Monday, January 31, 2011

On Site and Back Again

Scorpius 22, m0039, continued

Along with civilian-model vacc suits, the team have hired a heavy rover, which is now available to them - although they do spend a few moments discussing whether they need to head out to the crash site. It's a couple of hundred miles from the Zeus Resort - they should be able to make the run inside a day, if it looks like good use of their time. The rover really is the only option; at this altitude, the only flying vehicles capable of operating and of landing in the wilderness are a few specialised, fuel-hungry, and expensive vectored-thrust flyers with very little carrying capacity.

So they review more data. Quentin has now pulled some strings and acquired some imagery of the incident from weather satellites; it's not great for resolution, but it's usable. It shows the Zeppelin's gasbag failing - perhaps quite rapidly - and a descent that looks, at least to a trained pilot like Florence, to be fairly controlled at first, but with rapidly increasing instability. However, Florence can't say much for certain; she's not qualified on airships.

Jianwei decides that a personal visit to the Emergency Response Team's HQ is in order, and the rest of the team might as well come along. He talks his way quickly past the receptionist - avoiding "crank" or "time-waster" tags on support NAI displays really isn't very hard - and gains a brief interview with Captain Brooks-Carter, who is polite, though clearly busily engaged with multiple VR displays even while he's talking to them. Jianwei says that the team would like to visit the crash site, and while the Captain is a little cautious about the possibility of them getting underfoot, he doesn't ask them to refrain. They offer to transport any small items that might be useful on the site; while the Captain doesn't come up with much, he does say that they might take a shipping box of additional rescue gear.

So the team set out. Samadhi plots a route and Florence drives (breaking for lunch on a relatively flat stretch where she trusts the supplied vehicle NAI to manage safely enough). Meanwhile, Jianwei mostly naps, and Vajra and the team's support AIs collect and collate information on the crash as it appears on the Web. It seems that there were ten organic beings on the airship: the three European citizens, two Chinese tourists - Peng Chiang-Kwan, now reported deceased in the crash, and Teng Sui-P'ing - three American citizen passengers - Alan Becovani, a resident of Mars, and Sarah Louise-Smith and Ira Solway-Cortez, both up from Earth - and two crew with Nix Olympica citizenship - Carl Davidson, the captain/pilot, and Eugene Marquez, the steward.

After a few hours, the rover is approaching the crash site, and Jianwei wakes up and begins checking local data feeds and streams. He calls the E.U. citizens, who are still here receiving medical attention; they are still recovering from the stress of the accident, but are currently feeling relatively comfortable, with no immediate special requirements.Actually, it soon turns out that the medical personnel on site feel that it's about time to transfer the crash survivors to better, static, medical facilities; the ambulance rovers will be leaving shortly - before the team have actually quite reached the site, in fact.

Still, the team do reach the site, hand off the case of rescue gear to a robot which says a polite thank-you, then start moving around the area, avoiding getting in anyone's way while taking visual images from multiple viewpoints for future reference and recording all the v-tags that they can identify. After a while, when they pause a couple of medical personnel and another rescue worker wander over for a chat and to accept the team's open offer of tea. This lets the team pick up some more knowledgeable gossip about the crash; it seems that everyone involved is finding the details a little odd. Eventually, the team ask if they can give anyone from the rescue teams a lift back to civilisation, and some of the techs consider this.

After a while longer, a call comes in via satellite relay. The caller identifies himself as Kai Ssung-So, an agent of the insurance company which was providing medical cover for the Chinese passengers on the airship. He seems smoothly courteous; the team get the impression from various details that there may be another person present and monitoring the call at his end, but can't pick up any other details. Ssung-So too has an obvious interest in the incident, and understands that the team is picking up independent information; he would appreciate access to anything which they are prepared to release. He is evidently far too sophisticated to offer payment, but he can promise future favours, should anything the E.U. embassy need fall within his capacity...

Jianwei, knowing the value of favours on Mars, takes the time to contact Ambassador Schmidt, obtains clearance, and agrees to Ssung-So's request. He'll be sending checked and, where necessary, edited information, of course, but Ssung-So is smoothly grateful.

Although the site is currently being illuminated by an orbital mirror or two, sunset is still noticeable, and the team feel that they've done what they can for the day, and settle down in their vehicle for the night.

Scorpius 23, m0039

Waking and rising fairly early, the Europeans set out. The injured tourists have been taken to a scientific station with good medical facilities about half-way back to Nix Olympica, a little way off the direct route, and the team have decided to detour that way to check how things stand; two of the rescue team decide to accept a lift there. As Florence drives a little too fast over the rocky ground (but recovers from her mistakes quickly enough to avoid accidents) and everyone talks to the two techs about what they saw at the site, Vajra receives an anonymous Web message, suggesting that he might like to check the ownership of that Chinese insurance company, or its agent's past employment records. With little else to do with their time for an hour or two, the team quietly take up the suggestion, digging through financial records and personal pages on the Web.

These don't turn up any obvious dirt, but the company's ownership is dispersed and only lightly documented. There's no proof, but on Mars, this kind of paper trail might well hint at Triad ownership or strong Triad influence. As for Ssung-So - his consultancy work has involved a number of companies, all culturally Chinese, but is only lightly defined - and the companies are almost all in the import-export business, which hints at Triad smuggling operations. Is he somebody the Triads might want to use as a consultant whenever possible, for some reason? Or could he actually be some kind of Triad troubleshooter? And who might have sent this tip-off, if he is?

Florence, who doesn't like the Triads at all, is muttering under her breath.

The team stop for lunch at the medical  facility, where their passengers leave them with polite thanks. They've determined that Mahler and Melk are happiest to stay there for now - Melk seems not to want to travel too much yet, and there's no good reason for her husband to leave her - but Giovanna D'Aquila would like to get back to civilisation and has been well patched up. As they have spare space in their rover and are supposed to be offering what help they can to E.U. citizens, the team are more than happy to give her a lift. Indeed, this gives them a good chance to chat with her about the crash, and she's happy to cooperate and to give them access to her wearable's recordings of the period in question.

Apparently, she had recently retired for the night when the airship's emergency alarms sounded, and within seconds she, the other passengers, and the steward were following the standard emergency procedures which were being quoted at them by their AIs, including suiting up for vacuum, while the pilot attempted to manage things from the control compartment. To judge by the mounting verbal responses from there, the airship's behaviour degraded progressively and unexpectedly as it went down, until it hit the Martian surface painfully hard. As the team had already gathered from other sources, Peng Chiang-Kwan was simply horribly unlucky, getting in the way of a shattering structural member during the impact; it apparently punctured his suit and his torso. Whether the medical services can restore him, as an organic individual or as software, remains to be seen.

The team take another look at technical issues. The pilot blew the second, undamaged gasbag immediately after impact, very correctly; could the mechanism intended for that purpose on the first gasbag somehow have been triggered? After all, that would reduce the entire incident to a single cause - massive software malfunction, possibly malicious. (Although it would have to be an implausibly broad failure that both blew a gasbag and scrambled the airship guidance controls.) Unfortunately, everything says that the emergency gas release mechanism really shouldn't be that easy to trigger. Anyway, software sabotage that blew one gasbag could surely almost as easily blow both, producing a more guaranteed catastrophe that would be easier to pass off as an accident than this pair of problems without a close connection...

Meanwhile, Florence has engineered a detour for the rover. She hasn't seen the edge of the Olympica escarpment before, and it's not far out of their way. Unfortunately, the team's AIs do an unusually poor job of route planning, and Florence finds that she's having to compensate for a twenty-degree slope for some distance. Fortunately, her skills are up to the task.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Dogs and Cats and Zeppelins

Scorpius 18, m0039, continued

In the aftermath of that last incident, Jianwei gets a call, routed through one of the mini-dirigible camera cybershells that showed up to see what the excitement was about. It's "DD", the freelance bartender-reporter, and while Jianwei is politely fobbing her off with a few snippets of harmless information, the team's AIs check the traffic incoming from her, and decide that the lag time is low enough that she's probably in Port Lowell.

Florence picks up on this, and asks her if she'd like to go out for a drink that evening. DD presumably decides that this is an opportunity to work on developing these interesting contacts, and accepts the invitation; they agree on a bar, and the other members of the team politely decline any invitations to come along. Florence claims that this is partly an attempt to find out more about shadier parts of Port Lowell by discussing bar options with the well-informed DD, but DD never does come up with anything interesting on that score. Well, there are distractions.

Of course, what happens is, come the evening, a female Felicia and an Ishtar woman walk into a bar, unaccompanied, with predictable results in terms of male attention. One of the males - a rather ugly but charismatic fellow - is notably charming at Florence, but she, with her conditioning for omnivorous tastes in these things (something that the EU psychologists decided it would unduly intrusive to try and "correct"), has decided that DD is the most interesting ... prospect ... this evening. DD, on the other hand, has generally conventional tastes; then again, she is an Ishtar, which means a high level of instinctive competitiveness, and the sense that she and Florence are attracting roughly equal amounts of male attention sets that off, especially after a drink or two.

The psychosocial dynamics of the next couple of hours get a little complex and probably beyond the grasp of anyone who wasn't there. Suffice it to say that Florence and DD end up back in Florence's apartment, along with two of the men from the bar, who presumably think either that this is their lucky evening, or that they've been drawn into a vortex of female competition. Or, probably, both. Everyone's recollections may be a little muzzy, but that's what personal wearable or implant computers are for. (It may in fact be just as well that everyone knows that certain classes of posting to MarsTube just lead to complicated, messy, and expensive multi-jurisdictional civil law suits.) DD does manage to extract a very little pillow talk out Florence during a lull in proceedings, but probably nothing too unfortunate, so far as Florence's memories or Dougal's recordings show.

Scorpius 19, m0039

The next morning, after Florence has briefly cornered DD in the bathroom for some reason that isn't anyone else's business, all four participants head out for breakfast. One of the men is evidently still recovering his equilibrium, as he takes a deep breath as he steps out of the building front door without putting his air mask on first, but he suffers no permanent ill-effects, and once he's finished coughing and gasping, they locate a rather indifferent coffee bar that's the best that Florence can suggest just now. The two women are quieter and more reflective than a few hours previously; DD isn't sure what she's learned about herself, except perhaps that she really shouldn't drink that fast and that she can find Florence quite charming, but she does now know a bit more about Florence's work; Florence hasn't learned much at all, but she feels happy enough about the process.

But anyway, DD gets onto the Web and contacts a friend who needs an extra hand on a land convoy heading back towards New Shanghai. So she now has authentic excuses to make when she disappears after breakfast. She's moving on, if as erratically as is her style.

Scorpius 20-21, m0039

And, again, things go quiet for a couple of days. Vajra, though, is making connections in the local AI citizen community, which he thinks should be interesting, and maybe even useful.

Scorpius 22, m0039

It's the small hours of the morning when the next important incident arises, and the two organic team members are fast asleep when Quentin calls. (Vajra is presumably engaging in whatever counts as hobbies for an AI.) Quentin apologises, but time is somewhat of the essence in this case; anyway, he tells the team, he's got a courier buzzbot on its way to the apartment building with a delivery of wake-up nanodrugs.

Next time, Florence tells him, he should simply tell Dougal, "and he'll drool all over me."

"That's the kind of thing you organic life-forms enjoy, isn't it?" replies Quentin, who has made some study of the classics.

"Anyway, lady, gentleman, and AI," Quentin goes on, "the word for today is 'zeppelin'. One of the tourist airships operating out of the Zeus Tourist Resort has apparently gone down over Olympus Mons - and gone down hard enough for there to be casualties."

This triggers some raised eyebrows among the team, who know enough about modern technology and the sort of safety factors applied to tourist craft - even on Mars - to reckon that this sort of thing should not happen. But happen it has, and it's going to rate as a newsworthy event. And yes, Quentin can tell them that there's an E.U. interest in the case; three of the eight passengers on the airship are European citizens. A fast response is indicated, if only to show that the embassy takes these things seriously, and this time, the team are going to be based in or near a community with such civilised facilities as an aerospace port.

Which is why things are so urgent. Quentin has received budget clearance and arranged them passage on a ballistic ramjet, which will get them to that port - which serves both Nix Olympica and the Zeus Resort - in bare hours. The scheduling system triggered when bookings pass a critical threshold means that the ramjet will be taking off very soon indeed. A taxi is on its way.

After a whirl of packing (or at least bag-grabbing) and quick use of that taxi, the team board the ramjet, and once it's in flight, they - especially Jianwei - start making calls and collating information. It appears that there were eight passengers aboard the airship, of whom three were European citizens: Hans-Christian Mahler and Juta Melk, a married couple who appear to be tourists from Earth, and Giovanna D'Aquila, a resident of Mars who was presumably taking a break. There's little publicly-available data about the incident so far, so Jianwei pushes through the bureaucracy and makes contact with Captain Yinghuo Brooks-Carter, of the Olympus Mons Emergency Response Service, who seems to be managing the response, establishing good businesslike relations with him. Brooks-Carter gives the team access to a package of standard data feeds from his people, and suggests that they base themselves at Zeus when they arrive.

Meanwhile, Vajra has been looking for meteorological data on the area around the crash site, on the grounds that this might well be relevant to understanding what has happened. However, this doesn't turn up much; although the airship was flying low enough for there to be an atmosphere in which a lighter-than-air vehicle could function, it was above a lot of Martian weather - anyway, there was nothing that would rate as a storm in the area at the time of the crash. So Vajra moves on to data feeds from the airship itself, but discovers that those are being somewhat strangled back; it looks as though there might be something interesting there that someone doesn't want getting out straight away.

So the team resort to the airship builders' published information to find out more about the vessel. They determine that it consisted mostly of just two gasbags, linked by a rather minimal framework of very advanced, very lightweight materials. This sounds hopelessly flimsy when compared to older airship designs, but it's light, which is important in a Martian atmosphere, and it was built to modern standards and subject to modern continuous safety monitoring; it really should be very safe. Unforeseen events might conceivably lead to the loss of one gasbag, but the craft would still be capable of a controlled landing in that case. What the team has available from the data feeds in this case, though, suggests a faster - dangerously fast - descent.

The team do now have a location for this incident, though, along with data streams showing that units of the Emergency Response Service are closing on the site as rapidly as possible - in rovers, as nothing that can fly fast at that altitude can hope to land there. They have a bright idea, and Jianwei speaks with the ramjet's pilot, points out the situation - and convinces him to direct the ramjet's sensor array towards the crash site. This shows that this isn't the sort of complete disaster that leaves wreckage scattered across the countryside; the airship is recognisable, if not exactly airworthy at present. It's clear that the crew or control systems have, very sensibly, deflated the gasbag after landing, as per protocols. The data feed shows that the rescue services are now closing in.

By now, the ramjet is on its approach trajectory to the Olympus Mons landing ground, but before external comms shut down entirely, as they will for a few minutes, Jianwei receives another call over low-bandwidth channels. A low-res cartoon avatar of a humanoid dog pops into his field of view in the empty seat next to him, and DD asks what he can say about this situation. DD herself is still on that ground-level caravan, but knows an interesting story when she sees one on the feeds. Jianwei says that the E.U. are still assessing the situation, and then asks casually if DD had a good evening out with Florence. DD plays back a library of "No Comment" responses.

Then the ramjet makes its approach run, lands, and disgorges its passengers. The aerospace port is equidistant from Nix Olympica and the Zeus Resort, and the team have accommodation arranged in a hotel in the latter complex. So they use the standard public transport system, completing their journey by tram. Once they get there, they find that the rented vacc suits that they'll need at this altitude have been delivered to their rooms; Florence and some of the team's AIs check these over, and conclude that they are fine.

By now, the first news is starting to come back from emergency teams arriving on the crash site. Nine of the ten organic beings which were aboard the airship are alive...