Authors: B. V. Larson

Tags: #Technological Fiction


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“If it was released and spread nationwide?”


“Most likely in the neighborhood of zero to six months, depending on a variety of factors.”

Magic nodded silently.

Alicia shook her head. “Wow. Crime of the century and no price to pay!”

Magic spoke again. This time she opened her eyes. “Dr. Vance, I feel compelled to ask a serious question at this point.”

“Yes, Magic?”

“Have you ever written a virus, sir?”

Ray hesitated for a moment. He felt his face redden, just a shade as a wave of heat rose up his neck. “Well, I just said that I used to teach this class with a virus-writing contest of sorts, so of course I—”

“I’m sorry sir, let me rephrase the question,” interrupted Magic. “Have you ever written and
a virus of your own design?”

Again Ray hesitated. She stared at him, and somehow the fact that he rarely saw her eyes made them seem accusatory. He recalled the incident all too vividly, since he had actually been caught for creating a virus only twelve years earlier. As a graduate student, he reflected, he had been burdened with too much brainpower and not enough sense. His work had done no damage, but had spread itself virulently around the net and caused quite a stir.

He pondered a confession to the class, but felt that he had to hide the truth. As a role-model, the last thing he needed was that kind of reputation. Accordingly, he dissembled.

“I’ve actually created, handled, and released a number of viruses in controlled situations,” he said in his best matter-of-fact voice. Of course, he thought to himself, there had been that one incident where control of the
had been completely lost.

Magic pursed her lips. She closed her eyes again and looked vaguely amused. He could tell, without a doubt, that she knew the truth. Her intelligence intrigued him—and if the truth were to be known, her legs weren’t bad, either.

There was a moment of awkward silence as Ray tried to think of what to say next. Then Alicia spoke up. Ray felt an immediate wave of relief. “What was the worst virus ever recorded?” she asked.

“That would probably be the internet virus of 1992. It halted the majority of the internet for some time and cost in the neighborhood of 100 million dollars. The author of that particular gem was a graduate student at Cornell University and received only nominal punishment for it.”

“But wasn’t that virus really more properly termed a
software worm
, Dr. Vance?” asked Magic.

Ray breathed more easily. “Ah yes, which leads us to—”

At that point in the lecture the door flew open and things changed for everyone. Brenda rushed in. Her sides were heaving. Her cheeks were red and they glistened a bit. Ray blinked in shock and lost his grip on his laser pointer. He’d never seen Brenda run or cry. Never. His first thought was:
who died?
Fortunately, it never occurred to him that it could be bad news about his family. His mind was still a bit too hazy. He just waited for her to catch her breath and looked on with curiosity, as did his students.

“Could you come with me, Ray? We have of an emergency with the system.”

Ray opened his mouth automatically to protest that he was in the middle of class and it would have to wait, but the uncharacteristic tears, which Brenda was already wiping away, convinced him.

“Class is dismissed, everyone. I’ll see you next Tuesday, when we will continue our discussion. Don’t forget the quiz and read chapter eight.”

Out in the hall he followed Brenda with his long quick strides. She was almost trotting. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s a virus, Ray,” she whispered.

Ray threw up his arms. “So? We get them all the time.”

She shook her head rapidly. “No, this is different, Ray. I can’t stop it. I can’t even shut down, because I might lose all the files. I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

“We’ll figure it out.”

“But it’s loose Ray, it’s on the net. I’ve shut down the internet link, but I think it’s hitting other servers even now.”

“How? Any important hub has a firewall these days.”

“I don’t know,” said Brenda, gulping air as she hurried down the hall. “It’s some new kind of spoofing, maybe. All the servers seem to believe the data packets are from valid sources and they’re accepting the file transmissions like kids eating cookies. It’s spreading like wildfire, Ray.”

“We’ll stop it,” Ray repeated, but suddenly he wasn’t feeling so self-assured. If it was loose on the net, and it could go through defensive software firewalls, that was different. “Okay, so we caught a real killer virus from the internet. It’s happened before, and its cost millions of dollars to people all over the globe, but why the tears?”

She tossed him a glare for mentioning her tears. That reassured him. She looked like the old, self-confident, bossy Brenda that he knew so well. “You haven’t heard the worst part.”


“I think it’s from here,” she hissed at him.

“From here?” he echoed vaguely. His reassuring attitude vanished as the implications sank in. “That means people from the National Security Agency and the FBI...”He trailed off, stunned. Could one of his students have done it? Had he himself trained a vandal of monumental proportions? If Brenda was right and the virus was from here and it was out on the net, the place would be crawling with agents soon.

“...listening to me, Ray?”


“Don’t ever mention it again. Not to anyone.”


“Don’t tell anyone that I cried. I’ll kill you.”


“I don’t cry. It was just that I hated the idea that one of our students did this. It’s—you know—it’s like having one of your own kids go bad and tear up a church or something.”

“More like fifty churches, if it’s gotten out to more servers,” said Ray. “We’ll have to call the National Security Agency immediately.”

Then they pushed open the swinging doors that led into the computer lab where all hell was breaking loose.

... 81 Hours and Counting ...

“It went for the instructors’ accounts right away, damn it,” Brenda said. A stray lock of her unkempt brown hair drifted down into her eyes. She blew it back out of the way with a puff of air from her pursed lips. Throughout the ritual her fingers never stopped clittering on the keyboard.

“That’s not all, it trashed the file access table on the primary disk,” said Ray grimly. He sat a few feet from her, and worked an X-windows environment with a half-dozen sessions up at once. “We should just power down.”

“We can’t! If we can just salvage the file access table out of RAM and store it somehow we can sort it out later. I’ve got the main back-up drive ready now. We have to ride it out until it’s done.”

Ray switched windows to watch a net-sniffer utility he had running, checking to see what programs were currently active. Three programs, arrogantly called V1, V2, and V3, appeared on the list, then vanished again by the next scan. A cold hand gripped his guts and squeezed. Something was going on in there, the virus was hard at work, but he had no idea what it was up to now. It was unnerving. He felt like an officer on a doomed ship, battling leaks and fires, all the while suspecting that his efforts were in vain, that they were going to sink anyway.

Brenda made an exasperated sound. She brought her fist down and gave the keyboard a smashing blow, something she often yelled at students for doing. “What is this? I’m locked up!”

Ray glanced over at her, then back to his own screen. Suddenly, one of his windows closed and vanished. Two more went down in quick succession. “What the hell... It’s killing our processes. Probably searching the process table for anything with super-user permissions and nailing it. I’ll try to lock that out....” His hands flew over the keys and he was able to hold onto three of his windows, although he couldn’t get any new ones to open.

“It’s doing something with VPN communications, Brenda. We have to bring it down,” he said, turning to her.

Brenda, for perhaps the first time in her life, was indecisive. “But the back-up isn’t finished yet. Everyone’s work is on that disk. Graduate projects, grades, even research projects by several professors...”

Ray nodded grimly. Some of his own work was on that disk, and he felt like he was deciding which of his fingers to cut off. “I know, but we can’t let this thing get out to anyone else. Whatever it is, it’s the worst I’ve ever seen.”

“Damn it! Viruses aren’t supposed to hit everything at once,” Brenda said, her voice cracking. “Files, the disks, the network lines, our own sysop processes...”

Ray blinked as a dark thought came over him. “I think it’s stalling us, Brenda.”


But even as he considered how to explain, he realized that there was no time to explain. If he was right, he needed to act fast, there was no time to lose. He rose and headed for the Door That Was Always Locked. Fumbling with the keys, he searched for the illegitimate copy of a master he had that opened virtually all the doors on the campus. He had gotten it from one of the janitors that had gotten tired of opening doors for him two summers ago.

Rhonda Wells, the Dean of Instruction, chose that moment to make her appearance. “I understand that we have a problem down here, Brenda,” she announced. “I’ve been in contact with the school President, and various authorities have been in contact with him. The FBI’s San Francisco office is in on this now, and their agents will be here within forty minutes. We aren’t to touch anything more until they arrive.” Wells was a tall woman with a firm handshake and a broad smile. Ray disliked her. She treated the faculty and staff as one would children who needed a firm but understanding hand.

“Ray?” said Brenda.

Wells seemed to notice Ray for the first time. She frowned. One of the kids was out of his seat. “What’s up, Ray?” she asked.

Ray made no reply. If he was right, it didn’t matter what the FBI wanted. The system had to be brought down. He finally had out the right key. He shoved it in the lock and twisted. The lock stuck for a moment, as the master key was a poor copy, but after a good bit of jiggling it popped open. He stepped into the darkened room full of the smell of ozone and flickering green, red and amber indicator lights. He began switching off systems, one after another. First the network switches, then the big routers that handled the feed to the internet and the grid, next the drives that were in the middle of the back-up.

“Ray? Ray!” said Wells from the doorway. She stepped inside and fumbled for the light switch. “Didn’t you hear me? We’re not supposed to touch anything!”

Ray found the main switch for the server’s CPU and flipped it. The effect was dramatic. The system made a dying, whirring sound, like a vacuum cleaner when it has pulled out its cord. Everything else died with it. He flipped several more switches. Glowing power lights dimmed and went out. Electric motors spun to a stop. Soon, the room was silent.

Wells had the lights on and now she stood in the doorway with her hands on her hips. She stared at Ray with a mixture of amazement and anger. “You killed it, didn’t you? Jesus, Ray, this isn’t like you.”

“It was stalling us,” said Ray weakly, suddenly feeling his tiredness and the stress of the day weighing him down all at once. He needed to sit down, but there weren’t any chairs in the room. Just dead hardware.

Wells shook her head. “How do you know what it was doing? It’s just a program some kid wrote, right?”

Ray shook his head. “No normal student wrote this monster,” he said, feeling out of breath. He didn’t have the energy to explain himself to Wells just now. He just hoped that he had acted in time.

“Probably one of your kids, I would guess. You teach all the graduate-level operating systems sections, don’t you? This is right up your alley.”

Ray was only half-listening. His head had decided to take this moment to start pounding and burning with a vengeance.

“You know, the FBI boys aren’t going to like this. They wanted to watch this thing in action, and you killed it. I think you really screwed the pooch this time, Ray,” Wells said. She frowned with a sudden thought. Her hand moved up to rub her face as she followed Ray out into the lab. “By the way, how did you get in here, anyway?”

Ray waved her off vaguely. He needed to sit. He needed some lunch and some coffee, too.

... 80 Hours and Counting ...

“What did you do? What do you mean
” demanded Dr. Abrams, his over-sized eyes bulging more than usual behind his heavy glasses. “You destroyed my work, Vance?”

Ray looked up, met the professor’s eyes briefly, then looked away and rubbed his face. “It was already destroyed. The virus deleted the instructor’s accounts immediately.”

Abrams’ face went a shade darker. It had started out red, and was moving in stages toward purple. A vein bulged in his neck to match his thrusting eyes. “You turned it off. You stopped the backup. Those files could have been recovered. I am not a stupid man, Vance. Why do you treat me as if I am stupid?”

“I’m not,” said Ray, a new flash of pain warmed the back of his head. He heard an odd singing sound inside his mind. He struggled to maintain focus. Part of him wanted to tell Abrams that it wasn’t exactly a virus. Technically it was a worm, because it actively tried to transmit itself across the net. But he knew that a correction in terminology would not be welcomed right now. Not by anyone. “I don’t think the virus would have allowed the backup to finish. It was stalling us for time, time to get out to more servers. I couldn’t let the virus out.”

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