Persuasion

Clare screamed in the endless void of her own head – there was no return echo, no sense of direction or size, and no way to make the pain stop, as thousands of little machines burrowed around her ribs, building the sub-dermal mesh. The micro-beasts didn’t care about anaesthetic levels.

Clare’s head, one big empty space with nothing but pain, grinding her down to nothing. Or madness. She still had a long way to go, mental heels dug in, but the cliff-edge of insanity loomed, and Phil was right behind her. Push, push, push...

Nothing but darkness, and a bright screen that wasn’t there, covered in writing that wasn’t real, and a voice that meant nothing except the need to rip the bastard’s balls off.

<Elsworth: Talk to me Clare. You can’t stand much more. Your body can not survive it. Tell me what I want to know and it will stop. Or do you need the full tutorial? I can adjust your medication balance so minutely... So much of our research here has mapped pain. We have the scale of it, and achievable is so much more than endurable.>

The words were on the screen, subtitles to a roaring narration in her head. The interruption was insistent enough to make her stop screaming and read over and over again until the words made sense.

<Farral: Then... you... kill me.> It was so obvious, and easy with her faked medical condition. Smash the screen, rip your... your... just rip...

<Elsworth: The most logical step, but there are alternatives.>

There could be no possible alternative, only a brutal coercion driven by pain and impossible hope. <Farral: What?>

<Elsworth: All I require is your silence. That can be enforced by the programming of your new processors.>

<Farral: Could break... could break... could... break that.>

<Elsworth: But only with your co-operation. There will have to be something more. I need you to do something for me – a real piece of complicity. Once you are safely on the Martian surface, it becomes irrelevant.>

<Farral: Trust. Can’t.> It was too complicated. There were too many things which might go wrong – but anything for a lull in the pain. More time for a crazy rescue... Or more time before crazy.

<Elsworth: Do you have a choice? We have come to the point where I need an answer.>

<Farral: Need time. Think.>

The pain grew rapidly, a tap turned on, but not fully – a reminder of screaming, muted but still a scouring of mind and body, and mental heels losing their grip on the slow push to the edge...

<Elsworth: Fine. Some thinking time. The pain is automated... it goes up... there, isn’t that nice...? so that you do not forget... and... wait for it... down for you to think. Up and down, over and over... perhaps a bit more up each time. Think fast. I have other things to do. Won’t be long.>

The pain nagged, lessened but wearing. Clare counted seconds, a few minutes – the best she could do in personal darkness. The pain escalated, burning and burrowing, more seconds passed and Phil still left her alone. Slow wave after wave, but nothing so bad that she couldn’t concentrate enough to explore the darkness.

<Bastard> rolled up the virtual screen, echoing her thoughts.

<Shit. Shit. Shit.> Didn’t mean it... don’t hear that... leave me be a while longer... She would have held her breath, but that was out of her control.

Random thoughts and words scrolled up in her head. There was no way to stop mulling over things, nor any way to block the mindless echoing text.

Bring back the empty blackness, all is... something.... definitely not forgiven.

<Hello.> That was deliberate and it worked. <HELLO.> The text reflected her attempt at emphasis. <Phil? Talk to me? Come on, you bastard. Say something?>

She got neither response nor retribution, so truly alone for the moment, wrapped in only surging pain, still endurable. Try something else...

<Where am I?>

<System. Unknown.>

<Who am I?>

<System: Unidentified.>

<Let me out.>

<System: Unknown command.>

<Should have wired Miela into Una and found out what the fuck was happening.> She stared at the words on the screen in her head. Personal subtitles, making her thoughts more real. <So I’m a selfish bitch.> Did this count as talking to herself? <Glad I didn’t do that Miela.>

A momentary twinge disturbed the steady burning of her ribs. The virtual screen in her head blanked out and then filled with diagnostic gibberish. Text and images scrolled exuberantly off the top as if the system had gone crazy.

<What the fuck?> The wild activity settled. <Is something wrong? How am I?>

A horizontal line swept up the screen, cleaning the display until a simple table spread its message before her virtual eyes.

<System Status Survey:

System processor

Active.

Processor arrays

Not active – authorisation required. Primary boot completed.

Optical processor

Active. Not linked.

Cortical interface – Active

Links (4):

Processor arrays – authorisation required

Submesh status – off line

Optical processor – standby

Medical supervisor – monitoring/read only

End of report.>

The first bit of sense, and all she did was ask the right question.

<How am I?>

The screen cleared and re-displayed the same table.

She tried to lick her lips. Just a little movement of her tongue to settle her nerves. Nothing. Just be confident.

<Activate optical processor.>

<System: Unidentified user.>

<I’m Clare Farral. This is my fucking head. Turn on my eyes. Activate optical processor.>

<System: Unidentified user.>

Clare... I am Clare... Clare Farral... wait... did this before... when there was no pain... just breathe... or relax... or something... just be Clare...

<Farral: Activate optical processor.>

<System: Optical processor active. Imaging optics not present. External data feeds not active.>

Yes!

<Farral: Activate optical processor external data feeds.>

<System: Nearest available feed from security camera #33223/A. Proceed?>

<Farral: Just fucking do it.> There was no response. <Yeah. Proceed.>

A window opened at the bottom of her virtual screen, showing her own body lying on a bed, and tangled with the cables of the medical supervisor. It was like a reprise of the last training session with Miela, seeing herself from an odd angle.

<Farral: Closer> The image zoomed in, randomly pointed at her shoulder. <Left a little. Up. Up more. Stop.> Her face was framed in the picture, slightly out of focus. A few more commands and the result was a crisp view of a sleeping Clare.

Sleeping uncomfortably; obviously in pain. <It hurts, doesn't it?> The words overlayed the image where small muscles twitched around her eyes and mouth. She wasn't really talking to herself... just the camera.

Inspiration struck. If she could talk to the camera...

<Farral: Hey. Camera. Receive message. Help me. I’m fine. Someone get me out of here. Clare.>

<System: Error.>

<Farral: Shit.>

<Security Monitoring Agent: Unauthorised access. Security camera #33223/A. This intrusion has been logged. You have been reported to Security Group. Remain where you are.>

<Farral: Stupid fucking thing to say.>

But... yes!

It wasn’t what she had intended, but someone would investigate the security breach and it wouldn’t take long before they traced the access. The moment a maintenance tech initiated a data link she could explain what was happening.

<Elsworth: Remarkably clever. I’m busy just at the moment. Anaesthetics are so over-rated. Later...>

There was a brief delay and then the pain mounted steadily until all she could do was scream. In her head. Nothing but the screen for company, and not even her own head could figure out meaningful subtitles.

# # #

Bob failed to get rid of Miela – she took Clare’s concerns for their safety very seriously. Just for peace and quiet, he resurrected need to get back to work, returning to the Una suite and a renewed attack on the analysis of the cyberwar. Between himself and Una, they could steer away from reproducing the true answers.

The work ground on slowly. As an alternative approach he suggested trying to trace the physical origin of the opening assaults of the conflict. Backtracking the data sources and burning through the false idents and dummy servers was sufficiently complex to keep Miela fully occupied. It was an almost impossible task and really needed Una to have been running properly for weeks, if not months, building a baseline of activity and data flows.

<Miela: Dead end. I have an idea.>

Where did she find time to think? "Anything’s worth a try…" And why couldn't she talk instead of posting to a display screen?

<Miela: It’s more of a hunch really. The server in Vinholven – assume that the source is there and then rebuild the flow model.>

"Just get garbage..."

<Miela: It will only take about ten minutes. If the guess is anywhere near right, we should see a pattern before the model falls over.>

“That’s...” Bob was suddenly excited. "Get close and the data paths will be almost right." His voice rose steadily. "Narrow down the search. Go on. Do it."

A silent line of text flashed up. <Una: That was my idea. An unsuccessful strategy. Ignore. This message is for your terminal only... Acknowledge.>

He blinked and opened his mouth to answer but... the machine didn’t want Miela to know. It was strange to be in a conspiracy with a machine. Una had a far more credibly human personality than Kernel Kombat, where most of the quirks had been hardwired in by the system programmers.

He tapped the screen to acknowledge the message. Let’s gang up on Miela…

<Una: I have detected an anomaly. A security alert has been raised. Unauthorised access to a security camera in the medical unit. The access violation is logged against the optical processor fitted to Clare Farral.>

Bob cumbersomely used the keyboard to reply: Not possible. Need conscious act from Clare.

<Una: Confirmed. Access is now blocked on authority of Doctor Elsworth. Analysis suggests that there is no medical emergency.>

Can you break in?

<Una: All data access is now blocked. Physical access only practical solution. You must act.>

Me? He almost typed the question. Go there? In person? That was what Clare was with him for. It was probably dangerous...

Miela can help.

<Una: Not safe.>

The computer really did not trust Miela. So many questions on a theme of why? He was out of practice at prolonged typing.

Need to get rid of Miela for a while.

<Una: You will have fifteen seconds from when this display clears. Miela will not notice you leave.>

The display blanked, and so did Bob. After three seconds it lit up again.

<Go.>

He ran, only stopping when the doors shut behind him. He leant against the wall, gasping for breath, panic rather than exertion. Breaths... deep breaths... there had been a lot of that lately... and his heartbeat settled until he could walk unsteadily towards Reception... and got lost in the multiply-refracting confusion of the glass building. Even without that, he had no idea where the medical section was located. A young lad was walking towards him carrying a caddie of infocards. He stepped aside to avoid a collision.

"Er. Excuse me. Which way to medical?"

The lad frowned. "Third floor. Central core."

"Thanks..." Bob walked on, afraid to look over his shoulder. He had every right to go and visit Clare, but if the medical status was faked then someone was doing something bad. That was straight out of the basic track bad-guys simulations from the early days of Kernal Kombat development.

He found the the lifts.

The third floor had a core which resorted to traditional building materials of the opaque persuasion. All of the doors were locked and refused to acknowledge his ident card until he found the one marked ‘Medical Reception’.

Inside, seating for a dozen people was bracketed by immaculately maintained shrubs in silver tubs worn down to grey plastic on the corners. The desk was unmanned, but as soon as he came within a few paces a sharp ‘ping’ stopped him.

"There is no one here at present." The synthetic voice was warm and pleasant. Standard automation; pre-recorded phrases. "Please take a seat. Someone will attend to you as soon as possible. If you have an appointment then please state your reference code. Do not attempt to pass beyond this point without authorisation."

Bob sat. There was far too much implied threat in the polite request. Part of the Coriolis core business was devoted to the development of extreme anti-intrusion sanctions.

A white-uniformed nurse hurried out. "Can I help you? We’re rather busy at the moment."

"I want to see Clare Farral, please."

She smiled kindly, but with the firm, medical look that landed on him like a blanket of depression. "Miss Farral is exceedingly ill. Perhaps you could call back in a day or two?"

Bob stood up and tried to gather his dignity. He was Director of Cyberwar Countermeasures. He was an important man. "I still want to see her."

The smile lost its kindness. "I must ask you leave."

"Or you’ll call security?" He took his courage with both hands. Clare was the one designated to deal with irritatingly non-deferential women. "Perhaps you should. Ask them why Clare’s optical processor has caused a security incident by accessing one of your cameras."

"That is not possible, Mr…" the tone had drifted to patient contempt.

"Director Critchley." He delivered that as coldly as he could, with no visible effect. "And it is possible. Perhaps we should go and look at Clare?" Or would you like to look for a new job. Clare would have said that, or something better. Bob needed a clear channel to Calder first.

"I will call Doctor Cranfield." Non-deferential escalated to tight anger.

Bob paced the reception room, trying to look casual. Cranfield strode in within a few minutes, tired and irritable.

"Doctor Cranfield? Director Critchley. I have... reason to believe that Clare Farral is conscious – whatever your medical systems might suggest."

"How long have you been a medical practitioner, Director Critchley?"

"Don't be stupid. I'm a data security expert. There is no way that her optical processor could have violated security restrictions on a surveillance camera without her conscious control." Bob took a step closer. "Would you like to confirm with security, or shall we just visit Clare? I assume that your medical qualifications mean you could make a primitive diagnosis without the aid of the medical supervisors?"

"Of course." A brittle courtesy surfaced. "This way."

That was close... Bob suppressed a sigh of relief. If Cranfield had queried security, it was probable that he would not have found any record of a breach. When Clare was around, she just did this stuff. No sweat. Bob was pumping it out by the bucket-full.

The doctor marched through the corridors and then into the small room where Clare was being treated. He threaded his hand carefully through the tangle of medical sensors and found her wrist. There was a long interval as he counted her pulse.

"Odd." He counted again. "High." Another count. "Way too high." There was a pause whilst he accessed the supervisor. "That can’t be right." He knelt beside the unit and opened an access panel. "Nurse? Have the medication reservoirs been topped up?"

"Not yet, doctor." She was suddenly wary, picking up on the air of trouble. "The supervisor didn’t indicate it was necessary."

He looked straight at Bob. "Hardly any analgesic has been used. If she’s conscious, she must be in agony."

"Turn it off."

Cranfield shook his head and stood up. "That could be very dangerous." He paused in thought. "Nurse, get me one of the anaesthetic packs for the numbvest." He started moving tubes and wires aside. "She’s wearing an analgesic vest. I can start feeding the drugs directly into that."

Bob inspected the medical supervisor. Unfamiliar technology with some very standard features. "Can this thing run on its own?"

"Of course."

"Can you switch off its external interfaces? Force it into stand-alone mode? Cut out any disruption."

Cranfield rubbed his mouth warily. "I would lose the data feeds. I wouldn’t know what was happening."

"You don’t know, now. The machine is reporting garbage."

"Switching to stand-alone," Cranfield conceded.

There was a brief warbling of alarms and then it settled down. The faint hum of its operation changed as different functions came on and existing ones ceased. Warning displays shifted from red to green.

Clare screamed, a ripping horror that crashed off the walls. As she expelled the first lungful, she convulsed, tearing connections loose and spraying fluids from dislodged tubes. She clawed frantically at the anaesthetic vest around her ribs, shrieking and crying, ripping more connections free before Cranfield could grab her wrists.

"Nurse!"

Clare struggled frantically against his restraint, breaking free and almost gouging out one of his eyes. Cranfield dodged and shouted again.

Bob moved back against the wall. Where was Clare when he needed her... Oh. Right...

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