Before I start I'd like to explain something. This story was written roughly a year ago as a concept for Exosyphen Studios for a potential expansion to Hacker Evolution. Though that deal didn't go through the studio head and I have kept in touch and remain on good terms (the guy does an insane amount of traveling in addition to his business.) I enjoy his games and still have a Digital Hazard CD around here somewhere I think so wanted to finish the story past the proof of concept we were going to work off of.
OK I should back up a few steps. The 'Hacker' games Exosyphen creates are more or less an ode to movie-style hacking. You know. Fast fingertappy and instant results. Money transfers, info grabbed, boxes broken. You know, everything that real-world hacking isn't (which is more social engineering and dumpster diving really.) In a FPS centric market these games are a breath of fresh air and I encourage anyone and everyone interested in something a little off the beaten path to take a looksee at the demoware see if it's up your ally.
Great. Advert out of the way (that wasn't asked for. I just like the gamestyle. Just don't have a box that will run 'em at the moment.) What follows is completely unrealistic. It is more a love-letter to ye oldies like War Games, Hackers, and maybe a minor hint of some other stuff thrown in. I'm going to post a different part once a week. There's eight parts plus the coda. Bit longer than my usual rambly posts and story segments, but I don't feel like breaking the sections up more than I already am.
I had lost contact with several of my friends a couple of months back. At first I had thought little of it. Sure all of us were friends, we all were in the same guild after all, but none of us had ever met so their absence only recently concerned me. The trouble is now that I’m concerned, what sort of action could I take? Contact police and proper authorities? They either gave me stock responses or hung up once it became clear I hadn’t actually met the people I was worried over. Were I a normal person this would have been the end of it.
Were I in possession of a normal machine I would have to prepare for weeks, probably dive through dumpsters for a critical memo or manual detailing security policy while reeking of used coffee grounds, rotted food, and the like. Thankfully I have not-so normal means and resources at hand. I hate calling it hacking. Too many crappy movies, games, and such have filtered through my head to make me feel comfortable calling myself that without feeling somewhat self-conscious and silly.
Then again what else would I call my chosen hobby? Electronic infiltration? Bah, that makes it sound like I’m the rarely seen sloven genius in some cop TV show. Electronic Intrusion comes closer to not feeling so over-used, but let’s not church up what’s going on. I do what I do for fun, the challenge of the puzzle, occasional mean spirited pranks, and sometimes because I’m bored. Now is different. Now I’m doing this because my attempts at going through the system the correct and legal way has failed.
Deep Six practically purred as it gave me status on the servers I’d told it to look for. I wasn’t sure that Chaotic Realms main page would give me anything directly. Having billing information in the same general area that literally thousands if not millions of people would be poking about is something that would make most IT departments scream. However pulling the curtain back to look at site traffic might give me a lead on where that server might be. Were it up to the underpaid and overworked employees tasked with making sure people such as myself couldn’t do what I was attempting, this billing server would be completely cut off from the Internet and then only accessible only by a select few in the company. However there has to be a way for information to get from those little fill in the blank forms to the actual accounting system otherwise Timmy or Sue would not be able to click here to keep their social lives in the toilet, heh, I talk like I’m somehow better. Risky to use my own information to run the trace off of, but I had to be able to follow an intentionally obscured trail and being able to minimize variables such as what the packets, when assembled, were supposed to represent, and when they were originally sent would help.
Were this an ordinary computer this task would be boring, lengthy, and risk either just my account status or more likely legal action against me. The last two were still true, but Deep Six preformed admirably and gave me information based on the user names I’d made it hunt for after finding a way in. Even though my system was fast and my task already done they would have logged my traffic, at least I had to operate under that assumption. Which meant I would have to track down those logs and expunge them Though, more likely than not, they had already sent a duplicate of that traffic to another server in case, like I was now doing, all account records and access logs had been destroyed.
Was I worried? Believe it or not no, not really. Fears of automated processing and flagging of questionable access to the contrary I was fairly sure that they would set flesh and blood security types to sifting through logs and wayward packets just before and after their primary accounting server went down. It would take time for them to connect the dots, time that I spent not only looking for the address information I had come for, but also to look for where the log information had been sent. I didn’t like what I saw but really the sort of security around the thing wasn’t unexpected. Actually, considering I was a paying customer I felt quite pleased with the lengths they had gone to. Sure, I’d managed to worm my way in, but the machine I was using wasn’t just any old machine. Point of fact, not even the guys that could rightfully brag about their home made systems that could run anything and everything thrown at ‘em could come close to touching Deep Six. Maybe a hand full of others had the kind of power I did, but if so they hadn’t cross paths with me just yet.
What to do? What to do? Even though this discussion is fairly self-incriminating I’m not going to take any of my friends, associates, or anyone else down with me. I’m possibly foolish and arrogant, but that would be Common of me to do to someone else. Still, while I was doing all this I’d checked my mail, no need to make Deep Six do fancy footwork here folks just an ordinary, albeit obscure, email account that belonged to me. Inside I found what I would best term as both a test and challenge. I’ve signed up for many things over the years. Some harmless learning, others spam that’s haunted me and my email server for years, and some of a potentially criminal sort.
While Deep Six is chewing on a few odds and ends I’m going to have to divert my narration to explain something that most people wouldn’t realize. Cracking into somebody else’s network is only illegal if you’re going in uninvited. Many different people offer courses, tools, and advice on how to find the back doors, exploits, and flaws in everything from a personal web-site hosted by a fly by night free service that peppers their users with trojan-laden ads, to supposedly unbreakable secured networks. I have been a friend and pupil to one of these people, who shall only be referred to here as Gibbon. Gibbon owns a server full of harmless, not so harmless, and down right illegal to distribute bits of software that, technically, is free for anyone to download. Of course in order to get to the nice juicy pieces of code, detailed write-ups on how to use known exploits, and other such stuff one has to get past Gibbon’s internal security. This can be anywhere from a near-cakewalk to an absolute nightmare depending on Gibbon’s mood, how well he knows us, and just how badly one of us needs help.
My in-box had several messages from friends, business contacts, and one from my mentor in the Dark Arts. That message, omitting several bits of news I would catch up on later, was that my situation was now known by friends in low places; and for the sake of helping a friend out today’s challenge, if I wanted to play, would be relatively simple. There was also a warning to sweep my system of any ‘potentially malicious code or software of an un-trustworthy nature’, which made me smile. Yes Mr. Gibbon I’ll purge my system of your toys after I’m done playing. It’d be my fat in the fire if I’m caught with them on my hard drive after all.
Sure brute force often works, but I also knew that this system was aggressive and would probably ‘tag’ me before I could work my way in. Thankfully there were clues in the email. Two of Gibbon’s most frequent ways of sending a password along was to either capitalize seemingly random words, or to use the first letter in the first word of every second, third, or fifth column. Not exactly hard to break crypto I know, but it was either that or try going through my cipher books and try his more complicated routines. He, and for the record I don’t know nor do I wish to know Gibbon’s gender, said I was going to be thrown a bone. Hush, I know what you’re about to say and both of us agreed that exchanging our private keys through the mail would be too risky for a public/private key system to be viable.
With a little guessing, a lot of luck, and ‘Six’s magic touch I was in. Standard practice here was to grab everything, burn the connect log, and bug out. This let me look at everything at my own pace without fear of some unaccounted for routine tripping and getting me in hot water. Sure Gibbon was a friend, but he believes quite firmly in the school of hard knocks. You screw up, you pay the penalty. No exceptions.
My muscles were sore, I was tired, and that generally wasn’t a good thing when one needed to do something that has zero forgiveness for mistakes. Still I wasn’t sure how long I would have before my snooping was found and pinned on me so onward and upward! Referencing my newly acquired material I saw that the backup server had, in addition to a port 80 connection, packet traffic on two other ports. I disregarded port 666 because of a warning about some of the newer security packages leaving that one open as a lure. Instead I commanded the Octopus program to latch onto port 23 and work it’s magic. Hey I didn’t name the thing. Don’t judge me! Besides it worked and I had something I could use.
I checked ‘Six and frowned. Someone was getting close to finding me. KILLTRACE. It wasn’t so much a command as a panic button that automatically wired a set amount of money to... People that could help take some of the heat off me. Even if what I do as a hobby is illegal, I try not thinking about who’s money I’m using to pay for these services. I didn’t like doing this because I was always on the edge of being broke, and usually to scare up the money needed to grease the gears and make people look somewhere else I needed to essentially rob banks. Other people might find it tempting, on these runs, to pull money out of random accounts and leave themselves financially secure. However even if one sets aside moral wrongness I’ve seen what happens to people who suddenly are found living beyond their legal means, and it’s generally not pretty.
Reluctant or not I needed to get a little more wiggle room so, courtesy of another bit of information I’d gathered from Gibbon’s info-dump, I found a nice seemingly random spot to pull from. Deep Six made short work of local security and I’d pulled just enough to cover my expenses, destroyed the connection log, and got out of there.
While this was happening I’d been alerted to a new piece of mail. You might think it strange I would sit and read seemingly random bits of mail while on a job, but sometimes they contained helpful bits of information, and worst case I could just ignore the contents till later.
> Kate: Hey Skippy, look I know you’re not up for Saturday’s Raid, but I thought you and me could go in after Warlord D’chin. I need his ring for a quest turn in.
I couldn’t bother to reply, not right then. I had this box by the proverbial throat and I was going in for the kill. After a quick check I found my connection to their accounting server still valid, and after adding that bank server I felt I had enough wiggle room to finish this job. Before I toasted everything I decided to make copies. Blame the snoop in me I suppose. As it turns out that was a good thing since the server had seen some interesting traffic lately that pointed to a few encrypted files I’d have to get to Gibbon to see if there was anything he could make of any of it.
Run complete. I backed out of everything and deleted all the naughty things from my system. That took longer than your average delete/empty recycling bin because I’d have to zero out the data to keep any fragments from being retrieved in case anyone tried recovering everything off my drive. Sure it shortens a drive’s life expectancy and it was probably paranoia telling me to do it, but it’s either this or run the thing through a degaussing machine and install everything on a fresh drive. I suppose, if I were as clever as everyone makes me out to be, I’d have all the naughty things loaded in a ram drive that would clear out and leave zero traces after power down, but not only would I lose everything if there was a power failure, I’d also have less memory to dedicate to other concerns. However to each their own.
With housekeeping done I could turn my attention to Kate’s request. Naturally I’d love to give her a hand with D’chin. The bloody Elf gave me all sorts of grief, and the sword I got at the end of that quest line is still one of my primary weapons even after ten levels and swapping out pretty much everything else. My doings in Chaotic Realms have no real bearing on why you wanted to talk to me except perhaps to paint me as a hypocrite for looking down my nose at other players.
The person seated across from me shook her head and pushed a glass of something, water or coffee, in my direction. “Guy. Look. You’re not in trouble here, not from us anyway.” She reached over to squeeze one of my hands, and frowned when I pulled away from her attempt at contact. “I know you’re upset, but what you’re telling us is helping.”
“How Miko?” I felt bitter and hurt at her being here. Even if these people were, in fact, the friends I’d been guided to since all this started I felt more than a bit resentful at her not coming clean with me from the start. “How can me explaining what they already know help?”
She straightened and looked at me with storm grey eyes. “They have to know how you work, how your mind operates, and I mean more than just MRI’s or PET scans.” She tapped her temple with a finger, “They need to know how you think as well as how you brain is mapped.” My doubtful expression must have been plainly visible because she continued. “Look, I don’t know what exactly they’re working on either, but for it to work they need you and Deep Six.”
“Whatever,” I was tired and strung out. This wasn’t the first time someone had been to see me and if they wanted my cooperation, grudging or otherwise. They were going to have to do a fair bit more than show a friendly face and talk of needing me. “I have nothing further to say. Take me back to my room.”
Not the most diplomatic approach, but I figured they already had me. If they wanted me to willingly cooperate they would start feeding me a little more tangible information. If they wouldn’t, then why not just skip to the pliers, water-boarding, and or abject humiliation.