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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
“In range now.”
“Perfect. Ory, manuever us so we can get a good angle from the cargo hold.”
Gennaji felt the Sagittarius shudder as the thrusters moved them into position. He checked the console again before giving the order.
Karel depressed a switch. The sound echoed through the cargo hold.
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.”
There was a pause, then static.
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.
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)
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.”
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.
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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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?”
“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?”
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
(While the crew of the Artemis is enduring the long return home, on Mars, Weng is about to run into a problem that is partly of his own making…)
“But, Martin, the designs I sent you were already approved by the new settler delegation from…”
“Sorry, Sam. I know this is important to you, but with the heightened tensions Earthside right now, the priority is foodstuffs.”
“The existing domes will have to suffice for the moment. Why don’t you come down here when you have a chance. We’ll have a chat over ruibos tea.”
Weng stared at the blank space above his console where the 3D holograph had once been. The Overseer had simply cut the transmission without a proper ending salutation.
Dammit it all! He picked up his coffee cup with a trembling hand, but resisted the impulse to throw it.
Taking a sip, Weng stared at the empty space again, as if the image of his superior still remained, smiling at him.
Nothing had changed. Inwardly he raged, as his face strived for control.
What a fool he had been! To think that anything would be different on Mars. Bureaucracies were all the same, he thought. Only interested in perpetuating themselves. Efficiency? Effectiveness? Not necessary, as long as the status quo was maintained.
He scoffed at his own conceit.
Delusional thinking. Who had time for art with all the work foisted upon him? It had been nearly three weeks since his arrival, and in that time nearly a dozen ships had arrived from multiple countries Earthside. Just over a hundred settlers from the Eastern European Union. A hundred sixty from the Greater Indian Empire. Eighty-three and then ninety-four from the Central African Alliance. More and more each day, it seemed.
The problem was, the UN directives they were forced to operate the Colonies under were confusing, at best. No single country was allowed to lay claim to any particular region of Mars, or of space in general. But now with multiple factions all vying for breathing room, preventing ethnic groups from staking claim to their own territory had proven nearly impossible.
The Iranians didn’t want to be near the Chinese. The Ukranians didn’t want to be next to the Slavic Federation. The Central African Alliance demanded separate territories for each member nation. Only the United Americas hadn’t laid a claim, and that was only because no new settlers from them had arrived. Weng supposed they would prefer to go to Lunar Base, which the UA controlled. Politically, anyway.
He sighed and swirled his cold soy coffee around the cup. Things were no better here on Mars than they had been back on the Moon. If anything, they were worse. Weng had never seen so many different nationalities trapped in such a small confined space before.
He paused, set the cup down in front of the antiquated console, and pondered.
The timing seemed odd. Transition from Earth to Mars normally took at least a full year, nearly three years at their farthest distance apart. Of course, the docking at ISS would allow for reduced payload and less cost. But still, these ships would have taken off from their respective countries long before the current tensions started.
Unless they had somehow known ahead of time, of course, that something was about to happen. That didn’t bode well.
Weng lifted his info pad from its wireless charging port and shut the desk power off to save electricity.
If he had to play the role of the transparent pen-pusher, then for the time being he’d simply have to play along. As the Sage wrote, long ago, “Do not worry that your talents are unappreciated. Make yourself worthy of being appreciated in the future.”
He left his tiny office and entered the narrow underground corridor leading to the central hub. He stepped on the pedwalk and jotted a few random, unnecessary notes on his pad. Keeping the Sage’s words in his mind, Weng made additional mental notes of the lighting, the ceiling, the wall and doorway fixtures. Coarse behind belief. Functional, naturally. The need to protect civilians from radiation meant that every domicile had to be covered in several feet of Martian soil. Still, technology had advanced since the early days of Martian settlement, Weng thought. Why hadn’t someone planned better?
The automated 3D printers had been working nonstop; as soon as one dwelling was assembled, it filled and another had to be prepared. The robotic diggers struggled to connect all the adobes, and their haste showed. Here in the central habitats, where the original settlement had been transformed into a series of UN-Mars colony liaison offices, atmospheric control allowed them to use the automated walkway without wearing any exosuits. Each living unit came equipped with high-speed wifi and personalized access ID for connectivity to the Mars Colony Net.
But the corridors between the new adobes had no fresh air and virtually no heat. Just getting them all hooked up to the electrical grid was proving a struggle, let alone set up wifi and walking strips. It was all they could do to keep the hydrocarbon-driven generators running to prevent the new settlers from freezing and starving.
Weng curled his lip in disgust at the thought of wearing an exosuit to get to work. Drinking his own recycled sweat and urine to reduce the strain on their water supply.
No mobile access to vids.
A notification from his ID badge told him the pedwalk was reaching the end of the corridor. He staggered as the automated strip abruptly halted. Still several meters from the end. Righting himself quickly, he immediately jotted down on his pad, Maint. crew fix pedwalk Sector 1A-2. Stat.
Inexcusable. The Mars Colony simply could not take on any new settlers at this point. It couldn’t even maintain structures for existing residents.
He clamped the pad shut and strode off the pedwalk into the building before him. The Central Offices. The original building had been adobe like all the new facilities, he had been told. Now it was a complicated reinforced plexiglas and native concrete structure, complete with UV and solar radiation protection shield.
What would happen if the new settlers weren’t sufficiently shielded? he wondered.
Weng shrugged, dismissing the thought. His job at the moment was to make sure they had enough water to go around. And since much of the electricity in the Mars Colony was produced from water, this was more easily said than done.
Entering the Central Office lobby, he waved his ID at the receptist. The cyborg nodded and gestured at the next door.
“Go ahead, Mr. Weng. The Overseer is waiting.”
Weng was sure the simulacrum was smirking. Not possible, he knew. The cyborg was programmed to respond to a tens of thousands of combinations of external stimuli, but despite the human-like torso, arms, and face, it was still just a machine. A creepy machine, but a machine.
That smile did look like a smirk, though. He shook his head and paused at the closed door. From the other side, he heard a raised voice. Martin seemed to be arguing with someone.
He touched a hand-size panel in the door, and a faint buzzing noise came from within the room.
There was a pause. Then, “Come!”
The door opened. Facing the door several meters away was a large off-white plastic desk, with Martin seated behind it. The desk had seen better days. Early Colony, Weng guessed, realizing with a start that his own desk looked much newer and likely had a much more recent computer set up as well. He felt slightly embarrassed.
“Ah, Sam, good to see you,” the Overseer said, beaming. He gave no indication of just having finished a conversation.
“Over—Martin, I wanted to see you about—” Weng began.
“Of course, of course,” Martin responded, jumping to his feet. “Tea?”
Before Weng could respond, Martin had already placed the order. A series of buttons lined the left side of the desk. That further dated it. Buttons! Just like the water reclamation plant room.
“Martin,” Weng started again, “have you given any thought to my proposal?”
Martin nodded, then shook his head. “Yes, yes, I have.”
Weng opened his mouth but the Overseer forged on.
“And I have a counter proposal for you.”
A buzzer sounded.
“Ah, that would be the tea. Come!”
They waited as a drone-server wheeled into the room, deposited two plain aluminum cups on the desk, and then wheeled backwards into the lobby area.
The door closed.
“How would you like to be the head of the water reclamation committee instead of just a member?”
Weng nearly dropped the cup, but managed to bring it to his mouth. He took a careful sip.
Not bad. Upper management had its perks.
“Head?” he stammered. “Martin, you know that I’m more interested in—”
“Architectural redesigns of the settler units, yes, of course.”
Martin raised his own cup and drained it without a glance.
“But,” the Overseer continued, “before we can consider expenditures on superficial concerns—however noble and proper they may be, mind you!—there are more immediate, ah, considerations.”
“Such as foodstuffs?” Weng cut in.
He bit a lip. That sounded too indignant.
Martin cocked an eyebrow.
“Water, Sam. Water.”
“Martin, these people have no heat. No access to the Net. Their electrical grid set up is archaic. A good architectural redesign would alleviate—”
“Yes, I know. And you’re absolutely correct. 100%.” Martin paused. “But they need water. And we haven’t got any.”
Weng paused. “No water?”
“No water,” Martin repeated. “Well, not literally no water, but we must start to ration or we’ll run out within a few weeks. Well, not to exaggerate. A few months, perhaps.”
Weng slowly lowered the tea cup to the plastic desk. The tea felt stale in his mouth now. How much water had they wasted making it just now?
“Electricity,” he said. He looked up at the Overseer. “We’re using too much on the generators.”
Martin nodded somberly. “Yes, exactly so. And that’s what you need to tell the head of the settler delegations.”
Weng laughed. “Me?”
Weng stared. The Overseer wasn’t joking.
“Martin…you must…are you…me?”
Martin draped an arm across his shoulders. “Look. It’s all very simple. You know these people already. You’ve been meeting with them, working with them. You’ve shared your concerns with them about their situation.”
Weng winced at the Overseer’s touch, but allowed himself to be led behind the yellowing desk. An array of ancient computer monitors stared up at him.
The architect resisted the urge to curl a lip. First generation networking like this belonged in a museum, not the Office of the Martian Secretariat.
“Here,” Martin gestured. “I’ve already got a meeting set up with several colonist delegates.”
“Just follow my lead,” Martin said urgently. He eased into a smile. “They trust you. Let’s play.”
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 9 (Part 2): Mar Colonies (Coming 12/26)
In which Weng finds himself at the center of a fight and makes a proposal that will change everything…
“This show will combine Disney’s magic and animation expertise with Kugali’s fire and storytelling authenticity. Iwájú represents a personal childhood dream of mine to tell my story and that of my people.”
(Riss is the leader of the Artemis Crew, Brady is the scientist, and Sanvi the pilot…but Enoch is the one who knows the way to go. He hopes.)
Kapow! Another German plane on fire, spiraling down from the sky, destroyed by a hail of bullets from his trusty Hellcat.
“Fuck you, Focke-Wulf!” Enoch chortled. His gloved hands danced in the air, finger tips wiggling as his 3D-goggled head bobbed back and forth.
He had no idea how long he’d been flying. What an addictive game! he couldn’t help thinking, as he shot down a Zero.
It made no sense, of course, but the game scenario creator allowed him to populate the battle with planes from any country, any time. He could have included a Sopwith Camel from the first world war, or a Mars Warplane from the shortly-lived Mars Colonies War if he felt like it.
But his favorite was World War II planes. Especially the Zero. How many times had he imagined himself saving the Pearl City from the Japanese invaders? Enoch, the hero, the half-Jewish, half-Irish Hawai’ian…
A stray memory entered his head as his Camel swooped over Diamond Head, strafing the dastardly Zero trying to attack hapless Waikiki swimmers as they sunned on Kahanamoku beach. He tried to push the thought away; once, twice, his fingers twitched, sending burst after burst of virtual machine gun fire into the Zero’s side. The enemy shuddered, smoke spurted from its canopy, and began its descent into the pounding surf.
He pulled back on the throttle and veered right, soaring over Nu’uanu Pali, aloft on the wind that warriors of old would challenge. Jumping contests of bravery, daring the wind to push them back over the cliff, or failing in the eyes of the gods and falling to their deaths on the rocks below.
He let go of the controls. The plane sailed straight through the valley.
The hill of Kaipu-o-Lono on one side, Napili on the other.
Enoch’s grandfather often told him the stories of the piko stones, Hapu’u and Kalae-hau-ola, twin goddesses guarding and protecting the children whose parents made the appropriate sacrifice and performed the ritual of blessing.
“The stones are gone now,” Grandfather told him, when Enoch was a boy. “Destroyed by the haule who took our kingdom away from us. But the stones will return in time. And their spirit still guards us, even now.”
But Enoch was not pure Hawai’ian. He was not even hapa haule. Not for the last time, he wished that his father had not been Irish-Hawai’ian, his mother not Jewish.
“Shit,” he exclaimed, tearing the headset off and flinging it at the floor of his sleeping cabin. He yanked the controller glove off and clenched it in one fist. But he stopped himself, released the glove. It hung mid-air, fingers gently bobbing up and down like the disembodied hands in the Evil Dead movies.
He sat up in the bunk.
Who the fuck ever heard of an Irish-Jewish Hawai’ian?
From the Moon, no less.
A sudden banging noise came from the other side of the wall. Sanvi.
“Knock it off, Karate Kid!” Enoch shouted, knowing full well she wouldn’t hear him clearly. Who cared. She hit the wall about once every two days. What the hell was her problem, anyway?
He massaged the back of his neck, resisting the urge to stand up and stretch. Being born off-Earth had its advantages. Enoch’s height gave him the reach others lacked, but it sucked to be in a cramped cabin on a ship built for four Earthers.
Loonie. Yeah, he was a Hawaiian Loonie. Who had never been to Hawaii, and never would. Not without a special pressure suit, complete with robotic supports so that he could walk in normal Earth-g. And who needed electronic implants to see, because the Moon’s low gravity had permanently effed up the fluid inside his eyeballs.
At least he could zoom-in. Definitely a targeting advantage.
He folded his hands behind his head and stared at the ceiling. The vidgame headset floated upward opposite his bunk, gently rebounding against the door.
Another loud noise from the wall. Sanvi must have hit it twice.
Enoch shrugged. He thought she was cute, on first joining the Artemis crew. Hell of a fighter. With his Loonie-bones he stood no chance against her in a scrape. But the mysticism she got so hung up on was a major turnoff.
“Aren’t you interested in Kabbalah?” she asked him once, in the mess room. “You know, being Jewish and all?”
“I’m Hawai’ian, not Jewish,” he replied.
“But it’s fascinating!” she persisted. “Elements are similar to Zen…”
He had to let her babble on while he focused on his freeze-dried beans and faux-spam. He still wouldn’t touch real pork — who knew what was in it? Especially in deep space rations — but he just wasn’t interested in religion. Any of it.
He pushed the memory away. Another came to mind; Grandfather, taking him out for a swim in the Sea of Showers.
“When I was your age,” Grandfather was saying, “there wasn’t any water on the Moon. Not above ground, anyway.”
Enoch splashed his grandfather and laughed. “Bet it was colder, too,” he joked. “Bet you froze your tuckus off!”
“Language!” Grandfather said sharply. But the old man smiled.
Enoch looked out across the sea. “I can’t see the other side,” he complained. “It curves too much. Nothing to see.”
“That never stopped your ancestors,” Grandfather said. “The great navigators of the Sea, they had only the stars, the currents, the wind to guide them. Read the stars, Enoch. Let the universe be your guide.”
Enoch frowned at the memory. The stars, he thought bitterly. The gravity wells and planetary magnetic fields. He had learned. Those who controlled his life had not.
Like those morons at Zedra. What did they know that he didn’t? He didn’t need their help plotting trajectories for the thrower. He didn’t need their stupid pings about “optimal course projections” for returning to the happy hunting grounds, either. Artemis was his ship.
Well, Riss’s ship, technically.
He grinned. He’d do anything for that woman.
Sometimes in the command center, when she was lost deep in thought, staring out the window like she usually did, Enoch would try to sneak glances back at her. A little older than him, true. But still. He had a pretty active imagination. Too bad she had a boyfriend.
He shook his head. Fiancé, he heard. Some other Loonie. Nah, had to be an Earther sent to Luna for the government. Somebody connected to Bardish. Like Riss.
He grabbed the vidset and control glove again. No point in feeling sorry for himself. His time would come. Meanwhile, there was always the Hellcat.
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 9 (Part 1): Mars Colonies (Coming 12/19)
(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.
“By studying synthetic microswimmers, we would like to understand biological microswimmers,” Samia Ouhajji, one of the study’s authors, told CNN. “This understanding could aid in developing new drug delivery vehicles; for example, microrobots that swim autonomously and deliver drugs at the desired location in the human body.”
(Like the previous Chapter, this one is over 3,000 words. So I’m posting it in two parts.)
“Well, I’ll say one thing,” Weng muttered, stepping out of the vertical transport capsule into the Mars Colonies Receiving Station. “Mars smells much worse than I imagined.”
“You’ll get used to it,” said an approaching voice. “It’s just recycled feces. A small prize to pay for settling the universe.”
Weng looked up to see the owner of the voice; a slender East Asian man, wearing a business suit and a shoulder to waist white sash that marked him as a career politician.
“Martin Velasquez, Martian Colonies Overseer,” the man said with a practiced smile.
They shook hands. Weng almost did a double-take, but caught himself. The name didn’t seem to match his partner’s appearance.
“Weng Wei,” Weng said slowly. “But most people call me Sam.”
Velasquez laughed. “Sam. Originally from China?”
“Yes, that’s right,” Weng replied carefully. “But my allegiance is to the United Nations, not a single nation.”
Velasquez laughed again. “Not to worry, Mr Weng. We’re all friends here on Mars. No room for disagreements.”
“No room, huh.” Weng said, surveying the building surrounding them. He self-consciously touched his left wrist with his right hand. No watch. No way of using it on Mars, where the infrastructure wasn’t set in place yet. He sighed.
The geodesics were primitive by Lunar standards. The Mars Colonies primarily consisted of tall, egg-shaped semi-transparent structures connected by underground passages. All constructed by robotic drones and remote-controlled 3D printers the previous decade before the UN settlers landed. Compared to the spacious residences of the Moon, the living arrangements seemed horribly cramped.
Not to mention even less aesthetically pleasing, Weng thought. If that were actually possible. But he kept that thought to himself.
He let his hand drop awkwardly by his side. “So, uh, I gather you have a position open on your water reclamation team?”
“Yes, that’s right,” Velasquez said, smiling. “You came highly recommended.”
He gestured. “Shall we?”
They walked past the Receiving Station operator, who sat reading the latest sports news on his pad. He looked up briefly and touched a panel at the console in front of him. The transport capsule lifted and disappeared into the tube, headed back to the transit station in geostationary orbit above them.
“Mars Landers win today?” Velasquez called.
The operator waved his free hand. “Nah. Red Rocks beat ‘em. 15-7.”
Velasquez shook his head.
“Mars Baseball League,” he explained to Weng.
Weng shrugged. “I don’t know much about baseball,” he admitted.
“Well,” laughed Velasquez, “You’d better learn quickly. The colonists are crazy about it.”
He waited until they were out of earshot of the transport operator before adding, “Actually, without Marsball, many colonists probably would go crazy. It’s awfully isolating, being stuck in domes all day. The wireless network is barely adequate to support vid streaming, and even then only on UN-sanctioned pads.”
They left the Receiving Station and walked down a flight of metal stairs into a long winding corridor. The stench seemed to grow with each passing step, but Weng said nothing.
Instead, he focused his attention on the Martian Overseer, who prattled on about various problems the Colonies were experiencing.
“You know,” the Overseer was saying, “It’s so nice to finally meet a man of obvious intellect, such as yourself. I mean, a member of a terraforming design team! And a friend of the great Captain Bardish!”
Weng tried to humble himself as best he could. “Thank you for your kind words, Overseer. I’m just a company man.”
“No, no, not at all,” Velasquez retorted, waving away perceived concerns with a hand. “The Mars Colonies are desperately in need of more brain power. We’ve been applying for a qualified engineer up here for months, but with all these factional disputes Earthside…well, you know how it is.”
The Overseer paused. They stopped and he peered at Weng.
“You are a scientist, are you not?” he queried.
Weng didn’t like the suspicious tone in the voice. “Yes, yes,” he stammered, “Of course, I am. I’m eager to examine your water plant facilities.”
“Which ones?” Velasquez asked. “Desalination? Sewage? Recycling and filtration?”
“Filtration,” Weng said automatically. He’d rehearsed this bit. “I have some design ideas that may increase the regulatory capacity.”
“Ah,” said Velasquez. “But perhaps I should see if you can get some living quarters before—”
“Later,” Weng interrupted. Seeing the expression on the politician’s face, he hurried on. “I mean, I would very much like to go directly to my new workplace. Meet my new teammates. Find out what I can do.”
“Well,” said Velasquez dubiously, laying a finger aside his nose. “If it would set your mind at ease, I suppose the grand tour could wait. Still, hydroponics has some projects that might interest you. But I’ll take you directly to the reclamation plant, if you wish.”
He gestured. “This way. There’s a bit of more walking involved, I’m afraid. The underground pedestrian belt isn’t functioning at the moment.”
Weng refrained from sighing again. He had to play his cards close to his chest with this man. Bardish may have got him to Mars, but now he was on his own. Somehow he had to convince the Martian Overseer that he could be a valuable member of this fledgling Martian society.
And from there, become a valuable aide in the politician’s inner circle. This was his chance.
They resumed walking. Here and there along either side of the pathway various corridors branched off. Weng wondered how expensive it was to maintain lighting. The underground architecture reminded him of his trip to the Sudan, in the days before China and the United Americas became allies. Another waste of his talents, that trip. But at least it had taught him how to address local officials with tact.
“Overseer,” he began.
“Martin,” said Velasquez.
“Ah, Martin,” amended Weng. “I have to admit that I am not familiar with the current problems on Mars.”
Velasquez nodded in understanding. “Yes, with the tensions Earthside, and the close-minded-ness of the Lunar Council, it doesn’t surprise me. Some things don’t make NetStream News, you see.”
Weng cocked his head, feigning ignorance. “Some things?” he repeated.
The politician allowed himself a brief smirk, but returned to his empty smile. “Come now, Mr. Weng.”
“Sam. We are men of intelligence. Any fool can see that if the Greater Indian Empire does not accede to the UN demands, violence is all but inevitable.”
Weng frowned in abeyance. The Overseer was an astute observer. The UN was even more ineffective than before at preventing conflicts among member nations. China and India frequently rattled sabres in the past, but things had quickly escalated with the creation of the Lunar Base. India felt slighted at not being asked to join the settlement project; China felt slighted at not being more involved in the Mars Colonies administration; the United Americas and the Slavic Confederacy still had horns locked over the ultimate fate of the Ukrainian Union.
And now the UN was demanding that India give up its claims to the old ISS, which had been earmarked for dismantlement long ago. The creation of Ceres as a way station for asteroid hunters made ISS irrelevant, the UN argued. India disagreed; their use of nuclear fissile materials rejuvenated the station, turning it into an armed outpost. They hinted the ISS harbored ship-to-ship nuclear warheads and MIRVs. Other nation-states suspected a ruse, but remained concerned that Indian warships could threaten their space interests and that the ISS, itself, represented a huge biological hazard should its systems fail.
At any rate, the ISS was a dangerous sword of Damocles. But what did it matter? Weng thought. His future lay here, on Mars. With Riss.
“Overse…Martin,” he said apologetically, “I’m not sure what use I can be politically, but I am here to help as much as I am able.”
“Of course, of course,” Velasquez chuckled, as he adjusted his sash. “But you see, politics is what makes Mars live and breathe. Refugees. Prisoners. Exiles. Or should I say, Martian settlers.”
They ascended a staircase into another domed structure. This one was much larger than others they had passed along the way. In the center of the room was an enormous computer workstation. Behind the workstation stretched several three-meter high water tanks, mounted with valve readers. Stacks of tubes in square metal racks lined the back wall, with tubes of varying sizes connecting everything in a complicated, convoluted weave across the floor. Three or four technicians in white hard hats and gray worker outfits wandered among the equipment, occasionally inputting information on touch pads. At the back of the room was a closed door, in front of which stood a cart filled what appeared to be dirt. A dull gray aluminum shovel leaned against it.
As they entered, one of the workers noticed and waved.
Velasquez returned the wave.
“Our new water reclamation system,” he explained to Weng. “Still in need of a few engineers. That’s why it’s not up to 100 percent just yet.”
Weng was about to respond when he noticed a large open slot in the wall next to the entrance doorway they had walked through. It looked almost like a cafeteria tray return window. From the slot curious glass rectangular panels ran along the walls in a strip all the way around the room.
“And this?” Weng asked, pointing at the slot.
“Ah.” Velasquez beamed. “Our pride and joy. Let me show you how it works.”
He walked over to the cart. Picking up the shovel, he scooped out a fair amount of material.
“This,” he said, while walking the shovelful to the slot, “is how we make water on Mars.”
He unceremoniously dumped the dirt into the slot. He put the shovel down, pulled a silk handkerchief out of a jacket inner pocket and carefully wiped his hands.
“Push that green button over there,” he said with a big grin.
Set into the wall above the slot was a panel, containing two thumb-size plastic buttons. One green, one red. How quaint, Weng thought, pushing the green button. Inside the slot, a whirring sound echoed. The noise of a metallic conveyor belt starting up. The dirt disappeared to the right. After a few minutes, another noise came from behind the first two glass panels in the wall.
Weng bent over and looked through the glass.
“Looks like a microwave oven,” he commented.
“It is a microwave oven, basically,” Velasquez replied. “At least, to the best of my knowledge. First, we need to cook the dirt and get the ice out of it.”
Water vapor began to cloud the panel, but the vapor quickly dissipated.
“Of course,” Velasquez continued, “with just a single shovelful of dirt, we won’t get nearly enough water vapor to bother with.”
He pushed the red button, and the noises stopped. The politician folded his handkerchief carefully and replaced it inside his jacket. Pausing to ruffle his lapels, he looked over at the technicians.
“They seem capable enough,” Weng said without thinking.
Velasquez looked back at him. “Oh, they are. That’s not the problem.”
He waited. With a start, Weng realized he was being tested. Would he know what the problem was?
Next: Chapter 4, Part Two (Landing at 7:00 p.m. EST on 11/14/20)
(Part 1 ended with a brief confrontation, and a bad memory…)
Riss pushed the thought away. Not a time for reminiscing. Or for reminders of failure.
Upon reaching the command center, she turned on her boots with another touch to the wrist. She stepped up into the captain’s chair and touched the communications panel.
“Enoch, how’s it coming?”
“Ready here. Waiting for the ping from Zedra.”
Riss drummed her fingers on the chair’s arm. Zedra Point. She hated having to wait for telemetry from an outpost. As if some desk jockey knew more than her crew members.
“Riss. Sanvi here.”
“Coop’s got more samples. Hydrocarbons, he says. Nothing much interesting.”
“Safe to drink?”
“He thinks so.”
“Well, he’s the geist. Get off the rock and bring the Hopper back.”
Riss turned off communications as Enoch floated in from the corridor. Being born on Lunar Base, the navigator was even more at ease than she was in micro-grav. His bones probably were brittle enough to snap, thought Riss. He had little trouble on Ceres during their last visit, but he’d struggle on Mars if they had to stop by for any period of time. Certainly he’d never survive Earthside. Good thing they saved a few extra exoskeletons.
“That ping should come soon,” Enoch said. He grabbed his chair, settled down, and strapped in.
“Thrower ready?” Riss asked. She had already seen all the figures; she knew what they could handle.
“Yep. I’m positive we could get it all the way to the Ceres crusher in one shot.”
“Hang on,” Riss said, seeing a notification on her console. “Here comes the ping.”
She scanned the message. It was short, mostly filled with calculations that she had already computed herself.
“Cowards,” she blurted.
“What do they say?” Enoch asked.
“None of these inner system catchers have the balls to catch a 12-stopper,” Riss said in disgust. “First they say we need an intermediate catcher at Zedra. Then they say they want us to frac it into three pieces.”
“Bastards probably want to keep one. They’ll pretend it didn’t arrive.”
“Well, if we do ignore Zedra and send the entire rock on to Ceres, what are the chances some greenhorn catcher fucks it up and we get credit for nothing?”
“Imagine,” Enoch laughed, “five thousand tons of rubble strewn across space.”
He made an exploding noise while drawing his hands apart.
“Nice,” Riss said. Another notification on her console told her the Hopper was approaching.
“Check Airlock 1,” she told Enoch. “Hopper’s back.”
“Roger,” Enoch said casually, spinning his chair around once before handling the request. His fingers flew across his panel. “Check, check, and…check.”
“All right,” Riss said. “While we wait for Sanvi and Coop to get up here, let’s go over our options.”
Riss held up a hand.
“Enough with the checking. Listen. We throw, they fracture anyway. We fracture, they keep one. Either way, we stand to lose part of the rock.”
Enoch nodded. “Rock’s too big to fit all of it in the hold.”
“Yeah,” Riss agreed. “So here’s what we do. Frac it. Take the most valuable section. Send the rest. Sell what we have when we get back.”
Enoch shrugged. “Most valuable on this rock? Coop says it’s a big dirty ice ball.”
“Water, Enoch,” Riss said. “Mars needs water. At least until they get their equipment working properly. Lunar Base probably won’t say no, either. Everybody needs hydrocarbon for fuel, and after the terraforming it takes a lot of agua to keep everyone breathing.”
The Artemis shuddered briefly. Riss glanced at her console.
“Hopper’s docked,” she said. “Right. Let’s get the system set to frac. Coop should be able to tell us which part to hang on to.”
“Thrower’s already set,” Enoch said. “I’ll have to recalibrate for a lighter load.”
She nodded, and called up the telemetry sent from Zedra. Now all she had to do was reply to the ping. By the time the intermediate way station got her message, they would already be throwing the rock. After that, it was a long way home.
A few moments later, Sanvi and Coop floated in. The geist held a box in his arms, presumably filled with samples, Riss guessed.
“You look none the worse for wear,” she said to the geologist. He swallowed but nodded, briefly. Riss took the box from him.
“Can I, uh—“
“Coop doesn’t enjoy floating,” Sanvi interrupted. Her eyes showed her amusement.
“Have a seat,” Riss said, gesturing to the console. Cooper grasped the back of the seat and hoisted himself into the harness. His face was still working, as if caught up in a desperate struggle. Riss felt a stab of sympathy. She had no memory of her life on Earth, before…before whatever had happened to jettison her into space. All that remained were vague impressions of floating…floating…
“Riss…” Sanvi’s voice came.
The box was floating above her head. Abruptly, Riss snatched it down.
“Ah,” she said, apologetically, “I must have accidentally let go.”
“So,” Sanvi said, sitting in the pilot’s chair. “What’s the plan?”
Riss briefly explained what she and Enoch had discussed.
“All we have to do is have Coop tell us which section to keep,” she said, looking over at the geologist.
He didn’t look much better than before. The geologist swallowed once, twice, then closed his eyes before speaking.
“I—I’ll send Enoch the coordinates of the largest source of clean hydrocarbons.”
“Coop, you okay?” Riss asked.
The geist nodded unconvincingly.
“Yeah. I’ll be fine.”
His hands unsteadily tapped out a pattern on his console.
“Got it,” Enoch said. Two more seconds of tapping. “Driller’s ready.”
“Shield us,” Riss said.
A barely discernible simmering cocoon enveloped the Artemis. The magnetized screen would protect them from microscopic particles they were about to create, but the power drain meant the shield lasted just long enough for the cutting and retrieval procedure.
A thin stream of ionized particles shot out from underneath the ship, striking the Centaur. Plumes of steam rose, then dust. Tiny sparks here and there on the screen indicated the shield effectiveness.
After one or two minutes, the ion stream stopped. The Artemis crew waited. The rock slowly and silently split apart into three not-so-even sections. Dust and water vapor surrounded them. It would be dangerous for individual crew members to venture outside the ship now.
“Engage the thrower.”
The robotic retractor slowly unfolded and extended toward the nearest rock section. Over the next several hours, the Artemis crew worked nonstop. The smallest chunk was safely stored in the cargo hold for later use. Telemetry provided by Zedra, input into the thrower system. The two larger sections transported along the predetermined quantum path to Ceres. A ping sent to the catchers, a response obtained.
When the entire retrieval procedure had finished, Riss gave the signal. The Artemis got underway; once they had cleared the dust cloud left behind by their handiwork, the shield shut off and the crew breathed a sigh of relief.
“Time to get out of here,” Riss said. “Before the other hunters follow up on our ping location.”
“Course plotted for Zedra,” Enoch said, a trace of exhaustion in his voice.
“Confirmed,” Sanvi added. “ETA 14 days 4 hours. Autopilot…engaged.”
“Fourteen,” Cooper moaned. He slumped over the console in front of him. “That long to Triton?”
Riss mustered up the energy to laugh. “And another five to Ceres. If we take it easy during the refueling. Alignment of the planets.”
“Or not,” Enoch muttered.
Riss released her harness. Floating forward, she clapped the geist on a shoulder. “Good job, newbie.”
Sanvi and Enoch chimed in with congratulations as well. The geist gave a half-smile through sleepy eyes. He raised a hand to wipe away sweat from slightly clammy skin.
“OK, people,” Riss said, stretching her back. “The rocks are on their way. The autopilot is in control. Time to rest up and recuperate.”
None too soon, she thought. Time to send an encrypted vid message to Weng. If she could stay awake long enough.
Next: Chapter 4 – The Mars Colonies (November 7th)