The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Eight

Previous Chapter

Glenda Vesper was the wife of Vincent Vesper, bound up to him like some kind of possession by an archaic, destructive contract known as ‘marriage.’ The general belief was that marriage was a holdover from martian society. It involved some kind of buying or selling of resources and emotional services in highly stressful emotional hostage situations the likes of which martians seemed to enjoy a great deal. It was the kind of cultural institution that drove wedges between sapiens and martians.

However it was something that the Vespers believed in a lot, according to the records, so when he found a moment between all his other responsibilities Brian dropped by the Bakersfield vault and he and Baker went to look in on Glenda. Unfortunately, Glenda was one of the people who came out of Shutdown angry. After the initial contact with the returned martians the Directorate had tasked a group to work on ways to humanely restrain deranged martian individuals and his Vault was one of the first to benefit from their work. As a result they wound up not going down into the Vault proper.

Instead they went into the hovercar hanger on top of the Vault where several large vans had been brought in and turned into small, improvised living chambers. They’d built an improvised nanolathe device that fused and unfused the doors. It took a couple of seconds for the nanotech to transform the side of the van from a solid piece back into a sliding door which gave Brian just enough time to compose himself. He wasn’t a councilor, he specialized in the hardware side of medical technology. The human part of it wasn’t something he had a lot of experience with and, to make matters worse, the initial reports from the psychologists suggested the problems were beyond what anyone had experience with.

When he slid the door open he doubted that assessment. Glenda Vesper was a middle aged woman with graying hair, just shy of the century mark, with clever, sunken eyes and long, agile fingers. She looked entirely lucid as she smiled and nodded to him from her seat on one of the benches along the side of the van. Then she opened her mouth. “Hello, Harold! Have you finally finished compiling the new code for the pulse regulators? We need to test it against the entire synchronization package if we’re going to get on to debugging before the end of the month.”

Brian’s smile wavered. “I’m afraid you’ve confused me with someone else, Ms. Vesper. I am Director Brian O’Sullivan and I’m in charge of the Bakersfield Vault, which is where we are right now. How are you feeling?”

“Like I should be at work,” she replied, her smile fading. “What Vault? What Bakersfield am I in? Why aren’t I in Sarajevo, with the rest of the Front?”

“Calm down, Ms. Vesper,” Baker said, taking a seat on the bench opposite Glenda. Her tone and posture were supposed to sooth and disarm but had the opposite effect on the other woman, who’s eyes got wider and wider as Baker spoke. “We’ve explained the situation to you before, do you remember?”

“Don’t patronize me, young lady!” Glenda snapped. “Who do you think you are, the Directorate?”

“Actually…” Brian’s voice was dry but amused. “This is SubDirector Baker, who is also from this Vault.”

“What Vault? What are you talking about?” Glenda got up with a sudden, violent motion and grabbed Brian by the front of his tunic. “I need to get back to work and I don’t have time to listen to all of you babble. We’ve been trying and trying and trying to get the Light of Mars to work but all we get are failures and hurdles and distractions. Don’t you see how important this is?”

Brian tried to get ahold of her hands but somehow the woman’s elbows always managed to get in the way and spoiled his attempts. “Ms. Vesper, this isn’t helping. I know you’re anxious to get back to the Light of Mars project and we’re eager to see you ready to do the same. But first we need to make sure you’re stable.”

“We don’t have time for stability, Harold! You know how important the Light of Mars is going to be and it’s only a matter of time before the martians come back and no one wants to do anything about it!” With a hard shove Glenda pushed herself away and stalked four steps away to the back of the van. “No one is doing anything about the problem except us and we are running out of time and people!”

Brian glanced at Baker to see if she had any idea of what the other woman was talking about but from her bewildered expression it was clear she didn’t. “Ms. Vesper, there are plenty of people here. The entire staff of the Light of Mars project is recovering with you.”

“No they aren’t, Harold! I saw Gracie pull apart into pixels right in front of me.” She spun around on a heel and stomped back to him, jabbing a finger at each eye. “I saw it happen, Harold. We’re running out of time and people and the martians are going to be here any year. Let me get out and help.”

“The martians have already returned,” Brian said, a split second before his brain pointed out that maybe that wasn’t the best thing to say.

Glenda froze, fingers still pointed at eyeballs. “Already?”

“They came back into orbit a few weeks ago,” Baker said. Brian tried to will her into stopping but telepathy wasn’t something UNIGOV had cracked yet. So she continued blithely on with no appreciation for what being withing grabbing range of the deranged woman when she learned the truth might mean for him. “There have already been several incidents where they came and went largely unopposed but they haven’t left yet. The Directorate eventually decided to reactivate the Light of Mars in response.”

“Too late.” There was an anguish in those two words that Brian hoped he would never fully understand. “All this time and we’re too late.”

As Glenda sank down onto the bench again Brian darted forward and caught her arm to keep her from slipping all the way down to the floor. “It’s alright, Glenda. I’m sure once your project is fully reactivated-”

“Reactivated, reactivated,” she spat, “what are you prattling on about reactivating?”

Another fruitless glance passed between Brian and Baker. With no new insight he was forced to look at her again and say, “Developing your large scale nanolathe field?”

“Work on the Light of Mars has never stopped, not even for one day.”

For a long moment Brian just stared at the old woman. Even after all the strange and ridiculous things she’d said so far that had to be the strangest one yet. “Glenda…” He realized he couldn’t think of a good way to approach the issue directly. “Glenda, how old are you?”

The unexpected nature of the question brought her up short. “I’m…” She paused only as long as you might expect a lady of her age to think as she tried to add up all the years in her head. “I’m ninety seven. Or ninety eight, I don’t remember the exact day. It’s the middle of August, isn’t it?”

She was close, it was actually early September and her birthday was just a few weeks away, according to the file. “Glenda, when was the last time you worked on the Light of Mars?”

“Last week,” she snapped. “I took over on the frequency fine-tuning team after Alexei pixelated. We were getting close to a breakthrough on it.”

“Frequency?” Baker asked. “What’s that about? There wasn’t anything about frequencies in the notes we got from the Sarajevo compound when the project was Shutdown.”

“Balancing the frequency of the field is imperative if the Light of Mars is to extend beyond the current one kilometer maximum and remain stable,” Glenda said. “We’ve been working on that for the last decade.”

Brian frowned. “Is that so. How did you determine that adjusting the frequency of the Light was the key to stabilizing the magnetic field, rather than real-time adjustments to the strength of the field?”

“We ran repeated experiments that showed that adjusting the strength of the field only creates an illusion of solving the problem.” Glenda began weaving her body back and forth, her hands looping constant circles in front of her. “Each time you adjust the strength the size of the field also changes and the component parts of the Light jostle one another. It looks like you should be correcting the problem but you’re actually making it worse. One adjustment demands dozens of others and slowly the Light of Mars metastasizes into an uncontrollable ball of potential energy that eventually collapses in on itself in unmitigated disaster!”

Her hands flew up into the air, slamming her knuckles into the roof of the car. Stunned, Glenda cradled her hands to her chest and sat down again. Brian gingerly took a seat next to her, carefully taking her hands into her own. “Ms. Vesper. With all due respect, you’ve been in a state of near-suspended animation for the last sixty years. You haven’t had any opportunities to to run experiments. Your brain has been in a state similar to REM sleep and you may believe you experienced these things but they aren’t true or-”

Glenda yanked hard with both hands, then once again grabbed Brian by the front of his shirt. “No, you listen to me. We know what you did to us. Everyone heard the stories about what UNIGOV did to the Mars colonies but we thought it would be okay, because they were martians and we were sapiens. But when you put us in your computer we understood. There is no difference between martian and sapien except for where we stand, whether we are building martian or sapiens society. So we built the sapiens solution. We knew it needed to be ready when the martians approached us next.”

“But it wasn’t real, Glenda,” Brian said, almost pleading.

“We saw it in our minds, Harold,” she hissed. “We know the Light of Mars better than anyone else, we’ve lived its principles to the exclusion of all others. We were put in the ether because we valued it even above our loyalty to UNIGOV. That is why we had the strength to see, Harold. We had the strength to see…”

The old woman’s voice trailed away until it was almost gone. Her grip on his tunic loosened and Brian carefully extracted himself, watching Glenda’s face curiously. She never gave another sign she was aware of him. Baker helped him lay her down then the both of them left the van and sealed it closed behind them. For a long moment after the door closed Brian just stared off into space.

“Are you all right, Director?” Baker asked, resting a hand on his shoulder.

Brian countered with his own question. “Do we know who Harold is?”

“We didn’t even know we needed to investigate a Harold, the name’s never come up before. I’ll start some inquiries as soon as I can.”

“Can we call up records from the Shutdown fugue?” Brian was already poking at his tablet to try and answer that question. “Is it possible to find out what kind of experiments there thought they were running in there and see how much bearing they have on reality?”

Baker was already shaking her head. “No, Director, the computer servers that run that part of Shutdown aren’t really intended to create output in that way. They’re designed to interface with the medinano system. Not holoprojectors, video screens or even text outputs.”

“I see. We’ll have to see if we can cook something up, then.”

“That’s going to take a lot of time, Director.” She did add that it was time they didn’t have since they both knew that very well already.

“I understand that. Do what you can for as long as you can.” And if nothing came of it in time then he would just have to go in there himself.

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Seven

Previous Chapter

The primary difference between an oceangoing vessel and a space going vessel was the contrast. In space, most of your surroundings were black. Occasionally you’d pass by a ship or a planet but ships – at least warships – were deliberately painted to give only a dim contrast with the void. Planets were pretty bright if you were on the sun side. But even then the contrast with the darkness of space wasn’t as stark as you might think until you began the long fall out of orbit. Once atmo started to clog up your view of space light diffused and you were brought back into a fully illuminated world gradually.

On the water the glaring sun was directly above and the horrifying black abyss of the deep just over the side. It made it very hard to ignore the unknowns. According to the AI the proper term for it was thassalaphobia but Lang preferred to think of it as the water being really fucking creepy. The only thing worse than a giant body of water was a boat on said water.

And yet thanks to a momentary thought he’d decided to follow up on now Sergeant Martin Langley was doomed to locate a boat with which to revive the ancient art of the seaborne assault. “First there was the drop pod. Then the hovervan. Then there was an entire Rodenberry Stellar Navy cargo hauler.” Priss handed him back the binoculars. “Is piloting every conceivable vehicle in the galaxy under combat conditions your new life goal?”

“No.”

“I don’t think the admiral will let you be the Tranquility‘s new helmsman even if you somehow magically drag another group of stranded spacers back up to orbit.”

“Flying capitol ships is boring. The AI does 90% of the work for you under the best of conditions and the admiral tells you where to go anyway.” He looked at the marina laid out in front of them again, trying his best to figure out what he was looking for. They didn’t have the best vantage point from their place on a hillside a couple of blocks down. They’d hunkered down in an empty hotel poolhouse built over a large drainage system that connected directly to the sewer system which gave them a lot of good exit options. Only about two thirds of the docks were visible from there but Lang had preferred to have cover and a quick exit rather than a good view. “Think we can rig up one of those solar doohickeys without the natives around to help us out this time?”

“It’s not like Sean and Aubrey were crack electricians and we do have a half a dozen trained technicians with us so it’s not like we’ve got bad odds on fixing one ourselves.” She pointed at one of the boats. “Have you thought about that one there? If nothing else we probably won’t need to worry about the fuel or power situation.”

Lang lowered the binoculars to get an idea of where she was pointing but he didn’t have to use them again to figure out what she was talking about. “A sailing ship? Priss, I’m a pilot not a deckhand. Just because we don’t need to rig it with a portable fusion generator doesn’t make it more useful. For starters I’m not sure we could even get that thing out of the dock but even if we could I don’t think we could get anywhere close to the target zone unobserved.”

“I loaded my AI with a whole set of guidebooks on proper use of a sailing ship,” Priss countered. “If you can learn to pilot a Rodenberry lander by AI I think you can handle some ropes.”

“There’s so much wrong with that statement I’m not even going to get into it.” Lang pointed over at a sleek, white boat large enough to hold half a dozen people. “That thing looks like it can actually get us where we’re going inside of half a day and has the added benefits of being modern, mechanized and low enough to the horizon that they won’t see us coming with a casual glance.”

Priss toggled through a half a dozen screens worth of information before she answered. “That’s a Bluesky 52 cruiser. It’s got an onboard fusion plant that, according to the inspector’s stamps, was shut down over thirty years ago. The parts are probably no good by this point. Even if it does run, by some miracle, it’s containment envelope will create a magnetic signature large enough the Earthlings will be able to pick it up just by the way it interferes with their magnetic field generators. They won’t have to see us coming, they’ll know as soon as we turn the damn thing on.”

It wasn’t hard to peek over Priss’s shoulder – she wasn’t a tall woman – and verify what she was reading for himself. “Do you have data on every boat anchored out there?”

“No. Just the ones in the southernmost six piers.”

“Why?”

“Because some of us were thinking about hijacking one on our day off and taking a look out at the bay. It’s not like there’s anyone here using them.” Priss paged through a couple more screens of data, mostly specs and exterior holos of the boats in question from the looks of it. “The big problem that we’ve seen so far is power supply, which is why I’m thinking sail. Everything else looks like it runs on some kind of internal generator which is bound to be trash by this point in time.”

“You just said we’ve got techs of our own,” Lang said, amusement crowding out his lurking dread of the water. “I mean, sure, you can’t ask them for help getting a pleasure cruise up and running and you definitely couldn’t borrow a portable generator for it either, but the point stands. We don’t need to pile into a rowboat to make this expedition possible.”

“True enough. Have you considered that the high tech ships might be tied into a nav system that monitors their locations at all times?”

“Given what we’ve seen so far the UNIGOV approach to watching the populace is their nanotech.” Lang scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Although it’s true they controlled car and aircar traffic that way. On the other hand there’s no indication they tracked the van we used down in Texas that way.”

Priss shrugged. “They weren’t looking for us then. They know we’re here right now and are taking deliberate hostile steps against us. Looking at trackers on the boats is a logical step.”

“You’re not wrong.” Lang pinched the bridge of his nose. “Have you actually boarded any of those ships or did you just pull their specs from an archive somewhere?”

“The dockmaster kept files we were able to dump from his computer. I’ve got them all backed up to my AI although as I said we’ve only checked the files against the actual physical boats on a few of the piers.”

“Well, ultimately what kind of operation we run is up to the Major,” Lang mused. “It’s his call whether we make a stealth approach, a direct approach or what. Now that I think about it, we might even get better results targeting the magfield generators holding the disassembler field in place rather than striking the power plant directly. The kind of generator you need for a large scale nanolathe field like that has to be very specialized.”

“A power plant is better,” Priss said. “It’s a bigger building and needs more work to rebuild than magfield generators. No matter how specialized the field generator is you can make the component parts much easier than you can erect a containment facility for a fusion reactor.”

“But you can replace one centralized power source with distributed portable generators.” Lang shook his head in disgust. “Never mind, that’s officer talk we’re getting in to. The Major will handle target selection, too, let’s focus on giving him good options for ships we can hijack for our little adventure in larceny. Give me a couple of options for stealth, speed and ease of refitting.”

“I’m telling you…” Priss brought up the sailing ship again. “We got all three in one.”

“No. No one knows how it works and it can’t possibly get decent speed.”

“It makes eight knots.”

“I don’t even know what that means.” He went back to his binoculars, sweeping the docks slowly. “But we should have an option that’s the best example of each of those categories. We can put your precious ship of the line into the ease of refitting category if you’re really married to the idea of throwing your back out as we head towards our water grave.”

Priss folded her arms and sat down on an empty shelving unit. “Okay, sunshine, I get that you’ve never been the most optimistic of people but this isn’t like you. What’s on your mind?”

“Boats.”

“Seriously, Langly.”

“I’m serious, Priscilla.” He set his binoculars aside and jabbed one finger at his sleeve. “Do you see this?”

“Yeah, it’s a Sergeant’s stripe, my congratulations and condolences on your promotion. Did you ever stop to think that if you kept doing incredibly stupid things under pressure that somehow worked out in the end, sooner or later some genius with an officer’s commission might decide you could do it all the time?”

Lang threw his arms out in frustration. “Of course not, Priss! I was under pressure!”

“Taking the right actions without needing to think about it is a sure sign of leadership ability.”

One of his fingers was displayed for her viewing pleasure. “Have you noticed that ever since they sewed this stupid third stripe on me everyone pays attention to what I’m saying? I used to have to actually find someone willing to listen to me. Now they take every word out of my mouth like its some kind of revelation and Major Goldstein got it in his head to send us all out over the fucking abyss like we’re skipping up the space elevator on Copernicus Major. We don’t know the first thing about water, Priss. We didn’t even have sonar scanners in our landing loadout or if we did you can be damn sure getting it out of the basecamp wasn’t priority one so they’re gone now. There could be anything out there and we wouldn’t have the first clue about it.”

Priss tilted her head slightly, her expression not exasperated or impatient, just curious. “Is that so bad?”

“Do you know what happened on Mars?”

“You crashed a Rodenberry lander.”

“I got put under the most stupid, naive, happy-go-lucky lieutenant they had and dropped in the middle of a situation so crazy I had to make a controlled emergency landing just to meet a deadline.” He used a finger on the other hand this time. “I made it work, and you know why? Because, gravity, thrust, atmospheric breaking, those things are my bitches, Priss. But you know it’s going to happen all over again. Goldstein is going to saddle us with some fresh faced officer who never even saw combat in the last war and tell us to toddle off and blow up a power plant and I don’t know nearly enough about boats to make up for that kind of albatross. Someone’s going to die again, all for this stupid, stupid idea.”

Priss got up, took his hand in hers and gently folded its middle finger down, then took his shoulder and turned him back towards the marina. “It’s okay, Lang. We signed up for stupid ideas and a risky life.” She gently rubbed his shoulder as they stared at the assembled ships. “And as stupid ideas go, at least this one has the benefit of novelty so we can all say we died doing something no one on Copernicus has ever done before. You’re right, though, a D-day landing is probably enough novelty for one operation. We’ll find an boat with some solar panels and a modern control scheme and see what the Major thinks, okay?”

The rubbing abruptly went from feeling comforting to patronizing and he shrugged off her hand. “Fine. I saw solar panels on one of the boats on Pier H. See if you can find it in that database of yours.”

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Six

Previous Chapter

“They’re moving something down there, Admiral.” General William Ollinger had joined Carrington by hologram, seated in an empty area about four feet to the left of his desk. The floor of his ready room was transformed into a map of Earth via the same holoprojectors that created Ollinger’s image and showed constant, real-time updates based on data coming in from the fleet. A large, red ray of light represented Ollinger’s stylus as he indicated things. “Just based on our ongoing surveillance we’re sure this continent is the center of Earth’s material production.”

Carrington’s AI offered him a name. “Africa, is it? I seem to recall learning most of the materials in the original Colony Fleet came from there. Is it still a major resource hub?”

“Hard to tell if they still mine there or not. Records show the continent was built up a great deal in the century or so before Departure but estimates at the time were that less than a quarter of the available resources had been exhausted.” Ollinger zoomed the map in until they were only looking at the central portion of the continent. “A lot of the inland jungle was deliberately left intact at the time and that’s a decision that UNIGOV has apparently held to.”

“Which doesn’t surprise me.” Carrington pulled up a transcript of one of his talks with Director Mond and did a quick search. “I was told that, ‘The influence of martian society left planet despoiled and suffering at every level and time must be taken to allow it to recover.’ That’s supposedly why they abandoned so many cities, for one thing.”

“Well they haven’t gone to quite that extremity in Africa. In fact, Africa and Asia have the highest population per square mile of anywhere on Earth. But it’s fairly obvious they’ve chosen particular parts of the planet and just left them alone. Ironically, that’s what makes it so easy to tell what they’re doing now.” The red light of the stylus moved over the map until it paused on a point in the middle of the land mass.

A large mountain range protruded along the western side, not on the ocean but not far from it. The AI filled in details like the location of abandoned cities or towns, active settlements and what looked like mining or refining operations. Last but not least it indicated an intermittent line of energy signatures between the mountains and the ocean. “They’re taking something to port.”

“That’s what it looks like, sir.”

“Do we know where it’s going?”

“No, sir, but we know it’s not normal behavior. We started seeing these movements eight hours ago and there hasn’t been a similar spike in activity in the region for the duration of our stay.”

Carrington fought the urge to hunch over his desk and stare at the hologram. He’d done some of his best thinking in that position, back in his academy days, but he was too old now to get away with that kind of thing for long. His shoulders and back wouldn’t let him. Instead he folded his hands in front of him and rested his chin there, saying, “Do we know what it is they’re mining there?”

“You can get just about anything you want but copper, cobalt and lithium are all strong possibilities. We don’t have specific mineral surveys from that time period available so we can’t say for sure. There’s a good way to find out, though.”

“Oh?” The admiral perked up a bit. “What’s that?”

Ollinger tapped his stylus on his desk in a very self satisfied way. The map panned over to the eastern coast and quickly zeroed in on a massive oceangoing vessel anchored in a port there. “We could go down and look at it. This pulled into port an hour and twenty minutes ago. Two guesses as to what it’s for.”

“Would you look at that.” Carrington worked his tongue about his mouth for a moment, practically salivating at the tempting target they’d stumbled on. “It can’t really be that easy, can it? We just fly down there and scoop up a freighter full of critical materiel from under UNIGOV’s noses. There’s got to be a catch.”

“I don’t think there is, sir.” The holo changed to show the ocean between Africa and the continents where the Copernican ground forces had landed, what the Fleet was referring to as the American Theater. “The disassembler field they deployed over Anaheim is nasty but it requires a huge amount of ground based infrastructure. A power plant. At least a dozen magfield generators. To say nothing of the huge volume of raw nanotech necessary to create an effective nanolathe effect over such a large area. Based on the specs we think the Anaheim emplacement has we’re pretty sure we can determine how far offshore the field can reach.”

A thin line of red ringed the shores of each continent, leaving the vast center of the ocean untouched. “Not very much, is it?”

“No, sir. Even if we planned our entire trip up and down in a straight line I think we could avoid ever having to run the risk of passing through one of those fields. Not that I think UNIGOV could possibly build them over so much coast land so quickly. Still better safe than sorry. That still leaves us with plenty of ocean to nab the ship when it starts moving.” A number of potential courses cut through the ocean to various ports of call. A moment later the potential approaches and timing for strikes on the ship from orbit were added in.

Carrington studied them for a moment, then asked, “Why haven’t you projected routes to continents other than North America and Europe?”

“Given the placement of the port of origin that made the most sense. South America is already rich in minerals and the other continents would be easier to reach from the other side of Africa.” Ollinger frowned. “Of course, this is UNIGOV. They might not have any other freighters still in service.”

“In which case this port might be the closest port of call for the freighter.” The admiral spent a long moment just watching as the holoprojection ran through a looping animation of Newtonian fighters swooping down on the freighter over and over again. “Didn’t you say that South America was also rich in minerals? Why aren’t they taking from there?”

His Newtonian counterpart thought just as long. “Well, now that you mention it, we didn’t think much about that. Africa was the source of materials for space ops in the past and we just assumed UNIGOV would stick with that source in the present. We can’t be that specialized on Newton since rare earths are particularly rare there but other supply lines tend to lay down in that fashion. Specific industries tend to source materials from specific locations.”

“Yes, but UNIGOV is deeply invested in breaking from those kinds of conventions.” Carrington drummed his fingers on his desk for a long moment. “What do we know about the South American deposits?”

Ollinger had been scrambling to figure it out. “Even less than the African ones. But they’re all on the western side of things, just like in Africa.”

“Practically a straight line from there to Anaheim.”

“Maybe they’re moving the goods to Europe instead?”

“Possibly. Do we know if the mix of materials in South America is any different from what’s in Africa?”

The general actually laughed at that. “Not the foggiest. Of course I don’t think any two continents are the same in anything but that doesn’t help much. It could be Africa has more of what they need that South America but I’m not ready to bet lives on it.”

“Agreed.” Carrington sighed, signaled his AI then rocked back in his chair and threw his feet up on his desk. His AI interrupted the live feed from his hologram pickups and continued to show him sitting normally. “We don’t know enough about the situation on the ground. Have your techs had any luck figuring out why we can’t get back in contact with the landing team?”

“They think it’s something to do with the nanotech scattering the signal.”

“Yeah, our boys are working on that angle too.” He rubbed his hands over his face, suddenly very tired.

“Everything all right over there, Admiral?” Ollinger looked over to his left, which must have been where Carrington’s holo was in his office, because there wasn’t any reason for him to look that concerned otherwise.

“Did you ever think you’d spend hours a day thinking about copper and radio signals when you signed up for the service?” Carrington waved at the map, momentarily forgetting that the general wouldn’t be able to see it.

But one way or another Ollinger got his point because he laughed and said, “No. I signed up after watching that movie you Copernicans made. Did you ever see it? The one about Rear Admiral Bahai running the Galilean Lunar Maze?”

Long Way Down,” Carrington said, a grin creeping onto his face. “That movie single-handedly tripled Spacer Corps recruitment.”

“There were two guys in my class besides me who decided to join up after watching it and practically the whole dorm turned out for the showing in the square sophomore year.” Ollinger twirled his stylus around his fingers. “Of course you can’t actually sneak through the Galileo moons that way. The rings around the planet aren’t thick enough to scatter modern scanners much less EMG pickups and the studio completely cheated the mass of the moons outside of maybe Minerva. There are only six possible alignments of the planet and its satellites that allow you to freefall from outside the rings all the way down to Diana. All of them take a lot longer than forty hours.”

Carrington gave the general a surprised look. “You know, you Isaac boys put a lot more thought into that film than we ever did.”

It was Ollinger’s turn to sigh. “Maybe. But it turns out it didn’t matter that much in the long run because EMG made the freefall tactic obsolete just a couple of years later. Not that reality and movies have a strong connection anyway.”

“True enough.” The admiral leaned forward to sift through his own files, absently toggling his holofeed back to live. “I’m sure Bahai spent more of his time thinking about fuel supplies, mineral resources and personnel allocation than he did free falling past gas giants too.”

“Ships logs say he thought the whole maneuver was silly at the time.”

“Did it to prove that making a purely ballistic approach over a period of eight days was an impractical way to fight a war.” A smile tugged at Carrington’s lips. “Knocked half the Lunar Alliance out of the war instead.”

Nostalgia filled the space between the two men for a long moment. Finally Ollinger said, “We could just sink the transport. Your opening bombardment went off fine so I’m sure any ship in the fleet could put a missile or two in it from anywhere inside lunar orbit.”

After another moment of sifting through files Carrington shook his head. “We’re at war right now so there’s nothing wrong with hitting transports but I’m not sure it’s the right move just yet. I’d bet a month’s salary we’ve got better intel than they do. Let’s not tip our hands and reveal how much we can see of what they’re doing down there just yet. I’ll have the archive boys sift the files. Maybe we can put together an idea of what it is they’re moving around and why. I want your destroyers to keep tabs on South America and… Australia, see if they’re moving materiel out of those areas as well. The longer they think they can move in the open like this the better idea we can get of their operational norms.”

“We can do that.” Ollinger folded his hands and leaned back. “Have we decided what we’re going to do about the landing team?”

“There are a couple of potential plans on the table. The techs are working on the disassembler field problem and I’m looking at several other locations we could land a second team to try and retrieve the first.” Carrington got up and walked out onto the map, his feet disappearing into the holographic terrain. “We’ve misunderstood the Earthlings repeatedly. I’m not ready to commit to a major action until we’ve rectified that shortcoming.”

“Maybe you should go down and figure them out yourself.”

For a long moment he stared at the freighter. “Maybe I should.”

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Five

Previous Chapter

“Well, Director, how shines the Light of Mars?”

UNIGOV Director Brian O’Sullivan turned away from his hologrid, suppressing his annoyance behind a perfectly cultivated bland smile. “The nanofield is stable again, Mr. Vesper.”

“Oh?” The other man ignored Brian’s empty smile, his attention focused more on the hologrid, fingers absently tracing the power and signal strength curves displayed there. “Stable is one word for it. Precarious is another.”

Brian tried to mimic the other’s relaxed posture but it his pesky vestigial martian instincts made it impossible. At five foot eleven not only was Vincent Vesper the bigger man but when discussing his chosen field of research he carried himself with enough poise and confidence to equal any fully licensed UNIGOV Director. The urge to challenge him was constantly clawing at the back of Brian’s mind. “Stabilizing large scale nanotech deployments is your field of expertise, Mr. Vesper. Perhaps you’d like to give the technicians a few pointers.”

Vesper turned and glared a Brian from under his bushy white eyebrows, his eyes glittering with a strange and unsettling light. “You would enjoy that, wouldn’t you, Director? Knowing the pet inventor that you defrosted after thirty years on ice is back to quietly working away for the success of your latest pet project.”

“This isn’t about pets or projects, Mr. Vesper.” Brian struggled to keep his amiable, cooperative expression in place. He didn’t enjoy knowing Vesper was working on anything. While Vesper had been put into shutdown decades before Brian was promoted to the Directorate when the decision was made to run the technician through the reboot procedure he’d made it a point to read up on the man. What he’d learned disturbed him. “The Directorate is concerned that the very way of life that sapiens spent so long building on this planet is on the verge of pulling apart at the seams. Who better to try to repair that damage than the greatest builder Earth has ever produced?”

“When was the last time the UNIGOV Directorate wanted to build something?” Vesper snorted in derision. “You always knew it was possible the martians would return and we would need something to keep them at bay. A monument to cooperation that would cow their ambitions. A light of truth to dispel their lies and send them scampering back into the darkness. Rather than make one you chose to punish us when we did it for you.”

“Walls and borders are just another part of martian thinking, Vesper,” Brian replied, his soothing tone more to ease his own worries than to placate the other man. He still wondered if they might be too close to the edge of martian ways already. Although the Directorate had agreed to finally give the Light of Mars their official sanction it didn’t mean they had no misgivings. “If we were that defensive about things we’d be no better than them.”

“We’re going to be deader than they are if we’re not careful.” Vesper sighed and started fiddling with the hologrid’s controls, much to the consternation of the technicians ostensibly watching that station. Brian gave them a slight nod and they moved out of his way. “I can tweak this a bit and even out the field fluctuations about twenty percent but it’s only a temporary fix. We knew about this design flaw the first time the project was under way but never worked it out.”

“What do you need?” Brian asked. “The full resources of UNIGOV are at your disposal.”

For a moment Vesper didn’t say anything, just leaning in and peering at the very bottom of the holotank as if he was trying to puzzle out something written there. “Did… did you burn out the power relays in one of the field generators? How is that possible?”

A meaningful tilt of the head from the Director prompted one of the technicians to say, “It was a result of rapid field strength adjustments. The martians launched some kind of high energy attack on the field and it collapsed. We don’t have any imaging from that high up so it’s hard to tell for sure but the telescopes we’ve trained on their location make it look like some kind of ionized plasma barrage.”

Vesper spat, causing everyone else in the room to jump. “Plasma. Of course. Then there really won’t be a perfect fix to your problems, Director, because large scale magnetic fields are very vulnerable to outside influence. The equipment you’ve got here isn’t enough to proof the Light of Mars against a large volume of ionized plasma.”

“As I said, Mr. Vesper, anything we can bring to bear on this project is available to you.” Brian opened up his tablet and prepared to key in a search for whatever was needed. “We can have any personnel or nanufactory on Earth working on an issue inside the hour.”

The old man raised an eyebrow. “Well, Director, maybe you are taking this seriously after all. First off, we need to quintuple the strength of the magnetic field.”

Quintuple?” The lead tech’s jaw dropped. “Director, that’s going to take more than just field generators. We need miles of cable, a second power source and a much more modern computer system to synchronize everything. Not to mention an ocean of new nanotech. About a quarter of what we had before shorted when the field collapsed before and needs to be replaced plus all the extra? A field five times strong requires exponentially more nanotech to fill it.”

“Just replace what you lost,” Vesper said. “The point of strengthening the field is to disrupt and deionize the plasma so it will cause fewer problems in the heart of the field. We’re not going to have the nanotech operating over an area any larger than we were before. It’d loose cohesion.”

“How does making the unstable field larger make it more stable, if I may ask?”

Vesper nodded in grudging satisfaction at Brian’s question. “You may, Director. You may. The fact is that it doesn’t, in fact it will probably make it a little less stable. However if we can prevent the plasma from burning through the nanotech suspended in the field the fluctuations created by just the plasma ions shouldn’t make the field collapse. But ultimately what we need is better software.”

The head tech looked up at the hologrid then back at Vesper. “What we’ve got here is state of the art.”

“Then we’re going to have to make the art better than ever and fast because what you’re running here cannot handle juggling the power load and frequency calculations necessary to keep thirty five magfield generators running and adjusting with the fineness necessary to make this work.” The old inventor started punching names into his console. “We’re going to need about ten to twenty of your best and brightest coders but that’s not all. I need some people from my team. We were already working on the field stability issues when the project was shutdown.”

Vesper’s names popped up on Brian’s tablet with a quiet ping. He looked the list over quickly. “Just some? We could take all sixty of them out for you if it made your life more convenient.”

Brian’s sarcasm was lost on him. “It would. I look forward to seeing them outside the guts of your filthy computers again. Is it possible to see a sample of the burned out nanotech?”

“Mr. Richards can arrange that for you?” Brian waited until his lead tech nodded and smiled. “Excellent. I think we’ve made good progress here, Mr. Vesper, and I look forward to seeing what you can do here! I’ll leave the two of you to it and see what I can arrange with the shutdown techs.”

Brian stopped smiling as soon as he was out of the plant’s control room. He hadn’t been kidding when he said that all the resources UNIGOV had to offer were available to him to get the Light of Mars project up and running again. What he hadn’t told Vesper were exactly how many resources were available. There weren’t as many as the old man seemed to think there were.

Oh, he would get his new generators and cables and whatever else the local nanufactories could produce as quickly as they could produce it. Bringing in some of the raw materials might be difficult. Large quantities of rare earths would need to be moved over from the stockpiles in Africa but there were still a number of midsized cargo transports left in old Vaults here and there. The bigger issue was the personnel.

UNIGOV had spent a lot of time on trying to hash out an AI breakthrough in the last fifty years and the result had been a decline in the number of software engineers available for programming tasks that didn’t relate to AI. He wasn’t sure if they could transfer their expertise to Vesper’s needs. Then again, his position in the Directorate had nothing to do with technology or education to begin with so ultimately those issues were going to have to be sorted out by others.

His committee oversaw medical and disciplinary affairs. In other words, they were the ones in charge of managing the administration of medical nanotech and, if necessary, taking people into and out of Shutdown. Director Brian O’Sullivan was Vesper’s minder – or, as they would’ve said during the martian era his parole officer. It was his job make sure Vesper didn’t turn full martian and to put him back in Shutdown if he did. In theory it was his job to do that for all of Vesper’s peers as well.

As he walked Brian readied his handheld holophone and sent a signal to his subordinate in the Bakersfield Vault. It took a few minutes eventually SubDirector Baker appeared in full holo. She was young and hard edged, part of the most resolutely environmentalist factions in the Directorate to the point where she’d discarded her birth name and its martian connotations and chosen to identify with her place of work instead. Sometimes Baker’s extreme positions intimidated him but she was very good at her job. “Hello, SubDirector,” he said. “How are we feeling today?”

“The job’s been very masc today, Director, uncooperative and stubborn. And you?”

“Much the same. Shall I make a note of your change in disposition in the records?” Brian asked, his hand hovering over his device’s controls.

“No, no, the femme touch is the right approach to masc days.” She managed a grim smile, which did a great deal for her appearance that Brian studiously ignored. “Thank you for asking, although I’m guessing squaring up the records isn’t why you called.”

“I’m afraid not.”

“Problems with Mr. Vesper?”

“Not as such. I wanted to know if there were any updates on the condition of your patients.”

Baker went to work at some screen or tablet that wasn’t making it into the holographic projection. Her image reduced from her full, normal height of five foot three to two feet tall and three other projections filled in the empty three quadrants left vacant by the change. These projections changed every few seconds. Most of the people they displayed were unconscious in medical beds but about a third were awake and moving about unseen environments. About a quarter of those who were awake looked violently upset at something, the rest stared into space or looked around blankly.

As these encouraging images began showing Baker said, “We’ve completed the first stage of the revival process on all subjects at this point to varying degrees of success. As you can see, most are still in a state of unconsciousness. Of those that are awake, Mr. Vesper is the only one who has responded to outside stimulus so far. We’re currently debating whether we should allow them to have contact with people who knew them before they went into Shutdown, it may provide a strong enough outside stimulus to bring their minds back to the present.”

“Do you know why the unconscious ones aren’t waking up?” Brian asked. “Their nanotech should have kept them physically healthy.”

“It did. They have just as robust a metabolism and circulatory system as you or I and their muscle mass is within normal bounds.” Baker wiped away the real time feeds and switched the feed to a 50/50 set up with herself on top and a medical readout below. “As you can see, they should be normal.”

“I sense a but coming.”

But.” The medical chart changed to a brain scan. “As you can see, their brains have atrophied. We thought the shutdown fugue state would keep it healthy and allow them to wake up with no issues. However it looks like that wasn’t the case. A lot of them just started to come out of their coma only to find the parts of their brain that handled conscious thinking too worn out to handle the process. So they went right back to sleeping.”

“Can we restore that part of the brain?”

Baker shrugged and cleared the brain scan away. “Maybe. Medinano is supposed to use our DNA as its programming and built whatever our genes say should exist. We’re still trying to figure out how this kind of atrophied brain tissue was allowed in the first place.”

“Well, keep working that angle. Is that also the cause of the problems for the people who did successfully wake from Shutdown?”

“No. We’re not seeing that pattern of atrophy in them, at least not to the degree we see it in the unconscious ones.” A new file opened below her holo, this time a personnel listing for half a dozen psychiatrists. “I’ve called in some experts to see if there’s some kind of psychosis that set in as a result of their shutdown.”

Brian nodded and keyed in a new name to the end of the listing. “A good decision, SubDirector. I’ve added an additional name I think you should consult. Tie our project code to the request and he should arrive by tomorrow.”

“Who’s this?” Baker asked, her brow furrowed. “I’ve never heard of Gavan Chandler.”

“He’s an expert on trauma.”

Baker’s frown deepened. “Trauma? But the Shutdown process is supposed to be humane.”

“Perhaps. But no matter how sapien we are, SubDirector… nobody’s perfect. Right now it’s more important to figure out why Shutdown did this to these people than it is to worry what it says about the process.”

A flash of disappointment crossed her face then she sighed. “I suppose so. I’ll bring him in, Director.”

“Thank you, SubDirector. Let me know if there’s any change.” He ended the call and went to think about something more pleasant. Like where he could find fifty miles of wire on short notice.

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Four

Previous Chapter

Lang hooked his fingers under the manhole cover and nodded to Bragg, who had just gotten a grip on the other side. With a quick, synchronized yank they hefted the metal disc up and out of its seat and tossed it aside. Although the city was long unused the sewer below was still damp and pungent. “Fuck,” Bragg murmured, “that smells terrible.”

“Probably runoff from the rain keeping it moist,” Lang muttered. “If the air down there is poisonous we’ve got respirators we can use and it’s a damn sight better than letting the disassembler field get to us.”

Bragg nodded and looked back at the line of twenty or so people behind him. “He’s not wrong. Get down there, people, double time!”

The weird, shimmering curtain of Earth’s disassembler field advancing slowly behind them, turning the empty buildings of Anaheim to dust, was all the encouragement they needed to do as instructed. Their expressions told Lang it didn’t smell great down there but no one complained in his hearing. The smell wasn’t what worried him, though. “Are you sure, like absolutely sure, they aren’t going to just dust the whole sphere their magfield covers? Because if they do that we’re just going to die smelling actual shit rather than fresh air.”

“Nanolathes require a pretty strong magnetic field to provide power and suspend them in the air. Dirt and most paving is dense enough to disrupt that field, at least enough to prevent nanotech function.” Bragg shrugged. “Assuming their power delivery mechanisms aren’t more than twice as advanced as ours.”

“What if they are?”

“Plug your nose when you die.” Bragg laughed at Lang’s expression. “Look, the forward bases didn’t see the field carving up the ground at their location, I see no reason for them to do it here. Relax.”

Lang sighed and sat down at the sewer entrance, dangling his legs over the ledge as he said, “I’d try it except I’ve been down here once before. I’m not sure I’ll ever relax on Earth again.”

“Pity, that,” Bragg said as he followed Lang down. “It’s a beautiful planet. Makes me look forward to the days when Copernicus has it’s own ocean.”

A shudder ran down Lang’s spine as his memory of visiting the ocean front last week came unbidden. Like most of the spacers on assignment planetside he’d made the short trip to the beach just for the experience. He still remembered the endless dark expanse that spread out as far as the eye could see. “You want one of those on our planet?!”

“Sure.” Bragg hopped off the ladder and dropped the last three feet to land next to him. “Why? Do you not like water?”

“Water’s great in manageable quantities, not so much when it can jump up and slap a whole city off the map.”

“Ooookay.” The other man’s expression suggested he wasn’t interested in digging any deeper than that. So he turned to the rest of the people down there with them who stretched out in a ragged line on either side of the sludge in the middle of the sewer and clapped his hands. “Look alive, people! We’ve got work to do. Nnadi, Bryzowski, Suzumiya, break out the gells and lay down a sterile surface please. I want everything from here by the ladder to forty feet that way to be usable ground in an hour.”

“Lieutenant?” Glenda Nnadi scratched absently at her curls as she spoke. “Sergeant Langley mentioned something about rainwater runoff. Is flooding a concern if we stay here?”

“I don’t know.” Bragg looked further down the line. “Hu? Have you been able to establish a signal with the Major’s group yet?”

Priss looked up from her portable comm rig. “Yes, but it’s very spotty and it may cut out as the magfield up above moves over our position. Captain Byson has recommended we run physical cables to facilitate communications but the Major hasn’t decided if we will yet.”

“Can you check to see if we still have the Tranquility‘s weather reports available?”

“Will do.” Priss bent back over her rig.

Bragg looked back at Nnadi and her crew. “I guess we proceed as if we’ll get some rain in the next couple of days. Is that going to be an issue?”

Suzumiya shook his head. “I think we can rig a micropump through the gell to keep things moving without coming up over the new flooring.”

“I’m surprised they didn’t cut the old tunnels out of the system and just switch to individual sterilizer hookups,” Bryzowski said, poking the toe of his boot into the sewage. “It would’ve been a lot easier than continuing to route all this through a central location.”

“UNIGOV works in mysterious ways,” Lang muttered, opening his AI’s holodisplay.

“Doesn’t matter to us,” Nnadi said, opening up Bryzowski’s backpack and pulling out a pump and a roll of conduit. “Suzumiya’s plan is viable and will only take a couple of minutes to put in place. We’ll have the whole place floored and sterile in an hour, maybe less. Can’t do much about the smell, though.”

Bragg spent another few minutes handing out assignments to secure their position and get a cable run to Goldstein’s group – the Major having decided it was a worthwhile investment in the interim – before coming back around to Lang. “Alright, Sergeant,” he said, looking over the other man’s shoulder. “What is it that’s so interesting?”

“I loaded all the Departure era maps we had in the Tranquility database in my AI before we came down here,” Lang said, gesturing to the holos he had pulled up. “Along with all the updates we were able to get from Aubery and Sean.”

“How extensive were those?” Bragg asked.

“Not very. Apparently UNIGOV keeps information very segregated by location, which is probably the only wise tactical decision they’ve ever made. But we do know they’re not the world’s biggest fans of nuclear power, fusion or fission.” Lang pointed to two large facilities he’d highlighted on the map of the area around Anaheim. “These two locations – the Los Angeles Fusion Plant and Hollywood Auxiliary Power Plant – are the only two power plants of a size that could potentially power a magfield on the scale of what we just saw. Assuming no one built a new plant before UNIGOV took over.”

Bragg studied the map for a long moment. “Okay, that’s very interesting Sergeant. In case you haven’t looked around recently we don’t really have the manpower to launch a full scale offensive against a major infrastructure site right this instant. Not to mention the fact that we just abandoned most of our gear inside a disassembler field.”

“With all due respect, sir, that’s not the drawback you think it is. These aren’t the Isaacs or even the moonies at this place, it’s UNIGOV of the oh-so-peaceful homo sapiens.” Lang’s grim smile drew a skeptical look from Bragg. “They don’t believe in weapons, Lieutenant, and they can literally look through the eyes of their citizens so they don’t bother with a lot in the way of surveillance beyond that, either. I’m willing to be security at these facilities is practically nonexistent.”

“Wrong.” Bragg folded his arms in front of his chest. “First off, if these places were on Departure era maps then they were built before the age of kumbaya took over Earth. Did you visit any facilities from that time period on your last visit?”

Lang racked his brains. They’d been to the Launch Zone, of course, but he’d been unconscious for their arrival and hadn’t seen any of it’s exterior. Also, it was an entirely underground facility. Fusion plants were typically half buried but they still needed some portion of the building above ground for vents and the like. He wasn’t sure what time period the library or houses he’d seen dated from but they were all public or residential facilities. Not major infrastructure. “No, I can’t say I did. You’re from the Spacer Engineering Corps, don’t you know what defenses of that era were like?”

“I’m not a historian like the Major. Besides.” Bragg pointed up the ladder. “UNIGOV has just proven they’re adaptable enough to create a working, large scale weapon system in a couple of weeks. Who’s to say they haven’t done the same with surveillance systems and fortifications?”

“Sir, the longer we wait to take proactive steps to get off this rock the less like we are to ever accomplish it.” Lang folded his arms over his chest. “This makes the third time I’ve been grounded on a hostile planet. I’ve made it back to space twice before and it’s turning into quite the habit. I’d rather not break it.”

For a long moment the two stared at each other, Lang waiting patiently for Bragg’s answer, the officer quietly mulling over the map. Finally Bragg said, “I’ll go with Corporal Hu when she runs the comm cable to the Major’s location and run it by him. Until I get back with his decision I want you to grab a buddy and start mapping out the sewer system so we have an idea of our options if we do have to go back up. Prioritize routes that take you west.”

Lang looked to the map then back at Bragg. “West, sir?”

The lieutenant pointed a finger at the LA Fusion Plant, which the map showed taking up a whole city block of oceanfront real estate. “We have no idea if that facility is a part of this sewer system or the Los Angeles system. It may even be self contained. It may be simpler to work our way out to sea and come around that way.”

“Out to sea, sir?”

Bragg gave him an amused look. “Out to sea, Sergeant. You’re a pilot most of the time, right? Any chance you know how to sail a boat?”

His stomach did a little flip flop at the thought. “No, sir. Never even been on one.”

“Well ask around, see if anyone here has. I’ll do the same with the Major’s group although I’m not going to hold my breath. Get to it, Sergeant.” With that Bragg turned and picked his way through the trickling sewage towards Priss.

Lang heaved a sigh and closed up his map. There was no guarantee that Bragg or Goldstein would want him to be a part of the expedition to the power plant but given the way things had gone so far he wasn’t planning on holding his breath either. Which meant he was probably going to wind up out on the water at some point in the future. Sooner more likely than later.

He shoved down another round of nerves and started sizing up their group for potential sailors. If that was what it took to get off the ground again then that was what he was going to find.