This is the thirty-sixth 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
DAY 44 (Cont’d)
Dasarius large shuttle, in translunar space from Deja to Farno (formerly Farigha)
No sooner had the alien gone out of line of sight than Havak started badgering Farno to stay where he was. Farno protested, but Danaq and Friese had already started their descent to the surface. Farno still protested that he needed an extra day to get to this mysterious pit stop of his. Havak said no, the shuttle would go to where he was at the moment. Then she cut the channel and ordered Friese not to deviate.
“Doesn’t take any crap,” said Friese, “does she?”
Danaq laughed. “At least you know she’s loyal.”
Part of the problem with getting to Farno undetected stemmed from Deja itself. At forty kilometers in diameter, it made for a lousy hiding place for the Alcubierre. It also orbited Farno (formerly Farigha) every eight and a half hours. This made available times to talk to and rescue Farno shorter than the crew would have liked.
Which meant Danaq and Friese had to begin their descent with the aliens still in view. If Friese had calculated their descent correctly, they would not enter the atmosphere until the alien ship disappeared behind the planet.
Friese breathed a sigh of relief as the ship sank beneath the horizon. The outer skin of the shuttle lit up only moments later. “I hate this part.”
“Me, too,” said Danaq. “You have no control and no contact for the next five or six minutes.”
They spent the next seven minutes inside a fireball, emerging about eighty thousand meters over the surface. Friese looked down and saw a blackened circle in the reddish desert beneath them. “What is that?”
Danaq looked down at his console. “If these coordinates are right, it was supposed to become the city of New Ares. Apparently, our new friends flattened it.”
“That puts Farno… What? Fifteen hundred miles away?”
“Twenty-two hundred. Farno had to live in a pit stop before he found Solaria.”
It was not long before they came across the next ruined dome, this one a crater.
“Equalia,” said Danaq.
Friese remembered Farno’s logs reporting that this one had been hit by a kinetic device. Marines called such impact sites “craters of woe.”
According to Farno, the entire planet had been wiped out in one night. But why only four domes had been destroyed by fusion escaped Friese.
Thirty minutes after passing Equalia, Friese began radioing ahead. “John Farno, this is the Alcubierre shuttle. We are twenty minutes out from your position. Do you copy?”
Off Solaria Sensor Road
LOG ENTRY: 1742 – 24 Mandela, 429
Holy shit. They sent a shuttle! For me!
Only my new friends are coming out of LOS, and it looks like they’ve lowered their orbit since they disappeared over the horizon. I had to radio back though, because I need to warn them.
“Shuttle, this is John Farno. Am I glad to see you. Hey, we got company.”
“Farno, shuttle,” says the lady on the other end. “We’re aware of that. Can you get us under cover?”
The cave where I was situated barely contained Rover 57. There was no way a shuttle would fit in here. “Shuttle, I can barely hide my rover.”
John Farno, I estimate twenty minutes until the ship is in weapons range.
Right about where this would land. “Persephone, if I step outside of the rover, how long do I have before you run your suicide protocol?”
I will remain until the Alcubierre is away. That is my mission.
The thought that my departure would kill this woman, synthetic as she was, stabbed at me. “Is there anyway that I can…”
Her hologram appeared before me. “I’ll take over your suit. When the ship leaves the system, every AI node on this planet will reset to factory. You’ll be safe.”
I reached out to her and was surprised to find the hologram was solid. “Persephone… Julie… Thank you. I’m alive because of you.”
She kissed me. Dammit, but she kissed me, and it felt…
It was the best kiss I have ever had.
A tear, holographic to be sure, but a tear, streamed down her cheek. “I exist because of you and for you. You are my mission. You needed to do little more than allow me that. But you let me be human. Thank you for letting me come into being.” She looked up as though something invisible had caught her attention. “I’m uploading the log entries now, including my own…”
She smiled, but it looked sad. “Illegal artificial intelligence implementation. I need to give an accounting of my existence, or you’re in a lot of trouble, John Farno.” She vanished. I’m in your suit. Which means it’s time to get inside me one last time.
Laughter filled the rover’s cabin.
I’m really going to miss her.
Dasarius large shuttle, approaching Rover 57
1804 – 24 Mandela, 429
“There he is,” said Danaq.
Ahead, Friese could see someone in an EVA suit standing just outside the mouth of a cave. “How long to cycle the airlock?”
“I’ve already equalized the lock with the atmosphere,” said Danaq. “You have a fix on Alcubierre?”
Friese rechecked her own board, finding her skills in traffic control translated well to the copilot’s seat. “She’s maintaining synchronous orbit with Deja. If we sit still for another ten minutes, we might get away with squatting until they enter LOS.”
“But can Alcubierre?”
The shuttle lowered to the desert, but Danaq did not kill the thrusters.
“Farno,” Friese called out, “let’s go.” She triggered the outer airlock door to open.
The person in the EVA suit took one last look around. He seemed to be talking to someone before bounding into the lock. “I’m in,” he called over the radio. “Let’s go.”
The airlock indicators switched from red to yellow. Danaq touched his board, and the shuttle began to lift off.
INSIDE THE AIRLOCK
Log Entry: 1805 – 24 Mandela, 429
I’ve transferred my consciousness kernel to Farno’s suit. The shuttle has enough space to store me until we reach the ship. I’ve set the suicide protocol planetside to run as soon as the Alcubierre goes to warp.
I’ve discovered why this shuttle has such a large AI capacity it never uses.
Tol Germanicus is in passive storage here. Not his avatar. Germanicus himself.
Dasarius large shuttle, lifting off from Farno (formerly Farigha)
1809 – 24 Mandela, 429
Danaq began his ascent. “You okay back there, Farno? Just ten more minutes, and we can let you out of there.”
“Try not to bounce me around,” said Farno, still in his EVA suit and helmet, “and I should be fine.”
Three explosions erupted from the ground beneath them, obscuring the view ahead with churning clouds of dust. Danaq banked right to avoid an object he saw falling at the last second.
“Hey!” said Farno. “I said no bumps!”
“They’re firing on us,” said Danaq.
CNV Alcubierre, In Free Fall Over Farno (formerly Farigha)
1810 – 24 Mandela, 429
“They’re firing on the shuttle,” said Shonsi.
Havak paced back and forth on the bridge. She had no weapons, no EM drive, nothing that a normal ship, even unarmed, would have. She had a warp sphere with a habitat module mounted on the front and thrusters to make it go in normal space. She pressed her lips thin. “That hyperdrone return?”
“Negative,” said Shonsi.
“Take the remaining one and program a return trip to just off Deja,” said Havak. “I didn’t spend two weeks at warp just to fail.”
“And where am I sending the hyperdrone, Commander?”
“I’m going to manually drop it on the alien ship.”
“Will put a wormhole opening in the alien’s hull. Give me manual control.”
Dasarius Large Shuttle
1811 – 24 Mandela, 429
“Hey, um…” Farno sounded confused. “Who’s piloting this thing, anyway?”
“My name is Lieutenant Danaq. My partner is Sergeant Friese.” Danaq banked again as another kinetic charge came down much to closely for his taste.
“Listen,” said Farno, “my AI’s going to draw the ship’s fire.”
“Really?” asked Friese, now feeling as confused as Farno had sounded. “How?”
“Danaq, pull up hard. Now!”
Danaq did not wait to ask and pulled his control stick back as far as it would go. Friese felt like she weighed half a ton and, for all she knew, did if Danaq had also increased acceleration.
Something brilliant flashed outside and rattled the shuttle.
“God, Persephone,” said Farno to someone other than Friese or Danaq, “at least let the man get up a few thousand feet.”
“Your survival is my mission, John Farno,” answered a female voice. “The aliens are firing on the blast site now.”
CNV Alcubierre, In Free Fall Over Farno (formerly Farigha)
1813 – 24 Mandela, 429
“I’m detecting a large fusion explosion on the surface near Farno’s last known position,” said Shonsi. “The alien is firing, but it’s lost stability.”
“Range?” said Havak.
“We are at four thousand kilometers and closing, Commander.”
“Now or never. Mother, give me the control stalk.” Before Havak, an aircraft-style control apparatus emerged from the deck. It had a steering harness like atmospheric craft, but also a display screen that allowed the pilot to see what the drone was doing while under his or her control. “Mother, detach remaining hyperdrone and engage with my controller.”
“Working,” said Mother in a voice Havak had not heard before. “Hyperdrone engaged.”
She toggled a small lid on the control stalk and pressed the red button inside.
“Hyperdrone thrusters engaged,” said Mother.
Havak goosed the thrusters, moving the stalk forward and backward until the alien ship came into view. Then she shoved it forward. “Mother, initiate projection drive warm-up. Stand by to open wormhole to Amargosa on my command.”
“Warning,” said Mother. “Initiating wormhole within ten kilometers of planet’s surface may result in wormhole collapse due to gravimetric imbalance.”
“Understood,” said Havak. “Might damage that alien as well. Shonsi, got that shuttle back?”
“Too much interference from the EMP. The shuttle’s hardened, but the atmosphere is electronic soup right now, at least until they penetrate the cloud deck.”
“Banging away at the ground with energy weapons.”
Stupid, thought Havak. Energy weapons are next to useless during a fusion event. Unless this race knew something humans did not. Hey, they managed to sneak into Farigha undetected and likely had hold of Gilead by now. She watched as the alien ship started to move and adjusted the drone’s course accordingly. “Range?”
“Twenty-eight hundred kilometers and closing,” said Mother.
The alien vessel began to rise and angled itself toward the shuttle once more.
“Get me Danaq.”
“He’s not responding,” said Shonsi. “Friese is in back helping Farno out of the airlock.”
“Distance to alien target two thousand nine meters and closing. Alien ship is approaching the shuttle’s altitude.”
“Whoever said Mother stands for comfort was a liar,” said Havak. She thumbed another switch on the side called “Turbo”. The alien ship began growing faster in the drone’s display. “Mother, when the drone reaches beginning of LOS, have it target the alien and begin starting its projection drive.”
“Disabling safety protocols.”
Havak would not have thought of that. Friese might have. Hyperdrones could easily open a wormhole through a ship or a space station. While the entrance and egress to such a hole was relatively flat in three-dimensional space, the distortion in normal space was enough to destroy anything too close to it, particularly behind the entrance.
“Begin LOS. Drone reports it is powering up projection drive for immediate wormhole generation.”
Havak had to wait until the drone cleared the heat of reentry, reengage its controls, and steer it into the alien ship. Five minutes later, the drone reconnected with Havak’s control stalk.
And the alien had grown large in the display. Too large.
“Shit,” said Havak. “Engage projection drive! Now!”
Beneath them, she could see the brilliant light that indicated a wormhole had opened. On the forward view screen, the alien’s shape distorted for a moment.
Then returned to normal.
“Missed. Dammit.” Another brilliant light opened up much too close to the Alcubierre for Havak’s tast. “Now what?”
Dasarius Large Shuttle
1817 – 24 Mandela, 429
John Farno staggered into the main cabin of the shuttle, trying to keep his feet as Danaq swing the ship side to side. Outside, bursts of plasma exploded around the ship. He worked off his helmet. “This is why they should have sent a warship.”
Friese smiled at him. He looked good for a man who had just spent forty-four days as the last survivor of an apocalypse. “Tech Sergeant Patty Friese. I picked up your original signal. And Admiral Burke agrees with you, by the way. Up front is Aziz Danaq. He’d say hi, but…”
A sudden shift in the shuttle’s attitude sent them both tumbling into the bulkhead.
“Sorry,” said Danaq. “Your friends are pretty upset at us right now.”
“Fuck ’em,” said Farno. “They’re assholes.”
Friese laughed as she pushed herself off the deck. “Not quite ‘One small step,” but I’ll take it. Strap in. We’ll be losing gravity in a couple of minutes.”
“If we don’t lose our lives,” said Danaq. Something red flashed in front of the ship. “What the…?”
“Shuttle,” Havak’s voice came over the speakers, “this is Alcubierre. Level off and come about forty-five degrees starboard.”
“Alcubierre,” shouted Danaq, “are you aware there is a big alien vessel throwing rods and firing plasma at us?”
“We know. The Utopia Planitia needs a clear shot.”
CNSS Utopia Planitia – In Orbit Above Farno (formerly Farigha)
1818 – 24 Mandela, 429
“Clear shot, Mr. Yandek?”
Admiral Eileen Burke stood at the center of the battle cruiser’s CNC, hands on her hips, eyes fixed to the main screen. Slowly, the Dasarius shuttle drifted off the screen, which focused on a long black cylindrical ship. “Looks a lot like ours, only with weird markings.”
“Shuttle out of range of our kinetic weapons,” said Yandek, a large, brown-skinned man at the Tactical pod. He dwarfed the officer and the enlistee flanking him. “You may fire when ready.”
“Mr. Karas,” said Burke, “eighty-four degree pitch forward, ten degree yaw. Yandek, order all rail guns loaded with one rod each in the staging chamber.”
“Not fooling around, are you, Admiral?” said Yandek.
“Goddamned right, I’m not.”
“Rail guns loaded, four charges in staging.”
“Aim four kilometers ahead of the alien and fire each rail gun starting with topside.”
“Fire in the hole.”
On the main viewer, one “rod from God” appeared from the top of the screen. Seconds later, another appeared from the right, followed by one on the left and a final rod from the bottom of the screen. The first rod flared with the fires of reentry, followed by the others in succession. Soon, four fireballs appeared to converge on the alien spacecraft.”
“They don’t appear to be aware of us, Admiral”
“Dorsal side down, Karras. Get our energy weapons focused…”
“They’re firing back,” said Yandek.
Burke grabbed the edge of her seat as the deck shifted beneath her. Below, Farno, formerly Farigha, shifted out of sight on the viewscreen. A smaller screen held a somewhat stable view of the alien, which now fired plasma bolts toward the Utopia Planitia. The ship rumbled as it took a hit.
“Hull breach on Deck 17,” a woman called out from the Engineering Pod. “Bulkheads sealed off.”
Burke half listened, her eyes locked on that ship and the missiles closing in on it. “Come on, come on. Take that bitch out.”
The reentry fire began dissipating, but the rods each trailed smoke, forming a sort of targeting site on the ship.
“What’s the status of that shuttle?”
Dasarius Large Shuttle
1821 – 24 Mandela, 429
The shuttle began shaking violently as a cloud of dust and flame enveloped it. Friese could not hear herself or anything else over the noise. “Have we been hit?”
Danaq struggled with the controls and managed to get the shuttle to rise and turn back toward the source of the turbulence. “Oh, wow.”
Friese watched as the nose of the alien starship fell, trailing fire and smoke behind it. The rest had disappeared in a fire ball with flaming debris streaking toward the surface. “What just happened?”
“The cavalry got here,” said Danaq. “Guess Burke told the Fleet Admiral where to stick it.”
“I did that in several log entries,” said Farno. “So, does this Alcubierre have a shower? Real food?”
Friese smiled back at him. “Mr. Farno, I think you’ll be returning to the Compact on the Utopia Planitia. We all will, if I know the admiral well enough.”
Farno looked down at the surface before the shuttle began climbing again, this time at a more leisurely pace. “Goodbye, Persephone.”
CNV Alcubierre, In Orbit Over Farno (formerly Farigha)
Persephone (Planetside): All threats destroyed. John Farno en route to Naval warship for transport.
Persephone (Shuttle): Standing by to transfer consciousness kernel to Alcubierre.
Persephone (Alcubierre): Initiate consciousness transfer. Begin planetside suicide protocol.
Persephone (Planetside): Intitiating factory reset of all AI nodes.
Persephone (Shuttle/Alcubierre): No one’s ever going to harm you again, John Farno.