Monday, December 27, 2010

Shapes Shifted

Scorpius 15-17, m0039

And, yet again, things turn quiet for a while for the team, as diplomatic activity continues frenziedly behind the scenes.The E.U., however, can afford to stand back, look politely neutral - and work out how to exploit its new knowledge of the identity of a couple of great power agents and a US Air Force orbital weapons platform. Lipinski is politely persuaded to play along with all this, while the insurance company eventually accepts the evidence filed by the team and re-instantiates Prof. Zajdel - in various artificial environments and rented cybershells at first, as her explorer-research shell is a bespoke model and getting a new one built will take a few days.

Scorpius 18, m0039

Indeed, this is what leads to the next interesting call on the team's time, as late one morning, the embassy's NAIs inform Jianwei that they have a report that may be of interest; it looks like a routine commercial dispute, but the name attached has links to himself.

It is indeed Prof. Zajdel, who is happy to speak to Jianwei - she's only had brief conversations with him before now, and she's politely grateful for his part in sorting out what happened to her recently. However, this call is about business. She has in fact recently visited Port Lowell, and rented a cybershell for the purpose - a standard-model polypede. Her visit ended a few hours since, and she returned the cybershell to the rental company office. However, a little later, her AI aide reported that the company, Cruz & Cruzcampo Shell Hire, was continuing to bill her account for the rental; its systems insist that it hasn't been returned.

There's obviously an anomaly here, and a curious one - management systems are usually more reliable than this - so Jianwei calls up the other two team members, and they decide that a personal visit to Cruz & Cruzcampo would be indicated. Florence extracts herself from the dojo where she's keeping her martial arts training honed, and goes home to change, while Vajra simply disconnects from the Web work that he's performing. They all meet up a couple of blocks from the hire company office, and approach the place together. It's essentially a warehouse-garage with a small front office, and a group including two biomorphs showing up in person causes the management systems to escalate matters promptly to their human manager, who is polite but insistent - despite what Zajdel's logs may say, their records show no sign of the polypede being returned.

The team get in touch with Zajdel, and she authorises the hire company to activate the polypede's transponder - something covered by the hire contract's privacy clauses. However, the attempt doesn't actually work; whatever is running the cybershell currently is evidently exploiting its built-in privacy controls. The Cruz & Cruzcampo manager admits to being a little concerned at all this, and pulls some imagery off the building cameras, which does indeed show the polypede arriving when Zajdel claims to have returned it - and leaving very soon afterwards. It's a modular, reconfigurable, multi-purpose unit, but it appears to be using its standard mobile configuration - basically, that of a large spider. Attempts to pull more relevant data off the company systems run into problems, however; privacy laws and agreements can be a nuisance sometimes.

So the team wonder how to track the unit. It's not an unusual design - a rugged multi-purpose industrial model, but that sort of thing is not overly rare on Mars - but it does have a moderately distinctive finish. (Florence comments that Prof. Zajdel seems to have a taste for heavy-duty shells; the others point out that she is a geologist.) The team dives into the Web.

They make an inspired guess and go looking for hobbyist bot-spotters. Yes, the breed exists, and it soon becomes clear that there is some serious snobbery about the difference between personal observation and mere NAI-monitored camera logging. Aunty fails to locate many of their Web sites, though. Meanwhile, Dougal has been searching through recent MarsTube posts, but not finding anything relevant here; it doesn't seem that the polypede can have been doing anything very odd in public. So he takes over Aunty's search, and tracks down the hobbyist discussions, then hands the addresses off to Jianwei. Jianwei in turn assesses the memetics of this subculture, and begins posting as a new enthusiast.

And Vajra has been working through a list of E.U.-owned businesses in this neighbourhood, politely requesting recordings from their external security cameras. Collating these, he's able to track the polypede as it made its way through the industrial-commercial quarter of Port Lowell - up until a point when it simply stops showing up, an hour or so ago. The team heads for the area where it was last observed. As they go, Jianwei's probing around the bot-spotter sites, with careful mentions of an "interesting polypede" dropped as bait, elicits more imagery. Once they are in the right area, the team are able to narrow their tracking efforts down to one building - a warehouse and shipping centre owned by a company called Thorium Logistics.

Thorium are in the industrial equipment supply business; essentially, they hold stocks of assorted industrial components for purchase by local users who discover more or less urgent needs. Thus, their building has a front office open to personal visits - a sales counter, in fact.

First, Jianwei talks to the NAI on the door, which quickly decides that there is some kind of issue here ("stolen property?") beyond its authority, and escalates matters to a human supervisor. Meanwhile, Vajra probes local Web space, looking for a ping response from the polypede; he gets a brief response, but a moment later, that address no longer shows any reaction. He decides that they are closing in on their search subject, and heads round the back of the Thorium building to monitor the fire exit door there, while putting a swarm of observation microbots into the air.

The Thorium management become uncomfortable when confronted with Jianwei's questions and Vajra's Web traffic logs, which seem to indicate some kind of anomaly in their building management systems, and shift the problem over to a legal advisor, one Joseph Kwak. Jianwei explains the situation yet again, and persuades Kwak to get Thorium to let himself and Florence into the building. As they glance around, Aunty analyses the imagery that she's getting off Jianwei's optic nerve, and identifies a relevant anomaly, which she highlights obligingly in Jianwei's vision. It appears that the polypede has got into the depths of the warehouse, reconfigured itself into work arm configuration and locked onto one of the shelving units, and is accumulating a small stack of shipping boxes and modules.

Jianwei relays this instantly to Kwak, who swears audibly and relays the problem to the Thorium management team. Their technical advisor instantly sets the warehouse management systems to restart themselves, and the polypede appears to notice that; it detaches itself from the shelving unit and begins shifting into its spider configuration.

Jianwei and Florence decide that things are turning dangerous. Jianwei backs rapidly out of the building while Florence drops down below the level of the counter, draws her pistol, and begins taking careful aim. She's determined enough about the polypede design to realise that, unfortunately, the sort of ammunition she can employ legally in this area won't penetrate its outer casing - but that its camera systems aren't especially protected.

The polypede rushes for the counter (and the doorway beyond), and Florence lets it come quite close; she's only going to get one chance here, after all. Then she opens fire. Her Felicia precision and trained skill serves her well, as one of her first three bullets slams through one of the polypede's camera lenses, and two more go into the other. The cybershell careens into the other side of the counter, and Florence vaults over it and lands on the polypede's back - but this second part of her plan proves superfluous, as her fire has taken out one of the modular machine's local processing nodes - the one assigned to sensory processing - and it has shut down completely.

Her two team-mates cautiously enter the building, as other observers appear on the scene - including a dirigible flying camera which, it turns out, is being teleoperated by "DD", who is evidently continuing to watch the team's career with interest. Vajra carefully links his own shell up to the damaged polypede, and manages to gain access to some of its memory stores; actually, a non-sentient process in one of its subsidiary processors makes a rather crude attempt to copy and run an executable process to his systems. His firewalls block that with trivial ease, and he takes a copy of the program.

At about this time, more cybershells show up; Marshall Kirkowicz is responding to reports of gunfire, and for that matter suggestions of some kind of rogue AI, and her remote cybershells are quickly on the scene. She's feeling a little jaundiced today, and she's also alert enough to note that Vajra has been interfacing with the disabled cybershell; she instantly warns him to be careful with the data copies that she guesses he's acquired. Then, as she acquires more information on the likely nature of the problem from somewhere, she becomes increasingly terse and firm on the topic; in the end, Vajra and Jianwei undertake to retain only encrypted copies of the data, in secured storage.

In fact, the nature of this incident becomes clear over the next few hours, as everyone talks to everyone else and some people insist on openness. It appears that this problem originated in the Belt, where an enterprise called Skyward Mining attempted to develop a Von Neumann-style mining system - a set of modules with self-replicating capability. Unfortunately, they neglected to include enough safety interlocks into the code, and the design went rogue. It's not actively malicious, and the software involved is non-sapient, although that in itself might make it more dangerous in some circumstances; it simply seeks to replicate itself at every opportunity. Unfortunately, it was designed to interface with Thorium Logistics inventory and shipping systems, and it still seems to have extensive backdoor access to that software. The polypede was, it turns out, rented for short-term use by Skyward before their problems were detected and their R&D site in the Belt was sterilised, and the rogue code managed to secrete itself in one of the thing's modular, distributed control system modules. Prof. Zajdel returning the thing happened to give it the chance to boot itself into a control module, and it set to work trying to build more mining complexes on Mars.

This isn't, so far as anyone can tell, a major threat to life and limb - more of a nuisance, and enough of an embarrassment to a lot of people that they've gone to the trouble of keeping it relatively quiet. Well, talk of rogue self-replicating AIs does tend to get humans all nervous and panicky...

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Political Analysis

Scorpius 14, m0039, continued

Their assailant has chosen his ground well; the trio are in a steep-sided gully, and would have to make ten or fifteen feet of height to get out of it and clear of the rocks, while there are few buttresses or projections to screen them. Florence, who is in the lead, decides on a simple solution; she takes a run straight at the oncoming rocks, then jumps, passing clear over them. The other two, lacking her training, opt to move more laterally; Jianwei jumps well up the side wall of the gully, but then finds himself hanging on by his fingertips, while Vajra finds himself falling back into the path of the rocks.

Florence makes a graceful landing despite the very uneven ground as Jianwei clambers laboriously onto a more level spot and Vajra's cybershell suffers a bruising impact from the first, smallest oncoming rocks. Florence charges the attacker, and is pleased not to find herself facing any kind of weapons fire; Jianwei twists around to watch, but can't do much else; Vajra scrabbles aside from the rockfall and begins desperately scrambling up the side of the gully, barely clinging on as the rocks pass below his feet.

Covering the last few yards of the distance with a leap, Florence aims a flying kick at her opponent, but he seems to have a little martial arts training (not unusual on Mars); he twists aside and hits her with a rock that he's gathered up. Fortunately, her protective environment suit absorbs the blow. They face off, and then Florence hears Jianwei; he's calling on the man to surrender, but the man evidently lacks her Felicia ears, and the call didn't carry well over the distance in the thin Martian air. She takes up the idea, echoing Jianwei in identifying the team as EU consular services employees - and faced with a skilled and aggressive catgirl fighter at close quarters, the man deflates and gives up. Jianwei and Vajra clamber back down to join Florence; fortunately, the damage to Vajra's cybershell is light.

The attacker is, as expected, Piotr Lipinski. Confronted with an accusation of foul play against his partner by people who identify themselves as EU agents, Lipinski defends himself; so far as he was concerned, he and Professor Zajdel were attacked, together - with orbital weapons! - and he didn't know who to trust. So he fled, and hoped to drive off anyone who came after him. He had ideas of contacting unspecified friends when he'd got far enough.

It sounds an odd story, but the team escorts Lipinski back down the slope to their rover, listening to him as they go. He is able to illustrate his claims; as he describes things, he and Zajdel were camping out, and her physiological software model was still on Mars University time, so she took a late-night "stroll" down to look at the site which they were set to study while he watched before retiring for the night.

His NAI wearable's video recording of that scene for the important few seconds show a single glowing line suddenly appearing from above to strike the rock face, which trembles and then collapses onto Zajdel's exploration shell before she can get away. The image certainly looks like a hypersonic kinetic strike arriving from orbital altitudes - although the frame rate of the recording limits the details that can be derived. Of course, it would be trivial to fake such imagery, given modern video editing technology - Lipinski's wearable doesn't have any kind of secure evidence-bonded encrypted storage, and this really wouldn't stand up in court - but arranging such fakery would have been tricky in the circumstances, and overall, the team start to trust Lipinski's account. His actions of the last few days may have been unwise, but they were quite understandable, given what he says and shows them. On the other hand, as murder attempts go, this one was both bizarre - no one would even have known that Zajdel's cybershell was where it was, unless they used some quite intensive satellite imagery analysis - and wildly excessive - an orbital weapon against one or two civilians?

The group reaches the rover, and they remember the other puzzle; the mass of accounting data that reached them recently from an anonymous source. They briefly wonder if this was some kind of distraction attack, but decide that the timing was probably pure coincidence. (Lipinski denies all knowledge of this stuff.) So they and their companion AIs review the data. A quick check suggests that it's apparently all valid and mostly public material, but it's been carefully examined by someone, and a number of seemingly innocuous entries have been neatly highlighted for attention. Looking at these, the team are driven to conclude that Chen's business, while well enough run over the decades, received a fair amount of very subtle assistance from various other enterprises - most of them Chinese, and some known to be either government-run or closely associated with the government. In other words, the Singaporean Chen was in cahoots with the Chinese authorities, or had otherwise given them good cause to support him over the years. The likeliest guess would be that he was an agent of influence within the Singaporean business community.

As the rover moves off, the team also download some analysis software and run it against Lipinksi's image of the orbital strike. This contains enough information that they can project the glowing line up to orbit, and then cross-reference with standard navigational databases. The likely candidate for a point of origin of the attack is an unmanned US-owned satellite, marked as a non-functional meteorological survey unit - which, strangely enough, showed a very small "undocumented orbital trajectory change" at the time of the strike. This was small enough that anyone who noticed it would put it down to a micrometeorite impact or a bit of out-gassing - but it could also reflect a projectile launch.

So this looks like a US attack, from one of the military units that no one admits to having in Mars orbit but everyone assumes that other people have. But what was it for? Lipinski has no idea, and as murder attempts go, it was imprecise and expensive. It's conceivable that the Americans didn't even know that Zajdel was near the strike zone. The team confer as the rover drives itself southwards; they decide that Maria Vega almost certainly is an SIA agent, but what's her mission? And what was Hua's call of earlier in the day about? Why was he concerned?

Jianwei makes a decision. He writes up events so far, and files his report with the embassy, marked for prompt attention. Within minutes, Colette Schmidt responds, agreeing with his provisional analysis and offering support; she authorises hire of a four-seat hopper, which will meet the team at an arbitrary point in the wilderness and bring them back to Port Lowell, hopefully before anyone hostile with orbital weapons to use can locate them.

And so the rover changes course slightly as the embassy makes arrangements. As they travel, the team talk more, and Lipinski kills time by asking for access to the geological data that the team accumulated from various sources concerning the landslip site; he wants to know what may have provoked the attack. By the time they reach the rendezvous site, he's drawn a provisional conclusion; the landslip exposed geological materials that suggest significant deposits of rare earths - quite valuable stuff, in fact. This is news to him, and he isn't sure if anyone else could have known about it; like most of Mars, that area has been surveyed a little, but so far as he knows, only cursorily and from a distance. Still, it's possible that someone could have put enough information together to guess at the possibility.

So - intentionally or otherwise - the strike exposed this fact, right in front of a pair of trained geologists, in fact. But the team can't work out why anyone would have taken this approach. However, reviewing recent communications traffic from the site, they realise that although Maria Vega has now flown away, she's left some kind of active communications node there. One likely guess would be that it's the snakebot that was riding in her hopper. If she knows about the rare earths deposit, it could act as a claim marker, although it's not doing so at this point.

At the rendezvous site, everyone transfers to the hired hopper, and Vajra uses a microbot swarm to sanitise the rover, seeking to eliminate any evidence of Lipinski having been on board. Then, they send the unmanned rover back towards New Buffalo, and take off towards Port Lowell. There'll necessarily be some refuelling stops along the way, but before the first of those, Jianwei receives a call - from Maria Vega. She's pretty clearly fishing for information about the EU's position and intentions - albeit politely - and he straight-faces in response. He does mention the snakebot, and Vega confirms when asked that it might serve as a marker on a geological claim. So when that call ends, Jianwei calls Hua to ask about his current situation, letting slip more or less deliberately in the process that they believe that Mr Chen may be intending to change his national allegiance in the near future.

The hopper lands at a field outside Port Lowell, and the team take a taxi back to town, from which they intend to call the ambassador - except that she calls first, to tell them that, well, whether through their efforts or otherwise, a large cat now seems to be out of the bag. Mr Chen has declared the intention to apply for Chinese citizenship, and the Chinese have responded favourably - which will mean that a Chinese citizen's residence is deep in the middle of American territory, with a good claim to much of the surrounding area under "fair use" conventions. The Americans have responded by registering a formal claim to the mineral deposits on and around the landslip site (with, yes, that cybershell acting as their claim marker). Everyone is doubtless scowling at everyone else.

The team admit that they're still not sure what happened, but Schmidt, the long-time career diplomat with experience of the politics of Mars, is able to make some educated guesses. Her guess is that the Chinese identified the mineral deposits first, from some previous survey or whatever, and decided to use their agent of influence to move into that area. However, the SIA must have identified Chen as a Chinese patsy, worked out what was going on, spotted the deposits themselves once they had cause to look at that area, and decided to do something about it. Schmidt doubts that the kinetic strike was meant to be homicidal - the Americans probably honestly didn't know that Zajdel was in the danger zone. Rather, the intention was probably to expose the rare earth deposits to the geologists when they came to examine the site the next day, on the plausible (and correct) assumption that, although they had been hired by Chen, they were neutral parties - giving the American Commonwealth an excuse to move in.

However, after Zajdel's late-night excursion got her temporarily killed and thus drew so much attention, everyone had to scramble and improvise. Vega was doubtless sent in to try and salvage the situation, and Chen and his handlers have been forced to show their hand in response. So both sides were trying to exploit the E.U.'s neutrality to their own ends, and will doubtless continue to do so - which may turn out to be beneficial, or just annoying. Coming out of this with provisional identification of Hua and Vega as, respectively, Chinese and US agents, and with that "dead" satellite identified as a clandestine American orbital weapons platform, is all bonus.

Anyway, Schmidt tells the team to bring Lipinski into the embassy for personal debriefing, and he's willing to go along. They assure him that, even if they weren't pretty sure that no one is aiming orbital weapons now, this is a safe place - the effect of which is only spoilt when he meets a cluster of maintenance cybershells, and is told that they are just completing the repairs occasioned by the last armed assault on the place.