Friday, July 30, 2010

Dead Presidents

March 20, m0039

The team remain on guard overnight. The feeling among the others is that Florence should be allowed her full sleep - she needs the most, and should anything blow up, they want her fresh, alert, and even-tempered - while Vajra doesn't need anything so ludicrously organic, and links itself into the embassy's fairly extensive security camera network while deploying its own personal surveillance swarms in case the network is somehow compromised. But Jianwei and Dr Vartex still decide that one of them should be awake at any time. So they take a watch each, with Dr Vartex staying up first; while he's awake, he sorts out a medically-approved nanodrug treatment that will keep Jianwei at peak performance for a night or two of this, then looks for but fails to find a full software model of the same treatment to run against his own brain emulation. However, when Jianwei takes over, Aunty manages to track that down for him.

Anyway, time passes until the morning without anything untoward happening, and the team continues theorising about and researching their current mission over breakfast. First, they look into Ouku's business connections, but don't find much there; so far as they can tell, he's simply investing in a range of ethnic-African software enterprises in Bako, none of them obviously controversial or dangerous; with the development of the space elevator on Earth (with its base in Kenya), this sort of investment could be seen as sensibly forward-looking. Not many Earth-based investors come all the way to Mars to look at businesses in person, but perhaps Ouku simply felt like exploring the solar system a bit; his itinerary since he arrived on Mars a few days ago certainly included some of the routine, obvious tourist spots.

Then the team decide to try looking into his family, to see if that turns up anything more useful. Vajra communes with Ouku's wearable LAI some more, and it comments that, while Ouku doesn't have much in the way of an acknowledged relatives, there was one family back in Kenya with whom he would socialise on a basis that suggested blood relationships more than business or friendship. Their family name is Kabra; the team starts looking around their Web presence.

What this suggests is that the Kabras are quite well off, in a quiet sort of way - indeed, if anything, they might seem to avoid publicity. However, they seem to have adequate resources; their significant Web presence is mirrored in servers on Mars, despite the fact that, Ouku aside, they don't have much in the way of contacts out here, which suggests that they have enough money to spend on such barely-relevant luxuries. (Unfortunately, Vajra makes a misjudgement in its research on this subject, and is thoroughly distracted by a completely unrelated Kabra who's a member of the Kenyan national amateur soccer team.) They have business interests, but nothing exceptional.

Then Colette Schmidt calls in to check that the team are okay and to see if they need anything. The team gives her a quick summary of the medical news and of what they know so far about the patient, which leads them to mention the Kabras. That seems to remind her of something; she says that she needs to speak to someone about this. Jianwei angles for more information before she disconnects, and she simply says "Bear in mind - the Dead Presidents Society is a myth..."

That term is vaguely familiar, and Vajra runs it through its standard search engines - and is promptly inundated with links. The Dead Presidents Society is supposedly a conspiracy of "retired" politicians, former national leaders and the like, who, thanks to modern medicine, aren't doing anything as conventional as dying off, and who are therefore running the solar system from behind the scenes. Jianwei has heard this sort of nonsense before, of course, but pays it little heed; still, this seems like a hint, so they cross-reference the names they have available against Kenyan political history - and quickly score a result.

Steven ("Steve") Kabra was foreign minister of Kenya, and quite a noteworthy figure on the international diplomatic scene, back in the 2050s. Pictures of him are ...  not inconsistent with the appearance of the patient. The party of which he was a member was eventually forced out of power by a series of corruption scandals, some involving him directly, and no longer exists as such; the parties which replaced them have fractured somewhat in the decades since. Kabra was widely distrusted at the time of his resignation, but as usual in political history, time has mellowed everything somewhat; commentators might now describe him as flawed but not an entirely bad figure.

This leads the team to speculate on who might have a motive to attempt to kill him after all this time. Of course, an individual might still bear a grudge, but his corruption was more of the nature of taking backhanders from foreign contractors than anything else; it's unlikely that anyone would still regard him as the cause of their personal ruination.

However, while they discuss possibilities, Vajra notes a buzzbot with minimal identification tags approaching the front door of the embassy. That's still unsealed - the embassy needs to be able to continue its routine business, after all - and the front door opens in response to a standard IR laser pulse request from the visitor, which identifies itself as making a package delivery. Aunty checks a database and notes that it appears to be a cheap-looking minifactured knock-off of an old military design - indeed, the body shape still includes something that might be mistaken for a weapons pod. Anyway, Vajra takes charge of the interaction, and tells the machine to leave its package at the front of the building. It says that it has been instructed to make a personal delivery; Adele somehow thinks that this would be a bad idea, and when Vajra relays the group's insistence that the buzzbot come no further into the building, it pauses for a moment, and then destroys the door leading to the interior of the embassy with a couple of pistol-caliber explosive shells.

Florence springs to a defensive position, and Vajra gives her an AR view of the building and the buzzbot's position on her head-up display. She takes aim through a doorway, and as soon as the buzzbot appears, she opens fire. It dodges her first shot, but she's faster than it is, and before it can return fire, she hits it with a second HEMP round, blowing it apart.

Vajra scans the exterior of the building; eight more such buzzbots are incoming, and they split four to the front of the building and four to the back. The party attempts to contact Marshall Kirkowicz, but she is out of contact at the moment (breaking up a barroom brawl, in fact); still, they notify her watching cybershells that the embassy is under attack. Meanwhile, Florence heads for the front lobby, and Dr Vartex and Jianwei head for the back, where a fire exit door looks like a vulnerable entrance point - and indeed, it is rapidly shattered by more explosive fire.

One buzzbot enters at each point, and both meet explosive shell fire. (Being EU government employees on EU territory, the party feels legally able to employ high explosive multi-purpose ammunition.) Florence's target takes a direct hit; Dr Vartex misses his, but the blast as his shot hits the adjacent wall throws it into a spin, and Jianwei's electrolaser pistol finishes the job. Two more enter, and Florence again deals with one; Dr Vartex is somehow thrown off-balance by the need to shift targets, and suffers a worrying moment before Jianwei brings the buzzbot down with another electrolaser pulse.

Then, as the team brace for more attacks, they hear a double cry of "Yee-hah!" over public comms channels. Marshall Kirkowicz's own flying cybershells enter the fray; striking from behind, and employing superior hardware and much better automation, they eliminate the remaining attackers in seconds. Dr Vartex finishes off one twitching buzzbot with a single shell, then quickly heads back to check that his patient is still stable.

The embassy is a mess, of course, and the team aren't surprised when the ambassador calls in. She sounds annoyed, but not at them, and declares that she's bringing another party into the conversation, who turns out to be using a standard anonymous avatar, but who has a female voice and a Spanish accent; Schmidt addresses her as "Penelope", and introduces the team as people who've just been shot at as a consequence of Penelope's actions. Penelope does seem startled and apologetic at this. Jianwei asks if she was the person who called them the night before, and she admits as much; another thing that the team catches in the exchange is that Schmidt was at some point Penelope's student.

In any case, Penelope undertakes to deal with this problem as best she can, and suggests that people watch news reports from Kenya. Schmidt informs her that certain old debts are now paid; Penelope in turn admits to owing a favour to the consular services team. After she signs off, Jianwei puts together some hints and half-remembered references, does some online research, and pulls up the publicly available information on Penelope Vasquez, currently Head of what passes for the Political Sciences Department at the University of Mars - and previously, under her old name of Penelope Valdovar, President of Catalonia from 2049-52.

Meanwhile, Vajra has used local traffic management records to track the paths of the attacking buzzbots back, and has decided that they flew in from Lake Candor. Given their limited range and speed, that makes a certain boat - currently sailing briskly toward the other side of the lake - quite suspicious. When Marshall Kirkowicz arrives in person at the embassy, Vajra shares that information, and the Marshall agrees with the conclusion, and gets in touch with the Bako police to try and arrange an arrest. Those members of the team who know anything about professional criminal behaviour assume that anyone on that boat will not have been the shooter in the mall yesterday - it's too easy for modern law enforcement to prove connections that can place the same person at two different crime scenes. Whoever commissioned this attempted hit will have hired a team rather than an individual.

But the person or persons ultimately responsible may well be distracted right now. Within a few hours, stories appear on the Earth news feeds saying that no less that three senior members of the current ruling coalition in Kenya have just resigned unexpectedly - and a quick cross-check shows that all of them are members of a party descended from the main opposition party back when Steve Kabra was a minister. It seems that Penelope Vasquez or some of her friends have been exerting some pull...

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Sniper's Target

March 11-18, m0039

Over the next few days, things fall relatively quiet. Dr Vartex moves into a new flat - the embassy has found him one in a block near to that where the others are living - and promptly sets up a sterile room there in case he ends up providing any medical services from home. He also checks over the medical facilities at the embassy and has them upgraded a little for his own use, and goes looking for additional work between his duties with the team. It's becoming obvious to the others that his rather grim attitude when they first met him wasn't just a passing consequence of his situation then; he's something of a dour workaholic by nature.

Meanwhile, Florence is hitting the bars of Port Lowell once again, working her way down a fairly long list. This is mostly because she's enjoying herself, although she does make some unsuccessful attempts to get a feel for the way the local underworld might be arranged. For variety, she also visits a couple of restaurants with Jianwei.

He, meanwhile, has called a certain reporter back, first thanking her for the warning regarding fellow professionals ("Anything interesting happen?" "Not really..."), then asking her if she'd traced back from the incident with the rogue hopper. Unfortunately, she proves to have been rather clueless on this, so Jianwei suggests that she checks the academic publications stream, and should maybe expect some kind of government action in the next few days - "although we're not sure what, because we're not quite sure who was responsible for anything either"...

"DD" thanks him for the tip. After that conversation, he checks his desk; as the leader of the team and its one professional civil servant, he generally has a bit of virtual paperwork to deal with.

As for Vajra, that AI goes shopping for some new swarms, and then goes looking to see if there is any kind of AI demimonde locally. He doesn't find one yet, but he assumes that there must be something to find.

Mostly, though, the team settle into routine work for a while, helping tourists, providing visiting businessmen with enough guidance and protection to help them feel well-served by the government, assisting with mundane embassy business or medical work, and generally settling into life on Mars. Actually, the Nova Iquitos incident doesn't seem to have stirred things up very much; it seems that any and all factions involved are playing this quietly for now.

March 19, m0039

Then, early one afternoon, a Web conference call comes in to the team members from the embassy. It appears that one Stephen Ouku, a Kenyan citizen, has been attacked in the African-dominated town of Bako, across Lake Candor from Port Lowell, and has ended up in hospital for intensive emergency treatment. This wouldn't normally be of any specific interest to the EU - but, on this occasion, it seems that someone thinks otherwise. Ouku is apparently considered important, and the EU has agreed to provide him with secure treatment for a short period. There's doubtless a political element here, but details are hazy as yet. Anyway, Ouku is being evacuated from Bako, and a medical hopper is now incoming with him aboard, set to arrive in Port Lowell in a few minutes. The team are being scrambled to provide him with the treatment and protection that he may need; they're required to drop what they're doing and deal with this.

The team summon a rented ambulance over the Web, converge on the airfield in time to meet the chartered private medical hopper, transfer the unconscious patient under Dr Vartex's supervision, and head for the embassy - which they've decided is the best place to keep him while they (a) deal with the treatment he still requires, and (b) work out quite what's going on here. Ouku's wearable computer has been shipped along with him, and Vajra interfaces with that and rapidly gets on very good terms with his LAI, while Dr Vartex sets to work in the ambulance, cataloguing his injuries, assisted by Aunty, who's working through the ambulance's sensors and data feeds from Dr Vartex. It looks like he's taken a couple of hits from small-caliber SEFOP rounds, probably micromissiles (Dr Vartex's forensic judgement seems to be working better than his medical skills right now); one made a serious mess of the interior of his torso, while the other went through his spine. The medics in Bako reached him in time to stabilise him, and the damage is of course all reparable with 2100-era medicine - given time - but he's currently being kept alive by extensive exterior life support, while an assortment of other technology is currently replacing much of his nervous system.

Still, Dr Vartex and Aunty consider that he should make a full recovery - provided that nothing else happens to him. That, however, may require that whoever caused the current damage should be prevented from finishing the job - and the rest of the team consider that they need more information if they're going to ensure that. They briefly consider waking the patient up to find out what he can tell them - an idea that recurs once or twice in the ensuiong discussions - but Dr Vartex notes that, although this would technically be possible, it would be somewhat risky (as well as probably highly distressing) for the patient. Medical ethics apply here; Dr Vartex can't authorise the procedure without a lot more justification.

So the others begin researching Stephen Ouku, in an attempt to determine who might be trying to kill him. The basics are easy enough to discover, largely just by asking his LAI; he's a wealthy Kenyan citizen, visiting Mars in general and Bako in particular from Earth on business. It looks like he's considering investing in various software development projects in Bako (a centre of the Martian software industry), and was involved in talks on that matter; he's evidently personally quite rich. At around this point, Dr Vartex notes that, although his patient appears to be somewhere around 50, there are signs of extensive rejuvenating treatments, and he's generally getting the impression that looks may deceive here; further cursory examination, and interrogation of that LAI, suggest that Ouku is more like 90. He's evidently something of a classic eloi, although maybe more engaged with managing his own investments than some.

However, when Vajra and Jianwei hit the Web to research his past in more detail, they hit a curious brick wall; there's very little or nothing available about him before about 20-25 years ago, although he was evidently quite rich even then. His LAI declares that it's been with him for about 15 years; not implausible, but, of course, no help in tracing him back before that. The researchers use a little EU authority to request more information direct from his home country, but Kenya, although not badly off in 2100, doesn't have the best or most reliable public records system

Meanwhile, a familiar face has shown up at the embassy door, and requests a meeting. U.S. Marshall Althea Kirkowicz has, it seems, learned of the arrival of Ouku in Port Lowell, and of the preceding circumstances. She's quite amicable about all this, and she freely acknowledges that anything that happens within the embassy is EU business, but the peace and safety of Port Lowell is her concern. She declares that she'll station a couple of airborne cybershells in the area outside, in case anything should happen; they'll show (red, white, and blue) tags in the European team's augmented reality.

That conversation done, the team reviews recent visual and auditory records from Ouku's LAI. It seems that he was at some kind of reception in a suite in a hotel in Bako; the room had picture windows overlooking an enclosed and pressurised mall, and while Ouku was standing near those, the attack came through the glass. The AI's sensors weren't aligned to get much detail of that or the responses of other people present, but analysis doesn't show anything suspicious. Jianwei then makes a call to the police force at Bako, and manages to charm them very passably; they have of course been investigating the incident, and have determined that the shooter had infiltrated the staff/maintenance areas of a building at the other end of the mall - it's not a high security site, so wearing maintenance overalls and looking confident did the job, while the shooter was smart enough to avoid facing any security cameras. The cops have swept the shooter's position with forensic gear, and promptly suffered a massive overload of DNA information; he must have dumped a quantity of dust picked up in a public space ("he vacuumed a bus" is the police slang). They're trying to narrow things down, but not getting very far. They've also, as Jianwei thinks to enquire, found some of the remains of the SEFOP shells on the floor of the mall, but these melted and blasted fragments don't carry much useful information. However, when Florence sees the images, she identifies them as 15mm micromissiles, and her judgement of the scene is that they were likely fired from a carbine - which fits with the "maintenance equipment bag" being carried by the unidentifiable shooter on some pictures. This certainly looks like a competent professional hit.

And so the team sets up a perimeter while still wondering quite why they've become involved with this incident. Someone reacted fast to what happened, it seems, and that someone had enough pull to have an EU ambassador instructed what to do - but Earth is close enough that messages could have got there and back in the time. Alternatively, there are a few EU member warships in near-Mars space, and it's just possible that the commander of one of those would have system access codes that could produce this result, given the perceived need.

What looks like the best clue on that subject comes that night, just as Florence, who has a feline need for enough sleep, is curling up near to the medical facilities. A call comes in from somewhere - on Mars or in low orbit, to judge from the lag and available message path information, although its exact origins are as carefully disguised as the voice that the team hear. Someone wants to check on Mr Ouku's condition, and also to thank the team for their efforts. That someone doesn't want to say very much (at this point at least), but denies any knowledge of the source of the attack... They do seem curious about it, though; "I don't suppose you know what weapons were used?"

"Two 15mm gyroc micro missiles with SEFOP warheads, probably fired from a Carbine," Florence immediately replies. This produces a somewhat surprised expression from the other end, noticeable through the masking software. Either the mystery caller is unfamiliar with weapons, or they are unfamiliar with the sort of embassy employees who can casually identify such things. In general, whoever it is doesn't come across as very accustomed to this sort of situation. Despite the voice masking, Jianwei, who is not only a professional diplomat but who has some training in linguistics, deduces that the speaker is almost certainly from an Indo-European linguistic background, and is most likely female.