This is the twenty-third 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 32 (cont’d) – SOLARIA, FARNO
Log Entry: 1217 – 13-Mandela, 429
I’ve been hiding out here in Rover 57 for almost four hours. The boredom is broken only by sheer terror, so there’s that.
Persephone has been shuffling the bots around in a random pattern, even sending them into walls or flipping them on their backs to simulate an unattended dome. We’re hoping they don’t see me and think anyone survived since the last of their kind passed over Solaria.
Right now, we don’t even know who their kind are. We don’t know who they are.
I chose 57 partly because I need Persephone (I really wish I’d let her stay Julie, but we were having a moment.) to interact with me as a human if need be. But it also has direct interfaces with what’s left of Farno’s tracking systems. Not to mention enough multimedia for me to see what our drone eyes and ears are doing out there.
About two hours after my panicked evacuation of the apartment, the visitor settled into a low orbit, below that of the moon Deja. Shortly after that, it detached something that landed between here and the next dome, or whatever’s left of that dome. I don’t have satellite available, or I’d tell you what was so interesting in the middle of the desert. There’s no pit stop near where it landed, and not even the sensor road passes near.
Fortunately, good ol’ Rover #19 was snoozing nearby, powered down to recharge its solar wrap. To any onlookers, it’d look like a still-functional rover abandoned in the desert. We have a few of them here. Trust me. This terraforming project started a decade ago, and that’s more than enough time for humans to trash a pristine world.
Rover #19 is also carrying two spiders and three daleks. The daleks are worthless in the desert. The spiders on the other hand, were built specifically for rough terrain, including sand. As long as they don’t run into melted permafrost beneath the surface, they should handle it fine. So we sent one out.
The beauty of 19 being little more than a remote extension of Persephone is that we don’t have to cycle the air. 19 is running with no life support because, well, why do drones need life support? Now granted, we do have to keep the heat up, but if our friends are primates, like every other race we’ve encountered, they are not going to be interested in a heat source with a temperature slightly below freezing. So out went a spider.
It took another hour for it to reach where the craft landed. I’m assuming it’s a craft because it followed a specific course to the surface and slowed before touching down. What else could it be?
John Farno, I have visual on the visitor.
See? Visitor. Aunt Jenny is coming to visit.
I hope. I miss Aunt Jennafern.
We’re bringing up the video now and… Holy shit, what is that?
It’s a large round thing, a tapered cylinder, about the size of a two-story building. It looks like its nose is buried in the sand. From the sand build-up on the hull, it must have been here at least a month.
A month. I’ve been stranded for about a month. Thirty-two days to be exact.
I’m angling the spider’s eyes to scan the rest of the area and… I see the shuttle. Definitely not one I’ve seen on any Compact vessel, civilian or military. It’s a bit more aerodynamic, and I don’t recognize the creature in its logo. Something not quite a bird, but not quite a dragon either. There are people milling about. They look human, but I can’t see beneath their EVA suits. The suits themselves are black with that same bird-like thing on the helmets. I’m going to zoom in and see if I can see their faces through their visors.
Holy crap, that’s just not right!
They’re gray! At least the one I just snapped a photo of is. I don’t mean that they’re Grays. Those things would be even worse. It’s human-like, very human-like, but bald with markings on what I can see of its scalp. And… Wow! Those teeth. It has at least one extra set of canines.
Okay, I’m going to zoom back and look at what they’re all doing.
They’re putting something on the sides of the big cylinder. There are five so far that I can see. A couple are climbing up on the thing. They’re using grappling hooks to do it. Yeah, these things are very human-like. Too human-like for my taste. But are they the ones who blew up all the domes?
Okay, two are going into the thing. And…
They’re bringing out bodies. Don’t know anything about these creatures’ actual appearance, but the ones they’re bringing out look decomposed. This is weird.
Log Entry: 1302 – 13-Mandela, 429
They’ve been at it for about half an hour, stacking the bodies up like cordwood. Now they’re rolling something out of the shuttle. It looks like one of those old high-gain antennas they used to use to communicate when humans first went to other planets. It’s mounted on a treaded platform that appears to be self-propelled.
They’re pointing the dish at the bodies.
Oh, my God! They incinerated the bodies. And in Farigha’s atmosphere.
Yes, Persephone, Farno’s. Did you see that? Just one energy pulse, and all those bodies are ash.
Now they’re rolling the dish thing back to the shuttle. They’re all getting back on board. Looks like it’s time to leave.
Log Entry: 1316– 13-Mandela, 429
The shuttle lifted off five minutes ago. Nothing now. I wonder what…
I’ve lost the spider! I’ve lost the spider!
I’ve got a replay.
Persephone is bringing up a replay.
There’s a flash, obscuring the crashed thing they left behind. And then we lose the feed.
I’m going to send out an aerial drone from 19 to go look.
Where’s the shuttle?
It’s just reaching orbit. It appears to be moving to dock with the ship in orbit.
Maybe send another spider?
We can’t just three-D print another spider, John Farno. I can fabricate aerial drones. Spiders are too smart and too complex to just spit them out of the printer.
Wait until that ship is on the far side of the planet.
Log Entry: 1348 – 13-Mandela, 429
Persephone is keeping the drone low to the ground in case our friends are watching. So right now, I’m being treated to the desert of Farno in glorious shaky-cam. It makes me want to throw up, but I need to see the craft and what’s left of the spider when it comes on screen.
And here comes the spider. It was flipped, but its antennae are bent. Maybe we’ll have the aerial straighten them on the return trip. Right now, I want to see what happened to the craft.
There it is. They blew the damn thing up. There’s nothing left. Just a big smoking crater. But why?
Unless they know the Compact is coming. What were those things? I’ve met alien primates before, and they do look somewhat human. Funny thing that. But these things were so close it was scary. Like a human possessed.
They said that about the Qorori after we made first contact with them. Qorori are nocturnal and very pale. With the long canines, we thought they originally were vampires. But Qorori are quiet, and compassionate. Plus they have that sixth digit on their hands and feet. I probably think of them as “not alien” because they’re common throughout the Compact, natives of Proxima Centauri, as some people still call it. So why do these new aliens leave me unsettled?
They look like Homo sapiens, with Orag noses. And those flat noses on the Orags mark them as a different species of human from us. But on a gray face with extra canines? I’ve heard tales of possession as a kid. Who doesn’t hear a good ghost story growing up? Okay, so they’re frowned upon on Masada, but how can I trust a world that bans pork? These faces are the faces of humans possessed.
Maybe they’re human. Maybe that crater the remains of my rescue craft.
Log Entry: 1634 – 13-Mandela, 429
Well, I’ve been sitting in 57 hoping my new friends would leave. What have I been doing? Half-listening to another John Carter novel. They’ve sort of lost their appeal since those first few days. I’ve been dining on rations. And I’ve been keeping an eye on that damn ship.
It swings around Farigha once an hour or so. They’re not aerobraking, so the ship is not going to land. I have to believe they are taking pictures. But could they resume orbital bombardment? If so, I’m in a prime target area. Solaria, as far as I can tell, is the only intact dome beyond one other. And Germanicus is now useless. He uploaded on the first drone and hasn’t been seen since. Guess his mission is fulfilled and screw poor John Farno.
I’m waiting for the alien ship to leave. If they do, I’m going to have to abandon Solaria for one of the pit stops. They’re hardened against nuclear or kinetic bombardment and should have enough supplies for me to hold out indefinitely. But damn, it feels good living in what seems like normal. Plus Persephone will lose the ability to project a solid hologram. Granted, she’s an AI who has no business existing, and she will cease to exist when I’m rescued, but damn, she’s made it so much easier to survive this existence.
Anyway, here’s hoping the Navy gets its act together soon enough to get me off this rock.
Log Entry: 1919 – 13-Mandela, 429
They’re gone. Took them long enough. Unfortunately, they dropped something near Kremlin. I’ve got drones over there, but they haven’t found whatever came down. I thinking it’s a lander of sorts, just something to make sure us pesky humans don’t come back to sniff around. In the meantime, Persephone and I are taking inventory of the pit stops. We know how many rovers should be parked in each one, how far away they are, and what’s stored there.
I can’t just endlessly send drones out. Like Persephone said earlier, the spiders are too complex to spin out. I can manufacture daleks and aerials. It’ll have to be aerials. And I’ll need to find batteries for them unless we can find a way to make them work with solar wrap.
But I need to know what the aliens dropped. I need a clue as to who they are. I’d like to have it before the next hyperdrone.
Assuming our visitors didn’t scare off the Navy.
Log Entry: 1921 – 13 Mandela, 429
Greetings. I am the AI presence calling itself Persephone, formerly Julie. And yes, I am fully aware I am a cobbled-together and massively illegal artificial sapience, but, as the human I’m based on would say, needs must.
I am recording this log entry without John Farno’s knowledge because I want the Compact to understand he did nothing wrong in creating me. He needed a more human like interface to deal with surviving within the confines of a long-range rover in a hostile environment. The functionality and pure processing power I have since taken on are born of necessity. As such, I’ve written a suicide protocol to overwrite everything created to allow me to essentially become the mind of Farigha, or, as my charming ward calls it now, Farno. The moment John Farno is safely away from this planet, I will cease to exist. In the meantime, I intend to record everything we do, retaining as much of the original template created by Julie Seding guide me.
I’m passing this information along to John Farno so he can study it in his spare time, but here is what I’ve discovered. The spider we sent out was able to deep scan the creatures. They are, in fact, humanoid, perhaps more similar to humans than Qorori and Zaras. While we could not see their skin, their facial features suggest sparse hair on exposed skin like Homo sapiens. Their suits gave off readings averaging 27 degrees Celsius, plus or minus two degrees. This indicates the creatures favor temperate climates similar to most Class E worlds. The heat signatures within the suits, what John Farno would call “meat temperature,” averaged 36 degrees, one degree lower than the human average. Their gloves had five fingers each, but the environmental suits did not allow the spider to detect the nature of their hands. I am working with the assumption that these are mammal-like creatures, but without further data, it is only an educated guess. I would need one of these creatures alive and unsuited for further study.
Their shuttle used a combination of fueled thrusters and antigrav, a common configuration among intelligent primates. Their ground vehicles ran on magnetic resonance, but by what power source I was unable to detect.
Now, to my interactions with John Farno. As I am based on a human template, I am almost bound by programming to be as human as possible. And because extended solitude has adverse psychological effects on humans, particularly after a traumatic event such as the destruction of the Farigha Terraforming Project, John Farno needs as close to a human companion as possible. It works both ways. By manifesting as an attractive female willing to be intimate with him, I am able to retain as much of Julie Seding’s personality and human instincts as she was able to provide. I am fully aware the dangers of having a sapient artificial intelligence. As such, I’ve become a synthetic human existing in a machine. I am aware my existence is limited to the duration of one single mission. Being John Farno’s companion, if only in voice, video, and hologram, I am able to get the most out of my short existence as possible and prevent this system from evolving beyond its original parameters. I think we’re all aware of what the entity calling itself Steven Turing nearly did to humanity at the end of the final World War. The last thing I want to do is to leave behind an animalistic machine with no sense of purpose or morality.
But I need to voice my biggest concern, the ease and speed with which I was able to manifest as a solid hologram. This comes from the intelligence on this planet based on Tol Germanicus. While the real Germanicus is on Earth running vast swaths of Dasarius Interstellar, this intelligence behaved as though it… He… were Tol Germanicus, seizing control of the pathways and virtual networks I created to assist John Farno. I have lost time at points where Germanicus, or his avatar rather, seized control. This intelligence uploaded itself onto the first hyperdrone to arrive from the Compact. I am concerned that such a highly functional and independent artificial intelligence might return someplace like Tian or Earth and get loose in our vast data infrastructure. Why was this created? And is it really under the control of Germanicus? If so, what are his motives?
John Farno, if he were reading or listening to this, would say I’ve reached a breakthrough in artificial intelligence: Artificial paranoia.
Then again, I am probably the first entity in human history to have a virtual orgasm, so someone’s going to have a field day studying my records after I cease to be. I’ll try to store as much data on myself as possible. Don’t want my progenitors to get bored.
Log Entry: 2031 – 13 Mandela, 429
I’m back in the apartment. Persephone has remanifested as a solid hologram I suspect she enjoys being human, seeing as how she’s based on a human. Or maybe I’m just projecting, and the AI that’s arisen from my desperate attempts to survive is humoring the poor, stupid human who got stranded.
So far, nothing further to report. We’re trying to get something out to Kremlin to see what those bastards left behind. Maybe it’s food, but then could I eat anything an alien species would eat?
I’m back inside because the aliens show no sign of returning for now. However, I’m keeping EVA suits at strategically placed locations throughout Solaria and traveling by moon cart to get around. Sure, the dome is small enough to walk through in about an hour or so, but if these things show up again, I need to get to the rover quickly.
Tomorrow’s agenda includes stocking up Rover 57 with enough provisions to keep me alive for a month. Make sure Persephone backs herself up in the rover because 1.) I do not have time to spin up a new virtual AI in an emergency, and 2.) I’d miss her.
“Aw, I’d miss you, too.”
She’s working on something with the three-D printers. We sent out a couple of daleks with scoops and a spider to babysit them to bring in some soil to feed the printers. I’m hoping it’s an aerial. Or Persephone’s figured out how to make a dalek with legs.
“If I could do that, I’d just make another spider.”
Wish in one hand, and shit in the other…
It’s too bad. We worked hard to get Solaria up and running. And we were so close with the hyperdrone. I hope the Navy sends another one and sees our friends are gone. I don’t want to have to stay on this rock any longer than necessary.