Plymouth 3: Revelations

The grainy image covered every wall of the darkened Council Chamber, randomly blasted buildings, overturned vehicles, scattered wreckage, and things moving in the blind, shambling way of the dead.

“It gives me the chills looking at it,” said a man's voice.

Emma recognized it as Councilor Kozu. “I've watched it a thousand times these last few months,” said Emma, “and I'm afraid it affects me the same way. The disaster at Plymouth we can at least understand the nature of, if not the reason why, but this is unimaginable. The colony is simply deserted, the destruction caused by, as best we can figure, random folly, and these vehicles wandering around.”

“You're sure they're armed?” This time the voice was the husky, authoritative voice of Councilor Salish. Emma could just make her out in the darkness, her eyes glittering in the reflected light of the screen.

“We have seen them fire what appears to be a laser on at least one occasion. We believe this was triggered by a bit of windblown debris from one of the damaged buildings. In other words, they are motion sensitive, and not at all discriminating. It's hard to understand how such a stupid robot could be considered an effective weapon, defensive or offensive, but there's obviously something about this that we don't understand.”

Another woman spoke, not one Emma recognized, probably one of the new Councilors elected to replace the two killed in the disaster. “Have there been any other attempts to send a vehicle into the area?”

“No, our first few attempts were destroyed before they could approach the Eden site, and before they could return much useful data. We do know that the second vehicle, which was sent in weeks after the first, didn't get as far before it stopped transmitting. That suggests that whatever is causing this damage is spreading, and gives us an approximate rate of spread. It seems pointless to try again unless we know more about what this menace is and how it works. The fact that some of the machinery in Eden continues to function, most notably the power plant, suggests that there may be some ways to resist the effect.”

Kozu asked, “Could this be related to the increase in geological activity, or Eden's reported terraforming experiments?”

Emma sighed. “It's very premature to make any such pronouncements. We know they were working on terraforming, and that this could somehow be related to our volcanic problems, but this,” she gestured at the screen, “could be something completely different, perhaps related to their weapons programs. Eden was obviously engaged in multiple lines of clandestine and dangerous research.”

“Back up,” interjected Salish. “You said you had an estimate on the rate of movement of this - whatever it is.” Does it present an immediate danger to our new colony site?“

This was the question she had been dreading. “Not in the short term, and we have other, more immediate, problems. We are in danger of another volcanic eruption.”

Salish was incredulous. “Near the colony?”

“Perhaps right under the colony, possibly much worse than the last one.”

“Lights!” Councilor Kozu was visible standing, palms on the meeting table, as the lights in the room came up and the images faded. “Elder, I mean no disrespect, but you personally assured us that the new site was stable when we settled here.”

“It was stable when we settled here. Things have changed. Our entire journey lay along a region of past geological instability where two of the plates in New Terra's crust once met. In fact, it was a region of plate forming, equivalent of the deep ocean trenches on old Earth, but of course, there have never been large oceans on this planet, and no bodies of water at all within the time of human history. The last vulcanism along this plate boundary took place while the ancestors of man were living in caves and making stone tools.

“The problem is, that isn't very long in geological terms. This site should be safe, but it isn't. Whatever we thought we knew about the geology of the planet has changed. New Terra was in the process of dying geologically, but it wasn't quite dead when we arrived, and whatever is happening now, it's like picking the scab off a fresh wound. It's going to bleed.”

Salish leaned back in her chair, her long red hair cascading over the back of it. “That's a very colorful metaphor, Elder, but how could such a thing happen? I thought we were prepared this time.”

“That's what we mean to find out. That's why I'm asking for your support of an expedition, not into, but to the very edge of the affected area. Perhaps then, through careful investigation, we can find out what is causing the instability, and exactly what happened to Eden.”

The newcomer raised her hand, a tall woman with a nose ring and her hair trimmed into a blonde skull cap. “I don't see how we can support this when, if what you're telling us is true, we must be prepared for the possibility of another evacuation. Especially,” she glanced at Kozu, “when we're also continuing with this absurd weapons program to defend against an enemy that may be dead.”

Kozu glared at her. “We have to assume that some people escaped the colony, and that they will have at least some of their weapons with them. It isn't clear that these eruptions, if related to some manmade event, aren't a hostile move by Eden. It's also quite suspicious that we've been unable to regain control of the observer satellite, and that the jamming signals are coming from the Eden site.”

“It could simply be a malfunction in their satellite station.”

“It could also be,” insisted Kozu, “that this so-called disaster in Eden is some kind of smoke-screen. Possibly the satellite is being jammed to cover the fact that they've returned, made repairs, and have begun a massive military buildup.”

Salish rolled her eyes. “That's absurd. Nothing but paranoia.”

The other councilors started breaking in, and Emma could see that a fight was about to erupt. If her status as an Elder gave her any power at all, now was the time to use it. “Please! Please! All of you have theories, but they're only that without facts to back them up. That's all I want, a very limited array of resources, a few vehicles, a few scientists, some equipment and supplies, to return facts. Unbiased, scientific facts.”

She scanned their faces to see how they were reacting. They at least seemed to be listening to what she had to say. “That's an admirable goal, don't you agree?”

They were slow to respond, but Kozu nodded, and then Salish, and then the others, one by one. The few that didn't seem to support that idea were at least quiet and passive in their objections. Emma smiled. “Good, then let's get a vote on this so the party can begin.”

# # #

As she often did, Emma walked the length of the double-wide tunnel that formed the colony's Piazza, its public market, in order to judge the public mood. As was normal for the midday, the place was crowded and lively, jammed with shoppers, people taking lunch from the carts selling spicy rice burritos and vegetable bento boxes, displays of handmade clothing and decorative items, and musicians playing for donations or simply for their own amusement.

To a casual observer, it seemed a happy and relaxed place. Emma knew better. The steel-drummers and synthtarists worked just a little too hard to brighten their tunes, the diners wolfed down their food with a bit too much urgency, the bikes and pedal cars rang their bells a bit too loudly at blocking pedestrians, and the haggling over goods was a bit too combative.

Only the children, running through the crowd, playing, watching the entertainers, were unaffected, oblivious to the danger around them. It was a stark contrast. Plymouth was feeling the pressure, feeling the fear, and she worried about how this would ultimately express itself.

Emma thought the Plymouthers to be too gentle and childlike for their own good. She was with them, but not a part of them, and she sometimes found their ways at least a little annoying. Now they seemed almost tragic. They were unsuited, unprepared, for the possibility of war, or the harsh realities that survival might demand. They were resilient, adaptable, but more would be required of them, and she wondered if they could harden up in time to survive.

What did we do, Axen? In many ways, in splitting the colony, they'd ended up reinforcing the worst characteristics of both groups. The Plymouthers were too fuzzy-headed and idealistic, the Edenites too hard-edged and exploitative. If there had ever been a happy medium, it had gone away the day half of Eden had departed to form their own splinter colony.

It was ironic. Neither she nor Axen really fit into the new communities they'd created, though they were at least somewhat temperamentally aligned with their respective colonies. Emma believed that they should try to live on New Terra on its own terms, and explore any drastic change of the environment gradually. Axen thought terraforming, making New Terra as Earth-like as possible, was an admirable goal, but he believed that such a plan had to come about through consensus of all its inhabitants.

Now it seemed it might be too late for either of them to get what they wanted. Events had passed them by in ways Emma didn't even understand yet.

Wu looked up from his ClipCom and watched as she walked across the crowded lab and slumped into a swivel chair. His eyebrows went up, questioningly. “Well?”

She looked at him and nodded. “We won. We'll start making preparations tomorrow.”

“Why so glum, then?”

“Because we have a very minimal allocation of resources. Because we'll probably have to cut corners, and that will make a potentially dangerous job even more dangerous. Because I have no idea what we're up against, or even how to investigate it, much less fight it.”

“Your friend Moon would know.”

She sighed. Wu was the only person in Plymouth with whom she'd shared knowledge of her communications with Axen. She'd thought sharing that with a trusted associate would make things easier. Sometimes it only made them more difficult.

She glanced at the equipment rack in the corner where Frost was installed, silent and dark, perhaps dreaming again as she - it - so often did these days. “Frost?”

The computer was slow to respond, but Emma crossed her arms over her chest and waited patiently.

“Yes, Emma.”

“Please try to open a communication link to Axen.”

Another pause. “No response. The control channels we have used for communication are still blocked by jamming from Eden. I have been trying to establish a link every two hours since the satellite station became operational.”

“I know, Frost, thank you. Please keep trying.”

“Emma.”

“Yes?”

“I have an anomalous reading on the satellite. Would you like to hear about it?”

“Please.”

“This lab is equipped with a small telescope, and I have been observing the optical characteristics of the satellite. Its brightness is changing in what can only be described as an artificial and purposeful manner.”

Wu rubbed his forehead and stared at the computer. “You're saying it's flashing or something?”

“The light appears to be reflected from an external source, possibly on the ground. The spectra are similar to that of the observed Eden Laser weapon.”

Emma's mouth opened wordlessly, and she started to smile. If the satellite were jammed by accident, and if one had access to a powerful weapons laser, this would be another way of using the satellite to get a message through. “Can you decode the signal?”

“It seems to be a compressed, burst-mode, audio signal. The message repeats at random intervals with gaps of several hours to several days. I have recorded it, however, and can play it for you.”

“Go ahead.” Axen, that crafty old fox, had found a way to get through.

An audio tone announced the start of the playback. It was a man's voice, but it was definitely not Axen. “This is a friend from Eden. My name is Eldon Jensen and I'm a scientist in Eden working on various defense projects. The secrets of what happened are in Eden. Beware contamination. Go in at night. What you want is in the Advanced Labs. I'll send again when I can.”

“End of message,” announced Frost.

Contamination? Night? This made less sense all the time.

Wu made eye contact. “It could be a trick.”

Emma nodded. “He certainly could have provided more useful information.”

“The message,” said Frost, “represents a grossly inefficient use of the limited bandwidth. Text only would have been thousands of times more efficient.”

Emma's fingers drummed on a lab bench as she thought. “But he might suppose that a personalized voice message would be more likely to seem sincere, or more plausibly, he didn't think at all. He's a man with a guilty conscience who took a chance opportunity to send a message, no planning or forethought, certainly not the instincts of a trained spy.”

Wu rubbed the tip of his nose. “Then you think it's genuine?”

“I'm inclined to for the moment. Let's just hope that our friend in Eden isn't such a neophyte that he gets caught before he can provide us with some really useful information. At any rate, it tells us more about what we should be looking for.”

One thing was for sure, her planned expedition was only the beginning. She whistled quietly to herself. “I was just thinking of a phrase I once read,” she said.

Wu cocked his head. “What?”

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”

Written by J. Steven York.


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