The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Nineteen

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The ship’s hull ran aground with a spine shivering scrape that Lang felt from the pit of his stomach up into the base of his skull. Priss and Harrigan slammed forward against the straps of their chairs, bracing their hands against the panel. Lang stood at the pilot’s controls with no restraints, no seat and nothing but the front windscreen to stop him if he pitched forward off of the bridge. He grabbed the throttle in a death grip and threw his weight back.

For about three seconds this gambit worked and he leaned back over the deck at a sixty degree angle. Then the ship came to a stop and he flopped back onto his ass. “We’ve made landfall!” He called down to the main deck. He wasn’t sure what the appropriate nautical phrase for landfall was but hopefully Yang wouldn’t hold it against him. As he scrambled back to his feet he added, “Harry, Priss, head to your ground units.”

Priss, a veteran of many of the same rough landings he was, instantly hit her quick release and vacated the bridge. Harrigan was a little slower and less certain on his feet but he was gone fast enough. Lang scrabbled to his feet and hit the emergency shutdown command on his screen. Then he followed up by grabbing the physical shutdown lever and pulling it and set the ship’s computer to standby.

It was pretty doubtful the Fleet would want to recover the good yacht Armstrong but energy conservation discipline was a habit one could lose in a single moment of negligence so Lang waited just long enough to confirm the ship’s systems were, in fact, dormant before he left the bridge. The decks below were a mess.

Hard impacts were a part of space warfare just like any other kind of warfare but they were a lot rarer on a ship the size of the Sea of Tranquility. The spacers who’d come down in Lang’s group were mostly off of that ship and even those who had seen combat still weren’t used to the kind of shock that came with running aground. They lay scattered around the deck, struggling to get back to their feet and into fighting trim. Except for Captain Yang. She strode across the deck, bracing her armored exoskeleton and hauling other spacers to their feet like a Valkyrie rallying troops for Ragnarok. It would’ve been inspiring if they weren’t on the deck of the most luxurious ship Lang had ever seen.

Still, his evaluation of the captain went up a notch.

“Go, go, get to ground,” she snapped, pushing spacers towards the side of the ship. Inflatable slides, which were apparently some kind of emergency measure, were expanding off the decks towards the ground and a few adventurous souls had already slid down them and were securing the landing area around the ship.

Lang walked up to the captain and saluted. “Ma’am. The Armstrong is secure, or as secure as we can make it. Once engineering has the reactor shut down we’re ready to abandon ship.”

“Any chance we can reuse her?” Yang asked, doing a visual sweep of one of the yacht’s interior cabins.

“I have no idea without knowing how bad the hull damage was when we ran aground or how hard it will be to get her back into the water. This isn’t my area of expertise.”

“Understood. Get in an exo and grab your gear, then. You can be my expert on UNIGOV. I’ll meet you at forward observation point theta once the boat’s empty.”

“Yes ma’am.” Another salute and Lang hopped down a slide and hustled over to the staging zone which was beneath the world’s most overgrown willow tree.

As expected, the decorative plants lining the river bank and grown wild for decades since their abandonment. Towering shrubs, thick stands of decorative grass and three disheveled willow trees hid the Los Angeles Nuclear Fusion reactor building from view. Most of the company’s gear was already there. His AI pinged the equipment that the quartermaster had earmarked for him and the lights on one of the self propelled cases there flashed blue.

Lang opened it and an exoskeleton driven armored suit immediately began unfolding out of it. Unlike the exo he’d used on his last trip to Earth, this was not a powered suit intended to boost his carrying capacity and ability to run without tiring. That suit had just been a collection of servos and load bearing metal bars. This suit included ablative ceramic plates covering his torso and upper limbs, heat dispersing plastic mesh gloves and heavy, rubberized magnetic boots. The heavier armor could withstand four direct hits from most plasma rifles in service through the Triad worlds. The boots and gloves were rated for two. There was also a small internal air tank and filtration system.

All in all, it was overkill for raiding a UNIGOV facility unless they had small scale versions of the disassembler field on hand. Then it was just inadequate.

As the exo stood up to full height Lang grabbed two grips on the inside of the breastplate and pushed them up. The suit unfolded even further and slipped the plate over his head. Then he pulled down and the whole mechanism began the process of automatically folding itself around his body. Other spacers, part of the Tranquility‘s boarding and security divisions, were doing the same around him. Lang saw they were moving slightly so that the exo’s mechanisms locked around them faster but he didn’t understand the process well enough to duplicate it so he just stood perfectly still and let the machine do it’s job.

Thirty seconds later he slipped his hands into the gloves and patted himself down. Everything felt like it was in place. The extra bulk from the armor was distracting but the suit’s servos were stronger to compensate for the weight so it didn’t feel any harder to move in than what he was used to. The biggest difference was the helmet, which included a heads up display that projected information from his AI when necessary. Lang found it distracting so he muted the function.

He’d just slung a plasma rifle over one shoulder when Priss and Harry turned up. He frowned, pretty sure they’d been assigned to a different ground unit and they were already in their suits. “What are you guys doing here?”

“The bridge over the secondary bypass sluice is out,” Harry said. “South group is now moving with center group and the major until we clear the building we think holds the seawater pumps.”

Lang had been so busy with the yacht and the landing that he hadn’t paid much attention to their plans for once they reached shore. He wasn’t entirely sure what buildings Harry was referring to so he just nodded. “What was wrong with the bridge?”

“Looked like they tried to drive something heavy over it recently,” Priss said. “The intact portion of the bridge was pretty overgrown but the place where it was broken looked fresh so we think it happened when UNIGOV tried to reactivate the plant.”

“Lovely.” Lang slotted his rifle’s spare power cells into his belt and closed up the equipment locker. “Guess their little accident buys them some time, at least.”

Harry was looking down at Lang’s feet. “Aren’t you going to wear your boots?”

“No point. UNIGOV facilities are, at base level, usually concrete walls and floors. There’s nothing metallic there for the magboots to grab onto so they’re not very useful for trick maneuvers and we’re planet side so there’s no chance the artificial gravity will go out.” Lang tapped the toes of his regular boots on the ground. “These babies are lighter and more comfortable than the magboots and the exo’s heels fit either one just fine.”

Harry nodded, his expression suggesting he understood Lang’s logic but didn’t approve of it. “Suit yourself, Sergeant.”

The use of the rank was a subtle acknowledgment that there wasn’t anything Harry could do about it and simultaneously a pushing of responsibility for anything bad that happened to Lang off of the poor, put upon enlisted man. It was the kind of thing Lang had done plenty of times himself. He also didn’t really care if Harry liked his approach or not. He didn’t plan to change it even if the Captain herself thought it was a bad idea.

“I’ll do just that, Private.” Lang gestured through the brush ahead of them. “I’m under orders to meet the Captain at point theta which is right along your new route. Get the rest of your detatchmet together and we’ll head that way.”

“You got it, Sergeant.”

Harry scampered off to do as instructed but Priss hung back to shuck her mag boots and put her normal footwear back on. Sitting on one of the equipment crates she asked, “You’re an S6 now, that means you rate an EMG scanner in your load out, right?”

“I… dunno.” He tapped his helmet and brought his HUD back then opened the crate’s inventory to look it over. “I guess so. That’s surprising. I didn’t think they’d issue that kind of equipment to grunts like us, especially since I’m supposed to fly landing craft not slog around in gravity.”

“Lucky for us. Bring it with you in case the Earthlings decide to boot up another disassembler field, that way you can pick it up ahead of time.” Priss wiggled her dainty feet back into her standard issue boots. “Something like that will get you half way towards another promotion and we can start calling you Master Sergeant.”

Lang grinned. “Not if I properly credit the forward thinking initiative of people like Corporal Hu. Maybe you can look forward to a promotion to Lance Corporal.”

Priss had her helmet on already but from the set of her shoulders she was cringing in distaste. “Okay, I earned that one. I yield, I yield.”

“It might be better if I recommended you to OTC,” Lang continued, assuming an exaggerated thinking pose. “Then you could earn your butter bars and-”

“No, no, no!” Priss threw her hands up over her face. “Please, anything but officer training! I want to stay an honest girl and work for my living!”

“Yeah, Sergeant,” Harry said, threading his way through the supplies with four other men in tow. “Don’t do your girl dirty like that!”

Lang gave Harry a blank look, wondering what he meant. With a helmet in the way it was lost on its intended recipient because Harry just came to a stop and introduced the rest of his team. “Sarge, these are the rest of my boys – Barton, Keys, Yancey and Ramone.”

Ramone was a corporal, like Priss, but the rest were Privates or PFCs. “Pleased to meet you gentlemen. Today we’re going on a quick stroll from here to point theta, where we’ll go on our separate ways. Corporal Ramone, I take it you’re in charge of south group?”

“You got it, Sergeant,” Ramone said. He was a hair shorter than Lang but incredibly stocky, like a brick wall got up to go for a walk. “You going center?”

“I’m going with the Captain wherever she chooses to wind up.”

Ramone nodded sagely. “OBS duty.”

“After the month I’ve had, officer babysitting will be a dream come true,” Lang said. Although he wasn’t sure that was true, given that the officer in question was Captain Yang and she didn’t seem the type to take things easy. He fished his EMG scanner out of his equipment crate and held it up. “Anyone here familiar with how to run one of these? I’m afraid I only use the kind built into landers.”

Yancey raised his hand. “EMG was my secondary specialty in advanced training, Sarge. We had to run a standard orienteering course with one of those as part of our final qualifications.”

Lang slapped the bulky sensor package into the PFC’s hands and said, “Congratulations, Yancey. You’re now in charge of watching out for the enemy’s primary weapon’s system.”

“Aye, sir,” Yancey said, securing the EMG scanner to his armor’s forward hard points across his chest. “I’ll let you know the moment I pick up any sign of an anomalous magnetic field. Just be aware that we may need to go slow. The fusion plant itself puts out a monstrous mag field. It’ll take a couple of seconds for the sensor to pick through that kind of background noise as we advance.”

“Speed is worth more than safety in this situation,” Lang said, “although I’ll take all I can of both. Just tell me if you see anything out of the ordinary. Let’s go boys.”

As it turned out they got around the brush patch and halfway to point theta before Yancey found anything. They were cresting a low hill that formed an artificial bowl around the reactor, probably intended to channel any major leaks from the reactor buildings out to sea and away from the city, when the private announced, “Magnetic spike, Sarge. Six and a half Teslas of force, originating from the direction of the reactor building.”

“It’s growing?” Lang asked.

“Not right now,” Yancey said, tapping on the EMG rig to make some kind of adjustment. “But it wasn’t there before. The signal just popped up out of nowhere, it’s not something the sensor sorted out of the background noise.”

“Maybe the hill was blocking it?” Keys suggested.

“No, if the hill was made out of something that could block a magnetic field the reactor’s signature would’ve lost strength as we got closer to it. This field wasn’t there a minute ago, so somebody just turned it on.”

“Got it.” Lang tapped Harry and Barton on their shoulders. “Head up and peak over the hill, bring me a report.”

Two minutes later Harry was back, leaving Barton to watch the reactor building as he withdrew. “Definitely a disassembler field, Sarge. We could pick up the glittery effect plain as day. It might have been different if the sun got up higher but since we hit them so early in the morning the sunlight is still at an angle to really refract off the nanotech.”

“So they’ve got some kind of defense for the reactor facilities,” Lang mused.

“But not comprehensive,” Harry said. “We only saw signs of the field around the freight entrance on the southern building. We can probably advance to point theta safely.”

“Unless they can expand the field,” Lang said.

“Yes. Unless that.”

Point theta was a large road structure which the AI identified as a ’roundabout,’ a circular patch of road with another ornamental garden bed in it, according to the map. If it held to pattern there would be another large patch of shrubs they could use for cover there. However cover was only meaningful if it kept them from view; if UNIGOV already knew they were present it wouldn’t mean anything in the face of an expanding disassembler field. Point theta wasn’t a good place for them to rally anymore. They’d be safer in among the buildings of the complex itself than they would along the roads connecting them.

“Priss. Call up the Captain and inform her that point theta is compromised and suggest a new meeting place.”

She started working her comms unit before Lang even finished working. “What should I suggest as our new rallying point?”

“That depends. Did Lieutenant Fresh Face pull the deck guns off the Armstrong yet?”

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The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Eighteen

Previous Chapter

“Admiral, you’re not going to believe what the Isaacs want to try now.”

Carrington looked up from his personal holodisplay where he’d been trying to catch up on the reports and paperwork that were the constant price of good administration. Naomi and company were off on some thing with Major Bennet. It gave him a few hours away from the dignitaries to try and get caught up on his other duties and he really, really wanted to to do anything else. The baffled look on the comm officer’s face promised him something far more interesting. “I take it they’re asking for more than another change in the fleet’s overall formation?”

“They sent over a presentation.”

The Newtonian’s ideas just became a lot less interesting. “Can you summarize?”

“One of their fighter pilots thinks he’s a space pirate now.”

“Does he want to join the Minervan spacers or something? I don’t think the Remus has facilities to service an OF-28, much less the desire. Is he qualified on their gunboats?”

“I don’t know, sir, but he’s not actually looking to defect to the Moonies. He wants hijack a freighter.”

Carrington rubbed his chin, wondering where that idea had come from and why a fighter pilot, of all things, would want to try it. Copernican pilots generally liked challenging flight tasks. Capturing freighters, space bound or otherwise, didn’t really qualify. He’d discussed the movement of materiel on Earth with Ollinger before but he didn’t think that conversation was widely discussed through the fleet. Then again, it was foolish to underestimate the intelligence gathering abilities of bored spacers. “Very well, Lieutenant, I suppose we should look at the presentation. Let me have it.”

Five minutes later he was laughing as he signed off on their proposal.


“The Admiral gave it a go,” control announced, “with a couple of modifications that they’re working into place now.”

“What kind of updates are we looking at?” Bubbles asked.

“For starters, we’re moving Point Break squadron into high orbit over your descent vector. You’re going to have the fleet’s destroyer screen to backstop your approach as well, just in case there are any more of those ground emplacements that we haven’t smashed yet.” Bourne’s display updated with the new projected locations for the ships in question. “Tranquility BASIC projects they’ll be in place in forty minutes.”

“Take your time,” Bourne muttered, watching the freighter’s progress and timing its progress.

“Not too much, though,” Bubbles grumbled. “That fucker’s faster than any aquatic craft I’ve ever seen and if we want to get down to it before it reaches the safe zone around Australia we need to do it soon.”

“Fair point,” control replied. “But the last time you made a descent without a backstop in place only half of you came back.”

“Also important to consider,” Bourne admitted. So they waited.

It took a total of forty two minutes for the fleet to get into position once it was all said and done. At it’s current pace the freighter was one hundred and seventy six minutes away from the Australian ‘safe zone’ where they’d determined ground based projectors could create disassembler fields. The techies still weren’t sure whether the freighter could survive if the field switched on. They’d have to operate on the assumption the disassemblers would shiled the freighter from attack once the ship was in rnage. The descent would take Bourne and Bubbles a total of seventy two minutes from orbit to intercept, giving them almost two hours of padding to deal with any problems that arose.

Either way, Starstream flight was under orders to abandon the raid if UNIGOV tried to play any new tricks. What constituted a ‘new trick’ was pretty vague.

“Prepare to deploy airfoils,” Bourne announced, “check mechanisms and report in.”

“My wings are ready to go,” Bubbles said as soon as he was done. He was just as eager to hit atmo as Bourne was.

Bourne’s lights were also green. “Deploy airfoils and prep jets for atmo, we’ll hold the reaction mass for a quick boost back to orbit.”

“Still think we should do a thruster burn to match rotation, Leader.”

“Your objections are noted, Bubbles. We’ll stick to the plan.”

Bubbles wasn’t a fan of their landing trajectory. Due to their starting over a pole their fighters had very little velocity relative to the planet’s rotation and they were going to have to spend a lot of time catching up to it in order to intercept their target. When plotting their descent Bubbles had suggested a prolonged burn in high orbit to match the rotation followed by a rapid descent to intercept. The whole sequence would take about fifty minutes.

The problem was they would have to burn a lot of reaction mass on inefficient maneuvers in order to match velocities. Burning reaction mass was always a problem. Maneuvers outside of atmo all required some reaction mass but really long, hard burns could empty their tanks in less than two hours. It was much different from the kind of short, sharp bursts employed in dogfights. That was why standard space fighter design theory integrated jet engines and aerofoils for atmospheric flight – it allowed for aerospace operations without spending onboard mass. The pattern Bubbles proposed would have emptied anywhere from one fifth to one quarter of their fighter’s reserves.

The speed gained wasn’t inconsequential. Thrusters were the fastest drive available to the OF-28 and shaving twenty minutes off the descent time gave them more breathing room. At the same time, thrusters were also the safest way to make a fast escape. If they burned mass to match the orbital velocity and then had to do it again to escape Earth’s gravity well they’d be down to about ten to fifteen percent of their starting thruster fuel. And they’d be back in orbit, where thrusters were the only maneuvering option.

So Bourne had insisted on making a slower descent in atmosphere, relying on jets for all maneuvering purposes. The problem was the disassembler fields. During the second part of their intercept course they’d be low enough that they could potentially get caught in one so they had to snake their path around Earth’s major landmasses just to be safe. Thus a much slower descent.

However even with all potential problems in timing of their intercept, control was right. Bourne didn’t want a repeat of his last attempted landing. He was going to take all possible precautions and if that meant poking along via jet engine, so be it. All descending orbits went by faster than you thought anyways.


Starstream Flight had been away for less than twenty minutes when a voice in BASIC called out, “Bogie one has altered it’s course. Advice Principia control that their fighters may be spotted.”

Carrington frowned at that. UNIGOV was many things but interested in what happened above them wasn’t one of them. In fact, the sapiens of Earth actively avoided watching the skies. Furthermore, the freighter’s change in course was plotted in the holotank and it didn’t look like it was taking evasive action. It hadn’t sped up or added zigzags to its route. It was just carving a long, lazy arc through the ocean that turned it away from its original course for no apparent reason.

Principia control wants to know if they should recall Starstream Flight,” comms announced. “General Ollinger says he’s against it.”

That was acknowledged with a nod and, although Carrington was inclined to agree with his counterpart by instinct he wasn’t sure it was the right choice. It was a bit extreme to risk two lives just to possibly learn what a single freighter was hauling. Still, attacking supply lines had toppled many mighty nations in the past and could easily do the same for UNIGOV.

He racked his brains to try and explain the ship’s odd behavior. It could have been the prelude to another bizarre gambit from the Earthlings but the sapiens had such distorted priorities that he couldn’t be sure. After a moment he commanded his AI to search all his discussions with Stephen Mond for certain terms. Ocean, freighter, shipping and a few other nautical terms.

A few seconds later the AI brought him the solution. “They’re maneuvering around reefs.”

“Sir?” The officer on watch in BASIC gave him a confused look.

“UNIGOV is obsessed with the condition of Earth’s environment, albeit in very strange and often ineffective ways,” Carrington said. “You’d think they’d just implement some terraforming projects. Instead they tiptoe around a bunch of places like they’re going to break the biosphere if they touch the wrong thing. Mond mentioned one of the things they try to do is avoid corral growths at all costs. Look at the course plot.”

The ship’s AI had a constantly updated projection of the freighter’s most likely destinations in the holotank and its change in heading hadn’t really changed any of them. “We don’t have a good map of Earth’s coral beds, no surprise there, so we can’t be sure. But it doesn’t look like their course changes are actually taking them anywhere and they aren’t erratic enough to be evasive. For now, we continue as is.”

“Understood,” the BASIC officer responded. “Advise Principia that they should not recall Starstream Flight but should advise them that their new heading puts them in the path of a significant weather event.”


“What are we looking at, Typhoon Earthling?” Bubbles asked.

“Aren’t you optimistic?” Bourne snorted. “It’s just a tropical storm, Bubbles, calm down.”

The towering storm clouds swept towards them as their fighters swept across the Atlantic Ocean on their penultimate breaking orbit. The atmo was still thin that high up. That didn’t keep the angry winds from screeching across their hulls as the nose of their craft cut into the tops of the funnel cloud.

“Our hulls aren’t rated for this kind of crosswinds, Chief.”

“That kind of rotation isn’t rated for our kind of acceleration, Bubbles. Steady.”

“Starstream, Principia control. You know you’re about to fly through a hurricane, right?”

“Tropical storm!” They both replied in unison.


Carrington abandoned the main holotank in order to loom over the BASIC consoles where a handful of human overseers double checked the ship AI’s efforts to reconcile the dozens of streams of information from the ships in the fleet and the screen of fighters. BASIC was a vestige of old days, before AI made many of the watch stations of the Battle Space Information Center redundant. Now it was basically a secondary comms center. The officer on duty was clearly not used to having the admiral’s full, direct scrutiny.

“Where are the ships in Starstream Flight?”

The man on duty – Lieutenant Gerard according to his uniform – tugged nervously at his collar. “We’re working to reacquire them, sir.”

“Work harder, please.”

“Yes, sir. Principia control insists they told Starstream Flight to detour around the storm system but the flight commander apparently ignored them.”

“How long would the detour have taken?”

“The Newtonians say it would’ve added twenty minutes to the flight. Not enough to lose the freighter, especially with the way it’s acting now, but it would have definitely have cut things close.”

Carrington grunted, not impressed. Lots of pilots would choose risky flying over risky timing and he understood the impulse, to an extent, but it was a bad command decision. There were more opportunities than just the one in front of you. That was true in war and life in general. “How long until the fighters clear the storm clouds?”

“Six minutes? Maybe seven? Depends on how bad the wind slows them down.”

“Well. I suppose we wait.”


“Got a minor hull breach,” Bourne said, double checking the seal on his helmet. “Flight cabin’s pressure is dropping. My suit integrity is fine so it shouldn’t be an issue for the return flight but I’ll try and get a patch over it before we boost to orbit anyway.”

“My wing motors are locked up,” Bubbles replied. “We’ll see if things shake loose now that we’re out of the worst of the wind but if necessary I’ll leave them out for space flight. Not like I need the added integrity if we’re not going to be dogfighting up there.”

“All right, then. I have a bead on the freighter, looks like it’s about ten kilometers off projected intercept, we’ll adjust to catch it. Get ready to spook some Earthlings.”

The basic principle of what they were doing was simple. Earth freighters were fast. Really fast, especially when compared to the water they displaced. If they could get one moving fast enough the physics of the hydroplane could potentially lift their bow part way out of the water – assuming the ship was unloaded. If it was loaded, the ship’s waterline wouldn’t move at all.

Starstream Flight came in low over the freighter’s deck, jets howling in the morning air, plasma guns firing superheated, ionized gasses that shot through the air with a perpetual thunderclap pursuing them. They fired a barrage of plasma all around the freighter to spur it forward and knocked out its primary radio antenna just to be on the safe side. Sure enough, the freighter put its best foot forward to try and escape them but an aquatic ship was no match for a space fighter and they kept pace easily. It took less than three minutes of harrying the boat to get their answer.

Principia control this is Starstream Leader. The ship is definitely loaded to the top with something heavy.” Bourne looked out the side of his cockpit at the ship and considered his options. Whatever was on there, it probably wasn’t something they wanted the Earthlings to have. “Do you want us to sink it?”

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Seventeen

Previous Chapter

“Control, this is Starstream Flight. We are in position over the South Pole, orbit is nominal, standing by at your convenience.” Bourne switched his comm channel over to the squadron frequency. “Look sharp, Bubbles. There’s a whole lot of ice down there and we gotta make sure it doesn’t do anything scary.”

“What do we do if the glaciers get uppity? It’s not like the both of us can do a whole lot if a continent decides it’s pissed at us.” Bubbles sounded a little out of sorts. Bourne couldn’t blame him, given that the two of them were floating in space less than a week ago and the medics let them leave sick bay just yesterday.

The other three survivors of Starstream squadron were still there.

“How’s your new wings working for you, boss?” Bubbles interrupted Bourne’s oncoming brooding session with his unexpected question. “Since all nanofactured stuff is built using the same master file I figured our 28s would be the same as the last ones but I swear the controls on this thing are less responsive.”

“That’s because these are right out of the vats,” Bourne said. “The Principia‘s fighters were pulled from a couple of decommissioned escort cruisers that were headed back to the spacedocks to get scrapped. They’d been flown a bit before we got them. It loosens up the hardware mechanisms and lets the navigation software build up some predictive algorithms. That’s what you’re sensing. I went through a couple of OF-21s during the war and it was the same every time.”

There was a long moment of silence as they cruised lazily over Earth’s southern oceans. “I didn’t know you got shot down, Captain.”

“One out of every five Newtonian pilots in the war lost at least one set of wings.” The reality of that was even worse than the statistic implied. The opening days of the Second Galilean War had taken a horrible toll on Newton’s interceptor pilots as they worked around the clock to repel wave after wave of small Galilean gunboats and fighters trying to wipe out Newton’s ground defenses. Some days as much as twenty percent of fighter craft that sortied got shot down. “Just be glad that vacuum suits are better armored now than they were at the start of the war.”

“Yeah, I hear you. I had a Type 33 flight suit when I was in flight school.” Bubbles laughed. “I felt like I was going up into space in my underwear.”

“Did you fly in combat?” He knew, he’d read all his squadron’s files, but there wasn’t much to do on this kind of overwatch mission and Bourne didn’t want his wingmate dwelling on their previous outing.

“No. I got issued an OF-25 and put in a squadron guarding the space docks once I got my commission. I was there six months then we signed the armistice.” He made a couple of popping mouth sounds. “It is what it is.”

“You didn’t miss much,” Bourne said. “We had all the waypoints through the Galilean rings nailed down by that point. There wasn’t much work for interceptors in the last six months of the war, we’d already done all the nasty stuff.”

“Were you a part of the Ring Campaign?”

“…yeah.”

“What was it like?”

It was like spending hours and hours sitting in a fighter hidden in a small crater on a midsized asteroid orbiting a gas giant waiting for something to happen. Occasionally, they would ambush passing Galilean warships. Newtonians getting to play the space pirate on occasion was a delicious reversal of the usual roles played by their respective planets. However even those encounters were more trouble than they were worth. You had to constantly split your attention between your flight canopy and your instruments, trying not to clip a piece of rock large enough to compromise your fighter’s hull and leave you sucking vacuum.

More than once Bourne had watched good men die after losing their wings because flight conditions made it impossible for anyone to get close enough to assist them in time. If he ever had to fly another combat mission in a planetary ring it would be too soon. Yet with that said, he’d only flown a dozen of them himself. Most of his time on deployment over Galileo was spent on combat space patrols outside his carrier ship. “It wasn’t that different from now. We just had older fighters.”

“Right.” Bubbles didn’t sound entirely convinced.

“What do you know about this naval traffic objective they gave us?” Bourne asked more to fill time and keep his mind active than out of a desire to hear about ocean going transports.

“Just that the brass think the Earthlings are moving something down there and they want us to phone in anything in the cargo transport size we happen to see.” A light on Bourne’s control board flickered and he twitched a couple of commands, bringing up telemetry that Control was collecting from various elements of the fleet and piping in to them. “Personally I don’t see much interesting down there. Word on the decks is they’re trying to isolate where UNIGOV is sourcing their materials for the nanotech they’re using. Lots of rare earths in the kinds of generators you need to project a field that far.”

“Where are they expecting them to come from?”

“Disputed, although smart money says Africa or Asia. The old land surveys say a lot of the neat stuff is in the mountainous parts of those continents.” A finger sized red dot appeared on Bourne’s display, presumably following a path Bubbles was tracing for him, presumably pointing at mineral deposits or somesuch.

“That’s very practical.” Bourne frowned and set his fighter in a very slow spin around its forward axis. Earth gradually filled up his canopy as the top of his fighter rotated to face straight ‘down’ then vanished back beneath him as he completed the spin. It was a situational awareness habit he’d picked up during the Ring Campaign. He hadn’t been flying in situations where that kind of 360’360 awareness was necessary in a while but he still performed the maneuver on occasion just to hang on to the habit. “How in touch with the word on the deck are you, anyway, Bubbles?”

“I am the word on the deck, Captain.” He sounded almost hurt. “Why do you ask?”

“How do we know what’s in the mountains down there? Is it something brought back by the surface teams or what?”

“It’s all from the archives, Leader. I guess the colonists took a full copy of the planetary geological surveys with them when they left. Not sure why.”

“Probably in a historical archive somewhere.” Bourne let his roll bring him all the way around to face towards the planet again then killed the momentum. “Do you think it would be in the historical archives or somewhere else?”

“I… dunno. Is it important?”

“Don’t ask me. I need to look at the data to tell for sure.”

“Hold on, let me call up Hannah.”

“Does this go official if you loop in your latest Comms girl?”

“What makes you think Hannah works in Comms?”

“Bubbles. Focus on the task at hand.”

Bubbles sighed. “If I ask really nicely and say it needs to be a secret between us she probably won’t tell anyone. Why not go through official channels?”

“I just don’t want anyone thinking I’m after a white whale. I’d rather not get grounded.”

“We’re down a ship over a hostile planet six months from home. I don’t think anyone’s eager to pull qualified fighter pilots off duty.”

“Maybe. Can Hannah get us info on the sea lanes, as well? I want to know what shipping’s looked like since we got here.”

“Well I can tell you that one now. We don’t have any data on what Earth’s shipping lanes looked like until three days ago.”

“What?” Bourne yanked his attention away from his flight canopy and down to his mic. Not that Bubbles could see him through that. “How is it possible that none of it got tracked?”

“The AI discarded all records of vehicle traffic on bodies of water after twenty four hours. No one caught the oversight until the Admiral decided to track cargo ships.”

Bourne fought the urge to smack his forehead, his helmet would take the hit anyway. The biggest pitfall of working with an AI assist was how deeply it ingrained preconceptions into the feedback it brought you. Of the Triad Worlds and Roddenberry, only Roddenberry had more than 20% of its surface covered in water and even then, not by much. Large scale transport by ocean or river had never been practical there. Most water going vessels were private recreational vehicles with the occasional survey or maintenance ship mixed in. As a result, military AI just ignored stuff it saw in bodies of water to save on storage space and processing power.

A perfectly fine and normal approach to the waterways of the Triad Worlds. A glaring oversight on Earth.

“Okay, fine,” he muttered. “It probably wasn’t relevant anyway.”

“What?” Bubbles was curious now, probably looking for a new bit of gossip to share with his girl in Communications.

“I just noticed a freighter moving north from Antarctica. I know the polar regions of Earth were left alone for a lot of reasons in the pre-Departure era but if UNIGOV changed that policy after they took over and wanted sneak some resources past us now they might try taking them from the continent that was covered in ice when we left. It’s not a place we’d naturally expect them to get supplies from.”

“Well, you got one thing in your favor,” Bubbles said, sounding a little skeptical. “There wasn’t any extensive survey done of the continent’s mineral resources before the Departure. Something about the snow and ice. But, in spite of the concerns about the climate both then and now, it doesn’t look like the ice has gotten much thinner in the years between.”

“Still. With the right nanotech and a big enough power plant and mag generators you could mine straight through the frozen layers of the ground. I’m pretty sure there’s places they do just that on Diana.”

“Maybe.” Bubbles’s skepticism deepened. “Be that as it may, I’m going to guess it doesn’t matter to us right now. That transport could be down there for any reason. It looks like it’s bound for Australia and, according to the records, that’s where most of the research outposts on Antarctica source their supplies so it may just be a food run or something.”

“Awful big coincidence, our being out here right as they make a run to the grocers.” Bourne drummed his fingers on his control panel, trying to decide on a move.

“Why don’t you just call it in? We could have the Principia or the Spiner go over the place with a hires EMG scan and see if there’s any power signatures indicative of a big power plant down there.”

Bourne began carefully maneuvering his fighter’s nose, where all the good scanners were, down towards the planet while keeping his orbital trajectory more or less the same. “The problem with only having two ships with good scanners on them is everyone wants them to look at something. I suspect the Admiral will want more before he details one of his best eyes to stare at giant chunks of ice for the next couple of hours.”

He was glad to see that Bubbles was matching his maneuvers with equal precision. “Probably. How do we get it for him?”

“Thinking.” For a long moment Bourne was silent as he considered some ideas and then ran numbers through his nav AI. Then he replayed Starstream’s last attempt to land on planet. Finally, he compared some numbers from the botched mission’s after action reports to the numbers his AI was giving him. “Tell me, Bubbles, have you ever gone water skiing?”

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Sixteen

Previous Chapter

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 Gospel 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 Gospel 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.”