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“You cut it up?” I said. “I didn’t say you could cut it up!”

“Yeah, I don’t care.” He tapped one of the devices on the lab table. “I used this baby to check the core’s index of refraction. That’s a pretty important stat for fiber optic.”

I picked up a five-centimeter snippet of ZAFO from the table. “And you found something weird?”

“Nope,” he said. “It’s 1.458. A little higher than fiber optics usually are, but only by a tiny bit.”

I sighed. “Svoboda, can you skip over the ways it’s normal and just tell me what you found?”

“All right, all right.” He reached over to a handheld device and picked it up. “This baby is how I cracked the mystery.”

“I know you want me to ask what that is, but honestly I don’t—”

“It’s an optical loss test set! OLTS for short. It tells you how much attenuation a fiber-optic cable has. Attenuation is the amount of light that gets lost to heat during transmission.”

“I know what attenuation is,” I said. But it really didn’t matter. Once Svoboda got going there was no stopping him. I’ve never known anyone who loved his work as much as that guy.

He set the OLTS back on the table. “Now, a typical attenuation for a high-end cable is around 0.4 decibels per kilometer. Guess what ZAFO’s attenuation is.”


“Go on. Guess.”

“Just tell me.”

“It’s zero. Fucking. Zero!” He formed a circle with his arms. “Zeeeroooo!”

I sat on the stool next to him. “So…no light gets lost in transmission? At all?”

“Right! Well, at least, as far as I can tell. The precision of my OLTS is 0.001 decibels per kilometer.”

I looked at the ZAFO snippet in my hands. “It has to have some attenuation, though, right? I mean, it can’t actually be zero.”

He shrugged. “Superconductors have zero resistance to electrical current. Why can’t there be a material with zero resistance to light?”

“ZAFO…” I rolled the word around in my mouth. “Zero-attenuation fiber optic?”

“Oh!” He smacked his forehead. “Of course!”

“What’s it made of?”

He spun to a wall-mounted machine. “That’s where my spectrometer came in!” He stroked it gently. “I call her Nora.”

“And what did Nora have to say?”

“The core’s mostly glass. No big surprise there, most fiber-optic cores are. But there were also trace amounts of tantalum, lithium, and germanium.”

“Why are they in there?”

“Hell if I know.”

I rubbed my eyes. “Okay, so why is it so exciting? You can use less energy to transmit data?”

“Oh, it’s way more awesome than that,” he said. “Normal fiber-optic lines can only be fifteen kilometers long. After that, the signal’s just too weak to continue. So you need repeaters. They read the signal and retransmit it. But repeaters cost money, they have to be powered, and they’re complicated. Oh, and they slow down the transmission too.”

“So with ZAFO you don’t need repeaters.”

“Right!” he said. “Earth has huge data cables. They run across entire continents, under the oceans, all over the world. Just think of how much simpler it would be without all those repeaters mucking shit up. Oh! And it would have very few transmission errors. That means more bandwidth. This shit is fantastic!”

“Great. But is it worth killing over?”

“Well…” he said. “I suppose every telecom company will want to upgrade. How much do you think the entire planet Earth’s communication network is worth? Because that’s roughly how much money ZAFO is going to make its owners. Yeah. That’s probably murderin’ money.”

I pinched my chin. The more I thought about it the less I liked it. Then, the pieces all fell into place. “Oh! Goddammit!”

“Whoa,” said Svoboda. “Who shit in your Rice Krispies?”

“This isn’t about aluminum at all!” I stood from the stool. “Thanks, Svobo. I owe you one.”

“What?” he said. “What do you mean it’s not about aluminum? Then what’s it about?”

But I already had a head of steam going. “Stay strange, Svobo. I’ll be in touch.”

The administrator’s office used to be in Armstrong Bubble because that was the only bubble. But once Armstrong became all loud noises and machinery, she relocated. Nowadays she worked out of a small, one-room office on Conrad Up 19.

Yup, you heard me. The administrator of Artemis—the most important and powerful person on the moon, who could literally have any location rent-free—chose to work in the bluest of blue-collar areas. If I were Ngugi, I’d have a huge office overlooking the Aldrin Arcade. And it would have a wet bar and leather chairs and other cool powerful-people stuff.

And a personal assistant. A beefy yet gentle guy who called me “boss” all the time. Yeah.

Ngugi didn’t have any of that. She didn’t even have a secretary. Just a sign on her office door that read ADMINISTRATOR FIDELIS NGUGI.

To be fair, it’s not like she was president of the United States. She was, effectively, the mayor of a small town.

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