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…”
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.