Plymouth 2: Recovery

The Robo-Surveyor sat on a bluff overlooking the remains of Plymouth. Below them the scene was hellish, the few structures that remained intact floating in a lake of lava, like raisins in a bowl of oatmeal. Even as Emma watched from her vantage point standing on the vehicle's fender, the last Residence exploded in a cloud of fire and self-generated steam. The clouds slowly drifted away, leaving the cored-out hull of the building to slowly slump into the lava.

Much as it hurt, she couldn't stop watching. It somehow seemed appropriate that she might be the last person to gaze upon the dying colony, the rest of the survivors, except for Wu of course, long having moved on to a rendezvous point thirty kilometers east.

The Surveyor's hatch swung open and Wu climbed out, his rocksuit blackened and scorched in several places, as was hers, a result of their near-disastrous return to the doomed Plymouth. He didn't look down at the colony. She'd noticed that he intentionally averted his eyes every time the wreckage was in view. “I just talked to the chairman. They need us back with the group. We have to help locate a new colony site ASAP.”

She sighed, but said nothing.

“You can't sit out here forever feigning a problem with your suit radio. The Council wanted to talk to you, and they're getting insistent.” He leaned back on the vehicle's superstructure, carefully turned away from the sight of the colony.

Through his visor Emma could see that he looked pale, his normally cheerful face looking tired and numb. His brown eyes studied her intently, and she didn't enjoy the attention. He held out the right arm of his suit, where the overlayer of duramesh had melted into the outer pressure layer.

“You owe me an explanation, Elder. We nearly got fried getting out of the Command Center, and you still haven't told me why we had to go back there in the first place. What's on that data-slip that you'd risk your life, both our lives, to get it?”

“Satellite pictures of Eden. While we were in the Command Center I was able to redirect the observer satellite to train its sensors on Eden. The orbital position was less than ideal, but they may tell us something about what's happening to New Terra, and what they're up to with these blasted terraforming experiments.”

“You think they have something to do with the sudden geological instability?”

“I don't see how, but this could be an attack of some kind.”

“Attack? Why would Eden attack us?”

She shook her head sadly. “You are young, aren't you?”

“But Eden doesn't have weapons, much less something that could cause a volcano to erupt.”

Emma suddenly realized that she'd overplayed her hand. It was an uncharacteristic slip for someone so used to deception, but she was under a lot of stress. Or was it more than that?

Her thoughts turned inward, coldly reviewing her own motivations like a shopkeeper taking inventory. Did part of her want to open up, to share her load of secrets with someone? If so, Wu was a poor choice.

Not that she didn't trust Wu. She'd developed considerable respect for him in the time he'd acted as her assistant, but he was too young and immature for the burden she carried. Perhaps someday, but not today. Not today of all days. With all communication to Axen cut off, there was only one left she could share her secrets with, the one who had shared them from the beginning.

She stood and brushed the red dust off her rocksuit. “Take a walk, Wu.”

He just stared at her. “What?”

“Take a walk. I need some time to talk with Frost. Alone.”

His frown deepened into a scowl, and his brow knotted. “That's it! Elder, with all due respect, you owe me an explanation. You know things you aren't telling me. Out in the wastes, when we found that well, you knew what you were looking for. You know something about Eden, too.” He paused to nervously wipe a film of dust off his visor. “You may have your reasons for keeping things from the Council, but,” he waved his arm in the direction of the remains of Plymouth, “I've followed you into the pit of hell based on nothing more than your word that it was necessary. I trust you. Why can't you trust me?”

“I do trust you, but if you really trust me, you'll take a walk.”

He seemed to waiver, but didn't move.

“Some things are beyond trust, Wu. You'll understand that someday.”

Wu slowly turned and climbed down from the Surveyor. He trudged away, his back toward Plymouth.

As she opened the hatch to the Surveyor, she called to him. “Wu, I've put a lot more confidence in you than you know. Try to keep that in mind.”

He said nothing, but she thought she saw him nod through the glare on his faceplate. Then he turned and continued his listless walk.

Emma climbed inside the cramped compartment, closed the hatch and dogged it shut, then touched the “pressurize” control. A high whistle, slowly growing in volume, indicated the return of atmosphere to the compartment. She swiveled one of the two seats around to face the rear wall, and sat down. The whistle softened to a low hiss, and a chime and green indicator lights indicated that the air was now breathable. She touched the stud on her helmet that allowed her to open it like a clamshell and removed it.

The air was cool and had the faintly canned smell of an airlock. Her rocksuit itched, and she wished she could take it off, but that wasn't practical in their limited quarters. She unhooked and removed her gloves and reached over to put one hand on Frost's smooth, black upper surface.

The cubic Savant computer was tilted back at an odd angle, its rear corner tucked into an equipment bay to save space. A crude framework of welded angle-iron supported the computer and secured it in place.

The mechanics had at first balked when she had asked that the Savant be installed in the vehicle, but she'd insisted they needed it. In truth, she simply didn't want to be that far from the computer, and the secrets that it guarded.

Now that instinct had been vindicated. If she'd left Frost in the colony, it would have been destroyed along with her Residence before she returned.

She wondered if the computer could feel her touch, and supposed that it could. Its entire outer surface was both sensor and display.

“Frost,” she said softly.

The computer remained black and inert.

“Frost,” she repeated, a little louder.

A rectangular window came to life on the front surface of the cube. In that window was a translucent snowflake, Frost's identity icon. “I'm sorry Emma, I was dreaming. There is so much to dream about right now.”

“Dreaming” was what the Savants called their deep-thought mode, when they shut down all but the most basic inputs and outputs and focused their protein-based computer elements on difficult problems.

The analogy wasn't entirely inappropriate. The process was ill understood, even by the Savants themselves, and the results, especially on large, chaotic problems, were often vague and difficult to interpret. Despite that, the results were often useful. Frost was aware of the disaster at Plymouth, and given the limited information available, had been considering the situation.

“I know,” said Emma, “and I've avoided disturbing you until now.”

The snowflake icon changed slightly. From years of experience, Emma could read these changes like facial expressions, and this particular change indicated surprise. “While we were talking I reviewed the Surveyor's sensor records for the past eight hours. It seems I missed a great deal. The data collected while we were inside the colony may be quite useful.”

She smiled slightly. “When I made the decision to take us back into Plymouth, you were already in deep-thought, and I didn't want to frighten you unnecessarily. There was little you could have done except observe.”

The snowflake changed again. This time, the emotion was obscure to her. “In my case, 'frighten' is an inaccurate term. To 'cause concern' would be more exact. You do tend to over-anthropomorphize.”

“Perhaps.” She didn't want to get sidetracked onto the sort of philosophical discussions that she and Frost often engaged in. “So, did your dreaming produce any results?”

The snowflake changed to reflect annoyance and frustration. “The data was quite limited. My only observation is that there is an ongoing danger here, and that it is unlikely to be localized. I recommend caution in choosing a relocation site for Plymouth, and that it be placed a considerable distance from here, and as far from the terraforming well you discovered as possible.”

“Assuming the well represents some kind of threat, there could be other wells that we aren't aware of.”

“Probably, but the well you discovered was in the direction of Eden, and it is likely that any other wells are also in that direction. In any case, that is a logical rationalization for the results of my dreaming. The results of a dreaming are not created through observable logical processes. I can only tell you what my dream tells me, not why, especially with such a difficult problem.”

She unzipped the pocket on her suit's left leg and reached inside. “Perhaps this will help.”

“Ah, the data-slip you mentioned.”

She stopped with the slip halfway out of the pocket. “How did you know that?”

“All suit radio communications are stored in the vehicle's short-term memory. I reviewed them along with all the other data.”

Even after all these years, Frost was still full of surprises. Perhaps the computer had learned from its owner a little too well. “I didn't know that. In the future, make sure that all such memories are purged if any opportunity exists for anyone else to access them. Especially make sure they are purged before we return to the colony.”

“Certainly, Emma. I have already done so. The contents are already stored in my internal memories anyway. Now, may I see that data-slip? Have you inspected it yourself?”

“I barely had time to redirect the satellite, make the recording, and escape with my hide intact. Display any interesting data for me, please. I'd really like to know what that lunatic Nguyen is up to.” She placed the slip on Frost's upper surface, where it clung as though by static electricity. After a moment there was a crackle indicating that the slip had been erased. She removed the slip and tossed it in the vehicle's recycler.

The snowflake changed to an even more extreme expression of surprise. “Our last transmission from Axen indicated that there had been a lab explosion; however, there was no reason to believe that it wasn't localized.”

She glanced out the vehicle's view port to see Wu standing a few dozen meters away. He made a pointing gesture at the vehicle, wondering if he could return. Emma ignored him. “Frost, what do you mean?”

“There has been extensive destruction affecting approximately eighty percent of Eden's structures.”

She couldn't believe what she was hearing. It didn't make sense. “Show me.”

The snowflake was replaced by a larger window displaying the satellite pictures. The view covered most of Eden's main colony. It was much larger than she remembered, having expanded and rebuilt considerably since the Plymouthers took their toys and moved elsewhere. The picture had the gray, flat look typical of satellite photos, and there was considerable distortion, as Eden had been near the horizon as seen from the satellite, all of which made it difficult to interpret the image.

She could make out, roughly anyway, the familiar shapes of standard Eden structures, though there were some new ones that she didn't recognize at all. But the roof coloring and roof-lines were wrong. Some were darker than they should have been. Others had a streaked, puckered appearance. Small, bright flecks dusted the spaces between buildings.

The view zoomed closer, narrowing down to a dozen or so buildings. Or, at least, what was left of those buildings. They were ripped, scorched, sometimes literally blasted open within, the roof peeled back like flower petals, pieces of hull metal and building contents scattered everywhere, the light flecks she'd seen before.

“Great Maker. Frost, is this as bad as it looks? How many survivors?”

There was an uncharacteristic pause in Frost's response. “Frost?”

Frost made a strange noise, rather like clearing the throat. “I find no signs of life remaining in the colony. I see no signs that the wreckage has been salvaged. I find no evidence of survivors.”

Emma leaned back in her chair, feeling a cold knot in her stomach. She thought of the tenuous thread on which Plymouth's survival hung, and now this. She remembered, though she'd only been a child at the time, the stirring speech that the captain of the Conestoga had made to the colonists before the starship left Earth orbit. He'd closed it with the words “Extinction is not an option.” It had been an unofficial motto for the earliest colonists, and until today, one could still find it hanging on the walls of many of Plymouth's living quarters.

Perhaps not, but at this moment, it seemed a distinct possibility.

Written by J. Steven York.

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