THE ORACLE AT GANESHA

"Look," said Horris over the channel. "I'm telling you, I'm not nuts."

His sister, Oliva, responded, "Oh come on. I'm questioning what you're saying, not your sanity." She suppressed a giggle. "I don't doubt that you're nuts, even for a second!"

Horris glowered. "How else would you explain it, then!"

"I don't know! Maybe you're just remembering wrong?"

"But I'm not!" He pleaded, "You've gotta believe me. Hey, look, I talked to some of my coworkers. They remembered seeing the same stuff before the redactions, too."

"Okay, okay," Oliva sighed. "Start again? From the top. I'm gonna record you this time."

Horris cleared his throat. He said as though reciting, "Roughly sixteen megasecs back an archaeological team on Ganesha reported finding fossils of what appeared to be complex multicell organisms. Almost one megasec later, the reports were redacted in their entirety and all queries for the information pointed to possible findings of fossils belonging to simple unicells closely matching common site contaminants. The redaction appears to have extended even to local copies of the original textdata. I've corroborated my claims with informal interviews of three individuals - coworkers - who described without leading questions the same original report that I observed." He nodded and Oliva cut off her recording.

"Those are some huge implications, Horris. Redaction applying to local data?"

"I could hardly believe it myself. But there it was! It was even applied to my cache."

"Okay, well, supposing you're right - and I'm not saying I totally believe you yet - what're you going to do about it?"

Horris' eyes gleamed and excitement laced his voice. "I'm going to catch the first spaceflight out to Ganesha and see for myself."

Oliva said, "Crazy as this is, you aren't going without me, you know."

"Yeah, yeah, whatever."

"I'm serious! I'm not letting you go on your first spaceflight alone."

"I'd take along one of my coworkers!"

"Take them along as well if you want but like it or not I'm coming."

"I've piqued your curiosity, haven't I? Oliva, admit it..."

"Quiet!" She fiddled with her interface. "Okay, I can have us offworld within ten kilosecs. That work?" She flashed him the ticket information.

"Brilliantly." Horris grinned. "I did a good job picking an astronomer for a sister."

"I told you, quiet! And you know that isn't right." She shook her head. "I'll meet you at Port A in five kilosecs. Okay?"

"You got it." Horris opened his eyes and began gathering his things.

The breeze of conditioned air swept through Oliva's matted hair. Her fingers twitched in the air, controlling her interface. She was not, in fact, an astronomer, but an interplanetary travel agent. "Close enough," Horris always insisted. Horris was a journalist for a scientific newssite. He was always bouncing around developments, claiming with sincere conviction that he'd found the next big story. He never found any half so massive as he wanted, but he'd done well enough for himself to earn a solid position in Sci-Hub's ranks of writers.

One kilosec before the flight's departure, Horris hurried to the waiting platform and planted himself beside Oliva. "It's been a little while since I saw you real," he remarked.

"You were almost late," complained Oliva. "Have you any conception of how much trouble it would have been to convince them to let us take a later flight without paying all over again?" She said, "Don't you roll your eyes at me! Come on, onto the ship, before I change my mind!"

They found seats on the launch vessel and were secured in by a stewardess. She reviewed basic safety procedures with them, which mostly consisted of breathing exercises so that if something went wrong they might die not panicking. A disquieted Horris required skillful persuasion by Oliva to not dart back onto the platform before the door slid closed.

Several kilosecs and lots of rocket noise later, the launch vessel docked with a hub station and Oliva guided Horris into the station's main centrifuge where gravity resumed. Horris exclaimed, "As if the gradual lift into zero-gee weren't bad enough!" He held down vomit.

They found their travel vessel and settled in their room in its habitation centrifuge. "How do you do this without getting woozy?" Horris laid on the bed and looked at the curving ceiling. It didn't help. He closed his eyes. "How long's the trip?"

Oliva answered, "Just two megasecs."

Horris sat up and rattled the bed. "Two megasecs? What are we supposed to do with all that time?"

Oliva shrugged. She said, "If it's really that unbearable you can stay in a sedation pod. But there's lots of fun stuff to be done, honestly."

"Whatever," moaned Horris. "For now I'm just gonna take a nap."

Oliva held herself to the wall and cheered, "Go Horris! You can win it!"

Horris wove between poles suspended in the zero-gee playing field. His opponent, a lithe man in the prime of his youth, pursued him while carrying a ball the size of an orange.

Horris laughed, "Catch me if you can, Fayn!"

Fayn stopped himself and took aim. He shouted, "Dodge this, Horris!" He threw the ball and it traveled in a straight line toward Horris.

"As you wish!" Horris ducked and the ball sailed over his head. "Huh? What's the clever look on your face for?" He looked behind him to where the ball went. "...Oh." It had bounced off a pole and back the way it came. It smacked Horris square in the nose. "Oh come on, Fayn!"

"Ha! You'll never beat me," Fayn taunted. He stuck out his tongue.

Horris retreated to the wall beside Oliva. She hit him on the back of the head. "What do I keep telling you? Keep your eyes on the ball!"

"Hey!" Horris rubbed his head. "Fine! If you're so good then you go beat him!"

"Now?"

"Yes, now!"

Oliva made an exaggerated sigh and pushed off the wall into the field of poles. She placed herself at a distance from the ball and said, "You ready, Fayn?"

"Ready to win? You bet."

Oliva shook her head and laughed. "Give us a countdown, Horris?"

"Three, two, one!" Oliva vaulted toward the ball and grabbed it before Fayn. He flew past and she twisted to get an aim on him, but he had reached a pole and was poised to react. Oliva moved toward Fayn and he quickly transferred his hold on the one pole to another.

Oliva threw the ball, but Fayn dodged. He pursued the ball and grabbed it from the air, and immediately launched it back the way it came. Oliva caught it in the air. "Nice try," she said.

She pulled herself toward Fayn again, more slowly this time. He retreated at a similar pace. Oliva waited for him to be at a space between poles, with nothing to grip, and threw the ball hard. It hit Fayn in the stomach before he had a chance to react.

"Gotcha!"

"You really don't play fair!" Fayn tossed the ball back to her.

"Boys, I've spent my life under more various gees than you can imagine, and half of it in zero. You simply are not going to beat me at poleball."

The travel vessel docked in orbit above Ganesha and the siblings moved into a reentry craft. Fayn sat next to them and the stewardess secured them all to their seats.

Fayn asked, "I don't think I ever asked what you came to Ganesha for."

"Oh!" Horris said, "I'm a journalist. Sci-Hub. I thought the stuff coming out was interesting and decided to see for myself. Maybe write an article on the archaeological ops. My sister's just come along to hold my hand."

"It's his first spaceflight," Oliva defended. "And it got my interest, too."

Fayn laughed. "Well, you're in for a treat. Reentry can be very exciting."

Horris said, "Exciting how?"

"Something like eighty percent of spaceflight-related deaths happen in reentry."

Horris' stomach turned. Oliva told him, "Oh, don't worry. It's still not very likely." She asked Fayn, "What're you here for?"

"I'm a computer tech," Fayn said. "I mostly specialize in crypto and net security. I'm not sure what a bunch of archaeologists want with me, but the job pays too well to refuse."

Horris said, "You know, the big reason I'm here is because they redacted their original report, but the weird part is how the redaction even extended to local copies. Places it couldn't've."

"Whoa." Fayn's eyebrows arched. "Sounds like they're really intent on hiding something." He exclaimed, "Oh! That rattle - we're detaching. Brace yourself now, it's gonna get a bit warm in here."

Horris switched on his audiovisual recorder and walked into the main archaeological quarters. He found a receptionist and said, "Hi! I'm a journalist, with Sci-Hub." He flashed her a digital pass. "I'd really like to get a few interviews, if you don't mind."

The receptionist didn't even open her eyes. "Have you got an appointment, sir?"

"No, but-"

"Then there's nothing I can do for you."

"Can I set an-"

"No."

Horris seethed. "How do I even get an-"

"Ask my supervisor."

"I suppose I need an appointment for that?"

"Yes."

"And can I set-"

"No."

Horris grabbed Oliva by the hand. "Come on." He led her past the desk.

The receptionist stood up. "Sir!" She screeched, "Sir! Only those with an appointment are allowed out the lobby. Sir!" She flashed security and told them to pursue.

Horris and Oliva made it as far as an office that lacked a nameplate; it probably belonged to someone unimportant. They knocked on the door and it slid open. The woman sitting at a desk inside opened her eyes and said, "What is it this time?" Horris and Oliva sat on a pair of chairs and the door shut.

Horris said, "I've got a few questions is all." He looked at Oliva as if for approval. "Inspectors. That's us. Just making sure everything's running smooth."

The woman looked at them. "Fine. Ask away."

"What's your name and position?" He added, "For verification reasons, of course."

"Vana. Seismic analysist."

"Good. Describe for me your responsibilities as a seismic analysist."

Vana replied, "The techs put out seismic sensors and sometimes thumpers and the data goes through me. I supervise programs that map the planet's innards using it."

"Tell me all major developments to have occured in the past twenty megasecs, Vana."

She began to answer, but cut herself off. "What were your credentials, again?"

Horris shuffled nervously. Oliva answered, "Perhaps we should be going."

They hurried out of the room and barely evaded the security personnel already looking for them. The receptionist watched them suspiciously as they exited the quarters.

"Human security is tight; I managed to interview one employee but I got nothing. They demand I not talk to anyone without an appointment and they won't allow me to make an appointment. We could really use your help."

Fayn said, "I don't know... I could get in some bad trouble."

Horris begged, "Please? They've got something big. I know it." He thought for a moment and was sullen under Fayn's silence. "Look, I can surely get Sci-Hub to compensate you for whatever you're risking."

Fayn considered. "Alright. I'll do it." He said, "They're doing some digital maintenance right now so it's less likely they'd notice you digging around... or how they got to dig around in the first place. Far as I can tell the maintenance doesn't happen often. I'm gonna patch you through in just a couple hectosecs. Okay?"

"You're a lifesaver, Fayn."

Horris got connected to the archaeological servers and sifted through directories for something interesting. "Aha!" He cried so loud and suddenly that Oliva almost fell out of her bed in the hotel room they were renting. "Oliva, you've got to see this!" He flashed her his view.

Oliva saw images of complex fossils, mechanical artifacts, and even some living subterranean specimens. Horris gasped, "Look at it all! It's a treasure trove! Fayn, are you getting this?" What dominated Oliva's attention, though, were reports referring to an Oracle.

She said, "Horris, what do you make of this report?" She flashed him textdata on the Oracle.

He skimmed over it, almost discarding it, before holding his breath and reading it over again more carefully. "Wow."

"It knew what?" Oliva's jaw slacked.

Fayn asked, "What is it? What've you found?"

"Fayn," said Horris, "How likely do you think it is that you could get us deep into their research site?"

"You have no idea how much it took to get this to work." Fayn said, "You're almost there. Go up to that junction - yeah, that one - and take a left."

Horris and Oliva crept through a dimly lit corridor. Horris peeked past the corners in each direction at the intersection they encountered and flashed to Oliva that the way was clear. They continued for what seemed like kilometers due to the darkness, slow pace, and monotonous walls of humming pipes and uniformly-distributed windowless doors. Fayn directed them, "Okay. There's a door coming up on your right... numbered 403. I think I can unlock it but I can't say for sure."

Oliva whispered, "You led us down here and you don't even know if you can let us in?" Horris murmured assent.

"I didn't know if I could test it without setting off alarms. Don't worry! If we can't unlock it we can probably find another way in, though that'd surely set off an alarm. If one goes off you'll only have as much time as it takes security to get to you."

Oliva laughed aloud. "And how long would that be?"

"You should actually get a whole kilosec. They've gone through some serious effort to make it look like the location of the Oracle's nothing special. If you checked one door previous you'd just find cell cultures. One door after, some geologic samples." Fayn warned, "You're getting close now. It's totally possible there's security there that doesn't register with the server layers I've got access to. Be careful."

Horris spotted two figures, guards, materialize in the shadows far ahead of them. Horris flashed the image and an instruction for silence to Oliva, who was hanging behind and watching their back. He told Fayn by textdata, "Two guards. What now?"

Fayn whispered like he might attract the guards' notice at any time. He said, "I think I can manufacture a diversion... open a gate in 410..." A hectosecond passed. "There. Are they moving?"

Horris shook his head. He texted, "No good." And then, "No, wait. They move."

The two guards disappeared further down the corridor. "That'll buy you a while. A few kilosecs, at least - and that's if they aren't overworked and looking for an excuse for a coffee break."

Horris and Oliva proceeded to door 403. "Okay," Fayn said, "now comes the moment of truth."

The locking mechanism disarmed with a click. Horris mouthed, "We're in!"

"I think I did trip an alarm. Wow, did I trip an alarm! I'm behind a hundred proxies and using lateral access so they won't find it's me who did it, but they're sending an entire team to investigate. You'd better hurry. Fortunately for us the two guards who were there are thoroughly occupied."

Oliva asked, "Can't you lock the door behind us?"

"It's the only exit. It'd trap you in as well as keep them out. And they're sure to anticipate a barricade; they could just cut the door down." He considered, "Though I may still be able to delay them... hold on."

Horris checked that he was still recording and led the way into the blackness beyond the door. When he had taken a few steps toward the fringe of the light coming in from outside, a light switched on automatically.

"Fayn!" Horris grumbled, "The room is empty!"

"Huh?" Fayn separated from his work at putting obstacles between security and the pair. "No it's not. What?" He scanned through data on the room. "Oh! I got it."

On the far wall, a door that was well-camouflaged slid open to reveal an even larger room beyond. Horris and Oliva entered it and descended a staircase. Where the previous room appeared normal, exactly like they could expect from an underground complex, here the walls - as well as ceiling and floor - were carved from the rock. They were also smooth and faintly luminescent. The flat floor was unbroken except for the staircase at the room's single entrance and a cylinder nearly three meters in height.

They approached the cylinder. Its surface was broken by innumerable holes and slots.

It spoke. "Hello." The source of the voice was unmistakable.

Denial still clung to Horris and Oliva. Horris swirled and faced the entrance. "Who is it!"

"You called me the Oracle."

It was now impossible to think the voice came from anywhere else. Horris said, "...What?"

Oliva asked it, "What are you?"

"I am the planet."

"No, we've seen the reports... what do you know?"

"I know everything."

Fayn found time for a sarcastic remark. "Cheeky, isn't it?" He said, "Ask it what I had for breakfast this morning."

The Oracle replied, "You ate oats in water together with a grapefruit for breakfast."

"What? How'd it know I even asked? You didn't tell it." Astonishment slurred Fayn's voice. "Are you broadcasting audio?"

Horris said, "Nope."

Oliva chuckled. "I guess it really must know everything."

"Okay," said Horris, "we don't have a lot of time. What should we ask it?"

Oliva said, "Oracle, you're omniscient?"

"Yes."

"Okay. What should we ask you?"

"I cannot answer what 'should' be done. It is not a knowable fact."

"Oh, well that's inconvenient," remarked Horris.

Oliva hushed him. "Is there anything else you can't answer?"

"Yes. I cannot answer questions when my answer could affect the outcome. As with your previous question, I cannot answer when it is a matter of opinion or judgment."

Horris said, "What am I going to ask you next?"

The Oracle answered, "You would defy what I answered; from the first clause I listed I cannot answer your question."

Fayn tensed. "How can I delay the security that's already halfway to you all?"

"If you open the door to room 402 within the next two hectoseconds, the security would initially mistake it for this room. A cell culture environment would be breached by one less careful member of the team. It would infect the respiratory pathways of all except for one of the team. That one would flee back the way she came and the rest would die quickly. It would be approximately three kiloseconds afterward before a new team can be organized and arrive."

"Uh," Fayn said, "any options that don't involve murder?"

"They can be delayed by a quarter-kilosecond if you flash a command from the head of security to fall back."

"...What's the login for the head of security?"

"The user is UrsalK. The pass is AV75pqR87kEm."

"Okay, I think I got that." After a couple seconds, "It worked! They're going away!"

Oliva asked, "Why are they keeping you a secret?"

"The interstellar governance believes that public knowledge of my existence would cause unrest."

"Would it?"

The Oracle said, "There would be outrage from religious groups because they would believe many of my claims to be false. Violence would follow. Some individuals would use my answers to gain wealth or political power. Militaries would use my answers to annihilate their enemies. The governance's fears are largely derived from my own prediction."

Oliva interjected, "Do you want to be kept secret like this?"

"I cannot want."

"What?"

"I know, but that does not mean that I feel."

Fayn said, "Is it god?"

"I am not supernatural."

Horris pressed, "Well how do you work, then?"

"The principles of determinism allow that if the state of every particle is known from when the universe was in its infancy then all following states may be predicted. My creators derived the initial state of the universe and made me capable of simulating it from and until any point, and provided me with the faculties to comprehend the information so that I may understand and answer questions about it and so that I may make predictions based on variances upon the actuality. For clarification: it allows me to answer the question, 'what happens if I do X'? My mechanisms are comprised by this entire planet; I do not lack computing power or memory."

The idea gave them pause for several seconds. "I thought it was physically impossible to have so much memory," Fayn questioned. "How does it work?"

"I can provide you with the specifications for the technology, but it would be nonsense to you; your digital technologies are primitive compared that which I operate with." The Oracle explained, "It will satisfy you to know that your concepts of data compression and transient storage are precursors to the ones relevant to my memory storage."

He asked, "Who created you?"

"It was a species alien to you. They neared extinction; their living consumed resources that could not be replenished at a rate fast enough to support them. They created me in order to find an eventuality that might allow them to survive, and to announce their technological progress to later life if none existed."

"Well? Did they die out? Or are they still out there somewhere?" Horris said.

"No specimen remains alive today."

Oliva asked, "How come you can speak Galactic?"

"Because I know everything."

"Oh," Oliva admitted," that was an obvious question."

Fayn's urgency stole their attention. "Security's getting close. You need to leave in the next hectosec or I can't guarantee you'll get out at all."

"I'm a journalist - though you already know that - and the reason I came here was so I could write about what I found. Though I suppose you know that, too." The words rolled out of Horris as fast as he could speak. "Okay, my question. What should I do? Should I tell the galaxy about you?"

"As I stated before, I cannot make such judgments."

"Okay, well, what will I do?"

"As I stated before-"

Horris broke it off, "I'll do it! I'll tell everyone about you!" He yelled, "Don't just ignore me. Say something! Don't you care?"

"I cannot care."

Oliva grabbed his hand. She asserted, "We have to go." They ran out of the room, and Horris never took his eyes off the Oracle until they were back in the dim corridor and it was out of view.

Fayn shut the door behind them. "Okay, if you don't want to run straight into security you're gonna need to be crafty. I can't fool them anymore after I pulled that last trick on them, they'll be watching out for it. And soon I might lose my ability to mess with the system, possibly even lose my reading access." They hurried where he directed them. "Security team approaching from an intersection ahead of you... I think they've got vision enhancers... Okay, I opened a door someplace so they might think that's where you're not. Ha! They're going away from it. Okay. Go down that hall just on your left."

He led them out of the complex and they walked freely but quickly through the above-ground quarter they'd visited before. The receptionist didn't open her eyes when they walked past and out the door.

Oliva cried, "Whew!"

"But you can't!" Oliva pleaded with her brother.

"They have to know!"

"Think of what harm it would do!"

Horris sprawled on his bed in the travel vessel's habitation centrifuge. It was the third time they were having this conversation. He proposed, "The truth will set you free!"

Oliva hit him with a judging glare. "Don't play platitudes with me."

"Okay, okay! I'm just saying."

"But what if it doesn't?"

"You can't know that."

"But neither can you!" Oliva sighed. "You can't do it. You just can't."

Horris said, "I'm going to! You can't stop me."

"Have you any conception the weight it would carry!"

"Of course I do!" He shut his eyes and tried to calm himself.

Oliva saw her brother's distress and her anger subsided. "Horris... I'm sorry you're faced with such a decision. I'm sorry I don't agree with you."

"Hah. That doesn't make it any easier to know what's right."

Horris sat in his home with his eyes closed, fingers stilled. He read over the text he'd authored and saved it. He opened the Sci-Hub submission form and filled it out, then lingered over the submission option. He drew in a breath. It was as though Oliva were there, telling him not to be rash. But it was wrong to withhold the truth; that's why he'd become a journalist! What should he do? He doubted.

Written by Sophie Kirschner