John Golden: Freelance Debugger

John Golden

Freelance Debugger




Text copyright © 2014 Django Wexler. All rights reserved.

This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.


Edited by Tyson

Cover by J.M. Martin

Worldwide Rights



Published by
Ragnarok Publications |

Editor-In-Chief: Tim
Marquitz | Creative Director: J.M. Martin

John Golden

Freelance Debugger

Editor’s Note



John Golden
was an experiment, of sorts, when it comes to digital formatting. Django intended the story to have footnotes (as the paperback version will) but the various eBook tech is not yet up to snuff when it comes to producing a readable version with footnotes. As such, some adjustments had to be made. The footnotes were worked into the text on the eBook version and set off with em dashes and italics rather than attached at the back end of the book, which rely on sloppy hyperlinks.


Ultimately, you might not even realize we’ve done this, but we felt it best to tell you what the author envisioned (as far as formatting) didn’t work out exactly as planned. Regardless, we don’t feel the adjustment takes anything away from the story, so we’ll leave you to enjoy Django’s techno-noir fantasy,
John Golden: Freelance Debugger

John Golden: Freelance Debugger

With annotations for accuracy by Sarah Golden.—


I stared out of the town car window at the gray winter sky as we broke out of the bridge traffic at last and accelerated down I-405. My watch said it was eight in the morning, but either the sun was still lurking below the horizon or it couldn't muster the energy to make its presence felt. Seattle was engulfed by fog so thick it was more like a ground-level cloud. Anything more than thirty yards away looked dim and mythical in the morning half-light. Landing at SEA-TAC had been surreal, descending into an ocean of whiteness with the upper stories of buildings poking out like rocks from the surf.

My body, still on Tokyo time, insisted that it was still something like 1:00 AM tomorrow morning, and my head was a warzone between the armies of trans-Pacific
and the rescuing cavalry of three cups of what I had been assured was the city's best coffee.

And too many in-flight martinis. He actually asked for one 'shaken, not stirred'.—

So far, the caffeine buzz was winning, but it was a close-run thing, and the collateral damage was making my skull pound with each divot in the road. The driver who'd met me at the airport with a sign reading 'Golden' drove in blessed silence, and the traffic had at least given me a chance to recover and stretch my legs across the back. I do my best to fly only when a client is footing the bill and I can go first class, as the seats in economy have a long-running and violent feud with my spine, but a little discomfort is sometimes unavoidable in my line of work.

I still had the cooling dregs of the third cup of coffee with me, and I sipped from it and grimaced as my faculties started to return. In this case, the client had actually gotten in touch with me during the flight, by which time it was too late to soak them for the cost of the plane ticket. I'd reviewed the documents he'd sent over
but hadn't taken in much more than the broad outlines of the job.

That is, he glanced at the bottom line, handed it all to me, and said, 'Sarah, make sure we're not getting screwed.'—

We had a few minutes, even with the driver's canny use of the carpool
, so I pushed my earpiece in and thumbed it on.

John has a long-standing dispute with the Westchester County police as to whether I count as a person for carpool purposes.—

Morning, Sarah. Did you have a nice flight? Get any sleep?”

This is John's idea of a joke.—

“Not too bad,” her voice
sounded in my ear. “JAL is better than United, anyway. Their net access is like trying to breathe through a straw.”

“Were you able to dig up anything on this Falmer character?” That was the client, Walter Falmer. I'd retained that much from my once-over.

“Just what's public. He's the usual wunderkind: college dropout, started in a garage, on track to make his first billion by the time he's thirty. His company, Serpentine Systems, do consumer antifae and some consulting for small-to-middling enterprise installations. Secure networks and direwalls, that sort of thing. Scuttlebutt is that they're less than a year from IPO, and everyone's expecting a big one.”

“No background in debugging, though?”

“Not that I can find.”

“That explains all the NDAs, anyway,” I mused. “It's got to be a bit embarrassing for a security company to get itself infested.”

“'The only truly secure system is unplugged,'” Sarah quoted. “'And even then, check twice.'”

I know, I know. But it won't look good.”

Hence his need to employ disreputable characters such as yourself.”

I let that pass and spent a moment in thought. I liked working in Japan, even if the whole country seemed to be built to bash in the skulls of unfortunates as tall as myself. Companies there are no more eager for bad publicity than they are in the U.S., but they tend not to get all legally binding about it. Whenever I have to wade through one of these hundred-page non-disclosure agreements, it makes me feel like I'm si
gning over my soul to the devil

He actually did this once, by accident. Fortunately I spotted it later, but extracting him from the contract was still a tricky bit of business. One of my best pieces of work, actually, if I do say so myself. See
John Golden and the Devil's Advocate
for a full account.—

Unfortunately, since most of the big companies in Japan keep their debugging in-house, there just isn't enough work for a freelancer to keep me busy. So here I was on another American tour, trying to drum up business.

This Falmer thing had just dropped into my lap. He'd contacted me directly, not through any of my usual sources, which implied that he knew something about the trade. Not surprising for an antifae software shop, but the question was how he'd gotten infested in the first place. If Falmer had the expertise and the technology I guessed he did, whatever had gotten in would have to be big and nasty enough to drill through some top-notch security. This was probably not going to be your simple Smurf-punting sort of operation.

We pulled off the highway and int
o a corporate park, a dozen two and three story buildings fronted by vast parking lots and anonymous except for the logos above the doors. As they passed by in the fog, they reminded me of medieval heraldry: a caduceus, a pomegranate, a stylized letter N. We pulled into the lot in front of a building marked with a double S rendered as a pair of bright-green pythons, one with a tiny winged figure struggling in its mouth. I dug out a tip for the driver and pulled my little suitcase out of the trunk. That, and the shoulder bag I carry Sarah in, comprised the entirety of my luggage. I've learned over the years to travel light

Even if it means wearing the same underwear three days in a row.—

The lobby was furnished in generic rent-a-space grays and browns, with fake wood-grain wainscoting and a few framed pictures of nothing in particular. Behind the front desk, a yawning security guard checked my ID against a list and punched a few buttons on his phone, then told me to wait. I backed off a few steps and spoke quietly to Sarah. She has excellent hearing
through the earpiece mic
, and I've learned to speak in a low whisper that's the next best thing to sub-vocal.

More accurately, I've developed a good predictive algorithm that can fill in the gaps when he mumbles.—

“How does it look?”

“No obvious vulnerabilities so far.” I imagined her digital fingers delicately probing the corners of the local net for cracks. “There's a guest connection but it's nicely fenced off. I assume you don't want me to take aggressive measures?”

Not yet. Any sign of infestation?”

Nothing that jumps out, but there's a ton of encrypted traffic. Hard to say if it's normal operations or burrow cross-talk without a baseline profile.”

Behind the desk, one of the elevators dinged, and Walter Falmer himself emerged.
There had been a photo of him in the documentation, taken from some magazine cover, with the Great Man of Business in a staring-off-into-the-unfathomable-future sort of pose. In person, his short brown hair stood up in untidy spikes, and he wore a suit jacket over a white polo shirt and black jeans. He spread his hands wide as soon as he came out of the elevator, as though he were so delighted to see me he couldn't wait to rush in for a hug.

must have looked uncomfortable because he didn't end up hugging me. Instead he crossed the lobby at a jog, grasped the hand I extended in reflexive courtesy/self-defense, and shook it so vigorously my shoulder joint started to protest. He had an ordinary enough sort of face
, with a two-day growth of dark stubble, but he was animated, a kind of manic energy that beamed forth from his eyes in palpable rays.

Not true. If he'd gone into acting instead of software, Falmer could have been the male lead in the next sexy vampire flick. And the stubble looked good on him.—

“John Golden!” he said. “Pardon my enthusiasm, I've just spent the last few hours reading about you, and now it feels
like bumping into a celebrity. You've got quite a following, you know? I was lucky to catch you on your way through town.”

Thank you, Mr. Falmer.” I said, carefully disengaging my hand before he tore my arm off. “It's not often I get booked for a job before I've even landed.”

Call me Walter, please. Or Walt. Or Waffle, people around here call me Waffle. You don't have to. Just a warning, so you won't be confused

Lost on John, but since I was reading the local network, I got the joke: his system ID was WaFal, hence Waffle.—

I decided I'd stick to Walter.
“I've got a few things I need to take care of before we really get started, and there are some questions—”

Of course! But let's not hang around in the lobby, eh? Come on upstairs, I'll show you my office.”


One of the things I needed to take care of was a trip to the men's room to let off some of those three cups of coffee

Because we all really need to know that, John.—

That accomplished, I followed Fa
lmer across an open-plan office—no walls, not even cubicles—which was full of side-by-side monitors and almost entirely empty of people. Here and there a convention-flouting early riser was already at his desk, and most of them greeted the boss with a wave or a cheery “Morning, Waff!”

Falmer had the corner office, with floor-to-ceiling windows and glass partitions separating him from his crew.

In addition to the granite-topped desk and the inevitable Aeron chair crouching behind it like some kind of ergonomic insect, there was a beanbag big enough to sleep four and an elliptical machine with its own built-in TV.

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