Read Children of a Dead Earth Book One Online

Authors: Patrick S Tomlinson

Children of a Dead Earth Book One (23 page)

BOOK: Children of a Dead Earth Book One
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“What the hell was that?” she barked.

“Look, I'm sorry about dinner–”

“I'm not talking about
dinner
, you twit. Why are we wasting time on the Laraby case when there's a saboteur on the loose? Unless you've forgotten the lights going out already and how the human race almost died?”

“They're connected, Esa. It's the same people, I know it.”

“You can't know that.”

“Can't I? While the power was down, somebody took the liberty of frying the memory node that had all of Laraby's files in it. Not just erased them, I mean physically burned out the node. You think that's just a coincidence?”

Theresa shrugged. “An opportunistic killer with a guilty conscience could have done the same thing.”

“And know where the specific node was? C'mon. And how did these terrorists get into engineering in the first place? They had help from a crewmember.”

“We don't know that for sure.”

“There's more. That mushroom I was just holding?”

“Yeah…” Theresa regarded him with look that said he'd better come up with something good pretty quick.

“It had traces of dirt on its stem.”

“So what, they hadn't been washed yet.”

“They're all grown in aeroponic shelves, Esa. I worked a farm for years, remember. There shouldn't be any dirt.”

The elevator chime dinged for the ground floor, but Theresa reached around him and pressed the door hold button.

“OK, so they shouldn't have dirt on them. So what? Start making sense.”

Benson took a deep breath. “Remember when I said I'd met David Kimura down in the basement over in Shangri-La?”

“How could I forget?”

“It's true, and they were farming mushrooms in trays of compost. Mushrooms don't need light, so it makes perfect sense down there. I'd bet this Mao's group here in Avalon adopted the same farming strategy.”

“We didn't find any farms.”

“We didn't finish the search, either.”

“No,
you
didn't finish the search. How do you think that looked to everyone?”

He didn't have an answer for her. Theresa rolled her hand for him to continue.

“I think that this buyer was trading with Mao's people for mushrooms for Takahashi's kitchen, and in exchange some of the poisonous bits of one of the pufferfish found their way into the bad guy's hands. From there, they poisoned Laraby and then killed him when it didn't take.”

Theresa scowled. “That's the most convoluted, crackpot conspiracy theory I've ever heard.”

“So… you're on the fence?”

“You sound like a mad-hatter in the making.”

“It fits the facts,” Benson protested.

“Mushroom smuggling? Really? We have to refocus, Bryan, on the terrorists. Laraby's killer will just have to wait.”

Benson shook his head. “I'm telling you, they're the same people. It's all part of the same story.”

“Then it won't matter if you come at it from the other direction,” Theresa said, her voice straining just below a scream. She took a moment to calm herself before continuing. “Sweetie, you need to hear me on this. People are starting to talk.”

That caught Benson off guard. “Talk about what? What people?”

“About the job you're doing. You already upset a lot of important people with the way you handled Feng–”

“He was acting guilty as shit, you know that!”

Theresa put a hand up to stop him. “I'm not saying you were wrong to, but it ruffled feathers. It's not just the crew; even some of our own people want to know why you called off the search early. They think you just gave up.”

“You know I didn't.”


I
know, but it doesn't look that way from the outside. I fielded calls from two Council members while you were down in Sickbay, including Chief Councilman Valmassoi.”

“What? Why didn't you forward them to me?”

“Because they didn't want to talk
to
you, Bryan. They were gathering info
on
you.”

“What did you tell them?”

“That you were a narcissistic man-child and could stand to be a better tipper.”

“That hurts, Esa. I tip just fine.”

The doors chimed again as someone on the other side grew tired of waiting.

“Just think about what I said, please? I mean it, Bryan.” Theresa reached over and released the hold button, ending the conversation.

Benson had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach that didn't have anything to do with skipping dinner.

Chapter Twenty-Three

B
enson was back
inside the wildly spinning EVA pod. The cracks in the canopy grew, slowly at first, but then faster until they touched and spread into spiderwebs. The entire bubble shattered into a constellation of debris as Benson was blown free of the cockpit, impotently pumping his arms as he drifted away next to Laraby's body.

He awoke with a shot, dripping in sweat. It was the third time he'd had that nightmare.

“Lights!”

He looked around his bedroom, trying to get his bearings. It was 02.37. He'd finally gotten into bed at 23.45.

Dammit.

The falafel he'd scarfed down on the way back to his apartment didn't sit right either. Something about the cucumber sauce was… off. So far, the nightmare only came on nights he was alone. He'd held out hope that he might spend tonight in the love nest, but Theresa wasn't particularly amenable to the idea after their tense conversation in the lift.

He couldn't blame her, really, and the uncomfortable truth was she made more sense than he wanted to admit. He knew he was under the microscope, but having council members talking to his subordinates behind his back couldn't be a prelude to good news.

Maybe he was obsessing over Edmond. And if he really believed his own story that Laraby's killer and the saboteurs were the same people, then what was the harm turning around and burning the candle from the other end?

Game Six would start at 09.00, in just over six hours. It was a morning game by Avalon Time, but late evening for the players from Shangri-La. The stadium held almost ten thousand people at full capacity, which it certainly would be in the morning. Twenty percent of the population would be there to cheer on their team, versus no more than two dozen constables vying to keep the peace.

As far as venues were concerned, it was hard to imagine a more tempting target to make a statement. Security would be tight, but the large crowd would confer a certain amount of anonymity. A mad-hatter or two might be able to slip through security if they timed it right and didn't draw undue attention to themselves. His officers would need to check under every cap that came through.

But then, Mao's people wouldn't have to wear aluminum-lined hats, would they? No plant meant they could sneak in with a large group with every lift car that came up. They'd have to scan everyone individually as they came out of the doors.

Benson threw the covers off his body and got a pot of tea going. He was too wound up now to fall back to sleep, and the prospect of repeating the nightmare was less than appealing anyway. He'd head down to the stationhouse and start coordinating security for the game with Chief Bahadur, then get his own people up to speed.

He took just enough time to rinse his mouth and throw on clothes. He didn't bother freshening the creases in his pants. He saw little point, only one or two people would be in the stationhouse at this time of night anyway.

The kettle whistled just as he slipped on his shoes. Benson poured himself a generous cup and jogged down the path to the stationhouse. The restored gravity and background hum gave the illusion that everything had returned to normal. But, now more than ever, Benson understood the thin blue line of his constables was all that preserved that normalcy.

Korolev sat in the duty officer's chair as Benson crossed through the doors, the stress of the last few days etched in his face as well.

“You look awful, Pavel. Have you slept?”

“I could ask you the same thing, chief.”

Benson shrugged. “As much as I'm going to today, it seems. I didn't know you were on night watch tonight.”

“Switched with Feingold. She had a… thing.”

“This thing have a name?”

“She didn't mention it.”

“I see.” Benson put an elbow on the high desk and leaned over. “All quiet?”

Korolev nodded. “Surprisingly so, actually. I think everyone had enough excitement for one day.”

“Good. If anyone needs me, I'll be in my office organizing security for the game.”

“Ten-four, chief.”

Benson closed the door behind him, then collapsed into his desk chair. The tea wouldn't kick in for a few minutes yet. He sat, staring at nothing, thinking that leaving his bed hadn't been the most prudent course, when his eyes fell on his desk drawer.

Holy crap
, he thought,
I'm an idiot
. He reached out a thumb and the drawer slid open, revealing the tablet he'd stashed yesterday. It had gone offline when he threw it in frustration and broke the screen two days earlier. He'd never thought to reconnect it to the network.

Now fully awake, he powered it up and searched through the document history looking for a pot of gold. When he found it, he almost jumped out of his chair and danced around the room. Glowing in front of him were the only surviving copies of Edmond Laraby's personal and work files.

Benson's hope swelled. It was the first genuine break he'd gotten since the whole situation had blown up. The answers he needed were there, he knew it now more than ever. Feng had already done his damage to Laraby's personal files, but it had been to cover his own tracks, not the real killer's. They might still prove useful. On a whim, Benson ran a search of all the images in the file. More than seven thousand images popped up, contained in hundreds of folders. Someone liked to take pictures.

Overwhelmed, Benson ran a simple sorting program to differentiate between portraits, action shots, selfies, art, and so on. He spent the next half hour scrolling through the endless stream of pictures of Edmond, his coworkers, his amateur photography of apple blossoms and force-perspective shots taken from… interesting positions inside the habitats. It seemed Edmond had been a bit of a daredevil in his off hours.

One of them was a really interesting shot of row after row of daytime lights taken from the point of view of someone floating just outside the hub itself, like a field of bulbs stretching out to infinity. Lord only knew who he'd talked into letting him get in position to take it.

Not that Benson was an expert, but the kid had a real eye for composition and lighting. He flipped through other folders at random, hoping something jumped out.

Something did. One folder was a couple orders of magnitude larger than the others. Benson opened it and was floored by the torrent of images of Tau Ceti G. The collection itself was impressive for its size, but it was hardly unusual. The images were public record. Benson even spotted a couple that Edmond had picked for the slideshow on the wall in his apartment.

What was unusual was the cache of orbital images Laraby had labeled “Atlantis.” Benson went through them one at a time. What he found was an endless stream of pictures of, appropriately enough, the Dark Continent cloaked in a permanent cyclone covering a land mass nearly the size of North America.

Meteorologists had struggled with the enduring enigma of the storm since Pathfinder had arrived in the system two years earlier, a job further complicated by the fact the reentry shuttle that was supposed to disperse drones and rovers throughout the continent had fallen victim to the storm itself. But judging from the barometric pressure charts, wind records, false-color infrared, and radar mapping, it looked like Edmond was taking a stab at solving it.

It seemed like a harmless enough hobby, but as Benson dug deeper into the stack of pictures, he became alarmed. Somewhere along the way, Edmond started marking the images with bright red circles and slashes, becoming angrier and more frustrated as time passed.

He'd scrawled
DUPLICATION!!!
connected by arrows to two red circles on one image, and again on a picture time stamped from several days later. Benson brought up both pictures and put them side by side on the tablet. The cloud patterns did indeed look very similar, although they were in different locations and were different sizes. He set one to transparent and laid it over top of the other, moving and scaling the top layer to see if the bits in the circles really did match.

It took some fidgeting, but blown up to two hundred and fifty percent, then mirrored and rotated ninety degrees, the cloud patterns overlapped precisely.

Benson stared at the screen for a long time, aware that he'd found something important, but at a loss for what it meant. It was more tampering, that much was obvious, but to what end? If the clouds weren't real, what was hiding under them?

Benson skipped to the end of the images, like peeking at the last page of a book. What he found was a series of increasingly intricate composite images of Atlantis using all of the different data sets. It looked like Edmond had been trying to reconstruct whatever was hidden under the clouds, to undo the tampering. He couldn't be sure how much of what he was seeing was accurate, how much was conjecture, and how much was pure artistic license, but it all certainly looked convincing.

Benson glanced down at the clock in the corner of the tablet. 05.59.

“Shit,” he mumbled. Two and a half hours spent tumbling down the rabbit hole. It was exactly what he'd promised himself not to do. Benson glanced at the picture of Atlantis one more time and paused to consider the excited green circles Laraby had drawn near the continent's eastern coastline. Whatever he'd seen inside them, Benson couldn't pick it out. He pulled up the image's edit history to see when Edmond had been there last. Less than three days before his murder.

Here, Benson finally felt like he was on the right path, even if he didn't understand where it led. But he'd have to make time for it later. Still, one other thread that needed tugging, and hopefully it wouldn't take two hours.

He checked his clock against the time in the command module. The floaters insisted on running their clocks smack in between Shangri-La and Avalon Time. They claimed it was to prevent the appearance of playing favorites between the two modules, but Benson was fairly sure its real purpose was yet another layer of separation between the crew and the cattle.

As the crew flew, it was just before lunch. The perfect time for the conversation he hoped to have. Benson pulled up Director da Silva's contact and made the call.




Tetraodontidae
,> she said as if reading out an encyclopedia entry.






them
out a lock.>

Benson was about to correct her, to tell her that a copy of Laraby's work notes had survived, but something told him not to play that card.


Benson paused.



The plant interface didn't carry gasps, but Benson could almost hear one in the silence anyway.







Avelina chuckled softly.

Benson paused.


Benson took a moment to consider how much of his hand he wanted to reveal. He had no illusions about the security of the plant network at this point. Even if he could trust da Silva, anything he revealed here was going out to Lord only knew how many other ears. Still, maybe it was time to stir the pot.


The line went quiet for a long moment.



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