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( ( ( 5 ) ) )

It took Jara almost ten minutes to get anything coherent out of Horvil. He had shown up at her front door in person, having run halfway across London with a threadbare pillow clutched under one arm. He was babbling about Creed Élan and losing his family’s trust and what would happen if the Data Sea came crashing to a halt.

“All right, slow down,” said Jara firmly, clasping his plump chin in her right hand. “What’s happening?”

The engineer activated a de-stressing program and took a deep breath. A few seconds of Re/Lax 57b was enough to allow him to cram the panic back into the mental sideroom where it normally resided. “The world is coming to an end,” he said earnestly.

Jara rolled her eyes. “Can you be more specific?”

“A bunch of lunatics are launching attacks on the Vault. Black code is sprouting like crazy on the Data Sea. The Vault keeps spitting out messages telling people to check their account balances. Nobody’s heard a thing from the Defense and Wellness Council. Ergo… the world is coming to an end.”

“Are you sure you’re not just falling for the same dumb rumors we spread last night, Horvil? That was fantasy, remember?”

The engineer shook his head vehemently. “Look at this,” he said, and Jara instantly felt the mental click of an incoming message. She projected the message onto a blank patch of air, where the holographic letters hovered menacingly like stingrays.


The Vault has detected a DNA-assisted decryption attack directed at your account. Your holdings have not been compromised, but it is advised that you periodically check the security of your Vault account. This advisory has been automatically routed to the custodian of records for your L-PRACG and, depending on your L-PRACG’s policies, may also be forwarded to the Defense and Wellness Council.

“My Aunt Berilla sent me that message,” said Horvil glumly. “Half the women in her creed circle have gotten them by now. This is just how the last one started. Remember all those warnings from Dr. Plugenpatch that kept—”

“Did you tell Natch? What did he say?”

Horvil nodded. “I finally caught him on ConfidentialWhisper about ten minutes ago. He just cackled something about those crazy Pharisees and went off to examine his accounts.”

The two of them sat down in Jara’s breakfast nook. She instructed the building to mix up a tall glass of ChaiQuoke for the engineer, while he quizzically studied the fetid pillow in his hand and tried to figure out how it got there. Jara decided to see if her own meager holdings were in order. Within a fraction of a second, Vault statements were floating before her eyes in stolid financial fonts. All was well: there were no unusual transactions, and access was still guarded by a long series of encrypted numbers derived from her DNA. Jara turned to the fiefcorp accounts next, and was relieved to discover no sign of mischief there either.

Horvil slurped down the glass of milky ChaiQuoke that had emerged from the kitchen access panel. But despite the soothing beverage and the de-stressing program, the engineer was still fidgeting like a teenager. “You might want to read this too,” he said. “This just came five minutes ago.”

Jara found herself looking at the latest editorial rant by the drudge Sen Sivv Sor.


The reporter’s screed appeared in letters the size of her arm. An ugly white-haired face grimaced from the margin, daring her to mention the red birthmark on its forehead. Sensationalist hack, thought Jara as she rubbed her eyes and pushed the article back half a meter to a more readable distance.

Nobody has broken into my Vault account. Yet. Like many of you, faithful readers, I was awakened early this morning by an announcement from Vault security telling me to double-check the security of my accounts. I was pleased to discover that not a single credit had been touched.

But I may be one of the lucky ones. The scuttlebutt across the Data Sea is that unexplainable transactions are starting to pop up. A woman in Omaha informs me she lost a hundred fifteen credits this morning. A business on the colony of Nova Ceti claims it lost twenty-seven. You might be thinking that twenty-seven credits is not a lot of money, but multiply that by the estimated 42 billion people who hold accounts at the approximately 11 million financial institutions secured by Vault protocols, and you have the makings of a crisis.

Now the question on everybody’s lips: Where is the Defense and Wellness Council?

Rumors that the Pharisees were planning a major black code offensive have been circulating for days in the drudge community. High Executive Borda must have heard them too. Certainly, he must have figured out that today is a major religious festival in the Pharisee Territories. And if that’s the case, then why wasn’t the public warned ahead of time?

“We haven’t seen a successful black code attack on the Vault in years,” a source inside the Defense and Wellness Council told me. “It’s a totally distributed system running millions of different protocols and locked down on the submolecular level. How far do you think these fanatics are going to get?”

But is High Executive Borda naïve enough to think that the march of technology won’t eventually…

Jara waved the scrolling text into oblivion. She could predict the rest of the article anyway. Sor would make his typical excoriations of the Council for being so secretive, and insist that Len Borda be held accountable for his inaction. Then he would segue into his standard rant about the moral decay of society.

“See what I mean?” moaned Horvil, head in his hands. “The world is—”

“Shut up,” Jara barked.

Sen Sivv Sor had a devout following of several billion who hung on his every word. And he was but one among hundreds of thousands of independent commentators competing for readership. Now that the drudges were involved, Jara knew it was only a matter of time before panic whipped across the Data Sea like a tsunami.

And so it did.

While Jara sat quietly with Horvil in her breakfast nook, messages started rolling in to her mental inbox. Urgent warnings and sheepish apologies from the same friends and family members she had spoken with just last night. A letter from her L-PRACG administrator urging calm. Offers for useless “black code protection programs” from desperate fiefcorps that traded on unsavory bio/logic exchanges. Jara bristled at all the confusion.

“Listen to this,” said Horvil with a nervous laugh. “There’s a rumor going around the Data Sea that High Executive Borda is dead.”

Jara snorted. “Maybe he got caught in that orbital colony explosion that just killed half a million people.”

Half an hour drifted past like a thunder-laden storm cloud, full of bad omens. Jara tuned her viewscreen to the public square outside, expecting to see thousands of Londoners rioting in the streets. She saw nothing but the usual Tuesday afternoon traffic. But could she detect an edge to the crowd, an impatience, a fear of the unknown? Or was that simply the everyday background hum of anxiety? Too many choices to make, too many consequences to consider.

“You know this couldn’t possibly be a coincidence,” said the analyst.

Horvil rested his cheek on the cool plastic of the table and sighed. Obviously, this thought had occurred to him too. “So you think Natch knew a black code attack was coming?”

“Maybe. You know that he’s hip-deep in the black coding culture.”

“Jara, I’ve seen those ‘black coding groups’ on the Data Sea that he follows. They’re a joke. A bunch of kids talking about mods for bio/logic programming bars, how to boost OCHRE transmission frequencies, shit like that. If one of those people launched an attack on the Vault, then I’m a Pharisee.”

“Well, it’s either that or…” Jara let the sentence trail off.

The engineer leaped to his feet, face as pale as the droplet of ChaiQuoke piloting its way down the grooves of his chin. “Come on, Jara. There’s no way he could’ve done that black code himself. I mean, yeah, Natch is one of the most brilliant programmers out there, but to break into the Vault? The Pharisees and the Islanders and who knows how many other lunatics have been trying to do that for decades. You think he just cobbled together some black code to crack open the financial exchange system in his spare time? He’s not that smart. No one is.”

Jara grimaced, conceding the point. Humans had limits. It was an axiom she felt she would be wise to remember. “Okay, okay. So what are the other alternatives? Are the messages fake?”

“I don’t think so. Marulana said her people ran a bunch of tests on them, and everything checked out.”

“Maybe somebody warned him ahead of time.” “No, that doesn’t make sense either. The Pharisees don’t use ConfidentialWhisper or multi or… or anything. They’d have no way to get in touch with him.” Jara could see Horvil sliding back down into the mental quicksand. He was flailing his arms around in increasingly wide arcs to match the mounting decibels of his voice. “You know Natch likes to ride those tube trains in circles for hours on end. Maybe he’s going to the Pharisee Territories… or meeting the Pharisees halfway… or—”

“That’s ridiculous. Natch is not holding secret meetings on the tube with a bunch of violent lunatics. He just isn’t.”

“Then maybe he has a source in the Defense and Wellness Council.”

Jara snorted. “Horvil, we’re getting nowhere. Natch doesn’t have sources anywhere. The only people he talks to are you and Serr Vigal. Everyone else trusts him even less than I do.”

They were both standing now, venting their inner turmoil at each other. Jara turned away from her fellow apprentice and stalked to the other side of the kitchen. Suddenly, the news began flooding into her consciousness once more, overrunning the hastily erected barricades she had put up so she could concentrate on her conversation with Horvil. Drudges of all political stripes were bickering in public about the sums of money that had vanished. The Council was maintaining complete silence about the situation. Jara’s younger sister in Sudafrica sent her a panic-stricken message asking for advice. And then, without thinking about it, Jara opened a message from the Vault authorities.


The Vault has detected a DNA-assisted decryption attack directed at your account. Your holdings have not been compromised…

The fiefcorp apprentice smacked her hand loudly against the wall and stomped off to the next room. She instantly regretted it. Blank walls weren’t so bad in the kitchen, but in living space they seemed like an accusation. She didn’t want the world to come to an end before she had made some kind of mark on this place.

“You know what we have to do,” Jara said grimly to the engineer, who had followed her out of the kitchen.

“What’s that?”

“We have to go to the Council and tell them what we know. They’ll listen.”

Horvil’s jaw dropped. He was too stunned to speak.

“Horvil, can you live with something like this on your shoulders?” she bellowed. She started to pace, Natch-like. “I mean, deceiving greedy fiefcorp masters is one thing. Even deceiving Primo’s. But what about those people out there who are going to suffer the consequences?” Jara’s sweeping gesture encompassed the London commuters visible from the window. The multied businesspeople hustling to meetings, the families scampering across the square looking for safety, the street performers in the midst of some apocalyptic pantomime at the foot of Big Ben. “What if the medical networks break down? What if the multi network collapses? What if this black code attack sparks a total panic? What if people die, for process’ preservation?”

The engineer cocooned himself in a ball on Jara’s couch, as if his voluminous stomach might provide some insulation against the calamities of the world. “But… but… I’m sure that Natch wouldn’t—that he didn’t…”

Jara refused to give any ground. “I don’t know how he’s involved in this. Maybe he heard a rumor on the Data Sea weeks ago. Maybe he had a hand in putting this black code together. But he knows something. We can’t just ignore that, Horvil! We can’t just let people die! The Council might need Natch’s information to help stop the attack.” I know Natch has been your best friend practically since birth, Horv, but sometimes you’ve got to look out for your own ass. Do you think Natch cares one way or the other what happens to you? “Horvil, there comes a point where we have to put this Primo’s nonsense behind us and think of the people out there.”

The engineer was starting to crack. “All I ever wanted was to be a bio/logic engineer,” he whimpered, as if it were the most relevant statement in the world. “All I ever wanted to do was help people.” He peered up at the pint-sized woman with the mass of curly hair standing over him, but there was no mercy forthcoming.

Can’t you see that I’m trying to help you, Horv? Don’t you realize this could be just what we need to do to get out of these miserable apprenticeship contracts?

And then Horvil narrowed his eyes, puzzled. The color gushed back to his face all at once. He looked as if his tongue was struggling to catch up with the information in his head. Finally, the engineer shook his head violently, banished the display on the viewscreen with an outstretched hand, and summoned forth the craggy visage of Sen Sivv Sor.


Defense and Wellness Council to Make Statement

* * *

Jara could afford only one outgoing multi stream at her apartment, and it would have taken too long for Horvil to physically traipse back to his place on the other side of London. So the engineer had to rush down the street to the nearest public multi facility, something he hated to do. He didn’t care how many times the Council guaranteed the safety of these public connections and how many guards they posted; he didn’t care about the automatic overrides that would bring him back to consciousness in a heartbeat if there was any danger. You could never really feel comfortable letting your body stand immobile in a room full of strangers while your mind was off elsewhere. Life in the world of meat and bone could be so inconvenient.

Apparently, word of the Council’s impending statement had hit the streets. People started vanishing throughout the block as they slid into multivoid and prepared to open new connections. Horvil arrived at the public multi facility just in time to claim the last open red tile. He breathed a sigh of relief, and stepped into the space between a fat Japanese businesswoman and a wiry Indian man who seemed to be a technician of some kind.

“We didn’t have to multi over here,” said an amused Jara when Horvil finally caught up to her in the crowd. “We could have stayed at my place and watched the press conference on the viewscreen.”

Horvil sniffed. “How much fun would that be?”

They were standing in the Defense and Wellness Council’s main auditorium, its public face. Everyone knew the Council had moved its real base of operations to a new compound of unknown location. The auditorium was a fat wedge that might have represented 20 percent on some vast pie chart—a number that roughly approximated the Council’s public approval ratings.

Horvil had actually been here in person once, during his requisite tour of the Melbourne governmental facilities. He remembered seeing the entire city laid out before him during the descent of the arriving hoverbird craft. If he had the power to see through the dozens of hanging pennants to the west and the stretched stone wall behind them, he could have seen the Prime Committee complex and the Congress of L-PRACGs. To the east lay the headquarters of the Creeds Coalition and the chief lobbying arms of TubeCo, GravCo, and TeleCo.

Jara pinged the Council’s multi information node. “A hundred and twelve million,” she said, gazing around at the assembled crowd of multi projections.

Horvil whistled. This black code attack had shaken people up. It looked like only twenty thousand, of course; in situations like this, the network conveniently abandoned the illusion that multi projections inhabited Cartesian space. “Any sign of Merri? Or Vigal?” he said.

“Public directory says Merri’s here somewhere,” replied Jara. “But no word on Serr Vigal. He wouldn’t come out here for something like this.”

“And Natch?”

Jara looked at Horvil and shook her head with a frown.

At precisely three o’clock London time, there was a decrescendo in the background chatter of the crowd. Lights that had been glaring at full intensity dimmed to candle strength. Horvil held his breath and watched the stage below for the towering form of High Executive Len Borda.

But the man who materialized on center stage wasn’t him. A white-robed and yellow-starred figure approached the podium. The man, a pure-blooded Asian, was little more than half Borda’s height, and had only a third of his girth. He stood patiently for a moment, dispensing that arrogant Council stare.

Borda’s underling did not give his name or rank. He simply opened his mouth and began to speak in a dead monotone. “My word is the will of the Defense and Wellness Council, which was established by the Prime Committee two hundred and fifty-two years ago to ensure the security of all persons throughout the system. The word of the Council is the word of the people.”

Horvil shuddered involuntarily. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jara doing the same. They had heard this opening dictum thousands of times in dramas, news reports, and speeches, and yet it still had the power to send ripples up and down the spine. Horvil was convinced the effect was bio/logically enhanced.

“Today, rumors have circulated on the Data Sea that the Vault was under black code attack by Pharisees,” continued the Council officer coolly, as if system-wide panic was an expected hazard; the total at the bottom of a spreadsheet column, the predictable outcome of a well-weathered formula. “Many irresponsible words have been written about the so-called vulnerabilities of the financial system and the supposed failings of the Defense and Wellness Council.

“High Executive Borda wishes it to be known that these rumors are completely without foundation. There was no black code attack this morning.”

Even through the sound-deadening programs of the Council auditorium, Horvil could hear the murmur of a million raised voices. He remembered his pathetic sniveling at Jara’s apartment, his panicked dash across London, and felt an embarrassed flush cover his face. The engineer risked a peek at Jara. Her nostrils were flaring.

The anonymous Council spokesman pressed on, either oblivious to or unconcerned by the crowd’s reaction. “The attack this morning was not a product of bio/logic engineering, or of black coding skill. It required nothing more than the ability to make clever forgeries and the will to deceive.

“These forgeries of Vault security messages were designed to fool the public into believing their financial holdings were under attack. What the perpetrators hoped to accomplish with this ruse is unknown. High Executive Borda believes the forgers’ goal was to sow panic in the marketplace. Suffice it to say these messages have been tracked down and eliminated.”

Jara seemed disoriented. She took a step backwards and turned her focus away from the diminutive Council spokesman, who began to recite a numbing series of technical statistics. “I don’t understand,” she Confidential Whispered to Horvil. “You can’t just forge a message from the Vault like that. You’d need DNA, atomic signatures, who knows what else.”

Horvil tilted his head in thought. “That’s not necessary, if you do it right.”

“Horv, we saw those messages. They said they were from the Vault. They looked authentic. They had valid signatures.”

The engineer smiled. The panic of the world coming to an end had already given way to the open vistas of a mathematical challenge. “Sure, they looked authentic,” he explained. “It’s not hard to make a forgery that looks official at first glance. You could probably find black code on the Data Sea that’ll do the trick. The hard part is getting people not to take that second or third glance. I never bothered to verify those signatures—did you? I’ll bet Marulana never got around to it either.” Horvil summoned a virtual tablet in the air and began making sketches. “Now if you actually knew bio/logic encryption theory inside and out, you might even be able to create a fake signature…”

Jara cradled her head in her hands and began rocking back and forth. She interrupted Horvil’s musings in mid-sentence. “Horv, have you checked the dock at the fiefcorp in the past few hours?”

Horvil had already ventured far afield into chaos theory and fractal patterns, but Jara’s question brought him back to familiar territory with a sickening thud. He shook his head.

“I can’t believe we fell for this,” Jara croaked. “Natch did it. He went ahead and launched all those programs onto the Data Sea this morning, when nobody was paying attention. NiteFocus 48, EyeMorph 66, everything.”

“A-and the Patels?”

“Pushed back their NightHawk release until tomorrow. Routine last-minute error-checking, their channelers are saying.”

There was a very easy syllogism to follow here, even for someone who had not studied subaether physics and advanced bio/logic calculus like Horvil. Natch had spread rumors of a black code attack… There was such an attack, or at least a fake one… The attack had created confusion in the marketplace… Horvil didn’t want to solve the problem. He wanted the whole thing to disappear, to vanish like the multi pedestrians on the street.

But the Defense and Wellness Council spokesman had no such hesitations. “The perpetrators of this crime may not have launched an actual attack on the Vault,” he said, his voice preternaturally calm. “But nevertheless there has been an attack—an attack on the people’s assumption of safety and security. And that is something the Council cannot abide.”

On cue, a row of ghostly figures materialized behind the spokesman. Council officers all, adorned with the white robe and yellow star, steely dartguns holstered at their waists, the inexorable mastery of the Data Sea written on their brows.

“This disruption has been thwarted, as all attacks against the public welfare are thwarted,” continued the small Asian at the vanguard of the officers. “To the perpetrators of this act, let me say this: “The Council will not forget. The Council will not forgive. The Council will bring you to justice.”

Jara looked at the man with his index finger pointing towards the audience, the implacable representative of Len Borda’s will. She remembered Natch’s statement barely twenty-four hours ago: We’re going to be number one on Primo’s, and we’re going to do it tomorrow. It had been so easy. Natch’s had not been a statement of intent so much as a prophecy, a foretelling of an event already preordained. When she looked into the Council spokesman’s eyes, she could see the same force of will.

Insanity, Jara thought. There’s no other word for it.

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