by Jay Lake
[Continued from Part 3]
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."
"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.
"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 Awardfor 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).
The next story posted from anthology Is Anybody Out There? is David Langford’s "Graffiti in the Library of Babel." Thank you, David!