.:VirtualSalt

The Million Dollar Girl
A Novel

Robert Harris
Version Date: October 11, 2008



Chapter 8

Moths must be insecure creatures, for they never seem to fly with much confidence. So it was that on a cool evening (meaning about 11:00 P.M., which is evening by university student standards), a little moth fluttered over toward the Woodland Apartments. It lost and gained altitude and veered and swerved, but for the most part maintained its direction. After all, it was navigating by the pure moonlight. At least, that is what the moth thought. Now, the moth might have been taking what it believed was a harmless shortcut through life, but we will assume that it believed itself to be flying in a straight line across the land by keeping a constant angle between its heading and the moonlight far above. In fact, the light in the moth’s eye came from a porch light at the apartment building, deviously leading the poor creature astray.

More deviously, or perhaps merely opportunistically, a spider had spun a web near the light. It had probably noticed the large number of flying insects attracted to the bright light and set up its own self-serve restaurant close by. Had this moth, or any insect, been less dazzled by the light, it could have seen, on the ground under the spider web, the dried and shrunken carcasses of numerous fellow insects that the spider had cut loose and dropped after sucking out the last bit of tasty juice. Many bugs had “seen the light,” but it was not the true light. They had been welcomed with silk and attention at first and their little bug egos were flattered. But they had neglected to ask or think or look around, and only too late learned the real meaning of the spider’s declaration that he wanted to serve them.

Just as the moth began to suspect the failure of its navigational equipment and to make some panicked last-second steep turns to keep straight, it crashed into the light and bounced into the web. Just at that moment, voices could be heard inside the apartment.

“We’re dead,” said one of them. “There are three major tests and a final in Elderberry’s class and we are gonna die. The first major one comes up in a couple of weeks.”

“You worry too much,” said the other voice.

“What can we do?” asked the first voice, which belonged to David Simmons. “Elderberry changes his tests every semester, so getting the old ones from the guys in Delta would be useless.”

“Well,” said the other voice, which belonged to Jeremy Schneider, “he must have finished writing the first one by now. Why don’t we see if we can get it off his office PC? He leaves his machine on all the time. That would give us two weeks to memorize it.”

“I don’t know.”

“How hard can it be?”

The two juniors were sitting around a computer at a messy desk. Jeremy sat in an old secretary’s chair in front of the screen while David sat on an empty aluminum beer keg with a pillow on top. The room itself was a litter pile. Books, papers, magazines, dirty clothes, carelessly abandoned computer parts (monitor, keyboard, printer, CPU, disk drive, expansion boards), empty food containers, bedding, toys (mostly broken), sports equipment—all were strewn seemingly randomly around the room. A burglar entering any window would create a loud and prolonged clatter by kicking and stepping on the ocean of empty soda and beer cans covering the floor. The only apparently organized items were a few stereo components under the window. Even the computer set up seemed to have been arranged in haste. The CPU was turned half sideways under the desk, the monitor was diagonal against a corner, the keyboard on Jeremy’s lap. A printer sat on the floor.

“You haven’t been wandering around much, have you?” asked David. “Faculty have their own network, carefully segregated from the student backbone. It’s pretty secure.”

“Oh, that should be hard. I’m so worried.”

“You don’t get it. Nobody can get in.”

“Which means that you tried and you couldn’t get in.”

“You want to try?”

“There is no try. There is only do.”

“Yeah, well you put your mystical powers from the Force on this and I’ll watch.”

Jeremy’s first attempt was to hack in through the student network, to see if he could find a weakness in a bridge somewhere. He attached a packet sniffer to capture the passwords and other interesting tidbits of network traffic, and collected data about many of the student computers on the local network covering the dorms. Many students were online at this hour, and the traffic was heavy. He tried getting in through the faculty mail server, then through the main campus Web server, and then through the physics department server. Many keystrokes later, he was still out in the cold.

“Let’s try coming in through the outside,” Jeremy said.

“I’ll bet Gunther could get in,” David said, referring to a student in Germany with the reputation for getting into virtually any system.

“Yeah, well, Gunther isn’t here.”

Jeremy next went out to a network at a research lab in another state. He had compromised this system nearly a year ago and could get control of all the resources at the lab. From there he mounted an attack on the research network at his university, hoping to get access through it to the math department’s computers. The only result was that the IS department at the university became the object of a number of obscenities for the quality of its security.

Jeremy and David traded ideas and argued strategies, working long into the night. David even took over the grungy, food-sticky keyboard for awhile. They tried port sniffers, hacking scripts, known weaknesses in server software, and brute force attacks, bombarding the network with huge loads of traffic in an attempt to bring it into submission.

“I can’t believe they’ve already installed that buffer overflow patch,” Jeremy said.

Nothing worked. The ports were either locked or had been made invisible by good firewalls.

Jeremy finally stood up, his eyes still glued on the screen, as if he could not look away, as if one more moment of looking would show him what he needed to know to get in.

“I’ve got to get back to my room and take a shower,” David said. “It’s almost 5:30. I gotta get ready for class and go get some breakfast.”

Jeremy exhaled. “You can eat something here.”

“All the food around here looks like upchuck for roaches. I think I’ll get something that’s been made within the last three years.”

“Suit yourself. But I’ve got some good hacking books that have chapters on school networks. I just got a book on server exploits. Maybe we can find some useful information there. A little help from the experts might get us in.”

“Maybe we can try again tonight,” David said as he headed for the door.

“Hey, I know,” said Jeremy, with a new-idea look on his face. “What we need is to change directions. Let’s do a little creative thinking here. Maybe we don’t need to break into the network ourselves. Maybe we can get someone else to break in for us.”

“Oh, yeah, sure,” David scoffed. “Why don’t we just get someone to grab the test from his office?”

“That’s right. Why don’t we? You’ve got keys to most of the doors on campus, right?”

“Yeah,” David said, warming to the new concept. “Including the math department.”

“What kind of security do they have?”

“Usual campus patrol, I think. We’d have to pick the lock on the filing cabinet or desk if there’s a hard copy locked up or else hack the password on the PC if he keeps it there.”

“Hey, why should we do all the work? Why not try a little social engineering? Who is Elderberry’s student worker? Some girl, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. Amy Herbert, I think. Why?”

“I sort of know her. Kinda dorky, but not all that bad looking. Think one of us could make a play for her? Ask her out this weekend, make her happy, get a copy of the test? A little attention and some champagne should make her reasonable.”

“I don’t know. She’s in my critical thinking class. She comes across as pretty straight laced. And she already has a boyfriend, I think.”

“Who?”

“Matt Prager.”

“He’s nothing.” Jeremy showed a look of contempt. “I think we could turn her over with no problem.”

“Maybe you, Jer. After all, what girl has ever turned you down? Me? I get shot down so much my pants are always on fire.”

Jeremy’s opinion of himself made David’s attempt to put the task back onto him seem highly sensible. He thought it over for a few moments. “Well, she’s not really my type.” He was thinking that Amy would be something of a step down for him.

“It’s not like you’d have to take her to a popular spot where you’d be seen,” David said, guessing the reason for Jeremy’s hesitancy.

“Yeah, I suppose.” After another brief pause to think, Jeremy said, “I guess I could take her to Don Pepe’s down the freeway.”

“What if she doesn’t like Tex-Mex?”

“She’s from Houston. Houston girls are weaned on Tex-Mex.”

“How do you know she’s from Houston?”

“Vee haff vays,” Jeremy said with a staged German accent. “I even know that her favorite food is cookie dough.”

“So give her some cookie dough and get the test.”

“I was thinking more along the lines of champagne. I’ve got a bottle waiting in the fridge right now.”

“Think that will do it?”

“I’ve always found that alcohol is an excellent meat tenderizer.”

Two wide grins darkened the room.

+++

By this time, the moth that had by accident been caught in the spider web just outside the door had been long ago subdued, neatly wrapped up, and hung in the spider’s larder to wait until it was chosen for a meal. Even the faint vibrations that had indicated the moth’s futile struggle in the end game had ceased hours earlier. The little cocoon now hung motionless, tightly wrapped, and unnoticed by a busy world.
 
 

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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com