen and Harmen?"
"It was you."
Ah good, a statement, not a question. "Yes Mr. Jubatus. I have put a high percentage of my prestige on the line to get things set up to get you up into orbit. You are, in a very real sense, an investment I've made. And, like any other investment, I took steps to make sure that it was a good one."
"You want to test my abilities, you can bloody well make an appointment. You're not the only person whose time is valuable."
"Mr. Jubatus, a prearranged scenario would not have been a true test of how you work under pressure and how you react when the unexpected occurs -- both of which I need to know to gauge your abilities in the hostile environment of near earth space."
"Do you have any idea how many laws this 'test' of yours broke?"
"Thirty-two in all, twenty-seven of them being American. However, due to the interesting vagaries of international law, the company I work for is considered a foreign power, with all rights and privileges thereof. Thus Easter Island is a sovereign state and I am a fully empowered ambassador of said state, with diplomatic immunity whilst on US soil. You could attempt to get the World Court to imprison me, but my company is not a signatory to the relevant treaties, and would be under no obligation to cooperate with any such proceeding. Any economic pressure the US could put on us pales beside what would happen if we simply stopped providing support to their spaceborne assets. The only possible negative result from my point of view is if the US invaded and conquered Easter Island, which probability I estimate at less than 0.03%. If you do attempt to pursue legal action against me, I would simply be denied entry into US territory for a likely 18 months before public reaction had died down such that my presence could be comfortably once again allowed. When one considers how important its orbital infrastructure is to the US, it is actually quite startling to realize how very limited is their ability to maintain it. And, by the way, did you track me via the entry pathway through the 670911 non-removed debug code, or through the .03V internal hardware fault in the physical gateway device that allows intermittent low level hardware access to the BIOS when a buffer overflow event occurs?" I clasped my hands together on the table and looked at him, smiling demurely.
"Legally, your ass may be covered six ways from Sunday, but ethically, you're fucking naked. What gives you the right to manipulate me and waste my time, let alone drag uninvolved third parties into it? You want I should just look the other way, nod and say yes?"
"Mr. Jubatus, from this moment on, your time is my time. When you go into orbit, it will be under my command and my responsibility. That means that to you my word is God's word starting now. Knowing that this test was going to occur, I have booked our flight for 11:18pm tonight. And, to address your ethical concerns, H&H will receive an anonymous donation covering your fees, just as the Trojan I inserted that would have restored the DLL at 7:18pm this evening will self-destruct causing no harm. This means that we have another 22 minutes to relax and enjoy the atmosphere before we need to leave." As I'd predicted, he wasn't going to tell me how he'd tracked me, but I'd bet it was the 670911 debug code.
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I upshifted. I was tempted to spike her drink, just to see that
cool exterior crack -- but the stakes were too high for petty
retaliation, so I used the "extra" time to cool down. Okay, she
was an insufferable egocentric; Christ knew I came off that way
myself at times, and like me, she had a solid-enough track record
to justify a touch of arrogance. As for the hours I'd wasted jumping
through her hoops, they were upshifted hours. A matter of minutes
by the clock. What most stung was that she felt the need to test
me in the first place. I had a rep for high quality and fast service,
and I'd earned that reputation, damn it! What, she thought it
was just smoke and mirrors, or a years-long con game or something?
Maybe all my returning clients just couldn't stay away from my
jovial personality? Maybe --
This wasn't working; I was getting more annoyed, not less. Think of a different topic... That .03V internal hardware fault was news to me, but I'd be damned if I was going to let her know of my ignorance. Mental note: Send H&H a recommendation for a different brand of gateway hardware. I also got some ice water from Donnie to help cool myself down -- I could have used a Mini-CD 50 but I wouldn't give the dark dryad the satisfaction. Instead I just smiled and admired her trophy.
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