The Galapagos Incident: Chapter 7

“Well, it’s made from human skin cells,”Sister Emily-Francis said. She was the same girl with the rash on her face who had been part of Elfrida’s reception committee. Her hostility had melted when Elfrida praised her little charges at the school. ”We grew it using the bio-printer. We have to import stem cells anyway, and this works out cheaper than real soil and grass.”

The old story: in space, life was literally cheaper than dirt.

Galapagos1-KINDLE-187x300The Galapagos Incident

Chapter 7.


~You’re back! I was getting worried about you.


In a a cataract of sensory input, Elfrida’s worst fears were confirmed. Yumiko had switched herself back on, and she was operating independently. She had set up shop in the 11073 Galapagos hospital, where she was administering basic medical tests. A queue of ebullient Galapajin school-children jinked out the door.

When Elfrida logged off last night, she’d left the phavatar crumpled in a corner of the graveyard at St. Peter’s, her junkie posture chosen to make her look like just a piece of machinery.

Now Yumiko was up and doing, despite the fact that Elfrida had specifically disabled her.

~I’m administering surveys and basic medical scans to volunteers, Yumiko said.

~I can see that! I didn’t authorize you to proceed without me!

~When you didn’t log on at the scheduled time, I elected to commence the quantative portion of the assessment. This is what I’m good at, after all. There was a wry twist to those last words, but it did not mollify Elfrida.

~SUIT COMMAND: Disable assistant.

“Hello, cutie.” The little girl who stood in front of her—who had, anyway, been standing in front of her ten seconds ago—wore stabilizer braces on her arms and legs, a folk remedy popular among asteroid dwellers. The braces had built-in gyroscopes that created resistance, supposedly simulating the effects of Earth gravity. The child had decorated the braces with holographic stickers of cats and dogs, animals that she could never have seen IRL. “This won’t hurt, I promise. You might feel a sort of tingling.”

She’d begun to get suspicious of Yumiko yesterday. During their tour of the cathedral, she’d had a growing feeling that the DISABLE command wasn’t doing what it said on the box. Not that Yumiko had actually intruded on her. The assistant was too clever for that. Instead, the phavatar had offered up unasked-for nuggets of information gleaned from its scans and databanks. ~Estimated person-hours expended on the construction of the cathedral to date: 10.2 million. Architectural debt to other ecclesiastical buildings in the solar system (see attached images of Sagrada Familia, Hagia Sophia, Saint Basil’s in Moscow, and Notre Dame de la Lune): on the order of inspiration rather than imitation. Potential revenues from virtual tourism …

At that point Elfrida had subvocalized: ~Are you trying to sell me on this place?

Silence had been the only response. But she had become convinced that Yumiko was watching and listening to her every move.

She carried on with the medical survey Yumiko had started, noting that the results so far confirmed her suspicion of widespread vitamin D, K, and B12 deficiencies. The Galapajin were de facto vegetarians, obtaining minimal protein from backyard chickens and the gengineered carp that swam in their hydroponic rice paddies. Their diet was a recipe for childhood stunting and low skeletal density. Those factors in turn compounded the symptoms so common among asteroid dwellers that they were dubbed Spaceborn Syndrome: poor circulation, increased likelihood of bone fractures, limited aerobic capacity due to the organs seating themselves too high in the abdominal cavity, cramping the lungs … the list went on, and Elfrida found it harder and harder to smile at the chirpy senseis bringing their young charges in for her inspection.

“They’ve got it a lot better than we did when I was a kid,” Yonezawa said. In his capacity as her minder, he was parked at her elbow, snacking on roasted pumpkin seeds. His Kalashnikov rested under his chair. “We had to wear those stabilizer braces twenty-four hours a day. Now that we’ve spun up to point eight gees at the circumference, the kids only have to wear the braces at home.”

“That’s still not ideal,” Elfrida said.

“Come on. Point eight, point seven. Better than Luna.”

“That’s what every colonist says,” Elfrida returned wearily. “‘Well, at least we’ve got better gravity than Luna.’ Unfortunately, you don’t have centrifuges for physical therapy sessions.”

Yonezawa flushed. “You’ve already made up your mind about us. What’s the point? I’m meant to take you to see the school and the creche. We’ll go, anyway, when you’re done here.”

Elfrida had already cursed her thoughtless remark. She tried to walk it back with a bit of flattery. “You’ve actually got better gravity than eighty percent of similarly sized asteroids.” The phavatar had offered this statistic for her information just seconds ago.

Yonezawa preened, and Elfrida opened up communication with Yumiko. ~You’re doing this, aren’t you?

~Doing what? came the assistant’s sweet, breathy voice, fifteen seconds later.

~Feeding me databites that bizarrely support the viability of this rock. The suit’s not that smart on its own.

~All right. I cannot tell a lie. I’m doing it.

~Stop it.

~I’m concerned that you may be overcompensating for your own ethnic sympathies. I’m trying to help you get an objective, balanced picture.

Rage bled into Elfrida’s subvocalization. ~You’re not my therapist.

~Nothing to do with you. The assistant’s voice was suddenly cool. ~My professional reputation’s on the line, too.

On her ergoform in the cubicle, Elfrida tensed. The machine intelligence was skirting very near to hostility. She had also revealed her own agenda. Yumiko was against resettlement.

~SUIT COMMAND: Disable assistant.

But this time Elfrida was under no illusion that ‘disabled’ meant switched off. If Yumiko now remained silent, it was only because she thought that would serve her aims better than continuing the argument.

While Yonezawa dragged her around the school and creche, Elfrida reviewed Yumiko’s sensor data from the hour before she’d logged in. The assistant had simulated her skilfully, even to sharing anecdotes from Elfrida’s past which it had wormed out of her during the voyage. Elfrida felt violated. Her thoughts churned. Just how smart was this supposedly-inhibited machine intelligence? Should she report its disobedience? Or was its ‘disobedience’ a feature, not a bug, which she’d have known about if she’d read the manual more thoroughly? Memo to self: review every freaking word of the stross-class specifications.

Emergent hostile behavior was theoretically possible, but Elfrida found it hard to believe that the machine-intelligence whizzes on Luna would have let that kind of risk get off the drawing board, let alone into production.

So whatever Yumiko was up to, it was something she had been designed for. Or rather, tasked with.

My professional reputation’s on the line here, too.

The machine intelligence was independently taking orders from someone, somewhere.But who?

“Itsukushimi fukaki, tomo naru Iesu wa,” sang the schoolchildren of 11073 Galapagos, lined up like a mass choir in white coveralls, on a playing field of green rubber, and Elfrida twitched.

“We used to sing this when I was a kid.” But not in Vienna or Rome or any of the other places she’d lived with her parents. She had sung this Japanese translation of “What a Friend We Have In Jesus” at school assemblies in her immersion lessons.

“See?” Yonezawa said. “Japan was always Christian.”

Much as Elfrida wanted to avoid further clashes with him, she could not let this incredible statement stand. “Don’t you know that Christianity was banned during the Edo era, and …”

But he was still talking. “St. Francis Xavier came to Japan in 1549. He and his companions made thousands of converts. Tens of thousands! Many Japanese were ordained as priests. They couldn’t kill all of them! That community survived in secret for hundreds of years. They were known as the kakushi Kirishitans, hidden Christians.” He smiled. “We’re like the kakushi Kirishitans of the solar system.”

“… banned during the Edo era,” Elfrida chirped.

“And banned again in 2198,” he shot back. “Which was why we left. When were you last there?”

Elfrida winced, realizing her error. “Yo no tomo warera o sutesaru toki mo,” the children sang. Do thy friends despise, forsake thee? “I never was there,” she admitted. “I only know about Japan from immersion lessons. Uh, they were set in 2015.”

“Oh,” Yonezawa said when he heard this. “I get it. Japan was still Christian then. You see, the prayers of the kakushi Kirishitans converted the whole nation, in their hearts. That’s why Japan was the only pacifist nation on earth for an entire century.”

Correct me if I’m wrong, Elfrida thought, but didn’t that have something to do with the Second World War? She held her tongue, however. You didn’t argue with fanatics.

“Then,” Yonezawa continued, “ in the twenty-first and twenty-second centuries, the country went to hell. The robots took over.” He eyed her with a skeptical, mocking gaze. “Fuji-san was a divine punishment for that sin, like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.” He wasn’t finished yet. “If screwing another man is bad, how bad is it to screw a freaking robot? Ask the single guys of Tokyo. If you know how to talk to ghosts.” He walked away.

Elfrida enabled Yumiko. ~Did you HEAR that?

~I did. Can I talk to him?

~Pushy, pushy! NO. Anyway, it wouldn’t do any good. You can’t argue with fanatics. I was just … wow.

~He’s been spending too much time on the internet, if you ask me.

~I guess.

The children were now performing a gymnastics routine. Here in this outer pressurized void, where they were not made to wear their stabilizer braces, the tykes flipped around like sandfleas under 0.8 gees. The roof was so low that they could spring up to it and push off again. Shafts carried the light of the sun tubes to the playing field. Memories of sports days in 2015 assailed Elfrida. On such special occasions, her father had joined her in the immersion environment. He would stand by the fence with Baba and Jiji, applauding her feats, just as she was mechanically applauding now. Of course she had always been the pretty little one who balanced on top of the human pyramid. It had been her world, after all.

How could he have done that to her? How could he have saddled her with memories of a world where everything always worked out for the best, where adults were always kind and the sun always shone and everyone had dark hair and almond eyes, just like her … a world that never had existed, even in the freaking past?

No way had that immersion environment authentically simulated Tokyo circa 2015. Software artists always cherrypicked reality, and her father was a prime offender. Just like the religious fanatics who had built, inside this rubble pile, a simulation of a Christian Japan that had never existed, Tomoki Goto had built for his daughter a harmonious and peaceful Japan that existed only in his fantasies.

This has to go, she thought in a blur of intense feeling. It all has to go. I’m not overcompensating. I’m right.


“So,” Sister Emily-Francis said, “Did you enjoy the kids’ presentation?” She smiled hopefully.

“It was really impressive.” Elfrida sought some other positive comment to make. “I was also impressed by the playing field. Yonezawa tells me that it looks like rubber, but it’s actually human skin! Can that be true?”

“Well, it’s made from human skin cells,”Sister Emily-Francis said. She was the same girl with the rash on her face who had been part of Elfrida’s reception committee. Her hostility had melted when Elfrida praised her little charges at the school. ”We grew it using the bio-printer. We have to import stem cells anyway, and this works out cheaper than real soil and grass.”

The old story: in space, life was literally cheaper than dirt.

“We originally worked up that presentation for our new landlords,” Sister Emily-Francis confessed. “Kharbage. Is that how you pronounce it? But it was decided not to invite them in.”

“If they want in, they’ll have to fight for it,” Yonezawa said. “We shouldn’t even have let you in. Bishop Okada is too trusting.” His eyes were bleary. 11073 Galapagos produced its own shochu, a liquor distilled from rice. The phavatar’s taste receptors told Elfrida that it had an alcohol content of 25%. Yonezawa’s gang had invited her to join them after vespers in their hangout at the cathedral end of the habitat, a mini-habitat with its own airlock. The common area, which they called the refectory, was a rocky burrow ornamented with statuettes of the Virgin Mary and various saints. Elfrida had accepted in the hope that they might turn out to be less dogmatic in an informal setting. This certainly was that. Sitting around on the floor, dozens of young adults chattered about issues ranging from drill-bit maintenance to the pope’s recent pastoral visit to Luna. The hope seemed to be that he would come here next. In this as in so much else, Elfrida thought, the Galapajin were delusional.

But alcohol wrought a gradual transformation in Yonezawa. He became inquisitive. “So tell us about the Venus Remediation Project.”

“Well,” Elfrida said. “What don’t you know?”

“What it’s for.”

“The goal is to terraform Venus. The first phase is atmospheric ablation. The second phase, which is simultaneous with the first phase, involves re-atmosphering the planet with gengineered microbes. There are two main strains that we use. One consumes CO2 and excretes oxygen, and the other consumes sulfur dioxide. That one excretes methane, which we don’t want too much of, but the asteroid impact program also addresses that issue by seeding the atmosphere with water ice. Water and methane react at high temperatures to form hydrogen, so …”

At this point, she heard Yonezawa interrupting, “No, I asked why! What’s the point of terraforming Venus, when the solar system is full of perfectly good asteroids?”

She broke off her spiel to respond. “Asteroid habitats can’t be self-sustaining. Even here, your oxygen recycling ratio is only what, 80 percent? You obviously import 02, at the very minimum, as well as materials you can’t manufacture, from stem cells to batteries.”

“Why not use solettas to deflect sunlight from the planet?” broke in Ushijima, the tall, skinny one who wore a glasses-style net interface. “Deploy them at Venus’s LaGrange point. That would be a cheaper and quicker way to cool the atmosphere.”

“Bingo!” She made the phavatar smile. “That’s Phase Four. It’s a vast manufacturing project, as you can imagine, but production is expected to start in 2288. By that time, Phase Three will also have started: large-scale hydrogen deliveries from the moons of Jupiter. Megahaulers will cycle between Venus and Titan, dropping off their loads. The hydrogen, of course, will react with the excess carbon dioxide to form graphite and water. Cooling the atmosphere by deflecting the sun’s light will trigger precipitation. By early next century, most of the planet will be covered in a warm sea!”

“84 percent,” said Yonezawa, not yet having heard this. “Our oxygen recycling rate is 84 percent, and it’s still improving. We will be self-sustaining. We’re getting there.”

“Oh, Yonezawa-san,” Ushijima said. “No, we’re not.” He broke off to listen to Elfrida’s explanation of Phases Three and Four. “But if you want to trigger a Bosch reaction to produce water, won’t you need a lot of iron aerosol? Asteroids aren’t that iron-rich.”

“Well, uh, we’re going to mine Mercury for iron, and also magnesium, which will sequester the last of the excess CO2,” Elfrida said. “I told you this was big.”

Ushijima’s hands flapped like birds. “It’s huge. It’s monumental. It’s scandalously wasteful.” His glasses reflected the constellations of glow-in-the-dark algae that mossed the ceiling. “And it’s beautiful! It’s like the Parthenon, like the Pyramids, like … like our cathedral!”

“Exactly!” Elfrida cried, warming to this geeky lad. “It’s the biggest thing since the Moon landings. In my opinion, it’s even bigger than the clean revolution. Venus is going to be our second home. There were a bunch of scenarios thrown around at the beginning of the project that would’ve required perpetual maintenance. You’d have to keep the solettas in place forever, or something like that. But the actual plan has stability as its goal. Even if, someday, we lose spaceflight capability—of course, that’s not going to happen, but even if we did, our descendants on Venus would survive!”

Sister Emily-Francis had had her back to the two men, chatting with a friend sitting nearby. She broke off her conversation to listen to Elfrida’s speech. When Elfrida finished, there was a silence long enough for her to know that the latency period was being observed.

Yonezawa dropped one elbow on the low table and extended his empty palm towards Elfrida. “For ours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory,” he drawled. “All yours, for the price of one lousy asteroid.”

  To read the other chapters of THE GALAPAGOS INCIDENT, click here.

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