Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Twenty: The Last Words of Dexter Halloway

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The first thing – the very first thing – an enlisted spacer learned was to do what they are ordered to do. In fact, the whole point of basic training was not to teach spacers anything about their actual duties, it existed entirely to teach them to work as a unit and respond instantly, even reflexively, to orders. The actual procedures and mindset that led to success in combat came later, once the foundation was laid down. From that point of view, Lang somewhat understood the idea of a “story you told yourself” that Mond kept talking about.

The enlisted followed orders to get the job done. It was how spacers worked.

Except when it wasn’t, of course, but the point was well taken.

The Spacer Corps needed something from its enlisted men and it drilled that into them until they conformed to that mold. The caveats to the formula were legion, though, from the fact that the Corps needed to incarnate evil itself into its drill instructors to make the process feasible to the fact that people volunteered to under-go the process, a lot of basic training directly contradicted Mond’s thesis as well. And there was the fact that, in addition to allowing people to opt in, the Corps also actively kicked people out during basic. At a pretty high rate.

“You’re full of shit.”

Lost in the problem of what to say – how to make things make sense – Lang hadn’t been paying attention to what was going on around him. Dex had scooted between him and Mond, his tone light but the hands bound behind his chair clenched in fury. “You’re full of shit and what’s really sad is I think you’re so used to it you like rolling in it.”

Mond gave that deep, resigned sigh that Lang was starting to think was his default reaction to anything. “Another attempt to push away rational analysis. Mr. Halloway, that kind of belligerence is what made martian culture so toxic to begin with.”

“See?” Dex stomped his feet and jerked more upright in his chair. “That shit? Right there? Do you not even hear what you’re doing?”

As if drawn to mimic Dex’s actions Mond himself sat a little straighter, his own expression of calm certainty tainted with uncertainty for the first time. “I’m sorry?”

Dex jerked impatiently in his chair again but this time he wasn’t talking and Lang caught a quiet creak coming from the back of his chair. Squinting, Lang could just make out the shadow of a crack forming along the side of the restraints on the back of his chair. Nanofused materials were as strong as the original material, but no stronger. And apparently the chair or the restraints hadn’t been very good quality plastic.

“This whole goddamn time I’ve been around you sanctimonious assholes I’ve heard about how martians were all about making people into groups and drawing silly distinctions, how sapiens listen to people and find out about them and never rush to judgement, and all the while I’ve had two of the most clueless morons I’ve met in my life lecturing me on what kind of person I am without taking one second to ask me where I’m from or what I think about it. It’s like you breed for idiocy. It’d be surprising but my friends build bombs for a living,” Dex paused for a second to preen. “That makes me a connoisseur.”

“We simply report what we have seen,” Mond pointed out.

“No, see, you don’t realize that, under your precious storytelling logic, that doesn’t add up either.” Dex flopped back in his chair, the restraints cracking a bit more, and crossed his legs at the ankles. There wasn’t a desk to prop them on but otherwise he looked very much at ease. “You’re still trying to trap us in that fancy story logic, otherwise you wouldn’t have just stopped talking about ‘martian’ problems, you’d be actively warping them to fit your fancy little happy world story. But you can’t, because deep down you still need an us and a them. Don’t you?”

“Of course not,” Mond said, a crack in his serenity appearing for the first time as he got up from his chair and paced over to the equipment cart again, gingerly picking up one of the plasma carbines. Lang tensed, more at the sight of a total rookie trying to handle the weapon than out of fear he was planning on shooting someone. He held it gingerly behind the grip and under the base of the barrel and kept his hands a few inches from his torso like it was going to shoot him without his input. “If we needed to other people, wouldn’t we have these?”

“You use the right weapon for your objective,” Dex replied, leaning forward and working the restraints again. Lang used the opportunity to scoot back a half step and try leveraging his own restraints. “Sometimes that’s my kind of weapon, sometimes it’s yours. You like to make up stories and call people names, that’s the weapon you use against us and you expect us to use against you. But it’s a weapon all the same.”

Mond let his hands drop, the barrel of the carbine swinging lazily to the floor, causing all three spacers to jump in their chairs in ways that had nothing to do with the way they were restrained. “That’s preposterous,” Mond snapped, his composure slipping a step further. “We are trying to build and create a civil, equitable and fair society. The UNIGOV is the first of its kind in human history.”

“That’s the part that really gets me. You act like you’re some kind of saints, anointed to save mankind from their sins.” Dex shook his head. “Every last one of your people has a killswitch built into their ‘medical’ systems and you’re telling me you’ve never been at least a little bit tempted to just flip one off when they pushed a little too far outside your precious sapiens culture?”

“Preposterous.” Mond’s right eye twitched almost imperceptibly. “It’s a lifesaving system. Why-”

“Not even a little?” Dex asked, leaning forward to look up at Mond like a mischievous four year old. “What about making life a little more fun for you? Got any extra comfortable, nice looking houses out in that reclaimed environment you’re always going on about? Not like the block houses we saw in town, something spacious and quiet, where you can relax with the wife and kiddies?”

Mond’s expression turned thunderous. “You don’t understand the importance of our environmental work at all, do you?”

“Sure, my parents were terraformers, same as most.” Dex shrugged and this time the motion was accompanied by an audible crack. “Doesn’t mean dad didn’t pick out the best bits of land to claim for a homestead while he was surveying. Mom would have given him hell if he hadn’t.”

“Well then perhaps it’s just as well that we disposed of those kinds of toxic gender roles along with many of the other vestiges of martian culture,” Mond said icily.

Gender roles?” Dex laughed, the noise not quite covering another crack of his restraints. “You mean guys wanting hot women and trying to do nice things for them? Next you’ll tell me you’ve never even taken a second to admire a woman’s tits! You can’t warp human nature that far.”

“Perhaps not humanity as you know it,” Mond replied, his more collected demeanor slowly returning. “But sapiens don’t consider human nature a useful concept any longer. Like many things you think about. We have tailored our communities to look past stereotypes to individuals-”

With a surprisingly smooth motion Dex flexed forward, snapped back in the chair, then stood straight up, the back of the chair pressing into his back and becoming an extra point of leverage and the restraints broke, sending bits of plastic bouncing all over the floor as Dex’s chair bounced off towards the back of the room. Mond stepped back in surprise, instinctively raising the carbine to put it between him and Dex, who took a step forward, jabbing his finger for emphasis. “You drugged us based entirely on stereotypes, you fucking hypocrite. Us and every other spacer who was stranded on your planet because you were too lazy to secure your own weapons satellites. Left that shit lying around like you were six years old with parents who didn’t care enough to teach you to clean up after yourself.”

Mond retreated before Dex’s onslaught, his hands fumbling with the unfamiliar shape of the plasma weapon he was holding, and in the process Lang noticed that the weapon’s safety had somehow come off. Lang started working his own restraints without trying to disguise what he was doing. “Mond-”

“You’re a flithy shithead without even the brain left to realize how stupid you sound,” Dex shouted, Lang’s attempt to break in being ignored. “I see you for what you are. Someone who never grew past childhood stories, who thinks he can control the world with him. But kids telling stories don’t change reality and adults can see through them. The only one here who still believes your lies is you, and-”

On the second to last word Dex jabbed Mond hard in the left shoulder and Mond automatically reached up to push the hand away, taking one hand off the carbine and letting it’s barrel drop around between the two men as he tried to pull it out of the way of the action. There was a moment where Lang – possibly no one in the room – was sure what happened, followed by the loud bark of a plasma blast, and Dex staggered a step back before dropping like a puppet with its strings cut.

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Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Nineteen: The Last Temptation of Martin Langley

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“Resettle on earth?” Lang tried not to laugh but it was a hopeless cause and he found himself straining against the cuffs that held him in place as he doubled over in mirth. After a few seconds of that he started to get ahold of himself. Dex was laughing too, Priss had scooted over to one side and was watching them with a mix of concern  and amusement. “Do you even know what the spacer population is?”

“I haven’t the first clue what it might be,” Mond replied, apparently nonplussed in spite of Lang’s laughing in his face. “I’m sure we could absorb it, however. Environmental restoration has moved along very well over the past decade, we could find some way to resettle a few tens of thousands. There are one or two cities on most continents we’re looking to reactivate or expand.”

“Tens of-” The urge to run his hands over his face seemed to be all the stronger for the fact that he didn’t have used of his hands. “What kind of delusional nonsense is that?! The combined spacer population exceeds four billion – billion with a “b” – and there’s no way Earth could handle that many based on its last known population. Fifteen billion is unsustainable without significant terraforming adjustments. Or the addition of deepsea colonies. Did you ever get around to that?”

Mond nodded benevolently. “And this time, it is you who seem delusional. Earth does not have a population of eleven billion. It could never sustain such a mass of humanity safely. The population is four billion, though we are debating expanding it to five, as I said.”

Four billion?” Dex said, biting out the ‘b’ so hard he spit by accident. “What do you mean-”

“And building in the ocean would be a violation of the Environmental Restoration Act,” Mond added, running right over Dex with his weirdly calm and deliberate way of speaking. “Of course, after the martian extinction event we didn’t need new colonies or new cities, we had plenty of room for all.”

They kept running into this weird barrier, where the Terrans couldn’t seem to say anything that meshed with the world as he knew it. Lang mulled it over slowly, trying to figure out how they could get everyone on the same page. As always, he came back to one thing. “Tell me about this extinction event. What happened to the martians?”

“It’s hardly relevant anymore,” Mond said, waving a hand dismissively.

“Not relevant?” Priss shook her head in amazement. “How can the extinction of an intelligent hominid not be relevant to you?”

“I can see I’ve gone about this badly.” Mond stood up and paced around the equipment cart once, hands pressed together in front of his chest, a thoughtful look on his face, coming to a stop when he was even with his chair again. He rested one hand on the backrest and said, “You have to understand that in sapeins society we understand that, at its core, reality is a summation of the stories we tell ourselves. We have no interest in the causes of the martian extinction because we have no wish to tell those stories. We left that to the martians and now the martian story is ended. When I say that we wish to resettle you on Earth I mean we wish to bring the spacer – is that correct, spacer?”

“Sure,” Lang said. Technically it just referred to the people who had spent a year or more in space as a part of their calling, but he didn’t think Mond was terribly interested in the pedantry.

“When I say we’re interested in resettling the spacers on Earth, I’m not speaking about whatever population you believe exists,” Mond continued, stepping forward and looking solemnly at each of the three spacers in turn. “I am speaking in very immediate and personal terms. The three of you could settle here and be at peace, rather than constantly flitting about up there, in your tin can ships, wondering when something will give out and send you crashing to the ground.”

“That’s not what happened,” Dex said with a snort. “The Armstrong was shot down by your orbital defenses.”

“Sapiens are not in the habit of building defenses,” Mond said gently. “We have our hands full building our cities, our ecology and our culture.”

“I can almost believe that,” Priss said, having scooted herself back to a position to more naturally join the conversation. “They could have been older satellites, left over from old eras, but something was shooting at us from above on the way down. For that matter, there was an old hunter killer drone we ran into a couple of days ago. If you were going to go whole hog on this pacifist thing you might at least have rooted out all the old weapons out there and taken them apart.”

The elderly terran lowered himself slowly back into his chair, air leaking out between his lips making a sound much like a bad helmet seal on an evac suit. “I don’t think you appreciate all the effort it took to get us to this point, Ms. Hu. They say once a genie is free it is impossible to force it back into the bottle. But, with a great deal of time and patience that is exactly what we did with the specter of martian culture. Few now know the full depths of the depravity it sank to, we keep it here in this vault in the hopes that the poison will never spread again. It’s all we can do to keep the status quo, you can’t expect us to go out and clean up all of the poison you left in the world as well. It was our hope that the martian legacy would fall to pieces in time and leave us in peace. It seems your return to Earth was too soon for that to happen.”

Lang struggled to follow the line of logic. “So you didn’t take down the satellites because… what, you thought they would infect you?”

“That’s close enough, I suppose.” Mond’s fingers looped lazily like the line of a spring, describing an upward path. “The work of UNIGOV was incredibly difficult. Sapiens and martians were intermixed for a very, very long time. Even with the natural resistance of sapiens to martian culture it was still frighteningly easy for them to be drawn in by the ease and convenience of hard categories and othering narratives. We had to keep the allure of binary thinking from becoming set in our own narratives. We spend as little time on the history of conflict as we can.”

“Let me get this straight. Mussolini, Hitler, Churchill, Lincoln, the most influential figures of human history, you don’t talk about them because what… they might infect you?” Dex cocked his head to one side and gave Mond a skeptical look. “I dunno. That sounds stupid. And it leaves you incredibly vulnerable. What if Admiral Harrington decided to put down a full scale landing force? You don’t have anything like the equipment to repel it. It’s not like you can count on every spacer stopping at the local market for a quick bite of the knockout special.”

Mond sighed. “I’m not interested in debating what ifs. We’re not interested in talking about fighting, Mr. Halloway, that’s how the mistrust and unnecessary division starts. I know you tell yourself you belong to this great and untouchable ‘fleet’ because it calms your fears of being an insignificant person in an uncaring world. But the truth is, all people can-”

What are you babbling about?” Lang shook his head. “Fucking hell, did you people all go crazy after Departure and pass it down to your kids? The fleet is real, I’ve served on multiple ships in it. Hell, I’ve been to more planets than everyone in this room put together. You can’t just tell me I made all that up.”

To his surprise, Aubrey stepped forward around Mond and knelt down beside him. “Lang, I know this is all very strange to someone looking at it from a martian point of view. Things seen from the outside don’t always make sense.”

“This goes beyond not making-”

But that’s true from both points of view.” She looked up at him with eyes full of sympathy and warmth. “Lang, I saw what happened to you after the crash. You started off acting like an equal to Dex and Priss, you talked without tension, even laughed now and again. But they gave you that stupid mission log and put you in charge and you slowly changed. You couldn’t talk to them anymore, you had to make decisions on your own for priorities that didn’t make you happy or left you with no one to rely on. It’s how martian priorities always leave people. Lonely and tired.”

The sincerity with which she spoke was touching, even if the words were deeply off-putting. “Aubrey, I don’t care how strange it seems to you, I’m not abandoning my duty – my crew, my oath, never mind the motherfucking truth – because I’m a little tired. I buried all my buddies when I crashed on Minerva and let me tell you, that stressed me a lot more than anything I’ve seen on Earth. I didn’t give up then, I ain’t doing it now.”

“You don’t understand,” she said, a soothing hand resting on one knee. “They weren’t offering to take the burden off of your shoulders, they were going to pile it on until they buried you. We’re not like them, we’re sapiens. We aren’t here to break you down and take what’s yours. We’re offering you a place to thrive, a place to be at peace. We don’t have to assume things about each other because we can just ask with no condemnation. We don’t have to fight over things, we’ve learned to cooperate and meet each other’s needs. Lang, we’re not here to take away your life. We’re offering you a chance to live it to the fullest. Is that really such a bad offer?”

Put that way, he could understand how it certainly seemed like a good deal from their point of view.

“I understand how it is,” Mond added, his voice losing some of its warmth to a sense of sadness. “You think that by asking you to change how you think we’re asking you to abandoned everything you’ve lived for.” The brightness returned. “But I think you’ll find that what we’re offering you is not the death of who you were, but the opportunity to truly live as you were meant. Some sapiens believe martians cannot be more than the sum of their divisions. I believe you can overcome them. Won’t you stay with us and try?”

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Eighteen – The Chair

Go Back to Chapter Seventeen

The worst part about running on a moon was the horizon. On a properly sized planet the horizon was a thing over there, beyond a point where you would conceivably have to worry about it. But on a moon the horizon was much closer, and the eye could fool you into thinking it was just a block or two away. On a moon like Minerva, where terraforming hadn’t yet built up a breathable atmosphere and the colonies effectively all existed under a dome, the confining nature of the near horizon and the visible ceiling could turn even the most acclimated spacer into a claustrophobe.

In point of fact a shot down spacer who had been forced to crash his  drop pod through the dome and immediately run from Minervan forces could easily find himself looking every which way, jumping away from any sound on the horizon, worried that at any second the helmets of hostile troops could pop into view and gun him down. It was all one could do to stay out of sight, away from major population centers, and hope that whatever small outbuilding you’d managed to press your back to was enough cover to pass the day. Even if the smell of hydroponic chemicals left you light headed and the lack of food made you drowsy and the clamps holding your hands behind your back were putting a crick in your back.

With a start Lang realized he’d been asleep. He wasn’t on Minerva. It was much worse this time around. And he hadn’t been under cover he’d been in a small grocery store, in the middle of getting supplies. He couldn’t remember any specifics beyond that but he did know he’d never fallen asleep checking peaches for freshness before.

In his professional opinion, something had gone very wrong.

Lang shook himself fully awake, the room around him coming into focus slowly as his head swam with visions of close horizons and armored ground troops pressing in all around him. After a moment the artificial sky of Minerva’s colony dome gave way to an equally metallic but much closer ceiling. He was leaning against the back of a fairly comfortable chair, his head lolling back to stare up at a fairly clinical ceiling. Diffuse light with origins he couldn’t quite pinpoint suffused the room, which looked an awful lot like a storage locker from flight school minus all the shelves and equipment. In fact, as he began to pick out subtle details he determined that yes, there were patches on the hard concrete floor that were less weathered at points where shelves or other furniture had been taken out of the room.

His hands were being held behind his back by some kind of restraint. That wasn’t a dream. But he wasn’t on Minerva and his entire drop pod hadn’t died on the way down. That had to be good for something.

Speaking of drop pod… yes, Dex and Priss were in the room with him. More good news, of a sort. Priss hadn’t been with them when whatever happened took place but she was there now, so at least they hadn’t been separated. On the other hand, now Priss was in the same situation as he and Dex were. Not ideal. On the balance he decided he could live with this outcome.

Both Dex and Priss, and presumably Lang himself, were seated in padded chairs with a bunch of points of articulation for ideal ergonomics. Their hands were held behind their backs with padded restraints that appeared to have been nanowelded directly to the back of the chair – not ergonomic at all. He wasn’t sure but he’d guess the restraints were used for the restraint of mental patients, which was an interesting thing to see. Even with their incredibly advanced medical systems the Terrans hadn’t figured out a good fix for the human mind it seemed.

“Hey.” It wasn’t the most brilliant thing to say but it was what came out of his mouth when he told it to make noise. Both Priss and Dex stayed quiet. Lang toyed with saying something a little more interesting but then settled for just turning the volume up. “Hey!”

Lang realized he was really, really thirsty. He looked around the room again, wondering if there was anyone else around he could ask for water. To his disappointment, there wasn’t. “Hey!” He said, this time addressing the room at large. “I’m thirsty!”

For the moment, the room was unmoved.

As his gaze came back down from the ceiling again Lang noted that both Priss and Dex were seated in comfortable, ergonomic chairs with wheels. An experimental kick confirmed that yes, his chair too could roll from one place to another. He decided to roll from his place over to Dex’s.

“Hey.” This time he gave Dex’s chair a hard kick. “No sleeping on the job, Corporal.”

“I’m up,” Dex muttered, his head jerking up from its resting place on his chest for a moment before drooping back down. He was not, in fact, up.

Lang rolled himself over to Priss next. Kicked the chair. “Hey.”

“Hey yourself,” Priss muttered, spasming in a way Lang took to be her trying to wave a hand at him but failing because she was restrained. That was enough outside stimulus to prompt her to pull her head up and actually look around. From the bleary look in her eyes and jerky, almost drunk way she moved, Lang had a pretty good idea what he’d looked like a few seconds ago. “Where are we?”

“I’m not Nostradamus,” Lang said. “How should I know? I wasn’t awake when they brought us here either.”

Priss craned her neck to see around him then said, “Dex, wake up.”

“I tried that already-”

“What?” Dex pulled himself up to a more normal sitting position and shook his head. “What happened?”

Lang glared at him a moment then said to Priss, “That only worked because I kicked him a second ago.”

“Sure. I remember eating something with Aubrey then getting woozy and passing out. I think her eyes were glowing.”

“Well, we were offered a sample of some kind of cake or donut in the shopping center,” Lang said. “Much the same outcome, except I don’t remember seeing anyone’s eyes glowing.”

“Tampering with donuts,” Dex muttered. “If UNIGOV will go so far they must be truly evil.”

“Evil is one of those meaningless categories you martians are so fond of.” The three of them started at the new voice and turned around in various directions, trying to pin down the source of it. Priss stopped first and Lang followed her line of sight to see an older man, perhaps in his late fifties, striding through a door he hadn’t been able to pick out of the wall a few seconds ago. “I assure you our decision was humane and posed no danger to anyone, not even you.”

To Lang’s surprise, the man was followed by two much more familiar faces. Sean and Aubrey filed in behind him, no longer dressed in the ridiculous street clothes they’d had made that morning – assuming it wasn’t the next day – but rather in a somewhat medieval looking tunic and belt costume with very modern looking pants underneath. All three tunics had an odd symbol on it halfway between a book and a star peaking over the horizon. Behind those three came a cart which, like their robocrates, appeared to be automated and under its own power, following its owner. Lang recognized what looked like all of their gear spread across the shelves of the cart and, again, it was nice to know it was close to hand but disappointing to know that UNIGOV had gotten their hands on it.

Sean stepped up to the three spacers, rubbing the back of his neck nervously and staying just far enough away that he couldn’t easily be kicked. There was a moment of awkward silence, then he said, “Hey.” Lang snorted a laugh but didn’t interrupt. “You guys look like you’re doing good. Now that you’re awake.”

All three spacers gave him hard looks and silence.

“Right.” He gestured to the older man who had entered with them. “This is Stephen Mond, he’s the overseer of this facility and he asked me to introduce you to him. Mr. Mond,” he gestured to each of them in turn. “These are Corporals Martin Langly, Priscilla Hu and Dexter Halloway. They say they’re from a place called Copernicus.”

“Well, I’d like to welcome you back to Earth,” Mond said, offering the three spacers a surprisingly warm smile. “Sean and Aubrey have told me a few things about you and I’m looking forward to learning more. I understand Corporal Langly is in charge?”

Lang nodded slowly. “That’s correct. Do you wish to negotiate some kind of parole status while we’re being held here?”

“Truth be told, my good man, I don’t even have the cultural context to know what you mean by that,” Mond replied. “And I’m not sure I care to. You’re not being held here, you’re simply being restrained until we can be sure you’re not a danger to yourself or others. Some of your peers that came down when your ship fell apart have been quite a handful without the restraints.”

“So there were other survivors?” Priss asked.

“Yes, indeed. At least twenty from the reports I’ve received. Probably more, given the quantity that landed in the oceans or in empty regions like you.” Mond spread his hands and shrugged helplessly. “Unfortunately, with the exception of you three, they’ve all been unwilling to speak to us about much beyond telling us their name and asking about methods to contact their superiors.”

“Speaking of which,” Lang said, “I would like to send a message to inform my superiors and our families that we are alive. Do you have humanitarian organizations that handle those duties?”

“Of course not.” Mond sighed and pulled something off of the cart. To Lang’s surprise it unfolded into a chair, which Mond sat in, folding his hands in his lap. “You must understand, UNIGOV is the primary humanitarian organization on Earth now. This is how sapiens ensure that no one is overlooked in the handling of humanitarian services. But that’s probably not that interesting to you. I have another matter that is probably of much more interest to you and your martian fellows. I’d like to make you an offer.”

“I’m not authorized to discuss anything on behalf of the fleet or the government of Copernicus,” Lang replied immediately.

“Then we can start with just you,” Mond said soothingly. “A show of good faith with you might go a long way to convincing your fellow martians to consider our proposal as well.”

Under normal circumstances it would be best to just ignore the offer. Giving the usual name, rank and service number plus asking to inform family that you were alive were generally all the conversation a prisoner of war was expected to have. But the Galilean Conventions weren’t signed by Earth, so there was no guarantee Lang could expect to enjoy their protections. And then there was the constant problem of an alien culture. They didn’t know much about the current crop of Terrans, and what they did know came from a very, very small sample. It couldn’t hurt to probe a little further and see what they wanted.

“Okay, tell me about this proposal. Be aware I’m not the marrying type.”

Mond didn’t dignify the joke with a response. “I want to discuss with you the possibility of resettling the martian population on Earth.”

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Seventeen: The Book

Go Back to Chapter Sixteen

“And they actually believe they are from extrasolar colonies?” Mund asked, pouring Sean a glass of water and setting it next to the small tray of pastries he’d had brought in. “Extraordinary.”

“If you don’t mind my asking,” Sean said, taking the glass, “where are they from?”

“The Vault’s records suggest that the martians put a colony ship into orbit some time before their extinction.” Mond activated a holodisplay that showed the schematics for something that could possibly be a colony ship, although Aubrey didn’t have any of the qualifications to tell for sure. “We believe it’s been in orbit ever since – it was apparently a self-sustaining biosphere and capable of supporting multiple generations with appropriate population controls – but something must have gone wrong with it. It’s broken up and pieces are falling to Earth everywhere. The process has been quite slow. Something incinerated in the air over Paris twelve hours ago.”

“Wait, just one?” Aubrey asked. “Lang said there were many of them up there. What was it he called it?”

“A fleet,” Sean said. “He said there was a fleet of space ships.”

“Exaggeration of available resources is a common martian trait,” Mund said. “Although Mr. Lang may not have been responsible for it. After all, martian leaders frequently passed false information to their followers in the old days, even some sapiens could be drawn in by their self-serving propaganda.”

“Has a consensus been reached on what to do about them?” Sean asked.

“Not yet. It’s a very difficult question, given how very little we know about how species in genus Homo interact with each other. We know that Homo neanderthalensis merged with Homo sapiens and Homo martian in archaic times, but we’re not really sure how the process was carried out or whether it can be duplicated now that the linguistic and tool using nature of existing humanity is so deeply ingrained. But we have to do something with them.” Mund spread his hands and shook his head sadly. “Another martian society existing alongside UNIGOV is likely to end in another mass extinction event and we can’t guarantee that we won’t be caught up in it.”

“No, wait,” Aubrey held up a hand, trying to figure out what Mund was getting at. “Why not just return them to their own people? They talked about whole planets they’d colonized – moons in some cases – wouldn’t it be easier to just send them back?”

Mund pursed his lips and raised his eyebrows. “Really? This is the first time I’ve heard that.”

“It was hard to get them to talk about anything else,” Aubrey admitted. “But I suppose if it was the only thing they’d known it would be natural for them to think about it a lot.”

“I’m surprised,” Mond said, taking a sip of water. “None of the other martians spoke much about where they came from to anyone they encountered, including agents of UNIGOV. Maybe these three are just chattier than most?”

“They were deliberately reluctant to discuss their home at first,” Sean said. “But after a few days Dex and Priss became a lot more open.”

“Lang went the other way,” Aubrey muttered.

“It must have been a case of reverse Stockholm syndrome,” Mond mused. “Still, it demands something of a different approach.”

“What’s Stockholm-”

Mund got to his feet, cutting Aubrey’s question off. “There’s something I’d like to show you.” He pulled a portable holodisplay from a slot in the table and flicked it to life, perusing the information then inputting a few commands as he started towards the door opposite the one they’d entered through. “I think it will help you see what it is we’re hoping to accomplish with these martians.”

It was an offer tantalizing enough that Aubrey and Sean got up to follow along without further question.

“Have you ever wondered,” Mond said as he led them down a corridor and a flight of stairs, “what exactly it is that separates us from the martians?”

“Culturally the biggest factor is generally considered the willingness to assume,” Sean said. “Gender roles, economic outcomes, even the nature of right and wrong are things that they take for granted.”

“That is the prevailing consensus. Did you do well in your anthropology courses?”

Sean nodded sheepishly. “I was above the grade curve.”

“What they don’t tell you in that class is what made the martians so damn confident.” Mond pushed through the door at the bottom of the stairs and stepped out into the massive room of bookshelves. A man was waiting there with a stack of books that Aubrey recognized.

“Those are the books we found in the library a few days ago.”

“Yes they are, Ms. Vance.” Mond picked up the guide to Milan and thumbed through it. “It’s these that make the martians so arrogant. These books that are so full of changeless words. Look at it.”

Aubrey did so, and saw a picture of a quaint cobblestone square, presumable somewhere in Milan, surrounded by facts and figures. “I see it. So what?”

“It’s the same,” Mond said.

“The same as what?” Sean asked.

“As itself. Every time you open it, a book is the same as it was before.” Mond snapped it closed and handed it back to the man he’d gotten it from; then turned and started marching down the long aisles of books. “People change. It’s a reality of life. In a few years every molecule in your body will be different from now. Your thoughts and decisions now will be very different from what they a few days ago simply because you met three martians. A book is the same from the day it is printed until the day it meets its end. Martians have always considered that to be a strength. They tie themselves to books because change frightens them, and having something that does not change, down to the very molecules it is made of, makes them feel safer. That sense of safety eventually morphed into their expansionist ways and superior attitude.”

“Oh, I see,” Aubrey said, getting excited. “Every sapiens understands that nothing can be known objectively, since humans are such limited creatures. That’s why we have to work together and cooperate, so we can make up for each other’s limitations. But books look like they’re objective, since they never change. So the shortcomings of whoever wrote them are cemented in the reader’s mind.”

“And whoever reads them winds up only seeing things only from the author’s point of view.” Sean added, nodding as well. “Thus cultural imperialism, class conflict, environmental degradation and the many other shortcomings of martian society.”

“Exactly!” Mund said, beaming at them. “The benefit of a book is, of course, that it helps people remember what was important when it was written. The danger is that people get trapped in what was rather than what should be.”

Mund pivoted unexpectedly, whipping around a corner and cutting perpendicular to the lines of shelves, his eyes tracking the numbers on the sides of the shelves. “Sapiens recognized the value of books, of course,” he said as he made sure Sean and Aubrey weren’t falling too far behind. “In fact some believe they may have been a sapiens innovation. But when technological innovations made books widely available their detrimental effects on the larger populace became clear. Martians and even many sapiens fell into very rigid patterns of thought based entirely on the books they read. Worse, many of them were thinking directly contradictory thoughts! Cooperation and growth as a society was becoming impossible.”

“That would make sapiens civilization difficult,” Aubrey admitted. ” How did UNIGOV solve the problem?”

“Ironically, it was martian technology that created the solution,” Mond replied. “Have you heard of Schrodinger’s Cat?”

“No. Don’t tell me martians created cats…”

Mond chuckled. “Nothing of the sort. No, Erwin Schrodinger theorized that if a cat was put in a situation where whether it lived or died was totally random and no one observed the outcome then, until someone looked to see if the cat was alive or dead, then the cat was both alive and dead.”

“So a book could tell you who you were and still be flexible enough to reflect who you need to be,” Sean mused.

“But with the technology Schrodinger had available such a thing wasn’t possible. It wasn’t until the digital revolution freed books from physical form that it was even theoretically an option, and martians had grown too attached to their unchanging narratives at that point to consider it.” Mond’s route took them out of the seemingly endless ranks of bookshelves and into a small open area, about thirty feet across. A small raised platform held a single book on a pedestal and Mond started up the steps towards it.

“After the unfortunate extinction of the martians the best sapeins minds gathered together to try and piece together what went wrong and how we might avoid it again. Time and again the necessity of shaking off these controlling narratives came up. Eventually, it was decided that all physical books would be gathered up and copied into digital media and committees would be formed to condense them into narratives that would encourage the sapeins way of life away from the most destructive excesses of the martians while still retaining all the benefits of the accumulated knowledge in what was written. This way, we never know exactly what the book will say before it’s opened. We aren’t shackled by what was, we aren’t proscribed by who we were yesterday. We don’t make assumptions about others based on dead, unchanging words. We are free to be anything and everything at once.” Mond picked up the book from the pedestal with something that bordered on reverence, and turned to hand it to Sean.

“It’s impossible to do justice to the experience in physical media,” Mond said as Sean opened the cover and flipped through a few pages. “But this, as nearly as we can create it right now, is a copy of humanity’s compiled wisdom, from the time the earliest hominid created writing until now.”

Sean handed the book to Aubrey. The cover had the same symbol as Mond’s tunic, the weird book with the star. She saw what it was, now. Potential, the kind of potential only people like Mond could put between the book’s covers. She flipped it open as Mond proudly said, “This is Schrodinger’s Book.”

From cover to cover, the pages were blank.

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Sixteen – The Vault

Go Back to Chapter Fifteen

The UNIGOV staff took Aubrey through the streets a short distance and stopped on a street corner. So far they weren’t answering many questions, other than that their brief exam of Priss suggested the martian woman was intoxicated in some way – which didn’t make any sense, but what had the last few days – and her medical systems weren’t purging agent responsible. When Aubrey explained that Priss didn’t have any medical systems they’d just insisted that she’d need to come along with them. The hope of getting away from the martians and their craziness was getting further and further away each day, it seemed, but UNIGOV was UNIGOV and she did as she was told.

They waited on the corner for about two minutes before a four seat UNIGOV jetcar picked them up and brought them a few more blocks through the city and stopped under the parking canopy of a nondescript building that definitely had public accommodation traffic surrounding it. They offloaded Aubrey and Priss with care and professionalism, carrying the still unconscious martian woman over to a nondescript blue vehicle halfway between a van and a jetcar. She hadn’t known flying vehicles larger than three meters were still allowed in the air after the transpiration reforms of the Environmental Restoration Act but there it was, at least six meters from bumper to bumper, three meters wide and clearly meant for microjet maneuvering.

Sean was standing beside it, calmly talking to two more UNIGOV people. “… very paranoid but surprisingly nonviolent,” he was saying as Aubrey climbed out of the car, the two UNIGOV staffers who had brought her carefully unloading Priss and moving her over to the other vehicle. “I think they could be acclimated very quickly.”

“You said they had a vehicle?” One of the staffers with Sean asked.

“A couple of blocks beyond the city greenline,” Sean said. “It’s got a bunch of their stuff in it, although I don’t know how much you can analyze without their artificial intelligence programs handy, it all seems to run through them.”

“We’ll look at them.” The UNIGOV man turned and looked at Aubrey with a bright smile. “Aubrey Vance. Glad to see you’re not hurt. I was just talking to Sean and he told me you’ve had a trying time and would like to go home. Yes?”

“Well… yes.” She shot a glance at Sean, who was still talking to the other person who had been there when she arrived, a short brunette woman.

“Unfortunately, UNIGOV is asking you to accompany us back to our operational headquarters for a debriefing. You’re not the only one to have an unfortunate encounter with martians in the last couple of days.” Without her noticing he’d gotten close enough to put a hand in the small of her back and begin gently moving her around towards the side door of the vehicle. “We’re trying to put together a profile of what kinds of people these are and what they want, so that UNIGOV can find the best solution for all involved.”

“I think they just wanted to get back into space…”

“Of course.”

And with that she was half seated in the passenger compartment of the vehicle as the UNIGOV man slid the door closed behind her. Bewildered she blinked once to adjust her eyes to the light and looked around. Sean was already strapping into the seat beside her. She did the same, swiveling her chair to see further back into the compartment. Unsurprisingly, the three martians all lay strapped to stretchers secured to the floor back there. She turned back to look at Sean, who was fiddling with the holodisplay built into his armrest.

“Sean. Did any of that strike you as… strange?”

He stopped for a moment, looking a bit uncertain. “What parts?”

“What…?” She gestured helplessly. “How about the way they seem to have found us?”

“We swiped our IDs in a city other than our residence and we didn’t secure authorized transport to get there. It raised a flag.” He started to go back to his display.

“But why did Priss pass out? Or,” she glanced back and confirmed that Dex and Lang both appeared to be sleeping quietly as well, “what happened to those two?”

Sean shrugged. “They said there was something in the food. Sapiens medical systems filter it out but martians aren’t equipped with that, so… I guess once they realized there were martians on the planet-”

UNIGOV drugged the food supply?” Aubrey shook her head in disbelief. “That’s absurd. Did you know the medical nanosystems let them see using our optic nerves?”

Sean slowly stopped fiddling with the holodisplay. “That would explain a few things. I didn’t actual tap my account at the grocery yet but they still found us here. Pretty impressive if you think about it.”

“This doesn’t bother you?” Aubrey shook her head. “For fuck’s sake, Sean. The fundamental aspects of sapiens society are do not assume and do not intrude. Don’t you think looking with our eyes – and not asking permission – is both assuming it’s okay and intruding on our fucking eyeballs?”

“We’ve never had to deal with martians intruding on a purely sapiens culture before, Aubrey,” he pointed out, his tone maddeningly reasonable. “UNIGOV is trying to adapt the tools on hand to deal with the problem without betraying its own principles. It’s not exactly a nice solution, I grant you, but it was effective in our case. And we’re going to be able to go home days earlier than I would have expected.”

“Sean, however they hijack our eyes, the system has been in place long before the martians came. The medical systems aren’t self-updating, when they need upgrades you have to visit a medicenter. We weren’t even in a functioning part of the city when we met Lang, the system UNIGOV used to find us had to have been already in place.” She wrapped her arms around herself, suddenly feeling very spooked. “What other things can they do that they never told us about?”

Sean swiveled his seat to face her directly. “Aubrey. UNIGOV is built on the sapiens way of life. It’s about trust and respect for one another’s expertise, about joining together to be more than individuals. United Government, recognizing that no one can do it all and we need each other. That’s the opposite of the martian way of runaway individualism and the drive to conflict. Just because we don’t understand everything UNIGOV does doesn’t mean they’re not acting in our interests. We’ve got to trust each other or we’ll wind up fighting like they do.”

“I know. I know, but…” She looked over at the three martians again, the weirdness of the last few days whirling through her head again. “They sure seem to trust each other just fine, even when they’re fighting.”

Sean sighed and turned his seat to face front again. “They’re martians, Aubrey. Of course they do.”

After a moment of hesitation Aubrey did the same.


It took just two hours of flight to get to their destination, and it wasn’t lost on Aubrey that UNIGOV had given them exactly as much insight into where they were going as Lang and his martians had. Less, actually, as Lang had at least mentioned a timeframe when they would probably get where they were going. Not that she could compliment him on outperforming UNIGOV on at least one metric, he was still unconscious when the doors opened a half a dozen UNIGOV people started unloading the martians from the flier and moving them to gurneys.

Aubrey stepped out of their vehicle and into an entirely enclosed hanger where three similar vehicles were parked. In fact, except for the fact that the place was entirely enclosed, the place felt very much like any one of a dozen carparks and garages she’d poked through with Sean in the past six months, right down to the aging concrete, flaking paint and high ceilings. Their pilots didn’t lead them after the people wheeling the martians away but rather took them in the opposite direction, up a short flight of steps and through a short hallway to a conference room much like any other she’d seen in her time working for UNIGOV.

At least, the furnishings were what she expected. Glossy black table, comfortable seats, holodisplays and the UNIGOV seal on the wall to her left. But just beside the seal was another symbol she didn’t recognize, a vertical line of boxes similar to a pattern called the film strip – after three days around Priss she found herself wondering about the origin of that term – that joined at a right angle with a second line at the bottom. From the point of joining a third curved line swept up between them. She couldn’t think of anything she’d seen like it other than the opening book symbols they’d found around the abandoned library but it was much more abstract and, unlike those, the curved line in the middle ended in what looked like a four pointed star with one point stretching back to almost touch the top of the vertical line.

It was bizarre. UNIGOV had an established set of icons. The seal was Earth with a pair of hands grasping across the Atlantic Ocean. Most of their branches used a variation of that seal which replaced the hands with something appropriate to their function, like a tree in the case of the Environmental Restoration Agency or, in the case of the Traffic Control Office, a compass. But nothing about this symbol was obvious. It wasn’t something she’d ever seen before, much less in conjunction with UNIGOV.

The wall opposite the mysterious symbol was a long row of windows looking down over something down below, which she couldn’t make out from her current vantage point. A man wearing a short sleeved green tunic, belted at the waist, stood with his hands behind his back, looking down at the scene below. From the loose folds of skin on his arms and the iron gray cast of his hair Aubrey could tell he was an older man, perhaps breaking the century mark, but still fit. He turned to greet them as the door to the conference room swung shut, his face more heavily lined than she’d expect from a man only starting his eleventh decade. But from those lines it seemed he was given to smiling as they crinkled into well-worn patterns when he grinned at them. “Well, well, well. What have we here? The first sapiens from my jurisdiction to have a run in with martians in over two centuries.” He strode around the table and extended a hand to firmly shake each of their hands. Aubrey noticed that his tunic had the strange book symbol from the wall over his heart. The UNIGOV seal was nowhere in evidence. “Glad to see you looking so well. I’m Stephen Mond, and I’m the administrator of this facility. The official term is Vault Keeper, but I find it rather gauche. Data storage and retrieval is my specialty, with a smattering of AI predictive coding thrown in. I’m afraid I’m a bit of a paleoenvironmentalist, as well. Product of the times, so I hope you’ll bear with me.”

“Not a problem, Keeper Mond,” Sean said, shaking his hand with a smile of his own. “Is Keeper Mond right?”

Mond waved it off. “Most just call me Mond. Or Mr. Mond. Or even just Director, although I don’t really care for that either.”

Aubrey shook his hand very mechanically, wondering how it was that, even though she was in a place almost identical to where she had worked for years, it still felt like she was caught in the storm of insanity that the martians had brought with them the moment they turned up. “What kind of facility is this, Mr. Mond?”

“Ah, this?” He turned and, with the sweep of an arm, led them over to the windows. “This is Schrodinger’s Vault.”

With a dramatic flourish of his hands and voice Mond directed them down to the floor some eight to ten feet below the level they stood at. It was filled, for hundreds of feet in any direction she could see, with shelves. And those shelves were full of books.

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Fifteen – The Panopticon

Go Back to Previous Chapter

Aubrey helped Priss pull her shirt back into place, wiggling her shoulders a bit to test the new fit. The spacer woman shook her head and sighed. “That’s better. Your idea of gravity is a killer.”

“Yeah, I think anyone would need a reinforced bra with that kind of chest.” Aubrey tossed a couple of failed attempts at structural engineering back into the clothes recycler. “Is that how you got those? A result of lower gravity?”

“More like genetics. Women on Copernicus run the usual range of sizes.” Priss pulled her shirt on and straightened it, trying to get the folds to lie right. “Actually long term microgravity causes people to lose a lot of mass most of the time. Atrophy and all that. I don’t think it has any effect on human body type beyond that. Just clothes. You should see some of the supports ladies on Newton wear. They practically take half a cup off the way you look.”

“Dex would love that.”

He has a contractual obligation to like guns of all sizes and types.” Priss gave herself a once over in the mirror then scoped up her bag.

Aubrey shrugged. “He seems like…”

“A pervert?” Priss nodded. “He’s one of those fools who thinks a girl goes for honesty above all. Never figured out that most of us like a guy to at least pretend to be a little more than the stereotype. What about Sean?”

“What about him?”

Priss gave her an incredulous look. “I mean, you clearly spend a lot of time around him. You were camping in the wilderness – for values of wilderness –  with him when we met. That looks like…” A look of shocked sympathy crossed her face. “Oh. Oh, that’s harsh.”

Bewildered, Audrey demanded, “What are you talking about?”

“You still have the friend zone on Earth, at least.” Priss shook her head and tsked. “Not my problem.”

“So that’s two new places in one minute.” Audrey sighed. “The friend zone doesn’t sound that interesting. Where’s Newton?”

“Friend zone is boring by all accounts,” Priss muttered, thenshrugged uncomfortably, struggling with what to say for a moment. “It’s the last of the Triad worlds to be settled. Gravity there is five percent above Earth’s and they grow a lot of grain. It’s nice, except for the whole weight thing. I’ve never been, Copernican gravity is about eight percent below Earth so the adjustment is pretty rough. Therapists tell me you need about four months to really make the change. We don’t visit much, since Copernicus can grow most of its own food at this point and the Isaacs don’t have a whole lot of tourist traps to get lost in. The moonies put up with it but they kind of have to.”

There was a lot there that she wanted to dig in to but Aubrey knew better than to push too hard, given the way the martians had clammed up when pushed about where they were from. She tried to keep her questions as innocuous as possible. “What’s a moonie?”

Instead of answering Priss broke eye contact, turned and let herself out of the fitting room. Aubrey followed behind, figuring this was just another stonewalling attempt, but it turned out Priss had just been collecting her thoughts because as they walked towards the door of the clothes factory Priss started again. “I know this is going to sound weird with the environment you’re from. But each of the Triad worlds is fucked in its own way, and we’re not afraid to remind each other of it. Copernicus is stubborn as hell and doesn’t want to be involved with the other two systems if we can help it. Not always healthy but there it is. They call us roundheads, because they think good sense bounces off of us. And because Copernicus – the man – liked perfect circles and used them when he created the heliocentric structure of the solar system.”

“Not familiar with him, but otherwise the description fits.” She thought over the term moonies again but still came up empty. “Don’t tell me one of your worlds is known for dropping their pants and-”

“No.” Priss rolled her eyes and pushed through the door and out into the streets. “Galileo was supposed to be a habitable world but turned out to be a gas giant abnormally close to its star. Close enough that several of the larger moons that orbited it could sustain life with some difficulty. After a lot of debate, rather than split up and go back to Copernicus or on to Newton, the Galilean colony ships chose to try and settle three of the moons.”

“Oh!” Aubrey nodded. “That makes sense, then. You call them moonies because they live on moons.”

“No. We call the moonies because they’re fucking crazy, and people who went crazy from seeing the Moon used to be called moonstruck. I think. There’s logic there somewhere.” Priss shook her head. “There are twenty moons around Galileo and the planet has rings like Saturn on top of that. All the big moons people live on are surrounded by enough debris to shred our biggest orbit ships in seconds and that’s before you try and take all the weird gravity well overlaps that happen as you pass the moons into account. Just getting to Minerva or Ceres is taking your life into your hands a dozen times and Tellus isn’t that much easier to reach. To make matters worse, two of the six colony ships that settled there were damaged on the way in – one crashed – and Ceres won’t be able to sustain agriculture for another thirty years. They’re always short on something and bickering with each other, then coming to Copernicus or Newton for help. They can’t always get it. Every major armed conflict between the Triad worlds has started because of one of the three colonized moons of Galileo and they’ve practically turned raiding and piracy into a cottage industry.”

“So why do you put up with them?”

“For a long time Copernicus didn’t.” Priss grimaced, looking a bit displeased with that fact. “Not the most charitable response but the colonies weren’t as stable back then as we are now. And that’s why Newton couldn’t afford not to stay in touch with the moons. Newton is almost entirely devoid of the rare earths needed for serious electronics work while Minerva and Tellus are practically made of them. So in the early days they traded for crops from Newton a lot.”

“What about the third moon?”

“Ceres?” Her displeasure turned to wry humor. “Not as much in the way of rare earths but plenty of guns. They consider Viking to be a viable career choice there. Ceres pirates have stolen a shocking percentage of cargo going through the Galileo system in the last hundred and fifty years. Eventually Minerva took them on as allies and turned them into a sort of unofficial space navy and that’s when the Triad worlds started fighting honest to goodness wars.”

Aubrey shook her head in amazement. “That sounds so…”

“Stupid?”

“Avoidable.” Aubrey had been watching the patterns of traffic but a rumble in her stomach reminded her that she was hungry. She glanced down at foot traffic – at once harder and easier to track – and turned them in a slightly different direction. “Don’t any of you ever… get tired of it?”

“A whole colony’s worth, actually.” Priss grinned. “Even the most dyed in the wool martians have their sapiens, I guess. The most sanctimonious people in all three systems got together and went a couple of weeks out to a new system and founded a colony named after the most utopian nutjub they could find and sat out the last war. Gene Rodenberry would probably be proud but mostly we’re just annoyed.”

“Hey, him I do know.” She waved her hand through the access point on a food cart and pulled out two burritos, handing one to Priss automatically.

She took the food, looking at the cart skeptically for a moment then following Aubrey away. As they put a little distance between themselves and the cart she asked, “Where was the owner? Is it okay to just walk off with food like that?”

“It’s credited to me,” Aubrey mumbled around a mouth full of warm but not too hot rice and spicy sauce. “And the food carts belong to UNIGOV so there’s no owner to worry about. They’re deployed at the beginning of the day and brought back in during the early evening.”

“No one keeps an eye on them during the day?”

“We’re not moonies,” Aubrey said, a weird thrill running through the pit of her stomach at the thought that she’d just shared a secret with the other woman no one else around them would understand. “We’ve got enough food we don’t have to worry about people stealing it. It’s simpler to automate distribution.”

“I suppose,” Priss said, nibbling on her own burrito. “Kinda surprised no one lobbied to keep the job, though. Lots of people were upset when Copernicus moved from assembling ships the old fashioned way to pure nanofacturing. Shipbuilding jobs dried up after that.”

“There hasn’t been any protest over jobs that I know of for decades. Sean and I work two days a week and frankly that feels like too much some times.”

“Two days…” Priss shook her head and took a larger bite, chewing thoughtfully. Once she swallowed she said, “That does explain some things. With your level of nanotech I guess nanofacturing most material needs comes pretty cheap. But… what do you do with five days off a week? Besides diving for auto parts, I mean.”

Do?” She mulled it over. That wasn’t something she’d ever been overly concerned about. “I mean, I’m in a band, I think Sean helps monitor environmental reclamation programs and sometimes volunteers for extra shifts of at work… what do you mean what do we do? What do you do?”

“I’m a spacer. We keep the colonies moving, and moving safe. We make sure unscrupulous people don’t prey on the people working on terraforming or nanofacturing. And when necessary we fight wars. I mean…” She gestured helplessly with her free hand. “Environmental work and traffic control are fine, I guess, though I don’t know as it wouldn’t work out fine without a whole bunch of people specifically to bean count it. Does any of that really help anyone?”

Aubrey recoiled. “What?”

“No, that’s not what I meant…” Priss shook her head. “It’s just… I know not everyone goes to work because they love what they do. But don’t you feel kind of… I dunno, unanchored?” She nibbled on her burrito again.

Aubrey finished her own morning snack, thinking it over. She was tempted to come back to Theory One, her explanation for all the strangeness of the past few days. Martians were weird.

On the other hand, something about what Priss said gnawed at the back of her mind. She turned to ask the other woman… something, just to keep the train of thought going, only to see her stagger a couple of steps, swaying unsteadily from foot to foot.

Aubrey quickly stepped closer and grabbed her by one arm, trying to keep her upright. “Are you okay?”

“Dizzy…” Priss mumbled, her head starting to sag forward. With an effort she turned to look at Aubrey. “Thanks.”

“Yeah, let’s get you somewhere to sit…”

A look of confusion passed over Priss’s face. “Your eyes are glowing…”

On that total non sequitur Priss slumped down to the ground. Panicking a little Aubrey dropped to her knees and grabbed for her shoulder bag, which she was positive had the martian’s medical device in it. People gathered around, making curious and helpful sounds but Aubrey wasn’t paying a lot of attention.

Until a hand touched her on the shoulder and she glanced up. Two men in UNIGOV uniforms stood there. The one who had tapped her shoulder smiled and said, “Is everything alright?”

The other was in the process of closing a holodisplay which showed Priss laying on the ground, just as she had looked from Aubrey’s own perspective a few seconds ago.

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Fourteen – The City

Go Back to Chapter Thirteen

From the very worried looks he got from Priss and Dex as they piled out of the van it was clear to Lang that he looked every bit as tired and haggard as he felt. After locking Aubrey and Sean in the van for nearly two hours and then yelling for most of that time, he’d finally bulldozed the two of them into going with his line of reasoning. More than ever he was convinced that only idiots and psychopaths actually wanted positions of leadership because it was proving to be the most draining thing he’d ever had to do in his life. If the destruction of the Armstrong had somehow created new officer’s positions in the fleet he was going to recommend  his two corporals for them just to get even.

And also hopefully so he wouldn’t be considered for them.

So, after drawing a blood sample from Aubrey, the spacers had piled everything back into the van and driven most of the way up to the city limits, then parked under an overpass and worked their way in on foot. Finally they crossed into the city proper and merged with the crowds, watching their prisoners and the surrounding people warily, Lang uncomfortably fingering the small nanolathe he’d cobbled together using Priss’s notes. He’d ultimately chosen to do all the work himself, and carried both samples on his person, in order to make sure as much of the responsibility as possible rested with him.

If Aubrey and Sam were content to with UNIGOV leaving killswitches in their bloodstream then Lang was not above using them himself if they crossed a line.

The potential ramifications of using such a cold blooded weapon weren’t something he wanted to think about. Unfortunately, entering the city didn’t give a lot of other things to keep his mind occupied.

Earth cities were boring.

After five years of service with the Spacer corps, Lang had managed to visit cities on three different worlds. The low gravity of Minerva lent itself to a wild, almost organic style of architecture that swooped and curved, full of brightly colored hangings and garnished with hydroponic vines. Copernican architecture ran a gamut of styles but all drew inspiration from the classical styles known as the Italian and Spanish schools. The buildings of Rodenberry were very flat, rarely more than two or three stories, and favored large windows, buttresses and colonnades.

Earth buildings were tall, boxy and pushed close together. There had been parts of the empty city they’d landed in that were similar but in this populated city almost as soon as they hit the maintained portions of the sidewalks they were walking in the shadows of towering, eight to ten story monoliths with few to no defining exterior features. It was like walking between giant concrete building blocks. His long distance observations hadn’t done justice to how depressing it was to have all that concrete looming over your head.

There were people everywhere. Even in the most built up portions of Copernicus population density rarely topped a thousand people per square mile. At a guess Lang was willing to bet the density here was ten or fifteen times that. And it felt like none of them were at work.

The streets around them swarmed with people, again far more than it had looked like from a distance. The number of pedestrians picked up rapidly as they worked their way in from the outskirts. At first there were only a handful of people in view at any one time but within five minutes of spotting the first new Terran since the crash they were practically surrounded by a mob of them. It was a bit unnerving. Lang hadn’t seen a crowd like this since basic training and he could tell by the looks Priss and Dex were giving each other they felt the same. He couldn’t help but notice he got left out of the moment of spacer solidarity – in their minds he had definitely moved up the ladder to officer territory at some point. He kept his attention focused out on the crowd and off of his disappointment and picked up on a few things.

The crowd didn’t bother Aubrey and Sean, a sign that they probably dealt with this kind of crush every day. Lang really wanted to ask why no one was at work but didn’t want to ask something so patently ignorant of the situation where it could be overheard. Sounding stupid was fine, but sounding like a martian was unacceptable. And they were already drawing more attention than he was comfortable with.

Clothes had been the obvious give away to worry about so, after some thought, he’d ordered everyone out of their evac suits, figuring it was better to go in shipboard slops that looked somewhat like what Aubrey and Sean wore than show up in clothes chock full of nanofiber armor and vacuum seals. And, while this did make them look superficially like their Terran prisoners, it didn’t do anything to reduce their profile in town because no one they saw on the streets was dressed remotely like the five of them.

The trend on the street was towards long, loose, flowing clothes of very thin, almost see-through fabric with a much briefer layer beneath to maintain a modicum of decency. It wasn’t a very practical style of clothing but then no one in town seemed to be on their way to work so that might have been a factor.  Perhaps their Terrans were just wearing work clothes suited to their little excursion when the spacers found them. They certainly didn’t seem surprised by the local mode of dress.

But they did seem interested in matching it, seeing as how the first place they stopped was a clothes factory. In another reminder of how far advanced Earth nanotech was compared to its colonies someone had figured out how to build synthetic fabrics using nanolathes and who knows what base materials. The “factory” was actually little more than a small section in a long row of businesses where they could get scanned for their dimensions, watch their clothes assembled in a nanovat then take them to a row of changing rooms to try them on. They were strange looking and more than a little embarrassing but change they did, packing their old clothes into the should bags they’d brought along for the food and other supplies they were hoping to gather. Lang didn’t intend for the stop to take more than a few minutes, especially once he realized how quickly they could get clothes and get out. Unfortunately as they were preparing to leave Priss stopped them, wanting to stay a little longer and pick up a few other things. Aubrey volunteered to stay and authorize any acquisitions. As Lang prepared to get comfortable with another ten minutes stay Priss added, mostly through tone and meaningful looks, that this was a stop for feminine needs.

And so, in spite of his own misgivings about leaving the two of them alone together, with Aubrey’s failsafe still in his possession, Lang found himself outside the factory with the other two men, looking for a grocery store. He was reasonably confident Priss would be fine. She had a plasma pistol that could blow through the walls of most of the buildings he’d seen on planet and the will to use it. He couldn’t say the same for anyone he’d met since coming to Earth. After ten minutes of walking he was more worried about whether they could get the food back to the van without a robocrate than he was about Priss’ safety.

“Hey, Sean,” Dex said, mopping at his forehead with the flimsy sleeve of his new shirt. “How do you know where we’re going? I thought you hadn’t been to this place before.”

“I work with traffic,” he answered with a smirk. “It’s just a matter of knowing what to look for. Otherwise we’d have to hit an info display, like that.”

Sean was pointing to one of the few things that Lang had seen which immediately made sense on earth, a simple holodisplay with a scattering of public information available. Lang looked over at Dex and said, “Wait here for a second, would you?”

He headed over to the display and tried to access it. At first the interface seemed stubbornly resistant to his actions but, remembering what Sean had said about the medinano being his form of ID, he fished out the nanolathe with the sample they’d gotten from Sean back at the library and held it in his hand as he tried to use the display. That seemed to be enough for whatever method UNIGOV used to detect their citizens nanotech, he now had one hand he could use the display with. A little fiddling later he was able to figure out the menu – quite intuitive – and pull up a map of the city, confirming they could find a grocery in the general direction they were heading.

He copied that into his AI as surreptitiously as he was able then scanned for anything like a local news feed. No such luck there, the information station wasn’t regularly updated, which surprised him. It did list places to find lodgings, places to seek employment and a bunch of demographic information like city population that didn’t seem terribly useful. After another few minutes of fiddling he abandoned the display and headed back to the other two, tucking Sean’s blood sample back into his pocket.

“Anything interesting?” Dex asked as he got close.

“Not much. A map and a name for the city.”

“And where are we?”

“Pheonix, Arizona,” Sean said, watching the exchange with bemusement. “You’re awful proud of how much shit you supposedly know about Earth but you didn’t know that?”

“Geography of planets I wasn’t expecting to visit wasn’t a mandatory course.” Although a small voice in the back of his mind pointed out it was strange that they’d never covered Earth geography in mission briefings, even as they closed on the planet. They’d covered basics like that even on his visit to Rodenberry, and that planet was founded by antiwar radicals. Why not Earth? Did they really know so little about it?

“That doesn’t make any sense at all,” Dex said with a frown. “We didn’t pass any smaller towns or settlements on our way here. I know there’s more than one major city in Arizona and Texas.”

“We did go around one place late last night,” Lang said.

“Everyone else has been resettled,” Sean added.

He said it so matter of factly that it took a moment for Lang to process. “Resettled why?”

Sean shook his head. “Again, ignorant of the strangest things. Environmental collapse was a concern before homo martians went extinct – at least on this planet – and once UNIGOV was established they took definitive steps to scale back sapiens contributions to the problem. Most smaller population centers were merged with the largest nearby city and the structures were disassembled. Larger population centers were evacuated, but no one was sure what the consequences of just picking up that large a chunk of terrain with nothing to replace it, so the buildings were left behind.”

And with that bit of information a lot more of the last three days made sense.

Not that any of it was helpful in their immediate circumstances. It was time to stop acting like stupid, gawking tourists who didn’t know local history and try to blend again. “Fascinating stuff. Let’s talk about groceries, shall we? Dex, you and I need to split up and grab this stuff as fast as possible…”

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