A duo of trekkies hauled Glory out of the telepresence cubicle. She protested furiously. “I was in the middle of something!”
“Sorry, dudette. Captain’s orders.”
Glory seized a handful of dreadlocks and yanked. The trekkie to whom they were attached yelped and released her leg. She kicked the other one in the balls and hauled herself back into the cubicle. Looked around, trembling, for something with which to bar the door.
There was nothing. Even on a ship as jury-rigged as the Can, it was not possible to barricade yourself in a telepresence cubicle. The trekkies dragged her out again, angry now, threatening to tase her if she didn’t cooperate, and she sagged, defeated. In her mind’s eye she could still see those ribbons of plasma twisting in space above 11073 Galapagos, feel the headrush of power.
Captain Okoli stood in dry-grip boots in the entrance to the dead-end where the cubicles were, hands on his hips. “I did not authorize you to use my telepresence facilities.”
“For crying out loud, Martin. People’s lives are at stake.”
“Yeah, and so’s my job.”
“I have a question.”
“Could you be any bigger of an asshole?”
Martin Okoli raised an eyebrow at her and then clicked his tongue, enabling the voice transmitter implanted in one of his beautiful big molars.
Captain Okoli’s voice boomed into the crew mess. “Goto. COMLI agent Goto, proceed to the engineering deck. Now.”
Alicia Petruzzelli made an “oooh” shape with her lips. “The voice of God speaks. No quotations, no jokes; sounds like you’re in trouble. What did you do?”
Perturbed, Elfrida snapped, “Nothing. And I don’t think I can really be in trouble, since I don’t work for him.”
“No,” Petruzzelli said. “But you do owe him your life. So I’d try and be respectful.”
“Sure,” Elfrida said, pulling on the hospital flip-flops she had taken off to curl on the bench.
Petruzzelli said, “You’re gonna lose those in engineering. Can’t keep flip-flops on your feet in zero-gee. Here, wear my slippers. I think we’re about the same size.”
Her slippers were trendy Elephunts with sock-tops that came halfway up Elfrida’s bare calves. “Wow, they fit. Thanks.”
“It sucks having big feet, doesn’t it?”
They exchanged a smile before Elfrida fled the lounge, wondering what Captain Okoli wanted her for. She could think of several possibilities, none of them good.
None of her imaginings, however, encompassed the sight of dos Santos floating between two hulking trekkies, her arms restrained. The techies had downed tools to watch. Elfrida hugged herself; it was cold down here. Dos Santos, too, looked half frozen.
Captain Okoli, kingly in black pyjamas, said, “Against my better judgment, I authorized you to use a TP cubicle, Goto. Not her. And I specifically ordered you not to tell her about it. What you got to say for yourself?”
So he hadn’t summoned her to punish her for her theory about Kharbage LLC’s duplicity. That was a relief. On the other hand, it looked like her other nightmare had come true. Dos Santos had tried to help the Galapajin, and got caught.
“Let her go,” she said, surprising herself with the righteous anger in her voice. “You’ve got no right to treat her like that.”
“Like what, Goto?”
“Like a prisoner.”
“It strikes me,” Okoli said, “that a spaceship in orbit around Venus—the only spaceship in orbit around Venus—is the very definition of a prison. We are all prisoners, Goto. You’re the prisoner of your own unexamined assumptions. I’m the prisoner of something no more tangible, but by any standard more real: the math of profit and loss.”
“You really are a heartless son of a bitch,” dos Santos said.
“I got people depending on me, too. And I got strict orders not to let any UN personnel use the computing facilities aboard this ship. That includes telepresence.”
Dos Santos’s lips twitched. Elfrida had a flash of insight: while she was in the cubicle, dos Santos must have done what Elfrida had promised not to do—gone digging in the Kharbage Can’s hub. What had she found?
“I gave you permission to use the TP cubicle,” Okoli continued, “because, pace Glory dos Santos, I am not heartless, and you’re cute. I hit the sack for some well-earned rest. Then something wakes me up. Just a tickle. You get those after you’ve been plying the unfriendly vacuum for a while. That tickle tells me something ain’t where it should be. I turn on my screens and what do I see? Elfrida Goto. Not in sickbay. She’s vegging out in the lounge with my second mate, who needs to lay off the midnight snacks before she fucks her adrenals. Everyone else is asleep or at work. But one of the telepresence cubicles is occupied. So just who is in there?” He shook his head sadly at dos Santos. “I hope you had fun. Rest assured I’m going to be examining every second of the data dump.”
“If you’re quite finished enjoying the sound of your own voice,” dos Santos said. “You won’t be looking at the data, because I didn’t dump it. I disabled the autosave function. It only takes a modicum of skill. Sure, you can check to see where I telecasted to, but don’t bother, I’ll tell you: 11073 Galapagos.”
“That doggone asteroid.”
“The one you took off Adastra’s hands for a song—”
“Nothing but trouble.”
“And now the colonists are in trouble. Do you want kilodeath on your conscience? If not, let me back into that telepresence cubicle.”
“And how, pray tell, are you going to stop the PLAN with one phavatar?”
Dos Santos scowled. Elfrida saw that she was stuck. She dared not admit just how special Yumiko was. (How special is she, anyway?)
“You’re an experience junkie, is the truth, Glory,” Okoli said. “It ain’t your fault, but you were warped by what happened to you. Developed an appetite for destruction. You want to be in at the death.”
“Oh, I’m not even going to dignify that,” dos Santos said.
“I know your type. A Dante bent on seeing allll the sights, from the safety of a telepresence cubicle. Give me guts and give me glory, so long as I can log out at any time. Hell, I’ve got some of that ilk on board, myself.”
The trekkies chuckled knowingly. Dos Santos turned white. Elfrida cheeped in desperation, “How do you guys know each other, anyway?”
“Oh, I’ve known Glory dos Santos a long time,” Okoli said. “First time we met, she was just a kid like you. Matter of fact, that was the first time I saved her life.”
“Please,” dos Santos said. “You were just following orders, piloting a Superlifter.”
“That’s right. Every ship outside of the Belt was commandeered to help take the survivors off Callisto. Remember that incident in ’65, when the CyberDestiny crazies occupied the colony? They were killing a hostage every twenty-four hours. Then the blue berets rolled up to take the moon back, and wound up killing hundreds more. But not Glory dos Santos, and aren’t we all thankful for that?”
Elfrida gazed at dos Santos with new respect. “I had no idea you were involved in the Callisto hostage-taking, ma’am!”
“What can I say? I haven’t had the best of luck in my career.” Dos Santos won a chuckle from the watching engineers. “But that’s all water under the bridge now.”
“It is,” Okoli agreed. “Still, it made an impression on me. I was young at the time, believe it or not. Could not wrap my head around the idea of a group that believed so passionately in personhood, they were willing to kill people for it.”
Elfrida nodded. Personhood for robots was a perpetual fringe cause, led by intellectual poseurs and sad male activists who were a bit too attached to their sexbots. Their main activity was distancing themselves from CyberDestiny, the terrorists whose spectaculars in the ‘60s had quashed any hopes the cause might have for the foreseeable future.
“The cause has moved on since then,” dos Santos said. “Everyone recognizes that killing people is counterproductive. Anyway, we’ve got the PLAN to do that for us.”
For a moment, you could have heard a pin drop. What they actually did hear drop, or rather collide with the ceiling, was a rivet gun. An engineer dived in pursuit, apologizing.
“What are you guys working on there?” dos Santos said, casually. “The mass driver for the station?” No one responded. She raised her eyebrows at them. “What?”
Elfrida was not sure what she had just heard from dos Santos’s mouth. Nor, evidently, was anyone else, even Captain Okoli, who said, “Yeah, that’s what they’re working on. Hoping to deploy it today.” He paused. “The question in my mind right now, Glory, is do I need to put you in the brig, or are you going to behave?”
“If you mean, will I attempt to use the telepresence cubicle again, the answer is no. Your ship, your rules. And I think we all know now where you stand on utilizing your resources for humanitarian purposes.”
Okoli did not rise to her gibe. “All right, I’ll accept that. However, you are confined to the passenger module until further notice.”
Elfrida interjected urgently, “Can I use the telepresence facilities? Sir? I can, right?”
Okoli turned on her with a wrathful expression. “What are you thinking, this didn’t happen? That is a no, Goto. You don’t work for me, so I can’t teach you how to think for yourself. But I can teach you a little bit about consequences.” He shooed her out of the workshop ahead of him.
The tannoy chimed. “Captain, to the bridge, sir. Captain, your presence is requested on the bridge.”
“Some sleb probably tried to make toast on the reactor again,” Okoli said, sailing past her.
The phavatar stood up. “Whew! Lost control for a minute.”
“I hope that’s not going to happen when the PLAN gets here,” Jun said suspiciously.
“Oh, no. I’m as safe as houses. It was just a glitch.”
Sunlight spilled over them. Yumiko settled herself on a pile of construction debris. She looked so innocent, perfectly at home on her sub-zero, airless, radiation-drenched perch. Jun wished she would put on a spacesuit. He ran another radar scan. Still nothing.
“So,” she said conversationally, “I figure we’ve got a bit of a wait.”
“Do you know how fast the PLAN ships burn?”
“No one knows for sure. They use explosive pulse fusion drives, which generate more thrust and acceleration than our magnetic containment drives, at the cost of being filthy. But there’s no helium-3 on Mars, so they’re thought to use deuterium-tritium fusion reactions, which are less efficient, and that requires them to carry more propellant. So they don’t travel at maximum thrust. They save their propellant for short-range maneuvers.”
“Short answer: they’ve never been observed getting from point A to point B at a delta-V of better than 400,000 meters per second, which takes you from Mars to Earth in about a week. Compare the specs of a UN Heavypicket. Maximum acceleration four gees, but that’s only sustainable very briefly, because your average human being’s heart will fail within a few minutes under vertical hyper-gravity stresses.”
“Radical,” Jun drawled.
“Yeah, but I’d really rather talk about your ships.”
“The St Francis and the Nagasaki, unless you’ve got any others.”
“They’re just beaters, as you guessed. Eighty-year-old space trucks. State-of-the-art when we emigrated in them. Now? They’ve got big cargo holds, and that’s the most you can say for them.”
“But that’s what I want to talk about, Yonezawa Jun,” she said. “Your cargoes.”
“What about them? We import water. That’s all.”
“But how do you pay for it? Even in the Belt, water isn’t cheap.”
Jun felt hunted. He felt ashamed. “We export manufactured goods,” he blustered. “Fine porcelain, handcrafted religious items, katanas. People are willing to pay for quality, even today. We’ve got artisanal lineages here on this asteroid that go back centuries. I introduced you to our swordsmith, remember? He’s the twenty-sixth of his name. You can’t find that kind of accumulated expertise anywhere else in the solar system.”
“Oh, I’m not questioning that, YonezawaJun. My question is, who buys this stuff? Where, in a Belt full of colonists skimping and recycling to stay alive, do you find customers for handcrafted luxury goods?”
Jun slammed his palm angrily on the rock. “I don’t know. We deal with a middleman.”
“A middleman. And he or she sells you stuff, correct?”
“But not just water. You said you brought your religious treasures here from Earth. But I looked up the customs records for 2206 …”
Nothing was beyond the UN’s reach. If they could access archived SinoSpaceWays customs records from eighty-four years ago, what couldn’t they do?
“There’s no record of a church organ being exported from Earth. Nor any crucifixes or anything like that. So either you broke the law, or …”
“We broke the law,” Jun said. “That’s it. Remember, Catholicism had just been made illegal in Japan. We had to hide the symbols of our faith.”
He thought this was a fairly inspired excuse, but the phavatar shook her head. “You were expelled from Japan precisely for being Catholic. The authorities knew what you were. They wouldn’t have penalized you any further for taking a church organ with you … No, I think the truth is different. You made that organ yourselves, right here. Same goes for the rest of your stuff.”
Jun straightened his back. Why should he be ashamed, after all? What was wrong with having the expertise, the tools and the time to make beautiful objects to a level of craftsmanship not even found on Earth anymore?
It gave the lie to his self-sufficiency dream, that was what. Made his claim that they were almost there into a bald falsehood. But maybe it was time to admit that self-sufficiency had been a hopeless aspiration all along.
“Yeah. Our contact provides the raw materials. We make things, sell some of them back to him, keep the best for ourselves.” He gazed up at the steeple she had shattered, thinking of all the work that had gone into it. “When we’re done building the cathedral, it’ll be clothed in gold and silver, illuminated like a medieval manuscript.”
“That’s a beautiful thought,” the phavatar said. “But I’m afraid your contact may have other plans for you.”
“What’s his name?”
Jun spread his hands. “He calls himself the Shogun. Dumb, right? We don’t know his real name.”
“Oh, great,” the phavatar said. “Sigh. That’s really helpful.”
“Have you got something on him?”
“No. I didn’t even know for sure that he existed until just now. He’s the X in the equation; one of them, anyway.”
“I want to find out who’s using me, and what I’m being used for.”