The Galapagos Incident
Elfrida had shit stuck to her bottom. She’d been sitting in her own waste for hours. She smelled like a broken chemical toilet. “Oh dog, this is disgusting,” she cried aloud. When she moved, her coverall chafed her thighs, cold and damp with urine.
She rolled off the ergoform and crumpled headfirst to the floor.
Her legs, despite the gentle electrical stimuli applied by the ergoform to ward off cramps, had gone to sleep.
Tears started from her eyes. She sniffled them back and wrenched off the heavy headset she wore, taking a few strands of hair with it. Then she pushed herself up on her elbows and crawled out of the cubicle like a dog with a broken spine. Too proud to call for help, she hoped like hell that no one saw her worming down the corridor like this, dragging her numb legs behind her.
Her luck held; it was the middle of the night, after all. She’d been under for thirty-six hours. No one had disturbed her. You didn’t disturb people during telepresence sessions unless the station was literally burning down around your ears. The IV plugged into her cubital port had supplied her with a glucose drip, and beyond that, the hunger and thirst signals of the body were supposed to enforce natural limits on the length of sessions. Elfrida had ignored them. Her mouth tasted like a schoolchild’s hydroponics project left on the radiator overnight.
She crawled to the slot in the wall that was laughingly called her cabin. It was the lowest of three, which spared her having to climb a ladder. She leaned through the hatch, grabbed her ready-bag, and made a beeline—if bees crawled—for the showers.
The water pressure on Botticelli Station left a lot to be desired, but at that moment the trickle of hot water felt as luxurious as a plunge into the Adriatic. She scrubbed her bottom until it stung. When one shower timed itself off, she moved to the next one, and so on down the line, until she’d used up everyone’s washing water allowance for the next twelve hours. Tough. She felt a million times better.
Next action item: food. The galley was always open. She ordered the bots to fix her a grilled cheese sandwich— “no, make that two grilled cheese sandwiches, plus a venti hot chocolate.” She went into the crew lounge to wait for it.
There was someone already there: dos Santos. She was staring at a comedy vid on the viewport screen, a tablet on her lap. She brightened instantly. “Goto! You’re back with us.” She swung her feet to the floor and turned off the sound feed that only she could hear. “Some folks, such as Hardy, are very upset with you.” Dos Santos put on a mock-stern face. “He bet me a thousand credits you wouldn’t go a full sol, let alone a sol and a half.”
It had not occurred to Elfrida to be proud of herself for exceeding her own physical limits, but now she felt as if she’d passed some kind of test she didn’t know she was taking. “My feet totally went to sleep,” she confessed with a broad grin. “I ended up crawling along the corridor like a dog that got run over. It was ridiculous.”
“Yowch! I remember one killer session I did when I was based out on Titan. Just my luck, that was when the Luna raids happened. They pulled in every spare agent all over the system. I was tasked with evacuating an entire dome full of pensioners, on a fourteen-minute latency period.”
“Yup. You want ridiculous, that was ridiculous. Luckily, the oldsters managed to get themselves to safety despite my help.”
“I lasted two point three sols. When I logged off, I couldn’t even speak to call for help. Had to do a week of full-gee rehab …” Dos Santos’s smile faded. “And months of reconstructive therapy.”
Elfrida shook her head. Her ordeal now seemed like a walk in the park by contrast. “Wow.”
“Have a seat.” Dos Santos patted the couch beside her. Elfrida tremulously sat, although she’d just been sitting for thirty-six hours, and would rather have stayed on her feet to get her circulation pumping again. Thirty-six hours ago, dos Santos would never have invited her to sit beside her. This was a real breakthrough. Her hours on 11073 Galapagos had intitiated her into a half-intuited camaderie of machismo, an inner circle of veterans.
“So,” dos Santos said. “I know you must be tired, and we’ll do a formal debrief when you’ve had some sleep. But I did notice that you’d turned your assistant off.”
Elfrida closed her eyes. The moment she did so, she wanted to sink into the ergoform sofa and sleep. She forced them open again. “Yes. I had to turn her off. Ma’am, they guessed. The minute I took my helmet off, they knew I wasn’t human.” What a tangle of pronouns! But that was how it had felt.
“Oho. That’s very interesting. So what’s happening now? Is the assistant simulating you?” She kept questioning Elfrida without waiting for answers. “Is she faking the signal latency? Is that going to work?”
“Ma’am, I left her turned off. I told them I was shutting her down and I’d be back soon.” Elfrida cringed. She could feel dos Santos’s disapproval like a chill on her skin. “I had no choice! They’d have known if I left her in charge.” This was not the real reason she had shut Yumiko down. But she was too tired to make the truth look presentable, and she didn’t want to just blurt it out. “They might have done something awful to her if she tried to interact with them. They’re radically anti-AI.”
“Default colonial attitude.” Dos Santos’s grin was tart. “There’s no place for even inhibited AI in their fragile little cultural bubbles.”
“But most colonists can’t tell the difference.”
“And these people could. Well, that calls for a feedback memo to Procurement. What tipped them off?”
“I don’t know. I tried to get them to explain, but all they would say was that it was obvious.”
Dos Santos gazed into the distance, tapping her rolled-up tablet on her knee. A fine line came and went between her brows. She turned back to Elfrida. “Have you ever heard of the uncanny valley effect?” Anticipating Elfrida’s headshake, she unrolled her tablet.
Dos Santos was an augment geek. She had EEG signalling crystals, a row of tiny skin-covered bumps like moles at her hairline, as well as the transducers implanted in her ears. She also had a BCI (Brain-Computer Interface) in her skull. That plus the EEG crystals enabled her to telecast without the headset that implant virgins like Elfrida had to wear, and also to interface with the net, where a signal was available, and the various databases on the Botticelli Station server. Thus, she could talk to her tablet without uttering or even subvocalizing a word. The graph she called up now had a Media Archives watermark.
“This is the so-called uncanny valley. It was actually identified by a Japanese psychologist.”
“Tells you how old it is,” Elfrida joked brittly.
“About three centuries old. No one talks about it anymore because it no longer applies. Our post-geminoid phavatars would fall into the valley, in Mori’s classification, right where it says ‘zombie.’ But we don’t react to them with revulsion and unease, because we’re so used to them. We’ve enlarged our mental category of ‘human’ to include realistic humanoid robots.” Dos Santos grinned. “People are flexible, who’d a thunk it?”
“What’s a bunraku puppet?” Elfrida asked vaguely.
“You’re pretty much out of it, aren’t you? Poor kid. I shouldn’t be keeping you talking.”
“No—no. I want to talk. I need to talk.” That came out sounding so raw and needy that Elfrida winced.
A housekeeping bot trundled in, bearing her grilled cheese sandwiches and hot chocolate on its tray, a welcome distraction. Less welcome was the blatant evidence of gluttony. Embarrassed for dos Santos to see her pigging out on comfort food, Elfrida complained, “I didn’t order two sandwiches. And what’s this spinachy stuff? I didn’t ask for that, either.”
“I believe it’s spinach,” dos Santos said dryly. Addressing the bot, she said, “Well played, bud. The girl needs her vegetables.”
The little bot tooted and rolled off. “It’s all just nutriblocks with flavorings and texturants, anyway,” Elfrida mumbled. She took an enormous bite.
“I’m sure there are at least a few molecules of cheese and wheat in there somewhere.”
“I’m not complaining,” Elfrida said indistinctly.
“May I?” Dos Santos reached over and tore off a corner of Elfrida’s second sandwich. “Mmm. Takes me right back to … oh, basic training.”
“Yeah, you know, back in the Cretaceous Era. They really put us through it in those days. Military-style PT sessions followed by freefall acclimatization, with a hundred pages of Hist. Psych. to memorize before reveille. That’s where I learned about the uncanny valley. Anyway, we used to order piles of carbs to fuel our all-nighters. Sandwiches, pizza, shujiao, samosas … happy days!”
Elfrida swallowed. She was flattered and excited by these easy confidences. It occurred to her that dos Santos might be trying precisely to put her at her ease, maybe even soften her up for something, but she dismissed that as a non-pertinent consideration.
“When I was in training, they limited our calories,” she recalled ruefully. “Something about developing an efficient metabolism. The joke was that they were trying to make us lose weight so more of us could fit into a lifeboat, if we ever had to. I’ve been making up for it ever since.” She pinched her thigh, which was shamefully pudgy after six months on station.
Dos Santos’s eyes shone with amusement. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said softly. “You’re a perfectly healthy young woman. Eat your sandwiches.”
Elfrida’s heart thumped. Her appetite had vanished. She felt both elated and absurdly disappointed. She wanted to toss out a pitch-perfect, flirtatious comeback, but her brain was hazy with fatigue and Japanese. She tore off a crust and nibbled on it.
“Sorry, Goto, I never got to the point regarding the uncanny valley hypothesis,” dos Santos burst out. “My guess is that your Galapajin are more sensitive than we are. They’re extremely isolated. This may well be the first time they’ve ever seen a high-end phavatar. Thus they detected nearly-imperceptible differences that we simply overlook.”
Elfrida swallowed. “Ma’am, I think that’s probably correct. They don’t have any cultural restrictions on media, and they do seem to use the net freely, but they have this weird, jokey … disparaging attitude towards everything ‘outside,’ as they call it. It’s like they think the whole system is like that, on a vast scale.” She pointed at the frozen scene from dos Santos’s comedy vid on the viewport screen. Massive lips pursed to deliver a one-liner into someone’s hairy belly button.
“My guilty secret. I’m a diehard rom-com fan,” dos Santos said, but it wasn’t a relapse into banter. She let the remark fall and then looked Elfrida in the eye. “11073 Galapagos is starting to sound like, for want of a more technical term, a very weird place. Do you feel up to talking about it right now? We don’t need to do a formal debrief. Just hit the highlights. That way you can sleep and go without coming into the office.”
Elfrida nodded jerkily. “That’d be fine.”
Once given permission, her impressions tumbled out in a chaotic flood. She told dos Santos about the confrontation on the asteroid’s surface and the descent into that cloacal urban habitat. She dwelt in remembered horror on the overcrowding, the almost universal vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and the symptoms of adrenal derangement she had observed in most of the adults and many of the children.
“They have so many children.” To Elfrida’s shocked gaze, half the asteroid’s population had appeared to be prepubescent. “In 2201, a hundred and sixty-seven adults colonized the asteroid. A hundred and sixty-seven. What kind of a TFR do you need to get up into the tens of thousands in three generations?”
“Back of the envelope,” dos Santos said, “about five per woman. Of course, we don’t know their death rate, so it could be more.”
“Medieval. The whole place is this weird mix of the medieval and the modern. They’ve got a bioprinter and a diagnostic medibot. I guess machine intelligence is OK when you’re using it to save lives. They’re not stupid.And yet they’re still having these enormous families.”
Holding up a monitory finger, Dos Santos said, “That’s not necessarily backwards, Goto. There is a colonization scenario that calls for massive population expansion. It’s an unacceptably utilitarian concept, in my own view. The Baxterites, as they’re called, throw millions of human beings around like rounding errors. Ah, the whole thing is basically crackpot. But they do make one good point. Every baby that is born could be the next Galileo, the next Einstein, the next MacKinnon—hence, the more the better. If pre-birth genetic tinkering doesn’t work, go for the flukes.”
“I don’t think the Galapajin are playing the sperm lottery in hopes of producing the next epoch-making genius,” Elfrida said. “They’re just religious.”
“That’s always difficult,” dos Santos said neutrally.
Elfrida was no stranger to the varieties of religious belief. She’d grown up in the New Holy Roman Empire, a backwater state on the Mediterranean where a thousand heresies and schismatic congregations flourished. Moreover, as a COMLI agent, she had heard about or personally handled a whole spectrum of believers from chiliastic Baptists to sharia-compliant Muslims. The faith of the Galapajin felt more real to her than any of these, for an odd reason: they had demonstrated what seemed like magical powers in their immediate and universal recognition that Yumiko was not human.
“I asked them how they came to be Catholic,” she recalled. “And they said, like I was stupid, ‘That’s why they threw us out of Japan.’ Apparently they were really extreme in those days.”
“And now they’re what, semi-extreme?”
“Well, you can talk to them.”
She had done a lot of talking to Yonezawa, whose confrontational style had mellowed when he picked her up from Father Hirayanagi’s cottage. She suspected someone had ordered him to be nicer to the gaikokujin. At any rate, he’d answered her questions without any obvious evasions as he showed her around the cathedral. There had been no getting out of that. The cathedral was 11073 Galapagos’s showpiece, its raison d’etre. It sheared at an angle out of the narrow end of the asteroid like a figurehead knocked askew. Needle-sharp spires of varying heights, X-shaped in cross-section, flanked a central dome that was spherical inside. The edifice was an eerie synthesis of space-age geometry and medieval craftsmanship. Moreover, it had been built entirely with hand tools, an unimaginable labor of love in this day and age.
“Wrong tense,” Elfrida caught herself. The cathedral was being built. Hundreds of laborers had been crawling over it when Yonezawa took her outside to have a look at the façade. They were carving statues and friezes that no unprotected human eye would ever see.
“Must be beautiful,” dos Santos commented.
Elfrida nodded. The cathedral was beautiful, sure. But it also housed tons of a substance more precious, in space, than gold.
In pressurized, climate-controlled vaults, Yonezawa had shown her pews, altars, statues, and crucifixes carved from oak, walnut, teak, and cedar. He had bragged about the freight charges paid by his forebears to ship them from Japan into outer space. Little did he know that he was sealing his own community’s fate. At the end of her mission, Elfrida would dump Yumiko’s sensor data into the station database, and she knew that Kharbage LLC would get their hands on it one way or another, whether or not UNVRP acquired the asteroid.
“It’s not fair,” she said. “I hate it that we’re in the business of destroying people’s lives.” She was very tired by now, emotions getting the best of her.
“Whoa, whoa,” dos Santos said. “It’s early days yet.”
“I know, and I’m trying to keep an open mind, but I don’t see any other alternative for them besides resettlement. Their health problems alone indicate that they’re on a Malthusian trajectory.” She paused. “And still, it doesn’t seem fair that we can wipe out three generations of creativity and labor with a bureaucratic decision.”
“This is what I was concerned about,” dos Santos sighed. “Goto, answer me honestly: are you over-identifying with these people?”
Elfrida searched her own heart, as well as she could when her heart’s deepest desire was to go to sleep. “No. Maybe. I don’t think so. There are so many unique factors.”
And she hadn’t even mentioned the biggest unique factor of all, the one that really had her worried.
Dos Santos laughed at her non-answer. “At least you’re being honest.”
But she wasn’t.
Sexually charged dreams disturbed her sleep. Vivid dreams were a known side effect of telecasting, but these nightmares went beyond the usual anxiety / disorientation scenarios. Dos Santos featured in them. So did Yonezawa, oddly enough. And so did Yumiko.
~Turn me on, the avatar said. Its lips were wet pink petals. ~You know you want to.
She woke tangled in her blanket, with the sickening certainty that she’d overslept. She blinked. No heads-up clock display appeared in the corner of her eye. She didn’t have her contacts in. She lunged at the wall display.
“Oh my freaking dog.”
Only an hour late, not as bad as she’d feared, but still: seriously unprofessional. She bolted towards the telepresence center. In the corridor she met Jim Hardy, a fellow COMLI agent whose ludicrously right-stuff name belied his perma-grouch personality. “Was it you who used all the hot water?”
“Yes. Sorry, Hardy. I’m late. I’ve got to go.”
“Not so fast. If you were that late getting back, you won’t have had breakfast yet.”
“I’ll be fine with the glucose drip. Seriously—”
“Have this.” He took a breakfast bar from the pocket of his coverall. “Better than nothing.”
“Are you sure?”
“Course. Plenty more where that came from.” Hardy rolled his eyes. Even he was not above mocking the breakfast bars. The last shipment had included only two of the least-loved flavors, known on station as Lemon Styrofoam and Cramp-Berry.
“Thanks,” Elfrida said. “I might not be coming into the office for a while. Tell everyone hi.”
She ducked into her cubicle, warmed by the thought that Hardy wasn’t so bad, after all. He was a pureblood Anglo, but that didn’t automatically make him an arrogant asshole. She wolfed the bar, gargled with the special mouthrinse that helped the suit’s taste receptors to function, and put on the headset.
To read the other chapters of THE GALAPAGOS INCIDENT, click here.