As Elfrida dragged herself into the community liaison (COMLI) office the next morning, the tannoy piped up in English, French, Spanish, Russian, and Portuguese, encouraging all personnel to access the local news feed. Dos Santos toggled her screen over to the viewport display. Everyone gathered around, yawning and munching breakfast bars. This was a more or less weekly ritual, intended to boost team spirit and morale.
Venus filled the screen.
A tiny star ignited near the equator, and vanished.
“That was 67293 Asphodene,” someone read off the station’s news feed, “an D-type asteroid rich in carbon and water ice.” Seconds later, the asteroid’s final impact on the surface of Venus triggered a spectacular cloud bulge. Like pus squeezed from a pimple by unseen fingers, poisonous gases jetted into space, escaping Venus’s gravity well. Concentric ripples warped the existing cloud patterns until they were hustled away by the Cytherean winds. After a minute or two, there was no trace that 67293 Asphodene had ever existed. But Venus was a little wetter, another payload of green slime had been delivered into the atmosphere … and the planet was rotating a little faster. The COMLI personnel dispersed to their seats, complaining about the limited selection of breakfast bars in the last shipment.
“Another few decades of that,” dos Santos said, “and we might get down to days that last 242 sols, instead of 243.”
Elfrida, who had been about to comment on the melancholy grandeur of the asteroid’s immolation, regarded her boss with disappointment. Dos Santos made no secret of her disdain for the asteroid capture program, but she knew perfectly well that speeding up Venus’s rotation was only a side benefit. Her remark seemed to shortchange their eminently achievable terraforming goals … and, Elfrida thought suddenly, the sacrifices of people like the Chinese-Peruvian squatters on 2974 Kreuset.
“Well,” she said, dropping into her ergoform, “any more details about 11073 Galapagos?”
She felt a twinge of foreboding as she spoke. She’d been up most of the night scouring the media archives. The very paucity of information about the asteroid told her that dos Santos had probably had good reason to describe this as a tricky job.
Dos Santos triggered the privacy baffles. Soundproof partitions grew out of the floor and spliced into the ceiling, enclosing the two of them, plus their desks and screens, in an L-shaped segment of the office that felt awkwardly intimate. “Dr. Hasselblatter’s going to brief you in a few minutes.”
Abdullah Hasselblatter, Ph.D., was the placeman secretary of the Venus Project back on Earth, an appointee of President Hsiao herself. Elfrida’s knuckles whitened on the arms of her ergoform, which promptly dimpled itself to match.
“Before that, I want to prep you on what he’s likely to say.”
Dos Santos read off her screen, interleaving wry comments.
“11073 Galapagos. Five-km Venus co-orbital M-type. Discovered in 2058. First visited by an unmanned survey probe one hundred years later. Identified as a rubble pile and promptly claimed by the owner of the probe, Rio Tinto Galactic, one of the big miners back then. However, Rio Tinto was concentrating its operations in the Belt at the time, and never did anything with our little inferior wanderer.”
Dos Santos raised an elegant blonde eyebrow, cueing a smile from Elfrida. ‘Inferior’ technically meant any celestial body inside Earth’s orbit. The word carried a mild, not unpleasing tang of incorrectness.
“In 2192, Rio Tinto was broken up by the UN along with all the other big commodity traders. A newly formed agency, the Asteroid and Plutoid Resource Management Commission, assumed control of its assets. The commission didn’t last long: its entire portfolio was re-privatized in 2223.”
“But in the meantime,” Elfrida said, eager to prove she knew her stuff, “the clean revolution brought the cost of space travel within the reach of middle-class families.”
“That’s correct. So the APRMC’s putting half the rocks in the solar system on the block, but the buyers aren’t just getting rocks. They’re also getting pacifists on Pallas, Muslims on Metis, anarchists on Aurora, Christians on Ceres, and dog knows what else. These people could tuck themselves into a crater on a freaking long-period comet.”
“Zhong-Bottke,” Elfrida said, recalling the particular colony dos Santos was referring to. “What did they think they were going to do when the comet reached perihelion and crispy-crittered them?”
“”They’d probably have decided that it was God’s will.” Dos Santos shrugged. Just like that, their moment of easy chit-chat was over. “Getting back to 11073 Galapagos. It was auctioned off as part of a job lot, purchased by Eisenwasser GmbH. But they never did anything with it, either, and I’ll tell you why in a moment. That brings us up to the present day. Kharbage LLC recently found out about 11073 Galapagos and took it off Eissenwasser’s hands. Now they’re offering it to us.”
Dos Santos flipped a file over to Elfrida’s screen. It opened to show a much better picture of the asteroid than the survey images in the database. Shaped like a squid, 11073 Galapagos boasted what appeared to be a scaly metallic surface. Accompanying text explained that the ’scales’ were photovoltaic mesh. The entire asteroid was skinned in a vast solar array.
“Wow,” Elfrida said. “How big is it?”
“Only five kilometers at the long axis. But if you believe Kharbage’s estimate, which allegedly is based on self-reported data from the colonists themselves, there are thirty thousand people in there.”
“Thirty thousand,” Elfrida repeated numbly. “Ma’am, isn’t this a job for, I don’t know, the peacekeeping forces?”
“Send in the blue berets on some trumped-up piracy warrant, and hope they find enough evidence of wrongdoing to deport the whole colony to Ceres?”
Guiltily, Elfrida nodded.
“No, Goto. The peacekeepers have too much power out here as it is. I refuse to pander to creeping authoritarianism. On a more practical level, this job is obviously within COMLI’s competence, and I believe you’re capable of getting it done. That’s why I recommended you to Dr. Hasselblatter.”
“But I … whyme?”
Dos Santos folded her screen down and reached over to fold Efrida’s, too, so that they were confronting each other without anything between them. The field director’s expression was warm, but there was an uncompromising glint in her brown eyes. Elfrida felt an inappropriate twinge. “Are you backing out, Goto? You can, you know. It won’t affect your career. I’ll just tell Dr. Hasselblatter—”
I’ll just tell Dr. Hasselblatter—Those five words galvanized Elfrida. They were a guillotine blade suspended over her career and her dreams of Venus, no matter what dos Santos said. “No,” she blurted. “I’m happy to do it. I just feel like I need to know more …more …”
“Well, I’m sure Dr. Hasselblatter will fill in the details.” Dos Santos’s folded-down screen pinged. “Oh dog, here he is.”
The secretary appeared in 2D on their screens, as was customary for VIPs transmitting to remote locations, rather than suffer the indignity of wearing a generic phavatar. Far from providing more details, he merely retrod the ground of dos Santos’s pre-briefing, minus the jokes. He closed with an invitation for Elfrida to submit follow-up questions, but warned that she must use the same format he was transmitting in: real-time DNR (Do Not Record), with quantum-level signal encryption and an embedded auto-delete protocol, ensuring that the transmission would evanesce if it were intercepted by anyone other than the intended recipient.
“I’m sure you understand why we have to take these precautions. The colonists on 11073 Galapagos are said to be pureblooded pre-Fuji Japanese.”
Elfrida clutched the arms of her ergoform. They thinnned out to spindles in her hands. You couldn’t have a proper freak-out in one of these things. That was the point, of course.
“This is potentially problematic for UNVRP. Of course we’d like to acquire the asteroid. It offers excellent ROI. But we also think it’s potentially unethical to leave these people at the mercy of a profit-focused corporation like Kharbage LLC. We must find a good solution that is in keeping with UNVRP’s high ethical standards.”
Dr. Hasselblatter logged off, leaving Elfrida with absolutely no clue whether she was expected to recommend the purchase or not.
“What did he mean?” she wailed. “I don’t understand.”
Dos Santos’s gaze was sympathetic, but her voice was crisp. “He meant that you’re expected to make an objective assessment and a recommendation that takes into consideration ethical as well as material factors. You’re well-qualified and you’ve got plenty of experience. You’ll be fine.”
Later, Elfrida tried to recall the number of times Dr. Hasselblatter had used the word ethical during his transmission. She counted at least twenty. But she didn’t know what that meant, either.
With UNVRP’s interest in the asteroid confirmed, Kharbage LLC sent over a file titled “11073GalapagosCONFIDENTIAL.” Elfrida confronted the materials with a feeling of hopelessness that changed imperceptibly, as she ploughed through them, into something resembling her original excitement.
Even the asteroid’s new owners, who might be presumed to have the best data on it, knew less about its inhabitants than they did about the dark side of the moon.
This would be an adventure.