Pings kept piling up on the bridge of the Cheap Trick. Glory, sitting at the comms desk, deleted them by the handful. Most came from the Kharbage Can. Now that long enough had passed for the Can to signal Earth, and various people on Earth to have had fits, messages from Space Force were also pouring in. “We’re being threatened with severe juridical penalties,” Glory called out to her shipmates. “Who’d a thunk it?”
“They can’t do anything to me,” Petruzzelli grunted. “I guess you two might be in trouble.”
TO: UNSF Cheap Trick. FROM: Houston.
(The Space Force bureaucracy was distributed among several locations, and all of them seemed to be joining the dogpile.)
“Hang on,” Glory murmured. “That’s not Space Force. It’s Dr. Hasselblatter calling me back.”
She touched the screen to accept the call. She could not use her BCI to access the Cheap Trick’s hub, although Kliko had given them the necessary codes. It utilized a next-generation interface, intuitive enough for even the dumbest recruit to use, that would have taken her longer to figure out than it took to do this in touchscreen mode.
At the same time Elfrida Goto was reaching for the nearest bungee cable, saying, “I’m going to look for a telepresence cubicle. There must be one somewhere.”
Glory leaned towards her, sawing the air with a hand that still weighed more than she was accustomed to. “Goto! Wait, I need you to do something else for me.” Goto looked mutinous. Glory recognized that she had already sacrificed most of her authority over the girl by agreeing to this insane escapade. She marshaled what was left, putting on her sternest voice. “Go to the astrogator’s desk. Pull up a map of the system, and ping the ID I’m about to give you. Get me a visual on the signal path.”
Sulky at being told what to do, Goto flopped out of her couch before Glory could utter so much as a “Watch out!” Inertia pulled her towards the aft bulkheads at approximately 1.2 gees. She crashed amid the debris of personal items from the bridge, banging her head so hard that it bounced.
“Oh dog,” Petruzzelli laughed. “You really aren’t used to acceleration, are you?” Pause. “Hey, Goto, you OK?”
“Heh, heh,” said August Kliko. “Serve you right.”
“I don’t think she’s hurt,” Glory started. Goto was moving painfully, rubbing her head. Just then Dr. Abdullah Hasselblatter popped up in a 3D bubble on the comms screen.
He was still wearing his quidditch uniform. Behind him, players bobbed around the micro-gee playing field on the United Nations Low Earth Orbit Space Station (UNLEOSS), capes swirling.
“You’re through at COMLI, dos Santos,” he snarled. “In fact, based on the information I have at present, you’re looking at life in jail.”
Glory hastily stabbed at the screen. Dr. Hasselblatter’s voice cut off, to be replaced by scrolling text.
“Stealing a military spaceship is a serious crime.”
“I promise to bring it back,” Glory murmured.
“I don’t know how you stayed employed this long. Yes, I do. Connections, connections, connections. Well, your buddies on Luna can’t save you this time. You’ve gone too far, crossed the line, you’re playing out of court …”
Dr. Hasselblatter’s furious visage, the set of his silver eyebrows and his imperiously waggling forefinger, made the bureaucrat in Glory quail, even though she knew that Ranting Disciplinarian was just one of Dr. Hasselblatter’s acts, like Kindly Boss and Policy Wonk. What was the true nature of the man behind the act? There were thousands like him in the upper ranks, changing their core beliefs to match the weather. He continued his predictable attack on her personality, ethnicity, and sexuality. Glory half-listened while she composed her response.
At last he concluded, as she had expected, “But it’s not too late, dos Santos. You can stay out of jail if you start cooperating right now.”
Glory set the encipherment protocol to the same ultra-secure settings Dr Hasselblatter had used—real-time quantum encryption, DNR, auto-delete on—and hit send. She now had to wait at least sixteen minutes before a reply could arrive. She buckled on the bungee harness Goto had forgotten to use, boosted herself out of her ergoform, and bounced down to where the girl was struggling to crawl forward.
“Are you OK? Hold onto me.”
“I think I’ve broken my wrist.”.
“Lucky that’s all you broke. Come on, I’ll give you a piggyback.”
Goto wrapped both legs and one arm around her. Glory punched the auto-carabiner on her harness. The servo hauled them back towards the gyrosphere.
“So let me get this straight,” Kliko said. “We’re heading for 11073 Galapagos.”
“Correctamundo,” Petruzzelli said.
“You figured you’d try to interdict the PLAN,” Kliko said, shaking his head “Despite the fact that none of you is even qualified to fly the ship, let alone combat-certified.”
“Nope,” Glory said. “The original calculation was that we’d get there at least one sol too late to interdict the PLAN. They’d have been and gone. We’d have picked up the survivors. There are always a few. Someone makes it out on a lifeboat, someone else hides in a shielded panic room …”
Goto breathed in Glory’s ear, “And some phavatar is left tumbling in space, where anyone at all could pick her up and find out her secrets. That’s the real reason you agreed to come. Right, ma’am?”
“That’s unfair, Goto,” Glory whispered over her shoulder. “And it’s not even half the truth.”
“But it is a part of it,” the girl hissed gloomily. “You wouldn’t have risked your career for people.”
Glory dumped her into the astrogator’s couch. “Medibot!” she yelled. A robot shaped like a jellyfish, with various intimidating instruments dangling from its skirts, unclamped from the ceiling and floated down to them.
“So this was meant to be a search-and-rescue mission,” Kliko said, shaking his head.
“Yeah,” Goto said. “But that was before we knew about this truck’s super-dee-duper new drive.” She let out a giggle that turned into a hiss of pain. “Now, I guess, we’re going to have a fight on our hands.”
“And I’m the one flying the ship,” Petruzzelli said. “And I don’t know anything about combat. I wish I hadn’t come.”
Glory heard a wobble in the astrogator’s voice. She stopped behind the pilot’s couch on her way back to her own desk. “Don’t lose it, Petruzzelli,” she said, touching her shoulder. “You’re doing great. Don’t freak out on us now. Regarding the potential combat situation, I’m working on that. In any case, you aren’t alone.”
“I can help,” Kliko said hopefully. He flexed his tennis-player’s biceps against the bungee cords that tied him to his couch. “Rrrraoohhrr! Doggone it!”
Glory dropped back into the comms officer’s couch, sweating with exertion. The couch, smarter than any civilian ergoform, immediately started to massage her trembling muscles and offered her a choice of gatorade, amino gel, or water. “The things Space Force spends its money on,” Glory muttered. “I’ll have the gatorade.”
On the comms screen, Dr. Hasselblatter was horsing around with his friends, showing her exactly how safe he was, how well-loved by the UN community. At least by the lovably quirky, quidditch-playing subset of it. Watching these carefree bureaucrats zoom around on their broomsticks, against a backdrop of distant parkland, Glory remembered her own spell on UNLOESS, after Callisto. If she wound up in court, the prosecution would say that was when she’d started to go wrong.
But she wouldn’t end up in court. Because she had the dirt on Dr. Abdullah Hasselblatter, and she could make it stick. She’d reminded him of that in her message, followed by a threat and a counter-offer.
Seventeen minutes and twenty seconds, thirty seconds …
The screen switched to a close-up of Dr. Hasselblatter’s face. He tossed his broomstick into freefall and jammed his wizard’s hat on his head. He looked really angry now, not fake-angry. This was progress.
“Ja, ja. You bitch. I don’t believe for one second you’d dare to spew this all over the solar system. You could, yes, cause a nano-scandal. Oh no!” He put on a fake-concerned face. “The UN abandoned an asteroid full of innocent colonists to their deaths because secuuuurity!” He dropped the talking head impersonation. “But if you did that, you’d also be sealing your own fate. You’ve got more to lose than anyone if the peanut gallery gets hold of this and starts to dig.”
“Ya think?”Glory murmured. “I’m not the one with a Ph.D, a ten-figure salary, and a seat on the Space Force Consulting Committee.”
“Maybe you’ve decided, for your own reasons, to undermine and destroy everything we’ve accomplished. But I’m willing to believe that you acted on laudable motives,” Dr. Hasselblatter continued. “There’s nothing wrong in principle with saving people. But there are times, dos Santos, when principle has to take a back seat to security. If you lose that ship, there will be an investigation. There will be questions asked. There will be answers that no one wants to hear.”
“Would I care,” Glory asked the screen quietly, “if I were dead?” But the truth was, yes she would. She believed that their cause was bigger than herself. She didn’t want to undermine it. On the contrary, she was trying to salvage it, as Goto had half-guessed.
“Let the asteroid go, dos Santos. Let the PLAN have it.” Dr. Hasselblatter grimaced as if the very words tasted foul. “Change course now, and you’ll be able to slingshot around Mercury and return to Venus orbit within the week, no one any the wiser. Do that, and I’ll do everything in my power to spare you the consequences of your actions.”
“So darn predictable,” Glory said, shaking her head. “Always the cover-up.” She started typing her response on the keyboard that the screen projected into her field of vision. Dog, she hated this clunky interface. She didn’t actually have to touch each letter, she could just look at it with intent, but still, she had to hunt for each one.
“Wouldn’t you think that after four hundred years, humanity would have found some way to wean itself off QWERTY?” she asked idly.
“Not with your lot in charge,” Petruzzelli said. She had her elbows on the console. Her magenta hair was a sweaty frizz.
Dr. Hasselblatter finished: “The Navy has already mapped out that course for you. It’s been sent to the hub of the Cheap Trick. All you have to do is plug it in, and you’ll be on your way home.”
He took off his wizard’s hat and sat heavily on his broomstick, unintentionally projecting the image of a defeated player.
“Do this for me, dos Santos. For yourself. For us all.”
Glory typed, “Oh, and also, I’ve got vid of you at one of Derek’s parties, getting fucked in the ass by a robot. I’d be just as happy to get that out of my head and up in the gallery where it belongs, say on Slebsandplebs.cloud. Anyway. Where was I? Oh, yeah. If the Navy can remotely map out a complex course involving the gravity well of a planet, it must have some other tricky, failure-masking programs up its sleeve.” She paused, sipped her gatorade. “It’s too late for us to change course, sir. We’re committed. But you can help us survive. If we do, no one will ever hear about any of this from me. That’s a promise.”
She added a few more lines, then hit send. She pushed her screen out of the way and looked across the gyrosphere at Goto. The medibot had dosed the girl with painkillers and squirted a smart cast onto her right wrist. It now concluded its ministrations by offering her some morale juice. Goto stared dopily at the medibot.
“Take the stuff, Goto,” dos Santos said. “It’s good for you.”
“I’ll have some, too,” Kliko said. “If I have to die, I might as well enjoy it.”
“None for him, 200 ccs for her,” dos Santos ordered. “Goto, have you started that ID search yet?”
“Could you get on that, please? Thanks. I’ve sent you the data.”
Petruzzelli broke in, “Two hours, four minutes to destination. I got the ship to sim the PLAN’s voyage to this asteroid, using a bunch of different acceleration parameters. It’s a pretty wide window, but we’re definitely going to overlap.” Her eyes showed white all around the irises. “I didn’t sign up for a battle to the death with the Martians.”
That’ll teach you to look before you leap, Glory thought. She said, “It’s going to be OK, Petruzzelli. You’ll have help. I’ve just asked—”
“I want to alter course. I’m going to alter course. Screw these colonists. I don’t want to die.”
“No!” Goto shouted.
“Yes!” Kliko shouted. “Attagirl!”
Glory raised her voice, mustering the managerial tone of She Who Must Be Obeyed. “Petruzzelli. You’re an aspiring pilot. Right? So I bet you love combat sims. I bet you’ve flown dozens of missions against the PLAN in immersion.”
“Yes, but that’s not the real thing. I—”
“That’s how they train Space Force pilots,” dos Santos said. “Only difference being, the Space Force sims are really advanced. They’re based on actual combat programs that pilots use in contacts.”
“I know. Everyone wants to get their hands on them. They’re total lust objects, ‘scuse me.”
“So how’d you like to try out a Space Force combat program for real?”
“I already tried to get into the combat suite, it won’t let me in, and anyway this is just a Heavypicket, so it doesn’t have any—”
“I’ve just been talking to one of my contacts on Earth. I told him we need a top-of-the-line immersive combat program, customized to our actual situation and the specs of this craft, with probabilistic modelling functionality, that you can plug in if the need arises. It’ll do all the heavy lifting. Well, nearly all. You’ll be just like a real fighter pilot: kick back, watch the show, and push the trigger when it tells you to.” Dos Santos smiled. “So they’re working on that now, and they’ll send it to us well before we get there.” She was speaking as if Dr. Hasselblatter had already consented to her request. But she was pretty sure he’d jump on it. Her solution ticked all his boxes, while preserving deniability in the event that the PLAN blew the Cheap Trick into nanodust.
Petruzzelli looked thoughtful. “Well. I would have untouchable bragging rights. Never have to buy my own drinks again.”
“Oh, fucking scream,” Kliko said. “Thank dog the Space Force offers generous life insurance.”
“Go for it, Petruzzelli!” Goto said, grinning and flourishing her pouch of morale juice.