When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth

It was bedlam. The cages were designed to let two or three sysadmins maneuver around them at a time. Every other inch of cubic space was given over to humming racks of servers and routers and drives. Jammed among them were no fewer than twenty other sysadmins. It was a regular convention of black T-shirts with inexplicable slogans, bellies overlapping belts with phones and multitools.

Normally it was practically freezing in the cage, but all those bodies were overheating the small, enclosed space. Five or six looked up and grimaced when he came through. Two greeted him by name. He threaded his belly through the press and the cages, toward the Ardent racks in the back of the room.

“Felix.” It was Van, who wasn’t on call that night.
“What are you doing here?” he asked. “No need for both of us to be wrecked tomorrow.”
“What? Oh. My personal box is over there. It went down around 1:30 and I got woken up by my process-monitor. I should have called you and told you I was coming down—spared you the trip.”

Felix’s own server—a box he shared with five other friends—was in a rack one floor down. He wondered if it was offline, too.

“What’s the story?”

“Massive flashworm attack. Some jackass with a zero-day exploit has got every Windows box on the net running Monte Carlo probes on every IP block, including IPv6. The big Ciscos all run administrative interfaces over v6, and they all fall over if they get more than ten simultaneous probes, which means that just about every interchange has gone down. DNS is screwy, too—like maybe someone poisoned the zone transfer last night. Oh, and there’s an email and IM component that sends pretty lifelike messages to everyone in your address book, barfing up Eliza-dialog that keys off your logged email and messages to get you to open a Trojan.”


“Yeah.” Van was a type-two sysadmin, over six feet tall, long ponytail, bobbing Adam’s apple. Over his toast-rack chest, his tee said CHOOSE YOUR WEAPON and featured a row of polyhedral RPG dice.
Felix was a type-one admin, with an extra seventy or eighty pounds all around the middle, and a neat but full beard that he wore over his extra chins. His tee said HELLO CTHULHU and featured a cute, mouthless, Hello Kitty-style Cthulhu. They’d known each other for fifteen years, having met on Usenet, then f2f at Toronto Freenet beer sessions, a Star Trek convention or two, and eventually Felix had hired Van to work under him at Ardent. Van was reliable and methodical. Trained as an electrical engineer, he kept a procession of spiral notebooks filled with the details of every step he’d ever taken, with time and date.

“Not even PEBKAC this time,” Van said. Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair. Email trojans fell into that category—if people were smart enough not to open suspect attachments, email trojans would be a thing of the past. But worms that ate Cisco routers weren’t a problem with the lusers—they were the fault of incompetent engineers.
“No, it’s Microsoft’s fault,” Felix said. “Any time I’m at work at 2:00 a.m., it’s either PEBKAC or Microsloth.”

They ended up just unplugging the frigging routers from the Internet. Not Felix, of course, though he was itching to do it and get them rebooted after shutting down their IPv6 interfaces. It was done by a couple bull-goose Bastard Operators From Hell who had to turn two keys at once to get access to their cage—like guards in a Minuteman silo. Ninety-five percent of the long-distance traffic in Canada went through this building. It had better security than most Minuteman silos.
Felix and Van got the Ardent boxes back online one at a time. They were being pounded by worm-probes—putting the routers back online just exposed the downstream cages to the attack. Every box on the Internet was drowning in worms, or creating worm-attacks, or both.

Felix managed to get through to NIST and Bugtraq after about a hundred timeouts, then download some kernel patches that were supposed to reduce the load the worms put on the machines in his care. It was 10:00 a.m., and he was hungry enough to eat the ass out of a dead bear, but he recompiled his kernels and brought the machines back online. Van’s long fingers flew over the administrative keyboard, his tongue protruding as he ran load stats on each one.

“I had two hundred days of uptime on Greedo,” Van said. Greedo was the oldest server in the rack, from the days when they’d named the boxes after Star Wars characters. Now they were all named after Smurfs, and they were running out of Smurfs and had started in on McDonaldland characters, starting with Van’s laptop, Mayor McCheese.

“Greedo will rise again,” Felix said. “I’ve got a 486 downstairs with over five years of uptime. It’s going to break my heart to reboot it.”

“What the everlasting shit do you use a 486 for?”

“Nothing. But who shuts down a machine with five years uptime? That’s like euthanizing your grandmother.”

“I wanna eat,” Van said.

“Tell you what,” Felix said. “We’ll get your box up, then mine, then I’ll take you to the Lakeview Lunch for breakfast pizzas and you can have the rest of the day off.”

“You’re on,” Van said. “Man, you’re too good to us grunts. You should keep us in a pit and beat us like all the other bosses. It’s all we deserve.”

“It’s your phone,” Van said. Felix extracted himself from the guts of the 486, which had refused to power up at all. He had cadged a spare power supply from some guys who ran a spam operation and was trying to get it fitted. He let Van hand him the phone, which had fallen off his belt while he was twisting to get at the back of the machine.

“Hey, Kel,” he said. There was an odd, snuffling noise in the background. Static, maybe? 2.0 splashing in the bath? “Kelly?”
The line went dead. He tried to call back, but didn’t get anything—no ring nor voicemail. His phone finally timed out and said NETWORK ERROR.







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