This short story was submitted in response to the call for ideas issued by the co-chairs of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, Eric Schmidt and Robert Work. It addresses the first question (part b.) which asks authors to consider what might happen if the United States fails to develop robust AI capabilities that address national security issues.
“The truth is I need you. And I miss you. I made a mistake, Henrietta, and I never apologized properly.”
Transfixed, Henrietta DelaMar ran her eyes over the face she knew so well — the piercing blue stare, the straw-blonde mane, and the rapid smile. His name was Carl, and they had been married once.
She smiled despite herself. The smile died away as another voice interjected.
“Are you alright, ma’am? You look tired.”
DelaMar gently removed her augmented-reality glasses, with their recessed speakers that so lovingly whispered to her. The recorded video-message automatically paused. The glasses disappeared into her bag. She glanced across to her assistant, Madison, whose gaze was heavy with concern. They sat together in the back of a Chevy Suburban, legs cramped as they made the long drive up I-270. Her security detail up front ignored them studiously.
“I’m fine,” DelaMar said brusquely.
In truth she had never been lonelier, although her life was no longer hers alone. Her every movement was watched and guarded.
Such was the lot of the deputy secretary of defense on the cusp of war with China.
Carl had re-entered her life a few weeks ago, trading messages tentatively at first, more readily now. And though she hated to admit it, DelaMar craved that contact — that human touch, making it all bearable.
“Sorry, Madison,” she said, suddenly feeling guilty for her tone. “How long now?”
“Not too far,” she lied. On I-270, everything was far away. MD-27 carried them deeper into the country. Soon enough, DelaMar could spy distant, spider-legged robots — crop-tenders, picking weeds from the endless roadside fields.
“I meant to ask earlier,” she blurted, fumbling for an olive branch, “what’s your brother up to now?”
“All good,” Madison smiled politely. “Still crafting money-making schemes.” She went on, returning to business, “By the way, that AI start-up from Boston was asking for another meeting. Shall I say next week?”
“Next week we’ll be kinetic in the Western Pacific. No, they missed the boat — our budget from here out is beans and bombs, not bytes.” Madison shrugged in response, glancing through the windows.
“Strange that we’re driving all the way out here for this meeting. Usually folks come to us.”
Despite herself, DelaMar found herself grinning. “Today’s an exception. Today we’re meeting a very old friend.”
Rural Maryland’s autumn chill gripped DelaMar as she climbed out of her car. She stood on the humble main street of Westminster City, blinking in the wan sunlight. Locals looked on in curiosity at their new arrival. Across the street, a roadside sign declared:
MAJOR-GENERAL J.E.B. STUART, CSA, PASSED THIS POINT ON THE WAY TO GETTYSBURG, 1863
The whispering buzz of a quadcopter drone lifting off jerked DelaMar back to the moment. Strapped to the roof of the second vehicle in her motorcade, it would give over-watch for her security detail — though she fancied Chinese threats here were as likely as Jeb’s cavalry returning. Nearby stood a squat diner of the sort that defined the 1950s — all polished chrome and vivid red paint, as though James Dean had just stepped out for a Lucky Strike.
Inside was a world of rich scents and black-and-white chequered floor tiles. A smiling waitress advanced to make contact with her new customer, then faltered as DelaMar’s security detail appeared in turn. They were four unsmiling men, with bulges in their sport coats where ordinary businessmen have no cause for bulges. Ignoring the waitress, DelaMar pushed on. She saw what she had come for.
“Wait here,” she instructed her security. They knew better than to deny her. Madison waited with them.
She headed for a booth at the back of the diner. A man sat there, facing away from the doorway and looking into the mirror that lined the opposite wall. She could see his thatch of flame-red hair and his bright green eyes that glinted welcome. He wore a trimmed, ash-grey waistcoat with an elaborate, ruffed collar. But the centrepiece of his outfit was an extravagant cape of William Morris patterns that constantly shifted and arced — he was the very vision of a modern Walter Raleigh.
His name was Jonathan Roper, and she was very glad to see him again.
“I see you’re still wearing the latest digital clothing, Jonnie,” DelaMar gestured at the cape as she sat before him.
“The very latest from London Fashion Week, Hennie,” Roper replied, speaking with a British accent.
“Elizabethan Revival style, made with Smart Fabric — weaved with microprocessors for the constant movement effects.”
“Naturally.” DelaMar took her seat. “But you didn’t bring me out her to talk aesthetics.”
“So what can I do for my favorite consultant to the Secret Intelligence Service? Still wrangling Russian scientists?”
“Well,” Roper gave a sly grin. “You can get me a slice of the best pecan pie on this side of the Blue Ridge Mountains.” He nodded at a table advert affirming that the diner did indeed offer the best pecan pie — or your money back.
“Look, Jonnie,” DelaMar sighed, “we’re days away from a shooting war in the South China Sea and I cleared a whole afternoon just to get to this table. Be straight with me.”
Roper rolled his eyes theatrically.
“And here I was going to tell you about all the hollyhocks and red dahlias you got for my house back in Wiltshire.” Roper silently pushed a napkin across the table. He had scrawled a message on the white material:
YOU ARE BUGGED. GO TO THE BATHROOM. LEAVE EVERYTHING. EXIT VIA BACK WINDOW. GET IN THE CAR.
DelaMar stiffened in her seat, saying nothing.
“I didn’t know that,” she said. “Just let me run to the little girl’s room first. Long drive.”
Roper let her go, studying the reflection of the front entrance in the mirror on the opposite wall. A sweep of DelaMar’s hand ensured Madison and her security remained at their places.
Roper gave her 30 seconds while he adjusted the settings of his cape. The patterns of weaving branches disappeared as the cape took on a translucent sheen, mimicking the appearance of his surroundings. Its smart fabric was a derivative of U.S. Army active camouflage, concealing both visible appearance and infra-red profiles. Roper took another glance to assure DelaMar’s security were looking elsewhere before playing out the cape to its full length — enough to conceal him from head to toe — and draping it over himself. Stepping up from the booth, he appeared no more than a flicker in the room, a shimmer that shifted and drifted towards the rear fire exit.
Stepping outside into the diner’s rear alleyway, he found DelaMar slipping into the front-side passenger seat of a rusted ’97 Camry. He joined her, assuring the doors were closed before he spoke. The air inside was stale and close.
“Red dahlias,” DelaMar murmured. “Haven’t heard that warning since we were in Kabul.”
“Alright, this old bucket is as dumb as they get. No ears in here.” Roper said. “Now listen, we have two minutes, tops. Chinese artificial intelligence — we’re calling it Vulkan — has compromised your entire personal communications and every device you run. Vulkan’s feeding live intelligence back to the Ministry of State Security in Beijing about everything that crosses your desk.”
“Jesus Christ … How? What’s your plan?”
“We’ll start feeding it false information and play the long game. But first we have to force the AI off our trail by throwing your assistant — Madison — under the bus. I fabricated evidence she’s taking payments from First China Bank in Basel, helping pay off her brother’s very real gambling debts. It’ll get picked up as part of my standard work, and Madison will suffer, but it will help convince Vulkan that we have the wrong scent — that I used this meeting to warn you about her, not it.”
DelaMar grimaced. Madison deserved better.
“But how did this happen? Our systems should be airtight!”
“A ‘no-click attack chain’ — a remote access attack that didn’t need your interaction. It sent a malformed message to you, and you just needed to view it to launch the malicious code. Nothing new, of course, but since you lot didn’t invest in AI properly, it’s not something that’s easily picked up.”
“When did this happen?” DelaMar demanded. It was Roper’s turn to grimace now.
“A few weeks back. As soon as I learned I began planning this meeting.”
“Carl …” she gasped, horrified by the realization. “Carl sent me … But that’s not possible! He sent video messages.”
“Deepfakes. The AI generated them all using recordings of prior imagery and voice data. China’s Ministry of State Security must have learned about your marriage through the OPM breach back in 2015. I’m so sorry, Hennie.”
“Is Carl,” DelaMar didn’t want to finish her sentence. “… is he alright?”
“Perfectly fine. Chances are he’s totally unaware.” She breathed with relief.
“Look, Hennie,” Roper leaned in, eyes alive with urgency, “the AI understands something about us that we don’t like to admit. That we need to be loved. This makes us human. When we’re alone we’re at our weakest … But you’re not alone now.” He placed a hand on her shoulder, gently. She shuddered.
“We’re almost out of time, Hennie. Just remember Vulkan is watching everything, hearing everything. We can turn the tables and make Beijing doubt the most advanced tool in their arsenal — but your deception will be pivotal. Don’t act the role, live it. OK?”
DelaMar barely had time to nod, dumb and silent. The enormity of it all was still dawning on her. She felt violated by trusting that Carl, the man she once made vows to, had come back to her. Roper was already reaching for the door.
“Go back in through the bathroom,” he said, “I’ll go through the fire exit, fag break and all that.”
DelaMar sat back at their table in the diner, assembling a mask that she knew would have to last for months. A mask over all her anguish and fury — at the Chinese, Vulkan, and above all, herself. Madison and her security watched as Roper sauntered back to their table from the fire exit. He entered like the Queen of Sheba, all self-confidence and Gauloises cigarettes, throwing the security detail a theatrical wave as he resumed his seat.
“Now, where were we?” he began, “ah, hollyhocks and dahlias. Look, in truth, Hennie, I want to extend my services to your office also. I know, I know, there’s official channels. That’s why I wanted to meet out here, away from the madding crowd and all the lobbyists. …”
He paused as a chirping alarm bleeped from DelaMar’s bag. She reached in, pulling out her augmented-reality glasses. She gave a mirthless chuckle as she saw their display.
“Something funny?” Roper asked.
“You remember Carl, don’t you?” she replied, her voice level enough to almost surprise her. “He’s been messaging again.”
“Ah,” Roper nodded. “Well. You know my thoughts. You’re too good for him.” He leaned back, locking her gaze.
“It’s sweet, really.” In truth, she wanted to scream.
The display on the glasses read simply enough:
I miss you, Hennie. Love, Carl.
Image: Chinese Ministry of Defense