Monday, May 31, 2010

The Knotted String

March 10, m0039, continued

The Europeans first walk back to their sleeping quarters to leave Florence's UAW (which would seem tactless to take to a friendly chat about problems in science) and to explain matters to Dr Liang first. They tell her their story so far, and then head over to the main Nova Iquitos quarters, where the Peruvian scientists are gathering in the dining room.

There, Jianwei explains that the explosion was the result of an encounter with a hostile cybershell, and then tells their story yet again, starting from the point where they boarded the road train - all illustrated with recordings from their personal AIs, date-stamped and validated. As he talks, he notices Saul Fedirici becoming nervous, even panicky, while Tiberius sees that Dinah de Carneiro, while interested in the story, is becoming irritated at Fedirici, and catches de Carneiro muttering something to Fedirici about this being bad for his "public speaking work". By contrast, Maria Coronado, although startled by the whole story, seems mostly concerned to acquire a reliable body of evidence so that she can escalate the matter to her superiors (although she does become a little irritated with Fedirici's uncertain suggestions about how to handle the matter), and Kobo Tezuka simply takes a close interest in all the technical aspects of the business.

After a while, however, Fedirici drops out of the conversation, staring into space with the air of someone working in VR, and then returns to the discussion as something much more like his previous relaxed and charming self. He now seems to think that it would be best to go public with the whole problem as soon as possible, while making it clear that Nova Iquitos disowns any attempts at fraud and will cooperate with all investigations, to put the best face on the team's handling of the problem. Coronado seems happy with this attitude; de Carneiro maybe senses that he's taking charge of yet another social issue, and perhaps finds this irritating.

After some discussion, everyone agrees that a little more evidence-collection is indicated, and it is decided that two teams will set out straight away. One, consisting of Dr Liang, de Carneiro, Florence, and Jianwei, will head to the second oasis, where the snakebot was headed, to run some tests and collect some samples; the second, consisting of Tiberius, Vajra, and Tezuka, will take another look at what is left of the snakebot. Meanwhile, Fedirici will go pick up some samples from the nearest oasis and the nearby "fertiliser" dumping-spot.

The two groups are heading out in the same general direction at first, though, so they set out in company. As they are walking across the Martian terrain, a call comes in; an unnamed being requests an immediate VR meeting with Jianwei and Tiberius. They excuse themselves for a moment to take this, and drop into what proves to be a plain, featureless VR room, where they are greeted by a simple humanoid mannequin-like figure with speech patterns and mannerisms that indicate that it's a non-sapient AI. This being explains that it is delivering an automated response to pre-set conditions - a change in circumstances.

"Specifically, Nova Iquitos have just placed a pause on all their project reports, and requested that their experimental results be withdrawn from academic discussion pending an upcoming announcement."

(Subsequent checking will suggest that this was a very quick response; the pause must have been placed during the meeting just finished.)

"Given such a radical change in circumstances there, my task is to inform you that it is believed that something or someone at Nova Iquitos is the focus of attention of an entity known as Quipu. It is further believed that Quipu controls an unidentified TSA project - probably a memetic program of some kind. You may wish to proceed accordingly."

Reference to a standard dictionary shows that a "quipu" is a pre-Columbian record-keeping system from the region of Inca Peru - a system of knotted strings. As the NAI appears to have finished delivering its message, and shows little inclination to expand on matters further, Jianwei and Tiberius drop out of the meeting. They pass a quick summary of what they were told to their colleagues, and later provide a more detailed recording; Florence files it ("Hold this for me, Dougal"), and when she reviews it at leisure, is exasperated at the scantiness of the information, while Vajra, hearing the name Quipu in this sort of context, discovers that it has what seems to be a relevant reference pointer - which unfortunately leads to a blank, deleted space in its memory.

Anyway, the two groups continue on their way. Before they split up, Tiberius carefully questions de Carneiro over heshes disgruntled attitude towards Fedirici, coming to the conclusion that the latter has simply annoyed de Carneiro by being charming and socially successful, parlaying his charisma into a generally profitable career. At some point, he also researches the public speaking events that the Fedirici is apparently undertaking, finding relevant schedules on the Mars Web and trying to ascertain the sponsors and suchlike in case they proved to be relevant at a later date. The Europeans look into this further when they can, and note that the talks have very recently had title changes, de-emphasising the "success" of his work in favour of objective discussions of "events" at Nova Iquitos.

The two groups go their separate ways. At the scene of the earlier fight, Vajra deploys one of his surveillance swarms, and discovers four or five identifiable microbots from the snakebot's payload, while Tezuka prods around the remains of the hostile cybershell with interest, and Tiberius looks on.

The walk to the second oasis takes longer. On the way, Jianwei, reviewing the situation, sends a message asking that the rover that is on its way should come directly to this group - it won't pass anywhere near Nova Iquitos in that case. The group also draws de Carneiro out a little more regarding Fedirici, confirming the general impression that hesh is, frankly, jealous of Fedirici, thinking that he uses social skills to gain advantage in his scientific career. It seems that Fedirici is indeed becoming a minor public figure, and he or someone helping him is determined that he should look as good as possible. Jianwei has some training in memetics, and thinks that he's beginning to see a pattern here; Fedirici looks like the well-honed or well-chosen spearpoint of a serious memetic project.

At the second oasis, there's still no sign of microbot or cybershell activity, and Dr Liang begins collecting samples. She'll run a lot more tests later, when she has better facilities available, but even the portable gear she has with her can pick up traces of the planted fertiliser chemicals; evidently, this site too has been seeded, and the snakebot was doubtless on its way to clean it out. In fact, the group head out carefully in the direction of the first oasis, scanning the ground as they go, and sharp eyes spot an area of disturbed ground at a point where the snakebot, moving between the two sites, might well have been expected to burrow down or surface in the past. It will be interesting to examine the more distant sites... Which can best be accomplished with a vehicle. And so that group waits until the rover arrives. When it does, they check it as best they can, finding no signs of tampering, and set out to look for more evidence further afield.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Dinner and a Hop

March 9, m0039, continued

The Europeans return to their accommodation module to discuss their next steps. They call Quentin and arrange to acquire some IR-spectrum satellite imagery of their current location from standard civilian sources - this kind of thing is generally available for a modest fee, although a continuous real-time feed would be too much to ask for; rather, they'll get an image downloaded whenever an appropriate satellite happens to be looking this way. While this is being arranged, Vajra puts a camera on the roof of the module to try and keep some kind of permanent observation of the nearest oasis going, and runs a swarm over the module and everyone in it to check that they aren't being bugged. (He doesn't find anything.) The group also talks about next moves with Dr Liang; they decide that when their hired rover arrives the next day, they will lend it to her "as a courtesy" to help her carry as much equipment around as possible - and also have Florence go out with her as an "assistant". In fact, the point is that their rover is less likely to have been tampered with, and Florence will act as a bodyguard.

By now, dinner will be being prepared in the permanent part of the station, so the group heads that way, prepared to distract any spies among the Peruvians from what they're up to. Florence pulls a change of clothes from her luggage, and also makes suggestions about how Jianwei and Tiberius might dress; the idea is to aim for a general "naive kitty" look for herself, and smart casual for the others. Jianwei also extracts some Earth coffee beans from his luggage to take as a contribution to the meal. When they reach the dining room, however, they decide that much of this effort may have been wasted; the Peruvian scientists all seem distracted by their days' work and, while not actively hostile, aren't exactly being chatty. Still, Jianwei manages to make a little diplomatic small talk, Florence's appearance inevitably has some effect on the heterosexual males present, and Tiberius circulates, while Dr Liang is able to join the technical discussions comfortably enough. (She understands concepts such as "nitrogen micro-cycles".) The only real discovery of the mealtime comes when Florence, quietly looking in corners of the module, works out where the Peruvians store the output of their secret still.

Back in their own module, the team talk further. Dr Liang stands by the opinion that these people are honest; the manipulation of the experiments is, she is sure, being conducted by some unknown outside party. Thinking more about the matter leads Vajra to pull down some data on visitors to Nova Iquitos over the last few months, which Jianwei systematically analyses. He notices that some people who were due to come here never actually showed up, and Dr Liang is able to shed some more light on these; in one case, a laboratory accident took a researcher out of circulation for a while, and in another, an unexpected research grant from a University of Mars committee distracted the would-be visitor. Furthermore, these were people - not Peruvians, it's noted - with strong connections to the sort of online journals which have been publishing the provisional experimental results. The group's provisional conclusion is that somebody with very good connections and resources is trying to protect whatever has been done here from exposure.

Furthermore, Quentin now has a good collection of IR images for them to work with. The group look them over, searching for the sort of anomalies that would escape casual attention; Jianwei and Tiberius apply intelligence assessment training, but it's Vajra's patient, methodical processing that achieves a useful result. There's a persistent warm spot, just a little way from the edge of the nearest oasis, that doesn't look quite like a natural variation in rock surface qualities, but which could be consistent with the heat output from a fuel cell sufficient to run a small set of microbot hives. The thing is probably buried deep enough to be hard to excavate with the gear that the group have easily available, but they decide to watch it carefully.

In fact, Vajra goes out and plants a surveillance swarm in the relevant area - but the others have other concerns on their minds. The hour is getting late, and only Vajra can go without sleep. Hence, the organics in the group retire to their curtained bunks, leaving Vajra watching the swarm and real-time IR imagery, along with various other data streams.

March 10, m0039

In the early hours of the next morning,Vajra, running its periodical scans, notices that the hot spot has started moving. It wakes up the organics, and everyone quickly agrees; something is shifting at a fast walking pace in the direction of the next closest oasis. Other cameras don't show anything - whatever is involved is apparently tunneling deep in the loose soil and sand. Fortunately for the group, that makes it relatively slow; they can quickly plot a way to intercept it.

The Europeans prepare, while Dr Liang, commenting that this is presumably some kind of cybershell of unknown capabilities that may not want to be noticed, opts to stay in the accommodation module. Along with heatsuits and night vision gear, the group pick up weapons, including a double-barreled "urban assault weapon" for Florence - who spends a few moments wondering aloud exactly what sort of high-powered explosive rounds to load into its larger smooth-bore barrel. (This may be the sort of thing that persuades Dr Liang not to come along.) The group decide to split up; Vajra and Florence will attempt to track the thing, while Tiberius and Jianwei will move to the point where they think it's headed.

But first, Florence and Vajra set out to recover Vajra's surveillance swarm, then set out to catch up with the moving trace. They both have access to efficient GPS systems; Florence also has excellent night vision equipment, but Vajra lacks such gear, so Florence lends it her glasses and relies on her own Felicia eyes - which are more than adequate, given the illumination provided in the Martian night by the insolation mirrors high above. Still, they have some difficulty being sure of exactly what is where - but they catch up with the trace soon enough, and Florence moves ahead alone to see if anything is visible on the surface.

She's still blundering around a little, though, it seems - because she doesn't see the movement on the surface of the loose Martian soil until she's almost on top of it, which happens to be the moment when the tunneling cybershell surfaces, doubtless knowing that it can move faster above than below ground and thinking itself safely undetected. Fortunately, it proves to be as unaware of Florence as she was of it. As the cybershell - another snakebot, but much larger than the last, relatively unsophisticated in general design, longer than a man is tall, with a broad body - appears, she reflexively brings her weapon to bear and triggers its targeting systems; a fraction of a second later, its head rotates like a turret and it evidently sees Florence. She notes instinctively that it has three lens-like apertures, when two eyes are generally enough for a basic cybershell, which suggests that the third may be something else - and that consideration makes her complete her aiming move and pull the weapon's second trigger almost without conscious thought.

At nine metres range, many fighters might go for a centre-of-mass shot, but Florence, knowing that designs like this usually have their processor - or at least a major control node - in the leading section, and also wanting to eliminate that probable weapon, and being confident in her own abilities, goes for a head shot - and succeeds.

The large-caliber shaped-charge round rips into the cybershell, blasting it backwards and evidently causing massive system failures. Florence, however, remembers what happened last time she helped disable a hostile 'shell - and this one is much bigger. Still moving on instinct, she twists round and jumps, covering a dozen metres in a single leap thanks to the low Martian gravity - and landing close by Vajra, who is just coming up to see what's happening.

"What's the problem?" Vajra pulses to Dougal.

"Self-destruct charge," Dougal sends back, having caught Florence's subvocalisation. Vajra drops to the ground.

The grenade planted in the snakebot does indeed choose that moment to detonate, but Florence and Vajra are safe enough - the blast is only a little more than a loud noise and a wave of heat at this distance, and no shrapnel reaches them. Still, the explosion is detectable some way across the desert. Jianwei and Tiberius call immediately; reassured that their colleagues are unhurt, they set off at a fast trot to help investigate on the spot. Calls also arrive from the research station; Jianwei declares that no one is hurt, and promises more explanation soon.

Once everyone is reasonably confident that the cybershell is no longer a danger, the group sets to work investigating it. It's a pretty basic design - while they can't pin down its exact origins this time, this type of snakebot chassis is fairly standard, and the brain, body construction, and power/motor and weapon systems are all either standard fabrications or off-the-shelf purchases. (The weapon was in fact a dual dazzler/high-power laser unit.) It wasn't overly robust, although it was quite heavily built; much of the structure consisted of a set of integral microbot hives. The swarms in those seem to have been fairly thoroughly cooked in the explosion, although Vajra makes a mental note to return to the spot tomorrow and search the surrounding area for less damaged microbots that may have been thrown outwards by the blast; that will be easier in daylight.

By now, the staff at Nova Iquitos are calling; they've noticed that explosion, and although they've been reassured that everyone is well, they're naturally curious, at the very least. So once they Europeans have collected as much data as they can, Jianwei calls the Peruvians back. He decides that it's time for a talk with them, and they're going to have to know that there's something strange and dubious going on here. Dawn won't be very long now; he asks them to gather for a meeting in their base shortly.

And so the European team gathers up as much evidence as they think they can usefully carry, and sets out back to the mobile station.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Shifting Sands

March 8, m0039, continued

Aunty loads up a forensics skill set program, and under her direction, Jianwei begins carefully examining the snakebot, as the various AIs present scan the Web for relevant information. It's a pretty standard design; technically, some components may be covered by patents, but fabricator blueprints for things like this are easily available on sources such as the TSA Web. (In fact, Dougal finds what may well be the blueprints for this exact design on a grey-area site, despite Florence's attempts to tell him that he shouldn't look in such places.) The head section has been pretty much completely destroyed; the brain chip was evidently a standard-over-the-counter unit, but has been fried too thoroughly for any sort of identifying code to be recovered, let alone any software. The snake had quasi-realistic fangs, and by borrowing some analysis equipment from Dr Liang, the party concludes that it was probably loaded up with some kind of synthetic drug or toxin for use in combat; it also had small tanks further back along the body, which could have held the bacteriological cultures that ended up in the module's water supply. This, it's clear, was definitely the sabotage agent here. The motors, moving parts, and body shell look to have been constructed and assembled in a minifac, and the blueprints used prevented it from including any sort of serial numbers or ID codes.

The Europeans decide that this was most likely an attempt to delay Dr Liang, rather than being aimed at them; while it's just possible that the snakebot was inserted on the road train after Quentin booked them onto it, the timescales involved were tight, and the attack method was very poorly chosen if they were the intended victims. But if Harvey and Dr Liang had been the only people on board, and had fallen ill, Sundance would have turned back to a different human community. As yet, though, they can't say with any certainty why anyone would have done this; Dr Liang has no idea - she's just an academic planetologist. Harvey comments that he picked the passenger module up at Heze, a Chinese community which is large enough to have rental minifac facilities available.

In any event, given that the plan was most likely to cause a delay, the party decide to move on as soon as they've finished checking the road train for other sabotage attempts as best they can. (They don't find any, although that's only a moderate reassurance, given that they don't have professional-grade search gear, and state-of-the-art sabotage techniques can be very easy to hide.) Harvey says that he can increase the speed of travel a bit if anyone thinks that it's a good way to get back at the people who poisoned him, but the time that's been lost or that might be regained is pretty trivial compared to the length of the journey in total, so the group decides not to take the small risk involved. Still, they retire to sleep as Sundance drives on through the night.

March 9, m0039

The next morning, after an uneventful night, the group goes over the details of the road train's schedule with Harvey some more. Given the arrangements at the rental company depot at Heze, it wouldn't have been too hard for anyone to identify this as the module he'd be using, or for the snakebot to get aboard. He's carrying some goods and supplies for Nova Iquitos - passengers aside, this is a pretty routine run for him... No one can see much more to chase up at this point. The Europeans do wonder who might benefit from falsification of good results from the oasis tests; it would make the Peruvian scientists look good, or at least lucky, of course, and by the time their work proved less useful than this implied, the benefits might have been harvested. But is all this enough to justify fraud and murder? Jianwei also looks at the bodies sponsoring Dr Liang's trip, and checks some background; while they're mostly international academic bodies and journals, he's somewhat puzzled to note that there may be more American influence involved than he might have expected.

The road train reaches Nova Iquitos around midday. The mobile station consists of a set of movable living and laboratory modules, arranged in a loose ring a few hundred yards from one of a cluster of ecological oases. The current inhabitants are the core staff only - as Tiberius can attest, the place sometimes has other temporary staff, usually visiting academics, but for now there are just four people present: Dr Maria Coronado, the station director, Saul Fedirici, the assistant director in charge of research (i.e. the one in charge of actually doing science), Dinah de Carneiro, the systems controller (responsible for running the scientific systems from day to day), and Kobo Tezuka, the chief technical officer (i.e. the hardware maintenance specialist). In addition, anyone spending time on the station will end up making the acquaintance of Burbuja, a management LAI running on its local network. Tiberius remembers Coronado and Fedirici (and Burbuja) from his previous time on the station; de Carneiro and Tezuka are new, as other staff have rotated out in the last year. He himself hasn't been replaced; admittedly, one small station has limited use for a fully trained doctor, especially given the sort of software assistance available to anyone in a medical emergency - he spent a lot of his time previously assisting with biological research and being there as a reassurance for visitors.

Coronado greets the newcomers warmly - she and Fedirici seem genuinely pleased to see Tiberius again, and any cultural prejudices notwithstanding, seem to be prepared to treat a ghost as a person, and the same person as they previously knew. Tiberius recalls her as a brisk, businesslike character, but she's apparently in an outgoing mood today, happy to invite all the visitors (including Liang and Harvey) to lunch. Still, it's Fedirici who perhaps ends up doing the most talking over the meal; Tiberius remembers him as a charismatic character who always tended to act as the research team's spokesman and guide for visitors.

On the European side, Jianwei takes the lead as usual, and is quite open about the reason for the visit, explaining that Tiberius's death wasn't an accident but apparently involved a deliberate attack. The Peruvians appear genuinely shocked at this, and profess themselves anxious to help with the investigation. Nor do they seem too hostile to Dr Liang, although the fact that she's undeniably here to check up on their work could make for social difficulties. During and after lunch, the conversation breaks up into smaller groups; for example, Vajra falls into conversation with de Carneiro, who is an asex; Vajra feels a kinship with the disavowal of human passions that this suggests. However, Jianwei for one senses that de Carneiro isn't entirely lacking in emotional issues; there's a slight sense of irritation directed towards Fedirici, who maybe gets the lion's share of credit for the research work being conducted at the station, simply because he talks about it best.

Meanwhile, Harvey heads out once more on his way after unhitching the rented accommodation module, which is soon linked up to the station's power supply, and Dr Liang begins setting up her equipment. As the others talk to the locals, Florence becomes bored and decides to take a walk and a look around the local scenery. Inevitably with her,  this involves climbing some of the local rock formations, which she manages with ease, thus gaining a good view of the whole area.

It's from this position that she notices something odd - perhaps it's just a trick of the light, but there seems to be a sense of movement on the relatively smooth surface of the nearby oasis area. She continues watching for a while, and records what she can with the integral cameras in her night vision glasses, then calls the others. Vajra analyses her recordings, and tentatively agrees with her assessment; there are subtle shifts in tone or texture, likely only visible from above and from a distance. As soon as they can, the other three Europeans get away from the station buildings and head for the oasis, while Florence climbs down and extends her "stroll" towards the next nearest such site - a few miles away, but easy enough to reach.

There's not a lot to see at the nearest oasis, but now that they know what to look for, the newcomers provisionally confirm the impression yet further - there's maybe something under the sand, operating over a wide area - probably a cyberswarm. Vajra drops a surveillance crawler swarm and sets it watching, while the teams' AIs load tracking skill sets. With these, they pick up signs of something maybe having surfaced just outside the area of the ecological test; following the trail, they decide that some specific substance is being extracted from the oasis and dumped just out of sight of it. They collect samples as best they can, and head back towards Nova Iquitos.

On their way, a figure comes in sight coming the other way; it's Dr Liang. She's interested and concerned to hear what they have to say; all this is beginning to look like a bad case of academic chicanery, which isn't something that she expects or likes to see. She's also puzzled by another matter. She's received a message through private communication channels that she thinks must have come from one of her sponsoring bodies, but which is unclear - it lacks headers or signature. What it says, though, is that she can probably trust Tiberius.

Which bemuses Tiberius and the other Europeans as much as it does her. But anyway, they hand off some of the samples they've collected; she has the best scientific kit here, after all. She runs a quick analysis, and confirms their suspicions; these look like extra nutrients for the bacterial/fungal cultures in the oasis. Again, this looks like a fraud being hastily removed from view; given that she hasn't been hurrying to set up her tests, she might well have missed this material, even if she hadn't been delayed by the poisoning on the road train.

Meanwhile, Florence reports by radio from the second oasis; she isn't sure, but she doesn't think that there are any strange soil movements here. Presumably, the clearance is being conducted first at the place where Dr Liang could be expected to look first. And Vajra continues to run some subtle surveillance at the first oasis, while the party wonders if they could somehow locate, say, the clean-up swarm's power supply - probably a buried power pack somewhere.