Eden 12: Exodus

Brook was incredulous. “Human factors? What the frag does that mean?” In frustration, he kicked the recycle bin across Senator Autzen's tiny office, and immediately felt like a childish fool for doing so. Yet if he was going to die, he had to know why. Even Axen, as many enemies as he had made, had been given a boarding pass. Why me?

Senator Autzen was sympathetic, but unyielding. “Son, you want the bureaucratic line, or the straight truth?” He read the answer in Brook's face. “The truth is, somebody with power doesn't like you. The Savant had you on the preliminary crew roster, but there's a 'tweak' built into the program to allow some override of the system. In theory, there are some human factors that the computer might not be able to understand or appreciate and that allowed for adjustment. In practice, it's been used in a number of cases, including yours.

Echo - it's the only answer. This is the revenge she promised.

“You've been a great help to us recently, Brook. You've fought the good fight and done well. I wish I could reward that.” Autzen shrugged his shoulders. “But there isn't anything I can do about it privately, and if we go public the entire crew selection process could devolve into chaos. We could all be at one another's throats before we knew what was happening. If it's any consolation, I'm not going either; none of us on the Senate are. We declared it a conflict of interest and removed ourselves from the running.”

Brook looked at the man, the tiredness in his eyes, the lines that had appeared in his face in the last few months, the slight tremor in his once strong and steady hands, and found himself regretting that he'd come at all. “I'm sorry, Senator, I didn't know. You've got kids?”

He nodded. “Two. It's hard for them, for us all.”

Brook stood and self-consciously repositioned the recycle bin. “Just forget I was here, Senator. I'm sorry to have bothered you.” He paused at the door. “You know you can still count on me, for whatever it takes.”

He smiled sadly. “I know we can, son. And thank you.”

# # #

Nobody knew when the Gene Bank would be transferred, including Axen. On the assumption that secrecy was the best way to safeguard it from the Masters, they'd created the false Gene Bank and the cover story that it had been damaged beyond repair during the return from Plymouth. Axen hadn't expected that story to hold them off forever, but it gave him time to hide the real item and arrange for its safe removal to the starship.

Axen knew that the fewer people who knew a secret, the safer the secret was, so he'd confided only in a trusted few - Brook, Kolo, and Autzen - and had recruited these three to assist him in the move. But since none of them would have advance warning of the event, there was no possibility of the information leaking out somehow.

He'd instructed Kraft to generate a randomly-timed message before a randomly-chosen launch, and that message had popped up hours before. Then the first flaw in the plan became apparent. He wasn't able to contact Kolo. The scientist wasn't in his quarters, or in the largely mothballed Advanced Lab, where the Gene Bank had been hidden in a case marked “Geological Instruments.”

Brook had seemed only mildly concerned. “He's probably found himself a lady friend that he's staying the night with, Axen. Not everybody can be as saintly as you are, or as unlucky as I am.”

But Axen's internal alarms all went off at once. Every step and turn of the trip from the lab to the Space Center he'd been braced for trouble. His hand never left his pocket, where it gripped a fully loaded pistol, his senses scanning for anything the slightest bit out of the ordinary, but they reached the RLV loading platform without incident.

Four armed Volunteer Guards flanked the yawning cargo hatch in the big rocket's side. He scanned their faces, and took some comfort in the fact that they were all familiar, all people he'd worked with before. A technician checked off their cargo manifest and authorization on his ClipCom and directed them to a location where the crate could be attached to the deck with quick-release bolts, then disappeared back to his station by the hatch.

Axen watched closely as Brook fastened and triple-checked the bolts. He shook his head. “This just isn't right. I have to see it with my own eyes.”

Brook looked confused, but stepped back out of the way as Axen unlocked the crate lid and removed a false lid designed to simulate the top of the equipment listed on the manifest. Under it, the actual top of the Gene Bank was exposed.

Another key and lock were required to open it. Vapor from the cold, liquefied gasses inside boiled over the side of the box and cascaded to the deck like a frosty waterfall. He produced an insulated glove from his pocket and put it on. Using the protected hand, he unlatched the mechanism and slid it up out of its hyper-cold bath.

The Gene Bank's complex innards were revealed, tens of thousands of tiny glass vials housed in a complex carousal mechanism capable of delivering any given vial by number. A large insulated can at the top housed a motor and drive train that powered the whole thing.

“It looks fine to me,” said Brook.

Axen squinted and looked closely. It did look fine, and it was certainly genuine. Unlike the original Earth-made bank that had been destroyed, this one had been handmade in Eden just before the dissidents left to found Plymouth, and no complete plans had ever existed. The replica they'd created had been designed only to fool eyes that had never seen the original. Axen had studied this one carefully before committing it to its hiding place.

“It's genuine.” He slid the mechanism back into the case and sealed the lid before any thermal damage was done. His fingers played over the small control panel that projected from the upper side of the box. “All the more reason I think the Masters are up to something.”

Brook's brow wrinkled in concern. “You have any idea how to find out what?”

Axen nodded. “We'll ask,” he said.

# # #

The familiar Structure Factory control gallery was dark and unnaturally quiet. No new structures had been produced in months, and the plant might never be used again. That made it perfect neutral territory for their meeting.

Axen and Brook stood on one side of the platform, Echo and Gi on the other. Everybody had a gun. Nobody was talking.

Echo broke the silence. “Waiting for something, Elder?”

Axen said nothing, but just then there was a rumble, and the building shook slightly. On hearing the sound, Echo smiled for no apparent reason.

“That would be the Clipper taking off. It's safe to talk now,” Brook said.

Echo was still smiling. “Safe to talk about the Gene Bank? Yes, I suppose it is.”

Brook's mouth fell open. Axen just met her eyes unflinchingly. “You knew?”

She laughed. “Your fake was very convincing, even after we'd inspected it closely. There was even human genetic material in the remains of the vials.” Her face went serious. “It was too good. I analyzed the genetic material. All of it had been reproduced from a single sample, and as you can imagine, I had no trouble determining whose.”

“Dr. Kolo,” said Axen.

“The fake had to have been crafted in one of the labs, we knew that, but the sample told us who had done the work, and from there, the rest was easy.”

Brook stepped forward, anger on his face. “Where's Kolo?”

“He had an unfortunate accident, several of them actually, until he told us what we needed to know. By then though, the cumulative effects were fatal.”

Axen felt his stomach knot. One more death on his conscience. He glanced warily at Brook. The young man looked mad enough to do something stupid, and there'd been enough innocent deaths today.

“So you found the Gene Bank and sabotaged it. How? It looked fine when I checked it before launch.”

She laughed, deep and hard, until tears ran down her cheeks. Only Gi's vigilance kept them from subduing her. Finally she managed to calm herself a bit.

“What's so funny?”

“The irony. Your precious Gene Bank is fine. I took it for granted that you wouldn't be any less thorough in your inspection than we were. If the Gene Bank had been less than perfect, we might not have been able to smuggle the bomb that we installed in its motor housing onto the RLV, and in turn onto the starship.”

Brook's eyes were wide. “You used the Gene Bank as a Trojan horse, so you could use your bomb to hijack the ship.”

She laughed again. “And now the starship is ours. We won't let you leave here until the box is safely stowed on the starship.”

“Put down your guns, slowly,” said a woman's voice from behind them. Axen glanced over his shoulder to see a muscular woman aiming a rifle at them from the rear stairway. He recognized her as one of the three Masters Brook had identified from his first meeting, the one named Sharon.

“Do what she says,” he instructed Brook, as he laid his own gun gently on the deck and pushed it away with his toe. He looked back at Echo. “You're going to kill us now, I suppose?”

She smiled, clearly enjoying the moment. “I might kill you, Elder,” her attention turned back to Panati and anger flashed in her eyes, “but not you, Brook. I want you alive to watch the Clipper's final departure with me on it. I want you left here to watch the light in the sky as the starship fires its engines and pulls out of orbit. I want you here to see the flash when I kick your precious Gene Bank out the airlock and blow it to atoms. I want you here when the Blight rolls over the horizon and melts you into a bag of pus.”

“When the Blight gets me,” he answered, a new calm in his voice, “you'll be right here to enjoy the show. Your bomb isn't on its way to the starship. It's about half a meter under the platform where you're standing.”

Reflexively she looked down, then caught herself. “You couldn't have removed it so quickly. There were too many booby-traps.”

“We didn't,” said Axen. “When I realized the mechanism didn't work, I guessed you might have done something of the sort, and decided to let you tell me what your plan was. Loyal members of the Volunteer Guard have been monitoring this whole conversation remotely and are watching all exits from this building.

Echo dug frantically in her pocket and produced a small card device. “I can still destroy the Gene Bank, with you two, and it, as hostages. We can go wherever we want, do whatever we want. You still lose.”

“Only if you're all willing to die for the cause of glorious genetic purity.” His eyes locked with Gi. “Are you Gi? Do you believe that strongly?”

“Yes,” he said with only a slight hesitation.

“You, Sharon?”

“Completely,” she replied. There was no hesitation at all, either in timing or tone.

That settled it. His only hope was to work on Gi. He made eye contact with the big man again. “I suppose you think Van Dozier believes it as well, don't you Gi?”

He frowned, suspicious, but nodded.

Echo realized they were up to something and waved her gun at him. “Shut up, both of you. Gi, Sharon, don't listen to them.”

“Is there something you wouldn't like them to hear, Dr. Van Dozier? Some personal secret?”

“Shut up!”

“You're all clones in the inner circle, aren't you Gi, the 99.9th percentile people, the super-race?”

Gi said nothing, but he was listening intently.

Axen continued, “I suppose Echo told you she was one, too, maybe even showed you documents to prove it, but those would be easy enough for her to fake in her position.”

The look on Echo's face showed that she'd finally realized what he was about to say. Axen half expected her to shoot him then, which might have served his ultimate purpose as well as what happened. “It's a lie. Tell them, Brook.”

Brook looked at her, almost apologetically. “Her parents were Elders. She was conceived naturally. Her father died before she was born, and she and her mother nearly died during the famine three years after landing.” He hesitated. “Her identical twin did die.”

Tears were streaming down Echo's face. Her gun hand trembled. “No.”

“She's just one of the genetic mongrels your movement professes to hate, a hurt, broken one who has spent her whole life trying to replace a twin she can barely remember.”

Echo shook her head. “No, no.” Then she fired.

Things started to happen all at once. Axen ducked as the muzzle of Gi's gun swung up toward him and fired. Axen hit the deck and rolled, unsure whether either bullet had hit him.

Brook jumped toward Van Dozier, and her gun fired again at point-blank range. The bomb trigger flew out of her hand and landed on the deck near Axen, who grabbed it and shielded it with his body.

Axen was looking for the gun when he realized that Gi was lowering his own weapon, and was paying no attention to him. Gi's attention was fixed on the rear stair, where the woman known as Sharon hung limply over a railing, blood running down her arm and over her face in a thick cascade.

Van Dozier pushed Brook away from her. He flattened out on his back, revealing the blackened hole in the front of his shirt, and lay unmoving.

Van Dozier raised her pistol to shoot Axen.

Gi spun and shot her cleanly through the forehead. He watched her fall, then turned and handed the gun, butt first, to Axen.

“I think I've made a mistake,” he said.

# # #

Axen slumped into the lone chair in his quarters and looked around wearily. He couldn't remember the last time his life had been this simple. Most of his work was done - the debts that could be repaid, had been, all but two.

He looked at Kraft. This was the first one. “Kraft, open a channel to Emma, full visual.”

It took almost twenty minutes before her face appeared on the screen. He didn't move in all that time. “Emma, if you have a favor to ask of me, there has never been a better time.”

She smiled that sad smile. “Good, because I'm finally ready to ask, and to offer a little gift in exchange, something Frost, your missing scientists, and I were able to cook up over the last few months. Kraft, please display the data we're sending for Axen.” Another window opened on the screen, displaying a series of schematics and formulas.

“What is it?”

“A minor modification of your starship's ion engines to improve the efficiency. It should increase your payload capacity by ten to fifteen percent with no additional fuel.”

Axen was surprised in spite of himself. “Why are you giving us this, Emma? Why squander your resources on something you had no way to apply?”

She chuckled. “Because I have a use for that extra payload, Axen. I'm sending you some passengers.”

# # #

Brook lay in the med-station bed watching his own life-signs flickering on the screens. He would have preferred to do most anything else, but it hurt to move.

The door slid open and Axen walked in. He leaned over the bed. “How are you doing?”

“For someone with three broken ribs and possible internal bleeding, not bad.”

“It could have been worse.”

Would have been worse, if he hadn't stuffed those armor pads, taken from a combat suit, under his shirt as Axen had insisted. He felt rotten, and he found himself smiling. “We did it, didn't we?”

Axen smiled back. “We did it. Even if Plymouth's forces overrun us, the Gene Bank is safe on the starship. We've saved everything that humanity is, given it another chance.” He patted the young man gently on his arm.

Then his expression changed, as though he remembered something almost forgotten. He reached into his pocket. “I brought you something.” He removed a black plastic square and placed it in Brook's hand.

Brook rolled it over and looked at the Eden logo embossed on the surface. It was a boarding pass. He looked up at Axen. “Where did you get this?”

“It's mine.”

“What?”

“Senator Autzen was able to shuffle some records without drawing undue attention. It has your name on it now.”

“I can't take this.” He tried to hand the pass back to Axen.

Axen just waved it away. “I never intended to go. I'm old, at least compared to the rest of you. I managed to duck hibernation sickness the first time, I doubt I'd be so lucky the second, even with the improved methods. It's your turn.”

He stood and started to leave the room. “Just remember, I've been where you're about to go. Don't be so sure I'm doing you any favors.”

Written by J. Steven York.


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