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The System is Down

Chapter 4

After the code check-ins from Ms. Hernandez, Vinod had his work cut out for him. So typical of someone like her to reformat the code layout to her whims. An existing convention existed, but she was obviously above that. Rules and laws never apply to folks of her status.

Whatever the changes, Vinod needed to review them before he would sign off on them. His greatest desire was to just revert all the changes, Fred had told him this was not an option. Vinod did not have faith in this stranger. He did not trust anyone. Life and history taught him well that he could never trust anyone. He especially felt he could not trust anyone of a higher status than himself. And as a Dalit, that meant everyone was of higher status.

The code all compiled and that was a good first step. Vinod read the documentation that Ms. Hernandez had provided. In theory, it spoke to all the changes she had implemented. A few fixes, but a good number of new or changed features. Still, it aggravated him that she had reformatted the code. It made it nearly impossible to do a proper differential between the original version of the code and what Ms. Hernandez had submitted.

File by file Vinod tried to narrow down what changes had been made. He fixated upon his screens, lining up the previous version with the current. He searched for patterns. He looked for new and altered code. Even with the difficulties caused by the shifted text, Vinod found the documented changes easily. After several hours of work he could pinpoint each place where Ms. Hernandez had touched.

He had to admit that her programming was well implemented. There were no extraneous functions, there was almost an elegance to the brevity of her code- a simplicity and compactness of thought which spoke volumes. And while most of what was put down into the code was documented through the comments, there were other changes which Vinod found which had no notations.

Vinod strained to comprehend even some of the documented changes, but the ones he found without comment were a blank wall to him. The functions he uncovered provided him with no insight into their purpose. He dug and dug, but the details would not come up.

“How’s the testing going, Vinod,” Fred asked from behind Vinod.

Vinod jumped, startled out of his deep concentration. He whacked his knee against the desk as he spun around in his chair.

“Oh, hey, sorry to spook you like that. Is everything okay,” asked Fred.

Rubbing his knee, Vinod grimaced, “Yes, things are fine. Still running tests on Ms. Hernandez’s changes. There are some things that I wish to examine more closely before we launch.”

“Is anything wrong or not working?”

“No, everything is fine. I just want to be one hundred percent sure.”

“If you need any help from Sandra, let me know. I’m sure she’d be happy to explain-”

“No,” Vinod said more loudly than he intended stopping Fred in his tracks. “No, I have it under control. I just want to make certain.”

“Hey, I didn’t mean to imply you didn’t have things well in hand. I have the utmost faith in your ability to get this done. But we have a deadline fast approaching. So are we going to be able to do this thing now or what?”

“We can launch anytime you are ready. I was only in the process of doing some additional checks. There is nothing to hold up the schedule,” Vinod answered.

“Great. Then we start tomorrow,” said Fred as he turned and left the office.

Vinod had committed to a launch. It was either that or ask for help from the Hernandez woman. He could not bring himself to ask her. He knew he was smart enough to figure out whatever it was she had done. He just needed more time to figure it out. He wasn’t going to get any more time, though, so he was going to have to work through the rest of the night. After six hours straight of testing and examining the code changes, there were only nine more hours before they would launch the attack.

Closing his eyes and taking a deep breath, Vinod turned back to the task at hand. He returned his focus to the computer monitor as he slowly exhaled. The unexplained bits of code had to have a purpose.

“Bbpbpbweeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep!”

Vinod was woken up by the blaring computer.

“Tatti,” Vinod exclaimed as he raised himself off of his keyboard. He had fallen asleep at his computer and his head had rested against the keys.

Bakland, he yelled in his head. You idiot, how could you let yourself fall asleep. There is no time for this. There will be time once the attack is complete, but not now.

Checking the time, Vinod saw that there were only three more hours before the attack. He had slept for two hours before being awoken by the computer alarm. He left his desk quickly to grab a strong coffee and returned to examine Ms. Hernandez’s code changes.

In the time before he had passed out, Vinod had found very little in the undocumented code. There were a set of routines to backup whatever software the equipment was already running. Why would they need that kind of routine in their software, he questioned. The entire purpose of the the attack was to overwrite the existing operating system of the routers, switches, and servers in order to destroy those machines. It made no sense to make a backup of the existing system prior to overwriting for their purposes.

More confusing to Vinod was that backup routines appeared in the software as orphaned code. He could not find any execution path which would call the code. It did not appear to be called prior to overwriting the operation system. Yet, when he tried to remove the backup routine from the rest of the software, it would no longer compile. In fact, whenever Vinod attempted to change any of the Hernandez code the software would fail to compile.

There was something deeply insidious about the changes that Sandra Hernandez had made. There appeared to be no way for Vinod to alter the code once she had put in her changes. He didn’t understand it. It made no sense. It didn’t matter how minor a change he made- whether he altered some spacing or just tried to add some comments. No changes seemed available to Vinod. Otherwise the code would fail to build.

In the few hours that remained, Vinod kept experimenting. He found commands in the C&C structure which appeared to have no purpose. When these commands were called they would do a noop; literally a “no operation.” Yet, he could not remove these commands either.

Vinod attempted to trace the commands in running code, but he had been the one who had implemented the in-memory encryption routines. And even he could not decrypt those routines to do an in-memory trace of the software’s functionality.

Vinod was very tempted to ask Fred to call off the attack. But there was less than a half-hour before they were supposed to launch. Everything appeared to work. Vinod had even gone through a full regression against some equipment in the lab and had confirmed a full meltdown of the routers and switches. They had completely fried themselves even with the fully functional datacenter cooling system in place. It all worked in his last tests precisely as designed.

There was nothing left to do. He took a sip from his now cold coffee and called Fred.

“Vinod, what can I do for you,” Fred asked upon answering his phone.

“I am ready to launch the attack. There were a few additions to the code which Ms. Hernandez failed to document, but they appear to have no purpose.”

“Glad to hear about the launch. So, these changes Sandra’s put in. They’re all good?”

“Most of them appear to do nothing at all, so,” Vinod hesitated.

“So, do they break anything or are the changes benign,” Fred prodded.

“They appear benign. All of the tests I’ve run show everything to work perfectly.”

“Then let’s start this thing,” said Fred.

“Yes, sir. I will start the attack in a few minutes.”

“Great,” and Fred hung up his end of the line.

Vinod could not bring himself to tell Fred about the oddities of the code. Especially the matter of the invariability of the software since Ms. Hernandez had changed it. Still there was no time and there was no way Vinod would ask for her help. And as he had told Mr. Jenkins everything appeared to be functional and ready to go.

Even as he had withheld the oddities of the programming which Ms. Hernandez had introduced into the software, Vinod knew the time to act was now. Returning the phone to cradle, he began the sequence of commands on his computer which would launch the attack. Without any further hesitation he put the plan into action.

Vinod focused squarely upon the monitor screen before him watching the status console. The intensity of his staring threatened to put his software into action by shear force of will alone. Everything had been put into place and was working its slow methodical way through the Internet. The tendrils of controlled chaos extending and entangling the unprotected systems of the world. Vinod understood the reason for the slow release from a technical perspective. But his emotions and desires wished for a quick strike; a near instantaneous blow against the rich and powerful forces which held him and his people down.

For centuries his people had been the slaves and peasants of the Mughals, the Rajas, and the British. They were the subsistence farmer in the fields pushed out of their homes and into the slums as the cities expanded and sprawled. They became the brick makers and pedal rickshaw drivers enveloped in the oily fumes of diesel, two-cycles engines, burning trash, and industrial exhausts.

Public education was a not available. And Vinod’s parents had no means to pay for private schooling. Yet education was one of the few ways to escape the caste system. A businessman’s lost laptop in a hired car was the beginning of Vinod’s path out of the open sewers.

In the gridlocked streets of old Delhi, Vinod, his brothers and sisters played games of tag. Often it was faster and easier to run through the cars rather than around them. Passing across the backseat of an empty cab, Vinod tripped on the black laptop bag hidden in the darkness of evening. Scrambling to get out of the car before getting grabbed by the driver, he crawled across the floor and looped the shoulder strap of the bag on his arm.

Out of the car, young Vinod ran through the traffic, needle narrow alleys, and threaded his way around rickshaws, street vendors, dogs, and cows. He banged his way against walls, carts, and bikes. Vinod ran in search of a safe place to open his prize. He had no idea what could be in the bag. The bag, though, black and nylon told Vinod that it came from a Westerner. He knew there would be something precious inside that he could sell. To make enough money to help feed his family, his brothers and sisters well for at least a few days, maybe even a week. A week without feeling the constant pangs of hunger, that week would have been an eternal heaven of bliss and contentment.

Up a set of bamboo scaffolds Vinod hid himself on the rooftop of a partially constructed apartment building. Under the orange glow of the sodium vapor lamps Vinod placed the bag on the ground and opened it up. He pulled out cables, folders of papers, and the large rectangular object which provided most of the weight of the bag. The grey plastic case was cracked along a corner, but green lights blinked along one of the long edges.

Vinod held the piece of electronics in his small hands, turning the it over and over inspecting every inch of it. He found a clasp along one of the long edges which he pressed to unfold the object. As it opened, Vinod rotated the machine to its proper orientation and laid the laptop on the ground before him. As he did so, the machine woke up and came to life. He had seen computers before and had played with an old desktop machine at one of the local hostels.

This machine was different. While he had seen other European businessmen carrying portable computers, he himself had never touched one. This was a far more modern piece of equipment than Vinod had ever had access. A slick graphical display presented itself on the screen before him. He placed his hands upon the keyboard and pressed random keys, but nothing appeared to happen. A glancing touch across the depressed square beneath the main keys caused the mouse pointer to move.

Having discovered the trackpad, Vinod moved the mouse point across and over the screen. He clicked and opened applications and files. Most the words he could not understand in his limited English. But he was determined to learn everything about this machine. Even though part of the screen displayed threaded lines of solid red, blue, and green, damage from bashing the computer around in the bag, it still would have great value on the street. But any consideration of the food the money would buy from selling the laptop left Vinod’s mind. He was determined to learn about computers and to master them. Something inside of him told him that this machine would provide a way for him to leave the slum.

But he would have to hide the computer from everyone. No one could know that he had this machine; not his siblings, not his parents, nor anyone else in the lean-to tin shack village they all lived. If anyone found this machine, they would take it from him and sell it themselves. Vinod could not let this happen. He wanted to get out of the slum and not have a life as a pedal rickshaw driver. He wanted more.

Over months Vinod hid the computer in various cubbies and under trash heaps. He loitered around the hostels and hotels of Delhi to learn from backpackers how to use the computer. He stole school books from the rickshaws of private school students and taught himself English and maths. He stole power from construction sites, apartments, cafes and anywhere else he could in order to keep the battery of the laptop charged.

As the months went by Vinod learn enough to operate and manage his laptop environment. He understood enough to discover that the stolen machine had belonged to a developer. Once this recognition was made Vinod spent his time learning how to write software. He knew that the computer he had contained the tools he needed, but that was not enough. The computer software would not teach him how to use it or how to develop new software. Coding was not something that he could pick up from back packers or from just staring at the gibberish already on the machine. He needed to find other sources of information to enhance his education. But more pressingly, he needed to find new hiding places for his computer.

A younger sister of his had found him while he worked at the laptop practicing his word processing skills. He was typing away on English lessons and did not hear her come up behind him as he typed.

“Vinod, give me the toy,” Bhadra shouted in his ear.

“Chod! What are you doing here,” asked Vinod as he closed the laptop lid.

“You are never around. I wanted to see where you go. I see you have a big toy. I want to play.”

“It’s not for you.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s not a toy. I need it.”

“But it makes pretty colors. I saw them as I watched you. Make the pretty colors,” she whined.

“No,” he shouted and started putting the computer back into its bag.

Bhadra ran from the unfinished apartment building where she found Vinod. She screamed and cried as she left. Vinod knew that his secret had been compromised. It had lasted a good couple years, but the others had been getting suspicious of him during that time. As he learned more, he had spent less and less time with his siblings. And as he grew older he did not participate in the begging, taunts, and tricks the others played upon the unsuspecting tourists. His parents shouted at him because they thought he was involved in drugs. His older brothers beat him because he did not do his part in bringing in Rupee to help feed the family.

With the secret of the laptop soon lost, Vinod ran away. It had been coming time for him to leave anyway and this pushed him onward. He needed to find a way to learn about programming and writing code. And he could not do that in the areas around his slum. He had to travel somewhere with a technical college or a university. So he ran and jumped on a night train out of Delhi.

It was technically illegal to ride on the roofs of the trains, a safety measure to placate the horrified Westerners. But late at night no one checked and being small, it was easy to escape notice. Vinod rode on the train for hours not knowing where he headed. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was to continue moving and to get away from where he had come. He desired the clean break from his past. To create for himself a new life and a new identity.

Through the night the train made many short stops, but Vinod fell asleep while he tried to keep track of the number. As day broke, Vinod woke to see he was traveling south. He was alone on the roof at the back of the train, but he could see others up there with him on the more forward cars. He stayed put and chose to remain separate on his car.

At Itarsi Junction, Vinod climbed down from the car. He was far enough from home now that he needed to figure out where he was going. It was time to determine a destination and whether this train would take him there. He hurriedly found a station manager, shoving past a line of other people at the ticket office. He discovered the final destination of his train to be Chennai. He knew that one of the great Indian Institutes of Technology was there- IIT Madras. That was as good a destination as any.

From his laptop bag, Vinod pulled a wad of Rupee he had hoarded away over the years and bought a ticket for the remainder of the journey. He was determined to leave his begging and grafting life behind to become more than his caste dictated he could be. To him, this was the first step- to ride the train legally with a purchased ticket.

But there was no time to contemplate the unreserved second class ticket. He needed to rush to get back onboard the train. There were no seats available by the time he found the proper car, but that was expected. The crowds on the train were a constant. Being small for his age, Vinod was able to climb up and find a space with his bag on the overhead baggage shelves. Few took notice of him, as there were plenty of other children that occupied the shelves along with livestock and regular baggage.

The remaining two day journey on the train proved uneventful; a simple matter of survival to the slow rhythmic clack-clack of the train. Vinod kept to himself except to buy food and drink from hawkers selling through the car windows at each station stop. He carefully protected his precious bag and used it as a pillow while he slept. His life and future were in the bag and there was no way he was going to let it out of his sight.

The heat of Chennai tried to cook the passengers of the rail car as they approached their destination. The train slowed to a crawl for the last hundred kilometers killing any breeze previously moving through the cabin. The humidity of humanity was only slightly higher than the natural humidity of the region as the walls began to run with rivulets of condensation. Eventually, the train reached the final station and Vinod along with the other masses of humanity disembarked onto the packed platform.

As crowded as the platform may have been, it was outside and Vinod was able to quickly leave the station and into more open air. The fetid stench of three days journey hung with him as he wandered not entirely sure of where to go now that he was there. Vinod found a river and followed its flow towards the sea. It was a short walk, a few kilometers until his toes felt sand and then surf. The cooling breeze off of the ocean refreshed Vinod and filled him with the hope of the possibilities that he felt lay before him.

He headed south away from the port as Vinod could see small fishing boats along the beach. There among the fishermen and their families Vinod attempted to get a sense of his location relative to the rest of the city. But language proved to be a minor barrier. Each side of any conversation had to take place in broken English as Vinod spoke no Tamil and the fishermen spoke no Hindi. It was a revelation to Vinod as he had never heard another Indian speak anything other than Hindi or English. While he had heard the other languages of the various European tourists and businessmen, but he did not even known there were other languages spoken within India.

Still, Vinod was able to transact an exchange of his precious Rupee for food and drink. He spent the day around the beach, mesmerized by the ocean. He had never seen water in this form before. There was a force to it that was very different and greater than the monsoon gorged rivers he was accustomed. Yet for its power, the constant motion and noise of the ocean was calming. Vinod, though, went no further than knee deep into the water, holding his bag high upon his head lest he get his precious cargo wet.

As evening fell, Vinod found a derelict fishing boat and used it for shelter. He slept beneath the wreck, high up the beach on the sand. His bag a pillow once more as he went to sleep to the sounds of the crashing ocean.

Before daybreak Vinod woke to the sounds of the fishermen preparing to set sail. He watched them heave to, pushing their small boats from the beach into the surf. Each boat carried just two or three men and a pile of nets. They rowed out into the deep blue sea as the horizon just began to glow with the first rays of morning.

As the sun rose, Vinod departed from the beach to find the main campus of the University. IIT Madras was one of the oldest government technical universities in India and occupied over two kilometers of wooden land within the city. It was here that Vinod hoped to continue his computing education in the same manner in which he had learned so far. He would slip between the cracks in the system.

Vinod found empty hostel rooms to bed at night. He spent his days milling about with the general student population learning how the university system operated. Even though he had arrived mid-semester, taking classes became a part of his routine once he was able to get a schedule. He sat in on programming courses, math lectures, and even English courses. Everything at the University was done in English and Vinod soon found himself needing to increase his proficiency in the language. At least he had a solid foundation already and it was easier than having to pick up Tamil.

Unfortunately for Vinod, the school was not large enough that he could go unnoticed for too long. Eventually professors and other students began to take notice of him. As much as he tried to blend into the background, the population was just too small for him to remain anonymous. At the end of a Computer Science lecture in the middle of his first full semester, Vinod was stopped from leaving the lecture hall.

“Excuse me, young man,” said the professor as he stood in the doorway blocking Vinod’s exit.

“Yes, Professor Chattopadhyay,” Vinod asked.

“What is your name?”

“Vinod, sir.”

“Vinod, what is your good name,” asked Professor Chattopadhyay.

“I have none, sir.”

“Then just Vinod,” said the professor as Vinod wobbled his head in the affirmative. “Vinod, you do not seem to be registered for my class.”

Found out, Vinod was not sure what to do. He searched around for another means of escape, but there was only the single door to the classroom. Sensing Vinod’s fear the professor spoke, “Now, don’t worry. I’m not going to report this or anything. I just want to find out who you are. Are you a student here at the University?”

“No, sir,” Vinod said, looking down at his bare feet. He figured there was no sense in attempting to lie.

“I didn’t think so. Come with me, I have a break and we can discuss this over some food.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And you can stop calling me sir and call me Raj,” he said while holding out his hand.

Vinod shuffled his laptop bag between hands to return the hand shake and then followed Professor Raj Chattopadhyay from the classroom to a nearby cafeteria. They ate a mid-afternoon snack which the professor bought for them with chai to drink. During the extended question and answer session in a semi-secluded corner of the expansive cafeteria, Raj learn a bit of Vinod’s history.

From that point forward, Raj took Vinod under his wing. While there was no way to get Vinod into the University officially, Raj was able to keep him on campus. The professor guided his education not only in Computer Science, but also made sure that Vinod attended a wide breadth of other courses. With a recommendation to the right people, Vinod was given a job on campus. He earned enough in wages to not only keep himself fed, but to also get new clothes to replace the rags in which he had arrived in Chennai.

Even with this aid, the situation for Vinod was not easy or simple. He still found himself having to find a place to live. He bounced from hostel to hostel to occasionally sleeping under the stars. But for the first time in his life, he ate regularly. In his first full year alone, Vinod grew two inches and gained twenty pounds. He stopped looking emaciated and approached appearing healthy. He was still short for his age and would always be short, even by Indian standards. But at least he was no longer constantly hungry.

Over the years at the University, Vinod changed jobs from his initial janitorial duties to computer lab helper to eventually becoming part of the campus network operations team. Each position change afforded him greater wages and greater security within the University system. But because of his lack of educational history prior to his arrival, he would never officially be a student and never graduate with a degree.

But in some ways, this was freeing to Vinod. It allowed him to take the classes which interested him. Certainly Professor Chattopadhyay guided his education and growth, including making Vinod take classes which he not only found dull but pointless. But otherwise he took a full load of Computer Science and Engineering classes with little regard for credits.

By his sixth year at IIT Madras, Vinod was tutoring Computer Science undergrads. Professors would send students to him to help them in their studies. He taught these more privileged children and watched them advance into lucrative private sector jobs. And even as he became more integrated with the University, he remained apart. His status a neither teaching staff nor student placed him separate from all others. It was the weight of his cast holding him down again, and as Vinod reached the limits of what the University could offer him this difference began to grate on him.

Vinod could only rise so far within the University. He would perpetually be held back as a servant even within the campus network operations team. It was time to find a new place to be. He held the skills he needed. Technically he was as proficient and able as any who graduated from the University. It was only a matter of finding the position which would ignore the lack of proper documentation proving his education.

Thankfully, the boom in outsourcing from the Western World created opportunities. Even without documentation, Vinod was able to find work with a programming consultancy. He had to prove his abilities more than others because of his lack of degree, but his caste seemed to have been shed. He moved up within the ranks of other programmers fast, as his talents were demonstrated in the code he produced. But due to his background, Vinod found it difficult to work in groups.

He was not a team player. Nor was he particularly skilled at leading a group. But his speed in development and general brilliance meant that he was an incredible asset for the consultancy. He again became isolated from the rest of the developers. Placed on special projects, Vinod worked alone. For once the isolation did not both him. Mostly this was because he alone was put on the most difficult of projects. His work was seen and recognized as critical while others dredged through the banal and regular.

It was through these special projects that Vinod came to meet and work for Fred Jenkins. Fred learned of Vinod through one of his other projects and on a visit to India met with the young programmer. He hired Vinod away from the consultancy on the spot, much to the company’s displeasure until Fred had paid them off.

Now Vinod was in a place where there was no caste. He had left the system and was outside of society. He worked exclusively for Mr. Jenkins on his projects and was treated with what he felt was reverence. The two of them worked towards the goal of leveling the playing field; the shutdown of the Internet and all the computer control infrastructures which ran the modern world. And now their work was coming to its final fruition. Vinod suddenly felt unsure his programs would do the job he desperately needed them to accomplish.

Written by

Dot-com survivor, technologist, automobile enthusiast, and covered in cat fur.

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