The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Ten

Previous Chapter

Over the last month Carrington had seen and heard more strange things than he had in his entire life up until that point. The meeting between Stephen Mond and Naomi Bertolini was the strangest yet. Wrinkles lined Mond’s face and graying hair was taking over his head; he sat uncomfortably in his wheelchair and his prosthetic arms lay awkwardly on the table in front of him. He avoided eye contact with most of the people in the room. So far the only other people he’d directly acknowledged were the guards who’d brought him in.

Naomi sat ramrod straight in her chair. Her lips were pressed together in a firm line, creating a tightness around her eyes and mouth, but otherwise her youth was evident all across her face. Yet she bore herself with more maturity. She kept her attention on Mond most of the time but she found a moment to whisper something as an aside to Teng. She was tense, he thought, but otherwise her mood was unreadable.

After a lot of bickering back and forth Carrington had decided it wasn’t fair to let too many people dogpile Mond and sent everyone but the two guards, Naomi and Teng out of the meeting room. He took a chair beside the Director, trying to put himself in the mindset of a lawyer. That got dark very quickly so he stopped and switched to trying to think of Mond as a friend, or at least someone he didn’t hate. That was a bit more achievable. “Thank you for agreeing to this meeting, Director Mond,” he began. “I’ve asked you here today at the request of one of our other guests who’s expressed an interest in meeting you. Director, this is Naomi Bertolini, the Eldest Malacandran. Mrs. Bertolini, allow me to introduce Director Steven Mond of Earth’s Unified Government.”

“Good afternoon, Director,” Naomi said, offering him her hand.

Mond hesitated for a second before accepting it, studying her face carefully as she grasped his prosthetic. “Hello, Miss Bertolini. How are you feeling today?”

“I must admit I feel a little unsettled to be speaking to you, Director Mond,” Naomi said, studying his prosthetic with a clinical eye. “Are you well? You look like you had an accident recently and a pretty nasty one at that.”

“I made the mistake of handling a dangerous piece of hardware while I was… unstable. This is the consequence of that.” He gently pulled his mechanical limb back and put both his hands in his lap, out of sight under the table.

“I hope you have a speedy recovery.”

Once again Mond looked down at the table, refusing to meet her eyes. “Thank you, Miss Bertolini. I was more fortunate than the other man involved so I consider myself lucky.”

“The oyarsa was undoubtedly-” Naomi caught herself and blushed, the first crack in her armor so far. “You have been blessed by Maleldil, the most high, no doubt.”

Mond managed a wan smile, some of his usual self-confidence managing to reassert itself. “I do doubt, actually. On Earth there are no higher rulers than the sapiens ourselves.”

Naomi nodded once. “Yes, we have heard that the oyarsa of Earth has become bent and turned its back on its people and its purpose. You have our condolences.”

“I’m not familiar with the word ‘oyarsa,’” Mond said. “Does it refer to a god of some sort? Or perhaps one of his angels, since your Maleldil is most high he would logically fill the role of diety.”

Carrington cleared his throat, causing both of them to jump. Apparently they’d gotten so fixed on each other they’d forgotten he was there, which spoke to their interest in each other or his own lack of presence, he couldn’t tell which. Once he was sure they were both paying attention to him he said, “To save some time hashing this issue out, the Malacandrans have a unique vocabulary for some common concepts from Earth history. An oyarsa is the rough equivalent of a guardian angel and they believe every planet has one. Malacandra is the name they give both Mars and its guardian, Thulcandra is their name for Earth and it’s guardian. My understanding is that Maleldil is, in fact, their name for a monotheistic god.”

Naomi nodded. “That’s a fair summary of how I would define the words, as well.”

“Thank you, Admiral,” Mond said. “And with the pleasantries out of the way, may I ask what the agenda for today is?”

“I’m afraid I’m the wrong one to ask.” Carrington gestured to Naomi and said, “We offered the Eldest an opportunity to visit the Homeworld but due to circumstances we already discussed our visit has been postponed. When she arrived this morning she asked to speak to you so here we are.”

There was a moment of strained silence as the Director and the Eldest stared each other down across the table. “May I ask you something, Miss Bertolini?”

“Of course, Director, so long as I can ask something as well.”

Carrington caught a smile tugging at the corners of Mond’s lips before he hid it again. “How did someone your age manage to become the Eldest of Mars?”

“When a Malacandran reaches seven thousand, three hundred and five days old they must pass out of the colony dome and into Silence.” Naomi recited the facts in a half chanting tone of voice. Her eyes were distant and her expression blank, like she was recalling facts she had committed to memory long ago. “Since the dome was too small to support a constantly growing population the oyarsa was given charge of the excess. We lost all our people with the knowledge to expand the colony when Thulcandra struck us centuries ago. So we had nothing else to fall back on. We could only hold fast to what little we had left, hope that seventy three cents of days would be enough to leave a legacy for the future and trust that the oyarsa would bring us through Silence into fellowship once again.”

All trace of amusement was gone from Mond’s face. “Miss Bertolini, that’s a wonderful sentiment and many have clung to it in the past. But surely you realize at this point that people don’t come back from the dead.”

“Director,” Carrington murmured. “While the word Silence can mean death in the broad sense, when the original Borealis settlers scraped together the few books and files UNIGOV left in their possession and sorted out how to go forward they gave it a double meaning. If a Malacandran lives their full seventy three cents they don’t technically leave the dome. It turns out there’s a Vault under Borealis City, too. So when people on Mars grow old enough to count as adults they go to that Vault and they’re put into Shutdown – into Silence – so they can wait until the dome is expanded enough to accommodate them.”

Naomi’s chin tilted up a few degrees in pride. “I am seventy three hundred and twenty four days old, Director Mond, and one of the first to come out of Silence and back into the fellowship of my peers.”

“I see.” Mond’s mouth was open just a sliver, his shoulders rising and falling with shallow, rapid breaths and his eyes staring wildly at nothing. “There were still people on Mars after all. When the colony was put into Shutdown the people retrieved didn’t match the official roster and we never did discover what happened to all of them. Most of you were children without medical systems, yes?”

“Yes…” Naomi leaned forward to get a better look at Mond’s face, clearly concerned. “Are you unwell, Director?”

“None of the colonists who were brought out of Shutdown would tell where the missing children were,” Mond said, ignoring her. “The missing had to be left in the dome and the colony abandoned. Even though it was inhumane – even though it was unsapiens to do such a thing we had to leave them behind. And now here you are. Every outward thought we meant to leave behind, on our doorsteps once again.”

Something profound was happening between the two planetary leaders and Carrington didn’t want to interrupt it, whatever it was. At the same time he was aware of an odd tension in the air and it put him on edge. When Naomi got up and walked around the table to Mond he almost made her go back to her seat just to be safe. But there was a pleading written on her face, a crease of her brow and a light in her eyes, that convinced him she just wanted to make her case to the other man and he decided he could let her go a little longer.

“Director Mond,” she said, cocking one hip up onto the table and reaching forward to rest a hand on his shoulder, “I’ve passed through Silence not once but twice now. First Volk and others brought me back to my family. Then they brought me here, to meet you and the Admiral, to discuss how we can break the Silence with the Triad Worlds and with Thulcandra – with Earth. Both Volk and the Admiral tell me you’ll resist changing your ways. I want to know if that’s true. Are the people of Malacandra really so abhorrent to you that you will not speak to us even now?”

“No, no, no,” Mond whispered, “I can’t. You don’t understand.”

“How can I?” For the first time Naomi’s youth slipped out of her control as her voice turned wheedling, almost whiny. “How can I understand if you won’t bother to explain?”

“We can’t go,” Mond went on, his voice rising steadily with no sign he even heard Naomi’s question. “We must stay. We cannot speak, we can only listen, we cannot assume we must always learn from what is. That is the sapiens way.”

Exasperated at hearing the same general sentiment time and again, Carrington demanded, “But what does it accomplish, Director? What can possibly be the point?”

“To know ourselves!” Mond practically exploded out of his chair, arms waving frantically. “Don’t you see? The martian way is to flail about wildly, going everywhere, taking everything and yelling all the while without a care for what they are doing or who it hurts. They know everything about the world around them but not one thing about themselves. Sapiens are driven in the opposite direction. We make the foundation of our society ourselves and without self realization nothing in sapiens society society can function!”

“Why can’t you know yourself and us as well?” Naomi asked, clearly taken aback by Mond’s sudden vehemence.

“Because you question and you analyze and you change,” Mond snapped. “How can we be ourselves if we are constantly under attack by outsiders who make demands of us, who doubt us, who require change of us? If a martian society is always on our doorstep we will be forever changing! There will be no secure foundation for sapiens.”

Carrington managed to bring his gaping mouth back under control. “Director, the Malacandrans based their society on a book intended as fiction published over four hundred years ago but they manage to get by. You base your society on a book you deliberately rewrite whenever it suits you. If you’re telling me sapiens are struggling to find a secure foundation to build on let me suggest that you start by not rewriting it whenever is convenient to you.”

With a chopping motion that nearly upended his chair Mond dismissed the admiral. “No, no, no. We rewrite Schrodinger’s book because there are constantly new martians among us, polluting our tranquility and forcing us to start the process of self-discovery anew. We just need to be left alone. If you martians would only oblige us maybe we wouldn’t have to go to such extremes but as it is we must do what we can!”

“I see.” Carrington would have expected anger or accusation from Naomi but to his surprise her voice held nothing but regret. “Mr. Mond, I don’t know much about sapiens or self realization. I do know that when your world is constantly shrinking, when being alone is the one thing you aspire to, you’ll get there eventually. I didn’t care much for my time in Silence, Director, I pray the sapiens will enjoy it more. Thank you for meeting me today.”

With that Malacandra’s Eldest waved across the table, collecting Teng, then walked out of the room, leaving Carrington and Mond with the guards. Mond stared at her as she left then shook his head. “What was that all about?”

“I’m sure you’ll have plenty of time to figure it out, Director, once you’re left alone like you asked. Guards? Please take Mr. Mond back to his room.”

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Nine

Previous Chapter

Carrington didn’t get to go down himself. Not only did Ollinger file a formal objection to the Admiral’s proposed course of action – which had the intended side effect of making the idea public knowledge and spreading gossip about it all over the fleet – but it turned out that when he’d proposed it he’d forgotten that he had important diplomatic duties that needed attending to as well. The Malacandrans were visiting soon.

When the RSN Stewart had reported discovering an entire lost colony of children on Mars it caused a lot of speculation among the intellectuals of the fleet. Carrington himself had wondered what leadership in a city where no one was older than twenty looked like. For a few days the admiral had treated it as a purely hypothetical question. He’d been more focused on retrieving the lost spacers from the Armstrong than debriefing and analyzing what they’d learned on the surface. Then, quite unexpectedly, the Genies had made a bizarre discovery. Thousands upon thousands of sleeping colonists buried in tunnels beneath Borealis Colony, a refuge for countless people in Shutdown, waiting for some solution to the limited resources of the colony so they could once again live without risking the starvation of the entire settlement.

A recently promoted officer who was working with the Malacandrans had proposed stripping materials from the abandoned cities of Earth and using them to expand the Martian colony to support the existing population. After a lot of debate Carrington had given the idea the green light. Anaheim was the first place they’d chosen for the operation, as a number of analytical models suggested that it would be a good place to recover not just the raw building materials they needed but also the rarer metals and organic components necessary to expand the Borealis dome.

A week ago a Malacandran leader asked to view the city they were cannibalizing for resources. After a lot more debate Carrington had agreed. Of course, that was before the disassembler field was deplooyed and now taking dignitaries down to the Anaheim site was out of the question. They’d been advised that the schedule had changed already. However that just meant Carrington would have to spend more time with very young civilians and he wasn’t sure he was up for it. His own children were long gone and he was feeling rather rusty.

Still, when the Stewart’s transport arrived he was down in the hanger bay, waiting. Major Bennet, the ship’s Chief of Communications, had put together a full blown welcoming party complete with extraneous officers, a squad of security men, and the ship’s captain and XO all present. The major himself, Carrington noted with some amusement, was absent.

The Tranquility was fully equipped for automated landing procedures and used a series of manipulator arms to safely bring in ships through the airlock and past dozens of other spacecraft that awaited deployment. Even with the many patrols that were maintained in the space around the fleet and the handful of damaged fighters that were currently elsewhere for repairs, it wasn’t possible to see the Roddenberry ship making most of that trip from their vantage near the back of the bay. When it came into view, sliding past lines of blocky landing craft, the sleek, elegant lines so distinctive of Roddenberry’s shipbuilding sensibilities stood in stark contrast to the Copernican ships all around it.

There was a flare for the dramatic among those Genie boys that no one else in the Triad Worlds seemed to share. The oval body of the transport was carefully placed on the deck about fifteen feet away and allowed to settle on its landing gear. The reaction thrusters that extended back from the main body on gently swooping struts looked like they should unbalance the ship yet it stayed upright as solidly as if it grew out of the deck. Then the hatch opened and a disembarking ramp dropped down. Several figures were visible in silhouette at the top.

The first was the towering frame of Lieutenant Commander Volk Fyodorovich, Roddenberry’s liaison between their ships and the Malacandrans. He was tall and solidly built. The only thing bigger than his frame was his nose, which looked to be about a third of his face, an effect only made more pronounced by the small, sunken eyes that peered out over it. Fyodorovich had been a junior officer a month ago but Captain Gyle, the Stewart’s skipper, apparently had a lot of faith in his performance under pressure. So far nothing had served to disillusion anyone of that good opinion.

Behind him was the much slimmer, much shorter figure of Aubery Vance. She was barely over five feet tall, stopping just below Fyodorovich’s shoulder, but her body looked long and lissome. Aubery was a native Earthling and she’d gone to Mars at her own insistence. Based on what he’d learned during her debriefings after then-Corporal Langley brought her up from the planet she’d developed some kind of intense personal fixation on the fate of the Martians during their escape. Carrington still wasn’t sure what that fixation entailed but she’d proved helpful out there and hopefully would continue to do so here.

The other four people weren’t anyone he recognized, although he guessed one of them was Naomi Bertolini. She was apparently the oldest conscious person on Mars when they made contact with the Stewart. This was the primary qualification for leadership over there. While she’d technically gone into Shutdown for a bit Naomi was also the first person they removed from Shutdown when they figured out what was going on. The fellow who took over for her as the Eldest had agreed to step aside and let her continue to manage the situation for the time being so continuity had been maintained in that sense.

To his surprise they hadn’t brought any children with them. The Roddenberry’s reports had mentioned the Malacandrans bringing kids with them on the initial diplomatic contacts but this time around they’d left them behind. Further speculation on the Malacandran party was sidelined as Fyodorovich marched down the ramp and saluted. For all his youth and presence, the man looked a bit nervous. “Lieutenant Fyodorovich reporting, Admiral.”

“Welcome aboard, Lieutenant.” Carrington returned the salute and turned to the young woman beside him. “Welcome back, Miss Vance. How was your trip to Mars? Did you learn anything more about the questions that were bothering you?”

“Not really, Admiral Carrington.” The Earthling woman favored him with a tired smile. Although she was clearly still struggling Carrington though she looked like she was in a better place than when she left. “Still, I did meet some new friends.”

“That’s progress all on it’s own, then,” he replied with a smile. “I know it probably doesn’t feel like it but the more friends who can help with your problems the easier they get. Will you introduce me to them?”

“Of course.” Aubrey gestured to the woman just behind and to her left. “This is Naomi Bertolini, the Eldest Malacandran. Naomi, let me introduce you to Admiral Jalak Carrington.”

She was painfully young, almost a girl in his eyes, but there was a confidence and experience behind her eyes that belied the youthful lines of her face. All four of the Malacandrans shared many features including light brown skin, a nose of below average size and thick, coarse hair. Naomi offered him a firm handshake which he accepted. “A pleasure to meet you, Admiral. As it’s been explained to me, you’re the person responsible for all the spacecraft in Volk’s group?”

“That’s essentially correct,” he said. “There’s a lot of nuance to our patchwork fleet which I won’t bore you with right now but for the moment the buck stops here.”

Naomi blinked once. “Buck?”

“Sorry, it’s an idiom that means I’m ultimately accountable for the actions of the fleet.”

“I see.” She nodded once and Carrington could practically see her filing the tidbit away for future reference.

“This is Mr. Dorian Drake,” Aubrey said, indicating the tall, gangly man next to Naomi. “He’s a… petitioner?”

“Correct.” Although Drake was, by definition, younger than Naomi he actually looked several years older. His hawkish nose and thin lips made him look like he was on the cusp of middle age. His handshake was quick and perfunctory. “It’s an interesting position to fill these days, with all we’ve learned from you the last few weeks.”

“Do you work in the field of law, Mr. Drake?” Carrington asked.

“Faith, Admiral. I petition the oyarsa for his wisdom and intervention.” He tapped his chin thoughtfully. “Or at least I did. Reading the full breadth of the Lewis account of Ransom I’ve come to suspect that may not be the correct way to approach him.”

For the first time Carrington was forced to consult his AI’s heads up display and figure out was being discussed. The computer reminded him that Malacandra was supposedly the name of a guardian angel for the planet Mars, a concept the residents of Borealis had apparently gleaned from the novel Out of the Silent Planet. No one in the fleet command structure had ever heard of that particular book, although some knew the author C.S. Lewis. It was interesting that the devoutly Christian man had inadvertently inspired a pagan religion centuries after his death but that had little bearing to the situation at hand.

“You may wish to discuss it with the ship’s chaplain,” Carrington said. “I’m afraid when it comes to theological matters he’s much better qualified to give an opinion than I am, although I sympathize with the way sudden discoveries can lead to a reevaluation of things you thought you knew.”

He turned his attention to the last two people in the group, one who looked about sixteen or seventeen, the other about two years younger. The belted tunics they wore fit them poorly and there was a wide eyed innocence to the way they looked around the hangar that screamed naivety. A glance at Aubrey prompted her. “These two are Teng Pak Won and Gemma Perez, the Chief Watcher and one of his assistants.”

“Chief watcher?” Carrington raised an eyebrow. “What do you watch?”

“Mostly the Silence,” Teng said. “What you call outer space. However on occasion there’s call for us to access the records of events maintained inside the city proper so that we can figure out what happened during an accident or even a criminal incident.”

So he was something like the head of security or perhaps a small town sheriff. Interesting that they had one and didn’t just rely on the social standing of an older individual to bully their way through criminal cases. “You’re very welcome here, Chief Won, and if you need any accommodation from our security personnel please feel free to discuss it with them. I’m sure we can work something out.”

“Thank you, Admiral,” Teng said. “And, technically, it’s Chief Teng. My family name is put first in the records and when spoken.”

“I see.” There was a bit of the old Han features in him. “Your ancestors must have come from Eastern Asia, then?”

He blushed. An actual, honest to goodness, rosy cheeked blush. “I’m afraid I don’t know, Admiral.”

Carrington felt incredibly awkward in turn. “No, I suppose you might not.” That admission hung in the air for a long moment then he clapped his hands together and rubbed them briskly. “Well, Eldest, you know we can’t take you down to Earth at the moment. We have prepared a pretty extensive tour of the ship if you’re interested in that but if there’s anything else you’d rather do then we’re very flexible on that front. Is there anything particular you’d like to discuss or see first?”

A glance passed through all four of them and Naomi drew herself up a bit straighter. “If it’s possible, Admiral, can we see Thul-” She caught herself and shook her head. “Is it possible to see Earth from here?”

Carrington smiled. “Would you like to see live video feeds from our patrols or just have a look with the Mark One Human Eyeball?”


Once again Carrington marveled at the mysterious power the Homeworld had over people who had never once set foot on it. This time, however, the people in question were Malacandrans and not Copernicans. Naomi and her companions stared out of the observation deck with the kind of rapt wonder he’d only seen once or twice, when he caught other officers staring at the planet in unguarded moments. Yet their reaction was very familiar, for he felt the same emotions stirring in him as well.

He’d ordered the Tranquility to an orbit roughly synchronous with the Moon, although a bit upwell of lunar orbit, so that the orbit ship would slowly pass by the dark side of Earth’s satellite over the course of the next eight hours or so. The two heavenly bodies framed one another in the observation window at the moment. The Earth was just starting to be eclipsed by the Moon, the contrast between the day and night portions of the planet and the creeping lunar horizon creating a breathtaking view fit to entrance even the most hardened spacer.

One of Naomi’s party took it in a much different light.

Dorian Drake’s attention was quickly drawn away from the planet and to the moon. He moved down the window until he stood on the far left side of the pane, as close to the lunar surface as it was possible to get on that deck. Staring at the dark side of it, he said, “Do you think Thulcandra will really take note of us if we pass by?”

“If he does, he doesn’t show it,” Carrington replied. “The Sea of Tranquility has been in and out of Lunar orbit a dozen times since we got here and we haven’t noticed anything.”

Drake gave him a sharp look. “You believe that Thulcandra is real, Admiral?”

Carrington shrugged. “I believe the man who wrote Out of the Silent Planet was describing the Devil, one of the forces of evil in the Christian Bible, when he used the word Thulcandra. And yes, I have plenty of reason to believe the Devil is real. But if you’re asking whether I think that the events described in the book really happened, that the Devil is named Thulcandra in an ancient and forgotton solar language or that Elwin Ransom traveled to two planets of the solar system and met their guardian angels, then no. I think C.S. Lewis was a storyteller who made up an enduring story. But he founded many elements of that story on real things, or at least things he believed were real.”

Dorian hummed in the back of his throat for a moment, a gravelly thinking noise that only served to increase the idea that he was older than his actual age. “I’m surprised, Admiral,” he finally said. “I thought you spacers were a godless lot over all. You certainly give Ransom’s Tale more credit than you friends on the ship Stewart.”

“There’s a lot of good things about the Roddenberrys, Mr. Drake,” Carrington said in amusement. “The ability to believe things outside their own experience isn’t one of them.”

“I always found Ransom’s Tale a little strange,” Naomi said. “The descriptions of his travel and what he saw on Malacandra were so different from what we knew in Borealis. Most of it didn’t add up.”

“What did?” Carrington asked.

“The Silent Planet,” she said, putting one hand to the plastic and staring at Earth, looking forlorn. “They turned their back on us for over an hundred years and gave us nothing but Silence. No matter what the world is called, that fact remains.”

“I suppose they didn’t need Thulcandra to lead them to that,” Dorian mused.

“No. Nor can we expect him to explain himself if he did,” Naomi replied, turning away from the window. “I read Perelandra. I know how an Unman behaves when you ask him a question. If we want to know the hows and why’s we’ll have to look elsewhere. I’m ready to move on, Admiral.”

There was an oddly resolute look on her face. “Is there anything else you’d like to do before we get to the tour?”

“Yes.” She nodded once for emphasis. “I want to talk to Stephen Mond.”

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Eight

Previous Chapter

Glenda Vesper was the wife of Vincent Vesper, bound up to him like some kind of possession by an archaic, destructive contract known as ‘marriage.’ The general belief was that marriage was a holdover from martian society. It involved some kind of buying or selling of resources and emotional services in highly stressful emotional hostage situations the likes of which martians seemed to enjoy a great deal. It was the kind of cultural institution that drove wedges between sapiens and martians.

However it was something that the Vespers believed in a lot, according to the records, so when he found a moment between all his other responsibilities Brian dropped by the Bakersfield vault and he and Baker went to look in on Glenda. Unfortunately, Glenda was one of the people who came out of Shutdown angry. After the initial contact with the returned martians the Directorate had tasked a group to work on ways to humanely restrain deranged martian individuals and his Vault was one of the first to benefit from their work. As a result they wound up not going down into the Vault proper.

Instead they went into the hovercar hanger on top of the Vault where several large vans had been brought in and turned into small, improvised living chambers. They’d built an improvised nanolathe device that fused and unfused the doors. It took a couple of seconds for the nanotech to transform the side of the van from a solid piece back into a sliding door which gave Brian just enough time to compose himself. He wasn’t a councilor, he specialized in the hardware side of medical technology. The human part of it wasn’t something he had a lot of experience with and, to make matters worse, the initial reports from the psychologists suggested the problems were beyond what anyone had experience with.

When he slid the door open he doubted that assessment. Glenda Vesper was a middle aged woman with graying hair, just shy of the century mark, with clever, sunken eyes and long, agile fingers. She looked entirely lucid as she smiled and nodded to him from her seat on one of the benches along the side of the van. Then she opened her mouth. “Hello, Harold! Have you finally finished compiling the new code for the pulse regulators? We need to test it against the entire synchronization package if we’re going to get on to debugging before the end of the month.”

Brian’s smile wavered. “I’m afraid you’ve confused me with someone else, Ms. Vesper. I am Director Brian O’Sullivan and I’m in charge of the Bakersfield Vault, which is where we are right now. How are you feeling?”

“Like I should be at work,” she replied, her smile fading. “What Vault? What Bakersfield am I in? Why aren’t I in Sarajevo, with the rest of the Front?”

“Calm down, Ms. Vesper,” Baker said, taking a seat on the bench opposite Glenda. Her tone and posture were supposed to sooth and disarm but had the opposite effect on the other woman, who’s eyes got wider and wider as Baker spoke. “We’ve explained the situation to you before, do you remember?”

“Don’t patronize me, young lady!” Glenda snapped. “Who do you think you are, the Directorate?”

“Actually…” Brian’s voice was dry but amused. “This is SubDirector Baker, who is also from this Vault.”

“What Vault? What are you talking about?” Glenda got up with a sudden, violent motion and grabbed Brian by the front of his tunic. “I need to get back to work and I don’t have time to listen to all of you babble. We’ve been trying and trying and trying to get the Light of Mars to work but all we get are failures and hurdles and distractions. Don’t you see how important this is?”

Brian tried to get ahold of her hands but somehow the woman’s elbows always managed to get in the way and spoiled his attempts. “Ms. Vesper, this isn’t helping. I know you’re anxious to get back to the Light of Mars project and we’re eager to see you ready to do the same. But first we need to make sure you’re stable.”

“We don’t have time for stability, Harold! You know how important the Light of Mars is going to be and it’s only a matter of time before the martians come back and no one wants to do anything about it!” With a hard shove Glenda pushed herself away and stalked four steps away to the back of the van. “No one is doing anything about the problem except us and we are running out of time and people!”

Brian glanced at Baker to see if she had any idea of what the other woman was talking about but from her bewildered expression it was clear she didn’t. “Ms. Vesper, there are plenty of people here. The entire staff of the Light of Mars project is recovering with you.”

“No they aren’t, Harold! I saw Gracie pull apart into pixels right in front of me.” She spun around on a heel and stomped back to him, jabbing a finger at each eye. “I saw it happen, Harold. We’re running out of time and people and the martians are going to be here any year. Let me get out and help.”

“The martians have already returned,” Brian said, a split second before his brain pointed out that maybe that wasn’t the best thing to say.

Glenda froze, fingers still pointed at eyeballs. “Already?”

“They came back into orbit a few weeks ago,” Baker said. Brian tried to will her into stopping but telepathy wasn’t something UNIGOV had cracked yet. So she continued blithely on with no appreciation for what being withing grabbing range of the deranged woman when she learned the truth might mean for him. “There have already been several incidents where they came and went largely unopposed but they haven’t left yet. The Directorate eventually decided to reactivate the Light of Mars in response.”

“Too late.” There was an anguish in those two words that Brian hoped he would never fully understand. “All this time and we’re too late.”

As Glenda sank down onto the bench again Brian darted forward and caught her arm to keep her from slipping all the way down to the floor. “It’s alright, Glenda. I’m sure once your project is fully reactivated-”

“Reactivated, reactivated,” she spat, “what are you prattling on about reactivating?”

Another fruitless glance passed between Brian and Baker. With no new insight he was forced to look at her again and say, “Developing your large scale nanolathe field?”

“Work on the Light of Mars has never stopped, not even for one day.”

For a long moment Brian just stared at the old woman. Even after all the strange and ridiculous things she’d said so far that had to be the strangest one yet. “Glenda…” He realized he couldn’t think of a good way to approach the issue directly. “Glenda, how old are you?”

The unexpected nature of the question brought her up short. “I’m…” She paused only as long as you might expect a lady of her age to think as she tried to add up all the years in her head. “I’m ninety seven. Or ninety eight, I don’t remember the exact day. It’s the middle of August, isn’t it?”

She was close, it was actually early September and her birthday was just a few weeks away, according to the file. “Glenda, when was the last time you worked on the Light of Mars?”

“Last week,” she snapped. “I took over on the frequency fine-tuning team after Alexei pixelated. We were getting close to a breakthrough on it.”

“Frequency?” Baker asked. “What’s that about? There wasn’t anything about frequencies in the notes we got from the Sarajevo compound when the project was Shutdown.”

“Balancing the frequency of the field is imperative if the Light of Mars is to extend beyond the current one kilometer maximum and remain stable,” Glenda said. “We’ve been working on that for the last decade.”

Brian frowned. “Is that so. How did you determine that adjusting the frequency of the Light was the key to stabilizing the magnetic field, rather than real-time adjustments to the strength of the field?”

“We ran repeated experiments that showed that adjusting the strength of the field only creates an illusion of solving the problem.” Glenda began weaving her body back and forth, her hands looping constant circles in front of her. “Each time you adjust the strength the size of the field also changes and the component parts of the Light jostle one another. It looks like you should be correcting the problem but you’re actually making it worse. One adjustment demands dozens of others and slowly the Light of Mars metastasizes into an uncontrollable ball of potential energy that eventually collapses in on itself in unmitigated disaster!”

Her hands flew up into the air, slamming her knuckles into the roof of the car. Stunned, Glenda cradled her hands to her chest and sat down again. Brian gingerly took a seat next to her, carefully taking her hands into her own. “Ms. Vesper. With all due respect, you’ve been in a state of near-suspended animation for the last sixty years. You haven’t had any opportunities to to run experiments. Your brain has been in a state similar to REM sleep and you may believe you experienced these things but they aren’t true or-”

Glenda yanked hard with both hands, then once again grabbed Brian by the front of his shirt. “No, you listen to me. We know what you did to us. Everyone heard the stories about what UNIGOV did to the Mars colonies but we thought it would be okay, because they were martians and we were sapiens. But when you put us in your computer we understood. There is no difference between martian and sapien except for where we stand, whether we are building martian or sapiens society. So we built the sapiens solution. We knew it needed to be ready when the martians approached us next.”

“But it wasn’t real, Glenda,” Brian said, almost pleading.

“We saw it in our minds, Harold,” she hissed. “We know the Light of Mars better than anyone else, we’ve lived its principles to the exclusion of all others. We were put in the ether because we valued it even above our loyalty to UNIGOV. That is why we had the strength to see, Harold. We had the strength to see…”

The old woman’s voice trailed away until it was almost gone. Her grip on his tunic loosened and Brian carefully extracted himself, watching Glenda’s face curiously. She never gave another sign she was aware of him. Baker helped him lay her down then the both of them left the van and sealed it closed behind them. For a long moment after the door closed Brian just stared off into space.

“Are you all right, Director?” Baker asked, resting a hand on his shoulder.

Brian countered with his own question. “Do we know who Harold is?”

“We didn’t even know we needed to investigate a Harold, the name’s never come up before. I’ll start some inquiries as soon as I can.”

“Can we call up records from the Shutdown fugue?” Brian was already poking at his tablet to try and answer that question. “Is it possible to find out what kind of experiments there thought they were running in there and see how much bearing they have on reality?”

Baker was already shaking her head. “No, Director, the computer servers that run that part of Shutdown aren’t really intended to create output in that way. They’re designed to interface with the medinano system. Not holoprojectors, video screens or even text outputs.”

“I see. We’ll have to see if we can cook something up, then.”

“That’s going to take a lot of time, Director.” She did add that it was time they didn’t have since they both knew that very well already.

“I understand that. Do what you can for as long as you can.” And if nothing came of it in time then he would just have to go in there himself.

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Seven

Previous Chapter

The primary difference between an oceangoing vessel and a space going vessel was the contrast. In space, most of your surroundings were black. Occasionally you’d pass by a ship or a planet but ships – at least warships – were deliberately painted to give only a dim contrast with the void. Planets were pretty bright if you were on the sun side. But even then the contrast with the darkness of space wasn’t as stark as you might think until you began the long fall out of orbit. Once atmo started to clog up your view of space light diffused and you were brought back into a fully illuminated world gradually.

On the water the glaring sun was directly above and the horrifying black abyss of the deep just over the side. It made it very hard to ignore the unknowns. According to the AI the proper term for it was thassalaphobia but Lang preferred to think of it as the water being really fucking creepy. The only thing worse than a giant body of water was a boat on said water.

And yet thanks to a momentary thought he’d decided to follow up on now Sergeant Martin Langley was doomed to locate a boat with which to revive the ancient art of the seaborne assault. “First there was the drop pod. Then the hovervan. Then there was an entire Rodenberry Stellar Navy cargo hauler.” Priss handed him back the binoculars. “Is piloting every conceivable vehicle in the galaxy under combat conditions your new life goal?”

“No.”

“I don’t think the admiral will let you be the Tranquility‘s new helmsman even if you somehow magically drag another group of stranded spacers back up to orbit.”

“Flying capitol ships is boring. The AI does 90% of the work for you under the best of conditions and the admiral tells you where to go anyway.” He looked at the marina laid out in front of them again, trying his best to figure out what he was looking for. They didn’t have the best vantage point from their place on a hillside a couple of blocks down. They’d hunkered down in an empty hotel poolhouse built over a large drainage system that connected directly to the sewer system which gave them a lot of good exit options. Only about two thirds of the docks were visible from there but Lang had preferred to have cover and a quick exit rather than a good view. “Think we can rig up one of those solar doohickeys without the natives around to help us out this time?”

“It’s not like Sean and Aubrey were crack electricians and we do have a half a dozen trained technicians with us so it’s not like we’ve got bad odds on fixing one ourselves.” She pointed at one of the boats. “Have you thought about that one there? If nothing else we probably won’t need to worry about the fuel or power situation.”

Lang lowered the binoculars to get an idea of where she was pointing but he didn’t have to use them again to figure out what she was talking about. “A sailing ship? Priss, I’m a pilot not a deckhand. Just because we don’t need to rig it with a portable fusion generator doesn’t make it more useful. For starters I’m not sure we could even get that thing out of the dock but even if we could I don’t think we could get anywhere close to the target zone unobserved.”

“I loaded my AI with a whole set of guidebooks on proper use of a sailing ship,” Priss countered. “If you can learn to pilot a Rodenberry lander by AI I think you can handle some ropes.”

“There’s so much wrong with that statement I’m not even going to get into it.” Lang pointed over at a sleek, white boat large enough to hold half a dozen people. “That thing looks like it can actually get us where we’re going inside of half a day and has the added benefits of being modern, mechanized and low enough to the horizon that they won’t see us coming with a casual glance.”

Priss toggled through a half a dozen screens worth of information before she answered. “That’s a Bluesky 52 cruiser. It’s got an onboard fusion plant that, according to the inspector’s stamps, was shut down over thirty years ago. The parts are probably no good by this point. Even if it does run, by some miracle, it’s containment envelope will create a magnetic signature large enough the Earthlings will be able to pick it up just by the way it interferes with their magnetic field generators. They won’t have to see us coming, they’ll know as soon as we turn the damn thing on.”

It wasn’t hard to peek over Priss’s shoulder – she wasn’t a tall woman – and verify what she was reading for himself. “Do you have data on every boat anchored out there?”

“No. Just the ones in the southernmost six piers.”

“Why?”

“Because some of us were thinking about hijacking one on our day off and taking a look out at the bay. It’s not like there’s anyone here using them.” Priss paged through a couple more screens of data, mostly specs and exterior holos of the boats in question from the looks of it. “The big problem that we’ve seen so far is power supply, which is why I’m thinking sail. Everything else looks like it runs on some kind of internal generator which is bound to be trash by this point in time.”

“You just said we’ve got techs of our own,” Lang said, amusement crowding out his lurking dread of the water. “I mean, sure, you can’t ask them for help getting a pleasure cruise up and running and you definitely couldn’t borrow a portable generator for it either, but the point stands. We don’t need to pile into a rowboat to make this expedition possible.”

“True enough. Have you considered that the high tech ships might be tied into a nav system that monitors their locations at all times?”

“Given what we’ve seen so far the UNIGOV approach to watching the populace is their nanotech.” Lang scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Although it’s true they controlled car and aircar traffic that way. On the other hand there’s no indication they tracked the van we used down in Texas that way.”

Priss shrugged. “They weren’t looking for us then. They know we’re here right now and are taking deliberate hostile steps against us. Looking at trackers on the boats is a logical step.”

“You’re not wrong.” Lang pinched the bridge of his nose. “Have you actually boarded any of those ships or did you just pull their specs from an archive somewhere?”

“The dockmaster kept files we were able to dump from his computer. I’ve got them all backed up to my AI although as I said we’ve only checked the files against the actual physical boats on a few of the piers.”

“Well, ultimately what kind of operation we run is up to the Major,” Lang mused. “It’s his call whether we make a stealth approach, a direct approach or what. Now that I think about it, we might even get better results targeting the magfield generators holding the disassembler field in place rather than striking the power plant directly. The kind of generator you need for a large scale nanolathe field like that has to be very specialized.”

“A power plant is better,” Priss said. “It’s a bigger building and needs more work to rebuild than magfield generators. No matter how specialized the field generator is you can make the component parts much easier than you can erect a containment facility for a fusion reactor.”

“But you can replace one centralized power source with distributed portable generators.” Lang shook his head in disgust. “Never mind, that’s officer talk we’re getting in to. The Major will handle target selection, too, let’s focus on giving him good options for ships we can hijack for our little adventure in larceny. Give me a couple of options for stealth, speed and ease of refitting.”

“I’m telling you…” Priss brought up the sailing ship again. “We got all three in one.”

“No. No one knows how it works and it can’t possibly get decent speed.”

“It makes eight knots.”

“I don’t even know what that means.” He went back to his binoculars, sweeping the docks slowly. “But we should have an option that’s the best example of each of those categories. We can put your precious ship of the line into the ease of refitting category if you’re really married to the idea of throwing your back out as we head towards our water grave.”

Priss folded her arms and sat down on an empty shelving unit. “Okay, sunshine, I get that you’ve never been the most optimistic of people but this isn’t like you. What’s on your mind?”

“Boats.”

“Seriously, Langly.”

“I’m serious, Priscilla.” He set his binoculars aside and jabbed one finger at his sleeve. “Do you see this?”

“Yeah, it’s a Sergeant’s stripe, my congratulations and condolences on your promotion. Did you ever stop to think that if you kept doing incredibly stupid things under pressure that somehow worked out in the end, sooner or later some genius with an officer’s commission might decide you could do it all the time?”

Lang threw his arms out in frustration. “Of course not, Priss! I was under pressure!”

“Taking the right actions without needing to think about it is a sure sign of leadership ability.”

One of his fingers was displayed for her viewing pleasure. “Have you noticed that ever since they sewed this stupid third stripe on me everyone pays attention to what I’m saying? I used to have to actually find someone willing to listen to me. Now they take every word out of my mouth like its some kind of revelation and Major Goldstein got it in his head to send us all out over the fucking abyss like we’re skipping up the space elevator on Copernicus Major. We don’t know the first thing about water, Priss. We didn’t even have sonar scanners in our landing loadout or if we did you can be damn sure getting it out of the basecamp wasn’t priority one so they’re gone now. There could be anything out there and we wouldn’t have the first clue about it.”

Priss tilted her head slightly, her expression not exasperated or impatient, just curious. “Is that so bad?”

“Do you know what happened on Mars?”

“You crashed a Rodenberry lander.”

“I got put under the most stupid, naive, happy-go-lucky lieutenant they had and dropped in the middle of a situation so crazy I had to make a controlled emergency landing just to meet a deadline.” He used a finger on the other hand this time. “I made it work, and you know why? Because, gravity, thrust, atmospheric breaking, those things are my bitches, Priss. But you know it’s going to happen all over again. Goldstein is going to saddle us with some fresh faced officer who never even saw combat in the last war and tell us to toddle off and blow up a power plant and I don’t know nearly enough about boats to make up for that kind of albatross. Someone’s going to die again, all for this stupid, stupid idea.”

Priss got up, took his hand in hers and gently folded its middle finger down, then took his shoulder and turned him back towards the marina. “It’s okay, Lang. We signed up for stupid ideas and a risky life.” She gently rubbed his shoulder as they stared at the assembled ships. “And as stupid ideas go, at least this one has the benefit of novelty so we can all say we died doing something no one on Copernicus has ever done before. You’re right, though, a D-day landing is probably enough novelty for one operation. We’ll find an boat with some solar panels and a modern control scheme and see what the Major thinks, okay?”

The rubbing abruptly went from feeling comforting to patronizing and he shrugged off her hand. “Fine. I saw solar panels on one of the boats on Pier H. See if you can find it in that database of yours.”

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Six

Previous Chapter

“They’re moving something down there, Admiral.” General William Ollinger had joined Carrington by hologram, seated in an empty area about four feet to the left of his desk. The floor of his ready room was transformed into a map of Earth via the same holoprojectors that created Ollinger’s image and showed constant, real-time updates based on data coming in from the fleet. A large, red ray of light represented Ollinger’s stylus as he indicated things. “Just based on our ongoing surveillance we’re sure this continent is the center of Earth’s material production.”

Carrington’s AI offered him a name. “Africa, is it? I seem to recall learning most of the materials in the original Colony Fleet came from there. Is it still a major resource hub?”

“Hard to tell if they still mine there or not. Records show the continent was built up a great deal in the century or so before Departure but estimates at the time were that less than a quarter of the available resources had been exhausted.” Ollinger zoomed the map in until they were only looking at the central portion of the continent. “A lot of the inland jungle was deliberately left intact at the time and that’s a decision that UNIGOV has apparently held to.”

“Which doesn’t surprise me.” Carrington pulled up a transcript of one of his talks with Director Mond and did a quick search. “I was told that, ‘The influence of martian society left planet despoiled and suffering at every level and time must be taken to allow it to recover.’ That’s supposedly why they abandoned so many cities, for one thing.”

“Well they haven’t gone to quite that extremity in Africa. In fact, Africa and Asia have the highest population per square mile of anywhere on Earth. But it’s fairly obvious they’ve chosen particular parts of the planet and just left them alone. Ironically, that’s what makes it so easy to tell what they’re doing now.” The red light of the stylus moved over the map until it paused on a point in the middle of the land mass.

A large mountain range protruded along the western side, not on the ocean but not far from it. The AI filled in details like the location of abandoned cities or towns, active settlements and what looked like mining or refining operations. Last but not least it indicated an intermittent line of energy signatures between the mountains and the ocean. “They’re taking something to port.”

“That’s what it looks like, sir.”

“Do we know where it’s going?”

“No, sir, but we know it’s not normal behavior. We started seeing these movements eight hours ago and there hasn’t been a similar spike in activity in the region for the duration of our stay.”

Carrington fought the urge to hunch over his desk and stare at the hologram. He’d done some of his best thinking in that position, back in his academy days, but he was too old now to get away with that kind of thing for long. His shoulders and back wouldn’t let him. Instead he folded his hands in front of him and rested his chin there, saying, “Do we know what it is they’re mining there?”

“You can get just about anything you want but copper, cobalt and lithium are all strong possibilities. We don’t have specific mineral surveys from that time period available so we can’t say for sure. There’s a good way to find out, though.”

“Oh?” The admiral perked up a bit. “What’s that?”

Ollinger tapped his stylus on his desk in a very self satisfied way. The map panned over to the eastern coast and quickly zeroed in on a massive oceangoing vessel anchored in a port there. “We could go down and look at it. This pulled into port an hour and twenty minutes ago. Two guesses as to what it’s for.”

“Would you look at that.” Carrington worked his tongue about his mouth for a moment, practically salivating at the tempting target they’d stumbled on. “It can’t really be that easy, can it? We just fly down there and scoop up a freighter full of critical materiel from under UNIGOV’s noses. There’s got to be a catch.”

“I don’t think there is, sir.” The holo changed to show the ocean between Africa and the continents where the Copernican ground forces had landed, what the Fleet was referring to as the American Theater. “The disassembler field they deployed over Anaheim is nasty but it requires a huge amount of ground based infrastructure. A power plant. At least a dozen magfield generators. To say nothing of the huge volume of raw nanotech necessary to create an effective nanolathe effect over such a large area. Based on the specs we think the Anaheim emplacement has we’re pretty sure we can determine how far offshore the field can reach.”

A thin line of red ringed the shores of each continent, leaving the vast center of the ocean untouched. “Not very much, is it?”

“No, sir. Even if we planned our entire trip up and down in a straight line I think we could avoid ever having to run the risk of passing through one of those fields. Not that I think UNIGOV could possibly build them over so much coast land so quickly. Still better safe than sorry. That still leaves us with plenty of ocean to nab the ship when it starts moving.” A number of potential courses cut through the ocean to various ports of call. A moment later the potential approaches and timing for strikes on the ship from orbit were added in.

Carrington studied them for a moment, then asked, “Why haven’t you projected routes to continents other than North America and Europe?”

“Given the placement of the port of origin that made the most sense. South America is already rich in minerals and the other continents would be easier to reach from the other side of Africa.” Ollinger frowned. “Of course, this is UNIGOV. They might not have any other freighters still in service.”

“In which case this port might be the closest port of call for the freighter.” The admiral spent a long moment just watching as the holoprojection ran through a looping animation of Newtonian fighters swooping down on the freighter over and over again. “Didn’t you say that South America was also rich in minerals? Why aren’t they taking from there?”

His Newtonian counterpart thought just as long. “Well, now that you mention it, we didn’t think much about that. Africa was the source of materials for space ops in the past and we just assumed UNIGOV would stick with that source in the present. We can’t be that specialized on Newton since rare earths are particularly rare there but other supply lines tend to lay down in that fashion. Specific industries tend to source materials from specific locations.”

“Yes, but UNIGOV is deeply invested in breaking from those kinds of conventions.” Carrington drummed his fingers on his desk for a long moment. “What do we know about the South American deposits?”

Ollinger had been scrambling to figure it out. “Even less than the African ones. But they’re all on the western side of things, just like in Africa.”

“Practically a straight line from there to Anaheim.”

“Maybe they’re moving the goods to Europe instead?”

“Possibly. Do we know if the mix of materials in South America is any different from what’s in Africa?”

The general actually laughed at that. “Not the foggiest. Of course I don’t think any two continents are the same in anything but that doesn’t help much. It could be Africa has more of what they need that South America but I’m not ready to bet lives on it.”

“Agreed.” Carrington sighed, signaled his AI then rocked back in his chair and threw his feet up on his desk. His AI interrupted the live feed from his hologram pickups and continued to show him sitting normally. “We don’t know enough about the situation on the ground. Have your techs had any luck figuring out why we can’t get back in contact with the landing team?”

“They think it’s something to do with the nanotech scattering the signal.”

“Yeah, our boys are working on that angle too.” He rubbed his hands over his face, suddenly very tired.

“Everything all right over there, Admiral?” Ollinger looked over to his left, which must have been where Carrington’s holo was in his office, because there wasn’t any reason for him to look that concerned otherwise.

“Did you ever think you’d spend hours a day thinking about copper and radio signals when you signed up for the service?” Carrington waved at the map, momentarily forgetting that the general wouldn’t be able to see it.

But one way or another Ollinger got his point because he laughed and said, “No. I signed up after watching that movie you Copernicans made. Did you ever see it? The one about Rear Admiral Bahai running the Galilean Lunar Maze?”

Long Way Down,” Carrington said, a grin creeping onto his face. “That movie single-handedly tripled Spacer Corps recruitment.”

“There were two guys in my class besides me who decided to join up after watching it and practically the whole dorm turned out for the showing in the square sophomore year.” Ollinger twirled his stylus around his fingers. “Of course you can’t actually sneak through the Galileo moons that way. The rings around the planet aren’t thick enough to scatter modern scanners much less EMG pickups and the studio completely cheated the mass of the moons outside of maybe Minerva. There are only six possible alignments of the planet and its satellites that allow you to freefall from outside the rings all the way down to Diana. All of them take a lot longer than forty hours.”

Carrington gave the general a surprised look. “You know, you Isaac boys put a lot more thought into that film than we ever did.”

It was Ollinger’s turn to sigh. “Maybe. But it turns out it didn’t matter that much in the long run because EMG made the freefall tactic obsolete just a couple of years later. Not that reality and movies have a strong connection anyway.”

“True enough.” The admiral leaned forward to sift through his own files, absently toggling his holofeed back to live. “I’m sure Bahai spent more of his time thinking about fuel supplies, mineral resources and personnel allocation than he did free falling past gas giants too.”

“Ships logs say he thought the whole maneuver was silly at the time.”

“Did it to prove that making a purely ballistic approach over a period of eight days was an impractical way to fight a war.” A smile tugged at Carrington’s lips. “Knocked half the Lunar Alliance out of the war instead.”

Nostalgia filled the space between the two men for a long moment. Finally Ollinger said, “We could just sink the transport. Your opening bombardment went off fine so I’m sure any ship in the fleet could put a missile or two in it from anywhere inside lunar orbit.”

After another moment of sifting through files Carrington shook his head. “We’re at war right now so there’s nothing wrong with hitting transports but I’m not sure it’s the right move just yet. I’d bet a month’s salary we’ve got better intel than they do. Let’s not tip our hands and reveal how much we can see of what they’re doing down there just yet. I’ll have the archive boys sift the files. Maybe we can put together an idea of what it is they’re moving around and why. I want your destroyers to keep tabs on South America and… Australia, see if they’re moving materiel out of those areas as well. The longer they think they can move in the open like this the better idea we can get of their operational norms.”

“We can do that.” Ollinger folded his hands and leaned back. “Have we decided what we’re going to do about the landing team?”

“There are a couple of potential plans on the table. The techs are working on the disassembler field problem and I’m looking at several other locations we could land a second team to try and retrieve the first.” Carrington got up and walked out onto the map, his feet disappearing into the holographic terrain. “We’ve misunderstood the Earthlings repeatedly. I’m not ready to commit to a major action until we’ve rectified that shortcoming.”

“Maybe you should go down and figure them out yourself.”

For a long moment he stared at the freighter. “Maybe I should.”

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Five

Previous Chapter

“Well, Director, how shines the Light of Mars?”

UNIGOV Director Brian O’Sullivan turned away from his hologrid, suppressing his annoyance behind a perfectly cultivated bland smile. “The nanofield is stable again, Mr. Vesper.”

“Oh?” The other man ignored Brian’s empty smile, his attention focused more on the hologrid, fingers absently tracing the power and signal strength curves displayed there. “Stable is one word for it. Precarious is another.”

Brian tried to mimic the other’s relaxed posture but it his pesky vestigial martian instincts made it impossible. At five foot eleven not only was Vincent Vesper the bigger man but when discussing his chosen field of research he carried himself with enough poise and confidence to equal any fully licensed UNIGOV Director. The urge to challenge him was constantly clawing at the back of Brian’s mind. “Stabilizing large scale nanotech deployments is your field of expertise, Mr. Vesper. Perhaps you’d like to give the technicians a few pointers.”

Vesper turned and glared a Brian from under his bushy white eyebrows, his eyes glittering with a strange and unsettling light. “You would enjoy that, wouldn’t you, Director? Knowing the pet inventor that you defrosted after thirty years on ice is back to quietly working away for the success of your latest pet project.”

“This isn’t about pets or projects, Mr. Vesper.” Brian struggled to keep his amiable, cooperative expression in place. He didn’t enjoy knowing Vesper was working on anything. While Vesper had been put into shutdown decades before Brian was promoted to the Directorate when the decision was made to run the technician through the reboot procedure he’d made it a point to read up on the man. What he’d learned disturbed him. “The Directorate is concerned that the very way of life that sapiens spent so long building on this planet is on the verge of pulling apart at the seams. Who better to try to repair that damage than the greatest builder Earth has ever produced?”

“When was the last time the UNIGOV Directorate wanted to build something?” Vesper snorted in derision. “You always knew it was possible the martians would return and we would need something to keep them at bay. A monument to cooperation that would cow their ambitions. A light of truth to dispel their lies and send them scampering back into the darkness. Rather than make one you chose to punish us when we did it for you.”

“Walls and borders are just another part of martian thinking, Vesper,” Brian replied, his soothing tone more to ease his own worries than to placate the other man. He still wondered if they might be too close to the edge of martian ways already. Although the Directorate had agreed to finally give the Light of Mars their official sanction it didn’t mean they had no misgivings. “If we were that defensive about things we’d be no better than them.”

“We’re going to be deader than they are if we’re not careful.” Vesper sighed and started fiddling with the hologrid’s controls, much to the consternation of the technicians ostensibly watching that station. Brian gave them a slight nod and they moved out of his way. “I can tweak this a bit and even out the field fluctuations about twenty percent but it’s only a temporary fix. We knew about this design flaw the first time the project was under way but never worked it out.”

“What do you need?” Brian asked. “The full resources of UNIGOV are at your disposal.”

For a moment Vesper didn’t say anything, just leaning in and peering at the very bottom of the holotank as if he was trying to puzzle out something written there. “Did… did you burn out the power relays in one of the field generators? How is that possible?”

A meaningful tilt of the head from the Director prompted one of the technicians to say, “It was a result of rapid field strength adjustments. The martians launched some kind of high energy attack on the field and it collapsed. We don’t have any imaging from that high up so it’s hard to tell for sure but the telescopes we’ve trained on their location make it look like some kind of ionized plasma barrage.”

Vesper spat, causing everyone else in the room to jump. “Plasma. Of course. Then there really won’t be a perfect fix to your problems, Director, because large scale magnetic fields are very vulnerable to outside influence. The equipment you’ve got here isn’t enough to proof the Light of Mars against a large volume of ionized plasma.”

“As I said, Mr. Vesper, anything we can bring to bear on this project is available to you.” Brian opened up his tablet and prepared to key in a search for whatever was needed. “We can have any personnel or nanufactory on Earth working on an issue inside the hour.”

The old man raised an eyebrow. “Well, Director, maybe you are taking this seriously after all. First off, we need to quintuple the strength of the magnetic field.”

Quintuple?” The lead tech’s jaw dropped. “Director, that’s going to take more than just field generators. We need miles of cable, a second power source and a much more modern computer system to synchronize everything. Not to mention an ocean of new nanotech. About a quarter of what we had before shorted when the field collapsed before and needs to be replaced plus all the extra? A field five times strong requires exponentially more nanotech to fill it.”

“Just replace what you lost,” Vesper said. “The point of strengthening the field is to disrupt and deionize the plasma so it will cause fewer problems in the heart of the field. We’re not going to have the nanotech operating over an area any larger than we were before. It’d loose cohesion.”

“How does making the unstable field larger make it more stable, if I may ask?”

Vesper nodded in grudging satisfaction at Brian’s question. “You may, Director. You may. The fact is that it doesn’t, in fact it will probably make it a little less stable. However if we can prevent the plasma from burning through the nanotech suspended in the field the fluctuations created by just the plasma ions shouldn’t make the field collapse. But ultimately what we need is better software.”

The head tech looked up at the hologrid then back at Vesper. “What we’ve got here is state of the art.”

“Then we’re going to have to make the art better than ever and fast because what you’re running here cannot handle juggling the power load and frequency calculations necessary to keep thirty five magfield generators running and adjusting with the fineness necessary to make this work.” The old inventor started punching names into his console. “We’re going to need about ten to twenty of your best and brightest coders but that’s not all. I need some people from my team. We were already working on the field stability issues when the project was shutdown.”

Vesper’s names popped up on Brian’s tablet with a quiet ping. He looked the list over quickly. “Just some? We could take all sixty of them out for you if it made your life more convenient.”

Brian’s sarcasm was lost on him. “It would. I look forward to seeing them outside the guts of your filthy computers again. Is it possible to see a sample of the burned out nanotech?”

“Mr. Richards can arrange that for you?” Brian waited until his lead tech nodded and smiled. “Excellent. I think we’ve made good progress here, Mr. Vesper, and I look forward to seeing what you can do here! I’ll leave the two of you to it and see what I can arrange with the shutdown techs.”

Brian stopped smiling as soon as he was out of the plant’s control room. He hadn’t been kidding when he said that all the resources UNIGOV had to offer were available to him to get the Light of Mars project up and running again. What he hadn’t told Vesper were exactly how many resources were available. There weren’t as many as the old man seemed to think there were.

Oh, he would get his new generators and cables and whatever else the local nanufactories could produce as quickly as they could produce it. Bringing in some of the raw materials might be difficult. Large quantities of rare earths would need to be moved over from the stockpiles in Africa but there were still a number of midsized cargo transports left in old Vaults here and there. The bigger issue was the personnel.

UNIGOV had spent a lot of time on trying to hash out an AI breakthrough in the last fifty years and the result had been a decline in the number of software engineers available for programming tasks that didn’t relate to AI. He wasn’t sure if they could transfer their expertise to Vesper’s needs. Then again, his position in the Directorate had nothing to do with technology or education to begin with so ultimately those issues were going to have to be sorted out by others.

His committee oversaw medical and disciplinary affairs. In other words, they were the ones in charge of managing the administration of medical nanotech and, if necessary, taking people into and out of Shutdown. Director Brian O’Sullivan was Vesper’s minder – or, as they would’ve said during the martian era his parole officer. It was his job make sure Vesper didn’t turn full martian and to put him back in Shutdown if he did. In theory it was his job to do that for all of Vesper’s peers as well.

As he walked Brian readied his handheld holophone and sent a signal to his subordinate in the Bakersfield Vault. It took a few minutes eventually SubDirector Baker appeared in full holo. She was young and hard edged, part of the most resolutely environmentalist factions in the Directorate to the point where she’d discarded her birth name and its martian connotations and chosen to identify with her place of work instead. Sometimes Baker’s extreme positions intimidated him but she was very good at her job. “Hello, SubDirector,” he said. “How are we feeling today?”

“The job’s been very masc today, Director, uncooperative and stubborn. And you?”

“Much the same. Shall I make a note of your change in disposition in the records?” Brian asked, his hand hovering over his device’s controls.

“No, no, the femme touch is the right approach to masc days.” She managed a grim smile, which did a great deal for her appearance that Brian studiously ignored. “Thank you for asking, although I’m guessing squaring up the records isn’t why you called.”

“I’m afraid not.”

“Problems with Mr. Vesper?”

“Not as such. I wanted to know if there were any updates on the condition of your patients.”

Baker went to work at some screen or tablet that wasn’t making it into the holographic projection. Her image reduced from her full, normal height of five foot three to two feet tall and three other projections filled in the empty three quadrants left vacant by the change. These projections changed every few seconds. Most of the people they displayed were unconscious in medical beds but about a third were awake and moving about unseen environments. About a quarter of those who were awake looked violently upset at something, the rest stared into space or looked around blankly.

As these encouraging images began showing Baker said, “We’ve completed the first stage of the revival process on all subjects at this point to varying degrees of success. As you can see, most are still in a state of unconsciousness. Of those that are awake, Mr. Vesper is the only one who has responded to outside stimulus so far. We’re currently debating whether we should allow them to have contact with people who knew them before they went into Shutdown, it may provide a strong enough outside stimulus to bring their minds back to the present.”

“Do you know why the unconscious ones aren’t waking up?” Brian asked. “Their nanotech should have kept them physically healthy.”

“It did. They have just as robust a metabolism and circulatory system as you or I and their muscle mass is within normal bounds.” Baker wiped away the real time feeds and switched the feed to a 50/50 set up with herself on top and a medical readout below. “As you can see, they should be normal.”

“I sense a but coming.”

But.” The medical chart changed to a brain scan. “As you can see, their brains have atrophied. We thought the shutdown fugue state would keep it healthy and allow them to wake up with no issues. However it looks like that wasn’t the case. A lot of them just started to come out of their coma only to find the parts of their brain that handled conscious thinking too worn out to handle the process. So they went right back to sleeping.”

“Can we restore that part of the brain?”

Baker shrugged and cleared the brain scan away. “Maybe. Medinano is supposed to use our DNA as its programming and built whatever our genes say should exist. We’re still trying to figure out how this kind of atrophied brain tissue was allowed in the first place.”

“Well, keep working that angle. Is that also the cause of the problems for the people who did successfully wake from Shutdown?”

“No. We’re not seeing that pattern of atrophy in them, at least not to the degree we see it in the unconscious ones.” A new file opened below her holo, this time a personnel listing for half a dozen psychiatrists. “I’ve called in some experts to see if there’s some kind of psychosis that set in as a result of their shutdown.”

Brian nodded and keyed in a new name to the end of the listing. “A good decision, SubDirector. I’ve added an additional name I think you should consult. Tie our project code to the request and he should arrive by tomorrow.”

“Who’s this?” Baker asked, her brow furrowed. “I’ve never heard of Gavan Chandler.”

“He’s an expert on trauma.”

Baker’s frown deepened. “Trauma? But the Shutdown process is supposed to be humane.”

“Perhaps. But no matter how sapien we are, SubDirector… nobody’s perfect. Right now it’s more important to figure out why Shutdown did this to these people than it is to worry what it says about the process.”

A flash of disappointment crossed her face then she sighed. “I suppose so. I’ll bring him in, Director.”

“Thank you, SubDirector. Let me know if there’s any change.” He ended the call and went to think about something more pleasant. Like where he could find fifty miles of wire on short notice.