“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.