Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Hunted Dog

Sagittarius 14, m0039, continued.

The team are still at work supervising this small building project. Florence decides that there is no sign of trouble here, and wanders off in search of lunch, picking up a fauxflesh sandwich and, by way of an experiment, a locally-grown durian fruit. She tries to force herself to eat the latter, but fails completely. Her enhanced senses are a little too sensitive.

Then, a call comes through for the whole team - but is intercepted by one of the embassy NAIs which is assigned to help manage their security, as they are E.U. diplomatic service employees.

"This is a heavily anonymised and redirected contact, but it probably originates from the area of New Shanghai or the western end of Marineris, and there is a high possibility that the individual calling is the acquaintance of yours whose primary pseudonym is 'Deimos Dog', or a good digital emulation."

The team take the call - and the speaker initially refers to herself as "Dravidian Delacroix", but doesn't actually try to maintain any pretence. It quite quickly becomes clear that she feels that she's in some danger, and is calling in favours. In the last few hours, her on-line reputation and trustworthiness indices have suffered dramatic falls - the sort of falls that endanger her status as a journalist, just as a very small start.

It seems that her past posts and Web stories have been subjected to a concerted and extremely hostile attack - a series of selective analyses and comments, some delving into what is publicly known about her private life, which seem to be designed to mark her down as a cat's-paw of the American authorities, an SIA stooge. This requires considerable selectivity, but as she says, of course a large proportion of her past stories have been highly critical of the Chinese on Mars - they're the largest single power on the planet! Unfortunately, she can't be sure who might be falling for these attacks, and a number of her contacts and acquaintances are the sort of people who won't take kindly to someone they see as an American government agent of influence.

She doesn't know who these attacks might be coming from - she's long seen it as part of her self-appointed job to annoy people, and candidates could include both Chinese and American authorities and any number of smaller groups and powerful individuals. She can't ask many people for help - too many people she'd normally approach might be falling for these slanders, or might even be involved in launching them, while any help she gets from American sources will just make her look worse. Hence, she's come to the E.U. team, even though she has to admit, when she thinks about it, that she's actually an American citizen.

Florence decides that there's a missing piece to this story, and switches on the charm, exploiting the intimacy of her past acquaintance with DD to draw her out more. Eventually, DD admits that she's recently been doing a very little, mild digging around the team's current activities - after all, she finds them interesting. She's been researching FAXAD and so forth. Maybe she wonders if this might have something to do with the attacks - but she presumably doesn't expect the team or the E.U. to be overly annoyed by this, let alone systematically hostile.

She thinks that only the embassy or FAXAD could have known enough about her enquiries to recognise her interest in this project, so the team drop the line to her and check with the embassy. Quentin denies that they had even spotted her enquiries - they were subtle and anonymous enough to slip past whatever warning systems the E.U. has in place, although Quentin does admit that they have DD tagged as "to watch" - she's a freelance journalist of unpredictable prejudices who has got close to an E.U. team, after all.

The team decide that they will try to help DD; they regard her as a basically friendly and sometimes helpful contact, after all, and if this incident is linked to their work on the FAXAD project somehow, they ought to know about it. Vajra puts Samadhi in charge of the construction operation while Vajra itself sets to work analysing DD's past work, not turning up any clear clues as to likely attackers there. Meanwhile, Jianwei quickly designs and scripts a counter-campaign, with inputs from DD, that should hopefully make life a bit safer for her. But who should deliver it? If the team tackles the job, anyone tracking it back will flag the posts as questionable, and it will compromise E.U. perceived neutrality too far.

As Jianwei and DD chew over this problem, Vajra also analyses the memetics of the slander-attack. The conclusion is that it's deliberately bland and generic, using stock, textbook tools and methods - which weakens it a little, perhaps, but also makes it effectively untraceable. It's skilful enough, but it sacrifices some effectiveness for anonymity.

Meanwhile, DD has come up with the best available vector for the counter-campaign. Double-checking her security and trusting to encryption, she admits that she is currently holed up in an unused commercial building in New Shanghai; she has friends - well, probably-reliable acquaintances - elsewhere in the city, who have the resources to handle the job. But she'll have to ask them in person.

Jianwei pulls up his mapping software and plots her a route to this destination that should mostly avoid busy streets, and then Florence links directly to the cameras on DD's wearable interface, allowing her to watch DD's back and advise on stealth. (Her attempts to advise on disguise don't work so brilliantly, unfortunately.) Hence, Florence is looking over DD's shoulder when DD enters what is, to the knowledgeable eye, rather obviously a low-level Triad Web-media operations centre. Florence snorts. "You know you can't trust these people, don't you?" she snarls in DD's ear, as those people turn not-totally-friendly looks on DD.

DD, though, maintains her cool and demonstrates a decent grasp of street etiquette, while Jianwei, as ever the social operations expert, advises on negotiation techniques. DD ends up owing this Triad operation a favour, but in exchange, they set to work using subverted LAIs to spread the counter-campaign. Within minutes, DD's Web-based reputation indices are showing marked signs of recovery. She breathes a sigh of relief and slips out of the Triad dive, then agrees with the team that she should check into a capsule hotel for a while.

Once she seems to be safe for the moment, Jianwei starts talking to the LAIs which currently represent FAXAD on Mars, and soon decides that they are blandly trustworthy standard models. But Vajra digs out some more information on FAXAD arrangements back on Earth, which include a lot of "rehabilitated" gypsy, orphan, and rogue AI workers, and Dougal, assessing the Foundation's security arrangements using his developing aptitude for computer work, is less than impressed. The team advises FAXAD to bring their most trusted and unambiguously trustworthy software agents into this project, and to transmit some of them to Mars to handle local security.

Meanwhile, it's getting late in the day, and the team's organic members will soon need to rest. They get the informorphs to watch over DD as she sleeps. She, it seems, has an elevator car bar-tending job coming up, which should represent a fairly safe place for her to remain while the trouble dies down.

Sagittarius 15, m0039.

The next morning, the embassy's security systems give a briefing on their assessment of this incident. From now on, FAXAD will be treated politely, but not trusted over-much - E.U. digital security are no more impressed than Dougal was by the effectiveness of their defences. They may be an innocent and unconnected party in this incident, but their extensive use of "rehabilitated" infomorphs looks frankly questionable.

As for the actual attack on DD - there are any number of possible candidates as perpetrators of this, and few clues to narrow the field. The team throw out as many ideas as anyone. Discrediting DD while she is looking at the work of an E.U. team might, say, be a subtle way of insulating someone from DD's investigations in the vicinity of later E.U. operations. Or, given the weakness of FAXAD security, there might be something going on within that organisation. Could it be the Chinese, who don't, in truth, have much cause to love DD, and who may not be very fond of the E.U. team in the wake of other recent incidents? Maybe, although this all looks rather too subtle and under-resourced for that. The Americans, then? It's conceivable that one of their organisations could have hoped to drive DD to working for them in the absence of other friends...

It does appear to closer analysis, certainly, that the attack was plotted out in advance, possibly not in the very recent past - it wasn't something that could have been thrown together very quickly, and wasn't keyed to some of DD's most recent activities. This gives it the smell of an organisation's contingency plans, rather than an individual's act of vengeful malice.

In the end, the team find themselves on a hopper back to Port Lowell, left only with the knowledge that someone is up to something. But isn't that always the way of things on Mars?

Note: The campaign goes on hold at this point for a few months while the GM deals with a few mostly work-related issues.)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Sagittarius 4-10, m0039.

The team remain in Bako a little longer, with Florence for one enjoying some interesting nights in a town with a different social scene (and picking up some basic knowledge of African culture in the process). However, they eventually start receiving hints from the E.U. that a move back to Port Lowell may be indicated. Florence is becoming a bit of a permanent fixture on some gossip blogs and slogs, which might not be entirely desirable, and the team can continue to monitor Adam-4's progress well enough from their home base.

A rather boring boat trip sees them safely across Lake Candor to Port Lowell, where Florence is happy to discover that the psychologists aren't currently inclined to harass her for too many personal reports. And so everyone is able to spend a few quiet days on routine work, time in the dojo, and so forth. Everyone's monthly pay has recently been credited to their various accounts, which leads to minor outbursts of shopping - or, in Vajra's case, minor outbursts of generosity.

Sagittarius 11, m0039.

Then, Vajra receives (via an AI agent) a contact from someone who, deliberately or otherwise, seems set to play on his particular charitable instincts - though it's actually a legitimate-enough, if informal, request for consular support. The Foundation for ArachnoXenological Assessment and Development is an Antwerp-based institute that, officially, studies Web life and provides consultation on practical aspects of the subject. However, it seems to be a fairly open secret that FAXAD provides a haven for orphan and gypsy infomorphs; it certainly acts openly as a proponent for infomorph rights. It hasn't previously operated much outside of Earth-local space, but growing complexity in the Mars Web looks set to make a FAXAD presence on the planet desirable - in FAXAD's opinion, anyway.

The first step in the Foundation's response is to establish a physical presence on-planet - for which purpose, a sufficiently powerful computer installation is the main requirement. However, given the nature of some FAXAD activities, the Foundation would really like to be sure that this will be located somewhere with an unambiguously liberal legal structure. Their analysis says, plausibly enough, that New Amsterdam might be the best place to go. It's a tiny, growing, 100% Dutch colony up in the north; Dutch law is as close to tolerant in relevant areas as FAXAD can hope to find, practically speaking. They've got the engineering side of things worked out; now, they're requesting consular back-up in the physical set-up process.

Vajra throws the request over to the others and the embassy for assessment. Jianwei decides that the legal position looks okay, while Vajra puts a call through to Dr. Mariam Kalatta in Bako, asking for her support; she's happy enough to assist as far as she can, though strictly on an informal basis, and she's certainly sympathetic (and knows nothing against FAXAD).

Sagittarius 12-13, m0039.

The information processes through various systems, and a couple of days after that first call, the team are notified by Ambassador Schmidt; there's a formal request come through from FAXAD for someone to act as legal witnesses on site when their shiny new computer system is installed on a site in New Amsterdam. This looks like a job for the Consular Services team. FAXAD have said that they will pay for the team to take a hopper flight up north - but in fact, Vajra decides to rent a shell on the site. Which is why, when the hopper lands, Jianwei and Florence are greeted by a formidable-looking industrial machine. "Hello Vajra," Florence cheerfully says.

The team head towards the one hotel in this tiny town, where they are greeted by an AI receptionist (operating a static cybershell, humaniform from the waist up, a desk from the waist down). Their rooms prove to be ... very idiosyncratically ... decorated; the hotel may not have much competition, but it evidently doesn't want to be seen as boring. The organics then head out in search of a restaurant, finding a good Indonesian place (200 things to do with tofu, and durian fruit as a non-advised option on the dessert list). Meanwhile, Vajra has checked the rooms for bugs; he doesn't find any, although he is slightly unsure about this.

The organic team members  emerge from the restaurant to find some colourful furry snakes wandering the streets. Oh well, it's a biotech-industry town... They head on to a coffee shop and sample some other local products. The snakes start to make sense and the Martian coffee begins to seem almost tolerable... They decide that it's time to head for their respective rooms to sleep. Meanwhile, Vajra heads to the site acquired by FAXAD, and downloads some architecture and civil engineering skills sets to facilitate assessing it. His conclusion is that there isn't much to say.

Sagittarius 14, m0039.

Breakfast for the other two involves lots of smoked and spiced fauxflesh sausages, after which, they join Vajra on the site, which is at a reasonable height up a local hill - it will be a few decades before rising sea levels become a serious issue at this altitude. Jianwei checks the financial side of FAXAD's arrangements, and decides that they are sound, by which time, construction materials are being delivered to the site. Vajra sets to work being useful, following v-tag instructions as concrete is poured to provide the new computer building with foundations, and then walls begin to go up. As the most authoritative sapient involved in this process, Vajra has a fair amount of discretion, and decides to follow local building standards by providing the structure with colourful external doors; he even checks with some local semi-professional consultants about established architectural aesthetics in New Amsterdam.

The watching Jianwei thinks about the defensibility of the site, which is frankly mediocre at best - though why should that be a concern? As he is looking around, though, he notices other observers - camera-equipped mini-blimps, which appear to be registered to a Martian news service.

In fact, around lunchtime, Aunty spots something on the feeds - and Quentin has also picked it up, because he calls soon afterwards. Florence, it seems, has made herself enough of a temporary minor celebrity that her presence in a different town (such as New Amsterdam) is considered worthy of note. Jianwei tells Florence to be boring for a little while, so hopefully the news feeds will lose interest.