Okay, this is new.
While putting up Christmas lights today, my brain not always being a necessary part of the process, my muse started sending little gems. I took notes.
The good news is that I know how the story ends! That’s never happened before. I’ve always been a “pantser,” as in “flying by the seat of my,” hoping that an end would appear. This time it has!
Actually, that’s not 100% true. My NaNoWriMo 2013 story actually was conceived with the ending known from the beginning, with the challenge being to get to a set Point B starting from a blank screen and hoping for the best. Still, this is different and new.
The bad news is that there’s no way I’m getting the last eight chapters done in five days.
But now that I know what’s happening and (more or less) how it’s all supposed to come together, the writing will (I hope) come faster. Which means that I’m hoping to hit the mythical 50,000 word mark, “win” NaNoWriMo 2015, and then finish the story for y’all in December.
Except that today I’m writing bits and pieces of scenes in all eight remaining chapters…
The word count given is for the total number of words, but not all of them might be printed here on the day they were written. But they will be here eventually.
While I normally put in a lot of internal links to previous, related posts here, I won’t be doing that for what I hope will be this year’s thirty NaNoWriMo posts. If you have jumped into or stumbled onto this story in mid-adventure, there are plenty of other ways to navigate around the site to find previous installments. Actually doing so is left as an exercise to the student.
Crystal had to admit, the Sherman program was groundbreaking in what it was able to accomplish. She had seen a lot of attempts to come up with the next great thing in digital assistants, but this was by far and away the best she had seen. Working with her account in the program’s alpha testing procedures, she was impressed with the quality of the data retrieval and handling features. She had yet to throw anything at it which it couldn’t handle with just one or two training inputs. Show it something once, categorize and explain it, and Sherman would do an amazing job of generalizing from that to related tasks.
But the scope and quality of the personality protocols were unprecedented. Since the dawn of computers, programmers had been adding “Easter eggs” to programs, whether or not those programs were games, web services, or search engines. Sherman’s abilities far outstripped those rudimentary efforts, allowing actual personality traits to be set, changed on the fly, and adjusted by the Sherman program itself as it learned how to act in different situations. Sherman would not be going off the deep end with an embarrassing exchange in the middle of church by accident.
“You’ve seen some of the results of the personality profiles,” Crystal said, “and while that is one of the things that makes this product unique, it also is just the front end for an extremely good digital assistant.”
“Your notes said that it scores a ninety-five plus on our standard suite of database benchmarks,” said Brittany from her window on the teleconference screen. “Was that a typo? No one’s ever managed to score above ninety before.”
“No, that’s accurate. I’ve run through three different sets of tests and they all came out the in the same range. It’s quite remarkable.”
“How did they initialize the program to personalize it for your use?” asked Clay. “I would think that would be a huge practical obstacle if they’re going to roll this out for a massive customer base.”
“It’s not that bad, sort of like answering questions for a Briggs-Myers profile, only it’s more interactive and audio-visual. You get a whole series of pictures and video clips with simple ‘A or B’ choices to make after each. They want reactions without any time to think about it or figure out what the ‘correct’ answer might be, so you have only two seconds to respond to each.”
“How well does it seem to work?”
“So far I’m very impressed. It’s not quite like I’ve got a new best friend, but it’s getting better as the days go by. There are moments when I have to remind myself that it’s a computer program.”
“It’s called ‘Sherman,’” said Fred. “Is there just the one personality option, one voice, and so on? I would think there would be different accent and language options available, but is it always male?”
“No, in fact I’m using the female personality with an Australian accent. There are a large variety of options.”
“Do you still call it ‘Sherman,’ even with a female personality?”
“Yes, I do, but that’s just because…”
“…because you’re you, of course,” finished Lee. “You never take any opportunity to take the normal, routine course.”
“It’s one of the reasons you all love me!”
“Yeah, we’ll get back to you later on that,” said Fred. “Do the personality protocols ‘learn’ and act differently based on the chosen sex of the digital assistant, or even on the nationality or ethnicity chosen? For example, could someone choose a personality and accent from the American South and have it learn and behave slightly differently than one from a New England personality?”
“I don’t know,” said Crystal, “that would be fascinating to play with and try as we get more access.”
“I would also like to see what happens if you change those preferences after a while,” said Lee. “If you’ve started with an assistant based on a Texan background and it’s built a profile on you and your likes and dislikes, what happens if you switch to a German profile type? Does it simply act the same with a different accent, or are all of the behaviors going to start changing based on the new core personality type chosen?”
“All good questions, it will be very interesting to watch, test, and play with as we go forward,” said Crystal.
“Crystal, are you supposed to be sharing all of this information with us?” asked Clay. “I can’t understand why Homolacrum would let you get away with this kind of access without a bullet proof Non-Disclosure Agreement.”
“No, I’m not, and no, they didn’t. You’re all going to have to do a pinky swear to keep this to yourselves.”
“Crystal, how sure are you that your Sherman isn’t listening in on this conversation. Of course you’ve turned it off for right now, but we all know that ‘off’ doesn’t always truly mean ‘off.’ If it knows that you’re violating the NDA, we’re all going to be in hot water over this.”
“Oh, Sherman is listening, I haven’t disabled her for this conversation.”
“You’re kidding. Please tell us you’re kidding.”
“No, not kidding, sorry. I’ve instructed Sherman to trust me on why we need to have this conversation in order to perform our evaluation. I’ve promised that it won’t go any further than the five of us, and I’ve explained how much I trust the four of you. Sherman told me she understood and would agree to not rat us out to Homolacrum.”
There was a prolonged silence on the conference call as everyone mulled that piece of news.
“Crystal, perhaps next time you could check with us before making that sort of decision unilaterally,” said Lee. “Since you’ve dragged all of us out of the frying pan and into the fire, have you considered what happens to Pete if you’ve guessed wrong?”
“No, because I haven’t guessed wrong.”
“Are you going to let Pete know what you’re doing, just in case he needs to dust off his resume really quickly? He’s the one that went to bat for you to get access to Sherman, if you’ve screwed up, he’ll pay along with you.”
“Pete would be the one who goes and spills the beans to save his butt if he knew. Let’s leave Pete out of this for right now. I trust Sherman. If I’m wrong, I’ll wing it.”
“Speaking of Pete,” said Brittany, “what have we found regarding that mess they had last month where those goons showed up and Doctor Aoki disappeared? Have we learned anything at all about who they are, why they were there, and what happened to the good doctor?”
“We know that they’re not who they claimed to be, that was clear pretty early on. To all outward appearances, Homolacrum has fallen for their story hook, line, and sinker, but that has changed behind the scenes now that they’re aware of the spyware that was installed. They’re not stupid, nor are they at all pleased, so they’re continuing to play dumb and put information on the system that they want these guys to see. They’re considering their next moves.”
“Okay, they’re not who they claim to be,” said Fred. “Big surprise there. We need to know who they are.”
“We don’t know. The information Pete gave us has turned up no hits at all in any of the data sets we have access to, but we’re continuing to search. By itself, that negative finding speaks volumes. But it’s still a negative finding.”
“And Doctor Aoki?”
“The good squad showed up and she was nowhere to be found. One second she was there and everyone and their cousins had been meeting with her all day. Then she wasn’t there, period. There’s no record of her leaving and she hasn’t been seen or left any kind of electronic fingerprint. None. Anywhere. No credit card usage, no phone calls, no internet access. Once you get beyond the Houdini act at Homolacrum that day, the most likely explanation is a shallow grave someplace.”
“Do you really think she was killed?” asked Lee.
“No, even that leaves more traces than we’re seeing. Just like with the unidentifiable goons, the absence of any data is too perfect to be accidental.”
“Which leaves us where?”
At that moment, another monitor in Crystal’s office flashed to life. The top of the screen had a flashing red message on a bright yellow background, while below multiple windows started popping open, each scrolling data. A soft but persistent chime began to ring.
From each of the others’ offices, the same chime could be heard, and everyone on the conference call had turned away from their cameras.
“Why is the fire alarm going off?” asked Lee.
“I’m guessing we’re having a fire,” said Clay. He could be seen furiously manipulating the data on his system, digging for details and trying to identify the source of the alert. If anyone had been paying attention, they would have seen all of the others engaged in similar activities.
“Crystal,” said Fred, “could you please ask Sherman to give us some privacy now? I don’t think we’ll need her input on this problem.”
Crystal, who was seeing the same data as Fred, was already on it, calling up a series of specialized routines on a separate system. In a few seconds she was satisfied with what she had prepared.
“Sherman, we have something we need to attend to, a bit of an emergency. Please initiate a priority privacy condition, using the parameters that I’m sending to you now. Do you understand?” She began transferring the routines from the isolated system to the primary office system where Sherman was interfacing with her.
“I understand, Crystal,” said Sherman. “I will execute those parameters immediately and await further contact from you. Disconnecting now.”
“Do you think we’re really private?” asked Fred.
“Probably, I would guess a ninety-nine percent or better chance given what I’ve seen of the system and what Pete and his team described. They’re pretty big on privacy functionality in this system, for obvious reasons. Which doesn’t mean that they don’t have their own back doors built into the system for an emergency just like this one, or that they’ll be afraid to use them.”
“What about the one percent?” asked Brittany.
“For that we’ll have to rely on the software I installed when I was with Pete,” said Crystal. “It’s kept us out of hot water so far, I don’t think anyone there will be able to spot it.”
“I’m not worried about the developers at Homolacrum at this point, I’m worried about Sherman. If what we’re seeing is correct, it might be able to program circles around you while blindfolded, and do it a million times faster than you could ever dream of doing it.”
“Age and experience will always trump youth and enthusiasm,” said Crystal.
“That will look lovely on our gravestones some day,” replied Clay.
“Focus, people,” said Lee. “What are we seeing here?”
“Something out there’s starting to suck up an awful lot of computing power, it’s spread all over the place, it’s going off in all directions, and it’s getting into places that it probably shouldn’t be,” summarized Crystal.
“Activity of that nature and on this scale will trigger the fire alarm, but we need to know what’s causing it and who. Could it be military? If so, whose military?”
“It always could be military, especially if it doesn’t look like military, but it doesn’t seem to be looking at any military or intelligence targets. It seems to be searching for something in the real world, accessing a ton of satellite imaging data sets from access sites – private, public, and military.”
“If it’s military the private and public searches could be there just to throw us off the scent. Don’t make any assumptions.”
“There’s what it’s interested in, at least in the real world. See how all of these satellite images are of this area of the Pacific Ocean down around the Equator? What’s down there besides water? Clay, can you see if you can skim enough detail to get the coordinates that it’s looking at? But do it without it knowing that we’re watching.”
“Will do, Lee,” said Clay.
“It’s looking for a needle in a haystack, it seems,” said Brittany. “It’s getting a range of images for an extremely wide area. There doesn’t seem to be any pattern for what’s being requested. It’s not like it’s spying on one site over an extended length of time. It’s almost a drunkard’s walk pattern , with a lot of overlap and repetition between neighboring images.”
“Look at the size of the resource allocations this thing is taking on,” Fred said. “How can it be doing this without anyone else noticing? I can’t find any indication that anyone else out there has been alerted to this activity, let alone realized that it’s stealing bandwidth and capacity from them.”
(Chapter Thirteen to be continued)