The following short story is a teaser for my upcoming Survey novel series. It’s set in humanity’s far future where humans have colonized a good part of local space.
Content Warning: violence, death, kidnapping
“Marcus, are you done with the programming I asked you for?” said the man standing at my desk.
“Yes, Doctor Mills. I finished it yesterday. Didn’t you get my email?” I sighed. Harry Mills was a great physicist, but a crap manager. Why he ended up head of this project, only the government knows. No, that’s a lie. I knew. He was made head of the project because he lowballed all the others who were fighting for the grant money. Most of those folks had gone on to greener pastures. I was grateful that this wasn’t my real job, or I would have quit two weeks in.
Mills pulled out his tablet and tapped it. “Oh! Yes, so you did! Sorry, Marcus. Carry on.” He walked away, muttering to himself.
Fucking space brain, I thought to myself. This has to be one of the worst assignments I’ve gotten. The Head of Intelligence must hate me, or maybe they just haze the newbies? I shrugged to myself and went back to the drudgery of coding the interface for the jump drive. Face it, Marcus Rohner, you’re stuck here for the duration, you might as well accept it. I sighed again, put on my headphones and let myself get lost in the code.
Which is why I didn’t realize something was going on until my computer went out. “Shit!” I said out loud to the empty office area. Everyone else had been in the lab working on the jump drive. So either Mills and company fucked up the computer again, or… I took off my headphones and heard slow footsteps coming into the office area. I ducked down, then peeked carefully around the edge of my cubicle. A short man with a balding head and a black suit was walking steadily down the hall, going into each cubicle for a minute or so, then coming back out again. At the third cubicle he stopped as if listening to something, then said out loud. “Keep looking. He can’t be too far. They aren’t allowed to leave the compound, normally.”
Shit, shit, shit, I thought. I have to get out of here! I pressed the button on my wristcom that would have normally sent the mayday message to my handler, but when the display said “No Signal” I froze. Now what? I asked myself, when suddenly a little silver cube was floating in front of me.
I stared at it, then tried to swat it away, but it evaded my hands. The short, balding man seemed to come out of nowhere and stood in front of me. When did he go quiet? Fuck. He’s way better than me.
The man tsked and shook his head. “Well, seems that intelligence training isn’t what it used to be. Shame. Oh well, sedate him.” The cube quickly bumped my neck, jabbing me with a needle. The man looked at me with a disappointed look on his face, and my last thought before I blacked out was, Fuck.
I woke up briefly in a gel tank with a breather over my face and the rest of me wired up for long term, high g sedated travel. I tried to sit up, but was strapped in. When I looked around, I could see the other scientists strapped in. When I started to panic, someone came over to the tank and said, “Oh, no, this won’t do.” A few seconds later my body went numb and I blacked out again.
The next time I woke, I was lying on a cot in a large room. Mills and the other four scientists from the jump drive program were also waking up. “Bloody hell,” Derek, one of the engineers, said. “What bleeding truck ran us the fuck over?”
“I don’t know,” Tara, the other engineer, said. “My mouth feels like old carpet.”
Gail, the deputy director, was the first to try to stand. “Ugh, same here. You three ok?” she asked the rest of us. Kevin, the mathematician, nodded.
“Yeah,” I replied. Doctor Mills groaned, but waved. I looked around the room. Besides the cots, there was a large table with chairs, something that looked like a food printer in the wall, and two doors. One was open and one was closed. Tara was closest to the open door, so she went to investigate.
“Found the loo!” she said. I heard a door close. A couple of the others followed.
I stayed sitting while I surveyed the room, since my body felt pretty wobbly. There were no other obvious ways in or out. I got up and made my way carefully over to the food printer which, thankfully, was functional. I dialed in an electrolyte drink. “Food printer works,” I reported to the others. I dialed in a second electrolyte drink and brought it over to Mills. While the man might be scatterbrained, he was also much older than the rest of us, and the way we travelled here was hard on the body.
“Thanks,” Mills said, taking careful sips of the liquid. I did the same.
When we had all taken care of necessities and had something to drink, the closed door opened, admitting the bald man I saw at the lab. He was again wearing a black suit, along with leather gloves, boots and a metal briefcase. We all stared at him as he walked to the table, opened the case, and pulled out a small black cube and a larger silver cube. He closed the case and put it on the floor beside him, then sat at the head of the table. “Please, sit, all of you.”
“Who the fuck are you?” demanded Derek.
“I am John Smith, the Head Librarian. Sometimes I’m called the Grey Man. You are currently guests of The Library,” the man replied calmly.
“The Library? What the hell is that?” asked Kevin.
“Apparently the name of wherever we happen to be,” said Doctor Mills. “All of you, sit down. I’m sure Mr. Smith will give us an explanation of why we were abducted.”
“No fucking way!” said Derek. “I want to know who the fuck you are, and where the fuck we are right now! And I think everyone should shut up until we can contact lawyers!”
Mr. Smith sighed. “As I already told you, you are guests of The Library. To be more specific, you are on board a Survey ship, which is also called Sun Tzu.”
I felt the blood drain from my face. Sun Tzu? Not many people had been on Survey ships, and fewer knew that there were seven capital ships, each of which had a specific purpose. While I didn’t remember all of them, there were two that intelligence officers were always briefed on: Musashi and Sun Tzu. These respectively housed the military and intelligence arms of Survey. It was the first time I had ever heard of Sun Tzu being called The Library, but no one in our agency had really good, or current, information. The legends of these two ships and their run-ins with Fleet definitely didn’t favor Fleet.
“Survey?” Derek said. “Whatever! I don’t give a fuck who you are! Take us back right now!”
“Derek, shut up,” I said.
“Oh, fuck off Marcus!” He turned back to Mr. Smith. “We have rights! I want a lawyer!”
“I’m sorry…Derek, is it? That is quite impossible. You see, as you were sleeping, we’ve jumped over one hundred light years from where you were.”
“What?!” Derek yelled.
Mr. Smith gestured to the nearest empty chair. “If you sit down, I can explain things to you.”
“Sit, Derek,” Mills said. “I’d like to hear why Survey has captured government workers from a top secret laboratory and interrupted very important scientific work.” Derek obeyed the director reluctantly.
Mr. Smith leaned forward. “We have interrupted your ‘very important scientific work’ because if you continued as you were, you would most likely have destroyed the planet you were on, or the solar system, or maybe even the galaxy.”
Mills raised his eyebrows. “You’re kidding? We’re just creating a jump engine! This is ridiculous. This is only because you in Survey are so stingy with giving us engines that we’re trying to make our own!”
I was surprised. Mills usually came off of as completely scatterbrained, but now he seemed much more astute. Maybe I underestimated him? Or maybe he’s more serious when someone threatens his work? I wanted to shout at him to just do what Survey wanted, but Mills never really listened to me before, so I didn’t think he’d do it now. The others waited to see what would happen next. I had a feeling that Mr. Smith was not impressed with Doctor Mills.
“No, doctor, I am not kidding. We have a very good reason for being stingy, as you say. The technology is extremely dangerous and must not be attempted by humans.”
“Maybe he’s right,” I said out loud. The others looked at me. “What? You don’t believe him? Come on, we all know that Survey has better tech than we do. I’ve heard some… stories… about Sun Tzu. Seriously, if they don’t think we should be fucking around with this, then they probably have good reasons for it.”
Derek started to say something to me, but Gail cut him off. “Why shouldn’t we work on it, Mr. Smith?” she asked.
“The first time a human attempted to experiment with jump drive technology they destroyed an entire solar system whilst vaporizing themselves in the process. The second time a human’s understanding of jump drives was used, it destroyed two star systems, one of which had proto-sentient life on its fourth planet.”
“Fuck,” I said.
“He’s just saying that to scare us!” said Derek. “They don’t give a shit about us, they just want to make more profit off us and keep their trade exclusive.”
“Dude, seriously?!” I said. “Why would they bother kidnapping us from what we thought was a secure facility and transporting us a hundred light years if they didn’t give a shit about us? Why would they fake this? That would be a waste of resources. Just like bringing you along!”
“What was that you little shit!?” Derek yelled, standing up.
“Activate and mark,” said Mr. Smith calmly. The silver cube seemed to melt into six smaller cubes that suddenly launched themselves from their position in front of Mr. Smith, to right in front of all of our noses. I stayed absolutely still, remembering the last time I encountered one of these. Mills moved his chair backwards, nearly falling over. Gail, Tara, and Kevin moved back as well. Derek, the moron, started trying to catch the little silver cube, but it kept moving itself out of reach. It did shut him up, though.
The bald man sighed. “I suggest you stop that, Derek, and sit back down. I would hate to have to sedate you again.” Derek complied, glowering at Mr. Smith. “I am giving all of you a choice. You can live with us, in Survey, for the rest of your lives, pursuing other work in your field of expertise, or you can die. Here, today, right now, in this room. If you choose not to live with us in Survey, we can offer you a quick and merciful death. If you had stayed where you were, things would have gone badly for you anyway. All of those interested in this technology would have attempted to capture you, and if successful would have tortured you to find out what you knew. We had intelligence that one of those groups would have been your own government.”
“Mr. Smith, really…” Doctor Mills tried to interrupt.
“Yes, doctor, you would like proof.” He rapped his knuckles on the table twice and a screen rose up from the middle. Then he tapped the black cube and footage began of a sun going nova. Rather than the typical collapse followed by the explosion, it looked like a wave passed across the star, consuming it in a massive fireball over the space of five seconds. The table in front of Mills lit up and I craned my head to see what it was. It lit up in front of Gail, too, and she scrolled through it. “Is this for real?” she asked Mr. Smith.
“Yes. That was the real time data that our brother ship, the Musashi, recovered at this event, the second use of human-derived jump equations. As you can see, the output is 1028 times more powerful than Earth’s most powerful nuclear weapon, and an order of magnitude more powerful than a Type Ia supernova. As I said, this blast took out two star systems and badly damaged the ship that triggered it.”
Gail turned white, as did Mills. Apparently the data was enough to convince them of the severity of the issue. Derek still looked confused, but watching a sun go nova in an obviously unnatural way seemed to keep him quiet for the moment. That, and the silver cubes still floating in front of each of us.
“You will have a good life in Survey. There will be no need for you to apply for grants for any research you’d like to apply yourself to. You can also pursue other careers if you like. Your needs will be provided for. Our society isn’t based on capitalism, and you’ll find our resources more than adequate.” Mr. Smith attempted a smile, but it wasn’t reassuring.
It didn’t seem a hard choice to me. “I’ll stay,” I said. Mr. Smith nodded. Everyone seemed unsure, except for Derek. He stood up again.
“No! I won’t agree! Send me back now!”
Mr. Smith frowned. “Derek, I already told you that we can’t.”
“I have rights! You can’t force me to stay! I want a lawyer! That footage has to be faked!”
Mr. Smith frowned. “That is your decision, then?”
“What?! No! You can’t do anything to me! I know Survey and Earth have a treaty!”
Mr. Smith stood, his face becoming hard as marble. For a short man he could be very intimidating. “Mr. Derek Edgars, all governments have those who work outside of laws and treaties to maintain order. Unluckily for you, that is me. Picket six, execute.” The silver cube moved so fast that none of us realized that it had gone straight through Derek’s head until it slammed to a stop on the other side of his skull. A spray of blood and gore spattered the wall behind him. There was a brief look of surprise on Derek’s face, then he fell to the floor. After a moment, I could smell urine. Tara ran for the bathroom, her silver cube following her. I managed to keep my bowels from doing things they really shouldn’t, but it was a close thing.
“Aside from Mr. Rohner, would anyone else like to stay?” The others agreed quickly, studiously not looking at Derek’s body on the floor, as did Tara after she returned to the table. “Good. My assistant Jane will be coming in soon to brief you on your options within Survey. We believe we’ve found interesting postings for each of you. There are showers in here, with fresh clothing, if you would like to use them.” He picked up the silver case and opened it. “Pickets, return.” The silver cubes merged into a large cube again, one corner stained with blood. Mr. Smith put both cubes back in the case and closed it.
He picked it up, then walked towards the door, his footsteps echoing in the room. As he reached the door, he turned to look at me. “Mr. Rohner, if you would come with me, please.”
I stood up and immediately obeyed, relieved to leave the room, and the other scientists, behind. Mr. Smith led me through a maze of corridors until we came to a door. He palmed it open and we walked into a workshop area, where a woman sat at a bench repairing some sort of equipment. She looked up as we approached. “Ah, John. How’d it go?” she asked.
“Well, Jo, we lost one, regrettably.” He opened the case and handed her the silver cube. “Sorry to have to dirty them like this.”
“Shame. Couldn’t be helped, I suppose?”
She looked around Mr. Smith to me. “New recruit?” she asked.
“Possibly,” he said.
“Good luck, kid,” she said, taking the cube away.
Mr. Smith motioned for me to follow him. When we eventually stopped, he palmed open a door to an office. “Please, come in,” he said. He took his jacket off and hung it on an old fashioned wooden coat rack, then sat at an equally old fashioned desk. He put the case on the floor next to him, then peeled off his gloves and placed them carefully on his desk. “So, Sun Tzu, what do you think?” Mr. Smith said. I took the chair across the desk from him.
“His academy and college scores look good, and, as you say, we can always use more computer experts. Unlike the others, he kept his wits about him. He’ll need some better tradecraft training, but that can’t be helped. He was woefully under-trained by UI.”
“Um…I’m right here,” I said, not that I didn’t agree with that assessment.
“Yes, Mr. Rohner, but you are currently being evaluated by Sun Tzu. You will keep quiet.”
I felt my eyes widen. It was true then? That the ship was run by an AI?
“Yes, John, I will take him in. I’m sure you and Jane will find him useful.”
Mr. Smith smiled again, but it didn’t instill any comfort. “Congratulations, Mr. Rohner, you are now a full-fledged Survey citizen and welcomed by Sun Tzu to join the ranks of the Librarians.”
“That was the AI? They’re real?”
“I am very real, Marcus. And you may call me Sunny.”
“Yes. I let all of my people call me Sunny if they wish. I’m not so formal as my brother Musashi,” Sun Tzu explained. “You could choose to go somewhere else in Survey, but I think your talents would be better suited for projects here that are likely to be much more interesting to you.”
“Sure,” I said. “Um, can I ask a question?” Mr. Smith nodded. “What about the black cube? Where is that stored? I’m guessing that doesn’t come out for just anyone.” I asked.
Mr. Smith raised an eyebrow. “No, Marcus, it doesn’t. That recording is stored in a special vault. My assistant and I will take care of it later. Very observant, Marcus.”
“What happened to the ship that made that nova?”
Mr. Smith frowned. “He has exiled himself. Where? We don’t know. He sustained a great deal of damage both physically and mentally. Thankfully, he surrendered the data he used to create the nova to us.”
My brain started putting things together. “You think there are people who would want to get their hands on this, who wouldn’t use it for a jump drive, right? That’s why you took us. I’m guessing you torched the lab, too?”
The man nodded. “Good deduction.”
“And I can help keep this out of the wrong hands if I stay here?”
“Among other things,” Mr. Smith replied, looking like the cat that caught that canary.
“Ok, Mr. Smith, Sunny, count me in.”
Mr. Smith gave a genuine smile, stood, and shook my hand. “You can call me John. Come. I’ll give you a tour of the stacks.”
“You mean, there’s a real Library in here?”
“Of course. Did you think it was just a code name?”
“Well, uh…” I said.
Mr. Smith laughed as he led me through the door.