Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Eight: The Off Switch

Return to Chapter Seven

“We might have turned him off.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And an on switch, one would presume.”

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

“Not when I looked at it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tomorrow morning is fine,” Lang said.

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

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

On to Chapter Nine


Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Seven – The Blood

Return to Chapter Six

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

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

“I wasn’t asking about Priss.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The blood on it was full of inert nanotech.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But the engineering expertise-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aubrey gave him a quizzical look. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proceed to Chapter Eight

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Six – The Van

Chapter Five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“What the fuck is that?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Seven

Schrodinge’s Book Chapter Five: The Library

Chapter Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Six

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Four – The Sapiens

Chapter Three

“A library?” Aubrey and Sean exchanged glances. “What’s that?”

“You know,” Lang said, “a big building where they keep all the paper versions of books.”

Aubrey frowned and shook her head. “Paper? That’s made out of wood pulp, right? We don’t cut down trees for those kinds of industrial purposes anymore. It was part of UNIGOV’s environmental restoration reforms a century or so ago.”

“The book part is more important than the paper,” Dex said. “We didn’t have trees on Copernicus for decades after the Settlement, so we made ours out of a special kind of plastic.”

“‘Books’ isn’t ringing a bell,” Aubrey said, getting annoyed. “Is this some kind of martian thing?”

“Some kind of martian – no, fuck it.” Dex stopped with an exasperated noise, got up and stalked over to the drop pod. After a minute of rummaging around in one of the piles of gear the martians had left there he came back with a thick, rectangular stack of plastic sheets held together along one edge by some method Aubrey wasn’t entirely sure of. “This. This is a book. Does your civilization stockpile these someplace or has it gone entirely insane?”

Sean took the book and turned it over once in his hands, then opened it and looked inside. Peering over his shoulder Aubrey could see that it was full of diagrams, pictures and blocks of text that apparently described how to maintain a Type IV Fusion Thruster. “Oh, it’s like a physical web archive” she mused. “Weird. How do you keep it updated?””

“Generally we recycle them and print new versions,” Priss said. “You’ve honestly never seen a book before?”

“All textual information is stored electronically, in the UNIGOV servers, just like video and most pictures,” Aubrey said, tearing her attention away from the book. “We access it through terminals or holotabs. You do have databases in outer space, don’t you?”

Priss laughed. “We’re not benighted primitives out there. We have plenty of datacores, planetary networks and the like. But by law all governments keep at least three complete physical libraries of all historical and technical texts published on planet – and all books brought over by the colony fleet – as a safeguard against loss and tampering. After all, datafiles get corrupted and power fails. And most of our worlds aren’t even-”

“Priss,” Lang said quietly. “They don’t need to know that.”

“Sorry.” She shook her head. “Anyway, we have books as a backup for our digital information. You must have something like that here.”

“No,” Aubrey said, “I don’t think so. We’re not martians, we don’t worry about things like power failing or data tampering. There’s no reason for those things to happen here. What purpose does that even serve?”

The martians shared a moment of silent communication, a string of odd expressions and uncomfortable shifting of posture that Aubrey could tell meant a lot to them but that she couldn’t interpret at all. It wasn’t like they were telepathic, but she had the bad feeling that they understood each other in ways she might never share with another sapiens. It was unsettling.

Sean snapped the book closed and shook his head as if scattering cobwebs. “We do have a library.”

All attention was suddenly on him. “Where is it?” Lang asked sharply. “Where you live, or out here in the empty buildings?”

“What difference does it make?” Sean asked, flinching at the tone. “It’s maybe a ten minutes’ walk from here, near the old highway. Or, at least, there’s a building with a sign out front with a bunch of books engraved on it as part of the logo.”

Lang turned his attention to the other two martians. “Gather up the gear. I want to leave in half an hour.” Then back to Sean. “You’re going to take us there so I hope you remember the way.”

“Ever think that I might have better things to do with my fucking time?” Sean demanded.

Lang gave the two of them a hard look, slung his carbine barrel down behind his shoulder where it stayed through some method Aubrey couldn’t identify, and said, “Trust me, you don’t. Don’t try and leave the building. We’ll know.”

The three martians started collecting packs and equipment that they’d left in various places around the base of the pod, leaving Aubrey and Sean alone for a couple of minutes. They huddled down in the corner of the room furthest from the pod, about fifteen feet away. Sean leaned in close to whisper, “Do you think we should try and run? That could have been a bluff.”

“I don’t think it was,” Aubrey replied. “Did you see that holoscreen he was looking at when they left a little while ago?”

“Yeah. What was it?”

“I don’t know for sure,” she said slowly, “but it looked an awful lot like the traffic scanner displays we use at work. I think they’ve got some kind of scanner and an AI monitoring it.”

“What a fucked up thing to waste an AI on,” Sean muttered. “Martians and their priorities. Did you hear what they were saying?”

She shook her head. “As soon as I saw the screen I started looking for scanners and I lost track of their conversation.”

“They were talking like they’d never heard of sapiens before. Like there’s only ever been one breed of human on Earth.” His voice dripped with scorn. “Typical martian arrogance, acting like they’re the only meaningful measuring stick for humanity.”

“Don’t let it get to you,” Aubrey said. “We’ll think of something.”

They certainly had plenty of time. It took nearly twenty minutes for the martians to pack up all their things, fumble around in the pod for some reason, then load a bundle that looked suspiciously like a human body wrapped in a sheet back into the pod. But they finally brought Aubrey and Sean out the front door, which had been taken off the hinges, probably to facilitate removing the seal on the door, and into the street.

Each of the martians had increased what they carried by quite a bit. Each wore an exoskeleton framework that made them about an inch taller and, from the looks of the packs strapped to those exoskeletons, a good deal stronger. The exo consisted of a framework that went over the shoulders, torso and legs and ended with heavy, shock absorbing boots. The packs looked like the kind of thing she saw in pictures of her friends when they went mountain climbing. At a guess, based on all the vehicles she’d poked at with Sean in the last year or so, Aubrey would say the rigs must have been thirty pounds apiece, plus whatever the packs weighed, and she wondered what they ran on. And what the martians would do when the fuel ran out. Trailing behind them were two of the boxes that’d been on the floor earlier. They had wheels and apparently a motor and enough software to move on their own and navigate their way slowly around obstacles, staying within a certain distance of their owners.

Once everyone was out in the street the leader, Lang, fished around in his helmet for a moment then pulled out a thin, black block that looked like it had a microphone at one end. He held it up to his mouth and said, “Corporal Langley recording. Have decided to prioritize information gathering. Locals are escorting us to a local library to see what we can see. Preparing to abandoned the crash site. Corporal Halloway has asked to say a few words.”

Lang handed the device to Dex, who looked back at the house and said, “Corporal Dexter Halloway recording. I didn’t know Private First Class Sam Grubber better than most. He was a rookie when he came to us and there wasn’t much call for medics when you spend a year and a half at superluminal. But he wanted to give part of his life to protect his planet, even if that made it shorter. That made him a spacer, same as the rest of us. Go with God, Sam.”

Dex handed the recorder back to Lang and he and Priss bowed their heads for a moment. Aubrey thought she saw Priss’ lips moving silently before Lang drew her attention by saying, “Corporal Langly recording. Site sterilized per regulations. End entry.”

The martians started herding them away from the building and Aubrey reluctantly went along. There was a moment of regret on martian’s faces as they walked away, quickly hidden as they pulled on heavy, domelike helmets that hid their faces away behind reflective one-way plastic. Aubrey suppressed a shudder, the moment of human connection lost. “Are those really nece-”

The rest of her question was lost in a sudden roaring noise as the world around them flashed with a brilliant light. Windows half a block away, which had survived the crash landing earlier, shattered inward as a hand seemed to land in Aubrey’s back and hurl her forward. Before she could land on her face a strong arm looped around her waist and kept her in place. Dex had caught her before the blast wave could carry her away. A panicked glance confirmed that Lang had grabbed Sean and he was fine. The martians ignored all their questions and kept them walking out of the apartment complex and towards the main road.

They trudged along for a minute or two before Aubrey noticed Priss and Lang gesturing to one another quietly. At first she thought they were just pointing something out to each other but the gestures got more animated and she couldn’t connect any meaning to them. She quickly realized that they were actually talking over some kind of short range radio or infrared link. The soundproofing on the helmets must have been pretty extraordinary. Almost as extraordinary as the gall she felt.

“It’s rude to hold a conversation and cut people out of it, you know,” she snapped.

There was a brief pause, then the two went back to whatever they were saying while Dex pulled his helmet back off. “Sorry about that,” he said. “Those two just have… very different ideas about how to solve some of the problems we’re looking at. Trust me, eavesdropping on that conversation is even more uncomfortable than not hearing it at all.”

Sean eyed the helmet in Dex’s hands in surprise. “Those things can’t possibly be blocking all the sound those two are making.”

“It’s complicated,” Was all Dex said in response.

There was another minute or so of uncomfortable silence and Aubrey finally said the only thing she could think of to relieve the problem. “Why did you blow up that house?”

“The house?” Dex shrugged. “No reason. It was just there when we blew up the pod. We didn’t want the data or tech in it falling into the hands of… is it UNIGOV that runs things around here?”

“Yeah,” Sean said. “Why worry about it? They’re required to use all technology and information at their disposal in the best interests of the world’s sapiens.”

That’s what bothers me. Anyway, all drop pods come with fusion charges for sterilizing drop zones if needed, and it would have been a waste not to use  them. Plus we gave Grubber a great funeral pyre. Not many can say they go out that way.”

Aubrey stared hard at his face, looking for any sign of the remorse she’d seen earlier. “Does it really not bother you that you just turned him to ash? On a strange planet, with no family or friends around?”

Dex gave her a hard look. “He may not have had any friends here, true enough. He  joined the ship a week before we departed Copernicus to come here, and we worked in different divisions, so it’s not like we saw each other outside drop drills. He wasn’t my friend, and I don’t think he was friends with Lang or Priss either. The three of us have done a tour on the Isaacs’ border already, so we know each other better. Are we friends?” He shrugged and looked away into the distance. “Maybe. But we’re all spacers, and we’re all in the pod together. When it’s time to send one of us off, like it or not, ain’t no one better suited than the spacers you served with.”

“That’s the emptiest platitude I’ve ever heard,” Sean said, then pointed to a building about half a block away. “There’s the library. Can we go now?”

“Show us around the inside,” Dex said mildly.

“I’ve never been inside,” Sean replied testily.

“Show us anyway,” Lang said, the voice suddenly very clear in spite of the fact that he hadn’t taken his helmet off.

Both Aubrey and Sean jumped slightly, Aubrey with a high squeak. She wasn’t happy, but they didn’t push it any more. Sean just led them up the steps and to the doors of the building. They were sealed like the others but, with a few minutes tinkering, Dex managed to break the seal and get them in. The interior was dark and musty, and the martians flipped on shoulder mounted lights on their exoskeletons almost as soon as they were through the door. In the harsh glare of the artificial light they could clearly see row upon row of seven foot high wooden stacks, each with six shelves about the right size to hold a book like the one they’d seen earlier.

All of them were empty.

Chapter Five

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Three – The Martians

Chapter Two

“We’re not from Mars,” Lang said, amused at the idea. “We’re actually from Copernicus, one of the Triad systems. I’m Corporal Martin Langley, Copernican Spacer Corps. Could I ask the two of you to step out of our drop pod?”

The three of them pulled back to give their guests room but neither one seemed very eager to come out into the open. The woman eyed them suspiciously and said, “We wouldn’t be in here if you hadn’t pushed us.”

“Sorry, but we weren’t expecting company.” Not entirely true, but what they had been expecting was either military or emergency response, not civilians. “We had to improvise. And decide what we were going to do with you all.”

“And what is that?” The man asked, his suspicion better hidden but still very present.

“For starters, invite you out of the pod.” Lang gestured meaningfully with his left hand. After a moment of silent deliberation the two decided to climb out of the drop pod and back onto solid ground giving a better look at them.

Both were wearing backpacks with belts in addition to the shoulder straps and a light frame to keep the weight distributed evenly. There was a spot for a water bottle on the right side of the pack and some kind of heavy plastic case on the left – at a guess he figured it was some kind of food storage. Each had a half dozen tools stuck through loops in the backpack belts and, while he couldn’t identify them all by name, it all looked like archaic wrenches or electrical tools. The backpacks and tools were where the similarities stopped.

The woman was short by the standards of Copernicus Prime, perhaps a hundred and sixty to a hundred and sixty-five centimeters. Her long blond hair hung straight and her lithe figure was covered by a set of khaki colored capri pants and a deep red button up shirt or light jacket. Both looked to be made of some kind of synthetic fabric that had a slight gleam to it under the right light. With the hiking boots to top it off she reminded Lang of nothing so much as a student terraformer headed off to check on one of the many still ongoing projects in the mountains or ocean valleys.

The man was a good ten centimeters taller and built incredibly broadly. He looked like he could have played some kind of contact sport if only he bothered to bulk up. As it was he was more of a gawkish figure, like a kite had grown arms and legs and started walking around. His clothes looked to be the same material as the woman’s but he wore dark blue pants and his shirt was a simple pullover with a gray torso and blue sleeves. Neither one was obviously armed but…

“Dex, check their packs?”

Dex nodded and slung his plasma carbine then worked his way around them to rummage through their backpacks. The man shot them a resentful look and said, “There’s nothing in there but some food and old auto parts. And my sleeping bag.”

The woman was doing her best to keep an eye on Dex without letting Lang or Priss out of her field of vision. “And do we get to know your friends’ names?”

“Corporal Priscilla Hu, Copernican Spacer Corps,” Priss said without missing a beat. “You can have my service serial number if you want that, too. Do we get to know your names? Because we can just keep saying ‘you’ all the time if it makes ‘you’ feel better.”

The two exchanged a glance and a barely noticeable shrug. “I’m Aubrey Vance.” The woman said. “This is Sean Wilson. We’re not in a Corps.”

“Didn’t think you were, ma’am,” Lang replied. Dex finished his rummage through the backpacks and gave an all clear sign before moving back over to the other two. “Why don’t we sit down and talk a few things over.”

“Sure, why not,” Sean grumbled. “It’s not like you’ve already barged in here pointing weapons everywhere.”

“To be fair,” Dex said, “your defense satellites kind of blew the shit out of our mothership early this morning so I’d say we’re even.”

“What defense satellites?” Aubrey asked, looking confused. “UNIGOV doesn’t maintain defense satellites. It’s a sapiens government, not a martian one.”

“Yeah…” Lang gestured towards a weapons locker – contents currently split between himself and Priss – in an invitation for the two of them to take a seat. He settled down on a portable generator and laid his plasma carbine over his knees and waited for them to sit. Once they had he said. “Let’s start with with that. What do you mean by a martian government? I’m guessing you aren’t referring to the government of Borealis colony on Mars.”

He got a pair of blank looks. “There’s no colony on Mars,” Sean answered. “No sapiens colony, anyways. Never heard of there being martian one either, but I could be wrong. And it’s not clever to bring up the shared Latin root, just because we’re on a different planet doesn’t mean we’ve never heard of wordplay. That joke is as overdone here as it is on Copernicus or wherever you come from. I’m guessing that you – or your ancestors, really – were a part of the martians that left after the Last War?”

Priss and Dex were sharing confused looks that proved they were just as lost as he was. “Okay, look. It’s been nearly two centuries, more or less, since the Departure. I’m not going to pretend to have any idea what’s happened on Earth since then, and ancient history wasn’t my strongest subject when I was in school, so why don’t we wind it all the way back to the beginning. Assume I don’t know anything. What do you mean by martian?”

“You know. Homo martian,” Aubrey said. When Lang’s blank stare and accompanying silence grew uncomfortable she added, “One of the two sapient species that have existed on Earth since the beginning of recorded history?”

“Homo… martian.” Lang felt as if he’s suddenly landed on Copernicus Minor where the gravity was 1.2 times standard, confused and heavy, his sense of balance suddenly slightly off. “And the other sapient species is homo sapiens. Is that right?”

“Yeah.” She said it far too bluntly to believe it was anything other than the truth.

“Wait there. Don’t get up.” Lang got to his feet and motioned for Priss and Dex to follow him into the next room. On the way he pulled his AI and had it monitor the perimeter scanners for subjects leaving the building as well as those approaching. Once they were out of earshot of the civilians – their prisoners, as he was starting to think of them – he asked, “Does anyone have any idea what the fuck is going on here?”

“Nope.” Dex punctuated his one word denial with an eloquent shrug.

Priss was busy with her own AI, going through some kind of records. “Here we go. Shortly before the Departure there was speculation about prolonged exposure to solar radiation, microgravity and the other environmental pressures of space travel might give rise to a new subspecies of human. Several potential designations were floated – none of them were homo martian, by the way – but nothing ever came of it. Before the Departure.”

“So maybe something happened after.” Lang mused. “Not that the Triad worlds ever needed something like that. Spacers and grounders there are indistinguishable.”

“Yeah, but the colony ships were spinners and we solved unified field theory and artificial gravity a decade after Settlement,” Priss pointed out. “That may have been less of an issue here. We still don’t know much about the long term effects of microgravity on human physiology because it’s never been relevant.”

“None of which seems to matter that much because Aubrey there said there’s been two species of human since the beginning of history.” Lang said. “That doesn’t add up. Priss, did anyone in the comm center get ahold of Borealis before shit hit the fan?”

Her shrug was less eloquent than Dex’s but just as disappointing. “I think the Tranquility was supposed to signal Mars as soon as we dropped subluminal. But it’s still more than ten minutes from Lunar orbit to Mars and back again. If they got a message back it was after Major Rainer ordered the Armstrong abandoned.”

“So no help there, unless we can talk to the fleet.” Lang thought for another few seconds. “Okay, let’s assume Borealis Colony is gone and the Fleet is getting no intel from there. We need to do a few things. In order of priority, first we need to move away from the drop pod. Sooner or later someone else is coming to look at that and I don’t want them finding us.”

“What are we doing with the other two?” Dex asked.

“They’re going to be our native guides,” Lang said. “Because second, third and fourth, we need to find intel on what the hell this homo martian thing is about, why the former most powerful nation in the hemisphere has a random empty city in it, and how we can get back into orbit without getting caught.”

“Based on how your last attempt at talking to them went, I’m not sure how well any information gathering will go,” Priss said. “We don’t even have enough of a common frame of reference to ask questions it seems.”

“No worries,” Lang said with a grin. “We’re not getting our answers from them.”

The other two exchanged a skeptical look. “Then where are we getting them from?”

Chapter Four

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Two – The Meeting

Chapter One

“That’s the place, all right.” Aubrey lowered the binoculars and shoved them back into Sean’s backpack. “Definitely the UFO in there.”

“Told you,” Sean muttered around  a handful of peanuts. “What else could have made that hole in the wall?”

“I don’t know!” She hissed, crouching down behind the low, overgrown hedge row that ringed the old apartment complex. “But don’t you think looking before we go in makes a little sense? What if it was just an electrical fire and we got trapped when it spread?”

“Fuck.” Sean chewed thoughtfully for a moment. “Guess we’d be dead.”

Aubrey rubbed the bridge of her nose with both hands. “Then maybe it’s a good thing we didn’t do that.”

“Yep.” He dusted his hands off. “Let’s go look at it now.”

Audrey sighed and trailed after Sean as he headed quickly down the sidewalk and towards the house. It had taken them nearly forty minutes to narrow down exactly where in the large complex the smoke was coming from, then pick their way through the convoluted building and road layout to their current location. The vegetation, well out of the neat boundaries set for it by the landscapers who had planted it, had kept them from venturing off the preplanned pathways. Now that they had an end in sight, though, Sean was carefully picking his way over fences and pushing through boundary hedges in an effort to shave a few seconds off the time it took to reach the UFO.

Not that Aubrey felt there was a real rush. UNIGOV insisted that it didn’t monitor Earth orbitals for aliens, as peaceful first contact would be best established in the welcoming environment of a human city, and that sounded like a sensible enough policy to her. But as she gamely squirmed through a hedge row behind Sean she had to admit that, once again, his enthusiasm was catching. She wouldn’t have gone salvaging with him if he didn’t make picking old motor parts out of abandoned vehicles so interesting. She probably wouldn’t have though much of a UFO if he didn’t go to look at it either.

And it was a UFO. They’d seen it coming down through Sean’s binoculars in the early morning dusk and Sean had been sure right away that it wasn’t a UNIGOV copter or plane. Something about design aesthetics – although she wasn’t sure why the folks at UNIGOV would build a ship for space the same way they did a plane for atmosphere. But the angle and speed it had come in at? They were both sure it had to have come down from orbit. And two hours later they were close enough to lay eyes on it. “Do you think there’s some kind of procedure for this, Sean?”

“UNIGOV’s got procedure’s for everything, Bri. But they always talk about aliens landing somewhere populated – y’know, looking around the planet first then picking out a place with lots of people. These guys either didn’t do that or crashed because they were in trouble.” He stopped long enough to shoot her a curious glance. “What if they’re hurt and need help? Or just pack up and leave because they think the whole planet’s empty? Someone’s gotta talk to ’em before that happens.”

“I suppose…”

They pressed on. Three minutes later they were at the back of the townhouse look in through windows shattered by the UFO’s impact. Sean unslung his backpack and pulled out a length of cloth normally reserved for padding parts they’d collected. He used it to dust most of the broken glass and wood out of the window frame and then laid it across and climbed through. Aubery followed as he hurried through the empty room, kicking rubble aside, to approach the UFO. A large hatch was open on one side.

“Look at this, Bri.” He pointed at a small puddle of viscus, shining liquid pooled in a corner of the hatch. “Maybe they’re some kind of aquatic species?”

Aubrey edged around to one side of the vehicle and frowned. “Sean. I don’t think this is a UFO. Look at this.”

She pointed at the nose of the pod. Sean stepped away from the hatch and moved so he could see as well. “FRG 154 – C.” Confusion tinged his voice. “Aubrey. Those are roman letters.”

“And arabic numerals.” She sighed. “I guess it’s not a UFO after all.”

“Well it still shouldn’t have crashed like that.” Sean hurried back to the hatch, concerned again. “Hey, anyone in there? You okay?”

Inside the unlit building most of the insides of the pod were dark and Aubrey followed while fishing her flashlight out of her backpack’s tool strap. “Sean, I’m not sure this is a good idea. This might be a UNIGOV thing.”

“Just give a light and we’ll make sure no one’s hurt.” He was already resting one foot on the edge of the hatch. “Hello?”

In the middle of his last call there was a sudden scraping, banging noise and then hands landed in Aubrey’s back and she was shoved headfirst into the hatch. Sean landed on the floor within at about the same time. A split second later the hatch banged shut behind them.

“Okay,” Priss said, stepping back from the drop pod. “Now that we have two civilians locked in our pod, what are we going to do with them?”

“Are we sure they’re civilians?” Lang asked. “We have no idea what the local uniforms look like but their gear looked pretty standardized. Backpack, flashlight, tool belt.”

Priss shook her head. “The hair was wrong. Even without the necessity of maintaining vacuum seals on a helmet, any military worth its salt regulates hair short. Anything longer than this,” she pulled her short brown hair out to its maximum regulation four inch length, “is a liability in close quarters. They both went way over that mark.”

“Well I wasn’t paying attention to that but I’ll take your word for it.” He eyed the pod from where the three of them stood on the far side of the pod’s room. “They didn’t really show much discipline in approaching the building, either. So civilian is a safe bet. Did we lock anything we really need in there with them?”

“Just the last rack of power cells,” Dex said. “And the demolition charges. But if they’re civilians we’re going to have to drag them out of there before we destroy it anyway, so that can probably sit for now. Fusion burners aren’t something you can use to breach a hatch, so even if they did decide to try and get out that way…” He shrugged and mimed an explosion.

“Lovely.” Lang sighed. “I can’t imagine there’s any tech in there Earth couldn’t have discovered for itself in the last two hundred years, especially with the larger supply of scientific minds and infrastructure. But we shouldn’t leave the data core behind, even if we do wipe it. They’ll have to come out sooner or later. Maybe we’ll get some intel on what the hell’s going on around this planet. We’ll decide what to do with them after we hear what they have to say. Priss, what’s the deal with the satellite uplinks we saw on the buildings? Anything we can use?”

She pulled out her AI assistant and pulled up some notes. “Short answer is, I don’t think so. It’s all old civilian stuff and comes with a couple of problems…

Sean was pacing again, not that there was very far to go in the pod. He could basically take three full steps in any one direction before he’d have to crouch down or sit in a seat, so he spent a lot of time turning around. After the initial shock of being tossed into the container Aubery had opted to close one of the footlocker style compartments in the side of the ship and sit on that. There was too much of the weird goo in the seats for her to be comfortable sitting there.

Most of the stuff was pooled down by the nose of the pod, understandable given the angle it rested at, and she’d spent a good five minutes poking it with the toe of her shoe to see what would happen. It reminded her of the cornstarch water she’d made in science class when she was seven. She pulled her water bottle out of her backpack, thinking she should take some with her, but stopped when she realized they didn’t know how long they’d be stuck in there. Feeling oddly deflated she shoved the water bottle back into her pack and leaned back against the wall, staring at the puddle of goo despondently.

Suddenly Sean was perched on the edge of the locker, taking her by the shoulders and gently turning her so he could look her in the face. “Hey, hey, it’s going to be all right. Just relax.”

She took in a sharp breath that, halfway through, somehow turned into a sob, and she realized she’d started crying. Embarrassed, she rubbed at the tears and shook her self slightly. “Sorry. Sorry, I’m being such a femme.”

“No, no, it’s okay.” He gave her a weak smile. “I wasn’t helping much, being super male and pacing all over the place like that. You know we’re gonna get out of here fine, right?”

The pallor in his face wasn’t the most reassuring thing but she still did her best to match his smile with one of her own. “Yeah. I mean, they turned the lights on for us when they closed the hatch so how bad can they really be?”

“I think that was automatic.” Seeing that that wasn’t the right thing to say Sean hurried to add, “But hey, we’ve got air and a couple of days of food so I’m sure we’ll be fine.”

A new surge of panic rose for a second before she could suppress it. “You’re sure we have air?”

“Yeah.” He jerked a thumb towards the back. “I felt it coming through some vents over there by the lights in back. If we could pry them off we might be able to at some kind of outside access and…” He trailed off as Aubrey’s expression wasn’t exactly encouraging. “I’m sure the UNIGOV folks will let us out soon.”

Aubrey’s stomach did a little flip flop. She wasn’t entirely sure of that. To hide her doubts she asked, “What if they’re not UNIGOV?”

“Who else is going to be flying around near Earth orbitals?” He asked.

As if on cue, the hatch popped and swung open again. Silhouetted against the outside were three people, all dressed in identical clothes. The garment looked like a slate gray coveralls but hard, glistening black segments covered the torso, shoulders and upper arms and legs. She couldn’t tell, at a glance, how the black and gray materials were joined with each other or what they were made of. There were two men and one woman, the woman’s sex clear from the added segmentation in her torso necessitated by a generous bust. The man in the center was tallest, well over six feet, and his black hair cropped almost all they way down to his scalp, while the other man was almost a foot shorter and his sandy hair was cut in a longish flat top. The woman was almost as tall as the first man and her black hair curled down around her ears in a conservative but attractive bob. All three were carrying compact, short barrelled weapons held across their torsos, barrels down.

Her mind jumped to the obvious conclusion but Sean said it first. “Holy shit. Martians.”

Chapter Three