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.