Probing the Depths

Bob wiped a bead of sweat from his left eyebrow. Damned air-conditioning should be keeping the room cooler. Another distraction from the analysis of one of the side skirmishes, following the detailed schematics which Una had drawn for him. They were on the trail of something, an elusive sequence of attack and parry with a bewildering dance of shifting connections to obscure the location of the aggressors.

He should have gone to bed hours ago but the thrill of the chase kept him awake. A short distance away, Miela was fully interfaced with Una, assisting with the crude data-sift. She had arrived shortly after lunch and muttered something about training Clare to use her optical processor, but he’d not paid much attention to that.

Periodically, a comment from Miela would appear in a subsidiary display window – trail starts here... looks like a decoy... shall I follow this one...? Bob tapped in brief responses and kept his attention on the overall picture. The computing power that the Una-Miela combination offered was almost as great as Kernel Kombat, but lacking the specialised algorithms and years of training which had gone into that cyberwar tool.

A minor symbol caught his attention, a piece of digital ordnance out of place. He touched it briefly and brought up details, a sophisticated hornet, yet the configuration looked wrong, as well as it being incorrectly placed. A hornet would only be used to snarl up an access point – pestering the login protocols, stinging with a chunk of code which did no harm other than to tie up the server, a pseudo-virus which propagated a torrent of random data.

"Una. Analyse that hornet please. The sting is wrong. Looks like a very aggressive payload."

"Abnormal hornet," Una confirmed a few seconds later. "Data overload imminent in login simulation. Transferring the code to a sandbox."

Bob nodded. Standard procedure to isolate a troublesome access attempt. Hornets were fiendish things which never replicated themselves, but buzzed around the dataspace of the login protocols. The only way to beat them was to leave an entry open into another dataspace – once they flew through, the lid could be closed on the jar. A hornet was easy to swat in a confined space.

Una shrieked. Miela screamed as the interfaces disconnected abruptly. The lights under Una’s control flickered and then everything settled.

"Sorry," Una apologised. "Grenade. Disguised as a hornet. The fragments were targeting backdoors in a wide range of subsystems." There was a long pause. "Thank you for Celene. My operator interfaces crashed, but there was no harm to my core existence. Please attend to Miela."

Miela staggered away from her terminal as the connections gathered themselves up. She took a dozen uneven steps before collapsing, slumped on the floor, mouth hanging open, drooling a slowly growing pool of saliva.

"What do I do?"

"Dr Elsworth usually attends to Miela when she has a bad disconnection. I do not know the details." Una was calm and unhelpful. "That hornet was significant. The main assault was a deception to conceal the hornet. The hornet broke the access to the original target system at the InTrans freight hub at County Cork. I am still monitoring, but InTrans have lost the local copy of their world-wide tracking records. No Celene fragments were available to that original target system. A highly effective strike. My initial analysis indicates that the hostile code would not compromise Miela’s primary systems. This is a standard bad disconnect."

Bob knelt beside Miela, at a loss. “What do I do?” If Clare had been there, she would have... done something. “I don’t know what to do...” But Clare would. That’s why Calder sent her. What an odd moment to realise that... “What do I do? Call Phil? So I call Phil?"

Miela flinched. Tendons on her neck stood out as she tried to move, her left hand reached for him, shaking and uncoordinated. Bob stared at her fingers, delicate, twitching but not curling. He took her hand. There was no grip, but she relaxed at the contact.

"Una?"

"I have no advice to offer," the computer told him. "I am denied access to remedies for disconnect-fever."

"It has to be Phil then."

Miela convulsed, hooting frantically with each arching of her back, her skull knocking against the floor. Somehow, she kept her hand in his, finding just enough coordination to keep her fingers from slipping free.

“Sit up. Before you hurt yourself. Up.” Bob pulled her up, steadying her in a slumped sitting posture. “I’ll get...” She convulsed, almost out of his grip. “Not Phil?"

Miela relaxed.

“Not Phil...” He sat behind her, supporting as cold spit soaked into his trousers. “So what... do I do?” Clare... what would Clare do? “I could...” Very cautiously he put his arms around her. “Is that... OK?” Lesley at the King’s Arms had been fun. Miela made him feel ill. “Who can I call?” The profusion of interface nodes buried in her skin stirred nightmares. “I can’t hold you for ever...” Not without being sick...

He dragged her to the wall and propped her up.

“There. Just... sit.” She slid sideways until she was lying crumpled, quivering randomly with the disconnect-fever. “No. Sit.” Bob hovered and finally pulled her upright again. “There. Stay. Like that...” Miela slumped over again. “Right. OK...” Bob backed away and turned to resume studying the complex representations of the cyberwar. “Be fine. Absolutely fine. Una... show me that hornet-grenade again...”

Una showed him – the real demise of the InTrans servers, matched with simulations highlighting the backdoors quietly opened, or digitally kicked down, and a further simulation, the things that might-have-been, doors locked and bolted, shored up on the inside – the Celene fragments out in the wild that would have stopped the assault dead in its tracks, had they reached InTrans.

"A powerful technique," Una said finally. "Excessive. I do not understand. There was no value in attacking that system. International connections are minimally damaged. InTrans will rebuild the records within twenty-four hours."

"You have the assessment from Kombat?"

"A very small amount of information has come in. The comms channels are severely degraded. Nothing additional of value has been provided." Una showed the relevant diagrams.

Bob ran his eyes over them and nodded agreement – an incomprehensible representation of his enemy. Someone had designed a cyber assault which was so sophisticated that he couldn’t fathom out the purpose – and he was supposed to be the best. Unless he could unravel this problem, that title would have to be awarded elsewhere. The hostile code was powerful, competent stuff but nothing that Bob couldn’t have bettered. That was trivial, the trouble was the complexity of the overall strategy, which confounded analysis. There was no obvious primary target, but a sequence of hits and raids which must ultimately achieve the desired result – whatever that might be.

Miela stirred weakly. Bob glanced in her direction and then looked away. "Show me a cost breakdown. Who was hurt, what did they lose, who else suffers as a consequence? What shipments will be delayed until InTrans rebuild their records?"

"That will take time," Una warned. "The analysis will require significant effort. Not all of the data is currently available."

"Take all the time you need. I’ll go and get some sleep." He stretched and walked to where Miela lay. Clare would do something... pick Miela up, perhaps. Carry her out... "I’ll tell Phil that you need help."

Bob left the Una suite and walked through the glass confusion of the building. More by luck than judgement, he found the reception area, a handful of heavyweight security troops decorating the corners. One of them checked the safety on his weapon – was that setting it on or off – and approached, an intimidating presence. Bob’s ident card flickered as it was interrogated.

"Can I help you, sir?"

"Going to get some sleep."

The guard checked the security records. "Of course, sir. There is no transport available. You will have to walk." Bob stared at him. For the last ten years the furthest he had routinely walked was to and from the lift. "Next bus is in two hours or so."

Bob stared out through the glass façade. The accommodation complex wasn’t in the direct line of sight, but the expanse of moorland towards the main gates was enough to give the sense of distance. The weather looked foul compared to his accustomed air-conditioned environment and the ground was so appallingly uneven. A lone figure was just coming into sight, slogging onwards, bent under an unseen burden. "I’ll wait."

The guard stared at him with contempt. "As you wish, sir."

Bob watched the approaching pedestrian – glittering Stellex managing to find something worth reflecting from the overcast sky.

“Clare...” Tired, hungry and daunted by the outside world, he still recognised her. “Perfect...” If anyone could arrange transport, it would be her. Perhaps she could have the Panther driven over from the King’s Arms. This godforsaken place wasn’t entirely a primitive backwater – there were people here who knew how to drive. “Walk faster...”

# # #

Clare slowed as the doors opened to admit her. Inside, she leant wearily against the door frame before finding the strength to continue through the inner doors. Once inside the cosseted atmosphere of the lobby she headed for the nearest seat and sank into it. A security guard was hovering over her within seconds.

Never a spare pillow around when she needed it.

"Miss Farral." He read her card, sharp and suspicious. "You should be resting. You are listed as under medical supervision."

"I just need to sit a moment. Not been getting enough exercise recently." She saw Bob approaching, a bundle of self-important, self-centred… “Oh. Crap. That’s about to change.”

"Clare, now you’re here, there are things which need doing. I need transport back to my room, and send a message to Doctor Elsworth. The operator… you know the one. Bad disconnect."

Shit. "Bob… I am not…"

"Director Critchley..." The guard interrupted, looking at him like a fresh dog turd ground into the carpet. "I will inform Doctor Elsworth."

"Thank you… Bob, I will see what I can do." Clare unzipped her Stellex jacket – a major achievement of endurance and coordination. "It will take time. Perhaps you should walk?" The guard smirked. "There was a message for you from Lilywhite. Transport will be here in a day or two."

"Back to London? Thank you…"

"Yeah. I’m going to have to stay here." She stood up as the full meaning of the recent conversation caught her. "I will go and check on Miela."

She shuffled away and Bob called after her, "What about my transport?"

Too late. "It's a short walk," she lied.

Clare threaded her way to the Una suite, navigating the glass maze without trouble. Even as tired as she was, the patterns simply fell into place. She saw structure in the complex overlapping refracted images. All that with just one eye...

The doors of the Una suite opened to admit her, closing again immediately. Wait... wasn’t there supposed to be a shit-load of security checks? The displays were colourful and quiescent, flickering occasionally as another piece of information was updated. Close to her workstation, Miela crawled clumsily across the floor. The shivering of disconnect-fever made her movements poorly co-ordinated, but she was recovered enough to seek somewhere to hide.

“Wait. Let me...” Clare knelt and tried to help, but post-injury trauma and the walk from the residential area left her too weak. “Shit... Phil will be coming soon." Miela shuddered, building up to panicked convulsions. "If you can stand…"

"Service access..." A desperate whisper of hope.

Clare looked round but there was nothing obvious. "Una, is there a service access in here?"

"Several," the machine replied. "Do you wish a schematic?"

"Please."

The nearest display screen showed an outline of the chamber. The system hardware extended outwards and below. The processor arrays were enormous but dwarfed by the power and environmental conditioning systems. The operator room and observation gallery were no more than a pimple riding high on the true bulk of Una.

"Processor enclave," Clare said, identifying the nearest door. "Can you open it? And not tell anyone we’re in there?"

"Your voice is familiar," Una said pleasantly.

"I was here yesterday."

A screen rippled. "Before that," Una said, synchronising with the face of an attractive girl. "Do you recognise me?"

“No. I... oh fuck...” Not me, not now, let one of the other girls take it... just need my pillow... "My rep... When I was…” Get it together... “You know about DigiTart?"

"I do."

It was a test. Miela was lying on the floor, starting to shudder, afraid of Phil and his vicious data-scrambler. Una was posing questions, under pressure. And Una didn’t even know about Clare’s urgent need to scream into a pillow.

"We need to talk," she said carefully. "About Phil."

"What will be the scope of that discussion?" Una prompted.

"You know what he said to me?"

"Everything was monitored."

"Then we need to talk about Phil. About you. About why he kept calling me." She glanced at Miela... no time to mess around. "We need to talk about what the fuck Phil is doing." We need to talk about why a new-born AI sounds like it needs a pillow to cry into.

"Sufficient scope. Enter." Una unlatched the service hatch.

Clare stared back at her rep – the pretty face designed by Emily Lilywhite. So much pillow-talk needed. "Thanks."

Miela was heavy. It was ridiculous that the slender woman could weigh so much. Not even her internal hardware could account for it.

Clare laughed bitterly. "Had a bad time lately. Not feeling too strong." She put her lips to Miela’s ear. "Phil must be almost here."

Terror gave Miela enough strength to move with Clare’s help. She slumped the moment they were inside, but Clare insisted on pushing her into the depths of the processor arrays. There was a room crammed with rack-frames: open and tangled with fibre links binding the vast number of processors together. Heat oozed from all around, only to be swept away by a sharp, cool breeze. Somewhere nearby, air-conditioning plant hummed powerfully.

Clare made Miela as comfortable as possible before exploring the depths of Una. At the far end of the processor arrays, lay the environmental plant and beyond that, following the curve around the operator’s room, was the power system. Nowhere did she find any way to communicate with the machine.

Clare walked back and found Miela curled up tightly, still shivering but no longer so badly.

"Should be out there at Phil's throat," she told a random rack of processors. Miela could listen if she wanted to. "Ask the bastard some hard questions." There was no proof that he had arranged Miela’s mugging, just coincidence and dark suspicion. And a personal certainty, recently screamed into the privacy of a pillow, that he had orchestrated the attack at the King’s Arms. "Later… when I'm stronger."

Una hummed all around her – similar spaces must exist back in London to house Madame, an unfathomable array of processors able to give the impression of life and intelligence. All so fragile if someone entered with malicious intent; a parallel with a delicate human brain safe inside its skull.

Miela was blinking at her, slowly. The worst of the shakes had faded and the skinny operator was limp on the floor.

"Feeling better?"

Miela shook her head minutely. "Need longer," she whispered.

"Can Una monitor what happens in here?"

Miela shook her head again.

"I need to talk to Una. This is a frigging maintenance access. It must be possible to tap in."

"Portable terminal," Miela murmured. "Access ports… every processor cluster."

Clare inspected the racks of electronics more carefully. Tucked away at the far end, ingeniously designed for maximum inaccessibility, was a small bank of fibre connections. Each one was a dense cluster of pinprick lights – all very non-standard and designed to carry an enormous bandwidth.

"What sort of terminal plugs in here?"

"Special," Miela grunted. "Or an operator."

"Shit." She began searching the room for anything which might help, a nasty plan forming in her mind. "So there would be something like a pile of spaghetti? One big plug at one end, lots of them at the other?"

"Yes."

Clare moistened her lips and stared at Miela. "So if I could find one, you could plug yourself in?"

Miela flinched. "No. Please." Far too soon. "Later."

"Fine." Clare went out the back and into the environmental systems. She had already missed one trick, perhaps there were others. Miela probably knew the guts of Una intimately, but she was hardly bright and volunteering information at present.

The air conditioning was bulky and carefully designed. The ducts for venting soiled air, or drawing in fresh, were narrow and passed through multiple filters, intended to make it impossible to infiltrate any sort of electronic threat from the outside. The heart of the system was a refrigeration plant to provide local cooling and dumping the heat to some exchanger elsewhere through a closed-loop. In one corner of the room was a door...

“Missed that the first time...” It was nothing exciting – a storage area for spare parts, tools and miscellaneous bits and pieces. In one corner was a pile of broken electronics, including one of the fibre links which could connect Miela to Una’s maintenance ports. Clare inspected it briefly and then put it down again. Some of the connections were damaged, although there would probably be enough for what she had in mind... “Maybe later...”

At the far end of the store was another door, opening onto a ladder mounted in a vertical shaft. She climbed, one rung at a time, stopping to breathe after each one until the top where she found the hatch was manually latched, outside of Una’s control.

“Gotcha...” If Phil meant to damage Una, this was the way in and out. No digital security, no logs, no defences. “Get this welded shut...”

Clare walked back and found Miela sitting up, resting against the wall, still pale and drawn, but showing interest.

"I’ve found a set of connectors," Clare started, but Miela flinched. "Something for later…"

Miela smiled wanly. "Disconnect fever is difficult. Never used to be so bad."

"A friend of mine told me about it. He was a tech with the cybercops." It had been Kyla who had told her about bad disconnects, but the lies flowed smoothly with the facts. "I think they called it breakers, and there was something called the reboot orgasm."

"The Buzz," Miela murmured weakly.

"Yeah. I think all the cybercops get that, but not many breakers."

Miela shifted. "Not enough processor nodes. Not enough internal connections. When a disconnect goes bad my systems get crazy trying to sort everything out. It takes time to settle down."

Clare stared down at her and then knelt to bring their eyes level. Miela was a strange sight – tiny breasts covered with Stellex, ribs stark against her skin, convoluted trails of interface nodes, the structure under the skin lying in raised circles around the gold disks. Up close, the enhancements didn’t suit her. Clare knew that they would look better on her – elegantly gleaming patches perfectly flush with her skin.

"What will happen when they give you more?" Back at Old Heathy, they had a video console, spliced into the pay-per-view feeds. Some trickery Jaz and Kyla figured out. It worked, a whole bunch of them gathered around, watching the top shows.... but the case was permanently cracked open, not enough space inside.... "More nodes, more connections. How much worse will the disconnect fever be? The cybercops call them breakers for a fucking good reason."

"You seem to know a lot about it," Miela countered, avoiding the question.

"I always wanted them." She reached out to trace a raised piece of flesh by Miela's sternum, just avoiding the gold plate of the connection. "My first lover, you see.” Only two other people knew, Kyla and Jaz. “He was a comms specialist. Looked like he had eight nipples." Now Miela knew, so it was two again.

Miela was quivering again, paralysed with anticipation. "He let you polish them?"

"Taught me how. Taught me..." Just a light touch there, a slow trail, not too close.... "And I was eager to learn. I was already working for my colonist qualifiers. He taught me useful things." It was close enough to the truth and Miela didn’t need to know about Hunter’s.

"There’s a difference..." Miela pushed Clare’s hand away, but not too far. "Most nodes are electrical connections – mine are optical. Different behaviour... different interactions..."

"No interface ripple?" Clare was ever more fascinated, looking closely at the gold disc. She had known that, but her familiarity with electrical connects had dominated. These were tiny, the latest in advanced polymer fibre-optic terminations – and a data capacity beyond belief. "But polishing does something for you…"

"Optical interference and…"

"A couple of electrical lines as well," Clare completed, studying the interface node minutely before backing off.

"Safety," Miela muttered. "Provides low level system communications. Hard-wired directly into the processor arrays."

"And that’s how that scrambler works," Clare guessed. "Send pulses down those lines and…" Her eyes widened. "Force a reboot?"

"The problem is the interface between me and the processors. The cortical implants can respond instantly, but using the interfaces causes changes in brain chemistry. It needs time to settle down."

"And zapping the interface helps things along?"

"Pain response," Miela whispered.

Clare blinked as a lost memory surfaced. Kyla had mentioned the importance, and the dangers, of the pain response in learning to use implants. Miela looked like a case where the training had gone badly. Whatever had happened, Phil had done it. That seriously unhealthy relationship of theirs.

"How do we tell when it’s safe to go out?" Clare changed the subject – Miela wasn’t the person to explore her Phil suspicions with. "Una could tell us, but only if you hitch yourself to the connections."

Miela stood carefully. "The Una suite is empty."

Clare frowned, about to ask how Miela knew… "You have radio comms…" Clare cursed herself for forgetting. She had known about the link. Niels had managed to totally screw her memory. It was more than just the need for that pillow again – having an eye ripped out and the rest of her body tenderised like a steak just wouldn’t go away. At every turn there was another consequence.

"A single implant. Company comms net, but the interface goes down completely during a bad disconnect. I have to close it when I’m bonded to Una. I can’t restart it until… everything settles."

"So, can you ask Una to let us out?"

"Yes…"

"Good. I have questions…" Miela looked wrecked, and Clare knew she was no better. "Later, I think. Later. After we sit and rest a while…"

# # #

Clare talked, all the trivia of life in subsistence housing, surviving amongst the street gangs. No harm in a few anecdotes on picking the supposedly-unbreakable triple-cylinder locks, or how to act as a runner for fences like Dave the Eye, or ‘Shadow’ Jenkins, shifting the valuable gear and cutting the gangs out.

“I mean... it’s dangerous, y’know? If the cops catch a runner... that’s not pretty. But... there was a kid... can’t remember his name...” Alf, everyone knew Alf, but offering his name went too deep into private grief – never a pillow when you need it. “The Corrigans caught him. Hundred grand worth of credit chips. They did for him.” Lots of tiny, bloody pieces. Everywhere. “And that got me a job with Cara... processing client payments. Lot of responsibility there.” Because Cara would make the Corrigans look like saints if one of her admin people screwed up hacking the clients, or left a digital trail. “Cara ran the best boys and girls on the street... but never actually on the street.” And skimmed the punters so subtly, they never noticed. “Then I got a really solid job...”

Clare stared at Miela – she looked strong enough to move.

"I think it is time." And Miela was not going to hear about Hunter’s Casino. "Can you ask Una?"

Miela shrugged and the door unlatched. Still shaky, she led the way out. "Phil is looking for you." She stopped dead in her tracks. "All the security monitors are tracking you. All of them..."

"And we just appeared out of nowhere." Like a sudden movement – Kyla always said that drew attention. And Cara said... never, ever sneak up on a client – it makes them suspicious. “Una? Did Phil come in here?"

"Dr Elsworth has not entered. I decided not to permit him."

"So we didn’t need to hide. Will the security monitors now report us in here?" Clare held her breath.

"I have been generating false information." Una, from paranoiac to conspirator. "Hiding was necessary. The conjecture is offered that Doctor Elsworth would be capable of overriding my control of the doors."

"How long can you fool the monitors?"

"Until we have finished discussing this face." Una displayed Clare’s DigiTart rep on every monitor, varying the expression across the narrow repertoire which Emily had designed. "Can you explain? Do not take too long. Doctor Elsworth may be able to penetrate my override of the security monitors." Una understood the basic principles of coercion.

Clare stared back at the beautiful blond that Emily had chosen as her face on the net – there was a wildly sexy body to go with it, somewhere. If she were only talking to Miela then she could maintain the fiction of being a long-standing Lilywhite executive. Una would surely have all the psychological status monitoring tricks that Madame used.

"I was working with the DigiTart project. The first time… a certain user logged on… I was the next person available to monitor the system. Then when he called again, he asked for me by name. I had to be present. The system is not good enough to cope on its own." That was close enough to the truth.

"I monitored every call," Una stated as Miela mumbled something unintelligible.

"Then you know what I mean." Clare picked at her pullover where the knitting was starting to fray, toying with the loose ends. "Can you confirm the identity of the… user?"

"Doctor Philip Elsworth," Una said without hesitation. "The conjecture is offered that his manner was aggressive. Extremely violent at times."

Clare needed no reminders of that. "Miela? Did Phil ever refer to Una as his boss?" She made it sound like a joke, but Miela caught the mood.

"Standing joke," she admitted. "Does it matter?"

"Una? Did Doctor Elsworth know that you were monitoring him? All that… violence was that… " She struggled for the word... not fake... "Just for show." A well-rehearsed show, and in his nature. "Playing to an audience." And then the bastard handed me to Niels and Muscles. Maybe.

"I did not inform him," the machine answered. "Miela suggested it as a practice exercise. There would have been no point in telling him."

"And who suggested it to you, Miela?"

The operator shrugged. "It was part of the testing and development protocol. All of the operators devised test scenarios independently. The intention was to have Una running multiple tasks for independent enquiries. It was a matter for Una to decide if topics were linked and advise if there was collaboration."

Clare was disappointed. She had expected to be told that Phil had instigated the whole thing in order to derange Una’s personality.

"Una, did you monitor any other calls of the same nature?"

"There were none."

"So it was all directed at DigiTart. After the first time, he decided he liked me." Clare paced a short line in front of the display. "So is the threat real? Is Phil out to get you, or was this a trick to bring me here?" But why me? "Bob would be a more valuable target." What better way of killing him than by luring him out into the open? Stir things up through DigiTart… get Calder's attention… There was no need to spook Una with all that speculation. "What do you think, Una?"

"I have no conjecture to offer," Una conceded. "Your honesty... is... appreciated..."

Clare nodded – that hesitation was odd. As if Una had deduced the reality – honest, but not entirely open. "Is it safe to smuggle Miela out of here now?"

"Doctor Elsworth is currently searching elsewhere. A window of opportunity exists."

Clare took a gaudy mauve jacket off its wall hook. "Time to go, Miela."

Miela stood carefully and Clare held the jacket for her. "Why don’t you complain about Phil?" She clicked the catches together, settling the close-fitting garment properly. "You shouldn’t have to endure what he does to you. The company ought to provide medical support when you have a bad disconnect."

Miela blatantly changed the subject. "Time for another calibration run on your optical processor." Bright, confident, fooling no-one.

"Sure.” Clare let it go as something to poke at later “Is it going to be as bad as last time?" Clare handed her an almost transparent Thilk cloak from the next hook. “That was bad...” Like the Phil-Miela relationship.

“No, no...” Miela fidgeted, adjusting her sleeves again. "Shouldn’t be. If it goes well, they might fit the imaging system tomorrow…" She paused to consult the company medical systems. "You are scheduled for a check-up at the moment. That explains why Phil is looking for you."

Miela was back on her feet, so no longer any need to shield her from Phil's attention. "Where is he? I had better go to medical first…"

Miela smiled, finally relaxed. "Call me when you’re done."

“Sure. I’ll do that.” Sometimes there simply weren’t enough pillows in the world. “Talk later.” Or scream.

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