“Do you approve of the citizenship exam in its current form?”
Elizabeth thought about that question. It didn’t seem wise to disapprove of an exam she was currently taking, but she was also being monitored for truthfulness. It was probably best to answer honestly. “No.”
“Interesting. Do you disapprove of a particular part or the exam as a whole?”
At the moment what she disapproved of most was talking to a blank speaker in a wall. With no tone of voice or expression to judge by she couldn’t get any feel at all for how the interview was going, whether she was doing well or not. It put her on edge, although she wasn’t entirely sure that wasn’t the point.
The ideal of total fairness was elusive in the citizenship exam, current thought put as many layers of anonymity were put between examiner and examinee as possible. Even the voice coming from the speaker was filtered to nearly expressionless neutrality and she knew that her own was likewise altered to the point where the person interviewing her had no idea of her gender, place of birth or age.
It still seemed a little silly to her. But at the same time, Elizabeth knew that if she were to test for her citizenship without all those safeguards her odds of achieving success would drop dramatically. That wasn’t her real problem with the exam. “Giving someone the full rights of citizenship just because they reach a certain age seems foolhardy to me. What’s the difference between being born in the United States and outside of them?
“If foreign nationals become citizens by first being green card holders and then taking the citizenship exam, then the children of citizens should receive green cards at birth and test for their citizenship as well.” Elizabeth leaned back in her chair, stared up at the featureless metal ceiling and wished there were something more interesting to look at. “The people are the government of this country, we should check that they actually know how to govern before entrusting it to them.”
The voice on the other end of the speaker was silent for a moment. “That’s an interesting way to put it. Of course, that idea is hardly a new one. But at the same time, there’s a lot of room for discrimination if we were to test everyone.”
“Somehow, I doubt this process leaves much room for that.” Her sarcasm was lost on whoever was on the other side of the speaker, filtered out by legions of computer subroutines. But she found it therapeutic.
“It doesn’t seem that way, no,” the voice conceded. “But there are a lot of places prior to this where things aren’t so strictly monitored. Even now, it can happen here and there. And the process of signing up for your citizenship exam can be full of complications as well. It was bad enough when we only had national and ethnic difficulties to contend with. When you throw in interplanetary rivalries, not to mention interstellar ones, the potential for discriminate is just too great.”
“If it’s such a bad idea, why have any kind of subjective testing in the citizenship exam at all? I’m sure the process could be automated fairly painlessly.”
“To go off of your previous point, what makes you assume that governing is something that is objective, and not subjective?” the voice asked. “I think I’d enjoy exploring that question at length but the time for this interview is almost over. But consider this. Citizenship comes with benefits and responsibilities. The clearest benefit is the protection of the government. So is being part of governing a benefit or a responsibility? And if it’s a responsibility, should people who have enjoyed the benefit since birth naturally assume a part of the responsibility at some point? Just something to think about.”
There was a click from the door of the interviewing room. The voice came back once more. “You’re now free to exit to the lobby. Someone will be with you shortly.”
Elizabeth got up and stepped out into the brightly lit lobby of the United States 21st Circuit Courthouse on Outer Centauri Station. It was nearly 1400 and she had been awake since 0400, but she didn’t feel very tired. There had been plenty of time for sleep on the long flight out from Mid Centauri syncorbit and the early flight had been mostly empty, so catching up on her rest hadn’t been a problem.
Fortunately the irregular sleep schedule hadn’t hindered her during the written portion of the exam. She felt less confident about her performance during the interview but it was such a subjective thing she wasn’t even sure how a good interview might have gone. With a sigh Elizabeth plopped down on a bench and looked around.
Unlike the much newer Middle Centauri station, Outer Centauri was a relic from humanity’s first push into deep space. Most public buildings she had been in were full of creeping vines and small bushes bred for maximum leaf size and the greatest possible rate of photosynthesis, natural machines dedicated to turning carbon dioxide into breathable air and usable compost as fast as possible. However, the nutrient frames necessary to sustain those plants had to be purpose built into the structure. The Circuit Court building was far too old for such an apparatus, making do with ferns, large and small, growing out of pretty much every place a home for one could be found. She fidgeted with the leaf of a fern growing next to her bench and did her best to ignore her nerves.
Deep space stations had complex and incredibly redundant biospheres designed to sustain human life even in the face of a catastrophic failure of many of their most technologically advanced systems. The contrast to her own life was stark. If she failed the citizenship exam here she wouldn’t have another chance at what she wanted. The exam could be retaken, but not for another year. By then, she would be too old-
“Elizabeth O’Sullivan?” Her thoughts were interrupted by a tall skinny man with the posture of a long time deep space resident. He kept the fingers of one hand resting lightly against the wall and his knees bent, ready to propel himself in whatever direction necessary if there was a gravity fluctuation. Elizabeth stood and crossed over to him and held out her hand.
“I’m pleased to report you passed, Ms. O’Sullivan,” the man said as he shook her hand. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you very much,” she said. “Are you the person who conducted my interview?”
“I’m afraid I can’t answer that,” he replied, his expression suggesting he didn’t think that made sense any more than she did. “Is there anything else I can do for you today?”
“As a matter of fact, yes.” Elizabeth pulled a tab out of one pocket and held it up. “There was a little datawork I was hoping to get filed while I was here in the Courthouse, if I passed.”
“Of course.” He led Elizabeth down a short path between the shrubbery to a small console. It was a jarring sight, and not just because it was nestled between a pair of rather tall bushes to give privacy from the desks and clerks on either side. It was common knowledge that the government still used strictly physical interface equipment, even though almost no one else did. Or, you might say, because no one else did. The very archaic nature of physint equipment theoretically made it more secure. Still, it was odd to see, especially considering why she had come.
The clerk motioned for Elizabeth to have a seat on one side of a desk in a sleek metallic chair. A display folded up and exposed a touch board which he quickly began tapping on. “What kind of paperwork were you wanting to file?” He asked with a smile. “Voter registration? Information request? Or perhaps an action in small claims court?”
Elizabeth knew what a person sounded like when they were humoring her. She was hearing it now. She also knew exactly what to say to wipe that smile off of his face. “I’m here to sign up for the United States Combined Orbital/Deep Space Forces.”
The smile disappeared but he wasn’t shocked like Elizabeth had expected. His expression became blank for a moment, and then got a little sad. “I see. You realize that there are certain pieces of information I’ll need from you?”
Elizabeth held up the phys tab again. “I’ve heard. That’s why I brought this along.”
The clerk nodded, taking the tab and carefully slotting it into his desk computer. “This may take a few-” He stopped as the screen changed. Apparently it hadn’t taken that long after all. After a few moments of looking things over, he cleared his throat. “It looks like everything is in order. Would you come this way please?”
Elizabeth stood up and followed along behind him. They didn’t go back towards the lobby but instead stepped further into the building, following a path into a long hallway, free of the normally ubiquitous plant life, and through a door into what appeared to be the equivalent of a space station’s deep computing core.
Most modern computing was done wirelessly in a very decentralized fashion. But the really number intensive calculations still needed concentrated, high end processing power to pull off. Things like artificial gravity, atmospheric regulation and Hawking generators still needed the close, careful monitoring of dedicated computer subsystems. Elizabeth had never thought that government computing might have similar needs. She wondered if the system she was seeing was the US Government’s primary computing node on the station, or whether this one just served the courthouse. Given the fairly paranoid level of security most governments showed towards their digital records, she was willing to bet this facility just served the courthouse, which made it’s size seem a bit excessive.
As they moved down into the core Elizabeth saw signs that hinted at why the area might be so big. In at least three different places she saw people working to maintain systems that were at least fifty years out of date and appeared to be hooked into the core by mysterious, complex sequences of strange equipment that might have been better suited to Frankenstein’s lab than a modern computing center. The courthouse was obviously using a lot of obsolete equipment still, whether for security’s sake or bureaucratic necessity she wasn’t sure.
The whole room was circular and it looked like all of the clerk’s desks formed a semi-circle around the top. Elizabeth followed her clerk through a series of stairs, catwalks and ledges holding various kinds of equipment down to the ground floor of the core and from there into another office.
A man in the drab blue day uniform of an officer in the U.S. ComODS Forces leaned on a desk there, facing towards the back wall with one hand tapping a command on the desk’s touch screen over and over. He held a diagnostic readout in his other hand and a panel on the wall behind the desk was open and more old-fashioned cables ran from there to the desk. He didn’t look up as Elizabeth and her escort came in.
“Be with you in a second,” the officer muttered. “Trouble with the old networks.”
Elizabeth glanced at the nameplate on the officer’s desk. “Have you tried flushing your desk processor’s mothergel, Captain Rainer? I’ve heard that standard model Gallagher desk computers made in the last decade or so have a bad tendency to develop a memory if it isn’t swapped out every so often.”
The captain finally turned around to look at them, slightly surprised. “That’s right. But we don’t exactly have the budget to swap out something that expensive every couple of weeks, so I have to run diagnostics before I can authorize the substitution. Have a seat ma’am. What can I do for you?”
“I’m here to enlist, Captain.”
He didn’t look at all surprised. “And I’m guessing you want to join the Biocomputing Corps.”
“Yes, sir.” Elizabeth nodded. Her escort handed the captain the data tab she had given him before.
The officer took the tab and set it aside, pulling an adhesive label out of a printing slot on his desk and tearing it in half. He pressed the adhesive side of one half of the label onto the tab while he spoke. “Very well, ma’am. If you’ve been brought this far then you’ve already produced documentation showing that you qualify for admission to the testing phase of the program. While officially biocomps are so rare we can’t afford to turn one away, they’re also expensive enough to build and train that we want to make sure you actually qualify.”
Elizabeth settled into the chair at the captain’s desk. The room had more in common with the blank, sterile interview room she’d been in a few minutes ago than the artfully arranged green lobby she’d just left. The significance wasn’t lost on her. This man was another hurdle along the way. “Do these tests include calling ahead, taking me the long way around and seeing if I can basic computing problems in nearly obsolete computer equipment?”
Rainer paused in the middle of attaching the other half of his label to a device she wasn’t familiar with to give her a hard look. “As a matter of fact, they do. Turning the human brain into a top of the line biocomputing system, whether civilian or military, is a huge investment of time and materiel. And a ComODS biocomp gets more than just the ability to think forty times faster than the standard human with machine precision – you’re going to be at the heart of a warship. So forgive us if we test you in any way we can think of, at any time we want.”
The captain’s tone suggested he was anything but apologetic. He waited for a moment, as if expecting a reaction, then continued. “It’s going to be a long, hard, ugly process. You may wash out, with nothing to show for the time and effort you put into the program but two years spent away form home and a really nice haircut. You may wind up with your brain rewired to smell colors. There’s a very small chance you may become a permanent vegetable. But we need you, so that concludes the mandatory scaring you to death part of the interview. Regulations state that you have twenty-four hours in which to consider whether you want go through with this or not.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, sir,” Elizabeth said.
The captain eyed her for a minute then, apparently resigned to the fact that he hadn’t managed to run her off with a frightening speech, grunted and slotted her tab, label and all, into the computer rig on his desk. As she had expected, Rainer’s computer trouble had magically cleared up an he had no trouble getting the data to load. The captain perused the files with the eye of an experienced paper warrior. “Math aptitude looks good,” he murmured. “Good IQ, high emotional resiliency profile.” He frowned. “What’s this?”
“That’s a gel processor cleanup routine I wrote,” Elizabeth answered. She knew exactly which file he meant as it was the only one he hadn’t mentioned so far, other than the basic biographical data that you would expect to find on any kind of job application. “It enhances the performance of older systems by as much as forty percent when part of a proper maintenance routine.”
“Older systems?” The captain asked, curious.
“Aging systems are at the heart of any peacetime space navy,” she said. “More time is spent maintaining them than developing new systems. Am I right?”
Rainer winced and nodded. “True, although I recommend not mentioning that fact until you reach a position of seniority. And you should probably refrain from ever using the word ‘navy’ except as an insult.”
“Right,” she murmured. “Interservice rivalry.”
“That aside, why did you include it here?”
“Because it’s a part of the application process,” Elizabeth said blandly. “Although it’s not part of the stated requirements. Another one of your tests, I presume.”
“No reason denying that,” the captain said with a shrug. “What I’m asking is how you knew we’d be looking for it.”
Elizabeth sighed. “There’s a lot of different places you can find out,” she said, wiggling a bit further back into her chair in an attempt to keep blood moving. “I’m guessing that there’s some bad advice seeded out there by people like you, and presumably you make sure there’s one or two real sets of guidelines for the test out there, too. Then all that information proliferates through planetary Internets. But in my case it was possible to skip all that data sifting by finding a retired Master Sergeant that had worked to set up the program, then retired. He told me that, at the time the program started, prospective applicants were expected to show initiative in addressing computing issues, and it was likely that that requirement was still in place. Twenty-five years is apparently a very short time in the world of military regulations.”
“And did it ever occur to you that his giving you that information might be prohibited?” Rainer asked darkly.
“No, actually, but it did occur to him. So I pestered him into looking it up, and he was only supposed to keep quiet about aspects of the program which were not made public.” Elizabeth shrugged. “Requirements for applying to the corps was made public, so it wasn’t off limits. I would suggest that you adjust the regulations if you want to maintain the mystery requirement.”
“Yes,” he said quietly, making a note on his computer screen. “So it would seem.” Once he was finished with that, Captain Reiner deposited the tab into a plastic envelope and pressed down on the molecular seal, creating a nearly impossible to duplicate bond that would ensure the documents weren’t tampered with. Then he put the other half of the label into a file. “From this point out you are BioComputing Cadet Candidate St. Claire. By law, you are forbidden to tell anyone of your identity in the BioComputing Corps or even to mention that you have applied. If you mention either of these facts to anyone you will be immediately disqualified.”
“I understand, sir,” Elizabeth replied.
Captain Reinter tucked the envelope away in a drawer. “I’m not really sure you do, Cadet Candidate. But you have twenty-four hours to think about it.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow then.” She got down from the chair and sketched something like a salute, then headed for the door.
Rainer watched the door slide closed and sighed, then stood up from the desk and began closing down computer console. It was time to move back to his regular office. He glanced over at the clerk, who had watched the entire interview quietly from one corner of the room. “You going to come stand as witness when the paperwork’s signed, Sam?”
He sighed and shook his head. “She’s twelve years old, Brian.”
“First biocomp application?” The captain asked, pausing as he collected the diagnostic equipment he’d been using.
“How can you be so calm?” The clerk demanded.
“Like it or not, she’s an adult under the law,” Rainer said. “She passed her citizenship exam and has all the right, privileges and responsibilities that entails. She can join if she wants. And we can’t make a biocomputer out of the brain of someone much older than her. They just won’t be resilient enough.”
Sam shook his head. “Craziest law I’ve ever heard of, when a person not even in their teens can be declared an adult and have their head chopped open. What is this country coming to?”
“People have been asking that since it was founded. At one time kids were locked away from the rest of society for twelve years before they were given any idea how the world really worked.” Rainer slapped the clerk in the back. “Besides, the operation is done by nanotech. No bone saws involved. Come on, I’ll buy you a drink.”
“I think I’ll need it more tomorrow. Do you think she’ll come back?”
“The smart ones always do,” Rainer said sadly. “The smart ones always do.”