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
MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE
2037 – 9-MANDELA, 429
CALIPHATE L5 HYPERGATE CONTROL
Tech Sergeant Patty Friese, Compact Border Guard and now looking at her final year of enlistment, was bored. Her last commanding officer had painted this as a cushy job, minding a hypergate over one of the Big Five core worlds in the Compact. Great opportunity to network for Friese’s post-military career. And The Caliphate ranked fourth in the Big Five worlds, ahead of Etrusca, and behind Mars, Earth, and the thousand-pound yeti that was Tian. She had her choice of residences, and was able to snag a cottage in The Caliphate’s famous wine country. What girl didn’t love wine?
Stupid question. What girl not from Deseret, the Mormon world, didn’t love wine?
But while her time planetside had been enjoyable, working the control center for the L5 hypergate made for mind-numbingly long days. The gates here ran themselves, much like they did over the other Big Five worlds. It wasn’t like there had been a lot of opportunity for alien contact. The Caliphate did not have a lot of non-human trade. Nor did the gates provide any technical challenges for Friese to sharpen her engineering skills. So far, the most excitement she had all day came from Amargosa, the distant Mars colony that served as a sort of bread basket for more distant colonies and for Mars itself. Twice, they had sent freighters through the L5 gate that day ahead of schedule. Friese herself didn’t care, but ibn-Aziz, the irascible port master who hailed from the planet below her, got a bit cranky when his well-planned schedule went awry.
A third ship, the Just Read the Instructions, tumbled out of the gate with no berthas it arrived from Amargosa. Ibn-Aziz was going to be on the warpath at tomorrow’s staff meeting. And of course, Friese would take the brunt of the civilian port master’s wrath.
“Instructions,” she hailed as soon as the ship came out of the gate’s latest wormhole, “this is Caliphate L5 control. You have no clearance to use this gate and no berth. State your business.” I’m impatient, she thought, and I just pissed off the Amargosa port master.
“Control, Just Read the Instructions actual,” the ship’s skipper replied, “we were scheduled for gate egress over Gilead, but the Gilead hypergate was off-line. At least that’s Amargosa’s theory.”
She blew out her breath. That made three off-schedule ships from Amargosa. The first two, the ConAgra Traveller and the Petrox Explorer, had been slated to come to The Caliphate anyway. They’d just burn extra thruster fuel waiting for their orbital berths to open. Just Read the Instructions had been scheduled for a system ten light years beyond Amargosa from The Caliphate, not that such distances mattered with gates and wormholes. “That doesn’t explain what you’re doing here.”
“Port Master Andraste suggested we try accessing Gilead from one of your gates,” the skipper said. “Maybe it’s a malfunction on their part or maybe Gilead is really down.”
And maybe my ass is in a sling before I even get off the beanstalk tomorrow morning, Friese thought. “Alright, Instructions, adjust attitude and prepare for access to Gilead. I’m going to have to charge your line for the emergency jump.”
“Understood,” said the skipper. “We’re insured by Lloyd’s of Shandug, so no worries there.”
Right. You’re not the one who’s going to be sitting on ibn-Aziz’s boot print for this. “Stand by. Accessing Gilead now.” She dialed up Gilead’s coordinates across hyperspace and pinged the colony’s sole hypergate.
“Unable to comply,” said the soft, female voice Friese found annoying. “Gilead hypergate unresponsive.”
Well, that was all Friese needed today. Gilead’s half-assed boondocks support crews couldn’t be arsed to calibrate their own gate for orbital and temporal drift. She called up the astronomical data on Gilead, made some quick calculations for where the Metisian colony lay in space and time, and realized the coordinates she used were correct. She pinged the gate again. With one gate, maybe another ship had been in egress the last time.
“Unable to comply,” said the soft voice again. “Gilead hypergate unresponsive.”
“Shit.” She opened her comm channel to Just Read the Instructions again. “Instructions, L5 Control, please free fall to a parking orbit. Gilead is off-line. We will need to report this to the Navy.” She waited a few beats for the inevitable response.
“Have you tried pinging it again?”
There it was, that snide implication that Friese, or anyone else sitting in their nice, cushy control centers, could possibly have not known that repinging or recalibrating for a distant hypergate was the obvious follow-up. She had learned early in her career that “Why, no, Captain, the thought never occurred to me. Thank the gods of Asgard and Olympus that you’re here to guide me with your wisdom and vast experience” was not an appropriate answer. Instead, she said, “Recalibrated and repinged. Gilead is off-line.” And before the skipper could protest, she added, “Commence free-fall, report your parking orbit, and standby for word from the Navy. L5 out.”
She knew the captain would be stewing on his bridge, muttering about schedules, lost time, and possibly lost bonuses. But physics was physics, and unless Gilead’s hypergate began acknowledging its own existence when contacted, travel to the colony would not be possible except by projection drive vessel. Those would prove expensive, especially to the notoriously cheap owners of the Just Read the Instructions.
So after that exchange, she sent her data and a short summary of the incident to her Naval Liaison Officer. Bureaucracy satisfied, she put it out of her mind.
And then Barsoom starting pinging her.
An alert had gone out for Barsoom about a month earlier. Its hypergate had also gone off line, but no one, least of all the Citizens Republic of Mars, seemed interested in investigating. Pings from Barsoom were to be noted, logged, and passed along to the Naval Liaison Officer for further consideration.
It had been a month. The Navy had not sent a ship. Nor had Mars. Nor had Dasarius Interstellar, the notoriously capitalistic monolith funding the terraforming project for notoriously collective Mars.
Collective, my ass, she thought. Those dome heads never met a credit they didn’t like. The only thing collective about those hypocrites is their greed.
And, the thought occurred to her, everyone but Earth and Tian had to suck Mars’s hind tit if they wanted to get anything out of the Compact. Hence the saying, “Better Red than bled.”
But it had been a month. Nothing had been noted or logged or passed to the Navy. Friese noted and logged the ping. She might have considered it an anomalous ping, a false ping, like some amateur or neophyte with a projection drive ship trying to find a hypergate because he or she got lost. But false pings came either from nameless ships (because the noobs tended to forget to encode their transponder numbers into the ping) or from functioning hypergates sending out random test pings. Barsoom had been silent for a month. Friese pinged it back.
When nothing responded, no return signal to accept a wormhole egress from the other gate, Friese noted and logged her return ping, made a few notes, and passed that along to the Navy for further consideration. She also left a note for her fellow controllers to keep an eye out for further pings.
Her palm tatt tingled, telling her it was 1830. Time to log out and catch the shuttle and the next beanstalk home. There was a bottle of Chardonnay waiting for her there. The port master might have been a tyrant at work, but the man knew his wines. She’d sit in a bath, listen to the local symphonic music, and forget about today’s battles with Amargosa’s port and the Just Read the Instructions.
2037 – 9 MANDELA, 429
NAJIRAN VALLEY PROVINCE, THE CALIPHATE
Friese had barely made it through the front door of her cottage in The Caliphate’s wine country when her palm began to tingle. It was Mudi ibn-Aziz, the L5 Port Master, and the red text on Friese’s palm tatt read “Urgent.” She settled into a chair, not about to be denied at least one little comfort before the boss wrecked her quiet evening.
“What’s up, Mudi?” she said. “I just got home.”
The gate networks over most core worlds had an unwritten rule for civilian administrators: Don’t bother junior officers and enlistees from the military at home when their shifts ended. The unwritten addendum to that went, “And if you do, make sure the Security Council has sent a declaration of war against someone to the Compact Assembly.” Friese doubted the Compact had gone to war with anyone, or that colony poaching had resumed.
Or had it? Gilead, after all, was offline.
“Good evening, Patty,” said ibn-Aziz, clearly aware he had violated the One Rule. “Sorry to disturb you at home, but you logged an anomalous ping from Barsoom just before your shift ended.”
“I did,” said Friese, trying to work a boot off her foot with her other foot and not succeeding. This call needed to end. “Barsoom was listed as non-functional, and neither OCD nor Command have sent instructions as to what to do about anomalous pings. I figured their hypergate might still be able to signal, and that the next shift should watch it.”
“Understood.” That meant the wrath of ibn-Aziz would not be coming down on her tomorrow, at least on this matter. “Thought you’d want to know that it’s happening again. And there’s a pattern. Single ping. Then two pings. Then three pings. Then five.”
Her foot stopped trying to dislodge the boot on the other foot. “Let me guess. Seven, eleven, thirteen?”
“Could you monitor your feed tonight? At least until midnight? Or until it reaches one ninety-nine?”
“Mudi, the signaling mechanisms are dumber than half the Compact Assembly. They’re capable pinging in patterns, but it’s a manual process. Someone has to tell it to ping in prime numbers.”
Ibn-Aziz let out his breath slowly. “This comes from your boss, General Voraz himself. Between Gilead going silent and now Barsoom sending pings, High Command is going to want to know if something’s going on with those two colonies.”
Right¸ she thought. You’re OCD, Mudi. Officially, you can’t say it, but you know something’s happening. But you’re dependent on us to tell you it is. Which, of course, made OCD’s omnipotence evaporate. She seemed to remember that famous passage from The Art of War when she went through basic training: No bureaucratic red tape survives contact with the bureaucracy of the Compact Military. At least she was on the Border Guard’s payroll and not on that of the Office of Colonial Development. Not in this case.
“I’ll be in tomorrow at 0700 with a report,” she said. “Your office?”
“Rashidun,” said ibn-Aziz, referring to The Caliphate’s capital city. “The Navy is sending an Admiral Burke to be briefed on the situation.”
Lovely, she thought. Five years in the Border Guard, and my perfect record of avoiding the brass outside of a parade ground is shot to hell. “I assume dress blues.”
“Take that up with your colonel. I am just your humble civilian manager, paid to terrorize staff during normal business hours. Palm me if you need anything. Ibn-Aziz out.”
Her palm tatt disappeared. With a couple of twitches of her thumb, she made it display the time. 2040. So much for streaming the finals between Metis and Bromdar before bed. She had to monitor her console from home.
“Ugh,” she said. “Discharge can’t come soon enough.”