It was true that Elfrida missed gravity, but that wasn’t the main reason she wanted to go back to the Kharbage Can. Dos Santos touched on that reason in the only two words she spoke while they were in the vestibule of the Pearl Jam: “But security …”
Exactly. There were things you couldn’t say on a Space Force ship, and things you shouldn’t say on a private-sector recycling barge. Right now, it was the former that Elfrida needed to get off her chest.
Initially, she acquiesced to the formula of the debrief. Dos Santos seemed to need the rigid structure as much as she did.
“I stayed alive by using locally available resources.”
She sounded a bit robotic, even to herself. The bureaucratic phrases concealed more than they revealed. Maybe someday she’d be able to talk about how she’d allowed her spacesuit to harvest consumables from Jun Yonezawa’s body, including water and proteins. She’d talked about it to Captain Nikolopoulos when he reeled her into his airlock. But she didn’t have to talk about it to dos Santos, and she damn well wasn’t going to.
“I dismantled the phavatar and utilized its onboard mobility functionality to retard and redirect the trajectory of the fragment that I was stuck on. I knew that if I drifted too far from the location where the incident occurred, any rescuers wouldn’t be able to find me. So I returned to the coordinates of the former asteroid 11073 Galapagos, which took approximately two sols. Then I … waited.” She looked down at her hands, remembering how she’d oscillated between hope and despair, how intensely alone she had felt. “Eventually Captain Nikolopoulos came and found me. He said that he deployed about a zillion sprites throughout the volume, programmed to ping everything remotely warm.”
“We looked for you before we left the volume,” dos Santos said. “We sent a drone.”
“I’m not blaming you, ma’am. It wasn’t your fault.”
But she did blame dos Santos. Who, after all, had sent her out on that crazy-perilous EVA to a doomed asteroid? Who had challenged her to prove she had the right stuff? Dos Santos had manipulated her, taking advantage of her desire to impress. Had deliberately sent her into danger to cover COMLI’s ass and forestall a ruinous lawsuit.
“Well, I got the survey data,” she said, lightly punching Yumiko’s head.
“So I see,” dos Santos said, with a minute grimace. If she hadn’t been in a cast from the neck down, Elfrida thought, she’d have shuddered. “Can’t you see your way to parting with that thing? They’ll need to dismantle it, you know, to retrieve the memory crystals.”
“I know. But I’d like to keep it until then.” She liked having the head with her. It was, she thought, a benign desire: she had conquered, and this was the proof of that. It was healthy for her to want to dwell on her victory, rather than sinking into some kind of PTSD-induced depression.
The head sat beside her on a tapestry-upholstered corner sofa in the cabin of the Kharbage Can’s executive offer, which had been turned over to them for this debrief. Dos Santos reclined stiffly in her cast against the cushions that heaped Windsor’s double-wide bunk. Despite his slobby personal appearance, exec Windsor had impeccable taste: his cabin was a bijou hideaway, completely different from Captain Okoli’s messy lair. There was a screen in a tarnished gilt frame that displayed a view of forested hills, maybe a Gainsborough. A tiny chandelier hung from the ceiling. Fake hunting trophies ornamented the walls. Yumiko would fit right in between the gorilla and the sabertooth tiger, Elfrida thought with a private smile.
“Anyway,” she said, meeting dos Santos’s eyes, “the way things have turned out, you don’t really need the survey data, do you?”
“No,” dos Santos admitted. “But it’s still great that you got it.”
“Now that Dr. Hasselblatter’s the toast of the solar system, nobody cares if he ignored COMLI purchasing requirements.”
“Heroes are soon forgotten, but data lasts. It’s always good to have our i’s dotted and our t’s crossed.” Dos Santos managed a smile. “You’re going to be a hero, too, you know.”
Elfrida did not miss the deft change of subject. That was a Gloria dos Santos specialty, after all. But she played along. “I don’t want to be a hero.” She stroked Yumiko’s hair.
“Don’t be silly. You’ll have fun doing the shows. In fact, your therapist will probably recommend it. And after that, you’ll be able to take as much R&R as you like.”
“I guess I could go for that.” She yawned and hoisted her feet up sideways on the corner sofa. Its arm concaved into a back support. She plopped Yumiko’s head on her stomach. “So what’s going to happen to the Galapajin?”
“Sigh. They’re already gone. There was a debate about whether to tow them away in the Nagasaki, or transfer them to another craft. There are so many of them … But in the end, concerns about the Nagasaki’s structural integrity made that option too much of a risk. As you know, another Kharbage LLC ship, the quad-module barge Kharbage Dump, was already on its way here to evacuate the refugees from Botticelli Station. So we just crammed the Galapajin into the Dump.”
“Dog, that must have been a squeeze.”
“It was. They couldn’t all get in. About two thousand stayed behind to wait for another evacuation barge. But enough of them went to relieve the strain on our resources. It was no joke, keeping that mob alive. We were running out of water and air.”
“So they’re gone. Where to?”
“Ceres,” dos Santos said, her golden gaze meeting Elfrida’s, unflinching.
“I figured,” Elfrida said after a moment.
“They were offered the option of resettlement on Earth, but—”
“Whoa! That’s generous.”
“We had to make the offer, given the media attention. Fortunately, they refused. It would have eaten up our resettlement budget for the year.”
“Did they say why?”
“Why they didn’t want to go to Earth.”
“Oh, they said that Japan is gone, anyway.”
A momentary silence fell. Elfrida thought about the Japan she had known, the world of her immersion lessons. No, she thought. Japan isn’t gone. It lived in the data, in the painstaking recreation of family and community her father had built for her. It had shaped her at a tender age. It had given her what it took to swing that asteroid-forged katana and cut off Yumiko’s head.
The severed end of the phavatar’s neck was a cross-section of plastisteel spine and innumerable fiberwires, all snuggled in a baby-blue gel which was dribbling out, bit by bit. Elfrida pinched out a bit more and rolled it between her fingers. “Is that all?”
Dos Santos’s gaze snapped from her lap to her face. “Sorry, is that—what?”
“Is that the only reason they decided to go to Ceres instead of Earth? ‘Japan’s gone, anyway’?”
“Oh.” Dos Santos seemed relieved. “No, they also said something about fulfilling their mission. Mr. Hirayanagi—the old guy who mostly speaks for them—went on about spreading the gospel to all nations. Religious hoo-ha: they think they’re going to convert everyone on Ceres … well, we’ve seen that vid before.”
“Whatever, right? They’re safe, they’ll get job placement assistance, their nutritional profiles and gravity tolerances will improve … We did it, Goto. We saved them.”
Elfrida got up. Swinging the head by its hair, she wandered over to the display screen in its gilt frame. She now had access to the Can’s hub through her contacts, limited but sufficient to accomplish the simple task of instructing the screen to display a file she had created on board the Pearl Jam and stored on Botticelli Station’s still-functioning server.
“Yeah, ma’am,” she said. “We saved them. I guess that was the least we could do, since it was our fault the PLAN targeted them in the first place.”
“That’s not what New York thinks. In fact, this is strictly confidential, but it’s starting to look like the leak came from Kharbage LLC. So what do you know, Goto? You were right all along.”
“Who thinks the leak came from Kharbage LLC?”
“Well, is there going to be an official investigation?”
“In that case, with all due respect, it’s just speculation, isn’t it? But I’ve got something more than speculation. Right here.”
She tapped the starmap that had appeared on the screen. It zoomed in on a region of the Belt that included Gap 2.5. A red line shaped like a warped Z angled in from one side of the screen.
“What’s that?” dos Santos said.
“It’s the ID search you asked me to run on the Cheap Trick. I ran it again while I was on the Pearl Jam. Captain Nikolopolous is really nice. He let me use his decryption suite.”
“I bet he was interested in the results, too.” Dos Santos’s voice sounded slightly thick.
“He sure was.” Elfrida pointed to the last junction of the Z. “This is a dark pool owned by a shell company incorporated in South Africa, whose biggest shareholder is another shell company owned by … yeah, well, a bunch of known players in electroceuticals, black tech, and people-trafficking. I won’t bore you with the details. All that matters right now is that their information security isn’t as great as they think it is. And our guy is one of their clients.”
“I’m coming to him.”
Elfrida tapped the end of the Z.
“This is an asteroid, or maybe a family of asteroids, known as 99984 Ravilious. We couldn’t find out anything about it …”
Did dos Santos’s face relax in relief?
“ … except that it’s been generating some really heavy signal traffic in the last few years. There’s someone out there. Or something. The ID you gave me is only one of thousands that it or they use. In fact, the ID you had was a throwaway: it went out of service while we were running this search. Pop, gone. So then Captain Nikolopoulos called some people—”
“Oh, I think people he knows in Space Force,” Elfrida said vaguely. She was deliberately exaggerating the extent of Nikolopoulos’s interest in the mystery of 99984 Ravilious. In reality, he hadn’t seemed to grasp its significance. On the other hand, maybe he’d played down his interest in the hope that she wouldn’t grasp its significance. “They analyzed the last six months of so of signals addressed to that ID.”
“They can do that?”
“I guess so. Oh, I don’t think they can actually read the signals without permission from a judge, or something.”
“They should have to have a warrant even to get the traffic history from the servers. I don’t think it was friends in Space Force who did this for him, Goto. I think he called someone in the ISA.”
The Information Security Agency (ISA) was the hoary and sprawling UN agency that managed net communications standards and encryption protocols—a narrow remit that it had transformed over the decades, if rumor could be believed, into a practically limitless watching brief. Elfrida’s mother used to wear a broad-brimmed hat whenever she went out, joking that it would make the ISA’s job a bit harder.
“Well, maybe,” Elfrida said. “But anyway, it was interesting what they found. I mean, on the surface of it, it didn’t look like an interesting result. But—”
“Stop it.” Dos Santos tried to sit up. Unable to flex her spine, she went red in the face and pushed herself up with her hands, this time achieving a few centimeters of elevation. “Just stop it, Goto. You’re toying with me. Pack up your little act. I’ll tell you what they found.”
She fell back and lay panting in the bulky cast. Chrome-hued plastic printed to fit the contours of her body, jigsawed with white seams where the segments had been nanospliced together, it made her look like a robot with a human face. The Kharbage Can coverall she wore added to the grotesque illusion. Elfrida shuddered. Initiative lost, she wanted to sit down, but didn’t want to look weak.
“They found that none of the incoming signals to that ID were encrypted. Am I correct?”
“It didn’t look like an interesting result, as you say. But if you further analyze the source of those signals, you find that several of them came from 11073 Galapagos. In fact, they were sent by Yumiko.”
“Th-that’s what I think too, ma’am.”
“Which is where it starts to look very interesting. And if, hypothetically, you did have a warrant, and you were able to read her signals—which would technically be possible, since they weren’t encrypted in any way, nor did they have DNR protection, and I’m sure the ISA vacuums up everything heading into dark pools as a matter of course—then you’d find that they contained the survey data from 11073 Galapagos.”
“W-well,” Elfrida floundered.
Dos Santos nodded. She didn’t need Elfrida to confirm it. Clearly, she already knew. “While I was operating Yumiko, I had a look at her outgoing signal history. She sent our survey data to an unknown ID. She was updating that ID on her activities once per sol throughout her time there.”
Elfrida swung the head around so she could see its face. Rage filled her at the thought of what this smart-stupid machine had done. And it had had the nerve to call her a dumbshit, a zoo monkey …
“You should have let me deal with it,” dos Santos said. “There was no need to involve the ISA.”
“Why, ma’am? Do you know who’s behind 99984 Ravilious?” Are you trying to protect them?
Dos Santos shook her head, the only part of her she could move normally. “No, Goto. I don’t know who they are. I didn’t even know that they existed. And had I known, I would have made sure to tell them to take elementary precautions, such as encrypting those damn updates.”
“I thought she was taking orders from someone,” Elfrida muttered. “But she wasn’t. She was leaking information to someone.”
There was a moment’s silence. Dos Santos frowned at the wall. “Those trophies aren’t real,” she remarked. “They’re made of silica or something.”
“Ma’am, you just noticed? There’s no such thing as a sabertooth tiger.”
“Yes, there is: they’ve been cloned from fossil DNA … No, I know they’re fake. I was just thinking, what kind of pretentious meathead hangs fake trophies on his walls?”
“Officer Windsor’s not that bad. You just have to kind of get past his defenses.”
“Something you’re quite good at,” dos Santos said with a trace of bitterness. Elfrida swallowed. Dos Santos turned her face to the wall. “Yes, Goto, you were right in the first place: Yumiko did have orders that weren’t in her official operating guidelines. Those orders came from me and my friends. Nothing to do with these clowns on 99984 Ravilious, whoever they are. She was ordered to talk you out of recommending the purchase of 11073 Galapagos. It’s an ongoing thing. We’ve been making a lot of progress in the last few years.”
This was the confession Elfrida had been waiting for. She was no longer certain she wanted to hear it. “Why, ma’am? Why try to stop us from acquiring asteroids?”
“Why do you think?” Dos Santos aimed a hard gaze at the display screen. Elfrida’s star map disappeared and was replaced by the Can’s autofeed of Venus. Stately, cloud-veiled, the giant jellybean hung serenely in the black. It was the same sight that had comforted and inspired Elfrida during her lonely hours in the ruin of St. Peter’s.
“That damn planet,” dos Santos said. “We’ll never succeed in terraforming it. There are so many holes in the computer models, you wouldn’t believe. The whole Project is a boondoggle. It’s a massive, long-running scam designed to put money in the pockets of assholes like our gracious host, and some people are rightly sick of it.”
“So y-you thought that if you sabotaged the asteroid capture program …”
“It would lead to the cancellation of the whole Project. A multi-phase, multi-agency project like this is a house of cards. Pull one out and the whole thing comes down.”
And now the Project will probably be cancelled anyway. Elfrida thought of Botticelli Station, slowly sinking into Venus’s clouds. Thanks to the PLAN.
Dos Santos and her unknown co-conspirators had achieved their goals in the most tragic way possible. Maybe not directly, but as a result of their secret meddling, they had brought about the attack on Botticelli Station and its catastrophic sequel.
“What about the people?” she burst out.
“Well, us, for starters. If the Project collapses, we’ll all be out of a job. But just as importantly, what about the Galapajin? And all the people on all those other asteroids that didn’t get purchased, and won’t get purchased in the future, if you have your way? You know how the recycling companies operate! They evict them, take their recyclables, and dump them on Ceres with the clothes on their backs.”
“Well, they don’t always do that,” dos Santos said. “Sometimes they sell the asteroids on.” She let her head fall back on the cushions. “I guess I wasn’t really thinking about the people,” she said quietly.
For a moment, Elfrida thought dos Santos was about to start crying. But she had misjudged the woman again.
“I don’t regret trying to sabotage the Project. And I stand by my beliefs one hundred percent. I can’t speak for the others. But I believe that they, too, had only the best intentions.”
“Who …” Elfrida trailed off. Sick at heart, she didn’t really want to know how high the conspiracy to sabotage the Project went. It was bad enough to know that it included someone, or a bunch of someones, in a position to give UNVRP’s phavatars secret operating guidelines.
As it turned out, dos Santos wouldn’t have told her, anyway. “You think I’m giving them up? Think again. If there’s one thing you learn growing up in the slums of Sao Paulo, it’s don’t sing.”
She rolled off the bunk, landed face down on the floor.
The door of the cabin opened. A helper bot teetered in. Resembling a ladder with arms, it was the one dos Santos had commandeered as her personal servant. It bent into an S-shape and helped her up.
“We’re done here,” dos Santos said without looking at Elfrida. “Do whatever you like with that search result. I expect the ISA is doing it already … But if you find out who’s behind 99984 Ravilious, gimme a ping, huh? I’d like to know just what meathead fucked this up for all of us.”
She hobbled out, leaving Elfrida standing in front of the display screen, Yumiko’s head still in her hand.