by Marcus L. Rowland
"Okay," Mac said around a mouthful of pepperoni pizza, "who did you annoy? The NSA? CIA? Industrial Light and Magic?"
"Industrial Light and Magic?"
"They've got the computer power to mount an attack like this, no-one else around here does, except maybe Kane Software."
Officially Mac is just a student at Neptune High. Unofficially she keeps the school computer network up and running, since the guy allegedly in charge is a complete dickwad. I've never quite understood what Mac gets out of this, but knowing her it isn't pro bono; Mac likes money, and I was calling in serious favours to get her to the office on a Sunday. That and paying for pizza.
"You think it might be Kane?" asked Dad.
"Doubt it," I said, "they don't seem to have accessed anything related to Lilly Kane, and even if they were after something else I think they would have looked. So what's so special about the way they got in?"
"Well..." said Mac, and launched into an explanation involving microsecond timing of signals, buffer overflows, ports and firmware that left Dad and me little the wiser. I'm pretty much a computer geek, but I'm nowhere near Mac's level. I could feel my eyes glazing over by the time she wound down.
"So... if I'm getting this right," said Dad, "they tricked the router into downloading new firmware from the wrong address, and that gave them a back door into the network? Then when they were done made it download a new version of the firmware and flush everything they did?"
"Pretty much. I suppose it's always been theoretically possible, I've just never heard of it being done quite that way before. We're lucky your ISP was logging the local addresses."
"Why were they doing that?" I asked.
"They lost a lot of bandwidth this morning," said Mac. "Traffic slowed to a crawl from about eleven up to two in the afternoon. Now we know why. Someone was using it to hack your system."
"So why doesn't it happen all the time?" asked Dad.
"Because the router's designed to prevent things like that, they must have tried a couple of million combinations before they got in, and it'd be a total bitch to get the timing right."
"Can you trace it back?" I asked.
"Not a chance," said Mac, after swallowing another chunk of pizza. "They logged at least a dozen different routes for the traffic, all of them through LA ISPs that are pretty easy to hack if you know how, and beyond that the traces are pure fiction. Most of them show as coming from UCS!"
Like that meant something.
"UCS?" asked Dad.
"UC Sunnydale" said Mac, "Nothing there now but a hole in the ground." Dad and I exchanged glances.
"You know," I said "that isn't quite true. When Dad and I drove out there last year I remember noticing power and phone lines along the side of the road. Maybe they're dead, but maybe someone tapped into them, used them to hack us."
"Let me check something," said Mac, and logged onto a utilities web site. There was a map of California, and she zoomed in on Sunnydale. "Okay, here's the area today. No utilities, no phone, nada. The cables end at the next town on either side. But this site lets you compare areas at different times." She clicked a menu option, and suddenly there was a grid there, bright red and blue lines criss-crossing where the town used to be.
"Thought so," said Mac, "I remember looking at this about eighteen months ago, they had more fibre than half of Los Angeles. Broadband, phones, cable TV. And UCS had one hell of a big feed, must have been at least a gigabit line running straight back to LA. I was thinking of trying for a scholarship there until I saw the student droput and death rates."
"High?" asked Dad.
"Both the highest in California."
"How often is that site updated?" I asked. "Could someone be using the remains of the network without it showing up?"
"Sure. This thing only shows the known network status, if someone made a few unofficial changes they wouldn't be there."
"What would you need to do it?" asked Dad, "if all of the traffic was coming that way?"
"Access to some of the network switches and cable booster stations," said Mac, "but you could do that with lockpicks or the right combination if it's a push-button lock. Maybe they'd need to switch the power back on, but you could run the equipment for a few hours with a car battery and an alternator. Then at the end of it either a truck packed with computers or a satellite base station. My guess would be the truck full of computers, the time lag would be a lot less. What does it matter? They'll be long gone, It's been nearly three hours."
"If we were the only target," said Dad. "What if they had other fish to fry?"
"I could ping it, run a route trace, see if there was anything there," said Mac, and did something with her laptop. "Okay... the line's still showing as there, but... what the hell?" I could see the screen filling with numbers and names, scrolling up the screen. She watched them for a minute or so then pressed on the pad to pause the program.
"They're playing with me. Bounced the trace to Dubai, then somewhere in Alaska then the University of London, um.. Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Melbourne City Council, General Motors, the Sorbonne... it's just going on and on. My guess is that they're still there somewhere along the cable, unless they're sending the signal back along the cable and out somewhere else."
"Can you pin it down any closer than that?" I asked.
"Doubt it. Whoever is doing this is good. Better than me."
"Might as well forget it," said Dad, taking a slice of pizza, "nobody's going to check out the whole route just because we've been hacked." I grabbed the last piece before anyone else could take it.
"So why the interest in Sunnydale?" asked Mac. "Both of you seemed real interested when I mentioned the connection."
I said "The case we're working, the one that was hacked, involves people from Sunnydale."
"Are you sure about that?" asked Mac. "It's been a good place to put on fake ID the last year or so. All of the town records were lost."
"As sure as we can be."
"Wait a minute..." said Mac, "hackers and Sunnydale, why does that ring a bell? Hackers and Sunnydale... Let me think." She put her hands behind her head and leaned forward, deep in thought, eyes closed. I noticed that her hair was dangling in the remains of the pizza. It was kinda gross, but I didn't want to interrupt her. Suddenly she snapped her fingers and sat up, her hair leaving a smear of tomato sauce on her shirt. "Got it! Warren Meers!"
"Who?" I asked. Dad looked thoughtful, like he was trying to remember something.
"Warren Meers. Couple of years ago. He hacked some security companies in Sunnydale, used the information for some robberies. A couple of his pals were caught and he lost it completely, shot two girls then busted his friends out of jail and took off. They were on the FBI's ten most wanted list for a while. Don't think they ever caught up with him. Word is he's dead, even if he wasn't all of the evidence against him would have been lost when the town was destroyed, although I suppose the witnesses could still testify against him."
"I think I remember," said Dad, "we were on the lookout for them for a while, there was a rumour that they might be headed for the border."
While we were talking Mac had been searching Google, and turned the laptop round to show us the results. Warren Meers, wanted for two counts of murder, attempted murder, credit card and wire fraud, and a couple of dozen theft charges.
"Who did he kill?" asked Dad.
"Tara Maclay, student of Sunnydale California, and Katrina Silber, visitor to Sunnydale. Also shot and wounded Buffy Summers, resident of Sunnydale California."
"Buffy Summers?" said Dad. We both knew the name, of course.
"According to this," I said, "he was trying to kill Summers. Maclay was hit by a stray shot. They think he killed Silber a few weeks earlier, she was his old girlfriend, they thought it was an accident at first but some witnesses said he'd been seen with her the night she died, and after the shootings they re-opened the case. Witnesses to the shootings were Alexander Harris and Willow Rosenberg." A lot of familiar names there.
"Any reason why he shot Summers?"
"It says here that she's the one that caught his friends, interrupted one of their robberies and delayed them until the police arrived. Meers got away, the others didn't. Jonathan Levinson and Andrew Wells. Wait a minute, Andrew Wells?" I clicked on the link. He'd been caught at the time, but for some reason he'd never been charged. "Why wouldn't they throw the book at Wells?"
"Maybe there wasn't enough evidence," said Dad, "or there might be other reasons. Maybe he gave evidence against his friends, or helped the authorities some other way. Or just stayed out of the way until after the town was destroyed. It would be very difficult without the physical evidence, and he seems to have been more of an accessory than a major player."
"Let's see if I've got this right," I said. "Warren Meers shoots Buffy Summers and Tara Maclay, and two years later one of his sidekicks is living with Buffy Summers? That doesn't seem right."
"He's what?" asked Mac. I told her a little about the investigation. Soon she was as confused as we were, and I hadn't even told her about Cordelia's alleged death.
"What if Meers isn't dead?" said Dad. "What if he's behind all this? We don't really know much about the client, maybe she's working for him. For all we know someone's planning to kill them all."
"Holy crap," I said. "Rosenberg dropped out of sight just after we found her, and it's a couple of days since we heard anything about Giles, although he isn't listed as a witness. Maybe he saw something and Meers knows it and had him eliminated."
"Then why would Meers need to hack you?" asked Mac.
"Good point," I said. "Okay, so forget that one. Maybe it's the other way around. The client's after Meers, and he's found out somehow and that's why we were hacked."
Mac was shaking her head again. "I know I'm the one that mentioned Meers, but the more I think about it, the less I think he'd be up to the job. The stuff he was doing was all routine hacking, the kinda thing anyone could do with a little technical expertise. He had to steal most of his money the hard way, if he was this good he could have made millions without going in for armed robbery."
"We could come up with endless theories," said Dad. "I could make a reasonable case for the idea that they were all in it together, Meers and Summers and the rest of them. Maybe they had an argument during the robbery, Summers pretends she caught the others and grabs most of the take, and Meers shoots her to get his revenge."
"It's kinda plausible," I said. "Do you really think so?"
"No, but if I was trying to sell it to a DA I'd rate my chances at fifty-fifty. But it doesn't explain why we were hacked, or anything else that's happening now."
"What you really need to do now," said Mac, "is concentrate on improving your security, then maybe you'll stay in business long enough to figure this out. I've made sure that there aren't any more surprises in the router, so they'd have to do things the hard way if they wanted to get in again, and beefed up the firewall software on all your PCs. One suggestion... after I've gone change the passwords again, for all you know I'm working for the opposition."
"Are you?" I asked.
"Nope. But you don't know I'm not lying."
"Okay," said Dad. "We've taken about two hours of your time, I'd like to pay you for your services. Call it fifty dollars?"
"Would you expect to pay a professional at that rate? Make it a hundred," said Mac, "I had to change some plans. Ninety if it's cash."
"Done." Dad gave her the money, and Mac went on her way rejoicing. After she'd gone I changed the passwords, the user names, and the name of the network, just to be on the safe side, switched the wireless encryption to a 128-bit key, and talked Dad into promising to buy a different make of router.
Evening got closer, and we both started to listen for the 'phone to ring. It was about time for Cordelia, or whoever she was, to call. Instead there was a knock at the door, and a guy came in. Stocky, in his twenties, heavily tanned, with a patch over one eye.
"Can I help you?" I asked
"I hope so," he said. California accent. "Mars Investigations?"
"I understand you've been looking for me." I must have looked blank because he said "My name's Harris. Xander Harris."
Note - while I've tried to keep the technobabble moderately plausible, I'm not a hacker so don't expect it to make perfect sense.
Comments please before I post to archives.
I can never remember how Warren's surname is spelled, and different sites give at least three different versions. Have I got it right?