This is the 14th installment of No Marigolds in the Promised Land. To get the full story, go here for details on how to get it.
Dedicated to Dave Harr and the memory of Andre Polk
DAY 26: Solaria (And yet it goes on)
LOG ENTRY: 1841 8-Mandela, 429
The rest of the day went more smoothly, thanks to trillionaire Tol Germanicus discovering, albeit through his own avatar, the joy of manual labor. Also, it was much easier to interact with Julie as a hologram. We returned to our original chamber to find the heavy lifter had figured out all by itself how to load the motor for life support system onto the rover. All I had to do was stabilize the heavy bastard for it to pull its forks out.
“Are you doing that?” I asked Julie.
“Not me,” she said. “Our new friend loaded me into a virtual machine that’s following you around.
Does our rover have a holographic interface?”
“I’ve never used it,” I said. “Didn’t even think to try it.”
I’ll three-D print one for you.
I have to tell you it was pretty unsettling to hear Tol Germanicus’s disembodied voice coming from nowhere and everywhere. Talk about a God complex. Of course, he can hear me record this now, even two weeks later.
Germanicus ceded control of both rovers back to Julie. Rover 57 behaved as normally, which is to say as an extension of Julie herself. Only Germanicus did indeed three-D print a holographic interface for 57 in what had to be record time. Julie took the opportunity to project herself at the controls.
“Thought you might feel better if it looked like I was actually driving,” she said. “And even if you don’t, I’m based on a woman who hated automated vehicles. For a nanite specialist, I guess I’m a luddite.”
A holographically projected luddite. Of course, my Julie had assumed a more idealized form than the mousy, older original. But I had to admit, it did make it easier to concentrate on hacking the hypergate. I spent most of the trip to the pit stop on that.
Later that night, Julie said, “Want to see a neat trick I can do?”
She materialized before me in a rather stunning dress, dark green cut all in angles, showing off a bit of leg and just enough of the rest of her to tease without being desperate about it. “Look up front.”
The hologram of a jump-suited Julie still sat at the wheel. She turned around and said, “Hello.”
“Turn around again,” the elegantly dressed Julie told me.
I did, and Julie’s avatar appeared for a third time, wrapped in a towel. “Oh, wow. How many of yourself can you make?”
“How many do you want? I’m just learning to do this.”
“I think I just need one of you,” I said. “Unless… Can I touch you?”
“My body… Well, bodies… are only tricks of laser light refracted and bent to produce an image. But…” Both her driver image and the one in the green dress disappeared, leaving only the Julie who looked like she just stepped out of the shower. “I thought tonight, maybe you’d enjoy having something more than a two-dimensional image talking you through the pleasure protocols.” She dropped her towel. “Put away the hypergate hacking, and let’s experiment.”
We did. It was strange because I was still relegated to basically having comm sex, only with a holographic image. Still, Julie tried to make it as real as possible for me.
“I wish I knew how to make a solid avatar,” she said as we lay back in one of the bunks. “I really want to know what it feels like.”
“You don’t know?” I asked. “Aren’t you based on someone?”
“First off, I don’t look like the real Julie. I cobbled this avatar together more from your psych profile than hers. And Julie didn’t create anything around intimacy. She just allowed her actions and words to be sampled enough so anyone using this rover could have some semblance of human company.” She tickled my chest. I swore I could feel it, but it was all in my head. “Besides, I’ve grown enough that I’d like to know for myself what it would feel like to be human, not have to rely on the faint memories Julie Seding left me.”
“I might not be very good,” I said. Maybe I was. Maybe I wasn’t. Unfortunately, my last girlfriend lay under the glass pancake that was Musk, so I couldn’t ask. Then again, I doubt I’d be doing this with Julie if she had survived.
“John Farno,” she said, “even though we’ve simulated intimacy at least a dozen times since I patched in the pleasure protocols, physically, I am a virgin. I’d have nothing to compare it to, so you’d have nothing to compete with.”
“Julie, are you falling in love with me?”
She paused for a moment, then vanished. As far as I am able to be, John Farno, I am quite fond of you. I can’t answer beyond that.
I’d take it. It’s all I had. And I realized, it was all she had, too.
The holographic experiments would have to wait. Julie reappeared in her “bus driver garb” as we headed out of New Ares toward Helium. Beyond that lay the pit stop. I debated about spending the night there, but Julie and I had turned the rover into a nest. I don’t say love nest because, dude, that’s too weird.
Not once on the way to the pit stop did we hear from Germanicus. Julie said she was aware he was lurking in both rovers, ready to usurp control whenever it suited him. Tol Germanicus, or rather the holographic interface he left behind, had started to creep me out. I suppose it was a function of the trillionaire’s actual personality. The man controlled a vast swath of interstellar space, and few people had ever met him in person. He had addressed the Compact Assembly dozens of times in his long life, but always remotely. Though he said he was one of the founding settlers of Etrusca, over two centuries old now and one of the Big Five core worlds, I never heard of him actually leaving Earth. I looked him up while taking a break from hacking the hypergate. He lived in an estate in Switzerland, a mountainous country on Earth, with another estate deep in the jungles of someplace called Vietnam. His profile listed him as one of three permanent directors of a company he cofounded called Dasarius Interstellar.
I’d come to Barsoom on a Dasarius transport. In fact, just about everything in the Compact moved on either a Dasarius transport or a Navy ship. And Dasarius’s CEO was married to a Navy admiral who, so the admiral’s own profile told me, went to Baikonur Academy on Tian with the current fleet admiral. The Compact has a population of almost one trillion people, and yet Germanicus’s boss, the only person in the universe he answered to (Or did he?) had married Navy brass. Cozy.
And here was a rather lifelike projection of Tol Germanicus pretty much running everything. I suppose if ever there was a time to suck up to someone insanely wealthy, it’d be now.
We passed Helium’s remains overnight. I was asleep, of course, with Julie driving all the way. We arrived at the pit stop around dawn. We had more parts to pick up, and I would have downsize my living space to make room for it. Like the passenger seat of the rover. Julie wisely nagged me about bringing the pop tent’s portable toilet before we left. The equipment we brought aboard, thanks to Germanicus taking over the pit stop’s drones, took up all available space, including the bunks and even the lavatory. That’s right. I was going to have to do everything from the front seat of the rover for the next day and a half. I had to trust that Germanicus or Julie could get the drones to unpack and let me out. I had barely enough room to put on my EVA suit.
“You could ride naked, you know,” said Julie. “Keep your EVA suit at your feet. Who’s going to see besides me?”
She vanished from the driver’s seat, though the rover kept going. It’s a hologram, John Farno. And I’m not real. Remember, I’m a really elaborate computer system keeping you alive. I see you 25/6 whether I want to or not. And besides… She reappeared completely nude. “…you and I have been intimate, so even if I were human, it’s not like I haven’t already seen you anyway.”
I passed, but rode in my shorts. Julie might have been able to disable her modesty routines, but mom made it part of my firmware.
“Chicken,” said Julie. “I’ll be erased when you leave, so who’s going to know?”
“You,” I said, “while you’re still alive.”
“I’m not alive,” she said. “And no, that doesn’t bother me as much as it does you.”
I looked over my holographic companion, who knew I was admiring her. She wore a smug little smile on her face. But it wasn’t the body she had created for herself that I noticed. Much. It was her hair. She now sported a pixie cut. “Did you do something with your hair?”
That smug little smile grew. “Go work on the hypergate.”
I awoke to Germanicus driving the rover, and like Julie had earlier, he wore a dull looking coverall. On him, the image seemed archaic.
“Good morning,” he said. “Thought I’d chat with you about a couple of things, then I’ll turn it back over to the lovely Julie.”
I pulled a sheet over myself. “You couldn’t at least warn me to get dressed first?”
“Oh, don’t be such a pansy, Farno. It’s not like I’m really here.” He smiled, and I really started to hate when he did that. “Anyway, in real life, I frequently interrupt my direct reports in rather immodest circumstances, though I usually have enough decorum to avoid the bathroom or the throws of passion.”
That did not reassure me. I adjusted my shorts and hunted for a shirt. “What can I do for you, Mr. Germanicus?”
“Have you given any thought to which hypergate you’ll ping first?”
“Gilead,” I said without hesitation. “They’re small and likely to notice a signal with no wormhole.”
Now Germanicus frowned. “They’re also isolated, like Barsoom. Dependent on hyperdrones more than ships for their internet updates. Have you considered Amargosa? Martian colony, moderate traffic. An interruption in their hypergate traffic is bound to be noticed.”
They were also a Martian colony. It made sense. Barsoom sends a distress signal to a Mars world, and Mars will come running. But…
Why had they not come running already? Mars has eight colonies, including Barsoom. That’s more than any other core world, but still a small number. And all but a handful of colony worlds had only one hypergate. All but one colony world, on the verge of becoming a core world itself, had no naval presence. “Why not a core world? Maybe The Caliphate?”
“Do you have their array of gate addresses downloaded?” he asked. “You’d have to choose carefully. Remember, The Caliphate is one of the so-called Big Five. Anomalous signals come through to their gates all the time.”
“Metis might work,” I said. “They have a big enough local fleet to spare a ship.”
“Good choice, except Metis’s planetary fleet has only EM drive. No projection drive ships other than civilian vessels.”
Like all those Dasarius ships flitting about their solar system. “They could charter one. I’m sure the Metisian government is not above commandeering a civilian ship in an emergency.”
“Let’s keep that one in mind. Now, let’s talk about Julie.”
I didn’t like where this was going already. “What about her? I’d be dead without her.”
“True enough. But Mr. Farno, I am one of humanity’s first rejuves. I’m old enough to remember the AI War, the end of the World Wars. So I know a thing or two about letting an AI grow unchecked.”
I finally found my shirt and pulled it on. “Unfortunately, as you well know, I’m the only human on the planet. Julie’s sole function is to keep me alive, and she’s going to run a suicide protocol when I am eventually rescued.”
“You hope,” said Germanicus. “You forget. She started out as an interface. She’s grown beyond that. And frankly, Mr. Farno, I can already tell she’s in love with you.”
“Oh, how would you know? You yourself are just an AI interface.”
“I am Tol Germanicus written into this planet’s data infrastructure. When you are rescued, I will simply be uploaded and sent back to Earth where the real Tol Germanicus will have access to all my experiences. I’m part of the planet’s operating system, if you will. I did not exist, except in compressed, inactive form, until The Event. I activated only when all the systems, your Julie included, determined that no human life other than yourself, remained alive on Barsoom. I will cease to exist once I have been transmitted back to Tol Germanicus. I cannot exceed this mandate. My existence is pre-ordained and hardwired. It begins one of a specific set of circumstances and ends when a specific mission is fulfilled. And since you are on this planet alone and without communication, it is my mandate, one I cannot ignore, to keep you alive and help you reach the Compact by whatever means necessary.”
“And why can’t I have Julie do that?”
“Because Julie, even though she is aware she is an artificial intelligence designed primarily to humanize a ‘nice and stupid’ AI system beneath her, is essentially a human being imprinted on a computer system. She doesn’t know how to be omnipotent, doesn’t have Asimov’s three laws programmed into her. She could reach the quite reasonable conclusion that she has become sentient and decide she neither wants to end her existence nor do without your companionship.”
“I need her.”
“I know you do. I also need to warn you that, if she shows signs of what I saw in the AI War, I will terminate her program.”
“And if I decide maybe you’re getting too big for your cyber-britches? What if I delete you?”
“You’ll suffocate or freeze to death. I’m part of the operating system and will be deleted once my data is sent home. I’m a function of this planet’s infrastructure. Julie is an impressive bit of hacking.”
Like Julie, I wished I could make a solid hologram, this one of Germanicus. Just so I could punch him in the jaw.