The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Eight

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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.