Plymouth 11: Raid

The piece of starship wreckage numbered fifty-eight didn't look like much. It was a flattened and scorched rectangle of metal with some bits of tubing and wire coming out. It was small enough and light enough for one person to comfortably hold.

According to Frost, piece fifty-eight was a thruster assembly, though you wouldn't have been able to prove it by Emma. To her, it was just another twisted piece of metal. Equally mysterious was why it was of such intense interest to Frost, and why it was soon of equal interest to her four rogue scientists. Eden was clearly working in areas of spacecraft propulsion that left Plymouth, literally, in the dust, and Frost seemed to be working at a level beyond that.

Emma gave up trying to understand it all, secluded herself in her quarters, and devoted her original team exclusively to planning the rescue of Eden's children. It was a small part of a much larger operation, the final military assault on Eden to steal their remaining starship technology, and most importantly, their reusable launch vehicle.

Plymouth's efforts to develop an RLV were still in the early stages, and it was apparent that they didn't have any hope of finishing in time. Taking the RLV was a top military priority, and the key to successfully taking the starship.

Plymouth was almost frantic with activity preparing for the assault. The Vehicle Factories were working nonstop to produce combat and support units for the mission. These units were being stockpiled in Garages and under camouflage netting modeled after Eden's own to protect them from the watchful eyes of Eden's satellites. As much as possible, the raid had to be a surprise attack to be successful.

All the while, Emma was preparing her own, much different, convoy. At its heart was a pair of specially equipped Evacuation Transports. The ETs had been retrofitted with light armor, and stripped of most of their interior furnishing and equipment to increase speed.

Emma had even considered the possibility, inspired by Axen's modified units, of adding a pair of Beam Rifles taken from Scorpion units. Concerned that adding the weapons would make the vehicles more of a target, she'd abandoned the idea. She hoped that, at least once the children were on-board, Eden would refrain from firing on the units, but she wasn't counting on it.

The plan was to let other units run interference, let them take the hits, and get the ETs in and out as fast as possible. Emma leaned back in her bunk and studied the satellite photos of Eden, memorizing every detail of its layout, planning every move in advance.

She'd been at it for twenty hours now, keeping in touch with her team by comm-link. She looked at the chrono on her wrist-link. Twelve hours till departure. She wondered if she'd be able to force herself to get a few hours sleep before they left.

Her door chimed. She used her wrist-link to release the lock. “Come on in.”

It was Jensen, looking a little sheepish. She pointed him toward a minimally cluttered chair. He moved aside a rock hammer and a dirty shirt and sat down.

“How's the work going?” she asked. “Anything to report?”

The corner of his mouth twitched up a little. “Actually, that's why I came to see you. Propulsion isn't really my area; it's remote sensing and communications.”

She put down her ClipCom. “Is there another project you'd feel more effective working on?”

He ducked his head slightly, and bobbed his chin yes. “I'd like to go to Eden with you.”

She sat up in her bunk and leaned forward on her knees. “What? Why?”

“I know what you said about us not being soldiers, and that's true enough, but you could use someone with recent knowledge of Eden's interior layout. That would be me.”

She considered this for a bit. “Okay, I'm willing to hear your case. Of course, Panati and the resistance are supposed to be helping us from inside.”

“I'm sure they will, if everything goes as planned, but they could be held up somehow, or we could be separated inside the colony. It would be to your advantage to have someone with you who could act as a guide.”

“That's why you'd be useful, but why do you want to go?”

He pondered this momentarily. “As I said, I'm not feeling especially useful here now that the project has moved beyond my limited expertise. I came to Plymouth against my better judgment and…” He spread his hands, seeming to have trouble putting it into words. “I want to make a difference. I never had kids of my own, though I would have wanted to if things had happened differently.”

He hesitated. “The project is in trouble. Frost has offered some remarkable insights into analyzing the thruster, but everything we've learned is on a theoretical level, and we could be months, years, from any practical application.

“Our one hope is Dr. Landis, and she has a son left in Eden. There was no way to bring him when we escaped, and she's worried sick about him. She's the best propulsion scientist Eden ever turned out. The best way I can help the effort is to help her.”

Emma nodded. “I understand. That's commendable.” She reached out and offered her hand. “Welcome to the team, Jensen.” He took her hand and shook it enthusiastically.

Emma picked up another ClipCom out of the clutter and pulled up a file on it. Then she handed it over to Jensen. “Here's the mission briefing. Read it, memorize it, then get some sleep if you can.” She pressed her lips tightly together. “Tomorrow, we go to war.”

# # #

Brook Panati waved the forged security pass at the black-uniformed Volunteer Guard, who verified it using her wrist-link. She looked up at him, as though memorizing his face, then gestured him on with a wave of her upward-pointed rifle barrel.

He shuffled past her and down the tunnel towards the next checkpoint. This place is a police state, and it gets worse every day. I wonder if Axen's Gulag could have been as bad as this? It was a silly thought and he knew it. Things could, and would, get worse.

Echo Van Dozier was the engine behind Eden's downfall. Echo's ego, and her mania, knew no bounds. He was sure that, if it were not for the twisted affection she seemed to feel for him, he'd have been imprisoned long ago. As it was, she treated him like a naughty but amusing pet, allowed to get into trouble, but only so much. Brook was very, very tired of it. Today, one way or the other, it all ended.

He was almost to the last checkpoint before the Nursery when the disaster alarms started to sound. Everywhere, rotating light flashed combat red. The attack had begun.

The two Guards at the checkpoint immediately received dispatch messages from their wrist-link. Ignoring Brook, they jumped onto their scooters and roared off down the tunnel leading back to the residence complex.

Brook glanced at his chrono display. He had less than two minutes. He began to jog down the tunnel. Above him, an Earthworker unit under Kraft's control would be stopping over the tunnel right now and deploying a huge auger drill. He reached the emergency suit locker and slipped inside. The door sealed shut behind him and would protect him until he got his suit on.

He was pulling the boots on when the auger cut through the tunnel ceiling with a crash, sending a man-sized chunk of rock falling to the floor a few meters away. As air exploded out through the hole, the drill withdrew and another tool, a mechanical hammer, began to knock away slabs from the roof of the tunnel, collapsing it one piece at a time.

Brook sealed the helmet and cycled himself out of the pressurized locker. He ran toward the Nursery, wondering if the children were in their rescue balls yet.

# # #

Emma could see fierce fighting beyond the next line of buildings. Fireballs and clouds of corrosive mist rose over the rooftops as Plymouth units fought their way toward Eden's Spaceport. So far, her convoy had encountered only a little resistance. They'd lost a Spider already and a few of their combat units had taken hits, but they'd also managed to immobilize two Eden Panthers with EMP and reprogram them using the Spiders, which more than made up for the loss.

The convoy steered past a row of Agridomes toward the Nursery, refraining from making any attacks on the buildings that would draw attention to them. In and out - that's our motto.

They rounded a corner, and Emma spotted the Earthworker unit, just where it should be, chipping away at the roof of a tunnel. They pulled the ETs in next to the opening to wait while the combat units circled them like nervous mother hens.

# # #

Brook stood outside the Nursery's emergency lock glancing impatiently at his chrono as the cargo cart pulled up to the ramp in front of him. Jix Oltion jumped out of the driver's seat and trotted over to him.

“You're late,” said Brook.

“Tunnel six is closed off. You should tell your friends to be careful where they shoot their missiles.”

Brook quickly checked the stake-side cargo cart. Its bed still had traces of soil and dried vegetation from the Agridome where Jix worked. It looked big enough for their purposes. “Good enough,” he said. “Let's get the kids.”

They cycled through the lock into the Nursery. The teacher robots were whirring around, shooing the last of the children into their pressurized rescue balls. There were two women and a man there, already dressed in spacesuits, who Brook didn't recognize. This was no surprise, as he was expecting help from another resistance cell. He held up his index finger as a signal. The three put their index fingers together in the countersign. There were quick nods of greeting, but no names were exchanged.

“There's a cargo cart at the top of the ramp. Let's get the kids loaded and out of here.”

They started hoisting rescue balls over their shoulders by their carry straps and hauling them toward the lock. Most of the children visible inside the clear surface of their rescue balls seemed calm enough. They'd all been through hundreds of disaster drills, and it was almost a game to them. The fear, the upset, the loss would all come later.

Brook jammed a hacked override key into each of the teacher robots, and set them to helping with the move. They'd bring the robots with them, if possible, to give the kids at least something familiar to hold onto.

# # #

Emma had grown impatient waiting for Panati, and she and Jensen had climbed into the hole to look for them. The rubble came to a peak in the middle of the opening, forming a steep, but climbable ramp to the tunnel floor below. She and Jensen crouched on top of the rubble, ducking their heads to peer down the empty tunnel.

“That is the way to the Nursery?”

“Without a doubt.” He stood and pointed to the fortifications ahead of them on the surface. “You can just see it sticking up behind those walls.”

The fortifications had been the primary reason for their indirect rescue point. Now Emma was having second thoughts. They could have blasted through the walls, rather than being stuck here like sitting ducks.

A bit of rubble tumbled down the pile.

Jensen looked at her. “Do you feel that?”

“What?”

More rubble slid down the pile in a cascade. Emma was suddenly aware of a vibration in the ground. Quake? Then the nearest ET exploded in a ball of fire, and she spotted the approaching Eden Tigers.

She yelled into the radio, “Get the convoy out of here!” Then a slab of rubble gave way beneath them, and she and Jensen tumbled down into the tunnel below.

# # #

The Eden Repair Vehicle rolled at best possible speed toward the smoking Structure Factory, its limited intelligence plotting a course across irregular ground. Then a new command came in from the Robot Command Center. The vehicle slowed, turned about, and headed back toward the RCC itself.

It took only a few minutes to reach the structure, which was well away from the fighting and showed no sign of damage. Nonetheless, the unit's new programming had to be obeyed. It deployed its robot manipulator arms and cutting torches, and began to slice away sections of the building's skin, peeling it like an onion and throwing the removed pieces aside without caution.

Gas exploded into the thin atmosphere as the pressure hull ruptured, but the unit ignored it, mindlessly widening the breach. The program drove it relentlessly on. Something had to be removed from the RCC, and the Repair Vehicle would not stop until it had done so.

# # #

Jix ran down the ramp from the Nursery's upper level. “There are Eden tanks coming in. The rescue convoy is pulling back.”

“Frag it!” Brook watched as the teacher robots scooped up the last of the rescue balls and headed out.

“With the tunnel blocked,” observed Oltion, “we can only go out, toward the Agridomes. Maybe we can get the kids out that way.”

Brook nodded. “It's worth a shot. But I don't know how the rescue convoy is going to find us all the way over there.” He shrugged. “We'll worry about that later.” He and Jix followed the robots out through the lock. They jumped into the seats of the cargo cart, while the others grabbed scooters.

# # #

Emma followed Jensen down the dark, narrow utility tunnel. “If I remember this properly,” he said, “this will take us around the blockage and come out somewhere along Agridome row. We can backtrack to the Nursery from there.”

“If we need to,” said Emma.

“What do you mean?”

“They'll be looking for another way out. If I were them, I'd head for the Agridomes.”

Jensen nodded. “You could be right.”

They reached a junction with another, slightly wider utility tunnel. Jensen stopped and looked in both directions. “I don't remember this.”

Emma frowned at him. “Are you sure you know where you're going?”

# # #

There were five Agridomes in the row. Jix stopped at the second one. “This is where I work. I have all the access keys. We may need them before we're through.” They cycled the cart in through a big cargo lock and drove directly into the dome.

Greenery was everywhere, the crops in full production. Planter boxes full of soil alternated with rows of long hydroponic trays under the transparent ceilings, and water pumped from a large, open cistern in the middle of the dome and into irrigation pipes and sprinklers.

An emergency pressure release pipe ran from a valve over the tank and straight up through the roof. Brook studied the pipe. “I think I know a way to signal the convoy. Think you can find some hose or flexible conduit that will fit over that valve?

Jix nodded.

“Then get it.”

Jix disappeared and returned a few minutes later with a piece of flexible ductwork just large enough to fit over the valve.

Brook inspected the end of it, and attempted to crush it between his palms. He was unable to do so. “I hope this will work.” He jammed one end over the valve and sealed it with a roll of tape that Jix found in the cart's toolbox. Then he dropped the other end in the cistern. He turned back to Jix. “Find a control panel and use your override codes to open this valve.”

Jix followed the pipe up through the ceiling with his eyes, then looked sadly around at the plants. “I hate this, you know.” But he did as Brook instructed. There was a panel on a support pillar a few meters away. Jix punched in his codes. “Ready,” he said.

Brook nodded, and Jix opened the valve.

For a moment, nothing happened, then the water level in the cistern began to drop. The vent pipe moaned and rumbled as the inside air pressure forced the liquid up through the ceiling. The top of the pipe suddenly turned into a fountain, water streaming down the outside of the windows. The Agridome was spouting like a whale.

Just then something clanked beneath their feet.

Jix jumped at the sound. “Somebody's coming!”

A floor access panel flipped open suddenly and clanged against its stops. An armored, gun-toting figure climbed out of the opening, followed quickly by another. They strode toward Brook rapidly. The one in the lead thrust out a hand at him.

Emma smiled at him through the visor of her combat suit. “Mr. Panati, I presume.”

# # #

As the convoy made its way back past the collapsed tunnel, their precious cargo safely in the remaining ET, they could see the RLV climbing into the sky on a tail of fire. “I hope it's under our control,” said Emma.

Jensen was looking in another direction. “Incoming Eden unit.”

“Frag,” said Emma as she followed his gaze to the approaching robot. Fortunately, it was only a Repair Vehicle. One of the EMP units fired, and it rolled to a stop.

Emma leaned forward, not believing her eyes. A Savant computer was clutched in one of its manipulator arms. “Get a Spider over here, fast. Let's capture this thing.”

She studied the featureless cube of the Savant, and was somehow sure it was Kraft. It escaped. Kraft programmed the Repair Vehicle to come and get it, and it escaped.

She turned to Jensen. “When the Repair Vehicle comes back online, plot an indirect course into its computer, taking it to the resistance base. We'll send Axen a little present.” And we'll see just what he thinks about his computer's behavior now.

Written by J. Steven York.


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