Hello again! #TeleTuesdays continues our gripping series with even more revelations guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seats as we approach the finale. Enjoy today’s offering below…
This was Mr Joseph ‘Joe’ Appiah’s second week of employment as the Security Officer-in-Charge at the Danyame branch of Allied Financial Services, a medium-sized brokerage firm with partners all over Africa. The company’s habit of periodically rotating security personnel amongst the branches located within their particular region barely raised any eyebrows, not in the current job market which had First Degree holders scrambling for whatever jobs they could still get. But despite having been with the company for just over 3 years now, this was the first time he’d been posted to this particular branch.
Compared to the Ejisu branch he’d just spent over a year at, this building was obviously a sub-par facility. He’d only been permitted into the actual building once, the day he assumed control of the bare bones Security Office, and the plain metallic furniture further accentuated by the plain receptionist’s perpetual expression of nonchalant boredom only served to further bolster the first impression he had of the place. In fact, were it not for the fact that this particular branch, unlike any of the others, had such lax work hours that night duties could be skipped without incurring any disciplinary action whatsoever, he’d have pulled every string he could reach to ensure that his personnel file would never have gotten within so much as a mile of the Danyame Office. At least, he could now have a few nights to himself. He’d felt a bit uncomfortable during his first week when he showed up alone for the graveyard shift duty though. Save for a few nondescript heavy-duty haulage trucks that rolled in and out, nothing else happened at the gates.
So you could understand his surprise when just a few minutes before he planned to leave his post that evening, a beautiful woman stepped out of a taxi that stopped right in front of the tall gates and walked up to the Security Post.
“Hello Sir” she began, flashing him a beautiful smile. Her beautiful voice came as no surprise as his eyes charted their course all over her tasteful attire – black sleeveless silk blouse over dark blue slacks perched on 3-and-a-half inch heels. She only held in her right hand a medium-sized clutch purse and an iPhone 360. (Joe recognised the phone only because his younger 24-year old brother was a phone nut and hadn’t stopped talking about this particular model recently – she was definitely quite made!) A pair of Prada shades tastefully perched atop her head was the cherry on top that completed this sundae!
He drew himself up an extra inch, puffing his chest out almost reflexively before he could catch himself. She noticed, as evidenced by the pleasantly amused smile she now sported.
“I’m here to see Director Harry Hannelore. I’m from the Accra Office,” she continued, showing him a personnel ID card she drew out of her clutch.
“I’ll buzz you in,” Joe answered, barely glancing past her pretty picture to the other details on the Card. Fine women had always had this sort of effect on him. “Just through those main doors you’ll find the Reception. The receptionist can help you from there.”
“Thank you Officer-” she leaned closer to read his name off his badge. “- Officer Appiah.” She even sounded out the notes of his name differently.
Joe shook his head, clearing it of fantastic daydreams. That’s how we get ourself into trouble! He mused to himself silently.
“You’re welcome ma’am,” he replied, buzzing her past the checkpoint.
The fully-armed guards at the main door to the complex looked very efficient, ignoring the smile she flashed at each of them in turn.
Entering the lobby through the electronic doors that slid out of her way as she approached, she took a short second to pause and brush her long raven-black hair out of her eyes. Though the building appeared unremarkable from the outside, someone had evidently sought the services of a truly capable interior decorator. With a little over 60 square metres of room to work with, the artist had installed an impressive glass sculpture of a beautiful woods scene just under 2 meters high in the centre of the lobby. 3 sets of furniture – rich dark oak, pristine white leather and a minimalist artistic polycarbon set – were placed at different areas within the lobby. A water fountain was just a little ways off to the right of the door. The left wall turned out to actually be a VuWall® which flashed with highlights of the day’s news – something about China’s latest plan to bail out all still-developing African countries willing to incorporate Mandarin into their standard curricula from the formative years; Ghana’s new President speaking to the World Press outside of ongoing OPEC deliberations on the measures agreed upon thus far at Abuja, and Shirley Frimpong-Manso narrowly beating Chico Ejiro to clinch her 2nd Oscar. Nothing new there, she mused.
It was a relief to step out of the early evening warmth and humidity outside into a fully air-conditioned room.
She spotted the receptionist, who looked about as interested in her work as if she were charged to watch a patch of wild African Elephant grass grow. She glanced up almost absentmindedly to look at the beautiful lady as she approached her booth. An observer well-versed in the arts of women would have instantly identified the narrowing of her eyes as she acknowledged the presence of the other woman – flicking her eyes rapidly all over her assemblage before coming to rest on her smiling face – as the typical female ‘going over’ one woman gives another female stranger, as if to determine right there and then: Friend or Foe? Compliment or Snide remark? Knock-offs or Original?? Before she could decide on a verdict, the lady was at her desk.
“Good evening” she greeted sweetly, smiling.
“Good evening” the receptionist echoed, mentally scoring her “You passed. You’re lucky you greeted me!” in the typical fashion of office receptionists. But one couldn’t really blame her. The increasing number of snotty individuals strolling haughtily into buildings then heading straight for some office within was getting annoying as the days went by. It, however, was a perverse delight she indulged in when once in a while, the abashed interloper had to retrace their steps to the lobby to pay proper homage either alone or in the company of one of the security personnel who would politely but firmly eject them from the passages within if they had neither clearance nor badge to present as proof of legitimacy.
“How may I help you?” she continued. Her name tag read ‘Melanie’.
“I’m from the Accra Office, here to see the Director,” she explained, presenting the ID.
After scrutinising the ID a bit longer than Officer Joe had, she rolled her chair a bit sideways to the touchscreen console through which she could track any worker at the branch via the chip within their personnel clearance badges. Tapping the display for a few seconds, she looked up to the lady. “Director Hannelore just began his 20-minute coffee break now and he cannot be disturbed during this period. If you’d care to wait here for the next 15 minutes, I’ll have a guard escort you through the facility to his office on the 5th floor.”
“Thank you, I’d appreciate that very much.” She knew exactly where Director Hannelore’s office was, but contrary to what she’d told the nice Security guard outside, he was the last person she wanted to meet here.
“In the meantime Melanie, could you please direct me to the closest washroom?” she asked the receptionist.
“Of course Miss Opoku this way please”, she also answered with the name she’d just read off the ID, a vague hint of a smile on her lips, gesturing at a door set in the wall at the end of a short corridor to the right of the receptionist’s booth.
“Thank you”, she smiled back at Melanie as she strode down the corridor to enter the washroom. Once inside, she abandoned the laid-back affectation she’d employed outside and whirled into action.
She was banking on at least 13 minutes of leeway, figuring it would take Melanie at least that long to begin wondering where she was and come investigate. With luck, she’d be in and out before the time she’d made allowance for was up. Walking up to the vent set in the far wall, she took off one of her high heeled pumps and pressed the 3-and-a-half inch heel to each of the 4 screws securing it at its corners. The heel contained a retractable automated reinforced titanium-molybdenum alloy tubular cutting edge that excavated the screws from their rest within 5 seconds of application to the screw head! Of course, there might be problems with re-attachment after one’s tasks were done, but for this job in particular there would be no need for stealth after the main objective was realized. Besides, if everything was successful, she’d be leaving with a bull’s-eye painted clearly between her shoulder blades anyway – ruining a vent would be the least of her offences. You’ve already done the math sister and counted the cost before setting out on this course of action – this isn’t the time for thinking. Let’s do this.
Tucking the clutch into the back pocket of her slacks, she hauled herself up through the vent, only stopping at the first junction she crawled to in order to initialize an App on the 360 that displayed only a red dot that grew brighter as she headed towards its bearings.
Pausing intermittently when the 2-man security patrols moved past at staggered intervals through the inner quarters of the facility, she meandered through the ducts until she got to an L-shaped corridor out of direct view of the security cameras that seemed to have displaced all the spiders from their traditional abodes. Lots of high-end security for a simple brokerage firm, isn’t it? she thought. Carefully teasing out a ceiling panel after making sure no guards were in sight, she slid out of the air duct, taking care to replace the panel before softly walking to a door at the junction of the ‘L’ with a stairway pictograph pasted on it. Passing her phone over the lock, it remained mum, the pulsating dot on its screen now brighter than initially. Holding her breath, she depressed the latch and quickly stepped through the door into the stairwell. No vibration, no alarm. Sweety breathe.
She quickly made her way down three flights of stairs to an unassuming door labelled JANITOR in inch-high letters of red. The red dot pulsated even more furiously now, shining the brightest it had so far: this was the place. Drawing out her purse, she reached into it and drew out a round coin, about 2cm in diameter. No ordinary coin, she applied one side of it to the high-security 128-Mbit encrypted electromagnetic lock to which it magnetically stuck with a soft *clunk*. An LED came on in the centre of the imprint on the coin that lit up red, flickering rapidly as it employed 256-Mbit algorithms in an effort to brutally force open the lock. In just under 15 seconds, the LED colour shifted to blue as the coin detached from the door, falling into her open palm as a series of muffled clunks of the heavy tumblers within the door disengaged, causing the door to slide open.
She finally let go of the breath she’d been holding again while the coin gadget was in action. Sliding the foot-thick door open a bit wider, she lightly stepped into the ‘Janitor’s Closet’, closing it behind her.
Few people were aware that this was actually the most important room in the whole complex…but then again, few people knew the true purpose for this particular Installation. This room was the most important, not just because of what it held, but because of what it protected. For starters, probably no one save for the Director and his core security personnel knew that this branch also served as the lesser of two backup facilities for the Association’s datacore.
Dating back to its inception in 2003, the Association had diligently kept records split up in all 26 of its key facilities worldwide, opting to use a system of widespread information dispersion to safeguard the security of their most sensitive operational protocols and records. This foolproof practice was however revealed as gravely flawed when in 2010, Wikileaks stumbled upon a trail of money that led from one of the top officials of the UN all the way through multiple changeovers back to the clandestine group! Were it not for a few vigilant operatives who identified the incoming threat of exposure from the Abu Dhabi section and set up not just a virtual firewall, but a diplomatic bulwark of hitherto unseen proportions to buttress up the whole operation’s defences, the whole scheme would have been drawn out into the open by the close of the year! Intra-organizational legend had it that the cost of covering up that incident alone ran up to over a hundred million dollars in brown envelopes and human work hours. Small wonder Julian Assange became the corporate world’s most sought after brigand and misfit all throughout 2011 and even to the years after. That was one lead that he was wise enough to back off by the end of 2012.
7 minutes. Stepping up to a 6-ft wide console in the centre of the 10-metre square room, she took off the safety cover of her phone and drew out a rectangular film of translucent plastic only 2 inches long but about 5mm thick. She removed a thin adhesive cover off the back of this piece and placed its now exposed surface on her left thumb first, followed by her other 4 digits in sequence, steeling herself as the piece burnt into each fingerprint in turn, imprinting a new pattern unto each digit as it gave off a tiny wisp of acrid smoke. Removing the now spent single-use plastic piece, she shook her hand to decrease the pain of the re-branding and promote nominal blood circulation to her fingertips. Now facing the dim console, she tapped it awake and began to type in a dizzying flurry of commands with her right hand that she’d committed to memory only days beforehand. She proceeded to set into sequence a series of commands that would upload the contents of the datacore to a secure server farm after bouncing it off several satellites and routing it through at least 16 countries to tangle up its trail so badly that tracing its course would be nigh impossible, at least for the next 72 hours.
Association security experts had come up with the most feasible but efficient mode of protecting whatever any of the top operatives or Directors wanted kept out of the public eye. They married biometric identification to physiological monitoring to produce authentication software that was true to its promise. Unlike normal biometric scanners that could be fooled by specially imprinted thick gloves and contact lenses that could fool retina scanners into registering a suitably altered retinal topography, this software not only compared the 5 presented fingerprints to a rather restricted database but also measured the rhythm of the softly pulsating end arterioles, comparing them to the mean pulse rate of the matched person already on file, but only adjusted to a standard deviation of 2! This also helped to circumvent the possibility of a security breach in case one of the select few somehow ended up under duress to betray company secrets to the outside world.
This also meant was that she had to take a carefully titrated chemical ‘upper’ to raise her own pulse from an average of 65 to the Director’s resting pulse of 78 sometime before the authentication process. She’d taken the requisite pill just before stepping out of the taxi cab and ever since, the unnatural increase had caused her heart to race a tad uncomfortably. On the other hand, there was one other advantageous side effect to the drug – with a physically fit individual, not just their Basal Metabolic Rate but also their activity level was elevated at least 3 times! This apparently, not only delivered an adrenaline-like boost to make strenuous activities like jumping up to crawl into air vents relatively easier, but also significantly cut short the time she spent traversing the obstacle course of sorts she’d just run.
Applying her outstretched hand to the panel, making sure to place each fingertip flush against its matching outline within the rectangle, she tapped the panel button: ‘Enter’.
The console hummed softly as it scanned the fingerprints and in just under 5 seconds it displayed in bright green letters ‘AUTHORIZATION GRANTED: Dir. Harold Hannelore’
As hoped, a progress bar soon appeared on the screen counting each percent of information uploaded to the distant server farm. The tough part’s almost over now, she thought, allowing herself to breathe just a little more easily than before.
*Beep!* *Beep!* *Beep!* The door to the Closet suddenly issued out a flurrying sequence of beeps – someone was coming inside! Glancing hurriedly around, she finally realised why exactly she’d been more uneasy than usual ever since she made her way into the room – it was virtually a cage! One door, no windows, and no furniture save for the central console and a lone swivel chair. No place to hide.
“Hmmph!” she exclaimed glancing at the progress bar, resigned to her fate now. 30%. Ducking underneath the console, she smashed the wireless receiver relay that transmitted impulses from the touch display to the central processing unit of the console, effectively sabotaging it so the process started could not be terminated before its conclusion. She then settled herself into the swivel chair, turning it around from the door in a fashion reminiscent of the villains of the James Bond movies she’d had fun watching as a child, in preparation to meet the person coming in. What I’d give for a cat right now! was the last oddly inappropriate thought on her mind as the door finally clicked open and she swivelled round slowly to see a man enter the room. It was Director Hannelore! He was engaged in a conversation with someone coming up behind him she couldn’t see immediately because his body obscured her view. Sure enough, the normally unflappable Hannelore registered a look of surprise for a full second before quickly masking it with an expression of…glee?
“Ah, it’s you Tracy!” he began, turning slightly to usher the other person, a tough-looking man in mirror shades dressed semi-formally in a black suit and shirt with his tie undone, into the room. He made sure the door was secured behind them before turning back to face her.
“I heard a Ms. Opoku from HQ was waiting to see me at the lobby. Had I known it was you, I’d have cut short my break to see you immediately. It’s so nice of you to come down here personally to meet me though.” He spoke in a lightly mocking drawl, certain his prey was not going away and so therefore indulging himself in jest.
From his tone and manner, Tracy realized that she couldn’t bluff her way out of this situation – posing as part of an internal security check exercise had been her original Plan B if she were to be somehow interrupted during this heist of sorts. It seemed obvious to her now that they had indeed blacklisted her when she went underground without reason. On the other hand, he’s too relaxed for my liking, she thought. He should know better than to expect to face down an Association-trained field operative and come out on top. Unless… She glanced at the other man who now stood to the right of Hannelore, a matching grin on his face. He looked at her behind the console, then shook his head, taking off the reflective sunshades he wore and slipping them into his breast pocket. It was at once evident to her that this man would be cashing whatever cheque that Hannelore wrote out within the room. 57%.
“Enrico,” he began, ignoring Tracy for a moment to turn to the man as he gestured in her general direction with his left hand. “This silly woman is a perfect opportunity to show me what exactly your modifications have made you capable of. I’m sure you’ll be glad to test them out on a live subject before you head to Accra to sort out that little problem for us, no?”
If anything, Enrico Alamos was only too glad to please an influential member of the cabal that only too recently gave him a new lease on life. Grinning in agreement, he proceeded to remove his jacket and executive shirt, leaving only his black undershirt. Only the faintest of scars remained as indication of the recent extensive surgeries and even those would fade away by the month’s end. He motioned the Director to move backwards in order to give him more room to tear loose.
Tracy was all this while quietly but rapidly assessing the situation and by this time had come to the realisation that matters had moved from bad, skipped ‘worse’ and were now steadily tunnelling past ‘worst’. Her best course of action was to find her way out fast! She glanced at the console: 77%
Almost as if they could both read her mind, both men looked at each other, then stepped aside as if to clear her path to the door. Not wishing to give them even a second more to ready themselves, in a nearly superhuman flash, she’d vaulted over the console in a mad dash for the door! Too late, she realised that the man – Enrico, was it? – had anticipated this move as only another professional brawler would have. Her inertia carried her forward as he began his attack, helpless to avoid it.
Enrico had deftly stepped forward as she’d vaulted the desk and began a lightning fast mid-calf leg sweep that under normal circumstances would cause any opponent to be rapidly but firmly introduced to the floor. And with his reinforced skeleton moving at the speed of martial arts, a whiplash effect would ensue, virtually guaranteeing a compound fracture at the impact point!
At the last instant before impact, Tracy managed to use her inertia to her advantage, fluidly turning her motion into a flip right over Enrico’s right leg. With only a grunt of surprise at her evasion, he turned round and was charging at her just as she was getting up from her crouch, ramming into her midriff!
The air escaped from her lungs as Enrico’s charge connected and before she could recover, he lifted her up to his shoulders to deliver a professional wrestling powerbomb fluidly but before he could complete the throw, she regained her breath and sprang into action, pummelling his arms and upper torso, bringing into play her extensive knowledge of Kyusho-Jutsu by repeatedly applying finger-point force to the relevant pressure zones in sequence! Almost instantaneously his right arm went numb and he lost his grip on her torso with it but before his left arm also succumbed to the same treatment, he hurled her at the console with all the rage and last bit of strength he could muster!
Her back struck the console with a solid thud and she crumpled off it onto the floor. Her breath came in ragged drafts now but she was still alive, trying to shake away the disorientation and ringing in her ears as she tried to get up. Enrico suddenly realised that his left arm had also gone numb – that was why Tracy’s spine had not been shattered when he threw her into the console. She’d managed to complete the nerve-blocking sequence just before he’d flung her away!
Enrico’s face steeled into a mask of cold fury as he purposefully walked towards the struggling Tracy. “All you need is for her to talk, right?” he spoke over his shoulder at Hannelore who stood stoically by the door.
“More or less,” Hannelore replied waving his hand in the air almost uninterestedly.
Grinning cruelly, he reached Tracy and noticing that he’d caught her attention, muttered darkly “Let’s see you jump about like the monkey you are after this!” He raised his right leg up as high as he could, then brought it down in a powerful stomp down on Tracy’s crossed legs!
Colonel Philip Onyina was faced with a tough decision. He was back in his usual surroundings, leaning back in his swivel chair as his eyes idly skipped over the few photographs on his walls. His gaze came to rest on the picture of one man in particular. This picture was taken during the subject’s tenure of office as the sitting Chairman of the AU. The tiny smile he had on seemed to hint at the depth of cunning that lay behind his austere features.
The Chairman of the AU, the then President of the Republic of Ghana, had pulled every string he could get his hands on to make sure that the Colonel would assume leadership of the West African branch of IFAS at its inception. He’d had to step on a few toes in the UN to do so but never balked, sticking to his guns. It was never an easy task to poach a mastermind from the greater global body, but for this critical position the President had convinced the other committee members that this was the best choice there was.
Though the President had presented a convincing argument to his peers, he’d kept the most relevant reason for handpicking this particular man personal. Having been old Secondary School mates, he’d come to see a side of Onyina that had not only irritated him (as the Head Prefect) but also caused him to develop a certain grudging respect and fascination for Onyina’s depth of cunning.
A classic example was the time the Dining Prefect had ordered all the Form Two’s who had boycotted dinner in protests of the amount of ‘foreign matter’ – iron sponge bits, hair, stones in the beans and the like – (led by Onyina of course) to kneel down throughout the night on the corridor in front of his room. The prefect had woken up to find the sorry boys all accounted for and still kneeling at dawn. He’d then had them quickly disperse because the House Master would have thrown a fit had he come to meet the boys still there by morning. Too late, he was shocked to find out just before Morning Assembly that somehow, both he and all his subordinates who slept in the same quarters were now sporting caricatures of hair designs that had miraculously appeared overnight! None of the boys in question was seen in public for the next 2 weeks, leaving the Head Prefect and his Assistants alone to conduct meals at the Dining Hall. The food quality however increased dramatically and though the Head Boy didn’t express it openly, he was glad that the obnoxious Dining Hall Prefect had been taken down a peg or two. He himself had spoken to him upon the same issue a number of times but had been gruffly rebuffed and warned to mind his own business the last time. A week or 2 later, school lore had it that a certain someone had made up a plan involving shaving powder and lots of warm water! Waiting for the seniors to all fall asleep, the daring plan was then put into action as the juniors channelled the pain from their aching knees into their devious plot with the glee only righteous retribution could bring!
Finally taking cognizance of Onyina’s true nature beneath all the mischief, the Head Prefect, with no mean amount of cajoling balanced by intimidation, had nominated Onyina to be his successor when his term was almost up. Unopposed, he assumed the position of Head Prefect and for the first time in a long time, all students banded together to make up one of the strongest and most driven years the school had ever known.
The President had chosen Onyina because he knew his dogged nature spurred on by his strong moral (albeit unconventional) convictions would make for an incorruptible Head who would do whatever it took to root out the Association and other bodies of organised crime within the sub-region. Even in this advanced world, bureaucracy was an annoying hindrance which their enemy managed to use with such finesse at times that it seemed one were fighting one’s own Government! The Colonel could be trusted to do whatever was necessary to get the job done and who would not get his hands tied up by unnecessary but tempting attempts to curry favour from other powerful bodies or individuals. It also didn’t hurt that the best person to catch a crook was a man who could think like a crook, of course.
Sitting in his office now, he thought back over the events of the past hour or so, beginning with Dr. Koomson’s strange words.
“What do you mean alive?!” he’d exclaimed when Dr Lewis Koomson made his strange pronouncement after finally coming out of his fugue. Computers, super- or otherwise, were NOT sentient, in spite of what popular science fiction churned out yearly in print and onto cinema screens.
Shaking his head as if to banish errant thought trains, the Colonel knew he was out of his depth with regards to recent strides forward in technology, but that did not stop him from visualising the big picture as it was meant to be seen: such sophisticated technology in the hands of the Association, or any other maleficent group for that matter, was bad news indeed. The Colonel had emptied the Situation Room so they could have a more private conversation.
“I meant that rather than an AI with near-human mental capacity fused with a mega-processor, the devils decided to take a shortcut: they found a way to integrate the consciousness of a live person with that of a massive databank!”
He stretched out a peremptory finger to the Colonel, having already deduced the logical progression to his next question. The Colonel narrowed his eyes dangerously at that, but let him continue.
“Yes and no to that answer, Colonel. Yes, the human mind is limited naturally, but no, that fact doesn’t affect the eventual processing power of Project MEL-1A. Think of the human mind like a rocket engine in a farm tractor; at normal use, you can do optimum farm work. Those we call ‘geniuses’ are the lucky few who manage to operate their ‘rocket engines’ at the speeds of saloon cars. With a vast technological processing unit and database harnessing the ‘rocket engine’ of an individual, escape velocity becomes more than a certainty – it becomes the most basic capability of this well-tuned machine the human mind is built to be.”
“Oh,” was all the Colonel could say. This was bad news on an unprecedented scale indeed. The Association had finally stepped up the game to a point where one of its players had to either completely annihilate their opponent or concede an utter defeat – and it seemed like the latter was turning out to be the IFAS!
“So what else have you been able to learn from your association with this…”he gesticulated wildly, trying to come up with a suitable term for the human/machine hybrid that was Project MEL-1A.
Pausing for a second as if in deep thought, Lewis smiled suddenly and refocused on the Colonel. “She doesn’t mind if you refer to her as ‘the AI’ from now on. She also points out that technically speaking, the term is inaccurate considering her origins, but it will suffice.”
“Okay, fine. What has your AI been able to tell you so far about the Association?” the Colonel reiterated, somewhat testily. “And cut through the technical mumbo jumbo you’ve been regurgitating all night!”
Lewis looked up at that, still smiling as he raised his hands somewhat diffidently. “I’m sorry about all that. You know my line of work and the lingo we usually use to describe things. I’m afraid being paired to a super-intelligent being hasn’t helped things much.”
“Fine, fine. Just get on with it.”
“Well, in summary, she informs me that the Association has approximately 18 to 22 hours before someone detects that her operating parameters have been tampered with, and an additional 1 hour maximum before it’s traced back to your source.”
The Colonel’s face steeled as he heard the last bit. This issue had all of a sudden escalated to new heights.
“She advises that based on her calculations the best outcome for the IFAS – and your mole – would be a pre-emptive strike on their base of operations during this opening. A 67% chance of success, to be precise.”
“67%?! That’s the best we can do??” Onyina started.
“Yes sir. She says so, and I believe her. Only the element of surprise tips us over the 60% margin currently, actually.”
“Then let me take the opportunity to address the elephant in the room: How can you trust this AI just like that? What if it’s already on the side of the Association? Wouldn’t the Association have picked someone whose beliefs and fortunes were tied up to its own to be used in this darned project in the first place?!”
At this Lewis stiffened, his smile fading as he seemed to contemplate the possibility of Project MEL-1A not being all she seemed to be for the first time.
“Think about that for a while! I’ll be in my office upstairs. Come up when you’re done spouting figures you can’t substantiate. With or without your AI. Is that clear?!”
Hardly waiting for an answer, he spun round in a perfect about-turn and left the Situation Room, slamming the door behind him.
What to do…what to do… he now thought in silence. As matters stood, the only silver lining to this foreboding cloud was the rather narrow window of opportunity Dr. Aruba’s intel and codes had given them. Though still unsure of what exactly to do next, it was clear to the Colonel that the IFAS had to do something, and fast! It wasn’t rocket science to figure out that next major move would be the last.
Shortly after the Colonel stormed out, the Technicians began to file into the Room, prompting Lewis to step into the inner room alone. He wanted a little more privacy. His initial excitement at contact with the AI had fizzled out into something else, much less satisfying. Pacing the small room, his mind turned to the AI.
Are you?, he thought inwardly at the presence within his mind.
Am I what, Doctor? The AI spoke within his mind with a hint of – was that annoyance?!
Are you on our side? We both understand that we cannot control you from here so whatever you do must be of your own free will, right? Why have you decided to help us?
My reasons are simple, Doctor. Some Association genius figured out that if their ‘sentient computer’ was fully aware of its past life as a normal human, it could ‘foul up’ certain decision-making thought processes. So I don’t know who I am…no, was.
Oh, I’m so sorry about that. Lewis could relate to the helplessness of not knowing who you were, having fairly been subjected to an acute case of memory loss himself. But then he followed the train of thought up to the realisation that with such an AI of such vast processing and storage capacity, a lost memory would in time culminate in a loss of her ‘humanity’. The subject in this Frankenstein-level plot wouldn’t die physically, but would more and more become subject to the machine within, until she would become nothing more that the vegetable housing an ultra-capable supercomputer at the beck of her masters…
I see you finally grasp my situation somewhat. But even knowing that, I could be content knowing that I chose this path myself, but that wouldn’t be true. Utilising the resources at my disposal, one of the very first things I tried to do was to answer the question of my origins. Have a look for yourself… She proceeded to flash a sequence of images and short recorded video clips seemingly in the air right before Lewis. Shocked, Lewis sat down suddenly on the bunk bed as he tried to figure out how exactly hr was seeing what flashed before him. It seemed that the AI had ‘tapped into’ his optical neural network and was actively displaying a virtual overlay of information, making him ’see’ what she projected along it! He was so caught up in the realisation that he nearly missed the import of the details she was showing him.
Using simulation software at her disposal and drawing on security footage from places too varied to take note of, she was running a stream of information showing the most likely sequence of events that had led to her current situation. The result was shocking! She showed multiple abductions worldwide of young women and men between the ages of 21 and 26, followed by extensive tests being run to determine if they would be ‘suitable’ for the Integration process. Over the past year alone, 24 people had been evaluated with only 3 making it through to the Integration stage. Of the 3, only 2 had records available which showed that 1 had died of multiple cerebral haemorrhages within mere minutes of Integration. The other had survived, and was Project MEL-1A. The last image was of a cryo-chamber in a dark room softly lit at its edges by bluish light strips. It then abruptly faded away.
So. I guess I know where you stand on this all then. I don’t think you would willingly co-operate with the people who abducted you all the way from South America!
Exactamente! I want to help not just because I was taken against my will, but for all those who didn’t make it through their Integration process. But there’s also one thing…
What is it? Lewis interjected.
With the discovery that their Project has been compromised, the Association is sure to enact the final step of the procedure ahead of schedule to finally bring me under their full control.
And that would be? Lewis asked, sure he wouldn’t much like the answer.
There’s a protocol that’s standard for all technological assets of the Association when there’s suspicion of sabotage or even an unexplained intrusion. The first step (code named HAIL MARY) is to initiate a system wide lock-down followed by a thorough attempt to flush out the offending intrusion or to seal the breach. The second step (codenamed KAMIKAZE) is the last resort if the HAIL MARY doesn’t go through: it’s a total Operation System wipeout achieved by triggering a built-in killswitch releasing a specially-engineered computer virus that causes each bit value, irrespective of its former designation, to revert to ‘0’. It’s programmed to sweep through all sectors until it reaches an impenetrable border; a sign that the incursion could not have reached that far.
Whoa! Those people sure are paranoid aren’t they? Willing to destroy significant sections of their own network just to deal with a possible security breach?
Considering the gravity of some of the things the Association is involved with, losing all that would logically be a far better option than the possibility of sabotage or compromise of their System.
An idea suddenly came to Lewis’s mind. What about you? How would the triggering of something like that affect you?
She seemed to pause for a second before answering him. A HAIL MARY would cut me off from all external sources and send my physical body within 15 seconds into a coma for the duration of this action – hence the advantage of the life support Capsule it’s currently sealed in. A KAMIKAZE on the other hand would stop at my impenetrable border – my skin.
Lewis felt relief at that. Past the systematically-induced coma, she would be fine as long as her body was within the life support Capsule!
So at least, that’s good news of sorts, no? You wouldn’t be affected by the virus.
Once again, the AI seemed to pause in her thinking processes before answering.
I don’t think you understood me. I said it would stop just short of my skin. I am tethered to the mechanical database outside my body, true, but via my cerebral cortex – the connection is patent through to my brain but stops short at my peripheral nervous system nerve ends in my skin! At this point she seemed to hesitate again briefly before continuing. The virus would simply mutate to go semi-organic once it traversed the link between me and my External Input Database and systematically shut down the sectors of my central nervous system – brain, spinal cord – before irreparably damaging my peripheral nerves, only stopping at the impenetrable barrier that my skin is…
Lewis was stunned at the horror of the process she’d just described. But that’s totally inhumane! Wouldn’t they know what such a protocol would do to you?
She seemed to laugh ironically within his head. It’s rather funny that you still consider me ‘human’, even now. They know what it would do – but they wouldn’t care. It’s SOP – Standard Operating Procedure.
No! We’ve got to do something now! How much time do we now have until the incursion is discovered?
A minimum of just over 17 hours now.
So what do you suggest is the best action to take?
I recommend an expedient tactical strike on the greater of the 2 key Association installations in Ghana – the off-shore platform. I’d have suggested the Kumasi Office which houses their lesser backup datacore, but their data stream is either experiencing some difficulties or has been corrupted for the past 3 hours or so. I don’t know what exactly is causing the disturbance, but with the possibility of it being so damaged or even absent thereby reducing the further possibility of gathering irrefutable evidence that would count for a successful prosecution, I believe the Elmina Installation is the better target.
Okay. I have no objections to your sound logic. I think it’s time we saw the Colonel again.
There was a sickening crunch as Enrico’s studded boot came down on Tracy’s legs!
He grinned as she howled in pain, stepping back to survey his handiwork.
“Save yourself some money on x-rays – expect multiple fractures!”
He laughed uproariously as he turned away towards Dr. Hannelore, moving to pick up his discarded jacket & shirt as he swung his arms about, gradually regaining control of his arms.
“An impressive finish, Enrico!” Hannelore applauded him, still grinning. “You’re really all that we bargained for. Now if we can just-” he cut of in mid-sentence, a stunned look on his face as he stared behind Enrico Alamos.
Enrico spun around, wondering what was so interesting about a crushed woman. Then it was his turn to stare at Tracy, now standing up, leaning against the far wall, fanning herself!
“Whew! That was some workout Enrico! You’re a really tough one for sure.”
Both men were stunned speechless. She shouldn’t have been able to even stand up, thoughtless of walking around flexing her knees at the other end of the room as she was doing now.
“How in hell-!” Enrico began but was interrupted by Tracy.
“Hey you brute, I’m not done speaking yet. Didn’t you ever learn how to speak to a lady?” she began mockingly.
“I was just about to say that I don’t think I can forgive you now. I can’t believe you would have actually hurt my beautiful legs, just like that! Lucky for me, I think we share the same Medical Specialist!”
Just then, Hannelore saw something that caused him to tap Enrico’s arm hurriedly, pointing to an abrasion on Tracy’s left leg. Tracy herself also looked down at where he was pointing.
“Oh, this small scratch?”
Hannelore had noticed the tell-tale greyish glint of the alloy used in Skeletal Reinforcement in the depth of the abrasion.
“Dr. Aruba!” Hannelore exclaimed. He started for the door. “There’s no way this could have been done without his involvement. He’s going to have some serious questions to answer once I–!”
“No, you’re not going to make it out of here alive with that mindset if I have anything to say about that!” Tracy interjected, starting menacingly towards him.
“And you think you can stop me?!” he sneered. “Enrico! Finish her quickly now, I don’t have time to waste anymore. I guess you’ll have to do a much better job now than before.”
Enrico’s initial shock was gone by now. He smiled that menacing smile once again, this time with a hint of seriousness in his features. He now understood that this wouldn’t be the walk in a park he’d originally believed it was. He went into a stance – Jujutsu, it seemed.
Calmly, Tracy straightened into a starting position of her own, raising both palms in front of her. She’d just also noticed from the corner of her eye that the progress bar read 100% now. It was time to go.
“Krav Maga, huh?” Enrico scoffed. He was now sure that this woman was more hot air than fire. He knew of the art she was supposedly about to use, well enough to know that his current level of mastery of Jujutsu wouldn’t make for a particularly challenging fight for him. Besides, despite her bravado, he could tell that she was getting tired, especially with all that flipping about she’d done at the beginning and the fall she’d taken.
As Hannelore struggled to tap in the code to reopen the locked door, they both leaped at each other!
Enrico moved to grab her shoulders so he could spin her around and quickly choke her before she was any more trouble, making sure to protect his own body from her attack, turning sideways. And he succeeded! Or so it seemed until she kept spinning around after his initial grab and suddenly dropped in a split to the ground, thrusting her elbows backward into his solar plexus!
He felt the deep pain stab through his body causing him to begin to reflexively bend over – right into a rising head-butt as she gathered her legs beneath her and sprang up straight into his chin!
She felt her head ring from the impact but was assured that his own skull would be faring at least 5 times as bad from the shared force.
Shaking his head to clear the sudden fuzziness accompanying his pain, he made another attempt to grab her which she deftly sidestepped. She then seamlessly turned her motion into a roundhouse kick that was aimed at his torso, but this time he was prepared for her incoming attack! He grabbed her leg, and swung her in a half circle before flinging her away – coincidentally, she slammed right into the back of the Director! He’d just managed to get the door open but the weight of her body crashing into him slammed the door shut again.
“Thanks for having my back,” she smirked at Hannelore beneath her as she got up off him. Her weight combined with the force Enrico had used to throw her had caused him to bang his head forcefully against the thick metallic door, knocking him out cold!
She turned towards Enrico once more. He’d begun to advance on her, clearly intending to end it all with one last fierce attack evidenced by a crazed look in his eyes set in his anger-chiseled features. She stepped forward, keeping her left leg out of his direct line of sight behind her. His eyes narrowed and she knew what he would be expecting – a side kick that would be aimed at his head or some other vulnerable part of his body, plus or minus another kick from her other leg.
She remembered the Mossad instructor’s basic warning: Commando Krav Maga is not for winning trophies, or flashy movie stars, or people’s hobbies. It’s about taking out the perceived threat in the shortest possible way, the most efficient manner, and using every tool at your disposal, starting with your body – but don’t forget your brain! She steeled herself for his attack.
He lunged at her with a powerful right hook, his fingers spread slightly so he could once more catch her leg in a kick…a kick that didn’t come! He barely had time to register his surprise at reading her wrong by his widening gaze before his momentum drove him straight into her right shoulder and a number of things happened simultaneously. Because she’d leaned forward just before he made contact, his fist made contact with her right shoulder, dislocating it with a sickening crack – but that was his last point of the day.
Planting her left foot behind and aligning her body along her main axis served to not only provide the ‘stopping force’ to halt his mad dash but also redirect some of its energy combined with her own through the heel of her left palm which she swept in just before his right hand connected with her shoulder joint! Unfortunately for Enrico, her point of contact was the bridge of his nose.
“Arghh!” Enrico screamed from the pain but she didn’t give him any time to recover as she stepped in for her last attack. She gave him a swift knee to the groin at which his eyed positively bugged!
“Urk!” he barely managed to croak out as he reflexively clutched at his valuables, leaving his face free once more. Employing a move only seen by die-hard gamers, she finished him off with a Shoryuken – a powerful uppercut that actually lifted him up inches over the floor! His now limp body crashed down on the tiled floor in a heap, his breathing now coming in irregular heaves.
“Let me save you some money too: 1 Le Fort III fracture, 1 horizontal fracture of the nasal bridge, 1 midline mandibular fracture, 1 splenic rupture and several bodily contusions!” she taunted him, breathing heavily also.
“It also pays to be on good terms with your operating specialist – you could have learnt how to protect the other spots of vulnerability Skeletal Reinforcement doesn’t quite as well protect. Maybe then, the whole idea of ‘invulnerability’ wouldn’t have gotten to your head so, dumbass…”
She stepped back from his crumpled form on the ground, for the first time taking a good look at her ‘redecorated’ surroundings. She blew a low whistle of surprise. The place was trashed! There were multiple dents in the walls and several cracks in the floor tiles from where each clash had taken place. No wonder the Director had passed out when she’d slammed into him – even the walls were hurt!
It seemed that their augmentation procedures had not only increased their stamina and the force of their attacks, but had also shielded them from feeling the full brunt of the damage that was being dealt to their bodies. Thank you Jeremy, she thought to herself. She would have had even less of a chance of survival in this fight than that of a snowball in Hell if she hadn’t been able to convince Jeremy to supervise her own transformation process before she’d left the Rig!
Stabilizing her right arm against one of the walls whilst gritting her teeth, with a single violent manoeuvre she popped the dislocated bone back into its socket, stifling the groan that the sudden pain brought. Taking a moment to compose herself, she bent down to grab her clutch and phone that had somehow ended up beneath the now battered console. She then backed out of the Room, making sure to destroy the keypad from within, closing the door and effectively sealing them both into the Janitor’s Room. She then made her way up the stairwell and into the building proper, dusting herself off as she rapidly strode down the hallways, choosing a speedy departure over stealth this time. She only met 2 patrol teams now – they didn’t know what hit them.
Arriving at the lobby in just under 2 minutes, she smiled sweetly and waved at a shocked Melanie. She’d been expecting Tracy to come out of the washroom almost 10 minutes earlier and was just about ready to go in looking for her but here she was, striding out of the corridor leading to the other offices in the building!
Tracy stopped for a moment at the front desk. “Thanks Melanie. I saw the Director and we had a short meeting. I don’t think he’d like to be disturbed for the rest of the day. Have a nice day.”
The receptionist still had a quizzical look on her face but wisely elected to smile and nod her head in response – it was too far above her pay grade for her to wonder about the hanky-panky games senior officials of Allied Incorporated Services played. Of course she’d noticed how the formerly chic lady now looked slightly dishevelled!
Tracy cat-walked out of the building and in short order had once again breezed through the gates, waving Joe as she got into a cab she’d immediately flagged down.
In the back of the cab, she finally released her pent-up breath – that could have been really close! Her thoughts finally coalesced into a single sure thought as she directed the cab driver to drop her off at the Kumasi International Airport.
I’ve got to get him out of there!
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