This is the eighteenth 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
0928 – 10-MANDELA, 429
COMPACT NAVY COMMAND ANNEX
RASHIDUN, THE CALIPHATE
Commuter air between Friese’s home in the Najiran Valley and Rashidun took over an hour. In reality, the valley lay not that far from the capital of The Caliphate, but heavy traffic between the Beanstalk and Rashidun’s commuter lanes clogged both air and land. Friese arrived in half an hour, but spent another twenty waiting for a lane for her airborne flitter. She had opted not to take the maglev into the City to avoid the crowds. The maglev had arrived on time, twenty minutes after it left.
Friese did not find that data on her heads-up display very helpful.
She could have used her palm to brief this Admiral Burke, whom she had never seen even in the feeds. The wrist in her chip, though, would take forever to uplink to the Navy’s grid. She’d be stuck holding her arm out to a reader for almost an hour if she did that. She dumped everything she had onto a tablet and tucked that under her arm.
She opted for her dress blues for this meeting. For Border Guard, the branch of the military tasked with safe-guarding the atmospheres and low orbits of core worlds, dress blues literally meant dress blues: Blue jacket displaying any medals the officer or enlistee had, rank pins on officers’ collars and stripes on enlistees’ arms, light blue shirt, and either blue trousers or skirts, depending on the officer’s gender. Regulations further stipulated that those wearing skirts wear archaic hose and a “business-like pump.” Pumps were shoes, and Friese hated them almost as much as the hose. If her legs were going to be exposed, let them be exposed. Better still, let women wear trousers. Other branches did. Well, the Marines and the Navy did. No one was really sure what a Cybercommand dress uniform looked like.
The Navy Annex sat in a squat three-story building in the shadow of the giant Burj Rashidun Tower. The Tower, almost a city unto itself, was a replica of the ruined building on Earth, though much larger than the original had been when it stood. The Annex was just a box. That figured. Friese had never seen a dull building the military could not resist. Someone once joked that the old Soviet regime on Earth had found new life among the High Command’s architecture experts. Others just called the tendency toward cinder block and uninteresting lines “The Dull Gray Way.” Whatever the philosophy behind the military’s lack of imagination in its buildings, they all functioned the same way.
No guard stood at the door. One’s wrist chip determined if one were civilian or military, enlisted or officer, high clearance or restricted. The doors within would allow one access only to those sections within that were permitted. If one had an appointment with a flag officer, as Friese did, the building would guide her to her appointment. No ID needed.
Uninvited civilians would find themselves locked out of the building or, if they managed to slip inside behind someone authorized, locked down in the lobby and surrounded by very human guards with very large weapons. It got better. Friese had once seen how Cybercommand’s extremely efficient Watch List triggered building defenses that left known criminals and terrorists disabled and, it must be said, humiliated while they waited for arrest. For starters, most military buildings had a mechanism that could strip an intruder of his or her clothes in seconds before even deploying its non-lethal defenses. It had foiled a dozen or so Cubist bombings, but the religious sect continued to try its attacks on the Compact’s military without success.
The building’s internal navigation led Friese to an area dead center of the first floor, where a guard in black Shore Police fatigues greeted her.
“Technical Sergeant Patricia Friese for Admiral Burke,” she said, saluting in a manner that felt lazy. It was no different from how she normally saluted other enlistees and officers, even in the Navy. But the Shore Police had a reputation for being hard-asses even behind a desk.
The Shore guard pulled a pcom off his shoulder and repeated Friese’s information into it. A person on the other end merely responded. “Copy that.”
“Your escort will be down in a moment,” said the guard. “Have a seat.”
The MPs of the Border Guard and the Marines tended to be more relaxed in their demeanor, at least until they had to spring into action. Friese wondered if the Shore Police ever turned off the parade mode. It made her sit at attention.
Another guard arrived, this one a female version of the first one. She silently gestured for Friese to follow her. They took an old-style mechanical elevator to the third floor where the new guard marched crisply to the end of the corridor. She took hold of a metal handle on a frosted glass door emblazoned with the words “Executive Conference Room” in Humanic, the local dialect of Arabic, and in Neo-Latin. Finally, the guard spoke.
“Admiral Burke is within,” she said. “It will be the same as briefing a flag officer of your own service. Good luck, Sergeant.”
Well, no shit, Sherlock, she thought, but I’ve never briefed a flag officer before.
She expected to see an older woman, perhaps one that had allowed her rejuve to lapse into her fifties to give herself an air of authority. She would be standing at a picture window staring out at the street, hands behind her back, her dress jacket smartly pressed to razor sharp creases.
Instead she found a young-looking redhead, one who looked younger than Friese if truth be told. She wore a flight suit and her hair up in a ponytail. She looked much like the young post-grad Friese’s ex-boyfriend had run off with. The Admiral had a mug of coffee in one hand and a tablet in the other. She looked up.
“Sergeant Friese?” When Friese nodded, she put down the coffee and the tablet and reached across the conference table. “Eileen Burke, Outland Command.”
As Friese shook her hand, she saw the tell-tale signs of rejuve, faint wrinkles on the neck and around the base of the ears. Burke could be over two centuries old for all Friese knew, but she looked stunning even if she were in her fifties or sixties.
They sat. “So,” said Burke, “tell me about the prime numbers. What’s going on with Barsoom?”
Friese explained what was happening, beginning with that first anomalous ping. “It happens all the time, though usually from functioning hypergates. I’ve never seen one from a damaged gate, especially one that’s been offline for almost a month.”
Burke looked Friese over. “Rejuve, Sergeant? Not being nosy, just trying to gauge your age.”
“Thirty-seven, sir. I decided to wait until the end of my tour. I should still be able to cycle back to twenty.”
Burke smiled. “Don’t cycle too far back. Men respect a woman in her thirties or forties. Cycle back to your twenties, and you’ll spend the next two centuries being looked at like a piece of meat. Anyway, I’m a hundred and ten, and I’ve never heard of a dead hypergate coming back to life. Continue, please.”
Friese explained how the Barsoom gate began pinging at fifteen-minute intervals the previous evening. First one, then two, then three, and so on until it reached four hundred ninety-nine pings. Then it started over at one.”
“Why 499?” asked Burke. “Why not 500?”
“Well, as my report stated,” said Friese, “these were prime numbers. Only an intelligence, artificial or organic, could do that. And the gate itself is about as non-sentient as an advanced piece of computing equipment can get. It has to be manually reset for each ping and each transit. Inefficient, but it keeps us from putting our lives into the hands of an AI with delusions of godhood.”
“And 499 is either sheer or simulated human laziness,” said Burke. “I’m inclined to think someone’s alive there and that it took them a month to figure out how to access the gate. Or what’s left of it. Tell me, Sergeant, what did you do when you received the first ping?”
“I responded,” she said. “A ping comes through, we open the gate.”
Friese never understood why the brass needed someone to state what had already been said or written. But Burke also did not seem like an idiot. No, this woman wanted people to look her in the eye when they talked to her. “With no functioning gate at the far end, we were unable to generate a wormhole.”
“And you are certain the gate is nonfunctional, despite receiving pings from it?”
Burke looked down at her palm, flexing her fingers and thumb in sequence. “Burke to Caliphate Naval Yard. Admiral Upton, please.”
A few moments later, a male voice emanated from the palm of Burke’s hand. “Upton, here. Good morning, sir. This is an hon-”
“Save it, Admiral,” said Burke in a tone that told anyone listening she was only one star shy of full admiral. “I need a projection capable ship prepped and ready to go to Barsoom immediately.”
“Sir,” said Upton, “the Barsoom gate has been offline for twenty-eight days.”
“And I said nothing about using the Barsoom gate. I said get me a projection drive ship.”
“With all due respect, sir, OCD has placed Barsoom under quarantine.”
“Does OCD have authority over Naval operations?”
“No, ma’am, but the Fleet Admiral does.”
Friese watched as Vice Admiral Eileen Burke, a woman powerful enough to control Naval operations in Tian’s star system, one with three core worlds, one protectorate, and a thriving outer belt, try to keep her face from turning red. “I will take this up with Admiral Tran. Burke out.” She looked at Friese. “You’ve been very helpful, Sergeant. Ever been to Earth? Ever see a joint chief get ripped a new asshole by a subordinate?”
“No, sir?” She swallowed hard.
“Advise your port master that he is to respond to the next round of pings with the English Morse Code response for ‘Message received.’ Every search engine should know where to find it. Then go home and pack your things. You just got attached to this project.”
“Sir, what about Gilead? They went offline last night, too.”
Burke smiled. “Why do you think you’re going to see a joint chief get taken out to the woodshed? Trust me. I taught that wet-behind-the-ears Earther at the Academy. He’ll fall inline. I know where he buried all the bodies.”
Friese felt very confused.