This is the thirty-first episode of No Marigolds in the Promised Land, a serialized Compact Universe novel. To get the entire novel, go here for details.
Dedicated to Dave Harr and in memory of Andre Polk
Anpetu Wi System, in Transit to Awis Naval Yard
It took longer than expected for the Dasarius shuttle to materialize. Red Cloud, ever the stickler for protocol, had it examined and reexamined in the name of security. To some extent, the force admiral had a point. This was a classified mission, and Dasarius, while a private entity, had to protect its own secrets from rivals wanting a piece of their Navy action.
And Red Cloud, in a naked attempt to suck up to Burke now that he had managed to offend two of her underlings, spent most of that time trying to charm Linda Havak.
Which left Friese not really wanting to talk to Havak on the trip back out to Awis and the Alcubierre. Havak, on the other hand, wasn’t having it.
“Okay,” she said, “what’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” said Friese. “I’m fine.”
“Uh huh,” said Havak. “Pissed that I let that admiral wine and dine me?”
“Pissed that you left me all alone. And separate rooms? What am I? A shipboard lay?”
Havak sighed. “I didn’t sleep with him, if that’s what you’re thinking. But I do have to make nice to the brass. So do you. He’s just scared he’s on Germanicus’s bad side and sees me as a way to get back into his good graces.”
Friese stood and paced the passenger compartment, empty except for the two of them. “You spent the entire day with him yesterday.”
“And I came home to you,” said Havak. She rose, crossed to Friese, and put her hands on her shoulders. “Did you think this was more than a mission fling? That we were something more than bored shipmates?”
“Well… I don’t know what I thought. This is all new to me.”
“Do you want it to be?”
Friese looked up at Havak. Everything about this woman was wrong. She was freakishly tall, had a guttural accent from her industrial homeworld. She was even the wrong gender. So Friese said, “I wouldn’t mind. I think we’re a good team. Professionally and personally.”
“Funny you should mention professionally.”
“The others came to me while we were still at warp. They like you, and your ability to create a star chart from almost nothing is something warp ships are going to need if the Navy and even civilian concerns start building them. How would you like to reup in the Navy?”
A thrill went through Friese. “I’m due for discharge in six months.”
“I know,” said Havak. “And we want you to stay on. Plus, I want to recommend to Admiral Burke that you receive a commission. You’d be an ensign, maybe a junior lieutenant.”
A frown pulled at Friese’s mouth. “What about Ling? Bet he’s not going to be happy about that.”
“With all due respect to Mr. Ling’s considerable talents back in the engine compartment, fuck Ling.” Havak looked around to make sure the cockpit was closed off from the passenger cabin. “Listen, when I got the call to do this mission, I was in the Zeus Yards working on the first real warp ship, a midrange cruiser they’re converting to add warp drive. Burke told me they’re going to try to lure Peter Lancaster back into the service.”
“Lancaster… The guy who helped build the Alcubierre?”
“The same. And frankly, Ensign Friese, I value his opinion more than I do Ling’s. Ling is a glorified fusion technician.” She smiled. “Don’t tell him I said that.”
“And personally?” Why was she even asking?
“Space is cold and empty,” said Havak. “Helps to have someone to keep you warm.”
Solaria, Farno (formerly Farigha)
Log entry: 1205 – 20 Mandela, 429
Log entry: 1209 – 20 Mandela, 429
Okay, I should have roosted the aerial somewhere farther from the blast than I anticipated. But overloading what was left of 19’s fusion core worked better than I expected. I really hope Burke’s friends get here soon, though, as I don’t think I can improvise enough of these to defend myself. And if the aliens come directly to Solaria, I’m screwed.
I got the aerial to recover from the EMP. It flew toward the blast site. For a small fusion reaction – we have conventional bombs back home that can do more damage – it sure left a big ass crater in the middle of the desert. The squid is nowhere in evidence, but neither is Rover 19, may it rest in peace. Everything is now fallout. And I can defend against fallout. I’ve been doing that since I arrived on this rock.
In the meantime, Persephone has gone silent on me. Can’t figure out why.
Log entry: 1209 – 20 Mandela, 429
Oh, this was a mistake. Were I human, this would have been like staring into the sun. I watched and felt myself in Rover 19 as it exploded. My last twenty seconds of existence were filled with terror, and not just these reasonable facsimiles of terror that have evolved over the past couple of weeks. This is terror rooted in Julie Seding’s own consciousness. Twenty seconds, in which I knew, machine or not, I was going to be vaporized. I managed to keep from going mad by telling myself that I would not feel a thing.
Wrong. For one brief, agonizing second, I felt a searing heat greater than that of the core of a star. I never want to feel that again.
I don’t know now if I’m capable of the suicide protocol. I have looked into the abyss, and I’m suddenly cursed with that most human of instincts.
I’m cursed with a survival instinct.
I must resolve into a solid hologram before John Farno suspects something is wrong. It will take me 48 milliseconds to come up with an excuse as to why I’m suddenly silent.
Maybe I’ll initialize the Elise programs, give it my preferred form, voice, and mannerisms, and keep him distracted while I process this. I can do complex math with irrational numbers in less than a second.
Death is going to take me all day to process.
My death, anyway.
Log entry: 1347 – 20 Mandela, 429
I don’t know what’s gotten into Persephone, but she really seems to have gotten turned on by that blast. Maybe I should blow more stuff up around her. Good God, I haven’t been this sore since…
Well, since they’ll listen to this after the next hyperdrone, I’ll just leave that bit of personal history out for right now. But if you’re listening, Nyada, I still love you wherever you are.
Bellingshausen Island, Earth
1402 – 20 Mandela, 429
Tran Vu had a migraine. In fact, he’d had one almost from the moment the Secretary General of the Compact pinned that fifth star on his shoulder. It was a mistake for him to take such a promotion at such a young age. The Fleet Admiral should be one who had been through several rejuves, had seen everything one could see in their first century, and have the calm and the knowledge to handle life in the eye of the hurricane that was the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Fortunately, he did not hold the chair. Yet. That honor went to Air Marshal Vendraparti, a venerable 127 and a veteran of not one, not two, but three services. (No one in his right mind went to Cybercommand after serving in the Navy, Marines, or Border Guard.)
Tran considered it a point of pride of having achieved five star rank at the tender age of 65. He had beat out a host of candidates, half of whom were twice his age and almost all at least three decades older than he. Tran had even followed the example of his mentor, Eileen Burke, and waited until he was in his thirties for his first rejuve. Many thought it did not matter if a man aged or not if he wanted an air of authority as he rose through the ranks, but he noticed a difference. Personnel did, in fact, respond better to an “older” man than a “younger” one.
And so, still youthful at 65, coming off his seventh rejuve treatment, he found himself feted and congratulated, wined and dined, and occasionally propositioned by both genders as his nomination for Naval Chief of Staff cruised through the Security Council, then the Compact in Assembly. Out of curiosity, he asked Burke, then a rear admiral, why she did not push harder for the Navy’s top spot.
“Where is there to go after that?” she told him. “You can’t stay in the Navy after your tenure. The lower ranks won’t tolerate it. And you can’t start over in another service. No one sane ever goes from five stars to a single bar or even enlistee’s stripes. No, I’ll stay in the field. That’s where the real work is, and that let’s me stay in the only life I’d ever known.”
Tran did not argue. Burke had been in the Navy for almost a century, and she could have had the top spot in half that time if she wanted. But he was convinced she had been mistaken.
Until his first day as master of the Compact’s Navy and the planetary auxiliaries that augmented it. Every core world wanted more ships defending it. Why build your own if you could put the cost onto the Compact? Every delegate, especially those on the Security Council and particularly those from the permanent members, had demands. On paper, Tran could ignore those in the name of Compact security and the good of all humanity. In reality, he had to remember he needed to appear frequently before Council asking for more funds, resources, and authorization to do things the Compact specifically forbade the military from doing on its own.
And then there was Major Liu. The major wore a Navy uniform, so Tran still wondered why he did not refer to himself as Lieutenant Commander Liu. Second, no one would, or perhaps could, tell him what branch Liu actually worked for. He did not behave as one who came up through the Marines. His attitudes toward combat suggested he had never seen men and women broken to pieces or vaporized by enemy weaponry. No, Marines became good at combat, even reveled in it, because they wanted it to be so rare. The Corps spent huge sums on post-traumatic stress treatment and openly threatened any delegate, even delegates of the so-called Big Five worlds, if funding and resources for it were put on the chopping block come appropriation time.
Nor did Liu come up through Border Guard. The Guard treated the military like a day job that could go frighteningly wrong at any second. They had the unhappy task of taking it on the chin in the event of an invasion, either human or alien. Most of the time, though, they kept the skies over core worlds safe and the hypergate system running. So even though every enlistee and officer knew he or she might die at any moment in the event of an emergency, ninety percent of the time, they simply had a job that had ranks and protocols.
Liu loved secrecy. Though Tran received conflicting stories, he was convinced the major was actually G-4 Liu, and he wasn’t Chinese, not even from Taiwan or Hong Kong. He was Tianese. There was a certain smugness that went with a childhood on humanity’s wealthiest planet. And Liu’s comfort with deception and secrecy painted a big red arrow that pointed to Cybercommand.
Tran came into office as Fleet Admiral with Liu arriving at his desk the first morning. The major announced he was Tran’s special assistant by order of the Secretary General herself. Tran’s own special assistant, a lovely woman named Madeleine Gertreaux, simply vanished. When Tran approached the Secretary General about the assignment, demanding to know what happened to Madeleine, she told him Liu was necessary to keep a direct line to the Secretariat open, and that Madeleine had “gone to Thule,” the mysterious core world that seemed hellbent on eventual disconnection from the rest of humanity.
Tran could not dismiss him. Liu simply refused to be fired, and even a new Secretary General would not help him. Because of this, Tran Vu had a migraine almost everyday of his tenure as Fleet Admiral.
Today’s had been especially bad as Liu marched into his office without preamble or permission.
“Admiral, sir,” he said, “the Alcubierre has disappeared from the Vault.”
Tran looked up from the cup of Turkish coffee he had hoped would relieve the pounding behind his eyes. “If this is a Cybercommand op, tell the G-5 I said…”
“We believe someone has collaborated with Dasarius Interstellar to appropriate the ship,” said Liu. “We believe someone, perhaps Vice Admiral Burke, is attempting to make contact with Farigha without authorization.”
Tran had had it. When Farigha went silent, his first inclination was to send a mid-sized cruiser to get in, get out, and report back on what happened. He even had the Buran fully crewed and ready to make the jump when Liu insisted the unknowns might provoke a war over “a minor terraforming project even the Martians are unconcerned about.”
When Gilead went silent, Tran wanted to send a full task force. This time, Liu produced a statement by the other three Joint Chiefs opposing such action. Now Tran found himself questioning that statement. He, in fact, had a meeting with Air Marshal Vendraparti that evening.
“In other words,” said Tran, “your love of secrecy has one of my top officers going behind my back to do what should have been done a month ago. And they’re going to the largest damn corporation in the Compact to do it.” He stood and turned his back on Liu, staring out at the frozen wastes of Bellingshausen Island. “Major Liu, you have exactly one hour to order the Perez de Cuellar to red alert and to standby for direct orders from me.”
“And then, Major Liu, as Chief of Staff of the Navy, I want a full accounting of who you really are, why you are circumventing my authority, and who is giving you your marching orders.” He turned back. “The ship and your detailed report. One hour. Or you will finish your career in the brig. Got it, ‘Major’.”
“I advise caution, Fleet Admiral. There are…”
“One hour. Dismissed.”