Plymouth 8: Recoil

Axen's convoy disappeared into the Badlands as thoroughly as if it had never existed. In the weeks after the raid in the Gulag, continued bad weather interfered with any search, and ongoing retaliatory strikes from Eden prevented their sending out any vehicles.

Shortly thereafter the colony was forced by the advance of the Blight to relocate, and with that disappeared any hope of finding Axen. It was some comfort to Emma that Eden was probably having as much trouble locating him, and she had to hope that Axen would be found when Axen wanted to be found.

As for the moment, Emma had more pressing concerns. Plymouth's delay-plagued space program was finally about to bear fruit. Work on a launch facility had begun before the relocation, and with the colony operational on its new site, the launch gantry was already beginning to rise on the edge of the colony. Soon work would begin on a launch vehicle, and a new satellite had to be ready for its test flight.

Emma's team had been assigned to develop the Blight detection package for the spacecraft, and to incorporate such intelligence gathering functions into the vehicle as space, weight, and power allowed. This was in addition to their regular intelligence gathering functions of course. Emma had never been more sure of her decision to keep a bunk in the lab, and several of the other scientists were soon doing the same.

The pressure had taken its toll on all of them. They'd become testy and irritable. Arguments over small problems and petty differences had become common, and thus Emma wasn't in the most receptive mood when Councilor Kozu arrived at the lab unannounced.

Emma was trying to get a balky Noesis computer to function while connected to the satellite's energy management system. It wasn't going well, and she wasn't about to stop her work for any visitor.

“Elder,” said Kozu, “I can see you're busy and I'm sorry to interrupt, but the colony leadership has a favor to ask of you.”

Emma chuckled as she leaned over to check a wave form displayed on her ClipCom. “Sure, in my copious free time.” She gave him a look that made him flinch just a bit. “We have a full-up test of the satellite's systems scheduled in three days, and I can't get this damned computer to talk to my instrument package, or sometimes to run at all.”

“This satellite is certainly a colony priority, but we have something related to your intelligence activities, something I think nobody else in the colony is as well qualified to do.”

She jiggled a power connector and checked the wave form again. “More important than this satellite?”

He nodded. “Just possibly. Eden has contacted us and wishes to negotiate a treaty.”

She stood bolt upright. “What?”

“They say that an accident has damaged their human Gene Bank. They want an agreement that protects our Gene Bank from damage in combat, and allows them to take custody if their starship is completed substantially before ours.”

“Why would we agree to such a thing?”

Kozu looked apologetic. “Frankly, your own intelligence reports show they are far ahead of us, and our projections of available resources and Blight spread don't paint a positive picture. We may not make it. The Eden leadership has suggested that they would make all possible space available on their starship for our children, and of course, saving the genetic heritage contained in the Gene Bank is our highest priority.”

She shook her head in disbelief. “We're giving up?”

“We're being realistic and keeping our options open.”

She sighed. “It sounds like you have this all worked out. Why do you need me?”

“We want you to reach a settlement, yes, but the exact terms, of protecting the Gene Bank, of transfer of the Bank and the children, should it become necessary, all this needs to be worked out.”

Emma's fists clinched on the workbench, the satellite forgotten. Her mind flashed to other possibilities, desperate plans that she'd never dared voice before. “We could steal their starship.”

It was Kozu's turn to be shocked.

“Perhaps,” she continued, “we could even send our Spiders in and reprogram their rockets on the pad, bring them over to our launch complex. The ship in orbit will be defenseless, or close enough, especially if we take out their launch capability.”

“You're suggesting total war with Eden. If we go that far there would be no turning back. It would be kill or be killed. It's unthinkable!”

“I just thought of it, pup, and I can think of a lot more. You've been understanding when I've told you I have certain intelligence resources in Eden that I cannot reveal. I'm telling you now that information from those sources suggests that these people can't be trusted. This is a trick of some kind.”

He shook his head sadly. “I'm afraid we have to have something more concrete than that. I'm sorry, Elder. If it's any consolation, I tend to agree with you, but the mood of the Council and the people doesn't support it. They're tired of running, tired of fighting, tired of war.” He looked away. “I'll tell them to find someone else to negotiate the treaty.”

She reached out and grabbed his forearm. “No! I mean - when is the first negotiation session scheduled?”

“This evening. It's short notice, but…”

“Go and tell them I'll do it, but I need more time. Give me twenty-four hours.”

“But Eden -”

“Tell them we need more time to gain support for the proposal. Tell them anything, just stall them. If there are no new developments, I'll comply with your wishes, and get us the best treaty I can manage.”

He seemed hesitant.

“Do it for me, pup. Please. Do it for us all.”

He nodded.

She shooed him out of the room and looked back to the open storeroom where her bunk was kept, and at Frost sitting in the middle of the floor. She walked in, closed the door, and sat down next to the computer.

“Frost, I need to talk to Panati in Eden.”

Frost's icon appeared on its top panel. “There has been no human contact initiated from Eden since our last relocation.”

“Then initiate some. Can you communicate with Kraft?”

“I can trace a link to Kraft through our normal channels, but such contact is a high-risk activity. Kraft will not initiate contact without human instruction.”

Would you? It's time to make use of this new assertiveness of yours. “Then your job is to persuade Kraft otherwise. Do what has to be done, but convince Kraft that I must talk to Panati.”

“This may take time.”

“You've got an hour.”

Frost said nothing, though the snowflake icon shifted to a pattern that indicated annoyance.

Emma sat down on her bunk and leaned back to wait.

# # #

Fifty-eight minutes later, Brook Panati appeared on Emma's EnterCom screen. He looked out of breath, and for once wasn't wearing a spacesuit, though he was in a vehicle cab. The vehicle didn't appear to be moving. “You could have done something more subtle than having Kraft send a Repair Vehicle to tap on my window.”

“I only set the timeline, not the method of contact. I apologize, but I have an emergency, and you owe me a favor.”

“For killing Axen?” He frowned. “I'm sorry, it probably wasn't your fault.”

“Axen isn't dead.”

His frown turned into a big smile, and he leaned closer to the camera. “Is he there? They told us he was killed.”

“He isn't here. Actually, I don't know how much I should tell you.”

Panati nodded. “You're right. Don't tell me anything. I've been followed lately. They suspect me. That's why I haven't contacted you. I'm taking a huge risk right now, breaking into a Garage to find a vehicle.” He wrinkled his nose. “It's complicated and irrelevant. We may not have much time. What can I do for you?”

“Eden wants to negotiate a treaty to gain access to our Gene Bank. They say yours was damaged in an accident, and if their ship is ready first, they want to take it, along with our children, with them.”

Panati looked shocked, and outraged. “There was no fragging accident. The Masters destroyed our human Gene Bank, and it was intentional. They believe they can create a master race without it. Though they're in control, there's a strong resistance movement. If they can destroy your Gene Bank, they'll make any debate useless. You can't let them near it.”

“I don't want to, but our leaders are caving in. I need something to take to them, some hard evidence, and I don't have much time.”

He looked at the camera blankly. “I don't know what I can give you. I don't suppose they'd take my word for it?”

She shook her head. “I don't know if I can even reveal your existence without destroying my own credibility, and even if I could, they'd have no special reason to trust you. I need proof of their hostile intentions.”

He thought for a minute. “I just don't know of anything. As I said, I've had to keep a low profile recently. I'm out of the loop.”

She considered the situation. It seemed hopeless. Then an idea struck her. She'd never mentioned her other contact in Eden to Panati, in part because she didn't know whom she could trust, and in part because keeping them separate offered some redundancy. If one source was caught or cut off, the other might continue to feed information. But desperate times call for… “I have another contact in Eden, someone who has provided us useful information through another channel. I don't know if you can trust him, but he may have information we can use, and I have no other way of contacting him.”

Panati looked surprised, but interested.

“Do you know a scientist named Eldon Jensen?”

Panati nodded. “He's been a somewhat reluctant information source in the past.” He smiled and chuckled. “Didn't know Eldon had it in him, a spy at heart after all.”

“As I said, I don't know if you can trust him.”

“My gut says I can. I'm willing to risk it, anyway.”

“Good. I have less than twenty-four hours.”

“I'll get back to you one way or the other.” He blinked and cleared his throat. “Unless of course, I don't.”

# # #

A distraction from the interminable waiting was offered when a lightning raid by Eden forces struck right by the cluster of lab structures. The combat units had rolled through, taken out a Guard Post and a few Plymouth combat units, damaged a building or two, and then charged away as quickly as they'd come.

Emma, Wu, and the others had barely made it to the shelters before the all-clear sounded.

“Well, that was annoying,” said Wu.

Johnson laughed. “That's one way of putting it.”

Emma just thought about the Gene Bank currently under lock and key in Lab Four, and shuddered. What kind of monsters would choose that as a target, would throw away everything that humanity was? She couldn't understand it - although, if the negotiations went on, she might have a chance to find out.

They strolled back into their lab and began to clean up their hastily dropped projects. Emma went into her quarters and was removing the armored blast-cover she'd placed over Frost when she heard Wu calling her frantically from the other room.

She tossed the cover aside and ran in to join him. He stood over a console display. “We got a message in off the satellite while we were in the shelter, short and data only. It says, 'Panati here now. Spy in Plymouth now. Protect Gene Bank. Good luck. Jensen.'”

She stared at him. “Great Maker! The raid. It could have been a cover to drop off a saboteur. Wu, alert the Citizen Patrol.” She hesitated. “They may not believe you. Use my name. See if 'Elder' still carries any clout.” She gestured at the other scientists. “Spread out, check all the airlocks around the labs. Look for signs of forced entry and report anything you find. I'm going to check on the Gene Bank.”

She started for the door, then ran back to her quarters and removed a side-arm from a locked cabinet, a souvenir of the raid on the Gulag, never fired. She jammed the gun in her pocket and ran for the door.

To reach Lab Four, she had to run down a ramp, through two tunnel junctions, and back up another ramp. She was winded by the time she got there, but she couldn't slow down. The safety lock seemed to take forever to respond to her code and cycle open. She slipped inside. The place seemed deserted. Perhaps the scientists working here hadn't yet returned from their shelters.

The Gene Bank was in a locked room at the end of the building, but it seemed wise to check everything along the way. She peeked into each room and lab in turn. Halfway down the corridor, she found the first body. Emma recognized the woman slumped over a lab bench, blood running down the side of her head and covering a ClipCom that lay under her.

Emma touched her neck looking for a pulse, but didn't find one. Frag.

Two doors down she found another man face down on the floor. This one was breathing, but there was no time for first aid. She had to hope that the Citizen Patrol would be close behind her.

She decided to take the direct route to where the Gene Bank was stored, then backtrack if necessary. She moved quietly to the last turn in the corridor, then peered carefully around the corner.

The man was tall, with a pencil-thin mustache, and was working intently on the storeroom lock with an electronic device. He wore a Plymouth pressure suit, but Emma wasn't fooled. She clutched the pistol in her hand and jumped from her hiding place. “Freeze! Get away from that door!”

The man turned slowly, hands up, and threw the electronic lock-pick at her face.

She ducked to one side to avoid it, but before she could recover, the man was charging her. He knocked her arms up. The gun went off harmlessly into the ceiling and flew out of her hands. She was thrown back against the wall, and the man's momentum carried him past her.

She stuck out a foot in front of him and pushed. He stumbled, not quite falling.

It was her turn to rush, taking advantage of his off-balance state to grab his elbow and forearm, twisting them behind his back and propelling him forward against the far wall. He crashed face-first into the panel and Emma threw her weight against his arm. He struggled, but she pulled his forearm up, twisting the joint against its natural motion.

He yelped in pain.

She let off just a little, then pushed again to remind him who was in charge. “Move and I'll break your arm like a pretzel stick.” She could hear voices down the corridor, probably the Citizen Patrol.

“What's a pretzel?” asked the man.

# # #

Emma sat in her chair and looked at the screen on the wall beyond the conference table. The blonde woman there looked harmless enough, even pleasant. Looks could deceive. The woman smiled and introduced herself. “My name is Dr. Echo Van Dozier. I'm the acting Chair of Eden colony. It's a pleasure to meet you, Elder Burke.”

“You as well,” said Emma with false sincerity. It gives the enemy a face.

Van Dozier settled back in her chair as though expecting a long session. “Now, about the Gene Bank.”

Emma smiled back. The smile was genuine. “The Gene Bank is just fine. No thanks to your friend here.” She glanced out of camera range. “Bring him in.”

A pair of Citizen Patrol officers escorted the handcuffed spy into camera range. Later, when things were going especially bad, Emma would replay the recording of the expression on Van Dozier's face as a way of cheering herself up.

Emma leaned toward the camera. “There will be no negotiations today, or ever, unless you are offering terms for the surrender of Eden. Let this be notice that we know exactly what you are, and exactly what you stand for, and that no quarter will be given to stop you from achieving your goal. Forces are aligning against you, both from without, and within. You will not stand. Good day.”

She pressed the button on her wrist-link to cut off the transmission.

The spy just looked at her smiling. Then he laughed, and continued to laugh as they took him away.

She slumped in her chair, and the facade of confidence slid away. Today had been so close to disaster. She only prayed to the Maker that they'd be able to make good on her threats.

Written by J. Steven York.

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