Jane Navio is the resource manager of Phoecea, an asteroid colony poised on the knife-edge of hard vacuum and unforgiving space. A mishap has dumped megatons of water and methane out the colony's air lock, putting the entire human population at risk.
Jane discovers that the crisis may have been engineered by the Martian crime syndicate, as a means of executing a coup that will turn Phocaea into a client-state. And if that wasn't bad enough, an AI that spawned during the emergency has gone rogue...and there's a giant x-factor in the form of the transhumanist Viridian cult that lives in Phocaea's bowels.
Jane's in the prime of her career―she's only a bit over a century old―but the conflict between politics and life-support is tearing her apart. To save her colony and her career, she's going to have to solve several mysteries at once―a challenge that will put her up against all the difficulties, contradictions, and awkward compromises entailed in the human colonization of outer space.
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M. J. LOCKE is an engineer in the American Southwest with a background in the energy industry. This is Locke's first novel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
So here they all were, Geoff and his three best buddies, way too early one Tuesday morning, in the spinning habitat city of Zekeston that lay buried a kilometer below asteroid 25 Phocaea’s rocky surface: about to mess with the bugs.
Geoff and Amaya stood in the shadows near the university plaza. Kamal crouched behind a low wall on the mezzanine overhead. Kam’s job was to call the op and film it. Ian sat blogging about rocketbikes at a nearby coffee kiosk on the edge of the plaza, eating a pastry and keeping an eye out for any city or university cops that might show up.
Geoff checked his heads-up. The timing had to be just right. A few seconds off in one direction and eight months’ effort would be wasted. A few seconds off in the other and they would all go to jail. His heart was pounding harder than it ever did when he was out in the Big Empty, racing his rocketbike.
His fear wasn’t of getting caught. No; what scared him was that in two minutes the whole solar system would know whether it would all pay off. All those hours of isolation; the sneaking around behind their parents’ and teachers’ backs; the endless succession of foul smells, burns, and stains that had ruined their clothing and scarred their hands—the risks he’d pressured his buddies to take, to help him do this—if this didn’t work, he’d look like a fool.
Nearby, a handful of drowsy, puffy-eyed university students slumped on plaza benches. Class scrolls lay inert, half-furled in their laps, blinking unnoted. Pastries and bulbs of coffee or tea cooled beside them on the benches. The air was chilly and still, as always. Birds and ground squirrels—refugees from Kukuyoshi, the habitat’s arboretum—snatched crumbs at their feet.
The fountain that dominated the plaza’s center was called El Dorado. It was a tumble of rhombic, trapezoidal, and rectangular gold and platinum blocks jutting up at various angles in a metallic bloom. As usual, the fountain was turned off, though the toroidal pool at its base contained brackish liquid with bits of debris floating in it. The sour smell of spent assembly fluid wafted across to Geoff and Amaya in their hiding place. It seemed really noticeable to him, but no one in the plaza seemed bothered by it.
Kam radioed them. “A minute-fifteen before the cameras go live. We need to move now. Amaya, Geoff—you set?”
He and Amaya exchanged a glance, nodded to each other. “Set.”
Kam’s voice whispered the countdown. “Ten seconds ... five ... two, one. Amaya, go!”
Amaya strode into the plaza, not glancing up at Kam’s shadowed spot, nor over at Ian. Kam said in his ear, “... two, one. Geoff, go!”
Geoff crossed the plaza, about six paces behind Amaya and to the left. He might as well have been invisible. Amaya had dressed up in Downsider chic: bustier, translucent beaded overshirt, short-shorts, lace-up sandals; makeup, hair, neon animated tattoos that ran the length of her exposed flesh; the works.
She transected the plaza, headed away from the fountain, pulling the college students’ gazes along in her wake. Geoff reached the fountain. He tossed the packet of triggering proteins he held into the dirty water. Then he headed for the coffee shop. No one seemed to notice; everyone’s gaze was on Amaya as she strode breezily away.
Geoff sat down next to Ian at a small table near the plaza. His heart beat so hard it hurt. He tried to catch his breath and as nonchalantly as he could, turned to look.
Some guy had fallen in step with Amaya, trying to chat her up.
“Shit!” Geoff started upright, but Ian grabbed his wrist.
“Relax, doof. We’re chill.”
Geoff forced himself back down. Ian was right. Amaya shed the college student—smiling with a shrug, turning to walk backward as she made a reply, then spinning again to continue at a swift, casual pace—without even breaking stride. She exited the plaza.
Geoff checked his waveface again. The blackout had just ended—the “Stroider”-cams were now live. It was close. He couldn’t tell whether she had been on-scene or not when the cameras came on.
“Stroiders” was a reality-broadcast back to Earth. Up to two billion Downsiders tuned in to see what the good people of Zekeston were up to at any given moment. The “Stroider”-cams made it hard to be sneaky. But there were always ways to get around the cams. You just had to put your mind to it.
Sneaky? They had been downright paranoid.
Geoff had done the bug programming. That was how it had all started. In Honors Programmable Matter last semester—the only class he’d ever done truly well in; the only one he cared about—he learned that assemblers were made from complex silica-based molecules.
You manipulated assemblers by washing them with certain chemicals in set sequences. In response, they gathered all the right molecules trapped in their suspension fluid—a silicone-ethanol colloid with metal salts and other stuff—to build what you wanted. The resulting tiny machines burned alcohol and excreted tiny glass pellets that under the right conditions clumped together and made what everybody called bug grapes. Geoff had always wondered what those lumps were at the seams and joints of the utility piping. Yep, they were bug turds. Spent bug juice contained lots of these glass pellets, which ranged in size from marbles to grains of rice. Which was why bug juice spills sparkled under the lights so beautifully. He had always wondered about that, ever since he was a little kid. Who would have thought spewage could be beautiful?
So yeah, it had been the glass turds that had given him the idea. Assemblers shit glass turds! How cool was that? It was a shame to let them go to waste. But to pull this off, they needed real bug juice. Since the good stuff was closely monitored, they would have to steal used juice, and see if they could distill it down and make it usable for their purposes.
Amaya had figured out how to tap the assembler discharge lines. They ran inside the maintenance tunnels that fed down the spokeway utility lines into the Hub. She had enlisted the help of her boyfriend, Ian, and they had spent two months collecting, distilling, and priming depleted bug juice until it was at sufficient strength to handle Geoff’s programming. The resulting juice was feeble, but Geoff had figured how to make it work. (In a lab. If he had gotten all of the glitches out of the protein code. If, if, if.)
While all this was going on, Kam had been making a detailed study of all the mounted cams, rovers, and motes in the university plaza. He calculated camera angles, paths, and ranges of view, based on their technical specifications, and created a surveillance shadow map. His efforts had been aided by a field trip their class had made up to the surface of 25 Phocaea to visit the “Stroiders” broadcast studios.
Two half-hour “Stroiders” blackouts occurred every day, to give Zekies small islands of privacy in their lives. One occurred at two a.m. and the other cycled between three a.m. one day and one a.m. the next. The rest of the time, Zekeston’s citizens were under scrutiny by billions of people they would never meet. Mostly, it was just an annoyance that everyone put up with that resulted in a stipend in everyone’s bank account every month. It was only when you were trying to be sneaky that it mattered when and where the “Stroiders” shadows were.
The main way “Stroiders” got their Zekeston data feed was from the stationary cams and the rovers, but when something important happened, “Stroiders” motes typically showed up, a hazy glamour emitted from jets in the assembler dispersal piping. You couldn’t hide from motes. So next Kam did a science fair project: mote density versus “Stroiders” audiovisual resolution.
He sampled motes around the city and compared them to what people saw, Downside. (Phocaeans could not experience “Stroiders” the way Downsiders back on Earth did—as a fully realized, 3D virtual world—but they could sample it in video in small snatches, by submitting a request to the library and waiting a month.) The lowest mote concentrations in the university plaza typically occurred between four-thirty and eight a.m. on Tuesdays. This pinned down the time and place for the event. (He also got an A+ on the project, and second place in the senior-level information systems category.)
It was sheer serendipity that the best time to stage the event turned out to be the morning after high school graduation. The project became their secret graduation present to one another.
Over the past week and a half, they’d been spiking the fountain with bug juice. They had agonized over how to get the bug juice into the fountain without alerting everyone—“Stroider”-cams might black out periodically, but the plaza’s security cameras didn’t. And there were security guards and scary sorts prowling the nearby Badlands. Geoff and the others had no way of knowing when the plaza was being watched. So during one of the nighttime blackout periods, Ian had climbed down into the maintenance tunnels from an out-of-the-way entry port, made his way to beneath the plaza, inserted tubing into the water line for the fountain, and piped the juice in. If the university students or staff had noticed that the fountain was leaking, no one said anything about the leak, nor about any strange smells emanating from the pool. When the dribble stopped, Ian went back into the maintenance tunnel and removed the tap.
Geoff’s final task was the riskiest. They had a plan to avoid the camera, but there would be people in the plaza even at that hour. So Amaya had volunteered to be a distraction. She wasn’t into the whole clothes, tattoos, and makeup thing, and Geoff was dubious abo...
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