Monday, February 28, 2011

Who Pulls the Strings?

Scorpius 24, m0039, continued

Vajra appears to be back online, and all the tests that the team, Samadhi, or Quentin have available suggest that this is indeed him, without major modifications or corruptions; Jianwei suggests that he performs a backup point immediately, before anything happens that might cause more permanent problems. The team had left him locked out of motor control on his shell, but now they cautiously return it. It does appear that Vajra is back, with no memories of the interruption; Quentin is evidently pleased to see him restored to function.

The team is continuing to play with theories about this whole series of incidents, including Jianwei's opinion that the airship crash was likely the result of two technically unconnected problems - the gasbag failure immediately followed by the software problem. Why these might happen together, other than sheer extreme coincidence, is still unclear, though. They wonder if Vajra and the airship computer could have suffered essentially the same problem; it's not inconceivable, but why just these two entities? There's no trace of anything similar showing up on Web reports. One clue, perhaps, is that Vajra's internal logs show that he received, presumably processed, and then immediately wiped a small packet - a kilobyte or two - of unidentifiable data immediately before his shut-down. Unfortunately, he can't determine its origins, although it evidently came through the hotel's standard Web channels; he doesn't seem to have made any non-routine comms connections at that time.

Jianwei authorises Aunty to continue tracking the news for similar incidents, allowing her to purchase a news-scanning skill set for the purpose (although she seems to have some trouble integrating it at first), and the team set up logging processes on as many comms ports on their assorted systems as possible, so they'll at least have records of any more trigger packet after the fact. Then, the team contact Captain Brooks-Carter and suggest a personal meeting; he is happy for them to come in.

So they don vacc suits and set out by tram again. Brooks-Carter turns out to have called in a couple of colleagues, apparently feeling that these problems are going beyond his domain of accident investigation; Captain Ping, of the Nix Olympica Serious Crimes Unit, whose job is mostly to keep Triad activities on the mountain to some kind of minimum, and Officer Lau, the small police force's computer problems specialist. When the team talk about possible systematic software problems, Lau pays attention, but his assessment is that there isn't much resemblance between Vajra and the airship's systems - not that Vajra is exactly an overly well-documented unit, he notes.

So he offers to pass more of the raw data he has available on the topic to Vajra, who accepts - and a few seconds later, alarms sound throughout the police/rescue installation, which goes into some kind of lockdown. Its security systems are apparently showing the presence of various software configurations and signatures which they have been instructed to treat as a threat, physically within its firewalls. A little nervous testing suggests that Vajra is indeed being treated as a potentially hostile software entity.

The team request a low-bandwidth channel out of the installation, place a call to Quentin to explain something of the situation, and then allow Vajra to be taken down to the installation's computer crimes office, accompanied by Ping and Lau - Brooks-Carter is beginning to look like a man who wants some problems off his hands. A few minutes later, a local high-end LAI is asking questions about Vajra's origins, which of course has to bring in the words "presumed former TSA military asset".

It appears that Vajra's peripheral software generates various signatures that approximately correspond to those produced by an unidentified, elusive entity which has recently been detected on the Nix Olympica Web. The match isn't exact, and with the E.U. embassy vouching for Vajra, local security is prepared to trust him, rather conditionally - but that suggests that the mystery entity was similar to him. Which in turn implies that this intruder was connected to the TSA. This might be considered odd, and also worrying.

It also cuts across the previous evidence of Triad involvement. On that subject, Ping has a brief conversation with the team - noting Florence's known personal history. The team is gaining an odd image with this security and rescue organisation.

So they withdraw politely, and discuss matters further on the tram back to their hotel. Could the Triads be using TSA-designed software agents? That's not entirely their style... Meanwhile, Aunty is scanning local news channels, and picking up a fair amount of discussion on academic boards. The team run further surveys of the local Web, and Vajra soon notes an area of free resources that seem more or less optimised for his use. Not being foolish, he knows a honey trap when he sees one; rather than being caught, he ends up in conversation with the currently-anonymous operator responsible. It's clear that this is someone at the University of Mars - the kind of academic computer specialist who reflexively sneers at that mention of police computer security specialists. He's prepared to trade more data on recent Web events, but what he has would require more technical skills than the team can offer.

However, they can point him at the probably-subverted version control software at the airship tours company, which he didn't know about, while they ask Quentin to look for some software problems consultancy expertise. He may have to go to Earth to find anyone appropriate (he'd normally often call on University of Mars experts for such things, after all). Then, after a few minutes, the anonymous academic calls back to say that he does indeed think that the mystery entity ran some kind of assault on the tour company. Given its efficiency, he wonders if the company was in fact subverted in advance.

Just on principle, Vajra puts a little work in and, mostly by a stroke of luck, identifies this caller as one Dr Rodrigo Manos. He decides that it's more polite not to tell Dr Manos so.

The team are settled back in at their hotel by now, with no specific duties to perform, so they relax a little; Florence looks at local dojo facilities, goes to the hotel gym, and plans a break on Olympus Mons when this mission is done, while Jianwei handles some public relations issues related to the crash and generally looks after consular duties. Then, Quentin gets in touch again, with word from E.U. experts on Earth.

Their belief is that there are indeed signs of SAI-level Web intrusions here. If it's a TSA operation - which seems very possible - it must be a major one. Well, the E.U. isn't aware of any major TSA operations on Mars, with one possible exception of which the team should be aware.

"Quipu" someone says. Vajra admits to being a little scared now.

Jianwei takes this as a cue to look at the memetics of the situation again, and decides that there are subtle but, when one knows where to look, clear similarities in the campaign signatures to the memetics around the Nova Iquitos incident. If "Quipu" is running a broad TSA memetics campaign, this crash may have somehow been involved in that too. It's possible that the Triads have been played by Quipu, while the recent intrusion at the tour company - indeed, all the peculiar events on the local Web since the crash - are beginning to look like a clean-up operation. As a part of that, maybe, Quipu decided to take Vajra off-line for a while - although it's not clear why.

Jianwei sends a message to the ambassador. He wants to request another meeting with "Mr Grey", who appears to be the sort of person who's in the right sort of position to decide how this should all be handled.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Software Controls Hardware

Scorpius 23, m0039, continued

As the team's vehicle approaches the Zeus Tourist Resort, it becomes clear from Web traffic that the press have picked up on both their presence and that of Giovanna D'Aquila, the first survivor of the airship crash to return to civilisation. They promptly offer her assistance in dealing with what will follow - that's their job, after all - and she accepts the offer. She's evidently smart enough to be careful about what she says, and the team help her to prepare a response to the obvious first questions ("I cannot say very much while the investigation is still underway..."), and work up a press release to appear over her name. They also offer to see her back to the hotel room which her wearable has already chosen for her, and she accepts that offer too. Her wearable is also already handling matters such as getting some of her possessions out of storage while her luggage on the airship is being identified, extracted, and flown back. The team are being cautious enough that everything that arrives for her will be scanned for bugs...

When the rover reaches the airlock and the travellers disembark, they discover a couple of enterprising reporters already waiting. Both Jianwei's and Florence's instincts for practical tactics desert them, and the group is brought to a halt by the importunate reporters. However, Giovanna keeps her head and remains bland, and Jianwei does some smooth talking, giving the others a chance to get away

However, as the group is entering the lobby of Giovanna's hotel (her personal AI automatically checking her in), Vajra's cybershell suddenly locks up and falls over. The other two team members move quickly to assist, trying to determine what has happened; Aunty establishes contact with Samadhi, first carefully validating his ID codes, and Samadhi reports that Vajra is still running on the shell's systems, but isn't responding at all to external stimuli. Jianwei invokes his director status with the company that nominally "owns" Vajra for legal purposes in some jurisdictions to authorise Samadhi to take control of the cybershell. Once Samadhi has the shell back on its feet, if a little unsteadily, the group quickly heads up to Giovanna's room for privacy as they run more basic checks. First, though, Jianwei borrows Vajra's electronic gear and sweeps the room for surveillance devices, finding nothing. After a short while, with no signs of Vajra returning to "consciousness", they ask Giovanna (who's understandably a little perturbed by this turn of events) not to discuss it with anyone, and head back toward their own rooms.

On the way, they contact Quentin at the embassy, first reporting their successes, then describing what has happened to Vajra. Quentin "talks" to Samadhi, then leaves him to walk the shell home. Quentin is evidently perturbed by this turn of events, but has no idea yet of its causes. Aunty is monitoring the technical news channels for any evidence of anything similar, but nothing has shown up, so Jianwei calls the Emergency Response Service, and leaves a message, and after a few minutes, Captain Brooks-Carter calls back. He notes their concern, but this seems to be an isolated incident at present; he comments that it may well remain so, as far as he can tell - he understands that Vajra is a rather non-standard sort of AI...

Quentin too gets back in touch; he's been probing Vajra's systems, and his conclusion is that Vajra's low-level processes are, essentially, looping. What they're processing remains unclear - he's not taking any large data input streams - but this has evidently locked up his higher personality functions. ("Oh my God, he's garbage collecting!" someone mutters.) It's quite possible he'll come back on line when this process is complete, so there's no question of restoring him from backup yet.

The team get back to their own rooms, Samadhi lies the cybershell body down, and the team plugs him into a high-speed fibre-optic port while Quentin gets in touch with some experts. As there's little they can do themselves, the two organic beings decide that, rather than ordering dinner in, they might as well go and get the feel of what pass for streets in this place. So they head out to a restaurant and bar to do some listening.

There's only so much to listen to, in fact - perhaps the most interesting thing they hear during the evening is a news report on the Web, which suggests that Peng Chiang-Kwan was put in nanostasis as soon as the rescue teams reached the crash site, but that was longer than anyone would like, and now a lot of specialist human doctors, AI experts, and advanced cybershells are being mustered to attempts a prolonged and careful uploading exercise on him; it'll be a while before its success or otherwise becomes clear. There are no reports of misbehaving AIs.

Then, in the bar, the pair are approached by a well-dressed man, ethnic Chinese in appearance, who identifies himself as Kai Ssung-So, the insurance company agent. He's blandly polite, and still seems to be looking to exchange information quite openly; he seems convinced - or determined to convey the belief - that software problems are the key to this mystery. Smooth as he is, Jianwei senses that he's seriously worried about something. Meanwhile, Florence remains reticent, just reining in her distaste for anyone Triad-connected - and noting that Ssung-So is accompanied at a distance of a few yards by another man, also Chinese to go by his features, well-built and self-contained - not exactly a disguised bodyguard...

As the pair are returning to their hotel, they take another call from Captain Brooks-Carter. His own people have been looking at the airship tour company's computer systems, and they think that someone has been tinkering with the logging components. They believe that there's something highly capable loose on the local Web, and he reckons that the Europeans might want to know that. In response, Florence mentions that there may be Triad agents currently operating in the resort; the captain takes a note of that, but isn't immediately concerned - detecting a Triad presence somewhere on Mars is rarely news.

Back at their rooms, the pair talk to Quentin again. He notes that one problem in trying to diagnose software problems with Vajra is his status as, well, probably a former TSA military asset; he's hardly well-documented. But Quentin and his advisers are convinced that Vajra is in that shell somewhere; hopefully, the loop will eventually terminate. They're bemused, though, and worried. Still, all the biosapients can do for now is get some sleep, leaving Dougal and Aunty to learn how to play Robo Rally. Before they settle in, they do get some assurances from Quentin that, if Vajra awakens in "kill the squishy things" mode, he'll warn them, or something.

Scorpius 24, m0039

Jianwei wakes first, and reviews the news channels over breakfast. As a trained memeticist, he concludes that this whole incident is maybe being exploited to raise general fear-uncertainty-doubt levels across the planet. He looks deeper, but if his first guess is right, this is a well-engineered campaign, and not easily traced. He mentions the theory to Florence when she wakes, and they wonder who could be responsible - Negative Growth or other such preservationists might have an interest in spreading such memes, as might the various Martian Independence groups; it's certainly a challenge to the current power structures.

As they finish breakfast, another call comes in from Captain Brooks-Carter. By then, Jianwei has assembled a quick presentation analysing this possible campaign, and he takes the opportunity to pass it over; the Captain in his turn says that he has been asking questions, and he believes that the team may have a point about the Triads; his own team's best guess is that they were looking to muscle in on the tour company, although nobody is admitting anything. But this doesn't explain the airship crash; reducing share values and intimidating managers would be one thing, but destroying the company's image and profitability would surely just be foolish and inefficient.

Then, in Florence's room, another voice speaks.

"Where am I?"