The sudden appearance of Riss on his monitor shouldn’t have come as a shock to Weng.
But it did.
He swallowed a nervous greeting, waved a hand over his face. There she was.
“Sam,” she said, with a little smile. “I always knew you would come to the rescue.”
“Rescue?” he repeated dubiously. It was his turn to smile. “I hardly think you needed rescuing, my princess.”
She laughed. “And you’re no shining knight. But it’s still good to see you. And we do need your help.”
Weng nodded. He had received the message from Gen moments earlier. He still had no idea how the clone had managed it, but he was sure Riss was involved somehow. Gen had also managed to contact Mars in the meantime. How, he wasn’t sure. A cypher? Things looked bad.
“I’ll do what I can,” he said. “Of course.”
“As you know, ditrium can be volatile,” she said.
“Yes. I gather you have quite a lot of it?”
“Enough to speed up the terraforming process. By speed up, I mean, drastically speed up.”
“I…see.” Weng pursed his lips. There was something she was holding back from him. She had found something during her transneptunian trip. But it hadn’t been the ditrium rocks currently in the Artemis’s cargo hold.
Sirens blared around the Central Dome, as they would be blaring similarly in the other domed structures across the planetoid. Schools had sent all their students home with orders to lock their doors. Workers told to avoid all unnecessary contact to save electrical generation. Luna Police were out in force, robot sentinels at every section gate.
But the orderly lock down had already begun turning to chaos.
All but trapped in his conapt, Sergey pounded the unresponsive automated door.
“Open! Open, dammit!”
He paused to cough messily into a fist, then resumed pounding. Damned power outage. What in hell was going on?
He could hear hurried feet in the outside corridor, orders shouted.
He shuddered, then composed himself. It was an unwelcome sound. No noise in space, but plenty inside the dome. He had forgotten what violence actually sounded like.
He rubbed the bruised knuckles of his right hand. Damn door.
Glanced at the comm panel on the wall next to it. Useless. Lock down meant no unnecessary comm channels open. As a retired captain — regardless of the respect shown him by the Lunar Base Council — he wasn’t considered necessary.
He trembled in frustration. Useless old man. Damn it all.
What the hell was going on?
Someone was now pounding on the other side of the door. A muffled voice.
“Get me out!” he roared in response. No idea what the other voice had said.
A whining pitch seemed to emanate from inside the door. He took a few steps back.
The noise increased. He took several steps back, stumbled over the dining table, knocked over the chair. A brilliant light erupted from the door as the cutter broke through, drawing a white hot vertical line.
Sergey cursed, grabbing the table with one hand. He stood shakily, keeping one eye on the door. The other hand self-consciously searched for a sidearm that he no longer carried. He clenched both fists and waited. They wouldn’t take him without a—
The line complete, a gloved hand shoved the middle portion of the door out. It fell to the floor with a dull thud. “Captain Bardish. Captain, are you unhurt?”
“Yes. Yes, I am fine. What is this ruckus?”
“Captain, please stand back as we open the door.”
Two more gloved hands appeared, thrust inside the door itself up to the elbow. A snap as the circuit was broken, a hiss of released air pressure. The door slid open and two men stepped through it, tazer rifles pointed at him. Luna Base police?
“Sir, you will come with us,” a voice said from behind them. Sergey squinted at its owner. A young man, thin and tall. Goggles covered what probably were artificial eyes. Luna-born.
“What is this?”
“Captain, my orders are to bring you, unharmed, to the Luna Council Chamber. You will please come with us. Now.”
Something wasn’t right. Sergey shrugged and raised his hands.
And then quickly brought them down on the weapon of the nearest officer. Sergey lowered his shoulder into the surprised officer’s chest and grabbed the rifle.
No sooner had he done so, four hands grabbed him from behind. He struggled but only for a moment.
“I was told you might be unwilling to come,” the young officer said. “But we have no wish to hurt you. You will come with us.”
Sergey paused, trying to identify the man. He did not know him. He sighed and hung his head. He did not know many things, it appeared.
“What is going on?” he asked.
“A coup,” the officer responded. He nodded to the other men. “Let’s go. Eyes open.”
They led Sergey through off-white corridors from one section of a residential building to another. It seemed to Sergey that they were avoiding leaving the conapt complex for some reason. Outside the buildings sporadic tazerfire could be heard from time to time, and Sergey thought he felt the ground shake at least once or twice. Explosions?
At the end of one corridor, the group ascended four flights of stairs. Sergey felt his heart pound faster and he began to wheeze. They stopped at a large metal door bearing the words “Upper Dome Access – Restricted.” No window, wheel in the middle. Wall panel chest-high, probably the code pad.
Strange, he thought. Such doors were now archaic. After the terraforming, there was no need. Where were they?
He placed both palms on the top of bent knees, inhaling and exhaling slowly.
“Captain Bardish, are you having trouble breathing?”
“Hmf. Whatever gave you such an idea?”
He shook his head and waved a hand. “I am fine. Just a moment to recover.”
As he eyed the door, he felt a hand on his back.
“I strongly urge you not to run. The situation outside is dangerous.”
Sergey looked over his shoulder and cocked an eyebrow.
“I am in no condition to run, young man,” he said in what he hoped was a convincing voice. “I may have new kidneys and a reconstructed liver but I have only original leg muscles.”
The young officer nodded, but at the time drew out his tazer pistol with one hand. With the other he input the access code on the wall panel. He gestured. Another officer stepped in front of Sergey, turned the wheel to the left, then stepped back.
“Captain. After you.”
Sergey hesitated, then pushed the door. He took a step through the open doorway into near pitch-black. Sunlight rarely reached the bottom of habitation craters, but still, things were much darker than they should be. Above, he could not see where the dome ought to have been. They must be outside, then, on the surface.
A thin stream of light from above the doorway spread across the desert-like Lunascape. He heard the lapping of water, the saline odor of the sea. Several meters away was the outline of a ship of some sort.
A hunter ship.
He suddenly thought, Me, first? In a dangerous situation? Something was not—
Gunfire erupted behind him. Someone shoved him forward, violently, and he heard “Get down!”
He staggered forward a few paces, then, without looking back, charged for the ship. More gunfire, then the sounds of hand to hand fighting behind him. He reached the ship and flung himself under the bow. Definitely a hunter ship, he noticed at a glance. Altered for surface landing.
There were one or two more shots back at the door. He covered his head with his hands and waited. One minute became five. Or ten. He couldn’t tell.
He raised his head but stayed prone.
“Captain Bardish! Are you unhurt?”
He didn’t recognize the voice, but he had begun to shiver and knew he didn’t stand much chance outside against a party of unknown assailants. The worse they could do was shoot him.
“H, here,” he called, then spat out some lunar sand. He shook his head and slowly extracted himself from underneath the ship. “Over here!”
He raised his hands. Three lights approached. One shone directly at his face, forcing him to squint his eyes.
“Captain Bardish, are you unhurt?”
“I’m fine,” he snapped. “Who the hell are you and what do you want?”
“Luna Base Police, sir.”
He lowered his hands. The light also lowered and he could finally see the three in front of him. They wore Luna Base Police uniforms, just like the people who had brought him out of his conapt.
“We had a tip that someone might try to illegally break you out of the lock down. Our apologies for not arriving sooner.”
He looked suspiciously at the three. Like the other men he had assumed were also police, the three had tazer rifles. In addition, the leader wore a sash over his left shoulder and had two stars on his helmet.
“May I ask for identification?” Sergey asked, looking from officer to officer.
The leader replaced his weapon into its holster and withdrew a badge from a sleeve pocket. “Lieutenant Sanchez. Section 2B, unit 11. Would you follow us to a safe location, Captain?”
“The residential areas are obviously too dangerous.”
“So you are, you are arresting me?”
“No, sir,” Sanchez said, replacing the badge and withdrawing the tazer again. “We are escorting you.”
He motioned for his companions to lead Sergey back inside and touched a strip on his inside left forearm. As Sergey followed the (he presumed) actual police escort back to the door, he glanced back. Sanchez was evidently talking to someone over his helmet mic while gesturing to the ship. Probably asking for orders what to do with it.
They reentered the building and he heard the blaring sirens. Down the stairs again, this time a little more gingerly.
What in god’s name was going on? Sergey wondered, shaking his head.
He didn’t know who to trust, but he did know that there was very little he could do about it.
At least whoever was involved in this “coup,” if it was one, seemed more interested in keeping him safe and alive. Even if it meant keeping him prisoner.
He frowned. Who would want to capture him? He had little influence on Luna. Not even on the Council.
Despite what Weng thought.
Sergey nearly smiled at the memory. Just a short while, it seemed, Weng had asked to meet him. In a reading room in his office building. Always while drinking that disgusting soya coffee. Asking Sergey to put it a good word for him with the Council, get him on to a water reclamation, water processing team, something like that. But on Mars.
Why Mars? Wasn’t Luna what he had wanted? After all, this is where he met Clarissa. Where Sergey, his future father-in-law, had already managed to get him into a prestigious design firm?
“This place has no soul, Sergey,” Weng told him. “It looks alive, but the Moon is a dead place. We have terraformed it, thanks to you, but it is still lifeless.”
Despite the green grass and trees, Sergey realized, at last. That wasn’t what Weng meant.
He came out of his reverie. Sanchez had disappeared. The three remaining members of the group had crossed into another building, one he had rarely visited after retirement.
The administrative sector.
Police streamed around them in the corridors, doors here and there rapidly opening and officers entering and leaving in haste. Sergey recognized the security station center, spaceport ops, customs, even the communications and computer maintenance divisions.
Ach, he thought. They had changed the color back to bland Luna beige.
“This way, Captain,” an officer gestured, opening a door marked “Conference Room.”
“Where did Lieutenant Sanchez go?” Sergey asked.
“I’m sorry, sir, I don’t know. Please enter the room and wait.”
Sergey hesitated, then shrugged and walked in. The door closed behind him. He turned back, ready to try the lock, then shrugged again. It made no difference. May as well wait and see what they wanted with him.
He looked around the room. Non-descript, typical military standard. Gray office chairs, black ovular table with 3D imager in the center. Digital white board on two walls. No decorations or windows.
No exit door.
A younger man might have tried to squeeze through the ventilation grid embedded in the wall, near the ceiling.
A younger man…
He sighed and pulled out a chair. It looked as if it might be a while.
Next:Bringer of Light, Chapter 24: The Artemis—Transjovial, in which Riss experiences the fields, and something else…
Getting water supplies from the Ceres processing plant turned out to be more difficult than Weng had expected.
For starters, he had thought he’d be dealing with a group of stubborn asteroid miners like Sergey. Independent-minded people whose sense of rebellion and anti-authority sympathies he could appeal to. He hadn’t expected to be dealing with a facility represented by robots.
He also had expected to go alone. He certainly hadn’t anticipated an assistant. The young man had been assigned to him by the Martian Council, ostensibly to help him navigate the politics of the situation. More likely Gen was there to keep tabs on him for the Martian Overseer, Weng guessed. After all, that’s what he would have done.
The face with a perpetual Mona Lisa smile on the shuttle’s vidscreen stared at him like he was a strange lab specimen. It reminded Weng of the Mars Central lobby receptionist. He repressed a shudder and did his best to return the half-smile.
“Ah, I, that is, we, represent the—”
“Who are you?”
The robot was smirking. No, it couldn’t, Weng told himself. Concentrate on the task.
He cleared his throat.
“We represent the United Mars Colonies, on a mission of urgency.”
The impassive face was motionless for a moment, then the artificial lips opened. “We have no record of that organization in our database.”
At Weng’s right, his personal assistant Gen squirmed uncomfortably in his seat.
“We are just beginning the process of establishing ourselves as a political entity,” Weng said smoothly. He’d rehearsed this part. “We are a loosely affiliated—”
“State your urgent message, please.”
Weng stopped. He hadn’t expected to be interrupted by an automaton. Weren’t they programmed to listen to all incoming requests in full?
“We, uh, we desperately need additional water supplies due to a sudden increase in refugees from Earth. Our water facilities are not yet operating at peak capacity.”
There was a pause from the other side. Then, “Please hold while I confer with my superior.”
The monitor went black.
Weng stared at the screen. What now?
“Sir, if I may venture a suggestion?”
He turned to his assistant and cocked an eyebrow. “Go ahead.”
“Sir, I understand that you are on terms with Captain Bardish.”
Weng felt his jaw dropping but controlled himself. Obviously he had underestimated how fast rumors spread in the Colonies.
“I—I suppose that’s true,” he replied evasively. “To a certain extent.”
“In that case,” the assistant continued, “why not mention your relationship with the Captain? The miners on Ceres respect him.”
Weng pursed his lips and crossed his arms, frowning.
“Revere wouldn’t be too strong a phrase, either,” Gen added.
Weng sighed. He owed the old man too much already, but the Martian had a point.
“All right, it’s worth a try,” he said, chagrined. “Let’s see what the androids say first.”
After another few moments of silence, the monitor flicked on again. This time, a human face appeared. The “superior,” Wang surmised. The person certainly looked like an asteroid miner. She still wore her anti-grav harness and hard helmet, albeit with the radiation visor up.
“This is Ceres Mining Council Sub-chief Talbot. What can I do for you?”
Straight forward. Wang relaxed.
“Mr. Talbot, pleased to make your acquaintance. I—”
“Cut to the point. What do you want?”
Wang felt himself reddening. He breathed in, exhaled quickly and smiled.
“Water,” he said as plainly as he could. “There are too many refugees for the Mars Colonies to handle right now.”
Wang pondered. “Several thousand tons. Eight or nine, at the very least.”
Talbot sighed and took a glove off. “You know, I thought I might actually make it through a normal 16-hour work day with no complications for once.”
She pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes.
After a moment that seemed to drag on forever, Talbot lowered her hand and opened her eyes.
“We can’t accommodate you,” she said in a matter of fact voice. “I’m sorry.”
Weng frowned, but before he could speak, Gen suddenly cut in.
“Chief Talbot,” he started.
“Sub-chief,” she interrupted. With a note of irritation? Weng wondered.
“Sub-chief,” Gen amended. “I hesitate to interrupt—”
“You already have,” Weng pointed out.
“—but you may not be aware that Weng-shi has been appointed directly by Captain Sergey Bardish to the Martian Council as head of the water commission.”
This was of course not entirely true, but Weng decided to play along. He resisted the impulse to glare at Gen for his insubordination and trained an even gaze on Talbot instead.
She returned the gaze and pursed her lips. Evidently the name of Bardish did carry some weight, Weng thought. Perhaps he should have not been reluctant to bring it up before.
“The Captain does not choose his candidates lightly,” Talbot said slowly.
“I have known the Captain for some time,” Weng admitted. “Sergey and I are…close friends.”
Talbot paused. She seemed to be internally debating something.
“Sub-chief Talbot,” Weng added, “we would not have come unless the situation were very, very urgent. At least allow us to land and discuss the matter. In person.”
Talbot nodded finally. “Very well. But our daily mining schedule has been disrupted enough as it is. Come down and state your case plainly.”
The screen went blank.
“Sir,” Gen said looking down at the panel in front of him, “we now have the proper landing authorization code.”
“For unlocking the landing bay. And for undergoing the microbe decontamination process.”
Weng grimaced. Nothing was going according to plan. He had half a mind to severely tongue-lash Gen, but he had no idea what kind of secret report the assistant might send to the Overseer. The prudent course would be to talk less and listen more.
He needed water. And more political experience. He was determined to get both, no matter the cost.
Weng tugged at the worksuit collar. The drab grey clothing might protect his skin from whatever chemicals were being used to help the miners process asteroid ore, but it was uncomfortable as all hell. The decontamination procedure had already irritated his skin enough. First baked by microwaves, then slow cooked in nanofibers. He felt like an overcooked pork dumpling.
He glanced at Gen, standing impassively next to him in the control room. The younger man didn’t seem overly irritated by the material. Maybe he, too, was a robot, Weng mused. The assistant seemed to have no emotions whatsoever.
He looked around the control room. Pre-war. Cut into the rock surface, no windows or doors. Little more than a side culvert from the main mining operating chamber. The only object in the room was a large metal desk with what looked like an old-fashioned computer terminal and keyboard pad. He could hear the hum of a cooling fan from inside the desk. A computer heatsink?
He nearly sneered, then caught himself. Of course, their operation would be primitive. He should have expected no less. He wondered what else…
A voice called out from behind him.
“Jiǔyăng, Weng-xiānshēng. Welcome to Ceres.”
He stopped tugging at the collar and turned around. Talbot entered, accompanied by a slightly shorter person with an eerily smiling face. Both wore the same dull grey suit. Talbot carried her gloves and hardhat under one arm. The other walked stiffly, moving with a shuffling gait. As if its feet were permanently attached to the ground. A robot, then.
“Very nice to make your acquaintance, as well,” Weng replied smoothly. “Compliments on your accent.”
Talbot shrugged. “Thank you, but I know it’s rusty. We don’t get much opportunity to talk with UN diplomats.”
Weng shook his head. “I’m not UN. As I said, I represent the interests of—”
“The United Mars Colonies?” Talbot finished.
She walked around them to the desk, touching the computer terminal. Weng stayed silent as she scanned something on the screen. She looked up at him.
“There is no such organization,” she stated bluntly. “Who are you, really?”
The robot had taken up a position directly behind them, Weng noted. It still smiled at them. Weng smiled back, disarmingly, he hoped. He folded his hands in front of him.
“Sub-chief Talbot,” he began.
“Just Talbot,” she said.
“Talbot, then.” Weng continued. “The Joint Martian Colonies were founded by the UN under direct control of the Martian Council some twenty years ago. From last year, Martin Velasquez began his tenure as Overseer.”
“Yes, yes,” Talbot snapped. “For this you came all the way here to demand water?”
Weng shook his head. “No, of course not. I came here because the UN has failed its duties on Earth. We have received many more—many hundreds more—new settlers during the past two months than we have had throughout the entire twenty years of the Martian Colonies existence.”
Talbot stared at him.
“Hundreds?” she said. “That, I’m not sure I can believe that.”
“It’s true, Ma’am,” Gen interrupted, speaking for the first time.
He withdrew a mini-tablet from a small suits pocket and handed it to her. “Here, you can see for yourself. We prepared an updated list of colonists and their needs.”
Weng hid his surprise. He supposed he should have anticipated this. Martin had obviously trained Gen to do all the hard data work, while Weng’s connection to Captain Bardish got them the desired access. Well, let them think he was their pawn, he thought. I’ve always been good at games.
Talbot accepted the tablet, holding it in both hands as if a precious, rare object. She looked back and forth from Weng to Gen, then slowly, unsteadily, swiped down the tablet.
“As you can see,” Weng said, glancing at Gen, “we really have little choice. The situation is desperate.”
The miner suddenly stopped and looked up in alarm.
“Do, do you know what this means?” she asked, shaking the device.
“Yes?” Weng answered mildly.
“According to this, the Colonies won’t need any water from the Ceres processing facilities, thanks to a new supply of subterranean ice just found on Mars!”
Weng looked at Gen. “Ah, yes, well, as you can see, there are still insufficient numbers of workers—”
“You expect me to give you water for a workforce that will put us out of business?” Talbot demanded, slamming the tablet onto the desk. The robot took a step forward.
“Sub-Chief Talbot,” Gen appealed, raising his hands. “The ice flow is not under our control. The UA claims close to 90% of the supply.”
Talbot stared at him. “The UA?” she repeated. “Not the UN?”
“The United Americas,” Gen confirmed. “They claim that the water is too irradiated and too difficult to convert for civilian use. They propose to use it all for hydrogen cell purposes.”
The same had been done for Luna, Weng realized. Before terraforming nixed the idea. He wondered how much longer terraforming would take for Mars.
“Talbot,” Weng said aloud. “How much would this information be worth to you?”
He felt the robot stop a hairs-breadth behind him. The short stature of the humanlike animatron didn’t fool him. Once held, he wouldn’t be able to wrest free of its grip without breaking a bone or two.
“What do you mean?” Talbot said slowly.
Weng glanced over at Gen. “Well,” he started, then caught himself. “Gen, would you tell Talbot what we had in mind?”
“If we return empty handed, without the water supply we promised the new settlers, we will be forced to step up production and attempt conversion of the underground ice flow into drinkable water for civilian use.”
“Subsequently, the Martian Council will notify the UA that their reduced hydrogen cell replenishment is due entirely to the Ceres processing facilities refusal to abide by the UN Inner Planetary Colonial Law, which specifies that Ceres supply water and other construction materials to any UN entity that requests them.”
Talbot shrugged. “We’ll just find a new buyer. The Chinese. The Indians, perhaps.”
Ah, Weng thought. I know why I’m here.
“I see,” he said with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Yes, I’m sure the Republic would be happy to take Ceres.”
Talbot looked at him. “What?”
“The Allied Forces won’t need to protect Ceres from outside threats, once the ice on Mars is ready to fuel their supply and military vehicles from Earthside to Luna and Mars,” he said.
“Yes,” Gen added, “and the Greater Indian Empire has never shown interest in Ceres. They still insist the ISS is all they want. But as for China, I’m positive that they would be happy to come in and find a use for the facilities.”
Talbot raised a hand to pinch her nose bridge. The other hand waved the robot away. It stepped back.
Weng reached past the sub-chief and picked up the tablet from the desk. He brushed it off and gently swiped the screen. It was undamaged, thankfully.
He gestured with the device. “As you saw, the workforce is still insufficient to retrieve enough ice to supply water for the colonists. Given the UA’s need for hydrogen. This means the Ceres Mining Council has leverage.”
“Leverage,” Talbot said slowly. “You mean blackmail.”
Now it was Weng’s turn to shrug. “Think of it as a negotiating tactic,” he suggested. “Trade secrets. Desperate times and all that.”
“I still don’t see how this can possibly benefit miners and asteroid hunters,” Talbot said, shaking her head.
“Easy,” Weng said. “Simply tell the UN that Ceres can no longer supply the required ditrium and other rare metallics for continued terraforming and settlement of Mars.”
“But that’s not true!” Talbot said.
“What difference does that make?” Weng replied, raising his eyebrows. “You have something they want. They have something you wish them not to use. Correct?”
“So you use this information as a bargaining chip. Remind the UN and the UA that they are obliged by the law to purchase all supplies from Ceres.”
Talbot’s eyes widened. “We can’t fight off the UA!”
“You won’t have to,” Gen interposed. “The UA doesn’t have very many interstellar craft.”
“But the asteroid hunters do,” Weng said aloud. It all fit together now. At least, he thought so. “Just like Sergey told me.”
“This was Captain Bardish’s idea?” Talbot asked incredulously.
Weng shook his head. “No, of course not. Sergey is not interested in politics. Only in saving his beloved homeland. And his daughter.”
Talbot said nothing for a moment. Then, “He’s not the only one with an interest in Clarissa Kragen.”
Weng narrowed his eyes. He had regretted bringing up the old man in the first place. Now, the last thing he wanted was to be reminded of Riss. And of how absent he felt without her.
“So…” he said, expectedly, crossing his arms.
Talbot looked at him calmly. “All right,” she breathed out. “We’ll give you your water. Leave the infopad with me.”
Weng looked at Gen, who motioned his approval. The tablet was handed back to Talbot, who this time gently pocketed the device.
“Right,” she said, gesturing to the robot, who had been standing without a word through the entire exchange. “Take us to the water processor.”
“Yes, Talbot.” The robot left the room.
“You’re in luck, actually,” Talbot said as they followed the android. The three walked slowly to match its ungainly gait through the narrow rock corridor. “We just got a couple rock frags a day or so ago. We’re pulverizing them right now.”
“Oh?” Weng replied. “Where from?”
“The outer ring, Trans-neptunal,” she said.
Weng’s heart skipped a beat. “Riss?”
“Yes,” Talbot replied.
She stopped mid-stride. “How did you guess that?”
She looked at him intently, as if she could read his thoughts. She nodded.
“I see. And here I thought you were just bluffing.”
“Bluffing? About what?”
“About knowing Sergey,” she said.
They resumed following the robot. The corridor widened as they reached a metal door to the main processing chamber. The robot stood in front of the door, which emitted a soft blue light from a pinhole in the middle of the door. ID verified, the robot placed its palm on a wall panel. The door slid open.
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 11: Ceres (Part Two) – January 23, 2021
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