Online War

With growing horror, Basil watched the tanks roll up to the former UN buffer zone separating the two parts of Nicosia. Enemy troops approached from the Turkish north. Greek ordnance advanced through the southern part of town, which belonged to the Republic of Cyprus. Basil’s ears rang with the sound of the commands sergeants on both sides shouted to their soldiers.

Weapons were trained across the buffer zone, making it seem as if he stood directly in the line of fire. He adjusted the reality-mode setting on his Neural Interface. There was such a thing as too much realism, after all.

The newscast he was playing on his NIF turned from a real-life experience into a remote vid, but his fast-beating heart didn’t slow. Ten months ago, things had been fine. And then a single incident involving a Turkish tourist attacked by street-toughs in Greece had triggered a series of ever-increasing violence.

Until it came to this. Athens would not tolerate the Turkish attack on the Republic of Cyprus. It was all too likely that they’d answer with a nuclear strike against Ankara. In which case Iraq would retaliate, which would cause the European Union to enter the war, which would draw the African League in . . .

Basil cut that thought off before he could brood himself into a panic attack.

He activated his NIF’s comm app and pinged his friend Daphne. Almost immediately, her pale face appeared before his inner eye.

“Hi Basil. I take it you’ve watched the news?”

“So I have. I think I’ll go on a long vacation, say—to Antarctica, or somewhere equally far away. So should you.”

She brushed a lock out of her eyes with unsteady hands. “Hmm. Actually, I’ve got a different idea. Mind if I visit you in person to discuss it?”

Basil felt his eyebrows rise. In all the years of their online friendship she had never suggested such a thing. “You want to come all the way to Cyprus just to meet me?”

She nodded. “I want to talk in private, where nobody can hack in and listen.”

Had she still not forgiven him for his little demonstration a few months back? “Hey, just because I hacked into your Neural Interface that doesn’t mean everybody can.”

“It proved to me that my NIF isn’t as secure as I thought. I’m not going to take any chances. So can I visit you, or not?”

Basil agreed, and they broke the connection.

He took a look around the room—and went into a cleaning frenzy. When the doorbell rang two hours later his apartment looked almost presentable. He picked up a sock he had overlooked and stuffed it into his pocket. Then he opened the door, and Daphne swept past him into the apartment.

She had an even more impressive presence in person than on the cloud. Her face wasn’t exactly beautiful, and her curves weren’t ample enough to suit current fashion. But she radiated an intense—and infectious—energy. Just watching her pace the length of his living room eased his exhaustion from that hurried housecleaning feat.

She turned and fixed him with a glower. “We’ve got to do something about this war.”

He stared at her. “Do something? We? What could we do? I’m a cloud security expert, not a peacemaker. And you’re an online game designer, for God’s sake. What exactly do you think the two of us could accomplish that all the powerful politicians can’t?”

Her glower grew darker, but all she said was, “Well, we won’t know until we try, will we?” She plunked herself down on his sofa. “I’ve got an idea.”

****

Around midnight three days later, Basil withdrew from a false persona he’d set up in the cloud environment the Neural Interfaces around the world connected to. This was the last fake user in a trail of other false identities, designed to keep people from tracing his activities back to him. If they went through with Daphne’s crazy plan, he’d need those protections.

Daphne wanted him to hack into the NIFs of every powerful politician and military leader in Cyprus, Greece, and Turkey, and install an online war game she and her co-workers at Shooting Star Games Ltd. had worked on over the last few months. The idea was to trap all the major players in the game, and have them start their war in the virtual world instead of the real one.

“Are you sure your war game will feel like the real thing to our victims?” he asked.

“I’m sure.” Daphne sat in the corner of the sofa, working on the game design. “The app was developed by Shooting Star, after all. We’re good at realistic games.”

“I know,” he said. He had played those games himself. A NIF game interacted directly with the user’s brain. If the game was detailed enough, the experience was indistinguishable from reality. And Shooting Star was justly famous for its realistic war games. “But that’s for settings outside the user’s real-life experience. What we’re trying to do is different. How can you convince people that they’re in the real world when you don’t know a thing about their actual surroundings?”

“But I do know everything about their current location. Every single one of our targets has retreated to their respective emergency bunkers. And I’ve got experience recordings for those bunkers.”

“Somebody actually recorded their stay in a high security bunker and made it available to you?” Basil shook his head.

She gave him a forced smile. “There’s a lot of money in the game industry, and the people who maintain those bunkers don’t earn all that much. So yes, Shooting Star has been able to acquire top-security information on most of those bunkers world-wide.

“You didn’t hear that from me, of course,” she added as an afterthought.

“Of course,” he echoed, still chewing on that unexpected piece of information.

The more he thought about it, the more feasible this insane plan seemed. He’d even found an outdated version of the Greek NIF security protocol, buried under terabytes of virtual trash at an obscure site that nobody claimed ownership to.

Based on what he’d been able to learn from that protocol, he thought he could see a flaw that he might be able to exploit—a flaw that any protocol evolved from that design was likely to share. And where there was a flaw, Basil was positive he could break in. If he dared.

Part of him wished that the plan was completely impossible. He did not sleep well that night.

****

He was bleary-eyed and depressed when Daphne knocked on the bedroom door the next morning.

“Have you watched the news?” she demanded.

“And a good morning to you, too,” he said. “No, I’ve just woken up. What happened?”

Her cheekbones stood out on her pale face, making her look haggard. Basil wasn’t sure she’d even registered his dig.

Turkey is bringing in additional troops from the mainland, and Greece has no units close enough to match them. International analysts agree that the Turks will overrun the south within the week. If that happens, Greece will push the Button.” Her eyes bore into his. “We’ve got to act, now.”

Basil leaned back and pulled his pony tail with suddenly damp hands. His heart vibrated like a guitar string.

“Daphne, I’m just an ordinary guy,” he said. “I’ve always had this nerdy tendency not to jump into adventures. You need a hero for this, not someone like me.”

Daphne’s shoulders slumped. “I know what you mean. I’ve always been a mousy little geek myself. But . . . somebody has to do something, or we might literally face the end of the world!” The last few words came out as a squeak.

Basil stared at her. Melodramatic as that statement sounded, she was right. But he couldn’t be the one to save the world. That kind of thing didn’t happen to people like him.

Daphne returned his gaze imploringly, lips trembling.

Basil averted his eyes and exhaled. “Let’s have some coffee, and I’ll watch the news.”

“You’re not mousy,” he added as an afterthought.

That earned him a watery smile.

Basil watched and re-watched the national and Greek news. Then he activated a translation app and tried the Turkish news, then Syria and Egypt. All the commentators agreed that things looked very grim indeed.

“So are we going to do this, or not?” Daphne asked.

Basil cleared his throat, but it stayed uncomfortably tight. “Even if everything goes perfectly, and we save the world from certain destruction, we’ll still end up in prison. What you’re proposing has to be against every law on privacy protection that was ever passed.”

Her jaw muscles clenched and unclenched. “I know. Not to mention the fact that trapping someone in a virtual world is a morally despicable thing to do.” She met and held his eyes. “I still think we should do it. We can worry about the law later, if we live long enough.” Her eyes were wide, and a hint of moisture gathered in the corners.

Basil swallowed. And swallowed again. Then he forced air into his too-tight chest. “All right. Let’s get to work.”

****

“Is that a desktop computer?” Daphne exclaimed a few minutes later. “How quaint!”

In spite of himself, Basil grinned. “Yes, that’s a genuine desktop computer, complete with keyboard and monitor. And, more importantly, an off-switch. Unlike the apps on your NIF, this relict can be powered down, and becomes completely untraceable as soon as it’s switched off.”

Daphne looked thoughtful. “Oh. That’s handy, I suppose.”

“So it is. Plus, this ancient machine still has a lot of outdated software that allows me to access low-level functions that have been buried under layers and layers of modern apps on a standard NIF. That gives me tools to work on a level that nobody ever bothers to check these days.” He gave her a mischievous smile.

Her answering grin looked a bit lopsided, but it was the first genuine smile he had seen on her face since this whole madness started.

Heartened, he set to work. Daphne watched over his shoulder while he activated the first set of false identities and started probing a ministerial assistant’s NIF security app.

****

Twenty hours later, he had checked out nineteen of his twenty-six Greek targets, and still had not found a single foothold from which to break into Greek security.

“Crap, another miss,” he said, voice low and rough from exhaustion.

Daphne didn’t look much better than he felt. “You almost triggered an alarm there on that last attempt,” she said. “Go get some sleep. Is there something I can do while you rest?”

Basil shook his head, as much to clear it as to answer her question. “No, after that close call it’s better to switch off the computer and disappear from the cloud for a while. You might as well get some sleep, too, and we’ll start over with a new set of identities when we’re both rested.”

Since the sofa was laden down with dated computer manuals, discarded fast-food containers and half-eaten cookies, Basil made Daphne share his wide bed.

“I promise I’ll be good,” he said, and her lips twitched.

They fell into bed side by side and were almost instantly asleep.

****

Basil woke shivering from a confused dream—a nightmare of trapping someone in an endless war game. Or had he been trapped himself? His heart still raced, but the memory of the dream was already fading. He opened his eyes and met Daphne’s wide-eyed gaze. She, too, was shivering.

“Nightmares?” he whispered.

She nodded.

He gave her shoulder a tentative caress. When she didn’t object, he took her in his arms. They fell asleep clinging to each other like a pair of frightened children. It helped—there were no more dreams that night.

****

“You know,” Basil said, “even if we managed to pull this off without a hitch, how do you think the rest of the world will react?” Why hadn’t he thought of this earlier? “We can’t have three whole governments drop off the face of the earth with no-one noticing.”

Daphne nodded. She obviously had considered the question, and come up with an answer. “We’ll need to broadcast what we’re doing just as soon as we’ve trapped all the major players into the war game. Then the rest of the world can watch them screw up. Maybe someone, somewhere, will actually learn something from this mess.”

Basil’s stomach cramped. If they publicly confessed what they’d done, how could they keep their identities secret and escape unscathed? He wanted desperately to shake his head, jump up and scream his denial at Daphne.

Instead he stared down at his hands and nodded.

****

The days passed in a flurry. One by one, Basil fingered all of their Greek targets’ security apps. None of the Greeks had left their NIF access conveniently open, and neither had any of the Turkish government officials. Basil started in on the Cypriots while Daphne worked on removing the emergency off-switch from her nuclear war game.

They worked themselves into exhaustion, slept for a few hours, started over. And again.

And then the breakthrough came.

Alexis Tsirgiotis, undersecretary to the Cyprus Minister of Finance, had neglected to change the password for the admin access to his NIF security app. It still was the old generated code that the app had been delivered with. Finally, Basil had an entrance.

Sleep ceased to be an option. Daphne kept him in coffee and pizza while he used Mr. Tsirgiotis’ NIF to launch a virus that would attack the NIFs of every other Cyprus government official. That done, he decoded and searched every file on every Cyprus NIF he could lay his hands on—and struck pay dirt again. The Cyprus Foreign Minister had ignored every rule of NIF security and had stored his access codes to the Greek security network in an inadequately encrypted file on his NIF.

Thirty hours later, Basil was a barely conscious wreck—but he had an access to all the Greek and Cyprus NIFs in question. He fell into bed but was too exhausted to sleep. He tossed and turned, trying to think of a way to break into Turkish security.

Only when Daphne climbed into bed with him and held him tight did he sink into a dreamless slumber.

****

“After the last days of valiant efforts on our brave defenders’ part, our troops have been forced to give ground, and the Turkish aggressors have advanced past the former UN buffer zone,” the news speaker said. “The Cypriot and Greek forces were able to fight the enemy to a standstill along Grivas Dhigenis Avenue, but nonetheless, the general population is strongly encouraged to leave Nicosia.

“The international airport in Larnaka has been locked down . . .”

Basil shut down the newscast on his NIF. Daphne had stopped watching some time ago and sat staring straight ahead, hugging herself. Basil laid a tentative arm across her shoulders, and she sagged against his side, holding on to his other hand.

“We need to leave. Where can we go? You don’t have a car, do you?” The hand gripping his was clammy.

“I have my motorbike. We could leave on that, but there’s no way we could take my computer.” The computer itself wasn’t large, but old as it was it used a huge amount of energy, and it required a bulky set of solar collectors to keep it running.

“We cannot leave the computer,” he continued. “I don’t think I can manage to break into the Turkish security apps without the software I have on there.”

He was astounded how calm he felt. He should be quivering with fright, but all he could manage was a kind of weary resignation.

Daphne shivered, and he pulled her closer. “So we need to stay.” Her voice wavered, then firmed. “So be it. We have to see this through, no matter what.”

She turned her head and kissed him. It took him a moment to react, but then he responded with an enthusiasm not entirely born of desperation. For the next hour neither of them thought about the war.

****

“The war game is as good as it’s going to get,” Daphne said, “And I’ve removed access to the game menu, as well as the emergency interrupt.”

“That was quick.” Basil was impressed. “So now there’s no possibility of someone stumbling across the exit function and leaving the game before we’re ready?”

“Not anymore, no. I’m free to work on something else. What can I do to help you with your work?”

“You could search the cloud for personal information on our Turkish targets.” He smiled at her raised eyebrows. “I haven’t found an unsecured access on any of their NIFs, so it’s down to guessing at their security passwords.”

The brows stayed up, but all she said was, “So what sort of personal information do you need?”

“Everything from their children’s birthdays to the name of their favorite cat. Vids they watched recently, actors they admire, that kind of thing.”

“So you’ll just try one password after the other?” She frowned. “Won’t the security apps lock themselves down if you do that?”

“They would, if I used the normal user interface for my attempts.” He pointed his chin towards his computer screen. “That’s what the apps on this ancient darling are for. One of the things I’ve found when I searched the cloud last week was the encryption key the Turkish security apps use to store passwords. My programs encrypt the passwords I want to try, using that key, and compare the result directly with the password file the security app has stored in the cloud.”

“It’s as easy as that? Why doesn’t everybody break into other people’s NIFs all the time, then?”

“Because the software to access data at the file level is buried so deeply in the cloud that almost nobody can access them anymore.” He couldn’t quite suppress his smug grin. “That’s why I’m one of only three or four people in the world who can break into a NIF. I’ve spent the last ten years writing apps which access the software that can identify and read individual files in the cloud.”

She studied him for a moment. Then she nodded and without another word leaned back and closed her eyes. The movement of her eyeballs behind closed lids showed her already hard at work.

Basil watched her for a moment, feeling his heart lift despite himself. She was so lost in concentration, she didn’t notice his intense stare. She was beautiful, intent on her task as she was. She had the same capacity of losing herself in her work that he had. She laughed at the nerdy jokes he loved. She was warm-hearted and caring. And for some unfathomable reason she seemed to like him.

If only they had a future together, if only they weren’t throwing away their freedom, maybe their lives, on this quest of hers. But that, too, was part of the attraction. She had a strong sense of responsibility, and she acted on it. A very unusual person, his Daphne.

He smiled to himself and turned back to his own work.

****

Finally, all those hours they’d spent researching their Turkish targets bore fruit. Second Secretary of Internal Affairs Mehmed Özcan had a ten-year-old daughter called Meltem. And, in violation of every security standard ever written, his password was Meltem10.

Basil launched his virus, shut off his computer and indulged in a full night of uninterrupted sleep. Then he got back to work, analyzing the data his virus sent him, and trying to worm his way into the other Turkish NIFs.

****

“. . . and so, the Turkish aggressors leave the nations of Greece and Cyprus no choice but to defend ourselves. My heart bleeds at having to do this, but for the good of our Motherland, I must.” Prime Minister Anastassopoulos’ right hand found the red button—and pressed down. External cameras showed hundreds of mid-range missiles taking off, each one carrying a nuclear warhead. In nine and a half minutes, they would reach their targets in Turkey, killing millions of people.

****

Turkish satellites reported the launch, and a hurried conference was held. It took four minutes for the Turkish government to reach a consensus. Another red button was pressed, and several hundred nuclear missiles sped off towards Greece. Maybe by accident, maybe by design, the missiles aimed for Kurdistan and Russia were also launched.

****

Panicked conferences ensued all over the world. More bombs were launched, each country hoping to destroy their enemies before they in turn could attack. It took less than a day for every major city around the world to be destroyed.

****

“No. No! I don’t believe this. Things wouldn’t really have turned out this way, would they?”

Basil’s stomach churned as he watched the recording Daphne had made of the war game. They had activated the game just in time to save the world from total destruction, it seemed.

“How the rest of the world would have reacted is anyone’s guess,” Daphne said. “The app only simulated the most likely response, based on the psychological profiles we have on the world’s leading government officials. But the Greek and Turkish reactions were genuine, including the launches on Kurdistan and Russia.” She looked just as sick as he felt. “So yes, I think this is exactly how things would have turned out.”

They stared at each other, unable to do anything but sit and control the gorge that was trying to rise. Then they both swallowed convulsively, and set to recording their broadcast. Not that they needed to do more than tell the world what they had done. The game recordings said everything that needed to be said—and then some.

****

The soldiers were coming for them.

After their broadcast it had only been a matter of time before they were caught, so Daphne and Basil were ready. Daphne activated the hidden interrupt switch in the game and freed their victims on both sides. Now the matter lay in the hands of the UN officials who had been sent to Greece and Turkey. Basil prayed that they would be able to keep the opponents from starting the war all over again—for real this time.

Two military trucks came to a stop in front of the house, disgorging soldiers. A few more seconds, and they’d come storming through the door, which Daphne had opened so the soldiers wouldn’t have an excuse to come in shooting. Basil stared through the door and reached blindly for Daphne’s hand. She grabbed it with crushing force.

“Did we do the right thing?”

He turned his head, met her eyes. Eyes full of all the insecurity and doubts she had so bravely hidden over the last week.

“Yes, love,” he said. “We did the right thing. I’m sure of it.”

An army officer walked in through the open door. Four armed soldiers followed him in and took position flanking him, two on each side. Many more soldiers stood in the hallway, just outside the door.

The officer had a scowl on his face.“Are you Basil Papadakis and Daphne Nikopolidou?”

“Yes,” Daphne said.

Basil nodded, not trusting his voice.

The officer smiled.

In unison, the officer and his squad saluted.

****

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About Frances Silversmith

Frances Silversmith grew up in Germany, where she lives with her husband, three guinea pigs, and an Icelandic horse. She works as a software developer and splits her free time between writing, reading every book she can get her hands on, and riding and teaching circus tricks to her pony.

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