Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Climbing (Two Kinds)

May 8-12, m00039

Over the next few days, the team return to routine work as Liapchev recovers in hospital. The team check his progress periodically; Florence. who knows something about tradition, considers taking him grapes, but given the cost, ends up taking a bio-engineered Martian product that grows on a cactus and resembles a kiwis fruit. Talking to him confirms that he is (or sees himself as) an adventurer out of his time. He spends some time chatting with Florence about places they've been, as their wanderings around the Solar System have covered some of the same territory.

He mentions, as advanced medicine completes its work, that he would like to go climbing on the upper Marineris-Noctis Labyrinthus cliffs, and both Florence and Charles find this interesting, and declare that they'll join him. Vajra, curious about such activities, decides to come along in a rented spider-shell, and Jianwei decides to come on the trip to keep the team together - although he says that he'll only drive the rover and watch the others. This is technically off-duty activity, but Ambassador Schmidt doesn't mind at all when she hears about it - she thinks that it might serve as the basis for a bit of good public relations work.

May 9, m0039

And so the group take a monorail to the (relatively) old Chinese town of Guxiang, where they rent a rover, and head south to Ge'gyai, a town at the centre of the developing Chinese agricultural system. There, they sample the new local wines briefly before driving on up narrow canyons with greenery. By the end of the day, Florence, Charles, and Liapchev are climbing happily while Vajra discourses on weird organic concepts of "fun". Back at their camp, Jianwei cooks an indifferent meal - but at least he is able to suggest an interesting climb for the next day from his observation of the cliffs.

Over dinner, perhaps now that they are less likely to be under significant surveillance, Liapchev tells a story regarding his commercial slink-logging work. His publishers are a Peruvian enterprise, and it seems that they very subtly but carefully edited his work. Curious, Jianwei asks for sight of "before" and "after" versions of the slog, and confirms this looks like deliberate memetic tinkering - the aim seems to be to promote ideals of Martian cultural diversity, with a little subtle Free Mars attitude thrown in for good measure. He pulls more from the same publisher off the Web to review the next day.

May 10, m0039

The others take up Jianwei's suggestion for cliffs to tackle next. Florence, confident as ever, takes the most difficult route, but manages fine, indeed thanking Jianwei for finding such a good climb. She and Liapchev both slog this. She then becomes wildly overconfident on the way back down; she manages the climb, but her psychiatrists will be having words later. Also, she left her filter mask off, and so despite the peculiar persistent mediocrity of Jianwei's cooking (even on a hasty second attempt), she devours all the food that is put in front of her. Meanwhile, Jianwei has been wading through masses of slogs, but is uncertain of his conclusions.

May 11, m0039

Through careless observation, Jianwei suggests an over-tough climb the next day. Fortunately, Charles demonstrates his keen eye for Martian scenery, and warns them of its problems. The group quickly locates an easier climb across the valley, and even Jianwei is persuaded to join them.

On getting back to the rover with its long-range communications capability, the team (and also Liapchev) receive an invitation from Mahmud as-Sulaymi, relayed to them by the embassy. He is giving a small party off in the wilderness to mark some local event or another - he's vague on the subject. This looks like a good chance to cultivate some contacts. So the team transmit an acceptance and start planning.

With some thought, social skills, and Florence's keen fashion sense, they choose a wardrobe. The humans in the party go for robes, while Vajra extends the hire period on the spider-shell, which should rate as tactfully non-humanoid in Muslim company, paying a small surcharge for it to be given a temporary metallic paint job on the way. Liapchev  will join them; the Embassy protocol AIs note flatly that, while Danteng might monitor the event, Woju's presence would not be a good idea.

May 12-14, m0039

Two days of travel return the group to Guxiang, from where they can take an overnight monorail. Florence's video records go to her psychologists over a fast comms link, while the party gets package of clothes from Quentin. A rented hopper is waiting for them at the monorail stop in the morning. They change clothes at the airfield, and head south to the party location.

As they approach, Charles looks down and comments that he can see some really interesting geology - he's unsure about the quality of the soil hereabouts. They should land on the field marked out by as-Sulaymi, and not anywhere else, he says. They do so, spruce up before disembarking, and are politely and slightly effusively greeted by their host. They note that his bioroid camels are tethered off at a distance.

Charles wanders off to chat with Hassan, but the rest of the team get talking to various unfamiliar Saudis. Vajra gets a strong sense of politics once again here - this is obviously an event for that radical/progressive faction in Saudi society. Some of them are visibly unsure about Florence the exotic bioroid, who would have severe problems in terrestrial Caliphate areas, but they are all conspicuously polite.

At sunset, Mahmud claps politely for attention, and clears his throat to speak - and at that point, some of the insolation mirrors visible in the sky above turn to focus full daylight and more on the location. The team quickly realise what is happening; this action will trigger melting of a local aquifer. (Landing on the wrong spot would have left the hopper in a distinctly unhealthy position, especially at this point in time.) The plan - part of the whole great terraforming process - turns out to be to start liquid flows to what will eventually become a river comples downhill to the south. Mahmud doesn't claim full credit for this operation, but it is all part of his domain of interest, and he performed some of the related survey work. Getting his pictures on the Web in association with this will reflect well on him and his political faction - and having European representatives around at the time will also add effect.

Jianwei recognises this, becomes somewhat distracted, and hastily files a short report with embassy - "We've found the hook inside the bait".

Florence, meanwhile, goes off with the women to their private tent, and ends up dancing quite a lot. She does make one error, by mentioning sensory uplinks, which are not a respectable topic among any sort of good Muslims... She also notes that most but not all of the women have Andraste biomods - come to think of it, the same probably goes for the menfolk.

Vajra, taking a detached view of all this socialising, fires off a message to Danteng - a request that the AI sociologist should check the semiotics of this set-up for Peruvian elements.

Also, both Jianwei and Vajra note another encampment across the valley. It seems, when they mention this to their host, that a rival faction may be on the scene, observing events.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012


May 6, m0039, continued

At the University, Vajra gets call from the embassy. Quentin expresses the opinion that things appear to be getting a little complicated for Vajra's teammates on a mission down in the desert; perhaps Vajra could offer some advice? Vajra rapidly reviews the logs of the team's recent activities, and then patches in to Liapchev's rover over a high-bandwidth satellite link.

Meanwhile, advised of the approaching unidentified newcomers, Jianwei steps out of that rover, joining Woju, who is lying down outside, having declined to go walkies. Vajra also places a call with Mahmud as-Sulaymi. Meanwhile, Florence, deciding that the team's hired hopper is too easy a target if the opposition are well-armed, lands it on the other side of Liapchev's rover from the new arrivals. Also, Charles has to be talked out of going to talk to them.

Mahmud responds to Jianwei's call gratifyingly promptly, and is very polite. He spends a few moments chatting to Liapchev, and is apologetic about the situation. He says that he doesn't wish to place third parties in danger as a result of his own problems... Jianwei cuts back in, though, as the team's time is limited; the E.U. team doesn't feel inclined to walk away from this. There is some  discussion of options.

Jianwei hails the incoming rover when it pauses a half-mile away, but receives no response. Then it starts up again, building up speed toward the Europeans. Vajra, operating available cameras, notes that there are at least two people inside, possibly more - and the ones he can see are scowling. Florence plays a targeting laser over the incoming rover, mostly as a warning. By now, she is on the roof of Liapchev's rover, while Charles and Woju are hiding behind some nearby rocks, and Jianwei has got back inside with Liapchev. As the incoming rover closes as fast as the terrain permits, Florence sends a warning spray of small-caliber full automatic fire in its direction, then carefully drops a homing shell into the ground just in front of it, creating a small crater in front of one of its front wheels. This causes it to swerve aside, after which it slows down and stops.

Most of the people inside deploy on far side of their vehicle; it looks like there are three of them, with one more remaining inside. In the ensuing pause, Jianwei continues attempts at hailing - until an SMG burst just misses Florence as she somersaults down behind Liapchev's vehicle, which takes a little damage (and loses atmospheric integrity). She reacts by firing a missile at the attackers' front wheel, which makes a hole in it, but not a big one.

Despite that, the attacker still at the controls gets their rover moving again, so Florence blows the windscreen out. The attacker reacts by accelerating -  leaving the three of them on foot exposed, and at least two of them are clearly armed. Florence decides that the situation is now sufficiently unambiguous, and shoots one of them with a SEFOP missile, dropping him. The other two hit cover, and Florence switches her large-caliber barrel to HEMP rounds as the enemy rover charges, then drops prone to reduce the risk of being hit. Meanwhile, Vajra chooses this moment to start playing a Faroese whaling song over the team's radio channels, claiming that his adopted cultural heritage makes it appropriate. Inside Liapchev's rover, Liapchev and Jianwei find as much cover as they can, while Danteng, who has been observing events over the embassy's communications channels, takes control of the miniature shell which the NAI used to recover the unconscious Liapchev, and sends it on a flanking move to distract the attackers. Then Vajra acquires control of Liapchev's rover, and passes it to Samadhi, who starts it moving.

Samadhi manoeuvres for advantage, side-swiping the incoming rover, which spins and evades Florence's first shots - but before it can run her down, she hits its drive train with her next two rounds. It rumbles to a halt, and the driver emerges clutching a gun - but before he can threaten anyone, Charles steps out of cover and brings him down with an electrolaser. The other two attackers still standing choose to slip away around now.

It turns out that the attacker who was shot by Florence is still just alive, so Jianwei and Aunty do what they can to keep him so. A quick examination of these people suggests to the more knowledgeable members of the team that they may be some kind of Triad minions, while the interior of their rover has some aerosol cans of attractant and dispersal pheromones, some airguns and tranquiliser darts, and enough space to carry a tranquilised bioroid camel or two. Why the Triads would be after the camels is unclear, but they are known to have broad interests in the dubious end of the biotech market.

Unfortunately, it seems that they used some of the dispersal pheromone spray at some point to make things harder for the team; the camels are all leaving the area in various directions. The team have to spend some hours rounding up the creatures; to his apparent slight annoyance, Woju ends up running ahead of groups of them while sprayed with attractant pheromones. While flying the hopper around on spotter missions, some of the team also locate the other two fleeing Triad goons, and take photographs of them for future reference. The team also finds time to perform some emergency repairs on Liapchev's rover.

All this is pushing the team's fuel supplies down rather low, and after some discussion, the team decides to arrange some more supplies from As Sulaymi. Danteng, the cultural expert, points out a minor snag there, though; that community seems to operate under modern Islamic cultural norms, so a bioroid like Florence may be looked on a little askance - and a dog, however uplifted, will be regarded with intense disdain. Florence grumbles at the idea of being on the receiving end of prejudice, feeling that it is irrational as well as insulting.

"My brain is mostly human," she points out vehemently.

"I'm very sorry for you," says Vajra.

In the end, Florence and Charles fly to As Sulaymi, after Jianwei has been back in touch with Mahmud, who agrees to meet them at the airfield with supplies. In fact, he also shows up with his teenage son, Hassan, and is intensely politely apologetic about the whole business. The hamper of food which he has brought along amplifies his apology. The agreement is that he will meet the party in the desert to take charge of the camels.

It becomes clear to the party that Mahmud is quietly but radically liberal by Martian-Arab standards; aside from the fact that he was entirely polite to Florence, they saw that Hassan was a "Red Bear" parahuman, much like Charles (but without the leopard spots). Anyway, the hamper includes some good coffee, so they cannot but like him a little.

May 7, m0039

The meeting and handover takes place at the end of the next day. Mahmud has brought a number of friends along, evidently concerned that the trouble might not be over yet. They have the look of competent civilians, not professional bodyguards, but they seem adequately alert, and some at least of them are armed. The meeting, though, is all very amicable; Charles makes friends with Hassan, while Florence makes the acquaintance of Mahmud'd wife Soraya (who wears a full veil - with a high-resolution 360-degree video display of its surroundings on the inner surface). Still, it also gives Jianwei a chance to assess Mahmud's group further, and he recognises a political faction when he sees one. The camels, he suspects, represent a way to acquire prestige in the Martian Saudi community, and to prove the usefulness of advanced biotechnology in a context of cultural traditionalism. There is some talk of the next generation of the beasts being designed for racing.

Dinner, provided by the Saudis, is (not surprisingly) excellent.

May 8, m0039

The next morning, as the camels form up in elegant line astern for departure, Jianwei makes a nice speech of thanks. Mahmud seems happy to have a serious prestige gain in prospect.

And so the team heads off in their flyer, leaving Liapchev's rover to make its own way home. The prisoners will be dropped off with the nearest Chinese authorities, along with enough evidence to arrange some kind of prosecution; the Chinese can also deal with tracking down the other two in the desert, and sending a salvage team to recover their badly damaged rover. Liapchev (a wandering adventure, it seems, hired by Mahmud to bring those camels quietly but impressively over hundreds of miles of desert) will go to hospital in Port Lowell. And Florence is happy enough to discover that her psychiatrists are not overly worried about her activities these last couple of days; it seems that they will even tolerate her shooting people on her own initiative, if she shows sensible judgement.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Caravan Club?

May 4-5, m0039

The team spend another couple of days settling in, dealing with routine business, and making sure that Woju has various items of equipment that he may need (not least some body armour). As matters do seem to be quiet and it still has time off in hand, Vajra transmits back to the University with Samadhi, to deal with further legal and software concerns.

May 6, m0039

Hence, Vajra is away when another non-routine task comes in one afternoon. An E.U. citizen named Josep Liapchev, travelling alone in a rover in the desert south of Arsia Mons, appears to have hit trouble. His rover's AI, which seems to be fully functionally but very non-sapient, has called in a report, saying that Liapchev has suffered some kind of accident and is currently in a stable but unconscious condition in its emergency support unit, being patched up - but it's not saying much more.

This sounds like something that some kind of local emergency response unit should handle, but the problem is, no one is rushing to deal with it. The NAI is sending medical system telemetry which shows that Liapchev's condition is basically stable, despite the fact that he's unconscious, and it seems that both the Chinese bases around Arsia Mons and the Saudi Arabian community at As Sulaymi, south of his location, have this flagged as less urgent than their other current concerns. Well, he's not one of their citizens - he's a Bulgarian. Which means that he is the E.U.'s worry.

So the Embassy team are being sent in, and they even get a budget that suggests a moderate sense of urgency - enough to cover an immediate commercial flight to Haiyuan City, where Quentin will ensure that a hired hopper is waiting. The team muster their gear while they review the medical telemetry with a forensic eye, and decide from careful assessment of the limited data (including a bit of visual imagery) that Liapchev is actually suffering from concussion. Something hit him on the head, hard. It's possible that he suffered a fall while running, but the angle looks a bit odd for that.

They also select their hopper from those available at Haiyuan while they are in flight, opting for something large enough to carry all of them and some gear, rather than, say, two smaller craft. Then they do some research on the civilian that they are going to help. Charles has a stroke or two of luck while rummaging around the Web, perhaps because he recognises a bit of a kindred spirit; Liapchev, he realises, is clearly very fond of travel. He's seen much of the Earth and spent some time on Luna before arriving on Mars, where he has spent a few months already without much sign of intent to settle down or find any kind of permanent work. He isn't an eloi, though; rather, he supports himself as a bit of a jack of all trades, and also by writing about the places he visits. He writes well, though not brilliantly, and he hasn't turned in any writing recently.

In due course, the team arrive, finding Liapchev's rover with no difficulty, and Florence flies a reconnaissance pattern over the site. At a quick look, it appears that there are a fair number of tracks around the vehicle - almost as if a crowd of people have been milling around it recently. Florence sets the hopper down carefully about 500 metres away, to avoid disturbing any evidence in the event of this being a criminal case, and the team gather up their gear and disembark. Woju sniffs the thin air briefly before donning a filter mask (this area is essentially a high plateau, but the air is breathable for those with the right adaptations), and declares that he's picking up a faint but distinctly organic scent - and no, it's nothing to do with the team or the crowded quarters of their hopper. It has a kind of densely vegetarian quality.

As the team trek over to the rover, Charles instructs Hugo, his family's faithful high-end LAI, now installed on his personal implant system, to load tracking skill set software. Examining the ground through Charles's eyes on arrival, Hugo detects a lot of disturbance - as the team had already identified from the air - but not much sign of boot prints or similar. The disturbances are all around the vehicle, although denser in one or two places than in others. What Hugo can't detect is any sign that the vehicle came to a sudden stop, or any other vehicle tracks. It seems that Liapchev simply paused here, in the middle of the Martian desert.

The team are still being careful, although they have basic communications with the rover NAI, and they even get some images from the interior of the vehicle, which don't appear to show anything too worrying. They decide that Florence and Woju should enter the rover first, ready for trouble - but once they're inside, all seems well, aside from the unfortunate Josep Liapchev, unconscious in the medical unit. They also notice the simple emergency remote-control cybershell that the NAI used to bring him back to the vehicle, as per its programming. The oddest thing that they find, on an initial inspection of the interior, is a number of bags of grain of some kind.

So Jianwei follows them in, and links Aunty up to the medical unit as Florence exits and heads back towards the team's hopper; the feeling is that there's no real need to leave it at such at inconvenient distance now. Meanwhile, Charles is systematically photographing the area around the rover. Hence, coincidentally, both of them spot movement in the distance at around the same time, use their personal optical gear to zoom in on what they see, and make startled noises over the team's channel simultaneously.


That is indeed what appears to be wandering in the desert a few hundred yards away. Actually, once they get over their initial surprise, some members of the team realise that this isn't that bizarre an encounter. There has been some talk in various quarters about creating a camel-based bioroid for use on Mars; it seems that a number of wealthy members of the local Saudi community feel that it's somehow desirable. Quite what they're doing here is unclear, but the odd tracks around Liapchev's rover now seem to be explained.

Florence diverts towards the camels, getting close enough to scan some of their implanted RFID chips, which indicate that they are the property of one Mahmud as-Sulaymi, a Martian resident with Caliphate citizenship who evidently regards himself as settled here enough to take the town name as a personal identifier. A little more research shows that he's a wanderer and primarily an amateur geologist - someone whose work has a certain amount of genuine scientific value.

Meanwhile, Jianwei and Aunty have talked the rover AI into giving them some access to its records, and deduce from assorted items of information that Liapchev has indeed been travelling in company with the camels, making his way slowly south from a minor Chinese station on the slopes of Arsia Mons; they also conclude that the camels need fairly frequent feeding. Well, they don't appear to be wearing filter masks, so presumably their metabolisms need a lot of energy to process out the air's high carbon dioxide content.

The party are a little unsure why a Bulgarian wanderer would be travelling in company with a rich Saudi's new camels. It's just possible that there's something illegal involved here, which would complicate their decisions about the best thing to do. They decide that, although Aunty declares that it would be possible to bring Liapchev round without danger to his health, it might be better to leave him quietly unconscious for now.

Florence heads back, brings the hopper back closer to the rover, then sets out with a bag of the grain. A couple of the camels notice this, and wander towards her, but the smell and sight aren't enough to attract all of them reliably. Jianwei, wondering how Liapchev managed them, has a bright idea, looks around the rover, and turns up a pheromone spray. Florence takes that and some more food, and discovers that the combination does indeed work well to attract the bioroid animals.

However, as she turns away from the scattered grain, one of the camels charges her back. Fortunately, she hears it coming at the last moment, and reacts instinctively, leaping straight upwards and clear over the camel as it tramples the spot where she was a moment before. It manages to stop and turn, but she instantly draws a tangler pistol, and as it tries to kick at her, she overloads its front legs with sticky strands. It's strong enough to break free, but it fails to do so before it trips and falls, and as it struggles to stand, Florence entangles it again. Then, Charles arrives on the scene, having drawn an electrolaser, and stuns it well enough for both of them to get well clear before it recovers and breaks free.

This seems like odd behaviour, even for a camel - and these are supposed to be engineered domestic animals. Aunty directs Jianwei as he runs a chemosensor over the grain supplies, and runs a careful spectrographic analysis, concluding that there are slight but definite traces of extraneous biological material - something pheromonal. The teams sends their data back to the embassy for them to run or commission a more detailed analysis, and check further, concluding that only some of the bags are tainted. A bit of careful sorting should be feasible.

They also decide to wake Liapchev now, and Aunty takes control of the medical unit, managing this task efficiently. Liapchev turns out to be lucky; despite the concussion, his recent memories are clear, and he confirms (in good English) that he was indeed kicked by one of the camels when the creatures turned unexpectedly aggressive. He explains that he was commissioned to bring the animals from Arsia Mons to As Sulaymi - a perfectly legitimate commission, although there was evidently some kind of requirement for secrecy in the contract - and he's more than happy for the team to send a message to his employer. They are happy to note that they don't have a criminal case on their hands at this point. Liapchev for his part is glad to have an explanation for the camels' misbehaviour, although he doesn't know why the grain might have been tampered with.

Florence gets back in the hopper and takes it up for a flight, using its sensor array to locate all the camels - Liapchev can say that there should be twelve in total. The team start working out ways to gather them together by stages, using unpolluted grain and pheromone sprays.

However, at this point, Florence sees something else - another rover, approaching from the north. It has the scruffy look of a well-used vehicle, and it doesn't respond to automated radio ID requests. This looks suspicious.