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Authors: Patrick S Tomlinson

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BOOK: Children of a Dead Earth Book One
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“The texturing lines up with the pigmentation, and the layering is obvious.” She rubbed a gloved fingertip along the edge of the painting, a spot that had been hidden behind the frame. She licked her fingertip, then held it to her nose and inhaled deeply. “Traces of linseed oil.”

“What does that tell you?”

She glanced up at Benson as though only just remembering he was in the room.

“Several things, detective. First, it means it's a real painting, not a print that's been doctored with layers of brush-stroked lacquer. Second, the only linseed plant aboard the Ark is stored in the Genome Archive, which means this is pre-launch.”

Benson nodded along, not wanting to deflate her obvious excitement. “So, it's genuine?”

“It was genuinely painted on Earth, yes. But whether it was painted by Monet, or just an incredibly talented forger, I can't say yet. I need to take it back to the museum to run some spectrographic and radioactive decay tests.”

Benson's left eyebrow inched up. “Aren't those destructive tests?”

The curator shrugged. “We need only milligrams of material. A few strands of canvas and a flake or two of paint from the margins will be enough. Then we'll know not only what time it came from, but where the paint was ground.”

“You have records on
paint
that go back that far?”

“I have every record, from every museum, and every publication, current until one month before the launch, and stretching back at least four centuries. Surely law enforcement has similar resources?”

Benson could only laugh at that. “I'm sorry, Devorah, I don't mean to poke fun, but I think you'll find that the people of Earth spent a great deal more time committing crimes than creating art, and that many in the policing profession were not nearly so… clinical as you.”

“I see,” she said disapprovingly. Not in Benson, but in her expectation for the species at large. She busied herself placing the painting back inside its protective cocoon.

“How often does your search return a hit like this?”

“Not so often as in past years, but enough. We're still looking for pieces from the Heist. That's why I still have my warrant almost forty years later.”

Benson nodded. The Heist had been the single most brazen crime ever committed onboard the Ark. Murders had happened, of course, and other crimes of passion or indifference, but nothing compared to the theft of over three hundred irreplaceable artifacts from mankind's last museum. It had meant the end of the previous curator's career, and Devorah's ascension. Both were well before Benson's time as chief. Indeed, before his birth.

“I thought everything had been recovered decades ago.”

“That's what we told everyone, yes.” She replaced the back cover. “I wanted the public to think we'd won, and for the vandals to think we'd given up the chase. I wanted them to get lazy and complacent. It worked too, up to a point. We quietly nabbed another fifty pieces in short order, but there's still about a dozen pieces outstanding.”

“If that's true, why haven't you ordered a compartment-to-compartment search? We could have turned the ship inside out a hundred times by now.”

“I ask in every session, but no council has ever given permission, that's why. They fear riots.”

And they're probably right about that
, Benson reflected. “Could this be one of your missing pieces?”

“Hmm? No, no. We never had this. It was reported lost in the looting of the Louvre in 2136. We never had
any
Monets.”

Benson rubbed his chin. Nothing about this made sense. Laraby was certainly better off than most of the cattle, but among floaters, he was middle-management, at best. The painting, and frankly the house itself, seemed awfully extravagant.

“What will happen to it now, after your tests, I mean?”

“Well, if it's a forgery, I'd imagine it will be returned to whoever lives here.”

“His name is Edmond Laraby,” Benson added helpfully. “Although he's a bit difficult to reach at the moment.”

She continued as though she hadn't heard him. “There's no law against private art collections, so long as the provenance can be traced. I've seen some pieces hung in the command crew's quarters that would make you weep.” She looked up at Benson's hard face. “Well, maybe not you, detective.”

“I'm a teddy bear.”

“Sure you are. On the other hand, if it is genuine, then it was stolen from the Louvre two hundred and fifty years ago and no trail of provenance will protect it from confiscation.” The tiny woman actually licked her lips. “I wouldn't even need to reframe it.”

Devorah seemed to snap out of her daydream and picked up the painting, then headed for the door.

“I'll need an escort back to the museum. Come along, detective.”

“Regrettably, I have more work here. But I have just the man for the job sitting outside.” Benson eased by the woman, careful not to touch the frame as he passed, then opened the door. The rookie from before sat under the grove of trees in plain clothes, just as he'd been instructed. Yet he still managed to stick out like a shark fin prowling the waves at a crowded beach. He was hopeless.

“Constable!” Benson waved. “Come over here.” The young man sprang up and trotted over double time. “What's your name, lad?”

“Constable Korolev, sir.”

“A strong, Russian name, excellent. I assume you have your stun-stick in there somewhere?” Korolev nodded. The stun-stick was as close to a weapon as the constables got, but it was more than adequate. About the size of a pen, when pointed at a non-compliant suspect and activated, it triggered a short electrical spike in the suspect's plant, causing a grand-mal seizure. Every constable had one used on them during training, to instill the seriousness of having to push the button. Benson had used it only once in his years of service.

“Good. Constable Korolev, this is Madame Curator Feynman. I need you to escort her back to the museum. Make absolutely certain no harm comes to her.”

“To hell with me,” Devorah protested from behind him. “Guard the bloody painting!”

Benson looked at her, then back at Korolev with a somewhat pained expression. “Did you get that, constable?”

He threw another perfect salute. “Yes, detective. Madame, if you'll accompany me, please.”

Devorah stepped forward and sized up the young man with a withering glare. “What'd they carve you out of, boy?”

Korolev didn't miss a beat. “Determination, Madame Curator.”

Devorah looked back at Benson and actually smirked. “He'll do.”

Benson smiled back. “I thought he might. One last question?” Devorah nodded for him to continue. “If this thing is genuine, what's it worth?”

“An original Monet? Priceless. It would be one of the ten most important paintings in the collection.”

Benson shook his head. You couldn't eat it, couldn't wear it, it didn't recycle air or water. What value could it really have?

“So, it's worth killing for, then?” he asked.

“To the right person, certainly. Why do you ask?”

Benson crossed his arms. “We both have our jurisdictions, Madame Curator.”

Devorah regarded him for a long moment, but answered only with a shrug. As the two of them walked away, Benson realized Devorah had been too engrossed in the painting to even glance at the chair. He made the executive decision to finish reading Laraby's personnel file while sitting in it.

Chapter Three

I
t was always
a little too cool in the command module for Benson's liking. The crew had their reasons, of course. Command didn't have the huge banks of lights designed to mimic natural sunlight, including infrared. Nor did it have the population. With fifty thousand people busy metabolizing and radiating body heat into the environment, the habitats stayed very comfortable.

Floaters liked it cool. If you asked, they'd say the banks of computers and lab equipment worked optimally in a cooler environment. But Benson nursed the suspicion that they liked it because it made visiting cattle all the more eager to leave.

Benson glided through the central corridor on his way to the bio-lab module, where he'd been granted the courtesy of a ten minute audience with Ms Avelina Pereira da Silva. As the head of Environmental Development and Research, she was a very busy woman these days, which she was only too eager to explain to everyone, on the off chance they hadn't already heard it from the layers of subordinates one had to wade through to setup a meeting with her in the first place.

Benson found the correct lock and pushed the call button. “Detective Benson to see Director da Silva, please.”

A dark male face appeared on the monitor. “Have you showered, detective?”

Benson smiled courteously, “I always shower before calling on a lady.”

The gatekeeper was not amused. “Director da Silva is expecting you, but this is a class three cleanroom. You will need to go through decontamination and put on scrubs before I let you enter.”

“Sounds like fun.”

“It isn't.”

“You could have softened the blow.”

“Not really my strong suit, detective.” The lock's outer door slid open with a hiss. “Please step inside and disrobe, then put your clothes in a locker.”

Fifteen minutes and a rather invasive cleansing later, Benson floated through the inner door wearing a thin microfiber suit that looked like the footie pajamas he wore when he was five, except lacking all of the warmth and comfort he remembered. Would it really have killed them to let him keep his clothes on underneath?

The same face from the monitor greeted him, if the word could be applied, inside the lab. “Good afternoon, detective. Director da Silva is in the sample garden, C5. She is waiting for you, but asked me to remind you that your appointment is limited to ten minutes.”

“You're not the first to do so. Can we move along, please?”

“Very well. Follow me, and don't touch anything. I can't stress that enough.”

“Not the first time I've heard that today, either.”

“It's good advice.”

Benson pushed down the sudden urge to “touch” his handler's scrawny little neck. Honestly, he hadn't heard “don't touch” this much since getting the pre-date rules from his first girlfriend's father.

Each floor of labs was labeled with a letter, while the individual labs were numbered, so C5 would be three rings in. For the average person, floating down, (up, through?) such a large, six-sided space with no defined ceiling, walls, or floor would have been tremendously disorienting, but that was one area where Benson was far from average. Zero players were second only to the crew in their familiarity with weightlessness.

One would expect floaters to fill the rosters of Zero teams, but the crewman culture viewed such pursuits as below their station. The unspoken reason was obvious as he looked at the other techs drifting around the department; most floaters lacked the muscle mass to be competitive at anything remotely athletic.

His handler opened the outer door to the sample garden and waved him inside.

“I'll return to help you through the exit procedure in ten minutes.”

“Looking forward to it!” Benson gave the young man a big smile and slapped him on the shoulder hard enough to send him spinning. “Oh, sorry, son, I forget my own strength some days.”

The tech grabbed a handhold and righted himself. “I'm sure. Ten minutes.” The outer door snapped shut, leaving Benson alone in the lock for a few seconds as the seals completed their cycle.

The inner door opened onto a serene, if surreal looking, garden as seen from above. Shelf after shelf of plants of all shapes and sizes grew in perfectly ordered rows, each carefully labeled and tagged by hand. The air in here was much warmer than the corridor, verging on hot, doubtless due to the racks of lights shining on the plants, casting the whole scene in a slightly orange glow.

Some of the samples were obviously doing better than others, but curiously, one trait they all shared was their pigment. Every plant in the garden was a varying shade of purple or lavender.

Coming up from the bottom of the lab, a striking woman rose up to meet him with a tablet in hand. Her raven hair sported several streaks of silver. Benson recognized her from some twenty-five years earlier, when his class had played host to a guest lecture on bio-forming from a grad student who had just started working in the command module. It had been very exciting for the young Benson, who had yet to see any part of the Ark beyond Avalon and the Zero stadium. It was like being visited by an explorer from an exotic land, even if that land was less than five kilometers away.

The woman floating up to meet him had advanced in years, but had lost none of the wonder in her eyes.

“Detective Benson, it's a pleasure to meet you,” Avelina said, as she gently bumped into him and shook his hand.

“Actually, Director da Silva, we've met once before.”

“Oh? I'm sorry, I don't recall.”

“I'm not surprised. I think I asked you how crewmen poop in null gravity.” She gave him a quizzical look. “I was around fifth grade at the time. You came to my school.”

She laughed easily. “Ah, that explains it. Boys that age have their own priorities, don't they? I hope my assistant didn't give you too much trouble on the way in?”

“Well, I'm certainly cleaner than I've been in a long time.”

“A necessary precaution, I'm afraid. There's some very sensitive, very expensive equipment in here that we can't afford down time on, and many samples that can't handle contamination.”

“I see that. How's it all going to handle the Flip?”

She shrugged. “No way to know until it happens. Which is just one reason we're rushing to finish as much as we can before the deceleration starts. Honestly, I haven't even started securing my quarters, we've just been too busy.”

“Me either. My apartment will look like somebody flipped it on its side if I don't carve out some time to clean up and lash everything down.”

“Some role models we make, hey?”

“Never was my strong suit, honestly.” Benson glanced around at the purple plants once more. “Is something wrong with this batch? They look, er, wrong.”

Avelina gave him a sideways grin. “I see the fifth grade Detective Benson had better things to do than listen to my boring lecture. No, everything in here is quite healthy, except the yams keep going sterile after a couple generations. They're purple because we're busy bio-forming them for Tau Ceti G. As you know–”

Benson had always been amused at how the phrase “As you know” was immediately followed by an explanation assuming, in fact, that you didn't.

“–Tau Ceti's primary is only roughly analogous to Sol. It's a G-type star, but smaller, dimmer, and cooler than Sol was. Those factors shift its spectral output deeper into the infrared. So we've been hard at work tweaking the chlorophyll and photosynthetic processes of every species in this room to absorb more of their energy from IR. They aren't as dependent on the visual part of the EM spectrum for their photosynthetic processes, so this is how they turn out.”

Benson flashed his best “I follow you” face and nodded sagely. “Is that why it's so warm in here?”

“Yes, exactly. The bulbs in here emit more energy in IR. They're almost as bad as the very first incandescent bulbs Edison invented. The temperature is meant to mimic the average temp in Tau Ceti G's tropical regions. The color is only the most obvious change we're working on. Pathfinder has sent back a lot more than brochure pictures. We have spectrographic analysis of soil samples, atmospheric composition, even some insights into local insect-analogues and microbes. The staple crops need to be tweaked to tolerate all of these factors.”

“Well, I doubt may people will complain about the heat, although purple salads will take some getting used to.”

“Less than starvation would, I expect.”

“True.” Benson realized they were straying off topic. “Is this what Edmond was working on?”

A little of the excitement went out of Avelina's eyes at the mention of her missing man. “Yes. Poor Edmond. What do you need to know?”

Benson grabbed a rung to steady himself. “I want to get a feel for the man. He doesn't have any next of kin, and he doesn't have any registered partners, so that pretty much leaves coworkers. You've been his direct supervisor for almost five years. So here I am, chatting with you.”

“I see. I mean no disrespect, detective, but wouldn't your time be better spent back in the habitats looking for him?”

Benson smiled. “I'm sure it would look that way from the outside, but I have all of my constables on the job. We're running a facial recognition search on all internal feeds and locks. We're already looking for him, but it's undirected. What I'm trying to do is narrow the search.”

The director nodded. “I understand. It's just… it was so unexpected. Edmond was always so punctual. So focused. He loved his work, it was his whole life.”

Well, maybe not his
whole
life
, Benson thought. “You're talking about him in the past tense.”

“I…” She swallowed hard. “I didn't realize I was doing that. But really, detective, be honest with me. He's been missing for over a day. What are the odds he'll turn up alive?”

“I don't know. This is already longer than any other missing person case I've dealt with. There's only so much internal volume to hide in, and our surveillance net is everywhere. Most of the time somebody wraps their head in aluminum foil. They're pretty easy to find. Was Edmond under an unusual amount of stress?”

Avelina snorted. “We all are, detective. But I didn't see any signs that he was about to snap, if that's what you mean.”

“Can you show me what he was working on?”

“Sure, this way.” She pushed off, back towards the floor of the room. Benson followed her gracefully through the open space.

“You fly like a crewman.”

Benson smiled. “Thank you, but fifteen years playing Zero will give anyone space legs.”

“Oh, yes, I'd heard something about that. You were a team captain, isn't that right?”

“Something like that. I take it you're not a fan?”

“Never found the time for it, I'm afraid. Here we are.” She pulled out a tray of tiny lavender plants only a dozen centimeters tall. Their roots poked down through a clear gelatinous film and into a nutrient-rich hydroponic bath. It was all very similar to the multi-story aeroponic tower farms in the habitat modules, only much smaller. Benson knew those farms well. He'd worked in one for years. Zero saved him from that life.

“I know they don't look like much more than grass, but these are wheat seedlings, detective. Very special ones.”

She pulled one free of the tray. “You see, we call these ‘sliders'. Instead of pulling out and replacing the part of their genome needed to adapt them to Tau Ceti G, we've found a way to leave the original DNA intact, and add several more genetic profiles. Environmental triggers then determine which set of coding will work best and allow the plant to flip between them like a light switch. This strain has four distinct packets to choose from, each suited to a different environment.”

Avelina's excitement was infectious, but Benson wasn't following anymore. “How does that help us? I thought you were bio-forming them for the new colony.”

“The
first
colony, yes, but Tau Ceti G isn't the only candidate. Tau Ceti E and F were colonization targets even before G was discovered, although not nearly as ideal. The old Goldilocks issue, one too hot and the other too cold. But with this slider plant, one bag of seeds could grow in certain places on any of them. No more endless tinkering and tailoring for each new environment. It's damn near a universal plant.”

Benson rubbed his chin. “And that's what Edmond was working on.”

“Yes, exactly. It was his idea in the first place. He wrote his graduate dissertation on it. I was the only one in the department who didn't dismiss it as outright lunacy.” She shook the seedling. “Now here it is in my hand.”

“Careful. It wasn't that long ago people would storm your lab and accuse you of playing God. Some still might.”

“I invite them to. I was raised Catholic, detective. I can quote chapter and verse, in Latin, with the best of them.”

“And you don't have any compunctions about, you know, tinkering?”

She shrugged. “Necessity is the mother of invention, especially when it comes to biblical interpretation. No, I don't feel like we're playing God, but I do believe He left His toolbox unlocked when we needed it most.”

“Now that we need a new place to live, after He wrecked the last one?”


We
wrecked the last place, detective, not Him. Earth was dying, Nibiru just moved things up by a century or two. We have to do better this time.”

“You're a scientist,” Benson said. “You're not one of those folks who believes Nibiru was God's punishment, are you?”

If the question upset her, da Silva didn't let it show. “I'm open to a better explanation, once science makes up its mind.”

Benson paused to consider that. Nibiru was, by all accounts, an impossible object. It had been known for centuries that a star had to be several times the mass of Sol to go supernova and collapse into a black hole. But at only a third of Sol's mass, Nibiru was too small to form. It should not have existed at all. Physicists still pondered the question, some falling on the side of Nibiru being an ancient black hole, a relic from the earliest moments of the universe, formed immediately after the Big Bang when the laws of physics were more… fluid. Others insisted it was evidence of black holes splitting through some unknown mechanism, perhaps bisected by cosmic strings, or spinning so fast that they broke apart. Both possibilities were enthusiastically derided by those in the opposing camp as completely impossible, if not insane.

BOOK: Children of a Dead Earth Book One
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