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Authors: Carey Nachenberg

The Florentine Deception

BOOK: The Florentine Deception
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The Florentine Deception

A Novel

Carey Nachenberg

To Mom, Dad, Papa, and SP

I would like to thank the dozens of friends, family members, coworkers, editors, and literary agents who read my manuscript—in many cases multiple times—and spent untold hours giving me valuable feedback. I'd specifically like to thank (in alphabetical order) Leonardo Blanco, Brian Chang, Dan Chen, Phyllis Cohen, Grace Coopman, Rob Crouch, Martin Dang, Cameron Feng, Jenya Gartsbein, Ari Horn, Bradley Kraemer, Sue Kwon, Silas Lam, Shawna McCarthy, Betsy Mitchell, Gail Mullen, Patrick Mullen, Andrea Nachenberg, Leon Nachenberg, Sony Nguyen, Daniel Nieh, Arlene Robinson, Neil Rubenking, Clint Sand, Bob Thixton, and ShiPu Wang.

Foreword

It is often said that “truth is stranger than fiction.” Thus, an interesting story might well be based on reality—and many of the best ones are.

You are about to read Carey's first novel. He has drawn on both his experience and imagination to craft an engaging story grounded in reality. Herein you will find items that you might find in the real world around you, if you knew where to look:

•
There is a hero who is driven to solve a puzzle.
•
There is his loyal best friend.
•
There is a possible love interest.
•
There are some bad guys willing to hurt others to advance their selfish agendas.
•
There is international intrigue.
•
There is at least one mysterious treasure.
•
There is a mechanism in play that could destroy civilization as we know it.

Wait, what? Didn't I say the story was grounded in reality? Wouldn't something like that be science fiction?

No, it's not—it is fiction that is entirely plausible based on how the world has developed around us. It seems far-fetched only by people who don't understand all of the components…but you will, after you finish reading this tale.

Without revealing the details here (and spoiling part of the story), I'll simply say that the rapid advance of some forms of technology in the last few decades has been carried out without appropriate consideration of safety and security: too many parties have valued getting things done quickly (and most profitably) than they have in getting them done safely. Thus, we have a world where the wrong set of factors coming together, either by accident or under the direction of those with evil intent, could prove catastrophic.

How do I know that? For 30 years I have been working on advanced topics in security and cyber crime, including in this field. As one of the most senior scientists in the field, I direct one of the world's foremost academic research centers studying threats from (and solutions for) advanced technologies. Carey's story resonates with things I had been studying many years ago and am still worried about (a little more on that shortly).

Carey himself has been at the forefront of some of these issues as well, and that is why his story is so believable. As a leading researcher and executive with a high-tech security firm, Carey has had direct, on-going experiences countering malicious activities; he did not have to stretch much to imagine portions of the threats he describes in his story. He has fleshed them out so a non-expert can appreciate them, and then surrounded them with a cast of interesting characters, resulting in this novel.

Thus, as you read the story, you might want to reflect on the possibility that some of the story could have happened in recent years…or may yet happen. As you do that, you may think that the government
must
have stepped in with regulations to prevent such a catastrophe. Were that the case!

It's not as if there haven't been warnings. Almost 25 years ago, while Carey was still a student at UCLA, I first started thinking about the technology problems at the heart of his novel. After a few years, I wrote a short white paper that had a Defense-specific view of the problem. I briefed that paper to senior personnel from several government agencies and commercial firms at the conclusion of a specialized study program. Most of that audience was polite, but their universal reaction to my paper was absolute certainty that it was “science fiction” and could not happen. I tried for several years to get some attention for the problem, to no avail. Eventually, the paper went into my archive and was mostly forgotten as I moved on to other topics of research.

Fast forward to the present. Carey and I met years ago, and our paths sometimes cross when our professional lives intersect. When I learned he was writing this book, I offered to read an early copy. Imagine our mutual surprise when we each learned that he had independently identified some of the same technological weaknesses I had outlined two decades ago!

Once you finish this book and have thought about its various twists and turns, if you are curious about my original take on the problem you can read it online. It is available as
http://ceri.as/think
, complete with original typos. Don't read it before Carey's story, however—you'll spoil some of the surprises. Plus, it doesn't have such a rich set of characters and action!

I'm sure you'll find Carey's novel entertaining and thought-provoking. Don't be in a rush reading it, though: haste is at the root of several of the problems in his book…exactly as in the real world.

Eugene H. Spafford, PhD

December 2014

Chapter 1

Microsoft Campus, Building 5—Redmond, Washington

2004

Vadim “V-man” Bulgakov stabbed his finger at his monitor's on-off button and spun his chair to face the door.

“Yes?” he said bluntly.

The door cracked open and an acne-scarred junior engineer poked his head in. “Hey V-man, the guys are going for some drinks. Want to join?”

Vadim relaxed his grip on his armrest and eased back into his chair. “Oh,” he said, bringing his index fingers up to his temples, “no thanks. I've got a severity-one defect that I've got to fix by tomorrow morning or I'll be on Barry's shit list.” Vadim pressed the pads of his index fingers against his head and began rubbing in concentric circles. “I'll try to join you guys later.”

“Good luck,” said the engineer empathetically. “We'll be at Daman's Bar if you finish early enough.”

Vadim nodded with a grunt, then swiveled back to face his monitor. “Do me a favor and change my door tag to red. I need to concentrate.”

“No problem.” He flipped over the laminated cardboard circle outside Vadim's office and eased the door shut. Then from outside Vadim's door, he yelled, “V-man's not coming. Wait up and let me grab my coat.”

Vadim waited for the muffled voices in the hall to subside before he took one more glance over his shoulder and powered his monitor back on. Earlier that evening, he'd received yet another last-minute order from Moscow via a dead-drop email account, and if he were going to make the necessary modifications in time for tomorrow's deadline, he was going to be up all night. He took a sip of overly sweet, lukewarm coffee and refocused his eyes on the C code that filled the screen.


Yebat!
” he cursed, paging back and forth through the code. After more than an hour tracing through thousands of lines of programming instructions, he still couldn't decide how or even where to best make the change. And he was now way behind on his official task list. That was the last thing he needed. That, and more scrutiny from his boss.

Vadim scrolled down a few more lines and ran his finger down the code.

Finally.

He'd found the section of logic he'd need to modify. In the latest communication from Russia, he'd been asked to introduce a subtle flaw into his project's authentication subsystem. According to the email, the flaw had to meet three specific requirements—each, no doubt, of paramount importance to the geniuses back in Moscow—yet be subtle enough that it wouldn't be discovered by one of Vadim's unsuspecting team members. And should the modification be discovered, it had to look like an honest mistake, a gaff that any engineer might make after a typical all-nighter at the office. At least that wouldn't be a problem. He'd been slaving away nonstop on his official work assignments since nine the previous morning.

Vadim stared at the code segment for several minutes, took a deep breath, and began typing.

Chapter 2

Alex Fife's House—Northridge, California

August 20, 2015

“Why don't you just ask her out?”

“Now's not exactly the best time to be discussing my love life, Potter.”

“You're not even at the hard part yet,” Potter said. I shot a quick glance down; Potter stood far below, his chalk-covered hands outstretched and hovering protectively.

“That's reassuring.” I inhaled, locked my left hand onto a peanut-sized outcropping, then delicately eased my right foot up into a shallow niche just below my hip.

“All right, back to business,” he said. “Take it nice and deliberate.”

I nodded absentmindedly, my focus on the overhanging rock above. The next hold sat four feet north of my head, well out of reach. I considered my options, but with each second of hesitation my biceps weakened, my body peeling farther away from the sheer face.

“Talk to me,” Potter said. A trickle of sweat ran down my cheek.

“I'm going to throw for it.” Ignoring the burn in my arms, I rocked onto my right foot, pulled my left shoulder in close to the face, and launched upward. My right index and middle fingers caught the rock just as my feet cut from the wall.

“I'm losing it,” I said, my legs sprawling in midair.

“Feet, Alex! Get your feet back on.”

I tensed my abs and swung my feet toward a narrow ridge. The tip of my right shoe skidded across the hold, caught, then slipped, sending my legs floundering violently backward.

“I'm gonna pop!”

“Hold it together!”

“It's not—
aaaaahhhh!
” My fingers gave and I plummeted.…

Potter's nimble hands caught my shoulders mid-fall and shifted me squarely over the padded vinyl mat; upon impact, a cloud of dust erupted from my chalk bag and settled on my face.

“You caught some serious air!” he said, offering me a hand.

“Thanks, Potter.” I wiped the powder from my face and tousled my wavy brown hair until it stopped snowing chalk, then grabbed Potter's hand and pulled myself upright. Davis Potter, a lanky five-eleven with a perpetually clean-shaven face and a scalp to match, was the consummate climbing partner—technically adept, levelheaded, and always sporting a genuine smile.

“How was the right handhold?” he asked, wiping the sweat from his face. The sun had just cleared my roof and it had to be pushing ninety degrees.

“Pretty thin,” I said. “You want to try?”

“Nah. It's way above my pay grade. You know, I can't remember the last time I climbed on your wall. I like the new routes.” He gazed appreciatively up at the twenty-foot-high artificial rock wall I'd had custom-built and bolted onto the back of my house.

“Thanks! Speaking of new routes, when are we going to check out that new cave in Ojai?” I reached for my water bottle and drained its last few ounces.

“Give me another month to finish my master's thesis and I'm totally game. It's supposedly got some unbelievable crystalline stalactites.”

“Next month works. And if Linda's interested, we'll have a quorum.”

“Don't hold your breath,” he said. “She's been working tons of overtime at the hospital. Never seems to have time to climb anymore.”

“Don't worry. I'll guilt her into it.”

“Well if anyone can, it's you.” Potter hesitated a second. “Hey Alex, hear me out now that you're down.”

My stomach clenched.

“I'm telling you, Potter, she's not interested.”
Not to mention I get a panic attack every time I think about asking her out.

“All right, all right.” Potter put his hands up in mock self-defense. “Just give it some—”

The phone rang. I rolled over to the left edge of the mat and grabbed the handset.

“Hi Alex. Got a minute?” It was my dad, no doubt calling to check in on his directionless son.

I held up a finger to Potter and mouthed “one second.”

“Yeah,” I said, “What's up?”

Potter tapped his watch, waved goodbye, and headed toward my back gate.

“Just wondering if you had a chance to clean up that old PC for me yet?”

“Crap. I totally forgot.” I'd been putting it off. “Can I get it to you next week?”

“Actually,” he hesitated, “I was hoping you could finish by tomorrow. Father Magruda was planning to give it to the Guatemalan family we've been sponsoring. Could you get it done by then?”

BOOK: The Florentine Deception
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ads

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