When the evacuation tug docked, the asteroid squatters staged a sit-in that rapidly turned into a shoving match. Elfrida heard what they were screaming. Something about a missing child. She pushed off and flew through the cargo bay airlock, cartwheeling into the Staten Island-sized interior of 2974 Kreuset. Salvage bots clambered over the walls of the lopsided cylinder, gnawing at the remnants of farmhouses built, as if to last a thousand years, from the iron-rich rock of the asteroid itself. Here and there, limp bags of woolly-coated flesh drifted on lifeless trajectories. Elfrida dug into her suit’s telemetry monitoring suite and turned on the infrared scanner. She flew back and forth in long zig-zags, ignoring false hits from the dead sheep, until the scanner locked onto a static heat source.
She switched on the gecko grips in the soles of her boots and scrambled along a quaint cobbled street. Bots with chainsaw attachments felled trees and obsessively hopped around grabbing the splinters out of the air. Everything could be recycled.
The scanner led her into a shattered hothouse. Tomatoes had exploded when the asteroid was depressurized, filming the heating elements with gory pulp. Was this all she’d picked up? Blip, blip. Overlapping rubber sheets formed a primitive airlock, sealing off a canister that she’d taken for a water tank. Through the semi-transparent rubber, a small boy stared at her. He held a dead lamb on his lap. His lips were blue.
“Aiyah! I’m proud of him,” the boy’s father said when the blue berets had rescued the child. “If we’re ever attacked, I said, you haul ass to the panic room. And that’s what he done.” The moon-faced, etiolated man glared at her.
Elfrida did not point out what the man surely knew, that his son had almost died. There had not been enough air in that so-called panic room even to last one boy and one sheep a day. But the child had recovered in the rescue pod and asked her, “Why did they take our air, Miz? Why’d they kill our livestock ‘n’ everything?”
She offered the father a grown-up version of what she’d told the son. “This wasn’t an attack, sir, and I have to warn you that UN libel laws will apply if you post any such claims on the internet. This asteroid was acquired in 2281 by the United Nations Venus Remediation Project, and you were offered resettlement assistance at that time. If you had accepted, none of this would have been necessary.”
A dead sheep fell towards their heads, having drifted through the airlock with the rescue pod. Both of them watched it until a blue beret blasted it away with his Sig Sauer. The explosion undermined Elfrida’s pre-packaged spiel, inadvertently making the point that they were in a legal grey zone. Under normal circumstances, firing a gun inside an asteroid would be a felony.
“I’m sorry,” she blurted.
Contempt tinged the rage on the squatter’s face. He reached out and prodded her cheek. “You alive in there? Or are you just one of them ching-ching new roboslaves?”
Elfrida kept her smile in place, thinking: Busted.
The roboslave that Elfrida was using was actually old and buggy. It lived on board the recycling barge Kharbage Can and was signed out as necessary to UN liaison agents like her. It had a geminoid-class face, styled as a motherly white female, but below the neck it was just a spacesuit with a bunch of actuators and microfiber muscles inside, identical to a million other bots. Elfrida thought of these interchangeable phavatars in the singular as ‘the suit.’ She was six hundred thousand miles away from 2974 Kreuset, reclining on an ergonomic foam couch in a dark cubicle, a gel mask over her face, limbs twitching.
Back on the asteroid, the Kharbage Can’s captain asked, “Wanna ride her down?”
The squatters had all been herded aboard the barge, still complaining about their human rights. Now the blue berets were unloading the green slime. Kegs stamped with PROPERTY OF THE UNITED NATIONS tumbled through the cargo bay in a slow-motion blizzard. When the roboslaves finished salvaging the recyclables, they would slosh this sludge of gengineered microbes around the asteroid’s interior. It would accompany 2974 Kreuset to its final destination, turning the asteroid into a biological bomb.
“No,” Elfrida said to the captain, holding his gaze unblinkingly. This was easy for the suit to do. “I don’t want to ride her down.”
“Ah, well. I’ve always thought it’d be quite the experience. To boldly go where no man has gone before …” The captain laughed, turned away.
“Sir, that’s discriminatory language,” Elfrida called after him. She was looking out for him. Someone else might have said nothing and filed a complaint.
Not that he appreciated it. “Thanks for pointing that out, Agent. It’s actually a classic movie quote. You can clock off any time. I’m sure you’ve got things to do back on Botticelli.”
What a joke. Botticelli Station, the largest manmade object in orbit around Venus, was only a fraction the size of 2974 Kreuset. When Elfrida exited the telepresence cubicle, she had to walk a mere hundred metres (wobbling and banging into the walls, as her inner ear readjusted from 2974 Kreuset’s 0.1 gees to Botticelli’s coriolis-tainted artificial gravity, and her eyes relearned how to unsee the upward curve of the passage) until she reached the crew lounge. This was the only place in the station to hang out IRL, unless you fancied staring at the walls of your cabin, six inches from your nose. Most of the crew chose to spend their downtime in immersive virtual worlds, surfacing only for work and chow. After six months on-station, Elfrida still occasionally bumped into people she’d never laid eyes on before, lemur-eyed ghouls creeping to the head or the vending machines at two in the morning.
It was almost that now. ‘Day’ and ‘night’ might be artificial constructs here, but UNVRP was big on circadian rhythms, so the crew lounge was virtually deserted. Housekeeping bots vacuumed crumbs out of the couches. Elfrida ordered one of them to fetch her a hot chocolate. She flopped down in front of the viewport screen, tired but wired. This job had been a toughie. That poor little kid. Miz, why’d they kill our sheep?
A digitally enhanced realtime image of Venus filled the screen. On the dayside of the terminator, streaky white and beige clouds boiled. Once, Earth’s ‘twin sister’ had been robed in white. Now the planet looked more like a mini-Saturn without the rings. Three decades of targeted asteroid impacts had blown off a significant percentage of its atmosphere. What remained was in constant turmoil as the sulfuric acid in the clouds condensed around microparticulate ejecta and fell towards the surface in scalding showers. Down there beneath the clouds, the heat energy released by the impacts had temporarily compounded the greenhouse effect. But this crucible was a paradise for UNVRP’s Pyrococcus furiosus oxyfera. Viable up to temperatures of 900° Celsius, the microbes devoured CO2 and farted out oxygen. Water would come next, in the form of hydrogen deliveries from Titan scheduled to begin in 2287. And all the time, the dust accumulating in the upper atmosphere nudged Venus deeper into the equivalent of nuclear winter, sliding the needle of Cytherean planetary chemistry ever further from its aeons-long equilibrium.
Before UNVRP started to meddle with the atmosphere, Venus’s sulfuric rainstorms had evaporated and risen right back up again, never touching the surface. But UNVRP had interrupted that cycle, too. The second component of the green slime, another gengineered extremophile charmingly known as an inverse snottite, lived in the clouds and consumed sulfuric acid, sequestering it from the climate system. UNVRP’s most recent published forecast called for patches of the planet’s surface to be visible to the naked eye in another five years. Might be sooner.
Elfrida had joined UNVRP in the hope that she might get to walk on Venus someday before she died. Now she looked forward to reaching the surface while she was still young enough to enjoy it. She was in this for the adventure, not the safety of a public-sector job. She enjoyed the thrill of knowing she was a part of humanity’s ongoing saga of exploration and conquest, plugged into the species’s most primordial drive.
Speaking of primordial drives …Gloria dos Santos had just come into the lounge. Dos Santos was the hottest woman on station, everyone agreed. Blond curls, mischievous dark eyes, and a body that proved female vanity was no bad thing, when it led to hours in the gym maintaining a figure that would be enviable at twenty, never mind forty-something.
Elfrida lifted a casual hand. Dos Santos loped over and stood between her and the screen. “Busy, Goto?”
It was a pro forma question. Elfrida obviously wasn’t busy, and if she had been, it wouldn’t have mattered. The problem—the reason that her lust for Gloria dos Santos would have to remain a secret indulgence—was that dos Santos was her boss.
“Snowed under,” she said, with a languid wave at the screen. “Oh, here’s my cocoa. Can I get you anything?” She meant, can the roboslave?
“Coffee. Black. No sugar.” Dos Santos addressed the roboslave directly, a breach of etiquette, cutting Elfrida out of the loop. Oh, well, she was the boss. “Please,” she added, and the little cylindrical bot moved off on its dry-grip treads with a noise like ripping velcro.
Dos Santos rested a hip on one arm of the couch, then immediately stood up again. She ran her hands through her curls. Elfrida raised her eyebrows.
“What’s your ancestry, Goto?”
“Uh,” Elfrida said, taken aback. “Well, my dad is Japanese. And my mom is Austrian. So, I guess … standard Ameropan mutt?”
“No offense meant,” dos Santos clarified. “I’m sorry I had to ask. But Earth wants to know if I’ve got anyone who can do Japanese.”
“Well, that would be me,” Elfrida said. She sat up straighter. “What’s going on?”
“New job,” dos Santos said. “Guess who’s just put 11073 Galapagos on the market.”
“Uh …” Elfrida was stealthily accessing the station’s database through her contact lenses. 11073 Galapagos. M-type asteroid. A Venus co-orbital. UNVRP candidate rating, based on astronomical survey data: A+. The ownership data had recently been updated … “Kharbage. Who’d a thunk it?”
Dos Santos nodded. “They’re such bastards. Needless to say, New York wants this rock. But we get to make the final call.” Her jaw had a stubborn set. Dos Santos was well known for defending her own authority as field manager. “Trouble is, we’ve got to move fast.”
“Of course,” Elfrida mumbled. She was still reading frantically. The survey data attached to the entry for 11073 Galapagos explained the urgency of the mission. The asteroid was in an unusual horseshoe orbit, a pattern that took 260 years to complete. Right now it was orbiting almost in tandem with Venus, still accelerating. But soon Venus’s gravity would drag it into a higher orbit, where it would gradually fall behind the planet.
In cost-benefit terms, 11073 Galapagos right now was a gimme. A few years from now, that equation would change. So they had very little time to carry out a community impact assessment and decide whether or not the asteroid should be purchased for the Venus Remediation Project.
“Oh,” Elfrida said. “I’m starting to get it.”
“Are you? This won’t be easy, Goto. You’d have an assistant, of course, to help with language issues.”
Elfrida hid a grimace. She didn’t like working with assistants. “I do speak Japanese. I took immersion classes when I was a kid. Of course, that was a while ago,” she added.
Dos Santos didn’t even smile. She drained her coffee and turned her head vaguely, as if looking for somewhere to put her cup down. “They’re trying to pressure us.” It wasn’t clear whether she meant New York or Kharbage LLC, the current owners of the asteroid. Or both. “This’ll have to be a quick decision, there’s no way around that. But I want it to be a good decision.”
The housekeeping bot trundled up and elevated its flat upper surface to serve as a tray. It waited. Dos Santos noticed it and placed her empty cup on the tray. “Thanks,” she said.
The roboslave emitted a cheerful little toot. Dos Santos smiled. Elfrida reflexively mimicked her expression, although she had found the interruption irritating.
“I’ll do it,” she said. “When do I start?
Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter of THE GALAPAGOS INCIDENT!
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