Eden 3: Accomplice

Axen didn't trust Brook Panati, but he found him to be useful, and for now that was enough. Axen's traditional methods had depended on stealth, making small changes at key points to achieve large long-term effects, and most of all, patience. Eden's current status disrupted all of that.

Whatever Nguyen had set loose, it continued to advance unpredictably. The colony had been forced to relocate again, and it appeared it would not be the last time. The Council had made the decision not to tax the colony's resources with a long and dangerous migration. Instead they would move a shorter distance, dig in, build their resources, and hope for a solution. At least from here on out any relocations would be planned and, to the degree possible, orderly.

But that didn't help Axen much. Anything “long-term” was uncertain and subject to interruption. His method of manipulation and plotting didn't work. It was like trying to build a house of cards during a quake. Young Panati's methods on the other hand were brash, quick, developed on the fly, and Axen had to admit, better suited to the world as it stood. As a result, Axen not only used Panati, he watched him, learned from him.

Today, Axen sat in a corner of the crowded common area of the first new residence module constructed since Eden's last relocation, and observed the young man wheeling and dealing on the far side of the room.

Panati's blue eyes sparkled, his smile flashed like a dueling saber, as he cajoled a short-haired blond woman Axen recognized as one of the housing supervisors. They sat on a bench surrounded by adults and children, chattering, crying, working, reading, playing, mostly pointedly ignoring each other in the pretense that had come to serve them as a substitute for privacy.

The woman was frowning, but although Axen was too far away to hear the conversation, he had the feeling that she was caving in. He had to admit that Panati was as skillful with charm and salesmanship as Axen was with authority and logical persuasion.

Axen's web of contacts, informants, and influences had been shattered by the disaster at Eden. Most of these had been among the older colonists, the first sons and daughters of Axen and his fellow Elders, born in those frantic first few years after landing. They had been conceived in that honeymoon between the euphoria of surviving the voyage, and the horror that the Elders' lives were being cut short by hibernation syndrome.

Axen had watched as that first generation, all his closest contemporaries, died around him. Only a handful, including Axen and Emma, were young enough, and had been wakened early enough, to escape the brunt of that terrible sickness. Now he had watched most of another generation cut down before its time.

It weighed heavily on him. He'd lost too many friends in that first tragedy, and he'd since considered friends a luxury he couldn't afford.

Panati represented another age group, some of them children of Elders, some of the following generation, but socially divided as though by a wall. This was the comfortable generation, which had grown up in an Eden that had become fat, happy, and fearless. For them, survival had never seemed an uncertainty, want had never been their companion. Until the disaster. Until now.

Axen had to admit that Panati was well connected. In the aftermath of the disaster, evacuation, and relocation, he and his contemporaries had been pushed into positions of control and authority. While some would have become slaves to duty, or inversely, resentful of the burden, Panati both shouldered the load and immediately saw the opportunities created.

He'd maintained every contact available to him, and had used these to make more. Single-handedly he'd created a black market in luxury goods and services, and made it so efficient and useful that the authorities were forced to look the other way. In his own way, Panati provided a service that the struggling colony couldn't do without.

Until his violent first meeting with Axen, those contacts had been used only in the cause of petty racketeering, but Axen had immediately seen more substantial possibilities, even though Panati had failed to deliver on his dubious promise to deliver Kraft back into his possession. In any case, the disruption of the latest evacuation had given him a reprieve on that offer.

Across the room the conversation seemed to be ending. The blonde woman glanced at Axen without making eye contact or acknowledging his presence, then stood and made her way out through the safety lock. Panati in turn stood and strolled casually toward Axen. He sat down at the other end of the bench and pretended to be studying a form displayed on his ClipCom.

Axen glanced at him without moving his head. “Well?”

Panati smiled slightly. “It's a done deal. I shift some schedules so she gets her next residence module two weeks early, and you've got room thirteen over there,” he motioned with his head toward the left wall. “You can move in any time. I'll send a cargo cart down to pick up your stuff.”

Axen shook his head slightly. “Not just yet. Did you set up the meeting with your scientist friend?”

“They're very busy getting the new lab up to speed. He's working double shifts…”

“Did you set up the meeting?”

The corners of Panati's mouth twitched down. “Yeah, but it cost me darned near as much trade value as getting you private quarters.”

“It doesn't matter. Kraft might be able to tell us something about what went wrong back at the Hot Lab. Failing that, we have to know what the authorities know.”

“They've already told us. An advanced nuclear power source ran out of control and flooded the area with hard radiation.”

Axen smirked in spite of himself. “You believe that?”

“What else would it be?”

“I don't know, but I know what radiation poisoning looks like, and something else killed those people, something chemical, or biological.”

“You weren't there when the accident happened. How could you?…” He looked over, abandoning the pretense of ignoring Axen. “You're keeping things from me again, aren't you?”

“I tell you what you need to know. We talk to your friend, then perhaps we'll both know what happened. When and where?”

“The maintenance tunnel under the CC, in half an hour. Why can't we just meet in your quarters? I thought the whole point of arranging for them was to get privacy.”

Axen sighed. “Privacy that I don't want to compromise with visitors. I don't want to draw attention by having a constant stream of strangers going in and out of my room. I've told you again and again that I don't want my associations to be that obvious.”

Panati scratched his nose. “Okay, okay. I was just asking.”

“I saw you with Della again last night. That's the third time this month.”

Panati frowned and flexed his hands nervously. “We're drinking buddies these days, that's all. She might be useful if we're ever going to get your computer back.”

“I know that, but it doesn't pay to get too close.”

“I'll be the judge of that. Listen, we have a working relationship here. You just stay the frag out of my personal life. Understood?”

Axen said nothing. He had denied himself companionship for too long to have much sympathy for the younger man. He knew too well the problems such entanglements caused. His relationship with Emma had worked only because they had been in the conspiracy as equals. It had failed for the same reason.

Panati leaned forward half out of his seat. “I'll meet you down there in twenty. Later.” He stood and strolled out of the room as casually as he'd entered it, expertly hiding any anger he might be feeling.

Axen slumped back in his seat and sighed again. He liked working alone, and resented having to depend on this child. Panati's motives were less than clear to Axen, and that made him uncomfortable. Axen could use him, but he couldn't trust him, and didn't know if he could depend on him. It was the kind of uncertainty that kept Axen awake at nights.

But for Axen, there was no choice whatsoever.

# # #

The tunnel was narrow, nearly identical to the one where he'd first met Panati. It gave him a sense of déjà vu. He'd even been here before, right after the relocation, to investigate the possibility of contacting Kraft. He could still see the scratches where he'd removed a service panel. Sloppy work, he thought.

Panati had been right, of course, and might have saved Axen from a terrible mistake. His plan, while it might have worked, had been far too risky, born more of desperation than reason. Patience had always been his forte, and in this one instance it might still be the best plan. He glanced at the chrono display on his wrist link. Patience had its limits. Where were they?

A pair of figures slid around the nearest bend of the corridor. One of them was Panati, the other, a shorter man with a round face and skin the color of dark chocolate, had to be the scientist.

Axen stared at Panati. “You're late.”

“It's my fault, Elder,” said the scientist. He stuck out his hand. “Eldon's the name, Eldon Jensen. You presented me a science award back in the third grade. It's a real honor.”

Axen had a vague recollection of the school visit, before he had become the last Elder in Eden and the burden of secrecy had fallen solely on him. Axen suppressed an annoyed smile. Evidently it wasn't enough of an honor for Jensen to make the meeting without a substantial bribe.

“So,” continued Jensen, “what did you want to know?”

Axen studied the man. He seemed guileless, but one could never be sure. Certainly he had already proven himself greedy enough to be bought. “I trust you understand that absolute discretion is necessary here, Jensen. I don't want this conversation getting back to the Council, and anyone else for that matter.”

Jensen smiled. “Of course.”

Axen nodded. “Good. As you are certainly aware, Mr. Panati and I are not without… resources. If word of this were to leak we'd be most… upset.” The pause was calculated. Sometimes a pause spoke terabytes.

Jensen looked from Axen to Panati nervously. Axen noticed that Panati kept a perfect poker face.

“You can count on me. Completely!”

Axen smiled reassuringly. “Then we can move on. I want to know what went wrong at the Hot Lab. What killed all those people at Eden, and what is forcing us to keep moving?”

Jensen looked nervous. “We… we don't know. Radiation…”

To Axen's surprise, Panati shook his head. “Don't try to scam us, Jensen. We know those people weren't killed by radiation poisoning. Radiation wouldn't continue to spread. That's just a cover story, for something, maybe chemical, more likely biological.”

Jensen chewed his lip. “Biological - we know that much. Nguyen had them working on a terraforming bug. It was supposed to live in the deep rocks, to crack loose hydrogen and oxygen bound in the planet's crust. They were into some serious biotech, beyond simple genetics - they were reengineering the internal workings of bacterial cells from the molecules up. They thought they had it too. They were confident enough to begin field tests.”

Axen nodded. “Test wells under the lab.”

“Those were the start, but they were doing field tests, too, a line of wells running up Yeager Canyon almost to Plymouth, following the natural fault line.”

A chill ran down Axen's back. Whatever had happened could potentially have affected Plymouth as well. “Then what went wrong? How did a terraforming bug destroy a lab, and send us scurrying across the landscape like Nomads?”

Jensen looked puzzled. “I assumed you knew, Elder. You were the one who pushed for the first evacuation of the colony. You mean, you didn't even know why?”

Axen frowned. This was exactly the sort of question he didn't want to raise.

Panati jumped in. “We brought you here to answer questions, Jensen, not to ask them. We've paid for the answers, not you. If the Elder asks questions that he already knows the answers to, it's because he needs to know what you, and in turn, the Council, think the answers are.”

Axen raised an eyebrow. Good going, boy.

Jensen took a moment to digest the response. It seemed to go down well. “Without knowing the details of what Nguyen's people were doing, and we don't, we can't say for sure. What we do know is that it has something to do with his terraforming bug, and it's reproducing and spreading through the deep rock at a phenomenal rate. Along the way it's causing geothermal activity in some way we don't understand yet.”

“The tremors we've been feeling lately,” said Axen.

“That's just one symptom of a much broader effect. Possibly that's what happened in the Hot Lab, a steam blow-out through the well, or even magma. We just don't know.”

Jensen hesitated, as though he thought he might be saying too much. “We've tried to send survey vehicles back into the contaminated area. They all malfunction and stop transmitting shortly after entering. The information we have suggests some breakdown of the organic materials in the vehicle: plastics, bio-elements in the boptronics, things like that.

“We think there may be a way to protect a vehicle, at least for a while, and we're working on a way to detect the approach of the bug, the Blight - that's what we've been calling it. That's about all we know for the moment. What we really need is to get back into Eden.”

Jensen stared at Axen, blinking silently. It seemed that there was nothing more forthcoming.

“I want to be kept posted on your progress. If there are any significant developments, contact Mr. Panati at once. If necessary, we'll arrange another meeting.” He considered his own words for a moment, then continued. “Furthermore, I want you to arrange for me to be called in on a consulting basis.”

Jensen blinked and bobbed his head nervously. “What? Elder, I can't.”

Axen wasn't listening to him. “Mr. Panati will make it worth your while, and there are plenty of legitimate reasons. I've got more hands-on boptronics experience than anyone, and I helped build the original Eden. I know everything about it, including plenty that you won't find on the blueprints.”

Jensen's eyes narrowed. “I suppose, I could at least suggest the idea.”

“Don't suggest, Jensen, push. Understand?”

Jensen nodded, and when it was apparent they were through with him, he straightened and tried to put on a business face. “It's been a pleasure, Elder.” He stuck out his hand again.

Axen ignored it this time. “I'm not your friend, Jensen. I'm just somebody who is paying you for certain considerations. Remember that.”

Jensen quickly pulled back his hand, slid past Panati, and departed without another word.

Axen and Panati watched him go, waiting until he'd been out of sight for several minutes.

“So,” said Panati, breaking the silence, “what did you see during the disaster that told you this radiation thing was a cover story?”

Axen turned and started walking away. “I heard a woman warning me of the danger with her last breath.” He kept walking. “I watched her melt into goo right in front of my eyes.”

# # #

Axen stood in the darkened control room of the Command Center studying the images flickering on the large screen. The link to the observer satellite had only recently been restored, and until now, access to it had been so restricted that Axen hadn't seen a single image.

Now his dealings with Jensen had finally borne fruit. It didn't bother Axen that the call had come at such a late hour. He knew he was a controversial figure, and they undoubtedly wanted to keep the meeting as low-profile as possible. He noticed that most of the CC staff had been sent on break, though Panati's friend, Della, was working on the far side of the room. Even she was careful to keep her eyes to herself, spending her slack moments looking out the large window behind her console rather than at them.

Jensen was there, along with a few other scientists that Axen knew only in passing. He noticed that Jensen was standing at the far side of the group and was being careful not to make eye contact. He's not a good liar, something I should have taken into consideration before I started this. Still, he seems to have pulled it off.

On the screen, the same one-minute satellite video clip played for the fifth time since he'd arrived. Dr. Kolo addressed Axen. He was the senior of the scientists, a hard-featured man with a shaved head and bushy black eyebrows. “Elder, we're consulting you on this matter because of your broad knowledge of boptronic systems. This video was taken from the observer satellite about a week ago. What do you make of it?”

As he watched, a vehicle, one of Nguyen's combat units, lurched its way across the screen, pausing to fire at a Cargo Truck that had similarly lurched within range. Parts of the truck's cab glowed and melted under the combat unit's energy weapon, and the truck lurched once more before halting, perhaps forever.

He looked Kolo squarely in the eye. “I'd be glad to help if I can, but to be of much use, I need background. Tell me what really happened during the disaster.”

The scientists looked uncomfortably at one another, then Kolo sighed and turned back to Axen. “The situation was a great deal more serious than we've led people to believe, and the danger is not past. Not even our continued migrations have ended it.

“We know that some kind of biological agent was released in the lab explosion, possibly was even the cause of it. That agent continues to spread deep underground in a manner we don't fully understand, seeping to the surface through vents where it can infect buildings and vehicles.

“That agent was an accelerated microbe, engineered from bacteria that had lived in hot springs, deep ocean vents, and buried in the crust of old Earth, microbes that already could survive the most hostile conditions imaginable. That microbe was designed to live in New Terra's crust, breaking oxygen bonds, releasing water and gases to form a new atmosphere.

“But,” interjected Axen, “the human body is full of oxygen bonds. So are many of our plastics and synthetic materials. So are biological elements of our boptronic systems.”

The scientists again looked uncomfortable. He was telling them things they hadn't intended for him to know. Just as well, as his conclusions depended on that knowledge.

Axen continued, “What we're looking at here isn't a boptronic system anymore, it's an optronic system. From what you've told me, the protein computer cores of these units are gone. It's as though they've been given a skillful and selective lobotomy.”

Jensen looked at him. “You think they're dangerous?”

“Based on what you've shown me, I know they are. The combat units are, anyway, and there may not be anything else left operational by the time you get there. These units have lost their higher command functions, their ability to understand and respond to commands, and to recognize other units, friend or foe. What's left are hard-wired autonomous functions - move, steer, avoid, attack, patrol. My guess is they'll fire at anything that moves within range of them. Or, if erosion of plastic insulation is also causing shorts in their electronics, they could be totally unpredictable, capable of doing almost anything.”

The scientists looked at one another, and moved off to a corner of the room and began talking in whispers. Axen hoped that they didn't give up on the idea of an expedition to the disaster site. It might well be their only hope of learning enough to control the Blight.

Axen watched the attack on the truck again, and wished that there were a way to connect Kraft to the satellite station so he could attempt to contact Emma. Plymouth had to be warned if they had any hope of survival. They were in at least as much danger as Eden, perhaps more so, given their own ignorance. If they even still exist, he thought.

He longed to redirect the satellite to check on Plymouth, but that was impossible, and if the scientists had already done so the images were, like so much other information these days, being suppressed.

The scientists moved back over. “Elder,” said Dr. Kolo, “we'd be grateful if you took the video and materials we've provided you and prepare a report for us, outlining the danger you think those rogue vehicles represent, and suggesting countermeasures. We'd also like your input on procedures to transfer data from the non-biological memory systems of the Eden lab computers.”

Kolo hesitated before continuing, long enough that Axen almost thought the conversation was over. “There is another, related, matter. The digital backups of our Gene Banks were in that lab. It's possible that they've survived, and if so, we'd like to find a way to salvage the data.”

Axen's eyes widened. “You don't mean that we've lost our Gene Banks?”

Kolo smiled slightly. “No, no, nothing like that. The three biological Gene Banks - human, agricultural, and biosphere - are still intact. In fact, they're stored here in the CC for safekeeping. But the digital encoding of those genes has always been our backup in case something ever happened to them, and we don't have either the time, the resources, or possibly even the technology, to reproduce the data.”

Axen was aware of a spot to apply leverage. “Plymouth has their own copy of the biological Gene Banks.”

Kolo's face was blank as he responded. “I don't see how that could do us any good. We aren't even sure if Plymouth still exists.”

Oh, he's sure. He knows something about Plymouth that he isn't telling. If only I could get to that satellite downlink. But even the fact of Plymouth's survival or destruction was still denied him.

# # #

As he left the CC he passed the parked scooters without stopping, deciding that the walk would help him think. He'd gone only a hundred meters or so when he ran into Panati. “What are you doing here?”

Panati frowned and looked away. “Della's getting off shift and she and I were going to play a game of billiards.”

Axen just shook his head.

“It's none of your fragging business, Axen.”

Just then they heard a muffled boom, the air around them seemed to surge toward the CC, and Axen felt his ears pop. He was already looking for the nearest emergency suit locker when it was apparent that the pressure drop was small, and only momentary.

Their fight forgotten, Panati stared at Axen. “What the frag was that?”

“Pressure blow-out,” said Axen. He pointed toward the CC. “That way.”

Panati ran up the tunnel, and Axen trotted after him, following him up the ramp toward the CC. As they watched, a cart with a volunteer emergency crew rolled past, stopping just in front of the sealed emergency lock. One member of the Disaster Instant Response Team checked the indicators on the lock, then flipped the override switch that opened both doors. People began to stagger out, including Jensen and the scientists Axen had just been talking to, stunned looks on their faces.

Panati grabbed Jensen and pulled him aside. “What happened up there?”

He stared blankly at Panati for a moment. “Brook. Sorry. I just made it out in time. My ears are ringing. I don't feel so good.”

Panati put his hands on the man's shoulders. “We'll find you a medic. What happened?”

Jensen put his hand over his mouth, fingers pointing upwards, touching his upper lip. “Is my nose bleeding?”

Panati gave him a little shake. “What happened?”

“View port blew out. Meteor hit I'd guess. There was a crack and then it just blew. A woman was standing right next to it and was sucked out.”

“Woman? What woman?”

Axen's jaw clinched. He already knew the answer.

Jensen stared off into space blankly. “Della. Her name was Della.”

Written by J. Steven York.

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  • Last modified: 2017/07/29 23:12
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