“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.”
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.