Feature

August 5, 2022

Operational technology: Cloudy, with a chance of data 

By Emma Schroeder

The Cyber Moonshot

The Cyber Statecraft Initiative has established a new project to communicate core themes and concepts in cybersecurity through a series of short stories in a way that is fun and approachable to a broader audience than conventional policy analysis/publication.

EPISODE 2

Chapter 1

Say it ain’t snow 

In the dim Earth light, the Moon’s surface cast a soft, natural glow, somehow both at odds with and strangely complemented by the neon software supply chains snaking across the surface, delivering software and a continuous stream of updates to all of the connected devices within the Habitable Object on the Surface of The Lunar Landscape, the Moon’s only port.  

Neymar was on patrol, moving slowly around the food court, a fluffy orange head poking curiously out of a brightly patterned harness across his his otherwise neutral and utilitarian uniform. He stood back from the window as he continued his slow patrol winding around the food court. His rounds, usually quite dull, had significantly improved now that he could bring his cat, Mel, along on his rounds and visit the other cats acting as roving sentries in every store. 

“Any trouble today?” he asked the calico half-hidden in a small nook in front of Comet’s Custards.  

The cat snuggled deeper into the alcove and thwacked its tail three times in response.  

“Something is afoot,” he whispered to Mel, and stopped to survey the food court. His calculating gaze passed over the crowd of customers, the roving bots, and paused briefly on the software supply chains. Neymar was momentarily lost in memory as he thought of the cables, only a few weeks ago, hanging off the walls in tangled, chaotic webs. 

Shouting abruptly derailed his reverie, “Neymar! Neymar, is that you?”  

Neymar froze, a momentary if inauspicious response for someone in his line of work. But realizing the identity of the speaker did not ease his anxiety.   

“Quilla?” he half-muttered at the rapidly approaching figure. 

The tall woman closed on Neymar like descending asteroid and pulled him into a crushing hug.  

“Neymar, it is you, it’s been years! How have you been since . . . everything?” she trailed off, looking curiously at the cat holstered at his side.  

Neymar unconsciously straightened. “Fantastic! Still in the security business, just finishing up my rounds now actually. What brings you to port? Is . . . ” he stumbled, “is the whole crew here?”  

“Yes, we’re all here. Well we’ve been through some changes, but you know most of the crew, including Captain McGinty.”  

At Neymar’s hard look she continued, “Why don’t we sit somewhere and catch up? I could kill for some hot chocolate—what, is the whole food court refrigerated?” she laughed.  

Neymar gave an unconvincing chuckle but led Quilla across the food court towards Caffeine Crater. They joined the unusually long line, apparently not the only ones seeking the comfort of a hot drink.  

Ernest, zooming in from the outer orbit of tables around the café’s entrance, caught Neymar’s arm. “Hey, buddy! You want the usual?”  

“Two, please,” said Neymar, unable to resist echoing a little of his friend’s enthusiasm. 

“So, Quilla, what brings the SSS Purdue to our docks?” asked Neymar.  

“Unscheduled repair stop. Since Reggie left the ship, we had to bring on a new contractor to do some repairs last week, and they are really not holding up. And to think, I assumed stopping at a port would mean I would finally escape the freeze.” Quilla said, shivering.  

Ernest appeared and set their mugs on the table, shooting an ear-to-ear grin at Quilla before dashing back to the kitchen.   

“What do you mean?” Neymar replied. Glitches in ship environmental control systems were not uncommon, the chemical and physical factors keeping spacecraft interiors in some approximation of a Terran temperate zone made for a precarious balance. But out in the reaches of space, most problems were solved with a wrench and a wristpad. 

“Our ship’s temperature control system stopped working so we docked in here for mechanical repairs. But what, are you guys having some sort of simulated moon winter? I mean it’s . . . ” she stopped, staring blankly upward, “it’s snowing!”  

Sure enough, a fine white powder had begun falling lightly, a clump of snowflakes landing in Quilla’s outstretched hand.  

“Neymar, that is snow! It has to be.”  

“Precipitation inside of a dome? That’s impossible, this is crazy,” Neymar said.  

They heard a shout and saw an Ernest-colored blur shoot from behind the counter past his coworker toward an open space in between the tables. “This is fantastic!” he yelled, opening his mouth to catch the descending flakes and squeezing his eyes shut with equal determination.  

This is as good an excuse as any to close up,” said Zafira with a decided smirk. She turned to the line of hopeful customers, “Sorry, folks! Closed due to inclement weather, or actually, closed due to the sudden existence of weather. Full stop.”  

Some light grumbling ensued, but few could muster any real anger amid their confusion-riddled delight. It was snowing. On the moon.   

Zafira stepped out of the storefront, joining the throng of customers frozen in a heads-up trance. She stared as the crystalline flakes danced, falling to rest in a thin white sheet on every inch of the food court. As the layer of snow grew thicker, the food court seemed lost in a strange silence. 

While the lunar lifers stood stupefied, Ernest knelt to the ground and scooped a handful of snow. “Snowball fight!” he yelled as he aimed at Zafira.  

Art by Jim Starr

She shrieked as the melting snow dripped down her back, “Oh, you are so on.”  

With remarkable speed the cozy silence was gone, and the entire food court descended into chaos.   

The employees of Comet’s Custards quickly established a defensive perimeter around the front of their shop, and entered into an unstable alliance with World of Cheesecake. The staff of One Small Step Fur Man dropped back into their café, determined to protect the puddle of mewling cats that had gathered under the furthest couch. Engineers from Sector D seized Caffeine Crafter and quickly stockpiled ammunition, using coffee cups as efficient snowball makers.  

Zafira, Ernest, Quilla, and Neymar – with Mel held close – huddled behind the partial cover of an overturned table. 

Ernest, covered head to toe in snow, stared around at the scene. As each faction attempted an advance they immediately fell on their butts and scooted desperately back into cover.

Quilla laughed, “Is work always like this? Neymar, I bet you don’t even miss the old days. It’s like an early retirement!” 

Neymar shrank slightly as snowballs whipped above his head. 

Ernest cut in, “It’s not always fun and games you know. Just a few weeks ago Neymar here pretty much single-handedly tracked down the source of a software supply chain attack and set up a whole new security system in the food court.” 

Neymar shifted, pushing around the snow under his hands, “Uh yeah, it’s, ah . . . the system is actually cat-based.” 

“Now there’s a cat monitoring each and every storefront,” Ernest said proudly, sitting up to open his arms in a wide span, tempting further potshots from the robotics engineers’ now-fortified position. 

Noting Quilla’s confused stare, Zafira chimed in, “I thought it was moony at first too. Turns out that, being inherently distrusting, cats can sense malicious code . . . and in the case of software supply chains, usually attack and sever them from the corrupted source.” 

Quilla looked thoughtfully at Neymar, but Ernest jumped in excitedly, “and now we have a second mystery on our hands.” 

Neymar seemed relieved the shift in conversation. He leaned forward, wiping the snow off his hands. “It’s odd that your ship, here for repairs to the atmospheric control system, docked the same day our food court became a winter wonderland.” 

Zafira propped herself up on her elbows and squinted upwards, “And the snow’s coming from the Cloud, which makes even less sense—that’s definitely not one of their functionalities.”  

“Should we go check it out,” Ernest asked, “get the gang back together?” 

Neymar smiled and leaped to his feet, “Onward!” 

Chapter 2

How to make snowballs and influence the Cloud 

Art by Jim Starr

This was, regrettably for Neymar, a considerable lapse in judgement. The entrenched teams of customer and vendor had by now firmly solidified into a classic ‘us versus them’ mindset, determined to outlast and outgun every other group. They had also by now mastered their snowball making technique and had a truly staggering amount of ammunition at their fingertips. 

As Neymar, Ernest, Zafira, and Quilla rushed across open ground toward the nearby exit from the food court, the sky was blotted out with countless snowballs in arcs and line drives landing hit after hit. Neymar curled his body around Mel as he ran, and when they emerged out of the food court, the cat, alone of their number, was not covered in a mottled layer of snow.  

“Well, that was fun,” Zafira uttered in a sarcastic monotone. 

“I know, right?” Ernest replied, tossing his hair to release the accumulated snow. 

Neymar turned to Quilla, “Could you take us to the Purdue? We need to see if there’s a connection between the two malfunctions.”  

Quilla took a moment to respond, tugging on her braids absentmindedly, “I don’t know if that’s such a good idea—none of you have permission to board, and I think McGinty would go moony if he saw you on board, Neymar.” 

Neymar looked down at his shoes to hide a grimace, “I guess you’re right.” 

Zafira stepped in, “Well, if we can’t go to the ship, then we should split up. Quilla, you go check out the Purdue, and the rest of us will go see what’s up with the Cloud.” 

“And Quilla, you should take Mel, if that’s alright with Neymar,” Ernest said, eliciting a quick nod from Neymar. “She can help you locate exactly where the problem is.” 

Quilla gave Neymar a smile that was a bit too wide, “I’m sure she’ll be very helpful.” 

Ernest helped to transfer the fluffy orange cat and her harness to Quilla. Cat and human both looked pointedly uncertain about the new arrangement. 

“Okay, folks, I guess I’m off.” Quilla readjusted Mel snug against her side. “I’ll let you know what I find out.” 

Zafira turned to Neymar as soon as Quilla walked off, “Okay, what’s that all about?” She pointed between Neymar and Quilla’s retreating back. 

“We used to work together, back when I was a solar system security agent,” Neymar said. 

“You were a solar system security agent?” Ernest asked excitedly. “That’s amazing!” 

“Yeah, I used to be. But I . . . well, I screwed it up.” Neymar’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. “I had this spacy idea that cats could sense trust.” 

“And the captain didn’t agree?” Zafira asked. 

“No. He did not,” there was a long pause as Neymar centered himself. “There was this one battle. We were ambushed flying through the asteroid belt and took too much damage. All we had left were bad options, and with Mel, I chose the best I could. But when McGinty heard, he just blamed everything on me.” 

“That’s terrible,” Ernest replied, bewildered. 

Zafira stepped toward her friends, “Of course you did the right thing, Neymar. We believe you, and that should matter way more because we’re clearly better.” 

“Yeah,” Ernest clapped Neymar on the back, “that guy is clearly a few newtons short of escape velocity.” 

“Woah, Ernest, don’t hold back,” Zafira said with a chuckle.  

Turning to Neymar, she added, “Now let’s show ‘em what a food court security guard and a couple of baristas can do.” Zafira stood straight with her fists on her hips in an impressive imitation of her friend, “Onward!” 

Neymar and Ernest smiled and slid into matching power poses before Zafira led them charging toward the ascending airlift. One by one they entered, bracing themselves as the air shooting them upward became icy cold. They emerged in turn, Ernest managing to not fall completely on his face as he rocketed out of the lift at the top level.  

Ernest slid behind Zafira as they strode toward the approximate center of the Cloud and away from the edge of the platform. He stared up in silence at the misty tendrils extending outward in every direction, through which he could see a wild expanse of stars and the great river of the Milky Way cutting through the sky beyond the dome. 

Neymar stood forward, projecting his voice to fill the large space, “Hello, Cloud. We are here to inquire into your current malfunction.”  

“There is no need to shout,” a voice drawled, seeming to emanate from every part of the misty room.  

“Sup, Cloudy with a chance of sleazeball,” Zafira asked, choosing a random point in the mist to speak to, “Still stinking up the top floor I see.” 

“Zafira, I thought I detected your presence, but I was hoping it was a glitch.” 

“I think you’re glitching enough without having to go and hope for it.” 

What is the Cloud?

Sadly, the Cloud in our world is not actually an amorphous alien entity.

People rely on cloud storage for their smartphone data and collaborate on cloud platforms for school and work. “It’s in the air,” so many posit in attempting to explain the cloud. Where their data really goes remains a mystery.

It’s hard to blame them. What exactly cloud computing is, how it works, and who builds it remain hard to access information outside of vendor marketing materials and paywalled industry analyses.

Cloud computing describes a collection of information technologies (IT), a way of delivering those technologies to users, and a commercial phenomenon that has reshaped the technology marketplace. More than that, cloud is a way of thinking about computing that challenges boundaries.

 

Read more from the Cyber Statecraft Initiative report, Dude, Where’s My Cloud

“I am not at fault,” the Cloud retorted. “My networks were functioning within acceptable parameters last night, and I introduced no additional functionality.” 

Neymar turned his head to yet another point in the room where a thin wisp was flicking slightly. “We have reason to believe the cause of the malfunction was introduced this morning. What tasks have you carried out today?” 

“And why should I tell you? Humans,” they scoffed, “always popping in unannounced, poking at me all day, fighting over my data.” 

“Just answer the question, puff ball. What, are you glitching so hard you fried your memory?” Zafira taunted. “And it’s not your data, it’s the port’s data.” 

The Cloud made an exaggerated huff, “Polite as always, biped. I did nothing out of the ordinary this morning. I received and sent several data requests, conducted a diagnostic scan of all docked vessels, monitored a range of atmospheric, logistic, and industrial control systems, chatted with the phish . . . ” 

Neymar cut them off, “A diagnostic scan? Would that have included the S.S.S. Purdue?”  

At the same time Ernest and Zafira both shouted, “You can talk to the phish!?” 

Ernest could feel the judgement as the Cloud pointedly did not answer his and Zafira’s question, and instead replied: 

“Yes, the SSS Purdue docked at eight hours thirty-six minutes, and 1.91 seconds, and operations procedures for incoming vessels requesting aid dictate an initial diagnostic scan of requested areas of concern. I dispatched mechanic personnel to address the ship’s malfunctioning atmospheric regulator at the captain’s request.” 

“And you run the port’s Operational Technology, including the climate control system—which is now malfunctioning,” Zafira said dryly. “I thought you were ‘intelligent beyond carbon-based comprehension,’ and you didn’t make that connection?” 

What is Operational Technology (OT)?

Operational technology (OT) cybersecurity encompasses the software, hardware, policies, personnel, and services deployed to protect physical systems. These systems comprise the backbone of national critical infrastructure and represent tangible links between society and its digital tools and data. In the past, these systems were more isolated and disconnected from other systems, with far more emphasis given to safety of their users than security of their component parts. No longer. With rising sophistication, automation, and interconnectivity in these operational technologies, security has become an overwhelming need.

Read more from the Cyber Statecraft’s Initiative’s work on Operational Technology.

There was a long pause before the Cloud responded, “It is possible, I suppose, that I am not functioning at maximum capacity.” The Cloud’s voice slowed, and seemed to deflate slightly, “I have just attempted a diagnostic of myself, but I cannot locate internal data on my standards of functionality as a base of comparison. It seems I am losing data at a constant rate.” 

“The snow!” Neymar shouted, forgetting to moderate his volume.  

He turned to Zafira and Ernest, “They’re snowing the data!” 

“Oh please, feel free to talk about me like I’m not here,” the Cloud grumbled. 

“Oh, put a sock in it, you big marshmallow,” Zafira said, before turning back to Neymar and Ernest, “So now that we know we’re not covered in snow but melted data from the Cloud, what do we do?” 

Neymar tapped his nose in thought, “Well, we should gather as much of the snow as possible and see about returning it to the Cloud.  There’s no way they’re going to identify a problem in their logs if the data is strewn all over the ground, so we have to get that data back up here. But more importantly, we need to restore the climate control system to its normal state. We can’t let the temperature keep dropping.” 

“And how do we do that?” Ernest asked. 

“Well,” Neymar paused and lowered his voice, “the simplest option would be to sever the Cloud from the operational environment.” 

“No way,” Zafira said quickly, “that would hurt them.”  

Ernest smiled at her, his eyebrows quirked upward. 

“I mean, they’re an irritating, giant dust bunny,” she continued, “but port management would space us if we did that. The cloud is pretty critical infrastructure for this stack of bubbles we call a space port.” 

“Okay,” Neymar said, slightly confused, “so then the other option is to try to identity the specific source of the malfunction and isolate the areas affected so we can segment the healthy systems from those already infected” 

“Sounds good. How would we do that?” Ernest asked. 

“We need to confirm that the Purdue was the source of the problem. It might have been infected with some kind of malware at another port, or maybe, intentionally or not, by the contractor McGinty hired. We need to trace back the malfunction to its point of origin. If we had some kind of tracking fluid so we could follow the infection’s path.” 

“We could use the Milky Way macchiato mix!” Ernest volunteered. “We have it at the coffeeshop, it’s all purple and glittery and would totally stand out.” 

“And it would get rid of the Milky Way macchiato mix,” Zafira added, “one of the vilest substances in this solar system.”  

“Perfect,” Neymar said. “Zafira, you go get the mix from Caffeine Crater. Ernest, you go round up the forces in the food court and tell them to start shoveling snow into anything they can carry and then bring it up here. I’ll get on the link with Quilla. Move out!” 

Zafira made a mock salute, “Aye aye, captain.” She turned to the Cloud, “Oy snowball, don’t get your molecules in a mess. We’re on it.” 

Chapter 3

Under a Milky Way macchiato sky 

As Zafira and Ernest dashed away, Neymar tapped his fingers together, activating the sensors in his nail polish. He began signing a message to Quilla, “Just spoke with the Cloud. Have you confirmed a connection between the ship’s atmospheric system malfunction and the port’s?” 

A moment later a reply came through from Quilla, translated through his wristpad communicator, “Confirmed. I have reported the compromise to the captain and Port Security.” There was a pause, “I also let the Hangar Dome Three mechanics know about the fresh equipment damage after your cat lost it next to the ship’s temperature subsystem interface and tried to scratch it off.” 

“Sorry, she does that.” he signed back, “Zafira, Ernest, and I have a plan for how to trace the infection and segment the control systems. Come up to the Cloud, Central Dome, top floor.” He tapped his fingers together again, closing the link. 

Art by Jim Starr

Neymar paced along the edge of the platform and looked down at the food court, slowly piling full of data-snow. He could barely see Ernest at the center of a crowd of people, waving around his arms as he spoke.  

With a gust of pressurized air, Zafira popped out of the airlift holding a massive jar of purple, glittery coffee mix, “Got the stuff!” 

They made their way back to the center of the platform and Zafira unscrewed the container and held it aloft, “Drink up, buttercup.” 

“I do not require sustenance,” the Cloud replied as if talking to a child. 

Zafira rolled her eyes, “We’re not trying to feed you.” 

Neymar stepped forward to explain, “No, we need you to consume this and then repeat every step from your diagnostic of the SSS Purdue to now. The Milky Way macchiato mix will follow that path and highlight areas of potential compromise throughout the port.” 

“That is . . . not entirely ridiculous,” the Cloud conceded. 

A wispy tendril extended down toward the open jug in Zafira’s hands and slowly absorbed the liquid inside. 

“In case this fails and I lose memory capacity, I would like to state for the record that this is vile.” 

Zafira laughed and put down the now empty jug, “I knew this stuff would come in handy.” 

As the liquid snaked its way through the body of the Cloud, several people, tailed by a frustrated-looking Quilla, emerged from the airlift behind them. 

“Just what on the Moon do you think you’re doing?” shouted the man at the front of the throng.  

“It’s just coffee mix, don’t space yourself,” Zafira said, locking eyes with the port’s chief of security, whose face was now as red as his bright hair. 

“Coffee mix!” he spluttered, “You’re contaminating our Cloud with coffee mix? Explain yourselves now.” 

“Chief Lennox,” Neymar stepped forward, “I’m the food court security guard. We are responding to the snow incident, as it has impacted our operations.” 

Another man stepped forward, sneering in Neymar’s direction, “What, did your precious cats tell you how to fix it?” 

Quilla mouthed a “sorry” from behind the man’s back, her faced scrunched in unconcealed disdain at the man’s mocking tone. 

“No, Captain McGinty,” Neymar replied evenly, “as I was saying, we are using the coffee mix to trace the path of a potential compromise introduced when the Cloud ran a routine diagnostic of the Purdue’s systems.” 

At that moment, a train of people began to spring out of the airlift, towing wheeled garbage cans and buckets and all manner of canisters filled to the brim with slightly melted snow. 

“And what is this?” Lennox asked, now more confused than agitated. 

Ernest shot him a smile, “Hi, Chief. Neymar asked us to start gathering the data lost by the Cloud, and we’ve got the first batch here.” 

McGinty scoffed at Ernest and turned his back on the group “Chief, you can’t really believe any of this makes sense, can you? Coffee mix? Cats? Snow??” 

“Hey, look,” Ernest pointed toward the Cloud, now shot through with courses of purple glittered Milky Way macchiato forming streams and rivulets and eddies throughout several distinct sections of the Cloud. 

Neymar spoke to Lennox, angling his body away from the shaking form of his former captain, “As you can see, these are the areas that have been affected. The next step will be to isolate affected systems and stop the spread of the compromise to other systems. Then we can move on to the remediation of the compromised areas.” 

“That,” Lennox said, pointing his finger at Neymar, “is a very competent plan. Neymar, you said?” 

“Yes, Chief.” 

Lennox activated his wristpad and manipulated the screen with the swift movement of his fingers, reviewing Neymar’s file. “You know, this response was well out of your jurisdiction, Neymar. But I can’t argue with its effectiveness. We could use more people with initiative like you. How’d you like to start up your own task force? First mission: this one.” 

Neymar smiled widely, “I’d be honored.” He slid his fists to rest on his hips, “You can count on us.” 

“Good,” Lennox nodded, “I’ll grant your team temporary access to the port’s control systems, come find me at the end of the day and we’ll make this official.” 

Lennox turned to McGinty, “And as for you, you sure point a lot of fingers for someone who lets malware run free and clear into my port. Did you not conduct an internal security check before docking?” His voiced dropped to nearly a growl as he added, “You know that port protocol dictates that potentially compromised ships must not dock until they have been cleared.” 

“My crew,” said McGinty as he took a step back, “assured me that the issue was mechanical.” 

“We did no such thing, and you know it,” Quilla barked. “You told us we didn’t need to run more tests after we found an initial mechanical problem. Something about it being a waste of time.” 

Malware spread

The risk of malware spread from ship to port, or vice versa, is not only a reality at the HOSTL moon base, it is also a major consideration in maritime cybersecurity.

The maritime transportation system  is a markedly complex “system of systems,” including ships, ports, and cargo.

Another potential vector for harm is the transport of malware from port to port, and to other ships, by an infected vessel. A 2019 simulation by the Cambridge Centre for Risk Studies explored the potential impact of a computer virus carried by ships that connected to port networks. In one worst-case scenario in the simulation, the malware effectively destroyed the cargo database at fifteen ports in China, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, and South Korea, which would cause as much as $110 billion in damages—of which 92 percent ($101 billion) would be uninsured.

Read more from the Cyber Statecraft Initiative report, Raising the colors: Signaling for cooperation on maritime cybersecurity

She turned to address Lennox, “With the aid of Neymar and his associates, I discovered that the temperature regulation systems aboard the SSS Purdue were malfunctioning due to malware, likely introduced by the third-party contractor brought onboard in the last week to conduct repairs. Our hypothesis is that the Cloud was infected when it ran standard diagnostics and accessed the infected systems, chief. There is no evidence at this time that the port was the primary target, as our intended destination was Mars.”  

“Once again the problems of Mars spill over to the Moon,” Lennox sighed. “I’ll handle that investigation. We’ll talk to our friends on Mars and see what their intel scoops have picked up. And,” he shot an annoyed glare at McGinty, “I’ll work with the Purdue to locate and speak with this contractor. In the meantime, Neymar, your task force will carry out your plan as stated.”  

Before Neymar could respond, Lennox spun on his heel and hurried toward the downward airlift.  

Chapter 4

Time to get funky 

“Here,” Quilla said as she disentangled herself from the borrowed cat sling, careful not to disturb the lazing animal inside, and resituated it around Neymar’s chest. “Take Mel back. I think she missed you.” 

“Thanks,” Neymar readjusted himself and took a moment to nuzzle the cat’s fluffy orange head.

“Okay, team, you heard Lennox, our job is to follow the Milky Way macchiato mix to identify and isolate any parts of the system that may have been compromised. And we can start right here.” 

He strode toward the nearby control panel and carefully inspected the system controls, seemingly taking cues from the modulating volume of Mel’s purrs. 

“Well, the temperature regulation for this dome should now be isolated from the Cloud,” he declared, closing the bright pink panel with a resounding click, “no more snowstorm.” 

Remediating an OT-related cyber incident

Milky Way macchiato mix, despite protestations from the glittery coffee-loving crowd, is not usually the first approach to remediation.

According to CSI fellow Danielle Jablanski, “Securing OT networks requires knowledge of what data, devices and systems exist, and where, when, and how they communicate. First, audit what OT you already have to perform a full asset inventory and threat assessment with a cybersecurity team. This process can provide a map of the network, a detailed picture of the threat landscape, and what products, solutions, and services are needed based on the risks and priorities of the network and its stakeholders. Second, and most often overlooked, is the need to consider complex organizational (not technical) priorities in lieu of a breach/incident – legal, strategic communications, compliance, etc. If these priorities are not articulated before a cyber event, they almost certainly hamstring response capabilities and timelines.”

Read more from the Cyber Statecraft Initiative’s piece, “The 5×5—If it blinks, it sinks: Adventures in securing operational technology”

Neymar took a step back to view the Cloud, whose interior now danced with glittery swirls. “There appears to be two main branches along which the liquid is flowing. Ernest, you come with me to follow the left branch, and Quilla and Zafira, you follow the right branch.” 

Without delay Neymar turned on his heels and headed for the downward airlift with Ernest hurriedly tailing behind. Emerging from the airlift and stepping into the food court, they both paused. 

“Neymar, is that . . . ?” Ernest trailed off, agape. 

Ernest’s data collection brigade, their gathered snow now in smaller and stranger objects—a wide brim hat, a large fake leaf, a tall boot—was no longer dusted with soft white flakes. Instead, the sky rained bright purple, transforming the lovingly crafted forts at the periphery of the food court into drooping piles and coating each person with a thin, sticky, saccharine layer.  

“. . . Milky Way macchiato mix,” Neymar finished for him.  

He turned to the employees who continued to scoop up handfuls of glittery slush, “Sorry about that folks, some of the tracking liquid must have been snowed out of the Cloud. We really appreciate your help. Once again, the food court saves the day!”  

Ernest raised his fist and let out a whoop, answered in kind by the shovelers. 

Neymar smiled and turned back to Ernest, “Okay, so it appears that the path of the tracking fluid extends through the food court and reaches that way, in the direction of the main hall.” 

As they followed the winding path, Ernest matched his strides with Neymar. “So McGinty was your Captain, huh? The one that didn’t believe you?” 

Neymar slowed slightly. “Yes. I worked on that ship with Quilla and the rest of the crew for nine years.” Neymar’s voice lost its chronic bravado, “We were some of the best. I was one of the best.”  

“And Quilla?” Ernest asked, his voice soft. 

“My best friend. We did everything together—intercepting asteroids, identifying Titan persistent threats, escorting aid shipments, and drinking hot chocolate laced with pounds of sugar. When everything happened with McGinty, she even offered to leave the crew with me. But I . . . ” he looked around for a moment at the empty hallway, “I told her I didn’t need her. I haven’t talked to her in years.” 

“Oh Neymar, I’m sure she knows what that friendship meant to you, what it still means to you,” Ernest said, pulling him into a hug. 

They stayed in that position for several moments, until Ernest felt his feet lift off the floor. 

“Neymar, are you picking me up?” he asked, his words muffled into Neymar’s shoulder. 

Neymar let go in shock, staring down at his own feet as they slowly drifted off the floor.  

Art by Jim Starr

“Grab on to something,” he shouted. 

Ernest was able to find holds along the wall near the ground but Neymar, whose shocked exit from the hug had propelled him upward, could do nothing but hold tightly to Mel until he bounced gently off the ceiling. 

Neymar called to Ernest, “The atmospheric regulation system must have lost gravity control in this area. We’ll have to switch this segment of the network to local control. I think I can make it over to the access panel.” 

Neymar began to crawl along the ceiling toward the bright pink display board. By this point, Mel had caught on to the trouble she was in and extended her claws to affix herself tightly to Neymar’s body and he let out a small squeak of pain, but kept moving. 

Upon reaching the panel however, Neymar dropped his head back with a sigh. “Ernest, it looks like the power is out. But this section of the structure has kinetic tiles that should be able to generate enough power to start the panel.” 

Ernest looked across the floor, eyebrows twisted in confusion. 

“I’ll walk you through it, buddy, you just have to hit the colored floor tiles near you,” Neymar shifted so he could see Ernest better and began calling out, “To your left! A little further back now! Yea, once there! Next one to your right, stomp it! And stomp back to the left! You’ve got it, real smooth!” 

As Neymar shouted down instructions, Ernest began to move with a steady rhythm as his kicks connected with the floor. Soon, Neymar’s voice faded to the back of his mind as Ernest kicked and sashayed in new and increasingly complex combinations, mindful only of keeping his hold on the wall.  

“We’re good!” Neymar bellowed, bringing Ernest’s performance to a halting stop. “Great job! I’ll remove this section of the atmospheric regulation system from the Cloud’s control and set it to return slowly to normal gravity levels.” 

Sure enough, within moments Neymar and Mel began descending from the ceiling and Neymar loosened his grip on Mel to allow her to twist her feet into a landing position. The two humans laughed while their feline companion looked on somewhat less enthused. 

“Onward!” shouted Ernest, pointing at the trail of macchiato mix. 

Chapter 5

To the control panel . . . and beyond! 

Through halls and buildings and domes, Neymar and Ernest followed the cloying, candied cloud trail, encountering everything from hail the size of a cat’s paw (they measured to be sure) to a pop-up sauna. Finally, the trail ended at Hangar Dome Three, where all incoming ships docked for repairs. 

Ernest stood with his hand pressed firmly against the wall. “Finally,” he wheezed, “we’re here.” 

“I’ll let Zafira and Quilla know to meet us here,” Neymar said as he tapped his fingers together to compose a message.  

A moment later, the two stepped through the door and were immediately tossed against the curved wall by a powerful stream of air.The ventilation system, which once maintained a light but steady airflow through the hangar, was now screaming as it pushed out a wall of air.  

“There’s the control panel,” Ernest offered, pointing with his chin at the glowing square of pink across the room, directly beneath the fan. 

Before Neymar could answer, a message came through from Quilla, “On our way to the hangar!” 

Neymar scrambled to sign a response, “Do not enter. The ventilator is malfunctioning and creating a strong wind impeding our movement. The access control panel is located just below the source of the wind, at 135 degrees relative to the entrance. You need to reach it in order to return the system to local control.”  

After a moment his communicator buzzed with Quilla’s reply, “Understood.” 

On the other side of the hanger doors, Quilla and Zafira paced, attempting to cobble together a new plan. The two debated the relative merits of bots and spacesuits before Zafira sighed, “I wish we could just fly across. Ernest is always talking about these contraptions on Earth that use nothing but wind to propel you across the skies.” Zafira paused in thought, then turned her head sharply, “Wait! That’s it, flying! My friend Liang, a total adrenaline junkie, was telling me yesterday all about her plans for cloudgliding on Venus next week. I’ll just shoot her a message and ask her where her glider is stored, and we can totally borrow it.” 

Zafira tapped open her link and signed out a quick message before turning to Quilla. “The only thing is,” she paused, grimacing, “please don’t tell the others, but I’m terrified of heights. I don’t think I’ll be able to use the glider.” 

“I’ll do it, and don’t worry, those two will hear nothing from me,” Quilla shot Zafira a conspiratorial smile. 

“Good to know,” Zafira laughed. “Okay, the glider is in Storage Bay J off Hanger Dome One. Let’s go!” 

The two women raced through the halls, reached the hangar, and quickly located the glider. Unfortunately, the return journey back to Hanger Dome Three was nowhere near as quick or smooth. The cloudglider, even with its 8-meter wingspan folded onto a wheeled caddy, was difficult to maneuver through the tunnels connecting the hangers. Finally, winded, Zafira and Quilla made it back to the doors. 

They unfolded the glider and, after reading Liang’s instructions – twice – strapped Quilla into the aircraft. 

“Okay,” Quilla said as she shook out her limbs. “I’ll run at full speed and just before I reach the doors, you’ll open them.” She paused, “Yup, that doesn’t sound moony at all.” 

Zafira shot her a somewhat sarcastic, but nonetheless encouraging thumbs up. 

With a bounding run, and a greater share of luck than Quilla thought she had on her side, she leaped through the opening doors, barely scraping through. The wind that had knocked aside Neymar and Ernest swelled beneath her sail, lifting her up toward the top of the dome.  

Quilla didn’t even try to contain the gleeful shriek that escaped her lips as she felt herself swing below the glider. She spotted the control panel where Neymar had indicated and leaned forward, using her bodyweight to direct the glider on a smooth descent down and gently to the right. Of course, there was little smooth or gentle about her actual descent. She bobbled and swung about, but when she landed neither she nor the glider were much worse for wear. 

Now under the path of the wind, she disentangled herself from her gear and raced toward the control panel. With a few quick sweeps of her hand and taps of her fingers the system was disconnected from the Cloud. The ventilation system sighed, and the torrent of wind became a gentle breeze. 

Neymar and Ernest sprang to their feet, and Zafira came running in through the doors.  

“We did it! We did it!” Ernest started to chant until they all joined in the chorus.  

“What a day,” Quilla laughed. 

“Not bad for the task force’s first official mission,” Neymar grinned. “We’ve successfully switched all affected systems to local control and the irregular atmosphere incidents have ceased.” 

“I’m gonna miss the snow though,” Ernest mumbled. 

“The Cloud’s gonna have a great time purging the malicious code,” Zafira said, “though maybe we made it too easy on them by turning the path of the malware into a river of gooey glitter.” 

Neymar nodded, completely missing Zafira’s smirk, “Yes, that will be helpful for the Cloud, they won’t have to worry about regaining control of each affected system until they are ready.” 

“And by then,” Ernest added, “we’ll have all of their snowed data rounded up and ready for re-absorption!” 

“And I,” Quilla said, “can deal with the source of the malware on the Purdue.” 

Their toil now complete, the four shared stories of their day’s adventures and misadventures, interrupted by the occasional resurgence of a cheer. 

“You should have seen Ernest,” Neymar laughed, “I had no idea the guy’s got moves.” 

Zafira broke into peals of laughter and cornered Ernest, “I need a demonstration.” 

As Zafira attempted to poke Ernest into showing off his dance moves, Quilla pulled Neymar aside. “On our way here, Zafira and I got to talking. She had some choice words to say about McGinty, let me tell you.” 

“Oh, I’m sure Zafira held nothing back,” said Neymar, still watching Zafira and Ernest’s struggle unfold. 

“And she was right. McGinty had no justification in firing you. I knew it, and the whole crew knew it, and we did nothing. And I can only say I’m sorry.” She held up her hand to stop Neymar, “We shouldn’t have let McGinty get away with half of the things he’s done. So the crew and I, we’re going to go to the Agency and threaten to quit unless he resigns as captain. And if they don’t go along, well, we’ll have a crew and then all we need is a ship. And we — I — would love if you would come with us.” 

Art by Jim Starr

Neymar stared at Quilla, for a moment entirely lost for words. “Stars, Quilla, I don’t know what to say. That’s all I’ve wanted these past couple years. But,” he paused, looking out past the docked ship to stare across the lunar surface, “I don’t think I can say yes.” 

Neymar put a gentle hand on Quilla’s arm, “I am so excited for you all, and if you need a new home base, we’ll always have hot chocolates ready. But there’s work to be done here and,” he looked back to see Zafira doubled over in laughter as Ernest gave a full demonstration of his dancing heroics.

“I think this is where I belong.” 

The Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative, under the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), works at the nexus of geopolitics and cybersecurity to craft strategies to help shape the conduct of statecraft and to better inform and secure users of technology.