RECURSION By Larry Colen

So me and some of my facer buddies are in this bar celebrating our latest hack. I forget what it was, one of those classic student pranks, getting the root password on the school system or something. Anyways, in walk these two fem. Looked like sisters, except one was dressed to burn, the other, well, she was dressed. Funny thing was, she was one of those incredibly beautiful women, but she didn't seem to realize it. They had barely sat down when this jock comes up and asks the flashy one to dance. I was already moving. My buddies were arguing over the "one true operating system" or some other vitally important issue, they didn't even notice me leaving.

By the time that I got there, the flashy one was already dancing with the 'lete. When I asked the other to dance, she thought it over for a bit and finally said yes.

Now, you might find this hard to believe, but back then I looked a little on the scruffy side. Hell, I looked like a nerd gone biker. OK, so I still do, anyways it was a choice of dancing with me, or sitting down alone so she said yes. After the song, I introduced myself "Hi, I'm Bill.", "Albeda" she said. Then it clicked, I knew her! Well, you could say I virtually knew her. "Albeda, as in moon at Rivendell? I'm Ariel at Mordor, I loved the way you flamed that dickweed that was claiming that a 70 klick speed limit was a good idea".

To say that the lady was surprised, was a bit of an understatement. It turns out that she and I had been corresponding over the net for a while. It's kind of funny, to fall in love with someone at first sight, then find out that you already know her. She was in the bar with her cousin, from out of town. We sit down and start chatting about some of the threads we've been mailing each other about when the 'lete that had been dancing with Lisa starts getting a little fresh with her.

Chivalry may be comatose, but it ain't quite dead. When it becomes obvious that Lisa is somewhat less than enthused about this guys advances, I walk around the table and suggest that maybe he isn't acting in the most gentlemanly manner. Granted, Mr. blue eyes here, might have had a triple digit IQ when he was sober, but after a few drinks we are talking a number expressable in 6 bits. Since I had taken off my leather jacket when we started dancing, I looked much more the nerd than the biker. Especially since Al and I had been talking computers, he figured that I was a wimp and therefore easy to push around. A word to the wise, never confuse a nerd with a wimp. It'll get you in trouble. Mr. 'lete get's all beligerent and throws a punch at me. Now if there is one thing that I like less than getting in a fight, it's getting hurt. So I did what any sane person would do. I decked the bastard.

I made a tactical mistake though. The table that he landed on was occupied by a bunch of his frat brothers. They figured that if a geek like me knocked their buddy cold, I must have blindsided him or something. When I saw the four of them coming at me, I had the sinking feeling that maybe this was just not going to be my night. That was when I found out that Al was a 2nd degree black belt in Shotokan. To be more specific, when we were talking afterwards, I learned her rank. When the 5 guys coming at me, suddenly became 4, I found out that she knew something about the art of self defense. The 4 of them against the two of us, was by no means fair. But, that was their problem. The fight didn't last long. Well, that part didn't last long. My buddies saw what was happening and joined in, as did some more frat boys. Then some nice folks saw the 'letes ganging up on the poor helpless nerds and decided to lend a hand. That was about when all control was lost. We are talking going super-critical here. Did I mention that this was the friday night after mid terms? Imagine a bar full of students unwinding after a week of cramming. Imagine a fight breaking out in that bar.

This was when Al and I decided that it would do wonders for enhancing our lifespan if we separated our time-space coordinates from those of the bar by as much as possible, as soon as possible. We each grabbed one of Lisa's hands and made ourselves as scarce as the nitro-cellulose cat in the steel foundry.

Rather than going back to al's and disturbing her housemate, we went back to my place. On the way, we decided that a bottle of single malt was the better part of valor. Since Paul, my housemate, had not slithered out of bed until about 5 that afternoon, It was a rather low probability that he would return before daybreak.

On the way home, we stopped to pick up some refreshments. We couldn't agree on what to get. I wanted a bottle of Glen Morangie, Albeda wanted a bottle of Glen Goyne. We compromised, bought one of each. Lisa was funny to watch. First, her reaction when she first saw my place. It was a small duplex. The living room, dining room and kitchen were basically one room. The carpet being on the living room side. That is what little of the carpet could be seen. The couch was not piled up with computers and other electronics. Every thing else was. If it wasn't covered with electronics, It was piled high with documntation. The decor was accented by strategically placed pizza boxes and empty cans and bottles. I could practically see her thinking, "OK, this is how nerds live". Then she saw the kitchen. Actually it was what was in the kitchen that bothered her. Like she expected my to work on my motorcycle outside.

Grabbing some glasses, I turned to Al and suggested that we start with the Goyne. We handed one to Lisa who was first concerned that because it was beakers that we were drinking out of she would be poisoned by some esoteric chemical. Then she wanted some Coke or Seven-Up to go with the whiskey. The poor girl had never tried good scotch before.

About half an hour later Paul came home. In the dictionary, next to nerd, they should have his picture. 6'3" tall, or 5'15" as he is wont to say, he must weigh all of 125 lbs. He discovered that if he bought his clothes at goodwill, he had more money to spend on toys. His only concern was that his clothes were long enough. You've heard of color coordinated. Paul was color spastic.

"Hey, you're home!" he said. "Hi Moon, how's it going? I solved the problem for 109 Check this out." He went over and turned on one of the computers.

"So there are only 83 people in the world. I didn't know that the two of you were house mates. Paul, I'd like you to meet my cousin Lisa". Paul had obviously not noticed her on his way in. Being on the sofa, she was not directly in his path between the door and the computer. "Err, hi. I'm, uh, Paul."

"Hi Paul. Watcha working on?" Now, for me, Lisa asking Paul that question was about the best thing that could happen. Once you get him started on virtual reality, it is damn near impossible to shut him up for at least 3 hours. And where Al, had never quite realized how good looking she was, Lisa had never realized how intelligent she was. She had believed the popular myth that women should look good, but that they weren't supposed to be too smart. Well, Paul got her all fired up about the net, and virtual reality and by the time that Al and I retreated into my room, where we could talk, and drink, in peace, the two of them were logged onto some computer at MIT chatting with some of Pauls buddies there.

As a matter of fact, when we stumbled out of my room the next morning, the two of them were still geeking away. By now there were 4 computers and 2 terminals on. The two of them, on separate machines, were playing an interactive role playing game based on a computer somewhere in Arizona. Bob and Steve had figured out where we disappeared to when we left the bar and had shown up to see how we had fared in the ruckus. Bob was on a terminal logged into one of the machines that Paul and Lisa were using. Steve was using up the rest of the computing horsepower active in the room working on his latest hack. "hey Bill, check this out" said Paul. "Someone is logging onto Habenero that I don't recognize. Did you create an account Casper?" I told Paul that I hadn't, and since we were the only two people who, theoretically, could create a new account, that meant that someone had broken into one of our computers.

Now that is not to say that Habenero is all that difficult of a computer to break into. We like it that way, you meet some of the nicest people when they break into your computer system. As a matter of fact, we used to run a BBS that in order to get onto it, you had to break in. But that is another story.

Anyways, just because we don't mind someone breaking into this computer, doesn't mean that we don't want to know about it. We modified the system so that it doesn't see the software monitoring it for "unauthorized activity". Don't tell anyone, but the security holes are kind of a trap. People tend to use the same accounts and passwords, and by breaking into our system, they tend to give us the passwords to their accounts (legitimate and otherwise) on all sorts of other systems.

Anyways, the trick this guy uses to get onto the computer in the first place is pretty simple, he logs on as account 'guest' with the password 'guest'. A real obvious hole that is very common on low security systems. He then finds out what sort of machine we are running and uses the old trick of messing up the stack so the computer 'returns' to a program that he wrote instead of the operating system. Next thing you know, he has special privileges and has set up his own account. He has no reason to suspect that there is a whole room full of geeks watching him work and cheering him on. He didn't even catch the reference to Saddam Hussein when the computer said "Wellcome, you are my guest" after he logged on the first time.

"Hey, this ain't no ordinary hacker here. Check this out, he is modifying the bad track table on the hard drive". We watched as he hid a file on a section of the hard drive that the computer was then told was bad data, and therefore did not exist. "Steve, this guy is doing a remote login over our net connection with campus. See if you can find out where he is. Is he just logged in over the net there, or is he actually there in person?"

Meanwhile, Paul had copied the guys "hidden" file onto another computer. When he saw that it was encrypted, he just used the guys password and the standard decryption program and it worked. I know, it is considered unethical to steal someones password, but then it is also not very nice to help yourself to an account on someone elses machine without even a "by your leave".

Paul then lets out this low whistle. "this stuff is hot! remember that hacker from Cal Tech that disappeared last month? Rumor had it that he had stumbled across some major conspiricy and had to go underground. Well, guess what folks!" Steve, have you got anything on him yet?"

" Yup, he is in the main computer center, terminal 1376. Isn't that the 2nd one from the end in the third row?"

"Yeah, the one on the end, has the sticky 'j' key. Is anyone else down in the cc?"

"Yeah, account femur, you know, George, big burly fellow is logged onto terminal 1275."

"Tell George to keep an eye on him, follow him if he leaves. Paul, my bike is dead, can I borrow Gloria? I want to meet this guy." "Sure thing, keep in touch over the packet radio, but be discreet, if he is in as much trouble as I think he is, there is no telling who might be chasing him. I am going to set things up to make all trace of him disappear when he logs off. But first I'll back everything up. I just don't want anyone connecting him with us."

"Bill, mind if I come with?"

"Sure thing moon. Grab your coat, let's go." Now when I say that Paul is an electronics nerd, I mean that with the utomost respect. Hell, he had his Ham license by the time most kids were struggling with Dick and Jane. And although it would be a lousy pun, it would also be true to say that he is a "chip off the old block". Meaning, his dad is the same sort of gadget happy techno weanie that Paul is. Anyways, when Paul was about 3, his dad bought himself a used ambulance and started customizing it.

I don't mean tinted windows and shag carpets. I am talking every gee-whiz technophilic geegaw, framinstaff and widget immaginable. The roof was raised about a foot and a half, then covered with solar cells to keep the batteries charged. In order to carry around the extra weight some godfearing brute of a motor was put in. To make adjusting antennas and such easier, His dad put a hatch on the roof. Then he started adding radio gear, radar detectors, a TV. Just about the time he was debating putting in the computers Paul turned 16. Mr Smythe said that Paul needed something to drive and gave him the amby. He then turned around, bought himself one of those fancy motorhomes and started the process all over again.

I remember Paul getting Gloria back in high school. Owners manual? forget it. Hell his dad didn't even remember what half the stuff did. It took us 3 weeks to figure out what the radar jammer was. Now Paul is a wizard with electronics, but when it comes to things that you can see the parts move, he is somewhat less than motivated. He just doesn't like to get dirty, that's all. So we sort of have an understanding, I keep the bronze age equipment working and I get to use the van when Emperor (my Norton) is not running or I need to carry something too big for the bike.

As we were getting into it, Al noticed the name Gloria Monday painted across the back, like the name on the stern of the boat. "I'm almost afraid to ask, but who is Gloria Monday, and why is this ambulance named after her?".

I tried to suppress the grin as I looked her in the eye and said "Surely you've heard of Sick Transit, Gloria Monday?". Moon and I went into the CC and grabbed a couple of terms near Casper. He wasn't anyone I recognized, but that isn't surprising, I don't know every computer geek in town. Hell, I don't even know all of the good ones.

So we log in, check to see who is on the system. Steve had sent us mail to watch out for account mang. It turns out that mang had remotely logged in from another point on campus. The only other person in the CC was George. Al and I set up a special job to log us off when our accounts got mail, so anyone watching wouldn't see us log off at the same time as casper.

I had thought about all sorts of coy ways of introducing myself, but decided on the direct approach. I walked over to him and said, "Hi casper, my name is Bill, that's my computer that you just broke into." The way that he turned around, I thought that he was about to have a coronary. "Easy Dude, I'm not the Fed's, if I were, then I'd just arrest you. Rumor has it though that account mang has been keeping tabs on you. Maybe we ought to leave before the heat shows up?". Now casper is starting to look like his name sake. He has turned as white as, well as a ghost. He is looking at me, then at the door, back at me, and then he sees Albeda. He wrinkles his brow and asks her if she was at the party at Rickets last February.

"Which of the 28 that I know of do you mean?" she laughed. "Actually I was down there the weekend of valentines day visiting Barry".

"I thought I recognized you, OK, I remember you were pretty cool, which makes you about the closest thing to a friend that I have in this town. I'm afraid that I've forgotten your name."

"I'm Albeda, and Bill has introduced himself. Let's boogie."

I tell George to send us e-mail when someone comes in and the three of us leave. Meanwhile, steve makes up a phony account shadow, and reroutes shadow to be beetlej. Paul also transfers the Casper 'files' to tape, and purges them from any machines with net access.

On our way out, we saw this tan mopar sedan parked down the street

from the cc. Taking a closer look at it, we notice the antenna and check the radio, it's not a ham radio, looks like some kind of police rig. As we hustle off to the van, we joke about it being a good thing that we went out the back door as the heat came in the front.

As things turned out, it was no joke. Right after we left, three guys in suits come walking into the CC. George said that these guys looked as out of place as a PDP-11 at a frat party. He sent us mail, to log us off and the G-men walk over to him. They ask him if he had seen anyone in the CC. George says that there were several people. Could they be more specific?

"Well, he was about 5'8" tall, straight brown hair, glasses, probably an unkempt appearance, about 140 pounds." George told them that they had narrowed it down to about 80% of the people that use the lab. 75%, if they restrict it to guys that meet that description. Out in Gloria, we asked Casper about the trouble that he had gotten himself into. He tells us that he hacking on some govmnt computers and ran across some long term plot to turn the US into a police state. with a certain group in control. They found out and want him neutralized. He could have just posted his findings to the net, but they are not proof. Could just be a paranoid fantasy. But if it is one, it is a good one. "So, who are these guys?" I ask him.

"As far as I can tell they just call themselves 'The Council'. They want to return America to her former glory. They see all of americas problems as being symptoms of 'Moral Degredation' In other words they are a bunch of right wing religious fanatics with a plan. They feel it is their god-given duty to turn this into the god fearing christian nation that the almighty god intended it to be. Americas backslide has been caused by heathens, devil worshipers and communists."

On the way home we decide to write up the story, and sell it as fiction. We'd sell it under a psuedonym just for safety's sake, but if people actually paid any attention to it, they'd realize that there was a lot of frightening truth to it. We even decided to name it Recursion, which is a computer term for a function that calls itself. In the meantime we could work on tracking down this "council" and try to frustrate their plans.

When we got home Paul told us that someone else broke into habenero, shortly after casper, using the same technique. By then, Paul had set up a false trail, with phoney mail, siccing the guy on another computer system down at the free access computer center. Meanwhile Paul had set some traps for the guy, he set the machine up with a back-virus, so that when he logged in, the machine would get his account, and access privaleges thereto.

Casper talked of this commune he heard about. Started by a bunch of old time hackers. These guys were from the heyday of programming, where programmers were considered barely tamed wizards performing feats of magic beyond those of mere mortals. They played with their toys, wrote software for the fun of it, and got paid outrageous amounts.

Then the suits came in. Saw these long haired hippies that would wander in sometime between 10 and 5, if they saw them at all. The suits wanted them in 9 to 6, to make sure that they worked 40 hours a week. So they started working 40 hours a week instead of their usual 60-80, they weren't having fun anymore. Production went down, so did quality etc. Then one day, the suits were giving a tour of the company and they ran across a hacker on the way to the company hot tub, towel over his shoulder. The next week there was a dress code, they wanted the programmers to wear clothes during business hours.

The programmers got sick and tired of suits coming in and ruining every good place to work. They pooled their money, bought a bunch of land out in New Mexico, set up some links to the internet and formed a company.

Caspers plan was to make it to this place. He has a one friend in particular there, I know, the irony of the name hit me too. Anyways, thorin knows of some caves on the property where casper could hide out.

At this point, casper looked up and saw Al laughing. "Geez, my life is at stake here, what's so funny?"

"Thorin's my brother Ted" she said, "He and I used to go hide in those caves when we were kids. The grownups hardly ever go in there, but by now most everyone under the age of 20 knows them like their own bedrooms, which in the summer half the time they are."

So we spent the next couple of days writing this whole story as fiction. It was at the point of just needing some polishing touches when Casper decides to bug out. He has a couple of other people in town that he has to see before heading out to New Mexico.

A couple of days later, I was walking up to campus and I see casper on the other side of the street. We hadn't seen each other since, because he didn't want the people following him to link him to me. I guess that he felt that saying hello real quick in passing was safe enough because he started crossing the street. Right then, a tan mopar sedan comes tearing down the road, hitting casper and killing him instantly. The driver didn't even hit the brakes.

Someone ran up, felt for his pulse and shouted "He's dead! Someone call the police!" I didn't even wait around. I went home, finished this story and submitted it to the science fiction magazines.

Last modified 07/10/98

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