Monday, 7 May 2007

Guardians of the Future

This is the beginning (I think) of a new Ark Project story. Comments please. Title is provisional.

Chapter 1 (scene 1)

Jonas Lake almost missed the most spectacular find of his illustrious career: a tiny, camouflaged door of 21st century design. That it was locked wasn’t surprising. That it had been bolted shut was.

Polar exploration had been dangerous since the first cataclysm. Only a prolonged period of weather moderation had allowed the ice to form into a stable thick sheet. Antarctica’s terrain was rocky, frigid and almost impassible in places and the ice sped transport during the summer daylight months. Winter was still too treacherous for land travel.

Opening the door was awkward even in his modern thermsuit, which was almost like a second skin. It covered him comfortably and completely, and was of the same design used in space. He longed to try it out there, but ongoing difficulties with Callisto made Terran spaceflight rare. The Carterian rebellion had only re-opened trade routes. Callistan and Eran visits were common, but Terrans (he hated the term Earthlings) were home-bodies and rarely wished to venture out. Lake was in a small minority, and longed to see Callisto and its mysterious twin Artemis. Even moreso, he wished to explore Haven, a distant planet still relatively uninhabited and uncharted. It lacked the dangers of Artemis, and exploration was only useful if you survived. Only mining fortresses could stave off Artemis’s carnivorous vegetation.

Ordinarily his people cherished their rescued ancestry, but Lake found it an obstacle. His dark skin was rare even two millennia after his ancesters were rescued. Less than 25% of the rescued families were black and compared to the fair-skinned Campbells, who bred like rabbits, their colour was soon assimilated. Of Earth’s 2 billion inhabitants, only 1% could claim pure-bred African heritage. Lake’s skin colour kept him out of space, so he’d turned his attention to Earth’s harsher climates.

Lake was, in fact, the only black in his landing party. He often joked that he might lose his blond-haired blue-eyed companions in the snow, but on the hard black slopes of Mt Scott, he was indeed the best camouflaged.

Cutting the bolts was easy, but the door groaned on its ancient hinges. Not knowing what was inside they did their best to avoid cutting through the door, but it became inevitable when the hinges froze with the door open only a couple of centimeters. Setting the door to the side, Jonas and his party ventured in.

Surprised to find the entryway in pristine condition and working electricity, he asked his second in command Suli Campbell if there was anyone in range. She was the only telepath in his party. He found having her around convenient in such circumstances. She could also gauge the feelings of their party in an instant, and since she was a profound telepath she could even stir people’s memories. What Lake appreciated most was that she could become his step to the stars. Not only did she have connections, but she was a potential pilot herself, although she hadn’t trained.

With the exception of their heights, both being quite tall, they were polar oppositions. She had thin straight pale blond hair, light blue eyes, and wasn’t afraid to let Lake know that she was attracted to him. Jonas knew that he couldn’t hide from her, but it didn’t stop him from trying. Opposites attract, but her most attractive feature was that she was a Campbell. Lake’s family would not be pleased about a liaison with a Campbell, so they left it as a devoted friendship with extras. He didn’t have a lover from his own race, and approaching 90, he wasn’t getting any younger. She was 96 herself, but as a Campbell had an expected lifespan almost 50% longer, even spending much of her time on Earth.

Lake found living over 200 years almost impossible to contemplate. It was widely romoured that the Campbell genes had been infected by a parasite aboard the Ark Foundation in the twelth millenium, extending their lives by nearly 100 years. It was well known, however, that men had been known to live up to 300 years as early as the fifth millennium as long as they spent their entire lives aboard one of the Arks. Surface life severely curtailed their longevity.

“No one alive nearby, Jonas,” Suli replied. “It is really strange. It’s as if someone still lives here.”

“Let’s have a look around,” Jonas decided. “We’ll travel in pairs and report every 15 minutes.” He knew that was unnecessary. Letitia would keep track of them all, since they all wore thermsuits. She was the on-board computer system in their suits. Officially, her designation was LAURA, but she had a personality and many people preferred to give her a name that suited them better. Suli stuck with Laura, but Letitia’s personality reminded him of his grandmother, so that’s what he called her.

Jonas only just tolerated her presence. She pervaded society and knew where everyone was and what they were doing. If only she could tell what they were thinking, she would be omniscient. He thought that was very bigbrotherish. Strangely, 1984 was required reading in schools. The parallel was so close that it scared him, although Letitia never seemed sinister. In fact, only Earth's government was questionable, and Letitia was definitely anti-government. She could interfere if necessary, but had learned long ago to keep her hands out of human relationships.

“I don’t like this,” Suli confessed when they were alone. “Somebody obviously built this to spend a long time here, and I think they actually did. Look at the wear on the floor around the doorways.”

“I wonder why there isn’t any dust,” Jonas mused.

“The air is scrubbed,” Latitia interrupted. “I can sense the whirr of 21st century scrubbers.”

“Can they possibly still be working?” Suli asked. Latitia/Laura had broadcast her message to both of them.

“Apparently they are,” was Latitia’s flat answer.

“What’s this?” Jonas asked, finding a black box with letters and numbers on little buttons. “Q W E R T Y U ...”

“It is an ancient computer,” Latitia explained. “I was created on one quite similar. There is a switch on the back of the main unit. The image will be displayed in the flat square above the keyboard – that’s what the unit with the letters is called.”

Suli flicked the switch and it sprang to life. Words flashed on the screen until it stopped at a screen asking for a username and password.

“What do we do now?” Jonas asked.

“Wait one moment,” Latitia said, as a tendril sprang out from his pack and into a port on the back. “I can hack it if you will just give me a second. It will consider me to be a virus, but I can get around that.”

A short time later, the screen flashed blue and some graphics appeared. “What now?” Jonas asked.

“That little black oval next to the keyboard controls a pointer on the display,” Latitia explained, “and there is a database that makes interesting reading, but you might prefer to have a look at the science officer’s long and the command log. Don’t worry, I can control it for you, just tell me what you wish to see.” Latitia would have instantly scanned the entire contents of the computer, but this was Lake’s expedition and she wouldn’t interfere unless directly asked for help. He preferred it that way.

“Dr. Lake,” Kevin Weston’s voice interrupted, “I think you should see this.”

“You should,” Suli agreed, having scanned Kevin’s thoughts. “We can come back to this.”

Latitia guided them through a vast wing of empty living units to a laboratory area where Kevin was. Suli was right. The complex had been built to last, and had been lived in for quite some time. Whomever had been the last to leave had cleaned up after himself ... but how had they left?

The lab was extraordinary. Part of it was dedicated to a large wave generated power plant. That made sense, as the complex wouldn’t get sun six months of the year, and solar panels would have been prone to collecting snow. Wind turbines would have been too conspicuous, and likely to break down in extreme conditions. The wave generator took its power from a vast underground sea, perhaps even from the ocean. The generator had clearly been modified over centuries to be self-cleaning and maintenance free. Lake thought to himself how many generations that must have taken.

The inhabitants had been completely reliant upon the generator for light, heat, and food. The surface wouldn’t support plant life, so the hydroponics had to be lit below ground. That was the only area that showed signs of neglect, being overgrown and self-seeded – an underground wilderness of arable crops. Nobody had tended it for centuries.

The most interesting part of the lab, however, was its vault. It opened to a large underwater storage area.

“What do you suppose it holds?” Kevin asked.

“Someone will have to go in and find out,” Lake replied, knowing that meant one person: Suli. She was the best swimmer on the expedition, and was accustomed to swimming in a thermsuit. It provided its own source of air, which was either recycled in space or discharged as CO2 under water. Many, like Jonas, couldn’t help trying to hold their breath as they swam, causing quick muscle fatigue and in some cases a bout of vertigo. Jonas avoided swimming at all costs.

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