Science Fiction & Fantasy

THE ROBOTS OF GOTHAM

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Fiction

Permanent Fatal Errors

Maduabuchi St. Macaria had never before traveled with an all-Howard crew. Mostly his kind kept to themselves, even under the empty skies of a planet. Those who did take ship almost always did so in a mixed or all-baseline human crew.

Not here, not aboard the threadneedle starship Inclined Plane. Seven crew including him, captained by a very strange woman who called herself Peridot Smith. All Howard Institute immortals. A new concept in long-range exploration, multi-decade interstellar missions with ageless crew, testbedded in orbit around the brown dwarf Tiede 1. That’s what the newsfeeds said, anyway.

His experience was far more akin to a violent soap opera. Howards really weren’t meant to be bottled up together. It wasn’t in the design templates. Socially well-adjusted people didn’t generally self-select to outlive everyone they’d ever known.

Even so, Maduabuchi was impressed by the welcome distraction of Tiede 1. Everyone else was too busy cleaning their weapons and hacking the internal comms and cams to pay attention to their mission objective. Not him.

Inclined Plane boasted an observation lounge. The hatch was coded “Observatory,” but everything of scientific significance actually happened within the instrumentation woven into the ship’s hull and the diaphanous energy fields stretching for kilometers beyond. The lounge was a folly of naval architecture, a translucent bubble fitted to the hull, consisting of roughly a third of a sphere of optically corrected artificial diamond grown to nanometer symmetry and smoothness in microgravity. Chances were good that in a catastrophe the rest of the ship would be shredded before the bubble would so much as be scratched.

There had been long, heated arguments in the galley, with math and footnotes and thumb breaking, over that exact question.

Maduabuchi liked to sit in the smartgel bodpods and let the ship perform a three-sixty massage while he watched the universe. The rest of the crew were like cats in a sack, too busy stalking the passageways and each other to care what might be outside the window. Here in the lounge one could see creation, witness the birth of stars, observe the death of planets, or listen to the quiet, empty cold of hard vacuum. The silence held a glorious music that echoed inside his head.

Maduabuchi wasn’t a complete idiot—he’d rigged his own cabin with self-powered screamer circuits and an ultrahigh voltage capacitor. That ought to slow down anyone with delusions of traps.

Tiede 1 loomed outside. It seemed to shimmer as he watched, as if a starquake were propagating. The little star belied the ancient label of “brown dwarf.” Stepped down by filtering nano that coated the diamond bubble, the surface glowed a dull reddish orange; a coal left too long in a campfire, or a jewel in the velvet setting of night. Only 300,000 kilometers in diameter, and about five percent of a solar mass, it fell in that class of objects ambiguously distributed between planets and stars.

It could be anything, he thought. Anything.

A speck of green tugged at Maduabuchi’s eye, straight from the heart of the star.

Green? There were no green emitters in nature.

“Amplification,” he whispered. The nano filters living on the outside of the diamond shell obligingly began to self-assemble a lens. He controlled the aiming and focus with eye movements, trying to find whatever it was he had seen. Another ship? Reflection from a piece of rock or debris?

Excitement chilled Maduabuchi despite his best intentions to remain calm. What if this were evidence of the long-rumored but never-located alien civilizations that should have abounded in the Orion Arm of the Milky Way?

He scanned for twenty minutes, quartering Tiede 1’s face as minutely as he could without direct access to the instrumentation and sensors carried by Inclined Plane. The ship’s AI was friendly and helpful, but outside its narrow and critical competencies in managing the threadneedle drive and localspace navigation, no more intelligent than your average dog, and so essentially useless for such work. He’d need to go to the Survey Suite to do more.

Maduabuchi finally stopped staring at the star and called up a deck schematic. “Ship, plot all weapons discharges or unscheduled energy expenditures within the pressurized cubage.”

The schematic winked twice, but nothing was highlighted. Maybe Captain Smith had finally gotten them all to stand down. None of Maduabuchi’s screamers had gone off, either, though everyone else had long since realized he didn’t play their games.

Trusting that no one had hacked the entire tracking system, he cycled the lock and stepped into the passageway beyond. Glancing back at Tiede 1 as the lock irised shut, Maduabuchi saw another green flash.

He fought back a surge of irritation. The star was not mocking him.

• • • •

Peridot Smith was in the Survey Suite when Maduabuchi cycled the lock there. Radiation-tanned from some melanin-deficient base hue of skin, lean, with her hair follicles removed and her scalp tattooed in an intricate mandala using magnetically sensitive ink, the captain was an arresting sight at any time. At the moment, she was glaring at him, her eyes flashing a strange, flat silver indicating serious tech integrated into the tissues. “Mr. St. Macaria.” She gave him a terse nod. “How are the weapons systems?”

Ironically, of all the bloody-minded engineers and analysts and navigators aboard, he was the weapons officer.

“Capped and sealed per orders, ma’am,” he replied. “Test circuits warm and green.”

Inclined Plane carried a modest mix of hardware, generalized for unknown threats rather than optimized for anti-piracy or planetary blockade duty, for example. Missiles, field projectors, electron strippers, fléchettes, even foggers and a sandcaster.

Most of which he had no real idea about. They were icons in the control systems, each maintained by its own little armies of nano and workbots. All he had were status lights and strat-tac displays. Decisions were made by specialized subsystems.

It was the rankest makework, but Maduabuchi didn’t mind. He’d volunteered for the Howard Institute program because of the most basic human motivation—tourism. Seeing what was over the next hill had trumped even sex as the driving force in human evolution. He was happy to be a walking, talking selection mechanism.

Everything else, including this tour of duty, was just something to do while the years slid past.

“What did you need, Mr. St. Macaria?”

“I was going to take a closer look at Tiede 1, ma’am.”

“That is what we’re here for.”

He looked for humor in her dry voice, and did not find it. “Ma’am, yes ma’am. I . . . I just think I saw something.”

“Oh, really?” Her eyes flashed, reminding Maduabuchi uncomfortably of blades.

Embarrassed, he turned back to the passageway.

“What did you see?” she asked from behind him. Now her voice was edged as well.

“Nothing, ma’am. Nothing at all.”

Back in the passageway, Maduabuchi fled toward his cabin. Several of the crew laughed from sick bay, their voices rising over the whine of the bone-knitter. Someone had gone down hard.

Not him. Not even at the hands—or eyes—of Captain Smith.

• • • •

An hour later, after checking the locations of the crew again with the ship’s AI, he ventured back to the Survey Suite. Chillicothe Xiang nodded to him in the passageway, almost friendly, as she headed aft for a half-shift monitoring the power plants in Engineering.

“Hey,” Maduabuchi said in return. She didn’t answer, didn’t even seem to notice he’d spoken. All these years, all the surgeries and nano injections and training, and somehow he was still the odd kid out on the playground.

Being a Howard Immortal was supposed to be different. And it was, when he wasn’t around other Howard Immortals.

The Survey Suite was empty, as advertised. Ultra-def screens wrapped the walls, along with a variety of control inputs, from classical keypads to haptics and gestural zones. Maduabuchi slipped into the observer’s seat and swept his hand to open the primary sensor routines.

Captain Smith had left her last data run parked in the core sandbox.

His fingers hovered over the purge, then pulled back. What had she been looking at that had made her so interested in what he’d seen? Those eyes flashed edged and dangerous in his memory. He almost asked the ship where she was, but a question like that would be reported, drawing more attention than it was worth.

Maduabuchi closed his eyes for a moment, screwing up his courage, and opened the data run.

It cascaded across the screens, as well as virtual presentations in the aerosolized atmosphere of the Survey Suite. Much more than he’d seen when he was in here before—plots, scales, arrays, imaging across the EM spectrum, color-coded tabs and fields and stacks and matrices. Even his Howard-enhanced senses had trouble keeping up with the flood. Captain Smith was far older and more experienced than Maduabuchi, over half a dozen centuries to his few decades, and she had developed both the mental habits and the individualized mentarium to handle such inputs.

On the other hand, he was a much newer model. Everyone upgraded, but the Howard Institute baseline tech evolved over generations just like everything else in human culture. Maduabuchi bent to his work, absorbing the overwhelming bandwidth of her scans of Tiede 1, and trying to sort out what it was that had been the true object of her attention.

Something had to be hidden in plain sight here.

He worked an entire half-shift without being disturbed, sifting petabytes of data, until the truth hit him. The color-coding of one spectral analysis matrix was nearly identical to the green flash he thought he’d seen on the surface of Tiede 1.

All the data was a distraction. Her real work had been hidden in the metadata, passing for nothing more than a sorting signifier.

Once Maduabuchi realized that, he unpacked the labeling on the spectral analysis matrix, and opened up an entirely new data environment. Green, it was all about the green.

“I was wondering how long that would take you,” said Captain Smith from the opening hatch.

Maduabuchi jumped in his chair, opened his mouth to make some denial, then closed it again. Her eyes didn’t look razored this time, and her voice held a tense amusement.

He fell back on that neglected standby, the truth. “Interesting color you have here, ma’am.”

“I thought so.” Smith stepped inside, cycled the lock shut, then code-locked it with a series of beeps that meant her command override was engaged. “Ship,” she said absently, “sensory blackout on this area.”

“Acknowledged, Captain,” said the ship’s puppy-friendly voice.

“What do you think it means, Mr. St. Macaria?”

“Stars don’t shine green. Not to the human eye. The blackbody radiation curve just doesn’t work that way.” He added, “Ma’am.”

“Thank you for defining the problem.” Her voice was dust-dry again.

Maduabuchi winced. He’d given himself away, as simply as that. But clearly she already knew about the green flashes. “I don’t think that’s the problem, ma’am.”

“Mmm?”

“If it was, we’d all be lining up like good kids to have a look at the optically impossible brown dwarf.”

“Fair enough. Then what is the problem, Mr. St. Macaria?”

He drew a deep breath and chose his next words with care. Peridot Smith was old, old in a way he’d never be, even with her years behind him someday. “I don’t know what the problem is, ma’am, but if it’s a problem to you, it’s a command issue. Politics. And light doesn’t have politics.”

Much to his surprise, she laughed. “You’d be amazed. But yes. Again, well done.”

She hadn’t said that before, but he took the compliment. “What kind of command problem, ma’am?”

Captain Smith sucked in a long, noisy breath and eyed him speculatively. A sharp gaze, to be certain. “Someone on this ship is on their own mission. We were jiggered into coming to Tiede 1 to provide cover, and I don’t know what for.”

“Not me!” Maduabuchi blurted.

“I know that.”

The dismissal in her words stung for a moment, but on the whole, he realized he’d rather not be a suspect in this particular witch hunt.

His feelings must have shown in his face, because she smiled and added, “You haven’t been around long enough to get sucked into the Howard factions. And you have a rep for being indifferent to the seductive charms of power.”

“Uh, yes.” Maduabuchi wasn’t certain what to say to that.

“Why do you think you’re here?” She leaned close, her breath hot on his face. “I needed someone who would reliably not be conspiring against me.”

“A useful idiot,” he said. “But there’s only seven of us. How many could be conspiring? And over a green light?”

“It’s Tiede 1,” Captain Smith answered. “Someone is here gathering signals. I don’t know what for. Or who. Because it could be any of the rest of the crew. Or all of them.”

“But this is politics, not mutiny. Right . . .?”

“Right.” She brushed off the concern. “We’re not getting hijacked out here. And if someone tries, I am the meanest fighter on this ship by a wide margin. I can take any three of this crew apart.”

“Any five of us, though?” he asked softly.

“That’s another use for you.”

“I don’t fight.”

“No, but you’re a Howard. You’re hard enough to kill that you can take it at my back long enough to keep me alive.”

“Uh, thanks,” Maduabuchi said, very uncertain now.

“You’re welcome.” Her eyes strayed to the data arrays floating across the screens and in the virtual presentations. “The question is who, what, and why.”

“Have you compared the observational data to known stellar norms?” he asked.

“Green flashes aren’t a known stellar norm.”

“No, but we don’t know what the green flashes are normal for, either. If we compare Tiede 1 to other brown dwarfs, we might spot further anomalies. Then we triangulate.”

“And that is why I brought you.” Captain Smith’s tone was very satisfied indeed. “I’ll leave you to your work.”

“Thank you, ma’am.” To his surprise, Maduabuchi realized he meant it.

• • • •

He spent the next half-shift combing through comparative astronomy. At this point, almost a thousand years into the human experience of interstellar travel, there was an embarrassing wealth of data. So much so that even petabyte q-bit storage matrices were overrun, as eventually the challenges of indexing and retrieval went metastatic. Still, one thing Howards were very good at was data processing. Nothing ever built could truly match the pattern recognition and free associative skills of human (or post-human) wetware collectively known as “hunches.” Strong AIs could approximate that uniquely biological skill through a combination of brute force and deeply clever circuit design, but even then, the spark of inspiration did not flow so well.

Maduabuchi slipped into his flow state to comb through more data in a few hours than a baseline human could absorb in a year. Brown dwarfs, superjovians, fusion cycles, failed stars, hydrogen, helium, lithium, surface temperatures, density, gravity gradients, emission spectrum lines, astrographic surveys, theories dating back to the dawn of observational astronomy, digital images in two and three dimensions as well as time-lensed.

When he emerged, driven by the physiological mundanities of bladder and blood sugar, Maduabuchi knew something was wrong. He knew it. Captain Smith had been right about her mission, about there being something off in their voyage to Tiede 1.

But she didn’t know what it was she was right about. He didn’t either.

Still, the thought niggled somewhere deep in his mind. Not the green flash per se, though that, too. Something more about Tiede 1.

Or less.

“And what the hell did that mean?” he asked the swarming motes of data surrounding him on the virtual displays, now reduced to confetti as he left his informational fugue.

Maduabuchi stumbled out of the Survey Suite to find the head, the galley, and Captain Peridot Smith, in that order.

The corridor was filled with smoke, though no alarms wailed. He almost ducked back into the Survey Suite, but instead dashed for one of the emergency stations found every ten meters or so and grabbed an oxygen mask. Then he hit the panic button.

That produced a satisfying wail, along with lights strobing at four distinct frequencies. Something was wrong with the gravimetrics, too—the floor had felt syrupy, then too light, with each step. Where the hell was fire suppression?

The bridge was next. He couldn’t imagine that they were under attack—Inclined Plane was the only ship in the Tiede 1 system so far as any of them knew. And short of some kind of pogrom against Howard Immortals, no one had any reason to attack their vessel.

Mutiny, he thought, and wished he had an actual weapon. Though what he’d do with it was not clear. The irony that the lowest-scoring shooter in the history of the Howard training programs was now working as a weapons officer was not lost on him.

He stumbled into the bridge to find Chillicothe Xiang there, laughing her ass off with Paimei Joyner, one of their two scouts—hard-assed Howards so heavily modded that they could at need tolerate hard vacuum on their bare skin, and routinely worked outside for hours with minimal life support and radiation shielding. The strobes were running in here, but the audible alarm was mercifully muted. Also, whatever was causing the smoke didn’t seem to have reached into here yet.

Captain Smith stood at the far end of the bridge, her back to the diamond viewing wall that was normally occluded by a virtual display, though at the moment the actual, empty majesty of Tiede 1 localspace was visible.

Smith was snarling. “. . . don’t care what you thought you were doing, clean up my ship’s air! Now, damn it.”

The two turned toward the hatch, nearly ran into Maduabuchi in his breathing mask, and renewed their laughter.

“You look like a spaceman,” said Chillicothe.

“Moral here,” added Paimei. One deep black hand reached out to grasp Maduabuchi’s shoulder so hard he winced. “Don’t try making a barbecue in the galley.”

“We’ll be eating con-rats for a week,” snapped Captain Smith. “And everyone on this ship will know damned well it’s your fault we’re chewing our teeth loose.”

The two walked out, Paimei shoving Maduabuchi into a bulkhead while Chillicothe leaned close. “Take off the mask,” she whispered. “You look stupid in it.”

Moments later, Maduabuchi was alone with the captain, the mask dangling in his grasp.

“What was it?” she asked in a quiet, gentle voice that carried more respect than he probably deserved.

“I have . . . had something,” Maduabuchi said. “A sort of, well, hunch. But it’s slipped away in all that chaos.”

Smith nodded, her face closed and hard. “Idiots built a fire in the galley, just to see if they could.”

“Is that possible?”

“If you have sufficient engineering talent, yes,” the captain admitted grudgingly. “And are very bored.”

“Or want to create a distraction,” Maduabuchi said, unthinking.

“Damn it,” Smith shouted. She stepped to her command console. “What did we miss out there?”

“No,” he said, his hunches suddenly back in play. This was like a flow hangover. “Whatever’s out there was out there all along. The green flash. Whatever it is.” And didn’t that niggle at his thoughts like a cockroach in an airscrubber. “What we missed was in here.”

“And when,” the captain asked, her voice very slow now, viscous with thought, “did you and I become we as separate from the rest of this crew?”

When you first picked me, ma’am, Maduabuchi thought but did not say. “I don’t know. But I was in the Survey Suite, and you were on the bridge. The rest of this crew was somewhere else.”

“You can’t look at everything, damn it,” she muttered. “Some things should just be trusted to match their skin.”

Her words pushed Maduabuchi back into his flow state, where the hunch reared up and slammed him in the forebrain with a broad, hairy paw.

“I know what’s wrong,” he said, shocked at the enormity of the realization.

“What?”

Maduabuchi shook his head. It couldn’t possibly be true. The ship’s orientation was currently such that the bridge faced away from Tiede 1, but he stared at the screen anyway. Somewhere outside that diamond sheeting—rather smaller than the lounge, but still substantial—was a work of engineering on a scale no human had ever contemplated.

No human was the key word.

“The brown dwarf out there . . .” He shook with the thought, trying to force the words out. “It’s artificial. Camouflage. S-something else is hidden beneath that surface. Something big and huge and . . . I don’t know what. And s-someone on our ship has been communicating with it.”

Who could possibly manage such a thing?

Captain Peridot Smith gave him a long, slow stare. Her razored eyes cut into him as if he were a specimen on a lab table. Slowly, she pursed her lips. Her head shook just slightly. “I’m going to have to ask you to stand down, Mr. St. Macaria. You’re clearly unfit for duty.”

What! Maduabuchi opened his mouth to protest, to argue, to push back against her decision, but closed it again in the face of that stare. Of course she knew. She’d known all along. She was testing . . . whom? Him? The rest of the crew?

He realized it didn’t matter. His line of investigation was cut off. Maduabuchi knew when he was beaten. He turned to leave the bridge, then stopped at the hatch. The breathing mask still dangled in his hand.

“If you didn’t want me to find that out, ma’am,” he asked, “then why did you set me to looking for it?”

But she’d already turned away from him without answering, and was making a study of her command data.

• • • •

Chillicothe Xiang found him in the observation lounge an hour later. Uncharacteristically, Maduabuchi had retreated into alcohol. Metabolic poisons were not so effective on Howard Immortals, but if he hit something high enough proof, he could follow youthful memories of the buzz.

“That’s Patrice’s forty-year-old scotch you’re drinking,” she observed, standing over the smartgel bodpod that wrapped him like a warm, sticky uterus.

“Huh.” Patrice Tonwe, their engineering chief, was a hard son of a bitch. One of the leaders in that perpetual game of shake-and-break the rest of the crew spent their time on. Extremely political as well, even by Howard standards. Not someone to get on the wrong side of.

Shrugging off the thought and its implications, Maduabuchi looked at the little beaker he’d poured the stuff into. “Smelled strongest to me.”

Chillicothe laughed. “You are hopeless, Mad. Like the galaxy’s oldest adolescent.”

Once again he felt stung. “I’m one hundred forty-three years-subjective old. Born over two hundred years-objective ago.”

“So?” She nodded at his drink. “Look at that. And I’ll bet you never even changed genders once before you went Howard. The boy who never grew up.”

He settled further back and took a gulp from his beaker. His throat burned and itched, but Maduabuchi would be damned if he’d give her the satisfaction of choking. “What do you want?”

She knelt close. “I kind of like you, okay? Don’t get excited, you’re just an all right kid. That’s all I’m saying. And because I like you, I’m telling you, don’t ask.”

Maduabuchi was going to make her say it. “Don’t ask what?”

“Just don’t ask questions.” Chillicothe mimed a pistol with the fingers of her left hand. “Some answers are permanent fatal errors.”

He couldn’t help noting her right hand was on the butt of a real pistol. Fléchette-throwing riot gun, capable of shredding skin, muscle and bone to pink fog without damaging hull integrity.

“I don’t know,” he mumbled. “Where I grew up, green light means go.”

Chillicothe shook him, a disgusted sneer chasing across her lips. “It’s your life, kid. Do what you like.”

With that, she stalked out of the observation lounge.

Maduabuchi wondered why she’d cared enough to bother trying to warn him off. Maybe Chillicothe had told the simple truth for once. Maybe she liked him. No way for him to know.

Instead of trying to work that out, he stared at Tiede 1’s churning orange surface. “Who are you? What are you doing in there? What does it take to fake being an entire star?”

The silent light brought no answers, and neither did Patrice’s scotch. Still, he continued to ask the questions for a while.

• • • •

Eventually he woke up, stiff in the smartgel. The stuff had enclosed all of Maduabuchi except for his face, and it took several minutes of effort to extract himself. When he looked up at the sky, the stars had shifted.

They’d broken Tiede 1 orbit!

He scrambled for the hatch, but to his surprise, his hand on the touchpad did not cause the door to open. A moment’s stabbing and squinting showed that the lock had been frozen on command override.

Captain Smith had trapped him in here.

“Not for long,” he muttered. There was a maintenance hatch at the aft end of the lounge, leading to the dorsal weapons turret. The power and materials chase in the spine of the hull was partially pressurized, well within his minimally Howard-enhanced environmental tolerances.

And as weapons officer, he had the command overrides to those systems. If Captain Smith hadn’t already locked him out.

To keep himself going, Maduabuchi gobbled some prote-nuts from the little service bar at the back of the lounge. Then, before he lost his nerve, he shifted the wall hangings that obscured the maintenance hatch and hit that pad. The interlock system demanded his command code, which he provided with a swift haptic pass, then the wall section retracted with a faint squeak that spoke of neglected maintenance.

The passage beyond was ridiculously low-clearance. He nearly had to hold his breath to climb to the spinal chase. And cold, damned cold. Maduabuchi figured he could spend ten, fifteen minutes tops up there before he began experiencing serious physiological and psychological reactions.

Where to go?

The chase terminated aft above Engineering, with access to the firing points there, as well as egress to the Engineering bay. Forward it met a vertical chase just before of the bridge section, with an exterior hatch, access to the forward firing points, and a connection to the ventral chase.

No point in going outside. Not much point in going to Engineering, where like as not he’d meet Patrice or Paimei and wind up being sorry about it.

He couldn’t get onto the bridge directly, but he’d get close and try to find out.

The chase wasn’t really intended for crew transit, but it had to be large enough to admit a human being for inspection and repairs, when the automated systems couldn’t handle something. It was a shitty, difficult crawl, but Inclined Plane was only about two hundred meters stem to stern anyway. He passed over several intermediate access hatches—no point in getting out—then simply climbed down and out in the passageway when he reached the bridge. Taking control of the exterior weapons systems from within the walls of the ship wasn’t going to do him any good. The interior systems concentrated on disaster suppression and anti-hijacking, and were not under his control anyway.

No one was visible when Maduabuchi slipped out from the walls. He wished he had a pistol, or even a good, long-handled wrench, but he couldn’t take down any of the rest of these Howards even if he tried. He settled for hitting the bridge touchpad and walking in when the hatch irised open.

Patrice sat in the captain’s chair. Chillicothe manned the navigation boards. They both glanced up at him, surprised.

“What are you doing here?” Chillicothe demanded.

“Not being locked in the lounge,” he answered, acutely conscious of his utter lack of any plan of action. “Where’s Captain Smith?”

“In her cabin,” said Patrice without looking up. His voice was a growl, coming from a heavyworld body like a sack of bricks. “Where she’ll be staying.”

“Wh-why?”

“What did I tell you about questions?” Chillicothe asked softly.

Something cold rested against the hollow spot of skin just behind Maduabuchi’s right ear. Paimei’s voice whispered close. “Should have listened to the woman. Curiosity killed the cat, you know.”

They will never expect it, he thought, and threw an elbow back, spinning to land a punch on Paimei. He never made the hit. Instead he found himself on the deck, her boot against the side of his head.

At least the pistol wasn’t in his ear any more.

Maduabuchi laughed at that thought. Such a pathetic rationalization. He opened his eyes to see Chillicothe leaning over.

“What do you think is happening here?” she asked.

He had to spit the words out. “You’ve taken over the sh-ship. L-locked Captain Smith in her cabin. L-locked me up to k-keep me out of the way.”

Chillicothe laughed, her voice harsh and bitter. Patrice growled some warning that Maduabuchi couldn’t hear, not with Paimei’s boot pressing down on his ear.

“She tried to open a comms channel to something very dangerous. She’s been relieved of her command. That’s not mutiny, that’s self-defense.”

“And compliance to regulation,” said Paimei, shifting her foot a little so Maduabuchi would be sure to hear her.

“Something’s inside that star.”

Chillicothe’s eyes stirred. “You still haven’t learned about questions, have you?”

“I w-want to talk to the captain.”

She glanced back toward Patrice, now out of Maduabuchi’s very limited line of sight. Whatever look was exchanged resulted in Chillicothe shaking her head. “No. That’s not wise. You’d have been fine inside the lounge. A day or two, we could have let you out. We’re less than eighty hours-subjective from making threadneedle transit back to Saorsen Station, then this won’t matter anymore.”

He just couldn’t keep his mouth shut. “Why won’t it matter?”

“Because no one will ever know. Even what’s in the data will be lost in the flood of information.”

I could talk, Maduabuchi thought. I could tell. But then I’d just be another crazy ranting about the aliens that no one has ever found across several thousand explored solar systems in hundreds of lightyears of the Orion Arm. The crazies that had been ranting all through human history about the Fermi Paradox. He could imagine the conversation. “No, really. There are aliens. Living in the heart of a brown dwarf. They flashed a green light at me.”

Brown dwarfs were everywhere. Did that mean that aliens were everywhere, hiding inside the hearts of their guttering little stars?

He was starting to sound crazy, even to himself. But even now, Maduabuchi couldn’t keep his mouth shut. “You know the answer to the greatest question in human history. ‘Where is everybody else?’ And you’re not talking about it. What did the aliens tell you?”

“That’s it,” said Paimei. Her fingers closed on his shoulder. “You’re out the airlock, buddy.”

“No,” said Chillicothe. “Leave him alone.”

Another rumble from Patrice, of agreement. Maduabuchi, in sudden, sweaty fear for his life, couldn’t tell whom the man was agreeing with.

The fléchette pistol was back against his ear. “Why?”

“Because we like him. Because he’s one of ours.” Her voice grew very soft. “Because I said so.”

Reluctantly, Paimei let him go. Maduabuchi got to his feet, shaking. He wanted to know, damn it, his curiosity burning with a fire he couldn’t ever recall feeling in his nearly two centuries of life.

“Go back to your cabin.” Chillicothe’s voice was tired. “Or the lounge. Just stay out of everyone’s way.”

“Especially mine,” Paimei growled. She shoved him out the bridge hatch, which cycled to cut him off.

Like that, he was alone. So little a threat that they left him unescorted within the ship. Maduabuchi considered his options. The sane one was to go sit quietly with some books until this was all over. The most appealing was to go find Captain Smith, but she’d be under guard behind a hatch locked by command override.

But if he shut up, if he left now, if he never knew . . . Inclined Plane wouldn’t be back this way, even if he happened to be crewing her again. No one else had reason to come to Tiede 1, and he didn’t have resources to mount his own expedition. Might not for many centuries to come. When they departed this system, they’d leave the mystery behind. And it was too damned important.

Maduabuchi realized he couldn’t live with that. To be this close to the answer to Fermi’s question. To know that the people around him, possibly everyone around him, knew the truth and had kept him in the dark.

The crew wanted to play hard games? Then hard games they’d get.

He stalked back through the passageway to the number two lateral. Both of Inclined Plane’s boats were docked there, one on each side. A workstation was at each hatch, intended for use when managing docking or cargo transfers or other such logistical efforts where the best eyes might be down here, off the bridge.

Maduabuchi tapped himself into the weapons systems with his own still-active overrides. Patrice and Chillicothe and the rest were counting on the safety of silence to ensure there were no untoward questions when they got home. He could nix that.

He locked down every weapons system for 300 seconds, then set them all to emergency purge. Every chamber, every rack, every capacitor would be fully discharged and emptied. It was a procedure for emergency dockings, so you didn’t come in hot and hard with a payload that could blow holes in the rescuers trying to catch you.

Let Inclined Plane return to port with every weapons system blown, and there’d be an investigation. He cycled the hatch, slipped into the portside launch. Let Inclined Plane come into port with a boat and a crewman missing, and there’d be even more of an investigation. Those two events together would make faking a convincing log report pretty tough. Especially without Captain Smith’s help.

He couldn’t think about it any more. Maduabuchi strapped himself in, initiated the hot-start preflight sequence, and muted ship comms. He’d be gone before Paimei and her cohorts could force the blast-rated docking hatch. His weapons systems override would keep them from simply blasting him out of space, then concocting a story at their leisure.

And the launch had plenty of engine capacity to get him back to close orbit around Tiede 1.

Blowing the clamps on a hot-start drop, Maduabuchi goosed the launch on a minimum-time transit back toward the glowering brown dwarf. Captain Smith wouldn’t leave him here to die. She’d be back before he ran out of water and air.

Besides, someone was home down there, damn it, and he was going to go knocking.

Behind him, munitions began cooking off into the vacuum. Radiations across the EM spectrum coruscated against the launch’s forward viewports, while instrumentation screeched alerts he didn’t need to hear. It didn’t matter now. Screw Chillicothe’s warning about not asking questions. “Permanent fatal errors,” his ass.

One way or the other, Maduabuchi would find the answers if it killed him.

Jay Lake

Jay Lake

Jay Lake was a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Awards. He lived in Portland, Oregon and lost a six year battle with colon cancer on June 1, 2014. Jay was a prolific writer and editor and blogged regularly about his cancer at his website jlake.com. He was well known for his novels featuring the character Green (Green, Endurance, and Kalimpura, published by Tor Books) as well as several other novels and collections. His final collection The Last Plane to Heaven was released by Tor Books in 2014. His work has been translated into several languages including Czech, French, German, Hebrew, Japanese and Russian.