NOTH­ING IS NOTH­ING

“Ev­ery­one says it was noth­ing, like a co­in­ci­dence. But I tell you what, noth­ing is noth­ing. Even noth­ing is some­thing. When they found that ship, the Tro­jan II, it was drift­ing, com­pletely empty, crew all gone. Ev­ery­one said, ‘oh, we can’t find any­thing o

Idealog - - RIDE ON - a story by Vin­cent Heeringa

It’s not the first time a ship’s dis­ap­peared.

“Sure, but we’re not talk­ing about a ship. Just the crew. With­out a trace. Noth­ing.” That’s my point.

“They found noth­ing, but that doesn’t mean there was noth­ing to be found.” ‘Not only does God play dice, some­times he throws them where they can­not be seen.” The Book of Hawk­ing, chap­ter 6 verse 12. “Quot­ing scrip­ture is even lazier, you stupid prick.” So is re­sort­ing to in­sults.

“Ha-ha. I tell you what’s in­sult­ing, the way they treated Sarges­son.” The de­tec­tive?

“Yeah. He knew. He fig­ured it out. That griz­zled son-of-a-bitch cracked it. He’s the hero.” What hap­pened to him? “He’s dead.” When the Lune sen­sors first de­tected the Tro­jan II, it was drift­ing off-course by over 300,000 kilo­me­tres, in the outer-outer or­bit of the Earth’s moon. It was eas­ily re­cov­ered and leashed back to Lune like a stray dog. They tied it up, just out­side the main base.

But in­ves­ti­ga­tors found noth­ing that the scan­ners hadn’t al­ready de­tected: an in­tact man­i­fest of build­ing sup­plies and space parts; pro­vi­sions for a seven-month jour­ney; an ar­ma­ments’ bay loaded with an un­primed nu­clear tor­pedo; and not a sin­gle trace of crew, nei­ther hu­man nor AI.

Hints of hu­man­ness were there. In the quar­ters they found clothes, some neatly folded into cub­by­holes, oth­ers still un­packed in their soft­skin suit­cases. One room had holo­grams of chil­dren and a woman in a bikini, care­fully ar­ranged on a bed­side cre­denza. A half-fin­ished en­try into chief of­fi­cer Gaunt’s note­pod re­vealed lit­tle more than what was in the of­fi­cial log: Chang ar­gued with Smith about the air con; Kylie Hill­man, the doc­tor, seemed to have a soft spot for the cap­tain, Mitch Bar­ber. Hen­drix was en­tirely silent. Gaunt him­self was read­ing a pot­boiler about a Mar­tian gigolo who se­duces its demi-god leader. The jour­ney with five hu­mans and two AIs was, by ev­ery mea­sure and trace, un­event­ful.

“Per­plex­ing,” is how the Lune Com­man­der de­scribed the Tro­jan II’s sta­tus.

“Mys­te­ri­ous,” agreed the civil­ian rep­re­sen­ta­tive.

“Tidy,” is what De­tec­tive In­spec­tor Nic Sarges­son con­cluded as he walked through for the first time. He’d been sum­moned from Earth, along with and his as­sis­tant An­drew Palmer, af­ter three days of un­re­solved in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“Was Cap­tain Bar­ber a fas­tid­i­ous man?” Sarges­son asked the younger de­tec­tive. He had the voice of an old smoker and drew a raspy breath be­fore he spoke. To Palmer, it sounded like a death rat­tle.

“Quite the op­po­site. Bar­ber was rep­ri­manded for slop­pi­ness, twice,” replied Palmer, clip­ping his folder shut.

“Odd. Any­thing else worth not­ing?” Sarges­son groaned as he bent down to look un­der a cot. When he stood up he sucked his teeth.

Palmer felt a twinge of ir­ri­ta­tion. The old cot al­ways sucked his teeth when he was think­ing.

“Well, ob­vi­ously there are the holo­grams and scans done by the AI but theyy show noth­ing too,” said Palmer. er.

“Ei­ther,”” cor­rected the older man. “Haveve you looked at the ‘grams your­sel­fur­self ?”

Palmer pulled a face. What’s the point of look­ing when the AIs had justst done it bet­ter than any hu­mann could, he thought. “No, sir. I have not.”

“You bet­ter make a start, then. I’ll haveave another wan­der through my­self. Who knows what an AII will miss.”

Ker­ryn folded one leg un­der her as she leaned back on the sofa. The kids were play­ing out­side, their voices drift­ing through the hot af­ter­noon air.

She turned the post­card over again.

A post­card. Who sends a post­card these days? And of a Greek Is­land. Mi­los. Craggy rocks with white, foamy surf. The sky was an­tique blue. On the back of the card her ad­dress was typed, in­clud­ing the un­usual spell­ing of the street, Mar­riene Ave, Ran­giora. And a hand-drawn scrib­ble: ‘Wish you were here, love Tom’.

“That’s it?” asked Mag­gie, as she reached for the card.

“That’s all.” Ker­ryn drew on the Dun­hill and let out a long, acrid cloud. “I mean, I don’t even know any­one called Tom.”

The door­bell sounded. Both their heads turned to see a fig­ure hov­er­ing ner­vously on the porch be­yond the open door. The dry nor’wester was blow­ing up from the Can­ter­bury plains. It smelt like ash.

“Mrs Bar­ber?” asked the sol­dier, fin­ger­ing his hat. “I have some news about your hus­band. May I come in?”

“So what do we know, Palmer? And let’s stick to the facts, shall we?”

Sarges­son hunched over a bad cof­fee in the plas­tic-walled of­fice of the Lune po­lice HQ. He arched a sin­gle eye­brow, a ges­ture in­tended to an­noy the young man. In Palmer’s view, the old man feigned author­ity but he had none. He was so pig-headed about the New Polic­ing – AI Anal­y­sis, Pre­dic­tive Crim­i­nol­ogy, Al­go­rith­mic Sleuthing. These are the tools for mod­ern po­lice. Proper po­lice. Like me, Palmer thought. Sarges­son was a di­nosaur and it was only a mat­ter of time. It’s evo­lu­tion.

He flicked open his holopad and re­cited the facts: “At 1322, Fe­bru­ary 23, 2076, Tro­jan II launched from Angstar Sta­tion, Venus, and set out on its 189-day jour­ney to the moon Ti­tan, the fur­thest out­post of the Cor­po­ra­tion. Six crew were on board: Her­man Gaunt, chief of­fi­cer; Freddy Chang, nav­i­ga­tor; Carcher Bale-Smith, en­gi­neer; Kylie Hill­man, medic; the fu­sion sci­en­tist Henk Hen­drix; and Mitchel Bar­ber, cap­tain. Plus two AI.” “Sen­tient?” asked Sarges­son. “Sort of. Sam­sung Ateres – awake enough to know they’re awake, dumb enough not to care. They were di­alled down to twoIQ. About the level of a Labrador.”

Sarges­son looked up sharply. “Who turned them down that far?”

“Prob­a­bly the Cor­po­ra­tion. One of their team was in Angstar on Venus …”

“And what were they car­ry­ing, this crew? I mean, what was a sci­en­tist do­ing on this trip? They all look pretty un­re­mark­able ex­cept for this …” “Hen­drix?” “Yes, Henk Hen­drix. What was the cargo that re­quired such a weapons spe­cial­ist?”

“Well, ac­cord­ing to the man­i­fest they were car­ry­ing a tor­pedo.”

“Yes I saw that. What kind. Any­thing spe­cial?”

“Um, let’s see,” said Palmer, flick­ing his fin­gers across the sur­face of the ‘gram. “Class-C seven.” “What the hell! An Obama?” “That’s what it says.” Palmer held up the pod as if to say it wasn’t me.

Sarges­son sucked his teeth loudly. “Why do they need a mother of a bomb like that in Ti­tan? An Obama!” Palmer shifted in his seat. “And where’s the bomb now?” asked the older man. “Still in the cargo bay.” “You mean we’re host­ing the big­gest bomb in the known uni­verse here on Lune?”

“Um, yes, I guess you could say that …”

“No guesses, Palmer. Just the facts, man!”

“Yes, sir, we are.”

Ker­ryn stood on the porch and let the wind blow over her face. It dried the tears be­fore they reached her cheeks.

Miss­ing. In­ves­ti­gat­ing. Hope.

The words tum­bled through her mind like lint in a dryer. They were mean­ing­less, de­press­ing. Mitch had his faults, she was the first to ad­mit that. His ex­tended trips gave them both some space. But that was their de­ci­sion. And he al­ways came home. She loved that.

But now he’d gone. Van­ished, they said. How could that be? No one just van­ishes.

She shiv­ered, de­spite the wind, and flopped down on the top step. Some­thing dug into her stom­ach. She reached down and pulled out the post­card, hold­ing it in both hands. Wish you were here, Tom. The Is­land of Mi­los. Ker­ryn liked puz­zles. She bought them for the kids but al­ways ended up do­ing them first. “Just check­ing they’re, you know, work­ing,” she’d say.

Right now the post­card felt like a puz­zle. A wel­come dis­trac­tion. She looked at the pic­ture and let her­self free as­so­ci­ate: Mi­los. Greek Is­lands. An­cient Greece. Pythago­ras. The Tro­jan war. Man­boy love. In­fan­ti­cide. “Uggh,” she mut­tered. She turned it over. Tom: Tom Du­ley. Tom Wat­son. Un­cle Tom. Ma­jor Tom.

“This is Ma­jor Tom to ground con­trol,” she mum­bled. It was Mitch’s favourite song. How did it go? “I’m step­ping through the door “And I’m float­ing in a most a pe­cu­liar way

“Ground con­trol to Ma­jor Tom, your cir­cuit’s dead there’s some­thing wrong …”

“Hang on,” Ker­ryn said, sit­ting up as the song played on in her head.

For here I am float­ing in a tin can Far above the moon Planet Earth is blue And there’s noth­ing I can do.

She in­dulged in a thought: was Tom a code name? Was this from Mitch?

She turned back to Mi­los. They’d never been to Greece. “The is­land of Mi­los,” she re­peated and tapped the edge the card on her knee. “Why Mi­los?”

Ker­ryn dug out her pod and asked: “Jobs: what’s the is­land of Mi­los fa­mous for? Like a tem­ple or a ruin or some­thing?”

“Hi Ker­ryn,” replied the pod’s chirpy voice. “Are you not a stu­dent of his­tory?”

“Just an­swer the ques­tion, ar­se­hole.”

“Very well. It’s fa­mous for a statue: Venus de Milo. The arm­less statue dis­cov­ered in …” Ker­ryn swiped the pod shut. “Venus! Well fuck me,” she said and ran her hand through her hair.

“What are the logs telling us?” Sarges­son had re­sumed his bark­ing in­ter­ro­ga­tion. The news of the Obama made him ner­vous,

pacey. He glanced at an in­com­ing mes­sage on his pod and then turned back to Palmer. “Well?”

“They don’t say much. You’ve seen the notes from Gaunt’s jour­nal. The of­fi­cial logs are un­re­mark­able. The crew just go about their du­ties. The con­ver­sa­tions are ba­nal.”

He liked us­ing that word. Sounded bet­ter than bor­ing.

“Then they just van­ish. One se­cond they’re in frame. The next, noth­ing.” “Noth­ing.” “Yes, noth­ing. I ran a di­ag­no­sis on the con­ver­sa­tions, their move­ments, the flight path. I was look­ing for pat­terns or anom­alies. There’s noth­ing that even hints at what comes next. There are no breaks in the frames. No tam­per­ing, no hacks that I can find. The crew’s there one minute then … gone, an empty ves­sel.”

“And you got the tests back from the lab?”

Palmer nod­ded. “Nix. I sub­mit­ted the swabs taken by the AI. No ra­di­a­tion, no new blood or for­eign DNA – just ex­actly what you’d ex­pect from five hu­mans breath­ing and shit­ting in a con­fined space for 17 days. It’s like there’s noth­ing …” “Yes, yes,” Sarges­son said curtly. He was an­gry now. An­gry at Palmer’s ca­sual tone. An­gry that ‘noth­ing’ was an ac­cept­able con­clu­sion to any­one, let alone a rank­ing de­tec­tive. An­gry the New Polic­ing meant that brain­work and shoe-leather could so eas­ily be ceded to un­think­ing machines.

Shit in, shit out – wasn’t that still true, even in the age of in­ter­plan­e­tary travel?

Sarges­son had sneaked a few sam­ples for him­self: swabs from the bowl of half-eaten ce­real, hairs from the pil­low on Bar­ber’s bed. He’d slipped the items into his pocket while Palmer watched the ‘gram and sent them to Vi­haan’s lab back on Earth. His In­dian friend did di­ag­nos­tics the old way, in a wet-lab, with a se­quencer that shud­dered when it worked. The re­sults were com­ing in now, he could feel the mes­sage vi­brate his pocket.

“Al­right Palmer, we’ll re­sume to­mor­row. Go home and think about noth­ing.”g

Palmer nod­ded and slipped on a coat. He hes­i­tat­edesi­tated by the door­way. “You’re stay­ing, are you?” Sarges­sonn smiled. It was a ner­vous ques­tion,ues­tion, as if leav­ing would be counte­dounted against him. So very hu­man.man. “Mm­mmm, just some pa­per­work.rwork. Off you go.” And he waved thehe young man good­bye.

The scree­nen on his pod lit up again. It wasas Vi­haan. ‘Hey, you old bas­tard. Go­tot those re­sults for you. Your hunchh is right. Call me. V.’

“I’m say­ing that it could be Mitch.” “Eh?” “Tom, Ma­jor Tom, it’s from his favourite song. And Mi­los, Venus de Milo. That’s’ where he’d been based. It’s a code. He’s in Venus, ‘float­ing in a tin can’.”

Mag­gie ex­am­ined Ker­ryn’s face. “Have you slept, love?”

“What? No, yes, what’s that got to do with it?”

“Well, you’re tired, stressed. Any­one would be. But you’re read­ing too much into this card thing. It’s prob­a­bly a mis­take or just a prac­ti­cal joke. You know Mitch.”

“I do know Mitch,” said Ker­ryn im­pa­tiently. “He doesn’t do prac­ti­cal jokes.” “But it could be any­one.” “No it couldn’t.” “Why not?” “Be­cause of this. She pointed to the ad­dress: Mar­riene Place. “Do you know how many get that ad­dress wrong? Ev­ery­one. Even the Cor­po­ra­tion. They spell it with two n’s and one r. Ev­ery time. I can show you his payslip!”

“No, I be­lieve you.” Mag­gie held up her hands in de­feat.

Sarges­son swiped his pod un­til a holo­gram of an el­derly In­dian man floated into view.

“Vi­haan Singh, so nice to see you,” Sarges­son croaked.

The im­age wob­bled as Vi­haan bowed the­atri­cally. “So good to hear from you de­tec­tive. It’s been too long. I see lit­tle has changed: car­ry­ing the bur­den of the uni­verse, sur­rounded by id­iots.” The old man laughed un­til he coughed up a ball of phlegm.

Sarges­son gri­maced. “So what about those swabs I sent you, eh?”

“Hah, what about in­deed. What does your gut tell you, de­tec­tive?”

“My guts. I didn’t know they still counted for any­thing.”

“Well, let’s see, shall we? What’s your hy­poth­e­sis?”

“I think you’ve found noth­ing, Vi­haan. I think there’s not a sin­gle scrap of hu­man DNA on that ship.” “Uh-huh, what else.” “I think that the po­lice AIs have been tricked by syn­thetic DNA planted on board to mimic the real thing.” “And …” “There was no crew found on that ship be­cause there never was one. They’re some­where else, prob­a­bly Venus, be my guess.”

“You’ve got good guts, Nic. The swabs you sent con­tain Huawai DNA. Bril­liantly con­structed, al­most im­pos­si­ble to dis­tin­guish from the real thing. You need some­thing old-fash­ioned, like me and my machines.” The old man laughed again. “They were never on the

Tro­jan II. They sent it into space alone. It’s al­most like they wanted you to find it empty.” “And drag it back to Lune.” “In­deed. But why? What’s on board that the Cor­po­ra­tion so badly wants you to have?”

“Oh, hell,” Sarges­son sucked his teeth loudly. “What?” “The Obama.” “The what?” “The tor­pedo, it’s a Class-C Seven. It’s in our land­ing bay. This isn’t a ship adrift, Vi­haan. It’s a trick, the old­est in the book.”

“Tro­jan! It’s like a bad joke. You need to get that thing off …”

But Sarges­son had al­ready slammed his fist on the pod and was yelling at it to call up HQ. He sprinted to­wards the land­ing bay.

Ker­ryn leaned against the post that held up the old ve­randa. It had been Mitch’s great grand­par­ent’s place, and was al­ready old then. Funny how some­thing so bi­o­log­i­cal could be so en­dur­ing.

She watched a sickle of the moon rise over the hills and slide into the black ex­panse of the sky. She shiv­ered. For the se­cond time that day she felt cold. Mag­gie had gone, leav­ing a pie for the kids and a con­de­scend­ing look for Ker­ryn.

“I know what I know,” she’d re­sponded de­fi­antly.

She was about to turn in when a spark of light flashed in the dark arc of the moon. She thought at first it must have been a me­teor. A fall­ing star. What do I wish for, she won­dered. But the light didn’t fall; it ex­panded un­til a disk the size of wed­ding ring lit up the pit­ted sur­face of the moon, as if some­one had tuned on a torch. Or a light. Or a fire. Then, just as sud­denly, it van­ished and the moon re­turned to black­ness.

“My god,” she breathed. Noth­ing nat­u­ral could be so un­nat­u­ral.

She was in­ter­rupted by a tug at her hand. “What is it mummy,” asked her son. “What are you look­ing at? Is it daddy?”

Ker­ryn picked him up and hugged him close. “No honey, it’s not daddy. He’s some­where else, not on the moon.”

So you think that’s how it started.

“It’s like all wars. They start with noth­ing much. A wooden horse out­side the gates. A shot in a street in Sara­jevo. A riot in a ship­yard.”

Noth­ing is noth­ing.

“Ex­actly.”

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