“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.”
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.