The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Twenty Eight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Director O’Sullivan?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She said she’d checked there already.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Twenty Seven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Only for a while?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Should I?”

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Twenty Six

Previous Chapter

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

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

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

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

“Do we steal one if he’s not here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Twenty Five

Previous Chapter

“Director? Director O’Sullivan, can you hear me?”

Brian tried to focus as concepts and possibilities flooded through his mind in an endless procession of ideas and the interactions of those ideas. Someone was talking to him. His mind grabbed on to that fact with both hands, in spite of the fact that his hands were paralyzed in his fugue state, and dragged him back to the immediate. “Baker? Baker, is that you?”

“Yes, Director. Are you all right? Your vital signs spiked to dangerous levels about ninety minutes ago. It looks like they’ve stabilized now but they’re still elevated above levels that the diagnostics say are significantly above normal.” Baker’s news was ominous but she didn’t sound upset about it. Her voice was distant. Nervous.

There was something he was supposed to say about that. What was it? “How are you feeling, Baker? You sound like you are under a great deal of stress right now.”

“That’s… that’s a little bit complicated, Director. There’s someone here who wants to talk to you about-”

“I’m busy Baker. I wanted you to monitor my status so you could disconnect me from the fugue if things became dangerous and now you’re telling me you didn’t even notice when things went bad? How am I supposed to focus like this?” Brian threw aside the batch of ideas he was trying to sort and strode back through the swirling potentials and out into the tower where Vesper was waiting for him.

Vesper was watching his readouts and clucking to himself. “How did you find it this time, O’Sullivan?”

“Director, I apologize for the oversight but you have to understand that the situation with the Martians has progressed very quickly and-”

“I don’t care, Baker.” He stepped out of the potential tank and down to the floor while wiping sweat from his forehead. “I’m on the verge of a breakthrough here with Vesper and I need to focus.”

There was a long, uncomfortable silence on Baker’s end of the line while Vesper frowned at him. Suddenly the researcher turned frantically to his board and studied it. Brian couldn’t make anything out of what it said but he got the impression Vesper wasn’t very happy with it. Before he could ask the other man what was wrong Baker spoke up again. “Director, Vincent Vesper isn’t available any more. I don’t know what research of his you’ve found, or think you’ve found, but continuing to pursue it at this point isn’t going to help us very much.”

Brian glanced down at the younger Vesper. “SubDirector I think you’re going to be pleasantly surprised when you realize how far off base that assessment is. I just need… how long have I been in here?”

“About six hours, Director.”

“Only six?” He felt his eyes widen involuntarily. “Feels like ten times that. Interesting. I didn’t realize the fugue state altered your perception of time. Or is it the probability expansion?”

“The what?”

“Brian,” Vesper snapped. “What are you talking about?”

Splitting his attention between Baker and Vesper was beginning to take a toll and Brian considered just putting one of the conversations on hold. Unfortunately he wasn’t really given a chance to. “Director,” Baker said, “are you talking to someone else in there?”

“Yes, Baker, I am. Give me a minute, please, this is getting very difficult.” With all of his sensory input routed through his nanotech infused nervous system directly to his brain it was more difficult than he’d anticipated to separate one layer of experience from another. It wasn’t like he could press on an earbud to help focus on Baker’s voice. By the same token, they hadn’t built a system that let him shut off Baker’s voice if he needed to focus on something that was happening within the fugue proper.

Of course, they hadn’t anticipated the probability expansion facilitator either.

When Vesper first integrated Brian’s mind with the PEF it was the most disturbing thing to ever happen to him, more so than his initial medinano injection, more so than discovering UNIGOV had Shutdown both his parents a decade ago, more so than learning homo martians had come back to Earth for the first time in centuries. It most closely resembled the artificial psychedelic state that he’d experienced when he joined the Directorate. The point of that exercise had been to harden his mind against the distractions of cheap, emotional spirituality by filtering cheap neurotransmitter induced illusions through his medical systems. At least that was ostensibly the point.

Over the years Brian had learned many members of the Directorate actually routinely returned to the medically induced trance to try and improve their own understanding of themselves. He’d never joined them. When Brian experienced that first psychedelic trance he’d felt as if some towering presence reached within him and took out something important. He’d never been able to figure out quite what it was but he never wanted to go back and find out, either.

Looking back on it, the strange night terror that had pursued him through the fugue state was probably an expression of that first, badly managed psychedelic experience. The presence he’d felt in that trance hadn’t been a distinct visual thing. Instead it had felt more like a powerful being that manipulated the spinning, hypnotic landscape that he’d witnessed creeping in the edges of his vision as the trance made him feel like he was leaving his own body. The geometric shapes had cut away at his very soul, leaving him hollowed out.

Or, at least, that was how he felt at the time. Coming back from that point he’d remembered that ideas about souls and spirituality were just one of the shackles martian thought left on the sapiens mind to ensure they never reached their full potential in the here and now. What he saw in that trance was just his subconscious mind trying to reconcile the contradictions inherent in those shackles. Just one more reason, he told himself at the time, not to go back into the trance. He hadn’t realized the fugue state worked on similar principles because he hadn’t had time to delve too deeply into the idea when he was brushing up on the tech a few days ago but, with one major exception, it turned out the technology was basically identical.

Said exception being that the PEF was to a medically induced trance like the sun was to a candle. Vesper wouldn’t tell him – or perhaps didn’t know – if the PEF system was created by people from the Light of Mars project or if they’d borrowed it from someone else who’d entered the Shutdown fugue before they did. What he did say was that it expanded the human mind exponentially. By focusing heavily on specific ideas and formulas they’d been using the PEF to extrapolate the outcomes of various systems they wanted to test for their engineering project.

The details on how the system created its future projections were a little fuzzy. Again, Brian didn’t know if that was because Vesper didn’t know how it worked or if he was just trying to keep some secrets for whatever reason. What he did know was that the PEF became more effective the more human minds were tied in to it. When they’d dumped all the other Light of Mars engineers out the PEF had gone from highly productive to almost inert overnight. Vesper’s progress had ground to a halt. Thus his eagerness to recruit Brian into his work as soon as he arrived.

However after the initial shock that came from the PEF Brian found that the system itself might have some merits to it. Vesper was getting good data. Brian’s role in the Directorate was only tangentially related to nanotechnology but he knew enough to understand every third or fourth word the researcher was saying and that told him Vesper’s work was promising. After only two trips into the potential tank Vesper had most of the kinks worked out of his new system.

But Brian was beginning to wonder if perhaps they could use it towards even more relevant ends. They could bring the entire Light of Mars project back into the fugue and then add his own mind and Bakers to begin running some simulations of interactions with the martians. Perhaps UNIGOV could find a solution to that problem that didn’t require them to build the first fully fledged weapons platform on Earth in two hundred years.

“Brian.” Vesper’s voice cut into his thoughts with an irritable edge. “Have you been in contact with the Outside the whole time you were in the potential tank?”

“I have. Is that an issue, Dr. Vesper?”

The researcher exploded with unexpected ferocity. “Of course it is, Brian! I told you the PEF runs all its data through your mind as an auxiliary processing system and if you are in contact with additional data beyond what the probability tank is feeding you then the whole process from start to finish is going to be contaminated! Now we have to start this whole process over again from scratch!”

“Director, who have you made contact with?” Even as he tried to follow what Vesper was saying Baker’s voice dragged his attention in the other direction.

“It’s a long story, Baker, and I don’t have much time for it. If you hadn’t left your post for the last several hours you could have been here for most of it but there’s no sense complaining about that now.” Brian folded his arms over his chest and tapped one foot as he thought about it for a moment. There really wasn’t anything for it at this point. “Baker, I need you to close and disconnect your line to my audio nerves.”

“What.” Baker’s voice was getting more and more flat an expressionless as time went on. “Why would I do that, Director?”

“It’s complicated. You can break the connection, though, can’t you?”

“Yes, I can, Director but I don’t think I should so I’m not going to.”

Brian furrowed his brow. “Why not? Baker, you’ve been out of contact for hours and now you’re refusing to listen to perfectly reasonable instructions on what steps to take to forward our objectives.”

“Reasonable?” Baker snorted, sending a burst of discomfort through his left ear. “How can I tell if your instructions are reasonable or not when you won’t even tell me what factors led you to decide on this course of action?”

“Does it matter?”

“Of course it matters! Director, we barely know what goes on in one of these fugue states to begin with, you’ve been hallucinating strange things the whole time you’ve been in there and now you want to cut off all outside contact!” Now her voice was starting to climb up in pitch again. “How am I supposed to advise you or make sure the spirit of your instructions is carried out when I don’t even understand what it is you think you’re doing?”

“I understand your frustration,” Brian said, even though he really did not. “But we don’t have much time to-”

“We have no time, Director!” Baker snapped. “No time at all! The Martians raided the power plant hours ago and they’ve taken the whole place over! I had to turn it over to their Admiral fifty minutes previous. I can’t do anything here besides talk to you and you, well, you’ve got no time at all to finish whatever fantasy project you think is going to let you finish the Light of Mars. We’re sunk, Director, all that’s left is arguing over the details. Now do you think I can pull you out of your fugue without your suffering any of the detrimental side effects we saw in most of their engineers?”

“Then stand by, Director.”

“Stand by for what?”

“I’m going to transfer you over to Admiral Carrington and Director Mond. I have to go and make sure the martians don’t murder Mr. Vesper…”

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Twenty Four

Previous Chapter

“The secret is digital audio,” Mond explained. He was seated by the bridge’s holotank while Naomi and Bennet worked to set up a stable computer connection with Bottletown through the no-longer-secret Roddenberry FTL communication corridor. “You can encrypt it however you want but there’s only so many practical ways to transmit digital audio via radio or laser. Digital information breaks down to ones and zeroes, after all.”

“I don’t understand what that has to do with your communications blackout,” Carrington replied.

“It’s actually very simple.” Mond went to work in the holotank, his prosthetic hands painstakingly forming a set of graphs in the tank. “Computer systems are all different, of course. However at a base level you’re still communicating ones and zeroes at a very high rate of speed and the structure of your system actually makes the pattern of those ones and zeroes predictable to a certain extent. We don’t have to know what they mean. We just have to predict what is coming next, a one or a zero, and predicting a pattern without bothering to think about what it means is the quintessential job of an artificial intelligence.”

“They don’t get distracted by the framing problem,” Carrington said.

“Exactly. When UNIGOV was coming together there were a huge number of people broadcasting counter-narratives that were undermining the sapiens position. We created the broadcast blanketing system as our own countermeasure. It was based on a very simple fact: when a wave is exposed to the complete opposite waveform the two cancel each other out.” Mond was carefully sketching out two such waveforms in the tank.

Even without the visual aid Carrington recognized what he was saying and grasped the underlying principle he was getting at. “You mean you managed to anticipate the data we’re about to broadcast and create an inverse signal to cancel it out? Wouldn’t it be simpler to crack the encryption?”

“Maybe. I’m not an expert on the subject but I don’t think it is. Transmitters use very simplistic algorithms to talk to each other and that’s all we really need to figure out in order to create the blanketing effect. Also, the system was created to counter people who were broadcasting within standard protocols. The point wasn’t to find out what they were saying. They wanted people to understand them. The point…” Mond shot an uncomfortable look at Naomi and sighed. “As the martians say, the point was to silence them and for that understanding isn’t actually necessary.”

Carrington nodded, waving him past that minefield. “Fine. Your computer experts whipped up an approach to shut down radio waves with some kind of dampening technology. How do we get past it now?”

“We left a backdoor in the programming to ensure that we could talk through the blanketing effect. That algorithm is buried in UNIGOV comm systems from that era foreward. All we need to do is pull it from the Vault under the martian city and we’ll be able to break through and talk with UNIGOV systems on the ground.”

“On the ground?” Carrington gave him a sharp look. “What about our own forces? They aren’t going to have anything to receive the broadcast with.”

“Not necessarily. First off, I know that your personnel are very capable of appropriating UNIGOV tech and using it for their own ends.” Waved his hand to encompass the ship. “After all, if they couldn’t we wouldn’t have made it back to orbit, would we?”

Carrington clasped his hands behind his back and looked back at the holotank. EMG scans had picked up a great deal of thermal and magnetic activity around a power plant in the Los Angeles area. They did need to do anything possible to find out what was going on down there. On the other hand, there was a certain trepidation to finding out just how badly things had gone on the ground, a trepidation rooted in the disasters of the past.

“You know, Director, I find it odd that you cite cutting off your martians as a source of certainty for your civilization. I find the silence full of possibility. The uncertainty is unpleasant, often, but so long as I do not know what’s happened down there the anything could have happened. Major Goldstein could be on the verge of forging a successful peace with your government. Or they could have created such a disastrous misstep that the entire detachment was wiped out when you deployed your disassembler field.” With a flick of a few fingers Carrington brought the live satellite images of the surface to the forefront of their section.

“Certainty is a vital component to the art of war,” he continued. “Knowing everything we can about the enemy’s positions, capabilities and mindset are the foundation of good planning. Acting in complete ignorance of these things is foolish. Yet you claim that creating that ignorance, particularly ignorance of your adversaries but also ignorance of your own past, is a vital part of creating a society founded on certainty. I confess I find your position bizarre.”

“Oh?” Mond raised an eyebrow. “And when you look at what you see from your adversaries you never think that perhaps they might be lying to you? That what you see from them is calculated to undermine you? I find that very hard to believe you.”

“On the contrary, Director, we count on it. Psychology, gamesmanship and analysis are all part of the modern warfare – and modern diplomacy, for that matter.” Carrington gave the other man a steady look. “I wish you would beat around the bush less, Mr. Mond, because I really would like to end this with as little bloodshed as possible but it’s really hard to understand where you’re coming from.”

Mond sighed and looked up at the feed in the holotank. “I believe you, Admiral. The thing you must understand about our approach to the world is that we believe that stability comes from vulnerability, from a willingness to be open to one another. We wish to be left alone to pursue our own society rather than be forced to constantly reevaluate the intrusions of outsiders. The expectation of hostility from others undermines that. It robs us of the openness that comes with vulnerability.”

“You can’t build a society on vulnerability, Director,” Naomi said, leaving her console to join them. “Believe me, the founders of Bottletown tried; because they had no other choice. To some extent I suppose you could say they succeeded, since we are still around, but we didn’t have a chance to develop our own culture, to grow as people or to create anything new. We still live in the same buildings they did. We barely understand the technology they left us and we spent our very short lives wondering if the whole system was going to come crashing down around us. We were vulnerable every moment and I’m sure the downward spiral would have destroyed us eventually if the Genies hadn’t found us.”

“That is stability, Ms. Bertolini. Entropy is a universal force that we must all deal with on a personal and societal level.” Mond gave her a sad smile. “When we fight and we scratch and we steal from one another we don’t reverse entropy, we only increase the suffering of others to enrich ourselves. In the process, we hasten the process rather than forestalling it. If we were honest with ourselves we could allow the natural processes to begin to heal, we could slow entropy as much as possible and we can live our full lives in community with one another rather than in constant suspicion.”

Carrington glanced at Naomi. Her face showed total confusion, clearly unable to work out what brought a person to this point, much less an entire civilization. The small world under the Borealis dome hadn’t prepared her for this. She hadn’t seen the kind of arbitrary death the world could dole out through violence, illness or mishap. The very nature of Malacandran civilization precluded it.

Such things had a corrosive effect on the human spirit so pronounced and mysterious it shocked even him and worse, it was very hard to reverse. Such corrosion was at the root of most wars, crimes and suicides. Worst of all, when ways to reverse the damage did exist the methods were radically different in every case.

The fleet had decided to remain in the Sol system to help the Malacandrans emerge into a thriving society and maintain some level of connection with the Homeworld. More and more, it was looking like achieving either one of those goals involved breaking UNIGOV’s hold on Earth. What that meant was unclear. At the most extreme it meant destroying most of their leadership and beginning the process of completely replacing the corrupt culture that they’d put in place. Carrington had little appetite for such extreme action. Hopefully just giving competing ideas a foothold on planet would be enough.

Unfortunately he was almost certain that less extreme option would be impossible without winning Mond over to his side. Any counter to the UNIGOV party line would have to come from someone who knew that line inside and out. Mond’s status as a member of the Directorate would lend him credibility. However, so far there were very few cracks showing in the Director’s ideological dedication to Earth’s status quo. He showed some doubt when the Malacandrans were around. Carrington couldn’t think of anything to help the Director along outside of keeping Mond and Naomi together as much as possible and praying that something came of it. In the meantime he had his own people to worry about.

“If you prefer the stability of entropy to the certainty of understanding there’s not much we can do to change your mind, Director.” He glanced at Bennet. “How are things coming, Major?”

“We’ve established the uplink through the Spiner and the Stewart, Admiral. We should have the algorithm pulled from the Borealis Vault in a few minutes.”

“Can we integrate it with our own computer systems?”

“That’s the easy part, actually,” Naomi replied, “Teng already spent several days with the Roddenberrys working out an emulator that allows our systems to talk to each other. We brought a copy with us and installed it with the Major yesterday. You should be able to drop the algorithm into it and go from there.”

“Then we’ll try and open a line to the LA Power Plant first as it looks like the ground team may be holed up there. At your convenience, Major.”

The next three minutes were full of quiet muttering and consultations. Then Bennet said, “Okay, Admiral, it looks like we’ve got someone who’s answering us. Want me to put it up in the tank?”

“Please.”

The surveillance feeds flew off to the sides and were replaced with a human sized helmet. To Carrington’s surprise it was a regulation issue Copernican armored exoskeleton helmet. “Who is this?” The man on the other end demanded. Then he jerked back and snapped to attention, his hand coming into view from one side. “Admiral Carrington! I’m sorry, sir, I was expecting a UNIGOV person.”

Carrington tamped down on his impulse to grin. “Not a problem, son, this is a very unorthodox line of communication. Who am I talking to?”

“Corporal Broward Keys, Admiral. Part of the landing crew under Captain Yang dispatched with Sergeant Langley to secure this facility.”

Interesting. Sergeant Langley was apparently having a very good month. If he kept it up someone back on Copernicus was going to try and build him a statue or something equally foolish. “Good work, Corporal. Is the Captain or Sergeant present?”

“Negative, sir. The Captain is still inbound, Sergeant Langley is in pursuit of hostile assets.” He glanced off to one side. “Uh, we do have a SubDirector Baker present, Admiral. She’s surrendered but it sounds like she’s interested in talking to you.”

Carrington glanced at Mond, who looked just as surprised as he was, and then back at the tank. A new route to the simple solution had just offered itself. “Put her on.”

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Twenty Three

Previous Chapter

“Yancey, report,” Lang snapped, grabbing Keys’ wrist as he raised his plasma rifle. “What’s your situation?”

“Looks like a decontamination room,” Yancey said. “There’s an exit opposite where we came in. Oh, and now they’re pumping something into the chamber through the vents and it doesn’t look like any decontamination foam or similar substance I’ve ever seen.”

Lang waved his team away from the door. “Blast your way back out through to us, target the hinges on the door and you should be able to get past it in no time.”

“Not sure we should expose you guys to this stuff.”

“That was an order, Harry. We’re clear of the door, start melting.”

The door shook from a series of impacts then the hinges on the door blew out in melted chunks that spattered across the floor in glowing puddles. Then the door latch did the same. Harry kicked down the door and hustled out with Keys just behind, both men coughing as a wave of smog or mist followed them out. Yancey and Priss pulled the two of them away to either side while Lang and Ramone opened fire through the doorway, slinging plasma through the decontamination room towards its other door until they heard a loud thud.

Whatever chemical the Earthlings had pumped through the vents was much heavier than the air and it drifted out among them at ankle height. Lang eyed it, distrustful, but it didn’t have the telltale glitter of active nanotech. Besides, Yancey hadn’t mentioned anything on the EMGs so it couldn’t have an active mag field feeding it power anyways. “Switch to internal air supply.”

“Sarge?” Ramone sounded surprised. “We’ve only got two hours air on hand and there’s no danger of us breathing this stuff. Are you sure you want to use it up now?”

“It’s just a precaution,” Lang said. “If we wind up wasting the canned air you can go back to get more, okay?”

“If you say so.”

He did, and they all paused for a moment to pull up the mouthpiece from its hiding place in their collars, activate the airflow and seal the whole thing around their mouths. The process took all of ten or twelve seconds. “All right,” Lang said, his voice now muffled by the mouthpiece and backed by the quiet hissing of air, “new formation. Keys, Ramone, take point. Yancey, keep your eyes glued to the EMG scans and everyone else keep your eyes moving. A decontamination chamber comes before a secured area. They’ll probably have some kind of guards or at least surveillance in play so be prepared to respond to just about anything.”

“Lang, you might want to have a look at this.” Priss was kneeling by the open doorway and poking at the mist with her knife. Only now it had begun hardening into a strange substance that looked fluffy to the naked eye but gave very little when the flat of the metal blade tapped against it. Even a quick jab failed to do any serious damage to it. “Whatever this gunk is, it’s fast acting and pretty tough.”

Lang eyed the door, which was still dispersing a slow moving cloud of the stuff. “That’s an interesting wrinkle. Anyone know what it is?”

“Looks like some kind of insulation spray foam,” Ramone said, grabbing a handful of the stuff in his left hand and kneading it back and forth. “Yeah, it feels a lot like the kinds of stuff we had onboard during the Departure era. My gramps had a house built with this. It’s really fast acting, Sarge, and it’s already starting to set. We’ve got a good chance of getting stuck if we try to go through this now.”

“Did you spot the vents?” Lang asked. “We could plug them up and go.”

“Negative, Sarge.” Ramone patted his rifle. “These are heat guns and that’s insulation, the one thing basically exists to get in the way of the other. We can shoot into it, sure, but it’s gonna take a lot of time. It’d be faster to just go around, though not really safer.”

“Why would it be unsafe?” Priss asked.

“We don’t have plans for this place,” Yancey said, “and standard doctrine in a gravity bound structure is to avoid taking out walls in case there’s something load bearing in there. Plus we don’t have the right tools for it. That means we’d probably have to do even more damage to the overall structure in order to effect a usable breach.”

“Damn.” Lang knocked his helmet against the wall once, trying to figure out how to get around the situation without putting the whole team in danger. “Okay, what options do we have other than dragging the roof down on us?”

“The admin offices may connect to the control center, we could try that,” Priss suggested.

“Any route in or out of the control center is going to be behind a decontamination room given the safety protocols and era of construction,” Keys said. “We could try going in from the reactor chamber. There should be a reinforced window we could try to breach although that will take a lot of time as well. It’s supposed to withstand reactor accidents, after all.”

“The roof.”

All eyes turned to Harry. Lang raised an eyebrow. “Go on.”

“This is an industrial facility designed to resist accidents from the inside, not a secure military facility designed to withstand attacks from the outside.” Harry pointed back towards the hallway they’d entered through. “There is a window in the admin room. We go out and up to the roof then breach it once we’re past this point and continue as normal. No risk of hitting anything load bearing. Much faster than running through the bottom floor and getting lost or trying to breach a reinforced plexiglass window.”

“That’s the best idea I’ve heard so far, unless anyone else has a stroke of genius that’s what we’re going with.” Lang spun around on his heel. The rest of the squad fell in behind him, double timing back through the locker room and hallway and into the empty admin offices.

Getting to the roof proved more difficult than they had originally anticipated. The LA Fusion Plant was not constructed with magboot maneuvering in mind, which wasn’t a surprise given the time and place it was built but did make the squad’s best climbing tool useless. They wound up locking their exoskeleton’s into a long chain to secure Keys in place as he carefully climbed the six meters from the window to the roof. Once in place he clamped down and pulled them up. It was the most uncomfortable human daisychain maneuver Lang had ever done in his life.

Still, ten minutes later they were all safely on the roof, dusting themselves off as they took stock of their situation. Lang shook himself off and said, “It may have been safer to just blast through a wall and risk bringing down the roof.”

“That’s your monkey brain talking, Sarge,” Keys said.

“Nah, my monkey brain is fine, it’s wired for high places. My human brain doesn’t like hanging out in thin air with no engines of my own.”

“The exo’s servos have an 0.12% failure rate in high tension locking situations, statistically speaking we were in no danger whatsoever.” Harry patted his exoskeleton in contentment. “We can get back down this way, too, if we have to.”

“Let’s not have to.” Lang spun on his heel until he spotted the marker his AI had left inside the building. It was a short run from the side of the building back to that spot and an even shorter matter to go a few more steps and get past the decontamination room. Then they formed a circle about three meters wide and hit the roof with a barrage of super heated plasma. It wasn’t as smooth a process as Lang had hoped.

The roof wasn’t particularly tough, all things considered. It was concrete reinforced with iron rebar, pretty typical for a two hundred year old Earth building and sturdy enough when faced with weather or the like but not really designed to stand up to plasma weapons. That said, a plasma rifle wasn’t really designed to cut through stone, either. It took almost a hundred rounds of fire to dig a ten inch wide, six inch deep divot into the roof.

Then they took a plasma grenade with some spray adhesive and stuck the grenade in the hole. Then they set it off. In most cases a plasma grenade caused damage by its sudden change in heat, which kept deadly shrapnel to a minimum. When it was buried in a concrete roof the sudden temperature change caused catastrophic cracking through the concrete and liquefied the rebar. While most of the rubble fell straight down a few chips did go flying and leave scratches on their armored exos.

After giving the rubble a five count to begin cooling Lang waved his squad forward. For the second time that day they rushed into pandemonium. The grenade opened a hole in the roof about four feet wide and shaped like a kidney bean; not the ideal shape for quick entry but a valid method nonetheless. All six of them piled through the gap and landed in the rubble in rapid succession. Lang and Priss fumbled the landing a tad. Although their exos had internal self-balancing gyroscopes to keep them more or less upright and powered servos to absorb the shock of landing neither one of them had worn the gear long enough to roll with the impact successfully.

Yancey landed like ten foot drops were an every day task, the others were almost as graceful. Unfortunately Lang didn’t have the time to appreciate the other’s performance as the section of roof they’d entered through had been right over the command room’s antechamber. Several work stations were crumpled and sparking underneath the rubble and half a dozen Earthlings were playing fire extinguishers over the rubble.

When the first of the spacers landed the Earthlings recoiled. Most of them froze, staring at the six of them in astonishment, while Harry and Yancey snapped their rifles to ready. For a long moment, no one moved. However that wasn’t surprising to Lang, given what he’d already seen he suspected that even the very primal instinct to hold up empty hands in surrender had gone out of common use. He held up a hand, signaling they should hold their fire.

“I’m Sergeant Martin Langley, of the Copernican Spacer Corps.” He took a few steps forward, letting his own plasma rifle hang across his chest on his carry strap as he held his hands open in a placating movement. “If you don’t wish to fight we will accept your surrender. Just put your hands up on top of your head and we can end hostilities with just that.”

Most of the Earthlings turned to look at a woman in the sharp cornered, brightly colored clothing Lang had come to recognize as the region’s standard business dress. She was a little short and her chestnut hair was clipped close to her skull but there was no mistaking her feminine figure or the way the other’s deferred to her. This was the woman in charge. Lang turned his full attention to her and said, “I’m under orders to secure this power plant, ma’am, and I’d be happy to do that with as little additional violence as possible. However, one way or another, we’re taking over this command center.”

The woman sighed and began to raise her hands. Lang felt himself beginning to smile, glad to have the facility secured at last, when a wave of white foam blasted over his faceplate and blinded him. It happened so fast he wasn’t even sure what was going on. The armored gloves of his exoskeleton were fine for most tool using purposes but they weren’t the best thing for wiping off a piece of clear plastic without smearing it. By the time he got his visibility back the shouting and shooting had already started.

“What happened?” He demanded, wiping vigorously with both hands as the command center came back into view. It looked like one of the Earthlings had disappeared and the others had their hands on their heads as they’d been instructed.

“One of them hit you and Yancey with the fire extinguisher spray,” Harry said. He’d moved across the room to another door which he was looking out of. The ring of plasma pockmarks around the door testified to what the others had been shooting at. “Then he made a break for it.”

Lang looked back at the woman in charge. “What was that?”

“I apologize,” the woman said, her tone far sterner than you might expect from an apology. “Mr. Vesper is an extremely unpredictable individual due to his very difficult personal circumstances.”

“Don’t you stick the unpredictable people in tanks?” Ramone asked.

“It’s called Shutdown, and yes, we do. We removed him in order to work on the Light of Mars project.” The woman said it as if it should be obvious.

“Of course,” Ramone said. “The Light of Mars. Why didn’t I think of that?”

Priss glanced at Lang then back at the woman. “Is that the nanotechnology field you’ve been putting up over the city?”

The Earthling tilted her head as if considering something. “Yes. You didn’t know?”

“Fuck.” Lang spun to point at Yancey, Ramone and Keys. “You three stay here, lock down the command center and contact the Captain. Let her know we’re trying to run down one of the people who created the disassembler field. Priss, Harry, with me. Harry, which way did that asshole go?”

“Just follow me, Sarge.” The three of them pounded out of the the room and deeper into the facility.