On a Meizi-class Mars Interplanetary PSV which is just beginning the burns for its injection into Mars orbit, Jianwei Chen, a passenger, receives a message from his new posting - the EU embassy in Port Lowell. He was expecting to take the elevator straight down from Deimos to the planet's surface, but he is now instructed to remain on Deimos station for a couple of days. It seems that one of his new team-mates, Adele Florence, will be arriving on a Mochi-class independent-operator PSV from the Belt in that time, and as, technically, a legal minor, she really needs to be escorted through to Port Lowell. Anyway, this will represent the first opportunity for them to become acquainted.
Libra 23, m0039
On arrival and disembarkation at Deimos, most passengers from the PSV turn right towards the elevator terminal. Following an augmented reality tag, Jianwei turns left, taking the tunnel to Deimos's one hotel, instructing his implant AI as he goes to make sure that his luggage is being correctly routed. It is; confirmation comes in particular from the utilitarian trunk with attached tags that proclaim it, at every opportunity, to be EU administration property, travelling under diplomatic pouch privileges, not to be opened by any unauthorised party.
In the next couple of days, Jianwei samples what few pleasures Deimos has to offer, taking a particular interest in the local workers' restaurants. The invention of the spherical wok, for use in free fall, does produce some interesting cookery, but the practicalities are complex; the slightly more expensive restaurant which has a centrifuge track running around its circular perimeter, with automated cooking conducted as woks hurtle around that, perhaps achieves better results overall. Various solutions have been attempted to the problem of human taste responses changing in free fall, he notes, with varying success.
December 31, 2099/Libra 24, m0039
Vajra, a full-sapient AI and citizen of the Faroe Islands, shuts down on the mainframe in Brussels, Earth, where he is currently instantiated, in the process triggering a pre-set transmission protocol. From his point of view, he is immediately reactivated in what he realises must be a Virtual Reality environment; he and one other inhabitant are on a platform hovering above a floor made up of glowing squares, occupied by a cluster of what look like utility cybershells - but stupidly cute cybershells, moving clumsily on tracks or wheels and with cameras that look like mammalian eyes.
"I'm Quentin," it says. "I handle logistics for the embassy. I'm afraid that we haven't got the humanoid shell that you requested quite sorted yet, but it should be ready in a day or two. I thought that you might want to take a look round now you're here, though. We can provide you with time on a few mainframes and access to some external cameras."
"Thank you," Vajra replies.
"No trouble. Your team are on schedule to arrive at Deimos in the next couple of days. You might want to go meet them there. We can get you time on the Deimos and elevator car systems."
Vajra thanks him again. Quentin gestures towards the floor below them. "Do you play?" he asks.
"I... could" Vajra replies. Quentin transfers a set of rules for RoboRally v.17 as well as some briefing data relevant to his new work. Vajra departs to take a look around Mars.
Libra 25, m0039
When Florence's PSV docks, Jianwei makes arrangements for his luggage to be transferred to the elevator car on which they'll be riding, and heads to the arrivals hall, where the local AR systems guide them to each other. She is s strikingly attractive if heavily-furred Felicia bioroid, whereas his appearance is much more nearly baseline human. As they greet each other, Jianwei's personal implant AI, "Aunty", requests permission to manifest in AR, for convenience, suggesting that she adopts miniature form to avoid cluttering up his field of view. Likewise, "Dougal", the AI running on Florence's slinky implant, speaks in her inner ear.
"You seem to be trying to initiate a new professional relationship. Would you like some help with that?"
"No!" she snaps.
"Well, could I at least put myself into your public AR? In miniature form?"
Florence allows that. Hence, there now appears to be a tiny elderly Chinese lady, with a collection of scrolls and bottles, sitting in Jianwei's shoulder, and a near-cylindrical artificial but furry form - perhaps a puppet of a dog - circling Florence's head. Introductions are extended to the two AIs.
The two travellers make their way to the elevator car, which proves to be an adequately comfortable but essentially budget-class passenger module. As they arrive, onboard systems inform them that Vajra has been installed on the onboard computer, and with their consent, his avatar too appears in their AR view.
The two organic beings find their accommodation - minimal bunks, but adequate for the two-day trip down - and sit down together to compare notes. The task for which they have been recruited appears to be to provide active, mobile consular services for EU citizens on Mars, taking some of the load off the current embassy staff; Jianwei is a professional member of the diplomatic service, Vajra can provide surveillance and general computer resources, and Florence is trained in personal protection work. They then briefly exchange life stories.
Jianwei is ethnic Chinese, but a British citizen by birth; his family have been resident in the UK for generations (on both sides). They are cautious by nature, and he has the first significant genetic upgrade in the family; an Alpha. Unfortunately, this may have had an unexpected side-effect; while very bright, he lacks the mathematical abilities which have been present in the Chens for so many generations that everyone assumes that they are at least partially genetic. Hence, he didn't follow the family tradition of going to work in the computer software or engineering industries, but took his interpersonal skills to the EU diplomatic service. However, that is full of very experienced people with no plans to retire very soon - so when the chance came up of an assignment to Mars, he took it as one of the few unobstructed paths going. Aunty was a parting gift from one of his relatives; although only low-sapient, she is an exceptionally capable medical AI.
Florence, on the other hand, has a more dramatic history, having been extracted from a vat in the wake of a Royal Navy raid on a criminal enterprise in the asteroid belt a couple of years ago. It appears that she was being prepared as a companion and bodyguard for a Martian Triad boss, but fortunately, the raid came before the conditioning could go too deep. The Navy and the EU government gave her sufficient therapy to live as a free citizen, and she has since been wandering the system. Although she went down the well as far as Earth orbit and Luna, experience on a few stations there with sufficient spin showed her that she didn't relish full Earth gravity levels, and she briefly returned to the Belt before reports from Navy intelligence and Rust China convinced her that the Triad boss who she had been scheduled to call Master was now completely removed from the picture, and hence that Mars, the world for which she was shaped, was now safe enough for her. Somewhere along the line, her therapy or education involved somebody with an odd taste for recovering mid-20th-century children's television programmes from the depths of the Web, which explains where the name and usual avatar appearance of the fairly standard LAI in her implant came from.
Lastly, Vajra admits that much of his own history is unknown even to himself. He was first instantiated in Thailand, and he has some reason to believe that he was classed as property of the Thai military and that he worked for them during the Pacific War. However, large segments of his memory have been comprehensively (and apparently voluntarily) edited out - perhaps even self-edited - before or during his move to the EU, where he informally claimed asylum. (The current Thai government hasn't objected to him leaving the country, at least not formally or overtly, but living in the EU certainly makes him a lot more legally secure than he would be in Thailand.) He is assisted by a non-sapient program he calls Samadhi.
By now, the elevator car is moving downwards towards the planet, and the sense of acceleration has been replaced again by free fall. It was morning, local time, when they departed Deimos, and by the time everyone is settled in and introductions are done, a visit to the elevator's common area, a bar-restaurant, seems in order. That gives them a chance to observe the other passengers on this run; aside from a few low-level business types, mostly Chinese and mostly so quiet as to be almost invisible, there is a group of slightly odd-looking passengers, all Mars-adapted ethnic Chinese, speaking mostly Cantonese and generally with a blue collar air about them - and a pretty rough bunch at that, perhaps, favouring cosmetic biomods such as flickering luminescent cells on the skin of their arms - and also favouring loud partying in the bar, with plenty of old-fashioned alcohol. Jianwei notes that one of them seems to have poor fine motor co-ordination, spilling a fair amount of his drink.
There is also one human on the elevator staff - the bartender, a slim woman, probably Caucasian with a significant genetic upgrade, favouring baggy trousers and a vest-top. Her head is almost completely shaven, and decorated with a (presumably temporary) tattoo of a double equilateral triangle design. She is under the supervision of a low-sapient management system (who addresses her as "Triangle"), as it seems, and proves amicable and competent enough in her work.
At some point during the afternoon, the rowdy party on the far side of the room progresses to a perhaps inevitable stage, as one of the group throws a kick at another - quite a competent blow, by the look of it, but alcohol damps the brawler's appreciation of action and reaction, and he comes spinning across the room. Jianwei and Florence attempt to get out of the way, but not very successfully; Florence in particular was apparently looking the other way at the critical moment, and the brawler cannons straight into her. Whether it's her bioroid nature or just sheer reflex rowdiness is unclear, but the fellow apparently decides to take offence at her, goes into a combat pose, and starts throwing punches. She holds him off for a while, although he is clearly a trained fighter; meanwhile, his drinking buddies gather around, but seem disinclined to join in, even before Jianwei sidles up to one of them and drops a polite hint about the unwisdom of enlarging this incident. Vajra, who is watching everything through the bar's cameras, notes the bartender speaking rapidly to thin air; doubtless, she has access to the elevator's privileged management systems.
Deciding that her opponent isn't going to see sense, and unable to get any purchase on him (she's not a trained grappler), Florence begins trading punches, and finds that she has an adequate edge here; in fact, the first solid blow she lands, a full karate punch to the ribs, puts him out of the fight with cracked ribs. At about the same moment, the barkeep decides on a simple and classical way of asserting authority, and mimes firing a shotgun into the ceiling. She doesn't have a shotgun, of course, but the bar's sound systems provide a very convincing emulation of the noise, so the results are just about as good.
Jianwei takes charge at this point, organising the defeated fighter's friends to transport him to the elevator's medical facilities. In the process, he notes that both this fighter and some of his friends already show signs of recent injury and high-tech medical treatment. The friends seem impressed by Florence's rapid defeat of "Chow"; it's beginning to look like they are dedicated, possibly even professional, members of Mars's renowned martial arts sub-culture. A little more research reminds him that impaired motor skills, as displayed by another of the group, may be the result of a botched NERV drug treatment - a quick and too often dirty way to boost nervous system functionality. One possibility is that this group were travelling from a more or less illicit tournament on Deimos or somewhere else in orbit.
Meanwhile, Florence falls into conversation with the bartender, who seems happy enough that the brawl was resolved quickly and relatively cleanly. She asks what brings Florence here, and Florence - whose job is, after all, not a matter of any official secrecy - is open about going to work as a troubleshooter for the EU embassy.
Libra 26 & 27, m0039
The rest of that day and all of the next pass quietly - the martial arts group seem a little chastened now. Everyone can admire the breathtaking view, and on the next morning, they are all treated to the slightly disconcerting sight of the surface of the planet seemingly suddenly hurtling up towards them, although the elevator decelerates gradually and safely to a landing. Everyone disembarks, including the bartender, who is now toting a simple shoulder-bag, and our heroes are pleased to discover that there are no local authorities awaiting them. Presumably, given that the recordings from the bar cameras will show clearly that the person who started the fight was the one who then suffered significant injury, and that they are travelling on consular passports, the local cops have decided that launching any sort of formal investigation would be more trouble than it's worth. Or perhaps the martial arts group have connections. Anyway, they pass through immigration with no trouble.
At around this point, meanwhile, Vajra receives a message from Quentin, telling him that the humaniform cybershell that he requested is now available there in New Shanghai, in a shipping warehouse across town, and including an address to which he should transfer. Vajra follows standard protocols, and finds himself in a packing crate otherwise full of biofoam™ peanuts. He emerges and makes his way across town to join the other two on a maglev car bound for Port Lowell.
As they settle down on the comfortable carriage for the day-long run, all three of the group receive copies of the same Web message. This consists first of links to two postings elsewhere on the Mars Web; one is a brief and chatty politics-gossip blog mentioning that the EU embassy is apparently setting up some kind of troubleshooting team of unclear capabilities and mission, while the other consists of some good-quality video footage of the brawl in the elevator bar, but with the faces of the various participants neatly blanked out. (The fact that one was a Felicia would have been hard to hide, though.) This is simply marked as an interesting instance of a martial arts enthusiast meeting his well-merited match. The two posts are not linked in any way, except that both clearly come from the same poster. This may be why the message also contains a single line of text and a signature.
You owe me!
-- Double Delta.
The new team look at each other. Tomorrow, they actually start work...