Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Left on the Beach

May 27, m0039, continued

The team run some more checks on one more point, but determine that there was nothing odd about those marriage partners, so far as they can tell.

At the same time, they are briefing Florence over Web. They tell her to come back to the embassy, and send Dougal an executive summary of events. In response, Dougal and Florence are somewhat scathing about the team's tactics so far.

Anyway, the team continues watching the building, while Vajra begins negotiation for drone hire. Bastion's people start to troop out carrying packs, small items of gear, and so on, and get into the vehicle. The team note a certain odd saminess about these individuals, and Hugo especially notices a lack of body language. They also put a call in to Dr Vartex to ask if a K-10A would be able to detect a bioshell by scent; he thinks that one might be able to, but isn't sure - so he offers to come down to be sniffed by Woju. (Vediovis, his AI, mutters about his boss never resting.) The team heads down to an American bar to wait for him.

Jianwei takes over the task of renting a drone, pushing his luck a little to put it on the embassy budget, and gets use of one just in time for it to observe the bus leaving the building.

At the same time, a message arrives from the embassy's administration systems, which have been smart enough to make an association; there has suddenly been a rush of legal complaints about Bastion
cancelling contracts - legitimately, it turns out, by the letter of their terms of business, but unexpectedly and inconveniently. Jianwei draughts a standard response to such complaints; he doesn't make it especially sympathetic, as the complainants have nothing that will stand up in court.

By now, Vajra is tracking the bus onto Port Lowell's main street, and sees it joining up with second, similar vehicle; he asks for second drone, in case the two go separate ways again, but that only comes slowly, and at high cost.

Then a call comes in from Mars Development Security, who, among many other things, handle security concerns for the MDC. It was directed to the embassy, but the AIs there route it to Jianwei, who finds himslf talking to a slightly bemused human MDS night-duty staffer. It seems that, a few minutes ago, Bastion terminated the lease they had with MDC on their building, effective immediately. Following standard procedures, MDS despatched a spiderbot under LAI control to inspect the building. It promptly discovered evidence of unauthorised high-temperature processes, and called in. Jianwei looks at the imagery it provided, and agrees that the building is showing evidence of a lot of burn marks. Vajra checks the images, and decides that the building's static computer systems especially have been targeted. It looks like someone has been enthusiastic with the thermite, presumably to destroy all traces some kind of data. The MDC will be filing claims for damages.

The team decides that a little more direct investigation is needed, and calls a fast taxi to pursue those minibuses, which are now heading south out of town towards the lake shore. They also call a security company which has its own boats and pay for one to be sent in the same direction, in case this is mass disposal of evidence by dumping in the water.

It may not be, though. Rather later than they should have, Vajra's surveillance systems spot a moderate-sized transport vessel apparently heading for rendezvous with the minibuses. Jianwei tries calling Abril, but Abril stonewalls him, hard.

The team's taxi gets to the lakeside meeting point around the same time as that boat, and Charles  and Florence disembark - and meet two Bastion employees, whose behaviour, body language, and vocal manner are very flatly obstructive. Florence tries to move around them but she finds herself being blocked. Charles dashes towards lake shore, making unspecific but enthusiastic comments about the scenery as he goes, then turns and starts walking towards the boat. One of the Bastion guards moves to intercept him, while Jianwei talks to the other, who is confronting Florence - but he (or it) doesn't react. Jianwei also sends Woju, who's already spotted  a certain blandness to the guards' scent, to film the boat.

Charles wades into the shallow water, as does the guard who is trying to delay him, then heads for the boat. He's more resistant to cold than his antagonist, who now makes an ineffectual attempts to hit Charles with a side-handled baton. Florence dashes over at the sight of this,  and a rather crude brawl ensues. As Florence tries to bear her opponent down, though, she has an unpleasant and unfamiliar experience; his head explodes in her face, without enough force to hurt her, but very destructively. The other Bastion "employee" heads back to the evacuation boat.

Charles attempts first aid on Florence's recent opponent, although it's more or less instantly clear that this is as terminal an incident as one would expect. Looking at what's left of that head, Charles spots that he's apparently dealing with a bioshell here.

Around this time, the boat that the team chartered from another security company shows up; the team asks it to stop the vessel which most of the Bastion people have now boarded, but it hits a jurisdiction problem; that vessel is Chinese-registered, this is more or less unclaimed territory, and there is no proximate cause for citizens' arrest. The crew offer to maintain hot pursuit, but that's all they can do. Jianwei calls Marshall Kirkowicz and try to get her help - but this isn't something she can assist with. No crime appears to have been committed in American territory, after all.

The Bastion staff simply sail away, and a digital ping confirms that Abril is aboard their vessel. Left on the beach with a badly damaged bioshell-corpse, the team can do little but head back to town. The one other thing they can do is rent the minibuses which Bastion have now finished with, putting a clause in the agreement that they are not to be cleaned, allowing a forensic sweep later.

May 28, m0039

By 4am, Jianwei has completed a careful report to the embassy on the incident, recorded the E.U. citizens who were down as working for Bastion in Port Lowell as possibly dead, details still unclear, and gone to bed. At 6:15am, Danteng receives a congratulatory message from the ambassador; he evidently turned up something quite odd here. At 6:30am, she wakes Jianwei to ask about the security company boat, which is still in hot pursuit of the Chinese-registered craft, which seems to be heading for Chinese territory. Jianwei kicks himself for forgetting about that, and calls off the pursuit, then files an extradition request with the Chinese authorities for Abril.

During the day, word comes in that various E.U. citizens who were recently flagged as possibly dead are in fact on their way home from (actually suspiciously similar areas of) the Asteroid Belt, and are denying that they had anything to do with this when questioned by radio. Meanwhile, Bastion has taken to issuing waffly and largely content-free statements, and Jianwei's extradition request filters into the murky depths of the Chinese bureaucracy. However, it's not certain if it will achieve much before Bastion can extract their man from this mess - assuming that they want to, of course.

In due course, the team and their acquaintances work out some idea of what may have been going on. At a best guess, Bastion have been experimenting with LAI-operated highly-networked bioshell security. This would let them use variants of their standard networked security management systems on jobs like they've been working in Port Lowell, and save on personnel overheads. The snag is, of course, that LAI operation of bioshells  is highly illegal in some places, including virtually anywhere under EU jurisdiction, and has memetic problems in many others.

So Bastion middle management set up this long-shot project, probably hoping to get proof-of-concept data and then quietly leave. They have doubtless been borrowing the names of people working in the Belt, presumably paying them a decent amount to take some time off in a Bastion-run facility out there. No doubt, if they could have proved that this LAI-bioshell system could function and not even be noticed by the public, they could have got clearance from their board to start more overt operations in some transhumanist enclaves and stations where this wouldn't cause much trouble. Unfortunately, the embassy team, representatives of a jurisdiction where LAI-controlled human bioshells are seen as an abomination, showed up and started poking around. It's hard to guess what they thought the embassy was up to, but they may have taken it as an attempt to shake them up and maybe warn them off. The trouble was, they'd broken rather a lot of EU laws, so they  couldn't afford to just ignore this. So they decided to get out fast.

Well, at least the team have thrown a spanner in the works of Bastion's illegal operations, and handed the company a major PR headache. Whether LAI-bioshell security guards will ever work as a business model remains to be seen.

(And here, the campaign went on hiatus for a while.)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Staffing Questions

May 24-25, m0039

The team find themselves based back in Port Lowell for a couple of days, with Florence unavailable to assist them because she is spending most of her time in extended consultations with her psychiatrists, and the rest acting as a pilot/driver for a group of European construction engineers who are helping build a new Japanese industrial plant up at Shibetsu which has fallen behind schedule.At the same time, Jianwei decides to proceed with a major upgrade that he has been planning for Aunty, so she is transmitted back to Earth for a substantial code revision, leaving him dependent on the team's other AIs for software support.

May 26, m0039

Meanwhile, Danteng has been seeking to understand how law enforcement works in Port Lowell, as the study group back on Earth with which he works needs a better idea of the interaction between the various private security companies in the town and its multicultural population. It's rather hard to assess how the town's society will behave without a good model of that, and getting one is one of the things that really requires observation on the ground.

Now, his work on this has
turned up an anomaly, involving a company named Bastion Incorporated Reassurance - one of the smaller Port Lowell operations. Some research back on Earth showed that they employed an above-average number of European staff (as indicated by tax data). This looked like an opportunity for Danteng to talk to people who'd be inclined to talk to European government representatives, and who must surely have some dealings with the embassy.

However, no such people have showed up on routine embassy records searches, and a search back through the files has shown that the embassy has had almost no dealings with Bastion staff. This is statistically implausible; security staff are normally pretty good at generating consular business, as Jianwei is able to confirm from experience - they run into legal problems, suffer injuries, and so on. Attempts to contact any of these people have also gone badly, meeting oddly uniform attitudes and refusals. Claims about "heavy non-disclosure agreements" sound rather thin in the context.

So Danteng mentions this to the rest of the team, who decide that an anomaly involving multiple European citizens probably merits their attention. Charles, the team's Martian native, has actually heard of the company, which is known in Port Lowell for providing "human-interface" security - people rather than automated systems, where that is what is needed. Its staff are actually quite widely known not to be big talkers - they show up, do the job okay, and go home. He asks around and gets names of some small companies, bars, and the like, who currently employ Bastion's services.

Vajra, meanwhile, does a lot of very successful digging on the Web, finding that Bastion is registered in Switzerland for tax purposes - which is doubtless a flag of convenience registration, but then many companies in 2100 are essentially virtual entities with no fixed abode. Vajra also finds some relevant records regarding Bastion's European employees; there are thirteen such in town at present, plus the local manager, one Jorge Abril.

Things become even more interesting when he checks their data footprints further. They have virtually none. None of the thirteen post, detectably, on any kind of Web forum, or otherwise generate any identifiable on-line traffic. Then, we Vajra checks their residency information, it turns out that they all share the same physical address; a unit flagged, in Port Lowell's rather relaxed property registration system, as combined industrial and residential. This isn't illegal, but is highly eccentric. So Vajra sends a cybershell to drop some surveillance swarms in the vicinity of the building. Observation for a few hours towards the end of the working day shows a few people entering the building as if heading home from work, but not much sign of anyone, say, going out on the town.

Meanwhile, the team have been looking up a little more about the company. It turns out that they operate almost entirely off Earth - often in the Asteroid Belt, in fact, although they have some other offices and contracts on Mars. Mostly, they provide security services for corporate installations - the sort of thing that usually involves heavy automation and specialist cybershells, not human employees on site. Their Port Lowell operation looks anomalous. Anyway, they're definitely a highly distributed semi-virtual corporation.

By now, even Woju is showing brief and intermittent signs of interest in the case. The team decide to exploit their own more or less official status to further this investigation - by launching a snap Health & Safety inspection. After all, the set-up in Bastion's unit does look a bit anomalous in that respect. However, having themselves authorised to conduct such an inspection will take a few hours - in fact, they can't be cleared for the purpose until the next morning. So they decide to place a more detailed watch on the building by planting geophones around it, just in case anything might happen underground as much as anything. Jianwei takes on this task, pretending to be a drunk wandering around the neighbourhood for the benefit of any security camera systems. He's quiet enough, but his drunk act may need work. Still, he doesn't provoke any particular responses. On the other hand, the geophones don't pick up any particular activity as yet.

Jianwei also has to talk to Ambassador Schmidt over the Web to get clearance for the team's sudden promotion to warehouse inspectors. She signs off on this with no more than mildly ironic remarks, and all is set to go in the morning.

May 27, m0039

The decision for the morning is that Charles will go into the building with Woju. and an official-issue inspector's skill set loaded on his implant. Jianwei will remain back at the embassy to preserve a degree of anonymity and to field any complaints that the inspection might generate. Working AI-to-AI, Hugo initially talks his way past the basic NAI at reception, but it becomes uncertain and tells the pair to wait at the door. Woju gets bored with waiting, though, and slips into the building while Hugo is arguing. Charles takes the opportunity to "chase" him.

At around which point, Jorge Abril shows up with his legal support systems running at full power on the local Web. He and the lawyers manage to bog Charles down with a fusillade of red tape, but Charles and Woju retaliate by each claiming to be in charge (Charles says that this is Woju's first day on this job; Woju claims to be "training the new guy"), confusing Abril. Other human Bastion staff - including several of the thirteen Europeans - show up during these proceedings, but only Abril seems to be stressed; watching over the Web link, Jianwei, the trained psychologist, decides that the others are strikingly affectless. At the same time, Woju notes that they all have very similar scents. As a test, the "inspectors" fabricate an excuse to ask several of these people which is their favourite restaurant in the neighbourhood; the replies are all plausible, but all different, and all come after a very slight but discernible pause.

The building seems distinctly, severely sparse as Fifth Wave living quarters go, although Hugo can't find anything to justify further Health & Safety action. Charles and Woju depart, with Woju accusing the ever-enthusiastic Charles of being weird. The party regroup at the embassy to discuss next steps.

As there is clearly something very strange about those Bastion employees, one possibility that arises is to get DNA samples. This could probably be kept just about legal if the action which acquires the sample is not any kind of assault or invasion of privacy; this would need a plan. For now, though, they decide to act on another point of interest; review of the recording of the inspection suggests that all of the Bastion employees have implants. Jianwei slips around to one of the places where one of the thirteen is working, and Vajra uses his systems to remote-ping the Bastion employee's implant. Cross-referencing to records shows that this is not the implant that this individual was previously noted as using.

Looking over other records also identifies three other European Bastion employees who worked at this installation for a while, then apparently returned to Earth. On a hunch, the team analyse their schedules, and find gaps in their travel records - nothing suspicious in itself, but it looks as though those three would have had to take slightly eccentric journeys to leave Mars at the recorded times, reach Earth at the recorded times, and avoid leaving a records trail. All three now seem like normally active human E.U. citizens; interestingly, two of them have married since they came home - which may be coincidence, but which might just count as curious.

Following through all this record searching also locates biometric data for several of these Europeans. In the absence of full DNA tests, these aren't conclusive, but there are slight divergences - just enough to suggest that someone somewhere may be a surgically adjusted fake.

All this takes much of the day. Towards the end, another message comes over the Web; Florence calls to say that she's coming back on duty, effective more or less immediately. Shortly after this, while checking his surveillance swarms, Vajra spots a medium-sized rover, essentially a minibus, pulling up at Bastion's unit.

Monday, September 10, 2012

My Enemy's Enemy

May 14, m0039, continued

When the party breaks up for the night, the team find that a tent has been provided for them. They also find that Charles has sampling an odd brainbug of some kind while hanging out with the other younger guests; it's certified safe, but he will be inactive for a while.

As the humans and bioroid settle down to sleep, Vajra links to the high-bandwidth long-range comms systems on the team's hopper, and talks to Danteng; together, they run a preliminary analysis of the memetics of this situation. Danteng assesses the context, while Vajra burrows into the memetic loading. Their preliminary conclusion is that there is no blatant TSA involvement here, but the situation may favour whatever "Quipu" is trying to do.

This analysis takes a little while, and shortly after the two AIs have finished compiling their conclusions, Samadhi picks up a digital distress screech from the now-muddy area where the aquifer is welling up. Unfortunately, there are no camera views of the point of origin available, from either the hopper or available orbital systems. So Vajra alerts his organic colleagues. Florence wakes up and, deciding that things don't appear overly urgent, starts dressing in shirt, trousers, and boots. But then, Aunty gets contact with the NAI which transmitted the alert, and that mentions that its owner has lost air mask integrity. So Jianwei calls panic, then loads a survival skill set to Aunty for advice. It says not to panic.

The team board their hopper and take off, reckoning that a rescue from the air is likely to be the best option. (They are still well ahead of any of their hosts, who know about the distress call but who are evidently unaccustomed to providing fast emergency response.) They then find their target quickly enough, although it - he - isn't emitting quite as much IR as they might have expected; a human being largely submerged in the new quicksand, and struggling to stay safely afloat.

They quickly form a plan, which involves Florence remaining at the controls of the hopper, while the others use the winch with which it is fortunately fitted to lower Vajra's rented spider shell to extract the victim from the silty mud. As it turns out, Florence flies fairly well, but Vajra bounces about rather too much. At Jianwei's prompting, Aunty loads up a basic Physics skill set and runs a quick frequency analysis on the cable, enabling the team to improve their timing. Jianwei coordinates the approach, lowering Vajra into the mud as they go; the idea is now that Vajra will "swim", with the cable providing effective bouyancy.

In fact, Florence's piloting continues smooth but Vajra continues to have trouble, Eventually, though, he gets a grip on the victim, who is panicking, but ineffectually. The team start lifting; once Florence has enough control of the situation, she uses the hopper's thrust to complete the job, as Jianwei calms the man over his radio.

They get him aboard, and Jianwei tries but initially fails to provide effective first aid; the victim his inhaled some very dangerous Martian silt. However, Aunty talks him through immediate remedial treatment while the team are flying back to the camp. There, Mahmud provides access to a useful emergency life support machine which helps a great deal. Once the patient is more stable and not in immediate danger, the team get him back onto their hopper for a trip to the hospital in As Sulaymi. Vajra's flying surveillance swarm is left sniffing round the desert for more information.

Vajra also uses a crawler swarm to search the man's clothes, quietly, during the flight, while by a lucky exercise in computer intrusion, Dougal gets into some logs on his (very) low-end personal AI. Together, they reconstruct more of what he was doing. His name is Khalid ibn-Muqla, and to judge by his camouflage-appropriate clothing, the surveillance gear he was carrying, and the risky but secretive path he was attempting to take this evening, he was definitely seeking to spy on the progressive Saudi group.

The team decide not to say too much about any of this, to avoid giving any signs of taking sides. Once Khalid is in hospital, Jianwei checks into a local hotel so he can catch up on sleep, while Florence  stays on the hopper to guard it and ensure herself plenty of sleep time.

May 15, m0039

The next morning, the team check in on the patient, who is now coming along okay. They send a message to his friends to say as much, then fly back to Mahmud's encampment for breakfast. Mahmud seems to be taking it as read that the man was spying, but he is formally polite when visitors from the other camp show up after breakfast. Still, he  doesn't argue when Florence wants to meet them. They are barely formal to her.

Vajra subsequently sweeps the camp, but finds no signs of bugs.

The team stay around for a few more hours to watch a bit more of the aquifer seething up, then head home, dropping off first the hopper, then the rented spider on the way.

On the way back, Vajra gets badly lost in memetic research. However, Danteng is watching the news streams, and picks up releases regarding the rescue; the team set to work determining the nature of any editing and memetic loading that's been applied to these - and it looks like there's been some. While they are busy on this, in fact, a call comes in for Florence from someone who identifies herself as "Darling Dobermann", and who wants to say thanks for a leak of information on this story that she assumes came from the team.

So they analyse what she's received, and recognise some distinct if subtle slanting. They warn "Darling Dobermann" of this, and her response is a virulent "bastardsbastardsbastards..." She declares that she'll stay out of this business; she resents being manipulated, and can't tackle the story further without that becoming a dictinct risk.

The team also assess the public response. It looks like the Saudi progressive/conservative divide is being noted. In general, public sympathy inclines, predictably, towards the progressives, though there is lots of noise among all the opinions.

Once they are settled back in town, Florence has an appointment for psychomedical assessment in the embassy. The others chat with Ambassador Schmidt, going over events. Eventually, they spot the signs of what they've come to think of as "Peruvian" memetics in all this - and as they burrow into the data, Vajra starts getting what he describes as "null pointer" errors in his memory. Unfortunately, there also seems to be a distinct and probably deliberate attempt to draw the EU into the memetic/political conflict here, pushing them into an unwanted position as active allies of the Saudi progressives. The team decide to attempt a counter-campaign to preserve their neutral standing as best they can.

May 16-23, m0039

This is a full-scale, though modest, counter-memetic operation. They take some days just to analyse the problem in detail, then as many again to execute their counter-attack, using embassy press statements, carefully edited releases of imagery from the rescue operation, and so on. By the end, Jianwei and Danteng estimate that they have achieved 9% population penetration with the "Neutral EU" meme - enough to sow doubt about European complicity. Meanwhile, Florence is back to chauffeur work, and Charles finds himself doing a mandatory course on dangers of brainbugs.

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.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Shakedown Brawl

(And so the campaign restarts after its break.)

Sagittarius 16-May 2, m0039.

Things fall relatively quiet for the team for a couple of weeks, with routine duties for Jianwei and Florence, and Vajra actually taking some time off. It seems that it has transferred its processes to servers at the University of Mars, taking Samadhi with it, for purposes that are initially unspecified. Its humanoid body serves as a hatstand in Jianwei's apartment, except when Dougal and Aunty take turns operating it. One never knows when it might be useful for one of them to take charge of that shell, so some familiarisation seems like a good idea.

However, at some point during this time, Jianwei receives a message concerning his non-executive directorship in the shell company which renders Vajra legal in jurisdictions where that is necessary. It seems that the company is in the process of becoming legally responsible for a second full-sapient AI. In fact, it turns out that Vajra, having monitored Samadhi's development and decided that the LAI is capable of more, is having Samadhi upgraded to full self-awareness. Samadhi will remain in Vajra's and the embassy's employment for the time being - it may have become fully self-aware, but it still needs supervision and guidance for the time being - but in due course, it will become fully independent, and Vajra will presumably need a new assistant.

Anyway, Jianwei signs off on the change of Samadhi's status.

May 3, m0039.

Jianwei often comes into the embassy to work, finding that more convenient in various ways than using VR connections from home, but this morning features one very minor extra amusement on the way in; a delivery van has pulled up outside the building and deployed its associated mover shell, while its driver AI falls deep into apparently rather brusque consultation with Quentin regarding where to place the large crate which it has brought. Jianwei shakes his head and leaves the infomorphs to their conversation.

Inside the building, though, he finds himself summoned to Ambassador Schmidt's office. She makes an idle remark about the delivery, then suggests - with seeming complete casualness - that Aunty might go and help integrate the new systems into the local embassy network. Jianwei takes the hint and doesn't ask how Aunty can help, instructing the LAI to divert its attentions to that part of the embassy network. A green light comes on in augmented reality, indicating that the ensuing conversation is not being recorded.

"Actually, I have some good news," the ambassador announces. "Your team has acquired some extra budget. With strings attached, of course. To begin with, someone back in Brussels evidently got interested in some of the events that you encountered. It's one of the analyst AIs there. It evidently wants to review things from closer quarters, so it's moving to Mars - and it'll be assigned to work with your team. Fortunately, Quentin was able to find room for the new mainframe that it will need to run on. He's had to move some other equipment around a little, of course."

Jianwei comments that this is indeed good news.

"Yes, we can hope so. Its name is Danteng, by the way." (Jianwei recognises a Chinese slang term that suggests tedium - perhaps the new AI really wants more excitement in its existence.) "It's arranged for some kind of assistant to be available to it, to act as its eyes and ears. You'll have to sort that out in due course.

"Oh, and that's not all. You'll be getting another team member. To be honest, somebody pulled some strings to get a favour. You're getting an intern."

Jianwei is politely noncommital.

"Yes, well - he does look quite promising for his age. Just as well, given that he's eighteen. He's a Mars native, but he's also an E.U. citizen - well. joint E.U. and University of Mars citizenship, actually. From an academic family, it seems. His name is Charles Dupont. He's up on Nix Olympica at the moment, actually - perhaps Vajra should have a word with him?"

Jianwei agrees that this sounds like a workable informal induction process, and after a little more inconsequential chat, the unrecorded conversation ends. Jianwei goes off and discovers that, with its new hardware still being installed and tested, Danteng isn't running yet. So he puts a call through to Charles Dupont at Nix Olympica, and discovers that the new intern is definitely keen and enthusiastic about the job. After explaining a little about what the team does, Jianwei introduces Charles to Vajra, and those two fall to talking, with Charles's energetic enthusiasm colliding with Vajra's measured philosophical attitude. Vajra asks how Charles is proposing to travel to Port Lowell; the answer predictably involves the equatorial monorail, and Vajra offers to keep Charles company through the train's systems, and continue their conversation.

Meanwhile, Danteng has arrived on the new, fully verified system, and receives an orientation briefing from Quentin. It is an academic sort of system, specialising in Martian sociology, but it evidently has some kind of sense of humour, as its chosen VR avatar resembles a 20th century flatscreen cartoon character. Quentin passes the briefing duty onto Jianwei, who describes the team's work - actually, Danteng has seen a number of their reports - and then takes the new arrival on a walking tour of Port Lowell. Having studied a lot of reports about Martian communities, Danteng proves quite knowledgeable already, but demonstrates one slightly irritating habit; it almost seems to have difficulty distinguishing between actual conditions and the multiple social models and predictions with which it regularly deals, and so it keeps talking about landmarks and buildings as if they are only there some of the time, in some versions of reality.

At some point along the way, Florence makes an appearance, having escaped from her own routine tour guide duties, and more introductions are made. In due course, once Florence has taken her sidearms home, she and Jianwei go out for dinner, with Danteng along for company in VR. Danteng also mentions that its assistant/field agent will actually be an uplifted dog, which is being prepared for the duty at a local biotech company. Florence and Jianwei politely refrain from saying too much about the last such canine with which they had to deal.

Meanwhile, Vajra and Charles are talking about Buddhism and geology. Both evidently have very keen interests. Later that night, the organic team members sleep, while Danteng, having been advised to keep well in with Quentin, returns to the embassy to spend some time mastering the game of Robo Rally (specifically, the version which Quentin plays in the embassy storerooms in his off-duty time).

May 4, m0039.

Charles's train is due in the next morning, and Jianwei and Florence decide to meet it, accompanied by Aunty, who is operating Vajra's humanoid cybershell for convenience. At this point, it sinks in with the team  that it now has at least two fur-clad members; Charles is one of the first-generation Mars Adapt parahumans, complete with proper heat insulation, and Florence's tiger stripes contrast with his leopard-style spots. They both make fur look good, but the clash may be a problem.

From the station, the group head off to Crucis Bioservices, the company where Danteng's new K-10A aide should be waiting for them. The receptionist - human, but a heavy user of extreme cosmetic proteus nanoviruses - directs them to a room at the back of the building, where Woju the K-10A is waiting. By now, Jianwei and Florence have a clear idea of Charles's mood and general attitude, which is enthusiastic - he evidently finds the idea of working with this team very interesting. As the embassy have arranged him accommodation on another floor of the same apartment block as they live in, they realise that he'll be quite hard to avoid.

Woju, on the other hand, turns out to have a more sanguine temperament, to put it mildly. He seems almost depressed by the idea of his new employment, and the effect is somehow amplified by the barrel chest and long fur which his Mars adaptations have given him, and even more by the bulldog genes which have evidently influenced his facial structure. Still, the team hand him the computer harness which he'll be using to remain in touch with Danteng, and he gets up to come with them.

However, their departure is slightly delayed by the appearance of a pair of Mars cats which have been permitted to wander around the building. Being cats, they take an interest in these visitors as possible sources of food if nothing else. Charles accesses the building's systems to buy them some cat food. They're still bored and capricious enough to take a clandestine swipe at Woju's tail as he's leaving, but he retains his equilibrium, and Florence warns them off.

In fact, this leaves her and Woju discussing the finer points of tail management with the rest of the team as they all stroll down the street. They reach the apartment block, where Charles and Woju will be sharing some living space, and a battle of wills soon ensues regarding decor. Eventually, they end up with pictures of Martian landscapes on two walls, and an ocean scene from Earth on the other. It seems that Woju has dreams of travel.

Once the new arrivals are reasonably settled in, the team sets out to return to the embassy - but on the way, they receive a call from Marshall Kirkowicz. It seems that she's been alerted to a brawl in progress at an American bar - a New York-style place - and it that there are a couple of Italian tourists trapped in the middle of events. She's letting E.U. consular services know as a courtesy - her own cybershells are already on the way - but the team realise that they are close to hand, so they divert to deal with the problem straight away.

They arrive at the bar at much the same time as the Marshall's cybershells, which head in first, but as no gunfire ensues, the E.U. team quickly follow (Woju, who seems uncertain, being encouraged by Danteng). Inside, they discover a stand-off situation, with the Italians keeping their heads down on the far side of the room. As Jianwei endeavours to talk the drunken brawlers down, Charles sidles around the walls towards the tourists, accompanied by Vajra's flying microbot relays. As he spirits the Italians clear, Jianwei's efforts start to bear fruit - except that some of the brawlers seem persistently bloody minded. But as one or two of them move towards Jianwei with a hint of threat, Woju remembers the basic police dog training that is part of his background. Stepping up beside the team leader, he emits a deep-throated growl - and the troublemakers lose interest in making trouble, giving the Europeans time to leave the bar.

And so they can head on to the embassy after all. So far, the expanded team seems to be working.