Story Excerpt

Plaisir D'Amour

by John Alfred Taylor

 

Ben Niehaus knew all about tribes and moieties and phratries, endogamy and exogamy, as well as the pitfalls of participant observation, but never imagined falling in love. Desperately, hopelessly, with a woman who had four hands. Worse than Montagues and Capulets.

Everything worked out from the beginning. Ben realized it was the chance of a lifetime when he learned that the mining unit Georgius Agricola would be passing on its way to a swingby of Venus. He’d always been fascinated by Celestials and asked to join Agricola during the loop. He sweated two days before they messaged that a sociologist would be welcome aboard. The Humanitas Foundation was forthcoming with a grant, the university gave him extended leave through the coming semester, and now he was waiting in lunar orbit.

Not alone. Five Celestials were in the transfer ship with him, three men and two women. He’d never been close to Ceelies before and considered this a preview of the coming months.

Medication had eased his transition to weightlessness, and he was already learning to maneuver, but the others were born for microgravity, moving about the cabin with inhuman ease, pushing off with a bare touch, turning in midair as if they were floating or swimming, grasping with feet or hands.

Ben had watched videos of gibbons after someone told him that Ceelies reminded him of the great apes. Not really like gibbons, he decided now, though his companions had the same long arms and short legs. But their chests were narrower, and their wrists normal—not the ball-and-socket joints that allowed gibbons to brachiate from tree to tree. No need to brachiate here.

Ben marveled at the arrogance of last century’s genetic engineers, their ruthless decision to remake humanity for space. Homo sapiens sapiens caelestis. He wondered how happy Ceelies were in their niche.

Enough introspection. He’d already memexed their names and images—time to get to know them better. He took his cue from a hint of complaint. “You didn’t like the Moon?”

Fredelin grimaced. “Too heavy.”

“Walking’s awful,” Valeska said. “Even with an exoskeleton keeping me balanced.”

“Walking’s all us groundgrubbers can do.” Ben said, raising his hands to pantomime helplessness till everybody laughed.

“But you do it better,” Valeska said. Ben found it was easier talking to the women if he concentrated on their faces—their bodies were wrong.

Then Ben was explaining his purpose. They knew why they were joining Agricola—Ceelie societies were exogamous when possible, and they had partners waiting for them, but why was he going? “I’m a sociologist; I study the ways people live together. Every society has its own rules—laws, customs, manners, local assumptions. I live among the people I study till I’m not just an outside observer, and the questions I ask aren’t stupid anymore.” Now for the pitch. “Maybe you can help me. You’re from L5, so you might notice things you learn to do different after you’ve turned miners.”

(They could tell him how long-distance courtship worked too, but that could wait.)

An electronic chime, and the ship announced “FIRST WARNING. ACCELERATION IN TWENTY MINUTES.”

Everyone headed for the zero-g toilet, just in case. Ben was impressed by their ability to form a queue in free fall.

“TEN MINUTES TO THRUST,” said the ship. “PLEASE GO TO YOUR ASSIGNED ACCELERATION COUCHES AND STRAP IN.”

Valeska groaned. “More damn weight.”

Each couch had a display with a name. As they found their seats, Ben noticed his was the only one without a transparent hood over the back. He clicked his safety harness shut, and looked around: everyone else was in place. please put your feet in the stirrups. The seat changed shape under him, stretching out till he was lying against it rather than sitting.

The countdown numbers flickered. The hoods came down over the others’ faces. supplementary oxygen feed in place.

3, 2, 1—

Acceleration slammed Ben into the couch. With breathing this hard for him, he knew why Ceelies needed extra oxygen.

*   *   *

Docking with Agricola was less of a burden, though they had to strap in again at the end. Ben tried to release his harness once they were stopped, but the ship kept it closed long enough to be irritating.

When the airlock opened, the rich, green smell of healthy plants rushed in as if Agricola had a forest inside. He took a luxurious breath, realizing how sterile the transfer ship had been.

Ben was last out, almost colliding with a man entering. Joining the others in the receiving hold, he saw the person he’d dodged returning with the line holding their luggage. The man snubbed his end to a cleat, but the rest of the line and its load kept coming. Everyone swarmed around the cord, but when Ben unsnapped his pack, it bore him on till he revolved sideways into the far bulkhead. The thump reminded him that inertia mattered, even without weight.

He glanced about, embarrassed. Luckily, no one was watching, too busy with their own packs. “Follow me,” the young man said, but held up his hand when Ben moved. “Not you. Your own guide is coming.”

After they left, Ben hung there alone wondering what was going on, one hand round his pack, clinging to a wall net with the other.

“Doctor Niehaus?”

“Over here.”

He was on the same wall as the door so couldn’t see her till she glided through. She grabbed the edge with a foot and curled in his direction. Her smile was dazzling. “Welcome to Agricola. Sorry I’m late.” Her eyes were blue-violet, her skin was pale as cream except for a few freckles—odd for someone who’d never seen the sun direct. “I’m Ellen Slade-Thomas.”

She was wearing her black hair longer than the women from L5, and her minimal coverall was bright red rather than their white. The L5 men had been wearing white too, while the young man who’d greeted them had worn horizon blue—already one difference between the two cultures?

“We put you up special,” she said, leading the way through the doorway. He saw a warning by the jamb as he went through and realized the massive shape retracted into the bulkhead was a sliding emergency hatch. She reached for his pack. “Better let me take that. We can move faster.”

They were in a long straight tunnel, almost crowded. “We call this Main Street.”

The tunnel was much too wide to use the sides to push off, but there were light rails around the periphery to grasp and pull yourself toward the next handhold. Ben was surprised that he could keep up. There were others pushing off diagonally across the center, pushing off in the opposite diagonal further down, but this risked possible collision.

Then they swung into a side tunnel, and soon Ben decided Agricola was a maze, so many twists and turns, going down through a floor to where the ceiling turned into a wall, bouncing up into what became a curving tunnel with vines growing round its circumference. More plants under massive grow lights, mostly monotonous rows of vegetables—the source of the ship’s food and air—but then there were beds of flowers scattered here and there.

As they passed others going about their business, Ben began to pick up the rules of the road; but soon they were alone, threading between enormous cylindrical tanks and passing more ranks of plants and grow lights. He was nearly used to weightlessness, with no real up or down, but this was too confusing. “I’ll never find my way—”

“Yes you will,” Ellen said. “But till then you’ll have help. Ask Ship for assistance and say your name—” She laughed at his baffled look. “Say it—Ship already knows you.”

“Benjamin Niehaus needs assistance.”

“Present,” said Agricola. Its voice was more resonant than the transfer vessel’s.

“He wants the way to the centrifuge.”

“Done,” Ship replied as if it was next to his ear, and a ripple of tiny triangular lights ran down the wall ahead and then up.

“Now you lead,” she insisted. Ben pushed on ahead, following the moving lights—nervous at first, but gaining confidence.

“Almost there,” she said as they passed a huge patch of flowers. It was brilliant, and he would have paid it more attention if he wasn’t following the directional signal. A moment later, he saw a huge turning drum inside a girder cage that had to be the centrifuge. She pointed to a white shape clinging to a nearby wall: “And here’s your nest, built specially for you.”

“Special? No need for that.” For a moment, he wondered if they were trying to isolate him, then reminded himself they’d said a sociologist was welcome.

“Oh yes there is,” she said. “We put you near the centrifuge because you need weight every day.

“Right,” Ben said, impressed by their careful planning. Ellen said they had to move on, so he popped the door flap of his cubicle and stowed his pack, with just a glimpse inside: nothing more there than the expected sleeping bag across from the infowall.

“Next thing is to learn where the nearest washroom is. Ask Ship again.” He felt less foolish speaking to the air this time and cheerfully followed the line of tiny lights. The washroom was unisex, and he admired the way free-fall allowed maximal privacy with minimum space. Because he only wanted to wash his face and hands, Ellen hung in the door of his unit and explained the controls. For a second after he was done, she backed out and had him hit the privacy switch to see how the interference screen blocked vision and sound. Then he flicked it off, and she was smiling at him again.

Next they were off to the mess hall. Ben wasn’t very hungry, but Ellen said the coordinator wanted to introduce him. “People don’t know about me?”

“Most do. We had input on the decision to let you join us. But Dr. Wu wants to introduce you in person.”

Ben nodded. He’d found it helped to explain what he was doing beforehand, though sometimes it made subjects too self-conscious at first.

He smelled hot food ahead—a bare hint. He supposed any more would be a problem—odors persisting in this closed system would become intolerable. There were flowers growing about the door, huge masses of violet and blue and yellow. “Nice,” he said.

“Thank you sir,” Ellen said. “My planting. First prize last year.” She glided through the door before he could compliment her further.

The mess hall seemed crowded at first, with people moving in all directions. Then he saw the pattern; men and women going to the far wall where they extracted trays and brought them back to the individual tables in the center. All four sides of the room slanted inward like an amphitheater, with the tables jutting up like mushrooms with spindly stalks.

Ellen led him up and over to the serving wall. “Let me choose for you this time.” She looked at the menu and pressed a button. The wall extruded a tray. Another button, a second tray, and she led him down to one end of the inner ring of tables, to where a large brown-faced man looked up to greet him. “Good to meet you, Dr. Niehaus. I’m Diego Wu-Carrara, and I help run our little circus.”

“Doesn’t seem that small,” Ben said.

Ellen smiled. “It will when you know your way around.” She slid his tray into clips on his table and showed him how to “sit down” without sitting. It entailed tucking his legs under the table and wrapping them over a padded rod—the backs of his knees felt odd at first, but kept him in place.

When he opened the tray, steam came out one end, but there was condensation on the squeezebag of tea at the other. There were hot wraps on sticks, with chicken or tofu inside, there was a pod of tomato bisque, there were nuggets of cheese bread—nothing too tricky to eat in free fall.

Wu-Carrara leaned his head toward him. “I want to introduce you when more people are here. So you can tell them what you’ll be doing.”

Ben nodded and bit down on a second wrap.

*   *   *

Basically Ben repeated what he’d said to the L5 immigrants, though he varied the language and added more detail when he saw them in the audience. “Don’t think of me as a snoop,” he said, “but as your guest, someone trying to learn your ways, how it feels to be you.”

Ellen collected their empty trays and excused herself at the end of the meal. “Back to drudgery,” she said with a grin and pushed away with her hind hand.

Wu-Carrara responded to Ben’s puzzled look. “Not drudgery—because she enjoys it. But genuine hard labor. You’ll see.”

The coordinator might have explained more if the people from L5 hadn’t crowded round. He wanted to give them a tour. “Just a few special places—you can find the rest on your own.” Ben and the others formed a loose phalanx that followed Wu-Cararra out into the Main Street tunnel.

The bridge was the first stop, much smaller than Ben anticipated. Then he realized he was thinking of sail and steam, three centuries gone. This bridge was walled with shifting displays and muttering with numbers. “Condition nominal,” said Ship as they looked in.

“Captain about?” Wu-Cararra asked the man on watch, who looked up from his reader long enough to say “Next shift,” before going back to his book.

“Condition nominal,” repeated Ship.

“Wanted you to see the bridge,” the coordinator said. “Because it’s the other half of our command structure. Most of the time I run things—publicly elected—but when Agricola is under thrust or closing with another vessel, Captain Rice-Patel is absolute ruler. She was in charge when you docked.”

The next stop was just down Main Street, a much bigger space with room for them all. Wu-Cararra led them around and over a receptionist hanging at a desk at one side of the door. He spread his arms wide. “My domain. I said I run things, but it’s really my team here that does—” he indicated the men and women stationed along the walls. “We have to keep track of everything.”

Rather than explain further, Wu activated a huge screen on the far wall and called up an image of the ship as seen from outside: a congeries of tanks and tensegrity girders, antennae and nested workboats, wings of solar panels canted toward the Sun, with the docked transfer ship between the rear thrusters.

A whispered command brought a three-dimensional map of the tunnels and rooms inside; another limned the agriculture and ecology areas that segued into a chart of the ventilation system with a shifting graph of oxygen and carbon dioxide concentrations. It reminded Ben of the way anatomy charts could show the nervous or circulatory system in isolation or show bones, muscles, and blood vessels intertwined. He especially admired the way the water tanks and other dense stores were positioned around the life spaces for radiation shielding.

“You’ll want to study this till you can find your way—available on any infowall,” Wu said.

Ben would study it from necessity. Already the diagrams and schematics drove home the knowledge that Agricola was its own isolated world—a tiny planet falling toward the Sun, a society as much as a ship, with everyone both citizen and crew member and each with a specific place and duty. It could mean a society as regimented as ancient Sparta, except he’d seen few grim faces, and the only people wearing uniforms—if they were uniforms—were the white-clad immigrants from L5.

And there was the size of the population. Over three hundred: a massive crew for a ship as automated as Agricola. Perhaps to ensure genetic diversity, like the emphasis on exogamy among Ceelie groups.

Small enough to be a tribe. Sophisticated and technological, but still a tribe. Exciting to have one of his own to study, like the early anthropologists. Except without that century’s imperialistic or missionary bias—Ben didn’t dare condescend to Homo sapiens sapiens caelestis.

The next few months would be interesting.

*   *   *

After Wu’s tour, Ben struck out on his own. He was no longer afraid of getting lost, because he could always consult the next infowall or ask Ship for help if totally confused.

He sat in a blister in the wall serving as a café to watch the Main Street crowd swarm by; everyone wore a version of the brief torso-hugging coverall, but with so much variety and so many colors—there were practical suits dense with pockets and d-rings, sleek suits with no visible pockets, suits jagged and ruffled and slashed to reveal a second color underneath, navy-blue suits trimmed with silver scales, blood-orange suits, suits violet, suits aphid-green. Definitely no uniforms here. Ben watched passively, not bothering to record anything, open to first impressions.

Afterward he went all the way forward, going right when Main Street split, then right again, into a long stretch where a dimly lit tangle of tubes and tanks was broken by an airtight door every ten meters. His heart jumped when Ship spoke. “Attention, Ben Niehaus. You have entered an area that would be open only to authorized personnel in the future. There is no danger at present, but be advised later.”

“So where am I?” Ben asked.

“The Starboard Workboat Bay. Safe with the workboats in place—their mass is sufficient shielding from outside radiation. But once they launch, this place is unprotected.”

Workboats. That explained the airtight doors. “Consider me warned,” he said as he started back.

“Thank you,” said Ship.

*   *   *

Ben clung to a wall of the school space watching the children. Bright as birds, they were flitting about and through a piping maze in the center. There seemed to be a pattern in their movement, but one that changed too often to understand.

“Hello.” Ellen drifted to a spot beside him. “Had to ask Ship where you were.”

“Flattered,” Ben said automatically.

“Been assigned to you. Have to show you the ins and outs of the centrifuge.”

“Right, if I’m going to be using it every day.” He looked back at the children threading the maze. “First though, what’s going on up there? I see a pattern, and then I don’t.”

She laughed. “They’re playing Stream-Tag. Complicated rules: three teams called streams, each with an It behind who tries to catch the last in line. The person who’s It has to give the stream a count of five before she starts after them. And the leader of the stream can bring it around to where another stream is crossing, which means members of the two streams have to wait and cross alternately one by one—you can cut off your pursuer that way. Though right at the end the hunter has the option of backtracking and coming around to tag the leader from the front.”

“That is complicated.”

Ben paid more attention to the crops on the way back to the centrifuge. Right here it was dwarf maize packed in tight rows—he expected tall spindly plants in zero gravity, but the plant geneticists had outguessed him.

Then they came to the plot of flowers he’d almost disregarded trying to keep up. Now he was stunned. Vibrant, with purple and dark blue petals contrasting with white and tiny gray blooms, it almost ringed the tunnel. “Amazing.”

“It should be.” She curled in midair to point at a small brass plate. “By Smith-Sarbanes—took second prize last year.”

“You did that planting back at the mess hall.”

She grinned sideways at him. “We take our flowers seriously here—they’re art. Why should everything we grow be practical? The eye gets hungry too.”

A minute later he saw the centrifuge ahead. “Better get your exercise thing,” she said. “You can leave it inside afterward.”

He drifted to his cubicle, extracted the stressor from his pack, and followed her to the centrifuge. The girders seemed almost too small to contain the spinning cylinder and rollers and gears that kept it moving, but one had to trust the engineers. There was an open drum protruding from the center of the near end that wasn’t spinning—then Ben realized the reason it seemed still to him was that it was spinning counter to the motion of the centrifuge. Ellen slid in, beckoned him in beside her. “Brace yourself against the sides,” she said, “and watch.”

She pressed a switch pad in the wall, and the drum slowed down, stopped, and started rotating in the opposite direction till it matched speed with the bigger wheel. Ben felt queasy till his inner ear caught up. Then they were climbing down into weight. “Welcome to my workroom,” she said. “Only two-tenths of a g to you—more than enough for me.”

The axis of the centrifuge was bright with grow lights, the curving floor thick with lines of tiny pots. Ellen eased down on a rolling work stool with a sigh of relief. “Starting seeds here. Plants are phototrophic and geotropic both—reach up to the light and down into the ground. Some need a bit of gravity to set their roots. Wouldn’t be so busy if you hadn’t brought new seeds.”

“Me?”

“I mean the ship you came in. Brought other goodies too, including a half-tonne of Helium-3 for the fusors.”

He watched her pick a new pot from a stack, fill it with shredded aerogel, pop in a seed from a planting gun, spritz it with water, pop a thin sheet of plastic across the top, and set it down in a new row. Especially clever was the way a luminous label appeared on the pot every time she inserted a seed—probably the planting gun sent a signal every time she pulled the trigger. When she switched to another seed gun, Ben watched long enough to see the name of a different plant develop on the pot.

He turned back to where he’d left his stressor.

An unprepossessing clump of programmed alloys, roughly cylindrical until he triggered it, the bundle began to stretch and change, the lower end dividing and bending horizontal to flatten out plates for his feet. He stepped on them to hold the device in place while the central column rose, split, and curved into handlebars. Twisting the control ring on one grip, he flipped them up and strained them out till his arms were spread wide. In, out, in, out.

Ellen looked round momentarily. “Watch how you move your head in here. Go slow, because you might get confused if you look down or up too fast while you’re turning—Coriolis force.”

Ben nodded, very slowly. He knew of Coriolis force but didn’t want to learn about it the hard way, so kept his head straight when he could. He’d memexed the exercises and went through the whole sequence, momentarily delayed by the need to reshape the stressor for the next set. The most ingenious was the stair climbing—or was it the equivalent of descent?—where he pushed one foot plate down the shaft while standing on the other. Once that plate landed, the other rose, to be pushed down in its turn. Clever, but hard to keep his balance at first. He was sweating by the end, which meant either the exercise program was doing its job, or that he was already weakened by living in free fall. Either way, a good reason to stick to the daily regimen, he decided as he stowed the stressor beside the ladder.

Ellen looked up as he returned. “Almost finished here. Then you can join me on my delivery round.”

Done with the new seedlings, Ellen scooted down to the far end of the centrifuge, where the pots showed green sprouts. She sorted out the ones that were ready and carefully nested them on a long tray with tall sides like a wheelbarrow without a wheel—each pot snapped snugly into a depression.

Once the tray was full, Ellen rolled it all the way down to the entrance. Next to the ladder they’d descended was a rudimentary elevator—only a frame bracketing a square floor leading up to the entry drum. She eased the tray onto the elevator and stepped on beside it, then pointed to the ladder. “Go ahead. Join you in a second.”

When Ben saw her rising, he backed as far as possible into the transfer drum to make room. The tray clicked onto rails he hadn’t noticed, and then she was in and pressing the switch. Everything slowed, stopped, and rotated in reverse again. Not too bad this time, and he was free and pushing away outside by the time the tray emerged. When he saw Ellen trailing behind it, he knew it was more than a tray; those tubes on the sides must be ducted fans. He’d seen people steering things like it in Main Street, but never been close enough to understand.

*   *   *

Ellen’s route led through sections of Agricola Ben had never imagined. There was the Farm, a knotted maze of tunnels lined with flats of wheat on every side, with only one person visible at a far corner. The man waved, and Ellen steered in his direction till she brought the transporter to a stop in midair. Ben didn’t know how, but saw flaps opening and closing in the shrouds of the ducted fans.

“Got your cornflowers here, Jeff,” she announced, handing him three pots.

“Finally,” he said, gathering them to his chest. Jeff stared at Ben for a second, then grinned and nodded. He had a tanned face, and Ben realized why Ellen had freckles: both of them spent time under the growlights.

She waved to the farmer, Ben grabbed her feet again, and they were off. “Jeff’s a romantic—wants Earth weeds to break the monotony. And cornflowers are a pretty blue.”

Her next stop was in a gallery lined with blackberry and raspberry bushes, somehow confined to the sides so the way wasn’t blocked by errant canes. She put four pots in a metal locker between the canes, closed the door, and they glided on through.

“How’ll he know they’re there?”

“She. Ship’ll tell Helen, because Ship sees everything.”

Till now Ben had no idea how honeycombed with vegetation the ship was; he saw soybean flats, a ten-meter-cube with roses on every wall except one holding espaliered pear trees, small patches of greens and herbs tucked in here and there, a girl with a transporter like Ellen’s among cages thick with tomatoes—

“Do you ever eat meat?”

“Sometimes.” Ellen said. “We have chickens and rabbits—and there’s always tilapia.”

*   *   *

Jeff was the first Aggie to join them at supper, but by the end, there were a half-dozen. Birds of a feather. Ben mostly stayed out of the conversation after Ellen introduced him, listening while the others talked shop, alert but passive.

They weren’t simple agriculturists, but ecological engineers. He remembered a painting from a history cube called “The Man With the Hoe” that showed a man brutalized and stupefied by toil. These were the opposite, concerned with the pH of nutrient solutions, capillary action in microgravity, recycling of waste cellulose and flash composting, essential bacteria, water purification by vacuum distillation, robot pollinators . . .

Lisa the tomato girl noticed his silence. “Hey. We’re all yammering away, and our visiting sociologist hasn’t been able to ask a single question.”

“Yeah,” Jeff said, and all eyes turned toward Ben.

“Really don’t know enough yet to ask anything special, but I know everybody in Agricola has a job to do. Maybe I should start by understanding how you keep us eating and breathing. I need an idea of how things work before I go any further.”

“Oh my.” Lisa shook her head.

“That’s a long jump to take,” Jeff observed.

“Try me.” said Ben.

It took a while, sometimes with everybody talking at once, other times they had to repeat answers to Ben’s baffled questions. Ship had to put a virtual infowall among them so they could show him flowcharts and feedback as they explained the mining craft’s complex water economy. No need for Kim Yung Pak to explain much about closed loop tilapia farming—he just had to mention duckweed and minimizing nitrites—but other things were confusing: Ben saw the need for flash pasteurization of sewage, admired the way the main valves changed shape according to demand, but couldn’t understood the point of osmotic traps.

*   *   *

Agricola ran on a strict twenty-four-hour cycle to keep everybody’s biological clocks in sync. The tunnels were already dimming as Ben headed back to his cubicle. There were even stretches where the grow lights were off—perhaps some plants had to rest too.

Ben was dazed by all he’d seen and heard today, much less what he’d learned at supper. Hadn’t got the names of all the Aggies he’d met, though he’d memexed their faces.

Names—all the surnames he’d heard since he arrived were hyphenated—names of both parents? If so, why that much emphasis on family? Maybe exogamy was the ideal, not the norm: only a few could have the chance to marry outside the ship. Which meant family background was important, with everyone’s personal genome on record. He’d thought about asking the immigrants from L5 about long-distance courtship, now wondered about not-so-long-distance courtship.

That could wait. Because Agricola was more than a machine: it was an ecology, a society, the only world many of its inhabitants had ever known. Understanding what they did to maintain it, and how it sustained them was essential; what he’d learned from the Aggies tonight was just a start.

Ben was exhausted when he reached his cubicle. He didn’t bother to undress but slid into the sleeping bag. So comfortable, no weight, no pressure, just enough confinement to make him feel safe . . .

Ten minutes later he was still awake. After twenty minutes he gave up, eased himself out of the bed, and went to the infoscreen. “Ship—”

“Present.”

“You know why I’m here.”

“This is your cubicle.”

“No—my purpose here.”

“You study how people live together.”

“Right. And I think what they do has a lot to do with their social identity.”

“All are essential,” Ship said.

“Of course. But I’d like to know their specific occupations, how they fit in.”

“Do you want the full census?”

“Not now. Just a list of occupations and how many in each.”

“Alphabetical?”

Ben nodded, and the infoscreen lit up. He skipped through the list.

ATMOSPHERE AND ECOLOGY came early. The numbers vindicated Ben’s guess that he’d only met a fraction of the Aggies.

CONTRACTS AND ACCOUNTING, 2 persons, plus Council.

COOKING AND NUTRITION, 8 persons—bet they were tight with the Aggies.

EDUCATION AND LIBRARY, 8 persons.

ENTERTAINERS, 8 persons. Lot of redundancy built into this roster.

EXECUTIVE, 7 persons.

FABBERS AND FEEDSTOCK, 4 persons.

FUSION ENGINEERING, 6 persons.

GENETICS AND MEDICINE, 4 persons.

MINING AND EVA, 8 persons. The guys who wrangled the planetoids into their long curve toward earth orbit—probably months before they’d have much to do.

ORBITAL TRACING AND PROSPECTING, 6 persons—must liaise with MINING AND EVA.

PILOTING, 5 persons.

PSYCHOLOGY AND COUNSELING, 4 persons.

SHIP’S MAINTENANCE, 6 persons—fewer than he expected, but then Agricola was an intelligent ship, self-repairing in many ways.

WASTE AND RECYCLING, 6 persons.

No real surprises till the end, when he read ZYMURGY AND RECOMBINENT PROTEIN SYNTHESIS, 3 persons.

“Zymurgy?”

“For miso and beer,” Ship explained.

“You have beer?”

“Two liters a day for those who like it.”

Ben nodded. Eminently civilized. Enough to get mellow, not enough to get drunk.

He followed up by having Ship map out the working loci of the different occupations. Ben already had some idea of the agricultural areas, the fusion engineers were deep inside toward the stern, the sick bay and counseling office were on Main Street near the Bridge. . . .

“Where is Maintenance?”

“Anywhere,” said Ship. “But that can wait. You’ve done too much since you arrived—your physiological signs show it’s long past time for you to sleep.”

“I tried,” Ben said.

“Yes,” Ship said. “Which is why I didn’t insist earlier. But it’s time now. There’s a sleep inducer in a pocket by the neck of the bed. Good night.”

Ben knew better than to think Ship was gone. Ship was here; Ship was everywhere. Because Ship surrounded him. The band of the sleep inducer was light on his head, but he waited to trigger it till he was inside the bag. Ship was big, more than a thousand meters long, half that at its widest point—plus the extended solar panels. He couldn’t remember how many thousand tonnes it massed before he was asleep.

He wasn’t on ship’s time yet, and woke earlier than he liked, but decided against using the sleep inducer again. Instead he spent the time before breakfast getting down his first impressions, dictating to his dataslate and watching the screen to make sure it got the words right.

“Ben,” Ship said.

“Yes?”

“I can save that for you.”

“Rather do it this way,” Ben said. “Want something I can take with me when I leave.”

“Understood,” Ship said.

*   *   *

Ben spent the next few days wandering, till Georgius Agricola was no longer a maze, and people stopped staring at him. Not that many did: enough had met him or knew about him already. And the ones who stared smiled apologetically afterward.

He stared too, but more at the bright panorama of Main Street, which reminded him of a meadow thick with butterflies. He was used to their proportions now: Ceelies were the norm, and he was the outsider with the long legs. He decided not to use the word “Ceelie” again—the term might be demeaning—if he couldn’t call them that to their faces he’d try to banish it from his thoughts. Not that he could, but the effort would make him think before he spoke.

Ben went as far as he could into the bow. He was entering the chamber under the lenticular water tank when a man already inside said “Radiation. Don’t come any closer.”

“Doesn’t the water stop it?”

“Absolutely,” said the man in brown, hovering over a pipe with an open flap at the end, “but this goes sideways past it. Some chance of radiation coming in.” Ben decided he had to be maintenance. When a robot crawled out of the pipe, he closed and locked the flap, checked a telltale at his waist “You can come in now.”

Ship’s voice came out of nowhere: “Project completed. Vision normal in Number Seven Replacement Eye.”

“Acknowledged,” said the man in brown and turned back toward Ben. “I know you. You’re the sociologist.”

“Right. Ben Niehaus.”

“I’m Tom Smith-Yoshida. Maintenance.” Retrieving the robot, he retracted its legs and stowed it in a chest pouch.

“I guessed. I’m doing the ship from stem to stern for a beginning.”

“Don’t know what a stem is, but this must be it,” Tom said, “because the stern’s the other way.” The cylindrical room was inset into the back of the tank, so shielded everywhere except where pipes and cables led out to the forward sensors. “Nothing much to see here,” Tom said. “All the feed from radar, lidar, particle detectors and stuff goes back to Ship and the bridge. Except you can get a look at that.” He pointed to a display on the putative ceiling: most of it was numbers or green-lighted lists, but it included an image of space ahead, with the sun in one corner. Ben was glad its brightness was ratcheted down.

His trip to the fusors in the stern was much more solemn. Though welcoming, the nuclear engineers on duty were serious as priests. Ben could see the shielding of the main power fusor, but the thrust fusor behind was buried in the enormous tangle of pipes that brought in reaction mass.

He supplemented the visit via infoscreen, watching an animated diagram of the thruster system, from the massive centrifugal pumps to the blue-white fins of the heat exchangers to the stripped ions of the exhaust.

*   *   *

During his first explorations, Ben kept running into Ellen. Not always at the centrifuge—starting plants was just one of her duties—but Agricola was a small society. They ran into each other in Main Street or Circular Avenue, they stopped for coffee if she was free, sometimes they went to the mess hall together. Even though he’d memexed everyone he’d met, Ellen was the one he could pick out of a crowd.

Ellen seconded his idea of a first reconnaissance of the ship to sample the various occupations in place. His calling the fusion engineers a priesthood amused her. “They do take on some, but then they’re central to the survival of the ship. ‘Course we are too, except we get our hands dirty.”

Ben was enumerating the groups he wanted to visit when Ellen held up her hand. “Stop right there. Every bunch on your list is important—necessary and essential. But you skipped over CONTRACTS AND ACCOUNTING. They’re essential too. Remember we’re a business—have to make a profit to stay alive. Yes, we’re independent. Up to a point. Think of all the things we need that came aboard with you: Helium Three, seeds, bacterial cultures, stuff our fabber can’t make—”

“I should see CONTRACTS AND ACCOUNTING next?”

“Maybe talk to Wu first. He’s head of council, so can explain how PROSPECTING and CONTRACTS work together to get us investors. Because somebody has to stake us big every time.”

Ben was impressed, though he supposed knowing how everything connected was usual in societies this small. But he was equally impressed by her dark blue eyes and ripe lips. Kissable lips.

Was he falling for her?

*   *   *

Wu was in the coordination center and free to talk. “It’s complicated,” he said. “Start with prospecting. I’ve watched a few of what you call Westerns—set in early North America I believe—where the prospector is a man with a burro and pick. Impossible among the asteroids of course. The distances, the emptiness . . . And the Belt is mostly emptiness, not a mess of jostling rocks like some think.

“So how do we prospect? We’re looking for nickel-iron asteroids. Things that were part of the core of larger asteroids before they were knocked apart. We start with what we know of the ones already discovered, their orbital elements, mass, velocity, and so forth, and try to backtrack to where the original core might have been—helps if there’s a second known asteroid with the same chemical identity we can also trace back to narrow the area down. Then comes an educated guess how big the original core might have been and where other bits might have gone—nothing certain, just a web of probabilities.

“Needless to say, we couldn’t do this without quantum computers. Agricola has two: you already know Ship, but the other’s totally dedicated to prospecting

“Then we send out probes. Expensive machines. Worth the gamble though. Ion engines with constant acceleration so they can go far and fast. If we’re lucky one anchors on a few hundred tonnes of nickel-iron and transmits its stake signal: position, relative velocity, estimated mass, results of flash assay—Agricola’s claim on the rock.”

“Must be exciting,” Ben said.

Wu nodded so hard he drifted sideways. “Certainly is. The whole ship celebrates. But then we have a new set of problems. How to get to it. How to sell it.”

His glance turned away, his eyes unfocused, till Ben guessed he was hearing from one of his staff. His answer was barely audible: “She was right to say no. If he bothers her any more set him up for compulsory counseling.” He looked back at Ben. “Teacher with a parent problem. Ship mostly runs itself, but the people in it! Where was I?”

“Things you have to do once you stake out an asteroid.”

“Oh yes,” Wu said. “So now we know where it is. Next we have to reach it—sometimes very difficult, which is why we’re heading in for a slingshot. Our new stake, 264273, is halfway round the Belt, and that’s a long, long way—faster and shorter to loop round Venus and get thrown back in the right direction.

“Meanwhile we have to sell the stake. That’s when CONTRACTS earn their keep. Because nickel-iron is a futures market of sorts—everybody knows when the ones on the way will reach earth orbit—the one we last nudged will be there in three and a half years, Potosi’s rock is almost in, Amaterasu’s is two years out. But nobody knows how many new strikes will be made the next year, so contracts can be complicated. Sliding scales and such. Penalties for failure. But the Lunar-Tata Consortium is backing us again. They trust us, and we trust them.”

*   *   *

Ben went to the nearest café on Main Street afterward, watching the human traffic without seeing. Of course Agricola was a business; it had to be. He’d been blind to forget that side of things. He ordered another bulb of coffee and activated his table’s infoscreen. Ben called up the table of organization and cross-correlated it with the full census listing, hoping to see other connections he’d missed. Ship was very helpful, drawing personal communication diagrams on demand. Some people were more connected than others, but that could be a matter of temperament as much as function on the ship.

He wondered who made decisions for the ship. Captain Rice-Patel when Agricola was under thrust: her word would be law. Wu ran things the rest of the time, and he was elected. Also there was a council of some sort. And Ellen had said she’d given input when they’d decided to let a sociologist join them. Ben was grateful for that but needed to understand the idiosyncrasies of their polity.

He ended up reading the ship’s articles. They were more a constitution than a chain of command and included a practical ethos for living in a society where everybody knew everybody. The articles were a recipe for direct democracy—like ancient Athens, but with no slavery and women as equal citizens. Seventeenth-century pirate crews had had crude equivalents also. Direct democracy was a matter of scale.

The original ship’s articles couldn’t have been this sophisticated. Evolution from within. There must have been furious debates as the crew changed and expanded the rules. Though they’d had time for it—Agricola had been commissioned seventy-three years ago.

Once Ship gave him a quick summary of the various constitutional crises over the years, Ben decided to include the current articles as an appendix when he published.

*   *   *

“What I like is that everyone has a share in the ship,” Ben said.

They were in the centrifuge, and he’d just finished his exercise for the day.

Ellen didn’t look up from her seeding “Get one soon as we’re born.”

“Intrusive question,” he warned: “Did that make you feel more committed to Agricola’s success?”

She shrugged. “Can’t remember. I’m part of the ship; it’s part of me. That’s the way it is.”

“Does everybody else think like you?”

“Almost everybody. Except for the ones trading off to L5 when we go back out.”

“You’re not tempted?”

“Agricola’s my home. And L5 looks boring. The available men there look worse—”

“Somebody here?”

She laughed and looked up at him over her shoulder, “I know them too well. No spark. Good friends, but not lovers.”

Ben liked the sound of that.

“That’s it for today,” Ellen said, slowly levering herself up from her planting bench. He remembered the L5 immigrants whining about lunar gravity—even with the assistance of exoskeletons—but she spent time in the centrifuge almost every day and never complained. And she was beautiful.

Ellen saw the way he was looking at her and blushed.

*   *   *

Thanks to Wu’s recommendation, Ben visited PROSPECTING AND ORBITAL TRACKING next. The door was oval and had a round spot with Touch Here to Open; he did, and the door slid in and up to the tune of an electronic chime. He pulled himself through and found himself in a spherical white room with a narrow boom stretching out to the center. “Welcome to the orrery,” said the man at the other end of the boom.

“I’m Ben Niehaus.”

“Our resident sociologist? Come join me.”

“I’m not interfering?”

“What’s to interfere with?” the little man said as Ben pulled himself along the boom. “We’ve done our job for now, but Snoop never stops backtracking orbits.”

“Your computer?”

“Right. Our baby. The one that isn’t Ship.”

Ben sat down on the other rudimentary seat as the little man introduced himself. “Rafe Simmons-Thorpe.”

An interior click and Rafe’s long nose and big eyes were in Ben’s memex.

Rafe nodded at his explanation of wanting a preliminary fix on how various specialties fit into the ship’s economy. “You’re right about our jobs being a big part of our identity. Probably true for most everybody in Agricola.”

“My best guess,” Ben said. “Though you guys are special—seems like magic to find things in the Belt.”

“Snoop does that. We just make suggestions, keep track of what she finds.” (She—was that a throwback to the old custom of assigning gender to machines?) “Let me give you some idea of the scale.”

He eased his hand over the control panel in front of him, and the room went dark. A crook of the finger brought a great ring of bright dots, too many to count: “This is the Belt as seen from above the ecliptic.” The myriad dots turned to tiny triangles: “Vectors.” Then each triangle became a bright spot on an orbital trace, till the display showed as a huge round ribbon.

“Snoop generates these real-time reconstructions for us. Not her main job. We make new observations every time we’re in the Belt. Snoop fits them in with what she already knows, recalculates to improve her dynamic model. Even if the Belt’s mostly empty space, there’ve been generations of collisions over billions of years, countless collisions. Except sometimes she can count them. Her job’s to reconstruct their ballistics—nearly impossible, but sometimes she can. If she shows vectors of 90 percent probability we launch our probes.”

Rafe took him forward to see the probes. Clamped down on their loading cradles, sleek and dully-gleaming, they looked too simple to do their job till Ben noticed all the sensor pits in their nose cones. “Constant boost ion drives. Autonomous. Have to be. Not as smart as Snoop, but smart enough. We sent three out, and one made its stake. Good odds.”

*   *   *

“Do I have it right?” Ben asked Ellen at supper. “Prospecting finds the thing, Piloting figures how to get there, Contracts estimates how much it will bring and sells it to a backer—”

She nodded. “You’ve got it right. Keeping the rest of us informed meanwhile.”

“You vote on any of this?”

“We could. Though why if we trust their judgment?”

Ben swallowed silently, wondering. Agricola was a business; Agricola was a disciplined ship; Agricola was a direct democracy. It would be interesting to see how the three were reconciled. If they were. He’d seen groups living very comfortably with cognitive dissonance before. Something to consider when he knew his way around better. First reread the ship’s articles again for hints.

Which reminded him. The ship’s articles held for everybody, including children. “So when do you get a vote—I mean how old?”

“Sixteen, the same time we apprentice. By then we’ve studied ship history, our rights and duties, and enough Earth history to know what to avoid.”

“Ouch,” Ben said. “That’s not fair.”

Ellen gave him a sharp look. “There used to be wars. And we’ve studied how wrong early democracies could go—ostracism, the Sicilian expedition, the death of Socrates.”

Ben flushed. Here he’d been comparing Agricola to ancient Athens, when youngsters in the ship already knew the risks of direct democracy. “You’re right,” he admitted. Ellen smiled and patted his hand. Which he didn’t mind at all.

He took another bite of tilapia tempura, wondering how they deep-fried it in microgravity, before getting back to the subject. “Silly of me to forget education—essential to pass on skills the ship needs.”

“School covers lots more than tech stuff. Logic and psychodynamics. Earth history like I said. Biology and physiology and health. Art—thanks to 3D recordings I’ve probably seen more holdings of Earth museums than most people down there—the colors give me ideas for my plantings. World lit in English and translation. Just because we’re in our own world doesn’t mean we’re not part of the big world.”

Impressive, but another purpose of schooling was socializing the young—socializing them for the world of the ship might demand subtlety. He definitely had to explore Agricola’s school.

 

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Copyright © 2017. Plaisir D'Amour by John Alfred Taylor

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