(While Weng hatches a scheme on Mars, Riss and crew are still a long way from home…)
Riss woke with a start. Something…no, somebody…it felt like somebody was calling her…
Unstrapping her sleeping harness, she slowly sat up in the dim cabin. The only light came from the faint glow of her pad, casting a barely discernible sheen out from its wall recharging socket. The doll cast an eerie shadow across the room.
“Artemis. Water,” she croaked. No response.
She coughed. “Water,” she repeated in a stronger voice. Her throat felt raw.
The refrigerator unit beeped and disengaged from its cubby beneath the rechargers. It slid on a magnetic track across the cabin and stopped arms-distance from her bunk.
Riss opened the door and withdrew a plastic drink sleeve. It seemed a good idea at the time. Six days into the return trip to Zedra point, she’d decided that each crew member would benefit from a few new packs of water, freshly squeezed from the rock fragment safely stowed in the cargo hold. They’d already used some in the hydroponic lab, after all.
“Return,” she ordered, and the boxy robot rolled back to its wall nook.
Hindsight was foresight, she mused, but now it seemed prescient. The ship’s normal water recycling system had a glitch which would have made things more than uncomfortable without the new water source.
Squeezed, she thought, plucking back the drink tab and drawing out the straw for a sip. More like reconsti—
She gasped and nearly dropped the pack. Cold. So cold!
It was as if she could feel icy vapors sublimating as the water turned directly into gas inside her. She coughed, and coughed, almost a dry cough despite the water.
Now her entire body felt icy cold. She barely managed to lower the pack to her bedside table as the cold sensation spread to every extremity. She lay back and forced her eyes to stay open, focusing on the ceiling.
Heavy. So heavy.
The cold feeling began to dissipate, leaving her with a tingling in fingertips and toes. She tried to lift her head, but instantly dizzy. She closed her eyes, then opened them again.
Objects on the captain’s desk seemed to glow. No, that must be the portable…no, it wasn’t. She stared. The darkness of the cabin seemed strange, out of place. Not true darkness, but the darkness left by the absence of light rather than true darkness.
Layer upon layer of semi-transparent, translucent geometric patterns assaulted her vision. Some were colorful, like spinning pieces of stained glass.
Riss closed her eyes. She could still see the patterns. Random. She opened her eyes again. It was as if she could see the room…through the patterns. As if the patterns were real and the room a mere reflection.
The patterns. Were they in her head?
She heard a soft buzzing noise. No, a squeezing noise. As if her head were being squeezed. Like the water from the rock.
No, she thought, detached. Not squeezed. Released—
The ceiling blew up. Fragments flew away and the rushing darkness enveloped her. She stared up at a vast, limitless height.
Space was a machine. A living, endless machine, filled and surrounded and controlled by patterns.
She felt the patterns shifting, colliding, rotating around a core she couldn’t quite grasp but could sense.
Heavy. She felt heavy. A gravity well…sinking, sinking, sinking through the patterns back…back…
She closed her eyes. An odd sensation filled her.
Blue sky. Grass. The feel of mild wind and warm sunlight caressed her face. The scents of a beach…a Luna beach! She smiled, content, floating…
A feeling of detachment, separated from herself yet part of herself. Part of something much larger. Infinite.
She opened her eyes.
The patterns in the darkness slowly faded; she reached out a hand, as if she could touch them, alter them, change the way they interacted. She sat up, stretching her fingers—
No. No, the patterns were gone.
Or were they?
Riss let her hand drop. She stared at her hand, then at the water pack on the table. Nothing out of the ordinary. Still, she could swear she still felt something. Some kind of new awareness of things around her.
Riss picked up the water pack and looked at the straw. Did she dare?
Carefully, slowly, as if the pack were a fragile flower, she touched the straw to her lips and took the tiniest of sips.
Water. Slightly tangy and metallic, but otherwise.
She sipped more. Just water.
Shaking her head, Riss stood and arched her back. Suddenly she felt incredibly refreshed. How long she slept?
She pulled the pad from the charging socket and swiped it on. The time. She rubbed her eyes and looked again. Almost an entire day? That couldn’t be.
No wonder she felt refreshed.
Yanking her boots on, Riss shoved the pad into a shoulder carrier. She’d better check up on the crew. Should she mention her dream? If it had been a dream.
She paused before the door. No. She’d first stop by tactical. Autopilot or not, she trusted only herself.
She touched a panel and entered the corridor.
The Artemis was quiet. Or rather should have been quiet. As Riss walked down the narrow corridor connecting the living quarters and tactical, she thought she felt something…different. A mild humming in the bulkheads. Barely perceptible vibrations, like the Artemis were trying to soothe her, comfort her.
Ahead, she heard voices. She couldn’t quite make out the words, but the tone was pleading. A woman and a man. But not her crew.
Then a sniffling noise, followed by a loud thump.
“Is anyone here?” Riss called. She stepped into the room and made for the navigator’s console.
The pilot was holding a pad in both hands and her shoulders were shaking. Abruptly the voices cut off. Sanvi stood, wiping her eyes with a sleeve.
“Riss, it’s…sorry, I…”
Riss stopped. She’d never seen Sanvi like this before. The woman appeared on the verge of a completely breakdown.
“Those voices…” Riss began. She stopped, wondering what to say. Then took a guess. “Your family?”
Sanvi nodded. She held the pad in front of her with hands, staring at the empty screen.
“My parents,” she replied. “Their last vidmess before I joined up.”
She lay the pad down on her console and closed her eyes.
“I haven’t spoken to them since.”
Riss crossed her arms and sat in the captain’s chair. “They were against your joining the crew?”
“They were against me leaving Lunar Base,” Sanvi replied, snapping her eyes open. Riss was quiet. This defiant look wasn’t something she’d seen in her pilot before. Something terrible must have happened, she thought. Just like—
“Sanvi,” she said softly, “is there anything you want to talk about?”
Sanvi started to shake her head, then looked at the pad again.
“I saw them,” she said flatly.
“I saw my parents,” Sanvi said. “A dream. At least, I think it was a dream. Pretty sure, anyway.”
Sanvi sat down, her hands in her lap. She seemed lost, if Riss hadn’t known better.
“I had a strange dream, too,” Riss said suddenly.
Sanvi looked up at her in surprise. Riss was surprised somewhat herself. Why had she said that?
“I, uh…” She wasn’t sure how to continue.
“You saw your parents?” Sanvi asked.
Riss shook her head. “No. No, I’ve never—”
She stopped and bit her lip.
“I haven’t seen them in my dreams for, uh, several years now.”
Riss hesitated, then, “It was nothing, just an odd dream about the rock. That’s all.”
Sanvi sighed, then snorted.
“If I didn’t know any better,” she said, slightly sarcastic, “I’d think you were holding out on me.”
Now it was Riss’s turn to snort.
“Well, then, you do know better,” she retorted, with a slight grin. “Maybe I’ll have another, stranger dream tomorrow to tell you.”
She stood and stretched her back.
“In the meantime, I think I’d better go down to the hold and check on things.”
Sanvi nodded. “Want me to stay here?”
“Nah. Nothing to check here, so long as the auto is working as it should.”
Sanvi glanced at the console, and shrugged. “So far.”
The ship’s internal comm clicked on.
“Hey, is anybody there? Anyone driving this thing?”
The geist. Riss touched a panel on the captain’s chair.
“Coop. We’re here.”
“I, I think you may want to come to the hold.”
Riss caught her voice in her throat. Had he found something he’d missed before? The rock, was it actually special?
“Be right there.”
She motioned to Sanvi, who calmly picked up her pad and followed her into the corridor.
On the way, they ran into Enoch, floating outside his room holding a mag boot in each hand. He looked disheveled, as if he had just jumped out of bed.
“Guys, hey, I had this most amazing dream,” he said happily.
“You mean you actually sleep sometimes?” Sanvi smirked.
“It was like—man, it was like, like I was flying. No, like I was the plane, flying by myself.”
Riss almost stopped to ask him about it, but changed her mind and kept walking.
“Follow us,” she said.
He looked a little surprised. “Uh.”
“You can tell us all about it later.”
“Okay, but I don’t have my mag boots on yet.”
The navigator looked at Sanvi, but she simply shook her hand and motioned for him to come along. They walked. Enoch started swimming.
“Hey, wait up!” Enoch shouted, trying to yank his boots on mid-air.
After a few minutes they reached the hold. As they entered, Riss called out, “Coop, what’s going on? Did you fi—”
She stopped abruptly. Sanvi and Enoch bumped into each other and then squeezed into the room behind her.
The rock was glowing.
It still lay carefully within its “cage” of polystyrene cables, strapped in the corner of the hold across from the hopper port. Cooper was standing at the console, gazing intently at the screen and flicking the surface with his fingers.
“Cap—Riss,” he said, turning around.
“It’s glowing,” she said.
“Yeah. I kinda noticed that.”
“The rock,” she repeated, more urgently. “It’s glowing!”
Cooper spread his hands. “Now, don’t panic. I know it’s glowing. I’m still checking things out.”
“Hang on,” Enoch said. “Didn’t we chip off some stuff and put it in our drinking supply?”
“Yes,” Riss replied. “I helped him do it.”
“You…” Sanvi hissed. She stepped forward and grabbed him by the shirt collar. “What have you done to us? Poisoned? You some sort of spy?”
He frantically batted at her arm and sputtered. “Wha—what on earth are you talking about?”
“Sanvi,” Riss interposed. “Let go.”
Sanvi shoved the geologist back and glared. “You’d better explain yourself, geist,” she huffed.
“Yes,” Riss agreed.
Cooper quickly backed away, glaring at Sanvi. He stood behind the console and placed his hands on top of it, swallowing a retort.
Riss took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Well? What’s making this…glow?”
Cooper gestured to the console.
“You can see for yourself,” he said.
Enoch cut in. “Just explain it, bro. We don’t have all day.”
“Ryan,” Riss said sharply.
She looked down at the monitor. It was filled with lines of chemical symbols and numbers. She scrolled and images of various molecular chains appeared.
“This,” she asked haltingly, “this shows, ah…”
“Carbon,” Cooper said. “Hydrocarbon.”
“We already knew that, geist,” Sanvi cut in. “So what?”
The geologist took a deep breath.
“Not just any hydrocarbon. There are signs of—I don’t know exactly if it’s nucleic acids, or some simple polymeric—”
“RNA,” he said bluntly. “Maybe.”
Riss narrowed her eyes and glanced at the screen again.
Both Sanvi and Enoch lurched across the console and grabbed the geologist. A brief scuffle followed, with Riss in the middle, vainly trying to separate them.
“What the f—!”
“Stop! Let him go!” Riss ordered, trying to control her temper.
Cooper fairly fled to the asteroid chunk. “The filter system still says it’s just water!” he shouted at them from across the cargo hold. “The computer didn’t even notice anything until I made it run a more detailed analysis!”
The pilot and navigator made as if to rush after him, but Riss held their arms.
“Sanvi! Enoch! As you were!” she demanded.
They both stopped and looked at each other, then at Riss. Enoch seemed to be sulking, but Sanvi shuddered and closed her eyes.
Riss had expected the navigator to lose his cool, but Sanvi’s reaction surprised her. It almost looked as if she was trying to meditate.
“Cooper,” Riss called out to the geologist. He looked like a trapped animal, ready to bare his teeth. “Brady. Nobody’s accusing you of anything.”
She looked back at Sanvi and Enoch. “Nobody is accusing him of anything,” she repeated. “Got it?”
Enoch nodded curtly. Sanvi breathed out and opened her eyes, then followed suit. Good, Riss thought. This was not the time to lose their collective cool.
Next: Chapter 10 (Part 2) — January 9th