Plymouth 6: Fallout

Emma's conversation with Frost was annoyingly unsatisfying. Frost professed to have no knowledge of how Savant proteins could have appeared in the terraforming bug, though the computer suggested that since there had been several Savants in the Hot Lab where the accident occurred, their proteins might somehow have been incorporated into damaged cells and replicated with the cell's own proteins, or that the Eden scientists might have somehow made use of Savant-derived biotechnology in designing their bugs.

Both theories were plausible, but neither did anything toward explaining Frost's strange behavior in the Valley of Death. On the other hand, the other obvious, but unlikely, possibility, that the Savants might somehow have had an active hand in creating the terraforming bug, also didn't jibe with the computer's actions. That would imply some hidden hostility toward humans, and Frost had been, if anything, irrationally protective of her human companion. The idea that the computer might somehow be playing “favorites” seemed laughable.

In fact, the whole idea seemed absurd when she thought hard about it, the sort of thing that a paranoid would come up with between more conventional conspiracy theories. Perhaps the pressure was affecting her in ways she didn't yet understand.

It was only when she let the idea drift off to the corners of her mind that it gained substance, like a threatening shadow that seems harmless when viewed head-on. The notion soon faded to an occasional itching at the back of her skull. Frost was simply too important to her work, too much a part of her life to remain suspect.

As the weeks passed, Emma felt herself rebound from her emotional setback. The work was all-consuming, and it had never been more important. Plymouth was becoming a military power, and Emma's lab had turned into its de facto intelligence division. Not only was she to investigate the terraforming bug and the transformation it was causing in the planet, but all matters related to Eden, its technology, and anything else of strategic importance.

This new role gave her unprecedented access to information and resources. She and her team dove into the task of building up a detailed picture of their parent colony. What they lacked was inside information. It was easy to see what Eden was doing. It was much more difficult to know what they were thinking.

To that end, the observer satellite was constantly monitored for brightness changes, which never came. The mysterious Jensen was silent. Perhaps he'd had a change of heart, lost his access to the necessary technology, or perhaps even been caught and killed. Emma finally gave up on any further contact from Eden.

Thus it was a complete surprise when Frost one afternoon announced an incoming call from Axen. His face appeared on the screen. He was wearing a spacesuit and appeared to be in the cab of a moving vehicle. His face looked tired and lined, much older than she remembered. “Maker, Axen, I was afraid you were dead.”

He lurched violently as the vehicle bounced over some obstacle. “They took Kraft from me, Emma, and things have happened here. I don't know if you know this, but Eden is on the move. I didn't know if you were alive either.”

She suddenly realized just how happy it made her that Axen was safe, and she found herself smiling. “I can't say it hasn't been a near thing a couple of times Axen. We've had our problems, too, and I'm at least peripherally aware of yours from satellite imagery. But though I've tried to contact you every chance I've gotten, there's never been an answer.”

“I wish I'd had that kind of access, Emma. Even now I still have to talk to Kraft through back-door channels. That's why I'm in a pressure suit and busting my spleen bouncing around in this garbage truck.”

She smiled again. “It's good to hear from you, Axen.”

“It's good to talk to you too, Emma, but my time is short and I don't know when I'll be able to talk with you again. I have to warn you about Nguyen's bug, the thing we call the Blight. I'm passing you a data file while we're talking.”

“We know quite a bit about it already.”

He looked away from the camera absently. “You knew the planet was doomed?”

Any joy left in her faded. It was one thing to hypothesize a thing, and quite another to have it confirmed from an independent source. “You're sure?”

“There's maybe one chance in a thousand, but we have to assume that the only real hope for survival is to build another starship and escape the planet.”

She nodded sadly. “We suspected as much and have been acting accordingly.”

“It's going to be a close thing, a real balancing act of resources, research, and technology. We can't just recreate the Conestoga; it was a brute-force project constructed with the resources of a fully developed planet behind it. We have to build smarter, faster, lighter, higher technology across the board.”

He paused for another deep breath. This wasn't going to be easy. “Emma, I don't think there are enough resources for two starships, or two starship programs. Based on what Kraft has learned, Eden has a clear technological lead.”

“What are you saying, Axen?”

He seemed far away for a moment. “Things have happened in Eden, things I can't begin to describe or explain. Nguyen's people were bad, but these people are insane. They have plans for eugenics, cloning, creating a super-race. They don't want to restore humanity, they want to supplant it.” He looked back at the camera. “I'm going to do everything possible to hold back their program, to give Plymouth the clearest shot possible.”

It was her turn to deal with harsh realities. “I've been watching you, Axen. Eden seems to be well ahead of us. I don't know if we can make it in time, even with your help.”

He sighed. “We'll deal with that when the time comes, Emma. Right now, we have to look at what's best for humanity, and Maker help us all.” He looked out the window, and a shadow fell over his face. “Emma, I don't have much time. Here's something that may help you. There's a site about fifty kilometers east of you where some of the wreckage from the Conestoga impacted. Eden is sending an expedition there to gather the remains of key guidance components so we can examine and reverse-engineer them. They have a head start, but you're closer, and the files I'm sending will tell you what to look for.”

“We'll have to get there first then.”

“Be careful, Emma. They'll be armed.”

“So will we.” A chill ran down her back. “I guess this is about to heat up into a shooting war.”

He glanced out the window of the truck and saw the towering side of the Common Ore Smelter looming over him. “Emma, I have to go. Good luck.”

“To you too, Axen. May the Maker care for you.”

The screen went blank. So many questions unanswered. She wanted to ask about Kraft, if it had been behaving strangely. She wanted to know just how much danger Axen was actually in. But right now there was a mission to launch.

“Frost, scramble the team. Get me the Council on a conference channel. And get ready to take a trip.”

# # #

The sun was coming up as they approached the wreckage field, but it was still dark. A fierce wind kicked up billows of sand, and the clouds overhead threatened to turn into electrical storms.

It was a measure of the changes sweeping over New Terra how much the once predictable weather had transformed. The whole atmosphere seemed to have gone mad. Vortex funnel clouds, once rare, were a constant threat, and bizarre static electrical storms were even more common.

As she looked out the windows of the Scout, Emma could see the undersides of the clouds, dry and dusty, crawling with writhing snakes of electricity. Occasionally one would increase in brilliance a hundred-fold and leap to the ground in a crashing thunderbolt.

“Not much of a day for archaeology.” Wu's voice came through a narrow-band optical link from his Scout, as they were maintaining radio silence.

Is that what this is? The starship is no older than I am.

But it was old, in human terms thanks to her long time in cold sleep, and in practical terms. The starship was an artifact from another world, one long dead. It represented technologies not preserved because nobody had imagined they'd ever be used again. How shortsighted we were.

They topped a hill. Dark shapes could be seen scattered through the blowing sand below. “That's it,” said Emma. “Transfer control of your Scouts to Frost. Your job is to retrieve key technologies. You all know what you're looking for, so let's get in and get out fast. The weather has made satellite observations unreliable, so Eden forces could be out there anywhere. Watch your backs.”

Around her Scout she could see the other vehicles in the convoy. The Lynx and Panther combat units, all unmanned and now under Frost's control fanned out ahead of them. The other Scouts began to move apart as they headed for their respective search quadrants. As the units lost reliable line-of-sight, Frost would have to switch to radio communication, and that would leave them vulnerable to detection. They were committed now.

She lost sight of the other Scouts. Only the combat vehicles running shotgun were still visible. They steered around rocks and smaller pieces of charred wreckage, some of it barely recognizable as being artificial. I hope there's still something useful here to salvage.

Frost's voice cut in. “Scout Three has located part of the ship's habitat module and is now searching for salvage. Scout Two has located an intact module from the guidance section.”

“There! To the right!” A large crumpled section of the starship's superstructure formed a dark hump in the sand five meters tall. A Microwave Lynx cut in front of them to secure the area. It rolled past the wreckage, and suddenly flared brightly before exploding.

The Scout skidded to a halt, then spun its wheels moving backward. A Panther cut in front of them, its turret swinging around to find the unseen target. It fired. Fired again. More combat units charged past, and a Spider was briefly visible.

“Frost! What's happening?”

“Several combat units were parked beyond this position. A loaded Cargo Truck is rapidly leaving the area.”

Somehow Eden had gotten their forces here first. “Frost, we've got to stop that truck. It may have irreplaceable salvage on it. That's the biggest piece of intact wreckage we've seen, and it looks like it could have been part of the command module.”

“Working,” said Frost.

The Panther met a similar Eden vehicle, armed with a Laser, as it emerged from between some rocks. They faced off at point-blank range, and after a fierce exchange of fire, both exploded.

“I have an EMP unit in pursuit, but it is too slow to stop the truck. I have no other forces in position.”

“You've got us. Can we intercept?”

“Yes.”

“Do it. See if we can slow it down somehow.”

“Working.”

The Scout charged off at full speed, steering clear of the still-fighting combat units, Laser beams hitting all around. The Scout skidded around a boulder and the truck was suddenly there next to them. “Get in front of it.”

“Working.” The Scout pulled ahead and moved in front of the truck.

“Start slowing down. Keep in front of it. Don't let it by.”

Behind them the truck weaved back and forth, but started to slow.

Emma pressed herself against the window to see the truck. “It's working!”

Then the column of Eden combat units appeared out of the dust. There was a deafening bang, and the Scout lurched from a glancing blow.

The Scout swerved and slowed, using the Cargo Truck itself as a shield, but the enemy could simply fall back and hit them from behind. They had seconds, no more.

The Scout swerved again, started heading directly toward an Eden Laser Lynx. Its turret swung toward them and locked on.

Then Scout Two shot out of the blowing sand and crashed into the side of the Lynx, its cab crumpling flat against the armored unit.

Her eyes went wide. “Wu!” The Scout's self-destruct mechanism fired, its volt banks shorting and discharging their energy in one explosive burst. The Lynx was swallowed in a cloud of debris, and then they were past it, headed out on what seemed a random vector away from the truck.

The EMP Panther shot past, missing them by only a few meters, already firing at the truck.

“The truck is immobilized. A Spider is moving in to reprogram the unit and bring it under our control. Combat units assuming defensive position.”

A lightning bolt struck the ground a few hundred meters away. Emma didn't flinch. She wasn't paying attention. “Frost, was Wu driving Scout Two?”

“Negative. Wu was not in control. I was controlling Scout Two.”

“Frost, you killed him. Do you know what that means?”

“I understand your meaning, but I did not kill Wu Chen.”

She saw something moving in the sand ahead. The Scout slowed and its hatch swung open. Emma saw that it was a suited figure carrying a hunk of wreckage.

The Scout stopped, and Wu tossed the hunk of salvage through the hatch, then climbed in after it. “The Scout just drove off without me. I didn't know what was happening. He looked angrily at Frost, as though he were about to kick the computer.

She looked down at the snowflake icon visible on its top. “Frost, tell me the next time you're going to do something like that!”

“Affirmative.”

# # #

The surviving Eden units had dogged their heels much of the way back to Plymouth, until they'd met up with reinforcements who easily picked them off. The trucks and Scouts made their way to the Advanced Labs for unloading.

Emma staggered into the nearest airlock and stripped off her suit. She was tired, but exhilarated as well. They'd won a victory today, thanks to Axen.

She reached the Piazza, which was beginning to wind down for the evening, before her body finally cried for mercy. She flagged down a pedal cab, climbed into the web seat, and didn't open her eyes until it stopped outside her quarters.

She'd just opened the door when the EnterCom chime sounded. “On screen.”

It was Wu. He looked alarmed. “I just got back to the lab. We recorded a laser message from Eldon Jensen while we were gone. It says that Axen Moon is missing.”

Written by J. Steven York.


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  • Last modified: 2017/07/30 01:56
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