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)
While Gennaji prepares to defend himself after having revealed the Sagittarius’s location to fellow asteroid hunters, Riss discovers that trying to forget painful memories has consequences.
Riss fairly staggered out of the exercise room, more exhausted by the two-hour workout than she had expected. Increased gravity from their acceleration, plus extra weight from the rock? Or something else? Her legs felt like pieces of taffy left out in the sun too long. And there was that strange headache she couldn’t seem to shake. Maybe she was just dehydrated.
She shuffled down the corridor to her room, holding herself upright with a hand against the wall. She probably ought to go to the command center, check on the rock, talk to the crew. But first she desperately needed a rest.
She reached her sleeping cabin and pushed the door. It seemed lighter than usual. No, not lighter. Less…dense. She shook her head and crossed the threshold.
The sudden illumination hurt her eyes for some reason. She covered them.
“Lights at fifty percent.”
Her vision returned to normal as the lights dimmed.
No, not quite normal. Even with half-illumination, it was as if she could see perfectly. Better than perfect. The door closed behind her and she walked slowly toward her desk. The pad still plugged into the wall port seemed to hum. She gently touched its edge. Somehow it felt…transparent. Translucent. Like the pad wasn’t entirely there.
Or maybe she wasn’t?
Sighing, she slumped into the chair. Maybe it was a virus. She supposed that would explain the headache and sensitivity to brightness. But there was something different about the room. The ship. Herself.
She glanced at the motanka.
No face. She always wondered about that.
“This doll is special. It is a protector of children,” Sergey said. “As you grow, she will grow, too.
“You mean motanka will get bigger?” she asked, eight-year-old eyes wide.
Sergey laughed. “No, dytyna. She will grow in other ways. Don’t worry. You will see.”
Riss examined the doll. Except for the cross on its face, it looked like any other doll. Two legs, two arms, long skirt. Less lifelike than the one she got from her real parents.
She picked up the doll and frowned.
Her real parents. She thought she had no memories of them. None?
No, wait. She could see something.
Her father. He gave her a doll. Once. Before they had to leave.
She squeezed her eyes shut.
Before they disappeared.
She opened her eyes again. No, she just couldn’t remember.
And looked at the doll. It had changed color.
She turned the doll around, then upside down.
Yes, it had changed color. Yellow hair, check. Black dress.
No, it was green. With light blue flowers…no, checkered red, yellow, and white patterns all over it.
That could’t be. The face was the same. The no-face.
She set the doll on her desk and flopped face-first on her bunk. What on earth was going on? Was space sickness making her lose her mind?
Weng. She needed to talk to him. Should have vidmessed him. Mars and Ceres refused their pings. Should have tried Luna.
Magboots still on, Riss fell into a deep sleep.
Walking along the sea. Dark, artificial blue sky. Beyond that she knew lay endless darkness and empty space. Almost as empty as…
A pressure on her left hand. Weng. Holding it firmly, then gently. A squeeze followed by a caress. Like he wanted to say something to her. Like he wanted her to say something to him.
“I love the way your face looks,” Weng began.
“Stop, stop,” Riss interrupted, shaking her head.
“The blue of the Cantic Ocean,” he continued. “The blue of the sky. The constant breeze that wafts…”
“I love the way your face looks, framed by the waves of brown locks, blown by an ocean breeze.”
He smiled, then laughed.
“Hopeless romantic,” she said. “You’re just a hopeless romantic. You do know that?”
“I’m supposed to say stuff like that,” he returned. “I’m an artist. It’s what we do.”
“Oh?” she replied.
He just smiled his enigmatic smile. They fell silent.
Something was bothering him. She could tell. He’d never ask for help. Not openly. Not from her. She squeezed his hand. He sighed.
“It doesn’t look like you’ve had much time for artistry lately,” she tried.
Weng made a face. “You’re right, I haven’t.”
He said nothing. Just coughed.
Riss looked at him as they walked, hand in hand. He stared into space. What was he thinking? She wondered. What was it he was looking for?
“I guess,” he said finally, after a long pause. “I guess you’ll be heading out again soon.”
She nodded. “You heard.”
He smiled again, looking up, above the sky.
“Sergey mentioned something about a lottery. A special asteroid of some sort.”
“Yes. A centaur. We won the rights to capture it.”
Weng shook his head. “I can’t pretend I understand how you asteroid hunters operate, but can’t you just, you know, negotiate?”
She laughed. “We did. Sort of. It’s complicated.”
She looked at him again. Her artist. Touchingly naive, stubborn and set in his ways. But that didn’t matter. He was faithful to her. Loyal to her adopted father. He had always supported her, regardless of whatever foolish thing she had said or done.
“You will come back to me, yes?” he said.
She squeezed his hand again. “If all goes well, this will be the last trip I have to make out there,” she said.
“No, of course not!” she said, laughing. “No promises. No guarantees.”
“No returns,” he said. “All sales are final. Let the buyer beware!”
They giggled together. It felt good, sharing a moment with someone she could be completely honest with. Completely open.
Completely. No. She suddenly stopped and let go of his hand. They stood still.
She looked into his eyes. He was still smiling, but the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. His face fell. It was as if, for a moment, she could see who he really was. His real face. Like a cross…
“I’m sorry,” she started.
“What?” he said. “What is it?”
She looked up again. The blue sky was gone. Darkness everywhere.
The ground fell away. Weng disappeared from her sight, his outstretched hands waving uselessly in the lunar wind. No cry escaped her lips. She stared wide-eyed at the stars. The emptiness rushed down. She rushed up to meet it.
With a start, Riss realized she was floating. Outside the ship, free floating in space. No suit. No helmet. In a panic she put her hands over her mouth. But there was no breath. No sound. Silence, only silence.
She looked down. She wasn’t wearing any clothes, none whatsoever.
This must be another dream, she thought, calming herself. Well, then, let’s see where it takes me.
Ahead lay a vortex. She smiled. A vortex, in space. Drawing her closer. She felt like putting her arms in front and swimming, as if it would make any difference.
To her surprise, it did. She felt the vortex pull at her, call her, gently coax her toward its amorphous black center. Faint clouds of burgundy and crimson whisked away as she neared. With a start she found that the vortex was not a hole at all. She reached out with both hands…
And brought a small object back to her.
A small ball. Cottony.
She cupped it. The ball dissolved into a cloud and flowed up her arms, across her entire body, dissipating in the space behind her.
Sensation returned. Gravity wells appeared before her eyes. Patterns revealed themselves. Orbits of planetary objects, trajectories of comets and asteroids. Space dust. Black matter.
She suddenly knew where she was. The happy hunting ground stretched like an enormous mine field before her, blocking her view of the inner system.
Concentrating, she willed an asteroid to approach. It was small, no more than a few meters across. She floated near it, ran her hands over its rough surface. The edges, points, indents. Mostly iron ore, with other trace minerals.
With a wave of a hand, she pulled the trace minerals out, leaving nothing but a ball of pure iron. A deft thrust into the ball; it stretched and twisted like taffy.
Into a mask.
She held it in her hands. Looked down at it.
The mask looked back at her. She tried it on and saw herself.
The face of the motanka. With a cross on it.
Next: The game’s afoot…Bringer of Light, Chapter 14: Mars Colonies (Coming February 13, 2021, 7 PM EST)
(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.
In Part 1, “Sam” Weng traveled to Mars, posing as a water plant engineer, hoping to promote his architectural designs. But the Martian Overseer had other designs…
Um,” he said, touching the computer workstation nearest him. “These figures seem…acceptable. So…”
Velasquez put his thumbs into his jacket front pockets and smiled.
Weng glanced at the cart, then at the shovel. He had it.
“Workers,” he said. “There aren’t enough workers to get the quantities of dirt necessary to operate the water reclamation system properly.”
“Yes,” Velaquez said, beaming. He waggled a finger at Weng. “I knew you were a man of intellect. You’re exactly correct. In order to support a larger colony population, we need several crews to excavate literally tons of Martian regolith. Our earth-moving equipment is useless without workers.”
“But what about the ice cap?” Weng asked. “I thought there was enough water locked up there for centuries of colonists.”
“Locked up, yes,” Velasquez agreed. “Locked up by the United Americas Armed Forces stationed at the only operating ice factory on Mars. The UA insists that all reclaimed ice water be used for fuel creation.
He put his hands back in his pockets. “But we can’t drink that water, anyway. The ice cap water has too much irradiation for our purposes.”
He took a step closer to Weng and continued, “Of course, I shouldn’t have to tell you that. As a hydroengineer, you should know already.”
Weng caught the meaning immediately. He stood still, furiously thinking of what to say.
“You’re not an engineer,” Velasquez said softly. He kept his smile. “Even the Lunar Base uses a water reclamation and filtration system such as this. It’s been well-known for decades now.
“Of course,” he said, gesturing to the water tanks, “most of our reclaimed water wouldn’t be in these tanks for long. The system is designed to use the natural bedrock to filter our impurities. These tanks are to disinfect and treat recycled sewage water, mixed in with water reclaimed from the regolith. We dare not use open-face tanks until the terraforming is well under way and the atmosphere forms properly to prevent sublimation.”
Weng felt his hands forming into fists. When would the other shoe drop?
Velasquez shook his head. “It’s of no matter,” he said. “We do not need more hydroengineers.”
“I know that you are an architect, Mr. Weng. A very good one, but one with a certain, shall we say, ambition. Grandiose ideas. Is that not true?”
Weng nodded curtly. “I regret the subterfuge, Overseer. I meant no disrespect.”
Velasquez smiled more broadly. “On the contrary,” he said, “I am pleased that you went to such trouble simply to find a position here in the Mars Colonies. Why give up an important job on Luna for this?”
He shook his head again.
“No, Mr. Weng. Sam. We have need of skilled individuals such as yourself. I will agree to give you a place on our water reclamation plant team so that you may remain on Mars.”
Weng relaxed and finally breathed out.
“Under one condition,” Velasquez added.
Weng started. “Condition?”
“Yes,” the politician answered. He darted glances about the room before motioning Weng closer.
“We have two or three groups of incoming settlers in a few days,” he said in a softer voice, as if not wanting the technicians to overhear. “Some are from the UA. Some are Indian. Some European.”
“That sounds potentially volatile,” Weng responded. “Even as a non-politician, I can understand that much.”
“Yes,” Velasquez said. “But we need these people. Mars needs water, and Mars also needs workers. Thanks to the UA lockout on the ice factories here, we’ve been obliged to get all our water from the plants on Ceres. It’s costing the UN an arm and a leg. If we could process our own potable water, right here…”
“I think I get the picture, Overseer,” said Weng dully. This didn’t sound like architectural work to him. Nor engineering work.
“Martin,” the Overseer said, clapping him on the shoulder. “I can’t talk to the settlers. I need a neutral, third party. Somebody who speaks for one of the Allied Forces.”
“Me?” Weng said, smiling. “I’m no Allied Forces representative. You’re the United Nations appointed Overseer of the Joint Martian Colonies. Why can’t you speak with new settlers?”
“Sam. When you look at me, what do you see?”
Weng looked. He held his tongue.
Velasquez persisted. “What do you see? What kind of person?”
“My ancestry is Japanese,” Velasquez said. He clipped the word, as if reluctant to say it. “My family moved to Peru when I was young.”
“I see,” Weng said slowly. Why was this person telling him this? Private information was not meant to be shared so openly among strangers.
“You are Chinese,” Velasquez continued. “But like the rest of my relatives, you and your people stayed in the alliance.”
He stopped and seemed on the verge of losing his composure. Weng thought he saw the briefest glimpse of anger cross the Overseer’s face.
“I cannot speak to settlers from the United Americas, China, or Japan,” Velasquez said bitterly. “I cannot risk anyone recognizing my name.”
Weng tilted his head and frowned.
“Velasquez does not sound too terribly—”
“My wife’s name,” the politician said. He fell silent.
Weng pondered. A name that was too dangerous to mention aloud, too recognizable to say even to settlers, who likely would not be anywhere near a position of power or authority. He wondered if the Overseer suffered from sort of of paranoia.
Well, he thought, perhaps he could use this to his advantage. Chai mao qui cui, one should never blow the hair and search for ticks.
“All right,” he conceded, trying not to sound too enthusiastic. “I will talk with them.”
The Overseer immediately brightened. He clasped Weng’s right hand with both his hands and shook it vigorously.
“Excellent, excellent. I believe this is the start of a beautiful friendship!”
Weng inwardly groaned, but outwardly smiled.
“Thank you, Overseer,” he said, as sincerely as possible. “I look forward to working together with you, and with the water plant team.”
“I’ll have the papers drawn up by the end of the day,” Velasquez said. He motioned back to the entrance. “Now, let’s see if we can find you some accommodations. Not as grand as Luna conapts, I’m afraid, but I think you’ll find it pleasant enough.”
“Papers?” Weng repeated, as they returned to the corridor. He began to think that he’d never get used to the labyrinthian underground maze of walkways.
Velasquez gestured with both hands and shrugged. “Not to worry, just a formality. A contract is necessary, you understand. That’s the way we do things here on Mars.”
A contract. Ah, well, politics and business were never too far apart. Perhaps he could somehow squeeze in a reference to future architectural work on his part.
The Overseer continued to lecture him on the history of the Mars Colonies, the various factions already living in separate but equal domed sections, the disputes he might expect from newcomers. But all Weng could think about was how he would explain this to Riss.
His new position entailed supporting a process that sought to eliminate the need for water from asteroids.
(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)
Dropping a shoutout to all my followers, old and new. Thanks for reading!
I’m preparing this week’s installment of Bringer of Light (Chapter 3, Part 2), all the while scouring the web for science and tech news to share.
Anything you want to see shared (or want to share)? Comments on the story so far? Something you want to rant about? (No politics please! Waaay too much of that at home right now. I’d rather keep my head in the stars when possible…)
Bringer of Light: Chapter 3, Part 2 – dropping at 7 p.m. EDT October 31st. No Halloween theme, sorry (that’s a separate post 🎃).