Eden 5: Repercussions

Axen crouched down behind a control console and snapped an access panel back in place. He still made sure his duties brought him to the Command Center frequently, even though Kraft was now attached to the RCC. It was a good place to eavesdrop and observe, where an occasional nugget of information could still be found.

Moreover, his political stock seemed to be on the rise, the Council less interested in his movements, less concerned about his resources. More likely, however, they were just distracted, or simply too busy to bother with him.

Axen was distracted too. New Terra was doomed, or so the scientists believed. They hadn't told him this, of course. They'd thanked him for his help, smiled their false smiles, and covered up everything, even Jensen. Especially Jensen.

But Kraft knew everything they knew, and more. Being separated from Axen seemed only to have made the amazing computer more resourceful, and its time in the CC had given it unprecedented access to information. Its position in the RCC had allowed Kraft a front-row seat for the old-Eden expedition. Now, everything Kraft knew, Axen knew as well.

The Blight was spreading too rapidly through the planet's crust, taking water out of the rocks, lubricating long-locked faults, creating geological instability, surging forward on the wave of hot ground-water that it had created, repeating the cycle. Nothing short of nuking the entire planet down to the molten mantle would kill it all, and nothing less than killing it all would be effective. There was still token research being done toward creating a self-replicating counter-agent, but nobody gave it any serious chance of success.

The only hope now was to stay one step ahead of the Blight, gathering resources as they went, to reestablish orbital capabilities, to build another starship, and to find another planet to settle. He slumped back against the console and shook his head sadly. We've come full-circle. Who knew it would lead to this?

Certainly not he. Certainly not his fellow Elders when they decided that the colony's best chance for survival was to split in two. Now, instead of splitting things apart, all he wanted to do was hold things together, to put back together what they had broken asunder.

But things only showed more signs of flying apart. He'd seen more graffiti this morning; he saw it almost ever day. And he'd heard a name whispered. Masters. What did it mean?

Then there was Panati. The young man was cold and distant and Axen couldn't figure out why. He avoided Axen, seemed careful never to be alone with him. Panati was still responsive when Axen asked for access to a vehicle so he could communicate with Kraft, but Axen didn't know how much he could be depended on, or trusted.

As for the why of this sudden change in behavior, Axen couldn't understand it. There was another woman, of course, a doctor from the Nursery, but that didn't explain anything.

He heard voices, and the sound of men grunting under a heavy weight. He peered over the top of the console and was surprised to see Panati across the room. He and a pair of workmen were moving a cumbersome and heavy metal cylinder from which wisps of frosty gas emerged.

Axen recognized it as one of the Gene Banks, the frozen repositories of Earth's genetic heritage. Along with the workmen, a man and a woman carrying side-arms and wearing the navy blue arm-band of the Volunteer Guard watched over the transfer. Axen wondered if this had something to do with the doctor from the Nursery. If so, it seemed a curious kind of favor to be granting. Where were they going with the Gene Bank?

Axen thought about simply asking, but he didn't think he'd been seen, and some instinct told him to duck back down and keep out of sight. Whatever Panati was doing, he was doing it in plain sight of everyone in the CC, so he obviously had authorization.

Still, it didn't smell right. Their efforts to recover the digital backups of the Gene Banks from the original Eden had come, as Axen had predicted, to nothing. Two of the big quantum crystal memories had been located, but they couldn't be brought out without contamination, and the information stored within was too vast to transmit from the contaminated area. Axen couldn't imagine why anyone would mean the Gene Banks harm - they were irreplaceable.

He considered just staying put and minding his own business, but it wasn't his nature, and despite himself, he was concerned about Panati. Frag him, what's gotten into the boy?

He couldn't hear the workers anymore, but just in case, he stayed put for awhile before emerging from his hiding place. He glanced at the door. Panati and the Gene Bank were long gone, but he might still be able to catch up with them, perhaps learn what Panati was up to. A pale-skinned technician looked up from her work and glanced at Axen curiously for a moment. “Was that a Gene Bank I saw them moving?”

She shrugged. “Looked like it. Not my department.”

“Do you know where they were moving it?”

“Not my department.”

Axen grunted and walked out the door. It wasn't that he thought Panati was up to anything, it was just that the graffiti he kept spotting had raised his paranoia level. The last time he'd seen anything like it was during the political schism that had created Plymouth, and during that revolution, it had been he and his fellow Elders doing the painting.

He made his way out of the CC and picked up a scooter at the tran-station. Doubtless they were moving the Gene Bank in a cargo cart and he should be able to catch up with them, if he was correct in assuming they were headed for the Nursery.

He gunned the scooter, making the wheels squeal on deck-metal and roared off after them. They had a strong head-start, but the tunnel traffic was light this late in the evening and he made good time. He arrived at the Nursery only to find it locked up for the night. Could he have been wrong about their destination? He didn't think so.

He'd followed Panati's normal route from the CC to the Nursery, but a new area of construction had created a possible shortcut, one that Panati would be very familiar with, given his work.

He spun the scooter around in a tight circle and backtracked. It was immediately apparent when he entered the new tunnels. Traffic was nonexistent. A thin layer of reddish powder dusted the walls and other exposed surfaces where traffic had not brushed it aside. There was also the characteristic chemical “new building smell.” It wasn't unpleasant, but it was a minor health hazard. Years of research had failed to eliminate outgassing from new synthetic materials.

He rounded a corner and almost ran head-on into the cart. He spun the scooter and laid it down on its side, sliding to a stop just short of the wreck.

The cart was sitting at an angle, its nose crunched against a tunnel support rib. The driver, one of the workmen, was slumped over his controls. Panati was face down on the deck near the empty passenger seat, from which he'd probably fallen. The others were sprawled around the vehicle, motionless. Axen's hip twinged as he stood, but he ignored the pain and made his way to the male guard, the nearest of the five.

He knelt next to the man and touched his neck. There was a pulse, and the man was breathing. While the others didn't appear to be injured, the guard was face down in a small puddle of blood. Axen rolled him over and saw the side-arm still clutched in his hand. Axen took the gun and pulled back the collar of his shirt and examined the wound. A soft-slug had pierced the right shoulder, doing considerable damage, but it didn't seem immediately life-threatening.

Then he spotted a small fire extinguisher near one tunnel wall, and noticed for the first time that there was something odd in the air beyond the new building smell, a pungent and sickeningly sweet odor. He looked again at the extinguisher's tank. They'd been gassed.

He could reconstruct the scene in his mind. Someone, possibly in a pressure suit or breathing mask, had hidden along the tunnel in wait. As the cart approached, they'd flooded the tunnel with gas. The driver had been affected first, and the cart had crashed, but one of the guards had fought off the gas long enough to stagger out of the cart and pull his weapon. The guard had been shot for his trouble. Axen noted that the gun in the man's hand hadn't even been fired.

He looked at the cart again. The cargo bed was empty. They'd stolen the Gene Bank.

Now he knew he was outnumbered. It would have taken at least two people to lug the gene bank out of the truck, and it would be logical to have at least one more as a lookout. He lifted the scooter, fired it up, and made his best guess at the direction they might have headed. His guess was deeper into the new construction zone. There would be few people to see them, and assuming they were wearing pressure suits, there were dozens of emergency and service airlocks through which they could reach the surface. For that matter, every incomplete building also offered easy access to outside.

He paused long enough to activate the nearest disaster alarm box, then rushed headlong into the dusty tunnels. He didn't expect to find the hijackers, given their head start. His only hope was that the cumbersome Gene Bank would slow them down.

As he approached a tunnel junction, he spotted a silvery object lying on the deck. He stopped the scooter short of the junction and leaned it against the wall. He cautiously walked over and picked up the object, retreating quickly into the cross-tunnel so as not to be spotted. He rolled the brushed aluminum cylinder over in his fingers. A paint-pen. Red.

The tunnel to his right dead-ended a few hundred yards on, and the normal overhead lights hadn't been installed yet. Only a few scattered work lights set up amid the scaffolding pierced the gloom. He pulled the gun out of his pocket and, keeping his back close to the wall, inched forward. He heard voices, and an intermittent hissing sound. A paint-pen.

He spotted the pressure-suited figure at the end of the corridor, hanging off a scaffold, putting the finishing touches on an enormous version of the divided circle he'd seen before. The circle covered most of a large set of pressure doors leading into the uncompleted factory module.

He crept closer. The suit's visor was closed now, but he'd heard voices, so there were others around, possibly carrying the Gene Bank. Could they already be on the other side of those doors, or were they simply invisible in the shadows?

He stepped out of the shadows and pointed his gun at the suited figure. “Don't move! I've got a gun.”

The figure let go of the scaffolding and dropped into the shadows. Axen let off a wild shot but knew he hadn't hit anything. He hadn't used a gun in years, and he'd have to be much closer to have a prayer of hitting anyone. Unfortunately, he couldn't count on his adversaries being as unskilled.

Ducking low, he moved closer, using scaffolding and piles of construction material as cover. He popped his head up, and someone took a shot at him, but he had time to make an important discovery. The Gene Bank was sitting on the deck right in front of the spray-painted symbol.

That was good news and bad. It meant he might yet have a chance to recover it, but it also meant that whoever had been carrying it was now no longer so encumbered. He moved closer still, and popped up long enough to let off another round, just to keep their heads down.

He was back under cover by the time they responded with return fire. He popped again, and spotted a pressure suit helmet only a four or five meters away. He squeezed off a shot and the soft-slug pancaked against the plating with a metallic splat just to the right of the figure.

Three more shots in his direction, all wild. I might have a chance, he thought. Then he heard a clank, and the sound of heavy machinery. A sound like a tornado nearly deafened him, and a blast of wind pinned him in his hiding place and blinded him with clouds of dust. They've opened the pressure doors.

He clinched his eyes shut and tried to recall the appearance of the doors where the control panel would be located. He'd only have one chance at this. He pulled himself around his barricade and let the wind carry him toward the door, trying to veer himself enough to the side to hit the controls.

A slab of insulation smacked him painfully behind his right ear, and he felt hot blood running across his neck. He slammed against the right door, the control panel just out of reach. Through the open doorway he'd seen a flash of the building's dark skeleton silhouetted against a starlit sky. He felt the wind tearing at him, and clawed his way toward the panel.

Hot needles stabbed in his ears as the pressure dropped. He pushed himself forward the last inch and slapped the emergency close icon. He didn't hear the doors closing, and was only aware when the roar of wind stopped.

He slumped to the deck and tried, with limited success, to catch his breath. He looked around. They were gone, out through the doors while he'd been struggling to survive. Then he spotted the Gene Bank. It sat on its side near the door, half covered with a sheet of light-paneling. He pulled himself to his feet and managed to tug the panel clear. What he saw crushed him.

He fell to his knees in front of the Gene Bank, which appeared to have been shot repeatedly at close range, close enough that even soft-slugs had ripped through its aluminum jacket. The last of its liquid helium coolant boiled away from a puddle on the deck as thousands of tiny glass vials spilled out through the holes and onto the floor, where they lay shattered and broken.

He looked up at symbol painted on the doors, and screamed in rage.

Written by J. Steven York.

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  • Last modified: 2017/07/30 01:48
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