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.

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Twelve

Previous Chapter

“How shines the Light of Mars, Mr. Vesper?”

Vesper snorted. “It doesn’t, Director, because you’ve turned the power to it off again. How am I to run tests on the damn thing if you switch it on and off more than the light in a refrigerator?”

The aging scientist was hunched in front of a work station cobbled together out of a dozen different parts from a dozen different consoles and desks around the power plant’s control room. He’d turned an eight foot folding conference room table into a Frankenstein amalgamation of electronics and readouts. It was impressive for just two days of work.

Brian pulled his attention away from the clutter long enough to answer the question. “You’ll have to submit power use requests to the power generation management team if you want to power up the generators, otherwise we can only authorize running the plant at full capacity during an emergency situation.”

“Mars is in orbit, Director!” Vesper pounded a fist on the table in front of him causing the other engineers and technicians in the room to shudder and shrink away. “We are living in an emergency situation.”

“That’s no reason to deviate from protocol,” Brian said with a tsk. “We are sapiens rather than martians, aren’t we?”

“We’ll be martians soon enough if we keep this up.”

For a moment Brian just watched Vesper working away at whatever it was he was trying to do. After his interview with Glenda he’d requisitioned every record relating to the Light of Mars project from the Brussels Vault, where that data had been stored. He’d gone over as much of it as he could but most of it was meaningless to him. Medical nanotech and large scale nanofields like Vesper’s team had worked with were worlds apart in terms of power demands, delicacy of work and materials involved. “If we restored power to the Light of Mars what would you do with it, Mr. Vesper?”

“For starters I’d run a full boot sequence diagnostic on the field projectors,” Vesper said, pointing towards one of his many readouts. “The process took nearly forty minutes. That’s pretty fast for when we designed it but remarkably slow when we compare it to how the martians reacted. They were able to pull clear of the field before it destroyed them.”

“An ideal outcome.”

“But not the typical martian response,” Vesper countered immediately, his answer coming so fast Brian was sure it was a line of logic he’d gone over many times. “You would expect a martian to press ever onwards, damn the cost. If they’d chose to do that during their previous landing some of their ships would have gotten through and then what? They’d be capable of anything.”

Brian frowned and pulled out his tablet, running the numbers based on previous flights they’d observed. In most cases it turned out Vesper was right. “Okay, we need to boot up the hardware faster. Anything else?”

“We should test how quickly we can reposition and redeploy the field projectors around the city,” Vesper said. “We may need to adjust coverage across the entire Los Angeles area.”

“Driving the projectors from one side of LA to the other is not going to noticeably alter their range of effect,” Brian said. “I don’t see a need to waste power on training for that. We’re working on expanding the network of projectors along the coast and inland towards select strategic locations but we’re still scrambling to acquire the necessary minerals. We haven’t had a need for new resources like this since the Environmental Restoration program got underway.”

“Yes, we’ve managed on recycling for a long time.” Vesper finally turned away from his work and eyed Brian, expression unreadable. “So. If you want to add even more projectors to the field network we’re going to have to solve the problem with synchronizing the power regulators, won’t we? When am I going to get some of my research team back?”

Brian folded his arms in front of him as he weighed his response. At first glance Vesper’s constant requests for more personnel made sense, especially since the Light of Mars had always been a group project of such a scope that no one person could reasonably keep up with all elements of it. But now that they did have a few other members of the project coherent, if not helpful, there were new issues to think about.

Like what Glenda Vesper had told him yesterday. “I’m afraid we’re still struggling to get your team into a condition where they can help you. Do you remember anything from your time in Shutdown?”

“In Shutdown?” Vesper frowned. “I’m afraid my memories from that period of time are very hazy. I know I was conscious and I remember seeing people I knew but I’m afraid I can’t tell you any details about it. Is this important? What does my time in Shutdown have to do with completing the project and keeping the martians off of Earth?”

“Directly? Nothing.” The lie was not a particularly sapiens thing to do but Brian felt it served the overall needs of the moment and events could be tailored to the lie later if necessary. “However it seems the Shutdown process has created complications we never considered. Our difficulties in reviving the other members of your team testify to that and if you had any insight into what might have occurred there it would help us resolve the issue. And it might get you that assistance you want faster.”

The scientist’s frown deepened and his eyes slid off to one side as he probed his memories. “Strange. There is a virtual world in there, as I recall…”

“Yes. We built it because we were concerned leaving people in Shutdown with nothing to engage their mind would be an unsapiens level of abuse. We even sent a few testers in to make sure it was a suitable and humane environment.” Brian spread his hands helplessly. “But we never left anyone in there for more than a few weeks. We’re concerned that the length of time in Shutdown may be a complicating factor that we did not anticipate. Any insight you could give us would be appreciated.”

“I’m not sure I should help my jailers make my prison better.” Vesper drummed his fingers on his table for a moment. “Still, given the circumstances, working out what went wrong with your project may be the fastest way for me to get help with mine, so I will tell you anything I can as it occurs to me. Unfortunately I don’t have anything for you just now.”

“Then let’s come back to that topic later.” Brian pretended to be interested in the readouts Vesper had up, a series of graphs and maps showing power routes, field overlaps and other information he only half understood. As he scanned the data he said, “Is there another approach you can take to this problem? Perhaps if we could find our own angle to tackle it would be faster to bring some of our own nanoengineers onboard the project. Have you considered a different power source for the nanofield? We’ve had some success with running nanotech on directed energy beams like low intensity lasers.”

A split second of intense interest crossed Vesper’s face but he quickly crushed it when the obvious problem with that occurred to him. “You can’t create a dome between us and the sky that way. It proves the concept but trying to find a new power source, making it practical and implementing it all while the martians are right above us does not strike me as a winning strategy.”

A jolt of adrenaline shot through Brian at Vesper’s declaration. He didn’t like thinking of their project in terms of winning and losing – that was martian think – but in this case he could understand why Vesper did so. He also hated how appealing that was to him. Better to ignore that and focus on the long, slow cultivation of the topic he really wanted to discuss. “Could we use the nanotech itself as a stabilizing force on the field? Build it out of-”

“No, no, no,” Vesper snapped, “the use of magnetic materials in nanotech outside the generator filament was proven impossible by Doctor Hugo Manning during the development of the medinano systems. I’m surprised a Director like yourself, who deals with it daily, didn’t know that.”

Brian did know that but he didn’t admit as much to Vesper. “Couldn’t we use the filament itself as a stabilizer?”

“The energy transfer involved would destroy the nanotech instantly.”

Which he’d learned after reading up on the subject following his discussion with Glenda. However these questions served to bring him around to the point he wanted to address in a way that wouldn’t arouse Vesper’s suspicions and, now that the man was starting to ignore him again and focus more on his readouts, Brian was ready to get to the main point. “What if we tweaked the frequency of the fields so they synchronized rather than trying to calibrate the power to create perfectly aligned overlaps?”

Vesper hesitated, his hands going still on their panel. It wasn’t a subject that had a lot of research put into it, as Brian had discovered when he investigated the notion, so it would force him to do a little thought on his own. Assuming it wasn’t something he already knew about. There was a possibility, however remote, that all the issues with the Light of Mars so far were a ploy by the Vespers to entrap the Directorate and pull them back into a martian way of thought. Perhaps Vesper’s focus on his project and winning against the martians, combined with a ruse of insanity from Glenda and the others, was a play for dominance. If it was, this was a chance for Vesper to tip his hand.

If he grasped onto the idea immediately Brian would suspect some kind of ploy or trap.

Instead Vesper steepled his fingers and touched them to his chin. “That’s an interesting notion, Director. It’s possible although I don’t think it would be as sturdy as independent fields. A disruption to one could potentially set up a domino effect through the entire network of fields so you’d need some kind of fail safe capable of switching off – no.” Vesper’s face went from thoughtful to rueful like a switch was thrown. “No, it won’t work Director. Not a bad solution at first blush but ultimately totally unworkable.”

Immediate, enthusiastic adoption or cautious consideration were the responses Brian had expected. Flat rejection was surprising. The unexpected nature of that response startled Brian out of his focus on Vesper’s attitude and back to the actual, technical nature of the discussion. “What’s the issue with it? We do that occasionally with other nanofactury processes.”

“Yes, but a nanotank where you assemble a computer or hovercar is a very different thing to the Light of Mars,” Vesper said, picking up a light pen and making a tiny dot on his map of the LA region showing the area affected by their mag generators. “The comparative size of the tank to the fields we’re working with is even more extreme than that between this point the area of effect.”

“So?”

“So you can synchronize small fields easily because the startup command comes from one central location and reaches the generators for all the relevant fields essentially instantaneously. However, our generators are much further apart than the micro generators in a nanotank. The command to start them will arrive at different generators at different times.” A few keystrokes displayed numbers over each field generator they had deployed. “As you can see the time lag between activation command being issued and arrival at the generators is pretty small but the oscillation rate in a magnetic field is even smaller than the differences in these values. And we just don’t have the kind of precision timing technology necessary to compensate for it. The generators will always be out of synch because of the distances involved. We could try and synchronize the fields but I don’t think it would ever work until some kind of FTL communication is perfected.”

“I see.” Brian studied the numbers for a minute, more to buy time than because he really understood them. A well reason answer and completely detached from what Glenda had told him. So what were Glenda and the other scientists she claimed she’d worked with in Shutdown actually trying to do with their simulations? It really didn’t seem like they were in collusion with Vesper. But there had to be something there to keep them all tied into mental knots even after they came out of Shutdown. On the other hand, at least it seemed like he could trust Vesper for the moment. “Well, it was just a notion. Keep doing what you can, Mr. Vesper, and I’ll be in touch. We have the first shipment of new generators due in four days so you may want to start thinking about how you’ll expand the emplacement you have designed now.”

Vesper grunted, having missed Brian’s entire train of thought. “If you say so, Director. What will you be doing in the meantime?”

“I’ll be looking into something else.” Brian left Vesper to his work and started thinking about how he could clear his own schedule of its standing obligations. Now he was even more determined to make his own foray into Shutdown and determine what had happened there. If only the martians would leave him enough time to try it.

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Eleven

Previous Chapter

“Anchors aweigh, my boys, anchors aweigh!”

“I swear,” Lang shouted down below decks, “if I hear that damn tune again I am turning this boat around and taking us back to Copernicus.”

Two new voices joined in the chorus. “Faaaaarewell to college joys, we sail at break of da-a-a-ay!”

Lang snorted and sat back down in the pilot’s chair on the yacht’s bridge. Most of the controls had been removed, leaving wires and boards and wires and capacitors and wires and semiconductors and wires all over the place. A couple of enlisted technicians were working on sorting out and replacing the relevant components under the direction of 2nd Lieutenant Fresh Face. Lang was trying to figure out the pilot’s controls with the assistance of his AI.

“You know, you’re just encouraging them,” Fresh said, looking up from his own AI display with a bemused expression.

“Yes. Sir,” he added just in time. “I’m aware of the futility of expressing annoyance.”

“Then why do it?”

“It makes me feel better. Also I’m pretty sure these Toroidal Mark 4 AIs see a performance boost when you’re annoyed. 3-4% better return on your subconscious brain cycles.” The Princess 48 yacht model they’d chosen for the expedition was either very old or a retro model because it still had actual physical controls like a sliding throttle, a steering wheel and numerous dials and switches for various functions. Stone age stuff. It was soothing to run your hands over while talking to annoying officers. “Try closing the sonar circuits again.”

“We’re still getting that error message,” Fresh said after a brief pause. “I suspect the annoyance preference has more to do with the end user’s preferences than anything in the software architecture of the AI.”

“If I prefer it, does it count as annoyance?” Lang toggled through several menus as he tried to figure out the yacht’s software. “Wait, I think I found the maintenance logs. What’s the error code?”

“76-01:20.” Fresh looked over the shoulder of his other tech. “On the starboard side. Port side is 76-01:10, so my guess is they’re on separate command circuits. And yeah, I’ve known plenty of people who enjoyed being annoyed and spent a lot of time around people that just pissed them off for the fun of being pissed at them.”

“The logs say that’s a software fault. The operating system wants to run an update to check for new drivers because it’s sixty years since the last update was run.” Lang rubbed his hands over his face then left his chin on his palms as he stared out the bridge window. “We’re gonna have to codebreak that and get past it somehow. I’ll add it to the Captain’s list of programming tasks.”

The Lieutenant leaned down to one of his techs and said, “Try the same override code that we used when the reactor wanted to update.”

A couple of seconds later Lang’s screen refreshed and the maintenance logs cleared the error codes. “Ooookay, let’s move on. The checklist says we need to do a test run on the engines. Do we have any updates on whether the screws are clear yet?”

“Harrigan, check on that, will you?” One of the techs acknowledged and clambered down the steps to the main deck. Fresh stood up and stretched, eyeing the rats nest of wires. “Do you think they wove this whole boat out of cables?”

“Too watertight for that,” Lang muttered, looking over the boat’s navigation system again.

“True.” The Lieutenant sat down in the copilot’s chair and watched Lang pick at the controls for a minute. “Have you discussed possible approaches to the power plant with the Captain yet?”

“Didn’t know she wanted to talk them over with me.”

“Why wouldn’t she?”

Lang swallowed a sigh and set the yacht’s computer back to it’s idle mode before giving Fresh his full attention. “Why do you think Captain Tsukihara would want to discuss our course to the power plant with me? I’m not an expert on ground warfare, seafaring or the infantry in general.”

“Yeah, but you’ve been here before.”

“Not within five hundred kilometers of this place.”

He nodded, unphased by Lang’s dry and uninterested responses. “That’s fair. But you did capture a member of UNIGOV’s Directorate so that means you’re the only Copernican spacer to outfight an Earth commander in the war so far. Like it or not that makes you the expert on their approach to… well, everything.”

“Wait. Sir, I’m not a psychologist, I hope people are taking that into account when they come to me for my opinions on Earthlings. This isn’t something I’m uniquely qualified for.”

“I’m not sure about that, Sergeant. You beat them once on their home turf and pulled some crazy stunts out on Mars from what I’ve heard.” The Lieutenant grinned, full of naivety and excitement. “Just think what we can do now that we’ve got a full company of people on the ground now.”

He resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “We could sink a whole boat full of people!”

“It’s okay,” Fresh said. “The Major and the Captain are both experts on historical warfare and the Major keeps a ton of texts on the subject in his AI most of the time. If UNIGOV was still fighting with the tech level we see now we’d be in trouble. But they don’t fight at all so we still have the leg up on ’em.”

“If you say so, Lieutenant.”

“I do.”

“Sir!” The second tech returned and saluted his officer. “Captain says we’re ready to reconnect the generators and the main turbine. She wants you down in the engine room, pronto.”

“On my way.” He set his readout aside and carefully got up, picking his way around the wires. “Good luck with those controls, Sergeant! We’ll be ready to take it to the Earthlings in no time.”

Lang watched him leave and blew out a breath. “Whew. Was I ever that young?”

“Certainly you were before the war, Sergeant Langley.”

He jumped a little, then rose all the way out of his chair. “Captain Tsukihara.”

“At ease, Sergeant.” The captain picked her way onto the bridge from the other side of the boat, the combined challenges of the rocking deck and rampant wires forcing her to move very deliberately. “What do you make of the good ship Armstrong, Langley?”

“Didn’t realize that was it’s name, ma’am,” he said, relaxing just a bit.

“Corporal Hu decided Tangerine Mist was a terrible name for a warship so we rechristened it in honor of your lost destroyer,” she replied, crouching down by the Lieutenant’s readout long enough to disconnect it and set it up on the control panel. Then she stood up and started carefully picking apart the nest of wires. Like Priss, Captain Yiyun Tsukihara was of Han stock and stood a little over five foot tall, with dark hair and a rounder face. Unlike Priss she was starting to go gray. Her right hand showed the warts and scars of constant use and, based on her left hand’s comparatively pristine skin, Lang guessed Yang had lost at least one limb during her career in the Spacer Corps that was later cloned back into place. “But you didn’t answer my question. What do you think of her?”

Lang shook himself and forced his mind back to the present moment. “I don’t know enough to make an educated judgement.”

“Bullshit.” She stopped what she was doing long enough to give him a disbelieving glare. “I’ve met enough flyboys to know you have an opinion on anything with joystick, all the way down to and including your own torso. I want to know if you think we’re wasting time on refurbing this boat or not.”

“It’s sturdy, it should be fast if the turbines ever run again and it’s got a sensor profile that will keep it low to the horizon,” Lang said as he sat down and worked the computer panel. “The major systems are computerized and I’m working on linking them to my AI. Just steering the thing will be pretty easy, it looks like the steering is intended to be idiot proof, but navigating is another thing entirely. It is linked into some kind of global navigation system that needs orbital satellites or a network uplink to function. So it’s useless on two fronts.”

“We can’t use it without giving ourselves away,” Tsukihara mused. “What’s the other way it’s useless?”

“Pretty sure any satellites it ran off of are gone now and I’m not in a hurry to try and tie this thing’s computer into the FleetNav. I’m 99% sure UNIGOV wouldn’t have left behind viruses or backdoors in their nav computers but I’d rather not run the risk.” He pulled up the boat’s map catalogs. “However we can just follow the coastline in this case. We just need to keep an eye out for a few landmarks and we should be able to make our landing just fine.”

“How do you feel about your team?”

“My team, ma’am?”

Tsukihara stopped sorting wires and gave him another look. Then, realizing he was serious, she set the wires aside, stepped up to him and put a hand on his shoulder. “I forgot you just got your third stripe and from a field promotion at that. Sergeant, we’re going to have twenty people on this boat and I need to keep Lieutenant Bailey with me, not just to keep an eye on the engines but to help me set up and command the deck guns. That’s the entire boat out of officers, which means you’re going to have to put together the your own bridge staff to handle keeping lines of communications open and do whatever else you think needs done up here.”

“I… you want me to put together a team? Ma’am, I don’t have the best record of leading teams.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that. You managed to make one out of three Spacers and two Earthlings effectively enough. Not everything worked out the way we might have preferred but…” Tsukihara summarized the team’s capture and Dex’s death with a casual shrug. “You’re still better at it than you think you are. I know you’ve never really been trained to consider command situations but we’ll see where you feel you’re at and go from there. How many people do you think you’ll need, in total?”

“To run the bridge?”

“Yes.”

“Two. Maybe three, if there’s a communications blackout and we wind up having to run messages.” Lang shrugged. “Although I don’t see much chance of that given current situations.”

“Let’s not count our chickens before they hatch.” Yang fiddled with her belt absently, her fingers counting up and down as she worked on the arcane mathematics of command. “Is three how many you expect to need in combat or just those to handle normal functions of the post?”

“More the latter,” Lang admitted. “In a full blown combat situation I’d expect to need a fourth if things go bad.”

“Did you have anyone in mind?”

“I…” Lang frantically ran through potential candidates in his mind. “I’m afraid I don’t at this moment.”

“Well, take a few hours today to work out what competencies you’d need on the bridge then interview people until you can fill those roles with three people. We’ll assign you a fourth as a runner and damage control member for combat situations.” The Captain started bundling the wires together again. “Command is mostly about assigning people you trust to handle specific tasks, Sergeant, and most NCOs get to where they are because they’re good at reading and assigning people not because they’re smart or courageous. Besides, the odds of combat on this mission are low, so don’t make a life and death decision out of this. Go with your gut. We can always shuffle assignments on further outings if it proves necessary, understand?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good.” She finished with the string of wires she was holding and set them aside. “I’m looking forward to working with you, Sergeant Langley. Get me your personnel requests by the end of the day.”

She left him staring at the console and ignoring his AI, his brain running through the spacers on the boat and where they would best fit in its operations. That was the kind of decision making he could get behind.