Concerned that the UA forces on Luna Base may use the quantum teleporter to send an unwelcome gift to the newly-declared independent United Mars Colonies, former Mars security chief Sergeant Major Hamels and former Artemis crew members Enoch Ryan and Brady Cooper attempted to disable the teleporter ahead of time.
Cooper could sense the radioactive isotopes within the canister. The explosive materials could kill them and most of this part of the colony due to sudden decompression of the building’s atmosphere. Fine radioactive dust spread everywhere. If it reacted with the cobalt in the boxes around them, the resulting dirty bomb could poison half or most of the planet for years. Decades, even. Who knows how long it would last.
If anyone were around to care.
“Fly-boy, you sense that?”
“Let me try something.”
“You want the rifle?”
“The energy discharge will just set it off. That’s probably what they were counting on. Or hoping we’d try to disable it.”
“Or send it back,” Hamels said. “No doubt their end has a rigged signal to reject contact, which also would set the thing off.”
“Then there’s only one option.”
With a sigh, Enoch set the rifle down next to the console. “Coop, something tells me you need me to help.”
“You read my mind.”
Now it was Hamels’ turn to back away. “What are you both doing?”
“Sergeant Major, we need you to focus on maintaining the force shield.”
The geist sat down crosslegged on one side of the platform. Enoch sat down likewise across from him on the opposite site. They stared into the force shield, concentrating on the cylindrical container.
This installment is a bit longer than anticipated, so I will cut it into two parts. Metaphorically. Just like the Artemis crew will need to, following their agreement with the Mars colonies faction heads to train the afflicted settlers in controlling their odd new powers and sensations while assisting in distribution of temporary water and food supplies. Only Martin, the former Mars UN Overseer, who thinks he can manipulate the situation, is about to find out things are proceeding far faster than he planned. And Luna Base has a nasty surprise in store for Mars…
The storeroom chambers were nearly full by now. It had taken several days, but at last the food and water brought from Ceres had been stacked neatly, carefully portioned and labelled for each settler division. Orders were sent to each settler node requesting two or three representatives to bring their respective robotic platform dollies to the main supply chamber.
Cooper strolled casually along one earthen wall, rubbing a hand against the soil. He could feel the regolith composite materials, sense the minerals and hydrocarbon content. It would be so easy to extract and solidify what they needed, strengthen the structure. Or dig even deeper below the planet’s surface.
“Here,” Martin said, handing a pad to Cooper. “I’ve authorized the complete list of supplies brought by the Artemis. There’s my thumb verification, at the bottom.”
Cooper accepted the pad. He scrolled up to verify, nodding. “That should do it.”
“Now,” Martin said, addressing both Artemis crew members with him. “I’d like to find out what happened to my security chief, Hamels. She was outside the airlock when you dropped the ditrium on the ice cap.”
“First things first,” Enoch said. “We’d better make sure that the quantum teleportation nodes from Luna are severed.”
Martin turned pale. “That would seem a bit, er, final, wouldn’t it?”
Enoch grinned. “You bet. And necessary. Who knows what might come through the next time the UA turns the system on again?”
The geist spread his hands wide and made a booming sound, then laughed. The tall spacer slapped his crewmate on the shoulder, then both laughed hysterically for a moment. Martin stared at them. Cooper couldn’t help doubling over again, holding his stomach.
Riss and the crew of the Artemis have experimented with their strange new understanding of the universe – both physical and emotional. Still far away from Ceres or Mars and unable to contact those who may have been similarly affected by the asteroid, the crew has to find a way to traverse the vast space that lies ahead…
The banging on the door came again. A muffled shout from the corridor side.
Riss opened her eyes. Her feet were firmly stuck to the floor of her cabin. Having forgotten to remove her magboots. She was standing, swaying in place. Yawning, she stretched her arms over her head.
The geist practically fell through the opening doorway. Caught from behind by the navigator.
“Riss, are you, are you okay?”
“Yeah, fine, fine, Coop.” She turned to the fridge unit. “Water.”
The fridge rolled out, door opened. A pack of water came to her hand.
Cooper’s eye widened slightly. He straightened himself, brushing off Enoch’s grasp. “You seem to have everything under control.”
She laughed. “Sorry to make you all worry. Did I oversleep?”
“The opposite, actually,” Sanvi called out. Riss could see her now, leaning against the corridor wall with her arms crossed.
Sanvi nodded at Enoch. “Somebody has been demanding that we try the pitaya experiment again.”
Enoch shrugged. “I got hungry.”
Riss looked between the two of them. Suddenly she felt an enormous bond among them. Her friends. Her crew. It was as if she could see a glow around their rough edges.
She took a deep breath and smiled.
“I have a different idea. Let’s try to make the Artemis go faster.”
She was floating, feeling free at last. Unbound by any restraints, in control of herself. She finally knew who she was…but something tugged at her, something she had been searching for. Something calling her.
“No, no, I don’t want to go!”
Strong arms, gentle arms holding her. A needle pricks her upper arm.
“It’s okay, you’ll be safe. I promise.”
Shadows, sad shadows are all she can see. So sleepy.
“We’ll see you soon, varobushek.”
Riss suddenly sat up in her bunk.
Or, rather, tried to sit up. The sleep restrainer harness yanked her back down with a jolt. Feeling foolish, she pulled at the velcro and the straps floated harmlessly next to her. Rubbing her arms where the strap had dug in, she sat up again, slowly, and pulled her magboots on.
After her experience the previous night, she had decided to take no chances. The Artemis was beginning to slow down as they approached the Happy Hunting Grounds, returning the microgravity closer to its normal low. She should have used the harness every single night, but to tell the truth, she hated it.
Hated being restrained by anything.
What she couldn’t give for a gravity generator. Not feasible on a ship this size, given the energy consumption. In the meantime, time for her calcium supplements.
She touched a panel and removed a sealed pack of tablets from the drawer that popped out. She grabbed another pack of water, hesitated momentarily, then popped it open and inserted the straw.
Oh, well, she thought, downing the tablets and taking a big sip. Far too late to worry about what was in the water.
She leaned back in her bunk and took another long sip. The patterns suddenly came into view, dancing across the surfaces of the room. Then they faded, but she could see them.
Almost imperceptible. Everywhere.
The walls, the floor, the ceiling. The desk. The pad and its charge port in the wall. Her magboots.
She paused and rested her gaze on the motanka. It hadn’t changed back to its original color, still green with checkered red, white and yellow patterns on the skirt. The yellow hair had turned brown. No, red-brown.
The color of her own hair, she suddenly realized.
She drained the water pack and let it float to the ceiling. Maybe it was time to do some more experimenting.
She stretched out her hand and concentrated.
Nothing at first. Then she relaxed her hand, thinking of the motanka. As if in response, the doll lifted itself from the desk and floated across the room to her hand.
She nearly dropped it in surprise.
Just like the dragon fruit.
What else could she move?
She glanced at the pad, in its charger. It came tumbling across the room, straight at her forehead. She ducked, and it bounced off the wall behind her, falling onto the bunk.
It should have fallen up or floated. She thought again, and the pad floated upward, then into the middle of the room. She could see the patterns around it, the lines guiding it and molding it into shape. Gently she coaxed it back to its charger.
Could she open the door?
With a metallic clang the answer became readily apparent. The lights shut off, then on. The fridge moved toward her, opened up and flung a water pack, then rolled obediently back to its port. The door closed, softly this time.
She sighed. Didn’t even feel tired this time, unlike after the pitaya explosion incident in the mess earlier. Maybe with time they wouldn’t get tired at all. Or maybe it was just little things.
Or if they worked independently or together.
She looked at the doll in her hands.
The no-face still looked back. The colors—she could change them back to the way they had been. Yes, they did. Blue with yellow flowers and golden, flaxen hair.
No. She didn’t like the hair. Changed it back to brown, but a darker brown than before. Shorter, slightly wavy.
A memory spoke again to her.
“Why are you crying, moya kroshka?”
“At school, Elke called me a bad name. Right in front of the others.”
“A bad name? What kind of name?”
“Pig! They called me Russian pig!”
“You’re not a pig, kroshka. But you are Russian. And German, too.”
“I don’t wanna be Russian! I want to be just like Elke!”
Just like Elke. Just like the other kids. Not special. She clutched the motanka.
Dreams of a six-year-old. She couldn’t even remember where the school was, or what Elke looked like. Only the pain, the hurt was real. Even now, two decades later, it still hurt.
Who was she?
She wasn’t Russian. She wasn’t German. Barely remembered her mother, hardly any memories of her father at all. Just the last few moments as they made her go to sleep in the life pod.
True to his word, Sergey had helped her to find out who her birth parents were. At first. He had retrieved their passports from the life pod and was able to search for their names in the UN database. Her father was a chemical engineer, her mother an exobiologist — maybe she had even known of Coop’s father, who knows. Her parents apparently met in Italy at some sort of international conglomerate-financed exhibition on terraforming. In fact, that’s where Riss was born. But she had no memories of Italy, and few of her childhood.
Before the accident.
They had been in the midst of a family move to the Moon, to join the terraforming team, when their shuttle experienced a sudden power failure. Riss was the only survivor. A dozen others were never found again, presumed dead following the spaceship’s violent decompressive rupture.
But that hadn’t told her who they were.
German father, Russian mother. But those were just names of countries, just nationalities. Who were they? What were they like?
What did that make her?
“You can see any face you like on motanka,” Sergey told her, in the months after he gave her the doll. “That way she will grow with you, as you also grow.”
She looked at the doll. The crossed-out visage began to shift, softening features. Textures like slightly darkened skin, high cheekbones. Proud smile. Eyes…
She stifled a yelp and the doll leapt back to the desk.
The cross returned. Staring back at her from across the room.
She relaxed and exhaled, just then realizing she had been holding her breath.
The doll. It was just like her. Featureless. Easily changed. Controlled.
Was that why these new abilities scared her?
Or was it something that she was afraid to face?
She closed her eyes and stretched out a hand. The fields seemed to interact with her fingers, slipping between them. Around them. Through them. It was as if all she had to do was touch the fields, tease apart the threads of atoms and sub particles. Expand into the space between quarks and bosons.
The space holding the stuff of the universe together in delicate harmony.
Is this what they all were? What she really was? Empty space?
No. Not just space. A tension. A balance between matter and energy.
Light and dark. Being and not-being.
She (who was she?) stretched her fingers (what were they?) through threads (were they really threads? streams? filaments of subatomic connections?), touched another searcher, seeking answers like herself (self? unself?).
A familiar feeling, part dark part light, laughter and sadness.
Sanvi? Who was that? Riss? The same? Different?
Aspects of the same universe, elements and combinations of energy condensed, vibrating, expanding, contracting, interacting.
Aware of itself / herself / themselves.
Separate but together. Connected. Sharing space.
Joy. Pure bliss. Beyond the physical. Beyond…
A shock of recognition.
The room came back into focus. Her outstretched hand briefly glowed, luminescent, fingers trembling as if by a sudden jolt.
Lungs remembered to breathe.
Inhale, exhale. Eyelids blinked.
Riss. She was Riss. Sanvi was another person.
Riss sat back on the bunk, brushing back tears with the back of a hand.
Why was she crying? The experience hadn’t been painful. She tried to recall the sensations, but came up blank.
Only the separation remained. And a dim perception of the separateness of others in their own compartments.
She could no longer tell whether her crew were asleep or awake. The Artemis whispered to her. The autopilot stayed steady on its inbound course. Two more days, at least. Space was vast.
Physical space, between solar objects. Perhaps not so vast between people.
A wave of exhaustion came over her. Sleepily she beckoned for the pad again. It came to her. Programmed a wake-up alarm. Returned it. Fell back on the bed.
No restraints this time. A brief smile lingered on her face.
She had no more need for restraints.
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 25: Transit—Transjovial to Hunting Grounds. The Artemis comes home…to a surprise.
Riss stared down at the table in the mess galley. A dozen fruits and vegetables floated above it, gently bobbing up and down.
“How did you do that?” she demanded.
Sanvi shrugged and then yawned. “I just thought about what I wanted to eat. Made me feel a little tired, though.”
“I saw you do it, and I still don’t know how you did it.”
Cooper leaned forward and plucked out a mango. He paused, then took a small bite. “Delicious,” he said, devouring the rest.
Enoch shook his head. “I don’t know what half these things are.”
Sanvi picked up some of the fruit and passed them around, naming each.
“Purple mangosteen. Ambarella. Star fruit.”
“What’s this one?” Enoch asked. He gestured to a yellow fruit with twisted fingers stretching out in a cluster.
He made a face. “You expect me to eat this stuff? I’d rather have rations.”
Riss laughed. “Eat or not, the more important fact is that Sanvi was able to make them at all. What did you use?”
Sanvi tapped a finger on the panel next to her. “Some of the rations, of course. I reasoned that, if we can manipulate matter, we need something that’s already physical.”
Enoch sputtered. “Some of the ra—“
“So,” Riss cut in, “even though there are atoms all around us, it’s not as if we can just create something from nothing.”
“It’s not creation, is it?” Cooper said. “Nothing is new in the universe. Everything is merely one form of something already existing.”
Riss nodded. “Nothing is created; all is renewed. From either a mystical or a chemical standpoint.”
“Wait,” Enoch protested. “Are you saying that any of us — all of us — can do what Sanvi did? Make some disgusting fruit?”
Sanvi gave him the finger.
“If you’ve never heard of Buddha’s hand,” Riss said, “I doubt you’d be able to manipulate the atoms of a ration tube and turn it into one.”
“But if I know what something is,” Enoch said dubiously, “then as long as I can imagine it, I can make it?”
“Rearrange it. Not create. That’s what I must have done with the doll in my room.”
Riss briefly felt herself reddening. “Save it.”
“OK, Wiseman,” Cooper said, giving Enoch a tube. “Here’s your tube. Let’s see you turn it into something else.”
Enoch held the tube and concentrated. At first, nothing happened. After a moment, the edges of the tube began to fold in on themselves. The object became rounder, and redder, with slender green strips like fingers emerging from the surface.
Enoch gasped and nearly dropped it.
“My god,” Riss said. “What on earth is it?”
“Pitaya,” he whispered. “Dragon fruit. I’ve never eaten one. Only seen pictures from my grandfather.”
He turned it over in his hand, then placed it on the table. He took a knife out from a nearby drawer and cut the fruit in half. The inside was off-white, with tiny black seeds throughout.
“It looks like vanilla chocolate chip ice cream,” Cooper said. He stuck his finger into the pulp and licked it. “Doesn’t taste like it, though.”
Riss picked it up and took a bite. “It tastes like a bland food ration,” she said.
“Not bad for a disgusting fruit,” Sanvi said with a smirk. Enoch returned her finger to her.
“So,” Riss said, “We can’t rearrange things without direct, previous knowledge of what it is we want to make.”
“Would this also work for inanimate objects?” Cooper wondered aloud. “You know, like minerals or metals.”
“Do you mean, could we extract ore from an asteroid just by thinking about it?” Riss asked. She recalled the mask, then shook her head. “I’m not all that anxious to find out, to be honest.”
“No, no,” Cooper said, shaking his head. “I mean, how do we stop the ship? Can we, uh, rearrange part of to slow us down?”
“That’s not exactly what I had in mind,” Riss replied. “But imagine if we could somehow remotely control the catcher on Ceres.”
“I could hack the system,” Enoch said.
“No, too risky. Also probably too difficult, especially if they refuse to communicate. They probably already shut down any external grid access.”
“What if,” Sanvi suddenly said. “What if we were to combine our thoughts. You know, think about the same thing, simultaneously?”
“Here we go again,” Enoch snorted. “Voodoo magic. Ow!”
Sanvi had punched him on the shoulder. Hard.
Cooper darted an angry look at Enoch, Riss noted. She decided to distract him. “Sanvi, if I understand you correctly,” she started. “You mean, we should, individually, try to concentrate on the catcher as we approach. And then, we sort of, ah…”
She waved her arms around, at a loss for words.
“Our minds are growing closer,” Enoch intoned, holding his hands up in a Levite blessing. “Nanoo, nanoo, I bless you all, shalom, shazbot. Ow!”
“Riss,” Cooper said, shaking his head. “This is all getting just a little too, you know.”
“Mystical?” she said.
“Ridiculous?” Enoch said, rubbing his shoulder and glaring at Sanvi. She stuck out her tongue at him.
“Just roll with it. Everybody ready?”
Riss looked around the galley. Her crew stared back at her blankly. Enoch took another bite of papaya. “For what?” he said between chews.
“Ready for the next step.”
Cooper narrowed his eyes. “Riss, I hope this does not mean what I think it means.”
“I have no idea what you think it means,” Enoch said. Cooper rolled his eyes.
“If none of you think we can move the thrower,” Riss said, “why don’t we try to move something smaller first? As a test.”
“A test?” Enoch repeated. “I suck at tests.”
“Call it a trial, then. A practice. But as a group, working together.”
They all looked at Riss. She looked at each of them, then back at the table between them.
“Let’s concentrate on moving one object,” she said. “Slowly.”
“The dragon fruit,” Enoch suggested, putting the rest of the pitaya down.
“Sure. Do what I say. Lift it to eye level. Turn it around once. Aim it at me. Move it two meters, then turn it around and return it.”
They stood around the dinner table, alternately staring at the fruit and each other. A few minutes passed.
“Um,” Cooper said.
Another moment of silence.
“Well, this is awkward,” said Enoch.
“Alright,” Riss said. “This obviously isn’t working right now. Why don’t we, uh, take a break and recharge or something.”
“Wait,” Sanvi said. “Let’s try again. This time, every one should shut their eyes.”
“Shut my eyes?” Enoch said. “How can I concentrate on moving the thing if I can’t even see it?”
“Why should you need to see it?”
“What is the fruit made of?” Sanvi persisted.
Enoch shrugged. “Molecules of a ration pack that I changed into something I only…”
He stopped, then continued, “…only had imagined in my dreams.”
And closed his eyes.
“The fruit is only molecules,” Sanvi said softly. “Only atoms like everything else around us. I can feel them. I can see them.”
Riss closed her eyes and concentrated. Nothing.
No. Wait. She could sense something. She could see it. The pitaya.
“Can you see it, Coop?” she said aloud. He turned to her. But his eyes were closed. So were hers. How could she see him?
“Riss,” he said.
“Steady, people,” Riss said. “Concentrate. Lift it up.”
In her mind’s eye she saw the dragon fruit wobble. Then one end lifted off the table. Then the entire fruit.
“A little higher.” It rose to head level.
“Now. Gently. Let’s spin it around.”
The fruit hovered over the table. It jerked to the left, then back to the right.
“Clockwise,” Riss specified.
“Riss,” said Enoch. “I’m getting a little winded.”
“Same here,” whispered Cooper.
“Relax. Just a little longer.”
The fruit slowly swiveled, turning clockwise. It began to move closer to the edge of the table.
“Towards me,” Riss said.
She could feel the fruit strain to move. Something was wrong. Tension. Fighting? She opened her eyes. Enoch and Cooper were sweating. Sanvi had her eyes half-opened but otherwise appeared as if in a deep trance.
The pitaya jerked towards her. Then Enoch, then Cooper. One end began to swell.
“Slowly!” she said again, a little more forcefully. “Middle of the table!”
The fruit rose again, above their heads and began to spin wildly.
“No!” Riss shouted.
The dragon fruit burst apart, spraying chunks of fiber across the room.
Sanvi opened her eyes and laughed. She was, as Riss then noticed, the only Artemis crew member not covered in the remains of the exploded dragon fruit.
“I think,” Riss said, somewhat annoyed at Sanvi, “we need a little more practice.”
She scooped a handful of pulp from her shirt.
“And a shower, too.”
Cooper sighed and yanked a handkerchief out of a shirt pocket. “Riss,” he said glumly wiping pitaya juice from his face, “I think we need a break.”
Enoch grimaced and dragged his hands through his hair, yanking out dragon fruit seeds. “I agree with the geist,” he said. “For once. I feel, I dunno, drained?”
“All right,” Riss said with a sigh. “Let’s, let’s all sleep on it for now. We’ll give it another try in a few hours.”
Her crew left the galley one at a time, headed back to the sleeping quarters corridor. Enoch loudly yawned before Cooper smacked him on the back. The two tussled, but it was a friendly shoving match, ending with arms around shoulders. Sanvi followed, arms crossed, silent.
“And don’t forget to check the physical fitness schedule and take your calcium pills,” Riss called after them. “Some of you are beginning to get lazy.”
Sanvi paused at the doorway and looked back. For a moment, Riss thought she saw something new in Sanvi’s face. Something attractive. Reluctant.
Resisting, Riss realized. Maybe even a little scared. She felt it, too.
“Riss, all you all right?” Sanvi said hesitantly. “I—”
“I’m okay,” Riss cut in. She stopped, then nodded her head. “Sanvi, I, ah. I’m just a little tired.”
“Well, if, if you need to talk.”
Riss looked down and bit her lip.
As she watched the pilot leave, Riss hugged herself. They had all changed somehow. She could still feel the ship pulsing, like a thing alive. Sensing her fears, hopes. Desires. Things about her she barely understood, herself.
But what of Sam?
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 23: Luna – in which Sergey becomes an unwilling participant in a coup.
While Gennaji prepares to defend himself after having revealed the Sagittarius’s location to fellow asteroid hunters, Riss discovers that trying to forget painful memories has consequences.
Riss fairly staggered out of the exercise room, more exhausted by the two-hour workout than she had expected. Increased gravity from their acceleration, plus extra weight from the rock? Or something else? Her legs felt like pieces of taffy left out in the sun too long. And there was that strange headache she couldn’t seem to shake. Maybe she was just dehydrated.
She shuffled down the corridor to her room, holding herself upright with a hand against the wall. She probably ought to go to the command center, check on the rock, talk to the crew. But first she desperately needed a rest.
She reached her sleeping cabin and pushed the door. It seemed lighter than usual. No, not lighter. Less…dense. She shook her head and crossed the threshold.
The sudden illumination hurt her eyes for some reason. She covered them.
“Lights at fifty percent.”
Her vision returned to normal as the lights dimmed.
No, not quite normal. Even with half-illumination, it was as if she could see perfectly. Better than perfect. The door closed behind her and she walked slowly toward her desk. The pad still plugged into the wall port seemed to hum. She gently touched its edge. Somehow it felt…transparent. Translucent. Like the pad wasn’t entirely there.
Or maybe she wasn’t?
Sighing, she slumped into the chair. Maybe it was a virus. She supposed that would explain the headache and sensitivity to brightness. But there was something different about the room. The ship. Herself.
She glanced at the motanka.
No face. She always wondered about that.
“This doll is special. It is a protector of children,” Sergey said. “As you grow, she will grow, too.
“You mean motanka will get bigger?” she asked, eight-year-old eyes wide.
Sergey laughed. “No, dytyna. She will grow in other ways. Don’t worry. You will see.”
Riss examined the doll. Except for the cross on its face, it looked like any other doll. Two legs, two arms, long skirt. Less lifelike than the one she got from her real parents.
She picked up the doll and frowned.
Her real parents. She thought she had no memories of them. None?
No, wait. She could see something.
Her father. He gave her a doll. Once. Before they had to leave.
She squeezed her eyes shut.
Before they disappeared.
She opened her eyes again. No, she just couldn’t remember.
And looked at the doll. It had changed color.
She turned the doll around, then upside down.
Yes, it had changed color. Yellow hair, check. Black dress.
No, it was green. With light blue flowers…no, checkered red, yellow, and white patterns all over it.
That could’t be. The face was the same. The no-face.
She set the doll on her desk and flopped face-first on her bunk. What on earth was going on? Was space sickness making her lose her mind?
Weng. She needed to talk to him. Should have vidmessed him. Mars and Ceres refused their pings. Should have tried Luna.
Magboots still on, Riss fell into a deep sleep.
Walking along the sea. Dark, artificial blue sky. Beyond that she knew lay endless darkness and empty space. Almost as empty as…
A pressure on her left hand. Weng. Holding it firmly, then gently. A squeeze followed by a caress. Like he wanted to say something to her. Like he wanted her to say something to him.
“I love the way your face looks,” Weng began.
“Stop, stop,” Riss interrupted, shaking her head.
“The blue of the Cantic Ocean,” he continued. “The blue of the sky. The constant breeze that wafts…”
“I love the way your face looks, framed by the waves of brown locks, blown by an ocean breeze.”
He smiled, then laughed.
“Hopeless romantic,” she said. “You’re just a hopeless romantic. You do know that?”
“I’m supposed to say stuff like that,” he returned. “I’m an artist. It’s what we do.”
“Oh?” she replied.
He just smiled his enigmatic smile. They fell silent.
Something was bothering him. She could tell. He’d never ask for help. Not openly. Not from her. She squeezed his hand. He sighed.
“It doesn’t look like you’ve had much time for artistry lately,” she tried.
Weng made a face. “You’re right, I haven’t.”
He said nothing. Just coughed.
Riss looked at him as they walked, hand in hand. He stared into space. What was he thinking? She wondered. What was it he was looking for?
“I guess,” he said finally, after a long pause. “I guess you’ll be heading out again soon.”
She nodded. “You heard.”
He smiled again, looking up, above the sky.
“Sergey mentioned something about a lottery. A special asteroid of some sort.”
“Yes. A centaur. We won the rights to capture it.”
Weng shook his head. “I can’t pretend I understand how you asteroid hunters operate, but can’t you just, you know, negotiate?”
She laughed. “We did. Sort of. It’s complicated.”
She looked at him again. Her artist. Touchingly naive, stubborn and set in his ways. But that didn’t matter. He was faithful to her. Loyal to her adopted father. He had always supported her, regardless of whatever foolish thing she had said or done.
“You will come back to me, yes?” he said.
She squeezed his hand again. “If all goes well, this will be the last trip I have to make out there,” she said.
“No, of course not!” she said, laughing. “No promises. No guarantees.”
“No returns,” he said. “All sales are final. Let the buyer beware!”
They giggled together. It felt good, sharing a moment with someone she could be completely honest with. Completely open.
Completely. No. She suddenly stopped and let go of his hand. They stood still.
She looked into his eyes. He was still smiling, but the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. His face fell. It was as if, for a moment, she could see who he really was. His real face. Like a cross…
“I’m sorry,” she started.
“What?” he said. “What is it?”
She looked up again. The blue sky was gone. Darkness everywhere.
The ground fell away. Weng disappeared from her sight, his outstretched hands waving uselessly in the lunar wind. No cry escaped her lips. She stared wide-eyed at the stars. The emptiness rushed down. She rushed up to meet it.
With a start, Riss realized she was floating. Outside the ship, free floating in space. No suit. No helmet. In a panic she put her hands over her mouth. But there was no breath. No sound. Silence, only silence.
She looked down. She wasn’t wearing any clothes, none whatsoever.
This must be another dream, she thought, calming herself. Well, then, let’s see where it takes me.
Ahead lay a vortex. She smiled. A vortex, in space. Drawing her closer. She felt like putting her arms in front and swimming, as if it would make any difference.
To her surprise, it did. She felt the vortex pull at her, call her, gently coax her toward its amorphous black center. Faint clouds of burgundy and crimson whisked away as she neared. With a start she found that the vortex was not a hole at all. She reached out with both hands…
And brought a small object back to her.
A small ball. Cottony.
She cupped it. The ball dissolved into a cloud and flowed up her arms, across her entire body, dissipating in the space behind her.
Sensation returned. Gravity wells appeared before her eyes. Patterns revealed themselves. Orbits of planetary objects, trajectories of comets and asteroids. Space dust. Black matter.
She suddenly knew where she was. The happy hunting ground stretched like an enormous mine field before her, blocking her view of the inner system.
Concentrating, she willed an asteroid to approach. It was small, no more than a few meters across. She floated near it, ran her hands over its rough surface. The edges, points, indents. Mostly iron ore, with other trace minerals.
With a wave of a hand, she pulled the trace minerals out, leaving nothing but a ball of pure iron. A deft thrust into the ball; it stretched and twisted like taffy.
Into a mask.
She held it in her hands. Looked down at it.
The mask looked back at her. She tried it on and saw herself.
The face of the motanka. With a cross on it.
Next: The game’s afoot…Bringer of Light, Chapter 14: Mars Colonies (Coming February 13, 2021, 7 PM EST)
Riss woke with a start. Something…no, somebody…it felt like somebody was calling her…
Unstrapping her sleeping harness, she slowly sat up in the dim cabin. The only light came from the faint glow of her pad, casting a barely discernible sheen out from its wall recharging socket. The doll cast an eerie shadow across the room.
“Artemis. Water,” she croaked. No response.
She coughed. “Water,” she repeated in a stronger voice. Her throat felt raw.
The refrigerator unit beeped and disengaged from its cubby beneath the rechargers. It slid on a magnetic track across the cabin and stopped arms-distance from her bunk.
Riss opened the door and withdrew a plastic drink sleeve. It seemed a good idea at the time. Six days into the return trip to Zedra point, she’d decided that each crew member would benefit from a few new packs of water, freshly squeezed from the rock fragment safely stowed in the cargo hold. They’d already used some in the hydroponic lab, after all.
“Return,” she ordered, and the boxy robot rolled back to its wall nook.
Hindsight was foresight, she mused, but now it seemed prescient. The ship’s normal water recycling system had a glitch which would have made things more than uncomfortable without the new water source.
Squeezed, she thought, plucking back the drink tab and drawing out the straw for a sip. More like reconsti—
She gasped and nearly dropped the pack. Cold. So cold!
It was as if she could feel icy vapors sublimating as the water turned directly into gas inside her. She coughed, and coughed, almost a dry cough despite the water.
Now her entire body felt icy cold. She barely managed to lower the pack to her bedside table as the cold sensation spread to every extremity. She lay back and forced her eyes to stay open, focusing on the ceiling.
Heavy. So heavy.
The cold feeling began to dissipate, leaving her with a tingling in fingertips and toes. She tried to lift her head, but instantly dizzy. She closed her eyes, then opened them again.
Objects on the captain’s desk seemed to glow. No, that must be the portable…no, it wasn’t. She stared. The darkness of the cabin seemed strange, out of place. Not true darkness, but the darkness left by the absence of light rather than true darkness.
Layer upon layer of semi-transparent, translucent geometric patterns assaulted her vision. Some were colorful, like spinning pieces of stained glass.
Riss closed her eyes. She could still see the patterns. Random. She opened her eyes again. It was as if she could see the room…through the patterns. As if the patterns were real and the room a mere reflection.
The patterns. Were they in her head?
She heard a soft buzzing noise. No, a squeezing noise. As if her head were being squeezed. Like the water from the rock.
No, she thought, detached. Not squeezed. Released—
The ceiling blew up. Fragments flew away and the rushing darkness enveloped her. She stared up at a vast, limitless height.
Space was a machine. A living, endless machine, filled and surrounded and controlled by patterns.
She felt the patterns shifting, colliding, rotating around a core she couldn’t quite grasp but could sense.
Heavy. She felt heavy. A gravity well…sinking, sinking, sinking through the patterns back…back…
She closed her eyes. An odd sensation filled her.
Blue sky. Grass. The feel of mild wind and warm sunlight caressed her face. The scents of a beach…a Luna beach! She smiled, content, floating…
A feeling of detachment, separated from herself yet part of herself. Part of something much larger. Infinite.
She opened her eyes.
The patterns in the darkness slowly faded; she reached out a hand, as if she could touch them, alter them, change the way they interacted. She sat up, stretching her fingers—
No. No, the patterns were gone.
Or were they?
Riss let her hand drop. She stared at her hand, then at the water pack on the table. Nothing out of the ordinary. Still, she could swear she still felt something. Some kind of new awareness of things around her.
Riss picked up the water pack and looked at the straw. Did she dare?
Carefully, slowly, as if the pack were a fragile flower, she touched the straw to her lips and took the tiniest of sips.
Water. Slightly tangy and metallic, but otherwise.
She sipped more. Just water.
Shaking her head, Riss stood and arched her back. Suddenly she felt incredibly refreshed. How long she slept?
She pulled the pad from the charging socket and swiped it on. The time. She rubbed her eyes and looked again. Almost an entire day? That couldn’t be.
No wonder she felt refreshed.
Yanking her boots on, Riss shoved the pad into a shoulder carrier. She’d better check up on the crew. Should she mention her dream? If it had been a dream.
She paused before the door. No. She’d first stop by tactical. Autopilot or not, she trusted only herself.
She touched a panel and entered the corridor.
The Artemis was quiet. Or rather should have been quiet. As Riss walked down the narrow corridor connecting the living quarters and tactical, she thought she felt something…different. A mild humming in the bulkheads. Barely perceptible vibrations, like the Artemis were trying to soothe her, comfort her.
Ahead, she heard voices. She couldn’t quite make out the words, but the tone was pleading. A woman and a man. But not her crew.
Then a sniffling noise, followed by a loud thump.
“Is anyone here?” Riss called. She stepped into the room and made for the navigator’s console.
The pilot was holding a pad in both hands and her shoulders were shaking. Abruptly the voices cut off. Sanvi stood, wiping her eyes with a sleeve.
“Riss, it’s…sorry, I…”
Riss stopped. She’d never seen Sanvi like this before. The woman appeared on the verge of a completely breakdown.
“Those voices…” Riss began. She stopped, wondering what to say. Then took a guess. “Your family?”
Sanvi nodded. She held the pad in front of her with hands, staring at the empty screen.
“My parents,” she replied. “Their last vidmess before I joined up.”
She lay the pad down on her console and closed her eyes.
“I haven’t spoken to them since.”
Riss crossed her arms and sat in the captain’s chair. “They were against your joining the crew?”
“They were against me leaving Lunar Base,” Sanvi replied, snapping her eyes open. Riss was quiet. This defiant look wasn’t something she’d seen in her pilot before. Something terrible must have happened, she thought. Just like—
“Sanvi,” she said softly, “is there anything you want to talk about?”
Sanvi started to shake her head, then looked at the pad again.
“I saw them,” she said flatly.
“I saw my parents,” Sanvi said. “A dream. At least, I think it was a dream. Pretty sure, anyway.”
Sanvi sat down, her hands in her lap. She seemed lost, if Riss hadn’t known better.
“I had a strange dream, too,” Riss said suddenly.
Sanvi looked up at her in surprise. Riss was surprised somewhat herself. Why had she said that?
“I, uh…” She wasn’t sure how to continue.
“You saw your parents?” Sanvi asked.
Riss shook her head. “No. No, I’ve never—”
She stopped and bit her lip.
“I haven’t seen them in my dreams for, uh, several years now.”
Riss hesitated, then, “It was nothing, just an odd dream about the rock. That’s all.”
Sanvi sighed, then snorted.
“If I didn’t know any better,” she said, slightly sarcastic, “I’d think you were holding out on me.”
Now it was Riss’s turn to snort.
“Well, then, you do know better,” she retorted, with a slight grin. “Maybe I’ll have another, stranger dream tomorrow to tell you.”
She stood and stretched her back.
“In the meantime, I think I’d better go down to the hold and check on things.”
Sanvi nodded. “Want me to stay here?”
“Nah. Nothing to check here, so long as the auto is working as it should.”
Sanvi glanced at the console, and shrugged. “So far.”
The ship’s internal comm clicked on.
“Hey, is anybody there? Anyone driving this thing?”
The geist. Riss touched a panel on the captain’s chair.
“Coop. We’re here.”
“I, I think you may want to come to the hold.”
Riss caught her voice in her throat. Had he found something he’d missed before? The rock, was it actually special?
“Be right there.”
She motioned to Sanvi, who calmly picked up her pad and followed her into the corridor.
On the way, they ran into Enoch, floating outside his room holding a mag boot in each hand. He looked disheveled, as if he had just jumped out of bed.
“Guys, hey, I had this most amazing dream,” he said happily.
“You mean you actually sleep sometimes?” Sanvi smirked.
“It was like—man, it was like, like I was flying. No, like I was the plane, flying by myself.”
Riss almost stopped to ask him about it, but changed her mind and kept walking.
“Follow us,” she said.
He looked a little surprised. “Uh.”
“You can tell us all about it later.”
“Okay, but I don’t have my mag boots on yet.”
The navigator looked at Sanvi, but she simply shook her hand and motioned for him to come along. They walked. Enoch started swimming.
“Hey, wait up!” Enoch shouted, trying to yank his boots on mid-air.
After a few minutes they reached the hold. As they entered, Riss called out, “Coop, what’s going on? Did you fi—”
She stopped abruptly. Sanvi and Enoch bumped into each other and then squeezed into the room behind her.
The rock was glowing.
It still lay carefully within its “cage” of polystyrene cables, strapped in the corner of the hold across from the hopper port. Cooper was standing at the console, gazing intently at the screen and flicking the surface with his fingers.
“Cap—Riss,” he said, turning around.
“It’s glowing,” she said.
“Yeah. I kinda noticed that.”
“The rock,” she repeated, more urgently. “It’s glowing!”
Cooper spread his hands. “Now, don’t panic. I know it’s glowing. I’m still checking things out.”
“Hang on,” Enoch said. “Didn’t we chip off some stuff and put it in our drinking supply?”
“Yes,” Riss replied. “I helped him do it.”
“You…” Sanvi hissed. She stepped forward and grabbed him by the shirt collar. “What have you done to us? Poisoned? You some sort of spy?”
He frantically batted at her arm and sputtered. “Wha—what on earth are you talking about?”
“Sanvi,” Riss interposed. “Let go.”
Sanvi shoved the geologist back and glared. “You’d better explain yourself, geist,” she huffed.
“Yes,” Riss agreed.
Cooper quickly backed away, glaring at Sanvi. He stood behind the console and placed his hands on top of it, swallowing a retort.
Riss took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Well? What’s making this…glow?”
Cooper gestured to the console.
“You can see for yourself,” he said.
Enoch cut in. “Just explain it, bro. We don’t have all day.”
“Ryan,” Riss said sharply.
She looked down at the monitor. It was filled with lines of chemical symbols and numbers. She scrolled and images of various molecular chains appeared.
“This,” she asked haltingly, “this shows, ah…”
“Carbon,” Cooper said. “Hydrocarbon.”
“We already knew that, geist,” Sanvi cut in. “So what?”
The geologist took a deep breath.
“Not just any hydrocarbon. There are signs of—I don’t know exactly if it’s nucleic acids, or some simple polymeric—”
“RNA,” he said bluntly. “Maybe.”
Riss narrowed her eyes and glanced at the screen again.
Both Sanvi and Enoch lurched across the console and grabbed the geologist. A brief scuffle followed, with Riss in the middle, vainly trying to separate them.
“What the f—!”
“Stop! Let him go!” Riss ordered, trying to control her temper.
Cooper fairly fled to the asteroid chunk. “The filter system still says it’s just water!” he shouted at them from across the cargo hold. “The computer didn’t even notice anything until I made it run a more detailed analysis!”
The pilot and navigator made as if to rush after him, but Riss held their arms.
“Sanvi! Enoch! As you were!” she demanded.
They both stopped and looked at each other, then at Riss. Enoch seemed to be sulking, but Sanvi shuddered and closed her eyes.
Riss had expected the navigator to lose his cool, but Sanvi’s reaction surprised her. It almost looked as if she was trying to meditate.
“Cooper,” Riss called out to the geologist. He looked like a trapped animal, ready to bare his teeth. “Brady. Nobody’s accusing you of anything.”
She looked back at Sanvi and Enoch. “Nobody is accusing him of anything,” she repeated. “Got it?”
Enoch nodded curtly. Sanvi breathed out and opened her eyes, then followed suit. Good, Riss thought. This was not the time to lose their collective cool.
What better way to start 2021 then by watching a 6-hour kabuki interpretation of the classic post-apocalyptic fantasy-scifi Nausicäa of the Valley of Wind (風の谷のナウシカ)?
Courtesy of BS-NHK (which split the broadcast into two 3-hour parts).
If you think you know the story based on the Studio Ghibli anime, guess again. Go read the manga. One of the greatest SF stories of all time. Even 6 hours doesn’t even come close to capturing its complex intensity.
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