Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Twenty Seven: The Unwritten Book

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Aubrey was sitting on the steps, a thin silvery blanket from Priss’s pack around her shoulders, when Lang poked his head through the door up top and said, “Come on, people. I’ve got our route mapped out and it’s time to go.”

Priss  immediately started packing things up, winding up cables and securing her AI. Sean did his best to help with only one hand to work with while Aubrey folded up the blanket, still absently brushing at tears. Lang watched the process for a moment before asking, “What happened?”

“It’s a long story,” Priss said. “I’ll give the long version in my report, but the short version is that we learned some very disturbing things about how UNIGOV has been running things for the past few centuries.”

“Ah.” Lang nodded once and said, “I’ll read the report, then. Let’s get moving.”

“What are you carrying?” Aubrey asked, looking meaningfully at the large bundle, wrapped in a blanket much like the one she’d just folded up, that he had slung over one shoulder.

“Something I picked up for Admiral Harrington when we get back to the fleet. Got a present for you, Priss.” He picked up her exoskeleton from the stack of gear he’d set by the door and dropped it on the landing at the top of the stairs, keying it to unfold so she could step in when she got up the stairs.

“I don’t suppose you’ve got a couple of spares, do you?” Sean asked. “These stairs just keep going.”

“Sorry, we’ve got Dex’s but I don’t know the first thing about recalibrating one of these for a new user. There’s lots of crap to work out. Has something to do with the balance gyros or something.” Once Priss was in her exo he handed her the bundle with the spare exo and the weapons in it then shifted his own bundle from one shoulder to the other. “Let’s move.”

The bowels of the Vault seemed quite empty and most of the stairs and halls they took were pretty dusty. In the ten minute trek from where they met up to the ship hanger they didn’t see anyone else. That didn’t change once they were actually in the hanger. In fact, it took them a solid ten minute just to find the power for the hanger and get it switched on, at which point they could actually take a look at what they had to work with.

“Wow.” Like most of the rooms they’d visited in the Vault this one was huge and had ledges and a catwalk running around the perimeter. Leaning against the railing, Lang could see the room was easily two acres in size and contained at least ten Departure era ground to orbit craft lined up on either side of the wide rail that would shoot it towards orbit via maglev propulsion. “This place should be in a museum.”

“This place could be a museum,” Priss corrected.

“Don’t insult the ships that are going to get us off this god forsaken planet. This era of technology should be something the AI can parse. Help me tap in and get these things ready to launch.”

——–

It took several hours of running back and forth, helping the spacers load this and find replacements for that, before they even got to the stage of firing up one of the hanger’s tugs and moving one of the launch craft over to the launching station. By that point Aubrey could feel her body starting to drag. It had been nearly eight hours since any of them had eaten and a solid twenty since she’d slept. Lang and Priss were a little more alert – drug induced sleep was still sleep after all. But Lang was hellbent on getting them back into orbit without wasting any more time and he was pretty sure he could launch with just another hour’s worth of work.

So he dragged Priss into the cockpit to run diagnostics while leaving Sean and Aubrey to load the gear. As they went their separate ways Sean asked, “You got anything left to eat, Lang?”

“Should be some protein bars in the rucksack,” Priss answered. “Help yourself. I plan on getting a real steak once we’re on the Tranquility.”

So they munched on compressed protein as they dragged the spacer’s rolling crates up into the ship’s modest cargo hold and strapped them down, then tossed the bags into a bin in the back of the passenger compartment. The exoskeletons were a little harder to secure so they finally settled for collapsing all three of them and strapping them to a single chair. There were six in the cockpit so it wasn’t like they were hurting for space. The problems came when they went to retrieve the odd bundle Lang had brought with him earlier. When they picked it up it started moving.

One minute and fourteen seconds later Aubrey burst into the cockpit. “Lang! Why the fuck do you have Mond tied up in a bag?”

“He’s answerable for the death of a prisoner under his care.” He didn’t even bother looking up from his diagnostics. Neither did Priss, which suggested she’d been in on it. “We’ll make him stand before a tribunal. It’s pretty standard stuff, really.”

“You shot his arms and legs off.”

“We’ll clone him new ones.” Lang stopped, one hand hovering over a button – an actual button not a holodisplay or touch control – and seemed to think for a minute. “I think. He may just get prosthetics until after the tribunal. If he’s executed cloning would be a waste of time and resources.”

“Yeah, well, you could have left him some arms. At least the elbows up.” Sean was settling Mond in to one of the passenger seats. Aubrey felt a twinge of shame at not helping him carry Mond into the ship. They’d opened the bundle he was in and found him half conscious and delirious, probably because his medical systems had drained him badly in the process of countering Lang’s quadruple amputation via plasma assault. She’d been so upset she just charged off to give Lang a piece of her mind, rather than helping a man clearly in distress.

“He’s a feisty one,” Lang said, sounding legitimately impressed. “I didn’t want him clobbering me with one of his stumps so when I moved up from his legs I took a little more.”

“Well it’s going to make strapping him in to a chair a pain in the ass.” Sean set about trying to do just that while Aubrey fished around for some water and food to try and revive Mond. The medical system was a brilliant piece of technology but it needed a well fed body to do its work.

“Sit him in your lap if you have to,” Lang said. “We only need another twenty minutes or so to get into orbit.”

Mond coughed on a mouth full of water before taking a few greedy bites of the offered protein stick and swallowing hard. “I told you,” he said around the last mouthful of food, “these launch facilities have hanger doors. They aren’t open. If you try and launch us without authorization from me or a similarly ranked UNIGOV party member you’ll just kill us all.”

“I figured as much. Your office had a door, after all, you obviously haven’t forgotten what those are for and from what Sean and Aubrey told us about their jobs, you get bureaucracy too. So I thought ahead.” Lang held up his AI. “With the right tools and an adequate sample,” he held up his mission log in his other hand, “you can fake a voice pretty easily, at least well enough to fool the human ear. And I’m betting you don’t bother with voice print IDs, right?”

He fiddled for a moment and the AI announced, “I am Stephen Mond and I am authorizing the launch doors be opened.”

Mond’s eyes grew large and bulged outwards. “You gave that whole speech about tribunals for a voice sample?

“Nope. Hence your sitting in that seat with no arms and legs.” Lang tossed the AI down on the console and gave Mond a spine shivering glare. “You’re very much going to face justice so I wouldn’t get too attached to breathing, Director Mond. Now shut up and let me do my job.”

Instead Mond turned his attention from Lang to Sean, then Aubrey. “I cannot believe that two upstanding sapiens, dedicated to civil living and mutual support, such as yourselves, would choose to assist these deranged and destructive individuals over your own government. What could possibly come over you?”

Aubrey exchanged a glance with Sean. There were so many ways to answer that. They’d gotten to know three of Mond’s so called martians. They were hardly what he made of them. Then there was Sarah and the terrifying glimpse Aubrey’d had of what UNIGOV had done to her. And there was Dex.

Before she could try and put any of that to words, Mond went on. “You will never be at ease among them, you know. You’re not built to be suspicious. They will constantly look at you and judge you before knowing you. They will assume your state of mind based on whatever they’ve gone through and choke out everything you are based on their own views of the world. You cannot possibly live in that environment.”

“He does have a point.” Lang turned in his chair after handing his AI off to Priss, who held a headset mike up to it and got to work, presumably contacting whoever would open the launch doors for them. “Copernican society is radically different from what you know. You might fit in with the Rodenberrys, if you work at it, but I can’t guarantee this is something you’ll ever get used to. It might be riskier for you to stay but if you want to… this is your last chance to get off. I won’t get in your way.”

For all her life Aubrey had thought assuming people’s state of mind was a crime against them. A way of trying to make them conform to you, rather than finding who they were and meeting them halfway. The almost telepathic way the spacers had communicated without speaking had been one of the things about them that unnerved her the most. But in that instant, as she glanced at Sean and looked into his eyes, she saw that this, too, was something she’d been wrong about. In an instant she could tell that the last few days had fundamentally changed him in much the same way they’d transformed her and in that knowledge was a feeling of safety and acceptance that she’d never found in her schools, UNIGOV training or mental health counseling. They both smiled and slipped in to chairs, strapping in.

“You know what I think, Lang?” She asked.

“What?” A smile tugged at the corners of his lips.

“I think there’s only one book where you can’t know what it says until you look. And that’s the future.” She sat back in her seat and smiled. “Take us up.”

Priss glanced up from her headset. “Doors are opening.”

A ferocious, gleeful grin split Lang’s face then he spun to his board and said, “Securing all hatches. Let’s go to space.”

A few button presses later the invisible hand of acceleration slammed them back into their chairs as the shot down out of the hanger, into the dark tunnels beyond and towards the distant light of the sun.

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Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Twenty Six: The Meaning of Responsibility

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There was a sort of unwritten agreement among Spacer worlds that computer operating systems all needed to have a few things in common. Similar icons for various core functions of the operating system, similar finger commands for important holodisplay interactions, that kind of thing. Naturally, Earth hadn’t gotten the memo. So, while he’d managed to log in to the computer console in Mond’s office – and to his unsurprise there was no password protection on the computer – he still wasn’t entirely sure he was on the way to getting the information he wanted. Wasn’t even sure he was working through the right set of programs. What he’d originally taken as a kind of security camera app turned out to be the creepy visual hijacking program UNIGOV used to look through its citizen’s eyes. As far as he could tell, no one was looking at any kind of ground to orbit craft at the moment so it wasn’t being very helpful.

He was trying to figure out how to close the program when the door slid up and Mond stepped through. They both froze for a moment, staring at each other through the holodisplay, as the door slammed closed behind Mond. Lang recovered first, scooped up his carbine and blasted the door controls behind Mond.

To his credit Mond didn’t jump or scamper out of the way. He did flinch, although under the circumstances that was totally understandable. After pulling himself together he asked, “What can I do for you Corporal Langley?”

“Nothing right this moment,” Lang said, putting his carbine back down and going back to the holodisplay. “Although I wouldn’t try calling for help. It’s just going to get someone hurt.”

“And you’ve avoided that so carefully up until now,” Mond replied, his tone suggesting he believed the opposite.

“More so than you,” Lang shot back. “Amateurs should know better than to play with loaded weapons.”

Civilized people wouldn’t have brought them in the first place,” Mond fired back. “This is a pointless conversation. I don’t even understand how you’re here.”

“I wanted the rest of our gear back.” Lang patted his carbine. “I know you wouldn’t want to use it but better safe than sorry.”

Mond scowled. “Not what I meant. I have a fair idea how you got out of the storage room but how did you get here?”

“Oh, that was easy. All our weapons have trackers built into them. It’s part of how we make sure they don’t wind up in the wrong hands. And, for all your technical expertise, I’m willing to bet it never even occurred to you to look for that kind of thing. You’ve never cultivated the suspicion. Getting through the halls to here was surprisingly easy since no one ever stopped to question me. Kind of surprised you just took them and stuck them in your office, though.” He patted the computer console. “Peeking into your computer records was the logical next step once I was here. I was hoping to get a few questions answered before I left. Not having much luck with the computer so let’s move up the food chain, shall we?”

“Is that some kind of declaration of intent?” Mond asked. “You want me to tell you something?”

“I do. But first I want you to sit down there and put your hands on the desk.” Lang pointed to the chair in question.

After a moment’s hesitation Mond pulled the chair out and sat, folding his hands one over the other on the desk as requested. “What do you want to know? I may not be able to answer all your questions, mind you.”

“There’s only three, so it’ll go quickly.” Lang kicked back and put his feet up on the desk, cradling his carbine over his chest, taking a moment to admire the utter waste of window glass in the wall behind Mond. There was nothing to see out there but metal walls and acres of bookshelves. They could have at least put in some natural lighting. “First question. What did you do with the other spacers who’s drop pods you recovered?”

Mond shrugged. “I can’t say for sure, since your pod is the only one that landed in my jurisdiction. But from what I’ve heard they were recovered, in much the way you were, questioned and given much the same offer you were.”

“To settle on Earth?”

“Correct.” Mond steepled his fingers, going distant for a moment. “I have no idea whether any of them took the offer or not. If they did they would have their skills assessed, medical systems installed, accounts opened and an appropriate place of work found for them.”

Lang’s eyes narrowed. “And if they didn’t?”

“Then a medical system would be installed and they would be put in Shutdown.”

The capitol letter in Shutdown was clearly audible. “And what does Shutdown mean?”

“By switching off the medical system in a preplanned fashion the human body enters a comatose state and can be placed in something closely resembling suspended animation. That state of being can be maintained indefinitely if the proper life support is put in place.” Mond offered a shrug. “It’s not perfect. The person still ages, for example. And the mind can develop severe neural problems if it’s not properly engaged, so we plug their nervous systems into a sort of fugue state simulator that allows them to be conscious in a simulated reality of their own creation.”

“Got all the kinks worked out of that system, don’t you?” Lang sat back up in his chair, staring hard at Mond. “What do you use it for when there are no spacers around?”

“Building a stable sapiens population required we remove a large number of martians from it over the years. Shutdown proved a reliable and humane way to do it.”

Lang suppressed a shudder. The whole thing sounded incredibly nightmarish. Time to move on. “Does this facility still have any of the original launch craft in it? Or did you actually follow through on something and dismantle them?”

“I assure you, following through is a talent of mine,” Mond said stiffly, showing offense for the first time this go around. “But no, we didn’t disassemble them. Space had no interest to UNIGOV but it’s easier to keep the technology contained, and not raising imperialist tendencies in the general population, if the space ships are one large, difficult to misplace item rather than twenty thousand small pieces. I presume you want one of them?”

“You presume well.”

Mond considered it for a long moment, then nodded. “I suppose it can’t be as bad as leaving you here, on planet, and doing whatever it is you might do if left to your own devices. Since we’ve proven incapable of containing you, I suppose we’ll have to settle for getting rid of you. You can map a route to their location using that system.”

It took a few minutes of fiddling to pull up the program Mond was pointing to and get the map up on the display, another minute for his AI to copy the map over, and it was all ready to go. Lang got to his feet and dropped his AI into its pocket, then pulled out his mission log. As he sorted his gear Mond also got to his feet.

“You had a third question?” Mond asked.

Before answering Lang pushed the recording button on the log recorder. “I did.” He walked around the desk to face Mond directly. “Stephen Mond. You’re being detained on one count of war crime, namely the killing of a prisoner under your care. Is there anything you’d like to declare before you are taken into custody? Any statement made will be admissible as evidence.”

Mond actually jerked back a step as if he’d been struck. “I beg your pardon? You do not have the authority to take me anywhere.”

“You should have known this was coming, Mond. You said it yourself. I’m responsible for Dex. Since I can’t get him back into orbit, I have to make sure the man who killed him faces justice. Now.” He held out the log for Mond to speak into. “Do you have anything to declare?”

“I will not-”

“Please confirm your name for the record.”

Mond glared at him before starting over. “I, Stephen Mond, will not leave this planet willingly. And, while you might be able to get from here to the ship hanger if you move alone, you will not be able to do it with me.” Mond looked away slyly. “And you will need to open the launch doors if you want to actually take off. I assure you they will not be open if you take me with you. We do have some security procedures here and a martian leading the Vaultkeeper around at gunpoint will certainly trigger them.”

Lang switched the log recorder off and grinned. “I know. Fortunately, I won’t be leading you around at gunpoint. I thought of a far, far more satisfying way of doing it. You have complete faith in that medical nanotech you use, right? Nevermind, that’s more than three questions.”

He proceeded to blow Mond’s left leg off at the knee.

As the screaming died down Lang scowled and said, “Okay, in perfect fairness it’s a lot less satisfying than I expected. Still, you look like you’re doing fine.”

Mond looked up from his new position on the floor, hands wrapped around his leg. “You,” he ground out between gritted teeth. “Are a monster.”

“Of course. That’s what you expected of me, wasn’t it?” Lang checked the stump of the limb and, as he expected, it was already starting to show evidence of skin regrowth. “I wouldn’t want to disappoint your precious narratives. Besides, pain is temporary. Death is permanent. Something to think about. I’ll be answerable for pain. You’ll be answerable for death.”

“I was not responsible for that.”

“No. You see, responsibility is owning your shit. Whether you think it was an accident.” He placed the barrel of his carbine on Mond’s other knee. “Or unavoidable.”

Pulling the trigger a second time gave him no satisfaction at all.

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Twenty Five: The Revelation of Aubrey Vance

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“So there was a colony on Mars.” Aubrey turned around slowly, taking in the details of the square. If there was anything that made it clear the architecture was designed with a lower gravity or thinner atmosphere in mind she couldn’t tell. But then, she also wasn’t an expert on building design. “That’s another point for Lang.”

“Lang?” Sarah tilted her head. “Is he the current Vaultkeeper?”

Aubrey laughed. “Pretty much the exact opposite. It’s complicated. If this colony is on Mars I’m guessing this isn’t a real time picture?”

“No.” The sadness in Sarah’s voice brought her up short. “This is the way Mars was in the past, over two centuries ago. When it was first settled.”

Probably the biggest point of confusion Aubrey and the martians – the spacers, rather, given that she was talking to a real Martian and was now convinced Lang and Priss were telling the truth when they said they weren’t – had been what happened in the missing two centuries between when the space colonists left Earth and when they came back. And that argument had started with their insistence there was a colony on Mars. The question was, what else were they right about? “Can you tell me about the colonization effort?”

Sarah shrugged. “I wasn’t alive at the time but my grandparents were and from what they told me it started about like you’d expect. A mixture of excitement, curiosity, a desire to go places we hadn’t been and learn things we didn’t know. Of course, most people figured doing those things would improve their lot in life and, to be perfectly honest, a lot of the time that didn’t happen. Some people’s reasons were different and I know my grandparents came to Mars because they were tired of the governments on Earth never seeming to work for their own people. The colony was a kind of international collaboration – in theory – and my grandparents hoped the smaller size of the colony would make managing the endeavor more personal and less political.”

“Did it work?”

“Not in the slightest. Human nature isn’t that mutable, it would seem.” Sarah sighed. “That didn’t keep people from trying.”

Aubrey wanted to know what that meant but she also wanted to let Sarah proceed at her own pace. “Meaning what?”

“For some people, it meant extrasolar colonies. Superluminal drives were deemed safe the year my parents were born and the first colonists departed the year they met.” Sarah waved a hand and Aubrey gasped as the cityscape around them vanished with a flicker of motion, giving way to a dizzying spread of stars and an armada of eighteen enormous objects floating in space. They were little more than long tubes that grew thicker towards the middle and tapered to a dull point at either end, flying under the force of dozens of small engines arranged all along one half of the ship. With a sudden burst of light each ship vanished in turn. “No one ever heard what happened to them. Not that I know of. I hope they did better than we did.”

And that was an opening for the question Lang had been asking her since they first met. “What happened to Borealis? We don’t hear about a Mars colony here on Earth anymore.”

For a moment it seemed like Sarah wasn’t going to answer. Then, with another disconcerting jump, they were standing in a bleak concrete square surrounded by red brick walls. One would think that two such places would be very similar but, in truth, the atmosphere here was totally different from the Borealis square. And there was the towering portrait of a balding Eastern man that stood over the arched entrances and exits. Sarah gestured towards the picture and said, “They wanted to erase Mao.”

“It is an odd decorative choice,” Aubrey admitted. “He looks important.”

“He was.” Sarah sighed. “He changed everything about China in just a few decades, and he never paused a moment to consider the millions that died in the process. He was an egotist and a megalomaniac and the world was better the moment he died. That doesn’t mean we should have forgotten him.”

Aubrey turned around in the square, taking it all in. Dreary brick, dreary concrete, dreary men in dreary clothes glaring at passersby with baleful stares. “I don’t know,” she said. “If this is what he made we might be better off not thinking about it.”

“That was the thought,” Sarah admitted. “And for five years after the Memory of Mao was buried – literally,” another flicker of motion put them at the base of a featureless concrete box surrounded by flowers, black wreathes and a reflecting pool full of small paper lanterns, “we heard about how setting down the past made China a better place. People tried to debate the issue but it was hard, so very hard, when we couldn’t even say his name without provoking outrage. In China you could wind up in prison. Of course, that just made some people more determined to talk about him. But the leaders of the time were dead set on trying it again.”

“Who did they want to erase next?” Aubrey asked, half-remembered names Dex had obsessed about flitting through her mind. “Hitler? Moussini?”

“Mussolini,” Sarah corrected. “And it wasn’t a who. It was a what.”

“Okay. What did they want to erase next?”

Another change of scenery. Another town square. A wooden platform with a dozen or more dark skinned, naked men and women in chains and a man with a hand in the air, waving for the attention of the crowd. For the first time, Aubrey realized the moment was frozen. Nothing moved and the mouths of the crowd were blessedly silent. “They wanted to erase slavery.”

Aubrey turned away from the gruesome image. “Good riddance.”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But you don’t know what it cost to forget that.” They skipped through several places quickly, a dignified black man speaking to a crowd, a plainly dressed woman slipping through the night, another man bent over a rack of chemicals, an almost impossibly tall and gangly white man speaking at a graveyard. “Fredrick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, all great people whose lives and character were shaped by slavery and forgotten when it was. To say nothing of one of the most eloquent leader of the era. The words of Abraham Lincoln inspired every generation from his own to mine. But no one after us knew him. And that was just the effects of slavery in one continent in one era. We can’t look at the greatness in human history without facing human frailty. To expunge one is to expunge the other.”

New scenes spread out one after the other. Dozens upon dozens of easterners, men and women, all dressed in dour black suits and stovepipe hats with oddly square fake beards attached to their chins, some walking on stilts to give added height, all gathered in the red brick square from before, apparently reciting something off the tall signs others were holding up for them. An enormous bronze statue perched on an island in the middle of a harbor, holding a tablet and a torch in its hands, had a banner with the face of Mao draped over its own head. And back in the square on Mars, a visiting ships were covered with graffiti of Lincoln and Mao doing everything from arm wrestling to mounting each other’s heads on pikes. “Protests became almost constant. But it was worst on Mars.”

“That doesn’t make any sense!” Aubrey said. “It wasn’t even your history!”

“Of course it was!” Sarah snapped. “Mars had barely been colonized fifty years. What history did we have but Earth’s? Believe me, you do not understand how important that a connection history is until you’ve grown up in a world where it’s your only connection to the rest of humanity that your parents didn’t build with their own two hands. Without it we would have eaten each other alive out here. Even with it things got too close for comfort more than once.”

“But-”

“We were not going to forget. Even tragedy and evil has its place, even if only in keeping a few wayward souls from destroying themselves. Or so we thought.” The defaced ships vanished and the landing square on Mars vanished, replaced with a much stranger sight. It was less a landscape spread out all around them and more of a single point of view, project for them to see. A table stretched out in front of them, three generations of family gathered around it. Grandparents, parents and children were all crammed around a table that could barely fit the two dozen chairs around it. But there was no happy talk, no bustle of meal time, not even the strained air of a vicious family argument. Instead they were all silent, collapsed on the table, over the backs of chairs, on the floor. “I was ten years old when Shutdown came. The bastards in UNIGOV flipped a switch and turned the nanotech that was supposed to keep us healthy into our own damn prison. This is the last thing I saw. My family slipping away with no idea why. We never woke up again.

“I never grew up. Never had a family of my own.” Sarah whirled around, pointing at her inhumanly precise face. “I don’t even know what I look like now. I’ve been in this fucking coma for nearly a century and a half. I’m older than even that damn Mond and all I’ve ever had to live in is these flat, shitty images of a world that no longer exists. You said you were at the bottom of the Vault? Woman, you do not understand Schrodinger’s Vault. UNIGOV likes to forget it’s crimes rather than learn from them. Whatever it told you about the Vault pales in comparison.”

As perfectly drawn as Sarah’s face was, twisted in anger it was still well and truly terrifying. Aubrey backed away slowly, starting to wonder when Priss would get off her ass and pull her out of the pool. In spite of her efforts to put distance between them Sarah still managed to change the world again, leaving them looking down at rack upon rack of pods – eerily close to coffins to be honest – bolted to the walls of yet another vast underground chamber. “Look at that! Every man, woman and child of Borealis, Mars. Kept in a catatonic state for the past century and a half, all because we wanted to remember who we were. Well that’s what we got. No contact with anyone save fucking Vaultkeepers and the rest of the colony in this damn virtual reality they dumped us in. Are we alive? Are we dead? Someone would have to open up the box to check and no one has ever bothered. Well, you’re one of us now, so I guess you get to wait around with us until we can find out. Welcome to the real Schrodinger’s Vault.”

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Twenty Four: The Lady of the Lake

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Cables ran from the AI to the liquid in the bottom of the chamber. Writhing lines of electricity connected the ends of the cables to the towers of crystal. And the crystals pulsed inscrutably in the dimly light of the chamber. At first it was soothing. Then it grew unsettling. And, after about three minutes, it was boring.

“Nothing is happening, Priss.”

Priss didn’t bother to look up from her holodisplay. “Not true, Aubrey. The AI and whatever kind of software runs this place are definitely talking to each other. They just don’t understand each other. It’s the same problem I’ve had since we landed here. Computer infrastructure and programming language has grown too divergent in the last two centuries.”

“So why are you even bothering?” Sean asked. “If you can’t talk to it, you can’t use it. If you can’t use it, then isn’t it more important to find a ship?”

“The Nevada Launch Zone was huge,” Priss said, finally pulling her attention away from the AI. “And a lot of it was clearly repurposed when UNIGOV turned it into the Vault.  We could be down here for days before we find the place they put the leftover launch craft. On the other hand, if we can access some kind of inventory or manifest we can find out where it is very quickly. The question is, which one is a better use of time.”

“Maybe we could look around while you try and crack the code,” Aubrey suggested.

“I’d prefer not to get separated,” Priss said. “I know you probably don’t know the words but you’re essentially collaborators and turncoats now. UNIGOV will not deal kindly with you when the time comes and that means, if at all possible, we’re responsible for trying to get you into space with us. At least until we get all this sorted out.”

“How long can that take?” Aubrey asked.

Priss stopped for several long seconds, clearly at a loss. Finally she said, “I honestly have no idea. There’s never been a situation like yours before, in scale at least. Years. Decades, perhaps.”

“Not a fan of that timeframe,” Sean admitted.

“What if you connected the AI’s input directly to the crystal towers?” Aubrey asked, not wanting to think about how long they might be forced off of Earth. “Whatever kind of liquid is down there can’t be a good medium for digital information transfer.”

“I think the liquid is actually the processing core,” Priss said. “We covered theoretical designs for this kind of computer back in school but no one had figured out how to make a liquid core processor work. The theory is that it’s supposed to function like nerve tissue connecting the data stored using isotopes of dense crystalized aluminum oxide in place of binary code.”

“So… wouldn’t connecting directly to the crystals let you access the information directly?”

“Not necessarily,” Priss said, slowing down as her eyes went distant and really thought about it. “Again, it depends on the programming language. Although looking at binary code might actually make understanding the programming easier…”

“Great.” Aubrey got to her feet and hopped down past Priss and Sean on their step, to the step below and stepped down into the pool, headed towards the closest crystal tower. “Let’s go see what we can find.”

Priss locked totally upright. “Aubrey get out of that, we don’t know for sure what it is or what it does.”

“Look down!” Sean added, pointing frantically. “Look down!”

She did.

Which was a mistake, as seeing the lines of electricity surging around her calves caused her to panic and freeze, ignoring the hand Sean was frantically stretching out to try and grab her and –

Just like that the pool was gone and she was standing in the middle of a wide, grassy field. Red hills rolled along the horizon in one direction and a few low buildings nestled under short trees in the other. As suddenly as Aubrey had arrived in this place a woman in white appeared between her and the buildings in the distance, her long black hair whipping around her for a brief second before settling around her shoulders, as if she had been running at a full sprint to get there and just come to a sudden stop. All without Aubrey seeing or hearing her coming.

The woman’s simple white dress didn’t have any kind of identifying marks on it, and although her face was unlined the depths of her eyes gave the impression that she was quite old. Her hair hadn’t turned gray but many women set their medical systems to artificially preserve their hair color these days, so that wasn’t any help at all. And her face was unsettling in its blandness, it could have been laid out by a compass and ruler it was so precise but there wasn’t a hint of character or life experience about it at all. She wore no make-up and her lightly tanned complexion looked natural.

If Aubrey had asked a hundred nine year olds to draw a woman and kept only the features in common among all their drawings it might look like the woman in the white dress.

“Who are you?” The woman asked. “A new Vaultkeeper isn’t due for another few years. And you don’t look like any upper Party member I’ve seen before.”

“What Party?” Aubrey asked, almost by reflex.

“The Unifying and Normalizing Governance Party,” the woman in white said.

“UNIGOV?”

“That’s the one.”

Aubrey pursed her lips. Technically she worked for UNIGOV, but then so did everyone these days. But she wasn’t exactly a member of UNIGOV. She didn’t make decisions, really. “Well, you’re right. I’m not a member of UNIGOV or a Vaultkeeper.”

“You can’t be the second without being the first.” The woman looked her over once more. “Fine. I give up. Who are you and what do you want?”

“To know where I am, for starters.”

Another hard look and, for the first time, a real expression on the woman’s face. Uncertainty. “You don’t know?”

After all the confusion of the last few days it was nice to know someone else was just as lost. Lang and company couldn’t have been anything else but they had an infuriating tendency not to show it. Empathizing with the woman immensely, Aubrey decided to go with the unvarnished truth. “A second ago I was in the bottom of Schrodinger’s Vault, trying to get a stack of crystals to tell me where I could find a spaceship. Now I’m-”

She crashed backwards onto the stairs. There a moment of disorienting vertigo, pain shooting through her back as her head spun, then Priss and Sean were looking down at her with concern, each holding one end of the carrying strap from Priss’ bag.

No one was saying anything so Aubrey decided to start. “What happened?”

“You walked into the water – like an idiot – then started staring into space,” Sean replied while Priss ducked away to grab her medical scanner and started looking her over. “You weren’t answering us and there was current focused on you from practically every crystal pile down there. When you wouldn’t respond we grabbed you with this,” he held up the strap, “and pulled you out.”

She pondered that for a second. “Priss?”

“I don’t see any damage,” she replied. “That doesn’t mean it’s not there. This is more for battlefield trauma, not nerve damage.”

“Not what I wanted to know,” Aubrey said. “You mentioned feedback issues from early AI, right?”

Priss slowly lowered the scanner, looking puzzled. “Biofeedback, through the neural interface, yes.”

“What kind of feedback?”

“Phantom sensation, mostly,” she said realization starting to dawn. “Seeing ghostly images, phantom limb sensations – even when all limbs are accounted for – sudden bursts of taste, particularly when drinking. Or loss of sight or taste for brief periods of time. In extreme cases, minor paralysis or seizures. Did you feel or see something while you were down there? Are you saying this whole room is some kind of AI?”

Aubrey thought about the unsettling features of the woman’s face. And her weirdly hostile personality. “Not necessarily. But I think you are supposed to interface with it via nanotechnology, like our medical systems, not normal computer links. Maybe that’s why so much of it is concentrated in our neurosystem. I saw… something. A grassy field with a person. She spoke to me.”

“There’s a lot more to that nanosystem than they let on,” Sean muttered.

“So it would seem,” Priss said. “Why give you a version that would let you access a secret AI? If that’s what it is?”

“Maybe the functionality can’t be separated out?” Aubrey shrugged. “They essentially piggyback off of existing biology, except for the part where they monitor our senses. But that’s all I really know. I’m not a doctor or nanoengineer.”

Priss started gathering up her AI’s cables. “In that case, we don’t need to try and reinvent the wheel.”

“Right. Whatever this is, it seems willing to talk.” Aubrey rolled up her sleeves so they wouldn’t get wet. “So I’ll talk to it.”

“Hold on.” Sean put his hand on her shoulder. “How do we know that’s safe?”

“We don’t,” Aubrey said, annoyed. “But it’s the best option we’ve got.”

“Yeah, but you aren’t the only option we’ve got,” he pointed out.

“But she’s the better one,” Priss put in. “Her system hasn’t recently suffered a shock. And for all we know the loss of the nanotech – or the hand – that Lang took is enough to make it impossible for you to use the crystals. Aubrey will be safer doing this than you will.”

Sean worked his jaw for a moment, clearly looking for another objection to raise, but couldn’t think of anything. Aubrey gave him a small smile to say she’d be fine and stepped back down to the bottom step of the stairs. “Okay, give me about five minutes, then pull me back out.”

“Sounds good. I’ll also monitor you on the scanner.” She held up her medical device. “I don’t know how this system works but remember our AIs overwork parts of the brain and demand electrolytes. Without them problems develop. If I see anything like that we’re pulling you out early.”

Aubrey nodded and carefully put her hands into the water at her feet. For a moment nothing happened then the world around her changed again.

She was expecting to be back in the field but instead found herself in a large city square – free of foot traffic – looking down a long boulevard towards the setting sun. Rolling hills dominated the horizon here as well, the “city” actually didn’t look like it extended much further than ten or twelve blocks, in spite of being crammed just as full of buildings as any modern city Aubrey had visited. Maybe this was just a large open area near the outskirts.

The woman in white appeared, much like she had before, just as Aubrey was getting her bearings. She pursed her lips and said, “You’re back. Or maybe you just wanted to move. There are easier ways to get where you want to go, you know.”

“Actually, I don’t,” Aubrey said, sticking to her previous approach of total honesty. “I’m not a Vaultkeeper and I’m probably not even supposed to be here. But I’m trying to help my… friends find a space ship and we’re pretty sure this is the right place to start.”

The other woman frowned. “I don’t know much about spaceships, or if this is the right place to start, but we can take a look around if you want.”

“Okay.” Aubrey looked out over the city square again. “So where are we?”

“You don’t know?” The woman looked surprised. “This is Borealis city, on Mars. It’s a good enough place to try to find a spaceship as any, I suppose. Although this early in the colony’s history they only visited every three months. You might have to duck forwards or backwards a bit.”

A chill settled in Aubrey’s gut. “Mars? That’s what this is?”

“You should know this…” The woman in white waved a hand and the landscape around them somehow faded, becoming indistinct and distant. “You said you’re not a Vaultkeeper and I figured it was a trick. But if you’re really not a Vaultkeeper, who are you?”

“Aubrey Vance, from Austin, Texas. I work in the traffic control office.” Aubrey hesitated a moment then asked, “Who are you?”

“Sarah Conrad. From Borealis, Mars. I was a colonist.”