Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Observations and Assessments

March 10, m0039, continued

And so the team are on their train, in a carriage temporarily defined as EU territory, for a twenty-hour journey. Actually, the trip is going to be divided in two; once they reach a stop on the edge of more densely inhabited territory, they're booked to transfer to a sleeper car. Meanwhile, this two-carriage train picks up only a few more passengers - Chinese colonists, only one of whom decides that a carriage occupied by a bunch of foreigners, one of them a Felicia who's nursing an automatic weapon, is preferable to one occupied by a group of large gentlemen whose manner screams "Chinese government agents" (and even he sits as far from the group as possible).

Just moments before the train reaches the stop where they're due to change, Jianwei efforts in preparing reports for the embassy are interrupted by a call over the Web. The caller speaks as though she knows him, and identifies herself as "Diana D'Ollio".

"Oh yes," says Jianwei, guessing that this is the bartender from the elevator car, "I've been thinking about you..." Which is no more than the truth; however, he asks her to call back in ten minutes, by which time he's able to chat as he eats takeaway Chinese food in the sleeping compartment.

It turns out that her software agents alerted her to a report appearing on a technological problems board; wildly misbehaving hoppers aren't exactly common on Mars, and the incident earlier that day is sure to draw attention - she's merely got in first. She was quite impressed by the video footage she found, and is politely amused by Jianwei's responses to her probing. (Well, politely by her standards. "Oh yes - you're government scum, not corporate scum, aren't you?") She knows some basics that the team also picked up - that the hopper, which had only recently arrived at the maglev stop, was the property of a small hire company with rather obscure ownership, now that anyone checks. The software and software-hardware combination (supposedly) involved are being investigated, but no other anomalous behaviours seem to showing up so far. She suspects that there's more to be found.

"I don't suppose that you can give me anything else to look up while you decide what you can tell me?"

"No," Jianwei replies, "but do check the news for the last 36 hours."

"Okay. That's not just a distraction for the next six or twelve, is it?"

"I don't know."

"Fine, okay. By the way, do bear in mind that not all of my colleagues are as subtle and polite as me..."

She ends the call, and the train journey continues, with the train stopping occasionally for other passengers. Dr Vartex explores the benefits of his new part-electronic condition, turning his hearing down so as to sleep more easily. But as everyone settles in, the unsleeping Vajra notices one passenger, apparently confused and in the wrong carriage, pausing for oddly long outside the group's compartment. He puts some surveillance dust out through a ventilation vent, and is pleased to determine that there are no obvious booby-traps or weapons outside; however, when he follows this up with a bug-hunter swarm, he does find some other surveillance dust. So he sends a surveillance swarm further afield, into the carriage where the "lost" passenger is now sitting, and manages to identify him and acquire a decent video image. Running this through a facial recognition system and accessing a few public databases achieves a quick success; this is a known professional freelance reporter. So Vajra leaves messages with his colleagues' AI aides

March 11, m0039

When the organic team members awake, they all consult silently and decide on a policy. Florence lends Vajra her cleaning swarm, and he uses that and his other resources to locate and gather up the dust that's supposed to be watching them. They put it in a disposable cup, to be left in the compartment when they depart.

When the maglev train eventually reaches Port Lowell, Dr Vartex receives a message from "some people he knows", and announces that he's going to have to leave the others now; somebody to whom he evidently feels obliged to respond has called him in for a debriefing. The others bid him goodbye and head to the embassy, where Colette Schmidt calls them all in for a meeting in person. Once they're all seated and basic courtesies have been observed, she gives an invisible signal, and one whole wall of the room turns into a viewscreen, showing a virtual space that is designed to look like an extension of the office. This space holds one chair, which is occupied by a figure - clearly an avatar, not designed to look entirely realistic; a man all dressed in grey, with his grey-tinged face partly in shadow.

Schmidt introduces this as "Mr Grey", a representative of certain agencies who've been assisting with background investigations regarding recent incidents, and then hands things over to him. Mr Grey nods and begins to talk.

First, he apologises for any mistakes on the part of his organisation that may have caused or exacerbated the team's recent problems. It's clear that they became mixed up in a complex situation, made worse by what was probably sheer coincidence in that they found themselves in company with Dr Liang. Anyway, it would be useful to know more, so "appropriate people" have been trying to extract more information from the SIA, who have been slow to respond; it seems probably that they've been escalating questions of need-to-know right back to Earth orbit. Still, they've released a little more now.

So the EU now has a file on "Quipu", although they aren't necessarily sure that it exists as anything more than a codename for some temporary operation, or perhaps just a piece of disinformation. There really isn't much to go on. The betting in European circles is now that, a year ago, the SIA determined, through what the EU thought was an exchange of routine information, that Dr Vartex was on good terms with British military intelligence, and used the information that they had about him to lend them weight when they requested a private chat with him, out in the desert. However, "Quipu" (if it exists) must have spotted that something was going on, decided that having someone with potentially hostile allegiances actually working in the middle of its operation at Nova Iquitos was dangerous, and chose to eliminate this potential threat by a brutally direct method.

After Dr Vartex was saved for uploading by the Chinese medical team, Quipu must have decided that he was no longer a threat, or that attacking him in a Chinese hospital installation was too dangerous. Hence, it left him alone there, and was evidently slow to respond when he and the team began investigating his murder. The team then became entangled with Quipu's countermeasures against the problem posed by Dr Liang, and in the end, after they helped her work, it may simply have panicked or turned downright malicious. The attack with the hopper may have been a desperation measure, or an opportunist attempt to remove both the immediate threat of Dr Liang (and her collected samples) and a possible hostile agent in the person of Dr Vartex - or both.

In any case, it failed, and with Dr Liang under Chinese government protection and the EU prepared to make it clear that attacks on the team will be investigated strenuously, the threat is hopefully now over. Anyway, Mr Grey thanks everyone - and the wall screen switches off.

Colette Schmidt has one or two things to add to this. It seems that Dr Vartex is probably being checked over by his old military superiors, who can't be entirely happy that his brain scans have been in Chinese hands for a year - but she's seen his record, and while he had routine military clearance, there was nothing in his past (that she can discover) that was either deeply secret or of great interest to the Chinese (or his scans would perhaps have been pulled out of Chinese hands much sooner). The current "debriefing" will presumably include tests and checks to make sure that he hasn't been edited; if those don't find anything, though, it's unlikely that the military will be entirely sure about him.

However ... Schmidt is pleased to be able to say that she suddenly seems to have acquired a little more funding for the consular services team project, somehow. Hence, the team can now add one more member - and she wonders if the existing members would mind if that new member was in fact Dr Vartex. After all, he's an EU citizen, a medical doctor with military experience; it might be hard to find anyone better.

The team agree happily enough, and so the decision is formalised; Dr Vartex will be asked if he'd like the job. Then, Jianwei raises one more matter; the contact from "DD". The main question is how much they can release to her; he thinks that she could be a useful press contact, and he'd rather not antagonise her; on the other hand, the Nova Iquitos affair presumably rates as at least somewhat secret. He and Colette Schmidt review the matter, and she gives him permission to admit to some elements of the incident, and perhaps to hint at a little more - but mostly, he should be careful. He's going to have to be cagey if he speaks to "DD" again, while playing matters by ear.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

From Above and Below

March 10, m0039, continued

Back at Nova Iquitos, Dr Vartex receives a couple of messages. One, from the E.U. Martian Medical service, is simply a request for him to monitor Florence's psychological stability - they're aware that she's used live ammunition recently, and this sort of thing causes them concern. The other is from his contacts in the intelligence community, who say that they've been attempting to follow up some issues of concern to him, and have come to the conclusion that the SIA were up to something a year ago, and that they may well have sought to draw him in for some reason; they had access to enough E.U. recognition codes that, yes, a call from them might have caused him to divert his hopper on that crucial day. Meanwhile, Vajra uses available optical equipment to examine the microbots it salvaged from the snakebot's load, cross-referencing what it can determine about the design and construction with Web research. While the results aren't conclusive - whoever built these things made intelligent efforts to cover their tracks, and there's certainly nothing as incriminating as a serial number to be found - Vajra's best guess is that these things were constructed using the kind of equipment and technical references most usually found in TSA territory.

Meanwhile, in the rover, Jianwei has been composing a report for the embassy, summarising his view of recent events and including a recording of the recent anonymous message conference, all flagged for the ambassador's personal attention. Among other things, he's concerned that if somebody - presumably "Quipu" or some other TSA agent of influence - is playing tricky memetic games here, they may switch from the previous line to a claim that the Nova Iquitos researchers are the victims of sabotage by another faction - and while the E.U. aren't the obvious people to set up as the villains in that case, anything is possible.

Then, as the party in the vehicle arrives at the third oasis, a Web conference call comes in for Jianwei, Dr Vartex, and Vajra. Jianwei remains in the vehicle to deal with this as Florence escorts Dr Liang, who starts taking samples. It seems that the Ambassador Schmidt has been alerted to events around Nova Iquitos (not least an explosion) by Quentin, and has seen Jianwei's interim report. Hence, she's been pursuing matters with some energy, passing requests for more information on to appropriate contacts. "They pursued the matter further, and apparently made contact with some ... supposedly helpful acquaintances of their own. And do you know what they received in reply?"

Jianwei ventures guesses along the lines of "flat denial".

"Not even that, in fact, Mr Chen. They have been told absolutely nothing. One might almost think that the SIA were embarrassed. Our own contacts seem quite unhappy with them.

"Can you hear a buzzing sound at your end, Mr Chen?"

Jianwei, who can hear no such sound in the vehicle, says as much.

"Well, that is strange, because that is what one usually hears when one has kicked over a hornet's nest. Oh, and some other people are apparently concerned that Ms Adele has been using live ammunition.

"I have come to the conclusion that it might be wisest if we were to extract you from that situation there. I will open some back channels to the Chinese, but you had best see what Dr Liang wants for herself - but do help her to leave if she wishes. Anyway, I've somehow suddenly acquired the budget to send you a couple of rented hoppers; I'll leave it up to you how you use them."

The call ends, and Jianwei determines that the hoppers will arrive at Nova Iquitos in a couple of hours. The best option seems to be to use then to travel to the nearest stop, and then return home on the maglev. So he speaks to the others, including Dr Liang, about how they should handle matters. He's not going to disobey the instruction to withdraw from the area, and while Dr Liang would like to take more time to conduct tests and so on, he has little difficulty convincing her that it might be safest for her to depart as well. However, the group at the third oasis does take the time to collect a few more samples and to conduct a brief examination of the soil around the site. Dr Liang concludes that this site too has been seeded with fertiliser, albeit slightly less than the first two - a bit of variation in the results would doubtless help avoid having them look too suspiciously uniform - and there are some signs of soil disturbances that might indicate a snakebot coming and going. However, these last are in the direction of a fourth, nearby oasis, and not of the first two; it's a fair bet that there's at least one more snakebot out here somewhere, and possibly a couple.

So the team then mounts up on the rover and heads back to Nova Iquitos, arriving at about the same time as as the two rented hoppers sent by the embassy. They speak briefly to the Peruvians, warning them that there may be two or three more dangerous snakebots out there around the other oases. Then they quickly load their luggage into the two hoppers, instruct their rented rover to take itself back to its base, and take off, with Florence and Jianwei in one (Florence actually flying it, to keep in practise), and Doctors Vartex and Liang in the other, with Vajra riding in the luggage compartment, patched into the on-board computer system and the craft's sensors.

The actual flight to the nearest maglev halt goes uneventfully, and the hoppers begin an approach to its landing strip, Florence leading the way. Then, the group see another hopper rolling out onto the field, and just have time to note that it isn't responding to standard traffic management signals when its ducted fans turn to a vertical take-off configuration, and rather than make any sort of economical short take-off run, it throws itself into the air - and at them.

Florence's trained reflexes kick in, and she easily evades the attempted ramming; the hopper simply carries on, aimed at the second incoming craft, where Vajra is by now issuing instructions to the controlling LAI. This too manages to avoid the attack, and the hostile hopper temporarily loses control, hurtling off into the sky.

This gives first Florence and then the second hopper's LAI time to make hasty but safe landings, and as Jianwei hastily logs the incident for any subsequent investigators, Florence vaults quickly out of the cabin, Dr Liang is evidently unnerved and confused by the incident, and Dr Vartex works to keep her calm and get her to get away from the hopper - but by now, the attacker has turned around and is coming back. Florence springs to the cargo bay doors of her vehicle, using her implant to tell both them and her weapons case to open up as she goes. Her UAW is ready to hand, and she picks it up - it arms itself as its stock recognises her hand - and spins around in time to see the hostile hopper bearing down on her. Her implant overlays targeting data on her vision, and she fires the shotgun barrel, once.

Her explosive shell enters one of the hopper's wing-mounted ducted fans, and detonates, shattering rotor blades and damaging mechanisms. The high-tech craft handles the disruption remarkably well, but its automatic emergency stability systems cut in, and it drops neatly to the ground. Members of the group hasten over to it and hit any emergency cut-out switches they can find.

Meanwhile, however, another group of people have emerged from the maglev halt buildings and are approaching rapidly; large oriental individuals, all similarly and plainly dressed, and all with drawn guns. The Europeans turn to meet them, some with their own weapons still in hand, and there is a brief tense moment, especially as, despite Jianwei's smoothly tactful greetings, they seem uncertain what to make of most of the newcomers and highly suspicious - but their personal identity codes mark them as Chinese government agents, and it's clear that they're here to escort Dr Liang safely back to Chinese territory.

And so the two groups settle down and wait for the next train - which turns out to have two carriages, both empty. The Chinese agents take over one, and the Europeans decide that it's most tactful to use the other. Some quick administrative footwork by Jianwei has that effectively declared E.U. diplomatic territory for the duration of their occupancy, which allows Florence to keep her weapons to hand, just in case... But anyway, the group begin their long return haul to Port Lowell.