“I,Q” outtake #5
(In 2012 I rewrote Twinmaker: Jump from Q’s completely different perspective, giving me new insights into her character in the process. “I, Q” is a slimmed-down version of that unpublished ms. This is one of a few fun scenes that fell by the wayside.)
(equivalent to Twinmaker: Jump chapter 48-51)
Then an airbag blew, and the airship began to plummet.
The beam traced a vivid line across the sky, tracking the airship until it disappeared into boiling whiteness.
The moment it was under cover, I regained control. Telemetry was a mess; the control systems were mostly burned. I had little to work with, and Dyta was fighting me, and there wasn’t time for niceties. Clair had to live. Clair had to live, no matter the cost.
A series of last-minute twists and turns put key sections of the airships frame under lethal stress. Certain fragments tore away, sacrificed to protect others that mattered more. Airbags burst, stanchions screamed. I glimpsed the green of trees and the red of blood, and then everything went black. The airship was dead. So were Clair’s lenses.
And I might as well be too unless I could get her back.
The first thing to do was to ascertain if I was receiving nothing because no signal was being transmitted, or if it was because the signal was being jammed. Turner Goldsmith had guided the airship to its destination, more or less, so it was possible he knew people there. And if he knew people there, they might be as paranoid as he was. There was hope in jamming, I told myself; otherwise there was none at all.
It took some minutes to ascertain that the area around the crash site was indeed under an electromagnetic pall. No unnatural signals went in or out–but the jamming was much more sophisticated than that of the safe-house. Here there was still background variation; here there was no weird dip in the natural ambience of the inhabited Earth. A train line crossed the silent space, and its signals weren’t interrupted. Navigation data passed unimpeded. To a casual glance it might have seemed that there was simply nothing civilized in the area.
But that wasn’t the case. The vegetation was serried in rows of trees, like orchards. There was a central compound composed of several buildings. There were people–I saw them in the background of snaps taken of the crash site from far above. The Air was aware of the accident and directing its attention to the site, so I was able to pry into the nature of the environment without risking my own disclosure.
No rescue mission was mounted. The official word was that there were no survivors–but how could they know without physically checking? Again, I sensed powerful forces moving in the background. Or nothing at all, just a vast, unnerving incompetence.
What I was certain of was that Clair’s chunk of the airship’s crew compartment had been snagged by apple trees. Uncannily bright red fruit dotted the autumnal leafscape like dollops of paint. The sun was setting over the scene, casting long shadows under the warm tones of a melting sky. Faintly, I picked out movement around the base of the wreckage. Someone was alive. But was it Clair?
I attacked the wall of silence with everything I had, to no avail. All my finely-tuned senses found it utterly impenetrable.
But that was impossible. Information and people were an almost infinitely volatile combination. Whatever was going on in there, someone outside had to know. And if someone knew that, then they might also know how to get in. I constructed search grids along radiating lines of inquiry. I refused to be daunted by the sheer amount of data I would have to sift through. Giving up meant giving up on Clair. And giving up on Clair meant giving up on myself. What would I do without her? What purpose did I have if she was gone?
The cluster around the wreckage dispersed into smaller groups. Some led in a line to the central compound. Others scattered across the quiet zone, seeking other crash sites. Debris was still falling from the Skylifter, inside and outside the quiet zone. Some fragments descended surprisingly slowly, braked by long sheets of balloon material or by emergency measures I had not been aware of. There might have been other survivors. They didn’t concern me.
The sun was long down by the time I found my first reason to hope.
The orchard and quiet zone both turned out to belong to a farm that stretched across a significant chunk of North Dakota, from the Little Missouri grasslands to the east almost as far as Fargo to the west, north halfway to the Canadian border. Clair’s portion of the airship had come down on the southern edge of the farm, near a ghost town called New Salem. Two human generations earlier, a farm would have seemed perfectly normal. Now, with fabbers responsible for generating food for everyone on the planet (everyone who wasn’t an Abstainer) cultivated plants for anything other than decoration were a rarity. And even then, the perfect rose only had to be grown once; copied, it could be reproduced as many times as desired, complete with dew.
There was another reason beside food and decoration that humans had grown plants, and some even believed it was the driving force behind the earliest forms of agriculture: to make alcohol and drugs, two demons that had either addled human intelligence or been a potent force for intellectual growth, depending on who asked the question. A perfectly satisfactory drug could be copied as easily as the perfect rose, but nature was a tireless laboratory technician, eternally creating new compounds with unknown effects on human brain chemistry. Places were rumored to exist where cultivars were deliberately crossed or randomly mutated to see what psychoactive substances they produced -and strictly speaking what people did in such places wasn’t illegal, just as long as they didn’t try to traffic what they made.
The more I studied the quiet zone, the more certain I became that this was what I had found. Why else the impenetrable security? The farm would need to defend itself from people trying to steal their seeds, as well as the peacekeepers. And how else to explain the connection to WHOLE? Honor among thieves, I thought. An illegal farm could supply biological agents for potential terrorist strikes, while a means of moving people and cargo that didn’t involve d-mat would be useful for the farmers. The two groups would share a natural affinity, even if their goals didn’t completely overlap.
All this I learned from peacekeeper files preserved under moderate security in the Air. Few charges had stuck to anyone associated with this particular farm, but it was known, and it was monitored. Movements to and from were meticulously logged. The area was so vast, though, and so much of it was overgrown, that comprehensive surveillance was impossible. There were means of moving around, I was sure, that wouldn’t be seen.
And then there was the matter of information. It had to be leaking somewhere, both in and out. No firewall was complete–not where modern technology was certain to be operating. I probed every lead I could think of, certain that I was missing something. All I had to do was keep looking and I was sure I would find it.
As it turned out, someone else found it first.
And then I found them, not a moment too soon.