Fans whirred, forcing hot air laced with beef and star anise into the hibernation pod. The scent was supposed to comfort Max as he warmed up. Instead, it made him homesick. It was another reminder that by the time the Byzantium Library returned to Earth, centuries would have passed.
Max tugged the latch to his left. The fans spun down as the pod’s hatch clicked open. He pushed himself out, leaving the beef and star anise behind. His hands slapped curved walls, propelling him down the ship’s main tunnel. The cold sliced through his overalls and stopped his breath. He was supposed to wait until both he and the ship had warmed up before he left the pod, but he never did. The ship only woke him when its systems needed repair. He’d rather be cold and protect the ship’s archive than be warm and see the archive corrupted.
A terminal jutted out from the wall near the intersection of two tunnels. Adjustable arms mounted the keyboard and display onto the wall. Max rotated to match their orientation. He clipped the carabiners attached to the runners on his overalls into holds on either side of the keyboard. The flat, smooth keyboard configured itself to Max’s preferred layout, QWERTY with a section on the left for Chinese handwriting recognition.
He called up the ship’s logs. The display filled with failures to access the archive. The ship had only managed to generate correct data by combining the corrupted data with redundant error correction bits. Max grimaced. He hated replacing readers. In zero–gravity, their mounting screws floated away from him, getting lost in thickets of cables. All the failures had come from the same part of the archive. The problem had to be a faulty reader rather than in the media.
When his team had designed the archive, they had had good reasons for storing the archive in organic polymer dye–based media. It had a high data density. It couldn’t be over–written. It was immune to alpha particles and cosmic rays. The only reason to read back data at all was to check that the dye remained stable. In theory, it ought to last the length of the trip, but demonstrating that before launch was impractical. Instead, the ship continuously read the archive, checking whether the error correction bits it generated from the data matched the stored error correction bits. As long as the medium remained stable, the two sets of bits had to match. So far, the dye was proving itself more reliable than the readers. The crew had plenty of spare readers though and could repair faulty ones.
The faulty reader lay embedded inside a curved wall in a tributary tunnel. Max grabbed a handhold, stopping in front of the reader’s access panel. The replacement reader floated beside him, tethered by a runner to his overalls. He pried off the access panel. The smell of rotten fruit enveloped him as he reached in. He stopped. The reader was fine. The organic dye wasn’t. It was engineered to decompose into compounds reminiscent of overripe fruit spoiling when it broke down. He slammed the panel back into the wall.
The ship had an alternate archive grade medium. It rendered data in the crystalline and amorphous states of chalcogenide glass. His team had planned to maintain a copy of the archive in each medium, but they didn’t have the funding to build a ship that large. Instead, the Byzantium Library had just the one copy. Max had chosen to use the proven technology, the organic dye, then stuffed the ship with as much blank chalcogenide glass as they could, just in case.
Anchored to a terminal, Max directed the ship to burn the error corrected data into the chalcogenide glass. The list of affected documents streamed up his display. They were all cataloged as traditional Chinese. That was odd. His team had taken care to stripe batches of organic dye across multiple collections. A faulty batch should have affected small portions of many collections, not a large portion of one.
His rib cage locked. For a moment, the ship seemed to darken. Max forced air into his lungs and shook off his fog.
Taiwan had been invaded not too long before the Byzantium Library launched. The project had smuggled their documents out as they did with much of the archive. Those though were among the last. Maybe that was why they all ended up in one dye lot. Any other reason was too depressing to contemplate.
The Byzantium Library project archived the sum of human knowledge, but that hadn’t been its original mission. When Max first joined the project, it’d been focused on deep haul space travel. The mission evolved over time. When the ideology purges started, the project’s researchers stashed away in secret the novels and songs they held dear but didn’t meet the prevailing standards of purity. By the time purges had erupted into the wars that forced them to launch ahead of schedule, they all called the ship the Byzantium Library. Their mission was now to return to Earth everything it chose to forget.
They’d flown into space to avoid the partisanship that had infected the Earth. This failure in the archive though looked like one last hit by China on Taiwan. Max burned the entire traditional Chinese collection onto chalcogenide glass, just in case.
He snuggled inside his hibernation pod. When he locked its hatch down, his world darkened and cooled. Maybe when he revived again, he’d be home.
The summer after his freshman year, Max returned home with his dormmate’s carpet. Too many shoes and too many spilt beers had taken their toll, and his dormmate hadn’t noticed. It was almost the fall semester again before he got around to renting a carpet cleaner.
He pushed the cracked glass coffee table, a scratched couch and several ottomans aside to make space in the living room. The rug was a square of gray smog over the sky blue of the living room carpet.
Thick steam from the carpet cleaner and the harsh pine scent of the cleaning solution warred against the substantial, comfortable smell of beef simmering in the kitchen. He had cleaned the carpet twice before it was plausibly white again. If he hadn’t run out of cleaning solution, he would have cleaned it a third time. The cleaner had whined so loudly, Max didn’t hear his Mom shouting for him until he’d finished.
Mom entered the living room. To customers at his parents’ restaurant, she was the kind bookkeeper and cook who gave them free batches of her special hot sauce whenever they asked. To Max, Mom was the woman who patted his hand and told him he could do better next time when he missed a perfect score on his College Board exams by only five questions. He held his breath ready to parse whatever Mom said.
His brow crinkled. Wash… you… no, your friend’s carpet… afterwards… also wash… our… no, ours… how about. That seemed relatively straight forward. He exhaled.
“The cleaning carpet’s water” wouldn’t win any prizes, but it got the message across. Or so he thought. Mom grabbed the cleaning attachment out of his hands. She turned the cleaner back on.
Mom wasn’t screaming just to be heard over the carpet cleaner. She was angry at him. He tried to work out what he heard over the din. You think… you that grr, so amazing. Up big learn… oh, go to college… do not need… listen… you… mom. You think… you… compared to… mom good… no, better than mom. I not up big learn… damn it, go to college… you think… I am… Max gave up. What was left was one of those four character allusions to classical Chinese that any twelve–year–old Chinese kid understood, but left him bewildered.
Max stared back at Mom, trying to puzzle out meaning from her words. Are you a machine? That couldn’t be right. It had to be yet another idiom he didn’t understand. She must have asked if he had another machine.
The disappointment that crossed her face wasn’t “Oh well, I’ll clean the carpet some other time.” It was more like “I have no son.” She turned around, then strode out of the room. Her sobbing was faint, but his stomach dropped with each cry.
The following week at school, he registered for his first Chinese class.
Floating containers of Meals Ready to Eat and spare parts jostled against each other, held back by webbing that bulged out from curved walls and sealed every alcove. The wall panels that no longer fit precisely rattled in sympathy with fans that groaned on and off as Max drifted through each section of tunnel. The noise drowned out his chattering teeth. The beef and star anise smell drifted out of each tunnel vent rather than being confined to his pod. He’d fix that before hibernating again.
The ship needed him more often these past few decades. Readers failed and had to be replaced. Connectors shook themselves loose and cables cracked over time. He repaired his crew mates’ pods and woke to find they had repaired his. Too often, grinding noises came from vibrating pods warm to the touch. All he could do was keep those corpses frozen to bring home. The hibernation system had killed most of the Byzantium Library’s small crew by the time those still alive had successfully diagnosed and fixed it. He had to push that away and focus on the archive though to complete the mission.
The archive was holding up well. That one dye lot had been the only large scale failure so far and Max had copied all of the affected data to chalcogenide glass in time. He’d never been prouder of his team. Their legacy lived on in the Byzantium Library. The ship wasn’t perfect. The last few times he woke, it seemed barely functioning. The archive, however, had remained intact.
So when the chalcogenide glass began to fail, Max finally cried. The errors scrolling up the terminal display blurred in his gaze. He clamped his mouth shut and held his breath even though no one could hear him. Again, the ship had alerted him in time. It could still recreate the data using the error correction bits he had layered in. The chalcogenide glass, though, was already the back up.
The wall panel that protected the data modules vibrated before Max. Maybe cables had failed or solder joints had crumbled. Maybe the data hadn’t decayed; the ship just couldn’t access it. He wanted the problem to be something he could fix. They could no longer afford the energy to re–burn the data into the glass. Power from the ship’s photovoltaic arrays dropped every year at a rate consistent with space debris pitting the array’s outer surface.
He set the panel next to him. The modules embedded in the walls looked as they did the day they were installed. Rows of cards sat in racks screwed to the floor. Ties bundled floating cables together. He ran continuity tests. Signals sent down the cables had no problems reaching the rest of the ship. He tested the modules themselves. The electrical resistance of the chalcogenic glass’s amorphous states had increased enough to blur the distinction among its various possible states. Everyone on the team had expected that would happen over time, just not on the order of decades. The memory was slowly confusing everything Max had burned into it.
The runners on his overalls tugged against the walls. Max tapped furiously on the terminal’s keyboard. He had a data scrubber to write and he didn’t know how long he had before the chalcogenic glass would fail so badly that he wouldn’t be able to recreate the correct data from the error correction bits.
The ship had only one type of data storage he hadn’t tried, the volatile short–term memory that it operated on. On the face of it, the idea was insane. The memory was easily overwritten. It was susceptible to alpha particles and gamma rays. The ship had sufficient water and magnetic shielding. Otherwise, the crew would have long died of cancer. The memory still exhibited more failures per unit time than it would have on Earth, but it had remained functional. Easily overwritten would have to be a strength as well as a weakness. Max had no choices left.
The display blurred from the ship’s vibration. He copied the whole traditional Chinese collection into memory, layering in error correction bits on top of what had already been built into the memory modules. A data scrubber ran constantly, reading every word, one by one, correcting flipped bits then writing them back. He set up an additional watchdog skulking in the background to check that the scrubber was still running and that nothing else wrote to the same memory, just in case.
His hibernation pod passed its diagnostics. He pulled himself to its side then opened an access hatch. The pod’s gaskets fitted tightly around its tubes. Its pumps looked good. He closed the hatch, suspending himself. The ship’s life support could deal with only one person alive at a time. They had decades left to go; the crew needed to stretch out its consumables.
Max discovered that when one tried to learn Chinese, what one actually learned was humility with a smattering of grammar and vocabulary. He’d spent much more time teaching himself Chinese than he’d spent on his Bachelor’s degree; Computer Science was easy in comparison. Now that he was about to enter MIT—his parents had simply assumed he’d go to grad school—he was ready to admit to them he’d been studying Chinese. They’d never mentioned if his Chinese was getting any better, and it wasn’t as if he needed another thing for them to tell him he’d failed at.
His parents had sold the house. They’d lived here since he was a kid, but the neighbors now considered them foreign strangers. Suspicious stares replaced friendly smiles. His parents bought a condo in a Chinese–friendly neighborhood instead. Max sat on the house’s concrete stoop reading a textbook, glossed extracts from Chinese newspapers, on his reader. Movers hefted his childhood onto their backs then dumped it into their truck parked in the driveway. His parents’ car sat by the curb, its trunk open. MIT and a newly–launched research project in deep haul space travel waited on him, but as the family member most fluent in English, it was his job to answer the movers’ questions. Mostly, they glowered at him. He and his parents were obviously part of some pre–invasion force despite having emigrated from Taiwan, not China.
The door behind him squeaked open. Mom staggered out, dragging a suitcase. It thunked down the step between the door and stoop.
He set down his reader. Its screen went dark. He’d told her an hour ago that he’d stow her suitcase in the car, and he’d just told her again. She never listened to him.
He pulled the suitcase out of his mom’s hand. She struggled for a second before she let him take it. He dragged the suitcase across the lawn then tugged it into the trunk. He followed the dented path he’d made in the lawn back to the stoop.
Mom held the reader staring at its screen. Her lips tightened into a thin line.
In the twentieth century, the mainland Chinese government had reformed the Chinese character set. They struck out portions of some characters, merged multiple characters into one, and reconceived some characters entirely. The changes affected a few thousand characters, some of them common. Taiwan, unsurprisingly, refused to follow along. Neither had millions of overseas Chinese who’d learned everything the old way. From then on, the language had two character sets. To the extent he could read Chinese at all, Max could read both, sort of. The dictionary on his phone displayed both character sets and it recognized his handwriting.
Mom sat next to him. Max fished his phone and a stylus from his pocket. As they read the newspaper extracts, he made annotations on his reader, scribbling over simplified characters and replacing them with their traditional equivalents. He translated everything aloud into English. It helped him learn Chinese, and Mom insisted on hearing the translation.
If the flavors of beef and anise tried to scent the hibernation pod, Max couldn’t smell them. In the main tunnel, the pumps overhead wheezed and the fans ground out a drunken whine. The ship barely warmed, and the air smelled of burnt dust. He missed how the beef and anise had once overwhelmed him. The terminal’s display lit its section of the main tunnel, throwing Max’s shadow out into the dark.
He tapped out the queries long ingrained into his fingers. This time, the watchdog woke him. The scrubber was still running. It hadn’t logged any uncorrectable errors, but some rogue process had managed to write to the same memory where he’d stored the traditional Chinese language collection. He pulled up an affected document. One was as good as any other for now.
He killed the rogue process, then edited a document, drawing traditional characters on his keyboard to replace a few simplified ones. History rewrote itself before his eyes. The simplified characters returned as soon as he saved the document. The rogue process had restarted.
A bad dye lot might just have been bad luck. Chalcogenic glass increasing its resistance faster than expected was a matter of physics or poor environmental controls. This, though, had to be sabotage. His efforts to save the traditional Chinese collection over the past century had merely moved it to where it could be reduced to being half–written.
Max shook uncontrollably. The carabiners on his runners rattled against the holds on the walls. He forced his breathing to slow and his mind to focus. The project had archived everything exactly as received regardless of how anyone in the project felt about what it was archiving. How the text presented itself made a statement, and now that statement had been obliterated.
Fixing the operating system, making sure the rogue process stayed dead was the first step. He’d architected the archive’s operating system, but it’d taken a team of programmers to develop. Anyone could have added the rogue process and that code could be anywhere. At least the version controlled databases of the source code and development tools for the operating system remained intact in the archive. Every version of the operating system was at his disposal to study.
Restoring the text wasn’t merely a matter of search and replace. Some simplified characters mapped to multiple traditional characters. In those cases, someone needed to understand the text to decide which traditional character the author had originally meant. It was much easier to convert from traditional to simplified than the other way around.
Max compared successive versions of the operating system. The final versions fixed critical bugs found just weeks before launch, but also integrated the rogue process waiting to devour traditional Chinese text as if it were an essential system service. Those final weeks before launch had been hectic. No one had noticed that those fixes did more than they’d advertised.
Slicing out the rogue process was a matter of backing out of the changes made in those final versions, but not the changes that actually fixed bugs. Tedious, but not difficult. His hands seemed to work by themselves, numbing fingers pounding on a near–frozen slate. The initial surge of rage had gone as his mind wandered back to the vandalized text.
The operating system ran on three copies of the hardware at once. Only two copies needed to be active at any given time. He rebuilt and tested the operating system. One by one, he reinstalled it onto each copy of the hardware. The rogue process was gone, along with any doubt in his mind.
The living room of his parents’ condo had the same furniture as the living room of his childhood, but the room didn’t feel the same. The couch was still scratched from when he was five and had decided its arm rest was a great place to practice writing. In the twenty years since his parents had moved into the condo though, the low glass coffee table had gained a few more cracks he wasn’t responsible for. Moreover, the room was too small. The ottomans were useless squeezed next to the table. It all looked wrong.
His clothes lay in sorted piles on the couch. His backpack sat open on the coffee table taunting him. He didn’t want to return to Boston and the Byzantium Library. When China “reunified” with Taiwan, Max had quit the project he’d worked on from its inception. By the time Taiwan announced its surrender in streams of half–written characters, his parents had lost friends and relatives. Max couldn’t go into space now. His parents had already lost too much. Filial obligation grounded him. Who else would care for them when they retired?
Filial obligation wouldn’t stop a VTOL mini–plane from landing on his parents’ lawn in ten minutes to escort him away. The invasion across the Taiwan strait was just one sign. The world was decaying more quickly than anyone had expected. The Byzantium Library had to leave. Immediately, if the VTOL was any indication.
Max sighed. He started to fold his shirts then place them into his backpack. His proposal to stay on Earth was doomed, but he had to try. World war was inevitable. Historians might eventually decide it had already started. An offer to develop military applications of project technology might keep him on Earth. His parents would be ashamed if they knew. They weren’t the military type. Then again, they never seemed not ashamed of him. What was important was that he’d still be here for them.
As he zipped up the backpack, Mom entered the room. She stood by the couch, bag in one hand. Her hair was as black as ever. Small wrinkles creased around her eyes. Her face had filled out a little. She was frailer. The uniform for Taco Hut hung off her shoulders. She was a fry cook for the franchise down the street. His parents had closed their restaurant years ago. They got tired of replacing broken windows and painting over graffiti telling them they should go home. Never mind that this was home. Otherwise, she was still the same woman who snatched the carpet cleaner hose from him some twenty odd years back.
“Your plane what time arrive?” Except her English was better now, if Chinese syntaxed.
Mom held up a hand. So much for trying to suggest that he stay on the planet.
“I for you very proud.” Her voice was quiet. She pressed the bag into his hands.
Max stared at her. He hadn’t taught her those words. She’d never said that to him before in any language. She was proud that he was going to space.
The bag was heavy for its size. It swayed with a will of its own. He opened it. A tall, clear plastic container filled with her beef noodle soup, a thick layer of white fat congealed at the top, sat inside. Just seeing it, he could taste savory beefiness sloshing across his tongue, pickled mustard greens undercutting the richness, the heat of the chiles scorching his mouth and throat, star anise lending a depth, a hidden note to tie all the soup’s flavors together.
Max muttered his thanks. He hugged his Mom then strapped on his backpack. His hand gripped so tightly on the bag that it hurt. He forced himself out of the condo before he could do anything that might embarrass her.
The Byzantium Library was quiet but for the small whoosh of air from the vents that surrounded Max. Now that he was living in the ship full–time, he’d turned down the fans and shut down everything else that wasn’t absolutely necessary. Runners on each side anchored him to the wall. Chinese text filled the display.
(Editors’ Note: In this issue, John Chu is interviewed by Deborah Stanish)
© 2015 John Chu