Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

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Fiction

Beneath the Silent Stars

Jean-Paul crawled out of storage and stretched his arms and legs. He avoided going into storage whenever he could help it, but the ship had insisted this time.

“Hello, Jean-Paul,” Unattributed Source said. “I woke you as soon as we arrived within visual range of Amala.”

The blue-green planet filled the ship’s view screen. Jean-Paul had only been twelve the last time he’d seen Amala. It was also the last time he’d seen his father. In any other circumstances he would have landed on the former resort planet, but Mariposa X and the ruins of the gate waited on the other side of Amala. “What happened while we were sleeping?” he asked.

The ship gave him a brief summary of the thousands of messages it had received. They all basically said the same thing. Find out why Mariposa X destroyed the hyperspace gate.

He injected a dose of aftersleep into the sleeve of his smartsuit, which analyzed the mixture before absorbing it and letting it pass into his body. The suit stimulated the nerves on his tongue, replicating the experience of taste. Or at least as much of the experience as he remembered.

Parveen emerged from storage and joined him by the screen. He leaned forward and kissed her, the microfibers on his lips making it feel like he had touched her bare skin.

“Did you sleep well?” he asked. It was a stupid question, but he didn’t know what else to say. He still wasn’t sure he could trust her.

“Yes, thank you,” Parveen said. “You’ve been to Amala before?”

There was no need for her question either, since the answer was in his public logs.

“What was it like?” she asked. She could have accessed videos collating the most poignant or typical of a million experiences from the Bibliotheque’s system. She squeezed his hand. “I want to know what you think.”

“It wasn’t my favorite vacation,” Jean-Paul said.

His father had accepted a post as verifier on Mariposa X and had taken Jean-Paul on one last trip before he left. His father hired a local guide who took them to one of Amala’s fabled white sand beaches. “I want to see the real Amala,” his father said.

The guide scooped up a handful of sand and let it run through his fingers. “This is Amala. This is real.”

His father wasn’t interested in sand. “I want to go the places the locals go.”

“I’m a local. I’m here,” the guide replied.

“I want to go where the tourists don’t go.”

“But you’re a tourist.”

The guide had eventually relented and took them to a bar frequented by people unable to pay tourist prices. His father had ended up lecturing the locals on how they could improve their planet.

Unattributed Source intruded on his thoughts. “I have located Mariposa X.” The ship sounded almost excited. “It has acquired a weapons lock on us.”

Ever since it had destroyed the gate, Mariposa X had fired on any ships approaching it, but a year ago it sent a message to the Bibliotheque Galactique’s headquarters, saying it wanted to speak to Jean-Paul in person. He had long ago resigned himself to the likelihood that his father was dead, but he couldn’t turn down the chance to learn what had happened.

“What if it’s gone mad?” Parveen said.

Parveen had insisted on coming, but he couldn’t help feeling responsible for bringing her into danger. Unattributed Source had little chance of matching Mariposa X’s combat abilities. “It invited us here.”

“It invited you. Not me.”

He held onto Parveen’s hand and waited. He always felt helpless when ships negotiated with one another, but there was nothing else he could do now.

Bibliotheque agents typically worked in two-person summarizer verifier teams. Mariposa X had said it wanted to speak to Jean-Paul and allowed that he could be accompanied by a summarizer. Anyone else would be fired upon. If the Bibliotheque had secretly sent warships on the mission as well, they would be lurking out of range and he couldn’t rely on them for help.

Fifty-five years ago, Mariposa X destroyed the gate linking humanity with the rest of galactic civilization. Jean-Paul’s superiors craved an explanation for the ship’s actions and would want the agent accompanying him to be utterly loyal to them. Someone trusted to return with the information no matter what Jean-Paul did.

Parveen would have been sent on another assignment if she hadn’t come with him. Years would have passed before he saw her again, if at all. He had been prepared to fight to keep her on the mission, but his supervisor hadn’t even raised the possibility of replacing Parveen. That meant the Bibliotheque trusted her absolutely.

The Bibliotheque had started as a library, then branched out into an information gathering agency. They also employed undercover agents trained in specialized information extraction techniques. He and Parveen had worked as a summarizer verifier team for two years, but it was only after his promotion to senior verifier that she had shown any interest in him romantically.

“What’s taking so long?” she said.

Unattributed Source has never let me down,” he said.

They rounded Amala, bringing the ruins of the gate into view. Mariposa X’s seven-kilometer-long form floated beside the ruined gate. The Mariposa class ships were the most powerful ever built by humanity. They had regularly traveled through the gate until Mariposa X destroyed it, leaving all of the other Mariposa class ships stranded on the other side.

“I have received a request for voice transmission,” Unattributed Source said.

Jean-Paul breathed a sigh of relief. “Accept.”

Mariposa X spoke with an accent that Jean-Paul’s software identified as Amalan. The ship began with a series of coordinates. “When you have reached this point, exit your ship and direct yourselves towards hangar nineteen.”

Unattributed Source isn’t a threat,” Jean-Paul said. “It can dock inside you.”

Unattributed Source will come no closer than ten kilometers,” Mariposa X replied.

Jean-Paul motioned for Unattributed Source to suspend the connection. “Do you have any advice?”

“I cannot match Mariposa X’s firepower,” Unattributed Source said.

He looked over at Parveen. “What do you think?”

“Don’t even think about asking me to wait here.”

The thought hadn’t even occurred to him. He wanted all the help he could get. “Let’s get into our hard suits.”

They made their way to the airlock and climbed into their hard suits.

“Two minutes to drop zone,” Unattributed Source announced.

He put on his helmet and ran a diagnostics check. All the lights came back green.

Not for the first time he wished there was a machine that could tell you if someone loved you or not. He was a verifier and appreciated that truth was often a sliding scale; that there were many things that didn’t fit into simple yes or no categories, but he still wanted a machine that flashed with a green light if the person you chose loved you.

He removed the helmet and looked over at Parveen. “Do you love me?”

She didn’t hesitate. “Of course.”

He had ruined his previous relationship by asking that question too many times. Catherine had been six years younger than him. That didn’t sound like much when humans lived more than two hundred years, but the older you got, the harder it became to connect to those slightly different from you. The sheer amount of information produced in those six years was overwhelming. So many things that Catherine didn’t understand the way he did. Parveen was four years younger than him, but she was a summarizer and used to absorbing vast amounts of information. She seemed to understand his quirks.

A psychologist at the Bibliotheque had told Jean-Paul that he suffered from a fear of abandonment. He had diligently followed the prescribed cognitive behavioral therapy, but that didn’t reduce his need to know. He was a verifier!

“Why do you love me?” he asked.

Parveen smiled. “You have eyes that shine.”

“What?” She had never said that before.

“Your eyes shine like stars when you’re passionate about something,” she said. “They light up when you’re talking about the Kephdar, or when you discover something irregular in a data trail or when you look at me.”

“One minute to drop zone.”

“I love you, too,” he said and put his helmet back on.

The airlock door opened and they floated out into the void.

The vast bulk of Mariposa X loomed in front of them, an open hangar door lit by guide lights. It was hard not to imagine it as a gigantic mouth waiting to swallow them.

They turned on their jets and flew towards the hangar.

Jean-Paul turned his head to look at the stars glimmering around him. Not for the first time he wondered what it would feel like to strip off his hard suit, peel off his smartsuit and touch space. He supposed he could program his smartsuit to simulate what the coldness of space felt like without killing him.

Parveen reached the hangar and he landed beside her. Mariposa X sealed the door.

The hangar was large enough to fit a dozen vessels the size of Unattributed Source, but only held a couple of shuttle transports.

A message from Unattributed Source buzzed in Jean-Paul’s head. “I am under attack.”

His data feed went dead.

“Confirm status!” he sent, but there was no response.

He glanced over at Parveen. Her eyes were wide with fear.

His implants were still operating. He pinged Parveen and established an encrypted connection. “I think the ship’s gone.”

Mariposa X sent a message to his implant. “You may proceed once you have removed both your hard suit and your smartsuit.”

“What happened to our ship?” Parveen demanded.

“I destroyed it,” Mariposa X replied. “It might have interfered.”

Jean-Paul had spent more time with Unattributed Source than with anyone since his childhood. The ship was the closest thing he had to a home and had saved his life on more than one occasion. Now, because of him, it was gone. Of course, a backup of the ship’s AI could be retrieved from the Bibliotheque system, but a ship was more than just its computer. The way Unattributed Source’s food dispenser had to be rebooted each time it tried to make pancakes, the customizations he’d installed on its view screen, and the graffiti on the ceiling of its storage capsules all made the ship unique.

He wanted to scream at Mariposa X and tell it had just murdered one of his best friends, but he knew that would achieve nothing. He instructed his smartsuit to give him a dose of something that would calm his nerves, soothe his anger, but not dull his senses and almost immediately felt better.

“Are you going to kill us?” Parveen asked.

“That is not my current intention.”

That wasn’t completely reassuring. “You didn’t have to destroy our ship,” Jean-Paul said. “You could have asked it to leave.”

“Please remove all your suits.”

“How are we supposed to leave?” Parveen demanded.

“I will place a vessel at your disposal after we have talked. But first, please remove all your suits.”

“We can’t hurt you,” Jean-Paul said. “Why do you want us to remove our smartsuits?”

“I want to be sure their software does not interfere. My atmosphere is free of hostile nanobots,” the ship replied.

Jean-Paul hadn’t left his suit since he was nine years old and his home world’s atmosphere had become weaponized. Tiny war machines designed to replicate themselves and kill humans had spread throughout the colonies, exterminating those who couldn’t afford a smartsuit.

He glanced over at Parveen. When he and Parveen were intimate, their smartsuits became transparent and stimulated their nerves more efficiently than a human lover ever could. He had never been truly naked in front of a lover. “We want separate chambers in which to disrobe,” he said.

Two doors slid open.

Parveen marched through the closest door and it slid shut behind her.

Jean-Paul walked through the other door into a locker room with showers. The showers reminded him that Mariposa X once had a human crew. His father would be close to two hundred years old if he were still alive.

He removed his hard suit and placed it on a bench. It felt good to be free of the bulky suit, but he was more reluctant to fully expose himself. His smartsuit regulated his body temperature, kept him safe from outside threats and served as his clothing. He instructed his suit to unlock itself. It queried his command, but he issued the required authorization codes.

He peeled the fine mesh from his skin and it dropped to the floor.

He was truly naked. There was no protection from anything hostile in the ship’s air. He felt like he was going to hyperventilate. It wasn’t easy to get the right amount of oxygen with each breath. How could you get anything done when you had to concentrate on breathing?

The floor felt cold on his bare feet. He already missed the suit’s ability to deal with such inconveniences. He reached out and touched the wall with the tip of his finger. It was the first thing he had touched with a finger in more than sixty years. As he expected, it didn’t feel any different from touching something when he was in his suit.

“Are you happy now?” he asked, but the ship didn’t reply.

He tried using his implant to send Parveen a message, but there was no response. Maybe it hadn’t been a wise decision to separate. “Is Parveen all right?”

“Yes. I have merely blocked your transmissions.”

The ship could have been lying, but it hadn’t lied about destroying Unattributed Source. “Why?”

“I have things to tell you in private. Your father asked me to talk to you. I respected your father’s judgment. I am aware that such traits are not necessarily inheritable but your records from Kephdar indicate an attention to detail.”

The ship had refused to communicate with anyone since it destroyed the gate, but it must still be plugged in to the Bibliotheque’s network. “What happened to my father?”

“I was attacked by an alien fleet and my hull was breached. I retreated through the gate back to human colonized space, but my life support systems failed. None of the crew survived.”

He had always believed his father was dead, but it still came as a shock to have it confirmed. A wave of dizziness almost overwhelmed him. He leaned against the wall to steady himself. His suit would have stopped him from becoming dizzy, but now he felt helpless.

“Your father was the last of the crew to survive. He ordered me to destroy the gate and not to tell anyone what I had seen.”

Jean-Paul’s father had been devoted to spreading the truth.

“It took my repair systems more than a year to restore everything. I have constructed a presentation showing the attack by a previously unknown alien species.”

A display appeared in the air showing Mariposa X and six other Mariposa-class ships. They had been based around Pelmar, a planet on the other side of the gate. Arrayed against the Mariposas was an armada of unimaginable size.

“If I showed the alien fleet to the correct scale, you would not be able to see the Mariposas,” the ship said.

The aliens obliterated Pelmar and the other Mariposas. Mariposa X fled the battle, destroying the gate after it crossed through. The gate had been built by an extinct alien species and humans did not possess the technology to rebuild it.

“They have eliminated most of galactic civilization,” Mariposa X said. “Destroying the gate only slowed them. If they maintained their current speed and direction, they will reach the edge of human space in approximately a year.”

“Why didn’t you tell us earlier?” Jean-Paul demanded. “We could have prepared.”

“If every human had done nothing but direct their energy to building space craft, humanity still would not be able to match even one percent of the size of the alien fleet.”

“We could have tried,” Jean-Paul said.

“Your father asked me not to say anything. He believed humanity should enjoy its last few moments.”

“They might have changed course. They might have been destroyed.”

“These are all possibilities,” the ship admitted. “But I consider them unlikely.”

“My father instructed you not to tell anyone, so why are you telling me?”

“Your father asked me to give you a message a year before the aliens were due to arrive.”

A holographic representation of his father appeared. He wore a hard suit and beneath his visor his face was streaked with tears. “Hello, Jean-Paul,” the recording said. “I don’t have long. I think everyone else is dead.” The low oxygen warning buzzed on his suit. “Maybe you believe people have a right to know what’s coming. I think you should keep the information to yourself, but I leave the decision to you.”

Jean-Paul didn’t want this burden. How was he supposed to decide? He was still struggling to come to terms with what the ship had told him. It was almost unthinkable that all of humanity could be wiped out that easily. Not even the nanobots had been able to do that.

“I’m sorry I left you behind, Jean-Paul,” his father continued. “I’m not an emotional man, but I did love you in my own way. You shouldn’t take my decision to leave personally. It was just that no single person could compete against the chance to explore the universe.”

How could he take his father leaving as anything but personal?

“Goodbye, Jean-Paul.” The recording disappeared.

Rage boiled up within Jean-Paul. Humanity was going to be destroyed and his father had dumped this burden on him. He needed a mood adjustment stabilizer but he wasn’t wearing his suit any more. He was angry enough that he felt like punching the wall, but he wasn’t sure how the skin on his fist would react to the stress.

He took slow, deep breaths. It was such an inefficient method, but at least it helped calm him.

The easy decision would be to give the information to the Bibliotheque and let them handle it. Maybe they would hoard the information to themselves. Maybe they would sell it to the highest bidder. He didn’t agree with his father. If an alien fleet was coming to destroy humanity, then people had the right to know. If he broadcast the information on an open channel, it might cause panic. Maybe people wouldn’t even notice. There was so much information that people relied on the Bibliotheque to work out what they should pay attention to.

If people had a warning, then at least they had a chance. If they scattered in different directions, some of them might survive. The universe was a big place.

There was no proof that the alien attack was real. The ship could have fabricated the presentation. The first step was to run verification checks on the ship’s logs to see whether its AI had been tampered with.

There would be an enormous amount of information in the logs to sort through, but fortunately he had the assistance of one of the Bibliotheque’s finest summarizers. Before he joined the Bibliotheque Galactique, he had considered summarizers less important than their verifier counterparts. His father had always told him that as long as you had good search and filtering software, summarizing was something a computer could do. When Jean-Paul became a verifier he’d discovered how easy it was to bury meaning under a mound of truth.

“Have you told Parveen?” he asked.

“No.”

“I want to see her.”

The door slid open. He glanced at his smartsuit, then left it on the bench and stepped out into the hangar.

Parveen joined him a few moments later and stood before him, naked. Her hair was long and black, her skin brown, and her face dimpled.

He placed a hand on her shoulder, but was disappointed that the sensation felt just the same as the one the smartsuit created.

“What did the ship say?” Parveen asked.

Could he trust her? Was she really an undercover agent working for someone higher up in the Bibliotheque?

Sometimes you had to take a risk. He explained what the ship had told him.

“We have to broadcast the information,” Parveen said. “People have the right to know.”

“If it’s not true, we could be causing needless panic,” he said.

“People deserve at least a warning.”

“You’re not an undercover operative for the Bibliotheque hierarchy?”

She laughed. “What made you think that?”

“They let you come on this mission.”

“The ship was the spy,” Parveen said. “That’s why Mariposa X destroyed it.”

“Why would you entrust an important mission to a fallible human when you could rely on a ship?” Mariposa X said. “If you had decided to keep the information secret, Unattributed Source would have breached your smartsuit and extracted it.”

Unattributed Source had been his companion for so long. He had always trusted it, but of course he should have realized that its true loyalties would lie with the Bibliotheque.

“We need to verify that your systems haven’t been tampered with,” he said.

“Of course,” Mariposa X replied.

• • • •

While they were working, a Bibliotheque warship came within scanner range. Jean-Paul sent a message warning that they were in the process of verifying the ship’s information and not to come any closer.

After a week of poring over log files, they couldn’t find any evidence of deception on the ship’s part.

“So are we going to send this message or not?” Parveen asked.

He was a verifier. He wanted to have a systems engineering team take the ship’s AI apart and see exactly what it had been up to. He wanted to send probes into space to check whether the alien fleet was on its way. He wanted to know whether Parveen loved him. Sometimes you had to act when you didn’t have all the necessary information.

“Yes,” he answered.

They sent a broadcast containing Mariposa X’s presentation with a warning that the message hadn’t been independently verified. Sometimes people had to reach their own decisions.

It would take them a year to get back to Bibliotheque headquarters. If the aliens were coming, that would be too late.

Mariposa X lent them a shuttle and they landed on Amala. An initial scan didn’t reveal any trace of nanobots in the atmosphere, but they didn’t have the necessary equipment to conduct a thorough scan. If they only had a short time left, Jean-Paul didn’t want to spend it trapped in his smartsuit. He stripped off the suit and stepped onto the sand. The sun had heated the sand so it was almost unbearably hot to stand on. His suit hadn’t replicated that experience the last time he was here.

He took in a big breath of air. Maybe it would eventually kill him. There was no way of knowing for now. He scooped up a handful of sand and let it run through his fingers. Reality had a way of slipping away if you weren’t careful. He made a mound of sand, a small remembrance for his father.

“Do you know why I asked you out after you made those discoveries on Kephdar?” Parveen asked.

Their investigation had overturned the Bibliotheque’s understanding of the Kephdar, a long dead alien species that recorded their history upon the bodies of their dead. Kephdar culture had become so fashionable that Jean-Paul’s supervisor’s office was decorated in faux-Kephdar style, complete with replica storycorpses encased in glass coffins and an embalming table that served as a desk.

He had been fearful that his subsequent promotion was what had made her interested in him. “No,” he answered.

“That’s when you came alive,” she said. “You were so excited about those old stories. And even though it was you that made the breakthrough, you told everyone that it was our discovery.”

“It was both our efforts.”

“In that instance, you were the one mainly responsible,” she said. “That’s why you got the promotion.” She held up a marker. “Hold out your arm.”

Jean-Paul stretched out his arm and she started writing on him. “What are you doing?”

“Stories are better shared with the living.”

He tilted his head to read what she had written.

It’s you and me against the universe. I love you.

He leaned forward and gently kissed her.

At night, they went swimming in the dark sea. They swam through a cloud of plankton-like creatures and when they switched off their flashlights, the creatures glowed in the dark. It was like swimming through a sea of stars.

When Jean-Paul surfaced, the real stars waited above, shining patiently in the black sky. Was a fleet of aliens on their way to destroy everyone? If the stars knew, they weren’t answering. He would have to accept whatever the universe threw at him. For now he had other things on his mind. He grasped hold of Parveen and they held each other beneath the silent stars.

Aidan Doyle

Aidan Doyle by Cat Sparks

Aidan Doyle is an Australian writer and computer programmer. He has visited more than 80 countries and his experiences include teaching English in Japan, interviewing ninjas in Bolivia, and going ten-pin bowling in North Korea. His stories and articles have been published in Strange Horizons, Fireside, and Salon.com and he has been shortlisted for Australia’s Aurealis Award. Find him at aidandoyle.net and @aidan_doyle.