Retiring to the Rockies

by Howard Faxon

Tags: Ma/Fa,

Desc: Fantasy Story: An old hacker finds himself suddenly wealthy enough to retire gracefully. Read about how he matures as he ages, and finally faces and reacts to a horrible act.

Flights of fantasy are our specialty. We try not to let reality pop our balloons.

This vacation to Lander, Wyoming was turning out to be a bust. I was here to see what the Rockies were all about, as I'd never been here before. It was time to see the places I'd always wanted to see before I was too broke or screwed up to do so. I was in the bar of an up-scale hotel nursing a bourbon and coke. What was left of the local talent had too many wrinkles to count so it looked like another night alone. A swarthy-looking fellow dressed in a very nice business suit was sitting a few seats down the bar from me sipping on what looked like for all the world to be fruit juice. I caught his eye and raised my glass in greeting, then took a sip. He nodded in my direction.

"What's the matter, fellow? You look like someone ran over your best friend and didn't stop."

He looked past dejected and accelerating towards suicidal. I figured that at least he had a worse story than mine.

He slowly shook his head. "I have failed my king. I know not what to do. I must return in disgrace and face the ire of the royal family."

My ears perked up. Royal family in this day and age? I looked him over a bit better. It looked like a fitted Italian suit. He had a Rolex on his wrist and his nails were impeccable. Hmm. Fruit juice, not alcohol. Probably Muslim. One in seven chance--


His eyes widened. He nodded quickly, followed by a quick grin. I shrugged my shoulders and commented "Lucky guess."

He gave me the once over: white, older, overweight, more black than silver on top, dressed VERY casually. Tech support in higher ed doesn't pay as well as the industry averages.

"If it is not too sensitive, what issue has you bemoaning your fate?"

"It seems unsolvable. I have been commanded by my prince to find a data repository willing to commit to a long term relationship with the emirates with, how do you say, speedy dynamic access. It is all so haphazard and vulnerable. I fear that I am lost."

I sat and stewed. We were in the middle of a cloud computing controversy back at the shop. Virtualization and security were the lynchpins of the whole operation. It was a dynamic solution to disaster recovery turned into daily operations. He had gotten me curious, dammit. I proceeded to get a précis of his requirements.

"Ahh, forgive me, but I may have some ideas. What sort of bandwidth access are you requiring?

"Two gigabits per second." Hm ... bigtime. OC3 fiber or better.

"How much storage? What capacity?"

"I was told to begin with a million terabytes and look forward for expansion."

Whoooo. That's the entire country's financials for decades, engineering documents and every game and song ever pirated put together.

"I see your problem. It's scale. You're going to have to build your own."

His eyes lit up like a pinball machine hitting a 3X multiplier. I felt safe to say that I had his total attention.

"What is the primary goal for this facility?"

"Security and undeniable access."

"Is this facility for storage only or do you require something more, such as a web presence?

"That would be preferred as a hot backup." I've got it. I've also got a way out of my dead-end job.

Okay, here's what I'm thinking. The whole thing revolves around getting long term leases on several communications satellite channels that can be trunked together. If they're on a single satellite a single dish transceiver can handle it, but spanning this across multiple satellites gives the operation a safety net in case one satellite takes a hit and goes offline. The startup cost of this is going to be ferocious but the sweet part is it's totally anonymous. You don't even need a DNS presence--run raw IP addresses. For security purposes stream all traffic under 4096-bit encryption. Only the web presence needs a DNS presence and using a separate IP space which leaves your data backup pretty secure against a DDOS attack.

The actual site can be anywhere that can see the satellites and that's a heck of a footprint. Look, if you buy up an old ghost town with a closed mine you've got a place to bury the equipment for undeniable security--embed the facility in a rock mountain. Water should be available if it had a town there and an old flooded mineshaft would make a hell of a thermal sink. If it's mountainous then dig out a shelf, drive in semi trailers and pour concrete walls to entomb them. Dig another shelf reasonably close and fill it full of propane tanks. Use a propane generator with a backup or two and set up a couple of satellite transceiver dishes--instant repository. Put in a house for a caretaker to run it and it's stand-alone for months. Schedule propane and food deliveries every six months and you're good to go.

His eyes were glazed and a film of sweat covered his forehead, but he was smiling. He saw a way out. He focused his eyes on me and stuck out his hand.

"Hamid Al Jiluwi."

I took his hand. "Howard Faxon." I grinned at him. "Looking for an IT manager slash caretaker?"

He kept my hand within his while looking at me with speculation in his eyes.

"You have shown me a light when I had none. If you have a background in such then I have no objection to putting forth your name as a party of interest. Come, my appetite has returned. Let us dine and plot."

Hamid introduced me to the life of the truly privileged. I had to take a daily reality break to remind myself that this may be fun, but it was ephermal. We turned it into a working holiday.

The four seasons had a respectable internet pipe and we abused it. It didn't take much research other than fine-tuning the search keys to find some truly astonishing mobile data centers. The throughput required had us hung up until we hired a consultant with a background in practical electrical engineering. We could slave two sets of two satellite transceivers into hot swappable twin channels. SGI has a containerized-freight-based solution called Ice Cube that uses a fireplug per trailer as a cooling medium. We sent a realty agent on a foaming-at-the-mouth search for Colorado or Wyoming property that featured a closed copper mine--not open face, but a driven shaft in mountainous country with reasonably close road access. Deeper mines seem to invariably flood. Extreme high pressure water drilling can dig a chamber in a rock face so fast that it's frightening. High volume lifting pumps along with feed pumps were planned to drive the solid bars of bone-chillingly-cold water to cool eight trailers hidden within the mountain. Three sets of four LP-gas based generators would provide the 350 KW per trailer needed with acceptable redundancy. The propane tank farm was designed to be covered from aerial observation by a heavy granite overhang. It would be left open to the local environment for the refill trucks to access. A large X-shaped single-story house was laid out to be sheltered from the Northern and North-Western winds by the peaks sheltering the valley. The only things betraying the sophistication of the installation were the satellite transceiver dishes, and they could be covered by camouflage nets to match the valley floor.

Once Prince Fayed gave his blessing to the project the money started flowing. For less than thirteen million dollars a state-of-the-art data center with multiple redundancy took shape in northern Colorado. At first it was only accessible by helicopter, but as we progressed a road was cut to a neighboring highway and a 2200 foot runway was chewed out of the granite comprising the roots of the mountain. A twenty room hotel was built to support the laborers and provide cover for the presence of the airstrip. I was hired as the site integrator and datacomm specialist. I sweated over the manuals many a day and night and wrecked quite a few systems in a practice lab until I had it down well enough to get everything up and running. Cisco switches, SGI quad-core Xenon processors and iSCSI farms backing each other up in a ring formed our core. The firewall locked everything down on the data farm side to a single source IP and two DMZ zones supported my few outward-facing machines and the web/FTP servers under totally separate IP ranges.

The LP-gas farm was broken in to strips--quadrants--by reinforced concrete walls so that no one explosion could chain-fire and destroy more than a quarter of our fuel supply. Concentric rings of vibration sensors, infra-red sensors and razor wire formed our perimeter. If you couldn't be authenticated you simply did not get in. One of Hamid's cousins found out the hard way and damned near got handed his ass. It was not an intended test but the prince became involved. We were grateful that he came down on our side once the smoke cleared.

The site residence was laid out in a large 'X' with the kitchen and my residence in one wing, two apartments for a cook and rotating security team in the next and two wings were built as high-end suites for 'family' visitors. Nothing was plated with gold but the facilities were top-of-the-line.

A small room was reserved in each suite for prayers and had a arrow painted on the wall noting the direction of Mecca.

Our cook originally came from Great Britain and insisted on a four-oven AGA and an AGA companion installed next to it. I learned that an AGA is an always-on, always-hot stove built of solid cast iron. You just walk up to it and start cooking! The monster reminded me of the 'piano' stoves written of in histories of Parisian bistros around the time of Escoffier. With several pantries the size of short shipping containers, a walk-in refrigerator and freezer along with a few more appliances such as a hooded charcoal grill and an electric professional baker's oven I anticipated nothing but the best. A small library next to the kitchen was built for informal dining and as a cookbook repository.

My library was key-card accessed and held a hard-wired console to monitor and control the data center. All the machines were SNMP enabled and an HP Openview-based tool called OPSwear designed to manage data centers pulled it all together. We could dynamically resize application farms and distribute the TCP/IP requests through CISCO cluster management tools. We port-bonded the server Ethernet ports to treat each pair of gigabit connectors as one two-gig access channel. I'd played with OpenView several software generations before and had some breakout ideas as to how to make it sing and dance.

For door security the only place that could activate or change access to a card/lock combination was my office computer. I made sure that said office had truly impressive security.

Sixteen rough months after we got the prince's approval we were ready to flip the switch save one thing—the missing encryption keys.

A shortie 707 touched down at our strip wearing DHL colors. Trust me-- these guys didn't work for DHL. DHL employees don't carry anti-armor shoulder-fired rockets or crew-served weapons. A guy wearing a grey turban with a gold rope around it led a team carrying a large Pelican case. The guy in charge authenticated himself as Price Fayed himself and signed for his team. I gave him my spare key-card and we were permitted into the data crypt. The first trailer was command and control. The Pelican case contained two raid-based servers. One went into the head-end rack next to the border router and was wired and bolted in place. The second went into a little hidey-hole I'd put together under my office in a powered safe holding four half-racks in a pure nitrogen environment. That's where the backups went. The second server got wired in, everything got tested for system health and the satellite transceivers were brought online for the first time other than short-term tests. Prince Fayed used a sat-phone to coordinate a secure dialog between the server farms and that was it--we were live. The bandwidth would be maxed out for a week or so during the primary server population and site mirroring. Dude didn't have much to say but sure as hell got things done.

Hamid showed his prince to one of our guest suites and instructed our cook to get his game face on. I retreated to my apartment to monitor the system loading as box after box spun up out of idle mode and became populated with virtualized server images. The power demands stabilized well within the thresholds we had designed for. I had a few redundant power supplies fail under the load but they were quickly replaced by slide-in modules. The Openview map showed nothing but green and mean. I took a snooze confident that the console would make noises if anything needed attention. The gentle rumble of the water pumps lulled me to sleep.

I popped up out of a sound sleep. Something was wrong. The console showed all green. Something had alerted me. What? The water pumps!

Damn. That could be our single point of failure. I had to bring this up with Hamid. Luckily we wouldn't break anything installing a redundant system, but we'd have to shut down a day or two to install the combined manifold that would keep a constant flow of coolant going to each trailer. Our engineering company was comprised of idiots. I was going to bust their chops over this. I texted Hamid what I'd thought of. He immediately called me over my voice line. We would bring up the subject with the prince over dinner.

Dinner was always a least a semi-formal affair when dining with the prince unless you were 'of the blood' and in good graces. As a westerner it was wear a suit or don't show.

When the cook--I hesitate to use the word 'chef'-- brought out grilled lamb chunks on a bed of couscous I could see the disappointment in the set of the prince's shoulders. He could get that anytime, anywhere in the Arabian states. I dinged my water glass and stood.

"Prince, would your palate prefer something more westernized, say a grilled new york strip steak with garlic and grilled onions, creamed green beans and a slice of cheesecake? Perhaps a Turkish coffee to finish?"

He smiled and gently clapped his hands. I headed back to the kitchen with the cook.

"I'm afraid that you made the beginner's embassy mistake. Don't feed them what they can get back home. Feed them what's good HERE. You have those steaks thawed we were going to have tomorrow? Fire up that grill and I'll take care of 'em. You get on the creamed green beans--keep 'em al-dente."

Fifteen minutes later we were serving the prince's table. Back to the kitchen.

"You know how to make Turkish coffee?" Nope. "Boil espresso-grind beans with a little sugar until it foams. Pull it off the heat, stir fast and do it again. Pull it off the heat, add two or three grains of salt, a perfume of honey and a light dusting of lime. Yes, lime! It's pervasive there in the wind and the drink wouldn't taste right to him without it."

We served the coffee with the cheesecake course and glasses of ice-water with lemon. I think we were a hit. I had the lamb--it wasn't too bad! It needed a little zing so I used fresh lemon juice. Keeping with the no silverware tradition I used naan to scoop up the lamb and couscous. Flatbread is flatbread.

I was invited to the prince's suite later. I brought along a bar of chocolate and fresh fruit as a hosting gift.

"You have proved yourself to be quite the problem solver once again Mr. Faxon. I applaud your efforts in catering to the demands of a culture so different from the one you were born to."

I gave a nod of acknowledgement and replied "What the boss wants we try to get. What the boss needs we really try to get." He seemed to appreciate that.

"Tomorrow I will wish to tour the facility before leaving. Our whirlwind installation was impressive yet incomplete."

"Certainly, prince. Please have your staff inform the cook as to what you wish to break your fast and when. He is an accomplished baker."

With that I was handed out of the suite.

Morning prayers were followed by a fresh croissant and French press coffee. The tour began then with my suite. The price observed everything, obviously looking things over with an eye towards security. All the windows were 8 inch slits. Once in my office I asked him to close the door. His eyes widened at the weight--three inches of steel will do that. Rather than open the vault which requires cycling the air from pure nitrogen I turned on the lights and camera. I described what he was seeing.

"This is the site hot backup. All machine configurations and server images are backed up here as well as the reserve encryption server. All of this is connected through fiber directly to the data crypt."

I turned on the HP OpenView monitor and described what the screen showed, what could be determined and what could be done from the console. He nodded his head as he was familiar with the software, having it in use at his primary data center.

"It eases my mind that we both came up with the same management solution."

I described the encrypted data streams between my office and the crypt as well as the security steps taken to insure that the keycard access was secure.

We proceeded to the server farm where the individual trailers were visited. The foundations, power, coolant and data connections were inspected. We had run armored fiber everywhere. It doesn't cost all that much more than plenum fiber and is much better terminated. We discussed the redundancy policies He was not amused when we discussed the lack of redundancy in the cooling subsystem.

Next came the generator and fuel bays. Four long bays of LP-gas tanks marched into the dark of the mountain, each bay holding 64 two-thousand pound tanks. A side room contained the automated pumping controls to move the LP-gas from tank to tank so that the empties could be refilled properly. A manual relay control board covered one wall that could override a fried automated system. The controls for cutoff-valves were prominently labeled in case of explosion or a breach in the pipes. This the engineers had done properly. Again, this was remotely controllable from my office. Come the dead of winter the only reason to open the crypt was to change out parts that had gone out of spec or had stopped working such as a hard drive, RAM or a power supply.

We returned to my office and sat.

"Well, Mr. Faxon, it seems that you have worked your way out of a job. This is well-enough set up to manage from the Emirates, making your job superfluous."

I crossed my arms and sat back with a slight smile on my face. " Ahh. Politics rears its ugly head. Which political hack or drooling imbecile of an in-law will you entrust with your nation's economy? In one fell swoop the entire installation could be rendered vulnerable to outside attack or control--one slight policy change--one published IP address. Well, that will be your problem, not mine. I assume that you'll insist that I sign a non-disclosure agreement. In return I insist that I will be held harmless for anything that occurs once I turn over control of the site."

He seemed quite angry as I turned from him to pull up and print a non-disclosure contract and a hold-harmless agreement from the internet. I placed them before him on the desk, sat back and folded my hands before me, expressionless.

He met my gaze curiously. "You seem to have expected this turn of events."

He was a powerful man. I could not bait him with impunity. "It has been noted before that what one culture regards as treachery is simply regarded as the accepted way of doing business in another. Long ago I convinced myself that this may be one of the outcomes of this job. It does no good to rail against it as you hold all the cards. I have left no triggers, no back doors, no timed events queued up and there are no deadman programs. I have dealt honestly with you and in good faith. If you would sign the documents before you I shall countersign, gather my possessions and return my keycard at the gate. One hopes that you will be gracious enough to provide transport to the nearest town."

He slowly reached for a pen and began signing the documents. I took a sheet from the printer and started writing out the system logins and passwords, noting what went to which system or software package. As he finished I signed the documents with my own pen, taking a copy for myself. I rose and turned towards the door, intending to pack and leave. He remained seated.

"Mr. Faxon, you shame me."

"No, prince. Your business practices and culture shame you. You have been brought up to hold the welfare of your family above all else. As in all things, there are costs to what we do. Your Imam will understand and aid you in gaining wisdom in this matter."

I left a sober prince of the realm behind me as I closed the door to my office for the last time.

After packing our cook fed me a fine lunch. One of the guards agreed to drive me into town for fifty bucks. I left without looking back.

I found an inexpensive hotel with an internet feed that evening. I checked my account balance-- it had grown by 250,000 dollars! The prince seemed to be a man of honor and a gracious paymaster despite the way we parted.

In the morning I typed up my resume and hit the yellow pages for a local car dealership. North-Western Colorado doesn't have many towns of any great size, but if there's a town there's usually a car dealership there. I found a used Ford F250 pickup in decent shape. Paying cash kept the price down. I took it to a repair place to have the fluids changed. The transmission, engine and brakes were inspected, tires replaced and front end aligned. It was ready three days later. I loaded my gear and took off for Denver and points south. I took my time getting where I was going. There was no rush, no timetable.

After dealing with the madness of Denver traffic I stopped in Pueblo for a few days to get organized and take stock of what I had, where I was going and where I wanted to be when I got there, if you know what I mean.

This didn't look like a bad place to settle. I found some greenspace near Pueblo Mountain Park, 25 miles or so southwest of Pueblo. There weren't any for sale signs around but a local broker pointed me towards a four hundred acre parcel of mostly up-and-down with a few creeks and flat spaces for around 16 bucks an acre. The road I had graded in cost some and the well cost more. 220 Volts came in from the county road and I got enough signal to keep my cell phone happy. Nothing fancy like 3G, but I had signal. Data was another issue. I still had the codes to piggy-back off the Emirate's satellite channels but I didn't want to do it. I leased a few hundred KBPS from a service and built my own transceiver dish installation from mostly surplus parts. The house I ended up building nestled up against the south side of a granite outcrop. It was a one-story ranch with an attached 2-car garage, all on one nice thick flat slab of concrete. The kitchen wasn't as sumptuous as the one I'd had built before, but it was nice enough. I duplicated the indoor charcoal grill and AGA companion that the showplace kitchen featured. I took a pass on the huge AGA restaurant special. I had an alcove built into the west end of the house that a semi could get to and dump off a small containerized freight module. That was my larder. I pumped warm dry air into it during the winter so the cans and bottles wouldn't freeze. I figured on 8-14 feet of snow a year so the electric line wasn't considered a trusted resource. A small generator was put in that worked off the same 2000 pound LP-gas tank that the heater did. Using 12-volt bulbs around the place and 12-volt fans where I really needed a fan kept the generator demand to a minimum. I replaced the switching power supply of my desktop computer with a dedicated, well-regulated 5V/12V supply running off the house 12V bus.

I shopped my brag sheet around Pueblo. I even managed to drop off a copy at the military base. I hit everywhere except the school district--I knew from experience what crappy paymasters school districts were despite their desperate need for expertise.

What with the 90,000 I'd saved up during the construction of the data haven and the 250,000 I'd been given as a separation bonus I was doing pretty good. I had spent about 85,000. I had no loans outstanding. My periodic costs were taxes, electricity, internet, LP-gas and car insurance. I bought tire chains for the F250 and a used end-loader for snow removal. I stored it in the second garage bay.

The weather was quickly turning and from what I understood blizzards coming out of nowhere were not uncommon. I made a couple trips to Pueblo to stock up on cold weather gear, paperbacks, food and booze. It was time to hunker down for winter. One of my projects that I wanted to quickly get out of the way was to buy a decent computer with a big hard drive, install MediaWiki on it and load it up with a copy of WikiPedia. The download time was going to kill me unless I did it in town where there was a data pipe I could beg/borrow/steal/rent. A 2 TeraByte buffalo box gave me transportable data storage. I downloaded a dictionary and a thesaurus. It took a while to download all 5 Debian DVDs that I wanted to use as an OS, but after a day I had ' em. PHP and MySQL were familiar enemies.

I settled down to writing a book --or a long article--about building a data center in the middle of nowhere. I anonymized it so that it would sell to a magazine or two without violating my contract.

It sold! SGI bought it as a testimonial and product proof-of-concept for permanent deployment of their flagship product. HP flogged it to a couple of high-end industry trade magazines because it highlighted their management software. I more than made up for my operating costs that winter. Working under several pseudonyms I wrote articles about using encryption both for management and secure data transfer in and out of data centers, and one on how to plan multiple levels of redundancy into a no-fail data center. I wrote an article about data center security but left it so nebulous that it read like a tract on concentric rings of security around a military base. I didn't want to give anyone any pointers as to how to give the prince problems if they put all the articles together. Pursuing several European publishers I sent out a paper on concealing high-volume data transmissions using conventional ports and un-published IP addresses. knock-knock strategies were bandwidth limited by nature and designed for connectionless communications. Using conventional ports tends to anonymize the traffic as it blends in with similar traffic. Packets utilizing unconventional ports can easily be filtered for and subjected to pattern analysis.

I bought a Japanese bath and a walk-in refrigerator with the proceeds from that one.

While powering through the logic of a nasty paper describing the discovery of ghost or hidden data repositories through global traffic hop and timing analysis versus comparing signal signatures on parallel yet simultaneous global data trunks I received a visitor. A little red-haired fellow named Jamieson from the NSA stopped by for a visit. It seemed that they closely tracked portable data centers and had no problem with what I'd participated in building. Their concern was with the content of the papers I'd been generating. It seems that I was touching upon things deemed to be national secrets, or at a minimum sensitive data.

"How did you come to write these? What gave you the keys to the concepts involved.?

"Simple. HP OpenView has hooks for various SNMP triggers and remote 'sniffers'. If you open up the back end for C program integration you have a great test bed for signal analysis, data filtering and reduction as well as presentation."

The expression on his face showed that he'd not given OpenView the attention it deserved.

"With satellite core monitoring access even more can be done. Here." I handed him a copy of the paper I was working on. "Treat the planet as a system. With traffic analysis sensors in every satellite you can access--just clone the data to a downlink. The satellites don't have enough processing power to do any analysis and the feeds have to be coordinated. Just make sure the time markers are present. Ignoring the submerged fiber and putting data feeds in the Hong Kong, Hawaii, Los Angeles, New York and Seattle UUs should give you enough data to pull significant traffic intelligence from international sources. Ah, mustn't forget the Florida links to the data havens and offshore banks in the gulf, either. Follow the money, eh? This is not for real-time analysis. More data points fill in the 'texture' of the model."

He read the paper and stared at me. "You've done an end run around us, fellow. We've been going about this the hard way. I'll tell you what--finish the paper, write a precis on the SNMP to C linkage and flesh out a data analysis block and we'll hand you a seven figure check that the IRS will ignore. The better the analysis block or blocks, the bigger the check." We shook hands. I had work to do.

I ended up calling Dr. Jamieson a couple of months later to see if I could borrow a copy of HP OpenView for a test integration. I got a dedicated computer workstation, a copy of the data passing through a digital comm sat for 24 hours and a copy of the dataflow of the traffic running through Denver for the same 24 hours to use as a test. My screen didn't have enough resolution to show what I'd found at 48X. The NSA was happy, I got a 4.25 Million dollar check and had to sign my life away. I had to give up the open view too, damned it. I did manage to cadge a secure pass naming me as a NSA contractor. I had ideas festering in my head that demanded an audience.

I bought my own copy of HP OpenView and a Sun Microsystems Black Box half-container portable datacenter. It went into a datacenter near Pueblo where they could wire it into their fiber bus and provide it with redundant power and cooling. I populated it with three 4-petabyte SANS and two racks of SGI double quad-core Xenon 3.00 GHZ processor-based heavy duty analysis machines. This quickly grew to become a beowulf cluster. I paid for a bundle of fiber to be run the 35 miles from the data center to the AT&T crypt to my POP at the rear of my house. A feeder split off to Beulah to give the school district 2GB of fiber. What the hell--I could afford it, and it made a nice tax write off for my yearly investment profits. I encrypted the hell out of everything I touched.

I started populating one of the SANs with prime numbers. Once I achieved a full matrix of 2Kbit primes I began to create a cross-matrix of 4Kbit keys.

Then I used 1Kbit primes to create 2Kbit keys, then 512 bit primes to create 1024 bit keys. I was processing the raw data to brute force certain bit-strengths of digital keys. This was a sparse matrix of all available solutions yet most software would take this avenue to create their keyspaces.

With Dr. Jamieson's blessing I got access to copies of some equatorial satellite feeds and all available underwater fiber nets coming out of Grover Beach CA, NY/NJ and South Florida ... I wanted to selectively strip the offshore banks. It took several months to flesh out the data fabric before I had a dependable map of how money flowed into and out of the gulf havens.

Using the standard RSA algorithms deemed acceptable by the banking industry I sent the servers to cracking the encrypted banking data transactions.

I got about one a week or so. After attempting to identify the party owning the account I determined whether or not to strip its assets. If the source IP began in South America, Washington D.C. or Virginia I had no compunctions against leaving 39 cents in each account. If the account came from a belligerent Islamic or Jewish country I left 2 cents in the account.

At first I didn't know what the hell to do with the money. I decided to deposit into quite a few Swiss bank accounts after converting the dollars, euros, francs and whatever into gold. I bought some more property, some nice leather furniture and expanded my library. I leased my own satellite data channel.

After consulting with the CIA and state department I began investing in Africa, creating jobs and building infrastructure. Africa could not feed itself. Starving people don't care about government when their children are dying. I had thousands of wells dug. I bought into Monsanto just to close them down. I converted the company into a non-profit charity providing feed and seed to Africa. I lost one hell of a lot of money doing it but I didn't care. Frankenfood was doomed. We gave away corn, wheat barley and millet by the kiloton. When they started to harvest the fields the trucks were there to take the grain to market. Warlords damned near killed the whole thing. The CIA arranged for pallets of weapons and ammunitions purportedly purchased for the defense of the farmers to be diverted by the warlords. They had been liberally dusted with Ebola. It was a savage yet short-lived outbreak. South-East Africa was finally feeding itself.

I was emotionally burned out and running out of money fast. Most of the gulf havens had gone under due to 'mismanagement'. A whole new generation of banking-based theft had matured and hung out their shingles in Hong Kong. That was outside of my data sphere. I left that for Jamieson's crowd to infiltrate, drain and decimate. I'd had enough. I had a ton and a quarter of gold left out of the trillions I'd garnered as well as my initial pay-out by the NSA. I had a fifty kilogram bar of gold delivered to me through a Canadian branch of a major Swiss bank. I left it on a glass-covered bookshelf to look at once in a while to remind me how fickle wealth truly is. I took my time writing up a precis of my operation for the NSA so that they could learn from my mistakes as well as my successes. I shut down my probes and turned the operation into a co-location facility, then leased it out to a data management company. It made me an annuity for many years. Mis-management finally drove it under and I sold it to an MMPORG as a local hosting site. It made me scads of money until the day I sold it.

Sigh. Meanwhile, back at the ranch.

I was losing bodyweight due to age. I tried to stay active but nothing much kept my attention. After proving my bona fides with the University of Colorado Boulder I signed up to teach two graduate-level classes--"Certified Ethical Hacking: analyzing large systems", and "Implementation and management of a software control system of scalable datacenters". After nearly strangling the department head I got smart. I simply handed him a folder containing the details of his investment portfolio. After a couple of years I told him the story of the gulf offshore bank collapse and let him stroke a 50 KG bar of gold.

I had small but intelligent classes that knew enough to ask questions. I noted the presence of several military personnel in the former class and several Washington and Oregon State transfers attending the latter class. Real world examples of successes and failures of this magnitude seem to command the attention of people responsible for keeping our house of cards from collapsing. Someone once said that if engineers designed houses and cities the way programmers designed software the first woodpecker that came around would destroy civilization. You'll get no arguments out of me...

Every six months I had the LP tank refilled and three cords of split, dried hardwood delivered to the house. I threw a red meat party the first weekend of every month for the professors and grad students of the IT department. One July evening I recognized a familiar face.

He was a swarthy fellow in an impeccable Italian suit. His temples had begun to silver.

He held a glass of a nice Shiraz which he was obviously enjoying.

"Prince Fayed! Welcome to my home. May you feel comfortable here."

"Thank you for your gracious welcome. I bring a guesting gift and anticipate nothing in return." He handed me a small hand-made wooden box about two inches on a side. I bowed in acceptance of the gift and opened it. I sipped air in appreciation. It was an extremely dark pigeon's egg ruby large enough to be used as the final decoration on a sword hilt. It was truly a royal gift. "I thank you for your remarkable gift and wait with all attention to hear why you feel it proper to present to me such a handsome and rare specimen."

"Soon, as your guests thin, we shall speak."

To say that I was curious would be an understatement.

As the sun set most of my guests bid their adieu. The prince sat outside near the fire-pit relaxing with a brandy. I drew a bourbon and ice for myself and joined him in appreciating the coming dark.

"I have learned that your skills and understanding far outstripped my expectations over the months and years since we parted. I have come to thank you for not stripping us of our assets as you clearly could have had you harbored any bitterness towards my family. The king has been made aware of your gracious behavior that has rarely been noted between competing branches of our family much less from --ah—' farang'."

"Ahh. Outsiders. Yes. We parted as civilly as we could under the circumstances. I turned my face away and wished you peace. No more should be said."

He looked uncomfortable at my last comment. "I have been commanded by my king to gift you that which only a king may present." He made a 'come hither' motion towards the doorway. A tall powerfully built woman approached. She seemed to be in her early 30s, had a long golden braid of hair and deep blue eyes. She moved easily and gracefully. A small smile graced her classical features.

"My king wishes you to help him with a problem. Karin has been with my king's household for seven years and there is nothing but strife among his other wives. Their jealousies poison the peace of the house. He requests that you take her as a housekeeper and cook."

I laughed. I truly laughed. "Howard the troubleshooter strikes again. I accept your king's gift with heartfelt appreciation. It is my hope that Karin finds the slow pace of a mountain valley home to her taste. As for how this shakes out you have a saying-- Insha Allah--as God wills."

It was clear that the prince was relieved that I had helped him out of a tight situation with his king. He smiled as he gently pushed Karin towards me. I took her hand then gathered her into my arms.

"Welcome Karin. We shall begin arranging your quarters as soon as possible. For now, be welcome in my house. Let's get you set up in the guest bedroom."

It seemed that she understood English but was not practiced in its use. I preceded them back into the house and down the corridor to the guest bedroom I'd had built but was rarely occupied. It was quite spartan, resembling a decent hotel room. She had gathered up a suitcase and an overnight case as she followed me. Her face was inscrutable as she took in the room.

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