Anton Eine

Behind the Fire Wall

52
Translated by Mark Berelekhis

When the Pentagonal Citadel's Fire Wall is breached as a result of a robbery, giving the perpetrators access to the most dangerous artifacts stored in the Vault, Magister Sajar Randhar finds himself in hot water.

His security clearance is pulled and he’s placed under house arrest for the entire duration of the investigation. But who could have hacked the most impregnable security system in the entire Murican Empire? How did they manage it in the first place? And why remove Sajar from the investigation instead of having him cooperate with the authorities?

The veteran mage is left with no other choice but to take the investigation into his own hands. The case is incredibly complex, but with his great experience and top-notch skills as a magic security specialist, there’s no better man for the job.

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Reviews

Review by Barb Taub of barbtaub.com

November 8 2019

"If you’re reading this, I’m either dead or behind bars."

Author Anton Eine hooked me with that great first line. Then he set that hook and reeled me in. His bait? A tiny little taste, a prequel to his upcoming Programagic Cycle series, that introduces us to a disturbingly familiar magic world.

"You come to some support center and say your crystal ball doesn’t work. The mage at the counter examines your magical masterpiece, only to find all the code written in D-flat, or something even more obscure."

At least, it’s familiar to any of us who have wandered the aisles of Fry’s or Best Buy, tried to set up our own router, or attempted to understand anything a twelve-year-old child tells us. Or to anyone like me with a basement full of obsolete electronic relics of bygone days, and completely useless knowledge of forgotten programming languages like Basic. (VCR/Walkman/DOS anyone?)

Behind the Fire Wall is a beautifully deceptive little story, one that uses the technology rules we accept but for the most part don’t understand any more than if they were in truth magic. It’s as if the Apple Store had a Genius Bar in Diagon Alley. I love the dry background humor of the created world as much as the locked-room mystery Magister Sajar Randhar is attempting to solve.

Along the way, we meet a handful of surprisingly three-dimensional characters such as Spirit, the experimental and somehow self-aware hologram who owns the final, unexpected twist to the tale.

As with any prequel, this little story has one job—to set in motion the events that will propel the series forward, and most importantly, compel readers to look forward to that tale. Job well done.

Review by Karen Oberlaender of My train of thoughts on…

November 30 2019

This book focuses on mage Sajar Randhar, magic security specialist, who is suddenly suspected of a – major security breach!

With “Behind the Fire Wall”, Anton Eine has created a thrilling short story that kept me glued to my E-reader. This short story comprises two believable characters with sufficient depth and dialogues that sometimes made me grin. I had a great time reading “Behind the Fire Wall” – it is a very thrilling read. I was drawn into the story right away, getting closer to Sahar and Spirit, page by page. I am looking forward to reading more!

This is for you if you like computing, science fiction, savvy protagonists, entertaining dialogue, as well as mysteries and thrillers.

A suspenseful and entertaining short story to read again; it is the very promising first in a new series.

Recommended.

Read excerpt

If you're reading this, I'm either dead or behind bars.

In case of the former, this record should help to expose those guilty of my death and/or the hacking of the Fire Wall.

Should the latter be the case, however, I hope this might get me out of this embroilment and prove my innocence—unless it's too late by then, which would mean the former scenario.

This is how this whole chain of events started. I came to work one morning only to be arrested just as soon as I came in and escorted to my superior's office. They accused me of utter incompetence, criminal negligence, and (something no one had expressed explicitly, but everybody clearly implied) something virtually equivalent to malevolent intentions on my part, which would eventually lead to a successful attempt to hack the Fire Wall—and that's a charge I'll keep denying until I'm blue in the face.

Please don't misunderstand me. I'm one of the best specialists in this field, and proud of it. And this isn't just a matter of professional reputation, even though there are very few of those as familiar with data protection systems as yours truly. Nor is it merely a question of me being innocent.

It's just that I have been managing the entire Fire Wall project. I have actually written all the related code and programmed all the security algorithms. It was my ultimate masterpiece. I knew all of its functionality inside and out. The Wall of Fire was un-hackable—I would have staked my reputation on it. That's the long and the short of it.

Nevertheless, it is true that someone broke into the system illegally. The Fire Wall was hacked, and an extremely important key was purloined as a result. Its loss was fraught with major risks for homeland security.

I couldn’t accept the fact of it. It was a derangement of sorts. I didn't even think of arguing or resisting as I was barred from work until the end of the investigation. My security clearance and system access was pulled, and I was put under house arrest with armed guards.

Me. One of the highest-ranking mages. They must have been off their rockers.

At that point, I was no longer an immigrant coder working for peanuts as part of some pseudo-legal project developing magical software for cheap wands. Though, admittedly, I had known plenty of such jobs at the beginning of my career.

Our family had just recently moved to the Murican Empire from Hindah, and my father would teach magical calculus at the Imperial Apple City University, moonlighting as a driver of a communal flying coach every evening.

Somehow, he would still manage to find the time to teach me everything he knew about magic, spells, the flows of energy, and everything else that would eventually become a motivation for a curious youth to become a great mage.

I am the very Sajar Randhar—the top developer for driverless flying trams and inter-city ships, having made flights safe and independent of the human factor.

I was the inventor of the technology that would permit everyone to store their data in a cloud, relieving them of the responsibility to immure their most valuable items in a crypt.

And I was also the developer of the Great Southern Wall's magical protection system back in the days when Norton the Red—the mad dictator reigning over us in those days—decided to "protect" the Empire from the incessant influx of immigrants from across the Empire's southern borders. For the record, being an immigrant myself, I have made my personal position clear in no uncertain terms. Yet, as a government employee, I was bound hand and foot by my contractual obligations.

I was the mind behind the spaceship control firmware back when Mellon Ozque decided to challenge the last frontiers and the very atmosphere, tearing right into the ruthless black void of space itself.

However, I had nothing to do with the Book of Faces, may all the gods be praised. Look here. I don't deal with social magic for entertainment, cheap tricks, or advertising. I'm a specialist in magic security. A specialist of the highest order, in fact. I could be the best one out there, but my inherent modesty prohibits me from making such loud claims.

Bar me from work? Well, all right. Given that my Fire Wall was hacked, its top-grade security notwithstanding, I might have deserved it. Investigate me? Fair enough. I might have done the exact same thing in their shoes, though it would have been more logical to make me a part of the investigation. Pull my security clearance? Sure, makes sense. Care to guess who had coded the entire security system in the first place?

But accusing me of incompetence and negligence—well, that's where I draw the line.

You can lock me up in my own home. That wouldn't be the worst place, anyway—I have an extremely well-protected bunker that might serve me just fine should the Third Magic War ever happen. You can guard the perimeter around the clock and shut down all of my communication channels with the outside world—at least the channels you’ve managed to detect, anyway.

But no one can ever stop me from running my own investigation. After all, if someone had managed to hack my ultra-secure Fire Wall, I should be the one to find out who had done it. And how.

Without me, the investigators are unlikely to find their way to the john without a guiding spell. Unless, of course, this was a setup aimed at compromising me personally, in which case getting to the truth becomes a matter of survival. Especially given that I have a suspect—my first and only suspect, in fact. The only one capable of getting away with the crime. Me.

The only problem is I've never done anything of the like. The alternatives are that I am thoroughly delusional or my memory is playing tricks on me.

Given my confidence in having had nothing to do with the hacking, I couldn’t well subject myself to a questioning. Still, it is conceivable that I could have been hypnotized or coerced into doing it—a particularly powerful spell could have done the trick. They may have erased or replaced my memory. They might have done all sorts of unnatural things I wouldn't be able to remember, right?

That's why it was necessary to check all the records and find out my whereabouts around the time when the crime was committed—last night, that is. And when I say all, I mean even those I couldn't have erased or altered myself.

You might call me paranoid, but a century and a half of practicing High Magic are quite enough to see the underside of the world and identify enhanced security measures. All the more so that I have quite a few high-profile projects in development at my place, as well as prototypes of new spells, and a number of valuable artifacts.

"OK, Spirit! Manifest yourself!"

A small cloud formed in the room instantly, assuming the shape of a young and sensual elven maiden with two pigtails in a short silk bathrobe. Judging by today's outfit, she has decided to do me in. Permanently.

"Oh, hi, dear. I barely had enough time to start missing you."

"I know that much," I replied gruffly as she flashed a smug smile, satisfied with her sarcasm.

"You're back from work early today. How about watching a match together? I'm sure that the Grimvault Dwarves will make mincemeat of the Red Unicorns from…"

"Sorry, Spirit, we're skipping the game today. We appear to have certain problems."

"Yes, I know! We're out of milk, but I've placed an order already, and they'll deliver it tomorrow morning, fresh enough for you to hear a moo." She looked at me with a playful sparkle in her emerald-green eyes, those enormous eyelashes moving provocatively with every blink.

"Nope, Spirit. We have a bigger problem." I proceeded to tell her the events of the day. The only facts I had were based on what I heard from Full Metal Pat, my boss from the Five-cornered Citadel. I explained to her what was on the docket and what her role would be.

And, yes, it's exactly what you're thinking.

Spirit is no voice-enabled jumble of algorithms. She has nothing to do with those limited interface spells that have become so widespread lately, gradually replacing the run-of-the-mill magic wands.

These days, you needn't even wave a wand—it is enough to simply say, "Let there be light," and the interface spell running your house or your flying chariot will execute the command. They can cook meals according to standard or custom recipes, clean your house, place a call, play music or recordings, even transmit a live image in a crystal ball. All of those are basic functions, and voice-operated assistants have become a perfect replacement for the magic wands used by our elders.

Spirit, though, is a whole different kettle of fish. Inasmuch as I know, she is the first artificial genie in this world.

It took me over ten years to create her, trying to smash through the same wall that the planet's best mages had chiseled and hammered without any success for quite a while.

Recently, I have managed to make a small breakthrough. I've been testing my creation, analyzing its behavior as critically as I could, looking for flaws and vulnerabilities, editing the spell code and writing more blocks. But I wasn't ready for her to face the world. Or, perhaps, not ready for this world to face her.

That's why I kept Spirit at my place, in a local cloud. I didn't create her anthropomorphous—she assigns any shape she wants to the cloud to tease me.

Spirit is hardly the best name, but, being the superstitious geezer that I am, I was reluctant to give her a name, even upon realizing I'd succeeded. I would just refer to her as a genie. As in, "Hey, spirit! What's 45,876,476 multiplied by the square root of 958,603,809,348?" Or, "Genie, count the odd numbers from zero to 100,000, omitting those divisible by seven, then reversely count the even numbers, omitting those divisible by six."

Once I realized it was a success, and that everything was working as planned, I decided to give her a name. However, calling her a spirit, a genie, or a ghost had become second nature by that point, so Spirit it would be. The name fit her.

Most attempts to create an artificial genie are sabotaged by the mages' perfectionism. However, one needs something imperfect to approach human consciousness and ultimately transcend it. So I ended up creating something extremely imperfect.

Her venomous disposition and perverse sense of humor would occasionally drive me nuts. Spirit would always try me with her nagging and capriciousness, and I would lose every time. Again and again I would ask myself what had possessed me to make her that imperfect.

Most developers would try to create an artificial genie that would conform to the rules of any standard object-oriented magic, linking logic-based spells to physical objects. Those would usually be something like a skull, a crystal ball, a book, and so on.

However, I'd always thought it was a dead end. My first idea was to turn to fundamental magic in search of completely novel solutions and approaches. I've managed to model all the necessary high-complexity neuron paths necessary for a self-learning system, maintaining the stability of its consciousness at the expense of the instability of its form. Balance is the sole definitive factor in this world, after all.

However, given her nature, I wasn't quite sure I'd be able to keep myself stable.

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