Home > Congo(5)

Author: Michael Crichton

Because Travis couldn't tell anyone what had happened for at least two weeks, perhaps a month. And then he would be making phone calls himself, and visits to the homes, and attending the memorial services where there would be no casket, a deadly blank space, a gap, and the inevitable questions from families and relatives that he couldn't answer while they scrutinized his face, looking for the least muscle twitch, or hesitation, or sign.

What could he tell them?

That was his only consolation - perhaps in a few weeks, Travis could tell them more. One thing was certain: if he were to make the dreadful calls tonight, he could tell the

families nothing at all, for ERTS had no idea what had gone wrong. That fact added to Travis's sense of exhaustion. And there were details: Morris, the insurance auditor, came in and said, "What do you want to do about the terms?" ERTS took Out term life insurance policies for every expedition member, and also for local porters. African porters received U.S. $15,000 each in insurance, which seemed trivial until one recognized that African per capita income averaged U.S. $180 per year. But Travis had always argued that local expedition people should share risk benefits - even if it meant paying widowed families a small fortune, in their terms. Even if it cost ERTS a small fortune for the insurance.

"Hold them," Travis said.

"Those policies are costing us per day - "

"Hold them," Travis said.

"For how long?"

"Thirty days," Travis said.

"Thirty more days?"

"That's right."

"But we know the holders are dead." Morris could not reconcile himself to the waste of money. His actuarial mind rebelled.

"That's right," Travis said. "But you'd better slip the porters' families some cash to keep them quiet."

"Jesus. How much are we talking about?"

"Five hundred dollars each."

"How do we account that?"

"Legal fees," Travis said. "Bury it in legal, local disposition.''

"And the American team people that we've lost?"

"They have MasterCard," Travis said. "Stop worrying."

Roberts, the British-born ERTS press liaison, came into his office. "You want to open this can up?"

"No," Travis said. "I want to kill it."

"For how long?"

"Thirty days.

"Bloody hell. Your own staff will leak inside thirty days," Roberts said. "I promise you."

"If they do, you'll squash it," Travis said. "I need another thirty days to make this contract."

"Do we know what happened out there?"

"No," Travis said. "But we will."


"From the tapes."

"Those tapes are a mess."

"So far," Travis said. And he called in the specialty teams of console hotdoggers. Travis had long since concluded that although ERTS could wake up political advisers around the world, they were most likely to get information in-house. "Everything we know from the Congo field expedition," he said, "is registered on that final videotape. I want a seven-band visual and audio salvage, starting right now. Because that tape is all we have."

The specialty teams went to work.

3. Recovery

ERTS REFERRED TO THE PROCESS AS "DATA RECOVERY," or sometimes as "data salvage." The terms evoked images of deep-sea operations, and they were oddly appropriate.

To recover or salvage data meant that coherent meaning was pulled to the surface from the depths of massive electronic information storage. And, like salvage from the sea, it was a slow and delicate process, where a single false step meant the irretrievable loss of the very elements one was trying to bring up. ERTS had whole salvage crews skilled in the art of data recovery. One crew immediately went to work on the audio recovery, another on the visual recovery.

But Karen Ross was already engaged in a visual recovery.

The procedures she followed were highly sophisticated, and only possible at ERTS.

Earth Resources Technology was a relatively new company, formed in 1975 in response to the explosive growth of information on the Earth and its resources. The amount of material handled by ERTS was staggering: just the Landsat imagery alone amounted to more than five hundred thousand pictures, and sixteen new images were acquired every hour, around the clock. With the addition of conventional and draped aerial photography, infrared photography, and artificial aperture side-looking radar, the total information available to ERTS exceeded two million images, with new input on the order of thirty images an hour. All this information had to be catalogued, stored, and made available for instantaneous retrieval. ERTS was like a library which acquired seven hundred new books a day. It was not surprising that the librarians worked at fever pitch around the clock.

Visitors to ERTS never seemed to realize that even with computers, such data-handling capacity would have been impossible ten years earlier. Nor did visitors understand the basic nature of the ERTS information - they assumed that the pictures on the screens were photographic, although they were not.

Photography was a nineteenth-century chemical system for recording information using light-sensitive silver salts. ERTS utilized a twentieth-century electronic system for recording information, analogous to chemical photographs, but very different. Instead of cameras, ERTS used multi-spectral scanners; instead of film, they used CCTs - computer compatible tapes. In fact, ERTS did not bother with "pictures" as they were ordinarily understood from old-fashioned photographic technology. ERTS bought "data scans" which they converted to "data displays," as the need arose.

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