This is the nineteenth 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 30 – EARTH
0927 – CNSS McFarland
It took a day to get Friese’s clearances. Burke was taking her to Bellingshausen, the frigid island off Earth’s polar continent where the Navy had its headquarters. She had to scramble to requisition cold weather gear for the trip.
“Why you want all that, Patty?” asked the quartermaster when she picked up her clothes. “You going skiing?”
Skiing on The Caliphate was supposed to be breathtaking. And expensive. Even with the Compact-issue gear, she would never be able to afford a trip to any of the planet’s alpine regions. Instead, she found herself crammed into a cabin on a small cruiser that did not even have its own projection drive. Despite years of working traffic on several core worlds, Patty Friese still hated going through the hypergates.
“Bet Earth’s are so old and uncalibrated that we all lose our breakfast,” she said as she walked into the conference room set aside for Burke and her team.
Burke looked up from the tabletop display she had been studying. “Actually, we just emerged from Earth’s L2 gate ten minutes ago. We’re in freefall right now.”
“Seriously?” Friese left the room and looked out the nearest window. Sure enough, Earth’s moon loomed large in the window with Earth beyond it. Except Earth looked blue, its clouds mostly white and fluffy. She went back inside. “How come the water’s not brown?”
“It never was,” said Burke. “Even in the worst of times. That’s just a lot of organic fertilizer concocted by the tourism bureaus of newer core worlds. Hate to tell you this, but the air’s breathable, too.”
“When you have to compete with the Big Five,” said Burke, “you make up any story you can. Would you believe half the pictures you see online of Earth are actually of Jefivah? Or photos taken during the Polygamy Wars?”
Friese frowned. All her life, she had been told Earth was a cesspool. She had believed it with all her heart, the way some people held religious beliefs to be absolutely unchallengeable. Bar fights even started over the topic. “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard.”
“Capitalism,” said Burke. “Although I grew up on a socialist world that said the same things, so let’s go with the ancient Anglo-Saxon term ‘bullshit.’ People want their myths and will fight for them to the death. What other species would have a holy war started by atheists?”
She had a point. Zaras fought over land, wood, and trees. If pushed, they would defend their colonies. Orags often scratched their heads over the behavior of their human cousins. And the Qorori? They could care less about their five-fingered day-dwelling neighbors as long as there was no dispute over habitable planets. These last people often earned the nickname “the Canadians of primate aliens.” Maybe on Earth, she’d learn what a Canadian was. “So, Admiral, why am I here? I’m not even in the same service.”
Burke laid down her tablet. “Credibility. I can go to Fleet Admiral Tran with a theory, but then I’m just another subordinate looking to take his job. You, on the other hand, actually spotted the initial signal from Barsoom. You were there when the alert went out that Barsoom was off-line. And you are not Navy, so you have no reason to impress the Fleet Admiral, even if he is a Joint Chief.” She smiled. “Doesn’t hurt you’ve already told the Border Guard that you will not be re-upping at the end of your tour. At worst, you’re an enlistee come to Earth to look for civilian work. Just tell Tran what you’ve been telling me, and I can help you with that.”
“And if I screw up?”
“We don’t court-martial you for not knowing what’s going on. Tran was a student of mine. He knows I can snap him back if he gets bitchy about it. You don’t get to be a vice admiral without understanding the power of benign blackmail.”
That made Friese laugh, but Burke had a point. She sounded frustrated whenever she mentioned the Fleet Admiral’s name. He sounded like a little boy whose parents reluctantly let him take the family vehicle out even with manual drive disabled.
If she could get through this, she might take her final leave to look for work. Of course, she’d have her military severance to get her through the next two years, but it would be nice to hit the ground running once her enlistment expired.
1351 – Naval Headquarters
Bellingshausen Island, Earth
Fleet Admiral Tran Vu was a short man for someone of such high rank, but he carried himself like a basketball player. Standing ramrod straight and moving with smoothly, Tran commanded attention as he entered the room. The man looked Tianese, but his name suggested one of the Earth regions along the rim of this world’s largest ocean.
The conference room looked out over the rocky wasteland of Bellingshausen Island. Why the Navy always picked such desolate places for points of command escaped Friese. Border Guard usually picked warm places with dull-looking but comfortable buildings while the Marines similarly favored their barracks (even the HQ in a city called San Francisco was called a “barracks”) in temperate climates. Harsh weather was for combat and for training. She didn’t speculate on where Cybercommand hid its command center.
Instinctively, Friese stood at attention as Tran and Liu entered. Burke also stood, but there seemed to be a looseness in her posture. Friese dared not imitate it. Burke had the three stars on her shoulders to risk offending her senior-most commanding officer.
Another Tianese-looking man, this one paler and, if Friese had to admit it, a bit shifty looking, followed Tran into the room. He wore a Naval uniform with the rank insignia of lieutenant commander, but someone in the corridor had called him “Major” Liu. The “Major” took his place behind Tran’s seat.
“As you were,” said Tran.
Friese went to parade stance. Burke’s posture became looser, her expression one of impatience as her gaze settled on Tran.
“Be seated,” said Tran.
They all sat down, except for Liu, who remained in parade stance. Friese noticed Burke looked like she was waiting for the waiter to bring her a whiskey sour. Friese herself could only sit rigidly, terrified that a Joint Chief would call her out on the slightest infraction. She felt like a raw recruit back in basic.
“Eileen,” said Tran, almost deferentially.
“Vu,” said Burke. “Who’s the spook? He’s new.”
“The Defense Director suggested I needed someone with an intelligence background to advise on a possible new threat. So Major Liu has transferred over from his service to do just that.”
“Cybercommand,” said Burke. “So why isn’t your rank O-4 instead of major?”
“Consistency,” said Liu.
“We don’t have majors in the Navy.” Burke’s eyes flicked in Tran’s direction. “Except major pains in the ass. Let’s get to it, Vu. I’ve got a division to run, and my enlisted friend has a bottle of Caliphite wine chilling back home.”
“You believe,” said Tran, “that Barsoom has at least one survivor. Or a very clever AI that’s risking extinction to tell us why Mars has lost an expensive terraforming project.”
Burke smiled. “Mars doesn’t give a shit. Barsoom is a financial black hole for them, funded only for PR value. But now Gilead has gone dark, and almost as soon as it does, my friend, Sergeant Friese, gets a ping from Barsoom.”
Before Friese could elaborate, Liu said, “Anomalous ping. You yanked an enlistee six months from discharge out of her posting and dragged her twenty-six light years to Earth to tell us she had a ping.”
“I had several,” said Friese, sensing Burke’s impatience with the “major.” “I left shift and asked my relief to monitor anymore signals coming from Barsoom. I have to. It’s gone dark, doesn’t respond to opening a wormhole, and yet it disrupts traffic through The Caliphate’s L5 gate.”
“Again,” said Liu, “an anomaly.”
“Vu,” said Burke, “have you lost your voice and need this covert operations toady to speak for you?”
“The Major is playing devil’s advocate,” said Tran. “Continue, Sergeant.” He tilted his head without looking behind him. “Without interruption.”
Liu took a step backward and assumed parade stance.
“We’ve had several pings,” said Friese. “In prime numbers from one to 499, then repeating.”
“Did you respond?” asked Liu.
“We did. In Morse code.”
“Really? And did you get lucky enough to receive a message back in Morse code? It’s my understanding that one needs a functioning internet to look up how to do that.”
“Three single pulses through the L5 gate’s receiver, followed by three triple pulses, followed by three single pulses, the pattern repeated at five-minute intervals. And yes, we looked it up. It’s the old Morse call sign for distress.”
Tran nodded in approval. “Clever. Your idea, Eileen?”
“Does it matter?” said Burke. “Friese pulled it off. And you wouldn’t have believed me if I simply relayed a report to you.”
“We resent that remark,” said Liu.
“We were not talking to you,” said Burke.
Tran put up his hands. “Children, please. Sergeant, you’re the traffic specialist. You said an AI or a human did this. Your honest assessment as a professional in this field?”
This was why Burke wanted her there. Tran really did want the rank-and-file’s take. Clearly, this Liu character did not, but he was there on his own agenda. “With all due respect, sir, we need to send the first available projection-drive ship to Barsoom as soon as possible.”
“And if it’s a trap by a hostile alien?” asked Liu.
Silence descended on the room. Liu knew something was up but was not sharing, not even with the Joint Chief sitting a meter in front of him.
“Vu,” said Burke, “what I’m about to say will require you to ride roughshod over the clearance protocols, so get Sergeant Friese those clearances before we even leave the room. Please. Sir.”
Tran lift his left hand off his desk and turned his palm toward his face. Tapping and swiping the palm with his right index finger, he frowned as he watched text and images dance across it. “Done. Now, Eileen, what did you want to say that would make the good sergeant here privy to the Compact’s darkest secrets.”
“I think we should send the Alcubierre,” said Burke. “It’s proven. And warp drive is largely undetectable at closer ranges than a wormhole.”
“Warp drive?” said Friese. “We have real FTL propulsion now?”
“Careful,” said Liu. “You’ve only now just been cleared to know that.”
Tran cleared his throat. “That’s going to be difficult.”
“Why? Didn’t the ship just complete a run from Jupiter to Trantor?” said Burke.
“In two weeks,” said Tran. “And to a red dwarf within two light years of Sol. Barsoom is eighty light years away. Anyway, we no longer have the expertise to assemble such a mission.”
“Because Lieutenant Commander Lancaster,” said Liu, “got himself discharged ahead of some Etruscan senator’s boot arriving inside his rectum. And since he’s the engineer that cracked the Alcubierre Principle for the real world, we no longer have someone who knows warp drive end-to-end.”
“And Captain Okada,” said Tran, “decided to resign his commission.”
“Why did Hideki quit?” asked Burke.
“I canceled the Alcubierre‘s mission slate,” said Tran. “Too impractical with two colonies going dark and several more getting nervous. We need to focus on getting our capital fleet back into shape.”
Burke stood. “Tran, you could fuck up a wet dream without even trying. If you really think there’s a hostile alien species encroaching on our space, wouldn’t it make sense to put our most advanced drive systems to use now rather than after a core world is destroyed?”
Friese wanted to leave the room.
1803 – Ross Storage Facility
Ross District, Antarctica
Friese had heard about Earth’s southernmost continent, but never believed the tales. Except for a permanent base at the pole itself, a nearly five-century-old facility founded early in the World War Era, the continent had no domes. Yet it had been one of the most hostile environments she had ever visited. Here, cities existed. Above ground on the coasts, but largely underground further inland.
Burke had brought her to what amounted to a subterranean warehouse far from any settlement. On the flight in, it amazed Friese to see stray dwellings with no nearby settlement for support. Who lived here? Did they hunt? What was there to hunt? The sky here remained in a sort of perpetual twilight. Burke informed her that, within only three or four weeks, it would be completely dark most of the day, and the temperature would rival that of places like Mars where domes and sealed buildings were required.
“Do these people leave for the cities?” asked Friese, trying to understand the logic. Or better still, a warmer climate?
“Are you kidding?” said Burke. “They’d have to deal with people. To them, this is no different than riding alone in a one-person drone out in space. They’ll seal up their dwellings and simply not leave until the sun is out most of the day.”
The warehouse itself had not been visible when Burke and Friese arrived. Their shuttle hovered over a seemingly random bit of land. The ground split and revealed a fully functional landing pad about ten meters below the surface. It felt to Friese like they were docking with a ship in orbit, only their pilot looked incredibly bored.
The ground – Well, ceiling – closed up before the shuttle even touched the pad. They had to wait for the outside temperature to come back up to something not quite life-threatening. No ground crew, not even in EVA suits, appeared.
“Completely automated,” said Burke. “Officially, this place does not exist.”
“So why am I here?” said Friese.
“I just revealed warp drive to you in front of the Fleet Admiral. In for a mil, Sergeant, in for a credit. You might as well see this mysterious contraption for yourself.”
When the pilot had the all-clear to open, he said, “You’ll want to seal your jackets. It’s still a bit nippy out there.”
Burke casually touched a strip on the sleeve of her jacket. It puffed slightly and sealed around her neck. A hood emerged from the back and wrapped itself around her head, leaving only her face visible. “Blink a lot. Between the cold and the lack of humidity, your eyes will dry quickly.”
That unsettled Friese even more than she had been all day. She touched the strip on her own sleeve and found herself engulfed by the Navy-issue parka. She thought she could barely move until she stood. The parka, which had become a giant cushion around her, gave as she moved. It actually was more comfortable than when she sat waiting for the shuttle to land. “Where are we going, sir?”
“To see what we’ve been neglecting for four hundred years.” Burke led her down the gangplank, her breath visible before she even cleared the shuttle’s hatch.
Like the Navy’s building on The Caliphate, this building was totally automated, no guards checking palm tatts for ID. Friese had no doubt, however, that a breach would be met swiftly, that eyes watched them from somewhere deep in the complex.
They stepped onto an elevator where a harsh synthetic voice said, “Unauthorized entity. Sergeant Friese does not have clearance.”
Burke held up her palm. “I am her clearance. Sergeant Friese was granted a top-level clearance this afternoon, and I am adding her to the Alcubierre project.”
Friese swore she heard the AI grumble. “Clearance granted. Welcome, Sergeant Friese.”
Was that sarcasm?
The elevator dropped smoothly, only the hint of Friese’s weight changing telling her it was moving.
“We’re going sixty meters down,” said Burke. “Cybercommand was really paranoid about this. They even worried someone in deep space might spot it in passing.”
“How can you see something from inside a wormhole?” asked Friese before realizing wormholes did not factor into the equation.
“We pay Cybercommand to be sneaky and paranoid,” said Burke. “Sometimes, we have to reign it in a bit. They had to drape this thing in a pass-through cloak when they off-loaded it.” The door opened onto a cavernous warehouse, well-lit and ringed with catwalks along several stories.
Below them, in an open area another ten meters below, sat what looked like a large transport shuttle, the type that might sport projection drive discs on either end. This one did not. Instead, its aft lay inside a giant metal sphere. Scaffolding held it level, and a gangplank had been extended from the lower catwalk to the shuttle’s cockpit.
“That’s a strange-looking shuttle,” said Friese. “Can I ask what it is?”
“Not legally,” said Burke, “but since you’re now on this project, I can tell you. That’s no shuttle. That is a deep space vehicle.”
“Where’s the projection drive?”
Burke smiled. “Oh, honey, this thing doesn’t use projection drive. This thing actually goes faster than light. Well, actually, it sits still while the bubble of space-time it creates goes faster than light.”
Burke laughed. “I mean, my dear, this is what warp drive looks like. So far.”
“Why are you showing me this?”
“Because I’m going to steal it,” said Burke. “And you are going to take it to Barsoom.”