The Artemis is home – to an unwelcome surprise.
Riss opened her eyes. The Ceres mining station lay beyond the horizon, just outside the physical limits of the view screen. But not outside her awareness. Nor her crew’s awareness, she knew with conviction.
She suppressed a yawn, and rubbed her forehead with the back of a hand. Tiring, but not as much as the previous two times. Perhaps working together mitigated the effects.
They had changed. But to what degree?
Her crew gazed at the surface of Ceres above them. Cooper coughed, wiped an arm against a sweat-covered forehead. Despite all that had happened, he still felt uncomfortable approaching planetoids and ships while “upside down.”
“We’re,” he croaked, “we’re not dead.”
“Yeah, we noticed,” Enoch said. He languidly splayed his arms over the console as if hugging the ship in reassurance.
“Sanvi,” Riss asked. “What happened? I thought we were just going to try to make Artemis go a little faster as a test.”
Sanvi shrugged. “It looks like we passed the test.”
“Passed it all the way to the catcher,” Enoch said. He grinned. “Man, what a trip!”
“Riss, shall I take us into orbit?” Sanvi asked.
Riss nodded. As Sanvi slipped the Artemis into geosynchronous orbit around Ceres, Riss cast her eyes up and down the pilot. Something had passed between them, hadn’t it? Before they had combined to move the Artemis. Sanvi briefly glanced back at Riss. A look of longing, desire, hope.
Something had happened when Riss touched the fields in her cabin. Something that Cooper and Enoch probably sensed as well.
“Enoch, let’s shield,” Riss said, trying to appear composed. “And try to raise them on the comm, though it probably won’t matter.”
This close to the Ceres Mining Station, she thought, the Artemis wouldn’t have to use quantum ping locators. Then again, their remote manipulation of the catcher system had no doubt already sent a message to the Mining Council.
The view screen dimmed as the solar radiation protector grid came online.
“Passing over Ahuna Mons,” Enoch called out. The mining station entry port lay ahead.
“Adjust trajectory,” Riss ordered. “Straight at Haulani.”
She glanced over at Enoch. The navigator seemed relaxed, confident. Happy, even. Not in his normally cocky way, though. From their brief connection, she knew that he had longed to match his ancestors’ navigation skills. Now he had surpassed them. Not even the Wayfinders could have claimed to become one with their ships as he had become.
At the same time, she knew his feelings for her. And for Sanvi. More like a childlike crush than deep attachment, but there nonetheless. Cooper was more complicated. His was a real sense of losing himself, in more than one way.
And Riss, herself?
She felt more conflicted than ever. Than she had any right to be.
But there was no mistaking it. They had shared something, something she couldn’t put into words. Her crew did trust her, completely, as she did them.
At least in terms of physical safety. After that…
Sam, she thought. Where are you?
More to the point, Where was she?
“Approaching the Sea of Salt,” Enoch reported. He sat up straight and swiveled his chair. “Somebody’s waiting for us.”
Riss swiped the 3D imager on again.
The Sagittarius. The Corvus.
And the Pleiades. Plus at least two or three other ships she couldn’t identify at first. One didn’t seem to be a mining ship.
“Raise the Ceres Mining Council on the comm,” Riss ordered.
“Too late,” Cooper said. “Incoming.”
The familiar growling voice of Gennaji filled the command center.
“I will have my own, murderer.”
Riss felt her arms begin to shake, but with great effort controlled herself. “You have no authority here,” she said tersely. “I demand to speak to the Mining Council.”
Laughter, from another ship. A strong alto voice.
“You still don’t get it, dear.”
Sanvi closed her eyes and began to breathe. Enoch had done likewise, then opened his eyes and dashed off a series of commands on his console. Sanvi’s fingers seemed to be dancing as well. The Artemis itself felt tense. Riss thought she felt a sudden panic inside her head, like a frightened animal facing a larger foe.
“Shielding up,” Sanvi said quietly. “Enoch has already plotted an escape vector.”
After fighting off the panic she felt rising within, Riss managed to find her voice. “What is going on here?”
“Riss,” whispered Cooper. “Somebody has ditrium on board. I can feel it.”
“We are the Mining Council now,” Ildico’s voice purred. “And justice is about to be served. At last.”
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 27: Luna – Retired Captain Bardish finds himself at the center of things.