Plymouth 7: Rescue

Emma and her team, Wu, Johnson, Anthony, and the latest addition, a promising young woman named Shofar, were gathered around a lab table looking at the photos displayed on the built-in screen. Dr. Shofar pointed proudly at the satellite photos that had led to her discovery.

Emma whistled. “So, they have their own version of our Outpost Alpha, a secondary colony site for mining and research.”

“Actually,” said Johnson, “there's no evidence of research. It's difficult to be sure with all the camouflage netting, but we suspect its primary purpose is mining and ore processing. There's evidence of some new mining technology we don't understand yet. Possibly it's too dangerous to carry out near the main colony.”

“There are other differences,” added Wu. “Our Outpost Alpha was placed far from the main colony to minimize the risk of attack, and the danger to the general population if there was an attack. This base is even closer to us than the main body of Eden. It's smaller, more hidden, more heavily fortified. That's the really puzzling part.”

Emma looked at him. “How so?”

He pointed at some small structures on the map. “These Guard Posts are positioned in such a way that, well, they seem better suited to keeping someone in than to keeping someone out.”

# # #

Emma had converted a storeroom in the lab into makeshift quarters, the better to be close to her work. It had finally occurred to her that she never reached home in anything less than a state of full exhaustion, and rarely left in much better shape the next morning. She'd moved in a bunk, a cabinet to store her clothes and a few personal things, and of course, Frost.

Emma still wasn't sure what to make of the computer's behavior. Though there had been no recent anomalies, Emma still had an odd feeling that the computer had somehow changed, that it was operating on some level of awareness to which she was not privy.

Part of her wondered if she should trust Frost's computations, but accuracy was one measure in which the computer had never failed her, and given the pressure she was under there was little choice. Furthermore, whenever the computer had behaved strangely, it had always seemed to try to act in Emma's best interests. It had even gone to rescue Wu after it had taken his Scout to use as a battering ram. Why then did she still have the feeling that the Savant somehow had its own agenda?

She'd even begun to ask other colonists who worked with Savants if they'd noticed anything strange. There had been other incidents, though none as dramatic as the ones with Frost. But even these came from a minority of the people who worked with Savants. As a scientist, she knew the drawbacks of anecdotal evidence. Perhaps her long and close association with Frost simply made her more aware, or perhaps most people treated the Savants with such reverence that they felt them incapable of error, and dismissed evidence to the contrary.

It bothered her, and some nights she would lie awake in the darkness, watching Frost's silhouette, wondering what was going on behind that ebony facade. It was on one such occasion that she was startled by Frost's snowflake icon suddenly glowing on the side facing her.

At first she felt like a child caught spying on an adult, but this faded when she realized that it was not her attention that had activated the computer.

“I have an incoming message from Eden via Kraft.”

She jumped out of bed. “Axen!”

“The communication is not from Axen Moon. I am not familiar with the person communicating, but Kraft offers its endorsement and encourages you to speak with him.”

Now the Savants are vouching for humans. Could this be another example of unusual Savant initiative? Perhaps, but at least in this case, there was a human somewhere in the chain of action. Perhaps it was Jensen.

“Put him through.”

She didn't recognize the face on the screen. As in Axen's recent transmission, he was wearing a spacesuit and riding in a vehicle. He was young, sandy haired, handsome in a boyish sort of way. He had intelligent green eyes, high cheekbones, and lines at the corners of his mouth as though he smiled a lot. He wasn't smiling now, though. Somehow, just looking at him, she didn't think he was a scientist.

“My name is Brook Panati. I'm an associate of Axen Moon. Axen doesn't know I'm calling you, and in fact, he never told me about you. I helped put him back in touch with Kraft, and guessed some of the rest.”

“Tell me why I should be talking to you, Mr. Panati.”

“I know you don't know me from Armstrong, but I didn't know who else to call. Axen is missing.”

“We know.”

He seemed very surprised. “I suppose I shouldn't ask how you know, and I bet it wouldn't do any good if I did. Do you know what happened to him?”

“No.”

“Well, Kraft does, or at least Kraft thinks it does. There's a hidden mining colony that even the general population of Eden doesn't know about.”

“We knew that, too.”

He seemed less surprised, and even smiled a little. “You're very resourceful, whoever you are. I see why Axen seemed to trust you.”

She felt a little glow hearing that Axen still held her in some regard, or did, if as she prayed, he was still alive. “I'm going to take a chance on you, pup, and assume that you're really a friend of Axen, and that you're at least somewhat trustworthy. You think this mining base has something to do with Axen's disappearance?”

He nodded. “Stop me if I'm telling you something you already know. A faction known as the Masters has seized power in Eden. I'm ashamed to admit that I was tricked into helping them early on, but Axen set me straight and I've tried to make up for that mistake.

“Anyway, people who openly oppose the Masters seem to disappear at an alarming rate. They have sudden accidents that leave no remains, get lost during colony relocations, all sorts of things. I think this mining base is being used as a prison, a labor camp of some sort.”

She nodded. “A gulag? It would make sense.”

“I don't know the term, but I'll take your word for it. I think that's where they've taken Axen. There's nothing I can do to get him out, but you might be able to do something, and it certainly would be in Plymouth's best interest to put that base out of operation. The people there might even make useful allies.”

A strike on the base was an attractive idea, and one she might be able to sell the Council on. Unfortunately, she couldn't dismiss the possibility that it was an Eden trick. She thought of their own Outpost Alpha, equally vulnerable, in its own way, to attack. There were questions to be asked, but she couldn't risk telling Panati anything he didn't already know.

“Mr. Panati, are you aware of any unusual military buildup in New Terra, signs of an impending attack, perhaps at long range?”

He thought for a moment before answering. “It's hard to tell. But yeah, the Vehicle Factories have been working around the clock on the faster combat units and they're being garaged rather than put into regular service. It could fit what you're telling me.”

“Do you think you could give me some estimates on the strength of their forces?”

“Yeah, give or take ten percent.”

“I hope that will be close enough.”

# # #

The plan had been a hard sell to the Council, but Emma pointed out that an attack on Outpost Alpha would have to pass both Eden's mining base, which they now referred to as the Gulag, and Plymouth's main colony.

“They'll need every unit they have to defend Eden and so won't be able to send reinforcements to the Gulag. We should be able to hit them fast and hard, capture enough units so that we can defend Plymouth, and still send reinforcements to Outpost Alpha. Anything that escapes will still have to make its way home past our other forces, and we can mop them up then.”

Despite the danger to Outpost Alpha, they had finally agreed.

The initial assault had gone well, concentrating on taking out the Gulag's Guard Posts, breaching fortifications, and capturing enemy units using Plymouth's EMP weapons and Spiders.

Emma had waited out the battle at a safe distance in a Scout. She'd insisted that Wu remain behind this time. This was her plan, and her responsibility. She wasn't going to send people to unnecessary deaths this time.

Waiting with her was a truck loaded with Grenadiers, Plymouth's elite volunteer assault squad, rare soldiers in a largely automated war.

Their leader was Captain Mendiblis, a stern, square-faced young woman, with an authority beyond her years. She appeared on Emma's comm screen. “Elder, we'd like you to hold back while we go in and mop up. We still have to sort out the prisoners from the guards.”

Emma smiled grimly. “You've got ten minutes, Captain. Just don't shoot me by mistake.” The captain flinched a little at having her authority challenged but deferred. “As you wish, Elder. We'll be looking for Elder Moon as you requested. Please be careful.” She watched as the truck rolled down the hill and weaved its way past the remaining fighting.

She waited seven minutes.

The Scout was much faster and more maneuverable than the truck. She used that to its best advantage, slipping close to enemy units when they were otherwise occupied, using buildings and wreckage as cover. She was able to reach deep into the Gulag, bypassing the Grenadiers by half a kilometer, heading for the CC, where she'd be most likely to get information about Axen's fate. She didn't trust that the CC's data records might not be erased before the Grenadiers could arrive.

As the Scout approached the CC, she spotted a Laser Guard Post turning her way, and turned quickly, using the Command Post itself for cover. She wouldn't have much time. She opened the hatch and jumped to the ground while the Scout was still moving. She'd programmed its on-board computer to make a slow circuit through the Gulag, away from the Guard Post, avoiding enemy units, and to periodically return here for pickup.

It could be that she'd meet up with the Grenadiers before that was an issue, but she couldn't be sure.

She grabbed the rifle she'd been issued and ran along the base of the building, looking for the most protected airlock to work on. It was sealed, of course, but she had some expertise in hacking locks. It took her only a few minutes with a ClipCom and a hacked keycard to get the lock to cycle.

Inside, she removed the helmet of her combat suit and moved carefully into the corridor. It was dark. Red emergency lights glowed at the end of the hall, and sparks issued from a collapsed ceiling panel. The building seemed to have taken some hits that she hadn't seen from outside.

She shouldered the rifle and climbed a ladder to the main level. The power was out there, but at least all the emergency lighting seemed to be working. She wasn't familiar with the layout of the Eden CC, but she was able to find signs that led her to the main control room.

Occasionally she would hear voices in the distance, or running footsteps, but the building seemed to be already deserted. The control room door was jammed, and she had to pry it open enough to get through.

The room was largely dark, but emergency backups had kept the computers and some of the panels alive. She found a working one and started to hack her way into a personnel roster. She'd started to make some progress when she heard a noise in the corner.

She jumped to her feet and raised the rifle. “Come out with your hands up!”

A lone figure rose slowly from behind a table, his hands in the air. “Don't shoot! Don't shoot! I'm a political prisoner here. You have to help me!”

She stepped closer until she could see the man's face. He was large, muscular, with a handlebar mustache. He smiled broadly. “I am glad to see you, my friend, even if the pleasure is entirely unexpected.” He turned one raised hand into a loose fist and punched it weakly toward the ceiling. “Victory to Plymouth!”

“I'm looking for a man named Axen Moon.”

The man's eyes widened with surprise. “The Elder? I know the man! We were friends. He was here, but I have not seen him for some time. He was caught stealing, and placed in solitary confinement.” Without lowering his arms, he pointed toward the console she'd been working on. “They make me clean up here. I know how things work. If you can activate that console, I think I can find his prisoner dossier.”

She carefully lowered the rifle and turned back to the console. She was almost in. “What did you say your name was?” she asked absently as she worked.

“Vox Borges. Commander Vox Borges.”

If it hadn't been for the armor in her combat suit, the piece of conduit that he hit her with would have likely shattered her spine. As it was, her face slammed into the console and she bounced off with enough force to send her to the floor.

She tasted blood, and her vision cleared just in time to see his darkened silhouette standing over her, about to deliver the killing blow. The conduit swished through the air, propelled by powerful arms.

She rolled, and the pipe struck the deck so close to her ear that she felt its wind, and was nearly deafened by the sound. She put all her strength into a side-kick, aiming for where she thought his solar plexus might be.

She made contact. She heard the air leave his lungs and he reeled back, not dropping the pipe. The rifle was pinned under her, but she fumbled for the pocket where she'd stashed her pistol.

Borges moved a step toward her, when a hail of crossfire tore into him, some of it coming through the computer console. He fell sideways into a chair, rolled, and fell limply onto his back. She could see his dead eyes glittering in the darkness.

She hugged the floor and palmed the pistol, which she'd finally managed to locate.

“Elder?” It was Captain Mendiblis' voice.

“It's me,” she yelled. “I'm coming out. Don't shoot.”

Somebody chuckled. “Wouldn't think of it.”

Cautiously, she emerged from her hiding place. The captain stood just inside the door with two of her Grenadiers, their rifles still smoking. “Elder, thank the Maker you're alive.”

She looked at the ruined console. The rest of the equipment had gone dark. It would take time to sort this all out. Too much time.

“Elder,” said Mendiblis, “we think we've located all the prisoners remaining and none of them is Axen Moon. Some of the prisoners report that he and some others overpowered their guards in the confusion of the attack, and were able to escape. We have reports of a convoy of primarily unarmed vehicles moving away from the Gulag.”

Emma's eyes widened. “Toward Eden, or away from it?”

“Away, into the eastern Badlands.”

Another trooper appeared in the door. “Captain, we have an incoming message from Plymouth. An Eden convoy has been spotted passing Plymouth, headed for Outpost Alpha.”

Mendiblis made eye contact with Emma. “We're needed,” was all she said.

Emma nodded. She had faith that Axen was leading that convoy, and it seemed that wherever he was going, whatever he had planned, he could take care of himself.

As for her, the battle had only begun. “Let's go,” she replied.

Written by J. Steven York.


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