(Weng and his “assistant” Gen have arrived at Ceres, where after some difficulty they convinced the Ceres Mining Council to give them water supplies for an increasingly crowded Mars. None of them realize what the water will do…)
“Smells like the ocean,” Weng muttered.
“Yes,” Talbot said. “This used to be the Sea of Salt.”
They stepped into the room. It was an immense chamber topped by a series of metallic gates that appeared to interlock. That must be where the asteroids are caught, Weng guessed. Riss explained it to him once, but he still wasn’t exactly sure how the thrower and catcher system operated. Something to do with quantum teleportation.
The door slid shut.
“Stay here,” Talbot ordered the robot. It nodded and stood stiffly at attention.
They walked down a steep steel staircase. Embedded in the rock walls on all four sides were various gauges and panels. It resembled the machinery shown Weng on the Mars Colonies, only more streamlined. He didn’t see any plastic red buttons, though.
The metal floor lay covered wall to wall with pallets that the three walked between. Maglocked to the floor, each pallet held ten to twelve waist-high canisters, topped with high pressure nozzles.
“Seven thousand tons of water,” Talbot said. She patted a canister. “She only sent us two of the three frags we were expecting. Probably keeping one for herself and crew.”
“Or to sell to a private buyer,” Weng said.
“You?” Talbot suggested.
Weng smiled and shook his head. “No, just a hunch. It’s what I would do.”
She grinned and walked to one wall, checking machine gauges. “You know,” she said, as she worked. “I wouldn’t have pictured you as a sentimental man, Weng-shi.”
His eyes followed her. He hadn’t noticed her during their negotiations earlier. Hadn’t noticed the way she walked, held herself. Confident. Obviously intelligent. Attractive. A bit abrasive, but she was a miner, after all.
He came back to himself. He had a fiancé.
“Yes, well,” he said. “I’m more of an artist than a diplomat, really.”
She looked up from a dial.
“If I didn’t know better,” she said, “I’d guess you were more of an artist than a water plant operator, too.”
He merely smiled.
“You have a message from Riss, as well?” he asked.
She shook her head. “No, nothing.”
He considered. That was unusual. Riss usually sent something with her catches. After her initial message, he had assumed that she would follow up with an itinerary, an estimated arrival on Ceres. Something else.
Had something happened?
“Any strange readings about these fragments?” he asked.
“Nothing out of the ordinary. I’m sure the hunter’s geist checked it before throwing it in. Our system reading came out negative, in any case.”
Talbot walked to the opposite wall. A panel slid open and another canister emerged. An intercom above the panel crackled. “That’s the last of them, Tal.”
“Thanks, Dez,” she said in a loud voice. “Let’s finish up and see our guests off.”
She turned back to Weng.
“All right, you’ve got your seven thousand tons of water,” she said. Weng noted she had returned to the ice maiden manner of their first meeting. As cold as the rocks she’d just vaporized for them.
She continued, “Tell your assistant to go bring that ship of yours around to Lock 3. That’ll place him just outside this room. We’ll have the robots prepare delivery.”
They began to walk back to the metal staircase leading out of the room.
“Your process is much more efficient than ours,” he commented. He clasped his hands behind his back and sauntered to a gauge. “Where does the actual vaporization occur? Within the walls?”
“You have your secrets, I have mine,” she said. Then chuckled. “We’ve had a couple decades to perfect the procedure. Not a single atom of vapor wasted.”
He laughed. “Not one?”
“Well, maybe one or two,” she admitted. “Hence the tangy scent. But, as I said, there were no strange readings. We’re very careful.”
They reached the door. The robot remained in the room as they entered the corridor.
“It’ll take an hour or so for the robots to load up your ship,” she said. “In the meantime, I should track down our resident tech specialist and see if we can’t download the data from your infopad.”
“Your tech guy,” Weng said. “Plus your plant operator, plus yourself. How many real people live here?”
“Robots are real people,” Talbot countered. Then cocked an eyebrow. “Well, real enough, anyway. As you’ve noticed, they’re not the greatest of conversationalists.”
They reentered the main operating room, then headed to a separate room opposite from the culvert. The room was barely high enough to stand, with a small square table, a television niche, and a closet built into one wall. And no chairs.
“My office,” Talbot said by way of explanation. “Also bedroom. Space is at a premium here.”
“Comfy,” Weng said.
They sat down across the table from each other, crosslegged on top of small square cushions. It’d been ages, Weng thought. Almost like home. Talbot withdrew the pad from her pocket and started scrolling down the screen.
“So,” she said after a moment, “you’re positive that this information will be enough for us to force the UN’s hand?”
“By us, I presume you refer to the Ceres Mining Council?”
“All ten of us.”
“And how many miners on Ceres does the Council represent?”
Talbot smiled at Weng’s surprised expression. “So much for the poker face, Weng-shi.”
Flustered, he stammered, “It’s, it’s just that…Sub-chief Talbot—”
“Just call me Talbot, Weng-shi.”
“Talbot. Before we continue, shouldn’t we check in with your superior officer?”
She raised an eyebrow. “What superior officer?”
“But,” he said, “Sub-chief…?”
She laughed. Despite himself, he enjoyed the sound.
“We’re all sub-chiefs here, Weng-shi,” she said conspiratorially. “Nobody’s the boss. We’re all equal.”
“So the Council represents a commune of ten people, all of whom live here as equals?”
“No, no,” she said. “The council all live here on Ceres, and there’s only ten of us. But we represent the interests of several hundred miners and asteroid hunters who spend most of their lives in space.”
Weng paused, thinking. “Then you’re kind of a union of sorts.”
She shrugged. “If it helps to think of us that way,” she said. “There are those on Luna who think of us as a great big space pirate club.”
“But you control all of the materials retrieved from asteroids across the solar system?”
“Well, yes and no. Asteroid hunters work mostly as independent operators, but miners often work for Earthside corporations.”
Weng nodded. He knew that UN law forbade individual countries from claiming universal mining rights on celestial bodies. Just as no one country could claim to own the Moon or Mars, no one country was allowed to claim an asteroid, even a tiny one, as their property. But companies were under no such compulsion. Particularly when the asteroid itself was pulverized and no evidence remained.
“The minerals you’re extracting from these rocks,” Weng said. “They’re worth billions. How can you possibly process so much with such a small staff?”
“Robots, obviously,” she said. “Also, clones. But they’re too dangerous, too emotionally unpredictable. So they get stuck on individual rocks, for the most part.”
She cocked her head and looked carefully at him.
“You thought I was a robot, didn’t you?” she said.
Weng smiled. “No. But I think my assistant might be.”
She laughed. “Unemotional. Logical.”
“Totally incapable of laughing at my stupid jokes.”
She laughed again. He found the sound surprisingly pleasant. “So, at least that proves I’m not a robot.”
He stopped. “Talbot.”
“Susan.” Weng smiled. “I should check in with Gen at the ship.”
She placed the pad down and leaned forward. “I already messaged the supply bay. Another thirty-five minutes.”
“Oh?” He folded his hands on the table. “That seems like a lot of time to kill.”
“Believe me, Weng-shi—”
“Sam.” She pronounced the name as if she were tasting it for the first time. “Believe me, thirty-five minutes goes by quickly.”
As the ship arched away from Ceres, Weng wondered if they’d made the right choice. Turning over potentially valuable information to a tiny group of extra-governmental asteroid miners, beholden to nobody but themselves—it could prove dangerous.
Almost as dangerous as a naked decontamination shower, he thought ruefully, scratching the back of his neck. Amazing, how desperate some people can get, cooped up all alone for weeks on a big rock like that.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” he murmured.
“I didn’t know you read Hippocrates,” Gen said suddenly beside him.
“Oh, just something I picked up from the Netstream back a while,” Weng said. Wistfully.
He thought of Riss. She need never know. But at least he had managed to divert her to Mars, where they could start their new future.
“Block all incoming calls,” he suggested to Talbot just before they left. “China and India are about to come to blows. The UA and the Russian Confederacy are at loggerheads. Ceres and Mars need to stand together.”
“Mars. Mars!” she laughed, caressing his face with a gloved hand. “You say that as if the Mars Colonies stand a chance on their own. What about your food? Your electrical generation?”
“Water will provide our energy source,” he said confidently. “With your help, we’ll have enough for hydroponics until we can get rid of the UA guards and get that ice flow tapped. There’ll be plenty.”
“And when the Allied Forces arrive to take back what’s theirs?”
“They won’t,” he replied, kissing her cheek as he boarded the ship. “They’ll be too busy preventing others Earthside from invading home turf. But in the meantime, let’s assume that any incoming ping is from a hostile source. Safer that way.”
“And Clarissa?” she teased. “She ought to be heading here to pick up her pay check.”
Weng inclined his head. “She’s smart enough to figure out what’s going on. Especially if you leave a message indicating that the rocks from her were sent on to Mars.”
Talbot pulled the other glove on and checked her antigrav harness. “You act as if you expect me to do all your dirty work.”
“That smile,” she said, pulling the radiation visor down. With the complete mining suit on, Talbot looked more mechanical than human. Weng felt unsettled. Had he touched that? But he kept his emotions in check.
“I don’t expect anything,” he said calmly. “You’ve been a great help. Sub-chief Talbot.”
“Susan.” He turned to go, then turned back and said, “Keep in mind what I said. Ceres and Mars.”
She merely waved. She reached down to switch off her magboots, then bounded off. Toward another processing center, he assumed, for something more toxic than hydrocarbons.
Weng snapped his attention back to the present. Another week in this tiny ship, with only a robot for a conversation partner.
“Sir,” Gen said, interrupting his reverie, “the message has been sent to the Martian Council.”
“Thank you, Gen,” Weng said. He stretched his arms and back. “By the way, I appreciate the information you relayed from Martin. About the ice flow.”
“I was only performing my duty.”
“Even if it was an elaborate ruse,” Weng finished. He paused to gauge the assistant’s reaction.
There was none, of course.
“Are you a robot, Gen?” Weng asked quietly. “Sent to spy on me by the Overseer?”
“No, sir,” Gen replied evenly. “I am not a robot. I volunteered to keep tabs on you for Overseer Velasquez.”
“Ah.” Weng shrugged. “And the ice flow?”
“It exists. Several meters thick in some places. But too radiated for drinking usage. And electronically safeguarded. And too far from most of the colonies at any rate.”
“A shame.” Weng sighed.
“Yes,” Gen said, checking instrument readings on the navigation panel. “My father said much the same thing.”
“I can see why he liked you from the moment you met,” Gen commented. “You will be very useful to the Martian Secretariat. I hope you do understand, of course, that each of us has a specific role to play.”
He looked up at the architect with a pleasant expression on his face. “Your designs intrigue me, Dr. Weng. Once this current water situation is solved, perhaps we can address the primitive lighting scheme.”
Weng stiffened, then relaxed in resignation. He had a feeling that he still had an awful lot to learn about Martian politics.
“Sue, we got incoming.”
“Patch it through.”
One more time, Talbot thought, and this rock would reveal its treasures, like the others in this batch. Riss could keep her Centaurs, she growled inwardly. Who needed ditrium when there was plenty of iron, nickel, and titanium to be had in the Happy Hunting Grounds?
Through her radiation shield she could barely make out the object in her hands, but the readings on the inside of the helmet showed the tell-tale signs she’d been waiting for. She sighed contently, then tapped the panel on the ore processor machine.
“Well, Dez, what is—”
A ping. From deep space. It was either Riss or…
She hesitated, then let it through.
Her helmet suddenly filled with a familiar voice. She bit her lip, remembering the last time he’d visited. And now there was something he wanted her to do.
In addition to his previous request about the guest from Mars.
She reflected that she had likely gone a bit overboard with her hospitality. But then again, she was a freelancer, just like everybody else. Fortunately, she also had friends. And her own agenda. She sent a response ping.
In a few minutes, all the arrangements were made. Closing the channel, she toggled the internal com system.
“Set up a relay, Dez,” she ordered. “Then block all incoming, like we discussed.”
“Roger. For how long?”
She pondered. In front of her, the processor flashed an indicator. The iron nugget came out perfectly.
Well, more like iron goo, she thought. Still, worth just as much to space builders. Even better with the 3D printers they used.
“As long as we need to, Dez,” she replied at length. “It’s time to play the game.”
Caveat emptor, Gennaji, she thought. And, no hard feelings, Riss. But business is business. The Captain could look after herself.
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 12: The Sagittarius. Gennaji is about to have a most unwelcome visitor… Dropping on January 30, 2021.