The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Sixteen

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The Sarajevo of the Vespers’ time was still a fully populated city. It hadn’t started emptying for reclamation yet and the streets bustled with activity that wouldn’t be out of place in any of the dozens of still functioning metropoli of the modern day. Still there were some differences. The maglev pathways that allowed for economical hover vehicles weren’t installed so the skies were comparatively clear. The fashion choices of the pedestrians were very different. The buildings were shorter.

All except for twelve reddish towers that loomed over the city.

Each tower was built along a similar theme, standing somewhere between ninety and a hundred and twenty feet tall in a roughly obelisk shape. None of them was close enough to the point where Brian arrived for him to make even an educated guess what they were built out of. Color and general shape were the only things the towers had in common. Unless Sarajevo was a very hilly city – he wasn’t enough of a geography expert to know for sure – no two towers were the same height. Seven of the towers were circular, three were squares and the remaining two were pentagonal.

The tallest tower also looked like it had the largest footprint, while the tower with the smallest circumference was in the middle of the pack in terms of height. All the towers had at least one antenna and satellite protruding from one surface or another. Most of the towers had windows so far as he could see and at least one of those without windows instead had several balconies winding around the outside of the building.

Bizarre towers aside, Sarajevo was a pretty normal city. While the city life hadn’t been as modernized back then it was still comforting and familiar for Brian, who had spent the last several weeks in the empty husk of LA. The bustle of people alone lifted his spirits a little. Then he took a closer look at the general populace and felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end, an impressive feat considering he was in Shutdown. The figures on the street had the build of a human but no discernible facial features. He slowed to a stop, trying to look in every which way at the inhuman things passing him by and nearly jumping out of his skin when one bumped into him.

The thing didn’t even acknowledge him, just made a sound that might have been a grunt, then stepped around him and kept going. Brian shuddered and ignored the part of his brain that told him he’d just seen an echo of the shadow thing he’d seen as he drifted into Shutdown. “Baker, how many people are in this fugue instance?”

“There two hundred and fourteen now, Director,” her disembodied voice whispered in his ear. “That’s down from a high of almost a thousand before we started reviving the Light of Mars project from Shutdown.”

“How is that possible?” Brian asked. “We’ve only removed fifty or sixty people from the instance, where did the other seven hundred and change get to?”

“It’s hard to say for sure because we didn’t notice the drop off initially so no one bothered to track what was happening until four or five days ago, by which time the change was already well underway.”

Brian nodded as he walked, understanding the kinds of problems that came from discovering an issue long after the issue had actually happened. “What happened in the time we were watching?”

“A couple of dozen people left this fugue each time we revived someone from Shutdown. We haven’t figured out where they went or why but the rate was far too large to account for via natural death.” Curiosity tinged her voice. “Do you have some theory as to where they’re going, Director?”

“No. I’m just wondering where all the other people came from.” He’d been on the streets for less than half an hour and he estimated he’d passed a good sixty or seventy people already and if the rest of the city was as populous as this one street there had to be over a million people in the instance. Or, at least, a million things that looked like people. “Does the fugue create people, Baker? I didn’t think we had the kind of software you’d need for an undertaking like that.”

“We don’t. We can’t even get a convincing chat algorithm going for existing AI.” Baker didn’t sound that surprised to hear about the people in the fugue, however. “What you’re seeing is probably a reflection of your own conditioned expectations for city life reflected back at you via the fugue state. You expect to see people so the fugue creates a sensation similar to ‘people’ in your sensory nerves.”

“Interesting.” Brian actually found it creepy as hell. He didn’t care for the notion that all his mind could present when asked to fill a city with people was hundreds of faceless ghosts looming about the landscape in dire fashion. “Where can I find the instance’s actual inhabitants?”

There was a long pause which he first took to be Baker’s looking up data but quickly realized was her consulting documentation instead. “I honestly don’t know, Director. It looks like we never built anything to locate people inside a fugue state. After all, if we needed one of them for anything, we could always find their pod and pull them out without any need to go into Shutdown at all.”

“Are you suggesting I just wander around until I find an actual person? How will I even know them when I find them?”

“I’m afraid I have no idea.”

He sighed and took a different tack. “Did Sarajevo have a dozen strange, red towers in it when it was reclaimed?”

“Red towers, sir?”

“That’s right. Average height of about a hundred feet. No pattern to their layout that I can see.”

“Let me look that up.” There was a lengthy pause, which wasn’t surprising as most information on reclaimed cities was stored in the vaults and not accessible to the general public. It turned out that even sapiens clung to records of that type and pined wistfully for days when they lived in places they had colonized and polluted with their presence. These days only the Directorate had access to them. While a SubDirector was a part of the Directorate, so Baker could get that information, the levels of security she had to go through were pretty lengthy.

Brian passed the time by wandering the streets, marveling at the street signs and strange smells. UNIGOV hadn’t instituted it’s language unification policy at the time this instance was created. The written language was a mix of the standard sapiens alphabet and some other, archaic symbology that must have been abolished when the Sapiens Linguistic College was established. He didn’t know much about the symbols or what they meant, since neither linguistics or anthropology were his fields of study, but he preferred it to the alternative.

The crowds of faceless people weren’t growing any easier to deal with. Worse, as he meandered down the street he began to catch glimpses of darkness from the corner of his eye. At first he thought it was just his mind playing tricks on him. Then he remembered that everything around him was technically his mind playing tricks on him and he wasn’t sure what that meant for the things he was hallucinating. Was a night terror still just a bad dream here? Or did they have something to do with why all the people they’d taken out of Shutdown came out fundamentally off?

Were they even human, albeit of the martian variety, or were they something else?

These were the kinds of nagging questions he was trying to ignore by staring at signs or trying to read restaurant menus posted in windows. He found what looked like some kind of entertainment venue advertising musical acts in both languages. While never much for the classical martian instruments like the violin Brian did at least find it a little interesting to compare the two posters and tried to amuse himself by trying to connect the words in sapiens to the words in the other alphabet. He was actually getting a little invested in the exercise when he found himself locking eyes with the shadow in a reflection in the window again.

Brian froze.

Not that he had any choice in it. Something about locking eyes with that presence forced every muscle in his nonexistent body to lock up and refuse any command he made to move. The rational part of his brain raged at the thing. It made no sense that one figment of his imagination should totally override the rest of his brain whenever it chose to assert itself. It was obscene, offensive and almost martian in how intrusive it was.

“I found the records,” Baker announced.

With a huge intake of unreal air Brian yanked himself away from the glass and spun around to look wildly behind him. There was nothing on the streets at all. Nothing but the normal – or at least far less disturbing – faceless pedestrians of Sarajevo. “What the hell is in here with us?”

“Director? Are you feeling well?”

No he wasn’t. “Sorry, Baker, just talking to myself. What did you find?”

“Are you sure you’re alright?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“I need to know how you’re feeling in order to respect your situation, Director.” She said it in the very slow, deliberate way a teacher might lecture their children. “You know that and I’ve never seen you hold back your feelings like a martian before. Just a few minutes ago you reminded me you could work with martians and their ideas without that kind of ideological contamination slipping in.”

“You’re right,” he quickly replied. “I’m sorry. I just hallucinated again – the shadow man, you know, as opposed to all the other stuff I’m hallucinating right now. It’s got me pretty rattled.”

Baker was quiet for a moment. “Director, I’m concerned…”

She trailed off and Baker waited some time for her to continue. “What’s concerning you, Baker?”

More silence. Brian was beginning to get worried and wondering if he should abort his expedition when she finally answered him. “Director, there’s a long standing theory about fugue states. Do you know about the possibility of viewpoint imprinting?”

“No. I’m not familiar with the term.”

“It’s one of the many things the Directorate was initially worried about when they created Shutdown. They considered it possible that the many failings of martians would reinforce each other if all martian consciousness were put in a single fugue. What if they developed some kind of group mind or their thought patterns infect the fugue itself? What if their fugue state became a kind of entity unto itself?”

“Those ideas…” He wanted to say they sounded very fanciful but, now that he was in Shutdown himself, he had to admit the possibilities didn’t seem as far fetched as they might otherwise. He was working extra hard to keep a grasp on reality and he hadn’t even met anyone yet. “Lets proceed on the premise that there’s some level of truth to those theories and the night terror I’m seeing is some manifestation of that. How fast can you pull me out of this instance?”

“In three or four seconds.” The answer was pretty much instantaneous so Baker had to be pretty confident in it. “Five at the outside.”

“Fine. I want you to have a panic button ready to pull me out at any moment. If I ever report seeing that night terror again hit that button and pull me out of the fugue, understand?”

“Certainly, Director.” Baker sounded pleased to be putting some countermeasure to the hallucination in place. Brian wasn’t sure it warranted such a thing, wasn’t even sure it was dangerous, but Baker was correct. He did have an obligation to work through the emotional situation with her.

“Once you have that done, tell me what you found out about the towers.”

“Of course.” A few seconds pause. “I consulted a number of photographs of the Sarajevo skyline as well as maps and drone footage used to confirm the city was fully evacuated during the reclamation. There don’t appear to be any red towers in the city at that time. Whatever your seeing is something unique to the fugue state.”

“Interesting.” Brian turned about in a complete, three hundred and sixty degree circle then zeroed in on the tower that was closest to him and started walking. “I suppose that’s a place to start.”

“What is?”

“The towers, Baker. If this fugue is just an algorithm that shows us what’s in our minds eye, anything that I wouldn’t expect to see in my mind’s eye must be put here by someone else. I’m going to find out who.”

The Gosple According to Earth – Chapter Fifteen

Previous Chapter

Brian settled into the capsule and wiggled his shoulders against the padding, testing its give and seeking a comfortable position. With the top open the Shutdown capsule was almost as large as a double bed. It lacked the sheets, pillows and other bedding you might expect and the wires, nodes and conductive plates that ringed the outside rim of the capsule and peppered the lid gave it a distinctly different feel. It was a bit ominous but Brian had worked enough with them that he could get past it. Raising his arms over his head, he flipped onto his stomach and closed his eyes.

“Director, are you sure you’re the correct person for this task?” Baker asked. She began carefully cleaning off his back and attaching a number of additional sensors along his spine as she spoke. “We’re working in very unknown territory here. It’s downright exploratory, in fact, and we run a real risk of imposing ourselves on the martians in Shutdown.”

“Perhaps so, SubDirector,” he said, enjoying the soft sensation of her touch. “However Shutdown is the humane solution to martians and I have no doubt that there is a long tradition of exploratory and even colonial behavior among them, even within the Shutdown fugue state. A little trespass will practically be expected behavior. With the ability to shunt to a blank instance I should be able to avoid any significant conflict while I’m there so I don’t think I’ll be in any danger at all.”

“We all know martian behavior is very catching, Director,” Baker said in a disapproving tone. “That’s why they have to be kept this way in the first place.”

“Baker, I’m hurt!” He looked over his shoulder with a faux wounded expression. “I’m a member of the Directorate, certified to work on all things martian related. I can read their books, handle their artifacts and even talk directly to them while maintaining a sapiens point of view. Have a little faith.”

“I’m sorry, Director.” She was quiet for a moment as she carefully placed a couple of uplink nodes behind his ears, creating a direct link with his auditory nerves. She gently tapped him on the shoulder and he rolled over. As Baker attached yet another node to his throat, to pick up his vocalizations, she said, “I’m just concerned that you’re going to be unavailable to us now, at one of the most significant junctures in human history.”

Brian nodded his understanding. “It seems dire, I know, but these kinds of moments are more common than we think and the long course of human history tends in our favor. We have room to experiment a bit, Baker. We’re looking for the solution to our current problem and who knows that we won’t find it here?”

Her nose wrinkled up in disgust. “From martians?”

“Why not? Martians and sapiens must have evolved from a shared ancestor, after all, and it’s entirely possible that what Glenda Vesper was working on is just what we need to take the next step in our own progress to the next stage of human existence. At the very least it may let us create a new and clearer distinction between ourselves and the martians.”

Baker sighed. “You’re more of an optimist than me, Director.”

“You’ll learn to see the bright side of things if you work at it, Baker.” He deliberately flattened himself on the capsule’s bed and closed his eyes again. “Now, button it up and run those tests.”

She wordlessly pulled the capsule’s lid closed on top of him and sealed it shut with a soft thunk. For a moment light seeped in through his eyelids then the internal lighting went out. A soft touch at his hands and feet warned Brian that the capsule was flooding with the nanofluid that would preserve and sustain his body in Shutdown but by this point his internal medinano was already clustering in his brain and lulling it into a catatonic state.

Baker’s voice came to him like a dream you struggled to remember when you woke, echoing around his brain like a pebble falling down a stone staircase. “Can you hear me, Director?”

“Vaguely,” he said. “You’re not as clear as I would like.”

“That didn’t come through. Let me make a few adjustments.” There was a break, during which he presumed Baker was doing just that. He couldn’t tell how long he waited nor did he sense any changes but eventually Baker’s voice did return. “Try it again, Director.”

“Can you hear me?” Brian wasn’t sure it was possible to think slowly and deliberately but he did his best to do exactly that, hoping that the sensors by his vocal cords would pick up his intent better.

“That’s an improvement,” Baker said, answering without any delay this time. “How am I sounding?”

“Distant. Echoing. And a bit slow, like there’s a dilation effect.”

Another delay, then, “How about now?”

“Better. Still a bit distant but the other problems are gone.” It was odd to float in a state of pure limbo, feeling his body but unable to move it, all the while subjected to the gentle pressure of the nanofluid around him. A wave of panic suddenly swept over him and Brian fought down the urge to thrash. A shadow flickered past his vision. It was like a towering figure of pure darkness suddenly loomed over him, forcing him to hold perfectly still in spite of his own desires to the contrary. Brian reminded himself that his eyes were closed and he couldn’t actually see anything. “Baker?”

“Yes, Director?”

“I am hallucinating. Is that typical at this stage of the process?”

“Let me check. What kind of hallucinations are you experiencing?”

Brian suspected that she was just trying to keep his mind off what he was seeing but he decided to play along because he didn’t want to think about it either. “Generic night terrors. Tall shadow of humanoid proportions staring at me.”

“Night terrors?”

“That’s the term I found for it in the literature when I researched it. It’s a phenomenon that people used to suffer frequently before medical nanotech allowed us to perfectly regulate brain chemistry and neuron balances.” The shadow started to lean closer to him and Brian felt his heartbeat skyrocket. “They’re disturbing but usually harmless, although I think in times before modern medicine there’s a good chance my heart would burst under the stress.”

“Your heart rate is normal, Director.” The stress he was feeling was starting to show in Baker’s voice if nothing else. “The records don’t mention hallucinating directly but the language implies the fugue state portion of the Shutdown protocols was developed in response to something so that may be it.”

“Then by all means,” Brian practically yelled, “send me into a fugue instance!”

“Stand by.”

He tried to think up something witty to respond with or, failing that, just the right words to spur her to faster action. Instead he found himself desperately cringing away from whatever it was that was staring at him from within that unfathomable darkness. Then the shadow was gone.

He was standing on the beach by the Pacific Ocean on some nameless stretch of beach somewhere in California. The waves lapped the shore with a soothing regularity. The sun was high overhead and the looming shadow was nowhere in sight. “That’s much better.”

“Are you alright, Director?”

“Of course. It’s not like there was real danger in here, Baker, just an overactive imagination.” He shook himself, pleased to find the sensation of movement restored to him. “Okay, where am I?”

“This is an empty fugue instance we generated for your use in adapting to the new environment a couple of days ago. It’s based on some recordings made of the Los Angeles beaches after the last round of environmental reclamation took place.”

“It’s very pleasant. Still, if I’m the only one here I’m not going to be able to do much with the Light of Mars technicians, am I?”

“Their fugue instance was running on tech a couple of generations old,” Baker replied, the last of the tension draining out of her voice as her professionalism reasserted itself. “We’re in the process of porting it over into something our computers can talk to. In the mean time I thought you might like a chance to get more accustomed to what you’d be working with.”

Brian took a few experimental steps along the beach, picking up speed and swinging his arms as he grew more confident in his ability to move around the virtual world. “It doesn’t seem that different from normal life.”

“That’s what I’ve read in the reports,” Baker admitted. “And we took pains to ensure that your capacities in the fugue would essentially mirror your capabilities in the real world so it’s not like you have secret superpowers to adapt to.”

“What do you mean superpowers?”

“Super strength, flight, even the ability to warp the fugue state with your subconscious, they were all phenomenon we were worried could manifest and cause psychic trauma.” As absurd as it all sounded Baker presented the possibility with a flatly serious tone.

“I would think creating those kinds of interactions would require a great deal of deliberate programming,” Brian said, taking a few experimental hops on the beach just to make sure flight really was impossible. “Why was it something we were even concerned about?”

“There was a large body of old literature where such things were proposed and, since the fugue state is less a single program and more a set of algorithms that presents your own thoughts back to you, we wanted to create code that locked out the nastier possibilities.” Baker waited a moment but Brian was still experimenting with other potential superpowers. “Director, do you want to move on to the Vesper’s old fugue instance? Or do you need more time to adapt?”

He sighed. New capabilities were indeed not readily apparent in Shutdown and that probably was for the best. The UNIGOV Directors who cooked up the project knew what there were doing. “I think I’m ready, Baker. Do I need to do anything?”

“Just hold tight, I’m transferring you between instances now.”

The world around him faded into a loose, pixelated haze until it was basically large blocks of blue, white and brown color. Then the blocks rearranged themselves into a new image. In less time than it took to describe Brian was on the streets of a bustling city he didn’t recognize. He shook his head once as he got his bearings, trying to shake off his worries. He wasn’t certain but during the instant of transference he thought he’d seen the shadow still looming over him…

The Gosple According to Earth – Chapter Fourteen

Previous Chapter

“Is it totally impossible for us to go down?” Naomi was once again on the observation deck, watching Earth spin below. The Malacandrans had kept to themselves after their lengthy tour of the ship; outside of eating dinner in the mess hall they’d asked to go to their guest quarters and stayed there for the rest of the night. When Carrington reached the bridge the next morning he’d been informed their leader had shown up on the observation deck and taken a moment to look in on her.

“That’s a tricky question to answer,” the admiral replied. “Our best guess is that large stretches of Earth are still readily accessible to our landing craft but we have no way of knowing if any particular site is or isn’t defended until we try to land there. UNIGOV’s disassembler field has effectively put a dome over parts of the planet.”

“But only parts,” Naomi said, dragging her attention away from the planet. “Not even Bottletown’s dome is large enough to cover any significant part of Thulcandra’s surface. Surely we can just land outside of theirs.”

“Again, it’s tricky. The dome is invisible until activated and we don’t know where the sources of it are located, we don’t know if they’re mobile, we don’t know if they’ve only put it in one place or many. We aren’t even sure what to look for to answer any of those questions.” Carrington shrugged. “As things stand right now I’m not willing to try and land any of my own troops on the planet, much less a foreign dignitary.”

The Eldest leaned back against the plastic pane between her and vacuum then flopped down on the windowsill and crossed her arms in front of her. “Dignitary isn’t the word I would use.”

Given that behavior perhaps there was some merit to her viewpoint. “Still, you’re the Eldest of Malacandra,” Carrington said. “I know you folks are used to a lot of turnover in your leadership structure but it’s still not healthy for a society to have that level of upheaval. It doesn’t matter whether you feel dignified or not. We have to respect the position and what upheaval in that position entails for your people”

“I suppose.” She folded her hands in her lap and tilted her head up towards the top of the deck. “Has Volk told you anything about how things are going on Malacandra?”

“Well, I’m sure he’s submitted his reports and I’ve been copied on all of them per standing orders but I haven’t really had a whole lot of time to read them. A sad consequence of being in charge of this many people.”

“I don’t know how you do it. Bottletown barely had more people in it than this ship, to say nothing of the rest of your fleet, and I still struggled to keep the peace.” She shook her head. “Things haven’t been going well there, Admiral.”

“Do your problems stem from keeping the peace or settling the theology of your new situation?” Carrington asked.

“From numbers.” Naomi tapped the side of her head. “I was in Silence less than a week and I don’t remember much of what happened while I was there. Based on what we’ve learned that’s pretty typical. Anyone who’s been shutdown less than two years comes out a little confused how they got there, with no real solid idea of what they saw or did, but otherwise healthy and ready to get on with life. But the longer a person is in Silence after the two year mark the worse things get.”

“They lose memories?”

“No, that wouldn’t be a issue. The problem is they keep them.” She produced a folder full of pictures rendered on flexible plastic and handed the admiral several of them. “The more people remember from their time in shutdown the more unstable they come out of it. It doesn’t make any sense to me. I know I dreaded going into the Silence and I presume most other people did as well, I’ve had discussions with friends on the subject many times. So it doesn’t surprise me that some people came out scarred.”

Carrington flipped through the pictures and tried to find a theme. Some people stared blankly into the distance, some were wild eyed or waved their hands in frantic, violent gestures and some looked like they were in the grip of uncontrollable, hysterical laughter. Those three moods were the most common in evidence in the group of fifty or so pictures. Despair, frustration or panic showed up on some faces as well but in smaller numbers.

He handed the stack of plastic back to Naomi. “What are they scarred with, exactly?”

“It’s hard to tell.” She carefully tapped the sheets until the edges were squared up and tucked them back into her folder. “The longer they were in there the harder it was to get coherent answer from them about anything. They get less and less coherent the longer they were in there. They use words in odd contexts, they reference things that never happened or places that don’t exist, they talk about people the records show they never met or never even existed.”

“Our understanding of the Shutdown system on Earth is that people in Shutdown are still conscious in a kind of dream state,” Carrington said. “They may have met other Malacandrans in there. Although my understanding is that only people put there can interact with one another, I don’t know where they would have found people who didn’t actually exist.”

“The Roddenberrys have mentioned that to us but even they can’t figure out what the connection is between the dream and why people are acting like this while waking.” Naomi sighed. “I was hoping that I could go down to Thulcandra and find some record of what they knew about it.”

“I don’t think they ever take people out of Shutdown,” Carrington said, offering her a hand up. “Even if they did, from what Director Mond said yesterday I don’t know if they would consider that kind of consequence from the process something worth their figuring out. They don’t seem to connect their own experiences to those of their so-called martians at all.”

“That truly surprised me.” Naomi rose and straightened her tunic then tucked the pictures into her belt. “Thinking about the perspectives of others is something drilled into everyone in Bottletown, in preparation for our time as Eldest. I wasn’t expecting someone who led others to be so ignorant of such a basic aspect of leadership.”

“Believe me, I understand your consternation.” Carrington had spent a lot of time trying to understand how Mond wound up where he did but ultimately he’d had to stop diving down that rabbit hole and focus on the immediate. “Speaking of leadership, how are things going in Bottletown? I know that technically you’re still the leader of the town but if you keep pulling people out of Shutdown you can’t really be the Eldest anymore.”

Naomi sighed. “If only you knew how right you were. I thought that when we started to pull people out of Silence they would see all the work we’ve done to maintain Bottletown and be impressed with all we’d done to uphold their legacy and preserve the Dome. Instead they questioned and complained and… it’s so frustrating.

The admiral tried but mostly failed to keep from smiling. “I can understand where that comes from as well.”

“I know we’re young compared to a normal human society, Admiral, but we really can keep the Dome running on our own. Every generation of Malacandrans has had to learn to do that!”

His amusement wasn’t helping and Carrington quickly schooled his expression back to a neutral state. “I’m sure that’s not the issue, Miss Bertolini, no matter what might have been said. Think of it this way. When you passed into Silence, were you content with the way you left things in Bottletown? Did you fulfill all your hopes and ambitions? Say everything you wanted to your family? Was there no sight you still wanted to see with your friends, moments of life you wanted to share or even grudges you wanted to pay back?”

“I don’t know about grudges,” Naomi said, speaking very slowly and deliberately. “But definitely at least a little of everything else.”

“Now imagine you came back two years later and found out all those things you wanted actually did happen but you weren’t there to see them.”

“Oh.” She nodded twice, her eyes unfocusing as she stared into the middle distance. Carrington could almost see a conversation in recent memory replaying behind them as the Eldest considered some moment she’d recently shared with one of those people she knew who had left Shutdown. “Yes, I can see that. You’re a very wise man, Admiral.”

Carrington felt a pang of loss. “No, Miss Bertolini. I just spent a great deal of my life in space. One thing you Malacandrans are right about – age and experience does bring a value you can’t get from anywhere else. But as you get older the dynamics of relationships change and your society hasn’t had to learn the ins and outs of those changes yet.”

She nodded. “It must be nice not to have the Silence always looming over you, cutting you off from family and friends like clockwork.”

It was Carrington’s turn to approach the window and study Earth as if the Homeworld held the answer to his darker thoughts. “Out here the Silence is far less predictable, Eldest. I’m sure knowing when it comes has it’s own terrors but the dread of never knowing when it will come is just as bad. And often we don’t get to say goodbye, like you did.”

“That’s something else we’ll have to get used to, I suppose.” Naomi joined him in watching the Homeworld turn below them. “One more thing to look forward to. Hopefully we can keep from rushing into the experience although I know Alyssa was ready to choke someone to death when last I saw her. A little more room to breath around the Dome would certainly help.”

Carrington nodded. “Elbow room is one of the great peacekeeping tools of human history. We’re doing everything we can to help you get some for yourself. I can’t promise you’ll be able to visit Earth this time around but we are planning to put more boots on the ground as soon as we have a solution to the current problems we’re facing. I can promise once we’re there you’ll be welcome to go down there to join us for as long as you wish.”

“I appreciate that, Captain.”

“I have to warn you there’s not much to see in most of these abandoned cities, though.”

She nodded. “Of course. But that’s not what I appreciate.”

“No?”

“No.” She smiled up at him, gratitude in her eyes. “I most appreciate that you, at least, will still tell us where we stand. Malacandra has been in Silence too long and for all the difficulties in leaving it, I hope we will never go back.”

The Gosple According to Earth – Chapter Thirteen

Previous Chapter

Time was one thing the ground team did not have in abundance. The surprise that UNIGOV achieved when they deployed the disassembler field was near total and the Copernicans had been forced to abandoned their position with very little of their resources in hand. The biggest shortage was food. They’d deployed from the Sea of Tranquility with two weeks of food stores on hand. The initial plan was to build up to a full month’s supply on the ground over the course of the next month but the landing crews had only brought down enough supplies to keep up with demand before they were cut off. Other supplies had been prioritized.

Then the disassembler field came through and wiped out their camp and took half their on-hand food stores with it. The loss of weapons and heavy construction equipment was unfortunate but with their plans so thoroughly disrupted by the field itself the loss of that materiel wasn’t as severe as it might first appear. The fleet could always nanofacture replacements from materials on the ground if it had to. Food was a much stickier problem.

Of course there were ways to acquire food that didn’t require drawing off of the fleet’s reserves. Earth was the Homeworld, after all. It was almost purpose built to sustain human life and, before UNIGOV closed down most of the cities in the area, the region they’d landed in was apparently a major food producing area. The problem was integration between AI and human required a lot of specialized enzymes and electrolytes which the average spacer’s diet was designed to replenish. The standard Earth diet wouldn’t refresh the brain’s supply of these things as quickly. If they were forced to rely on it then the Copernicans could expect to lose 80% of AI functionality in another four days. That was one of their primary advantages gone.

All of this meant that, less than twenty four hours after Captain Tsukihara declared the newly rechristened Armstrong completely refitted and seaworthy, Lang found himself carefully maneuvering the ship out of dock. They’d done exactly one test drive of the yacht before loading everyone on and heading out. As he ran up the throttle Lang tried to ignore the feeling that they were about to run aground on some unseen reef and find themselves flailing in black water as they drowned within sight of land.

“Did you know they used to call combat spacers ‘space Marines?’” Private Harrigan chuckled at the absurdity of the notion. “As if there were liquid water in space.”

“As if we’d want to be anywhere near it if there were,” Lang muttered. Harrigan – or Harry to his friends – was the man Lang settled on as his navigator and spotter. He wasn’t particularly sharp eyed or used to navigation but he was a pretty decent code cracker and with all the things they still didn’t know about the Armstrong‘s computers it seemed wise to have someone like that on hand.

It turned out Harry was also a wealth of trivia on historical interpretations of space travel. He’d apparently taken a course on it because he thought it would be useful in understanding the Genies but Rodenberry’s vision of the future turned out to be a minor part of the coursework, relatively speaking. “I don’t think the off kilter title bothered me as much as the fact that most of them didn’t fight in space,” Harrigan went on. “They fought on the ground! Space marines were always hopping off their space vessels and slopping around in the mud for some reason. Didn’t they think we might have a regular army for that?”

“Yeah, well, I’m sure they didn’t think about the intersection between food supply and artificial intelligence either,” Priss said. She’d practically volunteered herself onto the bridge crew when she heard Lang was putting one together. He wasn’t sure if it was because she was qualified and interested or because her duties would be relatively light and she was looking to take a break from running messages all over the sewers.

“They didn’t think about all kinds of things,” Harry replied. “It’s kind of mind boggling. You wouldn’t believe how many stories have spacers shooting at each other aboard ships. Shooting! Like you aren’t about to decompress the compartment you’re in. Half the time boarding crews weren’t even issued vacuum proof armor. And don’t get me started on how often ships located and fought each other in deep space!”

“To be fair, we didn’t put together the Orbital Theory of Battle until the last war, Private.”

Harry and Priss snapped to attention and Priss sang out, “Captain on the bridge!”

Once again Captain Tsukihara had managed to sneak up on her bridge watch, something that Lang worried was going to become a habit. Since he had a deathgrip on the controls he settled for nodding to her and saying, “Ma’am.”

“How is she handling, Sergeant?”

“In my expert opinion, she’s responsive for her size but the weather isn’t exactly with us.” He tweaked the yacht’s heading just a bit when a large wave struck them side on, proving his point. “The water’s getting higher every hour and I think we’re in for rain.”

Tsukihara glanced over the side of the boat and watched the waves for a minute. “I believe the technical term for it is choppy seas. Regardless, is this going to slow us down?”

“That all depends.” He eased the throttle forward some as they cleared the protruding docks and headed further out into the open bay. “For starters, we have no idea how much debris, reefs or unfinished underwater construction may be between here and our destination. My brief reading of the sailing manuals we brought says wave action makes those kinds of obstacles even more dangerous.”

“I was told we did manage to restore the sonar system. Shouldn’t we be able to navigate those kinds of obstacles?”

“In perfectly calm waters, I’d give myself 60-75% odds of doing it safely but if the waves keep getting bigger those odds will keep dropping. Plus there’s the dips themselves.” He pointed to the low point between two waves. “Look, that’s about three feet lower than the surface of the water already. That’s three feet closer to any underwater obstacles that may be lurking there and, believe you me, three feet is a lot closer on a boat like this one.”

The captain studied the troughs of the waves as her teeth worried at her lower lip. “Are you sure it works that way?”

“No, Captain. I’m a pilot, not a sailor. Do you want to take the risk?”

“No, I suppose not.” She clasped her hands behind her back and turned her attention back to him. “However I do want to run some drills once we get out of the bay. We’ve set up the deck guns and tied them into the navigation computer but we haven’t tried firing them yet and I don’t want to head into a potential combat situation without doing so.”

Lang nodded. “That’s why you’re the boss, ma’am. Do you have a place in mind for these drills yet?”

“Between the maps the ship had onboard and what we got from the teams sent to pull charts off the other ships at dock we have a pretty good idea of what the water around here was like forty to sixty years ago.” She showed him what she was talking about on his computer display as she spoke. “There should be a string of buoys about half a kilometer outside the bay, along here. They’re a good size for target practice and there’s enough open water around them we can run at them from several directions.”

“Do you want to start stationary or try a strafing run right off the bat?”

“We’ll start from a standstill and test the deck guns from each side, fore and aft. Then we’ll take a few strafing runs on the rest before we return to course. Hopefully the whole exercise won’t take any more than two hours.” She cleared the screen and looked back at him. “Questions?”

“I don’t know enough about weather to speculate on whether the delay will make it better or worse but that is something I’m concerned about.”

“We still don’t have access to the fleet’s orbital scans so we can’t really predict that,” Tsukihara admitted. “We’ll suspend the drill if things turn really bad and we can throw an anchor down for the night if it comes to that.”

“Right. About that.” He pointed to the timepiece on the yacht’s control panel, another anachronism shaped like a disk with numbers around the circumference rather than a simple digital readout. “If we spend two hours on your drills and lose another half an hour of travel time to weather, which seems about right based on what’s happened so far, we’ve got another problem to think about. We’re going to arrive on site about twenty minutes before dusk.”

Tsukihara frowned. “It’s already that late? Load in took longer than I thought.”

“Ma’am, we can make a landing directly on the beach by the plant. But I’d prefer to proceed about a few hundred meters upstream and leave the yacht there rather than abandoning it out by the ocean. Going upstream while losing the light is going to be tricky.”

The captain pulled up the power plant on the charts. “I don’t see as that gets us any closer to the plant, Sergeant. What do we gain by that?”

Lang pulled his hands off the boat’s controls long enough to point to a little strip of green a dozen meters or so back from the river that ran along the southern edge of the plant’s plot of land. “Do you see that?”

“Yes. What is it?”

“Based on what I saw on my first visit to Earth and again on the streets of Anaheim I believe it was once a decorative patch of shrubbery. Bushes, flowers, maybe a couple of willow trees.”

For a moment Tsukihara just looked back and forth between him and the map, as if this would somehow reveal his secrets to her. Finally she said, “Don’t keep me in suspense, Sergeant.”

“The thing is, no one’s maintained these beds for decades. Remember the hedges outside the townhouses we crashed in, Priss?”

Priss started when he pulled her into the conversation but she quickly caught on to what he was thinking and nodded vigorously. “That’s right. They’d way overgrown their beds and gotten a lot taller to boot. Eight or ten feet in most places, completely blocked your view of the street.”

Tsukihara’s eyes widened as she understood what he was saying. “You think this will give us some cover on our approach.”

“Yes, ma’am. If we use it right and if UNIGOV didn’t cut it all down when they moved in.”

“They wouldn’t,” Priss said. “One of the ideas they cling to is restoring most of Earth to a state of ‘nature’ so the planet can heal. If they thought it was a matter of life and death they might cut down those plants but I don’t think they’d do it just to secure their sight lines.”

“A good thought, Sergeant.” Tsukihara clapped him on the back. “How early tomorrow morning do you think you could get us behind this cover?”

Any number he could think of seemed totally arbitrary given all the unknowns at work so Lang just picked a time out of thin air. “0800, ma’am. If we shoot for that it will give us a little more time to run drills tonight then we can head most of the way to the power plant, drop anchor and turn in early.”

“Good thinking, Sergeant. We’ll make that our official plan. Corporal, I want you to set up a burst transmission back to base camp updating the Major on our plan.” She turned to Harry. “And I want you to try and learn a little about piloting this thing from the Sergeant. We need more than one pilot for it in case something happens to him. Questions?”

There weren’t, so the captain sent them off to their individual assignments before heading off on her own way.

Before leaving Priss tapped him on the elbow and, when he pulled his attention away from the vast expanse of water around them, she told him, “You know that thing where you make officers think you’re a planner and leader?”

“Yeah?”

“You did it again.”

She left the bridge laughing at his infuriated cursing.