this is a rough draft of a short story

A software developer and part time hacker, DARIUS, is returning to his high-rise apartment, after going for a run. As he jogs up the stairs, he is concentrating hard on solving a Rubik's cube in each hand. As he reaches the third or fourth floor, he finishes solving both. He hits stop on his wristwatch and is disappointed with the time.

Reaching his apartment door, he notices something is odd. Opening the door, he finds a mysterious envelope has been pushed under the door. On the outside it says "A PUZZLE" in thick, black, handwritten letters. Inside, it describes a mysterious assignment, for which he has been "selected". He burns the envelope and begins juggling and solving Rubik's cube.

The next day while out for his run-- a black pillowcase is put over his head.

He wakes up in a secure government facility being held by a government contractor codenamed HECTOR.

Hector takes out a large white envelope. He shows that it contains Darius' passport, all his identity documents, and a sizeable amount of cash.

Hector explains why Darius has been brought in. The well-known banking giant EPIKO has been covertly running a sophisticated tax avoidance scam for its richest clients. The government has struggled to find enough details to seek warrants. They need Darius to break-in to the bank's ultra-high security corporate headquarters and steal a copy of their COBOL code. With that, government analysts will be able to reverse engineer how the covert tax avoidance scam works, and arrest the conspirators.

It will be a very difficult operation. There are security systems and lasers and armed guards patrolling etc. If he succeeds, he will get his identity back, and the money. Against his better judgement he is intrigued and agrees to attempt it.

He manages to penetrate the bank's security and steal the code, as instructed.

Before handing it over he inspects it and finds he can't run the code to see what it does, as he doesn't have a mainframe computer. He uses an emulator to try and run the code -- but the code is too archaic and won't run. He stays awake all weekend, rewriting the emulator, and reverse engineering the code, to try and get them to work together. He seems to get tantalizingly close, but ultimately he cannot run the code.

On Monday morning, as planned, Darius hands over the code (on a micro-SD card I guess). Hector inspects and is pleased. Hector is about to hand over the envelope containing the identity documents and his payment, when Darius says with a smile, "it's a shame you won't be able to use it."

Hector withholds the white envelope. "What do you mean?"

Darius explains that without the bank's hardware, the COBOL won't run. It needs a mainframe.

"We're smarter than you think" explains Hector. "We're going to use an emulator. We'll soon have it running."

Darius laughs and says no, you can't emulate it. It's not normal code. It's ancient and strange and archaic and weird. The mainframe must've been very specific, a one off. I don't know how it works, or how it does what it does. But no emulator can understand it. Hector is impressed. He continues to withhold the envelope. "Sorry," says Hector. We're going to hold onto these for now. But if you help us to emulate the code, if you can help make EPIKO's code work for us, we'll give you a daily bonus in cash, every day.

No, says Darius. No way. I can't even begin to tell what it does. It's COBOL. A language I don't even understand.

No - explains Hector, you are thinking of it all wrong. Think of all the challenges you overcame to get this code. Think of what you've already achieved. You have overlooked the forest for the leaves. It's not COBOL. It's a puzzle. You like puzzles. Do it. Just for now.

Just for now?

Cut to twelve years later. His Rubik's cubes are covered in dust. He's tired and overweight. Wears thick-glasses. He's been working on it every day since. Hector is retiring. He tells Darius: "Good news." You've been promoted into my role. And you finally get your bonus. He hands Darius the envelope shown earlier.

In the envelope he finds the cash, his identity documents, a letter saying "congratulations on being promoted to head of software emulation for EPIKO. Your codename shall be Hector." And, from out of the envelope there spills about a dozen surveillance photos of a young woman, in running gear, holding a Rubik's cube as she jogs. There is also a black pillowcase.

He shrugs. It seems like a ludicrous way to recruit people. But who wants to write COBOL for a bank. He looks at the black pillowcase, picks up the black pen, and on the white envelope he writes "A PUZZLE"


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