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

Bringer of Light, Chapter 18: The Artemis

April 17, 2021
MThomas

It’s been a while since we’ve checked in on Riss and her crew. What’s going on with Riss’s Rock, and their reactions to it? (and each other?)

Back in the command center, the four resumed their positions as if still on an asteroid hunt. Only this time, they were hunting for something else.

“Right,” Riss said. “Let’s find out where this came from. Coop, run a comparison analysis with some other extrasolar object. Like Phoebe.”

“Saturn’s moon?”

“Yes. That’s supposed to have originally come from the Kuiper Belt. A centaur captured by Saturn’s gravity well.”

“All right, I’ll give it a shot.”

Riss waited silently as the computer ran the analysis.

“No,” Cooper finally said with a tone of resignation. “There isn’t enough data to make a meaningful comparison. At least, that’s what the results indicate.”

“So it’s not a centaur?” Riss said, surprised.

“I can check it against our information on Chiron and Enceladus.”

“I thought Chiron was a dwarf planet, not a centaur.”

“Debatable. But anyway…”

“OK,” Riss said, clapping him on the shoulder. “You’re the geologist.”

She turned over her shoulder. “Enoch. Pull up that trajectory chart again.”

“Roger.”

The 3D image hung in the space between the captain’s chair and the navigation consoles. Riss ticked her tongue as she gazed at the chart.

“I don’t see…ah, there.” She pointed. “We didn’t follow the origin line.”

“Yeah,” Sanvi said. “We were only interested in where it was going, not where it came from. We just figured – ”

“- just figured it was a centaur,” Riss concluded. She sat down in her chair and ran her fingertips over the console. “Let’s hypothesize.”

In a few moments, her best guesses appeared in an updated version of the chart. A thin blue line emerged from behind the red trajectory line and extended well away from the original chart.

“Computer, zoom out,” Riss stated. The image shrank. The red line turned into a curve. The blue line still extended out of the image.

“So it’s not a Kuiper Belt object?” Brady said.

“Oort?” Sanvi wondered aloud.

“Computer, zoom out again,” Riss ordered. “Maximum.”

The red curve became an elongated oval. The blue line remained a line. Riss was stunned.

“Coop, is this what…what I think it means?”

The geologist’s fingers flew across his pads. He switched pads and checked again.

“ES-71107 is extrasolar, all right,” he confirmed. He put the pad down slowly and looked up. “It’s from outside our solar system entirely.”

“But it was so large!” Sanvi protested. “When A/2017 skipped through, it was tiny.”

“Yes,” Riss said. “I remember reading about that during training. It was fast, too.”

“Like a pebble skipped on an ocean,” Enoch put in, mimicking with a gesture. “Scooooon.”

“Weren’t there a couple of other planetoids that people thought might be extrasolar?” Cooper asked.

They turned to him.

“Hey, I’m into rocks,” he said, shrugging. “I just don’t know the history.”

Sanvi snorted. “So much for the ‘astro’ part of ‘astrogeologist.’”

“No, no,” Enoch said, jumping into the discussion. “I think Coop is on to something.”

He looked back and forth between consoles, searching. “Ah. Here it is.”

An image of Jupiter and its moons appeared behind him, next to Riss’s chair. It began slowly rotate. More objects appeared in Jupiter’s orbit, some trailing and some preceding.

“Jupiter has a lot of Trojans,” Enoch said. His hands continued to move over his console. “Over 6,000, actually. But this one…BZ509…it isn’t a Trojan. And it goes around the Sun the wrong way.”

“The wrong way…” Cooper said. “Retrograde orbit. So…”

“That means it’s probably from outside the solar system,” Riss said. “Right?”

“Yeah,” Enoch affirmed. “But also probably billions of years ago. Just happened to get snagged by Jupiter’s gravity well.”

“But can’t Centaurs also be from outside the solar system?” Sanvi asked. “They rotate around the Sun, right? So what makes Riss’s Rock so special?”

“You mean, isn’t it just another Centaur, like we thought?” Cooper asked in return. He fiddled with his pads again. “Enoch, can you expand the Centaur’s…I mean, Riss’s Rock’s trajectory? Even further. And superimpose Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune’s orbits for scale.”

Enoch nodded. “I’ll give it a try.”

The rotating model of Jupiter and its Trojans seemed to shrink. Saturn appeared with its moons. Neptune and its oddly tilted ring. The rock appeared, its blue line trajectory once again trailing out into space.

“Maximizing,” Enoch said softly.

The three gas giants shrank. The Kuiper Belt appeared. Still the blue line stretched into the beyond.

“Inputting hypothetical location of the Oort boundaries.”

The model shrank even further. Jupiter was a tiny spec. The Oort appeared like a cloudy, partially transparent globe. The blue line began to curve, ever so slightly.

“Enoch,” Riss said. “Can you get us an image of the heliopause?”

“Not sure. The old records from the Voyagers only recorded the termination shock boundary. But I’ll see.”

The planets completely disappeared from view, and the solar system now appeared as a series of elongated bubbles. Just outside the front of the bubbles lay a wide ribbon of fuzzy orange.

“Is the bow shock really that color?” Cooper said, eyes wide.

“Um. No idea,” Enoch said, slightly embarrassed. “Nobody’s ever been out that far, and the only info was in black and white so I borrowed the color from a vid game.”

Sanvi started to laugh, but Riss pointed at the image. “Look at the trajectory.”

The blue line clearly extended through the heliopause. The opposite side from the bow shock. But the line ended once it left the bubble.

“Enoch, can we extrapolate a starting point? Based on the current vectors.”

He grumbled but set to work. “I need Sanvi.”

She stopped laughing. Paused, and raised an eyebrow. Cooper turned slightly red.

“Ah, I mean, Sanvi’s better at the calcs than me,” Enoch stuttered. “That’s all I meant.”

Riss smiled and raised a finger to her lips. She should pay more attention to her crew, she thought. Something had happened that she hadn’t caught before.

“Right,” Sanvi replied coolly, swivelling back to her console. “Let’s just see…ah. Enoch, on your console now.”

“Got it.” After another moment, the holographic image of the solar system drastically shrank. The trajectory line arced. The arm of the Milky Way containing Earth flickered, and then that also shrank. Another cloud came into focus. The blue line began to trace a vague oval.

“This is just a best guess, you know,” Enoch warned, fiddling more with his console. “There’s a whole lot of empty space between us and…wherever this came from.”

“Why is the trajectory showing up as an orbit?” Riss asked. “There seems little chance it’d be a frequent visitor.”

“That’s the way the program works,” Sanvi said. She tapped her console to confirm. “Comp’s just not able to track normal astronomical events. We’re hunters, after all.”

The holograph slowed its transformation. The Milky Way on one side. Satellite galaxies and clusters surrounding it in the local neighborhood. The blue line entered a cloud and came out the other side, tracing its path across deep space.

“I should have guessed,” Enoch said softly.

Riss glanced at him. The navigator had turned pale and seemed to shake. She had never seen him act this way. 

“Feet of Canopus,” Cooper whispered. “Al-Sufi was right.”

She turned to him. He also looked pale, if that were possible. To Sanvi. She also looked odd.

“Well, I was expecting Andromeda,” she started to quip light-heartedly. “So…”

She stopped herself. It didn’t seem to fit the mood.

Riss leaned back and crossed her arms.

“OK,” she said, “What is it?”

“The Magellanic Cloud,” Enoch replied. He touched his console, and the image zoomed on a particularly bright star. “Canopus is the second-brightest star in the Earth sky. The Magellanic Cloud shows up just beneath it, but only seen from below the equator.”

He held his right hand out as if touching the sky, then turned around to face the image.

“One finger at the north unchanging star, the thumb on the south unchanging star. Straight to morning,” he intoned. “Thus did Hawai’iloa find our land.”

He dropped his hand. “We called it Ke-alii-o-kona-i-ka-lewa. The Chief of the Southern Expanse. The Wayfinders used it to get home to Polynesia.”

Riss felt a slight chill run down her spine. What?

“In the Vedas, it is a cleanser and calmer of water,” Sanvi said, although without much conviction. She tossed her head. “Agastya. A superstition from Hinduism.”

“Wait,” Riss said. “Canopus is in the Carina constellation. That’s only 300 some odd light years from here.”

“Yeah, ‘only,’” Cooper said. “But the blue line shoots underneath that. Into the Cloud.”

“How far is the Cloud?”

Enoch checked his figures. “About 160,000 light years. Give or take.”

“And how long would it take the rock to reach us from there?”

“Well, let’s see the calcs…160,000 light years is about 10 trillion AU, and one AU about 150 million kilometres, so…”

“Enoch.”

He paused, then shook his head.

“Calcs must be off on the trajectory. It’d take about 10 million years for this thing to get to us, even assuming maximum speed.”

“And if it came from Canopus?”

Enoch glanced down. “Not even a handful of years.”

He leaned back, thinking. “The real question is, why?”

“Why what?” Cooper said. “I don’t see how any of this is relevant.”

“Sure, it’s relevant,” Riss said. “I agree with Enoch. Why did this rock suddenly appear? Was it ejected?”

“Probably,” said Sanvi. “Let’s stay rational.”

“It’s tempting, though,” Riss replied, “to think of alternatives.”

She paused.

“Like whether it was intentionally sent or not.”

Enoch laughed, then stopped.

Cooper closed his eyes. He seemed to be praying. Sanvi, likewise, had assumed a meditative stance, but quickly opened her eyes and stared into the distance.

After a moment, Riss broke the spell with a clap of her hands.

“Right. Interesting intellectual exercise, but Cooper is probably right in the end.”

“I am?”

“Yes,” Riss said with finality. “Whoever sent it, if it was sent, or whatever it is, we’re stuck dealing with this rock now. Who knows what’ll happen once the settlers on Mars drink this water?”

“I can make a couple of good guesses,” Enoch muttered, toggling the navigation controls. “We’re picking up speed as estimated, but still a few days out.”

“Damn. Sanvi?”

“Sorry, Riss. Still no way of contacting Mars or Ceres. They’re just broadcasting the same message.”

Riss sat back in the command chair, steepling her fingers. She surveyed her crew. They seemed strangely subdued, but an underlying tension lay palpable in the air. The Artemis also felt somehow tense, as if it were alive, sensing their feelings.

She pondered. Maybe it was. After what they had all apparently experienced separately, who was to stay the ship wasn’t alive in a certain sense? It was made out of the same atoms, the same subatomic particles as themselves, just in different proportions. Particles that never touched. Held in covalence and nuclear bonds by the laws of physics. Full of space, no substance.

The ship breathed. Riss breathed. What was it she was breathing? Other particles of the universe, all part of the same field. The same threads, same patterns.

“No more pings,” she said suddenly. The crew reacted slowly, almost as if they had expected her to say it. They looked at one another and nodded. The Ceres Council and any other hunters around would hone in on their location if they successfully got through anyway. No need to broadcast their whereabouts until they were close enough to contact through regular comm channels.

“Riss,” Enoch said eventually. “How will we slow down? Without a response from a catcher, I mean.”

She stood up, stretching her shoulders.

“I have a couple of ideas about that. In the meantime, who’s for some tube food? I’m famished.”

“You know,” Sanvi replied, as they all made their way to the corridor. “I have a couple of my own ideas about that, too.”


Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 22: The Sagittarius (in which Gennaji faces an old friend/foe and a dilemma)

Bringer of Light, Chapter 17: Luna Base

March 27, 2021
MThomas

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

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

Is there still a place for traditional science fiction storytelling?

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

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

“Sam, I don’t think…”

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

“Where’s that one from?” he asked.

Gen shuffled through his info pad screen information.

“According to the markings, Ceres.”

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

“The United Mars Colonies.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Sam, to some degree.”

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

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

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

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

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

No thoughts. No Riss.

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

“Empath. Only partial telepathy.”

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

He looked up again at Sam.

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

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

Gen waited.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah.”

Weng started to say something, then changed his mind.

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

“Emotions.”

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

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

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

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

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

Gen crossed his arms and stared at the robots.

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

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

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

“Confirmed. Incoming blocked at Ceres.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mai.”

No answer. He checked the connection.

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

Tap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But characteristic. What do you want?”

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

“Ceres? We contact them all the time.”

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

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

“Well, I’ll be. You’re right, Sam.”

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

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

He stopped. “Trouble? What kind?”

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

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

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

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

“Elodie, come on.”

A string of words appeared across the plastic surface.

“What’s this? Code?”

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

“Sergey? From who?”

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

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

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

“Sam! What is going on?”

“I don’t know. Be safe.”

“You, t—”

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

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

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

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

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

“50 meters,” Gen said. “25.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weng didn’t look up from the paper shred.

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

“Told him what exactly?”

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

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


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

Bringer of Light, Chapter 16: The Artemis

March 13, 2021
MThomas

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

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

And they all called him a loonie.

Enoch scoffed.

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

He stood up, thinking he would simply…stretch.

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

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

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

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

A scream.

What?

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

Riss.

But Hapu’u…

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

But.

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

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

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

Was it?

He heard voices in the next cabin. No screaming.

Maybe he should’ve stayed in the Cloud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What experiences?” Enoch said.

They stopped arguing and looked at him.

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

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

“Yeah, so…” He raised his eyebrows.

Riss and Sanvi glared at each other.

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

“Flying,” Sanvi snorted. “So?”

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

Riss stared at him. Sanvi closed her eyes.

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

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

“The what?”

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

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

Enoch laughed. “Sounds—”

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

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

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

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

“Control,” Riss agreed. “Understanding.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cooper stopped and grabbed Enoch’s shoulders.

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

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

Cooper was sobbing.

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

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

Sanvi had knelt and was holding his hand.

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

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

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

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

They all looked at him.

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

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

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

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

“Sergey? Captain Bardish? Really?”

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

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

Since Granddad died, he realized.

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

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

“What else did he say?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

Sanvi bit her tongue. “Riss, I—”

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

“Dreams,” Enoch said.

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

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

“Have you heard of astral projection?”

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

“Exactly.”

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

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

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

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

“Not all of us,” Cooper said glumly.

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

“Projection?” Cooper asked.

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

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

“What is it?” Riss asked.

He didn’t respond.

“Enoch. What.”

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

Riss was silent for a moment.

“I was scared,” she replied curtly.

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

Riss? The Captain, scared? Jeez.

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

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

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

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

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

She paused, then turned to the geist.

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

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

Dammit, he inwardly grumbled.

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

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

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

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


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

Warp drive is no longer science fiction

March 2, 2021
MThomas

“Many people in the field of science are aware of the Alcubierre Drive and believe that warp drives are unphysical because of the need for negative energy,” said Alexey Bobrick, scientist and astrophysicist at Lund University, according to a press release. “This, however, is no longer correct.”

https://interestingengineering.com/warp-drive-not-science-fiction-faster-than-light-travel?fbclid=IwAR2v4FPzkA90L_yPIZVt3zfY3-jnA0jqvwOgJmHFNdsxlxDxcUJLF8Bg6Gg

There can be only response to this news…

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)

Far Beyond the Stars — 1953, 1998, 2021

February 9, 2021
MThomas

The Dreamer…and the Dream

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:

Memory Alpha Wiki

Avery Brook’s “proudest moments” interview

DS9 Season 6 Extras – the actors speak (Armin Shimerman calls it “perfect science fiction”)

The Movie Blog

Star Trek Official Website: Remembering “Far Beyond the Stars”

Reel World Theology’s Trektember

Bringer of Light, Chapter 13: The Artemis

February 6, 2021
MThomas

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. 

“Artemis. Lights.”

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.

Should have.

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…”

Riss sighed.

“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.”

“So…”

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.

“Promise?”

“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?”

“This…this isn’t…”

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.

Her face. 

The face of the motanka. With a cross on it. 

She screamed.


Next: The game’s afoot…Bringer of Light, Chapter 14: Mars Colonies (Coming February 13, 2021, 7 PM EST)

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

January 16, 2021
MThomas

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

Getting water supplies from the Ceres processing plant turned out to be more difficult than Weng had expected.

For starters, he had thought he’d be dealing with a group of stubborn asteroid miners like Sergey. Independent-minded people whose sense of rebellion and anti-authority sympathies he could appeal to. He hadn’t expected to be dealing with a facility represented by robots.

He also had expected to go alone. He certainly hadn’t anticipated an assistant. The young man had been assigned to him by the Martian Council, ostensibly to help him navigate the politics of the situation. More likely Gen was there to keep tabs on him for the Martian Overseer, Weng guessed. After all, that’s what he would have done.

The face with a perpetual Mona Lisa smile on the shuttle’s vidscreen stared at him like he was a strange lab specimen. It reminded Weng of the Mars Central lobby receptionist. He repressed a shudder and did his best to return the half-smile.

“Ah, I, that is, we, represent the—”

“Who are you?”

The robot was smirking. No, it couldn’t, Weng told himself. Concentrate on the task.

He cleared his throat.

“We represent the United Mars Colonies, on a mission of urgency.”

The impassive face was motionless for a moment, then the artificial lips opened. “We have no record of that organization in our database.”

At Weng’s right, his personal assistant Gen squirmed uncomfortably in his seat.

“We are just beginning the process of establishing ourselves as a political entity,” Weng said smoothly. He’d rehearsed this part. “We are a loosely affiliated—”

“State your urgent message, please.”

Weng stopped. He hadn’t expected to be interrupted by an automaton. Weren’t they programmed to listen to all incoming requests in full?

“We, uh, we desperately need additional water supplies due to a sudden increase in refugees from Earth. Our water facilities are not yet operating at peak capacity.”

There was a pause from the other side. Then, “Please hold while I confer with my superior.”

The monitor went black.

Weng stared at the screen. What now?

“Sir, if I may venture a suggestion?”

He turned to his assistant and cocked an eyebrow. “Go ahead.”

“Sir, I understand that you are on terms with Captain Bardish.”

Weng felt his jaw dropping but controlled himself. Obviously he had underestimated how fast rumors spread in the Colonies.

“I—I suppose that’s true,” he replied evasively. “To a certain extent.”

“In that case,” the assistant continued, “why not mention your relationship with the Captain? The miners on Ceres respect him.”

Weng pursed his lips and crossed his arms, frowning.

“Revere wouldn’t be too strong a phrase, either,” Gen added.

Weng sighed. He owed the old man too much already, but the Martian had a point.

“All right, it’s worth a try,” he said, chagrined. “Let’s see what the androids say first.”

After another few moments of silence, the monitor flicked on again. This time, a human face appeared. The “superior,” Wang surmised. The person certainly looked like an asteroid miner. She still wore her anti-grav harness and hard helmet, albeit with the radiation visor up.

“This is Ceres Mining Council Sub-chief Talbot. What can I do for you?”

Straight forward. Wang relaxed.

“Mr. Talbot, pleased to make your acquaintance. I—”

“Cut to the point. What do you want?”

Wang felt himself reddening. He breathed in, exhaled quickly and smiled.

“Water,” he said as plainly as he could. “There are too many refugees for the Mars Colonies to handle right now.”

“How much?”

Wang pondered. “Several thousand tons. Eight or nine, at the very least.”

Talbot sighed and took a glove off. “You know, I thought I might actually make it through a normal 16-hour work day with no complications for once.”

She pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes.

Weng waited.

After a moment that seemed to drag on forever, Talbot lowered her hand and opened her eyes.

“We can’t accommodate you,” she said in a matter of fact voice. “I’m sorry.”

Weng frowned, but before he could speak, Gen suddenly cut in.

“Chief Talbot,” he started.

“Sub-chief,” she interrupted. With a note of irritation? Weng wondered.

“Sub-chief,” Gen amended. “I hesitate to interrupt—”

“You already have,” Weng pointed out.

“—but you may not be aware that Weng-shi has been appointed directly by Captain Sergey Bardish to the Martian Council as head of the water commission.”

This was of course not entirely true, but Weng decided to play along. He resisted the impulse to glare at Gen for his insubordination and trained an even gaze on Talbot instead.

She returned the gaze and pursed her lips. Evidently the name of Bardish did carry some weight, Weng thought. Perhaps he should have not been reluctant to bring it up before.

“The Captain does not choose his candidates lightly,” Talbot said slowly.

“I have known the Captain for some time,” Weng admitted. “Sergey and I are…close friends.”

Talbot paused. She seemed to be internally debating something. 

“Sub-chief Talbot,” Weng added, “we would not have come unless the situation were very, very urgent. At least allow us to land and discuss the matter. In person.”

Talbot nodded finally. “Very well. But our daily mining schedule has been disrupted enough as it is. Come down and state your case plainly.”

The screen went blank.

“Sir,” Gen said looking down at the panel in front of him, “we now have the proper landing authorization code.”

“Code?”

“For unlocking the landing bay. And for undergoing the microbe decontamination process.”

Weng grimaced. Nothing was going according to plan. He had half a mind to severely tongue-lash Gen, but he had no idea what kind of secret report the assistant might send to the Overseer. The prudent course would be to talk less and listen more.

He needed water. And more political experience. He was determined to get both, no matter the cost.


Weng tugged at the worksuit collar. The drab grey clothing might protect his skin from whatever chemicals were being used to help the miners process asteroid ore, but it was uncomfortable as all hell. The decontamination procedure had already irritated his skin enough. First baked by microwaves, then slow cooked in nanofibers. He felt like an overcooked pork dumpling.

He glanced at Gen, standing impassively next to him in the control room. The younger man didn’t seem overly irritated by the material. Maybe he, too, was a robot, Weng mused. The assistant seemed to have no emotions whatsoever.

He looked around the control room. Pre-war. Cut into the rock surface, no windows or doors. Little more than a side culvert from the main mining operating chamber. The only object in the room was a large metal desk with what looked like an old-fashioned computer terminal and keyboard pad. He could hear the hum of a cooling fan from inside the desk. A computer heatsink?

He nearly sneered, then caught himself. Of course, their operation would be primitive. He should have expected no less. He wondered what else…

A voice called out from behind him.

Jiǔyăng, Weng-xiānshēng. Welcome to Ceres.”

He stopped tugging at the collar and turned around. Talbot entered, accompanied by a slightly shorter person with an eerily smiling face. Both wore the same dull grey suit. Talbot carried her gloves and hardhat under one arm. The other walked stiffly, moving with a shuffling gait. As if its feet were permanently attached to the ground. A robot, then.

“Very nice to make your acquaintance, as well,” Weng replied smoothly. “Compliments on your accent.”

Talbot shrugged. “Thank you, but I know it’s rusty. We don’t get much opportunity to talk with UN diplomats.”

Weng shook his head. “I’m not UN. As I said, I represent the interests of—”

“The United Mars Colonies?” Talbot finished.

She walked around them to the desk, touching the computer terminal. Weng stayed silent as she scanned something on the screen. She looked up at him.

“There is no such organization,” she stated bluntly. “Who are you, really?”

The robot had taken up a position directly behind them, Weng noted. It still smiled at them. Weng smiled back, disarmingly, he hoped. He folded his hands in front of him.

“Sub-chief Talbot,” he began.

“Just Talbot,” she said.

“Talbot, then.” Weng continued. “The Joint Martian Colonies were founded by the UN under direct control of the Martian Council some twenty years ago. From last year, Martin Velasquez began his tenure as Overseer.”

“Yes, yes,” Talbot snapped. “For this you came all the way here to demand water?”

Weng shook his head. “No, of course not. I came here because the UN has failed its duties on Earth. We have received many more—many hundreds more—new settlers during the past two months than we have had throughout the entire twenty years of the Martian Colonies existence.”

Talbot stared at him.

“Hundreds?” she said. “That, I’m not sure I can believe that.”

“It’s true, Ma’am,” Gen interrupted, speaking for the first time.

He withdrew a mini-tablet from a small suits pocket and handed it to her. “Here, you can see for yourself. We prepared an updated list of colonists and their needs.”

Weng hid his surprise. He supposed he should have anticipated this. Martin had obviously trained Gen to do all the hard data work, while Weng’s connection to Captain Bardish got them the desired access. Well, let them think he was their pawn, he thought. I’ve always been good at games.

Talbot accepted the tablet, holding it in both hands as if a precious, rare object. She looked back and forth from Weng to Gen, then slowly, unsteadily, swiped down the tablet. 

“As you can see,” Weng said, glancing at Gen, “we really have little choice. The situation is desperate.”

The miner suddenly stopped and looked up in alarm.

“Do, do you know what this means?” she asked, shaking the device.

“Yes?” Weng answered mildly.

“According to this, the Colonies won’t need any water from the Ceres processing facilities, thanks to a new supply of subterranean ice just found on Mars!”

Weng looked at Gen. “Ah, yes, well, as you can see, there are still insufficient numbers of workers—”

“You expect me to give you water for a workforce that will put us out of business?” Talbot demanded, slamming the tablet onto the desk. The robot took a step forward.

“Sub-Chief Talbot,” Gen appealed, raising his hands. “The ice flow is not under our control. The UA claims close to 90% of the supply.”

Talbot stared at him. “The UA?” she repeated. “Not the UN?”

“The United Americas,” Gen confirmed. “They claim that the water is too irradiated and too difficult to convert for civilian use. They propose to use it all for hydrogen cell purposes.”

The same had been done for Luna, Weng realized. Before terraforming nixed the idea. He wondered how much longer terraforming would take for Mars.

“Talbot,” Weng said aloud. “How much would this information be worth to you?”

He felt the robot stop a hairs-breadth behind him. The short stature of the humanlike animatron didn’t fool him. Once held, he wouldn’t be able to wrest free of its grip without breaking a bone or two.

“What do you mean?” Talbot said slowly.

Weng glanced over at Gen. “Well,” he started, then caught himself. “Gen, would you tell Talbot what we had in mind?”

Gen nodded.

“If we return empty handed, without the water supply we promised the new settlers, we will be forced to step up production and attempt conversion of the underground ice flow into drinkable water for civilian use.”

“And?”

“Subsequently, the Martian Council will notify the UA that their reduced hydrogen cell replenishment is due entirely to the Ceres processing facilities refusal to abide by the UN Inner Planetary Colonial Law, which specifies that Ceres supply water and other construction materials to any UN entity that requests them.”

Talbot shrugged. “We’ll just find a new buyer. The Chinese. The Indians, perhaps.”

Ah, Weng thought. I know why I’m here.

“I see,” he said with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Yes, I’m sure the Republic would be happy to take Ceres.”

Talbot looked at him. “What?”

“The Allied Forces won’t need to protect Ceres from outside threats, once the ice on Mars is ready to fuel their supply and military vehicles from Earthside to Luna and Mars,” he said.

“Yes,” Gen added, “and the Greater Indian Empire has never shown interest in Ceres. They still insist the ISS is all they want. But as for China, I’m positive that they would be happy to come in and find a use for the facilities.”

Talbot raised a hand to pinch her nose bridge. The other hand waved the robot away. It stepped back.

Weng reached past the sub-chief and picked up the tablet from the desk. He brushed it off and gently swiped the screen. It was undamaged, thankfully.

He gestured with the device. “As you saw, the workforce is still insufficient to retrieve enough ice to supply water for the colonists. Given the UA’s need for hydrogen. This means the Ceres Mining Council has leverage.”

“Leverage,” Talbot said slowly. “You mean blackmail.”

Now it was Weng’s turn to shrug. “Think of it as a negotiating tactic,” he suggested. “Trade secrets. Desperate times and all that.”

“I still don’t see how this can possibly benefit miners and asteroid hunters,” Talbot said, shaking her head.

“Easy,” Weng said. “Simply tell the UN that Ceres can no longer supply the required ditrium and other rare metallics for continued terraforming and settlement of Mars.”

“But that’s not true!” Talbot said.

“What difference does that make?” Weng replied, raising his eyebrows. “You have something they want. They have something you wish them not to use. Correct?”

“Yes, but—”

“So you use this information as a bargaining chip. Remind the UN and the UA that they are obliged by the law to purchase all supplies from Ceres.”

Talbot’s eyes widened. “We can’t fight off the UA!”

“You won’t have to,” Gen interposed. “The UA doesn’t have very many interstellar craft.”

“But the asteroid hunters do,” Weng said aloud. It all fit together now. At least, he thought so. “Just like Sergey told me.”

“This was Captain Bardish’s idea?” Talbot asked incredulously.

Weng shook his head. “No, of course not. Sergey is not interested in politics. Only in saving his beloved homeland. And his daughter.”

Talbot said nothing for a moment. Then, “He’s not the only one with an interest in Clarissa Kragen.”

Weng narrowed his eyes. He had regretted bringing up the old man in the first place. Now, the last thing he wanted was to be reminded of Riss. And of how absent he felt without her.

“So…” he said, expectedly, crossing his arms.

Talbot looked at him calmly. “All right,” she breathed out. “We’ll give you your water. Leave the infopad with me.”

Weng looked at Gen, who motioned his approval. The tablet was handed back to Talbot, who this time gently pocketed the device.

“Right,” she said, gesturing to the robot, who had been standing without a word through the entire exchange. “Take us to the water processor.”

“Yes, Talbot.” The robot left the room. 

“You’re in luck, actually,” Talbot said as they followed the android. The three walked slowly to match its ungainly gait through the narrow rock corridor. “We just got a couple rock frags a day or so ago. We’re pulverizing them right now.”

“Oh?” Weng replied. “Where from?”

“The outer ring, Trans-neptunal,” she said.

Weng’s heart skipped a beat. “Riss?”

“Yes,” Talbot replied.

She stopped mid-stride. “How did you guess that?”

“I, ah…”

She looked at him intently, as if she could read his thoughts. She nodded.

“I see. And here I thought you were just bluffing.”

“Bluffing? About what?”

“About knowing Sergey,” she said.

They resumed following the robot. The corridor widened as they reached a metal door to the main processing chamber. The robot stood in front of the door, which emitted a soft blue light from a pinhole in the middle of the door. ID verified, the robot placed its palm on a wall panel. The door slid open.


Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 11: Ceres (Part Two) – January 23, 2021

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

January 9, 2021
MThomas

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

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

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

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

He stopped. “If…”

He turned to the rock.

“Why is it glowing?” Riss said quietly.

The geologist shook his head.

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

“Speculate.”

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

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

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

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

“Um. Sugar. Basically.”

“Sugar?”

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

“Meaning?”

Cooper looked at Sanvi with a frightened expression.

“Drugs.”

Sanvi opened her eyes wide and took a step forward.

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

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

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

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

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

Cooper looked at him. “You what?”

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

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

Sanvi and Enoch both nodded.

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

Riss looked at him intently.

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

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

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

Coop stared down at his feet.

“If—if it is RNA…”

He shook his head.

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

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

She looked more composed than before, Riss noted.

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

He looked at the rock again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I—I don’t think so.”

“But you’re not sure.”

“I’m a—”

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

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

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

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

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

“The facts are—”

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

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

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

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

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

“Roger.”

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

“Uh-huh.”

“A thought just occurred to me.”

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

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

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

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

Shit.

They ran back to the command center.

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

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

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

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

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

And Gennaji.

She bit her lip.

Lena.

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

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

“On the trajectory?”

“No, from Ceres.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

He shrugged and raised his eyebrows.

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

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

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

“What if…”

Riss turned left. “Sanvi?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Contaminated?” Sanvi suggested, smirking.

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

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

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

Sanvi looked horrified.

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

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

“Weak,” he repeated.

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

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

“Yes.”

“Then it’s working.”

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

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

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

“Well done,” she responded. “Do it.”

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

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

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

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

They all looked at her.

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

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

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

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

“Guys, we have a problem.”

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

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

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

Riss frowned. “Refusing?”

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

“Say what?”

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

“Try Ceres.”

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

“Same? Exactly?”

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

“Then?”

Sanvi looked directly at Riss.

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

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

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

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

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

Riss breathed out, trying to relax her grip.

“What did he have to say?”

Sanvi paused. “‘I will have my own.’”

They were silent for a moment.

Then Enoch spoke up.

“Fuck him!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There was another woman,” Sanvi said softly.

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

Enoch asked, “Gennaji and Riss had something?”

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

“Somebody died,” Riss whispered to the darkness.

They looked at her again. She felt pale.

“Riss,” Sanvi began.

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

No, she thought. Not now. Not yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’ll find out when we get there.”

Then she disappeared.


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

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