“What planet are you from?” Rin shouted rhetorically at the car out the window. “On this one we use turn signals! Jerk.” She reluctantly let off the gas to give the pushy driver his way.
Houston did not have climate or seasons as Rin understood them. It had “hot”. Certainly, there was day and there was night. Both had smothering humidity and relentless heat. The only difference between the two was that one was significantly brighter than the other. Some days -- like today, for example -- the humidity took the form of dense, splattering rain. The inhabitants took this as an excuse to drive like crazy people.
Rin hated when this happened, because it meant that traffic would slow to a crawl. She had exactly one hour between the end of work and the start of her first evening class. This was just enough time to grab a well-deserved bite to eat. Sometimes she might skip the meal and take a twenty-minute nap in the university parking lot instead. If traffic slowed her down too much, she wouldn't get to do either. Today she had earned both.
“You are three miles from your exit,” Roberto said.
“Thank you,” she replied in a sing-song voice. Roberto was the name she gave to her late-model Mitsubishi Wayfinder. One of the car's options allowed the driver to replace the bland “business” voice with a smooth, confident, Latin-flavored alternative. Because of this, she left all of the verbal cues active, even trivial ones. She knew the way from work to school by heart, and the car projected directional cues onto the windshield, both of which rendered Roberto's vocal directions superfluous. But she enjoyed hearing his casual observations and route suggestions. On most days this was the closest thing she had to a conversation.
She glanced at the dashboard screen. It was 5:33pm. She did the math. She wasn't going to have enough time to pick up food. In this weather, drive-through would be packed. She would have to settle for sleep today. This made her more impatient, since every minute spent driving was now a minute less sleep.
“Pop music,” Rin said, hoping to wake herself up enough to make it to school.
“Is there a particular genre of pop music you would like to enjoy?” Roberto asked helpfully.
Incongruously cheerful pop music flowed into the cabin. A woman began singing in French. Rin thought to ask for something in English or Japanese, but then realized that one string of cheerfully vapid mush was like any other. She probably wasn't missing out on anything approaching Shakespearean poetry.
Rin flicked her eyes to the left mirror. A car was shadowing her. “Turn your lights on, idiot.”
“The lights are already on,” Roberto replied triumphantly.
“Not you,” Rin said gently, the way someone might talk to a dumb puppy. This other driver was one of those people who assumed that he didn't need to use his headlights because he could see where he was going, because it was daytime. What he failed to realize was that with his lights off, his gray car blended in with the gray rain, the gray fog, and the gray spray of water coming off the road.
Was it going to rain like this tonight? She wasn't looking forward to the prospect of driving in this piss after dark. “Weather?” she asked.
The dash-screen flicked on and began a little animation letting her know that she could upgrade her autonet access to the premium plan and remove advertisements -- mostly this one, she suspected -- and get better throughput, along with the many other unspecified benefits of being on the Mitsubishi network. The music from the ad clashed with her radio. “Skip.” she growled impatiently, but the audio parser couldn't hear her over the dueling songs, or didn’t care.
Roberto was the one thing she'd dared to spend money on. Everything else was saved for school. She lived in an apartment only slightly larger than a prison cell. She ate basic staples and she almost never went out for entertainment. Early on she decided if she was going to endure this marathon of study, work, and commuting, then the one thing she would need is a good car. School was going to be a pain in the ass, but damn if she wasn't going to tackle it from behind the wheel of a car that was easy to park, fun to drive, and had the voice of a sexy, Spanish-speaking stud.
The ad ended and she was connected to the weather service, which then ran an ad for snow tires.
“Skip,” she shouted. The ad ended, and the screen presented her with an image of the planet.
“Local weather, dummy!” she said with irritation.
The screen changed again, and she was worried that they were going to hit her with another ad, but instead it mercifully brought up the local weather.
“You are two miles from your exit,” Roberto said.
Brake lights lit the road ahead. “Oh no. Please don't do this to me. Not today.” Rin rubbed the side of her head and clenched her teeth. She'd been darting through traffic for the last mile, but now found herself behind a couple of harbingers of misery. In the right lane was a wide utility truck, loping along far below the speed limit. In the passing lane, someone had tried to get around the truck, but had given up half way. The road was clear in front of them, but neither one seemed inclined to let anyone else into that paradise of open asphalt.
She looked at the dash screen, but she couldn't read it. Whoever designed the cabin for this model of Wayfinder had decided that they didn't want an ugly display frame disturbing the graceful curves of their beautifully sculpted dashboard, so they went with a curved screen that was molded to follow this organic shape. The resulting convex surface turned out to be a perfect tool for catching glare. The top half of the convex display -- which was where tonight's forecast was printed -- was drowned out by the light coming in through her windshield. She craned her neck to try and get a better view.
She realized this design might be more useful if she wasn't so dang short.
Rin glanced in her rear-view. The shadow car was still there. She couldn't see it, but she could see it eclipsing the headlights of the cars behind her as it moved around.
“Manual drive,” Rin said.
“Driver now has manual control,” Roberto announced. The car dropped into neutral and the gearshift lit up.
Rin jerked the stick into third. She found manual driving was wonderful for relieving stress. Roberto's voice helped as well. It was hard to remain furious when someone else seemed so at ease.
“You have a call,” Her tel chirped.
Where was her tel? She ran her hands over the likely pockets in her shirt, but it wasn't there. Her skirt didn't have any pockets. Also, it didn't sound like the chirp was coming from anywhere on her person. She glanced around the cabin. The tel chirped again and repeated the announcement. Rin could hear the voice was emanating from the nest of fast food packaging in the passenger-side foot space. It must have slid off the seat while she was driving. This call was actually a lucky break. If not for this she might have walked off without it.
Her tel did not have a relaxing voice. It was a bargain model, and defaulted to a dreadfully retro synth-vox. If it had any personality at all, it was that of an air-headed bimbo. Rin always meant to look for an alternative voice, but she only thought of it in moments like this.
The bubbly female voice floated out of the trash announcing, “Mister David Reed.” It mashed the first two words too close together, and then put an incongruous pause after “David”. This annoyed Rin further. She promised herself to not forget to replace the voice this time. She recalled promising herself this before.
She was off work, and under no obligation to talk to her boss. On the other hand, if she let him slide into voice mail then he'd probably just try to call back when she was just drifting off to her nap.
“Music down,” she said to Roberto. “Answer,” she said to her tel with resignation. “What is it Mr. Reed?” He was probably calling to try and rope her into orbital duty again.
“Well! Since we're being so formal Miss Shimazaki... I wanted to ask you if you'd considered-“
“I did consider it. I already said no. I'm not going into space.” She made a mental note to not call him Mr. Reed next time. It sounded strange to hear him using her last name.
“You're not even going to listen to my pitch?” He sounded more bemused than offended.
“I have school. I can't attend school while I'm orbiting our offensively soggy world.” She wanted to shout abuse at the truck in front of her, but didn't want to do so while on a call with David. She looked longingly at the opposing lanes of traffic, which were zipping by merrily. That should be her, flying on her way to food and bed.
“You can go during the summer, while school is out. That works out good for us. A lot of our older orbital techs want the summer off.”
“I'm not taking the summer off of school.”
“It's a solid financial opportunity as well. We cover your housing and food expenses.”
“Gee thanks. I won't have to bring my tent and granola bars.” she said with as much patience as she could manage.
“And the going rate for first-time techs on orbital assignment is almost triple what you're making now.”
“Oh?” Rin said, suddenly wide-eyed. Did he mention this before? It seemed like a detail like that would have stuck in her mind. She ran the numbers in her head. If she gave up her apartment and didn't have to pay for food for three months, how much would that save her? Where would she store Roberto? This car represented most of her net worth, and she didn't want anything to happen to it.
“Are you there?” David said.
“One second,” Rin said, raising her voice with excitement. The moron hogging the passing lane had just slowed down, leaving a gap for her. Rin mashed the gas and shifted into fourth gear, darting through the opening before it collapsed again.
David rambled on, “Anyway, if you want orbital duty next summer then you need to sign up soon. There are several months of certification courses you'll need to take. We pay for those, of course, but the cutoff-“
“Rin, you are exceeding the speed limit by twenty miles an hour,” Roberto said calmly. The accent coupled with the phrasing made her think of a race horse jockey trading banter with a rival as they sped down the track together.
She couldn't make sense of what she was seeing ahead. Through the rain it kind of looked like a billboard had been built all the way across the road. This was an absurd conclusion and she knew it, but she couldn't see any other way to interpret the scene. The rain was falling so heavily that looking out of the car was like peering through blocks of art deco glass. Her wipers flung the water from her windshield at a furious pace, and each pass gave her this momentary view of the world before it became a smear of rainwater. With each pass the obstruction seemed closer.
Another advertisement began to play. The weather report had vanished and the dash-screen was now blaring violin music and showing a woman running through a field. She thumped on the display to shut it up, but it obstinately continued playing. “This is all costing me sleep!” she screeched in desperation.
She later looked back on this conclusion with satisfaction. Much later she discovered it was misplaced.
“Hello?” David said. Rin became aware that he'd been talking and that she had no idea what he'd been saying.
Suddenly the scene in front of her resolved itself. It wasn't a billboard; it was the side of an eighteen-wheeler. It had fishtailed somehow and was now stretching across all four lanes of traffic. It had been traveling in the opposing lane, and was now a wall of steel heading towards her.
She cuts the wheel and stomps on the brakes, but at this relative speed and distance there is no way to avoid the impact. She tries anyway.
She can see how it will play out. Adrenaline pounds through her. Her actions become slow, like in a sluggish dream where your arms fail you. Somewhere, tires squeal horribly. Surely not her tires? Everything sounds so far away. She feels her eyes go wide and her arms braced hard in front of her, clenching the steering wheel. The rational part of her mind goes “tut tut” at this. “That's silly, you could turn the wheel farther if you didn't lock your elbows.” it observes. She ignores it. Her vision is going white around the edges now. She can see the red and silver striped tape approaching her face. It grows larger, marking -- in a highly reflective fashion -- the spot where her face will impact the lower edge of the trailer. The woman on the dash screen is having allergy problems. Her eyes close and she ducks to one side, shielding her face absurdly with her arms.
The car sailed right into the side of the trailer, with the truck's rear wheels to her right and the mid-wheels to her left.
There was a sharp impact and suddenly the rainstorm was in the cabin with her. Her roof and windshield were gone. The wind picked up a handful of fast food trash and tossed it into the air. She found herself lying on her back. Her seat had been violently reclined. She struggled to sit up, but her seat belt held her down. She had passed all the way under the truck, and her car was now in a slow spin. Above the din of whipping rain, skidding tires, and Doppler shifted horns she could hear David was still saying something.
Recovering for a moment, Rin thumbed the seat belt release and sat up. The world was a swirl of headlights. There were more impacts as vehicles collided. She grabbed the wheel and stomped on the brake. She managed to end the spin and found herself coasting backwards. Now the car was going the right direction but facing the wrong way. She glanced at the empty space where she would normally expect to find her rear-view mirror, felt stupid, and then looked back over her shoulder to see where she was going. Somehow she made it onto the shoulder.
She came to a stop and began breathing again.
The dash display continued to recite a long list of side effects. She dropped her fist numbly on the curved screen, and it went blank.
“Rin? You're scaring me here. What was that? Are you okay?” David said.
She didn't know what to say. She was shaking from the intensity of the moment, worried about how much it was going to cost to repair Roberto, and feeling a little good about herself for having pulled off such a slick move.
“Yeah. You won't believe what just happened. I was-“
A shadow rushed at her from out of the rain. Another vehicle was riding the shoulder. It had escaped being pulverized by the eighteen-wheeler and was now sailing out of control. It bounded comically along toward her, like a puppy in slow motion. A two ton puppy shedding welding equipment. She jumped from the front seat just in time to have her car swept away by a badly mangled utility truck. The grass and gravel beside the road gathered her into their hard rough crunchy embrace. By the time she was able to stand the truck had rolled away with what was left of Roberto, their grilles locked together in the automotive equivalent of a full blown make out session.
“I'm okay, I guess,” Rin called in a shaky voice. “I'm not hurt. I don't need any help.” She realized her tel had been swept away with her car. She was now talking to herself. “But, thanks for calling up and distracting me.”
Rin could hear someone shouting concerned sounding words at her over the center divider. She was definitely not going to sleep any time soon, but with some luck she just might get a free meal.
“I'm fine,” Rin said. She stood nervously in the middle of David's office, wondering what to do with her hands. It was the morning after the crash, and David had called her in here almost as soon as she finished her first coffee.
“I heard about it on the news. Three people died in that crash,” David said.
Rin nodded. “That's what they said.”
He looked her over. “Not a scratch?”
“I have this.” Rin held up her arm to show a bandage had been stuck on her elbow. “I think it counts as a scratch. I got that from jumping out of the car. Also, my ribs are sore where the seat belt caught me.”
“But nothing serious?”
“Well, not yet.”
David was sitting behind his desk, swiveling his executive chair from side to side. He did this so slowly that it took Rin a minute or so to notice he was doing it at all. Behind him was a window that looked out over the pavement that seemed to stretch to the horizon.
As far as she could tell, David was somewhere in the neighborhood of forty. If he was following the old advice that you should dress for the job you want, then he was evidently aiming for a job as a millionaire playboy super-spy. She'd never seen him in anything less than perfectly tailored suit. He often looked out of place in a building otherwise filled with sloppy, out-of-shape bureaucrats with loose ties and armpit stains.
He was handsome and charming. Rin wouldn't mind this at all if not for the fact that he knew he was handsome and charming, and often used this to get his way. She had been taken with him at first, but when she noticed he was squeezing extra work out of her with nothing more than flattery and wit she decided she didn't like him. They had been on uneasy terms in the year since then. It wasn't that he was trying to exploit her, it's just that he was often driven in a way that made him seem thoughtless. The distinction was admittedly fine, but Rin felt that it made a difference.
“How about your car?” he asked.
“Totaled. Completely smashed.”
Rin looked around the room. She was always annoyed that she had to stand when he called her into his office. There was a pair of chairs that he always kept stacked in the corner; possibly to keep the middle of the room open for golf putting. Normally she didn't like to touch the things in his office, but right now she wanted to sit. Manners seemed much less important after a near-miss with death. The chair skittered and scuffed along the carpet as she dragged it from the corner. She sat right in the middle of the room.
David seemed pleased at this.
“I do have insurance. But it's... complicated. They're not going to give me full coverage. Because I was speeding.”
David furrowed his brow, seeming to turn this new piece of information over in his mind. “Was it your fault?”
“No. No not at all. In fact, if I'd been going slower I probably would have been wedged under the truck and ended up getting squished along with everyone else when the trailer toppled.” Rin had calmed down since the crash, but now that she was recounting the experience her hands had begun to shake again. She clasped them in her lap to hold them still.
“And they know for sure how fast you were going?” David stood up and walked around so he could lean against the front of his desk. Was this a deliberate thing on his part? Did he always insist on standing when you were sitting and sitting when you were standing?
“The car had a black box thing in it. The insurance company won't care that it's not my fault. I could fight it in court, but I just don't have the time.”
David nodded. He looked down at his shoes for a minute. He always did this when he was thinking. Rin was afraid he was trying to figure out how to bring up the subject of orbital duty again.
Instead he looked her in the eye. “You should get out of here. Take a couple of days off.”
Rin was so surprised by this suggestion that her reply came out as a stammer. “I'm a, I didn't, I mean, I already burned my vacation. I'm saving sick days for-“
“No no no.” David silenced her with a quick flutter of his hand, as if the very suggestion was an annoying fly in his face. “Don't worry about any of that. I'll take care of it. Just take the next couple of days off. Come back in on Monday.”
Rin stood up and then sat back down. “I don't think anyone will give me a ride. They all just got here.”
“Mother passed when I was a kid. Haven't spoken to my father since I was seven. I lived with relatives for a few years, but we're not close and they're in Detroit.” Rin rattled this out as mechanically as possible. She knew that saying she didn't have family always made people curious, and rather than run through the list of predictable questions she preferred to get it all out at once.
David blinked in surprise. “Okay,” he said slowly, obviously knocked off-track by her sudden bulk payload of personal information. He went back to looking at his shoes. “I'll give you a ride home myself,” he said when he looked up again. Having made up his mind, he strode out of the room with purpose and without waiting for her answer.
Rin was wary of this sudden concern. She confronted him when they reached the elevator. “I'm sure you're just doing all of this to try and convince me to sign up for orbital duty.” She tried to make this sound like a joke, but she failed. Her tone was almost accusatory. It didn't help that her voice was shaking a bit.
“Yep!” he responded brightly. “We'll talk about it in the car.”
The parking garage had roughly the same climate as the inside of a crock pot, so they hurried from the elevator to David's reserved spot as quickly as they could. David had evidently started the car while they were still in his office. By the time they reached the parking level the climate control had already made the car habitable. Rin didn't know enough about high-end cars to identify the model, but she knew a European sports car when she saw one. This one was green, which she thought defeated the purpose of having this sort of car. Weren't they all supposed to be red or black?
The passenger-side seat pulled her in like she was entering the gravity well of a gas giant. The surface was deep and cool. She couldn't shake the notion that she was being unfaithful to Roberto, cuddling up to this strange new car the moment he was incapacitated. The car seemed to float out of the garage. At the top of the exit ramp was a bump that used to shake Roberto to the frame when she left work. Today she couldn't even tell where it was.
“We found another planet,” David said without introduction.
“Really?” Rin said. “I assume you mean a real planet, with life on it, and not another rock?”
“Obviously,” David said. “Now, this conversation doesn't leave this car. The planet hasn't been announced yet. Heck, the naming committee hasn't even met yet.”
She thought it was rather unfair to bind her to secrecy after telling her the secret, but she was thrilled to be in the loop like this. “So what's the sophistication level?”
“The usual. Plankton. Some fish. There's a tiny bit of green on dry land. The topology is really rough. Most of the surface is water, and the dry land is mostly frozen rock. Not much room for higher life.”
“Oh. So no mammals, then?” This was the first question out of everyone's mouth, and a source of great frustration to everyone involved with space travel. No matter how remote, exotic, rich, or beautiful a planet might be, all anyone cared about was if it had space-caribou on it. Actually, what people really cared about was if it had sapient life on it, but mammals seemed like a more realistic thing to hope for. Rin was slightly ashamed to catch herself stooping to this same behavior, but she was just as eager for discovery and contact as anyone else.
“Well, anything from a foreign ecosystem probably won't fit our classifications...” David began mechanically.
“Right, right. Not really 'mammals', but you know what I mean. Is there anything of mammal-like size and complexity?”
“No. Not that can be spotted from orbit, anyway. The survey team dropped some drones into the ocean. We'll let those things swim around for a few months and pick up their telemetry the next time we swing by the system. The thing is, this planet is mature. Probably about Earth-age. They're pretty sure this one could have fossil fuels.”
The car zipped across the campus, traveling at speeds that probably wouldn't be tolerated for anyone of a lower station. Not fast by any reasonable measurement, but still faster than the posted speed limit, which could probably be violated on foot.
The Houston campus of the International Space and Aeronautics Commission was a vast expanse of concrete and tarmac. It was a man-made wasteland, boiling in the Texas sun. Dotted with clusters of willfully ugly concrete buildings, it was an unintentional model of space itself: Tiny remote islands of detail, separated by a vast expanse of nothingness.
They were pulling away from the administration buildings at the center of the complex. Far to the south were the dorms and training facilities for space-bound personnel. To the east was the Mud Lake Storage Zone, a collection of warehouses and hangers for some sort of space-stuff that Rin had never investigated. To the north was the airstrip and hangars.
“Amazing. So are we going to harvest the fossil fuels?”
“I have no idea. Load humans on a ship, fling them all that way, have them dig up fossil fuels, drag the material into orbit, haul it all home? I don't know. Might not be worth it, energy-wise. I'll leave that one to the guys with the abacuses. The point is, we now know about four planets with life on them.”
The car slowed as they approached the security checkpoint at the main gate. To their right was a massive silo towering overhead, an old rocket-style craft from the haphazard early days of spaceflight when humans would hurl themselves into orbit using nothing more than the power of fire. It was a shrine to people who were crazy and courageous in exactly the right way.
The entire campus was surrounded by a high wall, crowned with razor wire. David lowered the windows as they reached the gate and held up his photo ID. The savage Houston air flowed in, rolling along the ceiling of the car. Rin noticed that the air conditioning had shut off when David opened the window.
Camera arms unfolded and moved over their vehicle with a faint murmur of servos. The cameras darted into the car and hovered in their faces for a few seconds. Rin held up the ID badge that hung around her neck. A screen lit up:
DIRECTOR DAVID L. REED + PERSONNEL RIN SHIMAZAKI
“That will give the computers something to gossip about,” David said in deadpan.
“What's the 'L' stand for?”
“Lambert. What's your middle initial?”
“Don't have one,” Rin said with a shrug.
The cameras nosed around in the back seat. A larger apparatus passed over the hood and trunk. Satisfied that they were not spies, saboteurs, or thieves, the equipment retracted. Most people referred to this equipment as if it was nothing more than an automation, but Rin could see intelligence behind its behaviors. This was a robot. It remembered packages that had been examined on previous visits, it noticed packaging that was out of place, and it understood how to judge the apparent volume of a person's clothes against their likely shape. It was able to differentiate between a skinny person in puffy clothing and a fat person in thin clothing. Most people didn't think of it as a robot because it never spoke audibly and it wasn't shaped like a living thing.
When the inspection was over, the many arms retracted and the machine folded itself back into a tidy booth-sized structure of dark metal plating and hydraulics. It did this almost soundlessly.
Rin guessed that the thing was probably German. Germans had a knack for making stark, impersonal robots with exquisite engineering. She wondered how smart it was. The Americans and Germans were roughly equal in terms of machine sapience, but both of them were light years behind the Japanese.
David and Rin both closed the car windows as soon as the machinery was clear. The reinforced chain-link gate opened with much mechanical groaning and scraping. It was very much an American gate.
David eased the car out. They passed the bright red signs notifying them that they were leaving the International Space and Aeronautics Commission and entering the United States of America. They pulled away from the complex and David threaded his car into the morning traffic.
“We're headed for the big blocks,” she said before David could ask where they were going. She glanced over to see he'd managed to get sunglasses onto his face without her noticing. He always seemed to be playing a game of brinksmanship where he maintained just enough charm to outweigh his smugness.
“Do you need me to put music on?” David asked.
“Need? Why would I need music?” Rin thought this was a very strange question. Not just because he implied she needed music, but because he was offering to do something he clearly didn't want to do.
“I don't know. You're tapping your feet and drumming your fingers again. I've always assumed you do that because you've got music in your head.”
Rin saw that she had indeed been drumming her fingers against her knees. “I don't think I do. I mean, I don't have any particular music in my head right now.”
“Okay. That's just you being energetic. Just checking.”
“Do I do it often?”
“Whenever you're not talking fast or walking fast.”
“I don't talk that fast!” Rin said. Even as the words left her mouth, she was aware that she was saying them a lot faster than David would have.
“You walk very fast, and you talk very, very fast,” David insisted. “I've always assumed it was because you're young and young people are like that. I suppose it might also be all the caffeine you drink.”
Rin smirked. “Yes, it could be that. I need coffee so I can stay awake. I need to stay awake so I can work hard. I need to work hard to get what I deserve.”
“So anyway, new planet,” David said, trying to re-light their earlier conversation.
“So there are four known life-bearing planets. What's the ratio now? One in a thousand?”
“This is what I wanted to talk to you about. You remember the news story from last summer? We put a telescope in orbit around a distant star. Way out there, pretty much on the edge of our range.”
“I'll be honest, I usually don't follow space news. It's either sensationalist or mundane.”
David nodded. “And filled with errors either way. The point is, some egghead figured out how to combine remote images with stuff from our local telescopes. The two telescopes, light-years apart, take pictures of the same star. Somehow, comparing the two is helping the survey team figure out where the likely life-bearing planets are. Much better than the brute-force surveying we've been doing all these years.”
“How does that work?”
“Ask an astrophysicist. The point is: It does. This recent discovery proves it well enough that it's shaping policy. The ratio of life-planets to dead rocks might be one in a thousand, but with these telescopes weeding out the losers, we're able to narrow our search down quite a bit.”
Rin was quiet while she turned this over in her mind. “Okay. But why are you telling me this? Aren't you breaking protocol?”
“I am. A bit. I want you to understand why I'm pushing you to take an orbital assignment. For a decade we've been running our fleet the same way: One ship out, two in dock. We're about to change that. We're about to move to having two ships in deep space at all times. This means expanding the refill and refit crew. It means we'll need more deep-space crew. It also means we need a better cut of technician. The guys up there now are basically just merchant marines in space. We need more educated people.”
“But educated people want to be officers.” Rin blurted out. It all made sense now. “You need better grunts, but anyone smart enough for the job wants to join the officer corps.”
“Exactly. We have a five-year waiting list for people wanting to be officers. Everyone wants to be Captain Kirk.”
David winced. The question clearly pained him. “Nobody wants to go up there and get their hands dirty with grunt work. Everyone wants to sit on the bridge, look out the window, make big decisions, and speak in halting dramatic tones. Nobody wants to crawl around the bottom of the ship cleaning gunk out of the air scrubbers. I'm not going to lie to you. The only reason I can do this is because you aren't finished with school yet. As soon as you've got your degree you'll be eligible for officer training. You're smart enough to be useful, young enough to breeze through certification, and uneducated enough that I can put you where you'll be needed.”
“I don't understand why you can't just hire the people you need. I mean, surely there must be a lot of smart people who are willing to go to space without becoming officers first.”
The conversation paused while David negotiated a left-hand turn in a busy intersection. The advantage of having a car like this was that you could jump into traffic anywhere there was enough empty space to contain the vehicle itself. The car could hit any posted speed limit within a few seconds, so there was never a real risk of “cutting someone off”. However, other drivers weren't used to the idea that others cars could jump in front of them and match their speed from a standstill. Visually, it just felt like they were being cut off. The result was that people would curse at David, even as his car faded into the distance in front of them.
David continued as the sound of horns Doppler-shifted behind them. “The world's most important committees formed a super committee. When your bureaucracies combine and form captain planetary exploration... well, you're going to have a lot of policy inertia and dysfunction. Add in the unions and the military-style command structure of the officer corps, and it's amazing the entire operation doesn't just drop out of the sky and burn up in the atmosphere. The point is, we need people like you, and having you fuss over invoices and answer phones is a waste of talent.”
“See, I don't particularly want to go to space.”
David pulled back his head and blinked, as if he'd just been slapped in the forehead. “That might be the first time someone said that to me since I came here. People sometimes want more money, or different duties, or special treatment. Sometimes I can help them and sometimes I can't. But not wanting to go to space at all? Why are you here?”
Rin shrugged. “Money and special treatment sounds nice.” The passion for space travel eluded her. Certainly it had been overly romanticized, and most people would probably hate it if they experienced it for real. “It's crowded. It's boring. There's nothing to do and nowhere to go. You have to eat paste and piss in a tube. No thanks.”
David laughed at this. She'd heard him laugh many times before in the office, which she now realized was his fake, polite laugh. It was very convincing. His genuine laugh was much less dignified. He alternately wheezed and snorted.
“You have a very antiquated view of space travel,” he said once the fit was over. “All of our stations have rotational gravity. You'll weigh about half of what you do here. That means no eating paste or pissing in tubes. It's pretty much like living in a submarine.”
“What a glowing endorsement.”
“Well, it might be a little uncomfortable, but it's good money.” David slowed the car as they entered the Big Blocks. “Where to now?”
“This is good,” she said as she undid her seat-belt
“You live here?” he asked with incredulity that bordered on offense. “When you said 'Big Block' I thought we were using it as a frame of reference. I thought maybe you lived nearby. But you actually live in one of these cells?”
The neighborhood was a dull grid of brick-shaped buildings with rows of tiny windows. There were no kids and no playgrounds in sight. The evening haze vibrated with the hum of window mounted air conditioners. The narrow gaps between the buildings were filled with bars, liquor stores, massage parlors, and gas stations where the attendants sat behind bulletproof glass. An emergency siren wailed in the distance.
“Yeah,” Rin said as she stepped out of the car.
“But why?” David called after her. “I know you're not making a lot of money with us, but I'm sure you can do better than this! This place is for union guys that live in orbit and just need a place to keep their stuff. I mean, isn't it dangerous around here?”
Rin bent down and looked at David through the open passenger-side window. “Look, I know it's a hellhole. Yes, I could live someplace better, but then I'd have less money for school. I'm already twenty-two. I'm late in starting my degree, and I don't want to have to work once I take the MCAT.”
“Ahh, you're pre-med? But can't you get a scholarship or something?” He looked distastefully at her apartment building as he said this.
“I have some. Not enough, obviously.”
A car beeped its horn. David was holding up traffic by stopping here.
“Student loans?” He seemed oblivious to the inconvenience he was causing.
“I don't want to borrow. If I borrow, I'll have to take a position with some big practice in the city. When I graduate, I want to be free and clear. I want to go to Maine and open a small private practice.”
“Maine?” he asked in a tone that made it sound like she had said Death Valley.
The car beeped again, more forcefully this time. Other drivers were now shouting profane advice at him.
“Yes. Maine. Quiet. Fall colors. Low crime. Snow in the winter.”
“So that's the dream?” David nodded as he said this, apparently glad to finally understand.
“The dream. Now get out of here before people think we're doing business.”
“Go to space!” he called to her as he pulled away.
Rin was grateful for the gesture, but having time off wasn't quite the boon that David probably thought it was.
Her apartment was a claustrophobic box that had just enough space for a bed, a desk, and a dresser. The window on the west wall ran the length of the room, but was less than half a meter tall. The result was a window that was large enough to be a privacy concern but too small to let in a useful amount of light. The walls were covered in fake wood paneling that converted the tiny amount of light that managed to sneak into the room instantly into latent heat. The paneling was made of a plastic that was both hard and brittle, which made it impossible for the wall to hold nails, which in turn made it a pain in the ass to hang things up. She shared a common bathroom and showers with the other women on her floor. It was a dreary place, and it was only bearable because she spent so little time in it.
The only thing on the walls was a poster Rin had found a couple of years before. It was sappy and kitschy, exactly the sort of thing middle-aged housewives hung on their walls. To her internal embarrassment, Rin had fallen in love with it the moment she saw it. It was a digital painting of a small-town street scene. It had snowed, and the inhabitants were all dealing with it in their own way. The overall image was a collection of tiny, self-contained stories. One man had stopped shoveling his car free to blow on his hands. A woman had fallen on the ice and lost a shoe. Children were engaged in a kind of snow-based trench warfare. An old woman was getting her mail. And so on ad nauseam.
Rin saw the image as both a visualization of her goal and as an illustration of her struggle. Someday, she would live in this little town, and to get there, she would have to struggle just like all of these rosy-cheeked villagers were struggling. The picture hung on the wall at the foot of her bed, so that she could look at it as she drifted off to sleep. It was a little ritual at the end of each day, to remind herself why she was putting up with all this crap. Someday she would be a doctor, and she planned to hang this thing in the waiting room of her private practice.
Rin spent four days in her tiny apartment, pacing restlessly and worrying about how she was going to replace her car. She didn't have anywhere to go that she wouldn't just end up spending money, so she sat on her bed all day, watching sappy drivel and staring at the snow scene that taunted her from the end of the bed. Then she would take the bus to her evening classes, frantically do the homework that she had put off, and collapse in bed to the sound of the news droning about distant crisies.
The story of the new planet broke on Friday, and followed the same trajectory as every other news story about space exploration. First came the stories woven from ignorance and erroneous overstatement: ISAC has discovered a frozen world, brimming with rich fuel sources! It's been nicknamed “Planet Alaska”! Could this launch an interstellar gold rush? Next came grudging partial-corrections: It's not really 'brimming' with energy sources. Fossil fuels were simply detected or suspected. The actual amount and quality are unknown, probably modest, and nobody has a plan to get them. Also, the “Alaska” nickname came from the press, not ISAC. If the usual patterns held then next week the fully correct story would run, which nobody would read because it would be dry, technical, and so much less exciting than the original tale.
Rin also had ample opportunity to reflect on herself. She stood at 155 centimeters. Just over five feet, she often had to remind herself. Imperial measurements still felt foreign to her, even after spending most of her life in America. She had a slight frame and small bust that resulted in her constantly being mistaken for an adolescent. She hoped earning her degree would help with this, but deep down she knew that nothing short of lines on her face or gray hair would prevent cashiers from asking how high-school was going.
Her background of Japanese, Hispanic, and African genes gave her a face that defied easy classification. She had inherited her mother's set of flawlessly arranged teeth and smooth, dark skin. Her head was topped with straight black hair. She always fantasized about styling it in some interesting way, but usually ended up pulling it back into a simple ponytail. This did not help in her efforts to be taken seriously as an adult. Her eyes and her name were Japanese, and so she usually just checked the “Asian” box on her ISAC paperwork. This was simpler than trying to explain her lineage properly.
On Saturday she got a letter from her step-brother. Same old “I wish we could see each other more often!” and “when will you come and visit?” as he wrote at random times every year or so. She suspected he would write more often, but he was busy with his own life. Rin had distanced herself from her family. She had decided at an early age that she would rather get what was coming to her through her own merit than through family connections. She didn't want to be associated with them, and she suspected the same was true the other way around. Why her step-brother insisted on trying to stay in contact was beyond her. She rarely wrote back. There was a whole box of these letters under her bed. She added this latest one to the pile.
On Monday morning she discovered that her four-day exile from routine had re-aligned her thinking. She realized that she didn't want to do this anymore. Even if Roberto was magically repaired and she was free to continue her frantic pace of earning and education, she no longer wanted to do so. She still wanted to live in Maine and practice medicine, but she no longer wanted to take this road to get there. If she was going to work this hard, she deserved to be well compensated.
Also, she realized that being trapped in her tiny apartment and sharing a bathroom with strangers was probably not all that different from living in space. She decided that -- as bad as it was -- she could handle a few months of this.
When she arrived at work she headed to David's office and the bargain was struck. She would spend the next two weeks finishing out this semester of school. After that, she would take a year off to tumble around in space cleaning toilets and repairing airlocks -- or whatever it was that they wanted her to do.
David also saw to her transportation problems for the two weeks. Taking the bus would have been time-consuming and expensive because there was no direct route from Big Block to the university. David arranged for one of the ISAC campus vans to give her rides “on its way back to the garage”. It was actually about forty minutes out of the driver's way to do this, but he was reimbursed by the mile, and had no complaints.
Rin found it a bit weird to ride alone in the converted van. It didn't feel appropriately anonymous. The driver never greeted her by name, and seemed to do his best to ignore her. Rin wondered how many special routes he had driven before.
Another year. She didn't like deferring her dream that long, but there was no way around it. Her hope was that once she did return to school, she would have saved enough to be a full-time student.
The semester ended and Rin began earning her orbital certifications. This was a lot like school, only easier and she got paid for it. Most of Rin's new certification classes involved unlearning everything that popular culture had assumed or taken for granted about space travel. About the only thing they ever got right was the shape of the craft.
Every ship made in the last decade had the same configuration. Their hulls were roughly the shape of symmetrical knife-blades, flying tip-first through space, although there was a lot of external infrastructure that obfuscated the “knife” shape. While they were designed using terms like “top” and “bottom”, these concepts did not line up with the way gravity was experienced inside. One edge of the knife was the top deck, and the other edge was the bottom deck, but the ship flipped over as it moved -- spinning on the tip, as it were -- so that for the people inside “up” was towards the spine and “down” was towards whichever edge was nearest.
Exactly halfway between the tip and the tail was a massive torus, slightly wider than the hull and about the proportions of a wedding band. This was the accelerator, which was in charge of forming the singularity that would allow them to hop around in space.
The instructor stopped at this point to explain -- with obvious annoyance -- that the term “singularity” was a holdover from the past when nobody understood, from a mathematical standpoint, what happened under gravitational collapse. They had the math all worked out now, thank you very much, but the term “singularity” had obstinately clung to the concept. The instructor told them that it was now more properly called a Hein-Keurorst Manifold, which nobody bothered to learn because they all sensed this was an editorial that would not be part of the final exam.
The instructor admonished them to never refer to the use of a Hein-Keurorst Manifold as a “jump”. This was childish terminology that confused people and made the ignorant masses think we were able to hop between any two points in the universe at will. The proper term -- which didn't seem like an improvement to any of the students -- was transfer. The habit of saying jump instead of transfer was hard to break for most people, and this resulted in a lot of haggling over test results at the end of the course.
The center of the accelerator was empty space, thus leaving a nice circular hole in the middle of the ship. This was because anything too close to the center during space travel would be 1) bombarded by deadly radiation and 2) torn apart by gravitational forces.
Directly aft of the accelerator was the large, ungainly lump of the reactor. This was the most detailed part of the hull. While the rest of the ship was generally smooth, the reactor was a tangle of pipes, tanks, hatches, and shielded cables.
At the rear of the craft was a crescent-shaped extrusion that pointed aft and glowed brightly when the ship was underway. This was not, as the movies led people to believe, the “engine”. The glow was bright, but it did not emit “fire”, it did not rumble, and it certainly didn't leave glowing “swoosh” trails when the ship needed to go someplace. It had nothing to do with propulsion at all. This bit was called the Thermal Emission Manifold by the people who built it and the heat sink by everyone else. When viewed up close, the heat sink was a cluster of tiny, tightly-packed spheres with a combined surface area of many square kilometers, all folded up into a very tight little package.
When the ship was underway, the power plant made electricity, which made the accelerator go. However, it also made a bunch of unwanted heat. The purpose of the heat sink was to bleed off this waste heat into space, a fiendishly difficult task given the fact that there was nothing out there to receive the unwanted energy.
Without the sink, the ship would simply accumulate heat until everyone inside was steam cooked. The signature glowing for which the sink was so famous was a result of this heat-disposal. It pointed aft so that the waste heat wouldn't interfere with the sensitive instrumentation, the majority of which was stuck to the nose of the ship.
The real propulsion was handled using nothing more than classic monopropellant technology. There were many thrusters affixed to the ship on jointed pivot-arms, so that their force could be aimed. These were used very rarely, usually only when docking.
One student made the mistake of asking why ships had to jump to the edge of a solar system and hop inward from one planetary gravity well to the next, instead of simply jumping directly to the desired location. Their curiosity was repaid with an incomprehensible twenty-minute lecture and a dry-erase board full of gibberish equations. Between all the trans-Einsteinian whatsits Rin managed to gather that this would somehow sink the spaceship. The upshot was that the instructor skipped a bunch of other information and instructed them to read their packets before the next session.
Rin asked very few questions.