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Chapter Thirty-Five


The quake had damaged the vast majority of New Zema. Not only had the Biolab been buried under a mountain of rubble, but the surrounding administrative and residential buildings had been flattened as well. The entire town was once again reduced to temporary housing, and thing time it was nowhere near the quality that it was before. Some hardy people volunteered to pitch a tent under the stars and alleviate the crowds in the thin plastic structures. Hugh had a makeshift office in one of these shell buildings, though it was not even half the size of the provisional one he had used when the town was first built. He lacked a desk, a computer, electricity, and he felt lucky enough just to have a chair. So it was little wonder that he was in ill humor when an unfamiliar knock pounded on his door.

"Come in," he said, leaning both his elbows on the metal crate he had adopted as a table.

His visitor opened the door and peered inside. "Dr. Thompson? I was told you would be here."

"Obviously I am," he remarked drily.

Hugh decided that he instantly disliked the man in front of him. He was much the same age as Hugh, though probably a few years older, but seemed entirely too sure of himself. His pale blue hair fell loose around his face, framing a grin that reminded Hugh of a manticore.

The lanky young man glanced to either side and to his unvoiced question, Hugh replied: "I'm afraid I don't have any place for you to sit down, but as you can tell, this isn't the best place to be discussing things for a lengthy term anyway. The air circulation is bad and becomes near unbearable when there is more than one person here."

"I won't be long." The man bowed his head and offered his hand. Hugh shook it. "I'm Donald Kain. I deal in salvaged parts and recycling. After this latest fiasco I thought I might as well offer my services where I can. Knowing how delicate the equipment of this lab can be, you might need it."

"Salvaged parts? What makes you think you have something to offer? As you suspect, the needs of the Biolab are highly specialized."

"I'm from Maula, though I've been in and out of the area recently. Roron's no more than a hop, skip, and a jump from my house in comparison to all this distance to New Zema. And you know Roron was Mother Brain's junkyard. If Mota people can make good things out of the scraps over there, I bet there's something for you too."

"We're not Mota people, and we don't have the time to dig through all that in order to find something useful. I don't know how many people you have working under you, but even if we had the specs to give you, there's no way you could find what we need in a reasonable amount of time."

For a moment Hugh gave thanks that the structure of the Biolab itself was reasonably intact. The building materials of Mother Brain were sturdy stuff. It was a pity that the last of it went to Nurvus. The new facility would surely exhaust the rest of the supply if it hadn't already.

"Maybe, but you should at least give us a try. You may even want to stockpile a few spares in case Nurvus screws up again."


Donald nodded and placed a hand down on Hugh's metal crate. "Well, you don't really think that this is the last time it's going to happen, do you? Thanks to Mother Brain we know that technology isn't perfect, and now that she's gone we realize how little our understanding really is. Sure we know what goes where and when something's out of power, but innovating? That takes a hard core understanding of the technology at stake, and quite frankly we don't have that. This Nurvus thing's a shot in the dark. Maybe it'll work, maybe it won't, but the important thing is for you and your Biolab to be safe. Isn't that why this facility is independent?"

It was a sales pitch, but Hugh couldn't help but feel there was something else at stake here, and he couldn't grasp it. The Biolab was sorely hurting for money after this latest setback, and money was nowhere to be found. He had talked to Gillian about reimbursements for the damage Nurvus had done, but the Councillor had replied that there was none to give. The value of the meseta was destabilizing and while the government could issue more currency, it would only serve to inflate the price of the goods purchased. In the meantime, the Council was maintaining a hands off approach in attempt to let the Palman people come to their own equilibrium. Hugh thought that was stupid, but it meant that the Biolab was still short on funds, and getting parts from a junkyard would be much cheaper than building them from scratch. The only other way to get aid would be to link the facility with Nurvus.

"Somewhat," Hugh finally conceded. "The Biolab's continued independence means a lot to the people of New Zema."

Donald handed him a wrinkled strip of paper with an address written in clumsy notation. Many people had still not gotten the hang of writing by hand, and Donald apparently was one of them. "This is where I'll be staying for the next five days," he said, giving Hugh a farewell wave as he opened the door. "Feel free to contact me any time if you're interested. Just be aware that there are other people out there who are willing to lend a hand. Not all of us support Nurvus."

Hugh looked up from the paper at the last comment, but the man named Donald had already left. The door swung shut, cooping Hugh once again in his stuffy little room.

The biologist turned the paper over and over in his hand. Lore had gone off to Paseo on another of her promotional trips. He never figured her much of a political sort, though she spoke often enough about current events. She just wanted to present the honesty of the situation he supposed. Lore liked to find options, and she still filled her thoughts with tales of days gone by. For her, the strength of the Palman people would always endure, one way or another. Hugh wished he could be so positive, but Alis was a long time ago. She couldn't help them now.

He stood up, gathering his papers methodically about him as might a man twice his age. Already the new Biolab seemed like a distant memory. Seed was down once more and there was no way to properly work. Maybe in a few more days the work crews would be able to restore power to the Biolab. Most of the rubble had been cleared, as least as far as entrances into the lab were concerned. Dana and Kenneth had tried lecturing outside, but though they did their best, it was hard for the type of research they wanted to explain. They needed those computer assists. Perhaps Lore would have something new to say. A messenger arrived via the ryuka technique to let Hugh know that she wanted him to come to her speech tomorrow. He didn't have to, but he figured he would. He wanted to see her again.

* * * * *

The scalding glow of the spotlight was still a foreign thing to Lore. It blinded her, but she regarded it as a mild sort of mercy since it hid from her the farthest reaches of the auditorium. If the crowd reached that far its numbers would shock her. If it didn't, she would have been disappointed as well. She planned to address the important problem between the Biolab and Nurvus, and for that she wanted to reach a good deal of people, but the knowledge that she would share her point of view with potentially the most she had ever had at once was daunting. If Gillian had not reassured her she might not have had the courage to step on the stage.

"You'll be great," he said.

And he gave her a rare smile of such warmth that he surprised her. The young Councillor seemed entirely too intent on his political agenda at times, but he believed in what he fought for, and to Lore that was all that really mattered. She needed some of that belief, because it was hard to criticize when others were already trying their best.

Lore laid her notes out on the podium and began her talk. Nurvus was an excellent idea, make no mistake, but as would be expected for a system of its magnitude there were flaws in its execution. Nurvus did not take into account the new towns and independent facilities of the planet, which was clearly its largest flaw, albeit one that would likely be soon corrected. That flaw lead Nurvus and its associated systems to assume that the test area of the Plate System was located in an empty section of the planet.

The next flaw that occurred was a human one. The people in charge of running the test, she did not name names, did not personally examine the area beforehand. They took the information at face value and assumed that the computer had naturally made the best choice. While that was feasible during the time of Mother Brain, with the changes in technology that would no longer be possible. "Be suspicious," said Lore, "of any information a computer gives you, because that information may no longer be true or has never been true to begin with."

Lies. Mother Brain left them lies too. She said she was infallible. She was not. She said the Palmans would die without her. They had not. And by Alis's sword the Palmans would be masters of themselves again! They would have to search for the truth and realize that the best computer in the world lay not in a bed of silicon chips but in their own minds.

Which was why Nurvus had a third flaw. It was only a machine, to be manipulated as the Wren android saw fit. The Palmans were putting their trust in a machine that just demonstrated that it was itself unable to research new information and perform a judgment call. The system had run from the last information it received from Mother Brain, denoting the Biolab as expendable and the surrounding area devoid of population. It knew nothing of New Zema and the reconstructed lab. Nurvus was the machine and Wren the mind, but the mind was also a machine and had not yet learned to question. As things were now, it would be dangerous to give Nurvus any more power.

But humans learn from mistakes, and they all could from this tragedy as well. The quake at New Zema cost a half dozen people their lives, and illustrated once again that though the initial turmoil of Mother Brain's destruction was over, they were still subject to the whims of her legacy.

Lore concluded her talk with a bow and barely kept herself steady as she walked to the wings of the stage. Spotting a welcome face, she quickened her strides once beyond the edge of the curtains until she jogged down the stairs at the end. Gillian waved to her as he took his turn on stage, but she barely had time to shoot him a grateful glance. Instead she gave Hugh a hug and asked him, "Did you hear the whole speech?"

He nodded. "Yeah. The acoustics weren't that good back here, but I could hear enough. I came too late to get a seat out front. You drew quite a crowd."

She shook her head. "It wasn't me. Gillian did all the promoting. He helped me with my speech writing a bit too."

"He did?" Hugh looked a bit perturbed, but said nothing else of his concern.

"Yeah," she said, drawing away. "Hugh? When you listened to my speech I said a lot about the problems with Nurvus that lead to the disaster with the Biolab. It was the lack of communication within the system that directly caused it, but there was something else that could have been done that I didn't talk about."

"What was that?"

"The earthquake under the Biolab might have been prevented if you and Kain had kept talking to each other." She saw him about to protest and added, "Your argument manifested itself in the Biolab, but if it hadn't been the lab, it would have been something else. Can't you see? The both of you are more than just people now. You're each your respective organization. Kain is the heart of Nurvus just as you are the life's blood of the Biolab. You can't just drag other people around because you don't want to talk to each other. Now, because the two of you are such giants, other people can be hurt by what you're unwilling to put aside."

Lore had not raised her voice, but she sniffled as tears rimmed her eyes. "I wanted to tell you that," she said, "because I couldn't stand seeing either of you pretend the other does not exist. Not just for you, or even for the others, but I myself cannot go on like this."

The tears blurred her sight, and she brushed them away with her hands.

"Lore, it's okay," he said, and she felt a piece of cloth stuffed between her fingers. She dabbed at her eyes as Hugh led her away. She didn't care where. His voice came softly; hesitant. "I'm sorry. I didn't know."

* * * * *

Lore had taught him another lesson. There was courage in ways other than the battlefield and facing the fears of the past. Courage was not blind allegiance to a chosen path. Courage was the ability to realize the path was wrong and to make up for it.

Hugh sat on the railing of the balcony of his Paseo apartment. It was a dangerous place to perch, but he wanted the unimpeded view of the lake. It still shone with the golden sheen of sunset, though the water was much lower than in previous years. He supposed the salt content was not high enough to keep the vapor in liquid form. It was a suggestion he could make to Nurvus though. That would be a start, wouldn't it? With the lines of communication open once more, he would be aware of what Nurvus had planned for the coming days, and perhaps they could benefit from the Biolab as well.

Hugh smiled, feeling better about himself than he had in a long while. Perhaps he did have some sort of inner strength in him after all. It just needed a little prodding. Now if only Kain would forgive him for being such a fool. Hugh swung his legs back over the railing and dropped on to the balcony floor. The dust on the railing had rubbed off on the rear of his white lab coat, but he didn't care. It was worth it for the inspiration. He would make amends and be a better man for it.

Lore lay on the sofa in his living room and barely moved when Hugh came back. "Are you feeling better?" he asked.

"Hugh," she said, still staring up at the ceiling, "think of Motavia as a man whose arm has been removed. It can't be given back no matter how hard one tries. So the man must either go on handicapped, or we can give him an artificial arm to help him get by. The new arm will not be the same as the old, but it is likely better than no arm at all."

"And that arm is Nurvus. I know." He came beside her and sat on the floor nearby. "You don't have to tell me anymore. You can stop campaigning."

She must have seen the good humor shining in his eyes because her face brightened in return. "That's good. I never wanted to. You know: the campaigning. I just want people to get along."

"They will. But there's something you need to remember."

She tilted her head to one side. "What?"

"That though we are symbols of our organizations, we are people too. We're only human with human limitations. My failure to realize my own position may have lead to the quake at the Biolab, but you also have failed." Hugh picked at a loose thread from his sofa. "Lore, when you broke down, that shouldn't have happened. You shouldn't have carried yourself like that for so long without telling me." He looked up at her. "You're always available for me when I want to talk, but now I realize that you've been absorbing all my problems without telling me any of yours. Maybe I've just been a boorish jerk, but I'd like to think that I've been available for you as well."

Lore met his gaze briefly, then turned away. She pulled herself up to a sitting position. "I suppose you're right," she said, staring out through the living room window. "I keep too much inside. Then when I'm under pressure I just blow up like a volcano."

Hugh stood up, shoving his hands into his pockets. "I'm here," he said. "And if ever you need me, I will be."

She smiled. "Thanks."

Lore set her feet on the floor and regarded him. "So what are you going to do now?"

"Make dinner," he said, but he watched the sunset. "And after it's dark and I know Kain will be home I'll give him a call."

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