The four kids who made up the House Hackers - Trey, Caleb, Zach and Tool - sent their first signals through the happy little Bobnick family home's main umbilical as tiny, harmless phase fluctuations piggybacked on the inbound entertainment web. They hadn't had to go in that way, slow and subtle - the house had an old OS, with some fairly well-known holes that Caleb already knew all about - but they'd wanted to jam a new one anyway, just because they could. That was how Caleb liked it.
The first thing the hack did was slave itself to the house remote - java judo, since the house's defenses were mostly keyed to resist programs trying to take over. Then it reported back to Caleb and Trey, Tool and Zach, via the same tricky phase change, spitting out undetectable analog echoes of every control code entered when the house's unwitting zeros went surfing. Text-only to begin with, nothing gui or greasi, just alphamerics scrolling simultaneously across the three big monitors the kids had unrolled in Zach's clubhouse, a shielded garage semidetached from the 'rents' house just across the street and two doors down from their target. But they didn't mind the lack of clickitude. It was still as always a matter of pride in some quarters to accept and transcend the strictures of the command-line interface.
So far all this was pretty standard, and pretty ineffective. Phase-shift is read-only; you can't insert your own codes back into the stream. But the trick provided a wealth of valuable information about the house's operating system. The Bobnick's HOS had been edge when installed, but had dulled considerably since - the appallingly short list of post-install mods, most of 'em sad shware off the freeboards, showed a woeful if convenient lack of concern for keeping up with those expensive advances in security.
Not that even the latest proprietary security mod would've anticipated Caleb's genius crypto-primitive infiltrator: a physical package, sent to the house's legacy USmail port. Junk mail, that is, although the PO'd P.O. had long since made it illegal to call that spade. Indirect marketing, forsooth. Trey'd even scribbled 'Good Times' as part of the return address - a clue for the clueless, though she knew they didn't know from the pathetic state of the house's own config.
The package was nothing, literally - an empty Trojan with no load inside. It existed only to get thrown away - as it surely would, because it was specifically designed to trip several standard file-without-reading triggers. Then the recyke discrim circuits would get it - and there was Caleb's hole.
Before the house could break down discards into their component atoms or molecules for nanosynth reuse, the recycling discimination circuitry had to be able to tell if someone'd thrown away something important, or if the item had special hazmat disposal instructions. So it had to be able to read - and act on - human or machine-coded material. But since the original coders had lazily presumed anything outgoing from the house would've already made it through the incoming viroid check, there was no additional code verification performed before the recyke executed. So the 'Good Times' package could make the recyke open it automatically, using entirely standard nonviral code, exposing the instructions on the inside, the part the house defenses had never even seen.
The pure viral barcode inside the package wrapper backended through the discrim circuits to take over the house autonomics, and from there went on to the rationals. Pretty soon the house sent out its acquiescence signal to Caleb's remote, the big screens flashed and cleared to visuals from inside, and the text display got relegated to the one notepad open on the workbench in front of the four of them. Now the fun could begin.
* * *
Tool wanted to make the house pipe its internal vision to the external paint - turn the whole family into exhibitionists all unawares for the rest of the neighborhood. She was halfway through coding it when Caleb stopped her.
"Nothin' too public. They see us they stop us... restore from backup and we're back beyond zero."
"Ain'no backup. These scroty lusers, Cale."
"Still. Nosies get kicks, then call the flicks. Party-party over and we needs another host, long time before the dip's gone."
Tool sighed noisily but acquiesced. Next Zach grabbed the keyboard and started modifying Tool's code with his own old-fashioned Cplus3.
Soon he turned the display towards the others for their approval.
"Subtle you wants, subtle you gits. The shits exhibits. Viz the biz, to wits," and they clustered around the display parsing the code. Caleb and Tool nodded in agreement. Trey added a bit of code, cleaned up some parens, and then thumbed it up as well.
"Razor, Zach! Do it!"
Zach clicked Exec and the foursome sat back to watch the show on the big monitors.
* * *
There was no visible change, at first. The nuclear Bobnick family - Mommy Crystal, Daddy Brett, stuckup teenage Tiff and little rat-bastard Tony - did their separate things in separate rooms, while the House Hackers watched.
Then Tony finished his game and stood up to stretch. The chair behind him quietly vanished, recycled by the house as it would normally have been anyway... just a little ahead of schedule, is all. Tony sat back down - and hit the floor hard when his flabby ass failed to find the chair. He lost his hold on the VR headset, and it vanished too.
In the kitchen, Crystal and Brett were faring no better. Dinner - four course extravaganza courtesy of microfridge to wave, recipeed through Joyocook'n software old enough to remember real beef - was halfway through when Crystal's button-pushing fingers left the console long enough for the house to pull its recycling act. Appliances popped away as if they'd received a recall, while Bobnicks B and C whirled around in the rapidly-emptying room. Not long after, the kitchen was pristine.
Tiff was worst off. The new bodymod she was trying on for a party disintegrated abruptly, leaving her wobbly, pale and shocky as her autonomics tried to readjust to the hundred and fifty extra pounds she normally relied on the ware to carry. She fell to her soft, dimpled knees and started crawling towards the noises in the main living area.
The house... was clean. Nothing but bare walls and empty floors, all default white as if the joint had been sold out from under them, but even cleaner because VReal-estate firms always put in generics to make a house a homier. The hackers giggled as they watched and listened from pinhead cams specially exempted from the house's generic deletion command - Trey's last-minute addition. The frightened family of four huddled naked in the middle of their empty living room, trying to figure out what to do. The external doors were locked and no longer responded to the family codes. The internals swung open listlessly, all but the one that mattered most. The house couldn't hear verbals from inside anymore, and it'd absorbed all its remotes. There was only one physical keyboard left for the house unit... the original one in the basement with the main CPU, inaccessible unless one of the Bobnicks happened to remember the combination for the lock on the trap door, a number that was somehow no longer where the Bobnicks could get it.
Then the house started broadcasting - not to its outside walls, but routed over the Net to an anonymous reality server in post-revolutionary Singapore that wouldn't ask, wouldn't tell. No way to tell where in Namerica the interiors were coming from; channel live stats started picking up hits from Sweden to Sweetwater as the naked Bobnicks tried to get something to happen.
Then something happened.
* * *
Caleb spared a glance from the wall monitors on the Bobnicks to look at the text scrolling up in the ascistat window on the forgotten notepad.
"Click! Tool, Zach, Trey - hit this! The numbers won't stabilize. We've got nothing on the walls but there's still traffic!"
The others, even Tool, fell back to their schooldoc baseline English when stressed.
"What could cause that?" "Where's it coming from?" "Who's doing it?"
"Nobody," Caleb said, last one first. "The calls are coming from inside the house. Frocking unrej shware!" he shouted.
Various questioning sounds from Trey, Zach and from Tool a nod of comprehension. She grabbed the notepad and command-switched to a new screen.
"Looka console gooey. House is face with ware house, try to download new versions over deadware."
Little icons of unregistered shareware, licenses long expired, curled up in a corner of the screen, their virtual stench driving away new installations until a serious housecleaning could be done.
"What'll that do to our hack?"
The Bobnick house was getting colder, as the houseware tried reallocating resources to reconstruct its internal furnishings without new licensing. And without visible success.
"Trust frockin' Bobnicks never to buy an upgrade..." Trey's anger of course inappropriate, since that very inertia was why the four had picked this family to begin with - that, and some very personal animosity between Tool and Tiff, to which they'd all become parties during those long summer days by the virtual pool.
The house got colder and colder, and it kept broadcasting. Pretty soon their live survivor riff would be snuff - more of a demon graphic than the demographic they'd been hoping for.
Tool sniffled just a little.
"We can't just let them die! Not even dimwit Tiff..."
Trey was tick-tacking away at the keyboard.
"What are you doing, Trey?"
She grinned savagely.
"Gotta get cred to update the sled - it's the only way. You're welcome, Bobnicks. Gimme your cards," she said; Zach, Tool and Caleb passed them over. Simultaneous transfers from four generous allowances went through anonymizers into the Bobnick's depleted software kitty; the house greedily sucked them in and spat out new icons writhing with life, new versions and patches overlaying each other as fast as bandwidth. The interior remained bare, but things warmed up considerably, and the Bobnicks four looked up and around for the source of the change, all unawares of the House Hackers matching four leaning back in their chairs, relieved.
Just then came a knock on the garage door.
* * *
Zach was the first one to move - his house, after all. "Shit, no bosskey!" He started stabbing at the keyboard again frantically. Trey and Caleb hit the big monitors, switching the Bobnicks to channel Zed and bringing up an old 2D screensaver in their stead. The parental voice was querulous.
"Zachary? Unlock the door, Zach. There's someone here to see you."
Panic. Zach left off trying to exit gracefully and pulled the plug; alphamerics spiraled to the bottom of the laptop screen and images went with them into oblivion. Hiding what they could and obscuring the rest, the Teenage House Hackers left the garage, locking up behind. The Bobnicks, unnoticed by anyone who knew or cared who they might be, were left in their white wasteland, broadcasting to an ever-dwindling audience.
* * *
Things happen. Sometimes they keep happening. Zach's visitor - rare face time from longlost relations too long offline - kept the crew busy for way too. Time they were done, the four had no time to check on the Bobnick's scene, not for a long time... not for the next three days, as a matter of fact...
* * *
Now that Zach, Trey, Tool and Caleb have a minute to spare, let's unlock the garage, fire up the notepad, and look in on poor doomed Brett and Crystal, Tiff and Tony, turned tribal, cannibal, past tense and into rigor...
No, not dead. Not even close. Bobnicks back to their old Bobnicky tricks, in fact, just one big-ass happy family, and not long after they were abandoned. How?
It took the four awhile, but Caleb really was a primo hacker and he figured it out, finally...
The thing that saved the Bobnick clan, ironically enough, was a virus. The enucleated family's AV having curled up and died with the rest of the shareware, the blank white house became vulnerable in ways the teenaged hackers had been too rushed to counteract, when it started pulling in new ware from the big bad outside.
The first virus to sniff out the unprotected ports happened to be a relatively benign species of Wiper - a lucky break for Bobnicks. WiperEX.99 just took over the house, reproduced itself, and then erased its tracks by wiping out the HOS entirely (hence the name), forcing it to regrow from seed.
Ordinarily, this wipe and regrow was devastating... but that was when the house had furniture and all. In this case the Bobnicks were ecstatic when the walls went from white to neutral beige and that boring old default livingroom rematerialized. All would be well in Bobnickland, just as soon as they did some reconfig.
Of course, friendly WiperEX99 also wiped out all but the most subtle evidence... luckily for the Hackers. Even with Tiff showing up poolside the very next week in a new new bodymod just like Tool's, the House Hackers never cracked and the Bobnicks never tumbled.
And that is the end of the Teenage House Hackers' first case.
* * *
©2003 Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.
Last updated January 25, 2003.