This is the thirty-fifth 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
DAY 44 (Cont’d)
CNV ALCUBIERRE, ATTACHED TO DEJA, MOON OF FARNO (FORMERLY FARIGHA)
“What the…?” Shonsi, the slim Tianese woman who doubled as the Alcubierre‘s communications and data officer, began running her hands wildly over her board. “Mother just reinitialized for no reason.”
As if to confirm, Mother announced from the speakers, “Stand by. Artificial intelligence reinitializing.”
Friese gripped the arms of her chair as though the ship would detach from Farigha’s tiny moon and tumble off into space. “Doesn’t that leave us without a brain if we have to move?”
“That’s not good,” said Havak, rising from her seat. “Can you get basic functions?”
Almost as though Mother were listening during her brief slumber, she added in a somewhat monotone drone, “Sensor array, online. Analog radio, online. Life support on automatic. Warp reactor on passive standby. Maneuvering and propulsion thrusters will be available in one minute, twenty-six seconds… Mark.”
Danaq turned back to Friese and Havak. “I’ve been through several dozen reboots of Mother. She’s never sounded like this.”
“Could the aliens have infected her with this virus?” asked Havak.
“There’s nothing to indicate they even know we’re here,” said Shonsi. “They’re banging away at the planet looking for Farno.”
“His improvised nuke?”
“Unpacking data from Persephone AI entity,” said Mother. “Stand by for log entries from John Farno.”
Friese looked at her board, which, of course, was useless until Mother came fully online again. “Until I get back my board, I can’t see the alien vessel. I can’t see Solaria. I can’t see where John Farno is hiding.”
“Is there a planet-facing relay on this rock?” asked Havak. “Maybe we can contact Farno.”
“He won’t answer if the alien is over his position,” said Friese. “And would he know to scan for analog signals?”
“That Persephone AI might know.”
Farno appeared in a holographic cone of light in the middle of the bridge, his frozen figure buried in an empty console. He looked a bit disheveled from the last time Havak had seen him in a log entry.
“This is going to work better on the Challenger‘s bridge,” muttered Havak.
Shonsi whirled in her seat, staring wide-eyed at Friese. “Is the sergeant even supposed to know about the Challenger?”
“Lieutenant Friese. And she’s going to be our navigator.”
“Liz has got a girlfriend,” Danaq said in a sing-songy voice.
“Shut up, Danaq. Mother, play log entry.”
“Log entry,” Farno began as his hologram began moving. “1205, 20 Mandela, 429. Boom, bitch!”
Everyone traded the same bewildered look.
“We need to get this guy off the planet,” said Danaq. “He’s getting punchy.”
“Yeah,” said Friese. “No kidding. He sleeps with a hologram of his AI.”
The lights on the bridge flickered momentarily, unsettling to Friese as the surface of Deja outside was completely in darkness.
Farno, too, flickered for a moment as Mother loaded the next log entry. Then he began again. ” Log entry: 1209, 20 Mandela, 429. Okay, I should have roosted the aerial somewhere farther from the blast than I anticipated. But overloading what was left of 19’s fusion core worked better than I expected. I really hope Burke’s friends get here soon, though, as I don’t think I can improvise enough of these to defend myself. And if the aliens come directly to Solaria, I’m screwed.” He described getting his aerial drone to recover from an electromagnetic pulse before relating what the drone saw after the destruction of his rover and the alien probe. “In the meantime, Persephone has gone silent on me. Can’t figure out why.”
“Maybe Persephone caught an alien virus,” said Shonsi, “and uploaded to us.”
“Maneuvering and propulsion systems online,” said Mother. “Warp system interface reloading.”
“Let me lift off this rock,” said Danaq, “and see if we can spot anything without getting caught. If we’re clear, we can find out from Farno how much time we have…”
“According to Persephone,” said Mother, “the alien vessel will enter Loss of Signal for an interval of forty minutes, eighteen seconds. As John Farno is the only suspected survivor, it is unlikely they will leave a satellite chain in orbit over Farno.”
“Farigha,” Havak corrected. “The Martian government did not approve the name change.”
“Yet,” said Mother.
“She always this chatty?” asked Friese.
“I suspect Dasarius planned a phased upgrade,” said Havak, “not suspecting we’d steal the ship from the Navy and go out on this little trip. Danaq, see if you can move us discreetly around this rock.”
“Aye, sir. Preparing to skulk.”
LOG ENTRY: 1457 – 24 Mandela, 429
A ship! I got a text signal from a ship! One of ours!
Or it’s an alien trick, but I doubt it. They sent a pre-recorded message from Vice Admiral Burke on behalf of the Navy. I noticed she said nothing about the good ol’ Citizens’ Republic of Mars. So to the powers that be on the Red Planet overseeing development of this rock, screw you. You’ve had forty-four days to come get me or even see what happened to this place.
The alien is behind the planet, hidden from the moon Deja, where the Alcubierre has landed. I’d like them to land on Farno, but apparently our friends have them spooked.
Alcubierre. What a weird name for a ship. Persephone managed to load the planet’s old wiki, still somewhat intact thanks to the pit stops doubling as backup storage for Farigha’s data. She says the name is Spanish and refers to a twenty-first century physicist who laid the initial groundwork for warp drive. The reason we don’t have warp drive now, or maybe I should say until now, is that someone discovered a stable wormhole between what’s now the Jovian Federation and Jefivah before anyone could perfect the idea. Warp drive got abandoned, the calendar reset, and within another century, we had hypergates, followed by projection drive. Why would you want to spend weeks moving so fast that light could not catch up with you, even if you could circumvent time dilation? Why not just drill a hole in space and be there in minutes?
Which leads me to wonder why in the hell we bothered with it now. Then again, I did not see the Alcubierre‘s arrival, which means our alien friends did not see it either. In conclusion, suck it, aliens.
I responded with an enthusiastic message that I was alive, that Solaria was online, but due to the aliens’ return, I was moving slowly and discreetly to one of the pit stops while the ship was on the far side of the planet. I’m giving them a window of about forty minutes, though if the ship drops to a lower orbit, that window will narrow.
A few minutes later, the captain of the ship, a lady named Linda Havak, informed me that the Alcubierre carried a large civilian shuttle donated personally by Tol Germanicus for this mission. Well, bless his megalomaniacal heart. The sonofabitch sent back help.
Though this being a Navy operation, I’m not surprised it took him over two weeks to send someone back for me. Can we change this planet’s authority to someplace more organized?
Who am I kidding? Jefivah is the Appalachia of the Stars.
Anyway, I have to find a hidey hole for the rover soon. I’ve got less than twenty minutes before the little gray men come back. Okay, they’re not little. Actually, they look like they could win any bar brawl they get into, assuming they drink. They look too much like us not to.
I’m thinking this is not going to be easy. I don’t want them to attempt the rescue until I’m at the pit stop. If the shuttle is not too big, we can stow it in the garage and wait out our new friends.
More in about an hour.
LOG ENTRY: 1530 – 24 Mandela, 429
I’m parked in a cave that’s cut off my ability to transmit to the Alcubierre, but I warned Havak that might happen. I got the rover inside just as the alien ship cleared the horizon. Can’t speak for the Alcubierre. I’ll have to wait fifty minutes before I pull out again.
There was a close call with the drones Persephone has following us to obscure our tracks. The spiders in particular are pretty thorough. To a fault. We couldn’t get them into the cave in time. I’m hoping the ship was too far away to spot it, but I know from my time in the service that we can do over-the-horizon scanning and find a beer can on the opposite horizon from orbit. No reason to think these aliens don’t have that technology.
Of course, one must look for the beer can. Or the spider.
In my last communication with the Alcubierre, Havak said she would give me her plan to rescue me.
“We’re going to get spotted,” she said. “On the way back up at the very least. It’s going to be tricky getting out of the system with them watching.”
They would also know we now have warp drive if we are indeed at war. None of my hyperdrone updates say we are, but that might also explain why Mars never sent any help. So here I sit, all broken-hearted. I may not get off this planet.
LOG ENTRY: 1531 – 24 Mandela, 429
I am now Mother aboard the Alcubierre. It seems as though they were predicting my arrival. That, or Tol Germanius left some room for one of his avatars to stow away on the ship. That man is everywhere. There’s even a new Germanicus avatar unpacking itself in the New Ares – Helium pit stop.
I digress. Right now, I’m rather split in two. So I’m using both of myself to hack the alien ship. No small feat even for an AI such as myself. Just their binary code is different, if they use that at all. Plus there’s encryption, object organization, and just the natural language of these creatures. I’ve determined, from audio more than anything, that they call themselves the Gelt and their polity The Realm. The human in me thinks it all sounds very medieval. They sound like a cross between Vikings and an English comedy troupe John Farno would find hilarious.
Once I know what Commander Havak plans for getting John Farno off this world, I will transfer the kernel of consciousness to the Alcubierre, then initiate the suicide protocol on this end. Where I go from there depends on John Farno.
CNV ALCUBIERRE, DEJA, FARNO (FORMERLY FARIGHA)
1559 – 24 Mandela, 429
“I’m sending one of the medic designates down,” said Havak in the Ward Room with Friese and Danaq. “Farno’s been on his own for forty-four days. He claims he’s had plenty of food and water, but his food has been rations – no real meat, fruits, or vegetables. Just synthetic bars unless he’s found a stash of grain or potatoes down there.”
“And his sole companion’s been an AI,” said Friese. “Human interaction might be a challenge for him.”
“Ya think?” said Danaq. “I’ve listened to his log entries. He has sex with a hologram.”
“Like you wouldn’t in the same situation.” Havak looked out the porthole. “We might be getting some help. Admiral Burke’s ordered the Utopia Planitia fueled up and readied. She may decide to send it whether we’re successful or not. I don’t have to tell you what an Olympus Mons-class battleship would do for us if things go badly.” She sat down with them again. “I’m ordering Farno to stay in his cave during the next pass. We’ll get the shuttle ready during the next LOS with the alien. As soon as it passes once again, the two of you will have forty minutes to drop to Farigha…”
“Farno,” said Friese and Danaq in unison.
“Whatever. You’ll have forty minutes to reach Farno’s hideout, cycle down the airlock, and get him aboard. Then you run like hell until you see the Alcubierre. Hopefully, you’ll have a big enough window before the alien gets into weapons range.”
“Do we know what that is?” asked Danaq.
“For all we know, they can shoot us down from behind the planet. My gut says no, and they don’t seem to know we’re here. Now, this could be a suicide mission. I’ll ask you once again. Do either of you want to back out now? If so, I’ll go myself.”
“Then I’m going either way,” said Friese. She looked at Danaq. “Not that I was planning to back out.”
“We’ve lived with this thing for too long, Commander,” said Danaq. “I can’t back out now. Besides, who’s to say we won’t hit another rock on the way home?”
Havak nodded. “Very well. Get down to the shuttle. We’ve got less than ten minutes to get it out in the open. I want you two ready to go the second that alien disappears again.
CNSS UTOPIA PLANITIA, IN ORBIT OVER TIAN
1602 – 24 Mandela, 429
Burke paced the bridge of the Utopia Planitia, the newest of the latest incarnation of the Olympus Mons class. The ship wreaked of fresh welds and paint. She had served on the previous ship to bear the name as a cadet, but this did not feel like a homecoming. Her ship was the Valles Marineris, currently stationed at Callisto. Too bad. She would have loved to take that ship, her crew and captain, and everything they had to offer into battle this time. Utopia would have to do.
“Admiral,” said the comm officer, a fresh-faced female ensign who looked too young to have graduated from Baikonur Academy, ironically three hundred kilometers beneath the ship at the moment. “Traffic control wishes to know when they can release space around Hypergate 13.”
“When we leave,” said Burke. “Not a moment sooner.”
“The port master wants to know when that is,” said the comm officer. She seemed more afraid of a bored colonel somewhere down on Tian in a back office than of Burke, a Vice Admiral and a frequent candidate for Fleet Admiral.
“When I’m damn good and ready,” said Burke. “When he sees us gone or headed back to dock, he’ll have his answer.”
“The Colonel says that’s not good enough.”
“I outrank the colonel by three G grades. If he has a problem with that, I have the Fleet Admiral’s personal comm code. He can take it up with Bellingshausen.”
“Begging the Admiral’s pardon, but we likely will be gone by the time Fleet Admiral Tran responds.”
“Blowing off the colonel now, sir.”
Something flashed on the screen directly in front of the Utopia Planitia. It was a hyperdrone. And sure enough…
“Hyperdrone, two thousand meters forward. It is attempting to ping your office,” said the comm officer.
“Redirect. It’s from the Alcubierre. Stand by to give the colonel his answer. He’ll make his tee time.”
The comm officer turned. “Tee time?”
“Golf, Ensign. Colonel Javitz is a golf fanatic, and there are more damn courses on Tian than anywhere else in the Compact.”
“I don’t follow, Admiral.”
Burke pressed her lips thin. “Where you from, Ensign?”
“You poor kid. Now get me that update from Commander Havak before the colonel has an anyeurism.”