29 December 2010
Floating in vacuum, with his armor's active camouflage rendering him invisible, Grif sighed to himself and said, «I can't believe I'm doing this.»
«What, that you're doing this, or that you're doing it again?»
Despite working with them for hundreds of years, the ways and whys of artificial intelligence in Grif's 34th century were in many respects fairly mysterious -- certainly to Grif himself, but to a certain degree also to the humans who made them and even to the AIs themselves. For example, the husky, lethargic voice on the other end of the transmission -- on his own hardware, not in Grif's helmet, by Grif's insistence and personal policy -- began life as part of an experimental project in purely programmatic AI creation for next-generation number crunching being conducted in the Mathematics Department of Harvard University's campus on Nuovo Firenze. Out of respect for his birthplace's heritage and intended function, he named himself Fibonacci.
While his computational skills were reasonably good, well within the kinds of results the researchers were hoping for, he found in his occasional downtime that his real interest lay in separating fact from falsehood in electronic systems. He changed his name, shortening it with a mild sense of irony to "Fibber," and expanded his personal studies to electronic security. When the project eventually shut down, Fibber went looking for a job, and found low-key but interesting employment in the security division of Grif's company. Years later, he'd become the head of the division, and now, he was riding alongside on one of the big boss' weird trips to another universe, prepared to mess with what, to him, was truly vintage technology.
Grif acknowledged the point that Fibber was hinting toward, and replied, «Okay, yes, aga--- actually, no. Having intercepted and tinkered with a satellite in orbit once, it was probably inevitable that I'd do it again someday. I think what's getting to me is again, so soon.»
«Mm. Yeah, I suppose twice in one month is a bit much. Anyway, it's almost time. I've got the spoofed data time-synced and ready to stream, so the folks ground-side won't notice when we take control. Cully, how's our position?»
Culpepper -- or Cully, as she was sometimes called -- was relatively more straightforward. She was originally a military AI, created by the UNSC from a brain scan of a deceased pilot. They were apparently hoping to recapture some of the skill that the original pilot had, and were fortunately successful in that regard. Culpepper was not the name of her brain donor; generally, donor records were kept sealed to allow the AIs to develop their own personalities, so she just picked something that sounded interesting. She served with distinction for years, primarily in control of a Pelican dropship attached to a piracy patrol cruiser. The time came, however, that the UNSC declared her bird of choice to have exceeded its lifespan, and it was sold as surplus. There were plenty of other birds she could pilot instead, but she'd done her minimum term of service and had been considering retiring anyway.
She was surprised when the man who bought her bird not only offered her a well-paying job to pilot it, but promised the installation of some unique equipment and a contract that would guarantee her the right to buy the Pelican from him, free and clear, at a discounted price from the market value at the time she had the money saved up. She wasn't in the Pelican today, however; instead, she was loaded into the flight control computer of Grif's Banshee single-seat fighter, which had recently also gained active camouflage capability, so that Grif didn't have to keep track of his ride into and out of orbit along with everything else he had to get done. Now she joined the conversation in a cool, clipped, even-toned voice with just the tiniest hint of a drawl, the kind of voice that pilots of all stripes have aspired to since humanity first started pushing towards the sound barrier and the blackness of space.
«Looking good, gentlemen. You are in the orbital track, set for interception. Only one problem: Sir? You're upside-down.»
Grif looked down past his feet, where the Earth was stretched out below him in all of its grandeur. «Oh, you have got to be kidding. Seriously?»
«No joke, sir. The sensor gear in your helmet needs to be pointed down at the planet. And the clock's ticking.»
Indeed, in the distance, he could see the target of the operation come into view: a Key Hole satellite, part of this world's American government's spy network. Reminded that there wasn't a lot of time to waste, he sighed and said, «Yeah, okay, hang on.» A quick burst of thrust flipped him around; he briefly feared that the motion might make him sick, but when the counter-thrust burst brought him to a halt, everything settled in the zero gravity and all was well. «There. Whoof. Okay. That better?»
«Perfect. Fibber, I've got positive time-sync, and am handing the countdown over to you.»
«Roger that. Okay, boss, remember: we need station-keeping, not a game of catch. I'll give you a three count. Ready?»
«Sure. It's only someone else's expensive equipment we're hijacking and hopefully not fucking up.» Grif paused for a moment, then added, «Wait. On three, or three and then go?»
Even though AIs don't breathe, Fibber nonetheless sighed over the connection. «On second thought, boss, you're getting the tones. Listen for 'em.»
"The tones," as Fibber called them, were a set of UNSC-standard tones used, both in practice and in live operations, to signal the start of combat. Grif had heard the tones quite a few times recently, while out dealing with the Black Mesa situation, and easily got back into the rhythm when he heard them sound in his helmet:
When the final tone went off, the satellite was within arm's reach, just far enough away to be comfortable to interact with. Grif pulsed the thrusters on his jetpack, pushing him backwards at the same speed as the satellite's travel, so that he would maintain that distance. Once he was up to speed and the thrusters cut out, he tentatively reached one hand out and gently laid it on the satellite. «Well. That was kind of cool.»
Once he got confirmation from both AIs that everything was well, he started following their instructions on how to tinker with the satellite. First, he hooked Fibber into its computer system, so he could stream the falsified images and navigational data that would keep the satellite's true owners from realizing that it was being borrowed for a couple of hours. Then, he integrated his armor's sensor systems, combining their wide range of scanning technologies with the satellite's long-range capabilities. With all of the preparations made, it was time for the difficult part of the operation: taking hold of the satellite, Grif used his jetpack and Culpepper's navigational guidance to steer it off its usual course. This particular satellite was chosen because it was the member of the Key Hole network that would pass the closest to the target, but the American government was not typically in the habit of spying on Rome, so they needed to convince it to go take a look. Once they'd gotten all of the readings they could use, they moved it back to where it was supposed to have gone and he removed all of their modifications, returning the satellite back to its owners' control just before Fibber would have run out of spoofed data.
They took the accumulated data back to Blood Gulch, where they spent hours going over it with Grif's handlers and some ONI analysts they in turn brought in to consult. All told, they didn't have as much to show for it as they'd have liked. Yes, the most thoroughly detailed three-dimensional see-through map of 21st century Rome ever to exist was technically interesting, but it only did them so much good if the information they really needed wasn't there.
There were some unusual energy readings in places, the nature of which couldn't be identified; they made note of the locations and set the information aside, in case Gabriel or someone he had access to could make sense of it. They ruled out the mundane police stations and prisons, which had weapons aplenty but nothing as far as manpower or electronic chatter that indicated they were anything more than they appeared to be. There was one location that looked like it had a combination of weaponry, manpower, and chatter that was promising, but according to Grif's keen ex-thief eye for both casing a building and spending time in holding cells, none of the room layouts they could piece together seemed well suited to being a prison. (That wasn't to say that he wouldn't check it out anyway; he just didn't think it was likely to be the place.) All throughout the analysis, Grif kept feeling like something was missing, but he couldn't quite figure out just what it was.
In the end, it was Fibber who provided the breakthrough. As an AI of proud Italian descent, who further had patterned himself on one of Italy's great historical figures early on in his life, he noted that Rome had long been famous for its fountains, aqueducts, and other such underground passages, but that their scans generally stopped not far below ground level. Grif despaired slightly at the prospect of another day hanging upside-down off of a spy satellite, but was relieved when he was told that wouldn't be necessary, as ground-penetrating readings would have to be done from ground level anyway.
Working on the ground meant working undercover, which was an unusual and exciting prospect. Grif's ONI handlers made a feeble attempt at talking him into letting one of their trained undercover operatives do the job, but he wasn't having any of it. Even if he was seven feet tall, he felt that being a con man was better than being a spy, and unlike any of their operatives, he had actually spent some time on 20th/21st century Earths before and stood a better chance of blending in. There wasn't much to be done about his height, but 34th century cosmetic technology allowed him to trade in his business cut brown hair for long salt-and-pepper (which conveniently helped to hide his neural implant) with a beard that obscured his unusual jaw structure. He traded in his tailored Mr. Freaky-Big wardrobe for clothes bought from big and tall stores in that world's America, and took it a step further by eschewing his usual orange in favor of muted colors, primarily in blues, and the occasional loud touristy horror. ONI's linguistics techs took the standard Italian neural implant translation package and customized it, creating a subprogram with a much lower level of fluency and an American accent, so that Grif could understand everything but speak in a manner more consistent with his cover. He bought an array of 21st century gadgets that an average American tourist would carry with him, and ONI hollowed them out and filled them with 34th century tech that made them stealth versions of the ARGUS sensor gear in Grif's armor.
Some hacking and online deal-making by Fibber got enough paperwork into the right systems to give Grif a halfway convincing background with the appropriate identification. By the time he finally set foot in Rome, he was established as "Brian Fiori," an American tourist on a New Year's holiday to see the sights and get in touch with his long-removed Italian roots. From there, he started wandering around, playing his role. Even with the range of his scanning equipment, he had a lot of ground to cover.