Cognitive Logic and the Mathematics of Influence: Free Fiction for Fyretober October 15, 2023

Myra felt the crush of déjà vu as she paced around her new office. It was more spacious and better furnished than her office aboard the Wotan-7 observation satellite had been, and the gravity was natural. There were subtle ways you could tell. But a cell is a cell is a cell.

And she was just as much a prisoner here as she’d been at Wotan-7. As soon as the Fleet ship had left the Wotan system, they had sped to this unidentified world, and Myra had entered PQR: Protective Quarantine Relocation. She was free to go anywhere and do anything, as long as she didn’t try to leave the relocation world and didn’t try to communicate with anyone on any other world.

And as long as she made her regular interviews with the Fleet debriefing team. She was avoiding the next one, but she wouldn’t be able to for long.

Then, as if on cue, her door chime sounded. Her eyes rolled to the ceiling, and she said, “Who’s there?”

The door AI answered, “Lieutenant Carstairs.”

“Tell the Lieutenant to go away.”

After a slight pause, the door answered, “The Lieutenant says he’s going to remain out there, and you can remain in here until you decide to be cooperative today.”

Just like every other day… “All right, let him in.”

The door slid open, and Lieutenant Carstairs entered. “Good afternoon, Doctor.”

“Maybe good for you, Lieutenant. You are not in lockup.”

“Oh, but I am.”

That made Myra raise a eyebrow. “You’re not in jail, you’re the jailer.”

Carstairs shook his head. “I was a witness to classified events, top security, just like you. I’m in OQR. Just like you.”

Myra looked at his uniform belt. “Not just like me. You have a gun.”

Carstairs nodded. “Like you, I am allowed to carry on my duties and otherwise do is I wish, as long as I do not leave PQ R. Those duties happen to include enforcing PQR.”

Myra filed this information away to contemplate later. It had never occurred to her that Carstairs might be as much trapped as she was. She felt some sympathy, but she still didn’t like him. He had too much of the officious prig about him. But in those rare moments when he let the man show through the uniform, she found him to be… agreeable.

“She swung by her desk, picked up her compact, flipped it open, and palmed it. Carstairs rolled his eyes. “Still?”

Myra nodded. “Always. I should think you’d be glad that somebody is looking out for the Tomb Builders.”

“There’s still virtually no evidence that these Tomb Builders even exist.”

Myra shrugged. “Virtually none means some, and you know it. No one but me saw the Tomb Builder in the mirror, and no one else heard it, but somebody got his message. Somebody higher up the command structure than you — and much farther away – issued the orders for us to evacuate the Wotan-7 station and leave the system just after I told you that was their instruction. Did anyone explain that?”

Carstairs scowled. “Command doesn’t have to explain their orders, I just have to follow them.”

They will walked out into the corridor, and Myra said, “You’re smarter than that, Carstairs! You’ve got a good brain, and you can’t just turn it off because they tell you to. Even if you’re not allowed to express them, you have opinions.”

Carstairs looked around knowingly. In a lower voice, he said, “Not out here I don’t.”

That surprised Myra for the second time that day. It was the first sign the Lieutenant had given that he might have his own opinion different from the Admiralty’s. She wanted to know more, but it was obvious that Carstairs wasn’t going to open up here.

Carstairs took the lead, but he need hardly have bothered. After three months of twice-weekly debriefings, Myra knew the way to Admiral Hull’s office by heart. If foot traffic weren’t heavy, she could go the whole way there without ever once taking both eyes off the mirror in her hand.

At Hull’s office doors, two Troopers stood at attention with shouldered arms, as if awaiting orders to attack. The third, a young woman with a serious face and short blonde hair said, “Doctor Collins.”

Myra smiled back. “Reporting to the old bore as ordered, Jennifer.”

Officer Kelly Goyer did not smile back, which only amused Myra further. She actually liked Kelly, found her to be a pleasant conversationalist while off duty at Vern’s Bar and Grill. Like many of the base personnel, she made the scientists feel at home. But on duty, they were all so serious! Myra couldn’t resist the urge to tweak them.

But then… “Sorry, Trooper Goyer.” Myra thought back on what she had just learned from Carstairs, and she realized that it had to be true of every single Trooper and officer on the base. If they were allowed to mix freely with the scientists, it was all but certain that they would hear some of the things that had doomed the scientists to PQR. Every one of the Troopers was a working prisoner here, too.

Jennifer did her usual DNA scan on Myra and on Carstairs. When the machine was satisfied, the big double doors swung open, and Myra and Carstairs walked through. As the door swung shut behind them, Myra wondered just how up how far up the chain the PQR orders ran. Was Hull himself a prisoner here?

Hull met them himself this time: a tall, fit man whose lined face made him look at least in his sixties, but whose fitness and bearing rivaled that of Carstairs. He wore his blue Fleet Admiral uniform without a crease out of place. Today he wore all his medals and decorations, a move which Myra had come to recognize: He planned to play hardball today.

Carstairs snapped a crisp salute. Myra was a civilian, so of course she didn’t bother. Hull looked at Carstairs and returned the salute. Then he gave Myra a carefully calibrated nod. “Doctor.”

“Admiral.” Myra nodded back. Without waiting for permission, she sat in one of the three guest chairs in the seating area between his desk and the doors.

As if not noticing her informality, Hull turned toward Carstairs and said, “Take a seat, Lieutenant.” Then he walked back and sat in the big chair behind his desk.

Myra nodded at the confirmation: It was going to be that way today. She was amused at Hull’s blatant efforts at symbolism and dominance psychology. When he wore the ribbons and sat behind the big desk, he was in charge. He had orders, and you are expected to follow them. When he wore only the basic uniform and sat in the third guest chair, he was your buddy, asking for your help. The game was so obvious, but it was his game to play. Myra didn’t have to play along. He had no authority to make her come for these debriefings at all.

But Admiral Maxwell Hull decided who left the relocation world and who didn’t. If she wanted to leave, it behooved her not to cross him. She would play along with his games. It wasn’t like she had anything else to do.

And in a way, this was her job, just in a different place for different employers. She was an archaeologist and a cultural analyst by trade, and Hull wanted her to analyze cultures, looking for any evidence of Tomb Builder influence on Coalition Space.

So Myra was inclined to cooperate, but only her way. She sat in the chair and spun around slowly, looking in the mirror as she spun. Once she had swept the room and found it free of Tomb Builders, she said, “What would you like to discuss, Admiral?”

Hull sighed. “Doctor, we don’t have time for your little games. I need your analysis of Lanning’s World. Your team’s had the file for fourteen days, what can you tell me?

Myra laughed. “Fourteen days? To go over the reports from over a hundred observers? The only thing more laughable than that is the idea that a hundred observers are enough to analyze an entire culture, after observing for only a month.”

“We’ve given you the information we have, Doctor,” Hull said. “What is your analysis?”

“My analysis is that you haven’t given me everything you have. You haven’t us even told me why, out of the three 327 worlds in the Coalition, you chose Lanning’s World for analysis. There’s some explaining factor behind your choice, and you’re tying my hands by not giving it to me. You’re asking me if this haystack has a needle, but you’re not asking me about the five haystacks next to it. That has to make me wonder what’s special about this haystack.”

“That’s need to –”

“Bullshit, Admiral. You live in a world of compartmentalized information, but that’s not how I was trained to work. In science, the more everyone knows and the faster they know it, the better answers they can give you.”

Hull shook his head. “If I might borrow a phrase of sentence from you, Doctor: bullshit. Academics jealously hoard their primacy on their discoveries. Their concern is for science, yes, but even more for their own careers.” Before Myra could object, he added, “Well, I’ve got concerns far bigger than any career. I’ve got the security of the Coalition to keep me up at night.”

Myra sighed. She had heard the sort of argument before. She even understood it, in theory. In practice, since Wotan-7, there were… observers out there whose intentions weren’t known. Giving them knowledge opened you up, made you vulnerable. She understood Hull’s concerns.

But Myra wasn’t one of them! She wasn’t even in contact with them. The Admiralty security only kept her from carrying out the man’s orders. It made no sense.

Or did it? Hull seemed like a sensible man, with long experience. He could be just professionally paranoid; but Myra considered the possibility that he knew of risks that she didn’t…

As Myra presented a summary of her team’s cultural analysis of Lanning’s World – incomplete as that analysis was – she surreptitiously snapped glances in her mirror at random times throughout the conversation. Maybe Hull’s paranoia was contagious; but more than ever, she had the feeling that Tomb Builders were watching.

After that, Myra gave herself a new assignment, one she never recorded in any file, not even writing by hand. She relied only on her own memory, which she knew to be fallible, but she trusted it more than she trusted anyone around. It was the one place she didn’t think anyone could watch.

Myra began a cultural analysis of the relocation world: the scientists isolated there, as well as the Troopers and officers who guarded them. Plus the civilian support personnel who ran the base facilities, like Vern. The total were more than enough personnel to form a dynamic, thriving culture subject to limited cultural analysis; and that was Myra’s specialty. Her expertise was in finding the factors and beliefs, both implicit and explicit, that shaped group behavior within a culture. That behavior might not be predictable, but it could be analyzed after the fact. The factors left imprints, echoes, much like you could find a dark star by the influence of its gravitation upon its neighbors. When you saw the influence, you could work backwards to explore the source.

It was an insanely complicated field of study, which is exactly what appealed to Myra about it. It was a constant challenge within a new discipline, with new theories, new discoveries, and hot debates at every conference.

And damn it! Myra was cut off from all of that thanks to PQR. Oh, Hull got her all the conference proceedings, but she didn’t get to participate! The new field was forgetting her before she even had a proper chance to make a contribution. And what contributions she could make from all of these amazing phenomena she had observed.

A proper cultural analysis required years, even decades of observation of a living culture like Lanning’s World. Longer if you worked only from the archaeological record. With a larger population, the analysis could be more thorough.

On the relocation world, Myra had only a few weeks, and only a couple thousand population to study. The math was less precise. But Myra  was part of that population, allowing closer observation than usual. And she had determination. She had to know.

And she had some tricks that weren’t common practice. These had made up her graduate thesis, based on an obscure research paper from the 21st-century logician Tucker Hudson: “Cognitive Logic and the Mathematics of Influence.” Hudson was mostly forgotten now, but he had done some really groundbreaking work on how cognitive science could be filtered through meta logic to actually measure the perception of the masses: what they noticed and what they ignored. He foresaw how mathematics might even influence what the public saw, and also predict and correct it. His proofs and mathematics had provided her a set of shortcuts in cultural analysis. Since his methods weren’t commonly accepted (and arguably untested), she always had to verify her results with traditional cultural analytical tools. But never once had she found a case where Hudson’s results didn’t prove out.

The process was slow. It took exacting mathematics, including reference data that she couldn’t just ask for on the interstellar web, because she wasn’t allowed on the interstellar web. Any reference data she wanted, she had to request from Admiral Hull, who would decide whether to send out a request for redacted data, or to just tell her no. The more she asked, the more he went with No.

But the PQR project did have a fairly large reference library of its own. It was horribly out of date – the Fleet didn’t seem to make updates a priority – but she had nothing better to do while she waited than to scour the collections for useful tools and data.

That was how she found an archive preprint of Tucker Hudson’s original manuscript – a preprint that included an entire second part that had been stripped before Hudson had published. And that second part…

It took a week just for Myra to understand what was in the second part of the document. It took three for her to start to grasp the mathematics. It took five more to turn it into a plan.

The thesis was quite simply astonishing, but useful as hell if it proved true. Hudson started with a thought experiment about a hypothetical toolset for not just analyzing influence, but for actually creating it – the breakthrough he had only hinted at in his final manuscript. Through psychological and sociological tools, Hudson’s mathematics said that a practitioner could influence what a population group noticed.

And what they didn’t.

Myra got a chill down her spine. If Hudson was right, these were the mathematical principles by which the Tomb Builders could pass unnoticed within a population. Hudson’s results did not predict anything like the extent of what she had observed, but it was the beginning. Maybe the Tomb Builders had discovered these principles and then advanced them over thousands of years.

Myra’s first experiment was self-referential to a degree that Tucker Hudson would’ve found amusing: the first incident she chose to obscure was the existence of her research into the mathematics of influence. This was a small target, and she only had to conceal it from a small population: her team, her Fleet escorts, Carstairs, and Hull. It took two weeks for her to create the social environment to hide the her research before she was ready to test.

Once again they stood outside Hull’s office as Goyer ran the DNA scan and let them in. Not one of the Troopers had noticed that Myra carried an old-fashioned plastic folio file. And when the meeting started – Hull was in a good mood this time, and the three of them sat in the guest chairs around the low coffee table – she threw the folio down on the table. The two officers never noticed.

Of course she didn’t leave the folio there. She was still learning so much about the mathematics of influence, and she was unsure how long something could go unnoticed. It gave her a smug sense of satisfaction that she understood Tomb Builder knowledge to a small degree, but she couldn’t hide one thing from herself: She was at the very beginning of a long study, and she shouldn’t get ahead of herself.

But now she could study more freely. She learned to ask questions in such a way that no one would make the connections between the answers, and no one could figure out the larger context of what she asked. With the right questions, Hull revealed that there were serious concerns about possible Tomb Builder infiltration on Lanning’s World. She had guessed as such from the start, of course, or else why would Hull have her studying the place? But now she was certain. From answers that Hull gave, as well as from information gleaned from interviewing other officers and civilian staff, she was sure that the Admiralty knew that Lanning’s World had been penetrated, but were at a loss about what to do about it.

And after another week of questioning – Hull still thought that he was questioning her, but Myra was the inquisitor now – she realized something that even Hull didn’t know. Maybe the Admiralty didn’t know it, at least not consciously. Lanning’s World was a juncture of three different trading routes, all leading back to Earth. It was possible that Earth itself was the Tomb Builders’ ultimate target.

But Myra knew she couldn’t answer that question from the relocation world. And she couldn’t answer through proxies. She needed to get back to Lanning’s World. The safety of humanity might depend upon it.

Of course, relocation world wasn’t completely isolated. They simply were not equipped to feed all of the personnel there. Other facilities were limited as well. The world needed resupply ships, as well as couriers to provide secure communications to and from Hull and his staff. Hull maintained high security on these arrivals and departures. Their dates, times, and vessels were among the highest secrets on the relocation world.

So it took nearly a day and a half for Myra to work out the schedule of the next ship, to conceal herself among the stevedores, and to work her way aboard the cargo transport.

Myra worried a bit that she was becoming arrogant in her use of influence. She was walking a tight rope without a net, a fall seemed inevitable. And she worried that there was a thrill there, almost an addiction. The longer she got away with influence, the more radical her schemes became. Stowing away aboard the cargo ship was an insane chance.

And she couldn’t resist taking it.

While the ship’s quartermaster’s back was turned, she scanned the ship’s manifest and the storage charts. She found a secure place where a passenger could hide and scrounge food from ship’s stores without anyone noticing.

She felt positively naked as she walked around the ship, learning and adding to her plan, with no one ever quite looking at her. She had the urge to jump in front of an officer, wave her arms, and scream “Oogie boogie!” just because she wondered what would happen if she did.

But she restrained herself – barely – and found her way back to a small supply closet where she would spend the trip to Lanning’s World. (She picked that up from the ships records, too. Up until then, she hadn’t known the ship’s destination.) She keyed in the access code she had stolen from the quartermaster, let herself in, and sealed the door. Then she pulled clothes from a shelf, arranged them into a passable mattress, and lay down for the trip.

Then she waited.

It was less than thirty minutes before departure when Myra’s heart leaped into her throat at the sound of the supply closet door opening. She tried to think through the mathematics to go unnoticed in a small compartment where nothing was supposed to be. Her mastery of the mathematics of influence was still rudimentary. When something or someone was in a place where nothing where there was nothing else to distract an observer, she didn’t know if the mathematics would work. But she thought through the equations anyway, concentrating and hoping.

When the closet door opened, Lieutenant Carstairs came in. He looked around, sat down on the deck plates, and looked in her general direction. He said, “I’m pretty sick of this place, and you’re going to need some help on Lanning’s World. I’m sure you’re here, even if you’re hard to make out.”

In a soft voice, Myra asked, “How did you know?”

Carstairs smiled in the direction of her voice. “I think you should know: I always notice you.”

The good folks at Fyrecon have declared this to be Fyretober: a month of creative prompts, encouraging writers, poets, and artists to share their explorations. Today’s prompt: Lorekeeper’s Mask. If you squint just right, you can see the outlines of the prompt in this story.

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