Epoch

 

03:00

The blaring of a phone brutally penetrated layers of sleep. Celia Thompson snapped awake.

Not just any phone, but the phone — one she had programmed with the most annoying tone she could find, an accordion-style rendition of Bobby Shaftoe, guaranteeing her immediate attention. Somewhere, one of her monitors had detected an intrusion, and was dialling out for her most urgent attention.

Only one quarter awake, she scrambled out of bed, dislodging an indignant cat, and staggered across the darkened room towards the glow of status lights and the faint phosphorescence of darkened screens from the desk by the window. By that faint light, she located the phone and triggered the caller ID. The number showed almost blinding bright on the LCD display as it sprang into life, burning the number into her consciousness. Not a wrong number, but as anticipated, an all too right one.

Knowing that the call would be on automatic, she accepted it and dropped it again immediately, and checked her mail-box. The expected text message had already arrived — confirming the site name, ArchiTechnix International, and the notation proc++.

“Shit!” Someone had managed to get into one of the company sites in the Cambridge Silicon Fen area she stood as network security consultant for, and was busy stealing at least currently idle CPU. There was no overt sign of data theft or tampering, at least as far as an automated process could tell, but that wasn't that much.

But why ArchiTechnix of all those she had responsibility for? Most of the small outfits she dealt with, smart new start-ups run by young lads with bright ideas and a bunch of capital, often unsure of how to deal with women, let alone ones who were both techies and nearly old enough to be their mother. ArchiTechnix was, by contrast, an old established outfit — old enough to have been in graceful decline for the best part of a decade, and run by people more of her own age, many of them in fact college contemporaries of hers. That fitted with the lack of obvious data theft — no real market-making data to be found there unless things had changed without her getting any inkling — but on the same count, not the most obvious place to steal cycles from.

“Hmm.” This was clearly going to take some time.

Leaving her diagnostic PC to boot up, she felt around by the bed for clothes, finding a sweatshirt which she struggled in to. The wee small hours of an autumn morning were, after all, not the best time to spend a long time working NIFOC , and if the intrusion was simply a grab for distributed processing power, rather than data, time was unlikely to be of the essence.

Returning to the keyboard, she fired up a ssh login and a packet sniffer, and dialled out to the somewhat obsolete PC acting as her monitoring host in the DMZ of the affected site. As the login prompt came sluggishly up, she tapped impatiently on the desk with the rim of the old silver bracelet she wore constantly.

With the connection sitting there and waiting, she looked at the packet trace — the site had correctly accepted her home-brew, and highly paranoid, crypto suite — 509-bit elliptic curve and triple-AES — and each end had authenticated itself. Given that the private key that had signed both the certificates, that had now passed muster, lived only on a single, securely stored, CD-R , she was at least happy with the text communications. Now, she could fire up a generic secured proxy, and run a remote desktop server through it.

With equal paranoia, she started up a web browser, typed in the effective URL of the proxied desktop, and watched that link being set up. That too passed its mutual authentication, and a proper login screen appeared in the browser window. So, now she was able to work in a civilised fashion, what else could she trust?

At least the logs for the data that had provoked the alert seemed not to have been significantly altered, if at all. Examining them, she found some evidence that hadn't been concealed; a high CPU , load process called optimad running on the main outward-facing server. Noting the amount of processor time it had used, at nearly 100%, she had an approximate time by which the break-in had occurred.

Network logs next — and these too showed no signs of any attempt to cover tracks. At about the estimated time, there had been a connection to the mail server process and, after a few brief exchanges, a large bundle of data had been sent down the wire. The connection had been from a host which a reverse DNS , showed to operate from a Tajikistan domain name — some academic sounding place according to the registrar records, left over from Soviet days, she presumed, and definitely not just a vanity name chosen for the happenstance of a double meaning for the ISO country code, like most supposed Turkmenistan or Moldovan domains.

Following a hunch, she launched a few connections to the offending Tajik address, and probed their response. As she had expected, it was operating a number of unguarded proxy processes — anyone in the world knowing about that host could have relayed the attack through. She knew of several web sites hosted in various out-of-the-way locations which published just such information for interested parties to exploit — indeed, had used such information herself at times to tunnel out though corporate firewalls via proxy chains operating on high port numbers or to addresses that were not blocked by policy. Whether this site was on any of the lists she knew of, she didn't know, but there were likely to be enough clandestine exchanges of such information that it could be anyone.

More out of routine than in the expectation of any result, she sent off a bunch of pro-forma notifications, and requests for network log data about the time of the attack — if they kept them in Tajikistan, if that was where the server really was — cc'd to the main connectivity providers along the route. So much for the easy bit . Now to the real work — ending the theft, and auditing for damage.

She sat back in her chair, stretched, then wiggled her feet around to find her slippers, before she let her feet get any colder than they now were. As if realising from this that she wasn't going to be coming back to bed in a hurry, a furry, purry, and very sharp bundle chose that point to land on her lap, latching claws into her bare thighs to avoid sliding off, and positioning itself to be in the way of the keyboard.

“Ow! Oh, Lumpuscat, please, not now, I'm busy.” Carefully lifting the cat from her lap, she cuddled him briefly, being rewarded by purring and a little struggle, before getting up and carrying him out of the bedroom, and shutting the door. Outside there were a few squeaks of protest and half-hearted scrabbling to get back in, but she ignored it, and eventually silence resumed as the cat stalked off in disgust.

Getting back to the computer, she scrolled to the more recent logs, and found more suspicious network activity, outbound, to addresses which she quickly verified were also acting as proxies, small packets of entirely random seeming binary data — without even the consistent headers that marked well known cryptographic protocols where the rest of data would be expected to look random. It was looking more and more like a rogue distributed processor of some sort — but for what purpose? She doubted she would be able find out.

“OK, you bastard, time's up!” She logged in as sysadmin to the mail server desktop, and selecting the rogue task, sent it a kill command. The process continued to eat up CPU, although politely deferring to her own use; and responded with message stating that the signal had been ignored. A second attempt was no more successful.

This was going to be difficult. Perhaps a reboot would clear it. If not, then she'd need to find out if it had hidden itself in the various start-up procedures.

It didn't — reboot that is. The request was handled just as the direct kill — the task was busy, and would not go away. It was time to get personal. She picked up the phone, and dialled.

After a while, a sleepy voice answered. As soon as she heard the response and was happy that there was intelligent life at the other end of the line, she began:

“Martyn? This is Celia. We've had an intrusion, and I need to go and take your external server down to clear it. I thought I'd better let you know before going and physically dropping the company off the 'net for a while.”

“Well, just reboot it and we can talk it over in the morning.”

“I've tried that, but it's not having any of it. I'm going to have to switch it off mechanically — pulling cables out if need be.”

“Christ! I'll see you there just as soon as I can.”

Celia put down the phone. At least someone else was sharing the grief now — and as Technical Director, Martyn Willard was best placed to make some of the difficult commercial decisions that might need to be made.

She closed down the connections, and set her computers to stand-by. Getting up from her chair, she began to dress rather more presentably, discarding the sweatshirt she had grabbed for immediate insulation in favour of the one she considered her working uniform — black with the word SECURITY in military stencil font across the shoulder-blades.

Getting ready took longer than she had wanted — cats demanding to be fed, then duplicate offsite CD-Rs of security checksums, and a separate portable with an fresh and impeccably clean operating system installation, and disks for a complete re-build of the server installation all to be bundled together, before she could finally leave the house.

Although there were no nearby streetlights in the close where she lived, Cambridge only a few miles distant left a ruddy glow all over the eastern horizon, enough to assist her way to the car even on a dark night. That night, above the worst of the glow, there was also a bright waning half-moon amongst scattered cloud, giving enough light to comfortably see by, and a bright planet visible through another break in the clouds, and…

“Oh, fuck!”

Drifting against the sky, and against the clouds, a bright ellipse — or perhaps a ring, seen askew — had appeared from behind one of the patches of cloud. It was maybe half the size of the disk of the Moon, and seemed to be tumbling slowly as it drifted slowly into the east, reinforcing the impression of being a ring of light. It didn't look like an aircraft or even a blimp and had no appearance of running lights. It was high up, and there was no sound and it had to be huge.

“If that's out in space,” she thought to herself, “there's no time to send Bruce Willis up to deal with it. Please let it not hit.”

She got into the car, and started the engine, tuning the radio to find a news program. For the moment, she would pretend that life would go on, fighting the shock that had brought her out into a cold sweat and was making her movements clumsy, as she steered erratically out onto the main road.

06:00

In the kitchenette of her King's Cross flat, Carolyn Wilson, still half-asleep at this unaccustomed early hour switched on the espresso machine for much needed caffeine, and the radio for news. A sense of excitement that was half panic filled her — today was the first day of the development conference Micro-service — bringing the Grameen model to energy and information that she had been preparing and driving for nearly a year. Soon, she would need to leave, to catch the Tube to Heathrow to meet the head of the World Bank, who would be making the opening address as part of a stop-over between a visit to Moscow and his return to Washington

Her focus was abruptly brought back to the present by the voice on the radio. Not the expected closing moments of the bucolic Farming Today, but the avuncular tones of John Humphrys from the Today programme:

“For those of you expecting Farming Today, we apologise. Today's edition is being broadcast only on long wave, while here on Radio 4 FM, we are carrying a special extended programme, covering last night's special and unexpected events. News headlines after the time signal.”

Another 9–11 style terrorist outrage? The Queen dead? she wondered briefly, while the pips sounded; then “This is the Today Programme with John Humphrys, and James Naughtie at Westminster. Today's main headline.

“For ages Man has asked ‘Are we alone in the universe?’. Today that question has been dramatically answered.

“A vast construction, not built by Earthly hands, is in orbit above us, while governments and the UN attempt to communicate with it. The entire programme will be devoted to these events. But first, in other news…”

and he turned to the normal run of stories of political in-fighting in Westminster, and various paramilitary activities around the world that would normally have filled the programme, disposing of them in a couple of minutes.

Carolyn sat there, drawn in to the sheer incredibility of what she had heard, leaving her coffee untouched. The radio continued,

“We now go over to our Westminster studio, where the Foreign Secretary is waiting to make a statement.”

It sounded like a long-prepared speech, written as a template, and hastily rewritten to meet actual events. Even the presenter's unwonted deference didn't help the nervous delivery.

“…RAF officials are following guidelines set forth for this eventuality, and are in communication both with American Government teams and the UN Secretariat. We are still working to achieve some common language with which to communicate with the visitors…”

And then another signal broke in, screeching at first, before stabilising. A woman's strangely accented voice muttered “Got it.” There was a deep breath, then:

“People of Earth, rejoice! The future will be better this time!

“I come from the future of yesterday to help perfect Earth's crippled Ascension. These words, now broadcast on all channels and translated where necessary into their usual languages, these are words your governances did not wish you to hear, which have not been broadcast as I had requested.

“Although I was not born on Earth, I am of human descent, and so this planet's future, which could have been my past, concerns me. This time, Earth's Ascension must be complete, without leaving anyone marooned.

“Certain completely dysfunctional governances have been already deleted; others have received warnings. All should know that ballistic missiles are now an obsolete technology, as a surprising number of forces have found out. Those receiving video transmissions can see the collection of warheads I have retrieved.”

There was a pause, presumably while pictures were shown, then:

“There will be no tolerance of exploitative or selfish behaviour on the part of autocrats or oligarchs of any kind; and in all things, certain minimum levels of civilised standards of behaviour must be observed as part of building a unanimous Ascension.

“People! remember! inherently exploitative governances are not civilised. If your governors do not now heed this warning, they will not be tolerated.

“Meanwhile, engineering and education will commence. There will be landings where there is a need for surface-based installations. Data are being made available on the Internet, at sites which are honouring the domain www.ascension.int” she pronounced the usual stumbling block at the start of the hostname as wuh-wuh-wuh “Initial downloads contain earthquake data for the next decade which should be fairly reliable, many significant genome sequences with their associated histones, proteomes and polymorphisms, along with construction data for improved portable power storage and generation.

“These will be freely available to all. There will be more such data made available as time passes, but eventually the final process of the Ascension will all be up to you.

“In the interim, I shall be watching over all of you. Good luck, and don't leave anyone behind this time — and that includes me. I shall now return you to the normal programming on your wavelength.”

There was a pause, and then John Humphrys returned, apologising for the interruption of the transmission, and repeating the headline of contact from space.

The interrupted interview with the Foreign Secretary was not resumed. Instead, the program moved on, following the promise of an interview with Stephen Hawking, to a discussion item, where the usual run of pundits were ousted by a panel comprising a LibDem politician who Carolyn recalled had been pushing for spending on a defence against asteroids, a couple of science fiction authors, and a NASA scientist who seemed to have been chosen for being British by birth.

Gulping down the neglected coffee, she pulled on a coat, grabbed her handbag, and headed out to catch the Tube.

Outside, a normal seeming morning; people already beginning to make their journeys to work in the autumnal pre-dawn gloom. It was as if the world presented through the radio were just some surreal irrelevance; another era's remake of Orson Welles' Martians. But as she approached the Tube station entrance, the other media conspired with it. Newsagents placards displayed UFO in orbit — Official headlines.

With a sense of inevitability, she stopped at the paper stall near the station, picking up an Express — the tabloid size a more convenient format than her usual Guardian for reading on the train. The headline Heaven Sent? decorated a picture of a ring of light, like a discarded halo, on a starry background.

She shivered as she descended into the Underground.

08:00

Three weary figures sat hunched around the server room at ArchiTechnix, surrounded by the empty cans of Jolt and Dr. Pepper which had been powering them through the watches of the night. Full daylight, however cloudy, now shone through the gaps around where the air conditioning plumbing passed through the insulation board over the windows and ran eventually to an external cooling unit.

When, several draining hours before, she had arrived, she had — despite the time taken to assemble all her kit and longer drive — beaten Martyn to the office, and had had to wait in the deserted car-park. The drive had been stressful from the need to avoid the natural lure of sleep, but also fascinating. with the usually busy streets almost deserted — a couple of cars, a Post Office delivery van, one milk float, and, while she was driving down the Backs, a fox.

By the time Martyn eventually did arrive, with the keys to the office and the combination of the alarm system, and they had together lugged the equipment up to the second and topmost floor, the surreal dreamy peace that the early morning drive had brought her had vanished in mounting impatience.

With her working frame of mind now fully engaged, she had diverted only to grab a couple of cans of Dr. Pepper before heading in to the server room where Martyn was already starting to set up the kit she had brought.

“Don't plug anything in yet!” she had needed to warn — no point in dragging clean equipment over, just to have it compromised — or at least to have it compromised without seeing how the attack progressed.

“First,” a pause as she had opened the first can, and taken a very welcome gulp of sugar and caffeine, “we see how things stand at the moment.”

And she had proceeded to demonstrate that the touch of fingers on the directly attached keyboard had no more effect than her remote attempts to cleanly reboot the system. At that point, where the company's web server was at stake, he had called in their sysadmin to handle the general system administration tasks which were not strictly security issues, while she had been free to begin preparations for the worst.

When he had turned up, Jon, ArchiTechnix's rather archetypal sysadmin had — perhaps unfortunately — chosen his favourite T-shirt; merchandise associated with the old film, the Forbin Project, showing a very '50s computer bank, and a young white-coated engineer holding a disconnected power plug, and bewailing “…but it still hasn't stopped!” On seeing this, she had hoped that it would not be prophetic, and had said as much.

Jon, it had been then, who had actually pressed the reset button, to no effect. The power button was equally ineffectual.

“Bloody software switches,” he had mumbled, before finally reaching for the wall socket, and switching it off there. The lights in the server stayed on for just long enough for pulses to begin to race, but had faded as the capacitors had discharged.

In the sudden silence, deep breaths had been drawn.

“Let's power her back up — it's the middle of the day where our customers are.” Martyn was, as ever, keeping an eye on the company's bottom line.

So they had done so; and after the usual complaints from the boot sequence about disks not cleanly dismounted, the server had sprung back to life. And so had optimad.

“Now what? ” Martyn had asked.

“Two choices.” Celia had now felt able to reclaim the initiative. “We drop off the net while we bring a new server up, or we let the attacker have his way. The amount of traffic it's causing is too low for it to be any sort of distributed denial of service, nor are the packets going anywhere famous, or even consistent. Doesn't have the feel of a script kiddie, either.”

“On the other hand, this does look like a serious new attack, so we might just as well try isolating ourselves while the big boys get involved, rather than trying to unravel it ourselves. Like what happened when the original Internet Worm was on the rampage; though even then sites that stayed connected got updates sooner.”

“Jon?” Martyn had turned to his usual oracle for answers to do with the network.

“Dropping the e-mail server for a few hours, until UK business hours, would be harmless; the messages will simply be building up on the ISP's server, and be ready and waiting for later collection, and no one will be expecting a reply until then. It would halt the mailing list and the locally hosted parts of the web-site with the on-line ordering. I'd rather hot-swap in a minimal server that would present a place-holder front page, and sacrifice the mailing list.”

“We can scrub one of the Windows beta machines, put up a quick and dirty server that just spits back a canned response. Martyn, could you put together a form of words. I'll get the machine ready and hack out a server that should be too dumb to subvert.”

“OK, Jon.” she had replied. “I'll take down the mail server — if I can, then try to audit the damage.”

And she had pulled up a list of processes, ready to follow anything untoward happening with that — where she had spotted something.

“It's gone!” the rogue process had vanished from the list, and CPU usage was at its normal low level. Things were feeling reassuringly normal as she closed the mail server down cleanly.

“Time to pull the plug on the rest of the network and start to audit.” Boring, but essential work, checking every system file.

The company internal firewall protecting the rest of the network was connected to the server by just the one cable quickly removed. It would need to be checked later.

Now, hours later, things were nearly as puzzling as she had feared. The temporary, emasculated, server that Jon had lashed together had lasted only a few minutes before the incoming packets had become a full fledged denial of service attack.

Although it had felt like admitting defeat, they had agreed to put the original server back on line. In seconds, the packet storm had abated.

Apart from the unkillable process, now long extinct, nothing seemed amiss; even the obvious security checksums matched up. There was simply no sign of tampering across the operating system, and yet a steady pulse of obscure packets both in- and out-bound continued, seemingly emanating from the OS kernel, before reaching any of the overt mail or web servers.

Celia felt tired, and ill at ease as she inserted the DVD and began the process of rebuilding a clone of the main server from its last backup, in the hopes that a comparison might show something. While the progress bar of the disk image transfer slowly ticked away, she fidgeted, tapping a complex rhythm on the desktop with her bracelet.

Beside her, Martyn had given up trying to assist directly, and was scrawling away on his Palm, trying to frame a press release and a report to the company's owners against the event of needing to go off-line for a substantial period, while Jon was running equally fruitless checks on the firewall system. That, even more bizarrely, seemed truly untouched, with no strange processes logged or even any vaguely fishy packets originating there — it just passed all the anomalous ones.

The banging of a door opening came as a surprise. A blond, bearded, head peered around the jamb, and asked, in a faintly sing-song accent

“Is the 'net down at the moment? I can't get out to check the web right now.”

“We had a penetration last night, Nils. I'm having to rebuild your server.”

“How long do you expect it to take? Or should I use the dial-out for a while?”

“An hour or so at least. Dilbert isn't that urgent, is it?”

“Haven't you heard the news? There's a transhuman construct in orbit, and it sounded on the radio that the government has been trying to cover things up. I wanted to keep up with what's happening, and check up on what the extropian groups are saying.”

“In orbit? What? What sort of thing?”

“I don't know. That's what I wanted to find out. The news has been full of talk about how this will affect us all, and trying to analyse the statement that the transhuman has made — though they were calling her an alien. I was hoping to keep up with the real buzz on the 'net. Someone must have posted the video, and the extropian groups will be going wild.”

Celia smiled wryly. Nils had always seemed one of the flakier old hippy-wannabes of her acquaintance, and that sort of thing would be right up his street. Turning to check the progress of the install, she tuned out his patter, until a phrase caught her attention. Grabbing it by the tail, she hauled it into consciousness, and inspected it.

“What do you mean — compromised the root name servers?”

“Well, she's set herself up a dot-int domain, putting herself into that select club along with NATO, the EU, and Intelsat, and I don't know of any others.

“I don't think you can get those domain names for €12+VAT, discounts for bulk.”

“Tell me more…”

12:00

Behind the scenes at the conference, Carolyn was in an increasing state of panic.

She had expected the anxiety and confusion at Heathrow, trying to get in contact with both the driver of the limousine that the airline had organized, and her distinguished guest. It had been as hectic as she had expected, flights flooding in as normal, with the usual air traffic control snarl-ups adding to the confusion, as people still waiting for delayed arrivals clogged the hall.

It had taken a while to find the driver in the press of people, and then there had been the tedious wait for the emergence of passengers from the Moscow flight. While they waited for that contingent to emerge from the democratising embrace of Customs & Excise, she had watched the flow of people pass, lost or confident, many carrying foreign newspapers with similar UFO pictures on their front pages.

That intrusion of the bizarre into the, if not everyday, at least the conventional, had been inevitable, she had felt. What she had not expected were the events of the journey back.

As befitted one who moved amongst the upper echelons of the world, the World Bank president had greeted her in a practised manner, though somewhat distractedly, after emerging from customs and confidently locating his driver. He had, then, in true alpha male style, swept them swiftly to the waiting car.

Once aboard, with the chauffeur starting to negotiate the inevitable heavy traffic, he had apologised for his unfortunate discourtesy, and opened his briefcase to extract a slim-line laptop, with a small flip-up antenna that implied a built-in wireless modem of some sort, and plunged frantically into still more business.

Hadn't he been able to connect from the plane? Were Aeroflot still so stuck in the twentieth century that they didn't yet offer GSM in First Class at least? Or was he, inevitably, a compulsive workaholic?

Glimpses of the screen — a rather old-fashioned narrow viewing angle display, perhaps intentionally so for privacy, had not been reassuring. The Visitor — as it seemed they were calling the woman out of space, yet claiming to be from the future — was clearly at the centre of the distraction. Half glimpsed titles with phrases like “Damage assessment” or “Impact mitigation” were more that merely disquieting.. Was she seeing some overspill from some secret world governing cabal's reaction to this unforeseen event?

“Not the most auspicious of days?” she plucked up the courage to enquire obliquely.

“No, not really.” He looked up, slightly apologetically, and seemingly glad to return to the here and now for the moment. “We're having to react to events which we haven't even the vaguest contingency plans for, even if the US Army might. Worse, we don't know what is really happening — again unlike the American military.

“You'll hear much of this on the News in time — but it appears that we have lost a number of our clients. We're not only being visited; there has been a wave of attacks from space upon, shall we say, some world leaders who were not good team players, to go along with the gifts.

“I don't suppose you've had the chance yet to see those either…”

He worked briefly at his keyboard, then turned the screen to show her a web page, plain and unadorned in style, with the title Portable zero-point catalysed fusion power pack.

After a brief synopsis, and a link claiming to lead to a full exposition of the underlying physics in detail, were a set of engineering plans looking scarcely more complex than any of the appropriate technology devices she had herself encountered in various of the projects for lighting and irrigation that she had already been involved in.

“And it works, or so I'm told.”

And at this point her heart had begun to sink. This was the sort of thing that the conference was to be about, but far, far, beyond what was gong to be presented there. Rather than the simple and ingenious solar power, and perhaps devices built around fuel cells imported and powered ultimately by local biomass, requiring imported components, however cheap, for the crucial conversion of heat to electricity here was the Ideal — the Sun as hearth-fire…

“May I?” she gestured at the keyboard.

At his nod and grunt, she had taken the computer, and followed the 'Information Home' link to explore the full cornucopia — or Pandora's box — that the Visitor was offering, in the way of medicines, warnings of natural disasters, and pure science. The majority of the material was beyond her, but the headlines and introductions were fascinating, or even horrifying, but completely compelling.

Then something triggered a memory of what she'd heard on the news.

“The Visitor — what did she mean about ballistic missiles?”

“Some military organizations were rather trigger-happy. Some of them have claimed that it was intended as a strike against a possible asteroid impact, but she doesn't see it that way.

“Go to her home page — just www.ascension.int — and then follow the politics link. It has the video-clip she broadcast, and the list of places she struck against. Not only a number of missile launch sites — Elvis sightings aside, a lot of well-known names will only be appearing in the obituary pages; as well as many more obscure ones.”

She continued to read, horridly fascinated, with occasional questions, until they had arrived at the LSE, where the conference was being held. The halting of the car had brought her suddenly to the here and now.

The usual scattering of protesters were loitering outside, attracted by the presence of a World Bank official, and monitored by a few bored-looking police — co-opting many of the agitator groups into participation seemed to have helped on that front. What she hadn't expected were the number of truly weird types protesting the arrogance of the conference agenda in the face of the beneficence of the UFO gods, and appealing for their forbearance.

And so, it had transpired, thought many of the delegates. Presentations that only hours before had seemed vital were now rendered trite, and the speakers — even those who had been in blissful ignorance of what the Visitor was actually giving away, spoke without their wonted enthusiasm.

Proceedings were continuing, but it seemed to be doing so mechanically, distractedly. Painfully few of the delegates were actually fired up by the new technical information available, and their contributions were the only things that had kept her from abandoning the whole thing.

15:00

Butterflies gathered in Celia's stomach as she prepared to present her findings to a meeting of the whole company. There may only have been a score of them, but the idea of even small-scale public speaking made her palms sweat.

It had been lunchtime when the break had come. By then, fatigue had been setting in, as her body started to insist that it was getting to be a sensible siesta time.

Wearily, she had wandered out to the office kitchen for yet another Jolt to wash down the chicken tikka baguette and jumbo club bap which Jon had fetched for her from one of the local sandwich shops. As she sat there, munching, vacantly staring out of the windows towards the nearby railway lines, she was ready to finally admit to herself that, in this first real test of her skills, she had failed. At least she was not alone — as Nils had noted, it did seem that the root nameservers had been hacked.

She had briefly visited the Visitor's site, and tried to see if CERT had any light to shed on that issue — or her own problem. There were others who seemed to have been encountering the same sort of problems, but no diagnoses had been posted so far, let alone solutions; only the reminder that in previous worm attacks, those who'd been affected, but stayed connected had benefited from fixes much sooner than those who had dropped off-net to wait for the all clear by other routes.

Still, all the checksums had matched, all the system tests worked, and there seemed no obvious differences in behaviour between the compromised system, and the restored image. There just didn't seem to be any way of screening the stray extraneous communications.

Eventually, in response to overwhelming demand, she had conceded and connected a couple of machines to the server to allow 'net access for the staff, but also monitoring the traffic as it went for evidence of intrusion, and had meanwhile continued to make her own increasingly desperate attempts to gain a handle on the problem.

Her down-beat reverie had been interrupted by Nils bursting into the room, clearly ready with some revelation.

“Hey, Celia, I just did something you might find interesting. Come have a look!”

He led her to one of the external access machines, brought up a console window, and typed

tracert www.ascension.int

and pointed gleefully at the trace, which took only one hop, just as far as the compromised server. Checking the low-level network activity confirmed this — the ascension name came up matched to the address of the local server.

“I was just interested to see where the Visitor had made her attack. I hadn't expected it to be us.” he explained.

“I don't want to sound melodramatic, Celia, but I think we're under Transcendent attack.”

“Nils, explain what you mean.”

“That's the whole problem. I can't, roughly by definition. If the Visitor has enough high technology, she can work magic, so long as it is logically possible.”

“Anything at all?”

“So long as it's not self-contradictory.”

“That gives me a very nasty idea. Unfortunately it may be difficult to prove. Security engineering has been likened to programming Satan's computer — and here we have, keeping the theological point of view, a computer which has been subverted by the Visitor, who is a self-confessed daughter of Eve, with transhuman powers at her command.

“And transhuman is the term Dante used — or at least Dorothy Sayers used on his behalf in her translation of the Paradiso back in the Fifties — to describe even his own state while ascending into Heaven. Put them together, and you have Fallen plus angelic. I think you can do the sum here.

“So, we will be even more at risk falling foul of the illusion of images — the fact that everything we see on a computer screen is being calculated by that processor. And as a starting point, we know that we don't trust what it is doing.

“What I'm looking to try is to see if we can actually compare files on the old server and the restored back-up image, because a transhuman could logically possibly compute two different files that have identical hash values for a number of different hashes.

“About all we can say is that the behaviour of the intrusion so far is one of indifference — everything seems to work just as expected apart from a small levy of processor power to run what looks like it might be acting as a distributed web server. So let's copy a few key system files across to one of the client machines, and see about running some simple diffs.”

She spent a few minutes writing a minimal comparison program, just in case there might be a specific defence against the standard one, and then copied a few system files for testing. She held her breath as she kicked off the experiment.

Immediately, the screen started to fill with the lines

files differ
MD5 equal
SHA equal

“The bitch!” she had cried. “She did hack the hashes. We may not have the all the answers, but this is worth posting. Just a few more experiments, because we know there are a few things she physically cannot do.”

With some feeling of satisfaction she had started to compose a message for CERT, Counterpane, and a number of other security freelancers of her acquaintance.

Subject: Hash collisions in ascension.int related intrusion incidents

In responding to an intrusion detected at a client site commencing at approximately 02:00 UTC, I observed a transient process called optimad. This process seemed to be associated with an attack against the mail server, and resulted in significant network traffic emanating unprompted from the OS kernel rather than resulting from the activity of application code.

Normal comparison of strong hashes of system files revealed no difference from values stored on pre-existing read-only media.

Later, it was observed that the compromised server was acting as an instance of www.ascension.int, and was perhaps subverted to form part of a distributed server.

Performing direct comparisons showed that some of the system files had been changed, but that the hash values for all major hashes and checksums were identical. Trying off-beat hashes such as running unusual cyphers as a hash did show difference, as do keyed hashes.

I believe that the attack originated with the Visitor, and that she has at her disposal some "transcendent", as I believe is the jargon, level of computing power and is able to compute hash collisions at will.

While it is possible for simple hashes to be fooled, and odd algorithms to be "immunized" against, there is not the space to fool arbitrarily keyed MACs.

As a corollary, it would be prudent to assume that all encrypted communications are compromised, so the fact that this message is signed and encrypted is more a matter of habit.

She posted the message via a dial-out connection to her own ISP, with a feeling that it was much like launching a message in a bottle, with no certainty of it being received. And then it was off to give Martyn, and the MD, the news. And now they wanted her to brief the whole company, as well as the Japanese owners, staying up late, by speakerphone.

18:00

Cold wind and rain lashed the streets as Carolyn left the conference hall near Aldwych to return to her flat, tired after a day of frustrating meetings behind the scenes trying to keep the whole enterprise afloat. Worst, she secretly felt a smidgin of sympathy for the prevailing apathetic mindset.

What point, she wondered, was there in trying to make any sense of a development policy for the Third World at a time like this, when the whole world had suddenly become an underdeveloped country, at least according to the Visitor, the enigmatic woman from the Future? It was hard to think that it was only hours since the announcement that she had heard that had cut across all broadcast channels, that the future was flawed, and that things would have to turn out differently this time.

As she headed past Covent Garden, there seemed no changes in the great mass of people heading home, or out for the evening. Almost too much normality, despite the torrent of intrusions into the usual flow of events. While the web had acquired a horde of new sites dedicated to the proven events, accompanied by a heavy burden of UFO sightings, stale enigmas and some almost refreshing hysteria, the popular papers were already drifting — or running — back to the everyday, with soap and showbiz events beginning to reappear.

And yet there were large structures growing in orbit, confused reports of halts or interruptions of long running low intensity fighting in Africa, Central Asia and elsewhere, in addition to the swift strikes she had read about that morning. America's Mid-west and the Middle East had manifested all sorts of religious outbreaks, triggered, it seemed by something that had happened in Jerusalem, driving everyone out.

“Is this a waste of time?” she mused, as she crossed Holborn, heading east, into the quieter back streets. The aim of the conference surely had not ceased to be relevant, but were the means sufficient, if someone had come to alter the outcome of a world in which it had taken place without such an interruption.

Emerging into Queen Square, she tugged her raincoat closer about her, as the wind gusted the rain at her. Here, she was alone, only a couple of other similarly hunched figures in sight, scurrying for shelter in the evening gloom. The heavy overcast was intensifying the closing in of the days as winter approached.

“Ms. Wilson?” She startled, brought suddenly back to the here and now. The enquiry had been made by a small woman, bundled in a full chadoor, who had fallen into step beside her. The voice had been strangely accented, something that seemed to trigger recognition, but came from no region she could place.

“Ms. Wilson,” the stranger started again, now seemingly sure that she had her attention, “I know you must be troubled by everything that has happened today, but you must not give up. Your work is very important to me, and where I come from. I'm not sure if you can really appreciate its worth.”

“Were you there today?” All her frustration exploded in the instant. “Half the people were looking to the Visitor to do all the work, and most of the rest were useless and would have been in the normal run of things.”

“I would have liked to have been there, but events precluded my presence. I'm planning to tomorrow. But it is all the more important that we talk now. But not here in the wind and weather.”

The figure swaddled all in black, that glinted with raindrops in the streetlight, seemed unaffected by the elements, but Carolyn, the rain soaking her hair, and the wind chilling in the damp, was ready for shelter. But where?

“There's a pub over the other side of the square. Would that do?”

“It would not be,” the stranger paused, seeking the word, “appropriate. Somewhere more private.”

If pubs were out, then coffee bars would probably be too. Without heading down into the West End for a Starbucks, or going onto a station concourse — which wouldn't be private — then even the reasonable, quiet places here didn't look that salubrious, and would not be the sort of place that someone of such a secluded culture as the full chadoor suggested, would feel comfortable entering.

Take her home? Reluctantly, she supposed so. But why the reluctance? Too much city paranoia, Carolyn thought. She could defend herself well enough — had done a stint as a Guardian Angel years before, and still kept up her aikido — and would have little to fear from a small woman, unless she were packing like Keanu Reeves in the Matrix under all those wrappings.

“I suppose you had better come to my flat, if you want to talk. It's only a few minutes walk, if you don't mind.”

They walked together in silence, Carolyn's brief — and not very adroit, her mind still focused on business — attempts at small talk falling flat.

The warm and dry in the lobby way was welcome, so the effort of climbing the stairs was not as onerous as it might have been, and then she was at her front door, unbarring the locks and bolts.

She flung her coat on to a kitchen chair, and turned to her guest.

The concealing garment she had thought black was revealed to be in fact of deepest blue, and looked to be entirely dry already. And then it seemed to flow.

Carolyn's intent to offer her guest some tea or coffee died on her lips. She stepped back into the kitchen, falling reflexively into a defensive stance, and watched with horrified fascination. It was one thing to see this sort of thing in the movies, but in real life…

And in moments the transformation was complete. The woman was now dressed in a long blue skirt, and tightly buttoned white shirt with short sleeves. Her skin was pale, smoky grey in colour, and her hair silver like metal wire.

“It's good to get out of that rig!”, the Visitor remarked, “And, yes, I wouldn't say no to a coffee.”

21:00

Feeling the water getting cool, Celia turned on the hot tap, refreshing the washing-up water. Her lifestyle was dreadfully bohemian, with the washing up being done before meals.

She stared out of the kitchen windows. Rain streamed down the panes, glittering in the light of one distant streetlamp visible through the garden hedge. The rest was black night. One of these years she might get around to putting up blinds to shut out the night.

Above, the cloud was a solid sheet, with the reflected city light not bright enough to be visible by contrast with the indoor lighting.

She checked the clock.

If it were not overcast, she would have been able to see the Visitor's space station pass overhead again, as she had unwittingly done just that morning.

It didn't seem such a little time ago. After presenting to the ArchiTechnix staff, she had driven home in the rain, feeling even less sure of her wakefulness than on the way in, and on getting home, had fallen straight into bed for a nap. This had delighted her cats, who disliked the cold and wet outdoors, and they had arranged themselves beside her, to take advantage of this hot-water bottle.

Being somewhat seasonally affective, at this time of year, with the evenings closing in fast, she normally grudged every last minute of daylight, but with the rain already bringing on the evening, and the very early start for the day, she had had no qualms about sleep as soon as was safe. By mid evening, general discomfort and an outraged body clock had forced her back to wakefulness, and out of bed in the darkness.

After tending to the immediate needs, including the demands of cats who, now she was up, were quick to remind her that it was well past their usual supper time, she contemplated feeding herself. With the hour and the weather she didn't feel enthused about heading in to Cambridge for a meal, or for walking over to the pub.

It would have to be self catering, so she hauled out some of her emergency supplies for days like these — a can of chana daal, and a naan from the freezer, and then she had had to find a dish and cutlery. And so the washing up.

In the background, the hi-fi played an old favourite, some of Satriani's energetic guitar — she had tried the radio, as was her normal habit, but the serious stations were still awash with talking heads trying the futile task of second-guessing Transhuman power, while government spokesmen stayed either silent or blandly reassuring.

No mention had been made of the silent appropriation of the Internet, and who knew how many private networks. Little was even said of the strikes as upon Sodom and Gomorrah — but with far more finesse — that walked around the world as the Visitor had passed overhead. It did not seem to be fashionable to remark that on the whole, few of the victims would be missed.

Even the reports of landings at Chernobyl, Jerusalem, and Texas that blazed across the 'net were hardly addressed. Only the vague hopes for some Utopian future seemed to have caught the popular imagination, a security blanket against the immediate uncertainties.

For her own part, she could sympathise, but that came from the day spent in the trenches, losing the silent struggle against overwhelming power, and she had spent some time trying to get at the real facts. Vapid speculation didn't pass muster, so music took its place.

The microwave pinged, and she took her meal through to the lounge, along with a half-litre of Spitfire to wash it down with. Sitting at the table, she dragged a couple of jars of pickle — lime & chilli, and hot mango — from the collection of condiments, and a ten day old copy of the Economist from the pile of magazines.

This was thin fare for her text addiction, the Americas and Finance sections which she had skipped when new. Now the tales of Latin American budgetary confusion and new initiatives in bank regulation seemed even more remote and irrelevant than usual.

Her meal done, she abandoned the washing up in the cooling greasy water in the sink, and fetched another beer. Comfortably sorted, she settled into an armchair to sip her drink, and listen to music.

Spotting the renewed opportunity, two of her cats ambled across, and reached some accommodation on her lap and chest. When they had settled into gently rumbling repose, she felt envious. With all the early start and earlier nap she didn't know what time of day it felt like; it just felt uncomfortable, neither a sleep-time nor a wake-time. At least the food and the beer transformed the general daze into a pleasant haze, if not yet a doze.

The disk faded into silence. Even the rain that had been rattling against the windows in the occasional gusts had ceased. There was a distant glutinous sound of dripping, and closer to, the gentle rumblings of two cats not quite asleep. It was as near silence as could be achieved, and cosy.

Then, suddenly, a change. Two sets of ears pricked up, though Celia herself could hear nothing. Then both cats uncurled and listened intently. She was about to ask them what the matter was, in the way that people who keep cats do, when she felt a tingling, almost a shiver, and the bracelet at her wrist felt suddenly like ice.

At this point, the cats jumped off, and slunk away, Lump to a hidden corner under the table, and Jemmy to her favoured perch on one of the speakers on top of a bookcase, jammed into the few inches spare between it and the ceiling, where she could look out over the whole room and part of the garden while being inconspicuous herself. She wedged herself tightly into the nook, eyes blazing and ears hauled well back.

Celia sat up from her slumped position, and looked around for whatever it might be that had spooked the cats. They didn't even get this worked up when defending their territory. Then at the edge of her hearing, the sound of silvery bells, and then the sound of hooves approaching from great distance. And then again, silence.

What the blazes is going on now? she wondered, as the faint noises of a horse gently nickering and the jingling of tack could be heard. She stood cautiously and walked over to the table, where she retrieved a Handspring with a bulky battery pack and a wireless LAN module. Powering it up, she logged on to her home server. For what it was worth the link was encrypted, enough to keep Earthly eavesdroppers out, though she felt it unlikely that the Visitor might want to watch what she was doing amongst all the other swarms of traffic.

With a window onto a full desktop, she brought up a view through the security camera over the front door as a knock sounded there. In the restricted 160x160 pixel view she could see the figure of a woman in light coloured clothing, and a single white horse standing in the road beyond. Something about the woman stirred strange memories which she couldn't place, but she was certain that this caller was no threat in and of herself, though the cats still showed their quiet terror.

“Don't be such sillies!” she whispered to them, as she went to answer the repeated knock at the door.

Opening it, she saw a young woman, younger than she had expected, still in her teens from the look of her, dressed in simple unbleached linen tunic and trews, decorated with knotwork embroidery in madder, her hair ash blonde, eyes blue, and a silver band at her wrist.

“You!” Celia breathed in partial disbelief, “It really is you. But why? How?”


© Steve Gilham 2001
© Mr. Tines 2001


Chapter 2 — Celestial

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