Plymouth 1: Meltdown

Emma Burke climbed down the ladder from the Robo-Surveyor and felt the muffled crunch of New Terra's porous soil under her rocksuit's boots. After three days, the air inside her helmet was stale, and tasted metallic as she took a breath through her mouth. The vehicle's small passenger cabin was intended for out-and-back day trips, not extended expeditions.

“Did you feel that?” Wu Chen's voice crackled in her helmet speakers. She turned to see the pale green head and shoulders of Wu's rocksuit poking out of the Surveyor's hatch.

“Feel what?”

“Another tremor. Just picked it up on the seismograph. Might have been too weak to feel.”

She frowned. Weak or not, it shouldn't have happened at all. New Terra's crustal plates were nearly locked, its faults all old, at least in human terms, and inactive. That was part of the reason for their trip, to plant a series of automated seismic stations in order to study the quakes.

The other reason, unknown to anyone but Emma, was to search for evidence of Eden's clandestine terraforming experiments. She thought back to her last message from Eden a few weeks before. Though the colonies had officially broken off communications and the comm satellite was disabled, she and fellow Elder Axen Moon had maintained a secret link through a weather-satellite telemetry channel. His last communication had warned that Eden's leader, Nguyen, had begun weapons development, and had unilaterally started a program of biological terraforming.

Then, something had gone wrong, and the link had been cut off. Axen and Nguyen had clashed on numerous occasions. Was he now a political prisoner, or worse, had he been killed? There was no way to know, and she could only be certain that things had taken a dark turn at the rival colony.

Unfortunately, that put Emma in a difficult situation. Maintaining her secret link with Axen could be considered a treasonous act. At best, the colony's leaders would never trust her again, and she couldn't have that. She had to find a way to alert them to the danger at Eden without showing her own hand. If she could create concern, any kind of concern, there was still an observer satellite in orbit that could be used to spy on Eden, and the rest would come out soon enough.

A flash of motion at the edge of her vision caused her to glance up at the ruddy slope of the hillside that loomed over the Surveyor. A rock the size of her fist bounced down the slope and ricocheted off the roof of the vehicle. It was nearly soundless in the thin air, only a soft crack as it hit the Surveyor reaching her external microphone. A cascade of sand and loose pebbles slid down the hillside, and suddenly the ground heaved under her feet. Her eyes widened.

“Wu! Get the Surveyor out of here! Get away from the hillsides!”

She saw the vehicle surge backward a few meters, the hatch still hanging open, then hesitate. “What about you?”

“Move! I'll take care of myself! We lose the Surveyor and it's a fifty kilometer walk!” Even as she said it, she was running away from the slope, looking for some kind of shelter. They'd come half a kilometer up a box canyon between two hills following some strange magnetometer readings. Now that canyon was a trap they had to escape. She glanced up, and just as she'd expected, a shower of boulders, some as big as the Surveyor, was bouncing down the hillside like a dinosaur stampede.

She caught a glimpse of the Surveyor as it raced out of sight, then began a serpentine run, dodging the small rocks that were even now tumbling past. She jumped just in time to avoid having a half-meter rock cut her feet from under her, then angled toward what appeared to be a cleft in the ground rock ahead. Great, she thought, there's a quake and I'm thinking about climbing into a crack in the ground.

There was simply no choice though. She glanced back in time to see a boulder as big as a Residence rolling end-over-end directly toward her. The cleft wasn't much more than a meter deep, and narrow enough that her rocksuit didn't want to fit, even as she tried to slide in sideways.

She grunted trying to squirm into the hole, even as she saw the huge rock bearing down on her. For once, she wished she'd worn a regular pressure suit rather than the bulkier, reinforced rocksuit.

The boulder was only a dozen meters away now, the upper end of it looming over her. Then something snapped, and she slid easily down into the cleft just as the huge rock dropped on her like a hammer.

She never would have thought that solid stone could ring, but it did, like a bell, the sound being transmitted by contact between her helmet and the rock, so loud that she thought it might deafen her. She closed her eyes against the pain, and opened them to darkness. Great Maker, I'm buried alive!

Then, a low rumble, and the huge rock rolled over one last time, seeking an equilibrium. Though its flank reared right over her head, there was plenty of room for her to escape.

She remained motionless for a time, until she was certain the quake was over, then tried to climb out of the cleft. For a panicked moment she thought she was stuck, then, with a lurch, the upper part of her suit came free, and she was able to climb up onto the lip.

She sat there, feet dangling into the hole, waiting for her racing heart to slow. It was only then that she noticed how clean the break was. She ran her gloved fingers over the sharp edge of the break. It lacked the characteristic billion-year-old orange oxidation that covered the rest of the rock surface. Then she bent to examine the black residue in a vertical line in the cleft wall. This crack wasn't natural. It had been blasted open.

An unintelligible voice crackled in her helmet. Wu was coming back for her. “Wu, I'm okay.” It was unlikely that he'd be able to understand her, with her weaker suit transmitter, but there was at least a chance he'd hear enough to know she was still alive.

She followed the cleft in the rock a few meters. It narrowed, then abruptly widened. Now that she knew what to look for, she could see the marks made in the surrounding rock by vehicles and machinery, those that hadn't been scoured away by New Terra's thin, but furiously fast, windstorms. It was in the wide part of the crack where she found the drill cap hidden.

The metal cylinder, painted reddish brown to match the rock, was a stubby metal plug as tall as her waist, though the blunt top of it was almost level with the surface of the rock. Whoever had put it here clearly hadn't intended for it to be found.

The design was familiar to her, a standard cap for a drill hole created by one of the Robo-Moles used in mining operations. Notches automatically engraved in the top cap by the drilling machine provided information about the depth of the hole, type of drilling, and other data. A glance at it told her that this was a very deep shaft, several kilometers, and nearly straight down, not at all the kind of hole one would use for mining.

She sat down next to the cap to wait for Wu's return. She ran her gloved hand over the cap and the ring of slots around the top designed to vent any underground gasses that might be generated. As she did, she saw dust dancing along the surface of the nearby rock face. Not believing her eyes, she grabbed a fistful of dust from the bottom of the cleft and held it near the slots. Slowly, layer by layer, it was blown away by the outflow of gas. She didn't have a way to test it, but she was certain that testing would reveal oxygen and water vapor, somehow being generated deep in the rocks, possibly by bacterial action.

This was the evidence she'd been looking for, this was hard proof of Eden's actions, evidence she could present without creating suspicion.

“Emma, you're all right?” She glanced up to see the Surveyor roll around the end of the huge rock.

“I'm fine, Wu. Get the cameras and the sampling gear. We have work to do before we head home.”

# # #

They'd driven all night, as fast as the terrain and their headlights would allow. Emma took the first shift monitoring the autopilot, helping it to make difficult decisions about which path to take, then dozed off in the wee hours of the morning as Wu took over.

They'd been unable to raise Plymouth by radio. She'd tried to reassure Wu that the relay on top of Mt. Goddard might have been taken out by the quake, but judging by the constant tremors their seismic stations were reporting, she wasn't so sure.

“Boss, wake up.”

She moaned and blinked the sleep out of her eyes. She sighed. “Where are we?”

“About twenty clicks out. Once we come out of the canyon we might be able to see something.”

“From twenty clicks? I don't think so.” She glanced at Wu, and didn't like the look of the frown on his boyish face. “Wu, what's wrong?”

He sighed. “Just before we entered the canyon, I saw an orange glow on the horizon. I thought it was sunrise, until I checked the chrono and realized it was twenty minutes early.”

She shuddered involuntarily, but said nothing, her attention focused on the forward view port. The sun was up now, the rocks redder than usual in the harsh morning light. The Surveyor topped a rise at the lip of the canyon and whirred to a stop.

Wu leaned forward, his eyes wide, his mouth open. “Maker, they've blown it up. Those Eden fraggers have blown it up!”

Emma stared at the huge brownish fountain that towered into the sky in front of them, more a plume than a cloud in the thin air. It looked different from the pictures she'd seen in the geology database, but those pictures had been taken in Earth's thick atmosphere. “It's not a bomb, Wu, it's a volcano.”

“A what?

“I don't know how, or why, but pray there's a Plymouth to go back to. Mt. Goddard has erupted.”

Written by J. Steven York.


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