Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Fifteen – The Panopticon

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

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

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

“Dex would love that.”

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

Aubrey shrugged. “He seems like…”

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

“What about him?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So why do you put up with them?”

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

“What about the third moon?”

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aubrey recoiled. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Fourteen – The City

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

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

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

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

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

Earth cities were boring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And where are we?”

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

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

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

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

“Everyone else has been resettled,” Sean added.

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

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

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

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

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Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Thirteen – The Outer Limits

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“They have flying cars.” Dex sounded a bit miffed. “Flying cars but no Unified Field Theory? Where do they get the antigrav from? Or is it all maglev?”

“They can’t have independent grav fields, they’re moving too close to the buildings,” Lang said. “My money is on maglev. That or microthrusters, given the comparative refinement of their nanotech they might have perfected smaller engines than we’ve got.”

“They’re actually not flying, they’re driving on hardlight constructs,” Sean said. All three spacers turned to stare at him incredulously. He rolled his eyes. “I’m kidding, there’s no fucking way to sustain that kind of energy output. It’s microthrusters and extremely low weight plastics.”

Lang snorted and went back to watching the hive of activity in the distance. Even through the basic telescopic sights they had available it was easy to pick out the cars moving up, down and in every direction with eerie, almost insectoid choreography. He’d discounted the idea of a traffic control AI before. Now he saw why Aubrey and Sean had jobs.

“We’re going to have to go around. Or figure out some way to blend with traffic,” Priss said. “If we try and go through they’re going to pick us out in a heartbeat.”

“Get the AIs working on it. Network them if you have to.”

Priss and Dex shared a look, then Dex leaned in close and dropped his tone. “Listen, I know we probably shouldn’t discuss this in depth with the prisoners in the van but… we’ve only got two liters of electrolytes left in supply. We can cut some of the supplemental dietary sources off from the Terrans but then we’ll need to procure a new food supply for them and… well, we’d probably have to do that in the next day or so anyhow. They eat a lot.”

“Your point is we’re starting to tap out on the AIs.”

“We’ve worked them very hard the past few days,” Priss pointed out. Nodding out the window toward the city she added, “We might be able to pick up some supplies in there. Just a suggestion, but if it takes us more than forty eight hours longer to get off planet we’re looking at serious food shortages. And I don’t know what that means when crossed with the Terran nanotech. It could wind up shutting down. We know the consequences of that.”

They would die. And that would be on him, because he’d declared them prisoners of war.

“Okay. See if you can network the AIs and have them run some kind of probabilistic analysis. I’ll go forward a bit, see if I can get a better feel for what it’s like on the fringes of that city. Dex will help you keep an eye on the prisoners.” He gave her a meaningful look. “And, even though this is technically what they do, don’t let them help you, okay? For the sake of information security if nothing else.”

Priss sighed. “Alright, boss. Because you asked nicely.”

Aubrey and Priss sat with their legs dangling off the back of the van. Priss was tinkering with the AIs, Aubrey was watching. It was interesting to watch someone try and recreate the software she worked with day in and day out without any idea what the basic structure was. With the right training, the other woman probably could have done Aubrey’s job, although not with the equipment she was using. It wasn’t clear what trick let the spacer AI work so much more efficiently than what was typical on Earth but it still lacked the sensor inputs to properly formulate the situation in the streets. She figured Priss had come to the same conclusion about the time she threw her hands up in the air, clearing her holodisplay.

“Trouble?” Aubrey asked.

“Lang’s expectations are too high,” Priss muttered. “I think he knows that. But he’s a pilot – he likes to know he can go places, even if he doesn’t ever plan on actually going there. So here I am, trying to plot a course with hardware that was never meant for it.”

Which brought up something Aubrey had been wondering about. “Why do you need electrolytes for your AI to work?”

Priss started a bit. “Heard that, did you?”

“I’m just curious, because it sounded like you could make better models than what you’re doing if you had more of it.” She pointed at the space Priss’ holodisplay had been a second ago. “And as a professional, let me tell you what you’ve got there isn’t going to cut it.”

“Thanks,” Priss replied dryly. “But you’ve probably already realized it’s a data problem, not a processing problem. I can’t think of a way to balance the necessities of probabilities and anticipate traffic flow without a satellite network or something.”

Which was exactly what Aubrey had concluded. But there was one weird thing she’d said. “Both you and Lang mentioned probabilities. Why? That’s practically all AI does, right? Balance probabilities based on algorithms?”

Priss rested her feet on the van’s bumper, pulled her knees up and folded her arms over them, then laid her head down on them, looking at her sideways. The effect was avian and unsettling. “What do you know about the limitations of AI?”

“Well, I don’t know the math of it,” Aubrey said. “But as I understand it there’s something to do with the statistical modeling of reality and precision of data input.”

“Close enough. Basically, in spacer school, the AI primer points to two problems, known as the Framing Problem and the Cause and Effect Problem.” Priss pointed to the side of the vehicle. “For example, what is that?”

Aubrey followed the line of her hand and frowned. “The door of the van?”

“How long did it take you to decide that’s what I meant?”

“I’m sorry?”

“I could have been asking about any number of things.” Priss straightened up a bit and ticked them on her fingers. “The handle of the door. The door latch. The metal the door is made of. The color of the door. But you immediately framed the question and provided an answer. An AI can’t do that on its own. It either needs every possible contingency accounted for by the programmer or a way to get feedback from its user to frame the problem.”

“So it can understand what it sees.”

Priss nodded. “That’s your precision of data input. Second example.” She stuck a foot out and pushed the door with her foot, swinging it back and forth. “Why did the door move?”

For a split second Aubrey felt the unnaturally still, narrow eyed expression she always saw on Lang when he thought no one was look settle on her face. It was unsettling and she shook it off, trying to decide how to answer.

“It’s not a trick question,” Priss said, amused.

“You pushed it with your foot.”

“That’s something an AI can’t conclude. They see the world as probabilities. As my foot gets closer to the door,” she stretched her foot out towards said door again, “an AI’s models predict that the door moving becomes more and more likely but they fundamentally can’t conclude that the door moves because of my foot. The mathematical language for that doesn’t exist, at least not yet.”

“Okay, I get it. I think.” She poked the door herself and considered. “How does that tie to electrolytes?”

“Because our AIs have a workaround to the problem. They can be tied to an end user and use subliminal messaging to frame problems and determine causes using the human subconscious. In short, they’re really hybrids of AI and the human mind.” She held up the small box Aubrey had always assumed was a holodisplay tied in to a master AI in one of their crates. “By tying this into my brain I make the AI three thousand times more efficient and able to tackle communications and analytical problems it couldn’t handle otherwise. The catch is, it requires a lot of extra nerve activity supported by some electrolytes not found in the typical human diet. Some of our food and drink stores make sure those levels stay high.”

“What happens if they run low?”

“Then the AI’s attempts at messaging our subconscious won’t work.”

Aubrey shook her head and laughed. “I can’t believe you guys think medical nanotech is weird but you’re okay with plugging a computer into your brain. What if it shorts out?”

“We worked all the biofeedback issues out a long time ago,” Priss said, opening her holodisplay back up and going back to work.

Aubrey sighed and looked around, figuring it was time to compare notes with Sean again. But neither he nor Dex were anywhere to be found.

Through the carbine scope the outskirts of the city appeared more drab than Lang had been expecting. There wasn’t much plant life, the buildings were low compared to the busier central districts and there wasn’t much in the way of vehicle traffic. There were more people on self-propelled transport or on foot than he’d expected. Most of all, a surprising number of people were not at some place of work. Maybe it was a weekend or holiday. Supposedly the colonial calendar used by the Triad worlds was the same as the Earth calendar but, after two hundred years, who could tell. They might not even be using twelve month years anymore.

The oddest thing was how much plant life there was in a ring around the city. They were in the middle of the desert and he wasn’t a terraformer but the ring of hearty scrub brush and twiggy shrubs around the outskirts didn’t seem quite right. Perhaps the Terrans had been busy with a little planetary remodeling of their own.

“It wouldn’t be that weird if you just walked up.”

With a sigh, Lang lowered the scope and found Sean standing a few steps away. Just beyond him was Dex, looking bemused. “What can I do for you, Mr. Wilson?”

“I know you need to go into town soon,” Sean said. “I want to come with you.”

“What possible reason could you give that would make that a wise move for us?” Lang shook his head. “In case you’ve forgotten our previous conversation-”

“You need a fucking ID linked to a fucking account to buy or sell anything, asshole.” Sean folded his arms. “How are you going to get supplies without any of that shit?”

Lang and  Dex exchanged quick glances that confirmed what he was thinking. “Sean, when Dex searched you we didn’t find any ID.”

Sean rolled his eyes. “Because it’s integrated with the medinano systems. Why bother with something I could lose?”

Of course it was. Nothing could ever be easy. Dex’s expression told him he hadn’t known this ahead of time. And Sean wasn’t saying why he wanted to go into town with them. His sanctimonious sapiens ass was learning. “We’ll consider it.”

And he would. But mostly he was going to be considering how to keep tabs on Sean while in a strange city, dealing with identifications and accounts and information infrastructures they still knew very little about.

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Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Twelve – The Sanitizer

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Aubrey was laughing and she couldn’t help it. “Don’t be absurd, Priss. There’s no such thing as martians outside of the hominid group. And they’re from here on Earth. Mars has never been colonized.”

“Of course it has.” Priss shook her head. “With no history books it’s no surprise you don’t remember it. It was probably deleted from your datahubs but the Borealis Colony was established two decades before the Departure as a trial run for most of the technology and techniques intended for use during the Triad Colonization efforts.”

“And what?” Aubrey was starting to piece together where this was going. “Earth’s martians fought a war with them over… space? Food? Manufacturing? Is any of that even relevant over the interplanetary scale?”

“You might be surprised,” Priss said. “And it would have had to be Earth as a whole, no region isn’t exposed to the threat at some point during the planet’s rotation. If you think one part of the population just sat around, uninvolved… well, you don’t know much about war. The main point is, that fits all the data points we have.”

“Like what?” She spotted Sean coming around the side of the tarp, his expression looking very troubled. But for the moment he just stopped and leaned against the side of the vehicle, listening quietly.

“Like how the Armstrong got fragged. It’s standard procedure to drop subluminal outside a star system, pick up the exact locations of planets and then move in along a standard approach vector at superluminal until within two hundred thousand kilometers of the intended destination. The standard approach to Earth was along the Earth/Mars Superluminal Corridor. If Earth and Mars went to war that would be the most logical vector to guard first. If we ran into guard satellites there it could very easily explain what happened to us.”

Sean started to speak but Aubrey snapped, “Not now, Sean.” Priss jumped a little, following her line of sight to see him standing off to one side and looking more than a little surprised. “You were really dismissive of the drone you blew up today. How come your fancy space ship got blown up by satellites of the same age?”

“For starters, weapons scale up really well but passive defenses struggle to keep up.” Dex materialized from the darkness, looking amused at the conversation. “Active defenses require several seconds to bring online after a ship leaves superluminal. If we got painted by kill satellites, even very old ones, as soon as we dropped to subluminal then even a state of the art orbit ship could get fragged in just a few seconds. And that’s assuming we didn’t physically collide with one of them. From some of the chatter I heard on the way to the drop pods I’m guessing that’s what happened.” He glanced at Priss. “Did you share this with Lang?”

She snorted. “Long story. Anyway, satellites along the approach path would also prevent any of the messenger drones the colonies sent back with reports from reaching the planet. So a guarded Superluminal Corridor would explain the long silence from Earth as well. They never answered messages because they got blown up before reaching the planet.”

“Except for the little problem where there is no colony on Mars,” Aubrey pointed out.

Priss pinched the bridge of her nose with a sigh. “Aubrey, if your history books-”

“You keep going on about that,” she replied in exasperation. “Have you ever thought you might be projecting some?” Dex and Priss exchanged a glance, and Aubrey had gotten used enough to this weird silent communication of theirs to guess they were trying to figure out what she meant, so she just told them. “Like, have you ever stopped to wonder if there was a Martian colony?”

Dex laughed. “Of course there was.”

“How do you know?” Aubrey asked. “You’re always doubting what I tell you history was. What about what you say history is? History is pretty subjective anyway.”

“If there was a colony on Mars there was a colony on Mars,” Priss pointed out.

“So you’ve been there? You’ve seen it?” Aubrey laughed. “Everything you said about history being changed could easily have been done by your leaders. You needed to justify your choice to colonialize other planets as part of a warped need to spread your culture beyond its sustainable boundaries so you spun a story about other colonies on other planets to make it seem like a natural thing.”

“Fair enough of a point,” Dex said, “but the existence of physical copies of history makes changing it much harder. You’ll always miss copies of the old history in you clean up – anyone who’s tried to issue upgrades to an equipment pool can testify to that.”

“Even on those colony ships you rode on?” Aubrey asked. “I’m an expert on transportation, Dex. I know how hard it is to design a vehicle with a lot of luxury systems. There can’t have been much room for private books onboard, all they would have had to do is load the new history books and the switch is complete.”

“What about all the people that knew differently?” Priss asked. “They can’t all have been in on it.”

“I don’t know,” Aubrey said in exasperation. “This scheming and tricking schtick is your forte, you tell me how they might have dealt with them. I’m just saying you seem to expect a lot more of me than you do of yourself in this little theory you’ve put together.”

A throat cleared noisily in the darkness and they all turned to find Lang staring balefully at them. “I don’t know what you guys were arguing about and I don’t care. It’s time for you to hit the hay.  If we get an early start we should reach our destination by early evening, enough time to look around and get back out into the desert by nightfall and pull together a plan. I’m going to hit the sanitizer and then pass out for a bit. I want you horizontal by the time I’m done.”

He pushed past them and ducked under the tarp, leaving the other four to stare uncomfortably at each other for a few moments before they went their own ways.

Lang stepped out of the van ten minutes later feeling much less grimy. It was easy to forget how badly an evac suit could smell when you stripped out of it after a few days of hard use, especially after a long time in space, and he couldn’t blame Priss for wanting to spend a little time in ship slops before strapping it back on. He’d chosen to pick his battles there rather than insist on the evac suit. It did have actual armor and thus offered some protection in combat, but it wasn’t intended for their current situation and he didn’t see anything to gain by insisting she wear it.

He did put his own back on as soon as the suit scrubber was done with it.

To his surprise he found Aubrey sitting at the back of the van when he got out. She had pushed the tarp up to make a small tunnel so she could stare out at the stars while she waited. He hesitated a second, not sure what to say. The stereotype of pilots as smooth talkers definitely didn’t apply to him.

Fortunately, she took away the need for him to come up with something.

“You look like shit.”

“Yes. The truth is, when you scrub away the dirt, spacers are a pretty unimpressive form of life.” He smiled wearily. “Wait till we get a look at what you look like under all that grime. I’m sure it’s equally impressive.”

“I’m serious, Lang.” She got up and looked him in the eye. “Priss was telling me earlier about the stupid fucking logs you have to keep, and how much trouble they can get you in. Why do you even bother with it? The stress is eating you up.”

“It’s not the logs that stress me out. I’m pretty sure those will reflect pretty well on me. It’s worrying about Priss and Dex. I’m not cut out to be making decisions for other people, much less trying to balance the long term good of a unit against immediate concerns. That’s why I never did OTC.” He could see she didn’t know what officer’s training camp was so he hurried past it. “Recording the logs actually helps me get my thoughts in order, clears my head so I can get over the bad calls made and be ready to make better ones in the future. I’d take writing logs all day, no matter what it meant for my career, over having to worry about their lives all the time. It’s not like having to look after kids or anything, but it’s still stressful as hell.”

She raised an eyebrow. “I never saw you as the nurturing type.”

“I’m not,” he said with a laugh. “But my older brother has kids and that comes with responsibilities.”

The eyebrow dropped back into place. “Oh.”

There was more to that ‘oh’. “Oh, what?”

She looked down and away. “UNIGOV places all children over one year old in guided care facilities to ensure their health and wellbeing.”

“Of course they do.” He sighed. “You know, sometimes I envy the kind of life you’ve lived here on Earth. Then you say things like that.”

Her head snapped back up, murder in her eyes. “The fuck is that supposed to mean?”

“It means hit the showers, Aubrey. And wash your mouth out while you’re there, that kind of language is unbecoming of someone who’s had every medical and educational need catered to from birth.” He shook his head and trudged back out under the stars. The desert was remarkably cold now that the sun was down, something that had surprised him, although not Priss who could quote chapter and verse on every climate in human experience. Still, their sleeping gear could accommodate pretty much any weather with a few adjustments and he got it reset to the local temperature in a few seconds then crawled into the sleeping bag and set the perimeter scanners. He was about to doze off until his shift on watch came up when Priss said, “Have you noticed that they’ve increased the rate they use profanity with us? They’re starting to build up mental barriers between us and them.”

He groaned, not wanting to get caught in another of her long communicative theories. “Go to sleep, Priss. We’ve got a long drive tomorrow.”

She went to sleep, but perhaps she shouldn’t have bothered. They stumbled on the city by ten hundred hours the next morning.

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Ten – The Chase

Go back to Chapter Nine

They piled into the van at full tilt, the robocrate struggling to keep up. Dex was in the process of battening down the solar panels as Lang and Priss burst out of the building and, between the three of them, they managed to haul the self-propelled box into the vehicle almost without breaking stride. Lang pushed his way into the driver’s seat and started the van without bothering to strap in, beside him Priss was connecting to the rudimentary sensors they’d pulled off the drop pod and attached to the van’s roof during their brief overhaul the previous day.

Dex pushed the Terrans into the back seat and then started unpacking the crate they’d left in the van. The one with the light missile tubes in it.

“We’ve only got two of those, Dex,” Lang said as he put the van in gear and peeled out of the parking lot. “No firing blind. I want you to get a sensor profile lock from Priss before you waste a shot. No playing cowboy.”

“Me? When have I ever done that?”

“Any day ending in Y,” Priss said.

Their words were lighthearted but their tone was tense and focused, the banter a verbal filler to keep their minds occupied while they ran through procedures they’d drilled on dozens of times but hoped never to do when playing for keeps. Lang gave his armory man something more constructive to think about. “I need to go west, Dex. What do I look for?”

“We need a highway. They called them Interstates, back in the day.” There was a lengthy pause, maybe six or seven seconds, during which Lang was too busy driving to look at what was going on, although he suspected Dex was punching in his authorization to release the missile tube. “They tended to accumulate large shopping or vehicle service centers around them,  if I recall correctly.”

There was a grunt, then Sean said, “The highway is to the north, although I don’t know as anyone uses it anymore. Corporal, where the fuck are we going? You said we have rights, shouldn’t one of them be knowing where the fuck we’re going?”

That was actually a good question. He’d never been a prisoner of war but every spacer was briefed on their rights as one. He knew a prisoner couldn’t be removed from the planet he was captured on without being told but within that very broad limit a prisoner basically didn’t need to be told where they were. The problem was, he was hardly dealing with a traditional prisoner of war scenario.

“Nevada. We’re going to Nevada.” He tapped his AI to life and brought up a navigation overlay. “North it is.”

He wove through the quiet streets for several tense seconds, leaning forward to scan as much of the sky as the van’s windshield would allow. He was just beginning to think they’d somehow slipped through unnoticed when Priss said, “Sensor contact.”

“What’s happening?” Aubrey asked from the back, her quiet voice carrying with odd clarity.

A dozen possible scenarios ran through Lang’s mind, many pulled from training drills. A few from a terrifying, ill-fated visit to Minerva during his first year of service. None even remotely relevant to their situation. “I don’t know.”

He drove faster.

“Contact is two point five kilometers and closing, approaching from east-northeast at a rate of two hundred meters per second.”

In ten seconds they were going to have a very clear idea of what was coming.

Two hundred?!” Sean sounded incredulous. “Nothing can maneuver that fast in the city. Not unless it’s on a monorail.”

“I think it’s airborne, Sean,” Dex said.

“Air travel has been banned for the last sixty years as part of UNIGOV’s environmental reforms,” Aubrey said. “If it’s flying, it’s not from Earth. Must be one of your friends, come to pick you up.”

She sounded almost hopeful at the prospect. Lang didn’t share her optimism. A second later the vehicle slipped into view. It was a long, flat wing with an enormous fan blade rotating in a large, circular housing at either end. It didn’t seem to have a clear front or back, although there was a pod bristling with protrusions slung beneath the center of the wing.

“A bicopter?” Lang snorted. “That shit can’t even break atmosphere. No way the fleet sent it down.”

“But air travel poses a hazard to the avian-”

Lang shut her up by slamming the accelerator down and whipping the vehicle around the nearest building, putting it between them and the bicopter. “Priss, I want a ping on the HUD every time that thing establishes line of sight with us.”

“On it.” An instant later his display blinked red in the rear righthand quadrant. As Lang slammed the brakes and fishtailed to the left, breaking contact, Priss added, “There’s no place on that thing big enough to hold an adult human and a piloting cabin. It’s a drone.”

“Can you jam it’s controls?” Lang asked.

“Don’t know enough to try yet,” she answered.

“How can you not know how your own fucking equipment works?” Sean demanded.

“He said it’s not ours.” Dex was busily clipping himself to a set of hardpoints in the floor intended for locking in the vehicle’s removable seating. They’d left one row of it out entirely and Dex was taking advantage of the space to set up shop. “No colonial expeditionary force relies on drones. They’re the shit for planetary defense, when you can count on friendly satellite and ground networks to keep them running. But off your own territory they’re just shit.”

A bright flash of light shot over the top of the building they were using for cover, hitting an overgrown tree on the other side of the road that flashed into a cloud of woodchips and vaporized sap instantly. “And that drone is outdated, too,” Lang said. “I know laser fire when I see it.”

“Lasers are outdated now?” Aubrey asked.

That didn’t warrant a response so he asked, “Anyone spotted the highway?”

“There,” Dex said. Since Lang was in no position to turn and look, Dex added, “Four blocks north east, big open stretch of road.”

“Great. We’ll just drive right at the flying gun platform. Everybody hold on.”

Lang broke away from hugging the buildings and swerved the van into a roundabout, spinning around 270 degrees on the compass and cutting back in the direction Dex had indicated. The bicopter had kept a high elevation up until that point but as they started back towards it the drone lost altitude quickly, almost skipping back and forth through the air as it tried to keep its weapons trained on them. It only fired twice more, both shots going fairly wide.

“At least the fucker can’t shoot,” Dex said, sounding almost cheerful. “Want me to take a shot at it boss?”

“Sensor lock, Dex,” Lang snapped.

The bicopter swooped down closer still, juking back and forth across the street in sudden, insectoid bursts of movement as its guns tracked the van, short laser bursts chewing up the pavement every half second or so as it got more aggressive.

“Calculating firing solution,” Priss said, hunkering down over her sensor equipment, wrapping the wires that connected it to the van around her forearm to keep it from going too far if her grip slipped.

“Think a carbine will have any effect?” Dexter had already pushed the side door open and leaned out, his harness creaking against the anchors points.

“I’ll get it, sit tight,” Priss muttered.

“Better to save the heavy stuff,” Dex yelled over the wind, his short barreled energy weapon tracking the bicopter back and forth.

“Keep going for a solution but let him have his fun.” Lang whipped the van onto an overgrown on ramp fast enough that the undercarriage popped loudly in protest.

The bicopter skidded to one side and dropped altitude, spinning on its axis to bring the van under its guns once again, chewing through rusted guard rails and scattering hot metal debris in front of them and forcing Lang to curse and skid the van in a snaking pattern, brakes screeching, around the largest pieces. Despite his best efforts something skipped up and through the open door, smashing against the other side of the van to a chorus of screams and yells.

“Everything okay?” Lang asked, only half listening for an answer.

“Fine,” Dex bit out.

“Shit, Lang, call your guys and tell them to back off.” Sean sounded more pissed than scared, so Lang figured he was fine too.

The bottom of the ramp came up and merged into a long stretch of road with no noticeable cover save an overpass a few dozen feet from the ramp. There were buildings across the road that would serve better but a low concrete ridge divided the road. Lang bared his teeth and floored the accelerator. “Lean in and brace yourself, Dex!”

There was a scrabble and a clunk from the back and Lang grabbed the lever by his seat and yanked it up, firing the maneuvering thrusters they’d scrounged off the pod. They’d calculated the drop pod was six times the mass of the van. It gave them a lot of thrust to work with. The amount of thrust was supposed to be proportional to how hard he was accelerating, but Dex had repeatedly stressed that if he was hitting the gas too hard there was a chance the van would jump.

“Hold together, now,” Lang whispered, then floored the accelerator.

Although someone who specialized in guns, not thrusters, Dex proved to be correct. Putting thrusters on the van was, indeed, enough to make it jump like a jackrabbit.

The vehicle soared up and over the barrier. It was like a drunkard trying to fly a warehouse with a rocket on one end through the Galileo lunar maze. But it worked. The van crashed to the ground on the other side of the road, groaning as it slid along the pavement and shooting sparks from the underbody, the frame protesting loudly. Lang snapped the wheel hard to the left and brought the van ninety degrees around into the furthest traffic lane just before it jumped the curb and went into the building beyond. The side door rolled forward and slammed in Dex’s face as he tried to lean back out. Behind them the bicopter swung around to reacquire its target, the pilot having anticipated they would follow normal traffic patterns and gone in the opposite direction.

“What did you do to the emergency brake?!” Sean demanded.

“Emergency brake?” Lang snorted. “I told you it was an emergency system!”

“Firing solut-” Priss was cut off as Lang snapped the van around another corner into a side street, breaking her sensor contact.

“It’s done more good as thruster control than a break,” Dex said, wrenching the door back open and drawing a bead on the corner of the building, firing charged plasma at the bicopter as it came around the corner at them. “Besides. Don’t all pilots think emergency go is better than emergency stop?”

The side road was only wide enough for two vehicles at a time and the buildings to either side loomed very close to the street, forcing the bicopter to either pull up above the taller, nine story building for room or fly with very little margin for error. The pilot chose to do the later and Dex’s plasma bursts walked slowly forward from a glancing hit by the tail to the main body of the craft. There wasn’t much effect.

“Firing solution achieved,” Priss said, bailing out of her seat and grabbing a missile tube off the floor and holding it out to Dex. “Shoot the damn thing for real!”

Dex braced the tube across the length of the van, one end supported on his shoulder, the important end pointed up and out the door.

“Clear backblast!” Lang snapped. Priss grabbed the door on the other side of the van and yanked it open before diving into the back seat with the Terrans amid more incoherent yelling.

Dex watched it just long enough to see Priss get out of the way. “Backblast clear.”

“Brace yourselves back there!” The distressed sounds from the back seat faded but Lang was ignoring them already. “Fire tube one.”

The counterweight in the launcher shot out one side of the van, bouncing off the pavement and through the window of an empty office building while the missile shot up and fishtailed to acquire its target, buffeting the rear of the van with its exhaust and rocking it violently. There was a tense moment while the spacers wondered if the bicopter pilot would have the reflexes and technological assistance to target and shoot down the missile before it hit them – then there was a loud boom and a flaming hunk of metal smashed to the ground and skidded to a stop a short way behind them.

Almost as soon as it registered the wrecked bicopter was fading into the distance as the van sprinted down the empty city streets. Lang took his foot off the accelerator and let some speed bleed away. “Priss, contacts?”

She hauled herself up and into her seat again, dodging Dex as he closed up the doors on either side of the van. “Nothing on sensors now.”

Lang let the van coast to a stop as he thought for a moment. “Keep a weather eye on it, Priss.” He did a loop around a block and took them back towards the downed bicopter. “This is enemy territory. Dex, let’s you and me steal some shit. For intelligence gathering purposes.”

Proceed to Chapter Eleven

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Nine – The Failsafe

Go back to Chapter Eight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I get it, Lang, but-”

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

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

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

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


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

“I assume there’s another one coming?”

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

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

“That’s the logic, yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Capital punishment is-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First rule of space: Bitching helps nothing.

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

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

“I’m in.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On to Chapter Ten

Schrodinger’s Book Chapter Eight: The Off Switch

Return to Chapter Seven

“We might have turned him off.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And an on switch, one would presume.”

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

“Not when I looked at it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tomorrow morning is fine,” Lang said.

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

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

On to Chapter Nine