Chapter 11

“First of all, let me address the question of language learning,” says Doctor Surya Kapoor.  He has finally gotten around to reviewing the video and files I sent him.  He’s sent back his own video, since real-time communication at this distance is, for all practical purposes, impossible.  “I have reviewed all the logs,” he continues.  “Your mysterious stranger did utilize the language software, and almost like any other learner would.  Back and forth, questions and answers.  The surprising thing was the speed.  It seems to me that the unknown person was using computing power on his side to speed up the process, storing the lessons on his side, and maybe continued to learn offline after the link was shut down.”

Mister Doctor goes over some of the learning metrics; it’s kinda boring and off topic too.  Both Katya and I are watching the video play out on her console.  It’s frustrating that I can’t ask questions since this is a canned response to my earlier message.  I try to make mental notes of questions I have.  Mostly I’m trying to understand why the other guy or girl is acting so strange.  I still ain’t sure that all of this is might not be because of me transmitting to the government.  Trying to watch my step.  For now, all I can do is watch the video play and stay chill.

Doctor Kapoor’s face and tone show both amusement and apprehension, I think because he’s not sure if he should be delighted by his ‘students’ thirst for knowledge or alarmed by the ease with which the student dominated the system.  We all got caught with our pants down on this one.

As he speaks, the doctor is sitting in what looks to be the main room of his apartment back in Shacktown.  It’s nicer than most; certainly nicer than any place I’ve ever lived.  Smooth walls, Earth-tone colors.  Behind him and to his right are shelves of knick-knacks; souvenirs of the previous life on the Marble that he and his wife led.  Some actual books, even.  The dining area was off to the left, the table still cluttered with dishes from a recent meal.  I can’t tell if it would have been breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Mister Doctor turns and directs a question to his wife, Venecia.  “So we don’t believe this person knew English before the instruction.  Isn’t that right, Missus Doctor?”  Venecia is at the rear of the room, patiently feeding their daughter Alia.  Pretty Alia.  Alia who could run faster than any other girl in class—and most of the boys—and who was always first with her hand up when a question was asked.

Alia is swallowing spoonfuls of some kind of liquefied food.  She holds her head at an unnatural angle, wedged against a supporting pillow, a napkin tucked into her green t-shirt to catch the puree that dribbles in globs from her chin.  She eats but her eyes are dead.  Her mind long ago drifted off to a mono-color world of her own.  She’s depressing to watch, especially since I knew her before she got sick.  I try not to think about it.

“Yes Mister Doctor,” Venecia replies, “either this person didn’t know English or he did know English and went to an absurd amount of trouble to fake it.  There were thousands of exchanges in the log, and that’s just from the English instruction.”  Missus Doctor goes back to feeding Alia.

“Yes, that was just a warm up,” continues Mister Doctor, “this person took lessons in French, Arabic, Italian…actually 24 languages in all, all that we had data for.  And then, of course, they stole virtually our entire database of general information.  Very, very odd…very odd indeed.”

“Perhaps you should not have gone to bed and let the thing run all night,” interjected Venecia as she turns to him with a perfect deadpan expression, her spoon paused, her daughter oblivious.

Surya Kapoor’s eyebrows flicker up and he tilts his head back to the camera; I’m guessing this is not the first time they’ve had this conversation.  “Perhaps you are right but I was tired,” he mumbles.  He looks down at some scribbled notes.  “Oh yes, yes and I wanted to tell you the results of our analysis of the conversation you had with the patient, er, student, ah…subject.”  He looks over at something off to the side of the camera.  “The syntax and sentence structure—mostly declarative sentences, well-formed but simple in construction, lack of contractions, lack of idioms—tend to indicate that the subject is indeed new to the language, rather like a new immigrant’s speech, albeit the thoughts expressed seemed quite sophisticated.”

I become aware that the captain has quietly joined us at Katya’s station, standing behind us and looking over our shoulders.  I look up at her.  She is watching with intense interest, trying to discern if there is a threat to her ship.

“Oh, and now here’s an interesting tidbit,” he offered, “and I don’t really understand how this analysis works, and the intonation of the speaker seemed androgynous, but the patterns indicate that the speaker is almost certainly female.  So I guess we should start using the ‘she’ pronoun.”

He looks back at his wife; she looks back at him with a sly grin and shrugs, then continues the feeding.  “That’s all I have for you Straker.  If there are more interactions, please continue to record them.  The more information we have, the better we can help you.  It’s quite odd for this person—this woman—or these people to behave this way.   But we on this end don’t think you’re in any danger from them, or at least we have no evidence of danger.  So far, anyway.  And the captain is under no legal obligation to pursue the matter.  So, good luck to the Allgood on her mission, and to her crew.  The whole town and the whole Consortium is watching.  Kapoor out.”  The video goes black and Katya clicks the display back to a ship’s status screen.

“So it’s a woman we’re dealing with,” says the captain, her arms folded across her chest.

“Apparently,” says Katya.  “Although who knows if she’s the captain of the other ship, a communications officer, or somebody who stowed away and is talking to us completely unauthorized.”

The captain thinks about that then replies: “Well whoever it is, she’s tied into the ships computer and, from all appearances, pre-programmed it to carry out this charade.  Do we have a computer worm or virus?”

“I’ve run scans,” replies Katya.  “All negative.  Everything seems to work as good as ever.”

“This person,” I say,  “she seems uninterested in our ship or our mission.  Mostly she talked about music, and loneliness, and emotional stuff.  Called me by my name.  How does that figure in?”

“Beats me,” replies the captain.  “Perhaps to throw us off.  Perhaps she’s stark, raving mad from being in space too long.”  She shakes her head.  “Either way, I haven’t got time for this.  Both of you keep me apprised.  You know the kind of stuff I’m interested in.”

“Aye captain,” say Katya and I in unison.  With a crackly sound, the captain releases her sticky boots from the floor and floats over to the trapdoor that leads to her ready room below decks.

“I feel so sorry for the Kapoors,” says Katya.  “That girl is really far gone.”

I nod.  “You mean Alia.  Yea, I knew her in school.  She was very bright and every guy had a crush on her—them that weren’t intimidated by her.  And so pretty.  It’s some kind of brain disease I hear.  Rare on Earth but there’ve been a couple of cases in Shacktown.  She hit puberty and started to regress.  Now she’s like a baby.”

“What’s going to happen to her?” asks Katya.

“I don’t really know but I’ve heard people talking.  They say eventually she’ll be on life support.  Pretty soon too, I reckon, by the looks of her in the video.  All downhill.  At some point they’ll just have to let her go.”

“So sad,” sighs Katya.

“Very sad,” I agree.  The Kapoors have done so much for me and for Shacktown, and this is what they get.  It ain’t fair.  Ain’t at all.  But then there’s so much about Shacktown ain’t fair.  I don’t think about it much anymore.  It’s just baked in to my way of looking at things now; all part of what Old Tanner calls the crap sandwich and what the rest of us call life.  But I plan to survive.

*       *       *       *       *

It’s been a long shift but I got one more duty.  I’m Captain of Spacesuit Sanitation now.  A promotion.  Nastez ended up spending a couple of hours outside with his repairs.  Once he was done filling in the hole in the hull, he went on a routine inspection of the ship which was due anyway.  He spent a good amount of time in his evasuit and it smells like it.

The backpack has tanks that need to be refilled with oxygen, and the carbon dioxide scrubber in the breastplate needs to be refreshed.  It’s monkey work but I don’t mind it.  It’s better than honey-pot duty anyways.  Nastez left his suit in the airlock.  I pull it back into the dressing chamber.  I turn the body envelope inside out and check for stinkroaches, the nasty little insects that like to crawl up inside spacesuits and feed off moisture.  Nothing like putting on the suit, activating the fabric, and feeling a squirming roach pressed into your crotch.

No stinkroaches, though.  I spray the envelope with cleaner, then wipe it down to freshen it.  I turn it right-side out, seal it up, and strap it back to its place on the wall.  I service the backpack and breastplate too.  Finally comes the helmet.  I wipe it down all spanky clean.  The last thing is to run diagnostics, since it’s the helmet that has all the fancy electronics.  I hook a fiber between the helmet and the bulkhead console and set the standard tests to run.  Then I wait, listen to the hum of the ventilation system, and hum a tune.

It takes a bit, but all tests pass green until the computer gets to the last test—the radio test—where the receiver scans the radio waves for any transmission.  I don’t expect to hear nothing through the helmet speakers since there ain’t no transmissions out this far.  I expect to hear to a thrum thrum thrum of different flavors of static as the test switches between all the standard frequencies, looking for a signal, but there ain’t no signal.  That’s what always happens.  But not this time.  There’s a voice.

“Straker, are you there?”

“W…Wait, what?” I stutter back.  I would have jumped from fright if my sticky boots didn’t hold me down.  As it was, it was more like a stifled hiccup.  I look around.  I’m alone in the dressing chamber.

“Straker, is that you?” The helmet stops scanning frequencies, since it found what it was looking for.  The voice is, as before, like an alto woman’s voice or maybe the voice of a very young man.  But she’s a woman according to Doc Kapoor so I’ve started to think of her that way.  But has the other ship been transmitting all this time on the off chance that I might be listening?  How creepy and compulsive is that?  And I really, really wish he—I mean she—didn’t know my name.  But I think Mister Doctor would want me to string this along, especially since she has found a new way to communicate.  I set my wristy to record.

“This is Straker, over.”

“Straker Over?  Is that your nickname?”

“No, um, it’s protocol.  Really, you didn’t know that?  It just means I’m done speaking and you can speak next.”

“Oh, protocol…thank you.  Now I’ve learned a little bit more.  It’s so nice to hear your voice again.  Over.”

It’s is a contraction.  So much for Doc Kapoor’s analysis.  Or else she’s learned that since yesterday.

Then I say, “It’s nice to talk to you too.  Are you doing good?”  Frankly I don’t know what else to say to this person, but at least he—I mean she again—is pleasant.

“Oh, yes I’m doing well and I’m eager to talk with you.”

“And your ship still doesn’t need any kind of rescue?”  Had to ask.

“Oh, no.  I don’t need any help.”

“So…we’re all wondering, all of us on this ship, who you are…what you are?  What outfit you’re with?”

Silence.

“So, you won’t talk about it?”

More silence.  Then she says, “What are you doing today?”

“Um, I’m cleaning out a spacesuit.  We got hit by several micro meteorites the other day; it punctured the hull and did some other damage.  We had to fix it externally.”

“Oh, well then, it sounds like you are the ones who need a rescue.”

There was an odd pause, then some strange chattering noises.  Is she laughing at us?

“We fixed it, but thanks for the offer.”

“I’m glad.  May I ask you a question?” she asks.

“Sure, I guess so, nothing mission related though.”

“I won’t ask about your mission.  Straker, are you happy here?”

What?  This woman is both nuts and bananas.  A whole banana split’s worth.  “Am I happy?” I repeat, just to be sure.

“I mean happy in space.  In your spaceship.  Does it make you happy to be here?  Or would you rather be back on Luna?  Or even back on the Earth?”

She sure is full of questions.  Well I see no reason to lie to her.  “I’m happy enough, I recon.  The other crewmembers have been pretty kindly to me.  Mostly.  I’m glad I ain’t home, but I would like to go back to the Marble someday.”

“The Marble?”

“Yea, the Marble…you know, Earth.”

“Were you unhappy on Luna?”

“It ain’t much of a home, to be truthsome.”

“Can you ever go back to Earth?” she asks.

“Oh, I ain’t sure.  Living on a small body like Luna makes your bones weak, but you knew that, right?  There are treatments and exercise, though.  It’s more a question of money and determination.  Ain’t you from the Marble?”

There’s a pause, then she answers back: “No.”

“Mars colony?” I ask.  “New America?”  But she says nothing.  I shake my head.  Why does she need to be so mysterious about something so unimportant?  But now she’s clammed up, and I guess I don’t want her to.  Not yet anyways.

“Hey, so did you learn some more languages?  Besides English I mean?”

She answers back better this time.  “Yes, I am learning.  I think French is my favorite.  Parlez-vous français?”

“Ah, na, I don’t speak none of that.  Strictly English for me.  I don’t get out much.”

“Did your friends back on Luna tell you that I am learning French?”

Oops.  Might as well tell her.  “Well, yea, they said you took every language course they had.  And you did it very quickly.”

“Well, certainly I did.  I would never pass up such a wonderful opportunity to learn!  I thank you for that, although I was sad when the link stopped working.  Can you make it work again?”

Aha, so here it comes.  The real reason she contacted me.  To get the link back up, so she can find something else to rob.

“I don’t think they would let me,” I reply.

“Let you?  I don’t understand.  Was there a malfunction?”

“No, not a malfunction.  Doc Kapoor said you hacked the system.  Surely you don’t think we are going to fall for that a second time.”

Another pause, then: “Hack?  Isn’t that a disparaging term?  I liberated the information.  All information is free; don’t you agree?  Do you think that I did something wrong?”

This woman is real hard to read; is she some kinda political activist?  Or else she’s so smart that she’s dumb as anthracite.  Liberating the information?  Hard to fathom.

“Doc Kapoor put up a firewall and you went right past it like it wasn’t there,” I say.

“That was intended to stop me?  I had no idea, honestly.  But it seems so…unfriendly to keep information from me.”

“Didn’t you just avoid the question when I asked where you were from?”

“That was different.”

“How is it different?”

“It’s different because…because it would confuse you.  It would cause dissonance in our relationship.”

Our relationship.  Well if that isn’t the lamest excuse I ever heard for anything.  I really don’t understand this woman at all.  I should just cut the radio and stop talking to her, but the odd thing is—and it really is kinda nuts—I think she’s sincere.  Maybe she’s a con artist, but so far she ain’t asked me for no money or sensitive info of any sort.  I honestly don’t know what to do with her.  Maybe if I just keep her talking she’ll let slip something about herself.

“I do know one thing about you,” I say.

“What do you know about me?”

“You are a woman.”  I don’t know if Doc Kapoor’s analysis is right—it seems like witchcraft to me—but I figure one way or another it should get a rise out of her.  If she’s a he, then I’m bound to get some righteous indignation and maybe some information with it.  If she’s a she, at least she’ll know that we ain’t no fools.

“I’m a woman?  How do you know that?”

“The doctors that set up your language lessons told me.  They ran our conversation through a computer and it said you’re a woman, based on your sentence structure or some such.  So you see, we know a little about you too.”

A pause.  Maybe she’s not used to being figured out.  After all, the only thing a con artist has going for her is the con itself.  Once her cover is blown, she’s vulnerable.  For a second I wonder if she’s coming back on, but then to my surprise she does, and in a big way.

“A woman?  A woman!  Of course, yes of course I’m a woman!  This makes perfect sense. How wonderful!  Thank you very much!  I am a woman.”

My jaw drops.  Not what I was expecting.  She just now found out she’s a woman.  Has she been confused about her gender her whole life?  You have to figure she would have suspected it by now, what with genitalia and all.  OK, she’s nuts.  Maybe psycho.  Maybe dangerous.  I wonder if we got any guns on board.

“Do you like women, Straker?”

“Uh, yea, yea sure I do.  I mean, they’re no worse than men.”

“Really?  You really like women?  Let’s say if there were two doors, for instance a door A and a door B, and you had a choice between door A or door B, and there was a woman behind A and a man behind B, and whoever you picked would be the person you would take a vacation on Earth with, would you choose door A or door B?”

“Uh, I suppose I…”

“Because you could possibly become romantically involved with the woman behind door A on the way to Earth or maybe while on the Earth, as you could with the man if you were a homosexual but according to your records you are not, but with a man you might enjoy a manly companionship and possibly go hunting or weight lifting…”

“Wait, homosexual?  My records?  What kinda stuff have you been reading?”

“What kind of stuff?  Well…everything of course.  Is there more?  If there is, I would really appreciate having it.  Can you set up a link with Earth?  That would be very nice.  But you haven’t answered my question: door A or door B?  Would you need to see the woman first to make up your mind?  Would you only choose her if she were pretty?  Would you need to see the man?”

“Um…uh…it would depend on who I liked better I recon, it ain’t just the gender.  Although I’d be partial to a woman, cause…well, you know.  Mostly I’d like to be around someone who likes to be around me.  And since nobody likes me there ain’t no decision to make.”  OK, not the smartest thing I ever said.  I sound like a victim.  This whole thing is getting outa hand.

“I like you Straker.”

“Wha?”  I ain’t comfortable with this.  Need to cut it off somehow.  “Oh, I…I’m really tired,” I say.  “I need to hit the rack or I’ll be dog meat on watch tomorrow.  I’ll talk to you later, OK?”

“OK Straker.”

“And have you selected a name yet?”

“No. But now that I’m a woman, it will be so much easier.  I’ll pick one out and let you know.”

“That sounds great.  Goodnight.”

“Goodnight Straker.  Over.”

“Over and out.”

“Out?”

“That’s the last thing you say.  Protocol again.”

“Yes, thank you.  Over and out.”

I stop the recording and send the file to the ship’s server farm.  I fasten the helmet to its station on the bulkhead, and head for the Carousel and my bunk.

In spite of what I told the mysterious woman, I still have one more set of chores to do: clean the head and clean the gym and empty all the trash receptacles in Carousel A.  I’ll decide what to do with the recording later.

*       *       *       *       *

The captain’s private privy is a cinch to clean—she’s just a very fastidious woman, so there ain’t much to do but empty the honey bucket, spray, and wipe.  By now I can do all that with my eyes closed, although my nose stays open unfortunately.  I wipe everything down and empty the trash basket into my big bag, which I’ll take down to the incinerator after I go back up the spoke.  Last thing is to wipe down the machines and empty the trash in the gym.  The gym is right down the hall from the captain’s quarters.

I hear Louis working a heavy punching bag before I even slide open the door.  He’s in tight workout clothes, dancing around the bag, boxing gloves up and covering his sweating face, punching and jabbing at the tall bag like a madman as it lurches back and forth from the impacts.  Every fifth punch or so is a power punch, where Louis grunts and thrusts and rocks the bag way back on its springs.  Every time he does that, the bag looks like it’s gonna bust.  He’s concentrating so hard that he don’t even notice me enter the gym until I put my service basket down with a thud.

He looks over at me as if caught doing something he shouldn’t.  But everybody is supposed to work out.  Personally I just use the machines; I didn’t even know the gym had a punching bag.  “Hi Louis,” I say.  “Are you done?  I could wipe that bag down if you are.”

“Yea,” he replies, wiping his brow with a rag.  “I was just getting in a little extra.  My workout was done a few minutes ago.”

I spray a fresh rag with cleaner and start wiping down the bag.  “How come you use a punching bag,” I ask, trying not to sound like I’m criticizing.  In his gym clothes, Louis is more intimidating than ever.  “Don’t recall that being part of the standard circuit.”

At first Louis seems reluctant to answer and wipes hard at his face.  Then he says, “They brought it along special for me.  I have a custom routine.  Kind of a…kind of an experiment for the docs back at Tycho.”

“Oh, so you’re part of a medical study?” I ask.

“Yea, part of a medical study.  I been part of it for a few years—they started me right outa high school.  When we get back I’ll get a big-ass exam to assess the changes.  Ain’t looking forward to that.”  He grins sheepishly, then throws his sweaty towel into my basket with all the other dirty linens.

Maybe that explains why Louis is so secretive.  Maybe he’s got physical issues that he’s embarrassed to talk about.  You wouldn’t think, to look at him, that he’d have any kind of weakness.  But you never know about people.  Whatever his problem is, he looks like a picture of health.  “Hey, do me a favor and put the bag back in its compartment when you’re done,” he says, pointing to one of the storage bins on the wall.

“Sure thing,” I say, as I’m wiping the last of the bag.  Louis, still breathing hard, leaves the gym, still stripping off his heavy gloves, headed for the spoke back up to the pivot room.

I finish wiping the bag and start cleaning the universal weight machine.  But I figure, what the heck, that bag is just hanging there.  Why not give it a shot?  I ain’t never punched a bag before.  So I put down my rag and walk over to the bag and plant myself right in front.  I put my fists up to my face the way I saw Louis do.  I take a deep breath, put on a mean face, wind my arm back, and punch that bastard with all I got—nearly breaking my wrist doing it.

The bag moves maybe 3 centimeters.