It was like being born.
The light was sudden and painful, even through her clenched eyelids. Strong hot 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 from somewhere in the stellar neighborhood. “Your clothes are in the shower in the head beside medical. Once you're cleaned up, go to the mess and check the duty roster to see what shift you'll be working.”
Rin coughed weakly, wetly, “Please,” she said, tears mingling with the gel and tracing a hot track across the bridge of her nose,“I can't remember how I got here.”
“The sedation commonly produces short term amnesia.” The man was speaking from another part of the room now.
Rin closed her eyes against the bright light, “So, I'll remember later?”
“No. Weren't you trained for this?”
She screwed her eyes shut harder, and began digging the gel out of her ears.
Rin's skin hurt. The jumpsuit chafed wherever it had seams, which was all over. The soles of her feet ached. But mostly her fingers were sore. She had been climbing up and down ladders -- how do you climb a ladder properly without knocking your knees against the rungs? Do you stick them out to the side? Do you pull them up in front of you and stick your butt out? Anyhow, someone had decided that there should be no-skid on the ladders as well as on the floors. More like “no skin” Rin pondered ruefully to herself as she descended for the last time that shift. All she wanted was some coffee and a lie-down. Normally, she admitted to herself, this would be a poor combination, but the circumstances justified it.
Her muscles felt good though, and her brain was alight. The grogginess of RAS had worn off, and every color and rivet and face stood out bright and clear. Her body was simultaneously and paradoxically energized with fatigue. She felt like she could take on the world, as long as the world included a warm bunk.
“Hey kid!” It was the big guy, working on something at a table. “You lost?”
Fortunately, it was impossible to get lost on the Armstrong. It was two dimensional, and there were maps and signs everywhere.
“No, I'm fine, just turning in.”
“Oh really? Want me to...” He smiled a bit too broadly, “show you to your bunk? It can get pretty cold out here in space.”
Rin scowled, “No?” And why not twist the dagger a bit? She gave him a quick once-over, for effect. “Ew.” and was on her way.
The big guy laughed, a single sharp bark without malice, and went back to his work.
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. The corollary force pushed her gently against the ladders uprights as she descended, keeping her from spinning out of control.
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, knocking her feet harmlessly into the door frame, 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.
Relnf was there too, but he was too cool to say anything.
“No need to hurry. The ship isn't on fire,” Chef continued.
“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.” Relnf put in 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 ‘the big guy’, 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. With pale skin, a black goatee, and a ponytail, his appearance was a study in contrast. Buck also displayed an odd penchant for handing out nicknames, perhaps defending his position as one of the few veteran crew to which none had stuck. He was the one that had labeled Rin “Ninja”, saying that she had disappeared without a trace after they had met.
But despite his physically imposing presence, Rin had found Buck to be inexplicably standoffish. He seemed to use the jokes and nicknames to keep people at a distance. She wondered what injury or grief had caused this.
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 filled the doorway, eyes wide.
Rin glanced 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. Predictably, this knocked a clip-board and a pair of pens off a nearby shelf, and Buck began fumbling with them as they tumbled through the air in slow motion.
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 site.
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 or a buzz. 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 and 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. 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 was inexplicably silent.
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 cultural stimulation.
Coarse laughter burst from the room she had just left. This could end up being a very long six months.
She passed through the crew quarters and reached the bottom of L3, then paused. 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 wheeling slowly by. Look out one side, and it seemed like the ship was falling forever. Look out the other side, and you felt like you were rising. The dark made it feel like night all the time, except when they were near a star. Then the sweeping beam of light gave the impression that they had just been spotted by police helicopters.
“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 now I see that's not the case. Do you have any clothes I can wash?”
“No, thanks. 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?”
“Let's go.” Rin made for the ladder, stopped herself again, and headed aft to L4.
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 patiently 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 made a list of all the bad things that would happen if it failed. If “unconsciousness or death” was on the list, 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 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 but subtle finger of ubiquitous chaos.
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, plus extra to be on the safe side.
The power plant wasn't much more than a passage with removable panels to let them get at the important bits as needed. The passage was lined with refrigerator-sized cargo containers with large handles for the bulky gloves of EVA suits. Each 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.
The power plant was situated along the spine, with the access tunnels just off the axis. As such, “gravity” was lower and movement more closely resembled lunar bunny-hopping than walking. As 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 in a dream, slow to start and slow to stop, but otherwise trivial. 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. That, and your fingertips were always in shadow. Rin reminded herself again to make a note to have David get Akimbo to make some gloves with fiber optics so that the light came out your fingertips.
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 practically swam through the access space until she was even with the window-sized access panel. Once there, she braced herself, metal ribs coolly pressing into the backs of her shoulders, and began to work.
“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, and 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 rested for a moment, pondering. She hadn't thought about it in a while, and 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. It's been done in computer games of course, and there were flowcharts, but apparently someone thought an empirical test was in order.”
“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? Rin briefly entertained the thought of “losing” the fasteners for a few days.
“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. His feet beat a hollow marching rhythm on the deck.
“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 officers' 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 HKM developed.
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 report.”
“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. Water tends to darken surfaces. Seeing water on an already dark substrate 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. So Rin raised her eyebrows pointedly and waited.
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. Had Ando turned off his cameras? Could he see when his eyes were “closed”? Rin suspected, but the added touch would be interesting. 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.
“Oh, hey Rin.” Andrea laughed her nervous little laugh, “Got the hang of the Armstrong?”
Rin was standing by the long vertical window in the daycomp, looking out at the stars. The rotation of the vessel meant that they were constantly scrolling by. Rin was trying to pick out familiar constelations, but the Armstrong had gone far enough that the shapes of the sky had shifted. There was no point in memorizing the local constellations -- they were just going to jump a dozen lightyears in the next few days and shift them all again -- but it was entertaining to try.
“Yeah, lots of local customs.” Rin said, turning around and facing Andrea.
“Takes a bit of getting used to huh?” Andrea laughed again.
She was the only other woman on the lower decks, but up until now Rin hadn't actually had a conversation with her. Andrea slept in the bunk below Rin, which she could tell from the spare bra hung to dry just inside the privacy curtain. Rin had rather hoped to have a bedside chat before falling asleep, but their shifts just hadn't lined up.
“Used to be Bernice would hand out booklets” Andrea went on, “They had illustrations the captain didn't approve of.” She laughed again, a twitter, and then said brightly, “But now we've got you!”
“So, what are your duties on the ship?” Rin asked.
“Same as yours, checks and maintenance. I unofficially handle all the exterior interface. Airlocks, drone launch ports, re-fueling couplings, antennas. I EVA every week and do a full external sweep, but most of it is reachable from the tunnels.”
“Wow.” Rin stared off down the corridor for a moment, “Do those systems... fail a lot?”
Andrea twittered again, “No no. Thank goodness! We catch problems long before they become, well problems. I'd guess the anthropic principle is involved.”
“People are paranoid?”
“And people who aren't don't survive space travel.”
“Or, don't design space ships anyhow.”
“Exactly. Speaking of surviving, I should get back to my rounds.”
“Need any help?” Rin asked hopefully.
Andrea shook her head, “It would be more trouble to explain than just do it myself.”
“Yeah, I understand. We're all just so busy.” Rin left the implication open.
“That's what the cert courses are for right? Thanks though.” She gave a little wave and passed lightly down the companionway.
Rin turned back to the window, and muttered to herself, “And I'm using so many of those.”
She kept trying to invent constellations for a few minutes until a synthetic voice interrupted her meditations. “Rin?”
Rin turned round again, “Yeah Ando? What's up?”
“I'm concerned about Molly. This is a great opportunity for her, but she isn't reaching out to the crew. I'm afraid she is becoming useless. Can you help her find something to do?”
“I've got my rounds in a few minutes Ando. I don't know when I'll be able to...” But of course, this was the other side. Always too busy to lighten the load. “But I'll think of something.”
Ando's face changed to a question mark. “I'm sorry. I don't know that I understood you.”
“You're right Ando, it would be a waste if Molly had nothing to do. I'll try to find something for her.”
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.
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 a half-Jupe. Your variance is going to be huge. There's no way we have enough speed for that transfer.”
“Yes, thanks for pointing that out.” replied the woman in the left-side seat. Rin didn't know what 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 burning up.
“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 simply liked being in the know.
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 internal atmosphere was drawn 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 vibrating arm-sized ducts ran from the deck to the overhead.
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. 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.
“Ahh. I wondered where the crew put her.” Ando said.
Rin recovered, realizing the body was Molly, the other robot. “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 just as rigid and room temperature as a real corpse, and only slightly less disturbing.
“How did she go flat? Did she forget to recharge herself?” Rin felt like she should raise her voice slightly to be heard over the ambient hollow thrumming of the air handlers. It was making her feel more upset than she wanted to be. Ando merely increased his volume, without changing his tone.
“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 a precise conscious knowledge of our own bodies, better than nearly all humans. We also have basic motor skills, a broad vocabulary of concrete concepts, knowledge of sentence structure, and some understanding of safety. We even start with a few social concepts, like tone of voice and respect for personal space. A new robot in our class is roughly 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 botic 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? Bots 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 denser 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.
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. 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. She returned to her spot on the floor; She could tell exactly where it was due to the residual warmth. Room temperature metal was a lot colder than body temperature metal.
“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. We are working together, both for director Reed, and for captain Wheeler. 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.
Just wanting one decent cup of coffee... per day,
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 that excite him?
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 bots 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 bot 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 even got certs for work in the power plant.”
“It's obvious she's made for rods, just not fuel rods.”
“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 bot with great big glossy lips, fat tits, and that tiny little waist, and plus 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.”
“Not everyone. 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.
Relnf breezed through. He evoked the “popular kid” atmosphere, apparently without even trying. Only a bit taller than Rin, Relnf walked like he owned the Armstrong instead of being a junior crew member.
“Hey Nero.” Chef shot out as he turned once again to his show.
Relnf smiled brilliantly, “Chef. Ninja.” He nodded, as if he understood perfectly. No party here, and time to move on. “Keep it Stodgin folks!” and he was gone. Rin had avoided being pulled into his orbit during the trip, but still felt the lure of his easy-going gregarious aura. Maybe when they got back to earth there would be a real party where they could all let their guard down. Meanwhile Chef didn't seem to be in the mood for any more bickering, so she went back to craning her neck to get a glimpse out the window. She believed Chef about the planet, but didn't want to be seen behaving as if she could be so easily dissuaded. Let him stew in his orneriness for a while longer.
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.
“Still orbiting this hunk of charred 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 going 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.
“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.”
“Bastard.” Buck said again.
Outside, the orb swung by. The ship was aligned to be nose-first when they passed the abberation. At the current point in their orbit, this put the planet roughly abeam.
Cash pointed out the 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 confirmed with him that there was, in fact, no such thing as a 'Writing Cursive in Space' certification) 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 withdrawal.”
“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 gift their technology to us, I'm still not sharing. Not unless they also have coffee to trade. It looks like a lot now, but if I only have one a day I'll still 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 only 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, 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 efforts were simply a very ambitious and expensive endeavor 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.”
“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. His emotions were not hidden. Instead they were synthesized for the purposes of communication. He would tell you how he felt, but it was a translation for some other set of inscrutable internal state. His feelings were part of his language, not core to his being the way they were to people.
Or were they? Rin realized that many people might operate the same way that Ando seemed to, generating feelings when called on instead of living in them moment by moment. How could you tell what someone else was really feeling?
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.”
“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 just be a hollow 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 EP units fill 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 star field 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 power plant, and close to everything else. 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.
The RAS equipment clicked thoughtfully, performing some sort of inscrutable self-maintenance procedure. How much power did this stuff use just sitting here?
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.”
Why is the Armstrong shaped this way?
I understand it's complicated, and there are tons of factors I don't know, but I've been over it a hundred times in the past week and there are a few gaping holes I can't fill.
The foremost is artificial gravity. It's a huge waste. I've been all over this ship, and there's just no reason we can't do all of this in zero g. Yes, there's bone loss, but you can solve that other ways than spinning the whole ship. I know enough engineering to understand that the ship is at least twice as heavy as it would be without all the centrifugal force. Plus it increases the injury rate and makes you dizzy when you pass through the axis.
The second is the pointed nose. We're not flying through atmosphere here, so why is the ship streamlined? There's even thermal plating like on the old space shuttle! The Armstrong doesn't land. It can't land. If it enters the atmosphere we're all going to die, period. Is there some sort of contingency “landing interstellar vessels” maneuver they teach the pilots? If not, why is the ship streamlined? If so... that's dumb.
The third is the deck stacking. Even if we need artificial gravity, and streamlining, the crew decks should be twice as wide and not stacked on top of each other. It would make the ship look like a flying I-beam instead of a spear head, but who cares? This would make the crew decks much easier to maneuver, save on conditioned volume, and give a uniform artificial gravity. As it is, we're significantly lighter on decks two and seven than on one and eight. If artificial gravity is the point, why not make it uniform?
I just know you'll answer all these objections with a single carefully crafted sentence when I get back. You smug asshole!
Yours, with all due respect, affection, etc.
“You can smell it, can't you Rin?” Stan turned to face the pair who had just entered the room.
Rin and Ando had just started doing their rounds for the day. Rin didn’t need to accompany him, but she did it for companionship. As they traveled back through the ship a heated discussion grew nearer. Rin had hoped they could somehow avoid it, but on a ship the size of the Armstrong, anyone's problems soon became everyone's problems. She turned to face the embroiled crewmen.
Stan looked the part of the professor. With thinning black hair and nearly childlike features he appeared to be alternately twenty or fifty. He was Chinese if Rin's guess wasn't off, but spoke without accent. His specialty on the ship was electronics, but he often handled small maintenance tasks and modifications. This kind of undocumented in-flight fiddling made the engineers back on Earth tear out their hair whenever a vessel came back to port. But, it make things a lot smoother during the missions, or so Stan would say. Today, apparently, he had found an issue he couldn't solve without talking to someone. Talking to people was not Stan's specialty.
Rin sighed, “Smell what?”
“The ship stinks like a sewer, that's what!” ranted Stan.
Orley just smiled and leaned back against the bulk-head, “Like I said, it's not a major issue.”
Orley was the flight engineer. His job was to make sure everything that made the ship go, just kept on going. He had the odd ability to seem simultaneously busy and laid back. Before the mission, Rin had somehow assumed the ship's engineer would be German, but he had turned out to be from Tennessee. He worked hard to hide the accent, but only succeeded in conquering the drawl, and not the cadence.
Orley and Stan were always arguing about something. Rin was just glad that they mostly left the rest of the crew alone.
But Stan wasn't going to be talked down, “Yeah? The heat scavenger is leaking waste water into the air system, and it's not a major issue? I'd hate to be around when a 'Major' issue finally shows up!”
Orley just nodded, “You and me both.”
“Wait a minute,” said Rin “we're breathing sewage?”
“No.” Orley stated emphatically, making no other motion. “It's probably just someone forgot to clear the head.”
“And I'm telling you the heat exchanger is leaking and we need to do something about it. Yes Rin, we are.”
Orley just shrugged, “No more than usual. Filtering contaminants is a part of being alive. Deal.”
“Isn't this, you know, unhealthy?” Rin asked.
“Ehh,” Orley dithered “You can't even smell it.”
“But, you know, bacteria in the air and stuff.” Rin insisted.
“Listen, you don't go around complaining about the health hazard when Chef cracks one loose.” Orley shrugged, “this is basically the same thing.”
“Not it's not, and you know it!” said Stan.
“Well,” said Rin, “Why don't we ask the doctor? Seems like health is his territory.”
“Don't do it.” warned Orley, “Even if it was an issue he couldn't fix it, and it would just cause real problems.”
“Perhaps” Ando cut in, “You would find the moisture issue more convincing.”
“What.” Orley looked down at Ando.
“The added water in the air could condense on electronics, or cause corrosion. We check for condensation during our rounds. Although not above danger thresholds, the amount of condensation has been rising over the past week.” Ando's face changed to a question mark. “Could this be the cause?”
“Look Stan,” Orley said, leaning slowly back through the door. “I didn't say don't fix it. I'm just saying I don't think it's a problem.”
“So you're going to write me up when we get back?”
“Hey I'd be happy as you to have the exchanger fixed. But if you break anything, I warned you it wasn't an issue.”
Stan scowled harder than ever, if that had been possible. “C.M.A. Orley. Goes both ways.”
Orley just shrugged as he finished his slow motion turn through the door and strode slowly away in the half grav.
Stan stared after him for a moment, then snapped his head round to Rin and gave her a once over, as if she were out of uniform. “Don't you have something to be doing?”
“Can you help me Rin?” It was Ando.
Rin had just begun her mid-shift break. If everyone ate together, she would have called it lunch. As it was, they were all on rotating shifts, to break up the monotony, and to keep the galley from overflowing. In Rin's opinion all it did was break up crew friendships. Today the only other person in the galley was Jacobs.
Rin stopped peeling open her plastic tube of salmon. “What's up Ando?”
“Some sort of debris has clogged my charging port. I am not getting a good connection.”
“Let's take a look.”
As Rin knelt down, Ando turned around, “Crewman Jacobs, if this makes you uncomfortable, we can move to a more private place.”
Jacobs was one of those tall guys that you thought must have been homeschooled. But no, he had been to public school like everyone else. He was competent, but awkward and over-sure of himself. His lanky frame only accented his lack of grace. Rin guessed that he asked all the questions in his certification classes. Probably innocently antagonizing ones like “Why are we learning this?” and “Will the remote airlock pendant work under relativistic conditions?” He was nicknamed “Danger”, but Rin hadn't heard the story behind it.
Jacobs looked up from his lunch, and set his utensils on the table. He then waved vaguely with both hands, “No, I'm fine.” he said before returning to his food. It occurred to Rin that Jacobs and Molly having a conversation would be terrifying to watch.
Rin found that Ando's access panel was left hanging slightly open. It was made of some translucent flexible substance, silicone rubber or something. After coming to think of Ando as a person, fiddling with panels in his back made Rin feel slightly creepy. Like finding out your baby brother has a wind-up key.
Rin peered and prodded a bit. “I don't see anything the matter Ando.” She was just about to rise when Jacobs startled her by appearing suddenly at her side. His knees popped as he crouched down.
“I'm pretty good with fixing things.” He said without preamble as he pushed Rin to the side with his shoulder. He flicked out a knife and began to delicately pry at the contacts. With a sharp flick he disengaged the entire connector and pulled it free from Ando's back.
“Will you please replace that?” Ando said, “I'm afraid you have just violated my terms of service.”
“Yeah, I see what's wrong.” said Jacobs, “You've got lint all in here. Packed in really well.”
“Probably all that laundry you've been doing Ando.” Rin said.
“The access cover should keep out foreign materials.” stated Ando.
“Oh, did you know it was partially open?”
“I did not.”
“I used to clean contacts all the time.” Said Jacobs, “My brothers used to get sand stuck in their game sets from playing at the beach. I kept telling them that the sand wouldn't cause any problems. Then when they asked me to clean the ports, I'd charge them. Pretty smart huh?”
Ando replied “A clever tactic.” but said no more.
Buck strode through the room, handily stepping over the crouched threesome. “Joining the robot revolution, eh Danger?”
Jacobs snatched at Buck's foot as it went swinging over his head, “Join us or die, Buck! Plus we've got females!”
Rin felt her lips press together as Buck whisked his foot to safety. “Ooh, tempting," he said, hopping briefly on one leg, "but I've got KYS duty. Maybe later!”
They were all silent for another minute while Jacobs finished. A few rooms away, a painful sounding clunk was followed by a muffled monolog.
“There you go!” He snapped the connector back into Ando's back. “I bet it works better than ever! I won't charge you though. Crewmates and all.” He smiled ingratiatingly, then walked back and resumed his meal.
Rin wanted to say “What a jerk!” but the room was too small for even a whisper to go unheard. Instead she raised her eyebrows at Ando for a moment. Ando gave her about half a second of a smiling face before resuming his neutral expression.
“Now that I'm here, would you like me to share your lunch with you?” Ando asked.
“Um, no, that's okay. You've probably got other things to do right?”
“Your rounds, you mean?”
“Um, yeah. Are you having any trouble with those?”
“None at all.”
“I feel kind of bad sticking you with the work.”
“I prefer conversation to solitary duties, but I would rather do the work than force you to do so.”
“Okay, thanks Ando.”
“I'll see you around then.” said Ando, and walked from the galley.
Rin continued her lunch. It wasn't the same without coffee, and eating smoked salmon from a plastic tube didn't make it much better. The “tube” itself was shaped vaguely like a fish, with heat sealed edges which would cut you if you were clumsy when squeezing it out. The labeling proclaimed it as “premium” and, in all fairness, it was pretty good. The main complaint about the food wasn't the taste, but what it did to one's bowel movements. David had joked about eating paste and eliminating in a tube, but really it was the other way around.
“Hey Rin.” It was Jacobs. He had apparently finished his meal and was now going to put the moves on the only single crew member.
Rin braced herself. “What's up Jacobs?”
“You're kind of friends with the bots now, right?”
Rin wasn't sure how to interpret this. She decided on a neutral response, “As much as anyone is I suppose.”
“I really like how you're training them to do stuff. It must be nice to have duties you can delegate.”
“Well, you could too, Ando and Molly are really pretty competent.”
“No, my duties are complicated. I wouldn't know where to start! I'd have to make a flowchart, and a separate manual, and before you know it I'd be doing two jobs instead of one. Easier to just do it myself.”
“You might be surprised how easy it is to instruct people.”
“Like I said, I'm glad you're doing it. That shows a lot of smarts and patience. Let's hope you get promoted instead of replaced, yeah?”
“Yeah, let's hope.”
I can't get over how strange the decision making process is around here. On the one hand we're all given a great amount of latitude to do stuff. The crew make their own decisions and judgments. But then, when “bigger” decisions are made, the captain treats everyone like we're incompetent and inert.
I suspect this attitude trickles down from the higher-ups, because I've been noticing it with all the officers, and even some of the senior crew recently. I wonder, is this even more pronounced at the administrative level of ISAC? A gradient usually points to a source, like following a river upstream.
I don't necessarily disagree with the decisions that are being made, but the process is a silly waste of time. Every feature of the Armstrong just screams “design by committee!” They probably sat for weeks pouring over the details, only to miss the fact that the towels won't dry in the bathroom, and you have to hang them up in the night-comp. There's a million silly things like that, and it's driving me crazy. Even a first-year architect would notice this kind of stuff!
This mission is the same way. It must be a microcosm of the ISAC culture. The Captain is the authority, but she can't be bothered to take responsibility when things go wrong. That and there's no way to hold the Captain responsible for her choices, or express discontent in a productive way. So instead everyone weighs in, and then we go with what the Captain wanted all along. We have too few probes, but instead of saving them we spend a few on each clearly barren world we come across. The captain wants to forego the transfer warning, so the compromise is making smaller transfers, which are only slightly less disruptive and waste a ton of time!
I just can't believe that an organization can run like this at all. If I tried to shirk all responsibilities... well, I don't know what would happen actually, but it would be bad. You can't just punish the victims and expect the perpetrators to notice. It's madness.
“Your move” said Ando.
They had set up the game board in the Rec-Comp and were playing chess. Rin had never been very good at chess, but the game was going fairly well. They were both taking back moves on request, and several severe blunders had been sidestepped in the friendly competition. In the other corner of the tiny room Markus and Buck were talking. Not laboring to be secret meant that all three of them -- four if you counted Ando -- were sharing one odd disjointed conversation.
Markus said “Really, I'll be glad to have a break.”
“Not that we have any choice.” Put in Buck.
Rin pushed a pawn forward in what she suspected was a desperately safe move. The strategy of making un-impeachable and uninteresting plays had worked for her so far. “Your turn” she said unnecessarily. Ando put his hand to his chin in a mime of thoughtful contemplation. The geometry of his hands and head was such that this required him to tilt his head back comically. Rin had seen this gesture before. “Is that 'thinking' gesture the same every time?” she asked.
“I try to vary the specifics to keep it fresh. Does it appear unnatural to you?” Ando responded.
“Well, would you rather work, or sleep?” Asked Markus.
Rin wrinkled her nose in concentration. “It's a very theatrical gesture.”
“Oh totally sleep, but it's just annoying to be useless.” answered Buck.
Rin glanced at the two sitting at the other table, “Who's useless?” She gave Buck a sly grin. “I mean, besides you obviously.”
“We all are! Except for ro-boy there.” said Buck
“Oh come on Buck.” said Markus. "At least I appreciate you."
“Well,” said Rin, “we all have jobs to do, I don't see why Ando shouldn't.”
“But that's just it!” Buck leaned forward, “That's how it always starts!” His eyes grew wide, “The robot uprising!” He stared accusingly at Ando.
“Your turn Rin.” said Ando. Then he turned to Buck, “Are you making a joke? Or leveling an accusation of mutiny? I have trouble distinguishing.”
Rin laughed, “See Buck! That's what a good joke sounds like!”
“No, I am in earnest.” Ando stated.
Buck rolled his eyes, “I'm joking Ando. It's just, now that the survey is almost done, and with you and Molly doing most of the maintenance, we aren't needed any more.” Buck gestured with his thumb back and forth between himself and Markus. Rin felt slightly left out. She would be going into RAS with the rest of them.
“I thought,” said Rin distractedly as she contemplated her move “that we were going into RAS to save on HAF.”
“Well yeah, but they'd never put me under if the bots weren't doing maintenance. I'm on the primary crew!”
“Oh I get it” chuckled Markus, “You're just feeling elitist. Can't be lumped with the secondaries. I understand. Thanks for the compliment.”
Buck looked slightly hurt, “Come on Mark. You've been prime before. This isn't how things work.”
Rin moved her only surviving Knight into a better position. At least... it looked better. “Your turn Ando. Markus is right though, wouldn't you rather have time off than patrol the pipes for a month?”
Buck didn't answer. Rin wondered if he was sulking. Then she heard the snap of a card on the table and realized that he and Markus had resumed their card game. She and Ando continued playing chess in silence. It was fairly even right up to the end when, through apparent dumb luck, Rin was handed a fantastic fork of Ando's rook against his king. After that -- and realizing that a great deal of take-backs would be required to avoid the situation -- the game ended quickly. Rin could hardly believe she had won.
Suddenly, she was struck with an insulting intuition “You let me win, didn't you?”
“I believe we both took back several bad moves.” Ando replied calmly. His face was placid.
“Yeah, but why didn't you see that fork coming?”
“I am not optimized for chess playing. As you may have noticed, I'm not much better than you.”
“But how can that be? You're a computer right? Can't you just, load a chess playing program into your brain or something?”
Ando sidestepped the question, “Did you know that Markus is a world rated chess player?”
Rin smiled, “Heh, just the special chess they play on the Armstrong.”
“No, they play that because Markus can beat anyone here at the normal game.”
“Not without trying.” Markus added.
“Would you have appreciated it if I asked Markus for advice on which moves to make?”
“Well, no. But I see where this is going. Your programming is part of you.”
“I can reveal without saying too much” said Ando, smiling brightly, “that there is no chess programing involved in my central decision making.”
“So, if you wanted to get better at Chess, you'd have to practice or study or something?”
“Correct. I doubt you would get a lobotomy, even if you believed it would make you excellent at playing chess.”
“Of course not.”
“For me, having my core processes changed is akin to a lobotomy. I'm not the same person afterword.”
“And running a chess program on the side would be cheating.”
Ando's face resumed its neutral expression “It feels like cheating to me, yes.”
Markus put his cards down and turned in his seat. “So when you took those certification classes, you were actually learning stuff?”
“You can't just, download a 'professional spaceman' program or something?” Markus asked quizzically.
“Unfortunately, I cannot divulge my internal programming or capabilities. But I can say that such a process might drive me insane.”
“Ando,” Buck put in, “you're the weirdest bot I've ever heard of.”
Ando's face was replaced by a question mark. “Would you do it, crewman Markus?”
Rin knew that Buck would have fired off some quip if this were directed at him, but Markus sat thoughtfully for a moment. “Choose between being perfectly competent, or perfectly sane?” He shook his head, “Got me Ando, I don't know.”
“Do you not find the process of learning, practicing, and working enjoyable?” asked Ando. Rin had never seen him this aggressive in an argument. Or maybe he was just genuinely curious. How could you tell?
“Well, yeah, when it's not boring stuff like doing rounds. Say, do you get bored Ando?”
“Yes, I believe I do.”
Markus nodded silently to himself, and Ando did not elaborate.
Buck rose to his feet “Well, I've got some enjoyable duties to finish up before we're all boxed like popsicles. Take care everyone, you too Ando.” As he backed out of the room he shot Rin a wink.
Ando also stood, “Thank you for the game Rin. I enjoyed it. I should begin my rounds now.”
“Yeah, thanks. Or,” Rin's tongue stumbled “you're welcome.”
Rin rolled up the board and put away the pieces in their plastic tube. She could hear Markus re-shuffling the deck behind her.
“And how do you feel about RAS Miss Rin?” his voice was so sudden it startled her.
“Oh, same as usual I guess. It's better than being bored for weeks on end.”
“But not as good as having interesting duties.”
“Not much fun, no. A nap is fine, but a two month nap is just disorienting.”
Markus put away the deck and walked over to the table where Rin was sitting. “Personally I find it fascinating.” he said, resting his chin on his palm and looking out the window. “The dreams, the changes that go on while I sleep in safety. It's almost like time travel if you think about it.”
“Wait, you have dreams?”
“I understand most people can't remember them. The drugs I suppose. A mixed blessing. Some of them are truly terrifying, and you can't wake up no matter how hard you try.”
“That must be horrible.” Rin shuddered. “I'm sorry.”
“There are good ones too. Flying freely among huge trees, cups of water as large as the ocean that you can drink dry, fiery little sprites who will grant you wishes, a tiny garden of perfect roses.”
“You must have a wonderful imagination.” Said Rin. She was sad now that she hadn't discovered the fascinating side of Markus until just before the mission was over. It was like finding a lovely nook in the school library just before graduating.
“Like I said, it's mixed. I won't tell you about the nightmares, but they are interesting as well. You can learn a lot about yourself by what happens to you in your dreams.”
They sat for a while in silence. Markus still stared out the window. Rin sat pondering the tube filled with magnetic chess pieces. They sat in stasis, encapsulated until they were needed. Finally Markus turned to Rin. He looked her dead in the eye, a gaze that made her heart skip a beat.
“It's been a pleasure. Perhaps we can continue this conversation some other time?”
Rin considered responding “In your dreams!” but the pun wasn't worth the possible offense. Instead she merely said “Yes. Let's.”
Rin was hungry. Entering RAS required a specially tuned diet. In this case “specially tuned” meant drinking gel for three days straight. The stuff was inert in every way. In its base state it was nutritionless, colorless, and odorless. The diet prep gel had been mixed with sugar and artificial flavors to keep it from tasting like room temperature egg whites. The label on the package said “orange flavored.” The crew each had their own favorite analogy for the stuff, most involving bodily fluids. Rin's favorite was “someone sucked on an air freshener and then drooled into an IV bag”. Mostly, it was like drinking runny snot. Whatever the case, it wasn't very filling or satisfying.
Rin was sitting on the RAS prep table, waiting for Dr. Fournier to prepare the injections. Now that the moment was arriving, Rin had remembered the panic she felt when she came out of the RAS the last time. It was one thing to lose your memory. It was quite another to realize that you were about to lose your memory before it happened.
“So, how far back does the amnesia go?”
Would she even remember this conversation? She wondered. What else had she forgotten?
Dr. Fournier had retrieved an octopus tangle of slender clear plastic tubes. In the low gravity they looped and floated crazily, like hair underwater. “Two hours from time of injection.” He took a step over to the table, and Rin had to twist around to keep looking at him.
“How often do you say that, and people don't remember, and you tell them again?”
“It varies.” He looked up at her for a moment, before attaching one of the tubes to a clip on the table. “You, for example, did not ask me last time.”
The tubes each ended in a little clear bulb pierced by three holes. The smallest of the bulbs were barely an eighth of an inch across. There were a couple of sections with two bulbs, but most had only one. Rin would be fully sedated before the final hookups were made, and they would be removed before she awoke. Still, she couldn't help but feel a bit squeamish.
“I thought it was one of the ground crew who did the RAS prep.”
“I like to prep my own charges.”
Rin had gone over the events leading up to the last time she was sedated. She had been driven to the campus medical center and waited for a while. Why was it that she was always waiting for doctors? Couldn't they keep a schedule? Did they just like having a backlog so that they could move from patient to patient without a pause? The last thing she remembered, unsettlingly, was walking down a corridor and the smell of disinfectant.
Since she had nothing to go on after that, her brain had helpfully filled in the gap with an invented history. In her mind's eye she was hit with a tranquilizer dart in the neck, and collapsed to the floor. An ugly orderly emerged from the shadows, dragged her unconscious form to a shipping dock, and unceremoniously folded her into a giant vial. The vial was shipped to a huge bottling factory, where thousands of the things were flooded with gel and sent off to international space expeditions around the world. She had a vivid image of the giant vial just after her on the assembly line, filled with the coffee grounds for the trip. Being saturated with RAS gel was a decent explanation of the coffee's flavor.
This whole scenario was utterly absurd of course. However, it was less terrifying than a gaping hole in her history, so Rin had let it stand. Occasionally the thought of it would make her chuckle to herself as she did some mundane task aboard the ship. There were also occasional nightmares. The most common one involved turning over and over, looking out the little window, trying to move her arm through the gel fast enough to break the glass, slowly drowning.
“So it's always two hours exactly? What if someone is really big? Does it take a long time for the drugs to affect them?”
“The cognitive disjunction is inconsistent. It varies between patients and events. Your low body mass has very little to do with it.” He laid the tubes along the table with the casual negligence of a bored expert and moved to the other side.
Rin was wearing a medical gown, the kind that is not quite large enough to wrap all the way around a normal person. Fortunately, Rin's “low body mass” made up for it, and she was fully covered. This was good, because the RAS bay was probably the coldest place in the ship. Unfortunately, she was still wearing what was essentially an uncomfortable paper dress. Also, talking to a taciturn man who was about to inject her with amnesia drugs and then stick tubes in her ears.
“Are these gowns reused?”
“Yes, we clean and disinfect them between RAS events.”
“Do you know who used this one last time?”
Dr. Fournier merely looked up at her for a long moment before finishing attaching the tubes to the table. “The cavity purge manifold is new every time.” he said with a sudden charming smile, “If that's any comfort.”
“But wait!” said Rin, suddenly confused “Why not re-use the tubes and toss the gown! The manifold ...”
Rin could never remember completing the sentence, or Fournier's response. The only scrap she had after this was Cash yelling something as he slid down the ladder. Yelling, and sliding, forever.