(Part 1 ended with a brief confrontation, and a bad memory…)
Riss pushed the thought away. Not a time for reminiscing. Or for reminders of failure.
Upon reaching the command center, she turned on her boots with another touch to the wrist. She stepped up into the captain’s chair and touched the communications panel.
“Enoch, how’s it coming?”
“Ready here. Waiting for the ping from Zedra.”
Riss drummed her fingers on the chair’s arm. Zedra Point. She hated having to wait for telemetry from an outpost. As if some desk jockey knew more than her crew members.
“Riss. Sanvi here.”
“Coop’s got more samples. Hydrocarbons, he says. Nothing much interesting.”
“Safe to drink?”
“He thinks so.”
“Well, he’s the geist. Get off the rock and bring the Hopper back.”
Riss turned off communications as Enoch floated in from the corridor. Being born on Lunar Base, the navigator was even more at ease than she was in micro-grav. His bones probably were brittle enough to snap, thought Riss. He had little trouble on Ceres during their last visit, but he’d struggle on Mars if they had to stop by for any period of time. Certainly he’d never survive Earthside. Good thing they saved a few extra exoskeletons.
“That ping should come soon,” Enoch said. He grabbed his chair, settled down, and strapped in.
“Thrower ready?” Riss asked. She had already seen all the figures; she knew what they could handle.
“Yep. I’m positive we could get it all the way to the Ceres crusher in one shot.”
“Hang on,” Riss said, seeing a notification on her console. “Here comes the ping.”
She scanned the message. It was short, mostly filled with calculations that she had already computed herself.
“Cowards,” she blurted.
“What do they say?” Enoch asked.
“None of these inner system catchers have the balls to catch a 12-stopper,” Riss said in disgust. “First they say we need an intermediate catcher at Zedra. Then they say they want us to frac it into three pieces.”
“Bastards probably want to keep one. They’ll pretend it didn’t arrive.”
“Well, if we do ignore Zedra and send the entire rock on to Ceres, what are the chances some greenhorn catcher fucks it up and we get credit for nothing?”
“Imagine,” Enoch laughed, “five thousand tons of rubble strewn across space.”
He made an exploding noise while drawing his hands apart.
“Nice,” Riss said. Another notification on her console told her the Hopper was approaching.
“Check Airlock 1,” she told Enoch. “Hopper’s back.”
“Roger,” Enoch said casually, spinning his chair around once before handling the request. His fingers flew across his panel. “Check, check, and…check.”
“All right,” Riss said. “While we wait for Sanvi and Coop to get up here, let’s go over our options.”
Riss held up a hand.
“Enough with the checking. Listen. We throw, they fracture anyway. We fracture, they keep one. Either way, we stand to lose part of the rock.”
Enoch nodded. “Rock’s too big to fit all of it in the hold.”
“Yeah,” Riss agreed. “So here’s what we do. Frac it. Take the most valuable section. Send the rest. Sell what we have when we get back.”
Enoch shrugged. “Most valuable on this rock? Coop says it’s a big dirty ice ball.”
“Water, Enoch,” Riss said. “Mars needs water. At least until they get their equipment working properly. Lunar Base probably won’t say no, either. Everybody needs hydrocarbon for fuel, and after the terraforming it takes a lot of agua to keep everyone breathing.”
The Artemis shuddered briefly. Riss glanced at her console.
“Hopper’s docked,” she said. “Right. Let’s get the system set to frac. Coop should be able to tell us which part to hang on to.”
“Thrower’s already set,” Enoch said. “I’ll have to recalibrate for a lighter load.”
She nodded, and called up the telemetry sent from Zedra. Now all she had to do was reply to the ping. By the time the intermediate way station got her message, they would already be throwing the rock. After that, it was a long way home.
A few moments later, Sanvi and Coop floated in. The geist held a box in his arms, presumably filled with samples, Riss guessed.
“You look none the worse for wear,” she said to the geologist. He swallowed but nodded, briefly. Riss took the box from him.
“Can I, uh—“
“Coop doesn’t enjoy floating,” Sanvi interrupted. Her eyes showed her amusement.
“Have a seat,” Riss said, gesturing to the console. Cooper grasped the back of the seat and hoisted himself into the harness. His face was still working, as if caught up in a desperate struggle. Riss felt a stab of sympathy. She had no memory of her life on Earth, before…before whatever had happened to jettison her into space. All that remained were vague impressions of floating…floating…
“Riss…” Sanvi’s voice came.
The box was floating above her head. Abruptly, Riss snatched it down.
“Ah,” she said, apologetically, “I must have accidentally let go.”
“So,” Sanvi said, sitting in the pilot’s chair. “What’s the plan?”
Riss briefly explained what she and Enoch had discussed.
“All we have to do is have Coop tell us which section to keep,” she said, looking over at the geologist.
He didn’t look much better than before. The geologist swallowed once, twice, then closed his eyes before speaking.
“I—I’ll send Enoch the coordinates of the largest source of clean hydrocarbons.”
“Coop, you okay?” Riss asked.
The geist nodded unconvincingly.
“Yeah. I’ll be fine.”
His hands unsteadily tapped out a pattern on his console.
“Got it,” Enoch said. Two more seconds of tapping. “Driller’s ready.”
“Shield us,” Riss said.
A barely discernible simmering cocoon enveloped the Artemis. The magnetized screen would protect them from microscopic particles they were about to create, but the power drain meant the shield lasted just long enough for the cutting and retrieval procedure.
A thin stream of ionized particles shot out from underneath the ship, striking the Centaur. Plumes of steam rose, then dust. Tiny sparks here and there on the screen indicated the shield effectiveness.
After one or two minutes, the ion stream stopped. The Artemis crew waited. The rock slowly and silently split apart into three not-so-even sections. Dust and water vapor surrounded them. It would be dangerous for individual crew members to venture outside the ship now.
“Engage the thrower.”
The robotic retractor slowly unfolded and extended toward the nearest rock section. Over the next several hours, the Artemis crew worked nonstop. The smallest chunk was safely stored in the cargo hold for later use. Telemetry provided by Zedra, input into the thrower system. The two larger sections transported along the predetermined quantum path to Ceres. A ping sent to the catchers, a response obtained.
When the entire retrieval procedure had finished, Riss gave the signal. The Artemis got underway; once they had cleared the dust cloud left behind by their handiwork, the shield shut off and the crew breathed a sigh of relief.
“Time to get out of here,” Riss said. “Before the other hunters follow up on our ping location.”
“Course plotted for Zedra,” Enoch said, a trace of exhaustion in his voice.
“Confirmed,” Sanvi added. “ETA 14 days 4 hours. Autopilot…engaged.”
“Fourteen,” Cooper moaned. He slumped over the console in front of him. “That long to Triton?”
Riss mustered up the energy to laugh. “And another five to Ceres. If we take it easy during the refueling. Alignment of the planets.”
“Or not,” Enoch muttered.
Riss released her harness. Floating forward, she clapped the geist on a shoulder. “Good job, newbie.”
Sanvi and Enoch chimed in with congratulations as well. The geist gave a half-smile through sleepy eyes. He raised a hand to wipe away sweat from slightly clammy skin.
“OK, people,” Riss said, stretching her back. “The rocks are on their way. The autopilot is in control. Time to rest up and recuperate.”
None too soon, she thought. Time to send an encrypted vid message to Weng. If she could stay awake long enough.
Next: Chapter 4 – The Mars Colonies (November 7th)
Children of Pella: Bringer of Light synopsis