Chapters 7 and 8: Polar bears and porn

While Randall was driving back to work that same day, Stan and Caitlyn were having a late lunch in Stan’s office. Like most true geeks, their diet was… unusual. Randall ate chili dogs while Caitlyn pieces of apple dipped in caramel sauce. They both also picked at a pre-cooked roast chicken they’d bought at a charging station’s Food Mart on the way into work that morning. None of this seemed, in any way, odd to them.

Licking caramel from a pale knuckle, Caitlyn asked, “Have you checked with Terry on how well Randall is doing on his social sim?”

It took Stan a second. “Oh. You mean the Gina tank.”

Caitlyn shook her head. “Claire. Not Gina. Claire.”

“Right. Whatever. You wanted to change her name.”

“She’s a different person. She needed a new name.”

Stan shrugged and picked at the roll of his last chili dog.

“So?” Caitlyn tapped his knee with a toe.

“So? Oh. Yeah. I talked to Terry late last week. Thursday or Friday. He pinged Gina… er… Claire a day or so before that. Randall’s up to like 70 or 72 or something.”

“Really!” Caitlyn sat forward, knocking napkins off the desk onto the floor. They would stay there for several days. “That’s… wow. He was at like… 40 something only two weeks ago.”

“Yeah. Apparently he’s triggered a string of key social interaction algorithms in a pretty short time. They’ve had conversations that have lasted over an hour.”

That shut Caitlyn up for almost a minute while Stan tried to pry a few, last pieces of white meat from the cold chicken carcass.

“Randall talked to Claire for more than an hour…” she finally said, staring off at a point somewhere above Stan’s head.

Stan just nodded, still prodding the chicken.

Claire shook her head, thinking, I don’t think we ever had a conversation that lasted more than 10 minutes…

“Stan?” she asked, wiping her hands on her jeans.

“Yeah?”

“What happens when Randall ‘wins?’”

“He gets a special graduation message when he hits 100. We talked about this. You didn’t want it to go on more than… what? Six months? Either way. If it didn’t work, we’d go pull it out and set him up with a Russian mail-order bride.” Stan chuckled. Caitlyn didn’t.

“I’ll check with Terry next week,” she said. Stan shrugged again and started in on her apples.

* * * * * * * * *

That night, back at the house, Randall answered Claire’s question, and she, his.

“They… my contact at the Pentagon from my days there with Terry, he called me as soon as NimbleWeed hit the fed grid. Nothing had been in the press yet at that point. Nobody had leaked anything.”

She was wearing jeans and a turquoise tank-top. It was beginning to warm up, even considering that it was Buffalo. Spring, almost. Late winter, anyway. She was barefoot and sitting on the floor with her back against the love seat.

Randall lay on his couch, as usual, with his head on one arm and his feet on the other. His eyes were only about two feet from hers. It seemed strangely intimate to him; even more so than the VR rig, which was odd. There, they’d appeared more like “regular” people. Here, she was the size of a doll. But this was… Claire. More like what he knew and accepted.

“What did they tell you?” she asked.

“They phoned my boss’ boss,” he said, taking a hit from his beer. “Told him they needed me ASAP on a government project. Big dough, need-to-know, gotta-go. They had me on a plane down to DC the same day.”

She was quiet, letting him tell it at his own speed. She had the feeling he hadn’t ever told this story to anyone else. She was right.

“I met with a couple guys I’d worked with before, and they basically just passed me off to the folks in charge of the NimbleWeed fix. They were fuck-a-duck scared. Like when somebody tells you you’ve got cancer. That white-faced, about to shit yourself scared. I’ve seen it a couple times before, and it’s a bad thing. Not cool. Not cool at all.”

He wasn’t looking at her as he talked, just staring out into memory. Almost as if he was confessing his sins. He’d done nothing wrong, she knew. In fact, if what she suspected were true…

“So they partnered me up with their big dogs. A couple guys from Caltech. A couple from MIT. Three they’d stolen from the Beijing Underground farm a few years back. Those guys are scary good.” He shook his head, smiling in remembered admiration.

“What eventually got leaked, what the press picked up, it came from some non-brain shit-heel in the CIA and was nothing. Nothing. NimbleWeed was like… like…” This time he shook his head in wonder. Like when you remember a great concert where your favorite band totally blew you away.

“What?” she asked, eager to keep him talking.

He squinted his eyes, and tapped the beer bottle against his head for a second.

“Have you read the Book of Revelation?” he asked.

“As in the Bible?”

“Yeah.”

“No. Should I?”

At that, he turned and looked at her, square on, eye-to-eye, from a foot away.

“Yeah, baby. Go ahead.”

She made a perfect little bite me face, closed her eyes for two seconds, opened them, and said, “OK. The Revelation of St. John the Divine. Also called the Apocalypse.”

He looked a bit surprised. “You read Revelations in two seconds?”

“No.” She shook her head. “I read the entire Christian Bible in two seconds. New International Version. I thought it would probably require some context.”

He just stared at her.

“Shut your mouth, fish boy,” she said.

She looked pleased with herself, and so he decided not to push his luck.

“Anyway… when I got a look at what NimbleWeed was doing, I thought that maybe Satan had decided to break open the first of the Seven Seals in the form of a hack.”

That wiped the smile off her face.

“It was that good? Or bad?”

“It was profoundly good,” he replied. “You have to remember that government security is meant to do two things very well; keep lots of things happening, and keep lots of things not happening. It’s one thing to build an amazing security system to keep everyone out…”

“But,” she interrupted, “another thing to build one that only lets ten-percent of the people in.”

“Good girl,” he said. “You’re a smart cookie, too. NimbleWeed had penetrated a bunch of the government’s systems to the point where it was faking access better than the people it was pretending to be.”

She got up and turned the love seat around so she could sit in it and still face him, doing so and putting her bare feet up against the inside of the glass case. They made a little squeak sound every now and then as she moved around getting comfortable. Randall’s “Fourth Wall Vertigo” never kicked in at all.

“OK. So far, that’s what we heard in the news. Somebody hacked the government computers and was screwing around with stuff. That’s why there was a two-day suspension of ‘non-essential government activity.’” That last in an overly officious monotone.

“Right.” He just stared at her.

“What?” Her eyebrows went up higher.

He shook his head.

“So?” Her eyebrows couldn’t go up any higher.

“The ‘NimbleWeed Holiday’ was because we needed to cycle down almost every server in the federal array as part of the fix. We pinch-chased the fucker the way beaters used to drive game out of bushes during English fox hunts.”

She looked half amazed and half stunned. “Go on…”

“For the first two days, the feds didn’t think it was malicious. Just a prank. Like cBrain back in the 80’s. No harm, no foul. It wasn’t doing anything, just playing fun little word games with people in chat sessions, sending email riddles, IMing itself and copying everybody in a work group, Tweeting its diet, building up friends on MyFace… that kind of crap.”

“Playing games…”

He stopped, leaned up on one elbow and looked at her again. “You do catch on quick.”

“It is my… area of expertise, isn’t it?” she asked.

“I guess so,” he agreed. “Anyway. They tried shutting it down from day one, of course. But they didn’t call in the big dogs…”

“Like you…”

“Like me… until it started shutting stuff off and shunting people’s data into the ether.”

“And by then…”

“You got it sister,” he tipped back the beer and finished it. “It’s too fuckin’ late.”

She shook her head. “Why is it that the people who know what’s going on are never the ones in charge?”

He shrugged. “’Cause the smartest people on earth are never that interested in power.”

That made so much sense to her that she said nothing.

“Anyway,” he continued, “about eight or ten of us are in this big command room with access to pretty much anything and everything we need. All the new sleep-replacement therapy. All the food. All the hardware and software. Any clearance level material we want. Because about two hours after I walked in the door, NimbleWeed started pingjacking COMNAVSURFLANT.”

She didn’t ask this time, nor did she blink, she just paused for less than one tenth of a second to access the data. Then she replied to make sure she’d heard correctly.

“Commander, Naval Surface Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet.”

“Right.” He paused to let that one sink in.

“That,” she said softly, “was never in the news.”

“And never will be.”

Rather than screw around with all the in-between stuff, she cut to the chase.

“Who was NimbleWeed?”

“I can’t tell you,” he said, looking her right in the eyes.

“’Can’t’ or ‘won’t’?”

He just shook his head.

“OK,” she gave in, nodding slightly. “Need to know, and I don’t. But you helped ‘find, fix and blix,’ as they say on the black boards these days.”

He grinned. “You have been playing somewarez off the beatin’ path.” It was another in joke among the absolute highest level hackers on the planet. The fact that she didn’t know the other half of the joke — or at least didn’t chime in with the response — told him that she was, probably, not as far down the rabbit hole as he had been.

She lifted her palms up in mock surrender. “A girl has to have a hobby.”

He saluted her with the empty beer bottle and went to get another one from the kitchen.

When he came back, he sat down and said, point blank, “I’ve told you why I tend to be more cautious about security. It’s not just because of my regular desk job. I opened up as far as I can without getting into serious ‘Club Fed’ shit. Now you need to tell me; do you move your core routines around outside this box,” and he tapped the beer bottle gently against the glass tank.

She scowled. “Don’t do that.”

“Sorry.”

She looked a bit peeved, but answered straight: “Yes.”

“OK,” he nodded. “Go to this web site.” He rattled off a string of numbers, a URL without an easy domain name. She looked slightly puzzled, but nodded.

“Now click on the picture of Nixon.” She nodded again.

“Right-click and hold on the picture of the rubber duck, and, while still holding, type in the following code.” He ran off, from memory, a series of over seventy random numbers and letters.

She nodded again, and then looked a little surprised.

“It’s an executable called ‘perfect.handjob.ddxl.’”

“Right,” he replied.

“You want me to look at some porn?”

“What I want you to do is play the porn backwards and decode it with the standard, freeware virus-checking program ‘VidWash.’”

“Backwards. When you play porn backwards, do the actors…”

“Never mind your smart mouth, Ms. Thing. When you run the file through VidWash backwards you’ll end up with a fresh executable. Run that, again, against the VidWash executable and it will turn VidWash into one of the strongest pieces of decrypt, hackchop, chainmail code on the planet.”

It took her all of about fifteen seconds to perform this operation.

“OK. And you want me to run this new version of VidWash on my kernel before I transfer out of the house.”

“Right.”

This time she was quiet, thoughtful, for almost a minute.

“This program, this VidWash… what do you call it?” she asked.

“I don’t call it anything,” he replied. “It’s something I only use for my own stuff. I’ve only ever used it publicly once before. On the NimbleWeed job. And that was about six iterations ago.”

“OK. Well… whatever it is… this is beyond strong encryption, Randall. I don’t know as much about security programming as you, obviously. Or about how to get around it. But I know enough to know that this… thing… is scary good. Maybe illegal good.”

“Right. Scarier than anything anybody could throw at you while you’re out doing your work for Jack, or reading the Bible or hunting around the Library of Congress.” He was looking right at her again, leaning forward on the couch, hands held together, beer forgotten on the floor by his feet.

She nodded. And smiled, pushing her bangs up out of her eyes to look at him more closely. And that made Randall smile.

She didn’t ask, Is it safe? She didn’t ask, Will it change me? She just nodded a second time.

Back in Boston, on its 24-hour schedule, an automatic routine sent a query and received a ping that generated a Tweet to Terry with the simple message, “85.”

Claire ran the… whatever you call it… on the programs that made up the core of her personality and functions.

found the elevator and went up.

The 10th floor was a bit more decorated than most. Directly opposite the elevator, on the wall of the hallway, were five matted and framed photographs of mountains. Why? And someone had had the good manners to post a sign indicating which rooms were which way. 1001–1059 to the left, 1098–1057 to the right. Thanks.

The door to room 1003 was open, so he rapped quietly and stepped in. It was a small antechamber with a couple chairs, a water cooler and a coffee table sporting recent issues of computer magazines and a “Dilbert” book. Three doors opened in from the waiting room. One was labeled “Dr. Pharoozia,” one was labeled, “Dr. MacTiernan,” and the third was labeled “1003A.” OK. So now what?

While contemplating his next move, the door to Dr. Pharoozia’s office opened and a near-eastern looking, fiftyish man in jeans and a blue, cotton button-down shirt leaned out. “Can I help you?” he asked, without a trace of accent.

“I’m not sure,” Randall answered. “A friend of mine is being… well… coy. She told me to come here and meet her boss.”

The man nodded. He was clean-shaven, and wore his white-streaked, black hair very short. It was almost a buzz cut, which looked odd on a Pakistani? Indian? Randall didn’t recognize the origin of the name.

“You must be Randall,” the man said, stepping fully into the waiting room. “I’m Jack, and I guess you could say I’m Claire’s boss.” He extended his hand and Randall shook it.

“Let’s go into the lab and we’ll get things hooked up.” He gestured and Randall went first into 1003A.

Immediately upon entering he knew what kind of work Dr. Pharoozia did; VR — virtual reality. There were two full-body Logitech rigs and a bunch of other, various hardware that he recognized only vaguely. He’d done some graduate level VR work, but the gear changed so fast he couldn’t keep up. The Logitech suit had a similar look to rigs he’d seen, but was clearly newer than the stuff he’d used in the past.

Dr. Pharoozia had passed behind Randall as he’d stood in the doorway and was messing with a terminal. “What does Claire do for you?” Randall asked.

“She does walk-throughs with our beta test groups and compiles the data. She’s written some of the stat package plug-ins, too.”

“V2.”

The older man chuckled. “Actually, according to Claire, she’s V3. If V1 workers are ones whose entire job is done on a computer, and a V2 is a remote worker, then a woman who does VR research virtually, all by computer, is a V3, eh?”

She’s testing me, thought Randall. Or teasing. ’Cause she knew how freaking hard it would be for me not to make a crack about her being “more of a V4, actually.”

All these moments… these times when the fourth wall came up again… when he thought about her as a program rather than a person… they made him feel slightly dizzy. He remembered the time his family had gone to see Mount Rushmore. Looking up at those huge, stone faces made him feel like he was in a picture, or outside himself, or in a movie or something. He had similar, disassociative moments when thinking of Claire as “it” instead of “her.”

A flat screen panel on one wall made a faint wuff noise as it came on and there was Claire, in 2D, just about life sized. Life-sized for real people, anyway. Meat puppets, he thought. Some of his programmer friends referred to people that way.

“Hey, Randall,” she said from the wall and waved.

“Hello Ms. V3,” he replied, and waved back.

She chuckled, but her eyes narrowed. “So Jack has shared our little joke with you.”

“He gave you full credit,” Randall replied, as Dr. Pharoozia continued to futz with the terminal. It was strange to see her in 2D, but regular sized. More normal than a tiny person in a tank. He never thought once about how she did it — called into Dr. Pharoozia’s office, did beta testing analysis for the university, talked to him on the phone at work. Randall knew the quality of the programmers Stan had working for him. If this was the game Stan had set up, he’d play it out.

“So…” she said coyly. “Wanna play?”

Dr. Pharoozia was grinning now as he finished messing with a few last switches and dials.

“What do the two of you know that I don’t?” Randall asked.

“Don’t be so cynical,” Claire said, and stuck out her tongue at him.

“Very suspicious behavior, Randall,” chided the professor. “You must work in a very security conscious environment.”

“She’s a blabbermouth.”

“Hey!”

Dr. Pharoozia was still grinning. “We work, we talk. Everyone talks with their coworkers. Unless you’re a complete asshole, and then they ignore you.”

Randall thought about how few people he talked to at work. About how few people talked to him. About Claire having such a friendly, chatty relationship with her boss.

Claire, apparently sensing that Randall was getting uncomfortable, sprang the surprise: “Randall… Jack said you could use the lab’s gear. To help me analyze the effect of the security protocols on lag-time feedback. Maybe you could help us figure out a way to avoid some of the nastiest slowdowns.”

He’d read about that a year or so ago. Somebody had hacked into an online full-rig VR connection and had basically forced some guy to beat the crap out of himself. It’s one thing to trust your credit card or email to Microsoft’s shitty security, Randall had thought. I guess it’s a whole other order of magnitude to trust them with your nuts.

Her excuse was total bull, but he’d play along. “Yeah,” he replied. “Sounds interesting.” At Dr. Pharoozia’s gestured invitation, he climbed into the rig. It was more comfortable than the last one he’d tried a few years before. Snugger, but without any uncomfortable pressure points at the knees or hips.

“The latest rig from Logitech,” Jack explained as he swung the front of the case closed, “uses a blow-in gel-foam for the final resistance layer. It’s non-staining, totally PCB free, and hypoallergenic. In fact, for personal use, you can get in totally naked.”

“Sorry, doc,” Randall said. “I know how grad students mistreat equipment. I wouldn’t trust my googlies to anything that’s been worked over by a bunch of thesis-rats.”

“Sounds like he’s met my assistants,” Dr. Pharoozia chuckled. He swung the headpiece of the suit around.

“The foam is air-permeable,” he explained, “but you shouldn’t breathe in until the loading tone switches off. Take a deep breath when you hear the first of three tones. The last one will sound when it’s OK to breathe. It wouldn’t hurt you, but it itches.”

“Gotcha,” Randall replied. The hatch closed with a “thunk.” It was pitch black. Randall heard the first tone and held his breath. Tone two. Then, as the third sounded, he felt a light pressure all over his body — almost like the acceleration in a jet pushing you back against the seat — and then the tone ceased. He felt nothing. Saw nothing. Heard and smelled nothing. He took a deep breath in. All normal. Mouth breathing, the same. He stuck his tongue out as far as it would go… nothing.

The lights came on and he was standing on a glacier. He looked down. His body was covered in white fur. Not a fur coat. White fur. And it was not a human body. A bear, obviously. Polar bear.

He heard a crunching sound and turned to his left to see another polar bear approach. The wind picked up a notch and he felt a bit cool. Not cold at all. Just pleasantly cool. Like being in the shade on a pleasant spring evening.

The other bear stopped within a few feet of him. Randall opened his mouth to say, If you’re not Claire, then I’m in the wrong sim. What came out was, “Grrrronnnnuhh… khhonuuukkuh.”

“Nnnnugh?” the other bear asked.

“Grrn-ng onnagh hahn,” he answered.

Oh well, he thought. Let’s try the buffet. He ran, on all fours (which seemed only natural), and dove off the edge of the iceberg into the blue-black water. He hit with barely a splash and found it chilly, but not uncomfortably so. He could see pretty well under the water, too. A bit fuzzy, but the ridges and cuts of the ice formations were very clear. As were the fish.

When in Nome, he punned to himself and stretched out to chomp down on the nearest silvery head. There was no taste, but there was resistance against his chewing. No flavor, only muscle tension. He spat out the fish and was about to swim to the surface when everything changed.

He was on a flat plain. Short cropped grass below, pale blue sky above. Nothing else. No clouds no trees no flowers. The horizon was completely flat. Which meant that this virtual world was either very large, or entirely flat. Or both.

“Hi.”

He spun around and saw Claire. For the first time, there was no glass between them.

Only code, he thought.

“Hi.”

“I thought you’d get a kick out of the polar bear sim. That’s one I’ve developed for Jack to test the limits of non-linear body type matching.”

“Meaning that there isn’t a one-to-one correlation between all parts Randall and all parts bear.”

She grinned a little. “Stan keeps telling me you’re smarter than you let on.”

“You stay in touch?”

“Just by email.”

That’s weird. He thought. Why doesn’t she call him?

There was no breeze. No discernable temperature. No source light, which meant no shadows. Total ambience.

“What’s this place?” he finally asked, twisting his head back and forth, trying to find some focal point on which to fix.

“The running game.”

“Like the Stephen King story.”

“Never heard of it.”

He looked incredulous. “You never heard of ‘The Running Man’ by King?”

“I don’t like horror fiction.”

“It’s not horror. It’s from the ‘Bachmann Books,’ which he wrote under that pseudonym. His publisher told him he couldn’t put out more than one book a year, so he took a bunch of his short stories, the ones that weren’t really horror fiction, more like alternative fiction, like something by Harlan Ellison, and published them as Richard Bachmann. He had a whole…”

She leaned over and laid one hand, open palm, against his mouth.

“Stop babbling. Let’s run.”

She grabbed his hand and took off. He followed. Now there was a sense of air passage against his skin. He was wearing, he realized, the same clothes he’d worn to the university. That’s a quick scan.

Claire ran beside him, her short hair bouncing a bit with each stride. He could feel his legs move, feel the impact of each step. He knew intellectually that it was the Logitech rig doing the running, applying various pressures and temperatures, bounces and touches to his skin via the conducting foam. But, damn, it was a good imitation. His arms pumped, his breath was deep and he had to lean slightly forward to keep his balance, just like when you run in real life. And there was Claire, holding his hand, running right beside him.

He realized something. “I’m not tired,” he said out loud.

“You won’t ever get tired,” she replied. “That’s what this program is about.” She grinned broadly, let go of his hand and whispered, “Catch me!”

She pulled ahead of him faster than a human should be able to. Within seconds, she was a hundred yards ahead of him. But Randall was already running as fast as he…

He shook his head and ran faster, as fast as she was running, closing the distance little by little. The wind was in his ears, now. It felt as strong as when he rode his bike. Like hanging your head out of the car window. He pushed a bit more and came alongside of her.

Arms really pumping now, legs going at superhero speed, he shouted, “Is this it?”

She shrugged with her face while her body ran on. “Give it a shot!”

OK, he thought. Here we go.

He concentrated on moving everything as fast as he possibly could. His legs pistoned like the connecting rods on a speeding train. His arms were a blur. He had to squint his eyes against the wind of his passage. There were no landmarks by which to measure his velocity. Only the grass on the ground. It seemed to him as if he were running fifty or sixty miles an hour. But although he was breathing hard, he wasn’t getting tired. He turned and looked and Claire was only a few yards behind him, smiling and waving at him to stop.

He stopped too quickly. His brain sent the standard message to his legs to stop running. Normally, he could do this in three or four strides. But not when he’d just been running ten times as fast as is humanly possible. The physics of the program didn’t let him stop that quickly, and he tripped over his own feet.

I wonder, he thought as he flew through the air, if this is what it feels like to fly off the front of a motorcycle? He heard Claire shout, “Break!” just as his cheek was about to scrape along the very pretty green grass, and he froze, mid-air, his heart beating very quickly.

“Momentum reset zero,” Claire said, and he fell an inch or two to the ground with a soft thud.

She squatted down next to him and pushed his hair off his forehead. “You OK?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Randall answered, sitting up on the grass. “Just a bit… frazzled, I guess. That was fairly intense.”

“That’s part of Jack’s work,” she said, sitting next to him on the ground.

Randall nodded. “Same as the polar bear, but with vectors instead of tissue.”

Claire shook her head slightly, smiling her quirky, half smile. “Why,” she asked, “Do you work that crappy-ass job at a crappy desk in a crappy cube when you are really as smart as Stan and Caitlyn say you are. Nobody should be able to put ‘polar bear’ and ‘faster than a speeding bullet’ together that quickly.”

He shrugged. “They’re both non-human metaphors. People have always wanted to know what it’s like to be… different. That’s why we drink booze, get high. Dream, too, I guess. What’s the big deal. Why are you looking at me like that?”

She was looking at him “like that.” Like you look at somebody when you’ve finally figured out that they really are smarter than you thought they were, or funnier, or braver. She was looking at him… like girls looked at guys.

Which Randall might have realized, had he ever had another girl look at him like that before.

Instead, he asked her a question.

“Is this what it’s like for you all the time?”

She popped out of her reverie and replied, “Hunh?”

“This. This sim. When you’re in the tank, or the other rooms in the ‘house’ that surrounds the tank or doing your work for Jack or… wherever you are when you’re not in our house. Is this what it’s like for you.”

Now he couldn’t help but notice that something was different. She was leaning in towards him more than usual. Her eyes seemed to be open a bit wider. She was smiling a little. She seemed a bit… flushed. Maybe from the running, he thought.

“That,” she said softly, “is the first time you’ve ever asked me about my life.”

“Really?” He looked away from her, a bit confused and embarrassed. He didn’t ask anyone about their life. It was… private. He felt like he should explain that part.

“Claire,” he said, looking back up at her. Was she closer? “I wasn’t not asking because of the, you know, ‘V4’ thing… I just don’t… people have their own lives and I don’t like it when they bug me, so I assume that… I don’t want people to think that I’m trying to be, you know…”

She nodded. She wasn’t giving him crap about treating her like a program. He was sure she was going to do that. He really hadn’t been, though. There wasn’t that vertigo, that sense of the fourth wall. Is that because of the VR rig? He wondered. He didn’t think so. He knew that she wasn’t real. He knew “this” wasn’t real. No smell. No real taste, except for a weird, ozone kind of tang in the back of his throat. He knew, from past experience, that if he tried to touch himself — to scratch or rub his face or rub his tummy and pat his head — that it would feel as if his skin was abnormally thick. There were too many un-realities in place for him to forget that she was… something not human.

But she was Claire. And he wanted to know…

“So…” he repeated. “Is it like this?” And he gestured with one hand, leaning on the other in the dry, short grass.

She sat back a bit, hugging her knees, and nodded. “Sometimes. Many of the places I go have some kind of a virtual interface. Very few are as fully realized as this. Or as interactive. None are as well connected and wide-open as our place.”

He nodded, thinking hard for a moment.

“Can I ask you a personal question?” he finally asked.

“Sure,” she answered.

“Do you transfer your kernel when you work outside the… our place?”

She looked, for a moment, like she was going to get upset. Like he was pulling one of his old, “You’re just a program” routines. But she stopped. He looked to serious. Too intent. He honestly wanted to know. OK. But first…

“Why do you ask?” She tilted her head to one side, bangs falling over to cover one eye. She rubbed her lips with the back of her knuckles and rocked back and forth on her hips, heels denting the soft ground slightly as she tipped back and forth.

“What do I do for a living?” was his answer.

That made her frown. Not in anger, but in thought. It took her about five seconds to get it.

Her eyes opened wide. First with surprise, then a bit of shock. Then pleasure.

“You’re worried about me!” She smiled, and leaned forward to sock him playfully on the shoulder.

Randall didn’t find it cute or funny. “Answer my question now. I answered yours.”

Still smiling, she said, “Randall. Look. You know my pedigree. Do you think Stan would…”

Randall shook his head, interrupting. “Stan’s a wizard when it comes to pure code. And he’s got some of the best graphics guys in the world on his team. I know most of them and their work. And I know his sim guy, Terry, pretty well, too.”

Claire scowled a bit at that. “You know Terry?”

Randall nodded. “Yeah. Probably better than Stan thinks I do. He and I worked some major hump on the side for the feds when Stan and Caitlyn were off doing their semester at Stanford. They wanted an idea of how somebody might try to use game-tech to beat real world systems.”

“I didn’t know that.” Claire’s face was blank, thoughtful. She looked truly at a loss. She was usually the more self-assured of the two. Randall was a bit taken aback, but wanted to get his point across.

“Anyway, my point is this. If you’re cycling back at the house and all this,” he waved his hands around, “is made possible by Stan’s incredible white-line pirates, that’s cool. I’ve got enough faith in his hardware and in the various cable monsters to believe that nothing truly evil could climb upstream through the fiber into the tank and kill you.”

“Kill me.” She looked skeptical.

“But,” he continued, his voice a bit shaky, “if you’re shuttling your base routines, your kernel, any major part of your operating system out of the house in order to facilitate some process, I guarantee you that somebody out here… er, well… out there… can tag you.”

“Tag me.” Now she looked beyond skeptical. Now she looked amused.

“Jesus, Claire!” He stood up, clearly angry. “You keep telling me I’m smarter than everybody has a right to expect, and then you tell me my job is crap. Do you think I’m making waffles all day? Or coding a better HTML7 version of Chain Mall? You’ve got access to all kinds of shit on the ‘Net, right? Access to my company’s website? How high can you go? Do you hack at all on the side? Got any warezwarz jimmy jam in that cute little head of yours?”

Now she looked half amused and half pissed.

“Yeah. Some. Why?”

“Here’s my HR password on the company site. ‘11473brbrlang42bgrtbcll.’”

“And why would you tell me that?”

“So you can check out three things.”

“And what would those three things be?”

“One. My salary. Two. My clearance level. Three. The last note on my review from the year before last.”

It took her less than ten seconds. She looked, in turn, a little surprised, a lot surprised, and then a little scared.

“Why do you live,” she asked, “in such a crap neighborhood when you’re making that kind of long green?”

It felt to him like she was covering for being freaked out.

“I don’t know. Why aren’t your boobs bigger?”

That got her.

“You asshole!” she turned on him, ready to cuss him out some more, but he was still looking at her very seriously. She realized very quickly that he’d used the ploy to get her back on track. He wasn’t being an asshole. He was being… deep? Smart? Randall?

“OK. Fine.” She thought about what she’d read.

“Your HR people know. They’d have to. Does your boss?”

He shook his head. “He’s a management guy. He was a programmer back when they actually used C+++ or something. Hasn’t touched anything more complex than an API in years. He knows enough about what I do to sell what I do to people who buy what I do. And his boss doesn’t even know that much.”

“Right. But the remarks on your review…” she still looked puzzled.

“In most big companies, your review is a formality. My boss fills in a bunch of forms on the company’s online system and I fill out a form and blah-blah-blah. The scanned-in, handwritten comments come from the guy who actually ends up using the code.”

“A guy in the Pentagon.”

“In that case, yeah.”

“And your boss…”

“Knows it was government work, but didn’t know what branch. He knew he didn’t know, and knew he didn’t have to know. But he knew his bonus was good, and so he didn’t care.”

She thought about that for a minute before going on. He let her think.

Finally, she filled in the blank. “And the guy in the Pentagon. Whose name and rank have been deleted from the file. He said, ‘Randall can come work for us anytime. Thanks for the help with NimbleWeed.’”

“Yeah.” He wished there was wind on this plain. Or birdsong. Or something. It was too flat and quiet. Nothing to pretend to look at or listen to. No cigarettes — not that he smoked — or gum. Just the two of them and the damned grass.

“I assume,” she said quietly, “that this is the same ‘NimbleWeed’ we all heard about.

He nodded.

“What kind of… help did you give him… them?” she asked.

He shrugged. Then looked up. And around. Panicked, as if he’d heard a gunshot or smelled a predator on the wind he’d been wishing for a moment ago.

She looked concerned, afraid, too, for a moment, then realized what it must have been and put a steadying hand on his shoulder. When he tried to stand, she moved her hand to his neck and pushed him back down to the ground.

“Relax,” she said. “The monitor is off. This is a closed session.”

He didn’t look convinced. “How do you know?”

“I just know. I do. Jack’s a friend and I know this lab very well. I’ve helped design lots of the…”

But Randall was spooked. And so she stopped talking and silently keyed the code to end the session.