Eden 4: Autopsy

Brook squirmed uncomfortably in the chair. The walls of the room were pastel pink, planter boxes were under all the windows and freestanding pots were jammed with growing plants. EnterCom screens on all the walls displayed decorative images of babies and children at play.

Like most locations in the still-crowded colony, the room did double duty, as witnessed by the folded med-station in the corner. But the knowledge that on another day it might serve as a delivery room or emergency surgery did nothing to relieve the relentless cheerfulness of the place. The Nursery was a fragging strange place to come to talk about a dead person.

The small, blonde woman, Dr. Van Dozier by the name on the door, who studied him from behind her neat desk, seemed to sense his uneasiness. “I know this is a little strange, Mr. Panati; autopsies aren't our usual business here, but the Medical Center is still coming up to speed and some nonessential tasks are routed to me. You'd made an inquiry about Della Ricca's accident, and given that she has no surviving family, I thought it would be appropriate to talk with you.”

“Autopsy? She died months ago.”

She nodded, and her green eyes seemed to look into him so deeply that it made him uncomfortable. “Her body was put into stasis until we had enough slack time to examine it.” She waved her hand to indicate the room. “Our primary business here is life, not death.”

She saw him flinch. “I don't mean to be insensitive, Mr. Panati. In fact, the delay is the primary reason why I asked you here personally rather than simply sending you a message. If you don't mind my asking, was Ms. Ricca a companion, a lover?”

He smiled slightly and shook his head. “We were friends, classmates in school. We'd been spending a lot of time together lately, and I guess I wondered if it might turn into more, but - well, we'll never know about that I guess. You learned something about what killed her?”

Dr. Van Dozier looked down at her desk, her mouth a tight line. “Nothing you couldn't have guessed. Massive trauma resulting from explosive decompression and the fall from the window. Oxygen deprivation only quickened things I'm afraid. On the other hand, if it's any comfort, she didn't suffer. The loss of consciousness would have been almost immediate.”

None of which came as any surprise to Brook, which made his presence here all the more puzzling. “That's all?”

She chewed her lower lip. “The only solid thing, yes. But now that I've had the chance to study the accident report, I'm left with questions, probably the same questions you had when you made your inquiries. Only a small meteor impact would have left no evidence, and yet a small impact shouldn't have shattered the window that way. At most, there should have been a small crack that the self-repair gel could have sealed.”

He leaned back in his chair, surprised. “That's exactly right. I have my resources, but the Disaster Instant Response Team that handled the investigation has been very quiet about the whole business. I smell cover-up.”

“Which I'm not a party to, I assure you. We coordinate with the DIRT agency, and I have a number of contacts there. It's just possible I can find out more for you, if you want.”

“Want? I'd be very grateful. Please.”

She let out a little sigh and broke eye contact again. “Which brings me to another matter. Rumor has it that you're a man who trades in favors.”

His delight went out like a match in vacuum. “You mean, you want to exchange a favor for information on my friend's death?”

She held up a hand to calm him. “No, no. I'll find out what I can in any case. But there is a small bureaucratic matter that you might be able to influence, and if you could, well, I would be in your debt.”

Brook untensed. He realized that he didn't want to be angry at this woman. “I can try. What do you need?”

“The colony's human Gene Banks have been located in the Command Center since the colony relocated. Traditionally these have been kept in the Nursery and I assumed they'd be moved here as soon as we were fully operational. Somehow, though, the transfer seems to be hung up by red tape.

“Rebuilding the colony population is important work, and right now I or one of my staff has to go to the CC every time we need a new genotype. It's a huge bother and a waste of our time, and you can see how backed up we are.”

Brook thought about it. His remaining contacts in the CC were limited, but Della had had friends there, and he knew they'd want to aid the investigation if possible. “I think I can do something about that.” He stood and held out his hand to her. She took it, her fingers soft and surprisingly strong.

Her smile was back. “We should meet again to compare notes, but if there really is something suspicious going on, perhaps we shouldn't meet here.” She seemed to consider the idea for a moment. “I just got assigned my new quarters, and the woman I share with works evening shifts. Perhaps we could have dinner there.”

He sighed. Three times already he'd used his own room assignments as trading fodder, and he was still sleeping in a corridor. “That would be great, Dr. Van Dozier.”

“Please, call me Echo, if I can call you Brook.” She watched his face for a reaction, as though she'd been expecting one. “It's a funny name, but I like it.” He wasn't sure if she was talking about her name, or his. “I'll message you when I have something to share.”

He smiled back at her as he headed out the door. “You do that.”

# # #

He'd arranged to meet Axen at a tunnel junction near the south edge of the colony. Most of the buildings were still being completed, and thus traffic was light this late in the day. He found Axen, waiting, impatiently as usual, even though he was only a few minutes late. As he walked up, Axen was staring at a symbol spray-penned on the wall, a red circle divided down the middle by a vertical line.

Axen looked over his shoulder and glared at Brook. “Where have you been?”

Like it was any of his business. The “old man” was getting his fingers far too deep into Brook's affairs, and Brook didn't like it. Thus he took a certain perverse pleasure in telling a half-truth. “I was doing some trading. I made a new contact in the Nursery and I'm greasing the wheels for the day we need something from them.”

This seemed to placate Axen. “Well, then. It's just that you've been so distracted since that Della girl died. I know it upset you, but I have to be able to depend on you. I warned you about…”

Brook scowled at him. “You know, you can be a cold son of a 'bot sometimes, Axen. She was just a friend, though that's plenty reason enough for me to be upset, but my personal life is my personal life, and I expect you to keep out of it.”

Axen frowned, but said nothing.

“And you can depend on me. Kraft was transferred to the new Robot Command Center this morning, installed in the rack that you tweaked. I have a ConVec set to go at the Structure Factory. You want to go for a ride?”

Axen actually smiled. Brook wondered if his face was going to crack. As they made their way to the Structure Factory, Axen filled him in on his latest meeting with the scientist Jensen. “Seems they have a vehicle design that is able to handle the microbe. They've had one all along basically. Nguyen's prototype combat vehicle was hardened against biochemical attacks. The special inert seals have been adapted to other vehicles as well.”

“Unmanned, I assume.”

Axen nodded. “Whatever goes in can't come out because of the contamination. The idea is to find out as much as they can about the Blight and the accident at the lab. The biological components of the computer systems have been destroyed, but some of the electronic and optical memories may still be recoverable. They haven't told me when the mission is scheduled to start. It may have already happened for all I know.”

They slipped quietly through the Structure Factory, suited up, and made their way out through the service lock adjacent to the loading dock. The big Construction Vehicle was already loaded with the huge slab that was a structure kit.

They adjusted their suit radios to scramble for privacy and climbed into the cab. Brook explained. “This is the Residence I pushed up the schedule for a few weeks ago. It has to go all the way around the colony. We should have an hour or more in the vehicle without interruption.”

Brook finally had managed to get Axen his computer back, after a fashion. During construction, he'd arranged for Axen to get access to a computer rack in the Robot Command Center. Since the building hadn't then been operational, he could work without suspicion. Only after the tampering had been done had he arranged for the Elder's Savant to be transferred to the new building and that particular rack.

The RCC was, like the CC, a highly secure area. Axen wouldn't be able to get back in without close supervision, but they'd opened a secure line that was unlikely to be detected. Axen had piggybacked a channel on the guidance signal being routed from the RCC to the vehicles, and he could tap it through any vehicle's computer. And Brook certainly had access to vehicles.

Axen was tinkering with his radio again. “That symbol on the tunnel wall, have you seen it before?”

“No, should I?”

“I've seen three of them in the last week. The maintenance crews clean them up as fast as they appear, but now that I know what to look for, I've seen signs of a dozen more that have been painted over.”

“Kids?”

“Possibly – most likely, but I'd just as soon know what it means. It looks a bit like the Plymouth seal. Or possibly it represents a divided world, or a world reunited.”

Brook thought of his visit to the Nursery earlier. “Or a dividing egg. It could be kids, or a political faction, or Plymouth sympathizers, or a band of rogue artists brightening up the colony. I couldn't care less.”

Axen finished his tinkering. “I've routed the channel through another scramble to my suit radio.”

Brook grimaced. “Again, you don't trust me.”

“I tell you what you need to know.” Then he touched a suit control pad and the radio went silent. Brook could see his lips moving as Axen talked with the computer, but could hear nothing.

Brook leaned back in his seat, put his feet up, crossed his arms over his chest, and sulked. He watched the panorama of the colony skyline as it rolled past the windows. Ten minutes later, Axen tuned his radio back to their common channel.

Brook studied the Elder's face. His features looked drawn and tense. “Well?”

“It is essential that we get Kraft tied back into the satellite uplink. Drop everything else and get on it.”

“Why?”

“I'll tell you when you need to know,” Axen snapped. “Just get me the fragging link.” He seemed to think about it for awhile. “I wouldn't make any long-term plans for this place if I were you. I wouldn't make any long-term plans at all.” Then he switched his radio back to the private channel and ignored Brook.

Brook stared at him silently. What in blazes did he mean by that?

# # #

She'd insisted that they eat before she told him what she'd found. At first he'd resented the delay, but as he sampled the chow mein she'd prepared, probably only the second or third home-cooked meal he'd had in his life, and they shared the beer he'd brought, things seemed less urgent.

He genuinely enjoyed Echo's company, though he felt a little guilty, as though he were somehow taking advantage of Della's death. Also, in the back of his mind, was always Axen's voice, warning him of the perils of relationships. Brook wasn't sure if he wanted to embrace that advice, or defy it, though as the evening went on he was leaning toward the latter.

She told him about her childhood at an isolated research station away from the main Eden colony, which is why he hadn't known her, even though they were the same age. She told him how she'd rarely had any playmates and how, when she'd learned what her name meant, she'd made up a pretend playmate, an identical twin.

“What did you call her?”

She giggled. ” 'Echo,' of course.“

Of course.

She explained how this led to her interest in genetics and reproductive medicine. “I was a lonely kid. I have a thing about making sure there are no more lonely kids out there.”

“Speaking of which, I have a lead on getting the Gene Bank transferred to the Nursery. I've talked to friends with Council influence. Seems some of the Council think it's safer in the CC. The paranoia level is getting pretty extreme around here, but they're in the minority and don't want to make a public stink. I wouldn't be surprised to see the paperwork go through in the next week.”

She smiled warmly. “Thanks, Brook, that's great news. Keep me informed of the details, okay?” The smile faded and she licked her lips nervously.

“I have some news for you too, Brook, and I have been putting it off. I just wanted a chance for you to get comfortable with me first, to develop some trust. This is the kind of news that, coming from a perfect stranger, you probably would be reluctant to believe.”

Brook put down his beer and leaned closer. “Okay.”

“I talked to my contacts in the DIRT. Sure enough, there is a cover-up. They aren't protecting anyone. Quite the contrary, they're trying to avoid a panic.

“They found evidence of tampering on the window. Those things are a sandwich, two panes of armor-glass with a layer of sealant gel in the middle. Somebody tampered with the gel. It could have been done in any number of ways, from inside or outside the window.

“Suffice it to say that somehow they injected a chemical that over time converted the gel into a highly unstable, if not very powerful, explosive. A sharp tap is all it took to set it off, and it blew the window to shreds, sucking out whoever was standing in front of it. Any kind of projectile weapon would have produced a sufficient impact, even a slingshot, maybe even just a well-thrown rock.”

Brook blinked. “You're saying she was murdered.”

“I think someone waited outside until they saw her through the window, then set off the explosion.”

“Why would anyone do that to Della?”

She averted her eyes. “You knew her better than I. Since we lack a formal police force, the DIRT is handling the investigation. They're blowing it. They're investigating her friends and co-workers, though they're not being very thorough about it. For instance, near as I can find out, they completely missed you.”

“We had only gotten back together in the few weeks before she - wait a minute! Are you suggesting you think I killed her?”

Echo laughed. “No, of course not. But it means they've missed a number of connections to her that wouldn't otherwise be apparent.” She paused again, searching for words. “I've stumbled on other evidence that the DIRT seems to have missed. Putting that together with what I know about you leads me to one possible conclusion that they'd never consider.”

“Which is?”

She sighed. “Have you ever considered the possibility that your friend Axen Moon is a murderer?”

Written by J. Steven York.


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  • Last modified: 2017/07/29 23:13
  • by vagabond