A middle-agish college professor, Harold, and his dog, HardDrive, together with Olivia Zoë Maria Anderson, their newly acquired potential girlfriend, have been collected by aliens, who have a history of detonating suns of species who seem likely cause them future inconvenience. Mankind’s history seems to qualify Sol as a prime candidate for demolition at their earliest convenience. Apparently it’s up to Harold, Olivia Zoë Maria, and HardDrive to save the world. No pressure…
University of Florida computer science professor (and closeted überhacker), Harold Butterfield, and his Corgi and Best Friend, HardDrive (a.k.a. Hardee), just met a new friend, Olivia Zoë Maria Anderson, a demon cosplayer, at a convention. On their way home, they’re abducted by aliens and subjected to “the usual” mistreatment. In the process, Harold learns that it’s the opinion of these aliens that Earth’s Homo sapiens are likely to prove too much trouble in the future, and that the simplest way to avoid that trouble is simply to detonate our sun. They have a long history of detonating suns. Clearly it’s up to Harold, Olivia, and Hardee to do something about that . . .
“A delightful romp of a novel that will appeal to fans of parallel universe stories, classic science fiction, and the wonders of Oz.” —Michael A. Burstein, I Remember the Future. Astounding Award winner.
“A chick in chain-mail wielding a katana, an über-hacker computer science prof, a Corgi who is a VERY good dog, and echoes of Oz and The High Crusade . . . What’s not to like in David Palmer’s latest after Emergence, Threshold, Spēcial Education, and Tracking?” —Tom Easton, Professor of Science (Ret.), Thomas College.
Dark and Stormy Night
After charging down the slopes of the Canada Rockies, the huge, unseasonably cold, mid-August Alberta Clipper weather system roared across the Midwest, gaining momentum as a line of ever more massive thunderstorms, spawning dozens of tornados in the nation’s heartland, as well as straightline high winds and destructive microbursts, damaging hail, and widespread flooding.
Arriving in Florida, it collided head-on with a slowly rotating, steamingly humid dome of ninety-seven-degree air parked over the state from just north of Mouse Central to Key West, overlapping and drawing even more moist heat from the almost blood-temperature Gulf of Mexico on the west and the equally warm Gulfstream to the south and east.
At that point, with such extreme temperature differentials and so much atmospheric moisture, the weather turned really nasty: Virtually continuous lightning turned night into an actinic, stroboscopic caricature of daylight. Thunder’s sound levels threatened the structural integrity of major buildings. Nearly opaque rain descended in horizontal sheets. Tornadoes erupted statewide, and even straightline wind gusts routinely topped hurricane force.
The abrupt realization that it was indeed a “dark and stormy night” through which he soon would be departing for home caused Harold Butterfield to suppress an internal wince. It wasn’t so much the increased practical hazards and discomfort surrounding the roughly three-hundred-mile drive through frightful weather which distressed him (though the prospect certainly lacked appeal) so much as being forced to participate in the cliché. Harold despised clichés.
Most clichés anyway—in point of fact, he was a mobile database of movie, TV, and commercial quotes and snippets, many of which had attained their cliché status so long ago that by now they were commonly regarded as respectably quotable folk wisdom. Harold’s preferred use of them, however, tended toward the contextually unexpected, obliquely bent or fractured, and generally managed, however subtly, to be socially inappropriate.
Part of his disapproval of clichés, at least those used in a cliché fashion, arose from a recognition of and fondness for good, original, unpredictable speech and writing. The majority, however, grew out of his conviction that clichés were a symptom of the type of thought regimentation to which originality is anathema.
The carefully concealed, but utterly sincere, anarchistic core of Harold’s soul loathed regimentation. In any form.
Gray Researcher’s Burden
Almost by definition, Specimen Analyst’s profession was unpredictable. Because of this, anticipating minimum Artificial Intelligence Network Access Link processing speed and storage capacity access levels necessary for safe and efficient selection and collection, handling, and study of always-unknown-in-advance biological specimens was impossible. Necessarily, therefore, lhe had been handicapped almost from birth with the hugely excessive computing power required by the occasional peak demands of lhs profession. Never had lhe actually been fulfilled.
Of course lhe had been told, beginning in infancy, not expect to be fulfilled often, or for long at a time: Excess AINetAccessLink capacity was just one of the burdens shouldered by those whose work placed them at the frontiers of science.
But someone had to do it. There was, after all, only so much demand for replacement parts pullers.
As ScoutShiprTT;U2 drifted slowly over the peninsula below, SpecimenAnalyst watched the violent elemental collision raging about them with professional approval but private disappointment: A major storm not only concealed them but provided the opportunity automatically to recharge the scoutship’s accumulators, extending the time ScoutShipMaster (5rUU;D114(h)) could keep them in the field before exiting the atmosphere and either deploying the solar collectors or returning to the mothership.
Unfortunately, from SpecimenAnalyst’s perspective, hiding in and recharging from a storm, while efficient, was unfulfilling personally: It reduced lhs workload, and thus the available fulfillment increment, by making it unnecessary to resort to the spectrum-shifter field, which, though it used a great deal of power, required a gratifyingly high level of operator micromanagement.
On the other hand, it did free up more time to study the surface of the planet passing below for interesting specimens. . . .
Briefly Harold debated whether, considering the storm, coupled with the fact that he’d get only about three hours’ sleep before work, it might be the more prudent course to retain his room, spend the night there at the convention hotel, and leave in the morning.
However, his Monday morning class was well into prefinals cram-and-review stress mode. Turning them over to a postgrad teaching assistant on such short notice would be unkind at best; not unlike sending the kid into a den of starving, really cranky lions.
It was at about this point in his reverie that Harold became aware of a soft, relatively high-pitched, sweetly melodious voice addressing him. Well, not him specifically, but—
“HardDrive! Is that you . . . ?”
Instantly Harold glanced down—and, just as quickly, relaxed again: The burly little Pembroke Welsh Corgi had indeed turned his head to see who was addressing him by his full calling name—but without shifting so much as a toe otherwise: HarDee was on a stay, and he was, by God, staying.
Harold reached down and scritched him on The Place: the magic hollow just above the point of his wishbone—the single, perpetually itchy location on a dog’s body which he can’t scratch for himself. “Good boy,” he murmured.
HarDee rolled an eye up at him and, though the ever-present Frisbee gently gripped between his teeth compromised the result somewhat, offered a smug Corgi version of Errol Flynn’s roguish grin. According to Harold’s personal (however imaginary) copy of The Official Lexicon of Nonverbal Canine Communication, the little dog’s expression translated to, “As if I’d break a stay that easily. . . .” Simultaneously, if almost imperceptibly, the tailless butt wriggled an expression of self-satisfaction.
Only then did Harold actually shift his attention to the approaching girl, who by this time had swooped down and was stroking HarDee’s head and ears and, quite expertly, scritching him on The Place, showering him with a steady stream of complimentary greetings—“Hello, big boy; how’s that good puppy?”—and the like.
At first impression, seen from above, having dropped to one knee to greet HarDee, she appeared to be about nine or ten years old, possibly even younger; a typical con couple’s rôle-playing daughter, Harold guessed. In fact, he was on the verge of offering a superficially complementary platitude regarding her “warrior maiden” costume, calculated primarily to begin the process of getting rid of her as quickly as might be commensurate with maintaining the pretense of adult-to-child courtesy, when she looked up at him—
At which point, abruptly and quite involuntarily, Harold found himself doing a double-take, credit for which Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, or Charlie Chaplin, individually or collectively, would have been proud to take.
The girl’s age was difficult to estimate. She was diminutive, even tiny; probably not quite four feet tall. However, she was not a child. Emphatically not.
“. . . And Doctor Butterfield,” she added merrily, rising to address HarDee’s “Daddy”; “hi to you, too. What a surprise. This is just about the last place I would have expected to find you.”
Harold couldn’t place her, but that was hardly surprising. The student population at the University of Florida hovered around forty thousand these days. Most years, over half tended to be female, and the vast majority of those, with the benefit of youth, managed to be attractive in one way or another.
Nonetheless, despite the fact that her acquaintance with HarDee, not to mention her use of his title, suggested that she knew him from school, Harold had never actually met her prior to this, formally or in-. Of that he was certain.
He would have remembered . . .
Dark-eyed, with straight, lustrously glowing, almost-black hair trimmed in bangs in front and gathered in a waist-length ponytail in back, she was incredibly attractive—the actual descriptive which initially flashed across the forefront of Harold’s consciousness was “stunning,” followed closely by “breathtaking.” Her features combined the fragile, wistful, slightly mischievous vulnerability of a teenaged Sarah Michelle Gellar with the girl-next-door-wholesome, round-eyed earnestness of an equally youthful Rebecca DeMornay.
Both the wondrously skimpy, brightly chrome-plated chain-mail bikini which comprised her costume, as well as a jarringly anachronistic nylon backpack, bore UF colors: The bag was blatantly two-toned, whereas finely drawn triple pinstripes—two dark blue lines bordering an uncompromisingly bright orange divider—edged the bra and briefs.
The bra’s covered area blurred the line between tasteful inadequacy and blatant exhibitionism. And the briefs . . . had there been even five percent less to them, Harold noted approvingly—notwithstanding the fact that the convention hotel was located on the beach in skin-tolerant South Miami—they likely would have gotten her arrested.
Even the hardwood scabbard, or saya, of the Japanese katana sword suspended between her shoulder blades, its grip projecting above her shoulder, was a glowingly polished matching dark blue, inlaid with restrained orange filigree. And though perceptibly worn, much of the grip was equally festive, with similar colors.
Yes, clearly this girl hailed from UF. (Either that or, Harold surmised, she suffered from acute color-blindness or a total lack of fashion sense—it was his very private opinion that no one free of peer pressure or some other form of duress would voluntarily wear such intrinsically antagonistic colors together.)
Her attire (or, perhaps more accurately, lack of it) disclosed that despite her height she was perfectly proportioned, well-muscled, and remarkably conditioned: five percent body fat maximum—a cheerleader on a gymnastic scholarship, Harold speculated.
Additionally, he concluded with a private shiver, she had to be an out-of-state student; perhaps from the frigid, windswept plains of upper North Dakota, or maybe even Alaska. He deduced this from the fact that she was patently immune to cold: Except for the bikini, which was constructed (now that he scrutinized it more closely, however surreptitiously) from relatively coarse-woven (visually tantalizing), actual metal chain-mail links, she was effectively naked. Yet, exposed to the ferociously air-conditioned environment of the convention hotel, the girl evinced not a single goosebump.
Uncompromisingly cold-sensitive himself, a major factor behind his decision to live in Florida, Harold experienced another internal shiver as he visualized the sensation of a garment with such efficient heat-sink properties in contact with own skin. He had found it necessary to spend the entire weekend in long pants and a jacket over his T-shirt. (Today’s read, in plain, sans-serif, relatively small print, “There are 11 kinds of people: those who understand binary, those who don’t—and those who ‘believe’ this T-shirt is satanic code . . .”) He’d even worn socks. Thick ones.
Harold’s admiration for the fair sex generally zeroed in on fairly tall women, approaching his own height, proportioned on the zaftig side of statuesque. Likewise, long, Icelandic-blonde hair was a plus.
One in particular tended to stick in recent memory: a UF lady basketball player who looked exactly like supermodel Kate Upton. She had been tall and, for an athlete in a particularly aerobic sport, remarkably well rounded in key areas. Further, those curves had seemed largely immune to the influence of gravity.
Harold had fabricated a variety of fantasies involving her. He’d even been on one nonfantasy double-date with her. She hadn’t been his date, of course; he and his actual companion for the evening, another computer professional from off-campus, had been part of a foursome.
The discovery, during the course of the evening, that that tall, no-holds-barred-gorgeous, blonde student had been only a little smarter than a pet rock hadn’t interfered all that much with Harold’s subsequent fantasies; he’d merely restructured them thereafter to avoid situations in which she would have to talk.
In any event, it was from the departure point of his default preferences, and with thoughtful deliberation, that he eyed this tiny, dark-haired, unabashedly nekidy young woman: Despite those reservations, he found himself greatly tempted to carve out a height and hair-color exemption to accommodate her.
Only in his fantasies, of course—he hadn’t even considered the possibility that it might become a real-world issue: Had he met her on-campus, he reminded himself sternly, he would never have considered rising to such bait. Heretofore he had followed a strict policy of no student/faculty entanglements. Not even counting the fact that UF’s constitutionally questionable human resource rules frowned on such relationships, Harold had seen it work out badly too many times.
His own social contacts, to the modest degree they existed, were almost exclusively off-campus in nature, in a number of cases nearly transcontinental, and some even international, as part of the worldwide dog showing community.
Besides, this young woman was so petite (however exquisitely formed) that his lifelong societal anti-child-molestation conditioning threatened to kick in at the mere thought of—
“Goodness, professor,” the girl continued airily, in the manner of one long-time acquaintance to another; “I never would have picked you from a crowd as someone into fandom.”
Harold offered a professorially reserved smile. “I’m not, strictly speaking,” he replied. “I enjoy science fiction and certain subgenres of fantasy. I even attend an occasional con on my own. But, as was the case this weekend, I’m frequently invited to do presentations on computer security. It wasn’t until I got here that I learned they were running an Oz track as well. That sucked me in deeper: I collect Oz pastiches and selected memorabilia.”
The girl’s eyes grew round, she sputtered the beginnings of a giggle, then took a breath—
But Harold beat her to it: “By the way,” he interjected, half a breath before she could resume, “who are you? You know me, obviously from UF, but you’ve never been in any of my classes.”
“I’m sorry, professor”; the girl was instantly, if unpersuasively, contrite. “My mom claims I have an extroverted personality exacerbated by introverted manners and she’s right though I’d never admit it to her face so obviously you wouldn’t know me because I haven’t taken any of your classes because they’re too advanced at this point but my goal is a doctorate in computer science and I’m going to use it to start a software company and retire a multibillionaire by age twenty-five and thereafter become an ecoterrorist or possibly a recluse living in a huge mansion with three hundred dogs and a pony and drive a fire truck.”
All without a detectible pause for breath.
Harold blinked slowly; then he studied her more closely for clues which might suggest just how much of this outrageous pronouncement might be in jest.
If any . . .
A moment’s scrutiny sufficed to assure him that he hadn’t a prayer of telling. However, he detected a certain joyous twinkle in her eye—overlying unmistakable qualities of fire, drive, and steel—which suggested that, while she’d probably be pretty dangerous practicing her first purported retirement ambition, she’d undoubtedly have a lot fun doing it.
And maybe even, he thought wistfully, be a lot of fun for anyone aiding and/or abetting her. Briefly he wondered how she’d react to learning The Truth concerning his own lifelong pursuit of closet anarchy. If it turned out that she meant it about the ecoterrorist aspect, maybe it would be safe to—
No, he rescinded quickly—then just as quickly winced internally as he realized that he’d been on the point of mentally paraphrasing the world’s oldest security joke (by definition a cliché): If he told her that, he’d just have to kill her. . . .
Not, he thought gloomily, that it was likely ever to matter. Even if she were not a student, and therefore by his own definition untouchable, she was hardly the type who gravitated to him. Except, he deduced tentatively . . .
“I gather,” he offered, “you’re one of HardDrive’s campus friends . . . ?”
Notwithstanding an eleven-inches-at-the-shoulder, thirty-pound stature, HarDee was very much a Big Dog on Campus, with a popularity far exceeding his daddy’s. Which is to say, HarDee was popular, a quality the possession of which Harold personally had never been accused.
He had some teaching duties, and he took them seriously, largely enjoyed them, and was well regarded by his students, but they were regarded by the administration as pro forma, if not downright cosmetic. Harold had not sought employment with the University of Florida; they had come to him—and not because his pedagogic fame had preceded him.
As with most universities, day-to-day operations at UF had become ever more inextricably bound to its computers, and the threat posed by worms, viruses, spyware, malactive spam, and incompetently or just plain badly debugged software seemed to grow almost hourly. Plus, not only were national and international hackers playing “barbarians at the gates” via the Internet (UF’s computer centers were major backbone and host nodes), but students, with private agendas and access to a broad spectrum of legitimate passwords, often posed even more of a threat.
Despite his relative youth, by tenured professor standards, Harold’s reputation in the field of computer security was the stuff of legends. His antivirus software was unrivaled in the varieties of digital infections it could detect, block, and/or eradicate, and the degree to which it could salvage data and program files.
And not even the military or CIA had been able to develop firewalls as bulletproof as his. Which is why the government, after he refused to sell outright, initially rattled legal sabers and threatened Dire Consequences. But after his own two-thousand-dollar-an hour lawyers called their bluff, the Defense Department quietly ran an in-depth background check, then issued him the very highest top-secret security clearance (so top-secret, in fact, he wasn’t even allowed to tell anyone he had it), and agreed to a continuing update license—for which he charged them out their figurative noses. . .
(And about which he enjoyed recurrent attacks of private snickers: What could be more deliciously ironic than a hard-core, practicing anarchist in possession of tiptop-security clearance . . .)
Originally his talents had come to the attention of the University of Florida’s computer-science department when his small internet security firm became the first successfully to detect and cleanse the Charybdis virus.
This harmless but maddeningly inconvenient, temporarily system-incapacitating malady was capable of infecting any version of the more widely used operating systems. Visually, however, the effect was most impressive when the target OS employed a GUI, or graphical user interface, such as Windows, OS/2, NEXt, Unix, or Linux. But it was equally effective against old-fashioned DOS, and there were Mac and even iPhone and other wireless device versions.
The rogue program announced its presence by seizing control of the screen (text, menus, icons, toolbars, graphics, or whatever), gradually stirring it all into a whirlpool, then tilting it into a miniature three-dimensional tornado, which eventually sucked everything down through an apparent drainhole at the bottom of the screen. The maelstrom display would conclude with a brief, forlorn string of bubbles. As they drifted upward, each popped and released a word: “I don’t feel so good—I think I have a virus.”
The text then disappeared, leaving screens dark and systems locked. Rebooting restored computers with no data loss, and the problem wouldn’t recur for months.
But it would recur. And prior to the advent of Harold’s detector-cleaner, the established antivirus industry had found it quite impossible to eradicate the Charybdis virus without completely reformatting harddrives.
Thereafter, and much more importantly—certainly in the view of UF’s computer administrators—Harold was the first to identify the Libyan Sarcoma. This scorched-earth-style digital destroyer attacked data first, and used a variation on the thirty-five-pass Guttman file-scrubber algorithm—far superior to the Department of Defense’s own theoretically unrecoverable, seven-pass deletion protocol—to erase them. Thereafter it similarly eliminated program files, and scrambled whatever ROM programming might be present. It finished by corrupting even the low-level factory formatting of most harddrives.
Potentially, the LS was capable of bringing down installations varying from individual PC and Mac notebooks and PDAs all the way up to international, mainframe-based networks. And because it was coded in the irreducibly bare-bones ones and zeros of machine language, it worked very quickly.
Screen-grabs of sections of the code (obviously, the little program was never displayed to the public in its entirety) demonstrated that it was diabolically contagious and had the potential to wreak widespread destruction. Likewise, it had been effectively undetectable using previously available techniques.
The prospect of such a virus getting loose in the system at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, not to mention the Northeast Regional Data Center, simply didn’t bear thinking about. The fact that Harold had apparently managed to write, debug, and post a preliminary freeware version of the Libyan Sarcoma detector-cleaner on his www6.bughouse.pro website only forty-eight hours after issuing his initial warning to the media had been one of the major factors underlying UF’s decision to offer him a job, even if it meant waiving their normal yellow-dog clause.
Which it most certainly did. Unlike the vast majority of university employees, whether academic or “civilian,” Harold’s contract contained a clause specifically exempting him from the usual “your inventions are our inventions” provision. He wouldn’t have accepted the position otherwise; he had made that clear from the outset. He wasn’t about to share the fruits of his “hobby earnings” with an employer.
In point of fact, however, apart from the single network-accessible system which, Internet coverage reported, had been brought to his attention, no other instance of Libyan Sarcoma was ever documented outside Harold’s home office/computer lab/workshop. Fortunately, the well-distributed report went on, Harold had been able to isolate and kill the infection by remote control prior to its having gone into propagation mode, and he immediately added the program to his own security package’s autoupdater.
Accordingly, even though he had pro forma research duties and a light teaching schedule, Harold not only was allowed but encouraged to continue to develop, market, and profit from his antiviral and security software—so long as he continued to use his talents to keep the IFAS, NERDC, and other university installations safe and healthy.
Ultimately, at the conclusion of contract negotiations, Harold found himself the third-best-compensated employee at the university—only the football and basketball coaches were paid more.
Not that Harold had needed UF’s money. His software business had already rendered him financially independent. His card read, “Biruses been berry berry good to me.” However, the opportunity to play with UF’s constantly updated, bleeding-edge-of-the-state-of-the-art, supercooled Atmos, Cray, Vax, and other exotic toys (for which he really had no legitimate use, and which would have strained his budget even without the updates), in addition to the money and state fringe-benefits package, proved an offer impossible to resist. (Though he had held out until they kenneled their yellow dog.)
Needless to say, under the circumstances, administration cut him slack in other areas as well. Among them: Though not a statutorily exempt “service dog,” HarDee was allowed to accompany him to school every day.
This to the everlasting annoyance of Harold’s titular boss: The Right Honorable Abner Beauregard Claymore Wellborne, IV, Ph.D., was frustrated almost beyond words by his lack of comprehension of the most basic elements of “his” field. A self-considered intellectual and conspicuously nongeek micromanager, Wellborne regarded computers as annoying inconveniences, to be put up with only so long as the fad which spawned them continued to run its course.
An odd perspective, in Harold’s view, for a computer-science department chairman. But of course that was before he learned about university politics: For decades, the individual in question had been chairman in another, fundamentally non-computer-based department—the Archaeology of Minor Transylvanian Precursor Dialects—then one day found himself standing, frozen like a deer in the headlights, in the path of the state’s newly elected Republican legislative cost-cutting juggernaut, which had merged his original department with two others, equally obscure, and subsumed all three into the Slavic Languages College, leaving the university no choice but to put him out to pasture or transfer him somewhere else. And since he had forty-two years’ tenure and didn’t wish to retire, they had little practical choice. . . .
Harold’s relationship with Wellborne was not improved by the fact that, in addition to the chairman’s contempt for computers and everyone and everything associated with them, he regarded the keeping of pets as a demonstration of both emotional weakness and lack of character. Unsurprisingly, Harold was not high on the Chair’s list of favorite subordinates.
(Particularly since Wellborne was only too painfully aware that Harold was not actually his subordinate; that, in fact, in the realm of computer security, the damned pet-pampering geek’s word was law.)
So notwithstanding the Chair’s unflagging public disdain (or maybe partially because of it?), groups of students regularly knocked diffidently on the door to Harold’s computer center control room or academic office, or occasionally even his classroom, and asked, “Can HarDee play . . . ?” And provided that at least one of the students was someone Harold regarded as a trustworthy, responsible adult, permission was almost always granted. HardDrive then would spend a period or two chasing Frisbees, returning utterly exhausted, to collapse for several hours of post-Frisbee afterglow.
No one, Harold had reflected more than once, had ever asked if he wished to join them in a game of Frisbee.
Or anything else.