Chapter 1:

00000: No one is in control

Root Access

People tend to believe that they are in control – that is … only until they lose it. No system is invulnerable, every password can be cracked, every device hacked. It is just a more or less complicated puzzle and there will always be people like me, that love nothing more than solving them.

The beast was towering in front of me, its brute muscles twitching as they were just waiting for me to make a move. I counted eight heads. All its yellow snake eyes glared at me through the fogged twilight. In its right center was the biggest head, the main analysis program. It started subroutines for all eight of the processor’s cores. They were watching each other simultaneously. That meant, if I chopped off one head, the others would notice it and blow me a lethal strike in an instant.

Right now, the beast was just observing my actions on the machine. Like a well-trained guard dog, it reacted only on suspicious behavior. However, it would instantly cut my connection if I just attempted to escalate my user permissions or do funny stuff to the computer’s registry. There was no way around it, I had to chop off all eight heads at the exact same moment in time. It was impossible to pull off for a human, but fortunately for me, programming was also an option.

My fingers raced over the keyboard as I coded the small script. First locate all the subprocesses, second spawn threaded kill-routines for each of them, third synchronize the attack across all cores, fourth strike. It was relatively straightforward, but my mind was acting against me. I did not get much sleep yesterday … well, today.

“How is it going, Kanaoka-kun?” Ando-sensei, my teacher in informatics looked at my monitor. I didn’t notice him up until he spoke, so I flinched a bit to the side.

“It’s … um, good I guess?”

“That sounded more like a question.” He turned towards me with a confident smile on his face, eyeing me up and down. “So, this time you will finally manage to hack into my laptop and get access to the results for the exams?”

His mocking attitude made me angry. I groaned. “Yes, this time, I am sure!”

I remembered Ando-sensei’s first lessons, two years ago, when I just entered Junior High School. He came into the room and before he even told us his name, he offered us the results to the upcoming exams. He would place the respective solutions into the user directory on his laptop, and we got time during the last class before the exams to steal it from him.

It still was a bit odd, but this offer came exactly at the right time for me. The little computer nerd that I already was had just gotten into the basics of programming. Gaining access to the sacred results of the upcoming term exams (and the gratefulness of all the girls) was enough for me to dive head over heels into hacking.

“Your persistence is really admirable.” Ando-sensei nodded.

“Quit that sweet talk! You will soon lose your laughter!” I yelled, making him laugh only more.

“No sweet talk, I really mean it. You improved a lot during the last months!”

I was the only one left. All the others stopped trying after the second or third attempt – if they even gave it a shot in the first place. Yes, it turned out to be much harder than any of us would have ever imagined. But still, there was not a single puzzle that I could not eventually crack and at the end of this day, Ando-sensei’s laptop with this insane analysis program called ‘Yamata no Orochi’ would no longer be the only exception. I frowned and looked back to the screen. Do not get distracted! You have to stay fully focused!

“I see, you got this!” he exclaimed and went on to help the others, who were just learning for the upcoming exams.

At this point I was unsure if it was just my stubbornness or something else that kept pushing me forward. Was it even possible to exploit this program? It was waterproof in all areas I could imagine, and it could either be a lack of attack surface or a lack of imagination. There was really nothing like it on literally any other system I had hacked this far. Ando-sensei was a pro in IT security. He had written Yamata no Orochi himself: the program that could not be terminated. He had explained me every detail and answered all my questions about it. Despite that I was still unsure if my current approach would even work or fail as miserably as all the previous ones.

It took me only a few minutes to complete the little script that had to carry the weight from my knowledge over the last two years, all the thousands of hours, but would it be enough? Would these few little lines of code be able to defeat Yamata no Orochi?

My eyes darted over the code. I was way too tired. There must not be any errors or my try for this term might also be screwed. I breathed deep in and out and went through the code again. Locate the processes, start termination subroutines, synchronize and strike. Well, here goes nothing.

I executed it, gripping tight to the handle of the katana in my hands. I sprinted towards the beast as fast as I could. It reacted without thinking a second time. All the heads evaded my first strike. But I anticipated that. With a second one I leapt forward, visualizing all the heads’ positions. Subroutines located. Flying through midair I saw the eight blades flashing up in my peripheral view. Synchronize. The snake noticed them as well, but they were too close to evade them now. Strike.

I concentrated all my power on this one blow and slashed through the main neck before me. The other blades did the same for the remaining seven heads. I landed, stumbled, and fell onto the hard floor. But there was no time for pain. I shook myself up, raised me against the beast, ready to parry its strike. My breath halted. Did it work? The dark shadow of the snake was still towering in front of me, but it did not move. A second nothing happened and another. Then slowly the beast collapsed, its heads falling off.

At first, I had to take in the image in front of me. What had just happened? My hands trembled, hovering over the keyboard. I listed all currently running programs. Is it … dead? Did I really kill the processes?

I skimmed through the entries. Nothing. It was gone. My hand wandered towards my mouth. My jaw clenched, as I exhaled the air that was trapped in my lungs for the last few seconds. I felt like screaming of joy, but no rejoicing too early. I had yet to get the results.

Still cautious about my surroundings I clicked my way through the folders until I reached Ando-sensei’s user directory and in it was the PDF-File. My hands started shaking. A strange feeling formed in my stomach. Was this really it? Was there this main boss that I could not slay for almost two years and now it took me just a few well-placed hits to completely obliterate it? Was the solution at the end of this mere endless path really hidden behind a few lines of code?

There they were, right in front of me. The solutions for the upcoming term exams. I selected them, dragged them and dropped them onto my desktop. A bar popped up, showing the copying progress. I expected the connection to collapse at any moment, like it always had, when I did anything with Yamata no Orochi still on its guard. But nothing happened.

The bar filled up completely, the dialog window disappeared, and the icon of the results was still on my device. My mouse hovered over it. I clicked. The cursor changed to a spinning loading animation. And then … nothing happened. The screen just froze … and a blue screen.

“WHAT?!” I screamed. Everyone in the class winced to the sudden sound, quitting anything else and just, silently looking at me.

Ando-sensei came to me, staring at my screen. It took him a few seconds to grasp, what had just happened. “Did you … really manage to copy the file?” There was honest surprise in his voice.

A gasp of relief went through the class. “You got them?”

“Hey, Kanaoka-kun finally got the results.”

“What? How did he do that?”

“No that is a blue screen. His computer crashed.”

I looked at Ando-sensei, anger boiling up inside my body. I jumped up. “You never planned to give us the results in the first place, did you? Instead, you let me copy a virus!”

He held his hands up, trying to placate me. “That is not a virus. It is just a modified PDF-file with an exploit that causes a temporary hardware failure in the OS, nothing permanent … but I never expected you to get this far.”

“It’s not the results to the exams, so it was a lie however you’d like to view it!” I clenched my fists.

He sighed deeply. “I think … I owe you an explanation. First of all, you are completely right: I never meant any of you to actually get the results for the exams. I never had them in the first place. Instead, I just wanted to really show you computers in a different light. There is a whole machinery that is hidden behind the curtains and it may be complicated and abstract, but I believe that a lot of people don’t take an interest in this just because they don’t even bother to try. And sure, I could have made you write yet another assignment, but I had been a student as well: Pasting the Wikipedia article into a PowerPoint is far off from the investment for a chance to legally cheat the exams.” His gaze had wandered through the whole class and finally ended at me. “It is the same reason why historical video games teach history better than any textbook could – at least if they are somewhat accurate. They are fun. Puzzling is fun. And hacking your teacher’s laptop is fun as well, right Kanaoka-kun?”

I remembered the first months after his offer. We held big strategy meetings in the café from the parents of one of my classmates to unite our forces. And it was not even just my class – all classes taught by Ando-sensei. Some girl even brought her older brother, who was working as a software developer. We all had been like-minded spirits that invested even our free time for a common goal. But it was only good while it lasted. “At first it really was a lot of fun” I explained. “But after the first successes we hit into several roadblocks, and it soon became just frustrating.”

Ando-sensei nodded and looked towards a girl at the desk behind me. “But I heard you started coding your very own blog in HTML afterwards, Tsukioka-san, right?”

She nodded.

“Tamaru-kun updated all of his passwords to something safer than ‘abc123’, Marubashi-kun plans to attend a senior high school with a focus on IT.” He turned towards me. “And you, Kanaoka-kun, somehow even managed to defeat my analysis program despite being all alone. I think, I was able to light that spark in at least a few of you and I hope the new-found joy outweighs the frustration and anger you feel right now.” He bowed deep before me. “I am very sorry, but I have no regrets and am willing to do it again. If you can’t forgive me, that is okay.”

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