This is the twenty-first 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
DAY 31 – EARTH
0826 – Geneva, Switzerland, European Union
The mansion atop the mountain peak looked like something out of a fairy tale of sorts. Or a horror story. Either way, the view from the approach alone was spectacular. The shuttle pilot informed her and Admiral Burke that they could see into the next country over from where they were if they looked north. She also informed them that Mr. Germanicus seldom left the estate, at least by any visible means.
This last put a smile on Burke’s face that puzzled Friese. “What’s so funny, sir?”
“Tol’s eccentricities,” said Burke. “Sometimes, even his staff doesn’t know he’s left the estate. He’ll just disappear without telling them and show up hours later at one of his other estates.”
“Other?” said Friese. “How many does he have?”
“Three besides this one, at least that I know of. One in Vietnam, another in Georgia in Old Dixie, and a third somewhere in South America.”
“Have you been to any of them?”
“I’ve been a guest.”
The look on Burke’s face suggested that she had been more than a guest on at least one or two visits. The admiral looked absolutely radiant for a moment.
“Oh,” said Burke, “not like that. And not for lack of trying, either. Tol can charm the pants off of you.” She winked. “Nothing happened, but I think Tol either doesn’t realize what he does to people. That, or he enjoys watching other people squirm. We both have that in common.”
“You, sir? I find that hard to believe.”
“Bullshit, Sergeant. You watched me dress down a Joint Chief who knows he has no way of getting even with me despite his rank. And you seemed to enjoy that yourself.” She put her hand lightly on Friese’s knee. “Stick around, Sergeant. You’ll find that little personality quirk can take you far.”
“Oh,” said Friese, “I’m do for discharge in six months, sir. I don’t plan to re-up.”
“Then it will take you farther in civilian life.”
The pilot advised them to buckle in for a landing. The restraints emerged from the walls and criss-crossed Burke and Friese’s torsos. The pilot circled around a flat pad on the roof of a wing of the ancient castle. The shuttle began to spin on a vertical axis as the pilot guided it down. Clearly, the shuttle had no rotors and no real engines for lift, relying instead on gravity manipulation to bring it down. Yet it seemed like the shuttle was behaving like its motorized ancestor from the World War Era.
The shuttle touched down with barely any vibration. Three men, all walking ramrod straight and with strides that suggested they practically owned the place, emerged from the castle in black suits, no protective gear from the cold outside. Friese led the way off the shuttle and waited for Burke at attention, saluting. Burke then emerged, order Friese at ease, and turned her attention to the leader of the three men.
“Bartholomew,” she said. “Recently rejuved, I see.”
Bartholomew looked like he’d be about ninety or so for a non-rejuve. “Charming, as always, Admiral. That master awaits you. And this is…?”
“Technical Sergeant Patty Friese of the Border Guard.”
Bartholomew wrinkled his nose at the mention of Border Guard but bowed his head toward Friese. “If you ladies will follow me, the master has arranged for refreshments in the main dining room.”
They arrived in an ornate sitting room where a dining table had been set out. A plate had been prepared for all three diners, the third presumably Mr. Tol Germanicus. Someone had done their homework. Friese’s plate consisted of a row of sausage links and toast spread with a creamy butter from the livestock on Deseret. She could even smell the coffee, her favorite blend, even if it was grown in an orbital farm over The Caliphate. Supposedly, hydroponic food was hydroponic food, but whoever ran The Caliphate’s orbital agriculture had a special touch she’d need seen anywhere else in the Compact.
Burke’s own plate consisted merely of two slices of dark-grain toast with some sort of fruit spread and a different blend of coffee. Friese suspected the blend came from Tian since that was where Burke had her command. The third plate looked more elaborate – eggs, bacon (real, not vat grown), and cubed potatoes. Someone liked breakfast.
“I hope you like the sausages,” said a man behind Friese. “I can pretty much get anything at a moment’s notice, but Caliphite vat meat tends to be more an art than a science. I always wondered if it was secretly farmed livestock. They do have a thriving trade with some of the colonies.”
Friese turned to see a man who looked both young and old at the same time, hair not quite gray, eyes maybe a little puffy beyond what normal rejuve could repair without surgery. Friese saw none of the faint lines around the ears or on the neck like Burke had. Just as Burke did not seem to care her age still showed, neither, it seemed, did this man care if one guessed his age or not.
“Tol Germanicus,” said the man, hands at his side and bowing politely. “Welcome to my home. Eileen, good to see you as always.”
Burke gave Germanicus a warm look that said everything and nothing about their past. “Tol, perfect with the breakfast as always.”
Germanicus took his seat at the head of the dining table. He had, Friese noted, opted for a glass of wine with breakfast instead of coffee or tea. He raised his glass and said, “To tweaking Tran Vu’s nose.”
“Hear, hear,” said Burke, raising her coffee mug in return.
Germanicus looked over at Friese. “Sergeant, you don’t seem enthused about getting away with a Compact-level felony under the auspices of a vice admiral.”
“We are talking about the Joint Chief of the Navy,” said Friese. “Sir. Twenty years on Io was not in my plans.”
“No one does more than five on Io,” said Germanicus. “You’d go to a medium security facility on Mars. Anyway, Mr. Tran needs to understand he works for the civilian government, not the other way around. So I’m confiscating my company’s patent.”
Friese did not understand.
“Is that what it’s come down to, Tol,” said Burke. “The breakthrough of the century, and you’re taking it to small claims court?”
“If this was the world of my youth,” said Germanicus, “I’d have taken it to Judge Judy. Don’t ask. But no, the courts are not getting involved. We’re simply going to spirit the Alcubierre out from under the Fleet Admiral’s nose.”
Friese dropped her fork with a bite of food still on it. Did he just say he was going to steal a ship from that place down at the pole?
“Oh, yes, Sergeant,” said Germanicus. “I’m going to steal from the Navy, from their very own Area 51 if you will.”
Isn’t that a museum park in the Sahara or Gobi Desert? she wondered, amazed she could remember the desert names on this planet. “I don’t know what that is.”
“Pity,” said Germanicus. “To keep people out, the most powerful nation of the day in my youth told its citizens that there were aliens on ice there long before we knew there were actual aliens. Then they denied the rumor they started. Has the odd effect of reinforcing belief in the rumors.”
“And what was really there?”
“Overpriced aircraft. Toxic waste. Bored technicians not allowed to talk about their jobs. Once search engines came with mapping functions, you could literally look at the entire base via satellite. That’s why the Navy puts its depot underground.”
“The history lesson is fascinating,” said Burke, “but what do you plan to do about the Alcubierre? If I move anyone around to snatch it, it’s going to get noticed.”
Germanicus took several sips of his wine. “Eileen, darling, be calm. Tran Vu is going to order its removal from Antarctica to use with the Challenger refit.”
“Challenger?” asked Friese. “What’s that?”
“A starship, Sergeant,” said Burke. “A very important one you’re not supposed to know about. Aren’t you glad I upped your clearance?”
“I have a meeting with Tran this afternoon,” said Germanicus. “I will be there personally as I’m summoning him to my estate in Vietnam.”
Burke looked at her palm. Friese would have, but she needed only to look outside at the sun against the mountains. The snow glared brightly in the sunlight, but dawn had long since passed.
“It’s coming up on 0900, Tol,” said Burke. “At best, this would be an evening meeting.”
“I have my ways.” He hid his smile behind his wine glass. “Have our friend in Cybercommand ready a ship. I’ll send you the coordinates. Sergeant, you will be on that ship and rendezvous with the Alcubierre. We have a pilot who can get you to Barsoom, but it will not be by hypergate. That leaves too much of a paper trail, one that even I can’t cover up.”
“Projection drive? Then why not let us use one of your own ships?” asked Friese.
“My darling Sergeant Friese,” said Germanicus, “my position allows me to do a great many things no one else can. But even I have to obey Tessa Dasarius. I’m merely her CFO, so I can’t just pull Dasarius ships from their assignments, assignments our customers have paid for.”
“You mean I’m going to…?”
“Stare at the light at the end of the tunnel for two weeks,” said Burke. “I’ve not seen it myself, but I heard it’s breathtaking.”
Solaria, Farno (formerly Barsoom)
Log Entry: 1302 (Local time)
12 – Mandela, 429
A hyperdrone! Holy shit, they sent me a hyperdrone! One I can actually talk to!
Really, it was Germanicus who noticed it. He popped up in the middle of my apartment and started calling my name while I was taking a nap.
“Farno,” said Germanicus. “You need to wake up. I’ve apparently found out about you, and have sent a hyperdrone.”
Persephone lay under the blanket with me, never having de-rezzed after our last go at it. Felt like we were turning into a couple. She sat up, pulling the sheet up for modesty. For a moment, I wondered why she simply didn’t generate some clothing around her, but then she was still Julie Seding in some ways. “A what?”
“A hyperdrone,” said Germanicus. “I get to upload and go home, and you and your friend can talk to Earth.” He frowned. “Just a thought, Farno. You might not want to mention that you have a massive, cobbled-together AI running this whole planet. The core worlds get a little weird about that.”
He had that right. AI is a creepy technology. Even Persephone was creeped out by her own existence. “So who sent it? And what are they saying?”
“Dasarius,” said Germanicus. “My company. The real me knows someone’s alive on this planet and wants me to update him. And the Navy is mounting a rescue.”
“OK, if the Navy is mounting a rescue, why the hell aren’t they sending a fully equipped and crewed ship instead of a projection drive hyperdrone?” Or why didn’t Dasarius, for that matter.
“Politics” was all Germanicus said.
Persephone vanished, the sheets collapsing where she lay with me, then reappeared, now dressed in a bathrobe, next to Germanicus. Don’t ask me how, but something subtle in her appearance, despite the shabby clothes that made her look like she just got out of bed, told me she was no longer a solid hologram. “What do you need from me?”
“Same thing you’ve been doing.” Germanicus gave me a look that suggested he did not really approve of Persephone’s more intimate experimentation with me. “Except that. Keep Farno alive. But do try to make it look like you’re several AI units functioning as one. It wouldn’t do to have a paranoid commander back home finish nuking the planet.”
She rolled her eyes. “I do have a suicide protocol in place for when he’s rescued. It’s not like I’m going to take over the world.”
“You’re a better AI than I am,” said Germanicus. “The real me could tell you stories that would make you lock up and reboot.”
Unlike my two charming companions, I had to pull on some shorts. “Do we have a way to communicate with them?”
No sooner than I had said that, my palm tingled for the first time in a month. Across my palm, text appeared.
TO WHOMEVER IS ALIVE ON BARSOOM, IDENTIFY YOURSELF OR YOURSELVES, GIVE US YOUR CONDITION AND YOUR LOCATION. – T. GERMANICUS, DASARIUS INTERSTELLAR
“Well,” I said to Germanicus, “wasn’t that nice of the real you?”
“I must upload,” said Germanicus. “Respond by voice if you must, and upload all your log entries. It’ll be a big help.”
Well, so much for keeping Persephone a secret. She’s all through these logs. Boy, is the real Julie Seding going to be surprised.
Well, hello, world. I’ve been boning the solid holographic avatar of an AI for about a week or so. How’s things in the clean world?