Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Venom of the Serpent

March 8, m0039

Back on a maglev train, the group discuss the next phase of their investigation. First, though, Tiberius mentions that he has received a Web message from an acquaintance in Military Intelligence, which among other things, notes that, so far as that organisation has been able to establish, the hospital where he was uploaded is run ethically, and there have been no signs of the Chinese "Bureau" agencies taking an interest there lately; the privacy of his scan has probably not been compromised. Perhaps of more immediate importance, the agency has noted Tiberius's activities and concerns since his restoration, and having checked its own data sources, it has reason to believe that American Space Intelligence Agency operatives were active in or near the same part of Mars when Tiberius suffered his accident - although the SIA is unwilling to explain what exactly they may have been doing there.

This leads to a little discussion in itself. It seems unlikely that the SIA would be responsible for shooting down Tiberius's hopper - while they and the Europeans sometimes work at cross purposes, the two factions aren't actively hostile - but it's possible that Tiberius diverted to meet an SIA agent, although he can't suggest any reason why he'd have done so. Anyway, it's more information to consider. The group also discusses how to handle the visit to the Peruvians, although Florence rapidly loses interest as the planning grows more detailed and conditional.

As they travel, they are also contacted by Quentin, who tells them that he's arranged transport for them to the Nova Iquitos site. It's been hard to find a vehicle to rent - they're heading into more sparsely populated territory - but he's been able to book passage on a cross-country road train. However, the group aren't entirely happy with this; it will leave them on site with no transport of their own if they suddenly find that they have to leave in a hurry. Quentin is apologetic, but vehicle availability is a problem... Eventually, though, he says that, if they can avoid getting into trouble for twelve to twenty-four hours or so, he can arrange for a rented rover to drive itself to the site and make itself available for them after that time.

Eventually, the maglev train reaches the team's stop - which proves to be a halt rather than a station. They disembark, and determine that they have a couple of hours to wait before the road train arrives. Sitting around on their luggage proves boring, so they decide to take a walk and look at the local rock formations.

After a little while, they hear another maglev arrive from the other direction and stop, and Web tags indicate that someone else has disembarked. They contact the new arrival by radio, and discover that it is Dr Ming-Mei Liang, a Chinese planetologist, who is meeting the same road train; when they say what they are doing, she asks to patch through to their cameras, and promptly spends ten minutes telling them about the science of the rock formations. They return to the halt, and discover Dr Liang sitting with a large travelling case; however, she says that she isn't packed for a long visit - this is simply her professional equipment.

She's happy to talk, and explains that she too is visiting Nova Iquitos; indeed, it emerges that it was her who arranged for the road train to come this way and to have a passenger module installed - Quentin then got lucky on the party's behalf, as the module has enough spare capacity for them. Dr Liang, it seems, is heading this way to perform some research. Nova Iquitos have recently been reporting some much better-than-expected performance by the ecological "oases" they monitor - gene-crafted bacteriological/fungal cultures planted out in the Martian desert, part of the terraforming process. This has attracted a certain amount of attention, as it would be good news for the terraformers if these results are accurate, but they do seem very good, so it seems like a worthwhile idea for an impartial scientific investigator to review them in situ.

The road train arrives, and proves to be owned and run by a single driver - an organic human, not an upload like some Martian truckers. This is Harvey Hernandez, an American citizen who wears a Stetson over his heat suit and speaks with a definite drawl. Hernandez seems amiable and spry enough, but some of the party decide that he has something of the look of an elderly man; indeed, he eventually lets slip that this is his second career - he spent forty years working as an accountant. He's a rejuvenated eloi, and a recurver.

The PCs and Dr Liang load their luggage onto the road train and climb into the passenger module. This proves comfortable enough, with sufficient bunks for all of them (with sound-deadening curtains), giving Florence a chance to catnap a little, and also a fully functional miniature kitchen. It's docked immediately behind the train's tractor unit, with a linked airlock, and once the whole assembly is underway again, Harvey leaves the driving to his personal AI, Sundance, and comes through to join them and talk. He doesn't get company on many trips, and while this may not worry him, he's happy enough to have someone to chat to.

The travellers swap stories of Mars and elsewhere, and get on well enough, although Harvey's taste for Country and Western music on the sound system might become wearing (Florence decides that she likes it in small doses). Eventually, the group call up dinner; Harvey's systems specialise in Tex-Mex cookery, and can produce a passable taco if one allows for the possible provenance of the "meat". However, as the travellers eat and drink, both Harvey and Dr Liang look a little oddly at their drinks, although the Europeans, their taste buds adjusting to unaccustomed spicing, don't notice anything. Harvey steps over to the recycling system maintenance panel and begins checking diagnostics as all the organic travellers begin to look a little queasy.

Harvey sits down looking distinctly unhappy before he can complete the maintenance checks, and both Jianwei and Florence are feeling fairly seriously unwell by now; however, Dr Liang didn't eat or drink as much when she noticed the odd taste, and Tiberius has the benefits of a boosted liver, installed in his original body during his military career and carried over in the spec for his bioshell, which counteracts the toxins without difficulty. He considers the diagnostics available from his computer-body interface systems, and recognises the problem instantly; a bacteriological infection that sometimes occurs in some types of water recycling system. It's supposed to be a rare problem, easily eliminated by competent maintenance, but sometimes people do get sloppy.

As Florence takes to her bunk and then grabs a bowl more or less in time (leaving her cleaner swarm with a little work to do on her fur later) and Jianwei and Harvey sit groaning, Tiberius checks the vehicle's medical supplies and his own portable kit, and comes up with a reasonable set of treatments. Then he tells his AI aide, Vediovis, to load the system's maintenance manual, takes Harvey's place at the panel, and works out how to purge and reset the water recycling system. By now, Sundance is asking if it should turn the vehicle back towards the nearest community with medical facilities, but this is vetoed all round; Tiberius's treatments seem to have been effective, and there's some sense among some of the travellers that this may not be as much of an accident as it looks.

So Vajra sends a swarm into the interior of the module's life support systems, using it to look for anomalies - and finds one. Something - larger than a swarm element, small enough to fit in the access spaces - moves quickly across one microbot's field of view. So Vajra pulls up more schematics and consults with Jianwei, who has an eye for tactics. Then, he and Tiberius begin to move and dismantle some elements of the system, isolating their target. Eventually, they give it no more places to hide - and they are ready when the miniature snakebot pops into view.

Florence fires first, but the snakebot ducks away from her tangler shell, which merely makes a mess on wall. However, the thing is unable to evade Jianwei's electrolaser bolt, and lies twitching and writhing for long enough for Florence to score a clean hit with a second tangler shot. Then Tiberius's army background kicks in, and he suggests that everyone takes cover - he's trained to expect miniature cybershells to incorporate self-destruct systems. Everyone follows his lead, with varying degrees of agility and haste, but the snakebot takes a while to recover any sort of control, and any autonomous self-destruct systems it may include evidently aren't set too sensitive. Eventually, Vajra decides that he can afford to take a risk, grabs a cushion from the seating, and tries to use it to screen the effects if the snakebot does explode. He's still trying to get the cushion in place when it does explode, in fact, but it only carries a small charge, and the tangler covering it effectively absorbs the blast.

There are some parts of the snakebot left intact, though; it may be time to try some ad hoc forensics.

Monday, April 5, 2010

A Handful of Dust

March 4, m0039, continued

The team spend the rest of that day sorting out the gear that they might need for this investigation. Dr Vartex has received a set of packages, routed by Quentin at the embassy, containing his personal effects from both Nova Iquitos and his old rented flat; the rest of the team note that this package has a security seal, suggesting that some of the contents may be legally controlled in some jurisdictions - probably nothing very worrying, but it seems that the doctor may own a sidearm or two. He reports that, by the best of his recollection and available records, there's nothing of his obviously missing or showing signs of tampering. That aside, the team apply some of their expenses budget to acquiring or (mostly) renting survey equipment, which fortunately proves to be fairly widely available - New Shanghai is a major city on a frontier world, not very far from a university, after all. Specifically, they pick up a lightweight ground-penetrating radar system, a small excavation cybershell, and an excavation cyberswarm to go with Vajra's survey swarms.

March 5, m0039

The next day is mostly occupied by a long maglev ride to the small Chinese outpost where a hotel booking and a rented rover will be waiting for them. They take the opportunity to catch up on paperwork and correspondence - Florence has a set of lessons from her continuing education in human society to deal with, and Dr Vartex has a slew of messages welcoming him back to the land of the living and expressing best wishes (and maybe one or two making it clear that old acquaintances regard him, not as his former self, but as a technological abomination). They also continue to talk over the question of what and who might have been behind Dr Vartex's death; their current preferred guesses involve some kind of smuggling operation.

At the stop, they check into one of a widespread chain of capsule hotels, and then look around. This is the place where the medical team who saved Vartex's life were based; it might perhaps be worth trying to locate these people, if only so that Vartex can thank them. Unfortunately, Jianwei doesn't manage to convince the clerk at the medical centre to be very helpful, but the group simply slip around the back of the site, find an employee who's willing to chat, and get the name of a bar (one of the three in the town) where the flying medics relax in their evenings. It seems that most of the team who found Vartex are still stationed here, and when Jianwei and Florence - the most sociable of the four - buy them a round of drinks and introduce Dr Vartex as "one of your success stories", they're more than willing to talk. (They too seem at heart to regard Vartex as a piece of software carrying some useful information recovered from a corpse, but as sophisticates by the standards of their society and also medics, they can still see this as a worthwhile thing. Anyway, one of them mutters, whatever the official legal position on ghosts in Chinese territory, there are rumours about some members of the Central Committee back in Beijing.) They remember that day last year fairly well - it was a dramatic sort of incident, after all - and one of them comments, when asked, that their aircraft's radar screens showed two ground vehicles more or less in the vicinity of the crash, though neither was visible at the scene when they arrived - they assumed that both were passing desert travellers who initially responded to Vartex's hopper's automatic distress call, but turned away once it was clear that the medics would get there first and be best equipped to help. The relevant sensor logs should still be available...

Meanwhile, Dougal has been mildly annoying the bartenders and some other customers who use augmented reality by running up and down the bar. Once Florence has persuaded him to stop and apologised for this, and also finished politely fending off an unconvincing amorous approach by one of the bar's other patrons, the four Europeans retire to their four capsules in the hotel for the night.

March 6, m0039

The next morning, reminded by his AI aide, the friendly Chinese medical team member from the night before does indeed transmit those sensor logs to the team, around the time that they are collecting and loading up their rented heavy rover. Once they are underway, they're able to review this material; examining it closely with trained eyes (and both Jianwei and Dr Vartex have some knowledge of intelligence analysis), they note first that both vehicles were showing only minimal transponder response - legally sufficient, and enough to avoid suspicion from casual observers, but not very informative. They also decide that one of the vehicles was probably at the location which the hopper would have reached had it not been shot down, and that it probably never came very close to the crash site; the other, which came from the shoot-down point, was probably the one that did reach the crash, but wouldn't have had very long there before the medical team arrived. This raises the question of why that individual didn't finish off Dr Vartex while he had the chance - but even if he didn't have other priorities, he may not even have seen the body amongst the wreckage, or he may have thought that Dr Vartex looked sufficiently dead - and putting in another shot to be sure would probably have left a mess that even a careless forensic examination would have noticed. Another point to note is that both vehicles would have needed to be long-range, well-supplied types if they could loiter in that area for long without having to head for some nearby community for fuel and life support recharges (the team's own rented rover comes with a trailer to carry extra fuel for this trip), but such specialised models do exist.

Although the rover comes with a NAI that can drive it competently, Florence decides that she wants to practise her vehicles skills. Her VR training was actually for lighter models, but she manages this one adequately, and decides to train up on such vehicles - the team will doubtless use others of the same general type again in future. After lunch, Jianwei too takes a turn behind the wheel, although he has a little more trouble - the vehicle AI cuts in to offer assistance at one point.

By the end of the day, the others note that Dr Vartex is looking especially withdrawn and grim, and realise that the thought of visiting the scene of his own death is becoming a little oppressive for him. Still, he focuses on the task in hand, and everyone prepares for the task of investigation. Rather than drive over the site, they stop a mile or two short of their destination, by which time it is late enough in the day that the three organic team members decide that they should settle down to sleep after eating and some final planning. Vajra, on the other hand, simply dons a bit of cold weather protection and some light-enhancing goggles, takes a full set of cyberswarms, and sets out to prepare an initial map of the location in preparation for the next day's work.

March 7, m0039

Hence, the team are awoken in the morning by the returning humaniform cybershell, and start their day with a prepared coordinate map of the crash site and some initial imagery. They drive carefully up to the scene, which has fortunately not been too badly disrupted by weather in the past year, and set to work.

The ground-penetrating radar locates a number of additional fragments which they're able to excavate, and they contact Quentin to tell him that these will eventually be sent his way. He in reply says that he's still having some difficulty locating a fully-qualified forensic analyst who the embassy can consider entirely impartial, but he's been able to conduct some analysis himself, and he's sent high-resolution scans and images back to Earth for assessment by specialists in Brussels; so far, everything seems to confirm the missile-damage hypothesis, although the best bet then is that a shaped charge projectile was used, and it's not clear that enough chemical traces would remain after this time to establish any more about that.

Looking at the site, and using downloaded skill sets to conduct efficient searches and to perform forensic analysis of their findings, the team decide that they can provisionally further confirm this conclusion. They also think that Dr Vartex was quite lucky, in that the craft's pilot AI did a good job of moderating the force of the crash, which is why he was, bluntly, in few enough pieces when the medical team arrived that they were able to recover his brain. The doctor also looks at everything that can be reconstructed from the site, both from the Chinese forensic store and with the aid of this extra work and equipment, and decides that he is pretty sure that there was nothing substantial being carried on the aircraft for which he could not account - unless of course it was recovered at the time.

So the team next extend the area of their search out in two directions, using the ground-penetrating sensors and more downloaded skill sets to track the two vehicles back along their respective paths. This is difficult at this distance in time, of course, and they quickly lose the tracks of the person who apparently performed the shoot-down. However, working back logically, they find the place where that vehicle most likely was located when whoever was on it opened fire; the combat-trained members of the group decide that this looks like a well-planned ambush from well-chosen cover. As for the other vehicle, which the hopper was apparently descending to meet, they decide that it must have been waiting for at least a little time on that spot. However, neither left much in the way of traces such as discarded refuse; both vehicles were apparently being operated by competent professionals who knew something about secrecy. Both seem to have moved off in roughly opposite directions - east and west - evidently after the Chinese medical team showed up, although there's no hope of following their trails for very long.

By the end of the day, the group still have no idea who attacked Dr Vartex, who the other party was, or how his hopper was diverted, whether by software subversion or some other means - but they have a fairly detailed picture of the events of that day, and at least they haven't been attacked (a possibility which had crossed their minds). The next step, they think, is to follow the trail back to the Peruvians of Nova Iquitos - which means taking the rented rover back to the maglev track, moving on to a stop yet further west, and then heading out from there. In order to save time, they tell the rover's AI to take over the driving and head back along the route it now knows, with Vajra keeping watch, while the three organic party members catch some sleep in its capacious seats.

So, next on the itinerary is Elysium Planitia.