by Jay Lake
[Continued from Part 2]
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.
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 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.
"Permanent Fatal Errors," reprinted here with the kind permission of the author, is one of fifteen original stories included in the anthology Is Anybody Out There? edited by Nick Gevers and Marty Halpern, and forthcoming from Daw Books on June 1. For more information on this anthology, start 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).