Glory dos Santos had spent a good deal of time since their rescue wondering how she could get around Captain Okoli’s comms ban. She still hadn’t found a safe hack, but now she had no option but to try an unsafe one.
While Elfrida Goto was carried away on a stretcher, she climbed down to the main vestibule and summoned the elevator from its hangout at the end of the propellor arm.
There was only one bodybuilder in there now, a musclebound freak named Lomax who flew one of the Superlifters.
“You do karate? Kung fu?” he said.
“Fencing,” Glory said. “I practised aikido for a while when I was stationed on Callisto.”
“Give you a bout.”
“Mixed martial arts? You got suicidal ideations?”
From near-Earth gravity, to zero-g, and back to near-Earth gravity again, all within the space of three minutes. This ship could make you sick even if you weren’t recovering from radiation poisoning.
Glory paced through the empty corridors of the passenger module. Untold thousands of human cargo units, as the manifests charmingly described them, had left scratches on the plastisteel walls, tears in the foam bumpers that protected the corners, and multilingual graffiti on any surface that would take ink. They had also pulled off the cover of the emergency radio on the lowest deck. The radio itself looked like someone had repeatedly hammered it with a blunt instrument. At first glance it appeared inoperable. However, Glory knew better.
She used a spatula from the nearby galley to lever off the destroyed housing, exposing a mess of wires. Selecting the main I/O fiber, she snuggled its end gingerly into the tiny port hidden in her hair above her left ear.
Her EEG signalling crystals were useless on the Can, since she couldn’t get past Okoli’s security to access the hub. So she had to resort to a direct electrical link between the radio and her BCI, the powerful little computer implanted in her head.
Generations of humans had dreamed of uploading their personalities to the cloud, achieving godlike powers of mentation and de facto immortality. That dream remained distant, in terms of both theory and technical feasibility. But brain-computer interfaces were old hat by now, and neural augmentation products had been eagerly taken up by cutting-edge consumers, of whom Glory was one. Her BCI violated no laws, and in fact counted as a plus on her resume.
The contents of its embedded memory crystal were decidedly illegal.
They included her precious list of iris-scanner hacking codes, and also a protocol for breaking into a dedicated emergency radio like this, destroying its fixed ideas about whom it was permitted to signal, and turning it into the equivalent of an interplanetary telephone.
Nervous, Glory kept her ears open for any IRL noises. Her main concern, of course, was the surveillance cameras. She could only hope that no one was watching the monitors right now.
Ping. Ping. Come on, bocó de mola.
Elfrida Goto had been stupid to voice her concerns about the integrity of Kharbage LLC where the surveillance system could see and hear her. Glory, horrified by the girl’s indiscretion, had dialed back her own reaction, not wishing to dignify Goto’s fears by appearing to take them seriously. She hoped that Captain Okoli, if he’d overheard, had likewise dismissed Goto’s conspiracy theory as a side effect of the traumas she’d experienced. After all, he could be pretty sure it wasn’t true.
As was Glory.
“Come on, come on,” she whispered.
Ping. Ping. “Hey there! Dr. Abdullah Hasselblatter is playing quidditch right now! This is his toaster!”
Glory growled under her breath and cut the connection. What a complete fucking débil-mental Hasselblatter was. Screw him and his goddamn quidditch score. He wasn’t the decision-maker, anyway. Just a smiling rad shield for the people who mattered.
She instructed the radio to ping a different ID, knowing that she’d have to wipe the machine when she was done. She couldn’t risk this ID getting into Okoli’s hands.
While she waited, Glory leaned against the wall, examining the palms of her hands. Sturdy old friends, these hands. They had wielded sabers, programmed computers when she was a little girl helping her grandmother with her home-repair business, and grasped the cherry-red jackstand of an overloaded Superlifter to save her life on Callisto. She still had the scars from that day, faint smooth streaks across both palms that partially obliterated the heart and heart lines. She had opted not to have them reconstructed, to remind herself of what had happened on Callisto. Past lovers had admired them and/or sympathized, depending on their ideological leanings. Derek had always said they freaked him out.
Ping. Ping. “Yeah?”
~Derek, Glory subvocalized, knowing that he would hear the expressionless robotic voice of her BCI. ~It’s me; Glory.
~You’ve got a tattoo of a polar bear on the left cheek of your ass.
“Hundreds of women on Luna, and almost as many men, know about that.”
~Thanks for reminding me what a promiscuous asshole you are. Who’re you fucking now? Bet they can’t get their ankles behind their head.
“All right, I’m starting to believe you’re Glory. But give me something else.”
~The stross-class phavatar assigned to the Venus Remediation Project appears to have gone rogue.
“Jesus Christ! You can’t say that on an unencrypted frequency! What the hell are you calling me for, anyway?”
~Couldn’t get hold of Hasselblatter. I need help.
“Yeah, I heard about Botticelli Station. Everyone in the system heard about it. Hang on, I’m just …”
~I don’t have a lot of time here.
“… OK. I just had to get out into the garden. No listening devices out here, that I know of. Are you secure on your end? Where are you, on that recycling beater?”
~Yes, and I escaped the near-destruction of the station with a survivable dose of gamma radiation; thanks for asking. Forty-seven other people weren’t so lucky.
“Oh hell, Glory, you know I can’t do anything about that. I’m just a product developer.”
~This isn’t a fucking game, Derek. I nearly died. And now I’m stuck on a recycling barge with a bunch of blue berets and trekkies, while thirty thousand innocent people are sitting in the crosshairs of a PLAN ninepack.
“Oh, well …”
~That’s why I’m calling you.
“Notify the aggregators,” Derek said after a moment. “Glory dos Santos has gone all touchy-feely.”
~People matter. That’s our first principle, isn’t it? Human lives are the ultimate unit of value.
“Human lives, quality of.”
~Yes, and if one of your phavatars is acting counter to that principle, as it appears to be, we have a problem.
There was another pause. Glory thought she could actually hear crickets. That wasn’t impossible. Derek prided himself on the biodiversity of his garden in a fancy suburb of Shackleton City. It was the kind of place she used to visit as a child with her grandmother, and be told to remove her shoes and keep her grubby fingers off the drapes.
“So,” Derek said reluctantly. “What exactly appears to be the problem with the stross-class?”
~That’s what I hope you’re going to tell me.
“Is it a software or hardware issue? I’d need to take a look at the data dump, either way.”
He just didn’t get it. In his privileged existence on Luna, Derek Lorna, lead developer on the Advanced Machine intelligence program, couldn’t wrap his mind around the idea that one of his babies might be actively causing harm to people. He had the luxury of ideology insulated from reality. It was Glory, out here on the sharp end, who had to reconcile the two.
Suppressing her frustration, she subvocalized, ~The post-mortem can wait. For now, I need information from you.
“What kind of information?”
~I need you to tell me all about the stross-class. Including the hardware specs you didn’t publish. All the easter eggs, all the secret capabilities. And yeah, I already know it’s got superpowered vaginal muscles. For your sake, it better have some useful functions, too.
Elfrida woke up woozy. She had been sedated for her stem cell and platelet transfusions. When she sat up, an IV ripped out of her cubital port, and a medibot bustled into the sickbay, chirping reproofs.
“Go slag yourself,” she muttered. She swung her legs off the bed and sat still until her dizziness passed. She had the familiar, heart-pounding feeling of having overslept and missed something important. She’d been prey to this anxiety her whole life. As a child, she used to make her mother promise to wake her up two hours before she had to go to school. They’d kill time in their bathrobes on the patio, drinking iced tea or hot chocolate, depending on the season, and watching the mongooses hunt beetles under the bushes.
“Mom.” She sagged, overcome by a wave of homesickness.
Snap out of it, Goto! she told herself. PTSD, that’s all this is. A round or two of therapy will take care of that. When this is over.
She felt stronger now, that was the main thing. A bit spacey, thanks to all the meds they’d pumped into her. She stripped off her hospital gown, put on the baggy trousers and tunic that the medibot had left folded at the foot of her bed. She had to find dos Santos.
She poked her head out of sickbay. The corridor was empty. What time was it, anyway? How long had she been out? She didn’t have her contacts in. There was no point, since she couldn’t access the cloud anyway. Thus, she had no way of telling time. Just another fun aspect of Captain Okoli’s information security obsession.
But maybe Okoli had good reason to be obsessed with information security. Maybe he was protecting his company’s role in leaking sensitive astrodata to the PLAN.
I’ll handle everything that needs to be done, dos Santos had said.
What had she meant by that?
Had she acted on Elfrida’s insight that the leak may have come from Kharbage LLC?
Had she been caught (breaking every regulation in sight and maybe a law or three) and subjected to some kind of grisly trekkie punishment?
Elfrida hurried down to the crew mess, hoping to find someone who could tell her what was going on. But no one was there. The viewport screen babbled away, unwatched, about a vid star who’d recently cloned himself. The controversial procedure was still illegal on Earth; the star had had to move to Ganymede in order to get away with it.
The woman officer with the magenta eyebrows shuffled into the mess, yawning. “Hey. Aren’t you supposed to be in sickbay?”
“I got up,” Elfrida said, stating the obvious. “What time is it?”
“About four in the morning. Hey, I remember him. He had a hit track in, like, 2275.”
Oblivious to Elfrida’s anxiety, Magenta Eyebrows shuffled over to the mini-galley built into one corner of the crew lounge. As on Botticelli Station, food and drink was available around the clock. The Can had no helpful domestic bots, however. Magenta Eyebrows banged on the galley hatch. “Hey! Wakey wakey! A cup of minestrone, and I don’t want any of that TVP crap in it.” She glanced back at the screen. “What’s he doing now? … Oh. Cloning himself. Dog alive, I do not understand people.”
“I don’t think it’s that hard to understand,” Elfrida said, shakily. “He wants to live forever. If he can’t, another version of himself will.”
“Oh, I don’t think that’s it. The wannabe-immortals focus on uploading, like that’s ever going to be possible. No, that is simply … vanity. More me, more publicity.”
“Well, I guess it worked. He’s on a major entertainment feed for the first time in ten years.”
Magenta Eyebrows laughed. “Hey, what’s your name, anyway? I’m Alicia Petruzzelli.” She stuck out her hand.
Shaking hands was not customary in UN circles; it was viewed as a micro-aggression. Momentarily thrown, Elfrida gave the woman her hand and felt a strong, dry-skinned squeeze. “Elfrida Goto. Uh, I work for COMLI … Your name is really cool.”
“Don’t know if I’d call it cool. I’m Italian.” Petruzzelli rolled her eyes. “Hence the minestrone, even though this stupid galley never gets it right.”
Petruzzelli’s openness about her heritage took Elfrida’s breath away. Trying to seem worldly, she said, “Italian? I grew up in Rome. Mostly.”
“Not many Italians there anymore,” Petruzzelli said in a dry tone that warned Elfrida this was a sensitive subject. Even on the Can, talk about diversity evidently had its limits. “I grew up ping-ponging between Luna and the Breadbowl.” This was a reference to the inland United States, ravaged by climate change and subsequently geo-engineered into the planet’s most reliable crop-producing region. “A.k.a. the most boring place in the universe. But my parents wanted me to grow up in gravity. So I did, and then I went to work in space. Go figure.”
The galley hatch rose, revealing a wide-nozzled food pouch on a paper doily, and an artificial voice chimed, “Your meal / snack / drink / select one is ready. Hasta la vista, baby! Hur hur hur!”
“Goddamn Cap’n. He reprogrammed it with a bunch of his everlasting quotations, totally screwed it up.” Petruzzelli sucked on the nozzle of the pouch, made a face. “Maybe that’s why the minestrone is crap.”
“That smells really good, actually,” Elfrida said. The rich aroma reminded her that she was hungry. “I think I might have some, too.”
“Go for it.”
They sat side by side, slurping their soup and idly mocking the vid stars, actors, and politicians who capered across the screen. Elfrida tried to tell herself that someone as friendly as Petruzzelli couldn’t be part of a dastardly conspiracy. But that did not mean the conspiracy didn’t exist.
Did she dare to ask Petruzzelli about dos Santos’s whereabouts, and thus possibly give her away? Better, she thought, to wait until Petruzzelli went back to bed, and then search for dos Santos herself.
“That boss of yours,” Petruzzelli said, slicing a metaphorical axe through her dilemma. “She’s nice, isn’t she?”
Of all the possible descriptors that could be applied to dos Santos, nice was not one Elfrida would have chosen. She recognized the question as a tentative probe, intended to elicit Elfrida’s own feelings about her boss.
Not falling for that. “Yeah, she’s cool. A bit demanding sometimes. But that comes with the territory.”
“It can’t be a lot of fun working on Botticelli Station,” Petruzzelli said sympathetically.
“How do you mean?”
“Well, I mean, you’re stuck in one place. Always seeing the same people, the same planet. And doesn’t your gravity kind of suck?”
Here we go again. Put any two people who lived and worked in space together, and the oneupmanship soon started. “We had a ninety-meter radius torus rotating at two point two RPM,” Elfrida said, unable to help herself. “Yeah, it was kind of monotonous at times. But I never minded looking at Venus. I love Venus. That’s the whole reason I took this job.”
“I took this job because I wanted to travel,” Petruzzelli said. “I really wanted to go to the outer planets, though. Oh well. Our contract with UNVRP is the company’s biggest revenue source.”
“Is it really?”
“Sure. We get paid for hauling your swat teams around, and we get paid more for hauling your ex-colonists off to jail, excuse me, to Ceres. That’s not even counting asteroid sales.” Petruzzelli bit the nozzle of her empty soup pouch, pensively. “If Botticelli Station can’t be saved, do you think the Project will be cancelled?”
Elfrida had not yet grappled with this question herself. But off the top of her head, the answer seemed sadly obvious. “I would expect so. Maybe not cancelled, but suspended, anyway. The thing is, we’ve got a lot of enemies in the UN bureaucracy, and they would totally seize on the loss of the station to argue that we can’t justify the cost of replacing it. They would want to implement a comprehensive costing review. And you know, once you put a giant project like this on hold … everything has to dovetail, and if you halt Phase 1, what happens to the other phases? So the worst-case scenario is that it would be the end of terraforming Venus for at least a couple of generations.”
“Sigh,” Petruzzelli said. “Then I hope the techies can make this mass-driver scheme work, or we’ll be totally screwed, too.”
This observation forced Elfrida to consider a factor she had not taken into account. Kharbage LLC depended on the Venus Remediation Project, as much as the UNVRP workforce did. The attack on Botticelli Station represented a body blow to their livelihood. So did it really make sense to imagine that they would be in league with the PLAN, the single biggest downside catalyst in the solar system?
But maybe they hadn’t known that the PLAN would seize the opportunity to hit B-Station on their way to 11073 Galapagos. Yeah, that has to be it.
“This sucks,” Petruzzelli said softly.
The screen was now showing a new release from Jairafoon, a tribe of musicians who had recorded an eulogy to the casualties of Botticelli Station. They had used some bits of the Can’s all-too-familiar footage. None of the bits that showed PLAN ships.
“It really sucks,” Petruzzelli repeated.
“What do you do, anyway? I mean, what’s your job on the Can?”
“Oh, me? I’m the 2/M. The astrogator.”