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.