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.”