All Our Goodbyes, All Our Hellos
Final goodbyes had been hard. Finding the right words to say hello again... That was going to be much worse.
"Breathing rate's up. Not about to pass out on me are you, Fuller?" Bertolli was back in bitch-queen mode as the two of us shuffled into Third Law's cramped airlock.
"Just savoring the good stuff while I still can," I said, checking the skinsuit seal for maybe the fifth time. All green and good to go. Funny the way it had been 'Jon' all the way through three tedious weeks of searching, but now we'd found our quarry, it was back to formalities. Bertolli had a point to prove about leading the boarding party and we all knew there was only one reason why I was here.
"Hey. Know what?" Brannigan's voice came through on the buzzfeed, loud enough to make me wince. How did he do that? The implant algorithms were supposed to equalize everyone's inputs, yet Brannigan managed to bounce around inside my skull like some demented puppy. "I think those science geeks have screwed up."
Sure, Brannigan was an ass. You wouldn't get an argument from any of us on that. The guy acted as though his brains had been scooped out at birth. Even so, our heads snapped round.
"About to step out into vacuum here," I said. "Something you want to share with us?"
"Exactly! Shouldn't we be able to, like, beam across or something? We ate breakfast in a different star cluster and now, zip! Here we are. Yet you're supposed to suit up and just float across to the mother ship? Man, that's primitive. Armstrong was doing this kind of stuff two hundred years ago. You'd think we'd have something better by now."
"Jeez," Bertolli muttered. "Armstrong was the moon, dummy. First spacewalk was--"
"Status update on Ananke?" I cut in. I didn't need this kind of distraction, particularly right now.
"Same as last time," Brannigan said. "And the time before that. And--"
"Well. Hull heat signature's still right where we'd expect it to be for nominal life support function. No obvious external damage, just the usual wear and tear. Habitation module still pressurized. Radar returns show minor changes to the superstructure compared to the blueprints on file, slightly elongated spindle, mass redistribution in the hab, that kind of thing. All in all, everything looks to be in good shape. No reason not to expect streamers and party hats when you arrive."
"Changes?" I thought I heard a touch of anxiety in Bertolli's buzzfeed.
"Come on. Twenty three years. Man, that's a long trip. They're bound to have done some home improvements, right? The ship's not under acceleration but the engines are active. They're doing some weird kind of micro-pulsing, sort of a tick-over mode. Reaction chamber's showing nominal radiation levels but probably best you don't pop round the back to take a look."
So not a cold, dead ship. It was one of the scenarios we'd prepared for. The signal picked up by chance weeks ago had been cryptic about the fate of the four hundred aboard the generation ship.
Why no further contact then? Nothing except automated transponders since the moment we'd jumped into normal space and matched vectors.
With the airlock purged, we could see Ananke for ourselves through the open hatch. Mostly what we saw was a dark silhouette; this far out the nearest star was just a bright point among a thousand others--and Earth's sun fainter still. The habitable part of the generation ship was essentially an elongated cylinder capable of being spun up to provide some semblance of gravity on the inner surfaces when the ship wasn't under acceleration. When the ship had left Earth orbit, the plan called for a six-month acceleration phase and then the engines were to be shut down. Ananke was in no hurry to get anywhere, the living embodiment of the "it's the journey, not the destination" philosophy. But somewhere along the way, the plan had changed. The ship had altered course, broken communications, shut itself off from Earth. But now we'd found it again.
Counter-balancing the habitat at the end of a half-kilometer spindle, the containment vessel and meters-thick disk of shielding kept the generation crew safe from any radiation threat.
They say timing is everything--in which case Ananke got a bad roll of the dice. Strange to think that on launch day, there must have been a whiteboard in a lab somewhere with the precursors to Murchison's equations scribbled on it. Even as Ananke's engines lit up and nudged her out of Earth orbit at sub-relativistic speeds, the seeds of what would become the Murchison drive were already germinating. Not that miracles happen overnight, of course. But the distance Ananke had travelled in those twenty-three years had passed in the blink of an eye for those of us aboard Third Law. I guess that's just progress for you.
Nudging free with a pulse from my reaction nozzles, I began to appreciate Ananke's scale. She may have been slow, but she was big. I felt like a minnow swimming alongside a blue whale; fragile and insignificant.
"The reactors are active?" I queried.
"Nah. Not really. Like I said, just ticking over. Radiation shield's a--"
"Listen up, kids. Got some news." Commander Frederico's voice blanked out Brannigan. According to the head-up readout, he was tight-beaming us via laser; encrypted send. I glanced across at Bertolli who was drifting a few meters away, but her expression was unreadable behind her mirrored visor. Here we were, two fragile humans in our flimsy suits, a handful of light years from Earth, coasting across a void between the jump-ship that had brought us in a heartbeat, and Ananke that had crawled here the long way round. We hung in that void, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Right then, I'd have liked to have known which was which.
Bertolli gave me a quick thumbs up and I found myself grinning, feeling better already.
"Contact from Ananke?" she asked.
"Kinda," Frederico said. It sounded like he was enjoying himself. "There was a bit more to that transponder signal NewCon picked up than they let on. It came with an encrypted message. I'd have let you know sooner but I'm under strict orders--you know how the big boys like to play these things, right? But now you guys are at the sharp end, so you need to hear this."
We waited for him to go on. We knew exactly how the New Confederation of Colonies liked to handle things: with extreme caution. I could picture our Commander rocking back in that over-stuffed command chair, grinning to himself, savoring his little moment of drama, if that's what it was. During our training, he'd confided to me in an uncharacteristic moment of humility. Being in command is ninety-nine percent tedium, Jon. Doesn't matter worth a damn what you do. But that one percent... That's what you have to make count.
"So nine months ago, Ananke broadcasts a message. They have no expectation of it being received for years, maybe decades. If ever. As far as they know, we're all still earthbound and scrabbling around with our chemical rockets to even make it as far as the Moon. Still, they must have thought it worth trying--which implies they also thought it was important. I'm guessing NewCon had all but forgotten about them, just a relic of the pre-Murchison era. No doubt there was a to-do list somewhere: go find that old generation ship and bring back anyone done traveling who fancies rejoining humanity again. I bet we've all wondered how weird it's going to be for them when we suddenly pop up alongside and go 'Surprise!' Particularly for you, eh, Jon?" I listened to Frederico chuckle but stayed silent. They never let me forget why I'd been picked for this mission, not for a moment.
"Sure, they might be a bit sore about it. Or sulky. Who can blame them? Our tech advances have made their bold little adventure entirely redundant. Maybe that's why they're maintaining radio silence. Except--according to that message NewCon picked up, the joke's on us. Ananke's had visitors."
"Visitors? What kind of visitors?" Bertolli sounded pissed and I was too. We didn't need distractions. In my head-up display, the target symbol over-painted virtually on Ananke's airlock was swelling visibly. I nudged the braking jets to slow my rate of approach a little.
"Well here's a clue. It wasn't us." Frederico left a sizable pause for us to do the necessary thinking.
"Are you telling us there are aliens on board?" I thought Bertolli's voice sounded laboured.
"Relax. Long gone, according to their message. But they left something behind. A 'gift for mankind' according to the crew's message. Between you and me, the big boys aren't sure whether that's a good thing or not."
It was too much to absorb all at once. Our first ships with fully operational Murchison drives had skipped away from low-Earth orbit no more than five years ago. We'd found no sign of higher intelligence beyond that of mammalian-like fauna on any of the seven Earth-like worlds where beachheads had been established. So what were the chances of a first encounter with another intelligence in some remote region between star systems? Ludicrously small, it would seem.
Unless they had been watching; waiting.
All of a sudden, NewCon's inherent caution--some would say paranoia--didn't seem so unreasonable.
"What is it? This gift?" I asked.
"Welcome to your new mission parameters," Frederico said. "As of now, Ananke is under full quarantine until you two can provide answers to that question. Maybe this is the crew's idea of an elaborate joke, or maybe there really is some kind of artifact on board that ship. Or--and maybe best you two don't dwell on this thought--is this some kind of trap? Something left behind to exterminate humankind before we can properly infest their back yard?"
In the lengthy silence that followed, Bertolli and I crossed the last few meters to Ananke's airlock.
"Oh, and Jon? Remember to say hi to Ketch, won't you? You know how touchy families can be."
The airlock cycled normally at our command, alleviating one of my worries. We stepped cautiously into the interior of the generation ship. Although the lights were dim, atmosphere, temperature, power levels--all were showing as normal. But the ship seemed unnaturally quiet and no one had come to greet us.
We moved along empty corridors, stopping to inspect one of the agri-bays, green and lush but distinctly unkempt. The automated hydroponics systems were still functioning, but what seemed to be missing was the nurturing touch of human hands. Satisfied at last that the ship's environment posed no threat, we cracked our skinsuit seals and moved deeper into the generation ship. The air smelt ok. Not exactly fresh, but acceptable. Bertolli relaxed visibly, the tension flowing out of her posture as we made our way down a longitudinal corridor, lights automatically brightening from a faint glow up to normal brightness at our approach, then dimming again a minute or two after our passing. We stopped now and again to peer into rooms leading off the main corridor: storage areas, recreational lounges, kitchen/diners, offices, labs--all neat and tidy, all patently deserted.
"Accommodation floors are at the far end," Bertolli said.
"What? You think everyone's in bed?"
She frowned. "Don't jump to conclusions, Fuller." Ok, so it was back to 'Fuller' again. Time to put me in my place.
It was hard to ignore the facts. Three hundred and ninety-seven men, women and children--families had been given priority in the selection process--had embarked. I remembered that fact only too well, but then I had good reason to. Where had they gone? Ananke's critics speculated endlessly on the true efficiency of her life-support systems. Anything less than one hundred percent--the criterion for a truly closed, fully-recyclant system--meant gradual degradation and inevitable collapse. It might be decades away but by then Earth's sun would be no more than a tiny prick of light seen through a powerful telescope. No expert help. No resupply mission. Either they would find a way to fix and replace--or they would die.
Patently, there had been no obviously catastrophic failures. So where were they? The ship seemed... dormant.
The answer came soon enough.
Making our way inwards, feeling gravity dwindle to nothing as we reached the hollow core of the habitat, we found the crew. The bank of cryo units had been intended as a last resort. I remembered the hoopla in the media at the time, but the truth was the technology was relatively crude and largely unproven. A period of stasis of a few weeks or a few months was safe enough but much longer than that and the long-term effects on the human body were unknown. Entering cryo-sleep was a solution of last resort.
Yet here they all were. To my untrained eye, every single cryo-sleep chamber filled with a sleeping figure. Bank upon bank of them.
"Listen--" Bertolli turned to me, frowning. We listened together.
"It sounds... like someone humming."
We followed its source. At the far end of the central hub we reached the generation ship's command room. A figure lolled in the tall-backed commander's chair, humming something tuneless. He turned as we entered and waved a hand languidly. "Ah! Been expecting you. Figured you'd find your way here sooner or later." His eyes settled on me at last. "Hey, Jon. Been a long time."
Bertolli looked at me, uncomprehending.
"Bertolli," I said at last. "Meet my brother. Ketch Fuller."
INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT, SESSION THREE
1ST Ltnt L. BERTOLLI: Let's try a different tack. For the record, please tell us again how you came to take command of Ananke?
Commander (Acting) Ketch FULLER: Afterwards, Commander Kobi... He chose to go into stasis with the others, to sleep.
FULLER: After they left. The Folk. A lot of things had changed by then.
BERTOLLI: And you took charge?
FULLER: Someone had to. It's not like there's much to do. The ship takes care of itself more or less.
BERTOLLI: Why did the entire crew enter cryo-sleep? Everyone but you?
FULLER: Everyone was free to make their own choices. Once the Folk showed us stuff, it gave us a new perspective. We figured we should leave someone awake in case of emergencies. I volunteered and, well, here I am.
BERTOLLI: What stuff? What new perspective?
FULLER: The gift. That's what they chose to call it. From the Folk.
BERTOLLI: So you said. But why won't you tell us what it is? What did the aliens leave behind? Can you show it to us?
FULLER: It's... just the gift. For everyone who wants it.
BERTOLLI: Then show me--
BERTOLLI: All right. At least tell me what happened to the others. Twenty-seven of the cryo-sleep chambers are empty and there's no trace of those people on the ship. Was there an accident of some kind? An internal conflict?
FULLER: Can I sleep now? I really want to sleep now.
The DNA checks we ran were enough to convince Bertolli that Ketch was who he said he was. For me, that had never really been in doubt and yet still my brother felt like a stranger. He'd aged well, probably better than me, still lean and fit-looking, seemingly able to avoid the excess pounds that middle age usually brought. He's always been a stranger to you, I told myself.
"Don't suppose either of us expected to see this day, did we?" Ketch had said, as if those missing decades and all the hurt and bad feelings that preceded them meant nothing. "You never really understood, though. Did you? For us, it was always about the journey, never the destination. Yet now here we are, both in the same place again." He shrugged. "I guess you could say we came the long way round. Sometimes the views are better that way. The company more interesting."
"Tell me about the company, Ketch. You know that's why we're here. Tell me what happened when the Folk came. Where did they go? What did they leave behind?"
He seemed lost in his thoughts and started that tuneless hum again.
He shrugged as though matters were beyond his control. "Some things you just have to find out for yourself."
I felt the frustration beginning to bubble inside, anger starting to burn through my outer skin of professionalism. Easy, Bertolli said via buzzfeed.
Oh yes. How could there be any doubt? This was my brother all right.
"Something happened," Bertolli said. It was day four and we were eating a late supper in one of the kitchen/diner areas. "Nothing obvious, no video record for instance. But it's there in the system data. Abnormal power consumption, systems being taken offline and brought back up. Changes to control parameters. Something other than just routine maintenance. Just odd patterns in the housekeeping data but they seem significant in the circumstances."
"Circumstantial, though. Hardly evidence of some kind of first contact event. You really believe that happened?" I asked.
"Doesn't matter what I believe. NewCon can't afford to ignore it. Not until we have better answers."
We'd searched the ship and found nothing out of the ordinary. The enclosed volume of Ananke's habitable space was large, but we were thorough. Even so, there were plenty of ways to conceal something if you didn't want it found, particularly as we had no idea what we were looking for. Ketch did nothing to hinder us, spending most of his time in his quarters sleeping or idly humming to himself. But he did nothing to help us either, talking in that same disconnected, vaguely tripped-out way. This was not the arrogant, self-assured brother I remembered, though his ability to needle me even in this altered state seemed undiminished. His narcotics and tox-screens had come up negative. Bertolli and Frederico had discussed reviving some of the crew, but it was a risky procedure this long into stasis without properly trained medical staff on hand. I found it strange imagining what the ship might be like with the bustle of people once again. I'd grown used to the solitude, the echoing corridors, the quiet little ticks and whirs of the automated systems. The ship was undisturbed, for the most part, by any human presence. But it was driving Bertolli nuts.
"Your brother..." she said.
"We've been over this," I snapped. I was tired of hearing it.
"We know he's holding things back. He can't--or won't--describe the aliens he claims the ship encountered. And this 'gift' the Folk are supposed to have left behind... We're clueless. You have to talk to him again. Find a way to get through to him. He's your brother."
"You really think he'll listen to me? We're not the same people we used to be, not any more." Not that we'd ever been on the same wavelength, even twenty-three years ago. The day Ananke broke orbit was the day my family first learned Ketch had signed up for the crew and the one-way ticket. It broke our mother's heart when she found out. Less than a year later she was gone and it was clear to all of us she'd never gotten over the loss, the abruptness of the parting. By then Ananke was already closed up and uncommunicative, speeding away from a world they considered corrupt, polluted and irredeemable, with no intention of looking back. If Ketch even received the news, he'd sent no message of condolence.
"Talk to him."
Bertolli's buzzfeed broke into my thoughts and told me to head down to one of the agri-bays. "Take Ketch," she said. "There's something you both need to see."
Ananke housed three separate farms which allowed for some degree of crop variation, as well as isolation in the event of disease or parasite infestation. Each operated in closed-loop mode: waste materials recycled back into the growing substrate, water reclaimed and purified, even moisture scrubbed from the air. Nevertheless, active involvement of the crew was seen as an essential part of the process. It provided the crew with a focus for our instinctive need to care and tend for living things. Now though, the automated systems still watered and pruned, and regulated heating and lighting, but there was an unmistakable air of neglect. Over-ripe tomatoes hung split and rotting on their vines. Heads of corn were starting to turn black; salad crops were bolting and self-seeding.
Bertolli directed us to a storage area, one of two seed banks maintained onboard. I could feel my pulse quickening. Had she found something? The room was a cupboard-like space, its shelves bare and the refrigeration turned off. The hermetically-sealed door closed firmly behind us. I heard locks closing.
"I'm sorry, Jon," Bertolli said.
I shoved against the door but it didn't budge. Ketch just settled himself down on the floor and lay his head back against the bulkhead.
"What's going on, Bertolli?"
"Frederico's saying two more NewCon ships have jumped in and taken up holding positions. Everyone's nervous about this whole quarantine thing. They think there's something badly out of whack about all this. If there's alien tech on board, they want it. But if there's any sniff of a threat from it, anything that can't be contained, they won't hesitate to act."
"With nearly four hundred people on board?"
"As far as everyone's concerned, Ananke disappeared long ago, back when they first altered course and blanked us, and we gave up trying to track them from Earth. It's not common knowledge the ship's been located. Those four hundred were forgotten a long while back."
Not by everyone, I thought.
"So we really need some answers, Jon. And quickly."
I paced the longest dimension of the room. Two strides just about did it.
"You've got air enough for about two hours," Bertolli continued. "The door stays sealed until Ketch gives us some answers. Real answers, not the hippie mumbo-jumbo he's been spouting. Persuade him, Jon. Sorry. This is the way it has to be."
Ketch gave a little snort. "You remember why we named her Ananke, right?"
I stared at my brother coldly. "Greek mythology, wasn't it? Destiny, or something like that?"
"Yeah. But there's another meaning too. Necessity. Highly appropriate, wouldn't you say? Destiny and necessity. We all do what we have to."
I hauled Ketch upright, held him there roughly by the shoulders, trying to get him to meet my eyes.
"They're not bluffing, Ketch. We have first contact protocols these days and they're pretty conservative ones. If this 'gift' is seen as some kind of threat, they won't hesitate to snuff us out. You need to give us some answers for all our sakes."
He grinned but behind the grin, his eyes were blank. I let go and he slumped back to the floor. "Didn't I already give you the truth?" he asked.
I felt my anger boiling over. "Truth? You never knew the meaning of the word, not even when we were kids. Especially not then. It was just something that could be bent to your will. Maybe stretch it a little here, twist it a little there, until it fit whatever purpose you wanted."
I was back there in an instant, seven years old. Ketch had stolen one of my special-issue comics, a rare collector's edition. Weeks of saved pocket money made it feel as though half my life was invested in that issue. Ketch had been twelve; distant, superior. He'd no interest in the comic for himself. His pleasure came from depriving me, knowing how much its loss would hurt. I'd hauled myself up the rope ladder of the tree house in the corner of our yard to confront him, convinced Ketch had stashed it there. His face had appeared over the platform edge, flushed and angry. "You're not allowed up here, brat!" he'd yelled, stamping down hard on my knuckles. I'd fallen--not far but landing awkwardly, my arm cleanly broken. Mom and Dad hadn't stopped to listen to my story. I'd even been blamed for trying to get my older brother into trouble. This was the fault of your own carelessness, Jon. Don't try to blame it on others. That seemed to be the way things went. Ketch was always so credible; the good guy, the plausible one--the one everyone sided with if ever there was a dispute.
"You know what I never understood, Jon? You were the one who always dreamed about going to the stars, not me. Funny how things turn out."
I took a deep breath, willing myself to stay calm. "What are you hiding from us? What did the aliens leave behind?"
Ketch's attention seemed to be elsewhere. Then he said, "Would you have come if I'd asked?"
How many times had I asked myself the same question?
"But you didn't ask."
"If I had though."
The option had been there. Once the primary crew had been selected, all the engineers and support systems specialists and doctors, even--god forbid--a trained psychologist or two, Ananke's denizens were chosen by public lottery. There were no shortage of takers for what the press soon dubbed 'the dream trip.' Ketch's winning ticket entitled him to bring a partner, family member or friend but a string of failed relationships closed out the first option. Instead, he'd elected to allow the place to be reassigned to a total stranger.
"No," I told him. "I don't think so."
"Well then." He shrugged. "But I always hoped you'd follow somehow. One day."
And of course I had, but in a way neither of us could have predicted.
Ketch sighed and broke into a tuneless hum. I tried to follow the notes but the melody was chaotic, though I had a sense of phrases repeating.
"You hated music," I said. "Back then."
"No. Music is everything! If you really listen, that is."
"I remember Dad playing you his jazz records. You detested them."
Ketch leaned back against the bulkhead again and closed his eyes. "You know what I think? None of us care much about the deep future as long as we have tomorrow planned out. I thought Ananke might help teach me something, and it did. I loved the idea that all this--" his arm swept vaguely around the room to indicate the entire ship "--was always about the journey, never the destination. Sure it's a cliché, but back then what did I have to lose? Nothing. You were the talented one, the one who aced all his classes. The musical one. The one destined to do great things, achieve whatever you wanted if you just put your mind to it. I had nothing. I had to get what I wanted through other people. Cultivating a friendship here, charming someone there, playing enemies off against each other, giving people what they wanted to hear. I envied you, Jon. Did you know that?"
A thought was nagging me. "Was this all part of some grand plan, Ketch? Did your little group of pioneers think, no expect, that someday when we had the means, we'd come back to rescue you before everything fell apart?"
"Is that what this is? A rescue?"
"Isn't it? The only reason we haven't already hauled everyone out of cryo-sleep is because we might end up killing more people than we save. If not for this damn alien artifact, right now you'd be feeling the warmth of a real sun on your skin back on Kappa-5 or Eridani-4."
"No!" He sat up a little straighter. "Don't do that."
"Bring everyone out of cryo-sleep. Leave them as they are. They made their choices."
"That's not your decision any more."
"But it's important. To them."
For the first time, I seemed to have my brother rattled. A small victory, but a victory nonetheless.
"Look--" I settled on the floor next to him. "Sooner or later you have to give us answers. Are the Folk real? Describe them. There must have been some kind of record, pictures. Anything. And if they are real, how in godís name did they find you in deep space, never mind why? It took us weeks, and we thought we knew roughly where to look. Or if this is just some story, some shared delusion--?"
"No. The Folk are real. They came. They stayed with us for a while."
"And they left behind some kind of gift?"
"No, I mean listen." He tipped his head back. After a moment I did the same.
"What am I listening for?"
"You can't hear it?"
I could hear some distant hum, the ever-present vibration of air circulation fans and pumps and generators, the mechanical heartbeat of the generation ship--or maybe the pulse from the not-quite-dormant engines. "No," I said. "I can't hear anything."
"You will. And don't worry about your friend out there. You know she's bluffing, right?"
"One thing you need to understand about Bertolli. She never bluffs."
Ketch said something else but I missed it. I had the sudden sense of a missing piece clicking into place. I rewound back through my own thoughts. The engines. At this point in the voyage, cruising at a non-negligible fraction of the speed of light, Ananke's engines should be dormant, yet they weren't. Why not?
Suppose the Folk had wanted to leave some parting gift, some piece of technology designed to nudge mankind's development in the right direction? What better than an upgrade to those primitive reactors? Maybe we had been looking in the wrong place for the gift all the time. Entirely the wrong part of the ship...
"Bertolli--" My throat was dry and it came out as a croak. A headache, dark and insistent, pounded at my temples, confirming what I already knew. The air was stale. We were starved of oxygen. Bertolli hadn't been bluffing.
"Bertolli. Check this out. I think I know what it might be."
It wasn't the engines.
Frederico sent a remote probe as close as he could to the main reaction chambers, given the flux levels. We scanned it, probed the structure with a clutch of different sensors, and compared the results with the original schematics dredged up from the library. Aside from what looked like some kind of minor misalignment, nothing had been added, nothing taken away.
It was late when Bertolli came on the buzzfeed. "We have no option left," she said. "I know there are risks, but tomorrow we start reviving the rest of the crew."
I slept badly, something I'd done every night since we'd arrived on Ananke. I felt the ghost-like presence of the sleeping crew close by--sleeping, and yet not sleeping. What had driven them into cryo-sleep? What were they waiting for? And something else dancing just on the periphery of my consciousness, always tantalisingly out of reach: the gift left behind by the alien visitors. In my dream, it wasn't a thing. Not something I could touch or pick up, but an idea, slippery and impossible to capture. A phantom that turned to a breath of mist every time I tried to look at it.
I jerked awake.
I had a strong sense that something had changed. I could feel it as clearly as if a light had been turned on. That same feeling you get when a background hum suddenly stops: maybe you didn't even know it was there until it goes away. "Bertolli--!"
"Don't shout, Fuller. I hear you loud and clear."
"Zip, that's what." She hesitated. "You ok?"
"I-- I'm not sure. Meet me in the command room. I've got an idea to run past you."
But just moments later I almost collided with Bertolli in the corridor. She tapped the side of her head and made an urgent throat-cutting gesture. I suppressed my buzzfeed link so we couldn't be overheard. "They've gone," she said, almost in a whisper, her face pale.
I stared at her. She wasn't making any sense. I stuck my head in Ketch's cabin. Empty. The mattress was still warm when I laid my hand on it. "He can't have gone far," I told her.
"You don't understand." Bertolli led me down the main corridor into the dimly lit cryo-chamber. Two walls of cryo-sleep births rose like cliffs on either side of us. Every single status light had changed from green to red.
"Gone? Gone where? How is this possible?"
"Do not--I repeat--do not broadcast this." Bertolli's voice had dropped to an anxious whisper. "If Frederico gets wind, we both know what NewCon will do." She was right. They'd eliminate the threat, swiftly and convincingly. Maybe they'd have time for regrets later.
We searched the ship. This time we knew what we were looking for. The generation ship had plenty of hiding places but nowhere that could conceal upwards of three hundred and fifty people. And yet they were all gone. No traces, no clues left behind. All but one of them had been in cryo-sleep until an hour ago. Waking from stasis was a slow process: twenty-four hours minimum, sometimes longer. But every cryo-chamber was now empty. And Ketch was gone too. To all intents and purposes, Bertolli and I were the only two humans left on board.
I returned to Ketch's cabin leaving Bertolli dismantling wall-cladding as though she expected to find the missing crew huddled in some dark space, giggling like children playing hide-and-seek. After a minute or two I lay back on my brother's bed and closed my eyes. I needed space to think. I tried to picture Ananke as I'd first seen her from the airlock of Third Law: a long spindle with the cluster of reactor bulbs and thrusters counterbalanced by the habitation module, like a string waiting to be plucked on some giant instrument, the protruding engines its tuning pegs. Except... someone had tried to tune this string, hadn't they? Those structural alterations we'd logged had lengthened the spindle, and there had been a subtle reshaping of the habitation module--almost as if mass had been shifted to alter the ship's natural resonance. Why would the crew have done that?
Unless it hadn't been the crew's work. Was this the gift left behind by the Folk? Suddenly I could picture them extending the spindle, reshaping the superstructure, like master craftsmen shaving away wood, searching for an instrument's perfect pitch and tone. And what about the curious micro-pulsing of the engines...? Not some kind of standby mode. With its almost imperceptible thrust tugging at the slender spindle, what better way to play the instrument they had created, plucking the ship like some celestial violinist?
If so, what tune was Ananke singing? And who was there to listen?
Was this a message of some kind?
No. There were easier ways to do that. But a mode of communication nonetheless.
I pictured those vibrations traveling the length of the ship, reflecting back; interfering. Frequencies added and subtracted in complex patterns; harmonics dancing and weaving in and around, and somewhere the fundamental, the deepest of bass notes: Anankeís resonant frequency. Together they became the song of the ship. Or perhaps they became a chord, like none ever heard by human ears before. Music that could open up the mind to different perspectives, transport one to new places.
Ketch had heard it. Maybe the crew had heard it. Maybe I had heard the echo of it, even as I strained to catch something more prosaic. I thought again of the crew, each of whom had voluntarily surrendered to long months in the cryo-chambers; sleeping and yet not sleeping. Waiting. Listening. Had understanding come to them at last?
I shifted on the bunk, feeling beneath the covers for the hardness that seemed to be pressing into the small of my back. I found a package concealed there, just as Ketch must have known I would. From inside the envelope I carefully withdrew a fading, rather brittle--but still legible--comic. A masked figure crouched on a high rooftop, city lights blazing all around, taut strands of web binding him tight even as he fought against his bonds. The dark shadow of something monstrous was falling over him. How well I remembered that cover and the shiver of anticipation it had brought to my seven-year -old mind.
Was this an apology? A message?
I'd never truly forgotten about Ketch, even when I believed there was no prospect of ever seeing him again. Certainly weeks, perhaps months, passed and I didn't think about my brother, but then without warning I'd remember that goofy grin or the honking laugh he'd had as a teenager and I'd wonder about the trivial things that had driven a wedge between us. Why had we let that happen? Why had I let it happen? Then, when the vague prospect emerged that we might one day track down Ananke wandering its unknown path between the stars, I had felt only trepidation. What would we have left to say to each other? What came after the final goodbyes had been said?
Yet it hadn't been so hard, not really. I'd be crazy to make the same mistake twice.
I lay back again, letting my head rest against the cool metal bulkhead, searching for the gentle sound of the ship's note. It was growing fainter, the harmonics decaying, but I knew what to listen for now. I let the complex patterns fill me, unresisting. I didn't understand them--not yet--but that didn't matter.
And after a time, I followed.