Listen to this story on the podcast.
I could tell the dame was trouble as soon as she slithered into my office.
A real Sherlock Holmes type might have deduced this by scientific observation of her blood-red stiletto-heeled shoes, in the context of the matching miniskirt, spaghetti-strap top, lipstick and fingernails, and all this at nine-thirty-seven in the morning. But I’ve had the dubious advantage of knowing Annie for twenty-three years, and trust me, my kid sister has been trouble since she learned to talk. I swung my feet down off the desk.
“Feet up on the desk, Cliffy?” she asked brightly, by way of greeting. “Business slow?” She slipped around the end of the desk and tried for a peek at my monitor.
Well, as a point of fact, business was slow. Computer consultancy has two speeds, slow and trying to do six things at once, and today was slow. Hell, this year was slow, and next year wasn’t looking too good. But not slow enough to justify the window that was open on the screen. I reached to switch the monitor off. Like a striking snake, her crimson-nailed hand pinned mine to the desk.
“Naughty Cliffy. Let Annie see…”
Well, at least she could see it wasn’t porn or Farmville. Front and center on the monitor was a rectangular window, with two words, “Please Wait”, superimposed on a picture of a misty alien landscape. Nothing moved except for a little spinning hourglass. “It’s called HyperWorld III. The first two were fairly spectacular, but this one is supposed to be legendary. The game world is, like, the size of Niven’s Ringworld, and every square meter is realistic. Of course it’s not all stored on disc; it’s algorithmic, based on fractals. But they get everything, geography, biology, languages and customs for thousands of different cultures, everything. But you have to download it; Gandcom won’t sell it on DVD. Nobody knows why.”
Annie didn’t seem all that interested. “How long has that Install Wizard been running for?”
“Since last night,” I admitted. “I thought it would be finished long before I got in this morning. But it’s eleven o’clock and still less than half finished, and, well, I hate to stop it now. And as long as it’s loading, that window stays up, and the keyboard’s locked out.”
“So’s mine,” she said, almost sheepishly. “I was hoping you had a solution.”
Annie was born four years after me, but graduated from high school only two years later. By the time I graduated from university, she, by dint of advanced standing, double overloads (by special permission) and summer courses, was only two merciful credits short of graduating with me — and with a first-class honors degree in theoretical chemistry against my B average in computer science. I didn’t score off Annie often. And it didn’t look as if I would today. Damn.
“Here’s the weird thing, Cliffy. It’s a big file, but it’s no bigger than a movie.”
“Yes, I was reading about that. They had a thing about it in Wired last week saying that it’s probably a fractal-based algorithm. Like a Mandelbrot set – infinite amounts of detail, but based on only a few lines of code. Only here the fractal gets interpreted as a blueprint for continents and hills and cities and forests, down to where each leaf is on each tree, over a whole world.”
“No, dummy, I don’t mean that. I mean, I can download a movie inside of ten minutes.”
“Well, obviously, their servers are overloaded. But they must have millions of dollars’ worth of computers to write the game, and millions in sales. I wonder why they can’t afford a bit more bandwidth for download?”
She thought for a while. “Hey, let’s find out. Where’s there a computer we can use? My car’s outside.”
“Just exactly what do you have in mind?”
“Like I said. I want to find out why downloading this game is locking everybody’s computers up. And we can’t do it from here.” She waved her hand at the frozen screen.
“Do we really need to?”
“Yes,” she said firmly. “Haven’t you got any curiosity?”
This had all the makings of a typical Annie mess. Like the time when… no, never mind. But I already knew I was going to go along with her. My kid sister needed my help; how could I miss the chance to rub her face in it? Besides, right now my computer was working, and I wasn’t.
Annie parked her scarlet Mini Cooper in a small-vehicle spot less than a block away from the public library. Their computers were reasonably new and had decent Internet access; and I figured I could find what I needed using a few sysadmin tools that you can find on most machines if you know where to look, a couple other standard ones that I carry on my data key, and, if it came to that, a couple of really obscure ones (possibly illegal under the Digital Rectal Copyright Act, I’m not asking too closely) that if they happened to be on my data key, which they don’t, would be in a hidden directory, to discourage casual snooping, and encrypted with a one-kilobit password, to discourage everybody.
I started with something called Wireshark, which keeps track of all the packets going in and out on the net. Once it was running I brought up Task Manager, and clicked on the network tab. A glowing green grid on a black background appeared, and immediately started to scroll sideways, one tick per second, ready to graph the data flux. I checked a few carefully-selected boxes to enable some further data gathering. I arranged all the windows around the edge of the screen, where the Install Wizard window wouldn’t cover them up. Then, my traps cunningly set, I opened the browser, went to the HyperWorld website, and started to download the free trial version. No traceable credit card; besides, Annie hadn’t offered to pay.
Lines of text started to pop up in the Wireshark window and Task Manager began to display jagged colored lines, slipping to the side like scenery in an old arcade game. In only a few seconds the Install Wizard was on the computer and –- somehow — launched and running, without asking. Not for the first time, I wondered how it persuaded the browser to let it do that. Then I noticed that the list of packets had stopped growing. Surely the download couldn’t have finished yet? I clicked on Wireshark’s menu bar; nothing happened. With a sinking feeling, I clicked the top of the window and tried to drag it; the mouse pointer slid off ineffectually, like a fingernail on glass. Something had pulled Wireshark’s teeth.
The neon mountains slid westward across the Task Manager window for a few more seconds; then they froze too. I tried the applications tab, hoping to kill the Install Wizard, read the entrails of the corpse, and try again. Once more there was no response.
“OK,” I said, in the confident tones of a TV chef taking a pre-baked cake out of the oven. “Let’s shut it down and have another go.” I gave the keyboard the three fingers. The familiar security window came up, and I tried to restart the Task Manager. Nothing happened. I tried “Shut Down”. That button didn’t react to the mouse either; neither did “Cancel.” Then the mouse pointer itself froze. I tried the keyboard; it was already dead.
“Do not meddle in the affairs of Install Wizards,” Annie intoned, “for they are subtle and quick to anger.” She was perched on the edge of the desk, legs crossed at the knee, one red shoe half-off and swinging from her big toe, enjoying the show.
I gave her a dirty look, and glanced around the room. Nobody was looking; I squeezed myself into the rather limited space under the desk, already occupied by the computer and a breeding colony of dust-bunnies. I located the power switch and pressed it but the hum of the fan continued unchanged. Just to be sure, I backed out and looked at the monitor. Still frozen.
So the software switch had joined the dark side too. “Don’t worry,” I told Annie. “There is another way to turn it off that we use in difficult cases like this.” I crawled back under the desk again and held the button down for four seconds, to put the power supply into standby mode, and another four to be safe; but the power supply firmly declined to cooperate.
Annie’s cheerful tones came down to me, only slightly muffled by the desktop and my butt. “I know, Cliffy; it didn’t work on my machine either.”
Burned again. I crept further into the shadows, blocking my own light. Damn, why didn’t I bring a flashlight? Two featureless cables emerged from the back of the case. They spiraled loosely around a heavy metal chain that ran from a padeye on the box to one on the wall, then they vanished together into a hole in the wall, like a pair of honeymooning snakes, without a plug to be seen. I thought briefly of using the screwdriver blade on my Swiss Army knife to open the box, but some cautious person had installed security screws everywhere.
Presumably the thicker cable was the power cord; if I’d had insulated wirecutters, I suppose I could have stopped the computer by cutting it. But I didn’t see what that would achieve except maybe losing my library card. I crawled backward and stood up. “It doesn’t want to turn off.”
Annie smirked, then looked thoughtful. “I wonder where they keep the circuit breakers?”
At this rate, I foresaw, before the afternoon was out, we would be out by the highway overpass, sabotaging the town’s main transformer station. Correction: I would be sabotaging it, while Sis stood by in the parking lot looking cute, puzzled, and innocent, and a couple patrol cars crunched to a halt in the gravel. I shook my head firmly and switched off the monitor, and we moved on to another machine.
Two hours later, I had twenty-three IP addresses, and the library had seventeen frozen computers. One address –- always the first on the list — was the same each time, but only a few kilobytes had been sent to or from it –- a postcard, by internet standards. The other one was different on each time, and each time it was with this one that the wizard had begun an increasingly complex conversation until it noticed me eavesdropping and told me to go forth and multiply. On a few occasions one or two more servers had joined the party as well. None of my other tools had gotten any more detailed information and one particular favorite, Bl@ck@ddr, appeared to have mysteriously vanished from my write-protected data key. I hoped the backup in my office was still safe; the guy I got it from originally won’t be around to get me a replacement for two more years, even if he gets parole on schedule.
I copied the addresses from the frozen screen by hand, unplugged my data key, and stood up. The librarians didn’t seem to have noticed us yet. We walked over to the last working public computer in the room, and I ran my address collection through WHOIS. After a few minutes, I had locations for almost all the servers. Several were in the US, a couple were in Germany, one in Australia, one in the UK… Hell, these people had servers all over the world! They had one in Pakistan. Why were they so damn slow?
I brought up Google Maps and started running street addresses, in the hope of seeing how big their branch offices were. I started with the exotic ones, just out of curiosity. Some of them were in suburbs, in what appeared from the street view to be ordinary residential houses. One was in a neighborhood in Karachi that had never been visited by a Street View camera car, but from orbit it looked like a house too. Two were in North American slums that had been visited, but (to put it mildly) hadn’t bothered to comb their hair first. Not a single technology park. One office building, but it appeared to be entirely owned by a bank; at least, nobody else had their shingle outside. This made no sense whatsoever. I started to copy in the next address.
“OK, Cliffy. Let’s go ask them.”
“Look.” She pointed at the business address for the first server on the list, the odd one out, the one that always got asked. Maybe starting with the exotic ones hadn’t been such a great plan after all. “They’re less than half an hour’s drive from here.”
“That’s crazy, Annie. Gandcom are big. If they were located near here, I’d know. I’d be meeting their programmers. My suppliers would deliver to them too.” They’d be trying to hire me.
“Bet? How about we drive over and check them out right now?”
See what I mean by trouble?
“So, Cliffy, did the story in Wired tell you anything about how the security works?” We were driving eastward under a wide blue sky; a crazy quilt of golden and green rectangles stretched out on either side.
“Nobody really knows. You saw what happened when I tried to snoop the Install Wizard? Well, apparently HyperWorld itself fights just as dirty. If it finds a debugger running, it shuts it down and trashes both executable files on the hard drive -– the debugger’s and its own. And then it won’t load again on the same computer unless you format the drive and reinstall the operating system. When it’s not running, it’s heavily encrypted. What they think is, when you run it, it only decrypts the one little bit of itself that’s active at that moment, then erases it when it’s done.”
I was interrupted by a raucous wolf whistle from the dashboard GPS. I looked at Annie; she just smirked. Well, if my vain and politically incorrect little sister wanted to corrupt the morals of her own navigational system, I guess it was her business. She glanced down, slowed slightly, and took a right turn onto a dusty road.
When we were back to a steady speed, she spoke again. “So, what you were saying. How does that help us?”
“It doesn’t, as far as I can see. Some people have managed to snag a few kilobytes of the decrypted code here and there, and they say it looks like a nightmare. Like the sort of spaghetti code people used to write in BASIC, only worse -– GOTO jumps pointing all over a hundred megabytes of self-modifying machine code.”
“No way can that game be written in BASIC.” Even a theoretical chemist knows that much, though if you want my opinion the FORTRAN they use isn’t much better.
“No, of course not. The point is, you can’t write that sort of code for a hundred megabytes in anything. Nobody can. The whole idea of modern computer languages is to ensure that you don’t have to; everything is broken up into small chunks that only interact in a controlled fashion. Maybe a genius programmer with Asperger’s and a family-size box of caffeine pills could do it for ten kilobytes, but the difficulty goes with the square of the size – at least.”
“But somebody did write it,” Annie pointed out.
“Well, maybe not. There’s a guy at Stanford who is working on compilers with artificial intelligence, and he thinks maybe it comes from something like that.”
“So they tell it the big picture and it does all the details?”
“Yes, that’s about it. Of course, it would need a huge processor cluster to do it, but I guess they can afford one. The other weird thing is, most games are mostly scene files. HyperWorld doesn’t have any; it seems to generate everything on the fly, all the different animals and plants and buildings. And they’re like snowflakes, all different. So it looks as if whoever or whatever writes the program does the scenery artists’ job too, and that must put the computing requirements through the roof.” I looked around the open landscape. There were a few large buildings in sight; but judging by the architectural style and the fragrance on the country breeze, they were pig barns.
Annie slowed some more. Ahead of us, the view was dominated by the rear end of a large, placid, black farm horse, bearing on its back a skinny girl with braided strawberry-blonde hair, about thirteen years old, dressed in cutoff jeans, a faded T-shirt, sneakers, and a ball cap. She was listening to something through earbuds, occasionally swaying and twitching to the rhythm, and she was apparently oblivious to the Cooper’s presence, though we were almost close enough to count the freckles on her arms. Neither she nor the horse seemed to be in any hurry and there was no space to pass. I tried to reach over and sound the car’s horn, but Annie wouldn’t let me. Eventually, the GPS whistled again (this time Annie looked just a little embarrassed), and the mailbox that we were looking for drifted up on our right. The car purred to a stop, as Annie double-checked the number and the GPS.
In defiance of logic, everything matched up. We drove up the short driveway to the small one-story house, and parked beside a muddy pickup truck. The building looked as if it might have a finished basement, but there was no attic. Annie got out and walked to the door; I followed. She knocked. There were footsteps inside – not many – and the door opened on a lean, grizzled cowboy in horn-rimmed glasses.
He wasn’t wearing a Stetson, and his feet were in battered sneakers rather than cowboy boots, but with his faded Levis, plaid shirt, and weathered skin, it was easy to imagine him riding herd out in the endless grasslands that surrounded us. His pale blue eyes assessed us slowly — mainly Annie. “Can I help you, Miss?” My sister has that effect on guys.
“Well, I surely hope so. I was wondering if you had a washroom that a lady could use?” She shifted her weight from foot to foot.
“Sure thing, Miss.” He practically took her arm as he showed her to a door near the far end of the large front room. “Just down the stairs and on your left.” She went through the door; I heard the brisk tap of high heels on wooden steps.
I discreetly checked out the front of the house. The black plastic cable linking the house to the line of poles along the road looked like a standard TV cable, but if that sheath was full of optical fibers instead the bandwidth could be phenomenal. The main electric service line was more informative. No way was that old cable powering a thousand computers; from the shabby sheathing and antique insulators, I’d have guessed sixty-amp service. Turn the coffeemaker and the fan on at once and blow a fuse. Besides which, it was clear that there was no air conditioning here anywhere near sufficient to keep a roomful of electronics cool. On-site power generation? If so, it was silent. Unlikely. But there was the sign by the door, inconspicuous, like a small-town lawyer’s whose clients all know where to find him anyway: Gandcom.
I looked back inside. I saw three beige-box computers, an external hard drive, a printer-scanner, and two filing cabinets. The furniture was incongruously good. Very good. Just looking at those chairs made you realize how much you wanted to sit down — for, say, two or three hours. A really nice carpet. The pictures on the walls looked like originals. Then I recognized one of them and I shivered. If that one was an original, I was way, way, out of my class. Apart from that, nothing.
There was a faint sound of a toilet flushing and a minute later Annie reappeared. She didn’t seem to be in any hurry to get out of the house and he wasn’t rushing her. I stepped inside and stood leaning against the doorframe. “So you run your business out of here?” Annie asked.
“Yes — I didn’t get your name?”
“I’m Dr. Annie Hahn and this is my brother Clifford. “
“Pleased to meet, you, Miss Hahn. I’m Jim Gand.” She shook his hand and didn’t correct him, generally a bad sign with Annie. Since her graduation last year, any time my sister doesn’t insist on “Dr” from strangers, you may assume that she is either channeling Niccolò Machiavelli or dead. If you want to know how this squares with the way she usually dresses, please take a place in line. Behind me and Mom, anyhow; Dad gave up trying to figure her out years ago. Right now I was just happy that she was taking this seriously.
“So this is where you run your business from?” She indicated the sign.
“This room is; there’s a kitchen and bedroom in back. Simple but sufficient.”
“If there’s a kitchen, do you suppose you could get me a glass of water, Mr. Gand? It’s pretty hot out and I’m really thirsty.” I thought she was turning on the damsel-in-distress-and-a-miniskirt act just a little too strongly, but what do I know?
“Sure. Afraid I’ve only got tap water.”
Annie gave him her best smile. “That’d be fine, Mr. Gand.”
He went across the room, opened the door into what certainly appeared to be a kitchen, and turned out of sight. I heard water running.
“Anything down there?” I breathed.
“Bathroom, spare bedroom, and I think a couple of storerooms. One of them might be a workshop, but it’s a mess. Concrete floor. Washer and drier.”
He came back with Annie’s glass of water. It had ice cubes in it; from the way he handed it to her, I was surprised not to see a slice of lemon and a paper umbrella. She accepted it graciously. “Thank you. So you have most of your other people and computers somewhere else?”
“No, it’s just me and the computers you see here. That’s all the equipment I own and I don’t have any employees. Lady comes in once a week to clean.”
All the equipment I own. Something about the phrasing seemed a little odd. And suddenly I knew.
I knew where Gandcom’s development cluster was. I knew why their servers were located where they were. I even knew why they didn’t sell their game on DVD.
“You’re telling me the truth, aren’t you, Mr. Gand? You really are telling me the truth. You produce HyperWorld, but you really don’t have any other computers of your own. Every time you sell a copy of the game, your installer takes over somebody’s machine for a day or so.”
I paused to see what effect I was having. For the first time since we arrived, he was looking at me instead of Annie. His mouth was as neutral as a poker champion’s, but his eyes were wary. I pushed on.
“It becomes part of a huge distributed computing system linked up by the Internet. That machine on your desk never does more than pass around a few IP addresses and credit card numbers. Everything else — the downloading, the development of the next version, and for all I know your accounting and your corporate Christmas card list — is done by that cloud of customers’ computers.”
He drummed his fingers on the back of a chair and grinned lazily. “Works, too. No way I’d ever have raised the money to buy a server farm big enough to deliver HyperWorld III without selling it out to the vulture capitalists. Let alone the machines I’m going to need to create the algorithms for HyperWorld IV. Those things take time.”
“That’s all very well, damn it! But you’ve locked up a million people’s computers with your Trojan. Including mine.”
“So that’s why you’re here — Look, Miss, I’m truly sorry.” (He did sound apologetic. Did I mention that Annie has that effect on guys?) “But you did read the end user license agreement before you started the installer, didn’t you, Miss? Where you authorized Gandcom to run any software we deem necessary, for purposes including but not limited to the installation process?”
Annie just spluttered. She had been silently putting up with being called “Miss” for several minutes, and her silence was no longer self-control but the Lagrange point between two equally imperative explosions.
I could feel for her, but even if the answer hadn’t been addressed to me, I had my own agenda. “Do you think that matters? If I take this public, you’re cooked. People get pretty upset about privacy these days. Nobody’s going to download your game if they know it’s going to take over their computer.”
He raised his bushy eyebrows. “Wouldn’t be too sure. A lot of people want that game pretty bad. But you said ‘if you take this public.’ Does that mean you haven’t made your mind up?”
“It depends if you meet my price.” Before I closed my mouth I was aware of how silly it sounded. But I wasn’t trying to win a prize for acting here.
“And what’s that?” He was the poker player, but maybe I had a better hand.
“I want a job with you.”
His eyebrows slowly rose again and hung for a long moment, like a wave starting to break. Then he smiled, not all at once but slowly, and finally chortled.
“You’re hired. While it’s true that now I’ve got this game started, it pretty nearly writes itself, this is getting just a bit big for a one-man show, and my to-do list is getting out of hand. And if you can figure my business plan out cold like that, you have the kind of devious mind that I need.” He named a figure. For just an instant, Annie’s scarlet lips gaped in an O of astonishment.
Jim Gand waited calmly for my answer, like he’d asked me if I wanted a beer. I wasn’t going to dicker; my dry mouth could just about manage the word “yes”, and when I said something, that’s exactly what I was going to say. But I paused, savoring the moment. Like I said, it’s not every day I get to score off my sister.
Robert Dawson teaches mathematics at Saint Mary’s University. When not teaching, doing research, or writing, he enjoys hiking, cycling, fencing, and music. He is an alumnus of the Sage Hill and Viable Paradise writing workshops.