Happy New Year!

Hello everyone! We’ve reached the end of The Gospel According to Earth and the end of the year, so in accordance with tradition around here I’ll be taking a week off. In this case, there’s two weeks off stacked up so I’ll return in two weeks, on January 14th. Hope you had a merry Christmas and enjoy ringing in the New Year!



The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Twenty Nine

Previous Chapter

Lang dangled his feet off the edge of the pier, trying his best to ignore the strong smell that seawater seemed to develop around any kind of manmade structure. Perhaps it was something from the power plant, or an effect of the plants growing there. Priss and Aubrey were there as well, although neither of them were that interested in touching the water.

“What do you think they’re going to say?” Priss asked.

“I don’t know.” Aubrey leaned against one of the titanic support pillars, a concrete pile as wide as two people that raised a good three feet above the walkway it supported. “Honestly, I’d hope UNIGOV would be willing to talk to you after everything that’s happened over the past six weeks but I also never expected I’d be happy being friends with martians either. So I don’t think I have the best insight to go off of.”

“Reminder who just got pulled into issues of interplanetary diplomacy,” Lang said, pointing at himself. “I’m getting worried I’ll be anointed the leading authority on Earthling psychology by the time the fleet’s done here. Your insight is just as valid as mine. Better, because you’ve actually lived through the changes we’re hoping everyone else will have.”

“When your tour’s up maybe you should retire and join the diplomatic corps,” Priss said, elbowing him.

“When I cycle out I’m buying my own ship,” Lang muttered.

Priss looked surprised. “Really? I always figured you were a lifer, in it ’til they force you to retire. When do you plan to pack in your exo?”

“I haven’t decided,” Lang said. “It’s something I only started thinking about since the first time we grounded.”

“What kind of ship were you thinking about?”

“Are there a lot of different kinds?” Aubery asked.

“As many as there are kinds of cars or boats,” Lang said. “The big ones are all owned by passenger of freight liners but I’m thinking about finding a small private charter ship. I may need to sign on with a charter company for a few years to get through the licensing and safety procedures but I’ve got more than enough flight hours to get accepted anywhere.”

“Private passenger charters always like ex-military fliers,” Priss mused. “Although your record of crashing ships might be a real turn-off when you have to sign up for pilot’s insurance.”

“Is there really enough demand for travel between planets for there to be private charter flights on a regular basis?” Aubery asked.

“You might be surprised.” Lang scratched his chin. “Although I’m not sure I want to have to deal with a bunch of rich passengers for a week at a stretch on the Roddenberry to Galileo run. Pay’s better than small time freight, though.”

“Two weeks a trip.” Aubery shuddered. “I’ve been away from home for maybe twice that and sometimes I think I’m going crazy. How can you put up with it?”

Lang shrugged. “It’s just part of the job, I suppose. Gotta say, this trip to Earth has been a lot nastier than the war was, given how out of touch we’ve been, but you expect to be off planet a lot in the spacer corps. At least on a passenger or freight run you get a week off between runs. Of course, by the time we get back they may have another new generation of superluminal drives to cut down on travel time.”

“If you want my advice, get a spot on a passenger liner,” Priss said. “You spend too much time alone with no one to reign you in and you’re going to go off the deep end and fly yourself straight into a black hole or something.”

Lang shrugged. “If you’re that worried about it you might as well come along and do it yourself.”

“Don’t have the skills for it. Comms are a dime a dozen out there in the stars, unlike you flyboys. My medical training isn’t up to snuff as an onboard doctor, either. I might be able to rate as a nurse but I don’t want to spend my flights wiping noses on a passenger flight.” Priss folded her hands behind her head and lay down flat on the docks. “It’s the corps or nothing for me. If I do cash out and go civilian I’ll probably settle down and get married, make a few tiny terraformers and spend my days proof reading legal filings for contractors like I was doing before the war.”

“Sounds nice,” Aubrey mused.

“You’ve never had to edit for paralegals,” Priss said dryly. “If I had a credit for every time I was told to mind my own business I’d be able to buy a ship for both me and Lang.”

“Nice because you’ll be done.” Aubrey tucked her knees up under her chin and looked out at the ocean. “You make it sound like you’re practically done with Earth. I don’t even know when I’ll have a chance to go home.”

“There’s no such thing as done, Aubrey.” Lang pulled his feet out of the water and scooted back so they rested on the pier, enjoying the feeling of them quickly drying in the warm afternoon air. “It looks like there is but that’s a trick. I thought I was done after I came home from Galileo. I was going to hang out in the fleet, do really easy patrols around the system and along the Copernican-Newtonian corridor and never have to worry about getting shot at again. Two years later, I’m here. Two years from now, who knows where I’ll be?”

“Flying charter ships, it sounds like,” Priss said.

“Maybe. Maybe I’ll change my mind, re-up and do another tour in the Corps. I did originally planned to be a lifer.”

“What made you start thinking about changing your mind?” Aubrey asked.

“The actual war part wasn’t great,” Lang admitted. “Coming to Earth seemed like a chance to make history in a more positive way but it hasn’t really worked out that way. I kind of just want to step back and see if I can make something of myself before messing with history again.”

Aubrey gave a hollow laugh. “Good luck. Sometimes history decides to mess with you.”

“Point taken.” Lang stared out at the oceans of the Homeworld and tried to reconcile his own feelings for the place. For all that it was the cradle of humanity, it hadn’t treated him that well in his time there. Then again, it’s not like the Triad Worlds were any better. He certainly felt more invested in it than he ever had on Copernicus, though. He’d never payed nearly as much attention to things back home as he had on Earth – or Minerva, for that matter. “I think you Earthlings will be able to sort it out eventually.”

“I wish I had your confidence.”

“I’m more worried about the Malacandrans,” Priss put it, taking great care as she pronounced the unfamiliar name. “Those kids have had a really rough go of it and I’m not sure what we’re doing is the best way to help.”

“You could put in to join the delegation to Mars the Admiral is thinking about sending,” Lang said. “See things there up close.”

“They’re sending a Copernican delegation to Mars?”

“Oh.” He realized that was something he’d heard Carrington discussing with Naomi while they were waiting to set up Mond’s entrance into Shutdown. Not something for general dissemination. “Maybe?”

Priss gave him an arch look. “You know I’m in Comms, right? I’m duty bound to put that out on the rumor mill.”

“Can you wait a few hours to give me plausible deniability?”

“We do our best to protect our sources.”

“Didn’t sound like a yes, Priss.”

“It wasn’t one.” She sat partway up, resting on her elbows. “I’m not sure I want to go to Mars. I kind of like it here on Earth. There’s oceans and deserts and a whole lot of other stuff we don’t have on Copernicus. We say we’re terraforming the planet but we’re not really making a place that looks a whole lot like Earth based on what I’ve seen. There’s a lot of temperate land going up around the planet. Not a whole lot of deserts or jungles.”

“You want a jungle?” Lang asked. “You’ve never even been to a jungle so why do you want one on Copernicus?”

“I dunno. Maybe I just want to go see a jungle before I decide whether I want one or not.”

“How long do your tours last?” Aubrey asked. “You said you traveled a long time just to get back to Earth so will your time be up soon?”

“It’s about six months to get to Earth at the pace the Fleet came at,” Lang said, “although that’s with the old supply ships thrown into the mix. If we moved at the pace of the Principia, which is the fastest thing in the fleet, we could do it in two.”

“Everyone in the Fleet had to re-up before we left,” Priss added. “Standard tours are four years long so we’ve actually got a lot of time left to do before any of us can think about leaving the Corps.”

“Oh.” Aubrey relaxed a bit. “So you’re not taking off any time soon.”

“Why? Were you going to miss us?” Lang asked.

“A little. All my old friends still live in Texas and I’m not likely to see them again any time soon.” She shrugged eloquently. “You’re the next closest thing I’ve got, outside of Sean, and he’s gotten obsessed with interfacing your systems and ours via AI, so much so I barely see him outside of the computer labs these days.”

“I thought you both worked in AI programming.”

“We did. He’s still interested in it and I’m… I feel like other things are more important these days.”

Lang started pulling his boots back on. “That’s another thing that happens a lot, Aubrey. People all have different ideas about what’s important. Can’t say I blame him, I really want to find some of those air cars we saw on our first visit and take a few out for a spin. New tech is catnip to people like us.”

“Well then you really don’t want to get an independent freighter,” Priss said. “You don’t see anything newer than the First Galilean War in tramp freighters these days. Stay in the Corps, Lang. They’ll give you all the neat toys you want.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it. The lander I flew off the Armstrong hadn’t had a new component installed on it in the last six years.” Lang clambered to his feet and helped the two ladies up as well. “Besides, there are all kinds of new just like there’s all kinds of important.”

“What kind of new do you have in mind?” Priss asked.

“We can’t be sending an entire fleet every time someone wants to run some cargo or people out this way,” Lang said. “Gonna be a lot of call for independent ships to move things on the Earth-Copernicus run real soon. Mars needs a lot of stuff and it’s not going to be easy to manufacture using just the resources the Fleet has on hand, even assuming the Admiral doesn’t put us on full war footing in the next couple of weeks.”

“Shrewd thinking,” Priss said, tapping her chin. “And by the time you’re ready to muster out in three years the Copernican Senate will just be starting to think about normalizing travel. You may be able to get subsidized in picking up your own ship.”

“Not to mention the improvements we could see in superluminals over that time, especially with shortening the trip to Earth to set the goal posts.” Lang grinned. “The one way transit time may get down under a month by then.”

“And if anyone from Earth wants to go the other way they could do worse than to charter the Triad World’s foremost expert on the Earthling mindset to fly them,” Aubrey added, grinning back.

“Oh!” Lang grabbed his chest in mock agony. “E tu, Brute?”

Her face screwed up in confusion. “What?”

“Never mind. UNIGOV probably got Shakespeare, too.” Lang started off the docks, shaking his head ruefully. “We can worry more about that in the future. I’ve got to get back to Vesper and Priss has some rumors to monger. What about you, Aubrey?”

“Keeping an eye on Naomi and Director Mond for the moment. Hopefully we get some good news from the Admiral’s call but if all we hear is hurry up and wait I think I can deal with that, too.”

As the three of them split up and went their separate ways Lang wondered if it was worth getting his hopes up about a simple, straightforward diplomatic solution to the mess they’d made of things since they arrived at Earth. If he was honest about it, there probably wasn’t any point. However they’d muddled through everything up until that point and that suggested they could muddle through the rest. That, he decided, was good news enough for him.

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Twenty Eight

Previous Chapter

The black fog parted and Brian O’Sullivan found himself standing on a vaguely familiar beach, watching the sun set. A strange man stood ankle deep in the surf about fifteen feet away, looking in amazement at his hand as he flexed the fingers one at a time, then all together. Brian swayed for a moment, confused. He’d been exploring possibilities to… to something. He couldn’t quite remember what he’d been so fascinated by a moment ago, something to do with bringing social pressure to bear on outside forces?

He looked behind him, as if retracing his steps would jog his memory. The beach ran up a low sand dune to a line of low, comfortable looking houses of a type that, for some reason, rubbed him the wrong way. He’d never thought of architecture as hostile before but these houses felt hostile for some reason. Brian’s attention snapped back to the man on the beach. “Who are you?”

The stranger turned, sunlight glinting dully off of his dark skin, the extravagant melanin dampening the harsh rays of the setting sun to a barely noticeable corona. He was bald, or shaved his head, and was of an average height. His fingers, finally still by his side, were long and clever and his eyes were set deep in his head. He looked tired. “I’m Director Stephen Mond, from the Nevada Launch Zone Vault. I think we met six years ago, during the annual American Directorate Conference. We discussed the legacy of jazz music in North America, I recall you were a very knowledgeable amateur. It’s a pleasure to meet you again, Director O’Sullivan. Are you… well?”

“How did you bring me here?” Brian demanded, ignoring Mond’s question.

“As I understand it you never left. This is a fugue instance created when you entered Shutdown and some part of your awareness has been routed through it regardless of where you went in the simulation.” Mond offered a helpless shrug. “That’s what SubDirector Baker told us when we were planning this meeting, anyways. I’m afraid this kind of thing is very much outside my expertise.”

“Baker,” Brian whispered. “She was my assistant, wasn’t she?”

Mond folded his arms across his stomach, rubbing one elbow with the opposite hand. “Director O’Sullivan, do you remember where you are?”

He looked the beach over once more. “No.”

“Can you tell me the last thing you do remember?”

“I was… I had just convinced the martians to leave the planet again by…” Brian pressed his fingers to his temples, trying to focus his thoughts and think back. Had he actually convinced them to leave? No, he’d failed at least twice, but then…

“Director O’Sullivan?”

“I’d just convinced them to leave Earth again by applying a materialist dialectic…” Brian trailed off, his memories a confused jumble. “Or was it the existential argument?”

Mond approached cautiously, as if Brian was some kind of panicky rabbit that might bolt at any second. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re referring to, Director. Particularly because the martians haven’t actually left the planet, in fact technically both you and I are in the custody of martian authorities. That’s part of why I’m here.”

“Custody?” Brian did his best to focus on the other man’s face but found that his eyes kept swimming, making clearly reading anything about his interrogator difficult. “I don’t understand what you mean, Director Mond. We’re in Shutdown. By definition we can’t be in anyone’s custody, we’re in a state of consciousness created by UNIGOV to facilitate the transformation of mindsets. Originally it was intended for the martians, yes, but they’ve expanded it quite a bit.”

“Our minds are here, yes,” Mond conceded, “but physically we’re in a facility that is under the control of the Unified Colonial Fleet. They represent the governments of four other colonized planets – well three planets and two moons. We are, for all practical intents, in custody. Even in this remarkable fugue state simulating some of the most impressive sights nature has to offer, we don’t have access to the resources or assistance of UNIGOV.”

“That’s just it!” Brian felt a wave of clarity surge over him. “We don’t need their assistance, we can offer assistance! The whole problem at the root of what we tried to do here is that we tried to formulate a response to the martian problem that functioned on their level. But a martian will always be better at martian behavior than a sapiens. So I started formulating sapiens responses to the issue and I’ve had real success with it in the PEF. I’ve found at least six approaches with cause them to leave Earth under more or less favorable conditions.”

Mond looked truly mystified. “More or less favorable? What do you mean? And what is a PEF?”

“A probability expansion facilitator, Director. It’s an entirely new, unique and decidedly sapiens technology that was, ironically enough, created by the martians when we placed them in Shutdown. It’s a tool that harnesses the power of our mind and combines it with the potential of a computer.” Brian turned to gesture towards the probability tank, only to remember it wasn’t there. “Well, I can’t show it to you right now. But it really is a marvel of forward thinking technology, using our subconscious mind to create a probabilistic projection of future events!”

The other man’s confusion was slowly turning into clear disapproval. “So it is just some kind of advanced modeling software?”

“It’s not just modeling software,” Brian snapped, “it gives us the ability to grasp the future in a way that the martians cannot! We can do it ethically. We can go forwards and backwards, see the issues from all angles and find solutions that allow us to reach our ends without ever having to oppress or assume. All we have to do is predict.”

Mond’s brows knit together. “Director O’Sullivan, at some point prediction tips into assumption.”

“We have everything we need here, Director Mond!” Brian found himself tugging frantically at his hair, trying to grab hold of the possibilities whirling through his mind in an jumble of half formed conclusions. “Listen, it’s not just social possibilities we can model here. The scientists who were working on the Light of Mars were crafting viable technological angles to explore without every having to build a model or run a test. Think of all the difficulties that could prevent! Vincent Vesper’s missteps along the way to a final, working model could be bypassed entirely so that we arrive at a final solution without having to intrude on the Earth for materials to build thousands of useless prototypes!”

“A dozen at most, Director, and hardly missteps. I spoke with Mr. Vesper a few hours ago and he assures me that he had a new prototype that would compensated for the issues we experienced with his original run. We just hadn’t acquired the resources to build it yet.” Mond gently took Brian by the elbow and tried to pull his hands away from his head. “Director – Brian, are you all right? I know it can be very traumatic to be in Shutdown but –”

“Traumatic!” Brian shook him off. “Traumatic! If anything it’s the opposite! I feel more alive and aware of my surroundings than I ever was outside Shutdown. Mond, we’ve stumbled across the greatest breakthrough of human history! We have the audacity to call ourselves sapiens. Director, this is the final triumph of the human mind over the prison of flesh and time and what did we do with it? We threw it before martians! The very dregs. This is always where we should have been, pushing forward the sapiens to the greatest heights of understanding, of sympathy, of environmentalism! All we had to do was take everything that could be damaged out there and put it in our mind!”

“Director O’Sullivan.” Mond’s voice took on the tone of a Directorate supervisor calling a meeting to order. “Don’t be absurd. In the time you’ve been in here seventy three percent of the comatose people you took out of Shutdown have slipped into brain death. SubDirector Baker isn’t sure the others will ever recover. Even some of the people who originally regained consciousness when removed are slipping into comas. Whatever happens here isn’t good for the human body or mind.”

“I’m sure it won’t take long to work out those problems! Besides, they were here in Shutdown not long ago so I’m sure we can find them again! There was one of them left in the Sarajevo instance. Maybe he can help us.”

“Baker found him in the records,” Mond said. “One of the techs on the program jumped off a roof and was nearly brain dead when moved into Shutdown. He’s never come back to full brain activity, Brian, that’s why he wasn’t removed with the others, a medical failsafe subroutine kicked in and prevented it. The ID code on it was so old the Vaults had expunged it from the normal databases, that’s why it took so long to work out what happened to him.”

“So? Just more proof that we can undo almost any harm if we use the PEF technology correctly! He’s still in there and thinking, Mond!” Somehow, Brian found himself gripping the front of Mond’s shirt, hands trembling. He forced them to let go. “We can find the way to solve this problem, too!”

“You’re letting martian ways of thinking take over, Director,” Mond said, pushing gently against Brian’s hands. “Believe me, I’ve been here before.”

“Don’t be absurd.” Brian snatched his hands back and shook himself once, forcing his mind to stay in the present. “If you’re not interested in the work I’ve been doing here, why did you come?”

Mond sighed. “We need you to come out, Director O’Sullivan. The LA power plant and the Bakersfield vault are in martian hands and they want to talk to the Directorate or they’re going to keep advancing. I still have enough access to Directorate systems to smooth some things over. However I don’t have codes that will allow me to get through to them anymore. We need yours.”

“Codes?” He snorted. “That’s all you want? My access codes? Fine. They’re backed up in my workstation in the Vault. Baker knows the password.”

“She said she’d checked there already.”

“Yes, but she didn’t check my music library. They’re hidden in track called “Signs” mixed in with songs by the band Rush. It’s a dummy I created years ago. You can decode them via the music compiler also in my workstation.” Brian folded his arms over his chest. “Are we done here?”

“Brian, you can’t stay here forever, it’s not healthy for you and we need you out there.”

“No, you don’t. Not compared to what I can do here.” Brian gestured back up the slope, even though it wasn’t truly where he’d come from. “I am close to the breakthrough we need, Director Mond. This is how we save the world, this is what UNIGOV is meant to be. You’ll see what I mean soon enough. There’s nothing to gain from talking to martians – they can’t understand a sapiens goals and they’ve never tried it in the past! Your efforts will fail just like all the previous ones. Then there won’t be anywhere else for you to go except back here. I’ll be waiting for you.”

Mond stared at him for a very long time. Then he folded his hands in front of him and said, “Somehow I don’t think you will be. Baker, pull me out, please.”

“Send me back-” Mond vanished and Brian slumped. He’s have to find his way back to the Sarajevo instance on his own, assuming that was possible. But this was Shutdown – no, this was Possibility. He really was capable of anything here so it was only a matter of time before he found his way back there.

Brian turned and started up the slope off the beach. The sun dipped below the ocean and the stars began to peek out of the night sky as figures in shadow swarmed up the path behind him.

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Twenty Seven

Previous Chapter

Carrington stepped off Lander Forty-Two and on to Earth for the first time. It took some six weeks longer than scheduled and, technically speaking, they were at war with the planet. Even so, he felt a sense of nostalgia that was impossible to explain. He’d visited two of the three worlds humanity had colonized along with both of the moons they’d settled and yet never felt the instant feeling of ease he found on Earth.

He’d always thought it strange the way historians called it the Homeworld, with a capitol letter and everything. Now he thought he understood what they were saying.

Major Goldstein and Captain Yang met him as he disembarked, both officers saluting with their helmets slung under their other arms. They looked tired and a little haggard but that was to be expected. Carrington returned the salute, saying, “Major, Captain. Good to see you again. For a little while there, I seriously questioned whether I ever would.”

“We wondered ourselves, Admiral,” Yang said. “But I’m pleased to report the fighting qualities of the Copernican spacer proved equal to the situation.”

“Let’s hope that’s always the case. I’ve brought someone who’s curious about the status of the plant’s garrison.” He gestured up the lander’s ramp, where a couple of orderlies were helping Stephen Mond’s shiny new wheeled chair navigate down to solid ground. “What have you done with the prisoners?”

“Well, we don’t technically have prisoners,” Goldstein said. “Right now we’re telling them they’re persons not at liberty to leave, because prisons are an entirely martian conception and sapiens really can’t be imprisoned so long as their minds are free.”

“Ah.” Carrington could tell the major found the entire sentence absurd in the extreme but by this point he was so used to those kinds of sentiments that the gobbledygook went right past him. “Well perhaps I can talk it over with Director Baker. I think she’s amenable to good sense and I’d like to find out what kind of rules of engagement we can agree on if this conflict is going to continue much longer. The UNIGOV policy of ignoring everything and executing their prisoners isn’t acceptable at this point.”

“Miss Baker isn’t a full Director, Admiral,” Yang interjected. “She’s a SubDirector. Basically the XO to a full Director like Mr. Mond. One of the reasons it took several days to secure the location was because she was reluctant to take responsibility for any of the staff here outside of those in her immediate project group. Said we’d have to get Director O’Sullivan to sign off on it. Problem is, this O’Sullivan guy has been missing for almost three days and for a while there we were almost certain he’d committed suicide or something.”

“Only for a while?”

“Shortly before you arrived the SubDirector admitted he’s activated some kind part of the Shutdown procedure called a ‘fugue state’ and is now refusing to leave it.” Yang offered him an elaborate shrug. “Not sure what’s going on there but it’s causing us a lot of problems handling the Earthlings. For now we’re keeping most of them in the offices under constant watch. They haven’t tried anything but they’re not even paying attention to anything we say that doesn’t come with some level of physical force behind it.”

“I think I can help with that, at least,” Mond said, coming to a stop at the base of the ramp. “It’s been a few weeks but I am still a member of the Directorate. I think I can get some cooperation for your people, at least in the short term.”

“I appreciate that, Director,” Carrington said, offering his opposite number a pleasant smile. “However, I hope you won’t let that distract you from the task at hand.”

“Not at all, Admiral,” he replied, chuckling. “I know you and your priorities, I’ll get you in touch with the rest of the Directorate sooner or later, although I’ll admit I don’t think it will be sooner.”

“What about this fugue state,” Goldstein demanded, “do you know anything about that?”

“As you say, its part of the Shutdown procedure. If I recall my overview of Shutdown correctly, it’s intended to keep people from going mad as they’re left in Shutdown. I’m afraid I can’t tell you more than that.” Mond drummed his fingers on the armrest of the chair for a moment. “I honestly don’t know why Director O’Sullivan would want to go into a fugue state at a time like this. I don’t know him personally. I do know he was part of the subcommittee that oversees changes in approved medical procedures so that may have some bearing on it.”

“We’ll have to put together a group to dream up some questions to ask later,” Carrington said. “Right now it doesn’t sound like we’ll be talking to him anytime soon.”

“Maybe, maybe not.” Mond steepled his fingers. “You may not be able to talk to him but perhaps I can. The Shutdown procedure interfaces with our medical nanotechnology to create direct neural stimulation in the brain’s sensory clusters creating what we call the fugue state. If I can enter the same fugue instance that Director O’Sullivan occupies I may be able to talk to him.”

Carrington raised an eyebrow. “And you think I’m just going to let you talk in private with another member of your government? Director, no offense but you’re still pretty damn new at the prisoner thing.”

“Perhaps so. But don’t misunderstand, Admiral, I’m not asking to talk in private and this discussion would be in your best interest.” Mond smiled faintly. “You allowed me back on Earth to open lines of communication between your fleet and the Directorate. Do you think it will be easier to do with one other Director to start with or all eighty six of us?”

After a moment’s thought Carrington nodded his grudging ascent. “You make a compelling case, Director, although I’m sure we’ll find some kind of safeguards to put on that before you dive in.”

“From what she’s told us, I think SubDirector Baker might be able to help with that,” Goldstein said. “We can take you to talk to her, if you like. Or, if you prefer, we can take a look around the facility and I can show you what we’ve captured of Earth’s disassembler fields.”

“Show me the facility, please, Major. And while we’re walking there is one part of the action I’d like to hear about…”

The ground team had turned the power plant’s main parking lot into a temporary landing zone and from there the major and his captain took Carrington on a half hour walking tour of the facility. They saw the beached yacht that Captian Yang called the Armstrong. They saw the several breaches the ground team effected in the plant’s outer walls. Carrington paid particular attention to the plant’s administrative offices and record rooms, where teams were even then working double time to pull as much information out of UNIGOVs computers as they could.

Most of that work would have to be filtered through two or three layers of reports before it finally reached him in a format he could really use. There was enough raw data to keep analysts interested for months. The details Carrington really needed were badly obscured by all that signal noise and for a moment he wondered if taking the LA Power Plant was going to change the situation on the ground at all. However he’d learned one thing for sure in the past few weeks.

When the situation planetside was uncertain, there was one person the fleet could absolutely depend on pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

So after it was all said and done, Carrington had Goldstein take him out of the power plant proper and into the facility’s maintenance garage. Inside a ring of guards, two men worked on an awkward looking vehicle. Power cords tied the thing into the building’s circuits. A huge cylindrical tank for its nanotech reserves sat awkwardly to one side of it’s main body, which was probably a van at some point in its life. Scattered around the vehicle were a bunch of parts Carrington vaguely recognized as computing related. Perhaps a few power couplings mixed in with it.

The two were in the process of pulling a heavy set of magnetic coils out of the van’s main body, the man on the ground struggling to hold the coil’s casing while the one in the vehicle called out orders. Carrington watched for a moment as they got the coils down and dusted their hands off. The man inside the vehicle was new to him, dressed in a simple jumpsuit more suited to a janitor or maybe a prisoner than an off duty spacer from any of the planets represented in the Fleet. The other one was who he’d come to find. “Sergeant Langley,” he called. “A moment of your time?”

Langley jerked to attention and saluted. Carrington returned the salute and motioned to the other man, saying, “Get that straightened out and then join me, if you will.”

“Yes, sir!”

The admiral hadn’t seen Langley since promoting him to his new rank a couple of weeks ago. At the time the younger man had seemed exhausted, distracted and directionless, all factors that pushed the admiral to return him to active duty right away. It was better for the mind to be engaged with meaningful work than dwell on failure, after all. He was pleased to see that decision had ended up much as he’d hoped; Langley looked much more alert and engaged with the world around him. Both the Major and the Captain agreed that he’d played a significant part in keeping the landing group safe during the time they’d been out of contact.

None of this surprised Carrington in the least. He considered himself a good judge of character and Langley’s first visit to the planet was ample evidence to his value in a tight spot. But he was still quite new to leadership and his overall effectiveness was still up in the air.

Langley left his companion with some of the other spacers and joined Carrington by the entrance to the garage, wiping his hands on a rag. “Sorry to keep you waiting, Admiral.” He titled his head back towards the vehicle he’d just been working on, saying, “I managed to convince Vesper to help us take these things offline, even if he won’t explain how any of the hard or software works. At the very least we can prevent UNIGOV from using them again, should they capture them.”

“Vesper…” Carrington thought for a moment. “He’s the engineer, wasn’t he? The only one we’ve found so far with any mind to build weapons or fight back.”

“That’s the guy. He has the head for fighting but he’s not that good at it, as it turns out.” Langley waved his hand vaguely in the direction of the ocean. “He came up with a couple of curve balls during the capture of the power plant but when it wasn’t enough to stop us he made a run for it. When we caught up he just surrendered. I don’t blame him but he clearly isn’t a fight to the death kind of guy.”

“Understandable. From what I’ve seen of UNIGOV’s Directorate, they don’t exactly inspire a whole lot of loyalty or sacrifice.” Carrington led the way outside, looking for a place where they were less likely to be overheard. “I wanted to congratulate you on turning another potential disaster into a success story, Sergeant Langley.”

“Thank you, Admiral,” he said, taking on a more polite tone. He seemed to sense this conversation was reaching a more formal level. “Have you come to interrogate the prisoner, sir?”

“Should I?”

“That’s way above my pay grade, Admiral, I just thought you might want to. I heard you’d been spending a lot of time with Mond before the ground team shipped out and frankly, this Vesper guy is almost as fucked – uh, interesting.” Langley paused to give the Earthling a glance that was almost apologetic. Which was interesting in and of itself. They were out of earshot, however, and Vesper was up to his elbows in the couplings between the vehicle and its tanks. “I take it that’s one of those disassembler field generators you captured?”

“Yes, sir.”

“How did you convince him to help you take it apart?”

“Vesper was part of a weapons research program, Admiral,” Langly said with a wry grin. “Do you really think UNIGOV let him run free after developing that?”

“Ah. So you promised him we wouldn’t lock him up and he agreed to help.”

“Not exactly.” The younger man scratched the back of his head with an uncomfortable look. “Actually, all we had to do was convince him we weren’t going to put him in Shutdown or something similar, which was easy enough to do when he learned we don’t have the tech for it in the first place. He seemed downright spooked by the idea of going back in.”

Carrington laughed. “What, he doesn’t like the idea of a permanent coma?”

“No, sir. He was even willing to spend the rest of his life confined, just so long as we didn’t put him in a fugue again.” Pity was writ large over Langley’s features. “I never thought dreaming for the rest of my life would be a terrible fate but something about it really unnerved Mr. Vesper.”

“Interesting.” Carrington folded his arms across his chest and really studied the Earthling for a moment. He didn’t seem all that out of the ordinary. “Has he been debriefed?”

“Major Goldstein interrogated him yesterday. There’s probably a summary and report on it floating around in the comms somewhere but that’s also out of my pay grade.”

“Perhaps. For now, I have something else I want you involved in,” Carrington said, grinning.

“Please don’t tell me I’m getting promoted again.”

“Even better.” Carrington made sure to show all his teeth. “I’m bringing you into a matter of interplanetary diplomacy.”

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Twenty Six

Previous Chapter

“Of course they have fucking boats here,” Lang muttered, panting as he slowed to a stop on the docks attached to the plant’s secondary warehouse. Unlike the quaint, deliberately retro docks where they’d hijacked the Armstrong, this anchorage didn’t have painted faux wood piers or heavy ropes to tie up the ships. It was a heavy, concrete and plastic affair with automated docking arms to hold the boats in place.

There were slots for four ships about half the size of the yacht they’d brought with them, only two of which were present. A third was headed out into the bay and open water. Lang cursed more under his breath as he tried to rally his faculties. Harry slid to a stop beside him, not even winded. “You gotta get more time in an exo, Sarge. You keep fighting the mechanized parts of the suit and that’s why you’re so tired, you gotta practice more if you ever want to break that habit.”

“Lang is allergic to anything that doesn’t involve his flying boxes,” Priss said, bringing up the rear and not looking any more winded than Harry. “Did that Vesper guy take of on the boat out there?”

“Probably,” Lang said, no longer gasping like a drowning man. “We’re gonna check the other two just to be on the safe side.”

“Do we steal one if he’s not here?”

“Cross that bridge when we come to it, Priss.”

They got to the bridge ninety seconds later, when the resident boats proved entirely empty. Lang stood on the gunwale of the boat he’d just confirmed was empty and looked out in the bay at the departing ship. “In my expert opinion, whoever’s on that boat is a terrible pilot.”

“Two days is enough to make you an expert, huh?” Priss asked from her spot by the boat’s engine.

“The standard issue Earthling isn’t the type to travel by boat,” he replied, “and that’s exactly the kind of assessment we’re here to make.”

“These boats don’t look nearly as derelict as the ones in the marina where we got the Armstrong,” Harry pointed out. “Could be they brought these people in by water.”

“We just need to find Vesper,” Lang muttered.

“Why do you think he’s so important?” Priss asked.

“Because he’s the first one to show any sign of fighting back against us and he’s supposedly part of their only active weapons program.” He shot her a sideways glance. “Do you really think we can come out on top of this if someone on Earth grows a backbone and weaponizes any of the crazy advanced nanotech we’ve seen around here?”

“It’s hard to gauge how big the tech advantages are,” she said. “We’ve developed in very different ways over the last two hundred years.”

Harry cleared his throat. “Yeah, but our estimate of the planetary population is still in the hundreds of millions and that’s before they bring anyone out of Shutdown. The fleet’s not even fifty thousand people. And Mars can’t add that many people to the count, can they?”

“Maybe a thousand fighting age adults, unless they can sort out their population in Shutdown,” Priss admitted.

“So we have to try and nip this in the bud,” Lang said. “If they get any momentum behind them then we’re not going to have a snowball’s chance in hell of stopping them. Just have to get past this fucking water.”

“Well, I’ve got a copy of the code cracking program that got us into the Armstrong,” Priss said. “Let me see if I can get this thing running.”

Lang licked his lips. “Sure. Let me know if you need any help. Harry, keep watch. I’ll call it in to the captain and keep an eye on Vesper’s boat in case he tries anything fancy.”

Updating the captain on his plans took about three seconds and consisted of his recording a verbal report in her AI’s memory system. While he was at it he updated his log recorder. That left him watching Vesper’s boat through his binoculars. The absolute last thing he wanted was an Earthling with initiative. It was true that he’d found UNIGOV’s so-called sapiens policies draconian, destructive and antihuman. However just as quickly he’d come to rely on the predictability that they inflicted on the population. He could see why Mond wanted to keep things as is. The power a Vault Director like him had would quickly get chipped away if every person on the planet had their own ideas about how things were supposed to work.

By the same token, the ability of the spacer fleet to run roughshod over the planet would be seriously impacted if the people on it had their own ideas about fighting back. The similarities between his motivations and Mond’s were unsettling. He wished Dex were there to give him shit about it.

The sun was fully risen and yet the ocean beneath Vesper’s boat still seethed with shadows, the glimmers of light that reflected off the surface seeming to mock him with their empty illusion of illumination. He didn’t know the first thing about sailing. Jokes about his expertise aside, the only thing he knew about travel by sea was that it remained the most dangerous form of travel in human history, even with early space disasters factored in. He wanted to just leave Vesper to the sea. Odds were, the Earthling wasn’t going to survive out there any better than a spacer would.

Problem was, spacers had already proven they could survive one short trip.

Lang checked his comm, hoping the captain had heard his message and sent him new orders. No such luck. Priss and Harry were going to hijack the boat, barring the unforeseen, and then he’d have to decide whether they were all going to risk their necks on some moronic scheme to run down a stranger they’d never heard just to make sure he was good and dead. Or at least in a brig somewhere.

No wonder the people of Earth preferred to leave decisions to UNIGOV. No wander their Directors desperately wanted to quell as much conflict as possible, to the point they would rewrite their own history to accomplish it. This was bullshit. He couldn’t even keep a braindead moron like Dex from walking himself into a plasma blast, how was he supposed to make these calls? People like him were a dime a dozen. There had to be hundreds of them in LA alone, giving the local UNIGOV Director fits day in and day out. Lang knew if he had that kind of problem to deal with he’d want to put most of them in permanent hibernation, too.

Priss was smarter than Dex, of course, probably smarter than he was himself, at least in terms of managing people. But that kind of thing could almost get her in more trouble rather than keep her out of it. In the Nevada Vault he’d left her alone for an hour and she’d nearly gotten her brain sucked into the crystal palace where they kept people’s memories from Shutdown.

At least, he guessed that was how those places worked.

He didn’t know Harry, which was even worse. A complete unknown was someone who’s foibles and weaknesses he couldn’t mitigate at all, someone dragged along in his wake strictly by merit of the stripes on his sleeve. For the first time he understood why Mond and the others looked at him like a monster whenever the command structure came up. He could walk people right into their deaths and call it a moral good. Acceptable losses. Following orders.

Dex’s face swam before his eyes for a moment, ranting at Mond and all the stupid, petty hypocrisies that had driven him nearly mad with indignation. That kind of unproductive, self sabotaging rage was the essence of the martian that UNIGOV objected to. He could understand why. Since Dex’s death, he’d come to share all those same objections in spades.

He would much rather hide from the responsibility of dealing with the Dexs of the world rather than try and mitigate them, reshape them or shut them down. Martin Langley was more an Aubrey Vance than a Stephen Mond. Yet at the end of the day, he realized that Mond was not any better at solving these problems than he was. He was probably a lot worse.

If sapiens could really handle conflict so much better than spacers Dex would still be alive, after all. That meant he couldn’t hide. Hiding made more bodies than taking action did and responsibility would probably fall on him either way.

“Hey.” Lang jumped so hard he nearly fell of the pier into the ocean. Priss suppressed a snort.

“What is it?” He asked, ignoring her laughter.

“Are you up for this?” She asked. “I know you haven’t been at the top of your game lately, it’s only been a couple of weeks since we were drugged POWs in UNIGOV’s hands. Then you got a promotion and redeployed in a specialty you aren’t trained for. It’s a lot.”

“I’ll take your word for it. You are better at managing people than me.”

“Thanks?” She sat down beside him and looped an arm through his, pulling his binoculars down. “Do you want to call the captain and ask for reinforcements?”

Lang looked at the ocean for a long time. Anything could happen out there. Vesper could have any kind of nasty surprise waiting for them once they caught up to his boat. There was no guarantee their weapons and exos were up to the task of bringing him in. Anything could go wrong.

The only thing that had to go right was getting Vesper. Lang shook off Priss’ arm, clambered to his feet and stowed his binoculars, saying, “I’ve already informed her of our plans. Right now, time is critical. I take it you’re here because you unlocked the controls of one of the boats?”

“We did.” She shook her head ruefully. “I gave it a quick lookover and these systems seem a lot less sophisticated than the ones on the yacht. Maybe that’s not surprising. It doesn’t look like its intended for long range or bad weather. Still, it’s not going to be as safe as the Armstrong was even if we did have time to make modifications to it.”

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “That is a risk we are just going to have to take.”

Priss looked at him for a long moment and then grinned. “You’re sounding like yourself again, flyboy.”

“Never. Now shut up and get on the boat.”

They shut up and got. Two minutes later they had the craft untied, the motor running and the wind at their backs. Lang took them out after Vesper across the blue waters of the bay.