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.”
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?”
“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?”
“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.”