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.”