Ghost in the Machine Ch. 09byBlind_Justice©
As always, a huge "Thank You" to bikoukumori, for yet another splendid edit.
Also, thanks to Handley Page from the Author's Hangout, for small but meaningful improvements to the shootout segment.
As usual, only adults having fun here. And Cat will be back, promise.
8:15 am PST
Ever since that "Cat" problem surfaced, almost six months ago, my life had taken a turn for the complicated. First, the hacker that was supposed to test drive our newest military-spec combat deck ended up fried for no particular reason. When I sent in my PA, Violet Smith, to find out what had grilled him, she ended up a screaming almost-vegetable. Suddenly, someone sent videos of me and Violet fucking to my wife's mailbox. Lucky for me, she was in Southeast Asia at the time, getting a rejuvenating bodysculpt. I could delete the files before any damage was done. Shortly thereafter, my sons made a total mess of my home office and every single incident had led towards this "Cat," this "ghost in the machine," as Violet called her.
Thanks to my son Parker, we finally had her location pinpointed. The data trail his deck left behind led us straight into her nest. This "Cat" hid in the bowels of an erotic story repository. Too bad our assault against that system didn't yield anything and the PR fallout was quite the nightmare. No Cat, just a thoroughly thrashed system. I had Legal pay off the SuperSexyStoryLand owners but the damage was done. Thanks to Violet though, we had another angle to try. She mentioned that she met Cat again, shortly before her discharge, and she suspected that maybe Cat had some ties into the neurology clinic's system where Violet was treated. So I sent our best assault programmers into that system and had them tear it down. To our own surprise, they found Cat and nuked her to hell, dragging the bloated corpse of her avatar back to Mindlink Central, where our chief scientist, Kent, and his fellow labcoats were busy dissecting her. I was striding through the lobby, on my way to have a look at their latest progress when my implanted phone rang. I had my headware display the caller's ID. It was one of my sons, Richard Junior. Grumbling to myself, I took the call.
"What is it, Richard? You know you should only call if it's important," I admonished him.
"I know, Dad. Believe me, it is important. It's Parker. He has... vanished!" He sounded uneasy.
"Vanished? Aren't the both of you supposed to be in college right now," I asked. The semester had started three days ago.
"I am in college but I haven't seen Parker for the last two days. His room is a mess and he even left his cell and deck behind. I have no clue what to do, Dad."
I sighed inwardly. That was so unlike my eldest son. Apart from that one occasion when I caught him and Richard, covered in cum, messing with my office computer, I had no reason to complain. They were a chip off my block in most respects. A little rowdy sometimes but I could, by and large, be proud of my offspring.
"Okay, you try to calm down. I will look into things and get back to you. Do you have any idea if he's in trouble? Any girlfriends with whom he wanted to run off?"
"No clue, Dad. I've been busy with my own stuff, ya know?"
"Fine. I'll see what I can do. Until I say so, leave the matter to me. Call the police only when I tell you to, otherwise try to calm down. Understood?"
"Yeah. I hope he's okay," he added, then the line was dead. Just what I needed. I turned on my heels and returned to my office. Kent had to wait a little longer, this took precedence.
Once back in my office, I fired up my deck, routing the output onto the holographic screen. For this, I didn't need to jack in. I logged into the Shepherd global surveillance system, using the login credentials they provided when I had my family chipped. A moment later, a slowly rotating globe formed, with four blips showing the members of my family. Unsurprisingly, Saphire's and mine were in relative proximity to each other, close to the U.S. west coast. Richard junior's blip was, as expected, in Cambridge, MA. I spun the globe until I found blip number four. What was Parker doing in Berlin, Germany? We only had our national headquarters there, barely more than a large office suite and a warehouse for deck distribution. So instead I called Mindlink London, base for all our European operations. They had a rather large security force which I could use for finding out more. I had Gloria, my secretary, ring up the chief of security there.
"Mindlink London, Security Chief Taggart. Who am I speaking to?"
"This is Squier, Special Operations. I need an investigation and extraction team over in Berlin. Possible abduction. How quickly can you mobilize one?"
"Who has been kidnapped, sir," Taggart inquired, the clicking of keys indicated he was already pulling up duty schedules. Good man.
"I need to find the wearer of the Shepherd chip encoded 05007PS. The Shepherd location service tells me he's somewhere in Berlin. Find him and bring him back to Mindlink Central, understood?"
"Yes sir. The team will leave within the hour. How shall they contact you?"
I gave him my personal cell number. Taggart verified the data I gave him and promised that I would get news within the next twelve hours. I thanked him, ended the call and finally met up with Violet and Kent at R&D.
8:35 am PST
Violet shivered against me, even her avatar seemed to feel uneasy as we both watched the team of scientists swarm around the octagonal platform. The ...thing on the platform was barely recognizeable, a swollen mass of discolored, tumourous flesh. Kent's avatar, labcoat flapping, went this way and that, probing the avatar with long, spindly instruments, extracting samples that exploded into readouts circling the dais "Cat's" remains were laying on, large swathes of text shot through with red.
"Are you okay," I asked her, squeezing her hand before stepping a little to the side.
"Yeah. I'm glad it's over. It is over, isn't it," she asked.
"This thing can't hurt you anymore," I said, while joining Kent and his colleagues.
"Alright, Gentlemen. What are we looking at here," I asked them.
"Right now, sir," Kent asked, shooting me an annoyed look. Jacob Kent was a frighteningly brillian scientist, both adept at hardware and software design. Plus, he was also one ruthless son of a bitch when it came to "borrowing" inspirations from rival competitors. But he still thought he was the center of the multiverse, a notion I tried my best to quell.
"Yes, right now, Mister Kent," I snarled, fixing him with my angriest scowl.
"Well, frankly, this is three Petabyte of bloat. Your assault team wasn't exactly subtle when they toasted this avatar. I feel sorry for the poor fucker whose brain was on the other end of their attacks," Kent chuckled.
"If there was a brain behind it at all," Violet muttered, darkly.
"What else could it be? Everyone knows that true, independent, self-aware artificial intelligence isn't possible," Kent pontificated. "The best you can hope for with today's hardware is a decent simulation of one, with advanced heuristics and a huge decision matrix. But even then, and running on a damn server park, it won't be able to fuck your brain like you claim this 'Cat' did to you."
"Sir," one of the labcoats called, pointing to one of the readouts orbiting the dais the remains of "Cat" were on.
"What," Kent snapped. He flicked his wrist and the readout in question spun around the dais, ending up in front of us. He leaned closer, checking some blinking lights and hastily scrolled across the code. With a savage grin, he turned to face Violet and me.
"I think we're slowly getting closer to the solution of this mystery," he grinned.
"I'm waiting, Mister Kent," I grumbled, drumming my fingers against my avatar's thigh. This man, brilliant as he was, annoyed me no end. Hard to believe that I once was like him. Young, eager, irreverent.
"Look at this, sir," Kent instructed, whipping out an old-style magnifying glass which he held over a part of code. The glass dutifully magnified and projected a chain of letters into space.
"What's that," Violet asked, brushing one of her avatar's blond locks out of her face.
"Folding@Home was one of the most successful applications of distributed networking in the 2010's," Kent explained. "It was used as a simulator for folding and analyzing protein sequences, a task that was almost impossible with the hardware they had back then. So some clever eggheads at Stanford University came up with the idea of splitting the workload and distributing it in bite-sized chunks over a wide variety of systems which crunched the data and sent it back to the main computer who only needed to assemble the slices of data into a complete simulation."
Kent's voice had drifted off as his brain caught up with his mouth.
"And what does a horny, murderous 'Net construct have to do with it," Violet snapped. I couldn't blame her, she was too young when Folding@Home folded in on itself during a virus attack in 2015. Some crazy hacker group thought it funny to write a virus that specifically targeted such distributed networks, infecting not only the main control unit, but also all linked nodes. In Folding@Home's case it was more than seven million client systems, everything from server clusters to privately-owned PC's to game consoles or tablet PCs.
"So you think the virus modified the code of Folding@Home into an AI," I asked.
"I can only speculate on this, sir. The records I've seen during my university time suggested that it was a pretty aggressive little number, rewriting the runtime code of any device it happened to end up on to suit its own need. Looking at this," he gestured at the readout hovering behind him, "I wouldn't rule out that maybe one software iteration caused something unexpected. Whatever happened, it had almost fifteen years to develop."
"Didn't Stanford completely dismantle their F@H facility when the virus hit," I asked, dimly remembering some newspaper article or news broadcast. Server racks being flattened by bulldozers.
"They could dismantle all they wanted, if the virus was only half as efficient as I suspect it was, it surely would have made some backups by the time the Stanford boys pulled the plug on their end. Self-replicating code was an old hat even back then," he chuckled.
"Fine. Now that we have an idea what it might be, do you have an idea how to finally kill it," Violet hissed, balling her fists.
"What happened to your moral superiority," I asked gently. I remembered Violet telling me about how she met and scared away Cat during her last days in the neuro clinic.
"The facts have changed, Richard. When I met her in the neuro clinic, I was still under the impression that she may be a user running a frighteningly powerful VR system. Now that I know she... it is an AI, a rogue one at that, I can only advise you to seek any means to destroy it. This 'Cat' has targeted Mindlink users exclusively, and who knows what kind of damage she might do if she continues, unchecked?"
"I think I could repurpose some of the code found in this avatar to customize one of our own semi-autonomous H-K programs, sir," Kent drooled, "to build us an anti-AI homing weapon."
"How long would that take," I wanted to know.
Kent wrinkled his forehead.
"Well, since the damage was done by our own virus weapons, it shouldn't be too hard to filter out all the corrupted code using the virus signatures we have at hand here. A few days tops, quicker if I use more computing power, which would be missing from other projects of course. We have deadlines regarding the latest deck revisions and OS upgrades, after all," he smirked.
"Under the circumstances, I think we can afford to miss a deadline or two. Use whatever processing power you'll need. I want results within the next 72 hours. Is that possible," I asked Kent. He paled.
"That would mean extra crunch time for all of us, sir," he gasped.
"Consider the bonus your team will see on their next paycheck, Mister Kent," I smirked. Then I invoked the logout sequence and returned to my own body.
10:15 am PST
"Sir, your wife called," Gloria smiled at me as I strode along the corridor towards my office.
I threw her an annoyed look. In response she leaned back and grinned lewdly, allowing her breasts to strain against the fabric of her tight blouse, showing a nice bit of cleavage. Her tits were one of her many endearing qualities. The others? She was more than willing to render moral assistance if her boss, I, was a little overworked. And she could be frighteningly efficient, another quality I valued in my closest subordinates.
I stopped and joined her at her desk.
"Anything important she wanted," I asked, letting my eyes wander over her gorgeous body.
She shook her head, dark curls swaying.
"No sir. It sounded like she was horny and bored to tears but that's just me guessing," she purred.
"Ugh. Thank you. Anything else while I was away?" Ever since her return from her latest bodysculpting trip, I found it harder and harder to stomach my wife. She may sport the body of a barely-legal cheerleader but deep down she was still the same vapid, flighty and petty hag she had been for the last twenty or so years. Even fucking her new body senseless had lost its excitement. She may suddenly have rediscovered her sex drive but it felt wrong. She debauched herself as if to impress me. Sluts never did it for me. I preferred either sharply intelligent or innocent sex partners and my wife was neither.
"Sir?" Gloria looked up at me, a worried smile tugging at her faintly colored lips. One other thing I liked about her. She only bothered with the faintest hints of make-up, only accenting her natural charms instead of creating them out of thin air.
"I'm sorry, what was that," I snapped, irritated at my uncharacteristic lack of focus.
"There was another call, sir. A Mister Sneap, Bank of America. He said it was urgent."
"Thank you, Gloria. Call him up, I'll take over in a sec," I sighed, opening the doors to my office.
A few moments later, I was back at my desk, taking the call.
"Mister Sneap, Squier here. What can I do for you?"
"I am calling because you are registered as having authorisation over one of our accounts. I have been trying to reach the account holder, one Parker Squier, but so far I have been unsuccessful in doing so." He sounded decidedly unhappy as he gave me the account details. I knew that account. It belonged to Parker, containing the money for his college tuition plus a generous amount of allowance.
"What is the problem here, Mister Sneap," I inquired.
"The account has been compromised, sir," he said, defensively.
"Y-yes, sir. There had been an attack on our Cambridge, MA branch yesterday. Several of the accounts there had been breached, the one I'm referring to is one of them."
"How much, Mister Sneap," I asked. I knew enough about cyber crime to make the necessary connections.
"Um... five million dollars, sir. The account has been completely emptied."
I felt my pulse quicken. Five million? That was almost the entirety of what I had deposited there. Before I could shout at him, he added, "But you can rest assured that our house has insurance against such events and we will try our utmost to find the culprit behind this attack. The money will be refunded within the next few days."
"Thank you for informing me, Mr. Sneap. And be so kind and keep me posted on the progress of your investigations."
"Yes, sir," he spouted, obviously happy that I didn't throttle him. Believe me, I would have if he were sitting in the same room as me. I cut the connection and rubbed my temples. That sounded too much like a coincidence to be one. My son suddenly vanished around the same time his whole college fund vanished as well? I knew Parker was clever, even more so than Richard. But why would he try to rob his own bank account? What had happened, Parker?
2:25 pm PST
I had instructed Gloria to block all calls from home. Saphire obviously had something on her mind but I wasn't willing to deal with whatever she thought so incredibly important. Besides, I had work to do. Shortly after my talk with Mr. Sneap, an invitation To bid on a contract from Europol had landed on my desk. They were looking for semi-autonomous hunter-killer programs in their ongoing wars against undesired online material and I was determined to sell them our latest. Goverments had far too much money for their own good and getting one of these high-value contracts would no doubt be excellent PR for our company.
But never mind how ferociously I buried myself in the details of their offer, my thoughts were inexorably pulled back to the mystery surrounding my missing son. It wasn't like Parker to simply drop everything and run off on some wild goose chase. But my hands were tied at the moment. I had done all I could. Mindlink London had no doubt dispatched an extraction team which was on its way to Berlin. All I could do is wait and that drove me nuts. I needed something to get my mind off things.
So I placed a bookmark into the document I was browsing, closed the application and called up Violet.
"What are you doing right now," I asked when her smiling face lit up the screen of my intercom.
"Oh, just pushing some papers around. I wish you would let me get out more, Richard," she complained.
"Why don't you join me? I could use your help here," I growled softly. Her smile turned playful.
"Complicated legal matters again?" Now it was her turn to purr. Even after being discharged from the clinic, Violet was still constantly horny, willing to fuck me at the drop of a hat. She was undergoing psychotherapy but nothing seemed to lessen her constant sex drive. I didn't complain. Despite behaving like a sex-starved kitten, she still was fiercely intelligent and ambitious, the complete opposite of my wife, whose old, hard eyes were turning me off so much that I only wanted to fuck her from behind, if at all.
"Fine, don't move, I'll be right there," she grinned. With a seductive smile, she leaned back from the intercom and opened the buttons on her blouse, exposing the sheer red bra beneath. Deliberately, she leaned over the screen, allowing a wonderful look into her cleavage before blowing me a kiss and turning the intercom off.
Five minutes later, Violet knocked at my office door and I buzzed her in. She had her suit jacket buttoned closed over her skirt, the heels of her knee-high boots clicking on the granite floor of my office, her blond hair swayed in time with her hips as she crossed the distance between the heavy double doors and my desk.
"Hey beautiful," I rumbled in my throat, "Last time I saw you, you had much less thread on you."
Still without saying a word, she stopped short in front of my desk and began to undo her buttons. Each opened button revealed more and more skin. She skipped one button at navel height and turned around, languidly swaying her behind.
Looking over her shoulder, she purred, "I think I'll need a little help with this," indicating the zipper of her knee-length business skirt.
Grinning like a wolf, I keyed Gloria's desk on the intercom.
"Gloria, I'm busy for the forseeable future. I am not to be disturbed." Raising my gaze, I caught Violet bending down, pushing her skirt up and revealing nothing but silky smooth skin underneath.
"Not even by me, sir," Gloria purred, obviously using the surveillance cameras in my office to sneak a peek.
"Not today," I grumbled and clicked the intercom off, rising out of my chair simultaneously. I willed my Iron Stallion into action, the implant reacted with its usual efficiency. When I reached Violet and pressed into her from behind, my dick was hard as a rock, deliciously pressing between her skirt-clad butt cheeks.