Beautiful Red – Sample (Full)

Chapter One

The figure stood beside Jack’s bed and looked down at her sleeping form. Maybe she sensed his presence because she turned ever so slightly.

He leaned toward her, his 5 o’clock shadow nearly scratching against her chin. “Good morning, Jack,” he said, his voice low and gravelly.

“What the fuck!” Jack woke up immediately, terrified and energized by the unexpected presence in her bedroom. She sprang toward the figure, jumping through his body and punching a button on the console sitting on the table at the side of her bed. The image of the intruder flickered once, twice, then disappeared.

Jack sat on the side of her bed, panting with exertion and adrenaline. “This alarm clock sucks,” she said aloud, even though she was alone in the room. “That was no ‘seductive stranger’,” she said, reading the currently selected setting on the holographic Personal Wake-Me-Up unit by her bed. She punched a few buttons and selected ‘chirping birds’ from the scrolling menu of options charmingly titled “Who do you want to wake you up?”.

“With my luck it’s a fucking swarm of vultures.” Jack hit save, blinked a few times and around her room.

The sun, such as it was, peeked through the window as the ’glass automatically turned from opaque to translucent. There hadn’t been a decently bright day in years; it had been so long that Jack wondered if it were one of those nostalgic false memories that old people were notorious for sharing with anyone who would listen. “Back in my day,” they would say, “the sky was blue and so was the ocean and everyone was happy and healthy and beautiful.”

Bullshit, Jack thought. The air was always full of crap, even when she was a kid. Sure, it might have been bright, but it still stank and made people sick. At least no one got sick anymore. The vaccines took care of that.

Jack stood up and walked the ten paces to her tiny bathroom. She did what she needed to do then stripped off her underpants and turned on the shower. After washing the night’s grime off both her body and the bathroom, she dried off under the blower and wandered over the eating area.

Calling it a kitchen would be an insult to the concept. She grabbed a breakfast bar out of the economy sized box near the fridge and slopped coffee into her cup. She pulled her uniform out of her autoclave and got dressed. Fucking blue daisy, she thought, distastefully, looking at the logo of her employer embossed on the back pocket of her regulation trousers. She wondered, not for the first time, if anyone at Bellis International had ever even seen a real daisy — blue, green or any other colour.

She stuffed half of the breakfast bar into her mouth and the other half into one of the utility pockets in her pants. On her way to the door, she went online by thinking the right combination of phrases to make it happen. The chips in her brain whirred and clicked; at least, Jack liked to imagine that they did something like that, but she couldn’t actually feel or hear anything. She absentmindedly rubbed the area behind her left ear where the chips were implanted. She shuddered slightly as the image of her home workstation superimposed itself over her vision and her personal startup chime sounded in her ear.

She had a handful of messages from the night before, but she figured on reviewing them at her desk. Work had been dull at Bellis lately, so catching up on mail was a good way to ease into the day. Work at Bellis has always been dull, Jack thought, it just had been even more slow recently than it had been in the past. I guess there isn’t a whole lot to secure these days, she thought, grabbing her jacket which was covered with the words Bellis International Security in large font, encircling an image of a sad looking blue daisy locked up in chains. Jack hated the blue daisy logo that Bellis slapped on everything, so she took a perverse pleasure in the Security department’s version of the design.

Jack clomped down the stairs of her building, passing a couple of neighbours along the way. They did not acknowledge each other at all; Jack had never spoken to any of the other people who lived in her building. Most of the time everyone had that thousand yard stare that comes from paying 98 percent attention to their desktops and 2 percent attention to the physical world. Given proximity sensors and integrated global positioning and mapping systems, no one really had to pay attention to where they were going.

Jack pushed open the front door of the building, an old-school heavy door made of real glass and wood. There was no doubt that it was the nicest part of the building —— the interior was broken into tiny cubicle apartments, just like almost every other building in this city and every other city. Hardly anyone lived in more than 200 square feet of space per person and many people lived in less. But of all the shitty apartments she could have chosen, Jack liked this one. The building door was cool; you hardly ever saw real wood anymore and the amenities inside her tiny apartment were thoroughly up to date.

As she exited the building, Jack reflexively looked up and down her street. Her neighbourhood wasn’t known to be particularly dangerous, but there were always people on the streets looking for handouts either by begging or by grabbing. Even though she rarely carried valuables, Jack wasn’t about to be accosted. Partly it was common urban defensiveness and partly it was years of security training, as Jack scanned her lines of sight, checking for streeters while she  moved purposefully down the street toward the train line.

Jack owned a second-hand electric scooter that she’d had an old friend of a friend modify to run hybridly on biodiesel for extra distance and speed, but parking was exorbitant everywhere and Bellis didn’t spring for it for a lowly Security Officer Class 5. Only people high up in management, the kind who could afford parking on their own, got to have spots paid for by the firm. So Jack was waiting at the train stop, along with the rest of the downtown workers from her neighbourhood.

At least the trains were regular and fast. But their users paid the price of the trains’ efficiency, which is that everyone used them, so they were usually crowded. As the next train whizzed to the stop, a small throng of people surged into its few small doorways and crammed into the already full cars. Jack found herself wedged between a young looking woman dressed in fashionable but inexpensive business wear and an older looking young man who was obviously a courier. He had skate shoes on and they looked well used but of excellent quality. Jack could hardly see the propulsion jets at the heels and couldn’t see wheels at all. She recognized the man as one of the couriers that Bellis Corporate used.

His face and body fit her profile for attractiveness and if Jack had an entirely different temperament, she might have smiled at him. But while she was perfectly happy propositioning someone on the nets, she wasn’t about to make an ass of herself on the train. Besides, he was clearly online, his gaze unfocussed but his face cloudy with a look of concentration.

The train ride downtown was mercifully short and Jack was expelled from the car along with a group of several other Bellis employees. She walked up to the main entrance to the office and heard the ubiquitous ping of her identity chip being recognized. This sound was immediately followed by another sound, this time of recognition that she was wearing a company approved uniform. Why they needed to have a chip on her ass when there was a perfectly good chip in her hand, she never would figure out.

She picked up a lift and got off on her floor. She walked down the corridor and opened the door to the Security Room. It sounded more interesting than most of the names on the firm’s lobby directory, but it was really just another cube farm. She walked past a pair of identical cubicles until she reached the cube she shared with the night guy, Gilles. Bellis Security was a round the clock operation and each cubicle was shared by two staffers. They liked to keep a third of the cubes empty at any given time for cleaning staff and corporate monitors to visit them.

Jack suspected that the person who made up the cube assignments had a special sense of humour, putting her with Gilles. The falling down and breaking her crown jokes had just about finished and they had been sharing the desk for almost three years. She walked up to the desk and said, “Morning, G.”

Gilles looked toward her, then adjusted his focus to look at her. “Morning, Jack,” he replied, packing up his bag and gesturing for his coat. “It’s been another dull one.”

“Same old, same old,” Jack replied, exchanging his jacket for hers on the coat hook. “It almost makes you long for the good old days, doesn’t it?”

“You’re too young to be nostalgic,” he said, heading for the door. “The past only looks good when you can’t see for shit. Later, dude.” He shrugged on his jacket and loped down the hallway and out the door. Jack sat down in the chair and felt it automatically adjust to her preset configuration — a little lower, a little straighter and a whole lot softer. She settled in, taking out the second half of her breakfast bar and having a bite. The clock on the lower right corner of her display read 15:58 UTC.

• • •

Jack took a sip of her now cold coffee, made a face and put her cup down on the small ledge they called a desk. She unfocussed her eyes and logged into the Bellis system. Her vision was filled with an image which had essentially not changed since the technological bronze age — a rectangle with little pictures representing files and programs, a horizontal menu system and a yes and no interface. The desktop. Jack’s nemesis.

Jack hated the desktop interface like some people hate liver. She had gotten into security the old-fashioned way — by subverting it for fun and profit. As a kid she liked to crack into other kids’ systems, playing pranks and leaving messages. It was mostly harmless stuff, but she quickly realized that there were better ways to do almost everything. Once the Direct Connection became more common and monitors, mice and physical keyboards became obsolete, Jack expected a radical change in the way people interacted with their systems. But, no. They just emulated a WindowIconMousePointer system, drawing the desktop on the cornea rather than the screen. The lack of vision pissed her off.

She had configured her personal system to run with a home brew three dimensional interactive interface, but she was required to use the Bellis system at work. It caused her almost physical pain, but she turned on her “keyboard” by throwing a small switch on the side of her desk. A physical switch. She really hated that. A tiny laser light show started on her desk, showing the image of her custom keyboard layout. At least they let her use her own keyboard layout. She tapped away, sensors on her desk picking up her movements and converting those motions to wireless input into her system.

She called up the mail system and paged through a bunch of garbage from the social committee and some messages from management about new business lines and appropriate branding imagery. Deleted. Jack opened up the systems viewer and watched the logs scroll by for a few minutes. She found the image calming and had been known to spot problems in their early stages just by having a feeling that the logs looked funny. They were looking fine today, so she opened up another window and started reading the news.

According to what she saw, there didn’t appear to be a whole lot going on in the security world. Jack subscribed to all the usual trade feeds, the internal Bellis Security feed and she regularly visited a few outlaw cracker boards using an identity she first developed before she chose the right side of the law. Truth be told, she liked to keep her hand in on the lighter fun stuff and also figured that it didn’t hurt to see what the other side was up to. Not that there really was an other side anymore.

Sure, code jockeys were still writing clever tools to break into systems and do a whole host of interesting things when they were in there. But ever since Everlock came on board, hardly any foreign bodies lived long enough to do any damage. It was like DDT for computer viruses. The end of an era.

• • •

And it was both the best and worst thing that happened to the network security world. When Jack was a kid, security commanded respect and a decent salary to boot. Every firm was petrified that some cracker would break into their system and do stuff and they were willing to pay for the expertise to keep them out or get rid of them once they got in. But once Everlock was developed, network security became a lot less urgent.

Sure, every firm needed a security department and the staff still needed all those skills, but the willingness to pay for it vaporized like so much hot air. And markets being what they were, that meant that a security job went from being a high end career to a uniformed job. Really, security departments went from being filled almost exclusively with jobs for coders to being primarily concerned with law and order.

Since no one had yet come up with an Everlock for physical world crime, the bulk of security personnel were the equivalents of the anachronistic beat cops and squad detectives. Jack’s group at Bellis was tiny in comparison to the field officers and they were treated according to their relative size. But Jack wasn’t terribly bitter. The bottom had fallen out of network security before she was even out of school, so she went into the field with her eyes open. She just wanted to be able to stick her hands in the guts of the system and get paid for the privilege.

There hadn’t been a lot of working with the guts lately, though, so Jack spent a lot of her time scanning the news and reading mail. She read about some firm trying a new system interface for its staff that used three dimensional motion for input. It sounded interesting and Jack was glad to see someone taking the risk, but the article made it sound like it wasn’t going to last. A firm in Europe had several servers disappear, a self-professed good guy cracker in Africa was building tools to determine the provenance of the programs being eaten by Everlock and someone had built a fully functioning physical keyboard out of lego. It was a typical news day, but between reading the news while glazing at the logs, it ate up enough of the morning that Jack felt it was late enough to get another hotter coffee from the break room.

She stood, refocussed, and walked toward the tiny enclave which housed the coffee pot and a small fridge. She poured a cup and tried to ignore Tony, one of the other day staff. He was just a class 3 and he liked to talk about old fashioned fashion and nothing else. It was ultra boring stuff at the best of times and Jack was convinced he knew she hated it but talked her ear off anyway. She tried to get her coffee without arousing him, but it was not to be.

“You’ll never guess what I just found on the boards,” Tony gushed as he practically teleported next to Jack. He didn’t wait for her to guess, but rather said, “A photo gallery of twentieth century Gucci shoes. All of them!” he practically squealed. Jack nearly threw he coffee at him, but said only “That’s nice, Tony. Back to work,” and walked back to her cube.

Tony was a character and Jack had to grudgingly admit that he added a little life to the office environment. His love of antiquated fashion went beyond websites and collectibles. He actually dressed as if he were from another era. His hairstyle and clothes looked like something out of an early first generation video show — short neat hair, white button up shirts, a flap of fabric hanging from his neck that he called a tie and eyeglasses. He even managed to find a way to make his regulation trousers seem old. Jack suspected he spent a lot of time at home with a fabric gun flattening pockets and tapering legs.

He wasn’t completely antiquated, though. Like most people, he had several implanted diodes in his face, fashionably placed at his eyebrow, nose, lips, ears and cheeks. Really, he was an entertaining enough fellow, it was just that his obsession was a little bit too over the top for Jack, especially before her second coffee of the day.

Back at her desk, Jack started paging through Gilles’ report from the night shift. Security officers were required to write up reports of their observations over the course of a shift and for the few times something did occur these reports were invaluable. Most of the time, though, the reports were either dull as the sky or read like the in-class messages of highschool students. Thankfully, the reports Gilles left fell soundly in the latter camp.

0800 UTC

No anomalies to report. Still no water.

 

0830 UTC

No anomalies to report. Henson in Pod 7 got a new haircut. Looks like a porcupine. Think I’m in love.

 

0900 UTC

No anomalies to report. Looking forward to lunch.

 

0930 UTC

No anomalies to report. Henson’s hair ruined in the rain. It’s over between us.

 

1000 UTC

Eastern systems reporting fluctuations. They have a new sysadmin. Lucky to have access at all.

 

1030 UTC

No anomalies to report.

 

And so on. Jack enjoyed Gilles’ reports, particularly since they made up the majority of the conversation they ever had. Her own reports were generally less amusing but more well developed and Jack felt that between their daily reports, she and Gilles had developed a friendship of a sort.

Later, she would check on the Eastern systems, mostly just to have something to do. The Eastern branch had their own Security department who was responsible for their systems, but since they interacted with the Western systems, a problem in one area could quickly become a problem in another area. But first she checked the video imaging logs for the night shift. She wanted to see Henson’s new hair.

• • •

The Eastern system problems were exactly as Gilles had suspected — pebkac. Problem exists between keyboard and chair. The new admin misconfigured one of the databases to create multiple connections on each new action. It was a rookie mistake that looked a lot like a denial of service attack on the logs. Typical. Most of the actual problems Security dealt with were really just internal incompetence.

Jack spent the rest of the day reading Gilles’ report and writing her responses, with a smattering of commentary on the logs and news of the day. There were no fires to fight today, just like it had been for a few weeks. There hadn’t been any new hiring at the western branch of Bellis lately, so there hadn’t been any noob errors to correct. It was comfortable, if boring.

Quitting time rolled around without any further interruptions from the other inmates; Tony had cornered Ravinder from Finance at one point, but Jack stayed out of their path. She packed her few personal items back into her pockets and after finishing off her report to Gilles, logged out of the Bellis system. The company’s required daily run of Everlock quickly scanned her onboard system, a process which always slightly nauseated her. It was over soon enough, though and she marched out the door to the Security Room. Somewhere, on some log on someone else’s field of vision, the note “TIMESTAMP 0102 UTC — EMP 456873 — EXIT” scrolled up and away.

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