Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Geological Research

 Scorpius 13, m0039, continued

Reckoning that time is still of the essence in all this, the team make their excuses and leave Mr Chen's house as soon as they have eaten. Florence takes control of the rover, and drives them - quickly and efficiently - to the site of the incident. Specifically, they first visit the Poles' camp site, which proves to have been ignored by the automated rescue mission to the actual landslip. They take a proper forensic approach, with Vajra first sending in an aerobot swarm, leaving the ground and all material objects untouched. Vajra shares the data feed with Aunty, who has the skill sets to process some of it usefully, and it is she who identifies and catalogues the various footprints and exploratory cybershell track-prints in the surrounding dust.

Applying criminological software to the task, Aunty's first conclusion is that this doesn't look like a crime scene; there are certainly no signs of violence. Vajra, however, notes that there is no sign of any kind of comms base station, as a two-person expedition in the Martian wilderness might be expected to use. Professor Zajdel's cybershell may have had good comms capability on board, but this does seem like a curious oversight.

So the team next move in carefully, sweeping the camp with EM scanners. They pick up no signals, and a quick look at the equipment lying around finds little with much in the way of sentience or memory. Looking round, they find other, perhaps more significant, lacks; there's not much in the way of food, and those party members with training in survival skills see other bits and pieces of equipment missing that they'd assume should be present. There's also at least one set of tracks, heading north, which might be compatible with a human leaving and not having returned.

This causes them to examine the Web access logs for the two Poles more closely, and Vajra notes that Zajdel seemingly dropped out of communication entirely about ten minutes before Lipinski. The team begins trying to construct hypotheses to fit all this data. They're now suspecting some kind of criminal action on Lipinski's part - but if that's correct, whatever he did, he didn't engage in much intelligent planning. Of course, a lot of crime is opportunistic or generally unintelligent...

Anyway, the team promised to find a landing site for Maria Vega. Jianwei calls her, but she says that doesn't plan to come out to the site that night. Florence, the trained pilot, looks around for sites, but doesn't find very much at this point.

So now, the team looks at the automated systems working on the landslip site. These turn out to consist of a cluster of small "swarmdozers" (with non-sapient control systems with a certain amount of communal intelligence) under the authority of a low-sapient program in a static unit. These haven't found much that the LAI judged it necessary to report as yet, but the team run analyses on the samples which the burrowing swarmdozers have accumulated, and turn up a few volatiles and metallic micro-fragments to suggest an area to search for Professor Zajdel's cybershell. The LAI acquiesces to their suggestion, and Vajra sends in a small "surveillance worm" and works with the rescue systems. This leaves the two organics free to go and take a look higher up the landslide site. They don't pick up much in the way  of geological evidence there, though, or find any tracks. Vajra, meanwhile, has some problems, mainly with the tunnel behind his worm collapsing (the LAI had problems plotting a safe mining scheme), but does find some metallic fragments. Forensic assessment suggests that these come from the missing cybershell - although only from the outer casing.

Vajra doesn't have to sleep, but the other two do, so they head back to Mr Chen's house, leaving Vajra and the other AIs working. Chen has retired to bed by the time they arrive, but two people are still up and showing an interest in what they might have to report; Maria Vega, who Jianwei realises is maybe carefully judging what she says and how she says it, and the servant named Hua, who they have down as Mr Chen's secretary (in the most traditional sense) or personal assistant, who is coolly bland. The four individuals share green tea and engage in subtly guarded conversation, before the Europeans retire to bed. On an instinctive judgement, Jianwei tells Aunty to research possible links between Ms. Vega and Lipinski while he sleeps. Meanwhile, the team have also asked Quentin, back at the embassy, to acquire some thermal imaging data for a wide area around this location from satellite sources; they suspect that it might locate Lipinski.

 Scorpius 14, m0039

Vajra and the LAI rescue system work through the night, but there's one small accident in that time - Vajra's surveillance worm gets trampled by a swarmdozer, disabling it. Still, by the time the sun rises, the swarmdozers have recovered enough fragments of manufactured material for Vajra to conclude that some hardware, including computer systems, was crushed by the landslide, and everything about the finds is compatible with it having been Zajdel's cybershell.

Meanwhile, Jianwei and Florence awake to news from Quentin; the IR imagery has indeed picked up a trace of what looks like a one-person camp, at a distance that might well rate as a couple of day's walk north of the landslide site. Quentin also has messages from some of Professor Zajdel's friends in the academic community, who have been applying their skills to the puzzle of their colleague's misfortune; they've been analysing available imagery, including the reports that Vajra and the other AIs have recently filed from the site, and combining it with the seismic traces from the time, and their conclusion is that the landslide looks to have been triggered by some kind of abrupt and not very natural-looking shock or impact.

Aunty, on the other hand, has little to report; if there are any signs of Lipinski and Vega having any kind of association, she hasn't been able to locate them on the Web. However, when Jianwei takes a few minutes to casually review the raw data which Aunty has acquired, he notes that Vega is a very mobile sort of operative; it looks as though working for the Martian Commonwealth not only keeps her busy, but almost permanently on the move, in person. Then, in a moment of inspiration, Jianwei looks again at some wilderness travel plan filings from about a year ago - and realise that she was most likely in the region west of Olympus Mons at exactly the time when Dr Tiberius Vartex had his nigh-fatal hopper crash. That could just be coincidence, of course.

Jianwei begins the process of filing confirmation that Professor Zajdel's processor has been destroyed, which will allow the insurance company to begin the process of releasing her latest backup to run and covering the cost of a replacement cybershell - although they'll probably cautiously wait a little longer to complete the process. He also decides to tell Vega some but not all of what they know, including Vajra's discovery of the cybershell remains, to provide her with some of the visual imagery that they acquired the previous day (but not much from the camp site), and to make another effort to find a landing site for her hopper. She flies over to the site quite promptly, and when she arrives, Vajra notices a spike in local network traffic; her snakebot is hitting the rescue-system LAI with lots of queries for accessible data.

The European team meet up and head back to the camp site, but only take a quick look there. Then they slip behind a ridge, hoping to avoid Vega's attention as they head north in pursuit of (they assume) Lipinski. Jianwei and Florence both have tactical training, which pays off here in helping them to be subtle about this. They do make a call to Mr Chen, though, to thank him for his hospitality and to bid him farewell.

They find the site which they picked up on the satellite IR images, but it's now been abandoned, so they continue to track their quarry northwards. It's slow going, though; they spend a lot of their time out of the rover, walking ahead of it while scanning the Martian dust from as close as possible. This carries them through the late morning and afternoon, and they find that they are now moving into an area of rising hills. Florence's driving skills enable them to keep the rover with them for quite a while - albeit sometimes with only three of its six wheels on the ground at a time - but eventually, they enter a seriously rocky region, and have to leave the vehicle behind.

As they climb, they receive a call from Hua, who wants to ask them to place the data which they've accumulated under a diplomatic seal - not making it a secret, but certifying it and protecting it against tampering, the better for use in, say, future court cases. Hua now seems increasingly cagey; Jianwei doesn't perceive him as a servant any more. When Jianwei suggests that he make the same request of Ms Vega, he demurs; "your employers' neutrality is much respected", he adds, slightly gnomically.

Then, as the party ascends a slope, Jianwei spots a figure, waiting and lurking behind a stack of rocks further up. Those rocks begin to slide, tumbling down the slope towards the group - and at that same moment, their AI aides report that a large volume of data is arriving in their in-boxes. It appears to be a great deal of accounts data relating to Mr Chen's past business career...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Hydraulic Engineering

Scorpius 4-11, m0039

And so, as Ferdinand goes into therapy, the team find things going comfortably quiet for over a week. They continue to handle routine administrative and PR work for the embassy, and settle down to life on Mars.

Scorpius 12, m0039

Then, the team all get an early-morning call from one of the embassy LAIs (Quentin is being required not to work 24-hour days, as it looks bad on the embassy's staff management records, which don't necessarily know how much of that time he spends playing Robo Rally); an incident has occurred which seems to require a formal E.U. presence. Unfortunately, the incident has occurred some way around the planet; the LAI has monorail reservations for everyone, and suggests that they take themselves to the station promptly.

Once they're settled on the train, the three embassy employees get a full briefing from the AI systems - although details of the matter are still hazy or being collected. It appears that a pair of Polish citizens, named Piotr Lipinski and Professor Jolanta Zajdel, have been working as consultants for a Singaporean citizen, a Mr Pao-Wen Chen (no relation of Jianwei's), who is building a house for himself well out in the Martian wilderness, 1,500 miles or so east of Port Lowell. (This sort of project obviously demands considerable private resources; Mr Chen will find himself numbered among the "Millionaires of Mars" if and when he comes to public notice.) Lipinski and Zajdel are geologists, specifically specialists in the hydrology of the Martian landscape; Zajdel teaches at the University of Mars, and Lipinski, it will emerge, is a graduate student working under her. Presumably, they're conducting some kind of site survey for Mr Chen. Anyway, they were apparently working out in the desert a few miles from Chen's home last night, when they both dropped off-line. The AIs managing their Web links began raising alert flags when the loss drew out long enough to appear exceptional, and then some smart system correlated that with reports from various areophysical monitoring services of a brief but significant seismic spike from near to the pair's last known location. Satellite imagery soon confirmed a probable emergency; there appears to have been a fairly major landslip - some hundreds of metres across - at that site.

Mr Chen's household were alerted, and responded appropriately. They didn't have excavation gear of their own, and rapid acquisitions are a problem - any cost issues aside, they don't have landing space for sub-orbital transports - but they were able to arrange deliveries of excavator and rescue cybershells by fast cargo hopper, and acquired appropriate AI operation systems over the Web. This stuff is still being delivered, but everything they've found so far indicates the worst, especially as Lipinski and Zajdel's personal systems are still off-line.

The team aren't expected to be able to assist much with any rescue efforts - it'll take them too long to reach the site, and Chen appears to be doing pretty much everything that's possible - but they should do what they can, try and discover what happened, and provide formal statements and affidavits. This is likely to become especially important because, although Lipinski is or was an organic human, Zajdel is a ghost, who was operating a specialist exploration cybershell. She can be restored from her last backup, but the insurance company will require a very reliable death certificate. They're very correctly cautious about accidental xoxing - but on the other hand, their clients tend to be quite touchy about being left inactive for too long a period.

The embassy LAI has now made all the transport arrangements. As the team's specific mission can't be assigned maximum urgency, they'll be travelling on the surface all the way; it will take them all this day to reach the small American monorail halt at New Buffalo, and then they'll spend the night there before picking up a hired rover with sufficient range to cover the 250 or so miles to Mr Chen's house. They briefly discuss driving overnight, but the hire company wouldn't be happy about anyone driving over rough and poorly-mapped Martian terrain in the dark (yes, even with modern night vision gear), and Jianwei and Florence would have trouble sleeping on the vehicle.

With all this covered, the team discuss what they might find, including the possibility of malfeasance - but they don't have any indication of such a thing at present. Vajra does a quick Web background search on Mr Chen, who had a long and prosperous past career in business in Singapore, but although he certainly had fingers in many pies, there are no obvious signs of criminality there.

So Vajra arranges to receive imagery of the incident site, with updates as frequent as is feasible. Florence takes a look at these, and her training in Martian wilderness survival enables her to spot a lot of details. The Polish duo were looking at a feature that would be assumed to have been a river valley, billions of years ago, and that will probably become one again as terraforming increases the volume of liquid water on the surface and sends rivers once more flowing through this region towards the North Polar Ocean. The landslip appears to have happened where a substantial bluff overlooks a bend in the dry river. It's the kind of thing that happened a lot a couple of decades ago; it's not so common today, but not entirely unknown.

Meanwhile, Jianwei has put a call through to Mr Chen's house, and has found himself explaining the team's assignment to a suave AI named Shen, who evidently functions as Chen's housekeeper. He asks if there's anything that the team can bring with them to help with the emergency work, but Shen says politely that it can't suggest any such needs at this point - everything that any relevant expert systems can suggest has already been acquired, or at least arranged for acquisition as soon as possible.

And so there doesn't seem to be much more that the team can think to do, as the maglev train skims around the Martian equator. By the end of the day, it reaches New Buffalo, which proves to be no more than a halt on the maglev track, with one capsule hotel, a basic bar or two, and a field that's been bulldozed level to act as a landing spot for hoppers and a marshalling area for rovers, including those from the hire company. Jianwei has anticipated the lack of resources and arranged to acquire the necessary components for a meal off the train, so at least he and Florence can enjoy a passable dinner. Beyond that, the evening proves remarkably unexciting, and they retire to their capsules and enjoy a night's sleep, while Vajra powers his cybershell down and spends the night on Web, occasionally monitoring relevant satellite imagery.

Scorpius 13, m0039

The organic team members wake up in the morning and eat what they can scrounge up by way of an acceptable breakfast, and soon, their hired rover emerged from the clutter of hire vehicles on New Buffalo's vehicle park and pulls around to the front of the capsule hotel. As the team are loading up their gear, they see another arrival; a light hopper drops out of the sky, lands smoothly on the other side of the field, and taxis over to the public pumps to refuel. As it does so, the canopy opens, and a lone human emerges - a woman of indeterminate apparent age or ethnicity, dressed for flying but smartly. She looks around, notices the group, and strolls over to say hello.

She introduces herself as Maria Vega, an employee of the American Martian Commonwealth. When Jianwei admits that the team are heading north, she says that she's going the same way - it seems that her employers are taking an interest in the incident there. This might seem odd, but the Americans do tend, very politely, to classify this whole region of Mars, east of Marineris, as their domain; whatever territoriality the Singaporean Mr Chen may claim for his house, the Americans are likely to claim at least a neighbourly interest. Jianwei judges that Ms Vega is being a little guarded, but she may have her reasons; she's outwardly entirely polite, suggesting that she and the team might exchange information when they've got some. Then she boards her fuelled hopper, and the team notes that the second seat is occupied by some kind of non-humanoid cybershell - probably a snakebot model - before the canopy closes and she takes off northwards.

The team speculate about this encounter. For some unclear reason, they decide that Ms Vega must surely be an SIA agent, but they can't currently see any reason why the Agency would be taking an interest in this matter. But once they are on their way, they do take another look at the accumulated satellite imagery of the incident scene, and spot one more detail; a set of small, clearly artificial objects or structures a few hundred metres from the landslide. The likely guess is that it's the hydrologists' camp site. They also tap various data feeds to track Ms Vega's flight path, but that shows no unexpected deviations.

They reach Mr Chen's house by early evening. Shen evidently detects their approach and greets them over the radio, and a pair of humanoid cybershells meet them at the door to take their bags and show them to the rooms which have been assigned to them. The house currently consists of a number of semi-permanent modules that were doubtless delivered in the form of a road train, and subsequently dug in and partly covered with local soil to improve insulation and radiation protection. It's a substantial but not terribly luxurious looking dwelling now, but it could serve as the start of a more extensive and impressive mansion in years to come, and the interior is more than comfortable enough. Shen tells them that a buffet meal will be served when they've had time to freshen up.

Over the meal, they are able to meet the suave Chen and also to renew their acquaintance with Ms Vega, whose hopper was parked outside when they arrived. Mr Chen expresses regret and concern over the fate of the hydrologists, but it's clear that he regarded them as temporary employees rather than anything more; he seems genuinely concerned about them, but not to be taking this incident personally. He is, he is happy to explain, looking to settle here for some time (which could, given modern medicine, be a very long time), and the house, which is safely on a hilltop, should acquire a view of the restored rivers when they begin to flow through those valleys. The hydrologists were hired to assess exactly how these things should develop. All this fits well with the guesses and assumptions that the team made in advance.

As for Ms Vega - she too seems happy to talk, and admits that she hasn't been able to find out much yet, despite having been here for most of the day. She did over-fly the accident site, and she offers the E.U. team free access to the images she accumulated; in return, she asks that, if they get out to the incident location first, they check for possible landing sites for her hopper.

And indeed, the team are keen to get out there, telling Chen that they'd like to do so once they've eaten. So that seems to be the next step...