Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Eleven – The Noose

Go back to Chapter Ten

“Our examination of the drone suggests it is quite old. While none of us are forensics experts or archeologists the parts used suggests that it can’t be much newer than the Departure. Only rudimentary nanoengineering is in evidence and the laser projectors are low power, even for lasers…”

Lang’s voice was small in the vastness of the empty desert, with barely a road sign or stand of scrub grass to echo off of. The martians had pulled off the side of the highway, hours out of the city, and thrown some kind of tarp from their box of crazy  devices over the van. In a couple of seconds it had shifted to blend in with the ground around it, leaving the small campsite effectively invisible to any eyes in the air.

If Sean was right and the drone from earlier had come from their allies in space they were going to pretty extreme lengths to avoid being noticed by another one.

After the harrowing escape from town they’d driven straight through the day and finally stopped after nightfall. Dex and Lang had debated the merits of driving through the night, using one of their AI – apparently a more universally applicable piece of tech than the ones Earth had developed – to drive the van for them. Lang had eventually tossed the idea not because he was worried about how well it would work but because he didn’t want to be, “an exposed, lit target at night.”

Aubrey’s attention snapped back to the voices in the distance. At some point Priss had gone out and joined Lang out by the small rock outcropping where he’d hunkered down to talk into his recorder. “I brought a digest of what we pulled off the datahub, if you wanted to attach it to the report.”

“Anything interesting?”

“We’re still sifting it through our AIs. But so far it’s just more mysteries. The population forty years ago was less than five and a half billion.”

“Five?! That’s barely half what the population was projected-”

Her attention snapped back to what was happening in front of her when Dex lifted the edge of the camo tarp and stepped out into the open. There was a crispness and sheen to his clothes she hadn’t seen before. “We set up a makeshift sanitation and clothes cleaning station in the back of the van,” he said. “I’m not sure what your clothes are made of but they could probably use a sprucing up and everyone enjoys a good wash now and then. Just move the big red rock in front of the door if you’re using it.”

“Thanks.” She managed a wan smile although she wasn’t really feeling it. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

Dex nodded. “Food agree with you?”

“Yes? Was there any reason it shouldn’t?”

He shrugged. “We don’t know much about your nanotech. Hopefully it doesn’t have some hidden dietary requirement we don’t know about.”

“If there is, we’re not the ones to ask about it.” She sighed. “Look, Dex. We’ll complain if something is out of line. So far, food is one of the few places where that’s not likely to happen. Enjoy it while it lasts.”

Dex flashed her a quick, charming grin. “Spoken like a true spacer. Get some sleep, we’re leaving at first light tomorrow.”

She nodded and waited until he had walked away before focusing on the distant voices again.

“-need to focus on getting us back into orbit,” Lang was saying. “I can’t be tempted to run after phantoms that may explain why everything changed. Report your theory in your personal log and keep an eye out for evidence that may support it. But we’re not going out of our way to investigate. What we already know is already an intelligence goldmine, in needs to get back to the fleet.”

“It’s your call,” Priss replied. “We’ve got the sanitizer set up in the van. Be sure to get cleaned up, it’ll help you think better.”

“Sure. I’ll run myself through before I pass out tonight.” It didn’t sound like he was going to make a serious effort at remembering it, though.

Aubrey lay back on her sleeping bag and looked up at the stars, trying to make some sense of it all. The martians were awfully attached to their records and their books. Back in Dallas they’d be considered pretty boring, stick in the mud types. Then again, when things around them did get exciting it was a little more than she was comfortable with. A lot more, actually. They were a mystery all around.

A few minutes later Priss walked back into what passed for their campsite, dressed not in the glossy shelled suits the martians had been wearing since they first met but a more form fitting coverall with a many pocketed belt. She was still armed with some kind of pistol on one hip but she didn’t cut quite as dangerous looking a figure as she normally did. Priss went over to her pile of gear and fished out another of the recording devices like Lang had and walked over to lean against one of the big, self-propelled boxes the martians kept they toys in.

Aubrey pushed herself up on her elbows to get a better look and said, “You guys sure seem to like those things.”

“What, this?” Priss held up the recorder. “No one likes a noose. That’s why we gave the big one to Lang.”

“What’s a noose?”

An exasperated look crossed Priss’ face. “Right, you probably never heard of hangings, have you?”

“Only the kind that go on walls.” She sat up and crossed her legs pretzel style. “I get the feeling that’s not what you’re talking about.”

“No. Hanging was a kind of execution – barbaric, I know, I know.” Aubrey closed her mouth over her complaint and Priss pressed on. “Even we debate their usefulness and morality, trust me. But I’ve always felt someone who’s entrusted with the power of lethal force should really face the potential for lethal retaliation so I’ve got no problem with spacers or soldiers having to face execution from time to time.”

“But what does that have to do with your recordings?” Aubrey asked, still trying to puzzle that out.

“Spacers used to wear the log recorders on lanyards so they wouldn’t get away from us in zero gravity.” She mimed the recorder dangling from her neck. “Nooses go around the neck, and so… it’s a noose.”

“No, what does recording things have to do with an execution?

Priss actually laughed at that. “Well, because any time there’s a record of what you’ve done it’s the first step in getting caught in a mistake. The mission log has been the primary evidence used to convict dozens of spacer commanders of negligence or criminal behavior.”

“But they’re the ones that record it!” Aubrey protested, agog. “How does that help you catch them doing something wrong?! All they have to do is say they did everything right.”

Priss started to reply, then stopped herself and thought for a moment. “You work with the traffic control AI in your city, right?”

“Yes…” Aubrey was trying to track with the change of subject but couldn’t.

“How do you tell when something has gone wrong?”

“Well, generally the AI just comes to us with a traffic hang-up it can’t diagnose or, more rarely, a set of conflicting priorities it can’t sort out.” Aubrey pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them, crossing her legs at the ankles and thinking for a moment. “There’s also a transponder in vehicles that can ping the system for attention when they aren’t getting instructions from the traffic AI or the directions are contradictory. Or the vehicle has just been kept in one place for longer than five minutes. And there’s a communications line people can contact directly if they feel their case needs attention, although that happens about once a year so it’s not common.”

Priss nodded, her brow furrowed. “See, that’s what I don’t get. You understand diagnostic communication in mechanical contexts but not social ones. That’s basically how you catch negligence, human error and flat out dishonesty via logs. Take my old ship, the Armstrong. Now if the log says it was destroyed in orbit we know something’s gone wrong and we start investigating – ships aren’t supposed to be destroyed outside of a scrapyard. If the Armstrong’s captain reports the ship is intact but several members of the crew report it was destroyed using these,” she held up her own log recorder, “then we know something went wrong, otherwise the crew wouldn’t disagree on what happened. And, of course, you can always go and look yourself. If someone told me the Armstrong was fine but I couldn’t find the ship in orbit – or wherever else it was supposed to be – then I’d know something was wrong and that they were lying to me.”

“That…” Aubrey thought about arguing whether all this lying was really going on or what good it did but stopped herself. She had plenty of first hand experience that told her this was just how they thought – paranoid certainty. “Nevermind. What are you going to record?”

Priss sat up a little straighter, looking proud of herself. “My theory of what happened in the last two hundred years.”

That got Aubrey’s attention. “You have one? Did you get that much out of the datahub we stopped at?”

“Not really, but there were two major discrepancies that I did notice.” She ticked them off on her fingers. “One, no mention of Unified Field Theory technologies. And I’m not just talking about gravity fields or superluminal drives. They don’t even talk about simple things like gravitic power generators, which were in development at the time of Departure. Second, none of the major terraforming projects that were slated seem to have been carried out. I found a reference to Cairo as the capitol of Egypt, even though it was supposed to move to Thebes once the terraformers finished with the desert in that region. For that matter,” she gestured at the desert around them. “There’s this. Pretty sure this was supposed to be terraformed too.”

“Where do you get all this knowledge about terraforming plans from?” Aubrey asked, more curious than skeptical.

“I may have a degree in communications technology, with a minor in communications theory, but my parents were terraformers from a family of terraformers.” She said it with a certain air of pride. “They knew the science backwards and forwards and they were always musing about how nations on Earth might be executing environmental renovation with the greater resources they had on hand. The Sahara project was supposed to start only a few years after the Departure and a lot of terraformers loved theorizing about it. I don’t think I’m going to mention to my parents how little actually got done if I ever see them again. The spacer daughter is disappointment enough.”

“Okay…” There was a rabbit trail she didn’t want to go down. “So no Unified Field Theory, whatever that is, and no terraforming. How is that enough to build a theory?”

“They’re both technologies directly tied to planetary colonization.”

“So?”

Priss scooted closer and lowered her voice, although Aubrey wasn’t sure who she feared would overhear her. “Do you know what a sodomite is?”

Again a strange twist in the conversation, again she couldn’t follow. But this time she at least knew the answer. “Someone who likes anal sex.”

Yes but-” Priss pinched the bridge of her nose. “No books. Right, do you know the origin of the word?”

“Origin?” She rolled that over in her mind. Naturally she didn’t know the origin of the word – who thought about things like that? Other than people with degrees in communication theory, apparently. “No. I don’t know the origin of the word.”

“It comes from the Bible, a book I’m willing to bet you’ve never heard of-”

“Correct.”

Priss ignored the interjection. “-that mentions a city called Sodom who’s residents wanted to rape men who were passing through town. Who wanted to sodomize them. The story says the city was destroyed as a result.”

“That’s a fucked up story,” Aubrey said, leaning slightly away from Priss and taking a sudden interest in the scrub brush around the camp site.

“Sodomite,” Priss said, continuing to ignore her interruptions, “came to be a pejorative aimed at a sexual fetish and eventually most people forgot it was connected to the city at all. But originally it was the name for a group of people who were justly punished for attempting a terrible crime.”

“I don’t see how that explains anything-”

But Priss was on a roll now, jumping to her feet and pacing, gesturing to illustrate points. “You see, it’s the nature of language to devolve over time. Language is at its best when it’s very specific, because then the words have the most meaning. Sodomites were a specific group of people loathed for crimes against another specific group. But over time the word becomes more general – sodomites were anyone who were vaguely interested in a fringe sex practice, unfairly painting that larger group of people with some of the guilt of the original Sodomites. It’s a classic example of how a term for a disliked group of people can become a general smear for any outsider that seems vaguely threatening. Just like happened here on Earth shortly after the departure.”

Aubry shook her head, dismissing the whole line of reasoning as silly. “Priss, that’s impossible. The trademark of sapiens societies is inclusion, not exclusion-”

“Oh, but you do!” Priss exclaimed, crouching back down and crowding Aubrey, her eyes full of the excited light of someone who’d pulled a prank on another. “You do have an exclusionary term, Aubrey, you’ve been calling us it since we got here. And I think you took it from the people Earth fought and destroyed a short time after the Departure. The Martians.”

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Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Nine – The Failsafe

Go back to Chapter Eight

“You can’t patch the thrusters in here. This is an auxiliary system. Look, it’s got the yellow and black emergency stripe.” Lang shook his nanosealer at Dex. “Do you even know what this is?”

“It’s a nanosealer. It uses nanotechnology to take things apart and put them together again.”

Lang growled in exasperation then pointed at the lever by the van’s driver’s seat. “This. Do you know what it is?”

“Nope.” Dex grinned. “Do you? Because if you don’t, we won’t know when to activate it anyways.”

“That’s not the point. Auxiliaries are there as a failsafe. If we’re taking it out we should at least know what kind of shit we’re risking.” Lang shook his head and considered disconnecting the thruster control from the mystery lever.

“You could just ask someone familiar with this control scheme,” Dex said, prodding gently.

It wouldn’t be so bad if this wasn’t the fifth time he’d brought it up. “No. We’ve spent too much time thinking we can make headway by playing nice with two low ranking technicians from the Terran government. We’re spacers, ground bound in hostile territory. It’s time to start acting like it. Just because Earth is the homeworld doesn’t mean it’s going to be any more hospitable to us than anywhere else.”

“I get it, Lang, but-”

He pulled the mission log recorder out of its leg pocket and shoved it at Dex. “Do you want this? Because I seem to recall that you and Priss were pretty eager not to get stuck with it. Was it because of shit like this? Was it this fucking shit you wanted to avoid?”

Dex looked down and away. “It was this fucking shit.”

“Thought so,” Lang muttered, shoving the log back in its pocket and sealing it. An uncomfortable silence fell around the van for a minute. After letting his temper settle Lang tapped the mystery lever and said, “Why this set up for the thruster activation?”

With a deep inhale Dex shook himself off and looked back at the setup. “It’s a simple connection point. We can let the thruster computer we pulled do most of the think work that needs to happen, so long as you tie it into your AI it should fire thrusters in the direction you’re steering whenever you pull the lever. It’s pretty much the best access point for the system that doesn’t require us to try and parse the van’s onboard computer language and patch it in that way. We could try that, of course, but it’s another point of failure for the system. And we’ve already got two.”

“Two?”

“The van chassis isn’t built to handle the kind of stress the thrusters put on it. And, even nanosealed to the chassis, there’s a chance the thrusters will rip free when you fire them, so I guess that’s kind of two problems.”

“I assume there’s another one coming?”

Yes.” Dex kicked the underbody of the vehicle. “We’ve attached the thrusters to the bottom of the chassis. Because that was the only way to secure them to it safely. But it also raises the possibility that they’ll knock the van airborne when fired. And it isn’t built for hard landings, either.”

“So switching them on can kill us in any one of three fantastic ways already,” Lang mused. “Why run the risk of dying because they won’t work?”

“That’s the logic, yeah.”

It was a good argument. “Is there anything else we need to do if we don’t change the control system?”

“Not really. Just close it up and she’ll be ready to leave tomorrow.”

“Then do it. We leave for Priss’ datahub first thing in the morning. And have Priss take stock of our supplies and work out how long they’ll last with the dietary needs of our prisoners factored in.” Lang turned and stalked towards the building, mood still foul. Priss looked up when he burst through the door but didn’t try to stop him as he took the stairs up, buried in his own thoughts.


The roof of the library was a flat, unadorned stretch of gravel punctuated by pipes of unknown material and purpose. Other than the small room at the top of the stairs that held long dormant machinery there wasn’t anything that approached a significant feature. Lang found the bleak solitude peaceful, and he’d been enjoying it for the last hour or so, since he’d left the others after dinner. The Terran sunset was much more spectacular than what they got on Copernicus. Probably something to do with the cloud cover – the terraformers were still trying to work out the nuances of a healthy water cycle back home. By definition, Earth already had it perfected.

The last streaks of sun were fading from the clouds when the door to the roof swung open and Sean wobbled over to join him.

“Should you be up and about?” Lang asked.

“Probably not, according to Priss.” He slumped down, elbows braced on the ledge that ran around the roof. “Surprised you bothered asking. Is the health of prisoners a major concern for you spacers?”

“Hm. In general, I suppose. It can’t be priority one all the time but it’s not like we don’t think about it.”

Sean shook his head and went back to staring at the sun for a moment. “What would it take to convince you to send Aubrey back?”

“That’s not generally how prisoner exchanges work,” Lang said slowly. “And it’s not a thing I’m willing to consider out of the goodness of my heart, either.”

“I don’t care about prisoner exchanges or whatever. I’m willing to do all your maintenance work on the van until you get where you’re going. Dex can work oversight-”

“I appreciate the thought and, believe me I understand why you’re making the offer but I don’t intend to treat either of you as anything other than prisoners of war.” The last reflections of Sol were fading from the clouds above and the sky was getting dark so he turned from the scenery to his prisoner. “That’s not a threat or even a downgrade, really. Prisoners of war are entitled to very well defined treatment. We’ll feed you, keep you out of combat, even pay you for any work you do if-”

“Sapiens don’t use shit like money,” Sean said derisively. “It wouldn’t be worth anything. Why not-”

“Fine,” Lang snapped. “I wasn’t about to offer you work anyway, as you might have already guessed. I don’t care about your fucking holier than thou sapiens shit. I’m trying to explain how things are going to be going forwards. It’s important that these forms be observed, Mr. Wilson.”

“And why the fuck is that?” Sean pulled himself to his feet, wobbled a bit, then leaned back down against the ledge again, whatever movement he’d been about to try aborted. “No one on Earth cares about this shit, Corporal Langley.”

“Maybe. But one thing I know for sure about colonial governments, Sean.” He leaned in close to the off balance man, making him shrink down and away. “They can’t let people go off the reservation. By which I mean, betray the government or what it stands for. When people do that, they’re punished, and treason is usually punished by death.”

“Capital punishment is-”

I don’t care!” Lang adjusted his voice down from a yell before he continued. “I suspect your vaunted UNIGOV is bound by the same necessity as those of the Triad worlds – hell, even Rodenberry has executed a few people and they’re almost as sanctimonious as you. And what I know with absolute certainty is that they can kill any of you with that damn medical nanotech whenever they want.”

He pulled himself upright again and turned away, letting the stress bleed off a bit before he went on. “Look, I know you didn’t come out here for trouble and I’m sorry we’re the disaster that fell in your lap. But operational parameters call for me to get home in any way I can, with the smallest civilian impact possible. I want you and Aubrey to go home, but I can’t run the risk that letting you help us and then walk away will get you branded collaborators. You’ll be treated as prisoners of war, within the Triad Conventions, and be formally returned to your government at the earliest opportunity. That’s the best I can do for you.”

As Lang walked to the stairway door he heard Sean push of the ledge and take a few uncertain steps across the roof, saying, “Come on, Lang, that’s stupid. UNIGOV is a sapiens structure not – dammit, Langley, listen – ” A frustrated growl cut off the protest. Lang ignored it and stepped back inside, headed towards the stairs. Behind him echoed Sean’s parting, “Yeah, fuck you, too.


“Our prisoners are pretty tight lipped today,” Priss said.

After a second argument on the subject of prisoners with Dex that morning Lang really wasn’t in the mood to cover the subject again. He was about out of diplomacy, too. “Just because we’re away from the others doesn’t mean you won’t piss me off questioning this, Priss.”

“Who died and made you LT?” She muttered, going back to trying to dump the datahub.

He thought about reminding her that she, too, had passed on being the one in charge. Had practically pushed it on him.

First rule of space: Bitching helps nothing.

He walked away from the cluster of consoles where Priss was working to check on the jury-rigged power feed. When they’d arrived half an hour ago they’d found that the building basically just lacked power to run all the computers inside. The tech itself had basically been shut down and abandoned, much like many of the cars they’d seen in their drive over. Once again Lang wondered what, exactly, had happened forty years ago to leave the city entirely abandoned. With the new hostility between himself and the Terrans he doubted he’d get a clear answer by asking. Hopefully something in the datahub’s files could help.

Their portable generator was enough to get a few of the computers running and the patchwork connection they’d scraped together was holding up for the moment. They were eating through fuel at an alarming rate but hopefully the solar panels on the van could make up for the power shortfall a little bit. It’d take some more tinkering.

“I’m in.”

Lang pulled himself out of the mental bookkeeping and hurried back over to look over her shoulder. “Let me see.”

“I’m just going to dump these drives as fast as I can,” Priss said, holodisplays flickering hypnotically as her AI worked to parse all the information pouring in. “Anything I should filter for?”

It did make more sense to grab everything so they could digest it at their leisure. “Grab current events or historical documents first. Then technical information. Then whatever’s left.”

She nodded and kept working. Lang moved over to one of the robocrates, fishing for portable data storage to swap for the drive Priss was using once it filled. He’d just found one that read as mostly empty when the cast of the hololight behind him switch from a peaceful greenblue to an angry red. He bolted upright and said, “What happened?”

“I don’t know. Some kind of lockout is trying to kick in. The AI is keeping it back so we’ve still got access but something’s also wiping the files.” Priss was working overtime but Lang knew she wasn’t trained in infotech warfare. Suddenly the building around them came to life, dormant machines kicking to life for reasons unknown. “Shit. Wiping all the files. Some kind of malware buried in the – Fuck.”

“What?” Lang tried to parse everything happening on her holodisplay but most of it was unfamiliar screens. He was completely lost. So he went with his gut. “Is there some kind of self-destruct in this facility?”

“No. But it just radioed someone somewhere.” Priss glanced up. “My guess is, UNIGOV did not want anyone digging through the past, and they installed a failsafe to wipe the data and tell them someone was here if anyone tried.”

“Break off, pack up.” He was already keying the generator’s remote shutdown. “It’s time for us to go.”

On to Chapter Ten

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Eight: The Off Switch

Return to Chapter Seven

“We might have turned him off.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And an on switch, one would presume.”

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

“Not when I looked at it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tomorrow morning is fine,” Lang said.

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

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

On to Chapter Nine

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Seven – The Blood

Return to Chapter Six

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

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

“I wasn’t asking about Priss.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The blood on it was full of inert nanotech.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But the engineering expertise-”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Aubrey gave him a quizzical look. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proceed to Chapter Eight

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Six – The Van

Chapter Five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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


“What the fuck is that?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do that.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Seven

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Four – The Sapiens

Chapter Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. What was it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of them were empty.

Chapter Five

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Three – The Martians

Chapter Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dex, check their packs?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Four