Cold Iron – A Vince Porter Exorcism

Hello folks, Nate here! It’s the beginning of a short fiction extravaganza! Of late I’ve been contributing to ironage.media on a semiregular basis. There’s little to no direct crossover between my audience here, which I built long before contributing there, and the readership of that website (although I strongly recommend giving it a look if you enjoy independent scifi and fantasy.) With that in mind, I want to share some of the stories I wrote for IAM with you!

We’ll be running through a bunch of stories over the next few weeks and I’ll do a short introduction before most of them. Vince Porter is a character that came out of nowhere in response to IAM’s weekly prompt. I’ve always found the way exorcists are portrayed in fiction kind of strange and I decided to boil down most of my ideas into a single story. This is the result. Will we seen Vince doing battle with supernatural evil ever again?

Maybe. In the mean time, I hope you enjoy this quick outing with a part-time exorcist.


“Run through it again, Porter,” the voice in his ear said.

Vince Porter worked his fingers into his thick gloves as he started. “Appearances began two years ago. The creature only appears in the winter months when the temperature is five degrees Celsius or less and always rides from the northern ridge down to the river before vanishing. I’ll intercept it along the embankment by the river and assess it.”

“Remember that we’re not sure it’s a demon.” Remi’s manicured nails clicking away on her keyboard were clearly audible over her headset pickups. “It could be a bunch of other things. If it isn’t a demon your involvement ends immediately.”

“Sure.” Vince worked his toes down into his boots while adjusting the double cuff on his snow pants so it sealed off the tops better. “I leave right away.”

“I’m serious, Vince, you’re a pastor and addiction counselor, not a paranormal expert. Leave the jackalopes to professionals.”

“The reports say its a man on a horse who seems to draw a snowstorm behind him, that’s a far cry from a jackalope.” He adjusted his utility belt, his fingers drifting along the wooden stakes and silver plated knife he’d brought along, just in case. Vince had never fought a vampire or werewolf. However all the things he’d heard from Remi and the others suggested they were out there and he liked to be prepared. “If the retreat wanted a full service exorcist they could’ve asked the Vatican.”

“The papists have their hands full with all the possessed Catholics, they don’t have time for us Protestant filth.” Remi said it lightly, although he knew she resented most of the Orthodox for her own reasons. “Besides, I don’t think they’d prioritize a creature that’s ignored people so far.”

The belt slipped awkwardly along the top of his parka and clothing. Vince had heard this was why layers of cotton or wool were preferable for cold weather exorcisms, rather than synthetic fabrics. Regardless of whether that was true he didn’t have the budget for a specific set of gear for every kind of weather. He’d have to make do with his skiing clothes. “If it is a demon I need to know the name of its victim. Any leads from missing persons cases in the area?”

“You’re in a ski resort, Vince, do you really think anyone could go missing there without it causing a multi week news blitz? Even you couldn’t miss that.”

“I don’t know, we don’t watch a whole lot of news at the recovery center. It pushes the guys back towards the drugs.” He finally reached the large, heavy sheath that was secured via a special set of metal rings to his belt. It held his sword, a nasty weapon with a forty inch blade made of solid iron. A wiggle of the hilt assured him it was loose in its sheath and ready to draw at a moment’s notice. “Are you saying no one went missing in the area two years ago?”

“No one was reported, at least.” Remi clicked her tongue once. “You know most of the people in the area who have gone missing or are most likely to go missing, did you ask any of them whether they knew people who went missing in the area?”

“Homeless people and addicts generally don’t live this far out of the city center,” Vince replied. “Too hard to get to services here. Come on, Remi, you’re supposed to be really good at connecting the right talent to with the right job, you have to have some kind of lead on who the demon’s possessing or you wouldn’t have called in an exorcist. You’d have gone straight to a paranormal researcher.”

“I haven’t had time to confirm anything…”

“I preemptively agree to all your caveats, Remi. Tell me what you got.”

“A cavalry patrol on a training exercise disappeared in a blizzard during World War One. For a couple of years after there were stories of a rider appearing in a cloud of sleet during the winter months but there were no sightings for decades after. It’s cropped up a few times in the past century, always just before an armed conflict, most recently Operation Desert Storm.” Remi recited the facts in a brisk, straightforward manner but there was a tinge of excitement underneath them, as if she reveled in knowing something he didn’t. “I think it’s possible your demon possessed one of the original cavalrymen.”

“Raises the question why it’s back now,” Vince mused. “We’re not at war.”

“Yet.”

“Thanks for that lovely thought to haunt my dreams tonight.” He tugged his parka’s hood down over his head and pulled the laces so it fit snug around his face then climbed up to lay prone on the embankment, binoculars trained up the slope. “What were the names of the soldiers who went missing?”

“Lieutenant Braxton Thorton, Corporal Cole Emmery, Privates George Thurgood and Terrance Norton. I couldn’t find much more in the way of records, so you’ll have to try them all.”

“Thanks, Remi. That’s a big help.” A low cloud rising like steam over the mountainside drew Vince’s attention. “I have contact. Give me two second pings, please.”

A low tone began sounding softly in his earpiece. “Are there any cases of demons not disrupting phone calls?”

“Not that I’ve heard of.” Vince took a mallet and carefully drove an anchor stake into the river embankment below him then readied a heavily modified T-shirt launcher. “Unfortunately it’s not an ironclad diagnostic tool, either. Lots of supernatural stuff causes problems with phones and computers but it’s a simple enough starting point. If we lose contact wait an hour or so before you call in the cavalry.”

“An hour? That’s a long time for your dead ass to be freezing on the mountain.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence. Wait an hour, Remi, if it is a demon then my phone is shot and I’ll need to hike all the way back to the visitor’s center before I can contact you. I’d hate to have the cops get out here at just the moment I stagger back into the lodge.”

“Fine. You have sixty minutes from the moment I-”

Her voice cut off. Vince sighed and started counting minutes in his head while watching the strange cloud of snow as it closed at an unsettling speed. By his estimate the approaching storm cloud was about forty feet wide. However trailing along behind the unnaturally concentrated front was a larger wall of snow and wind working its way down the mountain. The whole of the foothills glittered with moonlight reflecting on the flakes.

Vince fumbled with his hood for a moment, cursing his gloves as he got the earpiece out and clumsily shoved it into a zippered pocket. By the time he was done with that he could hear the dim echoes of hoof beats over the muffling effect of the snow. Pulling ski goggles over his eyes with one hand, cradling the T-shirt gun in the other, he stepped into the storm.

The wall of white cut off the outside world immediately. Vince took a deep breath in through his nose but no smell of sulfur was on the wind. All he got for his trouble was a numbed nose. The air had abruptly gone from damp and cold to bitterly cold and dry as dust. Sleet and snow buffeted against his parka. The hoof beats grew closer and a strange trepidation built in him with each thundering footfall of the unseen horse.

Something evil was coming.

“Terrance Norton!” Vince called, his voice booming over the silencing snow and horrible hooves. “You did not choose me, but I have called you!”

Somewhere out in the storm the horse came to a sudden stop. Vince waited, hoping for a sign, but nothing else happened for a good fifteen seconds. Either he wasn’t actually dealing with a demon or the possessed person from the army patrol wasn’t Norton, else that challenge would have forced the fallen one to respond. Well, there was a response. The sense of supernatural danger grew stronger and that was nothing to sneeze at. But it wasn’t the response he should get if he’d properly challenged the demon, if it was actually a demon.

Not for the first time, Vince cursed all the unknowns that came with demon slaying for a side gig. It would be nice if demons had clear cut tendencies and typologies, like in movies. But eight years of experience had taught him that the supernatural had so many tools at their disposal a human, with all the attendant limits to awareness and agency, couldn’t really predict their actions. An exorcist had to counter the demon on the human level, not the supernatural one.

“George Thur-” A creature on horseback thundered out of the snow, a steel helmet pulled low on its brow, red eyes peering out from underneath, stringy white hair flying along behind it. It was wrapped in tattered old rags. If the creature had been in a uniform before it was long lost to time and wear and all that remained was its helmet. The horse had a touch of the uncanny about it as well. It’s mane was just as white as the creature’s hair and it’s hooves seemed to never touch the ground.

It appeared out of nowhere and bowled Vince off of his feet, sending him stumbling back into the embankment. For a brief moment he wondered if this wasn’t a demon after all. Perhaps he’d stumbled on a horse from a fairy world or a snow elemental who’s visits to the mountain just so happened to line up with the outbreaks of wars. Then the creature shrieked and a wave of brimstone scented air washed over him. Definitely a demon.

The horse reared and tried to trample Vince beneath its hooves but he dragged himself out of the way by pulling on the cord he’d driven into the embankment. Then he leveled his T-shirt gun and fired a weighted net out of it at the creature. The horse snorted and charged at him again, riderless, but it was less an attack and more a senseless flailing. He watched as color returned to the creature’s mane in a matter of seconds. Vince sidestepped the horse and it wandered into the snow aimlessly leaving him with nothing to worry about but the demon.

The demon tore free of his net and howled, a nauseating wave of sulfur and terror radiating outwards from it. Vince forced himself to suck in a breath around it and said, “George Thurgood, you have not chosen me, but I have called you!”

Again, no result other than the demon lunging at him in spite of the net tangled around its legs. The creature wasn’t particularly elegant in its approach but it was strong enough to pull up the net’s anchoring pinion without breaking stride so it didn’t really need that much finesse to go with it. Vince sidestepped the attack, drawing his sword in one smooth motion and tripping the demon on its way past.

That was a mistake. The creature almost got a grip on his foot before he could dance away from where it fell. Once he’d opened some distance Vince leveled the point of his sword at the demon to discourage it from making another lunge like that. That hadn’t worked too well in the past but there was no harm in trying it again. On the bright side, passing behind the creature gave him a chance to look at the back of its helmet and see there was no lieutenant’s bar painted there. He wasn’t sure that had been the way in the early days but it was worth running with.

“Cole Emmery, you have not chosen me, but I have called you!”

The creature howled, staggering to its feet as it clawed at its head. “Silence! No one will choose you, Vince Porter! You are no savior, no redeemer, no minister to the down trodden. Men live their short, agonizing lives hungering for the release of oblivion and you spend your days dragging them away from the small scraps of death they find!”

Vince scowled. This was definitely a demon, then, since it finally responded to the challenge. It had the magical ability to get under his skin just like all the others he’d encountered and just like all the others he forced himself to ignore it. “In the name of Christ be freed, Cole!” He lifted the point of his sword to the sky. “There awaits for you a just and merciful Lord who will open the gates of paradise to you!”

“There is nothing after this!” The demon shrieked. “Nothing but oblivion before and oblivion after, between which is only the terrifying agony of life!”

The point of his sword came down and pointed at the possessed man. “All authority in heaven and earth is entrusted to the Sons and Daughters of God; that which we bind on earth will be bound in heaven! Your lord is Prince of the Earth. May you, also, be bound to the earth and Cole Emmery set loose to rise to heaven! In the name of Jesus!”

As Vince cut his blade upward the possessed man’s body shuddered and it let out a gasp. He saw a wisp of light slip upwards. An oily shadow pulled out in the opposite direction, leaving the body of the creature to collapse lifeless on the ground. The shadow tried to slip away but Vince lunged forward and drove his sword through it, pinning it in place. “You can wait there until Judgment Day.”

A final, whispered scream rose from the shadow and was carried away on the last gasps of the wind. The snow had stopped and left Vince standing in two inches of snow by the body of a hundred year old man. He huffed out a sigh and let go of the hilt of his sword. Blade and shadow were drawn into the earth to wait for the End of All Things and Vince started back towards the ski lodge to get warm and call Remi.

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The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Twenty Nine

Previous Chapter

Lang dangled his feet off the edge of the pier, trying his best to ignore the strong smell that seawater seemed to develop around any kind of manmade structure. Perhaps it was something from the power plant, or an effect of the plants growing there. Priss and Aubrey were there as well, although neither of them were that interested in touching the water.

“What do you think they’re going to say?” Priss asked.

“I don’t know.” Aubrey leaned against one of the titanic support pillars, a concrete pile as wide as two people that raised a good three feet above the walkway it supported. “Honestly, I’d hope UNIGOV would be willing to talk to you after everything that’s happened over the past six weeks but I also never expected I’d be happy being friends with martians either. So I don’t think I have the best insight to go off of.”

“Reminder who just got pulled into issues of interplanetary diplomacy,” Lang said, pointing at himself. “I’m getting worried I’ll be anointed the leading authority on Earthling psychology by the time the fleet’s done here. Your insight is just as valid as mine. Better, because you’ve actually lived through the changes we’re hoping everyone else will have.”

“When your tour’s up maybe you should retire and join the diplomatic corps,” Priss said, elbowing him.

“When I cycle out I’m buying my own ship,” Lang muttered.

Priss looked surprised. “Really? I always figured you were a lifer, in it ’til they force you to retire. When do you plan to pack in your exo?”

“I haven’t decided,” Lang said. “It’s something I only started thinking about since the first time we grounded.”

“What kind of ship were you thinking about?”

“Are there a lot of different kinds?” Aubery asked.

“As many as there are kinds of cars or boats,” Lang said. “The big ones are all owned by passenger of freight liners but I’m thinking about finding a small private charter ship. I may need to sign on with a charter company for a few years to get through the licensing and safety procedures but I’ve got more than enough flight hours to get accepted anywhere.”

“Private passenger charters always like ex-military fliers,” Priss mused. “Although your record of crashing ships might be a real turn-off when you have to sign up for pilot’s insurance.”

“Is there really enough demand for travel between planets for there to be private charter flights on a regular basis?” Aubery asked.

“You might be surprised.” Lang scratched his chin. “Although I’m not sure I want to have to deal with a bunch of rich passengers for a week at a stretch on the Roddenberry to Galileo run. Pay’s better than small time freight, though.”

“Two weeks a trip.” Aubery shuddered. “I’ve been away from home for maybe twice that and sometimes I think I’m going crazy. How can you put up with it?”

Lang shrugged. “It’s just part of the job, I suppose. Gotta say, this trip to Earth has been a lot nastier than the war was, given how out of touch we’ve been, but you expect to be off planet a lot in the spacer corps. At least on a passenger or freight run you get a week off between runs. Of course, by the time we get back they may have another new generation of superluminal drives to cut down on travel time.”

“If you want my advice, get a spot on a passenger liner,” Priss said. “You spend too much time alone with no one to reign you in and you’re going to go off the deep end and fly yourself straight into a black hole or something.”

Lang shrugged. “If you’re that worried about it you might as well come along and do it yourself.”

“Don’t have the skills for it. Comms are a dime a dozen out there in the stars, unlike you flyboys. My medical training isn’t up to snuff as an onboard doctor, either. I might be able to rate as a nurse but I don’t want to spend my flights wiping noses on a passenger flight.” Priss folded her hands behind her head and lay down flat on the docks. “It’s the corps or nothing for me. If I do cash out and go civilian I’ll probably settle down and get married, make a few tiny terraformers and spend my days proof reading legal filings for contractors like I was doing before the war.”

“Sounds nice,” Aubrey mused.

“You’ve never had to edit for paralegals,” Priss said dryly. “If I had a credit for every time I was told to mind my own business I’d be able to buy a ship for both me and Lang.”

“Nice because you’ll be done.” Aubrey tucked her knees up under her chin and looked out at the ocean. “You make it sound like you’re practically done with Earth. I don’t even know when I’ll have a chance to go home.”

“There’s no such thing as done, Aubrey.” Lang pulled his feet out of the water and scooted back so they rested on the pier, enjoying the feeling of them quickly drying in the warm afternoon air. “It looks like there is but that’s a trick. I thought I was done after I came home from Galileo. I was going to hang out in the fleet, do really easy patrols around the system and along the Copernican-Newtonian corridor and never have to worry about getting shot at again. Two years later, I’m here. Two years from now, who knows where I’ll be?”

“Flying charter ships, it sounds like,” Priss said.

“Maybe. Maybe I’ll change my mind, re-up and do another tour in the Corps. I did originally planned to be a lifer.”

“What made you start thinking about changing your mind?” Aubrey asked.

“The actual war part wasn’t great,” Lang admitted. “Coming to Earth seemed like a chance to make history in a more positive way but it hasn’t really worked out that way. I kind of just want to step back and see if I can make something of myself before messing with history again.”

Aubrey gave a hollow laugh. “Good luck. Sometimes history decides to mess with you.”

“Point taken.” Lang stared out at the oceans of the Homeworld and tried to reconcile his own feelings for the place. For all that it was the cradle of humanity, it hadn’t treated him that well in his time there. Then again, it’s not like the Triad Worlds were any better. He certainly felt more invested in it than he ever had on Copernicus, though. He’d never payed nearly as much attention to things back home as he had on Earth – or Minerva, for that matter. “I think you Earthlings will be able to sort it out eventually.”

“I wish I had your confidence.”

“I’m more worried about the Malacandrans,” Priss put it, taking great care as she pronounced the unfamiliar name. “Those kids have had a really rough go of it and I’m not sure what we’re doing is the best way to help.”

“You could put in to join the delegation to Mars the Admiral is thinking about sending,” Lang said. “See things there up close.”

“They’re sending a Copernican delegation to Mars?”

“Oh.” He realized that was something he’d heard Carrington discussing with Naomi while they were waiting to set up Mond’s entrance into Shutdown. Not something for general dissemination. “Maybe?”

Priss gave him an arch look. “You know I’m in Comms, right? I’m duty bound to put that out on the rumor mill.”

“Can you wait a few hours to give me plausible deniability?”

“We do our best to protect our sources.”

“Didn’t sound like a yes, Priss.”

“It wasn’t one.” She sat partway up, resting on her elbows. “I’m not sure I want to go to Mars. I kind of like it here on Earth. There’s oceans and deserts and a whole lot of other stuff we don’t have on Copernicus. We say we’re terraforming the planet but we’re not really making a place that looks a whole lot like Earth based on what I’ve seen. There’s a lot of temperate land going up around the planet. Not a whole lot of deserts or jungles.”

“You want a jungle?” Lang asked. “You’ve never even been to a jungle so why do you want one on Copernicus?”

“I dunno. Maybe I just want to go see a jungle before I decide whether I want one or not.”

“How long do your tours last?” Aubrey asked. “You said you traveled a long time just to get back to Earth so will your time be up soon?”

“It’s about six months to get to Earth at the pace the Fleet came at,” Lang said, “although that’s with the old supply ships thrown into the mix. If we moved at the pace of the Principia, which is the fastest thing in the fleet, we could do it in two.”

“Everyone in the Fleet had to re-up before we left,” Priss added. “Standard tours are four years long so we’ve actually got a lot of time left to do before any of us can think about leaving the Corps.”

“Oh.” Aubrey relaxed a bit. “So you’re not taking off any time soon.”

“Why? Were you going to miss us?” Lang asked.

“A little. All my old friends still live in Texas and I’m not likely to see them again any time soon.” She shrugged eloquently. “You’re the next closest thing I’ve got, outside of Sean, and he’s gotten obsessed with interfacing your systems and ours via AI, so much so I barely see him outside of the computer labs these days.”

“I thought you both worked in AI programming.”

“We did. He’s still interested in it and I’m… I feel like other things are more important these days.”

Lang started pulling his boots back on. “That’s another thing that happens a lot, Aubrey. People all have different ideas about what’s important. Can’t say I blame him, I really want to find some of those air cars we saw on our first visit and take a few out for a spin. New tech is catnip to people like us.”

“Well then you really don’t want to get an independent freighter,” Priss said. “You don’t see anything newer than the First Galilean War in tramp freighters these days. Stay in the Corps, Lang. They’ll give you all the neat toys you want.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it. The lander I flew off the Armstrong hadn’t had a new component installed on it in the last six years.” Lang clambered to his feet and helped the two ladies up as well. “Besides, there are all kinds of new just like there’s all kinds of important.”

“What kind of new do you have in mind?” Priss asked.

“We can’t be sending an entire fleet every time someone wants to run some cargo or people out this way,” Lang said. “Gonna be a lot of call for independent ships to move things on the Earth-Copernicus run real soon. Mars needs a lot of stuff and it’s not going to be easy to manufacture using just the resources the Fleet has on hand, even assuming the Admiral doesn’t put us on full war footing in the next couple of weeks.”

“Shrewd thinking,” Priss said, tapping her chin. “And by the time you’re ready to muster out in three years the Copernican Senate will just be starting to think about normalizing travel. You may be able to get subsidized in picking up your own ship.”

“Not to mention the improvements we could see in superluminals over that time, especially with shortening the trip to Earth to set the goal posts.” Lang grinned. “The one way transit time may get down under a month by then.”

“And if anyone from Earth wants to go the other way they could do worse than to charter the Triad World’s foremost expert on the Earthling mindset to fly them,” Aubrey added, grinning back.

“Oh!” Lang grabbed his chest in mock agony. “E tu, Brute?”

Her face screwed up in confusion. “What?”

“Never mind. UNIGOV probably got Shakespeare, too.” Lang started off the docks, shaking his head ruefully. “We can worry more about that in the future. I’ve got to get back to Vesper and Priss has some rumors to monger. What about you, Aubrey?”

“Keeping an eye on Naomi and Director Mond for the moment. Hopefully we get some good news from the Admiral’s call but if all we hear is hurry up and wait I think I can deal with that, too.”

As the three of them split up and went their separate ways Lang wondered if it was worth getting his hopes up about a simple, straightforward diplomatic solution to the mess they’d made of things since they arrived at Earth. If he was honest about it, there probably wasn’t any point. However they’d muddled through everything up until that point and that suggested they could muddle through the rest. That, he decided, was good news enough for him.

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Twenty Eight

Previous Chapter

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.

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Twenty Seven

Previous Chapter

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.

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Twenty Two

Previous Chapter

“What’s the situation, Sargent?” Captain Yang returned his salute as she crouched down with him behind the embankment.

“Enemy’s point defenses are still active at all points on the building previously reported, ma’am,” Lang said, sending her AI a ping to dump the relevant files. “We scouted around most of the old parking area and we think we can secure the plasma guns there.”

“Will that give us a good angle to take out their mag field generators?” Yang asked as she started scrolling through the data he’d just given her.

“Not unless these guns can arc plasma like kinetic shells,” Lang said. “But we can hit the main building from here.”

She paused mid scroll. “What does that accomplish? I’m not looking to cause a catastrophic containment breach of an active fusion reactor, Langley. That doesn’t help anyone.”

“Technically it does short out their planetary defense network in this region but I see you point, ma’am.” Lang twitched a few commands and sent his proposed plan to her tablet. “What’s interesting about the Earthling’s chosen weapons in this situation is how incredibly clunky they are. Nanotech, by nature, is about doing small things. Blowing them up to a large scale is very inefficient and the fact that they seriously took this approach to warfare shows how unaccustomed UNIGOV is to the whole process…”

“You’re not filing a flight plan, Sargent,” Yang said. “You don’t need to give me the specs and background on all the tech involved. Just give me the highlights.”

“You can’t use disassembler fields indoors, ma’am. They’ll just disassemble the building and you’ll be outdoors again, which isn’t ideal for a bunch of reasons, thus you don’t deploy any of the fields indoors. So if we want to avoid the plant’s defenses…”

“Blow open a wall in the main building and run inside.” Yang smiled. “Simple and direct, just like all the best plans. Have you determined the best places to breach the walls?”

“I wasn’t sure what your operational goals were so we made our best guess at the spots we thought would be near an emergency shutdown of some sort.” With a flick of the fingers Lang highlighted those spots on her map. “Unfortunately the plans for this kind of plant aren’t on hand and it didn’t exist before the Departure so all we’ve got are assumptions to go on.”

“Not much but it’s a start.” Yang looked the map over and added a few notes to it. “I’m going to check in with the other groups and see if we can get an angle on any other potential points to breach. Impressive work, Sargent. The Remote Operations Group think they’ve located the plant’s command room based on infrastructure on site. I’m adding that to the list of potential sites to breach and I want you to take point on that team.”

“Me, ma’am?”

“You’re the Earthling expert, remember?” Yang gave him a wry smile. “I know making peace isn’t exactly your specialty but you’re pretty good at thinking around their plans and you’ve got a handle on their temperament. Find and neuteralize their leadership. Offer them unconditional surrendure before you slag them, and let me know if they make any counter offers I’m not looking to wipe them out, but don’t be afraid to force the issue if they’re recalcitrant. I’ll send Priss along to keep you in touch, okay?”

“If you insist ma’am.” He pulled up the map on his own tablet. “Where are we making our entrance at?”

“You’ll be staging from upsilon-2, moving out in ten minutes. Stay on your toes, Sargent.”


Upsilon-2 was just behind a large cherry tree. Unlike most of the plant’s overgrown garden beds this tree stood on it’s own with no other obvious landscaping around it. Lang wondered if it was originally intended for that spot or if it had sprouted on its own. He’d hunkered down there with Priss and his picked up team of ground pounders just in time to see the opening salvo come from Fresh Face and his gun team.

In his long career with the Spacer Corps Lang had seen a lot of plasma bombardments. He’d seen the utter devastation left by the Minervans on Newton, the chilling spectacle of atmosphere venting from Minervan domes over Galileo and the heart stopping shock of the orbit ship Great Red Spot breaking apart under focused fire from the Dianan fleet. Each and every kind of bombardment was horrible in its own way. But after watching the Second Galilean War from the cockpits of landers and rescue craft in space Lang had figured he was used to the sight of plasma guns at work.

He’d forgotten that in atmosphere they also made noise.

When the guns blew up the first section of the plant’s outer walls there was just a brief flash of light from their emplacement in the parking lot, followed but a brighter, sharper flash and a huge plume of smoke from the building. Then a massive clap as super heated air rapidly cooled. Finally a bone shaking boom and a pressure wave that hit like a slap in the face. Lang sucked in a breath and shook himself once. That hadn’t even been a big strike, nothing compared to the kinds of shipboard plasma weapons and missiles the Tranquility could bring to bear.

Harry laughed. “I take it you’ve only done space work until now, Sarge?”

“If you don’t count escaping after being grounded in hostile territory twice, yeah.”

“Nothing like the first time you see a big heat gun in atmo,” Keys said. “Hopefully we won’t be down here long enough to get used to it.”

Priss crossed herself and said, “Amen to that.”

“Check you’re gear,” Lang said. “There’s one more team going then it’s our turn. I don’t think we’re going to get ripped up by nanotech once we’re inside but someone on team Earth has gotten creative and nasty so keep your eyes peeled and call out anything that looks off. If they surrender to you give them full privileges under the Borealis Convention.”

“Although be aware that they probably won’t reciprocate,” Priss added. “Most of them don’t know the Convention exists.”

“What if they want to negotiate terms?” Keys asked.

“Then I talk to them,” Lang said. “But Priss is right, they don’t have much cultural or structural support for these kinds of situations so you’re going to have to treat them a little differently.”

“How so?”

“It’s likely they haven’t disciplined themselves against violent impulses ever in their lives. If it looks like they’re about to hit you or shoot you with a weapon they’ve recovered or dump a load of nuclear waste on your head that’s probably exactly what’s about to happen.” Lang made sure to make direct eye contact with Keys as he spoke. “If you believe they’re about to attack you, shoot them. UNIGOV discourages all communication with us martians anyways, so negotiations are unlikely.”

Keys looked uncomfortable at that but he nodded. “Understood.”

A second blast shook the air and Fresh Face’s voice came over the comms. “Stand by, group Langley. We’re making your entrance now.”

“Final check in now,” Lang said.

“Keys here, exo is green, all gear checks out.”

“Yancey, EMGs are running, all other gear…”


The six of them piled over the super heated hole in the plant’s concrete wall and into another world. If the streets of Los Angeles were deserted and overgrown the halls of the plant were chaotic and full of death. Yang had picked a spot she thought was near the plant’s command center. They’d found the building’s cafeteria. The wall had blown in and thrown slagged concrete and burning insulation across tables and diners who had probably been enjoying breakfast moments before.

Or maybe they’d just been trying to choke down a few bites while wondering what all the alarms were about. Either way, they’d died just the same. Bits of people poked out from some of the rubble and dead or unconscious bodies were strewn against the far wall like leaves. His AI datafeed, projected on the inside of his helmet, estimated there had been two dozen people in the area. It marked three as still conscious and moving. None of them were carrying weapons.

Harry and Keys had already flagged them as low priority threats and were moving towards a stairway leading up over the dining area. Most of the stairs were intact although some rubble smashed a few steps. At the top a balcony overlooked the cafeteria and a sign hanging there announced that medical and reactor access were to the left, administration and reactor control to the right and personal lockers straight ahead. He took off after Keys.

The stairway proved sturdy enough to hold their weight in spite of the damage and, with assistance from the exoskeletons, they were able to jump the damaged sections without trouble. At the top Harry hesitated. “Do we trust this sign?”

“Why would they put up a sign with the wrong directions on it?” Yancey demanded.

“I dunno, maybe they expected they’d be invaded?”

Lang pushed past them and took point as he turned to the right. “In that case we’ll just double back the other way. But I doubt they’d just change the signs to confuse us, UNIGOV only reactivated this facility recently and their own people are just as likely to get confused by it.”

“If you say so, Sarge.”

Truthfully it wouldn’t have taken long to confirm the sign. Not more than ten or fifteen feet down the hallway a bank of windows looked out over a wide room full of tihn dividing walls, creating a grid of small, eight foot rooms with desks covered in dust. Lang guessed it was the administration room, now out of use. Another twenty feet on the hall ended. Just before the end there was a glass door into the administration room on the right and the hall itself ended in a metal door.

Harry slipped forward and tried the metal door, finding it unlocked. Yancey gave a thumbs up after checking his EMG scanner and then the two of them slipped into the room, guns up and moving in the arcane patterns of the trained infantryman. Lang followed along behind them when they gave the all clear. They found a locker room.

The locker room had achieved it’s final form long before space colonization efforts began so it was a pretty familiar place. Banks of lockers, banks of toilet stalls, individual shower cubbies and textured ceramic floors. The rubber soles on Lang’s boots gripped it well enough but those who’d stuck with mag boots slipped a bit as the smooth, metal soles slipped on the slick surface.

Progress slowed until they reached the end of the locker room and arrived at the next door. Once again Harry and Yancey went through first. This time the door swung shut behind them on its own and before anyone could grab the handle and pull it back open a deep thunk sounded as the door locked itself behind them.

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Twenty One

Previous Chapter

The tower was both less impressive and less coherent up close. Less impressive because it became clear it’s red color was not a uniform coat of paint and rather an mix of rust and red leaves on vines that seemed locked in perpetual autumn. The leaves were particularly strange as Brian couldn’t recall seeing any other signs of the season in the city. Then again, the air could be quite chilly and he wouldn’t notice. The fugue state didn’t provide the clearest sense of temperature, just one of many sensations that the technology didn’t really communicate well.

Of the dozen or so towers he’d seen on arrival the closest was squatter than most, a wide structure with a number of arching balconies and smaller spires giving it the appearance of a fan or brush reaching towards the sky. The base of the tower wasn’t really any different from the other, shorter buildings around him. A low, arched stone door frame jutted a foot or two forward from the side of the building leading into a dimly lit lobby with plush benches running around the outside walls. There was a counter for a concierge but it wasn’t manned.

The doors to the lobby weren’t locked either. Brian let himself in, cautiously looking around the lobby, wonder and anxiety warring in the pit of his stomach. He was expecting an elevator or another antechamber leading into the bottom floor of the tower. Instead the only exit from the lobby was a set of double doors on the far side of the room. None of the fugue’s faceless people were present so the building had a very lonely, desolate vibe to it.

“Baker? Any new information on the towers?”

“Not yet. We don’t have any information in our archives on plans to construct anything like what you’re seeing but that doesn’t necessarily mean there weren’t any. We’ve messaged the Sarajevo Vault but no response yet.” Baker’s voice went a little distant. “We’re going to try and show a concept sketch to one of the Light of Mars people we woke up.”

Brian paused, his hand hovering over the handle to the double doors. “Why would you do that?”

“We’re hoping it will do something to jog their memories or at least stabilize their minds so they can tell us something about what happened in there.”

“Not a bad idea. Let me know if you find anything important but if you don’t turn up anything or it doesn’t seem important wait until I check in. I need to focus.” He grabbed the handle on the door and pulled it open. The door swung open and for a brief moment Brian caught a glimpse of the shadow that had haunted him through the city in the reflection on the door’s metal face. He ignored it. So far the night terror hadn’t lived up to its name, just crept into the corner of his vision from time to time so he was training himself to ignore it.

Then the door opened fully and ignoring it became a lot more difficult.

The inside of the massive tower was a ten story tall glass tank full of shifting shadows contained by a heavily reinforced set of bronze or brass bands. The whole scene reminded him of something he’d seen on the cover a book from the 1920s when he was perusing the Vaults during his training. Unlike the shadow person that had stalked him through the streets there was no clear figure in the tank. But he caught glimpses of other things.

Most of them were structures. Tall spires, forests of antenna and weblike networks of cables peeked through the darkness for a second or two then vanished again. Occasionally a ten foot long hand might appear for a moment. Once Brian thought he saw an eye peering out of the tank although it didn’t seem to be focused on anything in the tower in particular. For a moment it felt like the eye focused on him. For the first time he could remember, Director Brian O’Sullivan felt like he was completely out of control of his circumstances. Then the eye continued on its way, vanishing into the shadows after another few seconds.

When he got his breath back he whispered, “Baker, stand by for an emergency shutdown.”

“Are you okay, Director?” She asked, her voice laced with concern.

“The entire fugue, Baker, don’t just shut down my pod turn the whole server off and wake up everyone else still stored here. Find the people as soon as they wake up and keep them under strict observation.” Brian forced his feet to take a tentative step forward.

“Tell me what’s wrong, Director.”

“Begin the procedure if you hear me say ‘bucolic’ regardless of what else happens. Don’t wait for confirmation, just shut it down. Do you understand?”

“Director-”

“Stop talking, Baker. Let me concentrate.”

She made a very annoyed sound but stopped talking.

The hundred foot tall tank dominated the room for obvious reasons but it wasn’t the only thing there worthy of note. A ring of computer monitors ringed the outside of the room. They showed pictures and diagrams that meant nothing to Brian and the text they displayed had that strange, gibberish quality you’d expect in a dream. That set off a silent alarm in the back of his brain, since he’d read everything else he’d seen in the fugue without trouble.

Well, everything written in English.

The mystery of why the text on the monitors was unreadable wasn’t the most important thing in the tank room, however. The most important thing was the man in front of the tank.

Brian had gone through the list of people Shutdown from the Light of Mars project. Most of them were accounted for already. A few were left in Shutdown because they filled supplementary logistical roles in the original project, roles that UNIGOV already had well covered in the present and who would thus be redundant. Only five people in the R&D arm of the Light of Mars had gone unaccounted for. One lead scientist turned up dead of heart failure during the initial Shutdown, a fact that got noted in the Sarajevo Vault but never forwarded to Bakersfield when the project was revived. A second lead scientist had been removed from Shutdown and assigned to a large scale construction project in Asia forty years ago and died a natural death twelve years later. Three assistants had simply never come out of the fugue.

In profile the man in front of the tank bore a striking resemblance to the man who had died of heart failure. His name was Georgi Jaksic and one of the missing assistants was his son. Brian wasn’t sure if he was the elder or younger Jaksic. People from within the fugue stated that they thought of themselves as aging but the algorithms had a hard time generating an idea of what that looked like. It was possible the program gave Georgi’s son, Lazar Georgi Jaksic, his father’s face as a shortcut.

Brian approached Jaksic and a slow and careful pace, alert for any change in the man’s attitude. There was no sign the other man even realized Brian was there until, without even looking up from his work station, Jaksic said, “I was starting to wonder where everyone went. You don’t look familiar. Did they send you from one of the other towers?”

“Not exactly.” Brian wavered for a moment then decided he was as close as he wanted to get at the moment. “I’m here on behalf of Doctor Vincent Vesper, he’d like you to join him on his current project.”

“Vesper?” Jaksic finally glanced away from his work just long enough to give Brian an incredulous look. “Isn’t he working on field frequencies? What does he want me for? Field generation architecture is my field of expertise, much more hardware and much less software.”

“Of course.” Brian desperately hoped that wasn’t some kind of trap question. “I’m just the messenger here, I’m afraid, you’ll have to hammer out the details of all that with him.”

“Tell him I’ll be over to his tower in a couple of hours. I need to finish these simulations.” Jaksic gave him a thoughtful glance out of the corner of his eye. “Of course it would go faster if I could have the rest of my team back long enough to finish this round of testing. I’m guessing Vesper grabbed them all up for another one of his major infrastructure sims.”

“In a manner of speaking, although in this case it was more that he and his personnel were assigned to a new round of more practical tests.” Brian eyed the mystery Jaksic as he considered what he should tell him. He had clear brown eyes, heavy facial features and a scowling brow, not exactly what one thought of as a welcoming expression. But it was a face nonetheless. Whatever this person was he wasn’t one of the faceless projections or night terrors that populated so much of the other parts of the fugue. “What are you running, if I may ask?”

“Power use simulations. We’re going to need a huge amount of energy to get the Light of Mars working and my job is to simulate the changes in load on the grid as the project boots up. I’ve identified a number of places where Sarajevo’s grid will need major overhauls in order to make it work.”

“Interesting.” Brian peered over Jaksic’s shoulder at the meaningless squiggles on his monitors. “How would one go about helping you with this?”

For the first time Jaksic pulled his attention away from his work station and turned it Brian’s way. When they made eye contact a shiver went down Brian’s spine. They didn’t focus on him, in fact calling it eye contact would have been a terrible misstatement of what occurred. It would be more accurate to say Jaksic pointed his eyes in Brian’s direction. “You’re new here, aren’t you?”

The question could have been addressed to the tower at large. Brian was only sure Jaksic was talking to him because there wasn’t anyone else around to talk to. “It’s my first day, believe it or not.” Brian found the dark mass in the tank distracting and tried to keep his attention focused on the other man. His subconscious kept telling him there were things watching him in it, which didn’t make that easy. “I don’t know much about large scale power grids, I’m afraid. Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Of course.” Jaksic turned and pointed at the glass tank and, to Brian’s horror, something within pointed back at him. A hand the size of a normal man’s torso formed out of the black and pointed straight at Jaksic for the duration of the man’s following explanation. “We’re in the middle of the collective unconsciousness here, so we use our own subconscious mind as part of the logic system that drives forward the discovery process.”

“You what?”

“It might be faster to show you. Here.” Jaksic pressed a control on his panel and a small, hand sized tube emerged from the base of the tank. “Put your hand in this and you can join your mind to ours so we can get to work.”

“I don’t think-”

Without waiting for permission Jaksic grabbed Brian’s hand and shoved it into the tube. A small, rubbery sleeve wrapped around his wrist but gave before his hand, sending the appendage all the way into the tank where it touched the shadows within. Brian’s body became paralyzed again and he saw the shadow that had followed him from the beginning of his Shutdown slip past him, onto the glass of the tank, then through the glass to join the mass within.

Two eyes within opened, the depths of their pupils lit with a blindingly bright light that saw past the shadows, past the glass, past the limits of Brian’s very skull and into the depths of his mind. With his mouth hanging open but his body paralyzed Brian found himself unable to say or think anything. Not even the word he’d told Baker. Which was a shame because at that moment what Brian really wanted, more than anything else, was to scream…