(Links to previous chapters at the end)
“Oh, it’s you again,” said the captain of the Kharbage Can.
Elfrida sighed. It was not surprising that she should be hitching a ride to 11073 Galapagos on a Kharbage LLC ship. UNVRP relied heavily on its private-sector partners for transport, since the UN’s own Space Force had better things to do than chauffeur community liaison agents around the solar system. Again, it was not surprising that she found herself back on the Kharbage Can. Kharbage LLC operated several barges such as this one, but it only kept one at a time within effective-zero latency range of Botticelli Station, the same volume that 2934 Kreuset had lately vacated.
What was surprising was that the captain had recognized her in a different suit. “How did you know it was me?” she said.
“Body language. The way you twirl your hair. The fact that you honored us with your company at this lavish feast.” The captain gestured ironically at the blue berets and trekkies sitting hunched over the mess tables, snorkeling up rehydrated nutriblocks. “Most phavatar operators don’t bother to do that.”
“Oh.” Elfrida felt a bit stupid. “Well, since we’re old friends, have you got any advice for me?”
“About what? Pretending to eat without giving yourself away? Try chewing instead of just forking it down the disposal hatch.”
Elfrida thought that the captain’s own men and women could usefully take that advice. Then again, nutriblocks were better not tasted. “I’ll practise,” she said. “But I mean about these people on 11073 Galapagos. You’ve been there before.”
The captain’s face, as dark and shiny as anthracite, turned serious. “Never inside. They’re exclusive. Think everyone’s out to get them.”
“They sound like typical squatters.”
“Except,” the captain said, “they’re right, aren’t they? Just because you’re paranoid …”
“What?” Elfrida didn’t get it. “I’m not paranoid.”
“It’s another old quote,” the captain said. “Joseph Heller.” He added, “Maybe you should be.”
He rose and sauntered away, leaving Elfrida alone at the captain’s table to deal with the remainder of her nutriblock. He was Nigerian, she thought. His name was Martin Okoli. Maybe the apparent harmony between the blue berets on board (the ship’s official UNVRP security escort) and the Kharbage Can’s own crew—called trekkies, the generic term for non-UN spaceship personnel—was actually the complicity of corruption. Money for rocks … money for recyclables … It was common knowledge that recycling outfits like Kharbage LLC profited handsomely from UNVRP’s business. Rumors of all sorts had swirled around the asteroid capture program since its inception, including the persistent one that it was a massive kickback scheme to benefit a) Ceres b) the private sector c) illegal AI research; pick one or all of the above …
Elfrida shook her head at her own wandering thoughts. Time to log off and get some real food into her real body, that wouldn’t taste of regurgitated seaweed. It was too bad these stross-class phavatars came equipped with taste receptors.
She had been assigned a new phavatar for the 11073 Galapagos mission, customized to mission specs at the UN’s Luna plant and secretly delivered to the Kharbage Can by a Hyperpony fast courier. It was the absolute last word in telepresence, not yet commercially available, and to emphasize its specialness it had a name: Yumiko Shimada.
In 2285 robots were the indispensable companions and tools of what wags called Homo systemicus. All were required by law to operate below the threshold of autonomy. That constraint, however, admitted a vast speciation of competences. There were housekeeping bots, self-driving cars, and wholly-automated mining rigs that could propel themselves through space and dismember an asteroid in two days flat. There were robotic pets, sexbots, drones, sprites, phaeries, and climate daemons that seeded Earth’s clouds and moved her solettas around. There were armies of software-based machine intelligences (MI) with no physical existence, such as tutors, secretaries, and paralegals. And there were phavatars, a coinage from “physical avatar,” which combined robotic and MI capabilities. They could either support human telepresence or function independently in the capacity for which they were designed.
Legally forbidden to be too smart, most MIs were as boring as houseplants to talk to. Yumiko Shimada, the MI assistant supplied with Elfrida’s new phavatar, seemed to be an exception.
As the Kharbage Can coasted towards 11073 Galapagos, Elfrida had to rely more and more on Yumiko to manage her interactions with the ship’s personnel. Sometimes a two- or three-second lag was perfectly acceptable. Sometimes you had to react faster. Yumiko proved adept at stalling, utilizing her repertory of temporizing phrases, until Elfrida transmitted her reaction. Alternatively, she could react without reference to Elfrida, based on her growing dossier of Elfrida’s quirks and speech mannerisms. This function creeped Elfrida out. She would rather not have used the assistant at all. But 11073 Galapagos was presently twenty light seconds from Venus. She would have to get used to working with Yumiko Shimada. (Did they have to give her a surname, too?)