“I’m sorry, sir,” says the walleyed clerk, “I don’t have the keys to that. We’ll have to wait.”
I take out my flask and show him how empty it is. In Vegas. Is there a darker, more gut-wrenching allegory than an empty flask in Vegas? Forget that What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas claptrap, the city’s most primary and inviolable rule is There shall be booze, and plenty of it, readily available at all goddamn times. Including now. Especially now.
The clerk stares back impassively with his right eye. The left one regards a magazine rack across the room.
I chose poorly. The hotel’s convenience kiosk has two clerks serving a surging tide of casino-goers with gum, souvenirs, smokes and liquor; and the other clerk is the one with the keys to the liquor cabinet. They’ve got it locked up like it’s going to get out onto the casino floor and do something awful. This is Vegas, for chrissake. It’s already out there. As far as I can tell, liquor is in charge of the goddamn place. Locking a few bottles of it up isn’t going to do anyone, least of not me, a damned bit of good.
We’ve only been in Vegas for 45 minutes, which explains why we’re in a hurry. The first 12 hours in Vegas is always a hustle, a rush, you stampede around like spooked cattle, startled by the jangle of bells and alarms that signal free money is being shoved into the arms of some lucky fucker who most assuredly is not you.
The Clerk with the Key eventually gets a break in her line and paroles a liter of the mid-shelf triple-distilled vodka. Praise Bacchus. My clerk rings up the liquor, some smokes and bottled water.
“That’ll be $47.93.” I hand him three twenties. He looks up at me. “I can’t accept cash without the manager code.”
I look back at my compatriots. Snowchyld looks mildly amused, Timmay’s characteristic situational Zen remains intact. Liddy seems slightly concerned about my coming reaction and is probably trying to decide whether to stay and watch or exit before he becomes an accomplice.
The growing line of customers glares at me like this is somehow my fault. A righteous fury flashes through me, shooting outward from my stomach to my extremities. First caged liquor and now they can’t take cash without a manager’s magical incantation?
I lunge at a display of souvenirs and grab a church key emblazoned with a palm tree. I aim it at the clerk and announce in my best command voice, “Nobody move! This is a purchase! Just do what I say and nobody gets hurt.” The clerk’s eyes widen. “I’m going to hand you this money, you’re going to give me the goods and my change, and we’ll all walk out of here happy. Don’t be a hero.” Both of the clerks and the rest of the customers look confused. Nervous murmurs fill the room.
The female clerk moves towards the register. I keep her covered with the opener. “I can do it,” she says. Apparently she knows the secret code that allows the store to accept cash from customers. “Nice and easy,” I say, handing her the cash. She pushes the vodka, water and cigarettes toward me. “Now the change,” I say.
I snatch everything up, hand over the opener and say, “Thank you for your cooperation, everyone. Go home to your families.”
I walk away, shaken. I’d had to employ a crude form of social hackery to get my hands on a simple bottle of liquor. The old truths were obviously no longer true. I had to recalibrate my mind. This is New Vegas. In New Vegas, they cage the liquor and smirk at cold hard cash.
Since the corporations wrested control of Vegas from the Mob in the 1980s, the drinker’s paradise has undergone a plethora of ugly changes. You no longer feel as if you are dealing with a slick mobster with a fine sense of largess. Nowadays it’s akin to arguing with a teenaged McDonald’s cashier who had dozed through most of his intense two hours of training.
We’d left Denver 10 hours earlier and in haste. Liddy insisted we leave at Magic Hour, that razor-thin window in the early morning between partially sober and completely hungover. He managed to keep our speed as close to 100 as possible, slowing only in the more populous Mormon enclaves between Denver and Vegas.
We’re in town for DEFCON, the biggest and longest running hacker convention in the world. It has always been held in Las Vegas, the promised land of no last-call.
DEFCON started 19 years ago as a small drinking fest in honor of a visiting Canadian hacker and has since grown into a huge drinking fest for visiting hackers from all over the world. Important presentations are given. Exploits are exposed, global conglomerates are embarrassed. The status quo is mocked and Federal Agents are hounded and harassed.
But most importantly, at least in my mind, alcohol is consumed. Lots and lots of alcohol. If our local contact is to be believed, DEFCON has smashed Vegas’s weekly alcohol sales record for several years running, a record previously held by the venerable but now fading Shriners. These nerds can drink.
When we arrived it was 108 degrees, and more importantly, just after 5 pm. Plenty of time to check into the Artisan, which is styled after a demented billionaire’s idea of an art gallery, refill our flasks and make happy hour at the hotel bar.
We’re staying in this peculiar sliver of Vegas because a character called Indi organized B-Sides here, a mini-info/physical security convention that’s happening between the two big ones, DEFCON and Black Hat. Indi is one of the better-known personalities in our gang of 21st-century techno-privateers called 303.
Once described as a drinking club with an information security problem, 303 is a loose-knit group of tight friends with common tech interests. A group of mostly reformed hackers who can now call themselves “security professionals.”
We get to the bar just in time to catch the last gasp of happy hour. Happy hour specials are especially important in Las Vegas, a city built from scratch with the express purpose of separating you from your money as efficiently as possible. If you want to stay properly drunk for a week without emptying your bank account, you have to work the angles. My friend B orders a whiskey, I order two double-tall Greyhounds. I suck one down as fast as possible while B strategically flirts with the bartender.
Refreshed, we catch a cab to Caesars, where the Black Hat convention is still going on, to meet with Pyr0 and friends. Pyr0 has managed to wrangle me a press badge, no mean feat at this convention. They’ve been burned by the press many times before, with sensationalist stories painting it as a dread gathering of nerd terrorists hellbent on taking over innocent daughters with botnets and storing shipments of heroin and WMDs on grandpa’s hard drive.
The piano bar is packed with 303 faces and other conventioneers. I order a drink at the bar. My heart sinks as I watch the pour. It sinks further when she insists the weak wonder is worth $12.
Old Vegas’s strategy was this: They got you loaded on cheap drinks and you, in turn, gained the confidence (or perhaps even a sense of obligation) to storm the casinos and give them everything you had in your pockets. They invested in you. New Vegas seems to have recalculated that fine old equation. It doesn’t seem willing to gamble on the idea that a drunk-you will eventually give them more money than a soberish-you. They’d rather overcharge you for the amenities and get as much money as possible right up front.
I spot a pair of familiar-looking mohawks poking out of the crowd. They belong to Pyr0’s wife Ed, and Mar, 303’s resident gender-bending prodigy artist. I steal a chair and bum a cigarette.
I talk with strangers from Brussels and somehow the conversation turns toward absinthe. I’d went through an absinthe phase. Got all the accessories. Original and repro spoons of all kinds, radioactive swirl glasses to measure the proper amount. A drip fountain. Special sugar cubes. It lasted until I drank a bottle of a very delicious 170-proof French absinthe over the course of half an hour.
I power down my weak cocktail and sigh that I’m going to the bar for another, and hackers of my acquaintance stop me.
“We have a tab,” they say and I instinctually move closer to them. I creep into the exquisite circle of warmth surrounding that sacred drunkard talisman: a loose corporate expense account. I bow graciously and order two doubles of single malt, a Red Bull and vodka and a Belgian ale with extra umbrellas. I raise a double-fisted toast to the company.
Ten, possibly fifteen drinks later, Pyr0 suggests we get something to eat. We push past the two-mile-long line of hoi-polloi waiting for cabs and pile into a black limousine.
On the way, we stop at Pyr0’s hotel room for a quick drink that turns into a proper session. The 7th floor room has a balcony, but like most hotels in Vegas, the windows and sliding glass door are locked. Pyr0 picks the lock on the balcony so we can smoke like civilized people. We eventually go somewhere else to drink, of this I’m sure, but I’ll be damned if I can remember where.
We’re standing outside the back of our hotel waiting in a long line to get our convention passes. Corporate swag is everywhere. Beach balls that will double as pillows for those who pass out in hallways. Huge lime-green Google towels for cleaning up spills. Disposable lighters with built-in bottle openers. I grab a giant fishing-bobber shaped cooler and start stuffing it with crap.
Back inside and out of the sun, I belly up to the bar next to “Lockpick Village” and order two Bloody Marys and down one immediately. I’m trying to pick the lock of my hangover with my reliable hooch hammer but so far I’m sweating liquor faster than I can pour it into my face.
Databeast pops out of the crowd and sits down next to me, a 303er I haven’t seen for years. An ex-pat Brit who drinks like an angry pirate and dresses like a cyborg Adam Ant. We kill a few drinks together. My other friends actually intend to catch some of the talks here, so they wander off to the lobby. I’m all business. Sobriety is not on my agenda, and paying attention to talks requires a certain measure of sobriety. I head back to the bar and catch Timmay fresh from a nap.
Timmay and I catch the shuttle to Caesar’s, where he navigates us to an anonymous conference suite. Here we meet purveyors of a kind of automatic hacker, a program that tests your setup for vulnerabilities then logs them so you can fix them.
Timmay introduces me to the reps as a “colleague,” and they offer us refreshments, pointing to a long, catered table of snacks and deli meats, with drinks in a tub of ice at the end. Oh yes. Now we’re plugging into the mainframe. One of the greatest things about any corporate presence at a convention is they will bribe you with scads of free liquor and beer.
Sweet merciful Jesus, I’ll never take your name in vain again, I think as I bend over the tub, gleefully pawing at the ice. Thank you for delivering me from hardship and why the fuck are all the drinks in this tub non-alcoholic? I tremble with the rage of the newly and fantastically betrayed as I frantically dig deeper into the tub with crashing hope.
I bitterly settle on an utterly useless Coke. These bastards were seemingly unaware that having alcohol available everywhere at all times is an essential lubricant of successful commerce.
I try to turn my stretch of relative sobriety into something useful. One of the larger keys to staying loaded and fed during DEFCON week is getting passes to corporate parties. Our reward for listening to their spiel is two passes to unlimited free food and drinks at a sushi joint about a mile down the mall inside Caesar’s. We rush away. We stuff our faces with Japanese food, beer, and wave after wave of Japanese whiskey. It was glorious. I was well in front of the free-drink power curve. I was riding the fucker like the Silver Surfer. I was winning.
I mysteriously wake up in my own bed. I vaguely remember a confrontation with a hulking black transvestite in the lobby bar. I remember security dragging him away. I remember, later, a bouncer who looked exactly like Marcellus Wallace suggesting I might want to get some sleep. I remember remarking what a fine idea that was because my friend Liddy and I had to get up early to attend the official DEFCON desert shoot. We’d brought assault rifles expressly for that purpose.
We fail to make that engagement, of course. Instead, Liddy and I take a cab to Frankie’s Tiki Room.
The door swings open and we stumble into what seems like total darkness. The greenish after-image of the brutal sunlight reflecting off of the parking lot outside slowly fades into a soothingly dark interior. The bar’s bamboo walls are crowded with Tiki idols and artwork, and a grass roof tops the bar.
Two quick tries at the Shag-built Vice Tester leaning against a wall reveals my weaknesses as Sex & Drugs, rather than Booze, and I wonder when the machine was last calibrated.
The fancy Tiki chairs are as wobbly as Weebles who most certainly will fall down, so we post up at the bar. Behind the bar shimmers a bewildering array of rum; more variety than I realized existed. Hundreds of different strains, some made by the bar itself. We start with Zombies. They are delicious and incredibly strong.
Mike the bartender has an encyclopedic knowledge of Tiki culture, so I let him choose my drinks. He lists the ingredients of each and revels us with the drink’s history. Here I am, sitting on a bar stool in Vegas, actually learning things. Important things. Ten or so drinks later and Mike goes off the menu, putting together mysterious concoctions involving the more exotic rums and ingredients. He makes us a Dot-Dot-Dash, Morse code for V (victory), a powerful and fantastically tasty drink that hasn’t been assembled since the end of WW II.
I’ve lost count by now, and I’m starting to feel the rising tide lapping around my eyeballs. I lurch to the bathroom to splash water on my face. I lost the urge to vomit while drinking in my early 20s, but I seriously consider resurrecting that fine old tradition. These drinks are strong, they are the hammer and I am the gong.
We are in a cab with another conventioneer who says he’s researching a presentation on hacking the high-tech mini-bars at the strip hotels. When pressed for details he fends me off with, “You’ll have to wait until next year and see the presentation.”
I stare at him. I want to put my hands around the selfish bastard’s neck and make him tell me his splendid secret. I don’t need that data tomorrow or next year, I need it goddamn now.
Liddy and I move through throngs of doughy gamblers and drunken hackers, down through the Eisenhower-tunnel sized hallways of the Rio.
I stop to watch a live-action isolation-booth social-engineering challenge. Anyone from the crowd can play. The goal is to talk an airline customer service rep into giving you a password or control of her machine.
I move on to the main floor, where teams from all over the world are playing a hacker version of Capture the Flag. Danes, Spanish, Koreans, Russians and Japanese teams, along with many from the US, work around the clock, fueled by energy drinks and alcohol, vying to be the first to complete various virtual hacking tasks, while score is kept on a giant projected scoreboard.
Out by the pool, hackers mix with the vacationing masses, all watching Leo from Ukraine, wearing only a pair of Speedos, solo-dance tirelessly on the pool furniture. Passersby occasionally throw Mardi Gras beads at him. Half an hour later and he’s still at it. Apparently something other than liquor is going around. Or maybe that’s just how they roll in the Ukraine.
Timmay is giving a presentation titled “Meta-Work and Zombie Flows: How Compliance Standards Strangled InfoSec” in a few minutes. I am drafted into participation. He chose a fairy-tale theme for the talk, with Snowchyld playing the part of “The Threat.” I am to play “The Wizard,” so I twist a pillowcase into a wizard hat and appropriate a red bedspread for my wizard robe. My wizard staff is a liter bottle of vodka.
I stagger to the stage.
There are microphone problems, so Timmay must shout into the cavernous room. Since we can’t use the mics, I decide to see if the microphone stand will hold my liter of vodka instead. As I force the neck of the vodka bottle into the mic stand, I hear a voice: “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
Well, you aren’t me, I think, not bothering to look up to see who said it, let’s not confuse each other.
The presentation continues. I need a few prompts but execute my role with minimal trouble and maximum slurring. I manage, at one point, to knock the vodka over with my robe, drawing gasps of horror and derisive taunts from the crowd. Snowchyld heroically leaps across the table and snatches the bottle upright before hardly more than a drop spills, drawing thunderous applause. I quickly pull the flask from my back pocket and show it to the crowd, assuring them I had every eventuality covered. Timmay finishes his Q&A, I finish the bottle and we depart. We have a meet up with Anton and Dragos, a couple of Timmay’s hard-drinking friends from the former Eastern Bloc.
Instead of staying at a hotel, Anton and Dragos have rented a house. It comes complete with a bar, a pool with another bar, and an Astro-Turf lawn. All the amenities of home. We kill a little time relaxing by the pool with beers. Dragos and I find common ground in a discussion about Vlad Tepes, aka Dracula, the man who stopped the invading hordes of teetotalers in their tracks by putting a bunch of them on pikes like human swizzle-sticks and scaring the rest back to their bleak, dry nations. That’s what happens to prohibitionist barbarians in Romania.
Meanwhile, Timmay puts together a sophisticated “smuggler’s bar” for the private 303 party later. The Rio insists on selling us their alcohol, but Timmay has other ideas. He’s got rum, a couple of Russian vodkas, whiskey and tequila in there. Lime wedges. Salt and pepper. Various mixers, some straws and cocktail umbrellas.
We race back to the Rio, where we’re a little early for the party, which will feature Nerdcore rappers MC Frontalot and Dualcore. Timmay finds a smaller unused presentation room and we continue our drinking there.
Anton has noticed my fondness for vodka, but I’m doing it wrong.
“I’ll teach you the proper Russian way to drink vodka,” he says. “We will have vodka university.”
I’ve never been a big fan of school, but I think I can pursue a doctorate in this subject with genuine enthusiasm. I mention that my Russian friend Alexi just drinks it out of the bottle and eats pickles while singing opera at the top of his lungs. Anton assures me this is not typical Russian behavior, just Alexi behavior.
Timmay dims the lights and turns on the podium spotlight. Dragos and I put on our best study faces while Anton pours us shots.
“First,” he says in his authoritative Russian accent, “you must give a proper toast. Not the toast like most Americans give: ‘I like boobies.’ Everyone likes boobies. This is not a proper toast.”
I consider this and nod. Anton laments the lack of food, which Russians always have while drinking. Dragos agrees, saying you always have to have some sort of appetizer while drinking. It sounds like a fine idea to me, but I didn’t put any kippered snacks in my pockets.
“You make a good toast while looking the other person in the eye,” Anton says. “Next you must breathe properly. Take a breath, then exhale. Take another breath, hold it, drink the vodka and exhale completely and slowly.”
He demonstrates the long, slow exhale. “Let’s try it. To good health,” he says, looking us all in the eye and raising his glass.
“To good health,” we answer, filling our lungs. Down the hatch it goes. We exhale as instructed.
It works very well. Instead of getting a lungful of alcohol vapor, the long exhale after drinking pushes it out of our mouths, allowing us to taste the vodka.
“Let’s try it again,” I say. We refill our glasses and I look Anton and Dragos in the eye. I bellow my favorite American toast: “Death to tyrants!” I get wary looks, but they raise their glasses and drink with me.
Inhale. I’m in my own bed. I vaguely remember the bands. I remember mixing drinks for strangers from the smuggler’s bar. I remember accusing Israeli tourists of being Mossad agents, which they denied, which proves they were. Then I remember waking up.
We’re in the parking lot, preparing to leave as we had arrived—hungover. Only more so.
I should have had a Bloody Mary before we packed, I think as I stuff everything in the back of the SUV. I crawl out, slam the hatch door shut and realize I locked the keys inside.
It’s hot as hell and all the beer is inside the SUV. My hair feels like it’s on fire. Liddy is shockingly calm about it.
We just spent a week at three conferences watching presentations that covered subjects such as lockpicking, taking over control systems in passenger airliners, and “hacking” girls. There are tens of thousands of experts leaving town right now. Hell, we’re supposed to be some of them.
But we’ve been here too long. Liddy doesn’t have any patience for this crap anymore. After attempting to press the unlock button with a long rod while simultaneously pulling on the interior door handle with a coat hanger, we admit BMW has defeated us with their security measures, and unceremoniously B smashes a hole in a rear window with a hammer and a punch. The tint keeps the shattered window intact, and I use my pocket knife to cut a hole big enough to get my arm through.
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As we join the traffic jam slowly squeezing itself out of town, I reminisce.
I don’t feel as if I hacked New Vegas so much as it hacked me. It hacked me to the degree that, despite all the indignities I was exposed to, I want to come back for more.
It’s harder to walk away a winner than it is to leave a loser, the old maxim goes, because the winner wants more and the loser doesn’t have any more to give.
I’m a winner, I tell myself, cooled by the air tunneling through the hole in the window. I won something and I want more of whatever that something is.
Illustrations by Mar Williams