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Science fiction, actual science, history, and personal ranting about life, the universe, and everything

Bringer of Light, Chapter 26: Ceres

October 16, 2021
MThomas

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.”

“Aye.”

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.”

“Aye.”

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.”

“What?”

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.

Sanvi cursed.

“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.”

Ildico?!

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

Bringer of Light, Chapter 25: Transit – Transjovial to Happy Hunting Grounds

September 25, 2021
MThomas

Riss and the crew of the Artemis have experimented with their strange new understanding of the universe – both physical and emotional. Still far away from Ceres or Mars and unable to contact those who may have been similarly affected by the asteroid, the crew has to find a way to traverse the vast space that lies ahead…

The banging on the door came again. A muffled shout from the corridor side.

Enoch?

Riss opened her eyes. Her feet were firmly stuck to the floor of her cabin. Having forgotten to remove her magboots. She was standing, swaying in place. Yawning, she stretched her arms over her head.

“Open.”

The geist practically fell through the opening doorway. Caught from behind by the navigator.

“Riss, are you, are you okay?”

“Yeah, fine, fine, Coop.” She turned to the fridge unit. “Water.”

The fridge rolled out, door opened. A pack of water came to her hand.

Cooper’s eye widened slightly. He straightened himself, brushing off Enoch’s grasp. “You seem to have everything under control.”

She laughed. “Sorry to make you all worry. Did I oversleep?”

“The opposite, actually,” Sanvi called out. Riss could see her now, leaning against the corridor wall with her arms crossed. 

Sanvi nodded at Enoch. “Somebody has been demanding that we try the pitaya experiment again.”

Enoch shrugged. “I got hungry.”

Riss looked between the two of them. Suddenly she felt an enormous bond among them. Her friends. Her crew. It was as if she could see a glow around their rough edges.

Especially Sanvi.

She took a deep breath and smiled.

“I have a different idea. Let’s try to make the Artemis go faster.”

“Faster?”

“Yeah. We’re still two days out. Let’s see if we can make the ship go faster first. If we can make it go faster, we should obviously be able to make it go slower. Or order the catcher to grab our quantum signature and slow us down.”

The crew looked around at each other. Sanvi looked almost completely at peace to Riss, whereas Enoch appeared typically bemused. Cooper still seemed a bit uneasy.

“Coop,” she said, laying a hand on his arm. He began to pull away, but relaxed. “Coop,” she repeated. “We are all friends here. All in the same boat.”

“Ship,” Enoch put in. He smirked, then put his own hand on Riss’s shoulder. “Captain. Riss. I still think this is all crazy, but crazy and me go back a long ways.”

He looked at Cooper, then Sanvi. “Let’s give it a try,” he said. Both nodded. 

Riss gazed at Sanvi. The pilot appeared as if she were surrounded by what Riss could only think of as an aura.

She passed her glance from Sanvi to Enoch. Then Cooper. They all seemed to glow, ever so faintly. 

Like the rock in their hold, she realized. Sanvi’s aura shone brightest of all. But even Enoch and Cooper glowed, ever so faintly. Almost as if she were seeing all of them, who they truly were, for the first time. She wondered if they saw the same of her.

“All right,” she said quietly. “What do we do?”

“For starters, I think we ought to sit down,” Sanvi replied. “In our chairs in the command center. Just to be safe.”

“Good idea,” Riss said. “Let’s not take any chances. We’re still new at this, after all.”

Enoch shook his head. “This is nuts, man.”

“For once, we agree,” Cooper grunted. “But you said we should give it a try.”

“Yeah,” Enoch said. “Surprised myself. But I’ll try anything once.”

Firmly strapped in her chair, Riss called up the 3D holomap and checked their coordinates. Still on course for Ceres. No sign of the ship slowing down.

“What’s our ETA, Enoch?”

He leaned forward over his console. “Just under 44 hours.”

“OK, let’s see if we can speed up just a bit and get there in 24 hours instead.”

Cooper squirmed in his seat. “Riss,” he said hesitantly, “I’m not so sure about this. Isn’t this, I don’t know, kind of—”

“Like sorcery?” Sanvi finished.

He nodded.

“We’re simply going to meditate,” she reassured him. “Every belief system has its meditation style. This no different.”

“But we’re different,” Enoch pointed out. “Who knows what will happen?”

“If anything strange happens,” Riss said, “Just concentrate on the ship. Our position in space. Your position in it. And yourself.”

She nodded at Sanvi. “You’re the expert at this. Tell us what to do next.”

“Hold your hands clasped just beneath your waist. Like this.”

She demonstrated. They all copied her.

“Now close your eyes. Gently. Keep your shoulders relaxed. We’re going to breath in and out slowly.”

Eyes closed, Riss heard Sanvi’s continued instructions.

“Breathe slowly. In. Hold. Out. Hold. Feel the space around you.”

Breathe.

In.

Lungs filled. The air seemed stale. Cold.

Out. The hum of the engine rose. Heart beat, pounding.

“Relax. Accept.”

Breathe. In. Hold. The air contracted, then expanded.

Her body remained still, yet seemed to grow, extend. 

Out. Hold. 

She could see the command center, even with her eyes closed.

Breathe. In. Hold.

From a great distance, Ceres came into view.

Contact.

She saw her navigator spread his wings, become the ship.

The geist flowed like molten rock, became a geode, lava cooling into pumice, crystalline shapes cascading.

The pilot enveloped the ship, pointing ahead.

The Captain’s heart, slowing, rhythmically, matching the engine.

Space opened.

The Cosmos.

Within her. Without her. In-between and among.

Part and whole. All and nothing. All in one. One in all.

Who was she? 

Who was Sanvi? Enoch? Cooper?

Were they separate or the same? Sharing the universe, or the universe sharing them?

The ship spoke. They listened. Heard no words yet heard everything.

There was no ship. They were the ship. There was no space. Space and the ship.

The Artemis pounced.

The Hunter. Her arrows, sharp and pointed. They hunted the stag. It bounded in front, behind, below. Just out of reach. It came into view.

The catcher of Ceres. The part of the Artemis that was Riss reached out to the part that was Sanvi. Mutual understanding. No borders. No boundaries.

The Pilot and the Navigator reached out. The catcher turned.

The Geist withdrew, trembling.

Riss felt his fear. No, she heard herself urge. Stay with us. We are one.

His panic spread. The ship shuddered.

Calm, she thought. Stay. We’re almost there.

The part that was Cooper felt his heart beat, skip, start again.

Breathe out. Hold.

The ship that was Enoch slowed, feeling an end.

Breathe in. Hold.

A great wall arose. Translucent. Shimmering.

Pure silver.


Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 26: Ceres (coming, hopefully, on October 9, 2021)

Bringer of Light, Chapter 23: Luna

August 7, 2021
MThomas

While the Artemis crew continues its long journey back from Neptune, they are unaware of events taking place on Mars, Ceres, and closer to home, Luna…


Luna Base was in lock-down mode.

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.

Laser fire.

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.

Cutters.

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.

“Captain!”

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.”

“Luna what?”

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?”

“Safe?”

“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…

Bringer of Light, Chapter 22: The Artemis

July 29, 2021
MThomas

About a month overdue! Sorry once again. But life has a way of…etc etc.

Weng and Sam were on their way back to Mars but took a detour to Ceres, having realized that a conspiracy involving asteroid hunters and possibly even retired Captain Sergey on Luna has entangled the clones’ plan for an independent Ceres. Meanwhile, the Artemis continues its long journey home, and the crew decides it’s time to test out their newly acquired abilities…on some fruit.


Riss stared down at the table in the mess galley. A dozen fruits and vegetables floated above it, gently bobbing up and down.

“How did you do that?” she demanded.

Sanvi shrugged and then yawned. “I just thought about what I wanted to eat. Made me feel a little tired, though.”

“I saw you do it, and I still don’t know how you did it.”

Cooper leaned forward and plucked out a mango. He paused, then took a small bite. “Delicious,” he said, devouring the rest.

Enoch shook his head. “I don’t know what half these things are.”

Sanvi picked up some of the fruit and passed them around, naming each.

“Purple mangosteen. Ambarella. Star fruit.”

“What’s this one?” Enoch asked. He gestured to a yellow fruit with twisted fingers stretching out in a cluster.

“Buddha’s hand.”

He made a face. “You expect me to eat this stuff? I’d rather have rations.”

Riss laughed. “Eat or not, the more important fact is that Sanvi was able to make them at all. What did you use?”

Sanvi tapped a finger on the panel next to her. “Some of the rations, of course. I reasoned that, if we can manipulate matter, we need something that’s already physical.”

Enoch sputtered. “Some of the ra—“

“So,” Riss cut in, “even though there are atoms all around us, it’s not as if we can just create something from nothing.”

“It’s not creation, is it?” Cooper said. “Nothing is new in the universe. Everything is merely one form of something already existing.”

Riss nodded. “Nothing is created; all is renewed. From either a mystical or a chemical standpoint.”

“Wait,” Enoch protested. “Are you saying that any of us — all of us — can do what Sanvi did? Make some disgusting fruit?”

Sanvi gave him the finger. 

“If you’ve never heard of Buddha’s hand,” Riss said, “I doubt you’d be able to manipulate the atoms of a ration tube and turn it into one.”

“But if I know what something is,” Enoch said dubiously, “then as long as I can imagine it, I can make it?”

“Rearrange it. Not create. That’s what I must have done with the doll in my room.”

“Doll?”

Riss briefly felt herself reddening. “Save it.”

“OK, Wiseman,” Cooper said, giving Enoch a tube. “Here’s your tube. Let’s see you turn it into something else.”

Enoch held the tube and concentrated. At first, nothing happened. After a moment, the edges of the tube began to fold in on themselves. The object became rounder, and redder, with slender green strips like fingers emerging from the surface.

Enoch gasped and nearly dropped it.

“My god,” Riss said. “What on earth is it?”

Pitaya,” he whispered. “Dragon fruit. I’ve never eaten one. Only seen pictures from my grandfather.”

He turned it over in his hand, then placed it on the table. He took a knife out from a nearby drawer and cut the fruit in half. The inside was off-white, with tiny black seeds throughout.

“It looks like vanilla chocolate chip ice cream,” Cooper said. He stuck his finger into the pulp and licked it. “Doesn’t taste like it, though.”

Riss picked it up and took a bite. “It tastes like a bland food ration,” she said.

“Not bad for a disgusting fruit,” Sanvi said with a smirk. Enoch returned her finger to her.

“So,” Riss said, “We can’t rearrange things without direct, previous knowledge of what it is we want to make.”

“Would this also work for inanimate objects?” Cooper wondered aloud. “You know, like minerals or metals.”

“Do you mean, could we extract ore from an asteroid just by thinking about it?” Riss asked. She recalled the mask, then shook her head. “I’m not all that anxious to find out, to be honest.”

“No, no,” Cooper said, shaking his head. “I mean, how do we stop the ship? Can we, uh, rearrange part of to slow us down?”

“That’s not exactly what I had in mind,” Riss replied. “But imagine if we could somehow remotely control the catcher on Ceres.”

“I could hack the system,” Enoch said.

“No, too risky. Also probably too difficult, especially if they refuse to communicate. They probably already shut down any external grid access.”

“What if,” Sanvi suddenly said. “What if we were to combine our thoughts. You know, think about the same thing, simultaneously?”

“Here we go again,” Enoch snorted. “Voodoo magic. Ow!”

Sanvi had punched him on the shoulder. Hard.

Cooper darted an angry look at Enoch, Riss noted. She decided to distract him. “Sanvi, if I understand you correctly,” she started. “You mean, we should, individually, try to concentrate on the catcher as we approach. And then, we sort of, ah…”

She waved her arms around, at a loss for words.

“Our minds are growing closer,” Enoch intoned, holding his hands up in a Levite blessing. “Nanoo, nanoo, I bless you all, shalom, shazbot. Ow!”

“Riss,” Cooper said, shaking his head. “This is all getting just a little too, you know.”

“Mystical?” she said.

“Ridiculous?” Enoch said, rubbing his shoulder and glaring at Sanvi. She stuck out her tongue at him.

“Just roll with it. Everybody ready?”

Riss looked around the galley. Her crew stared back at her blankly. Enoch took another bite of papaya. “For what?” he said between chews.

“Ready for the next step.”

Cooper narrowed his eyes. “Riss, I hope this does not mean what I think it means.”

“I have no idea what you think it means,” Enoch said. Cooper rolled his eyes.

“If none of you think we can move the thrower,” Riss said, “why don’t we try to move something smaller first? As a test.”

“A test?” Enoch repeated. “I suck at tests.”

“Call it a trial, then. A practice. But as a group, working together.”

They all looked at Riss. She looked at each of them, then back at the table between them. 

“Let’s concentrate on moving one object,” she said. “Slowly.”

“The dragon fruit,” Enoch suggested, putting the rest of the pitaya down.

Riss nodded.

“Sure. Do what I say. Lift it to eye level. Turn it around once. Aim it at me. Move it two meters, then turn it around and return it.”

They stood around the dinner table, alternately staring at the fruit and each other. A few minutes passed.

“Um,” Cooper said.

Another moment of silence.

“Well, this is awkward,” said Enoch.

“Alright,” Riss said. “This obviously isn’t working right now. Why don’t we, uh, take a break and recharge or something.”

“Wait,” Sanvi said. “Let’s try again. This time, every one should shut their eyes.”

“Shut my eyes?” Enoch said. “How can I concentrate on moving the thing if I can’t even see it?”

“Why should you need to see it?”

“Well. Ah.”

“What is the fruit made of?” Sanvi persisted.

Enoch shrugged. “Molecules of a ration pack that I changed into something I only…”

He stopped, then continued, “…only had imagined in my dreams.” 

And closed his eyes.

“The fruit is only molecules,” Sanvi said softly. “Only atoms like everything else around us. I can feel them. I can see them.”

Riss closed her eyes and concentrated. Nothing.

No. Wait. She could sense something. She could see it. The pitaya.

“Can you see it, Coop?” she said aloud. He turned to her. But his eyes were closed. So were hers. How could she see him?

“Riss,” he said.

“Steady, people,” Riss said. “Concentrate. Lift it up.”

In her mind’s eye she saw the dragon fruit wobble. Then one end lifted off the table. Then the entire fruit.

“A little higher.” It rose to head level.

“Now. Gently. Let’s spin it around.”

The fruit hovered over the table. It jerked to the left, then back to the right.

“Clockwise,” Riss specified.

“Riss,” said Enoch. “I’m getting a little winded.”

“Same here,” whispered Cooper.

“Relax. Just a little longer.”

The fruit slowly swiveled, turning clockwise. It began to move closer to the edge of the table.

“Towards me,” Riss said.

She could feel the fruit strain to move. Something was wrong. Tension. Fighting? She opened her eyes. Enoch and Cooper were sweating. Sanvi had her eyes half-opened but otherwise appeared as if in a deep trance.

“Slowly.”

The pitaya jerked towards her. Then Enoch, then Cooper. One end began to swell.

“Slowly!” she said again, a little more forcefully. “Middle of the table!”

The fruit rose again, above their heads and began to spin wildly.

“No!” Riss shouted.

The dragon fruit burst apart, spraying chunks of fiber across the room.

Sanvi opened her eyes and laughed. She was, as Riss then noticed, the only Artemis crew member not covered in the remains of the exploded dragon fruit.

“I think,” Riss said, somewhat annoyed at Sanvi, “we need a little more practice.”

She scooped a handful of pulp from her shirt.

“And a shower, too.”

Cooper sighed and yanked a handkerchief out of a shirt pocket. “Riss,” he said glumly wiping pitaya juice from his face, “I think we need a break.”

Enoch grimaced and dragged his hands through his hair, yanking out dragon fruit seeds. “I agree with the geist,” he said. “For once. I feel, I dunno, drained?”

“All right,” Riss said with a sigh. “Let’s, let’s all sleep on it for now. We’ll give it another try in a few hours.” 

Her crew left the galley one at a time, headed back to the sleeping quarters corridor. Enoch loudly yawned before Cooper smacked him on the back. The two tussled, but it was a friendly shoving match, ending with arms around shoulders. Sanvi followed, arms crossed, silent.

“And don’t forget to check the physical fitness schedule and take your calcium pills,” Riss called after them. “Some of you are beginning to get lazy.”

Sanvi paused at the doorway and looked back. For a moment, Riss thought she saw something new in Sanvi’s face. Something attractive. Reluctant.

Resisting, Riss realized. Maybe even a little scared. She felt it, too.

“Riss, all you all right?” Sanvi said hesitantly. “I—”

“I’m okay,” Riss cut in. She stopped, then nodded her head. “Sanvi, I, ah. I’m just a little tired.”

“Well, if, if you need to talk.”

Riss looked down and bit her lip.

“Thanks.”

As she watched the pilot leave, Riss hugged herself. They had all changed somehow. She could still feel the ship pulsing, like a thing alive. Sensing her fears, hopes. Desires. Things about her she barely understood, herself.

But what of Sam?


Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 23: Luna – in which Sergey becomes an unwilling participant in a coup.

Bringer of Light, Chapter 21: Transit to Ceres

June 19, 2021
MThomas

Just before leaving Luna, Weng stumbled upon evidence of a conspiracy. But just who is behind it and for what purpose, he doesn’t know. Yet.

“Sam, I’m not entirely sure what you are talking about.”

Weng tapped a finger against his chair. In the other hand, he held a microchip.

“If my suspicions are correct,” he said, “this holds an encoded message from somebody on the Ceres Mining Council to a certain Captain on Luna Base.”

After a moment, Gen took the chip. He examined it.

“What makes you say so?” he asked, expressionless. “More importantly, what does this have to do with us?”

Weng gestured at the shuttle’s command console. “Just read it. I’m sure with your expertise you’ll have no problems breaking the code.”

Gen nodded. He gently inserted the chip into the side of his pad, then soundlessly tapped at the screen. His eyes scanned the text. “Sergey,” he said finally.

“Sergey,” Weng agreed. “What does the message read?”

“As you suspected, it is a request for support.”

“What kind of support?”

Gen scanned the message. “Odd. There are few details.”

“Few?”

“None,” Gen admitted.

He passed the pad to Weng, who swiped down a page.

“Few?” he repeated, cocking his head. “This seems pretty obvious to me. ‘The Council will reward you for your service once the new administration is in securely place.’”

“As I said, there are few details. We do not know when, who, or how this will occur.”

Weng tapped the pad. “That hardly matters. This is damning evidence of an attempted coup.”

“Perhaps. Yet there is no way to prove who sent it”

“I can make a couple of guesses.”

He felt silent. He would hate for one of his guesses to prove accurate. But a nagging thought remained. How much did Riss know, if anything?

“Sam,” Gen said. “We must not delay. This message is at least three days old. Luna must be warned.”

“It’s not Luna I’m that worried about,” Weng replied with a smile. “It’s Ceres.”

“Oh?”

“Look at the relay information. There, just below the coded text. You’ll find that it was bounced off Ceres, and before that Zedra.”

“How would you know that?”

“Logic,” Weng said. He scratched the harness keeping him secure in the shuttle seat. At times like this, he would have preferred the ability to pace. No room in such a small ship. Also, no gravity.

He grimaced briefly, then smiled again.

“Weng, there is no need to—”

“Mind-reading still has its limits, I see,” Weng said without a trace of irritation. “And yet it is still irritating.”

“Sam…”

Weng ticked off his fingers. “First, who has the means to start a coup against a well-fortified base such as Luna? The UA, which occasionally includes China and occasionally does not, and the Slavic Confederacy are too invested in their Earthside territorial conflict to waste resources on an assault.”

“You seem sure of that.”

“As long as the UN controls the Mars Colonies, the Lunar Base is needed to keep the Colonies supplied,” Weng reasoned. “Depriving the Colonies of food and materials would endanger settlers from all Earthside city-states, not just an opponents. Too risky.”

“Well,” Gen said. “The Greater Indian Empire, then.”

“No. They have never shown any interest in conquest. They might, of course, try to render Luna inoperable as a supply relay center, so as to force a return to the use of the ISS for such purposes. But if so, why would they refuse to allow settlers to resupply at ISS? That makes no sense.”

“Hmm. So, that leaves only one option.”

“Yes,” Weng agreed, with a heavy voice.

“The Ceres Mining Council.”

“Maybe. To what degree the Council is implicated remains to be seen. The message could have originated with a Hunter. Or a Miner. Or even from someone on Mars.”

Gen fell silent.

“Which do you think it was, Gen?” Weng asked. His companion’s sudden quiet manner disturbed him. He vainly struggled to keep his thoughts buried, his emotions flat. Gen turned as if to speak, and suddenly Weng realized from this angle that Gen resembled Martin Velasquez very, very closely.

His father? Or…?

Gen frowned as a message scrolled down the console screen. He gestured. “Sam.”

Weng leaned over. He read the text, then sat back.

“It appears that at least one of your suppositions has already been proven incorrect,” Gen said. “The UA is on the way to Luna. In force.”

“Well,” Weng said. “What’s that famous phrase?”

“‘The die has been cast’, I believe.”

Three days to Mars, Weng thought. He hoped there was still a colony left standing when they arrived.

“Gen,” he said. “How far to Ceres?”

“At our current rate, we will barely arrive at Mars in time.”

“Mars can manage for another day or two. If we swing past Ceres, we may be able to stop a war.”

Gen paused, then stabbed at the console for a few moments. “There. I have input a new path for Ceres. But it will be futile in the end, Sam.”

“Why? Isn’t it worth it if we can prevent lives from being lost?”

“No,” Gen said, sadly shaking his head. “It wasn’t supposed to be this way. This wasn’t our agreement.”

“Our?” said Weng. He suddenly caught his breath. Gen.

“Yes,” Gen said. “We caused this. But we only wanted a place for our own. Luna was not meant to be affected. One of the hunters must bear a grudge.”

“So,” said Weng softly. “I was correct about you, from the beginning.”

“Yes,” Gen nodded. “I am, indeed, a clone. Martin Velasquez is, indeed, my father.”

“Then you are also Martin.”

“In a sense. But enhanced with additional DNA from other sources.”

“And who is ‘we’? With whom did you make an agreement?”

“That,” Gen said, returning his attention to the console, “is something you will find out soon enough.”

Weng sat back, thoroughly demoralized. Ah, Riss, he thought wistfully. I should have pinged you when I had the chance.

“Don’t worry, Sam,” Gen said, hands dancing over the console. “Riss will no doubt be here soon.”

Weng opened his mouth, then closed it. There was little point in asking how Gen knew that. He obviously was being used by all the players in this game. He, himself, lacked the knowledge to be a full-fledged player.

All he wanted now was to be with Riss. As he had planned. On Mars.

“Ironic, in a way,” Gen commented. “My name in Japanese means ‘original’ although I am but a copy. And yet thanks to my father’s careful engineering — and expense — I likely feel much greater sympathy than he ever will.”

He turned to Weng with a serious expression on his face. “Sam. Here’s what I want you to do.”


Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 22: The Artemis – Riss and her crew conduct an experiment, with explosive results…

Bringer of Light, Chapter 17: Luna Base

March 27, 2021
MThomas

Sorry, folks! My chapter numbering has gone a bit wonky. As I said, these are draft chapters — still a work in progress! At any rate, I hope you are enjoying the process…

Btw, WordPress is *definitely not user friendly* when it comes to anything other than a TikTok or Twitter-size micro-blogpost. I don’t do 5-minute chunks of attention-span theater, so I hope that my readers can concentrate past the 21st century style of “in your face for ten seconds!” style of online slam-bang presentation.

Is there still a place for traditional science fiction storytelling?

“You know, Gen,” Weng sighed. “When I convinced your father to let me work for the water reclamation team, I hadn’t anticipated becoming his glorified messenger boy.”

He took a sip from his cooling soy coffee and leaned against the hull of the shuttle. The decor of the inside corridors of Lunar Base were boring; the decor of the commercial loading dock was downright atrocious. He felt as if his eyes would be permanently damaged the longer he was forced to look at the drab colors and bland angles of the building.

“Sam, I don’t think…”

Weng held up a finger in warning as an automated loader passed by, carrying several stacks of dry goods. Headed not for their shuttle, but for a similar vessel.

“Where’s that one from?” he asked.

Gen shuffled through his info pad screen information.

“According to the markings, Ceres.”

“Hang on. They get priority on foodstuffs over the Mars Colonies?”

“The United Mars Colonies.”

“Yes. The Uni…Gen, are you pulling my leg?”

“No, Sam. Just reminding you of our purpose.”

Weng sipped the coffee again. The purpose. What he had got himself into? All he wanted was to be able to apply himself, as an architect, in a place that appreciated his vision.

Well, yes, he wouldn’t mind a position of authority. He needed something to show Sergey that he was worthy. The old man’s trust in him. He didn’t quite have that, he was sure.

Why hadn’t Riss contacted him in the past week? He wondered, but kept his thoughts to himself. Focus on the task.

“Gen, we were lucky to convince the Lunar Base Council we needed emergency supplies, weren’t we?”

Gen looked up from his infopad and snapped the cover shut.

“Yes, Sam, to some degree.”

Weng tilted his head and smiled. “What does that mean? ‘To some degree.’ I thought I was rather persuasive.”

Gen raised his eyebrows. “I hadn’t thought you to be so confident,” he said. “The opposite, in fact. Quite self-effacing.”

Weng maintained his smile. The little shit, he thought. The smaller man’s face held no expression, betrayed no emotion. Was this really the Martian Overseer’s legitimate son? Something about his mannerism…

“You are broadcasting your thoughts too loudly, Sam,” Gen said in a softer voice. “I would advise you to close your mind. You never know who might be listening.”

A momentary look of shock passed over Weng’s face but he quickly composed himself.

No thoughts. No Riss.

“I see,” he said neutrally. “I did not know you were a telepath.”

“Empath. Only partial telepathy.”

Gen returned to his inventory listing. He casually scanned down the screen, occasionally poking at it. “I can’t make out specific words. Only basic ideas.”

He looked up again at Sam.

“Plus a certain understanding of human nature. And personal background.”

Weng swallowed. “I have no intention of betraying my fiancé for your sake, Gen,” he croaked. “Nor for the Mars…United Mars Colonies.”

Gen waited.

“But I am devoted to the purpose,” Weng continued. He drained the cup and crushed in one hand. “I intend to make myself as useful as possible for the future of the United Mars Colonies. For myself, for my fiancé, and for your father.”

“That is all we ask,” Gen replied. “We are not looking for blind obedience, Sam. Only assistance.”

Weng made no reply. He returned his gaze to the robot porters and their cargo. A hatch on the Ceres-bound shuttle opened, and the porter slowly and mechanically unloaded its stacks.

“Not to worry, Sam,” Gen said, seeing his gaze. “Once the porters are done over there, we are next on their itinerary.” He tapped his info pad.

“No, Gen,” Weng said. He turned to look briefly at the man he once thought was his assistant. “That’s not what I was thinking. You do have limits, then.”

Get nodded. “I read best when strong emotions come concomitantly.”

“Ah.”

Weng started to say something, then changed his mind.

“You know,” he said. “If you have this talent of reading thoughts…”

“Emotions.”

“Emotional thoughts,” Weng amended. “Well, then why didn’t you use it when we first approached Talbot back at Ceres?”

Gen shrugged. “There was no need. You did well enough on your own.”

Weng kept his expression as emotionless as possible. “Also, you did not trust me,” he added.

Gen nodded. “As you say. We all have secrets.”

The robots were nearing completion of their task at the other shuttle. Weng gestured to them. “Doesn’t anything about this strike you as odd?”

Gen crossed his arms and stared at the robots.

“They do not seem nearly as efficient as the robots at the Ceres Mining Station.”

“No, no,” Weng interrupted. “Not that. Hasn’t Ceres blocked all transmissions, as we suggested?”

The two men exchanged glances. Gen flipped open his infopad again, fingers hurriedly inputting commands.

“Confirmed. Incoming blocked at Ceres.”

“Gen, do you mind staying here to supervise the loading of our precious cargo for Mars?”

Across the loading dock area, a section of wall slid open. Two robotic porters detached themselves from docking sockets next to the opening and entered the new area.

“The foodstuffs will be readied momentarily,” Gen said. “You have only a few minutes. I will attempt to delay the procedure.”

“That’s all I need,” Weng said, withdrawing his long-unused wrist com from his left sleeve pocket. He felt the right sleeve pocket; damn, no earpiece. He’d have to keep his voice down. No choice.

Shoving the remains of his coffee cup into the pocket, he touched the watch to his wrist. The organoplastic wrapped itself around, just like it used to. He walked as casually as he could away from the shuttle loading area, back toward the crew entrance elevator. Glancing back, he saw Gen raise his hand to stop a porter. To double-check the inventory, he hoped.

He tapped the watch and shielded the plastic face with a hand.

“Mai.”

No answer. He checked the connection.

Damn. The office manager was in a meeting. He’d have to try someone else.

Tap.

“Elodie. Elodie, are you there? It’s Sam.”

A tiny image projected from the organoplastic surface. He adjusted the size and volume, but the voice still seemed too loud for comfort. He looked around. Automatons hadn’t made any motion toward him.

“Sam? Hi, long time no see, big shot. Didn’t know you were slumming.”

“Elodie, hi. Look, I know it’s sudden, but I need a favor.”

“Favor? You weasel your way out of a Luna architectural project into a Martian water reclamation team and now you want a favor?”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. Very uncool of me.”

“But characteristic. What do you want?”

“Thanks. I need to know if someone from Ceres managed to contact Luna within the past three days.”

“Ceres? We contact them all the time.”

“Not now we don’t. They’re blocked all incoming.”

A moment of silence. He tapped at the watch. “Elodie? Are you there?”

“Well, I’ll be. You’re right, Sam.”

He felt himself growing impatient. “Yes, I know. Listen, can you…”

“Sam, what’s going on? There are rumors of trouble here.”

He stopped. “Trouble? What kind?”

“We all heard something happened in the last UN meeting. Something between Brazil, China, India…I forget who else. We were told not to allow ships from ISS to land for the time being.”

He looked over at the loading area. Gen was still trying to delay, but it appeared as if the porters were already setting their pallets in place.

“Elodie, can you check…” His mind raced. “Can you check for any incoming from deep space? From transjovial or transneptune?”

“Miss your girlfriend, eh, Mr. Martian.”

“Elodie, come on.”

A string of words appeared across the plastic surface.

“What’s this? Code?”

“Looks like. I found it hidden in a subdirectory, addressed to Sergey.”

“Sergey? From who?”

“Can’t tell. It was definitely from a ship, though.”

The porters had finished their task. A warning alarm sounded.

“Gotta go before they open the loading dock doors. Thanks a bunch, Elodie.”

“Sam! What is going on?”

“I don’t know. Be safe.”

“You, t—”

He cut the connection, yanked the watch off and threw it on the floor. Carefully aiming, he crunched it under a boot. From the slivers remaining, he withdrew a tiny fragment. The micro-memory chip was all he needed. The rest could stay.

He had no intention of returning. Not if what he suspected was happening came to pass.

He ran back to the shuttle. Gen had already entered and was beginning the start-up sequence. Weng climbed up the ladder and slid in from the top portal.

“OK, Gen, let’s get out of here,” he said, taking the navigator’s seat. “You can drive if you like.”

“I have no difficulties piloting the shuttle, Sam,” Gen replied. His hands flew over the console as the shuttle slowly lifted and turned. The automated porters in the loading area returned to their niches in the wall. The lights dimmed. The shuttle rose toward the semi-domed roof, arching above them.

“50 meters,” Gen said. “25.”

For a second Weng nearly panicked. Had Lunar Security caught his transmission? Would they block them?

Seams in the roof appeared. The semi-dome split into two sections that slid open like the doors of a greenhouse. The shuttle edged its way through the opening and into the thin Lunar atmosphere.

Fifty years prior, Weng realized, the decompression from the loading area would have propelled them out into space, reducing the need for thrusters. Now, with the faster than anticipated terraforming project successfully completed, the old loading area construction seemed horribly antiquated.

Gen toggled the aft thrusters, and the shuttle sluggishly lifted away from the loading station. As they turned onto their off-Lunar trajectory path toward Mars, Weng could see the station below, embedded into the lunarscape.

No wonder, he thought. All the original buildings had to be buried in the surface. Or beneath. Even with the atmosphere, the engineers never did figure out how to stop all harmful solar radiation.

Outside the Lunar Base perimeter, the gravity generators no longer held them down. They shot off toward Mars. Gen checked the console as he set the autocontrols.

“We may return in time,” he said. “Barely.”

Weng didn’t respond. Hands in pockets, he was still fiddling with the microchip with one hand, debating what to do. Fingers on the opposite hand touched the crumbled remains of the coffee cup in the other pocket. He retrieved one piece and turned in over his hand.

Strange, he mused. He almost felt a certain attachment to it. An odd feeling of…he didn’t know.

“Surely not nostalgia?” Gen asked, turning around.

Weng didn’t look up from the paper shred.

“Maybe not,” he said, giving no indication of annoyance at the unwanted mind read. “Maybe I should have told Sergey.”

“Told him what exactly?”

Weng returned the shred to his pocket and withdrew his hands. He folded them in front of him.

“Gen. We must talk,” he said calmly. “Of revolution.”


Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 21: The Artemis, in which the Rock seems to have cosmic import… (dropping April 10, 2021)

Bringer of Light, Chapter 16: The Artemis

March 13, 2021
MThomas

While Gennaji and the Sagittarius prepare to encounter an old friend/rival, the Artemis crew has internal issues…

He had done it. He had finally flown out to the Kuiper Belt. Him, Enoch Ryan. The solar system’s only Jewish-Irish-Hawai’ian navigator. He was the best.

And they all called him a loonie.

Enoch scoffed.

He wondered, though, why he was sitting in the pilot’s chair of an old Sopwith. Surely…surely, this wasn’t necessary.

He stood up, thinking he would simply…stretch.

Hands out like airplane wings, the plane dropped from beneath his feet. Body flattening as he rushed out to meet the edge of the Belt.

Next stop, the Oort Cloud. A shimmering field crossed his vision. Ice and dust particles swirling. Like dirty sherbet. Like when his Grandfather bought him one.

And he dropped it onto the Lunar surface. Only now all around him. It really was a cloud. He smiled, embracing it. Embracing him. He could see the long-lost planet in the distance. Planet X. Nibiru.

No, it was Hapu’u. Guiding him. All he needed was to find the Twin sister. A new future…

A scream.

What?

He turned around. From behind him. It came again.

Riss.

But Hapu’u…

He looked back to the Cloud. There it was. Waiting.

But.

He turned away. The Artemis. He needed to be on the Artemis. Stop dreaming, he told himself. Wake up!

Eyes opened, he found himself floating in his cabin. How had he returned so quickly? No, it was a dream. He pushed against the ceiling and fell toward the bed. Grabbing a wall rail, he yanked himself down.

Yes, a dream, he thought. He put a magboot on and saw his hands. Dust.

Was it?

He heard voices in the next cabin. No screaming.

Maybe he should’ve stayed in the Cloud.

Shaking his head, he got a drink pack from the minifridge and took a few sips. Didn’t seem to be anything other than regular water. Tasteless.

He couldn’t wait to get back to Luna and grab a Longboard Ale.

He released the pack, left it floating head-high, opened the door. In the next cabin, he found Riss and Sanvi arguing.

“I know what it was!” Riss was saying, hands on hips.

Enoch smirked. He liked those hips. Fiancé or not.

“I don’t question your experience,” Sanvi was saying, with a little wag of her finger. “But you have no way of knowing it was mystical or not.”

“As if you do!” Riss retorted. “You’re an expert on mysticism now?”

“Not an expert, no,” Sanvi replied coolly. “But I have training, yes. My martial—”

“Your martial arts training, yes, yes,” Riss cut in. “We all know that. That doesn’t give you the sole privilege of understanding the nature of other people’s experiences.”

“What experiences?” Enoch said.

They stopped arguing and looked at him.

“Yeah,” he said. “I’m here. On the ship. You know, the one I fly?”

“Sorry, Enoch,” Riss said. “Didn’t notice you.”

“Yeah, so…” He raised his eyebrows.

Riss and Sanvi glared at each other.

“You know,” Enoch offered, “I kind of had this strange dream. Was it a dream? Not sure. You know, this dream of kind of flying.”

“Flying,” Sanvi snorted. “So?”

“Outside the ship,” Enoch said. “By myself.”

Riss stared at him. Sanvi closed her eyes.

“Without a ship. All alone in the Belt. Like I could sort of, I dunno, control things around me?”

“The fields,” Riss said bluntly. “That’s what Sanvi calls them.”

“The what?”

“Fields,” Sanvi said, still with eyes closed.

She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “The material of the universe, shared matter. Currents. Atoms. Subatomic particles. The working of the cosmos.”

Enoch laughed. “Sounds—”

“Mystical?” Sanvi said, opening her eyes wide. “Remember when you said you didn’t want to talk about anything mystical?”

Enoch shrugged. “Yeah. But this cosmic working or whatever, it seemed like a dream to me.”

“Like you were walking outside your body,” Riss said. “Right?”

He paused, then nodded. “Yeah. Like I could control things around me. How far they were. How far I was.”

“Control,” Riss agreed. “Understanding.”

“And fear,” came a quivering voice from the hallway.

All three turned. The geist leaned against the corridor wall, as if for support. His ragged breath came to them.

“I, I was alone. All alone. Floating. My boots, they failed, and I was just…”

“Coop,” Riss said, with a note of sympathy.

The geist shook his head and waved a hand frantically. He was sweating, Enoch noted.

“I was just…drifting, for how long, I can’t say. But then…then I saw…”

Cooper’s eyes grew wide and he began to shake and mumble. Enoch could barely make the words: “O God, I will no longer be full of anxiety, I will not let trouble bother me. O God, purify my heart, illumine my powers—”

“God?” Enoch said aloud. “You saw God?”

Cooper stopped and grabbed Enoch’s shoulders.

“Dare you! How dare you!” he snarled. “You blaspheme…”

Just as Riss and Sanvi moved to intervene, all strength left the geist’s arms and he slumped. Enoch made as if to slap the hands away, but his anger was replaced by surprise.

Cooper was sobbing.

“O God,” he cried, “O God, you are the Powerful, the Gracious, the…”

He seemed to lose his voice and continued to sob in silence for a moment. Then he looked up.

Sanvi had knelt and was holding his hand.

“All that we are,” she spoke slowly, with conviction, “is the result of our thoughts. If one speaks or acts evil thoughts, pain follows. If one speaks or acts pure thoughts, bliss follows.”

Cooper made as if to remove his hand, but then looked up, seemed to calm down.

“I,” he started. He took a deep breath. “I’m not sure what I saw. What I was capable of doing, though. It frightened me. The power.”

“The beauty of the fear of Heaven,” Enoch found himself saying, “is noble performance.”

They all looked at him.

“The Talmud,” he replied, without being asked. Why did that suddenly come into my head? He felt compelled to add, sheepishly, “‘Love Heaven, and fear it.’ My dad used to always quote from it. I was named after one of the characters.”

“Whoever possesses God in their being,” Riss suddenly said, “has him in a divine manner and he shines out to them. In all things.”

“What is this?” Sanvi demanded. “Are we competing for the right to be mystical?”

Riss shook her head. “Memories. Snatches, clips of dreams. Things Sergey used to say to me, I think.”

“Sergey? Captain Bardish? Really?”

Riss smirked. “Actually, he usually said stuff like ‘the church is near, but the road is icy; the tavern is far, but I will walk carefully.’”

Cooper and Sanvi laughed. A welcome sound, Enoch thought, chuckling despite himself. But he was still feeling embarrassed. What ever possessed him to say the Talmud aloud? He hadn’t thought of it since…

Since Granddad died, he realized.

“‘Always confess to the truth’,” he said aloud. “Stuff my Grandfather used to say to me when I was a kid.”

Sanvi stood, pulling Cooper to his feet. The geist brushed off invisible dust, rearranging his shirt.

“What else did he say?” she asked.

Enoch paused. “‘Do not seek to wrong he who wronged you.’”

He looked at Cooper, then held out his hand. The geist hesitated, then took it.

“I think,” the astrogeologist said slowly, “that we have all been experiencing something unusual. Odd.”

“Wonderful,” Enoch said, still shaking Cooper’s hand. He let go and stared at his hand. “Exhilarating.”

“Yes,” Riss said. “Something entirely extraordinary. And frightening. And something that no one person owns.”

Sanvi bit her tongue. “Riss, I—”

“Look,” Riss said with a wave of her hand. “I think we all need a little time to sort our thoughts out. It does seem as if we are all basically having the same sort of experiences.”

“Dreams,” Enoch said.

“Experiences,” Sanvi said. “I’m not so sure they’re dreams.”

“What do you mean?” Cooper asked. “What else could they be?”

“Have you heard of astral projection?”

“What, you mean out of body experiences, that sort of thing?”

“Exactly.”

“I can’t believe that I was actually ‘out of my body’,” Enoch said with a smirk. “It felt more like a hallucination, or a really good trip.”

Sanvi nodded. “Yes, it probably does. Did.”

“Isn’t it possible that we’re all just tired?” Riss asked. “Sometimes people feel like this because they have some sort of inner ear problem, or they change air pressure too quickly because of a faulty air lock, things like that.”

“Well,” Sanvi said, then pursed her lips. “Do you think it’s possible that all four of us, suddenly, right after we started drinking water from that rock, started having the same trips, hallucinations, or whatever. Even though we’re all experienced asteroid hunters who have spent years in space without ever having such an experience?”

“Not all of us,” Cooper said glumly.

“And not all the experiences were just about projection,” Riss said, with a look. Enoch caught the look, wondering. What had happened before he entered Sanvi’s cabin? She wasn’t telling him and Coop everything.

“Projection?” Cooper asked.

“Astral projection,” Riss clarified. “That would explain how our experiences seem so real, and yet have a dreamlike quality. But it doesn’t explain being able to manipulate objects.”

“Is that why,” Enoch began. He stopped himself.

“What is it?” Riss asked.

He didn’t respond.

“Enoch. What.”

“Why did you cry out? You know. Uh. Scream.”

Riss was silent for a moment.

“I was scared,” she replied curtly.

Enoch opened his mouth, then thought better of it and closed it again.

Riss? The Captain, scared? Jeez.

“Well, that’s enough of that,” Riss said with a tone of finality. “We still have several days before we reach Ceres.”

“Yeah,” Cooper muttered. “Don’t remind me.”

Sanvi chuckled and nudged the geist with her shoulder. Which Enoch noted, with a sudden pang of jealousy. He narrowed his eyes briefly before relaxing. Things were moving too fast for his liking.

“What do you want us to do, Captain?” he said aloud. “You know, I don’t much feel like sleeping right now, if you know what I mean.”

She nodded. “I don’t expect that any of us are quite ready to return to Ceres that way. How about…”

She paused, then turned to the geist.

“Coop, have you finalized that analysis of the rock?”

He nearly flinched, Enoch thought. Then relaxed when Sanvi briefly touched his shoulder with a fingertip.

Dammit, he inwardly grumbled.

“No, R, Riss. I had nearly finished when, uh, when we were all gathered in the cargo hold.”

He looked at Sanvi worriedly. She closed her eyes and shook her head, smiling.

Something unspoken had happened, Enoch thought. He frowned. So why was he upset about it all of a sudden?

“Well,” Riss said, in a determined voice. “This piece of dusty ice clearly has some secrets. I think it’s time to finally see where our rock comes from.”


Next: Weng discovers a conspiracy in Bringer of Light, Chapter 17: Luna Base (dropping March 27, 2021)

Bringer of Light, Chapter 11: Ceres (Part One)

January 16, 2021
MThomas

(While the Artemis was sending asteroid fragments via quantum teleportation, Weng was on his way to Ceres seeking new water supplies for the increasingly crowded Mars colonies.)

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.”

“How much?”

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.

Weng waited.

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.”

“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?”

Gen nodded.

“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.”

“And?”

“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?”

“Yes, but—”

“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?”

“I, ah…”

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

Bringer of Light, Chapter 10: The Artemis (Part 2)

January 9, 2021
MThomas

(The Artemis crew experienced strange sensations, which they believed dreams. Now the asteroid fragment from which they already extracted water for their drinking supplies is glowing…and many contain life.)

“Coop, is there any precedent for hydrocarbon-rich asteroids containing nucleic acids?”

The geologist rubbed a hand on one arm. Where Sanvi had grabbed him, Riss realized. She slowly walked toward him, and he toward her.

“Only in theory,” he said carefully. He looked at her with a strange expression. Like he was trying to figure out if she was serious, she guessed. “It’s widely believed that amino acids were first introduced to Earth by asteroid or comet bombardment.”

He stopped. “If…”

He turned to the rock.

“Why is it glowing?” Riss said quietly.

The geologist shook his head.

“I don’t know. I’m an astro-geologist, not an exobiologist.”

“Speculate.”

“Well,” he said, rubbing his arm again, “I suppose it’s possible that, if there were any RNA, the ribose could have completely hydrolyzed, so that it bonded with any freely available compounds in the rock, such as phosphorous or sulphur.”

“O-kay,” Riss said. “And if it’s not RNA?”

“It could be some other kind of enantiomer whose chiral features—”

“All right, slow down,” she interrupted. “I followed the phosphorus bit, but what on earth are you talking about?”

“Um. Sugar. Basically.”

“Sugar?”

“Yeah. Hydrocarbons have, uh, carbon, right? So, that means carbohydrates. Starches and sugars. But molecules sometimes come in pairs. Mirror images of each other. So when one of the pair affects you one way, the other might affect you another way.”

“Meaning?”

Cooper looked at Sanvi with a frightened expression.

“Drugs.”

Sanvi opened her eyes wide and took a step forward.

“Coop,” Riss said, placing herself between the two, “you had better explain yourself.”

“Drugs,” he repeated, crossing his arms and taking up a defensive posture. “Like the pills we got from Ceres base before heading out here. You know, like the ones I got for low gravity sickness. There might be something, some natural molecule in the rock that acts kind of like that.”

Riss nodded. “Okay, I can see that. So it’s possible we all got some sort of, what, psychotropic solution from this rock?”

Cooper shook his head. “I just don’t know.”

“Whaddya you mean, just don’t know?” Enoch blurted out. “I had this crazy dream. Are you saying I was stoned?”

Cooper looked at him. “You what?”

Riss interposed. “Coop, we all had dreams. Strange dreams.”

She looked at her crew members one at a time. “Isn’t that true?”

Sanvi and Enoch both nodded.

“N, no,” Cooper murmured. “It wasn’t…”

Riss looked at him intently.

“No,” Cooper said, in a stronger voice. “No, I didn’t have any dreams. I mean, I don’t remember them.”

Riss sighed. Whatever, let him keep his secrets. She glanced at her wrist panel. They should reach Zedra point in a short while. They all needed some serious sleep by then.

“Coop, what’s the other possibility? Are there any?”

Coop stared down at his feet.

“If—if it is RNA…”

He shook his head.

“No, not possible. The filter would have detected it.”

“Coop,” Sanvi cut in. “How do you know all this? I thought you said you were a astrogeologist, not an exobiologist?”

She looked more composed than before, Riss noted.

The geologist looked up. He also looked more composed, but slightly defiant. “Yes,” he replied, “but I also studied biochemistry.”

He looked at the rock again.

“I wanted to be a biologist, like my father.”

He had never discussed his father before. Riss wondered if that had something to do with his reluctance to discuss his dreams. Or lack thereof.

“So,” Sanvi said calmly. “How do you know it’s not RNA?”

Cooper paused, then slowly walked back to the console. He kept his eyes trained on Sanvi. She stood still, returning the gaze without expression. Enoch was biting a thumbnail.

The geologist stabbed at the screen for a few seconds before responding.

“RNA has ribose, which is a kind of a saccharide. It’s pretty unstable, so it could have simply dissolved into the water supply. But I don’t see any other elements like amino acids, lipids, or other proteins.”

He straightened and rubbed his eyes with the palms of both hands.

“So we could have a virus in our water?” Riss asked.

“I—I don’t think so.”

“But you’re not sure.”

“I’m a—”

“A geologist,” Enoch interrupted. “Not a doctor.”

They all looked at him. The navigator had been silent through most of the conversation. He still looked sulky, Riss thought. But also troubled, standing apart from them, arms crossed and frowning.

“Yeah,” Cooper said. “I’m a geologist. But—”

“But nothing,” Enoch said. “Viruses don’t cause dreams. I had a dream of flying. Of Hawai’i. Of the Lunar Base. You gonna tell me a virus did that?”

“I’m not saying anything for certain,” Cooper said, indignant. “I’m a scientist. I don’t like speculation. I don’t trust guesses or hunches. Just facts.”

“The facts are—”

“The facts are,” Riss cut them both off, “that we don’t have enough facts. Coop is right. It could be a virus. It could be a sugar of some sort. It could be something else, we don’t know.”

They fell silent. The rock continued to glow behind them.

“So.” Sanvi finally said. “What do we do?”

Cooper spoke up. “I think it would be a good idea to run a med check on all of us. Just in case.”

Riss nodded. “Agreed. Enoch, get over to the med dock and start setting up the diagnostic equipment.”

“Roger.”

The navigator turned to go, then stopped. “You know, Riss.”

“Uh-huh.”

“A thought just occurred to me.”

Riss crossed her arms and smiled. “A thought? You?”

Sanvi giggled. The sound made Riss feel relaxed. Finally. Maybe things might get back to normal after all.

But Enoch looked troubled still. “What about the other rock chunks?”

Sanvi stopped giggling. Cooper looked startled. Riss closed her eyes.

Shit.

They ran back to the command center.

“Sanvi, get a message out to Ceres,” Riss ordered tersely as they slid into their respective seats. “Under no circumstances are they to pulverize the rock or use any hydrocarbons from it.”

“Way ahead of you, Riss,” Sanvi replied, already starting up the comm systems.

“R—Riss,” Cooper said. “I’ll prepare a more detailed report on—whatever the computer thinks it may or may not have found.”

Riss nodded. Might be useful in case someone in the guild had questions.

More importantly, though, what would she tell Sergey? His trust in her—was it unfounded?

And Gennaji.

She bit her lip.

Lena.

Her own inexperience, her decision-making skills. Had she learned nothing?

“Riss,” Enoch said. “I got something here.”

“On the trajectory?”

“No, from Ceres.”

He gestured to his screen. They gathered around the console. An image appeared; a string of numbers and text detailing the successful capture of the two rock fragments they had launched from their transneptune position several days before.

“So they got the chunks with no problems,” Sanvi commented. “That’s a first.”

“That’s not all,” Enoch said. He scrolled down. “I found the Ceres Mining Consortium transportation record. Posted yesterday. Take a look at this.”

Riss read in mute astonishment. The rocks had already been pulverized into water and sent on to Mars. Why so soon?

“We need to get a message to the Mars Colonies, then. As well as to Ceres.” She went back to her chair. “Is there any way we can return to the happy hunting grounds faster than our current ETA?”

Enoch shook his head. “Probably not. The ion engine has been increasing our speed incrementally for each day. It’d throw everything off if we tried to recalibrate them. If we lost some weight somehow, then maybe.”

He shrugged and raised his eyebrows.

Riss caught his meaning. “No,” she stated flatly.

“If we dumped the rock, we could gain—”

“No!” she said, fiercely. “Even if that thing is worthless, it’s still ours. Not a chance.”

“What if…”

Riss turned left. “Sanvi?”

The pilot hesitated, then continued. “What if we don’t stop at Zedra point?”

“You mean, skip the refueling? We’ll run out.”

“Inertia will carry us,” Sanvi pointed out. “We’ll just have to rely on someone at Base to slow us.”

“She’s right,” Enoch said. He pointed at his console. “I just did the math. We can pick up a couple of days by skipping the refuel. And if we steer a little in the right direction, I think we can get another boost or two from Saturn or Jupiter.”

“Riss,” Sanvi said, “if we can pick up around 55 to 60 hours, we can get to Ceres without refueling.”

“You sound confident,” Riss said. “How are we doing on food and water?”

“More than enough,” Cooper said. He proffered a pad. “Even though the water may or may not be, uh.”

“Contaminated?” Sanvi suggested, smirking.

“Compromised,” Cooper retorted. “And I said ‘may.’ We still don’t really know.”

“Water with living things in it,” she replied, making a face. “Disgusting.”

The geologist shrugged. “At home in Colorado, all our well water had living things in it.”

Sanvi looked horrified.

“Didn’t know you had such a weak stomach,” Enoch chortled.

“Living things! How could you?” She shuddered.

“Weak,” he repeated.

“If you’re trying to irritate me…” Sanvi warned.

Enoch grinned and turned back to his console. “Are you irritated?”

“Yes.”

“Then it’s working.”

“All right, people,” Riss said, suppressing a chuckle. “Let’s get that message sent to Mars. They need to know what’s coming.”

Sanvi shot one last look at the navigator and bent to her task. Enoch was also diligently tapping away, swiping a pad hanging in the air to his right while checking the console in front of him. After a few minutes, he turned to Riss.

“New course input. We miss Saturn, but Jupiter lines up nicely for a gravity well push to Ceres.”

“Well done,” she responded. “Do it.”

Enoch nodded. He touched the console again. Riss once again could have sworn she felt the Artemis buzz. As if the ship were talking with them, approving the turn to starboard.

“We’ll feel stronger gravity effects as we approach point-five g,” Enoch commented.

Cooper shook his head. “The asteroid chunk will have more weight, then.”

Riss nodded. “True. So we’ll need to use more of the hydrocarbons to reduce the mass.”

They all looked at her.

“What? We already drank the water. Another couple days won’t change anything.”

Cooper relaxed his shoulders and sighed. “I wish I had your confidence.”

Enoch just laughed. “What the hell. I don’t mind flying every night.”

Riss was about to respond when a sudden exclamation from Sanvi stopped her.

“Guys, we have a problem.”

It was Riss’s turn to sigh. “Another one?”

The pilot slapped at her console. The sound echoed in the tiny command center. Plastic and metal against skin. Riss felt the ship groan in protest. Or had she just imagined that?

“Mars is refusing our pings,” Sanvi said through tight teeth.

Riss frowned. “Refusing?”

“They won’t give permission to let the message through. Something about being unable to verify non-hostile intent from unauthorized spacecraft.”

“Say what?”

Riss sat back in the command chair. This did not sound good.

“Try Ceres.”

Sanvi slapped the console again. “Already did. Same response.”

“Same? Exactly?”

“Well,” the pilot conceded. “Not a hundred percent, no.”

“Then?”

Sanvi looked directly at Riss.

“There was also a message. For you. From Gennaji.”

Riss said nothing. Her hands gripped the chair’s arms. She felt strangely calm, although she knew she looked pale. Old memories resurfaced.

“He can’t have reached Base before us,” Enoch exclaimed. “In that old rust bucket?”

“Ryan, enough,” Riss whispered. She felt energy draining from her.

“The message had been relayed from some other position,” Sanvi said. “Not sure where.”

Riss breathed out, trying to relax her grip.

“What did he have to say?”

Sanvi paused. “‘I will have my own.’”

They were silent for a moment.

Then Enoch spoke up.

“Fuck him!”

“Charmingly eloquent,” Sanvi said. “As usual.”

“Come on, Riss,” Cooper said, sounding exasperated. “What is it with this guy? What has he got against you?

Riss shook her head. “This is between him and—”

“No, it’s not!” the geologist said angrily.

She looked at him, shocked. Cooper seemed to have an aura around him, as if the air were charged with anger.

“Whatever vendetta or grudge or whatever this guy has against you affects us as well,” he continued.

He sat back in his chair, crossing his arms. “I think we have a right to know.”

Riss looked back and forth from Sanvi and Enoch, pleadingly. She could only respond weakly, “I—I’d rather not.”

“Not good enough, Riss!” Cooper said. He seemed on the verge of exploding.

“There was another woman,” Sanvi said softly.

Riss protested weakly. “No…” A dark void filled her eyes.

Enoch asked, “Gennaji and Riss had something?”

“No,” Sanvi said. She looked away. “Riss was the captain.”

“Somebody died,” Riss whispered to the darkness.

They looked at her again. She felt pale.

“Riss,” Sanvi began.

Riss stared into nothing. She felt the start of tears in the corners of her eyes.

No, she thought. Not now. Not yet.

She quickly composed herself, tugging down her shirt sleeves from tense shoulders.

“I’ll be in the gym,” she said brusquely, climbing out of the captain’s chair. “Continue on the new course to Ceres.”

Sanvi fell silent. Cooper raised a finger but then placed it against his lips, lost in thought.

She turned to go. She should have reprimanded the crew for not responding to a command, but she knew she had to get out of there.

“What’ll we say to the Mining Council?” Enoch called out.

Riss stopped on the threshold of the corridor and spoke without turning around.

“We’ll find out when we get there.”

Then she disappeared.


Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 11: Ceres (January 16th)

Bringer of Light, Chapter 9 (Part 2): Mars Colonies

December 27, 2020
MThomas

(In part 1, Weng found himself suddenly promoted and about to be thrust into the spotlight…)

He toggled the console, and the row of monitors sprang to life. Weng found himself addressing no less than half a dozen delegates, all of whom wanted to speak simultaneously.

In fact, they appeared to have already begun discussing among themselves.

“—told you that the Indian government would never—”

“—not what we ordered! And where are the supplies we requested last—”

“Hasn’t the Martian Secretariat been in—”

“Gentlemen! Gentlemen!” Martin began, holding his hands up in surrender.

Women,” someone interrupted.

“Men and women,” Martin corrected. “We have been made aware of your food supply issues and—”

“What are you going to do about it? We’ve been waiting four days now!”

“Mr. Mbutu, believe me, the needs of the CAA settlers are well known to us—”

“The EEC has priority over African settlers! We arrived first, we have—”

The delegates raised their voices and general argument prevented Weng from understanding much. Martin smiled and raised his hands again.

“Gentlemen and women! Delegates! Please, please! I have—”

The discussion continued for another minute or two. Martin turned to Weng and nodded.

Weng coughed into a fist before speaking.

“Excuse me,” he tried. Too soft. The delegates continued.

“—Persian Empire will make you regret any theft of property from—”

“Excuse me!” Weng fairly shouted at the screens.

The voices died down. The delegates looked at him.

Weng cleared his throat.

“Gentlemen, ladies. I have spoken to many of you these past few days, about your heat, your electricity—”

“Yes, yes,” huffed one delegate. “For all the good it did.”

Weng nodded in agreement.

“I’m afraid you are correct, Ms. Pehrat. However, that has not prevented us from developing an amicable and mutually beneficial relationship, has it not?”

Silence greeted this response. Martin pinched his arm from behind. Evidently, an encouraging gesture.

“Look,” Weng went on. “I know that we are asking much of you and your constituencies. But we must ask you all to realize that our situation is quite dire at the moment.”

“Dire?” Mbutu asked. “How dire, exactly?”

Weng cleared his throat again.

“I am given to understand that, er, due to the rapid increase in the need for electricity to power new settlement districts we will need to begin water rationing.”

“Begin?” Pehrat cried. “We’re already rationing!”

Several delegates jumped in.

“Intolerable!”

“Outrageous!”

“Please! Please!” Martin tried to interrupt again.

The delegates shouted him down in a cacophonous paroxysm.

“Water,” Weng mused as the din rattled around him. “Water…wait!”

He grabbed the sides of the desk and shouted at the screens.

“Wait! Wait! There may be a way.”

“The electrician speaks!” Mbutu laughed. But the other voices died down.

Martin interrupted. “Dr. Weng,” he said, emphasizing the word ‘doctor’, “Dr. Weng is the head of the Martian Colony Water Reclamation Project Team.”

“Ah,” Mbutu exclaimed.

“Thank you, Overseer,” Weng said. He straightened and opened his hands. “Water is needed for producing electricity due to a lack of other energy sources.”

“Yes, yes, we know,” Mbutu commented. “And?”

“What if…” Weng began.

He paused. He raised a hand, stretched out his fingers as if to gesture, and paused again, thinking.

“I have two proposals,” he suddenly announced. “First.”

He stopped. He glanced at Martin. The Overseer maintained his politician’s smile.

“First,” Weng repeated, “We do have the capability to release more water into the water reclamation system. However, we do not presently have enough workers to dig up the regolith required for the process.”

The delegates were silent for a moment.

“What you are suggesting,” Pehrat offered, “would require many, many rounds of negotiations among our nations.”

“We don’t have time for that,” Weng said. “I don’t know the delicate nature of politics but I do know the technical possibilities and necessities of our current situation.”

Pehrat was silent, seemingly considering the truth of his statement.

“I do know,” Weng continued, “that we all need each other. To cooperate, for mutual benefit.”

He stopped and held up two fingers.

“Second.”

Martin briefly dropped his smile but recovered.

“Second,” Weng said heavily. “It seems likely that we may still not get the water reclamation process started in time to suit our immediate needs. I estimate two to three months before processing will be adequate.”

Martin smoothly interposed. “In that case, what do you propose? Won’t rationing be enough?”

“I’m afraid not,” Weng said. “I propose that the United Mars Colonies—”

“The what?” Mbutu blurted.

“Dr. Weng, there’s no such—” Martin began.

Weng continued, “—that the United Mars Colonies send an envoy or envoys to Ceres for the purpose of procuring an emergency supply of water strictly for the drinking supply. Not to be used for electrical generation.”

Martin grabbed his arm, hissing, “We must talk.”

Turning to the screens and smiling, he said, “Pardon us for a moment. Please hold.”

He stabbed at a button on the desk, then turned back to Weng, furious.

“What on earth do you think you’re doing?”

Weng regarded the Overseer calmly. “We’re not ‘on Earth’.”

“For the love of—you know what I mean!”

The Overseer began to pace, waving his arms. “The Moon Treaty of 1979, the Outer Space Exploration Treaty of 1991, and the Mars Mining Treaty of 2031 all forbid any one nation to act on behalf of citizens of other sovereign nations working or living off-world!”

Weng blinked. “Meaning?”

Martin stopped.

“Meaning,” he said heavily, “each group of settlers is bound by the laws of their countries, and we cannot speak for them as a group!”

“But,” Weng said, “most of these recent settlers are obviously refugees, and their governments have either not contacted us or have been evasive and vague in our communications.”

“True, all true,” Martin retorted, agitated. “But I work for the UN. Not ‘the United Mars Colonies,’ whatever the hell that is.”

He stopped pacing and frenetically ran his fingers through his hair.

“Martin,” Weng said.

The politician looked over him, and clasped his hands in front like a prayer.

“Weng, I have already had to agree to give each and every country its own territory, in stark contrast to existing UN directives. Separated each group by a minimum of 1.4 kilometers. Forbidden settlers from other nation-states to enter their territory without permission.”

“And has that prevented settlers from communicating with each other?”

“Ah…”

“Or sharing their supplies, which they got from us?”

“Um. Not in so many words, no.”

“And yet,” Weng continued, “the UN has obliged us, as a central authority, to supply housing, food, water, power, communication facilities. All despite the fact these settler factions are supposed to be operating independently. Correct?”

“Yes, yes,” Martin replied quickly.

Weng approached the near-panicked politician. He held out his hands to calm him down.

“Look, we need water, yes?”

Martin nodded, rubbing his palms together.

“And we need water from the asteroid reclamation plants on Ceres, because we can’t get ours to produce enough water fast enough and we can’t convince the UA to give us any of theirs. Again, correct?”

“Yes, that is essentially the situation.”

“And we only have three months before we run out of drinking water?”

Martin swallowed and nodded again. “I believe those are the current estimates.”

Weng smiled. Actually, he had no idea what the current estimates were. Nor how long it would take to produce more if the settler factions agreed to donate workers. Probably he was close to accurate. But that hardly mattered, to get what he wanted.

“Now,” he continued, “if we were to ask Ceres for water, as per UN regulations, we would have to go through each country’s delegation, then wait for an answer from their respective countries, then wait for the answer to, ah, filter back through the delegates.”

Again, Martin nodded, this time with more certainty.

“So,” Weng concluded. “If we approach Ceres not as the UN, beholden to separate, divided, bickering nations, but as a sort of united group of fellow outer space residents, wouldn’t the mining community on Ceres treat us as a single entity? with slightly more respect?”

Martin looked dubious. “I’m not as confident as you on that issue,” he said slowly. “However—”

“Good,” said Weng. He strode back to the ugly yellow desk. “I’ll convince the delegates that a temporary alliance and a united front will get us more water.”

“Wait!” Martin called out. “Let me, let me stand next to you. You talk, I’ll support.”

Weng shrugged. “Support” sounded like “use you,” but he supposed they, too, needed to show a united front.

In the end, he would get what he wanted, he thought, inwardly grinning. And it would only cost him an extra trip to Ceres to see Riss.


Next: Chapter 10 (Part 1) The Artemis (Coming January 2nd)

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