Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Seven – The Blood

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The bloody rag landed on top of the rat’s nest of computer equipment, connections and tools Lang was tinkering with. He put his AI down with a sigh and gingerly picked up the rag, thankful for the gloves on his evac suit. Looking from the rag to Dex he asked, “Is it that time of the month already?”

“Not why Priss left,” Dex said, “she’s taking over with the prisoners.”

“I wasn’t asking about Priss.”

“Ha. Ha.” Dex held out a nanoscanner for him to take. “That’s Sean’s blood.”

Lang froze in the middle of syncing it to his AI. “Why was he bleeding?”

“Relax,” Dex said, putting his hands up defensively, “he just cut himself on one of the parts. Nanosealer edges. Fuck, man, you think I beat it out of him or something?”

“Fine, okay, he slipped and cut himself. I guess you dragged Priss out there to patch him up?”

“No, the cut already healed.” Dex pointed at the rag emphatically. “Scan it.”

The words didn’t seem to make sense when said in that order but Lang understood an imperative when he heard one and playing along seemed like the fastest way to get an idea of what Dex was getting at. With a flick of the fingers he brought up the AI interface, already defaulting to the recently synced nanoscanner, and opened the display. Once he was sure it was running and Dex hadn’t preloaded something in some sort of prank, he ran a scan of the rag.

The blood on it was full of inert nanotech.

“Shit,” Lang whispered. “Medical nanotechnology.”

“It’s smaller than the finest nanolathes we’ve built by a factor of ten,” Dex said. “I had to recalibrate the nanoscanner to find it at all. But once I knew what to look for, it was pretty easy to find. Especially since both our prisoners are crawling with the stuff.”

“Both?” Lang looked up from the display. “Did Aubrey hurt herself, too?”

“No. I think this is just standard issue stuff.” Dex flipped open his own AI and started flicking through information faster than Lang could track it. “For one thing, neither of them were surprised when his cut closed in a couple of seconds. It’s a commonplace thing for them to see bad cuts disappear in seconds. So I’d be surprised if it’s not standard issue for most people on Earth.”

“That’s a hell of a thing to drop on everyone in your society,” Lang said, going back to the readout.

“Maybe not. I ran some rough numbers.” He stopped on the screen in question. “Using what I picked up on Aubrey and Sean as a ballpark, just one Olympus Mons class orbit ship like the Sea of Tranquility has enough raw materials in it to synthesize that kind of medical nanotech for eight billion people. And there are a dozen orbit ships of that size in the Copernican fleet alone.”

“But the engineering expertise-”

“Is pretty amazing. But not necessarily greater than it took to quadruple the effectiveness of superluminal drives, terraform Copernicus Major or navigate the gravitational maze of Galileo’s lunar belt. Besides,” Dex grinned, “I’ve already got an idea how it works. Once we crack this stuff we can use it ourselves.”

“Assuming we get back to report,” Lang conceded. He got up and went over to the robocrates and dug around until he found a medkit and a sample bag.

“Wait, before you bag that I want to get a sample to work with,” Dex said, coming over to fish a number of nanotools out of the crate as well. “There has to be some kind of similarities between their nanotech computer logic and their global computer infrastructure. Maybe that could help Priss crack the programming barriers between our tech and theirs.”

“Good thinking. You get that sample, I’ll send Priss in to work on it with you. I can watch the prisoners for a bit.” Lang got to his feet, feeling oddly light. For the first time since the Armstrong had been hit he felt like he had a handle on what needed to happen next.


“I thought Dex was coming back.” Aubrey tossed the old part she’d been working on into the box and fished the motor lube out of her pack.

“I needed him and Priss working on something inside,” Lang told her. “So you’re stuck with me.”

“Hope you know something about how these tool work,” Sean said from under the hood. “Priss said she didn’t do this kind of work much and kept getting us the wrong tools. Dex at least knew what everything you brought was and what it was supposed to do.”

“His primary mission specialty is mechanical,  hers isn’t. Neither is mine, for that matter, but my secondary specialty is and, again, hers isn’t.” Lang sat down on the rusting, brush covered remains of a bench and watched the two of them warily. Aubrey had noticed he seemed to have the most caution of the three martians, which would have been respectable if he didn’t seem to apply it solely to the only two sapiens he knew. “Gotta admit I’m a little… confused by this.”

Aubrey gave him a quizzical look. “What?”

“You two… helping. It’s not traditionally what prisoners do.” His eyes narrowed slightly in that unsettling, I’m-guessing-what-you’re-thinking way he had. “We’ll be checking all your work, of course.”

“Check all you want,” she replied, annoyed. “We’re sapiens. Helping each other along is what we do.”

“And it gets you out of our hair.” Sean held up a nanosealer around the hood of the van. “Can I use this thing to insulate electrical connections or will I have to do that the old fashioned way?”

“As long as you can fit the field projector around it and provide it with a sample of your insulation it should work,” Lang replied. “I’ll be glad to get out of your hear as soon as I can. This was supposed to be a peaceful mission, you know.”

“Then why all the guns?” Aubrey asked, voice and posture hostile.

“It’s standard operating procedure,” he said with a touch of amusement. “It’s a dangerous galaxy out there, between the space pirates and the anti-contact movement there were a lot of people who didn’t want us coming back to Earth. Add in the fact that we still don’t know if there’s alien life out there or if it’s friendly or not, prudence dictates we travel with weapons. How else would we go about it?”

“You could just stay home.” Aubrey pulled out a wrench and set to work pulling a panel off the inside of the vehicle. “Why bother coming out here at all?”

“Probably the same reasons you and Sean came out to an abandoned city. Curiosity, adventure, a need for something you hoped to find.” Lang got up and moved a bit closer to the van, angling so he could watch what she was doing. “Changing the subject… what-”

“Am I doing? Checking the solar panel connections.” She pulled the panel out and set it aside, then tapped on the exposed cables with the end of her wrench. “This thing isn’t primarily solar powered but even the secondary power can spark and cause problems if the connections have gone bad. What were you looking for?”

Lang shrugged, watching as she diligently disconnected each cable before hooking it up to a diagnostic tool. She was just starting to feel uncomfortable when he said, “Earth, mostly. I don’t know what happened here after The Departure but we were supposed to receive messages from the homeworld every three months. I don’t think any of them ever arrived. We’d always wondered, you know? What happened? Why did we never hear from Earth? Did the message pods just fail? Was there something in the way? Were aliens intercepting them? Or had the population of Earth disappeared somewhere? Were the Triad colonies the only humans left in the galaxy?”

Lang didn’t look out of sorts as he said them but the questions filled Aubrey with a profound sense of unease. “I guess I can see why that would be… compelling.”

“Look, I get that you don’t seem to know any more than we do about what happened that ended with us forgotten here at home. If you had history records that were easier to access it would be easier for us to figure out what’s going on but you don’t and that’s not your very own personal responsibility anyway. But a whole lot of somethings went wrong between The Departure and now, the Armstrong getting fragged not the least of them.” Lang shrugged eloquently. “We’re all gonna be under a lot of stress ’til it gets sorted, but it’s nothing personal. Okay?”

“Sure. Fine.” She went back to fiddling with the solar cables, feeling oddly more at ease than a moment ago, but not sure she wanted Lang to know it.

Fortunately she was saved from further conversation when Sean poked his head around the side of the van and said, “Hey, I need to pull the motor block out to get at the brake pump. I could use an extra hand, assuming you don’t just want to strap into one of those exoskeletons and pull it out one handed or something.”

Lang gave him a side eye, that distant, calculating side back all of a sudden, then he said, “Sure. The exo sounds like the best approach, I’ll get-”

The sentence ended with a startled yelp as Lang lunged forward to catch Sean, who teetered and slumped to the ground unexpectedly. “Shit. Sean? Hey, snap out of it.”

Aubrey scrambled out of the van and over to her friend, now laid gently on the concrete, and took his pulse. Lang had already rolled him halfway up on his back, looked him over and set him back down and now he got to his feet, quietly speaking into some part of his collar. “Priss, Sean just collapsed. I need you out here pronto.”

The stubby barrel of his weapon was up and slowly scanning across the landscape as he did a complete 180 degree turn, his eyes focused in the middle distance. Priss arrived in a shockingly short time, from her shortness of breath and the beads of sweat standing out on her forehead she’d sprinted the whole way. The holodisplay the martians referred to as their AI and another piece of equipment were still in her hands and, as she slid to her knees to look Sean over, she actually switched them on and started looking Sean over. A second later he took a very deep breath and his eyes fluttered.

Priss switched the devices off and rocked back on her heels. “I think he’s going to be okay, but we should move him inside for a bit while he recovers. Get him out of the sun.”

Lang reached down and plucked the second device from her hand, turned it over once, and straightened back up. The hard eyed, unknowable martian was back in full force again. “You and Aubrey do that. I’ll send Dex to relieve you, and then I think we need to have a talk. In private.”

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Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Six – The Van

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“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…”

“Okay.”

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.

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Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Five: The Library

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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.

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Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Four – The Sapiens

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“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.

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