Thomas Calabrese –Editor and Contributing Writer Greg ‘Nails’ Nielsen — The Schilling family lived on the cutting edge of technology. Lawrence Schilling graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in computer science. He worked at Apple Technologies and Hewlett Packard in Silicon Valley before relocating to Carlsbad, California. He accepted a position with Viasat Incorporated, a communications company and provider of high-speed satellite broadband services and secure networking systems, covering military and commercial markets.
Lawrence’s wife, Ellen, owned an internet business that specialized in media advertising and web design. Her compelling work crossed various formats and genres: commercials, film, public service announcements, music video, animation and documentaries.
His daughter, Kristin, had her own ‘beauty blog’ with over five million followers. She had contracts with over a dozen cosmetic and health supplement companies. They would send her numerous products and Kristin would evaluate them. If she found them to be worthwhile, she would recommend them to her followers and the companies would financially compensate her for the increase in sales.
Bill Schilling, the son, may have been the most gifted in the family. He was a ‘white hat’ hacker, or as they are sometimes called, an ethical hacker. Bill specialized in penetration testing and other testing methodologies that ensured the security of an organization’s information systems. He would then make the appropriate recommendations to correct the flaws. His role models were; Tim Berners-Lee, Greg Hoglund, Richard M. Stallman, Dan Kaminsky, Jeff Moss, Charlie Miller, Linus Torvalds, Kevin Mitnick, Tsutomu Shimomura and the legendary Marc Maiffret, who was credited with finding some of the first major vulnerabilities in Microsoft Software, including Code Red, the first Microsoft computer worm.
The Schillings’ idea of a family vacation was attending the CES (Consumer Electronic Show) convention in Las Vegas every year. They were completely detached from each other in almost every other way. The first thing they did when they awakened was check their cellphones for messages and turn on their computers. They were so reliant on technology that they were more inclined to check the internet to see if it was sunny than look out the window to check for themselves.
Mary Whitaker had been working for the Schillings for the last seven years and she could count on the fingers of one hand how many times the family shared a meal together. They would drift in and out of the kitchen at all hours of the day and night to get something to eat. At first, she tried to be available so she could cook for them individually, but that soon became impossible because they were always in the hurry to get back to work. Mary planned weekly menus and sent text messages to the Schillings to let them know what she had prepared and let them get it out of the refrigerator at their convenience. She would stay in the servant’s quarters, which was a granny flat attached to the main house until night, then clean the kitchen before going to bed.
The Schillings were the least demanding people that Mary had ever worked for. Sometimes they barely touched their food, but regardless, Mary continued to prepare fresh healthy meals for the family and took it upon herself to look out for their welfare, even if they did not.
Mary was widowed and her two children, Brad and Katie lived out of state, so she focused her maternal instincts on the Schillings. If she thought the family was ignoring their health, she would bring a plate of food and vitamins and set them next to the computer and stand there until they ate the food and took their supplements.
It got to the point where the Schilling family entrusted everything about the house to Mary. The maid/cook/personal manager knew that she couldn’t control the core behavior of the family, but maybe she could influence and modify it. One of her renovations to the property was to have an outside canopy built in the backyard with a dozen electrical outlets. She furnished it with four all-weather fiberglass tables that served as desks. The gardener planted a variety of aromatic flowers and plants around the structure for ambiance.
Mary knew that the family always wanted their devices and computers within arm’s reach. This way she could tell them, “It’s a beautiful day, why don’t you work outside?” and they would have no excuse for saying no.
Even though this was Southern California, the mornings and evenings could be a little cool and the afternoons a little warm. Mary made sure that outside heaters and fans were strategically placed to make the outdoor workspace suitable for all types of weather including rain.
The Schilling family loved their technology, but they also were astute enough to realize how valuable Mary was to them. She took care of the mundane and routine requirements that normal living required, which allowed Lawrence, Ellen, Kristen and Billy to focus on their code, blogs and computer programs. To put it simply, she was the glue that kept things together and the lubricant that helped to keep the domestic engine running smoothly. She was included in every family decision and was well compensated with a good salary and large bonuses on her birthday and Christmas. With no living expenses, this allowed Mary to be equally generous with her biological children and young grandchildren.
Lawrence Schilling was running two major projects for ViaSat and there had been setbacks on both of them. This put a considerable amount of stress on the hard-working engineer who was being pressured by his supervisors to rectify the problems and meet the deadlines.
While working late into the night, Lawrence experienced a cardio episode. Ellen Schilling was in Dallas, Texas at the time meeting with clients, so Lawrence called Mary on his cellphone, “I’ve got a problem.”
When Mary saw her boss in his office, he was pale and perspiring, “What’s wrong?”
Lawrence weakly responded, “My chest hurts and I can barely lift my left arm.”
Mary suspected what was happening but didn’t want to jump to conclusions. She immediately called 911 and gave Lawrence two aspirins to chew to keep his blood from clotting.
The paramedics arrived and Lawrence was transported to Scripps Hospital in Encinitas. After being kept overnight and into the next day, Doctor Herbert Alexander informed the family of his findings, “He had a minor heart attack. This was his wake-up call that a lifestyle change is in order.”
Ellen returned from Texas early that morning after she received word of her husband’s medical emergency, “Does that mean he’s going to be alright?”
Doctor Alexander responded, “While stress can’t directly cause a heart attack, it can have a major impact on heart health, and even trigger an event just like a heart attack. Stress-induced cardiomyopathy can be controlled and managed by following certain guidelines.”
Bill asked, “Which are?”
“Reducing workload, proper diet and regular exercise.”
Kristin looked over at Mary, “Well, we’ve got the proper diet…thanks to her.”
“Now we’ve got to work on the other two,” Ellen vowed.
As soon as Lawrence was released from the hospital and was home, his family did an intervention. Ellen was uncompromising in her demand, “You need to start delegating more of the workload to your team.”
“Yeah, dad…you need to slow down,” Kristin added, “You’re burning the candle at both ends and you’re running out of wick.”
Bill gave his input, “I’ve got a plan that Mary and I are going to implement that should help.”
Lawrence knew that he was outnumbered so he smiled in resignation, “If you feel that strongly about it…then who am I to argue.”
Mary checked with some of the neighbors to see if they had any recommendations for a good contractor. The family room that was hardly ever used was turned into a home gym with a treadmill, elliptical trainer, weights and various exercise equipment. A swim spa was ordered and placed in one corner of the yard. Travis Wolfe, a certified fitness trainer, was hired to develop personalized workout programs for the family and came to the house three times a week to conduct training sessions.
After years of ignoring exercise, the Schilling family was less than enthused about this new regimen that Mary was pushing them into. Once the initial soreness passed, they got used to feeling good, their job productivity increased dramatically. The family was hooked. Kristin even found a way to incorporate her exercise routine into her blogs and take on additional clients in the fitness industry.
Bill was the one who derived the most from the lifestyle change. He would run on the treadmill for an hour, increasing his speed, until he was running five-minute miles. He wore waterproof headphones and swam for another hour. On the days that he wasn’t running or swimming, he worked on his strength and flexibility. His routine was two hours of exercise before going off to school each morning.
While attending Sage Creek High School in Carlsbad, Bill met Eddie Mondello, a three sport athlete who was an all-star in football, basketball and baseball. Bill was equally proficient in swimming and track. The boys loved to hang out at the Schilling house and spend the day exercising. During this time, Bill continued to develop his elite computer skills.
Mary would fix the boys large healthy meals after their grueling workouts and was pleased that Bill had developed a more balanced lifestyle. However, the young boy was borderline obsessive compulsive and was just as consumed by exercise as he was by technology.
After making Bill a vegetarian omelet and a large protein drink, Mary suggested, “You’re allowed to relax.”
Bill retorted, “I sleep.”
Mary snapped back, “About four hours a night. What I’m talking about is you don’t have to always be doing something. You can sit still and enjoy the bright lites.
“What bright lites are you talking about?”
Mary explained, “That’s a term my grandfather used when he was enjoying nature. He’d say with a big smile, ‘I see the bright lites.’ ”
Bill finished his meal and replied, “I’m enjoying life.”
Mary gave the overachiever something else to think about, “Not everything is about the destination…sometimes you can learn more from the journey and the rest stops along the way.”
Bill answered, “I think I need to be a little older to truly comprehend that formula, but right now I have some work on my computer before my workout.”
Bill lettered in track and swimming during his four years at Sage Creek while Eddie did the same in football, basketball and baseball. Both boys decided against attending college. Eddie wanted to become a Navy Seal like his uncle, Larry Haskell. Bill felt that he could not learn anything in college about computer engineering that he didn’t already know or could learn from his father.
Five years passed, and the Schillings continued to be successful in their chosen fields. Their wealth increased dramatically, to the point that they were able to purchase Mary a house and fully furnish it for her as a sign of appreciation for her many years of dedicated service to the family. Kristin and Bill also purchased residences in the same Bressi Ranch area and they were all living within several blocks of each other. It was kind of ironic that a family that was so independent chose to live so close to one another when they could afford to live anywhere in the country or the world for that matter. The only explanation that made sense was that Mary would not let them drift apart.
While Mary no longer did the manual labor, she still maintained a supervisory role of the two cooks and three maids that worked for the Schillings. She kept the family connected by organizing various activities and weekly dinners that alternated between one of their four homes. She knew from experience that the Schillings shared another important trait besides their independence, they were all routine oriented. Once she convinced them to do something, she could be very convincing, especially when it came to things that she thought were important.
Eddie Mondello fulfilled his dream of becoming a Navy Seal and after being stationed at Little Creek, Virginia, he was transferred to Naval Amphibious Base, Coronado. Being close to Carlsbad, he started spending a lot of his free time with Bill and the two high school buddies reconnected as if they had never been apart.
Eddie smiled, “You’re making quite a name for yourself as a ‘white hat hacker’.”
“No more than you are as a hard-charging door kicker,” Bill then added, “Congratulations on being awarded the Navy Cross.”
Eddie modestly shrugged off the compliment, “I was in the wrong place at the right time. Not to change the subject, how’s Mary doing?”
“She’s kind of semi-retired, but still keeps a watchful eye over the family.”
“I often think of the great meals she used to fix for us when we were in high school,” Eddie said.
Bill flashed back on those good memories, “We sure could put it away, especially after a hard day of training. When I told her you were back in the area, she wanted me to invite you over for a home cooked meal.”
Eddie smacked his lips, “That’s an offer I can’t refuse.”
“How about if we head down to the beach for a swim?” Bill asked.
“I’m a lot better swimmer now than I was in high school.”
“So am I,” Bill said.
From December 2018 until March 2020, Russian GRU hacker group known as APT28 or ‘Fancy Bear’ carried out a broad hacking campaign against U.S. targets, according to the FBI. To determine the extent of the breach and track down these elusive and dangerous cyber-terrorists, the Department of Homeland Security requested the services of Bill Schilling. His secret user name was ‘Pearl27’. Bill chose this handle to honor his great-grandfather, Wally Schilling, a B-17 pilot, whose plane was named after Glenn Miller’s song, ‘String of Pearls’ and the number of missions that he flew during the war.
Bill found the vulnerabilities in the system and destroyed the malware before the hackers could cause any major damage. With his help, an elite team from the National Security Agency found the leaders of ‘Fancy Bear’ in a mansion in the port city of Odessa, in the country of Ukraine. They were terminated with extreme prejudice and Bill destroyed their hacking capabilities.
Young Schilling didn’t seek or want accolades for doing his patriotic duty and was perfectly content to remain unknown. When a man possesses the unique skills of Bill Schilling, he is often called upon at the most crucial times. He was privy to as much ‘above top secret’ grade espionage cyber intelligence as anyone in the CIA, NSA and the White House.
Bill was extremely familiar with Stuxnet, a digital ghost with countless lines of code crafted with such genius that it was able to worm its way into Iran’s nuclear fuel enrichment facility in Natanz, Iran. It desynchronized the speeds at which the centrifuges spun, causing a thousand of them to seize up and self-destruct. This was supposed to delay Iran’s efforts to build a nuclear weapon by years. Unfortunately, this was not the case. With the help of North Korea, Russia and China, Iran’s nuclear program was back to full speed within months.
The problem now was that the centrifuges and computer system could no longer be hacked remotely due to an elaborate security firewall that was installed. Intelligence officials at the Pentagon determined that Iran would have a nuclear weapon in 60 days or less. There was no time to waste. They had to be stopped, no matter what the risk. Any ‘white hat’ hacker would have to get into the facility to install the malware. This was going to be an extremely dangerous, bordering on suicidal mission.
The Navy Seals at Coronado were briefed that a mission to go into Iran was in the planning, but the decision on which Special Ops unit would carry it out had not been decided yet. Eddie Mondello knew that the government would eventually go to his friend, Bill Schilling.
Eddie visited Bill at his Carlsbad home and brought the subject up, “The military is going to be coming to you pretty soon, I bet.”
Bill responded, “You’d win that bet.”
“What did you tell them?”
“That I needed to think about it,” Bill answered.
“What’s there to think about?” Eddie asked.
“I like details…right now I’m not getting any,” Bill said.
Captain Andrew Bryant told the Navy Seals, “The decision has been made, Seal Teams Five and Seven, you’ve been selected. Training for the mission begins tomorrow.” As the Navy Seals walked away, Captain Bryant called out, “Mondello, I need to talk to you.”
Eddie walked back, “Yes sir.”
Captain Bryant asked, “Any reason why the Pentagon would specifically request that you and your team be part of this mission?”
“Only one, sir.”
Eddie’s team was skeptical of the computer expert that would be going with them. Petty Officer Roy Blake voiced his concern, “Who is this nerd that’s going with us?”
Eddie answered, “The name is Schilling and he’s no nerd.”
Even though Bill didn’t have the combat skills of the Navy Seals, he was in excellent physical condition and after practicing the mission several times on base and doing five HALO (high altitude, low opening) jumps off the coast of San Diego, Bill and the Navy Seals left for the Middle East on a transport plane.
During the flight, Captain Bryant went over the mission one more time. “Mr. Schilling, we’ll give you the honor of choosing the call sign.”
Bill didn’t hesitate, “Brite Lites.”
Captain Bryant repeated, “Brite Lites it is.”
The insertion team exited the plane at 30,000 feet and opened their chute at 2,500 and floated in. They landed five thousand meters from Natanz and made their way to the nuclear facility. They eliminated the sentries and entered the main building.
Eddie asked, “Even if you put the malware in the system, they’re going to know we were here. Won’t they just remove it?”
Bill smiled, “That’s the thing about a digital ghost worm. Once it’s in the system, it lies hidden and only surfaces at the appropriate time.”
Eddie stayed right next to Bill as he put the malware into the system. “That’s it…lets go,” Bill said as he disconnected his laptop from the mainframe.
A brief, but fierce gun-battle ensued as the Americans exited the facility. They made it to their extraction point as two Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor military aircraft with vertical takeoff and landing capabilities touched down. The Americans boarded and were out of Iran airspace in five minutes.
Two weeks later, Bill and Eddie were hiking a section of the Pacific Crest Trail. They only carried their cellphones for emergencies, but never used them as they reconnected with nature. They were sitting on a bluff that overlooked a fertile valley as the morning sun came over the horizon and illuminated the dew on the foliage. Now Bill knew what Mary meant when she said, Brite Lites of nature.
It was obvious that the two were sharing a special moment. Eddie turned to his life-long friend, “You don’t see something like this very often.”
Bill answered, “I spent most of my life growing up around high tech and thinking about the future, but it is a time like this when I feel that I belong to yesterday.”