Plymouth 4: Expedition

Wu had remembered Emma's quote about the “valley of the shadow of death,” repeated it, and when the time came for the expedition to leave, the scientists on the team started calling their destination “the Valley of Death.”

Ironically, Wu was to remain behind. He had protested, but Emma had silenced him. “We need someone to monitor the satellite for more transmissions. I don't want to bring this to the Council's attention until we know more. My attention to the satellite would be difficult to explain. In any case, now that you know what to look for, you don't need Frost to decode the message.”

And so Emma and her team of three scientists had gone to meet the unknown. Their convoy consisted of two Scouts, an Evac Transport, loaded with equipment, that served as both field lab and living space, and one of Plymouth's early-model combat units as an escort. It was highly unlikely they'd meet with any Eden units, but they couldn't take chances.

The Valley of Death. Certainly it was an inhospitable place, more a narrow mountain pass than a valley, ground tremors came almost hourly, and falling rocks were a constant hazard. But if, as Emma theorized, the terraforming bug was following fault lines, caves, and magma channels, it offered an ideal geological laboratory to study all these possibilities. A fault ran the length of the pass, the surrounding mountains were prehistoric volcanoes, and ancient caves, created during one of New Terra's wetter periods, had been discovered in the bedrock below.

The next few weeks were busy ones, as they planted seismographs, thermal probes, and biological “traps” designed to sample and remotely analyze microorganisms. Some of these were placed in wells drilled down the length of the valley. The largest drilling employed a Robo-Mole adapted from a Robo-Miner vehicle and mated to the jury-rigged Evac Transport.

The little digging machine first made a shaft down into one of the caves which, although they were known from sonic imaging of the rock, were not thought to connect with the surface. Then it made a long, slanted shaft running up the valley and paralleling the fault.

It descended on a shallow angle for several miles up the valley, and it was hoped, would allow them a scientific window on the advance of any threat while still providing them time to safely withdraw. The angled shaft was a top priority, and Emma made a point of checking the progress every hour or so when she was at the base camp.

On the first day of the fourth week, Emma made her usual visit after breakfast. A young scientist named Rohanna Pascal was supervising the drill head, but the usual rumble of the slurry pumps was missing. Emma started to ask what was wrong, but it was immediately apparent. The big reel attached to the back of the Evac Transport to store the conduit that supplied the Mole was empty. Only a stub projected from the drill hole.

“We ran out about twenty minutes ago,” explained Dr. Pascal. “The truck is late; they had a bad tremor back at Plymouth late last night.”

Emma nodded. She'd seen it on their own seismographs, but the delay was still annoying. Trucks shuttled additional lengths of umbilical to connect the Mole to the surface as one after another were pulled into the hole. The supply reel would only hold about a hundred meters of conduit, and regular re-supply was required to keep the Mole operating. The Robo-Miners were equipped with the massive support equipment to supply a dozen Moles at once for months at a time, but their setup was much cruder.

Emma was about to make a call to check on the truck's progress when she spotted it topping the nearest rise on the trail. It rolled up, swung around in a tight turn, and backed up to the loading machinery. As it did, one of the cab doors opened, and a suited figure climbed out onto the step and waved to her.

She didn't recognize the person until he jumped down and came closer. It was Wu.

She waited until they were a meter or so apart and adjusted her suit radio to scrambled micro-power mode, signaling him to do the same. “What are you doing here?” she asked, snappishly.

He smiled. “I rigged an automated system to watch the satellite, and routed the signals through our two-way data-link with the lab. Don't worry, they'll be encoded so nobody but us will know.”

She relaxed. She should have known Wu would take care of things before leaving his post. But he'd never been a lab-bound kind of scientist and didn't like to miss field work. That's why she liked him. Neither did she. “Right,” she said. “Glad you could join us. We are short-handed. The Council took me at my word when I said 'limited resources.' Our equipment is all jury-rigged, and I don't trust half of it to work when the time comes. The drilling on the big hole is several days behind schedule, and we just don't know how much time we've got left.”

She took Wu on a quick tour of the camp, and by the time they'd finished, the next run of conduit had been transferred to the supply reel and drilling had begun again. Tailings from the drill were pumped up the line, then most of the liquid suspension medium removed for recycling, and the remaining soil and crushed rock blown into a large pit a few hundred yards from the camp. Periodically someone would make their way to that pit to take samples.

As she and Wu watched, the reel turned and another meter of umbilical played into the hole. Then the machinery seemed to buck, the pumps changed pitch, and the fountain of tailings from the outflow chute darkened and then stopped.

Pascal checked her readings, and then shut the machine down. She turned to Emma. “I think we've hit a cave, unmapped apparently.”

Emma checked the readings on the drilling machinery. “This is much deeper than the others; we might not have picked it up. I'd better get some samples.”

Emma started to head for the slag pile, but Pascal waved her back. “I'll take care of it.”

Emma shrugged and went to the drill head console to check the instrument. “It's unusually hot down there,” she commented. “Maybe early signs of volcanic activity.”

Wu leaned over to see. “What's that pressure spike?”

Emma's brow furrowed. “It wasn't there just a minute ago.”

“Emma,” Frost's voice came through her radio, “there was just an indication on biotrap thirty-four. We logged about thirty seconds of readings, then it seemed to malfunction.” A pause. “I have readings from traps thirty-one and twenty-nine. Now thirty. Thirty-two and thirty-three have stopped transmitting without giving bio-indications.”

Emma felt her heart quicken. “It's here. Frost, you're logging everything?”

“Emma, I would strongly recommend you evacuate the area. There is danger.”

She chuckled nervously. “We're four kilometers from those traps.” She suddenly looked up from the console and looked around. Scout One, where Frost was installed, was parked by a drill head a few hundred yards to the south. “Where's Scout Two?” She keyed Dr. Pascal's channel on her suit radio. “Rohanna, where's Scout Two?”

There was no answer.

“Emma,” said Frost, “I believe that Dr. Teslov and Dr. Ramsha took Scout Two out to inspect a fluctuation in drill hole trap seventeen.”

“Can you contact them by radio?”

“No.”

She grabbed a ClipCom and pulled up a map. She put her finger on drill hole seventeen. It was much closer than the other traps, but they were on the surface. “Great Maker. It's as though its surging forward underground, far in advance of any surface indications. Perhaps it doesn't spread on the surface at all.” She looked up at Wu. “It may have gotten Scout Two.”

“Emma,” said Frost, “I think you should leave.”

Too many things happening at once.

Wu was standing on tiptoe, looking around. “Where's Dr. Pascal?” Then he made a little strangling sound. “She's lying in the tailings pile, Emma. She's not moving.”

Suddenly they were both looking at the drill console. There was a huge pressure and temperature spike, and then it went dead.

Emma was on her feet. “Maker, it's already in the drill. We may already be contaminated!” She pushed Wu off the platform and toward the open hatch of the Evac Transport. “No time to make the Scout.” She glanced out at the other vehicle. “Frost, get that vehicle moving! You have to transmit this data to Plymouth, no matter what happens!”

Wu was already in the hatch, but she was looking at the big reel attached to the back. Not only was it tying them down like a leash, it might channel the bug right to them. “Get moving, Wu.”

“Are you inside?”

“Get moving!”

She ignored the open hatch, climbed the hand-holds onto the roof, then ran along the spine of the vehicle's trailer to the rear. The transport was already moving, and she was nearly bounced off her feet. She staggered and fell, landing on her belly, sliding to the rear edge of the trailer. Below her loomed the three-meter wheel of the reel, wrapped with a thigh-thick metal snake that fed off in jerks and starts as they moved.

There was a mechanical release for the reel, a lever connected by metal rods to several pins that held the mechanism in place. Unfortunately, it was designed to be pulled from below. She sat up and spun around on her butt, bracing one foot against the lever. The wheel spun right next to her legs, faster and faster. They were running out of umbilical.

The lever moved, then hung, resisting her push. She put her weight against it. It moved, then hung. Harder.

The reel broke loose with a metallic snap, crashed to the ground, then turned ninety degrees so that it was rolling after them. The transport slowed for a moment, and the reel crashed into it, trying to climb up over the back of the vehicle. Then the conduit pulled taut, jerking it back before it snapped and the end of it arched through the air like a gigantic whip.

Emma ducked as it crashed into the roof half a meter from her head, putting all her weight on the reluctant lever, which suddenly dropped under her.

She fell, grabbing for the lever. She barely got it, but it continued to sag down, and the thick gloves of her rocksuit didn't give her a good grip. Her hand slid off the lever.

She fell.

Her feet hit the front view port of Scout One just as it pulled in behind the transport. She slipped on the smooth surface, crashed into it painfully, and slid down the front of the vehicle. Her feet found purchase on the bumper, and she grabbed a projecting antenna.

She glanced up in time to see the drill head explode in a ball of fire and gas. Lava began to fountain out of the opening, and the snapped end of the umbilical writhed like a runaway fire hose, spewing gas and steam.

She wanted to tell Frost to stop, to let her off her precarious perch, but she didn't dare. What she said was, “Faster!” She held with all her strength for the next twenty minutes while the transport charged full-speed down the pass and to the plain below, the faster Scout pacing it.

Finally it seemed safe to stop. When Wu emerged from the transport, his face was white as potato soup. “They're all dead, aren't they?”

Emma nodded. This was all her fault.

“Do you think we were exposed?”

“If we were, I think we'd be dead already. It didn't take this long to get Pascal. Just the same, we'd probably better spend some quarantine time before going back to Plymouth.”

She looked over at the Scout. “Frost, why did you disobey my orders to leave?”

“I had already transmitted the data, Emma. It seemed logical that I would not get additional information by running away.”

“I gave you an order, Frost.”

“You were in danger, Emma.”

Was that all? The repeated warnings before the actual extent of the danger was apparent. Disobeying orders. Was it the legendary Savant intuition, or something more?

Can a computer have secrets?

Written by J. Steven York.


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