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Authors: Patrick S Tomlinson

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BOOK: Children of a Dead Earth Book One
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With science offering no coherent answers, it was easy to see why religion had stepped in to fill in the blanks for many. A significant minority of people aboard continued to see Nibiru as God's wrath, or anthropomorphize it entirely, giving it agency and motivations all its own.

Benson decided to table that line of inquiry. “We've done pretty well here over the generations. I think we're ready to take care of a new world.”

“We've had to. People behave because the danger is always immediate. If we eat too much, or use too much, the shortages happen
to us
, not some vague concept of future generations. But what happens when all the limits and quotas are gone and people like you aren't enforcing the Conservation Codes? I'm afraid we're going to fall back into old habits. If we even live long enough.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, we're one rogue prion or fungal infection away from extinction. It's not just us, either. Even if nothing takes a liking to humans as hosts, all it will take is a blight to wipe out our staple crops and we'll be just as dead as the wheat.”

“I thought our crops were bred for disease resistance?”


Earth
diseases, and that took many thousands of years of careful selective breeding and decades of genetic manipulation. We're about to touch down on an alien world with a completely unique ecology that we'll have to adapt to in months, years at the most. Who's to say the things that make a corn stalk resistant to Goss's Wilt wouldn't make it more susceptible to a Tau Ceti parasite of some kind? We're taking all the precautions we can, but, without direct samples to study, it's like trying to win a fist fight while looking through a straw. Honestly, we have no idea what's waiting for us, and there's no guarantee we'll be able to make adjustments fast enough.”

“Setting us up for an ‘I told you so'?”

Da Silva laughed, but Benson heard little humor in it. “Just trying to get someone to understand the shit taco I've been handed. Pardon my language.”

“No worries, I can relate. Director, did Edmond have any enemies? Anyone who might want to hurt him?”

“Lord above, no. He was a sweet boy, always very polite. Remembered everyone's birthday here in the lab and always had a present for them.”

Figures
, Benson thought. “Any arguments lately? Jilted lovers, perhaps?”

“No, nothing like that. I don't think I ever saw him involved with a girl, he was kind of shy around them.”

“I have to tell you, I was in Edmond's apartment this morning, just a routine check to make sure he wasn't there. I couldn't help but notice how… clean it was, almost sterile. I can't shake the feeling someone wiped the scene.”

Avelina waved a hand dismissively at the thought. “Oh, no detective. He was a bit of a neat freak. Things always had to be ‘just so', even here in the lab, sometimes even at other people's work stations. If he had one annoying trait, that was it, but it was sort of endearing, too.”

The far door opened and spat out the tech from earlier. “Time's up, Detective Benson.”

Avelina looked down at her tablet in surprise. “Ah, so it is! I really must be getting back to work, detective. We only have two weeks to go, and there're still plenty of bugs to work out. If you need anything else, we can arrange to talk through the coms.”

“Of course. Thanks for your time, director. I have my own work to do, trying to bring home your missing man.”

“I'd be eternally grateful if you did. Edmond is already missed around here.”

Benson pushed off and headed back up to the lock. But as he reached it, he called back down to Avelina. “Oh, director, one last question. Did Edmond ever mention an interest in art to you, especially for pre-launch paintings?”

She shook her head. “Not that I remember. Why do you ask?”

“Just checking. Thanks for your help.”

She waved it off. “God be with you.”

Chapter Four

B
enson poured
himself another cup of sake and glanced up at the antique clock on the restaurant's wall. Then he realized he hadn't actually processed what the little hands said and looked again.

8.40… ish. Maybe. It was tough to be sure, because the damned clockmaker had only bothered with dots and hash-marks instead of legitimate numbers. Still, he was quite sure that Theresa was late, a very unnatural state for her.

Benson, on the other hand, had been early, which was a similarly notable departure from his modus operandi. The last two days trying to track down a missing person who seemed to have a vested interest in not being found, coupled with the Mustangs' loss of Game Four, had worn on him. A couple bottles of sake and a real meat dinner had sounded too good to delay any further. So he'd shown up a half hour early to “confirm” the reservation, then slid over to the bar to get a head start on his buzz.

In his youth, Benson had been known to overindulge on rare occasions such as celebrating a big win, or a particularly difficult loss, or on the weekends, or to mark the passing of another Thursday, or because it was dinner time.

But people had proven to be a little less accommodating of the chief constable than they had of the Zero Champion when it came to supplying him with copious amounts of free beer and liquor. Since then, budget constraints had done a decent job of keeping his bad habits in check. Still, days like today, he missed having the freedom to fill his stomach with hooch until the world went away. Of course, the real problem with chasing the world away with alcohol was how it always came roaring back in the morning.

A display on the far wall cycled through the day's Pathfinder cache. One of the drones was following a herd of the bipedal, filter-feeding herbivores everyone had taken to calling broom-heads as they started what appeared to be a massive, seasonal migration. Other guests “oohed” and “ahhed” at the new images, but Benson only thought of the wall in Laraby's apartment.

“Another carafe of sake, sir?”

“Hmm?” Benson realized the bartender was looking at him expectantly. “Oh, no thanks. I'm fine for now.”

“OK, just let me know if you need anything.”

“Thanks. Actually, Mitch? A glass of water, please.”

Benson sipped on the water while his thoughts wandered back to the case. He found himself identifying with Edmond in ways he hadn't expected. They were both only children, for one thing. For another, their parents were already dead. In Laraby's case, his parents had kept deferring their child license until late in life, preferring to devote the time to their careers instead. Mr and Mrs Benson had been a different matter. They weren't even granted their child license until both were well into their fifties. Just another in a long line of insults his family had endured.

The first Bensons aboard the Ark were gene-cheats. They'd found a way to hack the selection filtering process with forged DNA samples. They'd gotten away with the forgery for years, until their first child came down with Addison's disease.

The disease was easy enough for the genetics boffins to pull out after the second generation and kick Addison's back into history's recycle bin. But the damage to the Benson name was done, and despite the fact no one beyond the original couple had been involved, society on the Ark had a long memory. The bloodline limped along stubbornly for eight generations, always among the last to get birth licenses, and usually only for a single child. The family toiled away in obscurity, never getting a member accepted to any of the crewmember training programs, much less through to graduation.

Benson's life started much the same way, working as nothing more glamorous than a farmhand in Avalon's aeroponics towers. A chance encounter with the Mustangs' coach while he and some friends were screwing off during open-gym changed the whole trajectory of his life. It had all the hallmarks of a movie script: humble beginnings, a chance at redemption, victory over adversity, fame, (although the traditional fortune part of that equation had gone out of fashion). He'd been turned into a symbol of the heights a working-class man could achieve, with the permission of their betters, of course.

He'd been rewarded for playing the part with status, fans, the affection of women, and finally a cushy job as a cop overseeing a generally cowed, docile population. Life was good, as long as he remembered his role. Benson poured the remains of his bottle into the porcelain cup and washed the bitter taste down.

“Mitch, I'll take the next carafe now.”

A light breeze ran through his hair. Benson turned in his seat to take in the view the rooftop had to offer. He had to admit, it was impressive. The Koi Pond sat sixty-three stories above the deck, perched at the top of the Alexander Building, the most exclusive residential tower in Avalon, and tied with its twin in Shangri-La for tallest buildings on the Ark. Ironically, the Qin Shi Huang building had an American-style burger joint on top of it, although soy-burgers and Portobello mushrooms took the place of beef in the patties.

Like all structures above three stories, the Alexander Building was built as an outgrowth of the habitat's rear bulkhead. If it wasn't, deceleration would send it toppling when the ship flipped in twelve days. At just over two hundred meters tall, it was so much closer to the central hub that Benson, along with everyone else on the crowded roof, actually weighed a fifth less than at ground level.

This was the poorly guarded secret to the tower's exclusivity. Floaters who maintained apartments in the habitats found the lower gravity more comfortable higher up, setting a premium on the top floors. Even in the Ark's designed utopia, society had found ways to stratify itself.

The elevator at the far end of the bar chimed, bringing Benson's attention back to more practical matters. The doors opened, and Lieutenant Alexopoulos emerged from their embrace. Benson's jaw nearly hit the bar at the sight of her. She wore a blood red dress, the color of which set off her Mediterranean tone and features beautifully, while its low cut set off her other, more tangible assets just as successfully.

Theresa spotted him at the bar, and Benson stood up involuntarily as she approached. “Ah, um. Hi Esa,” was the best he could do with so much blood suddenly rushing away from his brain.

Theresa smiled warmly. “Hi yourself.”

“You're, um, a little late.”

“I'm sorry, it took me longer than usual to get ready. It's not a problem, is it?” Her lower lip puffed out just a little bit at the end of the question.

“No, of course not. You cleaned up nice.”

Theresa huffed. “Honestly, Bryan. I spend an hour pouring myself into this dress and wrestling with my hair, and you make it sound like I barely managed to throw on a clean shirt.”

“No, that's not what I meant!” Theresa's glare bore into him expectantly. “I mean, you look–”

She put a hand on her hip. “Amazing, ravishing, stunning?”

“–like a fireplace on a cold night. Warm, inviting, and with a hint of danger.”

She continued to glare at him for a long moment before her face softened. “All right, that was a good recovery. Is our table ready?”

“I'll let the host know you've arrived.”

A few minutes later they sat next to the railing overlooking the entire length of Avalon. The view was spectacular. The lights above had finished cycling into night some twenty minutes ago, casting the scene in the dim twilight of streetlamps and windows that wrapped around them like constellations of stars. Or, Benson reflected, maybe more like a warm blanket. As massive as Avalon's habitat was, it was still a finite, comprehensible quantity.

He, along with everyone else born in the last two hundred and twenty odd years, had grown up knowing exactly how big the world was. Nothing lay “just over the horizon”, because there
was
no horizon. What must it have been like for the countless generations of humans born before the Ark? What was it like to grow up beneath an infinite sky? Personally, Benson suspected it was the reason early man had sought the comfort of caves, and why people through the centuries had spent so extravagantly to construct artificial versions.

Theresa selected a pod from the bowl of edamame and pinched the beans into her mouth, then shared the view with him for a time.

“You're awfully quiet.”

“Hmm?” Benson looked back from his introspection. “Sorry. It's been a long couple of days.”

“Have you learned anything new about our missing man?”

“Oh, just that he was a model worker that everybody loved, despite no one really knowing anything about him, except that no one would ever dream of harming him.”

“So, nothing useful.”

Benson shook his head. “Not really, no.”

“Any word on the painting? Is it real?”

“Devorah is still running her tests. She's supposed to call me as soon as she has an answer.”

Their waiter reappeared with their orders and a fresh carafe of sake for the table. Bryan's plate was loaded down with perch, tench, and catfish rolls. Theresa had opted for bluegill and a veggie roll. Hardly “traditional” sushi fish, but due to the Ark's lack of saltwater oceans, chefs had adapted their recipes to the few species that were used in the hydroponic farms and water reclamation ponds.

Benson picked up his chopsticks and was about to dive in when a single piece of tempura sitting on a slice of ginger in the middle of his plate caught his eye. He glanced over and realized Theresa's plate had one as well.

“Excuse me, waiter?” Benson pointed at the golden fried lump. “But what is that?”

“That, sir, is a piece of white-meat chicken breast, marinated in a wasabi soy sauce, then dipped in an egg yolk tempura batter and deep fried.”

They both looked at the waiter uncomprehendingly. Benson broke the moment of silence. “I'm sorry, did you say, ‘chicken breast, and egg yolk'? Surely you meant tofu chicken?”

“No, sir. It is genuine chicken meat. It was a gift to the restaurant from the Genome Archive. This bird had been one of a small experimental batch to calibrate artificial wombs for different species ahead of Landing.”

“And the egg yolks?”

The waiter smiled. “Two of the chickens survived to maturity and started laying eggs. Unfertilized, of course. The crew in the project saw no reason they should go to waste.”

Benson nodded. Conservation at its finest. Nothing ever went to waste on the Ark. “That is quite a gift. Must be expensive.”

“Really, Bryan,” Theresa chided. “What else are you going to spend it on?”

The waiter held up a hand. “As these were a gift to us, they are a gift to you, compliments of Chef Takahashi, in honor of your Mustangs reaching the Championship.”

“This isn't a bribe, is it? Is there a body in the freezer?”

Theresa slapped his hand. “Bryan, don't be rude.”

“I'm kidding, of course. Tell Chef Takahashi that we are humbled by the honor.”

The waiter bowed and left them to their meals. Theresa shook her head mockingly. “Zero Hero.”

“Hey, I'll take it. Chief constable doesn't pull these kinds of perks. I doubt Chief Bahadur over in Shangri-La is eating a beef burger tonight.”

“I doubt it too, considering Vikram is a Sikh.”

Benson shook his head. “You're thinking of Hindus. They're the ones who venerate cows.”

“Am I?” Theresa tilted her head as her eyes unfocused, consulting her plant. “Hmm, you're right. Although it hasn't been much of an issue for a while, since the last cow died two centuries ago.”

“Not really, no.” Benson picked at his catfish roll. “Still, the rest of the meal is going to set me back enough as it is.”

“Hey, you splurged on the food, I splurged on the presentation.” Theresa waved a hand over the dress. “Unless you think I pulled this off the rack.”

“Well, I'd like to pull it off the rack.”

“Ugh.” Theresa threw a napkin at him. “Can you pretend not to be a boorish clod for just one meal?” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Do you want us reported?”

She referred to the long-standing policy aboard the Ark of a couple's requirement to declare their relationship before intercourse. Officially, any two people, so long as they were unmarried and had reached the age of majority, could engage in any relationship they desired. In practice, however, social pressure had a habit of cropping up for couples who didn't have appropriate levels of genetic and personality compatibility.

The thing was, while Theresa didn't know it, she and Benson had already been reported twice before to other constables, who dutifully filed reports and submitted them directly to their chief, where the reports mysteriously got lost in the shuffle of paperwork.

“Sorry. I'll stop. But do you really think it's going to matter?”

“What do you mean, exactly?”

“I mean, in two weeks, we're going to start shuttling down to build a new world. All of the artificial limits we needed to survive in this fishbowl for the last two centuries will disappear.” Benson poured himself another little cup of sake and held it up in a mock toast. “I'm about to be obsolete, my dear. Again.”

“Can you stop that?”

“Stop what?”

“Stop looking backwards like all your best days are behind you. The most important moment in human history is about to happen and you're pouting about not playing Zero anymore. Isn't there anything you're looking forward to once we land?”

Benson could see where her train of thought was headed and tried to stop it before it built up steam. “No, that's not it at all.”

“No?”

“No. Well, maybe a little. I've always felt like this job was a sort of retirement gift. But really, Conservation Codes? Declared lovers? Licensed babies? The new world isn't going to need people like us enforcing any of that nonsense.”

BOOK: Children of a Dead Earth Book One
6.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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