Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Eleven – The Noose

Go back to Chapter Ten

“Our examination of the drone suggests it is quite old. While none of us are forensics experts or archeologists the parts used suggests that it can’t be much newer than the Departure. Only rudimentary nanoengineering is in evidence and the laser projectors are low power, even for lasers…”

Lang’s voice was small in the vastness of the empty desert, with barely a road sign or stand of scrub grass to echo off of. The martians had pulled off the side of the highway, hours out of the city, and thrown some kind of tarp from their box of crazy  devices over the van. In a couple of seconds it had shifted to blend in with the ground around it, leaving the small campsite effectively invisible to any eyes in the air.

If Sean was right and the drone from earlier had come from their allies in space they were going to pretty extreme lengths to avoid being noticed by another one.

After the harrowing escape from town they’d driven straight through the day and finally stopped after nightfall. Dex and Lang had debated the merits of driving through the night, using one of their AI – apparently a more universally applicable piece of tech than the ones Earth had developed – to drive the van for them. Lang had eventually tossed the idea not because he was worried about how well it would work but because he didn’t want to be, “an exposed, lit target at night.”

Aubrey’s attention snapped back to the voices in the distance. At some point Priss had gone out and joined Lang out by the small rock outcropping where he’d hunkered down to talk into his recorder. “I brought a digest of what we pulled off the datahub, if you wanted to attach it to the report.”

“Anything interesting?”

“We’re still sifting it through our AIs. But so far it’s just more mysteries. The population forty years ago was less than five and a half billion.”

“Five?! That’s barely half what the population was projected-”

Her attention snapped back to what was happening in front of her when Dex lifted the edge of the camo tarp and stepped out into the open. There was a crispness and sheen to his clothes she hadn’t seen before. “We set up a makeshift sanitation and clothes cleaning station in the back of the van,” he said. “I’m not sure what your clothes are made of but they could probably use a sprucing up and everyone enjoys a good wash now and then. Just move the big red rock in front of the door if you’re using it.”

“Thanks.” She managed a wan smile although she wasn’t really feeling it. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

Dex nodded. “Food agree with you?”

“Yes? Was there any reason it shouldn’t?”

He shrugged. “We don’t know much about your nanotech. Hopefully it doesn’t have some hidden dietary requirement we don’t know about.”

“If there is, we’re not the ones to ask about it.” She sighed. “Look, Dex. We’ll complain if something is out of line. So far, food is one of the few places where that’s not likely to happen. Enjoy it while it lasts.”

Dex flashed her a quick, charming grin. “Spoken like a true spacer. Get some sleep, we’re leaving at first light tomorrow.”

She nodded and waited until he had walked away before focusing on the distant voices again.

“-need to focus on getting us back into orbit,” Lang was saying. “I can’t be tempted to run after phantoms that may explain why everything changed. Report your theory in your personal log and keep an eye out for evidence that may support it. But we’re not going out of our way to investigate. What we already know is already an intelligence goldmine, in needs to get back to the fleet.”

“It’s your call,” Priss replied. “We’ve got the sanitizer set up in the van. Be sure to get cleaned up, it’ll help you think better.”

“Sure. I’ll run myself through before I pass out tonight.” It didn’t sound like he was going to make a serious effort at remembering it, though.

Aubrey lay back on her sleeping bag and looked up at the stars, trying to make some sense of it all. The martians were awfully attached to their records and their books. Back in Dallas they’d be considered pretty boring, stick in the mud types. Then again, when things around them did get exciting it was a little more than she was comfortable with. A lot more, actually. They were a mystery all around.

A few minutes later Priss walked back into what passed for their campsite, dressed not in the glossy shelled suits the martians had been wearing since they first met but a more form fitting coverall with a many pocketed belt. She was still armed with some kind of pistol on one hip but she didn’t cut quite as dangerous looking a figure as she normally did. Priss went over to her pile of gear and fished out another of the recording devices like Lang had and walked over to lean against one of the big, self-propelled boxes the martians kept they toys in.

Aubrey pushed herself up on her elbows to get a better look and said, “You guys sure seem to like those things.”

“What, this?” Priss held up the recorder. “No one likes a noose. That’s why we gave the big one to Lang.”

“What’s a noose?”

An exasperated look crossed Priss’ face. “Right, you probably never heard of hangings, have you?”

“Only the kind that go on walls.” She sat up and crossed her legs pretzel style. “I get the feeling that’s not what you’re talking about.”

“No. Hanging was a kind of execution – barbaric, I know, I know.” Aubrey closed her mouth over her complaint and Priss pressed on. “Even we debate their usefulness and morality, trust me. But I’ve always felt someone who’s entrusted with the power of lethal force should really face the potential for lethal retaliation so I’ve got no problem with spacers or soldiers having to face execution from time to time.”

“But what does that have to do with your recordings?” Aubrey asked, still trying to puzzle that out.

“Spacers used to wear the log recorders on lanyards so they wouldn’t get away from us in zero gravity.” She mimed the recorder dangling from her neck. “Nooses go around the neck, and so… it’s a noose.”

“No, what does recording things have to do with an execution?

Priss actually laughed at that. “Well, because any time there’s a record of what you’ve done it’s the first step in getting caught in a mistake. The mission log has been the primary evidence used to convict dozens of spacer commanders of negligence or criminal behavior.”

“But they’re the ones that record it!” Aubrey protested, agog. “How does that help you catch them doing something wrong?! All they have to do is say they did everything right.”

Priss started to reply, then stopped herself and thought for a moment. “You work with the traffic control AI in your city, right?”

“Yes…” Aubrey was trying to track with the change of subject but couldn’t.

“How do you tell when something has gone wrong?”

“Well, generally the AI just comes to us with a traffic hang-up it can’t diagnose or, more rarely, a set of conflicting priorities it can’t sort out.” Aubrey pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them, crossing her legs at the ankles and thinking for a moment. “There’s also a transponder in vehicles that can ping the system for attention when they aren’t getting instructions from the traffic AI or the directions are contradictory. Or the vehicle has just been kept in one place for longer than five minutes. And there’s a communications line people can contact directly if they feel their case needs attention, although that happens about once a year so it’s not common.”

Priss nodded, her brow furrowed. “See, that’s what I don’t get. You understand diagnostic communication in mechanical contexts but not social ones. That’s basically how you catch negligence, human error and flat out dishonesty via logs. Take my old ship, the Armstrong. Now if the log says it was destroyed in orbit we know something’s gone wrong and we start investigating – ships aren’t supposed to be destroyed outside of a scrapyard. If the Armstrong’s captain reports the ship is intact but several members of the crew report it was destroyed using these,” she held up her own log recorder, “then we know something went wrong, otherwise the crew wouldn’t disagree on what happened. And, of course, you can always go and look yourself. If someone told me the Armstrong was fine but I couldn’t find the ship in orbit – or wherever else it was supposed to be – then I’d know something was wrong and that they were lying to me.”

“That…” Aubrey thought about arguing whether all this lying was really going on or what good it did but stopped herself. She had plenty of first hand experience that told her this was just how they thought – paranoid certainty. “Nevermind. What are you going to record?”

Priss sat up a little straighter, looking proud of herself. “My theory of what happened in the last two hundred years.”

That got Aubrey’s attention. “You have one? Did you get that much out of the datahub we stopped at?”

“Not really, but there were two major discrepancies that I did notice.” She ticked them off on her fingers. “One, no mention of Unified Field Theory technologies. And I’m not just talking about gravity fields or superluminal drives. They don’t even talk about simple things like gravitic power generators, which were in development at the time of Departure. Second, none of the major terraforming projects that were slated seem to have been carried out. I found a reference to Cairo as the capitol of Egypt, even though it was supposed to move to Thebes once the terraformers finished with the desert in that region. For that matter,” she gestured at the desert around them. “There’s this. Pretty sure this was supposed to be terraformed too.”

“Where do you get all this knowledge about terraforming plans from?” Aubrey asked, more curious than skeptical.

“I may have a degree in communications technology, with a minor in communications theory, but my parents were terraformers from a family of terraformers.” She said it with a certain air of pride. “They knew the science backwards and forwards and they were always musing about how nations on Earth might be executing environmental renovation with the greater resources they had on hand. The Sahara project was supposed to start only a few years after the Departure and a lot of terraformers loved theorizing about it. I don’t think I’m going to mention to my parents how little actually got done if I ever see them again. The spacer daughter is disappointment enough.”

“Okay…” There was a rabbit trail she didn’t want to go down. “So no Unified Field Theory, whatever that is, and no terraforming. How is that enough to build a theory?”

“They’re both technologies directly tied to planetary colonization.”


Priss scooted closer and lowered her voice, although Aubrey wasn’t sure who she feared would overhear her. “Do you know what a sodomite is?”

Again a strange twist in the conversation, again she couldn’t follow. But this time she at least knew the answer. “Someone who likes anal sex.”

Yes but-” Priss pinched the bridge of her nose. “No books. Right, do you know the origin of the word?”

“Origin?” She rolled that over in her mind. Naturally she didn’t know the origin of the word – who thought about things like that? Other than people with degrees in communication theory, apparently. “No. I don’t know the origin of the word.”

“It comes from the Bible, a book I’m willing to bet you’ve never heard of-”


Priss ignored the interjection. “-that mentions a city called Sodom who’s residents wanted to rape men who were passing through town. Who wanted to sodomize them. The story says the city was destroyed as a result.”

“That’s a fucked up story,” Aubrey said, leaning slightly away from Priss and taking a sudden interest in the scrub brush around the camp site.

“Sodomite,” Priss said, continuing to ignore her interruptions, “came to be a pejorative aimed at a sexual fetish and eventually most people forgot it was connected to the city at all. But originally it was the name for a group of people who were justly punished for attempting a terrible crime.”

“I don’t see how that explains anything-”

But Priss was on a roll now, jumping to her feet and pacing, gesturing to illustrate points. “You see, it’s the nature of language to devolve over time. Language is at its best when it’s very specific, because then the words have the most meaning. Sodomites were a specific group of people loathed for crimes against another specific group. But over time the word becomes more general – sodomites were anyone who were vaguely interested in a fringe sex practice, unfairly painting that larger group of people with some of the guilt of the original Sodomites. It’s a classic example of how a term for a disliked group of people can become a general smear for any outsider that seems vaguely threatening. Just like happened here on Earth shortly after the departure.”

Aubry shook her head, dismissing the whole line of reasoning as silly. “Priss, that’s impossible. The trademark of sapiens societies is inclusion, not exclusion-”

“Oh, but you do!” Priss exclaimed, crouching back down and crowding Aubrey, her eyes full of the excited light of someone who’d pulled a prank on another. “You do have an exclusionary term, Aubrey, you’ve been calling us it since we got here. And I think you took it from the people Earth fought and destroyed a short time after the Departure. The Martians.”


Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Ten – The Chase

Go back to Chapter Nine

They piled into the van at full tilt, the robocrate struggling to keep up. Dex was in the process of battening down the solar panels as Lang and Priss burst out of the building and, between the three of them, they managed to haul the self-propelled box into the vehicle almost without breaking stride. Lang pushed his way into the driver’s seat and started the van without bothering to strap in, beside him Priss was connecting to the rudimentary sensors they’d pulled off the drop pod and attached to the van’s roof during their brief overhaul the previous day.

Dex pushed the Terrans into the back seat and then started unpacking the crate they’d left in the van. The one with the light missile tubes in it.

“We’ve only got two of those, Dex,” Lang said as he put the van in gear and peeled out of the parking lot. “No firing blind. I want you to get a sensor profile lock from Priss before you waste a shot. No playing cowboy.”

“Me? When have I ever done that?”

“Any day ending in Y,” Priss said.

Their words were lighthearted but their tone was tense and focused, the banter a verbal filler to keep their minds occupied while they ran through procedures they’d drilled on dozens of times but hoped never to do when playing for keeps. Lang gave his armory man something more constructive to think about. “I need to go west, Dex. What do I look for?”

“We need a highway. They called them Interstates, back in the day.” There was a lengthy pause, maybe six or seven seconds, during which Lang was too busy driving to look at what was going on, although he suspected Dex was punching in his authorization to release the missile tube. “They tended to accumulate large shopping or vehicle service centers around them,  if I recall correctly.”

There was a grunt, then Sean said, “The highway is to the north, although I don’t know as anyone uses it anymore. Corporal, where the fuck are we going? You said we have rights, shouldn’t one of them be knowing where the fuck we’re going?”

That was actually a good question. He’d never been a prisoner of war but every spacer was briefed on their rights as one. He knew a prisoner couldn’t be removed from the planet he was captured on without being told but within that very broad limit a prisoner basically didn’t need to be told where they were. The problem was, he was hardly dealing with a traditional prisoner of war scenario.

“Nevada. We’re going to Nevada.” He tapped his AI to life and brought up a navigation overlay. “North it is.”

He wove through the quiet streets for several tense seconds, leaning forward to scan as much of the sky as the van’s windshield would allow. He was just beginning to think they’d somehow slipped through unnoticed when Priss said, “Sensor contact.”

“What’s happening?” Aubrey asked from the back, her quiet voice carrying with odd clarity.

A dozen possible scenarios ran through Lang’s mind, many pulled from training drills. A few from a terrifying, ill-fated visit to Minerva during his first year of service. None even remotely relevant to their situation. “I don’t know.”

He drove faster.

“Contact is two point five kilometers and closing, approaching from east-northeast at a rate of two hundred meters per second.”

In ten seconds they were going to have a very clear idea of what was coming.

Two hundred?!” Sean sounded incredulous. “Nothing can maneuver that fast in the city. Not unless it’s on a monorail.”

“I think it’s airborne, Sean,” Dex said.

“Air travel has been banned for the last sixty years as part of UNIGOV’s environmental reforms,” Aubrey said. “If it’s flying, it’s not from Earth. Must be one of your friends, come to pick you up.”

She sounded almost hopeful at the prospect. Lang didn’t share her optimism. A second later the vehicle slipped into view. It was a long, flat wing with an enormous fan blade rotating in a large, circular housing at either end. It didn’t seem to have a clear front or back, although there was a pod bristling with protrusions slung beneath the center of the wing.

“A bicopter?” Lang snorted. “That shit can’t even break atmosphere. No way the fleet sent it down.”

“But air travel poses a hazard to the avian-”

Lang shut her up by slamming the accelerator down and whipping the vehicle around the nearest building, putting it between them and the bicopter. “Priss, I want a ping on the HUD every time that thing establishes line of sight with us.”

“On it.” An instant later his display blinked red in the rear righthand quadrant. As Lang slammed the brakes and fishtailed to the left, breaking contact, Priss added, “There’s no place on that thing big enough to hold an adult human and a piloting cabin. It’s a drone.”

“Can you jam it’s controls?” Lang asked.

“Don’t know enough to try yet,” she answered.

“How can you not know how your own fucking equipment works?” Sean demanded.

“He said it’s not ours.” Dex was busily clipping himself to a set of hardpoints in the floor intended for locking in the vehicle’s removable seating. They’d left one row of it out entirely and Dex was taking advantage of the space to set up shop. “No colonial expeditionary force relies on drones. They’re the shit for planetary defense, when you can count on friendly satellite and ground networks to keep them running. But off your own territory they’re just shit.”

A bright flash of light shot over the top of the building they were using for cover, hitting an overgrown tree on the other side of the road that flashed into a cloud of woodchips and vaporized sap instantly. “And that drone is outdated, too,” Lang said. “I know laser fire when I see it.”

“Lasers are outdated now?” Aubrey asked.

That didn’t warrant a response so he asked, “Anyone spotted the highway?”

“There,” Dex said. Since Lang was in no position to turn and look, Dex added, “Four blocks north east, big open stretch of road.”

“Great. We’ll just drive right at the flying gun platform. Everybody hold on.”

Lang broke away from hugging the buildings and swerved the van into a roundabout, spinning around 270 degrees on the compass and cutting back in the direction Dex had indicated. The bicopter had kept a high elevation up until that point but as they started back towards it the drone lost altitude quickly, almost skipping back and forth through the air as it tried to keep its weapons trained on them. It only fired twice more, both shots going fairly wide.

“At least the fucker can’t shoot,” Dex said, sounding almost cheerful. “Want me to take a shot at it boss?”

“Sensor lock, Dex,” Lang snapped.

The bicopter swooped down closer still, juking back and forth across the street in sudden, insectoid bursts of movement as its guns tracked the van, short laser bursts chewing up the pavement every half second or so as it got more aggressive.

“Calculating firing solution,” Priss said, hunkering down over her sensor equipment, wrapping the wires that connected it to the van around her forearm to keep it from going too far if her grip slipped.

“Think a carbine will have any effect?” Dexter had already pushed the side door open and leaned out, his harness creaking against the anchors points.

“I’ll get it, sit tight,” Priss muttered.

“Better to save the heavy stuff,” Dex yelled over the wind, his short barreled energy weapon tracking the bicopter back and forth.

“Keep going for a solution but let him have his fun.” Lang whipped the van onto an overgrown on ramp fast enough that the undercarriage popped loudly in protest.

The bicopter skidded to one side and dropped altitude, spinning on its axis to bring the van under its guns once again, chewing through rusted guard rails and scattering hot metal debris in front of them and forcing Lang to curse and skid the van in a snaking pattern, brakes screeching, around the largest pieces. Despite his best efforts something skipped up and through the open door, smashing against the other side of the van to a chorus of screams and yells.

“Everything okay?” Lang asked, only half listening for an answer.

“Fine,” Dex bit out.

“Shit, Lang, call your guys and tell them to back off.” Sean sounded more pissed than scared, so Lang figured he was fine too.

The bottom of the ramp came up and merged into a long stretch of road with no noticeable cover save an overpass a few dozen feet from the ramp. There were buildings across the road that would serve better but a low concrete ridge divided the road. Lang bared his teeth and floored the accelerator. “Lean in and brace yourself, Dex!”

There was a scrabble and a clunk from the back and Lang grabbed the lever by his seat and yanked it up, firing the maneuvering thrusters they’d scrounged off the pod. They’d calculated the drop pod was six times the mass of the van. It gave them a lot of thrust to work with. The amount of thrust was supposed to be proportional to how hard he was accelerating, but Dex had repeatedly stressed that if he was hitting the gas too hard there was a chance the van would jump.

“Hold together, now,” Lang whispered, then floored the accelerator.

Although someone who specialized in guns, not thrusters, Dex proved to be correct. Putting thrusters on the van was, indeed, enough to make it jump like a jackrabbit.

The vehicle soared up and over the barrier. It was like a drunkard trying to fly a warehouse with a rocket on one end through the Galileo lunar maze. But it worked. The van crashed to the ground on the other side of the road, groaning as it slid along the pavement and shooting sparks from the underbody, the frame protesting loudly. Lang snapped the wheel hard to the left and brought the van ninety degrees around into the furthest traffic lane just before it jumped the curb and went into the building beyond. The side door rolled forward and slammed in Dex’s face as he tried to lean back out. Behind them the bicopter swung around to reacquire its target, the pilot having anticipated they would follow normal traffic patterns and gone in the opposite direction.

“What did you do to the emergency brake?!” Sean demanded.

“Emergency brake?” Lang snorted. “I told you it was an emergency system!”

“Firing solut-” Priss was cut off as Lang snapped the van around another corner into a side street, breaking her sensor contact.

“It’s done more good as thruster control than a break,” Dex said, wrenching the door back open and drawing a bead on the corner of the building, firing charged plasma at the bicopter as it came around the corner at them. “Besides. Don’t all pilots think emergency go is better than emergency stop?”

The side road was only wide enough for two vehicles at a time and the buildings to either side loomed very close to the street, forcing the bicopter to either pull up above the taller, nine story building for room or fly with very little margin for error. The pilot chose to do the later and Dex’s plasma bursts walked slowly forward from a glancing hit by the tail to the main body of the craft. There wasn’t much effect.

“Firing solution achieved,” Priss said, bailing out of her seat and grabbing a missile tube off the floor and holding it out to Dex. “Shoot the damn thing for real!”

Dex braced the tube across the length of the van, one end supported on his shoulder, the important end pointed up and out the door.

“Clear backblast!” Lang snapped. Priss grabbed the door on the other side of the van and yanked it open before diving into the back seat with the Terrans amid more incoherent yelling.

Dex watched it just long enough to see Priss get out of the way. “Backblast clear.”

“Brace yourselves back there!” The distressed sounds from the back seat faded but Lang was ignoring them already. “Fire tube one.”

The counterweight in the launcher shot out one side of the van, bouncing off the pavement and through the window of an empty office building while the missile shot up and fishtailed to acquire its target, buffeting the rear of the van with its exhaust and rocking it violently. There was a tense moment while the spacers wondered if the bicopter pilot would have the reflexes and technological assistance to target and shoot down the missile before it hit them – then there was a loud boom and a flaming hunk of metal smashed to the ground and skidded to a stop a short way behind them.

Almost as soon as it registered the wrecked bicopter was fading into the distance as the van sprinted down the empty city streets. Lang took his foot off the accelerator and let some speed bleed away. “Priss, contacts?”

She hauled herself up and into her seat again, dodging Dex as he closed up the doors on either side of the van. “Nothing on sensors now.”

Lang let the van coast to a stop as he thought for a moment. “Keep a weather eye on it, Priss.” He did a loop around a block and took them back towards the downed bicopter. “This is enemy territory. Dex, let’s you and me steal some shit. For intelligence gathering purposes.”

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Nine – The Failsafe

Go back to Chapter Eight

“You can’t patch the thrusters in here. This is an auxiliary system. Look, it’s got the yellow and black emergency stripe.” Lang shook his nanosealer at Dex. “Do you even know what this is?”

“It’s a nanosealer. It uses nanotechnology to take things apart and put them together again.”

Lang growled in exasperation then pointed at the lever by the van’s driver’s seat. “This. Do you know what it is?”

“Nope.” Dex grinned. “Do you? Because if you don’t, we won’t know when to activate it anyways.”

“That’s not the point. Auxiliaries are there as a failsafe. If we’re taking it out we should at least know what kind of shit we’re risking.” Lang shook his head and considered disconnecting the thruster control from the mystery lever.

“You could just ask someone familiar with this control scheme,” Dex said, prodding gently.

It wouldn’t be so bad if this wasn’t the fifth time he’d brought it up. “No. We’ve spent too much time thinking we can make headway by playing nice with two low ranking technicians from the Terran government. We’re spacers, ground bound in hostile territory. It’s time to start acting like it. Just because Earth is the homeworld doesn’t mean it’s going to be any more hospitable to us than anywhere else.”

“I get it, Lang, but-”

He pulled the mission log recorder out of its leg pocket and shoved it at Dex. “Do you want this? Because I seem to recall that you and Priss were pretty eager not to get stuck with it. Was it because of shit like this? Was it this fucking shit you wanted to avoid?”

Dex looked down and away. “It was this fucking shit.”

“Thought so,” Lang muttered, shoving the log back in its pocket and sealing it. An uncomfortable silence fell around the van for a minute. After letting his temper settle Lang tapped the mystery lever and said, “Why this set up for the thruster activation?”

With a deep inhale Dex shook himself off and looked back at the setup. “It’s a simple connection point. We can let the thruster computer we pulled do most of the think work that needs to happen, so long as you tie it into your AI it should fire thrusters in the direction you’re steering whenever you pull the lever. It’s pretty much the best access point for the system that doesn’t require us to try and parse the van’s onboard computer language and patch it in that way. We could try that, of course, but it’s another point of failure for the system. And we’ve already got two.”


“The van chassis isn’t built to handle the kind of stress the thrusters put on it. And, even nanosealed to the chassis, there’s a chance the thrusters will rip free when you fire them, so I guess that’s kind of two problems.”

“I assume there’s another one coming?”

Yes.” Dex kicked the underbody of the vehicle. “We’ve attached the thrusters to the bottom of the chassis. Because that was the only way to secure them to it safely. But it also raises the possibility that they’ll knock the van airborne when fired. And it isn’t built for hard landings, either.”

“So switching them on can kill us in any one of three fantastic ways already,” Lang mused. “Why run the risk of dying because they won’t work?”

“That’s the logic, yeah.”

It was a good argument. “Is there anything else we need to do if we don’t change the control system?”

“Not really. Just close it up and she’ll be ready to leave tomorrow.”

“Then do it. We leave for Priss’ datahub first thing in the morning. And have Priss take stock of our supplies and work out how long they’ll last with the dietary needs of our prisoners factored in.” Lang turned and stalked towards the building, mood still foul. Priss looked up when he burst through the door but didn’t try to stop him as he took the stairs up, buried in his own thoughts.

The roof of the library was a flat, unadorned stretch of gravel punctuated by pipes of unknown material and purpose. Other than the small room at the top of the stairs that held long dormant machinery there wasn’t anything that approached a significant feature. Lang found the bleak solitude peaceful, and he’d been enjoying it for the last hour or so, since he’d left the others after dinner. The Terran sunset was much more spectacular than what they got on Copernicus. Probably something to do with the cloud cover – the terraformers were still trying to work out the nuances of a healthy water cycle back home. By definition, Earth already had it perfected.

The last streaks of sun were fading from the clouds when the door to the roof swung open and Sean wobbled over to join him.

“Should you be up and about?” Lang asked.

“Probably not, according to Priss.” He slumped down, elbows braced on the ledge that ran around the roof. “Surprised you bothered asking. Is the health of prisoners a major concern for you spacers?”

“Hm. In general, I suppose. It can’t be priority one all the time but it’s not like we don’t think about it.”

Sean shook his head and went back to staring at the sun for a moment. “What would it take to convince you to send Aubrey back?”

“That’s not generally how prisoner exchanges work,” Lang said slowly. “And it’s not a thing I’m willing to consider out of the goodness of my heart, either.”

“I don’t care about prisoner exchanges or whatever. I’m willing to do all your maintenance work on the van until you get where you’re going. Dex can work oversight-”

“I appreciate the thought and, believe me I understand why you’re making the offer but I don’t intend to treat either of you as anything other than prisoners of war.” The last reflections of Sol were fading from the clouds above and the sky was getting dark so he turned from the scenery to his prisoner. “That’s not a threat or even a downgrade, really. Prisoners of war are entitled to very well defined treatment. We’ll feed you, keep you out of combat, even pay you for any work you do if-”

“Sapiens don’t use shit like money,” Sean said derisively. “It wouldn’t be worth anything. Why not-”

“Fine,” Lang snapped. “I wasn’t about to offer you work anyway, as you might have already guessed. I don’t care about your fucking holier than thou sapiens shit. I’m trying to explain how things are going to be going forwards. It’s important that these forms be observed, Mr. Wilson.”

“And why the fuck is that?” Sean pulled himself to his feet, wobbled a bit, then leaned back down against the ledge again, whatever movement he’d been about to try aborted. “No one on Earth cares about this shit, Corporal Langley.”

“Maybe. But one thing I know for sure about colonial governments, Sean.” He leaned in close to the off balance man, making him shrink down and away. “They can’t let people go off the reservation. By which I mean, betray the government or what it stands for. When people do that, they’re punished, and treason is usually punished by death.”

“Capital punishment is-”

I don’t care!” Lang adjusted his voice down from a yell before he continued. “I suspect your vaunted UNIGOV is bound by the same necessity as those of the Triad worlds – hell, even Rodenberry has executed a few people and they’re almost as sanctimonious as you. And what I know with absolute certainty is that they can kill any of you with that damn medical nanotech whenever they want.”

He pulled himself upright again and turned away, letting the stress bleed off a bit before he went on. “Look, I know you didn’t come out here for trouble and I’m sorry we’re the disaster that fell in your lap. But operational parameters call for me to get home in any way I can, with the smallest civilian impact possible. I want you and Aubrey to go home, but I can’t run the risk that letting you help us and then walk away will get you branded collaborators. You’ll be treated as prisoners of war, within the Triad Conventions, and be formally returned to your government at the earliest opportunity. That’s the best I can do for you.”

As Lang walked to the stairway door he heard Sean push of the ledge and take a few uncertain steps across the roof, saying, “Come on, Lang, that’s stupid. UNIGOV is a sapiens structure not – dammit, Langley, listen – ” A frustrated growl cut off the protest. Lang ignored it and stepped back inside, headed towards the stairs. Behind him echoed Sean’s parting, “Yeah, fuck you, too.

“Our prisoners are pretty tight lipped today,” Priss said.

After a second argument on the subject of prisoners with Dex that morning Lang really wasn’t in the mood to cover the subject again. He was about out of diplomacy, too. “Just because we’re away from the others doesn’t mean you won’t piss me off questioning this, Priss.”

“Who died and made you LT?” She muttered, going back to trying to dump the datahub.

He thought about reminding her that she, too, had passed on being the one in charge. Had practically pushed it on him.

First rule of space: Bitching helps nothing.

He walked away from the cluster of consoles where Priss was working to check on the jury-rigged power feed. When they’d arrived half an hour ago they’d found that the building basically just lacked power to run all the computers inside. The tech itself had basically been shut down and abandoned, much like many of the cars they’d seen in their drive over. Once again Lang wondered what, exactly, had happened forty years ago to leave the city entirely abandoned. With the new hostility between himself and the Terrans he doubted he’d get a clear answer by asking. Hopefully something in the datahub’s files could help.

Their portable generator was enough to get a few of the computers running and the patchwork connection they’d scraped together was holding up for the moment. They were eating through fuel at an alarming rate but hopefully the solar panels on the van could make up for the power shortfall a little bit. It’d take some more tinkering.

“I’m in.”

Lang pulled himself out of the mental bookkeeping and hurried back over to look over her shoulder. “Let me see.”

“I’m just going to dump these drives as fast as I can,” Priss said, holodisplays flickering hypnotically as her AI worked to parse all the information pouring in. “Anything I should filter for?”

It did make more sense to grab everything so they could digest it at their leisure. “Grab current events or historical documents first. Then technical information. Then whatever’s left.”

She nodded and kept working. Lang moved over to one of the robocrates, fishing for portable data storage to swap for the drive Priss was using once it filled. He’d just found one that read as mostly empty when the cast of the hololight behind him switch from a peaceful greenblue to an angry red. He bolted upright and said, “What happened?”

“I don’t know. Some kind of lockout is trying to kick in. The AI is keeping it back so we’ve still got access but something’s also wiping the files.” Priss was working overtime but Lang knew she wasn’t trained in infotech warfare. Suddenly the building around them came to life, dormant machines kicking to life for reasons unknown. “Shit. Wiping all the files. Some kind of malware buried in the – Fuck.”

“What?” Lang tried to parse everything happening on her holodisplay but most of it was unfamiliar screens. He was completely lost. So he went with his gut. “Is there some kind of self-destruct in this facility?”

“No. But it just radioed someone somewhere.” Priss glanced up. “My guess is, UNIGOV did not want anyone digging through the past, and they installed a failsafe to wipe the data and tell them someone was here if anyone tried.”

“Break off, pack up.” He was already keying the generator’s remote shutdown. “It’s time for us to go.”

On to Chapter Ten

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Eight: The Off Switch

Return to Chapter Seven

“We might have turned him off.”

Lang stared at Priss in disbelief. “Again. Only make sense please.”

She nodded, pacing nervously through the mostly empty room in the far corner of what they’d surmised were the library’s management offices. “We were looking at the nanotech samples Dex got from Sean, right? Dex knows a fair bit about our nanotech logic, since so much work on weapons and other advanced electronics requires nanotools. And Sam – you know Sam Greenwald from Armstrong’s comm division?” Lang nodded his recognition of the name. “He did some programming work on the last set of upgrades we did before we left Copernicus and I assisted as part of my last evaluation. Between the two of us we actually know more about nanotech logic than infotech programming so-”

“Priss, I know your pedigrees in the field of study. Get to what happened please.”

“Right. So the point is, nanotech has to be very, very conservative in the way it uses space. That limits the hardware architecture in ways conventional computers aren’t, which, in turn, limits the basic principles behind software engineering. They haven’t changed much in the past two hundred years, so we were able to crack the basic programming much faster than we could with that.” She gestured to the pile of equipment they’d been using to try and crack into the local Internet. “It’s actually very simple stuff, in theory anyway. We’re pretty sure it’s built to mimic the body’s natural processes in repair and immune system function and we’re guessing it learns what to do using DNA as a starting point.

“So it doesn’t need to be programmed or require any outside source of instruction or control.” Lang nodded absently. That would go a long way to explaining why both their prisoners had it. “What does it run off of?”

“Again, not sure but Dex thinks it draws power from the body’s natural metabolic processes. He mentioned seeing a lot of food in their packs when he searched them, thinks they may need more calories per day than us as a result of the upgrade.” Priss waved that off and kept pacing. “Not important. What is interesting is that there are a few preprogrammed instruction sequences in the setup and one of them is very clearly an off switch.”

“And an on switch, one would presume.”

“They’re actually the same switch, as it turns out. But at the time we were looking at it, it so happens that it was an off switch. Because the nanotech was on.”

“Not when I looked at it.”

“Yes, because it had left Sean’s body and thus, it’s source of power. But once we put it in a properly calibrated magnetic field from one of our nanolathes it reactivated almost immediately.” She shrugged. “It was a bit surprising and a little worrying so we immediately hit the off switch. Then you radioed and said Sean had collapsed.”

“And you think those two are connected?” Lang shook his head. “They’d have to be linked somehow.”

“Dex thinks quantum entanglement. I’m going with magic. About the same thing, really. But!” She held up a finger before he could get his next objection out. “We tripped the same switch again before I ran out to see you and Sean was already recovering. And I scanned the nanotech in his bloodstream as soon as I arrived. It was going through the same start-up sequence we saw the stuff in our sample do when we reenergized it. It restarted with the batch here.”

“Which raises the question…” He mused to himself. “Why have an off switch on a lifesaving system if the side effects include passing out, especially since that system is likely to activate in times of extreme danger?”

Priss took a deep breath and slowly let it back out. “It’s my opinion, based on what I saw on the scanners when I first examined him out in the parking lot and when I scanned him again after we brought him inside, that if Sean’s nanotech were to suddenly go inert, the quantities of it that exist in his brainstem and cerebellum would be sufficient to completely impede neural activity there. And if left alone for prolonged periods of time, that kind of impediment would be fatal.”

Suddenly the question of why was more than just academic. “Fatal. That’s your medical opinion?”

“As a triage medic, not a doctor, much less one familiar with medical nanotech, but yes, that’s my opinion. And!” She plopped down in a corner, seeming more relaxed now that she’d shared what was on her mind. “I did check when I examined Sean, he’s not in any danger of long term effects. When it’s active that medical nanotech is really good at its job.”

“That just makes the whole off switch business make even less-” He stopped, because he suddenly realized that as wrong.

“What?” Priss sat up a bit straighter, curiosity writ across her face. “Did you figure out why the off switch is there?”

“Did you find anything analyzing the nanotech that could help you crack into Earth’s Internet?” Lang asked.

“No.” She was clearly miffed at the way he’d ignored her question but too disciplined to comment. “Like I said, the tech itself looks very basic, not much onboard programming.”

“Then get back to trying to crack that. Lock up the nanotech sample for now, I don’t want any more accidents like before.” Lang turned away and paced into the depths of the building for a bit to think.


“So are hot blondes common in Traffic Control on Earth?” Dex was sitting on a couch, his feet up on an empty bookshelf, watching as Aubrey sorted through food containers from her pack.

“Hot… blondes?” She repeated the words once or twice, trying to sort them into something that made sense, then gave up trying to parse space idioms. “To tell the truth, the Traffic Control AI does most of the work, so those of us who work on the human side of things are pretty rare all around. The local branch has sixteen people, not counting our manager.”

“Of course.” Dex gave her a funny look  but let her finish her inventory before speaking again. “Is there an issue with your food supply?”

“No. Not exactly.” She started repacking most of it, setting aside a handful of carefully chosen  packages and containers. “We build a certain buffer into what we pack, because there are accidents out here, even when we don’t run into martians in the middle of rummaging through old cars. Whenever the medinano kicks in it burns calories fast. Something like the cut from earlier probably isn’t that big a deal but passing out like that… I don’t know how much that took out of him. Sean’s going to be hungry when  he wakes up, but probably not enough to fuck with our food supply.”

“About how many calories a day do you usually eat?”

It was a weird question but with a quick mental tally Aubrey was able to come up with a fairly accurate number. “Four thousand to forty five hundred. Why?”

“Curious. That’s about fifty to a hundred and fifty percent more than what the average spacer eats.” He shrugged. “With the kind of figure you got it’s no wonder everyone wanted medical nanotech. You can eat whatever you want!”

“Well, it’s not like we can eat grass.” She rolled her eyes and got to her feet, moving the food closer to Sean and taking a moment to ease off her shoes. “And appropriate medical care is-”

“Does no one on your planet flirt, woman?!” Dex yanked himself into a sitting position, thumping his boots onto the floor emphatically. “Seriously, it’s like you’ve been coated in banter-proof teflon. What’s your problem?”

“Besides the crazy martian thing?” Dex nodded a very sarcastic ‘yeah’. “Probably the fact that I didn’t recognize half those idioms. And really, who flirts anymore? It’s one of those crazy male things most people have balanced out.”

“Now I’m lost. Someone should put together a cultural primer for all this stuff.” He flopped back in his seat. “How does the U.S. deal with other cultures now? Or is there a primer of some sort out in the Internet somewhere?”

“Earth hasn’t really had distinct cultures since the sapiens established UNIGOV.” Aubrey shrugged. “Most of our differences were driven by martian cultural narratives, anyway.”

Dex threw his head back and laughed, a deep and surprisingly resonant laugh for an otherwise wiry man. “Now that I find hard to believe.”

“I’m serious,” Aubrey said. “Look, martians – at least here on Earth – had a lot of weird hangups about culture and social norms. They insisted the masculine virtues be supreme over all others. I mean, just look at your team. You’re all hardnosed and stoic, no room for expression at all, even Priss.”

“Hardnosed. Like hardassed?” Dex muttered to himself for a moment before waving it off. “Sure, operational discipline is integral to being a spacer. But you’re not taking situations into account. Situations require different parts of us be at the front. We’re lost in terra incognita. It’s a very male situation that kind of requires stoicism. Now last year at the Armstrong’s Christmas party?” Dex grinned. “Let me tell you, Priss was pretty female then.”

Thank you, Dex. Now stop being an intolerable douche and patrol something.” Priss came around the end of the bookshelves, her gearbag slung under one arm. “I’m done in the back, so I can take over here.”

Dex didn’t even bother to look chagrined at being overheard. “Just saying how you’re definitely the most womanly woman on the Armstrong, Priss. You get anything off the Net?”

“I can make our AI talk to it now, yeah.” She tossed the bag on a couch and fished out her medical scanner. “And I know where we can find a sorta working datahub. But until we go there and physically interface there’s nothing more I can do.”

“Sounds like a cue for me to go look at the van.” Dex rubbed his hands gleefully. “I’ve got some ideas for upgrades. I’ve always wanted to put space thrusters on a ground vehicle…”

“What?” Aubrey looked at Priss in horror. “Is he sane?”

“You have to fail a mental health evaluation just to get considered for armory duty,” Priss muttered, running a scanner over Sean. “Knowing Dex, it’s been a dream since childhood.”

“She’s not wrong.” Dex started gathering his gear, chuckling to himself.

Aubrey kept her mind on Priss and trying to figure out what she was doing. Aubrey had never had an interest in medicine but she was hoping that, if push came to shove, she could figure out enough to use the martian’s medical devices. She was about to ask Priss about the scanner, figuring she’d told the martians enough about local tech it was about time she got some reciprocity, when she realized Dex was looming over the two of them.

Except when she looked up it wasn’t Dex, it was Lang, looking down and the two women and Sean with his increasingly common distant, reptilian expression. She squeaked involuntarily and scooted away a bit before regaining control of herself.

“Good. You’re all here.” Lang drew himself up a bit and let out a breath she hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “I want to leave as early tomorrow as we can.”

“Sure thing, boss,” Dex said cheerily. “I’ve got a list of the maintenance the van needs from Sean and I think I can figure most of it out from here. A couple of hours this afternoon should have that done and the upgrades I want to make won’t be more than another hour or so. We could leave this evening in a pinch.”

“Tomorrow morning is fine,” Lang said.

“If Aubrey gives me a hand we might even be able to send them on their way tonight,” Dex said. “We-”

“No.” Lang folded his hands behind his back. “I don’t want them working on the van anymore. And when we leave, we’re taking them with us. From this point forth I think it’s best that we view them as prisoners of war.”

On to Chapter Nine

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Seven – The Blood

Return to Chapter Six

The bloody rag landed on top of the rat’s nest of computer equipment, connections and tools Lang was tinkering with. He put his AI down with a sigh and gingerly picked up the rag, thankful for the gloves on his evac suit. Looking from the rag to Dex he asked, “Is it that time of the month already?”

“Not why Priss left,” Dex said, “she’s taking over with the prisoners.”

“I wasn’t asking about Priss.”

“Ha. Ha.” Dex held out a nanoscanner for him to take. “That’s Sean’s blood.”

Lang froze in the middle of syncing it to his AI. “Why was he bleeding?”

“Relax,” Dex said, putting his hands up defensively, “he just cut himself on one of the parts. Nanosealer edges. Fuck, man, you think I beat it out of him or something?”

“Fine, okay, he slipped and cut himself. I guess you dragged Priss out there to patch him up?”

“No, the cut already healed.” Dex pointed at the rag emphatically. “Scan it.”

The words didn’t seem to make sense when said in that order but Lang understood an imperative when he heard one and playing along seemed like the fastest way to get an idea of what Dex was getting at. With a flick of the fingers he brought up the AI interface, already defaulting to the recently synced nanoscanner, and opened the display. Once he was sure it was running and Dex hadn’t preloaded something in some sort of prank, he ran a scan of the rag.

The blood on it was full of inert nanotech.

“Shit,” Lang whispered. “Medical nanotechnology.”

“It’s smaller than the finest nanolathes we’ve built by a factor of ten,” Dex said. “I had to recalibrate the nanoscanner to find it at all. But once I knew what to look for, it was pretty easy to find. Especially since both our prisoners are crawling with the stuff.”

“Both?” Lang looked up from the display. “Did Aubrey hurt herself, too?”

“No. I think this is just standard issue stuff.” Dex flipped open his own AI and started flicking through information faster than Lang could track it. “For one thing, neither of them were surprised when his cut closed in a couple of seconds. It’s a commonplace thing for them to see bad cuts disappear in seconds. So I’d be surprised if it’s not standard issue for most people on Earth.”

“That’s a hell of a thing to drop on everyone in your society,” Lang said, going back to the readout.

“Maybe not. I ran some rough numbers.” He stopped on the screen in question. “Using what I picked up on Aubrey and Sean as a ballpark, just one Olympus Mons class orbit ship like the Sea of Tranquility has enough raw materials in it to synthesize that kind of medical nanotech for eight billion people. And there are a dozen orbit ships of that size in the Copernican fleet alone.”

“But the engineering expertise-”

“Is pretty amazing. But not necessarily greater than it took to quadruple the effectiveness of superluminal drives, terraform Copernicus Major or navigate the gravitational maze of Galileo’s lunar belt. Besides,” Dex grinned, “I’ve already got an idea how it works. Once we crack this stuff we can use it ourselves.”

“Assuming we get back to report,” Lang conceded. He got up and went over to the robocrates and dug around until he found a medkit and a sample bag.

“Wait, before you bag that I want to get a sample to work with,” Dex said, coming over to fish a number of nanotools out of the crate as well. “There has to be some kind of similarities between their nanotech computer logic and their global computer infrastructure. Maybe that could help Priss crack the programming barriers between our tech and theirs.”

“Good thinking. You get that sample, I’ll send Priss in to work on it with you. I can watch the prisoners for a bit.” Lang got to his feet, feeling oddly light. For the first time since the Armstrong had been hit he felt like he had a handle on what needed to happen next.

“I thought Dex was coming back.” Aubrey tossed the old part she’d been working on into the box and fished the motor lube out of her pack.

“I needed him and Priss working on something inside,” Lang told her. “So you’re stuck with me.”

“Hope you know something about how these tool work,” Sean said from under the hood. “Priss said she didn’t do this kind of work much and kept getting us the wrong tools. Dex at least knew what everything you brought was and what it was supposed to do.”

“His primary mission specialty is mechanical,  hers isn’t. Neither is mine, for that matter, but my secondary specialty is and, again, hers isn’t.” Lang sat down on the rusting, brush covered remains of a bench and watched the two of them warily. Aubrey had noticed he seemed to have the most caution of the three martians, which would have been respectable if he didn’t seem to apply it solely to the only two sapiens he knew. “Gotta admit I’m a little… confused by this.”

Aubrey gave him a quizzical look. “What?”

“You two… helping. It’s not traditionally what prisoners do.” His eyes narrowed slightly in that unsettling, I’m-guessing-what-you’re-thinking way he had. “We’ll be checking all your work, of course.”

“Check all you want,” she replied, annoyed. “We’re sapiens. Helping each other along is what we do.”

“And it gets you out of our hair.” Sean held up a nanosealer around the hood of the van. “Can I use this thing to insulate electrical connections or will I have to do that the old fashioned way?”

“As long as you can fit the field projector around it and provide it with a sample of your insulation it should work,” Lang replied. “I’ll be glad to get out of your hear as soon as I can. This was supposed to be a peaceful mission, you know.”

“Then why all the guns?” Aubrey asked, voice and posture hostile.

“It’s standard operating procedure,” he said with a touch of amusement. “It’s a dangerous galaxy out there, between the space pirates and the anti-contact movement there were a lot of people who didn’t want us coming back to Earth. Add in the fact that we still don’t know if there’s alien life out there or if it’s friendly or not, prudence dictates we travel with weapons. How else would we go about it?”

“You could just stay home.” Aubrey pulled out a wrench and set to work pulling a panel off the inside of the vehicle. “Why bother coming out here at all?”

“Probably the same reasons you and Sean came out to an abandoned city. Curiosity, adventure, a need for something you hoped to find.” Lang got up and moved a bit closer to the van, angling so he could watch what she was doing. “Changing the subject… what-”

“Am I doing? Checking the solar panel connections.” She pulled the panel out and set it aside, then tapped on the exposed cables with the end of her wrench. “This thing isn’t primarily solar powered but even the secondary power can spark and cause problems if the connections have gone bad. What were you looking for?”

Lang shrugged, watching as she diligently disconnected each cable before hooking it up to a diagnostic tool. She was just starting to feel uncomfortable when he said, “Earth, mostly. I don’t know what happened here after The Departure but we were supposed to receive messages from the homeworld every three months. I don’t think any of them ever arrived. We’d always wondered, you know? What happened? Why did we never hear from Earth? Did the message pods just fail? Was there something in the way? Were aliens intercepting them? Or had the population of Earth disappeared somewhere? Were the Triad colonies the only humans left in the galaxy?”

Lang didn’t look out of sorts as he said them but the questions filled Aubrey with a profound sense of unease. “I guess I can see why that would be… compelling.”

“Look, I get that you don’t seem to know any more than we do about what happened that ended with us forgotten here at home. If you had history records that were easier to access it would be easier for us to figure out what’s going on but you don’t and that’s not your very own personal responsibility anyway. But a whole lot of somethings went wrong between The Departure and now, the Armstrong getting fragged not the least of them.” Lang shrugged eloquently. “We’re all gonna be under a lot of stress ’til it gets sorted, but it’s nothing personal. Okay?”

“Sure. Fine.” She went back to fiddling with the solar cables, feeling oddly more at ease than a moment ago, but not sure she wanted Lang to know it.

Fortunately she was saved from further conversation when Sean poked his head around the side of the van and said, “Hey, I need to pull the motor block out to get at the brake pump. I could use an extra hand, assuming you don’t just want to strap into one of those exoskeletons and pull it out one handed or something.”

Lang gave him a side eye, that distant, calculating side back all of a sudden, then he said, “Sure. The exo sounds like the best approach, I’ll get-”

The sentence ended with a startled yelp as Lang lunged forward to catch Sean, who teetered and slumped to the ground unexpectedly. “Shit. Sean? Hey, snap out of it.”

Aubrey scrambled out of the van and over to her friend, now laid gently on the concrete, and took his pulse. Lang had already rolled him halfway up on his back, looked him over and set him back down and now he got to his feet, quietly speaking into some part of his collar. “Priss, Sean just collapsed. I need you out here pronto.”

The stubby barrel of his weapon was up and slowly scanning across the landscape as he did a complete 180 degree turn, his eyes focused in the middle distance. Priss arrived in a shockingly short time, from her shortness of breath and the beads of sweat standing out on her forehead she’d sprinted the whole way. The holodisplay the martians referred to as their AI and another piece of equipment were still in her hands and, as she slid to her knees to look Sean over, she actually switched them on and started looking Sean over. A second later he took a very deep breath and his eyes fluttered.

Priss switched the devices off and rocked back on her heels. “I think he’s going to be okay, but we should move him inside for a bit while he recovers. Get him out of the sun.”

Lang reached down and plucked the second device from her hand, turned it over once, and straightened back up. The hard eyed, unknowable martian was back in full force again. “You and Aubrey do that. I’ll send Dex to relieve you, and then I think we need to have a talk. In private.”

Proceed to Chapter Eight

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Six – The Van

Chapter Five

“Hm.” Lang looked over the results of his AI’s work again.

“What?” Dex asked, looking up from the robocrate of parts he’d scavenged from the drop pod. “Find something useful?”

“No. At least, I don’t think so. Just an odd inconsistency.” He cleared the AI display and brushed his breakfast off of his hands. “We need to think about-”

“Hold on,” Priss said, setting aside her own breakfast and reaching for his AI unit. “Let me see.”

Lang sighed and pulled the screen back up with a few quick motions. “It’s probably just an editorial choice. It was a tourist’s guide to a city, not a historical book…”

“But it did have a section on the history of Milan,” Priss said, looking over the results. “And it didn’t mention the brief residence of Benito Mussolini during the Second World War. Okay, that doesn’t sound that important…”

Dex slammed the crate closed and banged his head gently on the lid. “St. Aquinas save me from the uneducated. Do neither of you know who Benito Mussolini was?”

“Nope.” Priss shot Lang a questioning glance. He just shrugged.

“We. Are. Doomed.” Dex punctuated each word with another thump of cranium on lid, then somehow snapped all the way from squatting on the ground to standing at parade rest. “Aubrey Vance! Sean Wilson! Front and center!”

There was a moment of quiet noise from the corner where the Terran prisoners had spent the night before the people in question gathered themselves up and came to see what was going on. They looked groggy but alert, Lang guessed they hadn’t been awake for more than ten minutes, where his spacers had been awake and active for nearly an hour.

“What’s going on?” Sean asked, giving Lang a dirty look. He’d apparently figured out who was in charge and decided to blame him for all problems rather than taking them to Dex directly.

If the prisoner’s annoyance bothered him any Dex didn’t show it. “Please explain to these two ignoramuses who Benito Mussolini was.”

The Terrans gave Dex mystified looks. For a moment they looked so much alike that Lang had to laugh. “Priss, you and I need to poke into the computer systems and related equipment. This place has been empty for a while but we may be able to glean something about how the local computer infrastructure works. Dex, we need some kind of transport. See what you can find. Don’t sweat Mussolini too much.”

Two hours later, Dex still hadn’t let go of Mussolini. Sort of. “He was the most influential man of the twentieth century,” Dex said, exasperated, “how could you not know who he is?”

“The only Adolf I know works in the European Traffic Control Center,” Sean said. “But he’s not three hundred years and change and he’s never tried to take over the world. He’s a sapiens, same as the rest of us.”

“Not all of us,” Dex said cheerily. “You’ve seriously never had to learn about World War Two?”

“For the third time. We’ve never heard of it.” Aubrey was tired of the whole line of thought. “Look, when the last homo martians disappeared and left the sapiens with the planet a lot of stuff stopped being an issue. War was one of them, so we stopped studying it. Why keep dredging up such a destructive past?”

“Because you can learn from it?” Dex’s response seemed almost reflexive. “Nevermind that. What do you mean martians disappeared? I thought you said Earth had two varieties of humanity.”

“The last martians seem to have died out or killed each other off about two hundred years ago somewhere in Asia or Siberia.” Sean led the other two around a wild hedge to the side of a towering four story building. It consisted of drab concrete layers stacked one on top of another with ramps connecting them and it took up most of the city block. “Their disappearance is what made room for the sapiens to establish UNIGOV. This is the garage. About half the vehicles in here still work, to some extent. Vintage parts in good condition, not much refurbishment needed. I’ve salvaged parts here before, rarely had a problem with them.”

Dex waved them through the large entrance and in they went. By now Aubrey was used to the standoffish way the martians handled them. Sean always went first and she followed, with one of the martians close behind and watching carefully. The scrutiny was unsettling and odd. She wasn’t sure what they were looking for but she was pretty sure they weren’t finding it. Hopefully that annoyed them as much as the whole sidetrip they’d forced her on annoyed her.

The climb to the second floor of the parking garage was quiet, a welcome change compared to the rest of the morning, which had been full of prying questions about obscure events more than three centuries ago that neither she nor Sean could answer. Aubrey had just fallen into the habit of assessing the vehicles they way Sean had taught her when Dex spoke up and said, “That one. That one will do nicely. Can we get it running?”

“I couldn’t say for sure but it doesn’t look like it’s condition is bad.” Sean stepped over to the vehicle and dropped to the ground, sliding most of his skinny frame under the chassis without difficulty. “Aubrey, could you pop the hood? The sooner these gentlemen are on their way…”


She’d moved over to the driver’s side door and reached to open it when Dex asked, “When did the local martian population die out? Was it about two hundred years ago?”

“That’s right.” She paused, hand on the latch, and gave him a quizzical look. “How did you know?”

“Lucky guess.” He stepped back and watched them work thoughtfully.

“What the fuck is that?!”

“The technical term is panel van.” Sean clambered out of the driver’s seat and gestured to the titular panels on the side of the vehicle. “It’s a kind of large passenger vehicle-”

“We have vans on Copernicus,” Lang snapped. “I want to know why this one’s here!”

“Because it’s a good form of transportation,” Dex said, hopping out of the back and slamming the rear doors closed. “It’s got room for all of the equipment and the three of us and it can carry it without being slowed down. Plus I have a few other ideas for what we can do to make it serviceable. Also on the plus side, Sean here has done work on this kind of vehicle before and assures me it’s in pretty good condition. He’s going to help us put it in shape to go long distances. As an added plus it’s solar powered, so we won’t have to hook it into a grid.”

“Solar powered?” Lang gave the thing a hard once over. “Surprised they still make those. Did Earth forget how to build fusion reactors along with its world wars?”

“It was a fad some sixty years ago, back at the tail end of UNIGOV’s environmental reclamation initiative,” Aubrey explained, unloading a box from the side door. “Retro envirotech was hip for a while, although most people stopped with solar cars after the urban consolidation made publicly managed transport more sensible.”

“You know an awful lot about this,” Lang noted.

“We work in the Transporation Administration AI offices,” Sean said, popping open the van’s hood. “It’s how I learned there were all these perfectly functional cars out here to tinker with. Some people like their retro transport and get their antique cars hooked into the system from time to time. I asked where they got parts from and here we are.”

“Here we are,” Aubrey muttered, unloading a second box of parts.

Sounded like some kind of unexplored baggage there. Lang decided he didn’t want to get involved in that conversation even though he was probably part of the cause. “Do you really need all that stuff? I’m surprised it ran at all.”

“We’re going a ways,” Dex said. “I want to make sure this thing is in tip top shape before we hit the road. It might make it around the block a few times but Sean thinks there are a few major parts in there that only have a hundred miles or so in them.”

“Hm.” Lang glanced at the two Terrans, who appeared grudgingly busy and ignoring them for the moment. “A moment in private, Corporal?”

He hated to bring rank into this but it got Dex’s attention like he’d intended. “Sure.”

They move over to the covered colonnade outside the library entrance where they could watch the Terrans work but still enjoyed a modicum of privacy. “Keep in mind,” Lang said, “you’re guarding prisoners, not supervising a work crew. I don’t want you crawling under a chassis with these people.”

“I hear you, big guy, but from talking to them…” Dex gave them a weirdly protective glance. “They’re strange. It’s like one moment I’m talking to a starry eyed idealist, the next they’re petulant teenagers. But they insist Earth doesn’t fight wars anymore and they seem damn proud of that fact. It’s like someone’s squeezed the whole notion of conflict out of their world entirely.”

“Which doesn’t mean the instincts are gone. Or make them trustworthy.” Lang thumped him in the chest to get his attention back. “Hey, remember. Even Rodenberry puts weapons on their ships. Even if they don’t want to fight, people do all kinds of things they don’t want to under pressure. And believe you me, whether we want to or not we’re putting them under pressure.”

“Right. You’re right. I’ll keep on my toes.”

“Do that.”

Aubrey squatted down next to Sean and said, “They were too far or too quiet this time. I couldn’t hear what they were saying.”

“Me neither. Being outdoors must’ve messed with the acoustics.” He pushed himself out from under the car and reached into the parts box to rummage around for a moment. “Either way, I don’t think it changes our priorities. We need to get them out of here and off chasing whatever ghosts they think are out in the desert as soon as possible. Let’s just – shit!

He dropped the power relay he’d been fishing out of the box, his hand bleeding furiously from the two inch cut across his palm. In a scrape of boots on pavement Dex slid to a stop next to them, kneeling down with a concerned look. “Damn, that looks bad. I told you the nanosealer leaves sharp edges on stuff it’s not designed to disassemble.”

“I know, I forgot,” Sean muttered, taking the clean rag Aubrey held out to him. “I didn’t get any on the relay so there shouldn’t be any corrosion to worry about.”

“Great, fine,” Dex said, getting to his feet. “Now let’s get you in to Priss so she can look at that cut.”

Sean finished wiping the blood off his hand and blew on his palm once, shaking the sting out of it, then held his unmarked hand up for inspection. “It’s okay, martian man. I’m fine. Your nanosealer heated it enough it should be sterile so there shouldn’t be any infection to worry about.”

Mouth hanging open, Dex watched as he fished the part out of the box, dropped to the ground and crawled under the van again. Aubrey waited to see if he had something else to add and, when it was clear he didn’t, she shrugged and started collecting another set of parts from the box.

Chapter Seven

Schrodinge’s Book Chapter Five: The Library

Chapter Four

All three floors of the building were much the same. Empty shelves, dust and rotting furniture. After getting down on their hands and knees and searching under every bookshelf and every piece of furniture, Lang and Dex had managed to scrape together a grand total of six books stuck in odd corners or otherwise forgotten. Priss had kept an eye on the prisoners while setting up the perimeter scanners and laying out some of the basic camp gear and by the time the two men got back with their haul the least damaged pieces of furniture were pushed into a small circle in the corner of the second floor furthest from the windows. Priss was quietly working with her AI, probably trying to scrape together some kind of program that would let them tap a communications network they were totally unfamiliar with in a way that would evade notice.

Frankly, he was more optimistic about the books they’d collected than her odds of success. That wasn’t saying much.

Aubrey and Sean had squeezed themselves into the deepest corner of the room and were watching Priss with a hefty amount of suspicion. On the way over he’d spent a lot of time arguing with Priss over whether they could be trusted or not. Priss felt they were too docile and compliant to be a real problem, and furthermore thought that calling them “martian” was almost the same thing as calling them “martial”, suggesting the culture had distanced itself from war to the point where violence wasn’t something they were psychologically prepared for anymore. He felt that that was a stupid risk to take when they were the only three spacers on planet with a hostile defense satellite network between them and their fleet.

The compromise was that Priss would keep her carbine with her at all times while watching them, and wouldn’t answer any questions about the fleet or the Triad worlds, but she wouldn’t have to restrain them. For the moment. They were starting to pose a lot of logistical questions, though, and he wasn’t sure how they were going to deal with them going forward. So, once he’d stacked all the books on the end table Priss was working on, he moved over to the prisoners and took a seat, leaving one open space between them so they wouldn’t feel pressured.

“I think we need to talk a little about the future,” Lang said, figuring it was as good a place as any to start. “Simple things, like food. I know you brought some provisions, will you tell me how much?”

“We brought four days of food,” Aubrey answered. “This is our second day out.”

“You must be big eaters,” Dex said with a laugh.

Lang shot him a look but Aubrey just said, “Not really. Anyway, why does that matter?”

“We need to work a few things out before we’re ready to leave,” Lang said. “Just trying to work out what our situation is, how long we can last out here. Now, this probably isn’t going to make you very happy, but we’re not in a situation where we can let you go home until we’re ready to move on ourselves. I don’t know anything about this UNIGOV you keep bringing up but someone’s running a network of kill satellites out there and there must be some source of power and munitions for them down here. Until we know whether that’s your government or not we can’t let you report our presence, so we’re going to keep you here.”

“But,” Sean protested, eyebrows furrowed, “UNIGOV was founded to ensure the rights and interests of humanity. They’re not running killer satellites or anything of the kind.”

“Is it humanity or just homo sapiens?” Priss asked, her tone light but her face hard.

“Well, that’s all there was when it was founded,” Sean said, certainty faltering. “But I’m sure martians would be wrapped into that…”

“What I wanna know is how killer satellites aren’t in the interests of humanity,” Dex said. “Every planet needs at least two.”

“What, you leave high powered weapons in orbit of your home planet?” Aubrey asked, incredulous.

The spacers all laughed. Lang recovered first and said, “Of course. The Triad worlds fight wars, it’s natural to have defenses in place before they start.”

The expressions of the other two told him they didn’t exactly agree.

“So what happens if we don’t stay?” Sean demanded.

“Then we shot you.” Lang picked up one of the books and turned it over in his hands, a bit uncomfortable with putting it so bluntly. “I’m going to be totally honest with you, because I’m not an officer so no one taught me to lie to control information. I don’t believe for a second any of this shit about UNIGOV being out for the betterment of people, or how you sapiens don’t need defense satellites or whatever else you’re going to say. I’m one hundred percent certain someone on this planet, who was here before we arrived, fragged our ship in orbit. If I have to choose between killing locals or letting whoever wants to kill us know where we are, there’s no doubt in my mind which one I choose. That said, I don’t want to kill you. Or anyone. So if you just sit tight for a couple of days it won’t come to that.”

Sean looked horrified, but Lang could tell he was taking the warning seriously. Aubrey had something to say, he could tell by the way she inhaled and opened her mouth, but before she could actually say it Sean clamped a hand around her wrist and said, “We’ll stay with you until you’re ready to leave. But no way in hell am I going anywhere else with you. The history classes undersell how fucking crazy you guys are.”

“Well,” he shot Aubrey a meaningful look, “take your friend and sell her on the idea. Just don’t go too far.”
As the two of them moved towards the furthest corner of the building Lang gathered up the books and handed two of them to each of the other spacers, keeping the last two for himself. “Run those through your AIs, crunch the numbers and let me know what you come up with. Prioritize historical facts first, then see if you can get anything cultural off of them.”

Priss gave the smaller of her two books, a chunky paperback, a skeptical look. “This is a novel. The publication date is right after the Departure – it may even have been written before that. I don’t know how much help it’s going to be.”
“It will at least give a snapshot of what the culture was like at the time, viewed through Earth’s point of view,” Lang said. “I know it takes a pretty robust AI to glean much from fiction but you are the communications expert. They train you on more than just the hardware, so I need you to grab as much as you can.”

“I’ll take it as a gesture of faith,” Priss muttered.

“More than I can say,” Dex said, holding up one of his tomes with an aggrieved expression. “A phonebook? Really?”

“I didn’t pick the books they forgot when cleaning this place out. The AI will do most of the work for you.” Lang opened the first of his books – some kind of travel guide for a place called Milan – and started scanning the pages with his AI, flipping through rapidly as the camera processed the information far faster than the human eye could. As they worked he asked, “Priss, how likely is it we’ll be able to access any of their computer systems with what we have with us?”

“After nearly two centuries of divergent computer development?” She shook her head. “Odds approach zero. But if we can find something old we might be able to work something out. But even this place is probably too recent. If it was evacuated forty years ago the software is still going to be radically different. A ship’s AI core could probably work out some kind of emulator in a day or two but we’d have to bind all our AI’s together to do it inside of a month – probably. Assuming their tech is as advanced as ours. And a bunch of other provisos.”

“We need maps,” Lang muttered. “Our best bet on getting back into orbit on our own is to find the Nevada Launch Zone. But getting there without passing through any place with people in it might be tough.”

Dex shot him a sideways look. “The what?”

“It was a place where they did test launches on a lot of the equipment that build the lunar yards and the colony ships for Mars and the Triad worlds. At the time of the Departure it was still in use.” Lang shrugged. “It has all the facilities for the orbital jump or reentry. I can’t imagine they’d stop using it. It’s probably not the same place it was but we should at least be able to find some way to talk to the fleet there.”

“It’s not a secure facility?” Priss asked.

Lang laughed. “Are you kidding? It was located between the cities of Reno and Silver springs, with a whole new city called Clarke built in between them. The place was a mecca for anyone looking to go to space in the old days. Making the whole place a secure facility would take decades and need the income of a whole planet to pull off, even if the planet was as rich as Earth.”

“Right.” Priss shook her head. “You know all this how? You’ve been asking Dex where things are for the last twelve hours.”

“Because the Arthur C. Clarke Astrogation School is where every pilot in the colonial fleet learned to fly,” Lang said. “We’ve never forgot it.

The AI pinged, announcing it was done with its work, and he pulled up the results to see what he could see.

“They want to go to Nevada,” Sean whispered, watching the martians skeptically. “A weird choice, but fine. There’s nothing out there now, as far as I know, so let them go. The sooner they’re out of our hair the better.”

“What about letting UNIGOV know?” Aubrey wasn’t interested in the martians at all. “This whole mess is crazy, Sean. Those guys could cause al kinds of trouble if those in charge don’t take them in hand.”

“I know, I know.” Sean huddled down close and put an arm around her. “But UNIGOV protects the human parts of the world. If the martians want to go into the wilds, I don’t see that that’s something that concerns us. Or UNIGOV.”

Dex’s question about whether ‘human’ covered martians or not sprang to mind. UNIGOV existed for the benefit of all people. Surely leaving some of them to run off into the new wilds on their own was a dereliction of that responsibility. And if martians were really as dangerous as everyone said, leaving them unsupervised around sapiens seemed profoundly foolish as well. The question of what to do made her feel small and stupid and the warmth of Sean’s arm pressing down on her reminded her of the problems, becoming stifling. She shrugged it off and stood up. “I’m going to find some cushions to sleep on. We’ll decide what to do in the morning.”

But even when she managed to find enough smell free padding to make a decent bed sleep eluded her far into the night.

Chapter Six