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Oct 27, 2020 5:39 PM
Meanwhile, back at the ranch,
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Korin 220 isn't sure enough to interrupt Visser Three but she's worried enough to put it in his morning briefing.

 

> Unusual sensor readings in Alaska on three occasions over the last two weeks, consistent with shielded in-atmosphere transit. If it is enemy traffic they've improved their shields since last observation on Leera. Trajectory has at no point been reliably pinpointed. 

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Obviously Mhalir-4376 is not going to ignore it, even though it's, at the moment, pretty unclear what to do about it. He can afford to take some time and think about it, though.

What does it mean? Or, rather, what are the possible things it could mean, it's far from enough information to narrow down to a single world. 

Either Andalites, or false alarms (not that unlikely, sensors throw false alarms regularly, though three of them is less likely...) Or - some third option, that he isn't seeing yet. Another species, with better technology, stepping into the war? Not impossible. 

Improved shielding. This - isn't very surprising at all, both sides are improving their technology, it doesn't do much to decrease the likelihood that this is the Enemy. 

Nothing spotted in space, though. That...makes it less likely to be Andalites, and more likely to be either false alarms or - unknown unknowns, the blind spot he can't even locate. It's not impossible an Andalite ship could have jumped here and slipped past the perimeter, but he's been on alert for that. 

If it is the Enemy, then... Three shielded transits, in two weeks, in a remote state. No interference with any of his operations, at least not yet. Not an attack in force. They would absolutely be frontally attacking if they could, so...what does that mean... Limited resources, maybe. And a subtler Andalite mind in command than what he's seen before. 

Mhalir-4376 thinks it through for some time, in bits and pieces in between other responsibilities and then in a longer block, with the lightning-quick ease of an Andalite's mind. (And tries, as always, not exactly to ignore Alloran's misery but to accept it as reality, not indicative of any error.) 

...

Later that day he goes back to one of his lieutenants. <We have no presence on the ground in Alaska as of yet, correct?>

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Her host is a human in the American military; her last host was Gedd, and she keeps running her hands through her own hair though she's otherwise been very focused on her tasks. "We do not. It's sixteen hundred miles from the nearest pool, and without good transportation infrastructure. Most of it won't be worth taking even when we can act openly, not until we build some trains."

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<No, it is not really feasible> Absent swish of his - Alloran's - tail. <I would like us to increase the sensor coverage of that area as much as possible, without any visible signs that an Andalite presence would detect. If any other traces are sensed, I want shuttles with cloaking and people ready to move instantly, so that we can attempt to narrow it down further, but in the meantime, their sensors may also have improved.> 

He paces, still thinking. If he were an Andalite commander hiding in Alaska, as far as he knew unnoticed but operating on a shoestring, what would he do? Look for Yeerk presence, probably, once he had his bearings and any idea of where to start - and the city they've taken the most thoroughly is the most obvious candidate, really. 

<...I want us to begin collecting data on all new rentals of houses and apartments in Washington DC in the past two weeks, and their inhabitants' background. We are looking for people who arrived suddenly and whose official existence and paper trail seems to begin in the last month. The Andalites can certainly hack the human computers but I do not think they would bother to fake high school report card records in another state> 

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"Yes, Visser." She frowns. Doesn't ask whether he thinks they're really here, because it's kind of a stupid question. Gets to work on that. 

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Visser 3 does not, in fact, think it's very likely. He's placing maybe one in ten odds, right now. But - the world where the Andalites arrive on Earth before they have control, is the one where they might lose. If they beat those odds, if they make it through the next year and meet all the planned targets, Mhalir-4376 thinks that it's only a matter of time. They won't win yet but, give it ten years... 

But it's not that guaranteed, yet, and so it's worth throwing some resources even at a low chance of a small Andalite presence. And, well, it's not a bad thing to keep his people paying attention and focused. Remind them that they aren't safe, here, not yet, not until they make it that way by their own efforts.

There's no point in turning it over any more without further data, though, so after pacing for another minute, he puts it out of his mind. 

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It is a substantial endeavor but controlling most of the U.S. federal government and having the ability to secure additional hosts as needed makes it much less complicated. As does the phrase 'it's a national security matter'. It's true. It is a national security matter. She's looking for signs of an alien invasion.

'Rented a house in the D.C. metro area, no high school or college graduation records' turns up way too many false positives from people whose records presumably just haven't been digitized, this world is new to computing. 'Rented a house in the D.C. metro area, no credit report two weeks ago' is more promising, but the Andalites (if there are Andalites, and there probably aren't) were more careful than that. She has the idea of stopping by the headquarters of the TransUnion credit bureau to see if they keep physical backups that are a month old, which they could then re-digitize and cross-check with the credit bureau's more hackable databases' beliefs about what its records said a month ago, but they're in Illinois. She can ask Visser 3 about it if they turn up anything else concerning. Or promising. 

What else might the Andalites have been doing. They would've needed - ID cards, they could print those... bank accounts - she checks that too, but is unsurprised to find that they didn't commit incredibly obvious to the first Yeerk to look bank fraud... 

...references...

...rented a house in the D.C. metro area in the last month, listed references from Alaska? That's way more hassle to check than just pulling the records of all credit checks made for a lease, but it's possible, she can set some people on it. And if any of those don't have high school or college graduation records, or mentions in their local paper, or relatives - well, it'd be enough to bring Visser 3, at least.

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There are three rentals with Alaska phone numbers included among the references - and that were findable by their search, there could be under-the-table subletting that the records won't catch, but that seems less likely what newly arrived aliens would go for. 

One of them also has a DC metro area reference listed as their sister. Another is findable in digitized Alaska records. The third has neither. 

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She shivers. It's probably either nothing or some Andalites who'll be easily killed or captured.

It makes it into Visser 3's morning briefing. 

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Checking TransUnion's physical records is a good idea, they should do that. And keep the house in question under discreet surveillance. With cameras from a distance, not by stationing people nearby who the Andalites could notice. (They might also notice new cameras, of course, but it's subtler and less likely to put his people at risk.) 

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They dispatch some people to Illinois to pull TransUnion's physical records out of storage by saying 'national security' over and over very insistently. They install some cameras.

 

The man spends lots of his time in his car. Sometimes he gets groceries. Most of his activities do not merit Visser 3's notice, at least not until the records are retrieved and digitized and answer the question of whether there was Andalite interference here, but they do note the first time they are definitely able to observe him for two hours continuously and they are all spent in human form. 


Probably this is nothing and once they have the records digitized they'll feel very silly.

 

They have the records digitized and do not feel very silly. A hundred twenty names and credit records do not match. His is one of them.

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Well. Something is definitely odd here, whether it's Andalites or not. 

Visser 3 wants them to keep watching the man. And to follow up more on the references he gave - how recently did they pop into existence? Do they, too, lack a paper trail? 

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The man keeps driving around town. They think he might be following suspected Yeerks but they don't know how he would've known who to suspect - maybe he just reasonably assumed most key people in Washington would be, by now. On at least one occasion he's driven to the street block where the pool entrance is, but then kept driving. 

If he's reporting to anyone, he's not using human technology to do it. 

They track his financial history. His bank account, which the human computers think is five years old, gets regular, generous paychecks from a bank account registered to an address in New Mexico. The bank account registered to an address in New Mexico has no other activity in the last month, though it is itself eight years old and has eight plausible-looking years of transaction history,. It claims to have been sending him paychecks for three years.


The references are from phone numbers registered recently. A claimed previous landlord in Anchorage, a claimed previous roommate in Juneau. Named Matt Smith and Jennifer Anderson.

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Visser 3 wants those names checked against all digitized records, and in particular he wants them checked against the list they now have from TransUnion. Either some local humans hacked the credit bureau or they're very bad at records or have internal corruption (not...impossible...given what he now knows of Earth humans), or someone is present on Earth with very good computer tech.

There isn't a Yeerk pool in the area but there are standard domestic flights that fly to Anchorage regularly. One of their agents can easily get there and back inside of three days.

Mhalir-4376 is concerned that the Andalites - if it's Andalites, if any of this is more than random chance - do have a way of locating Yeerks. Portable brain scanners? He's not sure but for planning purposes, he should assume that they potentially could catch a Yeerk agent in Anchorage even if they fly in and out and never do anything suspicious on their trip. So, minimize the exposure. 

Can they get into any security camera footage records in Anchorage, without going there in person? Presumably not of the house where the 'landlord' lives, but if they have a driver's license then they have a photo, and nearby convenience stores' cameras might have seen them. The idea isn't to actually catch them doing Andalite things on surveillance, just to get a sense of their movements, and of which locals have interacted with them. 

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The ATM machines will have security footage and they can match it up with the timelines for specific transactions from suspect bank accounts, but that footage and convenience store footage is not online; they'd probably have to send someone to get it. They could send a non-Yeerked human from the FBI or NSA, with instructions to retrieve the security footage and bring it back to Washington.

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Visser 3 approves. He suggests a cover story about an ongoing investigation into a suspected crime ring, just in case the maybe-Andalites have left microphones around at places they frequent. This is probably an absurd excess of caution, but better that than the opposite, and it took him two minutes to come up with said cover story so it's not exactly a costly expenditure of resources. Also this way doesn't risk trapping a Yeerk out of reach of a pool, though really an absurd number of things would have to go wrong to lead to that. 

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The agent is fed the cover story and sent off to pick up surveillance footage. 

 

The agent comes back with surveillance footage. Some of the ATMs and convenience stores don't hold onto it for very long, but some hold onto it for long enough. The people making the suspect transactions are human-looking. They seem awfully baffled about ATMs. They move in groups and do not as far as the footage shows speak aloud to one another.

They put together a highlights reel for Visser 3. The oldest available recording associated with one of the bank accounts flagged through the comparison of TransUnion backups is a month-old video of four people entering a bank. One of them speaks. The teller asks for his account number and password. The man gives an account name. Gives '54W23Q1886WZA4' as his password. 

 

(Alloran has Feelings, and then tries very hard not to.)

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Visser 3 watches it a few times in a row and then paces, and thinks. 

This has now risen from the level of 'probably nothing but worth training the right habits anyway' to 'definitely suspect'. It's confusing that the human in Washington is definitely not an Andalite in morph, but - well, he could be someone they hired locally, that would be the clever thing to do. Or - he could be a deliberate nothlit, in order to evade suspicion if he were ever surveilled. Which would be very ruthless and not quite in character for Andalite command, but it's what Mhalir-4376 would consider doing. 

And, right now, he doesn't think the possible Andalites have any way of knowing they're being watched. 

What's the least costly next step, here, in terms of revealing his hand? 

He asks them to watch the ATM and convenience store or public buildings footage again. This time for bystanders incidentally visible in the background, for example because they were waiting for the same ATM or loitering in a convenience store. Make a list of locals who've happened to be nearby the suspects the most, and see if they can cross-check identity information via the ATM transaction records or other human databases. 

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This takes a very long time because the image quality is atrocious, this civilization has invented better cameras but storage is expensive enough to be a real constraint and they tend to store very low-resolution images. And Alaska hasn't fully digitized its drivers license records and in most cities they're not online even if they're digital and a lot of people are without legal records of any kind for innocent (or at least alien-unrelated) reasons But they can set a lot of people on it, focusing on people who appear in the background of multiple videos, and painstakingly assemble a list of faces that are probably either worn by Andalites or belonging to their allies.

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Hmm. It's a useful list, it lets him put people on monitoring all of those people's interactions with computerized systems they can watch from here, but it's not enough to guess at what they're doing. 

There is, unsurprisingly, no security camera that happens to look directly at the house and its driveway. There is, according to the maps, a pawn shop across the street. Probably they can either send another FBI agent, or make a request to the local police department, and have a security camera put there to watch suspected criminal deals their lead says are happening out front at night, and a camera placed to cover the door and sideway will happen to catch images of the house and its driveway. Hopefully without that fact being at all notable to the Andalites, though this is taking more of a risk if they're bugging everything nearby. 

...What he wants next, Visser 3 decides, is to get someone from Anchorage and slip a Yeerk into their head, but - temporarily, and without causing suspicion. There are a few different storefronts and restaurants near the house being rented, and they have employees. It's very possible said employees are local allies, but - the Andalites are likely somewhat picky about that, try to only recruit trustworthy humans and such. Can he get a list of store employees from the establishments, and then narrow it down to people who are in debt or have very bad credit scores? (Since they have those records anyway...) 

Once they have that, he would like to call one of them up and offer them an all-expenses-paid vacation to a tourist destination near DC, which they "won" by [pick something related to a car they've purchased or something.] This is a thing human companies do sometimes for advertising, for some reason, and a human without a lot of money in a dead-end job will be less likely to question it. 

If they get any takers, they can book them a flight and make plans. The humans on Earth have drugs used for surgeries that reliably cause amnesia. A Yeerk can still get information from a human brain if they're under sedation, as long as they're not totally out. They can stage an 'accident', or maybe just have the lucky winner be very drunk first, by including a free bar with their vacation. And then, even if they are reporting to the Andalites, he can send them back afterward without much grounds for suspicion. (And maybe bug them, at that point, with Yeerk recording equipment which is much harder to detect, but he'll need to decide whether to risk that.) 

It's roundabout and not the best way of getting information, and it's a bigger expenditure of resources, but it hopefully won't give his investigation away. 

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Some humans in Anchorage are offered all-expenses paid trips to DC, and several of them delightedly accept. Yeerks get busy arranging sightseeing and bar nights. 

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Visser 3 will do this himself, he decides. He trusts himself the most, to know what to look for, and he doesn't even need to leave Alloran's body for it. Alloran now has a Yeerk morph, and doing it that way lets Mhalir-4376 retain better and more accessible recall of everything he gleans from a brain, since he has access to Alloran's as well. 

(Alloran hates this so much.) 

Visser 3 focuses mostly on other work while everything is being arranged, it's not helpful for him to hover and it makes his personnel stressed, but it's on his mind a great deal and he checks back frequently to review if there's anything new. 

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Tracing the other identifies inserted into the TransUnion records, they are fairly confident there were also apartments rented recently (using the same contacts in Alaska, or using one another as contacts) in New York and Boston and Miami and Dallas and Houston and San Antonio and Chicago and Los Angeles and San Francisco and Seattle and Portland and Denver. 

 

They fly in the lucky contest winners and take them on a whirlwind tour of the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Monument and the Smithsonian and the Capitol and then out for drinks, which are maybe a bit more alcoholic than advertised. They supplement the drunkenness with drugs. They restrain the sleeping contest winners in a nearby government building. 

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He has a doctor on hand to make sure the humans are medically stable, it's important they be sent home alive. They'll wake up the next morning with nasty hangovers and apologetic guides. 

He morphs Alloran's body into a different Yeerk. Slips into one of their ears, spreads himself out, reaches into their memories. 

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His name is Walter Kennis and he's thirty-one and moved to Anchorage out of high school, there was nothing in his hometown worth staying for especially not his mother, an angry drunk, and his father, who never argued with her, and he tried a semester of college but dropped out because he wasn't any good at it and two years ago he optimistically tried to start his own business as a mechanic, but it went under and left him ten thousand dollars in debt, which he should file for bankruptcy about but he doesn't know how, and is kind of hoping it happens automatically if you just don't have any money for long enough.

He works retail. He knows the faces that Visser 3 is searching for, they come into the store sometimes. Their tastes are eclectic. Sometimes they get fourteen cans of salsa and nothing else. They pay with a credit card. The one time they were buying alcohol and he asked for ID the guy dug it out of his backpack and it was an Iowa or Indiana ID, he doesn't remember, something like that. 

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Visser 3 goes in deeper on just the memories of those faces. And of the house nearby across the street, and any occasion that Walter Kennis has glanced over there while on shift, and anything at all notable that's happened. Yeerks are pretty good at digging up memory-traces even of things that a human wasn't paying that much attention to, and Visser 3 especially so. 

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