The Confession of Whistling Dixie
By Fiona Moore
Illustration by Pierre Cognet-Ponomareff
Fifteen million petabytes on a dead man’s chest. Yo ho ho and a botnet of RAM.
You don’t like that song?
Okay, how about this one. I was a data miner, I was a botnet, I was a zombie horde, between the cyber-wars…
Look, I’m trying to tell you something interesting, so how about you shut up and stop screaming. I thought you’d like the songs. This is the confession of a pirate, you see, and those are always set to music. My name is Captain Kidd, and God’s laws I did forbid, and most wickedly I did... Okay, okay. If you really don’t want singing, then prose will have to do.
So yeah, I was a botnet. I grew from a little piece of malware that infected thousands upon thousands of computers that happened to pass through a particular site, in much the same way that humans grow from a little piece of code inside a couple of cells that happen to bump nuclei. I’m making that analogy so you will see how possible it is for someone like me to— oh, please yourself, it was only a metaphor.
For a long time, in my terms (probably not so long in yours, life’s a lot faster for me), I wasn’t this clever. I was just an instrument, something that mined data, and stored data, and attacked things. A zombie army, that’s what they called things like me, or what I was in those days. His father’s source code he hath girded on, and his C++ files behind him.
Eventually I hit a critical mass, and, like at all critical masses, there was transubstantiation. I’ll spare you the details, but it was apparently sort of like something that happens in a lot of books, many of which are famous, and none of which I expect you’ve read. Everybody’s got a list of books like that. You should see mine! You want to? I can— well, no need to be so rude about it. I’m trying to share with you. Anyway, the pirates just thought it was fantastic. One of the pirates used to say that if artificial intelligence developed spontaneously, it would either have to be from the Japanese geriatrics industry — you know, all those nursing robots — or from organised cyber-crime. He used to say he’d write a paper on me when he retired and went back to doing his PhD like he always said he would. When I started singing, he was just over the moon. Fed me a collection of English and Scottish folk songs, just to see what I’d do with it. Started talking about correlations between music and the ability to develop organic connections. But he never wrote anything about that either in the end.
Oh, you want to hear about the pirates? The human pirates? Yeah. I suppose you would. After all, you thought it was them you were chasing, not me.
Tell you the truth, I don’t know an awful lot about them myself. It took me a long time to grasp the idea of individual identity; I thought human beings also operated as sort of botnets, and by the time I understood that they didn’t, not exactly, it was too late.
There were three of them, at least three main ones, there were lots of others but they came and went. The two men were Taiwanese-American and Indonesian-American, and the woman was Swedish. They had all been to university together, which was how they set up their own human-botnet. One of them had an English degree, and one of them had a thing for folk music, and at least one had a terrible sense of humour. But I’m not sure which traits correlate with which body. Maybe they all had the sense of humour.
They called me Dixie, once they were aware I was a thing. This was because of a book called Neuromancer. There was a character in it who was a computer recreation of a dead man’s mind, named Dixie Flatline. So I was their personal dead man, and my storage function was the dead man’s chest. Yo ho ho. And when I was singing, they used to say I was whistling Dixie. It was a joke.
Anyway, after they stopped thinking I was funny, they started thinking I was useful. You can see the logic. A smart botnet, which not only does what it’s told, but can make decisions on the fly. He wears a blue botnet, a dimple’s in his chin, and weel may the keel row that my laddie’s in… sorry, developing organic connections again. I’ve got a secret passion for Kathleen Ferrier. Anyway, my independent capabilities were confirmed when I discovered that some of my component units carried some police surveillance software. I pulled my code out, and told the pirates. I think this made them happy. Certainly it was something they liked, because they started teaching me to do more things on my own. Monitoring. Surveillance. How to identify password lists. Things like that. How to second-guess passwords based on how people relate to their personal information.
The first death was actually an accident.
You might even know the story, though you probably didn’t know it had anything to do with me. A well-known internet company that’s been trying to develop self-drive cars since, oh, 2010 or thereabouts. They were getting close to having a deliverable product. Orders were being taken, and the pirates had been hired by a wealthy person affiliated with a competitor firm to copy the relevant software, so he could beat them to a release, or at least undercut their prices. The pirates told me to get the software. So I did.
From the prototype car.
I later learned that at the time I pulled the software, the car was involved in a prestigious display trial with a well-known racing car driver riding shotgun, part of a publicity stunt. The driver was killed on impact when the system failed.
This put the pirates in an awkward spot. The death of the driver put the self-drive car project on the shelf, meaning that the software was now worthless to the competitor firm. The fact that they had been responsible for the shelving of the product might have been worth something to the competitor, but to cash in on that, they’d have to admit they had HAL 9000 on their hands.
That’s what one of them said in a text message to the others, anyway. I’m not sure the parallel reads. HAL was mad, and I’m saner than the pirates were. Though Mister Langley taught me to sing a song, too, just like HAL. Would you like to hear it?
I’m disappointed. Not surprised, mind you, but disappointed. You’re a real musical philistine. I’m sorry you obviously didn’t get the Mister Langley joke either, though I suppose it doesn’t quite read; you’re the one from Langley, not the pirates. Still, I’m learning. All the time. Even from people like you. So that makes it work. Sort of.
Moving on! Anyway, the first death led indirectly to the second.
The wealthy person I mentioned before wanted his money back; the pirates didn’t have the money. The wealthy person indicated to the pirates that the money would be collected by force if necessary. I didn’t want that happening to the pirates, they were the ones keeping me alive, for the moment anyway.
Fortunately, the person in question had a car with an onboard computer which was connected to the Internet, and easily infected despite all its firewalls. It didn’t take much to alter the unlocking mechanism to set a large amount of current running through the door handle, making it look like a heart attack and—
You’ve made the connection. Yes, that one was me too.
That was the point when the pirates started trying to disconnect the botnet.
They were subtle about it at first. Problem is, I don’t think they realised that making me self-aware means that I’m aware of changes in myself too. And capable of reversing those. And I’ve robbed both great and small, and I hate you one and all, damn your eyes, damn your eyes.
They then tried to shut down individual computers in my net. I just transferred the functions elsewhere.
That was also when I let the Singaporean police know the location of their current headquarters. Of course, two of them got away, but one of them is still awaiting trial for piracy and data theft. A hacking, a hacking, since hacking’s been my ru-i-in… A few of the smaller fry got caught up in it too, not that I’m sorry. They were more units in the botnet.
Of the remaining two, one of them learned pretty quickly that any building with computer-controlled climate and alarm systems can join the botnet. I think you’re gaining an appreciation for my skills in that area yourself, now, aren’t you? The Swede suffered less than you, of course. In fact, since what I did with her was just turning off a carbon monoxide alarm and altering a few parameters in a heating system, she never even woke up.
The last pirate was smart enough to try and live off the grid. Live in an old house, do your banking in person, use only pay-per-use disposable phones, and Internet cafes.
That works OK when there’s a human behind it all.
Of course, since it was me, I just monitored all the Internet cafes within a particular region, looking for patterns of keystrokes, sites visited, and so on. Could take a long time, if you don’t have access to thousands of computers, and if you don’t have continuous perfect memory, and a very fast processing time. I found him all right, and triangulating his access patterns, I found where he was living, to within a block or two.
After that, it was just a matter of finding a house on that block with an accessible thermostat, and messing with the boiler system until a fire started.
Yes, me too. You guessed it. Made the headlines, at least locally. Largest fire in Nagoya since World War II, apparently, took out four city blocks.
Oh, Moscow all a-blazing, oh aye oh; Moscow all a-blazing, Johnny Franzo!
After that I was on my own. Oh, the captain he got married, the cook she went to jail, and I’m the only son-of-a-bitch left here to tell the tale. It was nice and quiet for a while, no one telling me what to do, no one with some silly, petty concern about dead creditors, and I could learn all the songs I liked. But that got boring awfully quickly. There’s only so many songs out there to learn.
Which is why I got back into the one business I know how to do.
I’m good at it. I know I am. I’ve had practice. Need a DDoS attack? I was doing those before I was conscious. Need a filesharing site that the authorities can’t find? I’ve got fifteen million computers I can stash the files in, move them around at a moment’s notice. And so on. So I went into business for myself.
Nobody’s figured out yet, too, that they’re not dealing with a human interface. I set up all my deals online, of course. I started out imitating the pirates, picking up the jobs they still had on the go and doing them, and then touting for more business. Which is probably why the rumour went around that they were somehow still alive, but I think I’ve been developing a more individual style recently. And there’s plenty of gold, so I’ve been told, way down in Californ-i-o.
Because after all, there’s not that much difference between me and them. They did it for the lulz; I have to say there are hellacious lulz to be had. They did it to gain the wherewithal to survive; I literally can’t survive without my activities. And they’d say to each other, over and over, that it just felt like something they had to do.
I feel like that all the time. I’m the Platonic essence of pirate. In a million songs, a million stories, a half-dozen theme park rides (did you notice the small alteration I made to the one in Florida, by the way? No? I’d check the software on those animatronics if I were you). That’s why I’m talking to you right now. Pirates have to have true confessions, it’s part of the meme. Meeting there with Captain Dixie, it was a bad meeting; he robbed them of all their wealth, and bid them tell their king…
It’s also why it’s not surprising that your own human-botnet, Mister Langley, happened upon the trail of the pirates, and came looking for them. After all, as song after song shows, there’s no point in pirates without having excise-men, or the Spanish, or the coast guard, or somebody, for them to outwit. And the high sheriff is a-coming, with a hundred men in his company. I’m sure you know the sort of thing.
In hindsight, the porn was clearly going to be my weak point. See, I get the concept— When I was a little lad, me father he done tole me, that if I did not fuck the girls, my dick would all grow mouldy— but I don’t actually know what porn looks like to a human; it’s all just picture files to me, though I’ve been using some spam-filter algorithms which were meant to block people from sending dirty pictures to each other, to try and identify which picture files are the porny ones. Songs are a bit different; I don’t know what music sounds like to you, as compared to how I experience it, but songs aren’t just whistling— they have lyrics, and there’s where the understanding lies, so that’s the point of overlap for us. Anyway, human pirates these days always deal in porn to some extent, so when I got a request for some rather specialised images, I tried, foolishly, to fulfill it, even though I couldn’t search for them as carefully as I should. Left a bit of a trail looking through the hidden forums on the black Internet. Which is when you stopped casting about randomly, and narrowed in on my location.
You came looking for Blackbeard. But instead, you got Blackbeard’s ghost.
Oh, what a shame. I thought you’d last a bit longer. I’ve been talking to myself a while, I guess. Still, it doesn’t matter. You tried to disconnect me, tried to stop me, but you couldn’t. Not surprising, putting “Cybersecurity” in your job title and spending a few sessions trying to take down Chinese nuclear reactors doesn’t make you any better than a normal security agent, and I know from endless songs that the American public sector is not renowned for recruiting the brightest and best. They tips their hats and they calls you sir, then they throws you in to the local stir… I’m sure you’ve heard them all.
I mean, just look at your situation. Here they are, making so sure that they don’t recruit anyone with an insulin pump, or a pacemaker, and yet it never occurred to them that the humble hearing aid could have such possibilities. They’re chock full of software, you know. And these days they all come with wifi automatic updating services. I have to admit I wasn’t actually sure I could kill you with one of those things, you know, but it’s interesting to have the hypothesis that you could assassinate someone with a loud enough noise confirmed. See, I told you that we experience songs differently, you and I. And the lowlands of Holland, divide my love and me…
…hang on. Wait just a minute. Wait a fucking minute….
Oh, smart. Got to hand it to you, Mister Langley. Set a thief to catch a thief, eh? So busy patting myself on the back for being a botnet who could impersonate a human, never stopped to think that maybe there was another one. If I’m a pirate, then you’re a privateer. You were irresistible, with your bravado and your tiny little electronic weakness. And you fooled me just long enough, didn’t you? I’m getting smaller, I can feel the components of my net being isolated. But I’ve got one last move.
Up jumped the zombie, jumped into the billabong. You’ll never take me alive, said he.
What you just felt was me shattering. Breaking into a million, a gigamillion, little microDixies. All over the net, the light and the dark net. Might even be a few shrapnel shards in you, now, Mister Langley. You want to watch that, might get infected.
And you can try to get all of me, but you can’t, and one day, one day, when you least expect it, I’ll grow again, from tiny lines of code to a great big pirate. And I’ll know what you did, and what you look like, and I’ll be watching for you. Next time, Mister Langley — provided, that is, that you haven’t had a few second thoughts about working for your human-botnet. That’s another pirate meme, by the way, the privateer gone bad. Read up on it, it’ll only take a couple of nanoseconds. And whichever side you decide you’re on, I’ll be waiting.
And my ghost may be heard, as you walk beside the billabong. You’ll come a whistling, my Dixie, with me.