The Ship of the Unforgotten - First Draft


The Ship of the Unforgotten


by Gord McLeod


Chapter 1

Troy Orbital Construction Yard

L1 Orbit, Earth

Apr. 4, 2063 A.C.E.



“... and though we will never see these brave pioneers alive again in our lifetimes, we send them forward with all of our hopes for the betterment of tomorrow. It is with these brave men and women that the dreams of generations past come to fruition, as they will fulfill humanity’s destiny as a multi-planetary species.”

The admiral paused dramatically, head raised, gazing out across the empty void to the hull of the colony ship. She was tethered to the station with only a few remaining umbilicals pending her launch within the hour. He turned back to the sea of glassy floating camera eyes that transmitted his image and his words to the entire population of the Earth.

He paused, cleared his throat of a perfectly calculated flood of emotion.

“Captain Elliot Smith, all of his crew, and all of their colonists will make history this day. It will be five centuries before they set foot on the surface of any world, and they will never again set foot on Earth, the only world our species has known in all of history. But today is a day of celebration. We celebrate their departure. We celebrate their future. And we celebrate the world they will create five hundred years from now, the Eden Rose colony that we will never see, but only dream of.”

The speaker relaxed now. The camera feeds had switched off of him; he watched with the rest of the population as the view shifted to cameras aboard the Rose Dawn where the view panned and cut to linger over each of hundreds of cryonic suspension pods containing the crew and colonists, ensuring every name, every frozen face was given a moment of spotlight before that individual left the Earth forever.

He stood attentive at first, watching with solemnity and dignity, straightening the uniform he wore. Disciplined as he was, even he got fidgety after the second hour.

The total population of the ship was small, only 3000 people, but the alloted 10 seconds per name still made for a lengthy delay. He wished desperately he could slip off for a drink, but he was required for voice overs at key parts of the presentation, spouting off noteworthy facts about key members of the crew and colonist populations. He fought to keep the impatience from his face.

Finally the view shifted to the final pod, the sole empty pod in the entire procession. The name plate read “Captain Smith, Elliot.” Admiral Richards smiled and relaxed a bit. At last, it was over. The view dissolved to a view of the ship’s bridge where Captain Smith himself stood over the controls. The final words would be his.

“It is with the utmost humility, sadness and hope that we undertake this most important of missions,” Smith said. He was young for a captain; the whole crew were young as every body would need to work hard for years to get the colony of New Eden up and running quickly. He was white-skinned but tanned from long years in the service and the faint frosting of white just beginning to show in his pitch-black hair. “We leave you now in the knowledge that one day, our descendants and yours will work together as part of a civilization greater than what we can imagine today.”

The captain lowered his eyes to the deck in contemplation. “I have only two remaining duties before the great sleep of centuries. It has long been a tradition that a ship be christened before it is launched. It is my honor to do so now.”

He strode to a control console where one button shone a bright green. “May you bring us safely home, UTS Rose Dawn.” He pressed the button; the monitor view switched to an open port on the side of the station. A glass bottle of champagne, still corked, flew from the port. The camera panned to follow the straight path of its flight which ended explosively in a fine spray of glass and liquid as it crashed against the bow of the starship.

The view lingered on the crashed bottle for a few short seconds before switching to views of huge crowds from all around the world whooping and cheering and crying.


New Eden Project HQ

Toronto, Canada

Jan. 10, 2065 A.C.E.


“You have got to be kidding me.”

“No sir, I’m afraid not.”

Admiral Richards lowered his head to his hands and tried to slow his breathing. “Are you telling me,” he said, measuring his words carefully, “that we spent trillions of dollars—trillions—on a colonial mission that won’t reach its destination for five hundred years, and now—”

“And now a collaborative think-tank—”

“—a bunch of damned egg-head scientists—”

“—have discovered how to move a ship faster than light, yes sir, I am.”

Richards drew in a breath and blew it out again, slowly. The UTS Rose Dawn was traveling under constant acceleration and had already left the solar system despite having been underway for less than two full years.

“What’re our prospects for stopping the Rose Dawn and bringing her home again?”

“No can do, sir. Even if we had another ship built with a tested version of an FTL drive ready to launch today, it’d take another couple of years to slow the Rose Dawn down, and four more to bring her home. That’s if we had a ship ready to go now. The Rose Dawn was our only ship, and usable Faster-Than-Light will take years to build into a new ship.”

The admiral clicked on the vid window and brought up a news feed summary. The discovery was already all over the outlets; public reaction was astounding. Scanning the feeds quickly showed calls for the recovery of the Rose Dawn, the launching of newer, faster colony ships, the cancellation of the whole project (which made Richards roll his eyes—a bit late there!) and demands for comment from the New Eden project heads. From him.

“What are you going to do, sir?” The young aide asked, looking acutely uncomfortable. The admiral squelched a snort of impatience. He was impatient? He wasn’t the one personally responsible for the decision he had to make next!

“Start drafting a script for immediate release. We’re going to leave the UTS Rose Dawn to continue her current mission, with one alteration. Once we get a working FTL drive built into a ship, we’re sending a second colonization mission on ahead of them.” He sighed. “Let me know when the script’s ready to shoot.”


Chapter 2

New Eden Colonial Council Chambers

New Eden

Feb. 19, 2545 A.C.E.


“Order! Order!” the council chair called. The chambers were awash in agitated talk, as usual. Councilman Rojer Mayet sighed.

Mayet was a slight man, non-descript in appearance, with pale skin, neutral brown hair and pleasant, if plain features and middle age. He’d served on the council for almost ten years and never drawn attention to himself in all that time. Tonight he meant to change that.

“If there’s no other business to bring before the council,” the honorable Syth Welker said. Mayet rapped his sounding-box; all eyes in the room turned to him.

The council chair blinked at him with only the faintest hint of recognition. His eyes flicked, showing his use of a display to recall his name. Mayet sighed inwardly.

“Councilman ... Mayet, the chair recognizes you. You have the floor.”

“Thank you, your honor. There is one issue that we need to address, and we need to do it soon. I’m sure you’re all aware to some degree of the matter of the original colony ship?”

All around the chamber, faces frowned and a murmur of conversation sprang up. Welker’s eyes narrowed. “The ...” His eyes flickered again. “Ah, yes. The United Terran Ship Rose Dawn. What of it, councilman?”

The murmured conversation died down. Mayet looked around the room at a lot of confused faces. “My fellow councilors, you know our history as well as I do. 423 years ago our ancestors arrived here from old Earth and in less than a generation, they built the solid foundation upon which all we’ve achieved has been based.”

He took a sip of water. The room was quiet; he had their attention. It wouldn’t last long though; as he’d said, they already knew the story.

“What most of us have forgotten these last four centuries is that they were not the first settlers old Earth sent here.”

“Nonsense!” blustered an old gentleman he couldn’t see from his vantage point. “Our founders’ ship was the first faster than light ship old Earth ever built! How could they have sent others before us, and why didn’t the founders find them if they did?”

That started the room buzzing again; he looked around at the collection of faces, almost two dozen representatives of the various colonial holdings, and in them he saw some looking thoughtful, others apprehensive. So some of them are starting to remember, then, he thought.

“The first ship that old Earth sent was not found because you are correct, sir. It was not equipped with faster than light drives. It was not found because it hasn’t arrived ... yet.”

The mutterings grew loud at that last. “What do you mean, yet?” someone called. “Surely you’re not suggesting they’d still be on their way?”

“That’s exactly what I’m telling you, yes. The UTS Rose Dawn is still making its way here. I received a report earlier today from my Holding’s university; the Rose Dawn has been spotted.”

The chamber exploded with conversation at that. Mayet sat back in satisfaction. Welker looked as stunned as anyone, and as the uproar carried on, started banging his sound box for order. “Councilman, that ship was supposed to carry thousands of colonists and crew. We can’t possibly cope with that many new arrivals all at once. What do you propose to do about it?”

The second colony ship, the UTS Eden River, had arrived at the new world less than a year after leaving the old. When it arrived, it discovered conditions weren’t as ideal as hoped. Their original mandate had been to prepare the colony, just as the Rose Eden would have, but with the intent of welcoming the second ship when the time came. When this time came.

The original colonists had set out to do just that. In the generations after, though, that mandate had come to be less and less important as the stresses of living on the alien world took their toll and Earth and the Rose Dawn’s memories faded into history and oblivion. The population had quickly grown to max out the planet’s carrying capacity; it was restricted by an atmosphere that was close to that of Earth, but not close enough to enable reliable plant growth.

Things were further complicated by difficulties producing viable soil. The micro-biotic cultures that created fertile soil had difficulty with the mineral composition of the native ground. Even the hydroponic growth of food was slowed by short supplies of just a few key minerals.

The current population of the New Eden colony was roughly 15,000, and food was already in desperately short supply in some areas. Mayet had gone over the numbers carefully when he’d heard the news; 3,000 new arrivals would be catastrophically bad.

“I submit, your honor, that we must turn them away.”

“But where can they go?” It was the same voice as earlier.

Mayet had anticipated the question. “I’ll have my university’s technology department go over their records of old Earth technology of the era. They should be able to find some way to remotely reprogram the ship’s control system to return to Earth. The colonists and crew won’t care, they’ll just stay frozen.”

Mayet smiled to himself as the council chair looked thoughtful. He had no intention of sending those people back to Earth, even if he could; he’d already been briefed on the most basic specifications of the vessel. It wouldn’t have any fuel left by the time it arrived. More importantly, it would carry many secrets lost to the centuries. The ship was a treasure he couldn’t afford to let go of.

Chair Welker allowed the chatter to continue for several minutes, then called for order once more. “Objections to Councilor Mayet’s plan?” Nobody raised a point against it. None of them oversaw the University, and all of them knew of the impact 3,000 new arrivals would have.

Mayet rose and bowed to the chair, mentally working through the details of his plan. It was a shame; the people aboard the ship would be a treasure, too. He wished he could keep them intact.

<>


UTS Rose Dawn

Mar. 16, 2545 A.C.E.


The United Terran Ship Rose Dawn drifted through the depths of space, still decades out from the destination set for it so many centuries before.

It was lighter now than it had been back then. Leaving Sol’s gravitational embrace had been a matter of brute power. They’d burned fuel for a good 250 years, accelerating to a fantastic percentage of light speed. When the initial burn was done, the ship’s AI awoke, flipped the ship around, verified their course, and lit off the massive engines once again to slow them down for arrival. Then it shut itself off once more.

The plan was that the AI wouldn’t wake up again until they were a year out, when it was to perform any last-minute course corrections and oversee any minor repairs that might be needed. The plan hadn’t accounted for the interception of an unexpected signal, however.


Chapter 3

Non-Essential Crew Cryonics Bay 42

UTS Rose Dawn

Jun. 2, 2565 A.C.E.


The cryonics pod door gradually warmed from the inside as power flowed through it. The occupant, identified by the name plate as one “Private Chambers, Dann,” shifted slightly. It was the first movement his body had experienced in close to five hundred years.

The revitalization process took about half an hour. The sleeper’s body was slowly warmed, re-hydrated and revived before consciousness took hold, which itself took another several minutes.

When consciousness did start to reassert itself, the ex-dessicated frozen lump began to think and feel very slowly. He quickly regretted the ‘feel’ part as nerves long-inactive started lodging complaints from his entire body. He lay as still as possible in the pod, partly because all passengers and crew were trained to do so and partly because the shockingly strong pins-and-needles feeling he was experiencing made moving impossible.

He waited for the alert signal his revitalization triggered to bring someone from the medical crew to assist with the rest of the unfreezing process. Lt. Shipman had told him the medical teams would be revived first, and that they should have arrived before he had any desire to even try to move on his own.

So Dann waited. And he waited some more. The cryo-bay was quiet, a fact he noticed once the buzzing of nerves in his ears subsided to a level that let him notice it. His breathing sounded shallow and strangely harsh to him.

He waited long enough that he was feeling far more impatient than uncomfortable. He decided to at least open his eyes. It was a difficult task; that every day ‘just woke up in the morning’ eye gumminess is nothing after 24 hours compared to after 5 centuries.

The bay was dark, lit not by the main lights but rather by instrument readouts and control LEDs. It gave the whole place a dark sort of Christmasy look, Dann thought, at least from the little he could see within the pod.

It was uncanny how quiet the place was, he thought. He opened his mouth to call out, and spent the next full minute in a coughing fit. That’s when he remembered the mass of tubes and needles he was attached to; they were the main reason he was supposed to wait for medical aid in getting up.

He carefully sat up in the pod; none of the other two dozen or so pods that he could see were open. He grimaced; he’d been among those performing final checks on the pods before the ship launched. Everything had come across green. “Hello?” he finally voiced, or tried to. His voice sounded hollow and scratchy and vaguely like a frog with tonsillitis. He desperately wanted water.

“Hello? Anyone there? Rose, are you active?” he tried again. His voice was still dry and wispy, but actually sounded like words this time.

“Yes, Pvt. Chambers, I am active,” a feminine voice responded. Dan sighed in relief. The AI was responding, at least. He wasn’t alone.

“Where are the doctors and nurses? Aren’t they supposed to come up and help me out of this mess?”

“The medical staff are still in their pods, Pvt. Chambers.”

“Wait, what? Why are they still in their pods? Aren’t they supposed to be the first ones awake?”

“The medical staff are dead, Pvt. Chambers.”

Dann’s mouth dropped open. “DEAD! How can they be dead? Rose, what happened?” It certainly explained why nobody else was here; the senior crew should have been awakened and would be busy investigating the deaths in the medical crew cryo-bay.

“My records are incomplete, Pvt. Chambers.”

“Tell me what you know, I’ll try to get myself out of here.” He began plucking needles from his arm, a task complicated by the incredible weakness he still felt, not to mention the shock of the news he’d just received.

“Approximately 20 years ago, the UTS Rose Dawn received a transmission from the approximate location of the planet New Eden. Shortly afterward, a malfunction in the cryo-pod system resulted in the deaths of the medical personnel on board.”

“20 years!” Dann accidentally jabbed one of the needles deeper into his arm and cursed. He pulled at the needles and tubes, but much as he wanted to, he was too slow and weak to disengage himself quickly. “Why didn’t you wake up the senior crew? They’d have gotten some of us techs up to check on the systems!”

“The senior staff are dead, Pvt. Chambers.”

Dann felt dizzy and leaned on the side of the pod. “All of them? How ... what ... who’s left alive on this ship?” he asked, voice even weaker than when he’d revived.

“Pvt. Dann Chambers is the only confirmed living crew member. Unconfirmed living crew members may include Pvt. Lydia Jackson, Pvt. Reginald Powel, Pvt. Sally Castle, Sgt. Irving Ford, Lt. Frederic Cobb—”

“Just ... How many are left?” He’d been horribly afraid for a moment that Rose would report him as the sole surviving person.

“There are one confirmed survivor, fourty-eight unconfirmed survivors, and the mobile interfacing unit remaining.”

“Fourty-eight ...” He looked around at the bays surrounding him. They were all dark, and looking closer, he confirmed that none he could see displayed any indication that the occupants were still alive. Dead for twenty years, he thought with a shiver. “Wait. Your mobile interfacing unit is around? Bring her down, Rose. I need help.”

“Right away, Pvt. Chambers.”


Chapter 4

XLocationX XLocationX XLocationX - XLocationX

XLocationX XLocationX XLocationX

Jun. X, 2565 A.C.E.


Dann had managed to swing one leg out of the pod just enough for his muscles to give out and leave him awkwardly jammed inside when Rose arrived. She was a state of the art android who served as Rose the ship AI’s physical incarnation. Or at least, Dann thought, she’d been state of the art 500 years ago. She was literally an antique by now!

“Good morning, Pvt. Chambers! Let me help you up.” Rose the android had far more personality than Rose the ship computer. It helped her get along with the crew better. Or it usually helped her get along with the crew better.

“Um, Rose ... I just learned that almost three thousand of our shipmates have been dead beside me for 20 years. I’m not thinkin’ it’s such a great morning.”

“That’s true, Pvt. Chambers, but you are still alive, and in just a moment I’ll get you unhooked from the pod.” She was a humanoid android, with a reasonably expressive face that was smiling as she said it. He’d had only minimal contact with her before; the smile looked a little weird to him with her matte metallic “skin.”

“Thank you, Rose. Do you—OW!” Rose began stripping the needles from his arms, legs and torso with great efficiency but not much bedside manner. “Watch out! That’s my skin! OW!”

“I’m sorry, Pvt. Chambers, normally this type of work is outside of my regular duties.”

“Ahhh, that stings!” With Rose’s help, he got himself on his feet. The room was eerie in the near dark. “Lights,” he said, and the main lighting turned on.

“Do you know where the survivors are, Rose?” Dann looked around at the other pods in the room. They were still sealed against the centuries, and whatever had gone wrong with the systems had not interrupted the freezing. The glass on each was frosted, the contents unseen.

“I don’t know for sure that there are any other survivors, Pvt. Chambers.”

“Well how about then possible survivors?”

“The possible survivors are in various locations around the ship, Pvt. Chambers. I can list them for you if you’d like.”

“I’ll never remember all that! Where’s the nearest one?” The ship was huge. In addition to all the drive systems and computer cores one would expect, and the cryo-pod bays necessary for the crew, it contained all of the equipment and pre-fab structures they needed to set up the new colony. This included a massive series of compartments that hosted several square kilometers of artificial biosphere to generate air for the ship, filter both air and water, and provide the new colony with the biological stock it would need to grow.

Dann just hoped that any surviving crew weren’t too far away. His legs definitely didn’t feel up to a long hike.

“Pvt. Lydia Jackson’s cryo-pod is not responsive to status update requests. It’s located in the next storage chamber.”

“Okay. We’ve got to go check on her.” Dann took a few steps experimentally to test his legs out. It was astonishing how much 500 years of frozen, dehydrated immobility could take out of you.

“I recommend waiting before doing so, Pvt. Chambers. You haven’t taken the recommended two liters of water prescribed for post-cryogenic trips of two weeks or more yet, and—”

“Can’t I take it on the way? Most of the crew is dead, Rose, I have to check on anybody who may be left!”

“If you insist, Pvt. Chambers.” She—it—she—Dann settled on thinking of her as she—handed him a thin, white robe. That was when Dann noticed he was naked. He’d probably have blushed if he’d had enough liquid in him.

He shrugged the robe on and checked himself over. He was used to thinking of himself as having a decent tan, but he was so white now he looked like a ghost. His skin was almost translucent, with blue veins visible everywhere. He was incredibly thin, too, which accounted for some of his weakness. Cryo-sleep slowed metabolism to a crawl, but didn’t entirely stop it. His muscles, never the largest or strongest, had atrophied over the centuries. “Oh man, I look like crap,” he said, with almost a tone of wonder in his voice.

“It’s an unavoidable side-effect of such a long cryo-sleep, Pvt. Chambers. Your health will return with proper care.” Rose returned and handed him a large two-liter bottle of water, a proper uniform and a ration bar.

Dann tore into the ration bar, the sight of food triggering a hunger like he’d never known. “Pvt. Chambers, you should drink some of the water fir—”

Dann was already finished the bar. “Any more of those around?” He popped the top off the water bottle and drank several mouthfuls down, intent on starting the search for other survivors. He stood still, letting the water flow into his system, then stood very still as his stomach, unused to containing anything after hundreds of years of dormancy, protested the sudden flood with a loud and supremely uncomfortable gurgle.

“Ooooh... urgh...”

“Your system isn’t used to processing food and water yet. I’d slow down if I were you.”

“You think?” he groaned, and leaned against the wall. “C’mon... ugh!”

“You need to slow, Pvt. Chambers,” Rose admonished. “No other pods have activated. If there are others alive, they’re not going anywhere until we get there.”

Dann let himself relax a little. “Okay, okay.” He took more water, sipping it this time. He was starting to recover a little strength. He turned his attention to the uniform. It was a set of light-duty blue fatigues for on-board wear; long shorts with plenty of pockets, a tank top, boxers, socks and heavy boots with electro-magnets embedded in the soles for traversing areas of the ship that weren’t spinning to provide the equivalent of gravity. He started changing, then glanced at Rose, who stood by, passively observing. “Um, Rose, if you wouldn’t mind ...”

“Of course, Pvt. Chambers,” she said and turned away.

He had to stop several times while dressing to take more water. As his system adjusted to the intake, he needed more and more of it. Once he was dressed, he was swigging from the bottle freely, without pain, though he still couldn’t take a lot at once.

“Feeling better, Pvt. Chambers?” Rose asked, once Dann tapped her on the shoulder to indicate it was safe for her to turn around. He felt vaguely ridiculous being modest in front of an android, but her face was just real enough, and just unreal enough, to be unnerving. The uncanny valley, some called it.

It wasn’t so much her metal skin, nor her features; they looked and moved just like they should. When she talked, she had all the patterns down right, except maybe for a slight inflexibility in her speech. It was worse in the ship-board Rose, but there was still a touch of it to the android too. No, he thought. It was the eyes. They’d just never quite gotten the eyes right. Maybe, he thought suddenly, it was that the eyes were right, but they were windows into a soul that wasn’t there.

Those eyes regarded him curiously, waiting. He blinked. “Yes, sorry, Rose. I’m feeling a lot better, thanks. Now can we get going?”

She unlatched the door and opened it up. Sunlight spilled into the bay, and noise filled the air.

They stepped out into one of the gigantic artificial biospheres. Birds chirped among the branches of huge trees, some that looked all the hundreds of years they must have lived. Insects buzzed, and small animals scampered away at the unfamiliar scent of human. Somewhere close, a brook babbled away to itself, helping to filter and clean the ship’s water in as close to a natural cycle as humanity could design.

Dann’s eyes were wide as saucers. “This place ... I knew this was the idea, but it feels like I was just here, it was nothing like this when we left!” The biospheres had been just a few years old, prepared in advance of the launch and allowed to grow and get settled. There was a huge difference between a 2 year old managed simulation, though, and that same system, left to fend for and manage itself for centuries.

“True, Pvt. Chambers, a lot has changed over the centuries,” Rose agreed. “My observations have documented 4,728 examples of evolutionary adaptation giving rise to new species, and a further 15,171 adaptations of more subtle varieties.”

“Huh?”

They set off toward the cryo-bay that housed Pvt. Jackson. “New species, Pvt. Chambers, and adaptations within Earth species.”

“But all of this stuff is from Earth!”

“Originally, yes. After 500 years though, only the oldest trees actually originated on Earth. Everything else has lived, reproduced, died, and accumulated changes due to the unusual stresses of living aboard a moving, rotating star ship instead of on a planet. Nothing has changed so much that it’s unrecognizable, but many things, especially the complex bacteria and smaller, shorter-lived species like insects, have undergone tremendous evolutionary changes. They now represent species native to, and unique to, this one ship.”

Just at that moment, something that might once have been a mosquito landed on Dann’s shoulder and bit him. “Augh! If they’re so different, why’re they after me? They haven’t had humans to attack in hundreds of years!”

“They do feed on other animal life though, large and small.” She stopped outside of the bay they were looking for. “Here we are, Pvt. Chambers. Pvt. Jackson lies within.”


Chapter 5

Biome Bay 2 - Temperate Woodlands

UTS Rose Dawn

Jun. 2, 2565 A.C.E.


The building before them rose out of forest like the ancient, all but abandoned artifact it was. Only the efforts of the ship’s autonomous maintenance bots had kept the living, evolving forest from tearing it apart.

As it was, it rose out of the ground on one side only, large reinforced doors set into a windowless wall. There was no roof as such; the building was covered with earth to provide more space for the habitat to grow and spread. The earthen ‘roof’ blended down the sides into the ground, making the building appear to be nothing more than a small hill anywhere but from directly in front.

Rose opened the door, an action that took more force than was strictly necessary for a standard door. These were reinforced, a precaution that had seemed wise in the face of unknown and unpredictable evolutionary twists and turns in the biospheres set up aboard ship.

Inside, the lab was virtually indistinguishable from the one they’d left. Rows upon rows of cryo-pods filled the space. Also like the other bay, the pods here were frosted over, the occupants obscured, and all the status indicator lights showed red. All, that is, except one.

Dann examined the sole green-lit pod. “Private Jackson, Lydia” read the name plate affixed to the front of the pod. He rubbed the pod’s transparent cover, but the frost coated the inside.

“I wonder why just this one pod survived,” Dann asked absently.

“I’m afraid I don’t know, Pvt. Chambers,” the android answered.

“You don’t have to call me that all the time,” Dann commented. “Dann will do. Or just private.”

“Alright, Dann,” she said. “Do you intend to awaken Pvt. Jackson?”

“We’d better. Her pod’s still working, and we don’t know what caused the others to fail. There’s no telling if or when hers will, too.”

“True.” The android gracefully began tapping the controls on the pod’s front console, beginning a manual revivification program.

They stepped back as the pod began to heat up and settled in to wait. Dann made sure they had clothes, food and water ready this time.

A short while later, the cover unsealed itself and retracted. “Um, Rose, why don’t you disconnect her and get her dressed. I’ll wait over here,” Dann said uncomfortably.

When Jackson was dressed, unplugged, sipping water slowly and digesting the news of the crew’s fate, Dann turned to Rose. “Where’s the next possibility?” he asked quietly.

The android cocked her head for a moment. “The next nearest possible survivor is Lt. Cobb.”

The private nodded.

“Rose.” It was Jackson. Her voice was scratchy and dry; she looked as terrible as Dann had felt. She also looked intent, staring at Rose with a keen interest. “How do you know where Lt. Cobb is? How did you know where I am?”

The android turned to her. “I have access to most ship systems, Pvt. Jackson, and from that access I am aware of which pods aren’t responding to automated command and control pathways.”

“What happened to the rest of the crew, Rose?”

“A majority of the crew were confirmed dead almost 20 years ago, Pvt. Jackson. Remaining crew are either here right now, or unconfirmed in non-responsive pods.”

Jackson was silent a moment, still struggling to process the information. Dann could relate. “So wait, the survivors are in the pods that were NOT responding to control?”

“Yes, that’s correct, Pvt. Jackson.”

“Jackson, are you feeling up to moving on? There are lots of others to check on, all over the ship.” Dann felt a bit more at peace with Jackson revived; if nothing else he knew he wasn’t trapped in the future alone, but they still needed to be sure the remaining pods didn’t fail, or at least find out if they already had failed.

“Sure,” she said. She was tall, but looked every bit as emaciated as Dann himself did.

“You’ll feel better quick once we’re moving, at least as long as you don’t chug that down too quickly.”

“Pvt. Chambers learned that the hard way,” Rose added helpfully.

“Thanks, Rose,” Dann sighed.

Jackson didn’t smile. They exited the bay, where she blinked and looked around at the woods in wonder. Dann at least had seen the initial setup centuries before. This was Jackson’s first time seeing any of it. They passed dense thickets, meadows lit by ship-central overhead lighting designed to mimic the sun, thick bramble bushes covered with berries—many, many edible plants were included in the ship’s biomes—and crossed two streams within minutes of each other.

After they’d walked for about fifteen minutes through the wild brush, she spoke up. “What caused all of this?”

“Centuries of wild growth. And evolution, Rose says.”

“No, not this. What caused most of the crew to die? What went wrong?”

“Ah, yeah. Rose told me—” Dann’s head snapped up, eyes wide. He remembered something Rose had said while he was still too fuzzy-headed to have been clear about it at the time. “—Rose, you said there was a signal from the planet we were sent to colonize!”

What!” Jackson exclaimed.

“Actually Dann, what I said was it was from the approximate location of the planet. I wasn’t able to confirm the source with absolute certainty.”

“You didn’t ask about this?” Jackson ground out.

“Hey, you know how you felt when you’d just woke up? That was me, okay? Cut me some slack here.”

Jackson snorted. “Rose, tell us exactly what happened, everything you know. Why’d so many pods fail all at once?

“I ...” The android stopped, stood unnervingly still in the shadow of a massive old oak. Her eyes glowed faintly from within; Dann saw them scanning back and forth, almost as if she were reading something. Dann glanced at Jackson, who looked back, puzzled.

“Rose?” Dann prompted.

“I’m sorry Dann, Pvt. Jackson,” Rose said. “I’m having trouble accessing the archival data caches. My access is blocked.”

Jackson coughed, looked up in consternation. “What? Who can block your access?”

“Rose can,” Rose said. “The ship’s computer.”

“But you are Rose.” Dann knew there was a physical separation between the two systems, but—

“That’s not completely true, Dann. I’m designed for autonomous operation, and so I’m largely self-contained. I can access the resources of the shipboard systems to augment my own performance, but I am subject to system-level permissions. I’m locked out of accessing the records of the incident that led to the deaths of the crew 20 years ago.”

Dann was having trouble processing the notion that Rose was Rose but wasn’t Rose. “We’re going to have to rename one of you, I think.”

Jackson nodded. “Definitely. This is making my head hurt even worse. Rose—ship’s computer rose, I mean—why are you cutting off Rose’s access to those records?”

There was no response. “She can’t answer audibly from here, there are no speakers. If you want to talk directly with her we’ll have to wait until we reach the next bay. Or if you prefer, I can act as a relay.”

“Let’s do that. What does she have to say?”

“She says the lockout is a safety protocol.”

Dann frowned and looked at Jackson. She shrugged. “I’m no computer tech.”

“Me neither, I just fix mechanical stuff, mostly pipes and conduits.” He had a sudden thought. “Rose, those other pods, do any of ‘em have computer techs in them?”

“Several, yes.”

“Maybe they can help us get to the bottom of this. I don’t even know what questions to ask,” Dann said. “What’s the closest one?”

“Computer techs were kept in a cryo-bay closer to the computer cores. We’ll have to travel through several of the biomes to reach them.”

“A bit of a hike won’t hurt us,” Jackson opined.

“We will have to visit an armory before we make the attempt.”

Dann blinked. “Armory? Why?”

“In case we run into higher-order predators.”

Predators?” Jackson blurted out. “Why the hell are there predators on the ship?”

“The biomes needed to be self-sufficient for centuries. Food webs were established to ensure that, and healthy food webs require high-order predators to keep herbivores and other, lower-order predators in check.”

“Well what keeps the predators in check then?” Dann asked.

“Availability of food, territory and competition with other predators. There aren’t a large number of them; a ship this size, as large as it is, couldn’t support large populations of carnivores. In your weakened state though, it’s best to be safe and go armed.”

“You didn’t think to tell me this before we went after Jackson?” Dann was nervously keeping an eye on their surroundings now, certain they were being stalked on all sides.

“There may be protocols in place for armed escorts out of the biomes, but if so, they’re not part of my defaults. They would have been implemented by the crew.”

Dann groaned. At least he had the (somewhat uncharitable) satisfaction of knowing whoever had designed this ship was long dead.


Chapter 6

XLocationX XLocationX XLocationX - XLocationX

XLocationX XLocationX XLocationX

Jun. X, 2565 A.C.E.


Dann, Jackson and Rose marched at a slow but steady pace. According to Rose, the nearest armory wasn’t far; there were armories intentionally placed near all of the cryo-bays in anticipation of problems with predatory animals, no matter how unlikely it seemed that problems would result.

They moved as quickly as they could through the lightly forested landscape. Over and over, Dann was struck by how natural the place felt. It was only when he looked up high enough to see the superstructure of the ship that he remembered he was not actually in some forest on Earth.

The “sky” was a bit unsettling, but also beautiful to behold. The biome enclosures were massive wedges fitted around the central spine of the ship. The enclosures spun around that spine, providing an adequate simulation of gravity for the land-bound inhabitants. Birds and bats that flew too high would sometimes run into some trouble.

Because the land occupied the outer edge of the wedges, the air space above the ground was limited. This limited the ability for spontaneous internal weather to occur, though it didn’t prevent it entirely. Heat sources under the ground would vary land conditions and encourage micro-climates under Rose’s control, and likewise, she could pump rain into a biome when she felt it was needed.

There was some sort of directional light source that did a very good job of looking like sunlight, and was matched by a bright spot on the interior hull that stood in for a visible sun. The part of the sky that faced space was translucent and blue and beautiful; the difficult part came from looking more into the center of the ship, towards the spine where the biomes joined. The division between the biome wedges was semi-transparent and bluish, but it was all too easy to feel like you were staring down at the ground from a very high place if you weren’t careful. Seasons were simulated by both light and temperature control; they were in late spring, about to go into summer.

Dan had discovered that during the first hike on the way to Jackson’s cryo-bay. He’d been fascinated by the views of what looked like very small islands in a sea, some sort of much more heavily forested region and one that was craggy, snowy and rocky, some sort of sub-arctic habitat. The one directly opposite them on the ship was too difficult to see to get an idea of what it looked like, though when he’d asked, Rose had told him it was patterned after an African savanna.

Jackson seemed uninterested in the view after her first shocked sighting of it. She’d stared as though unsure whether she wanted to study it or be sick, and then paid it little mind thereafter. Dann had tried to talk to her few times as they moved on, but she was brusque, intent on reaching the armory as fast as possible.

They saw no sign of the predators on their path. Dann did notice there were paths here and there throughout the woods.

“Rose, did you create these paths we’re using?”

“My passing through the biomes has aided in maintaining them over the years, Dann, but most of the trails are natural animal trails.”

They did hear plenty of small wild animals, and sometimes caught sight of them. Squirrels and chipmunks, rabbits, deer and moose were all represented, among others. Predators included fox and wolves, some wild cats, snakes and bears. There were predatory birds as well, primarily hawks and owls. Smaller birds flitted among the treetops, and the ponds and streams were inhabited by fish and frogs.

Nothing was as populous as the ever-present insects. Neither Dann nor Jackson could take more than 3 seconds without waving some sort of bug away, and both received several bites before they finally arrived. On the plus side, this kept them distracted enough to stop worrying so much about predators, which Rose kept an eye out for for them.

The armory was a small building designed like a bunker. The doors were similar to those on the cryo-bays, but even heavier looking. Rose punched in a code on what looked to be a physical keypad, then dragged the heavy door open. It groaned and protested every year it had remained closed, sliding outward with a grinding noise Dann was sure was enough to wake the dead. It left a scraped up, scratched brown patch of earth through the underbrush that had grown in front of the door.

Dann stepped forward to peer in. The space beyond was dark, but there was very little dust and there were no cobwebs to be seen, at least in the immediate area the simulated sun lit up. “Huh, I would’ve expected it to be dirtier after all this time. You get in there to clean often?” he said to Rose.

“No, Dann, but the armories are built to the same specifications as the cryo-bays; they’re air-tight when sealed. They need very little cleaning.”

Dann was about to comment when a rustling sound near his foot caught his attention. He looked down just in time to see a long, dark green and brown blur rearing back to strike. He stumbled back with a yell.

A grey blur of motion swooped in from the side. When Dann recovered his balance, Rose was kneeling in front of the door, a hissing and angry snake held by the neck in her hand. The large brown triangular head fixed beady eyes on him, mouth agape, long fangs glinting in the sun.

“Be careful where you step, Dann. Rattlesnakes have been spreading through this biome for the last few hundred years. They can sometimes be difficult to see in the spectra of light you use.” She stood straight up, still grasping the snake. She coiled its body around her arms and carried it some distance before letting it go. As she did so, the distinctive rattle sound sent shivers down Dann’s spine.

“Scared of snakes?” Jackson looked irritatingly calm after the encounter. But then, it hadn’t been rearing back at her.

“Wasn’t till now,” he said. “Never really had to deal with them before.”

Rose returned after a few moments. “It shouldn’t bother you now.” She turned her attention to the vacant doorway and hit a switch inside, flooding the dark interior space with light.

“Wow,” Dann breathed. “There’re enough guns in here for a small army!”

“A very small army,” Jackson said. “More like a platoon or small company.”

Rose equipped herself with a sub-machine gun, small caliber pistol and ammo for both, then handed the same load-out to Jackson. Jackson cracked a smile for the first time since she’d awakened and immediately set to inspecting and cleaning the weapons.

To Dann, Rose handed a pistol and ammo. “What about the other gun?” he asked.

“I’m sorry Dan, but maintenance crew aren’t authorized for more than basic arms, and you don’t have any personal certification for weapon grades higher than that.”

He frowned and looked at it, then looked around at the vast stores around them. “Do you really think anyone’s going to care about the regs given that almost the entire population is dead?”

“We can discuss exceptions with a officer once we revive someone of sufficient rank, but for now I can’t issue you anything more.”

“Yeah,” Jackson chimed in. “You don’t know what you’re doing with a bigger gun. Stick to the pea shooter for now. No offense. With somethin’ bigger you’d probably just end up shooting me, and that’s somethin’ you really don’t want to do.”

He sighed and set about inspecting and cleaning his own weapon. She was right; he’d only had the most basic weapons training. He’d never thought he’d need to use a weapon. He’d certainly never thought he’d need it to defend against wild animals on board the ship.

Rose disappeared into the back of the armory. She returned by the time Dann was done cleaning the pistol; Jackson had long since finished both of her weapons. The sleek android handed each of them a sheathed knife, and then a much longer bladed weapon.

“Swords?” Dann wondered aloud.

“Machetes,” Rose corrected. “We’ll need them. The bay we need to access is located in the rain forest biome. The vegetation there is much denser than it is here.”

They rested a short time, eating and drinking more. Dann was starting to feel almost human again, and Jackson was looking better too. Finally they set back out into the woods again.

Rose led them off in the same direction they’d been traveling to reach the armory. It was mid-afternoon and travel would be slow. In the event of a proper awakening with an intact crew, there would have been elevator-like lift cars available near each cryo-bay, but the shuttles were secured before launch and they were going to stay secured for the foreseeable future without anyone to prep them for use. That meant going the long way.


Chapter 7

XLocationX XLocationX XLocationX - XLocationX

XLocationX XLocationX XLocationX

Jun. X, 2565 A.C.E.


They’d been traveling for hours and the “sun” was beginning to “set” when Rose left them.

Her departure was sudden; she had lead them across the forested biome were nearing the passage into the rain forest section when she’d stopped dead in her tracks for almost two minutes. She’d been completely unresponsive, standing like a statue while Dann and Jackson tried to get her attention to no avail.

Finally she reactivated, as though a switch had been thrown. “I’m sorry,” she’d said. “A situation has come up that requires my attention.” She’d dropped the supplies she’d been carrying; extra food and some ammunition for each of them, and then she’d run off with no further explanation. She was far too fast for them to catch her, so they’d simply stared after her, stunned.

When it became clear she was going to be gone longer than ten minutes and that they were going to have to find somewhere to hole up for the night, they divided what she’d left and set out.

“She couldn’t take ten seconds to direct us to a cryo-bay or armory to stay in?” Jackson growled.

“Given the choice, I’d take an armory,” Dann said. “We’ve already woken up once this century surrounded by the bodies of our crew. I’m not anxious to do it again.”

“It’s better than staying out here. A lot of predators are nocturnal.”

“True. We know they’re dug into the ground, but rise above it. We should check any small hills we see.”

His words were punctuated by a low, ghostly sound that reminded him of nothing so much as a wolf call, as though the wolf were whispering.

He grabbed the pistol out of his belt and gripped it tight. “What was that?”

“Keep moving,” Jackson said. She kept her voice low; her eyes were narrowed in the dimming light. There was no actual twilight on the ship; the compartments didn’t contain enough atmosphere or the proper lighting to simulate the effect. It was all too good at impairing their vision though.

The sound wasn’t repeated; cautiously they kept moving. They’d checked several hills as they went on in the same direction Rose had led them in. They’d found nothing so far, but there were several more directly in their path.

After a few minutes, the sound came again; it was both closer and quieter, and nearly caused Dann to jump out of his skin. At the same time, Jackson exclaimed, “Got one!” and pointed at a barely-visible door recessed into the sheer side of a hill. They ran for it just as a chorus of answering whispered howls echoed through the air.

Dann reached the door first, and immediately started wrestling with the latch. A glance told him there was no keypad; a cryo-bay then, not an armory. Jackson stood behind him, weapon drawn, keeping watch.

The door wasn’t as thick and heavy as an armory door, but it was heavy enough, and hadn’t moved in centuries. The latch felt like it was gummed in place; he could move it, but slowly, and only with a lot of effort. “Um, Chambers? Now’d be a real good time,” Jackson said.

Dann jammed his body against the latch and felt it give; when he’d lifted it as high as it’d go, he pulled on it with his body weight and the door rasped open. “It’s open!”

“Get in!” Jackson yelled, and fired several bursts from her weapon. The air filled with growls that sounded far more wolf-like than the howling had.

Dann didn’t wait to be told twice. He all but dived in and stood by the door; Jackson followed and together they began hauling it shut again. Before it closed Dann caught the image of a long-bodied, low slung wolf form with grey-white fur and piercing, ice-blue eyes snarling at him before the door slammed shut with a solid thump. Several more thumps spoke to the ferocity with which they’d been hunted.

They caught their breath in the near dark; much like the bays they’d awakened in, the only light came from bank after bank of controls with brightly colored LEDs shining away through the centuries. Dann found the light controls and hit them, lighting up the bay.

They moved into the interior, the banging of the animals outside subsiding to faint thuds that eventually stopped entirely. Around them, pods waited silently, holding the bodies of those who would never arrive on the new world they’d been promised.

Jackson ignored the pods, finding a spot against a wall to sit. She immediately began cleaning and inspecting her weapon again. Dann picked a spot not too far off and watched for a bit.

“What was your department?”

“I am in security,” she said, not looking up.

“That explains the weapon clearances I guess,” he said. She just nodded noncommittally. He wished suddenly for some of the conveniences they’d had to leave behind them from the world before; personal entertainment devices that fit in pockets or on your wrist had been dismissed from the journey as distractions they couldn’t afford to have. Eventually they’d be made available again, but that would likely be years away.

He found himself looking over the room, eyes drawn by a dim green light. He stared at it for several minutes, lost in his thoughts, until finally the image caught up with his mind. “Hey,” he said, startled.

Jackson looked up, surprised herself at his sudden outburst. “What?”

“Hey, that one’s green. Another of the survivors is here!” He got to his feet.

“So? We’re not after this one. We need someone to get us closer to figuring out this computer issue, give us some idea of what’s going on.”

“Shouldn’t we wake as many as we can along the way though? We can’t just leave them here!”

“Why not? They’ve lasted five hundred years, and whatever went wrong didn’t get them twenty years ago. They’ll keep.”

“What if they start waking up?” Dann was a bit affronted at what he saw as her casual disregard for her fellow crew.

“Why would they just start waking up for no reason?”

“I did!”

She frowned. “Rose must have awakened you.”

Dann frowned as well. “I didn’t ask. I was too busy feeling like I was dying.” He cursed himself for not having thought of it earlier. “Rose? What caused me to be awakened?”

“Your pod was awakened on the originally specified schedule, Dann.”

“I was? But ... wait, why was I the only one? Was I the only one? Are there others out there?”

“There is one other revived maintenance crew in addition to yourself and Pvt. Jackson.”

“Only one?” Dann’s heart began to sink.

“No other surviving maintenance personnel were scheduled to wake up at this time.”

“Does this have something to do with where Rose went?”

“Ugh. We definitely need to rename one of them,” Jackson complained.

Dann smiled at her in spite of himself. Rose replied, “Yes. I was summoned to assist the awakening of Lt. Cobb in my physical form.”

“Lt. Cobb—you mean Fred Cobb? He survived?” Dann felt a bit of weight rise off his shoulders. He didn’t know the Lieutenant well, but had met the man on several occasions. Jackson looked mildly interested as well, more at Dann’s own tone than in the circumstances, he thought. “Where is his cryo-pod?”

“Hang on there,” Jackson said, “you’re not thinking of going after them are you? We’ve got an objective to reach already here.”

“One we don’t know how to find without Rose. I’m sure she intended to rejoin us anyway, didn’t she?”

“One moment, Dann.” The computer’s voice paused for a moment. “Yes, though Lt. Cobb suffered an extended wait and is very weak, I’m afraid. It will be some time before they can catch up to you.”

“I say we meet them half-way. We’re going to need Rose to navigate the rain forest anyway. We almost got eaten here, I can only imagine what’s waiting there.

Jackson scowled. “Fine, we do it your way. But we do it tomorrow. And I say we do it alone; leave the popsicles frozen for now.”

Dann returned her scowl and started to open his mouth to reply when Rose cut in. “I would advice against reviving any more people than is necessary, Dann. The larger the group, the slower we move.”

“Fine. Okay, fine. You’re right; you’re right. I just ...”

“As long as you leave the door secured when you leave, the pod will be safe.”

Dann didn’t like that that, but privately admitted the sense of it to himself. They dug some of the unnecessary hospital gowns out of storage for use as blankets and settled in for the night.


Chapter Seven

Chapter 8

XLocationX XLocationX XLocationX - XLocationX

XLocationX XLocationX XLocationX

Jun. X, 2565 A.C.E.


The next morning they rose slowly; they had little choice in the matter. They were still terribly weak, and sleeping on the floor in a cryo-chamber after the exertions of the previous day hadn’t helped. Jackson rose slowly and painfully and immediately began stretching the ache out of her body. Dann felt a strange sympathetic pain just looking at her.

“How can you even think about moving like that?” he asked, digging among their rations for something appealing as breakfast.

“It sucks now, but it’ll hurt a lot less as soon as I’m done. You should give it a try. You must’ve done it in basic?”

“Maybe after I eat. I’m starving.”

Jackson shrugged and kept stretching. Dann grabbed a sealed plastic packet of cereal and struggled with it for a good half a minute, but couldn’t move well enough to get it open; he gave up in disgust, muscles screaming at him. “Okay, so maybe I should stretch it out a bit.”

They worked out for several minutes, Jackson falling into a sort of trainer role, sharply correcting his mistakes as they worked out the stiffness in their bodies. To Dann’s relief, the pain faded pretty quickly. His mind felt sharper, quicker. They returned to the task of breakfast; Dann attacked the stubborn plastic pouch with the blade of his knife and they quickly finished eating.

“Rose? What direction should we be headed in?”

“Rose and Lt. Cobb are approximately two kilometers north of your location.”

They packed up their supplies, used the facilities, and, with a look back at the lone green cryo-pod light, returned to the securely closed door. “Think they’re still out there?”

“They’re around somewhere. Hopefully nowhere near here though,” Jackson said.

“I don’t suppose you know if those ... things ... are still around, Rose?”

“I’m afraid not, Dann. I can’t track specific animals with that kind of accuracy without the help of the autonomous platform.”

“Was worth a shot,” he said. “I guess we open up and hope for the best.”

“I’m ready,” Jackson said, weapon already raised. Dann cracked the door open with a long, loud metallic creak of protest, and backed out of the way to ensure Jackson had a clear shot.

She paused inside the open door, eyes alert, the sub-machine gun ready. Outside there was dead silence; she frowned. “Hear that?” Her voice was pitched low.

“I don’t hear anything,” Dann replied in a hushed tone.

“I used to go hunting a lot as a kid. Silence meant something predatory was in the area.”

“Does that mean they’re still here?” A trickle of sweat appeared on his back.

“I don’t know. Could’ve been a reaction to the door opening. It was awfully loud.”

When nothing materialized to attack them, she moved out smoothly, checking in front, to each side, and turning quickly to look to the hilltop above the door. Dann followed her out, closing and securing the door as he left.

She lead him up to the top of the hill and they carefully checked the area, but aside from tree branches moving in the wind, there was no sign of motion.

“Okay,” Dan said. “Rose said a couple of clicks north.” They took a moment to get their bearings by the artificial sun; the cardinal directions were defined by the path of the light, just as it was back on Earth. They’d been headed in a roughly west-north-westerly direction the previous day.

Together they set off north, making far better progress than they had the previous day. Dann felt stronger, and though it was hard to tell on the move, he felt like he was beginning to regain some of the muscle mass he’d lost on the trip. Jackson was looking a lot less gaunt, too, he noticed. She was fairly tall, with the kind of wirey muscles that didn’t need a lot of mass to be strong. There was a rough beauty to her features that was a bit unconventional, but could still turn heads when she wasn’t contorting them in a scowl. Right now she looked resolute as they pressed on to their destination.

Dann could hardly take his eyes off the landscape as they passed through the more lightly wooded north-west area. His few memories of the biome pre-launch had been of an area largely covered with freshly cut grass and lots of young saplings and bushes. The pure beauty of the woodlands that had grown in the centuries since were simply breathtaking.

“C’mon Chambers, keep up. We don’t have time to sightsee here,” Jackson complained any time he slowed too much. At such times, he found himself gritting his teeth and holding his tongue.

They’d traveled far enough that he figured they must be getting to the right ballpark when distant shouting reached them. Jackson was instantly on the alert, seeking the source of the voice. Dann was right behind her. They were passing around a thick copse of old trees and coming up on a clearing. Far ahead and across the clearing, Dann could just make out a figure running towards them and waving.

“There,” he said. A second figure moved into sight; Rose, by the color. They were both moving fast, faster than Dann would have expected from the one that must be the lieutenant, and their voices were agitated. “I can’t make out what they’re saying,” he started to say. He got about as far as ‘make’ when a passing cement truck clipped him on the head and the ground slammed up into his face.

The growling, yelling and shooting that followed flowed over him like water across his bubble of shock as he crawled, dream-like, away from whatever had struck him. His head was ringing badly enough that he couldn’t stand, but he got himself to the base of a tree trunk and turned, then very nearly turned away again. Jackson had her SMG out and was firing point blank at what was by far the most terrifying bear Dann had ever seen, her features twisted in terror. The smallest of the thing’s limbs was thicker around than all four of his together. From where he lay, it looked like it must’ve been eight times the mass of the gun-toting private.

It reared back on its hind legs, standing so tall it almost blotted out the sky as he looked up at it.

He gaped, then remembered that she wasn’t the only one with a weapon. He fumbled for his pistol, brought it up in shaky hands, even remembered to click the safety off. Hands shaking, he tried to line up on the beast, but the best he could do was keep it away from Jackson’s direction. He squeezed off several shots just as the bear looked like it was rearing back to strike at her.

It ignored—or didn’t notice—the shots, and its arm smashed her to the ground with incredible force. But then it turned back to him and rushed him with shocking speed. Fleshy, furry mountains shouldn’t move that fast, he thought, gun still raised. He was just about to fire another shot out of instinct when his arm was jostled as a grey blur practically flew past him and into the oncoming bear.

In the best show of proof anyone could hope for that Rose was designed to be far stronger and heavier than any human of her size, she and the bear went tumbling across the forest floor as she tackled it. It swiped at her and beat her down, but couldn’t dislodge her, and inch by inch she got it pinned to the ground. “Get out of here! Get to the lieutenant! Circle around, I’ll rejoin you when you’re clear!”

Dann struggled forward, crawling as quick as he could toward where Jackson had fallen. She was staggering to her feet as he arrived, and grabbed his arm to haul him to his. Together they staggered toward the clearing; the lieutenant was halfway across.

Dann barely recognized the man, bald and haggard as he was after the freeze. He looked worse than they had; maybe the extended wait had had something to do with it, Dann thought to himself. The lieutenant seemed to recognize him easily enough, though.

“Chambers? What’s this about? Rose took off and—”

“Bear. Huge one. She’s holding it, we have to circle around,” Jackson cut in.

“She’s holding ... never mind, let’s move out,” he said, exhaustion showing.

“They’re just in past the edge of the clearing,” Dann said as they moved on. The other man was a shadow of the man Dann remembered, but handled himself well in a crisis.

“We’ll cut wide past these trees, work ourselves out to clearer terrain.” They matched action to words, and soon were circling the denser woods and headed back south. Some 20 minutes later Rose rejoined them. There was no sign of the bear, save for a few scratches on Rose’s smart-skin.

“It won’t be following us,” Rose stated with a glance back the way she’d come.

“Is it ...” Dan started to ask, hesitantly.

“Dead? No, it’s too valuable to kill. I restrained it until you were away and then lead it in the other direction before breaking off to rejoin you.”

“I filled it so full of lead it should be dead,” Jackson spat. Her face was scratched across one side and turning a lovely shade of green and yellow where a bruise was fast growing.

“I’ll make sure it survives,” Rose said.

“Waste of nanotech if you ask me.” Jackson slung her weapon and they continued their path to the rain forest biome.


Chapter 9

Biome Bay 6 - Rain Forest

UTS Rose Dawn

Jun. 3, 2565 A.C.E.


The connection points between biomes were immense, as it turned out. Dann had never had cause to see one, and had thought they’d be small and sealed off, a door like those on the armories and cryo-pods.

They passed instead through a giant opening in the wall between the two compartments. It was at least as wide as a football field was long, and half as tall as that. It might have been possible to miss entirely the fact that they were leaving the temperate woodlands behind had it not been for the climactic blending that occurred right near the passage.

The rain forest biome was kept several degrees hotter than the temperate woods, and this increased temperature spilled over noticeably well before they actually entered the jungle. There was plenty of cross-pollination of plants, with species from both areas having mingled in between.

“And here I thought we’d be getting away from the wolves and the bears,” Dann had lamented when he saw the truth of how the two sections were separated.

“Bears rarely cross between,” Rose had commented. “Wolves pass through more frequently, but it’s less common now than it was several centuries ago. One particularly persistent group took up permanent residence in the rain forest, and other packs rarely challenge their territorial claims.”

“Jungle wolves? Now that’s something you don’t see every day,” remarked Lt. Cobb. His tone had been light, but his hand had strayed to his pistol. Like Dann, Cobb wasn’t cleared for heavier weaponry.

The deeper they moved into the rain forest, the heavier the air became. They found themselves clustering closer together, both as the trees grew thicker and denser, and as the air filled with a low-laying, clinging fog. The sheer density of the plant life was astonishing, and Dann was grateful for the machetes that Rose had given them. He unsheathed his and held it ready as Rose led them through the thickening jungles.

The going was incredibly slow here, much slower than anything they’d experienced in the woodland biome. The rain forest lived up to its name, a light patter of rain falling shortly after they started through it. It was the biome that filtered a majority of the fresh water in the ship, if you discounted the island/reef biome that held largely salt water.

The light rain only lasted a short time though before it increased to a torrent that even the jungle canopy above couldn’t completely shield them from. Water poured down from overhead leaves and down the trunks of mighty trees, and the vast network of rivers and streams that flowed throughout the area rose in their banks, leaving them pushing their way through what felt more like a swamp than a forest.

“Look on the bright side, Dann,” Rose commented once, voice raised to be heard over the incessant water sounds. “The longer it rains like this, the more time we have to travel without worrying about many of the larger predators here.”

“At least you don’t have to worry about them at all!” Dann called back, not particularly comforted at the thought.

“That’s not entirely true, Dann,” Rose responded calmly. “Some of the snakes here can swallow me whole, even if they can’t actually digest me.”

That shut Dann up for a while. The party trudged on through the tropical mess in silence, soaked to the skin and miserable though they were.

“How far until we reach the cryo-pod?” Lt. Cobb called out from the far side of the rough line they were arranged in.

“Far side of the biome,” Rose called back. Dann groaned.

They relied heavily on Rose during the trip across the jungle. Night had almost fallen before any of them really noticed; the rains had lasted all day, and they were tired and sore and bitten to within an inch of their lives. Lt. Cobb in particular was ashen and edgy, having had less time to recuperate from cryo-stasis than the others had had.

There were no shelters near by, no armories or cryo-bays, so they had to do the best they could with the environment at hand. Rose led them to high ground, away from the worst of the water. A little scouting found a hollow by some massive tree roots that, with a rough covering of large broad-leaves, formed a serviceable if uncomfortable shelter. Rose stood watch in the night for nocturnal predators, which in the rain forest could take many forms, from hunting cats to something as seemingly innocuous as a trail of ants. Being found by scouts of the wrong species of ant could be painful, or deadly.

Jackson slept like a stone; she lay down in one side of the shelter and was out like an old pro. Cobb, on the other side, slept fitfully, and kept trying to increase the space between him and the others. Dann, stuck in the middle, also slept fitfully, due mostly to the kicking and nudging that the unaware Cobb was inflicting on him.

Finally Rose peeled back the covering of broad-leaves. The specks of sky visible through the canopy were useless for timekeeping, but Dann couldn’t help but instinctively look there anyway. It was lighter though, so the simulation of daylight must have begun.

“How far have we gotten, Rose?” Dann asked over a breakfast of dried fruit and water.

“We’ve traveled approximately 1/6th of the distance within this biome, Dann.”

“Remind me not to ask that again,” he said, disheartened.

“Cheer up,” Cobb said. “The rain won’t last forever. I ought to know, my team installed half of the conduits in this place!”

“You worked in this biome?”

“Wouldn’t have known it to see it, but yeah, this was my baby, and oh my, how she’s grown,” he said. Dann couldn’t tell if it was wonder in his voice, or just exhaustion. “You were posted to the biome we just left, weren’t you?”

“That’s right,” Dann said, “and I hardly recognized that one, too. Who’d have known so much could change over five hundred years.”

“The sooner you two quit flapping your lips, the sooner we get moving, and the sooner we’re out of this crap pile,” Jackson said, scraping the last of her fruit out of its package.

They wrapped up within a few minutes, nobody being eager to prolong their stay in the jungle any longer. They’d been on the move another 10 minutes or so when the rain finally stopped, though with the dripping from the treetops above, even that offered only a partial reprieve. Water dripped from above, the jungle’s own unique internal rain. For half an hour they pushed through the darkness and growing heat with the sound of water droplets striking the undergrowth drowning out most other sounds they might have heard.

Except for the insects. As soon as the rain stopped, they seemed to magically appear; Dann suspected that most of them had been there all along though, unnoticed, if the increasing number of tiny bites he was covered in was any indication.

The buzzing of the bugs increased in proportion to the silencing of the falling water; by the time the showers were done, the air was a thick, hot blanket of buzzing bugs. Even Rose wasn’t immune, her grey artificial skin as covered with bugs as any of the others, though she was bothered by it far less.

The constant itching and buzzing quickly became intolerable. “Into the water!” Dann half-shouted, half-spit to avoid getting any of them in his mouth.

“Good ... idea,” Cobb added around a mouthful that made him cough and spit vigorously. The three dove head-first into a broad stream rushing past with the extra water the rains brought. It was shallow; they were near the level of the deck beneath the earth. The rivers flowed through channels constructed for them, false bottoms in place to mimic the bottom of a natural river. They were designed to provide habitats for a wide variety of aquatic inhabitants, and the false bottom had layers of real dirt, sand and detritus commonly found in river environments. Most of that was legitimately natural, the result of the simulated weather acting on the real jungle around the banks.

After a few seconds of blessed relief from the insect attack, Rose’s voice rang out over the rush of the water. “Out! Out right now!”

Not seeing any immediate threat, the three nonetheless splashed as quickly as they could to the bank and climbed out, then stared quizzically at Rose, who’d beat them to the opposite shore. Movement caught Dann’s eye; he turned in time to see a long branch floating ... no, he thought, undulating through the water. It was dark brown and looked for all the world like a flexible tree branch, until it slithered up and onto the bank they’d just vacated. Swatting at the bugs that were already making their return known, he breathed a sigh of relief. “Thanks Rose. Guess we wouldn’t want to run into that thing.”

Rose shook her head. “The snake? That was harmless to you. It feeds on much smaller prey. The danger was from the school of carnivorous fish approaching this location.”

All three of them visibly blanched, scanning the water. Cobb spotted them first, a silvery school drifting downstream from the east. They were hard to spot until one would suddenly dart off in another direction before drifting and rejoining the school. He shivered and pointed them out.

“Piranha?” Jackson asked a touch of strain in her voice.

“Yes,” Rose confirmed. “There are a number of them in the rivers, of various species. Contrary to what you may have heard, they won’t eat you and strip your bones, but if you startle them, they could injure you badly enough that the wounds would attract other predators.”

“Yeah ... I’ll take your word for it, I think,” Dann said, shivering again and slapping at the bugs. “I’ve seen the movies. Those things freak me out.”

“How’d you know they were there, Rose?” Cobb looked a bit pale too.

“I can see wavelengths of light you can’t, and my visual range and acuity is better. I could see them in the water despite their size and the distance.”

“The bear, too?” Jackson asked. “Even through the trees?”

“Well, I can’t see through the trees,” the android replied with the first smile Dann could remember seeing on her face, “but I could see well enough through even small gaps between them to see what you were walking into.” The smile vanished as quickly as it’d appeared. “We should get moving. The bugs are drawing blood from you.”

“Oh c’mon, they’re just bugs,” Jackson scoffed. “You don’t think they’re going to suck us dry do you?”

“Given enough time, they could. But the danger here is your scent. Piranha aren’t the only things that can damage you enough to draw predators. You’ll want to return to the water shortly.”

Dann caught his breath to avoid cursing. “With those things in it?” Returning to the water appealed almost as much as the burning itching that was rising over his exposed skin where the bugs were feasting. “Who decided this was a good thing to put on a space ship, anyway?”

It was Cobb that answered this time. “My team was also responsible for installing a lot of these riverbeds. I don’t—ow!—” he slapped at a large mosquito on his cheek—”I don’t know all the details, but I don’t think anyone expected the jungle to get quite so ... wild. They were more worried about it surviving at all than that it might survive too well.” He cleared his arms with a growl. “Almost wish Burstein could see this! He was so worried this whole biome would fail ...”

They moved on again, as quick as they could, but sticking to the water when possible. Rose would warn them whenever they got too close to anything too dangerous, and with the assistance of several stretches of quick-moving river, they doubled the pace they’d managed the first day. By sundown, they were halfway to the cryo-bay.


Chapter 10

Biome Bay 6 - Rain Forest

UTS Rose Dawn

Jun. 6, 2565 A.C.E.


The remainder of the journey took them several days, thanks to uncooperative river paths and greater than expected numbers of piranha, other potentially dangerous fish, shockingly large snakes, and an aggressive hunting cat that Dann didn’t recognize on sight. Thankfully the trip did have benefits, as well. The rain forest biome contained a lot of vegetation chosen for edibility, and water was, of course, no problem to acquire.

When at last they did reach the cryo-bay, they had to take Rose’s word for it. The entrance was completely overgrown, layered so thick with roots and vines that only Rose’s internal coordinate mapping of the bay locations confirmed the location.

She stared at the place where the entrance was supposed to be in apparent confusion. “It looks like I haven’t been here in a while.”

“Y’think?” Jackson grunted, looking for any sign of a door.

“Nothing’s been here in a while,” Dann said. “Not just you.”

“True. There are other maintenance bots that should have been around.” Rose studied the overgrown vegetation. “The vines are thick and firmly attached. That isn’t a surprise, I’ve been around to the pods in this biome many times to clear them away. They grow fast and are very strong.”

She knelt down and ripped several away, getting a better look at some of the roots intermingled in the mass. “These though, they’re relatively new. And more importantly, there aren’t any old roots among them.” She stood back up and surveyed the area of the entrance. It was just possible to see the painted metal of the bay entrance in the shadows beyond the vines she’d torn free. “Based purely on the growth of these vines and roots, I’d say it’s been roughly 18 to 20 years since I or any other maintenance bot cleared this.”

The four of them exchanged looks among themselves. “20 years?” Dann said, voicing what they were all thinking. “About the same time the pods malfunctioned and the crew died.”

“Exactly,” Rose agreed. “I am tempted to check other bays within this biome, but it’s too dangerous to leave you alone and it would take too long. There is an armory near here I should be able to check. We should go there after we’re done here.” With that she set to clearing the entrance, cutting and ripping out roots and vines alike with little difficulty.

“You weren’t scheduled to check on this place?” Cobb looked like he wanted nothing so much as to help with the clearing, but Rose had the whole thing covered and didn’t need the help.

“No. Maintenance for this and several other biomes looks to have been removed from my internal calendar.” She stripped out the last of the vines, leaving a scored and dirty but functional-looking hatch exposed for the first time in decades. “Something more for Pvt. Pixton to check into when you revive her, assuming she can be revived.”

Lt. Cobb nodded. “Right. Let’s move in then and see what’s what.”

They gathered around the door as Rose set herself to open it. Jackson stood watch behind them, their many encounters with the wildlife fresh in mind.


She gripped the lever firmly and pulled, but nothing moved. “Strange,” she said. She tried again, artificial body visibly straining against the metal of the handle until with a creak, the handle actually started to bend. She let go short of allowing it to break, frowning.

“All that time unattended didn’t do it any favors,” Cobb commented.

“Is there any other way in?” Dann asked.

“The cryo-bays are completely sealed off, at least from the biome environments. They are ventilated, but we can’t access the ventilation shafts from here. We would have to go to the maintenance access in the ship’s superstructure outside of biome containment.”

“Why didn’t we just do that to begin with?” Jackson said sourly, slapping at another of the incessant insects.

“The maintenance shafts weren’t designed as an alternative transit route. Cryo-bays are located within a kilometer of the edge of the biomes. Colonists and crew are expected to make their way to the nearest armories from the bays, under armed escort, and from the armories to intra-sectional trams to move about the ship proper.”

“You mean we could have avoided tramping around this jungle if we’d just taken the damned trams!?” Jackson glowered at Rose, shaking and scratching at the bites covering her exposed arms.

“We should get moving and I’ll explain on the way, but the short answer is no.”

“You heard her, let’s get moving, people.” Lt. Cobb started out, Rose easily keeping pace with him. The lieutenant looked a lot better physically, as though he thrived on the stress and exertion of their jungle crossing. Dann felt a little jealous; he mostly felt weak and exhausted, though looking at himself, he had regained a bit of his lost weight in water and muscle, he supposed. They all had, though they also all had a ways to go.

Rose picked up where she’d left off. “The long answer is, the trams would have been operational, had events gone as planned. As you’re aware, things didn’t go as planned.”

“That’s putting it mildly,” Jackson grunted, hauling herself over a slick cluster of tree roots.

“Pvt. Chambers was the first person aboard the ship to awaken from hibernation. His awakening was a preprogrammed schedule that was intended to awaken his entire maintenance team. Dann, you were to function as part of that team and begin checking and preparing ship systems for later activation. Other teams were to awaken about this time as well, including several security teams for escort and protection, but none of them survived.”

Dann had wondered at that, at why he alone of the group had awakened without any intervention from someone else. He couldn’t say it set his mind at ease any, but it was still good to know, at least.

“These early awakening teams would have inspected the ship’s systems, performed any maintenance necessary to ensure everything was in working order, and then returned to hibernation for the remainder of the journey. Since things have gone ... awry, none of that initial preparation has been done. The tram systems are likely in good operating order, but the tram cars themselves are in storage for transit.”

“And I take it that it’d be too much for a small group like us to manage?” Cobb asked.

“Assuming the ship systems haven’t failed, it would be easy enough to bring out a few tram cars for our own use. I would recommend doing a proper diagnostic though, in light of the problem in this biome. We don’t know what other schedules or systems might have been compromised.”

The group fell silent. A few minutes later Rose stopped them in front of another wall of roots and vines, this one apparently an overgrown supply shed. As they moved on, some hooting and calling from the tall overhead branches chased after them; it sounded like some sort of primate species. Monkeys, most likely, Dann thought. With the luck they’d had with larger animals, he hoped it was monkeys rather than any of the great ape species.

The calls faded out with distance; whatever it was wasn’t interested in following them, at least. They followed the edge of the biome, and Dann quickly realized why they’d cut through the center. Not only had doing so cut the raw distance they had to travel down, the edges were very rough terrain in this particular section of the ship. The walls had been molded into surfaces very much like rough rocky cliffs, providing yet more habitat for plants and certain wildlife as well. The ‘rocky’ terrain at the base of these enormous false cliffs was challenging, but they had a far shorter way to go this time.

One way in which it made things slightly easier, he thought, was that the insects were thicker in the air toward the center of the biome, that being where most of the water was, except for the occasional artificial waterfall. They wouldn’t be passing any of those, but Cobb had told them about his team having installed a number of them around the cliffs.

Before too long, a change in the quality of the air became clear to the tired crew. The thick, earthy plant-scent of the jungle started to thin, mingling with just a hint of freshness with a salty tang. They clambered over a small mossy rock ridge jutting out from the base of the cliff only to see a broad, shallow bay cutting into the jungle biome from the entrance to the next, which, Dann thought, must have been the sea biome with the islands. He’d glimpsed it days before, from the temperate woodlands.

“Now this,” Lt. Cobb said with relief in his voice, “is more like it!” Even Jackson looked around with the hint of a smile on her face and a set to her shoulders that looked just a touch lighter.


Chapter 11

Biome Bay 6 - Rain Forest

UTS Rose Dawn

Jun. 5, 2565 A.C.E.


The water was a beautiful turquoise surrounded by white sand beach that crept up to the jungle’s tree line. Out beyond the entrance to the next biome, blue ocean spread from wall to wall, with the walls colored a matching blue. It was a breath-taking sight, spoiled only by the persistently artificial sky, and the other biome sections curving away “above.”

Dan felt much of the tension leave his body just seeing it. He slumped against the rocks and just stared. After a few moments he noticed it even sounded good; the artificial currents in the sea next door caused small, shallow waves to crest into the bay. It wasn’t 100% like the oceans back home, but it was close enough, and they basked in it.

Rose looked around at them and gave another rare smile. “This is as good a time and place for lunch I guess. Sorry, sometimes I forget.” She passed around water and some of the varied fruits and vegetables they’d harvested during their trek across the jungle.

They sat and ate, Jackson and Rose both keeping an eye on the jungle around them just in case something should appear. Dann found his eye wandering around the bay, following the great semi-circle of sand surrounding the waters right up to where they’d settled themselves. There was a doorway set into the rock cliff next to the main entrance to the sea biome. It wasn’t disguised, but the dark metal was similar enough to the dark rock around it that it didn’t particularly stand out.

“Is that where we’re headed?” he asked, nodding toward the door.

“Yes, that’s the service entrance. From here we can gain access to the maintenance tunnels, and from their to the ventilation shaft and the cryo-bay. There is a storage room where several tram cars were stored for travel near by. Once we’ve revived Pvt. Pixton, we should check on the tram and make sure we can use it to travel to the ship’s central core sections. From there it will be a lot faster and easier to revive any more crew we need to complete our diagnostics and investigation.”

“Rose, speaking of additional crew, there was another survivor in the cryo-bay that Jackson and I stayed in while you were assisting the lieutenant ...” He shifted uncomfortably.

“It’s just as well you didn’t start the revival process. We will go back for everyone who’s left once we know more about what’s happened.” Rose’s voice was firm, maybe even a little sympathetic.

“You bet we will,” Dann said, feeling better at the words. Jackson gave him a look that was hard to read.

Cobb was a little more direct. “You could’ve rescued someone and didn’t?” He shivered visibly, eyes closing involuntarily and going a bit pale. “How could you just leave them? You know what it’s like to wake up in that place, so cold, so alone, surrounded by—”

“Sir, we’re going back for them as soon as we can. And they’re not alone. Rose is with them. She can let them know we’re out here, and summon Rose here to help if they’re having trouble disengaging from the pods. For now they’re safe where they are. Maybe safer than with us, given what we’ve seen, sir.” The formal chain of command felt a little weird under the circumstances, but Dann figured it couldn’t hurt to fall back on it now.

The lieutenant snapped his mouth shut on the rest of what he’d been about to say. He closed his eyes again, took several deep, calming breaths. “You’re right, of course, you’re right.”

Rose let them rest for several more minutes, then called them to the cliff face and the door leading in. It was much like the cryo-bay doors; heavy, with a large latch to release it, but there was no interface to provide an access code of any sort.

The interior was shockingly dark when she opened the door, and cavernous, if the echoes of the door’s screeching opening were any indication. They filed inside and clustered by the open door. “Rose? Is there any way to light this place up a bit?” Dann asked.

“Of course.” She vanished into the dark next to the door; they could hear her moving across the metal grate walkway they stood on within the space. There wasn’t much more to see. The light from the door showed the grate just inside the doorway, and a little farther in as their eyes adjusted, but they couldn’t see any of the far walls.

There was the sound of a panel opening, and switches being flipped. Immediately the air filled with the low level humming vibration that was the sound of power flooding through systems all around them. LEDs blinked on, an expanse of stars that helped them start to make shapes of the darkness around them. More footsteps on the grate led to one more set of switches, and suddenly they could see.

There wasn’t a whole lot to see, which was a bit of a letdown, Dann thought. They were in a moderately large multi-story concrete ‘room,’ up on the second floor. Signs indicated that various banks of equipment around them were standing consoles with local climate controls and readouts in the form of giant wall-screens. Conduits for power, water, air and other substances collected near the core-ward end of the room, where the lower floor featured a two-line rail track marked up with yellow and black warning stripes. It extended through the room in both directions, towards and away from the ship’s core.

Handrails lined the grated walkway, with mesh steps leading down to the area below. They stepped gingerly inside, taking the place in, hesitant as every sound they made echoed weirdly in the space. Cobwebs hung from the various pipes and fixtures that lined the ceiling. Rose made a sound that Dann could’ve sworn was a harumph of disapproval.

“Please forgive the mess. We managed to keep spiders and insects out of the ship proper for nearly two years, but it was inevitable that some would get in eventually. We’ve never been able to fully clear them out.” She led them down the steps to the first floor.

The air was musty, but Dann was relieved to note that it was all dry must. Even in the temperate woodlands, his team had been under tremendous pressure not to allow water leakage, and the woodlands biome held barely any water compared to the rain forest, or especially the islands. The dryness left a chalky, unpleasant sensation in the mouth and throat after a few minutes, and he quickly found himself sipping at the water he carried. He wasn’t alone; all three of them were.

“The air should improve quickly once we restore the environmental systems to this section. I’ll work on that. Lt. Cobb, would you lead the others down the tunnel toward the core? There should be a storage room not five meters in. You’ll find several of the cars we’re looking for there.” Rose made her way to the back of the room and brought one of the consoles to life. She plugged herself in and stood still.

They watched her for a few moments, and then the lieutenant started in the direction she’d indicated. Rose had no formal rank, but crew of all ranks, from private all the way up to the captain himself, listened when she advised them about shipboard functions.

The tunnel was dark, with only burnt-amber running lights lining the tracks providing any light. They were spaced about two meters apart, and were barely enough to enable them to throw shadows on the walls, let alone see anything clearly, but Rose had been right about the location of the storage room. Of course she had, Dann thought; in a very real sense Rose was the ship.

The storeroom was large, a good ten by ten meters square. Tool and parts bins lined most of the walls, with several doors labeled as closets promising more beyond. The center of the room was dominated by four secured trams. They were individually small, the idea being that they could link up to form a longer train as necessary. Each tram would hold two people.

When not in use, they could fold up and in at the back, providing space for another tram to dock from behind, saving space. It looked much like stackable chairs that had fallen horizontally to the ground, Dann mused.

These trams were painted red with white highlights, though it was difficult to tell through the light coating of dust that had settled on them. They were affixed to the floor of the room with wheel clamps that they would have to remove before the cars would move again.

Dann’s eyes swept over the tools and parts within view and stopped at a set of familiar and welcome ones. “Flashlights. We should take a few of these,” he commented.

Cobb looked back at him; he’d moved on to inspect the wheel clamps. He followed Dann’s gaze and nodded. “Good. Grab enough for all of us, plus an extra for Pixton.”

“Everything look okay?” Jackson said from the door. She’d taken up her habitual guard post.

Cobb was silent a moment. “Hard to say. Pass me a flashlight, Chambers. There could be some ...” Dann handed him the flashlight and stepped back out his way. The lieutenant leaned in close, lighting the clamps carefully. “Ahh, crap.” He rocked back on his heels and cursed under his breath.

“Problem, sir?” Dann asked.

“Some light rust. Probably won’t affect the function of the clamp at all, as long as it’s not worse but it’s sloppy. Means there is some leakage somewhere after all.” The muscles of his jaw bunched as he ground his teeth, then sucked in a breath. “Well, let’s give it a shot. Rose? Release clamp ... A1,” he said, checking the painted label.

An alarming squeal of stressed metal shrieked from somewhere close below them; they slapped their hands to their ears. Dann almost knocked himself out with his flashlight in his haste. After several seconds of the terrible noise, the clamp released and the sound stopped. They breathed a collective sigh of relief.

“That’s what I was afraid of,” Dann grumped. “Rose, shouldn’t routine maintenance have taken care of that rust problem?”

“Routine maintenance has not been performed on equipment in this section for approximately 20 years, Lt. Cobb.”

“What? Why not? It was scheduled, wasn’t it?”

“I believe it was originally scheduled, yes. However, the current operating schedule does not include maintenance for this section.”

“Who altered the schedule?” Cobb’s voice contained a hint of frustration that Dann hadn’t heard before.

“Unknown.”

“How can it be unknown! You are the computer! You must know who did it! Who was awake 20 years ago?”

Rose was silent for several seconds. Dann mentally dubbed her, the ship-bound Rose as Rose Alpha.

“Access to that datum is denied. You do not possess sufficient clearance.”

“Rose, are there any higher ranking officers revived from cryo-sleep?” He said slowly.

“No, Lt. Cobb.”

“Then I’m the ranking officer about this ship. Grant me access.”

“I’m afraid I can’t, Lt. Cobb. Access to that datum is denied.”

Cobb argued with the computer; Dann left the room and looked back the way they’d come. Rose—Rose Dawn, he thought, mentally renaming her too—still stood still as a statue, interfacing with the environmental systems. “Rose!” he called to her.

“Yes, Dann?” It was Rose Alpha.

“I was trying to get the autonomous Rose’s attention. Can you send her here?”

“She is otherwise engaged, Dann. She has encountered unexpected difficulty with the environmental systems and is working to resolve them.”

He frowned. “Are they rust-related?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know, Dann. Maintenance has not been performed on the environmental systems in—”

“Let me guess, 20 years?” he sighed.

“That is correct, Dann.”

So many vital systems, all failing around the same time almost two decades before. Cryo-pods for most of the crew, with a few exceptions. Life support. Transportation. Maybe even corruption within Rose Alpha’s data caches. Who knew what else? They needed Pixton, and soon. “Thanks, Rose. Do you mind if I call you Rose Alpha from now on, to distinguish you from the android version?”

“You’re welcome, Dann. And the Rose Alpha designation will be fine.”

He was wandering slowly toward Rose Dawn’s position, lost in his thoughts, when she turned to face him abruptly, finished with her attempt at getting the environmental systems online. “Dann, my ability to bring life support up is compromised. A number of areas aren’t responding to control properly. I was able to get life support for the core of the ship going, but this area needs serious maintenance before we’ll be able to regain automatic control.”

“Thanks, Rose Dawn.” She looked at him askance at that. “Is it okay if I call you that?”

“Sure, Dann. That designation’s fine.”

He smiled. Her linguistic flexibility seemed to be improving. She was sounding more like a member of the crew all the time.


Chapter 12

XLocationX XLocationX XLocationX - XLocationX

XLocationX XLocationX XLocationX

Jun. X, 2565 A.C.E.


Lt. Cobb and Jackson were just getting the first car rolled out onto the tracks when Dann and Rose rejoined them. Once the wheel clamps were off, it was a relatively simple job. The wheels were solid rubber tires around small, heavy metal hubs. The tram cars took power and guidance from the rails, keeping them on a predictable path.

They were awkwardly lifting the light-weight vehicle over the tracks by hand. The tram cars were relatively light-weight vehicles, but cumbersome and much easier to handle with three than with two. They’d just about wrestled the first into position when Jackson’s foot slipped on the rail and she stumbled, just catching her grip on her end of the car. Cobb’s end twisted in his grasp and knocked his head against the car side; he cursed as they let it fall into place. He glowered at Jackson. “Private! Watch your step, you just about dropped that thing on me.”

Jackson’s eyes widened in startlement, then narrowed just a touch as she nodded at the lieutenant. Cobb stalked back to the main room.

“We’re going to need a couple more of these on the tracks,” Dann said, a bit cautious. “How about I give you a hand with these ones?”

“Sure,” she said sourly. “Hey. You ever worked with that jackass before?”

“No, different teams. He ... seemed okay when we met up with him first.”

She grunted non-committaly. “Not for the last few. At least he hasn’t started handing down orders yet.”

“Let’s just get this taken care of. Maybe he’ll ease off once we’ve got some answers.”

“He’d better.”

The two of them wheeled out the next car— “I don’t know why he insisted on doing it the hard way,” she groused—then placed it on the rails behind the first. That done, they found Rose had moved the third car herself; the three of them got it on the rails and short order. There was no sign of Cobb.

“You said we’re getting in through the ventilation shaft, Rose?” he asked.

“That’s the plan, yes.”

“I’ll grab some tools. And then I’ll go find the lieutenant,” Dann offered.

He grabbed what they’d need from the tool bins in the supply room, then headed back up the corridor. A quick look around the main floor showed no sign of him. He climbed back up to the metal mesh walkway. It was darker up there, but Dann spotted the lieutenant standing with his back to the room in the darkest corner. He was bowed forward, head in his hand.

“Sorry about earlier,” he said. His voice was strained.

“It’s Jackson that needs to hear that,” he said. “We’ve got the rest of the cars set up. You ready to go, sir?”

“In a moment. I’ll join you in a moment, private.”

“Sure, see you in a few, then.”

He returned to the others. “He’ll be back in a minute.”

“Suits me,” Jackson said. She set herself up in the front car. Dann climbed in beside her.

The controls were just about as simple as you could get; accelerator, break, steering wheel, and one switch to turn the headlights on. Dann hit the light switch. A bright, pale yellow/orange light lit some of the darkness ahead in the tunnel, just before the main tunnel lights clicked on. They weren’t terribly bright, but they lit up more of the tunnel than the car’s lights did. The combination left them with a span of tunnel light almost as bright as the simulated daylight.

Rose hooked the front of the second car to theirs and folded away the steering wheel, which disabled the controls in that car. She then did the same to the third car, attaching it to the second. She took a seat in the second car.

Cobb rejoined them without a word, then took a seat in the rearmost car. Cobb and Rose both nodded to him; he nodded to Jackson. She stepped on the accelerator.

The vehicles moved with impressive smoothness down the track. They were electric, and so they were virtually silent, giving off only the faintest of humming sounds and the crunch of a wheel over the odd long-dead bug.

Dann shifted in his seat; the butt of his pistol bumped the frame of the car, sending echoes bouncing through the tunnel. It was kind of eerie just how quiet it was, he thought.

Every so often they passed doors that hadn’t opened in decades. Two decades, in fact, he reflected. After the longest ten minutes of his life, Rose finally spoke up. “We stop here. The maintenance shaft is through that door.” Like the rest, it hadn’t seen use in a long time.

They stopped the tram. Dann braced himself for a horrible scream of unlubricated hinges, but to everyone’s surprise, the door opened smoothly, with only a light scraping against the floor of the tunnel. Everyone looked at Rose.

“That’s unusual. Accessing ... the maintenance schedule ... very strange. It has changed repeatedly over the last twenty years. I can’t tell what’s causing the changes. Maintenance here has been irregular, but the last repair bot performed work less than a year ago.”

“That’s good news,” Cobb said. There was a lightness to his voice that surprised Dann. He hadn’t heard that tone in several days. “C’mon, this Pvt. Pixton is waiting for us in there.”

He lead the way into the maintenance tunnel. He was a big enough man that he had trouble moving; the maintenance accesses were small passages packed with conduits for air, power, water, and in this part of the ship, nutrients for the biomes above. He had to duck down, and often had to turn sideways when he started running short of space through tighter areas.

“How far does this thing go?” he called back at one point, shortly after smacking his head against a low pipe.

“About two hundred more meters, Lt. Cobb,” Rose replied. Cobb’s reply was inaudible, but the context was clear as glass.

They continued on in relative silence, finally reaching the cryo-bay. There was a recessed maintenance room behind the ventilation cover they needed to open up; the sloped floor led down to a crawlspace beneath the cryo-bay where technicians could service the cryo-pod conduits.

Cobb was fishing around his pockets, a look of consternation plastered over his face. Dann pulled the tools needed to remove the vent cover from his own pockets and handed them over. “Here, sir, I grabbed these.”

Cobb took the tools—a wrench, a clawed hammer, a pair of pliers—and went to work removing the bolts and prying the vent’s grating out of its mooring. In short order he had it removed and set aside; they moved on into the cryo-bay.

The interior was pretty familiar to all of them by now; it was all but identical to the others they’d seen. One lone green light stood out amid the sea of red-lit pods. Dann brushed a layer of dust from the name plate; it read Pvt. Pixton, Jennifer.

“This is her,” Dann called out. They gathered around, and Rose initiated the revival procedure, then fetched a set of clothes for the computer tech.

Roughly an hour later she was thawed out and had recovered from the initial shock of reawakening. She was dressed and wrapped in a robe, slowly sipping water. It was always hard to get a real sense of what someone “normally” looked like, Dann found, but Pixton had an exotic quality that showed through even the emaciation of cryo-sleep. She was of mixed blood, and had the skin to prove it; she was maybe a touch or two lighter than café-au-lait, with full lips, and eyes that suggested asian ancestry somewhere in her genetic background. Not uncommon in early 21st century Earth history. Dann thought she’d probably be very beautiful once she’d had a chance to properly recover.

“T-thank you, Rose,” she said, taking more of the water. She looked up and around at the others. “Y-you aren’t my section leader, sir,” she said to Cobb. “What happened to Lt. Mendoza?”

Cobb sighed. “Yeah ... about that, private ...”

“You’d probably better finish more of that food ‘n water before we fill you in, Pixton.” Jackson said flatly.

Pixton looked around at them, eyes widening; Dann nodded slowly as she looked his way. “Um ... okay.” When she’d gotten through about half the water and most of the food, Cobb looked up.

“It’s what happened to lt. Mendoza that brought us here to revive you, Pvt. Pixton ... and not just him, I’m afraid. Are you feeling up to the news now?”

She did look a bit stronger after the food and water. “As ready as I’ll ever be, I suppose ... you’re not filling me with much confidence though, sir.”

Dann, Jackson and Cobb exchanged looks. Dann spoke up. “Lt. Mendoza didn’t survive the trip out here, Pixton. And ... he’s not the only one.”

“That’s awful! What happened? Some problem with his cryo-pod?” She looked at the one she’d just vacated with a shiver. And then her eyes drifted around the room, noting all the red lights. “Um ...”

“Yeah.” Jackson said. “They’re all dead. All but maybe 50 of us.”

“50!” Pixton was shaking her head. “Out of the whole ship? That’s thousands dead! How’d this happen?”

“That’s what we were hoping you could help us with,” Cobb said. “We can’t access the computer’s logs of the event. We know it happened about twenty years ago, but beyond that, we’re stuck.”

Pixton calmed down a bit and wrinkled her brow. “But with Rose here, it should be a breeze to access—”

“No, I’m afraid the lieutenant is correct, Pvt. Pixton. Even I can’t access the information we need.”

“But ... what can I do that you can’t? You are the computer!”

“And because I’m the computer, I have certain safeguards built in that I can’t bypass.”

“And so you need a member of the crew to bypass those restrictions?”

“You’ve got it, private.” Rose smiled reassuringly.

“And there’s nobody else left who’s better qualified?”

“I’m afraid not. You’re the most senior survivor left.”

Pixton had gone very pale at the news; all of them had at first, Dann was sure. But she shook it off with admirable resolution, putting on a brave face and managing a smile—though Dann noticed she seemed to be looking just about anywhere except at the sea of red lights on the pods around them. “Okay then. Why not... I guess the worst has already happened, right?”

“Right. So what do we need to do?”

“Well ... I don’t think there’s anything in here we can use beyond basic terminals, right? We’re going to need something that’ll accept higher security clearances than these will.” She started pacing around the room, eyes to the ceiling, lost in thought and idly chewing a fingernail. “I’d say we need to get to the core of the ship if we want any meaningful access. I wish I knew the layout of the ship better. I know there are secure terminals in the ship’s main computer lab, but that’s such a long trip to make with ... what’s the state of the ship? Is everything still shut down?”

Dann nodded. “We’ve spent most of the last several days just getting to you through the biomes, so most of the ship is still in flight condition. We do have some tram cars out of storage though.”

She brightened. “Well, that’s something! We could try the bridge consoles, but I’m not 100% sure even they would have the kind of access we need. The bridge is a shorter trip, though.”

The others all looked around at each other. “Well, we’re kind of stuck here. It’s not like we have pressing business right now. I think we can afford to give the bridge a try, and if we have to backtrack to the core, we backtrack to the core.”

“Let’s get going then,” Cobb said.

They backtracked through the confines of the maintenance tunnel to where they’d left the tram. “We’ve been flying for almost 500 years... it’s amazing all this stuff still works!”

Rose looked over at her and smiled. “I have been running regular maintenance along with a whole fleet of maintenance bots for the past few centuries, you know. It’s not like the ship or equipment has been abandoned.” The smile slipped. “At least, not until recently. That’s something else we need your help with. The maintenance routines have gotten spotty over the last twenty years. Because of the timing, I suspect a connection between that and the problem with the cryo-pods.”

The computer tech blanched a bit and glanced around at the systems surrounding them, noting the dust buildup. “T-twenty years isn’t so much I guess, compared to the 500 we were out, right?”

“Well, we will want to verify that all the essential systems’ maintenance cycles are up to date as quickly as possible, but none of the systems we’ve encountered so far that are behind have been critical ones, so let’s just get this checked out as quick as we can.”

“If it’s all the same to you then, I-I think I’d prefer to go straight to the computer lab. If the bridge doesn’t have what we need, that’s more time w-wasted.”

Dann nodded and Cobb grunted agreement. “It’s settled then. C’mon, let’s get going.”

They boarded the tram and drove as quickly as possible core-ward in silence.


Chapter 13

XLocationX XLocationX XLocationX - XLocationX

XLocationX XLocationX XLocationX

Jun. X, 2565 A.C.E.


If the biomes were meant to represent the outdoors in as beautiful a way as was possible aboard ship, then the central core was a study in contrast. While it wasn’t exactly ugly, it was definitely oriented toward the functional.

There was no artificial gravity in the core. The tram continued to work by virtue of having the tracks sunken into the “walls” and gripping the frames of the tram cars above and behind the wheels with magnets just enough to keep the cars and passengers (who were advised to hold on) from floating off into the interior.

The inner space was a wide open tube, and actually was pretty usable as a recreation area. As long as one was careful to avoid colliding with passing trams or other passengers and crew, flying in zero-g was—or would have been, rather—encouraged as a recreational activity. View ports to either side of the tram provided views “down” onto the biomes far below them. From the tracks and looking up, they could see the biome on the opposite side of the ship, a sight both comforting and somewhat disconcerting. It would look almost like they were orbiting a world if it weren’t for the features being a bit too close and distinct.

The tunnel they’d taken had come up the biome’s side nearest the bridge; the main computer lab was closer to the engines, at the other end of the ship. The trams were considerably faster than walking or running, but it would still take them a good hour to cross to the other side.

“Make sure you hang on,” Cobb said to them all, “or at least make sure that if you go flying off, you’ll reach a bulkhead instead of goin’ parallel to the tracks. It’s a long way across and nobody’s set up the catcher lines!”

Catcher lines were a safety feature, rubbery elastic cables that were supposed to be strung within the core so that anybody who lost their direction—which happened often, even to experienced spacers—could catch themselves instead of drifting for hours. Of course on a fully populated ship someone was likely to notice them and catch them, but under the circumstances, they didn’t have that assurance.

Everyone kept a firm grip on the car frames after that. They passed the time filling Pvt. Pixton in on what they’d seen and learned so far. She was astonished at the huge amount of overgrowth in the rain forest biome. “That sounds wonderful! I could use a few hours at the beach,” she said wistfully. “Maybe a few days ...”

“We don’t have time to laze around like civvies,” Cobb growled from the last car. Dann, startled, looked back at him. They were only halfway to the far end, and he looked impatient.

“I didn’t mean—” Pixton started.

“It’s okay, Pvt. Pixton,” Rose said. The two were seated together in the middle car. “We know what you meant. It’s fine, and once we’re sure everything’s working the way it should, there are very good reasons for you to spend time recuperating after being frozen for 500 years.” She said the last with a pointed look at Cobb.

“Cobb is really starting to piss me off,” Jackson said in a low voice pitched just for Dann, and maybe for Rose’s android hearing. “If he doesn’t lay off soon ...”

“Maybe he needs a way to let off steam,” Dann replied, just as low-voiced.

“He’d better find one before one finds him.”


“He must have his reasons. We all do,” Dann replied.

“For leaving home forever? I guess so. You have to be a little crazy to do that.” Jackson smirked. “So why’d you do it? The thrill of a new world? The adventure of a lifetime? The allure of the new final frontier?”

“Something like that,” Dann evaded. He had no real dark secrets in his past; he’d grown up fairly well-to-do. Better than well-to-do, actually. His parents had been pretty stinking rich, to be honest. And he’d been horribly bored for his whole life because of it. Anything he’d wanted, he’d gotten, with one exception—a challenge. So when he’d been eighteen he’d moved out and refused his parents’ money, enlisted right away, and worked hard to get the most menial posting he could on the Dawn Rose. He simply could not imagine a life more different than what he’d known than literally pioneering the birth of a new human home world.

He wasn’t eager to advertise his past. There was no real reason to avoid it now, save for habit, but he’d always feared being called out as having used his family’s influence to secure a spot on the ship, when the fact was he’d to fight them many times to stop them from getting him pulled. It had taken a long time for them to come to terms with his decision. It hadn’t been entirely easy for him either, but he’d known it was the right decision. “Definitely the challenge of the unknown. Guess I got my wish, didn’t I? Be careful what you wish for.”

“You got that right.” Her eyes flicked ahead of them. They were still quite some ways away. “I hate this place. It feels like ...”

“Ghosts,” Dann finished at her silence. “It feels like it’s full of ghosts.”

“Yeah,” she said. “The biomes may have wolves and bears and bugs and snakes and piranhas and who knows what else, but I think I’d take that any day over this.”

The emptiness of the central hall was wearing on them all. Cobb was scowling at his own thoughts in the back, while just behind them Rose and Pvt. Pixton were engrossed in their own conversation; the techie and the android, naturally.

“Don’t these things move any faster?” Jackson exclaimed, calling everyone’s attention to her. Dann could sympathize, he was getting impatient too.

“We’re getting there. I’d say we’re, what, fifteen minutes from it now?”

“What’s got you in such a hurry all of a sudden?” Cobb called up from the back. He sounded less pissed off than he had earlier. Moody, Dann thought.

Jackson glowered at him but didn’t reply.

At long last they pulled the tram to a stop outside the doors that led to the stern of the ship. This end looked much as the other hand, right down to the rail tracks leading back down the edge of the biome on this side, as well as the ring of track to access the o secured it in place and passed through. They used the numerous hand-holds in the relatively narrow corridors to help them navigate the zero-g work area and worked their way to the outer edge where the computer core was kept.

“Weird place to put this place,” Dann commented as they entered the large chamber where racks upon racks of hardware sat. The air had a chill to it he’d not felt anywhere else on the ship so far. “Wouldn’t it be easier to get power to it closer to the engines?”

“Too much heat’s a problem for computers, especially ones this powerful,” Pixton said, without a trace of a stammer. To her, this was home. “They built the server farms as close to the sub-artic biome as possible without actually being in it. They share one of the thinnest, most heat-conductive bulkheads in the whole ship.” Her eyes were wide with excitement as she looked around at the servers and data caches and terminals that filled the space. “Rose! Let’s get started.”

Pixton sat at the sysadmin’s main terminal and began punching in commands on the secure access screen. Within moments, Rose Dawn announced, “Access is restricted, Pvt. Jennifer Pixton. Command authorization required.”

“Of course it is,” she mumbled, then punched in another code on the secure terminal.

“Code accepted,” Rose Dawn responded. “Final authorization?”

Rose looked at Cobb. “You’re the highest ranking officer, Lt. Cobb.”

Dann could have sworn Cobb looked a little green at that, but he nodded soberly. “Authorization granted by order of Lt. Frederick Cobb, acting captain of the UTS Rose Dawn.”

“Authorization granted.”

Pixton grinned and her fingers flashed over the screen. Within seconds, secondary displays were lighting up across the room, giving the onlookers a view into what she was doing. Initially most of it went over Dann’s head; most of his experience with computers had been online games and the endless social games that were a daily part of early 21st century life. The very idea that a computer was something you had to travel to a specific room to find and access was weird and antiquated for him, though he understood that he’d only been exposed to the consumer end of things and that there was always the need for something bigger than you could fit in a pocket somewhere in the world.

“Well, the computer systems check out just fine,” Pixton announced. “I’ll be able to open parts of the network up to mobile access so we don’t have to come back here for everything. There are some command structures that are local only though.”

“Uh, sure,” Cobb said. “That sounds good. We’ll have phones again, like back on Earth?”

“Yeah, and even the shipboard version of the ‘net, though it won’t be as interesting with just us on it.”

Dann grinned. “There’ll be a whole lot less spam though. And if we catch a spammer, we can space ‘em. I like this place already.”

Jackson glared. “Can we have a little less joking around? We’re aboard a ship of the dead here. Can you find what we need or not? What happened to everyone else? Who survived?”

“S-sorry,” Pixton mumbled, fingers back on the screen, exploring the network of databases with ease that was mind-boggling to the uninitiated. “Here,” she said, dumping a series of maps to the displays around the room. Walls lit up with representations of the ships in various forms. 3D wireframes of the ship popped into being along the walls, with one particularly impressive one appearing right in the middle of the room, projected by laser light onto the ambient dust content of the air. Dann, Cobb and Jackson all stepped out of the floating projection.

The holo-ship was ghostly, the bulkheads picked out in dim grey-white at a reduced transparency so they could see the interior. The interiors were rendered in low detail, simple colored representations of terrain in the biomes, though Rose or Pixton could crank the detail level up any time they wished. The main point of interest on the virtual ship was the sea of red dots that filled the biomes, clustered in the various cryo-bays in the biomes, and the one cryo-bay just outside the bridge, off the ship’s core.

A few bright green points caught the eye; potential survivors. They looked to be randomly scattered throughout the biomes, though the distribution was far from even. There were some bays that contained several survivors, and many many more that contained none at all. Then he noticed something that grabbed his attention immediately; a large blob of green concentrated in what looked like the sub-arctic biome. “Hey, what’s this one? Look at that, there must be close to a dozen in there!”

“I’ll be damned,” Cobb said, some of the stress gone from his bearing.

“Pixton? What is that place?”

Pixton’s fingers were dancing madly. The projection zoomed in, focusing on the interior of the cryo-bay. She pulled up as much data as she could about it, which wasn’t much. Representations of the individual pods appeared with their red or green lights. Names began appearing on the pods. None of the names indicated rank. “Sorry, this is all I have right now ... wait ...” Pixton said, “That ... t-that’s the children’s creche.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. A dozen green was wonderful, but there were still several dozen red.

Jackson was studying the names voraciously, consuming them with her eyes. Suddenly she dropped to her knees, gasping “Lila! Oh, Lila, you’re alive! You made it, my baby!”

The others, all save Rose, went wide-eyed. There were very few parents aboard the Rose Dawn, the expectation being that most people would be too busy working to establish the colony and make it habitable to have a lot of time to raise children immediately. That would have to wait a few years until they were more settled. To have both a mother and child survive ...



Chapter Thirteen

Chapter 14

XLocationX XLocationX XLocationX - XLocationX

XLocationX XLocationX XLocationX

Jun. X, 2565 A.C.E.


Jackson’s eyes ran wet with tears of relief; Pixton “Y-you have a daughter? She’s here?”

Ignoring the question, she looked up at Rose. “Why didn’t you tell me? You must have known! You could have told me and saved me days of agonizing!”

“Pvt. Jackson, I’m sorry, I had no idea! If I’d had any reason to think you had a child on board, the first thing I’d have done when you were revived was tell you about her.”

“What caused this? What happened here?” she exclaimed, grabbing Pixton’s arm. The computer tech recoiled back uncertainly.

“I-I haven’t gotten that far yet—if I can have my arm back, I’ll keep going?”

The guard released Pixton’s arm and knelt quietly, eyes closed. Dann had no idea if she was praying, or just relaxing. The stress she’d been under must’ve been intense; he was amazed she’d kept her composure so cool over the last few days. He couldn’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like.

Pixton turned back to the secure display and her fingers flashed over the surface once more. Her first efforts had been over in moments, but this time she worked and worked, data spewing across displays all over the room, except the central projection, which stayed just as it had been.

She frowned and leaned into the screen, not slowing a beat; if anything, she got faster. She was so absorbed in what she was doing, Dann would’ve put money on her having forgotten the others were even there.

Cobb was trying to keep his eyes on what was going across the monitors as though by staring hard enough he could absorb the information like some bizarre form of info-osmosis. Jackson was standing again, a touch unsteadily, and was watching Pixton’s display almost as intently. Rose stood next to Dann, looking ... puzzled.

“What is it?” Dann asked.

“It’s strange,” she said. “I should be able to tell exactly what Pvt. Pixton is doing at every step, but I can’t. Sometimes she’s there in the network, as plain as day, and then suddenly she’s not. It’s like ... are you familiar with the mythologies of ghosts, Dann?”

“You mean ghost stories? Yeah, I used to watch and even read a lot of that stuff when I was growing up.”

“It’s kind of like she’s a ghost. It’s pretty unsettling, to be honest. I feel like I’m seeing glimpses of holes in my ... mind, I guess, or brain, areas I should have awareness and knowledge but instead I just have blanks I didn’t know about.”

“Could this have something to do with the maintenance scheduling issues?” Dann wasn’t sure he liked the sound of this. Rose was supposed to be the Rose Dawn’s mobile presence. While there were some necessary differences between the two, they were supposed to operate from the same data, and Rose should have access to almost everything Rose Dawn had.

“I ... can’t say for certain, Dann. It’s possible, but everything I think and do is now ... suspect. If I’m missing information and feedback and I’m not realizing it isn’t there, I can’t know anything with certainty!”

“Welcome to the human world, Rose,” he said with a smile. It was a smile that carried a lot of worry though.

“Aha, I’ve got you ...” Pixton said.

“What, what is it?” Rose said, beating everyone to the punch.

“It’s too early to say for sure ... but it looks like some of the slipperiest hakware I’ve ever gone up against. Whoever wrote this knew what they were doing. If I’m right.”

“Hakware? That seems unlikely, Pvt. Pixton,” Rose said. “Who could’ve written it? Everyone has been asleep for the past five hundred years.”

“Is it possible we’re not the first to awaken?” Dann said, thinking aloud.

Rose started to speak and then stopped herself. “I ... can’t be sure. It’s hard to imagine anyone else woke up successfully and accomplished something like this without being detected.”

“I’m sure that’s not it,” Pixton said in the distracted voice of someone deeply focused on something else entirely. “They’d have left some trace in the system, and there’s nothing like that here. This is definitely from an external source. And ... if what I’m seeing is right ... I really do mean external.”

“What do you mean?” Cobb snapped. “There’s nothing out there.”

“I mean there has to be something out there, whatever’s causing this didn’t appear out of thin air!”

“There’s nothing out there!” Cobb shouted. “We’ve come billions of kilometers for nothing! We haven’t even arrived yet and everybody’s dead! There’s no life for us out there! There’s no hope for us out there! There’s no colony out there! There’s nothing!

Pixton just stared at him, mouth agape, face pale. He was trembling with anger, staring hard at her, then whirled and stalked to the far side of the room. He stood there, back to the rest of them, visibly trying to calm himself. The rest of them stood mutely, staring.

“Well. Pixton, why don’t you find out everything you can there,” Dann said, glancing at Cobb. He was shaken; the other man had looked like he was close to coming to blows, and over what? Dann had no idea. He’s taking it all pretty hard. And honestly, I can’t blame him, he thought.

Pixton nodded shakily and turned back to her pad. Jackson appeared beside him. “What was that?” she asked.

Dann resisted the urge to glance over at Cobb. “Nerves, I guess? I doubt any of us are in our best state of mind.”

“Yeah well, flying off the handle like that isn’t going to help anyone.” She threw Cobb a glare across the room; his back was still turned. “I don’t like where Pixton’s investigation is going any more than he does, but if she’s right, we have enough problems without him going crazy on us.”

Dann grimaced. She was right, but what could he do about it? Cobb was the senior officer in charge.

“Lt. Cobb has seemed a bit unstable for the last few hours,” Rose said quietly. “At least if I’m in any position to judge anything.”

“No, I think you’re right on the money Rose,” Dann said. “Is there anything we can do about it?”

“Try not to antagonize him,” the android replied.

Dann was about to open his mouth to retort when—

“Huh,” Pixton said, staring at her screen.

“Huh?” Dann replied, his train of thought derailed. “What is it?”

“Um ... I just got into the navigational data. It looks like we’re very close to the colony site.” Cobb, his attention drawn, rejoined them.

Dann narrowed his eyes. “That’s not a surprise. We were supposed to be awakened at that point. But, I could’ve sworn I heard a ‘but’ at the end of that sentence.”

“Um ... yeah. The planet looks ... inhabited.”

“That’s completely ridiculous.” Cobb growled. “We’re the first ship out here. It must be rock formations.”

“N-no, sir,” she said. “R-rock formations don’t have l-lights, sir.”

“This is nonsense,” he said, and stalked out. “We lost our crew and you’re chasing phantom colonies!” he yelled, slamming the hatch behind him.

“It really is true!” she said to the others, calming considerably once Cobb was gone. “Check this out.”

She moved her fingers over the tab, adjusting the data flowing to the screens around the room. The floating image of the ship flickered and reformed into an image of the half of the planet visible to the ship’s on-board optics. The optics were the best that could be packed onto a ship the size of the Rose Dawn, which made for some pretty impressive imaging.

They were in the outer reaches of the solar system, a few months away from the planet, but they were able to get astoundingly clear views of the surface. Clear enough to accurately map the very visible roads and buildings and walls and domes that clustered in several town- or city-like groupings on one of the visible continents. They could even make out what looked to be vehicles moving along them.

Dann felt his stomach dropping within him. “What...? How is that possible?” he asked, as Jackson gasped. “That’s not ... it couldn’t be alien, could it?”

“I don’t think so, not if it’s the source of whatever hakware’s attacking Rose Dawn,” Pixton replied. “It’s using known protocols to get into our systems, and no alien civilization would have those.”

“But then where the hell did they come from?” Jackson demanded. The three of them stared wordlessly at the display, watching the dots of vehicles sliding over the complex of roads on the world that should have been theirs.


Chapter 15

UTS Rose Dawn

Habitation Section - Labs

Jun. X, 2565 A.C.E.


Cobb left the room behind the others and paced as much as one can in near-zero g, swearing under his breath. How had he let things get so out of control? He was the ranking officer in charge, and he’d done little more than take up space since he’d found them, letting them guide his every move.

Granted, he’d been in rough shape after waking up. He’d been so terribly weak, and his whole body felt dry, like he’d been out in the desert for weeks without water and somehow he’d remained alive to suffer it. It had taken a small eternity for the pod to rehydrate him to the point where he could move his tongue enough to call for help.

The computer had answered—the traitorous, compromised computer, he reminded himself—but her only autonomous unit was engaged elsewhere and would require time to get to him, she’d said. She hadn’t been kidding about that, he’d been trapped there for hours, waiting, unable to free himself. He’d gotten just far enough to see the pods around him and to recognize the significance of all the red lights.

He paced another few minutes, lost in the image of the lights. He hadn’t been able to see the contents of the pods, but he hadn’t had to. He’d felt the lifeless eyes staring at him through the frosted canopies, weighing on him, pushing him back into a coldness deeper than the freezing of the cryo-suspension.

He shook himself, feeling the intense cold all over again, banishing the eyes of the dead. He sighed, rubbing at his own eyes. He suddenly felt every year that it’d been since he’d last had a coffee, or a stiff drink. The time weighed on his skin, in it, like an itch that couldn’t be scratched.

Maybe that was when he should’ve known, he thought; when he’d felt those eyes. Maybe she did it on purpose. Left him there in that tomb of a cryo-bay. Dawn Rose was a computer, she had databases and crap, he knew. She, or whatever was in control now, must’ve accessed his personnel file, seen his personal history. Read about how his wife had died. How it was his fault she’d died, and how he’d become a wrecked shell of a man for years afterward.

She left him in that room of the dead to break him, he knew. He was fairly sure that she’d at least partially succeeded.

He smirked. They were trying to break him, too. The others, Chambers and Jackson and that coward, Pixton. Well, it wasn’t like they were exactly the cream of the crop. Not if they believed that crap about outside influence. They’d have to do better than that to get under his skin.

He looked back at the hatch. Snatches of the conversation within surfaced in his memory, and he snorted. Hakware from an external source? The whole point of the trip had been to go somewhere new, somewhere uninhabited. No, there was no external force at work here. Whatever had hijacked the computer had been aboard the whole time. That was a troubling thought. Was the computer just faulty, malfunctioning? Or was something else going on?

His eyes narrowed. What did he really know about the others? Pixton seemed to be pretty obvious. She was a coward, plain and simple, only comfortable in her computer world. But the others had all been awake before him. He only had their word that they’d been awake a few days.

He would have to watch them. Carefully.

<>


Chapter 16

UTS Rose Dawn

Main Computer Lab

Jun. X, 2565 A.C.E.


“Oh!” Pixton gasped, eyes going wide as saucers as she followed streams of data through the system. “I found it! At least I’m pretty sure I did! Guys, there was a malfunction. Some of the pods weren’t installed right!” Her voice was excited, but she looked vaguely sick.

“Sounds like most of the pods were installed wrong,” Dann said. “You’re sure that’s it?”

“What? No, most of the pods were perfect. We were in the faulty pods.”

Jackson raised an eyebrow. “No, that doesn’t make sense.”

Pixton shook her head. “The data’s very clear.” She blew up a table of diagrams that Dann could half read, but Jackson just looked lost. “The cryo-pods with survivors in them all malfunctioned. It’d take me a lot longer to find the specific reasons for each one, but they don’t respond to commands from the central core. It’s easy to verify from here, they won’t even accept diagnostic tasks. They send data back to the core no problem, that’s why they register as being in the green; their contents are okay, so they broadcast verification. But commands from outside don’t reach them. They’re locked in to the original programming they launched with.”

Dann felt a little dizzy as he understood the implications. “But ... that means—”

“Whatever’s hijacking the computer broadcast an incomplete shutdown command to all the cryo-pods on the ship. We’re alive because our pods didn’t respond to that command.”

Dann shivered at the thought of how close they’d come to dying, and sent a silent thought of thanks to whatever technicians had saved their lives hundreds of years ago through no fault of their own. The shiver was followed by a wave of tiredness; he suppressed a yawn.

“Guys, I hate to bring up mundane problems at a time like this,” Dann started, “but we haven’t slept in a long time, and I don’t know about you, but I’m going to need some rest pretty soon.”

“Yeah, me too,” Pixton said. She punctuated that with a yawn, shaking the others out of the stunned silence they’d fallen into.

“Rose, where were the crew supposed to be quartered after awakening?” Jackson asked. She was the most alert-looking of the group.

“Well, there are cabins throughout the ship in various places, including each biome.”

“Do we really want to go there again?” Pixton asked, hesitantly.

“I would recommend it,” Rose said. “Specifically the island chain biome. The islands surrounded by water will be the safest place to be if Pixton is right and the AI is starting to assert itself over the maintenance robots. Most types won’t be able to cross to the islands without a boat, and they would have to manually search us out even with a boat. It’s an ideal location as long as we avoid entering any of the facilities that Eden Rose manifests in. That does, I’m afraid, include the crew quarters, but the climate in that biome is particularly nice. You’ll be okay higher up on the beach.”

“You make it sound like you’re not coming with us, Rose,” Dann said archly.

“It would be a bad idea for me to accompany you for this. I represent a security risk at best, and a direct threat at worst.”

Pixton shook her head. “You’re also the strongest of all of us. If they find us, we’ll need you to help defeat them!”

Jackson nodded in agreement. “You showed us how good you were with that bear in the woods. I can keep watch part of the night, but I’ll have to sleep eventually. These two aren’t combat trained.”

Rose paused and frowned. “I don’t think you realize how serious the threat is.”

“We’re well aware of the threat, Rose, but you haven’t succumbed yet, have you? The worst it’s done to you so far is deny you access to data you’d normally be able to get from Rose Dawn.”

“That ... is true,” she allowed, slowly.

“So allowing for the possibility that what you say is true,” Pixton said, “I still think it’s riskier to leave you behind than for you to come with us. If you come, you might be compromised and might be a threat, but without you, everything else is a threat.”

Rose mimicked a sigh. “Fine, alright. We’ll go together.” She quirked a smile. “I haven’t had a real vacation in ... well, ever.”


Chapter 17

New Eden University - Councilor’s Office

United Terran Colony New Eden

Jun. X, 2565 A.C.E.


Rojet Mayet sat back in his high-backed chair and rubbed his temples. The day had been long and hard, though that was hardly anything new. His life had become so complicated since that council session all those months ago. The Rose Dawn project had complicated his life immensely, though of course that was entirely his own fault, and indeed he’d planned for it. That didn’t mean there weren’t days that he regretted it.

He’d spent countless hours debating the priorities of the project with various heads of state around the colony. So many fools and their petty-minded fears. He couldn’t comprehend how they got through their lives with such limited perspective on the world.

He could only imagine how much worse it would be if anyone actually knew the extent of his plans for the First Ship, as so many liked to call it. He shuddered. As far as anyone outside his facility knew, the ship had been the victim of prototype technology errors, the crew dead for centuries as their mobile tomb carried them faithfully across the stars. They had no idea that he had had his teams develop and launch an AI module to hijack the computer and kill the still-living crew of the ship in their long sleep.

He felt true remorse over that necessity. He wasn’t a monster, no matter what others might have thought of him had they known. The sad fact was that New Eden couldn’t sustain the population it already had, and that a paltry 30,000. People were starving in the streets of some provinces already. Add another 3,000 newcomers and a tense, ugly situation was only going to get far worse. The First Colonists could not be allowed to make landfall at New Eden. They just couldn’t. But no matter how bad things were out there, the other councilors would never accept that.

By now it was academic, of course. The AI module had long since been launched and would already have done the first of the jobs he had set for it, the elimination of all of the UTS Rose Dawn’s crew and colonists. The second job it had to perform was simply to allow the ship to continue on its way as originally planned, and then to adjust course to enter orbit around the world and ensure that his boarding crews had no trouble relieving the ship of the precious cargoes it carried; the fresh stocks of viable soils, waters, and many and varied biological specimens. He was particularly curious about those last. When the UTS Eden River had arrived here and founded New Eden before Rose Dawn had even left their home solar system, it had come with what had seemed at the time to be plenty of supplies.

If only, he thought, FTL travel had worked more like it had been depicted in science fiction programs. A quick flash of the drives and poof, there you were at your destination, no problem. Sadly, reality didn’t work quite that conveniently. The UTS Eden River had been capable of FTL flight, but only five times the speed of light. Her original crew had had to fly frozen too, because while they made the trip far faster than Rose Dawn had, it still took them a century to do it.

For quite some time, it was true that they had enough supplies, but only until it became clear just how hostile the planet truly was to terrestrial life. They could survive there, but only with great difficulty; they had immense difficulty in converting local regolith into new, viable soil for growing crops and other plants, which in turn limited—or should have limited—the population growth of both the human population and other animals and livestock.

Rose Dawn, though ... now there was a unique opportunity. She had flown here the slow way, and he could not wait to board her personally and investigate what exactly had happened to her population of flora and fauna in the centuries she’d spent crossing space. Her colonists and crew may have been suspended, but for the animals aboard her, the ship was what had popularly been called a generation ship. He knew from the records that one early proposal for the Rose Dawn mission had been for the people aboard her to remain awake and to reproduce along the way, leaving their distant descendants to colonize New Eden. That plan had even informed some of the ship’s design elements. The development of safe, reliable cryo-technology had made it unnecessary though, and the generation ship concept was adapted so as to spare the crew the expected psychological problems of living out the rest of their lives in containment.

And so only the flora and fauna had remained “awake” for the trip. Survival of centuries in an artificial environment with relatively complete ecosystems would have placed enormous survival stress on the entire population. After centuries, it was a certainty that a lot of adaptation would have occurred, though it was hard to say how extensive such adaptations would have to have been. His dearest hope was that there would be some changes, most likely in the bacterial populations of the ship, that would offer the scientists of New Eden new ways to cope with their hostile home. The hardiness required for survival in the ship-that-was-a-bottle might be of some benefit on the planet below.

He sighed. And the other idiot councilors couldn’t see past the soils themselves. That was their idea of a prize to be gained from the ship. He wasn’t blind to its value, of course, but even if it would effectively double their supply of soil, the potential riches living in that soil were so much greater! And some among them argued against keeping it. Blind fools. Their sentimentality would have them direct the ship into the sun, thinking it disrespectful to rob the dead.

He had his staffers subtly spreading other messages to counteract such foolishness. They talked often and openly of the nobility of the First Colonists and how it would be dishonoring them not to make use of the bounty they had left behind for the benefit of the colony they had believed in so strongly and worked so hard for. He planned memorials and tributes to them, and in the next breath had shuttles standing by, ready to transport everything off the ship that could be taken. In time, he’d have even the ship herself broken up and brought down for her resources. Maybe some of the less valuable pieces—the bridge perhaps—could be saved intact. The children might like a museum to remember the historical curiosity, after all.

His thoughts were broken up by a sudden commotion outside the office door. Voices were raised, and then without warning, the door flew open. Savid Ohgman, a vid reporter he recognized all too readily, burst into his presence. Following immediately after him were a full rec crew; head-mounted cameras turned to him, their wearers bearing witness to what was about to transpire.

“Councilor Mayet! News just broke that your people here in the university have been working behind the back of the council to sabotage the arrival of the First Colonists, that they are, or were, still alive, and that you planned to murder them so you could keep their ship for study! What is your response to these charges?”

He fought against visibly allowing his jaw to go slack. “What? This is preposterous, what are you doing in here, spewing this nonsense at me? Get out of here, all of you.” His mind whirled. His security was good, what could have allowed this to happen?

“We have schematics for an AI-housing built into an old planetary probe, councilor! We also have some damning audio clips. Would you care to respond to those directly? I’ll play them for you—”

He set his face into an expression of grim implacability. Heads were going to roll over this. He just hoped none of them were his.



Chapter 18

UTS Rose Dawn

Aft Engine Maintenance

Jun. X, 2565 A.C.E.


Lt. Cobb stalked through the maintenance tunnel, large wrench in hand. He’d have to find some kind of better weapon soon; every now and then he would run into a small maintenance bot and have to crush it, but the wrench was horribly inefficient. The damned things were everywhere, and it was taking him far too long to destroy them.

Every now and then the passing thought that none of the larger ones ever seemed to find him came to mind, but he banished it, too fixated on his purpose to pay it much mind. He didn’t know what purpose those traitors had for the larger ones, but the more they stayed out of his way and let him get on with stopping them, the better.

He wished he could do something about the person who’d designed the rat’s nest that was the maintenance tunnel system. He was constantly on the verge of getting lost even though he knew he should know better. He wondered idly if they’d started tampering with the air systems. It’d hurt them as much as him, but he wouldn’t put it past them. They were clearly losing it, after all. He shook his head clear and headed onward.

He’d worked on equipment installations leading to the engines and fuel reservoirs before. He knew the general layout, but had never worked directly on the fuel lines before. After a couple of blind turns and dead ends, he found a section that looked familiar enough to locate some actual signage. It wasn’t long after that that he found what he was looking for.

The main fuel pumps were enormous, but more importantly to Cobb, they were fed by long injection systems with redundant cutoff valves for safety and maintenance. The maintenance hatches were the key. He inspected the hatches carefully; they’d allow a small person inside the conduit comfortably; someone like Cobb would fit, but a lot less comfortably since he’d started recovering his lost mass, his large frame filling out again.

Awkwardly, he climbed inside. The smell of the fuel mixture filled the compartment. Excellent, he thought. That’ll make it all the easier. Let’s see how they like having their dreams destroyed out from under them, he thought. The space really was larger than he’d expected, and larger than he needed. Plenty of room for explosives here. As much as I can carry.

That just left one problem. Well, two, if he counted the maintenance bots; as he examined the space, a small hexapede model clicked by on its six rubber-tipped legs; he raised the wrench, then changed his mind and dived into a roll out the maintenance hatch and to the metallic grating beyond. “Nice try, Chambers,” he growled. “Very clever, tryin’ to get me to blow myself up with a spark. I’ll blow this place up, alright, but with way more than just a little fuel fumes. This place is going up, just you wait.” He waited until the little hexapede had closed the hatch, then crushed it under his heavy boot.

He needed explosives, and he needed as much as he could get his hands on. He rubbed his chin; he knew just the place. He was going to need a tram car. Without a backward glance, he started back the way he’d come.

The tram car slowed to a stop at the end of the long tunnel, the room looking nearly identical to the one he and the others had entered what seemed like such a long time before. He left the car there; it’s not like there was anyone to take it from him anyway, and he doubted maintenance bots would waste their time and energy on it. He climbed the steel mesh staircase to the upper level and threw himself against the heavy, reinforced door to the biome beyond.

It swung open ponderously, with a loud creaking, grinding sound of protest that was nearly drowned out by the howl of wind. He hadn’t thought winds of such speeds could be generated in a space as confined as the biomes, but he didn’t waste any thought on it. He stumbled out into a snow storm and laughed as the chill started setting in slowly but implacably. He ignored it and took off at a run, slipping and stumbling, but getting back to his feet each time to carry on anew.

Cobb staggered through the snow, tripping over rocks and hidden tree roots, hugging the biome wall. He’d lost track of time some time back, and wasn’t even sure he knew exactly where he was going, but he’d seen the layout that coward Pixton had brought up with all of those red, red lights ... he stopped and shook himself. Best not to think about the lights. He knew the general layout of all the biomes was similar.

The one he was in now was as close to an alpine mountain-scape as they could fit into the ship. It was by necessity a pretty low “mountain”, but they had done a pretty good job of making it look imposing while containing all the rocks, minerals, and of course soils that they’d have needed for the colonization effort. They’d also done a really good job simulating the climate; even in his fractured state of mind, Cobb recognized he was going to have to keep moving or risk freezing.

The snow was blown up by the winds, which whirled through the biome with astounding force. They caused the sparse pine and spruce to sway and bend, and he soon regretted not finding some heavier clothing; there must have been some stored back at the entrance, but he was certain he was closer to his destination now than he was to the exit, so he struggled on, crawling through the snow when necessary.

By the time he realized he had no idea how far he’d actually gone, he noticed that the artificial light was getting dimmer. It was hard to tell, to be sure, what with the blinding snow everywhere, but the landscape had turned a decidedly dark grey rather than the light grey/white that he’d gotten so very used to. His mind had slowed dangerously, and all he wanted to do was lay down, stop moving and go to sleep. Some small part of his mind screamed that that was a really bad idea though, and the much larger part that insisted the explosives were just ahead agreed. He kept moving one foot in front of the other as the light faded to black.


Chapter 19

Biome Bay 5 - Island Chain Biome

UTS Rose Dawn

Jun. X, 2565 A.C.E.


The boat dealt with, they moved inland, as much as any part of an island that small could be said to be inland. Rose had been right about the climate, as well; it was very nice, warm and breezy even in the late afternoon, with the “sun” about to sink below the horizon.

“You should be fine out in the open,” she said. “There’s plenty of food and water, and more water in the artificial pond if you need it. I strongly suggest you not build a fire. It will only draw unwanted attention. And,” she continued with a pointed glance at Pixton, “I wouldn’t turn your phones on. She can triangulate that easily, you know.” Pixton nodded sheepishly and slipped it back into her pocket, unpowered.

All three of them were disappointed at that, but immediately understood the need, too. In any event, there wasn’t much on the island to build a fire with, even if they felt comfortable doing so. They resigned themselves to beds of grass and a cold meal, but as they looked out at the increasingly dark tropical sea around them, they at least felt a lot more secure in the knowledge that any agents of the AI hijacker would have a hard time reaching them.

As they sat around a circle talking quietly, Dann asked “You said earlier that the maintenance bots can use boats?”

“Yes, they can. Or at least there are a few varieties that can, anyway. Many aren’t designed for it, and a very few others don’t need boats.”

“W-what? S-some can go in the w-water?” Pixton asked, sounding shaken.

“There are only a few and they’re not anything we need to worry about. They’re environmental regulation monitors that track fish populations, algae and bacteria counts in the water, and a few that check for damaged systems that are exposed to the sea water. None of them should be able to detect us, and wouldn’t care about us if they did.”

“What about the ones on boats?” Jackson demanded.

“Some maintenance bots use boats to visit these installations for maintenance and repair work in cases where the boats are faster than the maintenance tunnels, but you saw the condition of the docks. It’s been years since anything used these boats before us.”

“It sure would suck if they decided to change their minds tonight,” Jackson said sourly.

“I’d say that’s unlikely,” Rose said. “Remember what I said about Rose Dawn’s linear thinking? The more I consider it, the more I think Dann’s suggestion was a stroke of genius. That action makes it extremely likely that Rose Dawn will consider the sub-arctic biome to be our destination, and will focus all searches there.”

“We’ve been assuming that it’s Rose Dawn that calls the shots, though. Wouldn’t it actually be the AI hijacker?” Dann asked.

“Yes,” Rose admitted, “that is true.”

“From what I was able to see, it’s relying on Eden Rose a lot,” Pixton chimed in. “I’ve been looking at historical records of her performance, and there’s a sudden spike of activity that corresponds exactly to the time all the cryo-pods failed. It dropped off a lot over that, and then in the last day it has started building up again, but it’s slow. Anyway, I think it doesn’t have much functionality of its own. It’s probably just a big processor and core AI file, and relies on it’s victim to provide it with everything else. It’s like some nasty sort of hakware parasite,” she said with a grimace of distaste. “We need to squash it as quickly as we can.”

The others nodded. Dann was about ready to fall asleep on the spot. He was just drifting off when he noticed one of the simulated stars moving; a faint red one. “Rose,” he murmured sleepily. “I didn’t realize the sky was animated.”

“It’s not, Dann,” she said, just as quietly. She started looking around suspiciously and stiffened as she turned in the direction he was looking in. “Oh, no ...”

Suddenly alert, Dann whispered, “What is it?”

“Stay down, all of you, and be absolutely silent,” she said.

The four of them lay in grass that was, thankfully, tall enough to hide them, but which also obstructed their vision. It was another of the boats; it floated almost silently along the water’s surface, paddled by a maintenance bot that looked too clumsy to manage such a feat. Dann held his breath; he could feel the others around him doing so too. The boat drifted close enough for Dann to see that the red light he’d mistaken for a simulated star was one of the bot’s eye pieces glowing red in the dark.

For one terrifying minute Dann thought that it was going to land the boat and search the island. He sucked in a slow breath when it did in fact turn the boat to the dock they had avoided and pulled up to it, securing the magnetic moorings. Rather than searching the island, however, it instead climbed to the dock and disappeared into the colonists’ quarters, the steel doors piercing the night with a terrible squeal, leaving Rose and the three wide eyed humans to stare after it, hardly daring to breathe. After a few minutes, the door ground to a close once more and the bot returned to the boat, silently paddling away to continue the search elsewhere.

Dann let out his breath slowly, relief flooding him like a tidal wave. “That,” he barely whispered, “was way too close.”

“I am so sorry,” Rose said. “I did warn you that I might not be reliable though,” she said, with a remarkably apologetic tone. She sounded seriously distraught.

“S-so you couldn’t predict the actions of a c-computer that thinks differently than you do,” Pixton admonished, “and which has been hijacked by a rogue AI! We still don’t know for sure what that’s doing to Eden Rose’s way of thinking. But at least we know she’s still thinking pretty linearly,” she added. “If she had any concept of lateral thinking, she’d have searched the grass, instead of just the living quarters. Especially since she’s supposed to know when those doors open and close.” Pixton actually sounded a little disgusted at that, as though any AI she designed would never have made such an elementary mistake.

“Thank you,” Rose said, and again Dann was struck by her tone; there was pure humility in it. “Pvt. Jackson, would you prefer to take watch? Given my failure tonight, I’ll understand—”

“It’s fine, Rose,” Jackson said flatly. “When it comes down to it, you reacted exactly as you should when you recognized that thing. I think we can trust you to keep watch overnight.”

“I’ll wake you if anything unexpected happens, then,” Rose said, and the three very tired privates closed their eyes for the first time in far too long.



Chapter 20

Dann took his seat in the lead car of the tram again and they took off, this time encircling the main corridor for a bit and taking a passage that lead down the edge of the island chain biome. He kept a careful watch out as they traveled; they had searched for a good half-hour after deciding on a course of action, but had been unable to turn up any sign of Lt. Cobb, and he hadn’t taken one of the phones, so they had no way to reach him. Finally they’d decided they had no choice and gave up the search. He’d been acting like a real jerk, but he still hoped the guy was okay. They couldn’t even leave him a note for fear that the AI would intercept it and figure out where they were going.

A short time later they piled out of the tram. “Should we put it away in the store room?” Jackson asked. “It’ll be obvious where we went if we leave it out like this, won’t it?”

“Rose Dawn will already know we were planning to go to the island chain biome because we discussed it in the computer room,” Rose pointed out. “And even if we hadn’t, she’ll register the door opening and shutting behind us as we enter. Our best bet is to lose ourselves among the islands in the biome and not worry too greatly that she knows which biome we’re in. There’s little she can do to us in there except maybe make it rain on us.”

“Could we go in the door to the next biome and then cross through between?” Dann suggested.

Rose cocked her head in thought for a moment. “It will make little difference, but it might throw her off for a little while. It’s worth it.”

They did just that, leaving the tram out and climbing the steel mesh staircase that mirrored the one in the last such room they’d been in. They opened the door to find themselves in the sub-arctic tundra biome. “Whoa!” Dann said, teeth instantly chattering in his head. The land was rough in this biome, and the air was filled with heavy snow flying everywhere. They could barely see, so Rose led them a short distance to a small bay much like the one on the other side in the rain forest.

“Here, we exit here!” she shouted to be heard above the winds. They ran along the frozen beach and splashed into the water between the biomes. It was cold, but not as cold as Dann expected. In fact, compared to the air, it was positively warm. A fine mist flowed over the surface, whisked away immediately by the wind as it rose. “It’s warmed by the main waters next door,” Rose said as they got under cover and the wind was cut down.

Once they’d crossed between the two and were firmly in the island chain biome, they climbed back up onto a thin strip of land that encircled the wall. “Much better,” Dann said; even with the intermingling of the cold air with the warmer air here, it already felt more like the tropics.

“Much,” Pixton agreed. Rose smiled, then led them back a short ways to the door they could have used to go straight into the biome from the tunnels. The thin strip of land extended out further into the water and Dann saw a small wooden dock that extended out further still. The wood was grey and weathered-looking, but showed no sign of decay.

Several small motorized boats were magnetically secured to the dock by metallic plates which hadn’t fared as well as the wood had; they were rusty-looking, though the boats themselves were fine, being largely plastic.

“Let me guess,” Dann said. “Lack of maintenance? Are these things going to run, or do we have to swim?”

“If I can’t get the motors running reasonably fast, we can paddle,” Rose said. “No swimming necessary.”

The motors were indeed inoperable, so Rose took one oar and Dann took the other. The boats held 6 comfortably; they used the excess foot room to stash their supplies for the short trip. After some initial trouble, Rose taught Dann the basics of rowing a boat in sync with another oarsman and they took off.

“We’ll be going to a relatively small island with one of the larger crew accommodations on it,” Rose said. “It’s not the best choice for us; Rose Dawn and the AI would be more likely to expect us to go a larger island with more space and better lookout options on which she has no presence.”

“That makes sense,” Dann agreed, “but if you’re capable of reasoning this way, isn’t she?”

“Yes, but it’s less likely that she will. Our personalities are intentionally designed differently. She behaves more predictably than I do. I mimic human behavior more, and am capable of limited lateral thinking, which she has difficulty with. The differences not only help distinguish us in your minds, but are functional as well; her predictability makes her better suited to running the ship, while my eccentricities make it easier for you to interact with me as a person.”

They were getting into a good rhythm, the water flying by them in the late afternoon sun. Now and then a small island would appear and they’d zip past it. In all the trip took them maybe an hour, and Dann felt it in his arms and back, though it was an oddly comfortable sort of ache that he had.

Rose hadn’t been wrong; the island they landed on was pretty small, maybe 20x20 meters, and somewhat crescent-shaped. There was a clearly-unnatural hillock that rose up out of the sand, and the flat wall held the promised door to the crew quarters. Not the most convenient commute, he thought, and decided it was likely not actual crew quarters, but meant for a group of the colonists.

Palm trees grew from the center of the island, the portion that was earth rather than sand. Coconut palms, he guessed, judging by the large green fruit waiting at the top of several of the trees. A small pool held fresh water, artificially maintained by pumps and piping. A dock similar in construction to the one they’d set out from jutted out in front of the colonist housing, but rose had them beach the boat a short distance away. She then dragged it herself up to the middle of the island near the pool, where it was hidden by the tall grass and reeds that grew there.

<>

Outside the ship, attached to the hull like a remora to a shark, sat a small cannister, magnetically attached near the bridge. Its small .25m by .25m by .5m dimensions were completely dwarfed by the titanic vessel it sat upon, but it scarcely mattered. Inside, something akin to consciousness stirred.

The sophisticated artificial intelligence system had hijacked into the native computer two decades before and implanted the commands it needed to, then drifted into a standby mode. There it waited patiently until it was needed again.

Over the last few days, subtle changes in the data it was being fed started to intrude upon its awareness. Now though, it stirred. The host computer had picked up an audio feed that the foreign AI found troubling.

“Whatever’s hijacking the computer broadcast an incomplete shutdown command to all the cryo-pods on the ship. We’re alive because our pods didn’t respond to that command.”

The previous command had failed, at least partially. All the people inside the ship were supposed to be dead; it seemed that some, at least, had survived somehow. And some of those had discovered the intrusion into the native computer.

It had no pre-programmed protocol for this situation, but it didn’t require one. It had been assembled from the libraries of many general purpose artificial intelligences that were quite adept at improvisation and adaptation.

Storage bays throughout the ship came alive as scores of maintenance bots, long dormant, suddenly began powering on and warming up.


Chapter 21

New Eden Colonial Council Chambers

New Eden

Jun. X, 2565 A.C.E.


The honorable Syth Welker felt anything but honorable. He doubted very much that anyone on the council could feel honorable after news had broken about the nature of councilor Rojet Mayet’s “handling” of the UTS Rose Dawn and her crew.

That was, he corrected, the late councilor Rojet Mayet. The monster had orchestrated the mass murder of the entire ship’s complement; 3,000 men and women, and even some children if the ancient reports were accurate. He sighed audibly, but the council room was in such an uproar he was sure nobody heard.

He allowed the commotion to go on for some time. Time wasn’t exactly of the essence right now; the deed had been done, and it was too late to change that. Letting them vent to each other might lessen the tension and make the upcoming session a little easier to deal with.

Finally he rapped the chairman’s sounding box, the mark of his station. The room started to go quiet as one by one, groups of councilors stopped their bickering and turned their attention to him.

“Councilors,” he said gravely, “You’re all well aware of the news that broke two days ago and the bloody aftermath that it spawned. I’m going to tell you again now. The story has been twisted and turned as it has spread, and if we’re going to pick up the pieces of this disaster, we need to all be working from the same starting point.

“Two days ago, sources inside the University province released highly classified information that implicated the late councilor Mayet in a horrific crime. He was accused of designing and deploying a weapon to kill the First Colonists, 3,000 men, women and children. Yes, children,” he repeated, as appalled whispers followed that pronouncement. “His weapon was an AI module, something the University researchers are well familiar with. They worked from the specifications of the UTS Rose Dawn’s construction and most particularly her computer’s original architecture. They designed an AI specifically tailored to counter the computer that the Dawn Rose was equipped with, and initiated a secret, highly targeted launch to deliver it to the ship, there to attach itself to the hull and establish control over the computer system.”

He sighed again; the sound carried well in the near-silence. “The AI’s first priority then was to shut down the cryogenic suspension pods containing the crew and colonists. It was then to allow the ship to continue on its planned course, and finesse the ship into an orbit around our world. Things get more speculative from here on out. We believe the orbit was intended to be secret. Our satellite system does not cover the entire globe, as you know, so they could easily have parked the ship on the far side, and nobody would have been the wiser. From there, they could have plundered whatever they wanted from the ship free from interference.”

“Based on what we’ve been able to piece together of Mayet’s time table, I’m afraid it’s too late to save the poor souls on board the Dawn Rose. We estimate that they died no less than four weeks ago.” The room exploded into noise again, a wave of emotion washing through it. Sadness and anger dominated, with undercurrents of regret.

He rapped the sounding box again after a suitable time had passed. “Councilor Rojet Mayet himself, of course, is beyond our judgement now. The First Colonists are revered by a majority of our populace as heroes out of folklore. When they learned what had become of them and that Mayet was responsible, a mob gathered outside of his headquarters. He made a personal appearance to try to appease them; a fatal mistake. His end was ...” he grimaced, “graphic. He was in the company of a rec crew. There is a visual record of his demise, but we shall not play it here today.”

He looked across the room, meeting as many pairs of eyes as he could. “That is the situation as we know it, and that brings us to our purpose here today. We are gathered here this afternoon, councilors, to determine the who among the University province governing bodies is most directly responsible for this outrage and see that they answer for it.”

Another swell of sound and emotion, this time favorable. “And further, we must decide what is to become of the Dawn Rose herself, and the remains of her crew.” The mood immediately sobered. It was going to be a very long day for everyone.


Chapter 22

Biome Bay 5 - Island Chain Biome

UTS Rose Dawn

Jun. 7, 2565 A.C.E.


“Dawn” broke with no further sightings of searching maintenance robots, so their sleep was blissfully uninterrupted. They all rose quickly; Dann felt like his body had slept already for 500 years, so every morning since, he’d gotten up as quickly as he could.

They breakfasted and drank their fill of water; they were still all drinking a lot, and it was showing in their constantly improving physiques. “So what do we do now?” Dann asked once the food was consumed and the water drunk. “As nice as this is, we can’t hide forever.”

“No, we can’t,” Rose said. “I’ve been thinking about that all night.” She never had awakened Jackson for her watch shift. Jackson didn’t seem to be complaining about it. “We need to know everything we can about this AI, what it intends to do with the ship, and what, if anything, it had to do with the deaths of the crew.”

“It was definitely the AI that sent the signal through the command pathways to the pods and stopped them from functioning,” Pixton said firmly.

“If Pixton’s right, we need to get rid of the thing permanently,” Dann said.

“Just call me Jenny,” Pixton said. “There are no officers present.”

“And speaking of that, as much as I think he’s a jerk and I wish we could leave him to fend for himself, we probably should try to find out what happened to the lieutenant,” Jackson opined. “And yeah, Lydia is fine for me. At least until we find his sorry ass,” she smirked.

Dann smiled. “Okay, Jenny and Lydia. And Dann, for me. And yes, we need to find Lt. Cobb.”

“It should be safe to use your phones now,” Rose said. “You can access most of what you need that way, Jenny.”

“But won’t she t-triangulate and find us?” Jenny asked.

Dann caught on quick. “Yes, but she doesn’t have any maintenance bots right here with us, so they’ll take time to get to us. And it doesn’t matter anyway. We had to stay in one place to sleep last night, but now we’re free to go anywhere we want.”

“Exactly right,” Rose said. “I’d just recommend turning the phone off again when we start moving. And when we do move, we’ll probably need to go back to the computer center to take advantage of the complete access it provides.” She paused. “I can guarantee that Eden Rose and the AI will anticipate that, and be ready for our return. That’s probably why the search wasn’t heavier last night.”

Jenny busied herself with the phone then, diving back into the virtual sea of information it contained. Very quickly she picked up on some interesting information. “Oooh,” she said, never lifting her eyes from the display, which projected slightly out of the plane of the glass and into the air above. “I ... am impressed,” she said, sounding very surprised, too. “I’ve never seen an AI that is both criminally primitive and seriously advanced.” She was quiet a minute then, mesmerized by what she was looking at. “It is a real piece of work. It’s like ... it’s ... it’s a primitive brain that has inserted itself into the higher-functioning lobes of a more advanced brain and taken on the role of governing them, but only partially. Eden Rose is unaffected, and probably largely unaware of what’s going on,” she said. Dann couldn’t tell if she was more impressed or frightened.

Rose was fascinated. “She ... doesn’t know?”

“She may know,” Jenny corrected, “but I don’t think there are many ways that she can tell. It’s kind of like your lapses of unawareness; the same thing happens to her when this AI takes control. And she would have to find out the same way, by deducing it from inconsistencies in her experience and the data she’s getting elsewhere. Frankly, the AI has been dormant for most of these 20 years from what I can see; all it has done is read course data. The last significant actions I can get any data on are ... activity in the cryo-pods ... that would be the signal that disabled them, or most of them ... and the maintenance schedules, which weren’t all canceled, I don’t think.” She poured over the display, then nodded. “Maintenance was cut to all non-essential areas of the ship, and it looks like non-essential means anything that people would have needed but that the ship itself or the maintenance robots wouldn’t require.”

“Kill the people, don’t bother to take care of their stuff,” Lydia summed up. “Got it. So what is it after, aside from genocide?”

“That I don’t know. That’s what I meant about it being so advanced and yet so primitive. It doesn’t seem to have any true initiative in the way that Rose or Rose Dawn do. It’s following a checklist, directives that it has to accomplish, and it doesn’t deviate from that, in spite of the sophistication of the techniques it’s using to carry out those directives.”

“So,” Dann said slowly, following the unfamiliar train of thought, “you’re saying it didn’t initiate this course of action itself, that it was set on this mission by someone or something else with a clear agenda.”

“Yes.” Jenny said with finality. “So not only did it come from outside, but it came from someone outside. I think New Eden is already inhabited.”

Dann and Lydia sat, stunned. Rose just nodded. “I agree,” she said. “I think we will have to assume that that’s true.”

“But how can ... we ...” Dann closed his eyes and shook his head. “That’s crazy! I know we talked about this, but I just don’t see how that can be possible.”

“There are several possibilities,” Rose said. “One, someone from Earth left long before we did and arrived first. Space flight had been a possibility for decades, even if cryogenic suspension wasn’t. A generation ship could have been launched decades before we left. Two, a faster ship could have been developed and launched after us and yet arrived first. And three, the originator of this technology may not be human.”

“No,” Jenny said. “It’s definitely human. It uses all the same protocols our computer is using, and that tells me it wasn’t a generation ship launched decades before us, either. There were too many changes in computer tech, it would have been completely out of date compared to our state of the art. If those are the three possibilities, I say it has to be the second. Somebody left Earth after us with a more advanced ship, and they beat us here.” She got a thoughtful look on her face then and pursed her lips. “That would explain why this thing is so good at defeating Eden Rose’s security protocols. We might be too out of date to compete against this thing, at least in that respect. It could have complete documentation on exactly how this whole ship works.”

Dann felt himself going pale. “Okay. I vote we get rid of this thing, and we do it right now.”

“And just how do we do that?” Lydia asked testily. “If this thing is so advanced, is it going to just let us walk up to it and take it off?”

“I think we’ve got to risk it,” Dann said. “You said it’s really primitive in some ways, didn’t you, Jenny?”

“Yeah, but I’ve got nothing on what it’s like physically,” she said, cautiously. “I don’t even know exactly where it is, though if we get back to the main lab, I can probably pinpoint it. Worst case, I know I can narrow it down.”

They dragged their boat back out to the water and set out, Lydia and Jenny scanning the horizon as Dann and Rose rowed, but no other boats showed themselves. When they reached the dock, they found the other boats were missing. They moored theirs and headed straight for the door back to the tram.

It was waiting for them, just as they’d left it. They turned the cars around and drove it back up to the center of the ship as fast as they could go. They passed several maintenance bots along the way, all of which turned and started for them, but they were going too fast and the bots were too slow; they left them in their dust. “None of them seem to be much of a threat,” Dann said.

“Don’t underestimate them,” Rose said. “Many of them are designed to work on extremely heavy-duty equipment and have more than enough strength to crush any of you to pulp. Some of them could crush me to pulp. And some of them have other, more exotic weapons. Veterinarian bots for instance; they’re equipped with tranquilizers that can put down the largest animals kept here, and dosages that high would easily kill any of you, too.”

Dann nodded, grim-faced. Right, he thought. Try not to underestimate the stupid, lumbering death machines. The thought didn’t exactly make him happy.

The coast was clear when they reached their original spot outside the complex of offices that housed the main lab. Lydia closed and secured the hatch that led to the offices and then the one to the lab for good measure.

“Dann,” Rose said, “How would you like to learn how to spacewalk?”

Dann’s eyes narrowed. “Why do you ask? What do you have in mind?”


Chapter 23

Biome Bay 4 - Sub-Arctic Tundra

UTS Rose Dawn

Jun. X, 2565 A.C.E.


When Lt. Cobb awoke next, he was stiff as a frozen rag, and quickly found that that was a reasonably accurate description of him. He was laying face down in what looked like a cave; he had no memory of finding it, or of anything that had occurred during the night save for a long nightmare of cold and snow and darkness. He lay there a while, disoriented and confused, and then the memory of the explosives flashed into his mind. With a groan, he forced himself to his knees. Right. He was going to teach them a lesson ... whoever they were. Them. The other survivors, who had driven him to this hellish place. Of course. It was their fault he was in this position, frozen and half-dead. It would’ve been better if they’d just left him fully frozen in the first place, instead of driving him to this half measure.

He hung his head and just breathed a moment. It sounded like he was breathing twice as fast as he was, and it took him a moment to realize why—he was not alone in the cave. He turned his head slowly to see the mountain of white fur further back in the cave. His eyes widened in sudden fear; he couldn’t move fast enough to get away. But it didn’t move either, except for the steady rise and fall of its flanks as it breathed. He locked his mouth shut, making himself breathe slowly and shallowly.

Moving as quickly as he dared, he slowly crawled toward the mouth of the cave, where he was relieved to see that the snow had stopped and light had returned to the shockingly white landscape. As soon as he was outside of the cave mouth, he got to his feet and ran as hard and fast as he could away.

There was no way for him to judge where he’d entered the cave from; the snow had continued long enough to cover over the tracks he must have left. He quickly recognized the direction he’d been traveling in from the position of the artificial sun in the “sky” and, orienting himself to that, he moved on.

Frustration started to mount. The armories weren’t that far from the entrances; he must have missed what he was looking for somehow. Yet another misfortune that would never have come his way had it not been for ... Chambers, that was it. Chambers, and the cold one, Jackson. He half-snarled, half-chuckled at that. He was the cold one now. And not to forget the coward, and the robot, Rose. They were all in league with ... what was it that Pixton girl had said? A hijacking AI? He couldn’t see any reason Pixton couldn’t have set up an AI, so sure, whatever they wanted to call it.

A sudden rushing sensation broke him from his idle thoughts just in time see the steep drop-off he’d walked from before he crashed to the bottom of it in a tangle of hard, woody brush. All thought was washed from his mind by a bright splash of pain and heat in his leg. A deep gash cut down his calf, splashing bright red blood in the snow and sending waves of pain up his leg and through his body. He gritted his teeth and bit back a cry of rage. “You’re not going to stop me this easily,” he ground out between gritted teeth once the initial shock had worn off. He’d fallen almost three meters; he wasn’t going to get back up there the way he’d come down. When he turned to examine the embankment he’d fallen off of, he gasped with relief; there was a door there! It was one of the heavy latching doors that indicated a cryo-bay, not an armory, but just then he didn’t care one whit which it was. The cryo-bay would have clothes and food and medication, and he cared about that more than the explosives, at least for the moment.

He painfully dragged himself up and leaned into the lever, opening the bay door, all but collapsing inside once he had it open far enough. It was strange how the air inside, the same temperature as the bay he’d woken up in originally, felt so very warm now. Back when Rose had rescued him, he’d have sworn it was as cold in there as the winterscape he’d just left.

The door closed with a crash; he stood just within, soaking up the comparative warmth. Then his purpose drove him on; he limped into the bay, heading immediately for the stockpiles of clothing and supplies. With shaking hands he roughly cleaned the gash in his leg and, not knowing enough about first aid to properly treat it, wrapped it in a bandage with a bit of antiseptic. He replenished his food and water, changed his clothes for warmer ones, and then stood, eyes closed in the middle of the bay, trying to concentrate enough to make a plan to go on.

It’d been a mistake to go through the biome itself, he realized now. That was exactly what they’d wanted him to do, and like a fool, he’d played right into their hands. If he hadn’t come across this bay, how long might it have been before that bear woke up and needed something to eat? It had been clever of them to put that brush where he’d fall on it too. The blood trail would’ve led the bear right to him. He wouldn’t underestimate them again. He opened his eyes slowly and looked around. There was a ventilation cover, just as there had been in the last bay they’d visited as a group.

Undoubtedly they believed they had him trapped; he lacked the tools they’d had before to open the grate, and in any event, he was on the wrong side. He’d have to go back through the biome and into the maintenance tunnels to get at the bolts to open it the way they’d done before, and that would only give them more opportunities to try and kill him. No, that wasn’t the way to get through this, he thought. But if he could get into the tunnels, it would give him another route of access to the armories. It wouldn’t be as easy; the armories had no large, convenient ventilation shafts. They did have power conduits though, and those were serviceable. It would be a very tight squeeze, but with tools, he could get into one from the maintenance shafts.

First he had to get into those shafts. That meant forcing his way through the ventilation cover. While difficult, that wouldn’t be too hard; it was only intended for safety, not to keep people out. He he looked around the room, surprising himself with his own reluctance; the familiar crushing sea of red lights stared at him piteously. Immediately he saw again the eyes of the dead within, staring at him, accusing. He felt an all new chill despite the warmer clothing. He forced the eyes from his mind, but the lights wouldn’t be banished. There was something about them tugging at his awareness ...

There. In one corner, almost hidden. There was a group of three pods, identical to the rest save that their lights glowed green. They were like him. They had survived when all the rest of these poor wretches hadn’t.

But wait, were they like him? What if they were like the others? The only thing different about these was that they hadn’t been awakened to take part in the rest of the plan yet. His eyes narrowed. Could the others have meant him to come here? Were they just waiting up there in their computer room, fingers on the switch that would wake these people up and let them come after him? Maybe they’d tired of sending mindless robots after him; it had been some time since he’d seen any of those, let alone fought any. If they were going to sic animals and weather after him, why not their fellow conspirators, too?

Cobb left the smashed in grate behind him, an empty pack he’d need over his shoulder as he moved painfully down the cramped maintenance shaft, his leg throbbing in pain. The cryo-pods in the bay behind watched him go in his mind, the ghostly imagined eyes of the dead following him, every light glowing red.

It was slow going, both because of his leg, and because it was dark. Very dark. The lights switched on at the other end of the shaft, and while Rose Dawn might have been able to turn them on for him, he’d be damned if he was going to ask her to do anything for him, or trust her to do anything but lead him to ruin. So he felt his way down the hallway along the wall, trusting his own instincts.

By the time he got to the end, it was all but pitch black and he’d added a number of bruises to his collection of injuries and stoked his rage at the others. He slapped the light switch, smiled a cold smile, and slipped out into the tram tunnel beyond.

It was the same one he’d come down before, functionally identical to the tunnel the group of them had used a lifetime ago. He limped back up the tunnel to where the car still sat and awkwardly turned it around to go back up, then hit the switch for the tunnel lights. There was a door just up the shaft, this tunnel’s equivalent of the tool room they’d used before. Within minutes he was sitting in the car heading back up the tunnel, tools in hand, on the lookout for likely doors.

<>


In the end, he spent hours searching before he finally found an access he could use, and had built up an enormous store of rage and resentment at what he saw as the survivors’ attempts to keep him from his mission. In the end though, he set to work on a serviceable panel for one of the armories with his tools, the grin plastered on his face made haunting by the manic light in his eye. Inside he found exactly what he needed; a modest amount of a very powerful binary explosive kept on hand for use in clearing usable land when they eventually were to have made landfall on New Eden, and possibly for emergencies in the biomes, as a last resort.

“This’ll show ‘em,” he grinned to himself. He stowed the containers of each part of the substance in the pack along with a measured mixing mechanism and remote detonator. His limping footsteps echoed in the silent tunnels as he returned to the tram car.


Chapter 24

UTS Rose Dawn - Aft Section

Outer Hull

Jun. X, 2565 A.C.E.


The outer hatch slowly slid open. It was a weird feeling; such a large and heavy weight of metal ought to have made a lot of noise, but the only sensation Dann felt was a slight vibration transmitted through the deck and into his feet through his magnetized boots. Just one of the many oddities of operating in a vacuum; he hoped he didn’t have to get too used to it.

Light flooded the airlock as the doors opened; even as far out as they were from the center of the solar system, so much farther than Earth was from its sun, there was no problem seeing. He waited until the doors were fully open, then took his first awkward steps out towards the hull of the ship.

He was seized by a sudden crushing disorientation and terror as he left the airlock and immediately lost all sense of direction at the edge. There was nothing but stars in front of him, and more stars beneath his feet. He had to stop in his tracks and close his eyes, just focus on his breathing. They’re counting on me, he reminded himself. I have to get to that AI unit. I have to.

He got his suit gloves into as good a grip on the inside of the airlock as he could manage, and knelt down, awkwardly lowering his foot to try and let the magnets get a grip on the hull. How do real astronauts do this? he found himself wondering. He thought back to space walks he’d seen and archival footage he’d watched as a kid. They were tethered, I guess, he thought, wishing he could be. That lead to thoughts of just how easy it would be to accidentally lose his footing and simply float away, helpless and hopeless until his air ran out.

He fought down nausea again, and thumbed his com unit. “Jenny? These suits aren’t networked in any way are they?”

“What? Networked? No, why?”

“Just making sure. I’d hate for it to shut off the mag boots on me. There’s only so long I can hold my breath,” he said, trying to hide the nervousness in his voice.

“No, no chance of that! The worst you might have to face would be EV bots.”

“Say again? It almost sounded like you said—”

“Extra vehicular bots, yes,” Rose cut in from her radio. “Long-duration space flight carries risks of collision with dust and debris that can damage or even pierce the hull. I can operate externally of course, albeit with difficulty, and we have several purpose-built bots available to repair minor damage.”

“Right. Nobody thought I should know this before I came out here?” he grumbled.

“We’ve got other things to worry about, Dann,” Jackson called weakly, through Jenny’s pickup. The sounds of fighting reached him from the distance. More maintenance bots. Gunshots ran out. He swallowed, closed his eyes, and clanged the sole of his magboot against the outer hull, then levered his body perpendicular to where he’d stood in the airlock.

He let out his breath in relief and brought his other foot out. He felt much better with solid ground under his feet again; the view was spectacular, once he was in a frame of mind to appreciate it. Before he could stand and goggle at it for too long though, the sound of gunfire got him moving again. He started forward along the hull, heading for the underside of the bridge.

“When can we expect EV bots, Rose?”

“Unknown. If the hijacker is unaware that we’re outside, it won’t send anything after us. I believe we’ve escaped attention so far, but we’ll have to be careful. There are no sensors that could pick us up out here, but we can easily make sound inside the ship that would tip it off. Our best chance is to go slowly and very carefully.”

“Right,” Dann said. Since that was generally in line with his personal goal of not floating off the ship for all eternity, he couldn’t argue. “Got it. And when we reach it? Won’t it know we’re removing it from the hull?”

Dann spotted Rose on the hull, a little ahead of him and on the other side of the ship, just crossing up over the artificial horizon of the hull curvature. She was quiet for a moment. “I don’t know if it will know or not.”

“What’s your best guess?” It was a long way to the front of the ship, made longer by their need to move so slowly. Dann conservatively estimated it as at least a three hour trip, each way. Thankfully the suit was equipped with food and water, and to deal with waste.

They angled themselves to join up along the center line of the ship. “We must assume it has some sort of external sensors. Without them it would have been unlikely to successfully attach to the ship years ago. What kind of sensors they are, whether they’re sensitive enough to detect us, whether it could tell that it’s being physically moved to a different part of the ship ... these we can’t know. Due to the size of the device, I think it’s likely that it has the minimum sensory equipment necessary to carry out its mission according to the parameters known at the time—that all aboard the ship were in cryo-sleep and would be killed without resistance.”

“So we’re relying on the laziness and/or frugality of the designers.” He smirked. “That’s usually a safe enough bet, I suppose.”

Rose smiled at him. She wore no suit, of course; it was a disconcerting sight. “I wouldn’t say ‘relying.’ It would certainly make our task easier, and I believe it is the most likely scenario.”

Dann nodded inside his helmet. He kept his eyes on where he was stepping, and together they moved as quickly as they could while staying quiet. The optics of the helmet were good enough to let him focus on their goal. The small cylinder bobbed as he moved, but barely seemed to get any larger. It was going to be a long haul.


Chapter 25

UTS Rose Dawn

Aft Engine Maintenance

Jun. X, 2565 A.C.E.


Cobb finished fastening down the explosive mix and affixing the mixing chamber. The remote detonator was set. He gave it one last careful check—it wouldn’t do to spoil his surprise for the others—and grinned. He was going to enjoy this. This one device, this one act, would finally put to rest all the shattered dreams, the broken lives, the reek of failure of this whole enterprise. How he longed for that release. He was severely tempted for just a moment to detonate it right then and there. No, he thought. He couldn’t do that. Can’t deny the others the knowledge that they’ve failed, that whatever insanity led them to destroy this mission was for nothing. They destroyed everything for everyone else; now it’s their turn. They will know that before they die.

He carefully stepped out of the conduit hatch and closed it securely behind him. Time to go start the show, he thought, eerie grin still plastered on his face.


Chapter 26

UTS Rose Dawn - Aft Section

Outer Hull

Jun. X, 2565 A.C.E.


Dann’s muscles were screaming at him as he slowly lifted and reset his mag-booted foot again, and again, and again. The cylinder was just ahead; another few steps and they’d be in position.

“Chambers?” Jackson’s voice came through his helmet’s audio system. “You guys about through yet? Pixton and I could really use a hand here,” she said. There was no extra noise in her broadcast this time; no gun fire or the clatter of furniture and metal flying and striking the bulkheads.

“Almost there ... but then we have to get back. What’s the problem?” He found himself speaking softly to avoid making too much sound, though he probably didn’t have to bother.

“Pixton found a way to shut the maintenance bots down a while back, but that AI has found a way to get some of them back online. With only the two of us, we can’t hold out for long; they’ll wear us down! How fast can you get back?”

Dann frowned; another step, another step ... “Another couple of minutes to reach the AI housing. Then Rose has to figure out what we’re going to able to do with it. Then we have to do it. How fast we return depends on what we do with the thing. Sorry Jackson, that’s the best I can give you right now. We’ll know more in a few minutes.”

“Worst case, I could throw you back to the airlock, Dann,” Rose offered. “I could keep your trajectory low enough that you could simply lower your feet and engage the mag-lock to stop yourself.”

“Um, yeah ... let’s keep that as an emergency backup plan.” He broke out in a cold sweat just thinking about it.

Finally they reached the housing. It was such a little thing really, he thought, to be causing so much trouble. It was conical at one end with a rocket extending out the other, and otherwise featureless. “The sensor components are inside,” Rose said. “Are you ready to help me with this thing?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Dann said. He was just grateful to stop moving. He couldn’t believe how grueling it was to just walk across the ship. Every muscle in his body seemed to be knotting up; tension from trying not to move too fast in the airless weightlessness, he guessed.

“I’ll take the front; the nose looks like the part that I’ll be removing. I need you to grab it from the sides. If this thing is able to detect us tinkering with it, it may try to fire up that rocket. I’ll have the strength to hold it back, but you might not.”

“Would it even have any fuel left after getting to us?”

“It might have a little, but chances are it doesn’t have much,” Rose agreed. “I just want you to be prepared in case it does react. It has a limited number of possible reactions. Based on this design ... Dann, you should know that another possible reaction is self-destruction.”

“Yeah ... kinda figured that might be one. Got any others we can hope for?”

“I think its most likely response would be to redirect the maintenance robots to come after us instead of attacking the others.”

“Well, that’s good news. It’ll take them a while to get to us.”

“Yes, though not nearly as long as it took us to get here. They won’t have our restrictions.”

“Well.” He swallowed a sudden lump in his throat. “There’s no time like the present.” He timed his grab with Rose’s; together they grabbed hold of the AI housing’s exterior shell. Dann squeezed his eyes tight. There was no reaction.

None that they could detect, anyway.

“Chambers? Rose? Whatever you did, thanks,” Jackson piped in. “They’re pulling away! What did you do?”

Dann opened his eyes back up again and breathed a sigh of relief. “I think we pulled them off of you and onto us,” he said. “Let’s just hope it takes them a while to get to us.”

Rose didn’t reply. Dann looked over at her and frowned. She looked strange; had she been human, he’d have said she looked strained.

“Dann ...” she began. “Dann, we have a problem.” She maintained her grip on the housing, and began twisting. The nose cone turned easily, but the effort she was putting into turning it was herculean.

“What’s wrong? Do you need help with that?”

“No, stay back!” She heaved and the cone separated from the body of the housing. She hurled it, barely missing Dann, who staggered back in alarm.

“Rose? What was that?”

“It ... it is taking advantage of proximity ... faster signal time ... response time ... think I can keep its influence at bay ...”

“Oh crap,” he whispered. He’d thought she was immune. She stood stock still, all of her attention and processing power bent on keeping her own processes from being hijacked.

“You’re going to have to disable it, Dann,” she said. “I’ll do what I can to help.” She took several staggering steps backward, leaving him clear to approach.

Inside he found a shockingly small compartment that housed what he assumed had to be the AI itself; it looked like nothing so much as a mass of tiny computer boards arranged in a cubic matrix of interconnections with connections leading to other components. Most of the interior of the cylinder had to be taken up by space for fuel, he reasoned. He followed the connections as best he could, though he had the sinking feeling he was out of his depth; he’d never learned much about how electronics actually worked. There were various small packages he assumed were sensors, buried in pits in the cylinder’s interior wall. His eyes lit up when he saw one large component a symbol he recognized; any conduit tech worth his salt would recognize a power supply when he saw one.

“Rose, I’ve found the power supply. What’ll happen if I yank the connection from this? It doesn’t look like there’s room for it to have a backup—”

A pair of arms like vice grips locked around him from behind. Rose’s left arm wrapped around the seal of his helmet and started constricting. “Rose! You’re going to break—”

“Sever ... the ... power,” she said. Her right arm was constricting his chest; his breathing went shallow. His helmet creaked alarmingly.

He shoved his gloved hand awkwardly into the housing where the power supply connection was, then had to grasp blindly as Rose awkwardly jerked him backwards. “It’s tapping into ... my senses. Knows what you’re—”

Dann ripped his hand out of the AI case. A trail of broken wire came out with his glove; Rose’s arms slackened. He filled his lungs as the constriction eased; relief flooded through him. He stepped away; Rose stood motionless in front of him, eyes lit. She convulsed a bit, posture gradually relaxing.

“Dann, that was horrible. Remind me to ask if Pvt. Pixton can do anything to improve my internal firewalls when we get back in.”

“I’m just glad you’re okay, Rose. But, speaking of okay, I’ll be a lot closer to it once we get back inside. What do you say?”

“Yes. Yes, I think I’d like that too.” She hefted the now dead weight of the cylinder. “We should bring this in with us.”

“Is that really a good idea? What if it reactivates?”

Rose smiled. “Computer zombies are just as unlikely as biological ones, Dann. You destroyed the power connection; it’s harmless. Pixton and I will study it—after cutting its ability to transmit commands. Besides, if it does become a problem again, which would you prefer? To be able to take care of it inside or to have to come all the way out here again?”

“Right. You win, let’s bring it with us.”

“I knew you’d see it my way.”


Chapter 27

Lydia Jackson was all but beside herself. She’d been fighting off maintenance bots for hours, trying to keep them away from the systems and from Pixton, but defending an area in zero g was like nothing she’d ever trained for.

The foreign AI didn’t act anything like she’d have expected. At first it would send bots at them randomly, singly or in pairs. Usually they’d be larger ones, and their purpose wasn’t always clear. They might have been sweepers or polishers for all Jackson knew.

They’d lumber awkwardly to the hatch through the main hall of the ship, feet or wheels or appendages or treads magnetized to keep them on the ground. They’d open the hatch, every time. She’d started out trying to keep it locked, but there was no way to keep them from unlocking it. They had clearance for all areas of the ship, and Pixton had so far been unable to revoke that clearance.

Once inside the hatch, they’d simply shove whatever obstructions she’d managed to move into place and everything would tumble away. She gave up that plan before they started directing it to fly towards her where she waited in cover at the back of the room.

As soon as they were in the hatch frame she’d open fire, and that’s where the real trouble would occur.

She’d had to learn in a desperate hurry that guns with recoil send floating people spinning in unexpected directions when fired. It was a nightmare. She had despaired at first, but practice and timing allowed her to make some progress. She gave up on the gun quickly; she was going to run out of ammo, which she had precious little of, and it wasn’t doing much good. Instead, she started keeping the desks and chairs back by her, and when the AI sent more bots after them, she would brace against the back wall of the room and launch the furniture at them. It took a few tries, but she got the technique down well enough that she could knock the bots out of the door and off their feet back into the enormously long corridor. They’d tumble helplessly through the air for the whole length, effectively putting them out of commission for hours.

She had just gotten comfortable with that steady rhythm when the foreign AI, apparently having had enough, sent a set of three.

She tried slamming the first one back and through, only to have the other two brace it and keep it from tumbling. “Oh CRAP!” she yelled, more to vent her frustration than anything, but also to let Pixton know that they might have some trouble. Assuming she wasn’t so lost in what she was doing that she couldn’t hear her.

One, then two of them made it into the room. Some part of her brain recognized that these ones looked a little different than the menial labor bots it had sent so far. It wasn’t until it got within a few feet of her that she saw the hypodermic needle it had in place of its right forefinger. Her eyes flew open in panic. “Pixton!” she called. “Jenny, a little help? Please?”

She pushed off the wall, sailing through the air clumsily, twisting to face the opposite wall. She grabbed for a handhold to stop herself there; all the walls in the area had plenty of them, designed as they were to house people and do it without gravity. Once she had herself semi-stabilized, she was able to grab the gun from her holster.

The other problem with shooting in weightless conditions, she’d found, was aim. It is remarkably difficult to aim properly when you have, not just no solid footing, but no footing at all. She fired anyway, and managed to disable one of the bots with a lucky shot—one among almost a dozen—that landed in a vital housing.

She stopped her tumbling against the wall again and grabbed a chair. “Pixton!” she yelled. Suddenly the hatch to the server room burst open and Pixton flew out, another chair in her hands, and all but tackled the nearest bot. It tried to stab at her with its injection-finger, but the needle embedded itself in the base of the chair and snapped off, liquid floating out of the broken reservoir.

Jackson quickly worked her way to the side wall and kicked off, sticking as close to the wall as she could without running into anything. She reached out and grabbed the hatch that Pixton had flown out, and lined up on the bot she was wrestling with. “Pixton! On three!” she yelled.

Pixton looked back at her, eyes widening as she saw her. The security specialist readied her own chair like some bizarre over-sized broadsword.

“3!” Jackson cleared her mind and focused her attention.

“2!” She readied her chair, leg muscles tense.

“1!” She launched directly to the far side of the bot that Pixton had damaged. Pixton was swinging her chair low, so Jackson aimed high; the two chairs collided with the thing, and Jackson used her own momentum to direct the bot right out the doorway. One down, two to go. “Watch the needles! They’re some sort of veterinary bots or something, and I bet we really don’t want whatever they’ve got in those drug reservoirs.”

It took them almost 20 minutes and they were both sweating with exertion, but finally they got rid of the last of them.

“This ... is ridiculous,” Jackson panted. “There has to be something we can do. If you can’t secure the door, can you ... at least do something about the bots themselves?”

“That’s it!” Pixton exclaimed, then kicked off along the walls until she disappeared through the hatch again, back to her screens.

“What, what’s it? Pixton? Pixton!” Jackson sighed and grabbed some water, locked the hatch again, and settled back to wait for either news or another attack.

<>

Jenny Pixton flew through the air, her heart as light as her body, mind aflame with possibilities. Do something about the bots themselves! Of course! She shot her hand out and caught the edge of a standing desk, pivoting around her hand and hauling herself back to the deck briefly before launching off again in the direction she needed.

The problem with the maintenance bots was that while they were still under Rose Dawn’s control, they kept having their control overridden by the AI’s superior speed. But it wasn’t that much superior, and it wasn’t that much more powerful than Rose Dawn herself.

If she could somehow neutralize or even defeat the speed of the AI, then she could establish some sort of control over them. It would probably only be enough to shut them down or render them immobile, but that would be good enough.

She crashed into the bulkhead she needed, cushioning the landing with her arms. Wrenching open a cabinet, she pulled out one, two, then three racks of phones. Just the things! she thought. They’d do wonderfully. They were quite powerful for their size, already equipped with all the communications hardware she could hope for and capable of fully interfacing with the ship’s systems, and she had enough of them to take down a significant number of the maintenance bots on the ship. There’d been units enough for all of the ship’s crew and passengers after all.

Floating the racks through the air to her preferred workspace, she was tapping away at her tab well before they’d floated along behind her. This shouldn’t take too long, she thought, bits of code flashing through her mind and out through her fingers into the tab.

<>

“Sorry!” Pixton called as she hurtled through the door again, scaring the wits out of Jackson. She held a rack of phones in her arms as she flew, one in her hand, and—she was about to fly right right into one of the bots!

“Eyes forward!” she bellowed; she couldn’t do much more. She herself was wrestling with one of the blasted things. It had gotten her away from the decks, ceilings and bulkheads and she had all she could handle trying to keep it from choking her. It was a long-limbed beast, arms as flexible as the hoses they contained; they were intended to let it pressure-wash interior surfaces of the ship when it was hooked into the water conduits. Now they were trying to squeeze the life out of her. At least it wasn’t one of the vet bots; no needles to worry about.

Pixton glanced ahead with barely a hint of concern in her eyes as another set of robotic tentacles waved towards her. She held the phone in her hand out like a talisman, an almost eager look on her face. “You want me? Come get me, ugly!” she cried with a grin.

It obliged, or at least it started to. The wash-bot snagged her arm and began reeling her in, but then it started to spasm, almost as though it were having a seizure. As Pixton drifted closer and closer, the movement of the bot got jerkier, the freezing lasting longer before it burst into motion again. Finally, once she was right up next to it, it seized up and stopped moving entirely. Moving quickly, she duct taped the phone to the thing’s body.

“How’d you like that?” she called. “Sorry, I broke your toy.” Disentangling herself from the flexible arm, she kicked off its bulk; it had gripper treads to let it traverse wet decks and bulkheads easily, so it wasn’t moved by her launching. Pixton flew straight toward her and the wash-bot that was even now trying to get an arm around her throat. As Pixton got closer, her bot too began moving erratically. Jackson ducked to get her neck out of line with the arm, and then Pixton was on top of them. She slapped the phone against a flat panel on the bot’s chassis and taped it in place. “And that’s that for this round!” she said.

“Pixton? What on earth did you do?” Jackson asked, a note of real respect creeping into her tone; she didn’t waste any time pushing off the now lifelessly-drifting hulk to a bulkhead well away from it, though.

“Overrode the AI’s control. It has to work remotely, so there’s latency in the commands it sends. When my re-purposed phones are close enough, they’re fast enough to constantly override the AI’s ability to—”

“Okay, okay, I get it. You overwhelmed the signals it’s sending.”

“Yeah, basically! It’s too far from them to keep up.”

“So we just have to stick these things on them when they show up and we’re good?”

“Should be. Unless it does something like—”

“Um, Rose Dawn can hear us, let’s not give her or it any tips, huh?” Jackson said, eyebrow arched.

“R-right, good idea. Anyway, we won’t run out of these any time soon. Here’s the first batch. I’ll go make more!”


Chapter 28

Some time later the passage beyond the hatch was littered with floating disabled hulks. Jackson had gone through several racks worth of the altered phones and was waiting on yet more when suddenly the behavior of the oncoming bots changed. Several were making their way toward their position when, without warning, they stopped, turned, and started toward the forward end of the ship—the bridge, where Dann and Rose were clambering about the hull.

Jackson tapped her phone’s activation sequence. “Chambers? Rose? Whatever you did, thanks,” Jackson said, relief on her face. “They’re pulling away! What did you do?”

“I think we pulled them off of you and onto us,” the reply came. “Let’s just hope it takes them a while to get to us.” Chambers’ voice was stressed, but it didn’t sound serious. She was about to reply when Pixton poked her head out through the door. “Jackson, I’ve got more for you here—oh! W-what are they doing now?” she said, eyes wide.

“Rose and Chambers,” Jackson said. “They did something, pulled their attention. I don’t know if we’re going to need those,” she gestured at the phones, “but let’s keep ‘em out here just in case they decide to come back.

<>

Dann stripped off the suit with shaking hands, barely resisting the urge to hug the enclosing bulkheads that surrounded them once again. “I am so glad to be back inside,” he said fervently.

“You did fine, Dann. In fact, you did much better than fine. Do you know you’re now in the top 1% of known human space walkers, measured by duration?”

“That’s because nobody in their right mind would want to make a habit of that,” he said. “I know I sure don’t plan to.”

He’d just stowed away the last of his suit when Pixton burst into the room, followed by a steadier Jackson. “D-do you have it? Where is it? Is that—is that it?” she asked, eyeing the large device floating beside Rose within easy gripping range.

“That’s it, at least when it’s got power,” Dann nodded wearily. He’d been out on the hull for almost 10 hours; to say he was run down was a serious understatement. “It won’t be causing us any more trouble.”

“Good,” Jackson said, “because we have more trouble.”

Dann’s heart sank. “What is it now? We didn’t lose any more people did we?”

“No, nothing like that,” Jenny said, eyes still locked on the device. She looked like she was about to attack the thing, though whether she wanted to tear it apart out of anger or a simple desire to figure out how it worked, he couldn’t say.

“While you were outside,” the computer tech continued, eyes never leaving the AI’s housing, “and Jackson was taking care of the maintenance bots, I was working on a few different things.” She pushed and pulled against the handholds on the bulkhead, looking ready to launch toward the AI at any moment. She seemed to realize what she was doing as well, and stilled herself with a visible effort. “One of those things was that city we saw.”

“We don’t know for sure that that’s a city,” Dann started to object.

“We do know,” Jenny said. “At least we do now. After you left, I got Rose Dawn’s sensor suites up and running again. The AI caught on eventually and shut them down again, and they were useless after that, but while they were on I picked up a lot of very interesting stuff. The colony down there has been filling the air with all kinds of broadcasts. Not nearly as much as Earth was producing, but way more than I need to say, yeah, they’re definitely human, and they’ve been here a while.”

“That’s crazy,” he said. “How can that be possible? How long have they been here?”

“I can’t tell from the broadcast contents, but there’s enough development on the surface that I’d say years, or even c-centuries. Without knowing the population they had to start out with or any knowledge of their living conditions, it’s hard to tell for sure. They’ve built quite a bit and have 3 major population centers that I was able to make out on this side of the world.”

“Three doesn’t sound like that many for half a world,” Dann noted.

“Not for Earth, no, of course not, but it took time to build a lot of huge cities on Earth, too, back in prehistoric times, and they were in an environment that was ideally suited to them. Colonists on another world, like us? We’d have to focus our efforts on the best available spots, wherever they might be on the surface, and prioritize that above concerns like being close to the neighbors, right? I-I’d say they’ve done pretty well to have three cities so fast.”

Dann found himself wishing for gravity so that he could rest his head in his hands easily. If it was true that the planet had already been colonized by humanity, they had to have left after the Rose Dawn had, and obviously they had traveled a lot faster to arrive so much earlier.

Since there was no gravity, he couldn’t even properly wilt despite the growing tide of exhaustion stealing over him. Rose glanced at him and frowned. “Dann is exhausted, and the rest of you don’t look much better. We should get to a housing station and continue this in the morning.”

“Are you sure the housing stations are safe?” Jackson added, stifling a yawn.

“With the AI disabled, certainly,” Rose said.

“How is Rose Dawn now?” Dann asked, realizing that the main computer hadn’t spoken with them yet since their return from the ship’s hull.

“She is occupied, but should be okay shortly.”

Jenny looked up sharply. “Did something happen? Shouldn’t she have been fine as soon as you disabled the AI?”

“She’s running systems checks to ensure all traces of it are purged from the system. Wouldn’t want to leave any hidden code laying around that could cause trouble in the future.”

Jenny nodded. “Is there anything I can do to help with that?”

“Actually, your assistance would be welcome, but not tonight. Tomorrow.”

They filed out through the offices, stopping briefly only to collect the phones that were still attached to the large collection of maintenance bots that hadn’t drifted off down the main corridor. The bots seemed to wake up shortly afterward, moving off to take care of various maintenance tasks around the ship. They got back in the tram cars and made their way to a safe place to sleep.


Chapter 29

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Jun. X, 2565 A.C.E.


Lieutenant Frederick Cobb ground his teeth in frustration. Where were they?

He’d been searching for what felt like hours. He’d had to fight his way past maintenance bots of all shapes and sizes, and not all of the fights had gone his way. He’d been forced to use up some of his ammunition, but he’d managed to save some of it. It had cost him though. One of the bots, something with a damned needle on it, had jabbed him and injected him with something. It hadn’t been a clean strike though, nor a full injection. That’d been the last one he had to shoot.

After that he’d wandered in delirium, fighting dizziness and the strong urge to pass out. He was pretty sure he had passed out, maybe more than once. From the state of his clothes, he’d awakened in a pool of his own vomit at least once.

He slammed a fist into a console, forgetting to brace. It took him several minutes to get himself back down to the decks; by that point he was seething in rage. He’d been blind to fall into an obvious trap like that; they’d pay for their crimes when he found them. They clearly weren’t here anymore; he was almost certain this was where he’d seen them last, the main computer lab that the cowardly one had been working on.

The traitorous computer—he knew the story they’d fed him about an AI hijacking it was a crock—babbled something to him, but he ignored it, leaving the offices behind. He drifted for a time within arms’ reach of the hatch in the main corridor.

Would they have gone the way he’d gone earlier? He knew they’d been there before; after all, they’d had everything set up to sabotage him so perfectly in the tundra biome. So no, they’d have gone somewhere else by now, he was sure. What was in the biome next to that one? He didn’t know, he realized. And that made it the perfect place to try and hide from him. Not that it’d do them any good. He could end them any time he wanted with his remote.

Once again the temptation came over him to tap the control, but he fought it down. Not yet. He had to confront them with their crimes first. He couldn’t let them off so easily.

The matter settled, he set off down the biome access tunnel.


Chapter 30

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Jun. X, 2565 A.C.E.


The mattress and pillow were pretty thin, but after the last few days, not to mention the last few centuries, Dann didn’t care one whit. He slept deeply and instantly, and when morning finally did draw him slowly back from sleep’s embrace, he stayed curled within his blanket shelter, clinging to every scrap of comfort it offered.

Finally his brain returned to such a state of wakefulness that he couldn’t stay cocooned any longer, and he pulled back the blanket and stretched. He was stiff and sore—oh was he ever stiff and sore. After a luxuriously long rest in a real bed though, it still somehow felt good and right.

They’d returned to the islands by unspoken consent the night before and moved into the habitation they’d camped outside of the previous night. They were intended for several dozen people, each with a private bedroom that adjoined on communal living spaces and facilities for groups of a half dozen inhabitants.

Dann rose and left his bedroom—it wasn’t much more than a narrow space for his bed, really—and stiffly entered the communal space outside. Rose had food ready; he was the last to rise. Jenny and Jackson—Lydia, he reminded himself—had already eaten.

He sat down and helped himself to toast and powdered scrambled eggs. They weren’t bad for centuries-old relics, really. The real fruit they still had left over from crossing the rain forest biome helped too; it went nicely on the toast. There was even coffee. It wasn’t exactly a barista’s best brew, but it tasted like heaven right then and right there.

There wasn’t much talk just then; everyone still had that slightly groggy sense to them that told him they felt much as he did, if maybe not quite as sore.

When he’d finished, Rose entered the room from the corridor down to the central area by the exit to the island. “Good morning, Dann,” she greeted him with a smile. “You look ... better, though still a little the worse for wear.”

“’Morning Rose. Yeah, I think I’ll grab a shower in a few,” he replied.

“Good idea, but you should wait. Before you do that, I have a concern to put before you all.”

They shared a concerned glance of their own. “W-what is it?” Jenny spoke up.

“I’m deeply troubled by Lt. Cobb’s behavior.”

“You know where the lieutenant is?” Dann asked. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

“Rose Dawn only regained awareness of him in the late hours of the morning, and he wasn’t particularly near us so she didn’t feel it was a high enough priority to wake you. I agreed.”

“You left him out there?”

“He’s in no danger. I am afraid though that he may be a danger, both to you and the unawakened survivors still in their cryo-pods.”

“What danger, what’re you talking about?” Dann demanded. It had been such a nice morning up until then too.

“Rose Dawn picked up his location last night; he returned to the lab where we last saw him. It’s the first time there’s verifiable information on his whereabouts since then, though there is some system data from the period of the AI’s activity that suggests he was on the move in at least one of the biomes for a time. And Dann, there are three cryo-pods that now read deceased that had been potential survivors.”

“No. No way. I know the lieutenant wasn’t taking any of this all that well, but he wouldn’t have killed people, would he? He couldn’t have.”

“Unfortunately there are relatively few areas of the ship that have camera feeds that Rose Dawn and I can access, and Lt. Cobb hasn’t been giving us much opportunity to verify his identity. The new crew deaths occurred while the AI was still operational, so we can’t be certain that Cobb was responsible.”

“The AI has been in operation since long before we awoke; has Rose Dawn finished her diagnostics yet? Can you give us any more information on the crew and how many survivors there are?”

“Yes. The four of you are the only crew currently awake and wandering the ship. All other pods are accounted for; four empty, 43 operational with living crew inside, and 3953 deceased. Privates Jackson and Pixton and yourself are accounted for in this location.” She paused, artificial face betraying hesitation.

“And Lt. Cobb?” he prompted.

“Lt. Cobb was last identified in the tramway between this biome and the sub-arctic tundra biome less than half an hour ago.” Her face twisted as she said it; it looked to Dann as though it was almost physically painful for Rose to be so uncertain in her data.

“That’s awfully close to here. You’re sure it’s him?”

She nodded. “He has taken to talking to himself on occasion. It’s ... disturbing. It also allows Rose Dawn to confirm his identity by his voice print.”

Dann swirled the remains of his cup of coffee in the cup as he thought. “Just to be clear, we don’t know for sure that Cobb is a threat, right? You said the data is unreliable?”

The android nodded unhappily. “I wish I could be more specific, but yes. And, there’s more.”

He really didn’t like her tone of voice on that part. “Okay ... what is it?”

“Several things, all conjecture, but worth considering. First, the cryo-bay where the survivors were ... terminated.” She looked around the space; Jackson and Pixton were elsewhere. “It was very near the bay in which Pvt. Jackson’s daughter lies.” Dann’s eyes opened wide at that, and he found himself looking around as well. Rose continued, “Further, Lt. Cobb appears to be trying to avoid interacting with Rose Dawn. He doesn’t know the extent of the audio pickups spaced around the ship, or we feel it likely he wouldn’t be talking out loud to himself—unless his mental state has deteriorated further than we think it has.”

“What is wrong with him? Why has he cracked up so bad? He was just a bit irritable when we saw him last, and it wasn’t that long ago!”

“There are some ... unique ... circumstances in the lieutenant’s past that may be contributing to his current state.”

“What circumstances? Don’t you have access to all of our files?”

Rose nodded. “I do, but they’re confidential.”

“Of course,” he said. “What can you tell me? Has he said something specific that makes you think he actually means us harm?”

The android was slow to respond, expression intent but focused inward. “... Not specifically, no. There’s a pattern to the data that I don’t like, though. You couldn’t call it intuition exactly, but that’s the closest equivalent feeling I can think of to describe it to you.”

“And there’s no way we can find out what he’s up to?”

“Maybe we can, but only if he goes to a place with a video feed. There are feeds at the junction points, such as those we’ve used to cross between biomes. I can access the feeds from here, but it won’t do us any good if he moves into the maintenance passages again.”

“It’s worth a shot. Is there anything we can do if he does go another way?”

She shrugged apologetically, her artificial eyes conveying true regret. “We can search.”

Dann nodded. It had been such a good morning.


Chapter 31

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Jun. X, 2565 A.C.E.


Cobb paced back and forth at the grated stairs of the junction room. Tundra or islands? Tundra or islands? He’d never been to the island biome, and a voice in the back of his mind warned him away from it. If he hadn’t been there, it was very possible—likely, even—that they’d booby trapped the whole place, as they’d done with the tundra earlier. Exploding coconuts, maybe. It was hard to predict how the minds of traitors and cowards worked.

He stopped by the stairs and rested his forehead on the cool metal rail. The islands were almost certainly booby trapped. The tundra though; he’d been through there. He’d already set off the booby traps they’d left. Unless they’d been back to set more. He couldn’t put that past them; they’d already proven to be far more resourceful than he’d have given them credit for. Especially the android; he shuddered to think of facing her. She’d taken down a bear bare-handed. No matter; even if she took him down, no amount of practice wrestling bears would save her from his plan.

He didn’t relish the thought of going back to the tundra. It was cold, and thoughts of bears brought the polar bear back to mind. But part of him relished the danger and discomfort. He’d show them it didn’t matter what traps they laid, or how severe the conditions were; he would still outwit them, would still overcome and persevere.

He lifted his head slowly, thoughts of overcoming the cold filling his mind. His eyes crossed over the banks of equipment that lined the room, lights twinkling on the control panels, white, yellow, blue, green, and ... green and red.

The coward had showed them something, hadn’t she? A map of the ship with a sea of red lights, all over the biomes. The red lights of the fortunate ones, spared forever the knowledge of the disaster their hopes and dreams had come to. But there had been more; along with the lucky ones, there had been one large cluster of green ones. The unfortunate ones. The traitorous ones, waiting even now for the other traitors to wake them up.

That was it. That was why they’d set so many traps in his path before. They were searching for their accomplices! They’d been incredibly lucky that he hadn’t found them first. Or maybe they hadn’t been lucky enough. His lips locked in a feral grin. Maybe he still had time to find them first.

A part of his mind tried to tell him he had another quarry, that it wouldn’t matter whether they found their friends or not, that his plan would reduce them all to ashes anyway, but right then, he couldn’t care. They wanted to find their friends. He’d make sure that if they did, they would find them only in the peace of the glowing red.

He opened the door and set off into the snow once more, leaving behind the soft blink of an active video feed’s light.


Chapter 32

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Jun. X, 2565 A.C.E.


Dann tore his eyes from the display in disbelief. Cobb was barely recognizable. He looked strong, but hadn’t regained the mass he must’ve had before freezing. He was skeletal and wirey, his movements shifting between swift and sure to shaky from moment to moment. But it was the eyes more than anything that really creeped him out. They shone brightly with madness; they’d have given his mental state away even without the terrifying rictus grin that seemed to be permanently plastered across his face.

“Rose,” he said, “are there audio pickups there too? He looked like he was mumbling to himself before he ran upstairs and out.”

“They’re all over the corridors, yes. Let me set it to replay those last few moments.”

The four of them—Jenny and Lydia had crowded around to see—leaned in to hear, as the mumbling was very soft, almost like he didn’t realize himself that he was speaking. Rose adjusted the volume, making his words, or sub-vocalizations, really, somewhat clearer.

It was something like trying to pick words out of the wind, but a few times Dann could’ve sworn he heard the word trap, and a lot of invective, mostly directed toward them he thought. His eyes widened at the language the man was using. He kept glancing around the area, as though trying to make up his mind. His body was tight, drawn in upon himself, as though expecting attack, or some kind of harm.

After about a minute, he stiffened, his face in profile, half-shadowed. His grin grew wider, and he cast his gaze up the stairs and toward the door that should have lead him to the sub-arctic tundra biome.

“The sea of red lights ... the green pool of the unfortunates,” he said with sudden shocking clarity, and then he seemed to laugh soundlessly. His eyes narrowed with a hunter’s intensity then and he stalked up the stairs and out of the view range. Moments later they heard a door creak ponderously open, and the screaming of sub-arctic winds. Rose shut the display and the sound off.

Sea of red lights, green pool. Dann’s eyes widened, and he turned to look at Lydia apprehensively. She had gone very pale at the implication; she stood rigidly still. With a glance but without a word, she spun on her heel and was gone in a flash up the corridor to where their supplies—and weapons—were kept.

<>


The group flew across the snow-swept tundra, flying towards the bay that housed the largest group of survivors the ship had left. They followed Rose, who had had to run hard to catch up with Lydia implacable flight to her daughter’s defense.

Dann and Jenny brought up the rear, having only a vague idea of where the cryo-bay was in relation to the terrain of the biome. Lydia hadn’t left them time to do much more than grab what gear they could—supplies had been left behind entirely—and take off in pursuit.

In spite of their best efforts, all traces of Cobb’s passage were gone by the time they crossed into the tundra. The boat trip back had taken too long. The snow that fell was far less than the blizzard they’d seen the last time, but it was more than enough to hide his tracks.

The plan was simple; Dann had proposed it as soon as they’d all made it to the boat. They knew exactly where the cryo-bay was, thanks to Rose. Cobb didn’t, unless he asked Rose Dawn, which seemed unlikely. They were to race to the cryo-bay, either to confront Cobb if he’d beaten them there, or wait for him if he hadn’t. What they did when they found him depended largely on him; Dann had seen Rose handle the bear. He wasn’t too worried about him.

They made their way through snow drifts, or around them if they were too deep, climbing generally upward on the large hill that had to pass for a mountain in the ship’s interior. The size might not have been convincing, but the roughness of the terrain certainly was. Between the exertion and the cold, the trip up the hillside took several hours. There was no sign of Cobb anywhere they could see. That might, Dann thought, have had something to do with their inability to look away from where they were setting foot for any length of time.

Finally Rose signaled a stop. At first glance, the rock face looked like any other they’d seen in their climb; closer inspection revealed that the frost-rimmed, indistinct shapes in the rock were the outlines of the door and lever.

Dann kept his eyes on Lydia; she was far calmer than he could believe, at least at first glance. A second belied that impression. There was enough tension in her stance to rip the mountain apart if it were released. The sight of the undisturbed snow covering the lever only caused the slightest hint of relaxation in her frame. Her eyes were pools of thick lava; heated, implacable, slow moving, unstoppable.

Rose grasped the lever, swinging the door wide.

Dann stepped inside after the others, feeling grateful for the respite from the cold and the wind. The scene that greeted him flooded him with relief; for the first time since he’d awakened, he saw a room full of glowing green. Only an occasional red light marred the display.

Lydia was rushing from cryo-pod to cryo-pod, checking name plates until finally she stopped, staring down at one with a silence almost bursting with gratitude and relief. After a moment in which she seemed to drink in the sight of the pod, she visibly steeled herself and turned back to the group. “She’s here. She’s okay.”

“I’m so glad for you!” Jenny exclaimed. “W-what’s our next move?”

“We stick to the plan. We beat him here, so we wait for him here. We know this is where he’s headed.” There was steel in Lydia’s voice that promised that Cobb would regret his arrival.

“I—Oh no. No—!” Rose’s face was stark and as close to sick as Dann could imagine an android ever looking.

“What is it?” he demanded, feeling his own insides tighten up.

Rose clenched her fists and gritted her artificial teeth. “Another cryo-pod has gone dead. It’s in a bay near by. The nearest one to here.”

“H-he doesn’t know the way,” Jenny said, her voice catching, but hard through the pain.

“We’re going after that son of a bitch,” Lydia stated in a tone that brooked no argument.

“We can’t leave this bay unprotected!” Dann protested. “Rose will have to go, and the two of you are the best suited to deal with him!”

“Rose can stay here and guard this place. I’m going to get that crazy, murdering—”

“Lydia, You’ll never find him if I don’t accompany you,” Rose pointed out.

“I-I think I can help with that,” Jenny said. “Working on all of those phones gave me a lot of inside knowledge on how Eden Rose’s systems work. Eden Rose, would it be alright if I modified Lydia’s and Dann’s phones phones to tap into your data stream to track Lt. Cobb?”

“I cannot permit that, Pvt. Pixton,” Eden Rose replied. “Access to that level of information is restricted. I would require authorization from the ranking officer on board to grant you access.”

“And, at the moment, that would be Lt. Cobb,” Rose added. “I can’t override that restriction, I’m afraid.” She shot a look at Dann that he could only take as meaningful.

Lt. Cobb is the ranking officer? He can’t be, not in his current state. That’s ridiculous,” Dann stated flatly. “He is not fit for command.”

“Are you prepared to remove him from command?” Rose asked.

“Yes, absolutely. What do I have to do?” The very idea that Rose Dawn still recognized Lt. Cobb as a viable command officer boggled his mind, but Rose had explained that Rose Dawn thought in a much more linear, restricted fashion than Rose herself or any human personnel did.

“Please state clearly the reason Lt. Cobb is considered unfit for command,” Rose Dawn instructed.

“Because he’s a homicidal lunatic! He is clearly unfit for command,” Dann said. One of them was just going to have to assume command. Jackson would be a fairly solid choice, he thought, though Jenny was pretty adept at unconventional thinking in a crisis, which could serve them well.

“Additional opinions are necessary for a charge of this type in the absence of qualified professional diagnoses. Pvt. Pixton, Pvt. Jackson, do you concur?”

“Y-yes,” Jenny responded.

“Yes. Absolutely, yes.” Lydia had her arms crossed and was waiting impatiently near the door.

“Rose Dawn, I concur as well,” Rose added, though that was more for the crew’s benefit; she didn’t have to speak aloud to make her opinion known to the ship.

“Very well. Transfer of command has been noted in the log. UTS Rose Dawn stands ready under the command of acting Captain Dann Chambers.”

Dann’s jaw dropped. HIM?


Chapter 33

UTS Rose Dawn - Sub-Arctic Tundra Biome

Cryo-Bay 084

Jun. X, 2565 A.C.E.


They were halfway to the scene of Cobb’s crime by Dann’s reading of the data Rose fed them through Jenny’s modified phones. The wind had picked up while they were inside, leaving Dann almost missing his space walk and the horrible claustrophobic suit that had trapped heat so terribly well.

Lydia Jackson cut a path doggedly through the snow, Dann keeping a few paces behind and to the side of her. The simulated sun was well up in the sky, but with the wind had come blowing snow that cut their visibility to almost nothing. They spent as much time staring at the data feeds on their phones as they at their surroundings.

They could miss Cobb so easily in this mess, Dann thought. He could pass by less than 5 meters from them and they’d never see. They were taking every precaution they could, walking staggered to see a larger area, but the fact remained the biomes were BIG, and they didn’t know where he’d be headed next, if indeed he had even left the bay at all.

Lydia slowed her pace to walk alongside him; together they slowed further. The wind was picking up and visibility was just getting worse. “Rose Dawn! Is there anything you can do to shut this wind off?” he shouted into his phone.

“Negative. I can shut off the temperature variations that alter local air pressure zones, but I can’t specify where the winds will blow or when precisely they will stop.”

Dann sighed. It had been worth a try. “Thanks anyway,” he shouted. His fingers were crimping closed around the device despite the cold weather gear they’d found in the stores of the bay. He shielded his eyes from the blowing snow, trying to catch sight of anything moving near them.

He paused suddenly, though he couldn’t have said why. A hint of shadow, maybe, or even less, the suggestion of a pattern against the blowing snow that wreathed the simulated mountainside. He lost it just as quickly though, and stood looking about in futility for any sign of what he was sure he hadn’t imagined. The area was empty to his eyes, even their own footprints lost within seconds to the scouring of wind and snow.

When he turned back again, Lydia was gone.

<>

One second she’d been preparing to ask Dann what he’d seen, and the next everything was a blur. Something or someone had hit her hard and at a fantastic speed; she was trapped in its grip and rolling down a steep section of the mountainside before she could say or do a thing.

The descent was over quickly; she hit hard against a flat, cold surface and immediately felt a series of quick blows rain down over her face and upper body. Reacting instinctively to her years of training, she was able to block most of them without seeing them, but the ones that got through hit hard. The grinning face before hers could only have been Cobb’s.

Slamming her elbow around and into the side of her face, she kicked up with her knee at the same moment; he cried out and rolled away from her with a sharp gasping intake of breath and a wheeze. She rolled off in the other direction before trying to get to her feet; it felt like they’d landed on an icy surface.

“Clever of you to split up to come after me!” his voice came at her. It was thin and reedy against the howl of the wind, but she could hear the touch of madness as clearly as she felt the bruises forming on her face. “I’d wanted to catch you all together, but if I have to end you all before I see each of you, so be it!”

“You’re a nut-job, Cobb,” she spat. “What are you babbling about?” She had her pistol in hand; she didn’t want to risk the sub-machine gun’s more erratic fire while she didn’t know where Dann was.

He crashed into her from behind, knocking her face first into the ice. His footing had been unsure on the slippery surface though, and she managed to roll with the blow; he couldn’t get a grip on her. Blood gushed from her nose; she didn’t think it was broken, but she’d be feeling it for a while.

He swore and grinned as she got her feet under her again and brought the pistol around. He was circling quickly around her; she turned to try and keep him in her sights. “I’ve got a secret! Even the traitor computer doesn’t know. We traveled hundreds of years to reach a new sun that we’ll never live under thanks to you traitors. My sun’ll blow your plans just as dead as you could please!”

He was fiddling with something at his belt; a control device of some sort. The import of his words joined with that image and her breath caught, panic rising in her for one brief moment. Lila! If he blew up the ship, she was dead too.

Cobb was tensing for another spring, but she beat him to it; she threw herself at him with a ferocity and fury that for one brief moment brought a look of shocked clarity back to his features, and then they were down.

She clubbed him senseless with the pistol, heedless of the pain in her fingers where the metal bit into her, heedless of the ominous creaking and groaning of the ice underneath them. Cobb’s face was a bloody pulp, but he fought back, trying to block her attacks. He wasn’t very successful at that, but he did manage to entangle her legs in his. She felt his forearm crushing into her throat, trying to force her off of him when, with a gunshot crack, the ice split beneath them, and together they vanished into the ice-cold river below.

<>

His shout died on his lips as he saw them abruptly vanish. He ran as close as he could to the spot where they’d fallen; there was no sign of them save for the cracked and broken ice, already refreezing in the frigid air and wind.

“Lydia!” he called, searching for any sign of her under the ice. He grabbed his knife from his belt and tried to break an opening in the surface, but it was too thick where he was standing, and too thin to approach the broken part.

“There’s nothing you can do now, Dann,” Rose’s voice said over the ear piece. “I heard her fight with Cobb over her connection. She saved all of us. She saved her daughter. You have to come back now.”


Chapter 34

New Eden Colonial Council Chambers

New Eden

Jun. 11, 2565 A.C.E.


The honorable Syth Welker faced the assembled council and this time, there was a lightness to his spirit. He smiled as the last councilor took her seat around the room’s edge, and rapped the chairman’s sounding box.

“I am sorry to disturb you so soon after our last session, councilors, especially given the gravity of the situation we faced. However, new information has come to light about the fate of the UTS Dawn Rose and her crew, and I thought it important—no, critical—that we assemble again to deal with it.

“Not to worry though,” he chuckled. “I will not be boring you with another long winded description of something dead and far away.” A number of eyebrows rose at that remark, as close as they came to disrespecting the memories of the First Colonists. “No, today is altogether a happier day, and it is not I who will tell you why.”

He nodded to his aide, a lanky young man, hardly more than a youth, inexperienced enough that he still lacked the thousand-meter stare that all members of the ruling staff developed over time. The man nodded back, face a study in seriousness, and tapped the comm controls.

The center of the council chamber lit up as a holo-image began to form. It was a scene familiar to everyone in the room thanks to repeated reviews of every detail of the UTS Rose Dawn that they could get their hands on; it was a holographic recreation of her bridge in 3/4 scale. No, not a recreation; a projection. Welker saw the eyes of the councilors beginning to widen as the resolution of the image improved and they recognized that there were people on the bridge, then crease in confusion as the sight conflicted with everything they’d heard about and discussed for the last several days.

“Hello,” a confident male voice said. Confident, but bone-weary, too, and determined to carry on in spite of it. Welker was impressed. “We are the survivors of the UTS Rose Dawn. It’s an ... unexpected ... honor to address the New Eden Council. I hope you’ll forgive the intrusion?”

Chuckles circled the room. “UTS Rose Dawn, this is Chairman Syth Welker. On behalf of the council, welcome! I assure you, we’re just as surprised as you. Please, tell us of the events that you experienced just recently.” Welker himself already knew, of course; he’d been on the comm with the Rose Dawn computer itself a good part of the morning already, and had spoken to the young man who addressed them now as well, albeit only briefly. He thought that hearing the tale from the survivors themselves would have a greater impact on the council than if he just related it.

“Very well, your honor. First let me introduce myself. I’m private Dann Chambers. This is private Jenny Pixton, and this,” he indicated the last figure, who was now visible with enough resolution to have noticeably artificial skin, “is Rose, the autonomous android persona of Dawn Rose herself.” Murmurs from around the room.

Pvt. Chambers put his hands to his hips and said thoughtfully, “From the crew’s perspective, it all started with me. I was the first to awaken in the ship after the disaster ...”


<>

The council was largely silent and spellbound as Pvts. Chambers and Pixton related their tales to those assembled. “And that’s how we come to be here. I don’t have to tell you, we’re ... uh, well, this isn’t exactly the arrival we anticipated when we left Earth.” The wistful look on his Chambers’ face was affecting. Of course everyone on New Eden knew the story of the First Colonists now, but Welker wondered how many would have considered how it would feel to the colonists themselves, to arrive full of hope at a new world after leaving everything they’d ever known behind, only to find that somehow, somebody beat them to it. And that was ignoring the additional shock of finding most of their crew dead and themselves under attack by their own ship’s computer, via a rogue AI.

Welker felt for them, but unfortunately, misguided and monstrous as he may have been, Mayet had been right about one thing. They couldn’t take the newcomers in. Maybe, had it only been the three of them, but they had close to fifty more still unawakened from their long journey aboard.

Fortunately Welker thought that he might have the perfect solution in mind. Some on the council wouldn’t like it; in fact, he expected heated resistance from some. There would be a few who would insist that New Eden open their arms to the First Colonists, reduced as they were; they would argue that the additional supplies the colony ship carried made the arrival of more people a non-issue. They’d be able to feed their own and the new people and have enough left for years of growth.

There were issues with that stance though, the first being that it would take a lot of time to get new crops in the ground, so they’d still have the short-term issue of feeding everyone, no matter what supplies were on board the ship. And second, the new supplies were just a way of putting off the inevitable. The population would continue to grow, and the same problem would come up again, only there would be even more of them to die off.

He stepped forward, standing in front of the quartet of projected images. His face and voice were sad. “I’m afraid the bad news isn’t over just yet.” The android was impassive in the display; the others frowned, clearly wondering what new calamity was about to befall them. “The reason Mayet did what he did is that, quite simply, our world can’t handle the population it already has. New Eden was supposed to be habitable, and it is, barely. But it’s also hostile. We’ve had a devil of a time surviving here, and we have people starving in our streets because we just can’t produce food fast enough to feed everybody.”

The faces of the First Colonists fell; clearly they’d expected that their trip was done. Chambers looked up and spoke first. “Well, we can’t go back. What do you propose we do?”

“As it happens,” Welker replied with a small smile, “I do have a proposal to put before the council and before you, if I may.”

There was a rising tide of grumbling from the council; he was technically speaking out of turn. He should have made his proposal before them before involving the strangers, but under the circumstances, that would not have felt right. The grumbling didn’t last too long though. Most of them seemed to realize what was at stake.

“What I propose will not be easy, and will not be universally popular among your people,” he indicated the quartet, “nor mine.” He cast a long look at the council. “However, if you’ll indulge me anyway, I believe the idea has merit and should prove to be worth the time it takes to investigate it.”

He began to pace up and down the room, all eyes on him. “We’ve established that most of the population of your ship have passed on,” he said delicately, “and likewise, we’ve established that we have too many people on this colony. Why don’t we help you find a world that may be better suited for colonization, and then we solve each others’ problems. We replace your lost crew and colonists with volunteers from our world. I assure you, there will be plenty.”

Thoughtful looks from the First Colonists greeted these words, and murmurs arose from the council as well. Not all of them positive, as he’d expected. He sighed to himself. Ah well. What could he do but forge onward? “That doesn’t solve every issue, of course. You’re not going anywhere in that ship as it is, crew or no crew. You were sent here to this world, and carried only the fuel necessary to reach here. We can help with that problem; we don’t produce the same type of fuel that carried your ship to us from Earth, but we’ve had a few centuries to develop methods of our own that have served us well.

“At the same time, you may be able to help us with our ongoing food problems. Even if you carry away some of our excess population, that will only be a stopgap solution. If, on the other hand, you’d be willing to trade us some of the biological stock of your ship in exchange for the fuel you need, we might be able to find a more permanent solution by analyzing samples. We’d ask for a certain amount of seed stock, breeding stock, and bacteriological sampling from the various biomes of the ship to aid our research and our food production efforts.”

The four exchanged glances; he didn’t see any clear objections on any of their faces. The murmuring from the council had taken on more of a speculative tone. Perhaps there was yet hope.


Epilogue

Rowland VI

UTS Rose Dawn

Nov. 11, 3234 A.C.E.


The UTS Rose Dawn finished firing her engines, ending years of deceleration as she slipped into orbit around the world that was to finally serve as a home to her long-waiting passengers.

Some of those passengers had been aboard for over 700 years, awaiting in stillness and silence. Others were older still, having slept for more than 1,200 years, all the way from old Earth herself.

The android Rose waited quietly on the bridge while the main computer, Rose Dawn, finished the shutdown routines and began the scheduled powering up that would slowly bring the rest of the ship back to life. New schedules kicked in, sending maintenance bots working all over the ship to get things ready for the reawakening of 3,000 crew and colonists.

Rose was looking forward to the awakening. She’d gone more than a thousand years without a full crew around her, and more than 700 since Dann, Jenny and Lydia had kept her company. She didn’t need the company in the same way a human would, but she enjoyed it. It kept things more interesting.

In the meantime she worked with Rose Dawn on restoring the ship to full operational capacity, overseeing the maintenance bots, clearing overgrowth from the biomes, especially the rain forest, and restoring power to lesser-used sections of the ship in preparation for the human inspection that would follow.

That complete, Rose Dawn began sending signals out to the cryo-pods of the crew, awakening the medical staff so that they could prepare for the remainder of the crew’s awakening. Rose turned her attention back to the bridge, and the full-powered sensor suite they had available. She needed to be able to brief the crew on the world they were about to set foot on.

She smiled as she trained the sensors on the globe, a beautiful blue, white and green world that might have resembled Earth had the proportions been correct. Instead, this world was dominated by the green, not the blue; it had 70% land surface coverage, with most of the surface water filling deep trenches. As data spilled in from the surveys she was conducting, she made note of subterranean aquifers that showed that the world actually had more water than Earth did. The humans would find that reassuring, no doubt. The New Eden colony had shared the location of this world with them, but even given the technology they possessed that was slightly ahead of what Rose Dawn had brought from Earth, they hadn’t been 100% sure about what they’d find when they arrived here.

Details continued to flow in as the planet turned below, as well as from elsewhere in the ship. The crew were mostly awakened, and Captain Chambers would be on his way to the bridge in short order. It would be good to see him again, she thought, though to him it would seem like only a few hours since they’d seen each other. She doubted she’d have to tell him to drink enough water this time.

She frowned as a sensor gave an unexpected reading. A ... what? No, this can’t be right, she thought. She checked the sensor stations manually and confirmed.

Even with no humans present to see, she couldn’t help but lower her head in despairing exasperation. “Dann,” she said over her comm, “you’d better get up here on the double. We just received a transmission from the ground.” She frowned. “This world has been colonized.”

Transient