7480 words, short story
The cadets stand at attention for their passing-out ceremony, a random sample of the motley gamut of branched sapiens, and Nuhane is the smallest by far—but he adds his voice to their oath with towering conviction:
“We swear to uphold the Einsteinian limit! We vow to impose relativistic lockdown when a debt is owed to the universe, to deal out justice like a blind law of physics, thereby safeguarding the integrity of the vacuum!”
Nuhane fights down the terror of open sky intrinsic to his branch of humanity. Although a spin foam hack keeps the atmosphere of this Titan-analog at bay, the shield is invisible. Stacked worlds of orange-glowing cloud present nauseating vistas. A darkling methane sea surrounds this rocky isle, this remote outpost of the Collection Bureau. Nuhane reminds himself that the oppressive distance to the horizon is not an existential threat. Still, he is of the Fey. He can’t help longing for a nice underground bunker, a womb-cave, or the intimate companionways of a space hab.
The cadets march to the far end of the parade ground. Weird, brazen music issues from pipes attached to robotic air-bladders. It’s all part of some ancient police ritual whose roots have been forgotten. Wisps of proxy tech haunt the margins of the field, proud instances of family and friends. Nuhane finds the scene rather grim. The intended effect is stark majesty, but he wants to get it over with, to join the fight he’s been training for.
He has no people among the spectators, and none to speak of otherwise.
From his childhood on a backward world, from concentration camps to this: lifetimes already, and he’s only a hundred. He knows all too well what humanity is capable of. He can’t fight for people alone, no matter how seemingly just the cause. In the Bureau he’s found the only mission left to him.
Without the fabric of the cosmos, even hatred is impossible.
He wonders suddenly if he’s remembering this moment, rather than living it. The future—if there is such a thing—comes to him like a divine revelation. It is a new past on the other side of “now,” but he is powerless to act on the knowledge. He’s locked inside this young cadet he once thought of as himself. The sensation is terrifying and glorious.
Simultaneously, this passive observer inhabits many other Nuhanes, including a middle-aged Nuhane, a lieutenant radically interfaced with a Bureau patrol cutter.
The debtor’s sign is plain to his augmented eye. The arcing spacetime fissure propagated like a magnetic field line from a gutted metal worldlet and out over the galactic plane. The nearest light-years of its length dissipate like an old contrail, undermining nearby vacuum. It is one of thousands of discernible violations. He sees them as an ominous glowing net tangled through the Milky Way, with stray threads arcing off to other galaxies and clusters. So much work to do. So much debt to collect.
If he tunes up his perception of the universal spin foam, he sees a second, thinner net woven through the first: debts collected, scars on spacetime. It sooths him to gaze upon all that the Bureau has accomplished. To him the scar tissue is a fundamental good, a rare thing in this universe. Never mind how little the tissue has done to shore up the collapsing seawall.
“Fresh enough,” says Lao Wang. “Bureau’s giving it to us.” The old baseline human sounds tired. Nuhane’s mentor and partner has locked down thirty-one violators, collecting over ten million relativistic tons of debt, a Bureau record. Soon he’ll vanish into lockdown himself, to pay off his Noble Debt. Nuhane will miss him. He wonders if this is their last mission together.
A younger Nuhane imposes his first lockdown with a sense of dark wonder. The violator ship, a converted Shinasian junk, dims and reddens inside its pocket of pseudo-acceleration, a pulsating sphere of apparently warped spacetime.
It is Lao Wang’s bust, but he let Nuhane do the honors—a taste of imposition for the green junior officer.
“Please,” one of the debtors weeps. “I don’t deserve this!” The transmission redshifts as it climbs out of the pocket. “I’m a licensed interface pilot! I was forced into this—”
“By a violator called Phlogiston,” Lao Wang supplies. “I know, and I’m afraid it makes no difference.”
The pilot is in the Mayall II globular cluster of Andromeda much sooner than he should be. His mass contributed to the vacuum deterioration in the junk’s wake, however minutely. He is therefore a debtor.
“It’s Phlogiston’s debt!” the pilot argues. That name again. Nuhane wants to ask Lao Wang what’s going on, but he’s distracted by the spectacle of lockdown. He’s seen it before, of course, but this one is different, no matter what the record will say. This one is his.
“Phlogiston’s debt,” Lao Wang says, “and yours, and the junk’s. Anything that violates, sentient or not, guilty or innocent, must be locked down. You’re an interface pilot. You know what’s at stake.”
“But the debt . . . ” he chokes.
“Approximately two million, seven hundred and forty-nine thousand, eight hundred and thirty-five point two two seven light-years.”
“So how long . . . ”
“Ten minutes ship-time,” Lao Wang says. “For your debt, lockdown is equivalent to point nine nine nine nine nine one seven c. Be thankful you won’t suffer the gravities.” He doesn’t need to add that meanwhile the resting universe will age 2.75 million years. This debtor is an interface-pilot, after all. He understands the law he has violated.
The junk continues to redshift, as though accelerating toward redemption. Soon it will be like a dim 3D snapshot printed on reality, beyond time and reproach. For 2.75 million years it will function like a head on London Bridge, a warning to those who would violate sacred law. Nuhane is proud to have finally contributed his first head. His pride waxes as the debtor’s personal clocks slow. The ship will gain millions of relativistic tons before it pays its mass-energy debt to the universe. By the time it heals the rent it tore in spacetime, all that the pilot loves will be gone, or radically transformed.
Nuhane is drunk on the power he wields. Perhaps sensing this, Lao Wang says: “Never forget that we are bound for the same fate.”
How could he forget with Lao Wang constantly reminding him? You sooner than me, old man, he wants to say. Nuhane has accrued seventy million light-years of so-called Noble Debt or VLOD (Violation in the Line of Duty), certainly a small fraction of Lao Wang’s. Nuhane is a young god, free to ignore Einstein when he sees fit, and to punish others for doing so. He worked hard to be so elite. Most Bureau officers end up with a local, sub-c jurisdiction, lying in wait for violators rather than hunting them. Their only taste of violation is the occasional use of a Bureau ansible. They are part of the vast, slow, relativistic two-thirds of humanity, trapped by distances that might as well be infinite.
Nuhane was never willing to settle for that. The last thing he wants to hear is Lao Wang urging him to humility.
“We aren’t so different from our prey,” the old man says.
Nuhane wonders if the bastard has developed violation syndrome. It’s new, the idea that too much time beyond c can lead to symptoms of senility. Some researchers go further, claiming that violation decouples consciousness from time.
Master Patrol Officer Nuhane is still high from his last “Noble” violation. He’s already looking forward to the next one. Between ecstasy and the grand future there is no room for doubt. Nuhane is immortal.
Beyond c there is no time and no speed. Bureau officers call the speed of light the “last speed.” Here in violation space, all of Nuhane’s violating selves are united. Beyond time there is exultant joy, infinite peace, and the “eldest” of Nuhane’s violation selves will find it hard to condescend back to the universe. They will leave pieces of themselves here.
The “younger” Nuhanes fear the dissolution of self that must result from perfect bliss. They flee back below c, cherishing what little exultation they’ve allowed themselves. All of the violating Nuhanes, young and old, remain in violation space for precisely the same amount of time—none—regardless of the light years skipped in the sub-c universe.
And so, coincident with their unification, the united Nuhanes split along their seams of self. They become again old and young and middle-aged, returning to the sub-c murk once and for all.
As Major Nuhane condescends from violation space, emerging near a violator yacht in the Southern Local Supervoid, he wonders how he’s going to explain this to the Bureau. They’ll study his ansible. They’ll suspect he tampered with its debt meter, but won’t be able to prove it. What they’ll be able to do is ground him with therapy sessions. Nuhane fears that more than anything.
The yacht winds up its violation ring, but Nuhane imposes lockdown before the ring completes its first test cycle.
He barely pays attention as the yacht wavers, begins to dim. His mind is still in violation space, in headlong discovery of joy. Why did he violate without permission? Was it really because of that informant at New McMurdo? The vacuum dweller had given him bad information before. Nuhane had vowed never to use her again. This time she claimed to know someone who knew Phlogiston, a violator no less, and she had coordinates for this violator’s next jump.
Nuhane didn’t hesitate. The informant was a known liar, her claim preposterous. Nuhane paid her. It was about a promise to Lao Wang, of course—not an excuse to violate.
“Officer,” a female voice says.
A video feed follows: twenty naked youths laze about in a garden setting, like an indolent pantheon of gods. Only one woman is standing, a sculpture in translucent flesh with inhuman black eyes and a cloud of silver hair. “I won’t insult your intelligence by denying our crime,” she says. Most of her companions aren’t even looking his way. Some appear to sleep.
“Big of you,” Nuhane says.
“You’re with the Bureau. You have violated. You know how it feels.”
“So you know why we do it.”
They are libertines. They violated purely to experience violation space. Nuhane suspected this when the informant gave him the coordinates. The common breeds of violator—colonists, shippers, transports—have no reason to jump to an inter-filament void. Out here there is only vacuum and a novel view. The lights sprinkled across the blackness are all galaxies. In the varying density of this field, the large-scale structure of the universe is discernible.
Nuhane suffers a wave of nausea. Nowhere else is the universe’s dumb magnitude more apparent. He allows his cutter to feed him a palliative. He longs for a cave, or the alchemy of violation space. Did Lao Wang ever yearn for it like this? Nuhane remembers a time, long before the old man’s senility, when he seemed obsessed with violation, with its nature. But did he crave it? Perhaps all Bureau officers do.
“How can you blame us for wanting that transcendence?”
“I don’t deal in blame,” Nuhane says. “Think of me as a maintenance man.”
An Apollo in the background chuckles, saying, “There it is.”
The nymph at his side murmurs, “What did you expect?”
“I take it you don’t believe in the danger of spacetime fissuring,” Nuhane says.
A ripple of laughter animates the pantheon. “Do you?” the translucent goddess asks.
Nuhane hates this old debate, but he wants to feel these people out. “Set aside the overwhelming scientific consensus, if you like. Shouldn’t we proceed with caution? It’s the fabric of spacetime, after all. We need it.” This elicits more laughter, and Nuhane gets angry despite himself—angry at himself, more than these Deniers. He should be used to their kind. The age of unchecked FTL travel, the so-called Age of Innocence, left Deniers scattered across the cosmos. He has to remind himself of the Bureau’s role: not to correct delusional thinking, not even to keep up with the damage, an impossibility. But to act as a deterrent. “Laugh if you like,” he says. “Laugh all the way into lockdown.”
“Bureau fascist,” the nymph says.
“You want violation for yourselves,” Apollo says. “First rule of bureaucracy and so on. You imagine what humanity could be given by unchecked violation, and it terrifies you.”
“You hate freedom,” says another woman.
They may have tweaked themselves to believe this drivel. Judging by their composure in the face of lockdown, they are no strangers to mental rewrites—and their bodies are certainly customized. Not for the first time, Nuhane wonders what it would be like to see and think like a Denier. Driven by fear. Unable to live with the possibility, however remote, of the universe splitting along its fissures and flying apart. Choosing to believe otherwise.
Nuhane could go to a clinic, get the tweak. Then he could lose himself in violation. But the notion is fleeting. If he did that, he wouldn’t enjoy the resulting fantasy. Someone new would.
“You can still stop this lockdown,” the translucent goddess says.
They haven’t reached the point of no return, but they’re close. Nuhane allows his cutter to underclock him to match their continually slowing reference frame. “That’s right.”
“Congratulations. I’m after someone named Phlogiston.”
Apollo and his nymph stop laughing. The rest of the pantheon subtly emerges from its contrived disinterest. This charged moment takes three months in Nuhane’s resting universe.
The goddess says: “That’s not his real name.”
Nuhane is old, a commander, and the dwarf glares murkily just light-seconds away. The ominous substar seems familiar, or perhaps significant beyond its fearsome absurdity.
“Sir?” It’s patrol officer Wen Ting, his junior partner. He can hear the concern mixed with youthful impatience in her voice. “Jump to orbit, or what?” She knows violation syndrome has him by the throat. How could she not, by now? He remembers his own premonitions as Lao Wang deteriorated.
They have followed a ragged tear in spacetime to an abandoned long-range rig that only accounts for ninety-one percent of the debt. Something else launched from the rig and likely headed for the dwarf.
Instead of giving the order Wen Ting craves, Nuhane contemplates the fissure. One of billions now. He gazes into the night and watches them in real time, no matter how far away they are, because they violate. They seem to propagate from him toward a distant haze woven through the microwave background.
“The L-T object,” Wen Ting prompts.
Nuhane returns his gaze to the dwarf, remembers they’re here to lock down someone named Willard. The cutter doses him with the latest syndrome therapy. It activates random memories and loosens his tongue: “Patrol Officer, did you know that my people were one of the first branches from baseline humanity? We were called fey because we bred ourselves small and claustrophilic for interstellar travel. And because our enterprise seemed like a death wish.”
“We were the first to colonize many worlds. We did it fair and square, no FTL. But on Lalo our civilization collapsed. When a wave of violators arrived, all that remained of us was an underground theocracy. Of course the violator civ also collapsed. They went medieval, demonized us, blamed us for crop failures, plagues, everything. Then they industrialized, declared total wars on each other. Most of our caverns were beneath a republic called Iomang, a desperate state ruled by a madman.”
“Yes sir,” Wen Ting says absently, then adds, “Something’s orbiting the dwarf.”
Nuhane feels vaguely insulted. Hoping to embarrass her in turn, he asks, “Why did you join the Church of the Indemnity?”
“Willard’s shuttle is correcting toward the orbiter,” she says, then seamlessly adds: “My people were violators. The Bureau wasn’t going to let me in. Getting the Church tweak was the only way to prove my loyalty. At least, that’s what I thought before. Now I see that this was the universe’s way of guiding me toward the Faith.”
Nuhane realizes she’s explained this before. He ends up embarrassed for himself again. Furthermore, he finds nothing to mock in her story.
With a note of confusion Wen Ting announces: “Grav harmonics from the orbiter, but not the signature of violation tech.” She waits for Nuhane’s order. Nuhane can’t seem to focus. “Jump over and intercept before he can dock?” she prods.
When she initiates without consent, Nuhane realizes this mission will be his last.
Nuhane has been to several Bureau lockdown ceremonies, but Lao Wang’s is the first to fill him with dread of the future. Captain Nuhane feels old for the first time in his life. He is on the observation deck of Achindoun, the Bureau hab that has long stood watch over the Nobly Locked Down. He’s joined by fellow officers and a smattering of Lao Wang’s proxied relations.
Lagrange point 4 of the Pluto-analog Kvichak and its moon Igiugig: here hang thousands of Bureau officers in their lockdown pods, most of them redshifted beyond casual observation. Lao Wang’s has just shed its attitude jets, having found its place among the others.
The bagpipes sound, and the lensing of his pod signifies the beginning of lockdown. Some of his loved ones allow their proxies to broadcast sobs. Nuhane wonders what that says about the authenticity of their grief. He can only stare in numb transfixion.
The old man shoulders four hundred billion two hundred and eighty-seven thousand light-years of Noble Debt—an epic career, but not the record. No one knows why people can only violate so many times before losing their faculties. Most officers don’t break five hundred billion. Nuhane, now at ten billion four hundred and ninety million, wonders how far he’ll go.
“Reductio ad absurdum,” Lao Wang PMs, “reductio ad infinitum. Redcutio ad absurdum, reductio . . . ” On he goes, repeating his nonsense mantra.
“Listen Uncle,” Nuhane says. “We both know I’m not half the officer you are. I’ll probably check out long before four hundred big ones. We could emerge from lockdown around the same time. We’d be together, two old maniacs laughing at . . . whatever humanity is by then. How does that sound?”
“ . . . ad infinitum. Remember that, boy.”
“Alright.” Nuhane is used to dealing with him like this. He’s glad the old man had the sense to PM him, and not include his relatives.
“Architectures, paradigms, we all fall down. Ashes, ashes.”
“Nuhane.” His transmissions are redshifting fast now.
“I’m here, Uncle.”
“Remember that lockdown in Mayall II?”
“Mayall II . . . ”
“Yes. I remember. The slaved pilot. We never found the perp.”
“Phlogiston. He called himself Phlogiston. There was a file on him. You didn’t rate the clearance at the time, so I couldn’t tell you. He’s important.”
Nuhane doesn’t know if this is the syndrome talking or not. “I remember wondering what you were hiding. Don’t worry, I’ll look at the file.”
“It’s gone. They even wiped it from me, somehow, whoever they are. But I know he was part of something big. I know it!”
“I believe you,” Nuhane says, not sure that he does.
“Find him. Violate off the books if you have to. Promise me.”
Nuhane is sure that his other, timeless self is here, reading his life like prose. The more he violates, the more certain he is of this.
Nuhane’s counselor is Lectern, an instance of a Turing-passable expert system, an ancient Bureau creature possessed of unfathomable secrets. Colonel Nuhane is enduring another therapy session. All he can think about is getting back into violation space, which is the sort of thing Lectern would like to know, and the last thing Nuhane cares to admit.
“We were talking about your old partner,” the system prods. “His lockdown ceremony.”
“It was a hundred years ago,” Nuhane prevaricates.
“Then let’s talk about your debriefing last week,” Lectern suggests.
“An instance of you was there. Surely you’ve reintegrated by now.”
“How did the questions make you feel?”
“You violated without authorization. Shouldn’t we be concerned?”
“For the last time, my ansible went into lockdown before I could request the jump. I was chasing a lead. I made a judgment call.”
“There’s evidence that you tampered with your ansible. Its debt meter was dialed up.”
“Like I said, it must’ve been faulty!”
“Which isn’t supposed to be possible. But Bureau legend has it that Lao Wang knew how.”
“He taught me a lot of things, but never that.” Nuhane is barely able to convince himself that this charade is about keeping his promise to Lao Wang, and not about hiding his addiction. The old man wasn’t clear, but he seemed to imply that someone inside the Bureau was working with Phlogiston. Nuhane doubts that Lectern is involved, but can’t be sure.
“This lead you explained to the board . . . ”
How much longer can he juggle the lies? In addition to the board inquiries, he has a new partner to deal with. She is from the Church of the Indemnity, tweaked to take an almost feline pleasure in the hunt. She wants to inflict lockdowns. She won’t tolerate a prolonged investigation full of dead ends.
“I think it’s a fabrication,” Lectern continues. “If you’re investigating something off the books, you’d better come clean to the board. Regardless, we need to face the fact of your addiction.” Nuhane waits for the system to take a different tack. “Not today? Then how about your childhood on Lalo-honua? Are you ready to go there yet?”
Nuhane restrains his irritation. He has always avoided this topic, but for the first time it seems preferable to everything else on the docket. “The bliss of violation space,” he says, “is like confronting infinity. It’s like the most wide open space possible, without fear. For me anyway.”
“That makes sense,” Lectern says. “There have been two other Fey officers before you. They both said the same thing.”
This brings Nuhane an odd sense of comfort. He is encouraged to go deeper: “I remember the explosions that opened up the Hall of Star Ancestors. The Iomangans were clever. The sunlight disoriented us.”
“Disoriented you. Focus on your personal experiences.”
“I was too young to understand. I thought the Iomangans were monsters. That’s what our priests taught. All I knew was that our world was falling down around us. Many were killed in the collapse.”
“You saw that?”
“I saw my father buried. Annihilated in moments. Also my great-great-grandmother, and many cousins.”
“Then there were these giants. I’d never seen them before. They had fire magic, in addition to swords. They killed many, including my grandmothers, before a commander showed up and ordered them to stop. The rest of us were herded to the surface. Up there we were helpless with our phobias, all but blind. I was separated from my mother. They packed us into magic boxes that moved on metal tracks. Many more of us died in those, suffocated or starved. You could say I was lucky, having been packed against one of my great aunts. She opened a vein and fed me her blood. I slowly killed her in order to survive.”
“No. That wasn’t murder.”
Nuhane ignores this laughable claim. “And then there were the camps. We children learned how to hide and steal and survive. The adults fell into torpors and died, if they weren’t killed outright. There were medical experiments, you see. And labor they knew we couldn’t sustain. And random sport killings. I know what you’re thinking, Lectern. Don’t worry. I saw these things myself. All of them and more.”
Nuhane watches the universe blue-shift around him, knowing he is old, that this is his Noble Lockdown—but sure of little else.
Pseudo acceleration. But no pseudo equivalence principle. He doesn’t feel the gravities. How could he? He’s not going anywhere, not in space anyway.
How did he get here? What was his last mission? He had another partner after Lao Wang. What was her name?
His timeless observing other cannot enlighten him. The other wonders, as always, why he knows nothing beyond this lockdown. Does Nuhane die soon? Is it some effect of terminal violation syndrome? An immanent cure? Or is something catastrophic about to happen to time itself? Perhaps scientists underestimated the deleterious effect of violation. Perhaps spacetime is about to unravel.
Whatever the reason, the timeless other knows he is soon to be no more.
Colonel Nuhane kneels with the other initiates before the torch-lit altar. Beyond is enshrined a fierce-looking idol, a Taoist god with bulging, hungry eyes. An urgent drum makes the incense-laden air pulse.
Nuhane endures the ritual like he did his Bureau passing-out. He ought to be happier to be in a nice cave like this.
“Eight hundred years ago,” declaims a red-robed man, “the emperor Kangxi consigned many Shaolin monks to fiery death. Five survivors escaped to a mountaintop temple, before which, using grass for incense, they formed a sacred brotherhood. They vowed revenge, pledging to oppose the Qing dynasty and restore the Ming.”
“Fan qing fu ming!” the initiates affirm. Oppose the Qing and restore the Ming.
“At the Red Flower Pavilion, the Five founded the Hong Society. The Hong conducted heroic but doomed uprisings. One hundred thousand Hong soldiers sacrificed themselves courageously for the Han race.” The man is a good actor. He appears stern and proud. Nuhane has no idea whether or not he’s actually Han—not that it matters. “And the Hong society continues to thrive today!”
After a sufficient dramatic pause, he adds, “Begin the ceremony!”
Senior brethren in black robes and red sashes enter the cave. One by one they’re stopped by two guards, who cross their broadswords and shout, “You are entering the Hong army fortress! Disobedience is punishable by death!” The black-robes reply with, “I am a Ming general! I build bridges and roads!” or “I cross mountains and ramparts! Don’t you recognize a brother?” And they’re allowed to pass.
The stuff about bridges and crossings is uncanny. Nuhane wonders if the ancient Ming rebels had the gift of foresight. This secret society has had nothing to do with Ming restoration since the 20th century, possibly earlier. They devolved into gangsterism, eventually becoming the most powerful hei she hui on old Terra. When the communist party collapsed, they took over China. Two hundred years later, their sole passion was traveling faster than light.
Bridges and roads indeed.
“Why are you here?” the red-robe barks at Nuhane.
“I’ve come to enlist,” he replies.
“To oppose the Qing and restore the Ming!”
Following the ritual to the letter, Nuhane recites a poem:
the Manchurians stole our land!
The hour of loyalty
and blood vengeance is at hand!”
With that the red-robe moves on, challenging other initiates. They are as varied as Nuhane’s cadet class at the Bureau. This Heaven and Earth Society has not been Chinese, let alone Han, for a very long time.
Next comes a black-robe, slapping each initiate in the back with the flat of a broadsword, then demanding: “Do you love gold or your brethren?”
The initiates each reply, “My brethren!” in their turn. Nuhane struggles not to faint after the blow nearly shatters his tiny frame.
All this for one unauthorized violation. Nuhane was indignant when the Bureau followed his therapy with undercover duty. Since then he has grown numb, having weathered violation withdrawal. Infiltrating the Heaven and Earth Society has been a kind of sleepwalk.
Sometimes he can’t help wishing that these gangsters would steal a Bureau cutter. He could claim to know how to hack the interface nest, then violate. Where to? Would it matter? He would continue to honor his promise to Lao Wang, of course. It wouldn’t be about the violation alone. He isn’t like that anymore. He hasn’t violated in three years. Not that he’s had the chance.
“The first oath!” the red-robe shouts. “Once a member of the society, I shall treat the relatives of my brethren as my own. If I don’t keep this oath, I shall be struck down by five thunderbolts!”
The initiates repeat this. Nuhane finds that he is tired of oaths. To the Bureau, to mentors and gangsters and spacetime, and most of all to himself. He remembers being free of promises in violation space.
Patrol Officer Nuhane and Lieutenant Lao Wang have followed a debtor’s spacetime fissure from the Small Magellanic Cloud to this system in the heart of the Pavo-Indus Supercluster. Lao Wang locked the violator down before it could fall into the orbit of a world originally terraformed by other violators. The verdant, uninhabited globe hangs in the void, a jewel that shouldn’t exist. The people that sparked the terraforming drift in an old, barely discernible mist of lockdown pockets at the planet’s L2 point.
The violator ship, locked down only moments ago, blushes slightly. It’s a large cargo vessel, no doubt a second wave of colonists. Their debt stands at three hundred million light-years. They will pay off four hundred and twenty thousand relativistic tons. Young Nuhane still marvels at the weight of these crimes, and the price of getting caught.
He and Lao Wang, though interfaced in separate nests, share an environ that renders their facial expressions. Lao Wang wears an odd grin. He pings the cargo vessel and says, “Excuse me. Do you know how fast you were going?”
When there is no response, he shrugs and says to Nuhane: “A joke. Old reference.” He avoids Nuhane’s bewildered gaze. “They shouldn’t have come back,” he says.
“What?” Nuhane says.
“I mean, maybe we’re not meant to return from violation space. Maybe we’re supposed to break light speed and stay beyond it, forever.” He meets Nuhane’s eyes again, summons an unconvincing chuckle. “Never mind. Guess I need some R and R. You won’t report what I just said, right?”
They watch the violator fade. Nuhane contemplates the mystery of violation and lockdown. Already the cargo vessel’s spacetime fissure is beginning to heal, even back in the Small Magellanic. True action at a distance, a violation of c in its own right.
Nuhane can’t believe what he sees in the soul of the man his fellow thugs just killed. The ice ceiling scrolls by the window, and the dead man, formerly a violation savant for the Heaven and Earth Society, slides back and forth across the floor with the motion of the hab, his head encased in a smoking transmigration helmet.
Nuhane hides his excitement. He has found his ticket off this nightmarish detail. He will be violating again soon—but it’s more than that.
The helmet sends pertinent memories to Nuhane’s mirror net. His rhythms sift through the complexity of violation math, seeking names and itineraries. He needed something underway, something he could lock down, but he didn’t expect to find it. It was clear right away that the man hadn’t spoken with the Bureau. Perhaps he never intended to. The Heaven and Earth kingpin of this Europa-analog has grown paranoid in his dotage, violation syndrome having burned wormholes through his reason.
“You said he didn’t rat,” says Plutarch, a hulking gangster eight times the size of Nuhane. “So why are we still here? If he’s so interesting, grab the helmet. But let’s go.”
Nuhane does not want to decapitate the savant. The crystalline mass that was once his head is permanently merged with the helmet. Nuhane has done many things for Heaven and Earth, things far worse than decapitating a corpse, but he feels he has reached a critical mass.
He just needs another minute to confirm what he saw: a very improbable name.
Outside, the hab lights flash on particles suspended in the inky water. The media wall maps the local ice ceiling and the other habs as they converge on a stable rendezvous point to form yet another temporary city. That’s how society works here in Baroque Pearl. Nuhane tried to convince himself he liked it, at first. It was a sub-surface existence. His sordid duties for Heaven and Earth were part of the mission, just as important as locking down violators. He didn’t miss violating. So went the flimsy monologue.
He confirms the name attached to the violation-in-progress: William Valentin Willard, aka Phlogiston. He smiles.
Nuhane is eleven years old, and feels much older, when the harriers drop from the sky to liberate his camp. He clutches the chain-link fence and watches the Iomangan guards flee across the heath under a leaden sky. One by one the giants vanish as plasma rains down. Nuhane tries to feel glad, to feel anything in fact, and fails. He has learned many things in this camp. He has learned to tolerate the open sky, beneath which he has learned what humans really are. He knows that the Iomangans are descendants of violators, and that his liberators are also violators. He does not know what that means.
What he finally feels is dread. He’s going to have to leave the camp, and enter a wider world.
Three hundred and fifty billion light-years.
He often wondered how far he would go before succumbing to violation syndrome—and now he knows. Three fifty is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s not the stuff of legend, but it’s respectable. At least he knows he has the syndrome. He tells himself that’s something. Perhaps it means he’s not so far gone.
It was these last two violations that did it. He knows that on a level below the cellular.
“Shall I lock him down?” Wen Ting asks. She floats with him in the new cutter’s sensorium, wide-eyed with the thrill of the hunt. Nuhane envies her youth, her cold pure hunter’s psychopathy, though he doesn’t fully understand it. The Church of the Indemnity has wired her up good. When she locked down that last rig, she curled into a fetal position, moaning with something beyond divine communion. “Commander?” she says.
He’s forgotten why they’re here, and it terrifies him. He blinks up the dossier of their current mark: William Valentin Willard, aka Phlogiston, quantum information physicist and outspoken Bureau sympathizer. Trillions of humans call him a Bureau lapdog and want him dead. He understands that the Bureau holds the universe together, understands it in a way that Wen Ting and her brethren never will. He doesn’t need their leap of faith. He invented the machine that images the universe’s scars.
“Violating c,” he said famously, “is worse than murder.”
And yet here he is, after a serious galaxy hop. What possessed him?
His shuttle falls toward Nuhane’s cutter. Beneath them hangs the mysterious machine, alive with its puzzling gravitational waves. None of Nuhane’s scans or Wen Ting’s mystic sensing find weapons in the fine-woven ring of exotic matter. Far below it, dark storms roil over the surface of the dim red L-T dwarf. Nuhane wonders what role, if any, Willard means this substar to play in whatever he’s up to.
“Congratulations,” Willard transmits. “You’ve got me.”
With his voice comes the visual of a surprisingly youthful man: middle aged, gray-bearded but healthy and vital. For a moment Nuhane can’t reconcile this with what he knows. Willard ought to be decrepit by now, even if he’s had longevity treatments. Then Nuhane remembers that Willard has traveled relativistically. The man has lived a decade or so of the last five hundred years.
Wen Ting shows him a scan of the orbiting machine. “What is it?”
His brief grin is barely perceptible. “Ah, one of the Bureau’s pet zealots.” He understands—or understood—that the Bureau needs all the support it can get, even if that means employing delusional jihadists.
What has become of the far-seeing creature Willard used to be?
“What are you waiting for?” he says.
Wen Ting scans the orbital machine again, hoping this time the Angels of Indemnity will grant revelation. It appears conclusive that the thing is not a weapon. There are signs of a spin foam hack about it, but the configuration is wrong for violation or lockdown tech.
“Do you need me to confess?” Willard says impatiently.
Nuhane wonders if the man craves the portal to the future that lockdown represents. Perhaps he has grown weary of his small-minded contemporaries. Then why not take off at relativistic speed, like he has before?
Nuhane hesitates to impose lockdown. He may be slipping into dotage, but he senses he’s being manipulated.
Wen Ting, however, does not hesitate. She and the cutter have developed an understanding in the face of Nuhane’s decline. She doesn’t need his authorization. She imposes with relish.
“Thank you,” Willard says, as yet barely redshifted.
Nuhane feels Wen Ting’s confusion through her bio feed. Violators aren’t supposed to be thankful. They’re supposed to beg for mercy. But Willard is no masochist. Nuhane also feels the grav waves from the orbiter changing tune, and knows something fundamental is happening to local spacetime. He perceives a disturbance, much like the fractures caused by violation, blossoming between Willard’s shuttle, the orbiter, and the dwarf below. A lockdown pocket encloses the orbiter, seeming to mirror Willard’s.
Wen Ting panics. “What’s this?”
“I’m sorry to have led you so far,” Willard replies, “but I needed at least a seventy million light-year debt for this trial run.”
“My machine is crude. The first of its kind. It won’t respond to anything less than a seventy mil debt.”
This transmission arrives at an unchanging radio wavelength. Willard’s redshifting has ceased. This is stunning, unprecedented, but Nuhane’s attention is drawn to the machine, now shivering and glowing under some unfathomable workload. Nuhane senses that it is channeling something—Hilbert distortion? inertia?—from Willard’s shuttle down into the murky furnace of the dwarf.
“I approached the Bureau first,” he says, “but they didn’t believe me. Or didn’t want to. They tried to kill me, you know. Maybe you won’t believe that, but it’s true. So I had to go to Heaven and Earth. It is regrettable that the savant in Baroque Pearl had to die, but I needed you to believe that lead and come after me. I should also apologize for having Lao Wang wiped. Canny, that one. He was on to me before I was ready. And it was my man in the Bureau who got you assigned to that duty in Baroque Pearl. I don’t imagine it was pleasant. All for a greater good, as you’ll see.”
Far below, a darkness blossoms between two ribbons of turbulent black cloud. One might almost take it for another storm of raining iron, but for the speed of its formation. It expands like an ink stain through the hydrogen blood-glow, devouring thousands of cubic kilometers per second. Nuhane remembers that the dwarf was already radiating in the long visible wavelengths, that lockdown of such matter would mean swift blackness. He tunes his vision and watches the still-growing lockdown pocket—the largest one ever, as far as he knows—dimming down its trapped matter through infrared and radio. The pocket soon encloses a fifth of the substar, and keeps expanding. Great storms flash and gleam along the moving perimeter, and the Jupiter-like band-flow is thrown into chaos.
“Debt transfer,” Nuhane says. The words are packed with mythic weight.
“Impossible,” Wen Ting declares.
“It’s working,” Willard says, “but something’s wrong.”
Over one third of the dwarf is now enclosed, the remainder stirred to frenzy by the process and made to radiate like the accretion disk of a black hole. The lockdown pocket behaves like a collapsed star in many ways, though it has no real event horizon. As the brighter material is swallowed, Nuhane can judge how far along the lockdown is, what fraction of c it is equivalent to. The hottest free matter radiates in the extreme ultraviolet to soft X-ray range, but attenuates after falling in. And still the pocket grows.
“My shuttle and I weigh about seven tons,” Willard says. His self-satisfaction is gone, replaced by mounting horror. “It seems we’ve discovered a new law of physics. The Law of the Transfer Fee.”
Nuhane gets there just after him, he is sure they’re wondering the same thing now: how much of a fee?
Unlike a black hole, a lockdown pocket doesn’t exert gravity, so the remaining dwarf material—plasmas of hydrogen and helium, trace metals and silicates—overcomes its own gravitation and shreds away wildly into space.
It doesn’t occur to Nuhane to get out of the way, not until he sees Willard and his machine doing so. Wen Ting reacts first, matching Willard’s escape vector, worlds of fire blooming under them. The pocket swells and consumes, but slower than before.
Wen Ting is chanting again. Occasionally she forgets a phrase or a line and has to start over. Nuhane scans her mind and sees that her Church mod is short-circuiting, overloaded with a cumbersome truth.
“You’ve got to help me,” Willard says.
The pocket finally stops expanding, content with the mass of forty-five Jupiters. The remaining one-fourth of the dwarf continues to burn and diffuse into space. The holy grail of debt transfer is possible, but hideously expensive. The transfer fee in this case was 1.2 octillion percent of the debt.
Nuhane scans Willard and confirms he is debt free. The machine seems to be powering down. Wen Ting is curled in a fetal position again, this time with excruciating pain. She shivers, sweating and whimpering with Church withdrawal.
“I’ve violated but can’t be locked down,” Willard says. “So arrest me. Take me to a hub.”
Nuhane understands. Willard’s shuttle can’t achieve relativistic speeds, let alone violate. There is no concentrated source of matter for light-years around, so he can’t get his long-range rig out of lockdown. He’s at Nuhane’s mercy.
“It wasn’t just you and your partner and that savant,” he admits. “You don’t know the half of it. Maybe I deserve to die out here, but it can’t all be for nothing.” With that, his shuttle lights up with high-power transmissions aimed at a few hundred of the nearest inhabited systems and galaxies. Nuhane takes a sample: the machine specs and documentation of what happened to the dwarf.
“What have you done?” Nuhane says.
“And that’s a good thing, is it? Perhaps we need a cage.” Before it’s out of his mouth, he wonders if his heritage, or the Bureau, speaks through him. Maybe it’s neither. Maybe it’s the boy who got used to a concentration camp, and hated himself for it.
He turns his attention to Wen Ting, tweaking her neurochemistry to ease the trauma of her disillusionment. He marvels at the delicacy of her Church tweak, but something so absurd could be no other way—not without undermining her basic functionality.
“Debtor,” she whispers, “make satisfaction for thy sin.”
Nuhane tries to imagine what will become of the debt transfer universe. Matter will soon be at a premium, if he knows anything about mankind. Then what? Cycles of lockdown and emergence? Relativistic dark ages followed by renaissances of violation? Perhaps the stars must wink out, one by one, to become readily accessible. What about expansion, deprived of all that gravitating matter? What about dark matter and energy? Are lockdowns that vast even possible?
The Bureau as Nuhane knows it will be obsolete, regardless. Perhaps it will be relegated to catalyzing debt transfer, facilitating the violations it once policed. That would still be holding the universe together. That would still be his mission, wouldn’t it?
Nuhane is four years old when his parents take him to the Hall of Star Ancestors for the first time. The cavern is the biggest space he’s ever seen.
But not the biggest you’ll ever see, says the man in his skull.
Nuhane gapes at the distant ceiling. It is a field of lights that his people call stars. “They’re actually colonies of bioluminescent fungus,” Father says.
“Don’t teach him blasphemies,” Mother whispers. The vast space is relatively quiet as hundreds of people walk the Great Circle and show proper awe.
His people are the Fey. Mother says they came from the stars.
Someday you’ll travel to the real stars, the man in his skull says, but Nuhane doesn’t believe him. You’ll forget about me for a long time, then remember me again. But we won’t be able to talk like this anymore.
“Why not?” Nuhane asks aloud, and Mother shushes him.
“Leave him be,” Father says.
“And let him anger the priests?” Mother hisses. “And get us sent to the sulfur farms?” She looks up at the fake stars. “Ancestors, why did you curse me with such a husband?”
Nuhane’s parents always quarrel when he talks to the man in his skull. Father says it’s a gift, a sign he’s destined for great things. It was Father who named him Nuhane, which in some ancient language means speaker with the ghosts of ancestors.
Andy Dudak is a writer and translator of science fiction. His original stories have appeared in Analog, Apex, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, Interzone, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Rich Horton’s Year’s Best, and elsewhere. He’s translated many stories for Clarkesworld, and a novel by Liu Cixin, among other things. In his spare time he likes to binge-watch peak television and eat Hui Muslim style cold sesame noodles.