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? Never mind, 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.