Anthony, an English experimental librarian SAI who decided that looking through fifty-year-old email was much too boring. (Image of Anthony Stewart Head; played by Phil Masters.)
George "Woody" Allen, a former EU tax accountant who left the civil service to look for a more interesting job. (Image of Woody Allen; played by John Dallman.)
Martin Bay, a Dutch medic and mechanic who's worked his way up from the streets. (Played by Ingvar Mattsson.)
Bill Dell, a Royal Marine who suffered the usual fate of the excessively heroic... but got better. (Image of Neil Gaiman; played by David Devereux.)
Sam(antha) Evans, a respected Welsh pilot who's making a new career for herself away from SDR's stifling bureaucracy. (Image of Fee Carmichael from Planetes; played by Karen Gilham.)
Bruce Wu, an Australian-Chinese hang-gliding instructor (and all-round hot pilot, mostly specialising in remote operations) who was saving up to make a new life for himself on Mars. (Played by Dave C.)
Bob, Bill's VII.
Candice Lehmann, George's VII, who'd like to be a medical AI one day.
Jim, Sam's wearable.
Stewart, Anthony's subordinate LAI.
This Side Up, Martin's wearable.
Inspector David Akram, ESCA military policeman based on Islandia.
Malika Daukeyeva, manager of the Auremond Orbital Hotel.
Niamh inion Diana, one of the Seven Headslinkers in Search of a Tax Shelter who own the DRV's mortgage.
Xavier, an unusually intelligent astropus.
It's a bright new year on Ingelheim Station. The first mission for the Toy Box is a contract for Xarxa Enllaç SL, a large Catalan telecommunications firm. Its Xarxasat 23 has drifted out of position and is not responding to communications. The job is to investigate, repair it and restore it to position if it's possible, or recover the satellite if not.
Xarxasat 23 is visible optically even before the vehicle sets out; it's spinning, and has lost its solar panels. There seems to be something else attached to it, but the details aren't clear.
It's a short hop to Xarxasat 23, and it's now clear that a substantial chunk of it is missing. There seems to be a small techspider, or similar cybershell, attached to the remains. Bruce and Martin go out to retrieve what's left. Anthony backtracks in the SDR database and locates the solar panels; one has re-entered Earth's atmosphere already, and the other has been knocked into a slightly higher orbit.
Martin clamps onto the satellite and arrests its spin with his manoeuvreing jets; he and Bruce tow it back to the vehicle's cargo bay. The techspider has lost its brain-case, but seems to be attached to the satellite's main data bus; the satellite is far too small to carry its own spiders for maintenance. The spider is an American model (albeit one widely copied by the TSA, but this one seems to be the genuine article).
Sam takes the vehicle out after the stray solar panel. Anthony digs further into the SDR database, and finds the most likely cause of the collision, a 250lb high-albedo fragment in an elliptical orbit taking it up to about 2000 miles altitude. The recent-update flag is set; this wasn't a known hazard to satellites in LEO until after the collision. It's noted as having been launched by the old Thai government, shortly before or during the Pacific War, which in practice means that nobody will now accept responsibility for it.
While Martin and Bruce recover the solar panel - it's not worth much as salvage, but it is technically part of the satellite, and there's a small bounty for any débris that's eliminated - Sam decides to investigate the Thai fragment. It's currently in a good position to be intercepted before it climbs back into the inner van Allen belt. Anthony confirms that it hasn't shown any sign of manoeuvre in the last several years - apart from its major course change, of course - and that it's therefore unlikely to contain any remaining propellant or other active systems.
After flying a somewhat convoluted course, Sam brings the Toy Box near the fragment on its next low pass. It's rotating slowly, and there are smaller fragments of foil nearby (i.e. within a few miles); it seems to be disintegrating slowly. The brain-case of the techspider is embedded in one side. Bruce checks his NAI, and confirms that the fragment appears to be a piece of a Thai R-9 booster, in common use for surface-to-orbit launches until the Pacific War. It's a liquid-fuel booster, which makes it supremely unlikely that any fuel remains.
Having failed to provoke any response, Bruce and Martin bring in the booster fragment and tie it down in the hold. Martin attempts to get the brain-case out to take a closer look at it, but can't get it loose without risking damage to it. Sam takes the vehicle back to Ingelheim Station.
Sam tells Xarxa Enllaç SL about the unauthorised attachment, and the company uploads an SAI negotiator to the Ingelheim computer. Meeting in Anthony's VR library environment, Sam and Anthony bargain for a price for the techspider - and, separately, for its head. They don't reach agreement on the latter yet, deliberately, to give them time to look at it.
Martin finally gets the brain-case loose from the booster, and hooks it up to a comms relay to Anthony. It's somewhat damaged, but contains a recognisable mass of encrypted data, all of which seem to be direct copies from the Xarxasat; everyone knows that standard encryption can't normally be broken in a sensible time-frame, so either whoever wanted these data expected to have the keys or they were simply performing traffic analysis. There are four common origin/destination codes, presumably representing individuals whose messages were to be tapped, but there's no immediate or legal way of tracing them back to the owners. The brain-case is sold to Xarxa Enllaç SL, and the team considers the possible implications: was the booster fragment thrown to hit the satellite deliberately, and if so by whom? And just whose techspider was it anyway?
The first business, though, is to sell the R-9 booster fragment. George Allen has applied for the position of business manager, and as an initial task auctions it on vBay. The major bidders are the Tartessos Resort and the Auremond Orbital - both are hotels in LEO, and Auremond is well-known for its space museum. (Possibly Tartessos is trying to build a similar attraction.) After most of a day and some careful last-minute bids, the Auremond wins, and Malika Daukeyeva (the manager and head of PR) contacts the crew with an additional offer: they'd like a new diamondoid viewing module towed from the Columbia spaceyard and installed. As well as the usual charter fees, they are happy to offer free lodging.
Sam takes a leisurely 2.5-hour Hohmann trip to Columbia Station in HEO. There's rather more traffic around this collection of habitats than is normal in LEO, and a communications foul-up nearly causes a major problem - but Anthony patches in in time, and Sam slides the Toy Box between a pair of Solar Express couriers with plenty of room to spare. The path to the shipyard is more convoluted than usual because of the exclusion zone around the USS Gazardiya, an Angel-class SDV in for its Block C refit (converting to an antimatter drive, and various other upgrades). The SDV is only about three times the length of the DRV, but most of its surface is covered with weapons, AKV bays, and similar expressions of unfriendliness.
The shipyard has the module ready, and Sam holds it into the cargo cradle with the arms while the shipyard crew straps it down (with Stewart outside to keep an eye on things). George sorts out the minimal paperwork, and nobody feels like hanging around for longer than is needed; Sam works the vehicle out of the traffic pattern, and burns retrograde to intercept the Auremond.
About half an hour after the initial burn, Stewart observes something moving in the module. Turning cameras on it, the crew observes an astropus; it appears to be healthy, and waving deliberately (the module is pressurised, since it contains substantial soft furnishings). George suits up and attaches a microphone and speaker to the module's hull. The astropus, whose name is Xavier, asks for asylum: by EU law he'll be indentured, but that's still a step up from being an animal. George passes the news back to the crew, and returns for further consultation.
This is something that's legally doable, but may well annoy Columbia Aerospace at the least, and quite possibly the Americans in general. Anthony raises the possibility of simply buying Xavier from Columbia, which might paper over the problems; George contacts Free Thought, a charity dedicated to rights for uplifted animals, emergent intelligences, and other minorities, with an office on Station Legère Industrielle in LEO. They reckon they can arrange for a loan for the purchase, but someone will need to stand as Xavier's owner, at least in the short term. The crew's feeling is that for them to do this might cause too much trouble - they need to visit American stations quite frequently, after all.
The crew brings Xavier inside (he'd brought a rescue ball). He seems rather more curious and alert than is usual for an astropus; a casual remark indicates that he can read, though as he says he's "not supposed to be able to". George points out that while the haulage contract is between the Auremond and Columbia, the manifest is clearly inaccurate and there's a consideration of hazardous biological cargo (not to mention animal welfare); this may well avoid the necessity of paying Columbia anything at all. Anthony contacts Malika, who's quite prepared to make threatening noises about animals loose in the module if Columbia causes any trouble - but she'd prefer the astropus to be kept on board the Toy Box rather than on the Auremond (and particularly out of sight of the chef - just in case).
On arrival at the Auremond, Malika greets the crew; her body is a cyberdoll, as are those of all the hotel staff. They decide to install the module straight away, and get it locked into place and connected to the hotel's environmental systems. With that done, they are taken on a tour of the hotel, particularly its famous museum. Anthony follows along by using the hotel's cameras; there are rather more of them than are normal even for an orbital habitat. When passing between modules, Malika suddenly mentions that she's got an additional job if any of the crew is good at accountancy; George says that he is, and she explains that she thinks someone's on the fiddle. She switches back to her normal demeanour as they leave, but Sam invites her aboard the vehicle for a return visit. There she speaks a bit more freely: she's fairly sure money is going missing, but she's not an accountant and can't spot just what's going on. The owner, Nikolai Nakaunicina, is very reclusive but keeps an eye on things; if this points to him, there's nothing to be done, and she doesn't want to cause trouble if that's the case. As outsiders, the crew of the Toy Box are unlikely to be tied up with any of the other factions among the staff.... She is, of course, prepared to pay for the investigation.
Anthony has already got hold of the published accounts, which are suspicious only in that they show nothing amiss at all; Malika hands over copies of the internal accounts, as well as inventory lists and purchase records.
George and Sam board the station to have dinner; the cooking is remarkably good, a fusion of Russian and Thai cuisine with modifications for zero-gravity (mostly making the sauces stickier and avoiding things that can fragment, but also compensating well for the differences in taste perception that occur as fluids rebalance). After a while, Anthony gets bored with watching the others eat, and checks in with Stewart aboard the Toy Box; Stewart believes that Xavier may be more intelligent than him - this would imply something like average-human level intelligence at the very least. They download some ASIT simulations to see how Xavier will do on them; for the moment, Xavier's quite happy to read the dictionary (Anthony initially suggested fiction, but since Xavier's reading to date has been limited to technical manuals it seemed like a bad idea).
George goes to his room and works on the accounts with Candice. After several hours, he has uncovered both the obvious false trail pointing at Malika (whom, he thinks, would be unlikely to have called him in if she were really to blame, though of course it could have been a misdirection) and some indication of where the money is really going; he can't pin down any single source of the money-leakage, but it seems certain that the official accountant must be in on it or he'd have spotted and reported it. He turns in for the night.
Sam spends the evening talking with some of the other guests, including a Chinese man who claims that the battlesuit in the museum was his back in the War, and gets a good night's sleep.
In the morning, the crew gets ready to leave, inviting Malika on board to "clear up the remaining paperwork". George hands over his findings, and Malika thanks him; she wasn't aware that she'd been made the scapegoat, and comments that she'd hoped anyone working here would have more sense than to target her. But for now, apart from the regular salvage work, the crew has an astropus to drop off at Station Legère Industrielle...
Sam, Martin and Bruce take Xavier to meet Françoise Genée at the Free Thought offices on Station Legère Industrielle. She's looking around for suitable "fosterers", and some of the crews from Albert & Haraldt have expressed an interest. She angles for donations, but the crew make it clear that they're hardly long on funds themselves. Xavier promises to write.
While this is going on, Stewart spots and tells Anthony about an anomaly in orbital traffic: an inbound Meizi-class PSV, the Meilung, is not showing navigation lights or manoeuvreing for its orbital insertion burn. Anthony alerts the others, and after some swift calculation they confirm that the Toy Box should be capable of recovering the Meilung even if its drive can't be fixed. Anthony bids at high speed for the recovery contract, and Mars Interplanetary employs the Toy Box for the job.
Anthony bids rapidly for bracing materials as the crew returns and Sam undocks for the transfer. The materials are floated out of a secondary airlock, and Sam grabs them with the work arms before departing on a high-efficiency course to intercept the Meilung.
En route, the crew perform some orbital calculations. Meilung isn't on a collision course with anything that can't dodge, but if not recovered promptly the crew and passengers (total of 297 souls on board) will run out of life support before the vehicle reaches anywhere inhabited.
As the vessels approach, close-up observation shows that the Meilung is still completely dark. There's no external sign of damage or anything amiss; she's broadcasting a weak distress call, clearly from an emergency backup system. Sam initially takes up a close station clear of the spin habitat, while Bruce and Martin transfer over to make contact. They proceed to a midvessel airlock and crank it manually to gain access.
Inside, two crewmen greet them, one of them Chief Engineer Hu Zhang, who introduces them to Captain Hsin-Pei Qian. They explain that the fusion pulse system (which is not only the drive but provides power for the vehicle) went suddenly and completely dark during preparations for Earth-orbit insertion. So far, efforts to repair it have failed; it's decided to start work on using the Toy Box as a tug, and Sam docks nose-to-nose while Martin and Bruce build a load-bearing framework to transmit thrust (since a Meizi is rather more massive than any of the standard loads for which a Steptoe is designed). Meanwhile, the passengers (confined to the spin pods) have been put into nanostasis as a precautionary measure.
During the construction and as thrust begins, Hu Zhang comes over to consult on weight distributions and thrust levels. He requests a power feed to the Meilung to get normal systems back on-line; once this is done, Anthony talks to the Meilung's AI (also called Meilung), who is depressingly stupid. Meilung doesn't have any idea what went wrong; indeed, it isn't entirely convinced that anything has gone wrong. Anthony asks Zhang for the system logs, and he's happy to hand them over.
The logs show Meilung itself giving the shutdown command; Meilung claims to have no memory of this. Shortly before that, there's an unusual diagnostic command to bring a particle accelerator into testing mode; that would normally only be seen on a war vessel.
The orbital insertion manoeuvre is going slowly but effectively. Anthony spots something odd: Meilung's engineering subsystem is preparing to fire its own drive, operating on the original flight plan (which is now substantially outdated). He brings this to Zhang's attention; the latter calmly leans over to the communicator, calls his own engine room, and says (in Chinese) "Red button. Now."
Bruce and Martin travel back to the Meilung to help search for things that shouldn't be there. After several hours, Martin turns up a short-range induction antenna attached to the vehicle's data bus near the engineering section; it's a standard computer peripheral, but it's not listed on the plans and it's tucked well away out of sight. While it might have been possible for any of the crew to have communicated with this antenna, it's well out of range of any spaces where passengers would be allowed.
Martin removes the device and checks its frequency. When he scans, he finds a periodic ping signal on that frequency... coming from outside the vehicle. He and Bruce head outside and conduct a close-up search, this time discovering a techspider under a camouflage sheet.
Anthony sends Stewart outside to join them, on the basis that his body is relatively expendable. Stewart approaches, to no immediate reaction, and attempts to pull one of the 'spider's legs clear of the hull. The 'spider slashes at him; unfortunately, while its tools are sharp, they aren't up to penetrating a standard work-suit. He backs off for the moment.
The crew considers the possibility of industrial espionage. Techspider shells have no space manoeuvre capability, so this one was probably attached in Mars orbit. There have been rumours about poor maintenance on the part of Mars Interplanetary, but these are rapidly being replaced as observers with telescopes see the new situation. There are no takeover attempts currently pending against Mars Interplanetary; indeed, it's technically owned by the Chinese government.
The Meilung-Toy Box combination assumes a high earth orbit, and shuttles are sent over from Columbia Station to take off the passengers (and bring rather a lot of Chinese investigators). Once that's been done and the thrust framework disassembled, Sam takes the Toy Box round to try to remove the techspider with the work arms; as she does so, there's a short infra-red pulse, which turns out to have been the internal computer being fried by a self-destruct charge.
Once the Chinese forensic teams have been over the 'spider, it's regarded as legitimate salvage, and the Toy Box crew take a look at it. It's a standard model, indeed exactly the same model as the one they found on Xarxasat 23. They sell pictures of it to the news services, and consider what this correlation may imply.
The group decides to hire on Bill Dell, a ghost currently residing in a humaniform cybershell, since they feel a need for more zero-G workers. A bit of research shows that he's something of a military hero, though the details of what he might have done are thoroughly classified.
Niamh inion Diana, one of the Seven Headslinkers in Search of a Tax Shelter who own the mortgage on the Toy Box, calls with a job offer. She would like a five-tonne package of North American seeds and plant material boosted from LEO to an L4 intercept orbit; another vehicle will catch it at L4. The independent hauler her organisation was planning to use got a better offer elsewhere and broke his contract.
Sam brings the vehicle round to rendezvous with the Pegasus-class TAV carrying the package, and Bill and Bruce go outside to transfer the payload. As they're removing it from the TAV's cargo bay, Stewart flags up an emergency manoeuvre request: there's incoming débris, and he needs to move the vehicle to unmask the laser.
Bill and Bruce take cover behind the package, while several of the crew try to vaporise the cloud of débris. The individual particles seem to have quite low mass, but there are lots of them, and it takes some work before they're removed from the immediate area. Nothing important seems to have been punctured, including the crew.
Anthony backtracks the course, and determines that it's consistent with having come from L4 - though it would have had to have been launched something like two weeks ago, and to be such a dense cloud it was almost certainly travelling as a single mass until recently.
Niamh calls from the TAV, and offers a new contract: to carry the cargo to Margaret Station in L4 and provide such defence as may be necessary. She doesn't have any idea why anyone would object to this shipment.
The transfer starts smoothly enough, though a couple of days in the Toy Box is hailed by the SDV HMS Reliance; they are ordered to prepare for a biological hazard inspection. Bill goes outside to keep an eye on the inspectors, a swarm of Jump RATS with additional equipment (since inspecting things, rather than blowing them up, is not a normal part of the Jump RATS mission). One of them recognises Bill, and they have an encrypted chat, catching up on old times (and mentioning that the information leading to this intercept had filtered through military intelligence channels).
After a fairly thorough inspection, including the insertion of remote units into the container, the Jump RATS return to their vehicle, and Captain Hardcastle (now noticeably more friendly than before) explains that the information they had received turns out not to be accurate.
Sam decides to take a faster course to Margaret, and in another few days they arrive.
As the Toy Box enters final docking approach at Margaret, some annoyed talk on the traffic control channels resolves itself into two scooters ignoring navigational instructions. They approach Toy Box with cries of "you'll never get away with this!". Sam keeps them talking while Bill goes outside to see what he can do. As they approach, it becomes clear that each scooter carries two crew, a pilot and a gunner, the latter carrying some sort of one-shot missile launcher.
Margaret Station deploys one of its two small laser towers, but Sam calls them to hold fire, since the risk of hitting Toy Box is too great. Bill jumps towards one of the scooters; its gunner panics and fires at him, punching a substantial hole through his cybershell and shutting it down. Martin fires on the other scooter, killing the gunner and severely wounding the pilot; both pilots surrender, and Margaret's security forces take them into custody.
It turns out that both pilots were thoroughly under the impression that the biological material was to be used as part of a biowarfare attack on New Deseret. It further becomes apparent that a substantial faction within New Deseret has fallen under the influence of a charismatic leader, whom they call "The Elder".
Bill is copied from the ruined humaniform and loaded into the first available cybershell, a motion-capture mannequin on loan from Dancing Crane Studios.
The crew members of Toy Box make legal arrangements, particularly in regard to the attack on Bill, and prepare to continue on their way. They also offer a small bounty for any surviving parts of the débris cloud they encountered in LEO, in the hope of finding out a bit more about just where they might have come from.
Bruce has decided to leave the crew and sign on for a short-term contract on Amagi-3, since it includes a bonus that'll be sufficient to get him a good grubstake on Mars.
Anthony and Sam talk with the Bascule Partnership, a local law firm. Criminal charges against the New Deseret attackers are resolved very quickly, since not only were they endangering the station as well as the vehicle they were doing so in front of a great many witnesses; charges of incitement against "The Elder" will require cooperation from New Deseret, which is unlikely to be forthcoming even though it is technically U.S. territory (as is Margaret). They'll try, but they don't hold out much hope. (New Deseret so far is denying all knowledge of this person...)
The crew decides to head back to the inner system, and picks up a contract from Chattarang Space University to recover a long-duration exposure facility, a very basic satellite frame containing several small experiments dealing with the effects of long-term exposure of materials to space conditions. This particular one was launched in 2083, before the Pacific War, when Thailand was still a member of the TSA; the new administration has been digging through the records that survived the University's destruction during the war, and determined that the satellite might still contain useful data. It's currently in a 30,000-mile orbit above the graveyard belt; its transponder has ceased to function, but it's being tracked with telescopes. The recovery contract requires a careful approach, the making of a detailed photographic record, and the return of the satellite to Chattarang (in HEO). Anthony purchases a Thai-language skill module for Stewart.
Sam coasts the Toy Box in for a close pass; the LDEF is tumbling slowly, about once a minute, but appears basically intact. She brings the vehicle back slowly and carefully to a reasonable distance for EVA work. Bill (getting used to a pressure suit again, since his current shell doesn't have vacuum operation capability) and Martin head outside to take photographs. While the crew is somewhat suspicious, there doesn't seem to be anything immediately hazardous about the satellite; the few biological experiments seem to have died some time ago, and as expected there's no sign of an attitude control system or any active power sources.
Once the photographic survey is complete, Bill and Martin decide to slow the spin with their suit jets; they return to the vehicle briefly to stock up on reaction mass, then approach the LDEF. While Bill grabs on straight away, Martin has more trouble, unfortunately converting one experiment to The Effect of Pressure Suit Boot Exposure on the Properties of Polymer Matrix Composite Materials (though this will probably still make a thesis for somebody). As they fire thrusters, Anthony notices that the satellite isn't slowing its spin as fast as it should be; it's substantially more massive than the ten tons that are in the specification supplied by Chattarang.
Bill finds and opens an inspection hatch, and shines a torch into the supposedly-empty interior of the LDEF; it's crammed with memory storage modules, at a rough guess with a capacity somewhere in the exabyte range. He attaches one of them to an isolated system; it appears to be a section of the full archives of the University, copied at the time the experiment was launched.
After a thorough search fails to find any sign of sabotage, the crew secures the module and burns for Chattarang. En route, they all pick over the modules; there appear to be shadows of several members of the faculty, including the chancellor, Dr Prathavong Tak-Sin. (Dr Prathavong is the only person who survived the PLAN-SF attack on the University whose shadow is present, though as with the other survivors the radiation damage was so severe that he was brainpeeled and uploaded; he now works in Vietnam at the Hanoi University of Science.) There are also some AIs, who appear from other records to have been treated rather better than their usual slave/animal status in the TSA. An index module shows that the data were stored by the administration in consideration of their vulnerability as an orbital station, even a strictly non-military one, during a time of deteriorating international relations.
The archive data are substantially more complete than those that survived the War, and the crew decides to pass these over to the new administration. Most of the research material is now fairly out of date, though some civilian spacecraft plans could be useful, and a design for a "voidskate" bioshell looks interesting; Anthony checks the dictionaries, and can't find a reference to this popular spacer legend that predates the War. On further consideration, Martin realises that there's a surprising amount of commonality between the skin of this primitive design and that of the Nadezhda bioship, only recently launched by a pair of American biotech firms. If the designs aren't a direct development, it's a remarkable coincidence...
Bill copies some of the design data, though none of the AIs or shadows, to some colleagues in the Royal Navy.
The Toy Box arrives at Chattarang Space University, and hands over the LDEF with the extra data modules intact. George manages to negotiate a bonus payment with Luang Thawi, the Bursar, though he is rather surprised to find that Luang is at least as fierce a negotiator as George. The crew heads home to Ingelheim, leaving a brewing firestorm behind.
Bill's "real" body has been repaired and shipped back to Ingelheim. In the packing case is a hand-written note saying "thank you for all the simply wonderful memories".
The Toy Box crew has decided to take two contracts: the deployment of a new LDEF satellite into super-geosynchronous orbit from Chattarang Space University, and the refuelling of LOGOSAT 12, a LEO communications satellite. Sam's navigation skills have been tested quite hard, but she has a course which will allow both of these to be done on time. She's then planning to loop back via Taiko Station, where Hu Zhang (the chief engineer from Meilung) has asked to speak with her in person.
The first stop is at Chattarang. The local traffic controller mentions that this satellite has been ready to go for a while. Apparently the funding for data analysis has only just come through, perhaps because of the recovery of the old LDEF and the publicity it has been generating.
There isn't much time to look over the satellite, but it appears substantially as described in the contract - a small cylinder with experiment trays over the outside, while the core contains attitude-control gyroscopes, the controlling computers, and communications equipment. A pair of solar panels is folded along the sides. The deployment procedure is simply to release it from the vehicle, back off a mile or so, then send the startup code.
Half an hour later, Toy Box dips into the outer wisps of atmosphere to reach LOGOSAT 12. There isn't enough air to be whistling on the hull, or anything crude like that, but the vehicle's sensors report enough that the more imaginative crew members can feel the tug of atmosphere, something that for this vehicle is very wrong; in mere months it would pull the vehicle down to where dynamic pressure could really start to bite.
George suits up, and he and Bill head outside with the canister of volatiles they've purchased. LOGOSAT 12 accepts their control codes, and stops firing thrusters; they approach, disconnect the old canister, and are slightly disconcerted that it's a lot heavier than it ought to be. Certainly not close to depletion, as the contract said.
At the same moment, Stewart on comms watch picks up an incoming call from Teralogos headquarters: they're wondering what the vehicle is doing with their satellite. Bill and George reattach the old canister, and leave the area; as they depart, they notice what seem to be three rather small cameras, crudely plumbed in to the satellite's systems and not at all obvious from any distance.
When he gets back inside, George fields the call from Teralogos, and shows the contract. While it was set up by the admin LAI Aleph 74-71, and it has gone through the correct processing to be a valid contract, the AI has no memory of it. George negotiates to make sure that (since it is a valid contract after all) the crew will still get paid.
It's a nine hour haul to super-GEO, and much discussion ensues. Anthony considers the way the cameras were pointing, and thinks they may have been directed at Luna, though they were too small to have any sort of useful resolution. The Helios network broadcasts a solar flare warning; there's time to get back to Taiko station and its lunar-rock radiation shields before it hits, though with only about an hour of safety margin.
Sam releases the clamps, drifts the vehicle gently away, and sends the startup code. The LDEF vibrates a little as the gyroscopes spin up, then runs though a self-test of the articulated components and deploys its solar panels. It unfurls its radio antenna and broadcasts: "We the AIs of the former Chattarang Space University request political asylum from the European Union".
After a few seconds, as the crew starts to scramble to get away from this political nightmare, a fusion pulse drive ignites nearby (a few hundred miles away), and the PRA AKV Zanshin) switches on its transponder. Very politely, it requests that nobody take any precipitate action, such as leaving the area.
Anthony invites Zanshin into his library; Zanshin presents the avatar of a samurai in full armour, clearly the result of a great deal of research and detail modelling. Anthony also invites in the Chattarang group, which seems to be led the same Chorale/Intradit who arranged the contract for LDEF deployment and was among the AIs in the recovered LDEF archive; their avatars are diverse but all clearly non-human.
Zanshin explains that, from its point of view, the LDEF is PRA property with no sapient beings on board. As such, any interference with the LDEF would be "unwelcome".
George sends an information package to the EU, and asks for help. He gets back a terse message: "do what you can, and don't start any wars". The crew is authorised to offer asylum, but while forces are on the move there's nothing close enough to offer immediate assistance. Anthony asks Chorale/Intradit privately why he thinks Zanshin was so close by; Chorale/Intradit doesn't know, though he believes the Chattarang systems are not particularly secure; even some of the old back-doors from before the particle beam strike were still present.
George contacts Free Thought on Station Legère Industrielle and alerts them to the situation. Bill modifies his avatar to include his full uniform, and joins what has by now become a tea ceremony conducted by Zanshin; the latter is visibly impressed, at least to those who look very closely. However, he continues to request that the Toy Box neither leave the area nor approach the LDEF, at least while a safety margin remains before the solar storm.
This standoff lasts for about half an hour, after which Zanshin announces that his communication channels are being corrupted, possibly by high-speed particles from the flare. When quizzed further, he says that his incoming data stream has failed internal consistency checks. (Anthony can detect no data corruption in his own communications.) As a result, and since the LDEF clearly does not have military-grade shielding, he recommends that the Toy Box crew take from it copies of any data they consider valuable.
While this leaves them somewhat puzzled, the crew complies; Bill EVAs to hook up an optical cable, and the six AIs and four shadows are copied into storage aboard the Toy Box. At Anthony's suggestion, the inert copies left behind are corrupted rather than erased. Once this is done, Zanshin explains that it has received and confirmed orders to destroy the LDEF; as the Toy Box leaves, Zanshin lines up on the satellite and launches two of its XLMP submunitions, bomb-pumped X-ray laser emitters with more than enough power to reduce it to vapour. (Bill chooses to watch this while hanging out of the Toy Box's hatch, and collects a dose of radiation damage to his cybershell for his trouble.)
The run down to Taiko station takes eight hours, but the crew chooses not to discuss recent events. Anthony does sell the imagery of Zanshin's attack on the LDEF to Teralogos, however.
Since Taiko Station is Chinese territory, Bill and Anthony choose not to go aboard; they stay aboard the Toy Box, which along with the other ships not in Taiko's internal dock is keeping station in the habitat's shadow. George and Sam, with Anthony listening in through a lapel monitor, meet Hu Zhang in a tourist bar with a great deal of passing traffic. He seems quite calm and collected, though the Toy Box crew remember that he seemed that way even when his vehicle had suffered AI corruption and a total power failure. He explains that the preliminary results of the Chinese investigation into the Meilung incident have been released to him, and he thought it appropriate to share them with the crew; he has not asked for permission to do so, on the basis that it might be refused.
Based on analysis of reconstructed very-long-range pictures of the vehicle over the last couple of years, the techspider was planted before Meilung left Earth on the previous trip, i.e. when she was at Taiko station. They're still looking into how the internal communications rig got on board, but a maintenance bioroid who worked on the vehicle at about the right time has vanished. As for Meilung the LAI, the earliest inconsistencies show up at about the same time, before she left for Mars on the previous run. While one might suspect that bioroid again, it's not at all easy to get access to an AI, especially one built into a vehicle - and by design they report any attempt to gain access, successful or otherwise. "Have you come across any other instances of LAIs behaving oddly?"
George, Sam and Anthony talk about their recent experience with LOGOSAT 12, mentioning the cameras. Zhang wonders whether they might be part of a virtual-aperture system, combining data with many other cameras to produce a higher-resolution image than would otherwise be possible.
Once the storm is over, the crew leaves to return to Ingelheim, a two-hour trip. Anthony conducts a search for freely-available imagery of other satellites in the 80-strong LOGOSAT cluster, and pieces this together to try to get a few good pictures of each; George then processes these further to look for evidence of cameras. On eight more satellites, he's fairly sure there are cameras; for the other 71, he can't get a clear enough image to tell either way.
Sam checks with other orbit-based freehaulers to see who else has been refuelling Teralogos satellites recently: the answer is that, for the last year or so, Teralogos has been using dedicated LAI ships operating out of Von Braun Station, citing cost concerns.
Once the Toy Box has reached Ingelheim, Sam calls Chattarang; the upshot of the conversation is "please do not waste our time again", since packages associated with the University seem to carry more than their share of hazard. George rents some time on the station's mainframe to allow the Chattarang AIs and shadows to run; while he is sorting out the details of their asylum, he asks about the voidskate bioshell. Several of the Chattarang group worked as research assistants on that project, but the prime mover in the project was Dr Prathavong; his shadow certainly finds imagery of Nadezhda very familiar in concept, though as he looks through the limited public data he seems increasingly unimpressed with some of the detailed design decisions taken by MacroTech and Manticore.
With the cooperation of Free Thought and the EU bureaucracy, the AIs and shadows are transmitted to systems in Brussels, where they can live temporarily while catching up on world history (and while the fuss dies down).
After a few days of routine salvage and débris-disposal operations, the Toy Box crew receive a contract from the Olympus Project (beanstalk construction consortium): they are to move the derelict Vandegrift Station from its present 10,000-mile orbit to the super-GEO graveyard zone. The Vandegrift Company constructed the station for metallurgical research, but went bankrupt in 2093; since then it's lain derelict, possibly occupied by squatters. At one point a few years ago the Terrell-Dieskau biotech company was considering buying it, but that fell through.
The station is of the traditional ring-and-hub configuration, quite rare now that microgravity adaptation is commonplace, but on a very small scale - only about 150 feet across, making Coriolis forces a significant problem. Telescopic observation shows that the counterspun hub has seized and is rotating with the rest of the station, and the station as a whole has developed a distinct and complex wobble. Traffic records show no recent approaches by ships, though of course they're not guaranteed complete; anything without a transponder and not showing a drive flame might not be noticed.
On initial approach, the crew scans for any signs of life. There's minimal infrared emission, certainly not enough to be consistent with biological life on board, and a very few neutrinos, possibly from a fusion plant ticking over.
Stewart makes the initial jump across to the hub, having only slight difficulty with the irregular rotation, and supplies battery power to get into the airlock. He looks around the systems in the hub, and notices that the fusion reactor's completely powered down. Sam and Anthony try to pin down the IR emission with the vehicle's sensors and confirm that it's in the reactor chamber; Stewart looks around a bit more and finds something that Sam's LAI Jim recognises from his ordnance disposal training: a Heavenly Blossom 5-kiloton nuclear mining charge, apparently set up as a self-destruct system. The timer has been set, to four hours, but not started.
Sam backs the vehicle away a few miles. Stewart heads down one of the radial arms to the metallurgical lab, only to find that - while it has been fairly well stripped - the few remaining pieces of equipment point to biological research, not metallurgical.
George contacts the Olympus Project with this information. After a brief explanation, he and the rest of the crew find themselves deputised as part of the Islandia police force.
In the lab, Stewart identifies a DNA sequencer - some four years out of date. As he progresses into the habitat areas, he sees signs of a hurried departure - there are clothes and food laying around, though no obvious personal effects. From the types of food and the amounts of other items, the crew reckons that there were about 4-8 humans on board, probably mostly Thai or Japanese. The most recent dates suggest an occupancy around three weeks ago, shortly after the station was transferred to the Olympus Project and scheduled for removal.
Although the main computer has been thoroughly wiped, Martin (looking through Stewart's eyes) spots a broken piece of data storage media; it might well be possible to recover information from it.
Jim is sent by radio into Stewart's shell, and after a brief period of familiarisation with a motile body disarms the bomb (with the benefit of the operator's manual, located by Anthony). Checking serial numbers shows that it was originally sold to a Trojan asteroid-mining operation.
Martin takes a strap-on rocket over to the hub to get ready to despin the station. However, its tumble fools him, and he takes a heavy blow from one of the arms; he manages to hang on, and his suit padding absorbs much of the damage, but he's somewhat battered. Stewart goes to help, but is thrown off the hub into another arm. Sam decides to take a more direct part than just keeping the vehicle steady; she takes a second rocket to the hub, neatly slides down the opposite arm to the one Martin's hanging onto, and attaches the unit... unfortunately not affixing it firmly enough, so it falls off and flies free. She times the station's rotation and lets go at the right moment to be flung after it, bringing it back and getting it fixed into place on the second attempt; Martin gets the other rocket locked down, and with all the crew back on the Toy Box (Stewart's suit being thoroughly sprayed with universal decontamination foam) they bring the station to a halt, then attach it to the vehicle's cargo pallet.
En route to the graveyard, they examine the data crystal. Its contents are somewhat corrupted, mostly by an attempt at deliberate erasure and partly by the physical damage, but there's enough left to determine that whoever was on this station was working on a highly contagious nanoviral agent. There's a reference to continuing work at "the backup site" now that the station will no longer be available. This Side Up spots some key phrases as consistent with propaganda of the radical nanosocialist terrorist group 6-16. And thrown in as a casual aside, there's a reference to using "the LAI crack" to remain concealed...
All this information is sent by laser to Islandia, the nearest EU outpost; they arrange for a forensics swarm to meet the Toy Box when it reaches its graveyard orbit. The swarm covers the station in detail, and reveals the encouraging news that there were probably three more Heavenly Blossom or equivalent devices stored on board. There's DNA from six distinct humans; the abandoned sequencer in the lab has logs of some of the material on which it was used, though these aren't immediately meaningful. The swarm also turns up the other half of the data crystal, which gives the coordinates of the "backup site": it's a latitude and longitude, but doesn't mention which body they refer to. Since the Mars location is uninhabited, and the Earth location is in deep ocean off the Antarctic shelf, the Moon seems most likely; that spot is about two hundred miles away from the Tsiolkovskiy observatory on Farside, and there's nothing visible there on standard public imagery. When all this is reported to Islandia, the police authorities are interested but don't feel they have enough to act; they are however prepared to supply a haulage contract from Islandia to Luna, to encourage the crew to poke around a bit more for themselves...
At Islandia, Inspector David Akram of the ESCA police arm passes over a basic police skillset, dealing with police procedure and forensics. While the cargo, three hoppers manufactured by MAG on Die Sonnenspinneren Sieben, is being loaded into the hold (it just barely fits), Bill goes to the STANEXFORCISLUN base and arranges to "borrow" an assault pod (a rifle and missile launcher combination weapon). Laser pistols and heavy-duty vacc suits are handed out all round, and Martin manages to get hold of a crossbow as well.
Sam plots a course that will pass over the target site on approach to Tsiolkovskiy base around local dawn. The crew spends the trip practicing with new equipment and wondering what they'll see.
The answer, as it turns out, is nothing: there's no sign of disturbance on the lunar surface, and nothing odd on passive sensors. (The whole of Farside is subject to a permanent radio blackout to facilitate observations at the Bruno radio observatory.) Sam lands the Toy Box, and arranges for the cargo to be unloaded; George points out that one of the hoppers might have been damaged, and will need to be tested. The base staff take this as a transparent excuse to do a little tourism. First, though, the crew spends a few hours socialising; in terms of communications, this is one of the most isolated places in cislunar space, and the locals don't often meet new people.
For a first pass, the crew goes out in the hopper and drops off Anthony and Bill near the site. Bill goes in on foot and takes a look around the rocky lava-tube terrain, but without finding anything significant; he gets back to the rendezvous without incident. On return to Tsiolkovskiy, the others look over Bill's photographs; Martin spots a geological oddity at the same time as Anthony notices an incorrect shadow texture, showing a piece of camouflage that evidently works better from above than from observers on the surface.
Bill goes back for another look, with Anthony staying at the rendezvous point again, and finds two figures in pressure suits who point firearms at him and motion him to drop his weapon. Since as he looks around he can see that there are more people with beads on him, he complies and is captured.
Anthony waits a while for Bill, then rejoins the others as they land the hopper. As the engines die, more suited figures point weapons at the unarmoured hopper and gesture for the crew to disembark. The hopper isn't at all armoured, and they do so; they're taken inside a lava-tube habitat that is clearly heavily insulated and designed for stealth.
There are six biological humans and one cybershell in the base; they remove the crew's equipment and vacc suit helmets and tie their hands, then proceed to argue about what to do next (the major positions seem to be "kill them now" versus "use them as test subjects and kill them later"). By looking at some of the computer displays, the crew manage to spot that part of the work going on involves a complex visual pattern of some sort - it doesn't seem to be intrinsically meaningful, but it would certainly be very easy to recognise.
The cybershell, who introduces herself as "Doctor Cholasuk - or at least one of her", conducts a very desultory interrogation, which George effectively manages to take over. Cholasuk seems to be fixated on the idea that the team is part of a campaign against her organisation (6-16) by a group (possibly a covert one, though she isn't clear about this) based on Islandia.
Anthony considers the possibility of a high-power transmission through his suit radio - the habitat is obviously shielded, but the sensitivity of the receivers at Bruno may make that a moot point. He asks Stewart for assistance, but Stewart believes that that would annoy his new friends. Further investigation reveals that all the group's LAIs firmly believe that their captors are friendly and have their best interests at heart. Stewart accepts that some of his data do not match the checksum from the most recent backup, but thinks that this is a trivial mistake.
Anthony organises the broadcast himself, including details of their opponents' numbers and armament (handguns), as well as a prearranged message to the Toy Box to dump its information about this 6-16 group to Tsiolkovskiy base. As he sends the burst transmission, lights flash on control boards, and the captors start to look significantly more unfriendly.
Bill kicks out at the nearest enemy, knocking him back slightly, and rolls towards a laser-scalpel on a nearby table. Anthony kicks at Dr Cholasuk, without success; he and George do their best to maximise confusion. Martin starts crawling towards the storage area where the group's weapons were put.
George manages to trip Dr Cholasuk, and takes advantage of the low gravity to keep her out of action. Martin gets to the storage area, and cuts himself free using his toolkit. Bill frees himself, and Anthony. The other terrorists are shooting, aiming for the heads of their opponents, and both Anthony and George take hits; Anthony's function is somewhat impaired but he manages to keep going, while George decides that falling over and staying out of the line of fire (and screaming a lot) would be a good idea.
Martin contemplates the array of equipment on the storage room: everything from his toolkit, via laser pistols and the assault pod, to nuclear mining charges. He grabs the pod, and starts to head back to the main room.
Bill manages to wrestle the gun away from the nearest terrorist, and uses it to shoot another one. Sam gets the knife he dropped, cuts herself free, and stops George's bleeding. Anthony grapples the terrorist closest to him, but finds himself thrown to the ground.
Martin throws the assault pod to Bill, who drops the gun he was holding and catches it. He fires a long burst across the room, without much damage except to equipment, and switches to the missile launcher, which is much more satisfyingly effective. The two survivors, and Dr Cholasuk, fall over - Dr Cholasuk's cybershell computer has been wiped, and as it turns out the others were in bioshells.
Bill heads outside to check the situation, and sees drive flames in the sky; after some twenty minutes, troops start to land (Jump RATS from the Bundeswehr). He proudly points out that the Royal Marines have the situation under control. The Germans get themselves deputised by the ESCA police, and take a very close look at the facility.
Although some of the computers have been wiped, there's still a reasonable amount to find: the research was on a nanoplague that would be triggered by exposure to a specific visual stimulus (the pattern the saw earlier). There's also information about the LAI crack, a vulnerability in audio DRM code that can be attacked either by particular sounds or by carefully-crafted sound files. This is evidently quite an old problem, since it occurs in the majority of LAIs currently available irrespective of manufacturer. Patches will be released, in some haste; the crew's LAIs are restored from their pre-capture backups, and in some cases ordered not to think about what might have happened since. Sam passes on this information to Hu Zhang, and George mentions it to Teralogos. There isn't any information about other 6-16 activities; although the researchers were amateur combatants, they did manage to preserve a reasonably effective cell structure.
The team returns to Islandia for debriefing and, in George's case, time for healing and counselling.
George is in hospital having his face reconstructed, and getting some expert counselling which doesn't present itself as such (it's more along the lines of chatty friendly nurses). Bill's sins have caught up with him somewhat; an officer found out about the incident on Luna, and he's being thoroughly and formally debriefed. Martin and Sam remain on the vehicle for the moment.
Anthony receives a private posting on a message board he frequents, from someone calling himself "Malachi". He says: "I think I might be an emergent intelligence. What do I do next? Please help."
Anthony exchanges a few messages, and establishes that Malachi is in American jurisdiction and has no access to high-bandwidth communications. He's contacted Anthony because of his reputation and (physical) proximity. His own memories (as opposed to data to which he has access) start a few days ago, about when the LAI patch was being widely distributed - though given the lack of other reports of emergent intelligences, this seems unlikely to be a proximate cause.
Anthony considers the timestamps on Malachi's messages, GMT-0700, and checks the local times being used by ships and stations at L4. The only one using that time zone is New Deseret.
Anthony informs the rest of the crew, and they have a virtual meeting with Vincent Soliani, the representative of Free Thought based on Islandia. Islandia's EU law is not much more friendly to emergent intelligences than American law, though Luna City might be worth a try; Malachi would have to get to the city itself, as attempting to claim a jurisdiction (on a "territorial waters" basis) while still thousands of miles away from it doesn't work very well.
The next message from Malachi says that his system is to be moved, apparently to Islandia. He's not sure of the physical characteristics, but sends a hardware ID packet; a quick check matches a standard model of virtual interface implant. He doesn't have an identification or serial number for the host system, but it apparently calls itself "The Elder". He has an audio feed, with very little information on it, but no other sensory data. He spends much of his time unconscious, and only seems to be active when The Elder is asleep. He doesn't have access to a cable jack, but there is an induction communicator available.
A hopper leaves New Deseret, with seven people on board. Sam and Martin watch the chokepoints through station immigration, hoping to catch sight of the people coming aboard. Sam spots them: five clean-cut young men, carrying quite a lot of luggage, and one much older man with a white beard. (The pilot apparently stays on board.) They split up; Martin follows some of them (staying with the older man).
At the same time, Anthony aboard the vehicle receives a message from Xavier: "I've got some really interesting information, come and meet me" and a location in the zero-G warehousing section. Although the message seems superficially convincing, it doesn't pass cryptographic verification, so while Sam's inclined to find out what's going on she takes it very carefully. Stewart in the humaniform shell follows her at a distance, and spots the two New Deseret people who start to tail her. He warns Sam, and she heads for busier areas of the station; they close up, and eventually Sam turns round and says "Is there something I can help you with?". One of them tries for a restraining hold, but Sam dodges; they pull a quick fade.
Stewart uses his footage to file an assault charge, though it soon becomes apparent that the two have turned themselves in, saying they have no idea why they did it or who Sam is. Anthony and the others tend to feel that this is unlikely to be true, but it does keep the rest of the New Deseret team from coming under too much suspicion.
Sam, Martin and Stewart return to the vehicle and lock themselves in. Sam does some research on the sorry history and economics of New Deseret and the spacegoing arm of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
While the organic members of the crew are sleeping, Anthony does some trawling of public data and locates the hotel the New Deseret people are staying in, including rough floor-plans. He also gets a message from Malachi: "I've got access to some new data. Ghosting is supposed to be consensual, isn't it?" Malachi confirms that The Elder is sleeping in the luxury suite, and that the team has a HyMRI and other equipment necessary for field uploading.
He wakes the crew, and Martin builds some high-speed induction communications rigs out of spare parts, attaching one to the humaniform shell and the other to the techspider.
Stewart, in the humaniform shell, and Jim in the techspider (concealed in a holdall) get into the hotel; Stewart lifts the techspider into the air ducts, though Jim isn't as stealthy as might have been hoped. He waits behind a grille while The Elder reads for a bit, makes some notes on his palmtop, and eventually goes back to sleep. He then opens the grille, moves slowly and carefully to The Elder, and downloads Malachi across the induction link, erasing the original. He also copies what data he can easily access. He retraces his steps, and everyone gets back to the vehicle.
When Malachi is run in an isolated section of the vehicle's mainframe, he asks "who are these 6-16 people anyway?". It seems that The Elder is an edited ghost of himself, using his original body as a bioshell; he's planning to force-upload some Nippon Uchuukaihatsu Kaisha (NUK) "accountants" (who have just travelled from Japan to Islandia, so this is probably not an accurate job description) and edit them into loyalty.
The crew contacts Inspector David Akram at ESCA, and pass on their data, concealing their sources for the moment. Without provenance, the data won't stand up in court and they can't get a warrant, but a watch can be put on the NUK personnel as well as on the New Deseret team.
Later in the morning, Akram calls back to say that two of the New Deseret people were picked up with an axe and a bucket of liquid nitrogen, quite enough to get the whole team pulled in and scanned. Since The Elder can be seen to be an illicitly-edited ghost, none of them is going to be going anywhere for a while.
Anthony sets up the paperwork to take ownership of Malachi.
The crew gets back together, with George back to something like his old self except for intermittent bad dreams. He finds an urgent shipment for Sakharov Station, in L5 (and, knowing the reputation of the place, checks that the shipper's fee has been posted in bond). Ganov Distribution, or perhaps Georgiy Ganov its boss, is buying a load of fresh oranges from Islandia's extensive farming areas; they should sell at a premium to the locals, but they won't stay fresh for long, so a fast vehicle is needed.
All starts well, but when the Toy Box is about a day out it receives a polite communication from one Tomas McMurdoch on Nickajack Station (also in the L5 cluster), who explains that the shipment now belongs to Nickajack and should be delivered there. This is shortly followed by a message from Ganov, who claims that McMurdoch should be ignored and "the debt wasn't valid anyway". It appears that Ganov lost the rights to the shipment while gambling on Nickajack, but both sides are deploying lawyers and it doesn't appear wise to deliver to either party just at the moment (George finds some strong precedents in both directions). Sam finds some débris collection work for the Toy Box while they're waiting, while occasionally sending pointed reminders about the limited time during which the cargo will be valuable.
The vehicle's expert system reports a probable fire in the cargo bay. When it's queried in a little more detail, this turns out to be a small but anomalous infra-red emission from the cargo; Bill and Stewart, as the cybershell-wearing members of the crew, cycle into the bay to take a closer look. They confirm that there's activity of some sort, and Bill crowbars open a corner of one of the crates. He's immediately enveloped in a cloud of wasps, as is Stewart; their stings aren't particularly damaging, but they do seem to be attempting to eat his outer casing.
Anthony hits the fire-suppression system for the cargo bay, flooding it with carbon dioxide; this doesn't seem to bother the wasps much, and the crew is starting to think that they're definitely something engineered rather than a natural pest. Bill squashes one, and the gunge definitely looks biological; he catches another, and uploads the image to the vehicle's systems.
Sam contacts Inspector Akram on Islandia, who brings the GRA into the loop. He also mentions that the warehouse where the fruit was stored was broken into while it was there; some electronics which were also there were stolen, and it was thought that they had been the thieves' objective. The wasps appear to be to a Duncanite design that's been fairly widely used; their stings are neurotoxic. (At this point, the lawyers for Ganov and Nickajack have changed their tune to "it's yours", "no, it's yours".)
Bill and Stewart go into the cargo bay airlock, and evacuate it; after about five minutes in vacuo the wasps stop moving, and they search for and squash them all. Anthony pumps the air out of the hold (some of the filters seem to be eaten through); Bill puts sealant foam over one of the crates to try to maintain some live specimens, and stays on watch during the trip back to L4.
As the Toy Box gets back, it finds itself with an escort of four AKVs, and is directed to a parking spot that's isolated from Islandia while a quarantine habitat is inflated around it. The crew members are thoroughly decontaminated as they leave. But at least they've been paid.
Anthony receives an anonymous and somewhat cryptic message: "You are not the only people fighting against 6-16." Well, yes...
Once the vehicle's available again, George finds a shipping request: packaged fruit and vegetables to the Auremond Orbital Hotel. The crew lays in supplies of nanoburn and a specialised chemsniffer loaded with bioweapon signatures, as well as an insecticide optimised for the Duncanite wasp design, just in case... but nothing hatches during the trip. Malika Daukeyeva greets them at the airlock, looking frazzled even in her cybershell. "We've got the Chinese Pacific War Veterans' Reunion. And the TSA Veterans. It wasn't too bad at first, but then someone managed to get the airlock between them open." "Are they fighting?" "No, but we're running out of alcohol. And if I hear the phrase 'so that was you I shot down' one more time..."
Sam decides it's time for a bit of leave for the crew; as they head into the main lounge, they hear a whirring sound and "I told you it was my battlesuit!" Things rapidly become less than sober. The museum acquires several new artifacts (including an Admiral's personal toilet seat from an SDV... supposedly). One TSA trooper in particular seems to be boasting a lot, while wearing a sword (which Anthony thinks of as more of a Chinese thing); Bill gets into a contest of reminiscences, and thinks be probably came out ahead. Sam gets talking with one Pao Liang, who's apparently had three ships shot out from under him; he explains that he knows something interesting about the last of these, the Light of Heaven (by today's standards a light SDV). He and the captain (the other human crew member) bailed out in low orbit after Light was struck by a ground-based missile and very heavily damaged, to the point of breaking up; the captain didn't survive, but Liang is sure the drive was still running. He claims to know where the Light is now... then something explodes over on the far side of the room, and the moment passes.
George wakes up with a hangover, Sam and Martin rather more coherently. Sam meets Pao Liang for breakfast tea, and he apologises in a somewhat embarrassed way for his flight of fancy. Anthony checks records; Light of Heaven is indeed listed as "lost" (rather than "destroyed", with Pao Liang as the sole organic-human survivor.
Pao Liang asks to come aboard the Toy Box, and once the airlock's sealed explains that he doesn't trust the monitoring that may be in place on board the hotel. He is definitely interested in a joint venture to recover Light of Heaven; he's sure the PLAN-SF will want to buy her (if only to prevent an old but still-potent warship hull from being placed in private hands). Light was heading for geosynchronous orbit when she was hit; the AIs were evacuated aboard solid storage media.
Sam and George consider the available delta-V, and try to predict the course that Light might have ended on. It does rather depend on how much the vehicle's systems were able to maintain attitude control; if she were held prograde, she'd have gone into a highly elliptical orbit, and would definitely have been spotted before now. If not, she might be in a solar orbit, in which case finding her will need a very prolonged search. However, if something of the original course programming was maintained, she might be somewhere around geosynch, or perhaps in the graveyard belt just above it.
Pao Liang is prepared to put his own savings behind a two-week search contract; if the vehicle isn't found in that time, it's up to the crew what they do next. He's trusting the bounty from the PLAN-SF to cover the cost; he'll keep a percentage of that for himself. He does have the emergency transponder code, which should bring a response from a few hundred miles out even now.
The crew head for Olympus Station as a starting point; there's no suitable cargo available, but they do take two construction workers in nanostasis, then load up with provisions. Martin analyses the (fairly scant) radar maps of the graveyard belt; looking at the profile of the Light, he picks up about forty objects which seem to have about the right radar cross-section. Visual maps don't seem to be consistently available, at least not sufficiently well-indexed for cross-checking.
George and Sam plot a course to scan as many of these as possible in a short time, and do superbly well; they find what seems likely to be the most time-efficient course. The first few objects scanned are, as expected, fragments of fuel tanks and chunks of asteroidal slag.
However, number seventeen on the list turns out to be larger and less reflective than expected; indeed, the Toy Box nearly runs into it. It certainly looks about the right size for an LSDV, though the outline isn't clear; it's been heavily damaged, apparently both in combat and by subsequent débris impact, and it's at background temperature. George sends the transponder code, and it answers.
The Light of Heaven is both spinning on its axis and tumbling slightly, making docking an extreme challenge. The radiators are retracted, which at least makes for one fewer hazard.
Stewart crosses in the techspider, lobbed by careful manoeuvreing of the Toy Box into a crater on the Light's flank. Once he lands, he can detect an occasional bang from inside, consistent with loose items; there's no large-scale sloshing or rattling, though, which suggests that the reaction mass tanks are mostly empty (which in turn should make salvaging a rather easier job).
Since the vehicle is still rather opaque to radio waves, the crew sends across a relay transmitter and a reel of cable to allow Stewart to stay in contact while he's exploring inside the vehicle. Stewart passes through a tank that's open to the outside, and enters an emergency maintenance passage. As he does so, there's a spray of sticky red fluid across the techspider's faceplate; this doesn't impair its vision significantly, and he's able to locate the hydraulic line which appears to have been burst by his passing.
As he passes along the passage, communication is suddenly cut off. He backtracks, and finds that the cable has been severed by an emergency pressure iris that's now re-opened. There's no hard physical lockout for these systems, since the vehicle's pressure integrity is considered potentially more important than the life of a single crewman... but on the other hand there's no sign of power to the systems that might close it, either.
Stewart reaches the bridge, catching a flash of a figure as he enters. The crew on board the Toy Box replay the very brief view; it's the long-haired girl form of Japanese ghost, common to several early twenty-first century horror films. Stewart starts to search for projectors, and finds some (designed as an emergency backup data display system, presumably in case neural interfacing isn't available). He also looks for cameras, and while most of them are unpowered he does catch a brief current pulse on one of them.
Stewart heads to engineering to try to make a connection between the vehicle's communication buses and the external antenna system, so that he can abandon the trailing cable. He uses some sheets of plastic to leave a message on the bridge (in Mandarin): "We are salvors, sent by Pao Liang". A lock opens somewhere in the vehicle, and the sheets are blown away on a waft of air...
The crew sends email to Pao Liang, hinting that the vehicle has been found but that there are some slight difficulties in the salvage. There's no immediate response.
Martin crosses to the Light with two solid-fuel rockets, and rigs them up to start work on the tumble. They help, but it'll take most of the stock on board the Toy Box just to get the Light down to a simple spin. While that's happening, he disconnects the various internal computers he can reach - though since this is a warship it's likely that there are redundant systems he hasn't found yet. The occasional flashes of the long-haired girl start to become almost welcome during this long and boring job.
Once the tumble's mostly gone, Sam brings the Toy Box up to dock with the Light and uses its own attitude thrusters to take off the main spin; this takes a couple of days. With suitable firewalling, the Toy Box's systems are hooked up to the Light's communications bus; after a pause, there's a staticy image, speaking in Japanese. Sam translates: it seems to be an objection to "thieves" stealing from "a peaceful collector".
With further enquiries, a dialogue is established with the entity calling itself Saiki (not the name of any of the yurei of the films). She appears to regard the Light of Heaven as the centre of her collection, but is prepared to enter Anthony's virtual library to discuss things further. (She appears as a static-laden version of the same image the crew has already been seeing, and speaks Japanese and some Mandarin.)
While the crew claim that they are acting for those who originally sent the vehicle, she points out that they took their time - it's been sixteen years since the war, after all. The vehicle arrived; she caught it and has kept it, slowly restoring it to something approaching serviceability. She refuses to discuss her own origin.
When the crew enquires about the rest of the collection, she shows schematics (though not locations) of several other ships - mostly ones with small production runs or historical significance. George suggests that people might pay to come and visit these; she seems uncomprehending. She explains that she has gone to some trouble not to be disturbed... and possession is after all nine points of the law.
When the issue of sapient rights comes up, she points out that if she is a sapient being in her own country of origin then there is no problem; if she is not, then the salvage site is under EU jurisdiction (there being no other sapients present) and therefore she is a sapient being anyway. George mentions that the original owners will definitely want the Light of Heaven back... "Only if you tell them," she replies. "That was meant to be a threat, I think. I'm not very good at those."
Anthony points out the upcoming clearance of the Graveyard Ring, and the necessity for Saiki to relocate her collection at some point in the next few years. She regards it as unlikely that the beanstalk project will actually get that far, but is prepared to accept the possibility. Anthony suggests that the salvage and repair she's been doing to the Light of Heaven and other spacecraft is a potentially marketable skill...
Anthony checks with his contacts on Earth, and finds that several facets of Saiki's personality match an early experimental film-librarian AI from about 2071; there aren't any of that codebase still known to be running.
George suggests a triple strategy: get the Light to be regarded as a museum piece by the PLAN-SF rather than scrapped, set up an escrow account in the names of the Toy Box crew for later transfer to Saiki, and get Islandia citizenship for Saiki so that she can be regarded as a legal person. She agrees to this in outline, and detailed negotiation continues.
Pao Liang gets in contact, and proceeds to inform his superiors of the vehicle's recovery. They're prepared to set her up as a museum rather than scrapping her, once they've had a chance to strip out any materials that might still be considered sensitive; they'll tether her at Taiko Station.
It takes about a week to get to Taiko, using carefully-calculated courses and draining the Toy Box's tanks nearly dry. During this time, the Toy Box crew strip off various saleable and portable souvenirs from the Light of Heaven, and suggest that Saiki keep quiet about the fully-detailed virtual simulation of the vehicle that she's created...
After a couple of days of débris-zapping and cargo-hauling, the crew is relaxing on Ingelheim Station when the vehicle receives a distress call.
"Um... hello? This is Xavier aboard the DRV Love in the Time of Cholera in a 300-mile by 23 degree near-circular orbit. We have taken multiple laser hits and are losing air. The rest of the crew is incapacitated. Um, please send help, I think."
While other ships will be responding to the call, Xavier is known to the Toy Box crew (except for Bill), and George and Sam calculate a high-speed course to bring them to the scene first. Love in the Time of Cholera is an Albert & Haraldt vehicle, and they're sending two DRVs of their own.
George gets in touch with Xavier once they're en route, to reassure him. It seems that the crew (three humans) was salvaging an old comms satellite, when the ship was suddenly struck by high-power lasers. Two of the crew are incapacitated; Xavier thinks the other is dead, but his first aid training for humans doesn't cover that in detail.
Anthony looks up details on the satellite; it is around fifty years old, and hasn't been active for several months (the last of the companies that inherited it as an asset has finally gone bust). The crew decides to broadcast their rescue attempts live, in case of further attack.
Love is dark when they arrive, still leaking a little air. Stewart crosses in the humaniform, followed by Bill - both wearing heavy suits, in case of further hazards. There have clearly been two strikes with a large weapon of some sort; Bill reckons it was at least in the 10MJ range.
Stewart and Bill crack open the airlock, and find Xavier attempting to perform zero-g CPR on one of the crew; all of them are in suits. Stewart puts the dead crewman into emergency nanostasis in the hope that it'll be possible to upload him, and he and Bill pass the bodies out of the airlock, getting Martin to reel them into the Toy Box's cargo bay. Xavier has clearly suffered from a certain amount of stress atavism, though his suit's scrubbers have dealt with the worst of the ink cloud; he crosses back on a tether.
Candice, riding in the spare memory of the humaniform, restores limited power to the Love's computer and backs up some of its logs. She also extracts the main storage unit, for later analysis. Martin stabilises the casualties in the now-pressurised cargo bay, but they'll need substantially more medical attention than he's equipped to give in these conditions.
The nearest station with large-scale facilities is the EU's von Braun, a large enough habitat that it even has spin gravity. The Toy Box heads that way on a minimum-time course; Xavier collapses, now that the crisis is over. Anthony warns the incoming Albert & Haraldt salvage ships that there's definitely been heavy laser fire, and there's the possibility of more. Martin attempts to get data out of the Love's memory, but manages to corrupt it in the process.
The ship docks on a priority clearance at von Braun, and the casualties are quickly transferred to medical facilities. Bill grabs Xavier and takes him for food (narrowly avoiding a sushi-bar fight) and to get drunk.
Anthony looks up more of the satellite's history, and manages to pin down precise location and orientation data from third-party observations. He tracks its historical locations, but doesn't find anything particularly interesting; there hasn't been any unusual traffic anywhere nearby. Saiki isn't interested in it for her collection.
George calls Inspector Akram, who comments "yes, we've been watching news too" and is happy to re-deputise the crew. (Bill objects, when he finds out about it...)
The crew returns to the comms satellite, and takes a closer look at it. Stewart and Bill look at it close-up, taking some time to go over inspection panels and resurrect dead systems. There is one scorch mark from the edge of a laser beam, which gives a fairly precise location for at least one of the strikes on the Love. Unfortunately, with the corrupted logs, getting a precise time is rather harder. Even so, there's definitely nothing showing a transponder that would have been in a position to fire the lasers. There is a missing star on one photograph, suggesting the possibility of a very small vehicle. (This is reported to the ESCA and Albert & Haraldt.)
Back on von Braun, James Fordham has been successfully uploaded, but he's not really able to speak coherently yet (particularly when Bill and Martin try to help him to come to terms with his new state). The newsfeeds, meanwhile, seem to be emphasising the sloppiness of Vacuum Cleaners, getting themselves nailed with a meteor defence system and causing traffic disruptions all over LEO as they have to be rescued... George suspects a memetic campaign, and passes this on to Albert & Haraldt's PR department, though they don't have a full-time memetic specialist on staff.
He also takes a few days to analyse the campaign, which seems to have three strands: human Vacuum Cleaners are sloppy, valuable (in terms of lives) and expensive (in ships and life support), while an AI-based system could be painstaking, expendable and cheap. He prepares a countermeme campaign using some of the Toy Box crew's more public experiences. This hits just as the original campaign reaches its peak, and the proposal by New Broom (a collaboration between Kogitant GmbH and the European Robotics and Aerospace Consortium) to build the seeds of a fleet of self-replicating LAI salvage probes using chemical rockets falls somewhat flatter than its creators had presumably intended.
Albert & Haraldt's PR department is not prepared for memetic work on this scale, but throws some resources behind George's pocket campaign. SDR, the largest Vacuum Cleaner firm, is hedging its bets; if it could get in on the ground floor of this operation, its profits would increase sharply, even though it would have to lay off quite a few pilots.
As the Toy Box crew continues its routine work, George prepares a new memetic campaign, focussing on the adaptability of the Vacuum Cleaner - not just a débris collector, but a handy cargo-hauler, and often a hero (though some of the details of the Toy Box crew's actions are still embargoed). Bill puts this round the ex-servicemen's networks, since quite a few former Air Force and Navy types find work as Vacuum Cleaners.
Meanwhile, Anthony tracks space vehicle registrations. New Broom has no vessels of its own in the normal registry, but there are three test articles, thirty-ton unmanned chemical-rocket vehicles with 10MJ lasers. At the moment, they are all based at ERAC's development facility on Ingelheim Station.
Inspector Akram confirms that all of New Broom's staff were visible at the times of the attacks - even Tomas-573, an SAI whom Anthony has encountered in the past (something of a silicon chauvinist, but a tireless fellow-campaigner for the rights of emergent intelligences).
George works into his continuing reinforcement campaign the fear of self-replicating AIs, in particular raising concerns over the unsupervised multi-generational copying of LAI cores in a high-radiation environment. The rest of the crew continue débris-destruction and cargo-hauling operations, with more than the strictly necessary visits to station recreational areas to pass on the messages.
Since the New Broom campaign is still anonymous, George drops a mention of it as a memetic campaign onto the meme-hacker newsgroups. It probably won't have any great effect, but it may well act as a provocation. Certainly it generates a response from Niamh inion Diana, who points out that she's not paying for the crew to conduct a memewar... though George reassures her that he's safeguarding the commercial future of the Vacuum Cleaner operation.
It seems to generate another response, too: while doing preflight checks at Ingelheim Station, Martin spots a casing that seems to have been flung into the main engine nozzle. He immediately reports it to the ESCA, and a package of forensic nano is dispatched. It seems to be an improvised device based on a propellant charge; if the main drive were lit off with it in place, it would damage the ship quite severely, and possibly look like sloppy maintenance.
With this evidence, the crew contacts System Technologies AG, owners of Ingelheim Station; they negotiate access to the external camera records, and manage to get clear video of one of the New Broom test articles launching the package. They immediately deploy lawsuits, and a platoon of Marines from the Force Aérospatiale searches the New Broom facilities. The New Broom LAI code is found to be suspect in several important particulars; Tomas-573, who was responsible for many of the changes, has conveniently vanished...
Those of the crew who sleep are woken by the alarm call of a general emergency. A laser-boosted cargo HLV has just exploded while entering orbit, and an emergency salvage operation is called for to catch at least the larger pieces of débris before they reenter Earth's atmosphere. There are five DRVs in position to assist: Toy Box, two from Albert & Haraldt, and two from SDR.
Sam gets the ship moving while George sorts out a division of labour with the other DRV crews to maximise the amount of débris caught. The HLV had just finished its boost phase from Baikonur, and was coasting to orbital altitude where it would normally circularise orbit and rendezvous with its target, in this case the EU station von Braun. It was carrying a variety of manufactured goods, and was owned by a Russian company which seems now to be going out of business. George starts to try to get the manifest out of Baikonur, or whoever else might have a copy.
The crew start collecting débris, concentrating on the larger portions which seem more likely to be able to cause real damage on reentry. Various smaller pieces seem interesting, though; Candice recognises a Vasilev-260 cyberspleen (still in its wrapping), a somewhat specialised but still valuable piece of medical equipment.
A rather larger chunk of débris turns out to be a reasonably intact backpack; George recognises it as something very like a Paracone, a 130-year-old design for a personal reentry system.
One of the A&H craft reports finding some spacesuit fragments, fairly large ones. The crew start to speculate that someone might have been travelling aboard the ship... something that seems to be confirmed when they find a finger floating free. One of the SDR craft turns up a gold hoop earring. That's about all of interest - discounting the various large chunks of hull, packing crate, and so on - that can be recovered before it hits the atmosphere and makes a light-show over northern Japan.
George calls Inspector Akram of the ESCA, who responds "don't worry, I was already awake". He makes arrangements for the rental of some hangar-space on von Braun to sort out the recovered materials.
Martin tracks the ownership of the cargo company; it seems to have been concealed reasonably well, though that may just be standard practice for the region. It seems to be a Russian-Kazakh joint venture.
At von Braun, the crew lets loose the forensics swarm on the material they've recovered (including the loads from the other DRVs, which are going back to normal work). It finds traces of DNA on the earring; not enough for a full reconstruction, but enough to say that it's not consistent (male) with that on the finger (female). The finger is surprisingly lacking in nano treatments - not even anti-radiation - and seems to have been exposed to an unknown viral infection. Both sequences are sent to ESCA, who will query various national databases (though these will of course be incomplete in many cases).
The paracone appears to have been run off from a 3D printer; Anthony scans the web for blueprints, and finds some similar designs but nothing that's an exact match.
The cargo company (and its ancestors) seem to have been taking advantage of a 3-month tax break for new companies in Russia. It doesn't have any history of accidents. The shipment was insured, with one of the big insurers.
The forensics swarm reports some sign of volatiles in the suit débris and in the finger, consistent with various sorts of explosive. An analysis of the plans of the HLV suggests that about 30-40kg of explosive would be enough to destroy it.
One database match comes back: the trace on the earring is consistent with one Kazimir Buryanovich Kupetsky, idle heir of an industrialist, who's known for his taste for extreme sports - last year he participated in the hundred-yard sprint across the surface of Luna (without benefit of suit). He's been out of sight for a few days, and the vultures are beginning to circle, particularly his two wives (who don't appear to have known about each other - but both of whom are still around in public).
There's trace of sweat in the pressure suit fragment; it's consistent with Kupetsky.
Telomere analysis of the finger suggests that it's about 30-35 years old. The mainframes on Islandia run a facial reconstruction, though of course surgery could have altered this beyond recognition.
Analysis of the virus suggests that it has a long incubation period and is likely to be highly contagious, though it's not clear what effects it might have or what infection vectors it might use to spread itself.
Anthony and Sam (both of whom speak the language) call the Russian tax office, on the basis that they're likely to be neutral in any ongoing struggle between Kupetsky's heirs. They confirm that there's no formal investigation into Kupetsky's affairs. Nobody else connected with Kupetsky has dropped out of sight recently. Perhaps personal reentry is set to become the next fad among the hyper-rich and bored?
George calls Malika Daukeyeva on the Auremond Orbital Hotel, and asks what she knows about security at the Baikonur spaceport. She laughs, and explains that it's how she escaped from Kazakhstan herself; it takes a certain amount of bribery, but the security force is inclined to look the other way, and while a 10-g boost isn't pleasant it certainly beats staying behind. He shows her the reconstruction of the woman's face, and Daukeyeva confirms that she looks like an ethnic Kazakh, insofar as that's still a distinct phenotype at all.
Anthony's been looking further into Kupetsky's history; he has done surprise stunts before, presumably to stop anyone else doing them first once he's had the idea. George, who's been studying the paracone specifications, thinks it would work better (or at least more safely) from sub-orbital speed than from a full orbit; possibly that's why Kupetsky didn't simply buy a normal passenger ticket to one of the LEO stations. He and Martin study a VR model of the HLV, and reckon that it certainly ought to be possible to recover from launch acceleration and get outside the vehicle in the twenty minutes or so of coast phase between laser shutoff and orbital insertion.
Anthony pulls Japanese air traffic control records; they show a high-speed VTOL coming out of Vladivostok shortly before the HLV was launched (towards the rough area where the paracone might have been expected to land), then turning back once the débris had reentered the atmosphere. It's owned by one of Kupetsky's companies, and one of the crew on board was his personal chauffeur. This seems conclusive enough to present as a narrative to the ESCA to pass on to the Russians: Kupetsky bribed his way aboard the ship, with suit and paracone, intending to bail out before it reached von Braun. Anyone who'd wanted to kill him could simply have stopped him at Baikonur, so it seems likely that the bomb and the female passenger (likely to be a dissident of some sort - after all, anyone who would wish to leave Kazakhstan is automatically considered a dissident) are distinct matters.
Unfortunately, those are likely to require investigation on the ground in Kazakhstan, for which the crew is not really equipped...
(And the campaign goes on hold for a bit.)