Lois McMaster Bujold, "FALLING FREE"

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16

Chapter 2

The observation bubble on the side of the Cay Habitat had a televiewer, Leo discovered to his delight, and furthermore it was unoccupied at the moment. His own quarters lacked a viewport. He slipped within. His schedule allowed this one free day, to recover from trip fatigue and Jump lag before his course was to begin. A good night's sleep in free fall had already improved his tone of mind vastly over yesterday, after Van Atta's—Leo could only dub it "disorientation tour."

The curve of Rodeo's horizon bisected the view from the bubble, and beyond it the vast sweep of stars. Just now one of Rodeo's little mice moons crept across the panorama. A glint above the horizon caught Leo's eye.

He adjusted the televiewer for a close-up. A GalacTech shuttle was bringing up one of the giant cargo pods, refined petrochemicals or bulk plastics bound for petroleum-depleted Earth perhaps. A collection of similar pods floated in orbit. Leo counted. One, two, three . . . six, and the one arriving made seven. Two or three little manned pushers were already starting to bundle the pods, to be locked together and attached to one of the big orbit-breaking thruster units.

Once grouped and attached to their thruster, the pods would be aimed toward the distant wormhole exit point that gave access to Rodeo local space. Velocity and direction imparted, the thruster would detach and return to Rodeo orbit for the next load. The unmanned pod bundle would continue on its slow, cheap way to its target, one of a long train stretching from Rodeo to the anomaly in space that was the Jump point.

Once there, the cargo pods would be captured and decelerated by a similar thruster, and positioned for the Jump. Then the Superjumpers would take over, cargo carriers as specially designed as the thrusters for their task. The monster cargo jumpers were hardly more than a pair of Necklin field generator rods in their protective housings so positioned as to be fitted around a constellation of pod bundles, a bracketing pair of normal space thruster arms, and a small control chamber for the jump pilot and his neurological headset. Without their balancing pod bundles attached the Superjumpers reminded Leo of some exceptionally weird and attenuated long-legged insects. Each Jump pilot, neurologically wired to his ship to navigate the wavering realities of wormhole space, made two hops a day, inbound to Rodeo with empty pod bundles and back out again with cargo, followed by a day off; two months on duty followed by a month's unpaid but compulsory gravity leave, usually financially augmented with shuttle duties. Jumps were more wearing on pilots than null-gee was. The pilots of the fast passenger ships like the one Leo had ridden in on yesterday called the Superjumper pilots puddle-jumpers and merry-go-round riders. The cargo pilots just called the passenger pilots snobs.

Leo grinned, and considered that train of wealth gliding through space. No doubt about it, the Cay Habitat, fascinating as it was, was just the tail of the dog to the whole of GalacTech's Rodeo operation. That single thruster-load of pods being bundled now could maintain a whole town full of stockholding widows and orphans in style for a year, and it was just one of an apparently endless string. Base production was like an inverted pyramid, those at the bottom apex supporting a broadening mountain of ten-percenters, a fact which usually gave Leo more secret pride than irritation.

"Mr. Graf?" an alto voice interrupted his thoughts. "I'm Dr. Sondra Yei. I head up the psychology and training department for the Cay Habitat."

The woman hovering in the door wore pale green company coveralls. Pleasantly ugly, pushing middle-aged, she had the bright mongolian eyes, broad nose and lips and coffee-and-cream skin of her mixed racial heritage. She pushed herself through the aperture with the concise relaxed movements of one accustomed to free fall.

"Ah, yes, they told me you'd be wanting to talk to me." Leo courteously waited for her to anchor herself before attempting to shake hands.

Leo gestured at the televiewer. "Got a nice view of the orbital cargo marshalling here. Seems to me that might be another job for your quaddies."

"Indeed. They've been doing it for almost a year now." Yei smiled satisfaction. "So, you don't find adjusting to the quaddies too difficult? So your psyche profile suggested. Good."

"Oh, the quaddies are all right." Leo stopped short of expanding on his unease. He was not sure he could put it into words anyway. "I was just surprised, at first."

"Understandable. You don't think you'll have trouble teaching them, then?"

Leo smiled. "They can't possibly be worse than the crew of roustabouts I trained at Jupiter Orbital #4."

"I didn't mean trouble from them." Yei smiled again. "You will find they are very intelligent and attentive students. Quick. Quite literally, good children. And that's what I want to talk about." She paused, as if marshalling her thoughts like the distant cargo pushers.

"The GalacTech teachers and trainers occupy a parental role here for the Habitat family. Although parentless, the quaddies themselves must someday—indeed, are already becoming parents. From the beginning we've been at pains to assure they were provided with role models of stable adult responsibility. But they are still children. They will be watching you closely. I want you to be aware, and take care. They'll be learning more than welding from you. They'll also be picking up your other patterns of behavior. In short, if you have any bad habits—and we all have some—they must be parked downside for the duration of your stay. In other words," Yei went on, "watch yourself. Watch your language." An involuntary grin crinkled her eyes. "For example, one of our creche personnel once used the cliche 'spit in your eye' in some context or other . . . not only did the quaddies think it was hilarious, but it started an epidemic of spitting among the five-year-olds that took weeks to suppress. Now, you'll be working with much older children, but the principle remains. For instance—ah—did you bring any personal reading or viewing matter with you? Vid dramas, newsdiscs, whatever."

"I'm not much of a reader," said Leo. "I brought my course material."

"Technical information doesn't concern me. What we've been having a problem with lately is, um, fiction."

Leo raised an eyebrow, and grinned. "Pornography? I'm not sure I'd worry about that. When I was a kid we passed around—"

"No, no, not pornography. I'm not sure the quaddies would understand about pornography anyway. Sexuality is an open topic here, part of their social training. Biology. I'm far more concerned about fiction that clothes false or dangerous values in attractive colors, or biased histories."

Leo wrinkled his forehead, increasingly dismayed. "Haven't you taught these kids any history? Or let them have stories . . . ?"

"Of course we have. The quaddies are well-supplied with both. It's simply a matter of correct emphasis. For example—a typical downsider history of, say, the settlement of Orient IV usually gives about fifteen pages to the year of the Brothers' War, a temporary if bizarre social aberration—and about two to the actual hundred or so years of settlement and building-up of the planet. Our text gives one paragraph to the war. But the building of the Witgow trans-trench monorail tunnel, with its subsequent beneficial economic effects to both sides, gets five pages. In short, we emphasize the common instead of the rare, building rather than destruction, the normal at the expense of the abnormal. So that the quaddies may never get the idea that the abnormal is somehow expected of them. If you'd like to read the texts, I think you'll get the idea very quickly."

"I—yeah, I think I'd better," Leo murmured. The degree of censorship imposed upon the quaddies implied by Yei's brief description made his skin crawl—and yet, the idea of a text that devoted whole sections to great engineering works made him want to stand up and cheer. He contained his confusion in a bland smile. "I really didn't bring anything on board," he offered placatingly.

She led him off for a tour of the dormitories, and the supervised creches of the younger quaddies.

The little ones amazed Leo. There seemed to be so many—maybe it was just because they moved so fast. Thirty or so five-year-olds bounced around the free fall gym like a barrage of demented ping pong balls when their creche mother, a plump pleasant downsider woman they called Mama Nilla, assisted by a couple of quaddie teenage girls, first let them out of their reading class. But then she clapped her hands, and put on some music, and they fell to and demonstrated a game, or a dance, Leo was not sure which, with many sidelong looks at him and much giggling. It involved creating a sort of duo-decahedron in mid-air, like a human pyramid only more complex, hand to hand to hand changing its formation in time to music. Cries of dismay went up when an individual slipped up and spoiled the group's formation. When perfection was achieved, everybody won. Leo couldn't help liking that game. Dr. Yei, watching Leo laugh when the young quaddies swarmed around him afterwards, seemed to purr with contentment.

But at the end of the tour she studied him with a little smile quirking her mouth. "Mr. Graf, you're still disturbed. You sure you're not harboring just a little of the old Frankenstein complex about all this? It's all right to admit it to me—in fact, I want you to talk about it."

"It's not that," said Leo slowly. "It's just . . . well, I can't really object to your trying to make them as group-centered as possible, given that they'll be living all their lives on crowded space stations. They're disciplined to a high degree for their ages, also good—"

"Vital to their survival, rather, in a space environment!"

"Yes . . . but what about—about their self-defense?"

"You'll have to define that term for me, Mr. Graf. Defense from what?"

"Well, it seems to me you've succeeded in raising about a thousand technical-whiz—doormats. Nice kids, but aren't they a little—feminized?" He was getting in deeper and deeper; her smile had quirked to a frown. "I mean—they just seem ripe for exploitation by—by somebody. Was this whole social experiment your idea? It seems like a woman's dream of a perfect society. Everybody's so well behaved." He was uncomfortably conscious of having expressed his thought badly, but surely she must see the validity. . . .

She took a deep breath, and lowered her voice. Her smile had become fixed. "Let me set you straight, Mr. Graf. I did not invent the quaddies. I was assigned here six years ago. It's the GalacTech specs that call for maximum socialization. But I did inherit them. And I care about them. It's not your job—or your business—to understand about their legal status, but it concerns me greatly. Their safety lies in their socialization.

"You seem to be free of the common prejudices against the products of genetic engineering, but there are many who are not. There are planetary jurisdictions where this degree of genetic manipulation of humans would even be illegal. Let those people—just once—perceive the quaddies as a threat, and—" she clamped her lips on further confidences, and retreated onto her authority. "Let me put it this way, Mr. Graf. The power to approve—or disapprove—training personnel for the Cay Project is mine. Mr. Van Atta may have called you in, but I can have you removed. And I will do so without hesitation if you fail in speech or behavior to abide by psych department guidelines. I don't think I can put it any more clearly than that."

"No, you're—quite clear," Leo said.

"I'm sorry," she said sincerely. "But until you've been on the Habitat a while, you really must refrain from making snap judgments."

I'm a testing engineer, lady, thought Leo. It's my job to make judgments all day long. But he did not speak the thought aloud. They managed to part on a note of only slightly strained cordiality.

The entertainment vid was titled "Animals, Animals, Animals." Silver set the re-run for the "Cats" sequence for the third time.

"Again?" Claire, sharing the vid viewing chamber with her, said faintly.

"Just one more time," Silver pleaded. Her lips parted in fascination as the black Persian appeared over the vid plate, but out of deference to Claire she turned down the music and narration. The creature was crouched lapping milk from a bowl, stuck to its floor by downside gravity. The little white droplets flying off its pink tongue arced back into the dish as though magnetized.

"I wish I could have a cat. They look so soft ..." Silver's left lower hand reached out to pantomime-pat the life-sized image. No tactile reward, only the colored light of the holovid licking without sensation over her skin. She let her hand fall through the cat, and sighed. "Look, you can pick it up just like a baby." The vid shrank to show the cat's downsider owner carting it off in her arms. Both looked smug.

"Well, maybe they'll let you have a baby soon," offered Claire.

"It's not the same thing," said Silver. She could not help glancing a little enviously at Andy, though, curled up asleep in midair near his mother. "I wonder if I'll ever get a chance to go downside?"

"Ugh," said Claire. "Who'd want to? It looks so uncomfortable. Dangerous, too."

"Downsiders manage. Besides, everything interesting seems to—to come from planets." Everyone interesting, too, her thought added. She considered Mr. Van Atta's former teacher, Mr. Graf, met on her last working shift yesterday in Hydroponics. Yet another legged Somebody who got to go places and make things happen. He'd actually been born on old Earth, Mr. Van Atta said.

There came a muffled tap on the door of the soundproof bubble, and Silver keyed her remote control to open the door. Siggy, in the yellow shirt and shorts of Airsystems Maintenance, stuck his head through. "All clear, Silver."

"All right, come on."

Siggy slipped inside. She keyed the door shut again, and Siggy turned over, reached into the tool pouch on his belt, jimmied open a wall plate, and jammed the door's mechanism. He left the wall plate open in case of urgent need for re-access, such as Dr. Yei knocking on the door to inquire brightly, What were they doing? Silver by this time had the back cover off the holovid. Siggy reached delicately past her to clip his home-made electronic scrambler across the power lead cable. Anyone monitoring their viewing through it would get static.

"This is a great idea," said Siggy enthusiastically.

Claire looked more doubtful. "Are you sure we won't get into a whole lot of trouble if we're caught?" "I don't see why," said Silver. "Mr. Van Atta disconnects the smoke alarm in his quarters whenever he has a jubajoint."

"I thought downsiders weren't allowed to smoke on board," said Siggy, startled.

"Mr. Van Atta says it's a privilege of rank," said Silver. I wish I had rank. . . .

"Has he ever given you one of his jubas?" asked Claire in a tone of gruesome fascination. "Once," said Silver.

"Wow," said Siggy, grinning in admiration. "What was it like?"

Silver made a face. "Not much. It tasted kind of nasty. Made my eyes red. I really couldn't see the point to it. Maybe downsiders have some biochemical reaction we don't get. I asked Mr. Van Atta, but he just laughed at me."

"Oh," said Siggy, and switched his interest to the holovid display. All three quaddies settled around it. An anticipatory silence fell in the chamber as the music swelled and the bold red title letters rotated before their eyes—"The Prisoner of Zenda."

The scene opened on an authentically-detailed street scene from the dawn of civilization, before space travel or even electricity. A quartet of glossy horses, harness jingling, drew an elaborate box on wheels across the ground.

"Can't you get any more of the 'Ninja of the Twin Stars' series?" complained Siggy. "This is more of your darned dirtball stuff. I want something realistic, like that chase scene through the asteroid belt ..." His hands pursued each other as he made nasal sound effects indicating machinery undergoing high acceleration.

"Shut up and look at all the animals," said Silver. "So many—and it's not even a zoo. The place is littered with them."

"Littered is right," giggled Claire. "They're not wearing diapers, you know. Think about that."

Siggy sniffed. "Earth must have been a really disgusting place to live, back in the old days. No wonder people grew legs. Anything, to prop them up in the air away from—"

Silver switched the vid off with a snap. "If you can't think of anything else to talk about," she said dangerously, "I'll go back to my dorm. With my vid. And you all can go back to watching 'Cleaning and Maintenance Techniques for Food Service Areas.' "

"Sorry." Siggy curled his four arms around himself in a submissive ball, and tried to look contrite. Claire refrained from further comment.

"Huh." Silver switched the vid back on, and continued watching in rapt and uninterrupted silence. When the railway scenes began, even Siggy stopped squirming.

Leo was well launched into his first class lecture.

"Now, here is a typical length of electron beam weld . . ." he fiddled with the controls of his holovid display. A ghost image in bright blue light, the computer-generated x-ray inspection record of the original object, sprang into being in the center of the room. "Spread out, kids, so you can all get a good look at it."

The quaddies arranged themselves around the display in a spherical shell of attentiveness, automatically extending helping hands to neighbors to absorb and trade momentum so that all achieved a tolerable hover. Dr. Yei, sitting in—if you could call it that—floated unobtrusively in the background. Monitoring him for his political purity, Leo supposed, not that it mattered. He did not propose to alter his lecture one jot for her presence.

Leo rotated the image so that each student could see it from every angle. "Now let's magnify this part. You see the deep-V cross section from the high-energy-density beam, familiar from your basic welding courses, right? Note the small round porosities here . . ." the magnification jumped again. "Would you say this weld is defective or not?" He almost added, Raise your hand, before realizing what a particularly unintelligible directive that was here. Several of the red-clad students solved the dilemma for him by crossing their upper arms formally across their chests instead, looking properly hesitant. Leo nodded toward Tony.

"Those are gas bubbles, aren't they sir? It must be defective."

Leo smiled thanks for the desired straight line. "They are indeed gas porosities. Oddly enough, though, when we crunch the numbers through, they do not appear to be defects. Let us run the computer scan down this length, with an eye to the digital read-out. As you see," the numbers flickered at a corner of the display as the cross-section moved dizzyingly, "at no point do more than two porosities appear in a cross-section, and at all points the voids occupy less than five percent of the section. Also, spherical cavities like these are the least damaging of all potential shapes of discontinuities, the least likely to propagate cracks in service. A non-critical defect is called a discontinuity." Leo paused politely while two dozen heads bent in unison to highlight this pleasingly unambiguous fact on the autotranscription of their light boards, braced between lower hands for a portable recording surface. "When I add that this weld was in a fairly low-pressure liquid storage tank, and not, for example, in a thruster propulsion chamber with its massively greater stresses, the slipperiness of this definition becomes clearer. For in a thruster the particular degree of defect that shows up here would have been critical."

"Now," he switched the holovid display to one in red light. "This is a holovid of the same weld from data bits mapped by an ultrasonic pulse reflective scan. Looks quite different, doesn't it? Can anyone identify this discontinuity?" He zoomed in on a bright area.

Several sets of arms crossed again. Leo nodded toward another student, a striking boy with aquiline nose, brilliant black eyes, wiry muscles, and dark mahogany skin contrasting elegantly with his red T-shirt and shorts. "Yes, Pramod?"

"It's an unbonded lamination."

"Right!" Leo tapped his holovid controls. "But check down this scan—where have all our little bubbles gone? Anybody think they magically closed between tests? Thank you," he said to their knowing grins, "I'm glad you don't think that. Now let's put both maps together." Red and blue melded to purple at overlapping points as the computer integrated the two displays.

"And now we see the little bugger," said Leo, zooming in again. "These two porosities, plus this lamination, all in the same plane. You can see the fatal crack starting to propagate already, on this rotation—" The holovid turned, and Leo emphasized the crack with a bright pink light. "That, children, is a defect."

They oohed in gratifying fascination. Leo grinned and plunged on. "Now, here's the point. Both these test scans were valid pictures—as far as they went. But neither one was complete, neither alone sufficient. The maps were not the territories. You have to know that x-radiography is excellent for revealing voids and inclusions, but poor at finding cracks except at certain chance alignments, and ultrasound is optimum for just those laminar discontinuities x-rays are most likely to miss. Both maps, intelligently integrated, yielded a judgment."

"Now," Leo smiled a bit grimly, and replaced the gaudy image with another, monochrome green this time. "Look at this. What do you see?" He nodded at Tony again. "A laser weld, sir."

"So it would appear. Your identification is quite understandable—and quite wrong. I want you all to memorize this piece of work. Look well. Because it may be the most evil object you ever encounter."

They looked wildly impressed, but totally bewildered. He commanded their absolute silence and utmost attention.

"That," he pointed for emphasis, his voice growing heavy with scorn, "is a falsified inspection record. Worse, it's one of a series. A certain subcontractor of GalacTech supplying thruster propulsion chambers for Jump ships found its profit margin endangered by a high volume of its work being rejected—after it had been placed in the systems. So instead of tearing the work apart and doing it over right, they chose to lean on the quality control inspectors. We will never know for certain if the chief inspector refused a bribe or not, because he wasn't around to tell us. He was found accidentally very dead due to an apparent power suit malfunction, attributed to his own errors made when attempting to don it while drunk. The autopsy found a high percentage of alcohol in his bloodstream. It was only much later that it was pointed out that the percentage was so high, he oughtn't to have been able to walk, let alone suit up.

"The assistant inspector did accept the bribe. The welds passed the computer certification all right—because it was the same damn good weld, replicated over and over and inserted into the data bank in place of real inspections, which for the most part were never even made. Twenty propulsion chambers were put on-line. Twenty time-bombs.

"It wasn't until the second one blew up eighteen months later that the whole story was finally uncovered. This isn't hearsay; I was on the probable-cause investigating team. It was I who found it, by the oldest test in the world, eye-and-brain inspection. When I sat there in that station chair, running those hundreds of holovid records through one by one, and first recognized the piece when I saw it again—and again—and again—for the computer only recognized that the series was free of defects—and I realized what those bastards had done ..." His hands were shaking, as they always did at this point of the lecture, as the old memories flickered back. Leo clenched them by his sides.

"The judgment of the map was falsified in these electronic dream images. But the universal laws of physics yielded a judgment of blood that was absolutely real. Eighty-six people died altogether. That," Leo pointed again, "was not merely fraud, it was coldest, cruelest murder."

He gathered his breath. "This is the most important thing I will ever say to you. The human mind is the ultimate testing device. You can take all the notes you want on the technical data, anything you forget you can look up again, but this must be engraved on your hearts in letters of fire.

"There is nothing, nothing, nothing more important to me in the men and women I train than their absolute personal integrity. Whether you function as welders or inspectors, the laws of physics are implacable lie-detectors. You may fool men. You will never fool the metal. That's all."

He let his breath out, and regained his good humor, looking around. The quaddie students were taking it with proper seriousness, good, no class cut-ups making sick jokes in the back row. In fact, they were looking rather shocked, staring at him with terrified awe.

"So," he clapped his hands together and rubbed them cheerfully, to break the spell, "now let's go over to the shop and take a beam welder apart, and see if we can find everything that can possibly go wrong with it..."

They filed out obediently ahead of him, chattering among themselves again. Yei was waiting by the door aperture as Leo followed his class. She gave him a brief smile.

"An impressive presentation, Mr. Graf. You become quite articulate when you talk about your work. Yesterday I thought you must be the strong silent type."

Leo flushed faintly, and shrugged. "It's not so hard, when you have something interesting to talk about."

"I would not have guessed welding engineering to be so entertaining a subject. You are a gifted enthusiast."

"I hope your quaddies were equally impressed. It's a great thing, when I can get somebody fired up. It's the greatest work in the world."

"I begin to think so. Your story ..." she hesitated. "Your fraud story had great impact. They've never heard anything like it. Indeed, I never heard about that one."

"It was years ago."

"Really quite disturbing, all the same." Her face bore a look of introspection. "I hope not overly so."

"Well, I hope it's very disturbing. It's a true story. I was there." He eyed her. "Someday, they may be there. Criminally negligent, if I fail to prepare them."

"Ah." She smiled shortly.

The last of his students had vanished up the corridor. "Well, I better catch up with them. Will you be sitting in on my whole course? Come on along, I'll make a welder of you yet."

She shook her head ruefully. "You actually make it sound attractive. But I'm afraid I have a full-time job. I have to turn you loose." She gave him a short nod. "You'll do all right, Mr. Graf."