Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Six – The Van

Chapter Five

“Hm.” Lang looked over the results of his AI’s work again.

“What?” Dex asked, looking up from the robocrate of parts he’d scavenged from the drop pod. “Find something useful?”

“No. At least, I don’t think so. Just an odd inconsistency.” He cleared the AI display and brushed his breakfast off of his hands. “We need to think about-”

“Hold on,” Priss said, setting aside her own breakfast and reaching for his AI unit. “Let me see.”

Lang sighed and pulled the screen back up with a few quick motions. “It’s probably just an editorial choice. It was a tourist’s guide to a city, not a historical book…”

“But it did have a section on the history of Milan,” Priss said, looking over the results. “And it didn’t mention the brief residence of Benito Mussolini during the Second World War. Okay, that doesn’t sound that important…”

Dex slammed the crate closed and banged his head gently on the lid. “St. Aquinas save me from the uneducated. Do neither of you know who Benito Mussolini was?”

“Nope.” Priss shot Lang a questioning glance. He just shrugged.

“We. Are. Doomed.” Dex punctuated each word with another thump of cranium on lid, then somehow snapped all the way from squatting on the ground to standing at parade rest. “Aubrey Vance! Sean Wilson! Front and center!”

There was a moment of quiet noise from the corner where the Terran prisoners had spent the night before the people in question gathered themselves up and came to see what was going on. They looked groggy but alert, Lang guessed they hadn’t been awake for more than ten minutes, where his spacers had been awake and active for nearly an hour.

“What’s going on?” Sean asked, giving Lang a dirty look. He’d apparently figured out who was in charge and decided to blame him for all problems rather than taking them to Dex directly.

If the prisoner’s annoyance bothered him any Dex didn’t show it. “Please explain to these two ignoramuses who Benito Mussolini was.”

The Terrans gave Dex mystified looks. For a moment they looked so much alike that Lang had to laugh. “Priss, you and I need to poke into the computer systems and related equipment. This place has been empty for a while but we may be able to glean something about how the local computer infrastructure works. Dex, we need some kind of transport. See what you can find. Don’t sweat Mussolini too much.”

Two hours later, Dex still hadn’t let go of Mussolini. Sort of. “He was the most influential man of the twentieth century,” Dex said, exasperated, “how could you not know who he is?”

“The only Adolf I know works in the European Traffic Control Center,” Sean said. “But he’s not three hundred years and change and he’s never tried to take over the world. He’s a sapiens, same as the rest of us.”

“Not all of us,” Dex said cheerily. “You’ve seriously never had to learn about World War Two?”

“For the third time. We’ve never heard of it.” Aubrey was tired of the whole line of thought. “Look, when the last homo martians disappeared and left the sapiens with the planet a lot of stuff stopped being an issue. War was one of them, so we stopped studying it. Why keep dredging up such a destructive past?”

“Because you can learn from it?” Dex’s response seemed almost reflexive. “Nevermind that. What do you mean martians disappeared? I thought you said Earth had two varieties of humanity.”

“The last martians seem to have died out or killed each other off about two hundred years ago somewhere in Asia or Siberia.” Sean led the other two around a wild hedge to the side of a towering four story building. It consisted of drab concrete layers stacked one on top of another with ramps connecting them and it took up most of the city block. “Their disappearance is what made room for the sapiens to establish UNIGOV. This is the garage. About half the vehicles in here still work, to some extent. Vintage parts in good condition, not much refurbishment needed. I’ve salvaged parts here before, rarely had a problem with them.”

Dex waved them through the large entrance and in they went. By now Aubrey was used to the standoffish way the martians handled them. Sean always went first and she followed, with one of the martians close behind and watching carefully. The scrutiny was unsettling and odd. She wasn’t sure what they were looking for but she was pretty sure they weren’t finding it. Hopefully that annoyed them as much as the whole sidetrip they’d forced her on annoyed her.

The climb to the second floor of the parking garage was quiet, a welcome change compared to the rest of the morning, which had been full of prying questions about obscure events more than three centuries ago that neither she nor Sean could answer. Aubrey had just fallen into the habit of assessing the vehicles they way Sean had taught her when Dex spoke up and said, “That one. That one will do nicely. Can we get it running?”

“I couldn’t say for sure but it doesn’t look like it’s condition is bad.” Sean stepped over to the vehicle and dropped to the ground, sliding most of his skinny frame under the chassis without difficulty. “Aubrey, could you pop the hood? The sooner these gentlemen are on their way…”


She’d moved over to the driver’s side door and reached to open it when Dex asked, “When did the local martian population die out? Was it about two hundred years ago?”

“That’s right.” She paused, hand on the latch, and gave him a quizzical look. “How did you know?”

“Lucky guess.” He stepped back and watched them work thoughtfully.

“What the fuck is that?!”

“The technical term is panel van.” Sean clambered out of the driver’s seat and gestured to the titular panels on the side of the vehicle. “It’s a kind of large passenger vehicle-”

“We have vans on Copernicus,” Lang snapped. “I want to know why this one’s here!”

“Because it’s a good form of transportation,” Dex said, hopping out of the back and slamming the rear doors closed. “It’s got room for all of the equipment and the three of us and it can carry it without being slowed down. Plus I have a few other ideas for what we can do to make it serviceable. Also on the plus side, Sean here has done work on this kind of vehicle before and assures me it’s in pretty good condition. He’s going to help us put it in shape to go long distances. As an added plus it’s solar powered, so we won’t have to hook it into a grid.”

“Solar powered?” Lang gave the thing a hard once over. “Surprised they still make those. Did Earth forget how to build fusion reactors along with its world wars?”

“It was a fad some sixty years ago, back at the tail end of UNIGOV’s environmental reclamation initiative,” Aubrey explained, unloading a box from the side door. “Retro envirotech was hip for a while, although most people stopped with solar cars after the urban consolidation made publicly managed transport more sensible.”

“You know an awful lot about this,” Lang noted.

“We work in the Transporation Administration AI offices,” Sean said, popping open the van’s hood. “It’s how I learned there were all these perfectly functional cars out here to tinker with. Some people like their retro transport and get their antique cars hooked into the system from time to time. I asked where they got parts from and here we are.”

“Here we are,” Aubrey muttered, unloading a second box of parts.

Sounded like some kind of unexplored baggage there. Lang decided he didn’t want to get involved in that conversation even though he was probably part of the cause. “Do you really need all that stuff? I’m surprised it ran at all.”

“We’re going a ways,” Dex said. “I want to make sure this thing is in tip top shape before we hit the road. It might make it around the block a few times but Sean thinks there are a few major parts in there that only have a hundred miles or so in them.”

“Hm.” Lang glanced at the two Terrans, who appeared grudgingly busy and ignoring them for the moment. “A moment in private, Corporal?”

He hated to bring rank into this but it got Dex’s attention like he’d intended. “Sure.”

They move over to the covered colonnade outside the library entrance where they could watch the Terrans work but still enjoyed a modicum of privacy. “Keep in mind,” Lang said, “you’re guarding prisoners, not supervising a work crew. I don’t want you crawling under a chassis with these people.”

“I hear you, big guy, but from talking to them…” Dex gave them a weirdly protective glance. “They’re strange. It’s like one moment I’m talking to a starry eyed idealist, the next they’re petulant teenagers. But they insist Earth doesn’t fight wars anymore and they seem damn proud of that fact. It’s like someone’s squeezed the whole notion of conflict out of their world entirely.”

“Which doesn’t mean the instincts are gone. Or make them trustworthy.” Lang thumped him in the chest to get his attention back. “Hey, remember. Even Rodenberry puts weapons on their ships. Even if they don’t want to fight, people do all kinds of things they don’t want to under pressure. And believe you me, whether we want to or not we’re putting them under pressure.”

“Right. You’re right. I’ll keep on my toes.”

“Do that.”

Aubrey squatted down next to Sean and said, “They were too far or too quiet this time. I couldn’t hear what they were saying.”

“Me neither. Being outdoors must’ve messed with the acoustics.” He pushed himself out from under the car and reached into the parts box to rummage around for a moment. “Either way, I don’t think it changes our priorities. We need to get them out of here and off chasing whatever ghosts they think are out in the desert as soon as possible. Let’s just – shit!

He dropped the power relay he’d been fishing out of the box, his hand bleeding furiously from the two inch cut across his palm. In a scrape of boots on pavement Dex slid to a stop next to them, kneeling down with a concerned look. “Damn, that looks bad. I told you the nanosealer leaves sharp edges on stuff it’s not designed to disassemble.”

“I know, I forgot,” Sean muttered, taking the clean rag Aubrey held out to him. “I didn’t get any on the relay so there shouldn’t be any corrosion to worry about.”

“Great, fine,” Dex said, getting to his feet. “Now let’s get you in to Priss so she can look at that cut.”

Sean finished wiping the blood off his hand and blew on his palm once, shaking the sting out of it, then held his unmarked hand up for inspection. “It’s okay, martian man. I’m fine. Your nanosealer heated it enough it should be sterile so there shouldn’t be any infection to worry about.”

Mouth hanging open, Dex watched as he fished the part out of the box, dropped to the ground and crawled under the van again. Aubrey waited to see if he had something else to add and, when it was clear he didn’t, she shrugged and started collecting another set of parts from the box.


Schrodinge’s Book Chapter Five: The Library

Chapter Four

All three floors of the building were much the same. Empty shelves, dust and rotting furniture. After getting down on their hands and knees and searching under every bookshelf and every piece of furniture, Lang and Dex had managed to scrape together a grand total of six books stuck in odd corners or otherwise forgotten. Priss had kept an eye on the prisoners while setting up the perimeter scanners and laying out some of the basic camp gear and by the time the two men got back with their haul the least damaged pieces of furniture were pushed into a small circle in the corner of the second floor furthest from the windows. Priss was quietly working with her AI, probably trying to scrape together some kind of program that would let them tap a communications network they were totally unfamiliar with in a way that would evade notice.

Frankly, he was more optimistic about the books they’d collected than her odds of success. That wasn’t saying much.

Aubrey and Sean had squeezed themselves into the deepest corner of the room and were watching Priss with a hefty amount of suspicion. On the way over he’d spent a lot of time arguing with Priss over whether they could be trusted or not. Priss felt they were too docile and compliant to be a real problem, and furthermore thought that calling them “martian” was almost the same thing as calling them “martial”, suggesting the culture had distanced itself from war to the point where violence wasn’t something they were psychologically prepared for anymore. He felt that that was a stupid risk to take when they were the only three spacers on planet with a hostile defense satellite network between them and their fleet.

The compromise was that Priss would keep her carbine with her at all times while watching them, and wouldn’t answer any questions about the fleet or the Triad worlds, but she wouldn’t have to restrain them. For the moment. They were starting to pose a lot of logistical questions, though, and he wasn’t sure how they were going to deal with them going forward. So, once he’d stacked all the books on the end table Priss was working on, he moved over to the prisoners and took a seat, leaving one open space between them so they wouldn’t feel pressured.

“I think we need to talk a little about the future,” Lang said, figuring it was as good a place as any to start. “Simple things, like food. I know you brought some provisions, will you tell me how much?”

“We brought four days of food,” Aubrey answered. “This is our second day out.”

“You must be big eaters,” Dex said with a laugh.

Lang shot him a look but Aubrey just said, “Not really. Anyway, why does that matter?”

“We need to work a few things out before we’re ready to leave,” Lang said. “Just trying to work out what our situation is, how long we can last out here. Now, this probably isn’t going to make you very happy, but we’re not in a situation where we can let you go home until we’re ready to move on ourselves. I don’t know anything about this UNIGOV you keep bringing up but someone’s running a network of kill satellites out there and there must be some source of power and munitions for them down here. Until we know whether that’s your government or not we can’t let you report our presence, so we’re going to keep you here.”

“But,” Sean protested, eyebrows furrowed, “UNIGOV was founded to ensure the rights and interests of humanity. They’re not running killer satellites or anything of the kind.”

“Is it humanity or just homo sapiens?” Priss asked, her tone light but her face hard.

“Well, that’s all there was when it was founded,” Sean said, certainty faltering. “But I’m sure martians would be wrapped into that…”

“What I wanna know is how killer satellites aren’t in the interests of humanity,” Dex said. “Every planet needs at least two.”

“What, you leave high powered weapons in orbit of your home planet?” Aubrey asked, incredulous.

The spacers all laughed. Lang recovered first and said, “Of course. The Triad worlds fight wars, it’s natural to have defenses in place before they start.”

The expressions of the other two told him they didn’t exactly agree.

“So what happens if we don’t stay?” Sean demanded.

“Then we shot you.” Lang picked up one of the books and turned it over in his hands, a bit uncomfortable with putting it so bluntly. “I’m going to be totally honest with you, because I’m not an officer so no one taught me to lie to control information. I don’t believe for a second any of this shit about UNIGOV being out for the betterment of people, or how you sapiens don’t need defense satellites or whatever else you’re going to say. I’m one hundred percent certain someone on this planet, who was here before we arrived, fragged our ship in orbit. If I have to choose between killing locals or letting whoever wants to kill us know where we are, there’s no doubt in my mind which one I choose. That said, I don’t want to kill you. Or anyone. So if you just sit tight for a couple of days it won’t come to that.”

Sean looked horrified, but Lang could tell he was taking the warning seriously. Aubrey had something to say, he could tell by the way she inhaled and opened her mouth, but before she could actually say it Sean clamped a hand around her wrist and said, “We’ll stay with you until you’re ready to leave. But no way in hell am I going anywhere else with you. The history classes undersell how fucking crazy you guys are.”

“Well,” he shot Aubrey a meaningful look, “take your friend and sell her on the idea. Just don’t go too far.”
As the two of them moved towards the furthest corner of the building Lang gathered up the books and handed two of them to each of the other spacers, keeping the last two for himself. “Run those through your AIs, crunch the numbers and let me know what you come up with. Prioritize historical facts first, then see if you can get anything cultural off of them.”

Priss gave the smaller of her two books, a chunky paperback, a skeptical look. “This is a novel. The publication date is right after the Departure – it may even have been written before that. I don’t know how much help it’s going to be.”
“It will at least give a snapshot of what the culture was like at the time, viewed through Earth’s point of view,” Lang said. “I know it takes a pretty robust AI to glean much from fiction but you are the communications expert. They train you on more than just the hardware, so I need you to grab as much as you can.”

“I’ll take it as a gesture of faith,” Priss muttered.

“More than I can say,” Dex said, holding up one of his tomes with an aggrieved expression. “A phonebook? Really?”

“I didn’t pick the books they forgot when cleaning this place out. The AI will do most of the work for you.” Lang opened the first of his books – some kind of travel guide for a place called Milan – and started scanning the pages with his AI, flipping through rapidly as the camera processed the information far faster than the human eye could. As they worked he asked, “Priss, how likely is it we’ll be able to access any of their computer systems with what we have with us?”

“After nearly two centuries of divergent computer development?” She shook her head. “Odds approach zero. But if we can find something old we might be able to work something out. But even this place is probably too recent. If it was evacuated forty years ago the software is still going to be radically different. A ship’s AI core could probably work out some kind of emulator in a day or two but we’d have to bind all our AI’s together to do it inside of a month – probably. Assuming their tech is as advanced as ours. And a bunch of other provisos.”

“We need maps,” Lang muttered. “Our best bet on getting back into orbit on our own is to find the Nevada Launch Zone. But getting there without passing through any place with people in it might be tough.”

Dex shot him a sideways look. “The what?”

“It was a place where they did test launches on a lot of the equipment that build the lunar yards and the colony ships for Mars and the Triad worlds. At the time of the Departure it was still in use.” Lang shrugged. “It has all the facilities for the orbital jump or reentry. I can’t imagine they’d stop using it. It’s probably not the same place it was but we should at least be able to find some way to talk to the fleet there.”

“It’s not a secure facility?” Priss asked.

Lang laughed. “Are you kidding? It was located between the cities of Reno and Silver springs, with a whole new city called Clarke built in between them. The place was a mecca for anyone looking to go to space in the old days. Making the whole place a secure facility would take decades and need the income of a whole planet to pull off, even if the planet was as rich as Earth.”

“Right.” Priss shook her head. “You know all this how? You’ve been asking Dex where things are for the last twelve hours.”

“Because the Arthur C. Clarke Astrogation School is where every pilot in the colonial fleet learned to fly,” Lang said. “We’ve never forgot it.

The AI pinged, announcing it was done with its work, and he pulled up the results to see what he could see.

“They want to go to Nevada,” Sean whispered, watching the martians skeptically. “A weird choice, but fine. There’s nothing out there now, as far as I know, so let them go. The sooner they’re out of our hair the better.”

“What about letting UNIGOV know?” Aubrey wasn’t interested in the martians at all. “This whole mess is crazy, Sean. Those guys could cause al kinds of trouble if those in charge don’t take them in hand.”

“I know, I know.” Sean huddled down close and put an arm around her. “But UNIGOV protects the human parts of the world. If the martians want to go into the wilds, I don’t see that that’s something that concerns us. Or UNIGOV.”

Dex’s question about whether ‘human’ covered martians or not sprang to mind. UNIGOV existed for the benefit of all people. Surely leaving some of them to run off into the new wilds on their own was a dereliction of that responsibility. And if martians were really as dangerous as everyone said, leaving them unsupervised around sapiens seemed profoundly foolish as well. The question of what to do made her feel small and stupid and the warmth of Sean’s arm pressing down on her reminded her of the problems, becoming stifling. She shrugged it off and stood up. “I’m going to find some cushions to sleep on. We’ll decide what to do in the morning.”

But even when she managed to find enough smell free padding to make a decent bed sleep eluded her far into the night.

Chapter Six

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Four – The Sapiens

Chapter Three

“A library?” Aubrey and Sean exchanged glances. “What’s that?”

“You know,” Lang said, “a big building where they keep all the paper versions of books.”

Aubrey frowned and shook her head. “Paper? That’s made out of wood pulp, right? We don’t cut down trees for those kinds of industrial purposes anymore. It was part of UNIGOV’s environmental restoration reforms a century or so ago.”

“The book part is more important than the paper,” Dex said. “We didn’t have trees on Copernicus for decades after the Settlement, so we made ours out of a special kind of plastic.”

“‘Books’ isn’t ringing a bell,” Aubrey said, getting annoyed. “Is this some kind of martian thing?”

“Some kind of martian – no, fuck it.” Dex stopped with an exasperated noise, got up and stalked over to the drop pod. After a minute of rummaging around in one of the piles of gear the martians had left there he came back with a thick, rectangular stack of plastic sheets held together along one edge by some method Aubrey wasn’t entirely sure of. “This. This is a book. Does your civilization stockpile these someplace or has it gone entirely insane?”

Sean took the book and turned it over once in his hands, then opened it and looked inside. Peering over his shoulder Aubrey could see that it was full of diagrams, pictures and blocks of text that apparently described how to maintain a Type IV Fusion Thruster. “Oh, it’s like a physical web archive” she mused. “Weird. How do you keep it updated?””

“Generally we recycle them and print new versions,” Priss said. “You’ve honestly never seen a book before?”

“All textual information is stored electronically, in the UNIGOV servers, just like video and most pictures,” Aubrey said, tearing her attention away from the book. “We access it through terminals or holotabs. You do have databases in outer space, don’t you?”

Priss laughed. “We’re not benighted primitives out there. We have plenty of datacores, planetary networks and the like. But by law all governments keep at least three complete physical libraries of all historical and technical texts published on planet – and all books brought over by the colony fleet – as a safeguard against loss and tampering. After all, datafiles get corrupted and power fails. And most of our worlds aren’t even-”

“Priss,” Lang said quietly. “They don’t need to know that.”

“Sorry.” She shook her head. “Anyway, we have books as a backup for our digital information. You must have something like that here.”

“No,” Aubrey said, “I don’t think so. We’re not martians, we don’t worry about things like power failing or data tampering. There’s no reason for those things to happen here. What purpose does that even serve?”

The martians shared a moment of silent communication, a string of odd expressions and uncomfortable shifting of posture that Aubrey could tell meant a lot to them but that she couldn’t interpret at all. It wasn’t like they were telepathic, but she had the bad feeling that they understood each other in ways she might never share with another sapiens. It was unsettling.

Sean snapped the book closed and shook his head as if scattering cobwebs. “We do have a library.”

All attention was suddenly on him. “Where is it?” Lang asked sharply. “Where you live, or out here in the empty buildings?”

“What difference does it make?” Sean asked, flinching at the tone. “It’s maybe a ten minutes’ walk from here, near the old highway. Or, at least, there’s a building with a sign out front with a bunch of books engraved on it as part of the logo.”

Lang turned his attention to the other two martians. “Gather up the gear. I want to leave in half an hour.” Then back to Sean. “You’re going to take us there so I hope you remember the way.”

“Ever think that I might have better things to do with my fucking time?” Sean demanded.

Lang gave the two of them a hard look, slung his carbine barrel down behind his shoulder where it stayed through some method Aubrey couldn’t identify, and said, “Trust me, you don’t. Don’t try and leave the building. We’ll know.”

The three martians started collecting packs and equipment that they’d left in various places around the base of the pod, leaving Aubrey and Sean alone for a couple of minutes. They huddled down in the corner of the room furthest from the pod, about fifteen feet away. Sean leaned in close to whisper, “Do you think we should try and run? That could have been a bluff.”

“I don’t think it was,” Aubrey replied. “Did you see that holoscreen he was looking at when they left a little while ago?”

“Yeah. What was it?”

“I don’t know for sure,” she said slowly, “but it looked an awful lot like the traffic scanner displays we use at work. I think they’ve got some kind of scanner and an AI monitoring it.”

“What a fucked up thing to waste an AI on,” Sean muttered. “Martians and their priorities. Did you hear what they were saying?”

She shook her head. “As soon as I saw the screen I started looking for scanners and I lost track of their conversation.”

“They were talking like they’d never heard of sapiens before. Like there’s only ever been one breed of human on Earth.” His voice dripped with scorn. “Typical martian arrogance, acting like they’re the only meaningful measuring stick for humanity.”

“Don’t let it get to you,” Aubrey said. “We’ll think of something.”

They certainly had plenty of time. It took nearly twenty minutes for the martians to pack up all their things, fumble around in the pod for some reason, then load a bundle that looked suspiciously like a human body wrapped in a sheet back into the pod. But they finally brought Aubrey and Sean out the front door, which had been taken off the hinges, probably to facilitate removing the seal on the door, and into the street.

Each of the martians had increased what they carried by quite a bit. Each wore an exoskeleton framework that made them about an inch taller and, from the looks of the packs strapped to those exoskeletons, a good deal stronger. The exo consisted of a framework that went over the shoulders, torso and legs and ended with heavy, shock absorbing boots. The packs looked like the kind of thing she saw in pictures of her friends when they went mountain climbing. At a guess, based on all the vehicles she’d poked at with Sean in the last year or so, Aubrey would say the rigs must have been thirty pounds apiece, plus whatever the packs weighed, and she wondered what they ran on. And what the martians would do when the fuel ran out. Trailing behind them were two of the boxes that’d been on the floor earlier. They had wheels and apparently a motor and enough software to move on their own and navigate their way slowly around obstacles, staying within a certain distance of their owners.

Once everyone was out in the street the leader, Lang, fished around in his helmet for a moment then pulled out a thin, black block that looked like it had a microphone at one end. He held it up to his mouth and said, “Corporal Langley recording. Have decided to prioritize information gathering. Locals are escorting us to a local library to see what we can see. Preparing to abandoned the crash site. Corporal Halloway has asked to say a few words.”

Lang handed the device to Dex, who looked back at the house and said, “Corporal Dexter Halloway recording. I didn’t know Private First Class Sam Grubber better than most. He was a rookie when he came to us and there wasn’t much call for medics when you spend a year and a half at superluminal. But he wanted to give part of his life to protect his planet, even if that made it shorter. That made him a spacer, same as the rest of us. Go with God, Sam.”

Dex handed the recorder back to Lang and he and Priss bowed their heads for a moment. Aubrey thought she saw Priss’ lips moving silently before Lang drew her attention by saying, “Corporal Langly recording. Site sterilized per regulations. End entry.”

The martians started herding them away from the building and Aubrey reluctantly went along. There was a moment of regret on martian’s faces as they walked away, quickly hidden as they pulled on heavy, domelike helmets that hid their faces away behind reflective one-way plastic. Aubrey suppressed a shudder, the moment of human connection lost. “Are those really nece-”

The rest of her question was lost in a sudden roaring noise as the world around them flashed with a brilliant light. Windows half a block away, which had survived the crash landing earlier, shattered inward as a hand seemed to land in Aubrey’s back and hurl her forward. Before she could land on her face a strong arm looped around her waist and kept her in place. Dex had caught her before the blast wave could carry her away. A panicked glance confirmed that Lang had grabbed Sean and he was fine. The martians ignored all their questions and kept them walking out of the apartment complex and towards the main road.

They trudged along for a minute or two before Aubrey noticed Priss and Lang gesturing to one another quietly. At first she thought they were just pointing something out to each other but the gestures got more animated and she couldn’t connect any meaning to them. She quickly realized that they were actually talking over some kind of short range radio or infrared link. The soundproofing on the helmets must have been pretty extraordinary. Almost as extraordinary as the gall she felt.

“It’s rude to hold a conversation and cut people out of it, you know,” she snapped.

There was a brief pause, then the two went back to whatever they were saying while Dex pulled his helmet back off. “Sorry about that,” he said. “Those two just have… very different ideas about how to solve some of the problems we’re looking at. Trust me, eavesdropping on that conversation is even more uncomfortable than not hearing it at all.”

Sean eyed the helmet in Dex’s hands in surprise. “Those things can’t possibly be blocking all the sound those two are making.”

“It’s complicated,” Was all Dex said in response.

There was another minute or so of uncomfortable silence and Aubrey finally said the only thing she could think of to relieve the problem. “Why did you blow up that house?”

“The house?” Dex shrugged. “No reason. It was just there when we blew up the pod. We didn’t want the data or tech in it falling into the hands of… is it UNIGOV that runs things around here?”

“Yeah,” Sean said. “Why worry about it? They’re required to use all technology and information at their disposal in the best interests of the world’s sapiens.”

That’s what bothers me. Anyway, all drop pods come with fusion charges for sterilizing drop zones if needed, and it would have been a waste not to use  them. Plus we gave Grubber a great funeral pyre. Not many can say they go out that way.”

Aubrey stared hard at his face, looking for any sign of the remorse she’d seen earlier. “Does it really not bother you that you just turned him to ash? On a strange planet, with no family or friends around?”

Dex gave her a hard look. “He may not have had any friends here, true enough. He  joined the ship a week before we departed Copernicus to come here, and we worked in different divisions, so it’s not like we saw each other outside drop drills. He wasn’t my friend, and I don’t think he was friends with Lang or Priss either. The three of us have done a tour on the Isaacs’ border already, so we know each other better. Are we friends?” He shrugged and looked away into the distance. “Maybe. But we’re all spacers, and we’re all in the pod together. When it’s time to send one of us off, like it or not, ain’t no one better suited than the spacers you served with.”

“That’s the emptiest platitude I’ve ever heard,” Sean said, then pointed to a building about half a block away. “There’s the library. Can we go now?”

“Show us around the inside,” Dex said mildly.

“I’ve never been inside,” Sean replied testily.

“Show us anyway,” Lang said, the voice suddenly very clear in spite of the fact that he hadn’t taken his helmet off.

Both Aubrey and Sean jumped slightly, Aubrey with a high squeak. She wasn’t happy, but they didn’t push it any more. Sean just led them up the steps and to the doors of the building. They were sealed like the others but, with a few minutes tinkering, Dex managed to break the seal and get them in. The interior was dark and musty, and the martians flipped on shoulder mounted lights on their exoskeletons almost as soon as they were through the door. In the harsh glare of the artificial light they could clearly see row upon row of seven foot high wooden stacks, each with six shelves about the right size to hold a book like the one they’d seen earlier.

All of them were empty.

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Three – The Martians

Chapter Two

“We’re not from Mars,” Lang said, amused at the idea. “We’re actually from Copernicus, one of the Triad systems. I’m Corporal Martin Langley, Copernican Spacer Corps. Could I ask the two of you to step out of our drop pod?”

The three of them pulled back to give their guests room but neither one seemed very eager to come out into the open. The woman eyed them suspiciously and said, “We wouldn’t be in here if you hadn’t pushed us.”

“Sorry, but we weren’t expecting company.” Not entirely true, but what they had been expecting was either military or emergency response, not civilians. “We had to improvise. And decide what we were going to do with you all.”

“And what is that?” The man asked, his suspicion better hidden but still very present.

“For starters, invite you out of the pod.” Lang gestured meaningfully with his left hand. After a moment of silent deliberation the two decided to climb out of the drop pod and back onto solid ground giving a better look at them.

Both were wearing backpacks with belts in addition to the shoulder straps and a light frame to keep the weight distributed evenly. There was a spot for a water bottle on the right side of the pack and some kind of heavy plastic case on the left – at a guess he figured it was some kind of food storage. Each had a half dozen tools stuck through loops in the backpack belts and, while he couldn’t identify them all by name, it all looked like archaic wrenches or electrical tools. The backpacks and tools were where the similarities stopped.

The woman was short by the standards of Copernicus Prime, perhaps a hundred and sixty to a hundred and sixty-five centimeters. Her long blond hair hung straight and her lithe figure was covered by a set of khaki colored capri pants and a deep red button up shirt or light jacket. Both looked to be made of some kind of synthetic fabric that had a slight gleam to it under the right light. With the hiking boots to top it off she reminded Lang of nothing so much as a student terraformer headed off to check on one of the many still ongoing projects in the mountains or ocean valleys.

The man was a good ten centimeters taller and built incredibly broadly. He looked like he could have played some kind of contact sport if only he bothered to bulk up. As it was he was more of a gawkish figure, like a kite had grown arms and legs and started walking around. His clothes looked to be the same material as the woman’s but he wore dark blue pants and his shirt was a simple pullover with a gray torso and blue sleeves. Neither one was obviously armed but…

“Dex, check their packs?”

Dex nodded and slung his plasma carbine then worked his way around them to rummage through their backpacks. The man shot them a resentful look and said, “There’s nothing in there but some food and old auto parts. And my sleeping bag.”

The woman was doing her best to keep an eye on Dex without letting Lang or Priss out of her field of vision. “And do we get to know your friends’ names?”

“Corporal Priscilla Hu, Copernican Spacer Corps,” Priss said without missing a beat. “You can have my service serial number if you want that, too. Do we get to know your names? Because we can just keep saying ‘you’ all the time if it makes ‘you’ feel better.”

The two exchanged a glance and a barely noticeable shrug. “I’m Aubrey Vance.” The woman said. “This is Sean Wilson. We’re not in a Corps.”

“Didn’t think you were, ma’am,” Lang replied. Dex finished his rummage through the backpacks and gave an all clear sign before moving back over to the other two. “Why don’t we sit down and talk a few things over.”

“Sure, why not,” Sean grumbled. “It’s not like you’ve already barged in here pointing weapons everywhere.”

“To be fair,” Dex said, “your defense satellites kind of blew the shit out of our mothership early this morning so I’d say we’re even.”

“What defense satellites?” Aubrey asked, looking confused. “UNIGOV doesn’t maintain defense satellites. It’s a sapiens government, not a martian one.”

“Yeah…” Lang gestured towards a weapons locker – contents currently split between himself and Priss – in an invitation for the two of them to take a seat. He settled down on a portable generator and laid his plasma carbine over his knees and waited for them to sit. Once they had he said. “Let’s start with with that. What do you mean by a martian government? I’m guessing you aren’t referring to the government of Borealis colony on Mars.”

He got a pair of blank looks. “There’s no colony on Mars,” Sean answered. “No sapiens colony, anyways. Never heard of there being martian one either, but I could be wrong. And it’s not clever to bring up the shared Latin root, just because we’re on a different planet doesn’t mean we’ve never heard of wordplay. That joke is as overdone here as it is on Copernicus or wherever you come from. I’m guessing that you – or your ancestors, really – were a part of the martians that left after the Last War?”

Priss and Dex were sharing confused looks that proved they were just as lost as he was. “Okay, look. It’s been nearly two centuries, more or less, since the Departure. I’m not going to pretend to have any idea what’s happened on Earth since then, and ancient history wasn’t my strongest subject when I was in school, so why don’t we wind it all the way back to the beginning. Assume I don’t know anything. What do you mean by martian?”

“You know. Homo martian,” Aubrey said. When Lang’s blank stare and accompanying silence grew uncomfortable she added, “One of the two sapient species that have existed on Earth since the beginning of recorded history?”

“Homo… martian.” Lang felt as if he’s suddenly landed on Copernicus Minor where the gravity was 1.2 times standard, confused and heavy, his sense of balance suddenly slightly off. “And the other sapient species is homo sapiens. Is that right?”

“Yeah.” She said it far too bluntly to believe it was anything other than the truth.

“Wait there. Don’t get up.” Lang got to his feet and motioned for Priss and Dex to follow him into the next room. On the way he pulled his AI and had it monitor the perimeter scanners for subjects leaving the building as well as those approaching. Once they were out of earshot of the civilians – their prisoners, as he was starting to think of them – he asked, “Does anyone have any idea what the fuck is going on here?”

“Nope.” Dex punctuated his one word denial with an eloquent shrug.

Priss was busy with her own AI, going through some kind of records. “Here we go. Shortly before the Departure there was speculation about prolonged exposure to solar radiation, microgravity and the other environmental pressures of space travel might give rise to a new subspecies of human. Several potential designations were floated – none of them were homo martian, by the way – but nothing ever came of it. Before the Departure.”

“So maybe something happened after.” Lang mused. “Not that the Triad worlds ever needed something like that. Spacers and grounders there are indistinguishable.”

“Yeah, but the colony ships were spinners and we solved unified field theory and artificial gravity a decade after Settlement,” Priss pointed out. “That may have been less of an issue here. We still don’t know much about the long term effects of microgravity on human physiology because it’s never been relevant.”

“None of which seems to matter that much because Aubrey there said there’s been two species of human since the beginning of history.” Lang said. “That doesn’t add up. Priss, did anyone in the comm center get ahold of Borealis before shit hit the fan?”

Her shrug was less eloquent than Dex’s but just as disappointing. “I think the Tranquility was supposed to signal Mars as soon as we dropped subluminal. But it’s still more than ten minutes from Lunar orbit to Mars and back again. If they got a message back it was after Major Rainer ordered the Armstrong abandoned.”

“So no help there, unless we can talk to the fleet.” Lang thought for another few seconds. “Okay, let’s assume Borealis Colony is gone and the Fleet is getting no intel from there. We need to do a few things. In order of priority, first we need to move away from the drop pod. Sooner or later someone else is coming to look at that and I don’t want them finding us.”

“What are we doing with the other two?” Dex asked.

“They’re going to be our native guides,” Lang said. “Because second, third and fourth, we need to find intel on what the hell this homo martian thing is about, why the former most powerful nation in the hemisphere has a random empty city in it, and how we can get back into orbit without getting caught.”

“Based on how your last attempt at talking to them went, I’m not sure how well any information gathering will go,” Priss said. “We don’t even have enough of a common frame of reference to ask questions it seems.”

“No worries,” Lang said with a grin. “We’re not getting our answers from them.”

The other two exchanged a skeptical look. “Then where are we getting them from?”

Chapter Four

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Two – The Meeting

Chapter One

“That’s the place, all right.” Aubrey lowered the binoculars and shoved them back into Sean’s backpack. “Definitely the UFO in there.”

“Told you,” Sean muttered around  a handful of peanuts. “What else could have made that hole in the wall?”

“I don’t know!” She hissed, crouching down behind the low, overgrown hedge row that ringed the old apartment complex. “But don’t you think looking before we go in makes a little sense? What if it was just an electrical fire and we got trapped when it spread?”

“Fuck.” Sean chewed thoughtfully for a moment. “Guess we’d be dead.”

Aubrey rubbed the bridge of her nose with both hands. “Then maybe it’s a good thing we didn’t do that.”

“Yep.” He dusted his hands off. “Let’s go look at it now.”

Audrey sighed and trailed after Sean as he headed quickly down the sidewalk and towards the house. It had taken them nearly forty minutes to narrow down exactly where in the large complex the smoke was coming from, then pick their way through the convoluted building and road layout to their current location. The vegetation, well out of the neat boundaries set for it by the landscapers who had planted it, had kept them from venturing off the preplanned pathways. Now that they had an end in sight, though, Sean was carefully picking his way over fences and pushing through boundary hedges in an effort to shave a few seconds off the time it took to reach the UFO.

Not that Aubrey felt there was a real rush. UNIGOV insisted that it didn’t monitor Earth orbitals for aliens, as peaceful first contact would be best established in the welcoming environment of a human city, and that sounded like a sensible enough policy to her. But as she gamely squirmed through a hedge row behind Sean she had to admit that, once again, his enthusiasm was catching. She wouldn’t have gone salvaging with him if he didn’t make picking old motor parts out of abandoned vehicles so interesting. She probably wouldn’t have though much of a UFO if he didn’t go to look at it either.

And it was a UFO. They’d seen it coming down through Sean’s binoculars in the early morning dusk and Sean had been sure right away that it wasn’t a UNIGOV copter or plane. Something about design aesthetics – although she wasn’t sure why the folks at UNIGOV would build a ship for space the same way they did a plane for atmosphere. But the angle and speed it had come in at? They were both sure it had to have come down from orbit. And two hours later they were close enough to lay eyes on it. “Do you think there’s some kind of procedure for this, Sean?”

“UNIGOV’s got procedure’s for everything, Bri. But they always talk about aliens landing somewhere populated – y’know, looking around the planet first then picking out a place with lots of people. These guys either didn’t do that or crashed because they were in trouble.” He stopped long enough to shoot her a curious glance. “What if they’re hurt and need help? Or just pack up and leave because they think the whole planet’s empty? Someone’s gotta talk to ’em before that happens.”

“I suppose…”

They pressed on. Three minutes later they were at the back of the townhouse look in through windows shattered by the UFO’s impact. Sean unslung his backpack and pulled out a length of cloth normally reserved for padding parts they’d collected. He used it to dust most of the broken glass and wood out of the window frame and then laid it across and climbed through. Aubery followed as he hurried through the empty room, kicking rubble aside, to approach the UFO. A large hatch was open on one side.

“Look at this, Bri.” He pointed at a small puddle of viscus, shining liquid pooled in a corner of the hatch. “Maybe they’re some kind of aquatic species?”

Aubrey edged around to one side of the vehicle and frowned. “Sean. I don’t think this is a UFO. Look at this.”

She pointed at the nose of the pod. Sean stepped away from the hatch and moved so he could see as well. “FRG 154 – C.” Confusion tinged his voice. “Aubrey. Those are roman letters.”

“And arabic numerals.” She sighed. “I guess it’s not a UFO after all.”

“Well it still shouldn’t have crashed like that.” Sean hurried back to the hatch, concerned again. “Hey, anyone in there? You okay?”

Inside the unlit building most of the insides of the pod were dark and Aubrey followed while fishing her flashlight out of her backpack’s tool strap. “Sean, I’m not sure this is a good idea. This might be a UNIGOV thing.”

“Just give a light and we’ll make sure no one’s hurt.” He was already resting one foot on the edge of the hatch. “Hello?”

In the middle of his last call there was a sudden scraping, banging noise and then hands landed in Aubrey’s back and she was shoved headfirst into the hatch. Sean landed on the floor within at about the same time. A split second later the hatch banged shut behind them.

“Okay,” Priss said, stepping back from the drop pod. “Now that we have two civilians locked in our pod, what are we going to do with them?”

“Are we sure they’re civilians?” Lang asked. “We have no idea what the local uniforms look like but their gear looked pretty standardized. Backpack, flashlight, tool belt.”

Priss shook her head. “The hair was wrong. Even without the necessity of maintaining vacuum seals on a helmet, any military worth its salt regulates hair short. Anything longer than this,” she pulled her short brown hair out to its maximum regulation four inch length, “is a liability in close quarters. They both went way over that mark.”

“Well I wasn’t paying attention to that but I’ll take your word for it.” He eyed the pod from where the three of them stood on the far side of the pod’s room. “They didn’t really show much discipline in approaching the building, either. So civilian is a safe bet. Did we lock anything we really need in there with them?”

“Just the last rack of power cells,” Dex said. “And the demolition charges. But if they’re civilians we’re going to have to drag them out of there before we destroy it anyway, so that can probably sit for now. Fusion burners aren’t something you can use to breach a hatch, so even if they did decide to try and get out that way…” He shrugged and mimed an explosion.

“Lovely.” Lang sighed. “I can’t imagine there’s any tech in there Earth couldn’t have discovered for itself in the last two hundred years, especially with the larger supply of scientific minds and infrastructure. But we shouldn’t leave the data core behind, even if we do wipe it. They’ll have to come out sooner or later. Maybe we’ll get some intel on what the hell’s going on around this planet. We’ll decide what to do with them after we hear what they have to say. Priss, what’s the deal with the satellite uplinks we saw on the buildings? Anything we can use?”

She pulled out her AI assistant and pulled up some notes. “Short answer is, I don’t think so. It’s all old civilian stuff and comes with a couple of problems…

Sean was pacing again, not that there was very far to go in the pod. He could basically take three full steps in any one direction before he’d have to crouch down or sit in a seat, so he spent a lot of time turning around. After the initial shock of being tossed into the container Aubery had opted to close one of the footlocker style compartments in the side of the ship and sit on that. There was too much of the weird goo in the seats for her to be comfortable sitting there.

Most of the stuff was pooled down by the nose of the pod, understandable given the angle it rested at, and she’d spent a good five minutes poking it with the toe of her shoe to see what would happen. It reminded her of the cornstarch water she’d made in science class when she was seven. She pulled her water bottle out of her backpack, thinking she should take some with her, but stopped when she realized they didn’t know how long they’d be stuck in there. Feeling oddly deflated she shoved the water bottle back into her pack and leaned back against the wall, staring at the puddle of goo despondently.

Suddenly Sean was perched on the edge of the locker, taking her by the shoulders and gently turning her so he could look her in the face. “Hey, hey, it’s going to be all right. Just relax.”

She took in a sharp breath that, halfway through, somehow turned into a sob, and she realized she’d started crying. Embarrassed, she rubbed at the tears and shook her self slightly. “Sorry. Sorry, I’m being such a femme.”

“No, no, it’s okay.” He gave her a weak smile. “I wasn’t helping much, being super male and pacing all over the place like that. You know we’re gonna get out of here fine, right?”

The pallor in his face wasn’t the most reassuring thing but she still did her best to match his smile with one of her own. “Yeah. I mean, they turned the lights on for us when they closed the hatch so how bad can they really be?”

“I think that was automatic.” Seeing that that wasn’t the right thing to say Sean hurried to add, “But hey, we’ve got air and a couple of days of food so I’m sure we’ll be fine.”

A new surge of panic rose for a second before she could suppress it. “You’re sure we have air?”

“Yeah.” He jerked a thumb towards the back. “I felt it coming through some vents over there by the lights in back. If we could pry them off we might be able to at some kind of outside access and…” He trailed off as Aubrey’s expression wasn’t exactly encouraging. “I’m sure the UNIGOV folks will let us out soon.”

Aubrey’s stomach did a little flip flop. She wasn’t entirely sure of that. To hide her doubts she asked, “What if they’re not UNIGOV?”

“Who else is going to be flying around near Earth orbitals?” He asked.

As if on cue, the hatch popped and swung open again. Silhouetted against the outside were three people, all dressed in identical clothes. The garment looked like a slate gray coveralls but hard, glistening black segments covered the torso, shoulders and upper arms and legs. She couldn’t tell, at a glance, how the black and gray materials were joined with each other or what they were made of. There were two men and one woman, the woman’s sex clear from the added segmentation in her torso necessitated by a generous bust. The man in the center was tallest, well over six feet, and his black hair cropped almost all they way down to his scalp, while the other man was almost a foot shorter and his sandy hair was cut in a longish flat top. The woman was almost as tall as the first man and her black hair curled down around her ears in a conservative but attractive bob. All three were carrying compact, short barrelled weapons held across their torsos, barrels down.

Her mind jumped to the obvious conclusion but Sean said it first. “Holy shit. Martians.”

Chapter Three

Schrodinger’s Book: Introduction and Chapter One

It’s hard to write a story about something that concerns you. Writing requires a degree of passion to play out, and for a lot of people – myself more so than most it would seem – concern is a thing that it’s hard to hold on to for any length of time. But, at the same time, writing is at its core the process of sorting out ideas and putting them into order. When something concerns me my kneejerk reaction is to analyze the problem, put it in order and try to figure out what bothers me and how we might fix that. Writing is a process tailor made to help you do that.

But writing a story is its own beast. Stories need conflict and when you are concerned with a problem conflict is probably baked into the cake. Stories also need characters, and when you’re concerned with a problem that can be more of a problem. They also need  setting, a world to take place in, and that becomes an even bigger hurdle. If your characters look too much like you, if your world looks too much like now, you come off extremely heavy handed and you can lose your audience very quickly. I’ve actually tinkered with this kind of story telling before and I’ll be the first to admit it came out pretty mediocre. So I tabled storytelling about issues I was concerned about.

Then, about a month and a half back, I heard someone pitch a story idea with a core concept that I thought was truly excellent. I didn’t like much about the plot points or execution but the core conceit was fascinating. I knew I had to steal the concept but I’d need some other kind of story to build around it.

Before I knew it, I was writing a story about something that concerned me. I’d sworn of this kind of writing for a while but I really, really wanted to do this story and I just couldn’t see a way to throw out the parts that were real life concerns of mine without weakening the narrative. So here I am again, writing a scifi story in the hopes that you’ll read it and enjoy, but also find something to mull over. I beg your indulgence.

A few house keeping things. Language evolves over time – this is known. However, every attempt to predict linguistic evolution that I have ever seen comes off as incredibly forced (I’m looking at you, scifi series that pulled a gender neutral pronoun out of an obscure far Eastern language for hackneyed political correctness points). Thus, while these characters come from some time in our future I will be using slang and obscenities of the present day as stand ins for whatever such language will be used in the future to make things feel more natural and less forced. Again, I beg your indulgence.

And yes, on the topic of language, I’ve chosen to do something I rarely do, and that is include a fair amount of coarse language. Long time readers may find this a surprise, given how rarely I’ve included such language in the past. For a number of reasons, ranging from verisimilitude to the demands of the story, I’ve chosen to break from form. One last time, I beg your indulgence.

And now, on with the show.

Chapter One – The Crash

Lang ran his fingers over the edges of the hole in the wall. It was big – a lot bigger than you’d expect given it was only a four seater that had come through it. He’d been expecting scorch marks but there weren’t any on the wall. The impact had crumpled most of the concrete inwards and strewn it all through the room inside, leaving smouldering rubble strewn on the ground below and inside the room, but what was left of the wall itself was free of carbon tracing. Except for what the smoke rising from within was leaving behind.

Not that there was much in the way of smoke. The rooms the drop pod had landed in were blessedly empty, there wasn’t even furniture or curtains on the windows, just some carpet that had caught fire under the braking thrust when the pod landed. Even the paint on the walls seemed to stubbornly resist burning.

“Anyone up there?” Dex called, his voice half disappearing beneath the sharp pang of the pod’s hull cooling.

“No. We’d have seen them by now if there was.” Of course, the streets outside the house were empty, too. Either drop pods from space landed in this neighborhood all the time or there wasn’t anyone within a five minute run to come see what happened. Either possibility was very worrying. He turned around and clambered down the side of the pod, the hull metal still warm to the touch after its rapid descent through atmosphere. Trace remnants of the shock gel he’d been submerged in until a moment ago sizzled against the hull but the insulated surface of his evac suit kept him from feeling anything.

“No one down here either,” Dex said as Lang clambered down the side of the pod using dents and loose plates as handholds, the magnetic surfaces in his boots helping his feet find purchase. “Priss got Grubber out of the pod but there wasn’t anything there to work on. He’s gone.”

“Hm.” Lang dropped off the ladder the last few feet and landed lightly. Grubber was the teams primary medic and it wasn’t going to get any easier without him. There was the brief pang of loss that went with losing a member of the unit but there would be time for that side of things later. For now, like any spacer downed in combat, first things came first. “What’s the status on the comm?”

“Fried. Priss thinks the primary array got fragged somewhere on our way down, over the Atlantic somewhere probably.” He jerked his thumb towards the pod’s open hatch, barely visible around his shoulder, where the sound of rummaging could be heard. “She’s pulling out the emergency supplies and the toolkits now.”

Lang stepped carefully around Grubber’s body, respectfully laid out beside the pod with a thermal blanket draped over top. “Were there any other pods in formation with us before we came down?”

“It was just us, last I saw,” Dex said. “There was at least one other pod with us until we hit the American seaboard but I think the same coastal guns that got our comm array got them too. But maybe they just went down somewhere farther north or in the ocean. You know how this shit goes.”

“Hm.” He didn’t, of course. No one knew how it went when a major ship broke up over a hostile planet, not unless he had a state of the art supercomputer and a network of traffic control satellites to rival Copernicus Prime. But he got what Dex was saying. “Then we don’t have any officers on site. The situation’s already looking up. I guess that makes you in charge.”

“Me?” Dex feigned shock. “Why me? You’re as much of a Corporal as I am. Got seniority, too, the LT gave you your stripe sixty seconds before I got mine.”

“Fine. Priss-”

“Not me!” She dropped the toolkits and emergency gear in a heap on the ground and clambered through the hatch. “Not only do you both have seniority on me, regs clearly say that, in the event that there’s a case of equal ranks in an emergency situation, command defaults to the officer or enlisted man with the least critical MOS. I’m comms, medical secondary.” She jerked a thumb at Dex. “He’s armory, sensors secondary. Those are gonna be pretty important in the next couple of days if we’re going to get in touch with fleet command and get off this rock.

“On the other hand.” She looked meaningfully from Lang to the wrecked drop pod. “We don’t have much for you to pilot or engineer thrusters on, flyboy.”

“Besides,” Dex added, “you were okay with taking charge when you were sending me out to check for people down here and Priss to check on Grubber. Almost made it look like you wanted the hot seat.”

“Give me the damn mission log,” Lang said with a sigh, cursing whatever fate had kept the LT from rearranging their drop pod assignments once they’d wound up with three people of the same grade in one four seater pod. “I want the two of you to assess what we can take off the pod in a couple of hours or so, in case we need to go. I’m going to poke my nose out the door and see if I can’t spot whatever welcoming committee they have waiting for us.”

“I’m not taking over if you get shot,” Dex called as he walked towards the building’s front door.

After a full perimeter check Lang decided he may have been wrong after all. There was no welcoming committee. There didn’t appear to be anyone in the neighborhood at all. Their pod had landed in a long line of townhouses, maybe a dozen units in all, but a quick glance in the window of the two next to the unit the pod hand landed on showed that they were just as abandoned looking as the one they’d crashed. And all the doors were sealed. He’d had to exit their landing site via window in the end, only to discover the locking mechanism bolted across the front door.

A notice on the front of the lock announced that the neighborhood was under evacuation orders and the population was ordered to report to the western Fort Worth processing center for resettlement. Dirt and dust caked the surface of the lock to the point where Lang had been forced to scrub it off to read the notice so it had been in place a long time. There were similar locks on every door he could see from the sidewalk in front of the townhouses.

Unease building at the back of his neck, Lang turned around and hefted himself back through the window into the house. “Dex?”

A quick clunk, then he poked his nose around the side of the pod. “Yeah?”

“You said this place was what – America?”

“Yeah, largest and most influential nation in this hemisphere at the time of the Departure. The rule was Do Not Fuck With Them. Pretty sure it was their orbital defenses that fragged us when we dropped inside lunar orbit. Hand me the nanosealer?” Lang came over and fished the requested tool out of Dex’s toolkit and handed it to him. He had part of the pod’s stabilizing thruster system pulled from its housing and started disconnecting it. “I think the part of the U.S. we’re in is called Texas. Why?”

“Hm.” Lang mulled it over for a second, more focused on the fact that Dex’s first move after Priss said there wouldn’t be any thruster work had been thruster work. Then he pushed the thought aside in favor of not answering Dex’s question. “Did America use the same dating system as Copernicus? At the time of Departure at least.”

Dex snorted. “Of course they did. The dating system was standard long before the first colonization efforts, Lang. Hell, the United States spearheaded the Triad project. Come on, Lang, I know you know that much or they wouldn’t have let you enlist.”

“With some of the guys who get in? You never know. Same goes for things like calendars. You know the Rodenberries have their own dating scheme, right?”

“Yeah, because they’re convinced they’re the best humanity has to offer, gotta do everything their own way.” The thruster came free with a pop and Dex dropped it in his toolkit. “This going anywhere?”

“Just trying to nail down some things. Looks like this neighborhood was evacuated a good forty years ago.”

“Evacuated?” Dex gave him a worried look. “Why?”

“The notice didn’t say. But all the buildings along here are locked up tight. I don’t think there’s anyone in twenty miles to come and look at what happened.” Lang held up the mission log. “I’m sure the LT would like to know about it if this ever gets back to him. If you’re thinking of juryrigging those to something besides our pod be sure to pull the timing computer too.”

“Will do.” The two men turned to their tasks and got to work.

“Shiiiiiiit.” Sean lowered his binoculars and handed them to Aubrey. “Definitely something burning out there a good half a mile to the north.”

“It could just be an electrical fire. I hear those happen up in Oklahoma City all the fucking time.” She took the binoculars and stuffed them in the pocket on his backpack. “They can burn forever. Some of the old buildings are just big piles of flammable shit.”

“It can happen, sure, but this neighborhood was built twelve years before the Evacuation and most of the buildings are printed concrete so there’s not that much in them to burn.” Sean turned from watching the trail of smoke roll into the sky. “And none of those fires started right after a fucking UFO flyover.”

“Then don’t just stand there!” Aubrey gave him a light push. “Get your ass moving so we can check it out!”

Chapter Two

Unexamined Metanarratives, or The Problem with Privilege

I’ve talked about the concept of metanarratives at length before in the general context of postmodernism and specifically when applied to superheroes and Star Wars. Today I want to highlight what I believe the positive impact of deconstructing metanarratives are through a metanarrative commonly employed in modern fiction. While postmodernism deconstructs metanarratives because it believes they are a power play – an attempt to control the thinking of others by forcing their minds into preconceived patterns – I believe most metanarratives arise out of a person’s general philosophy and, while fiction can reinforce these philosophical preconceptions, it can also be used as a way to measure these preconceptions and see what about them makes sense and what doesn’t.

Metanarratives are rarely – possibly never – without some foundation in reality. The mostly happy homes of Home Improvement or The Cosby Show do exist, for example, but the constraints of their fictional setting prevent them from being explored in depth, so a number of clichés and tropes built up around these fictional families until The Simpsons came along to deconstruct them. While The Simpsons is no longer particularly relevant to sitcom formulas; for years it was ascendant and its deconstruction of the prevailing metanarrative did open up new avenues of storytelling to explore. That didn’t invalidate the old metanarratives, even if many people acted like it did.

There are a lot of metanarratives in modern fiction that could use this treatment, like the “trade in your birth family for one you build yourself” metanarrative (conveniently ignoring that if you can’t make your birth family work the odds you can build a function one are pretty small) or the “sell guns to both sides and reap huge rewards” metanarrative (a good way to get shot and, as near as I can tell, never something that’s happened historically). And perhaps this will become a recurring spot as other post ideas have, there’s certainly fodder for it. But for now, I want to look at Privilege.

The concept of “Privilege” I want to talk about is not what we normally think of as a privilege. It’s not permission to use the computers at the school you attend – unlike a member of the general public who does not have that privilege – or the privilege of using motor vehicles on government owned roads – which is basically what your driver’s license grants you. In much of modern fiction there is the notion of unearned benefits conferred to you by circumstance, particularly circumstances that favor one group over another. And that notion is encapsulated in the term “privilege”.

Let’s start our deconstruction of this notion by mentioning that the ideas behind Privilege are not new. When circumstances convey benefits no one earned there have been a host of terms for it. “Luck” is one, suggesting that sometimes the world just seems to like you more than others. “Blessing” is another, conveying the way people or, among the religious and/or superstitious, supernatural forces will give something of value to another as an expression of affection or to cement some kind of personal bond. “Bias” is a third, denoting the preference of one group over another.

And here we come to the first major construct of Privilege that must be taken apart and examined. The very use of the term marries blessing and bias. Not all blessings imply a bias. For example, my sisters and I were blessed with a homeschooling education. My parents blessed me with a social study curriculum that emphasized understanding philosophy and ideas in ways that profoundly shaped the way I think and who I am today. But they didn’t choose to bless my sisters with the same curriculum. In many ways their social studies were easier or more engaging, but they did not develop the same perspectives. And, looking back on it from a distance of some years, I can see that the curriculum I studied did not suit their personalities and interests as it suited mine. Yes, my parents exercised their good judgement in making these choices, but good judgement is not the same as bias. Nor do I feel the different educational blessings my parents shared with their children were inferior or superior to each other. They were simply chosen to best fit those receiving them. The Privilege metanarrative leaves no room for this kind of nuance.

But perhaps you are thinking to yourself, “This is a bad example. The Privilege metanarrative applies to groups, rather than individuals. Of course an education as highly tailored to individuals as homeschooling would rule Privilege out.”

If you were thinking that, then you’re correct. The second construct the Privilege metanarrative brings to the table is group based evaluation. In the Privilege metanarrative my parents’ decisions must be understood through group identity. Thus, the choice to give me an education full of philosophy must have been a result of my male privilege, as the job of men is to run the world and make sure all the other people are unprivileged (the term for this is oppressed in the view of the typical postmodernist). The fact that my parents might have looked at each of their three children’s interests and temperament individually is not relevant to the metanarrative any more than Chicago style political dramas are relevant to a Home Improvement style sitcom metanarrative.

Which is to say, they can be made to blend but one aspect will bend to the other – either the corrupt politicians must be shown as fools by the sitcom crew or the sitcom cast will become unwitting tools of the corrupt politicians, either my parents must have been driven by unconscious bias towards the favored male gender or their decisions being what they are is just a result of my being in some way stereotypical. There’s nothing wrong with this blending on the surface, by the way, but culturally predominate metanarratives tend to win out in the blending and right now the Privilege metanarrative saturates our culture. The tendency to let it win out will be strong, but a good writer must still carefully evaluate whether that metanarrative blend is what’s best for your story.

Metanarratives that operate without question quickly run out of control. Humans tend to push ideas as far as they can, usually running right of the edge of a cliff in the process. The history of the Privilege metanarrative is an interesting expression of this. The basic pieces of the modern take on the metanarrative were put in place during the Civil Rights era, when Privilege was rampant in culture and law. Recognizing it was a very important step in human progress and resulted in good things for the nation as a whole and many ethnic minorities in particular. This fact is a big part of why the idea of Privilege is so widespread in culture today. However, the idea of Privilege has far outgrown its starting context.

We frequently hear of “white privilege” in culture today. In summation this is the idea that generations of cultural expansion, tight knit families, careful investments, inheritance, emphasis on education and ethnic loyalty have catapulted white people to the forefront of the world and given them a stranglehold on the wealth and power of the modern world. In turn we see the Privilege metanarrative used to justify any number of actions to disrupt this supposed deathgrip. This has been true in pulp and pop entertainment for a while and has crept into daily discourse as well.

Again, this metanarrative is not new. The clearest example in history is how, for over a thousand years, the inherited wealth, excellent education, ethnic loyalty and powerful family ties of Jews was used as an excuse to persecute them.

This is the final aspect of the Privilege metanarrative that must be deconstructed. Like all flawed, human concepts, metanarratives can drive great evil as easily as great good. The current Privilege metanarrative casts Privilege as an evil and those that oppose it as a force for good, a direct extension in its origins in the Civil Rights movement. While this can be true, and again has been true in recent memory, it is not always the case – again, in recent memory. By the same token, Privilege is viewed almost as a universal, underpinning every situation, when sometimes a blessing is without bias, or luck is just luck. There’s no reason to say my education was a privilege over that of my sisters, as we all turned out equally well and, some might say, they are doing somewhat better than I am.

I’ve been very hard on postmodernism in the past and I stand by my belief that its approach to metanarratives is silly and leads only to confusion. But I hope I’ve shown today that the process of deconstructing a metanarrative and looking at its component parts and how it’s played out across history can give us a deeper understanding of a metanarrative, what its strengths and weaknesses are, and how it might be used in innovative ways. At the least it lets us put aside popular metanarratives for a metanarrative with less cachet at the moment but better suited to your needs.

Metanarratives are just one of many tools in the writers arsenal. Use them wisely and you get good stories. Sometimes that means breaking them down and seeing what each part has done, is doing, and could do.

Now. The throughline of this blog has been nonfiction for far too long. Come back next week and we’ll kick off a new dose of fiction with a spicy double posting followed by an exciting (hopefully) new sci-fi tale from yours truly!