Belisarius Arjona was perhaps the only con man who drew parallels between his confidence schemes and the quantum world. Ask a question about frequency, and the electron appeared to be a wave. Ask a question about momentum, and the electron appeared to be a particle. A gangster looking to muscle in on a real estate scam would find sellers in distress. A mark looking to cash in on a crooked fight would find a fighter ready to take a fall. Nature fed an observer the clues needed to turn the quantum world into something real. Belisarius fed his marks the clues they needed to turn their greed into expensive mistakes. And sometimes he did so at gunpoint. To be precise, the muzzle of Evelyn Powell's pistol rested on her knees as she talked to him.
"Why the long face, Arjona?" she asked.
"No long face," he said sullenly.
"I'm going to make you really rich. You won't need to scrape by with this freak show," she said, waving her hand expansively.
They sat in the gloom at the bottom of the cylinder of glazed brick that was his gallery of Puppet art. A column supporting spiral stairs and landings speared the gallery. The paintings, sculptures and silent films set in bricked alcoves had to be appreciated across a three-meter gap between the edges of the stairs and the wall. Belisarius was curating the first exposition of Puppet art ever permitted by the Federation of Puppet Theocracies. Smell, lighting and sound invoked the aesthetic of the Puppet religious experience. Far above, near the entrance to the gallery, a whip snapped arhythmically.
"I like Puppet art," he said.
"So when you're rich, buy more."
"You don't get to buy art from prison."
"We're not going to get caught," she said. "Don't lose your nerve. If it works here, it will work in my casinos."
Powell was a beefy casino boss from Port Barcelona. She'd crossed the embargo around the dwarf planet Oler to see if the news of Belisarius' miracle making the rounds in criminal circles was true. She tapped the nose of the pistol against her knee, drawing his eyes with the movement.
"But you haven't been totally honest with me yet, Arjona. I'm still not convinced you really hacked a Fortuna AI. I've seen people try. I'm paying people to try. What are the odds that you, by yourself, surrounded by Puppets all the way out here, got it?"
He let her stew in the conviction of what she'd just said for two breaths, eight point one seconds. Then, he lowered his eyes, matching her expectations, buying him another second of her patience.
"No one can hack a Fortuna AI," he admitted. "And I didn't either. I broke into a security graft and snuck in a tiny bit of code. I couldn't make it big, or the rest of the AI would notice, but this tiny change added a factor into its statistical expectations."
Powell was calculating behind her stare: the odds of this being the secret to beating the Fortuna AI, the number of casinos vulnerable to this modified graft, and what Belisarius had changed to crack the graft.
Statistical expectations were the core of the Fortuna AI. Technology had leapt so far past games of chance that any casino could rip off its patrons pretty easily. For that matter, any patron could cheat an unprotected casino. The presence of a Fortuna AI was the seal of approval on any casino. In conjunction with an advanced surveillance system, the AI monitored ultrasonic, light, radio, IR, UV and x-ray emissions. It also calculated odds and winning streaks in real time. For the clients, it was proof the games were fair. For the casinos, it was protection against cheaters.
"The security grafts are unhackable too," Powell said. "I've got people working on them."
"Not if the code-breaker is fast enough to intercept the patch during transmission, and the change is small enough," Belisarius said.
The Fortuna AI was “unhackable,” in the sense that Powell meant. All AIs were, because they were grown. They could only be evolved, or patched with small grafts.
Powell considered him for a while.
In July of 1915, in Hardin County, Ohio, the normally reliable breeze of the plains that through eons could be counted on for at least a modicum of relief during the most dire of summer days—a wave in the wheat, a whisper in the cornfield—without warning up and died. The relentless blue skies and humidity were merciless; the dream-white clouds, palatial and unmoving. Over ninety degrees every day, often over a hundred, no hint of rain. Fear of crop failure turned like a worm in the heart. Farm folk sweated and burned at their labor, and at night took to either the bible or the bottle or both. Some children were sent to the evaporating creek to try to catch memories of coolness; some to the distant windbreaks, those thickets of trees, like oases in the vastness of cornfields, to play Desert Island and loll in the shade until the sun went down. More than one mother fainted from the heat of a stove. Nights were better for being dark but offered no relief from the sodden stillness that made sleep so hard to achieve.
On the hottest of the days in that long spell, sometime just before noon, when the sun was at its cruelest, fourteen-year-old Emmett Wallace mounted his bike and, leaving the barnyard, headed out on the dirt road that ran all the way to Threadwell or Mount Victory, depending on which direction you chose. He pedaled slowly west, toward the former, passing between fields of drooping wheat. Turkey vultures circled, casting their shadows on him, and the long straight path he traveled dissolved at a distance into a rippling mirage.
The bike wasn’t new, but it was new to him, his first, and the joy of powering himself along, the speed of it, hadn’t yet become old hat. It had been a birthday gift from his father not but five days earlier. Bought used, it was a Hercules; a rash of rust across its fading red paint, splintered wooden rims, an unpadded shoehorn of a seat with a saddlebag behind it. There was a small oil lantern with a glass door attached to the handlebars, but the burner was missing.