This is the twenty-fourth 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
Interstellar space near Wolf 359
0749 – 14-Mandela, 429
Friese began the next day by climbing up to the CNC to discover the Alcubierre sitting in interstellar space. No matter how many times the little ship stopped in the middle of nowhere, she could not get used to the dark, the sense that all around lay space at absolute zero, or close to it. Looking out onto the ship’s hull, she could only see where the running lights illuminated the surface. Everything else was pitch black. A spackling of distant stars provided what light reached the ship from beyond the hull. She had to fight the urge to look for an escape route out of this darkened trap.
“Why are we stopped now?” she asked as she took her customary seat in the rear of the CNC.
“Hyperdrone,” said Havak. “We have to stop and get instructions.”
“You know,” said Friese, “if we’d have taken a projection drive ship to Farigha, we’d have been there yesterday.”
“And we’d have been blown out of the sky by the entity that destroyed the colony. Wormholes are like a giant flare when they open. By the time we could approach, a hostile could target and destroy us. Warp ships, at least this one, dissipate their radiation behind them as they drop into real space. By the time anyone notices, we’re in and out. Imagine if they ever mount this on a warship.”
Havak said “warp ships,” Friese realized. And her tone when she “imagine if they put this on a warship” suggested that someone had already done that. Maybe even Havak herself. She was not the original captain of this ship. And the Compact Military was notorious for buying two of something when it could be had for three times the price. “Have we heard from a hyperdrone yet?”
“Sent ours about two hours ago,” said Havak. “We’ll take off again when we get it back.”
Something flashed, briefly lighting up the ship’s hull.
“And there it is. Danaq, prepare the grappling hook. Shonsi, trigger the drone’s transmission.”
The slender woman sitting at the far edge of CNC delicately worked her console. Outside, the projection drive hyperdrone maneuvered its way into view. It was a small thing, its transmitting devices hidden within its long tubular body. A bulge in the middle indicated where its power plant lay, and two dishes pointed outward at either end, the means with which it could travel interstellar distances.
Friese noticed the drone did not sport the logos of the Compact or the Navy but rather Dasarius Interstellar. Not for the first time since leaving Antarctica did she realize she was disobeying at least one Joint Chief’s orders. So, she had also realized, was everyone else on this tiny craft.
“Downloading net update now,” said Shonsi. A net update usually meant a copy of the entire planetary internet at the point of origin. Usually, this was intended to update the internet at the destination. This was how the Compact passed information about without such technological unicorns as ansibles. Then again, Friese sat aboard the motivation to make such devices, a technology originally abandoned for centuries earlier.
For Friese, this was the only really interesting part of the trip. Wormholes had taken the stars from distances requiring millennia to cross to nearly instant access if one did not mind a bit of nausea for their trouble. This warp drive might have been a wonderful idea for an Earth recovering from its World Wars and battle with an AI demigod. After four centuries of wormholes, though, it was like inventing the horse-and-buggy long after the internal combustion engine had given way to the electric motor.
“I’ve found Admiral Burke’s response,” said Shonsi.
“Bring it up, please,” said Havak, now standing with her hands cradling her coffee mug.
In the middle of CNC, in the only open space in the compartment, Admiral Burke’s form materialized. “Commander, we have your coordinates. Alcubierre is exceeding our expectations. However, new data from Farigha has forced a change of plans. Your survivor’s name is John Farno, and he has renamed the planet for himself. So I’d say our boy is ready to come home. His latest log entries indicate that a humanoid species unknown to us is responsible for the destruction of the terraforming project. For the past month, he has been focused primarily on survival. Unfortunately, our drone had to jump out as those aliens had returned to the planet. We don’t know the status yet, but we need you to change course to Dakota with in-system coordinates we are downloading now from this drone. There, you will dock at one of their more isolated drydocks and take on a shuttle.”
Havak did not even wait for the message to complete. “Is she kidding me? Does she understand how hard it is just to contain this ship in a warp field? We’ll sheer off half the shuttle.”
“We were able to contact Mr. Lancaster…”
That line, Friese noted, put a mischievous smile on Havak’s face.
“…and he grudgingly gave us details on how to stow a shuttle in the warp sphere.”
“Oh, shit,” said Havak.
Friese found herself amused at the commander’s sudden mood swings.
“This isn’t my first choice,” said Burke, “but we can’t risk landing the Alcubierre only to lose it to an unknown hostile. Proceed to Dakota, and send back the drone with an update when you arrive. Burke out.”
Havak blew out her breath, then turned to Friese. “I hope they meant Dakota proper and not out in that system’s belts. I’m sure you want to stretch your legs in real gravity, Sergeant.”
“Got a cold coffin I can finish the trip in?” It was the first time Friese had mentioned cryo out loud, though she had thought about it since her first day aboard.”
“We’ll need it for this Farno character. Sounds like he’s already gotten stir crazy. Danaq, get your readings and find Dakota in that mess. We’re going to have to sneak into one of our own systems.”
“Have it ready in an hour.”
Friese did not want to sit in CNC and watch the crew tap consoles while they sat motionless. Docking the drone held no interest for her, and frankly, all she really wanted to do now was sleep. She made her way down the ladder. Havak followed her.
“Bored?” asked the commander.
“Can I be honest?” asked Friese.
“Might as well be. The ship’s so small that you can’t really keep any secrets.”
“I really wish you’d put me in cryosleep.”
Havak gave her a half grin. “Let’s get some breakfast.”
The Alcubierre‘s galley was a small affair like the rest of the ship. A couple of tables, a food dispenser, and a beverage machine designed for zero-G. Friese assumed this last was in case the tiny ship lost gravity. The food dispenser actually three-D printed vatted meat, seasoned to whatever was desired, and contained packs of various fruits, vegetables, eggs, and breads and cereals. Dairy was limited and really came from a tank of synthetic base to produce cheese, butter, and milk, all but the last tri-D printed to order.
Friese took a fruit pack containing mixed berries and nuts from various Compact worlds, along with a cup of coffee – Earth grown with “cream” and “sugar.” Much to her surprise, the cream tasted almost natural, and her pack contained fresh fruit. “These aren’t normal rations for the Navy, are they?”
Havak, who had created a decent-smelling facsimile of bacon and eggs, nodded. “Whenever Dasarius Interstellar is behind a mission, the food gets better. If this were a capital ship, Mr. Germanicus would have a fully functioning galley on board. He says we’re three centuries past interstellar flight needing to be a hardship. I tend to agree, but then I’m not the one who makes the military’s food budget.” She took a bite of vat-grown bacon that almost looked like it came from the pig instead of a factory culture. “So how did you pull this assignment anyway?”
Friese bit into a slice of gelava fruit that tasted like it had come off the tree yesterday. Since Gelava only grew on Bonaparte, that was impossible. “I found the signal from our survivor. Nothing spectacular. Just noticed Farigha was pinging one of The Caliphate’s gates long after it had been declared dark. I logged it and went to bed.”
“But you found it,” said Havak.
“Yes.” The coffee tasted even better, fresh beans like planetside. Maybe, Friese wondered, she should get a job with Dasarius after she left the Border Guard. “Nothing a hundred other traffic spotters don’t do every day. But Admiral Burke insisted I come to Earth with her, then go off on this mission.”
“God, I hope I look and act like her at 112.”
“I can’t believe she’s 112.”
Havak grinned. “Germanicus is at least three centuries old. He’s one of the founders of Etrusca, back when it was little more than a glorified survey mission.”
“Rejuve. Don’t tell me you didn’t go to the clinic when you were twenty-five. Are you twenty-five?”
“Thirty-seven. But I’ve never rejuved. I thought I’d wait until I turned forty.”
“Oh. Don’t think I’ve ever gone into space with anyone who’s never rejuved. Listen, the first one’s rough, but your body acclimates to it. I’ve heard people over a hundred and fifty actually go through withdrawal if they don’t get it every five years.”
That made Friese even less willing to go to the clinic to have her age frozen at… Whatever age. Havak looked like she had started going at thirty. Burke looked a little older, but those aiming for careers in positions of authority often waited a decade. Women did anyway. Despite centuries of progress, the male of the human species still did not take women in authority seriously unless they looked older. She wondered about those silly girls who rejuved at twenty and kept it up for the rest of their lives. There were women well into their third century who basically looked like children to everyone around them, even those like Friese who had yet to have their first treatment. Men, too. She had heard doctors preferred not to treat anyone under twenty-five because the body and mind had not developed fully before then. She wondered, too, the psychological effects of physically not really leaving one’s teens behind yet, even on worlds where sixteen was the age of consent.
“So Burke dragged you along to meet the big man,” said Havak. “Not surprised. Our ‘glorious leader’ appoints the best and brightest to be his admirals, but doesn’t believe any of them unless they drag someone from the field with them. Did they at least brief you on what you are to do when we finally reach Farigha?”
“I’m to communicate with this John Farno as I’m the first human being to communicate with him,” said Friese. “Meaningless, really, since all I did was send Morse code by pinging what’s left of Farigha’s gate.”
“Morse code. I’m impressed. I haven’t heard of that since the Academy.”
“Burke’s idea. This Farno, or his hot-rigged AI, pinged in a series of prime numbers. If he hadn’t, we’d have assumed Farigha’s signal array had somehow survived and was malfunctioning. Well, technically, it is. It’s supposed to go dark when the gate is disabled.”
Havak smiled, and it softened her in a way Friese had not seen since coming aboard. “Listen, it’s a cramped vessel, and we get bored out here pretty easily.”
“I noticed.” Friese poked at her food. “What do you people do for fun?”
“Do you have anyone waiting for you back on The Caliphate?”
Did she? She dated one of the civilian techs, but she would hardly call him a lover. He just liked wine as much as she did. “Not really. Why?”
Friese stirred against Havak’s naked form, enjoying the warmth in her darkened quarters. She certainly had not expected the encounter with her host. Havak did not even strike her as the type. But, as Havak explained as they began to dose off after lovemaking, boredom makes people do things in deep space they normally would not do planetside or on a conventional ship. And, Friese reminded herself, she had gone along with it.
“I think we can do away with that cot,” Havak mumbled, referring to the cot she had setup for Friese when she came aboard. “Unless you still want to sleep alone.”
Friese shifted, rolled over, and kissed her. “No, if we’re going to be out here a while, then this is fine. But…”
“Is it not traditional to buy someone breakfast after sleeping with her?”
Havak chuckled. “I think that’s a guy thing. At least in my experience. Danaq is such a romantic…”
“Danaq?” Friese sat up. “Are you two…?”
Havak’s eyes came fully open now, and she sat up as well. “Relax. The ship was built in isolation. Warp trips take forever, even at the speeds we’ve been traveling on this mission. Danaq and I were bored, just as you and I got bored. Disappointed?”
Friese shook her head. “Not really. I’m not used to deep space. When I get bored, I usually go for a run, go to a wine bar…”
“Wine bar? On a Muslim world?”
That made Friese laugh. “Liz, I don’t live on Deseret where you have to buy coffee at specially licensed stores. The Founding Mullahs of The Caliphate were big fans of moderation. It’s overindulgence that leads to damnation.”
“Sounds a bit secular for that crowd.”
“Like I said, it’s not Deseret.”
Havak began tracing the edge of her nail along the line of Friese’s bare breast. “So tell me, Patty…”
Friese’s own given name sounded strange coming from Havak’s lips.
“…What do you do when you’re off-duty?”
“Like I said, go for a run. Drink wine. Hang out at a coffee bar with some friends who work up on the station. When all hell isn’t breaking loose, Border Guard is a pretty normal existence.”
The smile forming on Havak’s lips looked beautiful in the dim light. It made Friese wonder why the commander did not smile more.
“I envy you,” she said. “We’re not even normal Navy. Most of us gave up a decade of our lives to make warp drive happen. And until it’s revealed to the world, we’re more like Cybercommand than the Navy.”
“Hence, you taking a young, pretty woman to bed because there’s absolutely nothing to do when the ship is at warp.” Friese reached over and tickled Havak’s side. “You do think I’m pretty, don’t you?”
Havak leaned in and bit her gently on the neck. “Of course. And not bad for someone who doesn’t normally sleep with women.”
“You could tell?”
“Did I say it was bad?” Havak stretched. “I know I’m not pretty. I get called ‘sir’ sometimes, even by women.”
“You could try doing something with your hair.”
She shrugged. “I’m an engineer by trade. Looks are an afterthought, if I think of them at all. I’m only in command because the captain resigned his commission. You should see him.”
“Physicist. A big pudgy one. Looks like he’s been playing hologames since he was twelve.”
“So what does Danaq do,” said Friese, “if he and you are no longer… What? Playmates?”
“It’s a small ship, Sergeant,” said Havak, “so everyone knows you and I just had a little fun. But Danaq? I used to wonder what he did in that cabin all alone when we stopped sharing a bed. He plays chess.”
“Against the computer?”
“Against the crew. Even me. Right now, he’s probably playing scenarios sent to him by Germanicus.”
“Chess instead of sex. Interesting.”
“No different than running or drinking wine, my dear. In space, no one can hear you yawn from bore– ”
They found themselves tossed out of bed and onto the deck. Klaxons blared all around them. By the time Friese figured out where she was in the room, the gravity had given out. Havak, seemingly oblivious to her state of undress, floated up to a video comm panel near the door. “Shonsi, what just happened to my ship?”
“Something big in our way, Commander,” said the communications officer, probably the only one up in CNC. From her expression, Friese could tell the sight of her commander’s undress did not faze Shonsi. “Might be a rogue planet.”
“Shit,” said Havak. “That’s all we need. Drones intact?”
“Yes, but we need a reading before we know where to send it.”
“Get Danaq on it. Havak out.” She spun herself in midair to face Friese. “Get dressed, dear. Time to put you to work.”