Abyss & Apex : Second Quarter 2011: Fermi’s Plague

“Fermi’s Plague”

C.W. Johnson

It started when the Colonel got drunk and kissed me in front of the cook.

Ana never liked me. She worshiped Colonel Lopez-Inusaki, who had cured her lupus, brought prosperity to the poor, and made the rich nations tremble. It wounded her deeply that the Colonel used a food taster.

“But Ana,” he told her, “how do you know the American CIA won’t slip something into your supplies? A bit of shrimp—you wouldn’t even taste it—and my throat would close up forever.” And he throttled himself theatrically.

Ana lived for the Colonel’s approval, but sulked when his attention turned to (in Ana’s eyes) a skinny, horse-faced rubia who spoke Spanish badly. The Colonel’s interest in me wasn’t sex—for that he had imported Russian prostitutes—but in my Harvard Ph.D and my career as NASA scientist. He craved an educated audience at his dinner table, and when one night I actually debated with him he was so pleased he gave me a wine-sodden kiss, right on the lips, right in front of Ana.

The next morning was quiet and numb. After a few hours of frustrated shuffling of words and numbers, I shoved the file in the OUT box, massaged my temples, and went across the compound to the bunker.

Ana lacked book learning, but she knew what would hurt me. As I was signing out more redacted files from the sergeant, Ana came pushing a cart.

In addition to being the Colonel’s personal cook, Ana supervised preparation of all food at the compound, but the cart didn’t contain the usual meals for the souls locked away in the bunker. Instead there was a cake, its icing already sluicing off in the heat; a colorful piñata; and a doll with a bright ribbon tied around it.

The sergeant raised an eyebrow, and Ana shrugged. “It was requested.”

“I don’t remember that,” said the sergeant.

“Maybe on Tomás’ shift,” she said.

I fingered the ribbon on the doll. “Who’s this for?”

The sergeant said, “Looks like it’s for a little girl.”

Ana grunted and shoved the cart into the lift, then stepped back as the red warning light flashed and the buzzer sounded. The steel doors closed like a hungry mouth.

I must have gone pale, for the sergeant said, “Are you feeling unwell, Señora Schiavone?”

I didn’t answer. I swiftly returned to my room, clutching the files in my arms, my guts full of greasy ice. Barely able to breathe, I ran to my desk and with shaking fingers picked up the calendar.

The date.

March 18th.

Ellie’s birthday.

I had sought the Colonel to make a deal with the devil.

The only person back home I confessed to was a colleague at NASA. Sita had come to me on a Friday afternoon. “Good news, Marta! My grant came through. When you get back from your vacation, can you help me with the hot Jupiters? I know planet formation’s not your field, but your dust transport code is the best.”

“I don’t know I would be much help to you,” I said.

“Oh, fudge on that,” she said. “The models still don’t match–.” Seeing me fidget, she furrowed her brow. “What’s wrong? There’s something else.”

Sita was my best friend at NASA. I hated to just abandon her. “We’re not coming back from Brazil,” I said at last. “I’m taking Ellie to Colombia, to that colonel guy.”

She stared at me a moment. “Are you, technically speaking, nuts?”

“I can’t do anything for her here,” I said, my eyes welling with tears. “I even went to the street, but they said—”

“You could lose your job for that!”

I wiped my nose. “And what did you do, two years ago, when your father’s kidneys were failing?”

Sita looked down at her feet, as if an answer were written there. “I know,” she admitted softly. “It saved his life. But, Marta, you buy some nanomeds off the street, you might lose your job, maybe go to jail for a year. You go down to Colombia—they’re calling that treason now.”

“The guys on the street, they said they hadn’t heard of any nanomeds for RMAIDS. But one thought maybe Lopez-Inusaki is working on it.”

“And you believe a dealer?”

“What am I supposed to do? Watch my daughter slowly die? Watch the bruises climb her arm inch by inch? See how much effort it takes just to eat a few spoonfuls of soup? Listen to her struggle to breathe at night—”

Sita looked at me, then threw her arms around my neck in a hug. “I know. Good luck,” she whispered, her breath tickling my ear.

So I headed south and with the last of my money bribed my way through the blockade. I didn’t know it at the time, but my best coin was my diploma and my resume; before I realized what was happening, we were in a helicopter, flying over a sea of green deep in the rain forest.

The Colonel wasn’t impressive, just a small man with a large mustache who looked more like an underfed janitor than one of the most powerful and reviled men in the world. He spent a long time asking me about my background, until I became impatient. “What do these questions have to do with anything? Do you want me to spy for you?”

He folded his hands together and said something. I looked to his translator—although I’d had high school Spanish, I couldn’t yet follow the Colonel’s rapid patter. “Would you? How far would you go to save your daughter’s life?”

I closed my eyes. After a moment I said, “Yes.”

“You’d be willing to risk prison?” I nodded. The Colonel smiled. “I have a better offer, then.”

I would do technical work. I could never go home, never communicate with anyone. I would be forever committed to a secure underground facility, and would never again see the sky. He wouldn’t tell me what I would be analyzing, of course, and the conditions would be spartan, but I would be well fed and given medical care, forever. And my daughter would live.

I accepted the terms.

But Ellie was very sick when we arrived, and treatment came too late. The Colonel himself spoke to me, his eyes liquid with sorrow. “El SIDA se muta rapidamente, the rapidly mutating AIDS, we are still learning…”

I stared at him. “I want to see my daughter,” I finally blurted out, and tried to push past him.

“I’m very sorry,” he said, “but when things go wrong…” He hung his head. “Remember her healthy and beautiful. Do not ruin that memory.” He said her body was in the bunker lab and, no matter how much I cried and screamed, I could not go there.

Later, the Colonel expressed how terrible he felt about Ellie’s death. Our bargain was of course void, he added, but he wanted to offer me a position nonetheless. Not down in the bunker, but on the outside, as a technical analyst. Numb, I nodded and agreed to the terms of my exile.On my first day, Ruben, one of the draftsmen, introduced himself and put a large pile of papers in front of me. “You are good at mathematics, yes? You can work on these.”

I squinted at the first piece of paper. “Why are there numbers spread randomly through this?” I looked up at him. “This looks like gibberish.”

Ruben sighed and sat down. “La Cassandra,” he said with a wave of his hand. When he saw my puzzled look, he said. “La Cassandra is the author of all the Colonel’s technology. A secret, shh.”

“But who is…?”

“No one knows. We only get her files. She lives in the bunker. No one comes out of the bunker, except the Colonel and his goons. No one up here has seen her.” Ruben lowered his voice. “Most of us think she is some sort of idiot savant. But Efrain says she is a computer program, a rogue artificial intelligence escaped from a software lab somewhere in Russia or maybe Japan, and Beltran says we are all wrong, that it is black magic his brother has conjured.” He glanced around. “We speculate, but you must not do it when the Colonel’s spies are listening.”

“Why not?”

“The Colonel doesn’t really trust la Cassandra. Hence the name, his little joke. The Colonel claims la Cassandra’s ravings can drive you mad.” Ruben leaned so close I could smell the onion on his breath. “That’s why those people are in the bunker, imprisoned, to keep those awful stories from getting out. They sterilize the files, slice out forbidden words and phrases. And that goon squad, who keep order down in the bunker, they’re deaf-mutes. Illiterate. Whatever awful tale it is la Cassandra spins, the Colonel doesn’t want anyone else to hear it.”When the Colonel learned I shared his severe shellfish allergy, he rubbed his hands almost gleefully. “Excellent. Then you will share my table and be my food taster. I have enemies who would slay me with a bit of crab. And we will have many interesting conversations.”

It was a poor deal for the Colonel. He thought he was getting a brilliant NASA scientist, but instead he got a zombie. I sleepwalked through duties and dinners.

The Colonel tried hard to provoke me. The night he kissed me he had been deriding once again the Euro-American fear of nanotechnology. “And all because of Morocco. Fifteen years later, that’s all they can talk about.” He downed another glass of wine. “Fah. Monsanto was careless and their technology crude. But one little thing and the guilt paralyzes you Americans forever! Like Hiroshima. My grandmother was there, did you know that? She was on her way to school when she saw the Enola Gay, a buzzing dot high in the morning sky, bringing the bomb. But the Americans were right to bring the nuclear fist down on Japan. In the end it saved many lives.”

I shook my head. “No. That’s not true.” The words came off my tongue slow and thick.

The Colonel leaned forward. “Explain.”

“Truman wanted to scare the Soviets.” As I said this I couldn’t help but think of the stories I’d heard, how Lopez-Inusaki had got the narcotic cartels in line. I said, “That’s why he dropped the second bomb on Nagasaki.”

The Colonel threw his head back and laughed. “I love these fairy tales! They almost make sense.” We argued until late in the night, and when the last bottle was emptied, the Colonel stood up, swaying, and kissed me.

Behind him, picking up glasses, Ana glowered.

The next day—after I saw Ana and her cart—I couldn’t focus on my files. The work was always difficult, the files so redacted it took enormous patience and guesswork to reconstruct the plans la Cassandra generated. We could send questions (edited by the Colonel himself) to la Cassandra, and we sometimes forwarded information on physics or chemistry; but other topics, biographies and anything political or cultural, were forbidden. It was like trying to play the piano while wearing boxing gloves.

But this time it wasn’t the redacted files that defeated me. Nor was it the black sludge of depression that had clogged my brain for two years. My skin itched; I drummed my fingers on my desk nervously. I felt electrified, vivified. Awake.

In my mind’s eye, I saw only the doll, tied with a ribbon.

I was brooding on the doll when the Colonel marched in. He wiped at his face, which shone with perspiration.

“You look upset,” I said.

Lopez-Inusaki nodded. “I had to shoot a man. By the way, I am afraid we will be short one draftsman.”

My pen clattered to the tabletop. “A draftsman! Who? Ruben?”


“Beltran! He’s your brother.”

“My half-brother. I have a large supply of them; my mother was a whore.” He ducked his head, embarrassed at using such a word in the presence of a woman.

“Why didn’t you just send him to the bunker?” I asked.

The Colonel sighed. “It’s crowded, too crowded, and the last thing I need is a relation begging to talk to me. They all, everyone down there, beg to talk to their relations. Please, let me write to my wife. Let me call my sister. Mama mama, I want my mama.”

He started to turn away but I touched his sleeve. “Who? Who wants her mama?”

I could see the anger rise in the Colonel’s eyes, see him clamp down on it like a heavy steel door. He placed a hand on the pistol in his holster. “Do not ask too many questions. I have already shot one person today and would be even more upset to shoot another.” He sighed again. “If only you would listen.”

After the Colonel left, I went to Ruben. “What happened?”

“That monster, that crazy bastard son, he came in here, yelling at Beltran, calling him a traitor. I tried to calm the Colonel down, but he pulled out his pistol and waved it in my face. And then he turned and shot Beltran. Díos mio.” He rocked back and forth.

“What did Beltran do?”

Ruben looked up at me, his eyes reddened from crying. “Are you trying to get me killed as well? I tell you, I told him, I don’t know anything!”

“You work right next to Beltran.” When he shook his head, I added, “Think of it as helping me not get shot.”

He sighed. “Beltran found a message. The numbers, you know, all those numbers, they weren’t random. Beltran thought they were placed at regular intervals, two regular intervals. One long, one short. From this he extracted a message…”

“What did it say?” I asked.

“I don’t know Morse code! It wouldn’t be worth my life to speculate. Crazy bastard son.”

I went back to my desk, my heart beating rapidly. Thinking about Beltran, I felt nauseated.

But later, as I sat at my desk, I doodled dots and dashes, then scratched them out. If the Colonel saw, he could be furious. Might kill me too.

Then I imagined Ellie, down in the bunker, scrubbing toilets, crying. I was so desperate I convinced myself this vision was true. Riding a wave of resentment towards the Colonel, I prepared a response to la Cassandra with a secret message hidden in the first letters of each sentence: DONDE ESTA MI HIJA.

Where is my daughter.The numbers were no longer spaced at odd intervals—no more Morse code—but bunched together at the end of each file. I complained to the Colonel that this made determining the context even more difficult, but he just gave an indifferent shrug.

I stared at the numbers until my eyes ached, but I could not see a pattern.

One morning, la Cassandra made a request for star charts. Something tickled my brain. Checking, I found star charts on the list of proscribed information. It was then I knew.

Right ascension and declination. Astronomical coordinates. It had to be.

With excitement rising in my chest, I set to work. I looked forward to proving the Colonel a liar. I wondered how la Cassandra would encode her message. Perhaps it would be in the first letter of the names of the stars, or the constellations they were in.

But when I checked the star charts, I was confused. I had two dozen sets of coordinates, but there was nothing at any of them, not even a nebula.

That’s funny, I thought. Even by chance, there should be something at some of the coordinates.Any letters, e-mails, and phone calls were monitored and censored, and we could not leave the country; but we could go to Bogotá. Ruben went frequently. My own request, my first since arriving, was granted.

I knew someone at the university, an old friend from graduate school. Sylvia greeted me warmly with kisses and a hug, then looked over my shoulder at my minder. “Trabajo para el Coronel,” I said.

“I wouldn’t have expected you to work for him,” Sylvia said, switching to English. “NASA didn’t treat you well?”

Over dinner I told Sylvia about Ellie. She gripped my hand. I continued, “I’m afraid this isn’t just a social call. There’s something I want to ask of you.”

“Anything for you.”

“I want to use one of the university telescopes,” I said. “I miss astronomy.”

That night, we scanned half the coordinates on my list. “What are you looking for, Marta?” Sylvia asked. “Something for the Colonel?”

I glanced at my minder, who was dozing in the corner, and shook my head.

“Well, there is nothing at any of those coordinates.”

“Are you sure your telescope is properly aligned?”

Sylvia snorted. “We may have become a pariah nation under the Colonel, but we still manage to have competent software controls.” She added, “We replaced them, oh, in the late ‘teens, after the Turkmenistani cyberstorm blew out the old systems.”

“Can I control it manually?”

“Not this one. But one of our older scopes, the forty centimeter Cassegrain, yes. We hardly use it anymore. Students complain they cannot find the target stars. I think the gears are worn.”

“I want to try it.”

The constellation Virgo was directly overhead. I centered the scope on Spica, and then worked my way over to the Virgo cluster and M60. Then I cranked the telescope over forty-five minutes of arc in right ascension and up a couple of degrees in declination. There was a star.

“That can’t be right,” Sylvia said. “We looked at those coordinates a moment ago on the sixty-centimeter–there was nothing there.”

I looked at the picture on the screen. “Looks about fifth magnitude. It has to be in the catalog.”

Sylvia pursed her lips and flipped through a book. “The closest would be 70 Virginis. But those aren’t the right coordinates. It should be over half a degree.” We returned to the computer controlled sixty-centimeter scope, typed in the coordinates. “No, nothing.” Rubbing at her eyes, she yawned and said, “Oh, I can’t stay up like I did in the old days. I need to go to bed.”

As we walked away from the telescopes, hugging ourselves in the cold night air, my minder faithfully tagging along, Sylvia said, “You know what? About 70 Virginis?”


“I studied it, you know. Remember, that was my dissertation, determining exoplanet orbital parameters. 70 Virginis was one of them.”I spent half a day in the University’s library, hauling down dusty tomes that had not been opened in two decades.

“You’re lucky,” the librarian said. “Next year they’re going to pulp the lot of them. Everything has been databased.”

The coordinates of many stars with known exoplanets, as found in the oldest journals, did not match the digital databases. It was a funny pattern; stars labeled by their constellations—like 70 Virginis—shifted by less than a degree. But stars in the phone-book catalogs, stars like HD 117618 were sometimes shifted to another quadrant of the sky.

Other people had noticed: amateurs. I found complaints in letters to the editor in issues of Sky and Telescope, 2018 and 19. The editorial reply said their scope-tracking mechanisms must be off.

It was dangerous, but I wrote down the coordinates, star type, and, on a whim, the distance from Sol. To my surprise, I noticed the discrepant systems were those with hot Jupiters, massive gas giants far too close to their primaries.

Back home, I was piecing together la Cassandra’s latest blueprint for a nanomachine, one to repair nerve axon sheaths. As with all of la Cassandra’s inventions, this was radically different from Monsanto’s designs, with their carbon gears and spokes. La Cassandra’s machine looked more like a sea urchin: Brownian ratchets caused silicate spikes to swivel around and propel the machine forward in an aqueous fluid.

And then there was a description of an appendage–“como un cangrejo,” it read. Unfortunately I couldn’t find the word cangrejo in my dictionary of engineering Spanish. I wandered around, looking for Ruben, but I couldn’t find him. Instead I found Ana in the kitchen, her hair damp from steam from dinner’s soup, as she was chopping onions.
Cangrejo?” I asked her. She paused and squeezed her lips as she thought. Then she brought her hands up close to my face and made a sudden snapping motion, making me jump back. “Cangrejo de rio,” she said, then added, “como una langosta pequeña.” Like a little lobster. “You can find them in the stream,” she added, pointing out the door. “The men use them as bait for fishing.”

I walked out into the humid afternoon and beneath the sun that hammered down on my head. It was only a hundred meters to the little stream that ran through tall grass. At the edge I knelt down and dipped my hand into the clear, cool water. Black tadpoles sped away, and I saw a gray-green shape scuttle behind a rock. A crayfish.

After a bit of research I found out crayfish had originally been in Venezuela and other parts of South America, but not in Colombia. I thought about this and looked up the old logs. Sure enough, two years ago, la Cassandra had requested articles on invasive species. According to these articles, one could tell where crayfish had first come across the border, around 2012, by the population density and genetic diversity; with such information at hand one could draw a map of the invasive wave across Colombia.

At the same time, la Cassandra had requested star charts. That request had been denied.

When I finished the diagram, it looked nothing like a crayfish, nothing like a cangrejo.

It was a clue, a message from la Cassandra, I felt.

Was it about Ellie?I found Ruben. “What was the message?”

“What message?” he said, and walked away abruptly. I started to follow, but over his shoulder he shouted, “Leave me alone! The Colonel would kill me if I knew anything.”

I called after him, “You learned Morse code! The librarian in Bogotá told me.”

He stopped in his tracks.

“It wasn’t Beltran at all, it was you,” I said. “Imagine what the Colonel will think when he finds out.”

He blanched. “Bruja,” he said, then hung his head. Finally he said, “It wasn’t much. Just four words. Una pregunta del femtometro. A question of a femtometer. Just raving. I don’t know why the Colonel killed him for that.”

My insides were knotting, but I said grimly, “I know.”

I went back to my room and pulled out the numbers on the exoplanets. Drawing a crude map on a piece of paper, I jotted down distance and direction from Earth and, almost as an afterthought, added the distance of each hot jupiter from its primary.

After I stared at my map, it suddenly all made sense. Terrible, terrifying sense.

And I started to cry. La Cassandra’s message wasn’t about Ellie at all. It was about something many parsecs away. I couldn’t grasp it. All I cared about was Ellie.

And then, in my infinite capacity for self-deception: If the Colonel’s been hiding this, I thought, what else has he been lying about?

It took me a long time to stopper my emotions. When I did, I went to the Colonel. He sat behind a battleship-sized desk, ticking off notes on a piece of paper.

“Yes?” he said, without looking up.

“On my visit to Bogotá,” I said, “I saw there’s a performance of Tosca opening next week. I haven’t been to an opera in so long. I’d like to go.”

The Colonel continued to work his way down the page. When his pen reached the bottom, he said, “Don’t expect to see your University friend. She’s been arrested.”

My legs turned to water beneath me. “Wh-what?”

Now he lifted his face. “She was caught sending an e-mail to NASA. Very suspicious, smelled like a code. All about telescope alignments.”

“She’s innocent!” My mouth went dry. I stammered, “When I was there, I asked–well, we looked through her telescopes.” I swallowed. “And she said she’d been having trouble with the alignments. I suggested she contact NASA.”

He put the pen down on the table. “You know direct contact with any American government agency is forbidden.”

“I forgot.” I wrung my hands. “Please, it’s my fault.”

“She knew it, too. She tried to spoof her e-mail address.” He shook his head. “I sincerely hope you have nothing to do with this.” He waved a hand in dismissal.

I was trembling so much, I barely made it out the door. Oh, Sylvia! What had I gotten her into?

As I wandered through the high grass and down to the stream, I thought, what will she tell the Colonel? He would use any means to extract information. And my worst terror was that he would kill me before I saw Ellie again.

Crippled by fear and guilt, I sank to my knees and sobbed.

Ana found me in the kitchen, holding a spoon over a batch of the Colonel’s favorite carne adobada. She frowned.

“Suspicious rubia,” she muttered, and flapped a hand at me. “Go in, the Colonel’s waiting. You taste the food where he can see you.”

The soup was a broth, rooster with herbs. My heart was pounding and despite the air conditioning sweat trickled down my face. I spooned up soup as the Colonel watched.

“You have a flower in your hair,” he said.

“I found it by the stream,” I said. “I was out walking.”

“Ah, that’s why you look so flushed. It’s the heat.” He began to slurp his own soup.

Between spoonfuls, he began to discourse on one of his favorite political themes: “Capitalism and communism are both political diseases. Immunological malfunctions of the civil body. Communism is like lupus and other autoimmune diseases; prone to mistrust and paranoia, communism eats itself away from the inside.

“And capitalism, it is like immunodeficiency. No resistance to outside ideas and influences. Flooding the system with outsiders.”

He looked at me. “Forgive me, Doctora Schiavone, if I bring up painful memories, but sometimes the truth is painful.”

The Colonel turned his spoon over in his hand and looked at it. “And you have not been truthful with me.” He pushed away his bowl and signaled to Ana, who swept away the soup—I hadn’t finished—and quickly placed salad in front of us. I nibbled at the dressing, and the Colonel ate a forkful. Then he sighed.

“I thought you were one who understood–that my rules were not arbitrary displays of control, but instituted for your protection.” From his shirt pocket he pulled out a piece of paper and unfolded it. My map of the exoplanets. “This is a lie,” he said, his voice shaking with anger. “This is why I named the thing la Cassandra. She tells fabulous untruths to frighten the weak, to drive mad those who cannot see clearly.”

Before he could continue, I blurted out, “Is my daughter still alive?”

The Colonel stopped, puzzled. “Where did you get that idea? Surely not from la Cassandra.”

“You hid this,” I said, tapping the map. “What else are you hiding?” And I told him about Ana and the cake.

The Colonel’s mouth tightened. He called to Ana and asked her to explain. She kept her face carefully blank and said she’d received a request for a cake and a piñata…

“Don’t lie to me!” he shouted, and she shrank back, one hand raised as if to ward off a blow. He hadn’t moved from his seat. “What game are you playing?” he demanded.

Ana stared down at the floor. “No game, señor. I swear.”

“Get out!” he roared. He looked at me, his eyes narrowed to slits. “Women! I should stick to Russian whores and have only men do the work. Then I wouldn’t have to suffer your petty jealousies and imagined conspiracies.”

I pointed to the map. “That’s not imagined. Astronomical databases are corrupted and give misleading locations for exoplanets. As far as I can tell, even the computer code driving the telescopes are infected. Did you hack the databases? It’s impressive, but why…” I stopped. The Colonel was shaking his head.

“I did not hack those databases.”

I sat very still. Finally I said, “The message Beltran died for. You hardly needed to shoot anyone—unless they knew a femtometer is also called a fermi, they wouldn’t have gotten the pun.”

The Colonel grunted. “So you found that out too. Ana! I still want the rest of my dinner!”

Ana came and placed the steaming dish of adobada in front of me. The Colonel said, “I made the mistake of allowing la Cassandra to read biographies of physicists and mathematicians. One of them was Enrico Fermi. If I had known about his famous question—Where are they?—I would never have allowed it. She is obsessed, you see, with extraterrestrial civilizations.”

“Please, just tell me,” I said. “Is Ellie still alive?”

He shrugged. “If only you would listen to me. I am sorry, but your daughter is truly dead. Let us talk of more interesting things.” When I shook my head, he added, “If you don’t believe me, you can search for yourself in the bunker. And yes, that is a threat.”

Something tickled my cheek. I brushed at it, found it was a tear.

“I won’t lie to you, even to save your life.” He dismissed Ana with a wave, then unsnapped his holster and placed his pistol on the table. “And now the only way to save your life is to banish you to the bunker. I don’t like shooting women, but with what you have learned, you are no longer safe to be out here.”

I stared at him, my heart punching the walls of my chest like a fist. I’ve truly lost Ellie, I thought. I have nothing to live for. Slowly I put my fork into the carne adobada. Before I put it in my mouth, I told the Colonel, “I haven’t learned anything of importance.”

The Colonel gestured impatiently at the food. I took a bite of the adobada. Ana had made it very spicy, the way the Colonel liked it, and my mouth and lips stung.

“Surely you’ve figured it out, Doctora Schiavone. Indulge me. I enjoy watching your mind work.”

“Something is forcing the hot Jupiters inward,” I said through clenched teeth, before taking another bite. The Colonel nodded and began to eat as well. “There is a pattern. If you take them, take the distance from the primary, as a kind of clock—the closer the older, the farther the younger—then clearly there is a wave. And it is moving towards us. But a wave of what? I can guess, but I think you know.”

The Colonel sipped his wine. “I call them the enola. A small joke of mine.”

“Not very funny,” I said.

La Cassandra claims she came to warn us, that the enola are exactly what the rich nations fear—a plague of nanomachines. In her stories, the nanomachines are reassembling solar systems, moving most of the mass closer to the primary to capture more of the energy.” He took a bite of the adobada. “In a way, her fables are quite thrilling. Civilizations smashed; trillions of lives lost in screaming terror; art, culture, poetry gone, all devoured by the ravenous hunger of the enola.”

I felt my throat tighten. “But you kept this information to yourself.”

He took another bite. “She claims to come from one of the worlds wrecked by the enola, an emissary to warn us, to offer us defenses. Nanotechnology defenses. Should I believe her? Trust her? Maybe she is a Trojan horse. Besides, she says an enola armada will not arrive for two or three centuries. You and I will be long dead.”

“But who hacked the astronomical databases?”

The Colonel wiped at his mouth with his napkin, and then dabbed at his face. He was sweating. “Ana outdid herself with the chiles,” he said, tugging at his collar.

“Who hacked the databases?” I repeated, my tongue thick in my mouth. “La Cassandra?”

“Impossible.” He shook his head. “La Cassandra suggests an advanced guard of the enola, already here…” He staggered to his feet. “Ana!”

His lips were turning blue.

Ana rushed in, just as the Colonel crumpled to the floor, and screamed. “What happened?”

“I didn’t want to go in the bunker without Ellie,” I wheezed, “so I put cangrejo de rio into the adobada.”

Ana rushed to the sideboard and yanked out a drawer, spilling epipens onto the floor. She grabbed one and jabbed it into the Colonel’s chest. He did not move. She jabbed another, then the last one. He was a stone. She looked up at me, her eyes full of hatred.

“Just in case,” I said, barely able to get the words out, “I jabbed them in my leg. All of them.”Ana ran for the doctor, but it was too late.

The Colonel’s lieutenants tried to keep his death a secret, but he had not planned for succession, had not trusted anyone with the keys to power. Within a week US Special Forces arrived.

And I am still a prisoner, at the old facility at Guantánamo. The Americans, my fellow countrymen, found it necessary to recreate the Colonel’s system, and now I, and Ana, are in the innermost circle, along with the former denizens of the bunker.

Ellie is not among them. A US official told me they found what remained of her, matched against my DNA, in a makeshift morgue in the bunker.

“And I suppose you won’t let me go free, any more than the Colonel would,” I said to the pleasant young man who debriefed me. It felt strange, speaking English again on a regular basis.

“I couldn’t say, ma’am. We’re waiting for a decision on that.”

“Are you also pretending that la Cassandra is lying?”

“We’re considering all possibilities, ma’am.”

I finally met the oracle. It looks like a metal beehive, half-melted to a puddle. A radio receiver transcribes its signals. It fell from the sky twelve years ago, during the days of Jose Tirado’s coup, and Lopez-Inusaki happened to be among the first from the Army to arrive at the crash site in the slums of Bogotá.

La Cassandra tells me how she traveled a thousand years to come here, and how beautiful and lonely it is in interstellar space. I tell her about Ellie, and how I miss her. La Cassandra says it is not quite hopeless. The plans and technology she gave the Colonel are her gifts to humanity, the beginning of a plan, a disturbing plan, a deal with the devil. We cannot defeat the enola, but there is a way to escape, she claims.

If only we would listen.


C.W. Johnson has a handful of stories published in venues such as Realms of Fantasy and Analog. When he was a graduate student, many years ago, he spent a summer calibrating one of the large spectrometers at End Station A at the Stanford Linear Accelerator, often working all night. That experience helped to inspire this story.

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2 Responses to Abyss & Apex : Second Quarter 2011: Fermi’s Plague

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