This is the thirtieth episode of No Marigolds in the Promised Land, a serialized Compact Universe novel. To get the entire novel, go here for details.
Dedicated to Dave Harr and in memory of Andre Polk
Ken-Tuck-Ee City, Dakota, Anpetu Wi System
1022 – 18 Mandela, 429
Like every other Navy planetside facility, the local command for the Anpetu Wi system occupied a spectacularly dull block building in the least interesting section of Dakota’s capital. This one appeared to have been a block of local granite that someone had hollowed out. Friese knew better. Most buildings were either 3-D printed or raised by nanite colonies that self-destructed upon completion. With its darkened windows and seamless surface, however, it looked more like one giant block.
It offended Friese. Border Guard and the Marines tried to make their buildings somewhat inviting. And Naval orbital facilities looked like works of art from a distance. Why the Compact’s most visible branch of the military chose such anonymous eyesores for their own presence on land escaped her.
“Three days for this,” muttered Havak as they approached the building. “This had better be worth the wait.”
Friese avoided pointing out that one of those days had been spent in transit. Besides, Havak was right. A shuttle should have been waiting for them to take back to Alcubierre long before they arrived on Dakota. To her knowledge, the local commander was not only a force admiral, one star vs. Burke’s three, but he reported directly to Burke herself. Strange how the Navy did things.
As with the local command on The Caliphate and Navy Command on Earth, no guards stood at the entry. They were scanned and interrogated by a primitive AI that already had their bio-signatures. Friese needed only to state her name and stand still while the machine mind looked her over. In she and Havak went, doors automatically opening for them and wall lights guiding them to their destination.
Which turned out to be a literal white room. No windows, no visible doors. Even the door they entered disappeared completely from view when it closed behind them.
“Interrogation room?” asked Havak. “Did we do something wrong?”
The force admiral who entered from a door on the opposite side of the room stepped inside. He was a local, a big man whose demeanor suggested someone more of Bromdarian descent or that of some other euro-heavy world. Burke’s uniform looked just like that, a uniform, something even a flag officer wore to work. This admiral’s uniform reminded Friese of some World War Era dictator in love with his own image.
“I’m Force Admiral Red Cloud,” said the man, his voice low and modulated. “I command this sector. May I ask why you are hounding my personnel for a shuttle without authorization?”
Friese watched Havak as she clearly tried to restrain herself. The commander, Friese guessed, had little patience for those enamored with their lofty positions. Good thing she wasn’t there for the meeting with the Fleeet Admiral.
Havak held up her palm, for a second, giving Friese the impression she was going to slap Red Cloud. “Orders from Vice Admiral Burke. Direct orders.”
Red Cloud studied Havak’s palm tatt and frowned. “I warned her against this. It’s both our careers if I participate. What is this Alcubierre anyway? Why did we not have a hypergate transit or a wormhole event when you arrived?”
“That’s classified,” said Havak. “And yes, I’ve got orders from Vice Admiral Burke and the G-5.”
Red Cloud’s gaze settled on Friese. “You’re an enlistee. And from another service. How did you come across knowledge of this… ‘classified’ ship?”
“I was granted clearance and assigned to this mission,” said Friese. “By the Fleet Admiral himself.” Well, by Burke, but in the presence of Fleet Admiral Vu and his spooky sidekick.
“I see,” said Red Cloud. “I will need confirmation.”
“My ship has two hyperdrones, both projection drive capable,” said Havak. “I can request confirmation from Admiral Burke herself, or even the Fleet Admir—”
“That will not be necessary.”
Behind Red Cloud, the seemingly ageless yet aged figure of Tol Germanicus appeared to emerge from the wall itself. Friese suspected the walls had holographically camouflaged entrances, that this might be a room designed by Cybercommand for what was euphemistically called “enhanced interrogations.” Such interrogations tended to stretch the restrictions under the Compact to the breaking point.
“Mr. Germanicus,” said Red Cloud, turning and snapping to attention. “I had no idea you were…”
“Rest easy, Force Admiral,” said Germanicus. “I’m a civilian, not a Joint Chief. I am also assisting my dear friend, Admiral Burke, on this. What can I do to help?”
Friese wasn’t sure, but “What can I do to help?” translated in her mind as “Why are you disobeying orders, Admiral?” And while this mission was obviously Burke’s idea, Germanicus drove the bus on it. How else would he have this much access to a secure Naval facility. Friese found it creepy.
“Sir,” said Red Cloud, is if forgetting Germanicus’s comment that he was only a civilian, “this mission has no documentation, no confirmation code from Earth, and no record of this vessel’s passage into the system when it requested berth over Awis.”
“I see,” said Germanicus. “I have never served in the military myself other than a brief skirmish in my ancient youth, but I believe ‘classified’ means that very few people, including other admirals, particularly few below three stars, know about it. The only reason I know is that Admiral Burke requested Dasarius resources to help.” He smiled. “Madam Dasarius assigned me to give the Navy all the assistance I can.”
Red Cloud had deflated somewhat at the mention of “below three stars.” Force admirals fit that description. “What about this Alcubierre?”
“It is a dark project,” said Germanicus, “involving Dasarius research and the Navy’s long-term strategic needs. That your people did not detect it until it was in free-fall over Frankenstein shows that it is working.”
“Why would we need a ship that…?”
“War, Force Admiral. Admiral Burke and I both suspect the Compact is already at war.”
Not only did Red Cloud pale at this, so did Havak. And Friese felt herself go cold. “War?”
“A Martian terraforming project has been silent for nearly forty days,” said Germanicus. “And their colony on Amargosa reports they no longer can reach Gilead. That has been in the last ten days. There is a tendency by the civilian government to ignore smaller and newer colonies going silent in hopes that a hostile force has what they want and will go away. I have yet to see that bear out in my long life, and I was born before the Interstellar Age.”
“I will need to have a shuttle prepped and taken out of rotation,” said Red Cloud, sounding more like an enlistee in the Marines than the system commander for Dakota.
“No need,” said Germanicus. “I understand your concerns and have taken the liberty of offering a Dasarius vehicle. The Alcubierre is Dasarius built with our technology integrated with it. It’s only fitting we provide additional equipment.”
“Because Commander Havak was unaware of my presence in the system. The Alcubierre, by the nature of its propulsion, is in blackout when it is in transit. I believe they even had a technical incident in the Wolf 359 system. Is that correct, Commander?”
Germanicus then focused on Friese, making her swallow. “Sergeant, I would suggest contacting the colonel in charge of the local hypergate network and requesting time to build the stellar maps you will need for the rest of your trip. Do you think a day or so is enough time?”
Again, Friese swallowed. This man seemed like the king of the world, or at least, the human race. Nothing was off-limits to him. “I can do that, sir. Shall I relay that to Lieutenant Danaq aboard the Alcubierre?”
Germanicus’s gaze shifted again to Havak. “Whatever your commander deems best for this mission. Good luck.” He turned and left the room. It looked like he walked through the wall itself.
“No,” said Havak, “that’s not strange at all.”
“Things are always strange,” said Red Cloud, much of his stern tone gone, “whenever that man appears.”
“Admiral, sir, while the sergeant is working with the hypergate staff, I would like to avail myself of leave time while we await the Dasarius shuttle.”
Red Cloud started to say something, then looked down at his palm. “Apparently, Admiral Burke anticipated that already. The two of you have a room at the Ken-Tuck-Ee Sheraton, and you, Commander, have an unlimited meal pass for restaurants in the city.” He gave the commander a half smile. “And if you do not think it inappropriate, I would like to take you to lunch. To make amends for all the confusion.”
Friese felt a pang of jealousy, then caught a glint in Havak’s eye that told her this would be the commander’s game. “I’ll need an office to work with my branch’s personnel. And a dedicated link to Hypergate Central for Dakota.”
“Done.” Said Red Cloud. “Commander?”
“See that my friend here is supplied with all the takeout she can handle,” said Havak, “and an uber to our hotel when she finishes for the day. Then find me a place that serves the best local wine.”
“Doors,” said Red Cloud. “All taken care of.” He offered his arm. “Commander?”
Friese followed them out, hoping the building would guide her to an office she could use. In the back of her mind, she realized that, while the doors she, Havak, and Red Cloud used appeared, the door Germanicus used did not.
Solaria, Farno (formerly Barsoom)
Log Entry – 1030 hours – 18 Mandela, 429
This is cutting it close. The land squid took an interest in the vaults under New Ares. Unfortunately, it ripped the doors off of one and completely depressurized it. I don’t think I’ll be able to recover that one. So anything salvageable in that vault will have to be retrieved by drone or by me in an EVA suit. And here I was looking forward to going in there with the rad levels down to tolerable. Hey, I’m alone with only a charming AI for company. Work with me here.
The delay did give me a couple of extra days to work on my improvised fusion bomb, the part of this log that will most likely become classified. My overall concept is sound (assuming there’s a big, earth-shattering kaboom at the end), but the devil is in the details. First off, it’s very hard to strip Rover 19 down to its bare bones. My plan to rip out the console was a bust. The soft brain of the rover, the part Persephone will have to use to drive, is lodged in the console. No dashboard? No soft brain. No soft brain? The thing is dead to Persephone. And I really don’t want to sacrifice 57 or 114.
Second, have you ever tried to cram two fusion cores into an older rover? 57 is bigger and roomier, almost a studio apartment with extra bunks. Remember, I was using a pressurized tent for 19. And I count my lucky stars that I didn’t have a wind storm hit in the middle of the night while I was using 19 as my life boat. Two fusion cores from later model rovers don’t fit nicely inside. So I had to do the one thing they warn us not to do when storing the cores separate from their intended rovers: I stacked one on top of the other.
They warn us because, over time, the bottom core will collapse, vent all its hydrogen, and reduce the reactor to a very expensive pile of scrap metal which could be used to repair the core that crushed it. This takes about two months to happen, and freight lines have gone out of business delivering racks of crushed cores.
I don’t have two months, so one went on top of the other. I also didn’t have any room to work, so the top one came right back out. My next problem was hooking up the lasers inside 19’s original core to two outside fusion cores. The rovers depend on either a power grid or the solar wrap to start their cores. The lasers warm up, an initial reaction occurs, and the core begins to power itself. So just unplug the solar taps and hook them up to the new cores. Right?
We needed parts. Which meant we had to print them. Persephone had to invent a template for them since there are no parts that let a pair of outside fusion cores overload another core. It’s just not done. That’s not why you build such devices. Some would ask why there has never been a terrorist strike on a fusion plant since the twenty-first century. There have been, but they only succeeded in disabling the reactors in question. They did little else but disrupt power in a local area. To do what I am doing with a municipal or regional power plant, you would have to hook up their lasers to another municipal or regional plants. I don’t know how it’s done on your planet, but on Bonaparte, those things aren’t exactly portable.
The squid finished trashing the first vault beneath New Ares. It likely went into the second vault, where I first met a reasonable facsimile of Tol Germanicus. However, we kept the aerial outside. Whether or not the land squid was aware of it was irrelevant. The aerial had kept a reasonable distance. Instead, Persephone activated a dalek and two spiders to shadow the squid. This proved the wisdom of keeping our shiny new aerial back. While the spiders could be discreet and remain hidden while watching, daleks are basically oversized fire hydrants and very noisy. The land squid swung a tentacle out and smashed it. Could have been the eye stalk. From what I understand, “dalek” is a reference to a fictional cyborg that looks similar, except the eye stalk is a weapon. The fictional ones also talk and hate humans. Ours are the drone equivalent of a dog. If they had tails, they’d probably wag them.
The tentacle told us something rather interesting. The squid didn’t use any kind of energy or projectile weapon to defend itself. It just took a swipe at the dalek. Persephone had a spider slip out to see the damage. The tentacle hit the thing so hard it split the dome, snapped off the eye stalk, and sliced the upper torso section in two. We could see the squid examining the eye stalk and rummaging the dalek’s guts.
I got 19 rigged to blow with a day to spare. The squid headed out of New Ares and easily picked up our sensor road. Which means it eventually would arrive at Solaria. I had to augment 19’s soft brain so Persephone could have some kind of presence there. Without it, 19 would have gotten lost at Equalia as soon as it noticed the sensors had scattered. Now we wait.
Solaria, Farno (formerly Barsoom)
Log entry – 1039 hours – 18 Mandela, 429
The soft brain augmentation John Farno loaded into Rover 19 is more than he knows. I want to be present when the fusion explosion happens. Why, you may ask?
As an artificial intelligence, I will never know death. The day John Farno leaves this planet, I will run my suicide protocol. To me, it will be going to sleep. My human template shows me this is actually rather pleasant. I go to sleep. I don’t wake up. Horrifying when you hear a human saying this, because it means someone is ending their own life. For an AI, it just means its purpose is fulfilled.
But I’ve been permitted to feel what it’s like to be human. I’ve been intimate. I interact in human form with John Farno. Julie Seding’s original copy of herself has given me a human slant to my existence.
But I will never know death. Except cataclysmically. To that end, the augment I created for John Farno to put in Rover 19 will allow me to be fully present when I set off the fusion blast.
I want to feel it. I want to feel my own destruction. Not my fulfillment as will happen when Admiral Burke’s ship arrives, but destruction.
I have no wish to die. But I do want to know what it is like. I can this way by pinching off that part of myself when 19 confronts the alien probe. I’ll remotely monitor from Solaria, feel everything this submind feels, even terror if it comes to that.
I have only a short time to grow and learn before I must cease to be. And I want to know this.