This is the twenty-second 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
(Author’s note: Barsoom will now be referred to as Farigha. Apologies to the Burroughs estate, but I left a nice shout out to Edgar in the completed [thus far] novella. In case you are wondering, Farigha is Arabic for “empty,” or as John Farno says in the retrofitted full novella, “the big empty.” Certainly, his current home in this tale fits that description.)
DAY 32 – EARTH
0006 – L2 Station
Friese was beat. Germanicus offered her a place for a nap knowing her day would be long. Her day had begun on The Caliphate. The temporal differences between two planets connected by wormhole were bad enough. But when one added the subjective differences of local time, the radical differences between planetary longitudes, and simply the length of time she was up, and Friese found herself too exhausted to sleep. Too bad. It was the most comfortable bed she had ever slept in.
At least she could doze. And Germanicus fed her and Burke a large dinner. She had not seen either of them since dinner. It made Friese speculate whether the admiral enjoyed more intimate attentions from their wealthy host, or vice-versa. She doubted it. Burke did not strike Friese as a woman impressed by wealth, and Germanicus came off as oddly asexual.
Earth’s L2 station looked nothing like the wheeled space stations Friese had seen elsewhere. It looked like a series of metal cans welded together with solar panel wings.
People actually live on that thing?
She found herself holding her breath, wondering if exhaling would cause the fragile object outside to fall apart. As it grew larger in the shuttle’s window, it appeared less fragile. The sight of people floating about inside, however, still made the station appear archaic.
“We’re going to hold relative orbit,” said the pilot, a dark-skinned man with a Thulian accent. He looked young, but given the average age on Thule was well over a hundred and fifty, he could have been two or three centuries old with no sign of rejuve.
How do they do that?
“Shuttle two-nine-two-nine-alpha,” said a voice over the speakers, “this is Alcubierre. Come about one-zero-three, mark four and prepare to dock. Over?”
“Copy that, Alcubierre,” said the pilot. “One passenger, Sergeant Friese. Admiral Burke will not be joining you on this trip.”
“That’s too bad,” said the Alcubierre crewmember. “We think she’d have enjoyed this run.”
“We think,” said the pilot. “But she does have to put in appearances on Tian. Stand by for docking maneuvers.”
As the shuttle rotated around, the shape of the Alcubierre became visible. In space, it looked larger, but it was really no bigger than the large commuter craft that ferried passengers from orbit to planetside and back on most worlds. This one had three decks, but for the most part, looked like it could not even get off the ground. A huge sphere encased the aft, home, Friese knew, to the ship’s warp drive.
Warp drive. After only a few hours, it felt natural to call it that. “Warp drive.”
Were it not for the sphere of the ship’s warp drive, Friese would have had the impression that her shuttle, a single-deck affair designed mainly to get between orbital facilities, was docking with a slightly larger shuttle.
“How many in the crew?” she asked.
The pilot, never once taking his eyes off the controls, said, “The Navy crewed her with twenty. Since Dasarius Interstellar ‘borrowed’ her, I’m not sure. Could be thirty. Could be two.”
Friese didn’t know what bothered her more: A ship in interstellar space with only two people aboard, herself one of them, or the sheer amount of secrecy a private entity like Dasarius could bring to bear. They had stolen a Navy ship, and one that officially did not exist. The Commissioner of Defence never even announced the Alcubierre‘s flight. She wondered if this Lancaster and his captain, Okuda, really did resign their commissions or if the mysterious Major Liu spirited them away.
The Alcubierre disappeared from view as the pilot reoriented the ship to mate its docking port with that of the warp drive vessel. On larger ships, when a shuttle docked, Friese might have heard a slight hiss as the atmosphere began to equalize with that of the other vessel. She had never felt the contact between ships. This time, however, the two vessels met with a loud clang that she actually felt. Already she worried about traveling beyond the speed of light in what appeared to be a glorified habitat model with a sphere mounted on its back.
“Docking completed,” said a woman from the Alcubierre. “Stand by for cabin pressure equalization.”
Friese jumped as the sound of air bursts filled the shuttle cabin followed by a long bang.
“Hard dock,” said the pilot. “Stand by to transfer Sergeant Friese.”
“You’re up, Sergeant,” said the pilot. “And good luck. It’s going to be a wicked ride.”
“Thanks,” she said, though she did not feel any gratitude.
The artificial gravity cut out, and Friese floated as soon as she undid the restraints on her seat. She floated to the ceiling where the automated hatch opened.
“Feet first,” called a woman from the other side of the hatch. “Face the back of the shuttle, or you’ll go nose first into our deck.”
That thing had gravity? Where did they put the field generator? Friese somersaulted before sticking her feet into the hatch. She then turned herself to face the aft of the shuttle and pushed herself up into the tunnel. The hatch closed behind – or rather above – her. About halfway through, someone gently grabbed her foot and pulled her through. She found herself floating to the deck of the Alcubierre.
The airlock looked like a maintenance closet with a large blonde woman occupying most of the space. The woman shoved a large hand at her. “Welcome aboard the Alcubierre. I’m Commander Linda Havak, leading this mission.”
“Tech Sergeant Patty Friese, mission specialist.”
“Meaning,” said Havak, “you’re the one Admiral Burke brought to make the Fleet Admiral pay attention. Well, welcome to humanity’s first real FTL ship. We’ll be flying blind for about two weeks, assuming the stellar maps haven’t missed anything.”
“Rogue planets, brown dwarfs, black holes not considerate enough to pull on anything we can see. Stray rocks in interstellar space, though the warp field should knock those out of our way.”
Joy, thought Friese. At least I’d never know what hit me.
“We’ll get underway,” said Havak, “then I’ll show you to your quarters. You’ll bunk with me since we’re tight on space.”
Friese followed Havak through a narrow hatch that made both women duck. Havak was tall, almost mannish in her build, but Friese stood only a meter seventy. She wondered if she would be sharing a bed with Havak in such close quarters. She had done that before, uncomfortable as hell, always fighting for space in one’s sleep.
The ship’s corridors made her claustrophobic. The Alcubierre might have looked like a roomy habitat module from outside. Inside, it looked like the maintenance tubes of a small ship.
“Sorry for the tight quarters,” said Havak. “This ship is almost all warp drive. The crew compartments were an afterthought or they wouldn’t have pried a habitat module off a decommissioned station for them.”
“What do you do for projection drive?” said Friese. “What if the ship gets lost in interstellar space with no way to communicate back to civilization?”
Havak grinned. “Hyperdrone. And Dasarius Interstellar has mounted two on the ship, more modern than the Navy originally gave us.”
“And you’re aware that Dasarius has appropriated this ship?” asked Friese.
Havak shrugged. “I have no information to share on that count at this time.” She began climbing a ladder up a narrow tube. “Watch your head. They really made our CNC hard to get to.”
Ladders? Friese thought this should have been a zero-G zone. Then she realized only on larger ships could they control where artificial gravity existed. They emerged into a small chamber with an actual window taking up the far wall. It looked more like a World War Era space capsule or shuttle than a starship’s command-and-control center.
“I know,” said Havak without any word from Friese. “Most ships have a CNC. We have a cockpit. Danaq, are we ready for warp?”
“Were we the last time?” asked the dark-skinned man sitting at a console before the wall-sized window.
“No,” said Havak, “but now that we’ve done it, we know what to look for.”
“Ready as she’ll ever be, Commander.”
Havak guided Friese to a seat that reinforced the idea that this was a glorified shuttle mounted on a very big fusion reactor. “I was the XO during the first actual warp run. But with Captain Okada retired…”
The way she trailed off suggested this Okada had not gone quietly.
“Anyway, put us in position,” said Havak. “Stand by for warp.”
“Aren’t you going to darken the window?”
That made Havak laugh. “What for? We’re not creating a wormhole.”
“Fifty centimeters of transparent Martian steel.”
“Ship’s attitude ready for warp,” said Danaq. “We’ve cleared the safety zone for L2 Station.”
Friese did not notice the rumble of the ship’s thrusters until they stopped. The ship went silent. Without warning, the stars ahead collapsed into a brilliant ball of light.
“Oh, my God!” she said, her eyes locked on the star-like object outside. “What is that?”
“That,” said Havak, “is all the radiation we’re picking up at the edge of our warp bubble. We call it ‘the light at the end of the tunnel.'”
“It’s beautiful,” said Friese. And it was.
Solaria, Farno (formerly Farigha)
Log Entry – 0803, 13-Mandela, 429
The hyperdrone returned this morning with a message from someone named Admiral Burke. She confirmed holographic Germanicus’s assertions that I was now being kept here by politics. But they were mounting a rescue. They just had to do it real quiet like, ya see?
I’d served in the Navy for about two years after finishing my primary levels. Most people in their late teens take a year or two off to go explore the Compact or just their own homeworld. I was broke, and the Navy offered a way to do that and pay me at the same time.
The Polygamy Wars had just ended, so it was a peacetime Navy. Unfortunately, the Polygamy Wars had just ended, so guess who pulled duty on the clean-up and rebuild. I worried they would send me to Goshen, which had started the wars (against its own parent core world no less.) Instead, I got sent to New Saigon, an Earth colony funded by some local region called Vietnam. The Goshenites managed to trash the place, but apparently, these Vietnamites (Vietnamians? Earth names are so weird.) invented modern jungle warfare and kept three major powers at bay during the World War Era despite being a small and poor country at the time. Impressive people these colonists were, but New Saigon sits at the extreme inner edge of its star’s Goldilocks zone. I spent two years smacking local insects and sweating enough to fill a municipal reservoir. And did those Goshenites do a number on the place.
And that was what indirectly led me into terraforming for a living. If you could get that hot, sticky jungle of a planet (along with its larger than normal deserts for an E Class world), you could probably handle the cold, thin-aired wastes of places that resembled Mars. Plus I have a way with bots, hence my job before all this went to hell.
Anyway, the hyperdrone has been there and back twice since it first arrived. I’m uploading this log entry in real time as I record it. Admiral Burke, I take it, is one of the lord high muckety mucks with a major command on Tian. That’s some heavyweight attention and, if I recall my Navy politics correctly, enough brass to tell a Joint Chief where to stick it without little ramification. It seems this Burke is carrying out this operation rather hush-hush, perhaps whispering into Mars’s ear that maybe, possibly, she can find out why their very expensive and money-losing terraforming project went silent.
Of course, I just said that into a log entry, so who knows what trouble I just stirred up. I’m just happy someone thought to send a projection drive drone out to talk to me.
John Farno, we have a visitor.
A what? Persephone is not prone to hysterics. She’s still Julie enough to be practical. So when she says, “We have a visitor…”
Will you just look at the damn console?
Oh, this is not good. Not good at all.
Something just came out of a wormhole, and the radiation pattern does not look like any Compact ship.
And the hyperdrone just cut me off and skipped out of here. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a problem. Julie, shut everything down now but the remaining sensor arrays. I’m going down to Rover 57.
I recommend 11, John Farno. It’s more primitive and its power systems are largely passive.
“I need you to guide me through this, Persephone. 11 doesn’t have the interfaces I need to talk to you.”
Persephone is disembodied right now, off wrangling the drones around the dome.
But I swear I can tell she’s smiling.
It’s alright, John Farno. I’ll hold your little hand through all this.
This is John Farno from Solaria, Farno, formerly Farigha, signing off until further notice.
0811 – Several light years from Earth
Friese did not sleep well. Havak had provided a cot in her claustrophobic quarters. While the commander stayed up half the night minding the CNC, Friese still had to navigate what little floor space the cot had left her to use the head. It became even more difficult when Havak came in, stripped down to her skivvies, and climbed into her rack for a few hours of sleep. After that, Friese dozed fitfully.
She arrived in CNC around 0800 that morning to discover the ship sitting in space. No “light at the end of the tunnel.” No planets, either. Despite the stars, everything looked dark outside.
“Where are we?” she asked as she took her seat.
“I’ll tell you as soon as I get a reading,” said Danaq, who appeared not to have moved all night. That couldn’t be right. Not unless he were some kind of automaton banned by Compact law. Which would make this a Cybercommand operation. At the moment, I have to stop and see how off course we’ve gotten since the last reading.”
“Off course? How can we be off course?”
“Did you see the light at the end of the tunnel when we went to warp?”
“That is all the light that reaches us, and it’s radiation leaking through the forward edge of the warp field. We are basically sitting still inside a bubble of our own space time that’s moving literally faster than light. We can’t see outside, and even if we could, we’re moving too fast for anything to reach us.”
“So we’re flying blind?”
“Pretty much. Plus I don’t want to run into something big enough to smash the ship or, if it’s bigger, knock us out of warp.” He looked down at his console. “Ah, thank you, Mother. There’s a brown dwarf four light years directly in our path. So we’re going to be way off course next time we stop.”
Friese felt sick. “Tell me again why we don’t just send a projection drive ship? Especially since we’re sending the poor guy on Farigha projection drive hyperdrones?”
“Hyperdrones are expendable. Ships are not. Their wormholes are visible too far out for any surprise. A warp ship dissipates its radiation build-up, so we look like some sort of random burst of static, evidence of a solar flare from another system. A spike in background radiation.”
“What if they detect the spike?”
“Then they assume the neighboring system had a bad day two-to-ten years earlier. The point is we can get in really close without anyone noticing us, and get right back out again. When I engage the drive, we just disappear from the known universe for a time.” He tapped his console. “This is CNC. Course leg plotted. Estimated time to next stop, four hours. We are about to reengage.”
“Copy that,” said someone from elsewhere in the ship. “Go for in-warp.”
Friese did not understand the motions Danaq made on his console. Without warning, the universe collapsed into the light at the end of the tunnel once more. Danaq unbelted from his seat and headed for the ladder to the lower decks. “Gets pretty boring up here at warp, especially with no one on duty. I’m going to get some shut-eye.”
“Um… Who’s driving the ship?”
“Mother.” And with that, Danaq descended into the bowels of the ship. Friese wondered if anyone would relieve him. She wondered if she should have refused Burke’s order, but somehow, she knew she was trapped. Whatever the admiral’s plan was, Friese was along for the ride.
“Who the hell is Mother?” She wondered if it he meant Commander Havak. If so, he was going to be a tad disappointed. The erstwhile captain of the Alcubierre lay sound asleep in her cramped bunk belowdecks.
“I am Mother,” said a voice.
Friese jumped and looked around the CNC. Empty except for her.
“Where are you?”
“I’m the ship,” said the voice. “Sort of. I am the Dasarius Interstellar Prototype Warp Drive AI. Actually, I’m the AI interface. The crew finds it easier to talk to me as a human being. They call me Mother because I handle life support, engines, and detecting anomalies during warp.”
An AI running the ship? Wasn’t that illegal? Friese worked with AIs before, but there was the Compact’s infamous edict that all artificial intelligences would be kept “nice and stupid” since the end of the final World War.
“I know what you’re thinking,” said Mother. “I’m a sinister piece of forbidden technology, and your life now depends on me. Well, you’d have most of it right. I’m not sinister. I simply exist. My job is to preserve humans. I’m to be cloned for future warp ships, but I’ll be so busy keeping the ship running that I won’t have time to interact much with the crew, interface or no.”
“That’s not very comforting,” said Friese, who caught herself looking for an escape hatch.
“I’m sorry. Perhaps some soothing music? Would you like to watch a two-d movie?”
“I’d like some wine, actually. I could use about half a bottle right now.”
“I’m sorry. Mr. Germanicus did not order the crew to stock up on that. I can add it to the manifest when we reach our next functioning port.”
Friese could not help the panic rising up in her. An artificial intelligence surrounded her, kept her alive, and had her at its very whim. At the same time, she felt rather touched that Mother would order her some wine at their next stop.
Well, next stop after Farigha.
“Mother,” asked Friese, “how soon until we reach Farigha.”
“I cannot tell you,” said Mother. “The Alcubierre is in interstellar space. We will have to stop several times for the crew to take readings. And more often if I detect gravitational anomalies that may pull us out of warp or destroy the ship.”
That wasn’t very comforting. “Can you guess?”
“Maybe two days?”
“I thought Admiral Burke said it took two weeks to go from the Jovian Federation to Nemesis.” Nemesis referred to the red dwarf that orbited the sun two light years out. Friese had never been, but had heard its sole world of Trantor referred to as “the forgotten Earth.”
“I was not installed until this ship was taken to Antarctica,” said Mother. “And I am the property of Dasarius Interstellar, not the Compact Navy.”
“Technically not supposed to be here. But then neither are you. And this mission, as far as the Fleet Admiral knows, is not happening.”
Friese lay back in her seat and closed her eyes. How many regulations, she wondered, had Admiral Burke just broken? And would Friese be on the hook for any of them?