Eden 9: Investigation

Brook was getting to be good at stealing vehicles. He was getting a lot of practice lately. He was even getting the hang of the manual controls that all Eden vehicles were equipped with as an emergency measure, but which were otherwise rarely used. The tiller bounced in his gloved hand, and he applied a little right pressure to avoid a fresh meteor crater.

As the Cargo Truck bounced its way around the back side of the Rare Ore Smelter, where it would be shielded from any curious eyes back in Eden, he wondered again if he should really be going along with this plan. Actually, he had no idea what the plan was, he knew only the explicit instructions Echo had given him, and he'd followed them to the letter.

Axen's clandestine messages had encouraged him to cooperate. Axen seemed to think that the Masters had bigger secrets to hide than he knew, and that this might provide them with new leads. He spotted a suited figure that had to be Echo standing at the building's base in a shadow - a small setback, like a cave in its vast silver cliff.

He braked the truck to a sliding stop that threw him forward against his straps. He muttered to himself as he shut down the power system and locked the parking brakes. The hatch slid open immediately. He hadn't bothered to pressurize the cabin when leaving the GORF, and Echo climbed up on the broad steps. He could see her smiling behind her visor. “I really didn't think you'd do it. You aren't quite the bad boy you make yourself out to be.”

“Maybe I've just got you fooled about the bad boy part. I'm here, aren't I? Besides, you told me you just want to borrow this, though I'd still like to know why you want to borrow the cargo.” In the trailer was a battle-damaged Lynx. Its turret destroyed during the last skirmish with Plymouth, the rest of the chassis badly damaged, it had been bound for metal recycling when Brook had intercepted it. About the only possible use he could think of for it was as ballast.

Echo shook her head. “I'm not ready to trust you with all our secrets yet. You keep providing things we need, and we'll talk about it, but not today. Just trust me on this one, and I'll be much more inclined to trust you in the future.” She shook her head back toward the power plant. “Out. There's a scooter back in the recess you can use to get back to the colony.”

Reluctantly he climbed out as she slid past and into the seat. Her hands ran over the controls with a familiarity he'd never felt when driving. Where had she gotten the chance to practice that? “Looks good. I'm out of here.”

He kept his perch on the steps. “Wait, when will you be back?”

She considered his question for a moment before answering. “About twenty hours for my business, plus travel time, call it thirty-five hours. Forty tops. You said nobody will notice the truck is missing.”

“Operations thinks it's in the Garage, the Garage thinks it's part of the starship salvage convoy, the truck that's actually in the convoy was rotated out of ore hauling, and when you bring this truck back it will replace it. As long as you beat the convoy back, there won't be a problem, but I can't hide it forever. Same with that junker in the bed. Since the mine colony scandal, there are much closer tabs kept on recycled items and total output.”

“You'll get your salvage back, pound for pound. Now, the sooner I roll, the sooner I'm back. Off.”

He stepped down and away from the truck, and watched as it accelerated smoothly, turned, and using the power plant as cover headed out into the foothills, into thousands of miles of nothing as far as Brook knew. But somewhere out there, seven and a half hours away, was something, a destination. That would be what Axen was trying to uncover, but not if Brook could uncover it first.

# # #

Axen leaned back in his chair and contemplated the array of pictures, lists, and documents that Kraft was displaying on his apartment's big EnterCom screen. His goal was to identify the Masters and their resources, not at all an easy task. Although the group had technically gone public, only Echo, of all the core members, had publicly identified herself. The rest were hidden, and their anonymity made them especially dangerous.

There were others who identified themselves as part of the group, but they were newcomers and hangers-on, seduced by Echo Van Dozier's rhetoric, and who knew little of the group's actual agenda or activities. With the exception of Van Dozier, if they loudly proclaimed their membership, they weren't of interest to Axen.

That left Echo, the three goons she'd brought with her when she'd attempted to recruit Panati, and a few more that he'd identified since. For these few Axen had names, pictures, information. The rest, however many there might be, were a mystery, and a difficult mystery at that.

But Axen had been luckier in tracking down deceased members. Many of those who had been at the mining outpost had been sent there because of probable association with the Masters, Vox Borges being one of them. Axen still wasn't sure if Borges' attempt to kill him had been initiated by the Masters, or if Borges had struck a deal with the now-deposed Council. There had been others, some of whom had been identified as having died in accidents, some Axen had ruled out as active members for one reason or another, and three who were simply missing.

These three were also identified as having been killed in an accident, but unlike the others, no remains had been identified. Curiously, despite their new-found power, the Masters had not protested or called for further investigation.

Axen walked up to the screen, took out a data pen and wrote next to the three names, “DEAD?” He considered this for a moment, then wrote above the names, “LOOSE CANNONS.” But if these three weren't dead, where were they?

From there, Axen had set Kraft investigating the dispensation of everything from the mining outpost. Again, there were curious holes. Most of its resources, units, and buildings were listed as “abandoned in place,” unsalvageable. Yet, a count taken from satellite photos didn't jibe with the inventory. A handful of items were unaccounted for, including a Robo-Miner, a ConVec, a Command Center kit, and a Laser Guard Post. A Lynx totaled during the Plymouth raid on the outpost was also unaccounted for, though its hulk should still be on the battlefield where it had been disabled.

He looked at the short row of pictures at the top of the display. Thanks to Panati, he knew at least these few for sure. “Kraft, run up a profile on all these, up to and including their current work assignments and whereabouts.”

“Certainly, Axen.” There was a pause. “Preliminary report is on your ClipCom. I am attempting to create a deductive profile from less direct sources.”

Kraft, I taught you well. It's good to have you back. He scanned the list quickly. Gi Atolo was a scientist currently working on agricultural research. Sharon McComb worked in a Garage. The others were an unexceptional lot, working common jobs in less-than-key locations. The one oddity was Jacque Barre, who was on disability leave from his job in the Vehicle Factory. Panati hadn't mentioned any obvious infirmity.

Axen tapped the name on his ClipCom. “Kraft, give me more on this.”

“He is listed as having been injured in a robotic malfunction three weeks ago, confined to bed. I find a listed emergency response of that description on that date, but indirect information causes me to suspect that record.”

“Is he in his quarters?”

“Probable.”

“On what do you base that?”

“Service logs show appropriate drains on life support. There are ongoing records of communications activity, computer use, changes in electrical power demand, all consistent with occupation. His ration points have been used to purchase meals in his Residence.”

Axen chewed a fingertip nervously. He could think of ways to fake all those things. “What about his luxury ration points?”

“They have been used also.”

“Where?”

“Three different Recreation Facilities, the Consumer Goods Factory, several public eating places around the colony.”

Axen smiled. They'd done a good job, but somebody had gotten greedy. If Barre wasn't around to use his luxury points, why should they go to waste? But an invalid wouldn't be spending them all over the station.

So, where was Barre? With all the other missing items? With the other Masters, supposedly dead? Possibly, but it was too soon to jump to such conclusions.

His ClipCom chimed softly, and a message icon flashed on the upper corner of the screen. “Answer, visual,” he said. The face that appeared on his screen was Zek Autzen, son of one of his fellow Elders, and a member of the new Senate. Zek nodded respectfully, though the two of them were hardly strangers. “Elder, the chairman wishes to see you in a personal meeting. There's a favor to be asked.”

Axen raised an eyebrow. This was unexpected. “Care to save me the suspense and tell me what this is about, Zek?”

“I don't know exactly, Elder. It's my understanding that they want you to act as some kind of diplomat.”

# # #

Brook sat in the now familiar alcove under the edge of the Rare Ore Smelter, watching waves of dust blow past the opening. He was sitting on bare ground, and despite the suit's insulation and heaters, his butt was getting cold. He looked at the chrono display on his helmet's heads-up display. Where was she? He leaned forward and watched the thin, high clouds moving across the sky at a frightful pace.

New Terra's weather had become increasingly erratic, in part because of the thicker atmosphere and the change in the gasses making it up, in part because of the volcanic activity in the Blight-infected areas. The thin, dry air had begun to spring new surprises on Eden's scientists. Dry lightning storms, apparently caused by static electricity, had begun to appear on the outskirts of the colony, as well as dangerous funnel clouds the scientists had dubbed “vortexes.”

Every time the scientists came up with a weather model that worked, the environment changed enough to render it invalid, making their forecasts almost useless. There were no serious storms forecast for today, but his gut told him otherwise. He didn't want to be caught alone on the surface with only a suit and a scooter.

Something in the distant windblown dust caught his eye, nothing more than a slight thickening in the cloud. He watched carefully. Yes. Dust kicked up by a vehicle.

He stood, brushed hopefully at the dust covering his suit, and finally settled on getting his visor relatively clear. He stepped from his shelter, and actually felt the wind tugging at him. At this pressure, that meant the wind had to be moving at 120 kilometers per hour or better.

As he watched the truck getting closer, he saw another thickening in the dust, and at first thought it was a second vehicle. Then the funnel pulled reddish soil up its otherwise invisible length, like a child sucking orange juice through a straw. Vortex!

He eyed the truck warily, and wondered if Echo had seen the funnel. The vortex was perhaps seven hundred meters behind her, and might be hidden from her view by the cargo box. If she checked the rear-view cameras she'd see it, but there was little reason to do so on the open desert.

As he watched the seconds tick by in the corner of his eye, he tried to judge the movements of both the truck and the vortex. If it didn't speed up in its lazy, weaving dance across the desert, she'd beat it here easily. He could get in the cab, to heck with the scooter, and they could make a run for the safety of the nearest Garage.

Then another discomforting thought occurred to him. What if she saw the vortex and didn't stop? It would be quicker to make a straight run for the Garage, and Brook had no way of judging if she cared at all for his life, or if she would consider him valuable enough to take a risk in rescuing.

Quickly he surveyed his surroundings. There was a service access door a few meters up. It would be locked, but Brook had a hacked keycard that might contain an override that would work.

He watched the truck grow closer, as did the vortex, which had grown dark and tall, the soft fuzzy column of its funnel tightening down into a smooth, thin, writhing snake. Brook knew what that meant, that a faster inner column of spinning air was forming, a corkscrew of wind so fast it had never been measured, such a focused stream of destructive force that scientists jokingly called it an “air laser.”

The truck at first seemed to be taking a wide arc around the smelter, but then it turned toward him, seemingly in no great hurry. The vortex was getting closer, its funnel whipping back and forth now, like the tail of some angry beast.

Hurry. She couldn't have spotted the vortex; she was loafing along at nowhere near the truck's top speed. Frag. The vortex was going to overrun her before she got here. Quickly he ran back to the scooter and hopped on. He gunned the throttle and the fat tires kicked up a rooster-tail of dust that the wind sucked away greedily.

He had to make it to her first. He ran the bike flat-out, the tires slipping from side to side in the loose sand, gusts of wind trying to knock him off balance. The vortex loomed over the truck like a giant about to stomp on an ant.

He laid the bike over on its side without slowing down, sliding to a stop in the truck's path, praying that a sharp rock didn't split open his suit. The truck veered to avoid him, slowing enough that he was able to jump onto the step and grab hold of the door grab-handles as it opened. He threw himself inside.

Echo glanced over. “Brook, are you out of your mind?”

“Turn right, hard. Vortex.” She looked shocked, but she didn't hesitate, and the truck slid around in a tight turn.

Brook glanced at the rear-view screen and saw his scooter, half flattened by one of the truck's tires, nearly disappear in the clouds of dust at the funnel's base, then reappear as an explosion of fragments that went in all directions, as though it had been blown apart with a grenade. “Faster!”

But it was too late. The truck, already off balance from the tight turn, was hit by the vortex, which tried unsuccessfully to lift it into the sky. Instead, the truck began to roll slowly, first up onto its side, then completely over.

Brook, not being strapped in, landed in a heap on the cab ceiling. The whole cab bucked and shuddered as though it were being torn from the truck, then dropped to the ground with a crash. Brook rolled over onto his belly and looked out the window. The huge base of the funnel had moved past them, but then it paused in its drunkard's walk and started moving back toward them.

He reached back and pulled the emergency release on Echo's harness, catching her as she fell free and immediately tugging her out the door. The funnel was coming at them fast now. If it had hit the cab with them still in it, he was certain they'd have been killed. Of course, if it caught them out in the open, they'd be just as dead.

Brook glanced at the overturned cargo box. A small depression in the ground had created an opening under its lip that might be just large enough to crawl into. He dragged the dazed Echo toward it. It was too loud to hear her or even tell if their radios were still working. He shoved her toward the opening, and she got the idea. He crouched next to her and helped push her through the tight space. The vortex was almost on them now. Brook climbed into the opening, digging his way frantically into the dark space with hands and feet.

He slipped into the tight space between the cargo box and its combat vehicle cargo, but Echo was nowhere to be seen. Then her helmet light flashed from the other end of the box, and he saw her waving him frantically that way. He scrambled on hands and knees toward her, and she motioned him toward an engine cover on the back of the combat unit. Of course. The Lynx might be heavy enough to resist the vortex.

The cover hung loosely by one corner, and there was just enough room in the motor bay for the two of them to squeeze inside. He jammed his back against a bulkhead and braced with his feet. He glanced over at Echo. If he'd wanted to be rid of her, he'd missed a perfect chance, and now his attempted rescue might end up costing him his own life.

The roaring outside reached a crescendo, and their dark hiding place was suddenly flooded with light and dust as the truck bed lifted away. The Lynx shook, seemed to lift slightly in the air, made a 180 degree turn, and then dropped back to the dirt.

The roar faded, and Brook caught a glimpse of the vortex withdrawing into the sky. Suddenly claustrophobic, he leaped out of the hatch and ran a few meters before falling down in the dust. Echo staggered out, walked over, and plopped down beside him. She laughed. “Guess this truck is off the books for good, eh?”

He laughed too, more from relieved tension than anything else. Then he noticed something about the Lynx. It was hard to be certain with it sitting upside down, but he was relatively sure he was right. It was the same turret that had left Eden hours before, but the chassis was different. Oh, it was the same model, and it was combat damaged, but the damage was much more extensive, and in different places. Somebody had swapped the trashed turret onto an even more trashed body and shipped it back. Why?

He looked over at Echo, who made eye contact, a big smile on her face. His heart sank. He'd just saved her life. Would he be able to do whatever was necessary when the time came?

# # #

Axen sat down at one end of the empty Senate table facing the big screen set up at the other end. For the first time in decades, he would have a legitimate, legal communication with Plymouth.

Give it to the chairman, when it comes to survival issues, the bases are covered. In secret, even as the shooting war was heating up, lines of communication had been opened with Plymouth, and the stage set for negotiations, not to end the fight, but to ensure the safety and survival of Plymouth's human Gene Bank.

Axen had been reluctant to step into the role of negotiator, but the chairman had insisted that he was especially qualified, and had granted him significant powers. It was just possible that he might be able to accomplish something here today.

He'd spent the last ten hours researching the situation, developing various proposed agreements that would allow for the transfer of the Gene Bank if - when - Eden completed its starship. He felt confident that he was ready to deal with any situation.

Then the screen lit, and Emma's face looked back at him. Her expression was blank. This was obviously less of a surprise for her than him. “Axen,” she said, “it's been a long time.”

Which, officially, it had been. Even unofficially it had been long enough. “Emma. They hadn't told me who my counterpart in Plymouth would be. This is a surprise.”

“I see that, and yet, somehow I think I know exactly what you want.”

That's playing it a little close to the surface, Emma. We have to be discreet, for both our sakes. “We're looking for a guarantee that the Gene Bank will be transferred to us if it's clear that Plymouth will not finish its starship in time. In return, we will guarantee the safety of the Gene Bank, if it is placed in a designated and marked non-strategic structure, and that Eden will be allowed to depart unmolested if its ship is finished first.”

She nodded while keeping eye contact. “We're prepared to discuss it, Axen, though you know some things are non-negotiable.” Something on her desktop caught her eye. She touched an icon, and a document appeared. She read it quickly, and her jaw dropped, then clinched shut as she looked up at him, eyes burning like coals. She looked at someone off-camera and said, “Bring him in.”

She turned back to him, looking no less angry. “How could you? What were you trying to accomplish? Steal it, or just locate it for future reference, in case we didn't agree to paint 'steal our Gene Bank' on the outside of the building?”

He shook his head in puzzlement. “Emma, I have no idea what you mean. What's happened?”

“I hope you're telling the truth, Axen, but it makes no difference in the outcome of our talks today. As of now, they're over.”

She glanced back as two uniformed men dragged a third man into camera range. The man's wrists were cuffed behind him, and the guards stood on either side holding him up. A large bruise stained one side of his face.

“We found him in a restricted area adjacent to where the Gene Bank is stored. Do you know this man, Axen?”

Written by J. Steven York.


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