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Sunday, 30 August 2015

Where it all started - Episode 10

Episode 10 from The Eden Paradox. Time to step back, look things in the face...



Stakes

Four months earlier…

Blake stood on the threshold of the antique wood-panelled office. The smell of leather upholstery, mingled with the residue of a Havana cigar, drifted out into the corridor. The mid-afternoon blinds created a lattice of orange shafts of light which sliced diagonally across the office. The rays framed the slim, seated figure surrounded by a nebula of drifting dust motes. It gave Blake the overall impression of a miniature galaxy, this one man as its epicentre.

From his silhouette, Blake recognised someone who used to be a fit soldier. But age and battle had exacted their toll, lending a hollowed-out leanness to the body. Still, the alertness, obvious in the angle of the neck and head, spoke of someone who was no stranger to command. The seated man with five polished stars on his shirt collar looked up from a holo-pad and punched a desk control, snapping the blinds shut, restoring the lighting to a more tolerable sunset level. Blake had seen what was on the holo-pad before it had cleared – photos of the four assassinated astronauts who were to have led the Ulysses mission to Eden. Blake had wanted this mission like hell, but not at this price.

 "Come in, Blake," he said, his voice raspish but firm. "And don’t salute me. I sit behind a desk too much these days to respect myself, so I don’t want it from you of all people."

            Blake saluted anyway, and waited, standing to attention.

            "At ease, soldier," General Kilaney sighed.

Blake nodded and sat down in the chair indicated. He remained straight-backed, refusing to surrender to the inviting black leather. He noticed how much weight his old mentor had lost.

            "I see you haven’t lost the tricks of the trade." The General passed Blake a glass of iced water. Blake took it and clinked glasses with him. A single splash of bourbon escaped from the General’s tumbler, as he met Blake with defiant eyes. "To absent friends."

Blake held his glass high. "To absent friends." He savoured the cool water. It was thirty-five Celsius outside, even in the depth of winter high in the Rockies. Somewhere he could hear soldiers marching, being drilled. Some things never change.

            He sipped gingerly and watched the General – his erstwhile mentor – wondering whether he would indeed end up like him, stuck behind a desk these past ten years, shuffling papers instead of soldiers, riding a holo-rig instead of a real fighter, wasting away in endless meetings. Still, he respected the General. The NWA, the shaky Post-War coalition of some fifty-three aligned nations, needed people like him near the top. He waited while the General scrutinised him over the rim of his glass. His eyes hadn’t lost their edge.

            "How’s Glenda doing?" the General asked.

            Blake’s grip on the glass became iron. "Fine, Sir. She’s doing fine," he replied. "Thanks for asking."

            The General slammed his glass down on the edge of his desk, grabbed the sides of the chair and hauled himself up. "Stay put, Captain! And don’t give me any more bull. This is me you’re talking to. I said how the hell is she?"

            He took another sip, not meeting the General’s gaze. He felt the soothing water travel down his throat, but a moment later it felt as dry as the Potamac river bed.

"First cancer successfully treated.’ He took another sip. "With the ambient rad-levels, it’s almost certain to return within a year." He paused, feeling the pressure rise in his chest, pushing up against his throat. He didn’t want to say it. He hadn’t said it to Glenda, though she knew well enough. He took a breath. "Then she’ll have a few months at most – second timers don’t usually…" He willed his fingers to ease off the glass.

            The General perched on the desk. "Damned sorry. You tell her that, Blake."

He wanted to change the subject. "Sir, why – "

"You pretty much have command of the mission, there’s just the final psy check tomorrow, then it’s yours."

            He nodded once. He’d worked so hard for this, even if others would assume he only got it because of his so-called "hero" status.

            "Thank you, Sir."

            "Well, I don’t mind telling you and no one else – I always had you as first choice. Kacheng was a good man, sure, but his assassination put you back in front."

            He flinched at the memory of Alpha Team’s shuttle exploding in a shroud of white-hot flame seconds after take-off to Zeus. He stared down at his glass. The last shards of misty ice surrendered to the afternoon heat. "Who’s my team, Sir?"

            The General slumped back down into his chair. "Zack will be your first officer and Chief Pilot."

            Blake allowed himself a sigh of relief.

            "The other two – well, one thing about the Forces is I don’t have to argue with you about it. You’ll have Pierre Bertrand as Science Officer and our Katrina Beornwulf, on Comms."

            He stiffened. "Bertrand – you can’t mean Professor Bertrand’s son? After his father blocked all our gen-defence research during the War? And Beornwulf – you want me to baby-sit?" He stood up and walked around to the back of the chair. "Permission to speak freely, Sir?"

            The General’s eyes glinted as he raised his glass in a mock toast. "Denied. I know neither one is your choice, but Pierre’s a genius, and smart too, and you and I understand both the difference and the rarity of the combination. Don’t blame him for the sins of his father. Beornwulf – well, she passed all the exams. Practically a comms genius, and the last thing we need is a third loss of communications. Anyway, her uncle and all that… You can’t always avoid politics. God knows we owe both France and England enough."

He noticed how weary the General seemed, the hollowing around the eyes, that haunted look. He instinctively glanced to the General"s right wrist, under the shirt-sleeve cuff. He could just make out the tell-tale small triangular holes of a micro-transfusion implant. He met the General"s gaze again – the look on his face confirmed it, but the General continued unabated.

"Blake, there’s more. And it’s Black level. You don’t tell anyone – not Zack, not Glenda, not even your mistress if you damned well had one. Nobody outside this room."

            Blake leaned forward.

"Why do we need Eden?"

He sharpened his eyes on the General. He couldn’t be joking. "We need its resources. In the longer term, a sister planet for Earth – we can colonize it, though it will take around – "

            "Fifty years." The General finished the sentence for him. "We have ten, that’s all."

            Blake’s mouth opened involuntarily. He thought of all the things he could say, but there would be no point. He studied the deep lines on the General’s face that spoke of heavy responsibilities and things nobody would want to know, but somebody had to.

"Sir?"

            "The biosphere isn’t going to recover. Not for around fifty thousand years. We have maybe ten years like this, hiding from the sun, waking and sleeping in our sweat unless we’re fortunate enough to live underground. You know the only remaining productive food farms lie in the Polar grain-belts, but a couple of years after the last sub sea permafrost is gone, the average temperature outside will shoot up from forty-five to sixty-five degrees Celsius. In one year. Unsustainable."

            Blake needed to be sure. "But the research – I’m no scientist, but I took a good look. The re-forestation; the Arctic re-freeze project…"

            The General waved a hand. "Statistics and lies – garnished with some truth, of course, but the climate cascade we instigated with our little nuclear catharsis is locked in. We’ll actually have a drop in temperature of a couple of degrees in the next five years, but then it will rise and keep on rising, linear at first, and then after a decade, a step change."

            "What about the lunar projects? Mars reclamation?"

            "Won’t work on the moon without Earth’s resources. And Mars – well, Mars is probably what we’re going to look like a million years from now; after we’ve cooled down again."

            He trusted this man’s judgement – he was high enough in the machinery to have quality information. He sank back into the chair, draining his glass.

            "Now you see, Blake. You see why we need Eden. Survival. Plain and simple. We have a decade to start colonizing it, and start building as many ships as possible."

            "We’ll only move a fraction of the population, even if things go well. The Alcubierre Drive won’t handle transport-sized ships."

            "I know, it’ll be tough. But we’ve had some luck recently with this new dark matter tech. Maybe with another research break… If we can get Earth organised... But only if there’s the dream – if Eden fails, all humanity will see is the abyss – we’ll tear ourselves apart before the end. So, Eden’s the only game plan, our last chance. Someone needs to set foot on it, come back, talk about it – shout about it."

            Blake nodded slowly, but in so doing, he knew he was transferring the tremendous weight from the Old Man’s shoulders onto his own.

"You can handle it, Blake. Frankly, I don’t know another who could – except maybe me, fifteen years ago." He heaved himself up out of his chair. "Two more things," he said, as he picked up the bourbon bottle and held it out. This time Blake nodded, and watched the cedar-coloured alcohol sluice into his empty tumbler.

"You have to return with good news. Eden is like propaganda during a war, but this time everyone needs it – they need the dream, or God help us all. Whatever it takes – that’s why I wanted you in the first place. You get the mission done, even if you have to leave people behind."

            Blake winced inside.

            "Oh, I know you lost a lot of men in Kurana Bay. But you completed your orders. You understood what I taught you all those years ago. Mission first, men second. It sucks. Most soldiers can’t handle it. You can. It’ll be rule number one on this mission."

            Blake gazed into the bourbon. He’d been having the old nightmares again, seeing faces of the dead, their unseeing eyes wide, as if they still had something to say. "Second thing, Sir?"

            "Heracles didn’t suffer an accident. It was sabotage – we don’t know how yet, but there’s no question about it. Explosion. Tore the ship apart. They never stood a chance."

            Blake felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle, but he wasn’t surprised. He’d known that crew well, too. "Alicians?"

"Seems crazy, but the more society unravels and despair sets in, the more people turn to those bastard Fundies, and the more support bleeds into their terrorist wing. They’re a virus, and they’re making us weak just when it’s our last chance to be strong and survive. It almost makes me long for the days of the Chinese Dragon Hegemony before WWIII tore that abomination apart – at least they thought long term."

            Blake narrowed his eyes as he remembered something. "You know what Professor Bertrand said? He said that the rise of a global religion, with easy-to-follow rules and a multi-cultural God was inevitable after a global war." But then Blake remembered more – he’d said the rise of fundamentalism had been engineered. No one had paid much attention to him by then – he’d moved too far beyond his comfortable scientific domain to the treacherous landscape of politics. He’d also developed a habit of ranting in public. And after he’d been assassinated, gigaquads of his data disappeared in the infamous web-net crash. "I never quite grasp why they fear Eden, Sir."

            The General swirled the remaining bourbon in his glass. "Well, my father told me a long time ago the last thing a priest wants to see is a genuine miracle – it reminds ordinary people that priests are servants – representatives – not the real thing. Alicians don’t like it. But Eden’s a miracle alright, and we damn well need it. And we’ll fight for it all the way." He raised his glass.

            Blake remembered how different the General had been at his and Glenda’s wedding twenty-three years ago, bursting with life and energy. Everyone had told Blake he was marrying too young, but this man, a captain then, had told Blake to listen to everyone, then do what his heart commanded, and never second-guess himself afterwards. It had been his way of life ever since. He owed this man a great deal. "You can count on me, Sir."

            The General eased backwards and closed his eyes, a hint of a smile emerging.

            Blake stared again at the General’s wrist, wrapped in frail skin like waxed paper. Glenda had the same microporous chemo transfer system. He sensed the formalities were over, and cleared his throat. "What stage are you, Bill?"

            The General’s smile faltered, but his eyes stayed shut. For the first time in Blake’s presence, he spoke softly, his voice no longer in uniform. "I should be around to hear you arrived on Eden, but I’ll miss your homecoming. Now, go home to Glenda, leave an old man in peace."

            Blake knew better than to push the issue – dignity, the last vestige of this man’s identity, was all that was keeping him going. He got up quietly, and parked his half-full glass on the desk. At the doorway he took one last look, saluted and held it for a long moment, then closed the door behind him with a soft click, as if closing the coffin lid on a dear friend.

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