CyberLine

Oxford maintained the illusion of being the City of Dreaming Spires – although the dreamers had long since awoken and discovered the business opportunities. The technology companies had flocked there towards the end of the last century, the science parks popping up like mushrooms. The volatile mix of academic unease, technological entrepreneurs and outright greed had finally blossomed, finding the aftermath of the last cyberwar had created an ideal environment for smart, ambitious people to make fortunes. Along the way a tacit conspiracy amongst the movers and shakers preserved the old Oxford image as a façade for the academic and technological money machine.

CyberLine occupied what had been an early science park, tucked against the side of the old Reading road just before it joined the Oxford Outer Ring. Now owned solely by CyberLine, the park was little changed from its initial conception, other than the appropriation of what had been a neighbouring field to house the secure buildings where the military projects were undertaken.

Medway drove up to the gate. A uniformed guard walked out towards the car; automated systems interrogated Lameduck’s processors. At her command, the window rolled down, breaking the integrity of the radio shielding and subjecting her own hardware to aggressive interrogation – a digital equivalent of cybercops kicking down doors with the aid of high explosives. She was unprepared for the assault, but her automatic systems responded to the extreme insistence as a threat and limited their responses to her identity.

"Please state your business here, Officer Medway." The guard was wary and Medway’s sensornet picked up a flurry of encrypted communications between the man and the automated sentry systems.

"Pursuing enquiries into the death of a former officer," she answered blandly. "The deceased worked for CyberLine."

"Perhaps if you return tomorrow…"

She shook her head. "Perhaps if you open the gate, I won’t have to arrest you for obstruction."

"Very sensitive work is undertaken here, Officer Medway." His tone changed and she guessed he was repeating a statement sent via his nodes. "Much of this work is carried out for and on behalf of the government. If you wish to pursue your enquiries then you will identify a suitable representative of CyberLine and arrange an appointment at a mutually convenient time. Alternatively, you may produce a duly authorised warrant." He grinned and his voice relaxed. "What’s it going to be, Officer?"

Medway stared back at him. People had done little more than hint that Cyberline would push back, a bit of standard corporate opposition. She had assumed the warrant was there as a final, desperate resort.

“Try this.” She transmitted the warrant details. Cybercops could do digital door-kicking when they had to.

"I’ll have to confirm that." The smile was gone, along with his confidence.

"Has the information been communicated directly to your company systems?" Keep it soft and bland... let the warrant do the work.

"Of course."

"Then you will require no more than three minutes to confirm...” Soft, bland... “After that time, you will open the gate...” Softer, quieter... almost a whisper... the way Kyla used to read the nastiest of suspects their rights as they bled out. “Or consider yourself and the entire company under arrest for obstruction."

The guard paled. Oxford liked its image of a sleepy place and CyberLine was one of the bastions of that illusion. They clearly had no idea the warrant even existed, and equally clearly expected to be forewarned of any action against them..., suggesting a very cosy relationship with the local police. All part of their role as corporate Pillar of the Community.

That cosy arrangement just failed.

“Two minutes forty...” The guard looked like his dog just died... and there were no pre-made, reassuring scripts being piped to his head. “This seems like a nice place...” Just the way Kyla would have done it – easy smile, easy tone, casual menace. “Been working here long? Looking for a change, myself...” There were still enough Cybercops in peaceful Oxfordshire to take down CyberLine. “I could do with spending some time away from London...”

The gate opened and a local map with route was transmitted to Lameduck. She let the car to do the driving and studied the idyllic surroundings with the Military Applications Centre off to one side, surrounded by triple wire fences. The route she had been given went nowhere near that and took her to the main administration building. It was probably normal, but it felt like she was being steered away from where the suspected military tech-smuggling conspiracy was centred.

Lameduck stopped outside a glass façade, a few paces from a short, slender woman waiting like a pro escort. Medway cranked up her sensornet a few notches and opened the door, then used the servo-assist in her leg armour to push it all the way. Her first scan showed the hostess had significant electronic enhancements before sophisticated countermeasures blocked her.

"Good afternoon, Officer Medway. I am Francesca Tarbuck, senior Liaison Executive for CyberLine."

Was that business-speak for pro escort?

"Officer Lianne Medway, Greater London. Currently on temporary attachment to the Oxfordshire division, pursuing enquiries into an unlawful killing."

"Come in." Tarbuck gestured to the doors, both welcome and challenge. "I hope your display of aggression at the gate is not indicative of the way you propose to conduct your enquiry."

Medway pointedly gathered her helmet out of the car and triggered a targeting systems check. "Only if CyberLine chooses to continue with an uncooperative attitude." She followed Tarbuck into the air-conditioned foyer. The door was down, the warrant done with – no more nice-cop...

"We like to be careful," Tarbuck replied sharply. "We do sensitive work here. As an Enhanced Officer, you should be aware of that."

"And you have enough of a reputation that my senior officers deemed it necessary to prepare an access warrant in advance." Medway smiled thinly. Is this what Morrison meant by tact? "First time in my career that I’ve seen a warrant under section two of the act."

"Strange ident for a vehicle." Tarbuck changed the subject, politely discourteous.

"Faulty door...” So, probably not a pro escort with that tone... “Lameduck says its fine – the techs were working on it. The only vehicle available at short notice."

"You came here at short notice?"

"My investigations turned up disturbing patterns of information. I need to confirm or refute them urgently."

"Such as?"

"Discrepancies in the number of items manufactured and the numbers shipped to accredited end-users."

Tarbuck drew herself up to her limited height; there was a flurry of heavily encrypted communications. "Are you accusing CyberLine of illegal trading in restricted technology?"

“No.” Medway responded to the data activity with a full targeting sweep. Forget tact and go tactical. Tarbuck’s systems – as well as several building processors – retaliated with countermeasures. None of the kit was designed to withstand a cybercop and the defensive actions simply highlighted potential targets needing more detailed study.

The targeting system locked onto each electronic offender. The building processors were all civilian security systems; Tarbuck carried nothing more sinister than a set of standard business-grade storage and process nodes.

"Cyberline is not accused of anything.” Not without solid, reliable and comprehensive proof... “The current evidence is... disturbing. I am here to verify or refute it.” And string you all up if I’m right. “This can be done voluntarily, or under the full rigour of section two." But quickly please... before politicians get involved...

Tarbuck was quivering – CyberLine and its staff were not accustomed to rough treatment. "We can access the records from my office."

"Lead on." Morrison was right – she did piss people off when pursuing her enquiries. What the hell? It got results.

A timer triggered one of her processors, opening a link to the local law enforcement channel and her back-up team. It took a moment to establish the route to Sergeant Porson.

<Medway: $$ encrypt/special/1 $$…> and the following garbage would take weeks to decrypt.

<$$…> The returned gibberish meant nothing until another window opened in her head. <Porson: Status check confirmed. All quiet. Heavy duty flak after warrant confirmed – that was a sneaky trick to pull Medway. Full marks for keeping it to yourself. CyberLine made serious attempts to get it blocked. Watch yourself.>

# # #

Tarbuck had a pleasant office, overlooking some of the research labs and the green fields beyond. From that height it was possible to make out the paths through the fields and the pretty little picnic spots created for the staff. The harsh outer fence was lost in the distance.

"Very nice." Medway went back to soft and quiet.

"Reward for hard work and dedicated service," Tarbuck answered. "I’ll call up the records. Is there anything in particular we are looking for?"

"I have a list of serial numbers."

Tarbuck shrugged and pulled up the main product accounts. Medway transmitted the first twenty items on her list and the CyberLine computers found matches immediately, each annotated with the purchase trail.

"Let’s start with the first one," Medway suggested. "Part of a shipment to Advanced Control Products. According to ACP, this was a batch which had to be returned in its entirety due to an unspecified fault."

Tarbuck brought up the details. "Not what it says here. No fault reported and ACP paid in full. In fact, they were so satisfied, they ordered another batch."

"An exact replacement, you might say," Medway countered. "How about the next item? Type seven pattern recognition nodes for sensornets – military grade."

Tarbuck shifted the display. "Sent to Custom Combat Systems. Paid in full. Five repeat orders of varying sizes."

"Not the story Custom Combat told me. A whole string of delivery problems and faulty goods before they got their order filled. According to the records, their parent company was about to sue CyberLine...” Softly, softly, softly... Medway reined herself in – Tarbuck was not a suspect bleeding out, but she had the same am I gonna die? look. “The issue was resolved by last minute negotiations between yourselves and a very senior vice-president at Custom Combat. Those delivery problems very nearly wrecked a major contract for them. They were not happy."

"I don’t understand." Tarbuck scrolled through the accounts uncertainly, hunting for an explanation.

"I don’t care about your corporate squabbles...” Softly... “What matters is that your stock inventory doesn’t show what happened. More to the point, it shows equipment delivered and paid for, rather than destroyed or returned for repair...” So softly that dying ears struggle to hear... “Why is that?"

"Perhaps if we trace the full transaction details…" The liaison executive was genuinely confused – there was no cover story ready for this. Am I gonna get fired?

"Please do." Medway knew that there would be no trace of what had happened, let alone who had done it. What mattered most at the moment was that the initial suspicions were confirmed – someone at CyberLine was breaking the law. “This is important.” And nearly as satisfying as boots on the door, armour-piercing rounds in the hinges.

"How did you find this out?" Tarbuck sounded defensive, reluctantly facing up to a new reality. "It as if...” Very reluctantly... “A CyberLine employee...” A shake of the head, almost there, no need to rough-up the suspect... “Someone has interfered with the ordering protocols.”

“Yes.” I can call the medics just as soon as you confess... how did that translate to business-speak? “That was my first suspicion.”

“This is serious – but how did you know?"

"You had a freelancer called Kyla Chamile working for you."

Tarbuck called up employee records. "No."

"I don’t care what your system says, she worked for you." Medway tried to ignore a new doubt. That record search had been executed correctly. She might might be wrong, chasing a big coincidence... but something was wrong.

Tarbuck ran variants on the spelling. "Still nothing. You must have made a mistake, Officer Medway."

"She was here. No doubt about it." Medway had growing doubts, and Tarbuck had her own enhancements, perhaps with voice stress analysis... but she was showing symptoms of increasing distress herself... she might not notice. "Kyla Chamile. Ex-cybercop. She hacked your system while she was here. If she had still been properly operational, then the stolen information would have been recoverable from the body. None of her nodes still worked, so I had to hunt for her data hides. All I knew was that she had hacked into your system, and possibly others."

"And you found it?" Tarbuck whispered.

"I found it. She worked here for a while...” Soft and quiet were not so easy to hold on to. “So she should be on your system. If not, perhaps the Revenue Office might be interested."

Tarbuck carefully ignored that threat. A section-two warrant would be trivial compared to attracting the interest of the tax inspectors. "How did you find the data?"

"The world is full of crooks, Ms Tarbuck. Thieves, murderers, fraudsters – a whole bundle of them, and Kyla knew how to use them. You want to jemmy a seriously heavy system, you don’t do it from your home, or through a public terminal. You’d have a cybercop on you before you started. But there are people who provide the services. Illegal systems, covert taps into the nets, unregulated servers and data-houses."

"And it pointed the finger here?"

She sounded perfectly calm, but Medway had monitored the steady stream of comms traffic between Tarbuck and the CyberLine systems. It was all logged for decryption at a later date, but it was easy to guess the tone. Enough evidence had been found to destroy CyberLine by the time the investigation was finished, far better to roll over and play ultra-cooperative. A prompt, open and ruthless internal investigation to appease the jackals...

"CyberLine was one of the places indicated." Medway was hedging, but... Forget doubts – Kyla had been there. "This was the only way to confirm the suspicions. What I really want to know is where this stuff went."

"That could take hours."

"In a rush to be somewhere?"

Tarbuck shook her head. "No. It’s just that this will go faster with some help. One of the system programmers would be able to delve into this."

"Bring in as many as you like." Get the suspects in the room. It had to be a fair bet that one of them had helped in the fraud, but it was unlikely to be more than two from a security point of view – big conspiracies were more likely to leak. "Then they can watch each other."

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