Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Eleven – The Noose

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“Our examination of the drone suggests it is quite old. While none of us are forensics experts or archeologists the parts used suggests that it can’t be much newer than the Departure. Only rudimentary nanoengineering is in evidence and the laser projectors are low power, even for lasers…”

Lang’s voice was small in the vastness of the empty desert, with barely a road sign or stand of scrub grass to echo off of. The martians had pulled off the side of the highway, hours out of the city, and thrown some kind of tarp from their box of crazy  devices over the van. In a couple of seconds it had shifted to blend in with the ground around it, leaving the small campsite effectively invisible to any eyes in the air.

If Sean was right and the drone from earlier had come from their allies in space they were going to pretty extreme lengths to avoid being noticed by another one.

After the harrowing escape from town they’d driven straight through the day and finally stopped after nightfall. Dex and Lang had debated the merits of driving through the night, using one of their AI – apparently a more universally applicable piece of tech than the ones Earth had developed – to drive the van for them. Lang had eventually tossed the idea not because he was worried about how well it would work but because he didn’t want to be, “an exposed, lit target at night.”

Aubrey’s attention snapped back to the voices in the distance. At some point Priss had gone out and joined Lang out by the small rock outcropping where he’d hunkered down to talk into his recorder. “I brought a digest of what we pulled off the datahub, if you wanted to attach it to the report.”

“Anything interesting?”

“We’re still sifting it through our AIs. But so far it’s just more mysteries. The population forty years ago was less than five and a half billion.”

“Five?! That’s barely half what the population was projected-”

Her attention snapped back to what was happening in front of her when Dex lifted the edge of the camo tarp and stepped out into the open. There was a crispness and sheen to his clothes she hadn’t seen before. “We set up a makeshift sanitation and clothes cleaning station in the back of the van,” he said. “I’m not sure what your clothes are made of but they could probably use a sprucing up and everyone enjoys a good wash now and then. Just move the big red rock in front of the door if you’re using it.”

“Thanks.” She managed a wan smile although she wasn’t really feeling it. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

Dex nodded. “Food agree with you?”

“Yes? Was there any reason it shouldn’t?”

He shrugged. “We don’t know much about your nanotech. Hopefully it doesn’t have some hidden dietary requirement we don’t know about.”

“If there is, we’re not the ones to ask about it.” She sighed. “Look, Dex. We’ll complain if something is out of line. So far, food is one of the few places where that’s not likely to happen. Enjoy it while it lasts.”

Dex flashed her a quick, charming grin. “Spoken like a true spacer. Get some sleep, we’re leaving at first light tomorrow.”

She nodded and waited until he had walked away before focusing on the distant voices again.

“-need to focus on getting us back into orbit,” Lang was saying. “I can’t be tempted to run after phantoms that may explain why everything changed. Report your theory in your personal log and keep an eye out for evidence that may support it. But we’re not going out of our way to investigate. What we already know is already an intelligence goldmine, in needs to get back to the fleet.”

“It’s your call,” Priss replied. “We’ve got the sanitizer set up in the van. Be sure to get cleaned up, it’ll help you think better.”

“Sure. I’ll run myself through before I pass out tonight.” It didn’t sound like he was going to make a serious effort at remembering it, though.

Aubrey lay back on her sleeping bag and looked up at the stars, trying to make some sense of it all. The martians were awfully attached to their records and their books. Back in Dallas they’d be considered pretty boring, stick in the mud types. Then again, when things around them did get exciting it was a little more than she was comfortable with. A lot more, actually. They were a mystery all around.

A few minutes later Priss walked back into what passed for their campsite, dressed not in the glossy shelled suits the martians had been wearing since they first met but a more form fitting coverall with a many pocketed belt. She was still armed with some kind of pistol on one hip but she didn’t cut quite as dangerous looking a figure as she normally did. Priss went over to her pile of gear and fished out another of the recording devices like Lang had and walked over to lean against one of the big, self-propelled boxes the martians kept they toys in.

Aubrey pushed herself up on her elbows to get a better look and said, “You guys sure seem to like those things.”

“What, this?” Priss held up the recorder. “No one likes a noose. That’s why we gave the big one to Lang.”

“What’s a noose?”

An exasperated look crossed Priss’ face. “Right, you probably never heard of hangings, have you?”

“Only the kind that go on walls.” She sat up and crossed her legs pretzel style. “I get the feeling that’s not what you’re talking about.”

“No. Hanging was a kind of execution – barbaric, I know, I know.” Aubrey closed her mouth over her complaint and Priss pressed on. “Even we debate their usefulness and morality, trust me. But I’ve always felt someone who’s entrusted with the power of lethal force should really face the potential for lethal retaliation so I’ve got no problem with spacers or soldiers having to face execution from time to time.”

“But what does that have to do with your recordings?” Aubrey asked, still trying to puzzle that out.

“Spacers used to wear the log recorders on lanyards so they wouldn’t get away from us in zero gravity.” She mimed the recorder dangling from her neck. “Nooses go around the neck, and so… it’s a noose.”

“No, what does recording things have to do with an execution?

Priss actually laughed at that. “Well, because any time there’s a record of what you’ve done it’s the first step in getting caught in a mistake. The mission log has been the primary evidence used to convict dozens of spacer commanders of negligence or criminal behavior.”

“But they’re the ones that record it!” Aubrey protested, agog. “How does that help you catch them doing something wrong?! All they have to do is say they did everything right.”

Priss started to reply, then stopped herself and thought for a moment. “You work with the traffic control AI in your city, right?”

“Yes…” Aubrey was trying to track with the change of subject but couldn’t.

“How do you tell when something has gone wrong?”

“Well, generally the AI just comes to us with a traffic hang-up it can’t diagnose or, more rarely, a set of conflicting priorities it can’t sort out.” Aubrey pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them, crossing her legs at the ankles and thinking for a moment. “There’s also a transponder in vehicles that can ping the system for attention when they aren’t getting instructions from the traffic AI or the directions are contradictory. Or the vehicle has just been kept in one place for longer than five minutes. And there’s a communications line people can contact directly if they feel their case needs attention, although that happens about once a year so it’s not common.”

Priss nodded, her brow furrowed. “See, that’s what I don’t get. You understand diagnostic communication in mechanical contexts but not social ones. That’s basically how you catch negligence, human error and flat out dishonesty via logs. Take my old ship, the Armstrong. Now if the log says it was destroyed in orbit we know something’s gone wrong and we start investigating – ships aren’t supposed to be destroyed outside of a scrapyard. If the Armstrong’s captain reports the ship is intact but several members of the crew report it was destroyed using these,” she held up her own log recorder, “then we know something went wrong, otherwise the crew wouldn’t disagree on what happened. And, of course, you can always go and look yourself. If someone told me the Armstrong was fine but I couldn’t find the ship in orbit – or wherever else it was supposed to be – then I’d know something was wrong and that they were lying to me.”

“That…” Aubrey thought about arguing whether all this lying was really going on or what good it did but stopped herself. She had plenty of first hand experience that told her this was just how they thought – paranoid certainty. “Nevermind. What are you going to record?”

Priss sat up a little straighter, looking proud of herself. “My theory of what happened in the last two hundred years.”

That got Aubrey’s attention. “You have one? Did you get that much out of the datahub we stopped at?”

“Not really, but there were two major discrepancies that I did notice.” She ticked them off on her fingers. “One, no mention of Unified Field Theory technologies. And I’m not just talking about gravity fields or superluminal drives. They don’t even talk about simple things like gravitic power generators, which were in development at the time of Departure. Second, none of the major terraforming projects that were slated seem to have been carried out. I found a reference to Cairo as the capitol of Egypt, even though it was supposed to move to Thebes once the terraformers finished with the desert in that region. For that matter,” she gestured at the desert around them. “There’s this. Pretty sure this was supposed to be terraformed too.”

“Where do you get all this knowledge about terraforming plans from?” Aubrey asked, more curious than skeptical.

“I may have a degree in communications technology, with a minor in communications theory, but my parents were terraformers from a family of terraformers.” She said it with a certain air of pride. “They knew the science backwards and forwards and they were always musing about how nations on Earth might be executing environmental renovation with the greater resources they had on hand. The Sahara project was supposed to start only a few years after the Departure and a lot of terraformers loved theorizing about it. I don’t think I’m going to mention to my parents how little actually got done if I ever see them again. The spacer daughter is disappointment enough.”

“Okay…” There was a rabbit trail she didn’t want to go down. “So no Unified Field Theory, whatever that is, and no terraforming. How is that enough to build a theory?”

“They’re both technologies directly tied to planetary colonization.”

“So?”

Priss scooted closer and lowered her voice, although Aubrey wasn’t sure who she feared would overhear her. “Do you know what a sodomite is?”

Again a strange twist in the conversation, again she couldn’t follow. But this time she at least knew the answer. “Someone who likes anal sex.”

Yes but-” Priss pinched the bridge of her nose. “No books. Right, do you know the origin of the word?”

“Origin?” She rolled that over in her mind. Naturally she didn’t know the origin of the word – who thought about things like that? Other than people with degrees in communication theory, apparently. “No. I don’t know the origin of the word.”

“It comes from the Bible, a book I’m willing to bet you’ve never heard of-”

“Correct.”

Priss ignored the interjection. “-that mentions a city called Sodom who’s residents wanted to rape men who were passing through town. Who wanted to sodomize them. The story says the city was destroyed as a result.”

“That’s a fucked up story,” Aubrey said, leaning slightly away from Priss and taking a sudden interest in the scrub brush around the camp site.

“Sodomite,” Priss said, continuing to ignore her interruptions, “came to be a pejorative aimed at a sexual fetish and eventually most people forgot it was connected to the city at all. But originally it was the name for a group of people who were justly punished for attempting a terrible crime.”

“I don’t see how that explains anything-”

But Priss was on a roll now, jumping to her feet and pacing, gesturing to illustrate points. “You see, it’s the nature of language to devolve over time. Language is at its best when it’s very specific, because then the words have the most meaning. Sodomites were a specific group of people loathed for crimes against another specific group. But over time the word becomes more general – sodomites were anyone who were vaguely interested in a fringe sex practice, unfairly painting that larger group of people with some of the guilt of the original Sodomites. It’s a classic example of how a term for a disliked group of people can become a general smear for any outsider that seems vaguely threatening. Just like happened here on Earth shortly after the departure.”

Aubry shook her head, dismissing the whole line of reasoning as silly. “Priss, that’s impossible. The trademark of sapiens societies is inclusion, not exclusion-”

“Oh, but you do!” Priss exclaimed, crouching back down and crowding Aubrey, her eyes full of the excited light of someone who’d pulled a prank on another. “You do have an exclusionary term, Aubrey, you’ve been calling us it since we got here. And I think you took it from the people Earth fought and destroyed a short time after the Departure. The Martians.”

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Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Ten – The Chase

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They piled into the van at full tilt, the robocrate struggling to keep up. Dex was in the process of battening down the solar panels as Lang and Priss burst out of the building and, between the three of them, they managed to haul the self-propelled box into the vehicle almost without breaking stride. Lang pushed his way into the driver’s seat and started the van without bothering to strap in, beside him Priss was connecting to the rudimentary sensors they’d pulled off the drop pod and attached to the van’s roof during their brief overhaul the previous day.

Dex pushed the Terrans into the back seat and then started unpacking the crate they’d left in the van. The one with the light missile tubes in it.

“We’ve only got two of those, Dex,” Lang said as he put the van in gear and peeled out of the parking lot. “No firing blind. I want you to get a sensor profile lock from Priss before you waste a shot. No playing cowboy.”

“Me? When have I ever done that?”

“Any day ending in Y,” Priss said.

Their words were lighthearted but their tone was tense and focused, the banter a verbal filler to keep their minds occupied while they ran through procedures they’d drilled on dozens of times but hoped never to do when playing for keeps. Lang gave his armory man something more constructive to think about. “I need to go west, Dex. What do I look for?”

“We need a highway. They called them Interstates, back in the day.” There was a lengthy pause, maybe six or seven seconds, during which Lang was too busy driving to look at what was going on, although he suspected Dex was punching in his authorization to release the missile tube. “They tended to accumulate large shopping or vehicle service centers around them,  if I recall correctly.”

There was a grunt, then Sean said, “The highway is to the north, although I don’t know as anyone uses it anymore. Corporal, where the fuck are we going? You said we have rights, shouldn’t one of them be knowing where the fuck we’re going?”

That was actually a good question. He’d never been a prisoner of war but every spacer was briefed on their rights as one. He knew a prisoner couldn’t be removed from the planet he was captured on without being told but within that very broad limit a prisoner basically didn’t need to be told where they were. The problem was, he was hardly dealing with a traditional prisoner of war scenario.

“Nevada. We’re going to Nevada.” He tapped his AI to life and brought up a navigation overlay. “North it is.”

He wove through the quiet streets for several tense seconds, leaning forward to scan as much of the sky as the van’s windshield would allow. He was just beginning to think they’d somehow slipped through unnoticed when Priss said, “Sensor contact.”

“What’s happening?” Aubrey asked from the back, her quiet voice carrying with odd clarity.

A dozen possible scenarios ran through Lang’s mind, many pulled from training drills. A few from a terrifying, ill-fated visit to Minerva during his first year of service. None even remotely relevant to their situation. “I don’t know.”

He drove faster.

“Contact is two point five kilometers and closing, approaching from east-northeast at a rate of two hundred meters per second.”

In ten seconds they were going to have a very clear idea of what was coming.

Two hundred?!” Sean sounded incredulous. “Nothing can maneuver that fast in the city. Not unless it’s on a monorail.”

“I think it’s airborne, Sean,” Dex said.

“Air travel has been banned for the last sixty years as part of UNIGOV’s environmental reforms,” Aubrey said. “If it’s flying, it’s not from Earth. Must be one of your friends, come to pick you up.”

She sounded almost hopeful at the prospect. Lang didn’t share her optimism. A second later the vehicle slipped into view. It was a long, flat wing with an enormous fan blade rotating in a large, circular housing at either end. It didn’t seem to have a clear front or back, although there was a pod bristling with protrusions slung beneath the center of the wing.

“A bicopter?” Lang snorted. “That shit can’t even break atmosphere. No way the fleet sent it down.”

“But air travel poses a hazard to the avian-”

Lang shut her up by slamming the accelerator down and whipping the vehicle around the nearest building, putting it between them and the bicopter. “Priss, I want a ping on the HUD every time that thing establishes line of sight with us.”

“On it.” An instant later his display blinked red in the rear righthand quadrant. As Lang slammed the brakes and fishtailed to the left, breaking contact, Priss added, “There’s no place on that thing big enough to hold an adult human and a piloting cabin. It’s a drone.”

“Can you jam it’s controls?” Lang asked.

“Don’t know enough to try yet,” she answered.

“How can you not know how your own fucking equipment works?” Sean demanded.

“He said it’s not ours.” Dex was busily clipping himself to a set of hardpoints in the floor intended for locking in the vehicle’s removable seating. They’d left one row of it out entirely and Dex was taking advantage of the space to set up shop. “No colonial expeditionary force relies on drones. They’re the shit for planetary defense, when you can count on friendly satellite and ground networks to keep them running. But off your own territory they’re just shit.”

A bright flash of light shot over the top of the building they were using for cover, hitting an overgrown tree on the other side of the road that flashed into a cloud of woodchips and vaporized sap instantly. “And that drone is outdated, too,” Lang said. “I know laser fire when I see it.”

“Lasers are outdated now?” Aubrey asked.

That didn’t warrant a response so he asked, “Anyone spotted the highway?”

“There,” Dex said. Since Lang was in no position to turn and look, Dex added, “Four blocks north east, big open stretch of road.”

“Great. We’ll just drive right at the flying gun platform. Everybody hold on.”

Lang broke away from hugging the buildings and swerved the van into a roundabout, spinning around 270 degrees on the compass and cutting back in the direction Dex had indicated. The bicopter had kept a high elevation up until that point but as they started back towards it the drone lost altitude quickly, almost skipping back and forth through the air as it tried to keep its weapons trained on them. It only fired twice more, both shots going fairly wide.

“At least the fucker can’t shoot,” Dex said, sounding almost cheerful. “Want me to take a shot at it boss?”

“Sensor lock, Dex,” Lang snapped.

The bicopter swooped down closer still, juking back and forth across the street in sudden, insectoid bursts of movement as its guns tracked the van, short laser bursts chewing up the pavement every half second or so as it got more aggressive.

“Calculating firing solution,” Priss said, hunkering down over her sensor equipment, wrapping the wires that connected it to the van around her forearm to keep it from going too far if her grip slipped.

“Think a carbine will have any effect?” Dexter had already pushed the side door open and leaned out, his harness creaking against the anchors points.

“I’ll get it, sit tight,” Priss muttered.

“Better to save the heavy stuff,” Dex yelled over the wind, his short barreled energy weapon tracking the bicopter back and forth.

“Keep going for a solution but let him have his fun.” Lang whipped the van onto an overgrown on ramp fast enough that the undercarriage popped loudly in protest.

The bicopter skidded to one side and dropped altitude, spinning on its axis to bring the van under its guns once again, chewing through rusted guard rails and scattering hot metal debris in front of them and forcing Lang to curse and skid the van in a snaking pattern, brakes screeching, around the largest pieces. Despite his best efforts something skipped up and through the open door, smashing against the other side of the van to a chorus of screams and yells.

“Everything okay?” Lang asked, only half listening for an answer.

“Fine,” Dex bit out.

“Shit, Lang, call your guys and tell them to back off.” Sean sounded more pissed than scared, so Lang figured he was fine too.

The bottom of the ramp came up and merged into a long stretch of road with no noticeable cover save an overpass a few dozen feet from the ramp. There were buildings across the road that would serve better but a low concrete ridge divided the road. Lang bared his teeth and floored the accelerator. “Lean in and brace yourself, Dex!”

There was a scrabble and a clunk from the back and Lang grabbed the lever by his seat and yanked it up, firing the maneuvering thrusters they’d scrounged off the pod. They’d calculated the drop pod was six times the mass of the van. It gave them a lot of thrust to work with. The amount of thrust was supposed to be proportional to how hard he was accelerating, but Dex had repeatedly stressed that if he was hitting the gas too hard there was a chance the van would jump.

“Hold together, now,” Lang whispered, then floored the accelerator.

Although someone who specialized in guns, not thrusters, Dex proved to be correct. Putting thrusters on the van was, indeed, enough to make it jump like a jackrabbit.

The vehicle soared up and over the barrier. It was like a drunkard trying to fly a warehouse with a rocket on one end through the Galileo lunar maze. But it worked. The van crashed to the ground on the other side of the road, groaning as it slid along the pavement and shooting sparks from the underbody, the frame protesting loudly. Lang snapped the wheel hard to the left and brought the van ninety degrees around into the furthest traffic lane just before it jumped the curb and went into the building beyond. The side door rolled forward and slammed in Dex’s face as he tried to lean back out. Behind them the bicopter swung around to reacquire its target, the pilot having anticipated they would follow normal traffic patterns and gone in the opposite direction.

“What did you do to the emergency brake?!” Sean demanded.

“Emergency brake?” Lang snorted. “I told you it was an emergency system!”

“Firing solut-” Priss was cut off as Lang snapped the van around another corner into a side street, breaking her sensor contact.

“It’s done more good as thruster control than a break,” Dex said, wrenching the door back open and drawing a bead on the corner of the building, firing charged plasma at the bicopter as it came around the corner at them. “Besides. Don’t all pilots think emergency go is better than emergency stop?”

The side road was only wide enough for two vehicles at a time and the buildings to either side loomed very close to the street, forcing the bicopter to either pull up above the taller, nine story building for room or fly with very little margin for error. The pilot chose to do the later and Dex’s plasma bursts walked slowly forward from a glancing hit by the tail to the main body of the craft. There wasn’t much effect.

“Firing solution achieved,” Priss said, bailing out of her seat and grabbing a missile tube off the floor and holding it out to Dex. “Shoot the damn thing for real!”

Dex braced the tube across the length of the van, one end supported on his shoulder, the important end pointed up and out the door.

“Clear backblast!” Lang snapped. Priss grabbed the door on the other side of the van and yanked it open before diving into the back seat with the Terrans amid more incoherent yelling.

Dex watched it just long enough to see Priss get out of the way. “Backblast clear.”

“Brace yourselves back there!” The distressed sounds from the back seat faded but Lang was ignoring them already. “Fire tube one.”

The counterweight in the launcher shot out one side of the van, bouncing off the pavement and through the window of an empty office building while the missile shot up and fishtailed to acquire its target, buffeting the rear of the van with its exhaust and rocking it violently. There was a tense moment while the spacers wondered if the bicopter pilot would have the reflexes and technological assistance to target and shoot down the missile before it hit them – then there was a loud boom and a flaming hunk of metal smashed to the ground and skidded to a stop a short way behind them.

Almost as soon as it registered the wrecked bicopter was fading into the distance as the van sprinted down the empty city streets. Lang took his foot off the accelerator and let some speed bleed away. “Priss, contacts?”

She hauled herself up and into her seat again, dodging Dex as he closed up the doors on either side of the van. “Nothing on sensors now.”

Lang let the van coast to a stop as he thought for a moment. “Keep a weather eye on it, Priss.” He did a loop around a block and took them back towards the downed bicopter. “This is enemy territory. Dex, let’s you and me steal some shit. For intelligence gathering purposes.”

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Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Nine – The Failsafe

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“You can’t patch the thrusters in here. This is an auxiliary system. Look, it’s got the yellow and black emergency stripe.” Lang shook his nanosealer at Dex. “Do you even know what this is?”

“It’s a nanosealer. It uses nanotechnology to take things apart and put them together again.”

Lang growled in exasperation then pointed at the lever by the van’s driver’s seat. “This. Do you know what it is?”

“Nope.” Dex grinned. “Do you? Because if you don’t, we won’t know when to activate it anyways.”

“That’s not the point. Auxiliaries are there as a failsafe. If we’re taking it out we should at least know what kind of shit we’re risking.” Lang shook his head and considered disconnecting the thruster control from the mystery lever.

“You could just ask someone familiar with this control scheme,” Dex said, prodding gently.

It wouldn’t be so bad if this wasn’t the fifth time he’d brought it up. “No. We’ve spent too much time thinking we can make headway by playing nice with two low ranking technicians from the Terran government. We’re spacers, ground bound in hostile territory. It’s time to start acting like it. Just because Earth is the homeworld doesn’t mean it’s going to be any more hospitable to us than anywhere else.”

“I get it, Lang, but-”

He pulled the mission log recorder out of its leg pocket and shoved it at Dex. “Do you want this? Because I seem to recall that you and Priss were pretty eager not to get stuck with it. Was it because of shit like this? Was it this fucking shit you wanted to avoid?”

Dex looked down and away. “It was this fucking shit.”

“Thought so,” Lang muttered, shoving the log back in its pocket and sealing it. An uncomfortable silence fell around the van for a minute. After letting his temper settle Lang tapped the mystery lever and said, “Why this set up for the thruster activation?”

With a deep inhale Dex shook himself off and looked back at the setup. “It’s a simple connection point. We can let the thruster computer we pulled do most of the think work that needs to happen, so long as you tie it into your AI it should fire thrusters in the direction you’re steering whenever you pull the lever. It’s pretty much the best access point for the system that doesn’t require us to try and parse the van’s onboard computer language and patch it in that way. We could try that, of course, but it’s another point of failure for the system. And we’ve already got two.”

“Two?”

“The van chassis isn’t built to handle the kind of stress the thrusters put on it. And, even nanosealed to the chassis, there’s a chance the thrusters will rip free when you fire them, so I guess that’s kind of two problems.”

“I assume there’s another one coming?”

Yes.” Dex kicked the underbody of the vehicle. “We’ve attached the thrusters to the bottom of the chassis. Because that was the only way to secure them to it safely. But it also raises the possibility that they’ll knock the van airborne when fired. And it isn’t built for hard landings, either.”

“So switching them on can kill us in any one of three fantastic ways already,” Lang mused. “Why run the risk of dying because they won’t work?”

“That’s the logic, yeah.”

It was a good argument. “Is there anything else we need to do if we don’t change the control system?”

“Not really. Just close it up and she’ll be ready to leave tomorrow.”

“Then do it. We leave for Priss’ datahub first thing in the morning. And have Priss take stock of our supplies and work out how long they’ll last with the dietary needs of our prisoners factored in.” Lang turned and stalked towards the building, mood still foul. Priss looked up when he burst through the door but didn’t try to stop him as he took the stairs up, buried in his own thoughts.


The roof of the library was a flat, unadorned stretch of gravel punctuated by pipes of unknown material and purpose. Other than the small room at the top of the stairs that held long dormant machinery there wasn’t anything that approached a significant feature. Lang found the bleak solitude peaceful, and he’d been enjoying it for the last hour or so, since he’d left the others after dinner. The Terran sunset was much more spectacular than what they got on Copernicus. Probably something to do with the cloud cover – the terraformers were still trying to work out the nuances of a healthy water cycle back home. By definition, Earth already had it perfected.

The last streaks of sun were fading from the clouds when the door to the roof swung open and Sean wobbled over to join him.

“Should you be up and about?” Lang asked.

“Probably not, according to Priss.” He slumped down, elbows braced on the ledge that ran around the roof. “Surprised you bothered asking. Is the health of prisoners a major concern for you spacers?”

“Hm. In general, I suppose. It can’t be priority one all the time but it’s not like we don’t think about it.”

Sean shook his head and went back to staring at the sun for a moment. “What would it take to convince you to send Aubrey back?”

“That’s not generally how prisoner exchanges work,” Lang said slowly. “And it’s not a thing I’m willing to consider out of the goodness of my heart, either.”

“I don’t care about prisoner exchanges or whatever. I’m willing to do all your maintenance work on the van until you get where you’re going. Dex can work oversight-”

“I appreciate the thought and, believe me I understand why you’re making the offer but I don’t intend to treat either of you as anything other than prisoners of war.” The last reflections of Sol were fading from the clouds above and the sky was getting dark so he turned from the scenery to his prisoner. “That’s not a threat or even a downgrade, really. Prisoners of war are entitled to very well defined treatment. We’ll feed you, keep you out of combat, even pay you for any work you do if-”

“Sapiens don’t use shit like money,” Sean said derisively. “It wouldn’t be worth anything. Why not-”

“Fine,” Lang snapped. “I wasn’t about to offer you work anyway, as you might have already guessed. I don’t care about your fucking holier than thou sapiens shit. I’m trying to explain how things are going to be going forwards. It’s important that these forms be observed, Mr. Wilson.”

“And why the fuck is that?” Sean pulled himself to his feet, wobbled a bit, then leaned back down against the ledge again, whatever movement he’d been about to try aborted. “No one on Earth cares about this shit, Corporal Langley.”

“Maybe. But one thing I know for sure about colonial governments, Sean.” He leaned in close to the off balance man, making him shrink down and away. “They can’t let people go off the reservation. By which I mean, betray the government or what it stands for. When people do that, they’re punished, and treason is usually punished by death.”

“Capital punishment is-”

I don’t care!” Lang adjusted his voice down from a yell before he continued. “I suspect your vaunted UNIGOV is bound by the same necessity as those of the Triad worlds – hell, even Rodenberry has executed a few people and they’re almost as sanctimonious as you. And what I know with absolute certainty is that they can kill any of you with that damn medical nanotech whenever they want.”

He pulled himself upright again and turned away, letting the stress bleed off a bit before he went on. “Look, I know you didn’t come out here for trouble and I’m sorry we’re the disaster that fell in your lap. But operational parameters call for me to get home in any way I can, with the smallest civilian impact possible. I want you and Aubrey to go home, but I can’t run the risk that letting you help us and then walk away will get you branded collaborators. You’ll be treated as prisoners of war, within the Triad Conventions, and be formally returned to your government at the earliest opportunity. That’s the best I can do for you.”

As Lang walked to the stairway door he heard Sean push of the ledge and take a few uncertain steps across the roof, saying, “Come on, Lang, that’s stupid. UNIGOV is a sapiens structure not – dammit, Langley, listen – ” A frustrated growl cut off the protest. Lang ignored it and stepped back inside, headed towards the stairs. Behind him echoed Sean’s parting, “Yeah, fuck you, too.


“Our prisoners are pretty tight lipped today,” Priss said.

After a second argument on the subject of prisoners with Dex that morning Lang really wasn’t in the mood to cover the subject again. He was about out of diplomacy, too. “Just because we’re away from the others doesn’t mean you won’t piss me off questioning this, Priss.”

“Who died and made you LT?” She muttered, going back to trying to dump the datahub.

He thought about reminding her that she, too, had passed on being the one in charge. Had practically pushed it on him.

First rule of space: Bitching helps nothing.

He walked away from the cluster of consoles where Priss was working to check on the jury-rigged power feed. When they’d arrived half an hour ago they’d found that the building basically just lacked power to run all the computers inside. The tech itself had basically been shut down and abandoned, much like many of the cars they’d seen in their drive over. Once again Lang wondered what, exactly, had happened forty years ago to leave the city entirely abandoned. With the new hostility between himself and the Terrans he doubted he’d get a clear answer by asking. Hopefully something in the datahub’s files could help.

Their portable generator was enough to get a few of the computers running and the patchwork connection they’d scraped together was holding up for the moment. They were eating through fuel at an alarming rate but hopefully the solar panels on the van could make up for the power shortfall a little bit. It’d take some more tinkering.

“I’m in.”

Lang pulled himself out of the mental bookkeeping and hurried back over to look over her shoulder. “Let me see.”

“I’m just going to dump these drives as fast as I can,” Priss said, holodisplays flickering hypnotically as her AI worked to parse all the information pouring in. “Anything I should filter for?”

It did make more sense to grab everything so they could digest it at their leisure. “Grab current events or historical documents first. Then technical information. Then whatever’s left.”

She nodded and kept working. Lang moved over to one of the robocrates, fishing for portable data storage to swap for the drive Priss was using once it filled. He’d just found one that read as mostly empty when the cast of the hololight behind him switch from a peaceful greenblue to an angry red. He bolted upright and said, “What happened?”

“I don’t know. Some kind of lockout is trying to kick in. The AI is keeping it back so we’ve still got access but something’s also wiping the files.” Priss was working overtime but Lang knew she wasn’t trained in infotech warfare. Suddenly the building around them came to life, dormant machines kicking to life for reasons unknown. “Shit. Wiping all the files. Some kind of malware buried in the – Fuck.”

“What?” Lang tried to parse everything happening on her holodisplay but most of it was unfamiliar screens. He was completely lost. So he went with his gut. “Is there some kind of self-destruct in this facility?”

“No. But it just radioed someone somewhere.” Priss glanced up. “My guess is, UNIGOV did not want anyone digging through the past, and they installed a failsafe to wipe the data and tell them someone was here if anyone tried.”

“Break off, pack up.” He was already keying the generator’s remote shutdown. “It’s time for us to go.”

Next Chapter

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Eight: The Off Switch

Previous Chapter

“We might have turned him off.”

Lang stared at Priss in disbelief. “Again. Only make sense please.”

She nodded, pacing nervously through the mostly empty room in the far corner of what they’d surmised were the library’s management offices. “We were looking at the nanotech samples Dex got from Sean, right? Dex knows a fair bit about our nanotech logic, since so much work on weapons and other advanced electronics requires nanotools. And Sam – you know Sam Greenwald from Armstrong’s comm division?” Lang nodded his recognition of the name. “He did some programming work on the last set of upgrades we did before we left Copernicus and I assisted as part of my last evaluation. Between the two of us we actually know more about nanotech logic than infotech programming so-”

“Priss, I know your pedigrees in the field of study. Get to what happened please.”

“Right. So the point is, nanotech has to be very, very conservative in the way it uses space. That limits the hardware architecture in ways conventional computers aren’t, which, in turn, limits the basic principles behind software engineering. They haven’t changed much in the past two hundred years, so we were able to crack the basic programming much faster than we could with that.” She gestured to the pile of equipment they’d been using to try and crack into the local Internet. “It’s actually very simple stuff, in theory anyway. We’re pretty sure it’s built to mimic the body’s natural processes in repair and immune system function and we’re guessing it learns what to do using DNA as a starting point.

“So it doesn’t need to be programmed or require any outside source of instruction or control.” Lang nodded absently. That would go a long way to explaining why both their prisoners had it. “What does it run off of?”

“Again, not sure but Dex thinks it draws power from the body’s natural metabolic processes. He mentioned seeing a lot of food in their packs when he searched them, thinks they may need more calories per day than us as a result of the upgrade.” Priss waved that off and kept pacing. “Not important. What is interesting is that there are a few preprogrammed instruction sequences in the setup and one of them is very clearly an off switch.”

“And an on switch, one would presume.”

“They’re actually the same switch, as it turns out. But at the time we were looking at it, it so happens that it was an off switch. Because the nanotech was on.”

“Not when I looked at it.”

“Yes, because it had left Sean’s body and thus, it’s source of power. But once we put it in a properly calibrated magnetic field from one of our nanolathes it reactivated almost immediately.” She shrugged. “It was a bit surprising and a little worrying so we immediately hit the off switch. Then you radioed and said Sean had collapsed.”

“And you think those two are connected?” Lang shook his head. “They’d have to be linked somehow.”

“Dex thinks quantum entanglement. I’m going with magic. About the same thing, really. But!” She held up a finger before he could get his next objection out. “We tripped the same switch again before I ran out to see you and Sean was already recovering. And I scanned the nanotech in his bloodstream as soon as I arrived. It was going through the same start-up sequence we saw the stuff in our sample do when we reenergized it. It restarted with the batch here.”

“Which raises the question…” He mused to himself. “Why have an off switch on a lifesaving system if the side effects include passing out, especially since that system is likely to activate in times of extreme danger?”

Priss took a deep breath and slowly let it back out. “It’s my opinion, based on what I saw on the scanners when I first examined him out in the parking lot and when I scanned him again after we brought him inside, that if Sean’s nanotech were to suddenly go inert, the quantities of it that exist in his brainstem and cerebellum would be sufficient to completely impede neural activity there. And if left alone for prolonged periods of time, that kind of impediment would be fatal.”

Suddenly the question of why was more than just academic. “Fatal. That’s your medical opinion?”

“As a triage medic, not a doctor, much less one familiar with medical nanotech, but yes, that’s my opinion. And!” She plopped down in a corner, seeming more relaxed now that she’d shared what was on her mind. “I did check when I examined Sean, he’s not in any danger of long term effects. When it’s active that medical nanotech is really good at its job.”

“That just makes the whole off switch business make even less-” He stopped, because he suddenly realized that as wrong.

“What?” Priss sat up a bit straighter, curiosity writ across her face. “Did you figure out why the off switch is there?”

“Did you find anything analyzing the nanotech that could help you crack into Earth’s Internet?” Lang asked.

“No.” She was clearly miffed at the way he’d ignored her question but too disciplined to comment. “Like I said, the tech itself looks very basic, not much onboard programming.”

“Then get back to trying to crack that. Lock up the nanotech sample for now, I don’t want any more accidents like before.” Lang turned away and paced into the depths of the building for a bit to think.

——–

“So are hot blondes common in Traffic Control on Earth?” Dex was sitting on a couch, his feet up on an empty bookshelf, watching as Aubrey sorted through food containers from her pack.

“Hot… blondes?” She repeated the words once or twice, trying to sort them into something that made sense, then gave up trying to parse space idioms. “To tell the truth, the Traffic Control AI does most of the work, so those of us who work on the human side of things are pretty rare all around. The local branch has sixteen people, not counting our manager.”

“Of course.” Dex gave her a funny look  but let her finish her inventory before speaking again. “Is there an issue with your food supply?”

“No. Not exactly.” She started repacking most of it, setting aside a handful of carefully chosen  packages and containers. “We build a certain buffer into what we pack, because there are accidents out here, even when we don’t run into martians in the middle of rummaging through old cars. Whenever the medinano kicks in it burns calories fast. Something like the cut from earlier probably isn’t that big a deal but passing out like that… I don’t know how much that took out of him. Sean’s going to be hungry when  he wakes up, but probably not enough to fuck with our food supply.”

“About how many calories a day do you usually eat?”

It was a weird question but with a quick mental tally Aubrey was able to come up with a fairly accurate number. “Four thousand to forty five hundred. Why?”

“Curious. That’s about fifty to a hundred and fifty percent more than what the average spacer eats.” He shrugged. “With the kind of figure you got it’s no wonder everyone wanted medical nanotech. You can eat whatever you want!”

“Well, it’s not like we can eat grass.” She rolled her eyes and got to her feet, moving the food closer to Sean and taking a moment to ease off her shoes. “And appropriate medical care is-”

“Does no one on your planet flirt, woman?!” Dex yanked himself into a sitting position, thumping his boots onto the floor emphatically. “Seriously, it’s like you’ve been coated in banter-proof teflon. What’s your problem?”

“Besides the crazy martian thing?” Dex nodded a very sarcastic ‘yeah’. “Probably the fact that I didn’t recognize half those idioms. And really, who flirts anymore? It’s one of those crazy male things most people have balanced out.”

“Now I’m lost. Someone should put together a cultural primer for all this stuff.” He flopped back in his seat. “How does the U.S. deal with other cultures now? Or is there a primer of some sort out in the Internet somewhere?”

“Earth hasn’t really had distinct cultures since the sapiens established UNIGOV.” Aubrey shrugged. “Most of our differences were driven by martian cultural narratives, anyway.”

Dex threw his head back and laughed, a deep and surprisingly resonant laugh for an otherwise wiry man. “Now that I find hard to believe.”

“I’m serious,” Aubrey said. “Look, martians – at least here on Earth – had a lot of weird hangups about culture and social norms. They insisted the masculine virtues be supreme over all others. I mean, just look at your team. You’re all hardnosed and stoic, no room for expression at all, even Priss.”

“Hardnosed. Like hardassed?” Dex muttered to himself for a moment before waving it off. “Sure, operational discipline is integral to being a spacer. But you’re not taking situations into account. Situations require different parts of us be at the front. We’re lost in terra incognita. It’s a very male situation that kind of requires stoicism. Now last year at the Armstrong’s Christmas party?” Dex grinned. “Let me tell you, Priss was pretty female then.”

Thank you, Dex. Now stop being an intolerable douche and patrol something.” Priss came around the end of the bookshelves, her gearbag slung under one arm. “I’m done in the back, so I can take over here.”

Dex didn’t even bother to look chagrined at being overheard. “Just saying how you’re definitely the most womanly woman on the Armstrong, Priss. You get anything off the Net?”

“I can make our AI talk to it now, yeah.” She tossed the bag on a couch and fished out her medical scanner. “And I know where we can find a sorta working datahub. But until we go there and physically interface there’s nothing more I can do.”

“Sounds like a cue for me to go look at the van.” Dex rubbed his hands gleefully. “I’ve got some ideas for upgrades. I’ve always wanted to put space thrusters on a ground vehicle…”

“What?” Aubrey looked at Priss in horror. “Is he sane?”

“You have to fail a mental health evaluation just to get considered for armory duty,” Priss muttered, running a scanner over Sean. “Knowing Dex, it’s been a dream since childhood.”

“She’s not wrong.” Dex started gathering his gear, chuckling to himself.

Aubrey kept her mind on Priss and trying to figure out what she was doing. Aubrey had never had an interest in medicine but she was hoping that, if push came to shove, she could figure out enough to use the martian’s medical devices. She was about to ask Priss about the scanner, figuring she’d told the martians enough about local tech it was about time she got some reciprocity, when she realized Dex was looming over the two of them.

Except when she looked up it wasn’t Dex, it was Lang, looking down and the two women and Sean with his increasingly common distant, reptilian expression. She squeaked involuntarily and scooted away a bit before regaining control of herself.

“Good. You’re all here.” Lang drew himself up a bit and let out a breath she hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “I want to leave as early tomorrow as we can.”

“Sure thing, boss,” Dex said cheerily. “I’ve got a list of the maintenance the van needs from Sean and I think I can figure most of it out from here. A couple of hours this afternoon should have that done and the upgrades I want to make won’t be more than another hour or so. We could leave this evening in a pinch.”

“Tomorrow morning is fine,” Lang said.

“If Aubrey gives me a hand we might even be able to send them on their way tonight,” Dex said. “We-”

“No.” Lang folded his hands behind his back. “I don’t want them working on the van anymore. And when we leave, we’re taking them with us. From this point forth I think it’s best that we view them as prisoners of war.”

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