Wednesday, May 26, 2010

"Permanent Fatal Errors" by Jay Lake (Part 2 of 4)

Permanent Fatal Errors
by Jay Lake

[Continued from
Part 1]

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."


"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.

[Continued in Part 3]

"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

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, on Twitter (jay_lake), and on LiveJournal (jaylake).

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