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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)

Bringer of Light, Chapter 9 (Part 1): Mars Colonies

December 19, 2020
MThomas

(While the crew of the Artemis is enduring the long return home, on Mars, Weng is about to run into a problem that is partly of his own making…)

“But, Martin, the designs I sent you were already approved by the new settler delegation from…”

“Sorry, Sam. I know this is important to you, but with the heightened tensions Earthside right now, the priority is foodstuffs.”

“Yes, but—”

“The existing domes will have to suffice for the moment. Why don’t you come down here when you have a chance. We’ll have a chat over ruibos tea.”

Weng stared at the blank space above his console where the 3D holograph had once been. The Overseer had simply cut the transmission without a proper ending salutation.

Dammit it all! He picked up his coffee cup with a trembling hand, but resisted the impulse to throw it.

Taking a sip, Weng stared at the empty space again, as if the image of his superior still remained, smiling at him. 

Nothing had changed. Inwardly he raged, as his face strived for control.

What a fool he had been! To think that anything would be different on Mars. Bureaucracies were all the same, he thought. Only interested in perpetuating themselves. Efficiency? Effectiveness? Not necessary, as long as the status quo was maintained.

Artistry?

He scoffed at his own conceit.

Delusional thinking. Who had time for art with all the work foisted upon him? It had been nearly three weeks since his arrival, and in that time nearly a dozen ships had arrived from multiple countries Earthside. Just over a hundred settlers from the Eastern European Union. A hundred sixty from the Greater Indian Empire. Eighty-three and then ninety-four from the Central African Alliance. More and more each day, it seemed.

The problem was, the UN directives they were forced to operate the Colonies under were confusing, at best. No single country was allowed to lay claim to any particular region of Mars, or of space in general. But now with multiple factions all vying for breathing room, preventing ethnic groups from staking claim to their own territory had proven nearly impossible.

The Iranians didn’t want to be near the Chinese. The Ukranians didn’t want to be next to the Slavic Federation. The Central African Alliance demanded separate territories for each member nation. Only the United Americas hadn’t laid a claim, and that was only because no new settlers from them had arrived. Weng supposed they would prefer to go to Lunar Base, which the UA controlled. Politically, anyway.

He sighed and swirled his cold soy coffee around the cup. Things were no better here on Mars than they had been back on the Moon. If anything, they were worse. Weng had never seen so many different nationalities trapped in such a small confined space before.

He paused, set the cup down in front of the antiquated console, and pondered.

The timing seemed odd. Transition from Earth to Mars normally took at least a full year, nearly three years at their farthest distance apart. Of course, the docking at ISS would allow for reduced payload and less cost. But still, these ships would have taken off from their respective countries long before the current tensions started.

Unless they had somehow known ahead of time, of course, that something was about to happen. That didn’t bode well.

Weng lifted his info pad from its wireless charging port and shut the desk power off to save electricity.

If he had to play the role of the transparent pen-pusher, then for the time being he’d simply have to play along. As the Sage wrote, long ago, “Do not worry that your talents are unappreciated. Make yourself worthy of being appreciated in the future.”

He left his tiny office and entered the narrow underground corridor leading to the central hub. He stepped on the pedwalk and jotted a few random, unnecessary notes on his pad. Keeping the Sage’s words in his mind, Weng made additional mental notes of the lighting, the ceiling, the wall and doorway fixtures. Coarse behind belief. Functional, naturally. The need to protect civilians from radiation meant that every domicile had to be covered in several feet of Martian soil. Still, technology had advanced since the early days of Martian settlement, Weng thought. Why hadn’t someone planned better?

The automated 3D printers had been working nonstop; as soon as one dwelling was assembled, it filled and another had to be prepared. The robotic diggers struggled to connect all the adobes, and their haste showed. Here in the central habitats, where the original settlement had been transformed into a series of UN-Mars colony liaison offices, atmospheric control allowed them to use the automated walkway without wearing any exosuits. Each living unit came equipped with high-speed wifi and personalized access ID for connectivity to the Mars Colony Net.

But the corridors between the new adobes had no fresh air and virtually no heat. Just getting them all hooked up to the electrical grid was proving a struggle, let alone set up wifi and walking strips. It was all they could do to keep the hydrocarbon-driven generators running to prevent the new settlers from freezing and starving.

Weng curled his lip in disgust at the thought of wearing an exosuit to get to work. Drinking his own recycled sweat and urine to reduce the strain on their water supply.

No mobile access to vids.

He shuddered.

A notification from his ID badge told him the pedwalk was reaching the end of the corridor. He staggered as the automated strip abruptly halted. Still several meters from the end. Righting himself quickly, he immediately jotted down on his pad, Maint. crew fix pedwalk Sector 1A-2. Stat.

Inexcusable. The Mars Colony simply could not take on any new settlers at this point. It couldn’t even maintain structures for existing residents.

He clamped the pad shut and strode off the pedwalk into the building before him. The Central Offices. The original building had been adobe like all the new facilities, he had been told. Now it was a complicated reinforced plexiglas and native concrete structure, complete with UV and solar radiation protection shield.

What would happen if the new settlers weren’t sufficiently shielded? he wondered.

Weng shrugged, dismissing the thought. His job at the moment was to make sure they had enough water to go around. And since much of the electricity in the Mars Colony was produced from water, this was more easily said than done.

Entering the Central Office lobby, he waved his ID at the receptist. The cyborg nodded and gestured at the next door.

“Go ahead, Mr. Weng. The Overseer is waiting.”

“Thanks.”

Weng was sure the simulacrum was smirking. Not possible, he knew. The cyborg was programmed to respond to a tens of thousands of combinations of external stimuli, but despite the human-like torso, arms, and face, it was still just a machine. A creepy machine, but a machine.

That smile did look like a smirk, though. He shook his head and paused at the closed door. From the other side, he heard a raised voice. Martin seemed to be arguing with someone.

He touched a hand-size panel in the door, and a faint buzzing noise came from within the room.

There was a pause. Then, “Come!”

The door opened. Facing the door several meters away was a large off-white plastic desk, with Martin seated behind it. The desk had seen better days. Early Colony, Weng guessed, realizing with a start that his own desk looked much newer and likely had a much more recent computer set up as well. He felt slightly embarrassed.

“Ah, Sam, good to see you,” the Overseer said, beaming. He gave no indication of just having finished a conversation.

“Over—Martin, I wanted to see you about—” Weng began.

“Of course, of course,” Martin responded, jumping to his feet. “Tea?”

Before Weng could respond, Martin had already placed the order. A series of buttons lined the left side of the desk. That further dated it. Buttons! Just like the water reclamation plant room.

“Martin,” Weng started again, “have you given any thought to my proposal?”

Martin nodded, then shook his head. “Yes, yes, I have.”

Weng opened his mouth but the Overseer forged on.

“And I have a counter proposal for you.”

A buzzer sounded.

“Ah, that would be the tea. Come!”

They waited as a drone-server wheeled into the room, deposited two plain aluminum cups on the desk, and then wheeled backwards into the lobby area.

The door closed.

“How would you like to be the head of the water reclamation committee instead of just a member?”

Weng nearly dropped the cup, but managed to bring it to his mouth. He took a careful sip.

Not bad. Upper management had its perks.

“Head?” he stammered. “Martin, you know that I’m more interested in—”

“Architectural redesigns of the settler units, yes, of course.”

Martin raised his own cup and drained it without a glance.

“But,” the Overseer continued, “before we can consider expenditures on superficial concerns—however noble and proper they may be, mind you!—there are more immediate, ah, considerations.”

“Such as foodstuffs?” Weng cut in.

He bit a lip. That sounded too indignant.

Martin cocked an eyebrow.

“Water, Sam. Water.”

“Martin, these people have no heat. No access to the Net. Their electrical grid set up is archaic. A good architectural redesign would alleviate—”

“Yes, I know. And you’re absolutely correct. 100%.” Martin paused. “But they need water. And we haven’t got any.”

Weng paused. “No water?”

“No water,” Martin repeated. “Well, not literally no water, but we must start to ration or we’ll run out within a few weeks. Well, not to exaggerate. A few months, perhaps.”

Weng slowly lowered the tea cup to the plastic desk. The tea felt stale in his mouth now. How much water had they wasted making it just now?

“Electricity,” he said. He looked up at the Overseer. “We’re using too much on the generators.”

Martin nodded somberly. “Yes, exactly so. And that’s what you need to tell the head of the settler delegations.”

Weng laughed. “Me?”

“Yes, you.”

Weng stared. The Overseer wasn’t joking.

“Martin…you must…are you…me?”

Martin draped an arm across his shoulders. “Look. It’s all very simple. You know these people already. You’ve been meeting with them, working with them. You’ve shared your concerns with them about their situation.”

Weng winced at the Overseer’s touch, but allowed himself to be led behind the yellowing desk. An array of ancient computer monitors stared up at him.

The architect resisted the urge to curl a lip. First generation networking like this belonged in a museum, not the Office of the Martian Secretariat.

“Here,” Martin gestured. “I’ve already got a meeting set up with several colonist delegates.”

“But—”

“Just follow my lead,” Martin said urgently. He eased into a smile. “They trust you. Let’s play.”


Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 9 (Part 2): Mar Colonies (Coming 12/26)

In which Weng finds himself at the center of a fight and makes a proposal that will change everything…

Bringer of Light, Chapter 8: Enoch

December 12, 2020
MThomas

(Riss is the leader of the Artemis Crew, Brady is the scientist, and Sanvi the pilot…but Enoch is the one who knows the way to go. He hopes.)

Kapow! Another German plane on fire, spiraling down from the sky, destroyed by a hail of bullets from his trusty Hellcat.

“Fuck you, Focke-Wulf!” Enoch chortled. His gloved hands danced in the air, finger tips wiggling as his 3D-goggled head bobbed back and forth.

He had no idea how long he’d been flying. What an addictive game! he couldn’t help thinking, as he shot down a Zero.

It made no sense, of course, but the game scenario creator allowed him to populate the battle with planes from any country, any time. He could have included a Sopwith Camel from the first world war, or a Mars Warplane from the shortly-lived Mars Colonies War if he felt like it.

But his favorite was World War II planes. Especially the Zero. How many times had he imagined himself saving the Pearl City from the Japanese invaders? Enoch, the hero, the half-Jewish, half-Irish Hawai’ian…

A stray memory entered his head as his Camel swooped over Diamond Head, strafing the dastardly Zero trying to attack hapless Waikiki swimmers as they sunned on Kahanamoku beach. He tried to push the thought away; once, twice, his fingers twitched, sending burst after burst of virtual machine gun fire into the Zero’s side. The enemy shuddered, smoke spurted from its canopy, and began its descent into the pounding surf.

He pulled back on the throttle and veered right, soaring over Nu’uanu Pali, aloft on the wind that warriors of old would challenge. Jumping contests of bravery, daring the wind to push them back over the cliff, or failing in the eyes of the gods and falling to their deaths on the rocks below.

He let go of the controls. The plane sailed straight through the valley. 

The hill of Kaipu-o-Lono on one side, Napili on the other. 

Enoch’s grandfather often told him the stories of the piko stones, Hapu’u and Kalae-hau-ola, twin goddesses guarding and protecting the children whose parents made the appropriate sacrifice and performed the ritual of blessing.

“The stones are gone now,” Grandfather told him, when Enoch was a boy. “Destroyed by the haule who took our kingdom away from us. But the stones will return in time. And their spirit still guards us, even now.”

But Enoch was not pure Hawai’ian. He was not even hapa haule. Not for the last time, he wished that his father had not been Irish-Hawai’ian, his mother not Jewish.

“Shit,” he exclaimed, tearing the headset off and flinging it at the floor of his sleeping cabin. He yanked the controller glove off and clenched it in one fist. But he stopped himself, released the glove. It hung mid-air, fingers gently bobbing up and down like the disembodied hands in the Evil Dead movies.

He sat up in the bunk.

Who the fuck ever heard of an Irish-Jewish Hawai’ian?

From the Moon, no less.

A sudden banging noise came from the other side of the wall. Sanvi.

“Knock it off, Karate Kid!” Enoch shouted, knowing full well she wouldn’t hear him clearly. Who cared. She hit the wall about once every two days. What the hell was her problem, anyway?

He massaged the back of his neck, resisting the urge to stand up and stretch. Being born off-Earth had its advantages. Enoch’s height gave him the reach others lacked, but it sucked to be in a cramped cabin on a ship built for four Earthers.

Loonie. Yeah, he was a Hawaiian Loonie. Who had never been to Hawaii, and never would. Not without a special pressure suit, complete with robotic supports so that he could walk in normal Earth-g. And who needed electronic implants to see, because the Moon’s low gravity had permanently effed up the fluid inside his eyeballs. 

At least he could zoom-in. Definitely a targeting advantage.

He folded his hands behind his head and stared at the ceiling. The vidgame headset floated upward opposite his bunk, gently rebounding against the door.

Another loud noise from the wall. Sanvi must have hit it twice.

Enoch shrugged. He thought she was cute, on first joining the Artemis crew. Hell of a fighter. With his Loonie-bones he stood no chance against her in a scrape. But the mysticism she got so hung up on was a major turnoff.

“Aren’t you interested in Kabbalah?” she asked him once, in the mess room. “You know, being Jewish and all?”

“I’m Hawai’ian, not Jewish,” he replied.

“But it’s fascinating!” she persisted. “Elements are similar to Zen…”

He had to let her babble on while he focused on his freeze-dried beans and faux-spam. He still wouldn’t touch real pork — who knew what was in it? Especially in deep space rations — but he just wasn’t interested in religion. Any of it.

He pushed the memory away. Another came to mind; Grandfather, taking him out for a swim in the Sea of Showers.

“When I was your age,” Grandfather was saying, “there wasn’t any water on the Moon. Not above ground, anyway.”

Enoch splashed his grandfather and laughed. “Bet it was colder, too,” he joked. “Bet you froze your tuckus off!”

“Language!” Grandfather said sharply. But the old man smiled.

Enoch looked out across the sea. “I can’t see the other side,” he complained. “It curves too much. Nothing to see.”

“That never stopped your ancestors,” Grandfather said. “The great navigators of the Sea, they had only the stars, the currents, the wind to guide them. Read the stars, Enoch. Let the universe be your guide.”

Enoch frowned at the memory. The stars, he thought bitterly. The gravity wells and planetary magnetic fields. He had learned. Those who controlled his life had not.

Like those morons at Zedra. What did they know that he didn’t? He didn’t need their help plotting trajectories for the thrower. He didn’t need their stupid pings about “optimal course projections” for returning to the happy hunting grounds, either. Artemis was his ship.

Well, Riss’s ship, technically. 

He grinned. He’d do anything for that woman. 

Sometimes in the command center, when she was lost deep in thought, staring out the window like she usually did, Enoch would try to sneak glances back at her. A little older than him, true. But still. He had a pretty active imagination. Too bad she had a boyfriend.

He shook his head. Fiancé, he heard. Some other Loonie. Nah, had to be an Earther sent to Luna for the government. Somebody connected to Bardish. Like Riss.

Dammit!

He grabbed the vidset and control glove again. No point in feeling sorry for himself. His time would come. Meanwhile, there was always the Hellcat.


Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 9 (Part 1): Mars Colonies (Coming 12/19)

Bringer of Light, Chapter 7: Sanvi

December 5, 2020
MThomas

(In Chapter 6, Brady Cooper wondered about his fellow crewmates’ spirituality. If only he knew...)

Hataraki.

Mugen. Mutoto. Muryou. Mushi. Mushuu.

That which is without beginning and without end, without limit and without volume, that which cannot be seen, touched, heard, smelled, or tasted, but whose presence can be sensed and felt in every tree, every rock, every stream and every hill. Everyone and everything. Everywhere.

We are all part of it, as it is what gives us life. We are all connected, we are all aspects of the Hataraki of the universe, the universe aware of itself and yet unaware of itself.

Namu daama.

Legs crossed, right foot resting gently upside on her left knee, Sanvi Janes clasped her hands in front of her tanden, just below her diaphragm, and let out a slow, deep breath. Counting ten seconds, she paused, waited three more seconds, then slowly, deeply, breathed in for seven seconds. Hold. Three seconds. Exhale. Pause. Inhale. Hold. Repeat without thinking. Empty the mind. Clear the machine.

Sanvi had been practicing mushin, mind no mind meditation, for most of her adult life. Her parents had initially disapproved. Her father, a devout Lutheran, claimed it was simply her rejection of religion. Her mother, nominally Hindu but essentially non-practicing, said it represented an ancient, foolish attempt to recreate superstitious rites of the best-forgotten past. The then-college student Sanvi had mocked them both as sticks in the mud. What did they know about the Path and the Way? What did they know about the true nature of things? After her younger brother Aaron had died — asphyxiation, of a faulty airsuit during the move to the Lunar Base — they had no right to force her to trust their archaic belief systems. Martial arts and meditation had given her something her parents never could: a centered self. She started training as a hobby, then for health, but eventually it became her life.

Inhale. Hold. Exhale. Pause. Repeat.

“What’s the point of meditation?” her father had asked, sarcastically. “Does God talk to you directly?”

“There is no God,” Sanvi insisted stubbornly. “There is no Heaven. No Hell. There just is.”

“You think you’re so much smarter now,” his response. “So much smarter than your poor old parents, clinging to their old-fashioned beliefs in something better than ourselves, something higher.”

No, it wasn’t like that. It was not a rejection of an ideal. It was a vision.

“I don’t understand,” her mother said, bemoaning her daughter’s martial arts practices. “You say you seek deeper understanding, yet this comes with all the kicking and punching and throwing of other people. You come home with ugly purple bruises all over. Is this Enlightenment?”

Sanvi shook her head, trying to clear the images, the words, the emotions. Peaceful mind, empty the thoughts, don’t even think of thinking.

Inhale. Hold. Exhale. Pause. Repeat.

Another image floated out from her memories. The first time she witnessed the paired forms practice, the first time she observed the group meditation at a college training hall. 

She remembered how violent, how quick, yet how graceful and fluid the motions looked. The poise and mutual respect, the utter confidence the sparring partners showed. Tension as the two faced each other, the split second silence of staring, as if they could read each other’s souls. The shuffling of the cotton uniforms and bare-foot gliding steps. The snap of the leg, arm block and counter-move. The takedown throw and roll of the thrown, bouncing effortlessly back on their feet and facing off again.

She wanted that poise. Needed that grace.

“It’s not a block,” her shido-shi told her much later. “It is a reception. Receive the blow. Accept it. Use it. Transform it into a self-expression.”

After years of practice, first as a student, then even as a lower ranking teacher, she still didn’t fully understand. The forms, the breathing, the mind over substance, the teachings.

Complete understanding remained as elusive as ever, just beyond her grasp.

Silently, feeling her tanden expand and contract as she slipped further into no-mind, she heard the words:

Rightness of thought.

Rightness of speech.

Rightness of deed.

Rightness of mind.

Rightness of understanding…

Her face flushed, her body trembling with adrenaline, Sanvi stood in the middle of the concrete floor, facing off her opponent, a fellow kenshi from her biochemical engineering lab. Seconds into the session, Sanvi knew she could best the man. She was faster, her techniques were sharper.

A half-second pause, and the two moved. She saw the foot, then the hand, but she had underestimated the angle of the incoming fist. It glanced off her faceguard as she twisted her torso to avoid the blow. In fury at herself, she seized the leg and threw. Not waiting for him to regain his footing, she advanced, intending to pommel him from behind. He fell, rolled, crouched and instinctively raised a hand to ward off the next incoming blow. Sanvi came back to herself before she finished the strike and heard her voice. 

“Sorry, sorry! Are you all right?”

No damage had been done. Lucky. Her face flushed again, with embarrassment. As the higher ranking spar partner, she should have been able to better control her anger.

Shido-shi chastised her. 

Heijo-shin, Sanvi. Control your thoughts. Calm your mind. Accept. Do not think of consequence.”

She struggled with the peaceful mind. A daily struggle. Especially on board the Artemis.

Her thoughts wandered to the cargo hold. Focused on the takedown, the confrontation with Gennaji.

She didn’t know how Riss would react. Only that she should protect her captain. Her friend.

There was no real need to slam the man down so hard. But she couldn’t help it. She had seen his contempt, his arrogance, his lack of respect for her captain. More than anything, she had wanted to show that she, herself, Sanvi, was a worthy opponent. Not someone to be ignored.

She almost lost control. Heijo-shin.

Clear the machine.

Breathe. Inhale. Hold.

She remembered the first time she met Riss. On Ceres, during her stint with the asteroid ore processing plant. The job was boring. Uneventful. Filled with safety checks, routine maintenance, shipping schedules and monthly quotas and computer log entries.

Nothing interesting for an ore transport flight deck trainee.

Asteroid hunting seemed exciting. Enticing. Much more challenging and eventful. And Riss was the first female captain that Sanvi had ever met. So sure of herself, cocky and independent. Even after she had learned about the accident with Lena, Sanvi knew that Riss was someone who could teach her how to become equally as independent and indomitable in spirit.

I fall down seven times, I get up eight.

But asteroid hunting turned out just as tedious. Flight paths and records. Restrictions on catches and retrievals. Standard pings and telemetry procedures. Seemingly endless stretches of empty space with nothing to do.

And hardly any space and time for practice. Unless the cargo hold was empty. Which it never was.

Practice. She had meant to go back to her computer programming lessons, the way she had Earthside. Before the move to Luna.

Before…

No.

Sanvi opened her eyes. Her breath was in disarray, out of rhythm. She pounded the side of a fist against the wall, and heard a muffled complaint from the other side. Enoch.

Screw him, she thought.

Aaron. I still haven’t forgiven them. Or forgotten you.

The tears came again, as usual, unbidden and sudden.

She wiped them away with the heel of her hand and hit the wall again.

Heijo-shin. Why was this always so hard?


Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 8: Enoch (Coming 12/12)

Bringer of Light, Chapter 6: Brady

November 28, 2020
MThomas

(In Chapter 5, we found out more about Riss. Now it’s the geist’s turn.)

Brady Cooper was typing.

It was more difficult than he thought it would be. One hand strapped into the pad case, the other single-finger typing on the pad surface, all the while trying not to float away from the bunk.

Floating made him queasy. He would never forget the embarrassment he felt just before his first launch. The “training” he received in the weightless chamber prior to joining the Lunar geological survey team simply didn’t prepare him for living on the Moon.

He lasted all of ten minutes before getting sick. All over himself, his teammates, the arrival seats in the spaceport lounge.

And it didn’t get any better from that point.

Somebody should have told me that terraforming didn’t change the gravity! he complained to his supervisor at the time. Didn’t Lunar Base have grav generators, anyway?

But that was just an excuse. Of course, he should have known. He’d forgotten. In his haste and anxiety to prove himself. The youngest geologist ever allowed to join an extra-Earth survey team, just recently out of grad school. And from Africa, no less!

No, not from Africa, he argued. American. I’m American. That was just my mother.

They always shrugged. You UA people all look alike, some told him.

Asians. He just didn’t understand them. But he knew Chinese scientists. Japanese. Indian. Malaysian. He needed to prove to them, prove that he was just as good as they were.

When the call came for a geist to join an asteroid hunting crew, he leapt at the chance. Without thinking, as usual. But he knew he could do it.

He hadn’t figured on the gravity being more or less the same. Or the equipment more complicated. Or the people more…complicated.

The recalcitrant pad was proving adept at avoiding his fingertips. Irritated, Cooper tried to sit upright. Instead, he managed to propel himself tumbling head over foot toward the closed entrance door.

Letting out a tiny yelp, he cradled the pad to his chest to protect it. His feet banged against the door, arresting his forward momentum and pushing him back towards the bunk. Calming himself down, Cooper reached down with his free hand and grabbed a boot. After a few awkward attempts, he managed to yank the boot on one-handed. The boot touched the floor, securing him in place.

He laughed. It must have looked ridiculous; anchored in place, waving his arms and left leg around like a sea anemone.

He took his hand out of the pad case and pulled the other boot on. Sitting down on the bunk, without doing a somersault this time, Cooper thought back to his near-fatal mistake. His first hunt.

What a scene he must have made, that time.

He’d been so anxious about actually stepping foot on an asteroid that he had forgotten to set his boots. One step on the asteroid was all it had taken to push him off of the surface and onto a slowly arching path out into space.

Fortunately Riss had seen him starting to float away and performed a daring rescue worthy of the popular NetStream vid “Real Space: Rock Hunters.” She turned off her own boots, grabbed the cable from the ship’s winch and launched herself as hard as she could at Cooper. A few bounding leaps onto the roof of the ship later, she crashed into him and wrapped the cable around his waist. He was only free floating for twenty seconds. But that was enough time for him to ponder having to make the choice: either slowly suffocate as his air ran out, or open his exosuit for a quick, frozen death.

Sitting on his bunk, magboots firmly attached, Cooper could now look back and wonder.

Why hadn’t he learned his lesson the first time?

He shook his head.

A better question was why he felt so drawn to seek an outer belt hunting expedition.

Chalk it up to the exuberance of youth, he heard a former teacher’s voice say.

He smirked at the memory. Mistakes, one after the other, in his doctoral studies at Boulder. Geochemistry had never been his strong point; somehow, he persevered. Even got three papers published before graduating. His professors’ lectures set his imagination on fire. To see asteroids and comets up close! To visit the Zedra fuel station on Triton and see the ice plumes of Europa!

Now, far from the colonized part of the solar system, hovering near the LaGrange points of Jupiter and Saturn, he was afraid.

All of the time.

Afraid. He had no idea the psychological rigors of deep space travel would affect him so intensely. The isolation. The emptiness. No up or down, left or right. No center.

None of his astrogeology studies had prepared him for this.

He held his head in his hands and stared at the floor.

Why had he and his mother left Tanzania?

As a high school student in Colorado, he had never fully understand the reason.

“It was time to leave Dar es Salaam behind,” she told him. “The republic is no more. The Commonwealth will not save us. Our future is with our brethren. In the UA.”

He originally thought they were searching for his father. British, he had been told. A white man from a distinguished background. Maybe even a politician. But they only stayed in Brighton for a few days. Then Chicago. Then Colorado.

His mother had never spoken of his father’s whereabouts, or why he had left. Cooper had no distinct memories of his father. Only that the man had not talked to him much, or even visited the house often.

In fact, the geologist realized he didn’t even know if his parents were married or not. He supposed now it didn’t matter. It was not something his mother wished to discuss.

“Study science,” she insisted, whenever he asked. “Listen to the rocks. Learn their story. Their past is your past.”

He did as she said. He studied. He got into his dream school. He learned. He struggled.

When he was chosen for the Mars terraforming project, his classmates told him how lucky he was. How jealous they were of his success.

But he hadn’t felt successful, somehow. Always needing to prove himself. Like he was being constantly tested, watched. Judged.

Mistakes. His work was nothing more than a giant bundle of mistakes.

Instinctively, he stood and clasped his hands. The short daily prayer, the prayer affirming the power of the divinity and its grace. In what direction Qiblih lay, he had little idea.

“…There is none other God but Thee, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting.”

He sat down again. There was no way to wash his hands in space. Sponging just wasn’t the same. Directions were meaningless. He had even skipped the long prayers for days at a time. Saying the medium prayer three times a day had proven difficult. When was sunrise? Sunset? Where could he find enough space for supplication?

He was glad nobody had yet asked him to use a gun. Violence ought to be avoided; the teachings forbade the faithful from carrying weapons or even using coarse language to criticize another. He came close to doing so, in the cargo hold, when the white hunter captain insulted him. Almost lost his temper.

White. Was that because he was white? What about his own captain?

Cooper shook his head again and closed his eyes, praying silently for the strength to remain faithful. His mother had lapsed. She was now covenant-less. Would he join her?

Only his isolation prevented the Elders from knowing his crisis of faith. He dared not contact his family. Even speaking with the covenant-less was grounds for being ostracized likewise.

Yet the isolation that saved him also condemned him. Who could he talk to?

Riss?

No, she was his captain. She had enough burdens to handle, let alone bear his. He was resolved to follow her command. She had more than earned it.

Enoch?

He hadn’t yet figured out the navigator. He didn’t seem Hawai’ian, although he claimed to be a descendant of ancient Pacific Island sailors. And his name, Enoch, was Biblical, yet the man had no interest or knowledge whatsoever of even his own faith. Cooper didn’t know what to make of him.

Sanvi?

Hm. She bothered him. In many ways. But spiritually, perhaps.

No. Not yet. He was unsure of himself, of his devotion. His own strength. He needed to be sure they could rely on him, before he relied on them.

He hoped he’d done the right thing by adding the ice to their water supply.

The pad bumped him in the back.

He turned around and plucked it out of the air, where it had floated aimlessly during his self-recriminating daydream.

He sighed and swiped it on again. Maybe another vid binge would take his mind off things for a couple of hours. Good thing the Artemis library had several thousand hours’ worth of pirated Net Stream vids.


Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 7: Sanvi (Coming 12/5)

Bringer of Light, Chapter 4 (Part 1)

November 7, 2020
MThomas

(Like the previous Chapter, this one is over 3,000 words. So I’m posting it in two parts.)

“Well, I’ll say one thing,” Weng muttered, stepping out of the vertical transport capsule into the Mars Colonies Receiving Station. “Mars smells much worse than I imagined.”

“You’ll get used to it,” said an approaching voice. “It’s just recycled feces. A small prize to pay for settling the universe.”

Weng looked up to see the owner of the voice; a slender East Asian man, wearing a business suit and a shoulder to waist white sash that marked him as a career politician.

“Martin Velasquez, Martian Colonies Overseer,” the man said with a practiced smile.

They shook hands. Weng almost did a double-take, but caught himself. The name didn’t seem to match his partner’s appearance.

“Weng Wei,” Weng said slowly. “But most people call me Sam.”

Velasquez laughed. “Sam. Originally from China?”

“Yes, that’s right,” Weng replied carefully. “But my allegiance is to the United Nations, not a single nation.”

Velasquez laughed again. “Not to worry, Mr Weng. We’re all friends here on Mars. No room for disagreements.”

“No room, huh.” Weng said, surveying the building surrounding them. He self-consciously touched his left wrist with his right hand. No watch. No way of using it on Mars, where the infrastructure wasn’t set in place yet. He sighed.

The geodesics were primitive by Lunar standards. The Mars Colonies primarily consisted of tall, egg-shaped semi-transparent structures connected by underground passages. All constructed by robotic drones and remote-controlled 3D printers the previous decade before the UN settlers landed. Compared to the spacious residences of the Moon, the living arrangements seemed horribly cramped.

Not to mention even less aesthetically pleasing, Weng thought. If that were actually possible. But he kept that thought to himself.

He let his hand drop awkwardly by his side. “So, uh, I gather you have a position open on your water reclamation team?”

“Yes, that’s right,” Velasquez said, smiling. “You came highly recommended.”

He gestured. “Shall we?”

They walked past the Receiving Station operator, who sat reading the latest sports news on his pad. He looked up briefly and touched a panel at the console in front of him. The transport capsule lifted and disappeared into the tube, headed back to the transit station in geostationary orbit above them.

“Mars Landers win today?” Velasquez called.

The operator waved his free hand. “Nah. Red Rocks beat ‘em. 15-7.”

Velasquez shook his head.

“Mars Baseball League,” he explained to Weng.

Weng shrugged. “I don’t know much about baseball,” he admitted.

“Well,” laughed Velasquez, “You’d better learn quickly. The colonists are crazy about it.”

He waited until they were out of earshot of the transport operator before adding, “Actually, without Marsball, many colonists probably would go crazy. It’s awfully isolating, being stuck in domes all day. The wireless network is barely adequate to support vid streaming, and even then only on UN-sanctioned pads.”

They left the Receiving Station and walked down a flight of metal stairs into a long winding corridor. The stench seemed to grow with each passing step, but Weng said nothing.

Instead, he focused his attention on the Martian Overseer, who prattled on about various problems the Colonies were experiencing.

“You know,” the Overseer was saying, “It’s so nice to finally meet a man of obvious intellect, such as yourself. I mean, a member of a terraforming design team! And a friend of the great Captain Bardish!”

Weng tried to humble himself as best he could. “Thank you for your kind words, Overseer. I’m just a company man.”

“No, no, not at all,” Velasquez retorted, waving away perceived concerns with a hand. “The Mars Colonies are desperately in need of more brain power. We’ve been applying for a qualified engineer up here for months, but with all these factional disputes Earthside…well, you know how it is.”

The Overseer paused. They stopped and he peered at Weng.

“You are a scientist, are you not?” he queried.

Weng didn’t like the suspicious tone in the voice. “Yes, yes,” he stammered, “Of course, I am. I’m eager to examine your water plant facilities.”

“Which ones?” Velasquez asked. “Desalination? Sewage? Recycling and filtration?”

“Filtration,” Weng said automatically. He’d rehearsed this bit. “I have some design ideas that may increase the regulatory capacity.”

“Ah,” said Velasquez. “But perhaps I should see if you can get some living quarters before—”

“Later,” Weng interrupted. Seeing the expression on the politician’s face, he hurried on. “I mean, I would very much like to go directly to my new workplace. Meet my new teammates. Find out what I can do.”

“Well,” said Velasquez dubiously, laying a finger aside his nose. “If it would set your mind at ease, I suppose the grand tour could wait. Still, hydroponics has some projects that might interest you. But I’ll take you directly to the reclamation plant, if you wish.”

He gestured. “This way. There’s a bit of more walking involved, I’m afraid. The underground pedestrian belt isn’t functioning at the moment.”

Weng refrained from sighing again. He had to play his cards close to his chest with this man. Bardish may have got him to Mars, but now he was on his own. Somehow he had to convince the Martian Overseer that he could be a valuable member of this fledgling Martian society.

And from there, become a valuable aide in the politician’s inner circle. This was his chance.

They resumed walking. Here and there along either side of the pathway various corridors branched off. Weng wondered how expensive it was to maintain lighting. The underground architecture reminded him of his trip to the Sudan, in the days before China and the United Americas became allies. Another waste of his talents, that trip. But at least it had taught him how to address local officials with tact.

“Overseer,” he began.

“Martin,” said Velasquez.

“Ah, Martin,” amended Weng. “I have to admit that I am not familiar with the current problems on Mars.”

Velasquez nodded in understanding. “Yes, with the tensions Earthside, and the close-minded-ness of the Lunar Council, it doesn’t surprise me. Some things don’t make NetStream News, you see.”

Weng cocked his head, feigning ignorance. “Some things?” he repeated.

The politician allowed himself a brief smirk, but returned to his empty smile. “Come now, Mr. Weng.”

“Sam.”

“Sam. We are men of intelligence. Any fool can see that if the Greater Indian Empire does not accede to the UN demands, violence is all but inevitable.”

Weng frowned in abeyance. The Overseer was an astute observer. The UN was even more ineffective than before at preventing conflicts among member nations. China and India frequently rattled sabres in the past, but things had quickly escalated with the creation of the Lunar Base. India felt slighted at not being asked to join the settlement project; China felt slighted at not being more involved in the Mars Colonies administration; the United Americas and the Slavic Confederacy still had horns locked over the ultimate fate of the Ukrainian Union.

And now the UN was demanding that India give up its claims to the old ISS, which had been earmarked for dismantlement long ago. The creation of Ceres as a way station for asteroid hunters made ISS irrelevant, the UN argued. India disagreed; their use of nuclear fissile materials rejuvenated the station, turning it into an armed outpost. They hinted the ISS harbored ship-to-ship nuclear warheads and MIRVs. Other nation-states suspected a ruse, but remained concerned that Indian warships could threaten their space interests and that the ISS, itself, represented a huge biological hazard should its systems fail.

At any rate, the ISS was a dangerous sword of Damocles. But what did it matter? Weng thought. His future lay here, on Mars. With Riss.

“Overse…Martin,” he said apologetically, “I’m not sure what use I can be politically, but I am here to help as much as I am able.”

“Of course, of course,” Velasquez chuckled, as he adjusted his sash. “But you see, politics is what makes Mars live and breathe. Refugees. Prisoners. Exiles. Or should I say, Martian settlers.”

They ascended a staircase into another domed structure. This one was much larger than others they had passed along the way. In the center of the room was an enormous computer workstation. Behind the workstation stretched several three-meter high water tanks, mounted with valve readers. Stacks of tubes in square metal racks lined the back wall, with tubes of varying sizes connecting everything in a complicated, convoluted weave across the floor. Three or four technicians in white hard hats and gray worker outfits wandered among the equipment, occasionally inputting information on touch pads. At the back of the room was a closed door, in front of which stood a cart filled what appeared to be dirt. A dull gray aluminum shovel leaned against it.

As they entered, one of the workers noticed and waved.

Velasquez returned the wave.

“Our new water reclamation system,” he explained to Weng. “Still in need of a few engineers. That’s why it’s not up to 100 percent just yet.”

Weng was about to respond when he noticed a large open slot in the wall next to the entrance doorway they had walked through. It looked almost like a cafeteria tray return window. From the slot curious glass rectangular panels ran along the walls in a strip all the way around the room.

“And this?” Weng asked, pointing at the slot.

“Ah.” Velasquez beamed. “Our pride and joy. Let me show you how it works.”

He walked over to the cart. Picking up the shovel, he scooped out a fair amount of material.

“This,” he said, while walking the shovelful to the slot, “is how we make water on Mars.”

He unceremoniously dumped the dirt into the slot. He put the shovel down, pulled a silk handkerchief out of a jacket inner pocket and carefully wiped his hands.

“Push that green button over there,” he said with a big grin.

Set into the wall above the slot was a panel, containing two thumb-size plastic buttons. One green, one red. How quaint, Weng thought, pushing the green button. Inside the slot, a whirring sound echoed. The noise of a metallic conveyor belt starting up. The dirt disappeared to the right. After a few minutes, another noise came from behind the first two glass panels in the wall.

Weng bent over and looked through the glass.

“Looks like a microwave oven,” he commented.

“It is a microwave oven, basically,” Velasquez replied. “At least, to the best of my knowledge. First, we need to cook the dirt and get the ice out of it.”

Water vapor began to cloud the panel, but the vapor quickly dissipated.

“Of course,” Velasquez continued, “with just a single shovelful of dirt, we won’t get nearly enough water vapor to bother with.”

He pushed the red button, and the noises stopped. The politician folded his handkerchief carefully and replaced it inside his jacket. Pausing to ruffle his lapels, he looked over at the technicians.

“They seem capable enough,” Weng said without thinking.

Velasquez looked back at him. “Oh, they are. That’s not the problem.”

He waited. With a start, Weng realized he was being tested. Would he know what the problem was?


Team SEArch+/Apis Cor of New York is the fourth-place winner in NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge, Phase 3: Level 1 competition.

Next: Chapter 4, Part Two (Landing at 7:00 p.m. EST on 11/14/20)

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