Nothing is nothing
A short story
"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 on it; it’s like a tragic mystery. Case closed’. Bullshit. It’s lazy.”
It’s not the first time a ship’s disappeared.
“Sure, but we’re not talking about a ship. Just its 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 Hawkings, 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.”
“Yeah. He knew. He figured it out. That grizzled son-of-a-bitch cracked it. He’s the hero.”
What happened to him?
When the Lune sensors first detected the Trojan II, it was drifting off-course by over 200 million 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; galley 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 bikinis, 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 used the time to read a potboiler about a Marsian gigilo sent to Hyperion to seduce its uptight famale commander. The journey, with five humans and two AI was by every measure and trace, uneventful.
“Perplexing,” is how the Lune Commander described Trojan’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 and his assistant Andrew Palmer been summoned from Earth after three days of unresolved investigation.
“Was Captain Barber a fastidious man? It’s so ship-shape,” Sargesson said. 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. He was reprimanded for sloppiness, twice,” replied the younger detective, 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 sighed. The old coot always sucked his teeth when he was thinking.
“Well, obviously there’s the holograms and scans done by the AI but they show nothing too,” said Palmer.
“Either,” corrected the older man. “Have you looked at the ‘grams yourself?”
Palmer pulled a face. What’s the point of looking when the AI’s had just done it better than any human could, he thought. “No, sir. I have not.”
“You better make a start, then. I’ll have another wander through myself. Who knows what an AI will miss.”
Kerryn folded one leg under her as she leaned back on the sofa. The kids were playing outside, their squeals 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, her pink-tipped fingers reaching 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 open porch. The dry nor’wester was blowing up from the plains. It smelt like ash.
“Mrs Barber?” asked the soldier, nervously figuring 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 coffee in the plastic-walled office of the Lune police HQ. He arched a single eye-brow, a gesture that annoyed 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 two-IQ. About the level of a Labrador.”
Sargesson looked engaged for the first time since the Trojan drifted into Lune’s jurisdiction. “Who turned them down that far?” he said, sitting up, one hand on his knee.
“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 …”
“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 there 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 top step of 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 drier. 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 landing. Something dug into her stomach and she pulled out the postcard. She held 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 distraction from the grief that threatened to sweep her up like a Canterbury dust storm. She looked at the picture and let herself free associate: Milos. Greek Islands. Ancient Greece. Pythagoras. The Trojan war. Man-boy love. Infancticide ...
“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 and sat up straight and kept singing.
For here I am floating in a tin can.
Far above the moon.
Planet Earth is blue,
And there’s nothing I can do ...
As she sang the similarities struck her as uncanny. 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. They weren’t really interested in history. “The island of Milos,” she repeated and tapped the edge the card on her knee. “Why Milos?”
Kerryn dug out her pod and spoke: “Jobs: what’s the island of Milos famous for? Like a temple or a ruin or something?”
“Hi Kerry,” 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 Milos. The armless statue discovered in …”
Kerryn swiped the pod shut.
“Venus! Well fuck me,” she said and ran her hands 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," responded Sargesson, flatly.
“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 inter-planetary cops?
In fact, 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 lab of Vihaan Singh, back on Earth. His aged tech 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.
Sargesson ran his hand down his unshaved cheek and let the wind whistle past his teeth. It displeased him to annoy Palmer so much, but it’s how he was. How they both were. For some reason his ex-wife popped into his mind and he took a moment to suppress even deeper feelings of antipathy towards the young detective. Not his fault she was a crazy bitch who brought out the worst in him.
“Alright Palmer," he said softly. "We’ll resume tomorrow. Go home and think about nothing.”
Palmer nodded and slipped on a coat. He hesitated by the doorway.
“You’re staying, are you?”
Sargesson smiled. It was a nervous question, as if leaving would be counted against him. So very human. “Mmmmm, just some paperwork. Off you go, then.” And he waved the young man goodbye.
The screen on his pod lit up again. It was Vihaan. “Hey, you old bastard. Got those results for you. Your hunch is right. Call me. V.”
“I’m saying that it could be Mitch.”
“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, hon'. 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."
"Because of this." Kerryn pointed to the address: Marriene Place. “Do you know how many people 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, no I believe you.” Maggie raised her arms. Not her place to argue. Not right now.
Sargesson swiped his pod and cradled it in his palm 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: you’re carrying the burden of solving crime, yet you’re surrounded by idiots.” The old man laughed until he coughed up a ball of phlegm and spat it virtually into Sargesson’s palm.
Sargesson grimaced. The old man was right, nothing had changed. The lacklustre coffee. The mediocre colleagues. The feelings of rage towards a woman he wanted to hate but didn't have the bones to. The thought depressed him. He shook himself awake and pretended he hadn't heard Vihaan's jibe.
“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 onboard to mimic the real thing.”
“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 and spat. “I can’t tell you anything about where you missing crew is, but I do agree: they were never on the Trojan II. 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.
“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!" exclaimed the Indian. "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’d 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 moon rise over the Port Hills and slide into the black expanse of the southern sky. She shivered. For the second time that day she felt cold. Maggie had gone, leaving a pie for the kids and a condescending smile for Kerryn.
“I know what I know,” Kerryn responded defiantly.
She was about to turn in when a spark of light flashed in the dark oval 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 a wedding ring lit up the pitted surface of the moon, as if someone had turned on a torch. Or a light. Or a fire. Then, just as suddenly, it vanished and the moon returned to black.
“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 Caleb, her toddler. “What are you looking at? Is it daddy?”
Kerry picked Caleb 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.