This is Part 23; click here to read Breaking the Ice from the beginning.
 

Reluctance to help was one thing; a flat refusal was quite another. Woods couldn’t make any sense of it. Although he did not actually say so, it must have shown on his face because Hioki gave an exasperated sigh. Sitting back down in his desk chair, Hioki turned it to face his visitor and indicated with an abrupt hand gesture that Woods should take a guest chair in the corner, which he did.

“Quit looking at me like I just kicked a puppy. I’m trying to save your silly idealistic ass, Woods—and mine too, while I’m at it. Yeah, okay, we’re supposed to be explorers serving the greater good of science, and all that. And you know, I don’t even disagree that being the first to communicate with a sentient alien species would be amazing. It’s not going to happen, though, for a very practical dollars-and-cents reason. Think about it. What happens if we make a public announcement that we’ve found intelligent life on Europa?”

This was about money? Woods felt even more confused now. Why would the agency not want to spend money studying sentient aliens after it had paid for this exploratory mission? Wouldn’t success mean a lot more government funding? Not having any idea what Hioki was getting at, Woods simply put together a response to the question he’d been asked.

“Well, first of all, the linguists would get to work on translating their language accurately, and other scientists would study their biology and culture. I suppose government officials would negotiate a treaty of friendship and send an ambassador to Europa. Maybe Tiny Leaf,” and Woods paused to reorient his thoughts, just now remembering that Hioki didn’t know the name by which he called the alien traveling aboard their ship, “er, I mean the one here—she might become an envoy on Earth for her species.”

Hioki gave an impatient nod, running a nervous hand through his carefully sculpted hair without even noticing how rumpled he made it. “Right, and would there be any tourists going to Europa? Anything like what we have on Mars?”

“Tourists? No, that certainly wouldn’t happen—or at least, not for a long time. We couldn’t interfere with their world by building hotels all over it. Maybe sometime in the next century, if a treaty allowed for tourism, but of course it would be very limited…”

Hioki interrupted with a loud snap of his fingers, startling Woods. “Bingo. And who stands to lose trillions of dollars by not being allowed to build those hotels?”

That question made more sense to Woods; after all, only one company had successfully brought tourists to Mars. Nobody else had the know-how and the resources. He started to answer while still thinking through the implications.

“That has to be Splotz—but, if everyone knew that Europa had intelligent life, what could Splotz do? Even if they could somehow avoid an outright ban on commercial activity, public opinion would be so strongly against any sort of exploitation that just mentioning tourism would likely cause millions of angry people to stop buying their products.”

“Exactly.” Hioki leaned forward, elbows on knees, his tone low and earnest. “And that’s why they would do everything in their power to prevent such an announcement from being made.”

“How could they? Even if Splotz had, I don’t know, mafia enforcers or something, we’re traveling through space many thousands of kilometers away. There’s nobody on this ship but a few scientists and astronauts. You don’t seriously think any of our crewmates would harm us on orders from some corporate boss, do you?”

“No, they wouldn’t, or at least not physically. What I’m saying is no more than you already know. If you tried to make a report like that without solid proof, it would be discredited and your sanity questioned. Splotz would see to it. Even though Rita Mastroianni looks nice and friendly, she was a company doctor for many years, and you can be sure that’s where her loyalties still lie. You haven’t told her anything about—well, any of this, have you?” Hioki sat up straighter, and his voice took on a note of worry.

“Not really.” Woods glanced down at the tablet he was still holding in his right hand. “I asked her if there were scientific ways to test the existence of telepathic communication. She didn’t seem to take it seriously—told me a story about her aunt who talked to cats, and then suggested that I keep my notes about telepathy in a journal…”

“You’re keeping the notes on this tablet? Not in your official log, and not backed up in the ship’s system? Good. That’s very good.” Hioki reached out a hand that showed evidence of recent nail-biting. “Let me have your tablet for a few minutes. I’ll encrypt the notes for you, so that if Mastroianni does any snooping through your personal things, she won’t find them.”

That sounded at first like a reasonable suggestion made out of friendly concern, and Woods had almost started to hand over the tablet before he thought more about it. Then he pulled the tablet away. “No, you might destroy them.”

Sitting back in a more relaxed posture, Hioki laughed as if he had just heard a good joke. “Not quite as innocent as you seem, are you, Woods? I have to admit that yes, it did occur to me. On second thought, erasing your notes would be pointless because you could easily create them again. So, I’ll just warn you once more to be careful. And to be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that Splotz or anyone in its management is evil. My parents work for the company, after all. It’s probably no worse than any other. But I will say this much: Growing up on Mars taught me that if you do anything the company wouldn’t like, you had better keep it hidden because if you don’t, there will be consequences.”

Woods looked down at his tablet again while a few possible replies came to mind, most of which had to do with courage or the lack thereof, and the fact that it had consequences too. He knew all too well, though, what could happen to anyone who did not conform to expectations. Letting his thoughts settle for a moment, he gave a mild answer while reminding himself that most decisions were better made after reflection and without judgment.

“I learned 35 years ago that there can be other ways besides hiding.”

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