Previous: Chapter 1. The Rock
What an absolute nightmare, Weng thought, waiting in the corridor for the machine to spit out another cup of soy coffee. He grabbed the cup, quickly walked past a row of ugly corridor paintings and headed for the Lunar architectural department office.
If Sergey could come through for him, if Sergey could convince the Lunar Council to transfer him to Mars, Weng would owe the Captain big time. He would make it up to the old man, somehow, he vowed. For Clarissa’s sake. For his own sake.
Whatever the case. Mars was where their future lay, not Luna. He was sure of it.
In front of the office he stopped and waved the ID badge hanging from the lanyard around his neck at the door sensor. The panel unlocked and slid open. He strode past row after row of half-transparent-panelled cubicles toward his own, dropped himself into what somebody in requisitions apparently had thought was a stylish armchair.
He idly pointed his badge at the desk. The tridimensional computer display sprang to life and informed him he had seventeen new messages. Seven from his supervisor. The rest looked like junk mail.
Probably shouldn’t have joined that Netstream vid sharing site, he thought ruefully.
Weng sighed, sipping the coffee. Already lukewarm. He switched the coffee to his left hand, slid the pointer glove on the thumb and first two fingers of his right hand, and gestured to delete dubious messages from various princes of small American city-states.
At a desk facing his, a shimmering transparent wall suspended between them, Elodie sat in a similar chair. A translucent 3D image of a blockish building floated in front of her as she carefully pointed with a thin drawstick. Probably working on more systems checks, he surmised. His colleague had already reached the relaxed posture that one gets to after sitting in a well-cushioned chair for a long time. Weng felt more like a chunk of aluminum siding that someone threw into a hammock.
“You’re so lucky, Elodie,” he began, scrolling through his supervisor’s mails.
Elodie smiled, continuing to poke at the 3D rendering.
“Again?” she intoned softly.
“You’re so lucky,” he continued. “Being a systems analyst, I mean. If all of the buildings have water and power then you’ve done your job correctly.”
He stopped and stared at the coffee, willing it to be warmer than he knew it would be.
“Infrastructure has a right and a wrong,” he went on. “But design is art. And art is always a matter of opinion.”
“I thought that you used to say that design could be judged qualitatively,” Elodie replied. She put her drawstick down and looked at him.
“Oh, it can. But it doesn’t matter as long as someone is higher up in the company than you.”
Weng took a sip of his coffee and made a face.
“Yech. Is this stuff designed to taste wretched when it gets cold?”
Elodie sighed and picked up the stick again.
Weng stared gloomily out the window at the lunascape.
“Artificially-grown trees and an artificial lake,” he complained. “And this is the only window in our office. It takes so long to get anywhere with a window.”
Elodie dropped the stick in annoyance. “Sam, come to the point.”
He put the cup down and shoved the remaining mails into the trash, unread.
“You know, they moved operations to Luna so that we could be inspired by something unearthly,” he said.
“So, how are we supposed to get inspiration to design habitats for an untouched alien landscape on Mars when we’re surrounded by the same bland offices we left on Earth?”
Weng picked the cup up again and stared out the window.
“Bland,” he said again. “Bland, bland, bland.”
In an exasperated voice, Elodie said, “You know, if you’re unhappy here, maybe you should just go back Earthside.”
“Hah, are you kidding?” Weng said. He crumpled the cup and dumped it in a waste incinerator basket at his feet. The cup immediately disintegrated, and the ash disposal tray light came on.
Weng folded his hands in his lap, leaning back. “I wouldn’t last a day Earthside. Not now. Too dangerous.”
He cocked an eyebrow and grinned. A sudden realization spread across Elodie’s face.
“You don’t mean…you didn’t…”
“Well,” Weng said. He put his hands behind his head and twisted his chair sideways. “Anything’s possible. I’m just waiting for the call to come.”
“The call,” Elodie repeated, crossing her arms in front of her chest.
“Yeah,” Weng said with a smile. “I got a feeling.”
“Cocky today, aren’t we,” Elodie said, snorting. “As usual.”
Weng shrugged. He saw little point in being humble. Particularly when he knew he was right. And he usually was.
As for the call, that was just a matter of time. Sergey Bardish would come through. Weng was sure of it. He knew the retired captain had a soft spot for anybody who Clarissa was fond of.
And Weng had a soft spot for Clarissa. More than that. He closed his eyes, imagining her dimpled smile. Those strong cheekbones and smooth skin. He could barely believe she had agreed to the engagement. A smile came to his face again as he sank into the chair, daydreaming.
He’d do anything for her. How many times had they talked about making a new home on Mars? Joining the Colonies, now that the worst of the conflict was over.
Let the Indian Empire keep that decrepit space station of theirs. Let the old city-states Earthside bicker over natural resources. The Mars Administrators and the UN Overseers were competent enough to see that it was in everyone’s best interests that the Mars Colonies remain self-sufficient. Strong. A hub of further space exploration and expansion.
But Mars needed teachers, engineers, architects. With Clarissa at his side, Weng could see himself as a major player in the Colonies. A designer without equal. The Master Architect who brought high art to—
“You’re beeping,” Elodie said from the other side of the cubicle partition.
Weng looked down at his wrist. Damn. He’d forgotten all about the message from earlier that morning. As he reached for the watch, his ID badge beeped as well. He pulled the lanyard and pointed the tiny screen on the front of the badge at himself.
The identification picture of himself on the badge changed into an image of the receptionist.
“A vid-mail just came in for you. Long-distance yuǎn jùli jiāmi ping. Transjovial belt.”
“Just a minute.”
Weng touched the watch. A tiny 3D image projected from the screen and hung mid-air for two or three seconds, long enough for him to make out the text.
NEAR JUPITER. CALL ME?
Zāo gāo, he thought. How long ago had she sent this? He should have…
“I’ll take it here, Mai. Room Gamma, chair six.”
Weng hastily slapped off the watch, then opened a panel in his desk and picked out a tiny wireless ear piece. Within a few moments the translucent screen lit up. As he inserted the ear piece, Riss appeared. She looked different, tired.
Not entirely unexpected, he supposed, based on the nature of the missions she preferred. But Riss was strong in mind, body, and spirit. Weng had never seen her look the way he would have expected her to look after a couple of months capturing asteroids and comets in the outer regions. She appeared drained. Worn down by some unknown event.
She spoke in a weary tone.
“Sam. We got that Centaur I mentioned. It was a big one. We’re done now and headed back towards the happy hunting grounds. Still a few weeks out. I’ll comm you once we reach Zedra point. Love you. End transmission.”
Riss briefly leaned toward the camera and reached out for something off-screen. The image disappeared.
Weng pulled out the ear piece and tossed it on the desk. He folded his hands in front of him.
Seeing Riss looking so drained disconcerted him. Something had happened. She hadn’t said anything, but he sensed a subtle subtext. Riss was usually much more verbose and enthusiastic about her asteroid hunts.
Frowning, Weng sat back in his chair and contemplated.
There were no messaging relay stations set up that far out. Given the distances involved, even with quantum packaging the vid ping would have taken several days to reach him. The Artemis would probably stop at Ceres, to check the asteroid processing results.
Riss had said “a big one.” A big prize is something Riss would rather bring home in one piece, in triumph, rather than use the quantum thrower system. Weng wanted to be there to greet her. Ideally, with news as well, news of his transfer to Mars.
Of course, he could ping her and hope she would pick up. But without the relays nearby, she had no way of knowing who exactly the ping came from. One of the difficulties using Chinese encryption methods, he thought. With all the competition among asteroid hunters, she would probably try to avoid contact now until her prize had been safely delivered.
Weng picked up the earpiece and gestured for the screen to turn on again. It was best if he tried to make sure he was on Ceres by the time the Artemis…
Weng looked down at his watch.
“Again?” he exclaimed. Riss couldn’t have reached Zedra point so quickly.
He touched the watch. As the message spread open, his face broke into a huge grin.
“Hǎo ba!” he shouted, throwing up his hands in a banzai.
“Sam, would you keep it down?” came Elodie’s indignant voice.
He ignored her. The old man came through! He was going to Mars!
Weng reread the message, carefully this time. He put his arms down.
Mars. Right now. Not Ceres. Take the next transport. No delays.
He shrugged. Ah, well. He got his wish. Riss would be fine. Now it was his turn. To prepare their destiny together. Once he was settled and things were under control, Riss could put her dangerous habits behind and forget all about rock hunting. He owed Bardish that, at least.
Next week (10/24): Chapter 3. The Artemis
Read the synopsis of Bringer of Light (Book 1 in the Children of Pella series)