Continuing my celebration -- and promotion -- of Is Anybody Out There? (Daw Books) my co-edited anthology with Nick Gevers, to be published on June 1, here is another story from the book.
Though I was already quite familiar with his work, the first time I personally met Jay Lake was at BayCon 2005, May 27-30, in San Jose, California. Jay was the Writer Guest of Honor; I was a lowly panelist. We actually met on Saturday the 28th, at 11:30 a.m., in the Carmel Room of the DoubleTree Hotel, for a panel entitled "Editing an Anthology." Later that day I showed up at another of Jay's panels, this time as a member of the audience, so that I could heckle him from the back of the room (just kidding). That second panel was on "First Novels"; I was still acquiring and editing for Golden Gryphon Press at the time, and thus in the market for first novels.
Just short of a year later, on June 22, 2006, I sent Jay an email to let him know that I would be editing his novel Trial of Flowers (Book 1 in The City Imperishable series) for Night Shade Books. If the "New Weird" subgenre is your cup of tea, so to speak, then you'll find few other books that are more "new weird" than The City Imperishable series. Anyhow, I just did a rough count, and at least 90 emails passed between us from the time I first started working on Jay's manuscript until I turned in the final copyedits for the page proofs and the book cover on September 18. When I first began editing, email was already the standard operating procedure; I don't know how folks did this job in the days before email. Unfortunately, I don't see Jay as often as I would like (I believe the last time, albeit briefly, was the 2009 World Fantasy Convention, again in San Jose), but I look forward to sharing another panel with him in the near future.
Jay's contribution to Is Anybody Out There? is a bit of mystery and a lot of science fiction entitled "Permanent Fatal Errors." About this story, Jay writes: "'Permanent Fatal Errors' is part of the Sunspin cycle, an as-yet-unwritten space opera trilogy I've planned as my next major project after I conclude the Green trilogy. This story explores a critical piece of worldbuilding that is a central plot question in the novels. The story takes place about 1,400 years before the narrative present of the novels, when the lessons learned by Maduabuchi during and after the action of 'Permanent Fatal Errors' have been lost. I remember them, and rediscovering them will be an important aspect of the larger story. It was a pleasure to explore the question of where the aliens have gone as part of Is Anybody Out There?"
by Jay Lake
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.
Jay Lake is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy awards. He lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. "Permanent Fatal Errors" is part of Jay's Sunspin cycle of stories, others of which may be found in The New Space Opera 2 (edited by Gardner Dozois & Jonathan Strahan, Eos Books) and his forthcoming collection The Sky That Wraps from Subterranean Press. Lake's other 2010 books include Pinion (Tor Books), The Specific Gravity of Grief (Fairwood Press), and The Baby Killers (PS Publishing). His short fiction -- currently numbering over 250 stories -- appears regularly worldwide. Jay can be found on the web at jlake.com, on Twitter (jay_lake), and on LiveJournal (jaylake).
You can read the previously posted story from Is Anybody Out There? -- Pat Cadigan's "The Taste of Night."