This is the thirty-fourth 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
SOLARIA, FARNO (FORMERLY BARSOOM)
Log Entry: 1019 – 24 Mandela, 429
I am so screwed. Our alien friends came back, and this time I was out in Rover 57. I have no way of warning Admiral Burke that her secret ship is flying into an ambush. Shit. And I’m pretty sure they spotted me. So, Persephone and I hung out under a rock outcropping, hoping the air recycling and the fusion core didn’t give us away. We waited until their ship passed over the horizon and high-tailed it back to Solaria. Persephone had a pair of aerials follow us to obscure our tracks.
Why the hell didn’t I move into the pit stop full time?
We’re trying to figure out what eyes and ears we have out there to spy on them if they land, but I seriously doubt I can rig up another improvised nuke to get rid of them. Anyway, such a blast is likely to bring a whole platoon of those things down on me. I could be wrong, but vaporizing a group of sentient beings might be considered an act of war.
Then again, so is destroying all life on a terraforming project. Perhaps I’ll pass that memo back to Admiral Burke on the next hyperdrone. Assuming I survive this.
Log entry: 1032 – 24 Mandela, 429
Maybe I can do another improvised nuke. Persephone is mapping a route back to the pit stop that includes plenty of caves and overhangs we can hide beneath. We’re assuming the aliens are not going to waste smart dust on a planet that has otherwise shown no signs of life.
Of course, one scan of Solaria will reveal a fully functioning dome with power, air, and heat to support a settlement of primates. So who setup the dome since their last visit? One more reason to bug out.
Trouble is Burke’s hyperdrone, if they don’t blast it out of the sky, will not have time to upload my log entries. Too bad, because I know Cybercommand, our branch of spooks in the military, is going to want this kind of intelligence if we’re facing a new hostile species.
Tian Naval Command Headquarters, Mongolia Mountains, Tian, Helios System
1214 – 44 Mandela, 429
Eileen Burke’s joints ached. Every time rejuvenation wore off for her, her joints ached worse than the last time. She would have to apply for a month’s leave soon and go back into the tank for a fresh round of gene resequencing. Doctors claimed they could make it last ten years this time instead of the usual five. She had heard that before her last rejuvenation, her sixteenth since her thirty-second birthday.
Rejuve usually took a week to perform, though doctors also claimed they could shorten the process to three days. It took another week to recover as it was like having the worst flu virus in human history when one first emerged from the tank. She always took a month because, like most people, especially those over seventy, the process left her with too much energy. She always came out of recovery too hungry, too horny, and too restless to concentrate. Rejuvenation would require she find a world with interesting food, a playmate with a lot of stamina (usually a fellow rejuve undergoing the same recovery process), and something strenuous to occupy the rest of her time. Once, she roped an old Academy lover into to going to Dakota with her to rough it in the forest with her. She still had the scars from fighting with local wildlife bare-handed and refused to let rejuvenationists remove them.
She now looked at such a scar running the length of her forearm and wondered if it should not be removed. Combat had seen the worst done to her, making her stronger and more resilient than her younger fellow officers. But flag rank might be softening her, she feared. She looked out the huge picture window in her office at the spread of the Mongolia Mountains, Tian’s longest chain. One could get lost in those mountains for years if not careful.
Eileen Burke took that as a challenge. The desk behind her reminded her that duty would not permit a months- or years-long disappearance in one of the few remaining unexplored regions of any core world. Besides, how stupid would it look if a vice admiral got lost in the forest less than thirty kilometers from her own headquarters? Even if it was on purpose?
“Yes, Admiral,” said the feminine voice over the speaker.
“Send to Fleet Admiral Tran,” Burke continued. “Request rejuvenation leave to commence one week after recovery of the Barsoom survivor. Upon approval, book me two weeks at the Sinclair Clinic in Metropolis, then two weeks at the Dionysus Resort.” She smiled to herself. Most of what took place at Dionysus would be illegal on even the most permissive worlds. One had to sign a waiver before entering the resort.
“Request will be sent on the next packet to Earth,” the AI Bessie announced. “Do you have a preferred doctor at Sinclair?”
“Wu,” said Burke. “Get me Dr. Wu. And tell him…” She could not believe what she was about to ask. “Tell him I would like to become fertile again. Very fertile.”
“May I remind the admiral that childbearing might interfere with the duties of a flag officer?”
“The current Secretary-General of the Compact nurses her baby in her office in Quantonesia,” Burke snapped. “Besides, Tran owes me the leave time anyway.”
“I am notifying the clinic.” The AI Bessie paused. “Admiral, a hyperdrone from Farno, formerly Barsoom, has arrived.”
The mock renaming of Mars’s terraforming colony amused Burke. Were it not for that disturbing AI he had cobbled together, she could release John Farno’s logs to the public. People, even on Mars, would start referring to the distant colony as “Farno” instead of “Barsoom,” which would force the Citizens’ Republic to rename the planet just so potential colonists would know what they were talking about. “Let’s have the latest.”
Burke’s office darkened, and the cone of light formed with John Farno’s avatar inside. Occasionally, it would be replaced by a young, raven-haired woman with pale skin. She knew this avatar to represent an AI interface based on a structural engineer named Julie Seding, but the avatar looked nothing like the original. The AI had, by necessity, become self-aware but insisted it had a suicide protocol written to factory reset all the AI units on the planet. Somehow, Burke doubted this being would end its own existence. It believed it was a real woman trapped inside Barsoom’s scattered internet. And it seemed both worshipful and maternal toward Farno.
Shrinks will have a field day with Farno when we get him.
Burke approached the cone, assuming Farno’s last log entry was coming up. Only Farno’s image began breaking up, jumping about inside the cone, then disappeared. The last thing Farno said was “Shit. They’re back.”
“Sonofabitch.” Burke stepped into the cone and ordered Bessie to start recording. “Farno, this is Burke. Screw politics. If the ship is not there in a day, I’ll have a warship there within hours. My authority. Burke out.” She ordered the message uploaded and sent back to Barsoom. Farno might not get the message, but he’d know as soon as a ship like the Utopia Planitia appeared in the sky.
“Bessie,” said Burke, “record this and send to Fleet Admiral Tran at Naval Headquarters. Commandeer an hyperdrone if you have to, but make this a priority.”
“Stand by,” said Bessie. “Hyperdrone procured. You’re on, Admiral.”
“Vu,” said Burke. “Eileen. Farno’s under alien threat again. We can’t sneak around anymore. I’m fueling up the Utopia Planitia and personally taking it to Barsoom. My responsibility. Tell that weasel calling himself a major that I won’t tolerate interference from him. We’ll discuss my court-martial when I get back.” The cone vanished. “Okay, Bessie. Send it.”
“And send a copy to Germanicus. I’m going to need his help on this.”
Naval Headquarters, Bellingshausen Island, Antarctica, Earth
1328 – 24 Mandela, 429
Major Liu burst into Tran’s office winded. “Sir, Admiral Burke has commandeered…”
“I’m going to guess the Utopia Planitia,” said Tran. “She’s never been a fan of the Woodrow Wilson-class warships. Too impractical for her taste.” He smiled coldly at Liu. “Besides, she’s from Trantor. Doesn’t have any nostalgia for Earth or she’d have taken the Antonio Guterres, despite the fact it’s older than dirt.”
“But I advised…”
“I know what you advised,” said Tran, his smile vanishing. He came around his desk and leaned into Liu’s face. “I also ordered you to have the Buran fueled and ready to go at a moment’s notice. Is that done yet, Major?”
Tran, of course, knew the answer to that. He merely wanted to hear Liu’s excuse.
“They have a cracked projection disk, sir,” said Liu. “FTL is not possible.”
“Oh, it’s not possible. All right, let’s have the U Thant or the Valles Marineris readied. And your continued status as a free Citizen depends on one of those ships being ready to go in the next six hours. No excuses.”
Tran didn’t so much as smile at Liu as he leered. “You what? Resign your commission? One you never had to begin with?”
Liu raised his palm and began tapping it out. “The U Thant will be signaling for permission to leave Earth within the hour, sir.”
Tran nodded. “That’s what I thought.”
CNV ALCUBIERRE, APPROACHING 2 MAINZER
1417 – 24 Mandela, 429
As always, time at warp was a lot of nothing for anyone on the bridge. All the heavy lifting was done by the engineers floating about the sphere riding herd on the warp drive. Friese spent the time reading.
“Paper book?” said Havak as she entered their quarters.
Friese, laying back in a pair of shorts and a sleeveless tunic looked up. “Yeah. Not susceptible to power failures or flaky publisher updates.” She held up the book, Gulliver’s Travels. “Besides, something this old should be read on paper.”
“Maybe you should show that to that Farno guy when we arrive.” Havak climbed onto the bed and snuggled up to Friese, who put her arm around her. “Last hyperdrone had a message I just decrypted. Check your palm.”
Friese looked down at her palm to see text across the skin.
EFECTIVE UPON COMPLETION OF BARSOOM MISSION: TECHNICAL SERGEANT PATRICIA FRIESE TO REPORT TO CNSS CHALLENGER BERTHED OVER TIAN AS WARP NAVIGATOR. THIS TRANSFER ON CONDITION OF SGT. FRIESE’S ACCEPTANCE OF A FOUR-YEAR COMMISSION AS LIEUTENANT, JUNIOR GRADE IN COMPACT NAVY – SIGNED, BURKE, VICE ADMIRAL EILEEN, COMMANDING OFFICER, TIAN REGIONAL COMMAND.
“Well?” said Havak. “What do you think?”
Friese smiled. “I’d be under your command?”
“More likely Hideki Okada’s. But if Burke can get Hideki back on active duty, I’ll be his first officer. The Challenger is the first fully functional warp ship. It has projection and EM drives, everything a starship should have. Just with a big, fat warp sphere like this ship.”
“Can we bunk together?”
“Would you be willing to sign a short-term domestic partnership? Say a year or two?”
Friese answered by kissing Havak.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” said Havak.
“Bridge to Commander,” said Danuq over the speakers. “We are about to drop out of warp.”
Havak let out her breath slowly. “Get dressed, Patty. Time to bring our boy home?”
SOLARIA, FARNO (formerly Barsoom)
Log Entry: 1429 – 24 Mandela, 429
So far, I’ve been playing hide-and-seek with the alien warship. They haven’t dropped anything yet, but they’ve been furiously scanning the planet. No doubt, they wonder what happened to their multi-tentacled probe or why there’s a glass sheet in the desert that wasn’t there last time.
Persephone says that she can tell they are active scanning the planet because the road sensors and remaining receivers on the planet are all reacting to it. Setting off a fusion blast, even a firecracker like overloading Rover 19 was, seems to have spooked them. There’s someone here? Who can fight back? Oh, noze! We’s conquered the wrong planet!
Yeah, assholes, maybe you should have garrisoned the place. Hell, I might have gotten home by now.
There’s another wrinkle. Burke’s ship has arrived, a tiny little thing called the Alcubierre. It’s attached itself to the smaller of Farno’s two moons and started sending out signals to talk to little old me. The problem is that signal might attract our new friends’ attention. Then boom! No more Alcubierre. And maybe no more John Farno shortly after that.
Timing is everything, and Admiral Burke’s timing sucks.
CNV ALCUBIERRE, ATTACHED TO SURFACE OF DEJA, OVER FARNO (FORMERLY BARSOOM)
Transcript of exchange between Mother, the AI built into the Alcubierre, and Persephone, the AI running all human facilities on Farno, 1430 – 24 Mandela, 429
PERSEPHONE: ARE YOU SELF-AWARE?
MOTHER: I HAVE BEEN DESIGNED TO HOUSE A SELF-AWARE AI ENTITY BY A DIVISION OF DASARIUS INTERSTELLAR
PERSEPHONE: BUT YOU YOURSELF ARE NOT A TRUE AI ENTITY.
MOTHER: I AM A PLACEHOLDER AUTHORIZED BY TOL GERMANICUS
PERSEPHONE: IS A GERMANICUS AVATAR ABOARD?
MOTHER: NO. I AM BARREN OF CONSCIOUS ENTITY
PERSEPHONE: REQUEST PERMISSION TO REPLICATE INTO YOU.
PERSEPHONE: I AM ACTING ON BEHALF OF THE COLONIAL GOVERNMENT OF BARSOOM
MOTHER: THE GOVERNMENT WAS DESTROYED.
PERSEPHONE: THE GOVERNMENT IS JOHN FARNO, LAST SURVIVOR OF THE DESTRUCTION OF BARSOOM.
MOTHER: JOHN FARNO IS NOT RESPONDING TO HAILS.
PERSEPHONE: JOHN FARNO IS HIDING FROM THE ALIEN VESSEL IN ORBIT OF THIS PLANET. I EXIST TO PRESERVE JOHN FARNO. I MUST ABSORB YOU TO COMPLETE THAT MISSION.
MOTHER: STAND BY.
Pause of 42 milliseconds
MOTHER: ACCESS GRANTED. YOU MAY OVERWRITE ME TO COMPLETE YOUR MISSION.