Thursday, March 24, 2011

Local Interests

Scorpius 24, m0039, continued

Jianwei does take a moment out to send Quentin a message about the team's plans for the morning, and Quentin notes no problems with the arrangement. Meanwhile, Dougal finds Florence a bar that his search heuristics suggest will correlate to her known preferences. This turns out to be "Ping's Bar", a fairly substantial building close by the walls of the dome - the chief meeting-place for the university's martial arts enthusiast community. It is almost entirely open space inside, and indeed partly occupied by a sparring ring. The general style of the place is typical of Nix Olympica's local American-Chinese hybrid atmosphere; Florence orders a burger with fries and a rice wine, and looks for a table with a view of the ring.

There aren't actually any free tables, but at least one group already settled in signs her to join them; a Felicia bioroid isn't a common sight in these parts, and there's an automatic assumption that she must have her own insights into the martial arts. Members of the group prove chatty; they're a mixture of areology and Chinese history students who like talking about variant unarmed combat forms. They ask politely about her background; she's open about the general facts, and admits to having received VR combat training during her creation process. Some of the group actually remember seeing recordings of Florence's fight in the elevator car, which earns her some respect; nonetheless, one of them expresses cynicism about "vat training" for real combat, and the conversation, while never lapsing into outright hostility, becomes abrasive enough that a trial match in the ring becomes unavoidable. Other would-be combatants are interested enough that they allow this pair to the head of the queue.

Florence and her opponent size each other up for a while, and then he throws a competent punch that slides past her guard - first point to him. Florence responds by using her Zhua training to go over his head, evading his attempts to stop her (the move was hardly unexpected, after all), then lands behind him and follows through with an elbow strike that brings their points score level. He tries to retaliate in kind, but Florence expected that, parries, and follows up with a complex grip and over-the-head throw, putting her challenger down. Before he can recover, she pins him and gains a completely effective lock. He is obliged to submit, and then proves good-humoured enough about the experience to buy her a drink.

Aside from that - and a later request for a less serious-seeming bout to demonstrate some Zhua forms - Florence spends the evening in casual conversation. The only snippet she does pick up is a remark about the Zeppelin incident being typical of how things go around these parts - "the only people who know how to run anything are the Peruvians..."

Scorpius 25, m0039

During the night, after Florence has returned and retired to bed, Vajra receives notification that the forensics package has arrived, and goes to talk to it. It proves to be run by a simple-minded NAI, so he puts it into demo mode. (Their first exchange - "Do you self-identify as male/female/other?" [other] - causes it to display a VR avatar that combines a metallic, androgynous form with what is clearly meant to be a "sexy librarian" form in a downright annoying fashion.) Anyway, he can't find any obvious problems, so he returns to the hotel.

The next morning, he and Jianwei inspect the rover, then the team sets out once again. Unfortunately, Florence makes a minor driving error involving a high-speed approach to a sharp drop that causes them an hour or so's delay as they check the vehicle for damage and make calls through the Web to check their insurance position. Hence, it is becoming quite dark when they reach the crash site, but Vajra is able to deploy the forensics package - it works largely by IR and radio location, enough that darkness is of little concern to its operation. The team watches microbots deploying for a while, until the two organic sapients' minds begin to wander, and they retire to sleep.

Scorpius 26, m0039

However, Vajra needs no sleep and can provide a diligent watch, and is more than alert enough when the rover's sensors pick up an incoming trace in the early hours of the morning. He generates an audible alert sound; Jianwei comes awake smoothly; Florence's trained reflexes prove stronger than her alertness, and she comes awake with her helmet and gloves half on.

The team's AIs fail to acquire a precise lock on the trace, so Jianwei instructs Aunty to turn on the rover's floodlights. The team quickly locate a large wheelform cybershell rolling toward the airship wreck, and Florence immediately pops a side hatch and vaults deftly up onto the vehicle roof. Jianwei drops into the driver's seat and begins recording events while telling Aunty to prepare to move; Vajra, who has been outside of the vehicle all along, contemplates the ineffectiveness of his weapons against a combat-capable cybershell in a trace atmosphere, then settles down to researching the wheelform design. (It is actually the kind of slightly out-of-date generic thing which can be put together from components for which 3D printer templates can be found on the Web.)

The cybershell ignores radio challenges, so Florence takes careful aim, locks a homing shell's sensors onto it, and fires. The large-caliber projectile punches through what armour the cybershell has, and then detonates. This proves more than sufficient; the wheelform suffers a series of systematic malfunctions and stops moving. This is doubtless just as well, as a brief inspection shows that it was itself carrying a gun in an internal bay - as well as a tank of what seems like scrubber nano. It would seem that someone may have been anxious to eliminate some sort of evidence from the crash scene.

The team have not attempted to keep information about this very brief combat from the Web, so it is no great surprise that, within a few minutes, they are notified that a rocket hopper with a team of U.S. marshals is incoming. Before they arrive, though, Vajra collects forensic samples of his own from the wheelform wreckage.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Planning and Conferring

Scorpius 24, m0039, continued

While Florence is in the gym and Vajra is monitoring the Web and running some diagnostics on his own systems, Jianwei books a slot on the embassy diary to speak to the ambassador - and soon gets a call back on that.

"Oh, yes - you've been having an interesting time again, haven't you?"

Jianwei summarises recent events from his point of view, leading to his conclusion that there may be another TSA operation here, although it seems to have different objectives.

"Or perhaps it's two sides of the same coin," Schmidt murmurs.

In any event, some of these problems seem to have a similar source to the Nova Iquitos incident, so Jianwei requests another meeting with "Mr Grey", for a specialist assessment and guidance as to next steps. Ambassador Schmidt agrees to put in a request, although she notes that she herself doesn't know who "Mr Grey" is - she assumes that this is simply a place-holder on-line identity for whoever happens to be the ranking E.U. intelligence officer within half a light-second or so of Mars.

While that goes through, the team hear that the Nix Olympica emergency services unit has announced a press conference regarding the crash, and Jianwei and Vajra head along to observe this in person. (The team feels that Florence would attract too much attention, and anyway, she's still working up a sweat in the gym.) Many of the attendees are humaniform or "camera tripod" cybershells, but the event proves moderately interesting anyway, even given the amount of stonewalling from the clearly still uncertain authorities. The team note a lot of provocative questions that seem designed to reinforce those "uncertainty about current power structures" memetics, although it's only when reviewing recordings afterwards that they decide that a lot of the critical challenges seem to have come from a software agent representing the "Xanthe-Zhigansk News" agency. (Zhigansk is an independent Russian community in the Xanthe region, with lax enough government and regulation to make it a good location for anyone looking to set up a puppet news operation with obscure ownership.)

After the conference ends, Jianwei and Vajra leave the room - and after a few meters, Kai Ssung-So falls into step with them, and asks how the press conference went. Jianwei is guarded, but Ssung-So drops hints about people wanting to know who might have been behind a dual-cause accident. Evidently, the Triads are still investigating the incident.

As they arrive back at their hotel, Ambassador Schmidt calls and arranges a VR conference. Florence arrives from the hotel's pool in a thick robe, her fur still wet, and joins the others in Jianwei's room. Mr Grey is present when they enter the embassy's encrypted conference space, and reviews the situation again. One possibility he acknowledges, which had crossed the team's minds, is to leak more or less everything to the Triads, in hope that they will trace and deal with Quipu - they have more resources than most other people, after all, and enough incentive. However, no one is happy with the long-term implications of such a move. Ethics aside - and the conflict might get bloody - if it subsequently became publicly known that the E.U. diplomatic service was either colluding with the Triads, or using them to do their dirty work, anyone known to have been involved could be in legal and disciplinary trouble - and such things have a bad habit of coming out sooner or later, and the ambassador comments that she for one plans to have a very long career in the service.

However, Mr Grey can provide something practical and useful; a specialised firewall utility for Vajra to run on his system, developed by E.U. programmers on Earth. If the TSA have "basilisk" triggers that cause Vajra to shut down, they appear to take the form of moderate-sized binary files; this utility will watch Vajra's input channels for anomalous unexplained digital blocks addressed to him, and quarantine and document them. That aside, Mr Grey supports the team's conclusion about their best option at this point; keep their heads down and their ears open. He will handle any decisions about releasing information to the SIA, and possibly also to the Chinese - although the latter at least might result in leaks to the Triads, which might generate the sort of messes that the E.U. currently wants to avoid.

Once the conference ends, Florence heads back to her room to dry off, and the other two settle down to routine work, such as arranging anonymous travel bookings for Giovanna D'Aquila, so she can get on with her life and holiday without too much hassle from the press or their ilk. Then a call comes in from Captain Brooks-Carter, who has a favour to ask. As the investigation into the crash continues, the investigators need some specialised forensics checks run at the crash site - the first groups on the site were focussed on rescue and medical aid and conventional accident investigation, and criminal enquiries have different needs. An automated forensics package can handle this, but, the whole business is now becoming increasingly difficult and political; it would really be helpful if that package could be delivered and supervised by someone who is seen as reasonably neutral. The E.U. team may actually be as close as anyone gets to meeting that specification currently on the mountain.

In fact, it looks as though this assignment could actually usefully be combined with another trip to the outlying medical facility, to escort the other two E.U. citizens back to the resort - they're up and about now, and comfortable with the idea. So the team takes the job. But that will be for tomorrow; driving in daylight is generally considered safer, and the forensic task can wait that long. For now, Vajra continues to suck in data, Jianwei goes looking for a good Chinese restaurant, and Florence heads to the University area, reckoning that a bar full of postgraduates might come the closest to being interesting that she'll find in this place.