Opening Shots

Battle stations! Battle stations!” Automatic weapon fire rattled round the room, punctuated by distant artillery. “Battle stations! Battle stations!”

"Half past bloody four." Bob Critchley opened one eye and squinted to focus on the clock display. “Turn that damned noise off.”

“Good morning Mister Critchley.” Madame adopted perky assistant voice two and brought the lights up slowly. “You wanted to be woken when the war started. Kernel requires your presence urgently.”

"Shit." Bob could resign, but finding another job took time in the current economy. He could insist on living somewhere else, away from the hurly-burly of Lilywhite headquarters... but this was important work, there was no commute, and he cared (if he dared admit it). And the reason really never mentioned - the Lilywhite building was very secure.

He dressed and walked quickly through his suite – not as opulent as Calder’s penthouse, but he only shared it with three other senior staff. Not many enjoyed that degree of luxury unless they inherited it, and a lot of inheritances burned to financial dust in the last cyberwar.

The foyer boasted six lifts – exclusive to four people needing access to multiple secure destinations. Bob entered the one which connected directly to Kernel Kombat, and Madame put it through its paces, up a few floors, down a few, altering speed, never the same pattern twice - not even Bob was ever supposed to work out where the Kernel was located.

Kernel’s public face occupied a generous room, walled with display screens crawling with intelligence data and analyses to impress visitors. Two dozen workstations were spread around the room, unused unless the rest of the staff were dragged from their beds. High on one wall, dark sheets of armoured glass separated the working area from an observation gallery.

"Good morning, General." Kernal almost sounded human – a decorative layer of Lilywhite Corp AI to make it easier to use. “I a sorry to call you so early.”

"Good morning, Kernel." Bob yawned uncontrollably. "Shit…" The main displays were lit up with dozens of threat traces and assault patterns, perfect to impress anyone in the observation gallery. "Who’s hit?"

"Military, government and commercial. Initial analysis showed the attacks to be random and uncoordinated." There was no real personality programmed into Kernel Combat, but that surface layer sounded aggrieved. "I engaged the shield routines. The stability parameters were exceeded at zero four twenty three hours. The Eye-Line system is analysing the outcome."

"So you called me." He yawned again and settled into his personal workstation. "Turn out the guard then, and let’s see what’s happening."

"All staff have been notified. All have responded. Earliest arrival expected in seven minutes."

"Good." He wasn’t the only one dragged from his bed. It might take a few hours to work out who was doing what. There was some sort of major cyber-assault going on and it didn’t require sophisticated analysis programmes to realise that it was a coordinated effort. The fact that it defied automatic analysis made it certain that someone was deliberately covering their tracks.

He ran his eyes down the summary. "Any of our systems or associates been hit?" The display shifted as he spoke. "Shit. They went for UltraNet."

"That was not a true strike," Kernel corrected. "The UltraNet system was already off-line. No reason given for the present status."

Bob skimmed through the logs – multiple attempted assaults on UltraNet. Someone had tried very hard to get in, and hadn’t understood the lack of response. UltraNet was still connected into the nets but the links were in-going only, with a dumb system logging all communications. They were trying to hack the first AI system he knew of diagnosed with paranoia and multiple phobias.

"Someone got a shock," he decided. "UltraNet looks like it has the most amazing defences. Keep an eye on that one, Kernel."

"Yes, General."

Bob glared at the display. The idiot who taught the Kernel to call him ‘General’ had a lot to answer for. It was amusing, even gratifying at times, but not at four-thirty in the morning.

The rest of the Kernel staff drifted in, bleary eyed, waking up abruptly as they saw the displays. It was a mammoth task, ploughing through the assault summaries, applying human intuition where cognitive and associative software had failed. The awesome subsystem called Eye-Line was nudged until it learned to cope with the fiendishly clever patterns within the pseudo-chaos of the attack.

By the time the sun rose the analysis was largely complete (not that anyone within Kernel Kombat’s demesne could look out of a window – they might work out which floor they were on). Bob went up to report to Calder Lilywhite.

"I need to get a life," he muttered to the lift. "Perhaps a hobby would be good. Or a woman. How about a sex life. That might be good. Before I turn into a complete sad bastard. Perhaps one of those DigiTart girls might not be too fussy. Hey, Madame. Would any of those girls of yours – the real ones – would they sort of… go for me?"

"Without an underpinning financial arrangement, analysis suggests… a low probability." Madame adjusted its voice to a suitably ironic tone.

"How low?"

"Based on conversational analysis, the probability can be associated with a number of phrases. Not a hope in hell, plus word-substitutions. Fat chance and related phrases. More tenuous associations might be…"

"I don’t want to know."

Madame searched its databases, dipping into the partially calibrated DigiTart algorithms. "A suitable advice has been identified: you should get out more often."

Bob laughed. "Not a chance. Dream on."

"Those phrases can also be associated with the answer to your initial enquiry."

"Fine. That’s enough."

The lift stopped and Madame made its final offer. "Do you wish your request to be logged under employee welfare?"

"Sure. Can’t hurt."

# # #

Calder was waiting for Bob in his tropical forest, the remains of breakfast lying on a low table. A polished brass trolley bore another breakfast, untouched.

"Madame reported that you haven’t eaten." Calder gestured to the waiting food.

"No time." Bob lifted the cover on a plate of bacon, egg and grilled tomato, his mouth watering the moment the aroma reached his nose. "Thanks." Another of the perks of working for Lilywhite – decent food at any time of year.

"So, are we at war?"

Bob had no definite answer to that question, but for all practical purposes, there was only one response. "Yes. Just a skirmish so far. Not a lot of damage. Enough to be worrying."

"Any tracebacks?" Calder smiled humourlessly. "Emily is so looking forward to sending out her hounds for a permanent solution. And interrogation of any survivors."

“Sorry.” Bob chewed, shaking his head. "No chance. Covered their tracks well."

"Significant attacks? Did they try to hit us?"

"Not here, but UltraNet got some serious attention. Someone knows how important she... it is."

"Are we likely to see another attack in the near future?" Calder repositioned cutlery, shifted his coffee cup – simple tells that marked schemes evolving in his head. "It might be useful to bring UltraNet back on line. I doubt we can do much more damage. May even sort out its paranoia by telling it that someone really is out to get it."

"Yeah…" Bob mumbled around an oversized bite of toast. "Might be interesting. Best guess is that whoever is launching this wants to take out Una… UltraNet."

"Right. Then I want my expert on cyber-warfare on the spot. Kernel can manage without you for a day or two. Do you good to get out for a few days."

Bob blinked. "Go out? Is that wise? If this is the start of a war, I should be here." The outside world was... outside.

"Trust me, Bob. If the war starts, I’ll get you back here double quick." Schemes slotted into place. "I’ll send someone along to hold your hand – carry your bags or whatever."

"I can manage. The world won’t have changed much."

Calder added the missing ‘in ten years’ in his head. "Just remember, your minder will have more to do than carry your luggage. There are a few things that need looking into at UltraNet."

Bob relaxed. "Fine. So long as he doesn’t get in the way."

"I can’t guarantee that…" Calder adjusted the coffee pot, moved the fruit juice carafe... "Now, there is one other detail. Things you need to know about Phil Elsworth."

"Overqualified fuck up. Letting Una… UltraNet go loopy like that."

"Unless he did it deliberately." Calder waited for that to sink in, Bob’s eyes growing wide, transitioning from humour to horror. "He has made threats which could be interpreted as being against UltraNet."

"Threats?"

"We have had someone monitoring his… outbursts for the last few days. He has made significant threats which the UltraNet may be aware of."

"Why? That’s crazy. I mean... why?”

"If I knew that, I wouldn’t be sending you up there. Getting UltraNet back on line is your first priority. Just be aware... Phil might be trouble. Madame will give you a record of his interactions with DigiTart."

Bob blinked. "He talked to DigiTart?"

"Curious, I admit. And unlikely to be accidental. Now go and pack, Bob. You can get some sleep on the way."

Once Bob had left, Calder made a few notes on his tablet – war started... Bob a bit wobbly.... not a good time... Bob looking for love... needs to concentrate on the bloody war...

"Madame, give him only the transcripts of the conversations between Clare and Phil – no audio or video. Change her name. Bob has no idea of subtlety. He would say the wrong thing at the wrong moment."

"Confirmed."

"And action on Bob Critchley. Find him a woman. Get my sister to attend to it – provided she doesn’t volunteer herself. I know what she’s like. Tell her to find him a real, live girl and pay her enough to do as she’s told and keep her mouth shut. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find one who will suit Bob. Try to have her ready when he gets back."

"Is that wise? My analysis routines are not sufficient to predict outcomes for that scenario. The DigiTart analysis engines can not generate anything conclusive."

Calder snorted. "If the girl doesn’t work out, we can always change her, or get rid of her. Hell, perhaps we need to get several. I need Bob focussed on the war, so just make it easy for him. Let my sister sort it out. For all I know, half the DigiTart operators might be amenable."

"Existing analysis indicates DigiTart operators were chosen for their tendency to avoid personal physical relationships. They are categorised into those with emotional difficulties and those choosing to devote themselves to a career or life goal. Their recent professional activities are not a good indication of their… suitability."

"Fine. Emily will have no trouble finding girls who will do anything – and do it well enough – for a roof over their heads and regular meals. Now, which category does Clare fall into? Life goal oriented?"

"Confirmed."

"Capable of satisfying Bob’s every need?"

"That question exceeds my current capabilities, Calder. My best estimation based on Clare Farral’s record is that she has knowledge significantly outside Bob’s needs. Her reaction regarding intimacy with Bob would be hostile."

"Perfect. Send her with Bob. A bit of inter-personal friction to bring out the best in them both. Smooth her off. Buff him up. You know..."

"That is currently beyond my comprehension set."

"Never mind. Call her an Executive Assistant. What better way to introduce her to Phil? Let him try to figure out what it means. Stick with Emily finding Bob a suitable companion."

"We have not yet arranged the online accident with the rep," Madame warned. "Analysis indicated a minimum period to allow Phil to become comfortable with Clare Farral before revealing her real appearance."

"It doesn’t matter. This cyber-spat brings our timetable forwards. Phil already knows her name. He’s a bright lad, he’ll work it out. I think it might be better this way. Can she drive?"

"Certified for personal transports, MPV and a range of construction rated vehicles. Part of the proficiency requirements for the Mars project."

"Excellent. Supply a vehicle. And… arrange a pair of rooms – not the Coriolis hospitality suites. Put them in the King’s Arms."

"The level of convenience will not suit Bob Critchley," Madame warned.

"He wants to see the world again. And I want him… reasonably distant from Coriolis."

Madame broached a delicate subject, pushing the algorithms to the limit. "Tentative analysis suggests that we should procure female companionship for you, Calder."

"No," he told the machine bluntly. Yet again. "More important things to do."

"No permanent relationship was proposed."

Calder snorted. "No. Too easy to get distracted."

Madame extended its analysis as far as it could but was not yet equipped for the task.

“I have scheduled this topic for review at a later date.”

“Fine.” Again. “Later.” Calder made another note – AI training is a pain.

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