Plymouth 5: Diagnosis

“Frost, run the projection again. Increase the number of defensive sites by two.” Emma hung her head in exhaustion. She had been playing with these scenarios for twenty hours now, and the best case she could come up with was very bad indeed. As she watched the screen, the globe of New Terra was gradually overrun with the blue grid that indicated infection by the terraforming microorganism.

She sighed. “Frost, form the sites into a circular configuration one hundred kilometers in diameter. Run again.”

The door to her quarters chimed. She ignored it as the blue splotches surrounded the defended area. It held for a time, then filled in with blue, like running water filling a puddle.

The door chimed again. Perhaps if she ignored it, they'd go away. “Frost, let's try something else. Let's try…” She couldn't think of anything. “What's the use?” She said it to no one in particular, or perhaps, only to herself.

Nothing she could come up with worked, and all of her scenarios required the use of a hypothetical counteragent that they had no idea how to create, or even if it could be created. She wanted so badly to give up, to go to bed, never get up, and let the end overtake her.

The door chimed again. Go away!

Then abruptly the entire door frame moved out from the wall and fell into the room, knocking over a stack of mineral sample boxes and a table covered with borrowed lab equipment.

Wu stood in the door, a power wrench in one hand, a hydraulic pry in the other. He looked at her. She looked back.

“That was dramatic,” she finally said.

He said nothing, but he smirked.

She smirked back, and something inside her seemed to snap. She giggled, tried to quench it, but it only grew into a full-blown laugh. Suddenly a whole flood of emotions came at once as she thought of the people who'd died under her command, the horrible fate they all faced. She laughed, and tears streamed down her cheeks.

Embarrassed, she covered her face.

Wu stepped inside, dropped the tools on top of an untidy pile of papers and data-slips, and levered the door into its opening. It didn't quite seat properly, but it offered them a measure of privacy. He cleared off a chair and sat down on the other side of Frost. He studied the display on the computer's top surface, and seemed to deduce what it meant.

“We've been studying the results from the Valley of…” he stopped himself, “…the valley expedition, and from the Eden probes. I thought you'd like to know what we are finding.”

She shook her head. “I know where the labs are. I could have walked there myself.”

“But you didn't. Emma, I haven't seen you in weeks.”

She put a hand on Frost. “I've been working.”

“So I see. Duplicating some work Dr. Calvin, Dr. Anthony, and I have already been running, undoubtedly with better data, unfortunately, with no better results. We're in bad trouble, aren't we?”

She chuckled sadly, then sniffed. “That's a gifted understatement, pup. Those people back in the valley, looks like I just saved them some time.”

Wu frowned and leaned back in his chair. “You don't believe that. You're a fighter, the strongest person I know.” He picked up a rock sample and examined it idly, rolling it over in his fingers. “What happened in the valley took a lot out of you, I know, but you have to go on.”

She looked up at him. “This isn't the first time I've sent people to their deaths, you know.”

He seemed surprised, but nodded.

“I've told you things, Wu, but I've never told you everything, and I never will. It's not just those three back at the valley; they're just the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. I've got guilt you can't even begin to imagine.”

He breathed deeply, then let it out slow. He tossed the rock on her bunk. “Well, if you don't snap out of this, there'll be more guilt to go around. We need you, Emma.”

She looked away. “It can't be stopped.”

“How do we know when we don't really understand it yet? Even if it can't, we don't need to stop it. Even delaying it would help us escape.”

That caught her attention. “Escape?”

“Stay ahead of the bug. Build up our technology and resources. Start a crash space-program. Build another starship. Get off New Terra while there's still time.”

“Impossible.”

“I don't think so. We've been running our own projections. It's not a sure thing. There are new technologies that will have to be developed; we don't really know enough about New Terra's resources, and the bug's rate of spread may change. That's why we need to know more. We have to stay ahead of it if we're to survive.”

“What are the chances?…”

“Better than null, which is what we have just sitting here. We need you, Elder. Help us!

“How can I help you? This is my fault!”

He stood and shook his head. “It's Eden's fault.”

“You just don't understand, Wu. You can't.”

Wu's eyes wandered around the room. He seemed desperate. “So what if it was your fault? Who better to help us than the engineer of our doom?”

She laughed harshly. He didn't understand, but he was trying. She climbed out of her chair with a groan. “All right, you win. Show me where we are.”

# # #

The labs were busy, the mood somber but determined. Emma noticed that three black wreaths hung in the laboratory windows, but nobody ever seemed to look at them. They were putting their mourning off till later, if there was a later.

Somehow this seemed to revive Emma, allowed her to put the cap back on her long-bottled emotions. She looked at Wu, busy directing traffic, making assignments, doing the work she should have been doing. He was very important to her, almost like a son, but at times like this she was very lonely.

She wished Axen were here. Despite all his faults, despite all their differences, they complimented each other beautifully. Axen had once joked that they never cracked at exactly the same time, and it was true. He'd be here for her, strong and dependable, and when the time came, she'd be there for him.

But that was all past now. She was alone, and Plymouth was her home, for better or worse. Right now it was worse.

She took the time to review the projections made by Wu's team. The results were different in detail, but ultimately the same. The difference resulted from a more accurate model they'd developed of the microorganism's spread.

Wu showed her another simulation, this one representing only a few thousand cubic meters of deep rock. “It cracks molecules in the rocks, producing oxygen, hydrogen, water, other waste chemicals and gasses, but water is the important thing. It can't live without water. They must have 'fertilized' their wells with injections of water to start the process.”

He looked around to see if anyone else was listening. “That might even have caused the explosion in Eden you described to me - a large injection into a colony of this stuff could well be explosive. You saw what happened at our drill head.”

“We didn't inject water.”

“At that point, you didn't need to. Remember, I said the organism makes its own water. The water pools up around a colony, runs into cracks in the rock, and seeps down until the rocks are hot enough to flash water into steam.”

Her eyes widened. “That would cause the pressure surge we saw. It would be like an underground tidal wave, steam and hot water pushing the organism into every available crevice in the rock, perhaps even opening new ones. Then things would settle down until it made enough water to repeat the cycle. That's what got us, despite all our precautions. It doesn't advance linearly over short timelines. It comes in surges.”

He smiled slightly. “You see, there was no way you could have known.”

“They're still dead, Wu.”

“They died in the cause of collecting knowledge, Emma. Not just any knowledge either, but knowledge that may ultimately help humanity to survive. I think it's how many of them would have wanted to go out.”

“Small comfort.”

“Without their data our robots never would have survived to make their run into the Eden ruins. Thanks to them, we have a way to track it.”

Her eyebrows raised. “Really? How?”

“Satellite imagery, ground-based sensors, even acoustic probes. The biggest clues are heat and oxygen production. Some of the steam from the surge makes its way to the surface, even some of the fluid when the conditions are right. That's how it infects structures, vehicles…” he hesitated, “…people on the surface. The surge also has a distinct acoustic signature. In effect, we can 'hear' it coming. It gives us an early warning to prepare for evacuation if necessary.”

“That's something. Any possibilities on a counteragent?”

He shook his head. “Even if we had a delivery mechanism, the simulations show we could barely put a dent in it. Maybe something self-replicating, another bio-agent, would work, but it would have to replicate as fast as the terraforming bug, faster really since it would be starting so far behind. I don't think that's going to happen.”

“What's this?” She picked up a ClipCom off a table and looked at the image there.

He tapped part of the image with a fingertip. “That's why we aren't going to get a faster-growing bug. This is an electron micrograph returned from one of the traps before it stopped transmitting. A lot of the data we got from them was suspect because of their rapid failure modes, but I don't see how this could be anything but what it looks like.”

“A cell?”

He nodded. “That's our killer.”

“What's this?” She pointed at an angular shape inside the cell.

“We don't know exactly, but it isn't natural. We think it's what makes this thing reproduce at its fantastic rate, gives it the metabolism to tear apart rock like tissue-paper.”

She licked her upper lip. “There were references in some of the Earth databases to 'accelerated cells,' organic cells with some of their internal machinery replaced with real machinery of the manmade variety, self-replicating of course. The experiments were very secret, and no details were available in any of the literature I was able to access.”

“But…”

“If Eden broke into the encrypted military databases we brought from Earth, no telling what they found. This could be the least of it.”

Wu looked thoughtful. “Perhaps it's best that those labs in Eden blew up.”

“They didn't blow up nearly soon enough. But on the other hand, if we had this biotechnology, we might have the tools to counter it. Damned if we do, and damned if we…”

Dr. Calvin wandered over, a ClipCom in hand. “Sorry to interrupt, but I thought you'd want to see this.”

He handed the ClipCom to Wu, who read it. He looked puzzled.

“What have you got?”

Wu passed her the ClipCom. As she studied it, Calvin explained. “We've been going over some of the protein analyses from the traps. Most of it's garbled, but this seems reliable enough. I've triple-checked it.”

Wu still looked puzzled. “That protein looks familiar somehow.”

Emma nodded. “It should. It's used in the logic core of every Savant computer.” She and Frost were going to have to have a talk.

Written by J. Steven York.


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