The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Twenty Five

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“Director? Director O’Sullivan, can you hear me?”

Brian tried to focus as concepts and possibilities flooded through his mind in an endless procession of ideas and the interactions of those ideas. Someone was talking to him. His mind grabbed on to that fact with both hands, in spite of the fact that his hands were paralyzed in his fugue state, and dragged him back to the immediate. “Baker? Baker, is that you?”

“Yes, Director. Are you all right? Your vital signs spiked to dangerous levels about ninety minutes ago. It looks like they’ve stabilized now but they’re still elevated above levels that the diagnostics say are significantly above normal.” Baker’s news was ominous but she didn’t sound upset about it. Her voice was distant. Nervous.

There was something he was supposed to say about that. What was it? “How are you feeling, Baker? You sound like you are under a great deal of stress right now.”

“That’s… that’s a little bit complicated, Director. There’s someone here who wants to talk to you about-”

“I’m busy Baker. I wanted you to monitor my status so you could disconnect me from the fugue if things became dangerous and now you’re telling me you didn’t even notice when things went bad? How am I supposed to focus like this?” Brian threw aside the batch of ideas he was trying to sort and strode back through the swirling potentials and out into the tower where Vesper was waiting for him.

Vesper was watching his readouts and clucking to himself. “How did you find it this time, O’Sullivan?”

“Director, I apologize for the oversight but you have to understand that the situation with the Martians has progressed very quickly and-”

“I don’t care, Baker.” He stepped out of the potential tank and down to the floor while wiping sweat from his forehead. “I’m on the verge of a breakthrough here with Vesper and I need to focus.”

There was a long, uncomfortable silence on Baker’s end of the line while Vesper frowned at him. Suddenly the researcher turned frantically to his board and studied it. Brian couldn’t make anything out of what it said but he got the impression Vesper wasn’t very happy with it. Before he could ask the other man what was wrong Baker spoke up again. “Director, Vincent Vesper isn’t available any more. I don’t know what research of his you’ve found, or think you’ve found, but continuing to pursue it at this point isn’t going to help us very much.”

Brian glanced down at the younger Vesper. “SubDirector I think you’re going to be pleasantly surprised when you realize how far off base that assessment is. I just need… how long have I been in here?”

“About six hours, Director.”

“Only six?” He felt his eyes widen involuntarily. “Feels like ten times that. Interesting. I didn’t realize the fugue state altered your perception of time. Or is it the probability expansion?”

“The what?”

“Brian,” Vesper snapped. “What are you talking about?”

Splitting his attention between Baker and Vesper was beginning to take a toll and Brian considered just putting one of the conversations on hold. Unfortunately he wasn’t really given a chance to. “Director,” Baker said, “are you talking to someone else in there?”

“Yes, Baker, I am. Give me a minute, please, this is getting very difficult.” With all of his sensory input routed through his nanotech infused nervous system directly to his brain it was more difficult than he’d anticipated to separate one layer of experience from another. It wasn’t like he could press on an earbud to help focus on Baker’s voice. By the same token, they hadn’t built a system that let him shut off Baker’s voice if he needed to focus on something that was happening within the fugue proper.

Of course, they hadn’t anticipated the probability expansion facilitator either.

When Vesper first integrated Brian’s mind with the PEF it was the most disturbing thing to ever happen to him, more so than his initial medinano injection, more so than discovering UNIGOV had Shutdown both his parents a decade ago, more so than learning homo martians had come back to Earth for the first time in centuries. It most closely resembled the artificial psychedelic state that he’d experienced when he joined the Directorate. The point of that exercise had been to harden his mind against the distractions of cheap, emotional spirituality by filtering cheap neurotransmitter induced illusions through his medical systems. At least that was ostensibly the point.

Over the years Brian had learned many members of the Directorate actually routinely returned to the medically induced trance to try and improve their own understanding of themselves. He’d never joined them. When Brian experienced that first psychedelic trance he’d felt as if some towering presence reached within him and took out something important. He’d never been able to figure out quite what it was but he never wanted to go back and find out, either.

Looking back on it, the strange night terror that had pursued him through the fugue state was probably an expression of that first, badly managed psychedelic experience. The presence he’d felt in that trance hadn’t been a distinct visual thing. Instead it had felt more like a powerful being that manipulated the spinning, hypnotic landscape that he’d witnessed creeping in the edges of his vision as the trance made him feel like he was leaving his own body. The geometric shapes had cut away at his very soul, leaving him hollowed out.

Or, at least, that was how he felt at the time. Coming back from that point he’d remembered that ideas about souls and spirituality were just one of the shackles martian thought left on the sapiens mind to ensure they never reached their full potential in the here and now. What he saw in that trance was just his subconscious mind trying to reconcile the contradictions inherent in those shackles. Just one more reason, he told himself at the time, not to go back into the trance. He hadn’t realized the fugue state worked on similar principles because he hadn’t had time to delve too deeply into the idea when he was brushing up on the tech a few days ago but, with one major exception, it turned out the technology was basically identical.

Said exception being that the PEF was to a medically induced trance like the sun was to a candle. Vesper wouldn’t tell him – or perhaps didn’t know – if the PEF system was created by people from the Light of Mars project or if they’d borrowed it from someone else who’d entered the Shutdown fugue before they did. What he did say was that it expanded the human mind exponentially. By focusing heavily on specific ideas and formulas they’d been using the PEF to extrapolate the outcomes of various systems they wanted to test for their engineering project.

The details on how the system created its future projections were a little fuzzy. Again, Brian didn’t know if that was because Vesper didn’t know how it worked or if he was just trying to keep some secrets for whatever reason. What he did know was that the PEF became more effective the more human minds were tied in to it. When they’d dumped all the other Light of Mars engineers out the PEF had gone from highly productive to almost inert overnight. Vesper’s progress had ground to a halt. Thus his eagerness to recruit Brian into his work as soon as he arrived.

However after the initial shock that came from the PEF Brian found that the system itself might have some merits to it. Vesper was getting good data. Brian’s role in the Directorate was only tangentially related to nanotechnology but he knew enough to understand every third or fourth word the researcher was saying and that told him Vesper’s work was promising. After only two trips into the potential tank Vesper had most of the kinks worked out of his new system.

But Brian was beginning to wonder if perhaps they could use it towards even more relevant ends. They could bring the entire Light of Mars project back into the fugue and then add his own mind and Bakers to begin running some simulations of interactions with the martians. Perhaps UNIGOV could find a solution to that problem that didn’t require them to build the first fully fledged weapons platform on Earth in two hundred years.

“Brian.” Vesper’s voice cut into his thoughts with an irritable edge. “Have you been in contact with the Outside the whole time you were in the potential tank?”

“I have. Is that an issue, Dr. Vesper?”

The researcher exploded with unexpected ferocity. “Of course it is, Brian! I told you the PEF runs all its data through your mind as an auxiliary processing system and if you are in contact with additional data beyond what the probability tank is feeding you then the whole process from start to finish is going to be contaminated! Now we have to start this whole process over again from scratch!”

“Director, who have you made contact with?” Even as he tried to follow what Vesper was saying Baker’s voice dragged his attention in the other direction.

“It’s a long story, Baker, and I don’t have much time for it. If you hadn’t left your post for the last several hours you could have been here for most of it but there’s no sense complaining about that now.” Brian folded his arms over his chest and tapped one foot as he thought about it for a moment. There really wasn’t anything for it at this point. “Baker, I need you to close and disconnect your line to my audio nerves.”

“What.” Baker’s voice was getting more and more flat an expressionless as time went on. “Why would I do that, Director?”

“It’s complicated. You can break the connection, though, can’t you?”

“Yes, I can, Director but I don’t think I should so I’m not going to.”

Brian furrowed his brow. “Why not? Baker, you’ve been out of contact for hours and now you’re refusing to listen to perfectly reasonable instructions on what steps to take to forward our objectives.”

“Reasonable?” Baker snorted, sending a burst of discomfort through his left ear. “How can I tell if your instructions are reasonable or not when you won’t even tell me what factors led you to decide on this course of action?”

“Does it matter?”

“Of course it matters! Director, we barely know what goes on in one of these fugue states to begin with, you’ve been hallucinating strange things the whole time you’ve been in there and now you want to cut off all outside contact!” Now her voice was starting to climb up in pitch again. “How am I supposed to advise you or make sure the spirit of your instructions is carried out when I don’t even understand what it is you think you’re doing?”

“I understand your frustration,” Brian said, even though he really did not. “But we don’t have much time to-”

“We have no time, Director!” Baker snapped. “No time at all! The Martians raided the power plant hours ago and they’ve taken the whole place over! I had to turn it over to their Admiral fifty minutes previous. I can’t do anything here besides talk to you and you, well, you’ve got no time at all to finish whatever fantasy project you think is going to let you finish the Light of Mars. We’re sunk, Director, all that’s left is arguing over the details. Now do you think I can pull you out of your fugue without your suffering any of the detrimental side effects we saw in most of their engineers?”

“Then stand by, Director.”

“Stand by for what?”

“I’m going to transfer you over to Admiral Carrington and Director Mond. I have to go and make sure the martians don’t murder Mr. Vesper…”

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The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Twenty Four

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“The secret is digital audio,” Mond explained. He was seated by the bridge’s holotank while Naomi and Bennet worked to set up a stable computer connection with Bottletown through the no-longer-secret Roddenberry FTL communication corridor. “You can encrypt it however you want but there’s only so many practical ways to transmit digital audio via radio or laser. Digital information breaks down to ones and zeroes, after all.”

“I don’t understand what that has to do with your communications blackout,” Carrington replied.

“It’s actually very simple.” Mond went to work in the holotank, his prosthetic hands painstakingly forming a set of graphs in the tank. “Computer systems are all different, of course. However at a base level you’re still communicating ones and zeroes at a very high rate of speed and the structure of your system actually makes the pattern of those ones and zeroes predictable to a certain extent. We don’t have to know what they mean. We just have to predict what is coming next, a one or a zero, and predicting a pattern without bothering to think about what it means is the quintessential job of an artificial intelligence.”

“They don’t get distracted by the framing problem,” Carrington said.

“Exactly. When UNIGOV was coming together there were a huge number of people broadcasting counter-narratives that were undermining the sapiens position. We created the broadcast blanketing system as our own countermeasure. It was based on a very simple fact: when a wave is exposed to the complete opposite waveform the two cancel each other out.” Mond was carefully sketching out two such waveforms in the tank.

Even without the visual aid Carrington recognized what he was saying and grasped the underlying principle he was getting at. “You mean you managed to anticipate the data we’re about to broadcast and create an inverse signal to cancel it out? Wouldn’t it be simpler to crack the encryption?”

“Maybe. I’m not an expert on the subject but I don’t think it is. Transmitters use very simplistic algorithms to talk to each other and that’s all we really need to figure out in order to create the blanketing effect. Also, the system was created to counter people who were broadcasting within standard protocols. The point wasn’t to find out what they were saying. They wanted people to understand them. The point…” Mond shot an uncomfortable look at Naomi and sighed. “As the martians say, the point was to silence them and for that understanding isn’t actually necessary.”

Carrington nodded, waving him past that minefield. “Fine. Your computer experts whipped up an approach to shut down radio waves with some kind of dampening technology. How do we get past it now?”

“We left a backdoor in the programming to ensure that we could talk through the blanketing effect. That algorithm is buried in UNIGOV comm systems from that era foreward. All we need to do is pull it from the Vault under the martian city and we’ll be able to break through and talk with UNIGOV systems on the ground.”

“On the ground?” Carrington gave him a sharp look. “What about our own forces? They aren’t going to have anything to receive the broadcast with.”

“Not necessarily. First off, I know that your personnel are very capable of appropriating UNIGOV tech and using it for their own ends.” Waved his hand to encompass the ship. “After all, if they couldn’t we wouldn’t have made it back to orbit, would we?”

Carrington clasped his hands behind his back and looked back at the holotank. EMG scans had picked up a great deal of thermal and magnetic activity around a power plant in the Los Angeles area. They did need to do anything possible to find out what was going on down there. On the other hand, there was a certain trepidation to finding out just how badly things had gone on the ground, a trepidation rooted in the disasters of the past.

“You know, Director, I find it odd that you cite cutting off your martians as a source of certainty for your civilization. I find the silence full of possibility. The uncertainty is unpleasant, often, but so long as I do not know what’s happened down there the anything could have happened. Major Goldstein could be on the verge of forging a successful peace with your government. Or they could have created such a disastrous misstep that the entire detachment was wiped out when you deployed your disassembler field.” With a flick of a few fingers Carrington brought the live satellite images of the surface to the forefront of their section.

“Certainty is a vital component to the art of war,” he continued. “Knowing everything we can about the enemy’s positions, capabilities and mindset are the foundation of good planning. Acting in complete ignorance of these things is foolish. Yet you claim that creating that ignorance, particularly ignorance of your adversaries but also ignorance of your own past, is a vital part of creating a society founded on certainty. I confess I find your position bizarre.”

“Oh?” Mond raised an eyebrow. “And when you look at what you see from your adversaries you never think that perhaps they might be lying to you? That what you see from them is calculated to undermine you? I find that very hard to believe you.”

“On the contrary, Director, we count on it. Psychology, gamesmanship and analysis are all part of the modern warfare – and modern diplomacy, for that matter.” Carrington gave the other man a steady look. “I wish you would beat around the bush less, Mr. Mond, because I really would like to end this with as little bloodshed as possible but it’s really hard to understand where you’re coming from.”

Mond sighed and looked up at the feed in the holotank. “I believe you, Admiral. The thing you must understand about our approach to the world is that we believe that stability comes from vulnerability, from a willingness to be open to one another. We wish to be left alone to pursue our own society rather than be forced to constantly reevaluate the intrusions of outsiders. The expectation of hostility from others undermines that. It robs us of the openness that comes with vulnerability.”

“You can’t build a society on vulnerability, Director,” Naomi said, leaving her console to join them. “Believe me, the founders of Bottletown tried; because they had no other choice. To some extent I suppose you could say they succeeded, since we are still around, but we didn’t have a chance to develop our own culture, to grow as people or to create anything new. We still live in the same buildings they did. We barely understand the technology they left us and we spent our very short lives wondering if the whole system was going to come crashing down around us. We were vulnerable every moment and I’m sure the downward spiral would have destroyed us eventually if the Genies hadn’t found us.”

“That is stability, Ms. Bertolini. Entropy is a universal force that we must all deal with on a personal and societal level.” Mond gave her a sad smile. “When we fight and we scratch and we steal from one another we don’t reverse entropy, we only increase the suffering of others to enrich ourselves. In the process, we hasten the process rather than forestalling it. If we were honest with ourselves we could allow the natural processes to begin to heal, we could slow entropy as much as possible and we can live our full lives in community with one another rather than in constant suspicion.”

Carrington glanced at Naomi. Her face showed total confusion, clearly unable to work out what brought a person to this point, much less an entire civilization. The small world under the Borealis dome hadn’t prepared her for this. She hadn’t seen the kind of arbitrary death the world could dole out through violence, illness or mishap. The very nature of Malacandran civilization precluded it.

Such things had a corrosive effect on the human spirit so pronounced and mysterious it shocked even him and worse, it was very hard to reverse. Such corrosion was at the root of most wars, crimes and suicides. Worst of all, when ways to reverse the damage did exist the methods were radically different in every case.

The fleet had decided to remain in the Sol system to help the Malacandrans emerge into a thriving society and maintain some level of connection with the Homeworld. More and more, it was looking like achieving either one of those goals involved breaking UNIGOV’s hold on Earth. What that meant was unclear. At the most extreme it meant destroying most of their leadership and beginning the process of completely replacing the corrupt culture that they’d put in place. Carrington had little appetite for such extreme action. Hopefully just giving competing ideas a foothold on planet would be enough.

Unfortunately he was almost certain that less extreme option would be impossible without winning Mond over to his side. Any counter to the UNIGOV party line would have to come from someone who knew that line inside and out. Mond’s status as a member of the Directorate would lend him credibility. However, so far there were very few cracks showing in the Director’s ideological dedication to Earth’s status quo. He showed some doubt when the Malacandrans were around. Carrington couldn’t think of anything to help the Director along outside of keeping Mond and Naomi together as much as possible and praying that something came of it. In the meantime he had his own people to worry about.

“If you prefer the stability of entropy to the certainty of understanding there’s not much we can do to change your mind, Director.” He glanced at Bennet. “How are things coming, Major?”

“We’ve established the uplink through the Spiner and the Stewart, Admiral. We should have the algorithm pulled from the Borealis Vault in a few minutes.”

“Can we integrate it with our own computer systems?”

“That’s the easy part, actually,” Naomi replied, “Teng already spent several days with the Roddenberrys working out an emulator that allows our systems to talk to each other. We brought a copy with us and installed it with the Major yesterday. You should be able to drop the algorithm into it and go from there.”

“Then we’ll try and open a line to the LA Power Plant first as it looks like the ground team may be holed up there. At your convenience, Major.”

The next three minutes were full of quiet muttering and consultations. Then Bennet said, “Okay, Admiral, it looks like we’ve got someone who’s answering us. Want me to put it up in the tank?”

“Please.”

The surveillance feeds flew off to the sides and were replaced with a human sized helmet. To Carrington’s surprise it was a regulation issue Copernican armored exoskeleton helmet. “Who is this?” The man on the other end demanded. Then he jerked back and snapped to attention, his hand coming into view from one side. “Admiral Carrington! I’m sorry, sir, I was expecting a UNIGOV person.”

Carrington tamped down on his impulse to grin. “Not a problem, son, this is a very unorthodox line of communication. Who am I talking to?”

“Corporal Broward Keys, Admiral. Part of the landing crew under Captain Yang dispatched with Sergeant Langley to secure this facility.”

Interesting. Sergeant Langley was apparently having a very good month. If he kept it up someone back on Copernicus was going to try and build him a statue or something equally foolish. “Good work, Corporal. Is the Captain or Sergeant present?”

“Negative, sir. The Captain is still inbound, Sergeant Langley is in pursuit of hostile assets.” He glanced off to one side. “Uh, we do have a SubDirector Baker present, Admiral. She’s surrendered but it sounds like she’s interested in talking to you.”

Carrington glanced at Mond, who looked just as surprised as he was, and then back at the tank. A new route to the simple solution had just offered itself. “Put her on.”

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Twenty Three

Previous Chapter

“Yancey, report,” Lang snapped, grabbing Keys’ wrist as he raised his plasma rifle. “What’s your situation?”

“Looks like a decontamination room,” Yancey said. “There’s an exit opposite where we came in. Oh, and now they’re pumping something into the chamber through the vents and it doesn’t look like any decontamination foam or similar substance I’ve ever seen.”

Lang waved his team away from the door. “Blast your way back out through to us, target the hinges on the door and you should be able to get past it in no time.”

“Not sure we should expose you guys to this stuff.”

“That was an order, Harry. We’re clear of the door, start melting.”

The door shook from a series of impacts then the hinges on the door blew out in melted chunks that spattered across the floor in glowing puddles. Then the door latch did the same. Harry kicked down the door and hustled out with Keys just behind, both men coughing as a wave of smog or mist followed them out. Yancey and Priss pulled the two of them away to either side while Lang and Ramone opened fire through the doorway, slinging plasma through the decontamination room towards its other door until they heard a loud thud.

Whatever chemical the Earthlings had pumped through the vents was much heavier than the air and it drifted out among them at ankle height. Lang eyed it, distrustful, but it didn’t have the telltale glitter of active nanotech. Besides, Yancey hadn’t mentioned anything on the EMGs so it couldn’t have an active mag field feeding it power anyways. “Switch to internal air supply.”

“Sarge?” Ramone sounded surprised. “We’ve only got two hours air on hand and there’s no danger of us breathing this stuff. Are you sure you want to use it up now?”

“It’s just a precaution,” Lang said. “If we wind up wasting the canned air you can go back to get more, okay?”

“If you say so.”

He did, and they all paused for a moment to pull up the mouthpiece from its hiding place in their collars, activate the airflow and seal the whole thing around their mouths. The process took all of ten or twelve seconds. “All right,” Lang said, his voice now muffled by the mouthpiece and backed by the quiet hissing of air, “new formation. Keys, Ramone, take point. Yancey, keep your eyes glued to the EMG scans and everyone else keep your eyes moving. A decontamination chamber comes before a secured area. They’ll probably have some kind of guards or at least surveillance in play so be prepared to respond to just about anything.”

“Lang, you might want to have a look at this.” Priss was kneeling by the open doorway and poking at the mist with her knife. Only now it had begun hardening into a strange substance that looked fluffy to the naked eye but gave very little when the flat of the metal blade tapped against it. Even a quick jab failed to do any serious damage to it. “Whatever this gunk is, it’s fast acting and pretty tough.”

Lang eyed the door, which was still dispersing a slow moving cloud of the stuff. “That’s an interesting wrinkle. Anyone know what it is?”

“Looks like some kind of insulation spray foam,” Ramone said, grabbing a handful of the stuff in his left hand and kneading it back and forth. “Yeah, it feels a lot like the kinds of stuff we had onboard during the Departure era. My gramps had a house built with this. It’s really fast acting, Sarge, and it’s already starting to set. We’ve got a good chance of getting stuck if we try to go through this now.”

“Did you spot the vents?” Lang asked. “We could plug them up and go.”

“Negative, Sarge.” Ramone patted his rifle. “These are heat guns and that’s insulation, the one thing basically exists to get in the way of the other. We can shoot into it, sure, but it’s gonna take a lot of time. It’d be faster to just go around, though not really safer.”

“Why would it be unsafe?” Priss asked.

“We don’t have plans for this place,” Yancey said, “and standard doctrine in a gravity bound structure is to avoid taking out walls in case there’s something load bearing in there. Plus we don’t have the right tools for it. That means we’d probably have to do even more damage to the overall structure in order to effect a usable breach.”

“Damn.” Lang knocked his helmet against the wall once, trying to figure out how to get around the situation without putting the whole team in danger. “Okay, what options do we have other than dragging the roof down on us?”

“The admin offices may connect to the control center, we could try that,” Priss suggested.

“Any route in or out of the control center is going to be behind a decontamination room given the safety protocols and era of construction,” Keys said. “We could try going in from the reactor chamber. There should be a reinforced window we could try to breach although that will take a lot of time as well. It’s supposed to withstand reactor accidents, after all.”

“The roof.”

All eyes turned to Harry. Lang raised an eyebrow. “Go on.”

“This is an industrial facility designed to resist accidents from the inside, not a secure military facility designed to withstand attacks from the outside.” Harry pointed back towards the hallway they’d entered through. “There is a window in the admin room. We go out and up to the roof then breach it once we’re past this point and continue as normal. No risk of hitting anything load bearing. Much faster than running through the bottom floor and getting lost or trying to breach a reinforced plexiglass window.”

“That’s the best idea I’ve heard so far, unless anyone else has a stroke of genius that’s what we’re going with.” Lang spun around on his heel. The rest of the squad fell in behind him, double timing back through the locker room and hallway and into the empty admin offices.

Getting to the roof proved more difficult than they had originally anticipated. The LA Fusion Plant was not constructed with magboot maneuvering in mind, which wasn’t a surprise given the time and place it was built but did make the squad’s best climbing tool useless. They wound up locking their exoskeleton’s into a long chain to secure Keys in place as he carefully climbed the six meters from the window to the roof. Once in place he clamped down and pulled them up. It was the most uncomfortable human daisychain maneuver Lang had ever done in his life.

Still, ten minutes later they were all safely on the roof, dusting themselves off as they took stock of their situation. Lang shook himself off and said, “It may have been safer to just blast through a wall and risk bringing down the roof.”

“That’s your monkey brain talking, Sarge,” Keys said.

“Nah, my monkey brain is fine, it’s wired for high places. My human brain doesn’t like hanging out in thin air with no engines of my own.”

“The exo’s servos have an 0.12% failure rate in high tension locking situations, statistically speaking we were in no danger whatsoever.” Harry patted his exoskeleton in contentment. “We can get back down this way, too, if we have to.”

“Let’s not have to.” Lang spun on his heel until he spotted the marker his AI had left inside the building. It was a short run from the side of the building back to that spot and an even shorter matter to go a few more steps and get past the decontamination room. Then they formed a circle about three meters wide and hit the roof with a barrage of super heated plasma. It wasn’t as smooth a process as Lang had hoped.

The roof wasn’t particularly tough, all things considered. It was concrete reinforced with iron rebar, pretty typical for a two hundred year old Earth building and sturdy enough when faced with weather or the like but not really designed to stand up to plasma weapons. That said, a plasma rifle wasn’t really designed to cut through stone, either. It took almost a hundred rounds of fire to dig a ten inch wide, six inch deep divot into the roof.

Then they took a plasma grenade with some spray adhesive and stuck the grenade in the hole. Then they set it off. In most cases a plasma grenade caused damage by its sudden change in heat, which kept deadly shrapnel to a minimum. When it was buried in a concrete roof the sudden temperature change caused catastrophic cracking through the concrete and liquefied the rebar. While most of the rubble fell straight down a few chips did go flying and leave scratches on their armored exos.

After giving the rubble a five count to begin cooling Lang waved his squad forward. For the second time that day they rushed into pandemonium. The grenade opened a hole in the roof about four feet wide and shaped like a kidney bean; not the ideal shape for quick entry but a valid method nonetheless. All six of them piled through the gap and landed in the rubble in rapid succession. Lang and Priss fumbled the landing a tad. Although their exos had internal self-balancing gyroscopes to keep them more or less upright and powered servos to absorb the shock of landing neither one of them had worn the gear long enough to roll with the impact successfully.

Yancey landed like ten foot drops were an every day task, the others were almost as graceful. Unfortunately Lang didn’t have the time to appreciate the other’s performance as the section of roof they’d entered through had been right over the command room’s antechamber. Several work stations were crumpled and sparking underneath the rubble and half a dozen Earthlings were playing fire extinguishers over the rubble.

When the first of the spacers landed the Earthlings recoiled. Most of them froze, staring at the six of them in astonishment, while Harry and Yancey snapped their rifles to ready. For a long moment, no one moved. However that wasn’t surprising to Lang, given what he’d already seen he suspected that even the very primal instinct to hold up empty hands in surrender had gone out of common use. He held up a hand, signaling they should hold their fire.

“I’m Sergeant Martin Langley, of the Copernican Spacer Corps.” He took a few steps forward, letting his own plasma rifle hang across his chest on his carry strap as he held his hands open in a placating movement. “If you don’t wish to fight we will accept your surrender. Just put your hands up on top of your head and we can end hostilities with just that.”

Most of the Earthlings turned to look at a woman in the sharp cornered, brightly colored clothing Lang had come to recognize as the region’s standard business dress. She was a little short and her chestnut hair was clipped close to her skull but there was no mistaking her feminine figure or the way the other’s deferred to her. This was the woman in charge. Lang turned his full attention to her and said, “I’m under orders to secure this power plant, ma’am, and I’d be happy to do that with as little additional violence as possible. However, one way or another, we’re taking over this command center.”

The woman sighed and began to raise her hands. Lang felt himself beginning to smile, glad to have the facility secured at last, when a wave of white foam blasted over his faceplate and blinded him. It happened so fast he wasn’t even sure what was going on. The armored gloves of his exoskeleton were fine for most tool using purposes but they weren’t the best thing for wiping off a piece of clear plastic without smearing it. By the time he got his visibility back the shouting and shooting had already started.

“What happened?” He demanded, wiping vigorously with both hands as the command center came back into view. It looked like one of the Earthlings had disappeared and the others had their hands on their heads as they’d been instructed.

“One of them hit you and Yancey with the fire extinguisher spray,” Harry said. He’d moved across the room to another door which he was looking out of. The ring of plasma pockmarks around the door testified to what the others had been shooting at. “Then he made a break for it.”

Lang looked back at the woman in charge. “What was that?”

“I apologize,” the woman said, her tone far sterner than you might expect from an apology. “Mr. Vesper is an extremely unpredictable individual due to his very difficult personal circumstances.”

“Don’t you stick the unpredictable people in tanks?” Ramone asked.

“It’s called Shutdown, and yes, we do. We removed him in order to work on the Light of Mars project.” The woman said it as if it should be obvious.

“Of course,” Ramone said. “The Light of Mars. Why didn’t I think of that?”

Priss glanced at Lang then back at the woman. “Is that the nanotechnology field you’ve been putting up over the city?”

The Earthling tilted her head as if considering something. “Yes. You didn’t know?”

“Fuck.” Lang spun to point at Yancey, Ramone and Keys. “You three stay here, lock down the command center and contact the Captain. Let her know we’re trying to run down one of the people who created the disassembler field. Priss, Harry, with me. Harry, which way did that asshole go?”

“Just follow me, Sarge.” The three of them pounded out of the the room and deeper into the facility.

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Twenty Two

Previous Chapter

“What’s the situation, Sargent?” Captain Yang returned his salute as she crouched down with him behind the embankment.

“Enemy’s point defenses are still active at all points on the building previously reported, ma’am,” Lang said, sending her AI a ping to dump the relevant files. “We scouted around most of the old parking area and we think we can secure the plasma guns there.”

“Will that give us a good angle to take out their mag field generators?” Yang asked as she started scrolling through the data he’d just given her.

“Not unless these guns can arc plasma like kinetic shells,” Lang said. “But we can hit the main building from here.”

She paused mid scroll. “What does that accomplish? I’m not looking to cause a catastrophic containment breach of an active fusion reactor, Langley. That doesn’t help anyone.”

“Technically it does short out their planetary defense network in this region but I see you point, ma’am.” Lang twitched a few commands and sent his proposed plan to her tablet. “What’s interesting about the Earthling’s chosen weapons in this situation is how incredibly clunky they are. Nanotech, by nature, is about doing small things. Blowing them up to a large scale is very inefficient and the fact that they seriously took this approach to warfare shows how unaccustomed UNIGOV is to the whole process…”

“You’re not filing a flight plan, Sargent,” Yang said. “You don’t need to give me the specs and background on all the tech involved. Just give me the highlights.”

“You can’t use disassembler fields indoors, ma’am. They’ll just disassemble the building and you’ll be outdoors again, which isn’t ideal for a bunch of reasons, thus you don’t deploy any of the fields indoors. So if we want to avoid the plant’s defenses…”

“Blow open a wall in the main building and run inside.” Yang smiled. “Simple and direct, just like all the best plans. Have you determined the best places to breach the walls?”

“I wasn’t sure what your operational goals were so we made our best guess at the spots we thought would be near an emergency shutdown of some sort.” With a flick of the fingers Lang highlighted those spots on her map. “Unfortunately the plans for this kind of plant aren’t on hand and it didn’t exist before the Departure so all we’ve got are assumptions to go on.”

“Not much but it’s a start.” Yang looked the map over and added a few notes to it. “I’m going to check in with the other groups and see if we can get an angle on any other potential points to breach. Impressive work, Sargent. The Remote Operations Group think they’ve located the plant’s command room based on infrastructure on site. I’m adding that to the list of potential sites to breach and I want you to take point on that team.”

“Me, ma’am?”

“You’re the Earthling expert, remember?” Yang gave him a wry smile. “I know making peace isn’t exactly your specialty but you’re pretty good at thinking around their plans and you’ve got a handle on their temperament. Find and neuteralize their leadership. Offer them unconditional surrendure before you slag them, and let me know if they make any counter offers I’m not looking to wipe them out, but don’t be afraid to force the issue if they’re recalcitrant. I’ll send Priss along to keep you in touch, okay?”

“If you insist ma’am.” He pulled up the map on his own tablet. “Where are we making our entrance at?”

“You’ll be staging from upsilon-2, moving out in ten minutes. Stay on your toes, Sargent.”


Upsilon-2 was just behind a large cherry tree. Unlike most of the plant’s overgrown garden beds this tree stood on it’s own with no other obvious landscaping around it. Lang wondered if it was originally intended for that spot or if it had sprouted on its own. He’d hunkered down there with Priss and his picked up team of ground pounders just in time to see the opening salvo come from Fresh Face and his gun team.

In his long career with the Spacer Corps Lang had seen a lot of plasma bombardments. He’d seen the utter devastation left by the Minervans on Newton, the chilling spectacle of atmosphere venting from Minervan domes over Galileo and the heart stopping shock of the orbit ship Great Red Spot breaking apart under focused fire from the Dianan fleet. Each and every kind of bombardment was horrible in its own way. But after watching the Second Galilean War from the cockpits of landers and rescue craft in space Lang had figured he was used to the sight of plasma guns at work.

He’d forgotten that in atmosphere they also made noise.

When the guns blew up the first section of the plant’s outer walls there was just a brief flash of light from their emplacement in the parking lot, followed but a brighter, sharper flash and a huge plume of smoke from the building. Then a massive clap as super heated air rapidly cooled. Finally a bone shaking boom and a pressure wave that hit like a slap in the face. Lang sucked in a breath and shook himself once. That hadn’t even been a big strike, nothing compared to the kinds of shipboard plasma weapons and missiles the Tranquility could bring to bear.

Harry laughed. “I take it you’ve only done space work until now, Sarge?”

“If you don’t count escaping after being grounded in hostile territory twice, yeah.”

“Nothing like the first time you see a big heat gun in atmo,” Keys said. “Hopefully we won’t be down here long enough to get used to it.”

Priss crossed herself and said, “Amen to that.”

“Check you’re gear,” Lang said. “There’s one more team going then it’s our turn. I don’t think we’re going to get ripped up by nanotech once we’re inside but someone on team Earth has gotten creative and nasty so keep your eyes peeled and call out anything that looks off. If they surrender to you give them full privileges under the Borealis Convention.”

“Although be aware that they probably won’t reciprocate,” Priss added. “Most of them don’t know the Convention exists.”

“What if they want to negotiate terms?” Keys asked.

“Then I talk to them,” Lang said. “But Priss is right, they don’t have much cultural or structural support for these kinds of situations so you’re going to have to treat them a little differently.”

“How so?”

“It’s likely they haven’t disciplined themselves against violent impulses ever in their lives. If it looks like they’re about to hit you or shoot you with a weapon they’ve recovered or dump a load of nuclear waste on your head that’s probably exactly what’s about to happen.” Lang made sure to make direct eye contact with Keys as he spoke. “If you believe they’re about to attack you, shoot them. UNIGOV discourages all communication with us martians anyways, so negotiations are unlikely.”

Keys looked uncomfortable at that but he nodded. “Understood.”

A second blast shook the air and Fresh Face’s voice came over the comms. “Stand by, group Langley. We’re making your entrance now.”

“Final check in now,” Lang said.

“Keys here, exo is green, all gear checks out.”

“Yancey, EMGs are running, all other gear…”


The six of them piled over the super heated hole in the plant’s concrete wall and into another world. If the streets of Los Angeles were deserted and overgrown the halls of the plant were chaotic and full of death. Yang had picked a spot she thought was near the plant’s command center. They’d found the building’s cafeteria. The wall had blown in and thrown slagged concrete and burning insulation across tables and diners who had probably been enjoying breakfast moments before.

Or maybe they’d just been trying to choke down a few bites while wondering what all the alarms were about. Either way, they’d died just the same. Bits of people poked out from some of the rubble and dead or unconscious bodies were strewn against the far wall like leaves. His AI datafeed, projected on the inside of his helmet, estimated there had been two dozen people in the area. It marked three as still conscious and moving. None of them were carrying weapons.

Harry and Keys had already flagged them as low priority threats and were moving towards a stairway leading up over the dining area. Most of the stairs were intact although some rubble smashed a few steps. At the top a balcony overlooked the cafeteria and a sign hanging there announced that medical and reactor access were to the left, administration and reactor control to the right and personal lockers straight ahead. He took off after Keys.

The stairway proved sturdy enough to hold their weight in spite of the damage and, with assistance from the exoskeletons, they were able to jump the damaged sections without trouble. At the top Harry hesitated. “Do we trust this sign?”

“Why would they put up a sign with the wrong directions on it?” Yancey demanded.

“I dunno, maybe they expected they’d be invaded?”

Lang pushed past them and took point as he turned to the right. “In that case we’ll just double back the other way. But I doubt they’d just change the signs to confuse us, UNIGOV only reactivated this facility recently and their own people are just as likely to get confused by it.”

“If you say so, Sarge.”

Truthfully it wouldn’t have taken long to confirm the sign. Not more than ten or fifteen feet down the hallway a bank of windows looked out over a wide room full of tihn dividing walls, creating a grid of small, eight foot rooms with desks covered in dust. Lang guessed it was the administration room, now out of use. Another twenty feet on the hall ended. Just before the end there was a glass door into the administration room on the right and the hall itself ended in a metal door.

Harry slipped forward and tried the metal door, finding it unlocked. Yancey gave a thumbs up after checking his EMG scanner and then the two of them slipped into the room, guns up and moving in the arcane patterns of the trained infantryman. Lang followed along behind them when they gave the all clear. They found a locker room.

The locker room had achieved it’s final form long before space colonization efforts began so it was a pretty familiar place. Banks of lockers, banks of toilet stalls, individual shower cubbies and textured ceramic floors. The rubber soles on Lang’s boots gripped it well enough but those who’d stuck with mag boots slipped a bit as the smooth, metal soles slipped on the slick surface.

Progress slowed until they reached the end of the locker room and arrived at the next door. Once again Harry and Yancey went through first. This time the door swung shut behind them on its own and before anyone could grab the handle and pull it back open a deep thunk sounded as the door locked itself behind them.

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Twenty One

Previous Chapter

The tower was both less impressive and less coherent up close. Less impressive because it became clear it’s red color was not a uniform coat of paint and rather an mix of rust and red leaves on vines that seemed locked in perpetual autumn. The leaves were particularly strange as Brian couldn’t recall seeing any other signs of the season in the city. Then again, the air could be quite chilly and he wouldn’t notice. The fugue state didn’t provide the clearest sense of temperature, just one of many sensations that the technology didn’t really communicate well.

Of the dozen or so towers he’d seen on arrival the closest was squatter than most, a wide structure with a number of arching balconies and smaller spires giving it the appearance of a fan or brush reaching towards the sky. The base of the tower wasn’t really any different from the other, shorter buildings around him. A low, arched stone door frame jutted a foot or two forward from the side of the building leading into a dimly lit lobby with plush benches running around the outside walls. There was a counter for a concierge but it wasn’t manned.

The doors to the lobby weren’t locked either. Brian let himself in, cautiously looking around the lobby, wonder and anxiety warring in the pit of his stomach. He was expecting an elevator or another antechamber leading into the bottom floor of the tower. Instead the only exit from the lobby was a set of double doors on the far side of the room. None of the fugue’s faceless people were present so the building had a very lonely, desolate vibe to it.

“Baker? Any new information on the towers?”

“Not yet. We don’t have any information in our archives on plans to construct anything like what you’re seeing but that doesn’t necessarily mean there weren’t any. We’ve messaged the Sarajevo Vault but no response yet.” Baker’s voice went a little distant. “We’re going to try and show a concept sketch to one of the Light of Mars people we woke up.”

Brian paused, his hand hovering over the handle to the double doors. “Why would you do that?”

“We’re hoping it will do something to jog their memories or at least stabilize their minds so they can tell us something about what happened in there.”

“Not a bad idea. Let me know if you find anything important but if you don’t turn up anything or it doesn’t seem important wait until I check in. I need to focus.” He grabbed the handle on the door and pulled it open. The door swung open and for a brief moment Brian caught a glimpse of the shadow that had haunted him through the city in the reflection on the door’s metal face. He ignored it. So far the night terror hadn’t lived up to its name, just crept into the corner of his vision from time to time so he was training himself to ignore it.

Then the door opened fully and ignoring it became a lot more difficult.

The inside of the massive tower was a ten story tall glass tank full of shifting shadows contained by a heavily reinforced set of bronze or brass bands. The whole scene reminded him of something he’d seen on the cover a book from the 1920s when he was perusing the Vaults during his training. Unlike the shadow person that had stalked him through the streets there was no clear figure in the tank. But he caught glimpses of other things.

Most of them were structures. Tall spires, forests of antenna and weblike networks of cables peeked through the darkness for a second or two then vanished again. Occasionally a ten foot long hand might appear for a moment. Once Brian thought he saw an eye peering out of the tank although it didn’t seem to be focused on anything in the tower in particular. For a moment it felt like the eye focused on him. For the first time he could remember, Director Brian O’Sullivan felt like he was completely out of control of his circumstances. Then the eye continued on its way, vanishing into the shadows after another few seconds.

When he got his breath back he whispered, “Baker, stand by for an emergency shutdown.”

“Are you okay, Director?” She asked, her voice laced with concern.

“The entire fugue, Baker, don’t just shut down my pod turn the whole server off and wake up everyone else still stored here. Find the people as soon as they wake up and keep them under strict observation.” Brian forced his feet to take a tentative step forward.

“Tell me what’s wrong, Director.”

“Begin the procedure if you hear me say ‘bucolic’ regardless of what else happens. Don’t wait for confirmation, just shut it down. Do you understand?”

“Director-”

“Stop talking, Baker. Let me concentrate.”

She made a very annoyed sound but stopped talking.

The hundred foot tall tank dominated the room for obvious reasons but it wasn’t the only thing there worthy of note. A ring of computer monitors ringed the outside of the room. They showed pictures and diagrams that meant nothing to Brian and the text they displayed had that strange, gibberish quality you’d expect in a dream. That set off a silent alarm in the back of his brain, since he’d read everything else he’d seen in the fugue without trouble.

Well, everything written in English.

The mystery of why the text on the monitors was unreadable wasn’t the most important thing in the tank room, however. The most important thing was the man in front of the tank.

Brian had gone through the list of people Shutdown from the Light of Mars project. Most of them were accounted for already. A few were left in Shutdown because they filled supplementary logistical roles in the original project, roles that UNIGOV already had well covered in the present and who would thus be redundant. Only five people in the R&D arm of the Light of Mars had gone unaccounted for. One lead scientist turned up dead of heart failure during the initial Shutdown, a fact that got noted in the Sarajevo Vault but never forwarded to Bakersfield when the project was revived. A second lead scientist had been removed from Shutdown and assigned to a large scale construction project in Asia forty years ago and died a natural death twelve years later. Three assistants had simply never come out of the fugue.

In profile the man in front of the tank bore a striking resemblance to the man who had died of heart failure. His name was Georgi Jaksic and one of the missing assistants was his son. Brian wasn’t sure if he was the elder or younger Jaksic. People from within the fugue stated that they thought of themselves as aging but the algorithms had a hard time generating an idea of what that looked like. It was possible the program gave Georgi’s son, Lazar Georgi Jaksic, his father’s face as a shortcut.

Brian approached Jaksic and a slow and careful pace, alert for any change in the man’s attitude. There was no sign the other man even realized Brian was there until, without even looking up from his work station, Jaksic said, “I was starting to wonder where everyone went. You don’t look familiar. Did they send you from one of the other towers?”

“Not exactly.” Brian wavered for a moment then decided he was as close as he wanted to get at the moment. “I’m here on behalf of Doctor Vincent Vesper, he’d like you to join him on his current project.”

“Vesper?” Jaksic finally glanced away from his work just long enough to give Brian an incredulous look. “Isn’t he working on field frequencies? What does he want me for? Field generation architecture is my field of expertise, much more hardware and much less software.”

“Of course.” Brian desperately hoped that wasn’t some kind of trap question. “I’m just the messenger here, I’m afraid, you’ll have to hammer out the details of all that with him.”

“Tell him I’ll be over to his tower in a couple of hours. I need to finish these simulations.” Jaksic gave him a thoughtful glance out of the corner of his eye. “Of course it would go faster if I could have the rest of my team back long enough to finish this round of testing. I’m guessing Vesper grabbed them all up for another one of his major infrastructure sims.”

“In a manner of speaking, although in this case it was more that he and his personnel were assigned to a new round of more practical tests.” Brian eyed the mystery Jaksic as he considered what he should tell him. He had clear brown eyes, heavy facial features and a scowling brow, not exactly what one thought of as a welcoming expression. But it was a face nonetheless. Whatever this person was he wasn’t one of the faceless projections or night terrors that populated so much of the other parts of the fugue. “What are you running, if I may ask?”

“Power use simulations. We’re going to need a huge amount of energy to get the Light of Mars working and my job is to simulate the changes in load on the grid as the project boots up. I’ve identified a number of places where Sarajevo’s grid will need major overhauls in order to make it work.”

“Interesting.” Brian peered over Jaksic’s shoulder at the meaningless squiggles on his monitors. “How would one go about helping you with this?”

For the first time Jaksic pulled his attention away from his work station and turned it Brian’s way. When they made eye contact a shiver went down Brian’s spine. They didn’t focus on him, in fact calling it eye contact would have been a terrible misstatement of what occurred. It would be more accurate to say Jaksic pointed his eyes in Brian’s direction. “You’re new here, aren’t you?”

The question could have been addressed to the tower at large. Brian was only sure Jaksic was talking to him because there wasn’t anyone else around to talk to. “It’s my first day, believe it or not.” Brian found the dark mass in the tank distracting and tried to keep his attention focused on the other man. His subconscious kept telling him there were things watching him in it, which didn’t make that easy. “I don’t know much about large scale power grids, I’m afraid. Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Of course.” Jaksic turned and pointed at the glass tank and, to Brian’s horror, something within pointed back at him. A hand the size of a normal man’s torso formed out of the black and pointed straight at Jaksic for the duration of the man’s following explanation. “We’re in the middle of the collective unconsciousness here, so we use our own subconscious mind as part of the logic system that drives forward the discovery process.”

“You what?”

“It might be faster to show you. Here.” Jaksic pressed a control on his panel and a small, hand sized tube emerged from the base of the tank. “Put your hand in this and you can join your mind to ours so we can get to work.”

“I don’t think-”

Without waiting for permission Jaksic grabbed Brian’s hand and shoved it into the tube. A small, rubbery sleeve wrapped around his wrist but gave before his hand, sending the appendage all the way into the tank where it touched the shadows within. Brian’s body became paralyzed again and he saw the shadow that had followed him from the beginning of his Shutdown slip past him, onto the glass of the tank, then through the glass to join the mass within.

Two eyes within opened, the depths of their pupils lit with a blindingly bright light that saw past the shadows, past the glass, past the limits of Brian’s very skull and into the depths of his mind. With his mouth hanging open but his body paralyzed Brian found himself unable to say or think anything. Not even the word he’d told Baker. Which was a shame because at that moment what Brian really wanted, more than anything else, was to scream…

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Twenty

Previous Chapter

Carrington stormed into the room and tossed a tablet down on the table in front of him, causing Mond to jump. “I’m a busy man,” the Admiral snapped, “so I really hope this isn’t a waste of my time, Director. In fact, let’s start by seeing if it’s worth my while. What were you people mining under the Antarctic ice caps? Based on the approximate mass and spectroscopic data we’re putting cobalt and nickle in the top spots but there’s a bunch of exotic stuff down in the lower spots and you could make a couple of gamblers very happy if you can clear it up for us.”

“Antarctica was well outside of my jurisdiction, Admiral,” Mond said, his typical neutral attitude struggling to reassert itself. “I’m not sure I ever saw anything detailing what we mine there. I presume it’s comparable to resources in Australia and the extremities of South America, I understand they’re very similar, geologically speaking.”

“I’ll pass that on.” Carrington took a seat and stared at the other two empty spots at the table. The room was empty save for himself, Mond and the Earthling’s two guards. “So why did you ask me here?”

“I wanted to talk to you and, if she agrees, the young lady from Mars.” Mond fidgeted for a second. “You see, I’ve been thinking for the past few days and there’s something I feel I should say.”

“Well, better late than never, I suppose.” Carrington eyed the other man, trying to figure him out. He’d spent more time with this man from Earth than anyone else, Sergeant Langley included, but getting any kind of a solid read on him had proven difficult. The admiral suspected Mond was reserved by nature and Earth culture, for all it supposedly fostered communication and understanding, only seemed to make people more withdrawn and less likely to explain themselves. Add the impenetrable jargon they couched everything in and Mond was a natural enigma. “Did someone let Miss Bertolini know?”

“We did, sir,” one of the guards said.

Mond reached out with one of his prosthetics and carefully, deliberately moved the tablet over so it was directly in front of him. “Why are you asking about the Antarctic mining operations?”

“We sank one of your freighters hauling goods back from there about an hour ago.”

“Sank?!” Mond looked horrified. “Why? They’re entirely automated at this point and those mines are hardly our largest suppliers.”

“Curiosity and general strategic doctrine.” Carrington touched his fingertips together as his hands rested on the table, studying Mond’s reaction. “We wanted to know what you were carrying. Disrupting the transportation of materials in enemy territory is a very basic strategy that has existed for at least seven hundred years. If I told you we were forming a superluminal corridor between Earth and Copernicus to flood your planet with troops how would you react?”

Mond considered it. “Honestly, Admiral, after all the things I’ve heard, seen and done in the last month I can’t say with certainty anymore. That’s… that’s part of why I’ve asked you here.”

Carrington’s AI pinged his tablet causing a small, pulsing green light to appear in one corner. He flicked a finger to answer the ping and room’s comm switched on. “Admiral?” Major Bennet’s voice rose from the tablet. “I’ve brought the Malacandrans, as requested.”

“Send them in, Major.”

A moment later Naomi and Teng were back, both looking a little flushed and windswept. Carrington wondered what they’d been doing. Hopefully nothing that would risk an interplanetary incident, otherwise he was going to have to make a note in Bennet’s official record. “I’m surprised,” Naomi said as she took her seat. “I hadn’t expected a sapiens to be interested in a second discussion with one of the dreaded martians.”

“A fair expectation,” Mond replied. In the last meeting between the two he’d been badly off balance, clearly unprepared to face the namesake of UNIGOV’s preferred boogeymen. Now he appeared more in control of himself. “Particularly given that when we last parted I never wanted to see you again.”

“But you asked me to come here.” Naomi leaned back in her chair, doing a terrible job of hiding the look of scorn on her face. “Why should I listen to you?”

Her derision wasn’t missed by the Earthling across from her. “We could start with fairness.”

“Fairness?” If that was meant to make Naomi more receptive to him it wasn’t working.

“Yes. You gave me a very clear idea of where you and the people of Mars stand, what you hope from us and why. I gave you a very poor response.” Mond leaned forward on his elbows, shining metal hands folded in front of him. “I’d like to try to correct that now.”

She studied him through narrowed eyes. “What brought about this change in heart?”

“Since our last meeting I’ve been trying to discern why you wanted to return to Earth beyond the obvious. It didn’t take long to work out.” Mond pointed one finger at Naomi. “You don’t have space for all the martians in Shutdown on Mars.”

This time Naomi did a better job of hiding any reaction she might have. “What if we don’t?”

“It was just the first step of logic that led me to ask you here. The second step came when I considered that you were the Eldest Malacandran. If Malacandrans only spend their first twenty years outside Shutdown it raises a question. How long was there between any two of you leaving for the vault? Five days? Ten? How long were you the Eldest, Miss Bertolini?”

“Twenty days,” she said. “Bottletown was maintained at a constant population of two thousand, one hundred and sixty people. A few dozen die a year of illness or in accidents, so there is a larger gap between changeovers than you might think.”

“But it removes most of the continuity in leadership that stable societies rely on.” Mond gestured towards himself. “For example, my tenure in the UNIGOV directorate lasted thirty years before I met Mr. Langley and was brought here. If that hadn’t happened I could easily have remained there another dozen years. On Earth, a leader can easily expect to lead his community for twice as long as you’ve been alive.”

“That’s very impressive, Director-”

“I’m not boasting, Miss Bertolini,” Mond said quickly, “although I understand it may seem that way to someone who hasn’t lived the life I have. I’m trying to impress on you the difference in our experience. As I said before, the sapiens life is dedicated to first understanding ourselves and one thing I realized as I struggled with that this week is that I have lived in a society far more used to stability than to change. That was probably true even before the final split between sapiens and martians.”

“You don’t know?” Carrington asked. “I thought the whole point of a Vault Director was to keep track of all those bits of information that were taken away from everyone else.”

“It is. But it’s difficult to do that without the necessary tools at hand and even if you let me use your computers I can’t access the Vaults from them so what am I to do?” Mond chuckled and shook his head. “Sadly, sociological history was not something that I specialized in so I’d have to do a lot of reference work to say anything about what things were like on that front two hundred years ago.”

“What is your specialty?” Naomi asked.

“Music history, believe it or not.” Mond whistled a bar or two of music that meant nothing to Carrington or anyone other than himself, from the looks of the others in the room. “I see you’re not versed in the classics yourself, Admiral. Jailhouse Rock, by Elvis Presley. A tune that has been on my mind for the last week for obvious reasons.”

“Not surprising,” Carrington said, twitching a finger to flag that for later followup. He didn’t think listening to Mond’s favorite music choices would give him much insight into the man’s mind but you never knew. “Why do you think stability is such an important factor, Director?”

“I think the stability Earth has enjoyed has created a blind spot in us, Admiral. I never understood the need for uncertainty.” Mond flattened one hand on the table with a metallic clunk. “The purpose of a sapiens’ introspection is to create an unshakable foundation before action is taken. The care in understanding our surroundings allows us to avoid culpability in actions that harm others. However, all of this leaves us quite low to the ground.”

Naomi nodded. “Trapped in Vaults, in fact.”

“As you say.” Mond drummed his fingers once, then again, before lifting his hand to stare at its fingertips. “The last few days I’ve been thinking about unknowns.”

“How very martian of you,” Carrington said dryly.

“Indeed.” Mond pressed his fingertips together. “And yet, until I did so I didn’t know myself. I didn’t realize how important it was to face the unknown and make it known. UNIGOV exists to bring the stability and self actualization necessary to create a sapiens society. I wonder if our focus on that has been so myopic we’ve actually created our own instabilities. If we haven’t wronged others just by trying to prevent unforeseen wrongs.”

“That’s a very basic problem many philosophies grapple with,” Carrington admitted.

“Perhaps one we should not have forgotten so willfully,” Mond replied. “Regardless, I have reached a decision. I will try to serve as intermediary between UNIGOV and your fleet, Admiral. And your planet, Eldest.”

Carrington sighed. “That’s an encouraging step, Director, but one that I wish you’d made sooner. I’m afraid that history tells us once these conflicts escalate to this level they’re much less likely to be bottled away again. Besides, we still can’t talk to the rest of your Directorate, so there’s not much we can do to open negotiations right now.”

“Well, that depends.” Mond turned his full attention to Naomi. “I don’t have access to the Vault’s records anymore and I’m sure most of your records were taken when Borealis was put into Shutdown. However if you have a working Vault under the colony there are a few things that may open doors for us. Does it have a working crystal storage mainframe?”

Naomi tilted her head to one side, thinking. “Is that the large blue-green crystals in the electrified saline pool?”

“Exactly.

“Then yes, we do.”

Mond smiled. “Good. Here is what I need you to do…”

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Nineteen

Previous Chapter

The ship’s hull ran aground with a spine shivering scrape that Lang felt from the pit of his stomach up into the base of his skull. Priss and Harrigan slammed forward against the straps of their chairs, bracing their hands against the panel. Lang stood at the pilot’s controls with no restraints, no seat and nothing but the front windscreen to stop him if he pitched forward off of the bridge. He grabbed the throttle in a death grip and threw his weight back.

For about three seconds this gambit worked and he leaned back over the deck at a sixty degree angle. Then the ship came to a stop and he flopped back onto his ass. “We’ve made landfall!” He called down to the main deck. He wasn’t sure what the appropriate nautical phrase for landfall was but hopefully Yang wouldn’t hold it against him. As he scrambled back to his feet he added, “Harry, Priss, head to your ground units.”

Priss, a veteran of many of the same rough landings he was, instantly hit her quick release and vacated the bridge. Harrigan was a little slower and less certain on his feet but he was gone fast enough. Lang scrabbled to his feet and hit the emergency shutdown command on his screen. Then he followed up by grabbing the physical shutdown lever and pulling it and set the ship’s computer to standby.

It was pretty doubtful the Fleet would want to recover the good yacht Armstrong but energy conservation discipline was a habit one could lose in a single moment of negligence so Lang waited just long enough to confirm the ship’s systems were, in fact, dormant before he left the bridge. The decks below were a mess.

Hard impacts were a part of space warfare just like any other kind of warfare but they were a lot rarer on a ship the size of the Sea of Tranquility. The spacers who’d come down in Lang’s group were mostly off of that ship and even those who had seen combat still weren’t used to the kind of shock that came with running aground. They lay scattered around the deck, struggling to get back to their feet and into fighting trim. Except for Captain Yang. She strode across the deck, bracing her armored exoskeleton and hauling other spacers to their feet like a Valkyrie rallying troops for Ragnarok. It would’ve been inspiring if they weren’t on the deck of the most luxurious ship Lang had ever seen.

Still, his evaluation of the captain went up a notch.

“Go, go, get to ground,” she snapped, pushing spacers towards the side of the ship. Inflatable slides, which were apparently some kind of emergency measure, were expanding off the decks towards the ground and a few adventurous souls had already slid down them and were securing the landing area around the ship.

Lang walked up to the captain and saluted. “Ma’am. The Armstrong is secure, or as secure as we can make it. Once engineering has the reactor shut down we’re ready to abandon ship.”

“Any chance we can reuse her?” Yang asked, doing a visual sweep of one of the yacht’s interior cabins.

“I have no idea without knowing how bad the hull damage was when we ran aground or how hard it will be to get her back into the water. This isn’t my area of expertise.”

“Understood. Get in an exo and grab your gear, then. You can be my expert on UNIGOV. I’ll meet you at forward observation point theta once the boat’s empty.”

“Yes ma’am.” Another salute and Lang hopped down a slide and hustled over to the staging zone which was beneath the world’s most overgrown willow tree.

As expected, the decorative plants lining the river bank and grown wild for decades since their abandonment. Towering shrubs, thick stands of decorative grass and three disheveled willow trees hid the Los Angeles Nuclear Fusion reactor building from view. Most of the company’s gear was already there. His AI pinged the equipment that the quartermaster had earmarked for him and the lights on one of the self propelled cases there flashed blue.

Lang opened it and an exoskeleton driven armored suit immediately began unfolding out of it. Unlike the exo he’d used on his last trip to Earth, this was not a powered suit intended to boost his carrying capacity and ability to run without tiring. That suit had just been a collection of servos and load bearing metal bars. This suit included ablative ceramic plates covering his torso and upper limbs, heat dispersing plastic mesh gloves and heavy, rubberized magnetic boots. The heavier armor could withstand four direct hits from most plasma rifles in service through the Triad worlds. The boots and gloves were rated for two. There was also a small internal air tank and filtration system.

All in all, it was overkill for raiding a UNIGOV facility unless they had small scale versions of the disassembler field on hand. Then it was just inadequate.

As the exo stood up to full height Lang grabbed two grips on the inside of the breastplate and pushed them up. The suit unfolded even further and slipped the plate over his head. Then he pulled down and the whole mechanism began the process of automatically folding itself around his body. Other spacers, part of the Tranquility‘s boarding and security divisions, were doing the same around him. Lang saw they were moving slightly so that the exo’s mechanisms locked around them faster but he didn’t understand the process well enough to duplicate it so he just stood perfectly still and let the machine do it’s job.

Thirty seconds later he slipped his hands into the gloves and patted himself down. Everything felt like it was in place. The extra bulk from the armor was distracting but the suit’s servos were stronger to compensate for the weight so it didn’t feel any harder to move in than what he was used to. The biggest difference was the helmet, which included a heads up display that projected information from his AI when necessary. Lang found it distracting so he muted the function.

He’d just slung a plasma rifle over one shoulder when Priss and Harry turned up. He frowned, pretty sure they’d been assigned to a different ground unit and they were already in their suits. “What are you guys doing here?”

“The bridge over the secondary bypass sluice is out,” Harry said. “South group is now moving with center group and the major until we clear the building we think holds the seawater pumps.”

Lang had been so busy with the yacht and the landing that he hadn’t paid much attention to their plans for once they reached shore. He wasn’t entirely sure what buildings Harry was referring to so he just nodded. “What was wrong with the bridge?”

“Looked like they tried to drive something heavy over it recently,” Priss said. “The intact portion of the bridge was pretty overgrown but the place where it was broken looked fresh so we think it happened when UNIGOV tried to reactivate the plant.”

“Lovely.” Lang slotted his rifle’s spare power cells into his belt and closed up the equipment locker. “Guess their little accident buys them some time, at least.”

Harry was looking down at Lang’s feet. “Aren’t you going to wear your boots?”

“No point. UNIGOV facilities are, at base level, usually concrete walls and floors. There’s nothing metallic there for the magboots to grab onto so they’re not very useful for trick maneuvers and we’re planet side so there’s no chance the artificial gravity will go out.” Lang tapped the toes of his regular boots on the ground. “These babies are lighter and more comfortable than the magboots and the exo’s heels fit either one just fine.”

Harry nodded, his expression suggesting he understood Lang’s logic but didn’t approve of it. “Suit yourself, Sergeant.”

The use of the rank was a subtle acknowledgment that there wasn’t anything Harry could do about it and simultaneously a pushing of responsibility for anything bad that happened to Lang off of the poor, put upon enlisted man. It was the kind of thing Lang had done plenty of times himself. He also didn’t really care if Harry liked his approach or not. He didn’t plan to change it even if the Captain herself thought it was a bad idea.

“I’ll do just that, Private.” Lang gestured through the brush ahead of them. “I’m under orders to meet the Captain at point theta which is right along your new route. Get the rest of your detatchmet together and we’ll head that way.”

“You got it, Sergeant.”

Harry scampered off to do as instructed but Priss hung back to shuck her mag boots and put her normal footwear back on. Sitting on one of the equipment crates she asked, “You’re an S6 now, that means you rate an EMG scanner in your load out, right?”

“I… dunno.” He tapped his helmet and brought his HUD back then opened the crate’s inventory to look it over. “I guess so. That’s surprising. I didn’t think they’d issue that kind of equipment to grunts like us, especially since I’m supposed to fly landing craft not slog around in gravity.”

“Lucky for us. Bring it with you in case the Earthlings decide to boot up another disassembler field, that way you can pick it up ahead of time.” Priss wiggled her dainty feet back into her standard issue boots. “Something like that will get you half way towards another promotion and we can start calling you Master Sergeant.”

Lang grinned. “Not if I properly credit the forward thinking initiative of people like Corporal Hu. Maybe you can look forward to a promotion to Lance Corporal.”

Priss had her helmet on already but from the set of her shoulders she was cringing in distaste. “Okay, I earned that one. I yield, I yield.”

“It might be better if I recommended you to OTC,” Lang continued, assuming an exaggerated thinking pose. “Then you could earn your butter bars and-”

“No, no, no!” Priss threw her hands up over her face. “Please, anything but officer training! I want to stay an honest girl and work for my living!”

“Yeah, Sergeant,” Harry said, threading his way through the supplies with four other men in tow. “Don’t do your girl dirty like that!”

Lang gave Harry a blank look, wondering what he meant. With a helmet in the way it was lost on its intended recipient because Harry just came to a stop and introduced the rest of his team. “Sarge, these are the rest of my boys – Barton, Keys, Yancey and Ramone.”

Ramone was a corporal, like Priss, but the rest were Privates or PFCs. “Pleased to meet you gentlemen. Today we’re going on a quick stroll from here to point theta, where we’ll go on our separate ways. Corporal Ramone, I take it you’re in charge of south group?”

“You got it, Sergeant,” Ramone said. He was a hair shorter than Lang but incredibly stocky, like a brick wall got up to go for a walk. “You going center?”

“I’m going with the Captain wherever she chooses to wind up.”

Ramone nodded sagely. “OBS duty.”

“After the month I’ve had, officer babysitting will be a dream come true,” Lang said. Although he wasn’t sure that was true, given that the officer in question was Captain Yang and she didn’t seem the type to take things easy. He fished his EMG scanner out of his equipment crate and held it up. “Anyone here familiar with how to run one of these? I’m afraid I only use the kind built into landers.”

Yancey raised his hand. “EMG was my secondary specialty in advanced training, Sarge. We had to run a standard orienteering course with one of those as part of our final qualifications.”

Lang slapped the bulky sensor package into the PFC’s hands and said, “Congratulations, Yancey. You’re now in charge of watching out for the enemy’s primary weapon’s system.”

“Aye, sir,” Yancey said, securing the EMG scanner to his armor’s forward hard points across his chest. “I’ll let you know the moment I pick up any sign of an anomalous magnetic field. Just be aware that we may need to go slow. The fusion plant itself puts out a monstrous mag field. It’ll take a couple of seconds for the sensor to pick through that kind of background noise as we advance.”

“Speed is worth more than safety in this situation,” Lang said, “although I’ll take all I can of both. Just tell me if you see anything out of the ordinary. Let’s go boys.”

As it turned out they got around the brush patch and halfway to point theta before Yancey found anything. They were cresting a low hill that formed an artificial bowl around the reactor, probably intended to channel any major leaks from the reactor buildings out to sea and away from the city, when the private announced, “Magnetic spike, Sarge. Six and a half Teslas of force, originating from the direction of the reactor building.”

“It’s growing?” Lang asked.

“Not right now,” Yancey said, tapping on the EMG rig to make some kind of adjustment. “But it wasn’t there before. The signal just popped up out of nowhere, it’s not something the sensor sorted out of the background noise.”

“Maybe the hill was blocking it?” Keys suggested.

“No, if the hill was made out of something that could block a magnetic field the reactor’s signature would’ve lost strength as we got closer to it. This field wasn’t there a minute ago, so somebody just turned it on.”

“Got it.” Lang tapped Harry and Barton on their shoulders. “Head up and peak over the hill, bring me a report.”

Two minutes later Harry was back, leaving Barton to watch the reactor building as he withdrew. “Definitely a disassembler field, Sarge. We could pick up the glittery effect plain as day. It might have been different if the sun got up higher but since we hit them so early in the morning the sunlight is still at an angle to really refract off the nanotech.”

“So they’ve got some kind of defense for the reactor facilities,” Lang mused.

“But not comprehensive,” Harry said. “We only saw signs of the field around the freight entrance on the southern building. We can probably advance to point theta safely.”

“Unless they can expand the field,” Lang said.

“Yes. Unless that.”

Point theta was a large road structure which the AI identified as a ’roundabout,’ a circular patch of road with another ornamental garden bed in it, according to the map. If it held to pattern there would be another large patch of shrubs they could use for cover there. However cover was only meaningful if it kept them from view; if UNIGOV already knew they were present it wouldn’t mean anything in the face of an expanding disassembler field. Point theta wasn’t a good place for them to rally anymore. They’d be safer in among the buildings of the complex itself than they would along the roads connecting them.

“Priss. Call up the Captain and inform her that point theta is compromised and suggest a new meeting place.”

She started working her comms unit before Lang even finished working. “What should I suggest as our new rallying point?”

“That depends. Did Lieutenant Fresh Face pull the deck guns off the Armstrong yet?”