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...