Homunculus: Chapter 17: Pressure

“Hello?”

“Hi, Connie, it’s Liz.”

“Oh, hi, Liz. How are things?”

Liz shrugged, which didn’t carry well over the phone. “Not too bad, I guess,” she added.

Constance Wainwright was one of the first people Liz had met when she first moved out to the area after college. They had lived almost next door to one another in the apartment complex, and even though they had each moved out some time ago, they still kept in touch with each other.

“Wait,” Connie said, “didn’t you have plans or something tonight?”

“I did, yeah,” Liz answered, her voice falling slightly, “but that fell through at the last minute. Not much going on now.” Liz kept the phone by her ear as she flopped down on the couch.

“I see,” Connie said knowingly.

“See what?”

“Oh, nothing.”

“No, seriously, what?” Liz shifted onto her side.

“Boyfriend trouble, again, I take it.”

“No,” Liz protested. “Well, not really.”

“Mmm hmm. I don’t suppose he was the one who fell through tonight? Stood you up?”

“No! Nothing like that. He’s just been tied up with his job lately. I mean, even more so than usual.”

“So this isn’t the first time,” Connie asked.

“Well, it’s the first time he’s canceled outright on me, at least.”

“But he did choose his job over you. That’s not a good sign.”

“No, I don’t really think ‘chose’ is the right word. I just think things are pretty crazy over there for him right now.”

“You just think? He hasn’t told you?”

“Not in so many words, no. It’s…” Liz paused, trying to choose her words carefully. “He doesn’t like to talk about his job very much. Like he tries to keep his work and his personal life separate. I could probably stand to take a couple lessons from him,” she added, glancing guiltily at the stack of papers under her coffee table.

“And you’re sure he’s not just using work as an excuse to hide something else he might be doing?”

Liz laughed at the idea. “If he is, he’s doing a fantastic job timing it with the news.”

There was a pause at the other end of the line. “What do you mean, the news?”

“Oh, you must’ve heard the latest about it by now. There was some kind of arson attempt at the place he works. Two people died.”

“Oh my.”

“Yeah. He gets tied up with work whenever his company makes the headlines, but this is the worst so far. I can understand how that might work.”

“Hang on,” Connie said, her voice trailing off briefly. “Medimetics, right? The ones with the simulated brain?”

“That’s them. Actually, now that you mention it, he works something to do with security on that project.” No wonder he had sounded so frazzled when he had called her to cancel a few hours ago.

“Really? That’s certainly something. No wonder he sounds busy.”

“Yeah.” Liz rolled onto her back and stared up at the ceiling fan.

“Do you know if they’ve figured out who’s responsible? For the break-in, I mean?” Connie asked.

“Well, they did find the bodies of two of the arsonists. They somehow managed to die in the fire even though there wasn’t much actual damage; I’m not entirely sure how that worked. The news is saying they might’ve had an accomplice, but who knows.”

“Do they have a motive?”

“Apparently the police think the two are associated with some right-wing religious group. Which I guess makes sense, since a lot of them have been throwing a fit about what Medimetics is doing. No one’s taken credit for it or anything, though.”

“Ah. What does your boyfriend think?”

“Douglas hasn’t talked about it at all. In fact, we haven’t talked much since it happened. I get the sense he’s been pulling a lot of overtime since then.”

“Hmm.”

“Yeah.”

Liz kept staring at the ceiling fan, watching it slowly rotate. She couldn’t bring herself to be angry with Douglas for all but ignoring her the past couple days, since she knew it wasn’t his fault. But on the other hand, she wanted to be able to do something about it. She just had no idea what, but she knew moping at home about it wasn’t going to accomplish anything. She suspected that was what had motivated her to call Connie. Maybe talking about it some would help her think.

“You know…” Connie said.

“What?”

“I’d bet Douglas — Douglas, right? — I’d bet Douglas could stand to use a little vacation right about now.”

“Yeah, probably. He’s focused on his work, but he was sounding a little worn out when he called.”

“I have an idea.”

Douglas sighed as he scrolled through the pages of the Simulacrum configuration manual. He knew the situation was bad, but the sheer extent to which the developers had cut corners continued to amaze him. It was as though they had gone through the checklist of all the issues they needed to address, and picked the worse possible way they could find an excuse to check the boxes.

It wasn’t just the fact that they were using an essentially unmodified off-the-shelf OS without any kind of hardening. It wasn’t even the fact that nobody was keeping the software on it patched. It was that the manual explicitly called for not doing so, with the excuse that the system’s isolation from the rest of the network made it unnecessary and lowered the cost of day-to-day maintenance. They didn’t even so much as run a virus scanner on any of the machines, with the excuse that they didn’t have the resources available to handle the processor overhead.

Cheaper for them, maybe, but not for Douglas, who now had to figure out a way to verify the integrity of a room full of machines that practically had a “pwn me” sign taped to their back. He couldn’t decide where to begin the actual analysis. He couldn’t even convince himself it wasn’t a lost cause right from the start, but Jessica had shot down the only real solution as being too costly.

Again, for them, not for him. Such were the dangers of having project security paid out of a different budget than project development and maintenance. He made a mental note to include consideration of Medimetics’s budgeting system as a potential threat source the next time he was tasked to prepare a risk assessment.

His phone rang. Douglas recognized the incoming number.

“Hi, Liz,” he said, answering it. “Look, I said I was sorry about tonight, but–”

“Forget about it. What are you doing this weekend?”

Most likely, staring at pages of inconclusive scan results from a subset of the machines in the Simulacrum. “Probably working, unfortunately.”

“No, we’re going camping.”

“I can’t, I–”

“Sure you can. I know your car doesn’t, but my car has enough room to pack a tent and the rest of the gear we’d need.”

“No, I mean–”

“It’ll be great. I can pick you up first thing Saturday morning and drive out to the campsite, spend the night there, and come back Sunday evening.”

“I’ve got piles of work here,” Douglas protested. Not literally, of course, but the to-do list on his computer was looking particularly foreboding.

“You’ll be back in plenty of time to report to work Monday morning.”

“This isn’t the kind of thing that can wait until then.”

“So have someone else cover for you. Make someone else spend their weekend stuck in the office. You’ll be spending your weekend in the complete opposite of the office.”

“A tent is probably the only thing smaller than this office.”

“I was talking about the Great Outdoors.”

“If they were so great, we wouldn’t build buildings to keep it out.”

“Oh come on, now you’re just making up excuses.”

“Besides,” Douglas said, “anyone who fills in for me is just going to be calling me constantly while I’m out there.”

“Correction: they’ll be trying to call you constantly. The place I’ve reserved is far enough out in the middle of nowhere, you won’t be able to get any signal. That part of why we’ll need to leave first thing Saturday morning, actually.”

“You’ve already reserved a campsite?”

“Non-refundable.”

“But if there’s no signal, what if something happens and we get stuck out there?”

“Oh darn,” Liz said, “I guess we’d have to find something to do with even more time alone with each other. Wouldn’t that be terrible.”

“We’d run out of food eventually.”

“It’s a campsite, not outstate Montana. There is civilization out there, after all. It just knows to keep its nose out of our business while we’re out there when we’re not looking for it.”

“Good, then if this is all secretly some plot to kill me and hide the body, there’s a chance I’ll still be able to notify the police.”

“Yes, we obviously didn’t think this nefarious plan through enough.”

“‘We’?”

“Camping was my friend’s idea. Not only would this trip give you a break from whatever they have you doing over there, but she says a camping trip with her then-boyfriend did wonders for their relationship.”

“‘Then-boyfriend’?”

“Now-husband.”

“So no pressure, then.”

“Of course there’s pressure. I told you I’m not taking ‘no’ for an answer on this. Besides, I’m already speccing out what kind of tent I’m going to buy. Don’t tell me I’ve wasted these last ten minutes online for nothing.”

Douglas leaned back in his chair to think. He tried to lean back, at least; his chair had been fated for the Dumpster before being pressed back into service for his office, and the non-functional recline mechanism was probably part of the reason it had been awaiting the scrap heap. Part of him was wary about heading off alone someplace in the middle of nowhere with someone he didn’t know as well as he’d like. But another part of him was well aware of how paranoid that sounded. Working late a second night in a row, and continuing to do so for the foreseeable future, certainly suggested his work was consuming an ever-larger chunk of his life. He was paid look at security threats all day, but that didn’t mean he needed to see everything in terms of threats and vulnerabilities all the time.

Besides, if Liz really did have it out for him, she could probably find a far more subtle plot to do so.

“OK, you win,” he said. Mort could stand to get a lot more familiar with the inner workings of the Simulacrum, after all.

“Excellent. Now, what size sleeping bag do you think you’d need?”


Chapter word count: 1,773 (+106)
Total word count: 29,976 / 50,000 (59.952%)

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