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.
On February 9, 1998, Star Trek Deep Space 9 broadcast one of the most important episodes in the entire history of the franchise.
And what it said about society back in 1953 was just as relevant as for 1998. And perhaps even more important for 2021.
Others have written more eloquently about the plot line, the characterizations, the background, the actors (Avery Brooks directed himself, and his performance should have earned him an Emmy). So I’ll just link to:
It’s hard to believe that it’s been 35 years since the disaster that claimed the lives of all seven Space Shuttle Challenger crew members.
I remember it well. Being sent home early without being told. Watching the TV news at home in silent shock with my parents and younger siblings, tears streaming down our faces.
President Reagan’s speech at Congress, made in the place of the traditional State of the Union address, ended with “they slipped the surly bonds of Earth…and touched the face of God.” Probably the finest and most decent thing he ever did (even my parents, who voted for Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale and intensely disliked Reagan and everything he stood for, couldn’t help but be moved by his words that day).
Thoughtless jokes circulated our school the next week or two. (“What’s the last thing Christa MacAuliffe said to her husband? “You feed the dog; I’ll feed the fish.”)
There was a morbid fascination with the way in which the Challenger crew met their fate. My friends came up with all sorts of gruesome stories they claimed to have “heard,” mostly about body parts washing up on beaches around the Caribbean.
The fact is, we were traumatized. Kids do all sorts of insane things to hide their fears, insecurity, and general inability to answer the question what am I supposed to feel/do/say about this?
Challenger marked a turning point in the US space program. It set NASA back in many ways but also provided great insight into what needed to be fixed, what needed to be done to push forward our knowledge of space and the great beyond.
There is/was no going back. Humanity is a space-faring race and must continue to strive to reach beyond its grasp…”Or what’s a heaven for?”
(In Chapter 6, Brady Cooper wondered about his fellow crewmates’ spirituality. If only he knew...)
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.
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.
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)
(When last we left the crew of the Artemis, they had just fracked an asteroid, keeping part for their drinking water and sending the rest to Ceres.)
“…Love you. End transmission.”
Riss extended a hand to touch the computer panel, then leaned back in her sleeping cabin chair. Another vid message finished. The ping would probably take several days to reach Weng on Luna. She sighed. She hoped she hadn’t looked as tired as she felt.
Flying over to the Centaur had made her more anxious than she cared to admit to the Artemis crew. Her first capture of a potentially extra-solar object, one that might have originated from the Kuiper Belt. The whole way over she kept thinking of Sergey and the ditrium rock he caught. The one that made the Moon terraforming possible. The one that made him famous.
She desperately wanted the rock to be different. Needed it to be different.
She looked to her right. Barren, boring desktop space. Compared to her crew’s quarters, hers was spartan. Where they had objects that reminded them of home — photos of family, books given by relatives and friends, even freeze-dried flowers — she had practically nothing.
No family. Save Sergey. But he disliked photos, especially of himself.
So instead of a photo, she had a doll, a motanka. Given to her on her sixth birthday, to protect her. Sergey promised to find her parents. Or at least find out what happened to her parents. She couldn’t remember if she’d had dolls when her parents were still…when she was living Earthside.
At any rate, they never found out what had happened. She barely had memories of them, let alone whatever dolls they may have given her.
She stretched out a hand and picked up the doll. Slender blond tresses, tied at the end with red ribbons. A black dress and white shirt decorated with bands of bright orange and light blue. Crown of yellow flowers.
A cross for a face.
Somehow, she couldn’t picture a German father giving her the same doll. Her Russian mother might have given her a…what was it called? A babushka. No, a matryoshka. Wooden nesting dolls. Different colors, too. Probably.
What kind of people were they, she wondered. She remembered waking up in the lifepod, in the Sagittarius’s cargo hold. Frightened by the large bearded man with the sad eyes who looked like her father but didn’t sound like him.
The woman next to him who looked nothing like her mother but would later treat her like one.
Riss sighed and put the doll back, gently, on the desk. She kicked off her magboots, lay back on her bed.
The desk chimed.
“Für Elise. Medium volume, slower tempo version. In the style of Rachmaninoff.”
The well-known melody did not really soothe her. But it did remind her of Sergey. And she never could decide between German and Russian composers.
Her body began to float above her bunk. It was dangerous to sleep without being strapped in, but it felt relaxing, for the moment. She lay on her back, in the air, looking at her hands. Stretching them in front of her, slowly. Henna-brown hair drifted. Ought to get a cut, she thought absently. The music swelled, repeated the main refrain.
“Artemis. Stop. Play Holst. The Planets, regular volume.”
“Start with the second, then skip to the sixth.”
No Mars or Jupiter, she thought. Even though most of her life, she’d been in the happy hunting grounds. A lifestyle inherited from her foster father Sergey. Chasing rocks around the inner solar system, an independent operator living on the fringes of civilized space. Part of the fun of the job was that each rock was different, but really they were all the same. All variations on a theme.
Like the doll, she thought, with a smirk. Maybe.
She thought back to her last conversation with Weng, before the Artemis left for Transneptune.
“The Luna Council doesn’t want original and beautiful works of architecture,” Weng told her, as they walked along the Lunar Sea, arm in arm. “They want inhabitable cities. Ugly, soulless blocks of metal and concrete, as fast as they can be 3D printed.”
She hadn’t responded. Just stared into the cold night sky. Why argue when the stars were so beautiful?
Maybe the Council was wrong, she thought now. Maybe simply living and working wasn’t enough. Even for adventurous types like Sergey.
No, Riss decided. Maybe she was wrong. too. Maybe she wasn’t an adventurous space captain, after all. Maybe she was just a scavenger, catching ice and throwing it at Ceres, like all the other scavengers with their junky ships.
“The magician” began. She closed her eyes and allowed herself to float higher. Spread her arms out. Tilting back and forth ever so slightly. The hum of the engines below the crew bunk area reverberated.
She was so sure that this rock would be different. No doubt that had added to her getting seriously annoyed at Gennaji. At least twenty-five Earth years older than her, but he acted like sixty. And getting worse with age.
But she felt time slipping away, as well. She had wanted some time on the rock. Alone. To really get to know this one, see if it had something to tell her. To see if she had chosen the right kind of life.
Just another ice rock. Nothing different. No ditrium, no special metals. More ice.
At least the landing and recovery operations went smoothly. At least she got some sense of satisfaction out of a job well done. With a competent crew.
Well, competent, if a little dysfunctional. Sanvi’s skill as a pilot was still developing, but her martial arts talents were always beneficial. The incident in the hold a recent example. The woman occasionally bothered her, challenging her decisions. Questioning her past.
Lena. Sanvi was too much like Lena. Different ethnicity, same personality.
Was that it?
Poor Lena, I’m sorry. I…
Riss opened her eyes. She was looking down at her bunk, her back pressed against the ceiling of her quarters. Reaching back with a hand, she gave a little nudge and began to float downward.
Coming out to Transneptune always bore some risks. She supposed she should be happy they had scored anything at all. A pretty amazing catch, all things considered.
Millions of miles from civilization with an ordinary ice rock in the hold to keep them company. She sighed.
“Artemis, stop music.”
Back on the bunk, face down, she stretched out a hand and retrieved her boots. While the crew was in rest and relaxation mode, she might as well check their reserves. It’d be a while before they reached Zedra.
Dropping a shoutout to all my followers, old and new. Thanks for reading!
I’m preparing this week’s installment of Bringer of Light (Chapter 3, Part 2), all the while scouring the web for science and tech news to share.
Anything you want to see shared (or want to share)? Comments on the story so far? Something you want to rant about? (No politics please! Waaay too much of that at home right now. I’d rather keep my head in the stars when possible…)
Bringer of Light: Chapter 3, Part 2 – dropping at 7 p.m. EDT October 31st. No Halloween theme, sorry (that’s a separate post 🎃).
OK, so I admit it — I’m way behind in finishing my SF novel, Bringer of Light (you can read the prologue here).
I had hoped to get the draft done by January, then work on edits in the spring and publish it in summer.
But a little COVID happened to the world, and believe it or not I got a little sidetracked by, uh, life. And a family history project about a love triangle (kind of).
(During our two-month quasi-lockdown-not-sure-what-this-is-stuck-home-with-two-kids thing, I did get pretty good at the Mars terraforming game. Highly recommended.)
So now I’m thinking, to kickstart my writing life back into action, why not post the chapters I have so far? There are about 35 of them, tend to be short, and since I’ve been struggling with the ending, might help generate some ideas for getting to the expected final scene.
One day, maybe sooner than we think, a consideration of the ethics of the treatment of rational, sentient machines might turn out to be more than an abstract academic exercise.
From last June, but still a worthy topic for debate, particularly as the use of robots increases for retirement homes, nursery school programs, hotel reception lobbies… (also the topic of a short story I wrote in 2000 but still haven’t published outside of a grad student journal…)
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