Eden 7: Gulag

Axen stood as the transport's airlock clanked against the mining outpost's Command Center. Motors whirred and pumps chugged as the locks sealed together and cycled. He took a final glance around the transport's empty cabin, the dozens of seats empty save for him. One last bit of VIP treatment, he thought, my private taxi to hell.

The lights around the lock turned green, and the doors slid open with a hiss. He stepped through to find a broad-shouldered man with a handlebar mustache waiting for him. The man smiled and extended his hand. After a hesitation, Axen offered his own in return. He wasn't feeling very friendly, but he might well need allies here, and he was cut off from all his familiar resources.

The man's grip was like iron, and he shook Axen's hand vigorously. “Greetings, Elder, welcome to the Gulag. I am Vox Borges, operations supervisor for this mining station. So, who did you offend to rate a transfer to this fine place?”

It was the sort of question Axen generally tried to avoid answering, so he said nothing.

Borges just laughed. “Come, we all have offended someone, Elder. There is no other reason to be here.”

“It's a long list. A very long list.”

Borges smiled broadly. “So it is, and myself, I had to offend only a single Council member to receive this 'promotion.' ”

Behind Axen the lock doors cycled shut and there was a clunk as the transport undocked. He noticed that Borges' attention was focused on the departing transport. “How are things back at mother Eden? I haven't seen it in a long time. Though I have accumulated much leave time, all the transports returning to Eden are constantly full.”

Axen's eyebrows raised. “That transport was empty. I was the only passenger.”

“I'm sorry, my friend, but you are mistaken. I have seen the paperwork proving that it was full, no room for additional passengers to Eden. Should there be any doubt, though you may not have seen him, there was a man in the cab with a side arm, ready to clarify the situation.”

# # #

Brook stared blankly at the young blonde woman who'd answered Axen's door. “Who are you?”

“I live here,” answered the woman. “Who are you?”

“I'm looking for the Elder Axen Moon.”

“I've never met him,” she said, and started to close the door.

“Wait!” He half-threw himself into the door. “He lives here.”

She put a hand on his chest and gently pushed him back. “Not anymore. I moved in a week ago. I don't know a thing about him. Now go away, before I have to call the Volunteer Guard.”

He stepped back and composed himself. “Sorry. Sorry. Just a misunderstanding. He must have been moved. I'll take it up with the housing office.”

But when he found a quiet corner and called the housing office, they didn't have a listing for Axen. The woman there was an unshakable bureaucrat, and couldn't be swayed. “He's an Elder, frag it. He can't have just disappeared.”

She glared at him from the screen. “I've told you, I don't have that information. If he's an Elder, perhaps he simply doesn't wish to be bothered. Good day.”

Brook stared at the suddenly blank screen. Could that really be it? Could Axen simply have pulled some strings to allow himself to adopt a lower profile? Unlikely, and since Brook had arranged to put him back in touch with the Savant, he'd never gone more than a week before sending word that he needed access to a vehicle. Something was definitely wrong, and it couldn't have happened at a worse time.

He leaned back in his chair and watched the people lounging around the Residence's common area. None of them seemed to be watching him, but he couldn't be sure. He'd considered coming here at all a risky move, but these Masters probably knew more about what had happened to Axen than he did. Certainly they didn't number him among their friends.

For the moment, Brook was playing along with them, providing them with information, trading small favors on their behalf. Often as not, they provided all the barter goods, simply using him as a front for the transaction. They seemed to think, rightly so, that anything funneled through him was less likely to draw official attention.

What truly had him perplexed was Echo, sweet, open Echo, the leader of a secret resistance movement, thief, saboteur, and who-knew-what-else. How could it be?

She genuinely seemed to believe in her future humanity, built on a few hundred “perfect” genetic genotypes, repeated over and over for all of history. He shuddered. This morning she'd proudly confided in him how she'd already created a clone of herself several years before, using her position to switch her genetic material with a genotype from the Gene Bank selected by a young couple. Not only that, but she planned to do it again, soon.

Brook looked up as a woman walked past leading a small girl by the hand. She was the right age and hair color - but her eyes were brown. Brook dropped his head and sighed. He couldn't take much more of this. Echo was insane. That was the only explanation. He wondered if that insanity was genetic, and imagined it repeated endlessly throughout history, like a hall of mirrors.


He looked up to see Echo walking around a cluster of potted palms toward him, a big smile on her face. “I've been looking all over for you. You aren't avoiding me are you, naughty boy?”

She reached out her hand and he took it, feeling a little thrill at the contact, his mind and heart at war. For the thousandth time that day, he wondered if Axen was really right.

# # #

Axen dropped his tool kit and lunged for a tunnel support column as the tran-station deck bucked under his feet. Scooters slid out of their racks and fell over like a row of dominos, and for a moment he was sure the hull would crack like an egg.

Borges held onto a window frame with one hand and grinned broadly at him.

Axen scowled at him as the shaking stopped. “Do you ever get used to this?”

Borges just laughed. He laughed a lot. It was really starting to annoy Axen. “In time, friend, you become thankful for each one that is just a tremor, not a major quake or volcanic eruption. Then there is the Blight, which is very close. At any moment one of our Robo-Moles could strike an infected flow, channel it straight to us, and the entire outpost could be overrun.

“This is a dangerous place, which is why people such as ourselves are sent here. They say that if we mine our quota, we will be sent home. I don't think I believe that, but each day we live is a victory, and another chance that a change of power might bring us home.

What kind of change of power? He wondered what Borges really wanted from him. He'd almost become Axen's shadow since his arrival, and Axen's new quarters were right next door to Borges'. Though Borges' title implied a great deal of responsibility, he never seemed to lack for time to follow Axen around, working with him on the minor boptronic repairs and adjustments that had made up his current roster of assignments.

At first Axen had thought he was only bored, and hungry for fresh gossip about things in Eden, and so he'd gladly obliged him in hopes that he'd lose interest. He'd been especially interested in Axen's substantially edited reports about the Masters and their activities.

Could Borges be one of them, or at least a sympathizer? Could that be the reason for his exile? Possibly, but certainly it was apparent that any number of offenses, real or imagined, could land a person here.

Axen picked up his tool kit and brushed himself off.

Borges frowned slightly and touched the communications unit in his right ear. “Have you been checked out in a spacesuit lately, my friend - beyond our popular daily disaster drills, of course?”

“Yes, why?”

“The tremor seems to have caused a malfunction in Guard Post Three. Best we should check it out right away. Come.” He opened the floor hatch to the side of the tran-station and began to climb down to the service lock.

Axen sighed. Even outside, there would be no losing his shadow.

# # #

Brook sat in the cab of the Scout as it trundled around the colony on a fool's mission to the Garage. If he needed the time, he had the programming in place for it to travel all the way back to the Robot Command Center as well. If that didn't do it, well, he suspected nothing would.

He'd watched dozens of times as Axen had activated the link to Kraft, even helped in its planning and installation. He thought he could initiate the link himself. Unfortunately, it didn't mean anything unless Kraft would talk to him.

He cleared his throat nervously and looked out the window at the Vehicle Factory that they were passing. What do you say to a computer? Well, Axen made it seem natural enough, but Brook's direct interaction with the sophisticated, nearly human Savants was limited.

“Kraft, this is Brook Panati; I know you can hear me.” He paused a minute. Silence. “I know that normally you'd only talk to Axen Moon, but that's why I need to talk to you. Axen is missing.” Again silence. “I'm sure you've noticed the unusual time lapse since your last communication with him. I want you to help me find him.”

Silence. “Kraft, I'm pretty sure Axen has mentioned me to you. I helped put you back in touch. It's only through me that you were able to communicate at all. Please talk to me.”

Nothing. He sighed and scratched his chin thoughtfully. He felt like he was coaxing a shy child out of its hiding place. What would Axen do? Or, perhaps more important, what had Axen already done?

“Kraft, I know that Axen has had you working on the solutions to some very large, very complex problems concerning the Blight and the colony's survival. I'm sure you're still working on those problems at Axen's request, that it's an ongoing project. Isn't that correct? Well, without Axen to continually provide you new information and to refine those problems, you have no hope of solving them. By talking to me you may be able to put yourself back in touch with Axen so you can solve those problems. Talking to me would be an extension of those orders.”

The circuit was dead. Then there was a click, and an icon appeared on the display of his ClipCom, a moving assembly of gear wheels and cogs, like a translucent clockwork-Kraft's identity icon. “This is Savant Kraft. I will converse with you within the limits of my existing instructions. Where is Axen Moon?”

“I was hoping you might be able to tell me. He isn't in the colony, at least not officially.”

“He is not in the main colony?”

What did it mean by that? “I don't think so. I haven't been able to locate him here.”

“Then he may be at the mining outpost.”

Brook blinked in surprise. “What mining outpost? I've never heard of such a thing.”

“There do not appear to be official records, but I have deduced its existence through information I've gained access to recently. I have identified twelve structure kits and fifteen vehicles officially listed as recycled, yet this is not reflected in the output figures from the GORF. Conclusion: these items were not destroyed and are not being used in Eden. This suggests they are being used elsewhere, and the mix of items involved suggests a mining installation.”

Brook was amazed. It made sense, and yet, it would have had to have been done right under his nose. Only someone near the top levels of authority would have been able to pull it off. The audacity flabbergasted him. And if Axen had vanished to this nonexistent outpost, he probably wasn't the only one. How many of the people listed as missing during the last evacuation were actually political outcasts?

“Do you have any idea where this mining outpost is?”

“I have monitored weak vehicle control traffic at bearing 118 from the colony. I estimate the range to be one hundred and fifty kilometers. I do not believe these signals to be of Plymouth origin.”

That was it then. He knew where Axen was. Now all he had to do was figure out how to get him back and make it stick. “Kraft, it may be possible not only to get Axen back, but to put you two back together. I'll need your cooperation though.”

“I will evaluate your requests. Please explain.”

And he did.

# # #

Axen shifted his weight on the service platform and looked at the status lights on the panel in front of him again. The Guard Post seemed to be working perfectly. The malfunction wasn't showing up on the local tell-a-tales, and therefore shouldn't have registered at the CC either.

He looked down at Borges. “Are you sure this is the turret they told you to check? This thing looks fine.”

“Perhaps there is a malfunction in the connections between the Guard Post and the CC.”

“It's a radio link, just like the vehicle control signals. There's nothing in the middle to go wrong.”

Borges shrugged. “Well, then, there isn't a problem. You should come down from there.”

Axen muttered under his breath and closed his tool kit. He turned and backed down the ladder. “It is most curious,” continued Borges. “Perhaps the problem is not where you thought it was.”

Axen stepped off the ladder and turned to find himself looking down the barrel of a pistol. Borges was still smiling. “I am sorry, my friend, but there are only a few ways to leave this Maker-forsaken place. I have been offered one, and you are about to discover quite another.” He gestured at Axen's helmet. “If you would please loosen the fastenings on your helmet, we can end this rapidly and with minimal fuss. I am told unconsciousness comes quite quickly.”

He studied Borges, looking for some opportunity. The other man was standing in front of the powerful machinery that moved the turret. The door was on the far side of that mechanism. It seemed hopeless. “No go, Borges. If you want me dead, you'll have to shoot me. I'm not going to make things easier for you.”

He shrugged again. “So be it. There will be no questions asked about your death in any case, trust me on this.” He raised the weapon to fire.

Suddenly there was a loud bang, and the Guard Post shook. At first Axen thought it was a tremor. Then the turret began to move. Behind Borges, huge gears and motors began to whir. The outpost was under attack!

Borges was distracted for just a moment.

Axen leapt, grabbing Borges' wrist with both hands and forcing the gun back over his head. The gun kicked, and the slug splatted against the ceiling. Borges put his other hand on Axen's faceplate and shoved him back.

Axen fell against the ladder. Borges again pointed the gun at him. Axen's hand groped for the discarded tool kit. He seized the handle and swung it as hard as he could. Borges threw up his hands to protect his head, and the case struck the gun edge on, nearly tearing it from his hand.

Axen pushed off from the ladder and charged toward Borges like a football player. The man braced himself for the charge, but Axen veered, brushing past Borges, his real goal the door on the other side of the turret mechanism.

Borges was knocked backward into the moving gears. His helmet lodged between the teeth of two huge gears. They turned, then hesitated, then moved again with a crack and a jerk. Borges' helmet cracked like a walnut, and a cloud of gas spewed out. The turret moved the other way, freeing Borges, but it was too late. He grabbed weakly at his head, then fell to the floor and did not move.

Axen started to relax, when a force like a huge club knocked him into the near wall. He couldn't tell if the flashes he saw were real, or if he was only seeing spots.

Another explosion shook the Guard Post, only this time not as close. There was a rending screech of metal and the whole turret mechanism slumped away from him. The door was blocked.

He shook his head to clear it, then crawled forward on hands and knees. There was light; there had to be a way out.

He scanned the room. A hole gaped in the wall next to the platform he'd been standing on only minutes before. Weakly he grabbed the sides of the ladder and climbed it one painful step at a time.

He reached the platform, then used the railings to pull himself to his feet. The railing in front of the door was bent and twisted, and it was easy enough to squeeze past and through the hole.

He rolled over the lip of the opening and out onto the platform that surrounded the Guard Post. A row of Plymouth combat vehicles was rolling toward him. One of them he could see dead nose-on, and it seemed to be approaching quickly.

He scrambled to his feet and crabbed along the side of the defense turret and around the corner behind it. The light combat unit rolled past no more than a yard away.

Another explosive near-miss sent him scurrying away from the turret. Even damaged as it was, it was a prime target. He staggered across open ground, trying to keep out of the way of the circling combat units, but they seemed to be everywhere.

A missile flew over his head and exploded into the Rare Ore Smelter, then another, and another. The Plymouth units were moving deeper into the outpost, so the safest place for him seemed to be away from it.

He glanced at his suit status indicator to check his oxygen supply, but the indicator panel was fractured and dark. Frag. Well, he'd just have to take his chances. There was a cluster of boulders two hundred meters from the edge of the colony. It would offer cover until the battle was over.

Halfway there, he started getting lightheaded, and dark spots crept into his vision. Something more than the suit's status panel must be damaged. It was getting difficult to walk, and his concentration was fading. He just wanted to lie down and sleep.

He let his eyes close for a moment, and when he opened them, a vehicle had rolled up a few yards in front of him and pulled to a stop. Puzzled, he looked up at the Scout. For a moment, he thought it must be a Plymouth unit, but the markings were clearly Eden. The hatch opened and a spacesuited figure waved him inside.

He grabbed the ladder, took a step up, then lost his balance and fell back. The figure reached down and grabbed the hanging straps on the shoulder of his suit, and managed to drag him up on to the vehicle's fender, then through the hatch. He helped as much as he could, but that wasn't much.

The hatch slammed shut and the vehicle made a fast turn and started bouncing across the landscape full tilt. He lay on his back, gasping for breath. Behind him, some lights turned green, and he tried to remember what that meant.

The other figure fumbled with his visor and managed to get it open. The air that rushed in was cold and slightly stale, but he didn't care. He sucked a deep breath in and coughed.

He rolled over, and found his face only centimeters from the flat side of a Savant computer housing. He glanced up at the figure, which was just now removing its helmet.

Panati grinned weakly at him. “Some welcome party you throw, Axen. Aren't you even going to say hello to Kraft and me?”

Written by J. Steven York.

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  • Last modified: 2017/07/30 01:49
  • by vagabond