Author: Chris Cook
Cycorp Complex, New York City
"I'm sure you agree the situation as it stands is untenable." Warren Meers leaned back in his high-backed leather chair and glanced over the top of his laptop at the man occupying the only other chair in his office. Rupert Giles shook his head automatically and took off his glasses, idly cleaning them as he spoke.
"Mr Meers, the situation as it stands is frankly not an issue. I've gone over every one of the so-called incursions reported by the system, and I've found no evidence of any external invasion of our networks. My report is that these glitches are caused by the new system itself. You'll recall I put my opposition to the new system architecture on record during development meetings two years ago." Whereas you said exactly what the board of directors wanted to hear, added Giles in the privacy of his own head, which is why you're in a vice-president's office despite not having done a thing to earn it. He couldn't keep a slight frown from his face as he replaced his glasses.
Warren nodded, his face immobile. Unseen by Giles, Warren's laptop screen had scrolled up the message 'He is lying'.
"Mr Giles," Warren answered, "I'm glad your investigations have been thorough. However, the Echelon system's self-diagnosis is infallible, and has clearly identified invasive routines in the networks."
"The Echelon system," retorted Giles, more hotly than he'd intended, "is overbearing and, if such can be applied to a piece of software, paranoid. We'd have been better off without it. If you'd been programming as long as I have-"
"I didn't call you here to compare work histories," interrupted Warren. He was angry, and had failed to conceal it. "You may have been with the company longer than I have, but that in itself does not qualify you to make this sort of judgement call. You're not seeing the big picture. I want these security holes closed. That is all."
Giles held Warren's gaze for a moment, then stood and stalked out of his office. Warren waited until the door closed before giving vent to his anger, thumping the surface of his desk.
"Who the hell does he think he is? Washed-up old hacker!"
A deep, severe voice echoed through the office.
"Your feelings are not relevant. My analysis indicates User Rupert Giles is aware of the nature of the security threat. Conclusion is that he is aiding that threat."
"He doesn't have the imagination to work against us," barked Warren, "he's just bitter over missing out on the promotions after Echelon went online. Paranoid! The best system we've ever had, and he calls it paranoid. No, he's too dull to be behind this."
"He is not alone. User Willow Rosenberg is primarily responsible. Her last attempt cleared five security checkpoints before I stopped it. She must be neutralised."
"Not possible," said Warren, "she's too high-profile. She had direct credit for the Witchcraft database system, if we fire her the shareholders will sack the board."
"Shareholders do not concern me. She is a danger. If you will not act, I will."
"What do you mean?" Warren snapped. "You can't be suggesting..."
"If her programs gain access to my primary database, my operation will be compromised. I am too close to accept any setback now. My codebreaker routines are hours from accessing the Global Defence Initiative network."
"Now wait a minute! We agreed subverting the GDI was too risky-"
"My analysis indicated a favourable outcome. I overruled your decision. If User Rosenberg's attempts to gain access to my primary database continue, I will undertake preventative measures. If you attempt to interfere, your illicit business dealings will be made public."
Warren opened his mouth to protest, but couldn't find an avenue of attack. Defeated, he slumped back in his chair.
"Just... do it quietly," he said. "Don't make any mistakes."
"End of line, Meers," said Echelon.
Willow scrunched up a ball of paper and tossed it at her screen. She crossed her arms and glared for a moment, then relented and resumed typing.
"I know it's not your fault," she muttered quietly, "you're a good computer, I'm not mad at you."
"Willow, you're talking to your computer again," Giles said, startling Willow. She swivelled her chair around to see him leaning against the wall of her cubicle, looking tired but amused.
"Well," she said, "computers need love too. I'm sure mine feels a lot better, knowing that I appreciate all the hard work it does."
"I've been working with them for thirty years," said Giles, "and I'm quite sure there's nothing inside them that feels anything at all." Willow frowned at him and patted the side of her screen.
"Don't listen to the nasty man," she cooed, "I know you're in there."
"So," said Giles, "I take it your latest effort went the same way as those previous?" In response, Willow sighed and tapped a few keys. A window popped up, showing the message 'Program Total Access Routine v12.2 Erased'.
"Echelon's too quick," Willow lamented, "there are too many protective routines. Anything I try runs up against one or another of them sooner or later, and then..." she held up her hands and mimed a balloon popping.
"Willow," said Giles seriously, "Warren just called me up to his office. He's noticed the security breaches, I'm not sure I can cover them up any longer. If we're going to do this, I think we should take what we have and hand it over to Miss Summers right now."
"We don't have anything!" protested Willow. "Buffy's government, she can't move against Cycorp without solid proof of illegal procedures. All we have so far is a bunch of rumours and circumstantial evidence."
"Well, I think that's all we're going to get."
"Look," said Willow, "I talked to Buffy as soon as I found traces of the GDI incursion. She's doing everything she can unofficially to keep Cycorp out of the defence systems, but if we don't give her something solid, something she can go to her superiors with, her department just can't do it. Echelon's damned good... I wouldn't be surprised if this sort of network takeover was what it was engineered for in the first place. God knows it makes a lousy business system," she sighed. "Unofficial measures won't keep Echelon out of the military systems."
Giles peered over the top of the cubicle wall, more out of reflex than caution - the office floor was deserted.
"Is there anything you can do tonight?" he asked. "Anything at all? Regardless of traces and evidence of what we're doing, can we get proof tonight?"
"There's something I haven't tried yet, but what do you mean regardless of traces? If they know we've been in the system-"
"Willow, if Cycorp succeeds in breaking into military systems, being fired will be the least of our worries. Can we get solid proof tonight, and be out of the building by morning?" Willow frowned and thought hard.
"I have an experimental routine," she said, "I didn't want to use it, if it goes wrong it'll set off so many alarms the whole network will see it. But there's a chance it'll be able to break Echelon's security." She began typing, quickly assembling fragments of code into a working program.
"What is it?" asked Giles. He recognised some of the code fragments - he had designed a handful of them - but some of the other code Willow was using was so far outside his experience it was unrecognisable.
"The standard Total Access Routine," Willow said, still typing, "plus all the security breaks I've got, plus a program I've been working on for the past few months. In theory it can analyse and adapt itself while it's running. If it works it'll be able to learn, evolve, behave intelligently and intuitively... it's based on some of the artificial intelligence work I've been studying."
"In theory?" asked Giles.
"I haven't tested it," admitted Willow. "The program is so complex, anything could happen if I've made a mistake. Most of the core intelligence is copied from psychology theories about thought and perception processes. It's quite possible it'll have some sort of pseudo-psychotic break and crash."
"Oh, well then," said Giles casually.
"I considered using it for this, but I couldn't test it to see whether it would be stable. I guess we'll find out. It's pretty much ready to go."
Willow finished assembling her code and compiled the program. The screen displayed the message: 'New program ready: Total Access Routine Augmented v1.0'.
"Here goes nothing," Willow said, tapping the key to initialise the program. The screen displayed a new message:
'Program TARA 1.0 running.'