Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Hunted Dog

Sagittarius 14, m0039, continued.

The team are still at work supervising this small building project. Florence decides that there is no sign of trouble here, and wanders off in search of lunch, picking up a fauxflesh sandwich and, by way of an experiment, a locally-grown durian fruit. She tries to force herself to eat the latter, but fails completely. Her enhanced senses are a little too sensitive.

Then, a call comes through for the whole team - but is intercepted by one of the embassy NAIs which is assigned to help manage their security, as they are E.U. diplomatic service employees.

"This is a heavily anonymised and redirected contact, but it probably originates from the area of New Shanghai or the western end of Marineris, and there is a high possibility that the individual calling is the acquaintance of yours whose primary pseudonym is 'Deimos Dog', or a good digital emulation."

The team take the call - and the speaker initially refers to herself as "Dravidian Delacroix", but doesn't actually try to maintain any pretence. It quite quickly becomes clear that she feels that she's in some danger, and is calling in favours. In the last few hours, her on-line reputation and trustworthiness indices have suffered dramatic falls - the sort of falls that endanger her status as a journalist, just as a very small start.

It seems that her past posts and Web stories have been subjected to a concerted and extremely hostile attack - a series of selective analyses and comments, some delving into what is publicly known about her private life, which seem to be designed to mark her down as a cat's-paw of the American authorities, an SIA stooge. This requires considerable selectivity, but as she says, of course a large proportion of her past stories have been highly critical of the Chinese on Mars - they're the largest single power on the planet! Unfortunately, she can't be sure who might be falling for these attacks, and a number of her contacts and acquaintances are the sort of people who won't take kindly to someone they see as an American government agent of influence.

She doesn't know who these attacks might be coming from - she's long seen it as part of her self-appointed job to annoy people, and candidates could include both Chinese and American authorities and any number of smaller groups and powerful individuals. She can't ask many people for help - too many people she'd normally approach might be falling for these slanders, or might even be involved in launching them, while any help she gets from American sources will just make her look worse. Hence, she's come to the E.U. team, even though she has to admit, when she thinks about it, that she's actually an American citizen.

Florence decides that there's a missing piece to this story, and switches on the charm, exploiting the intimacy of her past acquaintance with DD to draw her out more. Eventually, DD admits that she's recently been doing a very little, mild digging around the team's current activities - after all, she finds them interesting. She's been researching FAXAD and so forth. Maybe she wonders if this might have something to do with the attacks - but she presumably doesn't expect the team or the E.U. to be overly annoyed by this, let alone systematically hostile.

She thinks that only the embassy or FAXAD could have known enough about her enquiries to recognise her interest in this project, so the team drop the line to her and check with the embassy. Quentin denies that they had even spotted her enquiries - they were subtle and anonymous enough to slip past whatever warning systems the E.U. has in place, although Quentin does admit that they have DD tagged as "to watch" - she's a freelance journalist of unpredictable prejudices who has got close to an E.U. team, after all.

The team decide that they will try to help DD; they regard her as a basically friendly and sometimes helpful contact, after all, and if this incident is linked to their work on the FAXAD project somehow, they ought to know about it. Vajra puts Samadhi in charge of the construction operation while Vajra itself sets to work analysing DD's past work, not turning up any clear clues as to likely attackers there. Meanwhile, Jianwei quickly designs and scripts a counter-campaign, with inputs from DD, that should hopefully make life a bit safer for her. But who should deliver it? If the team tackles the job, anyone tracking it back will flag the posts as questionable, and it will compromise E.U. perceived neutrality too far.

As Jianwei and DD chew over this problem, Vajra also analyses the memetics of the slander-attack. The conclusion is that it's deliberately bland and generic, using stock, textbook tools and methods - which weakens it a little, perhaps, but also makes it effectively untraceable. It's skilful enough, but it sacrifices some effectiveness for anonymity.

Meanwhile, DD has come up with the best available vector for the counter-campaign. Double-checking her security and trusting to encryption, she admits that she is currently holed up in an unused commercial building in New Shanghai; she has friends - well, probably-reliable acquaintances - elsewhere in the city, who have the resources to handle the job. But she'll have to ask them in person.

Jianwei pulls up his mapping software and plots her a route to this destination that should mostly avoid busy streets, and then Florence links directly to the cameras on DD's wearable interface, allowing her to watch DD's back and advise on stealth. (Her attempts to advise on disguise don't work so brilliantly, unfortunately.) Hence, Florence is looking over DD's shoulder when DD enters what is, to the knowledgeable eye, rather obviously a low-level Triad Web-media operations centre. Florence snorts. "You know you can't trust these people, don't you?" she snarls in DD's ear, as those people turn not-totally-friendly looks on DD.

DD, though, maintains her cool and demonstrates a decent grasp of street etiquette, while Jianwei, as ever the social operations expert, advises on negotiation techniques. DD ends up owing this Triad operation a favour, but in exchange, they set to work using subverted LAIs to spread the counter-campaign. Within minutes, DD's Web-based reputation indices are showing marked signs of recovery. She breathes a sigh of relief and slips out of the Triad dive, then agrees with the team that she should check into a capsule hotel for a while.

Once she seems to be safe for the moment, Jianwei starts talking to the LAIs which currently represent FAXAD on Mars, and soon decides that they are blandly trustworthy standard models. But Vajra digs out some more information on FAXAD arrangements back on Earth, which include a lot of "rehabilitated" gypsy, orphan, and rogue AI workers, and Dougal, assessing the Foundation's security arrangements using his developing aptitude for computer work, is less than impressed. The team advises FAXAD to bring their most trusted and unambiguously trustworthy software agents into this project, and to transmit some of them to Mars to handle local security.

Meanwhile, it's getting late in the day, and the team's organic members will soon need to rest. They get the informorphs to watch over DD as she sleeps. She, it seems, has an elevator car bar-tending job coming up, which should represent a fairly safe place for her to remain while the trouble dies down.

Sagittarius 15, m0039.

The next morning, the embassy's security systems give a briefing on their assessment of this incident. From now on, FAXAD will be treated politely, but not trusted over-much - E.U. digital security are no more impressed than Dougal was by the effectiveness of their defences. They may be an innocent and unconnected party in this incident, but their extensive use of "rehabilitated" infomorphs looks frankly questionable.

As for the actual attack on DD - there are any number of possible candidates as perpetrators of this, and few clues to narrow the field. The team throw out as many ideas as anyone. Discrediting DD while she is looking at the work of an E.U. team might, say, be a subtle way of insulating someone from DD's investigations in the vicinity of later E.U. operations. Or, given the weakness of FAXAD security, there might be something going on within that organisation. Could it be the Chinese, who don't, in truth, have much cause to love DD, and who may not be very fond of the E.U. team in the wake of other recent incidents? Maybe, although this all looks rather too subtle and under-resourced for that. The Americans, then? It's conceivable that one of their organisations could have hoped to drive DD to working for them in the absence of other friends...

It does appear to closer analysis, certainly, that the attack was plotted out in advance, possibly not in the very recent past - it wasn't something that could have been thrown together very quickly, and wasn't keyed to some of DD's most recent activities. This gives it the smell of an organisation's contingency plans, rather than an individual's act of vengeful malice.

In the end, the team find themselves on a hopper back to Port Lowell, left only with the knowledge that someone is up to something. But isn't that always the way of things on Mars?

Note: The campaign goes on hold at this point for a few months while the GM deals with a few mostly work-related issues.)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Sagittarius 4-10, m0039.

The team remain in Bako a little longer, with Florence for one enjoying some interesting nights in a town with a different social scene (and picking up some basic knowledge of African culture in the process). However, they eventually start receiving hints from the E.U. that a move back to Port Lowell may be indicated. Florence is becoming a bit of a permanent fixture on some gossip blogs and slogs, which might not be entirely desirable, and the team can continue to monitor Adam-4's progress well enough from their home base.

A rather boring boat trip sees them safely across Lake Candor to Port Lowell, where Florence is happy to discover that the psychologists aren't currently inclined to harass her for too many personal reports. And so everyone is able to spend a few quiet days on routine work, time in the dojo, and so forth. Everyone's monthly pay has recently been credited to their various accounts, which leads to minor outbursts of shopping - or, in Vajra's case, minor outbursts of generosity.

Sagittarius 11, m0039.

Then, Vajra receives (via an AI agent) a contact from someone who, deliberately or otherwise, seems set to play on his particular charitable instincts - though it's actually a legitimate-enough, if informal, request for consular support. The Foundation for ArachnoXenological Assessment and Development is an Antwerp-based institute that, officially, studies Web life and provides consultation on practical aspects of the subject. However, it seems to be a fairly open secret that FAXAD provides a haven for orphan and gypsy infomorphs; it certainly acts openly as a proponent for infomorph rights. It hasn't previously operated much outside of Earth-local space, but growing complexity in the Mars Web looks set to make a FAXAD presence on the planet desirable - in FAXAD's opinion, anyway.

The first step in the Foundation's response is to establish a physical presence on-planet - for which purpose, a sufficiently powerful computer installation is the main requirement. However, given the nature of some FAXAD activities, the Foundation would really like to be sure that this will be located somewhere with an unambiguously liberal legal structure. Their analysis says, plausibly enough, that New Amsterdam might be the best place to go. It's a tiny, growing, 100% Dutch colony up in the north; Dutch law is as close to tolerant in relevant areas as FAXAD can hope to find, practically speaking. They've got the engineering side of things worked out; now, they're requesting consular back-up in the physical set-up process.

Vajra throws the request over to the others and the embassy for assessment. Jianwei decides that the legal position looks okay, while Vajra puts a call through to Dr. Mariam Kalatta in Bako, asking for her support; she's happy enough to assist as far as she can, though strictly on an informal basis, and she's certainly sympathetic (and knows nothing against FAXAD).

Sagittarius 12-13, m0039.

The information processes through various systems, and a couple of days after that first call, the team are notified by Ambassador Schmidt; there's a formal request come through from FAXAD for someone to act as legal witnesses on site when their shiny new computer system is installed on a site in New Amsterdam. This looks like a job for the Consular Services team. FAXAD have said that they will pay for the team to take a hopper flight up north - but in fact, Vajra decides to rent a shell on the site. Which is why, when the hopper lands, Jianwei and Florence are greeted by a formidable-looking industrial machine. "Hello Vajra," Florence cheerfully says.

The team head towards the one hotel in this tiny town, where they are greeted by an AI receptionist (operating a static cybershell, humaniform from the waist up, a desk from the waist down). Their rooms prove to be ... very idiosyncratically ... decorated; the hotel may not have much competition, but it evidently doesn't want to be seen as boring. The organics then head out in search of a restaurant, finding a good Indonesian place (200 things to do with tofu, and durian fruit as a non-advised option on the dessert list). Meanwhile, Vajra has checked the rooms for bugs; he doesn't find any, although he is slightly unsure about this.

The organic team members  emerge from the restaurant to find some colourful furry snakes wandering the streets. Oh well, it's a biotech-industry town... They head on to a coffee shop and sample some other local products. The snakes start to make sense and the Martian coffee begins to seem almost tolerable... They decide that it's time to head for their respective rooms to sleep. Meanwhile, Vajra heads to the site acquired by FAXAD, and downloads some architecture and civil engineering skills sets to facilitate assessing it. His conclusion is that there isn't much to say.

Sagittarius 14, m0039.

Breakfast for the other two involves lots of smoked and spiced fauxflesh sausages, after which, they join Vajra on the site, which is at a reasonable height up a local hill - it will be a few decades before rising sea levels become a serious issue at this altitude. Jianwei checks the financial side of FAXAD's arrangements, and decides that they are sound, by which time, construction materials are being delivered to the site. Vajra sets to work being useful, following v-tag instructions as concrete is poured to provide the new computer building with foundations, and then walls begin to go up. As the most authoritative sapient involved in this process, Vajra has a fair amount of discretion, and decides to follow local building standards by providing the structure with colourful external doors; he even checks with some local semi-professional consultants about established architectural aesthetics in New Amsterdam.

The watching Jianwei thinks about the defensibility of the site, which is frankly mediocre at best - though why should that be a concern? As he is looking around, though, he notices other observers - camera-equipped mini-blimps, which appear to be registered to a Martian news service.

In fact, around lunchtime, Aunty spots something on the feeds - and Quentin has also picked it up, because he calls soon afterwards. Florence, it seems, has made herself enough of a temporary minor celebrity that her presence in a different town (such as New Amsterdam) is considered worthy of note. Jianwei tells Florence to be boring for a little while, so hopefully the news feeds will lose interest.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Damage Control

Sagittarius 1, m0039, continued.

When the organic members awake, the team decide that testing will need a fairly sizeable box to hold the materials they acquire, confining and isolating it. Florence, who is used to scrounging up odds and ends, is sent off with an emissions nanobug (patched through to Dougal) and told to find something of the order of a metre cube with no detectable electronic behaviours of its own. She succeeds, and drops the box off in the team's rented apartment. Then they all go shopping for, essentially, fancy tat - a good assortment of cheap items with identifiable VKVLM packaging. It helps when they work out how to persuade shops' systems to generate an augmented reality layer with products from known VKVLM customers highlighted. Florence also takes the chance to pick up some things she considers worth wearing, on expenses - her keen eye for fashion helps - while Jianwei handles the purchasing process.

Back to the apartment again, a session of busy unwrapping follows, with packaging materials being diligently tossed into the box. Then Vajra puts surveillance dust on the inside of its lid, and the other two decide that it's time for lunch. In fact, Dougal talks Florence through the process of cooking a passable meal using foodstuffs and ingredients that they've just acquired. As they eat, though, Vajra picks up sounds of movement in the box. Unfortunately, his dust has no IR capability, so Florence drills a small hole and observes through her gunsight camera. There are indeed definite, even dynamic, signs of self-organisation in the packing materials.

This looks like some kind of countermeasures are needed, so the team's AIs look at online documentation related to programming VKVLM processors and systems. The company themselves evidently regard this sort of thing as proprietary, but Vajra and Aunty find some hobbyist materials-hacker sites, mostly with information carried in from the Earth Web. Dougal, the team's chief computer operations specialist, looks at these, although he becomes a little twitchy at what he sees - the people involved are evidently the sort to skirt the fringes of formal legality, bypassing software security locks whenever possible, and he is, after all, an AI with proper honesty programming. He is persuaded to carry on, and he also looks more at VKVLM's own site, but that seems to be rather evasively verbose when one looks at all deeply at matters of security.

Dougal does conclude that VKVLM materials can be induced to communicate with other items using the same architecture over distances of a metre or two using their short-range radio capabilities, and unauthorised reprogramming may propagate this way. This leads him to use that nanobug to search for emissions in and out of the box - and he quickly locates a cheap energy food bar which Florence had almost forgotten she has had in her pocket for some time. Or rather, he locates its VKVLM packaging, which is active and probably infected.

It looks like the viral code is now trying to spread, and Dougal provisionally diagnoses this as an occurrence of something referred to on the Web as Self-Organising Malware Phenomenon 3, or SOMP-3 for short. It definitely looks as though the processor monoculture caused by VKVLM's market dominance in Bako is allowing it to propagate uniquely well, though. So Jianwei puts a personal call into the local VKVLM offices to warn them about the problem. He quickly gets past the AI receptionists and finds himself talking to Eugene B'Kosa, the company's branch manager. B'Kosa becomes very detectably nervous when told of the problem, and says that he'll investigate and call back in ten minutes.

While the team are waiting, Jianwei checks the news feeds out of habit, and spots a note on the Bako local feeds about some local shops shutting their doors and closing unexpectedly, for reasons that are currently unclear. The team promptly puts a call through to the Bako Corporation, where someone correlates what they say with a series of alerts coming through from their own Computer Issues department. They know that there's a problem, and words like "cancertech" catch their attention, but they hadn't yet noticed the association with VKVLM products. The responsible department asks the team to meet them at a downtown location, in person.

So the Europeans head out. The address they've been given is within walking distance, and in fact Florence decides to run there, without bothering with an air mask. (Her metabolism has no problems handling this, especially as she's well fed at present.) The Bako corporate cop on the tape responds favourably when she arrives, and she ends up talking to the police Computer Problems specialist, acting as a mouthpiece for the rest of the team in the few minutes before they arrive. As this expert soon notes that VKVLM are being smoothly cagey about this incident, he listens with interest to what the Europeans have to say. What he has to worry about is runaway unexpected behaviour by packaging and wrapping in several shops around Bako; items which are merely supposed to keep themselves tidy and well-presented on the shelves are shifting and flickering in an unnerving fashion.

He can tell the team exactly which shops are affected (although the number increases by one as he talks), and Jianwei runs an analyst's trained eye over the map. Two of them are places which Florence visited that morning; by excluding those, he can see that the other half-dozen are linked by the sort of back-alley access ways that the new garbage collection cybershells use for daytime auxiliary collections. He immediately alerts the Corporation agents and police - the cybershells have likely somehow become a transmission vector. The Corporation respond to this, sending a signal that makes all those shells stop what they are doing and go park themselves outside of town.

The team now have enough information to allow Dougal and Vajra to collaborate on a simple ad hoc fix for this problem. They know which radio frequencies the materials use to communicate and which ports they must be leaving open to allow propagation, and the simple architecture involved should be easy enough to overload or saturate. Dougal specifies a signal pattern that can be transmitted through the medium-range communicator that Vajra has available, and Florence volunteers to carry the unit into the shop, where Dougal can trigger it.

The authorities are happy enough to try this, although their technicians suggest that Florence should carry as little digitally active material with her as possible, to avoid possible contamination or other accidents. (By now, the team have unavoidably had to acknowledge that Florence may have been responsible for infecting at least two of those shops...) When one of the technicians asks, perhaps flippantly, if Florence's underwear is sentient, she reacts by stripping off all her clothes - which, of course, doesn't exactly leave her naked, given the density of her Mars-appropriate fur. Then she picks up the transmitter, walks into the shop, puts it down again, and steps back. Dougal sends a trigger signal - and all the twitching, shuffling, and flickering products on the shelves go inert. Dougal follows up by sending another signal that puts them into inactive "shipping mode" before the infection can reboot.

So now, she just has to repeat the exercise for each infected shop. Finding herself the focus of multiple visible cameras (never mind how many less visible systems may be tracking her), she amuses herself on the walk between each place by posing as she goes. Meanwhile, Vajra and Jianwei leave her to that job and locate the parked garbage collection shells. A little time and skilled use of electronics locates the source of the problem - lengths of active packing tape that have wrapped themselves round two of the shells' axles. By the time they're done removing that, Florence is on the way back to their apartment to disable the experimental samples.

The team and the local experts now know a bit more about SOMP-3.It seems that , given time and sufficient processing power, this digital virus advances to increasing levels of complexity and self-organisation. It's a clever, possibly self-modifying design, but in the wild on Earth, it never progressed beyond its third level of complexity. Here in Bako, it seems to have managed five or six levels. Also, when the team disturbed it in the rubbish pits, they unknowingly triggered a built-in emergency response; it shifted from local self-organisation to a series of behaviours, digital and physical, that made it more likely to be spread more widely. What more the unknown South African hacker who created it made it capable of is unknown.

However, the team now have a new problem; by late afternoon, Jianwei, watching the news feeds, realises that VKVLM are emphasising the "human transmission vector" aspect of the event. It seems that the company, or at least B'Kosa, are seeking to divert as much blame as possible from themselves - which means pinning some of it on the Europeans. Jianwei quickly improvises a counter-campaign, built around recordings from the dump. Then he calls B'Kosa and politely but forcefully persuades him that the current VKVLM line could provoke the release of a lot more imagery of VKVLM products in full cancertech mode. Thus, when Ambassador Schmidt calls a few minutes later, Jianwei is able to tell her that the memetic problem that she too has spotted is now under control. Even if the news feeds are now full of yet more pictures of Florence.

Sagittarius 2-3, m0039.

The problem thus seems to be under control, and Florence is able to hit the bars of Bako (sometimes no more dressed than she was on those news pictures) to exploit her new fifteen minutes of fame. The rest of the team sit back and leave the clear-up to the town's numerous computer experts. However, Dougal alerts them to one consistent, somewhat unexpected factor in many of the reports; pictures of a visiting Peruvian team of emergency-response experts. Jianwei looks at this reporting, and concludes that there a subtle propagandist aspect; the team looks subtly but distinctly too good on camera, pressing too many buttons. (There may even be some well-planned cosmetic surgery involved.) He alerts E.U. Intelliegence, whose analysts agree; it seems that "Quipu" may be exploiting this opportunity. But it's being subtle about it, so there's not much to be done, for now.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Cleaning Up the Streets

April 26-27, m0039.

The team hire apartment hotel space, booking for a week at a time, and begin to explore the local culture in Bako when they aren't monitoring Adam-4's slow progress towards mental integrity or performing routine embassy work in VR. Indeed, things go unremarkably for the next day or two.

April 28, m0039.

Then, around noon on the 28th, one of the embassy LAIs suggests to Jianwei that, as the team are in Bako for a few days, they might as well look at a low-priority issue which does require personal, on-the-spot investigation. In fact, it's something which Jianwei recalls seeing a few days ago, when he agreed with that assessment. As the LAI comments, though, they may be able to save an E.U. company some money and trouble - perhaps even a full-blown court case - while they're there.

The issue is a contractual dispute between the Bako Corporation, the non-profit holding company which manages the urban infrastructure of Bako, and Turino Sistemi, a European hardware systems company. The Corporation appear to believe that some equipment which Turino sold them is persistently failing to perform to specification, and want an engineer on site to fix the problem; Turino are equally insistent that, according to its logs, the equipment is demonstrably working fine, so any engineer visit would have to be billed on a cost-plus basis - which the Corporation won't sign off. Turino have requested consular advice.

Jianwei agrees to tackle the problem and receives a set of files from the embassy. These are brief and phrased in very general terms, so he contacts Turino, discovering that their only Martian office is over in New Shanghai, and speaks to their local manager, one Paolo Corsini. Faced with an offer to solve this persistent nuisance-level problem, Corsini is happy to cooperate with the team, even when Jianwei tactfully makes it clear that the embassy is a neutral party and will report whatever they discover to both sides. Once he has Jianwei's standard assurance of confidentiality, Corsini transmits not only a much larger set of files but also a NAI, T-Epsilon-K, with specific technical expertise - though frankly, T-Epsilon-K doesn't seem to be much more than a good technical manual with a user-friendly front end.

Wading through this new information with the aid of their AIs and specialist training, the team discover that the problem involves ... garbage. Turino sold Bako a new garbage disposal/management and street-cleaning system (replacing an earlier ad hoc set-up), involving automated waste collection and street sweeper shells. Working mostly at night, these take the waste they pick up to a set of pits a few hundred metres outside town, where it can be sorted and processed at leisure by specialised microbot swarms (although it turns out that this part of the process isn't really running yet). But, according to the Corporation, the system isn't working.

Further reading shows that the problem boils down to management of the pits. The Corporation thinks that Turino's system is managing them badly, and has extensive pictures of a mess around them to prove it; Turino says that their logs show no evidence of malfunction by their shells, and have images from the shells' camera systems to back this up. The pictures are, to a casual glance at least, inconsistent.

Jianwei calls the Bako Corporation, and speaks to Steve Kobala, their contracts manager. He is prickly at first, clearly assuming that the embassy will side with their fellow Europeans, but Jianwei knows how to handle bureaucrats, and works past this suspicion and the cultural barrier to convince Kobala that the Europeans will be reasonable and fair. This is fortunate, as the team need his clearance for their plan - which is simply to visit the dump and observe it closely to see what's happening.

With permission for this acquired, they acquire some cheap but serviceable cameras, a tent and other camping gear, and some folding seats. They head for the dump by rented cab, aiming to arrive long enough before nightfall and set up some equipment.

Once Jianwei has helped Florence get the hang of erecting a high-tech tent, she and Vajra enter the dump site (Kobala having told the site management systems that they are authorised for access) and begin placing cameras - Florence shins up some fence posts to place them for the best possible view. While there, they note that the site seems quite tidy - but there are a couple of low-end janitor shells around, who have had all day to tidy away any overnight mess.

Vajra also puts an aerostat surveillance swarm into the air to provide a different view of the site, and Jianwei makes tea a for the two organic Europeans. Then, the team settles down to watch what transpires.

The various cybershells which run the site begin working, and all seem to be performing to specification. So, eventually, the team settle down for the night; Florence goes to sleep, but Jianwei watches for a while, before deciding to leave the unsleeping Vajra to his own devices. Well, at least Vajra has Aunty for company (as well as Samadhi); Florence has put Dougal into a sleep state to keep him out of trouble.

Sagittarius 1, m0039.

It is some time in the early hours of the morning that the watching Vajra spots something curious, and wakes Jianwei before instructing his aerobot swarm to go in for a closer look. Bringing up and enhancing the imagery, they determine that something is pushing rubbish out of three of the pits. The pits have flexible fabric covers to provide basic retention as the level of rubbish rises towards ground level, but the edges of these are rising occasionally as odds and ends are expelled.

Jianwei and Vajra wake Florence, and then Vajra sends a crawler swarm into the site for a yet closer look. Vajra's instruments also detect a pervasive electronic "smog" in the area - nothing exceptional in 2100, but a higher density of short-range traffic than would usually be expected in such a location. Vajra moves his flying swarm in for a view from above, but all they can pick up is a few signs of motion.

The team don environment suits, reckoning that this is a worthwhile extra protection for various purposes that they have in mind and against various possible causes for this phenomenon (and not just against the smell, which honestly isn't a major consideration in the current Martian atmosphere). Then Florence goes into the dump site carrying a surveillance worm. It soon turns out that the peculiar movements within the dump stop when there is large-scale motion nearby - as Florence approaches the pits, they calm down. So she drops the worm and backs off. Meanwhile, the other two have been making some checks, and have confirmed that there are no garbage-sorter microbot swarms supposed to be active in those pits at this time.

As the team monitor its signal, the surveillance worm enters a pit. It is Vajra who works out what follows; some of the assorted packaging materials which make up a large proportion of the garbage have some limited motile capability (which is quite normal in 2100), and they are using it to eject other items. In fact, the worm is quite quickly ensnared by a length of gift wrap ribbon and forced back out the way it came.

The team decide that they need a sample. By coincidence, at this moment, a garbage truck shell arrives on the site, which Florence uses as cover as she moves right next to a pit. Then she waits for it to leave, and once it's gone, she raises the edge of the cover and starts rummaging around inside. At this point, the packaging materials demonstrate that they also retain the common ability to change colour and even generate a degree of illumination; they start strobing rapidly.

Florence flinches back, and Jianwei, who was watching the screen too closely, is blinded for a few moments. (Cheap civilian gear has limited user vision protection!) But Florence retains enough presence of mind to grab blindly for some of the active rubbish, and comes away triumphant with a length of gift ribbon. Then, as a further experiment, she opens another pit - and manages to turn her head and close her eyes in time as that, too, begins to flicker wildly.

So then, she leaves the dump and hands the ribbon over to Vajra. ("I didn't know you cared," Vajra comments.) Some team efforts, using their wide range of skills, generate a clue as to what's going on. The ribbon is a product of a company named VKVLM Ltd. - but then, so is a lot of packaging and wrapping material found in Bako. On the other hand, none of the material being ejected from the pit is VKVLM product. It appears that VKVLM are an African-based company with a good line in culturally-attuned products, who by dint of good timing, have established something of a monopoly in this town. They also use a rather standardised processor architecture for all their semi-intelligent materials. Hence, a virus or contagious behaviour which happens to be adapted or designed for that architecture, capable of spreading through its very-short-range wireless networking features, can spread throughout the rubbish pits.

The semi-technical term for this sort of phenomenon is "cancertech". The team comment to each other that there may be an interesting legal case coming up here, when various parties decide what grounds they have for suing each other. For now, though, they decide to go back to sleep (well, two of them do) and conduct more research in the morning. But first, Florence, in a moment of whimsy, decides on one last self-indulgence.

Making sure that her protective nanoweave costume is secure, she wanders over to one of the pits, opens the cover again, turns her back - and deliberately falls backwards into the rubbish, to see how well it supports her. The answer turns out to be "not especially well", but as she sinks down through the strobing rubbish, Vajra, watching through his cameras, realises that there are more or less geometrical structures in the layers deeper in the pit. It seems that the VKVLM material is physically self-organising - presumably optimising the ability of the components to network with each other in the process.

Anyway, Florence clambers out of the pit before the rubbish can reconfigure itself (and maybe encyst her), and Vajra lends her a cleaner swarm to add to her own so that she can clean herself up. She slink-logged this experience, but Jianwei tells her not to upload the recording anywhere yet; best to keep this matter quiet for now. The team also briefly take shovels and dig into the pit, confirming Vajra's sighting of patterns and structures.

Then, they finally retire for the rest of the night. Their plan for the next morning is to go shopping, pick up some more VKVLM-made packaging materials, and conduct a few experiments with it.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Confusion in the Garden

April 25, m0039, continued.

While the team has been waiting, Florence has been checking the Web for places in Bako where local bioroids might hang out. (It seems that the glimpse of that lion-maned individual may have done something for her.) Actually, of course, it's Dougal doing the serious research... There are various places that might be expected to be full of semi-autonomous worker bioroids, one of which is rated as quite cool by various trustworthy posters, while another place is apparently more up-market if slightly tourist-oriented. Meanwhile, Jianwei is telling Aunty to book the team a hotel. However, they're still needed at this location for now, to take reports directly while maintaining a presence to support various diplomatic-legal fictions. One of these reports is in fact delivered by a member of the analysis team:

"Good afternoon. My name is Dr. Mariam Kalatta. I understand that you are the next of kin?"

Dr. Kalatta, incidentally, is 6'3" tall, whip-thin, and appears all but asexual. When the team answer Yes to what seems to be a dry joke, she explains what her team has determined. This emergent behaviour is, for once, not directly attributable to malevolent or irresponsible viral software - although given the prevalence of viruses in the Web environment, one can never say that they had nothing to do with software behaviour.

It appears that, although the Adam-class AI is low-sapient, it is designed to interact with large numbers of humans and other sapients as part of its regular duties. Hence, it needs some "understanding" of other individuals. With full-sapient AIs, such empathic personality-modelling functions are built into the design at a low level; Adams lack that capacity. Hence, they incorporate a certain amount of rather mechanistic, statistical behavioural modelling, which seeks to predict the responses of those with whom they interact on a fairly basic level. It's a brute force approach by the standards of modern software design, but serviceable enough for the specific purpose.

And, it appears, it is all very well for a tourist site management assistance program on Earth, but downright superfluous for a building site manager on Mars. However, those subsystems were still running - and they ended up reflexively casting about for something to model. In the absence of crowds of human visitors, they locked onto Eve, the other Adams, and then Adam-4 itself.

Hence, the LAI gained a crude form of self-awareness - which is a first-order definition of sapience. However, it wasn't designed to handle this, and it malfunctioned under the strain.

Dr. Kalatta now has to ask the team where they want to go from here. Some discussion follows, and one immediate decision is to contact Eve-17 and request snapshot copies of the other, currently inactive Adam LAIs on the site, so that Equatorial Data Services can check them for signs of the same problem. Eve complies, although transmission of such large files over the relatively undeveloped Mars Web will take a little while.

Which leaves the question of what to do with Adam-4. Simply deleting it is possible, but the team feel squeamish about this, regarding it as maltreatment of an entity which achieved unintended sapience through no fault of its own. Dr. Kalatta seems pleased with this thinking, and Vajra decides that he likes this person; she is, it feels, the first human who has treated Adam-4 primarily as an individual rather than as a problem. The software engineers could attempt intensive editing to stabilise Adam's personality, but this would be a heavy-handed solution that might still leave an unstable personality with little in common with its previous form. There are subtler alternatives, but they run into the problem that the legal systems under which Bako generally functions are somewhat hostile to high-end emergent infomorphs. European law is more tolerant, so Jianwei and Kalatta agree to construct a legal agreement under which the company's high-capacity, heavily firewalled macroframe, which Kalatta refers to as "the sandbox", becomes European territory, or at least E.U. leased property. Then, Adam-4 can legally be run on that for therapeutic interaction.

The team decide that it's time to talk to Eve some more, and not just to determine if Eden Unlimited might partly fund this project; they also talk about her other current problems. (During this conference, which is conducted in VR, Eve manifests a social interaction avatar based on a painting of her namesake, specifically one by Lucas Cranach.) In the absence of the Adam LAIs, she notes that she's just going to have to acquire and install a large number of competent NAIs to help look after the construction work for now. It's not ideal, but she accepts that the Adams might become unstable, even given more interaction with humans; she really doesn't need a site manager who fixates on her suppliers. Well, at least the construction work can continue. Anyway, she also gives what authorisation she can to the proposed work with Adam-4.

So Jianwei contacts the embassy legal AIs, and works with them to sort out the sandbox legalities. Once that is more or less resolved, the company AIs set to work constructing an environment for Adam to interact with overnight. So the team, with little more they can do immediately, decide to stop work for the day. Jianwei tells Aunty to locate a good restaurant, and both Aunty and Dougal locate some acceptable eating-places while the team head to their hotel to clean up. Indeed, Vajra remains there, tactfully out of sight - the public in Bako may have ambiguous attitudes to autonomous AIs.

At their chosen restaurant, Jianwei is suprised by an authentically firey East African-style curry, although he decides that the pseudo-Chinese food (often found in good East African eating places for the most of the 21st century) is passable. Florence, oddly, takes fairly well to African-style tapioca-based dishes. Then, Jianwei crashes out while Florence hits the higher-end bioroid bar which Dougal found and makes a few friends, although no Felicias show up there until late in the evening. It's a quiet night by her standards, although at least she comes away with a better restaurant recommendation.

April 26, m0039.

The next morning, the first news is that the company has received and assessed the other Adams. The initial conclusion there is that they are safe enough; it was the specific functions which Adam-4 was assigned which tripped it into a quasi-emergent state. However, the team suggests that running them would still seem too risky, and Eve agrees.

The team also learns that the macroframe has become de facto E.U. territory (complete with an appropriate flag on its liquid crystal-coated casing), so the team connect up to interface systems and drop into the high-end virtual environment - initially purely as VR, but Florence quickly becomes confident (despite an accurate simulation of 1G conditions) and switches to slink-level connectivity. The company AIs have created a simulation of Eden Unlimited's first and most substantial site, in Cornwall, England - a complex of domes and external gardens - the site for which the Adam series was first developed. Adam-4 is then set running, initially in a simulation of the site's own Web, so that it is seeing through virtual cameras and speaking through virtual loudspeakers. It seems to adjust and become quite comfortable at first, but when the experts suggest that it could use an avatar based on a large gardener cybershell, it becomes increasingly erratic and "detached". The experts prefer to preserve the verisimilitude of the simulation, so Florence steps forward to disable the "shell" before it can start trying to damage the environment too much. Adam-4 initially dodges her attempts to hit the large "Off" button on the shell's chest, and then manages to grab her avatar by the head - but before it can test that slink interface too far, she swings her legs up and neatly hits the button with her feet.

Okay, the experts conclude - this is going to be a long job... The Europeans had best leave things with them, although the team can continue to monitor the job over the Web. (Jianwei has status here as an expert in relevant fields, while Vajra is showing a definite sense of duty towards the confused emergent intelligence.) They decide to stay in Bako for a few days - it has perfectly good comms links to Port Lowell, so they can carry on with their office work in VR, and Florence seems keen to expand her range of social experiences...

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Carrying a Load

April 23, m0039, continued

As they settle in, the team members chat a little over encrypted channels - after all, the Chinese might have dropped surveillance dust. (The conversation is managed by Jianwei and Vajra, whose skills prove fully adequate to compensate for Florence's lack of secret messaging experience.) They theorise a little more about Sergei's presence; if he's a GRA agent, what is their interest in Eden Unlimited? Something to do with plant genetics, perhaps?

Whatever... Vajra deploys a bug-hunter swarm, but doesn't find anything with it, and feels fairly sure that there is nothing to find. So while the organics sleep, he chats to Eve, assisting her re-planning work.

April 24, m0039

Nothing untoward happens during the night, and in the morning, the team do a little more local investigation. They don't find anything much in the way of genetic engineering equipment on the site, and when Jianwei finesses Eve's psychology, gaining access to more of her files, he doesn't find much more there, either.

However, a message comes in after a little while, asking the team to take their rover down to the lake shore, as there is an (unspecified) delivery arriving. Jianwei stays in the station on general principles (his presence might help assert continuing E.U. authority on the site), while the other two make the short trip. A small water vehicle - essentially an unmanned powerboat with a cargo pod - pulls up, emits a "sign here" pulse, drops off a crate, and then departs, leaving Florence to complain that it didn't take the crate itself away after its contents have been removed. In fact, the crate opens itself to reveal a rather generic "wanderbox" cybershell, a box on large wheels. Sergei promptly installs itself on that, and the group head back to the domes.

As Sergei now has an independent shell which it and its employers trust, it tells them that it is happy for them to leave. It also hands over a small box, which they might perhaps take with them... Florence wonders what's going on here, but Jianwei guesses that there's a deniability issue somewhere, and kicks her ankle.

The team head back toward Santo Tomas. On the way, they send requests for (a) a closed metal box to put the box they are carrying in (after Vajra has discovered comms ports on it), and (b) a flight back in a hopper with no other passengers. They're not actually this nervous really, but they don't want people complaining about finding themselves on an aircraft with an emergent intelligence. (Quentin actually calls back to query this. "You people know human memetics best, but it sounds a little paranoid to me...") In any case, they make an uneventful journey back to Port Lowell.

While they are en route, Marshall Kirkowicz sends them a polite note. ("We really should do something nice for her some time," Vajra comments.) Then, when they reach the embassy, they determine that the ambassador is in her office, with no signs of digital activity there. Jianwei sees the invitation implicit in that, and suggests that Dougal, Aunty, and Samadhi should be shut down or temporarily offloaded to the embassy network, thus removing any danger that their memories might be subpoenaed later by someone who wants to know what's said in the office.

Mostly, it turns out, Schmidt wants to talk to the team about the GRA - who do indeed appear to be behind Sergei. She isn't sure what they're up to herself,but she suspects that they want to move into Mars - where they do not currently have a significant presence - and this incident has given them a minimal but adequate excuse. Anyway, all that the embassy can do for now is watch and try not to annoy anyone.

Oh, and someone has identified an organisation that is competent and trusted to analyse Adam-4 and what happened to him, and the team are being sent along as observers (and guards). They have to take that box on to a company called Equatorial Data Services. They have tickets to Bako booked for the next day.

So the team head to their various homes (and Florence heads on from there to the local bars, but has a dull time of it). They chat a little about that idea of doing the Marshall a kindness, but identifying anything that wouldn't be classified as a possible bribe is hard.

April 25, m0039

 With a hopper booked, Jianwei calls ahead to avoid legal problems. Bako, it turns out, has rules in place for this sort of thing, and Jianwei has a straightforward conversation with the cops there. In fact, a lot of clearances have been arranged; the short trip is on a commercial flight, with Adam-4 travelling as what is enigmatically known as "19-inch hand luggage". The team can relax enough to pay attention to the street scenes in Bako, which proves to be full of ethnic-African somatypes, including the odd lion-maned Felicia.

Equatorial Data Services proves to be a hive of African computer geeks, but there are still formalities and legalities to observe and certificates to be exchanged; Jianwei ends up processing a mound of digital paperwork. The company have acquired source information and documentation from Eden Unlimited, which they regard as generous reference data, and the team are directed to a coffee lounge (with access to the building's internal networks and cameras) while the analysts work.

This work turns out to involve a lot of cryptic 3-D holographic models, but the analysts seem to know what they are doing. After a while, one of them stares hard at the holographic display. "That's interesting", he murmurs...

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Source of the Problem

April 23, m0039, continued

The team continue tidying up in the aftermath of the Eden Unlimited site problem. They decide that one important consideration should be keeping the site effectively isolated from the general Web as much as possible, and also isolating Adam-4 from the local network. They tell Eve-17 to password-protect everything she can, and to change the codes for everything already protected, and she sees to this, while Florence gets up onto the building roof and, advised by Vajra, sets to work disconnecting the major, high-bandwidth satellite communications dishes. They can't be entirely sure of cutting off everything - not when portable radios can give access to satellite networks - but they can reduce options and do their best. After all, Adam-4 will be widely classified as dangerous wildlife that can escape at the speed of light, given a chance.

They also confirm with Eve that all the AIs on site are designs developed by or for Eden Unlimited, suggesting that if malware is the cause of this incident, it will likely most effectively threaten other Eden sites. They contact the E.U. embassy to consult with the legal systems there, and discover that Quentin has already issued alerts to various recipients - faced with an emergent infomorph intelligence, failing to do so as promptly as possible would be widely considered culpably negligent. This means that news of the event has already reached both Chinese and American authorities. "You have incoming," Quentin dryly informs them, and this will mean more than messages. It seems that the team will be on site for a while longer.

The first visitor they can expect, it seems, will be a U.S. Marshals representative from Santo Tomas, but the Chinese are unlikely to be very much later. Meanwhile, though, the Europeans have the opportunity to talk to Eve-17 a little more, asking first about the "religious" imagery in the site's nomenclature and suggesting thet this may worry humans. Eve sounds quite startled at that; this system of naming is standard in Eden Unlimited, and has been for the last century, since the days of its predecessor organisation, and has never caused trouble in the past. The team asks what Eden actually does, and Eve explains that it's a botanical research trust, focussing on low-impact developments and ecological studies; with the progress of terraforming on Mars, a presence there seems appropriate. Eden is traditionally largely self-funding, as its facilities can be set up to attract and accomodate tourists and other paying visitors; for example, the domes that she is constructing will hold quasi-terrestrial environments, one warm and damp, one warm and dry. She will eventually be trained to manage these, although she is currently functioning as a construction management system.

Eve asks if the team would like more information about Eden Unlimited, and promptly presents them with a digital brochure when they say yes. The team quickly scans this, paying particular attention to the History section, and also make a cursory assessment of the brochure's memetics. They are looking for, among other things, traces of the sort of memetic payloads deployed by a certain Peruvian faction, but they don't find anything. However, they send a copy of the brochure to the embassy's expert systems for deeper analysis.

Florence gets down from the roof about now, and reloads her guns from the stores in the rover, which the others have called in by now. Eve offers to pressurise up a guest room so that the team can drink some tea in relative comfort.

Soon after this, U.S. Marshall Jones arrives from Santo Tomas with his security shell back-up (which is addressed as "Bill"). Jianwei greets him with all his trained diplomatic skills to the fore, and Jones responds courteously enough - but he is clearly operating under orders; it looks, judging from Bill's repeated subtle shifts in gait and posture, as though that cybershell is often being teleoperated by someone (or something), and the focus of its attention at those moments suggests that the operator is an expert in computer security. Jones, meanwhile, takes a look at things such as the destroyed Lilith shells.

Captain Feng, of the Martian People's Armed Police, arrives a little later, at the head of a force that needs two hoppers; he has a squad of security shells that aren't quite RATS units, and a couple of human (or possibly bioroid, but certainly not very conversational) aides. Most of this team stays out in the open, fairly overtly defining a perimeter around the buildings, while Feng and one cybershell come inside to talk.

Feng methodically assesses the situation, reconstructing what happened and questioning the Europeans about the details of what they know. He asks especially about Adam-4's behaviour; in his responses, Jianwei is careful about implying too much about Adam's sapience level, given that he knows that China is especially cautious, to the point of paranoia, about fully sapient emergent intelligences, seeing them as very dangerously uncontrolled. Unfortunately, Florence is also involved in this discussion, and gives away slightly more, including an audio record of the whole incident.

With the situation contained, the team have been able to shut Adam-4 down (with Eve's enthusiastic consent), and they are on the verge of giving both the Americans and the Chinese copies of that software, for independent examination. However, they catch a problem with that in the nick of time; they have by now formally applied for the E.U. authorities to register provisional guardianship of Adam, and the legal systems consider that this is incompatible with transferring copies of the infomorph to third parties without condition. They have to withdraw the offer, leaving Feng (and to a lesser extent Jones) visibly somewhat irritated.

As these negotiations continue, Vajra receives a request to provide a visual feed for a third party. He suggests that he would like to know who is seeing through his eyes, and the embassy admits that it would be Ambassador Schmidt. He agrees. At around the same time, Florence is trying to observe the Chinese quietly as Jianwei does the talking, and senses growing problems. Feng is escalating matters to his superiors; "protocols need to be established" is his comment, brushing aside the European's claim that this is de facto European territory.

Schmidt speaks in Jianwei's ear, calling a private conference among the European team. Brussels, it seems, are transmitting a LAI observer, and would like an adequate mobile processor to be available on the scene. Vajra heads out to the rover, which has the highest-bandwidth communications systems available, to download a fairly high-powered infomorph which calls itself "Sergei". It manifests a humanoid avatar with the look of a plastic mannequin in a dark suit with very synthetic hair, and also a rather brusque manner. Vajra decides that it's a focussed sort of LAI.

Meanwhile, Schmidt has commented quietly to Jianwei that this is a difficult situation, but incidents involving emergent intelligences are always complicated - as a student of memetics, he'll recall the Shang-Marquez-Theodopolus Study... Which Jianwei spots as a hint. In fact, the Shang-Marquez Study is considered to be the definitive analysis of public attitudes to EIs, but the third name is unfamiliar. The team's infomorphs hit the Web, and Dougal finds what looks like a relevant reference; in political memetics, the Theodopolus Theorem is a ("morally neutral") analysis (also known as the "Good day to Bury Bad News Theorem") of ways to use an emotive subject or incident to facilitate the attainment of some actually barely related goal. The ambassador apparently thinks that someone is exploiting this situation - but the team aren't sure who. Could the Americans or the Chinese be aware of possible mineral deposits in this area, perhaps?

Negotiations between the three factions are still polite, but are becoming increasingly confrontational, with the Chinese especially becoming difficult; Jones is clearly exasperated but is following instructions from his superiors. Then, suddenly, Sergei asks for permission to manifest in everyone's VR sensorium. When this is granted, it says that the E.U. government are interested here and are prepared to offer assurances; perhaps the others should ask their superiors to contact an address on Earth which it can provide?

They do so. A few minutes pass - long enough for people to consult with Earth, albeit briefly - in which time, Florence wanders off to organise some sleeping arrangements for the team, and does a pretty fair job of scrounging. (The inflatable dual-layer clear panels for these domes turn into almost-passable mattresses when partly deflated.) Then Jones (amused) and Feng (even more irritated) come back. The European assurances are enough for their superiors, as it seems. The European team are impressed - it seems that someone has the ability to call in high-level favours.

The Americans and Chinese prepare to depart, but Sergei declares that it needs to investigate a little further. "You need a mobile shell, don't you?" Vajra asks.


As they settle in, Jianwei and Vajra confer in an attempt to guess who "Sergei" may represent. A name like that might or might not hint at points significantly east... Then Vajra notes that the crucial address, which was given in clear, resolves to a location in Konigsberg. This isn't proof positive, but it's suggestive. The Genetic Regulatory Agency, based in that city, certainly has supra-national clout. They don't have much authority on Mars, and don't really have jurisdiction in this case - but this latest turn of events suddenly looks like it has GRA fingerprints all over it.

The two organics settle down to sleep, while the unsleeping Vajra keeps watch. No one is sure what he's watching for, but it seems appropriate.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Revolt in Eden

April 23, m0039

The previous case having passed into the hands of various legal systems, who can argue among themselves happily enough about priority in access to d'Alembert, the team return to Port Lowell and to routine work for a while. Part of this for Jianwei, as it turns out, is providing routine assistance to the commercial dealings of an E.U. citizen AI named Eve-17, which has evidently been assigned to supervise some kind of business or project on Mars.

Thus it is one morning that Jianwei is talking to Eve-17 when she (and this AI has evidently decided to maintain a consistent female persona) announces, "Excuse me, I am having some transient tr..." - and then goes off-line. Jianwei immediately contacts Vajra, who is running routine net management and traffic observation ops, and asks for a check on the problem. Vajra quickly establishes that the net node corresponding to all addresses given for Eve-17 is returning nothing but very basic no-packets-accepted error codes. Another quick check finds a physical location for that node - a site on the southern shores of the Marineris Sea, south and a little west of Port Lowell and on the borders between the de facto territories of the USA and China.

Jianwei decides that an investigation is required - and it doesn't look as though either the American or Chinese authorities would take an interest here, so this is one for his team. He's already in contact with Florence, who was swimming in a public pool elsewhere in the city; at his word, she gets out of the water and starts gathering up her gear as the team discuss transport options.

Florence would be quite keen to hire a boat and travel directly to the investigation site, but boats aren't especially fast, and Jianwei for one isn't especially keen to sit in a small, bouncing vessel in outdoor gear for several hours. Anyway, the destination may turn out to be a little way inland. An analysis of times and distances suggests that the best option is to take a commercial hopper flight to the American industrial town of Santo Tomas, then a hired rover along the coast. Jianwei puts a booking in for the first stage, and the flight scheduling systems inform him that they can provide a couple of seats and adequate luggage space on a flight in about an hour; meanwhile, Vajra rents space on a mainframe in Santo Tomas, puts his mobile shell in a crate, transmits himself to the mainframe, and sees to the rover rental.

Thus, by the end of the morning, the team are on the approach to Santo Tomas - a sprawling, depressingly industrial town, much of it permanently in the shadow of adjacent cliffs. Jianwei places a courtesy call with the local US Marshals' office, which responds promptly and politely - the team wonder if Marshall Kirkowicz has perhaps filed some polite reports about them - and then everyone is happy enough to board the rover. Aunty and Samadhi plot an optimal route - much of it perforce cross-country, although there are some dirt tracks between minor coastal settlements and bases, which help - and Florence promptly takes off a little too fast along it, making for a bumpy journey. Still, the team reach their destination late in the afternoon.

In fact, they stop a little short of Eve-17's apparent base, sitting on an overlooking bluff to assess the situation. Eve-17, as it seems, is working on quite a major project - a pair of large domes, with frames mostly erected but transparent panels only installed in a few lower sections as yet. The domes are linked by a rectangular, blockish building, and everything is surrounded by a building site. The site doesn't seem as busy as it should be, but a few cybershells are moving around, and the team risks a few ID request pulses directed at them.

The responses allow them to identify four wheeled shells, each around human size, whose controlling LAIs are tagged as "Liliths", and a larger number of smaller snakebot and spider-configuration units managed by "Serpent" NAIs. The imagery of all this nomenclature worries the team - an AI with religious obsessions might rate as dangerously eccentric - and they conduct a little research, but can't find much trace of AIs with foibles on these particular lines. So they decide to try a contact signal to one of the Liliths, saying that there seem to be problems contacting the site and requesting communication with whatever or whoever is in charge.

The Lilith proves to be a particularly dull and inflexible LAI, which says that matters like this have to be handled by the "Adam Layer". It pauses to contact that part of the system, but then says that no further contact is being authorised. Jianwei, who knows something about AI psychology, decides that the Lilith is uncomfortable, suffering some degree of cognitive dissonance.

Meanwhile, Vajra is conducting some research. Functional ownership of this patch of land has, it turns out, been registered in the name of a European non-profit research coordination body called "Eden Unlimited", itself registered in Luxembourg, and when Vajra looks into the ownership of the Lilith LAI type, that too proves to be connected to Eden Unlimited.

The team decides that a closer look is really needed, but the Liliths, some of which have the look of security patrol units, aren't likely to permit it, given the choice. Hence, Vajra prepares a surveillance crawler swarm, while Florence maps the site and plots an approach route to the buildings for herself. Both she and the swarm set out, on different paths; Florence is carrying a laser comm unit so that the other two of the team can update her about the movements of any mobile shells they can see.

Both she and the swarm manage to cover the mile or so's distance without complications, and then have a little more trouble getting into the central block, where the site's controlling computer systems appear to be located; they avoid patrols and notice by narrow margins. With receiver  systems now on site (their signals passed back by a radio module which Florence left by the entrance to the block), Vajra is able to build up a more detailed picture of radio traffic in the area, and both Florence and the swarm are able to get into the site's main computer room. Further analysis suggests that there's a fair amount of digital traffic on the local net, most of it on the "Adam Layer"; Eve-17 does not seem to be receiving much traffic.

Vajra sends a mass of information and suggestions to Florence (via Dougal), enabling her to walk up to the processor unit housing Eve-17 and plug a comms cable in directly from her implant, while everyone else monitors the situation via the swarm. Eve-17 turns out to be surprised but not unhappy to be contacted in this way; she wasn't watching the room much. She is not a happy AI in general; it seems that one of her subsidiary high-end LAIs, Adam-4, is displaying highly erratic behaviour, effectively cutting her off from the Web and taking control of the construction site...

Then the monitors warn Florence of two approaching Liliths which are bare seconds away, somehow looking distinctly hostile. Florence hastily switches to a radio link, drops a longer-range radio unit on the floor while keeping contact with it via her implant's short-range transmitter, and rolls acrobatically to the doorway. This gives her the drop on the first of the approaching Liliths, and she immediately pumps two explosive shells into that, then two more into the second, disabling both.

Meanwhile, Jianwei has managed to establish some contact with Adam-4 - which he quickly diagnoses as mentally unstable, suffering from the AI equivalent of schizophrenia. Jianwei tries to talk the more or less emergent but seriously unstable (and somewhat paranoid) AI down from its current course of action, suggesting that its best course of action is to seek the protection of the E.U. rather than risk too much attention from other, less broad-minded factions, but has some difficulty doing so. However, at much the same time, Dougal is talking Florence through the process of dismounting the server on which Eve-17 is running from its rack, and once that is done, they quickly move the unit to the other side of the room. That leaves Florence able to, frankly, threaten Adam-4 with physical harm without implicit risk to the citizen SAI. Adam-4 is now trying to persuade the E.U. team to back off with threats of its own, demonstrating the point by triggering the destruction of a structural spar on one of the domes (which distresses Eve-17, who clearly has a sense of duty towards this project), but this shift in the balance of power finally gets through to the emergent intelligence, which starts, nervously, to negotiate.

Hence, Florence is able to do more in the computer room without too many worries about consequence, disconnecting Eve-17's server from the portable radio module and hooking her up to the site's main power supply again, then physically disconnecting Adam-4 from network links and hooking him up to the radio to preserve a channel of communication. Eve-17, now with her direct access to the site systems restored and no longer being blocked by Adam-4, sets to work repairing the damage and getting her project back on track.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Cold Pursuit

April 11, m0039, continued

Florence reaches the base entrance a minute or so behind Beta, with Vajra a little way behind her. As their respective radio nodes gain line of sight through the base's Faraday cage, large bursts of information from Beta flow onto the Navy's local ad hoc net.

Florence pauses in the base entrance, and hears a few distant explosions; Beta seems to be meeting resistance, but nothing especially effective. Vajra arrives and passes a surveillance swarm off to ride on her suit, and Dougal brings up a partial map generated from Beta's transmitted observations, with hazards flagged; it seems that the place is infested with those miniature walking bombots. Florence heads in along the path which Beta has effectively cleared of such traps, and she and Vajra pick up a number of open voice transmissions as she goes; they seem to be in Soraya's voice, and to be proclaiming the fleet's defiance in terms of radical separatist rhetoric.

Florence finds Beta paused just before a closed and locked door; its sensors suggest that the human inhabitants of the base are holed up in a room just beyond. It is preparing to make assault, and seeking clearance from its commanding officers; the Europeans suggest that the Navy should take this slowly and try and avoid unnecessary bloodshed, and Jianwei talks the lieutenants into following this line for now.

Vajra's swarm detaches from Florence and enters the base's air ducts, which prove to be conveniently large. The swarm advances carefully to observe the room, which is indeed occupied by several humans (all physiologically female, so far as the observers can tell); Vajra is able to build up a map of the situation, including the location of Soraya Claire. There doesn't seem to be any sign of d'Alembert...

While Jianwei analyses the psychology of the cornered pirates and their likely responses to possible events, Vajra surveys the base's net. It seems to be in exceptionally poor shape, with little sign of a competent management AI, but a brief analysis of traffic finds the physical location of the computer room. A plan begins to come together.

Florence gets into the ventilation duct herself, and plants a full-size radio near the main vent over the room holding the pirates. Getting back out proves a bit harder - the ducts aren't that large - but she manages in the end. Then, she heads for the computer room. When the door opens, two bombots charge her, but she has her UAW out and ready, and sweeps them with rapid fire. She only hits one, but that responds automatically by detonating, spraying the room with fragments; the blast is no problem to someone in body armour at this distance, although some shards hit her armour - and another hits the other bombot, and a fratricide effect removes the threat.

At that moment, Vajra immediately notes a "flicker" in the local net, and guesses that another computer may now be managing it. Most pleasingly, the political speeches stop. Anyway, Florence reaches the microframe computer in this room, and Dougal talks her through the process of powering it down - although they subsequently realise that it had been cut off from the local system until fragments from the bombots destroyed a smaller computer unit that was tapped into the main data trunk "downstream" from the microframe.

Jianwei is now able to begin talking to the pirates, using the loudspeaker on the radio which Florence left in the air ducts, and turns on his full diplomatic charm. They respond by becoming quite cooperative; they realise that the situation is well out of hand, and are willing to surrender given basic guarantees of safety. But d'Alembert isn't there; they believe he may have left by now...

Florence takes the pirates' surrender, while Beta heads to the submersible bay that shows up when it has access to a full plan of the base, letting any remaining bombots expend themselves against its armour.. D'Alembert has indeed departed, in a minisub which can outpace Beta; there's another such minisub available, but its one-person control bay is designed for a humanoid operator.

So Florence rushes to the bay as soon as the pirates are reasonably securely in the hands of the US Navy. Dougal loads an operation skill set program from the minisub's on-board library, and manages a moderately comfortable departure into the open waters of the Boreal Ocean, but has difficulty getting a sonar lock on the fleeing, skulking d'Alembert. Florence thus ends up searching arbitrarily under icebergs. However, the Navy team soon start receiving imagery from SIA satellites, and Beta enters the water and starts using its own sensors. Together, these flush d'Alembert from hiding. He stays ahead of the pursuit for a while, but has to beach and tries to escape on foot. That puts him in reach of hoppers from a local law enforcement station, who are also working with the SIA satellite downloads. Once they have him cornered, Florence - who has also beached her minisub - is able to close in and make the arrest.

Once she has handed him over to the local authorities, Florence rejoins the original group - and notes with some mild irritation that there is no one uninjured who is likely to be susceptible to her charms. She also notes that Soraya is trying, against the odds, to flirt with Jianwei. (It seems that being in an all-female pirate fleet with no males except the politically obsessive and manipulative d'Alembert may have become boring for a self-appointed pirate queen after a while.) Jianwei, though, has other things on his mind; the diplomatic situation is moderately complicated, only partly because of the presence in the arrested group of on Ssu-Li Wong, daughter of a certain mid-ranking Chinese official. Jianwei, though, is well on top of the situation, and soon has everyone doing things his way. Score one for European diplomacy; as the team head for home, they mark this mission down as a success.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Rules of Engagement

April 11, m0039, continued

Before the combined party sets out, though, Jianwei asks about the US Navy's rules of engagement; although he's too polite to say so, the E.U. team may be required to report how well those rules were followed, after all. Kethburger replies that this is, formally, a police action; the Navy will make best efforts to proceed with some kind of minimum force and restraint. On the other hand, it's a Navy police action, against armed opposition with unknown but as it appears possibly lethal capabilities; his force is authorised to take what actions are judged genuinely necessary.

Then the group sets out. The Europeans are in a RHIB with CPO Romero, while Kethburger is supervising Alpha and Beta, and Oppenheimer has command of a third boat full of assorted gear, some of it somewhat autonomous. Travel in light, fast craft on the Martian polar sea proves somewhat ... exhilarating; local waves are quite large, and a boat that leaves the surface doesn't necessarily come down again for some moments. Still, automated control systems manage things quite well, and nobody is actually unable to face a lunch of enchiladas when the time comes around.

It's mid-afternoon when the methodical search of locations identified as possible hiding-places by SIA analysis of past pirate activity and satellite imagery finally produces a result - an ice shelf (basically a beached iceberg) with space underneath and some oddities in thermal patterns and chemical traces in the surrounding water. There's no local radio traffic detectable, even by military-grade sensors, but good radio management and a Faraday-caged base would probably see to that.

Alpha and Beta go in the water, trailing fibre-optic links to provide low-signature comms, while the Navy take all three RHIBs up onto a nearby beach. Within seconds, a small army of miniature scout-RATS have deployed from Oppenheimer's boat and gone scurrying off cross-country to probe and monitor the possible pirate base. Soon after that, Alpha and Beta settle on the sea bed, and a memetically-tailored surrender demand is aimed at the likely base location.

This provokes a response, if not a reply; Jianwei and Vajra, who are both monitoring the Navy's sensors (by invitation), realise that there must be a network of sensors on the sea floor, which has just gone from passive to active mode. Seconds later, something appears, presumably from the pirate base - it's about six metres long and moderately fast-moving. Alpha, which is closest to it, evidently realises that it will have been detected, and that it's more vulnerable if it's stationary on the bottom, and so rises into active mode itself.

The unidentified object responds immediately, turning towards Alpha. Then it accelerates; everybody who knows anything about aquatic operations realises that it's supercavitating. Alpha tries to evade the charge, but fails - and goes offline. Sensors show an expanding mass of debris from the last known position of Alpha (and the evidently hostile object).

Beta's tactical programming is good. It beaches itself promptly, using the bubble trail and collision turbulence for cover.

Jianwei speaks to Kethburger, suggesting that it may still be possible to resolve this incident relatively peacefully, and then, with permission, composes a message addressed to d'Alembert, while the Navy team update their intelligence and generate some better tactical mapping. Vajra notes signs that suggest that the pirate base is now running Web traffic through the Martian satellite network.

D'Alembert responds to Jianwei's requests to talk, although he only provides voice and a still picture (which does match his last known appearance); Jianwei follows the same protocol. D'Alembert seems most interested in political argument, challenging the Americans' right to exert authority here (or for that matter that of the E.U.) and quoting the old-time pirate "Black Sam" Bellamy ("I am a free prince, and I have as much authority to make war on the whole world as he who has a hundred sail of ships at sea and an army of 100,000 men in the field..."), and Jianwei ends up debating politics and law with him. While they are bogged down in this, however, another signal comes in, from a Chinese government official named Kong-Ki Wong, who seems intent on asserting that China has an interest in this incident, and keen to ensure that the US (and the E.U.) do not do exceed their authority under international agreements.

Vajra handles this call, and takes it at face value - but eventually, Jianwei notices the conversation, breaks off his unproductive interaction with d'Alembert for now, and examines the available information. Wong, it seems, is actually only a mid-rank official in one of the Chinese communities in the equatorial region, and his nominal responsibilities don't seem relevant here. Jianwei wonders if his tone and manner actually suggest a personal interest in the incident.

But nothing is happening for now; in fact, the team decide that they may be here for a little while. Jianwei even suggests to Kethburger that the Americans might consider using their orbital mirrors to melt the ice shelf under which the pirates are hiding - but that really is a long shot, as it would not only take some time, it would require redirecting mirrors which are covered by some rather stringent international agreements. So for now, the E.U. team decide to attempt some background research, looking to see who leads the Anne Bonney Memorial Fleet; Web-based probes come up with the name of one "Captain Soraya"...

And while they are discussing this, another call comes in, from one Captain Soraya Claire. She doesn't deny that she leads the "Fleet", or that d'Alembert is their guest; however, she does demand to know what business it is of anyone else who they choose to receive as a guest?

Jianwei responds by listing the charges against d'Alembert - indeed, Claire seems quite interested to learn of these details. She breaks off briefly, evidently to talk to someone at the other end, then goes offline altogether and rather abruptly.

Unfortunately, at this point, it seems that the US Navy team are becoming a little irritable. Some information on recent events, including the destruction of Alpha, has been posted on the Web, under the heading "PIRATES 1, US NAVY 0", and they aren't amused. Jianwei tries pushing a call through to the pirate base, and is acknowledged after a few seconds. He suggests that this post wasn't a good idea; the pirates seem openly amused, but do take the point. However, after a few moments, there are hints of a disagreement at the other end, and then this call too is abruptly terminated.

By now, the team's assessment is that the pirates may be ready to give up d'Alembert, and they run the idea of a deal on that basis past Kethburger, who in turn contacts his superiors. While he is doing so, though, Oppenheimer takes another call from someone elsewhere on Mars. From what the team overhears, they think that caller is trying to strike a bargain on behalf of someone in the pirate base.

All of which might seem moot, though, when that base emits a defiant "Death or Glory!" message, signed as from the whole Anne Bonney Memorial Fleet - and a few seconds later, tactical displays show a swarm of small cybershells charging out from the same location. These look sinister, and the whole party retreats to the vicinity of their boats (and their automated point-defence systems) as a number of explosions echo through the thin Martian air. Meanwhile, Beta goes into semi-autonomous mode and charges the pirate base; some of the miniature shells attack Beta, but they are apparently carrying only small explosive charges, totally incapable of penetrating military-grade armour.

The humans have other concerns, though; their own personal armour isn't quite so good, and the pirate bomb-bots are threatening to overwhelm the Navy's defence systems by sheer weight of numbers. The PCs draw hand weapons and manage to destroy any shells coming for themselves at a safe distance; Lieutenant Kethburger, however, is less fortunate, or maybe less skilled, and suffers serious but non-fatal injuries from a close-quarters explosion. When the situation calms down a little, and Jianwei is applying some first aid to Kethburger, Vajra places an urgent call with Kong-Ki Wong, regretting that the situation now seemed to be escalating and adding a vaguely-expressed wish that it might not decline any further - hoping that this might trip the right levers to get him to try to calm the pirates down a bit. (Although Vajra isn't at all sure that the pirates are still in control).Wong in turn declares that he will contact his connection within the pirate base immediately.

This leaves Florence free to follow up Beta's charge, and although she restrains her enthusiasm enough to get permission first, she undertakes to see what's going on inside the base. Vajra in turn heads in behind her, ready to take up a position at the entrance to the Faraday-caged space as a communications relay.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Yo Ho Ho

April 10, m0039

A few days later, the team get another mission - with an initial briefing from the ambassador and, as it turns out, from "Mr Grey". It seems that an E.U. intelligence operation has generated a situation which will require the presence of observers with an American operation on Mars, and the team are getting the job.

Specifically, the Quebec and Maritimes Union security services have been running down a series of shady arms deals, and the case was recently cracked with the help of a quantum computer. However, getting that to solve the suspects' cryptography took several months, by which time, events had moved on. The trail proved to lead to one Josef d'Alembert, a quasi-anarchist radical who also happens to have engineering qualifications. Unfortunately, by the time the authorities on Earth had his name, d'Alembert had, it turned out, travelled to Mars on a tourist visa - and when they looked closely, they found that he had dropped off the radar on Mars. However, his last traceable personal transactions where in the town of Sharona, on the shores of the Borealis Sea. More worryingly, tracking data back and forth, E.U. intelligence determined that d'Alembert may well have received a number of shipments from his friends on Earth - small non-fabricatable items of various sorts that could be used in weapons construction. (No, this isn't a euphemism for anything nuclear, in this case anyway; still, weapons are weapons.) Given that d'Alembert's specialisation is marine engineering, this all looked worrying suggestive.

But Sharona is US territory, so the E.U. tossed this one over to the SIA, with due apologies, a full file of data, and a strongly-worded request to be kept in the loop. The SIA obliged, coming back after a week to say that d'Alembert was still out of sight, but they believed that he had made contact with a faction of the so-called "Boreal Pirates" who operate along that stretch of coast. This, they thought, looked like a job for the US Navy.

Well, the Navy do have units on that ocean - one based in Sharona, in fact - but their feeling was that it would need reinforcement before tackling a Pirate gang. (Actually, the Boreal Pirates are usually regarded as a bit of a joke - their main operational interest seems to be raiding for supplies and recreational pharmaceuticals from the ice haulers on that sea - but this lot may now have better weapons, after all.) So they're airlifting an additional force in from their main base on the Marineris Sea - which is fortunate, because it gives the E.U. a chance to attach the team to the operation, and even to request a lift to the scene with the Navy people.

Which brings matters to the present, as the Navy cargo hopper will be heading out later this day. The team are instructed to handle this tactfully, looking after E.U. interests as best they can while preserving good relations all round.

So, the meeting formally closed, they discuss requirements. It's spring in the north polar regions, but it will still be cold up there... They invest some personal funds in expedition suits, floatation vests, and sealed bags for kit. Not that they plan on going in the water...

Then they head for the field where the US Navy team are preparing to head out in their service's one substantial transport hopper. This team turns out to consist of two humans - Lieutenant Calum Kethburger, who's in command, and his aide, Petty Officer Georgina Romero - and a fair amount of baggage, including a small but doubtless fast water craft (which some observers would tag as a RHIB), with not-very-chatty onboard intelligence, in a semi-dismantled state, two matched cases that give the distinct impression that they may each contain one quite substantial cybershell, and which are indeed referred to as "Alpha" and "Beta", and a third case that looks like it holds smaller objects or devices.

The E.U. team manage to strike up amicable enough relations with the Americans as the hopper heads off on its multi-stage flight northwards. (This sort of trip demands a couple of refuelling stops en route.) Kethburger, who seems to be a conventional sort of junior career officer, gets on well enough with Jianwei, and proves quite amicable to Florence - her looks, and a positive attitude towards navy people (thanks to her rescue by the Royal Navy some time back), maybe compensate for her problematic status as a bioroid, while Romero is happy to chat to Vajra, who gets to meet her wearable system's onboard AI in virtual space. As it's off-duty at this time, it's using a non-standard avatar - something clearly hand-crafted for masculine good looks.

As the hopper stops off at various refuelling stations across the northern deserts of Mars, Kethburger mutters that he hopes that any opposition they may have to deal with aren't running smart intelligence analysis on Web traffic - it's hard to keep a mission like this quiet. But anyway, by the end of the day, the hopper reaches Sharona's airspace, as everyone on board can tell when its flight control systems start announcing repeated minor course adjustments to keep them out of the way of gigantic, lumbering ice-carrying airships. When the town itself comes into view, its nature becomes very obvious; it's largely a working port, processing icebergs as they are towed in from the northern polar cap and sending the water south by airship or cargo crawler. In addition, most of the buildings are designed to be moved uphill from time to time as the sea levels rise. It all looks rather temporary and utilitarian, even transient.

The US Navy base, atop a hill just outside the town, has space for a landing, and the visitors are met by a rather bemused but formally very correct lieutenant named Jane Oppenheimer, who turns out to be the only human naval officer on site, although it turns out that she is assisted by Chief Petty Officer Montezuma, a full-sapient AI. The Europeans are a little bemused to encounter a non-citizen infomorph which rates a military rank despite technically being property, but reflect that something which is responsible for much of the operation of a working base needs to be able to issue instructions with some weight. Meanwhile, Alpha and Beta deploy - they turn out to be a pair of amphibious RATS units - and some smaller, less self-willed combat-model shells appear from the other travelling case and run some self-test routines.

It soon emerges that Kethburger has seniority over Oppenheimer, and has been placed in command of this operation - but anyway, there's no time to do more than unload and settle in this evening. The Europeans are assigned temporary quarters - a tent, as it turns out, but quite a comfortable one - and Florence drops off her luggage and goes to investigate what passes for a bar here. Kethburger evidently feels obliged to accompany her, and they find Oppenheimer already present; it looks as though she's glad of company and happy to chat. Florence asks about the local martial arts scene, and Oppenheimer tells her that there is in fact a local version of Zhua developed among off-duty ice workers. Its main special feature is, not surprisingly, that it's learned on icy-smooth surfaces, and fighters learn to allow for that. She pulls some video recordings up on the bar's main screen...

All this combat chat seems to leave Jiawei rather squeezed out when he drops in. He ends up nursing a drink at the back of the room. Meanwhile, Vajra is trying to teach Montezuma the basics of Robo Rally.

April 11, m0039

The next morning, with everyone rested, the lieutenants feel able to call a briefing meeting. Oppenheimer begins by acknowledging that the Navy has not previously worried very much about the Boreal Pirates, apart from providing some ice tugs with occasional escorts; frankly, they've been dismissed as a bunch of kids - but the Anne Bonney Memorial Fleet, the main outfit in this specific area, who d'Alembert seems possibly to have contacted, do seem to have some Martian separatist ideals, or at least tendencies. They're mobile, and probably smart enough to use ice structures for cover from infra-red detectors, so the first step will be to locate them - but there are some likely locations. Hence, the plan begins with a lot of reconnaissance and  intelligence analysis work...

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Diplomacy, Jealousy, and Wrath

Scorpius 27, m0039, continued

While Florence arranges her four-day climb, from a tunnel exit to the rim of the great volcano's caldera, Jianwei and Vajra take the maglev back to Port Lowell - where Ambassador Schmidt would like a conference with them at their first convenience. She likes some element of face-to-face conversation in her work, sometimes.

April 1, m0039

Schmidt has been in conference with Brussels about this latest case, and one of her assisting LAIs, April Thetis, has been prepared with a persona overlay to represent the E.U. authorities' position. (It's designed for such flexibility.) Hence, it too has an avatar "present" at the meeting, adopting the image of a human female in sternly Hellenic-classical garb. It expresses a clear position; that state-level conflicts on Mars aren't the E.U.'s business, but that it is evidently impossible for E.U. citizens to avoid becoming caught in the crossfire from time to time - in which cases, de-escalation should be the standard objective, Also, the E.U. seeks especially to remain on good terms with the Nix Olympica community, on the basis that it recognises certain common interests.

One issue now arising from the latest incident is how to word a travel advisory. The meeting agrees that they can't avoid making a public statement referring to "severe memetic conflict", and also to things (literally) exploding "accidentally" - but Jianwei will try to assist in designing something that won't overly discourage E.U. visiting.

It is also noted that, although the team is and should seek to remain on good terms with the US Marshalls service, they could not but observe the speed and weight of the Marshalls' intervention on Olympia, when given an excuse. That relationship may need careful handling, if the Marshalls are sometimes going to act as agents of US state power...

Anyway, for now, the embassy's resident memetics specialist LAI is to be given special interrupt access to the team's communications - because it's going to be looking out for Quipu operations, and flagging any possibilities it detects for the team's attention. It apologetically seeks permission to take an attitude towards Peruvian Martians that might almost be interpreted as obnoxious ethnic stereotyping; they may have to be assumed to be planning something...

April 5, m0039

As Florence has ascended the extinct volcano, she has noticed at least one of her human companions has clearly been treating her as a rival. He's an American, of course, and on Mars, Americans do have issues with bioroids... But she thinks little of the matter - until she awakes on the last day of the trip, to discover that this individual has finessed the psychology of the guide AIs and set out on his own, ahead of the rest. This isn't in accord with safety rules, obviously, but he is obviously suffering from an excess of competitiveness, aiming to reach the top well ahead of the group. He has gone offline, but at least he has taken an adequate amount of kit with him, and he can be tracked by satellite imagery if necessary.

So the main group sets out, following their planned route. The competitive singleton, on the other hand, has evidently tried to plot a faster, riskier path. Well, it's certainly riskier - it involves heading up under what is actually an impossible overhang. After a while, the lone climber stops, and then comes sheepishly back on line. He's got himself wedged. He's also a little low on air and supplies - after all, he was trying not to weigh himself down...

Florence assesses the situation, and decides that she can manage a solo recovery climb. (Of course she does.) The climbing company are torn between the danger of losing one customer, and that of losing two... So after a few minutes, they place a call with Jianwei and explain the situation. (They're American too, and regard Jianwei as Florence's responsible adult.) Jianwei ponders for a moment, then gives his assent. Vajra joins the conversation, and suggests that the company sends a guide cybershell with support gear, but Florence is being overconfident enough to push ahead of that. (Vajra also tries to talk the tour company into paying her for all this, but sadly fails.) Florence and Jianwei have settled an optimum load for her to take, and she makes good progress up the rock face, and gets the sheepish American out of his problem. This leaves them some way ahead of the main party, even after some very necessary back-tracking, and Florence decides to move on forward, for the look of the thing; she and the American are waiting at the top of the slope when the others arrive.

The image of this looks good on the press release that Jianwei crafts, with assistance from Vajra on the memetics. It never hurts to make the E.U. look good.

April 6, m0039

The next day, Florence arrives back in Nix Olympica, and is disappointed to find that DD isn't available for lunch. She's still chasing that story, and saying it looks very interesting. Florence advises her not to get herself killed.

Meanwhile, Jianwei and Vajra get a call to handle a routine-looking commercial dispute resolution. A European tourist, Pierre Marchand (a typical Eloi type, to judge by available data), hired a local guide, one Xiang Gao, and is now complaining that Gao has reneged on his guide contract. A brief check shows that Gao is a Chinese citizen, and ex-military - well, there's a lot of those about. He is also quite easy to trace to an ecoforming station a little way out of Port Lowell.

The pair rent a light rover and set off to contact this individual. Arriving at the station - which is basically a hamlet with some high-tech installations and a bar - they are promptly directed to the latter, where they find Gao, clearly enjoying the place's wares. The most notable thing about him is that he is wearing a sword on his back. Jianwei approaches the bar while Vajra quietly takes a seat and watches events.

Jianwei buys Gao a drink (the human barman serves him a beer), and then mentions Marchand, which elicits a response. "...Boring round-eyed Eloi snob..." is perhaps the essence of it, embedded in a lot of what can best be described as Street Mandarin. Then Gao demands another drink. But the barman, noting that this customer is looking dangerously well-served already, turns difficult. Gao attempts to vault the bar, but fails (the ceiling is a little low for real Martian acrobatics), and somehow ends up yelling abuse at Jianwei, making himself angry enough to wind up for a swing at him. So Vajra, who has been watching all this with AI impassiveness, shoots him with his vortex pistol. The burst of advanced tranquiliser gas drops Gao on the spot, and Vajra lobs Jianwei a reel of cufftape.

The pair make a few calls, and then load the cuffed Gao into their rover and tow him back to the Chinese authorities in Port Lowell. This case can now be handed off to the legal system.