IT security, Wizard Style
The morose atmosphere from that morning’s discussion invited itself to lunch and loomed. To distract her children from their brooding, Erik’s mother babbled on about Qi Speak while their father cooked a five-course meal.
Qi Speak turned out to be human speech pushed down to infrasound scale. So to understand the content, one needed to ‘pull up’ the waves to audible frequencies. Erik, who had perfect pitch, mastered it in no time. Rena, who didn’t, had trouble.
“Knew I shouldn’t have quit vocal training,” she grumbled.
“Take your time,” said Mum gently. “Qi Speak can damage your vocal chords. I’d hate for you to lose your lovely singing voice.”
Erik made a gagging face behind their backs. That earned him an elbow to the ribs, delivered courtesy of his father. Speaking whom which:
“Who, what or where were you learning chokmah from?” Dad wanted to know after performing the family ritual of thanking the living things that became their food.
Erik placed his copy of Frost on the countertop. His parents read the preface and let out a synchronized cry of recognition.
“This is ki iyagi!”
“Qi story, how original,” Rena drawled, but her glittering eyes belied her indifference.
“This takes me back,” said Mum wistfully. “My stepmother Shikuza read it to me when I was young. This version, though, is much more detailed.”
“The authors know their stuff,” Dad said, his eyes roaming over the pages. “Face sculpting is real. In our day, you really did go to a barber to get your nose fixed. I like the coin toss scene. Whoa, they even got chokmah first aid right! Maybe one’s a doctor?”
His parents continued to run commentary as they read Frost. Apparently, the food and farming methods described in the book actually existed, and Mum said the Seventy Year War bore a great deal of resemblance to the Four Hundred Years of Silence, when from 400 BC to 30AD, the entire known world experienced an utter lack of qi manifestation. Moreover, the customs and beliefs of Alba—the idea qi glued your soul to your body, for example—were all things the average wizard held on to. Erik felt a warm, molten sensation curl in his stomach as his parents blathered on.
“Where’d you get this?” Dad asked when he and Mum reached the part where Frost taught Weaver how to build a passive house.
“The Internet,” said Rena. “One of my work contacts recommended it to me. I gave that copy to Erik.”
“I wonder if we can contact the author,” said Mum. “This chapter acknowledges Permission and Delegation. Makes me think the author isn’t hostile to it. Supportive, almost.”
Erik opened his mouth to mention Xie.
Then he went slack-jawed as he recalled her background and connections to the old wizard community, particularly its leadership. How could he have forgotten? He learned about her background only hours ago, too. I’m too stupid to live, he concluded in a daze.
“Actually…” Erik started.
Rena actually looked astounded. “Shut up. No way. How?”
“She was at the meetup. I have her contact info,” said Erik.
Rena’s eyes flashed. “Call her.”
“She doesn’t have a phone. But she promised to text me when she gets one,” Erik explained.
Now his parents joined Rena in her gaping. “You talked to her?” they screeched.
“Um, yes?” Erik replied, cheeks warm.
Rena grabbed his shirtfront.
“We need to talk,” she growled.
Oh no, Erik thought bleakly as his sister descended upon him.
The next hour was dreadful. Rena grilled him on the when, how and what about Xie, and refused budge until he answered to her satisfaction. She only paused when David came over with a crying Danielle in tow, and then when their parents got hold of Cousin Julia.
“Julia says the clan heads considered revoking all permission to view the past but they shelved the idea because no one could do it,” Dad said, a phone to his ear.
“Not even her?” Rena asked while she mashed a squirming Danielle to her ample bosom.
“Seeing as I still have visions, nope,” Dad said gloomily.
“Interesting. What is it like, having visions?”
“Like going mad. It’s not fun.”
“You must have them constantly.”
“Oh, my, how did you figure that out?” said Dad, deadpan.
That moment, Erik’s phone vibrated. He didn’t recognize the number, but the newly arrived message said:
Behold! :) AX
“Author has a smartphone, now,” Erik announced.
“Invite her to tea,” said Dad. He reached for his trusty kettle.
Erik hesitated. “That’s a bit—”
“Awkward?” Dad let out a bark of laughter as he turned on a burner to its highest setting. “Son, no one will think you’re awkward when I’m around. It’s not humanly possible.”
“—Right.” Erik exhaled and replied back:
Welcome to the 21st century. Tea? My family wants to talk to you.
Right now? Why?
Yes, right now. Parents & sister have an idea for Thought and Memory threat. Want to know your opinion.
“Done,” Erik said after he sent the information off.
“See, that wasn’t too bad,” Dad grinned, his face and teeth glowing golden orange.
David got up. “I better go.”
“Not eager to meet your old people, honey?” drawled Rena.
“I left your poor mother alone with Rachel. What do you think?” David shot back as he rushed to the portal.
He didn’t make it. There was a glimmer, and Xie appeared right in front of it. Xie went pink up to the roots of her white hair when she realized where she was and hastily removed her shoes.
“I’m so sorry, I meant to—”
She stopped. Her mouth hung open in shock as she raised a trembling finger at David, who looked like a thief caught in the middle of a heist. Then Xie’s face contorted with rage, and before they knew it, she was punching David hard enough to make his face snap back.
“Good to see you, too, Little Girl,” said David, rubbing his jaw.
“SEVEN YEARS!” Xie screamed, throwing another punch and missing. “SEVEN YEARS, DAOUD!”
“Daoud,” Erik repeated, feeling stupider by the second. “David. I shouldn’t have known.”
Rena lifted an eyebrow. “Did she just punch my husband?”
“He deserved it.”
“Ah,” Rena sniffed. “Serves me right for marrying a Selkie, I suppose.”
“Help,” David grunted as he dodged, “need a little help here!”
No one moved.
“There’s no help for you,” Rena said tartly.
Xie stopped trying to pummel David when she noticed people were watching. David wasted no time putting as much distance between him and Xie as possible. He would’ve fled the house, Erik was sure, if Dad didn’t get rid of the portal.
“That’s it. I’m done. You may as well just set me on fire and be done with it,” Xie mumbled behind her hands.
“You are angry at him for deserting you,” Dad noted. “I wouldn’t have stopped at just a punch if I were you. Hey, David!” he abruptly shouted. “Get over here so she can beat you up properly!”
“No, thank you,” said David from the other side of the house.
“Coward,” Dad said without heat. To Xie, he declared: “We need to talk about Thought and Memory.”
“No introductions?” Erik asked while Xie peaked over her fingertips.
Dad snorted. “What for? This is more important and I don’t mind her calling me: hey, old man.”
Xie turned to give Erik a bewildered look. Erik shrugged his shoulders. His father was always like this.
“You probably heard this before, but we thought to solve the Thought and Memory problem by revoking all permissions to see the past,” Dad began.
“But revoking permissions from people is—” Xie started.
“—dangerous and risky. Yes, we know,” Dad cut in. “We’re not risking anyone’s life on that. No, we need to revoke all permission to see the past of a land. Nations. Territories. It’s safer and the effects are the same.”
Xie’s eyes went wide. “You can do that?”
“Not me, no. I haven’t the gift.”
“But you know someone who can. Who is it?” Xie entreated.
“We’re not telling you,” said Rena. “Why should we? We’ve just met you. My brother only knew you for, what, two days tops? He might find you harmless, bless his trusting heart, but I see no reason.”
“Why did you call me here, then?” Xie challenged.
“We want you to tell your masters what’s going to happen,” Rena replied. “A fair warning, if you will, so they can adjust to the new state of affairs.”
“Just like that?” said Xie, incredulous. “You’ll make a decision for all of us, no discussion or consent, and you expect us to accept it?”
“Please, like you were going to do something different,” Rena sneered. “Did you make sure everyone knew about Thought and Memory? Did you reach out to people like me and my family? Or do non-members of wizard nation not count?”
“How did you—that’s not—you presume to know what I was sent to do!” Xie cried. “I was ordered to search and find, not do anything beyond that!”
“So you say, but I ask again, why should I trust you?” Rena argued.
“Why should I trust you?” Xie countered, her eyes flashing anger. “How can I know you can do what you claim? Have you considered this may not be the right solution? That people can get hurt because of it? And nothing I’ve seen so far says you care about me or my people at all!”
“Stop me, then, if you’re so unsure,” Rena goaded. “Shouldn’t be too hard. Go on.”
Xie looked aghast as Rena shifted Danielle in her arms. Dad and David stared, frozen in their respective spots, as the air crackled with tension.
Erik rolled his eyes.
“Using your baby to test her character? Really, sis?”
The stalemate broke. Rena looked at him, full of reproach.
“Oh, come on, I was on a roll.”
“You’re creating unnecessary drama, that’s what you’re doing,” Erik retorted. In a different tone, he said: “I’ve been thinking… we don’t have to hide the whole past. IT as we know it hasn’t been around for more than a decade. Most systems don’t keep data older than seven years on hand, anyway.”
“Good point,” said Rena, picking up the thread without missing a beat. “Information is time sensitive. The sheer volume of data involved forces people into using IT, whether they want to or not. This brings us to the realm of access and authentication. Most enterprise passwords expire in ninety days, sixty if leadership is paranoid, and you can’t reuse previous passwords that are too new. Masking the most recent past should stop mediums from obtaining them. Access cards are renewed every year, but we don’t force people to use a different pin number. So it’s possible to glean that information via visions.”
“But it’s still two-factor authentication. You need the user’s card and pin,” said Erik. He turned to Xie. “Can you steal my CAC?”
“What’s a CAC?” Xie asked.
Erik sighed and showed her what a Common Access Card (CAC) looked like on his phone. Once she understood what they were, Xie opened a tiny portal, thrust a hand through, and pulled out Erik’s CAC from it.
“Do you know anyone else who can open portals?” Erik asked after pocketing his CAC.
“I only know of one other person, and she’s the last grandmaster’s eldest granddaughter,” Xie replied. “You don’t have to worry about her. She has a reputation for integrity and fairness. She was my hero, growing up.”
Erik and Rena exchanged a look.
“Right. But let’s be over-conservative and assume there’s an increased risk of CAC theft. I bet you can get around biometric scanning with portals, too.” Erik imagined Xie placing a disembodied eyeball on a retina scan, and withheld inappropriate laughter. “Portals are outside of scope, and I’m not sure if there’s anything we can do about them. So let’s focus on the What You Know part of authentication.”
Rena and Erik discussed the security requirements of classified and non-classified systems. They agreed hiding the most recent 366 days was a good place to start. A discreet nod from their father told them Cousin Julia could do it.
“If I understand this solution correctly, no medium will be able to see things that happened in the last three hundred and sixty-six days,” said Xie.
“Correct,” said Erik.
“But they will be able to see events outside the one-year window?”
“What will you do for systems that don’t follow all the rules?”
“If you don’t enforce all the right security policies, you deserve to get hacked,” Rena replied. Then she drummed her fingers against her chin. “I have some ideas on the portal threat. No qi measures necessary. I’ll mention them in my next security briefing with the NSA.”
Erik let out a heavy sigh as he imagined the enormous hassle those security measures would inevitably bring.
“Do you understand why we need to hide the immediate past up to a year?” he asked Xie.
She nodded. “I think I do.”
“Can you explain it to the clan heads?” Erik asked.
“I might need help,” Xie admitted.
“Okay, then I’ll go with you,” said Erik.
Dad dropped his kettle, which clattered noisily to the floor. David went white and rigid like he was bracing for a fight. Rena’s countenance turned stormy.
“Erik…” she said, full of warning.
“It’s only fair,” Erik said, meeting his sister square in the eye.
Rena’s expression turned stormier.
“You may not return. You know what they do to outsiders. The powers that be may learn about you through them, and if so, you can kiss your life goodbye. You might as well be offering yourself as a virgin sacrifice.”
Erik set his jaw and commanded his heart to stay steady and his hands to not tremble.
“So be it.”
Rena bore her eyes into Erik’s for a long, breath-ceasing moment. At last, she groaned.
“Oh, fine. Do what you want. You’re a grown man, after all.”
For all that Rena warned him of the risks and his agreement to her assessment, Erik didn’t think the mission itself was all that dangerous. After all, he was only joining Xie as her IT consultant. How dangerous could that be? Yet, as he geared up for arduous trail running, per Xie’s instructions, he realized Dad was quietly blinking away tears. Never in his life had Erik seen his father weep.
“I’ll bring him back even if it kills me,” Xie promised.
Dad didn’t reply. It was as though he feared what would come out of his mouth if he opened it.
“I’ll hold you to that, Little Girl,” David growled, arms crossed. “If he’s not back in a month, you can off yourself.”
A month? Erik thought in alarm, while Xie grumbled with averted eyes: “I’d like to see you try, old man.”
The arctic look on David’s face as he looked down at Xie, both literally and figuratively, was as foreign as it was unnerving.
“Please. I’ve changed your diapers. I taught you how to fight. And if you think I’ve gone soft in the last seven years, you’ve got another think coming.”
Unsettled and feeling raw, Erik sought his mother’s warmth and sanity. His bet that he’d find her in the music room paid off; Rachel was watching her play La Campanella on the grand piano at allegro moderato.
“Off to save the world?” Mum asked without pause.
“Help my betters save it, more like,” Erik said, hands in his pockets.
No one said anything while Mum’s fingers flew across the keyboard, her hands jumping two to four octaves with unerring accuracy. Then came the climax, and pearls of sweat dripped off from his mother’s forehead as her whole body seem to fling itself against the piano as she furiously pounded the keys.
At last, Mum slammed the final chord and sat back, shaking and breathing hard.
“Come back to me,” she whispered brokenly.
Until he wrapped his arms around his mother’s bony shoulders while she wet his neck with tears, Erik didn’t know what it meant for one’s heart to break.
Erik was far more heavy-hearted when he rejoined Xie at the foyer. He felt underdressed for the occasion. His attire, shoes, and gear—all possessing a solid history of serving him well for hundreds of miles of remote unsupported trails—didn’t feel up to snuff. Out of nerves and habit, Erik zeroed the timer on his sports watch and set it to record. Then he turned to Xie.
“Ready when you are,” he said, more bravely than he felt.
Xie nodded. She grasped his wrist. At once, vertigo and terror seized him, light was no more, and gravity faded away.
Thus Erik plunged into the unknown.