“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?”