The Gosple According to Earth – Chapter Seventeen

Previous Chapter

“Control, this is Starstream Flight. We are in position over the South Pole, orbit is nominal, standing by at your convenience.” Bourne switched his comm channel over to the squadron frequency. “Look sharp, Bubbles. There’s a whole lot of ice down there and we gotta make sure it doesn’t do anything scary.”

“What do we do if the glaciers get uppity? It’s not like the both of us can do a whole lot if a continent decides it’s pissed at us.” Bubbles sounded a little out of sorts. Bourne couldn’t blame him, given that the two of them were floating in space less than a week ago and the medics let them leave sick bay just yesterday.

The other three survivors of Starstream squadron were still there.

“How’s your new wings working for you, boss?” Bubbles interrupted Bourne’s oncoming brooding session with his unexpected question. “Since all nanofactured stuff is built using the same master file I figured our 28s would be the same as the last ones but I swear the controls on this thing are less responsive.”

“That’s because these are right out of the vats,” Bourne said. “The Principia‘s fighters were pulled from a couple of decommissioned escort cruisers that were headed back to the spacedocks to get scrapped. They’d been flown a bit before we got them. It loosens up the hardware mechanisms and lets the navigation software build up some predictive algorithms. That’s what you’re sensing. I went through a couple of OF-21s during the war and it was the same every time.”

There was a long moment of silence as they cruised lazily over Earth’s southern oceans. “I didn’t know you got shot down, Captain.”

“One out of every five Newtonian pilots in the war lost at least one set of wings.” The reality of that was even worse than the statistic implied. The opening days of the Second Galilean War had taken a horrible toll on Newton’s interceptor pilots as they worked around the clock to repel wave after wave of small Galilean gunboats and fighters trying to wipe out Newton’s ground defenses. Some days as much as twenty percent of fighter craft that sortied got shot down. “Just be glad that vacuum suits are better armored now than they were at the start of the war.”

“Yeah, I hear you. I had a Type 33 flight suit when I was in flight school.” Bubbles laughed. “I felt like I was going up into space in my underwear.”

“Did you fly in combat?” He knew, he’d read all his squadron’s files, but there wasn’t much to do on this kind of overwatch mission and Bourne didn’t want his wingmate dwelling on their previous outing.

“No. I got issued an OF-25 and put in a squadron guarding the space docks once I got my commission. I was there six months then we signed the armistice.” He made a couple of popping mouth sounds. “It is what it is.”

“You didn’t miss much,” Bourne said. “We had all the waypoints through the Galilean rings nailed down by that point. There wasn’t much work for interceptors in the last six months of the war, we’d already done all the nasty stuff.”

“Were you a part of the Ring Campaign?”

“…yeah.”

“What was it like?”

It was like spending hours and hours sitting in a fighter hidden in a small crater on a midsized asteroid orbiting a gas giant waiting for something to happen. Occasionally, they would ambush passing Galilean warships. Newtonians getting to play the space pirate on occasion was a delicious reversal of the usual roles played by their respective planets. However even those encounters were more trouble than they were worth. You had to constantly split your attention between your flight canopy and your instruments, trying not to clip a piece of rock large enough to compromise your fighter’s hull and leave you sucking vacuum.

More than once Bourne had watched good men die after losing their wings because flight conditions made it impossible for anyone to get close enough to assist them in time. If he ever had to fly another combat mission in a planetary ring it would be too soon. Yet with that said, he’d only flown a dozen of them himself. Most of his time on deployment over Galileo was spent on combat space patrols outside his carrier ship. “It wasn’t that different from now. We just had older fighters.”

“Right.” Bubbles didn’t sound entirely convinced.

“What do you know about this naval traffic objective they gave us?” Bourne asked more to fill time and keep his mind active than out of a desire to hear about ocean going transports.

“Just that the brass think the Earthlings are moving something down there and they want us to phone in anything in the cargo transport size we happen to see.” A light on Bourne’s control board flickered and he twitched a couple of commands, bringing up telemetry that Control was collecting from various elements of the fleet and piping in to them. “Personally I don’t see much interesting down there. Word on the decks is they’re trying to isolate where UNIGOV is sourcing their materials for the nanotech they’re using. Lots of rare earths in the kinds of generators you need to project a field that far.”

“Where are they expecting them to come from?”

“Disputed, although smart money says Africa or Asia. The old land surveys say a lot of the neat stuff is in the mountainous parts of those continents.” A finger sized red dot appeared on Bourne’s display, presumably following a path Bubbles was tracing for him, presumably pointing at mineral deposits or somesuch.

“That’s very practical.” Bourne frowned and set his fighter in a very slow spin around its forward axis. Earth gradually filled up his canopy as the top of his fighter rotated to face straight ‘down’ then vanished back beneath him as he completed the spin. It was a situational awareness habit he’d picked up during the Ring Campaign. He hadn’t been flying in situations where that kind of 360’360 awareness was necessary in a while but he still performed the maneuver on occasion just to hang on to the habit. “How in touch with the word on the deck are you, anyway, Bubbles?”

“I am the word on the deck, Captain.” He sounded almost hurt. “Why do you ask?”

“How do we know what’s in the mountains down there? Is it something brought back by the surface teams or what?”

“It’s all from the archives, Leader. I guess the colonists took a full copy of the planetary geological surveys with them when they left. Not sure why.”

“Probably in a historical archive somewhere.” Bourne let his roll bring him all the way around to face towards the planet again then killed the momentum. “Do you think it would be in the historical archives or somewhere else?”

“I… dunno. Is it important?”

“Don’t ask me. I need to look at the data to tell for sure.”

“Hold on, let me call up Hannah.”

“Does this go official if you loop in your latest Comms girl?”

“What makes you think Hannah works in Comms?”

“Bubbles. Focus on the task at hand.”

Bubbles sighed. “If I ask really nicely and say it needs to be a secret between us she probably won’t tell anyone. Why not go through official channels?”

“I just don’t want anyone thinking I’m after a white whale. I’d rather not get grounded.”

“We’re down a ship over a hostile planet six months from home. I don’t think anyone’s eager to pull qualified fighter pilots off duty.”

“Maybe. Can Hannah get us info on the sea lanes, as well? I want to know what shipping’s looked like since we got here.”

“Well I can tell you that one now. We don’t have any data on what Earth’s shipping lanes looked like until three days ago.”

“What?” Bourne yanked his attention away from his flight canopy and down to his mic. Not that Bubbles could see him through that. “How is it possible that none of it got tracked?”

“The AI discarded all records of vehicle traffic on bodies of water after twenty four hours. No one caught the oversight until the Admiral decided to track cargo ships.”

Bourne fought the urge to smack his forehead, his helmet would take the hit anyway. The biggest pitfall of working with an AI assist was how deeply it ingrained preconceptions into the feedback it brought you. Of the Triad Worlds and Roddenberry, only Roddenberry had more than 20% of its surface covered in water and even then, not by much. Large scale transport by ocean or river had never been practical there. Most water going vessels were private recreational vehicles with the occasional survey or maintenance ship mixed in. As a result, military AI just ignored stuff it saw in bodies of water to save on storage space and processing power.

A perfectly fine and normal approach to the waterways of the Triad Worlds. A glaring oversight on Earth.

“Okay, fine,” he muttered. “It probably wasn’t relevant anyway.”

“What?” Bubbles was curious now, probably looking for a new bit of gossip to share with his girl in Communications.

“I just noticed a freighter moving north from Antarctica. I know the polar regions of Earth were left alone for a lot of reasons in the pre-Departure era but if UNIGOV changed that policy after they took over and wanted sneak some resources past us now they might try taking them from the continent that was covered in ice when we left. It’s not a place we’d naturally expect them to get supplies from.”

“Well, you got one thing in your favor,” Bubbles said, sounding a little skeptical. “There wasn’t any extensive survey done of the continent’s mineral resources before the Departure. Something about the snow and ice. But, in spite of the concerns about the climate both then and now, it doesn’t look like the ice has gotten much thinner in the years between.”

“Still. With the right nanotech and a big enough power plant and mag generators you could mine straight through the frozen layers of the ground. I’m pretty sure there’s places they do just that on Diana.”

“Maybe.” Bubbles’s skepticism deepened. “Be that as it may, I’m going to guess it doesn’t matter to us right now. That transport could be down there for any reason. It looks like it’s bound for Australia and, according to the records, that’s where most of the research outposts on Antarctica source their supplies so it may just be a food run or something.”

“Awful big coincidence, our being out here right as they make a run to the grocers.” Bourne drummed his fingers on his control panel, trying to decide on a move.

“Why don’t you just call it in? We could have the Principia or the Spiner go over the place with a hires EMG scan and see if there’s any power signatures indicative of a big power plant down there.”

Bourne began carefully maneuvering his fighter’s nose, where all the good scanners were, down towards the planet while keeping his orbital trajectory more or less the same. “The problem with only having two ships with good scanners on them is everyone wants them to look at something. I suspect the Admiral will want more before he details one of his best eyes to stare at giant chunks of ice for the next couple of hours.”

He was glad to see that Bubbles was matching his maneuvers with equal precision. “Probably. How do we get it for him?”

“Thinking.” For a long moment Bourne was silent as he considered some ideas and then ran numbers through his nav AI. Then he replayed Starstream’s last attempt to land on planet. Finally, he compared some numbers from the botched mission’s after action reports to the numbers his AI was giving him. “Tell me, Bubbles, have you ever gone water skiing?”

The Gosple According to Earth – Chapter Fourteen

Previous Chapter

“Is it totally impossible for us to go down?” Naomi was once again on the observation deck, watching Earth spin below. The Malacandrans had kept to themselves after their lengthy tour of the ship; outside of eating dinner in the mess hall they’d asked to go to their guest quarters and stayed there for the rest of the night. When Carrington reached the bridge the next morning he’d been informed their leader had shown up on the observation deck and taken a moment to look in on her.

“That’s a tricky question to answer,” the admiral replied. “Our best guess is that large stretches of Earth are still readily accessible to our landing craft but we have no way of knowing if any particular site is or isn’t defended until we try to land there. UNIGOV’s disassembler field has effectively put a dome over parts of the planet.”

“But only parts,” Naomi said, dragging her attention away from the planet. “Not even Bottletown’s dome is large enough to cover any significant part of Thulcandra’s surface. Surely we can just land outside of theirs.”

“Again, it’s tricky. The dome is invisible until activated and we don’t know where the sources of it are located, we don’t know if they’re mobile, we don’t know if they’ve only put it in one place or many. We aren’t even sure what to look for to answer any of those questions.” Carrington shrugged. “As things stand right now I’m not willing to try and land any of my own troops on the planet, much less a foreign dignitary.”

The Eldest leaned back against the plastic pane between her and vacuum then flopped down on the windowsill and crossed her arms in front of her. “Dignitary isn’t the word I would use.”

Given that behavior perhaps there was some merit to her viewpoint. “Still, you’re the Eldest of Malacandra,” Carrington said. “I know you folks are used to a lot of turnover in your leadership structure but it’s still not healthy for a society to have that level of upheaval. It doesn’t matter whether you feel dignified or not. We have to respect the position and what upheaval in that position entails for your people”

“I suppose.” She folded her hands in her lap and tilted her head up towards the top of the deck. “Has Volk told you anything about how things are going on Malacandra?”

“Well, I’m sure he’s submitted his reports and I’ve been copied on all of them per standing orders but I haven’t really had a whole lot of time to read them. A sad consequence of being in charge of this many people.”

“I don’t know how you do it. Bottletown barely had more people in it than this ship, to say nothing of the rest of your fleet, and I still struggled to keep the peace.” She shook her head. “Things haven’t been going well there, Admiral.”

“Do your problems stem from keeping the peace or settling the theology of your new situation?” Carrington asked.

“From numbers.” Naomi tapped the side of her head. “I was in Silence less than a week and I don’t remember much of what happened while I was there. Based on what we’ve learned that’s pretty typical. Anyone who’s been shutdown less than two years comes out a little confused how they got there, with no real solid idea of what they saw or did, but otherwise healthy and ready to get on with life. But the longer a person is in Silence after the two year mark the worse things get.”

“They lose memories?”

“No, that wouldn’t be a issue. The problem is they keep them.” She produced a folder full of pictures rendered on flexible plastic and handed the admiral several of them. “The more people remember from their time in shutdown the more unstable they come out of it. It doesn’t make any sense to me. I know I dreaded going into the Silence and I presume most other people did as well, I’ve had discussions with friends on the subject many times. So it doesn’t surprise me that some people came out scarred.”

Carrington flipped through the pictures and tried to find a theme. Some people stared blankly into the distance, some were wild eyed or waved their hands in frantic, violent gestures and some looked like they were in the grip of uncontrollable, hysterical laughter. Those three moods were the most common in evidence in the group of fifty or so pictures. Despair, frustration or panic showed up on some faces as well but in smaller numbers.

He handed the stack of plastic back to Naomi. “What are they scarred with, exactly?”

“It’s hard to tell.” She carefully tapped the sheets until the edges were squared up and tucked them back into her folder. “The longer they were in there the harder it was to get coherent answer from them about anything. They get less and less coherent the longer they were in there. They use words in odd contexts, they reference things that never happened or places that don’t exist, they talk about people the records show they never met or never even existed.”

“Our understanding of the Shutdown system on Earth is that people in Shutdown are still conscious in a kind of dream state,” Carrington said. “They may have met other Malacandrans in there. Although my understanding is that only people put there can interact with one another, I don’t know where they would have found people who didn’t actually exist.”

“The Roddenberrys have mentioned that to us but even they can’t figure out what the connection is between the dream and why people are acting like this while waking.” Naomi sighed. “I was hoping that I could go down to Thulcandra and find some record of what they knew about it.”

“I don’t think they ever take people out of Shutdown,” Carrington said, offering her a hand up. “Even if they did, from what Director Mond said yesterday I don’t know if they would consider that kind of consequence from the process something worth their figuring out. They don’t seem to connect their own experiences to those of their so-called martians at all.”

“That truly surprised me.” Naomi rose and straightened her tunic then tucked the pictures into her belt. “Thinking about the perspectives of others is something drilled into everyone in Bottletown, in preparation for our time as Eldest. I wasn’t expecting someone who led others to be so ignorant of such a basic aspect of leadership.”

“Believe me, I understand your consternation.” Carrington had spent a lot of time trying to understand how Mond wound up where he did but ultimately he’d had to stop diving down that rabbit hole and focus on the immediate. “Speaking of leadership, how are things going in Bottletown? I know that technically you’re still the leader of the town but if you keep pulling people out of Shutdown you can’t really be the Eldest anymore.”

Naomi sighed. “If only you knew how right you were. I thought that when we started to pull people out of Silence they would see all the work we’ve done to maintain Bottletown and be impressed with all we’d done to uphold their legacy and preserve the Dome. Instead they questioned and complained and… it’s so frustrating.

The admiral tried but mostly failed to keep from smiling. “I can understand where that comes from as well.”

“I know we’re young compared to a normal human society, Admiral, but we really can keep the Dome running on our own. Every generation of Malacandrans has had to learn to do that!”

His amusement wasn’t helping and Carrington quickly schooled his expression back to a neutral state. “I’m sure that’s not the issue, Miss Bertolini, no matter what might have been said. Think of it this way. When you passed into Silence, were you content with the way you left things in Bottletown? Did you fulfill all your hopes and ambitions? Say everything you wanted to your family? Was there no sight you still wanted to see with your friends, moments of life you wanted to share or even grudges you wanted to pay back?”

“I don’t know about grudges,” Naomi said, speaking very slowly and deliberately. “But definitely at least a little of everything else.”

“Now imagine you came back two years later and found out all those things you wanted actually did happen but you weren’t there to see them.”

“Oh.” She nodded twice, her eyes unfocusing as she stared into the middle distance. Carrington could almost see a conversation in recent memory replaying behind them as the Eldest considered some moment she’d recently shared with one of those people she knew who had left Shutdown. “Yes, I can see that. You’re a very wise man, Admiral.”

Carrington felt a pang of loss. “No, Miss Bertolini. I just spent a great deal of my life in space. One thing you Malacandrans are right about – age and experience does bring a value you can’t get from anywhere else. But as you get older the dynamics of relationships change and your society hasn’t had to learn the ins and outs of those changes yet.”

She nodded. “It must be nice not to have the Silence always looming over you, cutting you off from family and friends like clockwork.”

It was Carrington’s turn to approach the window and study Earth as if the Homeworld held the answer to his darker thoughts. “Out here the Silence is far less predictable, Eldest. I’m sure knowing when it comes has it’s own terrors but the dread of never knowing when it will come is just as bad. And often we don’t get to say goodbye, like you did.”

“That’s something else we’ll have to get used to, I suppose.” Naomi joined him in watching the Homeworld turn below them. “One more thing to look forward to. Hopefully we can keep from rushing into the experience although I know Alyssa was ready to choke someone to death when last I saw her. A little more room to breath around the Dome would certainly help.”

Carrington nodded. “Elbow room is one of the great peacekeeping tools of human history. We’re doing everything we can to help you get some for yourself. I can’t promise you’ll be able to visit Earth this time around but we are planning to put more boots on the ground as soon as we have a solution to the current problems we’re facing. I can promise once we’re there you’ll be welcome to go down there to join us for as long as you wish.”

“I appreciate that, Captain.”

“I have to warn you there’s not much to see in most of these abandoned cities, though.”

She nodded. “Of course. But that’s not what I appreciate.”

“No?”

“No.” She smiled up at him, gratitude in her eyes. “I most appreciate that you, at least, will still tell us where we stand. Malacandra has been in Silence too long and for all the difficulties in leaving it, I hope we will never go back.”

The Gosple According to Earth – Chapter Thirteen

Previous Chapter

Time was one thing the ground team did not have in abundance. The surprise that UNIGOV achieved when they deployed the disassembler field was near total and the Copernicans had been forced to abandoned their position with very little of their resources in hand. The biggest shortage was food. They’d deployed from the Sea of Tranquility with two weeks of food stores on hand. The initial plan was to build up to a full month’s supply on the ground over the course of the next month but the landing crews had only brought down enough supplies to keep up with demand before they were cut off. Other supplies had been prioritized.

Then the disassembler field came through and wiped out their camp and took half their on-hand food stores with it. The loss of weapons and heavy construction equipment was unfortunate but with their plans so thoroughly disrupted by the field itself the loss of that materiel wasn’t as severe as it might first appear. The fleet could always nanofacture replacements from materials on the ground if it had to. Food was a much stickier problem.

Of course there were ways to acquire food that didn’t require drawing off of the fleet’s reserves. Earth was the Homeworld, after all. It was almost purpose built to sustain human life and, before UNIGOV closed down most of the cities in the area, the region they’d landed in was apparently a major food producing area. The problem was integration between AI and human required a lot of specialized enzymes and electrolytes which the average spacer’s diet was designed to replenish. The standard Earth diet wouldn’t refresh the brain’s supply of these things as quickly. If they were forced to rely on it then the Copernicans could expect to lose 80% of AI functionality in another four days. That was one of their primary advantages gone.

All of this meant that, less than twenty four hours after Captain Tsukihara declared the newly rechristened Armstrong completely refitted and seaworthy, Lang found himself carefully maneuvering the ship out of dock. They’d done exactly one test drive of the yacht before loading everyone on and heading out. As he ran up the throttle Lang tried to ignore the feeling that they were about to run aground on some unseen reef and find themselves flailing in black water as they drowned within sight of land.

“Did you know they used to call combat spacers ‘space Marines?’” Private Harrigan chuckled at the absurdity of the notion. “As if there were liquid water in space.”

“As if we’d want to be anywhere near it if there were,” Lang muttered. Harrigan – or Harry to his friends – was the man Lang settled on as his navigator and spotter. He wasn’t particularly sharp eyed or used to navigation but he was a pretty decent code cracker and with all the things they still didn’t know about the Armstrong‘s computers it seemed wise to have someone like that on hand.

It turned out Harry was also a wealth of trivia on historical interpretations of space travel. He’d apparently taken a course on it because he thought it would be useful in understanding the Genies but Rodenberry’s vision of the future turned out to be a minor part of the coursework, relatively speaking. “I don’t think the off kilter title bothered me as much as the fact that most of them didn’t fight in space,” Harrigan went on. “They fought on the ground! Space marines were always hopping off their space vessels and slopping around in the mud for some reason. Didn’t they think we might have a regular army for that?”

“Yeah, well, I’m sure they didn’t think about the intersection between food supply and artificial intelligence either,” Priss said. She’d practically volunteered herself onto the bridge crew when she heard Lang was putting one together. He wasn’t sure if it was because she was qualified and interested or because her duties would be relatively light and she was looking to take a break from running messages all over the sewers.

“They didn’t think about all kinds of things,” Harry replied. “It’s kind of mind boggling. You wouldn’t believe how many stories have spacers shooting at each other aboard ships. Shooting! Like you aren’t about to decompress the compartment you’re in. Half the time boarding crews weren’t even issued vacuum proof armor. And don’t get me started on how often ships located and fought each other in deep space!”

“To be fair, we didn’t put together the Orbital Theory of Battle until the last war, Private.”

Harry and Priss snapped to attention and Priss sang out, “Captain on the bridge!”

Once again Captain Tsukihara had managed to sneak up on her bridge watch, something that Lang worried was going to become a habit. Since he had a deathgrip on the controls he settled for nodding to her and saying, “Ma’am.”

“How is she handling, Sergeant?”

“In my expert opinion, she’s responsive for her size but the weather isn’t exactly with us.” He tweaked the yacht’s heading just a bit when a large wave struck them side on, proving his point. “The water’s getting higher every hour and I think we’re in for rain.”

Tsukihara glanced over the side of the boat and watched the waves for a minute. “I believe the technical term for it is choppy seas. Regardless, is this going to slow us down?”

“That all depends.” He eased the throttle forward some as they cleared the protruding docks and headed further out into the open bay. “For starters, we have no idea how much debris, reefs or unfinished underwater construction may be between here and our destination. My brief reading of the sailing manuals we brought says wave action makes those kinds of obstacles even more dangerous.”

“I was told we did manage to restore the sonar system. Shouldn’t we be able to navigate those kinds of obstacles?”

“In perfectly calm waters, I’d give myself 60-75% odds of doing it safely but if the waves keep getting bigger those odds will keep dropping. Plus there’s the dips themselves.” He pointed to the low point between two waves. “Look, that’s about three feet lower than the surface of the water already. That’s three feet closer to any underwater obstacles that may be lurking there and, believe you me, three feet is a lot closer on a boat like this one.”

The captain studied the troughs of the waves as her teeth worried at her lower lip. “Are you sure it works that way?”

“No, Captain. I’m a pilot, not a sailor. Do you want to take the risk?”

“No, I suppose not.” She clasped her hands behind her back and turned her attention back to him. “However I do want to run some drills once we get out of the bay. We’ve set up the deck guns and tied them into the navigation computer but we haven’t tried firing them yet and I don’t want to head into a potential combat situation without doing so.”

Lang nodded. “That’s why you’re the boss, ma’am. Do you have a place in mind for these drills yet?”

“Between the maps the ship had onboard and what we got from the teams sent to pull charts off the other ships at dock we have a pretty good idea of what the water around here was like forty to sixty years ago.” She showed him what she was talking about on his computer display as she spoke. “There should be a string of buoys about half a kilometer outside the bay, along here. They’re a good size for target practice and there’s enough open water around them we can run at them from several directions.”

“Do you want to start stationary or try a strafing run right off the bat?”

“We’ll start from a standstill and test the deck guns from each side, fore and aft. Then we’ll take a few strafing runs on the rest before we return to course. Hopefully the whole exercise won’t take any more than two hours.” She cleared the screen and looked back at him. “Questions?”

“I don’t know enough about weather to speculate on whether the delay will make it better or worse but that is something I’m concerned about.”

“We still don’t have access to the fleet’s orbital scans so we can’t really predict that,” Tsukihara admitted. “We’ll suspend the drill if things turn really bad and we can throw an anchor down for the night if it comes to that.”

“Right. About that.” He pointed to the timepiece on the yacht’s control panel, another anachronism shaped like a disk with numbers around the circumference rather than a simple digital readout. “If we spend two hours on your drills and lose another half an hour of travel time to weather, which seems about right based on what’s happened so far, we’ve got another problem to think about. We’re going to arrive on site about twenty minutes before dusk.”

Tsukihara frowned. “It’s already that late? Load in took longer than I thought.”

“Ma’am, we can make a landing directly on the beach by the plant. But I’d prefer to proceed about a few hundred meters upstream and leave the yacht there rather than abandoning it out by the ocean. Going upstream while losing the light is going to be tricky.”

The captain pulled up the power plant on the charts. “I don’t see as that gets us any closer to the plant, Sergeant. What do we gain by that?”

Lang pulled his hands off the boat’s controls long enough to point to a little strip of green a dozen meters or so back from the river that ran along the southern edge of the plant’s plot of land. “Do you see that?”

“Yes. What is it?”

“Based on what I saw on my first visit to Earth and again on the streets of Anaheim I believe it was once a decorative patch of shrubbery. Bushes, flowers, maybe a couple of willow trees.”

For a moment Tsukihara just looked back and forth between him and the map, as if this would somehow reveal his secrets to her. Finally she said, “Don’t keep me in suspense, Sergeant.”

“The thing is, no one’s maintained these beds for decades. Remember the hedges outside the townhouses we crashed in, Priss?”

Priss started when he pulled her into the conversation but she quickly caught on to what he was thinking and nodded vigorously. “That’s right. They’d way overgrown their beds and gotten a lot taller to boot. Eight or ten feet in most places, completely blocked your view of the street.”

Tsukihara’s eyes widened as she understood what he was saying. “You think this will give us some cover on our approach.”

“Yes, ma’am. If we use it right and if UNIGOV didn’t cut it all down when they moved in.”

“They wouldn’t,” Priss said. “One of the ideas they cling to is restoring most of Earth to a state of ‘nature’ so the planet can heal. If they thought it was a matter of life and death they might cut down those plants but I don’t think they’d do it just to secure their sight lines.”

“A good thought, Sergeant.” Tsukihara clapped him on the back. “How early tomorrow morning do you think you could get us behind this cover?”

Any number he could think of seemed totally arbitrary given all the unknowns at work so Lang just picked a time out of thin air. “0800, ma’am. If we shoot for that it will give us a little more time to run drills tonight then we can head most of the way to the power plant, drop anchor and turn in early.”

“Good thinking, Sergeant. We’ll make that our official plan. Corporal, I want you to set up a burst transmission back to base camp updating the Major on our plan.” She turned to Harry. “And I want you to try and learn a little about piloting this thing from the Sergeant. We need more than one pilot for it in case something happens to him. Questions?”

There weren’t, so the captain sent them off to their individual assignments before heading off on her own way.

Before leaving Priss tapped him on the elbow and, when he pulled his attention away from the vast expanse of water around them, she told him, “You know that thing where you make officers think you’re a planner and leader?”

“Yeah?”

“You did it again.”

She left the bridge laughing at his infuriated cursing.

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Ten

Previous Chapter

Over the last month Carrington had seen and heard more strange things than he had in his entire life up until that point. The meeting between Stephen Mond and Naomi Bertolini was the strangest yet. Wrinkles lined Mond’s face and graying hair was taking over his head; he sat uncomfortably in his wheelchair and his prosthetic arms lay awkwardly on the table in front of him. He avoided eye contact with most of the people in the room. So far the only other people he’d directly acknowledged were the guards who’d brought him in.

Naomi sat ramrod straight in her chair. Her lips were pressed together in a firm line, creating a tightness around her eyes and mouth, but otherwise her youth was evident all across her face. Yet she bore herself with more maturity. She kept her attention on Mond most of the time but she found a moment to whisper something as an aside to Teng. She was tense, he thought, but otherwise her mood was unreadable.

After a lot of bickering back and forth Carrington had decided it wasn’t fair to let too many people dogpile Mond and sent everyone but the two guards, Naomi and Teng out of the meeting room. He took a chair beside the Director, trying to put himself in the mindset of a lawyer. That got dark very quickly so he stopped and switched to trying to think of Mond as a friend, or at least someone he didn’t hate. That was a bit more achievable. “Thank you for agreeing to this meeting, Director Mond,” he began. “I’ve asked you here today at the request of one of our other guests who’s expressed an interest in meeting you. Director, this is Naomi Bertolini, the Eldest Malacandran. Mrs. Bertolini, allow me to introduce Director Steven Mond of Earth’s Unified Government.”

“Good afternoon, Director,” Naomi said, offering him her hand.

Mond hesitated for a second before accepting it, studying her face carefully as she grasped his prosthetic. “Hello, Miss Bertolini. How are you feeling today?”

“I must admit I feel a little unsettled to be speaking to you, Director Mond,” Naomi said, studying his prosthetic with a clinical eye. “Are you well? You look like you had an accident recently and a pretty nasty one at that.”

“I made the mistake of handling a dangerous piece of hardware while I was… unstable. This is the consequence of that.” He gently pulled his mechanical limb back and put both his hands in his lap, out of sight under the table.

“I hope you have a speedy recovery.”

Once again Mond looked down at the table, refusing to meet her eyes. “Thank you, Miss Bertolini. I was more fortunate than the other man involved so I consider myself lucky.”

“The oyarsa was undoubtedly-” Naomi caught herself and blushed, the first crack in her armor so far. “You have been blessed by Maleldil, the most high, no doubt.”

Mond managed a wan smile, some of his usual self-confidence managing to reassert itself. “I do doubt, actually. On Earth there are no higher rulers than the sapiens ourselves.”

Naomi nodded once. “Yes, we have heard that the oyarsa of Earth has become bent and turned its back on its people and its purpose. You have our condolences.”

“I’m not familiar with the word ‘oyarsa,’” Mond said. “Does it refer to a god of some sort? Or perhaps one of his angels, since your Maleldil is most high he would logically fill the role of diety.”

Carrington cleared his throat, causing both of them to jump. Apparently they’d gotten so fixed on each other they’d forgotten he was there, which spoke to their interest in each other or his own lack of presence, he couldn’t tell which. Once he was sure they were both paying attention to him he said, “To save some time hashing this issue out, the Malacandrans have a unique vocabulary for some common concepts from Earth history. An oyarsa is the rough equivalent of a guardian angel and they believe every planet has one. Malacandra is the name they give both Mars and its guardian, Thulcandra is their name for Earth and it’s guardian. My understanding is that Maleldil is, in fact, their name for a monotheistic god.”

Naomi nodded. “That’s a fair summary of how I would define the words, as well.”

“Thank you, Admiral,” Mond said. “And with the pleasantries out of the way, may I ask what the agenda for today is?”

“I’m afraid I’m the wrong one to ask.” Carrington gestured to Naomi and said, “We offered the Eldest an opportunity to visit the Homeworld but due to circumstances we already discussed our visit has been postponed. When she arrived this morning she asked to speak to you so here we are.”

There was a moment of strained silence as the Director and the Eldest stared each other down across the table. “May I ask you something, Miss Bertolini?”

“Of course, Director, so long as I can ask something as well.”

Carrington caught a smile tugging at the corners of Mond’s lips before he hid it again. “How did someone your age manage to become the Eldest of Mars?”

“When a Malacandran reaches seven thousand, three hundred and five days old they must pass out of the colony dome and into Silence.” Naomi recited the facts in a half chanting tone of voice. Her eyes were distant and her expression blank, like she was recalling facts she had committed to memory long ago. “Since the dome was too small to support a constantly growing population the oyarsa was given charge of the excess. We lost all our people with the knowledge to expand the colony when Thulcandra struck us centuries ago. So we had nothing else to fall back on. We could only hold fast to what little we had left, hope that seventy three cents of days would be enough to leave a legacy for the future and trust that the oyarsa would bring us through Silence into fellowship once again.”

All trace of amusement was gone from Mond’s face. “Miss Bertolini, that’s a wonderful sentiment and many have clung to it in the past. But surely you realize at this point that people don’t come back from the dead.”

“Director,” Carrington murmured. “While the word Silence can mean death in the broad sense, when the original Borealis settlers scraped together the few books and files UNIGOV left in their possession and sorted out how to go forward they gave it a double meaning. If a Malacandran lives their full seventy three cents they don’t technically leave the dome. It turns out there’s a Vault under Borealis City, too. So when people on Mars grow old enough to count as adults they go to that Vault and they’re put into Shutdown – into Silence – so they can wait until the dome is expanded enough to accommodate them.”

Naomi’s chin tilted up a few degrees in pride. “I am seventy three hundred and twenty four days old, Director Mond, and one of the first to come out of Silence and back into the fellowship of my peers.”

“I see.” Mond’s mouth was open just a sliver, his shoulders rising and falling with shallow, rapid breaths and his eyes staring wildly at nothing. “There were still people on Mars after all. When the colony was put into Shutdown the people retrieved didn’t match the official roster and we never did discover what happened to all of them. Most of you were children without medical systems, yes?”

“Yes…” Naomi leaned forward to get a better look at Mond’s face, clearly concerned. “Are you unwell, Director?”

“None of the colonists who were brought out of Shutdown would tell where the missing children were,” Mond said, ignoring her. “The missing had to be left in the dome and the colony abandoned. Even though it was inhumane – even though it was unsapiens to do such a thing we had to leave them behind. And now here you are. Every outward thought we meant to leave behind, on our doorsteps once again.”

Something profound was happening between the two planetary leaders and Carrington didn’t want to interrupt it, whatever it was. At the same time he was aware of an odd tension in the air and it put him on edge. When Naomi got up and walked around the table to Mond he almost made her go back to her seat just to be safe. But there was a pleading written on her face, a crease of her brow and a light in her eyes, that convinced him she just wanted to make her case to the other man and he decided he could let her go a little longer.

“Director Mond,” she said, cocking one hip up onto the table and reaching forward to rest a hand on his shoulder, “I’ve passed through Silence not once but twice now. First Volk and others brought me back to my family. Then they brought me here, to meet you and the Admiral, to discuss how we can break the Silence with the Triad Worlds and with Thulcandra – with Earth. Both Volk and the Admiral tell me you’ll resist changing your ways. I want to know if that’s true. Are the people of Malacandra really so abhorrent to you that you will not speak to us even now?”

“No, no, no,” Mond whispered, “I can’t. You don’t understand.”

“How can I?” For the first time Naomi’s youth slipped out of her control as her voice turned wheedling, almost whiny. “How can I understand if you won’t bother to explain?”

“We can’t go,” Mond went on, his voice rising steadily with no sign he even heard Naomi’s question. “We must stay. We cannot speak, we can only listen, we cannot assume we must always learn from what is. That is the sapiens way.”

Exasperated at hearing the same general sentiment time and again, Carrington demanded, “But what does it accomplish, Director? What can possibly be the point?”

“To know ourselves!” Mond practically exploded out of his chair, arms waving frantically. “Don’t you see? The martian way is to flail about wildly, going everywhere, taking everything and yelling all the while without a care for what they are doing or who it hurts. They know everything about the world around them but not one thing about themselves. Sapiens are driven in the opposite direction. We make the foundation of our society ourselves and without self realization nothing in sapiens society society can function!”

“Why can’t you know yourself and us as well?” Naomi asked, clearly taken aback by Mond’s sudden vehemence.

“Because you question and you analyze and you change,” Mond snapped. “How can we be ourselves if we are constantly under attack by outsiders who make demands of us, who doubt us, who require change of us? If a martian society is always on our doorstep we will be forever changing! There will be no secure foundation for sapiens.”

Carrington managed to bring his gaping mouth back under control. “Director, the Malacandrans based their society on a book intended as fiction published over four hundred years ago but they manage to get by. You base your society on a book you deliberately rewrite whenever it suits you. If you’re telling me sapiens are struggling to find a secure foundation to build on let me suggest that you start by not rewriting it whenever is convenient to you.”

With a chopping motion that nearly upended his chair Mond dismissed the admiral. “No, no, no. We rewrite Schrodinger’s book because there are constantly new martians among us, polluting our tranquility and forcing us to start the process of self-discovery anew. We just need to be left alone. If you martians would only oblige us maybe we wouldn’t have to go to such extremes but as it is we must do what we can!”

“I see.” Carrington would have expected anger or accusation from Naomi but to his surprise her voice held nothing but regret. “Mr. Mond, I don’t know much about sapiens or self realization. I do know that when your world is constantly shrinking, when being alone is the one thing you aspire to, you’ll get there eventually. I didn’t care much for my time in Silence, Director, I pray the sapiens will enjoy it more. Thank you for meeting me today.”

With that Malacandra’s Eldest waved across the table, collecting Teng, then walked out of the room, leaving Carrington and Mond with the guards. Mond stared at her as she left then shook his head. “What was that all about?”

“I’m sure you’ll have plenty of time to figure it out, Director, once you’re left alone like you asked. Guards? Please take Mr. Mond back to his room.”