The Road to the Stars – Chapter Fifteen & Sixteen

These two chapters could have been posted separately; the first one is just long enough to stand alone, but they work beautifully together. And why? Well, the first reason is because we were under almost constant cyberattack at this point and the chapters talk about this.

The second reason I’ll let you figure out. But it’s a fun reason.

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Chapter Fifteen

“We’ve got problems,” announced Mac.

“We have to have,” agreed Kendra. “I didn’t think anything could get you off Earth, and yet here you are.”

Kendra’s office aboard Diana was substantially larger than the one she had appropriated on the former Spacedock. She had her desk and terminals arrayed so she could look at a virtual window, with a small table and chairs on one side for meetings and a sitting area arrayed on the other side for more informal gatherings. When Mac arrived, with Ted O’Quinn in tow, Kendra hadn’t been sure what had brought her, but now she headed for the table, gesturing for the others to sit.

“Kendra, don’t take this lightly, there have been all sorts of things going on, it’s really ramped up in the past couple weeks, we’re under almost –”

“Whoa. Stop. Slow down, Mac. Ted, what do you know about this?”

“Not much, really,” admitted O’Quinn. “She told me that she needed to see you and more or less dragged me along for support.”

That got Kendra’s attention, but she shelved it for later.

“Mac, one thing at a time. Start at the beginning.”

“You know that Harpo has taken over all of our cybercryptography, right?”

“I know that’s what he’s been working on. I didn’t know he’s doing it all.”

Mac shrugged. “He can react to attacks in real time and do a way, way better job of tracking them back to the source than I ever could, even with the programs I wrote and the implant, though those gave me an edge over purely human-based attacks, it still didn’t –”

“Mac.”

“Yes. He’s good at it. And if he takes care of the active defense, it lets me concentrate on making connections and seeing patterns, if there are any.”

“He can’t do that?”

“He can, but even though he’s a really good AI, he’s not so good at the intuitive stuff, logic yeah, he can run rings around anyone I know for logic, but he doesn’t quite have that spark that allows a person to jump from A to E with no steps in-between and still be right.”

 “So he’s been stopping attacks, and you’ve been looking for patterns?”

“Yes, and in the past three weeks the number of attacks per minute has increased by four orders of magnitude.”

Four?” Kendra wasn’t a mathematical genius, but working with some of the brightest minds on the planet for years had rubbed off on her.

“Four,” confirmed Mac. “It’s been trending upward, as well, not plateauing at all, but that’s not what has me worried.”

If it was still increasing, but that wasn’t worrying Mac…

“What’s worrying you?”

“Most of the penetration attempts are going for things you’d expect: designs, blueprints, specs, how to build a starship, how to build a station like Diana, all that sort.”

“Makes sense.”

“Yeah, but there are also an increasing number of attacks on personnel records and files, they’re trying to get in and find out about our people, and it’s not just HLC, or OutLook, it’s all the Harriman companies, everything that you guys are into!”

“That’s worrying,” agreed Kendra. “Have they succeeded yet?”

“No, at least they haven’t gotten through any of Harpo’s firewalls, but I don’t know what sort of information is outside our control, there are records all over the place, government agencies and the like, and we just can’t do anything about those.”

“Then we won’t worry about those. Anything else?”

“Well, I noticed that the attacks really jumped up when you went live system-wide, just before the first flight, and that’s got to mean something, and once Harpo and I manage to track some of the attacks back to their source we’ll know better what it means, but until then it’s just guesswork.”

Kendra and Ted shared a look. Maybe it was paranoia, maybe it was a coincidence, but she guessed it wasn’t.

“Mac, tell me, are you monitoring UE servers too?”

“No, not unless they’re interacting with ours, we keep good records on that, why?”

“Just an idea. Ted, can you get in touch with Mya? Unofficially?”

“Yes,” he said. “In fact, that’s the only way I can get hold of her.”

“Good. I want you to ask her for her records for cyberattacks. Go back before we started talking, back to last year. Get it into Mac and Harpo’s hands, and let them have a go at it.”

“You think this is related?”

“In this business, coincidences don’t happen. Yes, I think it’s related. And I’ll give you my best guess as to who’s behind it: the Solarian Union.”

Ted was nodding, but Mac looked puzzled.

“The Union has to be monitoring the UE; there’s no way they would have missed Ted and Mya’s visit, no matter how hard they tried to keep it off the books, and as you said yourself, their cybersecurity isn’t great.”

“It’s not so bad,” Mac insisted. “It’s just I’m better.”

“The point is, they could have been compromised. And we’ve been a rather noisy pain in their ass for a long, long time. If it turns out that we’re not both being targeted by them, I’ll be shocked.”

“Makes sense,” agreed Ted.

“Okay, but what else can we do? I mean, if it is the Union, it’s not like I can just slide a connection into their servers, they’re not even on the planet!”

“I leave that to you and Harpo. You might want to put a call into Joe Buckley, though, see if he’s learned any dirty tricks from Dick.”

“Ooh, yeah, Joe’s a good guy, I miss him but it’s good that he’s not around the office any longer, it must have sucked to lose a foot.”

“It did; I was there, remember?”

“So was I, it was the first time we met, and boy was it a different way to meet someone!”

“That it was. So, Ted. Moral support, eh?”

Ted’s fair skin could turn an impressive shade of red.

Chapter Sixteen

“It’s definitely the Union,” announced Cris, a couple weeks later.

What Kendra had come to think of as her ‘war council’ was meeting together for the first time aboard Diana. She’d pulled people in from all across Harriman: Cris, Mac, and Ted from OutLook; Val from JPL; Audrey Vanek, Sanzari’s hand-picked replacement as the head of security; Chief Stone; Kyran from Diana; Cass, Alley, Mia, and Candice from Enterprise. Also sitting in, as it were, were the AI’s: Diana, Minerva, and Harpo. Kendra was cognizant of their abilities to process data at a rate no human could dream of matching, and was not about to let their skills sit on the sideline.

“You’re sure?”

“Absolutely. I could go through the entire presentation that Mac and Harpo did, but I don’t think you have two hours to waste.”

“No. How are you handling it?”

“Harpo’s on top of it,” said Cris.

“Yes,” agreed the AI. His voice was a rich tenor, with just a hint of raspiness, as if he were trying to be inconspicuous and failing. “Their attacks persist, and continue to increase in number, but have not increased in ability.”

“Still the same targets?”

“Still the same,” confirmed Harpo.

“Can you start feeding them disinformation?” said Kendra.

“That is risky,” he answered. “To provide disinformation would by necessity require me to allow them into an internal system’s server. My security is primarily oriented to repulse external attacks, so if they were to continue to press the attack from within the system my ability to defend would be diminished.”

“If we provided a server which is isolated from the internal systems, would that help?” asked Cris.

“Yes. An isolated server is, by definition, unable to connect to the internal systems.”

“Why disinformation?” asked Val. “Why not just keep denying access?”

“Partly to get them to concentrate on that one supposed vulnerability, but mostly to mess with their heads. We think that they’ve also gathered information from outside sources,” she said, pausing to confirm it with Mac.

“Yes, once we tracked back to the source we were able to then follow their paths downstream to other systems, and they’ve been pulling from lots of sources, government mostly, but also things like insurance and professional organizations, that’s how they got your information Val, you belong to the American Physical Society, their security is crap, pardon my language, and it was really easy for the Union to hack.”

“Oh my god, they have my information? Am I safe?” asked the suddenly frightened scientist.

“You’re perfectly safe,” assured Vanek. “We’ve been keeping a close eye on you for months, just in case.”

“Kendra? You’ve had me followed?” Val’s fright flashed to anger in an instant.

“Not followed, as such, just, you know. Watched over. We can talk about it later,” she finished, seeing Val’s eyes still blazing. “Let’s deal with one problem at a time.”

Turning back to the previous thread, Kendra said, “And that’s exactly why I want to do disinformation, to make them doubt what they’ve already gathered. When you’re in intelligence, you learn the value of confirming sources before you act on the information gathered. Cris and Mac, you can vouch for that.” Both veteran agents nodded vigorously. “If we can get them to doubt, to feel the need to confirm the information, it buys us time and wastes their resources.”

“Tactically sound,” said Stone.

“I think we should double-check backgrounds,” said Cris.

“Okay, whose?” said Kendra.

Cris answered, “Everyone,” as if it were obvious.

“Won’t that be difficult?” said Cass.

“Won’t they object?” said Alley, at the same time.

“They can object, if they find out, but it won’t do any good. All of the contracts we work on at OutLook, and I’m sure you guys did the same thing throughout Harriman, allow for updated checks at the company’s discretion.”

“That’s something I carried over from OutLook,” agreed Kendra. “It just seemed sensible.”

“And as for difficulty, well, we do have a master hacker as well as an AI who specializes in keeping secrets. Mac? Harpo?”

“I foresee no difficulty in accessing the relevant databases,” said Harpo.

“Yeah, I don’t think it’ll be a problem, the only thing that really slowed me down before is processing speed, and with Harpo working with me, we’re not going to have any trouble getting in and out of just about anywhere, we can look for patterns that don’t fit, contacts that aren’t rational, see what’s going on, dig really deep and I’ll bet we won’t even trip a single alarm.”

“Let’s not get cocky,” admonished Cass. “But I know that if anyone can do it, it’s those two.”

“It would be wise to start with personnel who are already assigned to Enterprise and aboard me,” said Diana. “They would be in position to do the greatest damage with the least effort.”

“Concur,” said Alley.

“We’ve had so many people cycling in and out of here, I doubt I’d recognize half their names at this point,” admitted Kyran. “How are we going to deal with them?”

“Based on the supposition that they would be attempting physical sabotage, I will commence an intensive examination of all internal systems. However, a visual inspection of the habitat will also be necessary. I deduce that there is an eighty-six percent chance that any device installed will be independent from my systems and thus potentially unnoticed on an internal scan.”

“Minerva? Can you do the same?” asked Alley.

“Yes, Captain. My internal sensors are somewhat more advanced than Diana’s, but a supplemental visual inspection is recommended. I can also use my external sensors to supplement Diana’s internal systems. That will reduce the area which will require human intervention.”

“Commander Sanzari, I know you’re my Tacco, but you have a background in security; would you make yourself available to assist?”

“Aye-aye, Captain.”

“Mia, how is the training program coming?”

“We are fully manned for the thirteen Wolves stationed on Diana and Enterprise, as well as the three Earth-based MOVs. That’s a Coxswain’s and Engineer’s Mate for each on Enterprise, two CM’s and EM’s for Diana, and three CM’s and EM’s for Earth. I have another class starting tomorrow, and when I finish with them in three weeks we’ll actually be ahead of the curve, even with the scheduled additions.”

“Great job!” said Kendra. “Alley, I’m going to steal your Wolfpack for now. I want to put them into a patrol rotation around Diana.

“You’re the Admiral, Admiral. And it’s not like we need them on these test flights.”

“I’d like to request one MOV stay aboard,” said Cass. “That will still leave twelve aboard Diana.”

“I’m inclined to agree, but why?” said Alley.

“Captain, our flights are getting longer and longer in duration; sooner or later, we’re going to have to leave the Solar System and do some exploring, and if we find a planet we’re going to want to get down there. I speak for Lt. Zihal in this as well as myself: there’s no point in having two science officers aboard if we’re not going to have the opportunity to, you know. Do science. The transporter won’t work if there’s no corresponding pad, so any planets will require a MOV to get to.”

“I think that one MOV is reasonable,” added Kendra.

“Fine. Mia, who do you recommend remaining on Enterprise?” said Alley.

daVinci, with the Garcia triplets,” was Mia’s immediate response.

“Triplets?” said the Chief.

“Justina is a CM, Brianna is an EM, and Daniela is cross-trained as both a CM and EM,” explained Mia. “Sibling rivalry can be a beautiful thing sometimes. But that essentially gives us a double crew if you manage it right.”

“Are you thinking four hour shifts instead of eight?”

“Exactly. We could have them on 24 hour rotation, at least for a day or so, with nobody doing more than eight hours at a stretch. Maximum flexibility,” said Mia. “Plus I trust Huey, Dewey, and Louie not to bend a bird.”

“I thought they were Justina, Daniela, and Brianna?” asked a confused Mac.

“That’s what I called them at the Academy,” laughed Mia.

“Mia, you’re not going to be on patrol; I need you working up the next class instead.”

“Aye aye, Admiral. I was going to bring the Yang up from Earth. That’s Bovin and Tovny’s boat; he’s a competent CM, if nothing special, and Tovny’s a magician on the systems.”

“I trust your judgement, Commander. That should provide some insulation around Diana and Enterprise. Commodore, I need you to make the installation of those missile pods your top priority. You’ve got to have some sort of defense, something that can force the Union to stand off a bit.”

“We’re already on it,” they said. “The new guy you met, Chris? He’s been an absolute machine! He’d pull double shifts if I let him, but he’s been everywhere, inspecting everything, checking connections, you name it. Under his example, our crews have been working extra shifts, and we’ve managed to get two dozen installed. The sticking point is still reloading, but I don’t think we’re going to solve that in this iteration of Diana. We’ve got plans for the upgrade, though.”

“Whatever you can manage is better than none at all.” Kendra stopped, thinking.

When the silence had gone on for a couple minutes, Cass said, “Ken?”

“Huh? Sorry, just trying to figure out…Minerva, Diana, Harpo, I need a probability estimate. Which of you is best at that?”

There was an imperceptible pause, then Harpo said, “My programming is closest to what you are looking for, Admiral. What estimate do you need?”

“If we tell the Union that we’re expanding our no-fly zone out to a hundred thousand kilometers, give them a couple days to retrieve their satellites and reroute shipping, and then start knocking down anything that violates our airspace, how likely is it that they’ll take that as a de facto declaration of war?”

“What basis do you plan to give them for the expansion, Admiral?”

“I was thinking a safety exclusionary zone, since we’re testing Enterprise.”

“I don’t believe that reason would be adequate to prevent their hostility, Admiral. I estimate that, given that excuse, the leadership of the Union will interpret your action as a territorial grab and respond with force. The probability of this action is roughly ninety two percent, plus or minus two percent.”

“Ouch. What if I simply declare a zone? No reason, no excuse?”

“Then the probability of hostilities rises to ninety eight percent, with the same margin of error.”

“Is there anything I could do or say that will reduce the probabilities, instead of increasing them?”

“Offering to reduce the cost of boost from Terra on HLC”s platforms to pre-Cassidy levels reduces the probability to seventy-eight percent.”

“Not happening,” Cass said firmly.

“Offering to provide the Union with plans for an Enterprise-class starship results in a seventy-two percent probability.”

“Those jerks? With FTL?”

“Offering to adhere to the Accords, including the Amendment, results in a sixty-four percent probability.”

“Nope. We already know they’re just using that to keep the UE under their thumb. Is there anything we can do that gets the probability under fifty-fifty?”

“There is one scenario which would reduce the probability of open hostilities to near zero; however, it will also increase the likelihood of personally targeted hostilities towards command-rank personnel to near certainty.”

“I feel pretty good that I can keep them safe,” said Sanzari.

Vanek nodded in agreement.

“What’s that?” asked Kendra.

“Pledging the Terran Federation’s allegiance to the Solarian Union, specifically to the Primus of Artemis, and –”

“Don’t even bother finishing,” interrupted Kendra. “We’ll hold the exclusion zone in reserve for now. There is one more thing, though.” She let her eyes sweep around the conference.

“I want all of you to plan to transfer onto Diana for the duration; yourself, your partners, your families. Once the re-check is complete, you should also look at your key subordinates. I don’t want to start a panic, but we all know that the Union isn’t averse to using KEWs on targets on Earth. If you’re not at your address, they can’t drop a rock on you.”

“Are you sure Diana can handle it?” asked Ted.

“Kyran?”

Diana, as it stands currently, has a permanent crew of a hundred eighty-six, with another sixty-two dependents. We also have a transient population of construction workers, scientists, and such, of another three hundred and eight.”

“Three hundred ten,” corrected Diana.

“Three ten,” Knott said. “And at that, we are at, what, seven percent of capacity? Diana?”

“We are currently using seven point two five one percent of environmental and food production capacity. In terms of cubic, we are using five point nine eight three percent of capacity. In other words, we can handle it.”

“I intend to move our household to Diana as soon as is feasible, and I strongly recommend you think about doing the same. I won’t order it; I may be called Admiral of this lash-up, but I don’t think I have any delusions of grandeur.” A chuckle passed through the room. “But as your friend, please, consider it.”

Val was the first to speak. “As long as I can get my lab up here, I’m happy to come. After seeing the performance in Enterprise, I’ve had some ideas…”

“I’ll make arrangements with my team to provide coverage here as well as Los Alamos,” said Vanek. “Commodore Knott, do you have a security force aboard Diana?”

“No, we’ve never needed one.”

“My first thought, then, is to bring the majority of my team aboard and coordinate with you. We will be more effective in our role protecting the Cassidys if we’re integrated into your organization; I guess in this case we’ll become your organization, eh?”

“I’m sure we can figure it out,” said Knott.

“If Cris can spare me, I’m in,” said Stone. “We’re not doing much hiring these days, so my training cycles have gone way down. Besides, the girls need me more that OutLook does.”

“Hey!” objected Cris. “Nobody can replace your experience! But, you have a point. We really don’t have any pressing need for someone who knows twenty-four ways to kill a man when unarmed.”

“Twenty-five.”

“My mistake. I can do most of what’s needed to run OutLook from here as easily from my office. At most I’d need to get back to Earth once a week. Would that be possible?”

“I’m sure we can spare a Wolf to do the trip. Probably make sense to coordinate schedules and do a supplemental supply run at the same time,” said Kendra. “Mia, that’s going to be up to you to organize.”

“Ted and I are in,” said Mac.

“’Ted and I’?” said Cass with a twinkle. “My, my, Mac, is there anything you want to tell us?”

It turned out that Mac could turn almost the same shade of red Ted could.

The Road to the Stars – Book 2 – Chapter 15
The Road to the Stars – Book 2 – Chapter 16

Published by gaffen620

Author of The Cassidy Chronicles. Lives in Colorado with many dogs, cats, and one very patient wife.

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