~SUIT COMMAND: Disable assistant.
“I’m not a robot. I’m human.” She prayed that they weren’t smashing Yumiko’s head in with rocks at this very instant. “This is a special kind of robot known as a phavatar.” How had they guessed? They weren’t supposed to guess. Geminoid-class phavatars usually fooled people. Yumiko was the ultimate geminoid: she even got goosebumps in the cold. But Elfrida didn’t have time to wonder what had gone wrong. “I’m operating the phavatar remotely. I can hear and see you. I can even smell the trees, and it also smells like something’s cooking nearby. Maybe tonkatsu? I wish I was there. But I’m not. I’m a long way away. So we can do this in real time, bypassing the phavatar’s MI functionality, but there’s going to be a thirty to forty-second lag before I can respond. Is that OK with you?”
They were whispering fiercely to each other. All of them jumped when she spoke. They had drawn away from her to stand in a knot under the broomstick-shaped cedars. Behind them was a torii gate with the airlock splart-sealed into it. A spindly old man crawled between them on hands and knees, scraping up bird droppings and putting them in a baggie.
“I know what a goddamn phavatar is,” Yonezawa said. “They’re used for telepresence. I’ve seen them in vids.”
He approached her and scrutinized her face. His clear dark brown irises reminded her of her father. It wasn’t just the eyes. It was the self-possession, too inordinate to be the real thing, the brittle presence of a man with too few doubts.
“Prove you’re human,” he challenged her.
Elfrida’s mind went blank. This situation had never arisen before, even in traiting. “I don’t know. Ask me anything you like.”
Yonezawa laughed. “All right. Date of birth, mother’s maiden name, the name of the first boy you ever kissed, and how about that penalty kick in the Luna versus Earth game?”
Elfrida stumbled, “23 August 2260, she kept her own name—it’s Haller—Ivan from coding class, and I didn’t watch it. I don’t like sports.”
That got through while a youth in glasses was delivering a rat-a-tat philippic against United Nations v. Google,the landmark case that had (imperfectly) defined the cut-off for machine intelligences. He broke off in surprise, and when she finished speaking they all laughed. This time it was genuine laughter.
“No bot could fake that,” Yonezawa said. His certitude was out of date, but he didn’t know it. “OK, let’s go. This is going to be funny.”
He and his five companions took off their spacesuits and stowed them in lockers near the torii gate. Out of the bulky suits, they had the frail, pigeon-chested frames of the spaceborn. Elfrida wondered why they weren’t taller. The average spaceborn adult stood a hair over two meters, but Yumiko could look all of these dead in the eye, and she was an Earth-standard 1.6 meters. She took off her own spacesuit and stowed it. One of them, a girl with a rash on her face, looked enviously at Yumiko’s shiny black hair and rounded limbs. “We can’t take her through town,” she said. “It’d upset people.”
“We’ll take the gliders,” Yonezawa said.
They led her to the top of the bonsai mountain. It was surrounded with an electrified fence, as if they wanted or needed to restrict access to the airlock and the bubbles where food was grown. The city lapped up against the fence on all sides. On top of the mountain, several launch pylons held gliders on catapult rails.
“I can pedal,” Elfrida said, but by the time that got through, she was installed in the back seat of Yonezawa’s glider. The catapult, a purely mechanical wind-up affair, shot the small aircraft towards the center of the habitat.
Yonezawa leaned over the yoke, pedaling madly. The propellors clattered. Elfrida kept quiet and looked down. She’d seen and even used pedal gliders on the moon, but there they were just for fun, an expensive option for tourists. But she realized that on 11073 Galapagos, they made sense. The city below had no streets as such, just a zillion narrow alleys between tiny houses with hydroponic gardens on their roofs. People looked up from their work and waved.
The sun tubes drifted overhead, so big and bright and close that Elfrida felt the heat through her spacesuit, and thought about the legend of Icarus, who had flown too close to the sun. “Keep your head down!” Yonezawa shouted. She could smell dust particles being incinerated on the sun tubes’ surfaces.
After a petrifying moment, the glider’s velocity carried it out of the freefall zone. It sank outwards, its effective weight rapidly increasing, on a shallow angle that took it straight down into the church grounds. Elfrida tucked her feet up in advance. Yonezawa landed at a run on a scruffy lawn, followed by the rest of his team. Bells were pealing wildly. Elfrida wondered if they’d set off some kind of alarm.
“You just have to pedal hard to get up enough momentum so you don’t get stuck in freefall,” Yonezawa panted. His face was shiny with sweat. “In case you’re wondering how we get back, we portage the gliders up there and launch from the top of the steeple.”
He pointed up at the church. It was a classical gothic structure. Built in the early, exuberant years, Elfrida surmised, when 11073 Galapagos must have seemed to have resources to spare. The steeple, improbably tall and skeletal, did indeed have a launch platform near the top—right under the bells that were swinging and ringing.
“We’re so late,” the girl with the rash said.
“Go ahead,” Yonezawa said. “I’ll just drop her off with Hirayanagi-shisai.” He glanced at Elfrida. “It’s like leading a blind person around.”
Right after that, her sensors informed her that he was steering her by the elbow towards the back of the church. The others peeled off and scurried towards the front doors. Elfrida glimpsed a trickle of people heading into the church, old and young, chattering self-importantly, dressed in gray and black printables, all Japanese.
Yonezawa indicated the trees they were passing under. “Somei yoshino. We brought the soil and the seeds with us. These are probably the last real sakura in the solar system.”
That was the first reference to the tragedy that lay between them, the destruction of Japan. But Elfrida did not have time to respond. Yonezawa knocked on the door of a separate house, a neat little cottage built from asteroid rock. He glanced anxiously back at the church. The bells had stopped ringing.
A man in frail old age answered the door. He wore a black cassock cinched with a sash whose pleated skirts brushed the ground. He did a double take at the sight of Yumiko.
“It’s a phavatar,” Yonezawa said. “The guys from Kharbage dropped it off. Can I just leave it with you until Mass is over, Hirayanagi-shisai? The remote operator does respond. You just have to be patient. I think she’s closer than Earth, but probably not on the Kharbage Can. She might be on that orbital facility the UN has at Venus. Her name’s Shimada Yumiko.”
“Naturally. Go on, go on.”
Yonezawa dashed off. The man—the priest, Elfrida realized—regarded her frankly. A slight tightening of his lips betrayed the same revulsion that Yonezawa and his friends had shown. But he spoke in polite Japanese.
“Well, come in.”
She followed him into a modest Western-style company room decorated with religious pictures and crucifixes.
“Sit down, sit down. Would you like—no, of course you wouldn’t like tea or coffee. You are very realistic, you know.” Hirayanagi folded his hands on his lap and waited.
Elfrida felt an enormous sense of relief that someone was willing to talk to her at her own pace. She said, “You’re very kind. Are you—are you who I should be talking to about the arrangements I’ll need to make for my assessment?”
Hirayanagi—Father Hirayanagi, she should be calling him—shook his head and smiled. “I don’t have anything to do with that. I didn’t even know about it. The shudokai handles everything to do with the outside. But I’m delighted to have this chance to chat with you.”
“The shudokai? Who are they?”
Father Hirayanagi, not yet having heard her, was still talking. “Are you from Earth, or somewhere else? I’ve never been to Earth, you know. You’ll have to tell me what it’s like.”
Elfrida’s shoulders slumped as the situation became clear to her. Father Hirayanagi wasn’t her liaison person. Yonezawa had simply dumped her here because he was late for the service or meeting or whatever they called it. She could hear faint singing from the direction of the church.
The sheer, insouciant haphazardness of her reception overwhelmed her. Hoping that Father Hirayanagi had some authority around here, she burst out, “May I be frank? You’re almost certainly going to be resettled. I haven’t even begun my assessment yet, but I’ve seen enough to know that it’s a matter of ticking the boxes. You’re so overcrowded in here—I’ve never seen anything like it. And everyone I’ve seen is obviously malnourished. Reddish-tinted hair, flaky rashes, I’m suspecting kwashiokor, although I’ll have to run some tests on volunteers to know for sure. I don’t even understand how you all survive. You must have exceeded the carrying capacity of this habitat about ten thousand people ago.”
At this point Father Hirayanagi responded to her earlier question. “The shudokai? Oh, that’s the Order of St. Benedict. Not the Benedictines, they’re different. We haven’t any of them. We do have some Franciscans—I’m a Franciscan, in fact—but most of our young people join the shudokai nowadays. The lad who brought you here, he’s their leader. The First Knight of the Order of St. Benedict. He’s got a strong faith, real zeal for the Lord. The whole Yonezawa family are pillars of the community, regardless of what some say.”
Elfrida listened to this, her head spinning, and decided to go on with what she had been saying. “I’m trying to warn you so that you’ll have time to prepare your people. In some cases we do see incidents of non-compliance, and that only makes it harder for everyone. I’m sure your people wouldn’t resist an evacuation order—” a total lie; after that confrontation on the surface, she was sure they would— “but it always helps if people have time to get used to the idea, and understand that it’s actually a change for the better.” She was saying, without being entirely aware of it—such was the slippery power of the propaganda she mouthed—Help me to destroy your world.
That not-very-deeply-hidden meaning was far from lost on Father Hirayanagi. He reared back in his chair and went red. “This is impossible! It’s unacceptable. You can’t simply kick us out.”
“Oh dear,” Elfrida sighed. “This is what I was afraid of.”
When he heard that, his face went redder. “This is our asteroid. 11073 Galapagos. And we are Galapajin.”
“Galapajin,” Elfrida said politely. “That’s a very interesting coinage. But I’m afraid it isn’t your asteroid.” It never had been. “It belongs to Kharbage LLC, and they …” No, she thought. Stop. Just stop. You’re only antagonizing him. “I’m sorry,” she said, and she really was sorry. She wanted to cry for the poor, trembling, red-faced old priest. She was vaguely aware that her real body was pleading for food and water, and that mental fatigue was eroding her emotional detachment, but she ignored these alarm signals.
They sat in silence for some moments. A clock ticked in the corner, keeping arbitrary asteroid time. More organ chords pealed out from the church.
“That’s the closing hymn,” Father Hirayanagi said, stirring. “I expect Yonezawa will take you to the cathedral now. I’m sorry we couldn’t visit together for longer. Perhaps you can come back and we’ll have that chat about Earth. I’ve heard that they use gondolas to get about in Tokyo these days! The city’s being rebuilt and people are moving back. Can that be true?”
So this was how it was going to be. The priest’s lips shook when he tried to smile at her, but he was keeping up that oh-so-Japanese pretence of politeness. They were all going to listen to her without hearing her, and pretend and pretend that everything was hunky-dory, until the barge came to haul them off to Ceres.