The worst part about being grounded in Anaheim was the gravity. With a whopping 0.93 Standard Gravities Copernicus was a planet that didn’t really prepare one for the full One G experience found on Earth. Add in a two week stint on Mars (local gravity, 0.38G) and Martin Langley’s sense of weight and mass was shot to the point where running from one side of the Anaheim worksite to the other left him winded. He arrived at the command building, wheezing, and wiped sweat from his eyes before saluting and saying, “Sergeant Langley, reporting.”
“Come take a look at this, Sergeant.” The instruction came from a tall, balding man in the faded gray day uniform of the Copernican Spacer Corps. Major Elijah Goldstein hid his hairless pate under a small cloth cap and glared at the world from eyes sunken deep into his skull, his mouth perpetually turned downward in a disapproving expression. Lang instantly felt like he should’ve been focusing more on PT so the Major wouldn’t have to put up with his gasping.
That scowling expression was probably the Major’s greatest leadership skill. If the stories were to be believed, many a junior officer or NCO had felt it’s disdain and changed their ways without any input from him at all. Lang managed to shake off its effects after he caught his breath but the taller man’s vague sense of disapproval never quite went away. Other than that, Goldstein was unremarkable. He was an inch or two taller than Lang, wiry and tough in the way most Spacers were, and had deep lines across most of his face that hinted at his age.
Lang stepped down into the sunken middle section of the large room where the command staff had set up camp. The building had once housed a small planetarium and the Fleet task group that landed there co-opted a lot of the equipment to help build their command center. Now a large situation map was projected over the ceiling. That wasn’t what Goldstein wanted him to look at, however.
Instead the Major’s attention was focused on the room’s EMG station.
“Tell me, Sergeant,” Goldstein said, tapping a part of the screen that showed a large magnetic signature coming from some place twenty kilometers north, “you ever see anything like this during your time on planet?”
A twinge of annoyance stirred within Lang. Everyone seemed to think he was an expert on Earth after spending a couple of days there and escaping to tell the tale. “I can’t say that I did, Sir,” Lang said. “But we didn’t exactly have the best equipment on hand so there’s bound to be a lot of things around here that we missed on the first trip. That said, Anaheim is an abandoned city. There’s a lot of them down here, apparently UNIGOV cleared them out when the depopulation got really severe. Not sure why. We saw two of these places and there was never any major power sources left running in them when we passed through. Whatever is making that field is running off something and I’d bet it wasn’t here when we set up camp last week.”
“Do you think the Uni people are setting up to push us out?” Goldstein asked.
“Everything I’ve seen suggests they aren’t very up to date on strategy, maneuver or positioning. They didn’t even carry weapons or have functioning prisons.” Lang tapped the screen thoughtfully. “I remember Sean – one of the Earthlings I met – mentioning they had maglev transportation corridors, though. Maybe they switched one of those on. We could call up Tranquility and ask the Earthlings about it.”
“Not a bad idea.” The feminine voice made Lang glance over to the comm station where Corporal Priscilla Hu – the only other survivor from his last ill fated first visit to Earth – was on duty. “Sadly we already tried it and no one’s answering. We can’t raise the landing team we’re expecting today either and they should be halfway through the atmo by now.”
“Um.” Lang started chewing on his lower lip, his brain trying to figure out what was going on while his eyes enjoyed looking at a curvaceous woman. “When you put it that way it does seem like a more aggressive move, doesn’t it?”
“It does,” Goldstein said. “We still have communication with our forward operating bases so we’ve sent some scouts out towards the origin point of the field. Hopefully we hear from them soon. How certain are you that they don’t have old weapons caches lying around? They kept their launch craft even though they don’t go into space anymore, could they have old munition depots as well?”
Lang pulled his attention away from the biggest distractions in the room and shook his head, more to clear it than signal his disagreement. “What they told us is that they disassembled their weapons in order to avoid ‘Martian thinking,’ which is what they call anything remotely aggressive. I guess they subscribe to the ‘blade itself’ way of thinking and see any weapon as a corrupting influence.”
“But they executed a member of your group, didn’t they?”
“It was an accidental killing more than an execution. UNIGOV doesn’t execute their own dissenters and I’m pretty sure they could find a way to put us in Shutdown too, if they wanted us out of the way, and that would suit them better.” Lang suppressed a shudder at that thought. He hadn’t actually tapped into the Shutdown simulation like his Earthling friend Aubrey had but he’d read her report.
The old Nevada Launch Zone turned out to have more in it than copies of old, forbidden books and the relics of Earth’s old space program. It was also full of chambers containing the dormant bodies of people in Shutdown. Racks and racks of comatose sleepers, held imprisoned in their own minds by the meddling of the medical nanotech UNIGOV had originally sold to them as a benevolent measure to preserve the health of the public.
Which, admittedly, it did just fine when it wasn’t keeping them catatonic.
“So it’s not a weapon,” Goldstein mused. “I wonder what their play is, then.”
“My guess is they’re sending in a representative to talk to us,” Priss said. “They’re very big on talking and that kind of civilized, diplomatic thing when they’re not shoving sleeping people into boxes. It would fit the behavior we saw from Mond when he had us in custody. He had his mouth open so much I’m surprised he didn’t swallow a bug or something.”
“Possibly,” Goldstein said. “But if it was an offensive move, what do you think it would be?”
Lang shrugged. “It would have to be some kind of tool they repurposed on the fly.” Lang’s mind jumped back to the makeshift shackles they’d been locked in, built out of loose materials shoddily nanowelded together. “They’re creative enough for that kind of thing. Maybe they’re going to use the maglev rails to throw something at us. A kind of improvised railgun.”
“Throwing a brick at us is pretty aggressive behavior for the sapiens.” Priss drummed her fingers for a moment. “Maybe cutting off our communications is the point?”
“That’s just passive-aggressive enough to make sense from their point of view,” Lang agreed. “I’m not sure I buy all their propaganda about how they’re wonderful, peaceful people though. If we’ve gotten far enough under their skin to provoke a response then it’s possible we’re about to see what they look like when they get violent.”
“Violent how?” Priss demanded. “You need to practice violence in order to get any good at it.”
“The same way novices always do.” Lang flapped his hands limply in the air. “By flailing wildly until their hand hits something and they hurt themselves.”
“An untrained but valiant man,” Goldstein murmured.
Lang glanced at the Major, waiting for him to continue the thought. When he didn’t Lang asked, “What was that, sir?”
Goldstein grunted and scratched at his vanished hairline. “A long time ago, when I was just a baby officer, I researched historical warfare as part of my academic career. Not a little, a lot. One thing I read that I never forgot was the standards given for a sword master in late medieval Europe. Can’t remember exactly where. But a candidate had to win three bouts against three different types of opponents. Three rounds against a sword master, three against a man-at-arms who is drunk and three against a valiant but untrained man.”
“I get the first part but why the other two?” Priss asked.
“To prove that you can deal with unpredictable opponents.”
Lang stared at the EMG console, watching the magnetic field slowly expand towards the forward operating line. “I’m not sure getting a title is worth this kind of risk, sir.”
“We’re not here for titles, Sergeant,” Goldstein replied. “Do you have any other ideas as to what UNIGOV might be doing out there?”
“Their maglev system is tied into what we’d consider a last generation AI system,” Lang mused, more thinking aloud rather than offering a specific answer to the Major’s question. “I’m not sure they could use it for much outside of traffic control without a serious hardware upgrade. That’d change their power use profiles quite a bit, too. Their nanotech is pretty advanced compared to ours, at least in terms of how fine a scale they can operate on. Based on the van we stole I’d say they’re a couple of generations ahead of us on solar panel technologies.”
“I don’t see how any of that fits into what we’re seeing here,” Priss said.
Lang sighed. “No, neither do I. Sorry, sir, but when it comes to what the Earthlings are trying here I’m as clueless as the next guy.”
“Well, thank you for taking a look at it anyway, Sergeant,” Goldstein said. “I hate to keep you away from your other responsibilities so long for so little reward but I appreciate your time. You can return to your post now.”
Lang nodded and turned towards the door.
He’d barely finished that turn when Priss said, “Fuck. Lang, you’re not gonna believe this.”
He doubled the length of his pivot, doing a complete 360 degree turn. “What? What happened?”
Priss was streaming a live video feed from one of the forward bases. It showed a building on the opposite side of the street slowly turning to dust as an odd shimmering field slowly washed over it. “They found out what the sapiens’ big play is.”
Lang watched as one spacer sprinted across the street in an attempt to get away from the advancing field only to be overtaken. The poor man collapsed on the ground after running another couple of feet, his body’s fleshy parts dissolving into a pale red mist, the heavier pieces slumping into a quivering pile of once living matter. “Ah.” Lang winced as he watched the man’s death. “Well. Violence it is.”
“So it would seem, Sergeant,” Goldstein replied. “So it would seem.”