Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Staffing Questions

May 24-25, m0039

The team find themselves based back in Port Lowell for a couple of days, with Florence unavailable to assist them because she is spending most of her time in extended consultations with her psychiatrists, and the rest acting as a pilot/driver for a group of European construction engineers who are helping build a new Japanese industrial plant up at Shibetsu which has fallen behind schedule.At the same time, Jianwei decides to proceed with a major upgrade that he has been planning for Aunty, so she is transmitted back to Earth for a substantial code revision, leaving him dependent on the team's other AIs for software support.

May 26, m0039

Meanwhile, Danteng has been seeking to understand how law enforcement works in Port Lowell, as the study group back on Earth with which he works needs a better idea of the interaction between the various private security companies in the town and its multicultural population. It's rather hard to assess how the town's society will behave without a good model of that, and getting one is one of the things that really requires observation on the ground.

Now, his work on this has
turned up an anomaly, involving a company named Bastion Incorporated Reassurance - one of the smaller Port Lowell operations. Some research back on Earth showed that they employed an above-average number of European staff (as indicated by tax data). This looked like an opportunity for Danteng to talk to people who'd be inclined to talk to European government representatives, and who must surely have some dealings with the embassy.

However, no such people have showed up on routine embassy records searches, and a search back through the files has shown that the embassy has had almost no dealings with Bastion staff. This is statistically implausible; security staff are normally pretty good at generating consular business, as Jianwei is able to confirm from experience - they run into legal problems, suffer injuries, and so on. Attempts to contact any of these people have also gone badly, meeting oddly uniform attitudes and refusals. Claims about "heavy non-disclosure agreements" sound rather thin in the context.

So Danteng mentions this to the rest of the team, who decide that an anomaly involving multiple European citizens probably merits their attention. Charles, the team's Martian native, has actually heard of the company, which is known in Port Lowell for providing "human-interface" security - people rather than automated systems, where that is what is needed. Its staff are actually quite widely known not to be big talkers - they show up, do the job okay, and go home. He asks around and gets names of some small companies, bars, and the like, who currently employ Bastion's services.

Vajra, meanwhile, does a lot of very successful digging on the Web, finding that Bastion is registered in Switzerland for tax purposes - which is doubtless a flag of convenience registration, but then many companies in 2100 are essentially virtual entities with no fixed abode. Vajra also finds some relevant records regarding Bastion's European employees; there are thirteen such in town at present, plus the local manager, one Jorge Abril.

Things become even more interesting when he checks their data footprints further. They have virtually none. None of the thirteen post, detectably, on any kind of Web forum, or otherwise generate any identifiable on-line traffic. Then, we Vajra checks their residency information, it turns out that they all share the same physical address; a unit flagged, in Port Lowell's rather relaxed property registration system, as combined industrial and residential. This isn't illegal, but is highly eccentric. So Vajra sends a cybershell to drop some surveillance swarms in the vicinity of the building. Observation for a few hours towards the end of the working day shows a few people entering the building as if heading home from work, but not much sign of anyone, say, going out on the town.

Meanwhile, the team have been looking up a little more about the company. It turns out that they operate almost entirely off Earth - often in the Asteroid Belt, in fact, although they have some other offices and contracts on Mars. Mostly, they provide security services for corporate installations - the sort of thing that usually involves heavy automation and specialist cybershells, not human employees on site. Their Port Lowell operation looks anomalous. Anyway, they're definitely a highly distributed semi-virtual corporation.

By now, even Woju is showing brief and intermittent signs of interest in the case. The team decide to exploit their own more or less official status to further this investigation - by launching a snap Health & Safety inspection. After all, the set-up in Bastion's unit does look a bit anomalous in that respect. However, having themselves authorised to conduct such an inspection will take a few hours - in fact, they can't be cleared for the purpose until the next morning. So they decide to place a more detailed watch on the building by planting geophones around it, just in case anything might happen underground as much as anything. Jianwei takes on this task, pretending to be a drunk wandering around the neighbourhood for the benefit of any security camera systems. He's quiet enough, but his drunk act may need work. Still, he doesn't provoke any particular responses. On the other hand, the geophones don't pick up any particular activity as yet.

Jianwei also has to talk to Ambassador Schmidt over the Web to get clearance for the team's sudden promotion to warehouse inspectors. She signs off on this with no more than mildly ironic remarks, and all is set to go in the morning.

May 27, m0039

The decision for the morning is that Charles will go into the building with Woju. and an official-issue inspector's skill set loaded on his implant. Jianwei will remain back at the embassy to preserve a degree of anonymity and to field any complaints that the inspection might generate. Working AI-to-AI, Hugo initially talks his way past the basic NAI at reception, but it becomes uncertain and tells the pair to wait at the door. Woju gets bored with waiting, though, and slips into the building while Hugo is arguing. Charles takes the opportunity to "chase" him.

At around which point, Jorge Abril shows up with his legal support systems running at full power on the local Web. He and the lawyers manage to bog Charles down with a fusillade of red tape, but Charles and Woju retaliate by each claiming to be in charge (Charles says that this is Woju's first day on this job; Woju claims to be "training the new guy"), confusing Abril. Other human Bastion staff - including several of the thirteen Europeans - show up during these proceedings, but only Abril seems to be stressed; watching over the Web link, Jianwei, the trained psychologist, decides that the others are strikingly affectless. At the same time, Woju notes that they all have very similar scents. As a test, the "inspectors" fabricate an excuse to ask several of these people which is their favourite restaurant in the neighbourhood; the replies are all plausible, but all different, and all come after a very slight but discernible pause.

The building seems distinctly, severely sparse as Fifth Wave living quarters go, although Hugo can't find anything to justify further Health & Safety action. Charles and Woju depart, with Woju accusing the ever-enthusiastic Charles of being weird. The party regroup at the embassy to discuss next steps.

As there is clearly something very strange about those Bastion employees, one possibility that arises is to get DNA samples. This could probably be kept just about legal if the action which acquires the sample is not any kind of assault or invasion of privacy; this would need a plan. For now, though, they decide to act on another point of interest; review of the recording of the inspection suggests that all of the Bastion employees have implants. Jianwei slips around to one of the places where one of the thirteen is working, and Vajra uses his systems to remote-ping the Bastion employee's implant. Cross-referencing to records shows that this is not the implant that this individual was previously noted as using.

Looking over other records also identifies three other European Bastion employees who worked at this installation for a while, then apparently returned to Earth. On a hunch, the team analyse their schedules, and find gaps in their travel records - nothing suspicious in itself, but it looks as though those three would have had to take slightly eccentric journeys to leave Mars at the recorded times, reach Earth at the recorded times, and avoid leaving a records trail. All three now seem like normally active human E.U. citizens; interestingly, two of them have married since they came home - which may be coincidence, but which might just count as curious.

Following through all this record searching also locates biometric data for several of these Europeans. In the absence of full DNA tests, these aren't conclusive, but there are slight divergences - just enough to suggest that someone somewhere may be a surgically adjusted fake.

All this takes much of the day. Towards the end, another message comes over the Web; Florence calls to say that she's coming back on duty, effective more or less immediately. Shortly after this, while checking his surveillance swarms, Vajra spots a medium-sized rover, essentially a minibus, pulling up at Bastion's unit.

Monday, September 10, 2012

My Enemy's Enemy

May 14, m0039, continued

When the party breaks up for the night, the team find that a tent has been provided for them. They also find that Charles has sampling an odd brainbug of some kind while hanging out with the other younger guests; it's certified safe, but he will be inactive for a while.

As the humans and bioroid settle down to sleep, Vajra links to the high-bandwidth long-range comms systems on the team's hopper, and talks to Danteng; together, they run a preliminary analysis of the memetics of this situation. Danteng assesses the context, while Vajra burrows into the memetic loading. Their preliminary conclusion is that there is no blatant TSA involvement here, but the situation may favour whatever "Quipu" is trying to do.

This analysis takes a little while, and shortly after the two AIs have finished compiling their conclusions, Samadhi picks up a digital distress screech from the now-muddy area where the aquifer is welling up. Unfortunately, there are no camera views of the point of origin available, from either the hopper or available orbital systems. So Vajra alerts his organic colleagues. Florence wakes up and, deciding that things don't appear overly urgent, starts dressing in shirt, trousers, and boots. But then, Aunty gets contact with the NAI which transmitted the alert, and that mentions that its owner has lost air mask integrity. So Jianwei calls panic, then loads a survival skill set to Aunty for advice. It says not to panic.

The team board their hopper and take off, reckoning that a rescue from the air is likely to be the best option. (They are still well ahead of any of their hosts, who know about the distress call but who are evidently unaccustomed to providing fast emergency response.) They then find their target quickly enough, although it - he - isn't emitting quite as much IR as they might have expected; a human being largely submerged in the new quicksand, and struggling to stay safely afloat.

They quickly form a plan, which involves Florence remaining at the controls of the hopper, while the others use the winch with which it is fortunately fitted to lower Vajra's rented spider shell to extract the victim from the silty mud. As it turns out, Florence flies fairly well, but Vajra bounces about rather too much. At Jianwei's prompting, Aunty loads up a basic Physics skill set and runs a quick frequency analysis on the cable, enabling the team to improve their timing. Jianwei coordinates the approach, lowering Vajra into the mud as they go; the idea is now that Vajra will "swim", with the cable providing effective bouyancy.

In fact, Florence's piloting continues smooth but Vajra continues to have trouble, Eventually, though, he gets a grip on the victim, who is panicking, but ineffectually. The team start lifting; once Florence has enough control of the situation, she uses the hopper's thrust to complete the job, as Jianwei calms the man over his radio.

They get him aboard, and Jianwei tries but initially fails to provide effective first aid; the victim his inhaled some very dangerous Martian silt. However, Aunty talks him through immediate remedial treatment while the team are flying back to the camp. There, Mahmud provides access to a useful emergency life support machine which helps a great deal. Once the patient is more stable and not in immediate danger, the team get him back onto their hopper for a trip to the hospital in As Sulaymi. Vajra's flying surveillance swarm is left sniffing round the desert for more information.

Vajra also uses a crawler swarm to search the man's clothes, quietly, during the flight, while by a lucky exercise in computer intrusion, Dougal gets into some logs on his (very) low-end personal AI. Together, they reconstruct more of what he was doing. His name is Khalid ibn-Muqla, and to judge by his camouflage-appropriate clothing, the surveillance gear he was carrying, and the risky but secretive path he was attempting to take this evening, he was definitely seeking to spy on the progressive Saudi group.

The team decide not to say too much about any of this, to avoid giving any signs of taking sides. Once Khalid is in hospital, Jianwei checks into a local hotel so he can catch up on sleep, while Florence  stays on the hopper to guard it and ensure herself plenty of sleep time.

May 15, m0039

The next morning, the team check in on the patient, who is now coming along okay. They send a message to his friends to say as much, then fly back to Mahmud's encampment for breakfast. Mahmud seems to be taking it as read that the man was spying, but he is formally polite when visitors from the other camp show up after breakfast. Still, he  doesn't argue when Florence wants to meet them. They are barely formal to her.

Vajra subsequently sweeps the camp, but finds no signs of bugs.

The team stay around for a few more hours to watch a bit more of the aquifer seething up, then head home, dropping off first the hopper, then the rented spider on the way.

On the way back, Vajra gets badly lost in memetic research. However, Danteng is watching the news streams, and picks up releases regarding the rescue; the team set to work determining the nature of any editing and memetic loading that's been applied to these - and it looks like there's been some. While they are busy on this, in fact, a call comes in for Florence from someone who identifies herself as "Darling Dobermann", and who wants to say thanks for a leak of information on this story that she assumes came from the team.

So they analyse what she's received, and recognise some distinct if subtle slanting. They warn "Darling Dobermann" of this, and her response is a virulent "bastardsbastardsbastards..." She declares that she'll stay out of this business; she resents being manipulated, and can't tackle the story further without that becoming a dictinct risk.

The team also assess the public response. It looks like the Saudi progressive/conservative divide is being noted. In general, public sympathy inclines, predictably, towards the progressives, though there is lots of noise among all the opinions.

Once they are settled back in town, Florence has an appointment for psychomedical assessment in the embassy. The others chat with Ambassador Schmidt, going over events. Eventually, they spot the signs of what they've come to think of as "Peruvian" memetics in all this - and as they burrow into the data, Vajra starts getting what he describes as "null pointer" errors in his memory. Unfortunately, there also seems to be a distinct and probably deliberate attempt to draw the EU into the memetic/political conflict here, pushing them into an unwanted position as active allies of the Saudi progressives. The team decide to attempt a counter-campaign to preserve their neutral standing as best they can.

May 16-23, m0039

This is a full-scale, though modest, counter-memetic operation. They take some days just to analyse the problem in detail, then as many again to execute their counter-attack, using embassy press statements, carefully edited releases of imagery from the rescue operation, and so on. By the end, Jianwei and Danteng estimate that they have achieved 9% population penetration with the "Neutral EU" meme - enough to sow doubt about European complicity. Meanwhile, Florence is back to chauffeur work, and Charles finds himself doing a mandatory course on dangers of brainbugs.