Signal to Noise

Signal to Noise

4.6 6
by Eric Nylund

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Jack Potter puts computer cryptography to work for the highest bidder: sometimes for private corporations, sometimes for the government. Sometimes the work is legal; if not, Jack simply raises his price. But one day, Jack discovers something cloaked in the hiss of background radiation streaming past the Earth from deep space: a message from an alien

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Jack Potter puts computer cryptography to work for the highest bidder: sometimes for private corporations, sometimes for the government. Sometimes the work is legal; if not, Jack simply raises his price. But one day, Jack discovers something cloaked in the hiss of background radiation streaming past the Earth from deep space: a message from an alien civilization. One that's eager to do business with humanity — and its representative.

Before he knows it, Jack has entered into a partnership that will open a Pandora's Box of potential profit and loss. The governments, the multinationals, and mysterious players more powerful still, all want a piece of the action — and they're willing to kill, even wage war, to get it. Now Jack is entangled shifting web of deceit and intrigue in which no one, not even his closest friends, can be trusted. For Earth's cloak-and-dagger business practices are writ large in the heavens...and hostile takeovers are just as common across light years as they are across boardroom tables.

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Editorial Reviews

Greg L. Johnson
...Signal to Noise is a good read, well-written with a wealth of inventive details.
SF Site
Kirkus Reviews
Alien contact yarn from the author of Dry Water (not reviewed). By 2070, earthquakes have destroyed America's West Coast. On the artificial island city of Santa Sierra, hacker and cryptographer Jack Potter claws his way up the academic ladder, performing shady services for the all-powerful National Security Office, stealing his colleagues' researchþuntil in an apparently random noise received from space, he detects an encoded signal that yields the key to instantaneous communication with an alien civilization. Jack's contact, Wheeler, trades information on human genetics for an enzyme that rebuilds human DNAþproviding, among other things, a cure for cancer. Jack's office, however, has been trashed; then his "uncle" Reno grabs him and implants a device in his head that, via ubiquitous VR "bubbles," allows Jack to influence other people's perceptions. Jack outsmarts Andropov DeMitri of the NSO, but his friends Isabel and Zero dose themselves with Wheeler's enzyme, and their personalities begin to change. Panda, a Chinese agent and Reno's rival, helps Jack evade the vengeful NSO, but the rapacious Wheeler threatens to destroy the Earth unless Jack seeks out new alien technologies for Wheeler to plunder. Zero disappears, while Isabel and Reno try to grab Wheeler's miraculous computers, intelligent translators, and teleport devices. Can Jack save the Earth? Or, if Wheeler can't be defeated, should Jack join him? Ferociously inventive and often fascinating, but overcomplicated by several orders of magnitude, with an unsatisfying apocalyptic wrap-up that seems to promise sequels.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
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Jack Potter Series
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Product dimensions:
4.18(w) x 6.75(h) x 1.00(d)

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Chapter One

A Pair Of Jacks Or Better To Open

Jack watched his office walls sputter malfunctioning mathematical symbols and release a flock of passenger pigeons; his nose was tickled with the odor of eucalyptus. Inside, the air rippled with synthetic pleasure and the taste of vanilla.

"I need to get in there," he told the government agent who blocked the door-way.

"No admittance," the agent said, "until we've completed our investigation on the break-in."

Puzzles, illegalities, and dilemmas stuck to Jack -- from which he then, usually, extracted himself. That gave him the dual reputation of a troubleshooter and a troublemaker. But the only thing he was dead sure about today was the "troublemaking and sticking" part of that assessment.

The agent stepped in front of Jack, obscuring what the others were doing in there. National Security Office agents: goons with big guns bulging under their bulletproof suits. And no arguing with them.

Today's trouble was the staff you saw coming, but couldn't do a thing about. Like standing in front of a tidal wave.

Jack hoped his office had been broken into, that this wasn't an NSO fishing trip. There were secrets in the bubble circuitry of his office that had to stay hidden. Things that could make his troubles multiply.

"I'll wait until you're done then."

The agent glanced at his notepad and a face materialized. Jack's with his sandy hair pulled into a ponytail and his hazel eyes bloodshot. You have an immediateinterview with Mr. DeMitri. Bell Communications Center, sublevel three."

Jack's stomach curdled. "Interview" was a polite word that meant they'd use invasive probes and mnemonic shadows to pry open his mind. Jack had worked with DeMitri and the NSO before. He knew all their nasty tricks.

"Thanks," Jack lied, turned from the illusions in his office, and walked down the hallway.

From the fourth floor of the mathematics building, he took the arched bridge path that linked to the island's outer seawall. Not the most direct route, but he needed time to figure a way out of this jam.

Cold night air and salt spray whipped around him, Electromagnetic pollution filtered through the hardware in his skull: a hundred conversations on the cell networks, and a patchwork of thermal images from the West-AgCo satellite overhead.

Past the surf and across the San Joaquin Sea, the horizon glowed with fluorescent light. Jack regretted that he'd stepped on other people to get where he was. Maybe that's why trouble always came looking for him. Because he had it coming. Or because he was soft enough to let little things get to him. Like guilt.

Not that there was any other way to escape the mainland. Everyone there competed for lousy jobs and stabbed each other in the back, sometimes literally, to get ahead. He had clawed his way out with an education -- then cheated his way into Santa Sierra's Academé of Pure and Applied Sciences.

But it wasn't perfect here, either. There were cutthroat maneuvers for grants, and Jack had bent the law working both for corporations and the government. All of which had helped his financial position, but hadn't improved his conscience.

He had to get tenure so he could relax and pursue his own projects. There had to be more to life than chasing money and grabbing power.

Now those dreams were on hold.

His office had been ransacked, and the NSO had got too curious, too fast, for his liking. Had they been keeping an eye on him all along?

He took the stairs off the seawall and descended into a red-tiled courtyard.

In the center of the square stood Coit Tower. The structure was sixty meters of fluted concrete that had been hoisted off the ocean floor. It had survived the San Francisco quake in the early twenty-first century then lay underwater for fifty years -- yet was still in one piece.

Jack hoped he was as tough.

The whitewashed turret was lit from beneath with halogen light, harsh and brilliant against the night sky. Undeniably real.

Jack preferred the illusions of his office; sometimes reality was too much for him to stomach.

No way out of this interview sprang to mind, and he had stalled as long as he could. The crystal-and-steel geodesic dome of the Bell Communications Center was across the courtyard. Jack marched into the building, took the elevator to sublevel three, and entered the concert amphitheater.

On the stage between gathered velvet curtains, the NSO had set up their bubble.

Normal bubbles simulated reality. Inside, a web of inductive signals and asynchronous quantum imagers tapped the operator's neuralware. It allowed access to a world of data, it teased hunches from your subconscious, and solidified your guesses into theories. They made you think faster. Maybe think better.

But this wasn't a normal bubble. And it was never meant to help Jack think. It was designed for tricks.

The thing was an antique, three meters across with magnetic vortex Coils scintillating along its shell like diamonds. Shadow and silver mirages shimmered inside.

The NSO might claim this high-voltage dinosaur was old unreliable; when it, "accidentally" fried his mind, no one would ask questions. Or maybe he was inside already and didn't know it.

Those were the mind games the NSO liked to play.

It wasn't like he had a choice, though. Jack swallowed his fear and stepped across the threshold of the bubble.

Microamps of current and vertigo resonated through his mind as a pocket of reality materialized, severing the outside world.

Darkness spoke: "There's been a little trouble, Jack."

"Sure, there's trouble." Jack tried to sound like he knew what he was talking about. "But this isn't mine."

A Tiffany lamp flickered on, wine-stained glass that hung from nothing. A table of lacquered walnut and two chairs solidified from the dark. The walls of the bubble stretched, turned smooth and black like obsidian.

Signal to Noise. Copyright © by Eric Nylund. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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