This is the 13th installment of No Marigolds in the Promised Land. To get the full story, go here for details on how to get it.
Dedicated to Dave Harr and the memory of Andre Polk
DAY 26: Solaria (Or, The Endless from New Ares Flashback Continues)
LOG ENTRY: 1841 8 Mandela, 429
So where was I?
Oh, yes. I’m convinced my leg is rotting off from radiation exposure, freaking out that I ripped my suit, and suddenly, there’s this guy in a business suit standing in front of me. He’s not especially young, maybe at the half century mark without any rejuve. Hey, it happens. Me? I plan to go straight into the tank as soon as I get off this rock.
Or Barsoom gets its first rejuve clinic.
“Who the hell is Tol Germanicus?” I asked, rather perturbed that this well-dressed gent was interrupting my survival crisis. Other than the suit ripping, I had a good gig going. I was about to bring Solaria’s life support on-line. I had an AI interface with benefits. I had survival cracked. Now, this man was standing before me with no protection and no apparent ill effects from the rays still bouncing around in the storage vault. Well, two could play at that game.
“Don’t take off your helmet,” he said, holding up his hand. “I’m a hologram. I can get away with this. And Tol Germanicus is the gentleman responsible for this project, though not its destruction.”
“What happened to Julie?” I asked. “Did you absorb her?”
“Interesting idea, but no. I took her offline for now. I need control of this monster AI network you’ve built so I can assess what’s going on.”
I got to my feet, no longer feeling that itch from either freezing or burning or getting cooked by rads. “So why are you, or a holographic version of you, here?”
Germanicus smiled. It looked a bit smug, and I got the impression he had a right to be smug. “Oh, I like to look in on my investments from time to time. I’d love to see you get your hypergate trick to work. I really need to be updated on what’s happening. Chances are, the real me is not even aware someone blew up all but two domes on this planet.”
“Landfall remains untouched, though still uninhabited.”
Landfall was our first dome, cramped and now obsolete. It amounted to a big tent built over the original tuna can landers from the first survey mission. We abandoned it as soon as Kremlin came online.
“Four domes were melted by fusion blasts,” said Germanicus. “Solaria, of course, is intact and empty. Except for you and your charming synthetic lady.”
“She is not my girlfriend.” That sounded stupid as soon as I said it.
“You already know that the rest were flattened by kinetic weapons,” he continued. “You, my friend, are all that’s left of the human race on this planet.”
“This is just my avatar. I’m not really here, and to be honest, this is not even an extension of me. It has enough of my personality to interact with you and knows my wishes. But when real communications are established with the Compact, what you see here will be little more than a data dump I’ll look at back on Earth.” His smile became crooked. “Of course, I’m recording our interaction, so you won’t be a complete stranger to me when we meet in person.”
“You mean I’ll get to shake your hand?”
“I’m germophobic, so don’t take it personally when I don’t.”
I smelled bullshit, like this was the affectation of a man who made his own rules simply because he could. But since I had vague recollections that I was 1.) stranded forty light years from the nearest live human being, and 2.) my EVA suit had ripped inside a highly irradiated environment that may either have been too hot or too cold for direct exposure, I let the matter drop. The trillionaire behind Barsoom’s existence had left an AI interface version of himself and seemed to want to help. All the Julies in the universe couldn’t add up to someone in the know reaching out across the stars, even if he didn’t realize he was doing it.
“So,” I said, “what can you do for me?”
“Not much that you’re already not doing yourself,” he said, “except to maybe give you some background. By the way, there are five EVA suits ready for use in Rover 108, and I believe your Julie has propagated to that vehicle. You might want to change into one and swallow some rad pills. It’s going to be a while before a rejuve clinic can stop whatever cancer’s been forming in your bones for the last ten minutes or so.”
Well, gee, Tol, you’re just a helpful holographic bugger, aren’t you? I located the rover in question and found…
“An oxygenator core?”
Germanicus appeared inside the rover after I had stepped inside it. “I haven’t been dormant since The Event. Clever branding, by the way. Maybe I should hire you to work for marketing.”
“What do you do to earn your fortune, anyway?” I asked. I knew Germanicus was a big wheel, older than God, and much more real. “Did you own Etrusca when they founded it?”
Germanicus laughed. “I was on Etrusca when the first settlers arrived. Yes. It was one of the first worlds where we used the big colony transports with projection drive. But I was against the Romanization of the colony. That far from Earth, how long did they think it would take for them to revive Roman slavery, blood sport, and the emperor.”
“They don’t have an emperor.” I undid my helmet. The airlock needed little time to equalize pressure since the rover had sat indoors for months. “Anyway, so you were one of the first settlers on Etrusca. Bet that was wild living in the wilderness.” The EVA suit came next.
“Actually,” he said, “I didn’t go outside much. Still don’t.”
I believed it. In fact, I believed this man, the real one, hadn’t seen a natural environment since Earth and Mars were separate entities and not part of any compact. “Can I ask you something? If you’re old enough to have been a founding settler of Etrusca, why did you rejuve at such an old age?”
“You know how some women wait until their thirties or forties to rejuve? Young enough to be fertile and agile, but old enough to command the respect of their male peers? Some men do it, too. The fact is when I originally rejuvenated, it was done quite differently. And my health concerns are, to say the least, unusual.”
I had to wonder if he was old enough to have partaken of youthful blood. There was a curious fad during the latter years of the World War Era when wealthy people would pay those in their twenties for transfusions on the bizarre notion that youthful blood would stop aging. Like I said, Earth people were really stupid between 1914 and the AI War.
“I’m going through what’s left of your records,” said Germanicus as I rubbed exposure cream on my leg. The rads had not, in fact, cooked my leg, but that didn’t stop me from being convinced they had. He continued. “Most of it I downloaded from the hypergate, but Solaria has backups of all the other domes’ transit records. Out of curiosity, have you ever dealt with an Etruscan man named Marc Katergarus?”
“Never heard of him.” Just as the rip convinced me my skin and muscle had been both cooking and freezing where the EVA suit ripped, the cream now convinced me that the exposed area had magically begun healing. “Should I have?”
“What about someone with the one-word name ‘Luxhomme’?”
Being a Bonapartan native, I recognized the French root of the word. “‘Light Man’? What is he? Some superhero from the World War Era?”
Germanicus gave me a tight little smile. “He probably thinks he is.”
“Doesn’t ring any bells.”
Germanicus’s appearance morphed, reminding me that he was a hologram, not the real Germanicus. He became shorter, his hair darker, his eyes… Well… Beadier. And a thin little mustache formed on his upper lip. “Anyone who looked like this?”
I had, in fact, seen such a person before. “Etruscan? He had a Metisian accent, all lilts and whatnot. He was touring the domes here about a month ago.”
“Do you know what he wanted?”
“Said he represented a GMO manufacturer that had better products than the old-line companies.” I started to shrug into a fresh EVA suit.
Germanicus resumed his normal appearance with a roll of his eyes. “The old-line companies have these things called ‘ethics’ and ‘standards of practice’ his employer does not like. The old Terran companies and Martian Agricultural Authority still cringe whenever someone uses the term ‘frankenfood.'”
Now that was a word I hadn’t heard in a long, long time. “What is this? The Earth-Martian War again?”
“Hardly. But Luxhomme’s employers have been causing problems. Somehow, they’ve landed the exclusive licensing to create GMOs for all three of Jefivah’s new colonies, former military depots that the Jefivan government has agreed to take over if they simply remove the weaponry stored there.”
“Uh huh.” As soon as the EVA suit sealed itself around me, I felt like a new man. I’d feel better when I get back to Solaria to get a shower and possibly run Julie’s pleasure protocols. It takes so little to keep me entertained these days. “So what’s the Appalachia of the Stars have to do with my predicament? I’m on a Martian terraforming project with the rest of the population dead and only a shaky AI setup for company.”
“Not as shaky as you might think,” said Germanicus. “I’m old enough to have worked on the original AI systems that got us in trouble in the first place. Julie just stumbled onto a protocol I wrote for this particular situation and assumed it was simply an undocumented feature she could access. Have to applaud her. Perhaps I’ll offer the real Julie Seding a job once I become aware of events here.” He shifted slightly. “As for what Jefivah’s weapons question has to do with you, everything. Six months before The Event, as you so elegantly put it, one of the colonies had a cache of nuclear warheads to clear, all clean fusion units.”
A cold chill went down my spine.
“Seven of them went missing when the ship carrying them, one of my employer’s, actually, disappeared. I suspect four of them were used here. I don’t know why any were used when kinetic weapons would do the trick on an isolated, undefended terraforming project. But you’ve seen the glass pancakes as your log entries call them.”
Which meant that guy with the thin mustache and the strange little smile might have caused all this. And when I get my hands on him…
“OK, so what you’re saying is I’m wasting my time,” I said, “checking out the other domes and trying to get what’s left of our hypergate to attract someone’s attention.”
“I said no such thing, Mr. Farno. What I said was that all but two domes are destroyed, and the surviving two were uninhabited. I also told you I like the idea of using the hypergate to attract attention. Basically, I’ve given you a better lay of the land than you and your wonderful new AI friend had before I activated. Now then, here’s what I can do for you. I will take over for Julie in Solaria and in the pit stops. The drones will be mine until you get all the heavy equipment you need back to Solaria. When you arrive, you will find Julie online and running things once more. I will pop in when you connect with the Compact. If they send a hyperdrone, I can upload to that along with your communications for home, and we can see about getting you rescued. I will make sure your friend Julie is aware she has been having a relationship with you for the past month.”
“Can you make Rover 114 stop being a little bitch?”
“Sorry. That was the default AI interface Studebaker ships with the rovers.” Germanicus frowned. “The Tesla companies march to their own drummers.” He vanished.
To be replaced by Julie with her preferred avatar. “What the hell was that?” She looked down to see that she had, at least in terms of visibility, something resembling substance. “Wait. I’m a hologram now?”