“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.”