Saturday, March 31, 2007

Chapter 11. AOD HQ

Max stood on the curb and soaked in the visual chaos that surrounded him. The broad thoroughfare was lined with gaudy shop fronts. He turned up the street and strolled along past music stores, bookshops, bargain basement clothes warehouses, and luxurious department stores. The roadway extended before him as far as he could see.

Listen to the
Chapter 11 podcast with roboreader Sangeeta.

A Rolls Royce dealership offered virtual rides in the lap of luxury, and a plastic surgery clinic next door promised to make over customers so that they would look like they belonged in the Rolls.

The sky overhead was an unbelievably vivid shade of azure. Max was always reminded, when he entered the Web, of the moment in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy stepped out of the gray tones of the farmhouse and into the surreal, Technicolor brilliance of Munchkin land.

He raised his hand and whistled. A yellow search engine cab whipped around a corner and screeched to a halt in front of him. For the most part, it was a classic cab with rounded fenders and bulbous balloon tires. An absurdly huge hood scoop, red flames over the wheel wells, and a throaty rumble suggested that it was a particularly fast search engine. Max sneered - he’d seen this sort of ploy plenty of times. Chances were that it was all show. Just about any search engine would have done anyway.

The driver slid across the seat and popped open the back door from the inside.

“Hop in, buddy,” said the cabby. His hair was slicked back and black, like a 50’s greaser, and he wore a leather jacket that squeaked against the seat when he leaned over to catch Max’s eye.

Max climbed in the back and pulled the door shut.

“What about your friend?” the cabby asked.

Max peered out the window. Other than a storefront covered in flashing neon signs listing cheap airfares, he saw nothing. The cabby nodded downward at the sidewalk. Max leaned toward the door and discovered Linus, with his head tilted to one side, eyeing the side of the cab.

“What the Hell,” said Max opening the taxi door, “Linus, what are you doing here?” The penguin hopped forward, and struggled to climb onto the seat.

“You little pecker head.”

Max sat back and Linus lunged into the cab and over Max’s lap, sliding across the seat on his belly. “And where do you think you’re going?” he asked as Linus wriggled to his feet and spryly studied his new surroundings.

The cabby looked over his shoulder. “Where to, fellas?”

Max pondered Linus for a while, and then pulled the cab door shut. “I’m not sure yet. Just drive around a bit.”

“You’re the boss,” said the cabby as he accelerated the taxi away from the curb. “There are a couple new chat rooms we can swing by, if you like.” Officially, cabbies didn’t charge fares for hauling people around the Web. They earned their keep by directing their passengers to sponsored sites; chat rooms, department stores, bookshops, and music stores.

“If it’s girls your after, you can pick something from the menu.” The cabby’s jacket squeaked again as he reached back and tapped a screen mounted on the seat back. It displayed a scrolling list of porn sites.

“No thanks,” said Max. “Maybe next time.”

“Hit the button at the top if you’d rather see twinks or tranny’s,” said the cabby.

“Thanks. I’ll pass.”

Linus plucked at the seat back with his beak until he noticed the dynamically updated ad pasted to the inside of the cab door. Every few seconds, it flashed a different pitch for some Web business or other, from financial services to online degree programs. Linus was riveted by the constantly changing colors and patterns. He arched his neck to one side, as if the images might make more sense to him viewed sideways. He tried flopping onto his back and studying them upside down and rolled off the seat to the floorboard where he flapped his wings in excited agitation, and then struggled back up to start the process over again. Max watched Linus fall from the seat three times. “Brilliant,” he said, and turned to watch the storefronts passing by outside the window of the speeding taxi.

The cab slowed occasionally at random sites selected from the cab company’s sponsors. Each time Max declined to visit, the cabby would zoom off to another.

“Tell you what,” said Max, “take me to the Army of Darkness web site.”

“Army of Darkness,” echoed the cabby. “There are forty-three cult film sites referencing the Army of Darkness, seven hundred and nine sites mentioning the words ‘Army’ and ‘Darkness’ include lists of veteran’s groups, twelve mention hacker groups, six have references to . . .”

“Take me to the top-listed Army of Darkness hacker site.”

“It’s old. Hasn’t been updated in a couple years, and most of the links are dead.”

“That’s fine,” said Max. The cab sped up until he could make out nothing through the window other than a stretched taffy blur of color.

The cab squealed to a halt in front of a stone building with a crumbling gothic facade. A torn paper banner fluttered across the building’s arched entryway, which housed massive wooden doors that looked to be twelve feet tall at least. At one time they must have been imposing and even a bit frightening, but now the doors were weather beaten and splintered. Max stepped out of the cab and Linus hopped after him. “Wait here,” Max called to the cabby, and climbed the cracked granite steps leading to the doors.

He pulled down the remains of the banner. It read “The Army of Darkness Rises Again.” Judging from the banner’s rips and smudges, Max suspected the Army had fallen again shortly after the banner was put in place.

He pushed against one of the heavy doors. It swung open, revealing a dim hallway lined with doorways and cluttered with heaps of trash. Many of the doors were open and some were barely hanging on their hinges. Linus squeezed past Max’s calf and hopped down the hall, stopping here and there to probe trash piles with his beak. “Hello?” said Max, but the echo of his voice was all that came back to him.

Max gingerly made his way into the littered hall. The first door on the right was labeled “Phreaks” in plain white letters He opened it and saw nothing but a blank section of moldy plaster wall. He continued down the passage, opening doors as he went. They were all like the first; obscurely labeled doors to nowhere. Only the final door at the end of the hall, which was marked “Message Board,” opened into a room. Max felt the wall just inside the entrance and flicked the light switch. A bare bulb hanging from a wire in the center of the ceiling glowed to life. The room was cramped, only a few meters on a side. Thousands of paper scraps obscured the floor. The walls were lined with cork boards riddled with pin holes, and in a few places thumb tacks still secured scraps to the boards. The pinned messages that remained were arranged in branching patterns, beginning from points near the ceiling and spreading out in multiplying paths as they extended down toward the floor.

Linus dived into a scrap pile as if it were a mound of freshly fallen snow, and poked his head out the other side to look expectantly at Max with one twinkling black eye. Max gathered an armful of the messages from the floor and dumped them on the penguin’s head. Linus let out a squawk and squirmed deeper into the mound.

Max turned to the wall beside the door and squinted at the longest continuous message trail left on the boards. He stood on his toes and plucked the topmost message off its tack.

“Feds Bust Key AOD Figures,” it read, “From the Sunday Post, October 29, 2001: The FBI netted twenty-three senior members of the infamous Army of Darkness computer hacker group in an international sting on Friday, according to Bureau officials. The loosely knit computer crime gang is alleged to be responsible for software thefts and malicious Internet-based attacks leading to losses that could total in the tens of millions of dollars. “We’ve been on the trail of these outlaws for over two years now,’ said FBI agent David O’Brien in a press conference today at Bureau headquarters in Washington, DC. . .”

Max pinned the message to a blank spot on the cork, then ran his fingers down the wall, following the main thread in the message trail. Most of the messages were comprised of lists of cryptic names like ‘CmasterJ’ and ‘b3atnick’. A few included snatches of text bemoaning the capture or conviction of more AOD members. Max bent down and ripped the last message off the wall. All it said was “It’s over. The AOD is dead. Long live the haxr5. See you guys in the Funny Pages.”

Max stood up, crumpled the note, and dropped it onto the floor. If the AOD is dead, thought Max, someone should tell Spencer about it.

“Come on Linus, let’s get out of here.”

He walked into the hallway and Linus poked his head out of a scrap pile. When Max reached the front door, Linus raced down the hall and launched himself onto his belly, sliding a few feet in the paper and plowing up a mound of trash in front of him. Max bent over and lifted Linus to his feet, then picked up a handful of the papers and rifled through them. Most were rants about civil rights on the Internet. A few claimed to detail techniques for disrupting phone service or cracking copy protection software. And one or two outlined schemes for breaking into credit card databases.

“Alright, that’s enough playing around,” Max said and he stood to go. As he did, he noticed a shiny booklet pinned beneath the penguin’s rump. He knelt down to peer at the booklet, then pulled it out from under Linus, sending the bird sprawling. “Sorry, buddy.” Linus rolled over on his belly and scooted across the floor.

The cover was glossy and thick. Max held it up to the light shining through the open door behind him to inspect it.

“AOD Technical Journal,” he read to himself. “Tech note 11: Oak Toabark’s Blue Box Telephone Tone Generator.”

He rifled through the pages, which were filled with electronic schematics and component lists. Max flipped to the first page. A short introduction explained that the Blue Box referred to in the title was designed to produce tones that could manipulate telephone systems - to place free long distance calls, evade telephone surveillance, and crash phone banks.

He squinted into the darkness and saw a jumbled pile of booklets with similar blue covers. There were hundreds, some intact but mostly crumpled and torn. Max waded through the trash to the pile. He picked up a handful, reading each title in turn and tossing them to the side. It seemed that they had been the source of much of the paper bits on the floor, with titles that revealed a compendium of hacker techniques and tips. Most appeared to be relatively benign instruction manuals, but a few - like the Blue Box booklet - outlined methods for identity theft and high tech fraud.

Max pushed over the tallest stack, sending the booklets sliding across the hall. There had to be a quicker way to search through them than looking at the covers one at a time. He turned back toward the hallway entrance, and peered at the wall beside the massive doors.

There were buttons with labels that read “Links,” “Contact Us,” “Search the Site,” and “About the AOD.” The “Contact Us” button was dark, but the others glowed red. He pushed the search button and a small doorway opened at the base of the wall near his feet. It reminded Max of the pet entryway his grandmother had in the back door of her house to let her cats come and go by themselves. Instead of a cat, a small robot rolled out on clanky tank treads. It was a box about a foot on a side that sprouted a pair of long, jointed limbs with delicate pincers at the ends. There was a keyboard on the front of the robot, and a small screen that flashed the message “Enter Search Term.” Max started to bend down to reach the keys just as the keyboard and screen rose up on a telescoping pillar. He stood back to wait. There was a grinding noise as the pillar rose, and it froze when the keyboard and screen were at the height of Max’s thigh. It was an awkward height - too low to type while standing and too high to use sitting down. He knelt on the floor, which put the keys at the height of his chin, and rested his fingers on the keys.

He paused for a moment to think, then typed “Doomsday Virus” and hit the enter key. The keyboard dropped into place. The robot turned and shot off down the hall, at a surprisingly brisk pace for the creaky tank treads, sending a flurry of paper bits into the air behind it. Hardly an instant passed before it was back. The pincers were empty, and the screen message read “0 documents found. Search on another term, or choose Advanced Search options.”

The telescoping keyboard complained again as it rose once more.

“Hmm,” said Max. He typed “DOS, Unix, Mac, Linux, virus, universal.” This time, when he hit the enter key, the robot whipped down the hall and rammed against the blank walls behind several of the doors Max had opened. It paused for a moment and squealed at one point, and Max had the impression that the robot had broken down entirely. Then it turned and headed back, snatching a blue sheet out of the pile of booklets on its way.

“One document found (incomplete, cached), out of 4312 searched,” blinked the message screen.

The sheet was only a front cover to one of the tech note booklets. It read “Tech note 113: Exploiting System Independent Network Weaknesses in Cross-Platform Virus Design.”

Max whistled tonelessly. “So maybe Perske was right.” It didn’t say “Doomsday Virus” explicitly, but that’s essentially what he guessed a cross-platform virus would be.

He carried the paper out of the building and read the title over again. He looked back into the darkened doorway and contemplated going back to search for the rest of the document, but there was too much trash and it was unlikely that Max could do a better job at finding it than the local-search robot had. He folded the stiff paper and slid it into his pocket.

“Come on, Linus,” he called and walked down the steps to the waiting cab. There was a ruckus in the hall behind him. After a moment Linus shot through the door, tumbled over the steps, and rolled against the side of the cab with a thump. As Max helped the penguin up he heard what sounded like a brief clanking emanating from deep inside the Army of Darkness headquarters. He looked at the building’s open doorway and saw only papers rustling in a slight breeze, nothing more. It was probably just the robot returning to its home behind the pet door. He shook his head, pulled open the cab door, and ushered Linus inside.

As they settled into the back seat, the cabby asked, “Where to now?”

Max chewed his lip in thought. He recalled the final note on the AOD message board. ‘Try ‘Funny Pages.’”

‘There are more than ten-thousand sites that come up in a search on ‘Funny’ and ‘Pages,” said the cabby.

‘Try a search on the exact phrase.”

“Still more than ten-thousand ‘Funny Pages’ sites, mostly with links to comics.”

He tried to picture the kinds of people who would have been members of the AOD - the hackers Perske had described - and what sorts of things they did to pass the time online.

“How about,” said Max, “‘Funny Pages’, exact phrase, and ‘chat’?”


Max slouched in his seat. He recalled that a few of the grad students were obsessed with online roll-playing communities.

“Try ‘Funny Pages’, exact phrase,” said Max after a few moments, “and ‘Multi User Game’, exact phrase.”

“Four sites. Three are dead, but one’s still up.”

“Take me there,” said Max, and the cab sped off.

Youtube Videos Featuring Jonathan Coulton's Music