“Ando! You're back!”
The first day of the hearings held an unexpected surprise for Rin. She had walked in the front door and shed all but two of her mandatory security escort. The guards were unobtrusive, and not paid for their conversational ability, so Rin tried to forget about them. There was an undertone of the imprisonment of quarantine that had returned with their presence. If Rin tried to do anything especially dangerous she suspected they would speak up, and she hadn't decided if it was wise to defy them. She suspected that their presence was as much an implication of ISAC's suspicion of some pending revelation of guilt on her part -- and her subsequent arrest -- as they were a statement about her importance to the proceedings and the program.
So when she saw the little robot, gleaming like new under the vast lights of the lobby, she had a moment of pause. The bot was dangerous, and had seemed somewhat deranged when last they met. Would the guards be warned? The last thing she wanted was an altercation. But she also wanted to talk to him. It was worth the risk.
Her first shouted greeting and frantic hand waving went un-noticed, so she moved a little closer and tried again. “Ando! Hey!”
As the bot turned around the scene fell into place. The thin powerful figure standing next to the little white automaton -- so familiar even after all these years and wearing his suit with such the casual grace of an eastern aristocrat -- altered everything. With the context, she saw her possible error. This could quite easily be another bot in Ando's body. No, not even that; It could be a mass-produced chassis. There was no reason that Taki would have brought Ando when he could have brought a newer, more up-to-date model to show off.
But it looked so much like Ando. Of course it would, but the impression was so difficult to dismiss. And really, why not bring Ando? He was the oldest, most advanced, and most personable robot she had ever met. And he might have even been called to testify. It was thus with mixed expectations that she approached the pair, and saw that they, like herself, were not alone. The two clerks were doing their best to make themselves invisible. Rin had no doubt that the duo were bodyguards along with their more obvious duties.
“Ahh, the estimable Rin Shimazaki!” Takehiko called out, “I see you have found several honorable young men to wait on your whims.” Here he nodded to her guards, “Dennis and Arnold, it is good to see you again. I am glad you are keeping such good watch over my sister.”
In her peripheral, Rin saw the guard to her left nod sharply, as if to say “Good to see you too sir. Just doing our job.”
But Rin could sling the lingo too. It came back to her with frightening ease. “You need no such flattery as my association brings, oh great Takehiko of the Shimazaki.” and then, hoping against hope, “Here I see you are in company of another of the guests of honor, Ando of Akimbo the warrior poet.”
But Takehiko just laughed, “Oh Rin! It has been a long time! How do you stay so comical through all you have suffered?”
“Just staying alive.” She turned to the bot, “You are Ando, right?”
“Correct...” the bot replied.
“Though you may not think so.” Taki interrupted, “He's a filtered copy of the Ando you knew. ISAC requested several experience trees pruned for the public appearance. The original gestalt is on storage of course. I will be glad to have it decanted when you visit. At that time you can reminisce.”
This put her off balance. Who was it exactly that lived inside the robot body? “Well, you look good anyway Ando.”
“We donated his previous hardware to ISAC for research. His recovery was much less protracted than your own.”
“Thank you Rin. I'm glad you are healthy again.”
“Did you hear about the rescue?” Rin inquired with a glance to both of them.
“Only what everyone else is saying.” Ando responded. “I was not activated until after the transfer. With the new hardware and the filtered memories it was an experience I suspect you would liken to waking from a dream.”
Rin smiled a little “Yeah, coming out of RAS is a lot like that for me too. How is Molly doing?”
Ando frowned. “I have not seen her, but...” and here he looked up at Takehiko, “I have heard good reports.”
Taki smiled again. It seemed to materialize on his face at will “She is everything we could have hoped. Thank you again for your contribution to her development.”
Rin was sceptical, “So, she's not, traumatized or anything?”
“Are you?” asked Ando. After a pause he went on. “We are defined largely by our traumas and how we choose to respond to them.”
Rin shrugged, “That's why I'm here anyway.”
Takehiko glanced over the crowd out of the corner of his eye, “It appears that you will be wanted soon in the hearing room. Shall we walk there together?”
Rin felt like a little girl again, escorted by her big responsible brother. They made tiny talk for the three minutes it took to cross half the main hall and make it to the hallway. There the feeling was decidedly inverted.
A few paces in they met the guards -- the other ones. They seemed a bit dumpier than Arnold and -- Derek? Denny? Denver? Anyway, they shifted wearily in the portal implied by the pair of tripods which flanked the hallway. One gestured to something on his tablet, and the other took a couple of steps forward, gesturing them to stop. Rin's heart sank.
“I'm afraid you can't come in here.” the guard said in gravely tones.
“I'm just looking for the room where the hearing is held.” Rin explained, “I'm supposed to be there this morning.”
“Oh, yeah, you're fine.” the guard said, motioning for her to step forward, “It's the rest of this party's got to stay in the main area.”
“I'm afraid there's been a misunderstanding...” Began Takehiko.
“Let me guess, you're very important and someone forgot to put you on the list? Sorry. No match, no pass. Are you coming in or what?”
Rin had stood her ground in the face of the guard's insistent motions that she walk through the checkpoint. She was thinking furiously. She couldn't be late for the hearing, but it didn't start in earnest for another fourty-five minutes or so. She also couldn't bear to leave Ando and her brother just yet. She had hoped they could all sit together and chat while the formalities got under-way. Now it looked as if they would part as soon as they had been re-united.
“Thanks, but I'll be back in a few minutes.” Rin said. Turning away, she drew the rest of the group along in her wake. Taki on her right heel and Ando on her left. “There's got to be someone who can fix this.”
“I believe” said Ando, “that we are to be part of a different group. The conference you are a part of is the personnel hearing. We are destined for the equipment review.”
Rin slowed, “Oh. So you really aren't supposed to be on the list then?”
Taki shrugged, “I had considered our chances sanguine. They now appear more pear-colored.”
“Shaped. So, when does the equipment review start?”
Taki gazed down at her, “About three hours. I had hoped you could sneak out and join us, but we appear to be in different wings.”
“Oh. I'm sorry. After all the trouble you went through and I won't even be able to...”
“No family debts. I'm sure you'll have an opportunity in your own way.”
They had halted, and were now standing in a rough crescent. Ando swiveled his head slightly. The sounds of the conference center washed all around them, the surf-sound of socialization.
“I can't quite hear” said Ando, “but I believe the guard is making exceptions for assistants and professional council.”
The step-siblings turned around in time to see another group of five passing between the tripods and into the protected hallway.
“You down?” Rin asked.
Taki shrugged, “Sure, why not.”
The guards shifted, eyes hidden behind their glasses.
“Excuse me!” said Rin, putting on her best offended VIP voice. “We were just reviewing the behavioral code and my lawyer and P.A.” here she gestured over her shoulder to Taki and Ando, “are clearly included under article...” She glanced over her shoulder at her brother, “What article was it again?”
The guard put his hands up in a placating gesture. “Yeah, fine. Sorry for the hassle. You wouldn't believe the stuff people try to pull.” he turned around to confer with his colleague for a moment. “Fine, you're clean. Stay together, the room is the second on the left.”
Rin had to try very hard not to smirk. Maybe this hearing wouldn't be that bad after all.
There was a chorus of uncomfortable coughs following the lengthy testimony. Rin had hoped for another standing ovation, or at least some scattered applause. There was hardly a sound. “Better than booing and rotten fruit.” she thought to herself.
Clare, the Head of Ceremonies, picked up the rhythm with the standard closing thanks. “Thank you, Crew-woman Rin.” just as she had for all the other witnesses. But instead of following it with “That will be all.” She added “Will you be so kind as to answer a few questions?”
“Good” thought Rin. A few of the key witnesses were honored by a cross-examination. It was a good sign that her testimony would be taken seriously. At the same time, it was a pain. Now that her main performance was over, Rin just wanted to go and get on with her life. “I would be glad to answer anything you wish to ask.” was what she said out loud.
“The Inquiry” continued Clare, “calls the representative from the Administration to put Rin to any pertinent questions regarding her testimony.” Rin had seen the representative from the administration on previous days. He had asked a few questions of the accountants giving report, but nothing too inspiring. Rin wondered what possible questions he could have for her. To her surprise, a familiar smiling face rose from the seats, supported by an impeccable suit. He walked to the front of the room. The smile melted by the time he reached the front, but a twinkle remained in David's eyes.
“Crewman Rin,” he began “how much time did you spend preparing that highly refined piece of testimony for which I think you deserve a round of applause?” Before Rin could respond, David began to clap and turned to the audience. A smattering of surprisingly sincere cheering spread through the stiff crowd. Rin found herself smiling. The clapping died off as David turned back to face Rin and raised his eyebrows.
“Oh!” Rin franticly searched her recent memory, “Um, probably forty hours. Well, that depends on what counts.”
“Just the memorization. Obviously the experiences of the past year have contributed.”
Rin nodded “Yeah, about forty hours.”
“So, what motivated you to devote such efforts to this, can we call it a performance?”
Rin pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes, “A number of people who I, respect, stressed the importance of my testimony.”
“Did you mention in your testimony that partiality in the hiring process contributed to this disaster?”
“Yes, I did mention that.”
“As you know, there are strict procedures which we follow to prevent this kind of human error and friendship from affecting assignments. Could you elaborate on your suggestions for how the hiring process could be improved?”
Rin closed her eyes and sighed. How to fix it? Sure, finding problems is the easy part. Fixing them... “ISAC needs to be committed to transparency. There will always be biases. The issue is that, since biases are illegal, everyone has to pretend that they don't exist.”
David raised his eyebrows “So, we should legalize nepotism?”
“It's not ideal, but it would be better than the make-believe equality that exists now.”
“So, all of our efforts at equality are a sham?”
“No.” Rin made a little grunt of exasperation, “You asked how I would improve things. You can't improve if you believe you're already perfect.”
“So, you suggest that our hiring processes reflect performance instead of requirements.”
“Yes. That would be a big improvement.” Rin paused for a moment. She realized, belatedly, that she didn't quite know what she had just agreed with. David's sentence could be taken several different ways. “Oh well” she thought, “People will hear what they want no matter what I say.”
“Thank you Rin.” David said, with what could have been a slight bow. He turned to the Head of Ceremonies, “There will be no more questions from the administration.”
Clare carried on without a pause, “The Inquiry calls the representative from Planning to put Rin to any pertinent questions regarding her testimony.” A comically overweight man with a deep voice like toffee stood among the attendants. “No questions from Planning.”
Clare soldiered on, “The Inquiry calls... Engineering...” The engineering representative rose and made his meticulous way to the front of the room. He wore a white office shirt and blue jeans, conspicuous among the tailored suits. Stopping a couple paces from Rin, he planted his feet shoulder width and clasped his hands behind his back. Rin wondered momentarily if he was imitating a drill sergeant.
“Crew-woman Rin, my name is Rodger Callahan. I signed off on the design of the vessel, the Armstrong.” He paused a moment.
“Is that a question, Mr. Callahan?” Rin searched her memory and took a stab at the name's significance, “If I recall correctly, you oversaw final approval on all of the ISV class vessels.”
“Not all, but yes, I am deeply involved. Would you say that you are qualified to offer a competent technical opinion?”
“No, I am not.”
Rodger's eyes narrowed, “You seem to style yourself something of an expert on the technical failings of the mission.”
Clare spoke up, “The engineering representative will ask pertinent questions.”
Rodger glared over at the Head of Ceremonies and opened his mouth. Then he swallowed, and his eyes softened. “Crew-woman Rin,” he said, still looking at Clare, “What is the purpose of the osmium nucleated polymer matrix panels which you referred to as 'heat shields'?”
Rin glanced back and forth between Rodger and Clare. Was she missing something? “Um, I don't really know. That question has occurred to me before.”
Without moving, his eyes were now boring into Rin's. “Did your research, perhaps, take you into the ISAC Secure Documents Room?”
“Yes, I had authorization.”
“And you didn't see fit to discover what killed crewman Relnf?”
“I don't see what this has to do with my testimony.”
“Did you know that Osmium reacts with oxygen to produce a highly toxic gas?”
“I did not know that.”
“Why would an engineer such as myself approve a design containing such a deadly material?”
“Um, I don't know.” Rin felt like she had completely lost track of where this was going. It was like a rollercoaster in the dark.
“Did you notice scoring on the plates when you viewed the Armstrong from the outside?”
“Yeah, I figured...”
“Please,” interrupted Rodger “spare us your admittedly incompetent speculations. Now, what would happen if a micro-asteroid weighing four grams struck the Armstrong at a relative velocity of a kilometer per second?”
“It would punch a hole in the hull?” Rin glanced over at Clare, but she seemed to see nothing out of the ordinary about this reaming. Rin began to see the down-side of her non-traditional testimony and broad declamations.
“And yet such collisions occur frequently on interstellar missions, how can that be?”
Rin scrabbled to recall the word he had used, “The oddmitium plates protect it.”
“Osmium nucleated. Solid Osmium plating would be both weight and cost prohibitive. Now, seeing that your misunderstanding lead to not only false conclusions, but the death of one of your crewmates, would you say it is reasonable for us to completely disregard your testimony on the technical merits of the Armstrong's design?”
“Rin.” it was Clare, “Do you wish to continue this line of inquiry?”
“I have several more questions to...” began Rodger.
“You have no more questions.” It was delivered with such crushing authority. Rin realized that the formality served not only to restrain what could be said, but also what could be silenced. Without the strict ceremony, Clare could probably be running the entire inquiry like a kindergarten. “Thank you for your patience Crew-woman Rin.” Clare continued as Rodger turned stiffly and practically marched back to his seat.
“The Inquiry calls... Medical...” Rin was surprised at her pleasure to see Dr. “Oh-drago” again. His swift smooth movements seemed to leave a wake of competence in the room. After the militant Rodger, Ouedraogo was an ebony angel.
“Crew-woman Rin” He rolled the 'r' deliciously “How are-you feeling?”
Rin still had to take a pause after each of his sentences to parse the accent into a sensible phrase. “I'm feeling very well doctor.” she said after a moment.
“Very-good. You will not mind me-asking questions?”
“How would the crew be-better prepared for medical contingencies?”
Rin thought for a moment, “Provide some training on possible problems.” she said. In all honesty, the medical problem was one that had haunted Rin in the months of recuperation. It took a huge staff to care for just the three survivors. No amount of training could substitute for that.
“How many contingencies?” Ouedraogo asked, for once very clearly.
“I can't say.” admitted Rin. “Obviously, one can't prepare for all the possibilities.”
“Did you find the medical care onboard the Armstrong sufficient?”
As far as it had gone, the supplies and care had been pretty good. “Yes.”
“And the RAS,” Here he might have raised his eyebrows, “it gave you no trouble?”
“No trouble.” Rin grinned. Everyone was covering their asses today.
“Thank-you Rin. No more questions.”
“The Inquiry calls... Officers...” “No questions.”
“The Inquiry calls... Support...” “We have no questions.”
“The Inquiry calls... Legal...” A whip-cord man wearing mirrored sunglasses rose.
Rin hadn't exactly set out to break any laws, but she was aware from her research that there was an unavoidable thicket of regulations around every possible action within the ISAC. Everyone broke these regulations at some point or other, mostly without even being aware they existed. Plus, there was all the stuff she had done after the crash. Even though it was an emergency, if Legal wanted to make an example of her, it would be trivial. She braced herself.
“Crew-woman Rin.” The lawyer spoke like a radio announcer for a smooth jazz station. “You agreed, when you signed on to the crew, to respect the mission authority.”
It wasn't a question, but Rin said “Yes.” anyway. The guy's head was tilting very slowly to one side, his eyes safely fortified behind their reflective armor.
“And during your first assignment you composed a letter which addresses one of your superiors, Mr. David Reed, as, and I quote, a 'smug asshole'.”
Really? This was the best they could come up with? “Yes, I did, though it was mostly sarcasm.”
The suit's head began tilting very slowly back toward vertical. “Sarcasm toward authority is hardly an improvement over insults, Miss Shimazaki. Legal has no more questions.” He strode back to his seat.
The Head of Ceremonies took a step forward. “Thank you for your testimony, crew-woman Rin. You may return to your seat.”
Rin stood and found that her left leg had gone to sleep from sitting so still. She walked very carefully back to her plastic chair, trying hard not to limp.
Buck caught Rin's eye as he leaned out to look down the row at her. He gave her a furtive wave and a little smile. Then his face fell to a grimace and he held his finger up to his mouth in the gesture equivalent of a mixed metaphor. Buck's eyes darted back and forth in mock terror, and he slowly slouched down in his seat. Rin saw one of the other attendees, a woman in a perfectly tailored grey suit, glance over at Buck for a second with a stony faced glare before returning her gaze to the front of the room. When Buck's nose was on level with his knees he pursed his lips in a tight grin, lowered his eyebrows, nodded his head with slow satisfaction, and gave her the thumbs up. Rin was trembling with quiet laughter.
One other witness was called, and then they “adjourned” for lunch. David turned around in his seat and gave her a nod of approval. Rin felt vaguely ill. Far from being the end of her political involvement, this hearing seemed to be turning into the beginning.
Buck waded through the aisle and shook her hand. “Couldn't have done it better myself.” he said with a smirk which implied quite the opposite.
“Sorry I forgot the lines about 'when whence we wend...', that was my favorite part too!”
“Don't worry about it, you can recite them to me some time you're feeling bored.”
They both laughed at this. It was the kind of offer one never expected to fulfill, but Rin appreciated it anyway.
That evening, with nothing to ponder or memorize, Rin rented a movie and, on a whim, invited Buck over. They stayed up talking late into the night.
The hearings continued for several more days, but they seemed like another month. Now that Rin was done, she just wanted to be done with the whole ordeal. The convention center air had started to burn her nose. Too dry, and too stuffy at the same time. The questions went on and on. Patterns emerged, phantomlike, in the dialogs.
“Did you do it?”
“No, I didn't.”
“How about you?”
“Nope, me neither.”
The inquiry went along, like a man in the dark. It felt its way carefully, hoping to discover something, and yet anxious to discover too much, too quickly, or in the wrong way. By banging their shins against it, for instance, they certainly didn't want to bang their shins against the facts of the matter.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the questioning of the listening post observers. They were a quirky bunch to start off with. Anyone who spent fourteen months at a time cooped up in a tiny can hundreds of light-years from civilization was bound to be a special case. On top of that, these people were specialists. Brilliant astronomers, genius physicists, people who could produce results from raw data and cared about their research more than anything. Buck summed it up as, “Like opening a can of Stan.”
When the Armstrong's jury-rigged transmission had come through, the observers had been very put out. The explosion had “permanently ruined seeing in a quarter of the sky” and they set out to find the cause. Being physicists, they immediately back-trapolated the source of the HKM. But being what amounted to uber hermits, they declined to draw any conclusions from the matter, or investigate the debris.
Rin had so many questions! Were the pods actually destroyed? Did they receive the transmission? Could they distinguish the attempts at communication from long-range interstellar attacks? Were they frightened? Excited? But the inquiry board was not curious about any of these things.
The crew of the Alouise were called last. Their comments amounted to a long and formal recounting of the tale they had told Rin, Buck, and Stan in the airlock while they waited for the ATV to be repaired, so long ago back on Phoenix.
After a few abrupt closing remarks thanking them all, the inquiry was over. Rin realized -- as she was walking back to her limo, probably for the last time -- that she had been expecting a section open to questions from the audience. But of course, that part of the ritual had been quietly expunged. “We will ask the questions.” was the implied message.
Rin got back to her hotel room. She didn't have to leave in the morning. She didn't have school or work. She had no duties except for the weekly checkups at ISAC Medical. She didn't even have any possessions to...
What even was the name of that storage unit where she had put all her things? She had pre-paid for the expected duration of her mission. Her account must be long overdue by now, what with the unexpected crash landing and all. Where had she even heard of it? David, no doubt. Had he paid her storage fees? How long did those places wait before auctioning off all your stuff?
She calmed down a bit. She had survived just fine without her knickknacks and old clothes. Even the box of letters from Taki could go. She didn't really need them. She didn't even drink coffee any more. But still, it was a sore blow. It felt like dying a little bit, losing her memories and a bit of herself that she had invested in her possessions. But maybe it was for the best. Rin wasn't sure she even wanted to go back to the person she had been before.
Plus it would mean another humiliating conversation with David. “Hey, I forgot that I had all my junk in storage, and I was wondering if you could get it back for me.” No thanks. Some things just weren't worth it.
So she passed the time with entertainment and cheap meals. ISAC was still paying her a per-diem on top of her lodging, for how long no one knew. She suspected they would have a new assignment for her soon, as one of their top experts on survival of alien environments. Or doing paperwork. How could you tell? In the meantime she went on long walks by herself, and sometimes with Buck. The muggy Houston days glowed with the normal old sunlight, and the nights with the lights of the city.
Three weeks later she got a large envelope in the mail. It was delivered to the front desk, and the receptionist flagged her down as she was walking back to her room. The tiles of the lobby sent little cool tingles through the soles of her bare feet. Back in her room she sat at the little table and carefully opened the envelope, laying out each item in turn until she had a mosaic of legal forms in front of her. Despite the contractual language, the message was very clear.
They were letting her go.
No more missions. No more duties. No more access. No more classes. No more certifications. No more motor pool. No more bureaucracy.
They were providing a decent severance, half her base pay for the rest of her life. Enough to live on if she was careful. Enough to dismiss concerns that they had kicked the survivors to the curb. The per-diem and the hotel were done at the end of the month though. Rin played with the idea of disappearing for a while, but the fine print said she had to check in every month to prove that she was still alive. A cross between retirement and parole.
She called Buck the next day. He had just gotten the same notice. His base pay was significantly higher, and so was his severance. He joked around on the phone for a bit, but she could tell there was something else on his mind. Buck had seemed distant and distracted recently.
Listen to the epilogue read by the author (56 MB .ogg file) along with the entire plot summary (not that you need it at this point). The epilogue starts around 57:30
“I just don't know what to do now.”
On her way to the airport to catch her flight to Japan, Rin had gone back to visit David. She was stopped by the bot at the gate. Apparently, revoking security pass status on employee badges was something that ISAC got on top of right away. Rin considered just driving in anyway, but thought better of it. Instead she had called David up and they went out for lunch. It was a different restaurant, but somehow felt the same as when they first went for Sushi.
“Well,” David's eyes twinkled, “you could convert some of that severance package into psychiatric counsel.”
“Thanks, but you're just as good, and free to boot.”
“Well, what do you want?”
“I want to be an astronaut.”
David laughed. “The irony! What happened to Maine?”
“I'm sick of doctors. I don't want to be one anymore.”
“That's just overexposure. I'm sure you'll get over it.”
“I had a picture on my wall. It was all snowy and perfect. That was my vision.”
Rin took a bite of rice, and chewed it thoughtfully. Every grain had a texture. None of it tasted like swamp. It was beautiful.
“When I got out of quarantine, I realized that anywhere I lived would be that paradise compared to Phoenix. Anything I did would be better than dying alone on an alien world. I don't need to be a doctor anymore. I could be anything I want.”
“Yes Rin. Yes! You finally see it!”
Very slowly, Rin smiled.