When I was a little girl, at some nearly-forgotten family reunion, some distant uncle sat me on his lap and tried to entertain me with the story of a 'glorious' fox hunt. To hear him tell it, a cavalry of horsemen and a kennel of slavering hounds performed some magnificent feat by chasing one scared, lonely fox up a tree. Try as I might, I could not find the glory in that story . . . only the shame. Faced with such overwhelming odds, even the sly fox couldn't hope to escape. Unless . . .
"Nikki, are you okay?" Ollie studied me like a rogue specimen.
"I'm fine, Ollie. Just gathering a bit of wool . . . or fox fur, to be more precise."
Clearly, Ollie was still concerned. "I thought you were going to get Samuels up here. You know, to explain your 'shell game' plan?"
"Yes, I remember, Ollie. I was just trying to figure out how many foxes it might take to flummox the hounds." His look of deepening concern nearly melted my heart. "Really, Dear, I know it seems I'm mixing my metaphors, but it all comes down to the same thing. If our foes play the shell game, we need to hide the pea. If they hunt the fox, we need to hide the fox. Really, Ollie, I'm making sense."
"Of course you are, Darling. Let's get Samuels up here before you dream up some other quaint analogy."
I didn't appreciate Ollie's tone, and Dmitri's gaze was none too reassuring, either. By instinct, I was about to call out to Crystal to do my bidding, but Crystal was still MIA. This irked me. But I had no time for petty irks at that moment. I punched in the number for Ed O'Reilly's office. Jack Quincy answered.
"Jack, Nikki. I need you to tell Samuels to get up here right away."
"You mean the Hot Shot Kid? I don't know. He doesn't like to be disturbed."
"And I don't like financing jackasses, Jack. Get him up here now." I slammed the receiver.
"Care to give us a preview, Nikki," asked Dmitri.
"How much do you know about outwitting cyber-worms?"
"Those are not the kind you use as fish bait, right?"
"That much, huh? And how much do you know about fox hunting?"
"Are you purposely trying to make me look stupid?"
"Perhaps we'd better wait for the expert." I held my glass up again. "Hit me, Ollie."
We didn't have to wait long.
As soon as Samuels entered the office, Ollie asked him, "Okay, Tim, how many foxes does it take to catch a fish?"
"Ignore my husband, Tim, he drinks. What's the latest?"
"Well, I know this is a SISI production. His encryption codes may as well be fingerprints. But we're not having any luck finding a kill-switch."
"Are you saying it's just a matter of time until the worm finds Obadiah?"
He squirmed. "That's a plausible scenario."
Ollie spoke up. "No. That's an unacceptable scenario."
Before Tim could respond, I asked, "Tim, what would happen if we make a hundred, maybe two hundred copies of Obadiah?"
Samuels looked worried. "We'd have up to two-hundred-percent more problems."
"I don't think so. See, once the copies are made, we're going to shoot them off--as close to simultaneously as possible--to our offices and affiliates all over the world."
"Ah, I think I understand. You want to confuse the worm . . . or, the hounds. But with all those copies hanging around, aren't you afraid of leaks?"
"Actually, I'm still thinking of this as a shell game . . ." I looked at Ollie . . . "with a fox hunt component. As for the copies, can you arrange for all those copies to self-implode the very moment they reach their cyber destinations?"
"I get it! The copies act as decoys, leaving a scent trail that branches off in two hundred different directions. Even SISI can't be equipped to handle all those variables. And even if he does manage to track a few, when he turns over the shell, the pea will be gone. We'll send him on a merry goose chase."
Ollie rolled his eyes. "Great," he sighed, "another animal analogy." He pointed at me. "You started this. How in the world did we get from peas to fish to foxes to wild geese?"
"Ideas evolve," I said, "but you Neanderthals wouldn't know about that."
Dmitri sported a look of vindication. "So we're going to blow up Obadiah after all. Smart move."
"All but the original, Dmitri. And I have special plans for that."
People are always searching for new ideas.
I've had better luck with new takes on old ones.
- L. Oliver Bright
Dmitri's idea for discreetly blowing up Obadiah appealed to me. Hiding and protecting such sensitive information is an onerous task. Not to mention, a dangerous one. Until now, Obadiah's security had never been seriously threatened. But while we'd grown more comfortable, even more complacent, the file's explosive potential hasn't waned in the slightest. In fact, in view of the current fervor over Russia's possible interference in our latest Presidential election, the Obadiah revelations could be more relevant than ever.
"If we blow up Obadiah," said Ollie, "we're not entirely off the hook. In fact, we might be even worse off."
"I don't get it," I said.
Ollie sipped from his glass. "Instead of protecting Obadiah outright, we'll be compelled to protect the secret that we blew up Obadiah. I'm not sure it will be any easier to protect a secret than a file. If word reaches certain parties that Obadiah now longer exists, the threat of exposure is gone . . . along with all our leverage."
Again, Dmitri shrugged. "We compiled 'leverage' once, we can do it again."
I spoke up. "We pulled the rabbit out of a hat once. I don't expect our not-so-friendly friends are going to fall for the same trick twice."
"Besides," added Ollie, "even if we were able to pull off another sleight-of-hand, we'll be faced with exactly the same problem we're facing now--protecting whatever new information we uncover. I say, securing a tangible Obadiah in the hand, is better than anticipating a hypothetical Obadiah in the bush."
I held up my empty glass. Ollie brought the vodka bottle and topped us all off.
"So," I said, "did we just take the scenic route to deciding that Obadiah is the Alamo, and we're duty-bound to defending it to the last man . . . or woman."
Dmitri nodded. "Though you could have come up with a cheerier analogy, dear Nikki."
"World War II Leningrad?" suggested Ollie.
"Save the sackcloth," I said. "Maybe we have one more trick up our sleeves."
Ollie exchanged a look with Dmitri. "We're listening," they said in unison. Those two in agreement? Surely the world as we knew it has come to a stupendous end.
"Actually, friends, I'm thinking about a Twenty-First Century cyber-version of the old shell game."
Ollie grinned. "You mean that old 'the-hand-is-quicker-than-the-eye' scam? You hide the pea, shuffle the shells, then dare the rube to find it?"
"That's pretty much the gist."
Dmitri looked troubled. "And Obadiah is the pea, I suppose."
"You suppose correctly."
"And the shells?" asked Ollie.
"Think of shell corporations."
Again, Ollie grinned. "You're going to 'wash' Obadiah, like dirty drug money?"
"Something like that. And who's making inappropriate analogies, now? Where's the best place to hide a pea?"
The two men shrugged.
"In a can full of peas. And that's exactly what I plan on opening."
Ollie looked at me with clear admiration. "You really think it could work? You know, that big can you're opening could be full of worms, too."
"I thought of that. Let's get young Mr Samuels up here. I'm betting the pea is faster than the worm."
Even the highest technologies are man-made.
If you can trick a man, you can trick his technology.
- L. Oliver Bright
As much as I wanted to hover around the IT department during this time of crisis, I knew I'd just be in the way. On top of that, I'd be undermining young Samuel's new authority. So, I went back to my office. And it was a good thing I did.
Ollie and Dmitri had staked out opposite corners of my office and engaged in a rousing game of You Can't Ignore Me, Because I Ignored You First. Clearly, Ollie had arrived first, because he occupied the corner with the wet bar. Dmitri, a latecomer, had to settle for the corner with the stunning view of seventeen or eighteen states.
I walked into the middle of the room. "Gentlemen," I said, "is this cessation in hostilities officially binding, or merely temporarily convenient?"
"What hostilities?" asked Ollie.
"I was merely enjoying the view, Nikki," said Dmitri.
"Yeah, sure." I turned to Ollie. "Where's Crystal?"
"I haven't seen her," he said.
"Great. Not only can any stranger from the street just wander into my databases, my office is open to the public, as well. Whatever happened to trusted gatekeepers? Do you suppose Saint Peter ever sneaks off for a cold one, leaves the Pearly Gates unguarded? Heaven's version of the honor system?"
"I am sorry, Nikki," said Dmitri. "I suppose I should have waited in the outer office, but I didn't think you'd mind."
"Yeah, well, I mind," said Ollie.
"What you mind, Oliver, is of no interest to me."
I sat behind my desk. "Simmer down, boys, recess is over. Come over here and sit. We have a lot to discuss. But before you come over Ollie, could you pour us each a splash of vodka?"
"It's not even ten a.m., Nikki."
"The world as we know it might just blow up in our faces today. This is no time to stand on ceremony . . . or abstinence."
I filled the men in on my decision to put our Obadiah defenses in the hands of young Samuels.
"Good idea," said Ollie. "These young kids were weaned on cyber-milk. What the rest of us have to be taught, these younger people intuit. It's almost like they're USB-plugged in from birth."
"Oliver is correct. While we . . . mature people . . . labor along step by step, they leap, dive, and swoop over paths of logic invisible to us."
Okay, the guys agreed with me. But that wouldn't buy lunch.
"Dmitri," I said, "Samuels--leaping and swooping unseen paths of logic--believes this attack is originating from somewhere in Eastern Europe."
"I would not be surprised," he said.
"And why is that, Comrade," asked Ollie sharply.
"The Slavs, Letts, even the Turks, and other ethnic groups have stolen a march on your Western youth. While your kids squander their cyber skills on elaborate fantasy games, the Easterners have turned their skills to for- profit endeavors."
"They've become proficient cyber-thieves, is that it, Dmitri?"
"I would expect you to see it that way, Oliver. Actually, they've become Cyber Capitalists."
Ollie snorted. "Cyber Opportunists and Cyber Extortionists, more like."
Dmitri smiled. "You say potato, I say vodka."
"Listen," I said, "we all have good reasons to want Obadiah secure, unthreatened--"
Dmitri interrupted. "The best way to keep it secure, my friends, is to blow it up. That which no longer exists cannot be used against us."
"True," I said, "but we lose Obadiah's leverage. That leaves us vulnerable in many other ways."
"Nikki makes a good point," said Ollie.
Dmitri shrugged in that uniquely Russian way. "I said we should blow it up, I didn't say we should issue a press release."
I wondered if Dmitri might be making a valid point. "You're saying if we blow up Obadiah we no longer have to protect it . . ."
Ollie took up where I left off. "But if certain parties are unaware of Obadiah's demise, our leverage remains intact."
"Precisely. We eliminate our exposure, but maintain our upper hand."
"But our 'upper hand' is really a straw dog," I said.
"And straw dogs have a habit of bursting into flames." Ollie had finished my thought.
Strategy is just a highfaluting word for educated gamble. -- L. Oliver Bright
As you might guess, the IT department of a global media company is a sprawling affair. In fact, it occupied the entire seventh floor, and a sizable portion of the eighth. As CEO, I'd always taken inordinate pride in Page & Spine's ability to harness and exploit the latest technological advances and techniques in information processing. But, as just plain Nikki, I've always been overwhelmed--even a little intimidated--by this science I understood about as well as I understood alchemy.
Stepping off the elevator at the seventh floor, my senses threatened to become overloaded. The frantic activity. The palpable energy. The buzz of hushed voices. The clicks and clacks, bells and beeps. I couldn't help but think of a functioning hive.
From the left, Jack Quincy, Ed O'Reilly's number two man, approached.
"Nikki," he said, "good to see you. Any news about Ed?" He shot young Samuels an odd look.
I shook my head. "You'll be the first to know. Is Tom LaBelle around? I need to speak with you both."
"Sure, Nikki. Why don't you wait in my office while I corral Tom." He looked at Samuels. "We can use your help in Section Six, Tim."
I said, "Tim's with me for the time-being, Jack."
Questions crossed his face, but he knew better than to ask any. "I see. Let me go get Tom."
Jack Quincy's office was everything you'd expect from a lifelong computer nerd. Neat. Spare. Almost antiseptic. Keyboards and screens dominated the room. I was willing to bet it would take a bloodhound to locate a single scrap of paper or pen in this office. Just an observation . . . no judgment attached.
Tim cleared his throat, then said, "Uh, Nikki, maybe I should go back to my place in Sector Six. Quincy and LaBelle are both qualified men."
"Not for this crisis, they're not. You're just worried about stepping on their toes. We don't have time to worry about the corporate niceties right now. Besides, I'm the one doing the toe stomping, not you."
"Sure, but what if they don't see it that way?"
"I'll prescribe them new glasses."
Tim appeared less than convinced. I knew I was putting him in a tough spot, but I was in a tougher spot. What good is being the boss if you can't prioritize spots according to your own agenda, huh?
Here I was, in danger of losing Obadiah, fretting over whose spot was the biggest. What was this, prom night?
Jack came into his office, Tom LaBelle trailed right behind. Tom and I exchanged greetings, then I closed the office door.
"We've got a situation, gentlemen."
"Nothing we can't handle," Jack assured me.
"I hope you're right. But I have serious concerns."
Tom spoke up. "Since when do you get ruffled over a routine phishing expedition, Nikki?"
"Are you sure it's routine? Young Samuels doesn't think so."
Tim lowered his head.
"Is that so, Timmy?" asked Jack. "And what do you think it is?"
Tim looked up. I saw defiance in his eyes. "Like I told you when you got in this morning. We've been hit with a world-class cyber-probe--probably attached to a new-generation worm."
Tom spoke again. "Nikki, we, Jack and I, think our young friend is a bit excitable. Probably overzealous in his diagnoses. But we're taking all appropriate measures to neutralize this wee invader. This isn't our first rodeo, you know."
"Describe to me these 'appropriate measures'."
Jack and Tom exchanged dumbfounded looks.
"Well," said Jack, "you know, the usual. Introducing new antivirus software. A few new firewalls--around our most sensitive data. That sort of thing."
"Jack," I said, "do you recognize the name Obadiah?"
Again, Tom and Jack exchanged looks. "Obadiah?" said Tom.
"It's from the Bible," said Jack.
"That's what I thought. From this moment, I'm declaring Marshall Law. Mr Samuels is in charge of hunting down this worm and protecting all our data from this cyber raid. You two will offer him all the help he needs in terms of resources and manpower. Other than that, you will stay the hell out of his way. Is that clear?"
Tom regained his composure first. "Whatever you say, Nikki. But Samuels is still wet behind the ears. Besides, I just got back from a three-day seminar on Cyber Mischief. I'm the guru on the subject around here."
"Cyber Mischief?" I asked.
"Oh, that's my own term. I like to keep things in perspective."
"Really? And what did the leader of the seminar call it?"
His face reddened. "Cyber War."
"Big difference between mischief and war, wouldn't you say, Guru?"
Tom seemed to shrink into himself. "I suppose that depends on how you look at it."
"Do you agree, Tim?"
"Not hardly, ma'am . . . Nikki."
I opened the door. "You have your marching orders, Mr Samuels. Keep me posted."
Anyone can play at being a hard ass.
But really being one requires extraordinary focus ...
and a crocodile skin. -- L. Oliver Bright
Riding down in the elevator with young Tim Samuels, I couldn't help wishing Ollie was with us. He's far better under pressure than I am. More technology-savvy, too. And he had at least as instrumental a part to play in the run-out of the initial Obadiah Project ... and he stayed close to it right up until we shut it down. In fact, he even stayed on to architect the security protocols that had safely protected the Obadiah files for these several years. Our big mistake came in not instituting measures to update the protective software. But there had been not a whisper about the Big O events in nearly seven years. As a result, I guess we all got lazy, complacent.
"Ma'am," said Tim.
I tried to smile at him. "Call me Nikki. Ma'am is something that comes in little packets at Denny's. One spreads it on her toast."
He blushed. "Nikki, do you have any idea who might be interested in this Obadiah? You know, people or organizations who could have a vested interest in using these files? Or maybe, holding them for ransom? There's lots of that going around these days. I mean, whoever is behind this raid is more than super motivated. This is no random phishing expedition. No bait and hook here. We've been harpooned. Any hints you can slip me about who might be behind this might help us ferret out the worm's kill-switch?"
I pushed the emergency stop button on the elevator.
"Interest in Obadiah--if it surfaced--would be widespread. Globally widespread. But it's a small community of people who are even aware of its existence ... and I'd just as soon keep it that way."
"Small community. Great. That should help us. Can you tell me more about this 'small community'? I don't need names, just some general information."
He didn't hesitate. "Foreign, or domestic?"
I grinned. "What? Are we ordering beer now?"
Tim looked perplex. "Huh?" Then dawn. "Oh, no. If I knew where--the region--this raid originated from, it might save me a considerable amount of forensics time."
I chewed on my thumbnail for a bit. "Most likely, foreign."
"Ha! I knew it!"
I canted my head, concerned. "Tim, what do you know?"
He waved his hands in dismissal. "No, no. I don't know anything, really, but I've been getting a whiff of Eastern European all morning. Sound right?"
"What, you can actually smell this worm?"
He tried not to grin. "No, not the worm, per se, but cyber-raiders from different parts of the world have specific ... senses/scents when it comes to manipulating computer languages and systems. All my colleagues seem convinced this raid originated domestically."
"But you aren't?"
"Oh, whoever is behind this raid is trying to 'look' domestic, but that's just a red herring. Yessir. I smelled Russian Dressing right from the start. A commie Russian red herring."
This was the second time young Samuels had stepped out of his demur computer-engineering character. Very revealing . . . and nearly as troubling.
"Tim, you are aware the Berlin Wall came down some time ago, right?"
He shook his head, as he might at a child who had asked a silly question. "World domination isn't about territory anymore, ma'a . . . Nikki. It's about the Cyberspace Race. And Vladimir Putin is leading the charge. The more things change, the more they stay the same."
While I didn't fully agree or disagree with the young man's assessment of current global dynamics, his blend of cyber-savvy and throwback McCarthyism didn't sit particularly well with me. I wondered if I'd made the right decision when I put him in charge of this defensive stand.
I released the elevator brake. "Let's say we get to work, huh?"
"You lead the charge."
Oh, damn. Where's Ollie when I need him.
If everyone had only one face,
the Lone Ranger would rule the world.
- L. Oliver Bright