A/N: Alex’s powers and new knowledge will make more sense if you go read the first story in this series: “The League of Extraordinary Women”. The disclaimer, spoilers, and other information are in chapter 1.
On Saturday, Alex and her folks, and all the rest of her team – except Gloria, who couldn’t get away from work because of all the camera-crew business she was getting – hopped in her mom’s SUV for a daytrip. This time, they took the big cooler. With her and Ray and Louis in the van, there was no telling how much food might get eaten. And Robyn was on a kick about ‘rehydrating’ even if it meant she had to go pee a lot more. So lots of snacks and drinks.
And two potty stops on the way up.
Her dad drove, and her mom sat in the shotgun seat to give directions. Alex sat in the very back with Ray. Nicole and Robyn flipped a coin when Louis wasn’t looking, so Robyn was sitting next to Alex, and Nicole was in the middle seat with Louis. Who was behaving himself, since there were parents right in front of him.
They drove up to Willow’s house, with her mom getting her dad to park the SUV in Willow’s garage so no one would notice it on the street.
Willow was waiting at the door into the kitchen. Alex clambered out of the van and went right over and hugged Willow. Her mom did too.
Alex grinned, “Everybody? This is Willow Rosenberg, you knew that already. Willow? This is my dad, you get to call him George even though we don’t, and my boyfriend Ray, and Robyn, and Nicole, and Louis who you already talked to on the phone.”
Willow shyly shook everyone’s hand and told Louis, “I really want to thank you and your dad so much. I went to your dad’s website, and I patched six or seven holes in the security, and I installed some updates on some things that really needed to be updated, and I turned on a couple key pieces on your company firewall that got left off when it was installed. Oh, and I saw there were some weirdnesses with your webpages so I fixed a couple settings on your shopping basket software.”
Louis looked stunned. “And you did all that from outside
Willow shrugged, “Oh sure, it was easy. If you know what you’re doing, once you get in, there’s a dozen different ways you can get administrator access without a lot of trouble, and then you can do anything, even if you’re doing it remotely. Oh, and you guys really need better passwords. Did you know your dad’s password is your mom’s name? ‘Marie’ is totally not a secure password.”
Louis just stood there with his mouth hanging open. Alex used a little telekinesis and pushed his lower jaw up so he wouldn’t drool or anything.
Louis finally said, “That’s… I thought Alex was exaggerating when she was talking about how awesome you are, but I was wrong. You’re even more awesome than that.” He glanced around and said, “And don’t tell what my password is.”
Willow smiled impishly but said, “It’s actually a pretty secure password. At least it’s got upper and lower case, and it’s not one word.”
Alex’s dad said, “Umm, Willow? I’m not a computer expert like you, but my IT people told me the password system we have is uncrackable. A trapdoor algorithm, so passwords go in, get turned into an encrypted string, and never get unencrypted. So how can anyone check that the right password goes in, and how can you crack them?”
Willow smiled broadly as she led them into the kitchen. Alex could see that Willow had taken the round kitchen table and put two leaves in the middle so it now seated about ten people. There was a pot of coffee in her coffeemaker on the counter, and two teapots on the counter too, with coffee mugs and a bunch of coffee and tea things, like sugar and Splenda and brown sugar in little paper packets, and honey in the cutest little bear-shaped plastic bottle, and little cartons of milk and half-and-half, and even some sliced lemons. One teapot had a little sign in front of it that said ‘lemon herbal’ and the other had a sign that said ‘Earl Grey – caffeine’.
Willow said, “Everybody, grab what you want, the coffee is a nice dark French roast, and it’s caffeinated. I’ve got lots of soda in the fridge, because when I’m programming I live on Coke and Mountain Dew, and Sunkist Orange which has a ton of caffeine too. But I’ve got filtered water and soda water and some diet Coke because I saw Alex had it in her cooler last time she was here.”
Alex got a can of diet Coke and a glass and some ice, and sat down in one of the folding chairs. The table had four nice chairs that matched the table, and six folding chairs that Willow probably stored away with the table leaves somewhere. Alex felt bad that Willow was so isolated.
Willow had a mug of the lemon herbal tea with some honey and a slice of real lemon. Then she blithely explained, “Oh. Cracking the passwords. That’s easy. All you need is a copy of the program that does the encryption. Everyone has that. Then you feed it a dictionary, and you have a big file. All the passwords on one side, and all the encrypted strings on the other. You sort it by the strings, and it’s super-easy to find the password. But that fails as soon as someone just sticks a ‘1’ at the end of their password, or sticks a couple words together, like Louis did.” Alex noticed that Louis turned sort of red in the face.
Willow went on, “Most crackers who do dictionary attacks use a dictionary of a few thousand words, and that’s more than enough because so many people pick the same words, but I started out with a dictionary of ten thousand words for base cases, a dictionary of ninety thousand words for backup, and another ten thousand names and abbreviations and non-dictionary words. Then I have a ‘passwordizer’ program that takes a word like ‘Marie’ and writes it as all lower case, all upper case, mixed case, leetspeak, and with numbers and punctuation appended on the end, and I run all those through too. And I have another program that pulls a lot of popular words and names and sticks them together, maybe with numbers or punctuation too, and I run those through too. I’ve got the computing power to do it. So I have a file of four trillion encrypted strings, and what they translate to. Any string I see, I just look it up and see if I’ve got it. The NSA has a bigger file than that, but they have a lot more computing power than I do. All I have is a distributed network of a hundred eighty CPUs I can use for parallel processing.”
“So what’s Louis’ password?” Ray asked.
Louis buried his face in his hands and muttered, “SexyHotKimK. Don’t tell Marsha.”
Nicole groaned, “Eww, you like Kim Kardashian? Gross!”
Louis defended himself, “I don’t like
her, I just…”
Alex was surprised her dad came to Louis’ rescue. He said, “It’s okay. Back when I was a teenager, I had a poster up in my room. My dad teased me about it when I brought Barbara home to meet the family, even if I hadn’t had it up for a while.”
Alex knew this story, so she knew it was a poster of Raquel Welch in this little fur bikini from an old movie.
Robyn said, “At least Kim Kardashian always has clothes on. Louis could’ve picked something really skeezy.”
Louis changed the subject, “And speaking of really skeezy… Willow, can you go onto the sleazy Terawatt websites and delete their pictures and stuff?”
Willow blushed a little and said, “Umm, that would be illegal, but some black hat might have already done something like that. There were five super-sleazy ones, and none of them had top-notch security, so all the image files got corrupted and all the computers got infected and maybe their URLs got cleaned off a bunch of DNS servers so no one can find the sites anymore, and maybe their password files got corrupted so they can’t get back in without help from a system admin who knows what he’s doing. And maybe someone tracked down the system owners so they can get dealt with if they keep being sleazebags. But I wouldn’t do a thing like that.”
Alex got up and hugged Willow around the shoulders and said, “Thanks. Not for doing all that, because a reputable computer programmer like you wouldn’t do something like that, but for being you.”
Alex’s dad said, “I agree. Thank you. And if you ever decide to do security consulting, we could really use your help with the plant website and firewall.”
Willow blushed some more and said, “And I grabbed the names Terawatt and TheRealTerawatt and IAmTerawatt and a couple other ones like that on Facebook and Twitter and a dozen other social media sites so we don’t have to worry as much about impostors. And Alex can use her Terawatt phone to make tweets and stuff, because people are already trying to follow her on Twitter, so I made a couple posts in her name, and having a social media manager is probably gonna become important when more people believe Terawatt’s real.” She then changed the subject. “Okay! Who brought their Team Terawatt phones?”
Everybody did. Alex had hers, naturally, but she had her whole uniform along just in case.
Willow smiled, “Great! I’ve got a replacement chip for everybody’s phone. It’ll make sure that when we talk and text and stuff just between us, it’ll be encrypted. The NSA could decode it if they wanted to get a big enough sample from all of our messages and then run their decryption algorithms, but it’d take them a long time.”
Alex’s mom gaped, “Willow! You programmed replacement chips too? How is that possible?”
Robyn said, “You are totally my new Girl Power heroine.”
Willow blushed some more and said, “It’s not hard if you’ve got the hardware. And the training. I have an EE to go with my CE.” She looked around at the blank stares and explained, “An Electrical Engineering degree to go with my Computer Engineering degree. You know what they say. You can’t spell ‘geek’ without an ‘EE’.”
“You’re not a geek!” Robyn insisted. “You’re just… really smart.”
“I am a geek,” Willow insisted. “I’m a computer geek, and a book geek, and a sci-fi geek, and a gaming geek, and if I could get up enough nerve to wear some of the outfits I’ve made to any cons, I’d be a cosplay geek too.”
Alex smiled a little. “Maybe someday you could show me the costumes you made. I bet they’re pretty awesome.”
Alex’s mom said, “And if Alex wants to go to one of those comic book or anime conferences, I’d feel a lot better if someone older and wiser went with her.”
Willow blushed and said, “Umm, as long as she realizes that the ‘in’ costume for the next year is probably going to be Terawatt.”
“Oh jeez, I didn’t think about that,” Alex groaned.
“Honey, it just means that lots of girls think you’re really amazing, and worth emulating.”
“And plenty of boys too,” Willow said. “There’s already a Terawatt Cosplay forum on several of the Terawatt websites Louis owns. With pictures. Some of the cosplayers are pretty good, even if they’re using lots of padding in places.”
Alex shrugged, “Well, so am I.”
Willow pulled her kitchen laptop over to the table and pulled up a couple of the websites. Alex had to admit some of the cosplayers really looked a lot like Terawatt. Even if one of the really good Terawatts was a cosplayer named BrianJ, so it was a guy. How could a guy look like that without Photoshop?
Louis pointed at that picture and said, “That’s got to be Photoshop. Lots and lots of Photoshop.”
Willow shrugged. “Maybe. Or lots of padding and a little Photoshop.”
Robyn said, “Or lots of hormones, like Tracy.”
Alex nodded at that, because everyone at school knew Tracy started out as a boy, but looked totally like a girl now, and a pretty girl at that, and had boobs and everything, and even dated boys.
Alex’s dad said, “You know, there’s no reason that couldn’t be a girl using a fake name.”
“Ooh, good point!”
Willow said, “I maybe cleaned up a couple of Louis’s websites and loaded up some of the network footage of Terawatt, and all the interviews off the Today show, and authorized the forums and improved the user checking so spammers and bots can’t post on the forums or the pages. And I’m working on a spam-sense detector that can read posts and see if they’re spam or advertisements or inappropriate stuff, but it’s turning into a big rule-based AI system, so it may take me at least a couple more weeks before I’m happy with it.”
Alex’s dad said, “It sounds like something you should work on until you’re really pleased with it, and then sell it to every major player on the internet. Google, YouTube, Facebook, Yahoo… All of them.”
Louis said, “If you need someone to do marketing for you, or even just to call prospective clients, I’d love to help. And anything you want to do with our Terawatt websites, you just go right ahead and give yourself admin privileges and do whatever you want.”
Willow said, “Well, part of what I did was I took the three sites with the most hits and I made them look different, with different focus and different web design and different skins and different forum emphasis. Then I took all the other sites I could find that are officially yours, and I just used them as pointer gateways so they sit there but re-direct visitors to one of the three main ones. So all we have to do is maintain those three and keep up with our ownership on the rest. And maybe buy some more sitenames.”
Louis said, “My dad said that he’s got our lawyers dealing with about a dozen lawsuits with people trying to get hold of the sitenames we already registered, but no one has a better claim, because there’s no one out there who uses the name Terawatt. Although there’s a woman in Minneapolis who says she’s named Tara Watt and she’s suing to get one of our ‘spelled the name wrong’ sites and dad says we may have to cut that one loose. But the rest are just sleazebags trying to capitalize on the name, and so dad’s countersuing, and since I’m officially the agent for A.L. Mack, we’ll probably win the countersuits, and dad thinks we could make some real money on the lawsuits. In the long run. And he’s got Walter on retainer all the time anyway, so he’s happy he’s got legal stuff for Walter to do. Plus, dad’s got a bunch of advertisers who want to pay to get their ads on our websites, so that’s looking good.”
Alex’s mom asked, “And is any of that money going to go to the real Terawatt?”
Louis said, “Well, only under the table, because we don’t have a legit way to do that. Except on the part about upholding Alex’s copyrights on her video footage and stills.”
Willow said, “I could set up a web-spider for you that would hunt all over the place for Terawatt images that are exact copies of your files, and then send a cranky letter from your site saying that they’re using copyrighted images, and they can either take them down, pay royalties, or get their little butts sued off. But it would be slow. And sites in places like Russia and Bulgaria will just ignore stuff like that, because they have no respect for copyrighted material and intellectual property. That’s one of the really annoying parts of being a shareware author.”
Then Willow started talking about the kinds of computer and phone security she wanted Team Alex to have. And while she talked, she led all of them into her dining room, which was really her ‘super computer room’. Alex hadn’t noticed one computer desk in the corner was a fancy computer and cables and a whole stack of special ‘burners’ for all kinds of computer chips so Willow could program like a thousand different kinds of computer chips, plus a bunch of tools and things for working with chips that were all put away in trays in the desk drawers. Plus a fancy fan like a pull-out range fan for a high-end kitchen, and the fan looked like it vented into… nowhere.
Willow saw where she was looking and said, “Oh, it vents into the wall right there, and there’s a conduit up through the framing up to the attic, where the motor and fan are, and it vents out over the back yard. But some of this stuff is pretty smelly, and some of it could be toxic if you breathed it for a while. Like this stuff.”
Willow popped open Alex’s Terawatt phone and painted a solvent-smelling stuff around one little chip on the little plastic board, and the solder dissolved so Willow could lift the chip out with a special tiny chip puller and replace it with a chip that looked identical as far as Alex could tell. Then Willow put a hardener chemical around the chip and the solder got hard again. And all the stinky smells got sucked up into the pull-out range fan.
Willow said, “I even faked the lettering on the back of the chip, so someone who just takes a look will think it’s the regular chip instead of a PROM.”
Willow replaced a chip in everyone’s phone and synched them all up so they would do encryption among the Team Alex phones and not anywhere else, which Alex thought was brilliant. And the whole time, Willow lectured on what they needed to do with phone security and computer security and just plain security. Then Willow changed another chip in Alex’s phone and did something to the settings so Alex could take a photo without the phone making that ‘snapshot’ noise.
When Willow got the last Team Alex phone put back together, she left the vent fan running and led them all back to the kitchen table. She said, “Last thing. I’ve been trying to track down Danielle Atron.”
Nicole asked, “Isn’t that impossible
? The whole country can’t do it.”
Willow said, “Well, I started from the other end. Where is she getting her supercrooks? The last three guys who attacked Paradise Valley had really dangerous weapons, so I wondered if they could be mercenaries or soldiers of fortune. So I went over to some of the creepy bookstores in town and bought some magazines for guys like that. And there are ads that basically say ‘come do illegal stuff for me and here is my email contact’. So I tracked down three before I found Danielle’s site. It’s running off an anonymizer in Russia, but I got past the firewall and cracked the security. It’s a webhost for a bunch of illegal stuff like gunrunning and mercenaries and like that. So I sent a bunch of messages about it off to the CIA and the NSA and Interpol and Scotland Yard and MI6 and the Sureté, and boy were a bunch of them crabby about getting untraceable emails sent to them, and I made sure I could get back into the webhost, and I put in a datalogger so we can check once a week and see who’s trying to get super’ed up. Atron’s pretty cagy about payment and contact and all that stuff, so all I got was a cell number that goes through a special 1-976 messaging system so I can’t trace her location. But I changed the phone number on her webpage by one digit so she won’t be getting any new badguys for a while. And the page says payment goes to a bank in the Cayman Islands, and I checked that out. It turns out there are seven different banks there that don’t play nice with the feds, and people use ‘em to hide illegal money and stuff.”
Alex’s mom said, “I’ve heard about those places. Even the FBI and the Justice Department can’t do anything about them.”
“So you’re stymied,” said Alex’s dad.
“We-eeeeell… sorta,” Willow admitted. “It is possible, it just takes a lot of computing power to find an electronic access to their system, and a lot of connection anonymizing so they can’t tell who you are, and then finding an exploitable hole in their security. I was able to get into one bank that’s using a big VAX running VMS, but only because they still had the FIELD account set with the default password of SERVICE, which is really dumb, and that gave me really high-level access, and I used that to find all the system managers and their passwords, and then I was able to look through all the accounts. So I’m pretty sure she doesn’t have an account at that bank, but there’s six others I have to get into to search, and this is the only one that was easy.”
Alex said, “Umm, that didn’t sound easy at all.”
Ray said, “I only understood about half of what you said, but it sounded like the entire plot of one of those Tom Clancy cyber-thrillers.”
Louis said, “I didn’t even understand half.”
Willow opened her mouth… and then froze. “Does anyone want me to explain all of what I said?”
Alex watched as her dad put his hand up and then said, “Can I get it in a white paper so I can read through it and look things up?”
Alex said, “Yeah, I’d like it that way, so I can look up stuff you know that you forgot dummies like me don’t know.”
Ray said, “I’ll pass.”
Willow looked at Alex and said, “You’re not a dummy! Just because you don’t have decades of experience in the IT biz…”
Alex’s mom said, “Willow, you
don’t have decades of experience in the IT field. You’re only about twenty-four!”
Willow insisted, “I’ve been learning about computers since I was ten, so that’s one and a half decades.”
Alex said, “I need to find an on-line computer course I can take over the summer.”
Willow perked up at that. “Ooh! There’s a ton of really good ones out there, and most of ‘em give you college credit too! There’s computer programming courses, and computer hardware courses, and computer building courses, and web design, and website management, and different operating systems, and app design, and just a ton of good stuff!”
Alex asked, “Well, what about a first course for someone who can do Microsoft Office and Facebook and not much more?”
Willow pursed her lips and thought. “Maybe I can find a good overview course for you. And if not, I’ll find a good intro programming course that’s an easy language to learn. Maybe Basic or HTML, even if I don’t think HTML counts as a complete programming language. Not C or C++ or Perl, because C really assumes some understanding about the hardware you’re using and some important computer science ideas, and C++ and Perl pretty much assume you know C already. I don’t know if anybody offers a starter programming course in Fortran anymore.”
Alex said, “Basic sounds pretty… basic.”
Her dad said, “Even old fogeys like me know about that one. It’s a pretty old language. Like Fortran. The plant still has Fortran on its computers, but it’s pretty useful for scientists.”
Willow said, “Some languages are just harder, and some languages are just more fun. Perl is totally fun, but it’s got pieces from maybe twenty or thirty other languages and tools, so it’s way easier to learn when you already know a lot of computer stuff.”
Louis snarked, “Computer languages can be fun
? Isn’t ‘computer programming’ the exact opposite of fun?”
Willow stuck her tongue out at him. She turned her laptop and typed madly for several seconds, then clicked a couple times and turned the screen so Louis could read it.
Louis stared. He read, “Beforehand close door, each window & exit; wait until time. Open spellbook; study; read spell, scan, select; tell us; write it, print the hex while each watches…” He looked over at Willow. “Okay, it’s weird poetry, but what does it have to do with anything?”
Willow gave him a triumphant grin. “It’s Perl. It’s legal Perl code. One of the many, many super-cool things about Perl is all the functions and keywords that are words
so you can read it and it makes sense. And another super-cool thing about Perl is all the amazing things you can do with it in one line of code.” She typed some more and pulled up what looked like an eighty-by-five block of random characters. She smirked, “Looks like junk, right? It’s a Perl program. It’s an amazingly powerful Perl program that all by itself does encryption so strong it violates the ITAR just the way it is.”
Nicole said, “It looks like junk.”
Alex’s dad said, “It looks like line noise.”
Willow smiled, “Perl is easy to read, or it’s impossible to read. It’s so flexible you can do it either way. And it’s really powerful, and really fast, and really clever. It’s what I’m writing my spam-sensor in, because it has so many really great tools for parsing text and matching patterns and spotting things, and it’s way faster than a lot of other languages.”
Alex’s mom said, “Sorry, but you lost me back at ‘pearl’ and ‘legal’.”
Willow said, “Sorry. I told you I’m a geek.”
Alex said, “You’re not. You’re just… passionate about the stuff you care about. If that’s all geekness is, then I’m a geek about photography, and Ray’s a geek about basketball, and Robyn’s an eco-geek, and dad’s a chem geek, and Louis… well, Louis is just a geek.”
Everyone laughed, and Louis said, “I am proud to be a business and marketing geek.”
Willow frowned, “But you see, if you obsess about stuff that’s popular, no one calls you a geek. Like basketball. Or running a business.”
Alex’s dad smiled, “That doesn’t sound fair. Speaking as a biochem geek, of course.”
Willow smiled back, but Alex could tell it wasn’t a super-happy smile. “Lots of stuff isn’t really fair. It just… is.”
Alex’s mom said, “Like it really wasn’t fair that a seventh grader got doused in dangerous chemicals and then hunted for years by a psychotic businesswoman.”
Most of the table nodded at that, but Alex had had years to think it over. Sure, there had been weirdness and humiliation and terror and angst and all that stuff. But it had made her a much better person. It had made her grow out of that stupid ‘beat Libby and Kelly at their own game’ mindset. It had made her see that being a cheerleader wasn’t an important part of life. It had led her to see that just because a guy was hot didn’t mean he was nice or that he deserved the time of day. Ultimately it had made her a lot closer with her whole family, even her aunt. It had given her the chance to meet the most awesome women in the whole multiverse, and the chance to meet her world’s Willow, who was pretty freaking amazing already. And it had given her the chance to really make a difference in a way that no one else in the world could.
Sometimes she wondered what her life would have been like without the GC-161, and sometimes she wondered what would have happened if someone else had been doused with the stuff. But she was pretty sure nobody could have coped without Annie helping them, and she was pretty sure a lot of kids would have become supervillains with her powers. She had thought about it a lot, and sometimes she wondered if it was destiny in some way, because only the younger child of George Mack could have benefited from all the biochemistry rescues she had needed, and only the little sister of Annie Mack could have been in the right place at the right time to do what she had done for Annie’s internship, and it was kind of a miracle that she didn’t get kidnapped until it was just at the right time to stop Danielle Atron with enough evidence to make her be an escaped felon. Maybe there were Powers That Be in this universe too, only they did a better job of hiding behind the scenes.
Willow had a cheesecake too, and they ate all of it. Willow smiled and said, “That was what I wanted, because otherwise I’d eat all the rest and get fatter.”
Alex said, “You’re not fat. At all! And you just need to go for a good ride on your bike every day, and you’ll stay in great shape and keep looking pretty.”
Willow started, “I’m not-”
But Alex’s mom interrupted before Alex could. “Willow, stop that. You’re a very pretty young woman. Just because you don’t believe it and you don’t dress like it, that doesn’t mean we can’t all see it.”
Alex and her mom and Nicole cleaned up in the kitchen, while Willow showed Robyn and Alex’s dad her back yard, and Louis checked news and emails on his smartphone. Alex cleared everything with her telekinesis and put stuff away like that, while her mom washed and Nicole dried. So it took only a couple minutes, and they were done before Willow came back into the house.
Louis strolled back into the kitchen when there wasn’t anymore work to be done. He said, “Good news? No supervillains today. Bad news? Dad has a ton of work for me to do tomorrow since I ‘skipped’ today.”
On the way home, after Robyn’s first potty stop, Louis finally said, “Am I the only person who’s really, really glad Willow isn’t a supervillain? Because she’d be ruling the whole planet by now, and bankrupting anybody who ticked her off.”
Everybody’s hand went up, even her dad’s and he was driving.