Monday, December 27, 2010

Shapes Shifted

Scorpius 15-17, m0039

And, yet again, things turn quiet for a while for the team, as diplomatic activity continues frenziedly behind the scenes.The E.U., however, can afford to stand back, look politely neutral - and work out how to exploit its new knowledge of the identity of a couple of great power agents and a US Air Force orbital weapons platform. Lipinski is politely persuaded to play along with all this, while the insurance company eventually accepts the evidence filed by the team and re-instantiates Prof. Zajdel - in various artificial environments and rented cybershells at first, as her explorer-research shell is a bespoke model and getting a new one built will take a few days.

Scorpius 18, m0039

Indeed, this is what leads to the next interesting call on the team's time, as late one morning, the embassy's NAIs inform Jianwei that they have a report that may be of interest; it looks like a routine commercial dispute, but the name attached has links to himself.

It is indeed Prof. Zajdel, who is happy to speak to Jianwei - she's only had brief conversations with him before now, and she's politely grateful for his part in sorting out what happened to her recently. However, this call is about business. She has in fact recently visited Port Lowell, and rented a cybershell for the purpose - a standard-model polypede. Her visit ended a few hours since, and she returned the cybershell to the rental company office. However, a little later, her AI aide reported that the company, Cruz & Cruzcampo Shell Hire, was continuing to bill her account for the rental; its systems insist that it hasn't been returned.

There's obviously an anomaly here, and a curious one - management systems are usually more reliable than this - so Jianwei calls up the other two team members, and they decide that a personal visit to Cruz & Cruzcampo would be indicated. Florence extracts herself from the dojo where she's keeping her martial arts training honed, and goes home to change, while Vajra simply disconnects from the Web work that he's performing. They all meet up a couple of blocks from the hire company office, and approach the place together. It's essentially a warehouse-garage with a small front office, and a group including two biomorphs showing up in person causes the management systems to escalate matters promptly to their human manager, who is polite but insistent - despite what Zajdel's logs may say, their records show no sign of the polypede being returned.

The team get in touch with Zajdel, and she authorises the hire company to activate the polypede's transponder - something covered by the hire contract's privacy clauses. However, the attempt doesn't actually work; whatever is running the cybershell currently is evidently exploiting its built-in privacy controls. The Cruz & Cruzcampo manager admits to being a little concerned at all this, and pulls some imagery off the building cameras, which does indeed show the polypede arriving when Zajdel claims to have returned it - and leaving very soon afterwards. It's a modular, reconfigurable, multi-purpose unit, but it appears to be using its standard mobile configuration - basically, that of a large spider. Attempts to pull more relevant data off the company systems run into problems, however; privacy laws and agreements can be a nuisance sometimes.

So the team wonder how to track the unit. It's not an unusual design - a rugged multi-purpose industrial model, but that sort of thing is not overly rare on Mars - but it does have a moderately distinctive finish. (Florence comments that Prof. Zajdel seems to have a taste for heavy-duty shells; the others point out that she is a geologist.) The team dives into the Web.

They make an inspired guess and go looking for hobbyist bot-spotters. Yes, the breed exists, and it soon becomes clear that there is some serious snobbery about the difference between personal observation and mere NAI-monitored camera logging. Aunty fails to locate many of their Web sites, though. Meanwhile, Dougal has been searching through recent MarsTube posts, but not finding anything relevant here; it doesn't seem that the polypede can have been doing anything very odd in public. So he takes over Aunty's search, and tracks down the hobbyist discussions, then hands the addresses off to Jianwei. Jianwei in turn assesses the memetics of this subculture, and begins posting as a new enthusiast.

And Vajra has been working through a list of E.U.-owned businesses in this neighbourhood, politely requesting recordings from their external security cameras. Collating these, he's able to track the polypede as it made its way through the industrial-commercial quarter of Port Lowell - up until a point when it simply stops showing up, an hour or so ago. The team heads for the area where it was last observed. As they go, Jianwei's probing around the bot-spotter sites, with careful mentions of an "interesting polypede" dropped as bait, elicits more imagery. Once they are in the right area, the team are able to narrow their tracking efforts down to one building - a warehouse and shipping centre owned by a company called Thorium Logistics.

Thorium are in the industrial equipment supply business; essentially, they hold stocks of assorted industrial components for purchase by local users who discover more or less urgent needs. Thus, their building has a front office open to personal visits - a sales counter, in fact.

First, Jianwei talks to the NAI on the door, which quickly decides that there is some kind of issue here ("stolen property?") beyond its authority, and escalates matters to a human supervisor. Meanwhile, Vajra probes local Web space, looking for a ping response from the polypede; he gets a brief response, but a moment later, that address no longer shows any reaction. He decides that they are closing in on their search subject, and heads round the back of the Thorium building to monitor the fire exit door there, while putting a swarm of observation microbots into the air.

The Thorium management become uncomfortable when confronted with Jianwei's questions and Vajra's Web traffic logs, which seem to indicate some kind of anomaly in their building management systems, and shift the problem over to a legal advisor, one Joseph Kwak. Jianwei explains the situation yet again, and persuades Kwak to get Thorium to let himself and Florence into the building. As they glance around, Aunty analyses the imagery that she's getting off Jianwei's optic nerve, and identifies a relevant anomaly, which she highlights obligingly in Jianwei's vision. It appears that the polypede has got into the depths of the warehouse, reconfigured itself into work arm configuration and locked onto one of the shelving units, and is accumulating a small stack of shipping boxes and modules.

Jianwei relays this instantly to Kwak, who swears audibly and relays the problem to the Thorium management team. Their technical advisor instantly sets the warehouse management systems to restart themselves, and the polypede appears to notice that; it detaches itself from the shelving unit and begins shifting into its spider configuration.

Jianwei and Florence decide that things are turning dangerous. Jianwei backs rapidly out of the building while Florence drops down below the level of the counter, draws her pistol, and begins taking careful aim. She's determined enough about the polypede design to realise that, unfortunately, the sort of ammunition she can employ legally in this area won't penetrate its outer casing - but that its camera systems aren't especially protected.

The polypede rushes for the counter (and the doorway beyond), and Florence lets it come quite close; she's only going to get one chance here, after all. Then she opens fire. Her Felicia precision and trained skill serves her well, as one of her first three bullets slams through one of the polypede's camera lenses, and two more go into the other. The cybershell careens into the other side of the counter, and Florence vaults over it and lands on the polypede's back - but this second part of her plan proves superfluous, as her fire has taken out one of the modular machine's local processing nodes - the one assigned to sensory processing - and it has shut down completely.

Her two team-mates cautiously enter the building, as other observers appear on the scene - including a dirigible flying camera which, it turns out, is being teleoperated by "DD", who is evidently continuing to watch the team's career with interest. Vajra carefully links his own shell up to the damaged polypede, and manages to gain access to some of its memory stores; actually, a non-sentient process in one of its subsidiary processors makes a rather crude attempt to copy and run an executable process to his systems. His firewalls block that with trivial ease, and he takes a copy of the program.

At about this time, more cybershells show up; Marshall Kirkowicz is responding to reports of gunfire, and for that matter suggestions of some kind of rogue AI, and her remote cybershells are quickly on the scene. She's feeling a little jaundiced today, and she's also alert enough to note that Vajra has been interfacing with the disabled cybershell; she instantly warns him to be careful with the data copies that she guesses he's acquired. Then, as she acquires more information on the likely nature of the problem from somewhere, she becomes increasingly terse and firm on the topic; in the end, Vajra and Jianwei undertake to retain only encrypted copies of the data, in secured storage.

In fact, the nature of this incident becomes clear over the next few hours, as everyone talks to everyone else and some people insist on openness. It appears that this problem originated in the Belt, where an enterprise called Skyward Mining attempted to develop a Von Neumann-style mining system - a set of modules with self-replicating capability. Unfortunately, they neglected to include enough safety interlocks into the code, and the design went rogue. It's not actively malicious, and the software involved is non-sapient, although that in itself might make it more dangerous in some circumstances; it simply seeks to replicate itself at every opportunity. Unfortunately, it was designed to interface with Thorium Logistics inventory and shipping systems, and it still seems to have extensive backdoor access to that software. The polypede was, it turns out, rented for short-term use by Skyward before their problems were detected and their R&D site in the Belt was sterilised, and the rogue code managed to secrete itself in one of the thing's modular, distributed control system modules. Prof. Zajdel returning the thing happened to give it the chance to boot itself into a control module, and it set to work trying to build more mining complexes on Mars.

This isn't, so far as anyone can tell, a major threat to life and limb - more of a nuisance, and enough of an embarrassment to a lot of people that they've gone to the trouble of keeping it relatively quiet. Well, talk of rogue self-replicating AIs does tend to get humans all nervous and panicky...

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Political Analysis

Scorpius 14, m0039, continued

Their assailant has chosen his ground well; the trio are in a steep-sided gully, and would have to make ten or fifteen feet of height to get out of it and clear of the rocks, while there are few buttresses or projections to screen them. Florence, who is in the lead, decides on a simple solution; she takes a run straight at the oncoming rocks, then jumps, passing clear over them. The other two, lacking her training, opt to move more laterally; Jianwei jumps well up the side wall of the gully, but then finds himself hanging on by his fingertips, while Vajra finds himself falling back into the path of the rocks.

Florence makes a graceful landing despite the very uneven ground as Jianwei clambers laboriously onto a more level spot and Vajra's cybershell suffers a bruising impact from the first, smallest oncoming rocks. Florence charges the attacker, and is pleased not to find herself facing any kind of weapons fire; Jianwei twists around to watch, but can't do much else; Vajra scrabbles aside from the rockfall and begins desperately scrambling up the side of the gully, barely clinging on as the rocks pass below his feet.

Covering the last few yards of the distance with a leap, Florence aims a flying kick at her opponent, but he seems to have a little martial arts training (not unusual on Mars); he twists aside and hits her with a rock that he's gathered up. Fortunately, her protective environment suit absorbs the blow. They face off, and then Florence hears Jianwei; he's calling on the man to surrender, but the man evidently lacks her Felicia ears, and the call didn't carry well over the distance in the thin Martian air. She takes up the idea, echoing Jianwei in identifying the team as EU consular services employees - and faced with a skilled and aggressive catgirl fighter at close quarters, the man deflates and gives up. Jianwei and Vajra clamber back down to join Florence; fortunately, the damage to Vajra's cybershell is light.

The attacker is, as expected, Piotr Lipinski. Confronted with an accusation of foul play against his partner by people who identify themselves as EU agents, Lipinski defends himself; so far as he was concerned, he and Professor Zajdel were attacked, together - with orbital weapons! - and he didn't know who to trust. So he fled, and hoped to drive off anyone who came after him. He had ideas of contacting unspecified friends when he'd got far enough.

It sounds an odd story, but the team escorts Lipinski back down the slope to their rover, listening to him as they go. He is able to illustrate his claims; as he describes things, he and Zajdel were camping out, and her physiological software model was still on Mars University time, so she took a late-night "stroll" down to look at the site which they were set to study while he watched before retiring for the night.

His NAI wearable's video recording of that scene for the important few seconds show a single glowing line suddenly appearing from above to strike the rock face, which trembles and then collapses onto Zajdel's exploration shell before she can get away. The image certainly looks like a hypersonic kinetic strike arriving from orbital altitudes - although the frame rate of the recording limits the details that can be derived. Of course, it would be trivial to fake such imagery, given modern video editing technology - Lipinski's wearable doesn't have any kind of secure evidence-bonded encrypted storage, and this really wouldn't stand up in court - but arranging such fakery would have been tricky in the circumstances, and overall, the team start to trust Lipinski's account. His actions of the last few days may have been unwise, but they were quite understandable, given what he says and shows them. On the other hand, as murder attempts go, this one was both bizarre - no one would even have known that Zajdel's cybershell was where it was, unless they used some quite intensive satellite imagery analysis - and wildly excessive - an orbital weapon against one or two civilians?

The group reaches the rover, and they remember the other puzzle; the mass of accounting data that reached them recently from an anonymous source. They briefly wonder if this was some kind of distraction attack, but decide that the timing was probably pure coincidence. (Lipinski denies all knowledge of this stuff.) So they and their companion AIs review the data. A quick check suggests that it's apparently all valid and mostly public material, but it's been carefully examined by someone, and a number of seemingly innocuous entries have been neatly highlighted for attention. Looking at these, the team are driven to conclude that Chen's business, while well enough run over the decades, received a fair amount of very subtle assistance from various other enterprises - most of them Chinese, and some known to be either government-run or closely associated with the government. In other words, the Singaporean Chen was in cahoots with the Chinese authorities, or had otherwise given them good cause to support him over the years. The likeliest guess would be that he was an agent of influence within the Singaporean business community.

As the rover moves off, the team also download some analysis software and run it against Lipinksi's image of the orbital strike. This contains enough information that they can project the glowing line up to orbit, and then cross-reference with standard navigational databases. The likely candidate for a point of origin of the attack is an unmanned US-owned satellite, marked as a non-functional meteorological survey unit - which, strangely enough, showed a very small "undocumented orbital trajectory change" at the time of the strike. This was small enough that anyone who noticed it would put it down to a micrometeorite impact or a bit of out-gassing - but it could also reflect a projectile launch.

So this looks like a US attack, from one of the military units that no one admits to having in Mars orbit but everyone assumes that other people have. But what was it for? Lipinski has no idea, and as murder attempts go, it was imprecise and expensive. It's conceivable that the Americans didn't even know that Zajdel was near the strike zone. The team confer as the rover drives itself southwards; they decide that Maria Vega almost certainly is an SIA agent, but what's her mission? And what was Hua's call of earlier in the day about? Why was he concerned?

Jianwei makes a decision. He writes up events so far, and files his report with the embassy, marked for prompt attention. Within minutes, Colette Schmidt responds, agreeing with his provisional analysis and offering support; she authorises hire of a four-seat hopper, which will meet the team at an arbitrary point in the wilderness and bring them back to Port Lowell, hopefully before anyone hostile with orbital weapons to use can locate them.

And so the rover changes course slightly as the embassy makes arrangements. As they travel, the team talk more, and Lipinski kills time by asking for access to the geological data that the team accumulated from various sources concerning the landslip site; he wants to know what may have provoked the attack. By the time they reach the rendezvous site, he's drawn a provisional conclusion; the landslip exposed geological materials that suggest significant deposits of rare earths - quite valuable stuff, in fact. This is news to him, and he isn't sure if anyone else could have known about it; like most of Mars, that area has been surveyed a little, but so far as he knows, only cursorily and from a distance. Still, it's possible that someone could have put enough information together to guess at the possibility.

So - intentionally or otherwise - the strike exposed this fact, right in front of a pair of trained geologists, in fact. But the team can't work out why anyone would have taken this approach. However, reviewing recent communications traffic from the site, they realise that although Maria Vega has now flown away, she's left some kind of active communications node there. One likely guess would be that it's the snakebot that was riding in her hopper. If she knows about the rare earths deposit, it could act as a claim marker, although it's not doing so at this point.

At the rendezvous site, everyone transfers to the hired hopper, and Vajra uses a microbot swarm to sanitise the rover, seeking to eliminate any evidence of Lipinski having been on board. Then, they send the unmanned rover back towards New Buffalo, and take off towards Port Lowell. There'll necessarily be some refuelling stops along the way, but before the first of those, Jianwei receives a call - from Maria Vega. She's pretty clearly fishing for information about the EU's position and intentions - albeit politely - and he straight-faces in response. He does mention the snakebot, and Vega confirms when asked that it might serve as a marker on a geological claim. So when that call ends, Jianwei calls Hua to ask about his current situation, letting slip more or less deliberately in the process that they believe that Mr Chen may be intending to change his national allegiance in the near future.

The hopper lands at a field outside Port Lowell, and the team take a taxi back to town, from which they intend to call the ambassador - except that she calls first, to tell them that, well, whether through their efforts or otherwise, a large cat now seems to be out of the bag. Mr Chen has declared the intention to apply for Chinese citizenship, and the Chinese have responded favourably - which will mean that a Chinese citizen's residence is deep in the middle of American territory, with a good claim to much of the surrounding area under "fair use" conventions. The Americans have responded by registering a formal claim to the mineral deposits on and around the landslip site (with, yes, that cybershell acting as their claim marker). Everyone is doubtless scowling at everyone else.

The team admit that they're still not sure what happened, but Schmidt, the long-time career diplomat with experience of the politics of Mars, is able to make some educated guesses. Her guess is that the Chinese identified the mineral deposits first, from some previous survey or whatever, and decided to use their agent of influence to move into that area. However, the SIA must have identified Chen as a Chinese patsy, worked out what was going on, spotted the deposits themselves once they had cause to look at that area, and decided to do something about it. Schmidt doubts that the kinetic strike was meant to be homicidal - the Americans probably honestly didn't know that Zajdel was in the danger zone. Rather, the intention was probably to expose the rare earth deposits to the geologists when they came to examine the site the next day, on the plausible (and correct) assumption that, although they had been hired by Chen, they were neutral parties - giving the American Commonwealth an excuse to move in.

However, after Zajdel's late-night excursion got her temporarily killed and thus drew so much attention, everyone had to scramble and improvise. Vega was doubtless sent in to try and salvage the situation, and Chen and his handlers have been forced to show their hand in response. So both sides were trying to exploit the E.U.'s neutrality to their own ends, and will doubtless continue to do so - which may turn out to be beneficial, or just annoying. Coming out of this with provisional identification of Hua and Vega as, respectively, Chinese and US agents, and with that "dead" satellite identified as a clandestine American orbital weapons platform, is all bonus.

Anyway, Schmidt tells the team to bring Lipinski into the embassy for personal debriefing, and he's willing to go along. They assure him that, even if they weren't pretty sure that no one is aiming orbital weapons now, this is a safe place - the effect of which is only spoilt when he meets a cluster of maintenance cybershells, and is told that they are just completing the repairs occasioned by the last armed assault on the place.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Geological Research

 Scorpius 13, m0039, continued

Reckoning that time is still of the essence in all this, the team make their excuses and leave Mr Chen's house as soon as they have eaten. Florence takes control of the rover, and drives them - quickly and efficiently - to the site of the incident. Specifically, they first visit the Poles' camp site, which proves to have been ignored by the automated rescue mission to the actual landslip. They take a proper forensic approach, with Vajra first sending in an aerobot swarm, leaving the ground and all material objects untouched. Vajra shares the data feed with Aunty, who has the skill sets to process some of it usefully, and it is she who identifies and catalogues the various footprints and exploratory cybershell track-prints in the surrounding dust.

Applying criminological software to the task, Aunty's first conclusion is that this doesn't look like a crime scene; there are certainly no signs of violence. Vajra, however, notes that there is no sign of any kind of comms base station, as a two-person expedition in the Martian wilderness might be expected to use. Professor Zajdel's cybershell may have had good comms capability on board, but this does seem like a curious oversight.

So the team next move in carefully, sweeping the camp with EM scanners. They pick up no signals, and a quick look at the equipment lying around finds little with much in the way of sentience or memory. Looking round, they find other, perhaps more significant, lacks; there's not much in the way of food, and those party members with training in survival skills see other bits and pieces of equipment missing that they'd assume should be present. There's also at least one set of tracks, heading north, which might be compatible with a human leaving and not having returned.

This causes them to examine the Web access logs for the two Poles more closely, and Vajra notes that Zajdel seemingly dropped out of communication entirely about ten minutes before Lipinski. The team begins trying to construct hypotheses to fit all this data. They're now suspecting some kind of criminal action on Lipinski's part - but if that's correct, whatever he did, he didn't engage in much intelligent planning. Of course, a lot of crime is opportunistic or generally unintelligent...

Anyway, the team promised to find a landing site for Maria Vega. Jianwei calls her, but she says that doesn't plan to come out to the site that night. Florence, the trained pilot, looks around for sites, but doesn't find very much at this point.

So now, the team looks at the automated systems working on the landslip site. These turn out to consist of a cluster of small "swarmdozers" (with non-sapient control systems with a certain amount of communal intelligence) under the authority of a low-sapient program in a static unit. These haven't found much that the LAI judged it necessary to report as yet, but the team run analyses on the samples which the burrowing swarmdozers have accumulated, and turn up a few volatiles and metallic micro-fragments to suggest an area to search for Professor Zajdel's cybershell. The LAI acquiesces to their suggestion, and Vajra sends in a small "surveillance worm" and works with the rescue systems. This leaves the two organics free to go and take a look higher up the landslide site. They don't pick up much in the way  of geological evidence there, though, or find any tracks. Vajra, meanwhile, has some problems, mainly with the tunnel behind his worm collapsing (the LAI had problems plotting a safe mining scheme), but does find some metallic fragments. Forensic assessment suggests that these come from the missing cybershell - although only from the outer casing.

Vajra doesn't have to sleep, but the other two do, so they head back to Mr Chen's house, leaving Vajra and the other AIs working. Chen has retired to bed by the time they arrive, but two people are still up and showing an interest in what they might have to report; Maria Vega, who Jianwei realises is maybe carefully judging what she says and how she says it, and the servant named Hua, who they have down as Mr Chen's secretary (in the most traditional sense) or personal assistant, who is coolly bland. The four individuals share green tea and engage in subtly guarded conversation, before the Europeans retire to bed. On an instinctive judgement, Jianwei tells Aunty to research possible links between Ms. Vega and Lipinski while he sleeps. Meanwhile, the team have also asked Quentin, back at the embassy, to acquire some thermal imaging data for a wide area around this location from satellite sources; they suspect that it might locate Lipinski.

 Scorpius 14, m0039

Vajra and the LAI rescue system work through the night, but there's one small accident in that time - Vajra's surveillance worm gets trampled by a swarmdozer, disabling it. Still, by the time the sun rises, the swarmdozers have recovered enough fragments of manufactured material for Vajra to conclude that some hardware, including computer systems, was crushed by the landslide, and everything about the finds is compatible with it having been Zajdel's cybershell.

Meanwhile, Jianwei and Florence awake to news from Quentin; the IR imagery has indeed picked up a trace of what looks like a one-person camp, at a distance that might well rate as a couple of day's walk north of the landslide site. Quentin also has messages from some of Professor Zajdel's friends in the academic community, who have been applying their skills to the puzzle of their colleague's misfortune; they've been analysing available imagery, including the reports that Vajra and the other AIs have recently filed from the site, and combining it with the seismic traces from the time, and their conclusion is that the landslide looks to have been triggered by some kind of abrupt and not very natural-looking shock or impact.

Aunty, on the other hand, has little to report; if there are any signs of Lipinski and Vega having any kind of association, she hasn't been able to locate them on the Web. However, when Jianwei takes a few minutes to casually review the raw data which Aunty has acquired, he notes that Vega is a very mobile sort of operative; it looks as though working for the Martian Commonwealth not only keeps her busy, but almost permanently on the move, in person. Then, in a moment of inspiration, Jianwei looks again at some wilderness travel plan filings from about a year ago - and realise that she was most likely in the region west of Olympus Mons at exactly the time when Dr Tiberius Vartex had his nigh-fatal hopper crash. That could just be coincidence, of course.

Jianwei begins the process of filing confirmation that Professor Zajdel's processor has been destroyed, which will allow the insurance company to begin the process of releasing her latest backup to run and covering the cost of a replacement cybershell - although they'll probably cautiously wait a little longer to complete the process. He also decides to tell Vega some but not all of what they know, including Vajra's discovery of the cybershell remains, to provide her with some of the visual imagery that they acquired the previous day (but not much from the camp site), and to make another effort to find a landing site for her hopper. She flies over to the site quite promptly, and when she arrives, Vajra notices a spike in local network traffic; her snakebot is hitting the rescue-system LAI with lots of queries for accessible data.

The European team meet up and head back to the camp site, but only take a quick look there. Then they slip behind a ridge, hoping to avoid Vega's attention as they head north in pursuit of (they assume) Lipinski. Jianwei and Florence both have tactical training, which pays off here in helping them to be subtle about this. They do make a call to Mr Chen, though, to thank him for his hospitality and to bid him farewell.

They find the site which they picked up on the satellite IR images, but it's now been abandoned, so they continue to track their quarry northwards. It's slow going, though; they spend a lot of their time out of the rover, walking ahead of it while scanning the Martian dust from as close as possible. This carries them through the late morning and afternoon, and they find that they are now moving into an area of rising hills. Florence's driving skills enable them to keep the rover with them for quite a while - albeit sometimes with only three of its six wheels on the ground at a time - but eventually, they enter a seriously rocky region, and have to leave the vehicle behind.

As they climb, they receive a call from Hua, who wants to ask them to place the data which they've accumulated under a diplomatic seal - not making it a secret, but certifying it and protecting it against tampering, the better for use in, say, future court cases. Hua now seems increasingly cagey; Jianwei doesn't perceive him as a servant any more. When Jianwei suggests that he make the same request of Ms Vega, he demurs; "your employers' neutrality is much respected", he adds, slightly gnomically.

Then, as the party ascends a slope, Jianwei spots a figure, waiting and lurking behind a stack of rocks further up. Those rocks begin to slide, tumbling down the slope towards the group - and at that same moment, their AI aides report that a large volume of data is arriving in their in-boxes. It appears to be a great deal of accounts data relating to Mr Chen's past business career...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Hydraulic Engineering

Scorpius 4-11, m0039

And so, as Ferdinand goes into therapy, the team find things going comfortably quiet for over a week. They continue to handle routine administrative and PR work for the embassy, and settle down to life on Mars.

Scorpius 12, m0039

Then, the team all get an early-morning call from one of the embassy LAIs (Quentin is being required not to work 24-hour days, as it looks bad on the embassy's staff management records, which don't necessarily know how much of that time he spends playing Robo Rally); an incident has occurred which seems to require a formal E.U. presence. Unfortunately, the incident has occurred some way around the planet; the LAI has monorail reservations for everyone, and suggests that they take themselves to the station promptly.

Once they're settled on the train, the three embassy employees get a full briefing from the AI systems - although details of the matter are still hazy or being collected. It appears that a pair of Polish citizens, named Piotr Lipinski and Professor Jolanta Zajdel, have been working as consultants for a Singaporean citizen, a Mr Pao-Wen Chen (no relation of Jianwei's), who is building a house for himself well out in the Martian wilderness, 1,500 miles or so east of Port Lowell. (This sort of project obviously demands considerable private resources; Mr Chen will find himself numbered among the "Millionaires of Mars" if and when he comes to public notice.) Lipinski and Zajdel are geologists, specifically specialists in the hydrology of the Martian landscape; Zajdel teaches at the University of Mars, and Lipinski, it will emerge, is a graduate student working under her. Presumably, they're conducting some kind of site survey for Mr Chen. Anyway, they were apparently working out in the desert a few miles from Chen's home last night, when they both dropped off-line. The AIs managing their Web links began raising alert flags when the loss drew out long enough to appear exceptional, and then some smart system correlated that with reports from various areophysical monitoring services of a brief but significant seismic spike from near to the pair's last known location. Satellite imagery soon confirmed a probable emergency; there appears to have been a fairly major landslip - some hundreds of metres across - at that site.

Mr Chen's household were alerted, and responded appropriately. They didn't have excavation gear of their own, and rapid acquisitions are a problem - any cost issues aside, they don't have landing space for sub-orbital transports - but they were able to arrange deliveries of excavator and rescue cybershells by fast cargo hopper, and acquired appropriate AI operation systems over the Web. This stuff is still being delivered, but everything they've found so far indicates the worst, especially as Lipinski and Zajdel's personal systems are still off-line.

The team aren't expected to be able to assist much with any rescue efforts - it'll take them too long to reach the site, and Chen appears to be doing pretty much everything that's possible - but they should do what they can, try and discover what happened, and provide formal statements and affidavits. This is likely to become especially important because, although Lipinski is or was an organic human, Zajdel is a ghost, who was operating a specialist exploration cybershell. She can be restored from her last backup, but the insurance company will require a very reliable death certificate. They're very correctly cautious about accidental xoxing - but on the other hand, their clients tend to be quite touchy about being left inactive for too long a period.

The embassy LAI has now made all the transport arrangements. As the team's specific mission can't be assigned maximum urgency, they'll be travelling on the surface all the way; it will take them all this day to reach the small American monorail halt at New Buffalo, and then they'll spend the night there before picking up a hired rover with sufficient range to cover the 250 or so miles to Mr Chen's house. They briefly discuss driving overnight, but the hire company wouldn't be happy about anyone driving over rough and poorly-mapped Martian terrain in the dark (yes, even with modern night vision gear), and Jianwei and Florence would have trouble sleeping on the vehicle.

With all this covered, the team discuss what they might find, including the possibility of malfeasance - but they don't have any indication of such a thing at present. Vajra does a quick Web background search on Mr Chen, who had a long and prosperous past career in business in Singapore, but although he certainly had fingers in many pies, there are no obvious signs of criminality there.

So Vajra arranges to receive imagery of the incident site, with updates as frequent as is feasible. Florence takes a look at these, and her training in Martian wilderness survival enables her to spot a lot of details. The Polish duo were looking at a feature that would be assumed to have been a river valley, billions of years ago, and that will probably become one again as terraforming increases the volume of liquid water on the surface and sends rivers once more flowing through this region towards the North Polar Ocean. The landslip appears to have happened where a substantial bluff overlooks a bend in the dry river. It's the kind of thing that happened a lot a couple of decades ago; it's not so common today, but not entirely unknown.

Meanwhile, Jianwei has put a call through to Mr Chen's house, and has found himself explaining the team's assignment to a suave AI named Shen, who evidently functions as Chen's housekeeper. He asks if there's anything that the team can bring with them to help with the emergency work, but Shen says politely that it can't suggest any such needs at this point - everything that any relevant expert systems can suggest has already been acquired, or at least arranged for acquisition as soon as possible.

And so there doesn't seem to be much more that the team can think to do, as the maglev train skims around the Martian equator. By the end of the day, it reaches New Buffalo, which proves to be no more than a halt on the maglev track, with one capsule hotel, a basic bar or two, and a field that's been bulldozed level to act as a landing spot for hoppers and a marshalling area for rovers, including those from the hire company. Jianwei has anticipated the lack of resources and arranged to acquire the necessary components for a meal off the train, so at least he and Florence can enjoy a passable dinner. Beyond that, the evening proves remarkably unexciting, and they retire to their capsules and enjoy a night's sleep, while Vajra powers his cybershell down and spends the night on Web, occasionally monitoring relevant satellite imagery.

Scorpius 13, m0039

The organic team members wake up in the morning and eat what they can scrounge up by way of an acceptable breakfast, and soon, their hired rover emerged from the clutter of hire vehicles on New Buffalo's vehicle park and pulls around to the front of the capsule hotel. As the team are loading up their gear, they see another arrival; a light hopper drops out of the sky, lands smoothly on the other side of the field, and taxis over to the public pumps to refuel. As it does so, the canopy opens, and a lone human emerges - a woman of indeterminate apparent age or ethnicity, dressed for flying but smartly. She looks around, notices the group, and strolls over to say hello.

She introduces herself as Maria Vega, an employee of the American Martian Commonwealth. When Jianwei admits that the team are heading north, she says that she's going the same way - it seems that her employers are taking an interest in the incident there. This might seem odd, but the Americans do tend, very politely, to classify this whole region of Mars, east of Marineris, as their domain; whatever territoriality the Singaporean Mr Chen may claim for his house, the Americans are likely to claim at least a neighbourly interest. Jianwei judges that Ms Vega is being a little guarded, but she may have her reasons; she's outwardly entirely polite, suggesting that she and the team might exchange information when they've got some. Then she boards her fuelled hopper, and the team notes that the second seat is occupied by some kind of non-humanoid cybershell - probably a snakebot model - before the canopy closes and she takes off northwards.

The team speculate about this encounter. For some unclear reason, they decide that Ms Vega must surely be an SIA agent, but they can't currently see any reason why the Agency would be taking an interest in this matter. But once they are on their way, they do take another look at the accumulated satellite imagery of the incident scene, and spot one more detail; a set of small, clearly artificial objects or structures a few hundred metres from the landslide. The likely guess is that it's the hydrologists' camp site. They also tap various data feeds to track Ms Vega's flight path, but that shows no unexpected deviations.

They reach Mr Chen's house by early evening. Shen evidently detects their approach and greets them over the radio, and a pair of humanoid cybershells meet them at the door to take their bags and show them to the rooms which have been assigned to them. The house currently consists of a number of semi-permanent modules that were doubtless delivered in the form of a road train, and subsequently dug in and partly covered with local soil to improve insulation and radiation protection. It's a substantial but not terribly luxurious looking dwelling now, but it could serve as the start of a more extensive and impressive mansion in years to come, and the interior is more than comfortable enough. Shen tells them that a buffet meal will be served when they've had time to freshen up.

Over the meal, they are able to meet the suave Chen and also to renew their acquaintance with Ms Vega, whose hopper was parked outside when they arrived. Mr Chen expresses regret and concern over the fate of the hydrologists, but it's clear that he regarded them as temporary employees rather than anything more; he seems genuinely concerned about them, but not to be taking this incident personally. He is, he is happy to explain, looking to settle here for some time (which could, given modern medicine, be a very long time), and the house, which is safely on a hilltop, should acquire a view of the restored rivers when they begin to flow through those valleys. The hydrologists were hired to assess exactly how these things should develop. All this fits well with the guesses and assumptions that the team made in advance.

As for Ms Vega - she too seems happy to talk, and admits that she hasn't been able to find out much yet, despite having been here for most of the day. She did over-fly the accident site, and she offers the E.U. team free access to the images she accumulated; in return, she asks that, if they get out to the incident location first, they check for possible landing sites for her hopper.

And indeed, the team are keen to get out there, telling Chen that they'd like to do so once they've eaten. So that seems to be the next step...

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Go Fetch Rover

March 28-Scorpius 2, m0039

The next couple of days are fairly quiet, giving the team a chance to review their various financial and practical positions. Actually, as they're collecting extended-hours and hardship-posting rates, the team have no significant financial problems; Florence (who's getting pretty good money for someone in her effective social situation) sees a chance to establish a secure financial and social position, while Jianwei is saving as he anticipates a year or two's sabbatical when he returns to Earth at the end of this assignment.

Scorpius 3, m0039

And then another call comes in, passing the non-sapient filters to arrive at Jianwei's virtual desk.

"Good morning," the caller says with the calm smoothness of an AI. "My name is Callisto-Capri. I act as local negotiator for the Granadine Partnership. We are a European corporate entity, so I have been advised to contact you about this matter."

"Uh, good morning. What can we help you with?"

"My dog appears to have gone missing. Local law enforcement is proving unwilling to assist very efficiently."

Jianwei blinks a little at that, but patches the other two into the conversation while he asks for more details. (Vajra is performing routine data management for the embassy; Florence is visiting a local school, playing the part of the friendly free European bioroid for the kids.) "How long has your dog been missing?"

"Just over two hours now..."

It does rapidly emerge that "Ferdinand", the dog in question, is a K-10A uplift - if nothing else, the pictures that Callisto-Capri provides show the distinctive slightly expanded skull structure. The team are a little bemused by this problem - and they can certainly imagine how Marshall Kirkowicz will have reacted if Callisto-Capri called her first - but it does seem to be a legitimate worry. The Granadine Partnership, it emerges, is a Europe-wide association of design consultancies which does enough business on Mars (in the form of numerous small contracts) to justify maintaining a presence here. Callisto-Capri handles negotiations, aided by an assortment of non-sapient software, while Ferdinand acts as a porter and "physical representative". It might seem more sensible for Callisto-Capri to rent cybershells as necessary, but Jianwei and Vajra recognise some pretty routine memetic finesse here, especially when they get hold of the company's Web brochure, and perform a quick and cynical analysis. By employing an organic being as part of their team, the Partnership projects an image of sympathy for organic needs and concerns - doubtless essential for a consultancy specialising in ergonomic design issues. On the other hand, Ferdinand was produced locally (with Mars adaptations built in from the embryo stage); he's a cheap organic employee. Florence swears that Dougal is muttering about Ferdinand's job being to look cute and get scratched behind the ears...

 Jianwei is feeling a little unsure about the status of this problem - but then, thinking about the legal situation of uplifts, he mentally classifies this as akin to a missing child case. Well, it might work like that, or a theft... It does seem to merit some attention.

Ferdinand may not be a full citizen by EU law or that of many other jurisdictions active on Mars, but as Granadine's only organic employee on the planet, and an individual with many individual rights under EU law and convention, he does have a small apartment of his own in one of the accommodation blocks scattered around the city - and that was where he was last seen. He apparently left as he would for work that morning, but then dropped out of contact. The team start looking for accessible cameras that might allow his movements to be traced - with only limited success - and Jianwei cross-examines Callisto-Capri about its knowledge of various relevant topics. The AI denies any knowledge of business rivals who might have any likely motive for stealing/kidnapping or attacking Ferdinand - Granadine really aren't in that sort of business. When it comes to questions about the dog's social life and acquaintances, though, it rapidly becomes clear that the AI has a typical low-sapient level of emotional cluelessness. It claims to think of itself as Ferdinand's friend, while not being very sure about his off-duty activities, friendships, or interests.

Anyway, camera records from Ferdinand's apartment block do show him setting out that morning, alone, and a quick cross-check of time stamps suggests that he went off-line at about that time. He has a wearable AI aide, of course, but it's non-sapient; he can probably order it to cut communications with little difficulty. Poking around his financial records, which Callisto-Capri, as his de facto guardian, can access and provide, suggests that his main hobby is participation in a quasi-Neolithic virtual world. In fact, he plays the part of a dire wolf there. So do a lot of humans, mind, and he seems to have some casual friends in his pack; judging by the conversations on the game's associated discussion group, they may or may not know his real-world nature.

A little more poking around accounts and cross-questioning of Callisto-Capri determines that, when the Granadine staff need transport, they hire rovers from a company in the city - and Ferdinand has enough access to company accounts to get hold of one of these. It then turns out that the hire company is based just a couple of blocks from Ferdinand's residence, in the direction in which he seems to have been heading when last sighted.

By now, Florence has made her excuses and slipped out of the classroom, and the team decides to head to the hire company in person. They find another office operated by a LAI - but one which proves quite cooperative, especially given Vajra's skill in interfacing techniques. The company, while not especially dubious, is a relatively cheap, casual sort of outfit, and yes, they rented a light rover to Ferdinand just that morning. After all, he's a known regular customer, and his wearable is certified as a competent driver, so it can have full access to the control systems... But the rover has a locator beacon that can't be turned off, and the LAI is happy to check where it is right now - which proves to be some miles out in the desert, moving but not heading in any particular direction, and not responding to radio calls.

The team look at each other, put one of the hire company's heavy rovers on the consulate account, and set out after the missing dog, as Jianwei installs an uplift-dog psychology skill set on Aunty. They make good progress - Florence is a skilled driver - and find Ferdinand's rover soon enough. It's still not going anywhere in particular, but is chasing round and over various dunes. The team have magnifying optics with them, and are able to make out Ferdinand, alone aboard the other vehicle and looking rather excited.

He sees them, too, and promptly drives straight at them. It seems that he's got his NAI doing exactly what he asks, with neither that nor the vehicle's own systems providing any sort of safety overrides. The team have an exciting few moments, with Ferdinand testing Florence's driving skills in a game that seems too much like chicken, giving them a better view of his expressions; Aunty's conclusion is that he's gone mildly atavistic. Eventually, though, Ferdinand decides that he wants to get away from them; fortunately, both rovers have similar performance, and with better driving skills aboard, the team are able to stay with him.

At this point, Florence decides on a rather dramatic plan to deal with this problem. Having confirmed that the hire company can provide override codes to unlock and open any of the rovers' doors, she leaves the team's vehicle under the control of Samadhi, who seems to be the second-best driver available, opens a side door (ignoring any automated safety system warnings), and clambers up onto the roof of the rover. Then, when the two vehicles are a reasonably stable distance apart, she jumps the gap with elegant precision. Once she's safe on the smaller rover's roof, she tells the automatic systems to open a side door, and somersaults in.

Of course, Ferdinand has seen her coming, and doesn't appear pleased to see her, attempting to slam her out straight away. She deflects the attack and gets the door closed - but then a vulgar brawl ensues in the footwell of the rover, with Ferdinand attempting to sink his teeth into the opponent who he seems to be abusing as an "Uncle Tom". (He also turns out to have some police dog-style training.) After fending him off for a moment, Florence brings her stun glove into play, and even manages to paralyse him at one point - but he shakes off its effect too soon. On his part, he manages to land a bite on her arm, although that's protected by an armoured sleeve, and hangs on until she lands a headbutt on him that makes him let go. Then, she has a thought and grabs at his wearable with her shock glove. This knocks out its electronic systems for long enough that the rover's own computer takes over and slows the vehicle to a halt.

Ferdinand is still fighting, though, and Florence is getting annoyed enough that she resorts to more or less beating him senseless. She's even setting up for a kick with her high-heeled boots when the door opens again; the other two of the team have brought their own rover up to the scene, and Vajra has emerged with a vortex pistol. A well-aimed blast of tranquilliser gas batters Ferdinand down - and more importantly, renders him unconscious.

Florence is left muttering that her martial arts lessons neglected to cover techniques for fighting in the footwell of a moving land vehicle, and resolves to press her sensei about this subject, the next time she gets the chance. As she dusts herself down, Vajra applies cufftape to immobilise Ferdinand, and Jianwei arrives, and - aided by software running on Aunty - makes sure that none of their prisoner's wounds are serious. Then Jianwei and Vajra load him and themselves onto their own rover, Florence takes charge of the smaller vehicle, and they all turn back to Port Lowell.

Jianwei takes the opportunity to carefully cross-examine Ferdinand - who, it rapidly emerges, has not only gone somewhat atavistic, but has absorbed a large dose of the "Animal Reparations" meme. (All the Reparationist literature which he's been downloading recently - including chimp-uplift David Pan's Dominion - would have been a clue.) Along with his attitude to Florence, he dismisses Jianwei as an oppressor and Vajra as a "lick-spittle pawn of the humans". Granadine aren't going to be getting much work out of their employee, and are going to be facing a serious bill for specialist therapy...

And so the team return to the embassy - and the discovery for Florence that the EU psychiatrists who worry for her most have requested full implant sensory records for the day. While Jianwei is prepared to vouch that a flying leap between fast-moving vehicles wasn't really as crazed idea as it might sound - for her - she is going to have to spend a lot of time reassuring them about how she felt about all this.

(Analysis of the logs is also reported to reveal that Dougal was wearing his virtual Stetson and yelling "Ride 'em cowboy" while Florence was on the roof of the rover, and "Yee haa!" when she jumped, followed by "Watch out, you've got me onboard!" on landing. Florence swears she wasn't paying much attention to non-priority items, and didn't notice at the time. The psychiatrists put a note on the "influence over AIs" section of Florence's file.)

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Answers and Amnesia

March 27, m0039, continued

The embassy cameras show the visitor; it appears to be the cyberdoll cybershell that was acting as security at the House of Fragrant Jasmine when they visited there. The team agrees to meet it, and it is ushered through the embassy's security systems (which don't detect any weapons or other threats) to a meeting room.

There, it initially greets them with the stiff formality of a low-empathy LAI, but having established that they are still interested in the case of Herr Weber-Markt, it pauses for a very brief moment, and then begins talking a little more fluently; it's apparent that it's now being teleoperated, presumably by Mistress Zeng. In any case, it declares that the House of Fragrant Jasmine has now come by information regarding the missing gentleman; he is well, and it would seem unfortunate if anyone were to worry too much about him. The House of Fragrant Jasmine does not want trouble - they are a legitimate business, after all. It might useful if, when Herr Weber-Markt reappeared, someone could speak to him and make sure that he understands that it is in his interest if not too much is said.

Jianwei says that this can certainly be passed on to the gentleman.

The cyberdoll states that Herr Weber-Markt may well be on a bench in the south-western public greenhouse in half an hour's time, and departs.

The team extract such equipment as seems appropriate (especially surveillance swarms for Vajra and a pistol or two for Florence) and which is legal for them on American territory, and head out themselves. They guess that, as he isn't Mars-adapted, Weber-Markt may well be in the Earth-normal pressurised section of the greenhouse - and they are correct. He is sitting on a bench, stroking one of the lightly genetically modified cats that are free to run around that section, and looking a little vague. Jianwei approached him and greets him.

"Oh - you know me?"

Jianwei explains that people have been concerned for him, and that they have been looking for him as EU representatives, and asks what happened to him.

"Oh - you know me?"

It soon becomes evident that Weber-Markt isn't entirely compos mentis, but has severe short-term memory problems at this point - so the team quickly summons an ambulance and books space in a hospital. After a moment, Aunty diagnoses Transient Global Amnesia - which occasionally occurs naturally, probably as a result of momentary neurological or blood supply failures, but which is really quite rare. In fact, these days, it's surely much more likely to be the result of some kind of nanodrug - emulating the triggers for the condition is actually quite easy. Such nanodrugs are generally illegal, of course.

The team gets Weber-Markt to a hospital (checking as they go that his wearable virtual interface is in his bag - although currently powered down), and the hospital runs a series of scans and ends up agreeing with Aunty. The nanodrug used on him was a smart piece of design (but then, there are several functional specifications for this sort of thing on the TSA Web); it's already largely broken down to barely-identifiable components. When the team asks for a detailed blood check for other nanodrug remnants, the hospital is happy to oblige, and remarks that, by the looks of the results, the patient may well have been treated with a high-grade "cleaner" treatment - not only are there no other nanodrugs in his system at present, but the remains of any that were there have been cleaned out by something very efficient.

Anyway, the good news is that the patient is rapidly recovering from his condition, and in fact, after running the obligatory array of tests, the hospital have no basis on which to keep him in. So the team escort him back to the embassy. By now, having recovered most of his memory function, Weber-Markt is becoming entirely coherent and distinctly taciturn. But rather than pester him too much at first, the team concentrates on his wearable. With his consent, Vajra dismantles it, takes a digital image of its (routinely encrypted) memory, reassembles it, and boots it up. It seems to be fine - but it turns out to have been restored, doubtless very recently, from the last backup that Weber-Markt took prior to his evening adventure.

For some reason, the expert psychologist Jianwei is having some difficulty reading Weber-Markt - Aunty actually does better - but it doesn't take any expertise at all to realise that his primary emotion at the moment is embarrassment, maybe with a touch of nervousness - but if the House of Fragrant Jasmine set out to intimidate him, they must have been quite polite about it. Still, the team get enough out of him to decide that that establishment is probably, if not provably, responsible for his disappearance.

But he doesn't want to talk much, so they agree that he should return to his hotel. Florence escorts him there in a taxi - and flirts a little, giving him her Web address and saying "call me if you want when you're feeling better". She'd like to get more information out of him, and she's prepared to put some effort into this. Meanwhile, Jianwei puts a call into the Marshall's office, and she calls him back fairly promptly (she's at work and it's not bar brawl time yet). He and Vajra bring her up to date on the situation, expressing their suspicions about the House of Fragrant Jasmine and possible Triad involvement; when Florence joins in while walking back towards the embassy, she's even more emphatic about this.

However, when she's half-way back, the Marshall breaks away with a mutter of "that's worrying". It seems that she's set some of her systems to monitor camera feeds around the city for signs of Sandy, and he's now been located - entering Weber-Markt's hotel. She doesn't have resources in place to deal with this very promptly, but she's happy if the team can do something...

Florence turns and breaks into a run - that's faster than looking for a vehicle, she decides - while Vajra goes online in search of a taxi. A quick and impressive display of optimised resource management later, one slides up outside the embassy, its doors snapping open as Vajra and Jianwei appear. Hence, they reach the hotel just as Florence is heading up the stairs to Weber-Markt's room on the second floor, having decided that the old-fashioned lift is too slow. Some fast acrobatics in Martian gravity later, she's on the right corridor and sliding smoothly down it to the correct door - but she can't hear anything through it except perhaps faint voices...

Downstairs, the other two are still talking to Marshall Kirkowicz, raising the possibility of getting that door unlocked for Florence - but that would require legal action, so it's quicker for Jianwei to turn his diplomatic skills on the human desk clerk. He's quite smart, it seems; his voice echoes in Florence's ears.

"The door will open on your mark - just say the word."


Florence enters the room in a diving roll, but takes a fraction of a second to acquire the situation fully. Sandy isn't combat-trained like her, but his basic street smarts are sufficient for him to recognise her as that customer from yesterday, and to make him decide that she must be annoyed with him or something.

"What is going on?" Florence demands.

"You? Look, whatever complaints you have about that stuff..."

"I am an EU agent, assigned to protect Herr Weber-Markt..."

Florence tries to intimidate Sandy into compliance by popping her claws with a snarl, but his nerve - or his stupidity - holds. He rises from the chair he's sitting in, drawing the gun which he has openly on display - it's a large-calibre airgun, the sort usually tagged as a "tangler pistol" but quite capable of firing other specialised payloads. She draws her own 10mm pistol much faster and fires, but he ducks. Then he returns fire, but he's not trained with guns at all, and this is a wild snap shot, so something merely hits the wall near the increasingly panicked Weber-Markt, who's sitting on the bed.

Florence decides that it would be better to take this to close quarters, steps over, and kicks, punching the high heel of her boot into his ribs. He staggers, and she follows up with a hand-claw slash that leaves him bloodied and reeling. Deciding that she doesn't quite want him dead, she activates her zap glove, but he just manages to hold off her first strike with that, and fires again - and misses again. She throws a precise hand-strike that permits no counter, and he drops as high-frequency electricity pulses through his body.

Meanwhile, Weber-Markt has panicked and run, barrelling down the corridor - straight into Vajra and Jianwei. He tries to barge them aside, but his shoulder-charge is ineffectual, and Vajra gets a simple judo hold on him while Jianwei talks him down.

Everyone convenes back to his room and the story comes out. So far as Weber-Markt is concerned,Sandy simply showed up, talked his way in, then began demanding money with large hints of blackmail and a few menaces. Sandy seemed to think that Weber-Markt was responsible for some great inconvenience that he's suffered, and wanted payment in compensation... But Weber-Markt is really quite confused at this point.

Sandy, on the other hand, is recovering from his (literal) shock, only to find an annoyed catgirl sitting on his head and demanding information. (Florence's mood probably wasn't improved by the realisation that his pistol was firing some kind of aggressive nanotech payload - probably not lethal, but likely to have been painfully disabling.) He admits to selling Weber-Markt nanodrugs that were maybe rather stronger than the norm; somehow, this seems to have led to him being visited by someone (the team assume a Triad agent) who demanded that he compensate someone else for Weber-Markt's actions while under the influence. This has made him unhappy. As for the EU team - "I bet it was Consuela put you up to this, wasn't it? Damn idiot ... can't make up his mind what he wants ... complaining about what I get for him..."

"How would she - uh, he - have known about all this, then?"

"Well, he was in Northern Territories the other night."

Jianwei persuades him to provide a photograph of "Consuela's" physical appearance. The team aren't overly surprised to recognise their neighbour, Mika Hernandez. Before they can follow that up, though, they have to deal with Marshall Kirkowicz, who didn't hurry - she picked up enough from their Web feeds to decide that the situation was no longer urgent - but who now appears with salami on rye in one hand and the expression of a cop with paperwork in her near future. Various low-to-medium-weight charges will be thrown at Sandy, and the EU team's report will be taken under advisement in other respects.

So the team head back to the embassy to file a (slightly more comprehensive) report there. Later, when much virtual paperwork has been completed, they return to their apartment block - but Jianwei stops one floor down, and knocks on the door.


"You'd better come in," says Mika Hernandez, with a sigh.

Jianwei thanks him for alerting them to the problem with Weber-Markt, while pointing out that it might have been easier if Hernandez had been a little more open - as it was, he (or she) inspired a lot of distracting suspicions and theories. Jianwei maybe hints that the whole case involved a lot more physical danger and Triad activity than perhaps was the case, although his comment of "I don't appreciate having members of my team menaced with guns" is of course entirely truthful; he wants Hernandez to take a little more care, if there's ever a next time. From Hernandez's point of view, though, this was an honest attempt to do a small favour for a neighbour (while doing a large possible disservice to an annoying and unreliable nanodrug dealer), while preserving some personal privacy.

Jianwei leaves it there. "Oh," he says on the way out of the door, "nice avatar programming, by the way."

Hernandez shrugs. "It's just based on an old body scan of myself," he replies.

Footnote: It's not clear if the PCs will ever quite work out exactly what various people's motivations were here, but they came out of the incident feeling far more cynical and concerned about the motivations and actions of the House of Fragrant Jasmine than was entirely justified. On the one side, believe it or not, the House's staff were trying to save Herr Weber-Markt embarrassment.

They may be - at many levels - a perfectly legitimate business, but they're still, when all's said and done, a brothel. One of their selling points is discretion. If they called in the law, or a third party like their insurers, whenever a customer got a little carried away, they'd lose custom. On the other hand, when a paying customer is, as it seems, not entirely
himself, then politely restraining him until he recovers his equilibrium, and then settling things quietly, actually counts as doing him a favour.

The fact that Sandy's over-strength disinhibitor took a little while to wear off, while Herr Weber-Markt's credit account wouldn't cover the damage he'd done, meant that this process dragged on a bit longer than expected, which made the situation rather sticky.

(Still, Herr Weber-Markt's behaviour after the team got him back showed that he, umm, was indeed potentially embarrassed.)

And on the other hand... They found that they had a Triad problem of their own.

When they started trying to work out why this customer they had in the very comfortable holding cell (er, private medical unit) somewhere was behaving so foolishly, they realised that he'd been supplied with a not-very-legal nanodrug. So they asked people they knew about this, and said people may just possibly have got annoyed. Not at the House, mind - at whichever moron was dumping that sort of stock on the casual market for the sake of a quick buck. This is exactly the kind of thing that gets law enforcement all worked up, even in Port Lowell. Which is terribly bad for business. So the Tria... people they knew supplied the House with some extra handy nano and asked them to resolve this as quietly as possible. Which they did, using the EU team. (Somebody there might have gone for a more brutal solution, or at least a stronger amnesia nanodrug, but of course the EU team were now known to be sniffing around - so tact was indicated.)

Then Sandy, who was being leant on by the Triads for costing them money, screwed it all up

Madame Zang is really feeling quite hard-done-by at this point, please understand. There she is, trying to run a legitimate business without offending anybody, and she's got deranged customers smashing the pleasure units up, the Triads telling her how to run things, a bunch of EU agents barging in and giving Triad hand-signs, and now Marshall Kirkowicz leaning on her. It's not easy in her line of work.


Afterword: Jianwei comments at some point that he has come out of this with a certain amount of respect for the House of Fragrant Jasmine, who handled this incident in a professional and effective fashion. It's just a shame that their business involves working with the Triads - although unfortunately, that's probably unavoidable.

And somewhere, somebody's wearable makes a random connection and pulls a few seconds of ancient 2D video off the Web. "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown..."

Monday, September 27, 2010

Dealer's Hand

March 26, m0039, continued

It occurs to someone that the House of Fragrant Jasmine might have external security microphones, so the team move away from that building before they talk much more. One problem that they need to discuss is how to analyse any brainbug that Florence may purchase from Sandy - if there's any point to this exercise, it should be to discover what sort of business he's doing. They call Quentin, but he can't help much, and indeed turns mildly ironic at the question; the embassy does not find it has much need for brainbug analysis. However, Vajra looks around the Port Lowell business listings on the Web, and finds advertisements from a few more or less appropriate-seeming commercial laboratories.

They then find somewhere where Florence can change, and she switches to clothes that she judges appropriate for a rather geeky catgirl looking to have fun at a party - a halter top and so forth. She has an eye for style, but she isn't much of an actress; however, with some suggestions from the socially alert Jianwei, she manages to look the part. She's certainly advertising the adaptations that allow her to tolerate Martian pressures and temperatures.

Then, Vajra and Jianwei settle into their chosen cafe across the way from Northern Territories, and start playing a game of chess with a physical board and pieces by way of cover. (Actually, they both use cheap chess skill sets to handle the process of play.) Florence, meanwhile, slips into the bar, and then has to wait for Sandy. He's a little late, but only ten or fifteen minutes. She approaches him and asks if he has what she wants; he smiles, maybe nervously, and produces a capsule. "That should do what you want. Take when you get to the party, or just after..."

Actually, it seems to Florence that Sandy is twitchy, maybe nervous - but she's no real expert in human psychology. Anyway, he now names his price - 250 Euros, which strikes her as high for one dose, even for something rare and borderline legal at best, if its effects are relatively short-term. Mostly to maintain her cover story, she haggles a little, and he takes 25 Euros off, having evidently expected this, but he won't go any lower. Well, this is on expenses...

Speaking as if it's an afterthought (which it is, really), she also asks if he might also be able to provide something else, for a friend of hers - a disinhibitor for standard human male brain structure and chemistry. He thinks for a very brief moment, then shakes his head; he might be able to get something, given a little time, but he can provide nothing just now, and Florence is saying that she wants it straight away. She shrugs, saying that her friend will have to wait, and departs the bar.

Crossing the road, she quickly links up again with the other two, and hands off the capsule, which Vajra carefully bags up. Then he contacts the most promising laboratory which he identified (although he's not entirely sure if any of them look especially well equipped for the task), and they dispatch a cybershell courier which rolls up to the party a few minutes later, and takes the sample away in an internal compartment.

Meanwhile, the party briefly thinks about back-tracking Sandy, using the chemsniffer which Jianwei is carrying; they can identify his scent now, if only by scanning the capsule and subtracting traces which they can identify as coming from Florence. Vajra, who has training in such tasks, isolates the relevant biochemical traces and passes the data to Aunty, who seems to have the best tracking capability - but she can't pick up enough signs of Sandy to follow him. He was wearing a Mars suit, after all, and these streets are moderately busy.

Following an alternative train of thought, Jianwei looks at Dougal's recording of Florence's conversation with Sandy, and concludes from analysis of his body language and vocal intonations that he is - or was - quite stressed, and in particular, that he needed cash. Vajra, who also has relevant training, agrees - Sandy was hustling like his life depended on it.

So the group retire once again to the cafe to await the analysis results and to watch the front of Northern Territories for Sandy reappearing. They also catch a meal there, although that proves to be a mistake - this place isn't worth considering for the quality of its cooking. A couple of hours later, a preliminary report comes in from the laboratory - complete with a flag indicating that the authorities have been informed about this item, as its legality is highly questionable in multiple jurisdictions. (In fact, Quentin calls a few moments later, telling the team that the embassy has just been notified that they may be in breach of EU law.) It's difficult to say exactly what a nanodrug will do without lengthy, expensive, and tricky modelling of the behaviour of the target brain type in toto, which this lab isn't equipped to attempt, and this nanodrug doesn't match any of the standard database entries - but even Triad black labs put some standard identification "headers" into product molecular structures, if only to facilitate stock control, and this one looks very likely to be the sort of thing used in Triad brothels to make their bioroid staff more enthusiastic about their work. It's a short-term effect, though, albeit likely a powerful one.

In other words, it's very likely a powerful short-duration Felicia libido enhancer. Florence comments that, well, this might be considered to meet the requirements that she expressed to Sandy, although it's not something that she'd really have wanted if she'd been a real (naive) customer.

The team drops an e-mail to Marshall Kirkowicz, telling her what they've discovered, attaching the analysis data supplied by the lab, and suggesting that she looks for matches on her own, doubtless better, databases. She's off-duty at present, but one of her LAIs takes the message.

Then, they give things until midnight, but in the absence of any sign of Sandy, they head off to sleep - leaving a surveillance swarm on the street to record what it sees. Similarly, Florence tells Dougal to monitor news channels for any relevant reports and to wake her if necessary.

March 27, m0039

They get back to their apartments, but before they can settle down, Jianwei gets a call from the mystery woman (well, mystery female avatar). "Hi - Consuela here..." She claims to be merely asking how the business is going, and continues to present herself as a concerned citizen, despite Jianwei's fairly open attitude of suspicion. She takes his passing remarks about the video recordings on the Web in her stride - the team later tries to identify anyone who might have been her in those images, but lack sufficient data - and mentions "taking the Fifth", which the team think might mark her down as from an American cultural background. When Jianwei presses about her attitude to Sandy, she scowls and refers to him as a creep; the team's joint opinion is that she may well have been burned by him in the past. Then she politely drops the link.

So Vajra analyses the recording of the conversation, and notes that it has very low comms lag overall. "Consuela" was close by, although it's impossible to say quite how close. Given that she seemed to know that Jianwei had just got home, the conclusion must be that she's observing them somehow - maybe, say, from a nearby location, or even through access to the building's shared security camera network.

The next morning, the team heads into the embassy to start with - and almost immediately receive a call from Marshall Kirkowicz. She got their message of last night; she also received an alert from the commercial analysis lab, very slightly earlier. "You're going to pull diplomatic immunity on me, aren't you?"

She is prepared to be tolerant - "Okay, I'll treat this as a report of a probable crime, not you being party to a drug deal" - especially as, in technical terms, this is more a substance licensing issue than a drug-crime issue. So Jianwei repeats his suggestion of a cross-check of molecular signatures, and the Marshall sort-of agrees.

Anyway, she drops the call. The team are just running their analyses of the various recordings when the embassy systems send them a message: "There is an individual to see you..."

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The House of Fragrant Jasmine

March 26, m0039, continued

The team does wonder if their missing tourist might have passed any cameras to which they might gain sufficient access - but they can't think of any good way to get recordings from very many. They do check the systems as the EU embassy,which is a few streets away from Northern Territories, but Vajra's careful scan of those recordings don't turn up any sightings. So their next move is to make contact with some local hotels, and try and find the one where Kurt Weber-Markt is or was staying. This is simply a matter of filtering tourist guide hotel lists by price, languages spoken, and other plausible criteria, and then working down the sorted list. In fact, they are some way down - at the tenth, rather more of a sleazy dive than most well-off tourists would favour, and described as such in the guides - before they strike lucky. However, the hotel systems are entirely cooperative,happily confirming that Herr Weber-Markt is indeed booked in there, but that sensors and housekeeping records show that he didn't return to his room last night. Before that, he spent three nights in residence; he apparently had company on the second night, but the hotel's policy is to respect guests' and visitors' personal privacy as far as possible in such matters.

Meanwhile, the team's AIs have been skimming news channels and gossip blogs, looking for reports of bar fights in town last night or since; if their missing tourist took a powerful disinhibition nanodrug, he might have got himself into that sort of trouble. There was no shortage of such brawls - Port Lowell is that sort of town - but careful scanning and filtering excludes them all. So the team's next step is to contact the U.S. Marshall's office once again, and this time, they receive a little more assistance; they have a confirmed, if very recent, missing person situation, and a specific request - more access to camera records from around town. With the U.S. office's aid, they soon have a few hours more of recordings, which Vajra and the other AIs are able to scan at high speed. They do soon have a few sightings of somebody who was probably Weber-Markt shortly after he left Northern Territories, giving them a broad idea of which direction he went in, but they can't find enough to track his path properly, and the Marshall's office can't find enough compliant businesses to improve the trail. The team does think about using chem sniffers as mechanical "tracker dogs", but their quarry was wearing a Martian environment suit, which inevitably tends to keep biological traces and scents in, and the trail would involve a lot of very busy streets; that idea won't fly.

So it's back to the Marshall's office (via the Web) and its patiently helpful LAIs, with another request; to track their missing person's financial activities since last night. That's heavily covered by privacy rules, of course, but law enforcement systems can politely subpoena their way through those. A few minutes later, a brief string of payment records come through the Web from Weber-Markt's bank. The team decides that the interesting data points are those which come after the moment when Northern Territories auto-billed him for very minor (but nonetheless doubtless somewhat inflated) furniture damage costs. About half an hour after that, he authorised a moderately significant payment, in the hundreds of Euros; ten minutes after that, he made a smaller payment - say, enough for a couple of drinks; and fifteen minutes after that, some other entity, with vendor access to his credit system, made a series of test inquiries about funds available and authorisations required - the sort of thing that a business might (more or less legitimately) do to determine whether someone had immediate access to funds up to some specific level. But no actual payment was made, and since then - silence.

The bank can also provide a little information about the agency which processed all these payments and inquiries, although not their ultimate source - that's carefully screened at this level of authority. It was, as Vajra comments, a Bank of No Questions Asked, legally on Chinese territory where the Marshall's writ carries little weight. But there are proper channels for such queries - and more importantly, appropriate channels, if one has some idea how the game is played, and the name of a government or two behind one. So Jianwei puts a call through to the Chinese financial authorities, and finds an official who would like to retain the goodwill of the U.S. Marshals Service, and who can call in some favours...

(As Jianwei doesn't need Florence to tell him, he probably owes a favour or two himself now, from the point of view of those Chinese officials. That's the way the game is played, on Chinese territory.)

Ten minutes later, the official calls back. He's turned up the name of a holding company which was generating those requests; it's a purely virtual sort of outfit, but it doesn't take much financial knowledge at all to determine that it's American-owned and focused in Port Lowell - or much reading between the lines to work out that the businesses for which it provides a financial interface are actually, basically, brothels. Pulling down the list of establishments, checking their known prices for various services against the first expenditure from Weber-Markt's credit account, and filtering for location against the direction he appears to have been walking last night, turns up one promising-looking name: The House of Fragrant Jasmine.

This House has a nicely-designed Web frontage with a strongly Asian sort of style, but a very little careful assessment shows that the memetics here are mildly deceptive; it's really aimed primarily at Westerners looking for a little bit of safe exoticism. It's also a cybershell house, making its business not only legal but pretty uncontroversial by most public moral standards. Unless it's offering anything more dubious under the counter - and the standard guides don't suggest that it is - it may well be an entirely legitimate business.

So the team decide to pay a visit, and to be entirely open about their purpose for doing so. Still, they'd rather not look too aggressive, so they decide that only Jianwei and Florence will go in, while Vajra waits on the street outside, ready to provide support. As they may have to go direct from there to the meeting with Sandy, Florence dresses respectably (for her) in a little black dress (which happens to be armoured nanoweave - it's the only little black dress she's got), with some trashier clothes in a bag to change into later.

The House of Fragrant Jasmine does indeed have the look of a respectable sort of establishment, with a front-of-house reception area monitored by what is evidently a LAI that speaks to visitors through hidden loudspeakers. When Jianwei explains a little of the reason for their visit, it expresses concern and tells them that the manager will want to talk to them; some of the hangings that cover all the walls roll back, and a door opens silently, giving them admission to another room, similarly comfortable but a little more businesslike, with seats facing an ornate desk.

Another door, in the far side of the room, opens, and the manager, "Mistress Zeng", appears. She appears entirely human and ethnically East Asian; she's dressed in "silk" robes and makeup that mix the styles of a wealthy Chinese matron and a Japanese geisha. When she speaks, however, her words emerge from more hidden loudspeakers; her lips never move. She sits at the desk, and Jianwei explains something about the disappearance of Kurt Weber-Markt.

Mistress Zeng expresses concern at this story, but declares that she is unable to help; "If any person were able to assist with this matter, I am sure that they would do so ... however, it has been less than a day since this person vanished; I am sure he will reappear unhurt..." It is quite obvious that she is stonewalling (in a manner that accords with the house's style).

So Florence decides to try a slightly different approach. It's a fair bet that a place like this, however legitimate and respectable, will have some sort of acquaintance with the Martian triads - and her training, prior to her rescue by the Royal Navy, including a certain amount of appropriate protocol. So she speaks up, in Mandarin, and using terms that imply a Triad sort of attitude. "We're sure that you wouldn't want to put anyone to the trouble of waiting?"

This evidently throws Mistress Zeng a little; "I have no wish to trouble anyone..." although it doesn't change the situation instantly; all she says is "I suggest that you await developments..."

This leads to a tricky pause in the conversation - but then a wall-curtain whirs back to reveal another observer - a cyberdoll-style cybershell, built to resemble a physically imposing human male, and Mistress Zeng implies that the visitors might now depart. They do so, although there is a momentary face-off in the outer office, when Florence raises her hand in a gesture to tell the cybershell bouncer to step back, and the bouncer tries but fails to trap her hand. It seems to be LAI-operated, but to have a distinctly assertive programmed personality.

In any case, the team meet up again outside, and as the two organics brief Vajra, they turn back towards Northern Territories. Next on their schedule is Florence's appointment with Sandy...

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

She Walked Into My Office...

March 20-23, m0039

Over the next day or so, things turn quiet - no more attacks occur. Eventually, Marshall Kirkowicz drops by the embassy to talk to the team, She says that the incident seems to have put a rocket under law enforcement in Bako; while she doesn't hear everything, she believes that law enforcement there has run a series of sweeps, pulling in various individuals with connections to the Triads and elsewhere. She strongly suspects that the contract on Ouku/Kabra has been terminated; it will be drawing too much attention - and anyway, the European team have reason to believe that payment will no longer be coming through. She asks in passing about what the team know about the background to the incident and subsequent events, but the team can't tell her much; Florence for one shrugs and simply comments that "EU ambassadors are not without contacts".

(Florence also asks if she can recommend any bars, but doesn't get a very positive response; Kirkowicz mostly seems to regard bars as sources of trouble, and if she has any favourites of her own, they're quiet places which play a lot of traditional American music. Despite Dougal's recently acquired taste for country & western, they don't sound much fun to Florence, while Kirkowicz may not even want people to have the sort of fun that Florence is seeking.)

Anyway, given the circumstances, the Marshall has been able to arrange for the patient to be transferred to a major hospital in Robinson City, with a high level of security guaranteed. Tiberius is willing to authorise the transfer as acceptably safe - provided that he can go along and assist with this phase of the treatment. Hence, he disappears from Port Lowell for a time - and then, he announces that his personal plans have changed. The hospital is in fact willing to offer him a full-time position - good medical staff are still not that common on Mars, and he feels that he can do most good this way. He'll keep an apartment in Port Lowell, and he may still be available to the embassy from time to time, but he has evidently found himself somewhere where he can lose himself in his work.

March 26, m0039

After a couple more days of quiet, Jianwei is working in his office at the embassy one day, when his secretarial systems notify him that he has a caller in VR. Even his not-especially-trained eyes spot that this nameless newcomer is employing either a custom-design avatar or something selected with a lot of careful shopping; the visitor appears as a shapely woman in a classic little black dress, with a broad-brimmed black hat, high heels, and long black gloves. The effect is undeniably striking, but the face which meets Jianwei's look from under that brim is merely tolerably attractive rather than stunning, as might be expected with such a calculated image design. One thing that Jianwei's training in interpersonal relations does pick up is that the avatar moves easily and smoothly; it's almost certainly been matched carefully to the user's personal somatic model - she is almost certainly female, and probably looks somewhat like what Jianwei is seeing - or at least, she has looked like that for an extended period in the recent past.

Anyway, the visitor explains that she has "some information that you might need to know". She was, she says, in an Australian-territory bar, "Northern Territories", last night, when she saw one of the regulars, who goes by the name of "Sandy", doing business with someone who was pretty obviously a rich European tourist. Sandy isn't someone she likes, but he's one of those people who it's sometimes hard not to hear about - he handles all sorts of stuff "from the Belt" (implying that he's a low-level criminal entrepreneur with connections to the Triads). But he's been down on his luck lately, and in any case, the visitor wouldn't consider him to be a good place to go for recreational purchases, if you're sensible.

Anyway, the tourist retired to a private room at the back of the bar for a few minutes, then made to leave in a hurry. He somehow got into a dispute with one of the bar's bouncers on the way - and punched the man out. Sandy, meanwhile, had faded even sooner.

The implication is that someone for whom the EU might have to take responsibility has indulged in something - probably a brainbug - with radically unfortunate effects; some preemptive investigation does seem indicated. The visitor can't or won't offer much more information on the topic, though, and de-resolves shortly after telling this story; Jianwei calls the team together to decide how to proceed.

Their response involves a certain amount of caution, verging on paranoia. Certainly, they seem obliged to follow up the story, but they aren't sure why anyone would have told it to them - to set "Sandy" up for a fall, perhaps? They're determined to be careful. They do try putting a call through to Marshall Kirkowicz, but don't get much help there - she's a busy person, and they don't have a name to put to their report, while the location they're talking about is off her area of responsibility - there's a slight sense she thinks they're wasting her time, frankly.

So they begin by checking the Web site belonging to "Northern Territory", discovering that its slogan seems to be "What's Your Pleasure?"; it appears to be set up to exploit Australian extraterritorial status, Australia having especially relaxed laws in many areas, apart from weapons. (It's not as if there's much of an Australian population on Mars.) Some Web reviews confirm the impression; this is a bar where most things go and can probably be bought, provided that you don't annoy other clients too much. Jianwei also downloads a VR art appraisal system and has Aunty run it over the recording of the visitor's avatar; its conclusion is "good but not haute couture" - the clothes are a style cliche, but a cliche that's lasted 150+ years obviously has its strengths, while the system guesses that the face is either the one that the user wants for a very personal reason, or their original face which they've since changed in reality. The only other angle to check immediately is European tourists gone missing or in trouble, but there are no obvious answers there, and too many Europeans on Mars; they need to narrow their search first.

So the team decide to hit the bar - but doing so in a group might be problematic, so they'll send Florence, who's best equipped to look after herself, in alone, while the others hold themselves ready in another place just down the road. Lunchtime seems like the best bet, so that's when Florence goes in, less heat-suited up than most of the clientele, and orders a clone-meat kangaroo burger. (Her nonhuman physique attracts a little extra attention, but not enough to worry about.) She knows enough about how the shady side of things go to get a feel for how business is done here; the bar's own stock isn't overly remarkable (kangaroo meat and Castlemaine XXXX aside), but the place provides a venue for a range of dealings in moderately dark corners, and offers booths - for a small extra charge - that are doubtless used when a customer wants to try a brainbug or whatever straight away. She also notes that the place is set up as a Faraday cage - there's no transmissions in or out, except through a cable link provided by the bar, which demands access to content and reserves the right to block what's sent. It's far from perfect privacy, but it's as good as a place like this can reasonably offer (and it might make calling for help harder, should trouble break out).

Florence next finds a way to ask the (human) barman if "Sandy" is around, and is pointed towards a nondescript fellow who turns out to have an American accent. She's thought of a line that would explain her interest in him.

"Got anything that'll work with my biochemistry?"

"Maybe. What sort of thing are you after?"

"Just something for a good-time party girl, you know?"

"Hmm. I might be able to get something. Can you come back here later? About 7?"

Florence agrees to that, and ends the conversation. However, she has no more luck socialising with anyone in the place, so she eventually heads out (noting in passing that the bouncer currently on duty appears undamaged) and links up with the other two a few minutes later.

They discuss what she's learned, and wonder if there's any way to discover what happened last night. Florence has the idea of checking video/InVid sharing sites - and sure enough, by dint of some appropriate search term selection, Vajra soon finds one or two recordings. They show the interior of the bar, someone with a definite rich-tourist look leaving in a hurry and brushing past a bouncer, a brief exchange - and then the tourist throwing a snap punch that evidently catches the bouncer unawares, putting him on the floor. It doesn't look like a very expert attack by Florence's standards, although the tourist might possibly have basic self-defence training and be using target-marker software; it was a lucky blow, and a bouncer who didn't bother to continue the fight given that the opponent was out of the door before he was back on his feet. But if the tourist has purchased a disinhibition brainbug that can make him act that way, he may indeed be in trouble - or be causing it.

Of course, the recording does give the team an image of the individual, which they can run against records of EU citizens on Mars - and now they get a match. Kurt Weber-Markt is an Austrian citizen - and when Jianwei places a call to his address of record, he gets a "Not Available" response. Well, at least they have an actual problem to solve now. Unfortunately, though, there's not much more of use in the recording - no sign of anyone who might be the mystery visitor, for example.

But another thing they think to check is comments on the InVid site; there are a few, of course, mostly casually if slightly maliciously amused, some slightly concerned. One, though, a casual "Yeah, I saw this - it really happened", comes from a familiar name; Mika Hernandez, the team's downstairs neighbour. So they call him, and find him amiably helpful; he hasn't much to add, but he tells them what he can - except on the matter of Sandy, mention of whom makes him rather evasive.

So the team files a Probably Missing Person report with the Marshall's Office for Kurt Weber-Markt, and plan their next step.