Elfrida slouched along the corridor in dos Santos’s wake, deliberately letting the other woman and her helper bot go ahead. She felt more confused and helpless than ever. What had she expected, for crying out loud? That dos Santos would deny her involvement in the conspiracy to sabotage the Venus Remediation Project?
She realized now that she had been desperately hoping she was wrong. Even after she began to suspect dos Santos of being up to no good, she had continued to admire her and yearn for her approval. Now that was all gone.
Even when she was stuck in the ruin of St. Peter’s, she hadn’t felt this alone.
Captain Okoli came around the corner. He exchanged a minimal nod with dos Santos and stopped in front of Elfrida. “Well?”
“You can tell Windsor he can have his cabin back,” Elfrida said. “Thanks.”
Okoli raised his eyebrows at dos Santos’s back. “What’s eating milady?”
“Fuck off, Martin,” dos Santos called back without turning. Supported by her helper bot, she rounded the corner and disappeared. Elfrida assumed she was going back to sickbay.
Okoli’s face looked drawn. Over the last few sols, the shine had started to come off Kharbage LLC’s media profile. Okoli had to be under a lot of pressure from his bosses. But he spoke in a bantering tone. “Got your therapy prescription yet, Agent Goto?”
“Oh, yeah. I’m supposed to start kinetic therapy today, to compensate for all that time I spent in freefall. And they want me to do at least six weeks of cognitive-therapy sessions with a bot, so I don’t develop any negative associations with space, or asteroids, or floating around on a fragment of rock not knowing whether I’ll survive or not.” Elfrida rolled her eyes.
Okoli laughed. “Somehow, Agent Goto, I think you’re going to be OK.”
“But I, personally, would prescribe something different.”
“On the Can, we call it clam chowder.”
Okoli wasn’t so bad, Elfrida thought. At least you knew where you stood with him. And he wasn’t conspiring to undermine his own employers, lying to everyone, living a double life … “I guess I really ought to try that chowder of yours sometime.”
When they were seated in the mess, she confessed, “You know, it’s funny. I knew this ship before I ever came here, but I never really knew it. You learn so much more in the flesh.”
“And what have you learned?”
Elfrida tasted her ‘clam chowder.’ It wasn’t bad, for a wine spritzer. Apricot-flavored, not too sweet. “Oh, I guess I’ve learned that not everyone on the Can is an asshole.”
“High praise,” Okoli said dryly. He glowered at the viewport screen, which was showing the usual news feed. “Goddamn, insinuating … Why don’t you come right out and say it, if you think we’re enemies of humanity?”
“What are they saying?”
“That Kharbage LLC leaked the data on 11073 Galapagos to the PLAN.”
Elfrida remembered dos Santos’s allegation that people suspected Kharbage LLC of being the source of the leak. Apparently dos Santos hadn’t been making that up.
Okoli glanced at her. “Et tu, Goto?”
“I’m not sure what that means, but if you mean do I believe it, I don’t. OK, I did for a while. It seemed like the only logical possibility. But now I know it’s not true.”
“Well, because …” Should she tell him? Yes, she decided. Why not? “I know who did leak the data. It was my phavatar. I guess she had a programming conflict. She sent out the survey data that we gathered, in clear. Of course, that data included the information that 11073 Galapagos was populated by purebloods. So to the PLAN, that was like blood in the water. Toilet roll alert, and the rest is history.”
Okoli sat in silence for a minute, alternately sucking on his pouch and shaking his head as if about to speak. At last he tossed down the pouch and asked Elfrida’s permission to touch Yumiko’s head. She gave it. Okoli held the head up and squinted into its blank, half-open eyes. “Will the memory crystals prove this, what you’re saying?”
“Yes, they should. I’m just not sure that it’ll ever be made public. But, uh, I’ve got other proof. If you review your surveillance records for the last hour, you’ll see my boss corroborating these facts, based on a search of Yumiko’s memory that she ran herself, back when you didn’t want to let her use your telepresence facilities.”
Okoli interrupted her almost before she was done speaking. “Nope. No surveillance in Windsor’s cabin. The fat bastard objects to it on principle. And I trust him, so …”
“Dos Santos must have known that when she asked to use the cabin,” Elfrida realized.
“I’m sure she did.”
Someone switched the news feed over to a shoot-‘em-up drama, without provoking an outcry. Not even the Botticelli Station refugees wanted to see Kharbage LLC pilloried on the net. That seemed like a hopeful sign to Elfrida.
Okoli tossed down his empty pouch and plucked a cigarette out of his pocket. “You mind?”
“No, go ahead.”
He puffed out a cloud of fruit-scented vapor. “Well, Agent Goto, if you’re ever looking for a job, you’ve got one here on the Can.”
“Thanks, but I’m not looking for a job, that I know of.” Elfrida hesitated. “Should I be?”
“I don’t know. But in your shoes, working for who you work for, and knowing what you know, I wouldn’t feel too comfortable.”
Okoli’s words had been prescient. Elfrida was summoned less than one sol later to a private teleconference with Dr. Hasselblatter himself.
Seated behind a crescent-shaped desk like the President’s, wearing a suit and tie, the executive director of COMLI looked deeply pissed. In no uncertain language, he chastised her for disclosing confidential data to Space Force. He did not come out and admit what that data consisted of, although he had obviously learnt the whole story through some back channel (so the ISA probably was involved, after all, Elfrida realized). It seemed surreal that he was focusing on her misconduct, when Yumiko’s unauthorized transmissions had led directly to the deaths of a thousand people. He closed by expressing “grave disappointment” and pointing out that she had violated the terms of her employment.
Near tears, Elfrida said, “I guess I’m guilty, sir. But I thought it was important for us to know where the phavatar was sending her updates, and I guess I didn’t understand that Space Force wasn’t supposed to know.” She felt her mind going blank, and smoothed her hair panickily. “Anyway, I guess I was in violation of my terms of employment as soon as I stole the Cheap Trick. And I really appreciate that we’re not being blamed for that, I mean I’m really proud that UNVRP and Space Force could coordinate our public response … oh, dog. I don’t know what to say, sir. I guess … I admit it all, and I’m sorry.”
For the next twenty minutes she upbraided herself for being such a wuss. She should have asked Dr. Hasselblatter what UNVRP was going to do about 99984 Ravilious. She should have asked him how the stross-class phavatar ever got past quality control. She should have told him about the conspiracy to sabotage UNVRP itself.
But half an hour later, she was grovelling again. She felt like a robot, programmed to express only inarticulate servility in the face of authority, regardless of what she knew was right.
The planet Kepler-186f circled a dim red dwarf star 500 lightyears from Earth. Its myriad giant lakes sparkled in orange sunlight, dotted with icebergs.
With an average temperature slightly above freezing, Earth-like gravity of 1.1 gees, and a breathable atmosphere, the planet was perfectly suited for human colonization. Or rather, it would have been, if not for the Zergi’i, who happened to live there. This race of furry, sentient quadripeds had vaporized the first humans to enter their solar system, and were now busily constructing their own interstellar strike force, based on plundered human technology, to mount a counter-invasion of the Sol system.
Such, at any rate, was the setting of the popular immersion game Existential Threat IV.
“Do you really think this kind of thing is remotely plausible?” Elfrida said.
Petruzzelli looked up from the antimatter field generator she was tinkering with. “I used to think so,” she said. “I used to dream about actually being one of the first colonists on Kepler-186f. It’s a real planet, you know. This is all based on real data. Well, except for the Zergi’i. There’s no evidence that life evolved anywhere outside of Earth.”
“And the FTL ships.”
“That, too. I forget who said it, but: special relativity, causality, FTL—pick two. You can’t have all three, as far as we know. Of course, that might change. They’re always working on it.”
“I guess I can see the attraction of the dream,” Elfrida said. She thought about her own dream of being one of the first to walk on Venus. It paralleled Petruzzelli’s dream of interstellar exploration. And maybe her own dream had always been just as unrealistic.
“I dunno,” Petruzzelli said. “I’m not having that much fun with it anymore.” She picked up the antimatter field generator and carried it over to the window of the fortified dome. This was a Space Force base near the south pole of Kepler-186f, where the players of the game had established a beachhead. Ice fields undulated to the horizon. The occasional satellite-guided lance of light, purple against the orange sky, picked off players in arctic camouflage creeping across the snow.
“We’re obviously going to win,” Petruzzelli said. “Everyone playing the game, put together, is better than the computer. That’s always how it goes when a game gets too popular and zillions of people jump on board. Normally, when players want a bigger challenge, they set up their own iteration and go it alone or with a few friends. I was thinking I might set up my own iteration and try to launch peace talks with the Zergi’i.” She held up the antimatter field generator. “I’m making a portable shield so I can get close enough to talk to them.”
“Or you could just quit,” Elfrida said.
“Or I could just quit,” Petruzzelli agreed.
In the game, Petruzzelli was drop-dead gorgeous, like a taller, thinner sister of the real Petruzzelli, with better skin and big green eyes, clad in a black catsuit and a stole of fluffy white Zergi’i fur. Elfrida was a troglodytic grunt. This was the zero-level avatar you got when you signed up, as Elfrida had had to do to get in to talk to her friend. Since the Cheap Trick’s return, Petruzzelli had been hiding out in the game full time, even eating and going to the toilet with her headset on.
Feeling clumsy and numb in Petruzzelli’s off-the-rack immersion environment—which did not compare with a telepresence cubicle for sensory realism—Elfrida followed the glamorous avatar down to the courtyard of the dome. A scouting party was preparing to sortie. Petruzzelli pulled rank on them and requisitioned their monowheel.
A firing platform balanced atop a single pudgy wheel, the vehicle carried them out of the dome and across trampled, blood-spattered snow. Petruzzelli, standing at the yoke, leaned left and right to steer. “This is where we find out if my shield works,” she said, patting the field generator she had hooked up to the monowheel’s power supply.
Elfrida looked down at a corpse they were passing, wondering why it was still there. How long did the game keep avatars around after they died? The freezing wind tore her breath away in white wisps.
“So,” Petruzzelli said. “What’s going to happen to dos Santos?”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, they need to hang someone for stealing the Cheap Trick,” Petruzzelli said wisely. “It can’t be me, and now it can’t be you, because you’re a hero. So it’s got to be her or Kliko, or both of them. And I don’t think they could make it stick to Kliko. Especially since he’s still on life support.”
Elfrida sat down on the monowheel’s platform with her back to the plasma-cannon mount. “She’s sacrificing herself for me,” she said. “I just got off the screen with the executive director of COMLI. They were going to fire me. But dos Santos struck a bargain with them. I get to keep my job. In exchange, she’s going to take all the blame. She’ll lose her job, her UNVRP equity, everything. She might even go to jail … I don’t know why she would do that for me.”
“Hey,” Petruzzelli said. “You might be misinterpreting it. She’s senior, and she officially wasn’t there, so firing her won’t mess with their fake-ass media narrative. It doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that.”
“No. Dr. Hasselblatter implied that she voluntarily took responsibility. He even said I should be grateful to her. See, she’s got contacts. She could have got herself off. But instead, she must’ve called in every favor she was owed. All to save me.”
“Hmm.” Petruzzelli steered the monowheel around a gaping crater in the snow. “I still think there’s less here than meets the eye. You’re going to be doing a lot of media, you’re going to be telling COMLI’s story, so they want you to be scared and grateful. So they threaten to fire you, and they actually do fire your boss … and here you are, scared and grateful.”
Elfrida was silent for a moment, smarting at the implication that she was easily manipulated. “It’s just so unfair. We saved those people. No one should have to get fired for it.”
“Don’t talk to me about unfairness. I piloted that ship. I shot down three PLAN fighters! And that cretin Kim is getting all the credit, and I’m not even allowed to tell my mother. Talk about threats, you don’t want to know what they threatened me with.”
“They can put a lot of pressure on a private company like Kharbage LLC, too. Elfrida, it’s the UN.”
“And I work for them,” Elfrida mumbled.
“Are you going to stay working for them?”
“They graciously said you could keep your job. That doesn’t mean you have to.”
Elfrida gazed at the passing icefield. Birds swooped around an elephant-moss formation, searching for the groundfish that bred in the crannies of the alien vegetation. “I don’t know. It might be academic. If the Project goes under, I won’t have a job to keep.”
Suddenly, violet lightning lit up the orange sky. Elfrida seemed to feel herself flying sideways. Then everything went black.
She wrenched her headset off. She was sitting on the floor of Petruzzelli’s cabin, where she had been all along, of course. Her limbs tingled as if she’d had an electric shock.
Lying on her bunk, Petruzzelli said, “Hnnnnfff.” She sat up, wires trailing out of her hair. “Well, now we know. The dang shield didn’t work.”
“We’re dead,” Petruzzelli confirmed. “Years of hard work, all gone in a microsecond, bang!” She removed her headset. Her eyes were red-rimmed. “I guess I was ready to quit, after all.”
Elfrida wondered if she was, too.
“Y’know, I could do with some minestrone,” Petruzzelli said, getting up and sticking her feet into her Elephunts. “Coming?”
“I guess …” Elfrida noticed an alarm flashing in the HUD area of her vision. “Oh dog, no, I can’t. I’m late!”