NO MARIGOLDS IN THE PROMISED LAND
For Dave Harr and in memory of Andre Polk
This is the fifth 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 4: NEW ARES STORAGE VAULTS
Good morning, posterity. It’s a beautiful day beneath the ruins of New Ares. Mainzer 2 is shining. The birds are out. Somwhere, just not on Barsoom. I’m finishing up Gods of Mars, and have concluded 1.) John Carter was a major badass, and 2.) Edgar Rice Burroughs didn’t know shit about space travel. The warm, habitable Mars should have been my first clue, but I wanted to work with the guy. After all, he named a city after an element discovered only 20 years before he started his Barsoom novels. And he gave the world I’m likely going to die on a name. Sorry, Ed. You’re just not helping me out here. That said, today’s reading selection is The Warlord of Mars, but not until I start along my merry way to Helium. I have storage vaults to explore first.
About those vaults. There are a couple of things I have to overcome. One is power. Even clean fusion devices generate EMPs. There’s a good chance the power in the vaults went out when New Ares disappeared. It’s possible the overhead rock filtered some of the effects out. There’s just as good a chance that it amplified those same effects. No power? No simple entry. Second, even if everything in the vaults is status quo, there is also a very good chance that they’re secured. Now who, you say, might want to break into the storage vaults beneath a terraforming project? Other terraformers?
As a wise man once put it, you bet your sweet bippie. Barsoom exists (and is so-named, as Mr. Burroughs has so helpfully provided a moniker) because Mars, the biggest terraforming project in human history, wants to sell its technology to the rest of the Compact and even to some alien races. Sure, Mars is a “citizens’ republic,” which is a fancy way of saying it’s a giant corporation whose taxpayers are pretty much shareholders. Selling their terraforming know-how after four hundred years of warming up their Sol-irradiated ice ball is profitable. And let me tell you something, brethren and sistren, Mars, for all its Marxist and Sandersesque rhetoric, is all about the Almighty Credit™.
But again, I’m from Bonaparte. I don’t really care about any of that. I came here because it was a sweet gig. While Mars itself is a planet-wide collective, it runs its colonies as market-based free-for-alls. Which means, if we ever get the average temperature above ten degrees Celsius, I can claim me some cheap land.
Which brings me back to why terraformers might want to steal from Barsoom’s underground vaults. Because if you can smuggle some of Mars’s secrets off-world, you could sell it to some struggling core world like Jefivah or Deseret that wants more colonies. Why should the Big Five worlds have all the fun? And money?
So we secured the vaults. Therein is my dilemma. If an EMP did not take out the vaults’ power, and if the vault security systems remain intact, then I, a drone wrangler who usually visited such vaults escorted by someone with clearance to walk through the automated security, will have to convince some very stupid AI units that I am allowed to be in the storage vaults.
Any questions? Good. I’m going to finish up my breakfast and bathe. Got a busy day ahead of me.
LOG ENTRY: 1007 17-Sagan, 429
Let’s not do that again, shall we?
I found a vault with an intact door. The thing either was hardened against the worst EMPs or the rock above them is solid as hell. Here’s the thing about the AIs running the vaults, at least on Barsoom. They somehow know everyone is dead, at least in New Ares. They can’t find the satellites, which someone clearly shot down, and both moons aren’t talking to the surface. I’m gonna go with we was bombed there, too, although the rover’s soft brain thinks Tarkas, the smaller moon further out, still has a functioning communications array. No one’s been up there for about six months, but if I can make contact with a stored hyperdrone up there, I might be able to send a message back to the Compact. The problem is that the hyperdrone would return to Tarkas, not Barsoom. The net effect of this is the AIs in the vaults are crying for help. “Come humans! Save us! Our little quantum brains is scared!”
So the AI at the particular vault I visited determined I was the last surviving human on Barsoom, or at least in the New Ares area. The chip in my wrist for my palm tattoo was all it needed to determine all authority over New Ares’s resources had devolved to me. Too bad no one’s left to swear me in.
The vault door opened. The airlock cycled, and in I went. Immediately, my radiation alarms went off. The overhead rock filtered out the EMP. The radiation wave, on the other hand, not so much. I had started to remove my helmet just to breathe some air that I hadn’t exhaled already for the last three days. The helmet locked itself into place as the alarm went off. It could not have been too bad, since the EVA suit has to take a pounding from Mainzer 2. But it’s bad enough for the helmet to lock itself down. I could override easily enough, but when your helmet locks and your radiation alarm goes off, you keep your suit on and pressurized. Despite all this, the lights came up, and I could hear the computer through my helmet saying, “Welcome, John Farno. Radiation levels remain at dangerous levels. Please remain suited for EVA until further notice.”
Aside from the soft brain reading back Edgar Rice Burroughs, it was the first time someone, or something, had talked to me in three days. Just to have a normal conversation with someone, I asked, “Estimated time for decontamination?”
“Seven months, fourteen hours, and twenty-six minutes until radiation and ionization fall to acceptable levels for human exposure.”
Lovely. Which meant everything inside the chamber would be irradiated. My suit might even be irradiated, but I doubted that. Quite likely, the worst of the radiation hit in the initial blast. Clean fusion devices don’t leave a lot of radioactive fallout in the open air, but, unlike the World War Era, when mushroom clouds could spread dirty particles far and wide, below ground testing has since been considered toxic. The radiation that dissipates so rapidly in a clean fusion blast has no place to go when it penetrates rock or the blast is contained underground.
It didn’t hurt to look around. I could be alive in seven months, fourteen hours, and, if I’m lucky, twenty-six minutes. And irradiated food keeps forever. It might be edible by then.
Here’s what happens when clean fusion devices send a radiation wave into the ground. It’s mostly antimatter that gets through the rock. Neutrons do, too, but neutrons, once they settle down, don’t really do anything. Positrons, on the other hand, wreak havoc with normal matter. It’s not like pushing atoms of matter and antimatter together. That just annihilates anything within a hundred kilos. But positrons create enough chaos on the atomic level to do very bad things to whatever they come into contact with. Controlled, they’re great for looking at things on a quantum level. We’ve known that since the World Wars.
Three people had been playing cards when the blast happened. They never knew what hit them. That much positronic radiation finding open space was enough to incinerate any organic matter. What was once three human beings had been burnt to a crisp while the metal and polymer of the surrounding chamber, even their clothes, had been left intact. I couldn’t tell whether the grinning, charred corpses that greeted me were male or female.
Ever vomit in an EVA helmet? In zero-G, it’s bad. You get chunks of puke floating around inside your helmet and clinging to your visor. Fortunately, the helmets used in space have self-cleaning systems that keep someone out in a vacuum from drowning in their own bile.
They don’t do that for ground-use EVA suits. You get a splatter against the inside of your helmet, and the rest runs down inside your suit. The helmet’s visor is non-stick for just such an emergency, but you’re stuck with a puke filter across your vision until it runs off. And when you get out of your suit, you smell like vomit.
None of this mattered to me. I puked, turned, and ran back the way I came, screaming. Who cared if I screamed like a little girl? Everyone was dead, and I needed to get out of that chamber. Too bad I tripped over boxes and furniture and smacked into support posts. The worst part was the airlock.
It took twenty minutes for the airlock to cycle. During that eternity, claustrophobia set in. I sat hyperventilating my own vomit-scented air and expending as much energy as I could suppressing the urge to rip off the EVA suit. I’d seen this in drills for space and low-pressure work. Many people washed out of training for terraforming and vacuum work because they couldn’t overcome this. Even then, there are tales of construction workers losing it while in the vacuum ripping open their suits and screaming about spiders or whatnot inside their helmets. Drugs are usually the culprit, but sometimes, people go off the deep end driven by fear or stress.
And I had just taken a swan dive off the deep end.
By the time I got back to the rover, I was ready to end it all and run naked outside. I’d have lasted maybe four minutes, long enough to suffocate if cardiac arrest from the cold didn’t take me first.
It’s been about an hour since I got out of my suit. I’m still lying here on the back bench in my puke-soaked shirt and urine-soaked shorts. Dignity is a luxury on Barsoom in this new normal. I vented mine in that chamber. Not going into another one. Not near a dome. Maybe one of the pit stops between domes. Right now, I have to find a way to clean these clothes.
LOG ENTRY: 1422 17-Sagan, 429
We’re on our merry way to Helium. Well, I’m trying to stay merry. I’m already pretty certain there’s another glass pancake waiting for me there. Helium is in a valley, so there will be no visits to the storage vaults this time. It’ll be late tomorrow before I get there.
I actually was late getting started again. Let’s be honest. I was freaked by what I’d found. It’s not the first time I’ve encountered death. I’ve found relatives and friends who died of some disease or from an accident. But even in our safety-obsessed world where everyone rejuvenates to live indefinitely, we still expect accidents and disease. And usually, you find the person intact. Usually. You don’t find three badly mummified corpses. So, yeah, death is not so easy to handle when it’s unexpected. I wonder how Marines and Border Guard deal with it. Then again, today’s average soldier doesn’t see combat. The ones who have…
I don’t envy them.
It took me almost an hour to calm down enough to make that log entry. It took another hour or so for me to start moving about the rover again. I put my dirty underclothes in a bag to be washed later. If I find a stash of more clothing, I’ll ditch what I soiled. Otherwise, I’m going to have to figure out how to do laundry.
Instead, I needed to feel human again. So I broke out the sponge bath apparatus I normally use in the pop tent. Sponge baths have become a luxury since the incident. Not something I avoid, but something I’m conscious of. Done wrong, and I can get ahead of the recycling system. But getting my own puke and piss and sweat off went a long way toward bringing me back to reality. I also shaved, something I hadn’t done since I left Kremlin five days ago. In the before time, in the long, long ago, I didn’t shave in the rover. Why? I’d only be there two days, and facial hair bogs down the recycling system. Oh, we can recycle hair as easily as we recycle shit. But, not to be gross about it, shit comes in nice, well-packed blocks. The recycler can break that down into other stuff. Hair comes off the face in tiny little pieces. The recycler has to sift all that. The dome recyclers are designed to handle this. The rover recyclers are… Well, let’s just say the motor pool guys don’t like it when guys shave their faces or women shave their legs in the rover. Yes, you’re usually in the rover for a couple of days, but you can go a couple of days with stubble on your chin or legs. Still happens. I’m not one of those who does it. Or wasn’t until now.
So finally, I was clean. My excretion-soaked clothes are sealed away to prevent stinking up the cabin. It’s time to get on the road. I didn’t even bother getting dressed. That’s right. I drove around looking for the sensor road again au naturale. Once I found the unblemished section of the sensor road, I let the soft brain take over.
Two things occurred to me as I lay back and listened to Ellis’s ambient music. First, if the cabin breaches, and I die like this, whoever finds my corpse is going to be mighty confused. Hey, this guy died naked driving around in a low-pressure hell like this. Those humans of old were stupid! Second, it will be just my luck that Helium survived, and they’re only now sending out search parties for other survivors. Imagine the look on their faces when they see a rover coming at them with a naked guy. Doesn’t matter. See, we wear clothes for modesty. We don’t want to embarrass others, and we don’t want to feel vulnerable. Well, there’s no one left alive to embarrass, and within the confines of the rover, I don’t feel vulnerable. If a random survivor finds me snoozing in my birthday suit, so be it. I’ve got a fresh set of clothes – Okay, so they’re my laundry from when I left Musk a week ago. But seven days of not wearing them makes them clean again.
Not listening to John Carter anymore. It’s just not funny now. Riding naked through the wastes of Barsoom is, but barely. The fact is, I’m ready to find a cave somewhere, pitch the pop tent, and just wait to die. There’s no one alive on this planet as far as I can tell. And I have no way of communicating with the Compact. I’d say I’m Robinson Crusoe or Mark Watney, but Crusoe was stranded on Old Earth. He had Indians he could trade with. He had Spaniards or Englishmen or whoever who could pick him up if they happened by. Hell, if he were so inclined, he could probably have swum to civilization. And Watney was one planet over from Earth. Sure, it took months to get to Mars back then.
But Crusoe and Watney had an advantage I don’t have. They were fictional characters. Their authors would save them because that was the whole point of their stories. I, on the other hand, am going to die for real. I had hoped it would be in my sleep during extreme old age after a terrific meal and Gina overexerting me to satiate her own appetite. More likely, I’ll freeze to death or suffocate or die of some bug that’s in the life support system. Or I’ll swallow that whole tube of Vicodin.
And with that cheery note, I’m going to sign off for the day.