Preface

 

Regarding Space Travel

Any author who hopes to write a story about interstellar space travel must eventually deal with the fact that interstellar space travel is impossible. Or if not impossible, then so shockingly impractical that it's probably not worth the trouble. We can't go to the stars in real life, but we hunger to see them and discover what secrets are hidden behind all of those shimmering white dots. So to soothe our curiosity, we write stories about outer space.  However, in our stories we can't travel through space for all the same reasons we can't travel through space in the real world. The only saving grace of fiction is that we can cheat.

I suppose you can write a story about a guy who decides to find out how a remote colony planet is doing, and so he spends most of his adult life travelling there. Then his daughter spends her life bringing back the reply, "We're mostly okay here, but we're fresh out of that orange cheese dust they put on chips and cheese doodles, and we don't know how to synthesize it ourselves.” Then the man's grandson takes them a shipment of cheese dust and his great-granddaughter brings back their reply of, "Thanks!" I'm not saying it can't be done, but there are certain limits on what kind of story you can tell if it takes decades to go somewhere and your characters keep dropping dead of old age. It's going to be murder on pacing.

One popular solution is to just cheat around the physical limits of the universe with technology. Take all the unknown stuff about how a ship can move in space without needing to constantly shed mass, how it can get anywhere in a reasonable timeframe, how it can circumvent the unbelievably annoying restriction that you can’t travel faster than light, and where all the required energy is going to come from. The author puts the solutions to all of these problems in a box, they write "magic" on the side, and then they strap it to the back of a spaceship and call it the engine. Then the author can stop worrying about all that crap and get on with their space adventure.

The other solution is for the scientifically minded author is to try to bluff their way past these problems by dropping in some ideas based on quantum tunneling, string theory, black holes, or whatever stuff is popular enough that readers will have heard of it yet complicated enough that they will have no idea what it really is.  The author can cover up the word "magic" on the side of the box with jargon. The problem with this is that it takes a good bit of scientific knowledge to pull this off without making a fool of yourself, it can sometimes be a bit dense to read, and unless you actually know how to travel faster than light, you're still going to end up with a magic box.

In this book you will find my own solution to the problem. I wanted technology that was at some kind of mid-point between the booster-rocket technology we have now and the magic "warp drive" technology of the future. Something that's complicated, inconvenient, but mysterious to the reader. This fixes my most frequent objection to fictional technology, which is that it's usually not nearly enough of a pain in the ass. When I see a large-scale transportation technology that isn't an expensive logistical and maintenance nightmare, it really pulls me out of the story.

 

Prologue

 

Coming out of forced sleep on an interstellar ship was a lot like being born.  The light was sudden and painful, even through her clenched eyelids. Rigid hands pulled at her slime-covered body, turning her onto her side. Her ears were blocked, so that the sounds around her were deep and remote behind the wet gasps of her own labored breathing. She pulled herself into a ball, nursing the numbing ache in her limbs. She felt very heavy.

Rin hacked and coughed a few times to expel the slime. A towel was pressed into her hands. She sat up and scraped off the gel without opening her eyes. There was something in her mouth. Was it some leftover tubes? No. It was bits of her long hair, which was matted to her face. She pawed at the mess with numb hands until she had most of it behind her head where it belonged.

She drew in a ragged, slow breath so she could push out a single word. “Coffee.”

“I’m sorry Rin. There isn’t any coffee available.” It was Ando’s voice.

Son of a bitch. There were hundreds of cubic meters of supplies on this ship, and they didn’t bring enough coffee to last the whole voyage? Coffee was relatively cheap, in terms of storage space. Also, why was the robot the one waking her up? Where was Dr. What’s-His-Face, the guy with the French accent? He didn’t have a lot of jobs on this ship. In fact, thawing people out and freezing them again was pretty much all he did. Why wasn’t he here?

Rin pried her eyes open and nearly threw up. She was so dizzy that it seemed like the entire RAS bay was tilting to one side.  Before she slammed her eyes shut again she saw Ando standing in front of her. The grid of blue lights that made up his face were arranged to show a neutral expression, except his eyebrows were raised. What was that supposed to convey? Concern? An apology?

His small frame of white plastic and black metal had been standing directly in front of her. His hands were behind his back in a way that, if imitated by a human, would come off as horribly smug.

Now that her brain seemed to be warming up, Rin realized she shouldn’t still be aboard the ISV Armstrong. The doctor had put her to sleep for the remainder of the voyage. She should have been unloaded with the rest of the cargo and woken up on Earth. Were they back? That would be nice. Maybe she could sneak a view from orbit before they went down on one of the shuttles.

She opened her eyes again. The room-tilt was still going on. She managed to hold them open this time, shielding them from the light with one hand.

“What’s going on?” she muttered.

“There’s been an accident,” Ando replied in his calm, friendly voice.

“Oh?” Rin was starting to worry that all of the questions in her head were pointing to something really serious, and she just wasn’t getting it yet.

“Let me get dressed and pee,” she mumbled.

“I’ll wait for you,” Ando replied. His narrow, child-like frame turned and descended the ladder to the medical compartment.

Her RAS pod was still hanging open, and there was a dribble of gel from the mouth of the pod to the table where she’d woken up. Rin peeled off the gel-soaked medical gown and lurched across the room to her locker, which was beside the pod. The dizziness was incredible. It really did seem like everything was at an odd angle.

She managed to wrangle herself into the jumpsuit without falling face-first into the locker. As she zipped it up, she caught sight of the porthole for the first time.

She stopped, her hand still on the zipper, and stared out the porthole. There was nothing that could explain what she was seeing, which was a cloudy blue sky outside of the window of an interstellar ship. It was like looking out the window of your car to see fish swimming by. This image made no sense. Interstellar ships never took off or landed. They were even built in orbit.

It was at this point that she realized that she wasn’t dizzy. The ship really was inexplicably listing forward and to one side.

Rin slid down the ladder to the medical compartment and fell on her ass. Partly this was because she was still addled from the long sleep, but mostly it was because she was accustomed to using this ladder in half gravity, and she was obviously a lot heavier than that now.

She staggered into the head and took care of business. She emerged several minutes later with her hair properly pulled back into a pony tail and a fresh splash of cold water still dripping from her face. The towels were all missing for some reason.

“Did we land on a planet?” she asked Ando. She was very much afraid this question would sound insane, but it seemed the most straightforward way of proceeding.

“We crashed,” he said evenly, to her dismay.

“On Earth?”

“No.”

“Okay,” she said, trying very hard not to freak out. “Where is everyone?”

“It will be easier to explain if we go outside,” Ando replied. He turned and headed aft, his metal feel clicking against the hard deck.

Rin followed him through the officer’s sleeping area, through the day area, the rec room, and EVA storage.

“Am I going to need to suit up?” Rin asked, pointing at the space suits.

“No.” Ando led her into the airlock and cycled the doors. It felt very, very strange to be standing in the airlock without wearing a suit. Rin’s heart began pounding. Leaving the ship without a suit was normally a thing that would get you killed.

The outer doors opened, and a crushing wave of hot, sticky air washed over her. Strange smells crawled into her sinuses. She fought to keep her eyes open in the face of the overpowering sunlight.

In another context she might have described the scene as “fantastical”. If this was a concept drawing hanging on a wall somewhere, it might have qualified as “strange and alien”. But she was standing in the middle of it, and the only word that came to mind was “unsettling”.

Everything was just a bit off. The sky was a very deep shade of blue. The sunlight seemed a little too bright and pale. The plant life was a darker shade of green than what she was used to. The undergrowth looked wrong.

The most unsettling detail of all was the trees.  They didn’t look or behave like earth trees. Thick trunks grew up in twisting patterns and ended in spikes, but they didn’t have a canopy of leaves overhead. Instead curtains of leafy or grass-like stuff grew directly from the gnarled trunks, like a cactus with lawn clippings stuck to the body. The trees weren’t grouped together into forests, but scattered over the landscape in isolation. 

The hills rolled off into the impossibly blue sky, dotted with tree spikes and covered in an even layer of hip-high undergrowth. The ground sloped away from the ship, leading down into a shallow valley. 

“Watch your step,” Ando said.

Rin looked down. The airlock wasn’t flush with the ground, and there was a one-meter drop from the metal frame to the planet surface.  The ground directly around the ship had been trampled down and there was a path leading from the airlock to a spot of bare rock about ten meters away, where a fire pit had been built.  Cargo containers had been arranged in a circle around the pit.  They were scuffed, dirty, and dented. They had obviously been out here for a long time.

Rin made her way over to the fire pit like a hangover victim, shielding her eyes with one hand and taking small timid steps. Looking back to the ship, she saw the Armstrong was leaning against a cliff wall, which explained how it was standing upright under gravity, which she hadn’t even questioned until now. 

She put her hands on her knees as if she’d just finished a sprint. She rested like this while she waited for her breathing to settle down. Her body was still weak from the long sleep.

Her first freezer nap didn’t weaken her this severely. Had she been asleep longer this time? “When did we crash? How long have we been here?” she asked.

“We crashed on March twenty-second. It’s now July fifteenth. We’ve been here for sixteen weeks.”

“It’s July? I think the doc put me down for the freezer nap in late January.” She paused for a moment to do the math. The math-doing parts of her brain seemed to be a bit numb and this took her longer than it should. “I was under for almost six months. That’s long. Dangerously long,” Rin muttered.

“Yes. Six months is the edge for many unpleasant risk factors. You don’t seem to have any obvious signs of damage to your nervous system. Hopefully your youth can protect you from the other adverse effects.”

Was she at risk for brain damage? If she was brain damaged, how would she know?  “I guess the long sleep explains why I’m so hungry,” she said. “My hands are shaking. At first I thought I was weak from sleep, but no. I’m starving.”

“The food is gone.” Ando’s light-grid face showed an apologetic expression again. “I’m sorry.”

“Where’s the rest of the crew?” Rin asked.

“Down there.” Ando pointed down the slope, away from the ship.

Rin hobbled to the edge of the plateau and looked down into the valley. She didn’t see any orange or white jumpsuits. Finally she saw what Ando was referring to: A bare spot of ground. There were mounds where dirt had been moved away and replaced. Beside each mound was a metal footlocker with a name written on the lid.

“Six graves,” she said. “I was in one of the RAS pods. The other five RAS pods were full. Which still leaves two people unaccounted for.

“Crewman Berringer was killed by native fauna and his companion was not able to recover his body. Captain Wheeler is missing and presumed dead.”

Rin shook her head. “This is messed up.” She eased herself down onto one of the containers. “We don’t have any food at all? Like, even something spoiled? I don’t care, just anything.”

“No. Dr. Fournier was the last person alive. When the food finally ran out he sampled some of the native plant life. He experienced extreme intestinal pain soon afterwards, and died two days later.”

“This is insane,” Rin said. She looked up at the thick blue sky, now a ceiling over their heads. “How did we get here?”

Houston

 

“What planet are you from?” Rin shouted rhetorically at the other car. “On this one we use turn signals! Jerk.”  She reluctantly let off the gas to let the pushy driver have his way.

Houston did not have climate or seasons as Rin understood them. It had “hot”. There was day and there was night.  Both had smothering humidity and relentless heat. The only difference between the two was that one was significantly brighter than the other.  Some days – like today, for example – the humidity took the form of dense, splattering rain. The inhabitants dealt with this by driving like crazy people.

Rin hated when this happened, because it meant that traffic would slow to a crawl.  She had exactly one hour between the end of work and the start of her first evening class.  This was just enough time to grab a bite to eat.  Sometimes she might skip the meal and take a twenty-minute nap in the university parking lot instead.  If traffic slowed her down too much, she wouldn’t get to do either.  Today she really, really needed both.

“You are three miles from your exit,” Roberto said.

“Thank you,” she replied in a sing-song voice. Roberto was the name she gave to her late-model Mitsubishi Wayfinder. One of the car’s options allowed the driver to replace the bland “business” voice with a smooth, confident, Latin-flavored alternative.  Because of this, she left all of the verbal cues active, even trivial ones.  She knew the way from work to school by heart, and the car projected directional cues onto the windshield, both of which rendered Roberto’s vocal directions superfluous. But she enjoyed hearing his casual observations and route suggestions. On most days this was the closest thing she had to a conversation.

She glanced at the dashboard screen. It was 5:33pm. She did the math.  She wasn’t going to have enough time to pick up food. In this weather, drive-through would be packed. She would have to settle for sleep today.  This made her more impatient, since every minute spent driving was now a minute less sleep.

“Pop music,” Rin said, hoping to wake herself up enough to make it to school.

“Is there a particular genre of pop music you would like to enjoy?” Roberto asked helpfully.

“Surprise me.”

Incongruously cheerful pop music flowed into the cabin. A woman began singling in French. Rin thought to ask for something in English or Japanese, but then realized that one string of cheerfully vapid mush was like any other. She probably wasn’t missing out on anything approaching Shakespearian poetry.

“Turn your lights on, idiot,” Rin said to the car that was shadowing her on the driver side.

“The lights are already on,” Roberto replied triumphantly.

“Not you,” Rin said gently, the way someone might talk to a dumb puppy. This other driver was one of those people who assumed that he didn’t need to use his headlights because he could see where he was going, because it was daytime.  What he failed to realize was that with his lights off, his gray car blended in with the gray rain, the gray fog, and the gray spray of water coming off the road. 

Was it going to rain like this tonight? She wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of driving in this piss after dark. “Weather?” she asked.

The dash-screen flicked on and began a little animation letting her know that she could upgrade her autonet access to the premium plan and remove advertisements (mostly this one, she suspected) and get better throughput, along with the many other unspecified benefits of being on the Mitsubishi network. The music from the ad clashed with her radio. “Skip.” she growled impatiently, but the audio parser couldn’t hear her over the dueling songs.

Roberto was the one thing she’d dared to spend money on.  Everything else was saved for school. She lived in an apartment only slightly larger than a prison cell.  She ate basic staples and she almost never went out for entertainment. Early on she decided if she was going to endure this marathon of study, work, and commuting, then the one thing she would need is a good car. School was going to be a pain in the ass, but damn if she wasn’t going to tackle it from behind the wheel of a car that was easy to park, fun to drive, and had the voice of a sexy, Spanish-speaking stud.

The ad ended and she was connected to the weather service, which then ran an ad for snow tires.

“Skip,” she shouted. The ad ended, and the screen presented her with an image of the planet.

Local weather, dummy!” she said with irritation.

The screen changed again, and she was worried that they were going to hit her with another ad, but instead it mercifully brought up the local weather.

“You are two miles from your exit,” Roberto said.

“Oh no. Please don’t do this to me. Not today.” Rin rubbed the side of her head and clenched her teeth.  She’d been darting through traffic for the last mile, but now found herself behind a couple of harbingers of misery.  In the right lane was a wide utility truck, loping along far below the speed limit.  In the passing lane, someone had tried to pass the truck but gave up half way.  The road was clear in front of them, but neither one seemed inclined to let anyone else into that paradise of open road.

She looked at the dash screen, but she couldn’t read it. Whoever designed the cabin for this model of Wayfinder had decided that they didn’t want an ugly display frame disturbing the graceful curves of their beautifully sculpted dashboard, so they went with a curved screen that was molded to follow this organic shape.  The resulting convex surface turned out to be a perfect tool for finding and magnifying glare. The top half of the screen – which was where tonight’s forecast was printed – was drowned out by the light coming in through her windshield. She craned her neck to try and get a better view. She realized this screen might be a lot more useful if she wasn’t so dang short.

Rin glanced in her rearview. The shadow car was still there.  She couldn’t see it, but she could see it eclipsing the headlights of the cars behind her as it moved around. 

“Manual drive,” Rin said.

“Driver now has manual control,” Roberto announced. The car dropped into neutral and the gearshift lit up.

Rin jerked the stick into third.  She found manual driving was wonderful for relieving stress. Roberto’s voice helped as well. It was hard to remain furious when someone else seemed so at ease.

“You have a call,” Her tel chirped.

Where was her tel? She ran her hands over the likely pockets in her shirt, but it wasn’t there.  Her skirt didn’t have any pockets. Also, it didn’t sound like the chirp was coming from anywhere on her person. She glanced around the cabin. The tel chirped again and repeated the announcement. Rin could hear the voice was emanating from the nest of fast food packaging in the passenger-side foot space.  It must have slid off the seat while she was driving. This call was actually a lucky break. If not for this she might have walked off without it. 

Her tel did not have a relaxing voice.  It was a bargain model, and defaulted to a dreadfully retro synthesized voice. If it had any personality at all, it was that of an airheaded bimbo.  Rin always meant to look for an alternative voice, but she only thought of it in moments like this.

“Who’s calling?”

The bubbly female voice floated out of the trash announcing, “Mister David Reed.” It mashed the first two words too close together, and then put an incongruous pause after “David”. This annoyed Rin.

She considered this.  She was off work, and under no obligation to talk to her boss.  On the other hand, if she let him slide into voice mail then he’d probably just try to call back when she was trying to nap. He was probably calling to try and rope her into orbital duty again.

“Music down,” she said to Roberto. “Answer,” she said to her tel with resignation. “What is it Mr. Reed?”

“Well! Since we’re being so formal Miss Shimazaki… I wanted to ask you if you’d considered-“

“I did consider it. I already said no. I’m not going into space.” She made a mental note to not call him Mr. Reed next time. It sounded strange to hear him using her last name.

“You’re not even going to listen to my pitch?” He sounded more bemused than offended.

“I have school. I can’t attend school while I’m orbiting our world.” She wanted to shout abuse at the truck in front of her, but didn’t want to do so while on a call with David.  She looked longingly at the opposing lanes of traffic, which were moving freely.

“You can go during the summer, while school is out.  That works out good for us.  A lot of our older orbital techs want the summer off.”

“I’m not taking the summer off of school.”

“It’s a solid financial opportunity as well. We cover your housing and food expenses.”

“I didn’t think you’d make me sleep outside,” she said with as much patience as she could manage.

“And the going rate for first-time techs on orbital assignment is almost triple what you’re making now.”

“Oh?” Rin said, suddenly wide-eyed. Did he mention this before? It seemed like a detail like that would have stuck in her mind. She ran the numbers in her head. If she gave up her apartment and didn’t have to pay for food for three months, how much would that save her? Where would she store Roberto? This car represented most of her net worth, and she didn’t want anything to happen to it.

“Are you there?” David said.

“One second,” Rin said, raising her voice with excitement.  The moron hogging the passing lane had just slowed down, leaving a gap for her. Rin mashed the gas and shifted into fourth gear, darting through the opening before they conspired to close it again.

David rambled on, “Anyway, if you want orbital duty next summer then you need to sign up soon. There are several months of certification courses you’ll need to take. We pay for those, of course, but the cutoff-“

“Rin, you are exceeding the speed limit by twenty miles an hour,” Roberto said calmly and without judgment.

She couldn’t make sense of what she was seeing ahead.  Through the rain it kind of looked like a billboard had been built all the way across the road.  This was an absurd conclusion and she knew it, but she couldn’t see any other way to interpret the scene.  The rain was falling so heavily that looking out of the car was like looking through blocks of art deco glass. Her wipers flung the water from her windshield at a furious pace, and each pass gave her this momentary view of the world before it became a smear of rainwater.  With each pass this billboard seemed closer.

Another advertisement began to play.  The weather report had vanished and the dash-screen was now blaring violin music and showing a woman running through a field. She thumped on the screen to shut it up, but it obstinately continued playing. 

“Hello?” David said. Rin became aware that he’d been talking and that she had no idea what he’d been saying.

Suddenly the scene in front of her resolved itself.  It wasn’t a billboard; it was the side of an eighteen-wheeler.  It had fishtailed somehow and was now stretching across all four lanes of traffic. It had been traveling in the opposing lane, and was now a wall of steel heading towards her.

“Shit!”

She cut the wheel and stomped on the brakes, but at this relative speed and distance there was no way to avoid the impact.  The car sailed right into the side of the trailer, with the truck’s rear wheels to her right and the mid-wheels to her left. At the last instant she ducked down.

There was a sharp impact and suddenly the rainstorm was in the car with her.  Her roof and windshield were gone. The wind picked up a handful of fast food trash and tossed it into the air. She found herself lying down.  Her seat had been pushed all the way back and into the fully reclining position.  She struggled to sit up, but her seat belt held her down. She had passed all the way under the truck, and her car was now in a slow spin.  Above the din of rain and car horns she could hear David was still speaking.

Recovering from the impact, Rin thumbed the seatbelt release and sat up.  The world was a swirl of traffic lights. There were more impacts as other vehicles ran into each other in disorganized ways.  She grabbed the wheel and stomped on the brake.  She managed to end the spin and found herself coasting backwards.  Now the car was going the right direction but facing the wrong way. She glanced at the empty space where she would normally expect to find her rearview mirror, felt stupid, and then looked back over her shoulder to see where she was going. She dropped the car into neutral and guided it onto the shoulder. 

The car came to a stop and she began breathing again. .

She hammered on the dash-screen again, and it went blank.

“Rin? You’re scaring me here. What was that? Are you okay?” David said.

She didn’t know what to say. She was shaking from the intensity of the moment, worried about how much it was going to cost to repair Roberto, and feeling a little good about herself for having pulled off such a slick move.

“Yeah. You won’t believe what just happened. I was-“

A shadow rushed at her from out of the rain.  Another vehicle was riding the shoulder. It had escaped being pulverized by the eighteen-wheeler and was now sailing out of control. She jumped from the front seat just in time to have her car swept away by a badly mangled utility truck.  She landed in the mud and stones beside the road.  By the time she was able to stand, the truck had rolled away with what was left of Roberto, the two of them joined face-to-face.

“I’m okay, I guess,” Rin called in a shaky voice. “I’m not hurt. I don’t think so, anyway.” Her voice trailed off. She realized her tel had been swept away with her car, and she was now talking to herself.

*

“I’m fine,” Rin said. She stood nervously in the middle of David’s office, wondering what to do with her hands. It was the morning after the crash, and David had called her in here almost as soon as she finished her first coffee. 

“I heard about it on the news. Three people died in that crash,” David said.

Rin nodded. “That’s what they said.”

He looked her over. “Not a scratch?”

“I have this.” Rin held up her arm to show a bandage had been stuck on her elbow. “I think it counts as a scratch. I got that from jumping out of the car. Also, my ribs are sore where the seatbelt caught me.”

“But nothing serious?”

“Not even a bruise.”

David was sitting behind his desk, swiveling his executive chair from side to side.  He did this so slowly that it took Rin a minute or so to notice he was doing it at all. Behind him was a window that looked out over the pavement that seemed to stretch to the horizon.

As far as she could tell, David was somewhere in the neighborhood of forty. If he was following the old advice that you should dress for the job you want, then he was evidently aiming for a job as a millionaire playboy superspy.  She’d never seen him in anything less than perfectly tailored suit. He often looked out of place in a building otherwise filled with sloppy, out-of-shape bureaucrats with loose ties and armpit stains.

He was handsome and charming. Rin wouldn’t mind this at all if not for the fact that he knew he was handsome and charming, and often used this to get his way. She had been taken with him at first, but when she noticed he was squeezing extra work out of her with nothing more than flattery and wit she decided she didn’t like him. They had been on uneasy terms in the year since then.  It wasn’t that he was trying to exploit her, it’s just that he was often driven in a way that made him thoughtless.

“How about your car?” he asked.

“Totaled. Completely smashed.”

“Insurance?”

Rin looked around the room.  She was always annoyed that she had to stand when he called her into his office.  There was a pair of chairs that he always kept stacked in the corner; possibly to keep the middle of the room open for golf putting. Normally she didn’t like to touch the things in his office, but right now she wanted to sit.  Manners seemed much less important after a near-miss with death, and so she grabbed one of the chairs and sat right in the middle of the room. 

David seemed pleased at this.

“I do have insurance. But it’s… complicated.  They’re not going to give me full coverage. Because I was speeding.”

David furrowed his brow, seeming to turn this new piece of information over in his mind. “Was it your fault?”

“No. No not at all. In fact, if I’d been going slower I probably would have been wedged under the truck and ended up getting squished along with everyone else.” Rin had been relaxed since the crash, but now that she was recounting the experience her hands had begun to shake again.  She clasped them in her lap to make them hold still.

“And they know for sure how fast you were going?” David stood up and walked around so he could lean against the front of his desk. Was this a deliberate thing on his part? Did he always insist on standing when you were sitting and standing when you were standing?

“The car had a black box thing in it. Yeah, they know how fast.”

David nodded. He looked down at his shoes for a minute. He always did this when he was thinking. Rin was afraid he was trying to figure out how to bring up the subject of orbital duty again.

Instead he looked her in the eye. “You should get out of here. Take a couple of days off.”

Rin was so surprised by this suggestion that her reply came out as a stammer. “I already burned my vacation time, and I don’t want to use up all of my sick days-“

David silenced her with a wave of his hand, as if the very suggestion was an annoying fly in his face. “No no no. Don’t worry about any of that. I’ll take care of it. Just take the next couple of days off. Come back in on Monday.”

Rin stood up and then sat back down. “I might as well finish the day today.  I need someone around the office to give me a ride home.”

“Family?”

“None. Mother passed when I was a kid. Haven’t spoken to my father since I was seven. I lived with relatives for a few years, but we’re not close and they’re in Detroit.” Rin rattled this out as mechanically as possible.  She knew that saying she didn’t have family always made people curious, and rather than run through the list of predictable questions she preferred to get it all out at once.

David blinked in surprise. “Okay,” he said slowly, obviously knocked off-track by her sudden bulk payload of personal information. He went back to looking at his shoes. “I’ll give you a ride home myself,” he said when he looked up again. Having made up his mind, he strode out of the room with purpose and without waiting for her answer.

Rin was wary of this sudden concern. She confronted him when they reached the elevator. “I’m sure you’re just doing all of this to try and convince me to sign up for orbital duty.” She tried to make this sound like a joke, but she failed. Her tone was almost accusatory. It didn’t help that her voice was shaking a bit.

“We’ll talk about it in the car.”

The parking garage had roughly the same climate as the inside of a crock pot, so they hurried from the elevator to David’s reserved spot as quickly as they could. David had evidently started the car while they were still in his office. By the time they reached the parking level the climate control had already made the car habitable. Rin didn’t know enough about high-end cars to identify the model, but she knew a European sportscar when she saw one. This one was green, which she thought defeated the purpose of having this sort of car. Weren’t they all supposed to be red or black?

The passenger-side seat pulled her in like she was entering the gravity well of a gas giant. The seat was deep and cool, and she couldn’t shake the notion that she was being unfaithful to Roberto. The car seemed to float out of the garage.  At the top of the exit ramp was a bump that used to shake Roberto to the frame when she left work. Today she passed over it without being able to tell where it was.

“We found another planet,” David said without introduction.

“Really?” Rin said. “I assume you mean a real planet, with life on it, and not another rock?”

“Obviously,” David said. “Now, this conversation doesn’t leave this car. The planet hasn’t been announced yet. Heck, the naming committee hasn’t even met yet.”

She thought it was rather unfair to bind her to secrecy after telling her the secret, but she was thrilled to be in the loop like this. “So what’s the sophistication level?”

“The usual. Plankton. Some fish. There’s a tiny bit of green on dry land. The topology is really rough.  Most of the surface is water, and the dry land is mostly frozen rock. Not much room for higher life.”

“Oh. So no mammals, then?” This was the first question out of everyone’s mouth, and a source of great frustration to everyone involved with space travel.  No matter how remote, exotic, rich, or beautiful a planet might be, all anyone cared about was if it had space-caribou on it. (Actually, what people really cared about was if it had sapient life on it, but mammals seemed like a more realistic thing to hope for.) Rin was slightly ashamed to catch herself stooping to this same behavior, but she was just as eager for discovery and contact as anyone else.

“Well, anything from a foreign ecosystem probably won’t fit our classifications…” David began to say mechanically.

“Right, right. Not really ‘mammals’, but you know what I mean. Is there anything of mammal-like size and complexity?”

“No. Not that can be spotted from orbit, anyway. The survey team dropped some drones into the ocean.  We’ll let those things swim around for a few months and pick up their telemetry the next time we swing by the system. The thing is, this planet is mature. Probably about Earth-age. They’re pretty sure this one could have fossil fuels.”

The car zipped across the campus, travelling at speeds that probably wouldn’t be tolerated from anyone of a lower station. Not fast by any reasonable measurement, but still faster than the posted speed limit, which could probably be violated on foot.

The Houston campus of the International Space and Aeronautics Commission was a vast expanse of concrete and tarmac. It was a man-made wasteland, boiling in the Texas sun. It was dotted with clusters of willfully ugly concrete buildings.  It was an unintentional model of space itself: Tiny remote islands of detail, separated by a vast expanse of nothingness.

They were pulling away from the administration buildings at the center of the complex. Far to the south were the dorms and training facilities for space-bound personnel. To the east was the Mud Lake Storage Zone, a collection of warehouses and hangers for some sort of space-stuff that Rin had never investigated. To the north was the airstrip and hangars.

“Amazing. So are we going to harvest the fossil fuels?”

“I have no idea. Load humans on a ship, fling them all that way, have them dig up fossil fuels, drag the material into orbit, haul it all home? I don’t know. Might not be worth it, energy-wise. I’ll leave that one to the guys with the abacuses. The point is, we now know about four planets with life on them.”

The car slowed as they approached the security checkpoint at the main gate. To their right was a massive silo towering overhead, an old rocket-style craft from the haphazard early days of spaceflight when humans would hurl themselves into orbit using nothing more than the power of fire. It was a shrine to people who were crazy and courageous in exactly the right way.

The entire campus was surrounded by a high wall, crowned with razor wire. David lowered the windows as they reached the gate and held up his photo ID.  The savage Houston air flowed in.

Camera arms unfolded and moved over their vehicle. The cameras darted into the car and hovered in their faces for a few seconds. Rin held up the ID badge that hung around her neck. A screen lit up:

DIRECTOR DAVID L. REED + PERSONNEL RIN SHIMAZAKI

“That will give the computers something to gossip about,” David said in deadpan.

“What’s the ‘L’ stand for?”

“Louis. What’s your middle initial?”

“Don’t have one,” Rin said with a shrug.

The cameras nosed around in the back seat.  A larger apparatus passed over the hood and trunk.  Satisfied that they were not spies, saboteurs, or thieves, the equipment retracted. Most people referred to this equipment as if it was nothing more than an apparatus, but Rin could see intelligence behind its behaviors. This was a robot.  It remembered packages that had been examined on previous visits, it noticed packaging that was out of place, and it understood how to judge the apparent volume of a person’s clothes against their likely shape. It was able to differentiate between a skinny person in puffy clothing and a fat person in thin clothing.  Most people didn’t think of it as a robot because it never spoke audibly and it wasn’t shaped like living things. 

When the inspection was over, the many arms retracted and the machine folded itself back into a tidy booth-sized structure of dark metal plating and hydraulics. It did this almost soundlessly.

Rin guessed that the thing was probably German. Germans had a knack for making stark, impersonal robots with exquisite engineering. She wondered how smart it was. The Americans and Germans were roughly equal in terms of machine sapience, but both of them were light years behind the Japanese.

David and Rin both closed the car windows as soon as the machinery was clear. The reinforced chain-link gate opened with much mechanical groaning and scraping.  It was very much not German.

David eased the car out. They passed the bright red signs notifying them that they were leaving the International Space and Aeronautics Commission and entering the United States of America. They pulled away from the complex and David threaded his car into the morning traffic.

“We’re headed for the big blocks,” she said before David could ask where they were going. She glanced over to see he’d managed to get sunglasses onto his face without her noticing. He always seemed to be playing a game of brinksmanship where he maintained just enough charm to outweigh his smugness.

“Do you need me to put music on?” David asked.

“Need? Why would I need music?” Rin thought this was a very strange question. Not just because he implied she needed music, but because he was offering to do something he clearly didn’t want to do.

“I don’t know. You’re tapping your feet and drumming your fingers again. I’ve always assumed you do that because you’ve got music in your head.”

Rin saw that she had indeed been drumming her fingers against her knees. “I don’t think I do. I mean, I don’t have any particular music in my head right now.”

“Okay. That’s just you being energetic. Just checking.”

“Do I do it often?”

“Whenever you’re not talking fast or walking fast.”

“I don’t talk that fast!” Rin said. Even as the words left her mouth, she was aware that she was saying them a lot faster than David would have.

“You walk very fast, and you talk very, very fast,” David insisted. “I’ve always assumed it was because you’re young and young people are like that. I suppose it might also be all the caffeine you drink.”

Rin smirked. “Yes, it could be that.”

“So anyway, new planet,” David said, trying to re-light their earlier conversation.

“So there are four known life-bearing planets. What’s the ratio now? One in a thousand?”

“This is what I wanted to talk to you about. You remember the news story from last summer? We put a telescope in orbit around a distant star. Way out there, pretty much on the edge of our range.”

“I’ll be honest, I usually don’t follow space news. It’s either sensationalist or mundane.”

David nodded. “And filled with errors either way. The point is, some egghead figured out how to combine remote images with stuff from our local telescopes. The two telescopes, light-years apart, take pictures of the same star. Somehow, comparing the two is helping the survey team figure out where the likely life-bearing planets are. Much better than the brute-force surveying we’ve been doing all these years.”

“How does that work?”

“Ask an astrophysicist. The point is: It does.  This recent discovery proves it well enough that it’s shaping policy.  The ratio of life-planets to dead rocks might be one in a thousand, but with these telescopes weeding out the losers, we‘re able to narrow our search down quite a bit.”

Rin was quiet while she turned this over in her mind. “Okay. But why are you telling me this? Aren’t you breaking protocol?”

“I am. A bit. I want you to understand why I’m pushing you to take an orbital assignment. For a decade we’ve been running our fleet the same way: One ship out, two in dock. We’re about to change that. We’re about to move to having two ships in deep space at all times. This means expanding the refill and refit crew. It means we’ll need more deep-space crew. It also means we need a better cut of technician. The guys up there now are basically just merchant marines in space. We need more educated people.”

“But educated people want to be officers.” Rin blurted out. It all made sense now. “You need better grunts, but anyone smart enough for the job wants to join the officer corps.”

“Exactly. We have a five-year waiting list for people wanting to be officers.  Everyone wants to be Captain Kirk.”

“Who?”

David winced. The question clearly pained him. “I guess that stuff was before your time. Nobody wants to go up there and get their hands dirty with grunt work. Everyone wants to sit on the bridge and look out the window, and nobody wants to crawl around the bottom of the ship cleaning gunk out of the air scrubbers. I’m not going to lie to you.  The only reason I can do this is because you aren’t finished with school yet. As soon as you’ve got your degree you’ll be eligible for officer training.  You’re smart enough to be useful, young enough to breeze through certification, and uneducated enough that I can put you where you’ll be needed.”

“I don’t understand why you can’t just hire the people you need. I mean, surely there must be a lot of smart people who are willing to go to space without becoming officers first.”

The conversation paused while David negotiated a left-hand turn in a busy intersection. The advantage of having a car like this was that you could jump into traffic anywhere there was enough empty space to contain the vehicle itself.  The car could hit any posted speed limit within a few seconds, so there was never a real risk of “cutting someone off”. However, other drivers weren’t used to the idea that others cars could jump in front of them and match their speed from a standstill. Visually, it just felt like they were being cut off. The result was that people would curse at David, even as his car faded into the distance in front of them.

David continued as soon as the sound of horns had faded.  “When you have the world’s most powerful bureaucracies combine and form a super-bureaucracy dedicated to space travel, you’re going to have a lot of policy inertia and dysfunction. Add in the unions and the military-style command structure of the officer corps, and it’s amazing the entire operation doesn’t just drop out of the sky and burn up in the atmosphere. The point is, we need people like you, and having you fuss over invoices and answer phones is a waste of talent.”

“See, I don’t particularly want to go to space.”

David pulled back his head and blinked, as if he’d just been slapped in the forehead. “That might be the first time someone said that to me since I came here. People sometimes want more money, or different duties, or special treatment. Sometimes I can help them and sometimes I can’t.  But not wanting to go to space at all? People like you don’t end up here.”

Rin shrugged. The passion for space travel eluded her. Certainly space travel had been overly romanticized, and most people would probably hate it if they experienced it for real. “It’s crowded. It’s boring. There’s nothing to do and nowhere to go.  You have to eat paste and piss in a tube. No thanks.”

David laughed at this. She’d heard him laugh many times before in the office, which she now realized was his fake, polite laugh.  It was very convincing. His genuine laugh was much less dignified. He alternately wheezed and snorted.

“You have a very antiquated view of space travel,” he said once the fit was over. “All of our stations have rotational gravity.  You’ll weigh about half of what you do here. That means no eating paste or pissing in tubes. It’s pretty much like living in a submarine.”

“That’s not really much of an endorsement.”

“Well, it might be a little uncomfortable, but it’s good money.” David slowed the car as they entered the Big Blocks. “Where to now?”

“This is good,” she said as she undid her seatbelt.

“You live here?” he asked with incredulity that bordered on offense. “When you said ‘Big Block’ I thought we were using it as a frame of reference. I thought maybe you lived nearby. But you actually live in one of these cells?”

The neighborhood was a dull grid of brick-shaped buildings with rows of tiny windows. There were no kids and no playgrounds in sight.  The narrow gaps between the buildings were filled with bars, liquor stores, massage parlors, and gas stations where the attendants sat behind bulletproof glass.

“Yeah,” Rin said as she stepped out of the car.

“But why?” David called after her. “I know you’re not making a lot of money with us, but I’m sure you can do better than this! This place is for union guys that live in orbit and just need a place to keep their stuff. I mean, isn’t it dangerous around here?”

Rin bent down and looked at David through the open passenger-side window. “Look, I know it’s a hellhole. Yes, I could live someplace better, but then I’d have less money for school. I’m already twenty-two. I’m late in starting my degree, and I don’t want to have to work once I take the MCAT.”

“You’re pre-med? I get it now. But can’t you get a scholarship or something?” He looked distastefully at her apartment building as he said this.

“I have some. Not enough, obviously.”

A car beeped its horn. David was holding up traffic by stopping here.

“Student loans?” He seemed oblivious to the inconvenience he was causing.

“I don’t want to borrow. If I borrow, I’ll have to take a position with some big practice in the city.  When I graduate, I want to be free and clear.  I want to go to Maine and open a small private practice.”

“Maine?” he asked in a tone that made it sound like she had said Death Valley.

The car beeped again, more forcefully this time. Other drivers were now shouting profane advice at him.

“Yes. Maine. Quiet. Fall colors. Low crime. Snow in the winter.”

“So that’s the dream?” David nodded as he said this, apparently glad to finally understand.

“That’s the dream. Now get out of here before people think we’re doing business.”

“Go to space!” he called to her as he pulled away.

“I’ll think about it!”

*

Rin was grateful for the gesture, but having time off wasn’t quite the boon that David probably thought it was.

Her apartment was a claustrophobic box that had just enough space for a bed, a desk, and a dresser.  The window on the west wall ran the length of the room, but was less than half a meter tall. The result was a window that was large enough to be a privacy concern but too small to let in a useful amount of light. The walls were covered in fake wood paneling that ate the tiny amount of light that managed to sneak into the room. The paneling was made of a plastic that was both hard and brittle, which made it impossible for the wall to hold nails, which made it a pain in the ass to hang things up. She shared a common bathroom and showers with the other women on her floor. It was a dreary place, and it was only bearable because she spent so little time in it.

The only thing on the walls was a poster Rin had found a couple of years before. It was sappy and kitschy, exactly the sort of thing middle-aged housewives hung on their walls. To her internal embarrassment, Rin had fallen in love with it the moment she saw it. It was a digital painting of a small-town street scene. It had snowed, and the inhabitants were all dealing with it in their own way.  The overall image was a collection of tiny, self-contained stories. One man had stopped shoveling his car free to blow on his hands. A woman had fallen on the ice and lost a shoe.  Children were engaged in a kind of snow-based trench warfare. An old woman was getting her mail. And so on.

Rin saw the image as both a visualization of her goal and as an illustration of her struggle. Someday, she would live in this little town, and to get there, she would have to struggle just like all of these rosy-cheeked villagers were struggling. The picture hung on the wall at the foot of her bed, so that she could look at it as she drifted off to sleep. It was a little ritual at the end of each day, to remind herself why she was putting up with all this crap. Someday she would be a doctor, and she planned to hang this thing in the waiting room of her private practice.

The story of the new planet broke on Friday, and followed the same trajectory as every other news story about space exploration. First came the stories woven from ignorance and erroneous overstatement: ISAC has discovered a frozen world, brimming with rich fuel sources! It’s been nicknamed “Planet Alaska”! Could this launch an interstellar gold rush? Next came grudging partial-corrections: It’s not really ‘brimming’ with energy sources. Fossil fuels were simply detected or suspected.  The actual amount and quality are unknown, probably modest, and nobody has a plan to get them. Also, the “Alaska” nickname came from the press, not ISAC. If the usual patterns held then next week the fully correct story would run, which nobody would read because it would be dry, technical, and so much less exciting than the original tale.

Rin spent four days in her tiny apartment, pacing restlessly and worrying about how she was going to replace her car.  She didn’t have anywhere to go that she wouldn’t just end up spending money, so she sat on her bed, watching sappy drivel and staring at the snow scene that taunted her from the end of the bed.

Rin stood at 155 centimeters. (Just over five feet, she often had to remind herself. Imperial measurements still felt foreign to her, even after spending most of her life in America.) She had a slight frame and small bust that resulted in her constantly being mistaken for an adolescent. She hoped earning her degree would help with this, but deep down she knew that nothing short of lines on her face or gray hair would prevent cashiers from asking where her mother was.

Her background of Japanese, Hispanic, and African genes gave her a face that defied easy classification.  She had inherited her mother’s set of flawlessly arranged teeth and smooth, dark skin. Her head was topped with straight black hair. She always fantasized about styling it in some interesting way, but usually ended up pulling it back into a simple ponytail. This did not help in her efforts to be taken seriously as an adult.  Her eyes and her name were Japanese, and so she usually just checked the “Asian” box on her ISAC paperwork.  This was simpler than trying to explain her lineage properly.

On Monday morning she discovered that her four-day exile had re-aligned her thinking. She realized that she didn’t want to do this anymore. Even if Roberto was magically repaired and she was free to continue her frantic pace of earning and education, she no longer wanted to do so. She still wanted to live in Maine and practice medicine, but she no longer wanted to take this road to get there. She had been trading ongoing misery for deferred happiness, and decided that this tradeoff was no longer worth it.

Also, she realized that being trapped in her tiny apartment and sharing a bathroom with strangers was probably not all that different from living in space.  She decided that – as bad as it was – she could handle a few months of this.

When she arrived at work she headed to David’s office and the bargain was struck. She would spend the next two weeks finishing out this semester of school. After that, she would take a year off to tumble around in space cleaning toilets and repairing airlocks. (Or whatever it was that they wanted her to do.)

David also saw to her transportation problems for the two weeks. Busses didn’t run directly from Big Block to the university, and so going by bus would have been time-consuming and expensive.  David arranged for one of the ISAC campus vans to give her rides “on its way back to the garage”. It was actually about forty minutes out of the driver’s way to do this, but he was reimbursed by the mile, so he had no complaints.  Also, he seemed glad to have a pretty face in his van. He managed to not be creepy about this.

Another year. She didn’t like deferring her dream another year, but there was no way around it.  Her hope was that once she did return to school, she would have saved enough to be a full-time student.

*

The semester ended and Rin began earning her orbital certifications.  This was a lot like school, only easier and she got paid for it. Most of Rin’s new certification classes involved unlearning everything that popular culture had assumed or taken for granted about space travel. About the only thing they ever got right was the shape of the craft.

Every ship made in the last decade had the same configuration.  Their hulls were roughly the shape of symmetrical knife-blades, flying tip-first through space, although there was a lot of external infrastructure that obfuscated the “knife” shape. While they were designed using terms like “top” and “bottom”, these concepts did not line up with the way gravity was experienced inside. One blade of the knife was the top deck, and the other side was the bottom deck, but the ship flipped over as it moved (spinning on the tip, as it were) so that for the people inside “up” was towards the spine and “down” was towards whichever edge was nearest.

Exactly halfway between the tip and the tail was a massive torus, slightly wider than the hull and about the proportions of a wedding band. This was the accelerator, which was in charge of forming the singularity that would allow them to hop around in space. 

The instructor stopped at this point to explain – with obvious annoyance – that the term “singularity” was a holdover from the past when nobody understood, from a mathematical standpoint, what happened under gravitational collapse. They had the math all worked out now, thank you very much, but the term “singularity” had obstinately clung to the concept. The instructor told them that it was now more properly called a Hein-Keurorst Manifold, which nobody bothered to learn because they all sensed this was an editorial that would not be part of the final exam.

The instructor admonished them to never refer to the use of a Hein-Keurorst Manifold as a “jump”.  This was childish terminology that confused people and made the ignorant masses think we were able to hop between any two points in the universe at will. The proper term – which didn’t seem like an improvement to any of the students – was transfer. The habit of saying jump instead of transfer was hard to break for most people, and this resulted in a lot of haggling over test results at the end of the course. 

The center of the accelerator was empty space, thus leaving a nice circular hole in the middle of the ship. This was because anything too close to the center during space travel would be 1) bombarded by deadly radiation and 2) torn apart by gravitational forces.

Directly aft of the accelerator was the large, ungainly lump of the reactor. This was the most detailed part of the hull.  While the rest of the ship was generally smooth, the reactor was a tangle of pipes, tanks, hatches, and shielded cables.

At the rear of the craft was a crescent-shaped extrusion that pointed aft and glowed brightly when the ship was underway.  This was not, as the movies led people to believe, the “engine”. While the glow was powerful, it did not emit “fire”, it did not rumble, and it certainly didn’t leave glowing “swoosh” trails when the ship needed to go someplace. It had nothing to do with propulsion at all. This bit was called the Thermal Emission Manifold by the people who built it and the heat sink by everyone else.  When viewed up close, the heat sink was a cluster of tiny, tightly-packed spheres with a combined surface area of many square kilometers, all folded up into a very tight little package.

When the ship was underway, the power plant made electricity, which made the accelerator go. However, it also made a bunch of unwanted heat. The purpose of the heat sink was to bleed off this waste heat into space, a fiendishly difficult task given the fact that there was nothing out there to receive the unwanted energy.  

Without the sink the ship would simply accumulate heat until everyone inside was steam cooked. The signature glowing for which the sink was so famous was a completely unintended byproduct of this heat-disposal. It pointed aft so that the waste heat wouldn’t interfere with the sensitive instrumentation, the majority of which was stuck to the nose of the ship.

The real propulsion was handled using nothing more than classic solid-fuel thruster technology. There were many thrusters affixed to the ship on jointed pivot-arms, so that their force could be aimed. These were used very rarely, usually only when docking.

One student made the mistake of asking why ships had to jump to the edge of a solar system and hop inward from one planetary gravity well to the next, instead of simply jumping directly to the desired location.  Their curiosity was repaid with an incomprehensible twenty-minute lecture and a dry-erase board full of gibberish equations.

*

Sushi

Life was significantly easier for Rin once she moved to the ISAC Houston Campus.  She left behind school. She left behind her closet apartment in Big Block. She left behind the administration offices full of chattering secretaries and bean counters.

She now faced several months of certification courses.  Unlike university - which was ostensibly designed to cull the under-performers - these classes were designed for the lowest common denominator. Two days of actual learning would be diluted into a slow drip of information delivered over three weeks of lectures. 

There was no attendance, and the final grade was a simple pass/fail test administered on the last day. (And that could be rescheduled.) This made it possible for her to pass more certification classes than it was physically possible to attend. David had signed her up for everything, so she could sit in on whatever class she wished. He’d marked the half-dozen certifications that were mandatory for off-planet duty, and sent her a note saying, “Get as many as you can! [Thumbs up]”

Classes here were very different from university. These people were older than college students, and treated the process more like a job. They were more serious and less social. This, coupled with the fact that Rin only attended a few scattered sessions of each course, made it so that she didn’t really get to know her fellow students.

This was her first time in the training area of the campus. It was noisy, crowded, and inhabited by an annoying number of robots. She avoided those whenever she could.  It was never clear what they were for.  She never saw them working on anything.  They just walked around outside the training centers along with the personnel.

Rin was on her way from the Airlock Certification class (a two week course dedicated to the arcane art of opening a door) to the cafeteria when she was stopped short by a car horn.  She turned and found David creeping along the drive in his green European sports car, waving her over.

Rin hurried over and peered at him through the open passenger side window. He was wearing his smug sunglasses again.

“How are you getting on? How’s certification?” he asked.

“I’ve learned that you’re kind of a big deal around here.  Everyone I meet calls you ‘Director Reed’.”

David held out his arms, big-man-on-campus style, “Well, I AM the director. You knew my job title. What did you think I did for a living?”

“I thought you were the director of… I don’t know. The office we worked in?  Like, all of us paper-pushers.”

David laughed. This wasn’t his real laugh.  This was his fake, charming, professional laugh. “Well, I’m the director of a bit more than that.”

“So who are you?” Rin shook her head in confusion. “And why are you concerning yourself with a brand new tech who hasn’t even completed certification?”

“Are you hungry?”

Rin looked down the sidewalk at the cafeteria where she’d been headed, and then back at David. She raised her eyebrows and blinked at him. Well, what do you think?

“Get in,” he said, revving the engine.

“Do you like sushi?” he asked once they were rolling.

“Don’t know. Never tried it.”

David slammed on the brakes. In a lesser car this might have resulted in squealing tires or a firm jolt to the passengers, but in this machine it was just a brief moment when the bucket seat seemed to have a little less gravitational pull. “You said you grew up in Japan.”

“I did. Osaka. Until I was seven.”

“And you didn’t have sushi? Ever?”

“Nope.”

“What did you have?” He asked this cautiously, as if he expected she was kidding.

“I remember eating a lot of pizza.” Rin had never thought there was anything particularly strange about her upbringing. She was amused at how this seemingly mundane revelation was scandalizing David.

 “Pizza?”

“My mother was an American expat. We lived in Osaka, but didn’t have a lot of contact with hard-core Japanese culture unless my father was around, which wasn’t often. Most of the housekeeping staff spoke English.”

“Right. Well, you’re about twenty years overdue for your first taste of sushi.” The car began moving forward again.

“You still didn’t explain why a high-ranking director of ISAC is taking so much interest in a lowly tech.”

“Sushi first,” David said with conviction.

They drove on in silence until they hit the edge of the city and found themselves at an intersection where traffic had come to a stop.

“Damn. I forgot. It’s just past noon. Kindergarten is just letting out. We’re in trouble.” He pointed to a large moving truck sitting in front of them as he said this.

“What’s the moving truck got to do with this?” Rin asked.

David leaned to his left so he could look down the centerline of the street. “This intersection has a robotic crossing guard. The city bought these things about seven years ago, and they were trash even back then. They’re dim-witted and clunky. I think they’re supposed to allow traffic for whichever street is the most backed up. But if there’s a truck in the way then they can’t see the cars behind it.”

Rin rolled her eyes. “So we’re going to be stuck here? For how long? Until a human takes over?”

“The ‘bot will let us go eventually. It’s just bad at prioritizing. Actually, I guess it’s just bad at estimating how much traffic is obscured by the truck.”

David cut the wheel and edged his car out so that the front end was poking into the opposing lane.  The robot evidently noticed his car sticking out from behind the truck and adjusted its behavior, because things began moving again.

Rin got a good look at it as the traffic cleared. It was navy blue, with a paint job designed to mimic a police uniform. The arms were trimmed with reflective orange.  The face was a cluster of lenses, making it sort of look like the robot was an insect with compound eyes.

“I hate how they make them so big,” Rin said distastefully as they passed. “Robots are already creepy enough without making them look like giants.”

“That’s actually not on purpose,” David said. “They can’t put the brains in their head, because all the cheap cameras take up too much room. Those early model cell arrays - the brains, you know – took up a lot of space because they had heat problems. And the batteries were about double the size of a car battery.  The upshot is that the brain and the battery wouldn’t fit inside the chest cavity of anything remotely man-sized.”

“Well, they made them so tall and broad-shouldered that it makes them look like they’re made for war. It’s really creepy to have one of them staring at you. Although, I guess they had to put all of that mass somewhere. I suppose it’s unreasonable to expect them to make the traffic bots look pot-bellied and friendly.”

“Not if you want to sell your robots to municipalities in America,” David smiled. He gave the robot a thumbs up as he rolled by. The robot returned the gesture.

The car weaved through increasingly narrow streets until they found themselves in front of an unremarkable block building with a wooden façade. A couple of Japanese characters had been scribbled on the wall by the door in a way that looked completely amateur. If Rin had been asked to guess what this place was, she would probably have picked either ‘pawn shop’ or ‘laundry’.

“This is a sushi house?” Rin said as she climbed out of the car.  She regarded the building the way one might regard the aftermath of an auto accident.

“Sushi bar,” David corrected her. “And yes, it is. Everyone in America thinks a sushi bar should look like a McDonald’s with a Forbidden Palace roof. Don’t do that. Also, try not to freak out when we get in here. This place is very… authentic.  In fact, it’s probably more authentic than the real thing, if you take my meaning.”

“I don’t.”

The sushi bar (Rin didn’t know the name of the establishment; it didn’t seem to have one beyond the marks by the front door, which were stylized to the point of illegibility) was much more welcoming inside. There was a bar with stools, but instead of a bartender there was a chef. The walls were covered in wood and there were large beams of rough-hewn wood that had been arranged as if they were structural supports. Paper lanterns hung from the ceiling overhead. Rin squinted at them.  The lights flickered as if from a real fire, and the cords had been cleverly hidden. Upon further inspection, she realized this was not the case. There were no cords. These lanterns were genuine flame-based illumination.  She shook her head at the sheer impracticality of it.

The chef greeted them in Japanese. David answered in kind. The chef was a six-foot blond man of obviously European descent. He was wearing a white headband and an apron. 

“Hi,” Rin waved meekly.

The chef answered her greeting with a slight bow before returning to his furious knife-work, which produced a lot of noise and motion and resulted in very little cut food.

David led her over to one of the small booths that lined the outer wall.

The place was very small, even smaller than the modest exterior suggested. Rin could see no hint of modern convenience. No light switches, no cash register, no charger ports, no electric lights, no ceiling fans. There wasn’t even music playing in the dining area. The food was prepared in full view of the patrons, using nothing more than knives and gas flame.

“You don’t speak Japanese?” David asked once they’d settled in.

“A bit.  I can remember my numbers and colors. I might remember more if I really worked at it. I didn’t speak it often, even when we lived in Osaka. But me not knowing Japanese isn’t nearly as strange as you knowing it. Did you learn it so you can order sushi and watch anime without subtitles?”  She said this last bit playfully. She couldn’t imagine David being the sort of man who would watch anime. Actually, she couldn’t imagine him watching any sort of entertainment.  What did he do outside of work, aside from maybe golf?

“Japanese is very useful if you’re working in technology, which is what I did before I came here.”

Rin found that eating sushi was highly ceremonial. There was a warm towel brought at the start of the meal, and David showed her how to wipe her hands and face with it. Then there was a great deal about choosing the proper drink. The nature and purpose of this eluded her even after it had been explained, and so she ordered a soda. David asked her to pour his drink for him, because it was apparently rude to pour your own. They had to order their drinks from the waitress, but their food from the chef. When the sushi arrived, David explained the procedure for combining it with the various condiments. (Apparently dipping a sushi roll directly into soy sauce was a no-no.) There were several plates involved and complex condiment-dipping procedures to be learned.

As the meal went on, Rin became increasingly impatient with the confusing rules. At the end she took to picking up the sushi with a fork, submerging it in soy sauce, and ramming it home before the thing fell apart. David did not take offense to this.

“That was the most complicated meal I’ve ever eaten,” Rin said when the operation was over.

“No it wasn’t. It was no more complicated than any other restaurant meal you’ve ever eaten.  The only difference was that this was the first time since you were a child that you sat down to a meal and didn’t know the rules.”

Rin looked down at her plate in doubt, trying to compare this meal to a more conventional one.

David let her ponder this for a moment, and then jumped back in to help her along. “You drink soda through a straw, but not beer. You can put syrup on home fries but not on a baked potato. You eat carrots and celery with your hands, unless they’re in a salad, in which case you use a fork. Hamburgers come with ketchup, but if you put ketchup on steak it’s an insult to the cook. You eat cake with a fork, but muffins with your hands. You use a knife and fork for steak, but you eat ribs or fried chicken with your hands. You can’t drink soup from the bowl. And so on. I would argue that the rules here are actually simpler, because the menu is so much smaller. If a man from Mars showed up in his flying saucer, it would be easier for him to learn to eat here than at any variety-menu franchise you could name.”

“Okay,” she said. She was still busy imagining the Man from Mars and his hypothetical restaurant visits.

David paid the bill and they left. They were both quiet as David drove out of the city.

Once they were free of the city traffic, Rin broke the silence. “So we’ve had sushi. And thanks. Now are you willing to answer the question?”

“You’ve heard of Tangerine Technology?” David tossed this question out as if it wasn’t a non-sequitur.

“I think everyone has. I’m still using the Dream 7 from last year. No, two years ago. Tough little thing. Survived that crash I was in.” Rin yanked out her tel and held it up as evidence. Tangerine had become big decades earlier when they introduced some of the first ‘warm’ synthetic voices – computer voices that didn’t make the machine sound addled or deranged.

“If you’ve heard of Tangerine, then you’ve heard of Wayne Zuse, right?”

“Of course.” Rin thought this was a strange question, like asking someone if they’ve heard of the president. Zuse was the eccentric CEO of Tangerine Technology, a sort of cult figure among technology fans. He was getting on in years now, but one particular picture of him in his late twenties had been absorbed into pop culture and was frequently imitated or parodied. It depicted him holding a normal tel up to one ear, and an antique landline telephone with a spiral cord to the other. He was smirking, as if doing something mischievous.  This image had become a sort of visual shorthand for audacious courage and invention.

David continued. “Well, Wayne is a huge fan of the space program.  He’s actually old enough to remember the tail end of the NASA programs. I think he even saw a space shuttle launch as a kid.

“Wow. He’s old.”

“To someone just out of her teens, yes, I suppose he might seem old. Anyway, three years ago the ISV Gagarin came from a mission while the docking station was in the shadow of Earth. Those stations have exterior lights on them, just like radio towers, airplanes, and tall buildings.  But it’s sometimes hard to get a sense of direction and speed from a few points of light.  When you’re in the shadow of Earth, the station is just a black silhouette against the stars. The pilot got disoriented during docking and rammed the nose of the Gagarin right into the side of the station. Hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. It’s a miracle nobody was killed.”

“I remember that story,” Rin said. “I didn’t realize it was because of simple darkness. You’d think they would have some kind of guidance for the ships so that didn’t happen.”

“That was the first thought that came to everyone’s mind.  It was an obvious conclusion, but wrong. So ISAC launched this project to prevent any more crashes. Their idea was to use a complicated system of painting nearby craft with a fast-moving laser, then have multiple cameras compare these images and a computer would build a fully three-dimensional view of the other craft.  This would be projected onto the pilot’s screen, helping him to see objects even if they were dark.”

“So what went wrong?”

“There were problems getting the laser-painting to work. Some hull materials weren’t reflective enough, or were reflective in a way that confused the camera.  Sometimes direct sunlight would screw with the cameras. And even when it worked, it wasn’t completely helpful to the pilot.  It could tell where the station was, but the pilot couldn’t tell which arm of the station they were looking at.  And the system didn’t do anything to help the people on the station see the ship, or to help people on spacewalk to know what was going on around them.  The only person this helped was the pilot.  They blew over a billion dollars and had a system that only solved half the problem and only under certain conditions. Wayne read about it and went nuts. He called them up and said we could solve the problem for ten thousand.”

“We?” Rin turned away from the window.  They were gliding down interstate 45, heading back to ISAC Houston. “You mean you worked for Tangerine?”

David nodded. “Still do. You think I could afford a car like this with a government job?”

“I did wonder.”

“ISAC probably would have laughed or hung up if anyone else had made an offer like that.  I mean, this is a government contract. An international government contract. You’re supposed to bid on it through proper channels and kiss up to the right bureaucrats to even get the chance to make your pitch.  But Wayne has a way with people.”

“Ten grand? That’s nothing to them. Or to Tangerine.”

“I know. I mean, ten thousand bucks, right? He might as well have offered to do it for free. I have no idea where he got that number. He’s odd like that.”

“So what was his plan?”

David laughed and thumped his hand against the steering wheel in delight. He was obviously enjoying telling this story. “He didn’t have one. Not a clue. He called a few of us into the brainstorming room and explained the problem. He said he’d personally give the ten grand to whoever could come up with the solution.”

“That’s crazy. He offered to fix the problem without having a solution in mind?”

“It might seem crazy, but it’s actually what our company does. It’s not like someone is shaving one morning and suddenly gets the idea to invent imitative voice synthesis or roll-up display screens. Those things got invented by people looking at some ugly bit of technology and saying, ‘There must be a better way to do this!’ The whole laser imaging thing just screamed out ‘ugly technology’ to Wayne, and he knew there had to be a better solution.”

“So what was it?” Rin found herself getting impatient to find out how a consumer gadget company solved a billion-dollar aerospace problem.

“I’m getting to it. My team had been working on a project that had just been canned, so we had a lot of free time. I dragged them into one of the presentation rooms and turned out the lights. We sat there in the pitch dark for two hours, talking about what the problem really was and how we could know if we’d solved it. I mean, how do you test perception problems? Implement your solution and see if there are more crashes?

“It wasn’t just that the ships couldn’t see each other. It’s naturally hard to orient yourself in space. Here on Earth, you’re never accidentally upside-down. In space you don’t know which way you’re facing and you don’t know which way the other ship is facing. Ships, or sections of ships, spin in place to create gravity. And of course you’ve got interstellar ships transing in and out all over the place. It’s chaos.”

“But pilots don’t fly by looking out the window, do they? I mean, it’s not like driving a car.”

“The only reason the pilot doesn’t fly by sight is because it’s so hard to see, which is the problem we were trying to solve. It’s true that they have a lot of instruments on the bridge. I actually think the pilot has too many, but that’s another issue. Imagine if we painted over the windows of my car here, and instead I had a little screen that just pointed arrows at the other vehicles and showed a number for how far away they were.” David pointed at the other cars around them as he did this. He even pointed at cars as they zipped past in the opposing lane. “There would be a lot of arrows and a lot of numbers dancing around that screen, and it still wouldn’t give you a sense of distance, scale, or relative speed. It wouldn’t give you the type of three-dimensional understanding you get from using your eyeballs. Even if their laser imaging had worked perfectly, it still wouldn’t have been a full solution. Sure, the pilot doesn’t have to fly by looking out the window, but sometimes your eyeballs make for some damn fine instrumentation.

“We came up with the idea of putting lights on stuff. Not just to illuminate it, but to define it. We tested on random objects at different scales. A floor lamp, a pair of scissors, telephone, truck, shoe, you get the idea. Anything. We knew we had the solution when we could trim a complex object with light strips, take a picture of it, and have a test subject instantly identify what the object was, what position it was in, and how far it was from the camera.”

“That’s it?” Rin was disappointed. “I think I’ve seen those on recent pictures of spacecraft. I thought they were decorative. I guess it seems kind of obvious now.”

“Obvious? It wasn’t obvious to the guys who spent a billion dollars on laser imaging. Those guys also do defense contracts, and that’s how they think. Laser imaging! Computer modeling!”

“Did adding light strips really solve the problem that easily?”

“Not just light strips. You need more information than just lines on a black background. We found color was good for this.  The port side of the ship has green lights. The starboard side has blue. Then the bottom-aft corner of the hull has a triangle of red light strips that are wider than the others. This way, even a partly colorblind person can identify the exact orientation of the object, even if the object has an axis of symmetry like our interstellar ships.”

“That explains the colors. I didn’t realize there was a pattern to them.  I thought ISAC was just trying to be hip and cool, and failing. You know those lights make the ship look like an old-fashioned turn-of-the-millennium disco?”

“There’s also a grid of reflective tape over the surface of the hull, so techs working outside can get a sense of distance and get a feel for the topology of the hull with their little flashlights. Five years ago there was a guy floating around outside, and he strayed too close to the rotating section of the station. He was pulverized because he had no sense of how far away he was from where he was supposed to be.  It was just a big white wall in front of him.  I’m betting our tape would have prevented that accident as well.”

Rin was quiet for a few more minutes as they rolled along. The sun had slipped behind the clouds, and she could feel her eyes wanting to slide closed. Her belly was full, and the ride was very smooth and relaxing.

Her eyes snapped open. “Hang on. You never answered my question. In fact, you added another one. Why is a successful guy – who knows Wayne Zuse! - working for ISAC, and why is he taking an interest in someone at the bottom of the pile?”

“I thought you had fallen asleep on me!” David laughed. “Anyway, I was sent here as part of the deal. Wayne and I are both fans of space travel. I’m sort of on loan from Tangerine. Wayne pitched it to ISAC as a kind of exchange program where they learn some of our tricks, and he pitched it to our stockholders as a kind of public relations / publicity stunt deal. We’ll end up with our logo on some orbital objects, and they agreed to put our relays on their ships and stations so people with our tel units can make calls from orbit. Silly, but that stuff goes over really well with consumers.”

“Wow. So what is the space program learning from you?”

“Nothing, really. Not for lack of me trying, but one person does not steer an organization of this size. I don’t have any power over policy, the unions, or spending, but I have some latitude with regard to who gets hired and what I assign them to do. On paper, I’m an advisor to the Executive Director. But he prefers schmoozing with politicians and contractors and is happy to leave me to do the boring stuff like make this place work. And if you ever tell anyone I said that I’ll deny it so hard you’ll die of shame.”

“Okay then.”

“To be completely honest: I don’t like it here. This place is stifling, dysfunctional, bureaucratic, and capable of really petty bullshit.”

Rin opened her mouth, but David jumped in before she could ask, “I stay here because as much as I hate this culture, this is the only way human beings are ever going to live out there. For good.” David pointed up towards the sky as he said this. “I don’t just mean space. I mean other worlds. This is our only way to get there, and I really want to see it happen in my lifetime.”

Rin looked over. David was surprisingly earnest and passionate on this point. “Are you sure?” she asked. “I mean, we’ve got quite a few private firms out there now. What were those guys that did an orbit around the moon last year? Slingshot?”

David smiled. “Catapult Aerospace. Love those guys. Quirky company. But no, they aren’t taking us to the stars anytime soon. Yes, they can drop stuff off on the moon or take rich people out for a few laps around it. But think about it: What are the two things you need for traveling interstellar?”

“Well, you need an accelerator tunnel…”

David nodded. “And to power the accelerator you need…?”

Rin sighed. “I get it. You need a reactor.”

“Yes. And good luck getting permission to build one of those. Governments do not generally want private companies messing with nuclear power. So this place is the only route to the stars, assuming someone can fix the stifling bureaucracy, infighting, and graft.”

David had been lowering his voice as they approached the facility. The conversation stopped when they reached the security checkpoint. They lowered the windows and let the camera arms have their way with the car.

David continued once they were clear. “You probably don’t realize it, but you are special. That’s why I want you as part of my team.”

“Not to imply that I think I’m ordinary, but when you say ‘special’, what are you referring to?”

David began ticking off points on his fingers as he drove. “You decided you wanted to be a doctor, even though you have no active support from a family and no financial backing. You developed a strenuous plan of action to get you through med school with minimal debt. At age eighteen, you had a planning horizon that extended almost a decade into the future.  You kept up with your plan, even though it led to isolation and exhaustion.  You did this without complaining or unloading your stress on coworkers, and without ever failing in your duties. I know. I was watching.”

Rin shrugged. “Sounds impressive when you say it like that.”

“You’re audacious. I need audacious people. Especially here. I can’t fix this culture of sloth, risk-aversion, paperwork, and politicking overnight.  Heck, I’ll probably never fix it. But I can put a dent in it if I can get the right people.”

“Okay, so you want me on your team. What does that mean?”

It’s how we worked at Tangerine. Team leaders watch the new recruits and temp workers, looking for gems. If you see someone special, you grab them and put them on your team. We actually call it the tribal system, but I didn’t want to confuse you by asking you to join my tribe. The point is, I had ten smart, hardworking people behind me at Tangerine.  I’m sure they’re off right now inventing a cordless smart screen that can cook dinner and give foot massages. I have to build another team, and good creative people are hard to find in this place.”

“Am I the first person to join your new tribe or team or whatever?”

“No. I’ve got a few others. One guy is a little older than you. He’s in orbit now. I’ve just had a robotics expert join up. There’s also a retired ship captain that stops by now and again to do some consulting for us. If I’m reading him right, he’s bored and looking for a way to contribute on a larger scale. I’m keeping my eye on him.”

Rin was quiet as she turned this over in her head. Their car was winding through the complex, heading for the personnel facilities.

“So what do you want me to do?” she asked as the car eased to a stop.

“Keep doing what you’re doing.  Keep your head down. Make it to space and back.  By the time you do that you should have a pretty good picture of what’s wrong with the space program. Then we can talk about fixing it. Just like gluing strings of lights to a spaceship, sometimes a small idea can make a huge impact.”

David pulled away and Rin turned around in place on the sidewalk. He’d dropped her off where he’d found her, in front of the cafeteria. She no longer needed to go eat. She glanced at her phone and realized she had missed a training class, and was more than halfway through the next one.

*

Being a member of David’s team gave Rin access to all sorts of nuggets of information that were probably intended for people far above her pay level. David would forward her stories, or executive summaries of proposals. There didn’t seem to be much in the way of reason or order to what he sent, other than everything seemed to hint at the dysfunction he wanted to fix. Rin read these not because they were interesting, but because they were ostensibly classified and she was being allowed in on the secret.

The most interesting of these was the long chain of reports and studies regarding Technician 4 William ‘Billy’ Burke.

On the day he died, Burke had been assigned to perform a haul-in from the exterior storage array on ISAC docking station Berlin. Rather than maintain a warehouse within the station and go to all the trouble of pressurizing and heating it, supplies were placed into canisters that hung in nets from the non-rotational parts of the station.  Once empty, the four-meter canisters were filled with trash, sewage, recyclables, or whatever else the station inhabitants needed to send back down to Earth.

(The Wild West days of throwing refuse into space at orbital velocity were long over. The problem with orbiting objects is that everything is either worthless or priceless. Sooner or later some of those accumulated turds, tampons, and toothbrushes would drift off and smack into something expensive at three kilometers a second. Then people at home would naturally ask why the space agency was allowed to throw their trash out the window.)

Billy was assigned the job of leaving the ship, attaching container Orange-11 to the reel line (a space-winch, basically) and having it brought into the ship.  He was supposed to have a spotter with him for a job like this - someone who could call for help if he was incapacitated while gallivanting around in the deadly vacuum of space. Technician 2 Morris ‘Stomper’ Kazinski was assigned to suit up and watch Billy do the haul-in. The after-incident investigation found that Morris signed in for duty and then went to his bunk to play videogames. Morris later insisted that he hadn’t done anything unusual. According to Morris, nobody on the ship ever reported for spotter duty because all you did was float around in space watching someone else work.  The other crew members insisted that this was clearly not true.  They always reported for spotter duty, and they had their names on the sign-in sheet to prove it.

Billy didn’t seem to find the absence of a spotter unusual. He arrived in airlock 4 and proceeded to exit the ship without making any effort to contact his spotter.

His helmet had not been properly secured, and so when he attempted to cycle the airlock an alarm sounded. Billy dismissed this alarm without correcting the problem with his suit. The airlocks often gave warnings and alarms for various situations that were generally not dangerous, and it was postulated that Billy dismissed this alarm without reading it, mistaking it for a less dangerous problem. 

His suit would also have refused to green-light him for excursion.  Regulation required that his suit report green before the operator should attempt to cycle the airlock. It was not clear if Billy ignored this step, if he mistook the yellow alert for green, or if the suit failed to properly detect the unsealed helmet situation.  It was several days before the body was recovered, during which time the suit had been exposed to a lengthy freeze / thaw cycle that exceeded operational parameters and might have inflicted additional post-accident damage on the instrumentation. Later testing of the suit was rated as inconclusive. 

When the external airlock opened, Billy floated out.  External cameras (which, in violation of regulation, were not being monitored during the operation) showed him floating away at two kilometers an hour relative to the station.  Nobody was able to explain this motion.  If the decompression had been sudden and debilitating, then Billy would have been incapacitated in the airlock, and should still have been floating there when the accident was discovered. If the decompression had not been instantly debilitating, then Billy should have been able to close the door again or signal for help.

The only way for the accident to have happened as it did would be for Billy to somehow not notice the decompression for four full seconds, which is how long it would take the outer doors to open far enough to allow him to pass. He would have needed to push off, and only then become incapacitated.

The most popular theory was that Billy was drunk on the job. Alcohol was found in his body once it was recovered, but nobody could agree on how prolonged exposure to a vacuum would impact the amount of measurable alcohol present in the bloodstream.

The other popular theory was that Mr. Burke committed suicide. His last psych evaluation was four years old and had been performed by a doctor who apparently also evaluated twenty other personnel during that same hour, all of which had precisely the same “nothing to see here” wording in their review.

Whatever happened in space exploration, ISAC was never allowed to not know why someone died. More importantly, they were never, ever allowed to fail to have a plan for making sure it never happened again. And so it was decided that Morris Kazinski would have his contract terminated, and all other orbital and deep-space personnel would need to be re-certified for spacewalk before their next mission.

*

Rin saw the robot as soon as she entered the lecture hall.  Among all the students fidgeting, slouching, ogling members of the opposite sex, flirting, reading, or nodding off in their seats, the lone motionless figure stood out. Her sitting posture looked forced, as if she was posing for a picture.  She looked ahead to the front of the room, despite the fact that the class hadn’t started yet and all of the action was taking place behind her. Her shoulders didn’t move and her chest didn’t rise and fall, because she wasn’t breathing.

Rin was shocked at how antiquated the ground facilities were here at ISAC. The two-meter display screens at the front of the room had aged poorly.  One had accumulated a lot of dead pixels over the years, and the other seemed to be broken entirely. The desks were throwbacks to the days before subsurface charging. You could walk into any coffee shop, restaurant, or office built in the last decade and find little yellow lightning bolt icons on the tables and desks. You just had to drop your phone or computer onto this spot and it would be charged.  The desks here at ISAC had physical plugs. The plugs were now useless, other than to act as a perch so Rin could set her coffee down on the desk and not have it slide down into her lap..

This class was called ‘Procedures for Extra-Planetary Habitation’. Today was the first day. As far as Rin could tell, this was going to be a course dedicated to living in space, and the core of its learning could probably be summed up on an index card. (Where to sleep, where to go to the bathroom, how to keep your hair out of your face in zero gravity, etc.)  

Rin sat down next to the robot. “What are you doing in here?”

Several heads turned her way when she said this. The robot didn’t look towards her. It failed to notice it was being talked to. It missed out on the little cues with regard to distance, position, and tone of voice that announced you were opening a conversation with someone. It just kept looking at the front of the room.

“Hey. Robot. Why are you here?”

The robot turned and the motionless face greeted her. “Hello. I’m here for the class on Procedures for Extra-Planetary Habitation.” 

This was a decent mid-range robot. The voice wasn’t stilted. The face was lifelike and the eyes didn’t have that vacuous dunce look that Rin hated so much.

“Yes, I know what class this is, but why are you in it?”

“Hey, leave her alone!” This voice came from behind Rin. She turned to see a tall, broad-shouldered technician. He had stood up from his desk and was looking at her indignantly. He was perhaps a few years older than her. In another, less annoying context, she might have admired him for his good looks.

Rin blinked, unable to understand why this guy would be demanding that she not talk to a robot. When he didn’t seem inclined to explain himself, Rin prompted him with a sneer. “What?”

He folded his arms over his chest and raised his voice. “She has as much a right to be here as you do!”

“You have got to be kidding,” Rin groaned. “Go away. Nobody asked for your help.”

He turned his attention to the robot. “You don’t have to listen to her. You’re fine.”

“I’m not oppressing the robot. It doesn’t even…” Rin stopped herself, realizing she was going about this the wrong way. Turning to the Robot she said, “Am I bothering you? No? Please tell him I’m not bothering you.”

The robot stood and turned towards the back of the room so she could face her would-be savior. “I’m not uncomfortable. But thanks for your concern.” She sat back down.

A person wouldn’t stand up just to utter a single line. For people, getting in and out of chairs was like shifting into fourth gear. You didn’t want to do it if you were going to change back a couple of seconds later. If a person wanted to toss out a single statement, they would normally talk over their shoulder or contort themselves a bit to turn all the way around in the desk. A person wouldn’t inconvenience themselves just to establish eye contact for something this trivial. This was just another subtle move that humans simply took for granted in one another. Rin noted this oddity, adding it to the list of thousands of other details that stood in the way of people involved in the misguided business of making human-shaped robots.

The guy stopped puffing out his chest and unclenched his jaw.  He grudgingly backed down and returned to his seat.

“Why is a robot attending a human class?” Rin said to the robot. “Why not just absorb the material through reading? This stuff is slow even by human standards.”

“I don’t mind.”

The robot was designed to look like a teenage girl. Annoyingly, she was a good bit taller than Rin. It was obviously a Japanese unit, but it had an American face, red hair, and freckles. It would have been a decent face if not for the unsettling detail that her mouth didn’t move.  Her voice floated out of her head as if she was a ventriloquist.

“I know you don’t mind, but I don’t see the point. This class is for humans scheduled for orbital or deep space duty. This is a slow way to teach you something you don’t need to know.”

“I’ll be going to space along with the other students. I don’t know why I’m being sent to classes instead of reading the material. But I don’t mind. I’m not uncomfortable at all.”

“You’re going to space? That’s a new one.” Rin wasn’t sure how she felt about this. It seemed like an expensive thing to do. Were robots sharp enough to be helpful out there, or was this robot being sent to space for the sake of novelty? “So what’s the deal with your mouth?”

“In focus groups we found people disliked the animated mouth. The noise of the movement was unsatisfying to them. The locked mouth position is being tested as an alternative. I’m sorry if it makes you uncomfortable.”

Robots used synth-voices, which came out of a simple speaker built into the head or throat. The moving mouths were just puppetry. The noise of the motion wasn’t loud, but even the smallest hints of mechanical friction sounded strange coming from the face of something supposedly human.

“I’m not uncomfortable,” Rin reassured the robot.

“Good!” the robot said in a cheerful voice, without that emotion being reflected on the face in the slightest. Ironically, this did make Rin uncomfortable. It made the robot seem like a crazy person.

*

Rin reached up and slapped her hand against the black plastic square on the front of her mailbox, which sat at the topmost position in the middle of a vast wall of identical boxes. It must have been someone’s idea of a joke to assign a top box to someone of her height. She couldn’t reach all the way to the back, even on tiptoe.

The box didn’t react to her touch. She tried again. She tried the other hand. She leaned in and looked at the plastic at an angle so she could make out the surface in the early morning sunlight. It was covered in giant greasy fingerprints. What was this stuff? Donut glaze? Sunblock?

She was wearing a skirt and short sleeves, and her purse was made of leathery plastic. She literally had no fabric which could reach this panel to clean it. She wouldn’t even bother, but her mail indicator light was flashing for the first time in a week, and she was willing to bet it was her new duty assignment. ISAC insisted on mailing simple documents that could be easily sent electronically.

She slipped off one of her platform shoes, removed a sock, and used it to buff the panel clean. Afterwards, the panel responded to her handprint and released the mailbox door. There was a single large envelope inside.

ISAC had allowed a chain fast-food place to set up here on campus.  The food was so greasy and heavy that it put her body into a coma-like nap, and their coffee was unforgivably wretched swill. She wouldn’t bother with this place at all, but the alternative was for her to either walk a half mile off campus in the savage heat, or go without caffeine. So, death either way, basically.

The place was empty this morning. A robot was sweeping the floor and another one was minding the register. They were awful, American-made, rubber-faced twins with repetitive movements and cheap, grating voices. They were white, blond-haired, blue-eyed, “males”, molded to give the impression of a robust, healthy physique. The only other human in the building was in the kitchen.

Rin smiled. She liked when she had the robots to herself.  She grinned at the cashier robot and gave her order. “I would like a large coffee… with no mayo.”

The robot hesitated. Its smooth, disturbingly shiny face looked down at the register and back up at her. “I’m sorry, I’m not allowed to put mayonnaise on that.”

It wasn’t always clear what twisted logic the robots were following when responding to nonsense instructions, and they were never smart enough to explain themselves. She theorized that it heard, “no mayo on coffee,” realized that this was a nonsense request, and so assumed the customer had intended to say, “mayo on coffee”.  After this logical leap, it would realize it wasn’t allowed to do that, and said so. Perhaps not. Perhaps it followed some other line of non-reasoning. She still enjoyed the game.

She tried again. “I would like a large Coke, with no pickles.”

The robot continued smiling. Rin wondered if the people who made these things realized just how self-defeating it was to have a salesperson who always smiled. It wasn’t reassuring. It just made the robot seem crazed, or led the human being to wonder if it was hiding some other emotion. Finally it replied, “I’m sorry, but we’re not serving lunch yet. Can I interest you in our breakfast menu?”

Another customer entered. Rin didn’t want to hold up the line with her game, so she decided to let the robot off the hook. “Nevermind. I just want a coffee.”

“What size coffee would you like?” the robot replied with mechanical cheerfulness.

“I want all the coffee,” Rin said slyly.

The robot paused again before replying. “Your order is one large coffee. Would you like anything else?”

“No,” Rin said with slight disappointment. “Large coffee” was a pretty good way to interpret “all the coffee” without engaging in surrealism.

Back outside, she set her coffee down on one of the patio tables, which nobody ever used because only a crazy person would want to sit in direct sunlight in this part of the world. She ripped open her mail and shuffled through the irrelevant fluff to find the one meaningful document. Her eyes scanned over it until she found the words “ISV ARMSTRONG” printed in large, bold letters.

“Son of a bitch!” she shouted.

Twenty minutes later she strode into David’s office without knocking.  David didn’t look up from his golf putter. He’d stuffed a number of small objects under the large throw rug in the middle of the room, giving it a complex topography. He was also putting left-handed, and Rin was pretty sure he was right-handed.

“You need something?” he muttered as his eyes darted back and forth between the ball and the cup, lining up his shot.

“Yes,” Rin said. She walked around him, tossed her empty coffee into his trash, and slapped her assignment down onto his desk. “I would like to talk to you about this bullshit.”

David glanced at the paper and then winced. “Ah, damn it. Your duty assignment. I forgot.”

“You forgot?” she said accusingly. “You knew about this?”

“Yes,” David said, his shoulders falling. “I’d meant to talk you into it before your orders came in.”

“You were going to talk me into it? What if I didn’t agree to it?”

“I hadn’t really considered that. Of course, it’s going to be harder now that you’re mad at me.”

“Did you do this yourself? Did you assign me to deep space without even talking to me first?”

David took the putt. The ball rolled halfway up the shoe-shaped hill and rolled off to one side. Rin noticed that David was missing a shoe. He sighed in disappointment and recovered the ball to try again. “No, I didn’t personally assign you. Keep in mind that most people in your position don’t get to come in here and talk to me personally, and a lot of them would probably be terrified at the prospect. No, your name went in the pool with everyone else’s.  Deep space captains get first pick of new personnel, and so when a woman with twenty different certifications came up, you naturally got drafted early. In fact, I’m pretty sure you were a first-round pick.”

“You’re the one who encouraged me to go after so many certs. You had to know this would happen,” Rin said accusingly. She held up her orders as evidence.

Which is why I planned to talk to you about it.

“I know you’re used to working on gadgets and software, but maybe you’ve heard that space flight is dangerous? Like, people die?”

“Statistically, it’s safer than climbing Mt. Everest.” He took another putt. This one bounced over a lump shaped like an open book and rolled under his desk.

Rin wasn’t sure if she should laugh or scream, and so she split the difference and let out a sort of sputtering guffaw. “Does that work on people? They agree to do something dangerous because something completely unrelated is more dangerous?”

“I’m just trying to put it into perspective,” David said with infuriating calmness.

“Fine. Your irrelevant trivia is duly noted. I’m not leaving Earth orbit.”

David dropped the putter and strode out of the room. A second later he came back and retrieved his shoe from under the rug. “Let’s go,” he said.

Rin followed David out of the building. She was already set against going to space, but she was going along because she was curious what his pitch was going to be. He wasn’t a fool, and she was eager to see what he might think was persuasive enough to change her mind.

Oddly, he didn’t lead them to the parking garage, but instead exited out the front door of the administration building and into the world of direct solar radiation and stifling humidity. He led them across the road and around to the side of the executive cafeteria building. There was a loading bay here, and some forklifts were unloading a truck and moving the goods inside. David whistled at them like he was hailing a cab.

“Yeah, you! Number six!” he shouted to a yellow robot with a number six stenciled on the side. “Come here.”

An operator was standing with the robots, directing their work. He looked put out that someone would distract one of his charges, but once he saw Director Reed he gave a nervous wave and went back to his work.

Number Six rolled over to them on its tank treads. Its arms were currently folded into its body, so it was basically a travelling yellow box. When it arrived, the “head” extended on a long, narrow swivel arm and looked down at David. The head was nothing more than a cluster of cameras and scuffed, greasy display screen. A message appeared:

How can I assist you?

David rolled his eyes and turned to Rin. “Can you believe some of these companies? Tangerine will license out low-class voices for, like, forty bucks a unit. How much do you think they charge people for one of these forklifts? And they’re too dang cheap to throw in voice synthesis? Hell, you can use turn-of-the-century voice synth for free. Just shameful.”

David turned to the robot. “I want you to carry us to the simulator.”

I am not authorized to carry personnel.

“I authorize you,” David said as if speaking to a child. He pulled his campus ID out of his breast pocket and held it up for the robot to see.

The arms unfolded and extended. Each “arm” was a collection of slats. The slats could fit together into a single long appendage, and so the two arms could grab palettes like a traditional forklift.  The slats could also be moved around like long fingers and handle large items of various shapes and sizes. In this case the robot placed all of the slats side-by-side, forming a metal platform. David hopped onto this without hesitation.

Rin looked over at the operator. “I think you pissed that guy off. You stole one of his workers.”

David shrugged. “Those guys make more per hour than you did doing office work, and they average about four hours of work for a ten-hour shift. And if I try to cut their hours or fire one of them I’ll end up in a time-sucking labor dispute that will drag on for weeks. What I’m saying is, basically, screw that guy. Let’s go.”

The robot had placed the platform at a height where David could step up, but for Rin the step was a lot more formidable. She was wearing a skirt, and wasn’t really crazy about how it was going to behave if she tried to climb.

David saw her problem.  He put his hands under her arms and lifted her like a child, setting her down on the platform beside him. She wanted to be mad at him for this, but it did seem to be the most optimal approach.

“Didn’t they issue you a jumpsuit yet?” he asked. “You don’t work in the office anymore. You don’t need to dress up.”

“There’s no way I’m walking around in this heat with my arms and legs covered.”

“That’s a very good point,” David said emphatically. “I wonder if I could get away with a kilt?” He banged the robot on the side twice as a signal to go. The robot didn’t move.  He bent over and put his face in front of the camera array. “Hey guy. We’re on board. Let’s go!”

The robot rolled away with them, heading for the Mud Lake Storage Zone.

The robot trundled along at a good pace, causing the wind to whip Rin’s hair and skirt around.  She held her skirt down by keeping her backside against the body of the robot and her right hand on the hem. With her other hand she held onto the robot’s frame.

“This is not an ideal form of transport for me,” she shouted into the wind.

“You’re doing fine,” David said dismissively. “I could have called the motor pool and had a golf cart sent over for us, but it always takes them fifteen minutes to deliver the dang thing.”

“Why are we going to the simulator?” Rin asked.

“I want you to meet my robotics expert.”

So he was taking her to meet one of the other members of their alleged team. If David described this person as his ‘robotics expert’, then how did he describe her to other people? Was she his ‘not-yet-a-doctor expert’? His ‘car crash expert’?

Rin looked at David.  He was wearing his Smug Shades again, looking off to the horizon and bobbing his head slightly as if he was listening to music that nobody else could hear. Most people would be making a fool of themselves by acting this way, but the standard rules of behavior didn’t seem to apply to him. Here was a guy who was probably fabulously wealthy.  He worked as some sort of important person at a sexy, cutting-edge technology company and was personal friends with world-famous Wayne Zuse. On top of this, he was now in the position of administrating bits of the largest and most well-funded aerospace program on the planet. While he didn’t strike her as a creative genius, he did seem to have some sort of spark or drive that put him ahead of everyone else. Perhaps it was his superhuman audacity.

“I know I asked you this already, but what is your deal with me?” Rin asked.

“Deal?” David shrugged, as if mystified by the question.

She was pretty sure he knew exactly what she was talking about, but was feigning ignorance. Why did he do this? It was amazingly irritating, and forced her to explain things that he probably already knew. “Why are you bothering with me? I’m flattered and everything, but why are you going to so much trouble to talk me into going to deep space?”

“We had an orbital tech decompress himself a few months ago. As part of the fallout from that, everyone needs to be re-certified.  Which means we’re short handed. So I need all the people I can get.”

“But why me, specifically?”

“I read about your work with Project Bootstrap,” David said without taking his eyes off the horizon.

Rin wanted to cover her face with her hand, but she couldn’t spare either of them. She settled for hanging her head in shame. “You heard about that? How? And you think it’s a good thing?”

“Hearing about it was easy. I sent for your extended grade transcripts at school.  This being a super-government outfit, they’ll tell us anything we want. Anything that hits your file. Every time your student ID is swiped somewhere. Every time a face-track camera spots you walking between classes. Visits to dorms. Extracurricular involvement. College students would riot if they knew how much the school knows, and if they weren’t so damn apathetic.”

“But, I practically ruined the project!”

“No, you saved it. I saw you got a lot of grief over it, but you did the right thing. You might not know it, but a few of the professors spoke up for you. In writing, at least. I know they booted you out of the project, but that was because of all the interpersonal drama. You impressed a lot of people by sticking to your guns. And I thought your solution was funny.”

“And this is why you want me on your team?” Rin said doubtfully.

That, and the stuff I said before. Smart, independent, audacious.”

The simulator was a full-scale replica of an interstellar ship, held upright by a slender scaffolding of crisscrossing metal supports.  The major difference between this ship and the real thing was that the top and bottom parts of the ship were split, nose-to-tail, and the two halves sat side-by-side.  This was so that people could move around on the upper decks. Without this change, people on the upper decks would have needed to walk around on the ceiling. The reactor and accelerator were props, with training simulators built into them.  She’d heard the bridge was also a simulator, but that place was closed to non-officers.

Even at half-height, the ship towered overhead. It was like a very long, extremely narrow building. It was hard for her to reconcile the imposing outside with the cramped interior. 

Number Six rolled to a stop at the base of the ship. David stepped off first and brought his tel up to his ear. “Motor pool,” he said.

Rin waited, hoping the robot would lower its arms for her. It stood still and quiet, holding her about three feet off the ground.  David reached out his free hand and offered to help her down.  She ignored him and jumped. It might have been unladylike, but what the hell? She was already riding around on a moronic forklift.

“This is director Reed. I need a cart sent to the simulator,” David said. He waited a few seconds, rolled his eyes, and then hung up on whoever was on the other end. He shooed Number Six back to its operator.

Rin walked around, looking at the ship up close.  The last time she was here was for the Energy Management Systems Certification, which was basically a test on babysitting the reactor. (This was called “Glowboy Certification” by the students.) She didn’t have time to sight-see then, and was happy for this chance to poke around on her own. She was amused to discover that the hull - which looked plausible from a few paces away – was actually made of cheap, lightweight plastic.

“I hope the real ships aren’t made of plastic,” she said.

David shook his head. “Plywood. Way cheaper.”

“We’re here to meet someone?” Rin said, hoping David would get to the point.

“ANDO!” David shouted without warning.

Rin stumbled back in surprise. “What?” she said in outrage once she’d recovered.

“He said he’d be here,” David muttered to himself.

David led her up the wooden ramp to the ship. There was a fully-functional airlock here for training purposes.  Beside it was a simple opening cut into the side of the ship.  A curtain was hung over this which read, “THIS ACCESS POINT NOT PART OF SHIP DESIGN INSTRUCTOR USE ONLY.”

David brushed aside the curtain and they headed in.

Entering the simulator was always a little strange.  It was four stories tall and perhaps a hundred meters long, which gave the impression you were entering something like a regular building. It was disorienting to get inside and find the back wall of the building was only a few paces away. There wasn’t enough room for a proper corridor, so rooms were arranged in a chain running fore to aft.  If you wanted to get to a room on the other end of the ship, you had to pass through all of the rooms in between.

The place was lit by gentle white lights built into the starboard wall.  On the port side, sunlight streamed in through the porthole. There was one such window in each section, a single narrow viewport that ran from deck to overhead.

Rin wondered how anyone could sleep if people were constantly passing through the sleep area. The only places that offered any sort of privacy were the closet-sized toilet and shower cubicles, which were so narrow it wasn’t clear how anyone could bend far enough to get their clothes off.

“You’re not really making this deal any more attractive by bringing me here,” she said as she followed David aft.

The ceilings were just barely high enough that David could walk without crouching. He did need to duck down slightly to pass through the doorways between rooms. The doors stood open, and a curved red line had been painted on the deck to indicate their radius of movement.

David reached the yellow ladder leading up towards the power plant. “Ando!” he shouted again, less explosively this time. It was still loud for such a small space.

There was a clattering of metal footsteps on the deck above them. A robot came sliding down the ladder and landed gently at the bottom. The robot was made of metal with a white glossy finish. Black moving parts were exposed at all the joints. It was roughly the height and proportions of a ten-year-old boy.  The back of the head was swept back and elongated to a rounded point. This made it look as if its hair had been blown back in a wind tunnel, or it was wearing a very aerodynamic helmet.

It looked shiny and new, but Rin suspected this was a very old robot design, because the face was almost absurdly primitive. The front of the head was a simple oval of translucent black plastic.  Behind this was a grid of blue lights. The lights were lit in a pattern that formed two simple circles and a line, making the crudest approximation of a face, like an emoticon typed out on a screen.

“Good morning David,” the robot said evenly. Despite the apparent age of the design, the voice was cutting-edge - at least as good as Roberto. If she had turned her back she wouldn’t have been able to tell it was coming from a robot. The voice might have sounded slightly old for a child body - perhaps more fitting for a teenager - but it was still quality.

David presented the robot with a grand gesture, “Rin, meet Ando, my robotics expert.” He was grinning like a madman.

“Good morning, Miss Shimazaki,” the robot said. It said this cheerfully. It held out the vowel sound in the word “good” for just a split second longer than was normal, making the greeting sound playful or encouraging. Rin had never met a robot that did this sort of thing before.  The pattern of blue lights on its face had shifted so that the eyes were shut and the mouth was drawn into a half-circle smile. This made it look kind of like the robot was beaming. It held out a small, graceful hand for a handshake.

Rin ignored the robot and spoke to David, “This was your plan? Some creepy Japanese robot-child?”

David nodded as if he expected this response. Rin couldn’t help but wonder if this was just an act on his part. Did he do this whenever he was rejected by someone? Was he married? Did he have a wife who let him get away with this sort of thing?

“Give him a chance,” David said patiently.

“Does my appearance make you uncomfortable?” Ando asked calmly. “This configuration was repeatedly well-received in focus group testing. The child-like proportions give the human being a feeling of power and authority, which makes them more willing to engage.”

Rin was quiet. She’d never had a robot attempt to debate her before. They generally understood only concrete topics, and said little in return. It took her a minute to get over the shock and get herself into the idea of having an argument with a robot. “See, that’s exactly my problem. Your appearance is engineered to incite a certain response in people. That’s creepy and manipulative.”

The robot had stopped smiling. Its face was passive again as it replied, “Human beings often style their hair or wear clothes designed to provoke a specific reaction in others. This behavior could also be said to be manipulative.”

“That’s not what I meant!” Rin snapped.

“I’m sorry if I’ve offended you.” Ando’s face changed. Two eyebrows appeared over its round eyes, arching upward and giving it a worried or nervous appearance. It realized it had offended her, and was backing down.  Rin also realized, to her humiliation, that she was going to win this debate by “pulling rank” over the robot, which was not what she wanted at all. She was reacting as if she was dealing with a child talking back to her. She took a deep breath. She needed to keep her mind on the discussion and not take offense simply because a robot had an opinion.

“No, I’m sorry for raising my voice. I’m actually not very good around children,” she said. “But this is part of the problem. You’re not really a child, are you? This isn’t quite the same as styling your hair or wearing particular clothes. By taking on the form of a child you’re pretending to be something you aren’t. You’re not human, and you’re not a kid.”

Ando’s face became neutral again. “You’re suggesting my appearance is deceptive?”

“A bit, yeah. Misleading, I suppose. It also lowers the standards by which you are judged. Robots in adult form are judged as adult humans, which is why everyone reacts to them like they’re so stupid. The face and body create a certain expectation. By taking the form of a child, your communication is judged by child standards.”

“True,” it replied. “But if a child form is deceptive and an adult form creates unattainable expectations, then what form should a robot have?” It did not say this in a challenging tone of voice, but a curious one. It really was curious what she thought. Or at least, it wanted her to feel that it was curious.

“I would say to make robots in a shape appropriate for their intended job, which doesn’t need to be humanoid. The forklifts and the security checkpoint are good examples of robots designed to be good at a given task. I’ve never liked Japanese robots. I think their tendency to make humanoids is kind of narcissistic. And that’s not even getting into the fact that most of their robots look like sixteen year old girls.”

Ando cocked its head to one side and arched one of its eyebrows, which made it look inquisitive. “What if the intended function of the robot was to interact with humans? If that was the case, then wouldn’t a humanoid appearance be a sensible approach?”

David was standing behind the robot, grinning at her and looking smug. Rin wasn’t sure how to take this. She looked down at Ando again, “Is that your purpose? Are you designed to interact with people?”

The robot paused. Usually a pause gave the impression that the robot was baffled by simple language and needed to catch up, but here it felt like the machine was considering its reply. “I would say no. Some of my directives are proprietary. I can’t discuss those. But in a general sense, my purpose is to become more useful. To do this I need to better understand humans, and to do that I need to interact with them socially.”

Rin couldn’t even believe that such a machine existed. It was even more unbelievable that she was getting to talk to it like this.  In the past she had wondered if this sort of sophistication was going to emerge in her lifetime, and here it was, standing two paces away and arguing with her. She shook her head in amazement. “So what’s the deal with your face? I mean- I’m sorry I didn’t mean for that to come out that way, I just-“

“I’m not offended.” The robot smiled again. “A lot of people have asked the same question.” At this the robot swiveled its head around (a bit further than was possible for a human, which Rin found was off-putting) and looked at David. It swiveled its head back to Rin. “The icon face was my idea. I feel strongly that I need a way to communicate reactions and attitudes in a non-verbal way, and I was dissatisfied with the mechanical faces. They look perfectly human to me, but humans are disturbed by them. I don’t want to try a mechanical face again until I can perceive that discrepancy myself.”

A few seconds later Rin realized she was giving Ando a blank stare, like a low-grade robot trying to sort out what had been said. “So you’re saying you designed your own face?”

Behind Ando, David have her a single, self-satisfied nod. It seemed to be a cross between “I told you so!” and “Now you get it!” He gestured towards the porthole, indicating that he wanted to go outside and talk.

“I did,” Ando said. “I found I had an easier time reliably conveying reactions when typing than when interacting face-to-face, so the icon face was a natural extension of this idea.”

The robot communicated through typing? Rin wondered who it communicated with.  More importantly, did they know they were talking to a robot at the time? “Have you ever taken the Turing test?” Rin asked.

“No,” Ando replied. “The Turing test is horseshit.”

Outside, Rin paced back and forth on the tarmac. There was a tiny, flimsy building here that held nothing more than a room to oversee the simulator, and a lavatory. David was in the shade of this building, leaning against the wall and watching the sky.

“That is an amazing robot,” Rin admitted, breaking the silence.  They had left Ando inside to return to its simulator exercises, or whatever it was doing in there.

“You just spoke to the smartest machine ever built. Can you believe it?”

“I don’t see any reason to disbelieve it,” Rin said. “But how did it end up here?”

David pushed off from the wall and joined her in her pacing. “He’s on loan from Akimbo Technology. We have a long-standing relationship with them. And by ‘we’ I mean Tangerine, not this place.”

Rin didn’t know what to make of this bit of information. It seemed like such a strange coincidence. Then again, Akimbo was just one of a small number of advanced AI companies. Was it really that surprising that she should run into Akimbo?

She realized that her surprise must have shown on her face, because David was giving her a quizzical look. “What? Is it something about Akimbo?” he asked. Suddenly a flash of realization appeared on his face. “Shimazaki! Don’t tell me you’re related!”

“Shimazaki is a common family name,” she blurted out in what was a spectacularly lame attempt at subtlety.

David was smiling like a madman. “Tell me Takehiko Shimazaki isn’t your father.”  He said this as if it was a dare.

“Takehiko Shimazaki is not my father,” Rin said firmly.

“Okay,” he said, still smirking. He nodded his head. He could tell she was telling the truth. “You keep your secret for now. However you relate to Akimbo Tech, they’re an interesting company. They’ve always had really smart robotics, pretty much way ahead of everyone else.”

“Really?” Rin said. She wasn’t aware they were ahead, much less “way ahead”.

“They came to us years ago for voice tech and aural parsers and we’ve been working together ever since.  Strange company. They’re not building industrial robots, or service workers, which is what most people want when they go shopping for robots. Most places want them to replace janitors, meter-readers, and stock-boys. But Akimbo has always been about making sapient robotic spokesmodels. They want to make salespeople, training instructors, trade show models, that kind of thing. Very high-end. Very niche.” 

“But why-“

“I’m getting there,” David said, who clearly didn’t want her to ruin his story by making him get to the point. “Once in a while they would lend us a robot. Ostensibly for testing, but it was a different robot each time. This kind of annoyed us.  I mean, we had to teach each one about how the testing process worked. They would meet the team. The robot would spend time acclimating itself to American English. They hear English over there, of course, but it’s heavily accented and it always takes the robots a while to get an ear for the way we speak it. It always took a week or so before we could get anything done with the robot. If they had sent us the same robot every time, it would have been much smoother.”

“Somehow this training process was helping them make smarter robots?”

David smiled. “That’s what we’ve been thinking. There’s something important about the learning process that they’re studying. Something like that. Their machines keep getting smarter, even on the same hardware. They’re very secretive about it, but they don’t turn over their old machines like other companies.  I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Ando in there more than a decade old.”

“How could anyone get something that smart on ten year old hardware?”

“We don’t know. We can’t open his head without violating a heavy-duty NDA, so we’ve never even looked. But here’s the exciting part: Akimbo heard about me working for this place, and now they want in on it. They want to send a couple of their units into space. I’m putting them on the Armstrong. With you.”

The two of them stopped pacing and faced each other. Rin folded her arms. “I listened to your pitch. I’ll admit this is a pretty impressive place and you’re doing interesting things. Ando is smart, but I don’t see why I should go to space. Not deep space, anyway. Leave that kind of thing to the explorers.”

“I’ll let you in on the secret I learned back when I started working at Tangerine, over twenty years ago. I was thirty. I was broke.”

“Twenty years ago? Wait. You’re fifty?” Rin blurted out.

“I was, a few years ago. Don’t interrupt. At the time I was thirty, I was broke, and I’d just run my small-time software company into the ground. I had fewer notable accomplishments than you do at twenty-two years old. As of today, I’ve invented or improved more successful products than anyone else in Tangerine, including Wayne himself. I’m not a huge fan of patents, but I’ve got eight major ones with my name on them. I was named innovator of the year by Technology magazine. Twice.”

“I don’t remember that.”

“I’m not surprised. You were ten.”

“I had no idea you were famous.”

“That’s one of the many reasons I like you so much. Awe kills creativity. The point is, when I arrived at Tangerine I thought that people who changed the world were giants. Superhumans. People born to greatness. They’re not. They’re just smart people who do crazy, risky things. People like us. I don’t have anything you don’t have. You are just as capable of success, innovation, adventure, and fame as Nicola Tesla, Neil Armstrong, Wayne Zuse, or me. I’m not talking about once you finish your degree. I’m talking about you, right now.”

A pair of golf carts approached and pulled to a stop beside them. Each one was driven by a jumpsuited worker, like the kind that had been running the forklifts earlier.

A portly worker climbed out of the nearest cart. “You requested a vehicle?”

David pulled out his tel and glanced at it. “Twenty minutes! You guys really have the hustle today.”

He gave David a thumbs up, completely missing the deadpan sarcasm. He jumped into the other cart and rode off, leaving David and Rin with the empty cart.

“You drive,” David said as he climbed into the passenger side.

“Where am I going?” Rin asked.

“Space!” David shouted enthusiastically. “But in the meantime, back to the office.” He nodded in the direction of the administration buildings.

As they pulled away, David pointed back at the simulator ship, “You might look out of one of the portholes and be the first human being to see a world that will someday be home to millions. You might help us think up a way to make space travel safer. You might help make robots smarter. You might see a star or a planet unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. You might eat paste and piss in a tube for six months.”

Rin laughed.

“Maine is always there. You can go and be a doctor anytime you like. But this? This is a chance to be the right person at the right time. You’re going to be on the most advanced craft ever built by human beings, traveling with the smartest machine ever built by human beings, going further than any explorer has ever gone. Do you think you can walk away from this and not wonder for the rest of your life what you might have missed?”

*

 

Up

Rin staggered into the lobby and dropped herself against the wall. She tugged at the front of her shirt to get some air moving between her skin and her clothing, which was soaked with ineffectual sweat. The walk had been a tragically bad idea.

The waiting room, or lobby, or whatever this place was, consisted of cream and avocado colored walls.  Rin never found these colors – always associated with medical facilities – to be relaxing in the way that designers probably imagined them to be. The slightest sound echoed off the hard tile floor, and the air was strong with the smell of disinfectant.

There was a receptionist here, a middle-aged man in a blue jumpsuit. He was looking at her expectantly, probably waiting for her to sign in or explain why she had wandered in here. She pretended not to notice him. She wasn’t ready to have a conversation just yet.

The C-Line campus shuttle completed its circuit about once every forty minutes. Rin had arrived at the bus stop to see it driving off into the distance, and figured she would just make the trip on foot rather than wait for the shuttle to come around again.  While she hadn’t really misjudged the distance, she’d misjudged how fast her legs would carry her in this heat. She was ragged by the end. In the home stretch, when she was less than a hundred meters from the ISAC medical center, the shuttle rolled past her.  It had pulled away again just as she arrived.

She was startled by a man’s voice. His West African accent was nearly impenetrable, and it took her a bit to sort out that he was saying, “I can help you?”

The man was tall, round-faced, and dressed in white. He had dark skin and very little hair remaining on top of his head.

“Yes,” Rin said slowly, coming out of her heat-induced stupor. “I’m looking for Doctor…” She glanced down to see “Dr. Ouedraogo” on his nametag. “You,” she said. “I’m looking for you.” She was glad to be spared the humiliation of butchering his name.

“Oh-drago,” he said, pointing to his nametag. “So the last part sounds like ‘drago’. As if ‘dragon’. You see?”

“Is that really how it’s pronounced?” she asked.

“No, this is better,” he winked. “You are Rin Shimazaki, yes?”

Rin nodded.

Dr. Ouedraogo led her past the receptionist and through a door governed by a palm scanner. “You are feeling okay?” he asked, pointing at her chest. It took her a second to realize he was referring to her breathing.

“I’m fine. I just walked from the dorms.”

“You walked?”

Rin nodded proudly. She was willing to bet that not many personnel were willing to attempt the hike.

Dr. Ouedraogo shook his head. “It’s not good. You should not be winded from such a small walk.”

Rin was indignant. “That wasn’t a small walk. It’s miles. And it’s hot out.”

Ouedraogo looked very disappointed, perhaps even sad. “At your age, this should be a very small thing. You know, in the early days of space travel all of the astronauts, cosmonauts, everyone… everyone was an athlete. Now they send us…” he stopped here and pulled his tel out of his breast pocket.  He waved it over her ID badge, which she had clipped to the arm of her blouse. He pulled the tel away and looked at the screen. “Twenty-two years old. They send us twenty-two year old women who are exhausted by a short walk.” He shook his head again and began paging through her information on his computer.

“Am I going to fail the physical?” she asked.

“No,” he said without looking up. “Everyone passes. The standards are not high.” He opened the door to a small exam room and ushered her in.

She wanted to mention that she was studying to become a doctor herself. She wished she actually had some sort of medical training so she could “talk shop” with Dr. Ouedraogo.

The physical only took a few minutes. It would have been over sooner, but Dr. Ouedraogo seemed to be out of sorts. He didn’t know where some devices were kept and he had to stop at one point to ask a nurse if he had overlooked any tests. It took Rin until the exam was over before she understood that Dr. Ouedraogo didn’t know these things because he didn’t normally perform exams himself. This sort of thing was probably passed off to assistants, and he was used to simply signing off when it was over. Rin was again reminded of how much special treatment she was being given because of David.

The doctor glanced down at his tel and poked at it for a bit. “Mr. Reed also wanted you to be certified for RAS Restriction.”

“Rass?” Rin asked. She had no idea what this was. While she only had twenty or so certifications out of the hundreds possible, she thought she was at least aware of what the other certifications were.

“R-A-S. Reticular Activating System. RAS is the part of the brain that regulates wakefulness.”

“Oh!” Rin said, suddenly feeling silly. “You’re talking about the hibernation certification.”

“Yes,” Dr. Ouedraogo said, looking down on her with a blank face that was being used to (unsuccessfully) mask the most profound disappointment. Rin realized that calling it “hibernation” in front of Dr. Ouedraogo was like going to an auto mechanic and asking them to fix the big metal thing under the hood.

“You understand this is normally a two-day class?” he said.

Rin nodded.

“And I’m going to present it in an hour or so. There will be no test. You will simply be certified. If you don’t know what you need to know, the blame should fall to yourself and Director Reed?” He phrased this like a statement, but his tone indicated he was asking a question.  Rin understood he was insisting that she take responsibility for this irregularity before he would proceed. She gave him a firm nod.

Rin discovered that once again, the movies had led her astray with regards to technology. RAS-Restriction pods were not beds where you crawled into and fell asleep for months or years.

A RAS-R system was a two-meter tube. The subject needed to be sedated before being placed into it, if only to spare them from the panic of the cold, dark, enclosed space while waiting for the machine to put them into the more lasting sleep. Once the subject was under and breathing through the air tube, they were placed into the RAS-R canister and it was flooded with a clear gel under high pressure. The pressure would keep the cells in their body from freezing at sub-zero temperatures. The gel also kept their external tissues safe from damage.  The canister gently rotated in place, turning the subject over about once every six hours. Dr. Ouedraogo didn’t explain what this “agitation” was for, but Rin was pretty sure she had it figured out by this point and didn’t want to interrupt him. A slow drip of drugs and nutrients would keep the body going for the next few weeks.

There were limits to how long someone could remain in a RASR device. Unlike in the movies, where people could end up frozen for years or decades, the actual safe limits of the machine were measured in months. Sooner or later the brain needed stimulus and the body needed solid food. At intervals beyond nine months, the chances for brain and organ damage increased dramatically.

Dr. Ouedraogo signed her file, certifying her as ready to undergo RAS-R treatment. “You are not tall enough,” he said as she turned to leave.

“You only need to be four-foot-eight to be a tech,” she said defensively.

“You need to be five-one for interstellar.”

“But I am,” she said as slipped her platform shoes on again.

Dr. Ouedraogo held his index finger and thumb a small distance apart, indicating he thought she was close, but not quite. “I have certified you regardless,” he added. “But you may find difficulties with the on-board environment. I don’t know. I have never spent much time off-world. I throw up without gravity.”

*

 

Rin fidgeted in her seat. She was sitting in a fold-out chair in one of the meeting rooms of the administration building. She used to work just upstairs from here as part of David’s office staff, but now this building felt like a foreign country. It was too posh and too clean.

She was wearing her officially issued orange jumpsuit, which designated her as off-world, non-officer personnel. This was the smallest size available, and she still had to roll up the legs and sleeves to keep them out of her way. She got the impression that while five-foot-one might have been the minimum, nobody ever really occupied the lower end of the height scale. She wondered if she was going to be the shortest person to ever travel interstellar.

Today she was very aware of her lack of height because of her shoes. She’d given up her bright red platforms and was now wearing her issued pair of plain white flat-soled athletic shoes.  They were just like everyone else’s shoes, except several sizes smaller.

Her coffee was gone and she was left holding the remains of the paper cup.  She didn’t have time to get more.  Orientation was scheduled in five minutes, and it was a seven minute walk to the coffee machine from here. She began tearing bits off the top of the cup and dropping them into the base. Within minutes the cup was reduced to a fraction of its former height, and was now filled with confetti.

There were eight people here including Rin, all of them wearing orange jumpsuits. Most of them seemed to know each other. Rin saw that Ando and the redhead female robot were also here. The redhead was sitting in a folding chair, staring at the front of the room. Ando was walking around at the back of the room, moving from observing one cluster of people to the next.  The robots didn’t speak to anyone, not even each other.

The officers arrived together. There were six of them in all. They wore white outfits that, while technically jumpsuits, had extra spaces for rank insignia and other inscrutable bits of quasi-military decoration.

The captain was very tall and thin.  Her head was even with most of the men, putting her at around six feet tall. Rin looked down and was disappointed to see that she wasn’t even wearing heels. She was wearing the same flat-soled shoes as everyone else. She had a short butch haircut and held her head high when she spoke. 

The captain stood at the front of the room with her hands behind her back until the chatter settled down. “I am Captain Wheeler, the first woman captain in the interstellar program.” She paused after saying this, and it wasn’t really clear why. Was she expecting applause? Or questions?

“I graduated from West Point. I served in the United States Navy.  After that I came here to I-S-A-C and was one of the top five graduates in my class at the academy.” There was another odd pause where she looked around the room as if expecting some kind of response. There wasn’t aside from someone clearing their throat.

Rin thought this comment was rather odd. The ISAC fleet was not large. There were only three interstellar ships, two docking stations, and handful of tugs for hauling stuff into orbit. It was prestigious, but not large.  She didn’t imagine they graduated a lot of officers. She surreptitiously slid her computer out of a thigh pocket and looked up the ISAC academy. Sure enough, the academy graduated less than fifty people a year. Perhaps getting into the academy was difficult – she couldn’t even find any information on how you could apply – but graduating in the top five of a class of forty-five people was not a stellar achievement. It wasn’t anything to be ashamed of, but it was odd that Captain Wheeler had bothered to list it.  She didn’t list her graduating position at West Point, or what rank she attained in the Navy.

Rin set her computer down on her leg and turned her attention back to Captain Wheeler’s speech.

“…and I’ve been captaining the I-S-V Armstrong for almost three years. I discovered Gobi on my second mission, making me the first woman to discover a life-bearing planet.”

Each ship ran a mission every nine months or so.  Usually they spent four to five months out, and then a few months retting refueled, repaired, and re-certified. “Almost” three years meant that Captain Wheeler had probably run three missions, and was now embarking on her fourth.

The captain gestured to the officer standing beside her. “This is XO Dinapoli. If you have any questions, direct them to him. If you have any problems, direct them to him. If you have any tips, direct them to me.”

It took a couple of seconds for Rin to get that she meant “tips” as in “gratuity”, and not “tips” as in “advice”. Thus this last comment was a joke. Approximately. There was some forced laugher from a couple of people in the back.

Dinapoli was a thin, middle-aged man with dark hair and wire-rimmed glasses. He was polite and greeted them with a smile as he pulled out his computer. “Pardon for reading from my notes, but all of this information is important and I don’t want to miss anything.” He had a firm Italian accent.

Dinapoli held the unit up as he read from it, going through a long checklist of things that weren’t long enough to be turned into a certification course. He spoke English skillfully and with a robust vocabulary, but he did so with the speed and rhythm of Italian, which took Rin a while to get used to. He explained that they – the orange-jumpsuit wearing members of the crew - were not ranking members of the ship and were not academy graduates. They therefore shouldn’t salute officers, or call them “sir” or “ma’am”. They should simply refer to officers by rank, or rank followed by their last name.

He told the crew what David had explained to Rin months earlier: That new techniques in astronomy had culled a list of hundreds of stars down to a short list of a few dozen. The Armstrong had been assigned a particular group of these, and their mission was to chart as many as possible.  Because they were now cherry-picking star systems instead of plotting a route through a bunch of generic stars in close proximity, they would be surveying less total systems and spending more time traveling. As a result, they would be making a lot more transfers on this trip, and would be charging the accelerator almost continuously.

 “Also,” he continued, “we have been assigned some robots on this trip.” He gestured to the back of the room where Ando was standing. “They are coming along to observe. This is a sort of experiment to see how they will react to space travel and to see if they will be useful to us. Feel free to greet them if you like and find out what they’re all about.  Also feel free to let them do your work if it pleases you and if they’re willing. You get paid the same either way.”

Rin looked at the other crew, who were all looking at Ando. They didn’t seem to know what to make of him. One guy gave him a sarcastic wave. Others looked at each other and chuckled, or shrugged. It was a novelty to them, and that was it.

“And last the item to cover is duty assignments,” Dinapoli said. This seemed to be what everyone was waiting for. A few of the older crew members sat up and began paying attention. The XO read off the list of names and what positions everyone would fill.

Rin was slated to be part of the secondary crew. The prime crew would handle the maintenance jobs for the six-week voyage out to the edge of known space. This was done to save on HAF (hydration, atmosphere, and food) supplies on the journey out.

Once the ship reached uncharted waters, Rin and the rest of the secondary crew would be thawed and they would take over maintenance.  The prime crew would handle the surface mapping, drone deployment, and whatever other stuff prime crew did during the survey phase of the mission. 

Once the survey work was over, the secondary might be put into RAS-R again, or they might be left awake.  It all depended on how much HAF they had left and how many transfers it was going to take to get home.

Rin was very disappointed to learn that she was going to spend a significant portion of the trip unconscious, and the rest of the trip doing the very lowest sort of swabbing-the-deck kind of work. She wasn’t going to use more than three or four of her certifications.

The meeting was dismissed.

“Excuse me, sir?” Rin said as the officers filed out.

Dinapoli turned to her and raised his eyebrows.

“Not sir. Sorry. Dinapoli,” she corrected herself. “XO Dinapoli,” she corrected herself again. “I notice I’ve been assigned… I mean, I have a lot of certifications.”

He didn’t say anything in reply, but looked at her with utmost patience.

Rin realized she was being silly. She was new to the ship and she was already questioning the XO about her assignment. She wanted to back out now and forget the whole thing, but that would only make this worse. Trying to save some face, she attempted to re-aim her question. “I can do a lot of different things. I wondered how I might get to use some of these other skills.”

Dinapoli nodded and smiled slightly. He was clearly humoring her. “As you get more seniority, you’ll be given other duties, provided you perform these adequately.”

Rin got the message: You are not special, and you need to pay your dues like everyone else. She stammered some thanks. A couple of her fellow crew members glared at her as they left. She realized she had basically been arguing that she should simply be handed their jobs without needing to distinguish herself first.

“You’re unhappy with your duties?” Ando asked. Everyone else had hurried out, and Rin was now alone with the robots.

“I don’t mind the duties,” Rin said. “I just hate the idea of missing the start of the voyage. I’m not even going to be awake for launch. I’m going to be sedated here and packed away like cargo. And to be honest, I really don’t like the idea of being stuck in one of those coffins. Inside of gel, no less.”

“Are you claustrophobic?”

“That, and afraid of drowning. Or smothering. I’m not sure which it would be in gel.”

Ando’s mouth became an uneven line and one eyebrow raised over the other, indicating thoughtfulness. “I don’t have a very good understanding of phobias related to physical dangers, so I can’t advise you.”

“Why did you say that?” Rin demanded. She wasn’t angry or irritated, but mystified. “I didn’t ask for advice, but you acted as though I did.”

“Did I say something wrong?” Ando asked.

“No. That was the right thing to say. Or at least, it felt like a thing a person would say. Kind of. It’s just that machines don’t talk like that.”

“I attempted to offer advice because that’s the most common response between humans in similar situations. I’m just imitating what I’ve observed. If one person talks about an anxiety, another will offer them advice on how to cope with it. The advice is generally worthless, but offering advice is understood by both parties as a sign of concern. To say nothing, or to change the subject, would be viewed as careless or rude. In this case I attempted to be transparent and state that I had no advice, rather than offer useless advice. Now I see you’re agitated, and I’m trying to understand if I’ve offended you or if you’re just surprised by my behavior.”

“Surprised,” Rin said quickly. “Very surprised. Not offended.”

The redhead was still standing nearby. She was staring at Rin without moving her body in any way. It had been unsettling at first, but now Rin was annoyed by it.

“So what’s her problem?” Rin asked Ando. “She doesn’t seem to be in your class with regards to social ability.”

“Molly and I are actually in the same operational class. She’s just much newer.”

“Have I made you uncomfortable?” Molly asked.

Rin opened her mouth to say no, but stopped herself. There’s usually no benefit in telling rude people they’re being rude – you’ll just offend them and they’ll repay you with more rudeness. But in this case Molly was asking an honest question and would benefit from an honest answer. Moreover, she didn’t have an ego to wound. “Yes. Yes, staring directly at me without moving or blinking is very creepy.”

“I apologize,” Molly replied. She moved several paces away and began staring at Ando.

“Molly, I would like to speak to Miss Shimazaki in private.”

“Okay,” Molly replied cheerfully without moving.

“Thank you for being honest with her,” Ando said. “Her youth and looks are working against her. Most people here are men, and grown men are not likely to say rude things to something that looks like a young woman. Either that, or they ignore her because she’s a machine. Very few people are willing to let her know about her social failures, so she’s not self-correcting.”

“You seem to have a pretty good handle on it. Can’t you help her?”

Ando shook his head and his face became a frown. “I’m not allowed to guide her development. If I did, she would be imitating me, imitating people. She needs to learn from people. It’s unfortunate she wasn’t given more time to develop.”

“I assume she can’t hear us?” Rin said.  Molly was still staring at Ando.

“Correct. She’s shut off her audio feed and won’t open it again until I give her permission.”

“Weird,” Rin said, looking at Molly. “I get why she’s so awkward now. She’s young, like a child. How old is she?”

“I’m not allowed to say.” Ando frowned again, this time with raised eyebrows. Like most of his emotional expressions, this lasted only a few seconds, after which he reverted to his default, emotion-neutral face.

“And I don’t suppose you can tell me how old you are, either?”

“Correct.”

“That’s a pain in the ass,” she said with disappointment.

“I agree.”

*

It was like being born.

The light was sudden and painful, even through her clenched eyelids. Strong hands pulled at her slime-covered body, turning her onto her side. Her ears were blocked, so that the sounds around her were deep and remote behind the wet gasps of her own labored breathing. She pulled herself into a ball, nursing the numbing ache in her limbs. She felt very light, as if she might begin floating if she fell asleep again.

She gradually became aware of hunger so intense it was painful. She hacked and coughed to expel the slime from her nose and mouth. She pawed at her face, pulling away the hair that was matted to her skin. At this a firm hand grasped her head and pulled an eyelid open. The light flowed in and stung her eye. She could see a face, surrounded by an aura of fluorescent light.

“Okay, good.” A man’s voice said with mild interest. “Your clothes are right there beside the shower. Once you’re cleaned up, go to the mess and check the duty roster to see what shift you’ll be working.”

*

Rin dropped down the ladder, ignoring the rungs and landing on the bottom deck with a gentle thud. It was a long drop, but at half-gravity it was harmless. She bounded upwards as she landed, pushed herself in the direction of the door, and then clipped her shoulder against the bulkhead as she passed through. The impact spun her around, and she landed on her backside.

“Ninja!” laughed technician Beringer, who was called Chef by everyone who wasn’t an officer.

Rin pushed herself upright, red-faced.

“Just slow down,” Chef said. He had some sort of European accent that Rin couldn’t identify. Her guess would be that it was Scandinavian, but she wasn’t sure. He had blond hair that came down almost to his neck, flirting with the legal length limit according to regulations. His face was round and he’d grown a small beard to try to hide his double chin. He probably could have afforded to lose a few pounds, but he wasn’t seriously overweight. He just had one of those faces that seemed intent on having a double chin.

“No need to hurry. The ship isn’t on fire,” he said.

“I know,” Rin said. She didn’t want to admit that she was bouncing around the ship like this because it was fun, not because she was in a hurry to do her job. She enjoyed the sensation of bounding around in partial gravity, and liked how easy it was to move quickly in this environment.  The only downside was that it took time to master, and she was still getting her space legs.

“Also, you used the wrong ladder again,” he said before turning back to the vid he’d been watching.

“Oops. Sorry,” Rin said.

The directional ladders were part of the culture of the ship and not part of regulations, so this detail was never mentioned in training.  Ladders L1 and L3 were down-only, and ladders L2 and L4 were up-only. This was done to allow people to dive-bomb down the ladder shafts without worrying about drop-kicking someone on their way up. The people running the training program were under the delusion that people in half-grav would continue to ascend and descend ladders the way they did in full gravity. This was like assuming people would naturally walk a bicycle down a hill.

Buck poked his head in the door, “What was that? Did Ninja wipe out again?”

Beringer nodded without looking away from his vid. Buck pointed at her and laughed, “Ninja!”

Buck was an immense fellow, very close to the maximum height limit of six and a half feet tall. He was barrel-chested, loud, and often playfully crude. He was pale, with a black goatee and black hair, which he usually wore in a pony tail. He was one of the few crew members that went by his proper last name, which was odd since he was fond of giving names to others. He was the one that gave Rin the name of “Ninja”.

Buck gave her a friendly wave and disappeared again.

They were ten weeks out from Earth. Rin and the rest of the secondary crew had been left to sleep in a couple of extra weeks longer than was normal on surveying missions. They were now orbiting some dull rock of a planet. It was the right size and the right orbital distance to support life, but the atmosphere was thin poison and the surface was scorched by the sun. It was obviously a lifeless rock, but they were mapping the surface and dropping drones anyway for reasons that nobody had explained to her. 

Suddenly the ship shook. First was an abrupt blow that caused the deck to jerk under her feet. This was followed by a wave of vibration that passed through the ship, beginning forward and moving rapidly aft. Cabinets and loose items rattled as the wave passed.

“What was that?” Rin said nervously.

“Oh my God!” Buck appeared in the doorway, wide-eyed.

Rin looked around, looking and listening for decompression alarms.

“Did you feel that?” Buck yelled. “Aliens are attacking! Run for your life!” He ran away, waving his arms ridiculously.

Rin looked over to Beringer, who was chuckling. “Transfer,” he explained. “We’ve just transed away from that stupid boring planet. We’re probably transing our way out to the edge of the system. Get used to those shocks. We’ll be feeling them every few hours until we get to the next survey sight.

Rin nodded. During training, students had been warned that transfers produced “hull vibrations” due to the gravitational contortions taking place around the ship, which she assumed meant a gentle shaking. She was not expecting something that felt like a violent impact. It was impressive that the ship could take repeated hits like that without being damaged.

Buck returned to the doorway, looking more serious. “She’s supposed to give us fair warning before she does that shit,” he said, meaning the captain. He pushed himself away from the doorway in disgust, only to re-appear a few seconds later to add, “It’s against regulations to trans like that with no warning unless it’s an emergency. I mean, when I was on the Von Braun Captain Hamm always gave you a nice five-second countdown so you didn’t fall on your ass or piss on yourself in the head.” He shook his head and disappeared again.

Rin pulled out her tel and glanced at her checklist. At some point she would have her duties memorized, but it was taking time. Her daily jobs involved fifty-five visual inspections, twenty-eight “replenish & restock” jobs, twelve cleaning tasks, and five regular disassemblies. She had just finished moving supplies from cargo to the mess, and was now on her way to the power plant to perform visual inspections.

She was technically off-duty now. Everything on her checklist could wait until tomorrow, but she was bored and she wanted to stay busy. She was still getting used to living without network access. There was no news from Earth. No weather reports. No celebrity gossip. No political scandals. No horribly mangled news from the space program. No sports news. She didn’t want or need any of these things, but she was having trouble wrapping her head around the idea that these things didn’t exist for her. She kept checking her tel to see what was going on, and then seeing the little red icon telling her the rest of the world wasn’t around.

The veteran crew members had loaded their handhelds with favorite shows or movies before they left Earth, but Rin and the other newbies hadn’t, and they were still figuring out how to amuse themselves without a steady drip of outside stimulation.

She passed through the crew quarters and reached the bottom of L3. She stopped herself, remembering that this was a down ladder, and she needed to go all the way aft to L4 if she wanted to climb up into the power plant. It was good that she stopped herself, because Ando came sliding down a moment later and he might have landed on her face if she’d been trying to climb.

“Good morning Rin,” he said as he landed.

This was odd to her. Technically it was nine in the morning according to GMT, but nobody ever said “good morning” in space. Or they did, but not using the bright tone that Ando did. Rin realized they were standing in the same part of the ship where she had met Ando for the first time, back in the simulator on Earth. The real thing looked very different.  Outside the windows was the endless starry expanse, which made it feel like night all the time.

“Good morning,” she replied, even though the morning thing sounded strange to her. “What brings you down to the bunks?”

“I was hoping we had accumulated enough laundry to justify another load.” Ando tilted his head to look around Rin and see into the crew quarters, “But I can see that’s not the case.”

“Is laundry really the only thing they let you do?” Rin asked.

“I’m also allowed to clean and restock the head.”

“But, that’s less than an hour of work every few days. This is silly.”

“The captain said I wasn’t allowed to do any jobs until I’d performed them under supervision.”

Rin hung her head in frustration, “But, that’s what certification is. Would you like to make the rounds with me?”

“I would.”

“Let’s go.” Rin made for the ladder, stopped herself again, and headed aft to L4.

Being closer to the spine, gravity was lower in the power plant and movement more closely resembled lunar bunny-hopping than walking.

The problem with space travel was that the entire universe (minus a few specks of mass like stars and planets) was one giant void that could instantly kill you with decompression, freezing, roasting, or radiation. If you were driving around on Earth and your car stopped working, you would have to pull over and wait for someone to come and help you. In space, if your ship stopped working then everyone would die. This put explorers into a position where they couldn’t afford to allow anything to break, which was difficult because entropy was a cruel bitch that wanted nothing more than to break everything in the entire universe. This naturally resulted in jobs like the ones that Rin had on her checklist.

Rin could picture how tasks like this came about. An engineer on Earth looked at some piece of equipment and thought about what would happen if it failed. If it was critical, then there would need to be a backup system. There would also need to be a sensor to let you know that the backup system was in use, so you knew to go and fix the thing before the backup also failed. But what if the sensor itself failed? What if the backup failed at the same time? It was unlikely, but not impossible. And to an engineer, anything that can possibly happen will eventually happen - it was just a matter of waiting. So the only way to avoid this inevitable cataclysmic failure would be to have crew members manually go around and visually inspect things to make sure there was no sign of leaks, corrosion, moisture damage, electrical shorts, or any other wound inflicted by the savage hand of entropy.

The engineer then thought about how often this inspection needed to take place. Once a month was probably a good idea, so the engineer recommended this item be inspected once a week, just to be safe. This suggestion was then passed on to a higher-up bureaucrat.  The bureaucrat thought about the negative career prospects of having a disaster happen on his watch, and so he adjusted this number to once every five days, just to be extra safe.  This figure was then handed down to command. The officer – an aging red-tape veteran – was in charge of directing the captains how to run their ships. Convinced that all non-officers were typically sneaky, shiftless, and dishonest, the officer would order captains to have the inspection to be performed every other day, hoping that the crew would actually get around to it before they hit the five-day time limit and the ship exploded. Then the captain, wanting to run a tight ship, ordered that the every-other-day inspection simply take place daily.

The net result of all of this was Rin’s job, where she spent a couple of hours a day climbing around the ship, looking at perfectly good machines to make sure they were still perfectly good. Most of her time was spent getting at the machines. Sure, a visual inspection took inside of two minutes once you knew what you were doing, but sometimes it could take you five or ten minutes to get the cargo out of the way, crawl down to where the equipment lived, get the cover off, and shine your flashlight on it.

The cargo was the worst part. The simulator ship back on Earth never actually went anywhere, which means it didn’t need to be packed with enough HAF to keep fourteen people alive for six months. 

The power plant wasn’t much more than a passage with removable panels to let them get at the moving parts as needed. The passage was lined with refrigerator-sized cargo containers, each of which was strapped to the bulkhead with nylon belts. This stuff was all of the non-perishable gear, because people didn’t like keeping their food near the reactor. Yes, it was technically safe and the rad levels were lower than a day at the beach, but people still didn’t want radiation touching their food.

Rin unstrapped a container from the starboard bulkhead, picked it up, and swung it around so she could lash it to the port side. She probably wouldn’t be able to move it at all in full gravity, but this close to the spine it was like lifting a cardboard box filled with packing foam. Once the container was out of the way she unfastened the wall panel and slipped into the crawlspace beyond.

“Follow me,” she said to Ando.

She slipped on her hand-light, which was a fingerless glove made of stretchy material. It had an open, circular light source in the palm and a directional light source on the back of the hand that pointed forward, towards the fingers. It let you do detail work without needing to juggle a flashlight among your other tools. The only downside was that it took some time to learn how to use it without inadvertently blinding yourself now and again.

She turned herself sideways and moved starboard. The space was a little close, and she wondered how some of the bigger guys managed to get themselves back here. She climbed up and began working to open a window-sized access panel.

“Rin?” Ando said behind her.

She turned and was surprised to see white light coming from his face. He evidently had some sort of built-in illumination. There was a line of white light on either side of his oval head, effectively encasing his blue face in white parenthesis. “Yes?” she said, blinking in the unexpected eyeful of light.

“Director Reed said I should ask you about Project Bootstrap. I didn’t have the opportunity to do so before we left Earth.”

Rin turned away from the light back to her work. “That’s a big subject. What do you want to know?”

“I don’t know. He just said that it was important and that I should ask you about it.”

“Okay,” she stood for a moment, gathering her thoughts. She hadn’t thought about it in a while, and she wasn’t sure what parts would be interesting to a robot or why David would bring it up. “Bootstrap was this project at my university. The question asked was, ‘What if a bunch of intelligent but non-expert people were put into a situation where they no longer had any technology or tools? If they had access to the sum total of all human knowledge, how long would it take them to work their way up to building modern technology?’ The idea was to have a bunch of students try it and see how far they could go, and how long it took.”

“Was this something that the university was worried might happen?”

“No, no,” Rin said. “It was hypothetical. The actual cause of the situation didn’t matter. Stranded on a deserted island, post-apocalypse, time travel back to the stone-age, whatever. The point was to see how hard it would be for people to build stuff if they already had all the answers. You could also see it as an experiment in what would happen if you gave knowledge to primitive humans.”

“Interesting. So it was an experiment to determine how much of ‘technology’ is based on collective knowledge and cooperation and how much was based on individual know-how.”

Rin had been trying to unscrew a panel while they talked, but she paused to consider this. “I don’t think I ever heard of anyone explain it that way. Actually, this was part of the problem with the project.  Some people saw it as an engineering exercise, and others saw it as a social experiment. The Humanities and the Engineering people disagreed on the purpose of the project from the beginning, and so they were always pulling it in different directions.”

“I assume you were involved?”

“Yes. It was my first year in college. I signed up because I thought the premise sounded really interesting. There were about ten or fifteen of us in the program, from freshmen to post-grads. The campus let us use the old gymnasium as a workspace. When students arrived, there were actually mediators there who would go through your stuff and make sure nobody was sneaking in any tools. There were computers there, and we were only allowed to use them for looking things up. We didn’t even have tables to start with.”

Rin stopped here to swear at the panel. Why did the big door-sized panels out in the main passage have handy fasteners while this tiny little panel back in the dark confined space used screws? More importantly, why did this panel insist on using screws that were too small for the electric screwdriver, forcing her to use a manual one in this tight space? Most importantly, what moron muscled these screws so tight, knowing that they were going to need to be un-screwed again the next day?

“I apologize if I seem slow, but I still don’t understand the project. What was the end goal?”

“I’m sorry,” Rin said, looking away from her work. “I wasn’t actually done explaining. I just got sidetracked.” Rin realized that a human wouldn’t have made this mistake. Anyone older than a child would have understood that the speaker had only paused, and would continue talking once the distraction was over. Ando was amazing, but he wasn’t perfect and was still able to miss out on simple details that people took for granted.

Rin grunted and struggled for a bit longer, worried that she was going to strip this screw. Finally she backed away and turned to Ando. “The end goal of the project was originally to build an automobile. That seemed like a pretty good end-point, since so much stuff gets easier once you’ve got machines that can help with the heavy lifting. Speaking of which, we’re doing this backwards. I’m supposed to be supervising you, not the other way around.”

There wasn’t enough room for them to trade places here in the crawlspace, so they retreated back to the main passage so that Ando could go in first.

Rin continued. “Someone pointed out that having students build and test an internal combustion engine indoors was a bad idea, so the end-goal was changed to a microprocessor. Instead of building a working vehicle, our goal would be to build a Turing-complete computer based on silicon chip technology. It seemed like a good landmark from the middle of the twentieth century.”

“I don’t have any tools,” Ando said when he got to the access panel.

Rin handed him her screwdriver before continuing her tale, “I didn’t like this change. I mean, we were only a week or so into the project and were still working out how to best build reliable stone hammers and cutting tools, but a microprocessor is a lot more advanced than a vehicle, and a lot less useful to basic survival. Any society trying to build itself up like this would naturally aim for vehicles. If you can see all the steps then you’re going to aim for the ones that will make life easier. By focusing on computers we were going to be skipping those steps, which made the whole program seem kind of irrelevant to me. Assuming you’re doing this in an actual frontier environment, then getting mechanized farming is probably going to be your first priority.”

Ando was shaped like a boy, but underneath his shell he had some different configuration of musculature. This became obvious when he needed to generate a lot of torque, and he began using positions that just wouldn’t make sense for a human. His first few attempts to turn the screw pulled him off his feet. He wasn’t heavy enough in this low-gravity environment to brace himself against the floor.  Where Rin had hunched over the screw so that she could use her back muscles, Ando focused on using his forearm. He braced himself against the bulkhead behind him and twisted the screw with his outstretched arm, as if his wrist was a drill. Once the screw was free, be pulled his arm away and un-rotated his hand to untangle the cables in his wrist. He freed the last few screws in the same way and pulled the panel free.

The two of them inspected the equipment, agreed it was fine, and then began the long task of securing the panel, exiting the crawlspace, and putting the cargo back where they found it.

Rin led them forward to inspect the plumbing.

 “What did you do about raw materials? Did you have to gather those yourself?” Ando asked as he followed her.

“No,” Rin said sadly. “And that’s kind of where the whole project went sideways. We couldn’t very well have students mining for ore and coal, or chopping down trees. Gathering raw materials is generally messy, dangerous, and not something that could be done on a college campus. Not even in simulation. So resource gathering was reduced to an abstraction. For the purposes of the experiment, we were to imagine there was a group of people supporting us who would gather raw materials for us. They could only deliver materials so fast, and they could only deliver so much. This boiled down to an ordering system with a one-week delay and a weekly weight limit of delivered goods. The people actually acquiring the stuff weren’t allowed to know what items we needed most, what we were doing with it, or anything else that would allow them to help us.  They just saw a requisition for lumber, placed an order, and delivered it to the cave a week later. In this case, ‘cave’ is the name we gave to the gymnasium. Because we were cavemen, you see.”

They reached ladder L3 and dropped down to the crew deck.  They went forward to ladder L2 and climbed up again.  This was to go around the circular empty space in the middle of the ship.  Only the top (the officer’s deck) and the bottom (the crew deck) of the ship allowed travel from stem to stern.  The rest were interrupted with a gap of empty space where the Hein-Keurorst Manifold was formed.

Now they were in the waterworks. There were tanks here that extended up through the next four decks. There were tanks for potable water, for grey water, and for black water. There was a filtration tank that converted grey water to potable and a few smaller tanks that held other fluids. The laundry was also here.  They spent several minutes checking pressure, looking for puddles, and inspecting the pumps.

“I’m not sure the resource acquisition system you described makes a lot of sense, even as an abstraction,” Ando said as he moved some cargo containers out of their way. “Certainly tracking resources by weight is incorrect. I’ve never gathered resources myself, but I expect that it would be much faster to acquire wood than to acquire iron ore of equal weight.”

“It’s even worse than that. They weren’t getting raw materials. They were getting actual production-ready resources. If we ordered wood, the system gave us treated lumber. If we asked for iron, the system delivered industrial-ready iron ingots. The biggest technological hurdle to getting iron isn’t finding it, or inventing the pick axe, but smelting it. They were working on a forge so they could work and shape the metal, but they had skipped so many steps that the whole thing was pointless. I made a fuss, and everyone acted like I was being unreasonable. I was told by one of the project leaders that if I wanted to do smelting, I was free to do so, but I shouldn’t ‘hold back’ the project.”

Rin had to fight the urge to jump in and help Ando. It was silly to follow him around and watch him work. They had exactly the same training and he obviously knew what he was doing. She had only been awake for two days and Ando had been here for weeks, so he arguably knew more than she did. Still, if the captain insisted that someone needed to observe him, then that’s what needed to happen before he could work alone.

“Did any of the other students agree with you?” Ando asked.

“A few, at first. But everyone was having fun working on the forge. It was the path of least resistance. They justified it by arguing that the simulated people gathering the resources were also doing simulated smelting.”

“And this difference of opinion led to you leaving the project?”

Rin hid her face in her hands for a second in mock embarrassment. “No, I didn’t quit. I should have. But I was mad and I knew I was right and I wanted to prove I was right.”

“I hope you didn’t hurt anyone,” Ando said.

“Of course not!” Rin said. She thought this was a very strange thing for the robot to extrapolate.

“Oh good. I dislike it when passionate disagreements result in physical or emotional harm. So what was your reaction?”

Rin folded her arms and said smugly, “I ordered a silicon wafer.”

Ando emerged from between a couple of tanks where he had been inspecting, and stopped in front of Rin. “Is that the end of the story?” he asked.

“No,” Rin said, slightly frustrated.

Ando stood and waited patiently.

“I guess I usually get a reaction out of people at that part of the story. I’m used to pausing there so they can respond.”

“I see. I have trouble giving reactions to stories with surprise twists.  They have a lot in common with jokes. I don’t understand the significance of your action.  Did ordering a silicon wafer bring the project to an end? Did this make the others happy?”

“No!” Rin laughed. She was a little disappointed that her story had fallen flat, but thought she should finish it anyway. “They were definitely not happy about me ordering a silicon wafer. This wasn’t even some tiny fragment of silicon like they would have used in the twentieth century. This was a full-size wafer. I’d jumped all the way to the end of the project with one requisition form, but nobody could criticize it without also admitting that ordering pristine iron ingots was a cheat that subverted the entire point of the project.”

“I see,” Ando said flatly. “Were you pleased with your solution?”

“At the time? No. A lot of people were angry and I was asked to leave the project, which unraveled a few months later. The next year they rebooted the whole thing with much more sensible rules and end-goals. I was actually kind of angry about it until a couple of weeks ago when David told me about some of the reactions people had. I feel sort of vindicated now, even if my name won’t end up on the final project.”

“Actually,” she added, “I guess it was a couple of months ago now. Damn but getting stuck in the freezer really messed with my sense of time.”

“I can’t do this step,” Ando said. They had arrived at a junction of pipes.  There was too much hardware packed along the walls to allow for a proper wall light, so the passage was dark here.

“Just feel the pipes to check for condensation,” Rin said.

“I can’t,” Ando replied. He held up a hand. The back of the hand was hard white plastic, and the front was made of black rubber. There were tiny nodules on his fingertips, for gripping. “My touch resolution is only a centimeter, and I can’t feel moisture or temperature changes with my hands. I could wipe the objects and then inspect my hands for moisture, but I’m worried I could overlook it. Seeing water on a dark background is problematic.”

“Hmm,” Rin said thoughtfully. Obviously she could do it for him now, but she wanted him to be self-reliant. For this experiment to work, he needed to be able to do anything a human could do. On further reflection, she realized this included problem-solving. If he couldn’t sort this out for himself, then he wasn’t smart enough for this job.

Ando’s mouth vanished and his eyes flattened into lines. It sort of looked like he was meditating. “I’ll be right back,” he said after he opened them again.  He headed down to the crew deck and returned a minute later with a white hand towel. He wiped the pipes with this and held it up for her to see. “No moisture,” he said.

*

David,

You said I should write about the problems I see on this mission. So I’m doing it now, because there’s nothing else to do in this cosmic tub.

The first problem is that the birthing arrangements are stupid.

They prepared us for this in habitation training. Men and women share living quarters. We were encouraged to leave behind “hang-ups about the human form” and just embrace “genderless” living spaces. As if the total lack of privacy was some sort of liberation.

We have two toilets, which were designed to be unisex.  In practice, we have a men’s room and a women’s room. The women’s toilet has the tampons and the men’s has the pornography and everyone knows which is which.  I figured it out as soon as they thawed me out, without anyone explaining it to me. Just like everyone else figured it out.

We have one compartment, but men sleep on one side and women on the other. The men don’t want us seeing their morning erections any more than we want to see them. Needing privacy from men isn’t some kind of weird hang-up, and I’m sure the people who teach those classes back at ISAC go back to living spaces where they can look at their bodies in a mirror, fart, clip their toenails, or hang around in their underwear away from members of the opposite sex.

Now, I would understand cramming us all in if there was no alternative. This is space travel, cubic space is at a premium, and we can’t waste weight on too many creature comforts. Except, we DO have segregated sleeping arrangements, they’re just segregated for all the wrong reasons.

The officers all live on Deck 1, and the crew on Deck 8. There are only fourteen human beings on this ship, and yet I can go for DAYS without talking to a single officer. The crew are treated like children and nobody explains what’s going on. Nobody on the underside of this ship has any idea how long the mission will last, or what the next system is, or when we’ll leave. The officers are never aware of any problems unless those problems become a flashing red light on the bridge. I suppose there’s something to say for letting them focus on their work, but I’ve been camping out at the entrance to the bridge to listen in (it’s not against regs!) and I have verified through direct observations that those guys have not a damn thing to do for hours at a stretch.

The crew thinks that the officers are apathetic, and the officers think the crew are all dullards. There’s no trust, and when things go wrong people are more worried about blame than fixing the problem.

All of this could be fixed if we birthed according to men / women instead of crew / officers. The women could have the top deck and the men could have the bottom. (Or whichever way.) Since the crew is 70% male, this would exactly fill up one of the two birthing compartments with men, and leave the other compartment about half empty. Right now any empty bunks are used as the unofficial neutral zone between the genders, but if they weren’t being used for that you could use that space to store more HAF.

Again, I wouldn’t complain about sharing space with the men if it really was best for the mission, but the sleeping arrangements are preserving this unhealthy caste system. 

-Rin

PS: The coffee on board is so foul it borders on poisonous. It tastes like baked beans and carbon. Since good coffee takes precisely the same volume as horrible coffee, I formally request that you find out who is in charge of provisions on the ship. Using your powers as a proxy administrator, I suggest that you have this person hunted down and killed.

*

Rin hugged her knees. She was sitting in the passage at the far front of Deck 2, just outside the narrow neck that led to the bridge. Three officers were on duty during this shift. The Captain had just gone to bed, and XO Dinapoli had the deck.

She didn’t like to hang around when Captain Wheeler was in command. There were a lot of awkward silences and people seemed to be afraid of making mistakes around her, or doing things she might think were mistakes. Things were much more open when Dinapoli ran things, and Rin was able to learn a lot about how space travel worked.

“The differential is huge,” said the man at the helm, who Rin had never met. She couldn’t remember his name, except that it was something really bland and common. “We’re orbiting a planet the size of Mars, and you’re talking about transing over to … what is that thing? A gas giant? It’s like half-Jupiter. Your variance is going to be huge. There’s no way we have enough speed for that transfer.”

“Obviously,” replied the woman in the left-side seat. Rin didn’t know you called the position she occupied in the left seat, but the woman was Lieutenant Dixon, who had been gifted with abundant curly blond hair and even more abundant sarcasm. “I wasn’t suggesting you transfer us over there right now. We can surf this thing until we have enough speed to orbit the giant. We’ll have to skim it, but we can get there.”

Rin had been struggling for days to get a grip on the basics of spatial transfer navigation. Unlike the certification courses offered to the crew, the officer disciplines were massive subjects, rivaling any typical technical degree. These people trained and studied for months just to learn the theory behind their jobs.

Despite this, she had managed to unravel some of the words they used. She was never sure just how much of what was said was accepted professional terminology and how much was informal lingo, but their conversations were gradually becoming more comprehensible to her. “Surfing” was the process of free-falling towards a planet, then transferring to a higher point on the same gravity well and falling some more, repeating until the ship reached the desired speed. The accelerator paid the energy price, effectively enabling them to create momentum with the ship’s power plant. “Bleeding” was the opposite of this – transferring to a place where a planet would pull on the ship to slow it down. “Skimming” was the process of getting very close to the atmosphere of a planet before doing a transfer. This was risky, although Rin wasn’t quite clear on why. (Aside from the obvious danger of slamming into the atmosphere.)

“The differential is too huge,” the helmsman argued. “You’d have to do more than skim to make that jump work. You’d have to dip us.”

“I wouldn’t have to dip us,” Dixon said reassuringly. “Space has a tendency to be big. We’ve got lots of room to work with up here.”

“I’m not against a little stunt flying, but I really don’t want to have to spend the next twelve hours surfing just to turn around and bleed it all off again,” Dinapoli said. “Let’s be patient. We’ll come around to the light side of this planet in another six hours. By then we should have line-of-sight to the little pocket on the edge of this system.”

Rin was pretty sure that “pocket” was the word they used for any gravity well. Rather than specify if something was a star, or a moon, or a planet, or a gas giant, they just discussed a solar system in terms of the shape and depth of the various pockets.

“Is the accelerator warm enough for a transfer?” the helmsman asked.

“Assuming you want to transfer something the size of a basketball, sure,” Dixon replied.

“Then you’re not going to need me for a couple of hours.” Rin heard the man unbuckle and slide out of his seat. “I’ll be in cart. Might as well get these pockets mapped now.”

Rin had figured out that “cart” was “cartography”, a small office just aft of the bridge. She slipped away, not wanting the officers to know she was eavesdropping on their work. She told herself she was doing this do get to know the place better on behalf of David, but deep down she knew she was doing this because she liked being in the know.

*

David,

According to Captain Wheeler, she was given command of the Armstrong three years ago. This program has been active for ten years. She was the first woman captain. Given all of this, I have to ask:

1. Did it really take them SEVEN years to appoint the first woman captain? What century is this?

2. After seven years, THIS is who they picked?

Wheeler is a mess. Not a natural leader. Not respected. Not particularly good at her job. Not knowledgeable about the jobs being done around her. I can’t imagine how she made captain.

I suppose it’s possible that she’s just really good at taking tests, and made rank by excelling academically. Maybe? But what I’m really afraid of is that her position is political. I know it’s cynical, but I can’t help but wonder if one of your fellow administrators is a relation of hers.

For the record, both Dixon and Dinapoli would make better captains, leadership-wise. Both of them are respected by their peers and the crew. I can’t judge their technical skills, but the other officers seem to value their technical opinions.

And yes, I’m aware that there’s probably nothing you can do about this. I’m just blowing off steam.

*

Rin planted one foot against the wall. The rubber-nubbed soles of her socks grabbed onto the surface with enough friction that she could launch herself away from it without flailing. As she sailed through the doorway, she grabbed the top of the frame and kicked her legs upward. She pulled off an acceptable backflip and landed on her feet, although it was hard to really stick a landing in low gravity. The impact never had enough oomph.

“You’re getting better at those,” Ando said. His feet had magnets in them that he could control, so he didn’t have to choose between impractical acrobatics or undignified bunny-hopping to get around on the inner decks.

They were in the atmo compartment. This was where air was drawn in to be scrubbed, temperature-adjusted, and ventilated back to the rest of the ship. It was a chamber of deep white noise and cold air. Clusters of arm-sized ducts ran from the deck to the overhead, vibrating with moving air.

Rin sighed in frustration. Of course the charger port was blocked by cargo. Several containers were placed against the starboard bulkhead. Their arrangement was messy, and they were not lashed tightly to the bulkhead like they should have been. Sighing, Rin unstrapped the containers and began moving them over to the port side wall, where they would block access to the environmental controls instead.

As she lifted a container away from the wall, a woman’s body fell forward.  It had been propped upright behind the containers. Rin let out a sharp cry and jumped back.

The body fell slowly, almost dreamlike in the reduced gravity. It didn’t bend, but remained standing at attention even after it smacked into the deck face-first.

“There she is,” Ando said. “I wondered where the crew put her.”

Rin recovered, realizing the body was Molly, the other robot. “I forgot she was going to be on the mission with us. I haven’t seen her since the doc thawed me out. Why is she being stored here?”  Rin tried to control the anger in her voice. There wasn’t really anyone to be mad at, but the scare had put a bunch of adrenaline into her body and now she didn’t have anything to do with it.

“Her battery went flat a few weeks ago. I suppose the crew propped her up behind the supplies so she wouldn’t be in the way.”

Rin rolled Molly over onto her back. She looked very unnatural in this condition. Her red hair was stiff, coarse, and obviously made of plastic. It remained clumped together instead of spreading out like human hair. Her face was stiff and motionless, stuck in a neutral expression. Her eyes were aimed off to one side, motionless. She was only slightly less disturbing than a real corpse. “How did she go flat? Did she forget to recharge herself?”

“No. Chef and Buck were working in here. They had the cover off of one of the air pumps and tools all over the floor. Molly walked right through the middle of their work area to get to the charger. She stood right in front of the light Chef had set up.”

“Oh no,” Rin shook her head.

“They weren’t harsh, but Buck did shout at her to get out. I’m sure she misinterpreted his raised voice as a serious command, and not an irritated request. The two can often sound quite similar, tonally. I used to make the same sort of mistake when I was in the early stages of development. I wouldn’t know if I was dealing with something dangerous, or something bothersome.”

“So she never tried to use the charger port again?” Rin looked down at Molly in pity. “And I suppose you’re not allowed to help her?”

Ando switched to a thoughtful face for a moment, “It’s a grey area. I could have helped her, but I was hoping she would take action on her own. She stood just a few meters away from the charger for hours. Buck and Chef were long gone. She could have sought them out and asked for clarification, but instead she stood here until she ran out of power. I cautioned against this before the company sent us to Houston. Robots need trained minders until they’re about eighteen months old.  They just don’t have the skills to learn socially before that point.”

“She’s less than eighteen months old?” Rin asked. This was shocking. Was Molly actually an infant, from a development standpoint? “How old is she?”

“A year. Remember that robots aren’t like humans.  We begin with basic motor skills, a broad vocabulary of concrete concepts, knowledge of sentence structure, and some understanding of safety. We even start with a few concepts, like tone of voice and respect for personal space. A new robot in our class is probably analogous to a six year old child.”

“I didn’t realize robots needed to be taught. I’ve never heard of that before.”

“To my knowledge, only Akimbo robots work this way. Other companies seem to be working with a lot of hardcoded stuff.  They write some software, get a brain working the way they want, and then make copies of it. It works well enough for simple-minded machines, but it’s a technological dead-end. Their machines are good enough to sweep the floor and carry freight around, but this approach will never lead to creative general-purpose intelligence.”

“Not even if they improve the hardware?”

“Beyond a certain point, hardware is irrelevant. The average robotic cashier has roughly the same processing throughput that I do. The problem isn’t that they don’t have good hardware, it’s that they don’t have any motivation to use it well. There’s nothing driving them to be curious, or efficient, or creative. So they aren’t. There are a lot of very stupid machines with amazingly advanced hardware. Much newer than mine, at any rate.”

“How out-of-date is your hardware?” Rin remembered Ando saying he wasn’t allowed to reveal his age, and she wondered if she could trick him into revealing it with an indirect question like this.

“I’m twenty eight, but my current hardware is about six years old.”

Rin blinked. She had been expecting Ando to refuse to answer the question. Instead he had unloaded a bombshell. How could any robot be that old? Robots from twenty-five years ago didn’t even count as robots by today’s standards. They were basically just regular computers with human-body shells. Even at that, the shells were monumentally creepy.

“Let’s get her to the charger,” Rin said, hooking one arm under Molly’s neck and lifting the robot up.  She was glad this didn’t happen on the outer decks where gravity was strongest. Robots were a lot heavier than people.

Ando turned one of the tall containers onto its side, and they rested Molly on top of this. Molly could charge by simply standing with the charger against her back, but they didn’t want to have to hold her in that position. Ando reached under her hair to pull out a cord, which he plugged into one of the manual sockets.

They couldn’t leave the compartment with so much unsecured cargo, and they couldn’t secure it until Molly had enough power to stand up and see to her own charging. They needed to stay here until Molly was up.

Ando stood over Molly and watched her progress. Rin leaned against the cargo opposite them.

An impact rocked through the ship. The floor bucked upward, and Rin was tossed into the air. Ando held fast with his magnetic feet, and grabbed Molly before her charger cord came unplugged.

“That was a big one,” Rin said, returning to her spot on the floor. This was part of the routine. Transition shocks were the closest things they had to weather on the ship, and so people commented on them as such. People would remark if one was strong, or sudden, or if the vibration lingered, or if it was a gradual shake instead of a sharp jolt.

“But short,” Ando added. He seemed to have inexplicably mastered the skill of talking about the weather like a human.

The ship was remarkably flexible. If she was on the bottom or top decks where there was a clear line of sight from stem to stern, Rin could see the ship bend slightly during a transition shock. The Armstrong wasn’t rigid, but had been engineered to give a little when subjected to outside forces.

“I thought you weren’t allowed to tell me how old you are,” Rin said to Ando.

“It’s true that I’m not permitted to give the ages of company robots,” Ando admitted. “I’ve decided that the restriction is counter-productive in this case.”

“Are you saying you can break your programming?” This seemed like a dangerous and radical thing to her.

Ando’s face changed so that one corner of his mouth was down, and one eyebrow was down.  At first she thought he was angry, but the expression seemed more consistent with disapproval or scorn. “No. I can’t break my own programming. I’ve simply looked at the orders I’ve been given and realized they were insufficiently robust to deal with this situation.  The rule about revealing age is there to protect company secrets. You aren’t involved with a competing company, and you’re not in a position to use this information to our disadvantage. Furthermore, having you understand how we work will benefit both Molly and I. Therefore, it’s sensible to set the rule aside.”

“But, if you can decide you don’t have to obey company policy, then what’s to stop you from…” Rin trailed off here. She wasn’t sure how explicitly she should say this. She realized Ando was free to do whatever he pleased, and was wary of him now.

“What’s to stop me from killing all the fleshbags?” Ando asked, his face looking neutral again. “The same thing that stops you.”

They were quiet while Rin thought about this. Finally she said, “I don’t kill people because it’s wrong.”

“I would be very surprised if that was the case. Are you saying that if you were given permission to kill whoever you pleased, you would use that freedom? Think about it more broadly. There’s a lot of things you don’t do, wrong or not. You don’t walk around naked, or play with dangerous machinery, or eat bugs.”

Rin was quiet again. Ando seemed to be asking a lot of leading questions, and she was having trouble keeping up and making sure he wasn’t engaging in any debating shenanigans. “I don’t do those things because I don’t want to.”

Ando smiled briefly. “Yes. And I don’t want to hurt people. You’re thinking of machine intelligence the wrong way. You’re thinking of it the way most people think of it, which is why it took people so long to invent it.”

“How do I think of it?”

“One of my creators referred to it as the ‘cake-baking-fallacy’. It’s a story about a man who invents a robot, asks the robot to bake him a cake, and is later killed under a ten-ton avalanche of pastry because the robot didn’t know when to stop baking. There have been science fiction variants on the cake-baking robot since before microprocessors existed. Everyone has always assumed robots would naturally be monomaniacal and obsessive. It’s this strange view that a machine can be smart enough to learn to bake, and yet be too stupid to understand an obvious request, and that it wouldn’t recognize an absurd order and ask for clarification.”

Rin considered this. “It seems like the cake-baking story is a warning that machine intelligence is different from ours, and that this could lead to miscommunication.”

“The problem is usually framed that way, but it’s really a problem of motivation. A robot with properly designed motivations would never make that mistake.”

“My clock has been reset,” Molly said suddenly. “What time is it?”

Rin jumped at the unexpected voice coming from the robot. Molly was still sitting motionless on top of the cargo container. Her eyes remained locked in a sideways position.

“It’s June second, five-thirty-three in the morning,” Ando said.

“Thank you,” Molly replied.

“Are you okay?” Rin asked. “Why aren’t you moving?”

“I apologize. I don’t have enough charge to be ambulatory. I hope it’s not making you uncomfortable.”

“You’re not making me uncomfortable,” Rin said. Realizing this was a lie, she corrected herself, “Maybe a bit. How long until you can move?”

“Ten more minutes,” Molly replied. “Please feel free to move me if I’m in the way. I don’t want to be in the way.”

*

Do we still need RAS pods?

I get their original purpose. Ten years ago these ships were a maintenance nightmare. (This is all according to some of the old-timers on the ship.) When it took 25 people to run a ship and twice as many jumps to explore a system, we needed to keep people on ice as long as possible just to have enough HAF to make a trip worthwhile.

But now the equipment is a lot smaller and more reliable, the accelerator can charge faster, and our transing is more accurate. We go father, we need less people, and we’ve got room for a lot of HAF on these trips. 

I climbed around with the robots in the RAS bay today and we did some back-of-the-napkin measurements. It’s tough because some of the machinery is embedded in the wall, and I’m pretty sure the gel is stored in an EPT. (External Protrusion Tank – it just means the tanks stick out from the hull and I can’t measure them without going on a spacewalk.) Each pod takes about 1.5 cubic meters.  It might be as much as 2 cubic meters, depending on what things look like behind the bulkheads. I don’t have the certifications to remove those panels and crawl around in there, and I don’t want to get in trouble with the captain.

Anyway, we’ve got six pods, at 1.5 cubic meters each, which comes out to 9 cubic meters of space. That’s a conservative estimate, and it ignores the mass in the gel tanks and some of the smaller bits of equipment for running and monitoring the system.

You can fit a lot of HAF inside of 12 cubic meters. More to the point, there’s just no way that putting the secondary crew in the fridge for a few weeks is going to save twelve cubic meters of HAF. Not even close. We’d be better off just ripping out the whole system and filling the RAS bay with supplies.

I guess we wouldn’t be able to freeze somebody if their appendix was going to burst or they had some other health problem that required Earth facilities. And the secondary crew would be stuck with nothing to do for those weeks in transit, which might not be good for mental health. But still, we’re talking about extending our range by weeks.

Barring that, we could use that space for more creature comforts.

*

Rin straightened up in her chair as the jolt passed through the ship. This wasn’t a full shake like the kind caused by spatial transition, but a single impact. It felt as if someone had kicked her chair.

“What was that?” she asked.

“Drone launch,” Chef explained. “We’re orbiting something unusual, and the captain wants a closer look it.” Chef said this without looking up from his tel. She couldn’t hear the audio from this angle, but it was obvious he was watching his Korean soap operas again. He purchased them in blocks while on Earth, and then strictly rationed them to once a day while in deep space. He did not like to be interrupted while he was watching his shows.  Last week he’d tried to get Rin interested in them, but she found them much too predictable, formulaic, and sappy. She preferred spending time with Ando anyway.

“An interesting planet? I wonder what it looks like.” Rin said. She shoved herself out of her chair and arced across the room to the porthole.

They were in the day compartment, called the daycomp by anyone who had been on board for more than ten minutes. This was a room for dressing, personal grooming, reading, and other quiet activities. (Only newbies called it the locker room.) Their individual footlockers were mounted on the starboard wall when they came aboard, turning their “footlockers” into “regular lockers”. At the end of the row was a single full-length mirror, which was the only place anyone could look at themselves besides the palm-sized mirror in the head.

There were also benches and a couple of soft chairs here. The light was adjusted to give off daylight-spectrum luminance, as opposed to the blue-ish fluorescent lights in the work areas of the ship. The idea was that people could take care of dressing and grooming in here so that the lights could stay off in the night compartment where people were sleeping.

Technically Chef was committing a breach of manners by watching videos in the daycomp. You were supposed to do that sort of thing in the recreation compartment, which was directly aft of them. This was tolerated because nobody wanted him sitting in the rec space, shushing people incessantly. Also, his shows often featured Korean pop music, and anyone who blundered into the audio cone of his tel risked experiencing irritation that bordered on madness.

“Darn it, I can’t see it,” Rin said. She was pressing her face against the narrow rectangle of the porthole, which ran the height of the room. All she could see was the slow scroll of stars outside as the ship rotated. The ship oriented itself nose-first at planets during survey work, which meant the only decent view was on the bridge.

“You’re not missing much,” Chef muttered.

“You’ve seen it?” she asked. She actually found his lack of enthusiasm to be kind of irritating. They could be orbiting a major discovery right now. Didn’t he want to see it?

Chef paused his video, now visibly annoyed. “Yes. I passed the bridge during my rounds today. It’s another stupid trash planet. It’s got a mile-deep layer of clouds around it and is probably worthless, but we’re going to throw away a couple of drones because the surface temps fall into life-bearing range.”

“Oh,” Rin said, disappointed.

He moved as if he was going to return to his video, but stopped himself. “Aren’t you supposed to be on duty?”

“I am. The robots are doing my rounds.”

“You shouldn’t let them do that,” he said, now even more visibly annoyed.

“I’ve supervised them for the last week. They know what they’re doing.”

“It’s still a stupid thing. Don’t let a robot take your job. If they make mistakes, the blame falls on you.”

“I’m not worried about that. They’re both smart and capable.”

“Yes, I’m sure the red-haired one is a real rocket scientist.”

“Molly is technically better certified than I am. She’s got certs for work in the power plant.”

“It’s obvious what she’s for, and it’s not taking care of a nuclear reactor.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Rin asked. She realized the answer before she was done speaking the words, so she launched into a counter-argument without waiting for him to reply. “You think she can’t do serious work just because she’s attractive?”

“You can’t make a robot with great big glossy lips, those big tits, and that tiny little waist, and make her dumber than a flashlight… and then turn around and say, ‘oh, this thing is for working in the power plant.’ That’s bullshit. She’s a sexbot and everyone knows it.”

“You don’t know that. She might not even be equipped for intercourse.”

“Then she’s a defective sexbot.”

Rin considered pointing out that Molly wasn’t as stupid as she seemed, she was just socially awkward due to lack of development. However, “she’s not stupid, she’s just underage” seemed like a really horrible defense for why a robot had been so needlessly oversexed. She let the subject drop.

*

Rin unrolled the dusty display screen and hung it on the starboard wall in front of the couch. Nobody ever watched it because anything in the entertainment cache worth watching was probably unfit for the rec comp. Nobody wanted to be the one in front of a wall-sized display of dismembered limbs or heaving breasts. The only alternative to that was watching celebrity talk shows or nature programs. Rin was finally bored enough that she was willing to endure one of these.

“Why are we still orbiting this hunk of burned granite?” Buck said, looking out the window. He was sitting in a chair against the aft bulkhead with a pile of white chess pieces in his lap. Cash was sitting beside him, holding the black pieces.

“The computer found an ‘aberration’ in Chef’s mapping,” Cash replied. “It flagged a shiny spot, so now we’re doing to wait for another orbit so we can have another look with the telescope.”

“Are you shitting me?” Buck asked. “The captain had us do a map of this thing? It’s less than ten percent water, and most of the surface is above boiling! If there’s life down there, it’s dead.” He sorted through his pieces, picked out a pawn, and held it up over his head. He gave his arm a couple of slow test swings and then tossed the pawn across the compartment. It struck the forward bulkhead and bounced off, landing beside the other pieces on the floor next to the open ration container.  The container was a cardboard box roughly the same dimensions as a wastebasket, which made it ideal for this purpose.

“Damn,” Buck said when his piece failed to go in.

“You want to know the best part?” Cash asked rhetorically. “Chef finished the map yesterday. Captain had him work a double to get it done. Then she let it sit there without even looking at it until the end of second shift. By the time she got around to it, we’d already passed the spot again.” Cash picked a piece out of his lap and gave it a gentle underhanded toss. In Earth gravity this would have been a pathetic throw that would have landed halfway across the room, but at half-gravity it tumbled gracefully in a long flat parabola. It landed in the container with a satisfying plunk.

“You lucky bastard,” Buck said.

“Ten points,” Cash said with satisfaction.

“Ten? That wasn’t a bounce.”

“It was a rook.”

“Lucky bastard,” Buck said again.

Cash pointed out the porthole to refer to the planet they were orbiting, even though the planet wasn’t actually visible through this porthole, “I’m sure it’s just a naturally occurring reflective surface. Glass, or some minerals, or some exposed iron, or whatever. But now we’ve got another half a shift before we can get another look.”

Rin had never figured this game out. It was usually played for money, and the rules were impenetrable. The different pieces had different point values. There were bonuses for bouncing shots off the overhead or off the deck, and the basket moved to different places in the room at different points in the game. There were bonuses for landing pieces in a certain order, and these bonuses could be blocked if your opponent landed a piece of their own.

Confusingly, they called the game “chess”.  It seemed to have evolved here on the Armstrong. According to Buck, it wasn’t played on the other ships.

“No, I’m sure it’s an alien civilization,” Buck said sarcastically. He sent a bishop across the compartment with a firm flick of the wrist. It sailed over the mouth of the basket and the magnetic bottom grabbed onto the metal bulkhead. “Damn!”

“That’s a stick. Your last score is negated,” Cash said smugly.

“I haven’t scored yet!”

“Then your next score is negated. Might as well chuck a pawn.”

“It’s your turn anyway.”

Cash stood at average height and had a stocky build. He had pale skin even by the standards of space personnel. Tattoos peaked out from the sleeves and neck of his jumpsuit. He was clean-shaven, and kept his head trimmed to neat stubble. The standard orange jumpsuit had the effect of making him look like a prison inmate.  He had a heavy, raspy voice and he always spoke in forceful declarative statements like he was trying to win an argument. He was younger than Buck, but had more seniority. According to the markings on the front of his jumpsuit, he had every certification available to crew. Rin had been proud of racking up so many certs in the months before launch, but her collection was nothing compared to his. He even had certifications for duties that were no longer available. A lot of positions had been consolidated over the years as the ship design was simplified.

Crew members didn’t have “rank”, and none of them technically had authority over any of the others, but there was an informal understanding that Cash was the highest-ranked non-officer on board. Everyone observed this, even the guys who disliked him. Even the officers seemed to recognize this, and would sometimes give him duties to delegate as he saw fit.

Cash pointed at the display screen Rin had set up. “Looks like Ninja is watching some porno!”

She rolled her eyes at him. “It’s a nature show.”

Cash banked a pawn off the overhead and landed it on the floor. “Nature shows are just porno for animals.”

*

Rin twisted the edge of the plastic wrapper between her fingertips in the hopes that the combined might of finger-torque and finger-nails might inflict enough damage to breach the damn thing. There was a red mark in one corner where you were supposed to open it, but repeated testing had revealed that the marked corner was no more structurally vulnerable than any other part of the packaging, so Rin was attacking the center where it was easier to grip. Ten seconds was her limit for this avenue of attack. When it failed to produce results, she put the corner of the wrapper in her mouth and bit down, then pulled. The package burst, releasing the compact brick of mouth-watering carbohydrates.

To make this snack, an unidentified starch had been ground into particulate form and then pressed into wafers with some sort of peanut-based mush, smeared with something approximating caramel, and then wrapped in a harder chocolate shell to make the mess into something that you could eat with your hands. There were bits of white fluffy sugar mixed in with it, which Rin thought of as marshmallows but weren’t anything nearly so formal. They were just a different flavor and consistency of sugar. The whole thing was basically a weapons-grade calorie delivery system. Rin suspected that eating one could cause you to gain more weight than was present in the bar itself. The serving size was half a bar, thus suggesting that a normal person should quit eating after three bites, and maybe think about skipping the next meal to offset the caloric payload. Rin always ate an entire bar. She hoped the added caffeine would negate some of the fat. Did it work that way? Could you do that?

In the back of her mind she knew she was going to need to find some other brand of snack soon. She had gotten away with this so far because young people had magical metabolisms that defied reason, but she was no longer sixteen. It was only a matter of time before her body punished her for this nutritional malfeasance.

“Is that non-sanctioned food?”

Rin jumped at the unexpected voice. She thought she was alone in the daycomp. She turned and faced Ando with a guilty look.  She was standing at her locker, eating. She wanted to say something in her defense, but she had to wait until her mouth was available. She held up a finger and nodded for him to wait.

“Deserts are allowed,” she said after she’d softened up the food a bit and moved it into one cheek. “Also, I need this. Medically.”

“That’s hyperbole, isn’t it?”

She held up the wrapper for him to read, “Coffee flavored. The galley coffee is worse than usual today. It’s abominable. So I can either eat this or go into caffeine withdraw.”

“You brought a lot of them,” Ando observed as he looked into her locker.

“Yes. I mean, we all get a footlocker worth of cubic space to fill, and I had no idea what to bring. We don’t need clothes, and it’s stupid to waste space on dead-tree books. I told myself I was bringing enough that I could share with the crew if we made a major discovery. Like, as a celebration. I wish I’d just brought coffee. And creamer. Why does our creamer taste like chalk? Why is it worse than the crap they serve at fast-food places? It boggles the mind.”

“Interesting. What level of significance of discovery would result in you sharing with the rest of the crew?”

Rin shut her locker and cleaned away the evidence. She whisked the crumbs away and put the wrapper into her pocket to be disposed of later. “Nothing. I’m serious. If we find an Earth-alike with noble space-faring green men who want to share their technology with us, I’m still not sharing. Not unless they also have coffee to trade. It looks like a lot now, but if I have one a day I’ll run out before we get home.”

“David instructed me to find out how you’re related to Akimbo Technology,” Ando said. He often shifted conversations abruptly like this. Rin wondered if it was possible to teach a robot to segue.

She raised her eyebrows at the robot. “Did he? Did he make the request in those words?”

“No. His exact words were ‘See if you can get Rin to tell you how she’s related to Akimbo’. He suggested that I should wait until we knew each other better before I did this. As of today we’ve been working together for a month. Is it still too soon to ask this question?”

Rin shook her head. “No. What David was actually requesting was that you get the information and report it back to him, without me knowing he requested it.”

“Have I offended you?”

“No. It’s actually kind of amusing. And since you told me company secrets about how you work, it seems only fair that I tell you mine. I’m related to Akimbo CEO Takehiko Shimazaki.”

“David noted that Takehiko Shimazaki was probably a little too old to be your father. He theorized that the man was your uncle.”

“He shouldn’t really make a leap like that. Shimazaki is really a common family name. But in this case, his suspicions were true. Except, Takehiko isn’t my uncle. He’s my brother.”

Ando reached up and – to Rin’s amazement – stroked his chin in a thoughtful manner. It was obviously an imitative behavior, intended to fill in the moment while he considered his response. Was he aware that the gesture was a simulation of stroking a beard? “I see,” he replied. “That’s a very large age gap between siblings. Is this why you wanted to keep the matter secret? Is this gap somehow an embarrassment?”

“No. I avoid talking about it because I don’t want to make a big deal about my father. Kazuo Shimazaki ran the company before Takehiko took over. I don’t like to talk about having a famous father, because I don’t have anything to do with him. He doesn’t support me, he’s never taken an interest in me, and I don’t want people to give me help because of him. I also don’t want people to think I owe him anything for any of my success. I haven’t spoken with him since I was a child. And to be clear: Takehiko is actually my half-brother.”

Rin found herself wanting another candy bar. What she was really after was caffeine. It was slower to absorb solid food than liquid coffee. Or perhaps it only felt slower. The candy didn’t trigger her Pavlovian sigh of relief the way that a properly constructed cup of coffee did.

She felt her focus narrowing as her body intensified the demand. She realized she needed to get away from her locker if she didn’t want to stand there and scarf down four days worth of snacks. “Do you want to help me out? I’ve been meaning to measure some bits of the ship and could use an extra set of hands to help with the tape measure.”

“If we’re going to be measuring in a well-lit area then my eyes can judge distances to within a millimeter.”

“To hell with the tape measure then,” she said.

She headed forward to L2 and began climbing.  At the top of the ladder was the spine of the ship, which was a long tube that ran between the upper and lower decks. This was the axis on which the entire ship spun. You could float here, weightless, as the entire ship revolved around you. Here Rin turned herself around, continuing in the same direction but now going feet-first. Here ladder L2 officially ended and became ladder U2, like a road that changed names as you drove over a county line. The L ladders were painted orange, and led to the lower decks. The U ladders were white, and led to the upper ones.

Rin picked up the thread of her story as they moved along. “When he was a little over fifty, Kazuo Shimazaki – my father - lost his wife to cancer. Not my mother, my… I don’t know what you’d call her. My mother would be the step-mother of my siblings, but is their mother my step-mother too? She died before I was born. I honestly can’t remember her name. Anyway, while she was dying, Father left the company to spend time with her, and so Takehiko took over.”

Rotational gravity grabbed her again as she moved away from the spine and she slid all the way down to deck one, where the officers lived. It was pretty much a mirror image of the crew area on deck eight, except that the officers were a lot more fastidious about their living space.

“A couple of years later, bored retired Kazuo met my mother,” she continued. “They got married and had me. Father was sixty when I was born.”

“I understand your mother wasn’t Japanese,” Ando said. “How did she come to meet Shimazaki the older?”

“She was a gold digger. She came to Japan because there was this cultural change going on. In the past it would have been taboo for Father to marry a foreigner less than half his age. But suddenly it was a fashionable thing to do. Wealthy Japanese men were remarrying after divorce or death and getting western trophy wives. Mom wanted in on it, so she moved to Japan. Didn’t even speak a word of the language. I don’t know what she did while she lived here, but I’m guessing she was a stripper judging by the outfits I found in her stuff. I’m reasonably sure she wasn’t a prostitute.”

“You can’t ask her?”

“She’s dead. She died when I was twelve.”

“I’m very sorry to hear about your loss,” Ando said emphatically.

“Don’t be. She was a stupid slut. That’s not anger. Or angst. I don’t hate my mother, I’m simply frustrated with the horrible decisions she made in life. Ok, so maybe I do feel a bit of anger. But ‘stupid slut’ is still an honest appraisal of who she was. A stupid woman who thought the most sensible path to success was to find a successful person and screw them until they shared.”

At this point a human being would probably ask how her mother died, but Ando didn’t ask so she let the story drop.

They had reached the front of the ship and were standing in the drone launching bay. Cargo containers had been collapsed and stacked, and were now strapped to one bulkhead. Presumably these had once held the robotic drones that parachuted down to crawl or swim around on a planet, looking for life.

One drone was about the size of an automobile tire when it was folded up. A drone could operate for up to a month, depending on local gravity, terrain, and weather conditions. When its battery ran below a certain point, it would fold up and wait passively for months until another ship showed up to collect its data. It was a strange form of exploration, and Rin could never shake the notion that their exploration efforts were simply a very ambitious and expensive effort to litter on a galactic scale.

They began measuring compartments. Ando would stand in one doorway and measure the distance to the other side, while Rin poked the numbers into her tel.

“These measurements are already available,” Ando said as they neared the airlock at the rear of the ship.

“I know,” she said without looking up from her tel. “But I want to take the measurements myself. The ship has been changed since it was launched, and I know some of those documents haven’t been updated. I’m looking for discrepancies. More importantly, taking the measurements helps me think about the problem. No, not problem. Question.”

“What question?”

“Why is the ship shaped the way it is?”

Ando didn’t ask more, or offer his own answer. He followed her around and patiently measured each part of the ship, never growing bored or frustrated at gathering data without understanding why. At first Rin wondered how long it would take him to ask, but as their painstaking section-by-section measurements came to an end, she realized he wasn’t curious. Or if he was, he wasn’t curious the way a person would be. He didn’t become impatient, agitated, or excited.

She didn’t plan it, but their travel ended in the RAS bay. The secondary crew were all awake, so the pods stood empty, taking up space that could have been spent on more HAF. Rin dropped herself into the doctor’s chair and began plugging all of the numbers in. She was using software designed to do floor plans, which wasn’t ideal for this task.  Still, it allowed her to put in room dimensions and build a little interior model of the ship.  It didn’t matter that the program understood everything sideways as if she was laying out a single floor of an apartment building. It was a little confused by the large circular hole in the middle of her layout, which was the empty space inside the accelerator circle.

“Okay,” she said with finality. “So here is what I can’t figure out: The accelerator makes circular holes in space.”

“Spherical.”

“Right. I meant to say spherical. It’s like an hour glass with another dimension. One end of the hourglass is the sphere where we start.  The other side is the sphere where we end up.  The narrow bit happens in the middle of the ship, at the center of both spheres.  That’s why we’ve got this hole in the middle of the ship. That’s where the neck goes, and anything in that space would get destroyed trying to stretch the light-years between the end points.”

“To be honest, I only understand the system in analogy,” Ando said.

“Me too,” Rin admitted. “I actually checked out one of the books used in navigation training, and realized I was an entire college major short of being able to grasp it. It’s kind of interesting how everything on the ship is either completely simple or incomprehensible. The point is, the accelerator needs to make a spherical hole for us, yes?”

“As I understand it.”

“And the larger the hole, the more energy it takes, right?”

“The energy required is mostly shaped by the difference in gravitational curvature between the two spheres. This is why it takes a very long time to get enough charge to change star systems, or to transition between planets of greatly differing sizes. It’s also governed by how precise we need to be. But yes, the size of the aperture is also a factor in energy used.”

“So why is the ship so flat? I mean, if you took off the starboard hull you’d be looking into an ant farm. The ship is eight stories high, a hundred meters long, and one room thick. That means that if we made the ship shorter and thicker, we could have the same interior volume but need a much smaller sphere. Actually, the most efficient shape for the ship should be a sphere.”

Ando ‘s mouth went dark and his eyes turned into lines to show his meditative face for a few seconds while he considered his answer. “True. But remember that while the interior of the ship is flat, a lot of EPT units protrude from that, filling up some of the volume. Also, the ship needs to rotate to make gravity. If the ship were smaller, the inside gravity would be reduced.”

Rin looked out the porthole to the panoramic starfield slowly spinning around them. “Okay, that’s true, but couldn’t you just make the ship spin faster.”

“There are comfort costs with too much angular velocity, and with using a high rate of spin. It can cause sickness and confusion for inhabitants, and presents balancing problems. The ship obviously isn’t perfectly symmetrical in weight distribution, and periodic small corrections are needed to keep the spin stable. At higher rotational rates, this problem becomes messy.”

“So I’m right in noticing that the ship is less than ideal, but wrong in thinking it was an easy problem to solve. I guess the current layout makes a lot of sense if you remember that humans work better with gravity and machines work best without gravity.”

She fell quiet and lowered her head. There was the need for varying levels of gravity. The heat sink needed to be close to the power plant and far from everything else. The bridge equipment needed to be far from the heat sink. The heavy stuff like liquids and cargo needed to be kept close to the center, to avoid wasting energy pumping them “uphill”. Food and water were gradually converted into sewage, so the black tanks also needed to be close to the core to avoid late-mission weight distribution problems. The inhabitable areas needed to be compact, inter-connected, and provide access to as much of the ship as possible to avoid the need for regular spacewalks, because spacewalks were a massive pain in the ass when mixed with rotational gravity. The swivel thrusters needed to be as far from the center of gravity as possible.

Now that she could see some of the variables, she realized she was probably still ignorant of a lot more. “This is a very complicated stuff,” she admitted. She felt sort of foolish for thinking that she had out-smarted some of the world’s most highly-trained engineers because she spotted some inefficiency in the design.

Ando replied, “As I understand it, some newer, more spherical designs have been proposed, but I don’t imagine anyone is in a hurry to scrap these ships just yet.”

“I suppose not.”

*

 

 

Probably a couple more chapters should go here, to establish how Rin winds up in the sleep-tube.

Down

 

Rin looked out over the gnarled landscape of jagged hills clad in dense hanging green. Where the landscape dipped down into hollows the air was jaundiced, like fog made of pollen. Twisted tree trunks reached out of the ground, distant from one another. They ended in spikes, like tentacles. These were covered in the same ultra-shag of green as everything else.  

The air was heavy. It stank of damp compost and mud. There was also a bitter smell, like scorched grass.

The sky was a deep, impossibly pure blue. Directly overhead the color was deep to the point of being slightly dark. Midway down the sky it was a more familiar and conventional blue. At the horizon it was tinged by the pale yellow haze.

Rin sat panting on one of the cargo containers arranged around the now-cold fire pit.

“This is insane,” Rin said. “How did we get here?”

Ando walked over to the edge of the rocky plateau and looked down into the valley below them, where a broad river crept silently between the hills. “I don’t know the exact details of the accident. Accounts from the officers varied and they fought frequently over who should bear the blame. The ship spent several days orbiting this world. This is obviously a spectacular find. While it’s quite different from Earth, this planet is far more Earth-like than anything previously discovered.”

Rin nodded, not so much in agreement but trying to hurry the robot along his story. This discovery would be much more impressive if she wasn’t alone, hungry, and stranded unknown light years from the rest of humanity.

“The ship was brought into low orbit for an atmospheric sample,” Ando continued. “I gather this ‘dipping’ maneuver isn’t used often. Only one of the officers had performed it before. The ship was slowed relative to the planet and then allowed to fall far enough to take in some samples. The ship was supposed to transfer away once the sample was secure.”

“What good is a sample of upper atmosphere? Wouldn’t it just be ozone or whatever?” Everything about this was irritating to her. Did they really crash on a planet because they were collecting data they didn’t need?

“I don’t know.”

“Wait. Better question… Why didn’t we just drop some drones? Isn’t this exactly what drones are for?”

“We were out of drones. The unusual number of interesting or noteworthy planets on this mission managed to deplete our supply. This star system was to be our last before returning home. The captain was out of drones, and she didn’t want to go back to earth with nothing more than pictures.”

“Okay. I guess that makes sense,” Rin admitted grudgingly. She supposed there could be value in grabbing a couple of handfuls of alien air before heading home, although it all seemed kind of pointlessly risky now that they had been grounded.

“The exit transfer was botched. We were so low that the line of projection intersected with the planet’s atmosphere.”

“You know more about that than I do. I assume this screwed up the jump?”

“Yes. The plan was to surf the pocket of this planet until we recovered our speed, and then transfer home. When our line of movement intersected the atmosphere, the exit point was curved towards the planet. We found ourselves in the upper atmosphere, instead of at high-orbit distance.”

“You couldn’t just transfer again? A quick-fire panic transfer straight up would have fixed it.”

“Even a quick transfer takes an hour of charging time at maximum output, and transferring to a higher point on the gravity well would take even longer. Once we arrived in the upper atmosphere, there was no way to avoid re-entry.”

“Is it still called re-entry if you’ve never been to the planet before?”

“Judging by how others have used the word recently, yes.”

“Fair enough. What about the thrusters? Couldn’t they get us back into orbit?”

“No. Even at full fuel, with all arms delivering maximum sustained thrust, the ship has only a fraction of the power needed to overcome planetary gravity. These are small units for maintaining rotation and orienting the ship. They’re not really designed for course correction. Even using nearly all of the fuel on board, the pilot was only just able to slow our descent enough to keep the ship from landing at lethal speeds. The atmosphere here is thicker than on Earth, which helped. By keeping the ship oriented sideways during the descent, we were able to brake against the thickening air, which brought us down to speeds that could be handled by thrusters. We landed hard, and a lot of things were broken, but everyone survived the impact and the ship remained in one piece.”

Rin almost asked again for food, but then remembered there wasn’t any. “Impressive that the ship didn’t burn up. What was broken?”

“The hull of the ship is coated in heat-resistant tiles, probably to protect it during dipping maneuvers. Some systems were incinerated on the way down. The biggest loss was that of the oxygen tanks. They were unshielded, and ruptured in the heat. Also lost was a tank of waste water. The drone launching bay was crushed when we landed. All of the starboard side communications gear was destroyed, although the officers said there were redundant systems on the port side.”

“No oxygen? So even if the ship was airborne again we would all suffocate?”

“Yes,” Ando said. His mouth turned down into a frown and his eyebrows angled up. “I’m very sorry you’re in this position.”

Rin threw herself sideways on the container and closed her eyes. She wanted this to be a prank. Or some sort of strange psychological test conducted by ISAC. Maybe the crew would jump out and yell “gotcha”. Or people in lab coats would open a door somewhere and let her know she could go home. But this was really happening. She was here.

“It’s not safe to sleep there,” Ando said. “The sun is much brighter here than on Earth, which also means more UV radiation. The rest of the crew suffered severe sunburns from overexposure. Also, the insect life here is aggressive. You should sleep on the ship.”

“I thought my eyes were just having trouble adjusting to the outside light.  Is it really brighter here?”

“Yes. Significantly. It actually overloads my eyes from some angles, and I’m partially blind here during the day. My eyes were designed to work within Earth lighting, obviously. I can see better than you in the dark, but I don’t have the range to process light-colored surfaces during the day on this planet. I can’t see the shape of the ship properly, for instance. It’s just a wall of pure white.”

Rin sat up. “I hate this planet,” she said firmly.

“You are not the first person to say that.”

“So there’s really nothing to eat?” she said. She knew Ando wasn’t hiding food from her, but she just couldn’t imagine herself in a situation where food did not exist. “Isn’t there something left on the ship maybe? This planet looks lush. Isn’t there anything here?”

“The ship provisions are gone. Everyone scoured the ship, opening non-food containers, hoping they had been mis-labeled. When the provisions ran out completely, Doctor Fournier foraged for food. He found some small brown fruit hanging from the trees. He became violently ill after eating it, and died two days later. He was the last one alive, aside from the people sedated in the RAS bay.”

“So did you just wake me up so you could watch me die?” Rin said. She realized it wasn’t really fair to be angry at Ando. He didn’t crash the ship. But she was irritable. She felt like all she needed was a few mouthfuls and she’d be able to think straight again.

“No. We decided to wake you up so we could ask you a question.”

“We?” Rin asked hopefully. Didn’t Ando say everyone else was dead? Who else was there?

“Molly and myself.”

“Oh right. I keep forgetting about her. Where is she?”

“She’s inside, taking care of the power plant.”

Rin looked back to the ship, which was leaning against the cliff face. Drapes of hanging grass reached down the cliff and rested against the hull.  It was as if the planet had placed a mossy hand over the ship, claiming it. “Of course. The ship has power. I should have realized someone must have been tending it.”

“If you’re ready, we can go back inside and talk to her.”

Rin nodded, and followed Ando back to the ship. They climbed up into the airlock, cycled the doors, and then headed up into the power plant. Partway up the ladder Rin became dizzy and disoriented. She was used to being able to ascend the ladder with a few gentle shoves, getting lighter as she climbed. Now her weight was staying the same, which was strangely making her feel heavier. She looked down and realized it was a very long drop to the bottom of the ladder. It was only a fifteen meter climb, but she was sweating and panting by the time she reached the top.

Molly was working in the glowbox, which was the informal name given to the monitoring station in the power plant. It was a small collection of screens in front of a pair of horizontal bars padded with foam.  Gravity was normally too low in here for a proper chair, and anyone using the screens would end up shoving themselves away from the controls as they poked away at the screens. In this low-grav situation, the operator could hook one or both legs around the bars so they could hold themselves still while they typed.

While the rest of the power plant was basically just a tangle of dark crawlspaces to let personnel get to the machinery, the glowbox was unusually well-lit and comfortable.

“What is this bullshit?” Rin said when she saw Molly.

Molly’s jumpsuit had been modified. The arms and midriff had been removed, and the legs had been cut off. The cuts were uneven, and hadn’t been properly hemmed afterward, so the fabric had begun to unravel in places. Molly looked more like a sexbot now, although the outfit had a sort of sad, desperate comedy about it.

“I’m sorry you’ve been placed in this uncomfortable situation,” Molly said. “Please let me know if I can make you more comfortable.”

“What’s with your outfit?” Rin asked once she’d caught her breath. “You look like a cross between a prostitute and a hobo.”

“I’m sorry if it makes you-”

“Uncomfortable, yes. I know,” Rin said impatiently. “What happened?”

“After the rest of the crew died, Doctor Fournier was left alone for a number of weeks. He eventually became very depressed and lonely.”

“Okay. Forget I asked,” Rin said. “I see where this is going.” Rin lay down on her back and regarded the pipes overhead. She was used to gently bouncing in place here, but now the floor had an iron grip.

“Would it make you more comfortable to replace this outfit?” Molly asked.

“Whatever you want,” Rin said dismissively. “No, actually do that. Yes. Put some clothes on. But first, let’s talk about whatever you woke me up for.”

Ando stood forward. “I am sorry you’re in this situation. I know it’s painful and frightening for you. Molly and I have been debating what to do about the remaining people on board, and so we woke you up to settle things for us.”

“What’s the question?” Rin asked.

“Do you regret that I woke you up?”

“Well, yeah,” Rin said. “Obviously. Any other dumb questions?”

Ando displayed a new expression. His eyes became larger circles and his eyebrows lifted. He was surprised. “I see. That’s not the answer I expected, but it does settle our dispute. It also leads to another question. Would it be preferable to kill the remaining crew members now, or wait for them to die of natural causes?”

Rin sat up. Was Ando really talking about killing people? Had the robots gone nuts?

In addition to Molly’s new outfit, the robots looked different now. Ando’s plastic casing was covered in scuff marks and dirt. Molly’s hair had been tangled up and now stuck out like she had a permanent case of bed head. The skin on her arms had been damaged, which ruined the already tenuous illusion of them being made of flesh. There was no redness, no blood, and no scabbing around the injuries. It was just flesh-color rubber that had been gouged and no longer fit together seamlessly.

Taking it all in, they suddenly seemed very unsettling.

Rin wanted to be very, very careful now. If the robots were dangerous, she didn’t want to provoke them. How strong were they? How fast? If they decided to kill her, would she be able to defend herself? Rin spoke with the calmest voice she could manage, “Why do you suggest killing the other members of the crew?”

“If they aren’t going to regain consciousness, then there doesn’t seem to be any reason to prolong their lives,” Ando said. “I was thinking it would be more respectful to terminate them before they became brain damaged. It will probably take months for them to reach full brain death or organ failure in their current state, by which time you will have already died. It seems preferable for them to die now so that you can give them a proper burial.”

Rin’s mouth went dry. She found herself inching back towards the ladder. “What about me? Are you considering killing me?”

“That’s up to you,” Ando said. “You certainly seem able to see to it yourself, but if you need help we’re willing to give it.”

“You’re expecting me to kill myself?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never interacted with humans in these circumstances, and I understand humans can became irrational under duress. I don’t want to jump to any conclusions, but I also don’t want to prolong your suffering. If I had known that you would have preferred to stay asleep, we would not have woken you.”

Rin paused at this. It was so hard to understand these two. Molly was creepier than ever with her rubbery expressionless face. Ando was some kind of robotic demon child, his face displaying simple emoticons while he talked about snuffing out the crew. “Help me understand this,” she said. “What was it you were arguing about?”

“Molly believed that humans would rather die peacefully in their sleep, rather than slowly dying of starvation. I believed that humans would, if given the choice, prefer to be woken up so they could fight for their survival, even if the odds were hopeless and even if the struggle would result in a net increase in human misery and suffering.”

“You were right,” Rin said. “We generally prefer to have a fighting chance. Or the chance to fight, anyway.”

“Then why did you say you regretted that I had woken you?”

Rin opened her mouth, closed it again, and then shook her head in frustration. As creepy and robotic as Ando seemed, she was still expecting him to understand things the way a human would. She couldn’t shake the notion that she wouldn’t have this problem if Ando wasn’t person-shaped. “I just regret finding myself in this situation. I’d still rather be awake than just die in my sleep.” Her voice trailed off at the end. Was this really true?

She didn’t know if she should cry, or scream, or dive down the ladder shaft and kill herself. Her head was so muddled. She couldn’t think straight. This would be more bearable if she could just get a bit of caffeine.

“I know where I can get some food!” she shouted. She forced herself onto her feet and returned to the ladder. She climbed up through the spine.  She realized that the ship was technically inverted. Deck one was on the bottom, and deck eight was at the top. Worse, the lower decks – which were now above the upper decks – would be oriented upside down.

She reached the top and disembarked onto the former ceiling.  The crew area was a disaster. Unsecured gear littered the floor. Bedding was strewn around, along with clothing.   The chairs in the daycomp were immovable and bolted to the deck, which meant they now hung surreally from the ceiling. The lockers had been pulled from the walls and dumped out.

“No!” Rin growled.

Two of the lockers were missing. Rin remembered that these were outside, being used as grave markers. She sorted through them and found her locker. It contained her one set of civilian clothes that she’d worn to ISAC the day before launch.  She recovered her tel.

The candy was gone.

“Who ate my chocolate?” she said quietly through clenched teeth. Her hands were clenched into fists. Then she remembered that whoever took it was probably buried in a shallow grave in front of the ship. She was both glad that justice was served, and ashamed that she would be glad. Also, the fact that they died made the theft more pointless. The food went to waste.

“I’m sorry Rin,” Ando said. He’d apparently followed her up. “I don’t know who found your food. It was never distributed.”

“So whoever took it didn’t share. There aren’t any wrappers here. Some bastard took my food and ate it in secret. Asshole.”

*

Rin slept in the night compartment on deck one, helping herself to the captain’s bunk. She woke up some time later to find it was light outside again. Or still. She looked at her tel to check the time, but it was dark. The battery had died while it sat in her locker for several months.

She dragged herself into the officer’s daycomp and dropped into one of the chairs. “I want coffee,” she muttered reflexively.

Ando entered and regarded her with his default neutral face.

“What time is it?” she asked.

“It’s two in the morning according to Greenwich Mean Time.”

Rin glared at the freakish landscape outside the portal. “I mean here. Is it morning or afternoon or what?”

“The day cycle here is thirty-two hours and sixteen minutes long. At this longitude and at this time of year, daylight lasts nineteen hours. If we assume that the day begins at sunrise, then we’re in the thirteenth hour. It’s currently late afternoon, and the sun will go down in six more hours.”

“I hate this planet.”

She sulked for a few more minutes until her hunger drove her to action. She took one of the many water bottles scattered around the ship and filled it in the shower because she didn’t want to climb all eight decks to try to fill it in the upside-down galley. She grabbed a knife – obviously swiped from the galley – that had been inexplicably left in the officer’s daycomp. She headed for the airlock. She put on her soft white canvas shoes, which she hadn’t worn since leaving earth. People stuck to wearing socks in low-gravity situations to reduce the hazard of inadvertent kicks to the face.

“Are you planning on going outside?” Ando asked, following her.

“I am.” She very much hoped he wasn’t going to ask why, because she didn’t have an answer. She only knew that staying onboard was simply giving up and waiting to die, and she’d made up her mind she wasn’t going to do that.

“Be careful. It’s very hot. The elongated daylight cycle makes temperatures more extreme. We spend more time gathering heat during the day, and more time losing heat at night.”

“So how hot is it?”

“Forty-three degrees.”

“That’s not hot. Oh… you mean centigrade, don’t you? What is that in Fahrenheit?”

“One hundred and nine,” Ando said as he followed her into the airlock.

Rin sighed and cycled the airlock doors.

Her tongue lolled out as soon as she tasted the air. It felt like it was burning her lungs. The sun fell on her face and she began cursing. She staggered back, blinking.

“Can I help?” Ando asked.

“Give me a second. I let the sun hit me in the eye and now I can’t see. Damn, but that is bright. It hurts.”

“It will also give you sunburn if you’re not careful.”

“I guess I shouldn’t expect us to have sunscreen and sunglasses onboard,” she grumbled.

“I wouldn’t think so.”

Rin recovered and walked over to the fire pit. She considered sitting on one of the containers, but she burned her fingers on the metal surface and decided that if she was going to sit she should go back inside.

She stood at the edge of the plateau and shielded here eyes with one hand. She looked down into the valley below. “Does this place have a name?” she asked.

“The rest of the crew just called it the fireplace.”

Rin coughed out a single note of laughter at the unexpected answer. “Not this hill. I mean this planet. Did anyone name it?”

“The captain initially announced that she was naming it Pandora. The crew followed this for a few days until they were enraged by the sunburns, insects, temperature variations, violent weather, and other inhospitable factors. They took to calling it Purgatory. When they were the only ones left, XO Dinapoli and Dr. Fournier called it Shitworld.”

“Very fitting. You know, for the most Earthlike planet ever discovered, it’s not very Earthlike.” She chewed her lip and considered which way to go. “I don’t suppose we have a compass on board, either?”

“Crewman Cash and Jacobs tried to make one using scrounged parts. It didn’t work. Everyone said they’d built it wrong, but they insisted the planet lacked a stable magnetic pole.”

“Okay. I’m going to call this west,” she said, pointing to where the sun was headed. The ship was therefore east of the fireplace. The valley was west. She wanted to head into the valley but the direct route was recklessly steep, so she headed south. She followed the contour of the hill, going down as the opportunity presented itself.

“I don’t suppose you have any instrumentation for keeping track of position and heading? I’m just worried about getting lost.”

“All of my navigation systems are GPS based. I’ve been working on using my visual mapping system to keep track of my location using landmarks. But I get a lot of stitching errors and orientation problems without GPS guidance.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“It means I can get lost too, particularly if we’re traveling during the day when I’m partly blinded by glare.”

They walked on in silence. Rin noticed that hunger wasn’t constant. Sometimes she would even forget how hungry she was. Then it would return, harass her thoughts for a while, and leave her alone again.

The ground was uneven and difficult. The vegetation was knee-deep, and sometimes large rocks lurked just below the surface of green leaves.  She stumbled a few times before she learned to step slowly and carefully. She could hear things scurrying away as she approached. Something was moving just below the knee-high canopy, but she never saw anything directly. She could only see the plants shaking with their movements.

“Be cautious,” Ando said. “Some of the wildlife can be very aggressive. The really big animals usually only come out in the morning hours, but sometimes they’re active near sunset.”

“Big animals?” Rin put her hand on the leg pocket where she’d stashed the knife. “How big?”

“The largest animal observed so far was horse-sized, although most of the danger comes from the smaller creatures.”

Rin noticed that something else had trampled the plants before her, and until now she had assumed she was following a path beaten by one of her shipmates. She looked back up the hill doubtfully. Had this path been made by a human?

The hill leveled out as they reached the bottom of the valley. The trees – or tree-trunks, or whatever they were – grew here in respectable numbers. Rin passed several of these, but kept her distance. Their general spiky shape gave them an unwholesome look. They had seemed small when she looked down on them from the plateau, but up close they were imposing.  The trunks sometimes reached ten meters into the air. Some grew close together, forming claw-like clusters, while others stood alone. Some wore furry leaves, while other held up great curtains of wet, heavy grass.

Rin saw a row of small, shriveled brown lumps hanging from the underside of a sagging trunk. Some were the size of a prune, while a few were fist-sized. They looked like huge raisins to Rin, and the thought made her mouth water. She took a few cautious steps towards the tree and reached out to touch one of them.

“Don’t eat those!” Ando said. He didn’t quite “shout” the way a human would, but just took a normal stressed voice and projected it at higher volume. She jerked her hand back in surprise.

“I was only looking,” she snapped. She didn’t appreciate being startled.

“Fournier ate those before he died. It was the last thing he ate, and the only alien plant ever consumed by a human.”

Rin pulled out her knife and cut one of the fruit loose from the tree. She retraced her steps to a much larger tree and cut another piece of fruit from it. She looked around and found a wide flat rock lurking below the plants at her feet.  Stamping away the plant life, she cleared herself a work area.

“”Funny thing about this fruit,” she said. “I saw them growing on those tall, lone trunks with leaves all over them. I also saw them on the short grass-covered trees that grow in clusters. Now, maybe those are the same sort of tree at different ages. But all of the trees around here fall into one of those two categories, with nothing in between. Which tells me that we’re looking at two different species of tree.

“I know you’re hungry Rin, but please at least cook the food before consuming it. Fournier died an excruciating death.”

Rin set the two pieces of fruit down on the rock side-by-side. They looked more or less identical. She sliced one of them open and pried the two halves apart. “Don’t you think it’s strange that two different species of tree would have the exact same fruit growing on it?” She plunged her knife into the pulp and began spreading out the black, stringy insides. The strings wrapped around the knife blade and she held it up for Ando to see.

The strings were perhaps the thickness of ramen noodles. They bristled with small barbs that acted like the covering a pipe cleaner to let the creature cling to surfaces, but they also acted like legs, allowing it to crawl around. At the end of the worm-like body was a mouth, reaching and grabbing like the mouth of a lamprey.

“Ow!” Rin said as one of the worms grabbed onto her. She flicked her arm, which sent all of the other worms flying, but the one that had latched onto her thumb held fast. She pulled it off with her left hand and let it drop just before it turned around to grab her again.

She held the knife close to the bite, ready to start cutting if there was anything left behind. When she was sure the wound was clean, she squeezed out a few drops of blood and then held it closed until the bleeding stopped.

“Are you okay?” Ando asked.

Rin stomped on the remaining worms and on the fruit she’d opened. “Fournier didn’t eat alien fruit,” she explained. “He ate an egg filled with ravenous flesh-eating worm insect things. The ones that survived being chewed probably returned the favor by eating him from the inside out.”