Martian Scriptures Chapter Twenty Five – Life After Silence

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“How many people are down there?” The Admiral asked. “A thousand? Two?” 

“Four thousand and sixty eight,” Craig said. He’d read the number in so many reports over the last hour that he didn’t even have to check. “All locked in some kind of medically induced coma, kept healthy by Terran medical nanotechnology. We’re working on figuring out how to revive them right now but it’s been slow going.” 

“Well we might be able to help you there.” Carrington manipulated something off screen for a second. “We do have a few files on their medinano that Langley and Hu brought back from their time on Earth, plus a few samples taken from the Terrans on hand that we’ve done some preliminary studies on. But we also think the Shutdown process could be hard on the people it effects, particularly mentally, with time in Shutdown as an aggravating factor.” 

“The longer they sleep, the worse they fare.” 

“Exactly.” 

The admiral returned his attention to Craig. “And that is completely ignoring the other difficulty this discovery poses.” 

“The Borealis dome can’t support five to six thousand people,” Craig said. “I know. There was a solution proposed by our head of Martian Operations.” 

“I saw it.” There was a hint of malice in Carrington’s smile. “Your boy there is going to ruin his own career with this kind of freewheeling initiative. Or he would if we were back in the Triad Worlds. I’m rather glad you brought him with you. Taking building materials from the derelict parts of Earth is a novel thought and one I am considering. Given the significance of that step, and the inevitable increasing tensions it will provoke, I’ll be consulting with the senior captains of the Newtonian and Gallilean groups but, before that, I’d like to hear your opinion.” 

Craig paused for a moment. He’d expected that question and mostly had his answer. But the answer cut so hard against who he was he still hesitated to say it. “Sir, I don’t see as we have any choice. We’re already entangled with the Martian population and we know Earth doesn’t like either of us. And the Martians waited so long for someone with the time and resources to lend them a hand, it seems cruel to demand they keep waiting. We could send a message drone back to the Triad Worlds, they might even answer us right away. But, even with the time it would save not having to drop below superluminal to do fleet position checks, we’d still wait a year to hear from them. I’m not sure Bottletown will hold together that long, now that they know the truth about their colony.” 

Carrington sighed. “I tend to agree. We’ll still inform the Triad Worlds and Rodenberry, of course, but I don’t think there will be any objection in the fleet proper to your proposed course of action. I suspect that by this time next week we’ll be formally at war with Earth, God help us.” 

“Perhaps,” Craig mused, “UNIGOV will hold to their pacifist principles.” 

“Don’t count on it, Captain” Carrington said. “Don’t count on it.” 


Volk looked around the Vault in momentary confusion. He’d never entered through the Sunbottle side of the underground bay and it looked quite different from the entrance along the edge of the dome. Most of the wall was occupied by large pieces of equipment he couldn’t attache to a purpose, some part of the old yet shockingly advanced Earth tech that kept most of the population of Bottletown in Shutdown and awaiting revival. In the first few days since finding the Vault the Stewart‘s top medical and engineering officers had swarmed the Vault, examining equipment, taking measurements and dumping code. Now the Fleet’s best and brightest minds were collaborating to try and crack it, to figure out some way to revive the people of Mars. 

By the same token many Malacandrans had rushed down to the Vault, looking desperately to see if it was true, and all the people who had left them in Silence were still close at hand. They’d transformed the aisles and stacks of pods. Now there were ribbons, piles of books or mementos stacked by the pods where long Silenced relatives lay sleeping. Portable display boards were stuck to the ends of aisles listing the hundreds of people stacked there and, in the few places where the sleepers had expired of age in spite of the wonders of Terran medical nanotech, black clothes covered the pods in a symbol of respect. 

Taken together, it made Volk feel very out of place. In five years of Naval service he’d traveled to two dozen worlds never intended for human life and put his very own boots on seventy percent of them. But walking through the Vault felt more like trespassing than surveying those places ever had. 

A soft tune echoed down the aisles and drew him away from the entryway, as if the Vault had changed from mausoleum to enchanted grotto and now fairies were tempting him further in. Volk shook his head and got his head in the present. He’d been too stressed with the whole “Martian Operations” thing the past few days. It’d been nothing but scheduling trips to and from the Stewart or facilitating meetings between the ship’s Senior Staff and the Elders of Bottletown. The culture shocks of men and women in the thirties and forties, still striving to reach their professional peaks, dealing with eighteen and nineteen year olds who were used to being the final say on everything in the entire world posed a steep challenge. Volk was looking forward to getting all that sorted and returning to his normal role as leader of a five man survey team. 

But there was a lot to sort before he could get there. 

He found the source of the tune at the far end of the Vault, near the other entry. Aubrey was there, examining Naomi’s Shutdown pod and consulting with the AI readout she’d set on the ground next to here. She looked out of place, like a sunflower in the middle of a cave, and the Malacandran girl leaning against the next rack of pods in the row and humming lent the whole scene an ephemeral air. He exchanged a glance with the girl – Gemma, if he was remembering her name right – and stepped over to Aubrey. “Everything going all right?” 

“No.” She sighed and shut the readout down. “A couple of emergency medical training classes did not prepare me for this. We got some of the medical data from… from Earth, and it says you can revive people from Shutdown without special measures for about a week. But that applies to modern medical nanotech, not this ancient stuff. Your doctor is taking precautions in case there are complications in reviving her but I’m not sure they’re going to be enough.” 

“Hey, take it easy,” he said, putting a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “Like you said, you’re not a doctor you’re a traffic controller. No one’s going to blame you if this doesn’t work. We all just do what we can.” 

“Easy to say when what you can do is fall out of the sky like a rock with all the parts the town needs to pull through.” Aubrey shook her head. “Sometimes I think I should have stayed on Earth.” 

“Really?” 

“I don’t know. There’s so much wrong there and I barely understand what’s right here and I’m not even sure that made sense.” She pressed a hand to her forehead. “I thought if I came up here to space and looked around I could understand more about what we did wrong down there and help fix it. Turns out I can’t even help with this one little thing.” 

Volk laughed and gestured back at the Vault full of sleeping people “I’d hardly call reviving all these people a little thing.” 

“You’re missing the point.” 

“Aubrey, I don’t know what all is wrong on Earth. The Admiral is keeping those details to himself and that’s his right. But I do know we wouldn’t have any idea what Earth is like or any of those medical records from Earth if you hadn’t helped out Martin when he was stuck down there. And look!” He gestured back to Naomi’s pod, decorated  with a half a dozen drawings from her kids, ready to greet her when she awoke. “There’s a lady who’s boys are missing her that’s going to see them again tonight, all because you lent a helping hand. That’s plenty to be proud of for a week’s work. Take a day off, think about what to do next after you’ve had a break.” 

“Okay.” She rubbed her hands over her eyes and blew out a breath. “That sounds like a good idea. Like a great idea. So what is there to do for fun around here, Gemma?” 

She laughed. “Fun? I guess you could sing with the choir, that’s what I usually do. Or talk to the Elders. They spend a lot of time just talking, I dunno about what. We got some old games on the central computer network.” 

“It’s a colony, they’ve only got so much leisure time to start with,” Volk said with a chuckle. He leaned back against the pod behind him only to feel his hand bump against something. A stack of three books slid off the pod and landed in a jumble on the floor. He stooped to pick them up, thinking they must be of recent manufacture. He hadn’t seen that many books around Bottletown before. Looking closer he realized there was a red book, a green book and a gray book, each about the size of the old paperback format. 

His landmark oriented surveyor’s brain flashed back through his trip from the entrance and realized he’d passed at least four stacks of identical books on his way. He flipped them around to read the titles. Out of the Silent Planet. Perelandra. That Hideous Strength. “Where did these come from?” 

“Damian came down and left them for his father. For when he wakes up.” Gemma pointed towards the pod they’d been resting on. “He told me once he loved talking about Ransom’s notes – the first book, I guess – with his father. Solomon Drake was a petitioner, too, and I guess listening to his dad talk about the story of Dr. Ransom was a big part of why Damian followed in his footsteps. So he’s probably really excited to talk to his dad about the rest of Dr. Ransom’s life. I heard he read the other two books the very first day he got them.” 

Volk stacked them back on top of the pod, ambivalent. “Well,” he finally said. “I hope they enjoy them.” 

“You don’t sound fully convinced,” Aubrey said. 

He shrugged. “This may sound odd but until I was twelve I thought James T. Kirk was a real person who really saved the galaxy from disasters. I didn’t realize how much of what he did would actually cause disasters, or that no person was really as brave, insightful or persuasive as Kirk. My dad is a true believer, convinced we’re always just days away from that perfect kind of society. But once I saw all the flaws in the details – people who didn’t ever live by the perfect standards, standards that contradicted and the like – I couldn’t look at it like he did anymore. We haven’t really been on good terms since I told him that. I’m not sure we’re doing anyone favors here.” 

She put a hand on his arm and rubbed it soothingly. “Listen, I don’t know much about this Rodenberry person you worship–” 

“We don’t exactly worship him.” 

“Whatever. I don’t know about him any more than I know about Priss’s Catholics or Dr. Ransom so I can’t speak to what you do or don’t believe. But I can tell you this. UNIGOV lied to us about their perfect society and hid all those flaws in the details from us.” She turned him around and looked him in the eye. “If you hide the truth you’re no different than they are. Gemma and her people survived on top of a faulty nuclear reactor for a century and a half, they can make it through this, too.” 

Volk smiled. “You know, I think you’re right.” 

“Me too!” Gemma chimed in. 

That got an actual laugh from him. “Fine, fine. But believe it or not that’s not why I came down here to find you.” 

“No?” Aubrey laughed. “So what brought you here.” 

“The Admiral is asking you to come back to the Sea of Tranquility,” Volk said, some of his good humor leaving him. He’d hoped to get to know Aubrey better but the harsh reality of Naval life had its say in all things. “He didn’t say exactly what it was about, just that you needed to know Steven had agreed to cooperate.” 

“I… wasn’t expecting that.” She visibly gathered herself and nodded. “When we finish Naomi’s revival operation I’ll be ready to go.” 

“Wouldn’t dream of taking you away before it,” Volk said. “Check in with me afterwards and we’ll arrange your transfer back to the Stewart. I understand one of the Newtonian ships will be coming to pick you up the day after tomorrow. It’s been a pleasure working with you.” 

He started back towards the Sunbottle entrance but stopped when he heard Aubrey’s voice. “Volk?” 

“Yes?” He turned halfway and looked back. “Something wrong?” 

Aubrey was staring at the stack of books now. “Are you staying here? On planet?” 

“That’s the plan. I am the head of Martian Operations, after all.” 

“Do me a favor?” 

He shrugged. “Sure. What is it?” 

Her fingers rested on top of the red book. “Find out why it was different.” When she saw Volk’s blank look she added, “The outcome. Mars and Earth both have societies based on stories with little to no truth in them. So why were they so different? Why did Earth reject something new and a little frightening, in spite of all our supposed history telling how we were kind, welcoming and courageous? Why did Mars accept people so far outside what they were used to when their story is all about the consequences of distrust and cruelty? If we can’t work it out UNIGOV is going to keep Earth a silent planet, no matter what the Ransom books say.” 

Volk nodded. “I understand your question, although I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to answer it. Better men than me have spent lifetimes trying. But we’ll do our best.” 

And as he walked out of the Vault, as all the details of responsibilities and tasks swarmed in around him once more, Volk admitted he’d made an impossible promise. Rodenberry thought space was the final frontier, that humanity must surpass itself before it could challenge the stars. In truth, Volk thought it was quite the opposite. Life as a department head, however brief, had convinced him that the intricacies of the human experience were far deeper and more difficult than anything he’d experienced on new planets. Either way, it was never boring out there. 


Pak looked up when Gemma returned to the watch tower. Alyssa had left an hour before, leaving the bottler team reconnecting the secondary boards to the power system unsupervised, which led to one conclusion. “I take it they finished reviving Naomi?” 

“Yup. Her family and Alyssa’s practically threw a party right there in the Vault! It was something.” Gemma sat down in the chair next to his. “Then Volk hustled Aubrey away, she’s going back to Earth for something or another.” 

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Pak said, entering a final command sequence and looking at her while he waited for the last code to compile. “You two seemed like you got to be good friends.” 

Gemma waved a hand. “Sort of? I thought the way Volk followed her around sometimes was cute. I feel kind of bad for him, with her going so far away.” 

“Oh.” He hadn’t gotten that impression at all. “Well, we have a bit of a wait before anyone else is revived but I guess I can deal with it. Anyone you’re excited to see again? I know my sister and I have been talking about what to show our parents when they wake up.” 

Gemma made a very noncommittal noise. “I annoyed my dad a lot before he went into Silence,” she said. “Mom ran interference but I think I gave them a lot of headaches. I don’t know what to say to them when I see them again.” 

“Don’t talk about the past,” Pak suggested. “Talk about the future. What do you want to do with them now?” 

Gemma looked up at the watch tower’s ceiling for a moment. “I want to go to Earth.” 

The urge to smile tugged at the corner of his lips. “I’m sure that’s not something they’ll expect.” A pinging noise told him his code was done and he turned back around to look at his handywork. “Perfect.” 

“What are you doing?” Gemma asked, coming to look over his shoulder. 

“Testing out some new equipment and software the Rodenberries gave us.” He pointed to a simple display of Malacandran orbital space, complete with a bright green dot representing the Stewart. “We can monitor incoming flights now. See?” 

“Oh… Not bad, head watcher. Not bad.” 

She was getting cheeky for a watcher in her first cent. But then, maybe that wasn’t so bad. Things around Bottletown were changing, almost entirely for the better. Perhaps the watch tower would be less of a dead end job in the future, and head watchers would need a more personable touch. Time would tell. The board sounded a clear tone as a small blue dot departed the Stewart, one of their landers coming in with some new batch of people, equipment or mix of both, to push Bottletown a little further on their way. Maybe soon they’d reclaim all of Borealis. But for the moment, at least the space they watched was far less silent. 

Martian Scriptures Chapter Twenty Four – Final Resting Place

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Volk popped the vent and let the impact gel drain out into the container underneath. The quiet gurgling nooise had an odd mournful sound to it, as if the lander already understood it was destined to be broken down and recycled. With the lander’s power plant offloaded and running the colony dome and valuable cargo unloaded and awaiting installation the lander was bereft of purpose and scattered over half a square kilometer of Martian soil so Captain Gyle had finally ordered it tossed into the nanofacturies planetside and broken down into its base components. If the Stewart really needed a sixth Tigris class lander they could always rebuild it in their more advanced facilities shipside. But right now no one was missing it. 

A banging noise came from inside the main hull section, followed by a frustrated growl and the distinct sound of a nanosealer hitting a bulkhead at throwing speed. “Shit.” 

A smile tugged at the corner of Volk’s mouth. So someone was kind of missing it. He climbed up the canted hull and slid into the lander’s main hatch, adjusting his balance in an effort to stay upright on a floor canted about twenty degrees off level. “Got that flight recorder yet, Langley?” 

“No.” Volk found the nanosealer sitting in the lowest corner in the room and picked it up. “I forgot how damn hard it is to get these things out on purpose.” 

“Removing them wasn’t part of your training on Somme class landers?” 

Langley’s head appeared in the doorway to the cockpit. “Under the circumstances, if we crashed one of those we were expected to sterilize the crash site and go to ground. I have experience with that but I suspect you wouldn’t appreciate it, much less the Borealis folks.” 

“You blew up your escape pod when you landed on Earth?” 

“Yup.” He disappeared back into the cockpit, his voice echoing through the empty compartments of the ship. “And my Somme when it went down, although that had a much bigger boom.” 

Volk made his way towards the cockpit, stepping carefully in the slimy remains of the impact gel. “This may be an indelicate question to ask but how many ships have you crashed?” 

“Four.” He’d pulled the entire side of the central computer compartment off and was trying to balance it on the pilot’s chair but it wasn’t cooperating. He sighed and just tossed it in the corner. “We’re recycling everything anyway.” 

“Isn’t that kind of a lot of ships to crash?” 

“In my defense one of them was an actual waterborn thing and I was six.” He dug into the guts of the computer, pushing racks of purpose built processors and general purpose storage drives out of the way. “The other two involved getting shot by hostile parties before the crashing part took over and this one was calculated and deliberate-” 

“Sure.” 

“-so I’m confident my flight privileges are in no danger.” 

Volk handed Langley the nanosealer when he waved a hand for it. “Well, I do plan on putting in a good word for you though I’m not sure how much difference it will make in your command structure. You did get us down with everything of note intact and no casualties.” 

“That’s a first,” he muttered. 

Not a subject he felt a need to dig into. “So if you want…” 

Langley came out with the flight recorder in hand. “Yes?” 

“I’m trying to say, you don’t have to stay here and work cleanup. We’ve got a second lander on landing orbit now, stuffed with all kinds of engineers to sort all this out. And I was under the impression you were here to keep an eye on Miss Vance.” 

“Well you’re wrong. I’m here as her security blanket. She gets nervous very easily and is away from everything she’s ever known, plus a lot of the assumptions she’s always held about humanity got seriously shaken about a week ago. She wanted a familiar face to come along with her to Mars.” Langley shrugged and tossed the flight recorder into the seat beside him and scrambled to his feet. “That was me. But she took to you folks and the Bottletowners like a fish to water, like I kinda suspected she would. She keeps running off places without telling me. Frankly, I think it’s healthy for her and I’ve taken a strict hands off policy about it for the time being.” 

“So she’s more Starfleet’s speed than the Klingon’s?” 

He laughed. “More or less.” 

Volk took the flight recorder and started working his way out of the cockpit. “So how did you get exposed to the Great Man’s work, if I may ask? I know our recordings came from the original colony records but I was under the impression not many people put a lot of weight behind his work most places.” 

“In general we don’t. Until a few years ago I knew only the stereotypical stuff about Rodeberry’s work – he was overly idealistic and had notions about human nature which don’t really bear out. Everyone knows it’s more nuanced than that but few people dig in to his stories to get an idea of how. So after I was shot down over Minerva I got rotated back to Copernicus and went on leave for a bit. Wound up taking a bunch of correspondence courses to brush up some skills and I signed up to audit an introductory course on the ‘Great Man’ from the Naval Academy in New San Francisco along with everything else. And the thing that stuck out to me most was the guest lecturer who came in to talk about the Klingons.” 

Volk smiled. “Professor Pachelli.” 

“You know him?” 

“He’d just started teaching STC 201 when I took it,” Volk said. “That’s ‘Introduction to Rodenberry’s Antagonists,’ if you were wondering. Fluent in Klingon and mean as vinegar, he had definite ideas about what the best aspects of the Great Man’s work are. Let me guess. When he was guest lecturer he gave the ‘Five Insights into the Klingon Mind’ talk.” 

“That’s the one. I got interested in Klingons, their stories were fun and I thought the idea of them as antagonists was clever. The honor code let Kirk and Spock outmaneuver them without always resorting to violence. But also another indication that Rodenberry was writing without considering human nature. No one sticks to their guns to that extent, and having the bad guys do it instead of the good guys isn’t great messaging either.” Volk hopped down onto the ground and Langley followed a moment later. He glanced around the empty field the lander sat in and dropped his volume to a quiet but still conversational level. “Still, I’ve been thinking about Klingons a lot the last couple of days.” 

“Oh?” Volk looked around as well but couldn’t find anything noteworthy. “Why is that?” 

Sins of the Father.” 

“You’ll have to refresh my memory.” 

“Worf’s father is censured by the Klingon government and, after investigating, Worf chooses not to tell the truth in order to protect the reputation of a powerful Klingon. In doing this he prevents a possible civil war but is dishonored for his father’s supposed actions. Worf believes trading the truth for lives is the honorable choice.” Langley held his hands out and tilted them like he was a scale, weighing justice. “But then the Klingon ruler dies and the powerful Klingon Worf protected fights a civil war to take power. And the war is worse, because he had more time to gather allies from inside and outside of Klingon space, than it would have been if Worf just disgraced him. In the end, Worf made the wrong decision.” 

This was ringing some bells somewhere in the recesses of Volk’s memory. He’d always enjoyed the later stories, from the Deep Space Nine incarnation, more and many of the details from the era Langley referred to were spotty. “Yes, I remember that story, somewhat. What’s significant about it?” 

Langley sighed. “Never mind. Just make sure you tell the Malacandrans the truth. They deserve to know that the story they’re living in is over, Fyodorovich. Tell them who C.S. Lewis is. Show them the other books he wrote and let them know the Silent Planet talks to them again. The truth will out, one way or another, and any fallout from that will be worse later. Not better.” 

Then he took the flight recorder out of Volk’s hands and walked off towards the Old Borealis basecamp. Volk glanced at his empty hands with a start. “Hey!” 

“I need a copy of that descent telemetry,” he said, “or no one will ever believe I pulled it off!” 

Volk shook his head and followed after, still not sure what he made of the man. 


Pak watched as Elder Alyssa and the rest of his guests worked their way along the outside of the dome. While blueprints and programming for custom built vacuum suits was one of the many blessings the Rodenberries had given them over the past few days a form fitted suit you were unfamiliar with was almost as cumbersome as a poor fitting one and it was slow going for most of them. With the exceptions of Volk and his silent shadow. Pak was now convinced Spacer First Class Shen was actually some kind of personal watcher that Volk’s superiors had tasked with keeping him out of trouble because she’d refused to leave him alone since he’d crashed his ship in the cornfields three days ago. 

Out of the Malacandrans who’d come out with him only Gemma had any kind of time logged in suits so the rest of them, from the Eldest down to petitioner Drake, stumbled over every hillock and flailed against every gust of wind. They still got where they were going inside of a quarter hour. “We saw this doorway when we first arrived,” Volk said when he saw where Pak had stopped. “But it didn’t look operable. Now power readings, anyway.” 

“It doesn’t need power,” Pak said, taking the hatch by the handle and lifting it completely off its hinges and setting it aside. Without the added gravity inside the dome it was an easy enough thing to accomplish. “It hasn’t worked that way in more cents than I can count.” 

Volk just stared at the door for a minute. “I don’t know why we didn’t think of that.” 

“In my experience,” Alyssa said, “overthinking things is Rodenberry way.” 

“Speaking of doing things the hard way…” Pak turned and tried to pick the Thulcandran woman out from the crowd. With everyone in vac suits it was hard to do. “There’s an entrance at the bottom of the reactor, right? Why aren’t we using that?” 

“We don’t have the passcodes to open the door,” the Eldest said. “And we can’t be sure the door isn’t boobytrapped.” 

“What’s a boobytrap?” Alyssa asked. 

“Nothing good,” Volk said. “Let’s go down and see what this place is all about.” 

The stairs down were caked with red dust. Most of the lights were dark but they’d anticipated that and Volk passed out four portable lanterns and they picked their way down with appropriate reverence. “Why do you think your Founders closed this part of the dome off?” The Thulcandran woman asked. “The plans don’t show anything interesting down here.” 

“We don’t have any idea,” the Eldest said. “We just know they didn’t want it reopened until we’d made peace with Thulcandra.” 

“That’s why you’re here, Aubrey,” Volk said. 

“I always wanted to be a living loophole.” But she didn’t seem too put out at the idea. 

At the bottom of the stairway there was a locked hatch. The lights fucntion for the twenty or so feet leading up to the landing and this entrance had power. A key pad at the center of the hatch suggested how people gained entrance. Eldest Nobari pushed his way to the front of the line. “Naomi told me the combination before she passed,” he said. “It’s part of the oral tradition.” 

“What happens when you open the door?” Volk asked. 

“Those instructions come once we enter the next chamber,” Nobari replied. “But I don’t think anything dangerous. Naomi said it was our last, best chance to see peace with Thulcandra but she didn’t know anything more than that.” 

He put the code in and the hatch clunked. The Eldest was reaching to open it when Volk gently pulled him back from the entrance. “Shen? If you would.” 

The small woman wormed her way to the place Nobari had been standing, taking her weapon in her hands and nodding to Volk. He reached out and opened the hatch. 

The room inside was dark but as soon as the hatch opened completely old lighting systems snapped to life, marching across the chamber in an ever expanding circle of illumination. At first Pak was listening for the instructions that would tell them what happened next. But he lost track of that notion as he began to realize how big a room he was looking at. It was nearly thirty feet from floor to ceiling but he couldn’t tell how far it went in any given direction because it was full, floor to ceiling, with racks of pods. He wasn’t sure what was in the pods but they were about ten feet long and three feet high. After a moment Pak realized with a start that they were the exact size of a Glass Coffin. 

“The floor, sir,” Shen said, gesturing to an illuminated strip running down the center of the aisles. Most of the lights were white but a blue strip led off to the left. “I think It’s telling us where to go.” 

“I agree. Aubrey what do you- hey!” Volk pulled her hands away from her helmet. “Keep that on until we know what’s going on here.” 

“It’s a Vault,” she said, voice wooden. “Schrodinger’s Vault.” 

“What’s that mean?” Pak asked. 

Shen knelt by one of the pods, down at the point where the blue lights ended. “Wait, Naomi is in here. What the hell is this?” 

“She’s gone into Shutdown,” Aubery said. “They all have. Your Founders put everyone into Shutdown in the hopes that they’d get revived once Earth broke its silence and contacted you again. None of your elders are dead, just waiting for us to break the Silence…” 

Chapter Twenty Three – Long Way Down

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“You’re crazy!” Cates said. 

At the same time Alyssa said, “I don’t like the sounds of this plan, Dex.” 

“We skim down in a single orbit, use the atmosphere as brakes during the nadir of the first stage of the loop then bounce up a bit and repeat. We’ll lose about half the hull on our belly but we’ll be down in twenty five minutes, tops.” Langley jerked a thumb at himself. “At least, if I’m flying. Clearly your guy doesn’t have the chops for this.” 

Volk gave the Copernican pilot his best officer’s stare. “Langley, if this is just some overwrought way to make Ensign Cates feel inferior it’s in poor taste.” 

“Lieutenant,” he replied, “I did almost this exact landing pattern over Earth less than a week ago in a far less robust or maneuverable craft and on that run everyone who was alive before impact with the ground was just as alive after.” 

“A weird way to say it,” Volk countered. 

“One of us in the pod died during the orbital bombardment on the way down,” Langley said, matter of fact. “There’s no ground based barrage to worry about here.” 

“Mars has a lot less atmo than Earth,” Cates said. “You can’t count on it to brake as hard at any point during descent.” 

“Martian gravity is a lot lighter, too, and the thinner atmosphere is an upside since otherwise we’d burn up, you ain’t got the armor on these things to make a really fast landing in standard atmo.” He spread his hands. “Come on, LT, what do you say?” 

“Lieutenant,” Cates snapped, “we don’t have the thrust to land safely even with a landing profile configured for maximum air resistance.” 

“I wasn’t kidding when I said crash the ship.” 

“We’re not all that has to survive the landing,” Alyssa put in. “This is all kind of pointless if the reactor parts don’t survive.” 

“That cargo hold is the sturdiest part of the ship, if we flood it with impact gel it’ll be fine.” Langley jammed his hands under his arms and clamped them down tight, clearly anxious to be doing something. “We can do this but if we’re going to try it we need to start down soon.” 

“No, this is stupid.” Cates waved towards the back of the ship. “What about the reactor? You heard what they said, we need that to power the dome some other way or we can’t–” 

Volk grabbed Cates by the collar of his evac suit and dragged him out of his chair. “Thank you, Ensign, that’s enough. Sergeant Langley, take the conn please. Everyone else take a seat and ready for vacuum. And Alyssa, let the colony know they’re going to have to open both sides of their airlock long enough for us to get through. We can’t go in the normal way.” 

To his credit Cates didn’t press the point once the decision was made he just scrambled into different chair and started strapping in. Langley took his place and set to work, changing the lander’s angle of descent sharply and hitting the acceleration thrusters hard. Since his hands were full Volk took his helmet and fitted it in place for him. Alyssa and Cates followed suit. The ship’s comms crackled and Captain Gyle’s voice came over. “Lieutenant Fyodorovich, explain the change to your landing profile.” 

He waited just long enough to pull his own helmet on and transfer communications over before answering. “Fyodorovich here, Captain. Have you been briefed on the new situation planetside?” 

“The failing reactor? The report just came through. We’ve got Commander Deveneaux working on it. Does this have a bearing on your vector?” 

There was a horrible moment where Volk tried to decide if he should acknowledge the potential pun or not. Discretion was the better part of valor. “Yes, sir. Sergeant Langley thinks we can get down fast enough to prevent a catastrophic failure if we make a powered emergency landing.” 

“Very interesting,” Gyle said. “Mr. Fyodorovich we don’t have the time to make a replacement for the parts you’re carrying if they’re destroyed on landing.” 

“Understood, sir. But we think we can land this safely. What are the odds we find a way to keep the reactor intact long enough to make a conventional landing before it irradiates half the dome?” 

There was a long moment of silence on the other side of the comm. Volk hoped the Captain made up his mind before they were too deep in the gravity well to turn back. Finally Gyle came back long enough to say, “Good luck, Lieutenant.” 

Volk reached across the board and triggered the manual override to flood the cabin with impact gel. As the clear, noneuclidean liquid filled the chamber Langley got set up in the glove box that would let him manipulate the lander’s controls without having to fight the liquid’s temperamental viscosity. “Ladies and gentleman,” he said, “thank you for flying Drop Ship Transportation, we hope you will enjoy today’s crash for the rest of your lives. We’d like to take this opportunity to remind you that it is a good day to die.” 

“Oh, shit,” Volk muttered. “He thinks he’s a Klingon.” 

“Q’plah, motherfuckers!” 


“They want us to what?” Pak threw the old wiring aside and moved out of the way so his crew could keep working on the servo replacement. 

“You have to open both sides of the airlock,” Harriet said. “They’re coming in very, very fast and Volk says the lander will punch through the internal door one way or another so he’d like us to get it open if we can.” 

“That’s not possible,” Pak said, trying to keep from yelling into his comm. He didn’t want to deafen the woman. “There’s safeties to keep us from opening both halves of the door.” 

“Can’t you override the safety?” 

“The programming language isn’t one we have a manual for…” Pak looked around for a loose board. “But I can try to do something.” 

“Well if you can’t figure it out get your team away from that hatch in eighteen minutes because by that point you’ll be in the line of fire.” 

“Great. Great, thanks.” He signed off the comm and looked around. “Gemma! You’re in charge here, finish up these replacements and clear the scene in ten minutes, got it?” 

“Ten minutes!” She pulled herself out of a servo hatch and stared at him. “How am I supposed to do that? And what are you doing?” 

“Just get it done!” He sprinted off towards the closest network node he could tap in to. 


The worst part about an emergency landing was the waiting. There was nothing quite so terrifying as sitting in a chair, looking out a viewport and watching the air around your ship slowly superheat from the friction of your passage, knowing you were bound for a sudden, sharp stop sometime in the near future. Except maybe sitting in a chair with no viewport. Volk caught a quiet whimper come over the open comm circuit he’d established among the four passengers in the lander. 

“Everything okay, Mrs. Pracht?” 

“Sick stomach,” she said. 

“Ah. Well, if you do lose anything your helmet has an automatic suction system that should deal with it. Let me know if it doesn’t.” 

“This happens a lot?” 

“More than we like to admit.” 

“Crosswinds moving north-northwest,” Cates said, cutting in to the channel. “Brace for it.” 

“In this atmo it’ll be a walk in the park,” Langley said, his hands working the controls frantically. 

And to Volk’s surprise the jolt a few seconds later was pretty negligible. “Damn,” Cates muttered. “How did you do that?” 

“Practice. Panic about crosswinds once we’re halfway down, kid. Until then, try and relax.” 

Langley had probably meant it as much for Alyssa as for Cates but, if so, it was lost on her. She was starting to huff a bit in her helmet and Volk was getting worried. Spacers went through a lot of training to acclimate to the stress of being in a vacuum suit, to say nothing of space flight and emergency situations. “Calm down, Alyssa,” he said. “Only fifteen minutes to go.” 

“Is it supposed to be this warm?” She asked. 

Volk glanced out the viewport and watched the air glow brighter and brighter. “No. Not really.” 


Where the exterior door and its servos had deteriorated quite a bit the network hub was still in surprisingly good shape. Pak managed to get it open and connect it to his board in under a minute. After that he got so wrapped up in trying to get access he never noticed Harriet coming up behind him. He nearly jumped out of his skin when her hand touched his shoulder. “What?!” 

“Sorry…” She huffed, panting and sweaty. “Got… lost. Thought you were… at the hatch.” 

He tried to slow his heart down. “No, I had to come here to get in the network. What did you need?” She just held out the small, comm sized box the spacers seemed to use as their all-purpose computing solution. After a moment’s hesitation Pak took it and said, “Hello?” 

“Is this the person in charge of reprogramming the hatch systems?” A voice asked. 

“That’s me.” 

“I’m told no one down there has any significant experience with this kind of thing.” 

Pak grimaced. “True enough. Is it too much to hope you have a solution ready to go?” 

“We’re going to do everything we can to help you.” Which he noticed was not a direct answer to his question. “Now, we’re going to be working in ENDEMIC, the English language version of ColSystems’ Dome Engineering Management Information Codec, which is a very simple and robust programming language from that era.” 

“I’m glad someone here is an expert on it.” 

“I’m just reading from the first page of the manual, kid. We’re not trying anything fancy, just pasting a new command bypass over existing code so hopefully it won’t take us too long to sort it out. Now you need to get system access.” 

“I’m working on that.” 

“There’s a back door you can use by bringing up the file directory…” 


“We’re crossing a warm air pocket in twenty seconds.” For all the animosity previously Cates seemed to function as Langley’s copilot just fine. “Shorter to skirt it to the north.” 

“We’re going too fast to cut around it neatly like that. We’ll just ride the turbulence.” 

Alyssa whimpered, the only noise she’d made for the past three or four minutes. “Easy,” Volk said. “We’re more than halfway down.” 

“We can’t just fly through it, we’ll hit the updraft and bounce like a bad penny!” 

“You have pennies on Rodenberry? I thought the Federation was beyond money.” Even Langley’s barbs had lost their playful edge and sounded more like a straining man trying to distract himself. 

“Steady, Langley,” Volk said. “Banter isn’t necessary if its distracting you.” 

“Gotta rag on someone, LT,” he shot back, “or I wind up doing it to myself. That’s even more distracting.” 

“By all means, rag on me then,” Cates said. “Just don’t smash this thing on the ground.” 

Another nervous sound from Alyssa. Then they hit the turbulence and engine two burst in to flames. 


“Try compiling it again.” 

Pak hit the right key on his board. “Same error message. Maybe we’re going about this all wrong, Mr. Deveneaux. What if, instead of creating a new opening subroutine, we tried just disengaging the safeties on the servoes for the inner door and cranked it open by hand.” 

“That’s going to be very slow to open and reseal, Pak,” the stranger on the comms said. “I don’t know if that’s adviseable.” 

“We have eight minutes left. I think It’s or only option to get this done before your ship crashes straight through the hatch and we can’t reseal it at all.” 

“Fair point. Okay, Pak, try the following commands…” 


Volk finally got the fire in engine two out. “You have full thrust on the starboard side again, Mr. Langley.” 

“Peachy.” The lander’s engines roared back to maximum, a new and somewhat ominous whine added to the mix. “We are twenty seconds away from the dome, people. If you’re the praying type, now is the time.” 

A quick glance at Alyssa told Volk she’d taken Langley’s advice some time ago. Assuming she hadn’t passed out. The woman had many admirable qualities but a love of flying wasn’t among them, unfortunately. He ran through a mental list of things he needed to do before crashing the lander and he could only think of one thing left to do. “Mr. Cates, stand by to release the braking parachute on Mr. Langley’s command.” 

“Wait, this ship has a parachute?” 

What?!” Volk and Cates demanded in unison. 

“Langley to Borealis, confirm entry hatch is open!” 


Pak clung to the side of the manual servo release, doing his best to resist the rushing tide of air trying to rip him out onto the surface of Mars. “This is Pak Teng Won at Hatch Five, hatch is open.” 

“Then hang on to something, we’re coming through and it isn’t going to be pretty.” 

“Already hanging on, thanks.” 

But his words were lost in the deafening howl that rose up, swallowing even the roar of the wind, as a flying craft the size of a house tore through the hatch. A wave of scalding air bore through the hatch with it, momentarily reversing the flow of wind through the hatch and almost knocking Pak to the ground with the suddenness of the reversal. As soon as he had his feet again Pak hit the automated controls for the outer hatch, sealing the dome again in a matter of seconds. But he didn’t pay attention to that because the ship smashed to the ground with a horrifying grinding, hissing noise. 

Half an acre of Martian corn flashfried into ash under the superheated hull or got ripped up in a tidal wave of dirt and plants that scattered everywhere in front of the sliding extraMartian object. For a moment he didn’t think it would stop before it hit a building but then a colorful black and gold object exploded from the back of the ship and expanded into a parachute that looked like it was half the size of the Sunbottle. It billowed under the force of the air for a moment then tore in half down the middle but that was enough to stop the ship before it even crossed the clear space between the fields and Old Borealis. Pak heaved a sigh of relief. Then realized that even though the ship hadn’t hit anything that was no guarantee anyone was alive in that thing. 

He’d covered half the distance to the ship when hatch popped open on the top of the ship and a suited man dragged himself out, a weird slime dripping from his whole body. He looked unsteady but that didn’t stop him from ripping his helmet off and throwing it down hard enough that it bounced five times before rolling to a stop. “Perfect landing, Cates. Let’s see you do that next time.” 

Pak let his headlong dash slow to a walk. Ramone had sent bottlers with hookup cables to loop the lander in. The parts on the ship would let them fix the Sunbottle. All four passengers on the lander had crawled out and looked like they were okay. 

Gemma came up by him, looking equally shellshocked by the craziness that had come and gone in the last half hour, and asked, “So, are we done?” 

Pak took a deep breath and let it out. Laughed. And said, “Yeah, I think the disaster is averted. For today.” He slapped her on the back. “Good work.” 

She turned bright red for some reason. “Uh, yeah. Thanks.” 

Pak put it out of his mind and went to see if they needed any help unloading the lander. 

Martian Scriptures Chapter Twenty Two – The Tipping Point

Previous Chapter

Alyssa scrambled back into the spacelock, frantically fiddling with the controls on the weird box the Rodenberries called an AI, something she really didn’t understand beyond being a very small but very advanced computer system. Supposedly it had decision making capabilities but not “strong” decision making capabilities. Whatever that meant. The reason she had one was so she could monitor the Sunbottle’s situation remotely but right now it was just showing her a badly focused hologram of her status board back at the watch room. “Not this board, Ramone, I need Doug’s old board.” 

“Hold on.” Ramone’s voice drifted in from somewhere out of sight. “I think we’re still trying to get something sorted with the input here.” 

The hologram jerked, then snapped into focus. Another moment passed, then the hologram froze for a second before changing to the desired board. “Much better,” she said. Then noticed that the primary wing fields were down to half strength. “Oh, never mind. Much worse!” 

One nice thing about AI holoreadouts was their transparency. That let Alyssa keep an eye on the board as she walked through the hanger towards the landing craft the Sunbottle parts were on. Captain Gyle only had to steer her around an obstacle every once in a while. “Eldest, you need to think about evacuating the rest of your people from Bottletown,” he was saying. “In case we can’t patch your system before something goes wrong.” 

“Are you sure we’ll be safe if we just move to the Borealis outskirts?” Nobari was also speaking from somewhere off camera. “We do have the resources to move everyone outside the dome for a day or two.” 

“As impressed as I am that that’s the case, I don’t think it will be necessary.” That was Deveneaux, also speaking from somewhere else on the ship. Once the call from Thacker revealed how bad things were on the ground he’d scurried away to ‘run simulations’ and consult with someone else who wasn’t even onboard the ship. Sometimes the scale Gyle’s crew worked on boggled the mind. “Those reactors are purpose built to not irradiate their surroundings. Most of the danger in this situation comes from not having a reactor available, rather than said reactor melting down.” 

“Still, pulling back some is for the best,” Gyle added. 

“Agreed,” Deveneaux hastened to add. “We should be able to slow the progress of the failure cascade if we lower the reactor’s output. I’m running some numbers now, give me five minutes and we’ll see what we come up with.” 

“If we don’t change anything, how long before we have a serious problem?” Gyle asked. 

The AI turned out to have a calculation function that Alyssa was taking full advantage of. “I think… eight hours. Maybe ten. What’s the fastest we can get back to the surface?” 

“I’m not the best pilot in the Navy,” Gyle said, “but I think I could make the trip in a hundred minutes if I really pushed it. Ensign Cates could probably do it in ninety.” 

“We’ve never had to hook something other than the Sunbottle into the dome’s power grid, so I have no idea how long that will take. Let’s call it two hours.” Alyssa bit her lower lip, by all accounts it should take under four hours to get to ground and start powering the Sunbottle down. Less than half her projected time limit. Why didn’t that reassure her? “With your permission, Captain, we’ll leave as soon as possible.” 

“Naturally,” Gyle said. “Merryweather! You have everything loaded?” 

They’d come around the end of a row of four Tigris class landers to find Chief Merryweather waiting for them, still wearing his metal skeleton suit the Rodenberry’s called a “loading exo” and looking a bit disgusted. Two boxes of components rested at his feet. “Almost, Captain.” 

Two other men and one woman were waiting there with him. One man Alyssa recognized as Commander Oda, the Captain’s assistant. The other looked vaguely familiar but she’d never seen the woman before. “I had him halt the loading for the moment,” Oda said. “There’s something we need to discuss, Captain.” 

Gyle stiffened, an odd look crossing his face. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t aware my orders on this subject got referred to committee.” 

When Alyssa had first started in the Sunbottle the head bottler had been a surly man named Greg Fields. He had always insisted on his orders being carried out immediately and completely, much to her annoyance. Until, halfway through her first cent in the bottle, a conduit blowout had scorched half a crawler team deep in the bowels of the reactor. The speed and precision of responding teams under Greg’s direction went a long way to explaining why he insisted on such discipline. And it was Greg’s example that helped her understand what the Captain was doing now – sitting on his annoyance until the crisis was passed. 

Oda realized it, too. “Commander Rand has new concerns about the tactical situation, Captain.” 

“We’re dealing with fifteen hundred people who haven’t even reached twenty years, living in an ancient colony dome with barely any resources of their own.” Gyle managed to say it without sounding condescending. Almost. “There is no tactical situation, Rand.” 

Rand opened his own AI holodisplay and showed the Captain some kind of graph. Alyssa thought it looked very familiar but couldn’t place it right off. “I had Lieutenant Jimenez running a number of tests over the past few days, Captain. Her people have tapped the dome power grid in several remote locations in order to build a better picture of how the colony is running.” 

“What?!” That explained why the graph looked familiar. It showed circuit loads throughout the dome. “Captain, we did not allow anyone into Bottletown for that purpose!” 

“Everything we did was done from Old Borealis,” Jimenez said. At least she had the good grace to look embarrassed by all this. “With a little knowhow you can get information on the whole grid from any substation in the network.” 

“And why is this important?” Gyle demanded. 

“Sir, they shunt a third of their power into some kind of underground chamber,” Rand said. “Fyodorovich’s initial survey detected the upper edges of it and we had his two enlisted men do a sweep of the crop fields that gave us an idea of how deep it runs, although we only hit a corner of it. Just based on that, at a minimum we’re looking at something the size of the Sea of Tranquility’s primary hanger bay. But theoretically they could have a warship on the scale of the Principia down there.” 

Gyle slowly turned to give Alyssa an appraising look. “Is that true?” 

“That we route a large amount of power through circuits fourteen and fifteen? Yes.” Alyssa folded her arms over her chest. “That’s a vital system. Every document on colony maintenance left by the Founders confirms that.” 

“As nearly as we can tell,” Rand countered, “the chamber doesn’t do anything. Outside of the power supply lines we couldn’t detect any entrances or exits.” 

“There’s one in the first level of the Sunbottle,” Alyssa said. “And there’s an external access.” 

“So what’s in there?” Gyle asked. “You’re a bottler. You must have gone in.” 

“No one goes in there.” It was barely a whisper. “Not until you pass into Silence.” 

“Great.” Rand threw his hands in the air. “It’s haunted. You’re spending a third of your power generating capacity on a haunted hanger bay. Doesn’t that fit with fucking everything–“ 

“That’s enough, Commander,” Gyle snapped. 

“It does bring us to the other issue at hand, Captain,” Oda said. “There’s still the Prime Directive issue to consider.” 

“We’ve already discussed this multiple times, Commander Oda.” 

“But this adds a new element to it.” Oda was firm and insistent. “We are dealing with a civilization that has sabotaged their own lifelines on an inhospitable world and even now shunts a sizeable portion of what safety they have left into systems that may have nothing more than religious significance. By interfering now we may be keeping them from a rightful collapse. It is arrogant of us to meddle in this situation.” 

From the twitching in his forehead Gyle seemed to be winding up for a blistering reply. But Alyssa had had enough and she stopped him with a hand on his forearm. “Commander, are you familiar with the work of the ‘Great Man’ that we watched when we visited your ship a few days ago?” 

“Yes.” Oda did not miss a beat when answering. “I was one of three officers who selected the episodes in question.” 

“I found it fascinating. I’m not a petitioner nor a great student of Ransom’s notes, but I’ve read through them about as often as most.” Alyssa closed her AI display and gave Oda her full attention. “I found the story about whether the metal man was truly human or not very reminiscent of Ransom and Weston’s meeting with the Oyarsa. Are you familiar with that story, Commander?” 

“I read a summary of–” 

“This story, too, rested on the question of who was or was not human. Only in Old Solar the term does not refer to humanity as such, but rather whether a thing contains the essence of the Creator – whether a living thing is hnau. Oyarsa was unable to comprehend how Weston could not see that the natives of Mars were hnau, just as Weston himself was. Do you know how Weston explained it?” 

Oda adopted the pursed lips and longsuffering air that seemed hardwired into Rodenberries who were listening while trying not to dismiss what they were hearing out of hand. “I do not.” 

“Weston said they were too primitive to justify his consideration. They had only sticks and nets and crude wooden houses, so it was fitting that he hold his hand over them in dominion.” Alyssa scowled at him. “It seems you’re the opposite. You can see that we’re hnau, just like you. But we’re too primitive to deserve your helping hand, so it’s fitting you not put yourself out to help us. If that’s the case, perhaps Ransom and Rodenberry don’t have as much in common as I thought.” 

Gyle rested a hand on her shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “Let’s hope that’s not the case.” His gaze offered Oda less comfort. “Anything you’d like to add, Commander?” 

Oda wasn’t winning his point and he could tell it. “Just that I strongly object to this course of action, Captain.” 

“Understood, Commander. You’re relieved of duty until further notice. Lieutenant Jimenez, please escort Commander Oda to his quarters.” She nodded and met Oda’s eyes for just a moment. He gave an imperceptible nod and left without further complaint. Gyle ignored them, still barking orders. “Merryweather, get that gear loaded. Miss Parcht, you can board at any time. Commander Rand, please oversee the launch procedure.” 

“Yes, sir.” He turned and headed towards the spacelock’s control room. 

“Thank you, Captain,” Alyssa said. 

“I want you to know that Commander Oda doesn’t speak for Rodenberry – not our planet, not for Gene.” 

“Of course not,” she said with a wan smile. “Not any more than I do for Bottletown. But you expect us to learn enough about both Rodenberries to make our own judgements you’ll have to stop treating us like children. No matter how young we look in your eyes.” 

“We’ll do our best, Miss Pracht. I promise you that.” 


“All aboard!” Volk announced as Cates secured the hatch behind Alyssa. “And perfect timing, we just got the last of your cargo loaded.” 

“Wonderful,” Langley said as he clomped past them on his way to the cockpit from the cargo bay hatch he’d just secured. “Get me off this damn ship and away from all this peace and goodwill.” 

Cates scowled at the man. “Remind me again why you’re here?” 

“Every ship should have at least one qualified pilot onboard, kid, even if he’s from a different service.” 

“Excuse you?” Cates stalked after him, doubtless to continue the argument. It had been near constant since they’d lifted off Mars. 

“Sorry about them,” Volk said to Alyssa. “Pilots love two things: flying and one upsmanship. I think Langley is getting as much of the second as he can since Cates won’t let him do the first.” 

“Sure.” Alyssa had most of her attention on the AI in her hand. “How do I answer this when it wants to talk to me?” 

Volk walked her through the finger movements to do what she wanted, then walked her towards the cockpit as well, doing his best to monitor both her conversation and the new battle lines being drawn between Rodenberry and Copernicus. The liftoff sequence apparently also failed to meet Langley’s exacting standards. “Let’s get strapped in before those two start throwing punches and put us in a flat spin.” 

Alyssa just nodded absently, speaking into her AI rather than to him. “Go ahead Commander Deveneaux. What do the numbers look like?” 

“It’s not the numbers that are a problem, Miss Pracht. It’s the reactor. I shared some models with my opposite number on our sister ship. After refining things some we’re pretty sure your reactor has three hours, tops, before the next cascade failure knocks out all your injectors and the backwash overloads your containment fields.” 

“Okay.” Alyssa walked while punching numbers into a holographic calculator. “If we shut down the reactor now the dome should be fine on back-up power for as long as six hours–” 

“I already tried that,” a new voice said. “But none of the reactor’s shutdown codes were accepted. From what the Bottletown computer is telling us it won’t do it as long as there’s no alternative power source for the dome available.” 

“Great,” Alyssa muttered. “Another system the Founders didn’t explain to us.” 

Volk gently helped her get settled into a chair. Cates had already gotten the lander off the ground and started cycling through the spacelock. Rather than hassling him about it Langley was quietly eavesdropping on the conversation. “Can you bypass that lockout?” Volk asked, trying to figure out what options were available. “Just cut out the relevant code in the program?” 

“Even if it was that simple,” Alyssa replied, “we don’t have anyone who’s familiar with the reactor’s code. There’s maybe twenty programmers in Bottletown at a given time to begin with.” 

“Fine. Fine.” The lander cleared spacelock and drifted over the aft port section of the Stewart. Mars peeked over the edge of the ship in the distance. “How much time will it take you to hook up the lander to the dome?” 

Alyssa shook her head. “I don’t know. If everything goes perfectly, twenty minutes? But I don’t know what the odds of that are. I’m not even sure the dome is ready to open – no one has used those hatches in thousands of cents, it’s going to be hard to get them operating again.” 

“Okay,” Volk said, soothing her. “Let’s not borrow trouble. Two hours to make a landing is more than plenty to–” 

“Injectors two and seven just went red!” Ramone yelled. “Juggle the relays before – Oyarsa save us, junction box seventeen’s out. Even the load!” 

Alyssa muted the audio, working numbers frantically. “Okay. Okay. We have… maybe ninety minutes before the reactor passes a point of no return and we can’t shut it down under any circumstances. We need to land in an hour. Maybe faster.” 

“Cates?” 

The ensign shook his head. “Not possible, sir. I could do eighty five minutes at the fastest but–” 

“I can do it.” 

Cates gave Langley a venomous look. “Stop with the bullshit. This is serious, we need to get the colony ready for a meltdown, not–” 

“I want to hear this, Cates.” Volk nodded to Langley. “Go on.” 

“I flew Somme class landers in the assault force that got wiped out at Minerva Polar,” he said. “They’re functionally identical to the Tigris class except they have weapons and armor in place of sensor emplacements and comms packages. I was trained to take them through all kinds of landing situations and I can get you from here to the dome in twenty two minutes. All we have to do is crash the ship at the end.” 

Martian Scriptures Chapter Seventeen – Cracking Foundations

Previous Chapter

Alyssa snapped back to reality for the umpteenth time that morning. The Sunbottle’s readouts flashed and changed, their constant flux even more meaningless to her than normal. A constant whirlwind of emotions kept her from focusing on what was technically her job. Doug, Alessandro and the rest of the Watch Room staff had been tiptoeing around her for the past two hours. It should have annoyed her. But the energy for annoyance and anger had left her.

She probably shouldn’t have spent so much of it on Fyodorovich the Spacer but her ability to make clearheaded decisions on how to use her mind and efforts had left the dome when Naomi did the day before. She’d tried to remember what Naomi had told her about the day her older brother had passed into Silence. But in the face of her own grief all other memories had faded into the background. Victor’s time was coming in less than a cent. She didn’t know how she was going to handle that.

“Um…” Alyssa glanced over at Doug, the tall, lanky man standing respectfully, an uncertain expression on his face. “I’m sorry to bother you, Elder. I know this has been a rough time for you.”

“Spit it out, Doug. I’m not in the mood to have someone talk at me rather than too me.”

“Sure thing, Alyssa. I’ve been looking at the numbers on those conduit failures.” He handed her a tablet with a very dense set of data on it. “Now the Sunbottle was here before Bottletown was founded and we don’t have numbers from that time period. But if we start with the Founding and work our way to the present there’s–“

“Okay, wait.” She passed the tablet back. “That’s way too dense for me to try and parse today. How important is all that to the point you want to make?”

“Ultimately, not very,” he said, swiping to the end of the report. “Just me proving my work, in case it was important to you. I can give you the short version if you want.”

May the oyarsa give her the strength… “Please.”

“I think we need to do a complete shutdown, replace all the conduits and the injectors, and do a Page 73 restart of the entire Sunbottle.” He handed her the tablet back with the appropriate page pulled up. Not that he needed to. “There’s a good chance the conduits keep failing because they’re leaking at the 135-140 junctions and if that continues the Sunbottle’s wings might fail entirely. Then we’re all dead.”

Alyssa frowned. Doug’s modeling was good – maybe even brilliant. The junctions in question were quite old, probably original, and by his best guess they were long overdue for a catastrophic failure. But for whatever reason that string of junctions was tied to every injector in the system. They couldn’t close those junctures with the Bottle running. Which was bad. Because…

“Doug, I can’t turn the entire Sunbottle off. Not even for half a day. The reboot process is nearly a week and we’ll have too many vital systems shut down in that time. Not to mention, ‘The Sunbottle is your first and only defense against the Silent Planet’ is the first rule of the Sunbottle.”

“We can build enough batteries and stockpile enough energy to run Bottletown in four days. And as for Thulcandra…” Doug gestured upwards. “There’s already a spaceship in geosynchronous orbit overhead. I think if the Sunbottle really had some function to keep us safe from Thulcandran invaders we’d have seen in by now.”

That’s right, Doug was a skeptic. He didn’t put a lot of faith in a lot of the warnings and methods the Founders had left behind in Ransom’s notes. He was a decent board operator and probably had some kind of innate knack for the machinery that was so strong it tended to override most of his other characteristics, at least in her mind. They didn’t socialize much outside of work. “Show me those junctions, then. Let’s see how bad a shape they’re really in.”


 

“Based on a work of fiction?” Craig cleared every last irrelevant report off his holo screen and full sized Ensign Veers’s face.

“That’s correct, sir.” Veers shrunk back down to half the screen, the cover of a book appearing over his head. “Specifically Out of the Silent Planet by one C.S. Lewis, a fiction author of the early to mid twentieth century.”

“Never heard of him,” Craig said, moving Veers to one side and opening up the author’s biography from the ship’s archives. “On the prolific side, it seems.”

“And he wrote both fiction and nonfiction. His ‘space trilogy’ is among his more obscure works, so we’re not sure how it wound up fulfilling this role. But all the language fits. Hnau, eldil, Oyarsa and other terms we’ve recorded down there are all used by Lewis. And, of course, there’s the references to Earth under siege by supernatural entities and a Dr. Ransom, who’s the protagonist.” Two more book covers joined the first in the space over Veers’s head. “A quick AI analysis of the whole trilogy suggests that no elements of the following two books are incorporated into the Malacandran world view, so they probably just had the one copy of the first book Commander Fyodorovich discovered to work with.”

“Their entire society is based on a work of fiction,” Craig muttered, looking through the plot summary their AIs had put together. “No wonder it’s so odd.”

The book covers vanished and Veers grew to fill the gap. “Sir, with all due respect, when I was in the Academy I had to take four semesters of classes on the philosophy and morality of a TV show runner who lived and died in the exact same century.”

Craig paused, midsentence, and turned his full attention to Veers. “Ensign, how would you like a promotion to assistant head of Martian Operations?”

“Sounds like an awfully harsh punishment for a simple observation, sir.”

“Too bad,” Craig said, going back to his reading. “The more that happens down there the more I feel like Mars could justify its own entire two hundred man department on permanent assignment planetside.”

“Don’t let Volk know you want to keep him on one planet, sir.” Veers shrugged when Craig gave him a questioning look. “He’d hate to be stuck in atmosphere that long.”

“Noted, Ensign. What does our resident Mars expert think of this?”

“Ah.” Veers coughed into his hand. Looked away for a moment, as if checking something. Double checked. “Miss Vance was not available to consult with. It seems she left the base camp in Old Borealis sometime shortly after arriving and no one has seen her since. Commander Fyodorovich has assigned most of the ground team search duties and they’re trying to locate her now.”

“Just. Wonderful. Thank you, Ensign. Please inform me as soon as they find anything.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Craig shook his head and pulled up the text of Out of the Silent Planet. He might as well learn something while he was waiting.


 

No one had used most of the buildings in Borealis in over a century. Finding one that had been opened recently was easy. Theoretically.  In practice there were over a thousand abandoned buildings in Borealis Colony and even just checking the dirt caked in the corners of the door frames on that many buildings, some with as many as six entrances, was going to take time. But Volk wasn’t willing to waste a whole lot of it. He needed to find Aubrey if he didn’t want to be remembered as the man who lost the first Earthling anyone had seen in centuries.

So he’d ignored standard safety procedures and sent his team out alone rather than in pairs. But even covering ground twice as fast as normal they hadn’t found anything in almost an hour of looking. Volk was about to write off the eastern side of the colony when he spotted what he was looking for. The dirt in the bottom corner of a doorframe had crumbled and wasn’t visible in the street. It had fallen inside the doorframe. He keyed his comm. “This is Fyodorovich. Mark this position. I have signs of entrance at this building.”

“Understood.” Long sounded relieved. “Proceeding to your location.”

“Likewise.” Langly just sounded annoyed.

“Do you want us to rendezvous with you or return to base camp?” Shen asked.

“You can all head to basecamp,” Volk said. “We’re heading that way anyway.”

“See you there, sir.” The channel went quiet.

Volk spent a second figuring out the door controls then let himself in.

Old Borealis, as they’d taken to calling the part of the colony not used by Malacandrans, hadn’t been used in at least a century. An inch or more of dust covered everything in all the buildings he’d been in and this one was no exception. This was the only one he’d found with footprints in the dust. They made finding Aubrey sitting at the table in the back of the house simple enough. They didn’t explain why she was just sitting in a chair on one side of a simple, rectangular table and staring down the length at a chair at the other end.

It was eerie. Plates and cups were set out on the table as if someone was about to walk out with a main course for dinner. Silverware sat in odd positions on the table as if dropped in a hurry. A few of the cups had rings around their insides. For a moment Volk wondered if Aubrey had set it all out herself but then he noticed a lighter colored streak on the plate in front of her. She’s brushed dust off of it at some point. It was the only plate like that on the table. She couldn’t have gotten all that out without wiping off a lot more dust than just that.

“Miss Vance? Are you alright?”

The silence stretched just long enough for him to worry. Then, “What would you think if this was the last thing you saw?”

He gingerly stepped over to where she sat. Nothing out of the ordinary that he could see, besides the passive Earth woman staring at nothing. “I don’t know. Is it going to be the last thing I see?”

“I hope not.”

There were ghosts in those three words. Volk had no idea what led him to that conclusion but almost as soon as the idea occurred to him he found it impossible to think anything else. “Seriously, Miss Vance. Do you need help?”

“No.” She shuddered from foot to head and back again. “I don’t think coming to see this was a good idea. But… I think I had to. I knew someone who used to live here.”

“On Mars?”

She nodded. “In this building.”

And suddenly she was on her feet, rubbing her hands like she was by a campfire in the dead of winter. “I thought I owed her this. Maybe it was just arrogance.”

“I see… Well, we’ve found a few things we’d like your opinion on. We can do it at base camp, though.”

“Great. Let’s do that.” Aubrey spun on her heel and walked out.

Volk watched her go then looked back at the table again. A family had been eating dinner here, back when Earth came for Borealis. They’d just fallen over, unconscious, thanks to their medical systems turned bioweapons. For just a moment he had a horrifying vision of watching his entire family pass out for no reason in the middle of dinner. Then he shivered and followed Aubrey out of the room.


 

“…and Junction 109 is the worst of the bunch. Microfractures all over the inner part of the seals.” Doug held up a hand scanner and pointed the readout in Alyssa’s general direction. “This and 107 are the two that really worry me.”

Alyssa sighed. Doug was right, replacing the junctions really did seem like the only viable option at the moment. “Okay, Doug. This is… a mess. And I know why you want to do all this. But I can’t just wave my hands and say it’s okay to shut down the Sunbottle. Much less requisition all the batteries it’ll take to run us while it’s off. All I can promise is I’ll put it in front of the Elders tomorrow.”

Doug grimaced. “I’d like to be doing this already. But yeah, if that’s the soonest you can bring it up we’ll have to go with that.”

“Don’t worry, Doug. You made a good catch. I think we still have more than enough time to come up with a fix for this, no matter what the Elders ultimately decided to do.” She reached up and rapped the junction box with her knuckles. “After all, the Sunbottle’s been her for over two and a half centuries. It’s not about to come apart on us now.”

That was when the junction box blew up.

Pay the Piper – Afterwords

Whew. Some days I find writing to be a slog, some days it’s as easy as breathing. But to make a confession, writing Pay the Piper was more struggle than it was effortless. I hadn’t anticipated how rough simply reading the news would be when writing a story based on very recent events. I’ve second guessed what I was saying and whether people would hear what I meant or project something entirely different over what I wrote almost every chapter of this story, where it was only a concern now and then in other projects. I also rewrote the ending to the story.

Twice.

All in all, writing Pay the Piper stretched me in ways I didn’t anticipate and was a bigger effort than I ever anticipated so I’m not planning to tackle a project like it again in the near future. I might find myself pushed that way if I was prouder of the outcome but, while I am satisfied with where I wound up and that the story is complete I’m not sure I could ever make it into a work I’m proud and enthusiastic about. I know every author finds themselves with a few of those, even greats like Dickens, Doyle and Christie, but the point is I went off in a new direction to stretch myself and afterwards I feel sore and not particularly more flexible.

Not that I’m sad I wrote the story. The juncture of social media, soft exclusion and the slow poisoning of our perspectives and minds those factors can have is still very vivid to me, as is the potential for the technological resources we have and are developing to merge with our lives in unexpected and beneficial ways. I’m just not sure I’ve got the knowledge and interests to accurately display that in a near-to-real-world way. I tried my hand at it and, while the result is very rough, it does manage to hit most of the notes I wanted from it.

So what comes next?

As usual, I’ll be taking a week off to decompress, then I’ll invest another four weeks into general essays as I plot and do research for my next project.

Yes, downtime between fiction projects will be much shorter this time around. Partly because I’ve got a less to say on the essay front and partly because I’m very excited to begin on my next project, Martian Scriptures. I felt like my fiction work really hit its stride on this blog during the publication of Schrodinger’s Book and I found that story and its world and characters far more compelling and rich than I’d expected them to be when I started. So I’m glad to have a chance to go back to that story and write its indirect sequel. I hope you’ll enjoy it just as much.

Pay the Piper – Chapter Twenty Six

Previous Chapter

“Wait, you think Alvin Davidson is the point man for the Masks?” Eugene laughed. “The man doesn’t take clients that violate his own sense of ethics, why would he take on the Masks?”

“Because his sense of ethics is balance,” I said, waving towards Natalie. “And like she said, we’ve locked them out of Silicon Valley for years, whether we meant to or not. That’s an imbalance that he’d try to correct automatically.”

Natalie shifted uncomfortably. “Is this really how he’d chose to do it? Indiscriminate acts of terror? Disrupting huge swaths of the industry just because Galaxy pressured them to lock a rival group out? I mean, that sounds pretty unbalanced to me.”

“It’s a weakness in the theory, to be sure, but one thing you have to understand is that Vinny doesn’t see the world like you or I. He doesn’t understand empathy or compassion, he doesn’t have the emotional capacity for it and he knows it.” I shied away from the sudden spike of revulsion she put off at that statement. “Look, I’m sorry to be blunt but the man isn’t normal and in many ways it makes him a valuable member of society. But it’s a two edged sword and, for all the ways he’s tried to adopt a moral code and social graces, I don’t doubt he could mastermind exactly the kind of violence we’ve seen if the circumstances fit. And right now, they do.”

“Okay, okay.” Eugene flicked his fingers towards my chair, deliberately broadcasting how much he’d like it if I stopped pacing and sat down. “Let’s say Davidson is the mastermind or one of said masterminds, or even just sympathetic to their cause. We vet all the tech he installs on our equipment. I’m sure Silicon Valley firms are even more cautious than we are. He’s never brought us anything that looks remotely malicious or we wouldn’t still be working with him as a contractor, much less as a consultant.”

“How long has that been going on?”

Eugene gave me a dry look. “Is that really important right now?”

“How am I supposed to answer you until you answer me?”

“My point is, even if the Masks were using him to try and infiltrate our systems somehow, how exactly are they supposed to do it?”

I grunted helplessly. “I’m not a cybersecurity expert, so I couldn’t begin to guess. Forensics is my thing, remember?”

“Look,” Natalie said then hesitated, her mind seesawing between sympathy and… something I couldn’t quite pin down. Caution? Concern? It was hard to tell, unusual with her, but then it takes a couple of months to get a good read on some aspects of a new coworker, whether you’re psychometric or not. Finally she said, “I want to get this sorted, same as you. But the FBI needs something a little stronger than an analysis of one man’s motives. Like Hennesy said, motives are for juries. We can’t get a warrant with just that. Unless you could get Galaxy to look in to it?”

“One thing we’re truly terrible at is law enforcement and peace keeping,” I said. “Investigation and forensics is one of the least common specializations for us to choose. That’s why those of us who do take my profession work as consultants for agencies, rather than in our own agency.”

“Then you’re going to have to find proof on your own,” Eugene said. “Because I don’t think the locals or the FBI Director is going to okay going after someone like Davidson without some kind of proof.”

“I suppose you’re right.” That really narrowed my options down to one. I’d been hoping to avoid it but I needed an expert and there was only one I could find.

Well, sort of.


AJ Jackson was not a happy camper. Unhappy with where he was, unhappy not knowing what was going on, unhappy to see me.

That made two of us.

I sat down on my side of the interview table, folded my hands and said, “Tell me how to find Hat Trick, Jackson.”

“My client is not going to answer any questions off the record,” Jackon’s lawyer said. She was a frigid, fifty-something woman with a lined face and the eyes of a merciless bulldog.

“I didn’t ask a question,” I pointed out, momentarily amused by the posturing of this lawyer. They were a necessary evil, and some of them had fun and twisty ways of thinking. Unfortunately this one knew she was being baited. I wasn’t going to get any stress relief from this woman. “Tell me how to find Hat Trick.”

“If you’re here to badger my client-“

“What do you want with Hat Trick, Armor?” Jackson leaned back in his chair and squinted at me. He had kind of narrow, close set eyes and I could understand why he’d chosen to make hiding them behind sunglasses an integral part of his brand. With them missing and his bespoke suit traded in for a much less tailored orange number he looked much less impressive. But the changes didn’t take away his natural charisma and his words came out with confidence and pride. “I told you, there’s nothing illegal about any part of Backboard, at least not yet. He’s not guilty of anything.”

“Not that my client admits to guilt in anything either,” the lawyer added.

“I don’t know the law well enough to know if Backboard is illegal or not,” I admitted. “And I don’t care. I don’t care about your Silicoverlords either. I’m concerned about a growing wave of malicious and dangerous activity and I need a psychometric cybersecurity expert to help me with it. Hat Trick is the only one that might not be compromised and, from what you said on the boat, it sounds like he knows my reputation and might be willing to be that helper. Are you going to tell me where to find him or not? Because if not I need to call the Constellations.”

Jackson sat back in his chair and stared at me hard for a moment or two. “Why don’t you want to talk to them?”

“They keep making noises about taking me off the case. I’m pretty sure, at this point, that Aurora won’t do it if they tell her to but they can make other arrangements for it fast enough, if they want. The further away this gets from a simple terrorism investigation the more likely that outcome gets.” I raised an eyebrow and watched as that made its way into the whirlwind of his free associating mind. “So. How about it?”

I can usually guess where someone’s thoughts will go at least a few seconds before they tell me but with AJ Jackson all I could conclude is that the answer would be surprising. And he did not disappoint. “Tell me about Newell High.”

It took a moment for the shifter to kick in and change the gears, dredge my memory and make the association. “The Newell High disappearances? What about them? I didn’t work that case.”

“I just want to know what they were really about.” He jerked forward in his chair and slammed his cuffed hands down on the table. “People don’t just do that kind of thing to each other, Armor. Was it a delusion? Was he drugged? Was he manipulated? What caused a fundamentally good person like a teacher-“

“He wasn’t.”

Jackson stopped short and looked at me, confusion and curiosity warring for a moment. “Wasn’t a teacher? Someone else did it?”

“Wasn’t fundamentally good.” I was suddenly very, very tired. Walking out and letting the Masks burn the Valley was looking more and more appealing every minute. But I couldn’t do that and I took the frustration out on Jackson. “He wasn’t a fundamentally good person, Jackson, he was a man who like watching fourteen year old boys scream until they died. There’s no secret conspiracy, no leverage someone used to drive him to it. He was a fundamentally evil person.”

I rocked forward onto the knuckles of my hands, bracing myself like a gorilla to lean over the table until our noses nearly touched. “He was just like you, with your stupid Backboards, spying on other people and he was just like Silicon Valley, out of touch in spite of all the data they gather, and he was just like me, convinced a friend I’ve known for over a decade is a terrorist without a scrap of evidence. We’re all of us vile, petty people, rotten to the core. How hard is that to accept?”

“Not hard.” Jackson slowly slumped down in his seat. “But I’ve made a living telling people there are other reasons for it. I guess sometimes I just… I just hope maybe it’s actually true. Is that such a bad thing?”

“If it’s not true?” I shrugged, took my own seat again. “I don’t know. If it is a good thing then I suppose that makes you a good person as well as an evil one.”

“You really think people can embody a contradiction that extreme?”

“I see it every day.”

Jackson rocked back and forth on his seat once. Literally tilted his body to the left until it was a full ten degrees away from straight up, then back and just as far the opposite direction, then back to his previous slumped posture. As he did the maelstrom of thoughts in his mind actually slowed, his impressive powers of intellect no longer swirling at random but instead focusing on a single line of thought. I didn’t have the sensitivity to tell what that line of thought was but he seemed to like it when he got to the end. Then, as if a switch was thrown, his mind snapped back to normal. “You’re not going to arrest Hat Trick?”

“Not any time soon. Not unless he’s done something stupid since the last time you talked to him.”

Another moment of thought, then Jackson said, “You’ll want to write this down…”

Pay the Piper – Chapter Twenty Five

Previous Chapter

There’s a mental discipline called a “mind palace” that some people use to help them organize and recall memories. In most cases it functions exactly as you’d think from the name – they build a huge mental structure and store memories in a layout that is somehow mnemonic, decorated with art and knickknacks their subconscious associates with those memories. I’ve met a few of these people in my life and let me tell you, to the psychometric it’s a thing to behold when a person comes walking down a hallway or into a room surrounded by a mishmash of flying architecture that looks like a cross between Royal Caribbean and Disney World.

Yes, I know there are Disney cruise liners, that’s not the point.

In the past psychometrics actually used a cousin of this technique to store memories in actual, physical objects, deliberately layering impressions one on top of the other until a favorite rosary, lucky coin or similar object also doubled as a memory aid to help us remember all the random minutia of daily life. They were wonderful, idiosyncratic objects and there are actually a few still stored in the collections of some of the current Constellations, the memories stored within slowly fading until someday, sooner rather than later, they’ll vanish entirely.

The problem with this technique was that losing the object in question often left its owner disoriented and possibly even mildly amnesiac. The invention of hard drives for computers gradually began to solve that problem. By the time I was old enough Galaxy was teaching me how to survive in the world we’d made the switch to a totally binary approach to memory aids. So when, after two hours of work sifting through photos of drones from the Worker Drones catalog and comparing them to those used in the dastardly Peanut Oil Attack, we concluded that they hadn’t come from the same source as the EMP drones used in the previous attacks and Natalie went to get a new assignment I didn’t have to waste any time tracking down what happened to the data we’d recovered from AJ Jackson.

I just looked into the computer tower and began unpacking everything I remembered of it into the computer’s file structure. There was a lot of information from Project Backboard to sift through but whether it was Hat Trick, Jackson himself or some other analyst hired for the job, someone had done a good job boiling it down and sorting it into useful categories, so there wasn’t even much I could discard out of hand. Worse, after a preliminary sort and analysis I realized that Jackson’s info and the timing of Backboard didn’t fit with the attacks that had been carried out.

There wasn’t any evidence of the kind of projects the Masks like to really dig their claws in to. 5G networks were still stymied and there didn’t seem to be any other new innovations in networking or interconnectivity brewing in the Valley. The focus was more towards AI and “smart house” style projects, things the Masks actually try to avoid. Something about adding unnatural layers to the omnimind. There were a few interesting looking experiments being done with learning neural nets and so-called “deep fake” technology, interested in both creating and exposing such fakes, but beyond that and some hardware miniaturization efforts currently ongoing it was pretty uninteresting stuff to most psychometrics.

And none of the companies working on that handful of projects had been effected by any of the three attacks so far, so it wasn’t likely they were planning to swoop in and buy up one of the smaller companies struggling in the aftermath of their mischief. I couldn’t for the life of me work out what it was they could possibly want.

What was the pattern behind the attacks? Other than an obvious dislike for Silicon Valley there wasn’t even a through line for all of them. It was like someone was just testing a bunch of ideas they’d once had for how they could use random bits of modern industrial technology to wreak havoc. It might even be borderline funny if the fallout from it wasn’t having such widespread effects. Besides the handful of people that had died during the blackouts, stock prices for a number of companies were tanking badly and probably wiping out some people’s retirement funds, a lot of politicians careers were probably over for no fault of their own – no loss there – and there had apparently been a near riot while I was at sea with Jackson yesterday, although I hadn’t quite pieced together what the cause of that was. It was all very unMask like. Maybe Hennesy was right and I had been listening to Eugene too much.

I was puzzling over it all at my desk, not really thinking about the Jackson files anymore, when Vinny poked his head into my cubicle and said, “You look puzzled, Armor.”

That brought me snapping back to reality. I gave him a curious look and said, “Of course. You’re here, not at the Archon offices. That almost never happens.”

Vinny produced a series of muscle movements that you might call a smile, if it had anything like humor attached to it. Like so many things about Vinny’s day to day living, it was just him doing something he knew was expected. “It’s not as rare as you make it sound. And you aren’t the only consultant the FBI has pulled in on this case.”

“Oh yeah?” I furrowed my brow. I didn’t know Vinny had been doing that kind of work. Then again, with how involved he was with cybersecurity across the Valley maybe he’d been recommended by one of his clients and only started recently. I’m sure he would have mentioned it to me during our last conversation if he’d been doing this then. “What side of the case are you working on?”

“My confidentiality agreements don’t allow me to say,” Vinny said. It was a mild statement backed by the unshakeable resolve of a man who saw give and take, negotiating a balanced agreement as the single most unshakeable foundation of functioning society.

Since I knew Vinny of all people wouldn’t mind an abrupt subject change after that kind of response I just shrugged and said, “Have you ever heard of a psychometric specializing in IT that goes by Hat Trick?”

There was a solid ten seconds of silence as Vinny’s mind whirred through memories – Vinny doesn’t quite have a mind palace but he does use a very efficient filing system – then he said, “I’ve heard the name, although it was some time ago and he wasn’t an IT specialist. He worked in a blend of electronics, mechanics and structural engineering. He was quite adept in all three fields, hence his name.”

“That’s a pretty broad range of interests,” I mused. “To perform at a high level across multiple fields of study he’d have to be at least a tier four. I’m surprised I’ve never heard of him.”

“I believe he was an independent contractor,” Vinny said. “I don’t believe that supposition was ever confirmed, though. You could always consult with one of Galaxy’s Constellations.”

“I suppose. But I’m trying to avoid talking to them right now, apparently they’re debating taking me off this case.” I got up from the computer and stretched, realizing I’d been there quite a while. “How did you know I was here?”

“Your handler mentioned it to the Special Agent in Charge when we were speaking a few minutes ago.” Vinny followed along as I went to the break room to get a cup of coffee. “I was taking the opportunity to discuss with SAC Hennesy the schedule for my modifications.”

I hesitated midpour. “Modifications?”

“Archon has been asked to conduct several system checks and upgrades in the last week. We’ve become aware of certain new surveillance and intrusion methods that require us to modify or upgrade some of our equipment to ensure protection.” Vinny waved towards Hennesy’s office – directly there, I noted, you could draw a straight line directly from his fingers through several walls and a ceiling to Hennesy’s door – and added, “While I was there consulting I believed it would be a good time to mention the necessity of upgrading the FBI’s systems and trying to work it around the aggressive schedule they are currently keeping.”

“Tricky,” I murmured, running through the possibilities in my mind. “Was there something you wanted to ask me?”

Vinny’s frown was as meaningless as his smile. “No, I just believed that greeting you would be appropriate, given our acquaintance.”

“Oh.” I nodded, acknowledging the truth of that. “So these weren’t systems I’ve worked on? Something I might have been able to help with?”

With an click I don’t know how normal people can’t hear Vinny seemed to understand what I was getting at. “No, these are not systems you’ve worked on, no will your help to install them be necessary. I was simply visiting to ‘say hello’.”

“Well, I appreciate the thought.” I put a lid on my coffee and added, “And I don’t mean to brush you off, but I think I worked out what was puzzling me earlier and I need to get back to work.”

“Of course.” Vinny nodded, getting back to work was something he understood like few others on Earth. “I’ll talk to you again if the opportunity presents itself.”

“Sure thing.” And I practically ran back to my cubicle.

Or at least, half way there. As soon as Vinny was out of sight I slowed down, because now I had a new problem to work out. Alvin “Vinny” Davidson was Silicon Valley’s leading expert on cybersecurity solutions that guarded against psychometric surveillance and intrusion.

So how was I going to prove he was working for the Masks?