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.