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Bringer of Light, Chapter 21: Transit to Ceres

June 19, 2021
MThomas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What kind of support?”

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

“Few?”

“None,” Gen admitted.

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

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

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

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

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

“I can make a couple of guesses.”

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

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

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

“Oh?”

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

“How would you know that?”

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

He grimaced briefly, then smiled again.

“Weng, there is no need to—”

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

“Sam…”

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

“You seem sure of that.”

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

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

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

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

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

“The Ceres Mining Council.”

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

Gen fell silent.

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

His father? Or…?

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

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

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

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

“‘The die has been cast’, I believe.”

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

“Gen,” he said. “How far to Ceres?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then you are also Martin.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

X-Rays from Uranus!

April 5, 2021
MThomas

Two-ringed and sideways gas giant

The gag practically writes itself…

…but seriously, this is neat. One source of the X-Rays is the Sun (it also bounces off of Jupiter and Saturn). But there may be yet another source…perhaps the rings of Uranus or the planet itself.

And no, it’s not really pink. That’s just a Chandra X-ray image.

Shame, really.

https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/chandra/images/first-x-rays-from-uranus-discovered.html

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 15: The Sagittarius

February 27, 2021
MThomas

When we last left Gennaji, his ship was just about to fire or be fired upon. Somewhere near Encheladus…

Gennaji looked over at his crew at the rocket launcher. Karel and Andrzej both seemed tense.

No, he silently corrected himself, he was the one feeling tense. They looked…blank. Waiting. 

He shook his head.

“Ory, are they together or separate?”

“Looks like they plan to split up, heading around Encephalus. Opposite sides. Not quite in orbit yet.”

Gennaji cursed. Naturally. That’s what he would have done.

“Thrusters. Solid fuel only. Aim us at the Corvus. Shield us.”

“Aye, sir.”

He nodded at Karel and Andrzej. They strapped themselves down to the floor like cargo boxes, clamping suspender-like tethers wrapped around their waists to metal rings in the floor. Hurriedly he did the same, locking himself in front of the railgun console.

The Sagittarius began to peal starboard.

Starboard, he thought. Antiquated nautical term. Everything is starboard in space.

He shifted his weight and checked the railgun. All readings normal.

“Ory, position?”

“Corvus is closing…they’re firing!”

Firing?! Gennaji gritted his teeth. Hamno, the Corvus captain was insane, firing laser cannon from that distance. “Ory, evasive!”

The Sagittarius shuddered again, violently. His knee buckled and he slammed his right hip against a side wall. Shit, that hurts, he thought, refusing to cry out.

Karel apparently had no such compunction, judging by the sudden yelp. Gennaji glanced over. The big helmsman had fallen down sideways on one shoulder and was groggily getting to his knees. Andrzej seemed to have already crouched in anticipation and bounced up.

The tether was merely a brace after all, Gennaji thought. He grabbed the console corner and checked the readings again.

“Ory.”

“Captain, the shot missed by a wide margin. Looks like they forgot to compensate for the gravity well effect.”

Gennaji grinned. He figured that old hunter trick would work on a young crew like the Corvus. Now they had to wait to recharge.

“Range?”

“In range now.”

“Perfect. Ory, manuever us so we can get a good angle from the cargo hold.”

“Aye, sir.”

Gennaji felt the Sagittarius shudder as the thrusters moved them into position. He checked the console again before giving the order.

“Set.”

Karel depressed a switch. The sound echoed through the cargo hold.

“Fire.”

Andrzej yanked down with both hands on the firing lever. The rocket made a little popping noise as the railgun launched it through the port into space. Like a champagne bottle, Gennaji thought.

But with much more pop.

“Ory, get us away as fast as you can. Hard right.”

“Aye. The other ship is coming into range as well.”

Gennaji glanced at the railgun. His crew were resetting the launch mechanism, but they might not have time for another shot.

“Ory, I may need to use the ballbuster after all.”

“Captain…”

There was a pause, then static.

“Ory!”

The Sagittarius suddenly slipped sideways. Gennaji fell to his knees again as the gravity seemed to increase.

Shit. They must be tumbling. The centrifugal force might damage the hull if they couldn’t stabilize the ship.

“Karel!” he barked. “Helm! We have to…”

The intercom crackled to life again.

“…not responding to pings, looks dead in space.”

“Ory? What happened?”

“Corvus…hit, dead in…All…down.”

Gennaji struggled to his feet, grabbing the console for support. His body still felt abnormally heavy.

“Are we spinning?” he asked. Karel held a tether hook in one hand, unsure whether he should complete his Captain’s last order.

“Aye, sir. We…close to…emp charge, so our com…not 100%. Hang on…”

The ship shuddered again. Gennaji bared his teeth. Had the other ship also fired a railgun? The gravity seemed to lessen.

At least they had stopped spinning, he thought. Probably drifting, though.

“Ory?”

No response.

Gennaji swore. He unstrapped the tether and motioned for Karel to do the same.

“Andy, stay here and see if we can get off another…”

The com crackled to life. But it wasn’t their navigator.

“Sagittarius. This is Pleaides. We’re boarding you. Let’s talk.”


Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 16: The Artemis (Coming Saturday March 13, 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

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