This Post is a Vacation Post

Hello dear readers! I’m grateful to those who tune in every week to read and I know it hasn’t been that long since our last break but I was on vacation with family for most of this week and just did not do as much writing as I would have liked. As a result this week’s post will be delayed until next Friday. Thanks for understanding,

Nate

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Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Eighteen – The Chair

Go Back to Chapter Seventeen

The worst part about running on a moon was the horizon. On a properly sized planet the horizon was a thing over there, beyond a point where you would conceivably have to worry about it. But on a moon the horizon was much closer, and the eye could fool you into thinking it was just a block or two away. On a moon like Minerva, where terraforming hadn’t yet built up a breathable atmosphere and the colonies effectively all existed under a dome, the confining nature of the near horizon and the visible ceiling could turn even the most acclimated spacer into a claustrophobe.

In point of fact a shot down spacer who had been forced to crash his  drop pod through the dome and immediately run from Minervan forces could easily find himself looking every which way, jumping away from any sound on the horizon, worried that at any second the helmets of hostile troops could pop into view and gun him down. It was all one could do to stay out of sight, away from major population centers, and hope that whatever small outbuilding you’d managed to press your back to was enough cover to pass the day. Even if the smell of hydroponic chemicals left you light headed and the lack of food made you drowsy and the clamps holding your hands behind your back were putting a crick in your back.

With a start Lang realized he’d been asleep. He wasn’t on Minerva. It was much worse this time around. And he hadn’t been under cover he’d been in a small grocery store, in the middle of getting supplies. He couldn’t remember any specifics beyond that but he did know he’d never fallen asleep checking peaches for freshness before.

In his professional opinion, something had gone very wrong.

Lang shook himself fully awake, the room around him coming into focus slowly as his head swam with visions of close horizons and armored ground troops pressing in all around him. After a moment the artificial sky of Minerva’s colony dome gave way to an equally metallic but much closer ceiling. He was leaning against the back of a fairly comfortable chair, his head lolling back to stare up at a fairly clinical ceiling. Diffuse light with origins he couldn’t quite pinpoint suffused the room, which looked an awful lot like a storage locker from flight school minus all the shelves and equipment. In fact, as he began to pick out subtle details he determined that yes, there were patches on the hard concrete floor that were less weathered at points where shelves or other furniture had been taken out of the room.

His hands were being held behind his back by some kind of restraint. That wasn’t a dream. But he wasn’t on Minerva and his entire drop pod hadn’t died on the way down. That had to be good for something.

Speaking of drop pod… yes, Dex and Priss were in the room with him. More good news, of a sort. Priss hadn’t been with them when whatever happened took place but she was there now, so at least they hadn’t been separated. On the other hand, now Priss was in the same situation as he and Dex were. Not ideal. On the balance he decided he could live with this outcome.

Both Dex and Priss, and presumably Lang himself, were seated in padded chairs with a bunch of points of articulation for ideal ergonomics. Their hands were held behind their backs with padded restraints that appeared to have been nanowelded directly to the back of the chair – not ergonomic at all. He wasn’t sure but he’d guess the restraints were used for the restraint of mental patients, which was an interesting thing to see. Even with their incredibly advanced medical systems the Terrans hadn’t figured out a good fix for the human mind it seemed.

“Hey.” It wasn’t the most brilliant thing to say but it was what came out of his mouth when he told it to make noise. Both Priss and Dex stayed quiet. Lang toyed with saying something a little more interesting but then settled for just turning the volume up. “Hey!”

Lang realized he was really, really thirsty. He looked around the room again, wondering if there was anyone else around he could ask for water. To his disappointment, there wasn’t. “Hey!” He said, this time addressing the room at large. “I’m thirsty!”

For the moment, the room was unmoved.

As his gaze came back down from the ceiling again Lang noted that both Priss and Dex were seated in comfortable, ergonomic chairs with wheels. An experimental kick confirmed that yes, his chair too could roll from one place to another. He decided to roll from his place over to Dex’s.

“Hey.” This time he gave Dex’s chair a hard kick. “No sleeping on the job, Corporal.”

“I’m up,” Dex muttered, his head jerking up from its resting place on his chest for a moment before drooping back down. He was not, in fact, up.

Lang rolled himself over to Priss next. Kicked the chair. “Hey.”

“Hey yourself,” Priss muttered, spasming in a way Lang took to be her trying to wave a hand at him but failing because she was restrained. That was enough outside stimulus to prompt her to pull her head up and actually look around. From the bleary look in her eyes and jerky, almost drunk way she moved, Lang had a pretty good idea what he’d looked like a few seconds ago. “Where are we?”

“I’m not Nostradamus,” Lang said. “How should I know? I wasn’t awake when they brought us here either.”

Priss craned her neck to see around him then said, “Dex, wake up.”

“I tried that already-”

“What?” Dex pulled himself up to a more normal sitting position and shook his head. “What happened?”

Lang glared at him a moment then said to Priss, “That only worked because I kicked him a second ago.”

“Sure. I remember eating something with Aubrey then getting woozy and passing out. I think her eyes were glowing.”

“Well, we were offered a sample of some kind of cake or donut in the shopping center,” Lang said. “Much the same outcome, except I don’t remember seeing anyone’s eyes glowing.”

“Tampering with donuts,” Dex muttered. “If UNIGOV will go so far they must be truly evil.”

“Evil is one of those meaningless categories you martians are so fond of.” The three of them started at the new voice and turned around in various directions, trying to pin down the source of it. Priss stopped first and Lang followed her line of sight to see an older man, perhaps in his late fifties, striding through a door he hadn’t been able to pick out of the wall a few seconds ago. “I assure you our decision was humane and posed no danger to anyone, not even you.”

To Lang’s surprise, the man was followed by two much more familiar faces. Sean and Aubrey filed in behind him, no longer dressed in the ridiculous street clothes they’d had made that morning – assuming it wasn’t the next day – but rather in a somewhat medieval looking tunic and belt costume with very modern looking pants underneath. All three tunics had an odd symbol on it halfway between a book and a star peaking over the horizon. Behind those three came a cart which, like their robocrates, appeared to be automated and under its own power, following its owner. Lang recognized what looked like all of their gear spread across the shelves of the cart and, again, it was nice to know it was close to hand but disappointing to know that UNIGOV had gotten their hands on it.

Sean stepped up to the three spacers, rubbing the back of his neck nervously and staying just far enough away that he couldn’t easily be kicked. There was a moment of awkward silence, then he said, “Hey.” Lang snorted a laugh but didn’t interrupt. “You guys look like you’re doing good. Now that you’re awake.”

All three spacers gave him hard looks and silence.

“Right.” He gestured to the older man who had entered with them. “This is Stephen Mond, he’s the overseer of this facility and he asked me to introduce you to him. Mr. Mond,” he gestured to each of them in turn. “These are Corporals Martin Langly, Priscilla Hu and Dexter Halloway. They say they’re from a place called Copernicus.”

“Well, I’d like to welcome you back to Earth,” Mond said, offering the three spacers a surprisingly warm smile. “Sean and Aubrey have told me a few things about you and I’m looking forward to learning more. I understand Corporal Langly is in charge?”

Lang nodded slowly. “That’s correct. Do you wish to negotiate some kind of parole status while we’re being held here?”

“Truth be told, my good man, I don’t even have the cultural context to know what you mean by that,” Mond replied. “And I’m not sure I care to. You’re not being held here, you’re simply being restrained until we can be sure you’re not a danger to yourself or others. Some of your peers that came down when your ship fell apart have been quite a handful without the restraints.”

“So there were other survivors?” Priss asked.

“Yes, indeed. At least twenty from the reports I’ve received. Probably more, given the quantity that landed in the oceans or in empty regions like you.” Mond spread his hands and shrugged helplessly. “Unfortunately, with the exception of you three, they’ve all been unwilling to speak to us about much beyond telling us their name and asking about methods to contact their superiors.”

“Speaking of which,” Lang said, “I would like to send a message to inform my superiors and our families that we are alive. Do you have humanitarian organizations that handle those duties?”

“Of course not.” Mond sighed and pulled something off of the cart. To Lang’s surprise it unfolded into a chair, which Mond sat in, folding his hands in his lap. “You must understand, UNIGOV is the primary humanitarian organization on Earth now. This is how sapiens ensure that no one is overlooked in the handling of humanitarian services. But that’s probably not that interesting to you. I have another matter that is probably of much more interest to you and your martian fellows. I’d like to make you an offer.”

“I’m not authorized to discuss anything on behalf of the fleet or the government of Copernicus,” Lang replied immediately.

“Then we can start with just you,” Mond said soothingly. “A show of good faith with you might go a long way to convincing your fellow martians to consider our proposal as well.”

Under normal circumstances it would be best to just ignore the offer. Giving the usual name, rank and service number plus asking to inform family that you were alive were generally all the conversation a prisoner of war was expected to have. But the Galilean Conventions weren’t signed by Earth, so there was no guarantee Lang could expect to enjoy their protections. And then there was the constant problem of an alien culture. They didn’t know much about the current crop of Terrans, and what they did know came from a very, very small sample. It couldn’t hurt to probe a little further and see what they wanted.

“Okay, tell me about this proposal. Be aware I’m not the marrying type.”

Mond didn’t dignify the joke with a response. “I want to discuss with you the possibility of resettling the martian population on Earth.”

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Seventeen: The Book

Go Back to Chapter Sixteen

“And they actually believe they are from extrasolar colonies?” Mund asked, pouring Sean a glass of water and setting it next to the small tray of pastries he’d had brought in. “Extraordinary.”

“If you don’t mind my asking,” Sean said, taking the glass, “where are they from?”

“The Vault’s records suggest that the martians put a colony ship into orbit some time before their extinction.” Mond activated a holodisplay that showed the schematics for something that could possibly be a colony ship, although Aubrey didn’t have any of the qualifications to tell for sure. “We believe it’s been in orbit ever since – it was apparently a self-sustaining biosphere and capable of supporting multiple generations with appropriate population controls – but something must have gone wrong with it. It’s broken up and pieces are falling to Earth everywhere. The process has been quite slow. Something incinerated in the air over Paris twelve hours ago.”

“Wait, just one?” Aubrey asked. “Lang said there were many of them up there. What was it he called it?”

“A fleet,” Sean said. “He said there was a fleet of space ships.”

“Exaggeration of available resources is a common martian trait,” Mund said. “Although Mr. Lang may not have been responsible for it. After all, martian leaders frequently passed false information to their followers in the old days, even some sapiens could be drawn in by their self-serving propaganda.”

“Has a consensus been reached on what to do about them?” Sean asked.

“Not yet. It’s a very difficult question, given how very little we know about how species in genus Homo interact with each other. We know that Homo neanderthalensis merged with Homo sapiens and Homo martian in archaic times, but we’re not really sure how the process was carried out or whether it can be duplicated now that the linguistic and tool using nature of existing humanity is so deeply ingrained. But we have to do something with them.” Mund spread his hands and shook his head sadly. “Another martian society existing alongside UNIGOV is likely to end in another mass extinction event and we can’t guarantee that we won’t be caught up in it.”

“No, wait,” Aubrey held up a hand, trying to figure out what Mund was getting at. “Why not just return them to their own people? They talked about whole planets they’d colonized – moons in some cases – wouldn’t it be easier to just send them back?”

Mund pursed his lips and raised his eyebrows. “Really? This is the first time I’ve heard that.”

“It was hard to get them to talk about anything else,” Aubrey admitted. “But I suppose if it was the only thing they’d known it would be natural for them to think about it a lot.”

“I’m surprised,” Mond said, taking a sip of water. “None of the other martians spoke much about where they came from to anyone they encountered, including agents of UNIGOV. Maybe these three are just chattier than most?”

“They were deliberately reluctant to discuss their home at first,” Sean said. “But after a few days Dex and Priss became a lot more open.”

“Lang went the other way,” Aubrey muttered.

“It must have been a case of reverse Stockholm syndrome,” Mond mused. “Still, it demands something of a different approach.”

“What’s Stockholm-”

Mund got to his feet, cutting Aubrey’s question off. “There’s something I’d like to show you.” He pulled a portable holodisplay from a slot in the table and flicked it to life, perusing the information then inputting a few commands as he started towards the door opposite the one they’d entered through. “I think it will help you see what it is we’re hoping to accomplish with these martians.”

It was an offer tantalizing enough that Aubrey and Sean got up to follow along without further question.

“Have you ever wondered,” Mond said as he led them down a corridor and a flight of stairs, “what exactly it is that separates us from the martians?”

“Culturally the biggest factor is generally considered the willingness to assume,” Sean said. “Gender roles, economic outcomes, even the nature of right and wrong are things that they take for granted.”

“That is the prevailing consensus. Did you do well in your anthropology courses?”

Sean nodded sheepishly. “I was above the grade curve.”

“What they don’t tell you in that class is what made the martians so damn confident.” Mond pushed through the door at the bottom of the stairs and stepped out into the massive room of bookshelves. A man was waiting there with a stack of books that Aubrey recognized.

“Those are the books we found in the library a few days ago.”

“Yes they are, Ms. Vance.” Mond picked up the guide to Milan and thumbed through it. “It’s these that make the martians so arrogant. These books that are so full of changeless words. Look at it.”

Aubrey did so, and saw a picture of a quaint cobblestone square, presumable somewhere in Milan, surrounded by facts and figures. “I see it. So what?”

“It’s the same,” Mond said.

“The same as what?” Sean asked.

“As itself. Every time you open it, a book is the same as it was before.” Mond snapped it closed and handed it back to the man he’d gotten it from; then turned and started marching down the long aisles of books. “People change. It’s a reality of life. In a few years every molecule in your body will be different from now. Your thoughts and decisions now will be very different from what they a few days ago simply because you met three martians. A book is the same from the day it is printed until the day it meets its end. Martians have always considered that to be a strength. They tie themselves to books because change frightens them, and having something that does not change, down to the very molecules it is made of, makes them feel safer. That sense of safety eventually morphed into their expansionist ways and superior attitude.”

“Oh, I see,” Aubrey said, getting excited. “Every sapiens understands that nothing can be known objectively, since humans are such limited creatures. That’s why we have to work together and cooperate, so we can make up for each other’s limitations. But books look like they’re objective, since they never change. So the shortcomings of whoever wrote them are cemented in the reader’s mind.”

“And whoever reads them winds up only seeing things only from the author’s point of view.” Sean added, nodding as well. “Thus cultural imperialism, class conflict, environmental degradation and the many other shortcomings of martian society.”

“Exactly!” Mund said, beaming at them. “The benefit of a book is, of course, that it helps people remember what was important when it was written. The danger is that people get trapped in what was rather than what should be.”

Mund pivoted unexpectedly, whipping around a corner and cutting perpendicular to the lines of shelves, his eyes tracking the numbers on the sides of the shelves. “Sapiens recognized the value of books, of course,” he said as he made sure Sean and Aubrey weren’t falling too far behind. “In fact some believe they may have been a sapiens innovation. But when technological innovations made books widely available their detrimental effects on the larger populace became clear. Martians and even many sapiens fell into very rigid patterns of thought based entirely on the books they read. Worse, many of them were thinking directly contradictory thoughts! Cooperation and growth as a society was becoming impossible.”

“That would make sapiens civilization difficult,” Aubrey admitted. ” How did UNIGOV solve the problem?”

“Ironically, it was martian technology that created the solution,” Mond replied. “Have you heard of Schrodinger’s Cat?”

“No. Don’t tell me martians created cats…”

Mond chuckled. “Nothing of the sort. No, Erwin Schrodinger theorized that if a cat was put in a situation where whether it lived or died was totally random and no one observed the outcome then, until someone looked to see if the cat was alive or dead, then the cat was both alive and dead.”

“So a book could tell you who you were and still be flexible enough to reflect who you need to be,” Sean mused.

“But with the technology Schrodinger had available such a thing wasn’t possible. It wasn’t until the digital revolution freed books from physical form that it was even theoretically an option, and martians had grown too attached to their unchanging narratives at that point to consider it.” Mond’s route took them out of the seemingly endless ranks of bookshelves and into a small open area, about thirty feet across. A small raised platform held a single book on a pedestal and Mond started up the steps towards it.

“After the unfortunate extinction of the martians the best sapeins minds gathered together to try and piece together what went wrong and how we might avoid it again. Time and again the necessity of shaking off these controlling narratives came up. Eventually, it was decided that all physical books would be gathered up and copied into digital media and committees would be formed to condense them into narratives that would encourage the sapeins way of life away from the most destructive excesses of the martians while still retaining all the benefits of the accumulated knowledge in what was written. This way, we never know exactly what the book will say before it’s opened. We aren’t shackled by what was, we aren’t proscribed by who we were yesterday. We don’t make assumptions about others based on dead, unchanging words. We are free to be anything and everything at once.” Mond picked up the book from the pedestal with something that bordered on reverence, and turned to hand it to Sean.

“It’s impossible to do justice to the experience in physical media,” Mond said as Sean opened the cover and flipped through a few pages. “But this, as nearly as we can create it right now, is a copy of humanity’s compiled wisdom, from the time the earliest hominid created writing until now.”

Sean handed the book to Aubrey. The cover had the same symbol as Mond’s tunic, the weird book with the star. She saw what it was, now. Potential, the kind of potential only people like Mond could put between the book’s covers. She flipped it open as Mond proudly said, “This is Schrodinger’s Book.”

From cover to cover, the pages were blank.

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Sixteen – The Vault

Go Back to Chapter Fifteen

The UNIGOV staff took Aubrey through the streets a short distance and stopped on a street corner. So far they weren’t answering many questions, other than that their brief exam of Priss suggested the martian woman was intoxicated in some way – which didn’t make any sense, but what had the last few days – and her medical systems weren’t purging agent responsible. When Aubrey explained that Priss didn’t have any medical systems they’d just insisted that she’d need to come along with them. The hope of getting away from the martians and their craziness was getting further and further away each day, it seemed, but UNIGOV was UNIGOV and she did as she was told.

They waited on the corner for about two minutes before a four seat UNIGOV jetcar picked them up and brought them a few more blocks through the city and stopped under the parking canopy of a nondescript building that definitely had public accommodation traffic surrounding it. They offloaded Aubrey and Priss with care and professionalism, carrying the still unconscious martian woman over to a nondescript blue vehicle halfway between a van and a jetcar. She hadn’t known flying vehicles larger than three meters were still allowed in the air after the transpiration reforms of the Environmental Restoration Act but there it was, at least six meters from bumper to bumper, three meters wide and clearly meant for microjet maneuvering.

Sean was standing beside it, calmly talking to two more UNIGOV people. “… very paranoid but surprisingly nonviolent,” he was saying as Aubrey climbed out of the car, the two UNIGOV staffers who had brought her carefully unloading Priss and moving her over to the other vehicle. “I think they could be acclimated very quickly.”

“You said they had a vehicle?” One of the staffers with Sean asked.

“A couple of blocks beyond the city greenline,” Sean said. “It’s got a bunch of their stuff in it, although I don’t know how much you can analyze without their artificial intelligence programs handy, it all seems to run through them.”

“We’ll look at them.” The UNIGOV man turned and looked at Aubrey with a bright smile. “Aubrey Vance. Glad to see you’re not hurt. I was just talking to Sean and he told me you’ve had a trying time and would like to go home. Yes?”

“Well… yes.” She shot a glance at Sean, who was still talking to the other person who had been there when she arrived, a short brunette woman.

“Unfortunately, UNIGOV is asking you to accompany us back to our operational headquarters for a debriefing. You’re not the only one to have an unfortunate encounter with martians in the last couple of days.” Without her noticing he’d gotten close enough to put a hand in the small of her back and begin gently moving her around towards the side door of the vehicle. “We’re trying to put together a profile of what kinds of people these are and what they want, so that UNIGOV can find the best solution for all involved.”

“I think they just wanted to get back into space…”

“Of course.”

And with that she was half seated in the passenger compartment of the vehicle as the UNIGOV man slid the door closed behind her. Bewildered she blinked once to adjust her eyes to the light and looked around. Sean was already strapping into the seat beside her. She did the same, swiveling her chair to see further back into the compartment. Unsurprisingly, the three martians all lay strapped to stretchers secured to the floor back there. She turned back to look at Sean, who was fiddling with the holodisplay built into his armrest.

“Sean. Did any of that strike you as… strange?”

He stopped for a moment, looking a bit uncertain. “What parts?”

“What…?” She gestured helplessly. “How about the way they seem to have found us?”

“We swiped our IDs in a city other than our residence and we didn’t secure authorized transport to get there. It raised a flag.” He started to go back to his display.

“But why did Priss pass out? Or,” she glanced back and confirmed that Dex and Lang both appeared to be sleeping quietly as well, “what happened to those two?”

Sean shrugged. “They said there was something in the food. Sapiens medical systems filter it out but martians aren’t equipped with that, so… I guess once they realized there were martians on the planet-”

UNIGOV drugged the food supply?” Aubrey shook her head in disbelief. “That’s absurd. Did you know the medical nanosystems let them see using our optic nerves?”

Sean slowly stopped fiddling with the holodisplay. “That would explain a few things. I didn’t actual tap my account at the grocery yet but they still found us here. Pretty impressive if you think about it.”

“This doesn’t bother you?” Aubrey shook her head. “For fuck’s sake, Sean. The fundamental aspects of sapiens society are do not assume and do not intrude. Don’t you think looking with our eyes – and not asking permission – is both assuming it’s okay and intruding on our fucking eyeballs?”

“We’ve never had to deal with martians intruding on a purely sapiens culture before, Aubrey,” he pointed out, his tone maddeningly reasonable. “UNIGOV is trying to adapt the tools on hand to deal with the problem without betraying its own principles. It’s not exactly a nice solution, I grant you, but it was effective in our case. And we’re going to be able to go home days earlier than I would have expected.”

“Sean, however they hijack our eyes, the system has been in place long before the martians came. The medical systems aren’t self-updating, when they need upgrades you have to visit a medicenter. We weren’t even in a functioning part of the city when we met Lang, the system UNIGOV used to find us had to have been already in place.” She wrapped her arms around herself, suddenly feeling very spooked. “What other things can they do that they never told us about?”

Sean swiveled his seat to face her directly. “Aubrey. UNIGOV is built on the sapiens way of life. It’s about trust and respect for one another’s expertise, about joining together to be more than individuals. United Government, recognizing that no one can do it all and we need each other. That’s the opposite of the martian way of runaway individualism and the drive to conflict. Just because we don’t understand everything UNIGOV does doesn’t mean they’re not acting in our interests. We’ve got to trust each other or we’ll wind up fighting like they do.”

“I know. I know, but…” She looked over at the three martians again, the weirdness of the last few days whirling through her head again. “They sure seem to trust each other just fine, even when they’re fighting.”

Sean sighed and turned his seat to face front again. “They’re martians, Aubrey. Of course they do.”

After a moment of hesitation Aubrey did the same.


It took just two hours of flight to get to their destination, and it wasn’t lost on Aubrey that UNIGOV had given them exactly as much insight into where they were going as Lang and his martians had. Less, actually, as Lang had at least mentioned a timeframe when they would probably get where they were going. Not that she could compliment him on outperforming UNIGOV on at least one metric, he was still unconscious when the doors opened a half a dozen UNIGOV people started unloading the martians from the flier and moving them to gurneys.

Aubrey stepped out of their vehicle and into an entirely enclosed hanger where three similar vehicles were parked. In fact, except for the fact that the place was entirely enclosed, the place felt very much like any one of a dozen carparks and garages she’d poked through with Sean in the past six months, right down to the aging concrete, flaking paint and high ceilings. Their pilots didn’t lead them after the people wheeling the martians away but rather took them in the opposite direction, up a short flight of steps and through a short hallway to a conference room much like any other she’d seen in her time working for UNIGOV.

At least, the furnishings were what she expected. Glossy black table, comfortable seats, holodisplays and the UNIGOV seal on the wall to her left. But just beside the seal was another symbol she didn’t recognize, a vertical line of boxes similar to a pattern called the film strip – after three days around Priss she found herself wondering about the origin of that term – that joined at a right angle with a second line at the bottom. From the point of joining a third curved line swept up between them. She couldn’t think of anything she’d seen like it other than the opening book symbols they’d found around the abandoned library but it was much more abstract and, unlike those, the curved line in the middle ended in what looked like a four pointed star with one point stretching back to almost touch the top of the vertical line.

It was bizarre. UNIGOV had an established set of icons. The seal was Earth with a pair of hands grasping across the Atlantic Ocean. Most of their branches used a variation of that seal which replaced the hands with something appropriate to their function, like a tree in the case of the Environmental Restoration Agency or, in the case of the Traffic Control Office, a compass. But nothing about this symbol was obvious. It wasn’t something she’d ever seen before, much less in conjunction with UNIGOV.

The wall opposite the mysterious symbol was a long row of windows looking down over something down below, which she couldn’t make out from her current vantage point. A man wearing a short sleeved green tunic, belted at the waist, stood with his hands behind his back, looking down at the scene below. From the loose folds of skin on his arms and the iron gray cast of his hair Aubrey could tell he was an older man, perhaps breaking the century mark, but still fit. He turned to greet them as the door to the conference room swung shut, his face more heavily lined than she’d expect from a man only starting his eleventh decade. But from those lines it seemed he was given to smiling as they crinkled into well-worn patterns when he grinned at them. “Well, well, well. What have we here? The first sapiens from my jurisdiction to have a run in with martians in over two centuries.” He strode around the table and extended a hand to firmly shake each of their hands. Aubrey noticed that his tunic had the strange book symbol from the wall over his heart. The UNIGOV seal was nowhere in evidence. “Glad to see you looking so well. I’m Stephen Mond, and I’m the administrator of this facility. The official term is Vault Keeper, but I find it rather gauche. Data storage and retrieval is my specialty, with a smattering of AI predictive coding thrown in. I’m afraid I’m a bit of a paleoenvironmentalist, as well. Product of the times, so I hope you’ll bear with me.”

“Not a problem, Keeper Mond,” Sean said, shaking his hand with a smile of his own. “Is Keeper Mond right?”

Mond waved it off. “Most just call me Mond. Or Mr. Mond. Or even just Director, although I don’t really care for that either.”

Aubrey shook his hand very mechanically, wondering how it was that, even though she was in a place almost identical to where she had worked for years, it still felt like she was caught in the storm of insanity that the martians had brought with them the moment they turned up. “What kind of facility is this, Mr. Mond?”

“Ah, this?” He turned and, with the sweep of an arm, led them over to the windows. “This is Schrodinger’s Vault.”

With a dramatic flourish of his hands and voice Mond directed them down to the floor some eight to ten feet below the level they stood at. It was filled, for hundreds of feet in any direction she could see, with shelves. And those shelves were full of books.