NO MARIGOLDS IN THE PROMISED LAND
For Dave Harr and in memory of Andre Polk
This is the first installment of Compact Universe #0, No Marigolds in the Promised Land. Want the whole story? Subscribe to the Compact Universe Newsletter for the newest installments and the all the previous installments.
DAY 1 (Afternoon): ACCEPTANCE
LOG ENTRY: 1202 14-Sagan, 429
Okay, I found the opiates. Sweet, sweet Vicodin, that most ancient of painkillers. I opened the tube, shook out the entire contents.
And put them back.
I think staring at the glass pancake that was once my home and everyone I’ve known for the past four standard years made me stop. I’m the last man alive on Barsoom, or at least the last man alive in the eastern hemisphere. Looking at the core computer’s warnings from last night and the bouncing around I when they came through, I’m guessing both Kremlin and Musk were flattened. I haven’t been able to raise Kremlin nor have I gotten through to New Ares.
I remember when the Cubists bombed that mosque in Rashidun on The Caliphate. Thousands of morning commuters stopping off for a quick morning prayer while thousands more tourists stood in the gallery watching. We all were numb. Every six hours, we’d hunch over our consoles, stand around a video wall, or look at our palm tattoos to get the latest hyperdrone update. Was it a fusion device? Was it the whole city? Was it deliberate or did some employee light a match near a methane feed? And who did it? Underground Goshenites for whom the Polygamy Wars never ended? Christian separatists? Atheist separatists? Blackmailers? Teenagers whose love of explosives went horribly wrong? Was it, in fact, the hand of God? Worse, was it the hand of aliens? Yedevan legends had been making rounds again, and the latest theory whenever a ship disappears now includes the crew and passengers getting eaten by Yedevans.
The thing is Rashidun, while one of the largest cities in The Compact, is light years away. Somewhere beyond the hypergate. Musk, what’s left of it, lies smoking and flattened in the distance. This is real. This is my home. These are the people I’ve loved, hated, or generally ignored assuming they’d always be there to get to know at some point.
Gina was in there. I can’t kid myself. Whatever happened went down in the middle of the night, she’d have been asleep, same as me. She’d have never known what hit her. I’m thankful for that. Don’t ask me who I’m thanking. I’m one of those many humans who never stopped to take time to figure out who, if anyone, is either running the show or watching it from beyond. I’ve known a lot of spiritual people in my day. Admired them. It’s when you get large, organized groups of them that they go off the rails. Just look at the Goshenites and the Cubists.
Or that weird cult to the giant blonde in the white dress on Jefivah. At least their goddess is cute.
Boy, the destruction of everything you hold dear makes you philosophical, doesn’t it?
Anyway, I normally do these log entries for my bosses at the OCD Annex. I’d make a joke playing on OCD standing for Office of Colonial Development and obsessive-compulsive disorder, but it just doesn’t seem very funny right now. Since the OCD Annex and my coworkers have been vaporized, I need to record this log for two reasons:
One, someone someday will find this rover and probably my bones nearby. They’ll probably want to know what happened. I hope they’re human. I hope they find me alive. Dying out in the wastes of Barsoom would be worse than finding everyone else dead.
Two, if I don’t keep track of what I’m doing, I’ll go insane.
So, posterity, hello. I suppose I should introduce myself. I am John Farno. I am a drone wrangler for the Office of Colonial Development on detached duty to the Mars Terraforming Commission. And I am the last man on Barsoom.
LOG ENTRY: 1619 14-Sagan, 429
Hi, it’s me. Yeah, I know. You were expecting some lone survivor who happened to leave the dome last night in a pressure suit to go spelunking before he went to bed. Instead it’s me. John Farno, last man on Barsoom. So, you ask, what does one do when one has finally accepted that everyone else in the world had been killed?
I’m not assuming that yet. For starters, I’m not the only person who was out in a rover last night. There are seven domes, six of which were operational, ringing the equator of Barsoom. Don’t ask me who came up with that strategy. Whether the planet is a cold desert like this with unbreathable air or a shining, pristine replica of humanity’s cradle before the Earthers crapped in the oceans and farted garbage into the atmosphere, most colonization efforts are dictated by two things: Water and geography. Well, Barsoom has a layer of permafrost from pole to pole. So all we have to do for water is drill, melt, and filter. And here I am, drinking my own piss. The first settlement on any world is usually near the equator. It’s just easier to get into orbit from there. But depending on how solid the surface is, the second wave of settlements usually go nearer to the poles, especially if an Earth-like planet is particularly warm. My homeworld of Bonaparte clusters its major cities in the northernmost and southernmost latitudes. Why? Have you ever been to Nouveau Versailles, our capital? Year-round, it’s like a sauna.
So if I’m not the only poor schmuck who was out and about last night, then there’s someone else alive on this planet. Hopefully human. I am painfully aware that other humans are not the only ones who poach each other’s colonies. Someone might have flattened our domes because they decided we pesky Martians (and their hired hands like me) were taking too long to terraform the planet. But I’m working on the assumption that I’m only sharing the planet with other humans. Why blow everyone up and not come down to inspect the handiwork? If you’re going to take away our planet, then goddammit, take away our planet. Using us for target practice…
LOG ENTRY: 1626 14-Sagan, 429
Sorry. Got a bit worked up there. Surviving the literal end of the world will do that to you. So instead of rambling about what I think happened, let’s get down to the primary task at hand. Survival.
I said earlier I have enough food and spare oxygen to last about a month. I can replenish the oxygen by using the scrubbing system that turns Barsoom’s rustic CO2 atmosphere into sweet, breathable oxygen. As long as the scrubbers hold out, I can breathe. As long as the food holds out, I can eat. To that end, I’m limiting myself to one ration bar every twelve hours. I’m no biologist, so I don’t know if that’s too little food, but it’ll make the bars and whatever snacks I packed for the trip to Kremlin last about a month. I can recycle my own piss and draw water vapor from the air indefinitely. Barsoom has a dry atmosphere, but not complete. There’s enough water vapor in the frigid air to cause the occasional flurry on the surface. Mainzer 2 hasn’t completely blown it all away. The fusion battery is good for ten years, so I’ve got heat and a means to get around. Plus I can augment that with solar power. As long as we don’t have a dust storm, the soft brain on the rover is safe.
My first order of business was to weep over the destruction of my entire world. And throw things. I tried to limit that to non-breakables. Hey, I might have been having an emotional breakdown, but at least I was pragmatic about it. Tantrum done, I checked my surroundings. The radiation from the blast at Musk had died down rather quickly, and the fallout from the explosion is only a little hotter than the normal dust in the air. I’m guessing this was a clean fusion device. Which means this was deliberate.
Well, duh. A meteor strike or an asteroid collision would either have peppered the whole surface with impact sites or left a big crater where Musk used to be. I know. Should have considered that theory, but three domes within a thousand kilometers of each other don’t go silent at the same time by accident. One or two of them should have survived, and I should have seen rescue craft from the other side of the planet by now.
Second, I needed to find any supplies I could scavenge. Did a freight drone breakdown on its way to or from Musk? Did the EMP shut down its soft brain and leave its core computer crying for help that will not be coming? Not picking up any automated distress calls, but I’m hoping that changes in the coming days. Even freeze-dried food is food, and the less water I have to process, the less strain I put on my rover.
But there’s another idea. Remember my little joke about a guy going spelunking late at night and missing the blast? Well, we had a guy like that named Ellis, though he preferred going out on his day off and during daylight hours. I half hoped he might have been camping out underground when the blast hit, but he, too, would have been sending out pleas for help.
But he maintains a habitat in his favorite cave. It’s not much, and his excuse is he is testing equipment for when terraforming personnel get stranded without a rover. In reality, he does it because he can’t stand people. Oh, he’s a likeable enough chap. Or was before he was melted into glass. But he loved solitude more than the pleasure of our company. So he kept a stash of supplies, much of them generated by himself or shipped to him on supply runs. Sorry, Ellis, but for the good of humanity’s presence on Barsoom, I’m going to have to confiscate whatever you have in the cave.
If I can find it. I’m sure I can.
Third, I need to plan where I’m going to go. Staying on the fringes of a settlement that’s now a glass pancake is out of the question. I’ve decided that, after my supply run, I’m going to go north-by-northeast to New Ares, the next dome beyond Musk. Assuming the sensor road is still intact, I should be able to travel around the planet and reach all seven domes. New Ares is odd in that it’s not actually on the equator. It’s a little bit north to take advantage of the high elevation there. Part observatory, part settlement, part terraforming lab. Plus I hope maybe one of the domes survived, and I’m just out of range. If not, well, it’ll take me a month to travel the twenty-four thousand kilometers around Barsoom. By then, I’ll know if I need to swallow all that Vicodin.
So, to whoever finds this centuries from now, sorry about that.
LOG ENTRY: 1912 14-Sagan, 429
It took me an hour of searching, but I found that cave. Thank you, Ellis. Sadly, Ellis himself was not hiding out in the heated pop tent he used to sleep and eat in. Since I’m assuming he now exists only as his component atoms or was fused into the remains of Musk, I’m helping myself to his tent. And his supplies. He packed a lot of rations out here. And a lot of homemade beer. I feel like a graverobber. But this grave has a lot of neat stuff. For starters, he packed a high-powered portable radio, powerful enough to pick up the satellite constellation. If anyone’s alive on this rock, I’ll hear them a long way off.
He also packed a lot of digging equipment. Considering that the rover flipped over several times last night, it’s safe to consider I might turn it over without the aid of thermonuclear devices. Digging equipment will remedy that. Not only is dry quicksand a thing on Barsoom, but there are places where the permafrost melts and turns the surface sand into soup. Some of this is human-caused, but it happens naturally, too. It was one of the first hazards we found ringing the equator with domes. In theory, the sensor road is intact and free of both kinds of quicksand. In theory. In reality, Ellis’s radio is picking up noise from the microwave towers up north and probably from the southern ice cap as well. In short, we’re still heating up Barsoom even if we, as a species on Barsoom, are now extinct.
Is a species extinct if only one specimen exists with no way to procreate?
The pop tent will become my home. It’s got a portable toilet I can dump without an EVA. The pop tent was originally rover equipment, but Ellis rigged it up as a standalone habitat. Thanks to my late friend’s genius for improvisation, it easily converts back to a rover-mounted device. Sweet.
One other thing Ellis left behind: A hardened pad with cloud-free storage. Granted, he brought along only music and holos. Without a projector, I have to watch all his movies and serials in two-D like some kind of savage. Hey, I’m the last man on Barsoom. Roughing it means survival. Especially since Ellis’s taste in music runs to Caliphite dance and ambient music. I can either have a rave or meditate. Kooky.
So I shan’t be bored, and my rations have been extended by about two weeks, three if I behave myself.
And I have beer.
LOG ENTRY: 2105 14-Sagan, 429
I miss people. I miss the warmth of the domes. I miss the local internet. I miss hypergate updates and the news.
Most of all, I miss showers. God, I could use a shower right now.
LOG ENTRY: 2338 14-Sagan, 429
Stopping for the night in… Aw, hell, without the satellites in orbit, I don’t know where I’m stopping. I suppose, at some point, I’m going to need to pull up a map and plot it out the old-fashioned way. Which means a little light reading tonight: The constellations and planets of 2 Mainser as seen from Barsoom. I’ve deployed the pop tent and am recording this from the comfy confines of Ellis’s home away from home. Tomorrow’s a big day. While the rover plods merrily along at 30 kph, I will have to come up with a checklist of things to… well… check. Unless there’s a dome I can’t pick up even the faintest signals from yet, I’m pretty much on my own with no resources. No motor pool to fix the rover if it breaks down. No hypergate that will relay messages back to the Compact to send supplies. And I have to be constantly aware of my dwindling food supply. I need a plan to manage all this, or I’m screwed worse than I already am.
And only now does it occur to me that I need to find a way to communicate with… With whom? I’m reasonably convinced the hypergate was destroyed last night. There is a hyperdrone that carries our communications and internet updates back to wherever in the Compact we send it. And we were supposed to get a seed shipment from Amargosa today. I haven’t heard anyone from orbit calling down and going, “Hey, where’s everybody at? What’s with all the glass pancakes?” Had they come, I’d be recording this from aboard a freighter on its way back to Tian or Mars or someplace with showers.
God, I want a shower so bad.