Settling the Dust

The terminal in Clare’s room chimed late in the afternoon, a persistent ping that nagged until she woke, lost and confused, not on duty, not now, let one of the other girls take it... No. Not DigiTart but Coriolis, and Phil, and eyes... and cyberwar...and then...

She sat up, disoriented by one-sided vision, check the clock, other eye – over three hours since the last outburst from her implant – unpleasant but bearable enough that Miela had left her alone. And now the terminal was calling. Communications were back...

Clare scrambled out of bed and accepted the call. The connection was delayed for a few seconds and then Calder Lilywhite stared out at her, eyebrows rising slowly. Not tired any more, no sir, wide awake...

"Clothes?" he wondered and Clare leant backwards to snatch her disreputable pullover. "Better. Secure link now."

The image scrambled and the terminal began a plaintive whine. Clare grumbled and went to get her card, taking the time to pull on her Stellex leggings. I’m awake, I’m awake. And dressed... The frantic comms system accepted the squint from the card and then submitted to the control of the Lilywhite system.

"Status at Coriolis?" Calder demanded the moment the connection settled.

"No damage that I know of..." Sorry, off my game, some bastard poked my eye out. “Give me a moment...” Calder didn’t exactly give a girl a chance and most of what she knew was little more than supposition. "All net links were trashed but nothing broke through here. There was a general announcement to the staff just after lunch.” And unlike lunch, was a mess of rehashed leftovers and limp assurances. “Bob spent most of the time with Una, monitoring as best he could. I think he’s still down there. We were definitely a target." And I lost my fucking eye. Did you notice that?

"Good." He stared fractionally to one side and she realised that he was studying her black patch. "Melodramatic. It suits you. Done well enough so far. Are you up to whatever comes next? This cyberspat is far from over."

Clare heard the suppressed tension. "Shit… not over?" Too busy with her own troubles to notice. "Who was it? Who were… are they after?"

"Not over… just a lull." His eyes flicked to one side, consulting another display. "They were probably funded by Balso-Marci. A multinational. Mostly based in Venezuela, backed by Korea, China and the Basque Federation. A very tentative assessment, but it fits the data." He shrugged. "A strange alliance. None of the attacks were in any way directly connected to Balso-Marci, but intelligence analysis makes a link. The only major casualty appears to be Adams-Handley Aerospace. They were hit badly, their stock dropped to a tenth of its value before the trading nets collapsed. Adams-Handley made some very bizarre transactions before they went down. The lawyers might be able to unravel some of it, but the damage is done."

"Does that hurt us?" A week ago she would have asked if it hurt Lilywhite.

"We have a five percent stake. Nothing really significant, although it does affect you." Clare sat straighter, waiting for him to continue. "They are the sole manufacturers of several processor modules. Parts of the landing AI controls for the Boeing Angel two-twenty. Balso-Marci are the only other possible source, but they will need nine months to bring production on line. The price will climb."

"Landing processors.” Clare blinked – it sounded trivial, but... “That will cripple the Mars program."

"Best estimate suggests the program will slip by two years. The colonisation by three at least." He shrugged apologetically. "Although things are probably worse."

"Worse?"

"It was too much effort," Calder said. "The whole bloody cyberwar for just one casualty? If Balso-Marci wanted to take out Handley they would have hit them directly. And quietly. There would have been some collateral, but nothing like this general mess." He glanced away again. "The UK has taken a hammering. So has Italy, Belgium and several provinces of India. The full pattern isn’t there. There are no obvious links between the major victims. The only conclusion so far is that this was the opening shot. Hit strategic targets to prepare for something more." Calder took a heavy breath. "Something big." A subsidiary window opened as he transferred a summary of the attack. "The strangest thing is how mild some of the assaults have been."

"Mild?"

"Mild," he repeated. "Systems which should have been crippled utterly have survived largely unscathed."

“Right...” She tried to make sense of what he was showing her. Some stuff was obvious – the Boeing Angels were the orbital transport vehicle. Anyone studying for the Mars program knew that. And the aeronautics AI featured significantly in her up-coming engineering qualifications. Easy stuff, and obviously important. It was all the rest – the commercial reports, the cyberwar strategy analysis, the stock prices and public perception indices... “So what does it actually mean?”

“Bloody good question.” Calder sighed – it wasn’t his area of expertise either. "That really is the most peculiar thing. So much trivial damage. No idea of the real objective. I need Bob to look at this as soon as possible."

"Send the data direct to Una. Bob and Una appear to have… an understanding."

"No. The information is far too sensitive."

“OK. Can you send it to me...?” Wait. Sensitive? How sensitive? There was something odd in all that data. "How much of a stake do we have in the Mars project?"

"A lot," he answered with a sly smile.

“Right. A lot.” A five percent stake in a critical sub-contractor for the Boeing Angels, the orbital workhorse, the best you could get.... "How much profit do we expect?"

"A fortune – unless someone snatches it away."

"So we might have to rescue Handley?"

"Risky.” Calder chuckled grimly. “That might be the whole point – get me to stretch too far."

She hesitated to ask the next question. "Are we the real target?"

"Conceivably, but not confirmed." He sent another package of data. "Lilywhite has significant interests in most of the major hotspots. The correlation is high, but not enough."

One lucky guess did not make Clare an expert. "How soon do you want Bob back?"

"As soon as… but caution over speed. I will arrange some protection first. That is more important at the moment. I didn’t expected the violence." He leant closer to the camera at his end. "So, what happened to your eye? Bob mentioned some of it before Balso-Marci tried to take everything apart."

"Lost it. Some gorewar heavies came for Bob." The words came more easily than she could believe. The memories of tearing and gouging had vivid clarity... Just say the words, the executive summary, bury the details somewhere. “Got me instead.”

He nodded sagely. "Get Coriolis to do a prosthetic. They’re very good."

"Already happening. Miela thinks it might be safe to install the imaging optics soon." It’s still my eye they ripped out. Somehow, the anger wasn’t there any more. It’s only an eye – a small price to pay to get to Mars. Just so long as the details stayed buried. And so long as the call ended soon enough to do some private screaming.

"Good. And the processor implants?"

"Phil says a day or two."

"As soon as possible – just don't go taking Jeremiah for a drive yet." He paused until she nodded to acknowledge their agreed code. "Push him if you have to. See how he jumps. Whatever is going on, having those nodes will be valuable. Have you learnt anything more about him? Is there a link to this cyberwar?"

Jeremiah. He’s probably dead. She blinked at a hint of tears. Perhaps Niels and Muscles had just knocked him down. Easy-going thugs who wouldn’t really hurt anyone...

“Phil...” Talk now, scream later. "Nothing I can prove." But he’s a nasty bastard, and I know it. "Hunches. Suspicions. Intuition. They all say something is not right here." She took a deep breath. Scream later... white flared across her sight, quick and painless, and she braced for the bright agony Miela had caused. Nothing happened. Even so, scream later... just to let it out. "There is some sort of relationship between Phil and Miela.” A seriously unhealthy relationship. “I think he arranged the assault where she lost her eyes. "

Calder looked startled. "I will get Madame to do some more digging for information."

"How about the cybercop, Medway? She might be able to help." Calder nodded in response again. "I’m sure there’s a link between Kyla and this cyberwar. Too much of a coincidence someone like her being killed just before it all starts." She stared at his image, willing him to believe.

He hesitated for a moment. "Perhaps…"

"Tell me." Trust me.

"All sorts of strange shit going on…" Calder was still holding back, and then a decision was made. "Your cybercop Medway has been chasing CyberLine with a section two warrant. Heavy stuff, and there are unconfirmed reports of a fire-fight between CyberLine security and the police."

"Got to be a connection." Knew it, knew it, knew it. "Kyla was connected to CyberLine, Coriolis and Phil. And someone killed her for it."

"Tread carefully, Clare. If CyberLine are under investigation, then the same spotlight can be turned on us. I hope you don’t have a naive view of the way business works."

She stared at the screen – we lie, we cheat, we screw people over to stay on top. "I’ll be careful." And we settle the score with anyone who tries to screw us over.

Calder muttered something indistinct. "Sort it out, Clare. There will still be flights to Mars and we can always use talented people. There are always problems to be resolved. Just find out what the hell Phil is up to."

A chill of anticipation ran goose bumps down her back. Lilywhite was a major player on Mars, and Calder was dangling the biggest carrot imaginable.

"I’ll find out what Phil is doing." Whichever way I have to screw him. "Can you have Madame send me a copy of my personnel file? I’m sure Phil already has access to it and I’ve been playing bloody mind-games with him, blindfolded. I don’t even know what background you faked up for me."

"We didn’t. Not enough time. All your record shows is working for Bob. All previous records are shown as confidential, only available on my authority."

Clare bit her lip. "He knows something. I’m sure of it. Perhaps not everything." Possibly even something out of the past which Lilywhite didn’t know about.

"Hunter’s? Might he have been a client?"

She didn’t twitch at the mention of Hunter’s, although she had foolishly assumed that only Emily would know about that. "Doesn’t strike me as the type. Not rich enough. Not flash enough." And I would have remembered him. Word of a creep like Phil would have got around. Handling jolly-boys was unpleasant; a full long-john was specialised – not many girls up for that.

"Be careful," he told her again, almost as if he meant it. "I will have backup, and transport for Bob, with you in a day or two."

The call ended, and Clare buried her face in a pillow. She wasn’t screaming, really not screaming, or crying, just telling the pillow – bastards ripped my eye out, killed Jeremiah – just telling the pillow so that someone knew.

It was a good listener. A good sponge. Absolutely fine with being tossed in the laundry when she was done. It’s fine, you go ahead, one of my colleagues will be plumped-up on the bed if you need to scream again.

Clare shut the lid on the laundry basket. Not going nuts. Really not. Just needed to scream. Very privately.

# # #

Clare queried her terminal for Bob’s location – he was still in the Una suite. Further enquiries showed that she would have to walk: all of the internal transport facilities were running at a limited level, reserved to move security personnel at short notice. In the aftermath of the cyber skirmish, Coriolis were being excessively cautious.

The weather was cold and dry. It didn’t seem unreasonable to walk the kilometre and a half to the main Coriolis buildings. It wasn’t as if she was hiking across rough terrain. It wasn’t raining. The ground was solid. There were roads. It ought to be well within her capabilities.

Clare added a Stellex jacket to ward off the wind and set out. At the entrance to the accommodation complex her optical processor node flared into its calibration cycle. Complex patterns tangled over her vision, dull embers bursting into brilliant life and then dimming away. The illusion of motion made her feel dizzy but the shining colours were not so bright as to be painful this time. She sat and waited until it finished.

Clouds hung low and heavy in the sky, a suitable comment on the current crisis. In the distance, the crystal monstrosity of the main buildings looked sullen and grubby, a glass tumbler smeared with lipstick and fingerprints, debris of a wild party.

The exercise emphasised her aches and bruises. The physical harm had been largely patched up by the medics, but the deeper hurt, the residual shock, still took its toll. The illusion of health was dangerous and deceptive: half way to her destination she was forced to stop. Weather which had seemed like nothing more than a minor inconvenience was now grinding her down. The easy road felt like slogging through thick mud, the level terrain was uphill all the way. Finally, a rough boulder offered somewhere to sit - buried in the ground just off the concrete path, flat enough on top to be bearable.

Even through the Stellex leggings the stone was cold and the uneven pressure restarted a distant ache, the last echoes of the bruising of her buttocks where Muscles had tossed her around the room. Muscles, and his friend Niels who wore Kyla’s earring. Niels who had such a handsome, urbane appearance, cultured and brutal; intelligent enough to spot a panic phrase issued to the hotel systems.

"Professional killer." The rock didn’t contradict her. "Possibly enhanced. Probably still in the area." Reasonable assumptions, but unproven. "Probably going to try again." She gave the rock a slap, but it had nothing to add. "Need to prepare a welcome."

She stood up and started walking again. "My arse still hurts.” Any decent rock would have called out sorry. “Someone’s gonna pay for that." She should have brought the pillow – a much better conversationalist. And it would have padded the rock. “Someone’s really gonna pay...”

That would not be easy. Muscles and Niels were serious and dangerous. The hotel was a soft target. It was only luck that stopped them hitting Bob. They were the sort of bastards capable of breaking into a facility like Coriolis. Get in, around security, kill Bob...

“Stupid. Really stupid...” She had lulled herself into thinking she was safe inside Coriolis – in spite of the Phil and Miela freak show. "Need to make some serious preparations," she told the chill wind, because the rock was out of earshot, and the pillow was probably a prisoner of housekeeping.... Phil was lucky that he had been called away in the hotel, otherwise they would have killed him too.

"Oh shit." She explained things to a gnarled shrub pushing through the concrete at the edge of the road. "Phil did it. Bastard. Phil told them I was going to my room. I can believe that. Bastard."

She plodded on towards the glass frog, as grim as the weather.

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