Author Topic: Chapter 8  (Read 256 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 8
« on: July 21, 2022, 01:02:48 AM »
Chapter 8

It happened in the middle of the night, months later, and it happened without warning.

The entire dome started shaking as the ground underneath it rattled and shivered. Glass panes set up in the bathrooms and classrooms shattered, and the steel beams holding up the dome groaned with an effort far greater than that of Atlas holding up the heavens. A water main in the kitchens broke, spraying the lower parts of it and starting to flood the area. In the medlab, equipment rattled around in the cabinets, but they'd been secured against the kids, and stayed shut. In the agro dome, the trellis Noah had built to hold up the grapevine he was growing broke free from the dome itself, and fell onto the plants below. Approximately eighteen seconds later, the shaking stopped.

Naturally, every one of the kids had woken in terror. Most were crying now, and the others were getting up and looking around fearfully. Noah noted without surprise that the latter group included Woad, Laz, Valae, and Chif.

"Everyone stay calm," he urged the kids, forgetting for a microsecond that all the caretakers had said it at the same time. Fortunately the kids were all spread out, and probably didn't notice. He hurriedly assessed any potential injuries, found no obvious ones, and then directed most of the drones on repair work.

This shouldn't have happened! He'd placed multiple geological sensors across this whole area, including the settlement location itself. They ran out in every direction, for over twenty kilometers, even going as far as his core drive up in the mountains! There had been no indication, at all, of any tectonic instability or volcanic activity down here.

But the sensors sure were going off now. He calculated that the epicenter had been about eight kilometers north-northeast of the settlement, and it had been almost 2 on the Richter Scale. If it had been much closer, it would have leveled the settlement, cracking the domes open like eggs!

First things first: check the dome for any structural damage. If the higher oxygen levels in there leaked out, some of the kids would die. There simply weren't enough breathers for everyone. He hadn't made them a priority, given that only a quarter of the group had ever even been outside at once. While his flying drones outside did a visual inspection, he pulled the long-term data from the tectonic sensors.

"Noah update log, number twelve hundred and eighty-one," he muttered to himself. Ever since he'd been able to build voice synthesizers, his logs had been in verbal form. If these logs ever made it back to Earth, his builders had specified that they would prefer audio files as well as text.

"It seems I've made a significant error in my calculations. What I had thought was a geologically stable plain with minimal terrain obstacles, is not. Preliminary indications from the recent earthquake, or Edenquake as I should call it, suggests a tectonic plate intersection running along the plains, only a few kilometers north of the settlement. It appears to have entered an active phase, with the plates pushing against each other." He paused momentarily, and a simulation of shock worked its way into his report. "The data I've gathered indicates a... sizeable buildup of magma only four kilometers to the east of us. A volcanic eruption might be imminent. Even if the dome could survive that, the lava flows would seal us all inside it, or just burn through and immolate everyone here. It seems I'll have to evacuate the settlement."

Possible relocation sites flashed through his program in an instant. There was really only one viable location: big enough for all the kids, with enough air for them to breathe and far enough away from the faultline.

"Fortunately, the transport shuttle has already been tested in this atmosphere, and can be fueled quickly enough. I'll get it in the air immediately. End log."

While he'd been calculating possibilities, his caretakers had gathered all the children near one of the support beams in case an aftershock hit this location and caused the dome to fail. Noah directed his personal drone out of the medlab, where the newborns were no longer housed, and into the housing dome. "Listen up, everyone. It seems that quake was just the first. We have to leave this place soon, before the next one hits. I need all of you to be brave, all right? Stay close to each other, and to your caretakers, and follow their instructions completely. Can you do that?"

He got no response at first; just whimpers and a little muted crying. Eventually though, Woad stood up from his side of the room. "We'll be ok, everyone. We've got each other and we've got Noah. Just stick together, like he said."

Noah nodded at him. "Thank you. Now the place we're going is a good distance away, too far to walk, or even to ride on the drones that could carry you outside. We'll have to go by air. It also means you won't be able to take much with you. Don't worry, there will be food and water where we're going, so just take things that matter to you. A teddy bear, or a picture, that kind of thing. And not much of it, either. No more than you can carry. Go on, go pick out a few things each from your rooms."

Valae stood up quickly, before everyone could split up. "Are we going on the plane?" She asked loudly, looking out the window at the shuttle being loaded by air drones. Excitement leaked into her voice, or so Noah assumed. She'd always been fascinated with aircraft of varying kinds, ever since Chif had shown her the technological database.

"We are, but not just yet. The drones are loading it right now, and it'll take off shortly. It will, uh, prepare for us, and then come back to get us. There's enough room for everyone and a few belongings, so go on now, and remember to stay calm."

Valae's expression brightened, and she excitedly did as she was told, urging the younger girls back to their dorm.

Noah supervised the loading of the shuttle, and then ordered its launch. Piloting a small airborne drone was easy enough, but something this size was orders of magnitude more difficult. Add in the fact that it was loaded right up to its weight limit, and that its engines had to work extra hard in this low-oxygen environment to gain the same thrust as it would on Earth, and the trip would be tricky. Much easier on the way back, though.

For a moment he spared a thought to his computer core, up in the mountains. The quake hadn't even been noticeable out there, so it was probably safe for now. He put a note on his list though, to closely analyze the geological data from that location too. If he was destroyed, these kids wouldn't stand a chance.

Someone was poking at one of the caretakers. It was Chif, with Andrew. "Noah, what's going on? Why didn't we get on that shuttle? You said there was room for everyone."

In what might otherwise be characterized as frustration, Noah devoted some processing power to deal with this situation. As Andrew, he leaned down and herded Chif away from the group. "Like I said, the drones on board have to get our new home ready for habitation," he explained as soon as he was reasonably sure no one could overhear them. "It will come back in a few hours, and then we'll all leave with it."

Chif crossed his arms. "I know when you're lying. We should have been on that plane. Valae should have been on it, at least. She loves planes!"

Noah hesitated, his processes in a momentary loop. He didn't have time for this! There were two hundred and eighty-five other issues requiring his attention, and he could only cover eighty or so at a time!

In the end he chose the simplest explanation: the truth. "I put those cell samples on the plane first, Chif. I'm sorry, but they're my top priority, because they're irreplaceable. If they're destroyed, I can't get any more, ever. I have to get them to safety or my mission could fail."

A new expression appeared on Chif's faceā€”it took Noah a moment to classify it as anguish. "But what about us?"

"Hopefully there won't be another tremor before the shuttle gets back, and then we can all get out of here. But I had to make this choice. There are over two thousand human cell samples on that shuttle. There are only eighty-six humans here. The math was easy."

Just as easily, Chif's anguish morphed into anger. "I knew it. You lied when you said you loved me. You don't love any of us! You'll just leave us to die if you have to!" He glared up at Andrew for a few more moments, and then sped away.

Noah didn't know how to handle this input. Statistically, he'd made the right choice and he knew it. If it was right, though... why was he now dwelling on it? A child's hurt feelings were a small price to pay for the continuation of his mission.

Enough. Noah saved all of that information and shut down the line of thought completely. He'd analyze it later, when he had more time.

-.-

The eruption happened earlier than Noah had expected, but in a different way as well. Lava spouted into the air a few kilometers away, like a bubble bursting in a pot of boiling water. Rather than a single large explosion of magma being forced to the surface all at the same time, it appeared that there would be multiple smaller fissures forming over time. The one that had broken open first had already begun seeping lava downhill. Noah ran a quick topographic scan, and calculated that the first lava flow would miss the settlement by a large margin.

It now seemed likely that the housing dome would remain intact, at least for the next day or so. The first quake had been the worst of what was coming, and the dome could handle the rest. The big risk now, was a lava flow reaching the settlement. Concrete ringed the lower levels of it, so the dome itself would be unaffected. Still, if both airlocks were blocked, the humans would be trapped inside. Also, if the makeshift airstrip was compromised, the shuttle would be unable to land and pick them up. Noah directed every rolling drone in the area to the task of building soil barriers to redirect any possible flows. If they could be redirected as they were forming, even by a single degree, it could potentially save everyone inside the dome.

The kids inside had gathered their possessions and were assembled in the communal area again. Laz was leading a singalong, to keep their spirits up. She had a gift, it seemed, for sensing what they needed most. Noah had to admit to himself that it probably never would have occurred to him that what they needed in a crisis would be music.

Tas was in the agro dome for some reason. Noah redirected one of the caretakers to find out why. It was Clive, unfortunately, so Noah tried to moderate his tone so as not to scare the boy. "Tas, what are you doing out here? You're supposed to be in the housing dome with all the others."

Tas was clutching one of the saplings that had grown there. It was a maple actually; barely older than he was. Noah's files indicated that Tas spent more time in the agro dome than most of the others combined. He was tolerated by the drones working there, as long as he was careful to stay out of their way and touch nothing other than the bark of the saplings themselves. He'd had an abnormal attachment to this tree especially for some reason.

"You said we should take things we like. Can I take this tree?"

Noah thought about it for a few microseconds. "I'm sorry, there just won't be room. Even if we could uproot it and carry it onto the plane, there's not enough oxygenated soil at our destination. It would die where we're going."

"It'll die here, won't it?"

"Maybe not. Maple trees can survive in thin air much better than people can. And who knows; it might grow even bigger and stronger. Volcanic soil can be very beneficial to trees." Noah didn't have to run the calculations on that. The maple would last several weeks, barring a fissure opening up right underneath it, anyway, but the soil around it would rapidly become useless to it as the bacteria and nematodes inside it died off in the heat and dryness. All of his current drones would have to work nonstop just to get a new food supply ready at their destination, so he wouldn't have the means to move the tree. It was effectively doomed.

There was no reason to tell him that, though. "Come on, Tas. The tree will be fine here, but the other kids won't be fine without you. They need you, and you need them. We're all God's children, remember?"

Sniffling slightly, Tas let himself be pulled up by Clive. He pulled a small bit of bark from the maple when he did, and then gasped. "It's all right," Noah assured him. "Trees have a lot of bark. They can do without some of it. Take it with you, if you want."

Clutching it as if it was some precious heirloom, Tas sniffled once more and then made his way out of the agro dome. One more situation addressed. Noah, as Clive, sealed the door from the inside, and got back to work preserving some of the more valuable plants for transport.

-.-

The next few hours showed some encouraging results. More fissures had opened, but none close enough to be a threat. The soil barrier was taking shape, and Noah predicted an eighty-six percent chance it could successfully redirect a lava flow away from the settlement. The children had calmed down noticeably, and some were even standing at the edge of the dome, peering out at the distant red lava as it snaked its way downhill.

What's more, emergency supplies were now ready and waiting for transport. Food that couldn't be easily grown had been packaged, but water wouldn't be a problem where they were going. A river ran by the distant dome, as it was originally intended to be an agricultural paradise. The most valuable seedlings were in good shape, although the animal specimens would have to be left behind. The rabbit kittens were only a few days out of their modified pods, and hadn't grown any hair yet. Still, the kids adored them. If they could survive the trip from the dome into the pressurized aircraft, he would keep them. If they didn't, he would have to be careful to dispose of the bodies without the kids noticing.

Chif was tapping at him again, this time with Sandra. "What is it?"

He looked worried this time, not angry. "I can't find Yuun anywhere! He's not in the common area, or our room or the bathrooms!"

Noah did a quick scan through his memories. The last time any of his drones had seen Yuun had been... at the speech he'd given the kids after the quake. "He must be in the dome somewhere, but I don't have any spare caretakers to look for him."

Chif turned to the group. "Has anyone seen Yuun? I can't find him."

That was counterproductive, but Noah hadn't reacted fast enough to stop him. Hoping that Chif hadn't just started a panic, Noah turned Sandra to face the others. "I need everyone six years and older to fan out and search the dome. Boys, you can go into the girls' dorm just this once. Find him if he's hiding somewhere, and then bring him back here. I'm going to announce when the shuttle gets back. When that happens, I want you back here even if you can't find him. Understood?"

He got a score or so of acknowledgements, and the group spread out. They spent a lot of time playing hide and seek with each other, so it made sense they'd know where to look.

"Where could he be?" Chif asked under his breath, and bit his lip.

"Oh, no." Noah's attention faltered, as a thought occurred to him. Andrew was the closest one, so he had Andrew check.

"What is it?"

Noah paused at the unpleasant news. "One of the breathers is missing."

At first the boy didn't understand, but then his eyes widened. "You mean he went outside? With lava out there?"

"It's the most likely explanation. Depending on when he left, he could be a good distance away by now. Lava travels slowly, so he should be able to avoid it, unless there's an eruption near him." That didn't look like it comforted Chif very much, but Noah continued. "What I don't understand is why he would just leave like that. He knows the air is too thin, and a breather only lasts for an hour at most. It makes no sense."

Chif grabbed at Sandra's elbow again. "What if he overheard us? When I told you..." he broke off for a moment. "What I said."

That would explain a few things. "Well, we can't worry about that now. We just need to find him. Where do you think he would go out there?"

They both stared at each other for a second, and then spoke at the same time. "Santa's workshop!"

Chif paused. "Wait, you heard that?"

"It's, uh, not important right now." Noah had Sandra pick Chif up by the waist, and carry him to the dome's edge, to look out above the concrete base to the dome. "Where did you point, when you told him about the workshop?"

"I don't remember! I just made it up." He screwed up his face for a moment in concentration. "I think... there?" He indicated a series of foothills near the west edge of the plains.

That was unfortunate. A fissure had opened up less than a kilometer from those foothills. No doubt several flows were heading out from it. "I'll redirect all the nearby flying drones to that location. They should be able to find him, unless he's hiding. The terrain is rocky enough that he might be able to avoid detection."

"He will," Chif said confidently. "We've both hidden from your drones a lot. If he did overhear us, then he won't trust you. I have to go out there. I'm the only one he'll listen to."

"Absolutely not," Noah forbade him. "There's still a chance he's hiding somewhere inside the dome. Besides, I'm not putting you at risk out there."

"I can do this, Noah!" Chif urged him. "We had a spot we used to go. Valae knows about it, too. We would sit in a little cave. If he sees your drones, he'll go there. Then I'll find him."

Noah did some quick calculations. They were already short on breathers, and Chif would need one for this plan of his. Still, the air wasn't devoid of oxygen; just short on it. Some of them could probably survive without breathers for a short time. The risk to Chif was significantly greater. There was no concrete foundation out on the plains to protect him from eruptions, and any number of lava flows could be blocking the path from him to this cave he described. But then in all likelihood, Yuun was already out there in all that. A few microseconds later, he nodded at Chif. "All right. I'll herd him in, and then you catch him. "

-.-

The plane got back just about the same time the search of the housing dome came up empty. Anticipating his wishes, Woad had gotten some of the other older boys to search the other domes too, and found nothing. Reluctantly, Noah summoned them all back to the housing dome and began organizing the evacuation. He was in his own drone this time, as the other caretakers were all outside searching the immediate area around the dome for Yuun. That was all well and good, he reflected darkly, but Chif was out there as well, and he was a lot more vulnerable.

"Everyone, listen up," he said as evenly as he could manage it. "The plane has life-support systems, but they're not meant for so many at once. That means we can only afford to open its airlock three times. Once when the first group goes over there, a second time when someone comes back with the breathers, and then one final time with the last group."

He turned to Laz. "I want you to take the other nine-year-old girls and bring the three-year-olds with me on the first trip. They might not be able to keep the breathers secured to their faces. The breathers should be able to fit them, but you'll have to carry some of them. Not all of them can walk or run very steadily, and I'll be busy carrying this." He hefted the large rectangular container he'd modified in the medlab.

It was the neonatal unit from the ICU, or it had been originally. It was built to hold ten infants, but currently had all twenty crammed in there. It was a grim sight, but necessary. "This container is airtight, and has enough oxygen for all of them on the whole trip. I sedated them so they wouldn't be breathing as much on the way." He looked back at Laz. "Once we're over there, I'll leave this on the plane with you and then bring back the breathers for the next group."

They still looked scared, but nodded, holding hands with each other. "Unfortunately we don't have enough breathers for the second group. All of the six-year-olds will need one, obviously, and Woad and I will be in charge of bringing them onto the plane. The problem is, we don't have enough breathers for everyone. Eight of you will have to do without. How long can you hold your breath?"

Woad looked around at the others, and then they did a quick huddle of sorts. It looked like some of them were volunteering but being turned down, and then he looked back. "We can do that. When we did swimming lessons last year, I could hold my breath for a minute and a half. Some of the guys are better swimmers than me, too. Is that enough?"

Noah nodded. "It should be more than enough. Also, it's easier to hold your breath outside the water than it is inside. There's less pressure forcing you to exhale. All right. It looks like we're ready."

"What about Chif and Yuun?" Valae put in anxiously.

The other kids mirrored her concerned look, and whispered to each other. None knew exactly what either of them were doing out there, but they could probably guess. "If and when they're done, I can get them out using the airborne drones outside. We can't wait for them to get back here, though. A fissure could open up underneath the domes or the airstrip at any moment. Come on, we all need to get on that plane. Laz, could you help me?"

Her blonde head bobbed with a nervous nod, and she started organizing the other girls her age. Each of them secured breathers to the toddlers' heads, and adjusted the straps to make sure they stayed in place. They were a bit big for them, but established a seal at least. When she gave him a thumbs-up (a sign she'd seen in some of the Faith-friendly movies he'd shown them), he herded them into the airlock and got them underway.

The air outside should have been near the freezing point of water, given the season, but ash from the newly formed vents choked the sky instead. His barometric sensors weren't that effective, but he guessed it was just as dry as it was hot. The closest feeling he could link to his current thought processes was regret. A few hours of volcanic activity, and years of his work were effectively gone. Even worse, the kids' growth and development would certainly be stunted by this event.

He'd have to be more careful with the new settlement.
« Last Edit: July 21, 2022, 01:07:41 AM by Daen »