Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.
Emily hunched in her cube, staring with deep misery at the screen saver swirling across her monitor. She had never told Frank that she found evidence of Haytham accessing her security code, and she certainly had never mentioned the complicated access key that opened that back door. She pressed her forehead into her palms, elbows resting atop the clutter of papers scattered across her desk. Those papers had seemed so important when she had left her cubicle for a fresh hit of caffeine; now, none of it really mattered.
The hell of it was that she liked Frank—really enjoyed chatting with him. She thought of his unruly, curly hair, his compelling dark eyes behind stylish glasses, the way he unfolded his wiry frame from a chair. Lately, Emily had found herself making excuses to encounter Frank pretend-accidentally. “Oh, you’re in the break room too? What a coincidence!”—if you can describe it as a coincidence, when she had noticed him walking by down the hall in that direction, a free Titan Software mug swinging easily from his left hand.
Sitting just beneath her left elbow was the business card the lady from the National Underground Agency handed her at the end of their recent meeting. Emily’s eyes closed in anguish. She knew what she would have to do, but… But then, did she? Couldn’t she just issue the patch, and leave the back door’s owner a mystery? What about Haytham? Why had he accessed that security code? Her heart lifted. Perhaps Frank had talked to somebody about it (an honest little voice in her head reminded her that she hadn’t mentioned it to anybody else yet, not until she knew more about it); perhaps he had talked to Haytham.
Taking a deep breath, Emily sat up straight, resolution written firmly across her normally cheerful face. It was best to break this problem down into sub-functions. First she would see what Haytham had to say; then she would worry about Frank’s impossible knowledge and what to do about it. Never one to put off the inevitable, Emily pushed back from her desk, swiveling to the entrance of her cubicle. If Haytham was around, she’d talk to him now.
Continue reading.Making her way through the untracked maze of featureless cubicles, Emily thought about what the patch would have to do. She could use the exploit to write a virus that just locked the back door. The virus could just replace the insecure binary file with one that simply omitted that code. In fact, Elite users could write their own patches, since they could access the source code for the OS. She would have to talk to the guys who ran Titan Software’s web site about putting up instructions for do-it-yourselfers.
Emily shook her head, her long blonde hair flashing like a streak of sunset-light in the harsh fluorescent glare. It would certainly be daunting to distribute it to all those millions of people who had bought and installed Light Box 2007. That they would have to issue a patch so soon reflected poorly on Emily’s entire department, but what could she do? She would have sworn the thing was foolproof—and so far it was, really. Somebody had had to subvert it from inside because it was too strong to crack from the outside. That no hackers had yet discovered and taken advantage of the back door was one huge consolation. It was a fairly subtle piece of coding, a fact that protected Emily as well as providing camouflage for the nefarious lines.
Now, nearing Haytham’s cubicle, Emily noticed that the whole area felt remarkably quiet. Half the workforce must have called in “sick” on the same day, she thought. She crossed her fingers, hoping Haytham was there. She didn’t want to have to come back, not to talk about this.
He was there, his desk gleaming clean as usual, photographs of his family, tin of pens, and phone all in their exact spot. One piece of paper sat placed precisely at right angles to the edge of the desk. Suddenly, confronting him, Emily’s nerve failed. If he had not turned at that exact second, she would simply have slunk back to her cubicle and sent him a carefully-worded email. What had she been thinking, coming to see him in person? Emily knew that she did not excel at face to face conversation; her strength was thinking slowly and clearly, putting words on a page—or lines of code into a program.
“What can I do for you?” her coworker asked in his clipped, oddly-accented voice, his dark eyes boring into her. He looked neutral, but not relaxed either, as if he was on the verge of turning back to the debugging Emily had glimpsed over his shoulder a moment earlier.
“I—er—” OK, calm down, Emily told herself. Think clearly, say the right thing. Don’t accuse. “I’m—I’m working on—a problem that came up in the security code, and I’m looking for—um— the person who wrote that particular section. Your name came up in the Clear Control list as somebody who accessed the code.”
Haytham sat, his hands in his lap, still gazing expressionlessly at her. He seemed to be saying, “So?”
Gathering her thoughts, Emily elaborated: “Did you ever work on the security code?”
“I have worked on much code,” Haytham told her, unhelpfully. “I cannot recall every instance of code I wrote or modified.”
“OK, but this is really important,” Emily pressed. “I’m pretty sure you would remember this code. Would it help you remember if I showed it to you?”
“Perhaps,” he replied, still neutral. Talking to him was about as easy as trying to extract a blade of grass from beneath a sleeping elephant! “Do you have a printout?”
Thankful she had brought the copy those N.U.N.S. people had given her, Emily proffered the sheets. “It’s the highlighted section, there.” Her slender finger traced a circle around the vibrant yellow lines of code. Having handed it over, Emily suddenly wondered whether he expected her to wait while he scrutinized each line—which he clearly was doing—or if she should come back later. Then she realized that if he had inserted this code, she should probably be there to stop him from any drastic action he might take when he realized he’d been discovered.
But Haytham showed no particular inclination towards action, drastic or otherwise. He simply sat, ignoring Emily’s hovering form, reading deliberately from the first page through the last one. Several minutes passed; Emily struggled not to fidget. Finally he calmly looked up, unsurprised to see she had waited.
“I do not recognize this code at all. Indeed, now I see this section, I know I have never worked on it.”
“OK, but I seem to remember you helping me with something a while back,” Emily pressed, hoping his relative loquaciousness would continue.
His eyes narrowed in thought. “Yes,” he admitted, “I recall that instance. You needed some help on the password check section—encoding the mathematics of the cryptography, if I recall correctly.”
As he mentioned cryptography, Emily knew in her heart that he was telling the truth. He was the resident math whiz, rumored to have been a mathematics professor at some foreign university before coming to the United States and this ignominious programming job.
“Oh, you’re right,” she agreed, almost a little sadly. Not that she would want Haytham to have written the back door, but that she had wanted Frank exonerated. “Did you ever open this code at all, besides that one time? Clear Control did show that you had accessed this file.”
“Certainly not,” he replied. He proffered the damning papers, his face
hard, and Emily accepted them with remarkably steady hands. “I do not know how my logon came to be associated with accessing this code, but I never opened it. I have never seen this before today. Can you tell me, please, when I am supposed to have accessed this file?”
Beneath the precise words, Emily detected a hint of anger. He didn’t like being accused of something he had not done, and she knew he hadn’t done it. Thinking of his code, Emily realized this didn’t have his fingerprint at all. For one thing, Haytham never failed to include comments where they belonged. For another, his work was as linear and mathematically precise as his desk; this code, though elegant and devious, looked too circuitous for Haytham.
The numbers were blazed into Emily’s eyelids. She answered without hesitation: “July 16, 2007, at 6:38 PM.”
A look of triumph came into his face, the first real expression he had shown during this increasingly awkward interview. “It was not me,” he told her firmly. “That was my daughter’s birthday, and I left work at 3:00 PM to help my wife prepare the house. By 6:38, I was supervising fifteen 10-year-old children playing birthday games.” His brows drew together ominously as, in a tone close to sarcasm, he asked, “Will you need my wife to corroborate this?”
“No,” Emily answered in a very small voice. “Thank you. You’ve been very helpful.” He turned away, disdaining a response. She slunk away, leaving him to continue his debugging, righteous indignation written across the stiff set of his shoulders and back. Shuffling miserably back to her dim cube, Emily knew now that Frank must have written this code under Haytham’s logon. The agonizing question remained: What would she do with that knowledge? Could she turn in the man whose company she increasingly craved? Could she, in good conscience, not turn him in?
“You had no right to hang up on me like that!” Geraldine screeched, leaning in to Drake’s face as he slumped at the kitchen table holding an ice pack to the chicken egg-sized lump on his head. Dashing into that door had seemed like a good idea at the time. Then again, he had expected it to break down, rather than deliver a resounding crack to his forehead.
“Could you please talk a little more quietly, Mom?” Drake whispered, praying she would listen and tone it down. His head really hurt from that knock. Besides, if she talked a little quieter, his ringing ears from the two close-range explosions in a nearly enclosed space would drown out her words and he could just nod penitently and let the wave wash over him.
“No, I will NOT tone it down!” If anything, she raised her voice a notch, entering a squeaky zone usually reserved for prepubescent boys. “You called me, and here I thought, ‘How sweet, my son cares about me. I’ll tell him something important in my life.’ And how do you treat me? You just hang up, like I’m a telemarketer!”
“Mom, please,” her son begged. “I’ve explained that it was an accident…”
“Yes, sure,” Geraldine exclaimed. “You accidentally call your Mom, right. Very likely. And then you accidentally hung up on me, too? Or was that intentional?”
“Intentional,” muttered the bruised, aching Drake, sounding even to his own ears like a stubborn little child. He really just wanted to soak his hurting body in a nice hot bubble bath, maybe with some scented candles lit and some soothing music playing in the background.
Marion had really taken the brunt of the damage, but she had seemed cool—shock, Drake thought, had its purposes—as they picked splinters of glass out of the back of her arms, legs, and head. That slide through the display case had inflicted the worst damage; most of her blows had landed favorably, only bruising Marion’s hands at the worst. She had silently endured the paramedics’ ministrations, refusing to explain anything until Gardner arrived.
Thankfully, their boss had made an appearance not long afterwards. A very skeptical police sergeant had been questioning Drake having already confiscating the empty Derringer. The N.U.N.S. IDs, much less common than the much-televised FBI badges, had provided no particular immunity. The Seattle Police had worked with Drake before, but they still didn’t trust his reasoning for discharging a firearm within city limits—especially discharging it at somebody else’s property. The lock would have to be replaced; the little bullet had embedded itself firmly, jamming it beyond repair.
Exhausting hours of explaining later, they had finally released Marion and Drake, with the injunction not to take any sudden trips out of the area. Even that had required Gardner to throw his weight around, pulling more strings than Drake thought possible. Greg Nickels’ name had been bandied around, as had Christine Gregoire’s. Gloomily riding a late bus home, Drake hoped only for long hours of rest and recuperation before his debriefing with the boss tomorrow. But the instant he walked in the door, his mother had rounded on him like a cornered bobcat. Only Drake was the one verbally cornered as Geraldine stomped around, pulling Tupperware from the refrigerator and slamming it onto the counter with a vengeance.
“Oh, good. I’m so glad you could do something intentionally, even if it wasn’t calling your old mother. But then, who cares about me? I nursed you, I changed your poopy diapers, I scrimped and saved when your father left so you could attend a good college—” Never mind that Drake had joined the Navy instead, and traded years of his life for an education. “All my sacrificing, and you don’t even have the decency to say something when you call me.”
Silence seemed the best course to Drake, who understood that his mother would never believe that he had been chasing hoodlums at that moment, and that catching those kids really was more important than her hemorrhoids. Though she was still muttering angrily,Geraldine seemed to be winding down, her stalking around the kitchen and cabinet-banging having produced a dinner of leftover spaghetti with parmesan cheese, defrosted peas, and a tall glass of milk. “Here,” she glowered. “Or are you too good for my dinners, too?”
Dutifully, wanting nothing less than to eat a huge pile of pasta smothered in homemade sauce, Drake picked up his fork. “Thank you, Mom,” he said, looking into her angry face. The pursed lips and drawn brows radiated wrinkles, endowing her with a remarkable resemblance to an evil witch hunched over her bubbling cauldron. That first forkful almost required more willpower than Drake could summon up, but somehow he got it into his mouth and started chewing.
Maybe after this he would be able to sink into that steaming bathtub.
Or: My NaNoWriMo profile.