Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Twenty Three: The Pound of Flesh

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“This didn’t work out like I expected.”

Sean gave a short, bitter laugh. “You and me both. I don’t think we can leave it at that, Aubrey.”

“Why not?” Aubrey watched the two remaining spacers dig through their cart and study tools one at a time, doing her best not to try and tune in on what they were saying. “Sean, what just happened was not our fault. It wasn’t even Mond’s fault, really. What are we going to do? Ask UNIGOV to send them back into space? I don’t know if it’s even possible, even if they agreed to it.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about. You saw what Mond did. I get it-” he waved off the objections on the tip of her tongue, “-Dex wasn’t exactly making it easy. But a sapiens shouldn’t go grabbing at a weapon under stress. If anything, Mond should have dropped it as soon as Dex started pushing him. That’s a sapiens response to conflict, right? Step back from violence and listen to find the root of the problem.”

“That’s true. But if he’s been responding to martians all over the planet, digging into the archives here to help try and communicate with them, he might have been influenced by what he saw.” Aubrey rubbed the palms of her hands in her eyes. “We’re not exactly functioning in our normal mindset either, Sean.”

He nodded slowly. “I know. But Aubrey, this isn’t the only thing that doesn’t add up. That killswitch Priss tripped in the medical systems. The drone attack and all the weapons left lying around. The fact that no one ever thought it was important to think about the existence of interstellar colonies? It’s starting to feel like the spacers are right – we’re just as guilty of othering people as everyone else. Except UNIGOV also shoves us out, keeping secrets from us. They’re our own personal brand of martians and they distract us from it by beating the drum about all the things martians did in the past.”

“Or, maybe,” Aubrey offered weakly, “this is just how things turned out when they tried the UNIGOV experiment after the extinction event. They could be just as trapped or blind to their own weaknesses as we are. Were. You know what I mean.”

“That doesn’t make it any better.” Sean shook his head ruefully. Shot a glance at Dex’s body. Ran his hands through his hair. “I don’t know if sapiens has any meaning or not, but I sure as fuck wasn’t raised to shoot people and leave them dead in the basement of a building on the wrong damn planet. Whether UNIGOV believes it or not, I’m going to act like a sapiens should and help out where I can.”

Aubrey rolled it over in her mind, doing her best to square the circle. Sean wasn’t wrong. The core method of UNIGOV was to control narratives to build better people. If UNIGOV was, in fact, not living up to its own narrative that didn’t necessarily invalidate the narrative – just UNIGOV. “Okay, you’re right. We do need to help Priss and Lang get out of here. And we listen and do our best to understand them. And Mond, for that matter. Something’s going very wrong and we can’t fix it if we don’t figure it out.”

Sean led the way back over to the two spacers, who were in the middle of tinkering with one of their AI units. Lang gave them a quick look and said, “We’re pairing my AI with Dex’s. It’s not a substitute for a full neural link but the boost to processing power could still come in handy.”

“What are you planning on doing with it?” Aubrey asked.

“At the moment? Nothing.” Lang accepted some kind of double cap from Priss and snapped it over one end of the AI unit, then did the same with another cap on the other side, creating a chunkier box that he could strap to his belt. “But I want it ready to go if I need it in the future.”

“That looks like the unit Priss uses,” Sean noted.

“Because I did pretty much the same thing with the AI from Grubber, the other man in our drop pod,” she said. “He didn’t make it down. I’ve been using the enhanced processing power to try and crack your networks from time to time, but not had a lot of luck.”

“Why not just tie Dex’s AI to the two you have? That might increase your odds.”

“This is easier to carry,” Lang told him, getting to his feet and slinging a gearbag over one shoulder. “And keeps us from putting all our eggs in one basket. Are you planning on coming with us or do you want to stay here?”

“Do you have a plan for getting out?” Sean asked.

“Answer my question and I’ll answer yours.”

“We’re coming with you,” Aubrey said.

“Then we’ve got a plan for getting out.” Lang dug a nanolathe out of his tool bag. “We’re going to cut our way out.”

“They left you nanotech for those?” Sean asked. “Or do your nanotools convert to function some other way when you’re without a stock of nanomachines to operate?”

“No. See, we don’t have any nanotech handy.” He pointed at Sean. “You do.”

“That’s really impressive.”

Aubrey clenched both hands to her stomach, not sharing Priss’s amazement.

“I know. You cauterized it but the burn is already healing.” Sean stared at the stump of his left wrist with a mix of awe and queasiness. “I am going to need to eat a horse after this is done.”

“I wouldn’t have thought you were meat eaters,” Lang muttered from his place at the base of the door Sean had pointed out to him. Apparently the entrance wasn’t apparent to someone without UNIGOV’s enhanced eyesight in place. A part of her wondered whether that was another of their security tricks, like drugging the food had been.

“We’re not,” she said, to keep her mind away from those more disturbing lines of thought. “It’s just an expression.”

Sean gave her a sympathetic look. “Relax, Aubrey. It barely even hurts now.”

“Sean, they cut off your fucking hand.”

“We’ll clone him a new one when we get back to the fleet,” Priss said. “I’m honestly surprised you got to medical nanotech without ever mastering medical cloning. Although given what I’m seeing maybe it’s not that surprising. You might never have needed it.”

There was a thunk and Lang jumped back from the wall, a half foot circle of metal rolling away across the floor. “Shit,” he muttered. “Well, it was easier to get through there than I thought. Wasn’t expecting medical nanos to make such short work of metallic bonds.”

“Not a very big hole to escape through,” Sean noted.

“Good thing we’re not going out through it.” Lang reached into the wall with the fuser and rummaged for a minute, then dragged some severed cables out and attached them to his upgraded AI. A few minutes later the door to the room slid open and he disconnected the AI from the door and got to his feet. “And now we’re out. Go with Priss, you two.”

With that, Lang set out down the hall to his right moving at a fast walk and never looked back.

“Where’s he going?” Aubrey asked.

Priss shrugged. “I could tell you, but then there’s a possibility Mond or someone else in UNIGOV would hear. Am I right?”


“We talked about this while you two were debating whether you were coming with us or not,” Priss said. “Trust me, he’ll catch up but he needs to go his own way for a bit. Now let’s move.”

“How do you know where we’re going?” Sean asked.

“Well, I don’t know for sure,” she said. “But LZ layouts are pretty standard across spacer facilities and supposedly they all tie back to the Nevada facility. This looks like a supply room in a sub-basement so there’s a couple of possibilities to look into…”

It took two tries for them to find the back stairwell. To Priss’s surprise it wasn’t locked.

“This is a sapiens facility,” Aubrey pointed out. “At least, it is now. No one here has given serious thought to how to catch or contain anyone. They may not have even noticed you’re gone.”

“Not gonna lie,” Priss replied, “I have no idea how you people are even still alive.”

They went into the stairwell and Priss stopped them as they started to head up. “Magnetic launch rails, remember? Those start pretty deep below the surface, any ships launched that way are going to be down, not up.”

And down they went. Aubrey lost count after six floors but she was willing to bet that they’d gone at least ten stories down by the time they hit the bottom. Priss tested the door they found there and snorted. “Not locked. Why am I not surprised?”

“What’s a lock?” Sean asked, plastering an innocent expression on his face.

Priss laughed, although as jokes went it was pretty poor. “We’ll make a spacer of you yet.”

They pushed through the door and found themselves on a short platform at the top of yet more stairs that lead down into another large open area much like the book vault Mond had shown them, except this vault didn’t contain books. It didn’t contain anything that looked like space ships either. Instead, the floor of the vault contained at least half an inch of water and from that water rose row upon row of perfectly formed, bluish green hexagonal crystals. Each hexagon was a good ten inches across and the crystals stood between two and three feet tall, except for the times they together in groups of four. Then they could be as tall as Sean, maybe taller.

“This doesn’t look like a space ship,” Aubrey noted. “I don’t suppose that’s a vat of nanotech we could use to build one?”

“There’s no record of nanotech like this from the Departure era. Hell, we don’t have anything like it now.” Priss carefully walked down the stairs until she was one step above the water. “Is it anything you’ve seen before?”

“Never heard of anything like this,” Sean replied, stopping beside her on the step and poking one finger towards the water only to yank it back when a spark of electricity radiated from the nearest crystal to the water just below his finger.

“Well, it’s not nanotech,” Priss said.

“Any idea what it is?” Aubrey asked, peering over their shoulders from the step above.

“Yeah.” Priss said it quietly, almost reverently. “It’s a crystal data storage mainframe. Everything the Vaulkeeper knows probably came from here.”

The three of them stared out at the room for a moment then Priss pulled out her AI and grinned. “Who wants to see what it says?”

Next Chapter


Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Twenty Two: The Launch Zone

Previous Chapter

In times of danger it’s frequently better to have everyone do the wrong thing than have one person do the right thing on his own. If nothing else the weight of numbers can ensure more people survive. That was why military command ultimate led back to only one person. When it came down to it and everyone had to jump one way there was only one person to say which way they should jump. It didn’t make everyone happy but it did get the job done more often than any other method on hand.

Every spacer knows that officers are useless, lazy pieces of shit who only show up when you’ve fucked up too bad to ignore. Not many enlisted kept in mind that this made officers people who were constantly cleaning shit up, every hour of the day with no breaks, when they were working some kind of punishment detail. Everyone just acted like the brass was there to push you around and take credit for your work and did their best no to draw too much attention from them. And Lang knew he’d never asked himself what happened if there was no officer there to call someone on their shit when it was going down. Now he knew.

Because, as much as he was a sanctimonious prick, Mond was right. The cost of being the man who said “Jump” was being responsible for every jump people made. Or didn’t make.

The cost of being the lazy shit was watching everything everyone else was doing and stepping in when it was about to go bad. He’d seen everything that happened, known it could have gone bad, but done nothing to reign Dex in. He hadn’t ever asked to be in charge but he’d been put in charge and the one time it really mattered he’d failed to do his job. He wasn’t sure what Mond had meant by his statement but Lang knew why Dex was dead. Sure, Mond had his share of responsibility but that was between him and his superiors.

Well, it was a war crime to summarily execute prisoners but Earth wasn’t a signatory of the Newtonian Accords so there were probably more than a few hurdles to pass if Copernicus wanted to prosecute him.

Lang rubbed his eyes wearily and tried to reign in his thoughts. He still needed to get Priss and himself out of the room and back into space somehow. And as bad as losing anyone was, Dex was the closest thing they had to an expert on Earth. Not that his college level knowledge had helped a whole lot, given the totally different perspective at work on Earth now. Finding where they were on a map shouldn’t be too difficult, finding the Launch Zone might be a bit harder, but doing it all in an alien culture would be next to impossible. They looked at everything in such different ways…

His eyes focused, unbidden, on the bizarre symbol on the far wall. And just like that doubt vanished from his mind. Lang bolted to his feet, with a triumphant shout of, “Launch Zone!”

No one said anything as he strode across the room, pushing past the cart to stand in front of the wall and it’s once mysterious symbol. Priss got to her feet and came over with him, gently taking him by the arm and saying, “What about it, Lang?”

“This is it. The Nevada Launch Zone.”

Priss looked slowly around the room, then soothingly said, “Why do you think that?”

“Look.” He put a hand on the left side of the symbol. “What is this?”

“A ladder?”

“No,” Aubrey said quietly, “It’s a book. I can see why you would think it’s a ladder at first, I thought it was a film strip, but it’s obviously a book. This is Schrodinger’s Vault, where books can change to reflect who we are, rather than the other way around. See?”

She got up and reach around Priss to point out what she was talking about. “The vertical strip is the binding of the book, the horizontal is the cover. The arc is a page turning, the star represents the possibilities.”

“Right. This is Schrodinger’s Vault, so the symbol means two things at once.” Lang thump his hand once on the vertical lines. “If this was the binding of a book the cover would run the whole length of it. It’s not a bad spin on the idea but that’s not what it was at first.”

“So what was it?” Sean asked, coming up opposite Aubrey and studying the wall with growing interest.

“It was a set of launch rails for a maglev launching system. Nevada used a magnetic mass driving system, like a bullet train, to throw rockets the first few thousand feet into the air. They would run along below ground, hit the ramp at the end, then fly up,” Lang’s finger traced along the bottom line, to the point where it met the rails, then up the curving line to the star. “Then the rocket ignited and carried the load the rest of the way into orbit.”

“So it traces the launch path and shows the rockets burning in the distance,” Sean said. “I can see that.”

“Except that the launch rails should be at a shallower angle to the ground,” Priss said, tracing a much less acute angle against the bottom line, “and the rocket’s flight path would continue in the same direction, not cut back over the ground it launched from.”

“If they were trying to show the literal path the rocket would take, yes. But it’s a symbol, it goes on patches, it needs to fit. More importantly, it needs to make the letters.” He traced one hand along the rails to the bottom, then to the right along that line. “That’s ‘L’.” And up again to the tip of the star that almost touched the rails, back to the curve of the launch trail, to the ground and back along the bottom again. “That’s ‘Z’. The callsign ‘LZ’ for a liftoff point is almost universal because of Nevada. It wouldn’t surprise me if it was part of the facility’s branding, too.”

“Oh…” Priss looked it over carefully. “Yes. I can see that.”

“So what?” Aubrey demanded. “Does that even mean anything? A man just died, Lang.”

“I know,” Lang said, some of the rush that had accompanied his revelation fading. “And that was my responsibility. Dex trusted me to get him home, and I’m going to do it. If UNIGOV did the same thing with the ships that were stored in the LZ as it did with all the weapons left lying around Earth after the Departure then there should still be some here somewhere. We just need to get out of here and find them.”

“Were the ships armed?” Sean asked.

“I actually don’t know,” Lang admitted. “I’ve never seen any first hand records from that time and it’s not something that comes up in the discussions in pilot ready rooms most of the time. But orbital space was an important strategic resource, even at the time, so I’ll bet they were.”

“More importantly,” Aubrey said, “space colonization is viewed as a hegemonic act it’s not… Not something a good sapiens would do.”

“Which doesn’t rule it out,” Lang said, coming out a bit harsher than he intended. He did his best to soften it. “Look, you don’t have to stay here with us. Go back to your other sapiens if you want. But I have to try and get us off this planet by any means necessary, that the laws of war allow. Think about what you want to do, just be aware I don’t plan to be here much longer.”

Lang turned away from the symbol on the wall and headed over to the cart, motioning for Priss to follow. As they went Sean said, “We can hear you, you know.”

Lang hesitated. “I’m sorry?”

“The medical systems don’t just keep us healthy. The nanotech also augments some things.” Sean tapped the side of his head. “Hearing and vision are two of them. We think that UNIGOV can also tap into the nanites involved and use them to monitor what we see and hear. So… just be careful what you say.”

That was something to think over. It did explain why he so often spotted the Terrans seemingly standing in the distance and listening over the last few days. He’d thought they’d just been absent minded but now it seemed they had been doing exactly what it looked like. “I’ll keep it in mind.”

Once they got to the cart Lang turned his attention away from his own thoughts and back to Priss. “What do we have?”

“Not much,” she admitted. “They may not keep prisoners on a regular basis but they did think of the obvious things to take from us. Mond got the weapons, it doesn’t look like they sent the cargo hauler exoskeletons at all. That leaves us with the food and water, enough for us to last maybe a day and a half, the medkit, my comm rig, Dex’s tools, a few changes of clothes and the AIs.”

“They didn’t keep those?”

“I’m wondering if they’ve been tampered with,” Priss said. “Especially know that we know they put watchdog programs in their lifesaving magical nanotech.”

“True. Still.” Lang knelt down and pulled the nanosealer out of Dex’s toolkit. “It looks like they missed one bet.”

Priss snorted. “They returned the tools but we don’t have any nanites to use them with. They weren’t stupid enough to send us anything like that.”

“I know.” Lang set the tool down and looked over at Sean and Aubrey, who were in one corner holding a quiet but very animated discussion. “I guess what happens next hinges on who wins that debate.”

She followed his line of sight. Thought about it for a moment. “Okay, I don’t follow. What are you thinking about.”

Lang smiled. “Oh, not much. Just where we should take our pound of flesh.”

Next Chapter

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Twenty One: The Aftermath

Previous Chapter

They say that panic or other strong emotions bring forth a burst of physical strength. Lang couldn’t honestly say whether it was such a burst of strength that broke his bonds and sent him leaping out of the chair or not. He couldn’t say whether he sprang forward out of the chair several feet or if the force of the bonds breaking sent it bouncing away, like Dex did. In fact, he was only hazily aware of what happened over the next few seconds. He got out of the chair, one way or another. In the moment that was all that mattered. In the future, it was all he would recall.

Then he was grabbing Priss’s medical bag off of the cart.

Then shoving Mond out of the way as he knelt down by Priss, who had also gotten free of her restraints. Maybe that’s what she was doing when she scooted back from the argument earlier, maybe she’d benefited from hysterical strength. Again, it didn’t matter.

Priss took the medical bag from him and wordlessly motioned for him to help her turn Dex over. Gingerly holding one shoulder each they rolled him on his back to expose the wound.

It didn’t take any special equipment to tell that Dex was dead. People could rebound from some surprisingly serious wounds if they weren’t killed outright but plasma was a horrific weapon of war that burned and boiled as it destroyed and the level of havoc it had done in his chest was clearly fatal at a glance. He wasn’t breathing and there was no sign of a heartbeat – and Lang had a very clear line of sight to that organ. Lang gently laid the body back down and sat back on his heels, vaguely aware of Priss making a halfhearted pass with her medical scanner before putting it back in her bag. There was some milling about for a minute or two but Lang wasn’t really paying attention, he thought it might have been Sean walking past once or twice.

It shouldn’t have taken that long to put his thoughts in order. He’d seen people die before, lots of them sometimes. He wasn’t even particularly close friends with Dex, they’d just been assigned to the same drop pod on his transfer to the Armstrong. But that was part of the magic of the Corps – meet strangers, make friends for life, or so the theory went.

Life was shorter than you expected, sometimes.

Maybe it was just the lack of follow-up violence to keep him from focusing on how FUBAR the situation had gone. It’s not like Mond had pushed his mind to a combat headspace. Lang was suddenly on his feet, again with no clear line connecting that to where he’d been on the floor a moment ago. “Mond?” He looked around but the Terran leader was not in the room anymore. “Where did he go?”

The other three were all clustered around Dex’s body, Priss had covered it with a blanket from her medical bag, and none of them seemed to know where Mond had gone. Fortunately, they didn’t have to wait to find out.

“I thought it would be best if you were left to your own devices for the moment, so I’ve stepped out for now.” Mond’s voice was being pumped in through some kind of PA system, though Lang couldn’t see any speakers for it. “I asked Ms. Vance and Mr. Wilson to come with me but they’ve elected to remain behind.”

“I noticed,” Lang said. “They have some backbone, at least. But they’ve been pulling stunts too risky for most of you for a while, haven’t they?”

“I’m not sure what you mean,” Mond replied. “You’ve introduced so many toxic elements to their environment I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to properly counteract them. I’d suggest you take a few minutes and consider the consequences of a culture as saturated with violence as yours. Any introduction of weapons to a culture is bound to result in violence. You are responsible for this.”

Lang sent one last glare up at the invisible PA in the ceiling, then let his eyes drop back down to Dex’s shrouded body on the floor. “Yes,” he murmured. “On that, we agree.”

Aubrey watched as Lang turned and stalked over to the nearest wall, turned his back to it and slumped down to the ground, staring blankly at the symbol of the Vault stenciled on the wall across from him. An unsettling pall settled around him and she decided to leave him to his thoughts. Sean had helped Priss get a blanket settled over Dex’s body and now he squatted nearby, looking deeply uncomfortable, as Priss bowed over the body and muttered something that sounded vaguely Italian. Audrey knelt by Sean and quietly asked, “What’s she doing?”

“I’m not sure,” Sean replied. “I think it’s some kind of death ritual.”

Priss heaved a sigh and stood up from the body. “It’s called the Last Rights. And it’s just what I can remember of them. I’m not a priest or lay clergy, so it’s not exactly ecclesiastically correct. But orders or not, he needed something said for him, and I’m all he’s got.”

She went over to the cart, which Mond had left behind in his hasty exit, and started pawing through what had been left behind there. Sean cast a hard to read look back at Dex’s body, then trailed along after her. “So It’s a religious thing?”

“I suppose that’s another thing sapiens have moved beyond?” Priss didn’t sound terribly impressed with the idea.

“Not exactly,” Sean said. “I’m not an anthropologist but I do know that UNIGOV spent a long time trying to figure out how religions worked to improve social cohesion and what psychological needs it fulfilled and then even longer trying to replicate those outcomes without any of the potentially detrimental effects like tribalism, pogroms or crusades. But I don’t think they ever solved it.”

“I think,” Aubrey put in, “they abandoned the idea of establishing a religion when it became clear that any religion would try and introduce conceptions of people as good or bad, where UNIGOV just wanted them to be sapiens.”

Priss threw a skeptical glance over her shoulder. “What about when sapiens stop acting like sapiens?”

“I don’t think that can happen,” Aubrey said, the words working hard to get out around the very unsapiens behavior she’d seen from Mond.

“Really?” Priss moved a few feet to one side, spreading open the gearbags on the cart to display their contents as she did so. “Because Mond made sure to walk out of here with all of our weapons. Fifteen minutes ago he was lecturing us on how very unsapiens that kind of thing would be.”

“I suppose that kind of thing can happen,” Sean conceded, earning him a surprised look from Aubrey. “But, by the same token, you and Lang chose to try and help Dex – although that was admittedly not possible – rather than retaliate against Mond. That’s a deviation for you, isn’t it?”

“From the way you expect us to act, not what we expect of ourselves. It sounds like a point for us, rather than you.” Priss sighed and went back to poking through the cart’s contents. “I know you have some very odd ideas about how the world should be. And I get that UNIGOV is kind of like a religion for you, no matter how unhealthy I may think that is, but here’s something to think about. I’m an Orthodox Catholic, and believe me, our Church has had some horrible leadership over the centuries. I’m talking about systematic murder and abuse flying right in the face of everything the Church stands for. But every time they started acting in ways that made us question them, at least a few of us stood up and held them to the standards they taught. In the long run it was good for the Church every time. And that was with ‘martians’ doing it. So how much more effective do you think it would be with sapiens trying it instead?”

Sean and Aubrey exchanged a look and, not for the first time, she wondered how the martians managed to convey whole volumes of thought through such a simple action. She knew Sean well enough to guess he was thinking about what Priss just said. But to try and guess what he was thinking cut against everything a sapiens was supposed to be – without prejudice and assumption. On the other hand, Dex’s equating that attitude to deliberate childishness still rang in her ears and a part of her wished she’d developed the skill just so she could know what it was like, and if it was really as bad as all that. She was about to ask Sean what he was thinking when Lang jumped to his feet with a thud that startled all threee of them.

His eyes were fixed on the far wall with a manic intensity and he exclaimed, “Launch Zone!”

Next Chapter

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Twenty: The Last Words of Dexter Halloway

Previous Chapter

The first thing – the very first thing – an enlisted spacer learned was to do what they are ordered to do. In fact, the whole point of basic training was not to teach spacers anything about their actual duties, it existed entirely to teach them to work as a unit and respond instantly, even reflexively, to orders. The actual procedures and mindset that led to success in combat came later, once the foundation was laid down. From that point of view, Lang somewhat understood the idea of a “story you told yourself” that Mond kept talking about.

The enlisted followed orders to get the job done. It was how spacers worked.

Except when it wasn’t, of course, but the point was well taken.

The Spacer Corps needed something from its enlisted men and it drilled that into them until they conformed to that mold. The caveats to the formula were legion, though, from the fact that the Corps needed to incarnate evil itself into its drill instructors to make the process feasible to the fact that people volunteered to under-go the process, a lot of basic training directly contradicted Mond’s thesis as well. And there was the fact that, in addition to allowing people to opt in, the Corps also actively kicked people out during basic. At a pretty high rate.

“You’re full of shit.”

Lost in the problem of what to say – how to make things make sense – Lang hadn’t been paying attention to what was going on around him. Dex had scooted between him and Mond, his tone light but the hands bound behind his chair clenched in fury. “You’re full of shit and what’s really sad is I think you’re so used to it you like rolling in it.”

Mond gave that deep, resigned sigh that Lang was starting to think was his default reaction to anything. “Another attempt to push away rational analysis. Mr. Halloway, that kind of belligerence is what made martian culture so toxic to begin with.”

“See?” Dex stomped his feet and jerked more upright in his chair. “That shit? Right there? Do you not even hear what you’re doing?”

As if drawn to mimic Dex’s actions Mond himself sat a little straighter, his own expression of calm certainty tainted with uncertainty for the first time. “I’m sorry?”

Dex jerked impatiently in his chair again but this time he wasn’t talking and Lang caught a quiet creak coming from the back of his chair. Squinting, Lang could just make out the shadow of a crack forming along the side of the restraints on the back of his chair. Nanofused materials were as strong as the original material, but no stronger. And apparently the chair or the restraints hadn’t been very good quality plastic.

“This whole goddamn time I’ve been around you sanctimonious assholes I’ve heard about how martians were all about making people into groups and drawing silly distinctions, how sapiens listen to people and find out about them and never rush to judgement, and all the while I’ve had two of the most clueless morons I’ve met in my life lecturing me on what kind of person I am without taking one second to ask me where I’m from or what I think about it. It’s like you breed for idiocy. It’d be surprising but my friends build bombs for a living,” Dex paused for a second to preen. “That makes me a connoisseur.”

“We simply report what we have seen,” Mond pointed out.

“No, see, you don’t realize that, under your precious storytelling logic, that doesn’t add up either.” Dex flopped back in his chair, the restraints cracking a bit more, and crossed his legs at the ankles. There wasn’t a desk to prop them on but otherwise he looked very much at ease. “You’re still trying to trap us in that fancy story logic, otherwise you wouldn’t have just stopped talking about ‘martian’ problems, you’d be actively warping them to fit your fancy little happy world story. But you can’t, because deep down you still need an us and a them. Don’t you?”

“Of course not,” Mond said, a crack in his serenity appearing for the first time as he got up from his chair and paced over to the equipment cart again, gingerly picking up one of the plasma carbines. Lang tensed, more at the sight of a total rookie trying to handle the weapon than out of fear he was planning on shooting someone. He held it gingerly behind the grip and under the base of the barrel and kept his hands a few inches from his torso like it was going to shoot him without his input. “If we needed to other people, wouldn’t we have these?”

“You use the right weapon for your objective,” Dex replied, leaning forward and working the restraints again. Lang used the opportunity to scoot back a half step and try leveraging his own restraints. “Sometimes that’s my kind of weapon, sometimes it’s yours. You like to make up stories and call people names, that’s the weapon you use against us and you expect us to use against you. But it’s a weapon all the same.”

Mond let his hands drop, the barrel of the carbine swinging lazily to the floor, causing all three spacers to jump in their chairs in ways that had nothing to do with the way they were restrained. “That’s preposterous,” Mond snapped, his composure slipping a step further. “We are trying to build and create a civil, equitable and fair society. The UNIGOV is the first of its kind in human history.”

“That’s the part that really gets me. You act like you’re some kind of saints, anointed to save mankind from their sins.” Dex shook his head. “Every last one of your people has a killswitch built into their ‘medical’ systems and you’re telling me you’ve never been at least a little bit tempted to just flip one off when they pushed a little too far outside your precious sapiens culture?”

“Preposterous.” Mond’s right eye twitched almost imperceptibly. “It’s a lifesaving system. Why-”

“Not even a little?” Dex asked, leaning forward to look up at Mond like a mischievous four year old. “What about making life a little more fun for you? Got any extra comfortable, nice looking houses out in that reclaimed environment you’re always going on about? Not like the block houses we saw in town, something spacious and quiet, where you can relax with the wife and kiddies?”

Mond’s expression turned thunderous. “You don’t understand the importance of our environmental work at all, do you?”

“Sure, my parents were terraformers, same as most.” Dex shrugged and this time the motion was accompanied by an audible crack. “Doesn’t mean dad didn’t pick out the best bits of land to claim for a homestead while he was surveying. Mom would have given him hell if he hadn’t.”

“Well then perhaps it’s just as well that we disposed of those kinds of toxic gender roles along with many of the other vestiges of martian culture,” Mond said icily.

Gender roles?” Dex laughed, the noise not quite covering another crack of his restraints. “You mean guys wanting hot women and trying to do nice things for them? Next you’ll tell me you’ve never even taken a second to admire a woman’s tits! You can’t warp human nature that far.”

“Perhaps not humanity as you know it,” Mond replied, his more collected demeanor slowly returning. “But sapiens don’t consider human nature a useful concept any longer. Like many things you think about. We have tailored our communities to look past stereotypes to individuals-”

With a surprisingly smooth motion Dex flexed forward, snapped back in the chair, then stood straight up, the back of the chair pressing into his back and becoming an extra point of leverage and the restraints broke, sending bits of plastic bouncing all over the floor as Dex’s chair bounced off towards the back of the room. Mond stepped back in surprise, instinctively raising the carbine to put it between him and Dex, who took a step forward, jabbing his finger for emphasis. “You drugged us based entirely on stereotypes, you fucking hypocrite. Us and every other spacer who was stranded on your planet because you were too lazy to secure your own weapons satellites. Left that shit lying around like you were six years old with parents who didn’t care enough to teach you to clean up after yourself.”

Mond retreated before Dex’s onslaught, his hands fumbling with the unfamiliar shape of the plasma weapon he was holding, and in the process Lang noticed that the weapon’s safety had somehow come off. Lang started working his own restraints without trying to disguise what he was doing. “Mond-”

“You’re a flithy shithead without even the brain left to realize how stupid you sound,” Dex shouted, Lang’s attempt to break in being ignored. “I see you for what you are. Someone who never grew past childhood stories, who thinks he can control the world with him. But kids telling stories don’t change reality and adults can see through them. The only one here who still believes your lies is you, and-”

On the second to last word Dex jabbed Mond hard in the left shoulder and Mond automatically reached up to push the hand away, taking one hand off the carbine and letting it’s barrel drop around between the two men as he tried to pull it out of the way of the action. There was a moment where Lang – possibly no one in the room – was sure what happened, followed by the loud bark of a plasma blast, and Dex staggered a step back before dropping like a puppet with its strings cut.

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Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Nineteen: The Last Temptation of Martin Langley

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“Resettle on earth?” Lang tried not to laugh but it was a hopeless cause and he found himself straining against the cuffs that held him in place as he doubled over in mirth. After a few seconds of that he started to get ahold of himself. Dex was laughing too, Priss had scooted over to one side and was watching them with a mix of concern  and amusement. “Do you even know what the spacer population is?”

“I haven’t the first clue what it might be,” Mond replied, apparently nonplussed in spite of Lang’s laughing in his face. “I’m sure we could absorb it, however. Environmental restoration has moved along very well over the past decade, we could find some way to resettle a few tens of thousands. There are one or two cities on most continents we’re looking to reactivate or expand.”

“Tens of-” The urge to run his hands over his face seemed to be all the stronger for the fact that he didn’t have used of his hands. “What kind of delusional nonsense is that?! The combined spacer population exceeds four billion – billion with a “b” – and there’s no way Earth could handle that many based on its last known population. Fifteen billion is unsustainable without significant terraforming adjustments. Or the addition of deepsea colonies. Did you ever get around to that?”

Mond nodded benevolently. “And this time, it is you who seem delusional. Earth does not have a population of eleven billion. It could never sustain such a mass of humanity safely. The population is four billion, though we are debating expanding it to five, as I said.”

Four billion?” Dex said, biting out the ‘b’ so hard he spit by accident. “What do you mean-”

“And building in the ocean would be a violation of the Environmental Restoration Act,” Mond added, running right over Dex with his weirdly calm and deliberate way of speaking. “Of course, after the martian extinction event we didn’t need new colonies or new cities, we had plenty of room for all.”

They kept running into this weird barrier, where the Terrans couldn’t seem to say anything that meshed with the world as he knew it. Lang mulled it over slowly, trying to figure out how they could get everyone on the same page. As always, he came back to one thing. “Tell me about this extinction event. What happened to the martians?”

“It’s hardly relevant anymore,” Mond said, waving a hand dismissively.

“Not relevant?” Priss shook her head in amazement. “How can the extinction of an intelligent hominid not be relevant to you?”

“I can see I’ve gone about this badly.” Mond stood up and paced around the equipment cart once, hands pressed together in front of his chest, a thoughtful look on his face, coming to a stop when he was even with his chair again. He rested one hand on the backrest and said, “You have to understand that in sapeins society we understand that, at its core, reality is a summation of the stories we tell ourselves. We have no interest in the causes of the martian extinction because we have no wish to tell those stories. We left that to the martians and now the martian story is ended. When I say that we wish to resettle you on Earth I mean we wish to bring the spacer – is that correct, spacer?”

“Sure,” Lang said. Technically it just referred to the people who had spent a year or more in space as a part of their calling, but he didn’t think Mond was terribly interested in the pedantry.

“When I say we’re interested in resettling the spacers on Earth, I’m not speaking about whatever population you believe exists,” Mond continued, stepping forward and looking solemnly at each of the three spacers in turn. “I am speaking in very immediate and personal terms. The three of you could settle here and be at peace, rather than constantly flitting about up there, in your tin can ships, wondering when something will give out and send you crashing to the ground.”

“That’s not what happened,” Dex said with a snort. “The Armstrong was shot down by your orbital defenses.”

“Sapiens are not in the habit of building defenses,” Mond said gently. “We have our hands full building our cities, our ecology and our culture.”

“I can almost believe that,” Priss said, having scooted herself back to a position to more naturally join the conversation. “They could have been older satellites, left over from old eras, but something was shooting at us from above on the way down. For that matter, there was an old hunter killer drone we ran into a couple of days ago. If you were going to go whole hog on this pacifist thing you might at least have rooted out all the old weapons out there and taken them apart.”

The elderly terran lowered himself slowly back into his chair, air leaking out between his lips making a sound much like a bad helmet seal on an evac suit. “I don’t think you appreciate all the effort it took to get us to this point, Ms. Hu. They say once a genie is free it is impossible to force it back into the bottle. But, with a great deal of time and patience that is exactly what we did with the specter of martian culture. Few now know the full depths of the depravity it sank to, we keep it here in this vault in the hopes that the poison will never spread again. It’s all we can do to keep the status quo, you can’t expect us to go out and clean up all of the poison you left in the world as well. It was our hope that the martian legacy would fall to pieces in time and leave us in peace. It seems your return to Earth was too soon for that to happen.”

Lang struggled to follow the line of logic. “So you didn’t take down the satellites because… what, you thought they would infect you?”

“That’s close enough, I suppose.” Mond’s fingers looped lazily like the line of a spring, describing an upward path. “The work of UNIGOV was incredibly difficult. Sapiens and martians were intermixed for a very, very long time. Even with the natural resistance of sapiens to martian culture it was still frighteningly easy for them to be drawn in by the ease and convenience of hard categories and othering narratives. We had to keep the allure of binary thinking from becoming set in our own narratives. We spend as little time on the history of conflict as we can.”

“Let me get this straight. Mussolini, Hitler, Churchill, Lincoln, the most influential figures of human history, you don’t talk about them because what… they might infect you?” Dex cocked his head to one side and gave Mond a skeptical look. “I dunno. That sounds stupid. And it leaves you incredibly vulnerable. What if Admiral Harrington decided to put down a full scale landing force? You don’t have anything like the equipment to repel it. It’s not like you can count on every spacer stopping at the local market for a quick bite of the knockout special.”

Mond sighed. “I’m not interested in debating what ifs. We’re not interested in talking about fighting, Mr. Halloway, that’s how the mistrust and unnecessary division starts. I know you tell yourself you belong to this great and untouchable ‘fleet’ because it calms your fears of being an insignificant person in an uncaring world. But the truth is, all people can-”

What are you babbling about?” Lang shook his head. “Fucking hell, did you people all go crazy after Departure and pass it down to your kids? The fleet is real, I’ve served on multiple ships in it. Hell, I’ve been to more planets than everyone in this room put together. You can’t just tell me I made all that up.”

To his surprise, Aubrey stepped forward around Mond and knelt down beside him. “Lang, I know this is all very strange to someone looking at it from a martian point of view. Things seen from the outside don’t always make sense.”

“This goes beyond not making-”

But that’s true from both points of view.” She looked up at him with eyes full of sympathy and warmth. “Lang, I saw what happened to you after the crash. You started off acting like an equal to Dex and Priss, you talked without tension, even laughed now and again. But they gave you that stupid mission log and put you in charge and you slowly changed. You couldn’t talk to them anymore, you had to make decisions on your own for priorities that didn’t make you happy or left you with no one to rely on. It’s how martian priorities always leave people. Lonely and tired.”

The sincerity with which she spoke was touching, even if the words were deeply off-putting. “Aubrey, I don’t care how strange it seems to you, I’m not abandoning my duty – my crew, my oath, never mind the motherfucking truth – because I’m a little tired. I buried all my buddies when I crashed on Minerva and let me tell you, that stressed me a lot more than anything I’ve seen on Earth. I didn’t give up then, I ain’t doing it now.”

“You don’t understand,” she said, a soothing hand resting on one knee. “They weren’t offering to take the burden off of your shoulders, they were going to pile it on until they buried you. We’re not like them, we’re sapiens. We aren’t here to break you down and take what’s yours. We’re offering you a place to thrive, a place to be at peace. We don’t have to assume things about each other because we can just ask with no condemnation. We don’t have to fight over things, we’ve learned to cooperate and meet each other’s needs. Lang, we’re not here to take away your life. We’re offering you a chance to live it to the fullest. Is that really such a bad offer?”

Put that way, he could understand how it certainly seemed like a good deal from their point of view.

“I understand how it is,” Mond added, his voice losing some of its warmth to a sense of sadness. “You think that by asking you to change how you think we’re asking you to abandoned everything you’ve lived for.” The brightness returned. “But I think you’ll find that what we’re offering you is not the death of who you were, but the opportunity to truly live as you were meant. Some sapiens believe martians cannot be more than the sum of their divisions. I believe you can overcome them. Won’t you stay with us and try?”

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