“How many people are down there?” The Admiral asked. “A thousand? Two?”
“Four thousand and sixty eight,” Craig said. He’d read the number in so many reports over the last hour that he didn’t even have to check. “All locked in some kind of medically induced coma, kept healthy by Terran medical nanotechnology. We’re working on figuring out how to revive them right now but it’s been slow going.”
“Well we might be able to help you there.” Carrington manipulated something off screen for a second. “We do have a few files on their medinano that Langley and Hu brought back from their time on Earth, plus a few samples taken from the Terrans on hand that we’ve done some preliminary studies on. But we also think the Shutdown process could be hard on the people it effects, particularly mentally, with time in Shutdown as an aggravating factor.”
“The longer they sleep, the worse they fare.”
The admiral returned his attention to Craig. “And that is completely ignoring the other difficulty this discovery poses.”
“The Borealis dome can’t support five to six thousand people,” Craig said. “I know. There was a solution proposed by our head of Martian Operations.”
“I saw it.” There was a hint of malice in Carrington’s smile. “Your boy there is going to ruin his own career with this kind of freewheeling initiative. Or he would if we were back in the Triad Worlds. I’m rather glad you brought him with you. Taking building materials from the derelict parts of Earth is a novel thought and one I am considering. Given the significance of that step, and the inevitable increasing tensions it will provoke, I’ll be consulting with the senior captains of the Newtonian and Gallilean groups but, before that, I’d like to hear your opinion.”
Craig paused for a moment. He’d expected that question and mostly had his answer. But the answer cut so hard against who he was he still hesitated to say it. “Sir, I don’t see as we have any choice. We’re already entangled with the Martian population and we know Earth doesn’t like either of us. And the Martians waited so long for someone with the time and resources to lend them a hand, it seems cruel to demand they keep waiting. We could send a message drone back to the Triad Worlds, they might even answer us right away. But, even with the time it would save not having to drop below superluminal to do fleet position checks, we’d still wait a year to hear from them. I’m not sure Bottletown will hold together that long, now that they know the truth about their colony.”
Carrington sighed. “I tend to agree. We’ll still inform the Triad Worlds and Rodenberry, of course, but I don’t think there will be any objection in the fleet proper to your proposed course of action. I suspect that by this time next week we’ll be formally at war with Earth, God help us.”
“Perhaps,” Craig mused, “UNIGOV will hold to their pacifist principles.”
“Don’t count on it, Captain” Carrington said. “Don’t count on it.”
Volk looked around the Vault in momentary confusion. He’d never entered through the Sunbottle side of the underground bay and it looked quite different from the entrance along the edge of the dome. Most of the wall was occupied by large pieces of equipment he couldn’t attache to a purpose, some part of the old yet shockingly advanced Earth tech that kept most of the population of Bottletown in Shutdown and awaiting revival. In the first few days since finding the Vault the Stewart‘s top medical and engineering officers had swarmed the Vault, examining equipment, taking measurements and dumping code. Now the Fleet’s best and brightest minds were collaborating to try and crack it, to figure out some way to revive the people of Mars.
By the same token many Malacandrans had rushed down to the Vault, looking desperately to see if it was true, and all the people who had left them in Silence were still close at hand. They’d transformed the aisles and stacks of pods. Now there were ribbons, piles of books or mementos stacked by the pods where long Silenced relatives lay sleeping. Portable display boards were stuck to the ends of aisles listing the hundreds of people stacked there and, in the few places where the sleepers had expired of age in spite of the wonders of Terran medical nanotech, black clothes covered the pods in a symbol of respect.
Taken together, it made Volk feel very out of place. In five years of Naval service he’d traveled to two dozen worlds never intended for human life and put his very own boots on seventy percent of them. But walking through the Vault felt more like trespassing than surveying those places ever had.
A soft tune echoed down the aisles and drew him away from the entryway, as if the Vault had changed from mausoleum to enchanted grotto and now fairies were tempting him further in. Volk shook his head and got his head in the present. He’d been too stressed with the whole “Martian Operations” thing the past few days. It’d been nothing but scheduling trips to and from the Stewart or facilitating meetings between the ship’s Senior Staff and the Elders of Bottletown. The culture shocks of men and women in the thirties and forties, still striving to reach their professional peaks, dealing with eighteen and nineteen year olds who were used to being the final say on everything in the entire world posed a steep challenge. Volk was looking forward to getting all that sorted and returning to his normal role as leader of a five man survey team.
But there was a lot to sort before he could get there.
He found the source of the tune at the far end of the Vault, near the other entry. Aubrey was there, examining Naomi’s Shutdown pod and consulting with the AI readout she’d set on the ground next to here. She looked out of place, like a sunflower in the middle of a cave, and the Malacandran girl leaning against the next rack of pods in the row and humming lent the whole scene an ephemeral air. He exchanged a glance with the girl – Gemma, if he was remembering her name right – and stepped over to Aubrey. “Everything going all right?”
“No.” She sighed and shut the readout down. “A couple of emergency medical training classes did not prepare me for this. We got some of the medical data from… from Earth, and it says you can revive people from Shutdown without special measures for about a week. But that applies to modern medical nanotech, not this ancient stuff. Your doctor is taking precautions in case there are complications in reviving her but I’m not sure they’re going to be enough.”
“Hey, take it easy,” he said, putting a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “Like you said, you’re not a doctor you’re a traffic controller. No one’s going to blame you if this doesn’t work. We all just do what we can.”
“Easy to say when what you can do is fall out of the sky like a rock with all the parts the town needs to pull through.” Aubrey shook her head. “Sometimes I think I should have stayed on Earth.”
“I don’t know. There’s so much wrong there and I barely understand what’s right here and I’m not even sure that made sense.” She pressed a hand to her forehead. “I thought if I came up here to space and looked around I could understand more about what we did wrong down there and help fix it. Turns out I can’t even help with this one little thing.”
Volk laughed and gestured back at the Vault full of sleeping people “I’d hardly call reviving all these people a little thing.”
“You’re missing the point.”
“Aubrey, I don’t know what all is wrong on Earth. The Admiral is keeping those details to himself and that’s his right. But I do know we wouldn’t have any idea what Earth is like or any of those medical records from Earth if you hadn’t helped out Martin when he was stuck down there. And look!” He gestured back to Naomi’s pod, decorated with a half a dozen drawings from her kids, ready to greet her when she awoke. “There’s a lady who’s boys are missing her that’s going to see them again tonight, all because you lent a helping hand. That’s plenty to be proud of for a week’s work. Take a day off, think about what to do next after you’ve had a break.”
“Okay.” She rubbed her hands over her eyes and blew out a breath. “That sounds like a good idea. Like a great idea. So what is there to do for fun around here, Gemma?”
She laughed. “Fun? I guess you could sing with the choir, that’s what I usually do. Or talk to the Elders. They spend a lot of time just talking, I dunno about what. We got some old games on the central computer network.”
“It’s a colony, they’ve only got so much leisure time to start with,” Volk said with a chuckle. He leaned back against the pod behind him only to feel his hand bump against something. A stack of three books slid off the pod and landed in a jumble on the floor. He stooped to pick them up, thinking they must be of recent manufacture. He hadn’t seen that many books around Bottletown before. Looking closer he realized there was a red book, a green book and a gray book, each about the size of the old paperback format.
His landmark oriented surveyor’s brain flashed back through his trip from the entrance and realized he’d passed at least four stacks of identical books on his way. He flipped them around to read the titles. Out of the Silent Planet. Perelandra. That Hideous Strength. “Where did these come from?”
“Damian came down and left them for his father. For when he wakes up.” Gemma pointed towards the pod they’d been resting on. “He told me once he loved talking about Ransom’s notes – the first book, I guess – with his father. Solomon Drake was a petitioner, too, and I guess listening to his dad talk about the story of Dr. Ransom was a big part of why Damian followed in his footsteps. So he’s probably really excited to talk to his dad about the rest of Dr. Ransom’s life. I heard he read the other two books the very first day he got them.”
Volk stacked them back on top of the pod, ambivalent. “Well,” he finally said. “I hope they enjoy them.”
“You don’t sound fully convinced,” Aubrey said.
He shrugged. “This may sound odd but until I was twelve I thought James T. Kirk was a real person who really saved the galaxy from disasters. I didn’t realize how much of what he did would actually cause disasters, or that no person was really as brave, insightful or persuasive as Kirk. My dad is a true believer, convinced we’re always just days away from that perfect kind of society. But once I saw all the flaws in the details – people who didn’t ever live by the perfect standards, standards that contradicted and the like – I couldn’t look at it like he did anymore. We haven’t really been on good terms since I told him that. I’m not sure we’re doing anyone favors here.”
She put a hand on his arm and rubbed it soothingly. “Listen, I don’t know much about this Rodenberry person you worship–”
“We don’t exactly worship him.”
“Whatever. I don’t know about him any more than I know about Priss’s Catholics or Dr. Ransom so I can’t speak to what you do or don’t believe. But I can tell you this. UNIGOV lied to us about their perfect society and hid all those flaws in the details from us.” She turned him around and looked him in the eye. “If you hide the truth you’re no different than they are. Gemma and her people survived on top of a faulty nuclear reactor for a century and a half, they can make it through this, too.”
Volk smiled. “You know, I think you’re right.”
“Me too!” Gemma chimed in.
That got an actual laugh from him. “Fine, fine. But believe it or not that’s not why I came down here to find you.”
“No?” Aubrey laughed. “So what brought you here.”
“The Admiral is asking you to come back to the Sea of Tranquility,” Volk said, some of his good humor leaving him. He’d hoped to get to know Aubrey better but the harsh reality of Naval life had its say in all things. “He didn’t say exactly what it was about, just that you needed to know Steven had agreed to cooperate.”
“I… wasn’t expecting that.” She visibly gathered herself and nodded. “When we finish Naomi’s revival operation I’ll be ready to go.”
“Wouldn’t dream of taking you away before it,” Volk said. “Check in with me afterwards and we’ll arrange your transfer back to the Stewart. I understand one of the Newtonian ships will be coming to pick you up the day after tomorrow. It’s been a pleasure working with you.”
He started back towards the Sunbottle entrance but stopped when he heard Aubrey’s voice. “Volk?”
“Yes?” He turned halfway and looked back. “Something wrong?”
Aubrey was staring at the stack of books now. “Are you staying here? On planet?”
“That’s the plan. I am the head of Martian Operations, after all.”
“Do me a favor?”
He shrugged. “Sure. What is it?”
Her fingers rested on top of the red book. “Find out why it was different.” When she saw Volk’s blank look she added, “The outcome. Mars and Earth both have societies based on stories with little to no truth in them. So why were they so different? Why did Earth reject something new and a little frightening, in spite of all our supposed history telling how we were kind, welcoming and courageous? Why did Mars accept people so far outside what they were used to when their story is all about the consequences of distrust and cruelty? If we can’t work it out UNIGOV is going to keep Earth a silent planet, no matter what the Ransom books say.”
Volk nodded. “I understand your question, although I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to answer it. Better men than me have spent lifetimes trying. But we’ll do our best.”
And as he walked out of the Vault, as all the details of responsibilities and tasks swarmed in around him once more, Volk admitted he’d made an impossible promise. Rodenberry thought space was the final frontier, that humanity must surpass itself before it could challenge the stars. In truth, Volk thought it was quite the opposite. Life as a department head, however brief, had convinced him that the intricacies of the human experience were far deeper and more difficult than anything he’d experienced on new planets. Either way, it was never boring out there.
Pak looked up when Gemma returned to the watch tower. Alyssa had left an hour before, leaving the bottler team reconnecting the secondary boards to the power system unsupervised, which led to one conclusion. “I take it they finished reviving Naomi?”
“Yup. Her family and Alyssa’s practically threw a party right there in the Vault! It was something.” Gemma sat down in the chair next to his. “Then Volk hustled Aubrey away, she’s going back to Earth for something or another.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Pak said, entering a final command sequence and looking at her while he waited for the last code to compile. “You two seemed like you got to be good friends.”
Gemma waved a hand. “Sort of? I thought the way Volk followed her around sometimes was cute. I feel kind of bad for him, with her going so far away.”
“Oh.” He hadn’t gotten that impression at all. “Well, we have a bit of a wait before anyone else is revived but I guess I can deal with it. Anyone you’re excited to see again? I know my sister and I have been talking about what to show our parents when they wake up.”
Gemma made a very noncommittal noise. “I annoyed my dad a lot before he went into Silence,” she said. “Mom ran interference but I think I gave them a lot of headaches. I don’t know what to say to them when I see them again.”
“Don’t talk about the past,” Pak suggested. “Talk about the future. What do you want to do with them now?”
Gemma looked up at the watch tower’s ceiling for a moment. “I want to go to Earth.”
The urge to smile tugged at the corner of his lips. “I’m sure that’s not something they’ll expect.” A pinging noise told him his code was done and he turned back around to look at his handywork. “Perfect.”
“What are you doing?” Gemma asked, coming to look over his shoulder.
“Testing out some new equipment and software the Rodenberries gave us.” He pointed to a simple display of Malacandran orbital space, complete with a bright green dot representing the Stewart. “We can monitor incoming flights now. See?”
“Oh… Not bad, head watcher. Not bad.”
She was getting cheeky for a watcher in her first cent. But then, maybe that wasn’t so bad. Things around Bottletown were changing, almost entirely for the better. Perhaps the watch tower would be less of a dead end job in the future, and head watchers would need a more personable touch. Time would tell. The board sounded a clear tone as a small blue dot departed the Stewart, one of their landers coming in with some new batch of people, equipment or mix of both, to push Bottletown a little further on their way. Maybe soon they’d reclaim all of Borealis. But for the moment, at least the space they watched was far less silent.