The Galapagos Incident: Chapter 8

The hub was the quasi-smart, widely mocked master of all their destinies. It controlled the air, the water, the recycling, the collision avoidance system, and many more systems that Elfrida could not have enumerated off the top of her head. But she did know about one other function, not much discussed by a crew who saw privacy as a currency in limited circulation rather than a right. The hub surveilled the public areas of the station around the clock. Dos Santos’s glance at the ceiling had been a warning as old as humanity itself.

Galapagos1-KINDLE-187x300The Galapagos Incident

Chapter 8

 

Elfrida allowed herself to hope that Yonezawa was on the wrong side of Galapajin public opinion. During the evening, she had also been recording the other conversations in the refectory, using Yumiko’s directional microphones. Back on Botticelli Station, she reviewed this data and found some support for her hopes. The asteroid’s future was being discussed intensely. Yumiko’s physical presence among them had at last made the outside world real to the Galapajin.

“I think they might be starting to see the advantages of resettlement,” she told dos Santos.

She had logged off at a more human hour this time: 19:00 on Botticelli Station (which kept Greenwich mean time), the middle of 11073 Galapagos’s arbitrary night. Elfrida had left Yumiko at St. Peter’s again, this time in the adjacent dormitory known as the yado, which was basically a flophouse for Galapajin who had nowhere else to live. She had implored Father Hirayanagi to padlock the door of the phavatar’s cubicle from the outside. “No one steals on 11073 Galapagos,” the old priest had said, injured, but he had agreed.

With some peace of mind, she hurried to the COMLI office.

Everyone except dos Santos and Hardy had already left for the day. Hardy, fiinishing up some paperwork, listened unabashedly to Elfrida’s debrief. When she mentioned that Ushijima had compared UNVRP to the Pyramids, he laughed mordantly.

“That’s not far wrong, is it? Generations in the making, and thousands of lives wasted, all for the glory of the Pharaoh.”

This was the sort of cynical remark that dos Santos usually winked at, but now she turned sharply on the Anglo agent. “Have you finished that report yet?”

“Done and dusted, ma’am. I was just leaving.”

“Good.”

“The Sirens of Titan await,” Hardy said, taking himself off.

Dos Santos rolled her eyes at his back. Elfrida thought she was going to make some reference to Hardy’s yen for off-color immersion games, but she said, “It’s just not smart to talk about the president like that. No one could be humbler than President Hsiao. Sigh. It’s my fault, I guess. I can be too lax with people.”

As far as Elfrida was concerned, dos Santos had no faults. Mistaking her silence for anxiety, Dos Santos laughed.

“Not you, Goto. I know you don’t need me riding herd on you. Let’s get back to 11073 Galapagos. I assume you’ve informed them about their resettlement options?”

Thrown off her stride by the belated realization that they were now alone in the office, Elfrida, fortunately, was able to answer this question without thinking about it. “Yes. I met their leader today. We had to wait until midnight, when he finally got done praying.”

“Is this the bishop you’ve referred to? Okada?”

“That’s the funny part. I thoughtI was going to see Okada. And he was there, gorgeously decked out in white robes with a red hat. But so was this other spindly little guy in a coverall. Turns out he’s the official leader. His name’s Ito. Mayor Ito.”

“So it’s not a theocracy, after all.”

“Technically, no. But the whole time I was talking to Okada, thinking this mayor was his assistant or something, Ito just sat there like a jizo statue. I’m pretty sure that when he talks, it’s Okada’s voice that comes out.”

“Well, as they say, never assume, it makes an ass, etcetera.”

She said ass! squeaked an adolescent voice in Elfrida’s brain. She said ass! Her cheeks grew hot. Upbraiding herself—oh Goto, you have got it bad—she hammered out, “They prayed together all day, apparently.”

“Whatever that means,” dos Santos murmured.

Elfrida’s inner thirteen-year-old giggled wildly. She gritted, “Ito said that they would consider my proposal—this is a direct translation—and give me an answer within the week. But—”

Dos Santos interrupted her. “Did you explain that it isn’t a proposal? That we’re the ones making the decision?”

“Yes, of course. I told them that if UNVRP purchases the asteroid, we would resettle them on Ceres. And if we don’t, Kharbage will most likely resettle them on Ceres, anyway.”

“Did you make the distinction clear? Resettlement by the UN entitles them to financial assistance and preferential workforce placement. Resettlement by Kharbage probably means debt slavery in the mines. So it’s in their interest to cooperate.”

“I did. I explained. They just said ‘Oh, really?’ and ‘Of course.’ So I’m not sure how much they took in. But I explained.”

“Well, that’s our asses covered, anyway.” Dos Santos’s pillowy lips formed the vulgarity with as little thought as a nozzle extruding a glob of epoxy. That fine line between her brows was back. Her fingers reached for a stylus and absently tapped a rhythm on the edge of her desk.

“Two things,” Elfrida blurted. “One, during my whole interview with Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Yonezawa was sitting behind me with his Kalashnikov on his knees and a face as black as the devil’s underwear. So I’m not sure that it matters what the bishop and the mayor think. Yonezawa represents the fanatics in the shudokai, and they’ve got the guns.”

“Ah.” The stylus tapped faster.

“The other thing is—the phavatar.”

“Do you think that the bishop and the mayor were reticent, or pretended not to understand you, because of their distrust of humanoid robots?”

“That’s a possibility, but I’m concerned about something else. I think the phavatar may be malfunctioning.”

Dos Santos stopped tapping the stylus. She leant back in her ergoform and gazed at the ceiling. Elfrida held her breath. Malfunctioning was not what Yumiko was doing but it was the only way she could think of to broach the subject without sounding like a loon.

With a minimal nod, Dos Santos directed her attention to the ceiling. Elfrida frowned at the familiar trompe l’oeuil veneer of sky glimpsed through branches and leaves, meant to impart a feeling of spaciousness to the cramped office. Then she understood.

“We really ought to get out of here,” dos Santos said, standing up and stretching. “New York chewed me out last quarter for exceeding our oxygen budget.”

Elfrida followed her out. The door automatically sphinctered shut behind them. Every door on Botticelli Station was airtight, a safety feature that also enabled cost savings: the hub detected when individual rooms were not in use, and stopped pumping atmosphere into them.

The hub was the quasi-smart, widely mocked master of all their destinies. It controlled the air, the water, the recycling, the collision avoidance system, and many more systems that Elfrida could not have enumerated off the top of her head. But she did know about one other function, not much discussed by a crew who saw privacy as a currency in limited circulation rather than a right. The hub surveilled the public areas of the station around the clock. Dos Santos’s glance at the ceiling had been a warning as old as humanity itself.

The COMLI office was in the Administration & Operations segment of the station, between the segment occupied by the scientists and their computers, and the residential segment. These three segments together occupied a third of the torus that was Botticelli Station. The rest was taken up by generators, storage, recycling facilities, and other vital but uninteresting machinery. The central hub supported the main cargo bay and docking facility.

Shaped like a hollow bicycle wheel 240 meters in diameter, the torus featured an external mesh ‘tyre’ packed with crushed rocks, which shielded the inner torus from radiation and minor impacts. Meanwhile, the “inner tyre” whizzed around at 2.4 rpm, generating robust gravity and a Coriolis effect that pushed the limit of what humans could stand on a long-term basis.

Following dos Santos past the open airlock to the crew lounge, Elfrida experienced the familiar sensation that her head was moving faster than her feet. However, it wasn’t the Coriolis force this time. She’d assumed they were going to the lounge, and had wondered why dos Santos thought they could talk in privacy there. But if they weren’t going to the lounge … This corridor led to the residential segment.

As a manager, dos Santos had a cabin that just about deserved the name. She ushered Elfrida in with minimal ceremony. The closet-sized space contained—barely—a bunk, a locker, and a murphy desk. Dos Santos folded away the desk. It had been bare, as was the top of her locker, offering no clues to her private life. She kicked a squashy button on the floor, and an ergoform inflated. “Have a seat, Goto. Sorry I can’t offer you anything else. They confiscated my drugs at customs on Luna.”

At this point, everything that came out of dos Santos’s mouth sounded like an innuendo to Elfrida. She savagely ordered herself to concentrate. “I’m OK, ma’am. Are we—is it safe in here?”

“As far as I know.” With that little statement, dos Santos shattered Elfrida’s trust in the UN. It did not much reassure Elfrida that she immediately added, “I don’t want to give you the impression that some things are verboten. But better safe than sorry, you know? Anyway, I’ve got this private space; I might as well take advantage of it.”

Elfrida drew a deep breath. “Shall I tell you what’s been happening with the suit?”

“Please.”

“Well, as you know, it’s one of the new stross-class phavatars.”

“Yeah. I tried one of those out during production testing. Superb responses, and the operator-simulation software has improved.”

“Well, yeah. It has. The thing is, this one has been simulating me without my permission.”

She poured out her concerns. Yumiko’s unauthorized tergiversations, her persistent attempts to bias Elfrida against the purchase of 10073 Galapagos, and most damning of all, that remark: My professional reputation’s on the line, too.

“Honestly, ma’am, it’s like it thinks it’s a person!”

Dos Santos was sitting crosslegged on her bed, leaning back on locked elbows. She said, “Hmm. I don’t think we have enough evidence to accuse the designers of purposely manufacturing an AI.”

“Oh no, ma’am, I wasn’t suggesting—”

“But we may be seeing emergent behavior here.”

“That was my idea, too.”

“These new-generation assistants are really smart. Leave them alone for five seconds and they start analyzing things, coming to conclusions that you can’t argue with, although it would have taken a meatbrain years to get there, if ever.”

Elfrida flinched at meatbrain, a dismissive term for human grey matter used by software artists and designers, who tended to be pro-AI by the nature of their employment. It did not sound right coming from a COMLI manager.

“What if she’s right, Goto? Have you thought about that? That she could be right?”

Elfrida opened her mouth to insist, reflexively, that she was keeping an open mind. Then she hesitated. Was she, really? Yumiko had accused her of pre-judging the Galapajin. Wasn’t she also pre-judging Yumiko? Assuming that the assistant had nefarious motives, whereas the simplest explanation was that she was merely trying to do her job: objectively and empirically assess the human population of 11073 Galapagos?

It was something to think about. In the meantime, she repeated stubbornly, “She still shouldn’t have disobeyed me. I gave the DISABLE command. Several times. It didn’t work. That’s a problem.”

“Not if she thought you were the problem,” dos Santos said. “Look. Goto, I’m not trying to imply that you haven’t been doing your job. But the fact is, as we employ more sophisticated analyses of these asteroid populations, we’re finding in more and more cases that the traditional cost-benefit equation just doesn’t work. It fails to take into account the unique cultural values of these communities. They’re like closed ecosystems that have evolved in near-isolation for fifty, a hundred years. The resettlement of a group like the Galapajin would likely lead to the extinction of everything that makes them what they are.

“Now, my personal view, as you know, is that colonists are pests.” Dos Santos smiled. “But these things are subjective. In any case, you have to ask: is it really that important for UNVRP to have this one asteroid?” She paused to let that sink in. “You’ll have noticed that our ratio of purchase recommends is falling. There’s a reason for that. In confidence, even New York is slowly realizing that we’ve picked the low-hanging fruit, and the remaining A+ candidates present more complex problems.”

“But ma’am, that’s just why I think the Galapajin should be resettled. Because of the problems they’ve got.”

“Yeah, the medical issues, overcrowding, fundamentalist groupthink, you mentioned. But. They brought these problems on themselves, Goto. Shouldn’t we let them try to solve them themselves?”

“But …” Elfrida was flummoxed by dos Santos’s unexpected advocacy. “But even if we don’t acquire the asteroid, ma’am, Kharbage will just raise their rent until they can’t pay anymore, and then dump them on Ceres for someone else to deal with.”

“Yeah. Sigh. That’s the trouble. That is indeed the trouble. These recyclers, Goto, are jackals. If the aerospace majors are the tigers of the twenty-third century, lording it over the whole solar system, then the recyclers are the scavengers who follow in their tracks, stripping the last scraps of flesh off their prey.”

Elfrida recoiled at the vivid metaphor. Dos Santos laughed grimly.

“Some of them are even owned by the majors. Word is that Centiless has a hefty investment in Kharbage.”

Mute, Elfrida stared at dos Santos’s skinsuit-encased knees. She recognized that that the older woman had deftly redirected the conversation from Yumiko’s disobedience to the 11073 Galapagos question. Now she was trying to complete the maneuver by rechanneling Elfrida’s ire against their old frenemies in the recycling sector.

But why? Why didn’t dos Santos want to talk about Yumiko?

As Elfrida pondered this, a noise interrupted her reverie. It was one she hadn’t heard in five years, and hoped never to hear again.

WHAAAH! WHAAAH!

“All personnel, remain where you are. Repeat, remain where you are. Botticelli Station is now on amber alert. Probability of assault by external hostile entities: 62%. Futher information will be relayed as it is acquired. Tout le personnel, restent où vous êtes…”

“Oh shit,” Elfrida blurted. Waves of hot and cold shuddered over her skin. The middle of her stomach seemed to have been sucked out by a gigantic vacuum cleaner. “Oh shit. Oh dog.”

“Do not panic,” dos Santos said. “Do not panic! Do you hear me?” Yet her own face looked stretched-tight, her eyes big. “We’re going to be fine. We’ve got missile interceptors, defensive maneuvering capability, and a hardened rad shield. They could set off a nuke out there and we wouldn’t feel a thing.”

“Todo el personal, se mantienen en el que está …”

“Besides,” dos Santos raised her voice, “the Cheap Trick’s about five minutes away.”

The Cheap Trick was the navy picket assigned to guard the various UN assets in Venus orbit.

“No, it’s not!” Elfrida squealed. “It went to escort the supply barge to Da Vinci! Don’t you remember?”

Da Vinci Station, suspended at the Sun–Venus Lagrange point, was a little sister of Botticelli Station, housing a handful of physicists who were validating the soletta prototypes for Phase Three. Every two or three months, a supply barge swung around Venus and sailed out to the smaller station. And the Cheap Trick went with it.

“Oh, yeah,” dos Santos said. “That’s right. I was forgetting.”

“весь персонал, оставаться там, гдевы находитесь …”

“It’s probably a false alarm, anyway. Just a chunk of rock. The station’s threat detection system is pretty stupid.”

Elfrida was doubled over in the ergoform, hands locked between her knees, every muscle rigid. “That’s not very reassuring,” she said through her teeth.

The tannoy was now repeating its announcement in Portuguese, the fifth of the UN’s official languages. As if there were any Portuguese-speakers on the station who a) couldn’t speak English and b) hadn’t dived under the nearest piece of furniture within two seconds of the klaxon’s sounding. Sometimes the UN’s scrupulous bureaucratic fairness took on a ludicrous tinge. Elfrida locked her teeth together, telling herself, Remain where you are. Remain calm. It will be fine. It will be fine.

“Threat level’s still amber,” dos Santos muttered.

“Do you speak Portuguese?”

“Yup. I’m a quarter Brazilian, was brought up by my vovó. The other three-quarters, if you’re interested: Colombian, Anglo, and Punjabi by way of Uganda.”

Even in the midst of her terror, Elfrida was deeply flattered by this gift of personal information. “Wow. I always wondered what your heritage was, ma’am.”

“You’re not supposed to wonder,” dos Santos lightly chastised her. “You’re supposed to believe we’re all the same, and simultaneously believe that diversity is our strength.”

The tannoy had just looped back to English when the klaxon cut into the automated announcement. This time it trilled stridently: HEEYAH! HEEYAH! HEEYAH!

“Alert level revised to red. Alert level is RED. Probability of assault by external hostile entities: 94%. All personnel, remain where you are …”

“Fuck that,” dos Santos said. “Ninety-four percent. Fuck that.” A spatter of sepia freckles stood out on her cheeks. “I’m not fucking sitting here to be blown up because the fucking Project can’t find the nickels and dimes to pay for security worth a damn. I have the lifeboat access codes. Come on.”

They sprinted down the empty corridor, past the NO RUNNING signs. Everyone else was apparently obeying the directive to remain where they were. The crew cabins were rows of taupe puckers in the wall. Elfrida was struck by fate’s randomness. If she lived through this, it would be because she’d had the good luck to be sitting at the moment the klaxon went off with a senior manager who knew the lifeboat codes. Dos Santos was going to save her life.

The corridor sank away under her feet. She staggered, almost fell, caught herself on her hands. “What’s happening?”

“Defensive maneuvers,” dos Santos panted. “Hope our acceleration doesn’t screw with the lifeboat ejection system.”

The station had three lifeboats, one for each segment. They were accessible from hatches in the throughfare corridor, clearly labelled in all five languages and Braille. Dos Santos knelt and fumbled with a manhole cover. Elfrida had walked over this cover a thousand times without ever dreaming that it might one day make the difference between life and death for her. It hinged back to reveal the promised airlock, and a keypad. Dos Santos stabbed in numbers.

“A keypad. I haven’t seen one of those since I was a kid,” Elfrida said, jittery.

“Supposed to be less vulnerable to hacking than voice-based systems. Of course, the iris scanner is the thing to beat.” There was a tiny camera above the keypad. Dos Santos lowered her face towards it. The klaxon and the PA continued to fill the air with a clamor of noise. The hatch dilated. Dos Santos dropped through it into darkness. Elfrida followed, and landed on top of her.

“Sorry!”

“It’s OK. Come on, come on …” This to the hatch. With excruciating slowness, the circle of light above them closed. “It’s supposed to be automatic …”

The chamber jolted, and Elfrida felt lighter. Clickety-clack, clickety clack, came the sound of wheels on rails. The chamber they were in was a tiny tram car on rails that spiraled around the inner surface of the station’s external shield. It had decoupled from the rotating torus and was now rolling to a stop. With a disturbingly mechanical clank, it docked with one of the airlocks built into the outer shield.

Driving home the reality of their escape, the two women were now weightless. Elfrida swallowed and stuck her fingers in her ears. She always hated this feeling, as if her head had blown up like a balloon.

After some more squeaking and clanking, one of the chamber’s walls concertinaed back. Stale air breathed down a short steel culvert. Beyond, glowstrips flickered in dimness.

“Whew,” dos Santos said. “I was worried this shitty system might have taken us to the wrong airlock, and there wouldn’t be anything on the other side.” Elfrida had not even thought about that.

Dos Santos kicked off from the chamber’s far wall and dived down the culvert into the lifeboat. Elfrida followed, ineptly. She didn’t have her dry-grip boots on. Nor did dos Santos, but she appeared comfortable in freefall.

Ruby and turmeric-yellow arrows flickered on the storage compartments of the lifeboat, pointing to the cockpit. The small craft, capable of holding fifty people in extremely cramped conditions, was designed to be piloted in an emergency by dummies. A screen lit up when dos Santos belted herself into the pilot’s couch. “Welcome aboard!” said an androgynous, multiracial face. “I’ll walk you through the pre-launch and ejection procedures today. Why don’t we get started by introducing ourselves? I’m Botticelli Station Lifeboat Two, as you may have guessed! Tee hee.”

“Dumb fucking machine,” dos Santos snarled. She bent over the console. Beams of white light stabbed from her eyes and converged on the instruments. She moved her head until her eyelamps illuminated a barely visible rectangular cover. She pried this up with her fingernails to reveal a smaller screen. Her lips moved, subvocalizing commands.

“Excuse me,” the lifeboat said. “Are you attempting to access my manual operation mode? I really can’t recommend that. Tee hee. Without proof that you’re a qualified pilot—”

The heads-up screen went dark, and the androgynous face vanished. Dos Santos said in satisfaction, “That code cost me a bundle in favors. Good to know it was worth it.”

“Aren’t you … ma’am, aren’t you authorized to …”

“Nope. But I do know how to fly this thing. I think.” Dos Santos mouthed silent commands. Her fingers dashed across the master screen. She was working the subvocal and touch interfaces at the same time like a maestro. Elfrida leaned over from the co-pilot’s seat and saw systems checks flashing past.

Without warning, the little craft shuddered so hard that Elfrida’s couch tightened protectively on her body. She imagined charged projectiles striking Botticelli Station, fragging the shield, rupturing the inner torus. That could happen. It did happen. It happened quite often in the Belt, and it was a matter of pure luck that it had never happened where she was before. Her imagination screened a lurid sequence of friends and colleagues whisked into the vacuum, lungs rupturing, bellies distending.

Voice shaking only a little bit, she said, “Those eyelamps are pretty cool, ma’am.”

“Self-defense. Comes in handy when you haven’t got a flashlight.”

The lifeboat’s airlock clanked shut. Elfrida let out her breath. That was one more layer of security between her and … and …

Talking was better than thinking. “Ma’am, didn’t the scanner recognize you? So why didn’t the lifeboat know who you were?”

“I hacked the scanner, Goto. It would have admitted me regardless. But I didn’t want it to know who I was. Just in case, you know.”

Just in case, Elfrida thought, we get caught stealing a lifeboat.

“Ma’am, what if—”

“Quiet! Sorry. Please don’t distract me. I’m trying to …” Dos Santos hunched over the screen.

Strip lighting came on all the way down the cabin. Then it went off again. A chemical toilet started flushing: clack-FLAP, clack-FLAP.

“That’s not what I was trying to do! Damn fiddly interface.”

Elfrida wished they could hear the tannoy in here. Lousy as the hub’s information was, she yearned to know what was happening. Her contacts weren’t working, either—the rock shield messed with the station’s wifi, and the lifeboat had stopped offering a signal when dos Santos switched into manual mode.

The toilet ceased flushing. “That’s better.” Oxygen masks tumbled from the ceiling. “Oh, puta merda!”

“Ma’am? Ma’am? Dos Santos! Could we see outside?”

Dos Santos glanced at her, hair falling over one eye. “That I can do. Nothing simpler. Here you go.”

The heads-up screen lit up again.

Elfrida immediately wished it hadn’t.

Displaying the same sensor feed as the viewport in the crew lounge, it showed Venus, and nothing but Venus. Only a sliver of black in one corner gave a sense of the curvature of the planet towards which they were falling.

Yes, falling.

Someone’s idea of defensive maneuvering was apparently to slip into a lower orbit.

But even that was not the scariest news from the screen. The rest of the picture was straight out of a nightmare.

 To read the other chapters of THE GALAPAGOS INCIDENT, click here.

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