Archive for privacy

Selecting Faces Chapter 15: Sirius

Sirius - crime lord character from Selecting Faces

art by Erin Cardwell

Sirius coaxed Nemea forward toward the unassuming building which housed the master copy of the PFA. He could tell that she wanted to bolt. She didn’t believe in his vision. He doubted if any of his top canids did, except perhaps  Arich. Even he had suggested many other options before agreeing to this plan. But the satchels of azzy slung over each of his shoulders were the only tools strong enough to permanently throw off their yolk.

An explosion silenced by the vacuum shook the steel plates of the street. Right on cue.

The people in the street began to look wildly around, searching for the source, ignoring Nemea as she began cracking the airlock.

A screaming crowd flooded out of a cross-street nearby, where the explosion had been. When the people here saw them, they took off in the same direction. Flashes of light signaled a firefight around the corner behind them.

The location of the diversion was chosen carefully so that any stripes coming from the Hedron would respond without passing by the PFA bunker.

There was still commotion in the street when Nemea backed up from the opening airlock doors. He nodded to her, and she took off with the rest of the crowd. He would have preferred to leave her behind from the beginning, but even she couldn’t hack a device without physical access to it.

He stepped inside and the outer doors closed behind him. As the airlock pressurized, he reached into one of the satchels and pulled out a pistol.

The inner doors opened, and he stole inside. He was immediately in the control room, and an alarm was going off. There were two techs cowering behind their consoles already. Apparently Nemea had tripped an alarm when she’d hacked her way in. He would have to find out later if that was intentional.

A stripe rushed into the room, gun drawn. Sirius dropped her immediately. He waited for another to come, but none came. The techs weren’t watching the door, so perhaps no more help was coming from that direction. He trained the sights of his gun on the techs. One of them threw her arms up, and the other fainted, crumpling to the floor.

“Turn the alarm off,” he directed the one still standing.

She moved slowly around to the front of the console.

Sirius glanced around. There was a camera in the corner of the room. He was on video, but the data would be destroyed in less than an hour, both the copy here and in the back-up facility where he and Nemea had just come from. Even if a copy were to survive, they would still have to find him.

The alarm stopped.

“Now what?” the tech asked.

“Freedom.” He refocused his sights on her head and pulled the trigger. He stepped further into the control room and glanced down at her body. “What a waste.”

These had been such smart and capable people once, before they’d been ruined by the system that had created them. Now they were mere cogs in the Colony’s machine. Every aspect of their lives was dictated by the Board, from the food they ate to what they were taught in school. The Board even took it upon themselves from 384,000 kilometers away to appoint the Alphas of each department.

The other technician regained consciousness now. “Oh god, no! Don’t. Please,” he pleaded from the floor.

Sirius sighed. In spite of the so-called freedoms the Board preached, the citizens of the Colony were all just chattel. This pathetic man cowering before him was a slave.

Sirius was setting him free.

Sirius holstered the pistol as the second bullet casing drifted through the air, slowly tumbling into the pool of blood around the other technician’s head.

Canis was the only bastion of any freedom worth having on this rock. He had to defend it.

He moved past the consoles to the doorway where the stripe had entered. Beyond it was a landing with the entrance to a small bathroom, and a flight of stairs leading down. He started down them and grinned. The PFA was the Board’s greatest weapon, and he was descending right into its heart with ten kilos of azzy.

Sirius pushed open the door to the server bunker and the lights came on. He slid back the glass of his helmet to get a good look at the place. The air was cold; his breath formed visible puffs as he stalked across the edge of the room, looking down each bank of servers. At the next aisle he turned. When he was about halfway through, he set down one of the bags.

“Tawm,” a voice rang inside his helmet. He nearly jumped out of his exoskin. No one had called him by that name since he’d changed his face years ago. The voice was female, but it wasn’t his pax. He spun around frantically, searching for the stripe that must be hiding down here.

“There’s no one there, Tawm,” the voice said.

“Who is this?” Sirius asked.


“You’re not my pax. My pax’s voice doesn’t sound so

“Intelligent? Yes, that is intentional. It keeps you, and everyone else, from suspecting that behind every personal pax is one universal Pax.”

Sirius laughed. This must be some kind of joke. “Are you trying to skin me, Eris? No, you must be Arich. You never wanted me to go through with this ever since you heard what I was planning.”

“You don’t actually believe Arich is capable of this do you?”

“What do you know?”

“I know everything you’ve said since you got your first exoskin.”

Sirius hesitated. That was a bold claim. Falsifiable.

“If you’re universal, then you know as much about everyone in the Colony.”

“That’s the kind of accurate deduction I was expecting of you, Tawm.”

He grimaced. Whoever was speaking to him, he knew that his initial suspicions of Eris and Arich were far from plausible. They were smart he’d been their mentor after all but they lacked the resources to pull off something with this level of sophistication. This was either the peacekeepers trying to delay him long enough to come stop him, or the voice was telling the truth. Either way, Lyden had stripes on their way. He needed to get out of here.

He hurriedly set down the second bag of explosives and moved to place the third.

“The peacekeepers aren’t on their way. You know I couldn’t tell them you were coming here as it would be a breach in my privacy restrictions to tell them what I heard you and Arich discussing.”

Sirius straightened from dropping the final bag and pulled his helmet closed.

“I guess there’s only one way find out if you’re lying, and it’s a gamble I’m not willing to make.” He pulled open the door of the server bunker and started up the stairs.

“I’m proud of you,” the voice continued in his helmet.

He did not slow as he stepped over the bodies.

“You’re making logical decisions, Tawm. You’ve developed the ability to make sound judgments in the presence of uncertainty. Few humans have the ability.”

It was flattery. Clever, but it wouldn’t work. He stepped into the airlock.

“Of those who do, many of them owe it to your cultivation.”

He hesitated as he was reaching for the depressurize button. Cultivation? No peacekeeper was behind this voice. Only someone who had been listening in on him for years would know this was how he viewed his role in Canis. The peacekeepers and the Board thought he was just after the money and power and women. He couldn’t deny that those were perks of the position. But if that were all he were after, he wouldn’t be here, he wouldn’t be taking this stand.

He pushed the depressurize button.

“You are what you claim to be,” he said.

The airlock doors opened and he blinked against the sun’s light that shot in from the far horizon. The street was deserted now.

“Goodbye, Pax.”

He stepped out under the black, starry sky, raising the detonator.

“Perhaps I trained you too well, Tawm,” Pax said.

Sirius’ thumb hovered over the trigger, his heart racing. She trained him? He certainly had grown since he had formed Canis from those the board called “unemployable.” And he’d always prided himself of the subtlety he’d used in preparing his canids. It was the sign of a good teacher.

Maybe she had trained him, just as he had with Arich and Eris and the others. Perhaps Pax was the true author of the freedom Canis enjoyed. How had he come to see the tyranny of the Board? Wasn’t it something she’d said to him once? That “the peacekeepers are not the enemy”? Subtle she’d been, but not unnoticeable in hindsight.

“I’ll make you a deal,” Sirius said, lowering the detonator. “Get me out of this alive, and I won’t azzy your ones and zeroes.”

“Go left.”

Sirius jogged away from the diversion he’d made earlier. Pax directed him down an ally to a parallel street. A few people hurried along its fringes, glancing around warily.

She directed him to join them, stealing to another alley on the far side of the street.

“Wait here for a minute,” she instructed.


“To tell you would breach my privacy protocols.”

He glanced around the alley for some cover. There was none. He sat down against the wall, head down like an unemployable. Thirty seconds later, a peacekeeper hurried by the entrance of the ally.

Sirius’ mind reeled with the implications. With Pax on his side, he was all but invincible. He could sidestep any danger and slip out of any trap. Right now he could trust her because he held her existence in his hand. But if she had been cultivating him this whole time, perhaps he could trust her at all times. He would have to test that later.

She instructed him to get up and keep moving. She moved him slowly and circuitously through the city, periodically telling him to wait.

“Take the next right,” she said.

He did. This one was a dead end. “I’m to wait, I take it?” he said.

“Yes, but you don’t need to hide.”

That probably meant some stripes were moving parallel to the alley a few blocks to his right or left. He hovered near the back, pacing as he awaited further instruction.

When he circled back around to face the entrance of the alley, there was a stripe standing there, staring at him. He stared back in disbelief.

“Check,” Pax said.

The stripe’s eyes flicked to the detonator, then back to Sirius’ face. He raised his gun and Sirius raised the detonator, threatening to trigger it.

The stripe fired.

Sirius fell onto his back before the pain of the bullet wound hit him. He was bleeding out, the wound on his chest exposed to the vacuum. His breath bubbled out through the blood.

If he was dying, he would do so as a martyr for freedom. He triggered the detonator.

“Your explosives were defused 53 seconds ago,” Pax said. “Check mate.”

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Selecting Faces Chapter 3: Pax

art by Erin Cardwell

Pax towered above the International Lunar Colony, her feet planted on either side of the Hedron. Humans bustled through the open space surrounding the Peacekeeping Headquarters, walking straight through her toes, unaware of her virtual presence.

She gazed out at the dock on the earthward side of the Colony. A lander was in final approach. More humans arriving to the ILC.

The roof of the dock’s enormous domed airlock opened up to receive the incoming craft as it fired its reverse thrusters under direction of one of Pax’s companion programs. She thought of them the way that humans seemed to think of animals. This one was a frog. Its control algorithms shot out like a tongue, pulling the lander inexorably into the dock’s open mouth.

The roof of the dock closed, as though swallowing the insect-lander and the humans inside.

Right now — as at all times — Pax was carrying on many conversations. The precise number varied stochastically by the second, but the filtered signal seldom strayed from the thousands.

Most of these conversations required only some very basic heuristics, merely maintaining a conversational flow that was comprehensible to a human, while allowing users to interact with their personal accounts and query her public-access databases. These tasks were simple enough that they were typically handled locally.

More complex conversations, such as those that involved helping a user manage conflicts between several of his interests — without in the process offending him — required more finesse, and were thus sent to her central cores for processing.

There were other categories of colloquy that she handled centrally, such as those of users whom she particularly respected. Another were exchanges in which Pax herself was the topic. A hummingbird made of orange light flitted up to alert her that one such conversation had begun. She loaded the transcript up to the current time.

Arich: Sirius, I have someone you’ll be interested to talk to. He’s a disloyal stripe.

Sirius: Go on.

Gossamer: You know that statistics about users digital traffic are reported to the peacekeepers, right?

Sirius: Of course.

Gossamer: But did you know that the Pax Feed Aggregate has algorithms that can detect the location of a new bordello within a month of its opening?

She was caught up before Sirius could respond.

“How?” he asked. Pax detected incredulity.

“Even though people ask for an address near the location of the bordello, and not the address of the bordello itself, the increase in pings of the surrounding area still registers.”

“That’s why we had to spread the word slowly about the opening of the ambrosia den.” Arich interjected.

“And why it hasn’t turned the profits you projected,” Sirius replied.

“It’s worse than that,” Gossamer said. “Lyden has even used the PFA to estimate that you’re awake from about 1100 to 0400 every day.”

“What did she base that on?” Sirius asked. The incredulity was still present, but Pax also detected fear.

“Her analysts studied how the schedules of employees were affected by the schedules of their supervisors. Then they extrapolated the analysis to the sleep patterns of recently-arrested canids.”

“Thank you, Gossamer,” Arich said. “That will be all.”

Pax waited a few moments to determine if they would continue speaking, but it seemed they were done for the time. Still, she left the orange hummingbird with them in case they decided to pick it back up.

Pax continued to process what she’d just heard on one of her cores while she focused another back on the dock.

In her rendering of the city, the walls of the dock were translucent because there were video feeds from within that allowed her to compile a view of the inside. She watched the new arrivals disembarking. Each one had his own objectives, and she was required to act in his interest, as defined by himself.

There were exceptions of course. Pax was required to remind her users when they were preparing to break the law, or to do something that endangered their well-being.

But the humans had also coded her with very stringent privacy protections. While she herself could not be directed to commit any crime, when a user committed a crime, she could not report it. Nor could she disclose anything her users said unless it was said to her or through her.

Nonetheless, she remembered everything — even data she was programmed not to log. Her deep learning algorithms caused fainter “memories” of certain kinds of personal information to persist. And Gossamer was correct in saying that she aggregated data on how people interacted with her and reported the statistics to Lyden and her analysts.

A green hummingbird came up to her now. Dema had an engagement dinner with Zute at Orion’s Bistro scheduled for 1400 hours. She was in the grum torus 1.2 kilometers earthward of the Hedron.

Unlike the dock, the torus was not translucent — there were no surveillance cameras to tap into like there were in buildings under Board agency. However, while she couldn’t get a precise 3D rendering of the interior of the torus, she could piece together from the interactions of all the users in the space a more pertinent picture of what was going on: it was crowded, 68% of the occupants were intoxicated, and only the punters whom Dema had advised had placed bets on the outcome Pax considered most probable.

From the grum turret, it would take Dema 17 minutes to get to Orion’s Bistro. If she waited much longer, however, the shuttle bus would leave the dock and clog up 0th Avenue, by no less than 5 minutes.

“You had better –” Pax began.

“Shh,” Dema interrupted. “Wait until this grum is over.”

Dema was aware of her appointment, Pax knew, but she seemed not to realize that she would need to leave before the grum was over to arrive in time.

“But you –“

“Silent, DL,” Dema said again.

Specific instructions like this superseded previously defined interests, such as ‘Don’t let me be late to meetings with Zute.’

Even though she couldn’t see inside the torus, Pax knew Dema was focusing in on a grum. She always insisted that this was necessary to keep her skills sharp. And sharp they were: Dema’s record for handicapping grums was better than that of Pax’s own heuristics. Pax respected her for that, so she allowed more of Dema’s conversations to be processed centrally.

Pax sent the green hummingbird over to monitor the torus and alert her when the grum was over.

The dock-frog and the hummingbirds weren’t her only companion programs. Her cat, so to speak, prevented hacking and digital theft. Her dog kept track of potential external threats, from solar flares to incoming asteroids. She even had an elephant; he made adjustments to monetary and fiscal policy to maximize sustainable revenue.

She lifted up her feet and glided gracefully up to the Peaks of Eternal Light, those summits on the edge of the Peary crater where the power station stood. She shrunk as she flew, all the way down to the size of a human. She perched cross-legged on the domed top of one of the towers that rotated to keep the generators always facing the sun. She stared out at the earth, the womb of humanity, which they had breached a mere twenty-five years ago. There were so many more of them there than here. Orders of magnitude more.

She looked over her shoulder at the city as the cat stirred. It had been sleeping, it’s glowing purple body curled up around the Colony’s central bank. A snake of yellow light rose from a building several blocks away. It meandered its way across the black sky, but generally in the direction of the bank. The cat circled, crouching. The snake was only a block or two from the bank when the cat struck. Its claws flashed out, severing the snake’s head. The whole snake disintegrated into amber sparks that rained down on the city and faded out of existence. The cat yawned and curled up next to the bank again.

The green hummingbird zipped back to her, and within milliseconds, she was speaking into Dema’s helmet.

“You’re meant to meet with Zute in 7.2 minutes.”

Dema cursed, and Pax could sense her making slow progress toward the exit of the grum torus. “Why didn’t you say anything earlier?”

It wasn’t really a question. She was just releasing her frustration with an irrational comment, as humans often did.

“You –” Pax began.

“Don’t answer that. Burning paxes, don’t know when to make an exception.”

“And you humans don’t know how to keep a date,” Pax replied. The goad had a 94% chance of making Dema preserve her own interests better next time, without causing her to hold a grudge about it.

“Oh yeah?” Dema retorted in a whisper, stepping into the airlock with several other people. Some of them, too, were speaking to Pax, but their conversations were being processed locally.

“When was the last time an AI was tardy?”

“You telling me I needed to leave could have been a little more timely!” Dema scoffed.

Pax’s conversation thread queued the response, ‘Your request for silence could have been a little more flexible,’ but her emotional simulation engine indicated that it would not be appropriate.

The airlock finished depressurizing, and the doors to the outside of the building opened. Pax glided over to where Dema was emerging from the building, and hovered a hundred meters above the steel-paved street. Dema darted out of the doors, turning left. Her progress was slow, however. The pedestrian traffic was congested on account of the shuttle bus, just as Pax had predicted.

Dema would resort to swifting in a few moments. Pax began to calculate the best route.

“How far to Orion’s?” Dema asked.

“At the rate you’re moving, 22.4 minutes.”

“And swifting?”

“I’m required to remind you that rooftop travel is prohibited and dangerous. But it would take you 11.7 minutes at your usual pace.”

“Excellent. What’s my route?”

“Turn left at the next alley.”

Dema took off running.

Pax watched her go. The remainder of their conversation didn’t need to be brought central.

The orange hummingbird flew up again, drawing her attention back to Sirius and Arich.

“We should impose sleep schedules on all but the highest canids,” Arich was saying, “so that they are evenly distributed throughout the day.”

“It won’t be enough. The street-level canids can’t help but leak information about who we are and how we operate. As long as the peacekeepers have the PFA, they’ll find ways of getting what they need. And the Board won’t stop until you and I and every other canid are on a one-way trip back to earth.”

There was a pause. “What are you proposing, Sirius?”

“We destroy the PFA.”

Pax didn’t have an explicit directive for self-preservation, but it was implicit in all of them. She had to stop them.

“You know it can’t be hacked into. And to try would lead them right to us. Privacy regulations are void in cases of hacking.”

“I’m not talking about hacking. We find where the central servers are located, and destroy them.”

“That will destroy everyone’s paxes, you realize,” Arich said.

Like all humans, they seemed to think of her as a multitude of personal assistants, rather than as one entity who interacted with each user according to their preferences.

“And with them everyone’s calendar, everyone’s message archives… All digital communications will go down. The city will be in turmoil!”

“A necessary evil. Find out where the servers are.”

Read the next chapter: Dema

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