Schrodinger’s Book: Afterwords

I’m often asked whether I outline my stories or not and, when I say I do, I’m often asked if I find it restrictive. I’ve never understood this question as an outline is just a general picture of how your story is paced and what needs to be in it. It’s not like there isn’t room for improvisation and improvement as you go along. Case in point: Schrodinger’s Book was outlined with an epilogue. You may have gathered that those plans have been scrapped.

The truth is, after writing the last chapter anything I tried to write for the epilogue felt deeply anticlimactic. It’s important not to overstay your welcome so I’ve just cut that part of the story. My characters have finished their arcs and Aubrey’s last words turned out to be much more satisfying that I expected them to be – at least to me. So I’m not going to beleaguer you with anything further, at least not for this visit to Schrodinger’s world.

If you’ve been reading this story since chapter one, you probably know that this story intimidated me, in part because I wasn’t sure how I would keep my enthusiasm for the project up as I poked at issues that concerned me in a setting I’ve never been terribly fond of. It turns out that the characters are what would motivate me. With the exception of Priss, the poor girl who was just around to be a foil for the two protagonists, I knew where I wanted each of the core five to end up and each chapter I wrote brought me a little closer to those important milestones.

I wanted to see Sean accept a moment of temporary pain just to live up to the principles he’d espoused. I wanted to see Lang grapple with the idea of being in command and what the consequences of neglecting that were. I wanted Aubrey to find the confines of her world and see past them to the potential of the future. And while I didn’t want Dex to die, he was too much of a boundary pusher not to wind up there in the end, especially in a world where UNIGOV ruled supreme. Getting to those goals pushed me to keep writing, pushed me to make every step there as interesting as possible so those moments of payoff would be worth it. I hope you’ve found them just as fun as I have.

Which brings me to the biggest thing I’d like to say. And that is:

Thank you. 

If you’ve been reading this blog for years, thank you for sticking with me. I know I can be a bit of a boring pedant sometimes and you really deserve more thanks than I find the time for just for sticking with me. If you’re new and you just joined in the last year or so, thank you for giving me a chance. I hope you’ll stick around now that the story that dragged you in is over. Regardless, after doing this for five or six years, I know how important an audience is, and how hard it is to keep. You folks are a treasure.

So what now?

Well, for starters, there will be no fiction for a while. Two months at least, possible not until the start of the new year. We’ll see.

This is in part because to give me time to pull my head out of the last story and prep it for the next and in part because I only really have enough time to write one post a week right now and I want to dabble in some nonfiction essays on the topic of writing covering subjects that have caught my attention. I know, I know, nothing more boring than a writer writing about writing, right? But I think it’s interesting and I hope you will to so I pray you’ll indulge me.

During this time I’ll be doing two other things behind the scenes as well. One is prepping a new project. This project isn’t directly connected to Schrodinger’s Book in any way, but I hope my readers new and old will find it just as interesting. The other is researching and prepping the manuscript for Schrodinger’s Book for translation into an e-book format. So if you’ve ever wanted to foist this story off onto unsuspecting friends and relatives you will soon have a chance to do so! More details on both of these projects will come in the future.

For now, I hope you will indulge one last request of mine, for now. I’d like to do a reader Q&A as one of my essay posts. I know I’ve not been the most audience participation focused blogger in my tenure but I am grateful for your readership and I’d like to answer any questions you may have so I’m testing the waters by asking for any questions you have about Schrodinger’s Book, the story, the writing process, the characters and world building, you name it. Go ahead and leave them in the comments for this post and if I get enough for a decent post in a by the 11th of October I’ll answer them in a post on the 18th. If I don’t I’ll be sure to leave answers to any questions I do get down in the comments. Once more, thanks for reading!

– Nate

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Twenty Six: The Meaning of Responsibility

Previous Chapter

There was a sort of unwritten agreement among Spacer worlds that computer operating systems all needed to have a few things in common. Similar icons for various core functions of the operating system, similar finger commands for important holodisplay interactions, that kind of thing. Naturally, Earth hadn’t gotten the memo. So, while he’d managed to log in to the computer console in Mond’s office – and to his unsurprise there was no password protection on the computer – he still wasn’t entirely sure he was on the way to getting the information he wanted. Wasn’t even sure he was working through the right set of programs. What he’d originally taken as a kind of security camera app turned out to be the creepy visual hijacking program UNIGOV used to look through its citizen’s eyes. As far as he could tell, no one was looking at any kind of ground to orbit craft at the moment so it wasn’t being very helpful.

He was trying to figure out how to close the program when the door slid up and Mond stepped through. They both froze for a moment, staring at each other through the holodisplay, as the door slammed closed behind Mond. Lang recovered first, scooped up his carbine and blasted the door controls behind Mond.

To his credit Mond didn’t jump or scamper out of the way. He did flinch, although under the circumstances that was totally understandable. After pulling himself together he asked, “What can I do for you Corporal Langley?”

“Nothing right this moment,” Lang said, putting his carbine back down and going back to the holodisplay. “Although I wouldn’t try calling for help. It’s just going to get someone hurt.”

“And you’ve avoided that so carefully up until now,” Mond replied, his tone suggesting he believed the opposite.

“More so than you,” Lang shot back. “Amateurs should know better than to play with loaded weapons.”

Civilized people wouldn’t have brought them in the first place,” Mond fired back. “This is a pointless conversation. I don’t even understand how you’re here.”

“I wanted the rest of our gear back.” Lang patted his carbine. “I know you wouldn’t want to use it but better safe than sorry.”

Mond scowled. “Not what I meant. I have a fair idea how you got out of the storage room but how did you get here?”

“Oh, that was easy. All our weapons have trackers built into them. It’s part of how we make sure they don’t wind up in the wrong hands. And, for all your technical expertise, I’m willing to bet it never even occurred to you to look for that kind of thing. You’ve never cultivated the suspicion. Getting through the halls to here was surprisingly easy since no one ever stopped to question me. Kind of surprised you just took them and stuck them in your office, though.” He patted the computer console. “Peeking into your computer records was the logical next step once I was here. I was hoping to get a few questions answered before I left. Not having much luck with the computer so let’s move up the food chain, shall we?”

“Is that some kind of declaration of intent?” Mond asked. “You want me to tell you something?”

“I do. But first I want you to sit down there and put your hands on the desk.” Lang pointed to the chair in question.

After a moment’s hesitation Mond pulled the chair out and sat, folding his hands one over the other on the desk as requested. “What do you want to know? I may not be able to answer all your questions, mind you.”

“There’s only three, so it’ll go quickly.” Lang kicked back and put his feet up on the desk, cradling his carbine over his chest, taking a moment to admire the utter waste of window glass in the wall behind Mond. There was nothing to see out there but metal walls and acres of bookshelves. They could have at least put in some natural lighting. “First question. What did you do with the other spacers who’s drop pods you recovered?”

Mond shrugged. “I can’t say for sure, since your pod is the only one that landed in my jurisdiction. But from what I’ve heard they were recovered, in much the way you were, questioned and given much the same offer you were.”

“To settle on Earth?”

“Correct.” Mond steepled his fingers, going distant for a moment. “I have no idea whether any of them took the offer or not. If they did they would have their skills assessed, medical systems installed, accounts opened and an appropriate place of work found for them.”

Lang’s eyes narrowed. “And if they didn’t?”

“Then a medical system would be installed and they would be put in Shutdown.”

The capitol letter in Shutdown was clearly audible. “And what does Shutdown mean?”

“By switching off the medical system in a preplanned fashion the human body enters a comatose state and can be placed in something closely resembling suspended animation. That state of being can be maintained indefinitely if the proper life support is put in place.” Mond offered a shrug. “It’s not perfect. The person still ages, for example. And the mind can develop severe neural problems if it’s not properly engaged, so we plug their nervous systems into a sort of fugue state simulator that allows them to be conscious in a simulated reality of their own creation.”

“Got all the kinks worked out of that system, don’t you?” Lang sat back up in his chair, staring hard at Mond. “What do you use it for when there are no spacers around?”

“Building a stable sapiens population required we remove a large number of martians from it over the years. Shutdown proved a reliable and humane way to do it.”

Lang suppressed a shudder. The whole thing sounded incredibly nightmarish. Time to move on. “Does this facility still have any of the original launch craft in it? Or did you actually follow through on something and dismantle them?”

“I assure you, following through is a talent of mine,” Mond said stiffly, showing offense for the first time this go around. “But no, we didn’t disassemble them. Space had no interest to UNIGOV but it’s easier to keep the technology contained, and not raising imperialist tendencies in the general population, if the space ships are one large, difficult to misplace item rather than twenty thousand small pieces. I presume you want one of them?”

“You presume well.”

Mond considered it for a long moment, then nodded. “I suppose it can’t be as bad as leaving you here, on planet, and doing whatever it is you might do if left to your own devices. Since we’ve proven incapable of containing you, I suppose we’ll have to settle for getting rid of you. You can map a route to their location using that system.”

It took a few minutes of fiddling to pull up the program Mond was pointing to and get the map up on the display, another minute for his AI to copy the map over, and it was all ready to go. Lang got to his feet and dropped his AI into its pocket, then pulled out his mission log. As he sorted his gear Mond also got to his feet.

“You had a third question?” Mond asked.

Before answering Lang pushed the recording button on the log recorder. “I did.” He walked around the desk to face Mond directly. “Stephen Mond. You’re being detained on one count of war crime, namely the killing of a prisoner under your care. Is there anything you’d like to declare before you are taken into custody? Any statement made will be admissible as evidence.”

Mond actually jerked back a step as if he’d been struck. “I beg your pardon? You do not have the authority to take me anywhere.”

“You should have known this was coming, Mond. You said it yourself. I’m responsible for Dex. Since I can’t get him back into orbit, I have to make sure the man who killed him faces justice. Now.” He held out the log for Mond to speak into. “Do you have anything to declare?”

“I will not-”

“Please confirm your name for the record.”

Mond glared at him before starting over. “I, Stephen Mond, will not leave this planet willingly. And, while you might be able to get from here to the ship hanger if you move alone, you will not be able to do it with me.” Mond looked away slyly. “And you will need to open the launch doors if you want to actually take off. I assure you they will not be open if you take me with you. We do have some security procedures here and a martian leading the Vaultkeeper around at gunpoint will certainly trigger them.”

Lang switched the log recorder off and grinned. “I know. Fortunately, I won’t be leading you around at gunpoint. I thought of a far, far more satisfying way of doing it. You have complete faith in that medical nanotech you use, right? Never mind, that’s more than three questions.”

He proceeded to blow Mond’s left leg off at the knee.

As the screaming died down Lang scowled and said, “Okay, in perfect fairness it’s a lot less satisfying than I expected. Still, you look like you’re doing fine.”

Mond looked up from his new position on the floor, hands wrapped around his leg. “You,” he ground out between gritted teeth. “Are a monster.”

“Of course. That’s what you expected of me, wasn’t it?” Lang checked the stump of the limb and, as he expected, it was already starting to show evidence of skin regrowth. “I wouldn’t want to disappoint your precious narratives. Besides, pain is temporary. Death is permanent. Something to think about. I’ll be answerable for pain. You’ll be answerable for death.”

“I was not responsible for that.”

“No. You see, responsibility is owning your shit. Whether you think it was an accident.” He placed the barrel of his carbine on Mond’s other knee. “Or unavoidable.”

Pulling the trigger a second time gave him no satisfaction at all.

Next Chapter

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Twenty Five: The Revelation of Aubrey Vance

Previous Chapter

“So there was a colony on Mars.” Aubrey turned around slowly, taking in the details of the square. If there was anything that made it clear the architecture was designed with a lower gravity or thinner atmosphere in mind she couldn’t tell. But then, she also wasn’t an expert on building design. “That’s another point for Lang.”

“Lang?” Sarah tilted her head. “Is he the current Vaultkeeper?”

Aubrey laughed. “Pretty much the exact opposite. It’s complicated. If this colony is on Mars I’m guessing this isn’t a real time picture?”

“No.” The sadness in Sarah’s voice brought her up short. “This is the way Mars was in the past, over two centuries ago. When it was first settled.”

Probably the biggest point of confusion Aubrey and the martians – the spacers, rather, given that she was talking to a real Martian and was now convinced Lang and Priss were telling the truth when they said they weren’t – had been what happened in the missing two centuries between when the space colonists left Earth and when they came back. And that argument had started with their insistence there was a colony on Mars. The question was, what else were they right about? “Can you tell me about the colonization effort?”

Sarah shrugged. “I wasn’t alive at the time but my grandparents were and from what they told me it started about like you’d expect. A mixture of excitement, curiosity, a desire to go places we hadn’t been and learn things we didn’t know. Of course, most people figured doing those things would improve their lot in life and, to be perfectly honest, a lot of the time that didn’t happen. Some people’s reasons were different and I know my grandparents came to Mars because they were tired of the governments on Earth never seeming to work for their own people. The colony was a kind of international collaboration – in theory – and my grandparents hoped the smaller size of the colony would make managing the endeavor more personal and less political.”

“Did it work?”

“Not in the slightest. Human nature isn’t that mutable, it would seem.” Sarah sighed. “That didn’t keep people from trying.”

Aubrey wanted to know what that meant but she also wanted to let Sarah proceed at her own pace. “Meaning what?”

“For some people, it meant extrasolar colonies. Superluminal drives were deemed safe the year my parents were born and the first colonists departed the year they met.” Sarah waved a hand and Aubrey gasped as the cityscape around them vanished with a flicker of motion, giving way to a dizzying spread of stars and an armada of eighteen enormous objects floating in space. They were little more than long tubes that grew thicker towards the middle and tapered to a dull point at either end, flying under the force of dozens of small engines arranged all along one half of the ship. With a sudden burst of light each ship vanished in turn. “No one ever heard what happened to them. Not that I know of. I hope they did better than we did.”

And that was an opening for the question Lang had been asking her since they first met. “What happened to Borealis? We don’t hear about a Mars colony here on Earth anymore.”

For a moment it seemed like Sarah wasn’t going to answer. Then, with another disconcerting jump, they were standing in a bleak concrete square surrounded by red brick walls. One would think that two such places would be very similar but, in truth, the atmosphere here was totally different from the Borealis square. And there was the towering portrait of a balding Eastern man that stood over the arched entrances and exits. Sarah gestured towards the picture and said, “They wanted to erase Mao.”

“It is an odd decorative choice,” Aubrey admitted. “He looks important.”

“He was.” Sarah sighed. “He changed everything about China in just a few decades, and he never paused a moment to consider the millions that died in the process. He was an egotist and a megalomaniac and the world was better the moment he died. That doesn’t mean we should have forgotten him.”

Aubrey turned around in the square, taking it all in. Dreary brick, dreary concrete, dreary men in dreary clothes glaring at passersby with baleful stares. “I don’t know,” she said. “If this is what he made we might be better off not thinking about it.”

“That was the thought,” Sarah admitted. “And for five years after the Memory of Mao was buried – literally,” another flicker of motion put them at the base of a featureless concrete box surrounded by flowers, black wreathes and a reflecting pool full of small paper lanterns, “we heard about how setting down the past made China a better place. People tried to debate the issue but it was hard, so very hard, when we couldn’t even say his name without provoking outrage. In China you could wind up in prison. Of course, that just made some people more determined to talk about him. But the leaders of the time were dead set on trying it again.”

“Who did they want to erase next?” Aubrey asked, half-remembered names Dex had obsessed about flitting through her mind. “Hitler? Moussini?”

“Mussolini,” Sarah corrected. “And it wasn’t a who. It was a what.”

“Okay. What did they want to erase next?”

Another change of scenery. Another town square. A wooden platform with a dozen or more dark skinned, naked men and women in chains and a man with a hand in the air, waving for the attention of the crowd. For the first time, Aubrey realized the moment was frozen. Nothing moved and the mouths of the crowd were blessedly silent. “They wanted to erase slavery.”

Aubrey turned away from the gruesome image. “Good riddance.”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But you don’t know what it cost to forget that.” They skipped through several places quickly, a dignified black man speaking to a crowd, a plainly dressed woman slipping through the night, another man bent over a rack of chemicals, an almost impossibly tall and gangly white man speaking at a graveyard. “Fredrick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, all great people whose lives and character were shaped by slavery and forgotten when it was. To say nothing of one of the most eloquent leader of the era. The words of Abraham Lincoln inspired every generation from his own to mine. But no one after us knew him. And that was just the effects of slavery in one continent in one era. We can’t look at the greatness in human history without facing human frailty. To expunge one is to expunge the other.”

New scenes spread out one after the other. Dozens upon dozens of easterners, men and women, all dressed in dour black suits and stovepipe hats with oddly square fake beards attached to their chins, some walking on stilts to give added height, all gathered in the red brick square from before, apparently reciting something off the tall signs others were holding up for them. An enormous bronze statue perched on an island in the middle of a harbor, holding a tablet and a torch in its hands, had a banner with the face of Mao draped over its own head. And back in the square on Mars, a visiting ships were covered with graffiti of Lincoln and Mao doing everything from arm wrestling to mounting each other’s heads on pikes. “Protests became almost constant. But it was worst on Mars.”

“That doesn’t make any sense!” Aubrey said. “It wasn’t even your history!”

“Of course it was!” Sarah snapped. “Mars had barely been colonized fifty years. What history did we have but Earth’s? Believe me, you do not understand how important that a connection history is until you’ve grown up in a world where it’s your only connection to the rest of humanity that your parents didn’t build with their own two hands. Without it we would have eaten each other alive out here. Even with it things got too close for comfort more than once.”

“But-”

“We were not going to forget. Even tragedy and evil has its place, even if only in keeping a few wayward souls from destroying themselves. Or so we thought.” The defaced ships vanished and the landing square on Mars vanished, replaced with a much stranger sight. It was less a landscape spread out all around them and more of a single point of view, project for them to see. A table stretched out in front of them, three generations of family gathered around it. Grandparents, parents and children were all crammed around a table that could barely fit the two dozen chairs around it. But there was no happy talk, no bustle of meal time, not even the strained air of a vicious family argument. Instead they were all silent, collapsed on the table, over the backs of chairs, on the floor. “I was ten years old when Shutdown came. The bastards in UNIGOV flipped a switch and turned the nanotech that was supposed to keep us healthy into our own damn prison. This is the last thing I saw. My family slipping away with no idea why. We never woke up again.

“I never grew up. Never had a family of my own.” Sarah whirled around, pointing at her inhumanly precise face. “I don’t even know what I look like now. I’ve been in this fucking coma for nearly a century and a half. I’m older than even that damn Mond and all I’ve ever had to live in is these flat, shitty images of a world that no longer exists. You said you were at the bottom of the Vault? Woman, you do not understand Schrodinger’s Vault. UNIGOV likes to forget it’s crimes rather than learn from them. Whatever it told you about the Vault pales in comparison.”

As perfectly drawn as Sarah’s face was, twisted in anger it was still well and truly terrifying. Aubrey backed away slowly, starting to wonder when Priss would get off her ass and pull her out of the pool. In spite of her efforts to put distance between them Sarah still managed to change the world again, leaving them looking down at rack upon rack of pods – eerily close to coffins to be honest – bolted to the walls of yet another vast underground chamber. “Look at that! Every man, woman and child of Borealis, Mars. Kept in a catatonic state for the past century and a half, all because we wanted to remember who we were. Well that’s what we got. No contact with anyone save fucking Vaultkeepers and the rest of the colony in this damn virtual reality they dumped us in. Are we alive? Are we dead? Someone would have to open up the box to check and no one has ever bothered. Well, you’re one of us now, so I guess you get to wait around with us until we can find out. Welcome to the real Schrodinger’s Vault.”

Next Chapter

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Twenty Four: The Lady of the Lake

Previous Chapter

Cables ran from the AI to the liquid in the bottom of the chamber. Writhing lines of electricity connected the ends of the cables to the towers of crystal. And the crystals pulsed inscrutably in the dimly light of the chamber. At first it was soothing. Then it grew unsettling. And, after about three minutes, it was boring.

“Nothing is happening, Priss.”

Priss didn’t bother to look up from her holodisplay. “Not true, Aubrey. The AI and whatever kind of software runs this place are definitely talking to each other. They just don’t understand each other. It’s the same problem I’ve had since we landed here. Computer infrastructure and programming language has grown too divergent in the last two centuries.”

“So why are you even bothering?” Sean asked. “If you can’t talk to it, you can’t use it. If you can’t use it, then isn’t it more important to find a ship?”

“The Nevada Launch Zone was huge,” Priss said, finally pulling her attention away from the AI. “And a lot of it was clearly repurposed when UNIGOV turned it into the Vault.  We could be down here for days before we find the place they put the leftover launch craft. On the other hand, if we can access some kind of inventory or manifest we can find out where it is very quickly. The question is, which one is a better use of time.”

“Maybe we could look around while you try and crack the code,” Aubrey suggested.

“I’d prefer not to get separated,” Priss said. “I know you probably don’t know the words but you’re essentially collaborators and turncoats now. UNIGOV will not deal kindly with you when the time comes and that means, if at all possible, we’re responsible for trying to get you into space with us. At least until we get all this sorted out.”

“How long can that take?” Aubrey asked.

Priss stopped for several long seconds, clearly at a loss. Finally she said, “I honestly have no idea. There’s never been a situation like yours before, in scale at least. Years. Decades, perhaps.”

“Not a fan of that timeframe,” Sean admitted.

“What if you connected the AI’s input directly to the crystal towers?” Aubrey asked, not wanting to think about how long they might be forced off of Earth. “Whatever kind of liquid is down there can’t be a good medium for digital information transfer.”

“I think the liquid is actually the processing core,” Priss said. “We covered theoretical designs for this kind of computer back in school but no one had figured out how to make a liquid core processor work. The theory is that it’s supposed to function like nerve tissue connecting the data stored using isotopes of dense crystalized aluminum oxide in place of binary code.”

“So… wouldn’t connecting directly to the crystals let you access the information directly?”

“Not necessarily,” Priss said, slowing down as her eyes went distant and really thought about it. “Again, it depends on the programming language. Although looking at binary code might actually make understanding the programming easier…”

“Great.” Aubrey got to her feet and hopped down past Priss and Sean on their step, to the step below and stepped down into the pool, headed towards the closest crystal tower. “Let’s go see what we can find.”

Priss locked totally upright. “Aubrey get out of that, we don’t know for sure what it is or what it does.”

“Look down!” Sean added, pointing frantically. “Look down!”

She did.

Which was a mistake, as seeing the lines of electricity surging around her calves caused her to panic and freeze, ignoring the hand Sean was frantically stretching out to try and grab her and –

Just like that the pool was gone and she was standing in the middle of a wide, grassy field. Red hills rolled along the horizon in one direction and a few low buildings nestled under short trees in the other. As suddenly as Aubrey had arrived in this place a woman in white appeared between her and the buildings in the distance, her long black hair whipping around her for a brief second before settling around her shoulders, as if she had been running at a full sprint to get there and just come to a sudden stop. All without Aubrey seeing or hearing her coming.

The woman’s simple white dress didn’t have any kind of identifying marks on it, and although her face was unlined the depths of her eyes gave the impression that she was quite old. Her hair hadn’t turned gray but many women set their medical systems to artificially preserve their hair color these days, so that wasn’t any help at all. And her face was unsettling in its blandness, it could have been laid out by a compass and ruler it was so precise but there wasn’t a hint of character or life experience about it at all. She wore no make-up and her lightly tanned complexion looked natural.

If Aubrey had asked a hundred nine year olds to draw a woman and kept only the features in common among all their drawings it might look like the woman in the white dress.

“Who are you?” The woman asked. “A new Vaultkeeper isn’t due for another few years. And you don’t look like any upper Party member I’ve seen before.”

“What Party?” Aubrey asked, almost by reflex.

“The Unifying and Normalizing Governance Party,” the woman in white said.

“UNIGOV?”

“That’s the one.”

Aubrey pursed her lips. Technically she worked for UNIGOV, but then so did everyone these days. But she wasn’t exactly a member of UNIGOV. She didn’t make decisions, really. “Well, you’re right. I’m not a member of UNIGOV or a Vaultkeeper.”

“You can’t be the second without being the first.” The woman looked her over once more. “Fine. I give up. Who are you and what do you want?”

“To know where I am, for starters.”

Another hard look and, for the first time, a real expression on the woman’s face. Uncertainty. “You don’t know?”

After all the confusion of the last few days it was nice to know someone else was just as lost. Lang and company couldn’t have been anything else but they had an infuriating tendency not to show it. Empathizing with the woman immensely, Aubrey decided to go with the unvarnished truth. “A second ago I was in the bottom of Schrodinger’s Vault, trying to get a stack of crystals to tell me where I could find a spaceship. Now I’m-”

She crashed backwards onto the stairs. There a moment of disorienting vertigo, pain shooting through her back as her head spun, then Priss and Sean were looking down at her with concern, each holding one end of the carrying strap from Priss’ bag.

No one was saying anything so Aubrey decided to start. “What happened?”

“You walked into the water – like an idiot – then started staring into space,” Sean replied while Priss ducked away to grab her medical scanner and started looking her over. “You weren’t answering us and there was current focused on you from practically every crystal pile down there. When you wouldn’t respond we grabbed you with this,” he held up the strap, “and pulled you out.”

She pondered that for a second. “Priss?”

“I don’t see any damage,” she replied. “That doesn’t mean it’s not there. This is more for battlefield trauma, not nerve damage.”

“Not what I wanted to know,” Aubrey said. “You mentioned feedback issues from early AI, right?”

Priss slowly lowered the scanner, looking puzzled. “Biofeedback, through the neural interface, yes.”

“What kind of feedback?”

“Phantom sensation, mostly,” she said realization starting to dawn. “Seeing ghostly images, phantom limb sensations – even when all limbs are accounted for – sudden bursts of taste, particularly when drinking. Or loss of sight or taste for brief periods of time. In extreme cases, minor paralysis or seizures. Did you feel or see something while you were down there? Are you saying this whole room is some kind of AI?”

Aubrey thought about the unsettling features of the woman’s face. And her weirdly hostile personality. “Not necessarily. But I think you are supposed to interface with it via nanotechnology, like our medical systems, not normal computer links. Maybe that’s why so much of it is concentrated in our neurosystem. I saw… something. A grassy field with a person. She spoke to me.”

“There’s a lot more to that nanosystem than they let on,” Sean muttered.

“So it would seem,” Priss said. “Why give you a version that would let you access a secret AI? If that’s what it is?”

“Maybe the functionality can’t be separated out?” Aubrey shrugged. “They essentially piggyback off of existing biology, except for the part where they monitor our senses. But that’s all I really know. I’m not a doctor or nanoengineer.”

Priss started gathering up her AI’s cables. “In that case, we don’t need to try and reinvent the wheel.”

“Right. Whatever this is, it seems willing to talk.” Aubrey rolled up her sleeves so they wouldn’t get wet. “So I’ll talk to it.”

“Hold on.” Sean put his hand on her shoulder. “How do we know that’s safe?”

“We don’t,” Aubrey said, annoyed. “But it’s the best option we’ve got.”

“Yeah, but you aren’t the only option we’ve got,” he pointed out.

“But she’s the better one,” Priss put in. “Her system hasn’t recently suffered a shock. And for all we know the loss of the nanotech – or the hand – that Lang took is enough to make it impossible for you to use the crystals. Aubrey will be safer doing this than you will.”

Sean worked his jaw for a moment, clearly looking for another objection to raise, but couldn’t think of anything. Aubrey gave him a small smile to say she’d be fine and stepped back down to the bottom step of the stairs. “Okay, give me about five minutes, then pull me back out.”

“Sounds good. I’ll also monitor you on the scanner.” She held up her medical device. “I don’t know how this system works but remember our AIs overwork parts of the brain and demand electrolytes. Without them problems develop. If I see anything like that we’re pulling you out early.”

Aubrey nodded and carefully put her hands into the water at her feet. For a moment nothing happened then the world around her changed again.

She was expecting to be back in the field but instead found herself in a large city square – free of foot traffic – looking down a long boulevard towards the setting sun. Rolling hills dominated the horizon here as well, the “city” actually didn’t look like it extended much further than ten or twelve blocks, in spite of being crammed just as full of buildings as any modern city Aubrey had visited. Maybe this was just a large open area near the outskirts.

The woman in white appeared, much like she had before, just as Aubrey was getting her bearings. She pursed her lips and said, “You’re back. Or maybe you just wanted to move. There are easier ways to get where you want to go, you know.”

“Actually, I don’t,” Aubrey said, sticking to her previous approach of total honesty. “I’m not a Vaultkeeper and I’m probably not even supposed to be here. But I’m trying to help my… friends find a space ship and we’re pretty sure this is the right place to start.”

The other woman frowned. “I don’t know much about spaceships, or if this is the right place to start, but we can take a look around if you want.”

“Okay.” Aubrey looked out over the city square again. “So where are we?”

“You don’t know?” The woman looked surprised. “This is Borealis city, on Mars. It’s a good enough place to try to find a spaceship as any, I suppose. Although this early in the colony’s history they only visited every three months. You might have to duck forwards or backwards a bit.”

A chill settled in Aubrey’s gut. “Mars? That’s what this is?”

“You should know this…” The woman in white waved a hand and the landscape around them somehow faded, becoming indistinct and distant. “You said you’re not a Vaultkeeper and I figured it was a trick. But if you’re really not a Vaultkeeper, who are you?”

“Aubrey Vance, from Austin, Texas. I work in the traffic control office.” Aubrey hesitated a moment then asked, “Who are you?”

“Sarah Conrad. From Borealis, Mars. I was a colonist.”

Next Chapter

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Twenty Three: The Pound of Flesh

Previous Chapter

“This didn’t work out like I expected.”

Sean gave a short, bitter laugh. “You and me both. I don’t think we can leave it at that, Aubrey.”

“Why not?” Aubrey watched the two remaining spacers dig through their cart and study tools one at a time, doing her best not to try and tune in on what they were saying. “Sean, what just happened was not our fault. It wasn’t even Mond’s fault, really. What are we going to do? Ask UNIGOV to send them back into space? I don’t know if it’s even possible, even if they agreed to it.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about. You saw what Mond did. I get it-” he waved off the objections on the tip of her tongue, “-Dex wasn’t exactly making it easy. But a sapiens shouldn’t go grabbing at a weapon under stress. If anything, Mond should have dropped it as soon as Dex started pushing him. That’s a sapiens response to conflict, right? Step back from violence and listen to find the root of the problem.”

“That’s true. But if he’s been responding to martians all over the planet, digging into the archives here to help try and communicate with them, he might have been influenced by what he saw.” Aubrey rubbed the palms of her hands in her eyes. “We’re not exactly functioning in our normal mindset either, Sean.”

He nodded slowly. “I know. But Aubrey, this isn’t the only thing that doesn’t add up. That killswitch Priss tripped in the medical systems. The drone attack and all the weapons left lying around. The fact that no one ever thought it was important to think about the existence of interstellar colonies? It’s starting to feel like the spacers are right – we’re just as guilty of othering people as everyone else. Except UNIGOV also shoves us out, keeping secrets from us. They’re our own personal brand of martians and they distract us from it by beating the drum about all the things martians did in the past.”

“Or, maybe,” Aubrey offered weakly, “this is just how things turned out when they tried the UNIGOV experiment after the extinction event. They could be just as trapped or blind to their own weaknesses as we are. Were. You know what I mean.”

“That doesn’t make it any better.” Sean shook his head ruefully. Shot a glance at Dex’s body. Ran his hands through his hair. “I don’t know if sapiens has any meaning or not, but I sure as fuck wasn’t raised to shoot people and leave them dead in the basement of a building on the wrong damn planet. Whether UNIGOV believes it or not, I’m going to act like a sapiens should and help out where I can.”

Aubrey rolled it over in her mind, doing her best to square the circle. Sean wasn’t wrong. The core method of UNIGOV was to control narratives to build better people. If UNIGOV was, in fact, not living up to its own narrative that didn’t necessarily invalidate the narrative – just UNIGOV. “Okay, you’re right. We do need to help Priss and Lang get out of here. And we listen and do our best to understand them. And Mond, for that matter. Something’s going very wrong and we can’t fix it if we don’t figure it out.”

Sean led the way back over to the two spacers, who were in the middle of tinkering with one of their AI units. Lang gave them a quick look and said, “We’re pairing my AI with Dex’s. It’s not a substitute for a full neural link but the boost to processing power could still come in handy.”

“What are you planning on doing with it?” Aubrey asked.

“At the moment? Nothing.” Lang accepted some kind of double cap from Priss and snapped it over one end of the AI unit, then did the same with another cap on the other side, creating a chunkier box that he could strap to his belt. “But I want it ready to go if I need it in the future.”

“That looks like the unit Priss uses,” Sean noted.

“Because I did pretty much the same thing with the AI from Grubber, the other man in our drop pod,” she said. “He didn’t make it down. I’ve been using the enhanced processing power to try and crack your networks from time to time, but not had a lot of luck.”

“Why not just tie Dex’s AI to the two you have? That might increase your odds.”

“This is easier to carry,” Lang told him, getting to his feet and slinging a gearbag over one shoulder. “And keeps us from putting all our eggs in one basket. Are you planning on coming with us or do you want to stay here?”

“Do you have a plan for getting out?” Sean asked.

“Answer my question and I’ll answer yours.”

“We’re coming with you,” Aubrey said.

“Then we’ve got a plan for getting out.” Lang dug a nanolathe out of his tool bag. “We’re going to cut our way out.”

“They left you nanotech for those?” Sean asked. “Or do your nanotools convert to function some other way when you’re without a stock of nanomachines to operate?”

“No. See, we don’t have any nanotech handy.” He pointed at Sean. “You do.”


“That’s really impressive.”

Aubrey clenched both hands to her stomach, not sharing Priss’s amazement.

“I know. You cauterized it but the burn is already healing.” Sean stared at the stump of his left wrist with a mix of awe and queasiness. “I am going to need to eat a horse after this is done.”

“I wouldn’t have thought you were meat eaters,” Lang muttered from his place at the base of the door Sean had pointed out to him. Apparently the entrance wasn’t apparent to someone without UNIGOV’s enhanced eyesight in place. A part of her wondered whether that was another of their security tricks, like drugging the food had been.

“We’re not,” she said, to keep her mind away from those more disturbing lines of thought. “It’s just an expression.”

Sean gave her a sympathetic look. “Relax, Aubrey. It barely even hurts now.”

“Sean, they cut off your fucking hand.”

“We’ll clone him a new one when we get back to the fleet,” Priss said. “I’m honestly surprised you got to medical nanotech without ever mastering medical cloning. Although given what I’m seeing maybe it’s not that surprising. You might never have needed it.”

There was a thunk and Lang jumped back from the wall, a half foot circle of metal rolling away across the floor. “Shit,” he muttered. “Well, it was easier to get through there than I thought. Wasn’t expecting medical nanos to make such short work of metallic bonds.”

“Not a very big hole to escape through,” Sean noted.

“Good thing we’re not going out through it.” Lang reached into the wall with the fuser and rummaged for a minute, then dragged some severed cables out and attached them to his upgraded AI. A few minutes later the door to the room slid open and he disconnected the AI from the door and got to his feet. “And now we’re out. Go with Priss, you two.”

With that, Lang set out down the hall to his right moving at a fast walk and never looked back.

“Where’s he going?” Aubrey asked.

Priss shrugged. “I could tell you, but then there’s a possibility Mond or someone else in UNIGOV would hear. Am I right?”

“Well…”

“We talked about this while you two were debating whether you were coming with us or not,” Priss said. “Trust me, he’ll catch up but he needs to go his own way for a bit. Now let’s move.”

“How do you know where we’re going?” Sean asked.

“Well, I don’t know for sure,” she said. “But LZ layouts are pretty standard across spacer facilities and supposedly they all tie back to the Nevada facility. This looks like a supply room in a sub-basement so there’s a couple of possibilities to look into…”

It took two tries for them to find the back stairwell. To Priss’s surprise it wasn’t locked.

“This is a sapiens facility,” Aubrey pointed out. “At least, it is now. No one here has given serious thought to how to catch or contain anyone. They may not have even noticed you’re gone.”

“Not gonna lie,” Priss replied, “I have no idea how you people are even still alive.”

They went into the stairwell and Priss stopped them as they started to head up. “Magnetic launch rails, remember? Those start pretty deep below the surface, any ships launched that way are going to be down, not up.”

And down they went. Aubrey lost count after six floors but she was willing to bet that they’d gone at least ten stories down by the time they hit the bottom. Priss tested the door they found there and snorted. “Not locked. Why am I not surprised?”

“What’s a lock?” Sean asked, plastering an innocent expression on his face.

Priss laughed, although as jokes went it was pretty poor. “We’ll make a spacer of you yet.”

They pushed through the door and found themselves on a short platform at the top of yet more stairs that lead down into another large open area much like the book vault Mond had shown them, except this vault didn’t contain books. It didn’t contain anything that looked like space ships either. Instead, the floor of the vault contained at least half an inch of water and from that water rose row upon row of perfectly formed, bluish green hexagonal crystals. Each hexagon was a good ten inches across and the crystals stood between two and three feet tall, except for the times they together in groups of four. Then they could be as tall as Sean, maybe taller.

“This doesn’t look like a space ship,” Aubrey noted. “I don’t suppose that’s a vat of nanotech we could use to build one?”

“There’s no record of nanotech like this from the Departure era. Hell, we don’t have anything like it now.” Priss carefully walked down the stairs until she was one step above the water. “Is it anything you’ve seen before?”

“Never heard of anything like this,” Sean replied, stopping beside her on the step and poking one finger towards the water only to yank it back when a spark of electricity radiated from the nearest crystal to the water just below his finger.

“Well, it’s not nanotech,” Priss said.

“Any idea what it is?” Aubrey asked, peering over their shoulders from the step above.

“Yeah.” Priss said it quietly, almost reverently. “It’s a crystal data storage mainframe. Everything the Vaulkeeper knows probably came from here.”

The three of them stared out at the room for a moment then Priss pulled out her AI and grinned. “Who wants to see what it says?”

Next Chapter

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Twenty Two: The Launch Zone

Previous Chapter

In times of danger it’s frequently better to have everyone do the wrong thing than have one person do the right thing on his own. If nothing else the weight of numbers can ensure more people survive. That was why military command ultimate led back to only one person. When it came down to it and everyone had to jump one way there was only one person to say which way they should jump. It didn’t make everyone happy but it did get the job done more often than any other method on hand.

Every spacer knows that officers are useless, lazy pieces of shit who only show up when you’ve fucked up too bad to ignore. Not many enlisted kept in mind that this made officers people who were constantly cleaning shit up, every hour of the day with no breaks, when they were working some kind of punishment detail. Everyone just acted like the brass was there to push you around and take credit for your work and did their best no to draw too much attention from them. And Lang knew he’d never asked himself what happened if there was no officer there to call someone on their shit when it was going down. Now he knew.

Because, as much as he was a sanctimonious prick, Mond was right. The cost of being the man who said “Jump” was being responsible for every jump people made. Or didn’t make.

The cost of being the lazy shit was watching everything everyone else was doing and stepping in when it was about to go bad. He’d seen everything that happened, known it could have gone bad, but done nothing to reign Dex in. He hadn’t ever asked to be in charge but he’d been put in charge and the one time it really mattered he’d failed to do his job. He wasn’t sure what Mond had meant by his statement but Lang knew why Dex was dead. Sure, Mond had his share of responsibility but that was between him and his superiors.

Well, it was a war crime to summarily execute prisoners but Earth wasn’t a signatory of the Newtonian Accords so there were probably more than a few hurdles to pass if Copernicus wanted to prosecute him.

Lang rubbed his eyes wearily and tried to reign in his thoughts. He still needed to get Priss and himself out of the room and back into space somehow. And as bad as losing anyone was, Dex was the closest thing they had to an expert on Earth. Not that his college level knowledge had helped a whole lot, given the totally different perspective at work on Earth now. Finding where they were on a map shouldn’t be too difficult, finding the Launch Zone might be a bit harder, but doing it all in an alien culture would be next to impossible. They looked at everything in such different ways…

His eyes focused, unbidden, on the bizarre symbol on the far wall. And just like that doubt vanished from his mind. Lang bolted to his feet, with a triumphant shout of, “Launch Zone!”

No one said anything as he strode across the room, pushing past the cart to stand in front of the wall and it’s once mysterious symbol. Priss got to her feet and came over with him, gently taking him by the arm and saying, “What about it, Lang?”

“This is it. The Nevada Launch Zone.”

Priss looked slowly around the room, then soothingly said, “Why do you think that?”

“Look.” He put a hand on the left side of the symbol. “What is this?”

“A ladder?”

“No,” Aubrey said quietly, “It’s a book. I can see why you would think it’s a ladder at first, I thought it was a film strip, but it’s obviously a book. This is Schrodinger’s Vault, where books can change to reflect who we are, rather than the other way around. See?”

She got up and reach around Priss to point out what she was talking about. “The vertical strip is the binding of the book, the horizontal is the cover. The arc is a page turning, the star represents the possibilities.”

“Right. This is Schrodinger’s Vault, so the symbol means two things at once.” Lang thump his hand once on the vertical lines. “If this was the binding of a book the cover would run the whole length of it. It’s not a bad spin on the idea but that’s not what it was at first.”

“So what was it?” Sean asked, coming up opposite Aubrey and studying the wall with growing interest.

“It was a set of launch rails for a maglev launching system. Nevada used a magnetic mass driving system, like a bullet train, to throw rockets the first few thousand feet into the air. They would run along below ground, hit the ramp at the end, then fly up,” Lang’s finger traced along the bottom line, to the point where it met the rails, then up the curving line to the star. “Then the rocket ignited and carried the load the rest of the way into orbit.”

“So it traces the launch path and shows the rockets burning in the distance,” Sean said. “I can see that.”

“Except that the launch rails should be at a shallower angle to the ground,” Priss said, tracing a much less acute angle against the bottom line, “and the rocket’s flight path would continue in the same direction, not cut back over the ground it launched from.”

“If they were trying to show the literal path the rocket would take, yes. But it’s a symbol, it goes on patches, it needs to fit. More importantly, it needs to make the letters.” He traced one hand along the rails to the bottom, then to the right along that line. “That’s ‘L’.” And up again to the tip of the star that almost touched the rails, back to the curve of the launch trail, to the ground and back along the bottom again. “That’s ‘Z’. The callsign ‘LZ’ for a liftoff point is almost universal because of Nevada. It wouldn’t surprise me if it was part of the facility’s branding, too.”

“Oh…” Priss looked it over carefully. “Yes. I can see that.”

“So what?” Aubrey demanded. “Does that even mean anything? A man just died, Lang.”

“I know,” Lang said, some of the rush that had accompanied his revelation fading. “And that was my responsibility. Dex trusted me to get him home, and I’m going to do it. If UNIGOV did the same thing with the ships that were stored in the LZ as it did with all the weapons left lying around Earth after the Departure then there should still be some here somewhere. We just need to get out of here and find them.”

“Were the ships armed?” Sean asked.

“I actually don’t know,” Lang admitted. “I’ve never seen any first hand records from that time and it’s not something that comes up in the discussions in pilot ready rooms most of the time. But orbital space was an important strategic resource, even at the time, so I’ll bet they were.”

“More importantly,” Aubrey said, “space colonization is viewed as a hegemonic act it’s not… Not something a good sapiens would do.”

“Which doesn’t rule it out,” Lang said, coming out a bit harsher than he intended. He did his best to soften it. “Look, you don’t have to stay here with us. Go back to your other sapiens if you want. But I have to try and get us off this planet by any means necessary, that the laws of war allow. Think about what you want to do, just be aware I don’t plan to be here much longer.”

Lang turned away from the symbol on the wall and headed over to the cart, motioning for Priss to follow. As they went Sean said, “We can hear you, you know.”

Lang hesitated. “I’m sorry?”

“The medical systems don’t just keep us healthy. The nanotech also augments some things.” Sean tapped the side of his head. “Hearing and vision are two of them. We think that UNIGOV can also tap into the nanites involved and use them to monitor what we see and hear. So… just be careful what you say.”

That was something to think over. It did explain why he so often spotted the Terrans seemingly standing in the distance and listening over the last few days. He’d thought they’d just been absent minded but now it seemed they had been doing exactly what it looked like. “I’ll keep it in mind.”

Once they got to the cart Lang turned his attention away from his own thoughts and back to Priss. “What do we have?”

“Not much,” she admitted. “They may not keep prisoners on a regular basis but they did think of the obvious things to take from us. Mond got the weapons, it doesn’t look like they sent the cargo hauler exoskeletons at all. That leaves us with the food and water, enough for us to last maybe a day and a half, the medkit, my comm rig, Dex’s tools, a few changes of clothes and the AIs.”

“They didn’t keep those?”

“I’m wondering if they’ve been tampered with,” Priss said. “Especially know that we know they put watchdog programs in their lifesaving magical nanotech.”

“True. Still.” Lang knelt down and pulled the nanosealer out of Dex’s toolkit. “It looks like they missed one bet.”

Priss snorted. “They returned the tools but we don’t have any nanites to use them with. They weren’t stupid enough to send us anything like that.”

“I know.” Lang set the tool down and looked over at Sean and Aubrey, who were in one corner holding a quiet but very animated discussion. “I guess what happens next hinges on who wins that debate.”

She followed his line of sight. Thought about it for a moment. “Okay, I don’t follow. What are you thinking about.”

Lang smiled. “Oh, not much. Just where we should take our pound of flesh.”

Next Chapter

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Twenty One: The Aftermath

Previous Chapter

They say that panic or other strong emotions bring forth a burst of physical strength. Lang couldn’t honestly say whether it was such a burst of strength that broke his bonds and sent him leaping out of the chair or not. He couldn’t say whether he sprang forward out of the chair several feet or if the force of the bonds breaking sent it bouncing away, like Dex did. In fact, he was only hazily aware of what happened over the next few seconds. He got out of the chair, one way or another. In the moment that was all that mattered. In the future, it was all he would recall.

Then he was grabbing Priss’s medical bag off of the cart.

Then shoving Mond out of the way as he knelt down by Priss, who had also gotten free of her restraints. Maybe that’s what she was doing when she scooted back from the argument earlier, maybe she’d benefited from hysterical strength. Again, it didn’t matter.

Priss took the medical bag from him and wordlessly motioned for him to help her turn Dex over. Gingerly holding one shoulder each they rolled him on his back to expose the wound.

It didn’t take any special equipment to tell that Dex was dead. People could rebound from some surprisingly serious wounds if they weren’t killed outright but plasma was a horrific weapon of war that burned and boiled as it destroyed and the level of havoc it had done in his chest was clearly fatal at a glance. He wasn’t breathing and there was no sign of a heartbeat – and Lang had a very clear line of sight to that organ. Lang gently laid the body back down and sat back on his heels, vaguely aware of Priss making a halfhearted pass with her medical scanner before putting it back in her bag. There was some milling about for a minute or two but Lang wasn’t really paying attention, he thought it might have been Sean walking past once or twice.

It shouldn’t have taken that long to put his thoughts in order. He’d seen people die before, lots of them sometimes. He wasn’t even particularly close friends with Dex, they’d just been assigned to the same drop pod on his transfer to the Armstrong. But that was part of the magic of the Corps – meet strangers, make friends for life, or so the theory went.

Life was shorter than you expected, sometimes.

Maybe it was just the lack of follow-up violence to keep him from focusing on how FUBAR the situation had gone. It’s not like Mond had pushed his mind to a combat headspace. Lang was suddenly on his feet, again with no clear line connecting that to where he’d been on the floor a moment ago. “Mond?” He looked around but the Terran leader was not in the room anymore. “Where did he go?”

The other three were all clustered around Dex’s body, Priss had covered it with a blanket from her medical bag, and none of them seemed to know where Mond had gone. Fortunately, they didn’t have to wait to find out.

“I thought it would be best if you were left to your own devices for the moment, so I’ve stepped out for now.” Mond’s voice was being pumped in through some kind of PA system, though Lang couldn’t see any speakers for it. “I asked Ms. Vance and Mr. Wilson to come with me but they’ve elected to remain behind.”

“I noticed,” Lang said. “They have some backbone, at least. But they’ve been pulling stunts too risky for most of you for a while, haven’t they?”

“I’m not sure what you mean,” Mond replied. “You’ve introduced so many toxic elements to their environment I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to properly counteract them. I’d suggest you take a few minutes and consider the consequences of a culture as saturated with violence as yours. Any introduction of weapons to a culture is bound to result in violence. You are responsible for this.”

Lang sent one last glare up at the invisible PA in the ceiling, then let his eyes drop back down to Dex’s shrouded body on the floor. “Yes,” he murmured. “On that, we agree.”


Aubrey watched as Lang turned and stalked over to the nearest wall, turned his back to it and slumped down to the ground, staring blankly at the symbol of the Vault stenciled on the wall across from him. An unsettling pall settled around him and she decided to leave him to his thoughts. Sean had helped Priss get a blanket settled over Dex’s body and now he squatted nearby, looking deeply uncomfortable, as Priss bowed over the body and muttered something that sounded vaguely Italian. Audrey knelt by Sean and quietly asked, “What’s she doing?”

“I’m not sure,” Sean replied. “I think it’s some kind of death ritual.”

Priss heaved a sigh and stood up from the body. “It’s called the Last Rights. And it’s just what I can remember of them. I’m not a priest or lay clergy, so it’s not exactly ecclesiastically correct. But orders or not, he needed something said for him, and I’m all he’s got.”

She went over to the cart, which Mond had left behind in his hasty exit, and started pawing through what had been left behind there. Sean cast a hard to read look back at Dex’s body, then trailed along after her. “So It’s a religious thing?”

“I suppose that’s another thing sapiens have moved beyond?” Priss didn’t sound terribly impressed with the idea.

“Not exactly,” Sean said. “I’m not an anthropologist but I do know that UNIGOV spent a long time trying to figure out how religions worked to improve social cohesion and what psychological needs it fulfilled and then even longer trying to replicate those outcomes without any of the potentially detrimental effects like tribalism, pogroms or crusades. But I don’t think they ever solved it.”

“I think,” Aubrey put in, “they abandoned the idea of establishing a religion when it became clear that any religion would try and introduce conceptions of people as good or bad, where UNIGOV just wanted them to be sapiens.”

Priss threw a skeptical glance over her shoulder. “What about when sapiens stop acting like sapiens?”

“I don’t think that can happen,” Aubrey said, the words working hard to get out around the very unsapiens behavior she’d seen from Mond.

“Really?” Priss moved a few feet to one side, spreading open the gearbags on the cart to display their contents as she did so. “Because Mond made sure to walk out of here with all of our weapons. Fifteen minutes ago he was lecturing us on how very unsapiens that kind of thing would be.”

“I suppose that kind of thing can happen,” Sean conceded, earning him a surprised look from Aubrey. “But, by the same token, you and Lang chose to try and help Dex – although that was admittedly not possible – rather than retaliate against Mond. That’s a deviation for you, isn’t it?”

“From the way you expect us to act, not what we expect of ourselves. It sounds like a point for us, rather than you.” Priss sighed and went back to poking through the cart’s contents. “I know you have some very odd ideas about how the world should be. And I get that UNIGOV is kind of like a religion for you, no matter how unhealthy I may think that is, but here’s something to think about. I’m an Orthodox Catholic, and believe me, our Church has had some horrible leadership over the centuries. I’m talking about systematic murder and abuse flying right in the face of everything the Church stands for. But every time they started acting in ways that made us question them, at least a few of us stood up and held them to the standards they taught. In the long run it was good for the Church every time. And that was with ‘martians’ doing it. So how much more effective do you think it would be with sapiens trying it instead?”

Sean and Aubrey exchanged a look and, not for the first time, she wondered how the martians managed to convey whole volumes of thought through such a simple action. She knew Sean well enough to guess he was thinking about what Priss just said. But to try and guess what he was thinking cut against everything a sapiens was supposed to be – without prejudice and assumption. On the other hand, Dex’s equating that attitude to deliberate childishness still rang in her ears and a part of her wished she’d developed the skill just so she could know what it was like, and if it was really as bad as all that. She was about to ask Sean what he was thinking when Lang jumped to his feet with a thud that startled all threee of them.

His eyes were fixed on the far wall with a manic intensity and he exclaimed, “Launch Zone!”

Next Chapter

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

Previous Chapter

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.

Next Chapter

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

Previous Chapter

“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?”

Next Chapter

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Eighteen – The Chair

Previous Chapter

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.”

Next Chapter