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CHAPTER I

The Cracker

I'm not writing this damn thing because I really think you ought to care – though you should. Everyone should, everywhere. Hell, I don't even want to care, myself.

Now, I don't know when it all started, so I'm going to begin from when I first began to notice stuff happening, out of the blue. I didn't have any warning. There were no portents, no eerie feelings that made my hair stand on end. There was just me, working, like I always do, on a computer.

Let's get something straight: I'm not some half-witted, hip web jockey who meanders around the Internet squandering time looking for "cool" web sites. I work on the net. I design the computers that house the sort of useless information absolutely everybody just has to see these days. I design the networks the world's lusers use to instantly message their lame-o friends about lame-o garbage.

So there I was three days ago – was it only three days ago? Was it a week? How many days? It's so hard to tell sometimes. Well, whatever it was, I was still at work, and damn tired.

As a matter of fact, I had just dozed off and had had yet another one of those flying dreams, where I feel as if I am myself and yet somehow not myself. I remember the color of everything seemed wrong in that dream, like I had been wearing some trippy purple shades, or something, but I hadn't been. And then, as I was flying, I changed again and was someone else, but, somehow, still, I was myself. Dreams. I'm sure mine are no more or less strange than anyone else's. I remember I awoke with a start and instinctively glanced at the clock. I was relieved to see that it was just a quarter past eight. I'd only drifted off for a few minutes. I was alone. All of the lusers had already gone home.

Well, Yury was still there, pushing three squeaky-wheeled trash cans past my door on his way out. It was the sound of the trash cans that had woken me up. I rubbed my eyes and smiled at him. His jacket was on, and he looked about ready to call it a night.

“Hey Yury,” I said, for some damn reason.

“Hello Mister Fidelistro,” he said as a smile flickered across his thin lips.

“How's Kirill? How's he doing?”

“The same,” he said, while looking hard at some empty spot on the floor and absent-mindedly placing his right hand on his heart.

“If there's anything I can do...”

“Only pray, Mister Fidelistro.”

“I'll do that,” I said. Maybe someday I would. “Night, Yury.”

He nodded and wheeled the trash away towards the freight elevator.

Poor Kirill, such a sweet kid. He has this incredibly wise, quiet look about him, like he knows absolutely everything in the world. I've gone to visit him in the hospital a few times since he started living there.

There's no better proof that life isn't fair than what happened to Kirill. All the rat bastards in the world just keep screwing us all while an innocent kid like him gets a short life of tubes, needles and pain.

So, anyway, I was working, as I said, and I had just remotely accessed my servers at home to check the logs when I noticed a username I didn't recognize: erudire1. Intrigued, I started snooping through the log files to see when the account had been created, and by whom.

It only took me a few seconds to figure it out. I leaned back in my chair, nodded and smirked to myself. The answer was all too obvious: I had been cracked.

After a minute of mad pounding on my crappy Microsoft keyboard, I found out how it had been done. I had been running several services. The one in question was the file transfer protocol daemon (ftpd).

I had the server daemon running wide open, so any anonymous person could log in and see what files were there and download them. I code for a number of open source projects, and my site is directly linked to those same projects, as well as being routinely indexed by every search engine on the net. It's not as if I were keeping it secret.

Of course, I knew leaving the sever open for any anonymous person to access was something of a security risk. However, I didn't have any top secret data on that particular machine. Besides, no one had ever tried to break in before.

I looked up and skimmed through the specs on the exploit. The weird thing was, this was an old hack; I thought this security hole had been plugged upstream. It was kind of a pain in the ass to tell for certain, what with certain vendors backporting patches but leaving the version numbers unchanged. Damn broken package systems ... Still, if it hadn't been plugged, I was certain that hacking the ftpd wouldn't be hard to do, but there really was no reason to, nothing to gain. It would sort of be like trying to break in through the back door of an abandoned church when the front door was hanging open.

So, I was more intrigued about why anyone would bother to break into my server than upset about the fact that it had been done. Overall, it took me just under ten minutes to reverse all the damage I could find and lock out the person who had "broken in". Plus, of course, I uninstalled the vendor's version, downloaded the latest source code for the daemon straight from the project's development page, then compiled and installed that one. And then, just to be sure, I changed the config, moved the port to a non-standard value, cycled the daemon, and plugged the NAT hole so the standard port was shut off to the world. I figured I'd setup something better, later. As things stood, it was just too damn bad for scanners and bots.

Maybe I should have stopped there. Maybe I should have left well enough alone. Maybe then I wouldn't be in this mess, and she would still be alive.

But I didn't stop. I took a deep breath, drained and crushed a Dew can and dropped it, clanging, into my recycle bin. The sound echoed through the empty hallway and died somewhere. I decided that I wanted to see just how much I could find out about this jerk-ass, and why they had done what they did. Did they just want to use my box to send Viagra mailings, or what? I had all the files they had altered, I had gathered everything they had touched into a place on my server for safe-keeping and decided I could look at them later. Now, I needed to follow the cracker, before the trails of the packets faded in the wires, well, so to speak, anyway.

Just then, I thought I saw a shadow move in the hallway beyond my door, thought I heard breathing. A sudden chill crept down my spine, and I waited a moment, staring into the hallway lights, listening. But there was nothing, no one, just long hours and too little sleep.

I quickly wound up what I’d been working on and wrote myself a couple of post-its about where to pick up the next day. I was developing this method of intuitively navigating the crazy, inverted Unix directory tree with a mere thought, or nearly so ... it's hard to explain. Probably no one but me even cares about it anyway.

Digging into the take-out container on my desk, I popped a stale cheese fry in my mouth, thought better of it, then tossed it and the rest of my dinner in the trash and locked up my office.

Lost in my own thoughts, I walked one hallway too far on my way out. When I turned towards the stairs to correct my mistake I noticed a bunch of dead leaves on the floor by the east windows. They were right in front of Nancy's desk. I looked at all the plants she had placed about her space like a little garden; all wilted, like Nancy. Now, I don't know jack about plants, but I could tell that these needed water, so I stopped a minute and got some from the cooler and watered each pot. Then I picked out the dead leaves and tossed them. Nancy, out again; it would kill her for sure if her garden were gone when she returned. How many people walked past her desk each day? I decided I would.

When I finished, I bugged out and drove home jammin' classic Maiden, and pondering, in time with the riffs of Hallowed Be Thy Name, just how much info I could scrounge on the jagball who cracked my box. I was through my door and sitting in front of the server racks in my basement in Elgin in under eight minutes with my fingers pounding away with solid, satisfying clicks on my Model M.

They had logged into my server just forty minutes before I found them, so all the detailed records were still intact. That, I thought, was strange. I mean, if I were to break into a computer and get myself elevated privileges like they did, the first thing I would do is delete all the log records of when I had broken in and how I had done it. They hadn't. Either they didn't know how, or they didn't care what trail there was. In my experience, I had more often found the former to be the case. What I figured had happened was that some teenager, some script-kiddie, had broken in.

It's because of insipid script-kiddies, mainly, that I refuse to use much hacker slang. We invented it, moronic kiddies picked it up to sound “cool.” Now, real hackers don't use it anymore.

Anyway, the first thing I did in my search was look through the logs to see what IP address the cracker had been using. In case you didn't know, computers call each other by numbers, not names, and an Internet Protocol Address helps computers find each other. Of course there's more to it than that. RTFM if you care.

The reason I even mention it is because of how decidedly rare it is that any IP address actually points to anyone in particular. Out of the more than four billion currently possible public IP addresses, most of them just show that they are owned by AOL, or some morons like them, and don't ever show you who was "borrowing" the IP address at any given time. The number of "registered" IP addresses is phenomenally smaller than the number of "unregistered" ones.

I looked up the cracker's IP and found it registered in one of the Internet directories as morpheme.biz. I checked out the website – quite lame, really – this world is just full of kooks. Next, I grepped the domain records for the registrant.

Admin Contact:

Sextam Nawamet
Morpheme Inc.
1383 Union St.
St. Charles, IL 60174.

Now, I mean, this is the Internet we're talking about here, not some bulletin board in the local grocery store. The cracker could have been anyone, anywhere. They could have been in Mozambique. Conversely, of course, the cracker could just as easily have been the dude next door. As it turns out, the latter was closer to the truth, and that fact alone was more than a little weird. I mean, what were the odds? A fifteen minute drive and I'd be at the doorstep of the cracker.

I glanced around the basement and inhaled deeply, tried to focus on my breath like they told me in that yoga class I had myself roped into last year, but couldn't get over the smell of mildew, the disarray hidden in dark piles around me, the slight dampness I could never remove. Without really thinking about it I found myself fiddling with the pendant I'd bought a few years back. I had been at a flea market and found someone selling a man's necklace adorned with half a Mizpah coin. I bought it instantly. A Mizpah coin with no other half. Priceless.

Anyway, you might be wondering why at this point I didn't call the police.

Well, I don't know about you, but where I live, there isn't a cop within two-hundred miles who would even understand what the hell to do about what had happened. Nobody stole my computer, and as far as I could tell, they didn't destroy any information, either. If this had been just a regular kind of break-in, it would be something along these lines: In the dark of the night, some dude in a cool black ninja outfit, with red trim, and a blue mask -- just for color, you know -- goes over to the back window, which is open, and, instead of just crawling through it, he breaks it and then crawls through. Once he gets inside, he rummages through your stuff, puts most of it back where he found it, then crawls out the window without stealing a damn thing.

Besides, for all I knew, this morpheme.biz box could be a zombie, cracked just as a launching place for another assault. My box might have been turned into one, too, if I hadn't caught the son-of-a-bitch. Might be that I wasn't the final target; that I was being used as a springboard to crack somewhere else -- if, of course, this was more than a script-kiddie. I had some answers, but not all, and I didn't have enough to ensure anyone would get caught, let alone punished for what they’d done.

To top it all off, you understand, all I had for evidence was my word for it and a log file. A stinking log file is just a text document -- like I couldn't have fabricated that in two and a half minutes if I'd wanted to. Basically, I had nothing that would stand up in court.

So, naturally, I decided to go and have a little look for myself.

But why I decided to go right there and then, all alone, and without so much as dropping a hint in my favorite IRC openproject channels, I still don't really understand.

You know how when you watch some really lame movie, horror movies especially, or fantasy flicks, and the characters do something totally stupid, you kind of wish you could just reach into the screen and throttle them? Like when the scantily-clad buxom babe finally shoots the mass murderer, then drops the gun and turns her back on him instead of nailing the other five rounds into his skull, just to be sure; or when the Greek hero slays the monster and leaves that magical sword the freaking gods gave him in the carcass and walks away like he could just get another one at Sword-Mart on his way home? Well, what can I say, this time that idiot was me.

Then again, how could I possibly have anticipated the surreal events that were about to occur?

I looked up driving directions on Mapquest, then drove to 1383 Union Street and parked close enough to see the place. It would appear that Mr. (or Ms. For all I know) Sextam Nawamet of Morpheme Incorporated was living in your classic suburban, cookie-cutter, every-fifth-one-looks-just-like-the-next, pathetic, off-white house. The only obvious thing that made it stand out from the rest, besides the fact that the front lawn was covered in far more than its fair share of dead leaves, was the dozen or so cars parked all over the driveway and in front of the house.

I wasn't sure what to make of it. The house was quiet. From where I was sitting, I couldn't see any lights on in the place, which seemed a little weird. Where were all the people who had parked their cars here?

It was about eleven o'clock, and I sat there wondering what the hell to do next. I had the radio tuned to the news and was half listening to it as I waited, while I sort of imagined myself as a cop on a stake-out. The whole street was as quiet as that house. Even the leaves on the trees seemed not to stir; I sat and waited, just to get a feel for the place. Not a single car drove past, not a person strolled by in more than twenty minutes, and my radio droned quietly on. I waited about another ten minutes before I decided to get out and poke around a little. I had brought my iPhone with me, of course, and being on a reconnaissance mission and all, I figured I'd make use of its camera. I don't know if I expected to see a bunch of stolen computers or what, but, I thought, maybe there might be something worth snapping a few shots. You know, future evidence or something.

I got out of the car and slowly walked the sidewalk for a few minutes, occasional dry leaves crunching softly under foot, cool air filling my lungs. Since the house was on a corner lot and the sidewalk was in a Vee, I got a good look at the front and the north side of the house where there were four windows and a couple of basement ones. Then I cut up the lawn, heading southeast from the corner walk, and moved closer to the north side of the house since the sidewalk was a good distance away. I headed up close to the house and aimed towards the back, where, I assumed, all the people from the cars had to be.

From where I was walking, the back of the house looked just as dark as the front, but, just then, I thought I heard something. It sounded like a stifled moan. I couldn't really tell where the sound had come from, but I thought it was from the direction of the detached garage, further west on the lot -- so that's where I crept as quietly as I could.

I heard the moan again, a little louder this time, and then, shortly afterwards, a short scream. It was then that I noticed a faint light coming from one of the basement windows on the north side of the house. The window was all-but obscured, since its window-well had dead leaves piled up nearly to the top.

Mesmerized, I watched the light snake through that mound of maple leaves with a soft, quiet glow like a dying campfire barely licking the embers. Faint slivers of light danced slowly on the nearby grass as the wind played with the topmost leaves.

It was the movement of the light on the grass, more than anything else, I think, that drew my attention to that window.

I froze.

What I heard was another scream, high and piercing, but short, then muffled. So short was it that I began to question whether I had heard it at all or whether it was just a nearby bird or the tire of a car going too fast into a turn. For the longest time there was no more sound, only the light on the grass kept dancing.

This is when I should have walked away from it all, but instead, I sort of hunched over and crept very quietly over to the window and lay down with my head over the window-well, trying to peek inside through the leaves. I just lay there for a while, listening and trying, unsuccessfully, to see inside. By now I was pretty sure that the sounds I’d heard had been coming from the basement and had only echoed off the garage. I felt the wind tossing my hair and blowing coolly in my ear, and began to think of just how I would escape if anyone saw me -- if this place were even occupied, to begin with – and if I had really heard what I thought I had.

The back door to the garage was just ten yards away, so if I was wrong about the echo, and anyone came out there, I'd be screwed. Fortunately, what with all the dead leaves on the lawn, there didn't seem to be any way to get behind me without me hearing something. So, I thought, I would keep an eye on that garage door while poking around in the leaves in the window-well.

What I found was that I couldn't really clear away the leaves enough to see in; the angle just wasn't right. In order to see in, I'd have to pull out a whole bunch of leaves, which would pretty much guarantee anyone inside would notice my presence. So I thought of something else. I snaked my iPhone past the leaves and up to the glass and took a couple of shots.

I'll never forget the moment I pulled up the phone and stared at the screen. I'll never forget the horror I felt as I gasped aloud. I'll never forget that just as I did so, I felt a presence on the other side of that glass. A sudden chill raised the hair on the back of my neck. Then that presence moved, and mere seconds later, I heard what must have been the latch on the back door starting to lift.