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July 31, 2015
This is the third installment of a ten-part science fiction series, running Tuesdays and Fridays on Light Reading this summer. Need catching up? Go here: Silence Like Diamonds – Episode 1: Family Business and Silence Like Diamonds – Episode 2: Warning Shot.
Yazzy was nodding slowly. "You're right, or at least we're probably hacked and NItCo is definitely hacked. Six seconds after they sign us as a contractor, our main subcontractor asset gets a massive, scary warning shot."
"Speaking as your main subcontractor asset, this concerns me," I said, sounding a lot braver than I felt.
"So what do we do about it? Do we drop the contract?"
"Never. Principle One, you know?"
"I do know. And if I didn't know, my husband would tell me over and over, and if he ever forgot you would. You're right."
"Well, to start, tell Dusan to shut down, purge and clear everything. I mean everything. I'm doing the same here. I'll figure out how we're getting back in touch sooner or later, or I'll watch for anything from you. Till then, love you, sis."
"I love you too, Yip. You can always go by Mama and Táta's on Thursday mornings and just hang out when Dusan and I call; at least that way we'll get to see each other before all this is wrapped up."
"That's a good idea. I'll do that."
I said, "House, assume whole system penetration, assume buried bugs in both executable and data, assume negatives are false. Download, clean and reupload everything, internal and all cloud, going back to the last clear and clean; spot-check in case they had some way to slip something in the archives. Overall, maximum sterilize everything, assume damage worst case, assume source and paths unknown. How long till you can report?"
"Estimated time to complete that is 24 minutes."
I turned back to Markus. "Principle One?" he asked.
"Dusan came up with a list of principles when he and Yazzy started the company. Principle One is that if we ever let anyone scare us off a job, everyone will know we can be scared off a job, which would be the end of ZIS."
"Makes sense. So do I have to stay down here till your house reestablishes security?"
"Probably advisable," I said. It didn't matter actually but it was a chance for small talk with Markus. "How 'bout them 'Jacks?"
"Football or basketball?"
"I follow both."
That got the talk going, but just at the brink of agreeing we should go to a Humboldt State game together, my stupid house finished all the security checks.
Markus bounded out of the chair (relieved? disappointed?). "I'll go look around up top."
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"I'll do one more check on electronic security."
House had found plenty of breaches. That meant there had to be much more it hadn't found. Ever since the Yan-Dimri fast factorization algorithm had flipped the advantage from the encryptors to the cryptanalysts, only isolated systems could be really secure (at the cost of being really useless). Of course, that was also why there was so much money in either side of encryption, penetration and security.
Markus returned. "All right. Nothing hiding in the bushes for several miles around, no detected aerial activity, no gadgets I can detect in the garden or the house. You can come on out."
Next Page: Meet the Face of NItCo
As we walked back through my garden, Daisy and Amaryllis went sniffing suspiciously through the flower beds, investigating whatever traces the firefighters had left. "Mostly the firefighters stayed on the paths," Markus said. "You lost three soaproots, some twigs off your two trees, your rooftop solar, some branches the explosion broke and a couple cracked windows. It definitely could have been worse. But since you're hacked and working against a dangerous and unknown opponent, purely professionally I suggest that you and the cats move to a secure location."
"Well, there's a Hilton with a secure floor down in Eureka, but I was hoping you'd accept a low rate on one of my secure guest houses, because of the potential for—" did he hesitate just an instant? "—uh, further employment."
I think he did hesitate. Now what did it mean? "I'd feel safer in your guest house. You know enough to be afraid of my sister if you let anything happen to me."
"I'm terrified already. We should move you ASAP."
"I keep two packed bags. If your car has room for two medium-sized suitcases, three cat carriers and me, we can be gone in five."
It was three, actually.
Markus's cluster of four guesthouses around a courtyard had high, thick, slick walls, narrow angled windows and unmistakable firing positions at the corners. "Kind of like a castle," I said.
"Don't mention that idea to Louise; she already wants a moat. Next she'll ask for boiling oil. If you need anything, she'll be on duty till four, when her husband Stefvan comes on."
I wondered why Markus wanted me to know his assistant was married.
In the little blockhouse or cell -- I couldn't quite decide which it resembled more -- I unpacked clothes and toiletries into the antiseptically clean drawers and cupboards. Louise had put a clean litter pan in the bathroom, and dry and wet cat food in the kitchen. As I settled back onto the sofa, a cup of chamomile-peppermint in hand, I felt practically human.
Chime. "Incoming interactive video for guest Yi Ingrid Palacek, from Joy Sobretu, CAO of NameItCorp."
CAO. Chief Avatar Officer: the real-time animated face of a robocorp, a corporation managed by a suite of self-improving optimization algorithms. Some old-timers didn't trust robocorps like NItCo; I didn't see why anyone trusted anything else. Algorithms didn't take bribes, drugs or liberties with employees; they worked around the clock at the board-specified strategy for making money, and reported success or failure honestly.
But since machines don't have any money, or any needs that they would pay money to satisfy, robocorps still have to talk to people. NItCo handled all customer and business interactions through Joy Sobretu, its immaculately polished, impeccably polite and imperturbably patient avatar.
A small square of light appeared on the wall. Within it, a talking head of Joy Sobretu said, "Ms. Zalodny said that the next step is the client interview?"
"It is," I agreed. "Let's talk now."
— John Barnes is the author of 31 commercially published and two self-published novels, along with hundreds of magazine articles, short stories, blog posts and encyclopedia articles, so he likes to describe himself as an extensively published obscure writer.
John Barnes has 31 commercially published and 2 self-published novels, some of them to his credit, along with hundreds of magazine articles, short stories, blog posts, and encyclopedia articles, totaling more than five million paid-for words, so he likes to describe himself as an extensively published obscure writer. Most of his life he has written professionally, and for much of it he has been some kind of teacher, and in between he has held a large number of odd jobs involving math, show business, politics, and marketing, which have more in common than you'd think.
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