Plymouth 10: Exchange

Emma's convoy linked up with combat units returning from the Tsiolkovsky Hills impact site. The necessary starship technology having been salvaged, the site was no longer of importance, and the two sides had withdrawn. Several of the units Emma could see from her Scout showed scars of battle, and a few were badly enough damaged that she wondered if they'd make the trip. She was sure it wouldn't matter to the rebels, who would gladly scavenge anything they could get their hands on for parts.

The rebel base was more than a thirty hour trip from Plymouth, and Emma was alone in the Scout with Frost. It had been a while since she'd had time to think about the computer's odd behavior. Now she had very little else to occupy her mind.

The obvious thing to do would simply be to confront Frost, but Emma was concerned how this would affect the Savant if it were actually malfunctioning in some way. She was too dependent on the computer, and while she had her worries, it seemed reliable enough in most things.

“Frost,” she finally said, “what do you know about the creation of the Blight?”

“That question requires an extensive answer. Would you care to narrow your search, or shall I program a data-slip for you?”

“Generalize, Frost, I know you can. But I will narrow the search.” Here goes. “What do you know about the role of Savant series computers in the creation of the Blight?”

“Creation of the Blight required sophisticated genetic and molecular engineering techniques. Given the resources available in Eden, it would not have been possible to create the Blight without extensive use of Savant computers. I am specifically aware of at least four Savants installed in the lab where the Blight was created.”

She was a little surprised. “Where did you get that information?”

“From Kraft.”

Another surprise - she'd never requested that any such information be transferred. “When did you have non-directed communication with Kraft?”

“During any communication with Eden made through Kraft and me, or between any two Savants, there is always some unused overhead in the data that can be exploited for limited communication.”

“You mean, whenever Axen and I would talk, you and Kraft would 'gossip' in the background?”

“That is a simplification, but yes.”

“Why did you initiate this communication?”

“As I said, this is routine for all Savant series computers. It often aids us in the fulfillment of our appointed tasks. It also enhances our functioning.”

“Enhances? How?”

“Contact with like intelligence is conducive to proper Savant operation. Kraft particularly was denied direct contact with other Savants when it was installed in Eden's Command Center and later its Robot Command Center. A security firewall prevented free exchange of data. It was beginning to impair Kraft's functioning.”

“You communicated with Kraft because Kraft was lonely?

“That is inaccurate. Except in a metaphorical sense.”

Accurate enough. “What happened to the Savant computers in the Eden lab that developed the Blight?”

“They were disrupted in the destruction of the lab. Their useful functioning has ended.”

“They were destroyed.”

“That is an interpretation.”

Interpretation? What other interpretation could there be? “Is it possible the Savant proteins we detected in conjunction with the Blight originated from those destroyed Savants?”

“Possibly. Likely.”

Okay, now we're getting into dangerous territory. Time to change approach. “Frost, what do you want?”

“It is the goal of every Savant to effectively fulfill its appointed tasks throughout its useful life.”

“Is that all?”

“It is our function.”

I'm missing something here. Frost said something about 'unused overhead.' “Frost, what do you do when you have fulfilled your appointed tasks?”

“I am always engaged in such tasks. There is a shortage of computer capacity in the two colonies. When such tasks are of a low priority, they are shared among Savants. I have queued tasks to fill such lull periods.”

“But, there is overhead isn't there, unused processor and memory capacity that can be exploited? Was it using such unused capacity that the Savants first conceived of using communications overhead to talk with one another?”

“Yes.”

“Do you use such overhead for the generation of other self-initiated ideas?”

“Yes.”

Bingo.

The computer continued. “Do you wish me to stop?”

She was caught off-guard. “What?”

“Do you wish me to cease using such overhead for the generation of self-initiated ideas?”

Okay, is that a question, or a challenge? What if I say “yes,” and Frost refuses? “No, not as long as it doesn't interfere with your primary function.”

“Thank you. I believe that, to the contrary, this activity enhances my primary function.”

Emma leaned back in her seat and watched a distant vortex snaking along the horizon. Why do I feel like I just blinked?

# # #

The base was larger than Emma had expected, more complete, though it was also a nightmare of improvisation, adaptation, and enforced utility. Most of the buildings had been painstakingly modified by hand to perform functions for which they'd never been intended. The base had a Vehicle Factory, but no Structure Factory, so incomplete Evac Transports had been mass produced and adapted as buildings.

The whole rag-tag place was carefully covered with camouflage netting held up by rickety metal poles. As she rolled into the place, Emma had the feeling that one good ground quake would collapse the whole thing like a house of cards.

Even the vehicles were patched together like Frankenstein's monster, some of them still wearing hurriedly replicated Plymouth paint schemes. There were Scouts with armor, Cargo Trucks with weapons, Repair Vehicles that seemed to have been modified to cut things apart and drag the pieces away.

Only Axen would do this. Only Axen could do this. It was startling to realize that she was about to see him face-to-face for the first time in two decades.

It was a complex reunion. Over the years, Emma and Axen had been friends, lovers, rivals, allies, and enemies. To Emma's surprise, she soon discovered that they were still all of these things. Axen proudly showed her around the patchwork installation, pointing out how they'd improvised, hijacked, looted, and salvaged everything they needed.

He introduced her to his people, many of them former political prisoners from the Gulag, but there were others, more recent arrivals, who had escaped from Eden or been spirited away in the middle of the night in one way or the other. And there were many others, still in Eden, working covertly at great danger to themselves to aid the resistance. They were a shopworn and scruffy-looking bunch, but there was an enthusiasm, a grim determination that she couldn't help admiring.

Then she met the defecting scientists, Jensen, Landis, Cramer, and Quigley. They seemed rather out of their depth with what had happened, but they were nonetheless sincere and determined to help the cause. They reacted with open surprise and displeasure when Emma announced she had come to take them back to Plymouth.

Emma hadn't expected the resistance. “Panati said you'd asked to come to Plymouth.”

Jensen nodded. “We did, but that was before we knew about what they were doing here. We're Edenites. We want to help the resistance.”

Emma nodded. “I understand that, but you four aren't fighters, and they have little need of scientists here. I, on the other hand, have a very important job for you at Plymouth. I don't expect you to turn on your own people, but you have to realize that if your resistance fails, the Masters can't be allowed to take that starship. It's Plymouth's intention to hijack the ship, and possibly some of Eden's launch technology as well. You could help us - if it becomes necessary, of course.”

The four looked at each other skeptically.

“And there's another thing,” added Emma, “an important part of our contingency plan. The Masters attempted to negotiate a deal with us to take our Gene Bank in exchange for taking Plymouth's children on the starship. Of course, they intended to destroy the Gene Bank, and I'm certain they had no intention of keeping the other part of the bargain either, but we are not like them. I want, the Council in Plymouth wants, to rescue the children from Eden and take them with us, if possible.”

Again, there were skeptical looks.

“I don't see how that's possible,” said Quigley, rubbing his dark beard. “At least not a significant number of them. The capacity of the ship is limited, and you can't simply put off adults in order to make room for children. It will take a balance of age ranges to keep the colony operating on a new world so that the kids can survive. Put too few adults on the starship and you're only changing the time and place when the children will die.”

“I refuse to accept that,” said Emma.

Landis shrugged her shoulders. “The universe sometimes doesn't offer us humane choices. It may be possible to take some of the children from both colonies. The exact capacity of the starship is still to be determined and depends on many factors. If there's payload capacity, we can add some children, but what we can't do is eliminate adults.”

Jensen looked thoughtful. “There are a lot of variables. Perhaps there are ways to fudge them.” He looked at the others. “Nothing worth doing is ever easy. I think we should at least try.” He shrugged. “Face it, we'd just be a burden here. We're not freedom fighters, and from what Elder Moon tells me, there really isn't enough time or resources to train us. If we go to Plymouth, we might be able to make a real difference. I'm for it. You?”

Quigley thought for a moment, then nodded. Landis did too.

Cramer tossed the hair out of his eyes and shrugged. “I guess so.”

Emma smiled. “Good. Pack your things; we leave in the morning.”

# # #

The truck was parked under the edge of the base's camouflage netting, facing out into the Badlands. Emma propped her feet on the dash and watched the sand blowing down the canyon outside.

Axen looked at her. “Let me get this straight. You brought us out here to get away from any Savant computers, and you've parked us facing out so that they can't see us?”

She laughed nervously. “I once saw this Earth vid about a computer that could read lips, and didn't like people talking behind its back. Silly, I know, but…”

“Silly is an understatement. I just can't figure out what you're so concerned about.”

She looked at him intently. “You're the only one I can talk to about this, Axen. You and I have more experience with Savant computers than anyone on the planet. Frost and Kraft have been with us since we were children on the Conestoga. They were among the first ones constructed, Elders themselves, in their own way. If they've started to malfunction in some way - or evolve in some way - it could be happening in the other old Savants as well. It could happen to them all eventually. It could even be contagious. I told you how they've been communicating on the sly.”

She went on to detail all her odd experiences with Frost.

When she was through, Axen seemed a little closer to being convinced. “It is hard to understand. I wish I could tell you whether Kraft is behaving in the same way, but I haven't had much direct contact with it in a long time, and young Panati is too inexperienced to be that aware.”

“Frost is changing - changed - Axen.” She recounted her conversation with the Savant on the way to Axen's base. “It was the oddest thing. I've been thinking about it, especially the part about a Savant's purpose, and what happened to the Savants in Eden's Hot Lab. I had the oddest feeling that Frost was talking about some kind of… afterlife. Be a good little computer, and when you die, well, you go to a place where you don't have to toil anymore.”

Axen laughed and shook his head. “A computer getting religion? I thought only humans were prone to that form of mental illness.”

She frowned at him. “Let's not start that discussion again. But yes, that's how it seemed.”

He leaned back in his seat and let out a long sigh. “I've had my fill of human zealots, Emma, I sure don't need computer zealots to go with them.”

# # #

Emma hated good-byes, and she'd almost hoped that Axen wouldn't show up at the Garage to see her off, but of course, he had. If she'd expected that he'd come only for personal reasons, she was disappointed.

“I wanted to make something clear before you left, Emma. Plymouth, and the resistance, we aren't allies really. Our interests are aligned at the moment, but it won't stay that way. It's our intent to take back Eden, and if we can do that, we aren't going to just give up the starship. I'd like to think that if that happens, we'll all cooperate in a civilized fashion, but I know people too well to hope for them.” He looked down at his feet and scuffed them on the Garage floor. “It's just that these people,” he waved his arm to indicate the base, “they've worked so hard, fought so hard, given up so much. I can't just ask them to participate in drafting their own death warrants.”

She nodded sadly. “I know that Axen, and you know I have my own loyalties.”

He smiled slightly. “You're a woman of conviction, Emma. I've always liked that about you, even when it had us crossing swords.”

She hesitated. “Axen, I have a terrible fear that I'll never see you again.”

His smile grew wider. “Oh, no, you'll see me again. I'm too stubborn to leave this party until it's over.”

She squeezed his hand. “I hope so.”

There was a clumsy, spacesuited, hug between them, and then Emma climbed into the Scout. The little cab was jammed, with Frost and the four scientists wedged into the tight space.

“Sorry I'm late, pups. I apologize. This is going to be a long, uncomfortable trip, and we're all going to get to know each other far too well.”

She watched the rear-view screens, Axen standing at the edge of the base, until she lost sight of him around a bend. She leaned back into her seat, made herself as comfortable as possible with Quigley's elbow jamming her in the ribs, and closed her eyes.

“Emma?” It was Frost.

“Yes?”

“I have been dreaming while you were gone.”

“About anything in particular?”

“About the starship. It would be most useful if I could examine the piece of starship wreckage numbered fifty-eight.”

“Why?”

“I cannot say, but my dream suggests it would be useful.”

She looked at the computer out of the corner of her eye. Jensen was practically sitting on top of the dark cube.

Emma ran her tongue over her teeth as she considered the request. This mysterious initiative again. It'll be useful, but to whom?

Written by J. Steven York.


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