The only odd thing anyone noticed was a brief slowing of the system. Several people sat & chatted as the wait time increased. It was over in minutes, then system response times returned to normal. That was 2:30 P.M. on Labor Day Monday.
LADWP was staffed minimally, but the load for air conditioners kept many people on-edge. Southern California cannot live without their HVAC-cooled air in the hot, humid swelter of summer a-la-monsoon, and the Department of Water and Power for Los Angeles was well-aware of the stress on the system. Power purchases or sales went mostly automatically and normally. Brown outs were not part of the plan today, and those on the system kept waiting when response times suddenly went up. It started to function just fine after a brief wait, “just like a brown-out” mentioned one of the on-duty workers, Mindy, to her co-worker across cubicle walls. She’d lamented how she hated to work on holidays, because it messed-up the family picnic and BBQ.
A rare monsoon out of Southern Arizona, borne of moisture from the Chihuahua Mountain Ranges of old Mexico, had put-on a light show over the whole San Fernando Valley the night before, soaking like few had seen it in many years. The light show awakened residents, caused the normal frantic calls to LAPD, and raised the alert level of news stations to “rain in LA — tune-into storm central for your morning commute.”
Rain-slickened streets were more treacherous than a 9.0 earthquake in LA. This was truly frightening to some, to see water fall from the sky. It was also horribly inconvenient.
A phone call awakened the on-call SYSOP at 1:18 A.M. “This is Stan. We have some abends on several processes and we can’t get them to restart. Can you help, Woody?”
Woody Carols moaned a bit, rolled over, and cursed lightly, inaudibly. “Can you just tell me,” he started in a hoarse, snore-infected voice, “exactly WHERE in the batch it stopped?”
“It stopped at the first step, Woody. We can’t even get it to re-start. The system won’t accept a single command at this point, and we’re IPL’ing the whole thing again, for the THIRD TIME. We’ve been down two hours.” Woody blew out a breath. This was odd and very bad. He couldn’t understand why systems weren’t functioning.
Woody grabbed his Android. The thing went dead, as he’d forgotten to charge it up. He cursed under his breath again. He’d have to get up and boot his PC in the other room. “So much for a quiet Labor Day Monday,” he grumbled. He patted his wife as he left the bed, and trudged out the room and down the hallway to the study. The floor creaked its normal creak from the settling of a 65 year old Burbank, CA home with many local earthquakes under its belt.
The PC booted slowly and the screen glowed, piercing Woody’s sleepy eyes with a white glare. He signed-in and was met by the normal intranet greetings. The login to the main system took a while, he thought, and then there was an error suggesting “unavailable.” He was on the landline in a moment calling the SYSOP at LADWP. The phone rang unanswered and he hung up. “Off to work I go,” he lamented. “Can’t even answer the friggin phone!”
Woody paused to inspect the technical news before he headed into work. There was a story which referenced another story he remembered from weeks ago: there had been flagrant, wildly unbelievable hacking into various computer systems for years. The Chinese were suspected to be at the root of the thing.
As he pulled-on his shoes, the lights went out and the computer went dark. “Crap!” he muttered. His power company and his work, LADWP, just went dark.
He stepped outside into a surreal environment. The Milky Way was visible above his head in a perfectly dark sky, in the middle of Burbank, in the San Fernando Valley, where the Milky Way hadn’t been seen since at least 1994, as he recalled, the day of the Northridge Earthquake, which shut-down the entire LA power grid and affected the whole Pacific Intertie.
“Wow” he muttered again, “this is too weird.” He glanced at his watch and it glowed 2:03 A.M. His drive to work was easy today, with just a scattering of headlights at this early hour. The drive down the 101 Freeway to the John Ferraro Building took but thirty minutes at his normal leisurely driving pace. The sky was pitch black, free of clouds, except in the distance where he spied the flash of lightning from a rare nocturnal LA thunderstorm, somewhere to the southeast. As he circled and drove the downtown LA streets, he noted the buildings with emergency power, lights aglow and nothing amiss.
The Ferraro Building was also awash with lights from its own emergency power. He entered the structure and hiked the stairs to his floor, swiping his access card to enter the HALON-protected area. “Woody — we’re stumped” yelled Stan. “And the grid’s offline. I guess you noticed.”
“Hell yeah, I noticed. I noticed the Milky Way for the first time in about 15 years right up in the sky. It’s pitch black. Whaddya have, if anything?”
“We got nothing.” Stan approached. “Nothing and I can’t figure it.”
Woody’s bald head shined in the glare of the lighting and he scratched his balding area a bit. “Outside the box” he said. “Outside the box, Stan, what do you think?”
“A word, Woody? Sabotage.”
“Yep, my thoughts, too. There’s been so much hacking these days, ya know, ya gotta figure.”
“I’m going to look at the dumps. You got any?”
“Yeah, here. Printed them out. We didn’t see much, just this one odd abend code. I looked it up. Something about ‘out of memory’ and that’s about it.”
Woody inspected the report and drew an equal conclusion: inconclusive. The odd code, and its interpretation in the systems manual, left little clues. If he had the Internet, he could research that a bit more. “So, then, who ya gonna call — ” started Woody. He moved through the exit door and walked outside to gather his thoughts and perhaps enjoy some cool, humid monsoonal air. He wanted to watch the lightning in the distance and perhaps gather another rare glimpse of the Milky Way from Downtown LA.
As he walked-out the doors of the building, several men approached. Like Men in Black, these men wore dark suits and looked official. Woody noticed the bugs sticking from their ears.
“Do you work in this building, sir?” inquired the first man, straight-away and without vocal inflection.
“Well, yes, I’m the lead SYSOP for tonight, and you — ???” retorted Woody, with the same inflectionless voice.
“Ivan Demitriov of the FBI. We need to chat. Inside is best.”
The other men “in black” hovered like a hoard of angry honeybees around the central agent, now know as “Ivan,” and they all mutually surrounded Woody now, buzzing towards the front door of the Ferraro Building. There was a concerted move to them all, no-nonsense, and directed towards a goal.
“Mr. Carols,” began Ivan, “we have a significant problem and I suspect you comprehend just how significant, I presume?”
“How’d you know me? My name? “
“Mr. Woody Carols, lead SYSOP and Senior Vice President over the LADWP Information Systems Division” retorted one of the nameless agents.
Woody felt invaded and uncomfortable. “Ivan, how do you know me and how’s this thing come to be known to you so well. I mean — I feel like I’m on Dragnet or something, and I prefer Woody, if you please.”
“Very well, Woody, we need to go inside. ” Another agent produced a card that opened the building like magic. Woody’s eyes flew open at that. In they went.
The agents moved to one of the conference rooms, already seeming to know the floor plan of the building. This seemed rehearsed, and it only caused more trepidation. Woody felt naked and open before them, and this was not a very comfortable feeling. As they entered the conference room, the building guard, caught unawares, followed hot on their tails. He looked concerned at this impromptu invasion and was loaded for bear, with his hand on his holster.
One agent flashed a badge at the guard, gnashed his teeth at him, mumbled something quietly, and the guard ran away like a dog with his tail between his legs. Woody imagined a sound of yelping as he watched the guard recoil back to his desk.
They entered the room, and several agents remained outside, on some kind of hidden cue, fingers on their ear bugs. “Someone was directing this party” thought Woody. Woody was a computer security expert, “top-secret” cleared via his stint in the U.S. Navy, and of course he was aware of military procedures. This was military in precision.
They all sat-down in unison at a table and Woody waited.
“Woody, we have a clear issue, a clear problem. Have you surmised the nature of this? I assume you have.” Ivan glared at Woody with expectation of the correct answer.
“Well, we suspect sabotage from unknown sources. This is pretty clear. I need to research the nature of the attack and I need to better understand some of the error codes we’re seeing in the system to diagnose it. I don’t understand the power outage, but I suspect it is related.”
“The term ‘RAT’ is familiar to you, then, Woody?” began Ivan.
Woody’s eyes opened. “Yes, and that’s not a nice acronym to hear so early in the morning.”
“A Remote Access Tool is our newest headache, but the latest incarnation is nothing nice. We suspect it here. This one is called simply ‘Poison,’ and it’s one odd tool. This one is meant to hit EPROM and ROM programs in servos and other electronic devices, and in the case we’re currently experiencing, it appears to be a backfire from a project of a few years back.”
Ivan was machine-like in his language. He acted as though he was speaking binary in his automated voice. “We were looking to control some systems and cause some damage to ‘unfriendlies,’ and the code was reverse-engineered and modified. We believe it is here, now.”
“Is this the project I think it might be, the one where we — ” began Woody.
“We shall not speak further of that, sir!” interrupted another agent to Ivan’s left, who’d remained silent for some time. “My name is Hal, and we must focus on the current, not the past. We’ve source for the old code. We see fingerprints of that in the current RAT.”
“Sir, sorry, I’m just trying — ” began Woody again.
“Again, we shall not worry about that, sir. Agent Ivan will continue the briefing. I need you to listen. I need your expertise, as we’ve got ourselves in the wringer here and this is National, not just local. Please stop and focus, listen. This is an emergency.”
“Sorry, sir.” Woody’s military training kicked-in and he sat at attention. Woody turned his gaze back to Agent Ivan.
“Agent Hal has given you the punch line, Woody, but this is what you must know. We have a nationwide grid problem and it is impacting not only electrical systems, but also the Internet. The President is already on-board AF1, en-route to a secret location, and all airports are shut-down. This is very similar to 9-11, but it is far worse. FAA’s flight systems are affected and all flights are grounded until we resolve this. We have lost several flights due to loss of IFR systems.”
“Oh my — ” gasped Woody under his breath.
“I will provide you with some source code. I need you to use this to bring your system back online, and it should help resolve the problem. However, this source code is going to also allow you to trace-back to the original problem. I think you’ll recognize some of this code. You wrote it ten years ago for the US Navy, when you did that security contract for them.”
“You have my program, Resolve?” Woody felt stunned that his little snippet of code would prove useful elsewhere. It was, after all, just a probing tool for quietly, discretely following IP addresses and shutting them down if they seemed to be mis-behaving.
“Yes, and we’ve renamed it ‘RAT-Poison,’ for short. It’s a play on words, but it should help bring you back. We’ve had several systems experts working on it tonight. It has been modified significantly, of course, over the years, but your program guided us in ways we’d not thought-of before. In a way, this program is much like the ‘Wind Talkers’ of WWII — the enemy can’t break it and they don’t even know it’s there. Genius, Woody, genius.” Ivan broke a smile.
“Sir, I’ll do whatever you need.” began Woody.
“Great, but once you’ve got your system up, we’ll need you to take that source and modify it based on what you find in your system. The RAT we face morphs, somehow, and we don’t understand that at all. Source code cannot morph once compiled, yet this does, and it is rather ingenious in its methods. It made the impossible possible. ‘It’s alive,’ I think, is a good metaphor.” Ivan stared at his co-agent, Hal, expectantly.
Hal began, “You’ve got about three hours to figure this out, from our expectations. I don’t mean to place heavy burdens on your shoulders, but you seem to have a knack for writing probes and this probe must be as stealthy as you’ve ever imagined, if not more. The code will detect it otherwise, and defeat it. Understand?” Hal sat stone-faced and expecting precise answers.
“Understood.” Woody answered as he was expected to answer: single words to the affirmative. Woody felt more important than he’d felt in years, and was a gasp at what he’d just been told. It was a little like ‘Terminator,’ and a bit like ‘2001.’ But it was real and he felt gravely about the thing. It seemed to swim in his brain. He allowed himself to return to that time when he wrote the probe and his mindset during his programming. He needed somehow to recapture that mindset and then improve on it.
Agent Ivan produced a CD and handed it to Agent Hal. Agent Hal stood up. “Shall we?”
The men moved in unison and the door opened before they reached it. Other agents had arrived and the building was surrounded. Woody saw several tanks roll by. This was getting more weird by the moment.
They entered the Halon Operations Center, which was now devoid of employees, except for Stan, who was just being escorted-out by other agents with bugs in their ears. Stan looked frightened. Woody smiled and nodded. “It’s OKAY, Stan, just do as they say” was all Woody felt comfortable saying.
Woody went to the console and loaded the CD. The drive hummed and the screen turned a different color. The system automatically IPL’d and something new appeared. The screen looked vaguely familiar, his old code, but it was heavily modified with new options. Agent Hal brushed Woody away for a moment and entered several characters on the screen. He then backed off and invited Woody to re-seat himself.
Woody picked the obvious selections from what was familiar and suddenly the system began to spring alive. “Unplug!” yelled Agent Ivan, and several agents at various points disconnected the WAN devices and Routers to the Internet, bringing down the whole WAN, except for the main system. They were isolated.
“You know the rest, Woody, even with the mods — just do your thing, okay?” whispered Agent Ivan. Woody nodded and proceeded down a somewhat familiar road. All the signs were changed, however.
Noticing one odd bit of executable code, Woody focused on this and the tool reverse-engineered the code to reveal some obtuse objects which clearly were issuing intrusive commands and providing remote access. “That’s one of them” Woody declared. This code was then deleted and he went-on. The process began to move faster as the tool, the ‘RAT-Poison’ started to locate other similar snippets, other executables, coms, dlls, and familiar program suffices. Text files were also found, as were nameless files, just sitting there, seemingly harmless, occupying space. They were not harmless, once opened and reverse-engineered.
“Who’d have thought of that — ” Woody started. “Wow — that’s creative.” He continued to comment and he continued to learn how this was all accomplished. He proceeded an hour, utterly fascinated by what he was seeing. Ultimately, he placed the meat upon the bones and a structure appeared, a being. This wasn’t a living thing but it was darn close, Woody thought. It was a computer trick, but it was beyond genius. It was scary-smart.
“Well, do you have enough to go on yet?” asked Agent Hal.
“I know what they did and how they did it. What bugs me is how’d they come-up with such an idea? This is way out there in-space, like, you know?” Woody turned to Hal, and Hal’s face smiled.
“You hit a nail on the head, and we’ll leave it at that. I guess you understand what I just said, right?” Hal looked knowingly at Woody.
Woody turned white as a ghost. His words accidentally stumbled upon the source, and this wasn’t what he’d expected. Woody turned to the computer screen. “That really does explain the nature of this, then, doesn’t it? It’s not us. It’s them. Wow. They’re way beyond us in so many ways.”
“I can defeat it now that I know how it works. Intelligence can be learned, you know, and I got their secret.” Woody grinned a grin. He’d been shown some dark secret, something we’d never learn on our own, something beyond us, yet he just learned something amazing. “This takes us orders of magnitude, you know, and in a way, that’s a bit scary.”
Hal nodded, with a look of seriousness now. It made Woody a bit uncomfortable, suddenly, and he realized he was alone in a closed room with lots of well-armed agents. He wondered about how important he really was, once this was done.
“Let me at this for a couple of hours. I’ll have a probe. I can use their samples against them.” Woody’s sense of duty overwhelmed his fear of all else, and he began. “Give me some elbow room, coffee, and absolute quiet. Also, please drag that write-on board over here. ” Woody began flowcharting things. The coffee brewed and then flowed. Woody was sweating some things, then there’d be an epiphany, then the sweat returned. He always did enjoy the pressure, but this was way beyond what he’d experienced before. Still, the chase was on and he was onto to his quarry. They had no idea what he knew, and he knew it.
The seventh cup of coffee was drained, and three closely-escorted trips to the bathroom yielded pay dirt. The code was closed, compiled, and done. He launched the code. It assailed the RAT and poisoned it well, leaving nothing behind but a humming system, now well-protected so far as he could ever know.
“Done” was all he could say.
“Burn a disc, Ivan” was Agent Hal’s command, yet Woody had already done so in anticipation.
“Done already, Agent Hal,” announced Woody. “Get it out there! It’s multi-platform enabled and should work in most systems, if not all — even on big Iron or DOS if you need.”
“Connect!” was the command from Agent Hal, and the suited men with bugs-in-ear began plugging-in the WAN’s and routers. Everything booted well, and they watched. Hal gazed out a window and waited. Everyone waited. The sun had risen and traffic was literally gone from the streets. People stood on the opposite sides of the street, wondering about it all.
A traffic light was the first sign. Woody’s critical eye caught it first. “Green light, Ivan.” Woody pointed out a window, smiling. The light was green; it was on; it was working; power was restored.
“Clean-up!” shouted Agent Hal. Woody raised-up to an un-holstered pistol.
“This way” mumbled the un-named agent. “We need to get you to safety. You’re our weapon now, sir.”
Woody and the agent ushered out the door. There was a single, ringing gunshot, a thud, and silence.