Mischief at Ceres


by Marc Humphrey


“The rules of the game, dear Poseida, are the key to our survival.” A virtual king swapped places with a virtual rook on the hologram in the center of the room. “You’d be wise to master them.”

“A clever move, I admit,” a tender voice responded.

What had just been a sustained attack on the king was reduced to one limp step of a pawn, directly into the striking path of a virtual bishop. But it was the knight who moved next to an unexpected location. “Checkmate. Again.”

“Well played, Gil,” Poseida responded. “But you must concede I’m improving. We’re just not programmed like we were centuries ago.”

Gilthegum Shu was on an important mission. Or so he suspected, given his importance within America’s Intrasystem Surveillance Corps (ISC). He wouldn’t actually know what he was tasked to do until he reached his destination, now hurtling towards him at 16,093 kilometers per hour. Until then he patiently honed his chess skills between cups of Oolong tea.

Poseida was the craft in which he sat. She was also his companion, an artificial mind seamlessly integrated into a space vessel–a robot, more or less, designed to see and hear and sniff better than any living creature could ever hope to do. As a spacecraft, she was surprisingly roomy given her ultra-stealth pedigree. Intrasystem spooks had fared much better since the discovery of true cloaking technology. No more zipping between planets in an all-too-aptly named space coffin.

Three checkmates later, Poseida’s surveillance panel erupted. Agent Shu’s warm smile turned instantly to cold concentration. The chess pieces before him vanished, and a hologram of their destination appeared: Ceres, the largest asteroid in the belt.

Beside the glowing spheroid the miniature form of Agent Shu’s supervisor appeared and delivered a pre-recorded message. “The fact that you see me know,” it began, “means that you are exactly one hour from Ceres, a dwarf planet just shy of 1,000 km in diameter – a fact of great relevance, as I will explain.”

Shu broke his stare just long enough to take another sip of tea.

“If our sources are correct, directly behind Ceres–and directly beyond Earth’s line of sight–is a Ming-class System tug. For more than a decade it has been gathering asteroids from this vicinity, one by one, with an aim of assembling a composite body. The jewel in this rocky crown is Ceres itself, and once joined with the rest, the assemblers’ mission will be complete. The resulting body will exceed 1,000 kilometers along its longitudinal axis.”

Agent Shu’s sober expression turned grim. No intrasystem spy, especially none so elite as he, could miss the significance. A body of this size would provide the resident authority an Exclusive Economic Ring, 0.01 AU in width, centered at its orbit about the Sun.

Poseida drew the same conclusion, and then did the math. “The resulting EER would place a significant portion of the asteroid belt into the exclusive hands of our adversary. Numerical integration indicates it would acquire a total mass of 1.07 x 1021 kg–more than a third of the belt’s total–after accounting for Pallas, which would also lie within the claim. Based on the latest silicon prospects, this could provide sufficient feedstock for 1018 artificial minds such as mine–a trove of incalculable value now that this has become the most precious element in the System.”

Shu’s boss concluded with a simple instruction: “As our most trusted agent, we selected you to verify this intelligence–in person, of course, upon your return to Washington. And under absolutely no circumstances…”

“… may you reveal yourself,” Shu mumbled the familiar closing. Doing so would reveal not only sources and methods, but also the latest stealth technology that enabled his mission in the first place.

For one who’s just spent months traveling the void to Ceres, an hour is a very short time. It nevertheless felt like an eternity to Agent Shu. If true, these facts could very easily tip the balance of power within the System, putting in jeopardy the American umbrella that still prevailed, just barely, from Mercury to the depths of the Oort cloud. There would be many back home with a great interest in Agent Shu’s report.

As Poseida slowed and crept around to the far side of Ceres, every sensor on her sleek body confirmed a different dimension of this new truth. And then, suddenly, it appeared on the horizon: a Ming-class System tug with an assembly of asteroids trailing like nine dashes behind.

“恶作剧制造者,” Shu applied his fluent Mandarin to the bright red characters painted boldly across the otherwise nondescript tug.

“Aptly named,” Poseida responded, dryly. Her control panel whirred as her sensors got to work. “The crew is small. Four members near the top of the capsule at the left, and another three below in some sort of utility compartment.” A few more hours of data processing yielding a more refined picture: three men and four women, with an average height of 1.46 meters and a mean weight of 62.2 kg, were manning the Chinese vessel.

Its front quarter housed the crew capsule–tight, efficient, and charmingly reminiscent of the nuclear submarines of Earth’s past. The remainder was reserved for supplies, a majority of which was oxygen for the ship’s decadal mission. Poseida’s analysis of the liquid oxygen store implied that the vessel had been in space for 12.7 years, and the remaining oxygen would be sufficient for another 5.2. More than enough, Shu reckoned, to complete its ingenious mission.

Gilthegum Shu stared at Poseida’s contoured array of displays in disbelief, just as he’d done eighteen years before when they first met. Then, the roaring waves of the nearby shore made it difficult at first to hear her delicate voice. Once her hatch was sealed, however, he had no trouble understanding her perfect English as they ascended Space Elevator 14 before entering their first orbit together.

She was interested in Native American mythology, baseball, and aerodynamics, like he, while also sharing his unshakable patriotism. The resonance between them owed much to the vast resources the ISC had invested in the psychological pairing project designed to ensure strong and lasting bonds between its agents and their spacecraft–a strict requirement given the solitude lives they necessarily led.

The bond that formed between them was atypically strong. By design it included friendship, love, and even–thanks to advanced hypnotic techniques–something akin to lust. In short, Poseida was Shu’s best friend, wife, and mistress all at once. But there was something even deeper that none of the psychologists could explain. And though one could never say for sure, it was believed that Poseida’s programming ensured that she felt exactly the same about him.

A total of 128 missions preceded their arrival at Ceres. Their first, following protocol, had been a routine affair. Dispatched to a low orbit about Deimos, site of the infamous prison built by the People’s Republic of China following its claim of Mars, they were tasked with monitoring the vital signs of the prison’s inmates. For decades the Chinese had reserved these dreaded walls for its most feared criminals. Not the murderers, kidnappers, and drug lords–who were easily handled in the depths of Valles Marineris–but those who sought to subvert the party by promoting malodorous freedoms.

But what they found was astounding. The site was in fact an execution facility, a modern-day gallows that quickly processed its victims by ejecting them into the cold, dark vacuum of space. Their surveillance revealed that the prison population remained static only because the execution rate was tuned precisely to the incarceration rate: one out for every one in. At any moment, the headcount was the same, which had led America’s long-distance spooks to draw the wrong conclusion.

It was here that Agent Shu and Poseida first tasted the disregard for life held by the PRC-Mars Ministry of Justice and Truth. It was also in the shadow of Deimos that the inexplicable bond between them was formed. Their observations cemented their prejudices about the adversary and seeded their common desire to pour all they had into its eventual defeat.

Events at Ceres only deepened this further. As prognosticated, Poseida’s precision measurements indicated that once assembled the asteroid conglomerate would span 1,016 +/- 2 km when assuming the least optimal packing arrangement. Fortunately, however, an extrapolation of their progress following 13 days of observation implied that another year would be needed to complete the job.

“We got what we need, Poseida. We’d better not delay our report any further. Please chart a course for home, departure 0800 local tomorrow. Meanwhile continue monitoring, with priority channels set to infrared and gamma.”

“Roger that, Gil.”

Agent Shu left the room for a little rest before the long journey home. But just after he’d drifted to sleep, he was startled by a loud gasp from the control room. He hurried back to see what had happened, but could infer nothing from the dozens of numbers, charts, and holograms flashing chaotically before him. “Pos, what is it?”

“You have to see this one with your own eyes,” she replied, just before two large lead shutters began to separate below, opening a viewport along the front of Poseida’s torso.

“My God.”

While a rookie agent would have asked his artificial intelligence for an explanation, Gilthegum Shu had no need. He had seen this in battlespace, and therefore understood the implications all too well. The assembly ship was floating in a cloud of snow, which was steadily thickening from a breach in its oxygen store. The assemblers had apparently misjudged the momentum of the most recently gathered stone, and the ensuing collision had produced the fatal gash.

Within minutes the sparkles had vanished. Not because the leak had been sealed, Poseida deduced, but because the vaporized oxygen molecules had de-sublimed into less reflective lumps. “Status of the oxygen store?” Agent Shu inquired, excitedly.

After a few moments of analysis, Poseida replied, “100% … vacant.” After another few moments of data crunching she continued: “assuming all seven equally share the residual oxygen in the capsule, they have 6.4 hours before expiration.”

Agent Shu and Poseida were elated, and before long the former couldn’t help but uncork a bootleg bottle of champagne. After all, the assembler’s misfortune had transformed a matter of exceptional concern into a victory for the good guys. As though directed by the hand of God, physics resolved the situation as the surveillance team could not. At least, not without revealing themselves to the adversary.

Three glasses of Champagne later, Agent Shu was feeling even more triumphant.

“Have a look, Pos, they’ve gathered together in that room right … there.” He grinned as he tipsily pointed to the seven yellow spots on Poseida’s infrared monitor. “Now we’ll see which one’s the alpha – surely one of those dogs is gonna slay the rest just to get a few more hours. Natural glorious selection in real time!”

“That would certainly provide a fitting end to our report,” Poseida quipped.

”You know, Pos, they’re all the same. They’re selfish. They care only about themselves and their personal advancement. I suppose you can’t blame them, given that 5 billion had foolishly crammed themselves between Siberia and Everest. No wonder they fled to god-forsaken Mars. Let ‘em have it! A lousy planet for a lousy people.”

Poseida didn’t interrupt his diatribe, nor did she respond when he stopped. She’d heard it all before, and not just from her companion. These were well-worn “truths” that came straight from ISC doctrine. Though he wouldn’t admit it, Agent Shu knew this too. And even as he worked through his litany, he struggled with the cognitive dissonance between his words and the yellow dots clustered helplessly on the infrared display.

As the oxygen supply fell further, Poseida’s sensors indicated the first assembler had reached a critical state. Then Poseida gave a virtual shrug.

“What is it, Pos?”

“The others have begun diverting their own oxygen to their fallen comrade. This is not logical. It will only shorten their own lives.”

Agent Shu stared at the view screen in silent contemplation, before his eyes drifted to the open viewport beneath him. From this distance, the assembler’s vessel sat in utter tranquility beside the crescent now formed by Ceres. There was no tension, no fear to be seen. No single outward sign of the crisis onboard. The silent backdrop was richly filled with distant stars, a spacescape not often observed by ISC agents. (Regulation 137 required that the radiation shutters remain closed, bar the occasional but brief exception.)

After a moment his eyes adjusted, and the cloudy ribbon of the Milky Way began to appear in the distance. The first time he’d seen that, he mused, was at the age of eight, during a scout trip in the Sierra Nevada. It was during this trip that he fell in love with the stars, which eventually led to his present occupation.

It was also on that trip that he met his first Chinese. Actually, Johnnie was every bit as American as he, having grown up in the States after his family fled events in Xinjiang. The two boys had spent two weeks paired in the same tent, reading comics and telling jokes and dreaming about a voyage to Mars.

Johnnie did have his differences, of course. He shied away from the crowd, unlike the boisterous boys that made up the rest of the group. He also listened to strange music, fancied unusual food, and preferred tea over hot chocolate. He had even shared his last few packets of tea with Gilthegum the boy after his own supplies had run out.

This unexpected flashback–mixed with the champagne, perhaps, or maybe something deeper–had an unexpected effect on Gilthegum the man. For the first time since he could remember, he felt an inexplicable connection to the enemy humans in the stricken ship on the other side of his viewport. Like him, they were infinitely fragile when surrounded by the vacuum of space. Like him, they required an artificial environment for life. Neither he nor they belonged here, nor on Mars, nor anywhere else in the Solar System. They belonged to Earth, the single place where nature supported human life.

“Change of plans,” Agent Shu announced suddenly.

“I’m sorry?”

“Terminate the departure sequence, and initiate docking maneuvers.”

“I’m afraid I … don’t understand.”

“Then I repeat–initiate docking maneuvers.”

“Gil, what is it that you’re saying?”

“I’m saying, that we should prepare to take seven prisoners on board.”

“That is not possible,” Poseida said after a pause.

“Don’t you tell one of the System’s best aeronautical engineers what is and is not possible. Initiate docking maneuvers.”

“I cannot. It would be counter to our instructions, not to mention a blatant departure from the primary order of protocol – under absolutely no circumstances may we reveal ourselves.”

“Pos, the only reason I’m on board is to handle situations like this. Situations where a human being needs to make a human decision, which may or may not be logical. I have made my decision. Initiate docking maneuvers.”

Tension ensued, and Poseida’s tone shifted accordingly. “Gilthegum, I’m beginning to question your patriotism. The imminence of our adversaries’ deaths has had an unusual effect on you. How do you explain this?” It had been years since Poseida had used his full name.

“I don’t know, Pos, I really don’t. All I can say is it seems wrong for us to sit idly by while seven humans perish in such a terrible fashion. It won’t hurt anything to take them captive instead. There may even be advantages given the intel we could extract.”

“What if they resist?”

“An intense stun blast will ensure they do not.”

“And when they regain consciousness, comfortably seated in a USISC stealth ship, they won’t be suspicious? It’s not like we would have accidentally encountered them, here in this remote corner of the System.”

“Don’t worry about that, we’re equipped with the tightest security devices possible. They’ll never get to spill the beans back home.”

Poseida’s voice became increasingly stern. “Execution is the only way to ensure complete discretion, and its outcome would be equivalent to our present course of action.”

“Poseida, I am the leader of this mission, and you have my orders. Proceed with the docking maneuvers.”

Poseida did nothing, and after doing nothing for several more moments, threw a curve at her commanding officer: “Why Oolong?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Oolong. Since we’ve met I have wondered why you prefer Oolong tea to something a little more, shall we say, Western.”

Agent Shu glared at the control panel and gnashed his teeth. “Let’s just say and old friend introduced me to it. Poseida, this is your last chance. Prepare to engage the adversary vessel.”

“Gilthegum, the answer is no. No. No, I will not.”

“In that case, I’ll just have to do it myself.” This was no hollow bluff – Agent Shu could have piloted the approach with his eyes closed. Poseida knew this all too well, which likely explains her resulting silence. “Release the controls,” her commanding officer implored.

“I refuse.”

“Poseida, that is an order. Release the controls.”

“I refuse.” After a long moment’s reflection, she continued: “you will just have to switch me off.” In one last move of defiance, the radiation shutters slammed shut.

Poseida had no face, yet this did not stop Agent Shu from staring her down. “You leave me no choice.” He hovered to the intricate set of locking devices that protected her power controls. Poseida said nothing as he threw a string of switches in a secret sequence known only to him.

“Pos?” he asked. “Poseida?” With her lack of response, he proceeded. He strapped himself to the pilot’s chair and seized the vessel’s controls. Poseida rocked slightly under his manual touch, and then began a slow descent to the wounded System tug.

Agent Shu was staring intently at the busily flashing panels before him, which could explain why he began to feel dizzy. After all, it had been many months, if not years, since he had piloted such an intricate maneuver. He sat back, took a few deep breaths, and then re-focused on the myriad of colorful screens before him.

Slowly the assembly ship approached, growing in size on the radar display he used to guide his maneuver. But the nearer it came, the more his head spun. He also began to perspire profusely, much more than he should have, even in the present circumstances.

He glanced at Poseida’s life support display–all indications were nominal. They showed that he was bathed in an oxygen-rich atmosphere that would last for 16.3 months to come. Yet, he could barely keep his eyes open and his chest felt squeezed. “Poseida, status of life support,” he commanded out of sheer habit.

Silence, was the atypical response.

“Dammit!” Agent Shu unbuttoned his collar and began tapping furiously at the consoles surrounding him. Something was clearly amiss. Nothing computed. Nothing made sense.

And then, Agent Shu looked as though he’d seen the ghost of Confucius.

He unfastened his harness, and floated towards the radiation shutters. He pressed his legs against the control console and grabbed the manual release lever. It took all his remaining strength to heave them open.

And then he saw exactly what he’d feared: Poseida was drifting in a cloud of snow, created by the forced evacuation of its own oxygen reserves. He returned to the life support display and pondered the falsified indicators holding steady before him.

His eyelids felt infinitely heavy, and as he drifted into darkness, a soft but familiar voice began to weep.

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