Excerpt: Signal to Noise
The liquid crystal display screen flickered with pale light as the skinny black-haired boy leaned over it, starting up the terminal and seating himself before it. Bastian Kautzer shifted in close to the terminal as though it could provide warmth as well as light. He rubbed his hands together, lacing his fingers and regarding his black-tipped nails for a moment before cracking a few joints as a prelude to stretching and tapping his fingers nimbly over the terminal keyboard. All around him in the darkened room, rows of workstations turned blind terminal eyes on his hunched form.
Silence echoed; it wrapped around the room, it weighed down the air. It scraped at Bastian’s nerves, the silence ticking past like seconds on a clock, as he waited for the Pangalactic Corp logo on the screen to fade away, indicating a network connection had been achieved. It had been years since this room—once the communication hub of an entire planetary colony compound—had been anything but silent, and now Bastian was tensed to react at the slightest hint of unexpected sound.
Every time Bastian waited on edge for the network connection to come through, he expected it to be the last. He was continuously amazed that it had kept working this long, three interminable years beyond the first attack. It wasn’t as though there was anyone left on the planet capable of doing maintenance.
The screen booted up the network browser home page, which was pre-set to exactly the entry that Bastian stole into the deserted command center to read as often as he dared. Bastian drummed his black-painted fingernails over the workstation console, breaking the silence even as he listened beyond it.
“Federated Planet Organization, colony NSE-856G,” he read aloud from the FPO’s official registry of planets. “Colloquially referred to by its colonists as Planet Noise. Rocky, with an oxygen-nitrous mix atmosphere capable of supporting human life without adaptation or breathing devices, but barely habitable.”
Bastian scanned down the encyclopedic entry, looking for something new. “…Colonized for its plentiful hydronium, a composite element used as a source of energy for everything from power grids to fissile weaponry. Noise was one of the first colonies in the sector to send out a distress signal before the Incursion was confirmed as a threat to human life.”
Frustrated, he shook his head. He kept hoping, but it was always the same. Noise had been one of the first, possibly the very first, to get hit by the alien life-forms in what was now known across the network bulletins as the Incursion. Yet even now, three years later, there wasn’t a breath of information on the response, or rather the lack of response, to Noise’s distress call – or any other colonies out on the further sectors of FPO space. There was no update on Noise’s status, because no one knew.
A breath of air whispered behind him, and Bastian was no longer alone.
His twin pressed a hand to his shoulder, leaning over Bastian and tickling his cheek with a sweep of fine golden-brown hair as he, too, peered at the terminal screen. “Still nothing?” Theo asked.
No one had a status update for Noise because Theo and Bastian were the only ones left alive.
“Nothing,” Bastian replied. “No rescue mission sent to Noise, or any of the other planets in the sector.”
Theo leaned harder on Bastian’s shoulder, making Bastian push back against him, sending an annoyed glance upward. “Any news bulletins from the Federated Planet Organization?”
“Was just checking,” Bastian said, queuing up the news feeds in his inbox. “I only got here a few minutes ago, you know.”
After the official distress call had gone out three years ago, the two of them had tried following up with various authorities from their own personal accounts, but they’d never received a response. Bastian theorized that they didn’t have the proper clearance, or that the FPO was flooded with claims for help both real and imagined and had trouble sorting them out. Theo had declared with brutal certainty that the FPO didn’t care about Noise or any of the outlying colonies anymore; the Incursion was hitting hard everywhere.
Noise had been written off as a total loss, ran Theo’s way of thinking. They were on their own.
“No,” Bastian sighed after scanning through headlines and his own meager inbox of alerts. He kept his hopes up, because one of them had to. There was no point to life on Noise without the hope of rescue. “No news, no missions in this sector. No progress on doing anything more than keeping the Incursion to a standstill. I don’t think they’ve taken a single planet back yet.”
“Better turn it off, then,” Theo advised, squeezing his hand down on Bastian’s shoulder.
Bastian nodded, powering down the terminal with a swipe of his hand. The light winked out and he stood in the darkness that followed, turning around to look at the room full of empty workstations. Even in the middle of the day, this room was dark with the outer shutters lowered. Once, this had been a thriving command center for Noise’s colonial operations. His own father had worked in this center.
“You shouldn’t come here alone,” Theo chided, reaching up to cup Bastian’s cheek with one hand. “You know? We should never go anywhere alone.”
Bastian shifted from one foot to the other, looking off to the side, to one shuttered window. “You don’t like it when I come here,” he said. “So I try to come when you’re asleep.”
“There’s never any news,” Theo said, and looked as though he might say more, but instead he pressed his lips together and shook his head.
There had been news, at first.
All of it had been bad news. When Bastian and Theo had survived the wave of the initial Incursion, after barricading themselves into the compound and making it as secure as possible, they’d thought they only had to wait it out until the next supply run from an FPO ship came to haul away hydronium. It was Noise’s only export. Everyone needed it. Hydronium was used in everything from hand-torch batteries to powering starship FTL drives.
The next supply run had never arrived.
They’d been thirteen, young and scared and doing what they needed to survive, but grateful that at least they had each other. The news back then had been lit up with increasing distress calls as Incursions spread from outer to middle sectors of FPO influence. In the intervening years, Bastian and Theo had learned to shore up the defensible areas of the main building of the Noise colony compound. They had laid traps in the areas that weren’t defensible. They’d taught themselves to shoot, scavenged and stockpiled ammo, held off continued attacks of the alien Armors—as the newsbytes had dubbed them—and they were still alive. They’d celebrated their sixteenth birthday not too long ago; they were legal adults.
Not that it got them anywhere. Not off Noise; not away from the nightmare of steadily dwindling supplies and no rescue in sight.
“There was news,” Bastian defended his continued forays into the deserted communications hub. “There used to be, about the Incursion.”
Theo sighed, reaching up to tweak Bastian’s ear, and Bastian batted his hand away while giving his brother a mock-angry look.
“You know what this is,” Theo said, and Bastian folded his arms over his chest. “The FPO is censoring the net bulletins. There’s no point in checking—”
“I don’t care!” Bastian cried out, pushing away from the console and stalking across the floor of the darkened room. “I’m going to keep checking; I have to. Something… something has to change, some day. They’ll come back.” His voice dwindled down to nothing as he reached the seam of the door panel. He had to keep up hope, because without it they had no future at all.
“Bastian,” Theo’s voice came from behind him, followed by a sigh.
The body heat from his twin warmed him before Theo made contact. Theo put his arms around him, resting his chin on Bastian’s shoulder briefly.
“I know,” Theo said in response to Bastian’s unspoken thought. “We should go check Stores, okay?”
Bastian twisted in Theo’s hold and pushed at his shoulder. “I don’t want to,” he muttered, sulky. “It’s not like the figures are going to be any different, you know?” He lifted his face, challenging Theo with his eyes to dispute his statement.
Theo met his eyes steadily. “A year,” he replied. “Maybe a bit more, if we stretch it.”
Bastian nodded, dropping his gaze, and he let out a ragged sigh as Theo pressed their foreheads together.