Eden One: Conspiracy

Both wheels of the scooter left the ground as Axen sailed over the lip of the down ramp and into the tunnel that connected the Hot Lab with the rest of Eden colony. He touched down a third of the way along the ramp, the tires landing with a satisfying chirp that echoed off the metal-lined walls, motors whining in protest. He was breaking half a dozen safety regulations, driving like a teenager a third his biological age of forty-five.

He didn't care. First of all, he was mad, damn it, and it felt good to break a few regs, and second of all, nobody was around to complain. The tunnels were almost deserted. Every adult who wasn't engaged in a service vital to the maintenance of the colony was in Nguyen's “town meeting,” the meeting Axen Moon had just walked out on.

He flew past a huge set of pressure doors, startling a workman who was inspecting the utility conduits that lined the wall like rows of fat sausages. He squealed the scooter around a right angle turn and up the tunnel toward his residence unit. He slowed slightly as he passed a group of children and their teacher-bot strolling down the ramp from the Nursery, then twisted the throttle hard over to scream up the last bit of tunnel. He hit the base of the ramp with a bump, started braking halfway up, and slid to a stop just short of the open airlock doors.

He nosed the scooter into the charging station next to a row of identical vehicles, and plucked his keycard, with its hacked safety overrides, from the slot in the handlebar. He palmed the card and glanced out through the tran-station's observation port. The sun was setting outside, exaggerating the hard reddish tones of New Terra's landscape. The buildings of Eden spread out before him like a cluster of silver toadstools. In the distance he could see the farthest of the lab structures, nicknamed the “Hot Lab,” where the meeting would still be going on.

Nguyen was a fool. He'd known that; he simply hadn't known how much of a fool until now. He rubbed the keycard between his fingers. The main lock into the Hot Lab was the one door in Eden it wouldn't open. Axen Moon wasn't a man who liked anything closed to him. He wasn't a man who was used to it.

He strolled through the safety lock, its open doors ready to spring shut at any sign of an emergency. New Terra's thin atmosphere would kill a human in less than two minutes. It was something you were either eternally aware of, or you were dead. The common area, with its lounging chairs, planter islands, and multitainment consoles, was deserted, as he'd hoped. He was about to break a law much more severe than a scooter speed-limit, the one law that carried a death penalty, and he didn't want any potential witnesses around. He waved the key in front of the door to his private quarters and stepped quickly inside.

“Good evening, Axen.” The voice was cool, female, with the slight accent that all Savant series computers shared. The computer itself, a glossy black cube a little less than a meter on a side, was recessed into a console on the inside corner of the room.

A window on the computer's otherwise featureless surface displayed a moving, transparent gear-works, like a clock made of glass. This was Kraft's identity icon, its face in a way, as familiar to Axen as his own. It was as much a roommate as an appliance. The Savants were the most sophisticated computers ever made, almost human in many ways, undoubtedly superior in others.

“Good evening, Kraft. Verify security?”

“We are secure, code-word 'collusion.' ”

He nodded, the gesture doubtless detected by one of the Savant's many eyes hidden around the room. He sat down on one of the room's two chairs. He had what were considered luxury quarters by Eden standards, but the room was only two meters by three, and would have been smaller yet if he hadn't been allowed a little extra space for Savant Kraft.

Except for a few of the most advanced researchers in the labs, only the handful of surviving Elders, such as himself, were allowed their own Savants. He and Kraft had been together since he'd emerged from cold sleep on the starship ten years out from New Terra. He'd been just a child then, with only dim memories of Earth, open skies, and plants that didn't grow in a hydroponics vat. He sometimes wished those memories meant more to him. Eden was home now, for better or worse. Earth was dead and nearly forgotten.

He sighed. “Kraft, open a stealth backchannel to Savant Frost. I need to talk with Emma.” There. He'd done it, initiated a clandestine communication with the rogue Plymouth colony, an act of treason that could get him kicked out of the nearest airlock.

“One moment. Emma is in her quarters. Frost confirms that she is secure. Opening voice.”

“Open visual.”

“Confirm?” Kraft sounded incredulous, if that were possible for a computer. Savants weren't supposed to have emotions, but there were those who had their doubts. Certainly Kraft had the justification. Visual communications would take a hundred times the bandwidth of voice-only, with a correspondingly increased chance that their link, bootlegged on the subcarrier of a satellite control signal, would be detected.

“Confirmed. I want picture.”

One face of the Savant's cube brightened into a display. Routing it through the internal network to the room's EnterCom screen would have been less secure. Emma's thin, high-cheekboned face turned toward him. Her blond hair, streaked with gray, was piled on top of her head and held in place with a couple of writing styluses poked into the bun. It had been years since he'd seen her face. Sometimes he still missed her. This was one of those times.

She looked into the camera, her eyes wide with surprise. “Axen, are you crazy?”

“You need to see my face, Emma, to know I'm serious. This is worth the risk.”

Her brow wrinkled with concern, and she sat down. Behind her he could see her quarters, if anything, smaller than his own, and as always, a disorderly heap of clothing, rock samples, and scientific equipment. “What's wrong? You're not the joking kind, Axen.”

“It's Nguyen. I told you he'd slammed the lid down on one of the labs three years ago. We'd assumed he was working on biotech for terraforming. He's resisted all my efforts, legitimate and clandestine, to get inside. His scientists are all handpicked, and not about to talk.”

“And?…”

“Today he threw the lid open, held a town meeting to show off his secrets. He was working on terraforming, but that's only a small part of it. He's also been mining the encrypted data files from the starship, the ones on military technology.”

He heard an almost imperceptible gasp from Emma. The Founders on Earth had been reluctant to throw away any science, but they'd also hoped that the new world could avoid some of Earth's worst mistakes. Thus, certain information had been encrypted with the desire that it remain that way until the new civilization was ready for it. “How bad is it?”

“He has high-energy weapons, Lasers of some kind, I think. He was hardly forthcoming with technical details, though he was all too happy to blast a hole through a piece of hull-metal as a demonstration. There may already be fixed installations on the new security posts, and he's working on adapting them to a turret on one of the mobile units. Maybe he has them operational already. I wouldn't put it past Nguyen to feed us misinformation.”

She smiled slightly. “As though you and I don't know a thing or two about misinformation. Where did we go wrong, Axen?”

He leaned his head down and rubbed his brow, unable to face her. This had been his idea initially. “You saw the computer projections. All the Elders did. Two independent colonies had a much greater probability of survival than one.”

“We could have told the people…”

“Not and have the colonies be truly independent. Creating a political rift seemed like the best way.”

She nodded. “And now you see where it's brought us?”

He sighed and leaned back in his chair. “You can see for yourself the different paths Eden and Plymouth have followed. The split might have happened anyway, given enough time. It's human nature to cluster into like groups.”

“It's human nature for groups to go to war, too. We should have seen it coming.”

“There isn't a war yet, Emma. Plymouth doesn't even have weapons.”

“They will, when they find out. They'll be forced into it.”

“How will they find out?”

She frowned, and a bit of the old fire flashed in her eyes. “I'll tell them, Axen - if I have to. Of course there are probably less direct ways. There always are.”

He didn't agree, but he couldn't argue. He'd do the same thing if he were in her place. Why else had he contacted her?

“Besides,” she continued, “if they start on terraforming without our consent, there'd have to be a reaction of some kind. It goes against the principles that Plymouth was founded on, of living in harmony with New Terra rather than trying to make it into some kind of ersatz Earth…”

He cleared his throat and squirmed in his seat. “Emma, from what I saw this afternoon, I'm pretty sure they've already started, some kind of atmosphere building microorganism injected into the bedrock. Just test wells so far, but…”

“What! What the frag do you people think you're doing?”

He signed. “They hardly consulted me, Emma. You know that I think any such drastic step has to be by consensus.”

“Which is a little hard to do when the colonies aren't even talking to each other.”

He could feel old wounds opening, feel them falling into the pit of their own differences, as powerful as the attraction that had once brought them together. “It was your people who shut down the communications satellite. We don't have the technology to talk even if we wanted to.”

“It was an accident, Axen. The Council just wanted to make a dramatic gesture. They had no idea that the satellite couldn't be turned back on. Besides there's still our backchannel through the weather satellite telemetry links. It's enough to open some dialogue between our leaders.”

“It's too late for that. I've been trying to talk sense into Nguyen for years, face to face. What chance does some voice out of a box have?”

Her look turned deadly serious. “Then it might be time to take Nguyen out of the picture, Axen.”

He felt the hairs stand up on the back of his neck. Emma had a ruthless side that he sometimes forgot. “What are you suggesting?”

“Doing what we've always done, Axen, what's necessary for the survival of the human race.”

He shook his head. “No, I can't do that, Emma.”

“We're the last of the Elders, Axen, the last colonists born on old Earth. It's a dangerous world, even as protected as we are. We can't risk one of us dying with the Program out of control.”

He was considering what she said, which is why he happened to be looking out the window as the fireball erupted. The sound came a fraction of a second later, mostly as a rumble in the floor, the air too thin to conduct much noise. Somehow, without realizing it, he was on his feet and standing in front of the window. “Maker's name…”

“What,” pleaded Emma's voice, “I've lost visual. Axen!”

“Malfunction,” said Frost, “major malfunction. I have lost contact with all computers in Lab Structure Four. Twenty seconds prior to this, a major cascade failure moved through all the structures' electronic systems.”

“Emma, the Hot Lab exploded. I can see flames, so there's a major oxygen leak. It looks like the whole pressure vessel must be ripped open. Frag, half the town was in there!”

The silence suddenly stuck him. “The alarms! Kraft, where are the alarms?”

“All automatic alarms attached to Lab Four have been disabled, per Chairman Nguyen's orders.”

“Sound disaster alarms. Dispatch disaster response teams. Use my override codes.” Even as he was finishing the sentence, he could hear the klaxons sounding from every intercom speaker.

“Axen!” Emma called. “What's happening? I can't hear you. The signal's breaking up.”

Axen ignored her so he could listen to Kraft.

“Disaster teams will be unable to respond,” said Kraft. “Emergency tunnel bulkheads and airlocks were closed before the explosion.”

“Open them.”

“I do not have those override codes, and the doors have been locked.”

“By whom?”

“The doors are locked from inside.”

“Axen, what?…” Emma's voice was cut off.

“We have lost the link to Plymouth. There is an incoming communication. It's origin is the Lab Four east safety airlock.”

It was the same lock Axen had walked through only ten minutes earlier. Perhaps someone had gotten inside and sealed it before the building had completely depressurized. “On screen.”

The big EnterCom screen on the far wall came to life. He recognized Lil Komos, one of Nguyen's scientists, but one of those most friendly to Axen's viewpoints. There were several times he had thought she might agree to be a mole inside Nguyen's operation, but it had never happened. He could tell before she spoke that she was terrified, and something else. She didn't look well. “Elder, I don't have much time. I'm setting this message to record and repeat. Something went wrong with the test well. I told them the organisms we were using were too dangerous.”

“Lil, are you…? ”

She continued, either unable to hear him, or unwilling to stop talking. “It grows too fast, but Nguyen wasn't willing to wait. 'An atmosphere in our lifetime,' he said.” She shook her head as though to clear it. She brushed her hair out of her face, and he could see that she was trembling. “Not enough time to explain. Attacks organics, even protein units in boptronic computers, even the plastics in our environmental seals.”

In the background, he noticed for the first time a slight hissing noise.

“Evacuate, now. Get everyone you can in the Evac Transports. Salvage what you can, but avoid the affected areas, and don't let anyone out. Get away and don't come back.” She coughed. Her face was white and waxy looking, red veins clearly standing out in her cheeks. “Don't try to rescue us, or investigate. Get out while you can. Only you have the influence to make it happen, Elder, you and Nguyen, and Nguyen is dead. We're all dead. Don't…” Her eyes went wide. Her hands came up as though to cover her face, then stopped halfway, shaking.

She fell back against the far wall of the airlock, her body shuddering convulsively. The camera lingered on her for almost a minute before there was a click, and the message repeated. Axen cut off the picture with a gesture before he could hear her voice again.

He leaned against a chair to steady himself. He had to do what she'd said. There was no choice. He'd seen what was happening to her before the message cut off.

She was melting.

Written by J. Steven York


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