Cold plastisteel dug into Elfrida’s thighs, hips, ribcage, and shoulders. Her bare feet wiggled in the air. Darkness flooded her pupils, studded with the orange fireflies of LED streetlights. She smelled the nostalgic aroma of mochi searing on a grill. From her artificial flesh, coinciding mostly with the pressure bands running horizontally around her body, she felt the insistent stings that were a phavatar’s pain signals.
Yumiko was damaged.
“… settled at the Council of Lyons,” said the voice of the nerdy young monk Makoto Ushijima.
“But isn’t it absurd,” Yumiko produced a smooth, reasonable tone from her partially crushed voicebox, “in an age when the Church is in retreat throughout the solar system, to let something as small as the filioque stand between the potential reunion of East and West?”
Elfrida was getting all this on an eight-second delay. The latency period had shrunk as 11073 Galapagos continued to hurtle towards Venus.
“Small? Small? ‘The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.’ That’s huge!”
“Drop it, Ushijima,”said the voice of Jun Yonezawa. “She’s just goading you. That’s how we ended up here, remember?”
Yonezawa, Ushijima, and Yumiko were all suspended in cages shaped like hipped vases. The cages hung from a girder above the alley known as the shotengai, or shopping mall. Yumiko was in the middle, Ushijima on her right, Yonezawa on her left. They were causing a traffic jam below, as the Galapajin congregated to stare up at them, unsmiling. Nearby shops were doing a booming trade in snacks and hot drinks.
Elfrida felt something like an insect bite on her cheek, and met the eyes of a small girl lurking among the salad vines a few roof gardens away, brandishing a catapult.
“No one’s talking about the Orthodox Church, a.k.a. the Arctic Farmland Corporation,” Ushijima sneered. “The church of Rome is the solar system’s only hope!”
~We had a slight disagreement over the importance of the filioque, Yumiko explained, as if this were an unexceptional occurrence. ~That dumb jock Yonezawa knocked me down. At the ensuing kangaroo court, convened at suspiciously short notice by that fat fool they call their bishop, I was deemed to have provoked him, and Ushijima was found guilty of aggravating the conflict. It was all rigged, of course. This is the leadership’s way of discrediting the Order of St. Benedict.
‘Discrediting’ seemed a comically mild word for it. The phavatar’s weight was supported mostly by the plastisteel bands around her shoulders and under her breasts. Despite the low gravity, the stinging of robot-pain was beyond uncomfortable. The two humans must have been in agony.
~Based on information I’ve gathered, Yumiko continued, ~the claque around the bishop and the mayor have been concerned for some time about the Order’s increasing viability as an alternative power base. I was merely a handy pretext for their humiliation. An excuse to put the young people in their place.
~Of course, Elfrida subvocalized viciously, ~none of this was actually your fault.
~Of course not. I was the victim.
~Then why are you stuck up here in this—this contraption?
~It’s a gibbet. Commonly used to display the bodies of criminals in medieval Europe. Live gibbeting was a penalty even worse than hanging: criminals were left to die of hunger and thirst, excluded both literally and symbolically from the community.
~Is that what’s going to happen to us?
~Possibly. They might take us down before then. Or they might not. They certainly have people to spare. The loss of a couple would improve the sustainability profile of the asteroid, rather than the reverse. I expect that’s why they implemented capital punishment in the first place. Population pressure sends people crazy.
Right now, Elfrida was not inclined to disagree. She subvocalized weakly, ~Gibbeting isn’t a Japanese tradition.
~They’re not Japanese. They’re inbred, fanatical space colonists who have cherry-picked the history of Earth for precedents that support their twisted worldview. Stop idealizing them.
Elfrida felt short of breath. She realized that this was because the phavatar’s chest was partially crushed. Yumiko, of course, did not need to breathe. She did not have lungs. But Elfrida did, and she was suffering from the phenomenon known as ‘sympathetic debilitation’—the illusion, in this case, that her ribcage was dented like a half-empty food pouch.
Feeling anything but sympathetic, she disconnected, pulled off her headset and mask, and lay back against her straps, breathing into her cupped hands. This was a newbie’s problem, for dog’s sake.
She wanted to fling the headset away and bolt. Dos Santos needed to know how very, very wrong the mission had gone. Two things kept her where she was. One, of course, was pride. The other was a small voice that said: What if dos Santos already knows?
When she mustered the courage to access the feed again, the debate had advanced. Or regressed.
“Heretic yourself, baka!”
It didn’t sound as if Elfrida was going to be interrupting anything very important. She took a second to order her thoughts, and began to speak. “Attention. Attention all personnel. I mean, residents. This is a message from the United Nations.”
As if she were not speaking, the two monks continued their debate. “Yonezawa-san, consider the workings of the Holy Spirit,” Ushijima pleaded. “We’ve wandered in the desert for eighty-three years! None of us have ever seen weather, or the seasons, or a horizon. What if that thing—” Elfrida realized that he meant her— “was sent by the Lord to lead us to a better place? We can’t be meant to live forever inside a bubble of rock and glue.”
“When the kakushi Kirishitans came out of hiding, it wasn’t long before they lost their faith. They fell in love with the robots, just like everyone else. And for the same reason: they were lazy. They sold their souls for an easy life!”
“Is our faith that weak?”
Whatever Yonezawa answered, Elfrida didn’t catch it. She understood that Yumiko had not in fact uttered her announcement. She subvocalized an urgent query. ~Is this thing on?
~Sure it is, Yumiko said. ~I just don’t think that you need to upset them any more than they are already.
~That’s not your call to make.
~Well, excuuuse me, the machine intelligence said huffily. ~I’m only the one who’s here. I don’t particularly want to get spaced just because you feel a need to salve your conscience. But such is the robot’s lot, I guess. Suffer and die for the stupidity of humans. So it goes!
Elfrida felt a click in her throat. The MI had physically switched her voicebox off to prevent Elfrida from using it. Now the speech function was on again
~Have at it, dumbshit.
Subvocalization was harder to control than speech. There was one less barrier to saying exactly what was on your mind. ~You know, the guys on Luna forgot something when they designed you. They gave you all this cool functionality, they gave you the ass and tits of a vid star, they even gave you a surname … but they forgot to give you a personality. You’re sycophantic one minute, insulting the next—you’re all over the place.
Which was understandable, actually. The UN’s robotech capabilities were way ahead of its understanding of what made people tick. It had to be orders of magnitude harder to code a personality than it was to build a high-end robot.
~SUIT COMMAND: Disable assistant. For all the good that would do.
In the cage to her left, Yonezawa was putting on a show for the onlookers. ♪“It’s springtime, and the cherries are bloooooming,”♪ he sang, throwing his weight back and forth so that his cage swung. ♪“Is it a bird? Is it a cloud? Sakura, sakura! Everyone come and see!”♪
“What’s wrong with you, Yonezawa-san?” Ushijima pleaded.
“I’m motion-sick.” Yonezawa grabbed the hip-level bars of his cage, his head drooping.
Elfrida knew she might not have long before Yumiko disabled her voicebox again. She boosted the phavatar’s voice to bullhorn volume. “Attention. Attention all residents. This is a message from the United Nations.” Her voice rang out over the LED-lit streets, stopping people in their tracks. “You are in danger. The PLAN has recently attacked a civilian installation in this volume and it is believed that 11073 Galapagos may be their next target. You are advised to take defensive measures.” What defensive measures? “We estimate that you have four to five sols before the enemy reaches you. If possible, all residents should be evacuated within thirty-six hours.” And how were they supposed to do that? Maybe Yumiko was right that Elfrida was just salving her own conscience. “Message ends. Message repeats. Attention all residents …”
People in the street started to throw things. Like the little girl with the catapult, they all had perfect aim, reflexively compensating for the spinwards drift of their pebbles, fragments of epoxy, and used mochi skewers.
“We’re not stupid,” sneered Yonezawa, taking his share of missiles. “We watch the news. We can put two and two together. Why do you think I wanted to space you?”
Elfrida somersaulted out of the telepresence cubicle, dislodging a spray of game crystals from the wall webbing. She kicked off and arrowed through the workshop, where engineers from Botticelli Station and the Can were arguing over a piece of equipment that looked like the vertebra of a dinosaur. They scattered out of her path. She bounced into the keel transit tube and rocketed up the zip line, using the optional motor to drive herself faster. The elevator seemed to take forever to come.
“Have you seen dos Santos?”
The long-suffering bodybuilders shrugged.
“My boss,” Elfrida clarified. “She was down in Cargo Bay No. 2 earlier.” A new anxiety touched her. “She did come back, didn’t she?”
“Oh, the hot Brazilian chick?”
Elfrida flushed. “Yeah.”
“Went out to the passenger module.”
Elfrida kicked back out into the transfer point. All these gravitational transitions were making her feel sick. She summoned the other elevator, leapt for it, and—tired now—missed; she crashed into the ladder that ran the circumference of the transfer point and hauled herself along it to the gaping, unpleasantly pink cylinder. She travelled out along the arm, gradually getting heavier, and stumbled into the vestibule of the passenger module.
This hab revealed the Can’s true vocation as an interplanetary cattle truck. Elfrida was familiar, from her many asteroid evacuation missions, with its scratched metal walls and tightly packed rows of ergoforms, upholstered in easy-to-sprayclean plastic. The reek of sterilizer tainted the air. A few of the more traumatized refugees from Botticelli Station huddled in the foetal position, widely separated from one another, among B-Station EVA suits draped over the ergoforms like fat pale-blue corpses.
Elfrida found dos Santos in the passenger mess, practising lunges and handsprings on top of a long metal table.
“This is the only place in this whole damn ship where I can get a running start,” she grunted, her face streaming sweat. “Let those dickheads keep their elevators. Lifting weights under hypergravity is the worst thing you can do for your heart.”
Efrida surmised that the weightlifters had refused to share their barbells and bungee cords.
She walked tentatively into the mess. The ceiling was low, the lighting dark except for one strip directly above dos Santos’s table. The woman looked like a fencer fighting an invisible opponent.
“I used to compete with the saber,” dos Santos gasped, as if reading her mind. “Might take it up again someday. Delusional. Probably.”
Elfrida sat crosslegged on another table. She wondered if there were cameras down here, too. Of course there were. She reminded herself that the surveillance data might also work in her favor, by creating a record of her suspicions. If she were right, that would be invaluable. “Ma’am, I feel like shit about this.” She buried her face in her hands for a moment, and in the darkness, felt herself tumbling head over heels. “I screwed up. I told the population of 11073 Galapagos that the PLAN is coming for them. Well, they’re not dumb, they can put two and two together. They’re already freaking out about it. But they think they’re being targeted for their religion, not their ethnicity.” She summed up what she had learned from Yonezawa’s accusations before she logged out. “And they think they’ve been deliberately betrayed. By me.”
“You? The phavatar?”
“Either. Both. It’s a mob scene. I haven’t had a chance to look at the whole record yet, but they wanted to space the phavatar. They thought there was a tracking beacon in it.”
“I know, but you can kind of understand … One of those monks defended me. There was kind of a brawl, I guess. And they’re really strict about physical violence.”
“You have to be,” dos Santos said tartly.
“I guess, when you’re living in a rock five kilometers long. So they held this kangaroo court, and two of the monks got sentenced, and I did, too. Maybe to death. I’m not sure.”
She described the gibbet. Dos Santos’s face went taut. She grabbed a towel, wrapped it around her neck, and tucked the ends into her t-shirt. “That’s crazy.”
“I know. It’s medieval.”
“Oh, not that. I’ve seen worse. You will, too, if you stick with this job long enough. No, I’m talking about the idea that we might be responsible for betraying them to the PLAN. They think we’re out here holding up a sign that says Purebloods this way? Seriously? We just got hit! Those toilet rolls killed forty-seven of our people! If they think we’d do that to ourselves …”
“But someone had to leak the information,” Elfrida argued. “You couldn’t find them by accident. They’re not dumb. They’ve been scrubbing their comms of any references to their—their ethnicity. They buy their water and other non-manufacturables through middlemen. They’re totally paranoid. So you can see why they don’t believe it’s a coincidence that we came calling, and a week later the PLAN popped up in this volume for the first time ever.”
“That does seem pretty damning.”
“But obviously, it wasn’t us, so it had to’ve been … oh, ma’am. You know, don’t you? You said, Where did we get our information in the first place? The same company that coincidentally saved our behinds, and is now being feted all over the system. Isn’t that a nice corrective to the usual perception of recyclers as jackals and human traffickers?”
There was a moment’s silence. Dos Santos raised her arms and wheeled gracefully into a handstand. “I can’t believe I can still do this,” she grunted, upside-down. “It’s not about strength, so much as balance.”
“I wish I could do that.”
“Didn’t they teach you in basic?”
“No. It was all trust falls and a bit of tightrope-walking.”
“That could come in handy, too.” Dos Santos walked a couple of steps on her hands. Then she came the right way up, pink-faced. “If there was a leak, it doesn’t have to have been deliberate, Goto. Comms leak. Private-sector encryption is for crap, as a rule.”
But Elfrida knew that the truth was just the opposite. The restrictive hierarchy of access permissions on the Can reflected Kharbage LLC’s obsession with information security in general. A recycling company lived or died by its access to exclusive, high-quality data. They used encryption techniques that put to shame anything the UN could bring to bear.
“Well, maybe the leak happened at Adastra,” she said, referring to the supermajor that had sold 11073 Galapagos to Kharbage LLC. “They don’t want to look heartless, evicting people from their homes, so when they find out that one of their asteroids has been colonized, they sell it on, book a quick profit, and then …”
Then what? Why would a resources supermajor leak information to the PLAN? That scenario made no sense, and both of them knew it.
“Anyway,” dos Santos said, “we can chase the leak later. There’s only one thing that matters right now. We have to save these people.”
“Ma’am!” Elfrida exclaimed, overjoyed. “I thought …”
She had thought that dos Santos didn’t give a damn about the Galapajin; that to her, they were just pests whose elimination would make one less hassle for COMLI.
Dos Santos’s wry smile said that she knew what Elfrida was thinking. “They may be inconvenient, but they’re still people. We can’t let them die, if there’s anything we can possibly do to save them.”
Elfrida sprang up, ready for action.
“I’ve been doing some thinking myself.” Dos Santos sat on the edge of the table to put her socks and shoes on. She was wearing crepe-soled sneakers, not dry-grip boots. “I came to the conclusion that I’ve been a coward.”
She bent her head, placing each velcro tab squarely on its mate.
“I thought it would be all right to save myself at the expense of other people.”
With a jolt, Elfrida realized that dos Santos was talking about their aborted escape from Botticelli Station. That must be why she had been sore at Elfrida earlier. She had been licking her psychological wounds.
Or was she?
“I was going to just hang out here, take my meds—by the way, Goto, did you make another sickbay appointment?—and keep my ass covered. But … I can’t. Not and still call myself a human being.”
She sat on the edge of the table, feet dangling. With her face sweaty and free of make-up, she looked about twelve.
“So, I thought of something we could try. But this situation that you’re describing, the conflict, the trial, the gibbet, that changes the game. That’s a problem. So what you’re going to have to do, Goto, and I’m sorry to have to ask this of you—”
“I’ll do whatever, ma’am!”
“Whoa, whoa. It might not work, and even if it does … Well, we’ll see. But the first thing you have to do is go back in and get her out of that gibbet.”
Dos Santos spread her palms. “This is where we find out if they’re training you kids properly these days.”