Chapter 1: Dominoes

The first thing Sigfried Vahl did when he got back to his office was plug the huffcube into a console to see if Judy was still there. The SyncAI had indeed shut down and deleted itself. Of course it wasn’t his only copy. “They could have copied it before I ever ran it. They’d just have to know the boot command.” He thought to himself.

Sigfried decided to ask CSSI for the resources he wanted. He spent two days creating the complex request and asked Ian for feedback. Ian helped more than Sigfried expected, rewriting two whole sections and making numerous suggestions for others. “It’s a good proposal.” Sigfried said. “Do you think it has any chance of being approved?”
“I don’t see how it can be. The compute cores just don’t exist. But, you might net a few. Do you really have to have all one hundred of them?” Ian asked.
“Well… No. Maybe not.” Sigfried admitted.
“I don’t think I’ve said it yet: Congratulations.” Ian said.
There was an uncomfortable silence.
“Really, I mean it.” Ian said, laboring under the impression that Sigfried didn’t accept the praise.
“I… uh. Thank you, Ian.” Sigfried said. He looked pleased and then he looked confused.
“It really is amazing that you’ve created a new form of artificial mind. That’ll put your name in the history books for sure.” Ian said.
Sigfried looked down suddenly. He took a deep breath, stood up and left.
Ian watched him go and assumed he was upset by their previous conflict about Synchronous AI minds. But, Sigfried had proven his ideas could work and Ian had to respect that. Still, something about Sigfried’s mood didn’t fit. He seemed genuinely glad to win Ian’s praise, but something else was obviously wrong.

It took a week for the CSSI resources committee to review Sigfried’s request. He was outraged at the response: one more core. He would have the five he currently controlled plus one more. Six cores would be inadequate to simulate a society of AI minds. Six cores would be barely enough to simulate a crew. He briefly toyed with the idea of contacting Trillian Mallory again, but he chose against the idea. He decided to contact Helen.
“Ms. McGrath?” Sigfried said.
“Yes, Sigfried?” Helen replied.
“Yes. I want to know why my request was denied.” Sigfried said.
“It wasn’t. It was approved.” Helen said.
“I asked for one hundred compute cores and I received one. That doesn’t sound like approval to me.” Sigfried said.
“We gave you the only available compute core we had and we’ve ordered two more. We just don’t have the resources to give you a hundred, Sigfried. You must have known that.” Helen said.
“I knew it. But, why don’t you have the resources?” Sigfried asked.
“Why did the cost of electronics printer media jump 20% two days ago?” Helen asked rhetorically. “Why do the cost of a bubble hops keep going up? The bubbles aren’t getting farther apart. Everyone wants their profit and for that to happen we all get less than we want.” Helen said.
“Who profits from us not having the compute cores we need for research?” Sigfried asked.
“The people who sell compute cores, obviously.” Helen said.
“What am I supposed to do now?” Sigfried asked.
“Timeslice?” Helen said.
“Yea, maybe.” Sigfried said. “And I’d make one percent of the progress.”
“But, you’d still have a chance to learn. Why not try it?” Helen said.
“I may. Thanks. I… know you didn’t choose against me.” Sigfried said and held out his hand.
She looked at his hand and decided she’d better make the most of his offer. She shook his hand. “Good luck, Sigfried.” She said.

On her way home that night Helen stopped at a market to buy fish and vegetables for dinner. It was her night to cook and she wanted something special.
She was amazed to find that practically all the fish had nearly doubled in price. “What gives?” She asked the woman behind the fish counter.
“All the fish went up yesterday on account of the fish plague in Ocean One.” She said.
“What fish plague? You mean on New Atlantis?” Helen asked.
“Yes. Ocean One. The fish have some kind of disease. It’s a good thing the oceans are separate.” The woman said.
“This is really expensive.” Helen said to herself and she wondered if she should buy it. She decided she would. To save money she didn’t buy the tiramisu she’d been thinking about all day.
By the time she got home she was tired. She switched on a news feed and watched it as she prepared dinner. The coverage of the problems in Ocean One was finishing up and the next segment showed footage of an explosion at a manufacturing facility on Luna Linda. Not only were several people killed, the entire operation had been so badly damaged that it would be offline for at least a month while repairs were made. The plant was responsible for several raw materials used in printer media. The report concluded that printer media prices would be rising in the near future and existing supplies were disappearing as people began to horde.
“This is crazy.” Helen said to herself, tired from the day. She wondered when Ian would get home.
She was almost finished preparing dinner when Ian came through the front door. “Sorry I’m late, honey. The Skimmer’s service light came on and I dropped it off at the service bay: the one on Sexton Avenue.”
“That’s… weird.” Helen said.
“Why?” Ian said.
“Because we just took it in a month ago. Don’t you remember?” She asked.
“Well, yea. That was for the accelerator resister replacement. Not the service light.” He said.
“They did the maintenance service then. It shouldn’t need maintenance again.” Helen said.
“Well the light came on.” Ian said.
“I believe you. I just don’t understand why.” She said. “But, thanks for taking it in. Dinner’s almost ready.”

“Did you hear about Ocean One?” Helen asked.
“Yea. Did you hear about Sam Arnold?” Ian asked.
“No. What about him?” Helen asked.
“He lost his job!” Ian said.
“Really, what happened? He’s worked at CSSI for years.” Helen said.
“All I could find out was that CSSI decided to lay off half the maintenance staff and half the administrative staff.” Ian said.
“Why in the Belt would they do that?” Helen asked.
“Budget issues? Who knows?” Ian said and yawned.
“What will he and his wife do now?” Helen asked.
“I don’t know. I guess he’ll have to find a new job.” Ian said.
“That isn’t going to be easy for him. And she can’t work.” Helen said.

The next day Sigfried settled into work and began reviewing the morning’s messages. His inbox had a dozen resumes in it. “
That’s weird. I haven’t posted any job openings.” Sigfried said to himself. Then he said, “Mitch, did you post a job opening?”
“No, but we’ve been getting resumes all morning.” Mitch said. “I thought you posted something.”
“Not me.” Sigfried said. He looked at the resumes. Only a few had anything whatsoever to do with computers, let alone AI. “Why is someone with short-order cooking experience sending me their resume?” He asked out loud.
“Beats me. But, I heard CSSI is laying people off.” Mitch said.
“Really? I didn’t know that.” Sigfried said.
“Then, you didn’t know that I’d been laid off?” Mitch asked.
“You? Who laid you off?” Sigfried asked. “They can’t do that!” He insisted.
“Well, they did. This Friday is my last day.” Mitch said.
“But, that makes no sense! Your position is budgeted!” Sigfried said.
“Well, I’m on a budget now.” Mitch said.
Sigfried logged into the CSSI managers’ network and discovered that Mitch had in fact been laid off. The reason given was
budget underflow. He reviewed his project’s budget and saw that expenses for CSSI facilities had nearly doubled in cost.
He contacted Helen immediately.
“Helen, what’s up with this facilities cost increase? Is this a joke?” Sigfried said.
“I wish it were. I saw it for the first time this morning. I’m trying to find out what happened, but it hit us too. We’re losing two of our researchers and we have to give up one of our labs, just to keep our project alive!” Helen said.
“You? You’re losing two of your researchers? Who?” Sigfried asked.
“We’re going to have to let Roland go. He doesn’t have seniority. It’s a shame really. He’s been doing such great work with Ian.” Helen said.
“That’s awful!” Sigfried said.
“Yea. I feel really bad about it.” Helen said. “There’s been a lot of bad news lately. Have you noticed?”
“It always feels like that. You know the media just makes things sound worse to get more eyeballs.” Sigfried said.

Over a week had passed and the Essex was half way to the neobelt. Joan had caught up in reading several of her favorite web forums. She finished two novels and wrote in her own journal. She was getting bored. It was her turn to pilot in an hour but she showed up early for her shift.
“I’ll go, if you’re ready for a break.” Joan said.
“Sure, if you’re in the mood.” Athena said.
“I’m just bored.” Joan said.
“Yea, it’s going to be a week before things start to get interesting.” Athena said.
“Will you tell me about the Space Birds?” Joan asked.
“Sure. I’ll tell you what I know. Well, what do you know about them?” Athena asked.
“Only what I learned in school. They threw Heccat at the Earth. The Earth blew up and became a new asteroid belt. They left. Veni Vidi Vici.” Joan said.
“They didn’t all leave. I saw one last time I was in the neobelt.” Athena said.
“What was it doing?” Joan asked.
“It was talking with a Rock Hunter.” Athena said.
“They talk?” Joan asked.
“This one did.” Athena said.
“What was it talking about?” Joan asked.
“The neobelt. The rock hunter was Sandy. She was in the middle of a big, messy rock field with everything flying every direction and they were just sitting there talking.” Athena said.
“Shields protected her ship?” Joan suggested.
“Her shields had failed. The space bird was deflecting any rocks that came close to Sandy. It escorted her out of the neobelt.” Athena said.
“Really? Why would it do that?” Joan said.
“I don’t know. Maybe the same reason a Rock Hunter would do the same thing if they came across a ship in trouble.” Athena suggested.
“How many are there still in the neobelt?” Joan asked.
“Who knows?” Athena said.
“Maybe the Rock hunter who sold you the map?” Joan said.
“Maybe. But, I didn’t ask him.” Athena said.
“I’m curious about them. I hope we see one.” Joan said.
She’d taken over the controls and while they were talking Athena had been using a console to find pictures on the beltweb. “Here, this is a picture.”
“Yuck! One big eye!” Joan said.
“They do look strange.” Athena said.
“They don’t look like birds at all.” Joan said.
“Here’s a famous picture. That’s about two thousand of them forming a half of a sphere. Their skin is like a squid – it’s like a screen display. The image you see is of someone named Margaret Oldfield. They ate her brain!” Athena teased.
“Ewwww!” Joan said and laughed. “Really? No way.”
“Well, that’s what I learned in school. And, that’s her picture there, being displayed by two thousand space birds.” Athena said. She showed the hemisphere from several angles. There were hundreds of images available.
“Did they attack the Bubbles?” Joan asked.
“No. Not at all. They just wanted to talk.” Athena said.
“What did they want to talk about?” Joan asked.
“I don’t know. Sorry we blew up your planet. Take me to your leader. We’re gonna eat and run. The usual things, I’d imagine.” Athena said.
Joan laughed.
Athena looked at her. “You know, I wouldn’t make that kind of joke around anyone else.” She said. “Anyone old enough not to be Generation One would either be in tears or be yelling at me, just for saying it.” Athena said.
“I guess.” Joan said.
“Why do you think people pay for neobelt artifacts? Because they don’t care?” Athena said.
“I know they care.” Joan admitted.
“What you don’t know is how much, I’d guess.” Athena said.
“Well, I know how much they pay for artifacts.” Joan said.
“Didn’t your parents talk about Earth all the time?” Athena asked.
“Not a lot. I think they worked in space a bunch of years before Heccat. Back when they paid you more to work there. They took the deal.” Joan said.
“You’re lucky. My parents talked about it a lot, but not as much as their friends. Every time anyone came over for dinner it was either computers or Earth all night long.” Athena said.
“Do you wish you could have seen it?” Joan asked.
“I wish I could remember it.” Athena said. “But, I can’t. I was there. But, I have no idea at all what it was like. I’m kind of lost between the last Generation of Earth and Generation One. I’m Generation Zero.” Athena said.
“You seem to do alright.” Joan said.
“I’m just not willing to be a victim.” Athena said. “That doesn’t mean I don’t feel lost.”
They were quiet for a few minutes.
“Are there any outposts out here?” Joan asked.
“Not like in the Belt. There aren’t that many people out here. But, just outside the neobelt there is one Outpost called Newest York. It’s a good place to buy artifacts. I packed fifty cases of food and medical supplies to trade there. We’ll stop there first.” Athena said.
“It can’t be stationary, it must orbit the sun, right?” Joan said.
“It does. But it’s not far from our flight path right now. In a year it’d be on the other side of the sun though.” Athena said.
“It’s the only place to get food out here?” Joan asked.
“No, not at all. Plenty of ships have food synth boxes. And, keeping food cold isn’t a problem.” Athena said.
“How many rock hunters do you know, Athena?” Joan asked.
“A few dozen at least. Well, by name anyway. I haven’t met half of them in person.” Athena said.
“I’ve met a few. Seems like a lonely lifestyle.” Joan said.
“I don’t think they see it that way.” Athena said. “I’ve never met one who said they felt lonely.” Athena said.
“What about sex? Don’t they miss it?” Joan said.
“I don’t think so. You know, about half of them are women. They hook up, I’m sure.” Athena said.
“It just seems so empty out here.” Joan said. “I don’t like it. I need to be near people.”
“That’s how you grew up. It doesn’t mean everyone else is the same way.” Athena said.
“I can’t imagine why they’d want to live out here.” Joan said.
“Maybe it’s an issue with your imagination then.” Athena said.
“You’d want to live out here?” Joan asked.
“Not me. But, I can imagine there are reasons people want to.” Athena said.
“Such as?” Joan asked.
“I didn’t say I know what their reasons are, only that I can imagine people have their reasons.” Athena said. “Maybe its because that’s how they fit into society. Everyone relies on Rock Hunters as pilots and guides. We all live in space now. I think we should feel lucky that they do want to live out here. They are why we aren’t all hiding inside rocks.” Athena said.
Joan frowned. “You mean Rose World?”
“No. Well, yes. But I just mean that if it weren’t for the rock hunters we wouldn’t stand a chance in the belt. We wouldn’t stand a chance in space. We wouldn’t stand a chance as a species, I think, because this is where we all live now.” Athena said.
“I guess, I never thought of it that way.” Joan said.
“Because you lived inside of Rose World. You didn’t think about the danger of living in space very often, I’d guess.” Athena said.
“And you did?” Joan said.
“Yes. When I was little some of my… friends… told me that one day a rock would pop one of the bubbles like a balloon and everyone inside would… die.” Athena said.
“That’s a terrible story.” Joan said.
“Actually, they said everyone’s eyes would pop out and their heads would explode. I was terrified for years. Stupid, really.” Athena said.
“Yea, that’s pretty terrifying.” Joan said. “I’m so sorry.”
“Yea. I grew out of it. Do you know why?” Athena said.
“No. Why?” Joan said.
“A few years later, I was twelve, I was in the spaceport at Stars View. I was with my dad, waiting for my mom’s flight to arrive. We were in front of a glassteel window and big rock flew past. I started to cry. A rock hunter came up to me and told me something. He made me a promise.” Athena said.
“What did he say?” Joan asked.
“He told me that the Rock Hunters would never let a rock hit any of the bubbles. He promised me that I was safe and they he would make sure nothing happened to me. He and his fellow rock hunters. He told me not to be afraid and to make the most of my life. He told me never to let someone control me with fear and that I was more powerful than anyone could know.” Athena said.
“What was his name?” Joan asked.
“I don’t know. I never saw him again. But, I’ve met lots of rock hunters and they’re a lot like him. They’re calm and powerful at the same time. They have a simple philosophy of helping people as an end to itself. They aren’t running away from people, they’re making space safe for people, because they can.” Athena said.
Athena turned on the mic and opened a channel on the long-range transmitter. “Essex to anyone listening: I have twenty five cases of supplies for the pool. They’ll be at Newest York in eight days. Essex out.” Athena said.
“What’s the pool?” Joan asked.
“They share. Stocking the pool is like giving something to everyone.” Athena said.
“I thought you were going to trade that stuff.” Joan said.
“I’ll trade the other half. That’s the most I’d consider trading.” Athena said.
“You belong in Rose World.” Joan said.
“Yea? About as much as you belong in the neobelt.” Athena said and laughed.

Roland read the emessage twice, because he could not believe the news. His meager employment at CSSI had been terminated. He was not even technically allowed to continue his research or education. The only reason given was that CSSI was in a financial crisis and was taking deliberate steps to survive. He called Ian on his dot.
“Ian? I’ve… I’ve been fired! How can they do that?” Roland asked.
“I know. I know. I’m going to get you signed up as a volunteer so you can at least continue your project. I mean, if you want to.” Ian asked.
“I do! But why did this happen?” Roland asked.
“It’s economics. CSSI is in debt and its creditors just put the screws on.” Ian said.
“Huh?” Roland said.
“CSSI has to cut expenses. They aren’t like a company that can make more money by having a sale. They don’t have a lot of choices.” Ian said.
“Well, what changed?” Roland asked.
“I don’t know, but it’s changing pretty fast. Have you noticed the price of food lately?” Ian asked.
“I… uh, well, I guess.” Roland said.
“When’s the last time you went shopping?” Ian asked.
“Well, actually not since before Joan left. We went shopping together and stocked up.” Roland said.
“What? That was a couple weeks ago! Well, you’re pretty lucky then. Food prices have tripled.” Ian said. “I just don’t see how people with service jobs will be able to survive. It isn’t like they can commute and work in the bubbles.”
“What am I going to do?” Roland said. “Joan’s earnings paid for our apartment and everything else. We have an account with some web credits, but it’s only enough for a couple months.”
“She’ll be back. And, if you lose your place you can come live with Helen and I, so don’t worry too much.” Ian said.
“I just don’t understand what’s happening. Why does food cost more now?” Roland asked, annoyed.
“At least you can buy food.” Ian said.
“What do you mean?” Roland asked.
“Just try buying a compute core, or a network node, or even a continuous power supply! You have to know someone to even get on a waiting list.” Ian complained.
“Who’s buying them then?” Roland asked.
“I don’t know. But whoever they are, they’re buying them as fast as they can be made.” Ian said.

Later that day Ian return to his office after a few hours in his lab. Only a few minutes after he arrived Sigfried appeared at his door.
“Ian, do you have a moment to speak to me?” Sigfried asked.
“Sure. What’s up?” Ian asked.
“Did you hear what happened to my order?” Sigfried asked.
“Your order?” Ian asked.
“For the compute cores. For my SyncAI project.” Sigfried said.
“Oh. Yea, I heard they granted you two.” Ian said.
“Well, I’m not going to get them, apparently. The supplier cancelled the order. CSSI can’t get any replacements so they yanked the two they were going to give me.” Sigfried said.
Ian was puzzled. Sigfried seemed more worried than angry.
“That’s not what’s bothering you, is it?” Ian said.
“No.” Sigfried said.
“What then?” Ian asked.
“Why.” Sigfried said.
“Well, I do care what you think, Sigfried. I care about your project too.” Ian said.
“No, that’s not what I mean. I mean ‘why’ is what’s bothering me. Why are compute cores beyond price right now? Why has food become so expensive? Why were my researchers fired?” Sigfried said. “What bothers me is the ‘why’ behind these things.”
“Why are they happening, Sigfried? Isn’t it just the economy?” Ian asked.
“Just the economy? What does that even mean?” Sigfried asked.
“Well, you know, supply and demand.” Ian said.
“So, kind of a cause and effect thing?” Sigfried suggested.
“Yea.” Ian said.
“So, by manipulating causes you control the effects.” Sigfried said.
“Well, yea. But nobody wants this kind of economic chaos.” Ian said.
“Nobody? Seems like anyone selling food or compute cores is doing pretty well.” Sigfried said.
“Yea, I guess so.” Ian admitted.
“But, it’s a feedback loop. They’ll overproduce to meet the demand, demand will go down and then the prices will crash. It’s a normal cycle in economies. It happened on earth again and again, throughout history. It’s normal, like disease and healing.” Ian said.
Sigfried frowned but had no reply. He nodded to Ian and left.

That night as Ian left his office he saw a man in a dirty gray CSSI Maintenance uniform. He recognized him. “Sam?” Ian asked.
Sam Arnold looked up at him. He looked so old and he was bent. He was pulling a bag out of a garbage can. “Ian? Ian! Ian, can you help me. Do you have ten credits?” Sam said.
“I. Yes, of course. Here.” Ian took out his wallet and removed a 10 credit note and handed it to Sam.
Sam looked at it like it was soiled toilet paper, but he took it.
“I’m sorry, Ian. I’m so sorry.” Sam said and he wept, but his voice didn’t change.
“What is it, Sam? Is it because they took your job away?”
“No. No. It’s Beth. She’s. She’s.” Sam tried to say but could not finish.
“What’s wrong? Is she sick?” Ian asked.
“No, she’s
dead.” Sam said and cried openly.
“Oh! That’s awful! I’m so sorry!” Ian said.
“When I lost my job I lost our medical care and she needed it.” Sam said. “She needed her medication.” Sam said.
“They wouldn’t have withheld it, I’m sure.” Ian said.
“I know. But, she didn’t believe it and she tried to… save them. And. She should have taken them. She should have taken them!” Sam said, shaking. “She should have taken them!”
“I’m so sorry.” Ian said.
“I’m leaving.” Sam said.
“Where will you go?” Ian asked.
“I want to go to Rose World. I just need to find a way to get there.” Sam said.
“It will cost a fortune for a ticket now.” Ian said.
“I’ll stow away. I’ll hide.” Sam said.
“For two weeks?” Ian asked.
“They won’t turn around. Once I’m on board I don’t care what they do with me. They’ll dump me at Rose World.” Sam said.
“I don’t know…” Ian said.
“What should I do then? Eat the scenery here? Sleep under bridge? I can’t afford my apartment if I don’t have a job and with all the layoffs everywhere, everyone is looking for work. I’m at the end of the list. I’m at the end of
every list.” Sam said.
“What about public assistance?” Ian said.
“One meal a day and access to a toilet. I can’t even survive on that.” Sam said. “No. I’ve got to get out of here. This place is trying to kill me.” Sam said and pointed around him.
Ian looked down.
“You think you’re safe?” Sam said and he had a very disturbed look in his eyes.
Ian shrugged.
“You know me, Ian. But the next guy you meet who wants ten credits… you won’t know.”
Ian looked up at him.
“Even if it’s me.” Sam said. Then he turned and left Ian standing there.

In the week that followed each day seemed to bring a more surprising economic catastrophe. What had been a fairly stable economy for almost a quarter of a century was crumbling. There was now a significant population of newly homeless people. They were eschewed by the narrowing ranks of the wealthy. Anyone involved with food or compute resource production, real estate or space travel was doing very, very well. Almost everyone else was struggling and losing.

The homeless were trapped. Since most of the usable ground was allocated to buildings, roads and factories, they were forced to live in the few remaining places. Parks became camps. And, the many laws that were designed to maintain the quality of life in the bubbles were increasingly used to persecute the unfortunate. Apartment buildings were repurposed as make-shift prisons to incarcerate the opportunistically criminalized homeless. One was a terrible person if one was poor and lived outside. But, one was merely adept at business for evicting tenants and converting apartments to prisons to contain them.

Roland could not find work. He lost interest in his project at CSSI and he spent more and more time obsessed with what was happening in the bubbles. He spoke with Joan often. Sometimes when she was piloting the Essex they’d just leave their com channel open, even when they were focused on other things. He became depressed and he stayed in their apartment, hiding.

In an expensive restaurant on Olympus two newly wealthy friends sat at the bar and had a drink while waiting for their table.
“So, my Sync figured out that super-capacitor electrolyte film was going to be in short supply two weeks ago and managed to catch a big supply. This week it sold for ten-x.” The first said.
“I’m still waiting for my Sync. But, my uncle says he can get me one.” The second one said.
“I thought you had one.” The first one said.
“No, my wife does. She’s been using it to speculate on food. She made twenty-x last week on fish futures.” The second one said.
“Really? So, you’ll have two then?” The first asked.
“Unless unky lets me down. You can’t really compete without one.” The second said. “So, with two we should be able to get ahead.”
“Where do you keep them? At your house?” The first said.
“Ha! Like I’m going to tell you where we keep our Syncs!” The second said and laughed derisively.
“Well, no. I was just curious.” The first said.
“Besides, it’s illegal to keep a Sync. It’s
slavery!” The second one said with thick sarcasm. He laughed again. “As if a machine could be a slave. What nonsense!”
“You watch. It won’t be illegal for long.” The first said.
“Yes it will. If it keeps people from using Syncs that just makes it easier for those of us who do.” The second said.
“I’ll bet you five thousand credits the law is changed within a few months.” The first said.
“Why? What do you know?” The second said.
“I know that the politicians who make the laws use Syncs.” The first said.
“How do you know that?” The second one said.
“Because they just passed a law giving the government a right to jump the waiting lists and force delivery of compute cores. Does your uncle work for the government?” The first one said.
“Well, yes.” The second one said.
“Then you’ll probably get one. Another one, I mean.” The first one said.
The second one smiled. “Nah. I’ll pass on the bet.”
“Sure, now that you know.” The first one said.
“It’s bad business to give away your advantage like that. Should have kept your mouth shut.” The second one said.
The first one laughed and they both finished their drinks.

The Essex docked at the Newest York spaceport. There was no perimeter control. There were no docking protocols. There were thirty working docks and twenty were filled when they arrived. Athena piloted the Essex and docked it. The umbilical connected to the rear hatch and the indicators showed it was airtight and ready for use.
“You ready for this?” Athena asked.
“Ready for what?” Joan said.
“Ready to have your imagination stretched.” Athena said.
“I’m not afraid, if that’s what you mean.” Joan said.
“That’s good. Your fears won’t find any friends here.” Athena said. Then she opened the hatch and pulled herself through the umbilical to the airlock on the other side.
Joan followed her.
The spaceport wasn’t like any Joan had seen before. It wasn’t white and lit inside. The walls were dirty and only about a third of the lights were operating. The air smelled vaguely of aromatic solvents. They followed a long docking bay past several docks. One rock hunter was busily working on a deflector generator just outside an airlock. He was covered in dark stains and his overalls were torn. He looked to be in his fifties but he looked strong. He looked up at them as they passed.
Athena nodded to him.
Joan said, “Hi.”
“Hi.” The rock hunter said and returned to his work.
“That was weird.” Joan said.
“What?” Athena said.
“Nothing. I just… I guess two beautiful young women walk past him every day.” Joan said.
“No. You just guessed he’s a pig and you’re surprised he isn’t.” Athena said.
“Yea, maybe you’re right.” Joan said.
“Get over yourself girl. And, don’t try to manipulate anyone here with sex. Don’t be cute on purpose.” Athena said.
“What if I want to?” Joan said.
“Just…. show the same degree of respect that you are shown. That’s all I’m saying.” Athena said.
“OK, I won’t tease the boys.” Joan said.
“You won’t find any boys here.” Athena said.
“Then I won’t tease the men.” Joan said, annoyed.
“Thank you.” Athena said.
Joan rolled her eyes. “I’m already bored.”
“That’s probably a good thing.” Athena said.

They made their way finally to an open space that was two hundred meters square and thirty meters high. The place had no spingravity. It had been divided into sections by cables and plastic sheeting. People floated about in the middle third, using it as a throughway and to reach the various plastic ‘rooms’.

There was a pullway running down the middle – just a long looped cable with hand nubs every few meters. They grabbed on and it pulled them forward. When they were halfway across the expanse Athena said, “Get off here!”
They let go and pushed off toward a hard plastic panel. They used their legs to absorb their momentum and then floated just outside a space with plastic sheeting for walls and a round hole for a door.
“Lets go in.” Said Athena. She pulled herself along the wall using cables attached for that purpose.
Joan followed her inside.
Their eyes adjusted for a moment to reveal a comfortable looking scene. There were a few people using consoles and several others moving crates in or out of a cable grid of storage bays.

Athena pushed off the edge of the door and flew straight toward a make-shift couch that was lashed to a wall. A woman sat there working on a console.
“Hello, I’ve got something for the pool.” Athena said.
“Oh yea? That’s great.” The woman said without looking up.
Athena said nothing.
The woman looked up and then shrieked in surprise. “Athey!”
“Em! It’s so good to see you!” Athena said.
“I can’t believe it. Why didn’t you call to let me know you were coming?” The woman said.
“I dunno. I wanted to surprise you, I guess.” Athena said lamely. She’d forgotten about Emma. But, she remembered now. They hugged.
“Who’s your friend?” Emma said.
“This is Joan. Joan, this is Em.” Athena said.
“Oh, my. You’re younger than Athey!” Emma said. “Are you two hungry? They’ll be a meal in half an hour.” She said.
“I’m hungry.” Athena said.
“Me too.” Added Joan.
“What’d ya bring for the pool?” Emma asked and smiled wildly.
“Twenty five cases of food and medical.” Athena said.
Joan looked surprised but said nothing.
“Oh, my! Really! That’s a lot. That’s amazing… and we could really use it. The pool has been low.” Emma said. “This will really help a lot. Ola will be so happy! I’ve got to tell her.”
“Who’s Ola?” Athena asked.
“My wife! Oh, you didn’t know, of course. That was last year. It’s been two since you were here.” Emma said. Then Emma tapped her dot to start a call.
“Ola? Ola I have good news?” Emma said.
“Really? Did Jimmy say yes to a threesome?” Ola said.
“I said
good news, not great news, woman!” Emma said and laughed.
“Oh, what then?” Ola asked.
“Athey just showed up at the pool and says she has twenty five cases of food and meds.” Emma said.
“Who’s Athey?” Ola asked.
“Athena.” Emma said.
“Oh, nice.” Ola said. “Hey, I’ll be there in ten. You can introduce me.” Ola said.
“See ya.” Emma said and ended the call.
“How have you been, Emma? How are the rock hunters? Have you seen Auto or Lever?” Athena asked.
“Sure, a dozen time since you were here last. I’ve been good, and Ola’s been
great. She’s the love of my life. Really, I couldn’t be happier.” Emma said.
“And you? Anyone new in your life?” Emma asked Athena.
“No. But, I have a business partner. Joan here.” Athena said.
“And what kind of business are you two in, if you don’t mind me asking.” Emma said.
“Prospecting. Artifacts.” Athena said.
“Well, they’re all over.” Emma said and shrugged.
“Do you ever collect them?” Joan asked Emma.
“Me? Heavens no. What’s the point?” Emma asked.
Joan looked at her. “
Because you could sell them!” She thought to herself. But, some part of Joan was not surprised at all. Joan realized that part of her missed Rose World.
Emma looked at Joan, sizing her up. “Well, best of luck to you. Ahh, here’s Ola!” Emma said.
Ola was a black woman with short hair. She wore a flight-suit which she switched it off as she arrived at the door. “Ola Em.” Ola said from across the space between them.
“Joan, Athey, this is Ola. Ola, this is Joan and this is Athey. Athena. You know.” Emma said.
Ola pushed off the door edge and flew to meet them at the lashed couch. She hugged each of them.
“Em’s told me about you more than once. I’m glad you’re a real person.” Ola said.
“Really, what’s she told you?” Athena asked.
“Said you had three eyes.” Ola said.
Athena blushed.
Joan knew she was missing something. “I think she only has two.” Joan said.
“Then you don’t know her very well yet.” Emma said.
Joan looked at Athena again looking for eyelashes she might have missed.
“It’s not what you know.” Ola said. “It what you imagine that matters.” Then she pointed to Athena.
“What do you mean? Knowledge is power, I think.” Joan said.
“What good is power if people don’t care? Imagination is what makes people care, not power.” Ola said.

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