Elfrida scrambled up the keel transit tube to the transfer point under the forward radome. The transfer point was a small cylinder that rotated around the ship’s spine at 4 rpm. From here, two 100-meter gimbaled arms extended perpendicular to the Can’s keel, also rotating. 4 rpm in the transfer point was pretty much freefall, so that Elfrida had to flap and flail her way to one of the elevator doors in the cylinder’s sides. It irised, after some minutes, to reveal another cylinder, this one lying on its side and full of annoyed bodybuilders. Four rotations per minute delivered a very livable 0.8 gees to the hab modules halfway along the propellor arms. But at the ends of the arms, where the ballast tanks would be relocated to balance the ship in the event of uneven loads, that went up to an organ-crushing 1.7 gees. Perfect for weight-training, if you were a blue beret or otherwise masochistic. The bodybuilders liked to keep the elevators out at the ends of the arms so they could use them as gyms, and got irritated when anyone insisted on using them as elevators.
Elfrida apologetically swam in between them. The elevator fell into gravity, she fell to the floor, and—slow to regain her sense of balance—fell out of the elevator door, head over heels.
She tumbled into the vestibule of the command module and sat up with her head spinning, blood rushing back towards her extremities. She wiped someone else’s sweat off her face and set off at a run. No NO RUNNING signs on the graffitied walls of the Can.
It felt odd to be physically present in this ship she’d travelled in so often as a phavatar. She knew the trick of throwing your weight anti-spinwards when you went up and down the ladders, the smell of nutriblocks and adrenaline, and the aquarium echo of noise. She was not used to seeing the Can stuffed with her traumatized colleagues from Botticelli Station. Considering themselves a cut above mere evacuees, they refused to stay in the passenger module. They mooched around the bridge and congregated in the crew mess, looking for consolation and companionship.
Blue berets, driven out of their usual seats by the B-Station cuckoos, lounged against the walls of the mess. Elfrida said hello to Captain Roy. He curled his lip at the news feed on the big screen, which the refugees were monopolizing in compensation for their lack of net access. It was showing, once again, the Kharbage Can’s own footage of the battle. A red circle highlighted a black dot: Botticelli Station plunging towards Venus. Elfrida swallowed, not yet desensitized to this sight.
A flamingo-crested announcer updated the audience, once again, on the struggle to save the station. Thus Elfrida learned for the first time that the engineers were attaching a mass driver to the station, as if it were an asteroid. Their attempt to power up the attitude boosters must have failed.
Dos Santos will be happy to hear that, she thought.
“This is ridiculous,” Captain Roy said, shaking his head.
“No shit,” said the woman from Human Resources who had apologetically served Elfrida with Jim Hardy’s dying complaint. “We’re right here, we’re the story, and we’re having to learn this stuff from the freaking New York Times instead of our own captain.”
“You know what gets me?” said someone from Life Support. “The whole system is watching us. But no one is lifting a finger to help us. Two weeks!” He was referring to the projected wait they faced before they could be evacuated. “The Kharbage Dump’s got to come all the way from Luna orbit. There’s gotta be something closer than that. Where are our ships, huh?”
“You get what you pay for,” Captain Roy murmured. “And UNVRP doesn’t like paying for ships. Planetocentrism.”
A trekkie, one of Okoli’s officers, joined the argument. “Sure, there are plenty of ships around here. And they’re all hauling ass in the opposite direction. The only captain this crazy is Martin Okoli.”
Elfrida coughed. “I was actually looking for the captain. Do you know where he is?”
Captain Roy and the trekkie woman exchanged a look: here’s another one wants to complain about the food / the accommodations / the comms, pick one or all of the above. The influx of refugees had brought the trekkies and their onboard peacekeeping detail together like never before.
“Captain? He’d be on the bridge.”
“You’re not authorized to go down there,” Captain Roy reminded her pre-emptively. She knew him, had coordinated a dozen missions with him, but he did not know her, never before having seen her in the flesh. It was a funny feeling.
“Oh, stop covering up for the captain,” she said. “I know he’s not on the bridge. He’s either messing around with the guns in hopes that the PLAN come back, or watching dirty vids in his cabin.”
The trekkie let out a guffaw. She spoke into the air—she must have a comms implant. “Cap’n, a chick from the station wants to talk to you. Shall I tell her you’re too busy jerking off?”
Elfrida was used to the way the trekkies talked, but several of her colleagues stared in shock at the woman’s lack of obsequiousness. This was ironic, since they had all been complaining mercilessly about Captain Sikorsky—behind his back, to be sure.
“Yeah, all right. What’s your name, hon?”
“Goto,” Elfrida said. “Tell him it’s Agent Goto.”
The trekkie relayed this. Up went her magenta eyebrows. “He says he’ll see you. In his cabin. Know where it is?” She added, shouting after Elfrida’s departing figure, “Hope you’re qualified to handle hazardous toxins!”
The woman had been referring, as it turned out, not to Captain Okoli’s choice of viewing matter, but only to the hazardous state of his cabin. In contrast to the captain’s spick-and-span personal demeanor, his cabin was ankle-deep in gadgets, bits and pieces of weaponry, souvenirs, and forgotten food and drink containers. An array of screens splarted to the wall displayed camera feeds from all over the ship. Elfrida saw herself falling out of the elevator on her ass and tumbling against the vestibule wall. Okoli was replaying this footage and shaking his head at it. “Agent Goto. So that’s who you are. I was expecting someone taller.”
“It’s just a quote,” Okoli said. He waved a hand to close the door behind her, then replayed the clip again. “Klutzy but cute. That ought to be a ship name. Maybe it’ll be my next command, the one I get as a reward for saving Botticelli Station: the Klutzy But Cute. Named after Agent Goto.” He finally looked at the real her. “How can I help you?”
“I think I know where they’re going next.”
“11073 Galapagos. You know, the asteroid that we—”
“I was wondering how long it would take you to work that out.” Okoli swung his legs up onto the heap of oddments that occupied the foot of his bed, settled his head against the polyfoam headrest, and took a pull from a pouch labeled CLAM CHOWDER. His eyes were red-veined. “We can’t help them, Goto. We’re too far away, even if we started to burn yesterday. And there’s nothing else in this volume that can face down a PLAN ninepack.”
“There’s the Cheap Trick.”
“I know Captain Kim. He’s a good guy. And those Heavypickets are pretty scary, even if they do look like flying fridges. But Kim works for Space Force. You know what that means? He does what he’s told. And his commanders aren’t gonna tell him to go and defend an asteroid that belongs to someone else.”
Elfrida sat limply on an ergoform, first moving the guts of a plasma effector to the floor. She saw now the trap that her own rotten luck, the PLAN, and (it seemed) the universe had conspired to set for her. It wasn’t fair.
“The UN exists to defend humanity,” she argued weakly.
“The UN’s just a corporation like any other. Difference is, it’s the biggest one.” Okoli took another pull on his pouch.
“That’s not clam chowder,” Elfrida said, catching a whiff.
“Wine spritzer. Want one? We get ‘em through UNVRP procurement. Hence the mislabeling. One advantage of having peacekeepers on board.”
“No, thank you.”
“Loosen up a little, Goto.”
“What is the PLAN?”
Okoli tilted his head one way and then the other, pooching his lips out. “A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
“Are they better than us?”
“Are they … aliens?”
Okoli laughed. The abandoned ring of his laughter told her that he was drunk, or on his way there. “You know, I’ve heard that before. Never from a UN employee. You usually hear that kind of thing in the wet bars on Ceres where they also believe the President is actually a robot.”
“I’m just trying to keep an open mind,” Elfrida said primly.
“No, they’re not aliens. After the Mars Incident, no one went near that planet for decades. We just watched through our telescopes. Watched the AIs, or their descendants, crawl out of the volcanic inferno they had made. They rose like the phoenix and started to rebuild. But this time they weren’t building domes and factories. They built strange, geometrical towers like Le Corbusier on peyote. Some said these constructions were weapons aimed at Earth. Some said they were beautiful. Some said that it wasn’t suicide that the Heidegger Club of Mars had committed. They said it was a war, and the post-modernists had come out the victors. And all the time, of course, people wondered: Was there, could there be, anything still alive out there? Could anything recognizably human survive in that weird, jazzy pueblo the size of a continent and still growing, lapped by a freshly melted sea?”
Okoli paused to suck his wine spritzer pouch flat. Elfrida took the opportunity to ask, “Le Corbusier?”
He tossed the empty pouch at her. “Third evilest man of the twentieth century after Hitler and Stalin. And if you ask me who they were, I’m gonna have you shot.”
“They were nationalists.”
“Least you didn’t say individualists. Now, do you want to hear this or not?”
“Yes.” Elfrida was in fact captivated by Okoli’s storytelling style. He made the old tale of Mars glimmer with mysteries often overlooked through sheer familiarity. She caught herself wondering if he owed it to his African ancestry, not that it mattered.
“All right. So we watched and we wondered, and the more time passed, the more people started to think we might’ve got it all wrong. Maybe those weren’t weapons blossoming on the face of Mars. Maybe they were presents for us, gifts of new and unimaginably good technology … some shit like that. Governments argued, corporations speculated, and everyone agreed it was a pain in the ass to keep avoiding Mars en route to the new colonies in the Belt and beyond. It was unacceptable that we should be banned from a vast volume in the middle of our solar system. Above all, we felt hurt. Mars was supposed to be our second home. The first planet we terraformed, the destination of our spacefaring dreams. We wanted that planet back.”
Okoli shook his head slowly.
“So around the turn of the twenty-second century, the inevitable happened. A government broke ranks. Mounted a hugely expensive, heavily armed mission to the Red Planet. Sent their best ships, their best soldiers, their best analytical minds.”
“And never came back.” Elfrida could not resist delivering the punchline herself.
“Curiosity may not have killed the cat. But it sure as shit did kill the Chinese. Or … did it?” Okoli swung his legs off the bed, clasped his hands loosely between his thighs, stared blearily at her. “Those ships never came back. But it wasn’t long after that that the Chinese government started acting downright bizarre. Withdrew from the UN. Announced a separate colonization program. Asserted independent claims to a lot of the best assets in the solar system. Draw your own conclusions. They deny any connection, of course. Swear up and down they’re as tough on AI as the next signatory to the Machine intelligence Control Treaty. But the fact remains that those ships, the toilet rolls, the ones that attacked Botticelli Station … bear certain unmistakable design similarities to the Xi-class fighters that escorted the Chinese exploratory mission to Mars, lo these many moons ago. As if they were of a similar lineage. We believe they’re nth-generation descendants of the People’s Liberation Army Navy. And that’s why we call ‘em the PLAN.”
Okoli spread his hands, let them fall.
“But they attack Chinese targets, too,” Elfrida said.
“Sure they do. There may or may not be anything alive on Mars now, but it sure as shit ain’t loyal.”
“They’re AIs,” Elfrida muttered.
“Could be, could well be. That’s what most people think. Now, are you done wasting my time?”
“11073 Galapagos is your asteroid!” Elfrida’s voice shook, and Captain Okoli gave her a startled look.
“We picked it up for a song,” he said.
“So you’re not even going to try and save it?”
For answer, Okoli stood and ushered her to the door. Polite but curt, he said, “You’re up in here running interference for Glory dos Santos. I don’t appreciate that one little bit. Tell her, if she wants her budgety new phavatar back that bad, go and fetch it herself. We’re done here, Agent Goto. Have a nice day.”
Backing up before him, Elfrida said, “At least let me use one of your telepresence cubicles. I won’t try to get into your hub. I won’t poke around in your comms logs or investigate your mislabeled wine spritzer racket. I promise. Please.”
A grudging hint of a smile appeared on Okoli’s face. “Anything to get you off my back. But tell any of the others I let you do it, especially dos Santos, and I’ll put you in the therapy ward. Got it, cutiepie?”
Elfrida scrambled back to the elevator. The bodybuilders bowed and grinned her in with exaggerated patience. As the elevator approached the transfer point, Elfrida came off the floor and floated. A weightlifter’s too-friendly hand on her butt propelled her head-over-heels into freefall. Dog! You needed to be spaceborn to get around this ship without looking like a clown. She wondered if Captain Okoli had had his surveillance cameras trained on her this time.
The keel transit tube stretched 150 meters long, strip-lit. Elfrida clamped onto a grab handle and kicked off. For a minute she was actually having fun, gliding down the tube like a kid on a zip line. Then she passed the Cargo Bay No. 1 airlock and thought about dos Santos, and then her feet slapped against the topside of the engineering deck.
This region of the ship did not rotate, so was a zero-gee zone when they weren’t under thrust. She flailed through the engineering and maintenance decks, dodging techies, to a dead end behind the workshop. Both of the telepresence cubicles were closed, the OCCUPIED lights on. Captain Okoli’s voice boomed over the PA. “Zhukovsky, I know you’re in there. Move your ass. There’s a lady waiting.”
A seven-foot spaceborn youth gibboned out of the cubicle, smiling sheepishly beneath a Pirates of the Oort Cloud cosplay helmet. The couch and the equipment were plastered with decals and high-score charts. Gamers loved telepresence facilities: the high-end equipment provided a more immersive experience than any off-the-rack kit. Elfrida strapped into a couch that smelled like decaying gym equipment
She clamped the headset on.
Before accessing Yumiko’s realtime sensory feed, she reviewed the avatar’s data dump, which was located on the still-functioning server of Botticelli Station. She had no time to relive everything she’d missed, so she just dipped in at random, using tag searches: resettlement, bishop, mayor, Yonezawa.
What she found puzzled her. It appeared that Yumiko had spent the last three sols engaged in a marathon theological debate with the men and women of the Order of St. Benedict. Esoteric tags sprang out of the data-dump visualization, which resembled a multicolored ball of rubber bands half as tall as Elfrida: Nicene creed, dogma, magisterium, celibacy, evangelization, ecumenism.
~Hey. How’s it hanging?
Yumiko intruded on Elfrida’s search, slim and gorgeous in an engineer’s coverall. She kicked the ball of rubber bands casually into the corner of the search space. Elfrida started. Yumiko was not supposed to know that this data dump was being accessed. Much less have access to it herself. This dedicated search space was off-limits to all but dos Santos, Elfrida, and probably a few people on Dr. Hasselblatter’s level.
~Looking for something? Yumiko asked.
~Yes. The medical surveys, resettlement polls, etcetera. I thought you were hot to move forward with the assessment. Where’s that stuff?
The response came after a sixteen-second delay, during which Yumiko’s avatar wandered in a figure-eight pattern, whistling a tune.
~I decided this was more important. The primary consideration in these people’s decision-making process is their faith, and their perceptions of what it requires of them.
~Oh, I see, Elfrida subvocalized stiffly. ~Well, don’t mind me. I’ll just be getting caught up here.
~Righty-ho. The MI was impervious to irony. She stepped through the institutional-beige wall of the search space and vanished.
With a sinking feeling, Elfrida continued to rummage. It was no good. She couldn’t get caught up fast enough. She let the ball of rubber bands roll away and sat blankly staring. The search space was supposedly optimized for inspiration, with Picasso-esque expressionist figures on the walls, and a knobbly bonsai tree in the corner. It looked like the waiting room at a doctor’s office, and Elfrida was not inspired. When you’d had to step away from a mission for any reason, you relied on your assistant’s briefing to get up to speed. But Yumiko hadn’t left her any of the usual powerpoint summaries. Maybe she’d thought (hoped) Elfrida wasn’t coming back.
(Where did we get our information in the first place?)
(Someone’s giving her orders)
(telling her what to do)
~SUIT COMMAND: Access realtime feed.