The Inspection
Listening to the babble of the assembled crowd, Thade could scarcely hear the usual sounds of the station; the squeak of doors opening and closing, the drone of the ventilators and the repetitive thud of power tools. That such sounds were so often heard and their absence so noticeable spoke volumes about the condition of hab Far Rig. It was thanks to this state of affairs that an atmosphere of hope (tainted with suppressed desperation) filled the main reception concourse. Straining on his tip-toes to see over the heads of the crowd, Thade kept track of the video displayed on a storefront window (one of the few still capable of projecting sounds and images). At the sight of the inner airlock door beginning to open the crowd went silent. Since the sleek torch ship docked with the counter-rotating spaceport, no one but the welcome committee had had any contact with the occupants inside; the crowd was eager not only to see the inspectors arrive but also to see the mission completed as soon as possible (and with it their salvation).

In a hushed voice an announcer (a crippled ex-machinist) reminded everyone that this was the first time anyone had entered through the airlocks in over a decade. Once the door was fully open the inspectors (make that inspector) emerged from the airlock and whispered conversations started throughout the crowd as people tried to make sense of what they could see. "I thought they still retained pre-Disaster tech?" one woman asked her mate. She could be forgiven for her confusion Thade thought; what was now floating down the entrance corridor towards the welcome committee hardly looked like the product of an alliance of habs supposedly decades ahead of Far Rig in science and technology. The crowd was expecting something similar to the ethereal, glasslike bots they used to possess before the Disaster or at the very least well-fed sophonts in gossamer envirosuits. Instead what looked like a giant mechanical crab was laboriously making its way down the corridor. Its movements were jerky; in between the armour-like plates covering its limbs Thade could see actual pistons. Amongst the crowd a man began to chuckle, "Don't you see?" he asked the woman who had spoken previously (drawing the confused attention of others) "It's called `defensive obsolescence.' That bot or vec or whatever it is looks like it's made from crude technologies because it is; no smart matter, no FITs, nothing to be subverted by goo or malware. It's an example of the anti-plague protocols we've heard so much about." Hearing this explanation the crowd's mood brightened, they hadn't been conned at least.

Presently the inspector reached the welcome committee. Thade cringed as a woman named Betal (an alpha-grade labour logistics manager chosen by lottery for this task) pushed herself forward and recited her speech; "On behalf of the residents of Far Rig hab I welcome you Inspector. I hope that your arrival marks the first step in creating a bridge of prosperity between our people."

"Thank you resident. Let us indeed hope for such a positive resolution," Inspector (it didn't question the title as a name) responded in a flat tone. "Shall we proceed?"

With that the crowd began to migrate from the window towards the elevator shaft that would bring the welcome committee and Inspector down from the spaceport hub to the torus. Thade began to feel anxious, a feeling shared by his fellow residents. According to Far Rig's original template, the reception concourse was meant to be a busy section of the promenade that ran the length of the Habitat's torus. Overlooked by several residential balcony levels, the concourse was meant to host a variety of restaurants, bars and other recreational facilities supplied by autofac labs and robotic workshops spread throughout the promenade. Now though not even the hasty cleaning the residents had given it could hide the empty units, the few off-duty patrons and the general shabby nature of the fittings. Not long now, Thade thought, everything is going to be ok. Inspector will do its job, we'll pass with flying colours and before we know it we'll have all the technology we need; including new antimalware. This sentiment was echoed by the crowd, some of whom were daring to discuss how things could soon be so much better. Looking from resident to resident Thade saw the familiar indicators of their desperation; people looked gaunt, overworked, and (despite dressing in their best) were mainly clad in patched-up work overalls.

At the sound of a chime, the crowd fell silent again. The elevator door opened, releasing the welcoming committee and Inspector. Up close Thade realized that the crab-like body seemed to be made from ceramic plates (no doubt as chemically inert as possible in case of goo). Upon seeing the crowd, it raised a collection of stalks and swept a variety of sensors back and forth. Betal shifted uncomfortably as Inspector inspected but before she could speak it began to talk in a sonorous tone "Greetings residents of Far Rig. As you know, I am here to ensure that you represent no threat to the Alliance of Sterilised Habs. If the inspection goes well my hab, Montage Refinery, would be honoured to vouch for you in the Alliance's trust network. This would immediately give you access to high-bandwidth trade in digital goods that I know you sorely need; your remaining workshops will be able to rebuild your autofacs, templates for hundreds of machines will be available again, and a new fleet of sophisticated repair bots will fix the problems you are having with food production." At this last one Thade unconsciously rubbed his stomach, hunger was such a part of life in Far Rig that he could barely remember what being sated felt like. Recently it had been getting worse, the various biological and mechanical tanks that recycled materials into nutrients for the ration vats were failing (having never been meant to operate for so long without replacement) and Far Rig couldn't make any more. "Obviously such a set-up is desired by everyone but it also comes with grave risks for the rest of the Alliance. If there is any goo or malware still present on the station it could escape and destroy all our work so far in rebuilding civilisation. Elsewhere in the system, habs have been destroyed from just one piece of malware left to mutate in just one processor." Eyes darted from face to face in the crowd. The period soon after the Disaster had been one dominated by witch hunts and not a few lynchings of residents trying to hold onto corrupted technology; if any `betrayer' had slipped through undetected they would be exposed today. No-one had been fired out of an airlock in years, but Thade doubted that any betrayer found today would be lucky enough to receive such a quick death. Far Rig desperately needed aid and if the inspection failed they'd face a grim future in quarantine.

"In light of this" Inspector continued "over the next few hours every nook and cranny of this station will be probed. This may be inconvenient and uncomfortable but necessary as I'm sure you all understand. That you have survived this past decade with no further outbreaks is a good sign, but we must remain vigilant in these dark times. So without further ado…" at this several ceramic plates on Inspector's back slid open, releasing thousands of insect-sized drones. Many in the crowd recoiled (flashbacks of the swarming bots from the Disaster abounded) but saner heads prevailed. The drones flew off in all directions, individuals weaving back and forth no doubt to sample for any micro-sized goo droplets suspended in the air.

After a few minutes, the crowd began to disperse with Betal and the rest of the welcome committee remaining to talk to Inspector. As his wristcom began vibrating (indicating 10 minutes until alpha-job start), Thade started to walk down the promenade towards the control centre he worked at. Groups of residents loitered to talk in excited tones about the inspection and observe the drones crawling over surfaces, probing various components and sockets. He paused briefly to watch a larger drone observing a poster covered wall; mantras of "Only you can stop Goo!" "Report All Replicators!" and "A-life Ends Life!" superimposed over images of sophonts being digested by plagues of metal locusts. Just act natural, Thade thought. Everything is going to be OK, you'll see. Everyone's bound to be acting a bit nervous (after all this inspection is really make or break). We'll get through it and everything will be better, everything will go back to the way it was. "Did you see it? What's it like?" asked an excited technician as Thade walked through the shabby entrance to the control centre. He stopped to tell everyone what he saw, many were eager for the shift handover to be completed as soon as possible so they could see the inspection for themselves. Before long his wristcom vibrated again, this time urgently, prompting Thade to get to work. Proceeding to his desk he busied himself with reading through last shift's updates. His alpha-job (taking up 48 of his 72 hour working week) was to help rebuild the internal maps of the hab and use them to coordinate maintenance. Like most of Far Rig's database, the internal maps had been deleted by infovorous malware, it was Thade and his colleague's job to remake them right after the Disaster (laborious work that saw them crawling into every duct with a clipboard and stylus). Since then they worked to update the maps manually as repairs (or breakdowns) occurred.

A few hours later, whilst he was checking to see if the latest refurbishments to the ration-vats had included any structural changes, Thade was interrupted by a drone swarm entering the control centre. "No need to be alarmed" they buzzed "please continue with your work." This was easier said than done; within seconds Thade was distracted by a drone crawling across his desk using its proboscis to scrape micro samples from the surface. Like Inspector, this drone seemed to be as basic as possible with mechanical components and no doubt simplistic bio/nanotech diagnostics.

Returning to the refurbishment plans he resolved to ignore the crawling sensation creeping up his back, whether it was anxiety or some drone probing for a DNI (proscribed since 20% of the residents were infected by malware causing them to kill another 30% ten years ago) Thade couldn't tell. Towards the end of his shift Thade began to panic at the sight of midge-sized drones crawling between the pages of the residential maps. But no alarms were sounded and Thade quietly worked through the rest of his shift. Filing away the papers on his desk and leaving his summary for the 3rd shift, Thade left the control centre and headed home.

He had a couple of hours until his beta-job started (tonight spent cleaning stripped down recycling tanks) in which to change and eat his 600 calories of dinner ration. He could already sense the mood of the promenade improving for the first time in years; the drone swarms seemed sparser, residents were hugging each other and in the distance cheering could be heard. Is it true? Did we really pass? Everything is going to be OK! Thade dared to think. Climbing the stairs to his room on the upper balcony he quickly accessed the hab news on the wall. "…for those of you 2nd shift workers just joining us, our prayers have been answered!" the crippled announcer stated as Thade nibbled on his ration cake. "No traces of goo or malware have been found and Inspector is recalling its drones as we speak. Already it has made available instructions detailing how to rebuild the autofacs along with a small template library containing bots, recyclers,and food synthesisers. 3rd shift alphas and 2nd shift betas are being reassigned as we speak to work on the autodocs. Within the hour Inspector will return to the other Alliance habs. Across the next few days high-bandwidth trade will commence, we are truly entering a golden age!" For the next hour Thade continued to eat half his ration cake whilst the hab news cycled through images of celebrating residents, some crying in happiness. His wristcom vibrated several times reminding him that he should be at his beta-job by now. Thade didn't care (he wasn't the only one skipping: usually a serious crime), everything would be OK now. Not long until they could download antimalware updates. They'd have a cure, he knew they would. With the image of Inspector and its drones departing on their ship Thade shut off the screen and entered his room's small bathroom. Placing the remaining half of the ration cake on the counter he stepped into the shower. Using both hands he clawed at near-invisible seams in the faux-marble wall. Exerting all his strength he felt the wall begin to shift, exposing a compartment hidden on the other side; hidden physically and removed from the internal plans. Stepping through, Thade patted the foam coating adorning the walls of the cramped space, he had nearly lost hope at their ability to mask the compartment from thermal and acoustic scans but the positive result of the inspection had confirmed their capability.

"Hey Thom" Thade whispered. Crumpled on the floor of the compartment between boxes of sanitation pants and sedatives a shape stirred and began to groan, "We passed. Everything's going to be OK. I told you it would be, didn't I? You just eat the rest of this and before you know it we'll have that malware purged and everything will be back to the way it was. Not long now." As he bent down to place the ration cake on the floor, Thade inspected the bound form of his former lover. Thom strained against his restraints as he always did at first, his sunken eyes regarding Thade with murderous fury. He roared mindlessly but with the extra insulation buried in the walls no one would hear. Eventually he would calm down and eat as he always did, no doubt when the berserker malware in his DNI realised the futility of trying to upload itself into Thade's non-existent implant. "Like I said, everything's going to be OK."

by Rynn b

First Published in Voices/ Future Tense issue 20 (December 2012)

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