A Vignette from The Compound

by Kyle Barnhart

4 July 2013

“They should call this place the Pizza Oven,” Sammy remarked.

Docker looked up from his laptop and saw his sister. She was sitting cross-legged on the dusty concrete floor, bathed in the glow of her own computer. The server racks lining the dreary, dark room formed a chorus of computer fans singing to the beat of clicks, taps and and blinking LEDs.

“But it’s not hot in here. Like, at all.” He scratched at his unkempt scalp and added, “It’s fucking freezing.”

“It works on a lot of levels, if you think about it.”

“What, like, that it’s a big box made of bricks?”

“Well, yeah,” she conceded, “that’s the most obvious one. And then there’s the joke level, because it’s totally not hot in here.”

“I’m not sure that counts as a lot of levels.”

Sammy grunted and returned her attention to the screen. The young siblings had spent the last four days blazing a new trail across the disconnected, corporate communications network once known as the Internet.

Docker, still in the acne-pocked throes of puberty, had established a new route from their pizza oven-shaped home base in Dallas to an enormous, automated retail shipping warehouse located in Kentucky. The first hop involved tricking an elderly man in Oklahoma City into connecting his “smart” refrigerator to the compromised wireless network of a nearby office supply store.

Sammy had made quick work of that store’s supposedly-secure network. Using the cryptographic keys his sister had quietly extracted from the store’s point-of-sale system, Docker then spent six hours forging a digital siege weapon. The attack on the warehouse passed along a series of malformed requests that tricked the server on the other end into opening a short-lived remote administration session.

Finally, Sammy “paved the walls” of the tunnel by installing various known exploits and countermeasures to keep the connection open, hidden, and protected from other young rogues.

Their boss, The Coachman, was particularly satisfied. The warehouse’s network was stocked with transaction tables dating back to the early 2000s. Statistical techniques allowed The Coachman to infer all sorts of incriminating, blackmail-worthy secrets from the disparate rows in the tables.

A representative on the House Energy Subcommittee for Communications and Technology was shipping diapers and baby formula to the home of his campaign manager in Florida. The CFO of California’s biggest upstream hydrogen supplier had a purchase history that lined up exactly with the evidence manifest from several unsolved Bay-area murders.

And those were just the top two items on a chronological list of initial findings. Further analysis and automated cross-referencing with The Coachman’s existing trove of stolen data would yield enough scandal to put half of the country out of a job or behind bars.

The siblings were rewarded with a week off from work, giving them well-deserved time to be lazy teenagers.

Docker was now pouring over a popular darkweb forum frequented by hackers, citizen journalists, sexual deviants and, in general, filth.

In order to become a member of zzChan, you had to provide them with a compromised, relatively accessible web server, either by hacking one or paying someone to hack it for you. The site rotated between these web servers to give its users a sense of privacy, though anyone smart enough to join the site knew better.

“You hear about the rocket down by the border last night?” he asked Sammy.


“Everyone is talking about it on zzChan. A rocket crash-landed on some guy’s ranch.”


“Some diplomat was arrested at the border last night for cartel stuff, and that’s all over Big News, but they’re not saying anything about the rocket.”

“I don’t care. I’m tryin’ to concentrate on somethin’ important.” After a pause, she added, “and you know I don’t care about the stupid shit that goes on outside.”

“You need to stop working so much. We’re never gonna make friends around here if you’re always working.”

“Then you go fucking talk to them,” Sammy shot back. “Tell them about your broken rocket and how cool you are on zzChan.”

Docker chose, like a good older brother, to ignore her combative words. He vaulted up from his contorted perch in the corner of the room and moved his bare feet over the chilly concrete until he was looming over Sammy.

Still scowling, she pulled her laptop to her chest.

“Fuck off. You wouldn’t like it anyways. You don’t like my ideas, remember?”

Docker sighed. His sister was so weird about the most particular things.

“Fine. We can call this place the Pizza Oven,” he conceded, gesturing with quotation-marks fingers as he spoke the new name. “Now show me what you’re doing.”

Sammy put on a satisfied smile and returned the computer to the floor, adjusting the screen so that her brother could see it. He crouched behind her and craned his neck over her shoulder.

“I was trying to pull a few tables I found on this one sysadmin’s workstation, and they were locked. Not like, security-locked, but like, in-use locked. Then I noticed the network throughput was spiked at one terabyte a second.”

“Shit,” Docker exclaimed, “you weren’t snooping around while he was logged in, were you?”

“Jeez, Dock, give me a little credit. Course I wasn’t. This jerk is running some kind of service that pulls down files from the network and pushes them out to somewhere, even when he’s not logged in.”

Pushing them out to somewhere. As a Router, Docker naturally liked the sound of those words.

“Huh. Any idea where?”

The smile returned to Sammy’s face as she whispered, “Utah.”

To the layperson, the word Utah might conjure images of Mormon solicitors, expensive ski resorts, or large, salty lakes. But Utah only had one connotation to the siblings.

“The NSA?”

“That’s not the best part,” Sammy continued. “The best part is that he built this little uploader service himself, and the source code is all on the workstation.”

“We’ve gotta tell The Coachman! We won’t work again for a year!”

Sammy shushed her brother. Amidst the whine of the hard-working servers, the two could also hear the not-too-distant banter of other teenage hackers in the Pizza Oven.

“Hold up. Think about it for a second. We might have access to spying data going back to 9/11 or maybe even before. Isn’t there something you might want to look at before you hand the keys over to your boss?”

Mom and dad.

The excitement melted away from Docker’s face, leaving wide eyes and a pensively-open mouth. If there was any record of what had happened to their parents—outside the one police report and stories passed along by the State of Texas’ inadequate foster care system—then the NSA was surely holding it.

“So what are we waiting for?” he finally asked.

“We aren’t. I was gonna surprise you.”

Sammy popped open a window, revealing the current results from a distributed scan of the NSA’s network-attached archives.

“I can’t pull anything too big back without being noticed by their hardware,” she explained, “so I distributed a worm to a few computers on their end, and they’re doing the sifting for me.”

Her brother nodded.

Sammy was intimidatingly talented and resourceful. She had a knack for avoiding danger, but could just as easily thrive in it.

Docker had always dismissed this trait as a side-effect of Sammy’s age: If you have a decent brain, lots of time and little to lose, he figured, then the reckless abandon of youth makes you invincible.

In this moment, kneeling beside her, Docker recognized that it wasn’t youth that made her invincible. It was him. It was everything they’d been through together, from the foster home to the streets and finally to The Coachman’s doorstep.

The two continued watching in silence as bits and pieces of their parents’ life trickled onto the screen. Frequently-contacted friends and co-workers. Bills and bank statements. Employment history. Scanned copies of court documents, death certificates, sealed police reports, and insurance adjustor testimony.

“Incredible,” Sammy finally said.

She looked to her side and saw Docker was visibly disappointed.

“But it’s...” he began, and trailed off as a sadness gripped at his throat and pushed the words back down.

Sammy reached her arm around him and pulled him closer.

“Listen, whatever this says doesn’t change anything for us. We’re still here, and we’re making it together, and that’s what matters.”

“I guess I just, y’know, I wasn’t ready. This is a lot to take in.”

“Yeah. Pretty crazy that we owe it all to some poor dude’s fridge.”

Docker smiled, and then Sammy smiled, too.

“No, but seriously,” Sammy added, “That was a stroke of genius.”

A flash on the screen caught the pair’s eyes and pulled their focus back to the computer.

COMPLETE. The wormed machines hundreds of miles away had completed their search. All available records and corresponding metadata had been passed back to Dallas. Everything that the international surveillance state possessed regarding Docker and Sammy’s parents. Everything.

“Well, shit. I thought it’d take a little longer than that.”

“I guess we can tell The Coachman about—”

Docker was interrupted by a distant, thunderous crash that shook the walls and rattled the metal server enclosures. The two teenagers bolted up from the ground, trading the same pensive glance. Sammy nervously moved to grab her laptop, but another crash caused her to recoil before she could grab it.

“The fuck was that?” a voice yelled from somewhere.

“I’m going to wake up the Coach,” another teenage voice yelled back.

“Shit, wait up!”

Nervous shouts and the smacking of bare feet on concrete punctuated above the familiar, calming white noise of the machines. Sammy quickly and calmly began filling her backpack, starting with her laptop.

She shouted “Dock!” at her brother, who was moving to grab his own bag. “Pull some drives before we go!”

Without answering, Docker moved to the closest server rack and began yanking the easy-release disk drives from the machines. He filled his backpack up, then took Sammy’s bag and filled it, too. Between the two bags, Docker figured there was enough blackmail to comfortably retire many times over.

They moved like clockwork.

Both Docker and Sammy momentarily acknowledged what was happening: Another evacuation. Another scramble. Another jump into the unknown, fleeing present danger because the world was a cruel and unforgiving place. The two were very, very used to it by now.

The pair of hackers then bid a silent adieu to their office and ran through the dim, tight corridors of the Pizza Oven.

Docker and Sammy, hand in hand, moved through rows of dusty, antique electromechanical switching equipment. The building once belonged to the telephone company, The Coachman had explained to them when they first arrived a year ago. They stepped carefully to avoid the multicolored tangles of ethernet cable piled atop old electrical wire that extended like foliage over the ground.

There was no literal doorstep to this place; there was only a figurative one, where runaway teenagers sought refuge from that cruel and unforgiving world. The Coachman had sealed the main entrance years ago, instead opting to utilize a series of underground tunnels that lead to various abandoned homes in the derelict Dallas neighborhood outside.

The younger sister and older brother reached the stairwell that lead down to one exit tunnel, only to find themselves face to face with a giant.

He was a huge, pitch-black shadow eclipsing the dim light at the end of the corridor. One arm was sheathed in a boxy, metallic cast. He carried some sort of assault rifle in his other hand.

Docker almost laughed because it looked so diminutive in his hand.

Almost. The two stood motionless, moving their eyes up toward the man’s face. It wasn’t the chiseled, long-jawed, leathery face they expected to match the stranger’s grotesque body. It wasn’t a man’s face at all. It was the rounded, smooth, pure face of a child much younger than themselves, topped with a bowl haircut.

“Where is The Coachman?” the boyish face bellowed toward the siblings.

They said nothing.

The giant then turned away and continued his casual march. And when he was out of earshot, Docker and Sammy bolted for the stairwell.

Docker thought about where they would go from here. He wondered if there were more people like The Coachman, doing that sort of work. He feared the giant, and whoever the giant was working for, and the many jealous interests who had every reason to go after The Coachman and his team of hackers. He hoped the world would be kind again, like it had been for the past year.

Through the fear and the anxiety, Docker knew it would all be okay. Sammy was with him. And Sammy knew she would be okay with Docker.