The Gospel 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.

Advertisement

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Twelve

Previous Chapter

“How shines the Light of Mars, Mr. Vesper?”

Vesper snorted. “It doesn’t, Director, because you’ve turned the power to it off again. How am I to run tests on the damn thing if you switch it on and off more than the light in a refrigerator?”

The aging scientist was hunched in front of a work station cobbled together out of a dozen different parts from a dozen different consoles and desks around the power plant’s control room. He’d turned an eight foot folding conference room table into a Frankenstein amalgamation of electronics and readouts. It was impressive for just two days of work.

Brian pulled his attention away from the clutter long enough to answer the question. “You’ll have to submit power use requests to the power generation management team if you want to power up the generators, otherwise we can only authorize running the plant at full capacity during an emergency situation.”

“Mars is in orbit, Director!” Vesper pounded a fist on the table in front of him causing the other engineers and technicians in the room to shudder and shrink away. “We are living in an emergency situation.”

“That’s no reason to deviate from protocol,” Brian said with a tsk. “We are sapiens rather than martians, aren’t we?”

“We’ll be martians soon enough if we keep this up.”

For a moment Brian just watched Vesper working away at whatever it was he was trying to do. After his interview with Glenda he’d requisitioned every record relating to the Light of Mars project from the Brussels Vault, where that data had been stored. He’d gone over as much of it as he could but most of it was meaningless to him. Medical nanotech and large scale nanofields like Vesper’s team had worked with were worlds apart in terms of power demands, delicacy of work and materials involved. “If we restored power to the Light of Mars what would you do with it, Mr. Vesper?”

“For starters I’d run a full boot sequence diagnostic on the field projectors,” Vesper said, pointing towards one of his many readouts. “The process took nearly forty minutes. That’s pretty fast for when we designed it but remarkably slow when we compare it to how the martians reacted. They were able to pull clear of the field before it destroyed them.”

“An ideal outcome.”

“But not the typical martian response,” Vesper countered immediately, his answer coming so fast Brian was sure it was a line of logic he’d gone over many times. “You would expect a martian to press ever onwards, damn the cost. If they’d chose to do that during their previous landing some of their ships would have gotten through and then what? They’d be capable of anything.”

Brian frowned and pulled out his tablet, running the numbers based on previous flights they’d observed. In most cases it turned out Vesper was right. “Okay, we need to boot up the hardware faster. Anything else?”

“We should test how quickly we can reposition and redeploy the field projectors around the city,” Vesper said. “We may need to adjust coverage across the entire Los Angeles area.”

“Driving the projectors from one side of LA to the other is not going to noticeably alter their range of effect,” Brian said. “I don’t see a need to waste power on training for that. We’re working on expanding the network of projectors along the coast and inland towards select strategic locations but we’re still scrambling to acquire the necessary minerals. We haven’t had a need for new resources like this since the Environmental Restoration program got underway.”

“Yes, we’ve managed on recycling for a long time.” Vesper finally turned away from his work and eyed Brian, expression unreadable. “So. If you want to add even more projectors to the field network we’re going to have to solve the problem with synchronizing the power regulators, won’t we? When am I going to get some of my research team back?”

Brian folded his arms in front of him as he weighed his response. At first glance Vesper’s constant requests for more personnel made sense, especially since the Light of Mars had always been a group project of such a scope that no one person could reasonably keep up with all elements of it. But now that they did have a few other members of the project coherent, if not helpful, there were new issues to think about.

Like what Glenda Vesper had told him yesterday. “I’m afraid we’re still struggling to get your team into a condition where they can help you. Do you remember anything from your time in Shutdown?”

“In Shutdown?” Vesper frowned. “I’m afraid my memories from that period of time are very hazy. I know I was conscious and I remember seeing people I knew but I’m afraid I can’t tell you any details about it. Is this important? What does my time in Shutdown have to do with completing the project and keeping the martians off of Earth?”

“Directly? Nothing.” The lie was not a particularly sapiens thing to do but Brian felt it served the overall needs of the moment and events could be tailored to the lie later if necessary. “However it seems the Shutdown process has created complications we never considered. Our difficulties in reviving the other members of your team testify to that and if you had any insight into what might have occurred there it would help us resolve the issue. And it might get you that assistance you want faster.”

The scientist’s frown deepened and his eyes slid off to one side as he probed his memories. “Strange. There is a virtual world in there, as I recall…”

“Yes. We built it because we were concerned leaving people in Shutdown with nothing to engage their mind would be an unsapiens level of abuse. We even sent a few testers in to make sure it was a suitable and humane environment.” Brian spread his hands helplessly. “But we never left anyone in there for more than a few weeks. We’re concerned that the length of time in Shutdown may be a complicating factor that we did not anticipate. Any insight you could give us would be appreciated.”

“I’m not sure I should help my jailers make my prison better.” Vesper drummed his fingers on his table for a moment. “Still, given the circumstances, working out what went wrong with your project may be the fastest way for me to get help with mine, so I will tell you anything I can as it occurs to me. Unfortunately I don’t have anything for you just now.”

“Then let’s come back to that topic later.” Brian pretended to be interested in the readouts Vesper had up, a series of graphs and maps showing power routes, field overlaps and other information he only half understood. As he scanned the data he said, “Is there another approach you can take to this problem? Perhaps if we could find our own angle to tackle it would be faster to bring some of our own nanoengineers onboard the project. Have you considered a different power source for the nanofield? We’ve had some success with running nanotech on directed energy beams like low intensity lasers.”

A split second of intense interest crossed Vesper’s face but he quickly crushed it when the obvious problem with that occurred to him. “You can’t create a dome between us and the sky that way. It proves the concept but trying to find a new power source, making it practical and implementing it all while the martians are right above us does not strike me as a winning strategy.”

A jolt of adrenaline shot through Brian at Vesper’s declaration. He didn’t like thinking of their project in terms of winning and losing – that was martian think – but in this case he could understand why Vesper did so. He also hated how appealing that was to him. Better to ignore that and focus on the long, slow cultivation of the topic he really wanted to discuss. “Could we use the nanotech itself as a stabilizing force on the field? Build it out of-”

“No, no, no,” Vesper snapped, “the use of magnetic materials in nanotech outside the generator filament was proven impossible by Doctor Hugo Manning during the development of the medinano systems. I’m surprised a Director like yourself, who deals with it daily, didn’t know that.”

Brian did know that but he didn’t admit as much to Vesper. “Couldn’t we use the filament itself as a stabilizer?”

“The energy transfer involved would destroy the nanotech instantly.”

Which he’d learned after reading up on the subject following his discussion with Glenda. However these questions served to bring him around to the point he wanted to address in a way that wouldn’t arouse Vesper’s suspicions and, now that the man was starting to ignore him again and focus more on his readouts, Brian was ready to get to the main point. “What if we tweaked the frequency of the fields so they synchronized rather than trying to calibrate the power to create perfectly aligned overlaps?”

Vesper hesitated, his hands going still on their panel. It wasn’t a subject that had a lot of research put into it, as Brian had discovered when he investigated the notion, so it would force him to do a little thought on his own. Assuming it wasn’t something he already knew about. There was a possibility, however remote, that all the issues with the Light of Mars so far were a ploy by the Vespers to entrap the Directorate and pull them back into a martian way of thought. Perhaps Vesper’s focus on his project and winning against the martians, combined with a ruse of insanity from Glenda and the others, was a play for dominance. If it was, this was a chance for Vesper to tip his hand.

If he grasped onto the idea immediately Brian would suspect some kind of ploy or trap.

Instead Vesper steepled his fingers and touched them to his chin. “That’s an interesting notion, Director. It’s possible although I don’t think it would be as sturdy as independent fields. A disruption to one could potentially set up a domino effect through the entire network of fields so you’d need some kind of fail safe capable of switching off – no.” Vesper’s face went from thoughtful to rueful like a switch was thrown. “No, it won’t work Director. Not a bad solution at first blush but ultimately totally unworkable.”

Immediate, enthusiastic adoption or cautious consideration were the responses Brian had expected. Flat rejection was surprising. The unexpected nature of that response startled Brian out of his focus on Vesper’s attitude and back to the actual, technical nature of the discussion. “What’s the issue with it? We do that occasionally with other nanofactury processes.”

“Yes, but a nanotank where you assemble a computer or hovercar is a very different thing to the Light of Mars,” Vesper said, picking up a light pen and making a tiny dot on his map of the LA region showing the area affected by their mag generators. “The comparative size of the tank to the fields we’re working with is even more extreme than that between this point the area of effect.”

“So?”

“So you can synchronize small fields easily because the startup command comes from one central location and reaches the generators for all the relevant fields essentially instantaneously. However, our generators are much further apart than the micro generators in a nanotank. The command to start them will arrive at different generators at different times.” A few keystrokes displayed numbers over each field generator they had deployed. “As you can see the time lag between activation command being issued and arrival at the generators is pretty small but the oscillation rate in a magnetic field is even smaller than the differences in these values. And we just don’t have the kind of precision timing technology necessary to compensate for it. The generators will always be out of synch because of the distances involved. We could try and synchronize the fields but I don’t think it would ever work until some kind of FTL communication is perfected.”

“I see.” Brian studied the numbers for a minute, more to buy time than because he really understood them. A well reason answer and completely detached from what Glenda had told him. So what were Glenda and the other scientists she claimed she’d worked with in Shutdown actually trying to do with their simulations? It really didn’t seem like they were in collusion with Vesper. But there had to be something there to keep them all tied into mental knots even after they came out of Shutdown. On the other hand, at least it seemed like he could trust Vesper for the moment. “Well, it was just a notion. Keep doing what you can, Mr. Vesper, and I’ll be in touch. We have the first shipment of new generators due in four days so you may want to start thinking about how you’ll expand the emplacement you have designed now.”

Vesper grunted, having missed Brian’s entire train of thought. “If you say so, Director. What will you be doing in the meantime?”

“I’ll be looking into something else.” Brian left Vesper to his work and started thinking about how he could clear his own schedule of its standing obligations. Now he was even more determined to make his own foray into Shutdown and determine what had happened there. If only the martians would leave him enough time to try it.

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Eleven

Previous Chapter

“Anchors aweigh, my boys, anchors aweigh!”

“I swear,” Lang shouted down below decks, “if I hear that damn tune again I am turning this boat around and taking us back to Copernicus.”

Two new voices joined in the chorus. “Faaaaarewell to college joys, we sail at break of da-a-a-ay!”

Lang snorted and sat back down in the pilot’s chair on the yacht’s bridge. Most of the controls had been removed, leaving wires and boards and wires and capacitors and wires and semiconductors and wires all over the place. A couple of enlisted technicians were working on sorting out and replacing the relevant components under the direction of 2nd Lieutenant Fresh Face. Lang was trying to figure out the pilot’s controls with the assistance of his AI.

“You know, you’re just encouraging them,” Fresh said, looking up from his own AI display with a bemused expression.

“Yes. Sir,” he added just in time. “I’m aware of the futility of expressing annoyance.”

“Then why do it?”

“It makes me feel better. Also I’m pretty sure these Toroidal Mark 4 AIs see a performance boost when you’re annoyed. 3-4% better return on your subconscious brain cycles.” The Princess 48 yacht model they’d chosen for the expedition was either very old or a retro model because it still had actual physical controls like a sliding throttle, a steering wheel and numerous dials and switches for various functions. Stone age stuff. It was soothing to run your hands over while talking to annoying officers. “Try closing the sonar circuits again.”

“We’re still getting that error message,” Fresh said after a brief pause. “I suspect the annoyance preference has more to do with the end user’s preferences than anything in the software architecture of the AI.”

“If I prefer it, does it count as annoyance?” Lang toggled through several menus as he tried to figure out the yacht’s software. “Wait, I think I found the maintenance logs. What’s the error code?”

“76-01:20.” Fresh looked over the shoulder of his other tech. “On the starboard side. Port side is 76-01:10, so my guess is they’re on separate command circuits. And yeah, I’ve known plenty of people who enjoyed being annoyed and spent a lot of time around people that just pissed them off for the fun of being pissed at them.”

“The logs say that’s a software fault. The operating system wants to run an update to check for new drivers because it’s sixty years since the last update was run.” Lang rubbed his hands over his face then left his chin on his palms as he stared out the bridge window. “We’re gonna have to codebreak that and get past it somehow. I’ll add it to the Captain’s list of programming tasks.”

The Lieutenant leaned down to one of his techs and said, “Try the same override code that we used when the reactor wanted to update.”

A couple of seconds later Lang’s screen refreshed and the maintenance logs cleared the error codes. “Ooookay, let’s move on. The checklist says we need to do a test run on the engines. Do we have any updates on whether the screws are clear yet?”

“Harrigan, check on that, will you?” One of the techs acknowledged and clambered down the steps to the main deck. Fresh stood up and stretched, eyeing the rats nest of wires. “Do you think they wove this whole boat out of cables?”

“Too watertight for that,” Lang muttered, looking over the boat’s navigation system again.

“True.” The Lieutenant sat down in the copilot’s chair and watched Lang pick at the controls for a minute. “Have you discussed possible approaches to the power plant with the Captain yet?”

“Didn’t know she wanted to talk them over with me.”

“Why wouldn’t she?”

Lang swallowed a sigh and set the yacht’s computer back to it’s idle mode before giving Fresh his full attention. “Why do you think Captain Tsukihara would want to discuss our course to the power plant with me? I’m not an expert on ground warfare, seafaring or the infantry in general.”

“Yeah, but you’ve been here before.”

“Not within five hundred kilometers of this place.”

He nodded, unphased by Lang’s dry and uninterested responses. “That’s fair. But you did capture a member of UNIGOV’s Directorate so that means you’re the only Copernican spacer to outfight an Earth commander in the war so far. Like it or not that makes you the expert on their approach to… well, everything.”

“Wait. Sir, I’m not a psychologist, I hope people are taking that into account when they come to me for my opinions on Earthlings. This isn’t something I’m uniquely qualified for.”

“I’m not sure about that, Sergeant. You beat them once on their home turf and pulled some crazy stunts out on Mars from what I’ve heard.” The Lieutenant grinned, full of naivety and excitement. “Just think what we can do now that we’ve got a full company of people on the ground now.”

He resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “We could sink a whole boat full of people!”

“It’s okay,” Fresh said. “The Major and the Captain are both experts on historical warfare and the Major keeps a ton of texts on the subject in his AI most of the time. If UNIGOV was still fighting with the tech level we see now we’d be in trouble. But they don’t fight at all so we still have the leg up on ’em.”

“If you say so, Lieutenant.”

“I do.”

“Sir!” The second tech returned and saluted his officer. “Captain says we’re ready to reconnect the generators and the main turbine. She wants you down in the engine room, pronto.”

“On my way.” He set his readout aside and carefully got up, picking his way around the wires. “Good luck with those controls, Sergeant! We’ll be ready to take it to the Earthlings in no time.”

Lang watched him leave and blew out a breath. “Whew. Was I ever that young?”

“Certainly you were before the war, Sergeant Langley.”

He jumped a little, then rose all the way out of his chair. “Captain Tsukihara.”

“At ease, Sergeant.” The captain picked her way onto the bridge from the other side of the boat, the combined challenges of the rocking deck and rampant wires forcing her to move very deliberately. “What do you make of the good ship Armstrong, Langley?”

“Didn’t realize that was it’s name, ma’am,” he said, relaxing just a bit.

“Corporal Hu decided Tangerine Mist was a terrible name for a warship so we rechristened it in honor of your lost destroyer,” she replied, crouching down by the Lieutenant’s readout long enough to disconnect it and set it up on the control panel. Then she stood up and started carefully picking apart the nest of wires. Like Priss, Captain Yiyun Tsukihara was of Han stock and stood a little over five foot tall, with dark hair and a rounder face. Unlike Priss she was starting to go gray. Her right hand showed the warts and scars of constant use and, based on her left hand’s comparatively pristine skin, Lang guessed Yang had lost at least one limb during her career in the Spacer Corps that was later cloned back into place. “But you didn’t answer my question. What do you think of her?”

Lang shook himself and forced his mind back to the present moment. “I don’t know enough to make an educated judgement.”

“Bullshit.” She stopped what she was doing long enough to give him a disbelieving glare. “I’ve met enough flyboys to know you have an opinion on anything with joystick, all the way down to and including your own torso. I want to know if you think we’re wasting time on refurbing this boat or not.”

“It’s sturdy, it should be fast if the turbines ever run again and it’s got a sensor profile that will keep it low to the horizon,” Lang said as he sat down and worked the computer panel. “The major systems are computerized and I’m working on linking them to my AI. Just steering the thing will be pretty easy, it looks like the steering is intended to be idiot proof, but navigating is another thing entirely. It is linked into some kind of global navigation system that needs orbital satellites or a network uplink to function. So it’s useless on two fronts.”

“We can’t use it without giving ourselves away,” Tsukihara mused. “What’s the other way it’s useless?”

“Pretty sure any satellites it ran off of are gone now and I’m not in a hurry to try and tie this thing’s computer into the FleetNav. I’m 99% sure UNIGOV wouldn’t have left behind viruses or backdoors in their nav computers but I’d rather not run the risk.” He pulled up the boat’s map catalogs. “However we can just follow the coastline in this case. We just need to keep an eye out for a few landmarks and we should be able to make our landing just fine.”

“How do you feel about your team?”

“My team, ma’am?”

Tsukihara stopped sorting wires and gave him another look. Then, realizing he was serious, she set the wires aside, stepped up to him and put a hand on his shoulder. “I forgot you just got your third stripe and from a field promotion at that. Sergeant, we’re going to have twenty people on this boat and I need to keep Lieutenant Bailey with me, not just to keep an eye on the engines but to help me set up and command the deck guns. That’s the entire boat out of officers, which means you’re going to have to put together the your own bridge staff to handle keeping lines of communications open and do whatever else you think needs done up here.”

“I… you want me to put together a team? Ma’am, I don’t have the best record of leading teams.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that. You managed to make one out of three Spacers and two Earthlings effectively enough. Not everything worked out the way we might have preferred but…” Tsukihara summarized the team’s capture and Dex’s death with a casual shrug. “You’re still better at it than you think you are. I know you’ve never really been trained to consider command situations but we’ll see where you feel you’re at and go from there. How many people do you think you’ll need, in total?”

“To run the bridge?”

“Yes.”

“Two. Maybe three, if there’s a communications blackout and we wind up having to run messages.” Lang shrugged. “Although I don’t see much chance of that given current situations.”

“Let’s not count our chickens before they hatch.” Yang fiddled with her belt absently, her fingers counting up and down as she worked on the arcane mathematics of command. “Is three how many you expect to need in combat or just those to handle normal functions of the post?”

“More the latter,” Lang admitted. “In a full blown combat situation I’d expect to need a fourth if things go bad.”

“Did you have anyone in mind?”

“I…” Lang frantically ran through potential candidates in his mind. “I’m afraid I don’t at this moment.”

“Well, take a few hours today to work out what competencies you’d need on the bridge then interview people until you can fill those roles with three people. We’ll assign you a fourth as a runner and damage control member for combat situations.” The Captain started bundling the wires together again. “Command is mostly about assigning people you trust to handle specific tasks, Sergeant, and most NCOs get to where they are because they’re good at reading and assigning people not because they’re smart or courageous. Besides, the odds of combat on this mission are low, so don’t make a life and death decision out of this. Go with your gut. We can always shuffle assignments on further outings if it proves necessary, understand?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good.” She finished with the string of wires she was holding and set them aside. “I’m looking forward to working with you, Sergeant Langley. Get me your personnel requests by the end of the day.”

She left him staring at the console and ignoring his AI, his brain running through the spacers on the boat and where they would best fit in its operations. That was the kind of decision making he could get behind.

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.”

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Nine

Previous Chapter

Carrington didn’t get to go down himself. Not only did Ollinger file a formal objection to the Admiral’s proposed course of action – which had the intended side effect of making the idea public knowledge and spreading gossip about it all over the fleet – but it turned out that when he’d proposed it he’d forgotten that he had important diplomatic duties that needed attending to as well. The Malacandrans were visiting soon.

When the RSN Stewart had reported discovering an entire lost colony of children on Mars it caused a lot of speculation among the intellectuals of the fleet. Carrington himself had wondered what leadership in a city where no one was older than twenty looked like. For a few days the admiral had treated it as a purely hypothetical question. He’d been more focused on retrieving the lost spacers from the Armstrong than debriefing and analyzing what they’d learned on the surface. Then, quite unexpectedly, the Genies had made a bizarre discovery. Thousands upon thousands of sleeping colonists buried in tunnels beneath Borealis Colony, a refuge for countless people in Shutdown, waiting for some solution to the limited resources of the colony so they could once again live without risking the starvation of the entire settlement.

A recently promoted officer who was working with the Malacandrans had proposed stripping materials from the abandoned cities of Earth and using them to expand the Martian colony to support the existing population. After a lot of debate Carrington had given the idea the green light. Anaheim was the first place they’d chosen for the operation, as a number of analytical models suggested that it would be a good place to recover not just the raw building materials they needed but also the rarer metals and organic components necessary to expand the Borealis dome.

A week ago a Malacandran leader asked to view the city they were cannibalizing for resources. After a lot more debate Carrington had agreed. Of course, that was before the disassembler field was deplooyed and now taking dignitaries down to the Anaheim site was out of the question. They’d been advised that the schedule had changed already. However that just meant Carrington would have to spend more time with very young civilians and he wasn’t sure he was up for it. His own children were long gone and he was feeling rather rusty.

Still, when the Stewart’s transport arrived he was down in the hanger bay, waiting. Major Bennet, the ship’s Chief of Communications, had put together a full blown welcoming party complete with extraneous officers, a squad of security men, and the ship’s captain and XO all present. The major himself, Carrington noted with some amusement, was absent.

The Tranquility was fully equipped for automated landing procedures and used a series of manipulator arms to safely bring in ships through the airlock and past dozens of other spacecraft that awaited deployment. Even with the many patrols that were maintained in the space around the fleet and the handful of damaged fighters that were currently elsewhere for repairs, it wasn’t possible to see the Roddenberry ship making most of that trip from their vantage near the back of the bay. When it came into view, sliding past lines of blocky landing craft, the sleek, elegant lines so distinctive of Roddenberry’s shipbuilding sensibilities stood in stark contrast to the Copernican ships all around it.

There was a flare for the dramatic among those Genie boys that no one else in the Triad Worlds seemed to share. The oval body of the transport was carefully placed on the deck about fifteen feet away and allowed to settle on its landing gear. The reaction thrusters that extended back from the main body on gently swooping struts looked like they should unbalance the ship yet it stayed upright as solidly as if it grew out of the deck. Then the hatch opened and a disembarking ramp dropped down. Several figures were visible in silhouette at the top.

The first was the towering frame of Lieutenant Commander Volk Fyodorovich, Roddenberry’s liaison between their ships and the Malacandrans. He was tall and solidly built. The only thing bigger than his frame was his nose, which looked to be about a third of his face, an effect only made more pronounced by the small, sunken eyes that peered out over it. Fyodorovich had been a junior officer a month ago but Captain Gyle, the Stewart’s skipper, apparently had a lot of faith in his performance under pressure. So far nothing had served to disillusion anyone of that good opinion.

Behind him was the much slimmer, much shorter figure of Aubery Vance. She was barely over five feet tall, stopping just below Fyodorovich’s shoulder, but her body looked long and lissome. Aubery was a native Earthling and she’d gone to Mars at her own insistence. Based on what he’d learned during her debriefings after then-Corporal Langley brought her up from the planet she’d developed some kind of intense personal fixation on the fate of the Martians during their escape. Carrington still wasn’t sure what that fixation entailed but she’d proved helpful out there and hopefully would continue to do so here.

The other four people weren’t anyone he recognized, although he guessed one of them was Naomi Bertolini. She was apparently the oldest conscious person on Mars when they made contact with the Stewart. This was the primary qualification for leadership over there. While she’d technically gone into Shutdown for a bit Naomi was also the first person they removed from Shutdown when they figured out what was going on. The fellow who took over for her as the Eldest had agreed to step aside and let her continue to manage the situation for the time being so continuity had been maintained in that sense.

To his surprise they hadn’t brought any children with them. The Roddenberry’s reports had mentioned the Malacandrans bringing kids with them on the initial diplomatic contacts but this time around they’d left them behind. Further speculation on the Malacandran party was sidelined as Fyodorovich marched down the ramp and saluted. For all his youth and presence, the man looked a bit nervous. “Lieutenant Fyodorovich reporting, Admiral.”

“Welcome aboard, Lieutenant.” Carrington returned the salute and turned to the young woman beside him. “Welcome back, Miss Vance. How was your trip to Mars? Did you learn anything more about the questions that were bothering you?”

“Not really, Admiral Carrington.” The Earthling woman favored him with a tired smile. Although she was clearly still struggling Carrington though she looked like she was in a better place than when she left. “Still, I did meet some new friends.”

“That’s progress all on it’s own, then,” he replied with a smile. “I know it probably doesn’t feel like it but the more friends who can help with your problems the easier they get. Will you introduce me to them?”

“Of course.” Aubrey gestured to the woman just behind and to her left. “This is Naomi Bertolini, the Eldest Malacandran. Naomi, let me introduce you to Admiral Jalak Carrington.”

She was painfully young, almost a girl in his eyes, but there was a confidence and experience behind her eyes that belied the youthful lines of her face. All four of the Malacandrans shared many features including light brown skin, a nose of below average size and thick, coarse hair. Naomi offered him a firm handshake which he accepted. “A pleasure to meet you, Admiral. As it’s been explained to me, you’re the person responsible for all the spacecraft in Volk’s group?”

“That’s essentially correct,” he said. “There’s a lot of nuance to our patchwork fleet which I won’t bore you with right now but for the moment the buck stops here.”

Naomi blinked once. “Buck?”

“Sorry, it’s an idiom that means I’m ultimately accountable for the actions of the fleet.”

“I see.” She nodded once and Carrington could practically see her filing the tidbit away for future reference.

“This is Mr. Dorian Drake,” Aubrey said, indicating the tall, gangly man next to Naomi. “He’s a… petitioner?”

“Correct.” Although Drake was, by definition, younger than Naomi he actually looked several years older. His hawkish nose and thin lips made him look like he was on the cusp of middle age. His handshake was quick and perfunctory. “It’s an interesting position to fill these days, with all we’ve learned from you the last few weeks.”

“Do you work in the field of law, Mr. Drake?” Carrington asked.

“Faith, Admiral. I petition the oyarsa for his wisdom and intervention.” He tapped his chin thoughtfully. “Or at least I did. Reading the full breadth of the Lewis account of Ransom I’ve come to suspect that may not be the correct way to approach him.”

For the first time Carrington was forced to consult his AI’s heads up display and figure out was being discussed. The computer reminded him that Malacandra was supposedly the name of a guardian angel for the planet Mars, a concept the residents of Borealis had apparently gleaned from the novel Out of the Silent Planet. No one in the fleet command structure had ever heard of that particular book, although some knew the author C.S. Lewis. It was interesting that the devoutly Christian man had inadvertently inspired a pagan religion centuries after his death but that had little bearing to the situation at hand.

“You may wish to discuss it with the ship’s chaplain,” Carrington said. “I’m afraid when it comes to theological matters he’s much better qualified to give an opinion than I am, although I sympathize with the way sudden discoveries can lead to a reevaluation of things you thought you knew.”

He turned his attention to the last two people in the group, one who looked about sixteen or seventeen, the other about two years younger. The belted tunics they wore fit them poorly and there was a wide eyed innocence to the way they looked around the hangar that screamed naivety. A glance at Aubrey prompted her. “These two are Teng Pak Won and Gemma Perez, the Chief Watcher and one of his assistants.”

“Chief watcher?” Carrington raised an eyebrow. “What do you watch?”

“Mostly the Silence,” Teng said. “What you call outer space. However on occasion there’s call for us to access the records of events maintained inside the city proper so that we can figure out what happened during an accident or even a criminal incident.”

So he was something like the head of security or perhaps a small town sheriff. Interesting that they had one and didn’t just rely on the social standing of an older individual to bully their way through criminal cases. “You’re very welcome here, Chief Won, and if you need any accommodation from our security personnel please feel free to discuss it with them. I’m sure we can work something out.”

“Thank you, Admiral,” Teng said. “And, technically, it’s Chief Teng. My family name is put first in the records and when spoken.”

“I see.” There was a bit of the old Han features in him. “Your ancestors must have come from Eastern Asia, then?”

He blushed. An actual, honest to goodness, rosy cheeked blush. “I’m afraid I don’t know, Admiral.”

Carrington felt incredibly awkward in turn. “No, I suppose you might not.” That admission hung in the air for a long moment then he clapped his hands together and rubbed them briskly. “Well, Eldest, you know we can’t take you down to Earth at the moment. We have prepared a pretty extensive tour of the ship if you’re interested in that but if there’s anything else you’d rather do then we’re very flexible on that front. Is there anything particular you’d like to discuss or see first?”

A glance passed through all four of them and Naomi drew herself up a bit straighter. “If it’s possible, Admiral, can we see Thul-” She caught herself and shook her head. “Is it possible to see Earth from here?”

Carrington smiled. “Would you like to see live video feeds from our patrols or just have a look with the Mark One Human Eyeball?”


Once again Carrington marveled at the mysterious power the Homeworld had over people who had never once set foot on it. This time, however, the people in question were Malacandrans and not Copernicans. Naomi and her companions stared out of the observation deck with the kind of rapt wonder he’d only seen once or twice, when he caught other officers staring at the planet in unguarded moments. Yet their reaction was very familiar, for he felt the same emotions stirring in him as well.

He’d ordered the Tranquility to an orbit roughly synchronous with the Moon, although a bit upwell of lunar orbit, so that the orbit ship would slowly pass by the dark side of Earth’s satellite over the course of the next eight hours or so. The two heavenly bodies framed one another in the observation window at the moment. The Earth was just starting to be eclipsed by the Moon, the contrast between the day and night portions of the planet and the creeping lunar horizon creating a breathtaking view fit to entrance even the most hardened spacer.

One of Naomi’s party took it in a much different light.

Dorian Drake’s attention was quickly drawn away from the planet and to the moon. He moved down the window until he stood on the far left side of the pane, as close to the lunar surface as it was possible to get on that deck. Staring at the dark side of it, he said, “Do you think Thulcandra will really take note of us if we pass by?”

“If he does, he doesn’t show it,” Carrington replied. “The Sea of Tranquility has been in and out of Lunar orbit a dozen times since we got here and we haven’t noticed anything.”

Drake gave him a sharp look. “You believe that Thulcandra is real, Admiral?”

Carrington shrugged. “I believe the man who wrote Out of the Silent Planet was describing the Devil, one of the forces of evil in the Christian Bible, when he used the word Thulcandra. And yes, I have plenty of reason to believe the Devil is real. But if you’re asking whether I think that the events described in the book really happened, that the Devil is named Thulcandra in an ancient and forgotton solar language or that Elwin Ransom traveled to two planets of the solar system and met their guardian angels, then no. I think C.S. Lewis was a storyteller who made up an enduring story. But he founded many elements of that story on real things, or at least things he believed were real.”

Dorian hummed in the back of his throat for a moment, a gravelly thinking noise that only served to increase the idea that he was older than his actual age. “I’m surprised, Admiral,” he finally said. “I thought you spacers were a godless lot over all. You certainly give Ransom’s Tale more credit than you friends on the ship Stewart.”

“There’s a lot of good things about the Roddenberrys, Mr. Drake,” Carrington said in amusement. “The ability to believe things outside their own experience isn’t one of them.”

“I always found Ransom’s Tale a little strange,” Naomi said. “The descriptions of his travel and what he saw on Malacandra were so different from what we knew in Borealis. Most of it didn’t add up.”

“What did?” Carrington asked.

“The Silent Planet,” she said, putting one hand to the plastic and staring at Earth, looking forlorn. “They turned their back on us for over an hundred years and gave us nothing but Silence. No matter what the world is called, that fact remains.”

“I suppose they didn’t need Thulcandra to lead them to that,” Dorian mused.

“No. Nor can we expect him to explain himself if he did,” Naomi replied, turning away from the window. “I read Perelandra. I know how an Unman behaves when you ask him a question. If we want to know the hows and why’s we’ll have to look elsewhere. I’m ready to move on, Admiral.”

There was an oddly resolute look on her face. “Is there anything else you’d like to do before we get to the tour?”

“Yes.” She nodded once for emphasis. “I want to talk to Stephen Mond.”

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Four

Previous Chapter

Lang hooked his fingers under the manhole cover and nodded to Bragg, who had just gotten a grip on the other side. With a quick, synchronized yank they hefted the metal disc up and out of its seat and tossed it aside. Although the city was long unused the sewer below was still damp and pungent. “Fuck,” Bragg murmured, “that smells terrible.”

“Probably runoff from the rain keeping it moist,” Lang muttered. “If the air down there is poisonous we’ve got respirators we can use and it’s a damn sight better than letting the disassembler field get to us.”

Bragg nodded and looked back at the line of twenty or so people behind him. “He’s not wrong. Get down there, people, double time!”

The weird, shimmering curtain of Earth’s disassembler field advancing slowly behind them, turning the empty buildings of Anaheim to dust, was all the encouragement they needed to do as instructed. Their expressions told Lang it didn’t smell great down there but no one complained in his hearing. The smell wasn’t what worried him, though. “Are you sure, like absolutely sure, they aren’t going to just dust the whole sphere their magfield covers? Because if they do that we’re just going to die smelling actual shit rather than fresh air.”

“Nanolathes require a pretty strong magnetic field to provide power and suspend them in the air. Dirt and most paving is dense enough to disrupt that field, at least enough to prevent nanotech function.” Bragg shrugged. “Assuming their power delivery mechanisms aren’t more than twice as advanced as ours.”

“What if they are?”

“Plug your nose when you die.” Bragg laughed at Lang’s expression. “Look, the forward bases didn’t see the field carving up the ground at their location, I see no reason for them to do it here. Relax.”

Lang sighed and sat down at the sewer entrance, dangling his legs over the ledge as he said, “I’d try it except I’ve been down here once before. I’m not sure I’ll ever relax on Earth again.”

“Pity, that,” Bragg said as he followed Lang down. “It’s a beautiful planet. Makes me look forward to the days when Copernicus has it’s own ocean.”

A shudder ran down Lang’s spine as his memory of visiting the ocean front last week came unbidden. Like most of the spacers on assignment planetside he’d made the short trip to the beach just for the experience. He still remembered the endless dark expanse that spread out as far as the eye could see. “You want one of those on our planet?!”

“Sure.” Bragg hopped off the ladder and dropped the last three feet to land next to him. “Why? Do you not like water?”

“Water’s great in manageable quantities, not so much when it can jump up and slap a whole city off the map.”

“Ooookay.” The other man’s expression suggested he wasn’t interested in digging any deeper than that. So he turned to the rest of the people down there with them who stretched out in a ragged line on either side of the sludge in the middle of the sewer and clapped his hands. “Look alive, people! We’ve got work to do. Nnadi, Bryzowski, Suzumiya, break out the gells and lay down a sterile surface please. I want everything from here by the ladder to forty feet that way to be usable ground in an hour.”

“Lieutenant?” Glenda Nnadi scratched absently at her curls as she spoke. “Sergeant Langley mentioned something about rainwater runoff. Is flooding a concern if we stay here?”

“I don’t know.” Bragg looked further down the line. “Hu? Have you been able to establish a signal with the Major’s group yet?”

Priss looked up from her portable comm rig. “Yes, but it’s very spotty and it may cut out as the magfield up above moves over our position. Captain Byson has recommended we run physical cables to facilitate communications but the Major hasn’t decided if we will yet.”

“Can you check to see if we still have the Tranquility‘s weather reports available?”

“Will do.” Priss bent back over her rig.

Bragg looked back at Nnadi and her crew. “I guess we proceed as if we’ll get some rain in the next couple of days. Is that going to be an issue?”

Suzumiya shook his head. “I think we can rig a micropump through the gell to keep things moving without coming up over the new flooring.”

“I’m surprised they didn’t cut the old tunnels out of the system and just switch to individual sterilizer hookups,” Bryzowski said, poking the toe of his boot into the sewage. “It would’ve been a lot easier than continuing to route all this through a central location.”

“UNIGOV works in mysterious ways,” Lang muttered, opening his AI’s holodisplay.

“Doesn’t matter to us,” Nnadi said, opening up Bryzowski’s backpack and pulling out a pump and a roll of conduit. “Suzumiya’s plan is viable and will only take a couple of minutes to put in place. We’ll have the whole place floored and sterile in an hour, maybe less. Can’t do much about the smell, though.”

Bragg spent another few minutes handing out assignments to secure their position and get a cable run to Goldstein’s group – the Major having decided it was a worthwhile investment in the interim – before coming back around to Lang. “Alright, Sergeant,” he said, looking over the other man’s shoulder. “What is it that’s so interesting?”

“I loaded all the Departure era maps we had in the Tranquility database in my AI before we came down here,” Lang said, gesturing to the holos he had pulled up. “Along with all the updates we were able to get from Aubery and Sean.”

“How extensive were those?” Bragg asked.

“Not very. Apparently UNIGOV keeps information very segregated by location, which is probably the only wise tactical decision they’ve ever made. But we do know they’re not the world’s biggest fans of nuclear power, fusion or fission.” Lang pointed to two large facilities he’d highlighted on the map of the area around Anaheim. “These two locations – the Los Angeles Fusion Plant and Hollywood Auxiliary Power Plant – are the only two power plants of a size that could potentially power a magfield on the scale of what we just saw. Assuming no one built a new plant before UNIGOV took over.”

Bragg studied the map for a long moment. “Okay, that’s very interesting Sergeant. In case you haven’t looked around recently we don’t really have the manpower to launch a full scale offensive against a major infrastructure site right this instant. Not to mention the fact that we just abandoned most of our gear inside a disassembler field.”

“With all due respect, sir, that’s not the drawback you think it is. These aren’t the Isaacs or even the moonies at this place, it’s UNIGOV of the oh-so-peaceful homo sapiens.” Lang’s grim smile drew a skeptical look from Bragg. “They don’t believe in weapons, Lieutenant, and they can literally look through the eyes of their citizens so they don’t bother with a lot in the way of surveillance beyond that, either. I’m willing to be security at these facilities is practically nonexistent.”

“Wrong.” Bragg folded his arms in front of his chest. “First off, if these places were on Departure era maps then they were built before the age of kumbaya took over Earth. Did you visit any facilities from that time period on your last visit?”

Lang racked his brains. They’d been to the Launch Zone, of course, but he’d been unconscious for their arrival and hadn’t seen any of it’s exterior. Also, it was an entirely underground facility. Fusion plants were typically half buried but they still needed some portion of the building above ground for vents and the like. He wasn’t sure what time period the library or houses he’d seen dated from but they were all public or residential facilities. Not major infrastructure. “No, I can’t say I did. You’re from the Spacer Engineering Corps, don’t you know what defenses of that era were like?”

“I’m not a historian like the Major. Besides.” Bragg pointed up the ladder. “UNIGOV has just proven they’re adaptable enough to create a working, large scale weapon system in a couple of weeks. Who’s to say they haven’t done the same with surveillance systems and fortifications?”

“Sir, the longer we wait to take proactive steps to get off this rock the less like we are to ever accomplish it.” Lang folded his arms over his chest. “This makes the third time I’ve been grounded on a hostile planet. I’ve made it back to space twice before and it’s turning into quite the habit. I’d rather not break it.”

For a long moment the two stared at each other, Lang waiting patiently for Bragg’s answer, the officer quietly mulling over the map. Finally Bragg said, “I’ll go with Corporal Hu when she runs the comm cable to the Major’s location and run it by him. Until I get back with his decision I want you to grab a buddy and start mapping out the sewer system so we have an idea of our options if we do have to go back up. Prioritize routes that take you west.”

Lang looked to the map then back at Bragg. “West, sir?”

The lieutenant pointed a finger at the LA Fusion Plant, which the map showed taking up a whole city block of oceanfront real estate. “We have no idea if that facility is a part of this sewer system or the Los Angeles system. It may even be self contained. It may be simpler to work our way out to sea and come around that way.”

“Out to sea, sir?”

Bragg gave him an amused look. “Out to sea, Sergeant. You’re a pilot most of the time, right? Any chance you know how to sail a boat?”

His stomach did a little flip flop at the thought. “No, sir. Never even been on one.”

“Well ask around, see if anyone here has. I’ll do the same with the Major’s group although I’m not going to hold my breath. Get to it, Sergeant.” With that Bragg turned and picked his way through the trickling sewage towards Priss.

Lang heaved a sigh and closed up his map. There was no guarantee that Bragg or Goldstein would want him to be a part of the expedition to the power plant but given the way things had gone so far he wasn’t planning on holding his breath either. Which meant he was probably going to wind up out on the water at some point in the future. Sooner more likely than later.

He shoved down another round of nerves and started sizing up their group for potential sailors. If that was what it took to get off the ground again then that was what he was going to find.

The Gospel According to Earth – Chapter Three

Previous Chapter

The observation deck on The Sea of Tranquility wasn’t that different from similar decks on seagoing ships. Those decks loomed high above the water to give people an excellent view of the horizon. On the Tranquility the deck stood high above the bridge and below a massive transparent ceramic window, giving the officers and crew who came there an excellent view of the activity within and without. For the most part, Vice Admiral Jalak Carrington preferred the view outside to that within. He’d spent decades serving on various ships in the Copernican Spacer Corps and had seen more than enough command deck activity to last a lifetime. While the bridge of an Olympus Mons class orbit ship was bigger than any other he’d been on the general ebb and flow of life there was the same.

Earth was something entirely different.

Copernicus was roughly 95% the size of the Homeworld, yet Earth seemed to take up a much larger part of the sky below them. The colors were different from those he’d gotten used to as well. Newton was the closest of the Triad Worlds to the Homeworld’s appearance, a patchwork of blue and green not unlike that above him but with a pattern more like a checkerboard than the graceful, sweeping peaks and basins of Earth geography. The moons of Galileo were blue-gray spheres of rock, starkly different than the Homeworld. And Copernicus itself was still mostly brown, only slowly terraforming into something that would one day be a green world. Water was less common on the surface of the oldest Triad world. Rivers were plentiful and, once all the glaciers and ice caps fully melted, it might even have proper ocean. But that was still a generation away, at least.

Somehow, in spite of how alien the planet below should have been, the sight of it never failed to fill Carrington with a sense of contentment. On a primal level he felt more at home here, over Earth, then he ever had among the Triad worlds. Or perhaps it was just a trick of the mind. He’d expected the vague sense of awe he felt from seeing the Homeworld to fade over time.

They’d been there a month and found the people of Earth to be unpleasant, arrogant and stubborn, not to mention dangerous. The Homeworld itself, on the other hand, had lost none of the appeal.

“Tell me, Director Mond. Why would Earth want to give up this view of itself?”

“We didn’t. You can still see this from the surface, with the right equipment.”

Carrington pulled his attention away from view to the man seated next to him. Stephen Mond used to be a tall man, definitely taller than Carrington’s just below average height, but now he was confined to a maglev chair that tapped into the ship’s UFT field to hover four inches above the ground. He’d lost his arms and legs in the grisly incident that led to his capture and imprisonment by the United Colonial Fleet. His arms were replaced with basic prosthetics from the ship’s medical stores but they hadn’t replaced his legs.

Although it seemed his medical nanotech system was hard at work regrowing all four lost limbs and the doctors were pretty sure he’d be back on his own feet in another six months or so.

“Pictures don’t do it justice,” Carrington said.

Mond sighed. “You’re not wrong. But it is important for sapiens to restrain our impulse to dominate and control or we will loose sight of who we are. The drive to senselessly fill space was one of our unfortunate habits taken from our martian neighbors. Better to send satellites than come ourselves.”

Carrington grunted noncommittally, once again mystified by the psychobabble that Mond used to justify the strange habits Earth had fallen into in the centuries since Departure. There was a time to dig into the arcane twists of the UNIGOV mindset that had produced Mond. This wasn’t it. “We’ve finally received an official response from Earth.”

“Oh?” Mond was clearly surprised. “I suppose there is enough of the Directorate that could be convinced to talk to the Martian remnant, if given enough time.”

“I said a response, Director Mond,” Carrington replied. “I didn’t say they spoke to us.”

“How can you be sure it was an official response if you didn’t speak to a Director of UNIGOV?”

Carrington pursed his lips and nodded. He’d expected that response based on previous discussions he’d had with Mond and, in many circumstances, it was a valid response. He didn’t think the disassembler field Starstream squadron had encountered was one of those circumstances. Today wasn’t a spear fishing expedition, though. The plan was to bait some hooks and see if Mond would nibble. So, he strung things along. “Actions can be a response, can’t they, Director?”

“Of course.” Mond settled back in his chair, wiggling his shoulders a bit as he tried to find a comfortable position. The doctors thought the regeneration process was triggering phantom pains far more often than was typical. “But actions can be personal as well as collective. Perhaps you’ve mistaken the actions of a few – or even one – person for the actions of UNIGOV. You said the response was official – and UNIGOV is the official source for Earth’s collective actions.”

“Many actions require the work of a collective, rather than just a few or even one.” Carrington gestured to ship around them. “This ship couldn’t exist without a great deal of collective effort to gather the materials and create the plans necessary for such a feat of engineering. Even with all the supplies and planning taken care of for you I doubt you could build one on your own before you died of old age. Nanofacturing and spacedock construction techniques just aren’t efficient enough for it yet.”

Mond nodded. “That’s true. And the facilities on Earth that could build such a ship all belong to UNIGOV. If they’ve launched a ship such as this one – or really, any of those in your fleet – then that is undoubtedly an official response. Has Earth launched such a ship?”

A moment passed while Carrington tried to determine if Mond was legitimately concerned such a thing could have happened, in direct contradiction of the values of UNIGOV’s so-called sapiens, or if Mond was just playing along with the scenario. However even crippled and far removed from his home territory, Mond’s face was as placid as freshly cooled obsidian. So Carrington admitted, “We haven’t seen a ship, no.”

“Then what exactly have you seen that makes you think only an official response from UNIGOV could explain it?”

“One of our landing groups was attacked earlier today.”

“Impossible.” Mond replied quickly and decisively enough that Carrington was sure he believed it. So far Mond had proved to believe a lot of bullshit, so Carrington wasn’t about to take his denial at face value.

“You don’t think our landing group was attacked, then?

“It could have been attacked any number of zealous but misguided people who have lapsed into martian behavior as a result of the stress and uncertainty your recent landings have brought on,” Mond mused. “I cannot imagine it is the result of an official response.”

“Isn’t the purpose of your ‘Schrodinger’s Book’ to insure that people aren’t exposed to any information that could prompt such a response?”

There was a long, uncomfortable silence then Mond admitted, “That is true. However, we weren’t even remotely prepared for your return to Earth much less your destruction of structures in orbit or on the ground. When last I heard there were entire cities where your interventions were public knowledge.”

So UNIGOV’s information control wasn’t as total as they liked to pretend. That wasn’t surprising, although the reports they’d received from the ground seemed pretty convinced of the iron clad nature of Earth’s Ministry of Truth. Then again, the experiences of three grounded spacers and two natives they’d captured along the way wasn’t a large sample size. “Regardless, we can be pretty sure this wasn’t the actions of a handful of independent actors. All signs point to this being part of a centralized response.”

“You can’t know that,” Mond insisted.

“They reactivated a fusion reactor just north of Anaheim,” Carrington pointed out. “We’re still detecting an active magnetic signature from it. I doubt you let anyone boot up a reactor that can power half a city.”

“Of course not, but turning on a reactor is hardly an act of aggression. Not even the old martians thought that.”

“Aren’t you curious about what they did with the reactor once it was running?”

Mond hesitated, as if he was looking for the hook that lay behind the question. “No,” he said, dragging the word out. “But I don’t think I benefit from listening to a story about that kind of naked hostility.”

“What if it’s an action that wasn’t intended to be hostile, but we’ve misinterpreted?” Carrington pulled a display screen out of the belt of his shipboard slops. “While I’m pretty sure it was an attack launched by UNIGOV there is a lot about your civilization we don’t know. A problem you haven’t been helping with, by the way.”

After studying the inactive display for a moment Mond finally shrugged and said, “Very well, Admiral. Since you think it’s so important I’ll ask – how was it you think you were attacked?”

Carrington signaled his AI and had it replay the transmissions of Starstream squadron along with telescopic footage of the fighters breaking down taken from the Principia and the Remus. Mond’s expression grew increasingly strained as it went on. Once it was done Carrington said, “We believe Starstream encountered what we refer to as a diassembler field. It’s a kind of wide scale, weaponized nanotechnology that requires huge amounts of energy and very specialized programming to create. I don’t believe it could be built or deployed without the knowledge of UNIGOV.”

“No. You’re quite right.” Mond started to rub the bridge of his nose then stopped and scowled at his prosthetic hand, displeased with the feel of it. “Your disassembler field was created by a separatist faction about sixty years ago. We called it the Light of Mars.”

It struck Carrington as humorous that UNIGOV had such a poetic name for one of the weapons they supposedly detested so much. “What happened to these separatists?”

“They were put into shutdown and their research and stockpiles were turned over to the Environmental Restoration Bureau.” Carrington had to think for a moment to sort through the gobbledygook. If he was right Mond was saying UNIGOV put the separatists into medically induced comas, hooked their brains into a computer and left their work in an abandoned city to rot. Mond wasn’t finished. “In order to recreate that research in such a short period of time the Directorate would have to have drawn some of those separatists out of shutdown.”

“You weren’t interested in their research at all?”

“No. Most of UNIGOV’s research efforts at the time were focused on improvements to the medical systems and recycling advanced polymers. Large scale construction projects like those the Light of Mars was originally intended for were nowhere in the five or fifty year plans at the time.”

So there were separatist movements on Earth after all. Perhaps that wasn’t too surprising. Something had reduced the population of the planet below five billion in the two centuries since Departure and zealous pogroms against UNIGOV’s political opposition certainly explained part of it. And it raised an interesting question. “Is it possible some part of that separatist group escaped and is living in or around the city of Anaheim?”

Mond shook his head. “The New Martian Front was based in the city of Sarajevo and was never that large. I was part of the cleanup project and I’m quite confident we rounded up all the important leaders and researchers. Even if a few of the rank and file did escape no one has emigrated from Europe to America in decades.”

No one has moved from one continent to another in the last sixty years?” Carrington found that hard to believe. “Why not?”

“We have very good communication technology, Admiral. We don’t need to be physically around other people in order to enjoy their company. Why traumatize the environment with needless travel when we can already speak to one another at will and manufacture anything we need via nanotechnology? Contment is a sapiens virtue. We don’t need to cross the planet just to say we did it. I know that you martians don’t share that ideal but we do try to make the best of our own situation rather than continually imposing our difficulties on others.”

Once again, Mond managed take a normal human behavior and make it exclusive to his own cadre. Carrington controlled his urge to tear into him for it. There were more important issues at hand. “To be clear, Mr. Mond, do you now believe Starstream squadron was, in fact, attacked on the orders of UNIGOV?”

“I would hardly call it an attack,” Mond objected. “While it’s distasteful, the Light of Mars is essentially a construction tool. If they hadn’t trespassed in Earth airspace they wouldn’t have accidentally stumbled across it.”

Carrington felt his cool starting to slip and struggled to hold on to it. “Mr. Mond, you may believe that it doesn’t make you aggressive or hostile to place a hazard in the path of people you dislike but where I come from, where we think quite a bit about violence towards each other, it does. Furthermore, ever since my fleet arrived in orbit Earth has disregarded all known laws of space. You didn’t have navigation relays on station, you destroyed one of my ships or allowed it to be destroyed by negligently leaving hundreds of unmanned, automated weapons stations in orbit and on the ground with no warning of their presence and you’ve refused all attempts to establish peaceable communications. To say nothing of the summary execution of a prisoner in custody which you, yourself, are responsible for.”

The last bit Mond at least had the decency to be ashamed of. “Admiral-”

Carrington cut him off with a chopping of his hand. “I’m sorry, Mr. Mond. I’ve been patient and done my best to balance the desires of UNIGOV with my own orders and the desires of the worlds I represent. But the actions – and targeted inactions – of UNIGOV have made it very clear to me that they do not want peaceable communication. Now they are attacking my ships even as we try to avoid direct confrontation. You leave me no choice but to inform you that, as of this moment, UNIGOV and the Triad Worlds are at war. I’ve consulted with the commanders of the other world’s delegations within the fleet and we are in agreement on this. If there’s any way for you to communicate that reality to your fellows on planet please inform me and we’ll arrange for anything you need to facilitate that message, short of your release. Otherwise…” He sighed. “Well, diplomatic channels were never open to begin with so I suppose they can’t be cut off.”

Mond stared at him for a long moment, bewildered. “What is the point of telling me this?”

“Because…” Carrington drew the word out as he struggled to reign in his temper. “We have found that talking before violence is the best way to avoid it, even if it’s not likely.”

“Oh.” Mond looked surprised. “I didn’t think avoiding violence was a martian priority.”

“Of course not.” Carrington strode off the observation deck, passing Mond’s guards as he did. “Take Director Mond back to his room.”

The two men nodded and ushered the Director away, leaving the deck empty but for the distant light of Earth.

Chapter Twenty Three – Long Way Down

Previous Chapter

“You’re crazy!” Cates said. 

At the same time Alyssa said, “I don’t like the sounds of this plan, Dex.” 

“We skim down in a single orbit, use the atmosphere as brakes during the nadir of the first stage of the loop then bounce up a bit and repeat. We’ll lose about half the hull on our belly but we’ll be down in twenty five minutes, tops.” Langley jerked a thumb at himself. “At least, if I’m flying. Clearly your guy doesn’t have the chops for this.” 

Volk gave the Copernican pilot his best officer’s stare. “Langley, if this is just some overwrought way to make Ensign Cates feel inferior it’s in poor taste.” 

“Lieutenant,” he replied, “I did almost this exact landing pattern over Earth less than a week ago in a far less robust or maneuverable craft and on that run everyone who was alive before impact with the ground was just as alive after.” 

“A weird way to say it,” Volk countered. 

“One of us in the pod died during the orbital bombardment on the way down,” Langley said, matter of fact. “There’s no ground based barrage to worry about here.” 

“Mars has a lot less atmo than Earth,” Cates said. “You can’t count on it to brake as hard at any point during descent.” 

“Martian gravity is a lot lighter, too, and the thinner atmosphere is an upside since otherwise we’d burn up, you ain’t got the armor on these things to make a really fast landing in standard atmo.” He spread his hands. “Come on, LT, what do you say?” 

“Lieutenant,” Cates snapped, “we don’t have the thrust to land safely even with a landing profile configured for maximum air resistance.” 

“I wasn’t kidding when I said crash the ship.” 

“We’re not all that has to survive the landing,” Alyssa put in. “This is all kind of pointless if the reactor parts don’t survive.” 

“That cargo hold is the sturdiest part of the ship, if we flood it with impact gel it’ll be fine.” Langley jammed his hands under his arms and clamped them down tight, clearly anxious to be doing something. “We can do this but if we’re going to try it we need to start down soon.” 

“No, this is stupid.” Cates waved towards the back of the ship. “What about the reactor? You heard what they said, we need that to power the dome some other way or we can’t–” 

Volk grabbed Cates by the collar of his evac suit and dragged him out of his chair. “Thank you, Ensign, that’s enough. Sergeant Langley, take the conn please. Everyone else take a seat and ready for vacuum. And Alyssa, let the colony know they’re going to have to open both sides of their airlock long enough for us to get through. We can’t go in the normal way.” 

To his credit Cates didn’t press the point once the decision was made he just scrambled into different chair and started strapping in. Langley took his place and set to work, changing the lander’s angle of descent sharply and hitting the acceleration thrusters hard. Since his hands were full Volk took his helmet and fitted it in place for him. Alyssa and Cates followed suit. The ship’s comms crackled and Captain Gyle’s voice came over. “Lieutenant Fyodorovich, explain the change to your landing profile.” 

He waited just long enough to pull his own helmet on and transfer communications over before answering. “Fyodorovich here, Captain. Have you been briefed on the new situation planetside?” 

“The failing reactor? The report just came through. We’ve got Commander Deveneaux working on it. Does this have a bearing on your vector?” 

There was a horrible moment where Volk tried to decide if he should acknowledge the potential pun or not. Discretion was the better part of valor. “Yes, sir. Sergeant Langley thinks we can get down fast enough to prevent a catastrophic failure if we make a powered emergency landing.” 

“Very interesting,” Gyle said. “Mr. Fyodorovich we don’t have the time to make a replacement for the parts you’re carrying if they’re destroyed on landing.” 

“Understood, sir. But we think we can land this safely. What are the odds we find a way to keep the reactor intact long enough to make a conventional landing before it irradiates half the dome?” 

There was a long moment of silence on the other side of the comm. Volk hoped the Captain made up his mind before they were too deep in the gravity well to turn back. Finally Gyle came back long enough to say, “Good luck, Lieutenant.” 

Volk reached across the board and triggered the manual override to flood the cabin with impact gel. As the clear, noneuclidean liquid filled the chamber Langley got set up in the glove box that would let him manipulate the lander’s controls without having to fight the liquid’s temperamental viscosity. “Ladies and gentleman,” he said, “thank you for flying Drop Ship Transportation, we hope you will enjoy today’s crash for the rest of your lives. We’d like to take this opportunity to remind you that it is a good day to die.” 

“Oh, shit,” Volk muttered. “He thinks he’s a Klingon.” 

“Q’plah, motherfuckers!” 


“They want us to what?” Pak threw the old wiring aside and moved out of the way so his crew could keep working on the servo replacement. 

“You have to open both sides of the airlock,” Harriet said. “They’re coming in very, very fast and Volk says the lander will punch through the internal door one way or another so he’d like us to get it open if we can.” 

“That’s not possible,” Pak said, trying to keep from yelling into his comm. He didn’t want to deafen the woman. “There’s safeties to keep us from opening both halves of the door.” 

“Can’t you override the safety?” 

“The programming language isn’t one we have a manual for…” Pak looked around for a loose board. “But I can try to do something.” 

“Well if you can’t figure it out get your team away from that hatch in eighteen minutes because by that point you’ll be in the line of fire.” 

“Great. Great, thanks.” He signed off the comm and looked around. “Gemma! You’re in charge here, finish up these replacements and clear the scene in ten minutes, got it?” 

“Ten minutes!” She pulled herself out of a servo hatch and stared at him. “How am I supposed to do that? And what are you doing?” 

“Just get it done!” He sprinted off towards the closest network node he could tap in to. 


The worst part about an emergency landing was the waiting. There was nothing quite so terrifying as sitting in a chair, looking out a viewport and watching the air around your ship slowly superheat from the friction of your passage, knowing you were bound for a sudden, sharp stop sometime in the near future. Except maybe sitting in a chair with no viewport. Volk caught a quiet whimper come over the open comm circuit he’d established among the four passengers in the lander. 

“Everything okay, Mrs. Pracht?” 

“Sick stomach,” she said. 

“Ah. Well, if you do lose anything your helmet has an automatic suction system that should deal with it. Let me know if it doesn’t.” 

“This happens a lot?” 

“More than we like to admit.” 

“Crosswinds moving north-northwest,” Cates said, cutting in to the channel. “Brace for it.” 

“In this atmo it’ll be a walk in the park,” Langley said, his hands working the controls frantically. 

And to Volk’s surprise the jolt a few seconds later was pretty negligible. “Damn,” Cates muttered. “How did you do that?” 

“Practice. Panic about crosswinds once we’re halfway down, kid. Until then, try and relax.” 

Langley had probably meant it as much for Alyssa as for Cates but, if so, it was lost on her. She was starting to huff a bit in her helmet and Volk was getting worried. Spacers went through a lot of training to acclimate to the stress of being in a vacuum suit, to say nothing of space flight and emergency situations. “Calm down, Alyssa,” he said. “Only fifteen minutes to go.” 

“Is it supposed to be this warm?” She asked. 

Volk glanced out the viewport and watched the air glow brighter and brighter. “No. Not really.” 


Where the exterior door and its servos had deteriorated quite a bit the network hub was still in surprisingly good shape. Pak managed to get it open and connect it to his board in under a minute. After that he got so wrapped up in trying to get access he never noticed Harriet coming up behind him. He nearly jumped out of his skin when her hand touched his shoulder. “What?!” 

“Sorry…” She huffed, panting and sweaty. “Got… lost. Thought you were… at the hatch.” 

He tried to slow his heart down. “No, I had to come here to get in the network. What did you need?” She just held out the small, comm sized box the spacers seemed to use as their all-purpose computing solution. After a moment’s hesitation Pak took it and said, “Hello?” 

“Is this the person in charge of reprogramming the hatch systems?” A voice asked. 

“That’s me.” 

“I’m told no one down there has any significant experience with this kind of thing.” 

Pak grimaced. “True enough. Is it too much to hope you have a solution ready to go?” 

“We’re going to do everything we can to help you.” Which he noticed was not a direct answer to his question. “Now, we’re going to be working in ENDEMIC, the English language version of ColSystems’ Dome Engineering Management Information Codec, which is a very simple and robust programming language from that era.” 

“I’m glad someone here is an expert on it.” 

“I’m just reading from the first page of the manual, kid. We’re not trying anything fancy, just pasting a new command bypass over existing code so hopefully it won’t take us too long to sort it out. Now you need to get system access.” 

“I’m working on that.” 

“There’s a back door you can use by bringing up the file directory…” 


“We’re crossing a warm air pocket in twenty seconds.” For all the animosity previously Cates seemed to function as Langley’s copilot just fine. “Shorter to skirt it to the north.” 

“We’re going too fast to cut around it neatly like that. We’ll just ride the turbulence.” 

Alyssa whimpered, the only noise she’d made for the past three or four minutes. “Easy,” Volk said. “We’re more than halfway down.” 

“We can’t just fly through it, we’ll hit the updraft and bounce like a bad penny!” 

“You have pennies on Rodenberry? I thought the Federation was beyond money.” Even Langley’s barbs had lost their playful edge and sounded more like a straining man trying to distract himself. 

“Steady, Langley,” Volk said. “Banter isn’t necessary if its distracting you.” 

“Gotta rag on someone, LT,” he shot back, “or I wind up doing it to myself. That’s even more distracting.” 

“By all means, rag on me then,” Cates said. “Just don’t smash this thing on the ground.” 

Another nervous sound from Alyssa. Then they hit the turbulence and engine two burst in to flames. 


“Try compiling it again.” 

Pak hit the right key on his board. “Same error message. Maybe we’re going about this all wrong, Mr. Deveneaux. What if, instead of creating a new opening subroutine, we tried just disengaging the safeties on the servoes for the inner door and cranked it open by hand.” 

“That’s going to be very slow to open and reseal, Pak,” the stranger on the comms said. “I don’t know if that’s adviseable.” 

“We have eight minutes left. I think It’s or only option to get this done before your ship crashes straight through the hatch and we can’t reseal it at all.” 

“Fair point. Okay, Pak, try the following commands…” 


Volk finally got the fire in engine two out. “You have full thrust on the starboard side again, Mr. Langley.” 

“Peachy.” The lander’s engines roared back to maximum, a new and somewhat ominous whine added to the mix. “We are twenty seconds away from the dome, people. If you’re the praying type, now is the time.” 

A quick glance at Alyssa told Volk she’d taken Langley’s advice some time ago. Assuming she hadn’t passed out. The woman had many admirable qualities but a love of flying wasn’t among them, unfortunately. He ran through a mental list of things he needed to do before crashing the lander and he could only think of one thing left to do. “Mr. Cates, stand by to release the braking parachute on Mr. Langley’s command.” 

“Wait, this ship has a parachute?” 

What?!” Volk and Cates demanded in unison. 

“Langley to Borealis, confirm entry hatch is open!” 


Pak clung to the side of the manual servo release, doing his best to resist the rushing tide of air trying to rip him out onto the surface of Mars. “This is Pak Teng Won at Hatch Five, hatch is open.” 

“Then hang on to something, we’re coming through and it isn’t going to be pretty.” 

“Already hanging on, thanks.” 

But his words were lost in the deafening howl that rose up, swallowing even the roar of the wind, as a flying craft the size of a house tore through the hatch. A wave of scalding air bore through the hatch with it, momentarily reversing the flow of wind through the hatch and almost knocking Pak to the ground with the suddenness of the reversal. As soon as he had his feet again Pak hit the automated controls for the outer hatch, sealing the dome again in a matter of seconds. But he didn’t pay attention to that because the ship smashed to the ground with a horrifying grinding, hissing noise. 

Half an acre of Martian corn flashfried into ash under the superheated hull or got ripped up in a tidal wave of dirt and plants that scattered everywhere in front of the sliding extraMartian object. For a moment he didn’t think it would stop before it hit a building but then a colorful black and gold object exploded from the back of the ship and expanded into a parachute that looked like it was half the size of the Sunbottle. It billowed under the force of the air for a moment then tore in half down the middle but that was enough to stop the ship before it even crossed the clear space between the fields and Old Borealis. Pak heaved a sigh of relief. Then realized that even though the ship hadn’t hit anything that was no guarantee anyone was alive in that thing. 

He’d covered half the distance to the ship when hatch popped open on the top of the ship and a suited man dragged himself out, a weird slime dripping from his whole body. He looked unsteady but that didn’t stop him from ripping his helmet off and throwing it down hard enough that it bounced five times before rolling to a stop. “Perfect landing, Cates. Let’s see you do that next time.” 

Pak let his headlong dash slow to a walk. Ramone had sent bottlers with hookup cables to loop the lander in. The parts on the ship would let them fix the Sunbottle. All four passengers on the lander had crawled out and looked like they were okay. 

Gemma came up by him, looking equally shellshocked by the craziness that had come and gone in the last half hour, and asked, “So, are we done?” 

Pak took a deep breath and let it out. Laughed. And said, “Yeah, I think the disaster is averted. For today.” He slapped her on the back. “Good work.” 

She turned bright red for some reason. “Uh, yeah. Thanks.” 

Pak put it out of his mind and went to see if they needed any help unloading the lander. 

Martian Scriptures Chapter Twenty Two – The Tipping Point

Previous Chapter

Alyssa scrambled back into the spacelock, frantically fiddling with the controls on the weird box the Rodenberries called an AI, something she really didn’t understand beyond being a very small but very advanced computer system. Supposedly it had decision making capabilities but not “strong” decision making capabilities. Whatever that meant. The reason she had one was so she could monitor the Sunbottle’s situation remotely but right now it was just showing her a badly focused hologram of her status board back at the watch room. “Not this board, Ramone, I need Doug’s old board.” 

“Hold on.” Ramone’s voice drifted in from somewhere out of sight. “I think we’re still trying to get something sorted with the input here.” 

The hologram jerked, then snapped into focus. Another moment passed, then the hologram froze for a second before changing to the desired board. “Much better,” she said. Then noticed that the primary wing fields were down to half strength. “Oh, never mind. Much worse!” 

One nice thing about AI holoreadouts was their transparency. That let Alyssa keep an eye on the board as she walked through the hanger towards the landing craft the Sunbottle parts were on. Captain Gyle only had to steer her around an obstacle every once in a while. “Eldest, you need to think about evacuating the rest of your people from Bottletown,” he was saying. “In case we can’t patch your system before something goes wrong.” 

“Are you sure we’ll be safe if we just move to the Borealis outskirts?” Nobari was also speaking from somewhere off camera. “We do have the resources to move everyone outside the dome for a day or two.” 

“As impressed as I am that that’s the case, I don’t think it will be necessary.” That was Deveneaux, also speaking from somewhere else on the ship. Once the call from Thacker revealed how bad things were on the ground he’d scurried away to ‘run simulations’ and consult with someone else who wasn’t even onboard the ship. Sometimes the scale Gyle’s crew worked on boggled the mind. “Those reactors are purpose built to not irradiate their surroundings. Most of the danger in this situation comes from not having a reactor available, rather than said reactor melting down.” 

“Still, pulling back some is for the best,” Gyle added. 

“Agreed,” Deveneaux hastened to add. “We should be able to slow the progress of the failure cascade if we lower the reactor’s output. I’m running some numbers now, give me five minutes and we’ll see what we come up with.” 

“If we don’t change anything, how long before we have a serious problem?” Gyle asked. 

The AI turned out to have a calculation function that Alyssa was taking full advantage of. “I think… eight hours. Maybe ten. What’s the fastest we can get back to the surface?” 

“I’m not the best pilot in the Navy,” Gyle said, “but I think I could make the trip in a hundred minutes if I really pushed it. Ensign Cates could probably do it in ninety.” 

“We’ve never had to hook something other than the Sunbottle into the dome’s power grid, so I have no idea how long that will take. Let’s call it two hours.” Alyssa bit her lower lip, by all accounts it should take under four hours to get to ground and start powering the Sunbottle down. Less than half her projected time limit. Why didn’t that reassure her? “With your permission, Captain, we’ll leave as soon as possible.” 

“Naturally,” Gyle said. “Merryweather! You have everything loaded?” 

They’d come around the end of a row of four Tigris class landers to find Chief Merryweather waiting for them, still wearing his metal skeleton suit the Rodenberry’s called a “loading exo” and looking a bit disgusted. Two boxes of components rested at his feet. “Almost, Captain.” 

Two other men and one woman were waiting there with him. One man Alyssa recognized as Commander Oda, the Captain’s assistant. The other looked vaguely familiar but she’d never seen the woman before. “I had him halt the loading for the moment,” Oda said. “There’s something we need to discuss, Captain.” 

Gyle stiffened, an odd look crossing his face. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t aware my orders on this subject got referred to committee.” 

When Alyssa had first started in the Sunbottle the head bottler had been a surly man named Greg Fields. He had always insisted on his orders being carried out immediately and completely, much to her annoyance. Until, halfway through her first cent in the bottle, a conduit blowout had scorched half a crawler team deep in the bowels of the reactor. The speed and precision of responding teams under Greg’s direction went a long way to explaining why he insisted on such discipline. And it was Greg’s example that helped her understand what the Captain was doing now – sitting on his annoyance until the crisis was passed. 

Oda realized it, too. “Commander Rand has new concerns about the tactical situation, Captain.” 

“We’re dealing with fifteen hundred people who haven’t even reached twenty years, living in an ancient colony dome with barely any resources of their own.” Gyle managed to say it without sounding condescending. Almost. “There is no tactical situation, Rand.” 

Rand opened his own AI holodisplay and showed the Captain some kind of graph. Alyssa thought it looked very familiar but couldn’t place it right off. “I had Lieutenant Jimenez running a number of tests over the past few days, Captain. Her people have tapped the dome power grid in several remote locations in order to build a better picture of how the colony is running.” 

“What?!” That explained why the graph looked familiar. It showed circuit loads throughout the dome. “Captain, we did not allow anyone into Bottletown for that purpose!” 

“Everything we did was done from Old Borealis,” Jimenez said. At least she had the good grace to look embarrassed by all this. “With a little knowhow you can get information on the whole grid from any substation in the network.” 

“And why is this important?” Gyle demanded. 

“Sir, they shunt a third of their power into some kind of underground chamber,” Rand said. “Fyodorovich’s initial survey detected the upper edges of it and we had his two enlisted men do a sweep of the crop fields that gave us an idea of how deep it runs, although we only hit a corner of it. Just based on that, at a minimum we’re looking at something the size of the Sea of Tranquility’s primary hanger bay. But theoretically they could have a warship on the scale of the Principia down there.” 

Gyle slowly turned to give Alyssa an appraising look. “Is that true?” 

“That we route a large amount of power through circuits fourteen and fifteen? Yes.” Alyssa folded her arms over her chest. “That’s a vital system. Every document on colony maintenance left by the Founders confirms that.” 

“As nearly as we can tell,” Rand countered, “the chamber doesn’t do anything. Outside of the power supply lines we couldn’t detect any entrances or exits.” 

“There’s one in the first level of the Sunbottle,” Alyssa said. “And there’s an external access.” 

“So what’s in there?” Gyle asked. “You’re a bottler. You must have gone in.” 

“No one goes in there.” It was barely a whisper. “Not until you pass into Silence.” 

“Great.” Rand threw his hands in the air. “It’s haunted. You’re spending a third of your power generating capacity on a haunted hanger bay. Doesn’t that fit with fucking everything–“ 

“That’s enough, Commander,” Gyle snapped. 

“It does bring us to the other issue at hand, Captain,” Oda said. “There’s still the Prime Directive issue to consider.” 

“We’ve already discussed this multiple times, Commander Oda.” 

“But this adds a new element to it.” Oda was firm and insistent. “We are dealing with a civilization that has sabotaged their own lifelines on an inhospitable world and even now shunts a sizeable portion of what safety they have left into systems that may have nothing more than religious significance. By interfering now we may be keeping them from a rightful collapse. It is arrogant of us to meddle in this situation.” 

From the twitching in his forehead Gyle seemed to be winding up for a blistering reply. But Alyssa had had enough and she stopped him with a hand on his forearm. “Commander, are you familiar with the work of the ‘Great Man’ that we watched when we visited your ship a few days ago?” 

“Yes.” Oda did not miss a beat when answering. “I was one of three officers who selected the episodes in question.” 

“I found it fascinating. I’m not a petitioner nor a great student of Ransom’s notes, but I’ve read through them about as often as most.” Alyssa closed her AI display and gave Oda her full attention. “I found the story about whether the metal man was truly human or not very reminiscent of Ransom and Weston’s meeting with the Oyarsa. Are you familiar with that story, Commander?” 

“I read a summary of–” 

“This story, too, rested on the question of who was or was not human. Only in Old Solar the term does not refer to humanity as such, but rather whether a thing contains the essence of the Creator – whether a living thing is hnau. Oyarsa was unable to comprehend how Weston could not see that the natives of Mars were hnau, just as Weston himself was. Do you know how Weston explained it?” 

Oda adopted the pursed lips and longsuffering air that seemed hardwired into Rodenberries who were listening while trying not to dismiss what they were hearing out of hand. “I do not.” 

“Weston said they were too primitive to justify his consideration. They had only sticks and nets and crude wooden houses, so it was fitting that he hold his hand over them in dominion.” Alyssa scowled at him. “It seems you’re the opposite. You can see that we’re hnau, just like you. But we’re too primitive to deserve your helping hand, so it’s fitting you not put yourself out to help us. If that’s the case, perhaps Ransom and Rodenberry don’t have as much in common as I thought.” 

Gyle rested a hand on her shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “Let’s hope that’s not the case.” His gaze offered Oda less comfort. “Anything you’d like to add, Commander?” 

Oda wasn’t winning his point and he could tell it. “Just that I strongly object to this course of action, Captain.” 

“Understood, Commander. You’re relieved of duty until further notice. Lieutenant Jimenez, please escort Commander Oda to his quarters.” She nodded and met Oda’s eyes for just a moment. He gave an imperceptible nod and left without further complaint. Gyle ignored them, still barking orders. “Merryweather, get that gear loaded. Miss Parcht, you can board at any time. Commander Rand, please oversee the launch procedure.” 

“Yes, sir.” He turned and headed towards the spacelock’s control room. 

“Thank you, Captain,” Alyssa said. 

“I want you to know that Commander Oda doesn’t speak for Rodenberry – not our planet, not for Gene.” 

“Of course not,” she said with a wan smile. “Not any more than I do for Bottletown. But you expect us to learn enough about both Rodenberries to make our own judgements you’ll have to stop treating us like children. No matter how young we look in your eyes.” 

“We’ll do our best, Miss Pracht. I promise you that.” 


“All aboard!” Volk announced as Cates secured the hatch behind Alyssa. “And perfect timing, we just got the last of your cargo loaded.” 

“Wonderful,” Langley said as he clomped past them on his way to the cockpit from the cargo bay hatch he’d just secured. “Get me off this damn ship and away from all this peace and goodwill.” 

Cates scowled at the man. “Remind me again why you’re here?” 

“Every ship should have at least one qualified pilot onboard, kid, even if he’s from a different service.” 

“Excuse you?” Cates stalked after him, doubtless to continue the argument. It had been near constant since they’d lifted off Mars. 

“Sorry about them,” Volk said to Alyssa. “Pilots love two things: flying and one upsmanship. I think Langley is getting as much of the second as he can since Cates won’t let him do the first.” 

“Sure.” Alyssa had most of her attention on the AI in her hand. “How do I answer this when it wants to talk to me?” 

Volk walked her through the finger movements to do what she wanted, then walked her towards the cockpit as well, doing his best to monitor both her conversation and the new battle lines being drawn between Rodenberry and Copernicus. The liftoff sequence apparently also failed to meet Langley’s exacting standards. “Let’s get strapped in before those two start throwing punches and put us in a flat spin.” 

Alyssa just nodded absently, speaking into her AI rather than to him. “Go ahead Commander Deveneaux. What do the numbers look like?” 

“It’s not the numbers that are a problem, Miss Pracht. It’s the reactor. I shared some models with my opposite number on our sister ship. After refining things some we’re pretty sure your reactor has three hours, tops, before the next cascade failure knocks out all your injectors and the backwash overloads your containment fields.” 

“Okay.” Alyssa walked while punching numbers into a holographic calculator. “If we shut down the reactor now the dome should be fine on back-up power for as long as six hours–” 

“I already tried that,” a new voice said. “But none of the reactor’s shutdown codes were accepted. From what the Bottletown computer is telling us it won’t do it as long as there’s no alternative power source for the dome available.” 

“Great,” Alyssa muttered. “Another system the Founders didn’t explain to us.” 

Volk gently helped her get settled into a chair. Cates had already gotten the lander off the ground and started cycling through the spacelock. Rather than hassling him about it Langley was quietly eavesdropping on the conversation. “Can you bypass that lockout?” Volk asked, trying to figure out what options were available. “Just cut out the relevant code in the program?” 

“Even if it was that simple,” Alyssa replied, “we don’t have anyone who’s familiar with the reactor’s code. There’s maybe twenty programmers in Bottletown at a given time to begin with.” 

“Fine. Fine.” The lander cleared spacelock and drifted over the aft port section of the Stewart. Mars peeked over the edge of the ship in the distance. “How much time will it take you to hook up the lander to the dome?” 

Alyssa shook her head. “I don’t know. If everything goes perfectly, twenty minutes? But I don’t know what the odds of that are. I’m not even sure the dome is ready to open – no one has used those hatches in thousands of cents, it’s going to be hard to get them operating again.” 

“Okay,” Volk said, soothing her. “Let’s not borrow trouble. Two hours to make a landing is more than plenty to–” 

“Injectors two and seven just went red!” Ramone yelled. “Juggle the relays before – Oyarsa save us, junction box seventeen’s out. Even the load!” 

Alyssa muted the audio, working numbers frantically. “Okay. Okay. We have… maybe ninety minutes before the reactor passes a point of no return and we can’t shut it down under any circumstances. We need to land in an hour. Maybe faster.” 

“Cates?” 

The ensign shook his head. “Not possible, sir. I could do eighty five minutes at the fastest but–” 

“I can do it.” 

Cates gave Langley a venomous look. “Stop with the bullshit. This is serious, we need to get the colony ready for a meltdown, not–” 

“I want to hear this, Cates.” Volk nodded to Langley. “Go on.” 

“I flew Somme class landers in the assault force that got wiped out at Minerva Polar,” he said. “They’re functionally identical to the Tigris class except they have weapons and armor in place of sensor emplacements and comms packages. I was trained to take them through all kinds of landing situations and I can get you from here to the dome in twenty two minutes. All we have to do is crash the ship at the end.” 

Martian Scriptures Chapter Twenty One – The Precipice

Previous Chapter

“I thought you said you’d done this before.”

Gemma stopped in the middle of banging the rust off one of the eight servo stations that needed replacing. “We didn’t have to do it in suits down in the Sunbottle. Not to mention the rust.” With a final bang she got the access panel on the side of the servo open and started rummaging around inside. “How did it even get out here, anyway? Didn’t think there was enough oxygen or moisture in the air outside the dome.”

“I dunno. Maybe it worked its way around from the inside. Maybe there’s a similar reaction with the atmosphere out here.” Pak handed her a cable tester when she waved for it. “Maybe we just got bad parts when these were installed.”

“That’s comforting.” She fiddled for a moment then yanked a set of cables out. “No good.”

“Will replacing those add any time to fixing the hatch?”

Another set of cables came out of the hatch with similar abruptness. “I want to say not much but I’ve never had to rerun a set of these in vacuum rated gloves. It could just be a few minutes per servo, it could turn into as much as half an hour.”

“How long did this take down below?”

Gemma glanced at him over top of the hatch. “Twenty minutes with an experienced crawl team, thirty if I was on it. We’re getting two crawl teams plus the watchers you pulled, so we only need to do two servos per team. But the real problem is how deep we need to go.”

The lip of the hatch was about four inches above the red Martian dirt underfoot. Pak gave it another once over, he’d been certain there weren’t any servos down there but he hadn’t looked closely before. He’d been under the impression they wouldn’t do much on the bottom of the frame.

“Deep into the wiring,” Gemma said with a giggle. “Not underground. Corrosion tends to spread once it gets onto something. We may need to rip out part of the wiring in the dome walls or even find a junction box and rerun an entire line in order to get power moving to these things again.”

“Great.” Pak scooped up the hammer she’d been working with a moment ago. “Well, let me know if you need a hand with anything.”

“Where are you going?”

“To get the next servo case open.” He started towards the other side of the hundred and twenty foot hatch. “The sooner we can get all these tests done and start the replacements the happier I’ll be.”


 

“…And this is the Sunbottle.”

“Impressive.” It really was. Harriet hadn’t expected to feel outdone by the Malacandrans at any point during her visit but the reactor’s main floor atrium was enough to take the breath away after a few days on the bleak surface of the Red Planet. “Was it built like this or did you remodel it?”

Nobari shrugged. “It’s not really clear what is original and what was added by the Founders but the early records suggest at least part of this was added after Bottletown was established. Most of our existing facilities started off as remains for Borealis and were expanded to accommodate more people as the population grew.”

“Why not just expand out into the old colony?” Aubrey asked. “We have a lot of old, unused buildings on Earth but we were never shy about reappropriating them if we had a need. It’s just most of the time we didn’t.”

“Most of the old places are – were – unsafe. And there’s the question of whether we can feed everyone if we expand.” Nobari made a noncommittal noise. “Or that’s what I would have told you two weeks ago. There’s a lot about the Founders that only the Eldest and his or her successor know. Normally I’d be in the process of passing most of that on to Elder Rectenwald now that I’m Eldest but, to be honest, I’m not sure how much of it is going to be relevant in the future.”

“So you think you stayed out of the rest of the colony because only these buildings were masked by the reactor?” Harriet understood that was what the Naval engineers thought.

“That’s a possibility, although I don’t have the first clue how to tell if it’s true.” Nobari led them across the atrium to a door at one end of the oval and let them in. They arrived in a bare office with a single bookshelf at one end. “Most of our knowledge of the Founders’ era tells us about how things work but not why they work that way. In the Founders’ time people were not sent into Silence as young as now and there were fewer people overall, so they had more time to delve into the whys of the hows. Now most of what they learned just sits here and gathers dust.”

“What do you think the whys are, Eldest?” Harriet asked.

That drew the first genuine smile he’d shown that day. “Me? I’m an odd person to ask, don’t you think?”

Harriet fumbled for a moment, a bit taken aback. “Well, you’re the Eldest, aren’t you?”

“That doesn’t mean as much as you might think,” he answered, laughing. “I’ve known most of the Eldest’s secrets for about twenty days and I’ll leave the position in about the same period of time, Oyarsa willing. That’s about average for an Eldest’s tenure. There’s really not a whole lot of weight to the position, or at least there wasn’t until we had you folks to deal with.”

“But you are the one dealing with us,” Harriet pointed out.  “That makes it your decision and makes your thoughts kind of important, no?”

Nobari rocked uncomfortably from one foot to the other and back again. “Perhaps.”

Long honed instincts told Harriet she wasn’t going to get any more pushing harder. Better to let the interview’s subject take some time to sort their thoughts out. “I know this is a strange time for you,” she said. “We’ll let you–“

“Eldest!” A harried looking young man burst into the room, panting.

Nobari pivoted instantly from uncomfortable contemplative to decisive actor, pivoting to look back to at the door in the same moment. “What’s wrong, Ramone?”

“The wing fields are fluctuating towards the edges of the orange zone in shorter and shorter intervals!” He paused and gasped in another breath. “We could be looking at a complete field collapse!”

Momentary confusion crossed Nobari’s face, then he nodded. “This is because of the conduit problem Elder Alyssa was working on?”

“Yes, Eldest!”

Nobari started for the door with purposeful strides. “Show me.”


 

The crates took up a full quarter of the spacelock and the last batches of parts were still trickling in from fabber labs across the ship but, based on her expression, Alyssa was already overwhelmed by what she was seeing. Craig suppressed a smile and asked, “Is anything not up to your standards?”

“I wouldn’t say that. Pretty much the opposite, in fact.” She was looking over the injector assembly in her hands with a critical eye. She indicated a small patch near the primary coupling. “I’m not even sure what some of these parts do. I presume this is the secondary regulator, because that’s where it is on the parts we use, but this is far too small to be an exact replica of them.”

“It’s not,” Deveneaux confirmed. “It’s  a modern regulator with a quarter the size and twice the redundancy as what you have now. We’re not replacing your primary regulators right now so they aren’t going to take all the burden off the injection system but they will remove some of the strain. You can keep running your reactor under its current settings for another couple of centuries before the problems start again. But let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

Alyssa put the injector back into its spot in the crate and closed the lid. “I don’t understand why you would consider sharing technology like this immoral. You could do so much good with it.”

“It’s not the technology itself that’s the problem,” Craig said. “Human beings are influence by their environment, up to and including the technology and culture around them. We think introducing technology and culture to those who aren’t prepared to deal with it is a harmful influence to the people in question. It distorts their culture and prevents them from developing into who they would be otherwise.”

“What if who they would be otherwise is less human than the people they will become if you help them?”

“That’s hardly a new line of thought, ma’am. But it’s also a very dangerous one. Many evil things in the past were done in the name of helping other people.” Craig shrugged. “Ultimately we decided that intervention beyond certain boundaries was something we couldn’t be trusted with. Humanity is not a thing we let ourselves define.”

“If you won’t define it, why have the word?” She locked the crate closed with a little more force than necessary. “We never wanted to become a colony locked in a dome, hiding from our homeworld, ignorant of how half our technology works. It was a terrible thing, made worse because we remember just enough to know that, in many ways, we are so much less than what we should be. Even then, we may never conform to what you think humanity should be, either. But it would be nice to at least know enough to judge whether you’re lying to me about the evils of the past. We could find our own ways to avoid them, then.”

A smile tugged at the corners of Craig’s mouth. He knew when he’d lost a point. “I think we can do that, at least. Is everything to your liking?”

She glanced down at her inventory list. “I think I’ve seen everything. And yes, it all looks more than functional in our reactor.”

“Excellent, then I’ll–” A low whistle in his ear informed him of an incoming communication. “Excuse me for a moment.”

He moved a couple of paces away and flicked a finger so his AI would tell him who was calling. A bland voice told him, “Harriet Thacker.”

Craig frowned. She was supposed to be on the surface, doing journalist things. He accepted the call. “Miss Thacker?”

“Captain.” She sounded a little frantic. “You need to get Mrs. Pracht and Commander Deveneaux on a line down here ASAP. Something’s gone haywire in the Sunbottle.”

“Understood. Standby.” He cut the line and looked across the spacelock. “Chief Merryweather! Start loading it up! Alyssa, Commander, we need to make a quick visit to the comms lab…”