This is the 11th installment of No Marigolds in the Promised Land. The complete novella can be had by subscribing to the newsletter, where new episodes will also appear one-to-two weeks before they appear here.
This story is dedicated to the memory of Andre Polk and to my childhood friend, Dave Harr.
LOG ENTRY: 1823 8 Mandela, 429
Hallelujah, brethren and sistren, the life support is finally online. I can walk around Solaria’s abandoned streets in shirt sleeves. And it only took two weeks.
The first week was spent manufacturing or retrieving parts. My trick of turning Rover 19 into a trailer translated well into doing the same to a newer, larger rover, the freshly delivered Rover #114. 114 is longer, has a fresh fusion core which did need some coaxing to life. (First time’s always a pain. That’s why we never take out rovers until they’ve been in the motor pool for almost a month.) It’s AI protested when I plugged in the umbilical and let Julie have her way with it.
I am a newer artificial intelligence installation, it rather snottily informed me. Actually, the voice was that same dull interface 57 used until I loaded Julie. The use of a locally created interface is not recommended as I have vastly superior…
“Yeah, yeah, Jeeves,” I said. “You’ll be running with no life support, minimal heat, standing by to store some rather large life support equipment. You’re the trailer to Rover #57.”
That is hardly normal operation. I was manufactured in Galileo of this year and…
“You’re a trailer. I need to keep 57 running as my main vehicle. All my stuff is in there, and the AI has a better pornographic interface.”
Mr. Farno, this is most irregular. I shall protest this to the highest authority on Barsoom. Who is that, anyway?
Soon, Julie’s dulcet tones filled Rover 57. On 14-Sagan, 429 at approximately 0100 hours, the terraforming colony of Barsoom suffered a catastrophic attack against its domes, hypergate, orbital station, and communications arrays on both moons. John Farno is the only surviving human on the planet. He has provisionally renamed the planet Farno and declared himself Farno I, King of Farno and Emperor of 2 Mainzer, pending approval from the Citizens Republic of Mars. Regardless of his status as monarch or head of government, he is, in fact, the only authority on Mars until the arrival of OCD personnel or the Compact military.
“Yeah,” I added. “So suck it 114, load Julie. I will not have an AI talking back to me.”
The AI dutifully surrendered and became Julie.
“How did an AI get so argumentative?” I said once the upload was complete.
Creeping sentience, said Julie. They’re starting to make the new AI’s more self-aware, which tends to give them a personality. I’m a simulation of an actual human that is aware of the fact. That keeps me in check.
“So I don’t have to worry about a robot uprising?”
Really, John Farno, what would I do with you? You’re already a prisoner here, and since loading me into Solaria’s network, my only companionship when you’re asleep are the drones. And you’ve seen how they’re not exactly charming companions.
I wanted to ask what would happen if I were rescued or if people came and started to rebuild. I didn’t. We both knew the answer. Julie would be taken offline, and the barebones AIs would simply yield up their data on demand. New interfaces would be loaded. Perhaps even a fresh copy of Julie. It would know me. It might even remember me. But this particular instance of the AI interface based on an engineer named Julie Seding would cease to exist.
Unless 114 had endowed Julie with enough self-awareness to be bothered by that, I doubted she worried. The trouble is I found myself worrying.
“Well, my friend,” I said, “let’s get the show on the road. Off to New Ares.”
We were off to New Ares.
Unlike my previous excursions, I was not limited by the trailer’s solar wrap or by having to stop and inspect the domes. Julie and I had interacted enough that I trusted her to drive while I slept, though I would only sleep four hours a night and take cat naps during the day.
In the meantime, Julie would exist in multiple places. She was the brain of Solaria and could keep the drones busy. A stripped-down version of herself loaded into good ol’ 19, and she took that rover with two smaller drones off toward the next dome in search of pit stops, supplies, and parts.
We worked out a protocol for Julie to find the sensor road when the sensors had been scattered by the blasts. Some of this came from records of my manual driving, others from the patterns of sensor scatter around the other domes. We still had to account for sensor drift, when the sand shifts and moves the sensors with it, but you still get a sensor road. The sensors are not the painted lines or magnetic guides on real roads back home. They’re more of a polite suggestion. Once we finalized this, Julie could copy herself into one of the newer rovers or even an automated freight drone and go off looking at the rest of the domes on the equator. She would drop radios we found in a stash in Solaria, maybe take a spider once the life support system was finished.
In the meantime, it would be my job to get the hypergate talking to other hypergates. That I would do myself. It’s tedious, and really, I should have Julie rebuild the hyperdrone’s database into something I can read and translate into “gatespeak,” but I need to be less dependent on Julie. Part of me is afraid of becoming an increasingly powerful AI’s pet human. Part of me wants something to do besides pointing to where I want a bunch of dumb drones to go. Part of me thinks I ask too much of Julie.
Most of me is not being rational about it.
Two weeks ago, I loaded up 57 with supplies, had Julie update herself onto both 57 and 114, and headed out for New Ares, almost 1700 kilometers away. Why, you ask, would I drive for two-and-a-half days to a glass pancake? Well, put simply, my terror of dying on this rock before help arrives far outweighs my terror of irradiated corpses. That said, I’d probably have nightmares for weeks.
The most dangerous part of this mission was loading equipment into 114 and, quite likely, 57. Some of the equipment would be bulky and cumbersome. I also have to do EVAs and work with drones even Julie sometimes has trouble controlling. Amazing. Artificial ADHD may kill us all. If we began at the farthest reach of our range, each day would bring me closer to Solaria. The pit stop, as the final stop, put me less than a day away if I trust Julie to drive the entire time. The closer I came to Solaria in the event of an injury or an equipment failure, the better my chances of survival. Plus, if something went wrong at New Ares, we could abort, and I could lay pissing and moaning inside 57 as we headed straight back.
On the first day of our excursion, Julie pointed out something to me.
You never adjusted for time zones, John Farno. Even heading to Kremlin to work on their bots, you stayed on Musk Time. You’d get more time talking to the hyperdrone if you’d adjust for sunrise and keep the drone online the entire time.
I didn’t. Kremlin was only an hour behind Musk. New Ares was barely inside Musk’s time zone. I never bothered to adjust the times because the offset was meaningless. The techs at Kremlin simply adjusted for my local time, and I never paid any attention. The work got done, and I didn’t have to change my sleep patterns. Funny how survival makes that seem trivial now.
Only habit made me forget to adjust. Solaria is actually three hours ahead. I should have been getting up at least two hours earlier and working the hyperdrone through breakfast, not that it mattered. The prep work for bringing Solaria’s life support online was a full-time job in and of itself. But on the ride in, I kept waking up at the same time regardless of the sun.
Time, of course, is meaningless without a full-blown local system to track it. Forget temporal drift and other side effects of wormhole travel between essentially two gravity wells. Without a population here, I should have been living on the most primitive time system known to humans. When Neanderthal man saw the sun, it was time to start the day. When he saw stars or just pitch black, it was time to go to sleep. But all the computers I have on board the rovers, in the various storage vaults, and in Solaria give me the illusion of civilization and its time keeping.
So I started talking to the hyperdrone as soon as I awoke, tapping furiously into a console and whispering arcane sweet nothings into its primitive, not-so-intelligent ear. I had the database downloaded after about two days. All that work for a five-second download.
Now comes the hard part: Turning all that gibberish into Humanic and keeping the original mathematic codes in sync so I can tell the hypergate who to pester.
And so on the morning of 27-Sagan, we set out for New Ares in search of parts for the dome’s central life support. My world went from the apartment building and maybe a few pressurized sheds to the confines of 57. Julie drove the whole way, doing a good job retracing my steps. Mind you, she was originally the interface for Rover #57.
My first day consisted of hand-copying wormhole coordinates into a new matrix where I could read a Humanic name for the gate in particular. I started with the most common ones we communicated with. The first is Gilead, a newer colony of a Class E world called Metis. Metis, for those of you reading this centuries from now, is one of the few matriarchies in the Compact. There, everyone has Celtic accents. I always found that amusing because, from what I know of Earth, the Celtic peoples tend to favor manly men, the type who would wipe out an endangered species before breakfast and drink liters and liters of something called Jameson with said breakfast. Metis itself is a newer core world. As such, it didn’t have any colonies of its own until recently. Not that the age of a core world means anything. Jefivah is humanity’s first outpost beyond Sol, four hundred years old, and it doesn’t have any colonies. Or didn’t as of The Event.
The second is Amargosa, another colony world, but older. This one is Class E, but, like Farno (formerly Barsoom, pending the Citizens’ Republic’s approval of my one-man referendum), it falls under Mars’s jurisdiction. It’s about 100 years old. Together with Gilead, Amargosa supplies about 60% of our food. The loss of the hypergate put a stop to that, but then it’s just me and Julie now, and Julie doesn’t eat. However, those are the two most likely candidates to ping.
Beyond that, the hypergate we get the most attention from is one in The Caliphate’s network. The Caliphate is, technically, an Islamic republic. In reality, it’s a corporate executive’s wet dream, one of the most prosperous and open worlds in the Compact. Pinging any of its gates might be disruptive enough to attract someone’s attention. That’s all I want: Someone to get annoyed enough to come investigate. I have radio galore down here, both digital and analog. All I have to do is find a common frequency and yell “Help!” First, though, I have to get them to travel across the stars. I’ll start with Gilead, since all I need is for one freighter to come pick me up.
On the evening of the first night, I asked Julie to go into dormant mode so I could load Elise. Hey, I worked hard. I deserved a night of pleasure.
Um… I have a confession to make, she said. I sort of ate Elise.
“Okay,” I said, “that’s totally not creepy.”
What I mean is that I decompiled her, stripped her for parts, and added some upgrades to myself. I need the sentient and computing capacity if we’re going to finish this mission.
“What sort of upgrades?”
I don’t know who the woman on all my video screens was, but she was incredibly beautiful. And when Julie spoke, the woman’s lips moved.
“Do you like this avatar?” Julie said through the woman on all the viewscreens. “She’s actually a composite of several women. It just seems wrong to use someone’s image to do what I’m about to do.”
“Which is…?” I asked.
“John Farno, I am your sole companion. Now I can continue to be an approximation of Julie Seding, but that person is still alive somewhere as far as we know. It would be unfair of me to coax you into bonding with a woman who has no clue you exist and likely never will. Plus…” The image changed into a mousier, older woman who looked ready for rejuve. “…I’m pretty sure she’s not attractive to you.”
She was right. But if Julie Seding were to suddenly appear in the flesh, and only the flesh, and beg me to make sweet love to her, I’d seriously consider it. It’s been a long month.
“My job is to keep you alive and serve your needs, John Farno,” said Julie. “To do that, I need to evolve. And…” She morphed back into the gorgeous raven-haired goddess she had generated. “…you’ve expanded my capacity to the point where I feel lonely. So I broke down Elise and added her pleasuring heuristics to my features.” The new Julie avatar smiled. “And besides, John Farno, you’re already inside me. We might as well take advantage of that.”
It was long and glorious night, even if I had to do most of the work myself. By morning, I said the most romantic thing I’d ever said to a woman. “I wish you were real.”
“Then no one would be driving the rover.” She paused a moment. “Well, technically, I would, since I’m really the AI, but you get what I mean. You’d have a cold machine like you had when Rover 19 did little more than rattle off the time and temperature and read you Edgar Rice Burroughs novels. But now it’s time to work. You’ve got a hypergate to hack, and I have to get you to New Ares.” The avatar blew me a kiss and disappeared. At least, I still had her voice.