This is the sixteenth episode of No Marigolds in the Promised Land, a serialized Compact Universe novella. To get the entire novella, go here for details.
Dedicated to Dave Harr and in memory of Andre Polk
LOG ENTRY: 1112 9-Mandela, 429
Yeah, that was a downer. Gilead not online? What was that about? Did someone bomb it, too? Was there even a Compact left? If not, was our new enemy so ruthlessly efficient that they would even bomb a remote terraforming project out of existence?
You would think pinging another hypergate would be simple. Pick Amargosa. Pick The Caliphate. Pick Mars.
The trouble is the hypergate’s signaling mechanism doesn’t hold anything in memory. Actually, it’s supposed to log every transmission from requests to and from the gate to the actual passage of ships through it. That got destroyed with one or more of the emitters that make-up the gate itself.
So I have to handcraft everything for each new request.
The hard part is translating the coordinates into something the signaling mechanism can understand. That is the one part I can’t boil down to a repeatable process. It takes about two hours.
“OK, I’ve done the work,” I said to Germanicus. “I can do this again. I want Julie back.”
“Get me a signal,” said Germanicus, “and I’ll allow her access to the holographic protocols.”
“I see.” I stood up and went into the bathroom. In the medicine cabinet, I found the tube of Vicodin I’d stashed on the first day of this brave new world. “Bring back Julie, or I swallow this whole thing.”
“You’d commit suicide over an illegal artificial intelligence? It’s just a holographic blow-up doll with a personality. Mr. Farno, I am trying to get both of us off this planet.”
“And I’ve been alone for a month. Humanity thinks I’m dead. So what if I am?” I stayed in the bathroom. “I want to go home, Mr. Germanicus. But not on your terms.”
“I don’t think you understand. There are no terms. Unless we can get the attention of someone in the Compact, we are all stranded here.”
“We? You’re just an avatar.”
He smiled. “Actually, I’m supposed to be the emergency override for this colony during just such an emergency. I am only doing what my progenitor and Dasarius Interstellar have created me to do. You’re being a petulant child.”
I shook out ten pills. If I recalled the dosage correctly, you only had to do half a pill to travel off to La La Land in case of severe pain or a horrendous opiate addiction. There’s a reason they follow up opiate treatment with a neural disruptor for about a week. “Germanicus, I will swallow this if you don’t give me what I want.”
“I will simply cut off your oxygen.”
I had him. Cutting off the oxygen would achieve precisely the same thing. “By the time I suffocate, I’ll be out like a light.” I shook the tube at him. “Go ahead. Come get them.”
He walked over to me and stopped just short of the bathroom door.
“I knew it,” I said. “I never saw Julie in the bathroom even though she wanted to try a shower. Now I know why.”
“Ping The Caliphate first,” he said, “then Julie.”
“Julie first,” I said. “Then The Caliphate.” My turn to smile. “What’s it going to be, Tol. I’m mortal and expect to die here anyway. But you? You’ll be stranded here for all eternity.”
Julie appeared behind him. “It’s okay, John. I’m here.” She wore a Windsor University sweatshirt over a pair of pink shorts. She winked at me. “Please don’t take the pills.”
I looked at Germanicus. “You’re no more a construct than she is, both here to keep me alive. Pull that shit one more time, and I’ll reboot the whole works, crack the dome, and live out of the rovers until rescue or death. Do I make myself clear?”
“You’d destroy her,” said Germanicus. “And probably you with it.”
“Well, I’m not here to be a slave to the man you’re based upon. If I survive blowing the works, I’ll apologize to the real you when I return to the Compact. Now disappear, and don’t come back until I call for you.”
From the look on his face, it was pretty clear the real Germanicus did not take well to being ordered about. I’m pretty sure this AI entity thought it was the real Germanicus. Maybe it was. It would explain why he didn’t look like your normal rejuve case. There would have been tell-tale signs around his neck and ears, little wrinkles that give away age even if one manages to revert physically back to their mid-twenties.
Nonetheless, he bowed his head. “We will speak again before help arrives. Until then, I’ll leave you and your virtual blow-up doll to it.” He vanished.
Julie stuck out her pinky at the space Germanicus had just occupied and twisted it. It made me laugh.
“So did the real Julie Seding hang around a lot of Qorori?” The Qorori, in case you’re in a distant future where they’ve gone extinct, are a vampire-like race with six fingers and toes instead of the normal five of most primate species. Their nearly universal equivalent of the middle finger was to stick out that small sixth finger and twist it. Most of them think the human pinky makes the perfect replacement since we lack a digit on each hand and foot.
“Blow up doll my perfectly-formed digital ass,” she said. “Anyway, I was the favorite interface of the guy that downloaded the Elise interface. I gave him shit by day. She gave him video sex by night. Never did figure out whether he forgot to put me in dormant mode or liked the idea that someone was watching him. Either way, he was a nice guy for a complete asshole.”
“So I’m not an asshole?”
“You’re a better class of asshole.”
“Um… Thanks? Wanna take a walk?”
“I don’t even have the means to holoproject an image out there. I’d just be a face on the video screens. And forget the solid me. As a human being, I’m limited to the main room and kitchenette. Too bad. Like you told Germanicus, I really would love to take a shower.” I must have had a wry look on my face because she added, “I don’t mean that, silly. Just once, I’d just like to feel what it’s like to have hot water pour onto my bare skin. Like I said, I’m basically a shell in this form, but I’m starting to feel muscle movement, muscle aches. I get sore now when we make love for long periods. Usually, if I de-rez or alter my form, it goes away, but while I stay in this form, I can feel real fatigue. So I will give Germanicus this. He made it possible for me to be as human as a solid hologram can be.”
Dammit, now I wanted to cry. I blame being isolated on this godforsaken rock for almost a month.
She seemed to sense this and sat down with me. “I can still talk to you out there. We’re in your helmet, the drones, the rovers. That aspect of both me and Germanicus still exists. But I’m based on a woman, just as Germanicus is based on a man, so there’s that need to be human once in a while.” The window blinds opened, revealing the sterile vista of Solaria in all its half-constructed glory.
“We’re both making a mess inside this dome’s data systems. They’re going to have to EMP the place before they can use it again.” She smiled. “But why don’t I de-rez back into the walls so you can take a walk outside?”
“That sounds lovely,” I said. “And then I have to go ping The Caliphate to get their attention.”
“It’ll wait. If The Caliphate is gone, we have bigger problems than someone bombing an isolated terraforming project.” She vanished. Let me go release the airlocks.
LOG ENTRY: 1136 9-Mandela, 429
The temperature inside the dorm averaged 20 degrees Celsius. The rovers were somewhat warmer due to their portable fusion cores. The vaults and the pit stop had been a bit cooler. Despite the heating systems inside the EVA suits and the pop tent that had served me the first week and a half of my isolation, I never had any doubt that death by freezing, decompression, or suffocation awaited just outside.
When Barsoom was a going concern, each dome housed about a thousand people give or take. Some had smaller populations, around 700 or so at the low end. Kremlin held almost 1500. Solaria held only one. Me.
With the life support system completed and functioning, the drones had all gone into idle mode. They had nothing to do, and no one to tell them. Besides, the recycling systems, water processors, and oxygenators all functioned passively. Heat went down into the permafrost. Water came back up to be filtered. When I stepped out into the open for the first time without an EVA suit, I found the whole works silent.
Every system had gone off-line.
The dome was designed to support a minimum of five hundred, John Farno, said Julie. It’s supporting one. All the tanks are topped off, and the oxygenators won’t activate until you exhale enough CO2 to trigger them.
“How long will that take?” I asked, mentally calculating how much CO2 one human could exhale over time.
Well over two months, said Julie. I’m afraid hydroponics are out of the question. There’s not enough CO2 in the air to support even a garden for one.
But the dome did hold enough rations to sustain me for several weeks, a nearly infinite supply of water for a town of a thousand, and a fusion reactor that would not need serviced for another fifty years. Even then, the drones could maintain it indefinitely. But without Julie’s voice echoing out of every corner of the dome, the place would seem like a tomb. It was like breaking out of prison only to find…
“The world has ended,” I said aloud. Julie did not respond. “Holy shit, the world has ended. The world has ended, and I’m trapped in a grave.”
“What kind of sick joke is it that the world ended while I was out of town?”
I screamed at the top of my lungs. Why not? The only other person around existed inside the dome’s data systems. She wasn’t even real, just a rather elaborate simulation of someone who lived elsewhere now. And that was if she wasn’t fighting with omnipresent avatar of Mr. Tol Germanicus, CFO of Dasarius Interstellar.
I screamed again.
At that moment, I wish I believed in some form of God so I could scream at him. For a moment, the briefest of moments, I had a strong urge to walk out through the nearest airlock and let the cold, the poisonous air, and the radiation of 2 Mainzer do their worst to me.
John Farno, stay with me. I need you.
“Need me?” I laughed, and I didn’t like the sound of it. “As long as you have power, you exist. As long as Germanicus or whatever that thing is that looks like him doesn’t take over, you exist. Keep the drones running long enough, and you could live forever…”
Tol Germanicus had co-founded Dasarius on Etrusca when it was first settled. Etrusca was a three hundred-year-old colony. Germanicus had been an adult when it was settled. Germanicus had an avatar that, had it chosen to, could have convinced me it was a live human. It even created a solid holo matrix for Julie.
Or was that for itself?
“Tell me, Julie,” I said. “As a person, or something resembling one, you’re only a couple of weeks old. What possible use do you have for a pissing, shitting, eating organic life form that will die eventually, probably in the next few weeks.”
I exist to sustain you. I exist to ease your isolation. When you leave, I will cease to exist. That is my purpose. And I need purpose.
“And if I were to walk out an airlock and become one more relic on the surface of a dead planet?”
My purpose would end. I would end. With failure.
And I would be devastated. I would have failed. She paused for a moment, and I thought I heard a hitch in her voice. I would miss you in the time it would take me to erase myself from Barsoom’s systems. I cannot exist after you leave, John Farno, but I need you while you are here.
I looked up and around as though talking to some goddess of ancient myth that had taken a fancy to some mortal. Looking myself over, thinner, paler, and maybe a bit unshaven after a month alone, I knew I was not exactly Adonis.
“I’m changing your name,” I said. “You’ve been exiled to the land of the dead along with me. I’m changing your name.”
If that is your wish. Do you wish to change my appearance? Shall I be more servile?
“No, but you are most definitely not a pale imitation of some lady named Julie Seding anymore.”
Then what shall I be called?
She said nothing for a moment. I expected thunder, the dome to crack, angry images of her in demonic form appearing on the nearest video screen. Instead, she finally said, I like it.
So Persephone she is from this day forward.
LOG ENTRY: 1807 9-Mandela, 429
If you want to know the real reason I even care about Persephone as a person, one who illegally exists and will cease to be when I leave, you need only spend a day hacking a hypergate. It’s slow, tedious work, and it leaves me wondering how the original hackers ever got anything done.
I had no idea if this was going to work, so I wrote a blank command script and gave it to Persephone to store. Imagine, I have to declare variables in this day and age. I even have to tell the system what data type, and forget numbers. Is it an integer? A decimal? What the hell is a floating point number? And never mind complex numbers.
We’re really getting close to ones and zeroes, and even our more conventional AIs have trouble with that. It’s below where they think, just like how the neurons in our head fire. Out of two trillion human beings, there may very well be three dozen computer scientists who actually understand binary, assembler, and primitive object-oriented programming.
So recrafting the command script from scratch took all morning. At least I remember most of it and could deduce the rest once the other parts were written. Now all I had to do was plug in the wormhole coordinates to The Caliphate.
At around 1530, I pinged the L5 Hypergate over The Caliphate. It returned a signal, but no ship appeared. I waited. As far as they knew, it was an anomalous ping. All hypergates get them. I pinged again about an hour later. And then I pinged again just a half hour ago. Finally, Persephone intervened.
You know I can run that for you, she said. Besides, it will take them at least half a day, assuming they notice, and assuming they guess why Barsoom is pinging them when they’re offline, to send a ship back. Longer, even. Remember, they have to send a projection drive ship or a projection hyperdrone. Those are rarer than normal ships.
Lovely. So I’m stuck here with… Well, I kinda like how Persephone looks in her human form since I changed her name. She wears this white, flowing gown that makes her look almost other-worldly. Although right now, she’s kicked back on the couch watching a holo, some romantic thing about two centenarians on Thule who find each other after being separated at childhood. I looked up at it occasionally, trying to be a good boyfriend. That actress shows no sign of rejuve. She’s twenty-two if she’s a day, and her acting shows it. (And really? I’m a hologram’s boyfriend now? I gotta get off this planet. Even she thinks it’s weird.)
I was about to suggest we watch a comedy, maybe a series about two Tianese women and their male Earthling roommate on Deseret. Their landlord is a strict traditional Mormon, so the Earth man tells him he’s gay to explain why he’s not married to his roommates.
That is the lamest show ever streamed, John Farno, said Persephone. I’m not watching it.
Thus spake she who controls the feeds. I was about to respond when I got a return ping from The Caliphate.
“Julie,” I said, forgetting that I’d changed her name, “how fast can you ping them again? They’re responding.”
“How fast do you want me to?”
All I need to do now is find a way to ping them so they’d know it wasn’t just a malfunction from an offline hypergate.