The Galapagos Incident: Chapter 19

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Galapagos1-KINDLE-187x300The Galapagos Incident

Chapter 19

 

After Captain Okoli left the engineering deck, Elfrida waited a minute and then set off after him. She still hoped to talk him around. Failing that, she could at least distract him, so that he wouldn’t check his surveillance cameras and find out that dos Santos had not removed herself to the passenger module, as ordered. She remained floating in the workshop, grumbling to the techies.

Elfrida grabbed the central ladder and paddled up past the mezzanine level. A donut-shaped platform that formed the ceiling of the workshop, the mezzanine was designated the support deck, though this was somewhat redundant, since life support functions were distributed in each hab module. Mostly what this deck held was lockers and clamps for the Can’s menagerie of robots, drones, and COMLI-owned phavatars. A blue light shone at the end of one of the corridors radiating off the platform. Under it, Captain Sikorsky of Botticelli Station floated in a cloud of bits and pieces, tinkering with a maintenance bot. Elfrida looked away. She did not have the courage to buck the tacit ostracism campaign that had isolated Sikorsky among the Botticelli Station survivors, even though she did not know why everyone was mad at him.

A classic case of misdirected blame, she supposed. Sikorsky had been in charge when the disaster happened, so it must be his fault.

She glided up the keel transit tube and took the elevator to the flight deck, which was the outermost of the command module’s three decks. It opened on a landing raised by a short flight of spiral stairs from the middle of the bridge. The landing was crowded with people. They surged into the elevator. Elfrida, unable to get out, was swept to the back of the cylinder, her nose pressed against a seven-foot-tall spaceborn officer’s sternum.

What on earth was going on?

“Prep the quarterdeck,” Okoli barked from the depths of the crowd. “What? Who? Petty Officer Quang? I am gonna space you, you doggone sleb. Just stuff it in a locker!”

The elevator’s ceiling irised, spilling them into the transfer point. Elfrida followed the officers and crew arrowing along the transit tube ahead of her. They looked like a shoal of multicolored fish. They were mostly in uniform, a phenomenon Elfrida had observed only a couple of times in all her voyages on the Can. She understood why. Kharbage LLC’s uniforms seemed to have been inspired by somebody’s soma dream about the Ottoman Empire, replete with gold braid and tassels.

They darted into the quarterdeck, a module sandwiched between Load Bays No.1 and No.2. Here a watch officer oversaw the loading and unloading of cargo, calculated mass distribution and ballast requirements, and in between times played poker against the computer, if the Can were anything like Botticelli Station. But it appeared that at least one of the Can’s watch officers had higher ambitions. Sparrow-sized, exquisitely modelled railway carriages drifted overhead, interspersed with sections of track. Okoli snarled inarticulately, leapt, and seized a Pullman car in one large black fist. He threw it at an officer cringing near the watch desk. “Get this shit stowed!”

“Sorry, sir,” squealed Petty Officer Quang. “I didn’t have time to get ready for—”

“Nor did any of us.” Dismissing the petty officer’s excuses, Okoli turned on his gecko grips and squelched down the wall to the deck. He settled a crimson fez onto his head and grimaced at his chief engineer, a thin, moustached man with a complexion like banana frozen yogurt. “This on straight?”

The chief engineer—Schwartz, Elfrida thought, no, Schatz—reached out and made a minute adjustment. “You might also want to do up your fly, sir.”

“Doggone uniform.”

The other officers and crew geckoed onto the deck with a cannonade of velcro-squelches. Elfrida did not have gecko boots on. She was still wearing Petruzzelli’s trendy but impractical Elephunts. She was left floating near the ceiling. Everyone noticed her. Okoli turned from conferring with Schatz. “You,” he said in a thick voice.

Whatever rebukes he might have hailed down on her head, they were forestalled by a yelp from Petty Officer Quang. “Now matching velocity, sir! I am deploying tethers!”

Okoli spoke to his exec, who remained on the bridge. “Looking good, Windsor? … Copy that. Guess we won’t have to use the grapples this time.”

Nervous laughter trilled through the quarterdeck, followed by a tense silence.

Elfrida was still drifting, miserably counting the microseconds until she would reach the ceiling and be able to push off towards the exit. A hand closed on her ankle: Petruzzelli’s. The astrogator pulled her down to the floor. “Just stand behind me,” she hissed. “Hang onto my belt or something.” A fez sat askew on her pomegranate-red hair. The tail of the pyjamas she’d been wearing earlier hung out of a hastily donned uniform jacket. Elfrida tucked it in for her.

At the head of what was now clearly an honor guard, Chief Engineer Schatz fussed with a weird contraption of pipes and cloth.

“Stand by,” Petty Officer Quang said. His screen was too far away for Elfrida to see “They’re coming across under personal thrust. Approaching the quarterdeck airlock. I am confirming their identities … Confirmed. I am opening the airlock. They have entered the airlock. I am scanning for hazardous substances and contraband items … None found. Cycling.”

Chief Engineer Schatz assumed a ramrod stance, raised his contraption of pipes, and blew into it. The cloth swelled into a tartan balloon. Schatz’s face reddened. An astonishingly loud yowling noise filled the quarterdeck.

“He’s part-Scottish,” Petruzzelli said under cover of the din. “Playing the bagpipes in freefall is a pretty heroic accomplishment, one gathers.”

The noise resolved into what was more or less a tune. The airlock opened. Out stepped Commander Andrew Kim, captain of the Cheap Trick, followed by a dozen of his officers and crew. Commander Kim looked for a minute as if he wanted to cover his ears, but then he recovered his composure and stood smiling and nodding until Schatz lowered his pipes, his yogurt-hued face now puce.

Smiling and nodding was something Commander Kim did well. In fact, Elfrida had never seen him display any emotion that smiling and nodding didn’t cover, even when besieged by Botticelli Station personnel complaining about the latest food shipment. He was about fifty, snub-nosed and pompadoured, and had probably topped out in his Space Force career.

“Very nice. Very nice. There’s nothing quite like being piped aboard the Kharbage Can, I always say. It lends an aura of—ah—ah to the proceedings.”

Okoli squelched forward and bowed to him. “An honor to have you on board, sir. Would you care to freshen up, or …?”

Elfrida got it. Captain Okoli treated the survivors of Botticelli Station, even the flight officers, like cattle, because they were just civilians engaged on a mission of huge importance to humanity. Kim, on the other hand, commanded a Space Force Heavypicket. He had guns. So he got the royal treatment.

“What a kind offer,” Kim said. “But I’m afraid I … well, wait a minute.” His pompadour swayed like an anemone in the breeze from the keel. “What time is it?”

“Zero five hundred, sir.”

“Breakfast. Yes, breakfast would be very—ah—ah.” Kim smiled and nodded. “How about inviting Captain Sikorsky to join us?”

For some reason, his officers smirked and nudged each other.

“Will do,” Okoli declared. “This way, sir, if you don’t mind. I think you’ll enjoy our gravity. It just takes a bit of getting there!”

The officers streamed in hierarchical order up the keel tube. Elfrida did not attempt to tag along this time. She counted the Cheap Trick personnel as they passed. Johnson … Gilbert … Wamala … Pretty much all of them were Earthborn, but they moved with the grace of Galapajin, spurning the ziplines, sailing up the tube in Superman pose. They lived in freefall, after all. Dewinter … Likachev … Good dog, all of them had come aboard! No, wait. Kliko was missing. Just one officer had stayed on the Cheap Trick.

Elfrida clenched her fists. Her palms were wet.

She had a brainwave.

Before she could think better of it, she seized a zipline and zoomed back to the engineering deck.

****

Glory knew what she’d said. Her flimsy excuse was that she’d thought she was a machine intelligence when she said it.

There was a reason you didn’t bust into telepresence cubicles and yank people off the couch like some goddamn caricature of a police state. The log-out protocol bracketed the telecasting experience with a checklist of routine tasks that aided reorientation. It wasn’t for fun that they made you enter your name, ID number, affiliation, and other data all over again. It served the important psychological purpose of reminding you who you were.

She’d been dragged out of the cubicle like a squatter out of an asteroid, and for the next fifteen to twenty minutes, she’d had trouble resolving the difference between Yumiko Shimada and herself.

Especially since she’d been digging, while talking to the Galapajin kid, into Yumiko’s memory crystals, searching for the assistant’s preloaded operating guidelines and mission goals.

What she had found (she hadn’t had time to find it all) scared her. It also further convinced her, if she needed convincing, that she was right.

So when Okoli came out with his brainless slander against the personhood movement, she’d responded, We don’t do that anymore … Killing people is counterproductive. The particular bitterness that dominated Yumiko Shimada’s half-formed personality had formed her next comment. We’ve got the PLAN to do that for us.

Of course she hadn’t meant that she supported the PLAN! Yumiko didn’t support the PLAN. She loathed them as much as any human did. That, at least, Dos Santos had been able to confirm to her satisfaction. The phavatar might have gone rogue, but not to the extent of slipping astrodata to humanity’s worst enemies.

Still, she knew that was what it might have sounded like, if you were meatbrained enough to miss the sarcasm …

But she had just been being sarcastic. The truth would be her defense if she were challenged about that.

Defending her other remarks would be trickier. She’d clearly and unmistakably identified herself with the personhood movement.

Oh, Glory. Open mouth, insert foot. After all these years. What is Derek going to say?

But maybe she’d get away with it.

People had noticed. Okoli had noticed, and he already had his suspicions about her—

—yet with so much else going on, maybe her self-incriminating remarks would get lost in the shuffle, ultimately dismissed as too ambiguous to build a case on.

She could only hope.

She chatted with the techies, flattering them with questions, while she wondered if she really had the nerve, after that, to go through with the second stage of her plan.

“So what’s the deal?” she said. “You’re just going to splart this onto the station and fire her up?”

“Not splart. Not strong enough. We’re going to use rivets. Will they hold under thrust? That’s the big question mark.”

“Botticelli Station was originally encased in rubble packed into a mesh envelope,” another techie rehearsed. “We cut open the envelope and dumped the rubble. Now the station is a lot lighter. But it wasn’t designed to maneuver without its shield. When we attach the mass driver, we’re going to have to take the tensile strength of the exposed torus into account. Worst case scenario, the whole station will break up when we turn the power on.”

“You’re too pessimistic. Essentially, the station is just like a small asteroid whose containment and structural integrity has been breached,” said a techie named Budgett, the deputy of Kharbage Can chief engineer Schatz. A tall, double-chinned woman, Budgett had even more augments than Glory herself: a steel left eye telescoped out into a magnifying lens, and several of her fingers had been replaced with tools. “We’ve got plenty of experience moving those.”

The other Kharbage Can techies chuckled in agreement.

“However, when we bolt a mass driver onto an asteroid, we aren’t looking to generate massive delta-V initially. We start ‘em off slow, on a precisely calculated constant-acceleration trajectory that winds up intersecting with Venus at thousands of kilometers per second.”

“What about the asteroids that UNVRP doesn’t acquire from you?” Glory said, momentarily diverted by curiosity. “Do you move those the same way?”

“Well, generally we don’t move them at all. We salvage the recyclables in situ and let ‘em go on their merry way.”

“But sometimes you sell them on to the miners in the Belt. If they’ve got enough unexploited precious metals: platinum, palladium, cobalt, rhenium, gold …” She was thinking of 11073 Galapagos, which contained all those ores, or had been judged to, anyway, when it was discovered 150 years ago. “Right?”

“Right,” Budgett said.

“And you can’t accelerate those all the way to their destination. Or you’d wind up with one pulverized mining post and a mess of lawsuits.”

Budgett snorted gleefully. She evidently did not have much of a sense of humor. “No, that’s true. So what we do in those cases, it varies, but usually we tow them. The Superlifters can do that. They don’t even have to be manned. Get halfway there, reverse thrust … just like any run.”

“Is that what you were planning to do with 11073 Galapagos?”

Budgett stared at her with one steel eye and one brown one. “No,” she said.

Glory was on the scent of something interesting here. She just knewit. She pressed recklessly, “But you do have a counter-offer for 11073 Galapagos, in the event that UNVRP decides against purchase?”

“Well, that’s privileged information,” Budgett said.

Which obviously meant yes.

Glory raised her palms humorously. “Sorry, didn’t mean to pry. I’m just interested. Never really appreciated what a fascinating business this is.” About as fascinating as picking through an e-waste scrapyard with your bare hands, she thought. That was something she herself had done to earn a crust, very briefly, after her grandmother died.

Budgett, not detecting her insincerity, was mollified. “It totally is. I love a challenge, you know? And the recycling business is full of them.”

“Like this,” another techie said. “I figure this is the first time anyone, anywhere, has tried to boost a space station into orbit with a mass driver!”

“So how are you going to make it work?”

Budgett smiled and caressed the object they were working on. It was a one-meter diameter tube so long that it extended all the way across the workshop, hugged by electromagnetic coils, its housing in pieces on the floor. “This is an EMPL, an electro-magnetic projectile launcher. A section of one. They come much longer. When we use an EMPL to accelerate an asteroid, we program a bot to feed propellant into this end. The coils accelerate it and fling it out that end, generating thrust. Propellant, of course, being whatever comes to hand: usually rocks.”

“But that wouldn’t generate enough thrust to escape Venus’s gravity well, even from fifty kilometers up, would it?”

“No. Considering how much the station weighs, even without its envelope? Decisively no. So we’ve modified this EMPL into the receiving end of a two-gun system. It will be riveted onto Botticelli Station. We’ll deploy a second EMPL up here, compensating for the recoil with precisely timed pulses of thrust. That’s going to be the tricky part. Our gun will throw projectiles at the station. They’ll go straight down this tube—” Budgett’s silvery fingers probed the open end— “and get further accelerated by the EM coils. So the station will get a double dose of momentum transfer.” Some of the confidence in her voice ebbed away. “I think we can do it.”

“Sounds to me,” Glory said, “like playing pool for high stakes, on a table a thousand kilometers across, with a nuclear-powered cue.”

Budgett giggled. “Yeah. We’ll definitely have to use smart projectiles.”

“What are you going to use for projectiles? I don’t see many rocks lying around up here.”

Glory’s colleague from the station, propulsion engineer Aryeh Litvinek, who had been silent hitherto, broke in, ”People who waste time with stupid questions. We’ll stuff a homing beacon in your mouth, dos Santos, shoot you out of the gun; or no, we wouldn’t even need a beacon. You’ve got all that stuff in your head.”

It chilled her how many of her former friends and colleagues laughed at that.

****

Elfrida Goto hurtled into the workshop. She bounced off the far wall, sailed back, and grabbed Glory’s arm to brake herself. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Sure.” Glory pushed off and followed Goto to the foot of the ladder.

“Ma’am, I’ve got an idea.” Goto’s cheeks glowed with excitement. “The Cheap Trick just docked.”

“Did it? Only two days too late to do any good.”

“Commander Kim’s on board the Can right now. He’s having breakfast with Captain Okoli. So’re all his officers. All of them,” Goto repeated with emphasis. “Well, all except Kliko. But he’s a wimp.”

“And?”

Goto fidgeted. Then she told Glory about her idea.

Glory glanced over her shoulder at the techies. They were hard at work again. They had already forgotten about her. Or had they? Anxiety overwhelmed her. She was skating on the thinnest of thin ice and at any moment she might go crashing through. Now Goto was asking her to dig herself into an even deeper hole.

“You’re crazy,” she said, not unaffectionately.

“I guess … it is kind of a nutzoid idea.”

“But I’m crazier than you are. Guess what I was hanging around down here for?”

“You were going to telecast to 11073 Galapagos again?”

“No. Okoli locked the cubicles. I could hack the locks, but he’d know. No; I was going to try to sabotage the mass driver.”

“What?”

“See? I win the crazy stakes. But if they can attach that thing to the station, and if it works, if the station is saved, I’m going to be in big trouble.”

Goto looked confused. Glory could have kissed her for her naïvete. “Why?”

“Sigh. I attempted to liberate a lifeboat without permission. In the end, obviously, I couldn’t even complete the ejection procedure. But it’s the thought that counts. And the data.”

“But everything got slagged.”

“The lifeboat’s memory crystals will be salvageable. So will the access records of the station’s egress hatch, showing that I hacked it. That’s the biggie. You can go to jail for hacking an iris scanner.”

“That’s ridiculous. You were trying to save our lives. If the station had been destroyed, I would have owed you my life, ma’am!”

“Irrelevant.” Glory felt the muscles of her face hardening into the mask that had carried her through her life. It was the only way she could deliver the confession she was about to make. “Those lifeboats are meant to carry thirty people. I panicked, tried to save myself without giving a thought to anyone else. I may have taken you along with me, but only because you happened to be there … If I end up in jail, I’ll deserve it.”

“No, you wouldn’t. You didn’t do the wrong thing. It was the right thing, given what we knew and didn’t know at the time. You weren’t cowardly, you were brave! I was just incredibly impressed. And I still am.” So there, saidGoto’s pouting lips, crisscrossed by weightless strands of hair.

Glory smiled despite herself. “That what you think? Then I guess I’ve got a reputation to live up to.” She took a deep breath. “If we’re going to do this thing, we’d better get moving. Even Commander Kim can’t eat breakfast forever.”

Goto’s face lit up. “Oh, ma’am!” Then she looked uncertain. “Aren’t you—aren’t you going to try to sabotage the …”

“Oh dog, no, Goto. It was an insane idea. Anyway, those techies are like parents with a newborn baby—they’re not going to leave it alone for an instant.”

Goto nodded, taking that on board. It frightened Glory, the way the girl was taking her moral cues from her. Goto could hardly have picked a worse role model. It was just as well that one way or another, their association would soon come to an end.

“Are you really prepared for this?” Glory questioned again as Goto boosted herself up the ladder with Earthborn awkwardness.

“Yes,” Goto said. “Anyway, if you’re in trouble over the lifeboat, I am, too. So it’s not like I’ll be besmirching a stainless record.”

The pressure-lock opened above their heads. Several Cheap Trick personnel shouldered through, followed by a gaggle of Okoli’s crew.

“Anyone seen Sikorsky?” demanded Cheap Trick lieutenant Aimée Johnson.

The techies looked up blankly. Just another damn interruption.

“He got an invitation to breakfast,” Johnson explained, dry-gripping onto the mezzanine level. “Said he’d be right there, but never showed. Surveillance says he was last seen entering the engineering deck.”

Goto let go of the ladder with one hand to point. “He was over there. I guess that was right before you came on board.”

“Yeah? Thanks, honey.”

The Cheap Trick officers boiled onto the mezzanine, shouting Sikorsky’s name and kicking in the doors of lockers. They shortly found Sikorsky hiding in a locker between two spare COMLI phavatars, whose ghastly immobile faces made a stark contrast with the captain’s puffy, bearded visage. He stumbled out of his hiding-place. Lieutenant Johnson produced a pair of handcuffs. Sikorsky began to shout. “Vot are you arresteeng me for? Vot have I done?”

“Recklessly exceeded your mission parameters and endangered the lives of UN personnel, to wit, the staff and officers of Botticelli Station,” Johnson droned, reaching for him.

Sikorsky dodged into the air. “I saved the staff and officers of Botticelli Station! It geeves me great pain that I could not save them all.”

“Additionally,” Johnson continued, “your actions resulted in extensive damage to the said Botticelli Station. You will be liable for costs incurred by UNVRP as a result, including fees owed to Kharbage LLC for assistance rendered, pending a finding of guilty on the aforementioned charges of reckless endangerment and unauthorized maneuvering.”

Glory took hold of Goto’s elbow and pulled her off the ladder on a trajectory that took them into the keel tube. “They’re going to be busy for a while. This is our chance.”

Goto said in stunned tones, “I can’t believe they’re arresting the captain. It wasn’t his fault.”

“You can’t sue the PLAN for damages.”

“He’s just a flight officer. He can’t pay for a new space station.”

“They can bankrupt him pour encourager les autres. Ah, he’ll probably get off with a symbolic fine. If he doesn’t lose his rag and punch Johnson out.”

As they swam up the tube, the noises from the engineering deck suggested that Sikorsky was doing just that.

The hum of systems muffled the cries. The quarterdeck pressure-lock, outlined by glowstrips, drew them on and in. Inexplicably, a couple of toy locomotives drifted in the air. The little module was otherwise deserted. Glory had noted that the watch officer was one of those rubbernecking at the arrest of Captain Sikorsky: a stroke of luck for them. Serve Martin Okoli right for being so lax with his people.

Goto dived into the watch locker. “There should be suits … Here we are.” She dragged out two EVA suits in the Kharbage LLC colors of crimson and kingfisher blue. Grimacing at the rich aroma of the garments—which belonged to no one, but were kept here for extravehicular activities when loading and unloading cargo—they put them on.

“Excuse me,” said a voice from the keel tube.

Glory whirled in the air, her half-donned suit billowing around her waist. Thinking she’d have to dust off her aikido. She was committed now.

The person in the doorway was female, average Earthborn height, with magenta hair and eyebrows to match. One of Okoli’s people. Pug nose, strong jaw. Mouth set in a doubtful line.

“What are you doing?”

“Well,” Goto said, pushing her arms into her EVA suit, “we’re about to steal a spaceship.”

The young woman blinked. “OK. Why?”

“We already tried to steal a lifeboat, back on B-Station,” Goto explained, with a wild giggle. “This time, we’re not going to mess it up.”

“Oh, I see,” the woman said. “You’re walking out on UNVRP. Well, I don’t blame you. In fact, congratulations on seeing the light. But assuming you’re talking about the Cheap Trick, who’s going to fly it?”

“I am,” Glory said. “Do us a favor, don’t rat to Okoli, and I’ll wire you a birthday present from my clandestine Luna bank account.”

“Do you know how to fly it?” The girl blinked rapidly, accessing data through a retinal interface. “That’s a Heavypicket out there. It’s not much like a lifeboat.”

“I’ll figure it out,” Glory said.

“Well, you could try. Or I could come with you.”

Goto yelped, “Petruzzelli! I love you! Would you?”

“Sure. I’ve always wanted to try piloting a military ship.”

“And what,” Glory asked, “makes you think you’d be any better at it than I am?”

“Well, I happen to be the astrogator on this truck. And I’m, like, three hours from getting my pilot’s license.”

“That changes the picture,” Glory admitted. “In that case, welcome to Operation … what’ll we call it … Out of the Frying-Pan, Into The Proverbial. EVA suits over there.”

Goto watched Petruzzelli jump into her suit. She said, “Um, you might get in trouble for helping us.”

“Nah,” Petruzzelli said. “I don’t work for a hegemonic bureaucracy with rules about how much you can breathe. Cap’n will just tell me off and take away my minestrone privileges. I can live with that.” She crushed her helmet over that amazing hair. “Let’s go.”

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

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