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Ganny Knits A Spaceship

“Why do we need a spaceship?” asked Ganny. The question wasn’t rhetorical.

Gampy grunted, sucked some coffee from a bulb, left it hanging in the air while he scratched his ear and rubbed his chin and did his whole performance of being thoughtful. “Because,” he said. And folded his arms.

Ganny did that side-to-side head shake she always did, accompanied with an expression of bemusement that usually decoded as “If that’s the only answer I’m going to get, then I get to live with it.” If Ganny waited long enough, eventually Gampy would explain. But by that time, she’d usually figured it out herself. Either way, Ganny knew better than to push. Wise people, she said, respect each other’s orbits.

She meant that people who live in space live differently than people who live on planets. I’m not talking about the micro-gravity and the sense of confinement and the recycling of air and water and protein, the exercise regimen, and all the implants and augments, like bone-sintering and radiation-nanos and white-blood infusions, and all the other stuff that dirtsiders think about. That’s just mechanics. You live with it.

No, there’s something else. Dirtsiders don’t notice it immediately, but they notice it eventually. And they notice it a lot more intensely than starsiders do because starsiders don’t notice it at all. Starsiders live the way we do because that’s the way we live. But dirtsiders say there’s an emotional distance, a privacy wall, a cocooning. They say it’s because of the isolation and the close proximity and the lack of elsewhere to go. According to dirtsiders, people who live in space are all introverts, socially enclosed, and given to long disturbing periods of self-inflicted privacy. They see it as being shut down. I guess, by comparison with dirtside, maybe that’s true.

I’ve never been dirtside so I have no personal experience of what they’re talking about, but I do watch dirtsider videos from time to time and if that’s a valid reflection of how they think, I really don’t want that experience. They talk too much about nothing in particular. Like, “What did you have for dinner?” and “How was it?” and “How are you feeling?” Like all that stuff is important. I know how I’m feeling, it should be obvious to everyone around me how I’m feeling. Just look at my face, okay? Maybe it’s just me, maybe I’m missing something. But from where I am, they look stupid, they talk everything to death like they’re incapable of doing anything on their own. And even if they can do it on their own, they don’t do it until they’ve talked it over with at least six people. All that chatter. What’s it good for?

Ganny says it’s about bonding. They bond differently dirtside. I don’t see why that should make a difference, but apparently it does. Ganny should know. Both Ganny and Gampy were born dirtside. I asked them once if there actually was that big a reality gap and they both had to stop and think. Finally Gampy said, “Ayep.” And after a bit, Ganny added, “There might be more to it than that.” But that was as much as either of them said at the time. So I figured it was one of those things that you have to do for a while before you can understand it. But dirtside isn’t something I want to do. Germs and insects and airborne contaminants? Yick. I guess some people can learn to live with it. And if you’ve never known anything else, then that’s what you call normal. It just looks dirty to me.

But I do know some dirtsiders. We exchange almost every day. They don’t seem to notice the soup they’re swimming in, and I don’t mean the air and water, I mean the cultural soup, the context. But we don’t talk about that much. That’s too much like school. Oh, that’s another thing. Living on the whirligig, everything you learn in school is about survival. Dirtside, you learn all kinds of stuff that doesn’t have much application for anything at all, let alone survival.

But James, my dirtside boyfriend asked—well that’s what I called him, he was never a real in-the-flesh boyfriend, and that was before I broke up with him anyway—James once asked if it wasn’t lonely out here, not having any real friends. I told him I have real friends. I have friends all over the ecliptic and a couple on the long ride. Okay, they’re all web-friends, but I don’t feel alone. How could I? Web-friends are the best kind because you go to them only when you feel like it. They can’t bother you any hour of the night or day like they could if they were right next to you in meatspace.

Okay, so I don’t chat in real-time, but so what? Chatting has a lousy signal-to-noise ratio. It’s mostly pauses while each person thinks about what they really want to say and what they should say instead. It’s easier and more efficient to think things out first and then text it all at once. And when you send it as an email, you not only get to rewrite it a couple times before you click on send, sometimes you can even snatch it back if you have to.

What I mean is that talking is useful, sure, if you’re talking it out to yourself, or writing into a journal, because that’s how you figure out what you really think, but that doesn’t mean you have to inflict that whole linguistic journey of ratiocination on the nearest innocent bystander. Because if you do, then that implies an obligation on your part to listen to them verbalize at length as they work their way through their own fumbling thought processes. Long, boring, tiresome. It’s only interesting if it’s about you, and if it’s about you it’s almost always something you really didn’t want to hear in the first place, like someone’s projection of their personal narrative about you, which is almost always negative and comes with the corresponding implication that because you listened you are now obligated to change yourself. And that’s just silly. If it’s the other person’s narrative, not yours, it’s their responsibility to author it in a way that’s useful to them. What someone else believes, even if it’s about me, is none of my business. I’m not so self-involved that I need to care. There are more important things. The only way information like that is ever useful is when you get it from more than one person because then you’re hearing a common perception, but even then it’s still only a report on the effect you’re having on others. You’re only obligated if you choose to be obligated. And most of the time, I choose not to be. That’s how it is. No, that’s not how I think it is. That’s how it really is. Ganny says I could out-stubborn a cat. I don’t know, I’ve never met a cat. I can out-stubborn a mountain, if that means anything, but that’s a different story. When I say something, I mean it, that’s all.

Never mind. This is about Ganny and Gampy. Whenever Gampy said we should do something, we all knew it wasn’t ever just a casual thought, but that he’d been thinking about it for a few days or weeks, goggling and thinking and probably even arguing with himself. Gampy never said anything unless he’d already decided it needed to be said.

And then, after he’d said it, he knew that Ganny and I and whoever else might be in earshot would go off on our own and ask ourselves why he’d said it and we’d do our own thinking and goggling and thinking some more and probably a lot of arguing with ourselves as well. By the time Gampy’s thoughts had finished echoing in the heads of me and Ganny and anyone else around, most of what we would have said didn’t need to be said at all. Which is fine, because after you’ve lived in space with the same people long enough, you know them so well that you know most of what they’re going to say before they say it and you really don’t need to hear it one more time, so you learn to keep your cake-hole shut unless it’s something that actually needs to be said. Like “You oughta come back in now. Your O-mix is getting a little thin.”

So when Gampy said it, he wasn’t just saying it. He was inviting the rest of us to think about it. Me, Ganny, the blue-crew, and all three of IRMA’s personality-units. The Blue Crew worked three to six months at a time, depending on orbits, personal and ecliptic, alternating with the Red Crew. Some came back, some didn’t, but Ganny and Gampy had a team of mostly-regulars and we didn’t see new faces all that often.

Sunday dinner we always ate in the wheel, where we had real pseudo-gravity and Ganny could cook the old-fashioned way. Usually we had chicken roast, because that was the tradition, but not always. Chicken was just the fastest-growing protein. And most cost-effective. Ganny was a budget-nazi. But we also had goose, duck, swan, ostrich, dodo, pigeon, rabbit, beaver, beef, horse, pork, goat, venison, elk, antelope, moose, mutton, lamb, buffalo, tuna, swordfish, salmon, shark, lobster, shrimp, sea turtle, clam, squid, snake, alligator, rhinoceros, dinosaur, or any of the hundred different hybrid-proteins Ganny was growing in the meat tanks. We also had synthetic sasquatch, bandersnatch, yeti, and tribble. If you can imagine it, someone has probably already gene-tailored it.

The thing about protein farming, you don’t have to worry about flavor too much, because you can add whatever flavor you want long before you start slicing, but you do want to pay attention to muscling, fat content, marbling, and digestibility. All the pieces of the viability equations. And of course, how you exercise the collagen web determines the texture and chewability, which is even more important than flavor. When you get all that balanced, then you either leave it alone, because some people prefer the natural flavor of the meat, or you start adding flavor components, genes, enzymes, hormones, whatever, because other people like their meat pre-spiced—but to Ganny it’s all about cost-effective protein design. So even before the tissue-starters go into the growth tanks, she’s doing targeted gene-splicing and chromosome-braiding and designer-musculature. Starsiders are always looking for better ways to turn CHON into stuff that tastes good, so you have to keep a big library of resources on hand, because you never know when someone is going to invent another new culinary fad, like rhinoceros green burrito or fried buffalo sushi or mango horse fish. On the gig there’s always something that needs harvesting and even though most of it was grown to order, it always worked out that there was enough left over for dinner, sandwiches, stews, and snacks. Ganny said it was quality control. She wouldn’t sell anything she wouldn’t eat herself. Mostly.

Being born on Earth, Ganny and Gampy still had a few dirtside prejudices. Ganny was adamant that she would never grow chimpanzee or any other kind of ape, whale, or dolphin. Also on the list were rat, mouse, squirrel, possum, bat, cat, dog, wolf, hyena, lion, tiger, eagle, vulture, and most other scavengers and predators. No monkeys or elephants either. She did keep all those stem-cells in vitro, in case someone else wanted to buy starters for their own farms, but she wouldn’t grow them for our own consumption. She did give in once on whale and dolphin, just to see, but she wasn’t happy with the amount of water it took to produce a kilo of flesh, even though the water really didn’t go anywhere and we always reclaimed it, but she said the recycling overhead had to be figured in and she felt it was prohibitive. That was what she said anyway. But while she allowed some wiggle room there, she was an absolute wall when it came to chimpanzees and other major primates. “I’m not a cannibal,” she said. “I won’t eat my cousins. Not even metaphorically. Maybe some people will, I won’t.”

Sunday dinner—that was when we did talk to each other. We shared what was important, all the stuff that needed to be said face-to-face. And if nobody said anything, which happened sometimes, because we were all too busy doing the knife-and-fork thing, slicing and stuffing and chewing and swallowing, which was the best acknowledgment of Ganny’s hard work we could give, a lot better than silly verbalizing like, “Mmm, this is good.” Of course it’s good. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t be eating it. But if nobody said anything at all, Gampy would start poking. “So, Starling,” Gampy finally said to me, “What did you figure out this week?”

“Railroads,” I said. “Highways. Trucks. Costs of shipping.”

“Mm,” he said around a mouthful of something designed to approximate dinosaur, it still tasted like chicken. He chewed for a bit, swallowed, and finally asked, “And…? ”

“Well, um. If you own the tracks, you have a monopoly, you set your own prices. But if you don’t own the tracks—the roads—then everybody gets to compete, and the market determines the cost of shipping. In the ecliptic, there are no tracks, only orbits. And everybody’s got their own. So it’s like roads. It’s all about intersections. Convenient intersections.”

Gampy looked to Ganny. “See? Told you she’d get it.”

Ganny swallowed politely before answering. “Was there ever any doubt?”

Gampy looked back to me. “Go on.”

“I know we like to say that everybody comes to Rick’s, because sooner or later everybody has to come to a whirligig to slingshot into a new trajectory, but that isn’t true anymore. Not since whatsisname invented the traction drive. Used to be, they’d come for a slingshot, but now they only come if they want to fill their freezers. And that’s only locals now, and only when they need to resupply, and only if they don’t have a farm of their own. In ten years, fifteen, everybody will have tractions. Even cargo pods. So whirligigs are like internal combustion engines. Very useful, but only until people invented something more efficient.”

“Good,” said Gampy. “You might have been a little too optimistic about how quickly everyone will switch to tractors, but I might be wrong too. The human factor is always a monkey wrench.”

“What’s a monkey wrench…?”

“It’s where you raise Jewish monkeys.”

“Never mind, I’ll look it up later.”

“I’m sure you will.” Gampy stuffed another baby potato into his mouth and grinned. That was his answer to almost every question: “Look it up, I’m not going to do all the work here, you’re the one who wants to know.” Gampy said the only thing worse than not knowing how to swim in the data-sea was knowing how and never getting your feet wet for anything more than looking at people trading body fluids. I didn’t understand that one until I was eight, not because I was slow but because orbital physics was a lot more interesting than looking at boys taking off their underwear. Why do they do that anyway? I mean, okay, it’s cute enough, but after a while you have to ask, what’s the point? They all sort of look alike. Are those things really that important?

“So, kiddo,” Gampy poked again. “Is a spaceship cost-effective?”

“Yes and no. I mean, a traction drive isn’t that hard to fabricate. We could even print a couple dozen ourselves. There’s enough open-source matrices on the web, we’d only have to choose one, maybe adapt it for our needs, so it’s mostly a problem of raw materials and energy. And we wouldn’t have any problem fabbing new solar panels, three or four racks and probably a dozen new capacitor farms, so it’s only a problem of raw materials and we can cannibalize most of that from the junkyard. I’m guessing we could do it in 24 months or less. Worst-case scenario is 48 months. If we double up on the fabbers, I bet we could cut the production time to 16 months.”

Ganny looked annoyed. Gampy covered his smile with his napkin. “What’s the no part, punkin?”

“The life support system. We don’t have a hull. Unless you’re planning to cannibalize modules from the whirligig. But you’d never do that because the gig has to maintain a viability score of 350 or more for a crew of 20 and you won’t risk the numbers. I don’t know how big a crew you’re planning for the spaceship, but even a yacht needs a lot of hull space to be self-sufficient.”

“Why do we need to build a self-sufficient ship?” Gampy asked.

I gave him the look. The one that says “Why are you even bothering to ask?” It almost worked. He still gave me the “Come on, answer the question” gesture with his hand.

I took a deep breath, my way of showing him how annoyed I was that I even had to explain. “Because,” I said. And folded my arms.

Gampy laughed. Ganny smiled and said to him, “She’s got you there.”

Of course, that wasn’t the end of the conversation. Conversations never really ended on the whirligig, they just spun around for a while, evolving, changing, recycling. Some of the conversations eventually flung off into space, forgotten. Others got winched in for closer examination and winched out again when they were no longer relevant. I expected this to be one of those kind of discussions, I should have known better. Gampy never wasted air. Gampy was famous for that.

Actually, Gampy was famous for a lot of things. He and Ganny were sort of like legends. As near as I could tell, everybody in the belt knew them, or at least knew of them.

The way most people know the story, Gampy built the first whirligig. He didn’t, not any more than Henry Ford built the first car, but Gampy built the first one that worked well enough to be profitable. You can look it up. Gampy started the first pipeline. And like the railroads, the pipeline made it possible for people to expand outward to Mars, the belt, and the Jovian moons. And the Saturnalias as well (their name for it, not mine).

The pipeline isn’t really a pipeline with tubes, although I’m sure a lot of dirtsiders think it is. Once, when Ganny was angry about something, she said, “Never underestimate the stupidity of dirtsiders in large groups, except when they’re alone and have to do their own thinking.” And even though I know that there some smart dirtsiders, Ganny says not to depend on it. Anyway, the way the pipeline works, cargo pods come up one of the beanstalks, Ecuador or Brazil or Kenya or mid-Pacific, and also from Mars and Luna too. The pods go all the way out to the ballast rock at the far end of the cable, unless they’re carrying cargo or passengers that can’t stand the gees, and then they go only as far as they can. At just the right moment, the pod lets go of the cable and like a stone released from the end of a sling, it goes hurtling off in whatever direction it was pointing when it let go. Most of the pods go to Luna and Mars. A lot go to the Jovian moons. And a lot go out to the Saturnalias, now that they’re getting serious about colonizing. A few more go out into deep space, those are usually long-distance robot probes. The rest come out to the belt where we catch them with the whirligig.

The whirligig is a beanstalk without a planet attached. You get a length of cable and two rocks, a kilometer is a good length, but you can do it with less—or more if you want. It works on any scale. Gampy says you really want a minimum of three cables for redundant strength, but he eventually used six, which gave him room for expansion.

You start with a cable and a construction harness. Then you catch two rocks—that’s the hard part because it involves wrassling a flying mountain, and that’s a lot of delta-vee, but if you can catch the rocks, or better yet, break one big rock into two pieces, you’re in business. You catch each rock in a big net. You loop one end of your cable around one rock, you loop the other end around the other rock. If you’re smart, like Gampy, you use multiple cables, because no matter how well you plan, you never know what surprises will happen once stress is applied.

Once you’ve got your rocks securely netted and harnessed and attached to the ends of the cables, you give each rock a push, but in opposite directions, a small push at first, just enough to start them orbiting slowly around each other like a bolo. That’s the hard part because big rocks usually have their own opinions about where they want to go. That’s what I mean about out-stubborning a mountain. Which is why as soon as you’ve got them going, you want to get out of the way, because you’ve probably miscalculated and you’re going to have to apply a lot of corrections. That’s why you start out slowly at first.

This is the part they don’t always tell you about in the engineering books. In theory there’s no difference between theory and practice; in practice, there is. The physical universe is going to get sloppy and you have to adjust for it. Constantly. Then you start adding more push, more acceleration, until you get your bolo whirling at the rotation you need to catch and sling cargo pods. Keep making corrections until you don’t have to anymore. Wait a few days until they stabilize, then wait a few days more to see if you’ve miscalculated again.

With all that centrifugal force on the rocks, you want to be certain that they’ve finished settling. Sometimes pieces decide to fly off, which is why you want to get above or below the local ecliptic, so you’re not accidentally in the way. You want to make sure that the whole thing isn’t going to suddenly fly apart before you make a commitment. (Gampy says the same thing applies to women too.) Sometimes the stress and strain of applied “space-gravity” destabilizes the inner structure of the rocks, causing them to crack or crumble or simply rearrange themselves in their harnesses, changing their center of gravity and the center of gravity on your bolo. When you’re finally satisfied that the bolo is spinning safely, then you proceed. Then the construction harness crawls back and forth along the cable until it finds the exact center of gravity on the line. That’s where you build your hub, usually a wheel so you can spin it for gee.

Okay, so now you’ve got pumps on both ends of your pipeline. We’re at the top end—one of the top ends. The bottom end is the great big whirligig called the big blue marble. A top end is any whirligig near your intended destination, or at least on the way there. You can sling a lot of stuff back and forth between the two. The tricky part is catching the pods. There are a lot of different ways to do it. The easiest is to hang a big hook at the end of the catching line. The pod then puts out a big loop of cable, as much as a kilometer in diameter, if necessary. If you’re really cautious, you also put a hook on the pod and the gig puts out a lasso as well. The velocity differences at match-up are fairly low, usually less than a few kph. But despite all the course corrections all the way in, you only get one chance at threading the needle. And with cargo pods carrying as much as a half-billion plastic dollars’ worth of cargo at a time, you just don’t take chances. And if the pod is carrying passengers, you really do not want to let them go sailing off into space, especially if the chance of recovery is somewhere south of impossible. Gampy says that having to listen to desperate calls for help fading off into deep space can ruin your whole day.

Gampy’s whirligig outsizes everything else in this part of the belt, ten degrees east and seven degrees west, so we catch all the fastest and heaviest traffic in this slice of the arc. Seventeen degrees. And that’s a lot of arc. That’s because Gampy had the far vision. That’s what Ganny calls it. Far vision is being able to see past tomorrow. A long way past. The way Ganny tells it, Luna got too crowded for Gampy’s taste, so he hiked all the way out to the belt with a big roll of cable on his back, picked out the two biggest rocks he could find, hitched ’em together, and started ’em spinning. Then he ordered more cable. By the time the big space exploration companies got out here, Gampy had a giant spinning spiderweb with eight ballast rocks and sixteen stabilizing engines. Cargo slingshots through here for delivery to the local group or slingshots back and forth between Earth and Jupiter, Earth and Saturn, and occasionally even Earth and Mars, depending on everybody’s orbital positions. Work it out for yourself. When Mars and Earth are on opposite sides of the sun, it’s faster to fling it to us and we fling it on. It’s called a double-play. Tinkers to Evers to Chance. I had to look that one up. The allegory isn’t exact, but Gampy’s a history nut, always peppering his conversations with little nuggets for me to find and research. He does it on purpose. It’s the game we’ve played for as long as I can remember. But no matter how sharp I get, he’s still the bear, I’m still the cub.

When a pod gets out here, it doesn’t have to slow down. It only has to arrive at the right speed and the right time so that it momentarily matches trajectory with one of the spinning arms as it comes around. There are a lot of different spinning arms, different lengths, different positions, so there’s a little wiggle room on the final approach, but not much. And IRMA takes over control of the pod on its way in and manages the entire docking maneuver. (If the pod doesn’t let IRMA take control, we don’t catch it. No matter what’s on board.)

After a pod latches on, after the hooks and loops catch, there’s a few moments of load-balancing, because even with all the ballast rocks in place, the whirligig’s center of gravity has shifted and we either have to pump some water around or winch some other pods in or out, or both. IRMA manages that.

Some pods we winch down to the hub—and that requires more load-balancing. Others, we just wait for the next convenient launch window and send them whirling off to their next destination. Gampy says it’s a lot cheaper for the big money to pay us to catch and sling cargo pods than build their own whirligigs. Gampy says that’s how he became one of the first trillionaires in the ecliptic. On paper, anyway.

At any given moment, Gampy had maybe 950 billion dollars’ worth of cargo in transit outward and maybe another 125 billion in value headed back, depending on market value. But depending on where the pods were launched from, depending on whether or not they had to slingshot around something, the outbound journey could take as long as three years. Complicating the matter, pods could only be launched when there was an open catching window for them at whatever point in the future they were scheduled to arrive, so the computations could get tricky.

But belters can’t wait three years for supplies, not even three weeks if it’s air and water they need. So Gampy always bought a lot of stuff on margin against a slice of long-term earnings. What that meant was that technically Gampy owned the cargo until the recipient paid for it. Somewhere, in some dirtside bank, somebody would subtract a few zeroes from one account and add them to another. Out in the belt, nobody starves, nobody suffocates. That’s not just the Starsider ethic, that was Gampy’s rule. “Out here, the equations are as warm as we can make them. Anybody doesn’t like that way of business can go somewhere else.” Except for the longest time there was nowhere else.

Gampy never turned anyone away. If he had it to give, he gave. Only once did he have a problem with one family of belters. They didn’t pay their bills. Even with all the computerized projections and advisories they had available to them, they always knew better, until eventually they mismanaged themselves into a very ambitious bankruptcy, but they kept on anyway. Because Gampy kept resupplying them for a lot longer than he should have. Until finally, it became obvious they were never going to work their way out of their very deep hole. They wouldn’t take any of the little jobs Gampy offered them because they still believed in the big score, the solid-gold asteroid. Those little jobs would have kept them going and Gampy could have recouped some of their debts. But no. They were too proud to take little jobs. So finally, one night, Gampy loaded them up with just enough fuel and almost enough food to get to Mars, and as soon as they were all asleep in their ship, he slung them off to Mars. They made it, but they were really hungry when they arrived. The way Ganny tells it, a lot of other belters started paying their bills on time Real Quickly after that.

Every so often, some dirtsider complains about the amount of product that comes out to the whirligigs, enough to supply a small town for a couple of years, enough to build two or three long-riders. “I thought they’re supposed to be self-sufficient. Why are we still supporting them? That money should be spent on the poor—not on spoiled starsiders.”

But they don’t understand. The whirligig has to be a warehouse. Maybe it’s the way they live, everything is too easy. If you can waddle down to the corner store and pick whatever you want off the shelf, you don’t worry too much about how it got there or where it came from in the first place or what it took to get it there because the next day the shelf is full again. Dirtsiders don’t have to think about where their next breath of air or drink of water is coming from, so they don’t stop to think that the rest of us do. Everyone who lives starside.

But the ones who do understand, the ones on the bottom end of the pipeline, they’re even worse. Because every so often, one of those cute little business-school graduates figures that he can boost his bottom line by raising prices on the belters. Charge a dollar more per cubic liter of oxygen, two bucks processing fee for clean water, decontamination surtax for every item loaded into a cargo pod, no problem. It adds up. What are the belters going to do? Take their business elsewhere? Where? Negotiate a new deal? With whom?

The last time Gampy got one of those “New Fee Schedule” messages he replied with a new fee schedule of his own. “Service fee for new software processing to prevent returning capsules from accidentally falling into the Pacific Ocean or onto a continental landmass.” The service fee was considerable. Enough to offset all the surcharges and processing fees and surtaxes. That was a fun negotiation. It lasted for eleven and a half months. Until a few of the capsules started falling into the Pacific. Including one very expensive capsule with a lot of stuff they really didn’t want to lose. Oops. My bad. I told you we needed to update the software. Then they paid attention. Gampy appointed himself the ad hoc negotiator for all the belters and refused to back down until three planetary authorities agreed to regulate cargo launch costs more honestly. Gampy even wrote in a clause guaranteeing a cost of living margin for all the cargo handlers on the ground as well as the ones in space, so that guaranteed popular support from the important people on both ends of the line. A lot of dirtsiders weren’t very happy about it. They said words like arrogant and blackmail and terrorism and wanted to stop sending us supplies at all. Obviously, they didn’t think that one all the way through.

It wasn’t a great relationship, but it worked. Gampy said it was about power. If you have it, sometimes you have to use it—to remind people that you have it. Otherwise they’ll think you don’t have it. But the whirligigs were important, just too important to the economies of four worlds and a handful of lesser settlements. Nobody could afford to get into a prolonged fight. The alternative was to accelerate things the old-fashioned way, by boosting a lot of fuel into orbit and using half of it to accelerate and the other half to decelerate. And twice as much more if you expected to bring anything or anyone back, because you pay a fuel penalty to boost the mass of your fuel, too. So before the traction drive was invented, the whirligigs were the cheapest way to sling things around the system.

It took a while to get the big traction drives out of the labs, but even before the first tractor ships started shooting around the system, everybody knew that the role of the whirligigs would be changed. Probably diminished. To run a pipeline, you need a sling at both ends, but a tractor can go directly from point to point and usually a lot faster. Cargo doesn’t care how long a trip takes, passengers do.

So there wasn’t any question why Gampy wanted a spaceship. It was the only way to stay competitive. Or we accept a reduced role in the economy of the belt.

Over the next few weeks, Gampy had us all working on the question of life support modules. Not just me and Ganny, but folks on the Blue Team as well. They were the real crew and he said their input was the most important, because they were the guys who had to make it all work. How big a module would we need? Could we afford to construct one? Or would we have to buy a hull from the Martian Electric Boat Company? What would our requirements be? How big a crew would we carry? And what about passengers? Will our payload include cash-carrying customers? How many? And what level of service will we provide?

The problem with that equation was that every time you added a warm body, you also had to expand the life-support systems to accommodate. Above a certain point—twelve is the magic number—there’s a certain economy that kicks in. But when you start adding passengers, you also have to add stewards, at least one for every twelve bodies. It adds up.

There’s a lot to think about in spaceship design. No matter how good all your software might be, you still have to make hard decisions about how far you want to go, how much you want to carry, who and how many you want to bring along, how you’re going to keep everyone alive and comfortable and productive, and most important, how you intend to pay for it all. The irony of ship design is that there’s a corresponding relationship between size and comfort and profitability. The more comfort you want, the bigger the ship has to be. The bigger it gets, the more people and cargo you can carry. The more you carry, the more profit you make. So the ultimate question is how big a ship can you afford to build? It’s all about the life support module. The traction drive doesn’t care. It’s null-N, non-Newtonian.

So you can build a starter ship for five and later on add a second ring of cargo pods and maybe a couple passenger payload systems and you only have to add one or two or three traction cores to your basic unit. If you’ve designed for expansion.

So Gampy’s real question wasn’t about whether or not we should build a spaceship. It was about what kind of spaceship we were going to build. And that meant he wanted us to think about what we were going to do with it after we built it. Where do we want to go? And what are we going to do when we get there? And after that, then what?

We spent a lot of time on that question. We needed a keel—that was the easy part. But how long? We needed traction drives. But how many? We were already fabbing the fabbers that would let us fab the drives. We needed a ring to hold cargo and supply pods. But we still hadn’t decided on the life-support modules. How big? How many people are we schlepping? That was why Gampy started the discussion in the first place. He’d probably figured most of it out for himself, but he wanted to see if the rest of us would come to the same conclusions. It took us a while, but we did.

The most cost-effective way to complete the ship was to buy a hull from the Martian Electric Boat company. It wasn’t the cheapest solution, but it was the fastest. It would save us at least 8 months of construction and testing, and that would get us to the return-on-investment point that much sooner. MEBC was popping out certified hulls two a month, whether they had buyers or not, it was cheaper to keep the assembly lines running, but they never seemed to have an overstock problem, they sold everything they produced. Besides MEBC had over a hundred years of quality control, their hulls had already logged several quadrillion kilometers without a fatality, while we’d be starting from scratch, learning as we went and probably making a lot of mistakes along the way. But, as Gampy pointed out, if we did build the hull ourselves, we’d know every inch of it intimately. Maintenance and repairs would be a lot easier. And faster. Because we’d have a much more personal relationship with vehicle integrity.

Of course I shared all of this with my journal. I wanted to share it with my bf James, but Gampy said not a good idea. “Never share family business. Never share personal information. The person you share it with doesn’t share your investment, doesn’t share your commitment, and might not even care very much what happens to you. You can’t know what he will do with the information. Don’t take risks you don’t have to.”

“But James says he wants to come out here and work for us when he graduates. He can hitch a ride on a tramp. He’s even willing to indenture. A standard seven-year contract.”

Gampy didn’t answer immediately. We were walking the centrifuge, we did it at least an hour a day, it was our best time for talking. But now he sat me down at the green bench, the one at the 60-degree mark. I think it was more because he was out of breath than because he wanted to be serious. “Starling,” he said. “I need to talk to you in grownup now, so you need to listen in grownup. This Sawyer boy might be a credible person. I think he is. Ganny thinks he is. Ganny looked over his emails, yours too. And he seems credible.”

“You read my emails?”

“Yes, no. IRMA reads your emails, for your protection. She only flags for red-codes. Doesn’t flag very often, so Ganny and I don’t have to invade your privacy. But sometimes we check anyway. Shh. Let me explain why. Lots of suspicious people dirtside. Lots of fearful people dirtside. They live in fantasyland. Afraid we’ll drop rocks on them. They watch us through telescopes. Everything we do, they see. They write, they speculate, they make things up. They get stupid. Living dirtside does that to you. Makes it easy to stop thinking. Dirtside, people can afford luxuries like stupid and crazy and not caring. Dirtside you can walk around wrapped in belief and ignorance and unconsciousness. But starside, no. The universe has an instant response to stupid. Vacuum is the fastest teacher. You’re only entitled to one fatal mistake. No first warning, no second chances. So choose your death carefully, kidlet, you’ll be stuck with it forever. And forever is long time, especially on the back end. Remind yourself of that. Say it every day. Like praying, but much more useful.”

Gampy saw my impatient nod, I’d heard all this before, many times. He put his hand on my shoulder, his fingers felt frail. “Yes, munchkin. You know all that. But I want you to hear it again and again and again, because I want it written on your heart. Up here, this is the next step in human evolution. No, not spacelings or cyborgs, something more than that. It’s about who we have to become in here, inside our souls. We’re learning how to be conscious, awake, aware—truly sentient. That’s what’s important.”

Gampy didn’t usually talk this much, or this intensely, and I could see it was an effort for him, but Gampy only said what absolutely needed to be said, so I waited while he regathered his thoughts. “This is what I want you to know—dirtsiders don’t trust us. Because dirtsiders don’t trust anyone. Because they don’t trust themselves.” He made an annoyed gesture and I could tell he was thinking about someone in particular or a whole group of someones. “And they think everybody else thinks the same way—and anyone who doesn’t is stupid. So everybody is either an enemy—or prey. That’s why they watch us. A lot. To see if we’re a threat or if they can take advantage of us. It’s not just optical scopes, Starling, it’s everything. They use data-scopes and web-agents and spybots. They want to know who arrives, who leaves. What we buy, what we sell. What we upload, what we download. Everything. The joke is—we have no secrets. Our business is open book. We are transparent. That’s why they think we have secrets. They say no evidence of secrets is evidence of deeper secrets. Crazy dirtsiders only see what they want to see, only see what they already believe. They wouldn’t see it if they didn’t believe it. Remember that. Loonies and Martians not so bad. They have space-legs. But earthlings…? Too much dirt in their veins.”

“But what does all this have to do with James?”

“Yes, James. Nothing, everything. Just be careful.” Seeing my puzzled look, he took another deep breath. Labored. He had already used up a two-month quota of words and now he might have to borrow against next year as well. He patted my hand. “James seems like a credible boy. I hope he is. But because dirtsiders don’t trust us, we can’t trust dirtsiders. Not with important stuff. You understand?”

“Not all dirtsiders,” I insisted. “Some are okay. Aren’t they? You and Ganny were dirt-born. That has to prove something.”

“Yes. But we were smart enough to leave. Some dirtsiders are smart. Some might even be trustworthy. But how do you tell? That’s the big question. You figure that out, you’re smarter than Ganny.”

“Smarter than Ganny?”

His face crinkled impishly. “In all my life, I only outsmarted her once.”

“You did? When?”

“When she asked me to marry her, I said yes. I don’t think she expected that. Don’t tell her I told you.”

“Promise.” I promised.

“Pinky promise?”

“Pinky promise.”

Of course, like every conversation with Gampy, it kept me processing for a week. I finally went back and reread a lot of my old conversations with James. How we met, what we talked about. Everything. I didn’t see it. I didn’t see what Gampy saw.

So I kept looking.

James first howdied me three years ago. Nothing much, just a “Hey.” I said “Backatcha.” And that was most of what we said to each other for a long time. Non-communicative communications. “Agreed.” “Yeppers.” “Me too.” Stuff like that. Somewhere in there, I decided we were simpatico. But looking back on the messages now, I couldn’t find a lot of places where he actually said something on his own. Mostly he was restating my thoughts back to me. But so what? I did that a lot too. Whenever I saw something that I agreed with. So there wasn’t anything out of the ordinary about that.

Then later, after a few months, he did tell me a little bit about himself. He was the oldest of three brothers. They lived in a container house in Baja, far enough south they could see the Ecuador beanstalk through a good telescope. His goal was to ride it up to the top. Someday. I asked him what a container house was, he explained that cargo comes in on shipping containers, it’s too expensive to ship them back empty, so people buy a few, stack them, add plumbing and insulation, power panels and air-conditioning, and move right in. If you do it right, you can put together a pretty nice house. Resistant to earthquakes and hurricanes. Put it on stilts and it’s flood proof. Fairly fire-resistant too. According to James. He sent me pictures. So I sent him a picture of me in the centrifuge, standing by the peach tree.

The peach tree confused him. He accused me of lying about living in space. I had to explain to him about Ganny’s gardens and send him a different picture, taken from another angle, that showed just how small the garden was and how the hills in the background were really just a display on the inside bulkhead. I sent another picture of me and the peach tree with the background changing every two seconds, just to prove it. He apologized, of course, but….

So I ran the whole thing through IRMA, asking for a six-level transactional analysis with focused emphasis on semiotic dynamics. I’d never done that with a friend before, I’d always believed I was smart enough to judge for myself, but maybe Gampy saw something I’d missed. He wouldn’t have said anything unless it absolutely needed to be said.

IRMA said that the peach tree transaction put me on the defensive and that affected subsequent transactions. Additionally, the information transfer ratio was three to one. I gave James three times as much information about my life as he gave me about his. He asked a lot deeper questions too. IRMA said his trust level was moderate, which was probably as good as you could ever get on the web, but she also annotated that sophisticated chatterbots could generate trust-levels that measured moderate to high because they were designed to do that. Even so, chatterbots were still limited in their responses in some specifically targeted domains of human interaction and that was how you could test them.

IRMA also said that some of my messages had been a little too candid, edging into the yellow area. Obviously, my physical safety was not at risk. But as an information channel, I had moderately compromised the integrity of the data-bubble. Even the alternate photo of the peach tree was suspect because it revealed that Ganny’s farm was inside a reconfigured Xinhua-Mercedes cargo pod. But anyone with access to a Hubble-6 eye or better could see that from Martian orbit on close approach, and there were already plenty of photos on the web anyway. But IRMA was a skeptic. Naturally suspicious. Not paranoid like a LENNIE, but if an intelligence engine could raise an eyebrow, IRMA would have one permanently arched.

But okay, so Gampy’s point was that James might be credible, but he might not be either. Hard to say. If dirtsiders really were as Machiavellian as Gampy believed then it wouldn’t be beyond them to create a sock-puppy specifically to make friends with a lonely teenage girl in the asteroid belt, win her trust, and pump her for data about her grandparents’ whirligig. Social phishing. IRMA reported that a preliminary goggle of his backstory checked out, but she had no way of testing if that data was seeded, salted, or homemade. Satellite views showed whole neighborhoods of container houses lining the highway from Cabo to La Paz. Street view of James’ address showed an old blue Prius parked in front, with a rebuilt solar on the roof trickle-charging the battery. Whoever owned it, they were lucky if they were getting 125mpg out of that thing. With combustible at $545 plastic dollars per liter, it wasn’t something you drove every day to work or shopping or errands. Maybe it was a project-car, or some old-timer’s fancy, or I dunno. A relic of times past? Maybe dirtsiders didn’t feel rich unless they owned a car, even if they couldn’t drive it. Or maybe dirtsiders just didn’t know better. Or maybe they didn’t care. Gampy said that because most dirtsiders never got into space, not even riding the beanstalk up to One-Hour, they had no idea how small the marble really was, so they dropped trash everywhere. That’s why they built mommy-bots—so they’d have someone to pick up after them. Stupid. It’s cheaper to not drop trash in the first place.

There was more.

At first I didn’t know who to be angry at. James for pumping me. Or Gampy for making me distrust James. Or myself—for not being smarter. Gampy once said we’re never angry at anyone else. We’re only angry at ourselves for not knowing better, for stumbling into the mess in the first place. For being played. Well, yes. I could see that.

I didn’t answer any of James’ messages for two days while I sulked. Plus we were six hours away because Earth was on the other side of the sun and everything had to relay around the belt, bounce off Mars, ricochet off Luna, and then down to the mudball, and besides it was September so the hurricanes were probably outpacing the sandstorms, which meant communications might be uneven for awhile, and even if not, email wouldn’t be at the top of their immediate priorities, so James wouldn’t be looking for a quick reply anyway and might not even notice if I was sulking, so that gave me time to think.

I could call him a big fat liar, but what if he wasn’t? Then I could be losing one of my best-friends-forever. I could ask him to prove himself, but that would be almost as bad. If he was for real, I’d still be hurting the friendship, and if he wasn’t for real then he’d know he’d been found out. And then I’d have to start worrying about all my other friends too. And any new friends I might make, because they might be sock-puppies too.

But this is why Gampy told me what he told me. So I would think about it. And what I finally figured out was this. If James Sawyer was playing me, then I would play him back. Oh, I wouldn’t let him know I knew. I’d keep on going exactly the same, as if nothing had changed and everything was still like it always was. Only now, knowing what I knew, I’d be a lot more skeptical of everything he wrote and a lot more cautious about everything I wrote. And I’d test him, a little at a time, to see if he was a chatterbot or a sock-puppy or just a space-struck nerd. A space-struck nerd would be okay. That’s what I thought he was from the beginning—a tall geeky-looking, boney-elbowed, gangly, big-nosed, near-sighted, horse-faced, freckly, redheaded goof with an incredibly beautiful smile, despite the buck teeth, and a terrific sense of humor. Unless he was a synthesized image, because there was always that possibility, too. Everybody had at least a half-dozen avatars for social-surfing. And if he wasn’t for real, I was going to kill him. Even if it meant going down to the mudball in person. How dare he mess with my head like that? Well I could mess right back.

So I wrote to him and asked if he was all right because I hadn’t heard from him in two days and the satellite view showed hurricanes all over Cabo and how weird it must be to have to think about weather all the time but please write me back asap because I’m worried about you. Okay?

Then I got back to work on Gampy’s spaceship. Gampy said to think big, think outrageous. Imagine everything you think should be in the most perfect spaceship you can think of. Then he added, “You can have anything you want, but you can’t have everything you want, so start out thinking of everything and then decide what you want most.”

At first, I started out thinking I’d like a bigger personal cabin. But then I had to laugh at myself because personals are always high on the list for dirtsiders. A starsider always thinks of the crew first, what makes the community space better for everyone. So I started thinking about a garden-lounge, a bigger recreation area, and a more luxurious galley—things that felt both luxurious and comfortable. Expansive but homey too. I was afraid to want too much because I knew that we had to be practical. I didn’t need anyone to tell me that.

James finally answered my email. He said the hurricane had been pretty bad and his parents’ house had been shifted off its foundations and one of the containers had been yanked loose from its moorings and fell down and dented, and they weren’t sure the insurance would cover the cost of repair or replacement or reassembly, and his little brother broke his leg when a table fell on him, but other than that, nobody was badly hurt. I didn’t know how to answer him, except to say, “Mother Nature is a bitch. Father Time is an asshole.”

But I knew that wasn’t enough. How do you give sympathy to someone who chooses to live in the path of a hurricane? Dirtsiders should know better. You live on the marble, you get weather. The only weather we get out here is the occasional solar storm. And no matter how ferocious a solar storm gets, it can’t knock the whirligig off its foundation. The gig doesn’t even have a foundation. Just torque. But I sent James my commiserations anyway, I admitted I couldn’t imagine how bad it must be for everyone and I wished there was something I could do.

When he wrote back, he said, “Please just keep in touch. You’re my lucky star. I look up in the sky and I imagine I can see you up there looking down at me. I log onto the telescope views of the whirligig and I pretend you’re looking out the window, looking at the Earth and imagining me looking up. Do me a favor. Go to the window at 6pm my time and wave. I’ll be looking at the gig through a scope then and I’ll pretend I can see you waving.”

So I did, and he did, and it was sweet, so we kept on exchanging messages. Most of his messages were about how upset he was because of how upset his parents were and how every day was the same damn thing over and over again and he hated waiting in line for fresh water, he had to bring his own containers, and he hated how hot it was in the day and how cold it was at night. He said he envied me, living in space and not having to worry about earthquakes and sandstorms and hurricanes and all the other stuff a restless planet can throw at you, only the occasional solar flare, and with the right kind of shielding in place, even that couldn’t hurt you too badly. At least it didn’t throw you out of bed in the middle of the night and knock your house apart.

Somewhere in there, I thought I could help take his mind off how bad his situation was so I asked him to help me with a project. I said that I had to design…um, the perfect space habitat. It was part of my term project on cost-analysis. My job was to think of the most outrageous things you could put on a space station and then show how or why they were impractical, because these were things that dirtsiders—um, I mean people on the marble, sorry—would ask for, and I wanted to be able to explain why or why not in the simplest possible terms. And do you think you could help me with that? He wrote back yes.

So we started throwing ideas at each other—most of them silly and outrageous, even impractical. He knew a lot more about starside conditions than I thought. Even though he’d never been up the beanstalk, he knew all about the stuff they do for tourists at Geosynchronous Station. And he had an uncle who helped design the L4 Cylinder and even consulted on the L5, so he knew a lot about that too.

Then we talked about some of the bigger things the Chinese built for their permanent habitats on Luna and Mars. For their Dubai partners. Atriums, swimming pools, mile-high towers, jungle-gardens, forests, village walks, plazas, huge wilderness areas, even zoos and aquariums, lakes, rock-climbing walls, endless ski-slopes, full-size concert halls and theaters, Olympic quality gymnasiums, running tracks, shopping malls, enough stuff to fill a dozen whirligigs. James and I came up with two or three new designs every week, I drafted the outlines, he filled in the textures, we collaborated on the math. I didn’t tell him that I was bringing each design to the dinner table for Ganny and Gampy to look at.

Ganny and Gampy knew he was helping me. As long as it was for a hypothetical space station for my fictional term project, it was all right. They wanted me to be ambitious, so they didn’t mind a little collaboration. They were collaborating on some of their own ideas, so they couldn’t very well object to James and I working together.

Every night, after we finished dinner, we sat around the table and presented our latest follies. That’s what we called them. Follies. In the traditional sense of the word. We had one rule—the first response to every idea had to be an appreciation of how outrageous it was and how ambitious it was. After we applauded each idea for its sheer impracticality, we would add it to the list of things we would want on an ideal spaceship. Everything was added to the list. Everything. Nothing was ever dismissed as too silly. Not even Gampy’s elephant or Ganny’s Hundred Acre Wood. Or my own Wild Strawberry Fields.

Then, after we laid out the parameters of each astonishing addition, we’d give it to IRMA to run the math. How much lebensraum would it need? What kind of maintenance would be required? How much water? Oxygen? Power? Shielding? How much time would it take to construct? How much would it mass? How much payload penalty would we have to pay to include it? Balance all that against projected usage patterns. If we subtract it from the rest of the package, how much do we gain? Or lose? Everything was given a viability rating, a combined score, and we had a growing list of possibilities sorted by practicality all the way from must-have to violates-the-law-of-conservation-of-energy. Ultimately, our final decision would be where to put the dividing line, the cut-off point between yes and no. From day to day, the maybe zone fluctuated in size. Sometimes it was a big purple haze, sometimes a sharp maroon line. Mostly it was just a shallow band of magenta.

I knew what Gampy was doing, but I didn’t mind. It was a great game. He was teaching me to regard every choice as a location on a vast map of possibilities. Consider all the overlapping sets, consider the locus of optimal points. Look for a balance between imagination and sensibility, between desire and practicality, and ultimately between capability and cost-effectiveness.

“I know what I want,” Ganny announced one night. We both looked over to her. “I want a bathtub,” she said with a voice of absolute finality. “A real old-fashioned bathtub. Round. Big enough to stretch out full length. Big enough for two. With water-massage jets. And sonics. And little champagne bubbles too. And…candles. And scented bubble-bath. And flowers.” Her face went all dreamy for a moment.

“A bathtub?” That was me. It didn’t sound practical. Why would you want a bathtub when a sonic-enhanced shower was far more efficient. It made no sense at all to me. Despite our rule against plonking, I asked, “Why?”

“Because,” she said. And folded her arms.

Gampy smiled and told IRMA to add it to the design parameters. And rate it as critical-to-survival.

I turned seventeen and we began whittling our list. Practicality ruled. We didn’t discard any ideas because they were dumb, only because they were impractical. For instance, we could have a ship’s cat, if we wanted—we could afford the oxygen and water and food for a live animal—but it made more sense to fab a mechanical instead. Easier to train, a lot cleaner, and it would give us an extra set of mobile monitors that could get into small spaces; plus we’d get the same affectional bonus, and it would be a lot less expensive than having a tabby shipped out from Mars.

The same standards applied to all our choices. Yes, we could have a bigger lounge, a genuine salon with its own attendant plumbing, but it would have to serve double duty as a theater and a dining hall and a gymnasium with all the attendant gear folded away into the bulkheads, unfolding as needed. Yes, personals could be larger, but that would mean a smaller crew and more dependence on bots and intelligence engines. That was a null-brainer—a smaller biomass-to-biosupport ratio meant an expanded viability envelope, and an enhanced payload window. Better for everyone.

We had a keel. Actually, we had three keels in the junkyard, that mass of pods and leftover parts at the south end of the gig’s axis. We even had what was left of Gampy’s first boat. But it was obvious that Gampy wanted something bigger than that. Much bigger. He didn’t say it aloud, but he was thinking about the old Lysistrata. He’d been talking about refitting her for years, ever since he’d claimed what was left of her for salvage. It made sense, the keel was still good and a lot of her internal harnesses still checked out, she just didn’t have life support any more. And of course, she’d need new engines, but we had seven decades of new technology to draw upon. We could use a lot of the existing mountings, and where we needed to, we could strengthen her frame with a bigger set of harnesses. We’d end up with a stronger ship than the original designers had conceived.

Once we’d made that decision, the rest of the plan snapped into place like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

We had fifty years of stuff hanging in the junkyard and at least another twenty years of resupply for all the old buckets still crawling around the belt. Plus a few items we’d bought on consignment for resale to option-holders. We had an assortment of power plants, all kinds. We had flywheels, solar panels, fuel cells, hot-and-cold fusion reactors, and even a couple of old turbines. Equipment? All kinds. We had pipes and pumps and all sorts of electronics and monitors and bots and sensors. And engines? Lord, did we have engines, more than enough to grab an asteroid and drag it home. We had six different kinds of blast engines and more than enough tanks of high-velocity propellants to drive them. And if that wasn’t enough we had solar sails, ion drives, plasma drives, mass-accelerators, and all the different kinds of spare parts necessary to repair those drives. We had all the stuff people used for throwing rocks around, all the stuff we leased to miners and comet-tossers and anyone else who wants to move a mountain. Best of all, we had the raw materials we needed to build at least a dozen traction units, and the keel of the Lysistrata was strong enough to hold them all. That’s why Gampy wanted us to think extravagant. We were going to build one of the fastest, most powerful ships in the system.

We were halfway through the final design process, when Gampy died.

It wasn’t anything heroic and it wasn’t anything stupid. It was just what happened. He was working his way patiently around the centrifuge, using the cane because his knee hurt. He did that every shift after eating. Six times around and he’d stop at the red bench to catch his breath. This time, he couldn’t. IRMA rang the alert and we all went screaming down the slidy-poles, scrambling and bouncing around the arc, but it was too late. The medi-bots already had him stretched out on the deck. Ganny pounded his chest and screamed at him. “Don’t you dare leave me now, you son of a bitch! Not now!” She was really angry. But not at Gampy. At everything else, herself mostly. The medi-bots pushed her out of the way and did their medi-bot thing, but it wasn’t enough. Gampy was already gone. His face was closed.

The funeral was simple. Gampy had friends all over the ecliptic and over a thousand of them logged in and shared their best memories. Rev Morgan holoed in from Mars to conduct the service and she was as eloquent as always. Of course, everybody had to allow for the time lag. Gampy didn’t trust the so-called instantaneous transmissions of the quantum-channels, he used to say that the quantum-channels had to include all possible decryptions, so you couldn’t really know if you were receiving the right one. I never knew if he was serious about that or not, I always thought it was because the quantum connections were too expensive to establish and too difficult to maintain, but Ganny said it was because Gampy regarded all instantaneous communication as a kind of electronic leash that anyone could yank whenever they felt like it. Maintaining distance in time and space was his way of staying independent of the demands of others—as much as possible. But anyway, there weren’t any glitches in the time-delayed synchronizations and the service was beautiful. My favorite part was the requiem.

“For one brief moment, a piece of the universe comes alive, looks around, asks questions, explores, discovers, creates, connects—and in that moment, the almighty universe knows its own beauty. Whatever meaning life has, it is found in everything we create for ourselves and for others. From stardust we are born, to stardust we return. We commend this soul to the eternal sea in the sure and certain knowledge he will find his way safely home….” And then we freeze-dried him for the H2O, reduced the rest to little pieces, and plowed him into the soil beneath the rose bushes in Ganny’s garden because that’s what he’d always said he wanted us to do. Waste not, want not.

Of course, Ganny and I both sobbed our hearts out and held onto each other and bawled like babies. I remember being surprised at how small and thin she’d become. But she was still a core of strength and energy and I knew she wasn’t going to be following Gampy any time soon. So I just collapsed into her embrace and let out all my grief and anguish in great racking screams of rage. And so did she. I was hoarse for two days after.

Three days in a row, we sat up late talking. All the stuff we usually kept to ourselves, only this time we just let it out, over and over. We talked about everything and nothing and how much we were going to miss Gampy and what we should do next, and Ganny admitted that she felt so much at a loss she didn’t know what to do next. Should we continue building Gampy’s spaceship or cut our losses now? Except that Gampy always knew what he was doing and he wouldn’t want us to quit just because he wasn’t here or we were afraid, but just the same, he wasn’t here and we had to figure this out for ourselves. And then we hugged each other some more and cried some more and went on talking, just talking to talk, not because what we had to say was important, but because it was important that we said something. We talked like dirtsiders, but neither one of us cared, and for a while I even understood why dirtsiders talked so much. It was because they were so lonely inside their skins. Surrounded by all those people, they were still lonely. They had to do something desperate to try to connect. I knew we were being just as emotional but it was all right. We had the right to be emotional. Didn’t we?

But there must be something about emotions that makes people Stoo-pid with a capital stoo. Gampy used to tell me that, all the time. Now I wished I’d listened better. Don’t ever do anything while you’re upset. Don’t even make a decision. It’s all right to be upset. Upset is a normal part of life. But upset is also stupid-time, so don’t do anything or decide anything while you’re in stupid time. That was the part I forgot.

Because while I was still so busy being upset about Ganny missing Gampy so badly, I made the mistake of checking my email, and there was a note from Jimmy Sawyer, how upset he was, because everything in Baja was falling apart and he wasn’t going to be able to finish college because both his moms were out of work because there was no money to rebuild the hotels and the tourists were going down to Yucatan instead to watch the Howler monkey wars, which were a lot more interesting than watching Cabaneros fight over water and the best projections were that it would be seven to ten years before the local economy recovered, if it ever did, and they might have to apply for refugee assistance and move, but if they did that, they’d have to sign over what was left of his college fund and his moms would have to give up their pensions, but he just couldn’t see any other way out of their predicament. They only had electricity for a few hours, only at night, and they were down to less than 2000 calories a day per person, they were hungry all the time, and that was on a good day, and none of them could afford to get any skinnier, especially him. He didn’t have any energy anymore. Their situation just kept getting worse and worse, so bad that he was thinking about signing up for a mind-wipe/enlistment so his family would get the bonus. The only thing that kept him from doing that was that he didn’t want to give up his relationship with me.

I wrote back, begging him to please not do anything stupid. I didn’t want to lose him either. I told him what Gampy always said about not making decisions while you’re scared or angry or afraid or so caught up in any emotion that you lose all sense of perspective. Please don’t give up on yourself, I told him, because things have to get better eventually. They just have to. But I’m not sure I really believed that myself. The people on the marble just keep stumbling from one polycrisis to the next and they’ve so incorporated it into their way of life that stumbling through polycrises is their new normal.

Maybe that’s why Gampy never wanted to keep close ties with dirtside. He didn’t want to get pulled back down into the soup. So all I could do for Jimmy was keep on writing messages of encouragement. It left me feeling futile and helpless, but Ganny wouldn’t let me send him any money. We had a rule about that and we’d never broken it, so all I could do for Jimmy was keep telling him how much I cared—and hope that would be enough. And even that made me feel bad, because now I felt responsible for his well-being. Jimmy had just told me that I was the only thing keeping him alive and that meant I was sorta stuck, wasn’t I? I had to keep on being his friend, no matter what, because if I stopped caring then he would probably do something stupid. And then that would be my fault. Wouldn’t it?

And that’s when I made my bigger mistake. Somewhere in the middle of sending Jimmy back my sympathies and my concern and my caring, somewhere in there I told him I understood how he must feel, like there was no future anymore, and then I told him about Gampy dying and how much I missed him every day and how I felt so bad, maybe even the same way that Jimmy must feel about everything, because now my life was floating adrift, and all of our hard work making plans and everything might have been all for nothing, and maybe it was wrong for me to feel like that because it was selfish, because starsiders are supposed to take care of each other, what I really needed to do was take care of Ganny because she had to be feeling even worse than me. I told Jimmy I wished he was here so I could cry on his big beautiful shoulder and help me and Ganny figure out what to do next because all the help he’d given me on the spaceship design proved he was good at figuring things out, and even as I wrote that I knew I was starting to sound like a silly dirtsider girl, helpless and stupid and talking way too much. But the point was, and this is what I needed him to hear, no matter how bad Ganny felt, no matter how much she missed Gampy, she was still determined to keep going, no matter how bad things got. And if an old lady like Ganny had that kind of strength in her heart then I should be able to do that too. And if I could do it then a big strong guy like James should be able to find that kind of strength in his own heart as well. We weren’t giving up on our plans and neither should he. Because what we say starside is that no matter how bad things might seem, as long as you’re still breathing you’re surviving. And as long as you’re surviving, you’re still in the game. And a bunch more stuff like that. Most of it stupid, but you get the idea. I didn’t want him to get wiped and I’d say just about anything to keep him Jimmy.

And then immediately after I sent it I realized I’d said way way way too much about what was happening on the gig. I sent an instant-retrieve message right after it and hoped that the snatch-back would arrive in time, but you never know. It all depends on how quickly you send it and which way the packets are routed and whether or not the other person is sitting on the mailbox, opening things as fast as they arrive. Or if they have an agent doing that in case somebody sends a snatch-back. I dunno. There are a lot of different ways. The real trick is catching the message before it actually arrives.

Out among the flying mountains, it can take anywhere from ten minutes to two hours to get a message, depending how many big marbles and tin cans it has to bounce off. Traffic is a collection of ricochets. Anything with an antenna is part of the cloud. Sometimes the message-packets arrive from a dozen different directions, scattered and out of order. We once waited three days for an episode of Derby to finish downloading. Gampy might have liked his independence, but you pay a price for being a hermit-crab. So I didn’t know for the better part of a shift if I’d caught the message to James in time. When the acknowledgment finally did come in, I felt like crying all over again, this time from relief. The snatch-back had arrived nine minutes after the target message, which had not yet been read. The target message was deleted, leaving only a stub acknowledging a message had been retrieved. That I could explain. I’d just have to figure out a suitable explanation. Excuse. Story. Lie. Whatever.

Except once I started thinking, the mind-mice started gnawing.

See, if James was really some kind of a data-pumping avatar, like Gampy once feared, then maybe the damage was already done. The message sat in his mailbox for nine minutes. That’s more than enough time for a data-trap to capture a copy. And a data-trap lets the recipient examine a message without giving the sender any acknowledgment at all that it’s actually been read. And if James really was a data-pumping avatar, then of course he’d have a data-trap, and of course he’d know what I’d said, even if he pretended he didn’t. I’d have no way of knowing. Crap.

And that’s the problem with being even a little bit suspicious. You start getting a lot suspicious. And then everything is suspect. And at the end, after you’ve finished distrusting everybody else—even your closest friends and family—you can’t even trust yourself anymore. And I didn’t know what kind of message to send to James to replace the one I didn’t know if he’d seen or not.

But then things got real busy on the gig, because we had a shift change, and Ganny had to pay off some contracts she had been holding on consignment because without Gampy on the gig our credit rating went down a notch or six, which wasn’t really fair because it was Ganny who managed the finances, but you can’t argue with software because software doesn’t listen. And it doesn’t help to talk to a human being about it either because most dirtsiders are software-slaves, not willing to disagree with what the machinery says they can or can’t do, which is why they’re dirtsiders and doomed to stay that way forever. Slaves. “I’m sorry, we’re not authorized to think for ourselves….”

And the Red Team, people we’d known for years, people who’d all professed their sincerest and deepest condolences only a few weeks before—they had the chutzpah to demand payment in advance. Ganny had to put a big chunk of liquidity into escrow before they’d board. And that didn’t sit well with her. She understood the thinking, but things were strained for awhile. She’d always treated them like family, but now the union-rep was saying, “Yes, we appreciate that, don’t take it personal, ma’am, it’s just business.” For the first couple of weeks, Ganny’s menus were a little restrained. Her way of expressing her opinion about putting business above loyalty. Even though she knew they were right. We’d have done the same.

But without Gampy, we had to shift a lot of responsibilities around, so I ended up taking on most of the menu-planning and that helped a little bit. I didn’t think it was fair to punish the red team with liver and onions every night, even though I understood why Ganny was miffed. Although I kinda like liver and onions, not everybody does. And there is such a thing as variety. And more important, food equals morale. Everybody knows that. So when I volunteered to take over the cooking, I wasn’t just doing her a favor, I was doing everybody a favor. This was what Gampy would have wanted. Somebody taking care of things while Ganny put herself back together. Especially taking care of the crew.

Ganny would settle down eventually, she always did, but this time she might need a few extra weeks. When she found out the blue crew wasn’t coming back—they’d signed a new contract elsewhere—she disappeared for three shifts, not even answering my calls to dinner. When she finally did come out, her face had a new hardness to it. I didn’t ask.

I figured she was still hurting a lot inside and because she didn’t have anybody to blame, she couldn’t help herself, she just took it out on convenient targets. Even me, a few times. I mean, I’d lost my Gampy, but she’d lost the whole other half of her life. So she was powerfully upset—upset isn’t even a good enough word to describe what she was going through, but she was upset enough to forget Gampy’s instructions about not making decisions while you’re upset. She always apologized afterward, but we were both getting used to the idea that things were going to be a lot different now. We were going to have to build a lot more bots to replace the live crewmembers, but in the long run that would probably be better for our bottom line. We could have switched a long time ago, but Gampy had a rule against giving people’s jobs to machines, because machines didn’t have families to support, but now that the crews were quitting, without even giving us much notice, we weren’t really obligated any more, were we? But then, while we were still sorting that one out, preparing to fab three dozen new bots, the rest of the bad news arrived.

Behind Ganny’s back, the dirtside sons of bitches at Payload, Inc. negotiated new contracts with half the belters in the arc. Instead of transshipping through the whirligig, they were going to whirl the pods direct to the customers. Most customers didn’t have whirligigs or even the resources to create a spindizzy, a spinning tether. So the pods would have to carry fuel for deceleration and that meant a corresponding reduction in payload, but if they threw the pods from a lower point on the beanstalk, that would reduce their outbound speed and also the amount of fuel they’d have to carry for deceleration. But the slower speed also meant the pods would be in transit a lot longer, some as long as three or four or even five years. But the price difference was still enough to be competitive. And it would have been mostly legal, except for the part that wasn’t.

See, almost all of that cargo had already been bought on margin by Gampy. It was his. Ours. Ganny’s. But the dirt-lovers had simply cancelled their side of the deal. Oh, they’d done it nice and legal. They’d put Payload, Inc. into receivership, then sold it to themselves at a three cents on the dollar, just enough to pay off the lawyers, and resold the cargo contracts to themselves for even less. Ganny filed claims—on Earth, Luna, and Mars. The Earth court dismissed it, the Luna tribunal refused to hear the case, the Martian judge ruled that Ganny had a claim, but he had no authority to enforce it against an Earthside company.

Meanwhile the new company, Free Ride, Inc., negotiated half-price deals with all of our customers, so low that even our best friends couldn’t resist. So nearly a trillion dollars of Ganny’s property was now scheduled to go everywhere but here. Free Ride could afford to be generous with their pricing because they were selling our stolen property to our stolen customers. Later on, once they’d driven us out of business they’d own the market and they could raise prices to whatever they wanted.

Ganny knows how to cuss in sixteen languages, including a couple of dead ones, she might be the last person alive who knows how to swear in Pascal, whatever that is, that’s something else I have to look up. Ganny can go on for a long time before repeating herself. I didn’t need to know what all those different words meant to understand what she was saying. A certain Mister I-Won’t-Say-His-Name-Aloud should have been grateful that he had 330 mega-klicks of vacuum between himself and Ganny, otherwise he would have lost a couple pieces of his anatomy and was probably very fond of. Okay, that’s theoretical on my part, I have the genotype, but not the phenotype, which means I never had any, and even if I had I still would have traded them for the parts I have instead which I like a lot better, I mean, I never understood why anyone would even want all that stuff attached and hanging around and getting in the way. What a nuisance. Ganny says she used to feel that way too, but that was before she met Gampy, and someday I’ll probably feel different too. So she says. That’s nice, Ganny, but way out here in the belt, that’s about as likely as giant space amoebas eating Jupiter. Again.

Ganny didn’t stop cussing. Not this time. Not even when the IRMA unit told her that she was raising the temperature in the main cabin to critical levels and that the refrigeration units were threatening to fail. Sometime before he died, Gampy had programmed the IRMA unit’s social interface with a supercharged sarcasm function, that being the only way to catch Ganny’s attention when she went off on one of her rants. Usually that kind of interruption was enough. This time no.

Ganny’s rants were impressive. When I was little, they terrified me even though I was never the target. But then Gampy explained to me about performance art, and once I recognized that Ganny’s tantrums were for her own enjoyment, I would go and make popcorn and Gampy and I would sit back and enjoy the show. When Ganny would finally inevitably run down, Gampy would say something like, “Not bad. I give it a six. You lost points when you recycled your previous extrapolations of mangled DNA in the ancestry of the reptilian cortex. But I did enjoy the stylistic expansions of neo-Germanic linguistic conjugations.” And Ganny would reply something like, “Hmp, that was easily a seven point nine. You should have seen it from my side.” Then she’d take a deep breath and that usually indicated that she was finished, and then she’d ask him what he wanted for dinner. And while he was saying, “How about something special tonight?” she was already asking, “Okay, so what do we do next?” And then, in unison, they’d both say, “I’m thinking it over….” And sometimes they’d even laugh. But after a while, they’d both figure something out together.

But Gampy was gone and Ganny wasn’t going to stop ranting no matter how sarcastic the IRMA unit became because this nasty news was pretty much a declaration of war, arriving exactly one year to the day after Gampy’s death. The bastards knew exactly what they were doing.

Ganny spent half a shift talking to Gampy’s picture. “You son of a bitch. You picked the worst damn time to die. I need you so much. Now more than ever. This is one hell of a mess. You should have told me what to expect, what to do! You knew this was coming. And we promised not to drop any more capsules into the Pacific Ocean, so what am I supposed to do now?” She sent out a few messages to Gampy’s most trusted friends, but she didn’t find the replies all that encouraging. The dirtsiders were cutting off the money. And they hadn’t moved capriciously. They’d spent years setting this up. Ever since the Pacific accident. This was their revenge.

What they didn’t know was Ganny. Maybe they figured they were dealing with a silly old space-lady who kept her collection of pancakes in the airlock. Maybe they figured that without a man to tell her what to do, she’d just fall apart. Dirtside males can be so stupid and arrogant sometimes. What they didn’t know was that Ganny had her own set of testicles. She showed them to me once, she kept them in the cryo-freezer. (Some other time I’ll explain why it’s a good idea to have both an X and a Y chromosome, even if you put the Y on the shelf and never use it. But I’m still not convinced I want a pair of my own.)

Oh yeah, I did a little ranting myself too. I didn’t see much point in it, it didn’t make me feel any better, but after Ganny and I stomped around the centrifuge a few times, we both felt silly enough to fall down laughing, so that had to count for something. But finally, after we both stopped laughing, we just looked at each other and said, in unison, “Okay, so what do we do next?” And then in unison, we both replied, “I’m thinking it over….” And then we started laughing again, this time so hard I almost wet my panties.

“All right,” said Ganny, “Consider this. We finish the spaceship anyway. We can finish installing engines on the keel, attach a few life-support and fuel pods, hunker down in a pod like the old-fashioned astronauts, go to Mars, and pick up the life-support module. And then…we’ll go pick up our property, every pod in transit. We’ll do a local spindizzy and sling it long way around to the gig. Then we head back to the gig and catch the balls we’ve thrown.”

“Is that legal?”

Ganny shrugged. “As legal as it needs to be. We have the Martian judgment in our pocket. That’s our authorization. What are they going to do to us?”

Somewhere in there, the conversation passed if, and went straight to when. “Can we build the ship in time?”

“All depends on how many bots we can fab. I figure we can put a hundred to work within two months. We can have bots building bots until we pass the point of diminishing returns.”

So Ganny and I sat down in front of the big display and studied orbits, trajectories, hyperbolas, parabolas, ellipses, and even what occasionally passed for a straight line. Of course, no straight line ever went unpunished. The shortest distance between two puns is a straight line. The good news was that the damned blue marble was heading around the backside of Sol, so anything they launched could take as long as five or six years to get to our side of the belt. We had a pretty big window to pick off the pods and send them home.

Then the other shoe dropped. I don’t know why dirtsiders are always dropping shoes, but they do. And this time it was a pretty big one. The Martian Electric Boat Company cancelled our order for a life-support module.

They said it wasn’t us, it was them. Yeah, right. They said that changing market conditions required them to reevaluate their customer base. They said that the growing needs of their corporate customers required them to focus on standardized modules. They said their heuristic analysis of our readjusted profit position projected that we would not be able to complete the contract satisfactorily. They said everything except “we are not authorized to think for ourselves.”


I knew it was serious when Ganny didn’t say a single bad word. She just sank down into a chair and put her head in her hands. She didn’t say anything for a long long time. And I knew better than to say anything to her. I got up and made tea. The good kind. I poured two cups and pushed one in front of her. She ignored it.


She looked up. She looked broken.

“They figured it out. They can’t allow us to build a spaceship.” She let out a long sigh. She looked at the mug of tea in front of her as if she was seeing it for the very first time. But she didn’t pick it up. “I don’t know what to do. We’re done. All our plans—” She put her head back into her hands.

Somebody, somewhere had figured it out. Ganny did too have the stones to finish what Gampy started. So they weren’t going to take any chances. They’d bought up the entire run of hulls from the Martians for the next seven years. They hadn’t just stopped us. They’d stopped all the potential competition.

* * *


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