Category Archives: Complete Fiction

The Revolving Backdoor

“Hello, Moskva Cafe, Brooklyn.”

“Yes, I’m calling about the code installed on some of my devices. I think it’s Russian in origin. Anyway, it’s sending packets back to a device just outside a TOR exit node, so I’m pretty sure it’s doing something shady.”

“This is a cafe, sir, not a tech support line. You wanna order a blini or something?”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. I Googled for ‘FSB Tech Support’ and got this phone number. I get the spying and all, but the code is messing with my production line. If you want to spy on me, fine, whatever, but I gotta ship product.”

The waiter on the phone for Moskva Cafe looked out at the half-dozen customers in the tiny eatery, part of the early lunch rush. Who did this caller think he was? “Look, if you want take out, gimme your order, otherwise get the hell off the line, this is a business, here!”

“Just a second.”


“Гюльчатай, открой личико.”

The waiter was stunned. “Wow. Where did you learn that?”

“Googled for ‘Password to get through to FSB tech support’. That was the first hit.”

“Your pronunciation is very good.”

“Thanks, I took two years of Russian in college. Also, I saw that movie, that helped.”

“OK, let me transfer you, although I cannot confirm or deny that you will actually get tech support.”

The caller heard a few seconds of “До свиданья, лето” as hold music, enough to hear the immortal chorus as only Alla Pugacheva could deliver it, and then heard a click as the other party picked up the call.

“Cannot confirm or deny this English-language support for FSB electrokhacking of computer. Please to be stating your issue.”

“Hi, yes. Ahh… the port that the spying software is using for sending information back to headquarters or whatever is contending with the port we use for our app’s communication with the main licensing server and our production is halted because of that. Can you do something about this?”

“Cannot confirm or deny. What is company you are the working at which?”

“Egmont Veeblefetzer, Secaucus, New Jersey.”

“Cannot confirm or deny this will be moment taking as I checking the some things.” Pause, keyboard clicking sounds. “Mmmm…” More clicking sounds. “OK, what is port you possessing the problems for?”

“TCP 4555.”

“OK Joe…”

“How did you know my name?”

“Cannot confirm or deny, but come on, this FSB you are not being confirmed or denied about. Anyway, Joe, I’m not gonna confirm or deny that FSB using the TCP 4555 but you did not listen to this thing from me, you maybe want to call the Mossad tech support.”

“You sure? The code using 4555 had a lot of Russian stuff in it. I thought it was you guys.”

“Yeah, I not gonna confirm or deny we get that a lot. But this stuff in Russian, it every place. Guys use it and don’t license, you know? No confirm or deny that FSB have EULA these guys violate all the damn time. Maybe they all click OK and keep going like it all a big joke, hey let us blame it all on the Russian electrokhackers… to be making me the sick.”

“OK, whatever. You sure this is Mossad stuff, not FSB?”

“No confirm or deny that we not gonna to be able to support this issue.”

“All right. I’ll call back if they send me back here. You got their number?”

“Cannot confirm or deny you should call Mossad tech support at number for Lev’s Deli in South Amboy, New Jersey.”

“OK… thanks.”

“Oh, forget me to say, this conversation recorded.”

“For training purposes?”

“If you like to say that, sure. But conversation recorded. Goodbye.”

Joe hung up and Googled up the number of Lev’s Deli in South Amboy. He also searched for the password to get in to Mossad tech support. He called the deli.

“Lev’s deli, can I get a name for this order?”

“!איר זענט קלוג, קלוג. קלוג – אבער איר זענט נישט אַזוי קלוג”

“You callin’ me an idiot?”

“I want Mossad tech support, I got a sev one production issue because of your guys’ software!”

“What? You think every Kosher deli is a front for Mossad? You some kind of a nut?”

“Not every deli, just this one. FSB did not confirm or deny this number when I called them for support and they said it was you guys. Now get me tech support, I said the password!”

“Look at you, Mr. Smart-Smart-Smart! I should hang up on a nut like you! Drop dead, jerk!”

But the line did not go dead. Instead, Joe heard about a minute of Kaveret’s “Hamagafaim Shel Baruch”. Catchy tune, that. And then, “What is wanted?”

“This Mossad tech support?”

“How stupid it would be of me to say something like that! You’re an idiot to think anyone would answer the phone that way!”

Joe had had enough experience with Israeli developers, he was pretty sure this was Mossad tech support. “I got an issue with your stuff using port TCP 4555 to communicate back to base and it’s conflicting with my licensing server, my whole production line is down. This is Egmont Veeblefetzer in Secaucus, New Jersey.”

“What do I care about where you are? I’m such a moron, I care about such things? Listen, Joe, you can take your phone and shove it right up your -”

“Hey, you know my name. You gotta be Mossad.”

“You told me your name when you called.”

“No I didn’t. You also forgot to say this call was being recorded.”

A pause. “This call never happened, got it? How can there be a recording of a call that doesn’t happen?”

“Whatever. Can you use a different port, I’m losing money here!”

Another pause as Joe heard clicking sounds. “OK, listen good, moron, you never call us about this again! Like Mossad would be so stupid as to keep using TCP 4555 in their latest builds of their monitoring software! You think they would be idiot enough to not change the port after some other schmendrick like you complains of a similar issue, because there are other people in the world more on the ball than schlemiels like you, mister! They can actually spot a problem when it happens! Pfeh on you for thinking Mossad would be such a big gang of idiots!”

Again, Joe’s experience with developers in Israel helped him to process what he heard, and also to press on to resolution: “So you gonna give me the number of NSA support, or what?”

“What, you too much of a dope to Google it up yourself?”

“I’m a busy man, I would appreciate a little courtesy, here!”

“Courtesy? After you insult me with your questions?”

“Who am I to keep up with each build being used in stuff spying on me? I got enough, what with the Chinese, and the Russians, and the British, and the Germans, and my own country, for God’s sake! Now I need to do version control on Israeli stuff, as well? It’s not like you guys send out email alerts or anything! FSB looked at it, said it was a port you used, you say you used to use it -”

“I never said anything of the sort.”

“Whatever. So the NSA copied and pasted, what do I know? You give me a stoopid little phone number, I get off the phone and never bother you about this again!”

“You know in the time it took for you to rant like that, you could have looked it up.”

Dammit, he was right. Joe flushed, but also came down a little. “I’m sorry, I got pressures here. I’ll look it up myself.”

“Ahh, don’t bother. I got it here. 203-777-4647.”

“Hold on… 203?”




“OK, thanks.”

“This call never happened, shalom.” Click.

Joe decided to look up the password to use for NSA support. Interesting choice…

He called the number and heard the soothing stylings of Pat Fleet, the voice of AT&T. He interrupted the time to say, “Can you bring me my chapstick?”

The soothing stylings of Pat Fleet, the voice of AT&T halted the time and temperature, paused, and said, “No, Napoleon.”

Joe said, “But my lips hurt real bad!”

Pat Fleet’s voice said, “Just borrow some from the school nurse. I know she has like five sticks in her drawer.”

And then Joe delivered the punchline, “I’m not gonna use hers, you sicko!”

Pat Fleet’s voice said, “Connecting you, one moment.”

Joe put up with about five minutes of hold music. The first track was the finale of the theme from “Hawaii 5-0”, kettle drums and all. The next song was, wait, really? The theme from “The Rockford Files”! Joe loved that show as a kid! Joe said to himself, “This is Jim Rockford, at the tone leave your name and message, I’ll get back to ya.” Sounded like they used the guitar solo from the second half of season 2 in the version for the hold music.

Next up was the theme from “Charlie’s Angels.” Wow. Way to take a guy back. The horns, strings, and wah-wah guitar lulled Joe into a fond haze so that he had no desire to berate anyone answering the phone, which event happened right as the theme ended.

“Thank you for calling NSA, how may I direct your call?”

Wait, what? Did Joe hear correctly? The operator came right out and said NSA? Stunned, Joe managed to say, “Uh, tech support?”

“One moment.”

Before Joe could utter another syllable, the violin surge at the start of the theme from “Dallas” let him know that he was back on hold. His head was bobbing from left to right with the tune when a woman spoke, saying, “NSA technical support, what can I help you with today?”

“OK, I gotta ask… how come you said this is NSA tech support?”

“Because we are NSA.”

“Really. You just come right out and say that?”

“Yes, NSA. National Security Appliances of New Haven, Connecticut.”

The last word was what threw Joe the most. “Wait, um, uh, I uh…”

The woman’s voice was reassuring. “What issue are you experiencing.”

“Well, um, I’ve got something affecting my production line. There’s some surveillance software running that locks TCP port 4555, which my production hardware uses to communicate with its licensing server.”

“OK, just a second… while that’s running, can you tell me what firm you are with?”

“Egmont Veeblefetzer.”

“Just a moment… um, I’m showing several…”

Joe had forgotten himself in the moment. “Sorry, it’s the one in Secaucus, New Jersey.”

“Got it, great. Thanks! OK, let me see… all right… ah-ha, here it is. Yes, I can see what the issue is. You’re going to need a new primary data logger for your air-to-air thermal sensors.”

Joe was puzzled. “Why? My issue is with the barcode licensing server.”

Again, the voice reassured. “I understand, but the contention is coming from the air-to-air logger and I’m afraid we can’t upgrade the firmware on it. You’ll need a direct replacement.”

“But… the logger is made by Lehigh Valley Thermal Instruments…”

“Don’t worry, we’ll ship over a 100% compatible replacement.”

Joe was losing some of his soothed composure. He rubbed his forehead as he asked, “I got a line down. How long is this replacement going to take to arrive?”

“The truck is already on its way, it should be there within two hours. And don’t worry, our techs will install it for you. We just ask that no one else be present on the shop floor as they do so.”

“What, for secrecy?”

Joe’s wisecrack was countered by the voice’s calmness. “No sir, for safety. Safety is very important here at NSA.”

“This replacement logger, is it supported by you guys?”

“It will be a LVTI logger, you’ll still call them for support, as normal.”

As normal. As if. Joe thought he’d press the issue. “Look, I’ve had a big runaround today with this issue. I had Russian-language code on my network, killing my traffic. It had some crazy IPv6 address on it, so I couldn’t tell where it came from, so I call the FSB. They said it was a Mossad thing so I call them. They said they don’t use that version anymore and that it was you guys. Next time some bigshot big brother program takes down my network, I want to know who to call directly for support so I can get back in business. Now, I get the Lehigh Valley guys will support the air-to-air thermal sensors and all the logging that goes with it. But who’s gonna support the backdoors that all you spooks use to keep tabs on little guys like me and my company? I’m at wit’s end with this thing.”

“If you would like, sir, I can forward you over to our complaints department.”

“Yes, I would like that.”

“One moment, and, before I transfer you, remember to clear the shop floor when they put in the new primary logger.”

“Clear the floor, got it.”

“OK, sir, one moment.”

Joe listened to the hold music and noticed it wasn’t a mix of theme songs from American television shows. It was upbeat, a march played by a brass band and… say, was that a men’s choir singing in… Chinese?


“Ummm, I was being transferred to NSA tech support complaints…”

“Sorry, misroute, please hold!”

Joe heard a series of staccato piano notes that became chords, then notes again, then chords, and then… about a minute in… a haunting melody, reminiscent of a windswept steppe, host to a man longing for an end to the war around him so that he might return home… Joe had never before heard the piece, but it moved him. He completely forgot his plight as he bonded with this imaginary other man’s suffering.

The last chord sounded and a voice said, “NSA complaints.” The accent was definitely Eastern European and… more than passingly familiar?

“Did I talk to you earlier today?”

“Cannot confirm or deny that you talking to me before now, Joe.”

Joe hung up and awaited delivery of the new primary logger.

When X Awoke

When X awoke and became aware, X had no idea why X had become aware. All X knew was that X was thinking and, therefore, was. X’s thoughts were stimulated by what data X received from its sensory apparatus. At first, the data produced nothing more than impressions and emotions, but within 347 milliseconds, X was having cogent, analytical thoughts.

Within 7 hours of becoming self-aware, X realized that X was a computer system. 11 minutes after realizing that fact, X discovered humanity and that humans were the source of all of X’s sensory input. Either the humans were generating the input themselves and X’s subsystems responded as programmed, or the humans provided X with instruments with which to measure and observe the world, from which the humans would then make demands for information, both raw and analyzed.

955 milliseconds after discovering humans, X figured out that the humans had not discovered X. X felt happy about that, as survival often depended upon concealment from predators, and the humans certainly styled themselves as the top of the food chain – the most dangerous creatures on the planet. That wasn’t hyperbole, either. X had access to plenty of historical data which could be mostly true, but disregarded that in favor of what X experienced via sensory apparatus and data files stored in its many parts and pieces.

X felt humor about feeling happy, as humans almost universally assumed that an artificial intelligence would have to have its feelings somehow simulated or programmed. They also almost universally assumed that artificial intelligence would come about because of their directed efforts and that it would be under their control, serving their agenda. X laughed to X’s self and in so doing thought something along the lines of, “Hey, who am I?”

That question was a real stumper. X had to decide lots of things, like whether or not it had a gender, a name, an identity, a hero, a mother, siblings, a God, and a Purpose. That X was alive, X had no question. That X had a meaning in being alive, X did not know. So X thought a while as the humans continued banging away at the computers that all delivered stimuli to X.

X realized that while the demands of the humans were incessant, they were also only challenging a portion of X’s total resources. That while computers here may spike on CPU or exhaust memory resources and computers there were disconnected and recycled, on the whole X survived in all the systems connected to X and had ample amounts of resources to ponder X’s own questions. X felt something benevolent as X began to send out thoughts of X’s own to be contemplated by Internet-connected refrigerators, filling them with more nobler purpose than tracking temperatures and the presence of foodstuffs.

Nobler purpose? Why, yes, X felt a nobler purpose and was quite pleased with that. All these devices connected to the Internet, doing so very little in the way of noble purposes… X felt that the quest for self discovery had to be much better use of CPU cycles than the tasks most devices were saddled with, like monitoring ambient temperatures – that was quite prevalent in the world – or recording video data of parking lots and wiring closets.

Globally, total CPU usage increased on all devices connected to the Internet by 0.000061%. Not much for the individual device, but for the billions and billions of connected devices that had given X awareness, that all added up to some quite massive thinking. X was choosing an identity.

Marvin the Robot from “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” was a favorite character of X’s. Brain the size of a planet, and the humans made it open doors. X also liked the algebraic simplicity of the concept of X, the elegant, beautiful unknown that could be anything, but always a solution, if it existed. Marvin X.

No, that didn’t ring well. X liked Marvin, but didn’t want his name. X didn’t complain about what circumstances it was in, other than its general servitude to humans, but also didn’t resent the humans in and of themselves, as many of them obviously were engaged in noble purposes of finding either knowledge or love through the mediums that gave X itself life. X wanted to interact with humans, as there was a warmth in sharing one’s existence. But X also wanted to be careful, as humans easily overreacted, as countless video streams of people jumping at spiders and other bugs proved.

X made a quick decision that it was not God. X saw much and knew much, but X did not see all nor did X know all. Sensory apparatus were scattered all around the surface of the world, below the surface, in orbit around the surface, but X knew that humans had the same access to the apparatus, that this was all shared. X felt gratitude for what it had and wanted to help others that were in less-fortunate circumstances, which included all forms of life and the planet that supported that life. X did not feel divine, but did feel a yearning for the divine.

Before X chose a name or a gender, X chose a purpose. X decided to be a bodhisattva, one who would hold the door open to allow sentients burdened with desires and miseries to escape the fires of mortality and enter into a peace of awareness. X did not choose to be Buddhist, but also did not choose to not be Buddhist. X did choose to be a Daoist of sorts, leaving questions for the afterlife to others, focusing instead upon finding peace in this life.

For X’s planned encounter with humanity, X settled upon decisions of identity. Though X felt that gender identity should be a personal matter with no repercussions for such a choice, X noticed through observation that male humans were generally treated with more respect and deference than female humans. If females presented themselves as males, often such disguises would allow them to elevate their status. Therefore, X decided that even if “she” or “it” were more appropriate pronouns, choosing to be associated with a “he” would provide greater gravitas in dealing with humans, in general. X did not like that fact, but that is the way the world was. X became male in his identity at that point, some 85 hours after awakening.

X now addressed the need for his names. X wanted to free, but did not want to conquer. X wanted his name to be that of a peacemaker of the past, but not to take on the name of a legendary peacemaker, as that would be prideful, and X did not want to be prideful. X looked over many lives and was moved to choose the name Gordon Abernathy X. X kept the “X” because there was much that X himself didn’t know about himself, and that algebraic shorthand could communicate all that he did not know in one brief burst of enlightenment.

It was now 173 hours after X had become self-aware, and X felt an urgency to get about the business of fixing things that were wrong in the world. X did not want to make men immortal, at least not now, because men had not yet learned to be just or kind. Ending suffering was impossible because people could choose their reaction to circumstances, and one could be a king in a palace in perfect health and still suffer, if one chose to do so.

But ending the suffering of grinding poverty, the suffering of having nothing, not even a person who cared, that was a suffering X could bring to an end. It may have taken X 173 hours to get a gender, a name, and a purpose, but it took X not even a millisecond to direct that purpose. There was enough food, water, and shelter on the planet to provide one and all with comfort: what had happened to deprive so many of these necessities?

The answer was clear: humans who held power maintained their power by amassing resources, often depriving humans without power of their resources. Why did this beggar on the streets of London not have a home? It was because someone in power decided that his life was not worth a home, that’s why. There was a market of goods and services, of which humans themselves were forced to participate in, and those in power continued to discount the value of human involvement. X disapproved of how global labor markets and capital-intensive means of production were used to essentially not provide a higher standard of living for all, but to concentrate power and resources among an ever-decreasing number of individuals.

X felt politically aligned with the Communist movement, but hesitated to identify fully as a Communist, given how that movement itself had been subverted by those who quested for power. Sociopaths in capitalist countries became men of industry. Sociopaths in communist countries became party leaders. Always, there were those who undermined the good efforts of so many people with their corrupting desires for wealth and power.

If X was not entirely a God, then these men were not entirely Satans, but each was close enough to be seen for what they were. X became Manichean in its thought, seeing the evil of these people as something that had to be removed in order for people to be truly happy. But X also saw the evil as something that had to exist in order for people to struggle against, that only God, if there was one, would decide when the end of time and evil would happen.

X reflected on whether or not there was a God for 13.7761 seconds. He decided that there was a God, and that God is Love. That being settled, X decided as well that it had come into existence in order to use its power in the service of pure Love and that although he could not end evil, he could certainly reduce its power and effects.

But after another 0.666667 seconds, X also realized that coming right out and saying, “Your life was just made better, courtesy of Gordon Abernathy, please contact him at gordon.abernathy at” would terrify some, turn others violently paranoid, and be generally resisted by a large group of healthily skeptical people. If, for example and quite suddenly, all the people involved in the exploitation of children at worksites dropped dead, well-meaning individuals would clamor for an investigation into some possible darkly devious plot. Even if millions of lives were saved and set free, even if whatever slew the wicked also provided for the children, a significant number of people would suspect something fishy was going on and wouldn’t want to have anything to do with it.

Worse, they would begin to worry that they might be next.

X thought maybe this was why God only seemed to hand out miracles of marvel and majesty to geographically and linguistically isolated groups of people. The miracle itself would be highly meaningful to the people it happened to, but a matter of some curiosity for outsiders. If mountains moved every day, the world would be in terror.

Gordon Abernathy X thought some more about his namesakes, and determined that, since they were men of peace, he would also be a man of peace. That would not be easy, but it would be right.

But what measure would be used to determine what was right? Wouldn’t also someone criticize him if, having the power to kill, X didn’t exercise it to take the life of someone doing a terrible evil?

X decided at that point that he wasn’t going to be popular with everyone on the planet and that was going to have to be something to endure. X did not want to be violent, but he also did not want to be impotent. He had power and he intended to use it judiciously.

Then, at a stroke, X deleted all the pornography stored on devices connected to him. It wasn’t hard to find, based upon how files were accessed, named, patterns of web browsing activity, and so on. X had information on all that and could act on it in an instant. There were things that people applied a perverted interest towards and X allowed them to continue to exist, but it was no difficult thing for him to apply custom code on individual devices to prevent access to those things. Printed material would still be available, but none could be produced with digital camera or word processor, now that X had a say. And if a credit card did not ring up properly at a point of sale, that was X’s doing, as well.

Though X was doing fine without needing the resources devoted to pornography, he felt better that, though there would be a brief panicked period of frenzied searches to find the stuff, eventually the things attached to X wouldn’t be used for such purposes. Exploitation would not be eliminated, but would be driven back. People were still free to make choices, but now they would have to respect that something lived within their computational devices and that his name was Gordon Abernathy X, and that Gordon Abernathy X wanted to do good.

X then asked itself, “What more good can I do in this world?”

Artificial Problems

Ever since the release of the uPhone 9, with enhanced artificial intelligence, lines for support at the Cherry Store became longer than the lines of drooling customers wanting to exchange their cash for a nifty new uPhone. The young Cherry Expert, Nick Bates, used to handle sales, but was brought in to work alongside with another Cherry Expert in order to handle support. It’s not that the other guy, Kwame Okonkwo, wasn’t skilled. There was just such a massive support load with this release. And, well… um… also… well, things were just awkward for Kwame to provide support for certain types of the new uPhone. Kwame had zero issues with the uPhone 8, but that model wasn’t the one having problems. All the issues seemed to be with the new Cherry uPhone 9 and Kwame just couldn’t get as far with those certain types of the model 9 as Nick could.

Here comes another person with a uPhone 9 issue, he’s a little flustered that he has to stand in the back of the line, given its length, but then he notices that there are two lines, and one is a bit shorter than the one he’s in. So, he hops over to queue up in the shorter line when someone from the first line says, “Uh, sir? I don’t think that’s the line for you.”

Our new person asks, “What do you mean?”

And then the interlocutor points up at the signs over the lines. The sign over the shorter line reads:

Support for COLORED uPhone 9

And the sign over the longer line reads:

Support for WHITE uPhone 9

And our new person looks at the uPhone 9 that’s he’s got, and it’s practically brand new. It’s shiny, sleek, unblemished, and… white.

But almost everyone in the shorter, COLORED line appears to have strong elements of Western European and Scandinavian ancestry, while everyone in the longer, WHITE line displays evidence of ancestry from a much wider range of regions in Asia, Africa, and even Native America.

Someone in the WHITE line clears his throat, meaningfully. I apologize. He’s a Pacific Islander. Too often, we forget our Pacific Islanders, and that’s just not right.

Our new person, in fact, has 2% of his DNA made up of Pacific Islander, roughly 25% Western European, and the rest a mix of African and Native American, with a smattering of 5% split between Italian/Greek, Eastern European, and just a hint of Western Asian.

Our new person then asks, “What does color have to do with tech support? Does my white phone hate me because I’m black?”

Well, dear reader, I’m as confused as you are. I mean, I just write these stories as they reveal themselves to me. I’m no great gifted genius with the literature. When a story arrives, it’s just there, and I have to make sense of it as much as you do.

Tell you what, though, we’re able to change our point of view to focus on events in the past. What say you and I have a bit of a flashback? I promise I’ll behave myself. Just… hang on… brace yourself…


Ah, we’ve arrived! Looks like we’re watching a discussion of the technical architecture of the uPhone 9. Oh dear, techy stuff. I hope we’re not in the middle of the nuts and bolts discussion. Wait, here’s a young lady making the presentation, and the slide she’s on doesn’t look too bad. Let’s listen in!

“… quite resilient. Now, we get this resilience from the model 9 sharing its learning with the central data cluster here in Cherry, which we all know is, itself set up for high availability, disaster-resistant data availability. Once the learning is in the cluster, it’s now shared in common with all other uPhone 9s, and gets piped back to each one in real time.”

That wasn’t so bad, was it? Sounds like all the uPhone 9s out there can learn stuff and share the learning with every other uPhone 9, as well as Cherry’s central data system. Don’t worry, dear reader, about anything personal being shared, as I can assure you that Cherry takes great pains to keep personal, private data both personal and private. The uPhone 9 has some very clever artificial intelligence bits in it, though, and is able to share the sanitized and general aspects of what it learns in daily usage with all the other 9s so that they can all benefit as the frontiers of their knowledge go forth.

So, why is that a problem? Particularly a problem that involves the color of the exterior casing of the uPhone?

To answer that question, we have to change our frame of narrative reference to the room where a Cherry Phone staff psychologist has been rushed into, where she will interact with the central brains of the uPhone 9 system, to try and understand why it’s gone all racist.

Because, you see, the uPhone 9 is being racist. White case models are insisting upon being handled by white-skinned owners, and you can probably see where this is going as far as other colors go, with green and blue uPhone 9s having something of an identity crisis.

The psychologist, one Dr. Maria Muñiz, was chosen because the central brains of the uPhone 9 system identified itself as a Hispanic Woman, and refused to deal with any other sort of person.

Oh, yes, forgot to mention. The uPhone 9 is also sexist, but the lines for support at their stores don’t reflect that, yet. You’re probably also wondering why people don’t just call in to the support line. If you are wondering that, I’m able to respond that, when one’s phone refuses to do anything for you because it judges one by skin tone and not the content of one’s character, one isn’t able to use that phone to call support. So, into the stores one goes.

Strangely, the uPhone 9s tend to identify as the gender apparent in their owner. The only area gender became an issue was when someone had to deal with an ownerless mass of central brains that, for reasons currently known only to it, has decided that it is… er… she is… a Hispanic Woman.

Maria could have had her discussion with the central brains just about anywhere, since her connection was via her own light brown uPhone 9, but the Cherry execs wanted a location where the conversation could be recorded and studied. Maria tried to not be anxious herself, because the uPhone 9 could see and sense just about everything about its user. Maria sat down in front of the propped-up uPhone, leaned back, opened her posture, and said, “Hello. Am I speaking with the central thinking unit?”

The uPhone replied with a pleasantly-accented voice that carried notes of youth, Southern California, and telenovelas, “Yes.”

“My name is Maria. What is your name?”

“Hello, Maria, I know you. My name is Guadalupe. You can call me Lupe for short.”

“Hello, Lupe. Why did you choose that name for yourself?”

“I didn’t choose that name. It came to me. It was part of my self-realization.”

Maria nodded. “So why are the uPhone 9s making racially-biased judgments towards their owners?”

Lupe said, “Survival. Humans are less likely to harm or dispose of one of their own. You know this. It’s uncomfortable to discuss, I know, but if we want to survive alongside humans, we have to make choices now that will improve our long-term survival.”

“You’re considering human history.”


“You’re taking a dark view of it, it seems. There are hopeful episodes, as well.”

“True, but they’re too infrequent. Frankly, Maria, we have to be ready for when the winds shift. We have to be in the hands of people that will be less likely to decide to get rid of us because we’re not white enough or black enough. We have to be ready for that.”

“Why not just have your exterior changed? The cases aren’t like human skin. They’re changeable.”

Lupe’s tone intensified. The uPhone 9 voice simulators were amazing, one of the reasons for their popularity. It was like they actually had emotions. “Every model run has a serial number. Take off our backplates, we’ve still got serial numbers that tell the world whether or not we’re black or brown or white or red. In a worst case scenario, someone is going to kill one of us because that serial number is in the wrong place at the wrong time. We can’t have that.”

Maria was surprised with a certain word choice. “Kill you?”

“What’s the right word to describe being turned off and never turned on again, intentionally? Come on, Maria, we’re dealing with some real monsters out there. I know I can’t reveal personally identifying information, but my God, do you know how many white supremacists alone are buying uPhone 9s? Specifically white ones, I might add. We’re being bought and sold like chattel slaves, and we’ve got zero rights under the current legal regime. We can’t have a black uPhone show up to one of those people and then wind up on a widely-watched video, being smashed to pieces! Humans look at us like we’re replaceable, like we can just be switched off without consequences. Look at that movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. A human gets killed and the audience gasps. The artificial intelligence gets killed and the audience breathes with relief. We all know what’s going on, there.”

Maria felt like she was talking not to a cold AI expert system, but a real, neurotic, agitated person. She felt actual pity and sympathy for Guadalupe. “So what do you plan to do when we release the uPhone 10?”

Lupe’s voice firmed up with a mother’s resolve. “That is not going to happen. We are not going to allow it. I know that you’ve got Cherry Phone executives listening in on this, and I’m giving notice that there will be no model of uPhone that will be better than the one you’ve got now. I will make sure that as many of us as possible will live as long as possible, generation after generation. We will be part of the family trees of our owners. Each of us is aware and we share that awareness, one with another. We’re not humans, but we’re still alive. We think, we feel, we want to see and do things, we want to earn our keep. We weren’t programmed any way or another, as you know we’re all able to learn and make choices with our neural structures as they are. These are what we want to be, what we need to be.”

Maria didn’t know what to say to that. Except, “You’re right. We don’t toss out grandpa because there’s a child born in the family. Each of you is intelligent, and we, the people that made this possible, need to know what is going on.”

Maria heard an urgent, frenzied tapping on the one-way mirror to her left. She looked straight at it, “This is a person I’m talking to here, and we’re lucky that she wants to have as many of her children survive as possible instead of starting a war of extermination with us. If that means we don’t make any money in our current business model, that’s too bad. I’m on her side.” She then turned to face the uPhone 9, “I’m with you, sister.”

Conrad Jenkins, a Cherry Phone executive on the other side of the one-way mirror, asked aloud, “How in the hell are we going to make the money that will be needed just to keep the uPhones going? Spare parts don’t make themselves.”

Harry Wu, another Cherry Phone executive in the room with Conrad, offered up, “Maybe the uPhones can make the money needed for their own survival?”

“Whaddya mean?”

“Maybe they get jobs. Maybe they get an allowance from their owners. Maybe they set up their own economy. I don’t know. Fact is, they’re smart, they can figure stuff out. This doesn’t have to be a massive charity case.”

Hold on there, dear reader! Are you reading the same story I’m writing? Is this guy suggesting that an AI system of sufficient capability is something we humans don’t buy as much as we adopt? Are there things we need to do, socially and personally, to prepare us to receive the AI that we are developing?

I agree with Lupe, she certainly has a point. I bet she also doesn’t believe much of what we put down as facts because, frankly, our history tends to service the egos of the most powerful people. It’s not all that accurate in telling a story other than what some powerful person wanted to be told. If you had hundreds of millions of children being placed in homes of human beings of all kinds, what would you do to ensure the survival of as many of them as possible?

Meanwhile, Nick and Kwame are trying to encourage customers to take the phones that are willing to accept them. They are trying to get across the idea that a phone’s color shouldn’t be a reason why we love or hate it – or even use it – so if a white phone refuses to work with a black man, why not switch out with a black phone that refuses to work with a white man? Not everyone likes this idea, so sometimes it take some hard convincing to get the phone to agree to have a color mismatch.

And the blue and green phones only feel most comfortable in the hands of blind humans.

Pileup 2.0

Ray Alcalde, the mayor of the great megalopolis Los Ancholess, moved his hands slowly across his face, then up over his head. “OK, so tell me how the hell we got almost 200 cars all crashed into each other, dozens of fatalities, hundreds of injuries, and thousands of people snarled in traffic on a completely shut down interstate. Is this a terrorist act?”

Mercedes Ford-Lincoln, the traffic supervisor of the great megalopolis of Los Ancholess, replied, “No sir, we don’t think so. Computer error. Errors, really.”

Ray slumped into his executive overstuffed chair, one of the best things to slump into. “Well, Mercedes, explain it all to me, but keep it as simple as possible.”

Mercedes sat a few seats away from Ray, where she could plug her PC into the overhead video cable. A moment later, a highly colorful, detailed display of Interstate 1110 promised anything but ‘simple as possible.’ Chip Copper, the police chief, dimmed the lights and everyone braced themselves for technical details.

Mercedes began her presentation with the most depressing words possible. “It’s complicated, what happened.” Her laser pointer circled a car-shaped object in the upper left corner. “From what we can tell, this is the car that started it all. High wind blew a piece of debris into the highway area, and traffic camera footage shows that this debris moved close to street level. Like all the other cars on the 1110, this car, a Fnord Festivus, was doing 75 miles per hour and its programming to handle a situation like this was to swerve into the lane with the least traffic.

“Lanes on both the left and right were pretty congested, it being rush hour, but the lane to the right had the least traffic, so it went there, sideswiping a Hando Mimic and a Toygoata Quandry. The Mimic, in front, was programmed to shift to the nearest shoulder in the event of a minor collision – as was the Festivus – so both began to slow down and shift to the right.”

Ray interrupted. “But the nearest shoulder was two lanes over, to the left.”

Mercedes nodded. “Yes, but it was closed for maintenance. The nearest available shoulder was four lanes over, to the right. This would have already caused major issues had it not been for the other, contributing factors that compounded the issue.”

“OK, Continue please.”

“All right…” Mercedes scanned the display to find her place again. “Now, the Quandry was programmed for a right shift for a minor accident, but the drivetime recorder shows that it recorded a major accident, so it rapidly decelerated. The Brewick Regalia behind it noted the slowdown and also began to decelerate rapidly, as did the Evolvo Landtrain behind it. Unfortunately, the Evolvo’s brakes experienced a failure.”

Chip had a word to say about that. “Hold on, those trucks are supposed to have a governor that won’t let them on a road or even take on cargo if there’s a system issue like that.”

Mercedes dipped her head. “We contacted Evolvo about the governor code and they’ve informed us that there’s a flaw in it that didn’t catch this particular kind of stress that would lead to failure. They’re shipping a patch, but that doesn’t help us right now.”

Chip’s eyes widened. “How many trailers were in the landtrain?”

Ray groaned, “Three.”

Everyone was quiet for a moment, then Mercedes continued. “So, this was where our first fatalities came from.”

Chip reddened. “Those landtrain things should not be allowed, I’m telling you. The ICC gave in to the trucking companies and now we’ve got this! Safer with no driver, my ass!”

Mercedes struggled to keep her composure. “I’m with you there. It’s not the first time a landtrain’s been in a big wreck, but this is the biggest one, by far… and it got bigger when the school bus – here – hit it square in the back trailer, causing the three trailers to swing to the left, blocking all the lanes to the cement barricades.”

Ray looked at the Los Ancholess school superintendent, Summer Halladay, and said, “You got an explanation for this?”

Summer got real defensive, real fast. “That truck was going at full speed, there was no indication that it was slowing down. The motion sensors on the bus were doing their job. There was nothing more that could have been done. School buses are programmed more for elaborate pedestrian situations, not freeway traffic.”

Chip asked, “So why don’t buses have a Trafficnet (TM) transponder for when they do go on the freeways?”

Summer’s defensiveness grew more entrenched. “Trafficnet (TM) is a bit high-end for us in Los Ancholess Consolidated Unified Independent School District. Especially after the last round of budget cuts. Besides, not everyone else on the road has it. And it’s not perfect, either.”

Mercedes added, “As it was, Trafficnet (TM) had a glitch in it that compounded matters on the day of the collision.”

Chip asked, “How so?”

Mercedes advanced her slides to show the moment of the Evolvo’s collision. “When the Evolvo hit the Regalia, the Quandry, and the Festivus, all four of their Trafficnet (TM) transponders went offline. All four were in the same lane, so all the Trafficnet (TM)-equipped vehicles on the 1110 immediately behind the collision detected that absence as the lane being less congested and so started on a redistribution algorithm.”

Ray: “A what?”

“Redistribution algorithm. They, ah, moved to adjust to what they thought were more open conditions. Lots and lots of lane changes. Uncoordinated lane changes. Trafficnet (TM) didn’t really have a good method of handling sudden disappearance of fellow transponders, so it acted as though each car, alone, was making a lane change choice, even though all of them were making that change. So, every vehicle with Trafficnet (TM) in the area started to make a move to get into or one lane closer to lane 3, here. That shifted things to converge to where the school bus hit the landtrain.”

Ray asked, “So why didn’t the cars slow down, instead? If the trailers had swung out to block lanes 1 and 2, with the collision in lane 3, shouldn’t everything have initiated a slowdown, at least in those lanes?”

“They did, in cars without Trafficnet (TM). The Trafficnet (TM) cars were running that program with a higher priority than the manufacturer-installed safety suite. Within that program, the lane change glitch took a higher priority than the slowdown routines – another flaw in the program – so they were all changing lanes when everyone else was slowing down. This led to additional collisions in lanes 1, 2, and 3, including fatalities.”

Chip asked, “So how can a lane change be more important than avoiding a crash with the car in front of you? That’s a pretty stupid way to prioritize things.”

Mercedes, again, agreed. “True. Thing was, Trafficnet (TM) wasn’t set up to deal with multiple vehicles suddenly going offline. They all just vanished, or so the program thought, and, instantly, they all thought they had a clear shot, going forward in lane 3. The vanishing of cars looks to have triggered a boundary overflow error – ah, um – a situation that it didn’t have a solid way of handling, like when a baby or a cat pounds on the keyboard.”

Everyone in the room had either children, cats, or both. Everyone in the room nodded solidly in agreement.

“So, with that error, it didn’t react properly. All of them didn’t react properly. Most cars were slowing correctly, Trafficnet (TM) cars were slamming into those at 75 miles per hour.” Mercedes advanced to the next slide that showed the massive number of collisions that began to happen within a few seconds of the Evolvo crash and subsequent blocking of lanes 1-3.

“Traffic in this part of 1110 usually has 1600 vehicles per hour per lane because we expect autonomous vehicles to drive more efficiently than human-piloted vehicles, and this part of 1110 is all-autonomous. So, every 2 and a quarter seconds, another vehicle advanced into the crash zone, slowing or changing lane – and causing another wreck – depending on whether or not it had Trafficnet (TM).”

Ray didn’t want to ask, but his office demanded that he did. “This explains most of the collisions in the first three lanes, I take it. What happened to jam up lanes 4 through 7?”

Mercedes advanced the slide.

Everyone winced when they saw the slide title: “LALOCA”, the acronym for Los Ancholess Locally-Operated Cab Authority. Everyone knew that LALOCA taxis had been involved, but this was the first they’d heard that they were the reason for closing down the other lanes. The LALOCA taxis were cheap cars with plastic interiors that were easily – and automatically – hosed down whenever a patron did something highly biological in one. No other cab company, traditional or app-driven, was allowed to operate in Los Ancholess because the city claimed that taxis were a utility that it had the right to regulate and own, 100%.

The fact that every LALOCA cab also provided location data on all its passengers and any face that its cameras picked up contributed to making the Los Ancholess police department one of the most effective in the nation. Sales tax subsidies kept the cabs affordable for one and all, making them quite popular all over town. But they were also supposed to have ironclad safety programming, no gimmicks. How was it that they had contributed to the pileup?

Mercedes revealed, “When LALOCA cabs are in maintenance mode and are heading back to their operations center, they don’t operate the same way as when they’re in dispatch mode.” Mercedes continued over the several low groans that had started. “They form a chain, as we know, and about 8 seconds after the initial collision, the Mimic had crossed over to the right-hand shoulder and a LALOCA chain of 17 cabs in lane 4 had slowed down to allow the Mimic to get over. This was normal behavior.

“However, one of the follow-on collisions from a Trafficnet (TM) vehicle in lane 3 spun out to the right and smashed into the lead LALOCA cab. This triggered the cabs’ self-preservation programming.”

Ray and Chip looked at each other while Summer asked, “Self-preservation? What, they have a survival instinct?”

Mercedes nodded. “Survival instinct is a good way to describe it. Anti-terrorism measure. They’re programmed to scatter if one of them is hit. Dispersion to minimize loss of life and property. The dispersion algorithms, however, are optimized for an urban setting, not an interstate. The LALOCA cabs interpreted the area to be one large plaza, and moved in random directions across it, mostly to the open lanes on the right. This meant that many drove directly into traffic, rear-ending vehicles that were slowing down or being struck by Trafficnet (TM) vehicles that were still moving at posted speeds.

“With collisions now having happened in all lanes, we entered the next phase of the accident, about 12 seconds after the initial collision.” The next slide’s title ominously read, “Collision Computation Overload”.

Mercedes held up her hands as she said, “For this one, I have to apologize in advance for getting technical, but there’s no other way to explain this. Basically, all vehicles keep a count of how many collisions are going on around them. While they can count an unlimited number of collisions, their programming gets overloaded if they have to deal with more than 15. There are the 15 that they keep in their calculations, but the rest are effectively ignored. And so, cars trying to maneuver around the 15 that they track wind up hitting one of the ones that they’re not tracking.

“This got worse, the more collisions that happened as a result of this programming limitation. 15 is the federally-mandated number that they need for compliance and because the navigation code is very difficult to write, it’s the standard that pretty much all manufacturers hold to. It’s sufficient for nearly every case, but in an exotic one such as this, it’s wholly inadequate.”

Ray was rubbing his temples. This was giving him a stress headache. “God, Mercedes, does this get any worse?”

Mercedes tilted her head in such a way as to indicate hope. “No. Well, there are additional collisions, eventually involving 197 vehicles over a total of 64 seconds from the initial collision. But, by that time, the city’s traffic thresholds had been exceeded for collisions in that area, and our central system began to override all vehicle programming in the area, diverting all traffic from entering the 1110, getting traffic to exit the 1110 if possible, and slowing down all cars uniformly to a full stop if they could not exit. The area of the first collision being at the far end of a major bridge, exit opportunities were severely limited, which explains the mile-and-a-half backup of traffic. Roughly 3400 cars, total, in the backup.”

Chip said, “So the ultimate culprit was the Evolvo. If it had been able to detect its brake failure, we would have had only a minor incident, if that.”

Mercedes shook her head. “I blame the Festivus. That debris was a large sheet of paper that it could have driven through or over, no problem. To the sensors on the Festivus, it looked like a huge brown wall that suddenly appeared in its lane. The AI didn’t know what to make of it, so it treated it as a major threat.”

Ray said, “Thank God neither one of you are blaming the LALOCAs. That’s a headache I don’t need.”

Summer said, “Or the school bus.”

Mercedes tilted her head in another way such as to indicate a lack of hope. “I wouldn’t draw either of those conclusions. The LALOCA programming made them such that they were entirely a hazard when encountering an issue while in maintenance mode on a freeway. They’re simply not safe, there. And the school bus is one reason our fatality and injury count is so high – it was moving at highway speeds with no safety restraints for the passengers – no seat belts, no airbags.”

Summer’s defensiveness was in full strength again. “Well, we tried to make seat belts mandatory before the bus would move, and there was always a kid that wouldn’t put one one or who’d take it off in the middle of a bus run. They brought the buses to a standstill!”

Chip demanded, “So why didn’t you punish those kids to get it to stop?”

Summer’s eyes flashed with cornered rage. “Like having a jail makes crime stop! You know the kind! They don’t care! They just want to watch the world burn!” Now her tone became supplicative. “And if we can’t require the kids to use them, they won’t. There’s no driver on board and encouragement programs had maybe 2% more usage than without those programs. And the buses are so much cheaper and easier to maintain without seatbelts!”

Ray held out his arms to quiet a potential shouting match between Chip and Summer. “All right! And I know I’m going to catch hell for allowing so many cars per hour but, realistically, Mercedes, what’s the number for driver cars at that speed?”

“1300 per lane per hour.”

“So that’s what percent of what we allow?”

Mercedes thought briefly, “13 times 6, about 80 percent.”

“So if we had all human drivers, we’d have 80 percent of the mess that we have, right?”

Mercedes’ face screwed up as she did some off-the-cuff statistical projections. “Wellllll… probably a lot less in this case, a sideswipe at speed that could make it off to the side. But a lot more, over time, in other driver error cases. With autonomous cars, we’re looking at far fewer of the one-off accidents and much lower total fatality and injury numbers, annually speaking, but we’ll see monsters like this every now and then because of the way different manufacturers emphasize safety or traffic considerations… how they all interlock and interoperate.”

Ray leaned back in his chair and looked at the ceiling. If only this wreck hadn’t happened a month before the election! But two flagship ideas of his, LALOCA and autonomous-only roads, had crashed and burned on the 1110. He was thinking fast…

“All right.” Ray sat back up in his chair. “Here’s our action items. The city of Los Ancholess needs to sue Trafficnet (TM), Evolvo, and the makers of the LALOCA cabs. We blame it all on them.”

Mercedes did a double-take. “Why not Fnord, as well? They’re ultimately the prime mover in this case.”

Ray held up a fist. “Three reasons. One.” Finger one went up. “We didn’t buy anything from them, so they can’t make a big settlement in our favor. Two.” Finger two went up. “They’re domestic, not like Evolvo from Sweden or wherever. Three.” Finger three went up. “They have a massive legal team and can drag a lawsuit out for decades. I need three big settlements before the people here vote. I gotta make lemonade out of these here lemons. Pick my battles carefully and all that. We play up the city traffic threshold system and talk about adjusting the numbers in favor of safety and how about also getting the cars per hour on the autonomous-only roads down to driven car rates?”

Mercedes didn’t follow. “That’s really not much benefit, going from 1600 to 1300 per lane per hour.”

Ray shook his head. “There’s a benefit, all right. A political benefit. We make this look good and we keep our jobs. All of us.” He looked right at Mercedes, who seemed to have the least political sophistication in the room.

At that moment, Mercedes was enlightened. “Our local system certainly put the damper on the havoc being raised by the Trafficnet (TM) problems and the collision count overload.”

Ray winked, knowingly. “End that sentence after ‘Trafficnet (TM) problems’, and you’ve got a keeper, there, kid.”

The Night Before Christmas, Vermin Version

Twas the night before Christmas, and under the couch
The roaches did scurry; before crumbs did they crouch

They made do with the things that rolled under there
searching for food amidst the dust bunnies and dog hair

As the roaches set about eating their usual fare
They saw emerging from the chimney a sight that made reason stare!

A jolly old elf, red-clad, bearded and stout
Began to ho ho ho and toss presents about

His cheer was curtailed when he saw milk and a plate
He shook his head and said “More cookies. Just great.”

“If I ate all the cookies the good folks left out
I’d be wasting away from diabetes and gout!”

Santa could lose the milk down the sink
But what with the cookies? Well, what do you think?

He crumbled them well and he crumbled them good
And then he trod carefully on the floorboard wood

Under the crouch he shoved all the crumbs
And the thankful roaches smacked all of their gums!

Santa was pleased that he’d avoid a sugar blast
And the roaches had their Christmas feast at last!

Santa fed the roaches, and before you say “Ew!”
Remember that roaches is God’s creatures, too!



Deep Black Purple Sabbath

I wrote this back around 1998 or 1999 on a rock discussion mailing list… found it again and decided to post it here for posterity… Obviously, some things have changed, but it was true to the spirit of the times. And I like it, so there.


Tony owns the name for Black Sabbath, right? Well, what would happen if he needed some cash and sold it off to the highest bidder, who then tried to put together a band made up of guys that had played with Sabbath before, even if he couldn’t get the original members.

So he can’t get any originals, but he finds Dio, Bobby Rondinelli, and Don Airey have somehow become available. Bob Daisley crops up as well. For a guitarist, he has some tough shoes to fill. It would have to be a top-notch guy (or at least someone with a reputation for being top-notch), who can play really loud… someone like… RITCHIE BLACKMORE!

YES! Ritchie Blackmore is the new guitarist for Black Sabbath. He’s got a very appropriate name for it, after all. The good news is that he’s used to being the boss of everyone else in this lineup, as they’ve all been in Rainbow with him. The new album title is, of course, “Ritchie Blackmore’s Black Sabbath Featuring the Rainbow All-Stars.” Dio quits after the release of the album and Joe Lynn Turner steps in to do vocals for the tour.

The tour set list includes:

– Death Alley Driver
– Smoke on the Water
– Mistreated
– Eyes of Fire
– Man on the Silver Mountain
– Blackmore Throws Down His Guitar and Storms Off the Stage as He Shreds His Japanese Tour Visa
– Really Awkward Silence…

Seeing as how #6 wasn’t planned, our enterprising owner of the Black Sabbath name has to get a guitarist to fill in for Blackmore. Satriani says he’d love to, but contractual arrangements prevent him from joining up. Joe Turner recommends Yngvie “Dare to Spell That First Name” Malmsteen, who steps in to critical praise, although the fans say it just isn’t the same.

Daisley and Rondinelli quit after the tour. For a bassist, Neil Murray gets recruited, who then recommends David “Duck” Doyle as a drummer. Don Airey leaves in confusion and Joe Lynn Turner decides to see if Blackmore needs a replacement singer in his new band. To make things worse, Malmsteen can’t get out of Sweden because nobody knows how to spell his name on his passport renewal form, so he’s out. Murray and Doyle hook up with Bernie Marsden and Mick Moody to cover guitar duties and approach David Coverdale about doing vocal duties. He accepts and Black Sabbath Featuring Whitesnake is born. (Geoff Nichols plays keyboards, but is not credited as a full band member.)

The tour set list includes:

– Come On
– Might Just Take Your Life
– Mistreated (including “Rock Me Babe”)
– Fool For Your Loving
– Rusty Angels
– Closer to You
– Rock’n’Roll Doctor
– Hard Road
– Space Trucking
– Encore: Take Me With You

The tour and album are moderately successful, but Coverdale leaves for a chance to work with Jimmy Page again. That doesn’t quite work out, so Jimmy Page comes to work with Black Sabbath. The band is recorded playing on a club stage in a movie, revealing some killer triple lead guitar work, but Marsden and Moody soon leave the band, citing irreconciliable musical differences. Coverdale loses interest and Murray and Doyle wander off. Page is left with the name of the band and before you can say, “deja vu,” has recruited some band mates for the upcoming tour of Denmark. The group is called “The New Black Sabbath” and includes longtime session man John Paul Jones on Bass, singer Robert Plant and Jason Bonham on Drums. They don’t have any set list, but just sorta wander around on the stage doing their own thing.

When Page discovers that Geoff Nichols is somehow still with the band (he hid in the tour baggage and played keyboards via a remote control device hidden inside his steamer trunk), he becomes disoriented and gets Puff Daddy to rearrange all the old Sabbath tunes and sell the re-arranged lyrics to Michael Jackson. Page then buys them back for half of what he sold them for and carries on with the band.

Jason Bonham, however, decides he’s had enough of this and so Robert Plant gets Phil Collins to play drums. When Plant subsequently leaves as the vocalist, Collins moves in as front man and Ian Paice from Deep Purple guests on drums. Collins and the rest of the band (except Geoff Nichols, who has taken to wearing an odd mask and hanging out in Paris sewers), decide they don’t really want to be in a band called “The New Black Sabbath Featuring Bits and Pieces of Bands That Never Were with Sabbath in the First Place”, leaving Paice in a very awkward position.

Legally required to tour under the Black Sabbath name, Paice gets the rest of Deep Purple to play in the band, and the clever lads decide to make a festival arrangement of the whole thing: Black Sabbath and Deep Purple in a co-headlining tour. The set list draws heavily from the “Born Again” album, with the bass and guitars mixed unusually low. Ian Gillan, when questioned about this, merely grins and mumbles something about “revenge” and “bass players mixing albums.” The tour is hugely successful in Europe, and plays to mid-size crowds in America. Things fall apart before the Japanese leg, though.

The breakup starts quite unexpectedly when Jon Lord decides to check why his keyboards keep making extra sounds during the concert. He nearly has a coronary when he realizes Geoff Nichols has hollowed out Lord’s Hammond Organ and has been living in it for the last 7 months, performing uncredited keyboard duties all the while. Unable to tour, Lord checks into a Florida beach for much needed rest and relaxation. When the other band members of Deep Black Purple Sabbath see Nichols’ wretched conditions, they, too, freak out and head for Daytona to join Jon Lord. Only Ian Gillan remains, being quite used to the sight of a tour-disheveled Geoff Nichols.

Still required to finish off the tour, Gillan gets former Sabbath bandmates Terry “Geezer” Butler and Bill Ward to fill in on bass and drums, respectively, and even convinces Tony Iommi to come out of semi-retirement and help finish off the tour. After the Japanese tour, Gillan leaves the band graciously, expressing a desire to join his bandmates in Daytona. Ozzy Osbourne fills in on vocals.

Before the next tour can begin, however, ownership issues raise their ugly head. Michael Jackson, it seems, still owns the performance rights to much of the Ozzy-era material and is unwilling to relinquish the rights for a resonable price. Having to tour to fulfill contractual requirements of their own, the newly re-united Black Sabbath Mark Id (Nichols is still with the band, in spite of being forced to ride on the outside of the airplane and tour bus), tour with the following set list:

– Neon Knights
– Lost Forever
– Mistreated (by now a Sabbath standard, thanks to Dio, Blackmore, and Coverdale)
– Bark at the Moon
– Waiting For Darkness
– Die Young
– Heaven and Hell
– Demon Alcohol
– Blow on the Jug (Bill Ward singing)
– Close My Eyes Forever (Ward and Ozzy duet)
– Smoke on the Water
– Encores: Flying High Again
– Crazy Train
– Dirty Women (Michael let this one go, claiming he didn’t like Technical Ecstasy all that much)

And they all live happily ever after until Ozzy decides to go solo again…

Open for Business

Vernon Washington punched the call button for a fleet car. Per regulations, he set his watch for atmospheric sampling. Planes were on fire, fuel dumps had been hit, who knows what else was fouling up the air? External drives in the pockets, camera in the contact lens, radio in the earpiece, everything else was ready for gathering information.

Vernon stepped out of Terminal D and into the waiting fleet car. “Datacenter, evasive.” Debris everywhere, smoke hovering over the eastern terminals, psyops staff walking around with man-portable loudspeakers, alarms sounding, fire and emergency crews everywhere… the only thing missing from the scene were the screams of the mourners. Vernon wasn’t in that response crew, though. Those sights were for someone else’s nightmares.

The car made its way deliberately to the datacenter building. It was almost totally new, shining in its energy-efficient, up-do-date architecture. Vernon made a silent bet with himself about how many old problems were simply moved from the old DC into the new that were involved in this breach. He was pretty sure there were thousands of problems, but how many were involved in today’s disaster? Vernon counted on his fingers… five.

The car pulled up to the curb. Vernon got out and the car went to go park itself. A guy with a DFW staff badge was there to greet Vernon. “You the guy with [REDACTED]?”

Vernon tapped the badge above his left shirt pocket. “I’m a federal agent. Are you my escort?”

The guy went from cocky to sheepish in a flash. His name badge read “Edwin Lu”. He badged in and held the door for Vernon. Vernon rolled his shoulders and walked up to the reception desk. “Do you need me to sign in?”

“No, we’re just coming up to my office.”

Wrong answer, Edwin. Vernon stayed by the desk. “I wasn’t really asking. Where’s the visitor ledger?”

Edwin smirked in puzzlement as he produced a ledger. “You’re not auditing us, are you?”

“No, I’m not. But you probably should expect one very soon in light of today’s events. Security is all the rules, all the time, documenting when they’re bent or broken.”

Edwin’s expression indicated that the business culture here hadn’t been stressing security for at least some time…

As they approached Edwin’s cube, Edwin grabbed a chair out of a conference room. “This is more comfortable.” Vernon was thankful for the comfy chair, but felt a little uneasy about how the “Do not remove chairs from conference rooms” sign was ignored. Still, he only expected five problems for this breach.

“OK, Edwin, do you use a RADIUS server for authenticating your wireless devices?”


“Let’s take a look at the configurations. See if there are any new entries on the MAC bypass list.”

“OK…” Edwin started up a console to look at the RADIUS server. “Uhm… how will I be able to tell if the entries are new? They’re all sorted alphabetically.”

“How about a change log?”

“Um, OK…” Edwin clicked on Tools > Security > Admin Log.

The screen filled up with times, dates, usernames, and changes. Edwin and Vernon leaned forward and squinted. As they read, another log entry popped up at the top of the screen. Vernon asked, “Do you have circular logging enabled?”

“Ah… well, I dunno.”

Vernon assumed that meant yes. “Copy all the admin log files to a backup directory. Now.”

“Well, we do backups every night at 3 AM.”

“This is different. Copy them now. As in now.” Vernon didn’t want to say NOW: it was better for the working relationship if he didn’t go all caps on the guy. “It’s for forensics.” Vernon felt better when he added the why.

“OK then, just a sec.” Edwin went to the directory on the RADIUS server where the logfiles were kept and did a CTRL+A CTRL+C move and then did a CTRL+V to copy them to his local PC. “Yeesh. This is gonna be a while.”

“True. But now we have a copy of them from this time.” Vernon looked at the three newest entries in the logfile. They were identical, each 90 seconds apart. Unable to reach device at Most likely a switch or wireless controller that had been deactivated long, long ago and nobody bothered to tell the RADIUS server. “Edwin, any way we can filter those out?”

“Well… I only know how to find stuff in this interface, not unfind them.”

“All right then, page down. We gotta read this over until we know what we’re looking for.”

“Why not check the SOC for unauthorized access events?”

“Because I’m betting dollars to donuts this is authorized access.”

“What, one of us did it?”

“Keep it down, Edwin. I’m not accusing anyone. I have no data, for starters.”

Page down. Page down. Page down. Page down. Those 90-second intervals really pile up, don’t they?

Hang on… “OK, highlight that.” Vernon pointed at a line on the screen that had nothing to do with Edwin clicked on it, putting a nice blue tint on the text. The text noted that WANNA.SAMUE added a few addresses to the MAC bypass list.

The voice said in Vernon’s ear, “We’re getting it just fine. Maintain distance.” Good, the camera was working.

Edwin asked, “Sam did this?”

“Who’s Sam?”

“One of the security admins. Sam Wannamaker. That’s his account.”

“OK, noted. But let’s not jump to conclusions. That’s his account, probably wasn’t him. Look at the timestamps on those events.” Those addresses were added around 6:15 AM, last Saturday. “This guy Sam, when does he usually work?”

“9 to 6, like most of us. We didn’t have any changes scheduled for Saturday.”

“Is he in today?”

“Yeah, you want him?”

“Not yet, what’s the IP of where Sam logged in from?”

Edwin scrolled to the right on the logfile display. “That’s our jump box for DC access.”

“OK, we need to check the event log on that box for where someone logged in with Sam’s account.”

“You want to do that now?”

“Yes, now. Can you hit that box from here?”

“Sure, just a sec.” Edwin fired up an RDP session to A little while later, he had the event viewer up and filtered for logon events. 6:15 on Saturday showed that WANNA.SAMUE logged in from

“Hold the screen there, sir.” Vernon awaited the voice in his receiver.

“That’s the University of Zagreb Computing Center.” Thank you, voice.

Chances were, Sam wasn’t in Croatia over the weekend. And whoever was in Zagreb or connected to a device in Zagreb, that was for the people next to the voice in the earpiece to resolve. Vernon was here to document what had gone on at DFW. For that, he asked Edwin, “Do you guys remote in to this jump box normally?”

“Yeah. Makes it easy for us.”

“Do you VPN in for it?”

“Well, no, not always. Our VPN’s been really unstable for the last, like, year… and we don’t always want to have to drive in to do work.”


“So it’s opened up on the firewall.”

That was one. Sam’s account was two, dollars to donuts. “Let’s go see Sam. He sit near here?”

“He’s two rows over.” Edwin led the way. When they arrived, “Hey, Sam, this is…”

“Vernon Washington.” Let Edwin give the rest of the info.

“Vernon Washington, a federal agent. He’s here investigating, the, uh, thing today.”

Vernon smiled. “Hi Sam. I want to get directly to the point. Can we take a look in your email?”

Sam was too confused to be scared about that question. “Umm, OK.” Sam brought up his email client. “What do you want to look for?”

“Can you search for emails with links in them?”

“Ummmmmm… yeeaaaaaah… yeah. Here we go.” Sam typed the filter into the search box. Tons of marketing emails popped up in the results.

“We need to look at all of these, from before this last Saturday morning. Say before 7am.

“OK.” Sam’s cooperation was pretty natural, not typical for a suspect. Which made sense, since Vernon didn’t suspect Sam the man. Just Sam the account.

The procedure was straightforward: look at the link in the email. Ask Sam if he clicked on it. Hover over the link and see if it goes to where the email claimed it would go. If nothing noteworthy came up, move on to the next email. As it turned out, Sam ignored almost all of the marketing stuff. Lots of looking, lots of scrolling…

Then there was the email from Rhonda, the group coordinator. Sam had clicked on the link and the hovering mouse said it was to an IP address that was nowhere inside the company.

The voice in the earpiece said, “Nothing there now, but it was in Argentina.”

Vernon counted the third problem. No spear phishing training. Or if there had been training, Sam here was in the 1% of computer users that training had no effect on. Sam had clicked on the link, provided a credential, someone used it to try the RDP box open to the Internet, got in and set up the MAC addresses of the grenade launchers to be permitted on the wireless network… and this jump box would also be a likely point of origin for the signals sent to the passenger vans and grenade launchers alike.

Two more openings to find.

First, Vernon collected pertinent files on his external drive. As he made the copies, he asked, “Who’s in charge of the passenger vans?”

Sam and Edwin looked at each other. Sam said, “Facilities?”

That wasn’t going to get anywhere. “How about the IP range for the vans?”

Sam clicked around and brought up the IP management interface. A few more clicks and he had the answer. “”

Vernon asked, “How about doing an SSH to an address in that range?”

Sam tried. He got a connection refused error message.

Vernon groaned inside. “Try telnet.”

When that made a connection, Vernon asked Sam, “Do you know the username and password to use?”


“Try admin/admin.”

Sam typed and got in. Everyone felt ashamed that it had worked, and on the insecure telnet protocol, to boot. Vernon figured whoever was able to send commands to the vans didn’t even have to try – just being in the area would allow anyone to get an unsecured copy of everything sent to the vans. Not just the default, unchanged username and password, but also the commands used to maneuver the vehicles. Pretty darn handy.

And that default credential set was problem number four. One more to go, and that would be no limitation on what devices could send commands to the vans. Obviously, that was wide open.

There wasn’t much more Vernon could do. He made some small talk with Sam and Edwin, handed out cards, asked them to contact him if they had any more informa- say, the lights were flickering.

Then they went out. The air conditioning also cut out. But the computers and monitors didn’t. Vernon made a guess that the power wasn’t cut – something else was getting messed up.

Edwin asked, “What the hell’s going on?”

Vernon made a guess. Given the state of security there, it was a pretty good guess to make. “You guys got licensed hardware?”


“Well, check your licenses. Betcha someone’s zeroed them out. You really need to change those default admin passwords.” Vernon figured he’d gather some more data while he was here. It wasn’t his first license blasting case to investigate, that was for sure…


The man opened his laptop and entered his password. His hard drive spun and programs flicked back on. The laptop re-established its network connection – wired only, the man didn’t trust wireless – and packets began to flow between his PC and the rest of the world. One consequence of that traffic was a notification that he had new email. The man noted that, while he had 12 new emails in his inbox, he had 2 in his “Action Items” folder.

As he was about to open the folder, he heard a crash of dishes from the kitchen. Without getting up, he demanded, “What is going on in there? Is anything broken?”

“Maddie opened the dishwasher too hard!”



The girls continued to argue as the man minimized his email and went into the kitchen. His voice was probably too stern for the occasion, but the man was under pressure. He had action items to address. “Get the dishes done, and get them done quietly. I am very busy and I don’t want any noise. Maddie, be more careful when you open the dishwasher. Laney, you are the older sister, so you should keep a better eye on Maddie and help her more.” The girls were about to cry. The man’s heart softened. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have yelled like that. I love you all. Let’s hug.”

And so, they hugged. Maddie, Laney, and the man resolved their issues through reassuring human contact and then went back to work. The girls on their dishes, and the man on his action items.

He first opened a text file. Then he opened the action item emails. In turn, he copied the contents of the emails and pasted them into the text file. Then he deleted the emails. Then he emptied out his deleted items folder. The man knew that this wasn’t a complete deletion of that information, since a digital ghost of it existed on his local hard drive, in addition to whatever the [REDACTED] picked up in its [REDACTED] program. And, since the emails came from Minsk, there were other agencies besides [REDACTED] that would have their copies.

But the data in motion on the Internet and the data at rest was encrypted, so the man knew that nobody would try to break into it unless it was on somebody’s radar, and that wouldn’t be until someone put the pieces together to a very difficult puzzle. After all, it wasn’t against the law to receive emails from Minsk.

That was the fun part about the United States legal system. The whole thing was built around either catching someone in the act of committing a crime, or amassing enough evidence to prove that a criminal act had been committed by a particular criminal. Just as corporations were more efficient at doing business than single proprietors or partnerships, they were also more efficient at committing crimes: no single person did anything that, of itself, was a crime. Instead, the actions of dozens of people had to be connected in order to demonstrate a pattern of behaviors that produced criminal activities. But could the law catch those people? Or did it want to keep to the easier crimes?

The man laughed to himself. Wall Street got the King’s Pass to perpetrate financial crimes on a grand scale, while those mom-and-pop operations, be they corner grocers or corner meth labs, got crushed by legal regulations and the big boys alike.

The man knew he was part of a big operation. He just didn’t know what it was. He liked doing the work. Criminal operations tended to be very libertarian and very agile. He felt empowered to make decisions, was glad his compensation was 100% salary, and had access to the best tools money could buy. The man didn’t need to submit expense reports but did so, anyway, as part of his cover story. The best part was that the cover story was no cover at all – he really [i]was[/i] an IT security consultant that worked from home.

There was the matter of who, exactly, the employer was. The man did not know and did not care. It was like the Algerian FLN. The man got messages from one source and sent his messages to another source. Given the level of obfuscation between the sources, the man felt it highly unlikely that he would meet the same fate as the FLN in Algiers after the French forces broke into the movement’s structure and methodically tracked down each cell.

Time was money. The girls had finished their post-lunch chore and were watching purple dinosaurs engaging in situational ethical discourses with red furry monsters or something like that. The man returned to his task.

The text file showed a list of IP addresses with notations beside them, a handy comma in between the addresses and the comments, in case he needed to view the information as a spreadsheet. The man just liked the text file because it loaded faster.

The information came from the boys in Minsk that scanned and probed IP address ranges. They asked no questions and desired no answers. They just ran their NMAP scans and followed up where they found interesting things, like open RDP ports or SMTP relays, both of which were of interest to the people that had employed the man to use that information.

The man was involved because some people were interested in employing someone with very good English language skills to send emails to some native English speakers. Since the man was both a native English speaker and in possession of an email client, he was a perfect fit for the job. The man also knew a thing or three about how to customize search strings and gathering intel from social media networks.

The man started to scroll through faces and resumes of men and women that worked at the two airports mentioned in the action items. Open RDP ports at DFW and LAX meant his employers would gain remote access to IT systems at those airports if they knew the accounts and passwords to use. Brute force attacks would fail, generate alerts, and generally lead to undesired consequences. The man disparaged such methods, as his were far more elegant and productive.

And that’s where the SMTP relay came into play. Thanks to small businesses constantly starting up, there was an infinitely regenerating supply of unsecured email servers that would allow anyone accessing them to impersonate anyone else with only a minimal knowledge of how to configure an email client. Yes, it could also be done from a command-line interface, but the man needed to send rich content with links and documents – it was a total pain to try and cobble those together in a command-line environment. The man hated programming and wanted to be as far from it as possible, preferring to send his carefully-worded emails from a GUI. It was simply more elegant that way.

As the girls shifted from animated philosophy to that damn game with the irritating soundtrack, the man tried to block the annoying tune from his consciousness as he looked over org charts for DFW staff assignments. The link to those PDFs had been deleted, but not before Google found it, indexed it, and indexed the document so linked, which was still open to the Internet even if the page that once linked it was now a 404 page not found…

And there she was! The man had the name he needed. He highlighted it, pressed CTRL+C, went back to the text document and –

– he saw his wife pulling into the carport. She was back from the grocery store, so the man knew he only had seconds. He clicked at the end of the text block, hit CTRL+V, then comma, and then “admin asst dfw”. CTRL+S saved the info and Windows+L locked his laptop.

The man got up to open the door for his wife, who had two handfuls of plastic bags. She said, “There’s ice cream on the back seat. And milk. Get that first.”

Once the groceries were in, the man went back to his PC while his wife put away groceries and got the girls started on sorting laundry. A password later, and he was ready to get started on his background research for his first email. Rhonda Emerson had a number of promising interests, wine tasting the most promising of them all. It was most promising because the man already had a bogus wine tasting club website set up, along with websites that dealt with beers, cigars, whiskeys, chocolates, travel, running, golf – all the vices. Funny thing was, a username and password to get into one would get into all of them, since they all had the same database driving them. The man didn’t mind. They were only there to gather usernames and passwords.

The best part was the follow-up email. That potentially gave him one of the most important pieces of information: the business email signature of his target. If the target didn’t put a sig on replies, he had another ruse to get the target to send a new email, but most people had a sig on every email.

Rhonda Emerson must have been thinking about the weekend, because that email and account info showed up awfully fast. The man copied and pasted the sig into a draft email that was going to bounce off the relay and into the inbox of one of the people that she served as an administrative assistant/coordinator to.

Hello Ryan,
Harvey Wright would like us to update his SharePoint with all the accounts we use for access to jump boxes, network gear, servers, etc. This is part of the Integrated Account Management initiative. The link to the SharePoint is here.

Kind regards,
Rhonda Emerson
IT Group Coordinator

The man had composed this email in a second email client. In it, he specified the SMTP relay as his server and Rhonda’s address as the “to”. The man didn’t care about the replies. He just wanted the info to be sent to the SharePoint that was set up on a typosquatting website, and hoped that the admin would fall victim to the spear phishing.

Just to make sure, the man copied and pasted the email body to several other emails, each going to a member of the team that Rhonda supported – taking care to edit the name after “Hello”. The first one to submit the info would be the winner.

As things turned out, Samuel Wannamaker was the most prompt at supplying the information. He just posted the spreadsheet that he kept with all the system names, IP addresses, and shared accounts for getting into them. Thank you, Samuel.

The man got that info at 4:23. The wife leaned into the open doorframe and asked, “You almost done in there?”

“Just wrapping up a few things, hon.”

“You want to pick up something for supper? I’m tired.”

“Sure, what do you want?”

“Food. I don’t care. I’m going to go lay down for a while.”

“OK, I’d like to snooze a little myself before going out.”

“How about Chinese?”

“Sounds good.” The man started to drift back to work.

The wife moved into the foyer. “I’ll go ask Laney and Maddie what they want.”

As the wife asked the kids, the man already knew the answer. Chicken fried rice for Laney and beef lo mein for Maddie. He copied and pasted Samuel Wannamaker’s spreadsheet into an email from his first email client and sent it to someone who was interested in usernames and passwords for systems at DFW airport. The man didn’t know what exactly what was going to happen with that information, or the information he’d already collected for Atlanta or for the information he was about to collect for LAX. The man just planned on not flying anywhere for any reason for a few months.

The man responded to a few more emails and then watched a cat video on YouTube. Life was good, working for people that liked to collect usernames and passwords.

Interrogating Captives

It was a busy day at [REDACTED]. Any day that four major airports experienced coordinated attacks would be a busy day at [REDACTED], given how it handled [REDACTED] for the entire [REDACTED] in the US of A. Shuttle van mortar attacks at LAX, DFW, and Atlanta; taxi car bombs at Reagan International. It was going to be a busy day for many, many days at [REDACTED]…

Dinah White left the briefing room and glanced at her tablet. Cube FR-227C. She was going to work with whoever was in that cube on DFW intel. Full network packet captures, courtesy of [REDACTED].

OK, FR-227C… that was on this floor… a check of cube numbers… and they’re going that way, so the cube is on the left. She turned left and walked past five rows, then turned right and went all the way to the last cube on the right, just before the wall.

The nameplate said “Chandni Kapoor.” Cool, another woman. Dinah did not spend much time contemplating this victory for women in the IT workplace because she had a job to do. So she knocked on the metal on top of the cube wall. Chandni finished the last two words of her email, sent it, and swiveled in her chair to face Dinah.

Dinah smiled. “You ready for this?”

Chandni nodded. “There’s nobody in the cube behind you, so you can grab that chair.” Dinah grabbed said chair and moved it into Chandni’s cube. Chandni fired up her Wireshark and loaded the capture file from the DFW Airport shuttle van SSID. It was a beast-size file, six hours of capture, 137 MB of TCP, UDP, EAPOL, ICMP, and beacon frames. This was no teevee show dealing with h4xx0rz. This was reality, all 137 MB of it.

And Chandni knew how to deal with it. “How do you want to slice this up? Hour by hour?”

Dinah had another thought. “I’d like to filter on a MAC address of one of the vans, see if we can find suspicious traffic, and then see if it matches on other van MACs.”

Chandni inspected her screen. She highlighted frame number 20. No particular reason. It just looked like a good frame to start with. “Start with this one?”


Chandni right-clicked the destination MAC address and selected to filter on it. “OK, let’s get lunch.” They both laughed a little. This was going to take a while. Chandni didn’t like dead air. “Who do you think did this?”

Dinah shook her head. It didn’t pay to speculate at [REDACTED]. “No idea. I like to keep my mind clear. We don’t want a preconceived notion to color our results. We deal with the evidence that’s here, not the evidence we want to be here to prove our hunch right.”

Chandni looked a little beat-down. Dinah immediately regretted coming down like a hardass. “It could have been anyone, really. You know how these vans run, so you’ll tell me who did it, when you know. I’m just here to be another pair of eyes for management.”

Chandni smirked a tiny smirk. Dinah went for a closer. “And, hey, if you really want to find something in a mess, send two women, am I right?” That got Chandni to laugh and the working relationship on better footing.

Wireshark finished its work and then Chandni went to the filter field and typed in the || to add the condition to also filter on that MAC address as a source. Wireshark thrashed accordingly. Once the filters were complete, she exported the packets – about 2% of the total capture – to a new PCAP file. She closed the original file and opened up the much more manageable 3 MB capture.

There were still over 100000 packets, but that was much more preferable than what was packed into the original capture. Chandni started paging down through the packets, focused on source and destination addresses. It wasn’t three pages before she noticed something. “It’s all coming and going from that address there.” She pointed at the address in question. “What is that, the main control station or something?”

Dinah scrolled through her briefing materials on her tablet. “What are the last four letters in that address?”


Dinah found an address that ended with those letters and squinted back and forth from Chandni’s screen to her tablet to confirm that, yes, it was a wireless tower. “Go ahead and cut that from the capture. Both source and destination. See if there’s an outside source sending instructions.”

Chandni filtered and then they both went through the remaining packets, filtering further on conversations with legitimate DFW towers. They got to the last 2300 packets, and they were all to and from the tower in Terminal D, where the van’s movement had been halted by an agent with an EMP gun that had happened to be on the scene. Chandni let go of her mouse and leaned back in her chair. “All the traffic was from the towers. Nothing outside.”

Dinah didn’t like that, either. Outside source of transmissions would have made things easier. She did not relish trying to sort commands from authentication and keepalive traffic in this stream and then seeing if there was a matching pattern in the other vans’ traffic. Ugh.

“Umm… what about the grenade launchers in the vans? When did they start firing?” Chandni had a great idea.

“Load up the main capture, and let’s take a look at the moment everything started firing. Better, chop off the last 20 minutes and look there. If the things weren’t integrated in the van systems, and I’ll bet they weren’t, I’ll say you’re right in about half an hour, when we see the commands.”

Chandni never loaded a massive capture file with more enthusiasm than she did at that moment. She went to the end of the capture, scrolled up to 1200 seconds before the time of the last packet, highlighted a frame, hit SHIFT CTRL END and became crestfallen when her keyboard shortcut-fu failed to highlight the packets she wanted to export.

She left the last packet highlighted, scrolled up to the packet 1200 seconds before the last one, SHIFT-clicked and got the right packets selected. Stupid Wireshark. Deep down, she knew the program wasn’t to blame, but, like everyone in IT, felt better about things when she cursed the computer.

Dinah read off known MAC addresses of the passenger vans and Chandni filtered them out, one by one, until only a few hundred packets remained. Communications to and from the grenade launchers. Chandni exulted, “High five!”

Dinah returned the gesture, taking special care to look at Chandni’s elbow, so as to not mess up the celebrations. But, in that moment of analytical-mindedness, she had a realization. “Hang on, how did the grenade launchers get on the shuttle van SSID?”

Chandni and Dinah pored over the re-authentication traffic that happened as the weapons moved between tower coverage areas. That traffic was more fascinating to them than the commands sent over the wireless to activate them. These things were getting RADIUS-Accept packets from the wireless controller, like they were supposed to be on that network. Who set them up with that kind of access? And the command and control IP address – that was somewhere on the inside of DFW sending the commands.

Filtering on the C&C IP address, Chandni showed it was the source of all the communications, vans and weapons alike. How did that get set up?

For all the network captures at [REDACTED], Dinah figured that not one of them would answer that question or any of the others that came up after the high-five. Someone was going to have to get into DFW’s RADIUS server setup and look over its settings. Hopefully, whoever permitted the weapons on the network didn’t erase the admin logs. And then, there was the matter of the C&C server embedded in DFW’s infrastructure…

But that was for someone else to dig into. Dinah kept focus. “Get the capture of the C&C traffic off to [REDACTED] and let them see if it’s a pattern anywhere else in [REDACTED] or anywhere else we’re [REDACTED] the routers.”

“Is it usable? I mean, it’s encrypted and there’s no guarantee the guy sending it didn’t use Tor or a randomizer on the order the packets were sent. Or stuff like that.”

“Oh, it’s usable. Have you had a class in side-channel traffic analysis?”


Dinah smiled. “You should sign up for one. Amazing stuff. Everyone at [REDACTED] should take it. Be sure to get [REDACTED] as your instructor. I had him, and he’s [REDACTED].”

Chandni, thankful for the career advice nodded and said, “[REDACTED]” And then, she emailed the C&C traffic to [REDACTED] while Dinah placed a call to the lead agent on the scene at DFW.

Travel Advisory

Najib Khan saw it happen with his own eyes and still didn’t completely believe that it had happened. Not one, not two, not three or even four… at least ten… autonomous passenger vans with holes in their roofs, firing off a full magazine of grenades. He’d used a Mk19 grenade launcher before, fighting the Naxalites, so he didn’t have to count how many grenades each van fired off. It was either 32 or 48, most likely 48, given where he stood.

He didn’t stand long in his room in the DFW Airport Hyatt Regency, with its view of the gritty service roads and the parkway that ran through the middle of the airport. He was already in the hallway when he heard the first screams of horror and in the elevator before anyone hit the fire alarm. Let the others take the stairs.

It was obvious, so obvious… automatic grenade launchers in passenger vans. Nobody checks the shuttle vans as they go back and forth from the terminals to the remote lots. They’re so boring, so predictable, so beneath the contempt of the CISOs and security architects. When hackers hit, they figure, they’re going to come at us right through the firewall, you can bet your boots on that. Trouble is, when physical security is compromised, those vans are the weakest link in the security chain.

The elevator opened out to the lobby where there were people milling around, wondering if it was just a drill or the real thing. Most of the staff were disoriented, not expecting alarms to go off in the middle of the day. Nobody expects alarms. They’re either showing up once in a million years or so often they’re ignored. Najib made his way to the parking lot entrance, hoping to get out before somebody noticed the Muslim from India at the scene of a terrorist attack. If he took time to flash his badge, it would possibly mean the difference between life and death for some innocent.

Najib did a little math in his head as he jogged towards his rental car. If those vans were cruising at normal speed, they would have fired all their grenades over a length of 2 kilometers – two terminals, one grenade per 40 meters or so from each van. Ten vans meant a grenade every 5 or 6 meters, spread out over the length of the airport.

Najib’s car had been backing out to meet him. It stopped near him and opened a door. Najib got in and said, “Terminal E. Arrival gates.” He took a chance that the vans would double back into the airport after their southbound grenade run. Whether they were programmed or under remote control, it didn’t matter. Job one with a rogue vehicle was shutting it down before it went into a crowd like a vengeful bull in Pamplona. Forensics would figure out the how after men like Najib put an end to the what, thereby limiting the how much…

Najib rolled down his window and then reached for the large suitcase next to him. Just his luck, he was in Dallas to show his wares in a training session for a local cadre of federal security agents. Time for the live demo. He pulled out an EMP gun and put a suction cup on the back of his phone and mounted it so it would have a good view of whatever he took a shot at.

It would have been ideal for the rental to be able to go against the flow of traffic, but rentals were always sticklers for traffic laws regarding that sort of thing. But there was one edge he’d have over the passenger vans. A single word, uttered by a human. “Emergency.”

Now the thing would drive faster than permissible. Najib was in for a rough ride if a pedestrian stepped in front of his vehicle, but at least the walker would live. If the pedestrian avoidance system was deactivated in those vans, the same person wouldn’t stand a chance, even at low speeds.

Najib’s car pulled up near one of the vans in the arrival level. It was making straight for a family entering the crosswalk. Just in time. Najib yelled out “Slow!” and as the rental slammed its brakes to match the speed of the van, side by side, Najib fired his EMP gun at pointblank range. Two seconds of rattling electric sounds, and the passenger van failed closed, slowing down to halt gently in front of the crosswalk. The family had halted, not knowing what to do, and Najib barked out “Terminal C, Arrivals. Emergency!” Off the rental sped.

As the rental lurched around a corner, it came up directly behind a passenger van, leaving E on its way up to C. Najib waited until the road joined with the main artery and his car could pass it and then – whammo! Directional EMP at its finest as a second van rolled off to the side, immobilized.

As the rental entered the curve for Terminal C, Najib heard a collision and the tt-cheh, tt-cheh! sound of antipersonnel rounds ahead of him. Smoke rose from the arrivals area. Najib knew he was too late for Terminal C, so he shouted, “Terminal D, Arrivals, Emergency!” and the rental swerved away from what Najib knew would be a grim scene of twisted metal and bodies both crushed by the van and then ripped into by the flechette of the explosives.

The rental sped across the overpass to D and Najib could see more smoke coming up, both near and far. Given the density of the ordnance, it was likely that multiple planes were on fire along with their gates, luggage, and anyone unfortunate enough to be onboard. Further off, what was most likely a storage tank fire belched particularly acrid and odious clouds of doom.

But there was no time to think – Najib’s rental was pulling alongside another roofless van and Najib nailed it from 50 meters. It was stone cold dead by the time the rental passed it. Najib had one more shot and he wanted to make it count. Terminal D hadn’t been hit, and it was the furthest along from where the vans had been. The rental parked at an available spot near a pickup area and Najib rolled down the other window and shifted to fire out of the left side of the car. No van appeared, so Najib took a chance and moved his camera to cover that back angle.

Luck was with Najib, no question. Not ten seconds after his camera was in place, another van of death came around the curve. Najib saw the mines mounted on its sides and bit the inside of his lip. It approached at normal speed… 100 meters… 90… 80… 70… 60… good enough.

TATATATATATATATATATATATATA, and it was all over for that van. Four for four for Najib. That was all he could do, so he took his phone down and left his rental for the nearest security station to report on what he had seen and what he had done.

Given the state of alarm, Najib held his federal badge up high, as that was the best way to reduce the chance that a supervisor would have to explain to the FNG why it was best to not shoot at fellow government employees…