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Coin Flip

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  • Coin Flip

    Coin Flip
    by alep luup

    Most people never have to stare down the barrel of a gun and take in the abyss therein. Muzzle so close to the eye that you're afraid a blink will set it off, your eyelid touching the abyss will get you pulled in. You experience temporal relativity as the moment grows near-infinite, and perhaps you're hoping the second never ends and you stay alive; or perhaps you're hoping the hole you're looking into would suck you in already, so you could be free of the uncertainty. You experience absolute focus as your whole being is suddenly unaware of the rest of the world, or the man holding the gun, or even itself. All that remains is the promise of a bullet springing from the abyss, and you wonder if you'll have time to see it.

    Anatoli was surprised how, a year to the day after the fact, his impressions of that second were as vivid and accurate as experienced in the moment. He'd always wondered how other people have life-defining moments, because no matter the hardships he'd endured as a child in his home country, or on the long and painful journey to escape that and find a better life in the West, or after, he'd never had a moment like that. A moment that held its effect on Anatoli so long after it transpired, and that had defined his life every day since. A moment he couldn't share with anyone.

    "Anatoli, my boy, you don't want anything to happen to your old man, do you? We take care of him now, the Bratva is all the family he's got, all the family he ever needed. But nothing is free in this world. So you need to do this favour for us, or else we'll have to let him be on his own. And he's got plenty of enemies that would love a shot at payback."

    So did one of the men say, in a kind tone, as the other one (the bald burly brute acting as 'muscle') pulled the gun back from Anatoli's face. And every weekday after that Anatoli would make his way to the corner of Hyde and Ellis, up a narrow, addict-infested stairwell, and into the dark and smokey room that the two shared. Boris would always enjoy giving him a pat-down, rough and angry as if he'd always wished Ivan had let him pull the trigger that one time, in the alley they first met. And Ivan would always be smoking and drinking, cigarette ash and drunken spit decorating the keyboard in front of him, usually with one or two windows opened to disrobing cam-girls. With a big grin on his face, Ivan would always tell Anatoli never to be late again (he wasn't), and get to work faster already or the old man is going to die tomorrow. Anatoli sat down at the computer the two had for him, by Ivan's side, and flicked the monitor on quietly. "Would Ivan or Boris face the barrel of a gun the way I did? Would they think of it every day after it had happened, dissecting the moment like I do?" The gun was not too far from reach. They had it lying on the table since the first week he started coming to this dump of an apartment, and Anatoli had too often fantasized about just grabbing it and shooting both men. But his plan will be a much better punishment.

    "My boy, you must finish this today! We take a trip tonight, and your work will finally pay off for the Bratva! We're all going to be very proud of you, and tomorrow your father's going to be well again!"

    The drunk Ivan was very enthusiastic about all of this, as if reuniting the boy with his father had been a personal dream of his. Anatoli was tired of Ivan always playing the role of a concerned uncle (with advanced psychosis and chronic alcoholism), not in the least because it did remind him of an actual uncle, a man so repugnant to those around him that his wife stabbed him in the throat with her knitting pins one evening. When this had happened Anatoli was only 7, so he couldn't understand why something like that would happen—but after spending a year with Ivan, he'd very much like some knitting pins himself.

    Anatoli logged into the machine and looked at his bot command window: a few thousand more clients had checked in, and he had nearly 10 million computers at his disposal right now, all ready to do his bidding at the push of a button. He felt a rush of adrenaline as he tried to grasp the magnitude of what he'd achieved. The Bratva took him because they knew he used to be a Sibear, and the hacks he pulled for the brotherhood weren't any more spectacular than what he'd done in school. But this time, his actions were going to have important consequences on a scale he'd never thought of before. And he was about to make some powerful enemies — but, hopefully, some damn impressive allies too. No way to go back now even if he'd want to.

    The Bratva had understood that the next big heists — like the next big wars — were going to happen online, and they'd long established themselves on that playing field. From semi-legal gambling and pornographic ventures, to anonymous online narcotics outlets and straight-up phishing and carding operations, they had been the only organized digital cartel. Anybody else looking to get a slice quickly got sent either to the Police or to the mortuary. They were ruthless in how they operated, but Anatoli knew their biggest weakness: they handled problems online the way they did on the street, with a generous application of punches and bullets.

    A knock on the door startled Anatoli: nobody ever came to this apartment before, for a whole year. Not during the 12 hours in the daytime when Anatoli had to be here, at least. Boris lets two scantily-clad girls come in, as a man about Anatoli's age follows them, laughing and smoking. Ivan's grin subsides, but he doesn't move at all, just takes another swig from his bottle and nods to the newcomers.

    "Boris, what do you think you're doing?" says the man, gently pushing the brute aside as one of the girls looks angrily at the bald man. "They are my guests, and unless you're going to start patting me down too, just let'em be." Ivan nods to Boris, and he sits back down on his chair besides the door, watching TV.

    "I-van, my man!" lamely tries to rhyme the man. "What is happening, what's the 4-1-1 up in here? We ready?"

    "Yes, we can go, everything is ready here. Right, my boy?"

    Anatoli nods affirmatively as he's scanning the newcomers. The girls appear to be twins, though maybe it's just their identical clothing and the platinum hair tricking the eye. The guy tries to be flashy, a poor imitation of the pimps in the '70s, only instead of purple fur he dons some ridiculous shirt that looks like a tattoo artist's scratchboard. The gold chains seem thicker than the man's scrawny neck, and they give him what appears to be a slight hunch. A pair of white shades rest on the back of his head.

    "Oh, is this the princess that did all the work for us, Ivan? Yo, I'm going to be your daddy on this trip, so from now on you listen to me, kid! Here" — Anatoli felt how heavy the gold rings on the man's left hand were as they impacted with his left cheekbone — "that's so you don't forget me. Name's not important, you just call me Warlock. My code can tear through the online world like a warlock's magic would tear through a kingdom."

    Anatoli had to stifle a chuckle hearing the lengthy introduction and especially Warlock's comparison. Right, magic. Only the gold would bedazzle anybody.

    Warlock introduced the girls as Kaya and Maya, though Anatoli didn't make a point of trying to differentiate them anyway. He looked back to the screen, staring at the blinking cursor in the command window, thinking how quick it would be to just disband this digital army he'd created and not let the Bratva have it. Maybe one dead man was better than whatever these thugs had in mind.

    "Let's go, Ivan, I've got a busy evening tonight!" winked Warlock, motioning to the twins, then grabbed the bottle and took a swig himself.


    Anatoli couldn't tell where they were going from the sounds of the road, and the bag over his head prevented him from seeing anything. It didn't really make much difference, but the hour-long trip was very boring this way. Boris was driving and, from the sound of things, Ivan was napping. Alcohol and heat don't mix well.

    The trip eventually ended and, when his bag was removed, Anatoli saw four nearly identical vans stopped alongside theirs, in the courtyard of a large warehouse. Four other young men looked at one another as their handlers also unloaded them from the vans and shoved them towards one of the warehouse entrances. Some of those other boys had been treated much worse than Anatoli, as blackened eyes and bloodied ears stood witness.

    They went through one of many identical entryways into the warehouse. They were shepherded through back-scatter scanners and down a long corridor, passing many closed doors along the way, all with military-type armed guards posted. This seemed like a serious operation, and Anatoli found himself surprised of how well the Bratva had been organized. For a while, Ivan and Boris' attitudes were all that he experienced of the Brotherhood, and he even began to wonder how and organization that employed their kind was any good at crime. But Ivan and Boris were babysitters, pretty low on the food chain, despite their scars and their tough-guy attitude. This was a proper operation, worthy of the kind of reputation the Bratva had.

    They went into an elevator, and Anatoli could only tell from the slight jerk, when they started moving, that it was going underground. There were no buttons or lights anywhere in the elevator, and as far as anyone could tell one of the two armed guards posted by the door was remotely operating it. Anatoli took this moment to observe the other boys a little better: all in their early 20s, like himself, looking scared and staring at the ground with tired eyes. The tell-tale sparkle that Anatoli say in his own eyes after hours upon hours of coding and hacking, when everything but the eyes looks dead, flushed of blood or life. But the eyes want more, and the glimmer speaks volumes about the addiction they're all consumed by: the hack. So Anatoli could, at the very least, assume they were all like him, pretty good hackers forced by the Bratva to work on some kind of project. He was curious what kind of work they had to do, but something told him he wasn't too far now from finding out.

    Warlock waited for the elevator and spat as they arrived, then commanded everyone to follow him down a somewhat poorly lit corridor. Anatoli could tell they passed a communications room as he heard the hum of an HVAC. Red lights leaked from under the doors, and at one point, just as one of the doors closed, there was a glimpse of two naked girls and some old men surrounding them. A whiff of something illegal followed the closing door and, insofar as Anatoli knew anything about these things, it wasn't herbal.

    They went down a narrow staircase at the far end of the corridor and into a vaulted room (which Warlock 'summoned' open, probably with the aid of some sort of voice recognition software). A platform extended towards the middle of the space, and 6 computers were arranged in alcoves around the tip of the platform. Warlock pointed to the other machines, and sat himself down at the centre console from where he'd also be able to watch what all the other monitors were showing. One by one, the boys sat down at the computers, and Anatoli ended up in one of the two spots directly in front of Warlock's post (though the swivel chair their apparent master sat on made any notion of 'front' relative). He'd realized his mistake as soon as Warlock's boot tapped the back of his head not so lightly, but there was nowhere else to go. Only the place next to him was empty, for now, and Anatoli wondered why.

    "OK, barbarians, listen up! I am Warlock, I am your master, your daddy, your god, really, and you better do what I tell you or I'm going to use you for certain unpleasant experiments in cybernetics. You all worked for me for the last year, you just didn't know it. I've been watching your computers remotely and I must say, your code is crap! I could write better exploits doing tequila shots while I'm getting head and have a gun in my face! You're all pretty pathetic, but apparently you're the least pathetic of'em all. So you'll have to do."

    Another kick to the head, though this one didn't seem as convinced as the first one. That's two — Anatoli planned to return them very soon.

    "What you peons don't know is how brilliant my plan is, and how I'm going to make the Bratva very rich today! While you were writing exploits and building botnets, I tuned up the Digicoin client with a little special something. And pretty much everyone in the swarm got 'upgraded' to that client, and today they're all going to be donating their money to our cause."

    Well, that was kind of the truth. Anatoli did most of the work Warlock claimed as his own, including the hack on the official Digicoin servers and mirrors. He was particularly proud of replacing the checksum and signing toolchains on some of the core developers' machines, so that they wouldn't know they'd been compromised. He hacked the CDNs serving Digicoin, and the ISPs upstream from the servers and mirrors, some of the big Cisco routers along the way, anything and everything he could do to erase his own traces, and make it seem as if the clients had never been tampered with.

    Digicoin was Bitcoin renamed, and nothing much else. Some company found a way to claim some patents on the core Bitcoin technology and, while unable to entirely shutdown the network, they managed to seize domains, have ISPs court-ordered to do deep-packet filtering against possible uses of the 'illegal' client, and have two core developers forced to use Digital Monitoring Software (the equivalent of a trojan/rootkit, only you can't try to remove it, because the Government put it there) so that they wouldn't keep working on the old software. The net effect is that many switched over to Digicoin, but there was also a great influx of new users as media attention to the court case brought the technology on TV. Good marketing made the system very popular, so much so that nearly all of the 21 million coins had been generated, and many exchanges allowed dollars and euros to be traded for Digicoins. For a long time now, the exchange rate had been pretty constant, around $100 for a Digicoin.

    Anatoli knew this because the Bratva knew this. While they'd search him everyday for flash drives and guns and recording devices, Ivan and Boris never thought to carefully inspect his wristwatch, or his belt for that matter. So that's what Anatoli used as a Van Eck (electromagnetic) sniffer, picking up on just enough information from the drive of the machine to reconstruct it at his home and craft an exploit. And once he had remote access to the machine, he managed to access the warehouse server farm by piggybacking on Warlock's snoop link using a network stack 'tweak' that let his packets fly on top of the TCP stream Warlock would open. Yet another hack, to be able to bypass the stream altogether and get himself a direct link into their server farm, came when he realized that Ivan's cam-girls were in fact slaves in the warehouse underground. The stream from Ivan's computer wasn't encrypted, was on-demand, and made for a much easier target to exploit than anything else he'd found up to that point. It would let Anatoli disguise his own work as a video stream, avoiding unwanted attention from the server IDS or any of the system administrators that would be watching the traffic everyday.

    The door flew open and a loud, expletive-ridden diatribe directed at the guards, the Bratva and the Warlock could be heard. Anatoli turned in his seat enough to notice who was delivering the very risky speech, just in time to see the Warlock slap a young woman once, and then quickly again after she spat him in the face. Something resembling the barbell of a tongue piercing flew out of her mouth, and a little blood dripped on the floor.

    "You little... We'll need to make sure you learn some manners before you come back here. Guards! Take her to the Barracks, as a gift from me to all of you, and don't bring her back until she's quiet. Whatever you do, mind the hands and the eyes, or she'll be worthless to me."

    Anatoli shuddered thinking what the Barracks treatment might be like. He wasn't sure if torture was all they had in mind, but he knew there wasn't much time left before things would be getting really ugly at this compound.

    Warlock moving away from his overview post meant Anatoli had time to load up a little kernel module he wrote a long time ago. It was for fun at the time, but it got to be quite useful in the last few months. He had a little module that would run two commands even though only one was typed: it would execute what was typed, literally, but it would also pick characters from the command string and covertly run a secondary task on the machine. There were some tricks and some tweaks he had made to the module especially for today, and anyway he didn't need to run too many hidden commands. Just enough to make some people on the outside aware of his digital and physical addresses, here in the Bratva's compound. And there was one other ace up his sleeve.

    "What the heck are you doing, dumbo?" scowled Warlock towards Anatoli, reading off his screen. "Why do you `cat` to `grep`, you bloody moron? Geez, who ever thought you were a hacker?" Another kick in the head, and this one could've been serious, it wanted to follow through all the way. But it was slow, weak rather, as if a slower, or a more tired, man had done it. Anatoli had seen the tell-tale signs of steroid use in Warlock, and the garbage bin was full of empty energy drink cans and short, thin, plastic straws. He had a hard time picturing Warlock 'tired' in any common sense of the word.

    Yet something had changed in his demeanour. He was sluggish, lazy, leaning back in his chair and scratching constantly his cheek until it started bleeding.

    "Enough, let's do this! Make those 10 million accounts give me all their Digicoins! You!" — the fourth kick — "bring up your control console and tell those machines to donate the money to these accounts! Kill everything else, I need the swarm to verify the transactions as quick as possible!"

    All the hacked Digicoin clients had a remote trigger programmed in. Not a backdoor per-se, but rather a code path that was waiting for a certain hash, a known transaction to make its way in the network. Anatoli rewrote some tiny bits of the client to avoid generating a certain transaction verification hash. When the network did see the hash, however, every client would donate all of its account balance to one of 40 peers, all operateed by the Bratva.

    One of the other hackers brought up his own console, ready to make the 40 Bratva accounts hit up the exchanges and convert the digital cash into various world currencies. Yet another brought up the bank accounts on the other side, ready to make some transactions and make the money even less likely to be traced in case anyone would try that.

    "I need the transaction block that generates the hash" spoke Anatoli, without facing Warlock, his fingers hovering over the keyboard. Warlock tried to type some commands in his own computer, but somehow managed to mistype thrice in a row before getting it right.

    "Read if from your computer's /dev/random, it's mapped to the data now."

    Anatoli piped the data into his tool, hit enter, and waited. Warlock's interest was directed to the display of the 40 Bratva accounts, each slowly growing as they were receiving donations. A status indicator showed 5, then 10, then nearly all of the accounts being verified by the network, and a total of nearly 20 million Digicoins were transferred. The exchange process had started, and Warlock was now standing up, leaning forward over his desk at the computer screen showing all the transactions being processed. Some bounces through Caiman banks, and soon the Bratva would be 2 billion dollars richer, all thanks to Warlock.

    Warlock's phone rang as the alarm started blaring, and the guards initiated lockdown for the room. He rushed towards the pod besides Anatoli, as the height of the platform sheltered him from the infernal noise of the alarm.

    "Yes, yes sir! What? What do you mean, gone? No, we just transferred 2 billion INTO the accounts. No, the alarm's going off, I don't... cops? How? Damn it!"

    Warlock was visibly shaken, and very pale, but the urgency in his voice wasn't matched by his movements. He stumbled as he tried to stand up, and fell face first on the floor. The thud his head made as he bounced on impact was accompanied by a good splatter of blood from his nose and mouth. He couldn't stand up, and a faint noise came from his direction.

    Anatoli didn't stop at hacking the official Digicoin client: he hacked those 40 Bratva accounts also, some time ago, setting them to report false transactions when they saw the trigger hash. The network verified some transactions, that was true, but they weren't the ones Warlock was expecting. Instead of Digicoins going into the Bratva accounts, the Caiman bank links had been used to siphon the brotherhood's financial holdings, convert them into Digicoins briefly (to lose their trace) and then have all those funds donated to women's shelters, to drug rehabilitation clinics, to orphanages, and to any other institutions that could help the Bratva's victims.

    Muffled shots could be heard outside, and the guards opened the door to leave. Behind them snuck the brunette from earlier, seemingly unharmed by her trip to the barracks. She went straight to Anatoli and jumped in his arms, kissing him without restraint, while the other young men in the room cheered and hugged.

    The Bratva seemed to take as many precautions as they could, yet somehow they missed the fact that all the hackers they had rounded up for this job had worked together previously in DEFCON CTFs, and some were even fellow Sibears. Or that Kayla, the spunky brunette that spat Warlock with a neurotoxin she'd concealed in the barbell of her tongue ring, was Anatoli's girlfriend.

    The Police had a warrant out for Dave "Warlock" Brennan and between that and what this warehouse was, Anatoli and his friends hoped they might be able to get out of the whole deal without handcuffs.

    Anatoli walked over to Warlock's convulsing body and kicked him in the head four times.

    And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts, And I looked and behold: a pale horse. And his name, that sat on him, was Death. And Hell followed with him.

  • #2
    Re: Coin Flip

    Nicely topical! Good reveal at the end as well with the hidden toxin spy piercing.
    "They-Who-Were-Google are no longer alone. Now we are all Google."