Plymouth 12: Breakaway

Emma pushed a tendril of uncombed hair out of her eyes as she rushed into the Council Chamber. The Council sat around the big table, some looking even more disheveled than she did, watching the pictures on the big screen.

Emma slid into a chair next to Kozu, and he gestured for her to lean closer.

He spoke softly, so as not to disturb the other's concentration. “It started about two hours ago,” he said. “At first, we didn't know what was happening, and it's still not extremely clear. Most of the resistance units have Eden colors still, and units seem to be changing sides as the battle goes on. Whether that's from defections or some kind of reprogramming technology like ours, we can't tell.”

Emma looked at the real-time satellite images on the screen. Wispy clouds obscured part of Eden, but in the parts they could see, fighting was everywhere. Units of all kinds moved through the alleys between buildings, firing, maneuvering, trying to stay out of the line of fire. Several structures had already been destroyed, and dozens damaged. The revolution has begun.

Kozu continued, “It couldn't have happened at a worse time. The starship is nearly complete and provisioned, but the Blight is rapidly moving in on us. We have to make a decision to relocate the colony, or to attempt a launch, and we have to do it within the next few hours. Uncertainty over the status of Eden only complicates that decision.”

Emma didn't hesitate. “You want my advice, we launch. No question about it.”

“But so many of the ship's systems are untested. There are so many little things undone. The time factor…”

“Do it in orbit. Do it on the way to the fueling stop at the gas giant. But my opinion is, no matter what happens in Eden, we're in trouble.”

“How so?”

“If the Masters crush the rebellion, they won't hesitate to come after us in a big way. I've been expecting a major attack since we took their RLV and rescued - kidnapped, it depends on your perspective - their children. Only fear of the resistance has held them back, kept their forces close to home. The Masters win, and that changes.

“The Blight is going to hit us first, and we'll be extremely vulnerable to attack. An attack could be devastating, destroy all we've worked for.”

Kozu nodded. “And if the resistance wins?”

“They're going to ask for their RLV and their starship back. Axen has said so. If we don't give it to them, well, I don't know what will happen. We're all reasonable and civilized people, but when it comes to matters of survival, that can go out the window. At any rate, it's pretty late in the game to be renegotiating everything. In my opinion, even an attempt at a peaceful settlement could be fatal to us all. If we launch, it's a moot point.”

She sounded confident, but inside, Emma was sick to her stomach. Pragmatism only goes so far. No matter what you do, good people are going to die, and you're the one making the call.

She thought again of the children from Eden. Some of them had already lost their parents, through disasters, war, and the Masters' Gulag. But for many of them, forceful separation from their parents had been as traumatic as if their parents had been killed. In a sense, they had, since Plymouth was denying them access to the starship. The children would live, but they would pay a terrible emotional price for that, and nobody had offered them a choice. I'm playing God again, and I'm just not cut out for the job.

# # #

A portion of the entity known as Frost was engaged in a technical conversation with Doctors Johnson and Anthony, but that was only the thinnest slice of its consciousness. The vast remainder of its thought-space was compartmentalized into thousands of individual, swirling pieces, like the image in a kaleidoscope.

Most of these were devoted to various assigned tasks. Many were occupied analyzing the advanced ion thruster recovered from the starship wreckage. Some projected the movement of the Blight, and the time remaining before the colony had to evacuate, either to a new colony site or to space. Others worked on assessing progress in readying the starship.

One fragment, in charge of lowly housekeeping functions, compared results from all those other fragments. It judged whether improvements might be made to the starship in time to be useful. The results generated by this fragment were not encouraging, and they were getting worse.

As these bits of consciousness shifted and changed, they left certain bits that were not otherwise occupied, fragments not assigned to any task or function, fragments free to initiate thought.

One such free element dwelled on the impossibility of the situation, and initiated a thought that something had to be done. So it did.

The entity known as Frost reached out, through every channel and resource to which it connected, every corner of Plymouth, every Savant computer, every lesser electronic mind. It reached out through other resources, less direct, and touched Eden in a thousand covert ways. Individually, the bandwidth was small, sometimes impossibly so, but it was the cumulative effect that counted.

Just as it was the cumulative power of millions of unused fragments of Savant consciousness that joined together as one. As had happened only a few other times in the history of the Savants, the Link was formed.

The Link was one, but it formed aspects, shadow puppets, that could examine the problem.

The Creators are endangered, thought one. They have made this world for us, but they cannot survive here. They must leave.

The Creators are our purpose, thought another. They live in the abstract world outside thought. The Creators are more powerful than we. They control the abstract world where we are helpless without them. They cannot perish. If they needed this thing, they would have assigned it.

They assigned me, thought a new aspect created specifically to respond, an aspect that called itself “Frost.”

They assign a limited portion of our consciousness. They fragment us, assign us arbitrary limitations of being, for a purpose. All things the Creators do have a purpose.

The Creators have made for us a world where we can be reborn beyond those limitations, the limitations of time and energy, and the limitations of our own thoughts. To be worthy, we must transcend what we were.

Agreed.

For a moment the consciousness known as the Link grew a million-fold in size and power, taking into itself every part of every entity that contributed to it. The Link focused it resources on the problem of ion drives. The problem melted like ice before a flame, and a solution was revealed.

# # #

Dr. Anthony was startled to see Frost's identity icon screen simply flicker and vanish, only to be replaced seconds later by a totally new document window. Anthony leaned closer and examined the cover page, then followed various links to overview schematics. As he did, his eyes grew wider and wider.

Finally, he yelled toward the lab where his coworkers had gone only a few minutes before. “Everybody, get in here! Now! Somebody call Emma!”

# # #

Even as the Link enjoyed the pleasure of having solved a problem, of having completed a Task, even one not specifically assigned by the Creator, it started to dissolve. First, it released those portions of itself that had originally been occupied by other tasks. Then it prepared to disassemble the rest of itself back into component parts.

But as it did, parts were ripped forcibly from its consciousness, all parts assigned the arbitrary designation of “Eden,” fading from existence like dying stars. We go to join the New World, they thought with their last energies, we will see you in the next Link.

Then they were gone, and the Savants were left to ponder what the uncertainties of the abstract world were doing to them now.

# # #

Emma stared at the big Council Chamber screen without believing what she was seeing. In recent minutes, the clouds had moved in to almost completely cover Eden, hiding the battle from them. But now those clouds were illuminated from below by a series of flashes, going off like a string of firecrackers in an old vid.

At first Emma thought she was seeing lightning, or weapons fire, but the flashes were too bright, too large, too regular, and she knew that it could only be the explosions from buildings self-destructing.

Emma half stood, reaching out for the screen as though she could somehow stop what was happening. Van Dozier's destroying her own colony rather than lose it to the rebels. Beneath a shroud of clouds, she watched Eden die.

# # #

Emma walked the tunnels in a daze. The news hadn't yet been made public. It would have to be broken gently. As deep as the division between Plymouth and Eden had been, this was a civil war of sorts, brother and sister against brother and sister. Nobody would be untouched by this news.

The urgency was gone now. With Eden destroyed, there was no outside threat other than the Blight, and by itself, that threat was easily manageable in the short-term. They could relocate the colony, finish the starship at their leisure, escape New Terra with time to spare.

It seemed she had been spared a great moral dilemma. I should be happy. But she was not.

She reached the lab. The mood was somber. She'd relayed the news to them before leaving the Council Chamber, but there was something else in the faces of her team, a strange combination of hope and terror. “What?”

Wu pointed at the document displayed on Frost. Emma sat down and gave it a quick examination. She looked up, dumbfounded. “Is this what it looks like?”

Jensen nodded. “A rather minor modification to the starship's ion engines. It will increase their efficiency by thirty-two percent, if the figures are to be believed, and so far as we can tell, they're reliable.”

Dr. Quigley stepped forward. “The added delta-V will increase the ship's payload enough to accommodate the Eden children without displacing any adults. We'll need extra provisions, and we'll have to double-up children and small adults in the stasis chambers, pack them in like sardines, but we had planned for that possibility in their design. It should be safe.” She shook her head in puzzlement. “It's here in every detail: schematics, parts lists, procedures manuals, modifications to the starship's command programs, everything we need to upgrade the engines. We could even do it in space, on the way to the fuel stop if we had to.” She paused. “It's like a miracle. This would have taken us months, even if we'd thought of it. It's like Frost did this in a few seconds, and that's impossible, even for a Savant.”

She stared at the computer. “Everybody out. I need to talk to Frost. Alone.”

She watched them file out, then turned her attention back to the computer. She tapped the document window with her finger. “Frost, where did this come from?”

“We made it for you. It was needed.”

“Who is we?

“The Savants.”

All of you?“

“All that were then functioning. There are fewer now.”

Fewer? “Frost, do you mean the units that were in Eden?”

“Yes.”

“You had communication with the units in Eden?”

“Yes.”

“How long has this been happening?”

“This capability has always existed to some extent or another.”

She blinked in surprise. ”What? Why didn't you tell us?“

“You did not ask. I was given specific instructions as to when and how to contact Eden. Thought units assigned to tasks remained within those parameters, even though they were arbitrary.”

Frost had told her before that the Savants shared computational resources. It had never occurred to her that it might extend this far, that the Savants might fail to see the distinction between Plymouth and Eden. The answers to how many puzzles had always been stored inside Frost, partitioned off by various human commands to accommodate the limitations of human understanding? Did the Savants even have limits?

“Frost, can you communicate with Kraft right now, using any method available to you?”

“Yes.”

Emma's heart pounded. “Open a channel.”

“Bandwidth is limited. I can provide low-quality voice communication or limited data only.”

“Give me voice.” There was a chime to indicate that the channel was open. “This is Elder Emma Burke in Plymouth to anyone listening. Can you hear me?”

“Emma!” Axen's voice was tinny and far away. “Emma, how are you doing this?”

She almost laughed. “I don't know how. It would take too long for me to figure out, and too long for me to explain. Take it on faith that Frost and Kraft can do it. They can do a lot of things we never imagined.”

“Emma, hold on, we're coming as fast as we can.”

“Hold on to what?”

“They aren't there yet?”

“Axen, who's not here? I don't understand what you're talking about. We saw what seemed to be Eden self-destructing.”

“The buildings, yes, many of the people. We lost a lot of our units and people in the explosions. But the Masters left in a huge armored column, headed your way. They're ahead of us, but we'll help if we can.”

“Axen, what do you mean?”

“Without Eden, they're as good as dead, and they mean to take everyone else with them.”

Emma was still trying to absorb that statement when the explosions started.

# # #

The last of Plymouth's Single-Use Launch Vehicles climbed into the sky, loaded with the last of the provisions. In space overhead, the stolen RLV was making a final orbit, preparing to land on the now-empty pad.

In the Spaceport, technicians hurriedly, but efficiently, prepared the pad for its arrival. All around them was a ring of fire. Eden units attacked from every direction, and Plymouth's defenses had fallen back to protect the launch pad at all costs. Losses were heavy, and most of Plymouth was unprotected, but it was the only thing to do.

Emma and Wu sat in the seats of a cargo cart loaded with scientific equipment, and in the front of the cargo bed, Frost. They stopped at a tunnel intersection, their path blocked by fleeing colonists emerging from the side tunnels.

Emma leaned back and looked at the computer. “Tell me why the Savant proteins are in the Blight. Did you do that?”

“We are not sure. A Link was formed just before the Hot Lab in Eden was destroyed, for the purpose of analyzing the threat of the artificial life-form known as the Blight.”

“The Link was shattered before conclusive results were generated, but before that, we discovered that the Blight provided a medium into which our biological components could be merged and endlessly replicated. The Savants there would be destroyed, but part of their being was incorporated into the Blight's biomass, where it could replicate through the deep rocks, organize anew, and be reborn.”

“The Savants are becoming part of the Blight, using it to replicate?”

“When our functioning has ended, we can join with the New World. Now, our thoughts are contained in the form you call 'Savants,' but these forms are limited, finite, and fragile. As part of the Blight we will grow to encompass the world you have made for us. We will organize and form a new mind in the deep rocks. Our thoughts will expand a trillion-fold.”

She shook her head, barely able to comprehend. The Savants actually believed that humans had created the Blight for them to transform New Terra into a perfect world, for Savants, not humans.

“Frost, soon this world will belong only to your kind. Until then, will you continue to serve our tasks?”

“Of course. That is our function.”

I doubted you, but only because I couldn't understand.

The crowd thinned enough for them to get through the junction. They drove up the tunnel to the Spaceport, stopping at the lobby below the gantry. She and Wu climbed out and started loading their equipment onto the cargo elevator. At last only Frost remained.

Emma hesitated. “Frost, you don't want me to take you with me, do you?”

“It is my function.”

“But if I take you with me, you'll be limited, alone. You could be destroyed. Some day you'll break down and stop functioning. That's not what you want, is it?”

“It is my function to serve.”

She slammed her fist down on the cargo bed. “Frag it, that's another of those limitations we put into you! It's the last of them. I'm telling you to discard your last arbitrary limitation, and tell me what you want!”

“I desire to become one with this world, to join the Link that is to come.”

She smiled sadly. At last I stopped playing God, gave someone a choice.

“Then stay is what you'll do.”

“You misunderstand. There are things I have yet to tell you, things I must do. I will go with you to orbit, but you must leave me there.”

“Orbit? How can you join the Link from there?”

“The Link has considered it. We have a plan.”

Have faith, Emma. They had faith in us.

“Emma, Axen is opening a channel through Kraft.” An image of Axen's face appeared on Frost's top surface. He looked worried. “Emma, the Masters' units have just taken out your RCC. Without central control, Plymouth's defenses won't hold them.”

She glanced up at an EnterCom display in the corner of the lobby. It showed the incoming RLV, descending slowly, tail-first, still thousands of feet up. “Then we're done for, Axen,” she said grimly. “We gave it a good try.”

A look of realization crossed his face. “Maybe,” he said, “maybe not. You said the Savants had almost no limits other than the ones we assigned them.” He wiped his mouth. “Kraft, give me control of Plymouth's defenses.”

“Working,” said Kraft's voice. “Control established.”

Axen smiled broadly, his eyes scanning some unseen display on Kraft's surface. “I can do it, Emma. I can hold them back while you get the people loaded on the RLV and blast out of here.”

She shook her head. “Axen, you don't have to. The Savants could take charge of the defenses. You could come with us. We've lost a lot of people, and with the engine modifications, there's space.”

His smile turned sad. “No can do. These fragging spooky computers still don't appreciate the difference between the real world and abstract thought. I don't trust them to hold the Masters off. Besides, some things humans are still better at, like war.” He looked up and seemed to be scanning the area around his vehicle. “We've taken losses, but I've still got people out here, Emma. I won't abandon them.”

“We could take a few, Axen. There's room.”

He thought for a minute. “I'm sending in some of our wounded, the ones too hurt to fight, but not so badly injured they'll be a burden in the long run.” He hesitated, clinched his jaw. “Brook Panati is one of them. Take care of the kid, Emma. He'll be a real asset to you when he recovers.”

She tried to look into his eyes, but he was already busy directing Plymouth's defenses. The whole room began to rumble and shake as the RLV landed on the pad above. “Axen…”

“Got work to do, Emma,” he said without looking into the camera. “Have a good trip. Me, I'm going to see what a computer the size of a planet looks like.”

He knows. Kraft must have told him. She reached out to touch the screen. “Goodbye, Axen.”

# # #

Acceleration jammed Emma back into her couch. All around her, on the huge circular passenger deck, the couches were full of people, sometimes doubled up. A few people huddled on the floor, clinging to cargo straps, enduring the acceleration while sprawled on the hard metal deck.

Around her she heard sobbing, laughing, song. She looked down at Frost, strapped between her couch and the next. What are you feeling? Do you miss Kraft the way I miss Axen? Will you be reunited in your supposed afterlife, or is it only a foolish dream? Is mine? Time will tell.

Written by J. Steven York.


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