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.