Life was significantly easier for Rin once she moved to the ISAC Houston Campus. She left behind school. She left behind her closet apartment in Big Block. She left behind the administration offices full of chattering secretaries and bean counters.
She now faced several months of certification courses. Unlike university - which was ostensibly designed to cull the under-performers - these classes were designed for the lowest common denominator. Two days of actual learning would be diluted into a slow drip of information delivered over three weeks of lectures.
There was no attendance, and the final grade was a simple pass/fail test administered on the last day -- and that could be rescheduled. This made it possible for her to pass more certification classes than it was physically possible to attend. David had signed her up for everything, so she could sit in on whatever class she wished. He'd marked the half-dozen certifications that were mandatory for off-planet duty, and sent her a note saying, “Get as many as you can! [Thumbs up]”
Classes here were very different from university. These people were older than college students, and treated the process more like a job. They were more serious and less social. This, coupled with the fact that Rin only attended a few scattered sessions of each course, made it so that she didn't really get to know her fellow students.
This was her first time in the training area of the campus. It was noisy, crowded, and inhabited by an annoying number of robots. She avoided those whenever she could. It was never clear what they were for. She never saw them working on anything. They just walked around outside the training centers along with the personnel.
Rin was on her way from the Airlock Certification class -- a two week course dedicated to the arcane art of opening a door -- to the cafeteria when she was stopped short by a car horn and the slow crunch of tires. She turned and found David creeping along the drive in his green European sports car, waving her over.
Rin peered at him through the open passenger side window. He was wearing his smug sunglasses again.
“How are you getting on? How's certification?” he asked.
“I've learned that you're kind of a big deal around here. Everyone I meet calls you 'Director Reed'.”
David held out his arms, big-man-on-campus style, “Well, I AM the director. You knew my job title. What did you think I did for a living?”
“I thought you were the director of... I don't know. The office we worked in? Like, all of us paper-pushers.”
David laughed. This wasn't his real laugh. This was his fake, charming, professional laugh. “Well, I'm the director of a bit more than that.”
“So who are you?” Rin shook her head in confusion. “And why are you concerning yourself with a brand new tech who hasn't even completed certification?”
“Are you hungry?”
Rin looked down the sidewalk at the cafeteria where she'd been headed, and then back at David. She raised her eyebrows and blinked at him. Well, what do you think?
“Get in,” he said, revving the engine.
How could she refuse?
“Do you like sushi?” he asked once they were rolling.
“Don't know. Never tried it.”
“You said you grew up in Japan.”
“I did. Osaka. Until I was seven.”
“And you didn't have sushi? Ever?”
“What did you have?” He asked this cautiously, as if he expected she was kidding.
“I remember eating a lot of pizza.” Rin had never thought there was anything particularly strange about her upbringing. She was amused at how this seemingly mundane revelation was scandalizing David.
“My mother was an American expat. We lived in Osaka, but didn't have a lot of contact with hard-core Japanese culture unless my father was around, which wasn't often. Most of the housekeeping staff spoke English.”
“Right. Well, you're about twenty years overdue for your first taste of sushi.”
“You still didn't explain why a high-ranking director of ISAC is taking so much interest in a lowly tech.”
“Sushi first,” David said with conviction.
They drove on in silence until they hit the edge of the city and found themselves at an intersection where traffic had come to a stop.
“Damn. I forgot. It's just past noon. Kindergarten is just letting out. We're in trouble.” He pointed to a large moving truck sitting in front of them as he said this.
“What's the moving truck got to do with this?” Rin asked.
David leaned to his left so he could look down the center-line of the street. “This intersection has a botic crossing guard. The city bought these things about seven years ago, and they were trash even back then. They're dim-witted and clunky. I think they're supposed to allow traffic for whichever street is the most backed up. But if there's a truck in the way then they can't see the cars behind it.”
Rin rolled her eyes. “So we're going to be stuck here? For how long? Until a human takes over?”
“The bot will let us go eventually. It's just bad at prioritizing. Actually, I guess it's just bad at estimating how much traffic is obscured by the truck.”
David cut the wheel and edged his car out so that the front end was poking into the opposing lane. Oncoming traffic honked angrily at him, but David didn't back up, and they went around. The robot evidently noticed his bumper sticking out from behind the truck and adjusted its behavior, because things began moving again.
Rin got a good look at it as the traffic cleared. It was navy blue, with a paint job designed to mimic a police uniform. The arms were trimmed with reflective orange. The face was a cluster of lenses, making it sort of look like the robot was an insect with compound eyes.
“I hate how they make them so big,” Rin said distastefully as they passed. “Bots are already creepy enough without making them look like giants.”
“That's actually not on purpose,” David said. “They can't put the brains in their head, because all the cheap cameras take up too much room. Those early model cell arrays - the brains, you know -- took up a lot of space because they had heat problems. And the batteries were about double the size of a car battery. The upshot is that the brain and the battery wouldn't fit inside the chest cavity of anything remotely man-sized.”
“Well, they made them so tall and broad-shouldered that it makes them look like they're made for war. It's really creepy to have one of them staring at you. Although, I guess they had to put all of that mass somewhere. I suppose it's unreasonable to expect them to make the traffic bots look pot-bellied and friendly.”
“Not if you want to sell your robots to municipalities in America,” David smiled. He gave the robot a thumbs up as he rolled by. The robot returned the gesture.
The car weaved through increasingly narrow streets until they found themselves in front of an unremarkable block building with a wooden façade. A couple of Japanese characters had been scribbled on the wall by the door in a way that looked completely amateur. If Rin had been asked to guess what this place was, she would probably have picked either 'pawn shop' or 'laundry'.
“This is a sushi house?” Rin said as she climbed out of the car. She regarded the building the way one might regard the aftermath of an auto accident.
“Sushi bar,” David corrected her. “And yes, it is. Everyone in America thinks a sushi bar should look like a McDonald's with a Forbidden Palace roof. Don't do that. Also, try not to freak out when we get in here. This place is very... authentic. In fact, it's probably more authentic than the real thing, if you take my meaning.”
The sushi bar was much more welcoming inside. Rin didn't know the name of the establishment; It didn't seem to have one beyond the highly stylized marks by the front door. There was a bar with stools, but instead of a bartender there was a chef. The walls were covered in wood paneling and there were large wooden pillars, perfectly round and smooth. Paper lanterns hung from the ceiling overhead. Rin squinted at them. The lights flickered as if from a real fire, and the cords had been cleverly hidden. Upon further inspection, she realized this was not the case. There were no cords. These lanterns were genuine flame-based illumination. She shook her head at the sheer impracticality of it.
The chef greeted them in Japanese. David answered in kind. The chef was a six-foot blond man of obviously European descent. He was wearing a white headband and an apron.
“Konichiwa.” Rin intoned meekly. Her Japanese had never been very good.
The chef answered her greeting with a slight bow before returning to his furious knife-work, which produced a lot of noise and motion and resulted in very little cut food.
David led her over to one of the small booths that lined the outer wall. The staccato of the dicing chef faded into the classical mood music.
The place was very small, even smaller than the modest exterior suggested. Rin could see no hint of modern convenience. No light switches, no cash register, no charger ports, no electric lights, no ceiling fans. There wasn't even music playing in the dining area. The food was prepared in full view of the patrons, using nothing more than knives and gas flame.
“You don't speak Japanese?” David asked once they'd settled in.
“A bit. I can remember my numbers and colors, and how to say please and thank you. I might remember more if I really worked at it. I didn't speak it often, even when we lived in Osaka. But me not knowing Japanese isn't nearly as strange as you knowing it. Did you learn it so you can order sushi and watch anime without subtitles?” She said this last bit playfully. She couldn't imagine David being the sort of man who would watch anime. Actually, she couldn't imagine him watching any sort of entertainment. What did he do outside of work, aside from maybe golf?
“Japanese is very useful if you're working in technology, which is what I did before I came here. Japanese culture is highly precision oriented. They don’t like variations, which makes them excellent at manufacturing. They also don’t like learning other people’s languages, and even when they do, they still think in Japanese. Bottom line, it’s easier on everyone if I communicate in Japanese than if they try to use English.”
“I know all about what the Japanese think of foreigners.” Rin said with more bitterness than she would have liked.
Rin found that eating sushi was highly ceremonial. There was a warm towel brought at the start of the meal, and David showed her how to wipe her hands and face with it. Then there was a great deal about choosing the proper drink. The nature and purpose of this eluded her even after it had been explained, and so she ordered a soda. David asked her to pour his drink for him, because it was apparently rude to pour your own. They had to order their drinks from the waitress, but their food from the chef. When the sushi arrived, David explained the procedure for combining it with the various condiments. Apparently dipping a sushi roll directly into soy sauce was a no-no. There were several plates involved and complex condiment-dipping procedures to be learned.
As the meal went on, Rin became increasingly impatient. At the end she took to picking up the sushi with a fork, submerging it in soy sauce, and ramming it home before the thing fell apart. David did not take offense to this.
“That was the most complicated meal I've ever eaten,” Rin said when the operation was over.
“No it wasn't. It was no more complicated than any other restaurant meal you've ever eaten. The only difference was that this was the first time since you were a child that you sat down to a meal and didn't know the rules.”
Rin looked down at her plate in doubt, trying to compare this meal to a more conventional one.
David let her ponder this for a moment, and then jumped back in to help her along. “You drink soda through a straw, but not beer. You can put syrup on home fries but not on a baked potato. You eat carrots and celery with your hands, unless they're in a salad, in which case you use a fork. Hamburgers come with ketchup, but if you put ketchup on steak it's an insult to the cook. You eat cake with a fork, but muffins with your hands. You use a knife and fork for steak, but you eat ribs or fried chicken with your hands. You can't drink soup from the bowl. And so on. I would argue that the rules here are actually simpler, because the menu is so much smaller. If a man from Mars showed up in his flying saucer, it would be easier for him to learn to eat here than at any variety-menu franchise you could name.”
“Okay,” she said. “It might be simpler, but it’s still silly to make the rules so rigid. Besides no one commits suicide over ketchup...”
Neither of them had anything more to say at that point. David paid the bill and they left.
They were both quiet as David drove out of the city. The only sound was the faint hum of the engine, rising and falling as they wove among afternoon commuters.
Once they were free of the city traffic, Rin broke the silence. “So we've had sushi. And thanks. Now are you willing to answer the question?”
“You've heard of Tangerine Technology?” David tossed this question out as if it wasn't a non-sequitur.
“I think everyone has. I'm still using the Dream 7 from last year. No, two years ago. Tough little thing. Survived that crash I was in.” Rin yanked out her tel and held it up as evidence. Tangerine had become big decades earlier when they introduced some of the first 'warm' synthetic voices -- computer voices that didn't make the machine sound addled or deranged.
“If you've heard of Tangerine, then you've heard of Wayne Zuse, right?”
“Of course.” Rin thought this was a strange question, like asking someone if they've heard of the president. Zuse was the eccentric CEO of Tangerine Technology, a sort of cult figure among technology fans. He was getting on in years now, but one particular picture of him in his late twenties had been absorbed into pop culture and was frequently imitated or parodied. It depicted him holding a normal tel up to one ear, and an antique landline telephone with a spiral cord to the other. He was smirking, as if doing something mischievous. This image had become a sort of visual shorthand for audacious courage and invention.
David continued. “Well, Wayne is a huge fan of the space program. He's actually old enough to remember the tail end of the NASA projects. I think he even saw a space shuttle launch as a kid.
“Wow. He's old.”
“To someone just out of her teens, yes, I suppose he might seem old. Anyway, three years ago the ISV Gagarin came back from a mission while the docking station was in the shadow of Earth. Those stations have exterior lights on them, just like radio towers, airplanes, and tall buildings. But it's sometimes hard to get a sense of direction and speed from a few points of light. When you're in the shadow of Earth, the station is just a black silhouette against the stars. The pilot got disoriented during docking and rammed the nose of the Gagarin right into the side of the station. Hundreds of millions in damage. It's a miracle nobody was killed.”
“I remember that story,” Rin said. “I didn't realize it was because of simple darkness. You'd think they would have some kind of guidance for the ships so that didn't happen.”
“That was the first thought that came to everyone's mind. It was an obvious conclusion, but wrong. So ISAC launched this project to prevent any more crashes. Their idea was to use a complicated system of painting nearby craft with a fast-moving laser, then have multiple cameras compare these images and a computer would build a fully three-dimensional view of the other craft. This would be projected onto the pilot's screen, helping him to see objects even if they were dark.”
“So what went wrong?”
“There were problems getting the laser-painting to work. Some hull materials weren't reflective enough, or were reflective in a way that confused the camera. Sometimes direct sunlight would screw with the cameras. And even when it worked, it wasn't completely helpful to the pilot. It could tell where the station was, but the pilot couldn't tell which arm of the station they were looking at. And the system didn't do anything to help the people on the station see the ship, or to help people on spacewalk to know what was going on around them. The only person this helped was the pilot. They blew over a billion and had a system that only solved half the problem and only under certain conditions. Wayne read about it and went nuts. He called them up and said we could solve the problem for ten thousand.”
“We?” Rin turned away from the window. They were gliding down interstate 45, heading back to ISAC Houston. “You mean you worked for Tangerine?”
David nodded. “Still do. You think I could afford a car like this with a government job?”
“I did wonder...”
“ISAC probably would have laughed or hung up if anyone else had made an offer like that. I mean, this is a government contract. An international government contract. You're supposed to bid on it through proper channels and kiss up to the right bureaucrats to even get the chance to make your pitch. But Wayne has a way with people.”
“Ten grand? That's nothing to them. Or to Tangerine.”
“I know. I mean, ten thousand bucks, right? He might as well have offered to do it for free. I have no idea where he got that number. He's odd like that.”
“So what was his plan?”
David laughed and thumped his hand against the steering wheel in delight. He was obviously enjoying telling this story. “He didn't have one. Not a clue. He called a few of us into the brainstorming room and explained the problem. He said he'd personally give the ten grand to whoever could come up with the solution.”
“That's crazy. He offered to fix the problem without having a solution in mind?”
“It might seem crazy, but it's actually what our company does. It's not like someone is shaving one morning and suddenly gets the idea to invent imitative voice synthesis or roll-up display screens. Those things got invented by people looking at some ugly bit of technology and saying, 'There must be a better way to do this!' The whole laser imaging thing just screamed out 'ugly technology' to Wayne, and he knew there had to be a better solution.”
“So what was it?” Rin found herself getting impatient to find out how a consumer gadget company solved an aerospace problem.
“I'm getting to it. My team had been working on a project that had just been canned, so we had a lot of free time. I dragged them into one of the presentation rooms and turned out the lights. We sat there in the pitch dark for two hours, talking about what the problem really was and how we could know if we'd solved it. I mean, how do you test perception problems? Implement your solution and see if there are more crashes? That’s just not acceptable.
“It wasn't just that the ships couldn't see each other. It's naturally hard to orient yourself in space. Here on Earth, you're never accidentally upside-down. In space you don't know which way you're facing and you don't know which way the other ship is facing. Ships, or sections of ships, spin in place to create gravity. And of course you've got interstellar ships transing in and out all over the place. It's chaos.”
“But pilots don't fly by looking out the window, do they? I mean, it's not like driving a car.”
“The only reason the pilot doesn't fly by sight is because it's so hard to see, which is the problem we were trying to solve. It's true that they have a lot of instruments on the bridge. I actually think the pilot has too many, but that's another issue. Imagine if we painted over the windows of my car here, and instead I had a little screen that just pointed arrows at the other vehicles and showed a number for how far away they were.” David pointed at the other cars around them as he did this. He even pointed at cars as they zipped past in the opposing lane. “There would be a lot of arrows and a lot of numbers dancing around that screen, and it still wouldn't give you a sense of distance, scale, or relative speed. It wouldn't give you the type of three-dimensional understanding you get from using your eyeballs. Even if their laser imaging had worked perfectly, it still wouldn't have been a full solution. Sure, the pilot doesn't have to fly by looking out the window, but sometimes your eyeballs make for some damn fine instrumentation.
“We came up with the idea of putting lights on stuff. Not just to illuminate it, but to define it. We tested on random objects at different scales. A floor lamp, a pair of scissors, telephone, truck, shoe, you get the idea. Anything. We knew we had the solution when we could trim a complex object with light strips, take a picture of it, and have a test subject instantly identify what the object was, what position it was in, and how far it was from the camera.”
“That's it?” Rin was disappointed. “I think I've seen those on recent pictures of spacecraft. I thought they were decorative. I guess it seems kind of obvious now.”
“Obvious? It wasn't obvious to the guys who spent all that money on laser imaging. Those guys also do defense contracts, and that's how they think. Laser imaging! Computer modeling!”
“Did adding light strips really solve the problem that easily?”
“Not just light strips. You need more information than just lines on a black background. We found color was good for this. The port side of the ship has green lights. The starboard side has blue. Then the bottom-aft corner of the hull has a triangle of red light strips that are wider than the others. This way, even a partly colorblind person can identify the exact orientation of the object, even if the object has an axis of symmetry like our interstellar ships.”
“Okay, and that explains the colors! I didn't realize there was a pattern to them. I thought ISAC was just trying to be hip and cool, and failing. You know those lights make the ship look like an old-fashioned turn-of-the-millennium disco?”
“There's also a grid of reflective tape over the surface of the hull, so techs working outside can get a sense of distance and get a feel for the topology of the hull with their little flashlights. Five years ago there was a guy floating around outside, and he strayed too close to the rotating section of the station. He was pulverized because he had no sense of how far away he was from where he was supposed to be. It was just a big white wall in front of him. I'm betting our tape would have prevented that accident as well.
“Plus the reflective tape is full of little cornerpieces, so it transforms light polarization in a very specific way that’s easy to filter. Anyone with a properly configured laser range-finder can point it at the tape and tell how far away something is. So, it’s even improves the garbage laser painting gizmos, basically for free.”
Rin was quiet for a few more minutes as they rolled along. Beneath her the seat creaked as she shifted to get more comfortable. The sun had slipped behind the clouds, and she could feel her eyes wanting to slide closed. Her belly was full, and the ride was very smooth and relaxing.
Her eyes snapped open. “Hang on. You never answered my question. In fact, you added another one. Why is a successful guy -- who knows Wayne Zuse! - working for ISAC, and why is he taking an interest in someone at the bottom of the pile?”
“Oh, sorry. I thought you had fallen asleep on me!” David laughed. “Anyway, I was sent here as part of the deal. Wayne and I are both fans of space travel. I'm sort of on loan from Tangerine. Wayne pitched it to ISAC as a kind of exchange program where they learn some of our tricks, and he pitched it to our stockholders as a kind of public relations / publicity stunt deal. We'll end up with our logo on some orbital objects, and they agreed to put our relays on their ships and stations so people with our tel units can make calls from orbit. Silly, but that stuff goes over really well with consumers.”
“Wow. So what is the space program learning from you?”
“Nothing, really. Not for lack of me trying, but one person does not steer an organization of this size. I don't have any power over policy, the unions, or spending, but I have some latitude with regard to who gets hired and what I assign them to do. On paper, I'm an adviser to the Executive Director. But he prefers schmoozing with politicians and contractors and is happy to leave me to do the boring stuff like make this place work. And if you ever tell anyone I said that I'll deny it so hard you'll die of shame.”
“To be completely honest: I don't like it here. This place is stifling, dysfunctional, bureaucratic, and capable of really petty bullshit.”
Rin opened her mouth, but David jumped in before she could ask, “I stay here because as much as I hate this culture, this is the only way human beings are ever going to live out there. For good.” David pointed up towards the sky as he said this. “I don't just mean space. I mean other worlds. This is our only way to get there, and I really want to see it happen in my lifetime.”
Rin looked over. David was surprisingly earnest and passionate on this point. “Are you sure?” she asked. “I mean, we've got quite a few private firms out there now. What were those guys that did an orbit around the moon last year? Slingshot?”
David smiled. “Catapult Aerospace. Love those guys. Quirky company. But no, they aren't taking us to the stars anytime soon. Yes, they can drop stuff off on the moon or take rich people out for a few laps around it. But think about it: What are the two things you need for traveling interstellar?”
“Well, you need an accelerator tunnel...”
David nodded. “And to power the accelerator you need...?”
Rin sighed. “I get it. You need a reactor.”
“Yes. And good luck getting permission to build one of those. Governments do not generally want private companies messing with nuclear power. So this place is the only route to the stars, assuming someone can fix the stifling bureaucracy, infighting, and graft.”
David had been lowering his voice as they approached the facility. The conversation stopped when they reached the security checkpoint. They lowered the windows and let the camera arms have their way with the car.
David continued once they were clear. “You probably don't realize it, but you are special. That's why I want you as part of my team.”
“Not to imply that I think I'm ordinary, but when you say 'special', what are you referring to?”
David began ticking off points on his fingers as he drove. “You decided you wanted to be a doctor, even though you have no active support from a family and no financial backing. You developed a strenuous plan of action to get you through med school with minimal debt. At age eighteen, you had a planning horizon that extended almost a decade into the future. You kept up with your plan, even though it led to isolation and exhaustion. You did this without complaining or unloading your stress on coworkers, and without ever failing in your duties. I know. I was watching.”
Rin shrugged. “Sounds impressive when you say it like that.”
“You're audacious. I need audacious people. Especially here. I can't fix this culture of sloth, risk-aversion, paperwork, and politicking overnight. Heck, I'll probably never fix it. But I can put a dent in it if I can get the right people.”
“Okay, so you want me on your team. What does that mean?”
“It's how we worked at Tangerine. Team leaders watch the new recruits and temp workers, looking for gems. If you see someone special, you grab them and put them on your team. We actually call it the tribal system, but I didn't want to confuse you by asking you to join my tribe. The point is, I had ten smart, hardworking people behind me at Tangerine. I'm sure they're off right now inventing a cordless smart screen that can cook dinner and give foot massages. I have to build another team, and good creative people are hard to find in this place.”
“Am I the first person to join your new tribe or team or whatever?”
“No. I've got a few others. One guy is a little older than you. He's in orbit now. I've just had a robotics expert join up. There's also a retired ship captain that stops by now and again to do some consulting for us. If I'm reading him right, he's bored and looking for a way to contribute on a larger scale. I'm keeping my eye on him.”
Rin was quiet as she turned this over in her head. Their car was winding through the complex, heading for the personnel facilities.
“So what do you want me to do?” she asked as the car eased to a stop.
“Keep doing what you're doing. Keep your head down. Make it to space and back. By the time you do that you should have a pretty good picture of what's wrong with the space program. Then we can talk about fixing it. Just like gluing strings of lights to a spaceship, sometimes a small idea can make a huge impact.”
David pulled away and Rin turned around in place on the sidewalk. He'd dropped her off where he'd found her, in front of the cafeteria. She no longer needed to go eat. She glanced at her phone and realized she had missed a training class, and was more than halfway through the next one.
Being a member of David's team gave Rin access to all sorts of nuggets of information that were probably intended for people far above her pay level. David would forward her stories, or executive summaries of proposals. There didn't seem to be much in the way of reason or order to what he sent, other than everything seemed to hint at the dysfunction he wanted to fix. Rin read these not because they were interesting, but because they were ostensibly classified and she was being allowed in on the secret.
The most interesting of these was the long chain of reports and studies regarding Technician 4 William 'Billy' Burke.
On the day he died, Burke had been assigned to perform a haul-in from the exterior storage array on ISAC docking station Berlin. Rather than maintain a warehouse within the station and go to all the trouble of pressurizing and heating it, supplies were placed into canisters that hung in nets from the non-rotational parts of the station. Once empty, the four-meter canisters were filled with trash, sewage, recyclables, or whatever else the station inhabitants needed to send back down to Earth.
The Wild West days of throwing refuse into space at orbital velocity were long over. The problem with orbiting objects is that everything is either worthless or priceless. Sooner or later some of those accumulated turds, tampons, and toothbrushes would drift off and smack into something expensive at three kilometers a second. Then people at home would naturally ask why the space agency was allowed to throw their trash out the window. So, instead, they de-orbited everything, but that meant keeping it all contained.
Billy was given the job of leaving the ship, attaching container Orange-11 to the reel line -- a space-winch, basically -- and having it brought into the ship. He was supposed to have a spotter with him for a job like this - someone who could call for help if he was incapacitated while gallivanting around in the deadly vacuum of space. Technician 2 Morris 'Stomper' Kazinski was supposed to suit up and watch Billy do the haul-in. The after-incident investigation found that Morris signed in for duty and then went to his bunk to play videogames. Morris later insisted that he hadn't done anything unusual. According to Morris, nobody on the ship ever showed up for spotter duty because all you did was float around in space watching someone else work. The other crew members insisted that this was clearly not true. They always reported for spotter duty, and they had their names on the sign-in sheet to prove it.
Billy didn't seem to find the absence of a spotter unusual. He arrived in airlock 4 and proceeded to exit the ship without making any effort to contact his spotter.
His helmet had not been properly secured, and so when he attempted to cycle the airlock an alarm sounded. Billy dismissed this alarm without correcting the problem with his suit. The airlocks often gave warnings and alarms for various situations that were generally not dangerous, and it was postulated that Billy dismissed this alarm without reading it, mistaking it for a less dangerous problem.
His suit would also have refused to green-light him for excursion. Regulation required that his suit report green before the operator should attempt to cycle the airlock. It was not clear if Billy ignored this step, if he mistook the yellow alert for green, or if the suit failed to properly detect the unsealed helmet situation. It was several days before the body was recovered, during which time the suit had been exposed to a lengthy freeze / thaw cycle that exceeded operational parameters and might have inflicted additional post-accident damage on the instrumentation. Later testing of the suit was rated as inconclusive.
When the external airlock opened, Billy floated out. External cameras -- which, in violation of regulation, were not being monitored during the operation -- showed him floating away at two kilometers an hour relative to the station. Nobody was able to explain this motion. If the decompression had been sudden and debilitating, then Billy would have been incapacitated in the airlock, and should still have been floating there when the accident was discovered. If the decompression had not been instantly debilitating, then Billy should have been able to close the door again or signal for help.
The only way for the accident to have happened as it did would be for Billy to somehow not notice the decompression for four full seconds, which is how long it would take the outer doors to open far enough to allow him to pass. He would have needed to push off, and only then become incapacitated.
The most popular theory was that Billy was drunk on the job. Alcohol was found in his body once it was recovered, but nobody could agree on how prolonged exposure to a vacuum would impact the amount of measurable alcohol present in the bloodstream after death.
The other popular theory was that Mr. Burke committed suicide. His last psych evaluation was four years old and had been performed by a doctor who apparently also evaluated twenty other personnel during that same hour, all of which had precisely the same “nothing to see here” wording in their review.
Whatever happened in space exploration, ISAC was never allowed to not know why someone died. More importantly, they were never, ever allowed to fail to have a plan for making sure it never happened again. And so it was decided that Morris Kazinski would have his contract terminated, and all other orbital and deep-space personnel would need to be re-certified for spacewalk before their next mission.
Reading all of this, Rin felt like she had never left Japan.
Rin saw the robot as soon as she entered the lecture hall. Among all the students fidgeting, slouching, ogling members of the opposite sex, flirting, reading, or nodding off in their seats, the lone motionless figure stood out. Her sitting posture looked forced, as if she was posing for a picture. She looked ahead to the front of the room, despite the fact that the class hadn't started yet and all of the action was taking place behind her. Her shoulders didn't move and her chest didn't rise and fall, because she wasn't pretending to breathe like some of the high-end personal robots did.
Rin was shocked at how antiquated the ground facilities were here at ISAC. The two-meter display screens at the front of the room had aged poorly. One had accumulated a lot of dead pixels over the years, and the other seemed to be broken entirely. The desks were throwbacks to the days before subsurface charging. You could walk into any coffee shop, restaurant, or office built in the last decade and find little yellow lightning bolt icons on every horizontal surface between waist and shoulder height. You dropped a battery powered widget anywhere and it got charged, end of story. But the tables here at ISAC had physical plugs. Useless, of course, except as a perch so Rin could set her coffee down on the desk and not have it slide off into her lap. Of course, that wouldn't be a problem if the surface was level. Did ISAC really expect people to do penmanship? Maybe there was a 'Writing Cursive in Space' certification she could get.
This class was called 'Procedures for Extra-Planetary Habitation'. Today was the first day. As far as Rin could tell, this was going to be a course dedicated to living in space, and the core of its learning could probably be summed up on an index card; Where to sleep, where to go to the bathroom, how to keep your hair out of your face in zero gravity, etc.
May as well start poking things. Rin sat down next to the robot. “So what are you doing in here?”
Several heads turned her way when she said this. The robot didn't look towards her. It failed to notice it was being talked to. It missed out on the little cues with regard to distance, position, and tone of voice that announced you were opening a conversation with someone. It just kept looking at the front of the room.
“Hey. Bot. Why are you here?”
The robot turned and the motionless face greeted her. “Hello. I'm here for the class on Procedures for Extra-Planetary Habitation.”
This was a decent mid-range robot. The voice wasn't stilted. The face was lifelike and the eyes didn't have that vacuous dunce look that Rin hated so much.
“Yes, I know what class this is, but why are you in it?”
“Hey, leave her alone!” This voice came from behind Rin. She turned to see a tall, broad-shouldered technician. He had stood up from his desk and was looking at her indignantly. He was perhaps a few years older than her. In another, less annoying context, she might have admired him for his good looks.
Rin blinked, unable to understand why this guy would be demanding that she not talk to a robot. When he didn't seem inclined to explain himself, Rin prompted him with a sneer. “What?”
He folded his arms over his chest and raised his voice. “She has as much a right to be here as you do!”
“You have got to be kidding,” Rin groaned. “Go away. Nobody asked for your help.”
He turned his attention to the robot. “You don't have to listen to her. You're fine.”
“I'm not oppressing the robot. It doesn't even...” Rin stopped herself, realizing she was going about this the wrong way. Turning to the Robot she said, “Am I bothering you? No? Please tell him I'm not bothering you.”
The robot stood and turned towards the back of the room so she could face her would-be savior. “I'm not uncomfortable. But thanks for your concern.” She sat back down.
A person wouldn't stand up just to utter a single line. For people, getting in and out of chairs was like shifting into fourth gear. You didn't want to do it if you were going to change back a couple of seconds later. If a person wanted to toss out a single statement, they would normally talk over their shoulder or contort themselves a bit to turn all the way around in the desk. A person wouldn't inconvenience themselves just to establish eye contact for something this trivial. This was just another subtle move that humans simply took for granted in one another. Rin noted this oddity, adding it to the list of thousands of other details that stood in the way of people involved in the misguided business of making human-shaped robots.
The guy stopped puffing out his chest and unclenched his jaw. He grudgingly backed down and returned to his seat. Several people took the opportunity to arrange their note paper. The sound of idly tapping pencils resumed, like scholarly crickets after a disturbance.
“Why is a bot attending a human class?” Rin said to the robot. “Why not just absorb the material through reading? This stuff is slow even by human standards.”
“I don't mind.”
The robot was designed to look like a teenage girl. Annoyingly, she was a good bit taller than Rin. It was obviously a Japanese unit, but it had an American face, red hair, and freckles. It would have been a decent face if not for the unsettling detail that her mouth didn't move. Her voice floated out of her head as if she was a ventriloquist.
“I know you don't mind, but I don't see the point. This class is for humans scheduled for orbital or deep space duty. This is a slow way to teach you something you don't need to know.”
“I'll be going to space along with the other students. I don't know why I'm being sent to classes instead of reading the material. But I don't mind. I'm not uncomfortable at all.”
“You're going to space? That's a new one.” Rin wasn't sure how she felt about this. It seemed like an expensive thing to do. Were robots sharp enough to be helpful out there, or was this robot being sent to space for the sake of novelty? “So what's the deal with your mouth?”
“In focus groups we found people disliked the animated mouth. The noise of the movement was unsatisfying to them. The locked mouth position is being tested as an alternative. I'm sorry if it makes you uncomfortable.”
Robots used synth-voices, which came out of a simple speaker built into the head or throat. The moving mouths were just puppetry. The noise of the motion wasn't loud, but even the smallest hints of mechanical friction sounded strange coming from the face of something supposedly human.
“I'm not uncomfortable,” Rin reassured the robot.
“Good!” the robot said in a cheerful voice, without that emotion being reflected on the face in the slightest. Ironically, this did make Rin uncomfortable. It made the robot seem like a crazy person.
Rin reached up and slapped her hand against the black plastic square on the front of her mailbox, which sat at the topmost position in the middle of a vast wall of identical boxes. It must have been someone's idea of a joke to assign a top box to someone of her height. She couldn't reach all the way to the back, even on tiptoe.
The box didn't react to her touch. She tried again. She tried the other hand. She leaned in and looked at the plastic at an angle so she could make out the surface in the early morning sunlight. It was covered in giant greasy fingerprints. What was this stuff? Donut glaze? Sunblock?
She was wearing a skirt and short sleeves, and her purse was made of leathery plastic. She literally had no fabric which could reach this panel to clean it. She wouldn't even bother, but her mail indicator light was flashing for the first time in a week, and she was willing to bet it was her new duty assignment. ISAC insisted on mailing simple documents that could be easily sent electronically. For security purposes of course.
She slipped off one of her platform shoes, removed a sock, and used it to buff the panel clean. Afterward, the panel responded to her handprint and released the mailbox door. There was a single large envelope inside. She snatched it and headed out to get something to eat.
ISAC had allowed a Cheese-Easy franchise to set up here on campus. The food was so greasy and heavy that it put her body into a coma-like nap, and their coffee was unforgivably wretched swill. She wouldn't bother with this place at all, but the alternative was for her to either walk a half mile off campus in the savage heat, or go without caffeine. So, death either way, basically.
The place was empty this morning. A robot was sweeping the floor and another one was minding the register. They were awful, American-made, rubber-faced twins with repetitive movements and cheap, grating voices. They were white, blond-haired, blue-eyed, “males”, molded to give the impression of a robust, healthy physique. The only other human in the building was in the kitchen.
Rin smiled. She liked when she had the robots to herself. She grinned at the cashier robot and gave her order. “I would like a large coffee... with no mayo.”
The robot hesitated. Its smooth, disturbingly shiny face looked down at the register and back up at her. “I'm sorry, I'm not allowed to put mayonnaise on that.”
It wasn't always clear what twisted logic the robots were following when responding to nonsense instructions, and they were never smart enough to explain themselves. She theorized that it heard, “no mayo on coffee,” realized that this was a nonsense request, and so assumed the customer had intended to say, “mayo on coffee”. After this logical leap, it would realize it wasn't allowed to do that, and said so. Perhaps not. Perhaps it followed some other line of non-reasoning. She still enjoyed the game.
She tried again. “I would like a large Coke, with no pickles.”
The robot continued smiling. Rin wondered if the people who made these things realized just how self-defeating it was to have a salesperson who always smiled. It wasn't reassuring. It just made the robot seem crazed, or led the human being to wonder if it was hiding some other emotion. Finally it replied, “I'm sorry, but we're not serving lunch yet. Can I interest you in our breakfast menu?”
“Oh, thank you!” she grinned ingratiatingly. If you weren't polite, the bots would occasionally figure out you were messing with them. It took much longer for them to catch on if you acted like a moron. “I'll just have the large coke with no syrup then.”
Instantly she winced and rolled her eyes. Coke was reconstituted from syrup! She might get a cup of carbonated water for her trouble. But no...
“Would you like the pancake meal to go with your drink?” The robot inquired helpfully.
She smiled to herself this time, giving a suggestion meant that the robot was all set for her killer line. She looked both ways like a vaudeville villain and leaned slightly forward over the counter.
Just then, another customer entered. Rin didn't want to hold up the line with her game, so she decided to let the robot off the hook. “Never mind. I just want a coffee.”
“What size coffee would you like?” the robot replied with mechanical cheerfulness.
“I want all the coffee,” Rin said slyly.
The robot paused again before replying. “Your order is one large coffee. Would you like anything else?”
“No,” Rin said with slight disappointment. “Large coffee” was a pretty good way to interpret “all the coffee” without engaging in surrealism. Plus she couldn't afford the other meaning anyway. Life was so sad sometimes.
Back outside, she set her imitation coffee down on one of the patio tables, which nobody ever used because only a crazy person would want to sit in direct sunlight in this part of the world. She ripped open her mail and shuffled through the irrelevant fluff to find the one meaningful document. Her eyes scanned over it until she found the words “ISV ARMSTRONG” printed in large, bold letters.
“Son of a bitch!” she shouted.
Twenty minutes later she strode into David's office without knocking. David didn't look up from his golf putter. He'd stuffed a number of small objects under the large throw rug in the middle of the room, giving it a complex topography. He was also putting left-handed, and Rin was pretty sure he was normally right-dominant.
“You need something?” he muttered as his eyes darted back and forth between the ball and the cup, lining up his shot.
“Yes,” Rin said. She walked around him, tossed her empty coffee into his trash, and slapped her assignment down onto his desk. “I would like to talk to you about this bullshit.”
David glanced at the paper and his eyes brightened. “Oh! Your duty assignment. I thought this was about you getting fired.”
“You didn't know? You're fired. Failed to notify before taking emergency leave.”
“You told me to take the emergency leave! This is your fault!
“Don't blame me! Besides, your duty assignment just came in!”
She glared at him accusingly. “You knew about this?”
“Yes,” David said, his shoulders falling. “I'd meant to talk you into it before your orders came in.”
“You were going to talk me into it? What if I didn't agree to it?”
“I hadn't really considered that. Of course, it's going to be harder now that you're mad at me. Good thing you don't have a job to fall back on.”
“Did you do this yourself? Did you actually assign me to deep space without even talking to me first?”
David took the putt. The ball rolled halfway up the lopsided hill and rolled off to one side. Rin noticed that David was missing a shoe. He sighed in disappointment and recovered the ball to try again. “No, I didn't personally assign you. Keep in mind that most people in your position don't get to come in here and talk to me personally, and a lot of them would probably be terrified at the prospect. No, your name went in the pool with everyone else's. Deep space captains get first pick of new personnel, and so when a woman with twenty different certifications came up, you naturally got drafted early. In fact, I'm pretty sure you were a first-round pick.”
“You're the one who encouraged me to go after so many certs. You had to know this would happen,” Rin said accusingly. She held up her orders as evidence.
“Which is why I planned to talk to you about it. I had guessed you’d get through the first round, but I didn’t know you’d be assigned so quickly. Hey, maybe this place is getting more efficient after all!”
“I know you're used to working on gadgets and software, but maybe you've heard that space flight is dangerous? Like, people die?”
“Statistically, it's safer than climbing Mt. Everest.” A faint tap announced another putt. This one bounced over a lump shaped like an open book and rolled under his desk.
Rin wasn't sure if she should laugh or scream, and so she split the difference and let out a sort of sputtering guffaw. “Does that work on people? They agree to do something dangerous because something completely unrelated is more dangerous?”
“I'm just trying to put it into perspective,” David said with infuriating calmness.
“Fine. Your irrelevant trivia is duly noted. I'm not leaving Earth orbit.”
David dropped the putter and strode out of the room. A second later he came back and retrieved his shoe from under the rug. “Let's go,” he said.
Rin followed David out of the building. She was already set against going to space, but she was going along because she was curious what his pitch was going to be. He might be a manipulative bastard, but he wasn't a fool, and she was eager to see what he might think was persuasive enough to change her mind.
Oddly, he didn't lead them to the parking garage, but instead exited out the front door of the administration building and into the world of direct solar radiation and stifling humidity. He led them across the road and around to the side of the executive cafeteria building. There was a loading bay here, and some forklifts were unloading a truck and moving the goods inside. David whistled at them like he was hailing a cab.
“Yeah, you! Number six!” he shouted to a yellow robot with a blocky “6” stenciled on the side. “Come here.”
An operator was standing with the robots, directing their work. He looked put out that someone would distract one of his charges, but once he saw Director Reed he gave a nervous gesture halfway between a wave and a salute, and went back to his work.
Number Six rolled over to them on its tank treads. Its arms were currently folded into its body, so it was basically a traveling yellow box. When it arrived, the “head” extended on a long, narrow swivel arm and looked down at David. The head was nothing more than a cluster of cameras and scuffed, greasy display screen. A message appeared:
“How can I assist you?” It read. The message was printed in block mono-type, which was oddly difficult to read considering how easy it was to identify each character.
David rolled his eyes and turned to Rin. “Can you believe some of these companies? Tangerine will license out low-class voices for, like, forty bucks a unit. How much do you think they charge people for one of these forklifts? And they're too dang cheap to throw in voice synthesis? Hell, you can use turn-of-the-century voice synth for free. Just shameful.”
David turned to the robot. “I want you to carry us to the simulator.”
The screen now scrolled to read “I am not authorized to carry personnel.” Small bits of “How can I assist you?” still littered the top edge of the screen. Rin found this annoyed her more than being assigned to deep space.
“I authorize you,” David said as if speaking to a child. He pulled his campus ID out of his breast pocket and held it up for the robot to see.
The arms unfolded and extended. Each “arm” was a collection of slats. The slats could fit together into a single long appendage, and so the two arms could grab palettes like a traditional forklift. The slats could also be moved around like long fingers and handle large items of various shapes and sizes. In this case the robot placed all of the slats side-by-side, forming a metal platform. David hopped onto this without hesitation.
Rin looked over at the operator. “I think you pissed that guy off. You stole one of his workers.”
David shrugged. “Those guys make more per hour than you did doing office work, and they average about four hours of work for a ten-hour shift. And if I try to cut their hours or fire one of them I'll end up in a time-sucking labor dispute that will drag on for weeks.”
Rin raised her eyebrows in a delicate question. The robot forklift idled nosily.
“What I'm saying is, basically, 'Screw that guy. Let's go.'”
With a noisy whine of servos, the robot had placed the platform at a height where David could step up. For Rin the step was a lot more formidable. She was wearing a skirt, and wasn't really crazy about how it was going to behave if she tried to climb.
David saw her problem. He put his hands under her arms and lifted her like a child, setting her down on the platform beside him. She wanted to be mad at him for this, but it did seem to be the most optimal approach. So she said “Thanks” instead.
“Didn't they issue you a jumpsuit yet?” he asked. “You don't work in the office anymore. You don't need to dress up.”
“There's no way I'm walking around in this heat with my arms and legs covered.”
“That's a very good point,” David said emphatically. “I wonder if I could get away with a kilt?” He banged the robot on the side twice as a signal to go. The robot didn't move. He bent over and put his face in front of the camera array. “Hey guy. We're on board. Let's go!”
The robot rolled away with them, heading for the Mud Lake Storage Zone.
The robot trundled along at a good pace, causing the wind to whip Rin's hair and skirt around. She held her skirt down by keeping her backside against the body of the robot and her right hand on the hem. With her other hand she held onto the robot's frame.
“This is not an ideal form of transport for me,” she shouted into the wind.
“You're doing fine,” David said dismissively. “I could have called the motor pool and had a golf cart sent over for us, but it always takes them fifteen minutes to deliver the dang thing.”
“Why are we going to the simulator?” Rin asked.
“I want you to meet my robotics expert.”
So he was taking her to meet one of the other members of their alleged “tribe”. If David described this person as his 'robotics expert', then how did he describe her to other people? Was she his 'not-yet-a-doctor expert'? His 'car crash expert'? His 'young female expert'?
Rin looked at David. He was wearing his Smug Shades again, looking off to the horizon and bobbing his head slightly as if he was listening to music that nobody else could hear. Most people would be making a fool of themselves by acting this way, but the standard rules of behavior didn't seem to apply to him. Here was a guy who was probably fabulously wealthy. He worked as some sort of important person at a sexy, cutting-edge technology company and was personal friends with world-famous Wayne Zuse. On top of this, he was now in the position of administrating bits of the largest and most well-funded aerospace program on the planet. While he didn't strike her as a creative genius, he did seem to have some sort of spark or drive that put him ahead of everyone else. Perhaps it was his superhuman audacity.
“Maybe he can trick out your new ride!” She yelled.
David just flashed his teeth for a moment.
“I know I asked you this already, but what is your deal with me?” Rin asked.
“Deal?” David shrugged, as if mystified by the question.
She was pretty sure he knew exactly what she was talking about, but was feigning ignorance. Why did he do this? It was amazingly irritating, and forced her to explain things that he probably already knew. “Why are you bothering with me? I'm flattered and everything, but why are you going to so much trouble to talk me into going to deep space?”
“We had an orbital tech decompress himself a few months ago. As part of the fallout from that, everyone needs to be re-certified. Which means we're shorthanded. So I need all the people I can get.”
“But why me, specifically?”
“I read about your work with Project Bootstrap,” David said, face still turned to the horizon.
Rin wanted to cover her face with her hand, but she couldn't spare either of them. She settled for hanging her head in shame. “You heard about that? How? And you think it's a good thing?”
“Hearing about it was easy. I sent for your extended transcripts. This being a super-government outfit, they tell us everything. Anything that hits your file. Every time your student ID is swiped somewhere. Every time a face-track camera spots you walking between classes. Visits to dorms. Extracurricular involvement. It’s so bad that I’ve got a custom scrubbing program to take out the embarrassingly private information so I can read the things without blushing. College students would riot if they knew how much the school knows... and if they weren't so damn apathetic.”
“But, I practically ruined the project!” Rin objected. A bug bounced off her lips as she said this, and she spluttered for a moment. David didn’t seem to notice.
“No, you saved it. I saw you got a lot of grief over it, but you did the right thing. You might not know it, but a few of the professors spoke up for you. In writing, at least. I know they booted you out of the project, but that was because of all the interpersonal drama. You impressed a lot of people by sticking to your guns. And I thought your solution was funny.”
“And this is why you want me on your team?” Rin said doubtfully.
“That, and the stuff I said before. Smart, independent, audacious, rides forklifts with older men.”
Rin smiled and cocked her head to one side, “So, I remind you of yourself then?” David said nothing, “Vicarious space exploration!” she prodded him, “All the fun, none of the risks!” David started bobbing his head again.
The simulator was a full-scale replica of an interstellar ship, held upright by a slender scaffolding of crisscrossing metal supports. The major difference between this ship and the real thing was that the top and bottom parts of the ship were split, nose-to-tail, and the two halves sat side-by-side. This was so that people could move around on the upper decks. Without this change, people on the upper decks would have needed to walk around on the ceiling. The reactor and accelerator were props, with training simulators built into them. She'd heard the bridge was also a simulator, but that place was closed to non-officers.
Even at half-height, the ship towered overhead. It was like a very long, extremely narrow building. It was hard for her to reconcile the imposing outside with the cramped interior.
Number Six rolled to a stop at the base of the ship. David stepped off first and brought his tel up to his ear. “Motor pool,” he said.
Rin waited, hoping the robot would lower its arms for her. It stood still and quiet, holding her about three feet off the ground. David reached out his free hand and offered to help her down. She ignored him and jumped. It might have been unladylike, but what the hell? She was already riding around on a moronic forklift.
“This is director Reed. I need a cart sent to the simulator,” David said. He waited a few seconds, rolled his eyes, and then hung up on whoever was on the other end. He shooed Number Six back to its operator.
Rin walked around, looking at the ship up close. The last time she was here was for the Energy Management Systems Certification, which was basically a test on babysitting the reactor. This was called “Glowboy Certification” by the students. She didn't have time to sight-see then, and was happy for this chance to poke around on her own. She was amused to discover that the hull - which looked plausible from a few paces away -- was actually made of cheap, lightweight plastic.
“I hope the real ships aren't made of plastic,” she said.
David shook his head. “Plywood. Way cheaper, and it's easy to modify.”
“Yeah... No! The... This is plywood, not plastic. I don’t know what the real ones are made of. Gold and diamonds if you guess by how much we pay for them.”
“We're here to meet someone?” Rin said, hoping David would get to the point.
“ANDO!” David shouted without warning.
Rin stumbled back in surprise. “What?” she said in outrage once she'd recovered.
“He said he'd be here,” David muttered to himself.
David led her up the wooden ramp to the ship. There was a fully-functional airlock here for training purposes. Beside it was a simple opening cut into the side of the ship. A heavy slatted clear plastic curtain was hung over this, stenciled with the words, “THIS ACCESS POINT NOT PART OF SHIP DESIGN INSTRUCTOR USE ONLY.”
David shouldered aside the curtain and they headed in.
Entering the simulator was always a little strange. It was four stories tall and perhaps a hundred meters long, which gave the impression you were entering something like a regular building. It was disorienting to get inside and find the back wall of the building was only a few paces away. There wasn't enough room for a proper corridor, so rooms were arranged in a chain running fore to aft. If you wanted to get to a room on the other end of the ship, you had to pass through all of the rooms in between.
The place was lit by gentle white lights built into the starboard wall. On the port side, sunlight streamed in through the porthole. There was one such window in each section, a single narrow viewport that ran from deck to overhead. The stagnant air tasted rather un-futuristically like a lumber yard.
Rin wondered how anyone could sleep if people were constantly passing through the sleep area. The only places that offered any sort of privacy were the closet-sized toilet and shower cubicles, which were so narrow it wasn't clear how anyone could bend far enough to get their clothes off.
“You're not really making this deal any more attractive by bringing me here,” she said as she followed David aft.
The ceilings were just barely high enough that David could walk without crouching. He did need to duck down slightly to pass through the doorways between rooms. The doors stood open, and a curved red line had been painted on the deck to indicate their radius of movement.
David reached the yellow ladder leading up towards the power plant. “Ando!” he shouted again, less explosively this time. It was still loud for such a small space.
There was a clattering of hard footsteps on the deck above them. A robot came sliding down the ladder and landed gently at the bottom. It was made of metal with a white glossy finish. Black moving parts were exposed at all the joints. It was roughly the height and proportions of a ten-year-old boy. The back of the head was swept back and elongated to a rounded point. This made it look as if its hair had been blown back in a wind tunnel, or it was wearing a very aerodynamic helmet.
It looked shiny and new, but Rin suspected this was a very old robot design, because the face was almost absurdly primitive. The front of the head was a simple oval of translucent black plastic. Behind this was a grid of blue lights. The lights were lit in a pattern that formed two simple circles and a line, making the crudest approximation of a face, like an emoticon typed out on a screen.
“Good morning David,” the robot said evenly. Despite the apparent age of the design, the voice was cutting-edge - at least as good as Roberto. If she had turned her back she wouldn't have been able to tell it was coming from a robot. The voice might have sounded slightly old for a child body - perhaps more fitting for a teenager - but it was still quality.
David presented the robot with a grand gesture, “Rin, meet Ando, my robotics expert.” He was grinning like a madman.
“Good morning, Miss Shimazaki,” the robot said cheerfully. It held out the vowel sound in the word “good” for just a split second longer than was normal, making the greeting sound playful or encouraging. Rin had never met a robot that did this sort of thing before. The pattern of blue lights on its face had shifted so that the eyes were shut and the mouth was drawn into a half-circle smile. This made it look kind of like the robot was beaming. It held out a small, graceful hand for a handshake.
Rin ignored the robot and spoke to David, “This was your plan? Some creepy Japanese bot-child?”
David nodded as if he expected this response. Rin couldn't help but wonder if this was just an act on his part. Did he do this whenever he was rejected by someone? Was he married? Did he have a wife who let him get away with this sort of thing?
“Give him a chance,” David said patiently.
“Does my appearance make you uncomfortable?” Ando asked calmly. “This configuration was repeatedly well-received in focus group testing. The child-like proportions give the human being a feeling of power and authority, which makes them more willing to engage.”
Rin was quiet. She'd never had a robot attempt to debate her before. They generally understood only concrete topics, and said little in return. It took her a minute to get over the shock and get herself into the idea of having an argument with a robot. “See, that's exactly my problem. Your appearance is engineered to incite a certain response in people. That's creepy and manipulative.”
The robot had stopped smiling. Its face was passive again as it replied, “Human beings often style their hair or wear clothes designed to provoke a specific reaction in others. This behavior could also be said to be manipulative.”
“That's not what I meant!” Rin snapped.
“I'm sorry if I've offended you.” Ando's face changed. Two eyebrows appeared over its round eyes, arching upward and giving it a worried or nervous appearance. It realized it had offended her, and was backing down. Rin also realized, to her humiliation, that she was going to win this debate by “pulling rank” over the robot, which was not what she wanted at all. She was reacting as if she was dealing with a child talking back to her. She took a deep breath. She needed to keep her mind on the discussion and not take offense simply because a robot had an opinion.
“No, I'm sorry for raising my voice. I'm actually not very good around children,” she said. “But this is part of the problem. You're not really a child, are you? This isn't quite the same as styling your hair or wearing particular clothes. By taking on the form of a child you're pretending to be something you aren't. You're not human, and you're not a kid.”
Ando's face became neutral again. “You're suggesting my appearance is deceptive?”
“A bit, yeah. Misleading, I suppose. It also lowers the standards by which you are judged. Robots in adult form are judged as adult humans, which is why everyone reacts to them like they're so stupid. The face and body create a certain expectation. By taking the form of a child, your communication is judged by child standards.”
“True,” it replied. “But if a child form is deceptive and an adult form creates unattainable expectations, then what form should a robot have?” It did not say this in a challenging tone of voice, but a curious one. It really was curious what she thought. Or at least, it wanted her to feel that it was curious.
“I would say to make bots in a shape appropriate for their intended job, which doesn't need to be humanoid. The forklifts and the security checkpoint are good examples of bots designed to be good at a given task. I've never liked Japanese bots. I think their tendency to make humanoids is kind of narcissistic. And that's not even getting into the fact that most of their bots look like sixteen year old girls.”
Ando cocked its head to one side and arched one of its eyebrows, which made it look inquisitive. “What if the intended function of the bot was to interact with humans? If that was the case, then wouldn't a humanoid appearance be a sensible approach?”
David was standing behind the robot, grinning at her and looking smug. Rin wasn't sure how to take this. She looked down at Ando again, “Is that your purpose? Are you designed to interact with people?”
The robot paused. Usually a pause gave the impression that the robot was baffled by simple language and needed to catch up, but here it felt like the machine was considering its reply. “I would say no. Some of my directives are proprietary. I can't discuss those. But in a general sense, my purpose is to become more useful. To do this I need to better understand humans, and to do that I need to interact with them socially.”
Rin couldn't even believe that such a machine existed. It was even more unbelievable that she was getting to talk to it like this. In the past she had wondered if this sort of sophistication was going to emerge in her lifetime, and here it was, standing two paces away and arguing with her. She shook her head in amazement. “So what's the deal with your face? I mean- I'm sorry I didn't mean for that to come out that way, I just-“
“I'm not offended.” The robot smiled again. “A lot of people have asked the same question.” At this the robot swiveled its head around -- a bit further than was possible for a human -- and looked at David. It swiveled its head back to Rin. “The icon face was my idea. I feel strongly that I need a way to communicate reactions and attitudes in a non-verbal way, and I was dissatisfied with the mechanical faces. They look perfectly human to me, but humans are disturbed by them. I don't want to try a mechanical face again until I can perceive that discrepancy myself.”
A few seconds later Rin realized she was giving Ando a blank stare, like a low-grade robot trying to sort out what had been said. “So you're saying you designed your own face?”
Behind Ando, David gave her a single, self-satisfied nod. It seemed to be a cross between “I told you so!” and “Now you get it!” He gestured towards the porthole, indicating that he wanted to go outside and talk.
“I did,” Ando said. “I found I had an easier time reliably conveying reactions when typing than when interacting face-to-face, so the icon face was a natural extension of this idea.”
The robot communicated through typing? Rin wondered who it communicated with. More importantly, did they know they were talking to a robot at the time? “Have you ever taken the Turing test?” Rin asked.
“No,” Ando replied. “The Turing test is horseshit.”
Outside, Rin paced back and forth on the tarmac. There was a tiny, flimsy building here that held nothing more than a room to oversee the simulator, and a lavatory. David was in the shade of this building, leaning against the wall and watching the sky.
“That is an amazing robot,” Rin admitted, breaking the silence. They had left Ando inside to return to its simulator exercises, or whatever it was doing in there.
“You just spoke to the smartest machine ever built. Can you believe it?”
“I don't see any reason to disbelieve it,” Rin said. “But how did it end up here?”
David pushed off from the wall and joined her in her pacing. “He's on loan from Akimbo Technology. We have a long-standing relationship with them. And by 'we' I mean Tangerine, not this place.”
Rin didn't know what to make of this bit of information. It seemed like such a strange coincidence. Then again, Akimbo was one of a small number of advanced AI companies. Was it really that surprising that she should run into them here?
She realized that her surprise must have shown on her face, because David was giving her a quizzical look. “What? Is it something about Akimbo?” he asked. Suddenly a flash of realization appeared on his face. “Shimazaki! Don't tell me you're related!”
“Shimazaki is a common family name,” she blurted out in what was a spectacularly lame attempt at subtlety.
David was smiling like a madman. “Tell me Takehiko Shimazaki isn't your father.” He said this as if it was a dare.
“Takehiko Shimazaki is not my father,” Rin said firmly.
“Okay,” he said, still smirking. He nodded his head. He could tell she was telling the truth. “You keep your secret for now. Akimbo Tech is still an interesting company. They've always had really smart robotics, pretty much way ahead of everyone else.”
“Really?” Rin said. She wasn't aware they were ahead, much less “way ahead”.
“They came to us years ago for voice tech and aural parsers and we've been working together ever since. Strange company. They're not building industrial robots, or service workers, which is what most people want when they go shopping for bots. Most places want them to replace janitors, meter-readers, and stock-boys. But Akimbo has always been about making sapient robotic spokes models. They want to make salespeople, training instructors, trade show models, that kind of thing. Very high-end. Very niche.”
“I'm getting there,” David said, who clearly didn't want her to ruin his story by making him get to the point. “Once in a while they would lend us a robot. Ostensibly for testing, but it was a different bot each time. This kind of annoyed us. I mean, we had to teach each one about how the testing process worked. They would meet the team. The robot would spend time acclimating itself to American English. They hear English over there, of course, but it's heavily accented and it always takes the bots a while to get an ear for the way we speak it. Plus it’s all built on Japanese ways of thinking. It always took a week or so before we could get anything done with the robot. If they had sent us the same robot every time, it would have been much smoother.”
“Somehow this training process was helping them make smarter robots?”
David smiled. “That's what we've been thinking. There's something important about the learning process that they're studying. Something like that. Their machines keep getting smarter, even on the same hardware. They're very secretive about it, but they don't turn over their old machines like other companies. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that Ando in there more than a decade old.”
“How could anyone get something that smart on ten year old hardware?”
“We don't know. We can't open his head without violating a heavy-duty NDA, so we've never even looked. But here's the exciting part: Akimbo heard about me working for this place, and now they want in on it. They want to send a couple of their units into space. I'm putting them on the Armstrong. With you.”
The two of them stopped pacing and faced each other. Rin folded her arms. “I listened to your pitch. I'll admit this is a pretty impressive place and you're doing interesting things. Ando is smart, but I don't see why I should go to space. Not deep space, anyway. Leave that kind of thing to the explorers.”
“I'll let you in on the secret I learned back when I started working at Tangerine, over twenty years ago. I was thirty. I was broke.”
“Twenty years ago? Wait. You're fifty?” Rin blurted out.
“I was, a few years ago. Don't interrupt. At the time I was thirty, I was broke, and I'd just run my small-time software company into the ground. I had fewer notable accomplishments than you do at twenty-two years old. As of today, I've invented or improved more successful products than anyone else in Tangerine, including Wayne himself. I'm not a huge fan of patents, but I've got eight major ones with my name on them. I was named innovator of the year by Technology magazine. Twice.”
“I don't remember that.”
“I'm not surprised. You were ten.”
“I had no idea you were famous.”
“That's one of the many reasons I like you so much. Awe kills creativity. The point is, when I arrived at Tangerine I thought that people who changed the world were giants. Super-humans. People born to greatness. They're not. They're just smart people who do crazy, risky things. People like us. I don't have anything you don't have. You are just as capable of success, innovation, adventure, and fame as Nicola Tesla, Neil Armstrong, Wayne Zuse, or me. I'm not talking about once you finish your degree. I'm talking about you, right now.”
A pair of golf carts approached and pulled to a stop beside them, their smooth tires crunching in the gravel. Each one was driven by a jumpsuited worker, like the kind that had been running the forklifts earlier.
A portly worker climbed out of the nearest cart. “You requested a vehicle?”
David pulled out his tel and glanced at it. “Twenty minutes! You guys really have the hustle today.”
He gave David a thumbs up, completely missing the deadpan sarcasm. He jumped into the other cart and rode off, leaving David and Rin with the empty cart.
“You drive,” David said as he climbed into the passenger side.
“Where am I going?” Rin asked.
“Space!” David declared enthusiastically. “But in the meantime, back to the office.” He nodded in the direction of the administration buildings.
As they pulled away, David pointed back at the simulator ship, “You might look out of one of the portholes and be the first human being to see a world that will someday be home to millions. You might help us think up a way to make space travel safer. You might help make robots smarter. You might see a star or a planet unlike anything we've ever seen before. You might eat paste and piss in a tube for six months.”
“Maine is always there. You can go and be a doctor anytime you like. But this? This is a chance to be the right person at the right time. You're going to be on the most advanced craft ever built by human beings, traveling with the smartest machine ever built by human beings, going further than any explorer has ever gone. Do you think you can walk away from this and not wonder for the rest of your life what you might have missed?”
Rin staggered into the icy lobby and dropped herself against the wall. She tugged at the front of her shirt to get some air moving between her skin and her clothing, which was soaked with ineffectual sweat. The walk had been a tragically bad idea.
The waiting room, or foyer, or whatever this place was, consisted of cream and avocado colored walls. Rin never found these colors -- always associated with medical facilities -- to be relaxing in the way that designers probably imagined them to be. The slightest sound echoed off the hard tile floor, and the air was strong with the smell of disinfectant.
There was a receptionist here, a middle-aged man in a blue jumpsuit. He was looking at her expectantly, probably waiting for her to sign in or explain why she had wandered in here. Or he was just staring at her sweat soaked body. She pretended not to notice him. She wasn't ready to have a conversation just yet.
The C-Line campus shuttle completed its circuit about once every forty minutes. Rin had arrived at the bus stop to see it driving off into the distance, and figured she would just make the trip on foot rather than wait for the shuttle to come around again. While she hadn't really misjudged the distance, she'd misjudged how fast her legs would carry her in this heat. She was ragged by the end. In the home stretch, when she was less than a hundred meters from the ISAC medical center, the shuttle rolled past her. It had pulled away again just as she arrived.
She was startled by a man's voice. His West African accent was nearly impenetrable, and it took her a bit to sort out that he was saying, “I can help you?”
The man was tall, round-faced, and dressed in white. He had dark skin and very little hair remaining on top of his head.
“Yes,” Rin said slowly, coming out of her heat-induced stupor. “I'm looking for Doctor...” She glanced down to see “Dr. Ouedraogo” on his nametag. “You,” she said. “I'm looking for you.” She was glad to be spared the humiliation of butchering his name.
“Oh-drago,” he said, pointing to his nametag. “So the last part-sounds like 'drago'. As if 'dragon'. You see?”
“Is that really how it's pronounced?” she asked.
“No, this is better,” he winked. “You-are Rin Shimazaki, yes?”
Dr. Ouedraogo led her past the receptionist and through a door governed by a palm scanner. “You are feeling okay?” he asked, pointing at her chest. It took her a second to realize he was referring to her breathing.
“I'm fine. I just walked from the dorms.”
Rin nodded proudly. She was willing to bet that not many personnel were willing to attempt the hike.
Dr. Ouedraogo shook his head. “No good. You should-not be-winded from such a-small walk.”
Rin was indignant. “That wasn't a small walk. It's miles. And it's hot out!”
Ouedraogo looked very disappointed, perhaps even sad. “At your age, this should be a very small thing. You know, in the early days of space travel all of the astronauts, cosmonauts, everyone... everyone was an athlete. Now they send us...” he stopped here and pulled his tel out of his breast pocket. He waved it over her ID badge, which she had clipped to the arm of her blouse. He pulled the tel away and looked at the screen. “Twenty-two years old. They send us twenty-two year old women who are exhausted by a short walk.” He shook his head again and began paging through her information on his computer.
“Am I going to fail the physical?” she asked. The plastic covering was surprisingly warm as she sat on the examination chair.
“No,” he smiled without looking up. “Everyone passes. The standards are-not-high.” He opened the door to a small exam room and ushered her in.
She wanted to mention that she was studying to become a doctor herself. She wished she actually had some sort of medical training so she could “talk shop” with Dr. Ouedraogo.
The physical only took a few minutes. It would have been over sooner, but Dr. Ouedraogo seemed to be out of sorts. He didn't know where some devices were kept and he had to stop at one point to ask a nurse if he had overlooked any tests. It took Rin until the exam was over before she understood that Dr. Ouedraogo didn't know these things because he didn't normally perform exams himself. This sort of thing was probably passed off to assistants, and he was used to simply signing off when it was over. Rin was again reminded of how much special treatment she was being given because of David’s clan.
The doctor glanced down at his tel and poked at it for a bit. “Mr. Reed also wanted you to be certified for RAS Restriction.”
“Rass?” Rin asked. She had no idea what this was. While she only had twenty or so certifications out of the hundreds possible, she thought she was at least aware of what the other certifications were.
“R-A-S. Reticular Activating System. RAS is the-part of the brain that regulates wakefulness.”
“Oh!” Rin said, suddenly feeling silly. “You're talking about the hibernation certification.”
“Yes,” Dr. Ouedraogo said, looking down on her with a blank face that was being used to -- unsuccessfully -- mask the most profound disappointment. Rin realized that calling it “hibernation” in front of Dr. Ouedraogo was like going to an auto mechanic and asking them to fix the big metal thing under the hood.
“You understand this is-normally a two-day class?” he said.
Rin did now, and nodded.
“And I'm going to present it-in an hour or-so. There will be no-test. You will simply be certified. If you don't know what you need to know, the blame should-fall to yourself and Director Reed?” He phrased this like a statement, but his tone indicated he was asking a question. Rin understood he was insisting that she take responsibility for this irregularity before he would proceed. She gave him a firm nod.
Rin discovered that once again, the movies had led her astray with regards to technology. RAS-Restriction pods were not beds where you crawled into and fell asleep for months or years.
A RAS-R system was a two-meter tube. The subject needed to be sedated before being placed into it, if only to spare them from the panic of the cold, dark, enclosed space while waiting for the machine to put them into the more lasting sleep. Once the subject was under and breathing through the air tube, they were placed into the RAS-R canister and it was flooded with a clear gel under high pressure. The pressure would keep the cells in their body from freezing at sub-zero temperatures. The gel also kept their external tissues safe from damage. The canister gently rotated in place, turning the subject over about once every six hours. Dr. Ouedraogo didn't explain what this “agitation” was for, but Rin was pretty sure she had it figured out by this point and didn't want to interrupt him. A slow drip of drugs and nutrients would keep the body going for the next few weeks.
There were limits to how long someone could remain in a RASR device. Unlike in the movies, where people could end up frozen for years or decades, the actual safe limits of the machine were measured in months. Sooner or later the brain needed stimulus and the body needed solid food. At intervals beyond seven months, the chances for brain and organ damage increased dramatically.
Dr. Ouedraogo signed her file, certifying her as ready to undergo RAS-R treatment. “You are not tall enough,” he said as she turned to leave.
“You only need to be four-foot-eight to be a tech,” she said defensively.
“You need to be five-one for interstellar.”
“But I am,” she said as slipped her platform shoes on again.
Dr. Ouedraogo held his index finger and thumb a small distance apart, indicating he thought she was close, but not quite. “I have certified you regardless,” he added. “But you may find difficulties with the on-board environment. I don't know. I have never spent much time-off-world. I throw up-without gravity.”
Rin fidgeted in her seat, eliciting sporadic squeaks from the protesting joints. She was sitting in a fold-out chair in one of the meeting rooms of the administration building. She used to work just upstairs from here as part of David's office staff, but now this building felt like a foreign country. It was too posh, too new, and too clean.
She was wearing her officially issued orange jumpsuit, which designated her as off-world, non-officer personnel. This was the smallest size available, and she still had to roll up the legs and sleeves to keep them out of her way. She got the impression that while five-foot-one might have been the minimum, nobody ever really occupied the lower end of the height scale. She wondered if she was going to be the shortest person to ever travel interstellar.
Today she was very aware of her lack of height because of her shoes. She'd given up her bright red platforms and was now wearing her issued pair of plain white flat-soled athletic shoes. They were just like everyone else's shoes, except several sizes smaller.
Her coffee was gone and she was left holding the remains of the paper cup. She didn't have time to get more. Orientation was scheduled in five minutes, and it was a seven minute walk to the coffee machine from here. She began tearing bits off the top of the cup and dropping them into the base. Within minutes the cup was reduced to a fraction of its former height, and the remainder filled with styrene foam confetti.
There were nine people here including Rin, all of them wearing orange jumpsuits. They had formed two or three knots of subdued conversation, the kind that made Rin feel both intimidated and envious. One social nucleus leaned against the back wall. He seemed an orange monolith, topped with black hair, mouth wide open even though the laughter was politely throttled. They all seemed to be having such a good time. This was all an amusing routine to them, the start of another mission.
Rin saw that Ando and the redhead female robot were also here. The redhead was sitting in a folding chair, staring at the front of the room. Ando was walking around at the back of the room, moving from observing one cluster of people to the next. The robots didn't speak to anyone, not even each other. The crew pointedly ignored them.
The officers arrived together. There were five of them in all. They wore white outfits that, while technically jumpsuits, had extra spaces for rank insignia and other inscrutable bits of quasi-military decoration. The orange jumpsuits filed into their seats.
The captain was very tall and thin. Her head was even with most of the men, putting her at around 1.8m. Rin looked down and was disappointed to see that she wasn't even wearing heels, but the same flat-soled shoes as everyone else. She had a short butch haircut affixed with a single slim white clip and held her chin high when she spoke.
The captain stood at the front of the room with her hands behind her back until the chatter settled down. “I am Captain Wheeler, the first woman captain in the interstellar program.” She paused after saying this, and it wasn't really clear why. Was she expecting applause? Or questions?
“I graduated from West Point. I served in the United States Navy. After that I came here to I-S-A-C and was one of the top five graduates in my class at the academy.” There was another odd pause where she looked around the room as if expecting some kind of response. There wasn't aside from someone clearing their throat.
Rin thought this comment was rather odd. The ISAC fleet was not large. There were only three interstellar ships, two docking stations, and handful of tugs for hauling stuff into orbit. It was prestigious, but not large. She didn't imagine they graduated a lot of officers. She surreptitiously slid her computer out of a thigh pocket and looked up the ISAC academy. Sure enough, the academy graduated less than fifty people a year. Perhaps getting into the academy was difficult -- she couldn't even find any information on how you could apply -- but graduating in the top five of a class of forty-five people was not a stellar achievement. It wasn't anything to be ashamed of, but it was odd that Captain Wheeler had bothered to list it. She hadn’t listed her graduating position at West Point, or what rank she attained in the Navy.
Rin set her computer down on her leg and turned her attention back to Captain Wheeler's speech.
“...and I've been captaining the I-S-V Armstrong for almost three years. I discovered Gobi on my second mission, making me the first woman to discover a life-bearing planet.”
Each ship ran a mission every nine months or so. Usually they spent four to five months out, and then a few months retting refueled, repaired, and re-certified. “Almost” three years meant that Captain Wheeler had probably run three missions, and was now embarking on her fourth.
The captain gestured to the officer standing beside her. “This is XO Dinapoli. If you have any questions, direct them to him. If you have any problems, direct them to him. If you have any tips, direct them to me.”
It took a couple of seconds for Rin to get that she meant “tips” as in “gratuity”, and not “tips” as in “advice”. Thus this last comment was a joke. Approximately. There was some forced laugher from a couple of people in the back.
Dinapoli was a thin, middle-aged man with dark hair and wire-rimmed glasses. He was polite and greeted them with a smile as he pulled out his computer. “Pardon for reading from my notes, but all of this information is important and I don't want to miss anything.” He had a firm Italian accent.
Dinapoli held the unit up as he read from it, going through a long checklist of things that weren't long enough to be turned into a certification course. He spoke English skillfully and with a robust vocabulary, but he did so with the speed and rhythm of Italian, which took Rin a while to get used to. He explained that they -- the orange-jumpsuit wearing members of the crew - were not ranking members of the ship and were not academy graduates. They therefore shouldn't salute officers, or call them “sir” or “ma'am”. They should simply refer to officers by rank, or rank followed by their last name.
He told the crew what David had explained to Rin months earlier: That new techniques in astronomy had culled a list of hundreds of stars down to a short list of a few dozen. The Armstrong had been assigned a particular group of these, and their mission was to chart as many as possible. Because they were now cherry-picking star systems instead of plotting a route through a bunch of generic stars in close proximity, they would be surveying less total systems and spending more time traveling. As a result, they would be making a lot more transfers on this trip, and would be charging the accelerator almost continuously.
“Also,” he continued, “we have been assigned some robots on this trip.” He gestured to the back of the room where Ando was standing. “They are coming along to observe. This is a sort of experiment to see how they will react to space travel and to see if they will be useful to us. Feel free to greet them if you like and find out what they're all about. Also feel free to let them do your work if it pleases you and if they're willing. You get paid the same either way.”
Rin looked at the other crew, who were all looking at Ando. They didn't seem to know what to make of him. The big guy gave him a sarcastic wave. Others looked at each other and chuckled, or shrugged. It was a novelty to them, and that was all.
“And last the item to cover is duty assignments,” Dinapoli said. This seemed to be what everyone was waiting for. A few of the older crew members sat up and began paying attention. The XO read off the list of names and what positions everyone would fill. Rin was slated to be part of the secondary crew.
The prime crew would handle the maintenance jobs for the six-week voyage out to the edge of explored space. This was done to save on HAF -- hydration, atmosphere, and food -- supplies on the journey out. They would re-supply a deep space listening post along the way. These posts were the loneliest assignment in the galaxy. Rin wondered how much the poor schmucks got paid.
Once the ship reached uncharted waters, Rin and the rest of the secondary crew would be thawed and they would take over maintenance. The prime crew would handle the surface mapping, drone deployment, and whatever other stuff prime crew did during the survey phase of the mission.
Once the survey work was over, the secondary might be put into RAS-R again, or they might be left awake. It all depended on how much HAF they had left and how many transfers it was going to take to get home.
Rin was very disappointed to learn that she was going to spend a significant portion of the trip unconscious, and the rest of the trip doing the very lowest sort of swabbing-the-deck kind of work. She wasn't going to use more than three or four of her certifications.
The meeting was dismissed and the room filled with the orderly scuffle to escape.
“Excuse me, sir?” Rin said as the officers filed out.
Dinapoli turned to her and raised his eyebrows.
“Not sir. Sorry. Dinapoli,” she corrected herself. “XO Dinapoli,” she corrected herself again. “I notice I've been assigned... I mean, I have a lot of certifications.”
He didn't say anything in reply, but looked at her with utmost patience.
Rin realized she was being silly. She was new to the ship and she was already questioning the XO about her assignment. She wanted to back out now and forget the whole thing, but that would only make this worse. Trying to save some face, she attempted to re-aim her question. “I can do a lot of different things. I wondered how I might get to use some of these other skills.”
Dinapoli nodded and smiled slightly. He was clearly humoring her. “As you get more seniority, you'll be given other duties, provided you perform these adequately.”
Rin got the message: You are not special, and you need to pay your dues like everyone else. She stammered some thanks. Dinapoli nodded sharply and stepped briskly after his fellow officers who had already escaped into the hallway. A couple of her fellow crew members glared at her as they left. The big guy just laughed sharply as he passed her, though it might have been to some whispered joke. She realized she had basically been arguing that she should simply be handed their jobs without needing to distinguish herself first.
“You're unhappy with your duties?” Ando asked. Everyone else had hurried out, and Rin was now alone with the robots.
“I don't mind the duties,” Rin said. “I just hate the idea of missing the start of the voyage. I'm not even going to be awake for launch. I'm going to be sedated here and packed away like cargo. And to be honest, I really don't like the idea of being stuck in one of those coffins. Inside of gel, no less.”
“Are you claustrophobic?”
“That, and afraid of drowning. Or smothering. I'm not sure which it would be in gel.”
Ando's mouth became an uneven line and one eyebrow raised over the other, indicating thoughtfulness. “I don't have a very good understanding of phobias related to physical dangers, so I can't advise you.”
“Why did you say that?” Rin demanded. She wasn't angry or irritated, but mystified. “I didn't ask for advice, but you acted as though I did.”
“Did I say something wrong?” Ando asked.
“No. That was the right thing to say. Or at least, it felt like a thing a person would say. Kind of. It's just that machines don't talk like that.”
“I attempted to offer advice because that's the most common response between humans in similar situations. I'm just imitating what I've observed. If one person talks about an anxiety, another will offer them advice on how to cope with it. The advice is generally worthless, but offering advice is understood by both parties as a sign of concern. To say nothing, or to change the subject, would be viewed as careless or rude. In this case I attempted to be transparent and state that I had no advice, rather than offer useless advice. Now I see you're agitated, and I'm trying to understand if I've offended you or if you're just surprised by my behavior.”
“Surprised,” Rin said quickly. “Very surprised. Not offended.”
“Do you have advice for me?”
“Well, normally, people just say ‘I’m sure it’s going to be fine.’ or something like that. It’s still basically pointless, but you don’t need to give advice to show that you care.”
“I wouldn’t worry about hibernation Rin. Lots of people do it all the time.”
Rin barked out a short laugh to release some of the built up nervous anxiety. Then she gave him a thumbs up, “Okay! Thanks Ando.”
The redhead was still standing nearby. She was staring at Rin without moving her body in any way. It had been unsettling at first, but now Rin was annoyed by it.
“So what's her problem?” Rin asked. “She doesn't seem to be in your class with regards to social ability.”
“Molly and I are actually in the same operational class. She's just much newer.”
“Have I made you uncomfortable?” Molly asked.
Rin opened her mouth to say no, but stopped herself. There's usually no benefit in telling rude people they're being rude -- you'll just offend them and they'll repay you with more rudeness. But in this case Molly was asking an honest question and would benefit from an honest answer. Moreover, she didn't have an ego to wound.
“Yes. You are making me uncomfortable. Staring directly at me without moving or blinking is very creepy. It’s predatory. It makes me think you’re considering trying to eat me.”
“I apologize,” Molly replied. She backed up several paces and began staring at Ando.
“Molly, I would like to speak to Miss Shimazaki in private.”
“Okay,” Molly replied cheerfully without moving.
“Thank you for being honest with her,” Ando said. “Her youth and looks are working against her. Most people here are men, and grown men are not likely to say rude things to something that looks like a young woman. Either that, or they ignore her because she's a machine. Very few people are willing to let her know about her social failures, so she's not self-correcting very quickly.”
“You seem to have a pretty good handle on it. Can't you help her?”
Ando shook his head and his face became a frown. “I'm not allowed to guide her development. If I did, she would be imitating me, imitating people. She needs to learn from people. It's unfortunate she wasn't given more time to develop.”
“I assume she can't hear us?” Rin said. Molly was still staring at Ando.
“Correct. She's shut off her audio feed and won't open it again until I give her permission.”
“Weird,” Rin said, looking at Molly. “I get why she's so awkward now. She's young, like a child. How old is she?”
“I'm not allowed to say.” Ando frowned again, this time with raised eyebrows. Like most of his emotional expressions, this lasted only a few seconds, after which he reverted to his default, emotion-neutral face.
“And I don't suppose you can tell me how old you are, either?”
“That's a pain in the ass,” she said with disappointment.