She was floating, feeling free at last. Unbound by any restraints, in control of herself. She finally knew who she was…but something tugged at her, something she had been searching for. Something calling her.
“No, no, I don’t want to go!”
Strong arms, gentle arms holding her. A needle pricks her upper arm.
“It’s okay, you’ll be safe. I promise.”
Shadows, sad shadows are all she can see. So sleepy.
“We’ll see you soon, varobushek.”
Riss suddenly sat up in her bunk.
Or, rather, tried to sit up. The sleep restrainer harness yanked her back down with a jolt. Feeling foolish, she pulled at the velcro and the straps floated harmlessly next to her. Rubbing her arms where the strap had dug in, she sat up again, slowly, and pulled her magboots on.
After her experience the previous night, she had decided to take no chances. The Artemis was beginning to slow down as they approached the Happy Hunting Grounds, returning the microgravity closer to its normal low. She should have used the harness every single night, but to tell the truth, she hated it.
Hated being restrained by anything.
What she couldn’t give for a gravity generator. Not feasible on a ship this size, given the energy consumption. In the meantime, time for her calcium supplements.
She touched a panel and removed a sealed pack of tablets from the drawer that popped out. She grabbed another pack of water, hesitated momentarily, then popped it open and inserted the straw.
Oh, well, she thought, downing the tablets and taking a big sip. Far too late to worry about what was in the water.
She leaned back in her bunk and took another long sip. The patterns suddenly came into view, dancing across the surfaces of the room. Then they faded, but she could see them.
Almost imperceptible. Everywhere.
The walls, the floor, the ceiling. The desk. The pad and its charge port in the wall. Her magboots.
She paused and rested her gaze on the motanka. It hadn’t changed back to its original color, still green with checkered red, white and yellow patterns on the skirt. The yellow hair had turned brown. No, red-brown.
The color of her own hair, she suddenly realized.
She drained the water pack and let it float to the ceiling. Maybe it was time to do some more experimenting.
She stretched out her hand and concentrated.
Nothing at first. Then she relaxed her hand, thinking of the motanka. As if in response, the doll lifted itself from the desk and floated across the room to her hand.
She nearly dropped it in surprise.
Just like the dragon fruit.
What else could she move?
She glanced at the pad, in its charger. It came tumbling across the room, straight at her forehead. She ducked, and it bounced off the wall behind her, falling onto the bunk.
It should have fallen up or floated. She thought again, and the pad floated upward, then into the middle of the room. She could see the patterns around it, the lines guiding it and molding it into shape. Gently she coaxed it back to its charger.
Could she open the door?
With a metallic clang the answer became readily apparent. The lights shut off, then on. The fridge moved toward her, opened up and flung a water pack, then rolled obediently back to its port. The door closed, softly this time.
She sighed. Didn’t even feel tired this time, unlike after the pitaya explosion incident in the mess earlier. Maybe with time they wouldn’t get tired at all. Or maybe it was just little things.
Or if they worked independently or together.
She looked at the doll in her hands.
The no-face still looked back. The colors—she could change them back to the way they had been. Yes, they did. Blue with yellow flowers and golden, flaxen hair.
No. She didn’t like the hair. Changed it back to brown, but a darker brown than before. Shorter, slightly wavy.
A memory spoke again to her.
“Why are you crying, moya kroshka?”
“At school, Elke called me a bad name. Right in front of the others.”
“A bad name? What kind of name?”
“Pig! They called me Russian pig!”
“You’re not a pig, kroshka. But you are Russian. And German, too.”
“I don’t wanna be Russian! I want to be just like Elke!”
Just like Elke. Just like the other kids. Not special. She clutched the motanka.
Dreams of a six-year-old. She couldn’t even remember where the school was, or what Elke looked like. Only the pain, the hurt was real. Even now, two decades later, it still hurt.
Who was she?
She wasn’t Russian. She wasn’t German. Barely remembered her mother, hardly any memories of her father at all. Just the last few moments as they made her go to sleep in the life pod.
True to his word, Sergey had helped her to find out who her birth parents were. At first. He had retrieved their passports from the life pod and was able to search for their names in the UN database. Her father was a chemical engineer, her mother an exobiologist — maybe she had even known of Coop’s father, who knows. Her parents apparently met in Italy at some sort of international conglomerate-financed exhibition on terraforming. In fact, that’s where Riss was born. But she had no memories of Italy, and few of her childhood.
Before the accident.
They had been in the midst of a family move to the Moon, to join the terraforming team, when their shuttle experienced a sudden power failure. Riss was the only survivor. A dozen others were never found again, presumed dead following the spaceship’s violent decompressive rupture.
But that hadn’t told her who they were.
German father, Russian mother. But those were just names of countries, just nationalities. Who were they? What were they like?
What did that make her?
“You can see any face you like on motanka,” Sergey told her, in the months after he gave her the doll. “That way she will grow with you, as you also grow.”
She looked at the doll. The crossed-out visage began to shift, softening features. Textures like slightly darkened skin, high cheekbones. Proud smile. Eyes…
She stifled a yelp and the doll leapt back to the desk.
The cross returned. Staring back at her from across the room.
She relaxed and exhaled, just then realizing she had been holding her breath.
The doll. It was just like her. Featureless. Easily changed. Controlled.
Was that why these new abilities scared her?
Or was it something that she was afraid to face?
She closed her eyes and stretched out a hand. The fields seemed to interact with her fingers, slipping between them. Around them. Through them. It was as if all she had to do was touch the fields, tease apart the threads of atoms and sub particles. Expand into the space between quarks and bosons.
The space holding the stuff of the universe together in delicate harmony.
Is this what they all were? What she really was? Empty space?
No. Not just space. A tension. A balance between matter and energy.
Light and dark. Being and not-being.
She (who was she?) stretched her fingers (what were they?) through threads (were they really threads? streams? filaments of subatomic connections?), touched another searcher, seeking answers like herself (self? unself?).
A familiar feeling, part dark part light, laughter and sadness.
Sanvi? Who was that? Riss? The same? Different?
Aspects of the same universe, elements and combinations of energy condensed, vibrating, expanding, contracting, interacting.
Aware of itself / herself / themselves.
Separate but together. Connected. Sharing space.
Joy. Pure bliss. Beyond the physical. Beyond…
A shock of recognition.
The room came back into focus. Her outstretched hand briefly glowed, luminescent, fingers trembling as if by a sudden jolt.
Lungs remembered to breathe.
Inhale, exhale. Eyelids blinked.
Riss. She was Riss. Sanvi was another person.
Riss sat back on the bunk, brushing back tears with the back of a hand.
Why was she crying? The experience hadn’t been painful. She tried to recall the sensations, but came up blank.
Only the separation remained. And a dim perception of the separateness of others in their own compartments.
She could no longer tell whether her crew were asleep or awake. The Artemis whispered to her. The autopilot stayed steady on its inbound course. Two more days, at least. Space was vast.
Physical space, between solar objects. Perhaps not so vast between people.
A wave of exhaustion came over her. Sleepily she beckoned for the pad again. It came to her. Programmed a wake-up alarm. Returned it. Fell back on the bed.
No restraints this time. A brief smile lingered on her face.
She had no more need for restraints.
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 25: Transit—Transjovial to Hunting Grounds. The Artemis comes home…to a surprise.
Sirens blared around the Central Dome, as they would be blaring similarly in the other domed structures across the planetoid. Schools had sent all their students home with orders to lock their doors. Workers told to avoid all unnecessary contact to save electrical generation. Luna Police were out in force, robot sentinels at every section gate.
But the orderly lock down had already begun turning to chaos.
All but trapped in his conapt, Sergey pounded the unresponsive automated door.
“Open! Open, dammit!”
He paused to cough messily into a fist, then resumed pounding. Damned power outage. What in hell was going on?
He could hear hurried feet in the outside corridor, orders shouted.
He shuddered, then composed himself. It was an unwelcome sound. No noise in space, but plenty inside the dome. He had forgotten what violence actually sounded like.
He rubbed the bruised knuckles of his right hand. Damn door.
Glanced at the comm panel on the wall next to it. Useless. Lock down meant no unnecessary comm channels open. As a retired captain — regardless of the respect shown him by the Lunar Base Council — he wasn’t considered necessary.
He trembled in frustration. Useless old man. Damn it all.
What the hell was going on?
Someone was now pounding on the other side of the door. A muffled voice.
“Get me out!” he roared in response. No idea what the other voice had said.
A whining pitch seemed to emanate from inside the door. He took a few steps back.
The noise increased. He took several steps back, stumbled over the dining table, knocked over the chair. A brilliant light erupted from the door as the cutter broke through, drawing a white hot vertical line.
Sergey cursed, grabbing the table with one hand. He stood shakily, keeping one eye on the door. The other hand self-consciously searched for a sidearm that he no longer carried. He clenched both fists and waited. They wouldn’t take him without a—
The line complete, a gloved hand shoved the middle portion of the door out. It fell to the floor with a dull thud. “Captain Bardish. Captain, are you unhurt?”
“Yes. Yes, I am fine. What is this ruckus?”
“Captain, please stand back as we open the door.”
Two more gloved hands appeared, thrust inside the door itself up to the elbow. A snap as the circuit was broken, a hiss of released air pressure. The door slid open and two men stepped through it, tazer rifles pointed at him. Luna Base police?
“Sir, you will come with us,” a voice said from behind them. Sergey squinted at its owner. A young man, thin and tall. Goggles covered what probably were artificial eyes. Luna-born.
“What is this?”
“Captain, my orders are to bring you, unharmed, to the Luna Council Chamber. You will please come with us. Now.”
Something wasn’t right. Sergey shrugged and raised his hands.
And then quickly brought them down on the weapon of the nearest officer. Sergey lowered his shoulder into the surprised officer’s chest and grabbed the rifle.
No sooner had he done so, four hands grabbed him from behind. He struggled but only for a moment.
“I was told you might be unwilling to come,” the young officer said. “But we have no wish to hurt you. You will come with us.”
Sergey paused, trying to identify the man. He did not know him. He sighed and hung his head. He did not know many things, it appeared.
“What is going on?” he asked.
“A coup,” the officer responded. He nodded to the other men. “Let’s go. Eyes open.”
They led Sergey through off-white corridors from one section of a residential building to another. It seemed to Sergey that they were avoiding leaving the conapt complex for some reason. Outside the buildings sporadic tazerfire could be heard from time to time, and Sergey thought he felt the ground shake at least once or twice. Explosions?
At the end of one corridor, the group ascended four flights of stairs. Sergey felt his heart pound faster and he began to wheeze. They stopped at a large metal door bearing the words “Upper Dome Access – Restricted.” No window, wheel in the middle. Wall panel chest-high, probably the code pad.
Strange, he thought. Such doors were now archaic. After the terraforming, there was no need. Where were they?
He placed both palms on the top of bent knees, inhaling and exhaling slowly.
“Captain Bardish, are you having trouble breathing?”
“Hmf. Whatever gave you such an idea?”
He shook his head and waved a hand. “I am fine. Just a moment to recover.”
As he eyed the door, he felt a hand on his back.
“I strongly urge you not to run. The situation outside is dangerous.”
Sergey looked over his shoulder and cocked an eyebrow.
“I am in no condition to run, young man,” he said in what he hoped was a convincing voice. “I may have new kidneys and a reconstructed liver but I have only original leg muscles.”
The young officer nodded, but at the time drew out his tazer pistol with one hand. With the other he input the access code on the wall panel. He gestured. Another officer stepped in front of Sergey, turned the wheel to the left, then stepped back.
“Captain. After you.”
Sergey hesitated, then pushed the door. He took a step through the open doorway into near pitch-black. Sunlight rarely reached the bottom of habitation craters, but still, things were much darker than they should be. Above, he could not see where the dome ought to have been. They must be outside, then, on the surface.
A thin stream of light from above the doorway spread across the desert-like Lunascape. He heard the lapping of water, the saline odor of the sea. Several meters away was the outline of a ship of some sort.
A hunter ship.
He suddenly thought, Me, first? In a dangerous situation? Something was not—
Gunfire erupted behind him. Someone shoved him forward, violently, and he heard “Get down!”
He staggered forward a few paces, then, without looking back, charged for the ship. More gunfire, then the sounds of hand to hand fighting behind him. He reached the ship and flung himself under the bow. Definitely a hunter ship, he noticed at a glance. Altered for surface landing.
There were one or two more shots back at the door. He covered his head with his hands and waited. One minute became five. Or ten. He couldn’t tell.
He raised his head but stayed prone.
“Captain Bardish! Are you unhurt?”
He didn’t recognize the voice, but he had begun to shiver and knew he didn’t stand much chance outside against a party of unknown assailants. The worse they could do was shoot him.
“H, here,” he called, then spat out some lunar sand. He shook his head and slowly extracted himself from underneath the ship. “Over here!”
He raised his hands. Three lights approached. One shone directly at his face, forcing him to squint his eyes.
“Captain Bardish, are you unhurt?”
“I’m fine,” he snapped. “Who the hell are you and what do you want?”
“Luna Base Police, sir.”
He lowered his hands. The light also lowered and he could finally see the three in front of him. They wore Luna Base Police uniforms, just like the people who had brought him out of his conapt.
“We had a tip that someone might try to illegally break you out of the lock down. Our apologies for not arriving sooner.”
He looked suspiciously at the three. Like the other men he had assumed were also police, the three had tazer rifles. In addition, the leader wore a sash over his left shoulder and had two stars on his helmet.
“May I ask for identification?” Sergey asked, looking from officer to officer.
The leader replaced his weapon into its holster and withdrew a badge from a sleeve pocket. “Lieutenant Sanchez. Section 2B, unit 11. Would you follow us to a safe location, Captain?”
“The residential areas are obviously too dangerous.”
“So you are, you are arresting me?”
“No, sir,” Sanchez said, replacing the badge and withdrawing the tazer again. “We are escorting you.”
He motioned for his companions to lead Sergey back inside and touched a strip on his inside left forearm. As Sergey followed the (he presumed) actual police escort back to the door, he glanced back. Sanchez was evidently talking to someone over his helmet mic while gesturing to the ship. Probably asking for orders what to do with it.
They reentered the building and he heard the blaring sirens. Down the stairs again, this time a little more gingerly.
What in god’s name was going on? Sergey wondered, shaking his head.
He didn’t know who to trust, but he did know that there was very little he could do about it.
At least whoever was involved in this “coup,” if it was one, seemed more interested in keeping him safe and alive. Even if it meant keeping him prisoner.
He frowned. Who would want to capture him? He had little influence on Luna. Not even on the Council.
Despite what Weng thought.
Sergey nearly smiled at the memory. Just a short while, it seemed, Weng had asked to meet him. In a reading room in his office building. Always while drinking that disgusting soya coffee. Asking Sergey to put it a good word for him with the Council, get him on to a water reclamation, water processing team, something like that. But on Mars.
Why Mars? Wasn’t Luna what he had wanted? After all, this is where he met Clarissa. Where Sergey, his future father-in-law, had already managed to get him into a prestigious design firm?
“This place has no soul, Sergey,” Weng told him. “It looks alive, but the Moon is a dead place. We have terraformed it, thanks to you, but it is still lifeless.”
Despite the green grass and trees, Sergey realized, at last. That wasn’t what Weng meant.
He came out of his reverie. Sanchez had disappeared. The three remaining members of the group had crossed into another building, one he had rarely visited after retirement.
The administrative sector.
Police streamed around them in the corridors, doors here and there rapidly opening and officers entering and leaving in haste. Sergey recognized the security station center, spaceport ops, customs, even the communications and computer maintenance divisions.
Ach, he thought. They had changed the color back to bland Luna beige.
“This way, Captain,” an officer gestured, opening a door marked “Conference Room.”
“Where did Lieutenant Sanchez go?” Sergey asked.
“I’m sorry, sir, I don’t know. Please enter the room and wait.”
Sergey hesitated, then shrugged and walked in. The door closed behind him. He turned back, ready to try the lock, then shrugged again. It made no difference. May as well wait and see what they wanted with him.
He looked around the room. Non-descript, typical military standard. Gray office chairs, black ovular table with 3D imager in the center. Digital white board on two walls. No decorations or windows.
No exit door.
A younger man might have tried to squeeze through the ventilation grid embedded in the wall, near the ceiling.
A younger man…
He sighed and pulled out a chair. It looked as if it might be a while.
Next:Bringer of Light, Chapter 24: The Artemis—Transjovial, in which Riss experiences the fields, and something else…
Riss stared down at the table in the mess galley. A dozen fruits and vegetables floated above it, gently bobbing up and down.
“How did you do that?” she demanded.
Sanvi shrugged and then yawned. “I just thought about what I wanted to eat. Made me feel a little tired, though.”
“I saw you do it, and I still don’t know how you did it.”
Cooper leaned forward and plucked out a mango. He paused, then took a small bite. “Delicious,” he said, devouring the rest.
Enoch shook his head. “I don’t know what half these things are.”
Sanvi picked up some of the fruit and passed them around, naming each.
“Purple mangosteen. Ambarella. Star fruit.”
“What’s this one?” Enoch asked. He gestured to a yellow fruit with twisted fingers stretching out in a cluster.
He made a face. “You expect me to eat this stuff? I’d rather have rations.”
Riss laughed. “Eat or not, the more important fact is that Sanvi was able to make them at all. What did you use?”
Sanvi tapped a finger on the panel next to her. “Some of the rations, of course. I reasoned that, if we can manipulate matter, we need something that’s already physical.”
Enoch sputtered. “Some of the ra—“
“So,” Riss cut in, “even though there are atoms all around us, it’s not as if we can just create something from nothing.”
“It’s not creation, is it?” Cooper said. “Nothing is new in the universe. Everything is merely one form of something already existing.”
Riss nodded. “Nothing is created; all is renewed. From either a mystical or a chemical standpoint.”
“Wait,” Enoch protested. “Are you saying that any of us — all of us — can do what Sanvi did? Make some disgusting fruit?”
Sanvi gave him the finger.
“If you’ve never heard of Buddha’s hand,” Riss said, “I doubt you’d be able to manipulate the atoms of a ration tube and turn it into one.”
“But if I know what something is,” Enoch said dubiously, “then as long as I can imagine it, I can make it?”
“Rearrange it. Not create. That’s what I must have done with the doll in my room.”
Riss briefly felt herself reddening. “Save it.”
“OK, Wiseman,” Cooper said, giving Enoch a tube. “Here’s your tube. Let’s see you turn it into something else.”
Enoch held the tube and concentrated. At first, nothing happened. After a moment, the edges of the tube began to fold in on themselves. The object became rounder, and redder, with slender green strips like fingers emerging from the surface.
Enoch gasped and nearly dropped it.
“My god,” Riss said. “What on earth is it?”
“Pitaya,” he whispered. “Dragon fruit. I’ve never eaten one. Only seen pictures from my grandfather.”
He turned it over in his hand, then placed it on the table. He took a knife out from a nearby drawer and cut the fruit in half. The inside was off-white, with tiny black seeds throughout.
“It looks like vanilla chocolate chip ice cream,” Cooper said. He stuck his finger into the pulp and licked it. “Doesn’t taste like it, though.”
Riss picked it up and took a bite. “It tastes like a bland food ration,” she said.
“Not bad for a disgusting fruit,” Sanvi said with a smirk. Enoch returned her finger to her.
“So,” Riss said, “We can’t rearrange things without direct, previous knowledge of what it is we want to make.”
“Would this also work for inanimate objects?” Cooper wondered aloud. “You know, like minerals or metals.”
“Do you mean, could we extract ore from an asteroid just by thinking about it?” Riss asked. She recalled the mask, then shook her head. “I’m not all that anxious to find out, to be honest.”
“No, no,” Cooper said, shaking his head. “I mean, how do we stop the ship? Can we, uh, rearrange part of to slow us down?”
“That’s not exactly what I had in mind,” Riss replied. “But imagine if we could somehow remotely control the catcher on Ceres.”
“I could hack the system,” Enoch said.
“No, too risky. Also probably too difficult, especially if they refuse to communicate. They probably already shut down any external grid access.”
“What if,” Sanvi suddenly said. “What if we were to combine our thoughts. You know, think about the same thing, simultaneously?”
“Here we go again,” Enoch snorted. “Voodoo magic. Ow!”
Sanvi had punched him on the shoulder. Hard.
Cooper darted an angry look at Enoch, Riss noted. She decided to distract him. “Sanvi, if I understand you correctly,” she started. “You mean, we should, individually, try to concentrate on the catcher as we approach. And then, we sort of, ah…”
She waved her arms around, at a loss for words.
“Our minds are growing closer,” Enoch intoned, holding his hands up in a Levite blessing. “Nanoo, nanoo, I bless you all, shalom, shazbot. Ow!”
“Riss,” Cooper said, shaking his head. “This is all getting just a little too, you know.”
“Mystical?” she said.
“Ridiculous?” Enoch said, rubbing his shoulder and glaring at Sanvi. She stuck out her tongue at him.
“Just roll with it. Everybody ready?”
Riss looked around the galley. Her crew stared back at her blankly. Enoch took another bite of papaya. “For what?” he said between chews.
“Ready for the next step.”
Cooper narrowed his eyes. “Riss, I hope this does not mean what I think it means.”
“I have no idea what you think it means,” Enoch said. Cooper rolled his eyes.
“If none of you think we can move the thrower,” Riss said, “why don’t we try to move something smaller first? As a test.”
“A test?” Enoch repeated. “I suck at tests.”
“Call it a trial, then. A practice. But as a group, working together.”
They all looked at Riss. She looked at each of them, then back at the table between them.
“Let’s concentrate on moving one object,” she said. “Slowly.”
“The dragon fruit,” Enoch suggested, putting the rest of the pitaya down.
“Sure. Do what I say. Lift it to eye level. Turn it around once. Aim it at me. Move it two meters, then turn it around and return it.”
They stood around the dinner table, alternately staring at the fruit and each other. A few minutes passed.
“Um,” Cooper said.
Another moment of silence.
“Well, this is awkward,” said Enoch.
“Alright,” Riss said. “This obviously isn’t working right now. Why don’t we, uh, take a break and recharge or something.”
“Wait,” Sanvi said. “Let’s try again. This time, every one should shut their eyes.”
“Shut my eyes?” Enoch said. “How can I concentrate on moving the thing if I can’t even see it?”
“Why should you need to see it?”
“What is the fruit made of?” Sanvi persisted.
Enoch shrugged. “Molecules of a ration pack that I changed into something I only…”
He stopped, then continued, “…only had imagined in my dreams.”
And closed his eyes.
“The fruit is only molecules,” Sanvi said softly. “Only atoms like everything else around us. I can feel them. I can see them.”
Riss closed her eyes and concentrated. Nothing.
No. Wait. She could sense something. She could see it. The pitaya.
“Can you see it, Coop?” she said aloud. He turned to her. But his eyes were closed. So were hers. How could she see him?
“Riss,” he said.
“Steady, people,” Riss said. “Concentrate. Lift it up.”
In her mind’s eye she saw the dragon fruit wobble. Then one end lifted off the table. Then the entire fruit.
“A little higher.” It rose to head level.
“Now. Gently. Let’s spin it around.”
The fruit hovered over the table. It jerked to the left, then back to the right.
“Clockwise,” Riss specified.
“Riss,” said Enoch. “I’m getting a little winded.”
“Same here,” whispered Cooper.
“Relax. Just a little longer.”
The fruit slowly swiveled, turning clockwise. It began to move closer to the edge of the table.
“Towards me,” Riss said.
She could feel the fruit strain to move. Something was wrong. Tension. Fighting? She opened her eyes. Enoch and Cooper were sweating. Sanvi had her eyes half-opened but otherwise appeared as if in a deep trance.
The pitaya jerked towards her. Then Enoch, then Cooper. One end began to swell.
“Slowly!” she said again, a little more forcefully. “Middle of the table!”
The fruit rose again, above their heads and began to spin wildly.
“No!” Riss shouted.
The dragon fruit burst apart, spraying chunks of fiber across the room.
Sanvi opened her eyes and laughed. She was, as Riss then noticed, the only Artemis crew member not covered in the remains of the exploded dragon fruit.
“I think,” Riss said, somewhat annoyed at Sanvi, “we need a little more practice.”
She scooped a handful of pulp from her shirt.
“And a shower, too.”
Cooper sighed and yanked a handkerchief out of a shirt pocket. “Riss,” he said glumly wiping pitaya juice from his face, “I think we need a break.”
Enoch grimaced and dragged his hands through his hair, yanking out dragon fruit seeds. “I agree with the geist,” he said. “For once. I feel, I dunno, drained?”
“All right,” Riss said with a sigh. “Let’s, let’s all sleep on it for now. We’ll give it another try in a few hours.”
Her crew left the galley one at a time, headed back to the sleeping quarters corridor. Enoch loudly yawned before Cooper smacked him on the back. The two tussled, but it was a friendly shoving match, ending with arms around shoulders. Sanvi followed, arms crossed, silent.
“And don’t forget to check the physical fitness schedule and take your calcium pills,” Riss called after them. “Some of you are beginning to get lazy.”
Sanvi paused at the doorway and looked back. For a moment, Riss thought she saw something new in Sanvi’s face. Something attractive. Reluctant.
Resisting, Riss realized. Maybe even a little scared. She felt it, too.
“Riss, all you all right?” Sanvi said hesitantly. “I—”
“I’m okay,” Riss cut in. She stopped, then nodded her head. “Sanvi, I, ah. I’m just a little tired.”
“Well, if, if you need to talk.”
Riss looked down and bit her lip.
As she watched the pilot leave, Riss hugged herself. They had all changed somehow. She could still feel the ship pulsing, like a thing alive. Sensing her fears, hopes. Desires. Things about her she barely understood, herself.
But what of Sam?
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 23: Luna – in which Sergey becomes an unwilling participant in a coup.
Sorry, folks! My chapter numbering has gone a bit wonky. As I said, these are draft chapters — still a work in progress! At any rate, I hope you are enjoying the process…
Btw, WordPress is *definitely not user friendly* when it comes to anything other than a TikTok or Twitter-size micro-blogpost. I don’t do 5-minute chunks of attention-span theater, so I hope that my readers can concentrate past the 21st century style of “in your face for ten seconds!” style of online slam-bang presentation.
Is there still a place for traditional science fiction storytelling?
“You know, Gen,” Weng sighed. “When I convinced your father to let me work for the water reclamation team, I hadn’t anticipated becoming his glorified messenger boy.”
He took a sip from his cooling soy coffee and leaned against the hull of the shuttle. The decor of the inside corridors of Lunar Base were boring; the decor of the commercial loading dock was downright atrocious. He felt as if his eyes would be permanently damaged the longer he was forced to look at the drab colors and bland angles of the building.
“Sam, I don’t think…”
Weng held up a finger in warning as an automated loader passed by, carrying several stacks of dry goods. Headed not for their shuttle, but for a similar vessel.
“Where’s that one from?” he asked.
Gen shuffled through his info pad screen information.
“According to the markings, Ceres.”
“Hang on. They get priority on foodstuffs over the Mars Colonies?”
“The United Mars Colonies.”
“Yes. The Uni…Gen, are you pulling my leg?”
“No, Sam. Just reminding you of our purpose.”
Weng sipped the coffee again. The purpose. What he had got himself into? All he wanted was to be able to apply himself, as an architect, in a place that appreciated his vision.
Well, yes, he wouldn’t mind a position of authority. He needed something to show Sergey that he was worthy. The old man’s trust in him. He didn’t quite have that, he was sure.
Why hadn’t Riss contacted him in the past week? He wondered, but kept his thoughts to himself. Focus on the task.
“Gen, we were lucky to convince the Lunar Base Council we needed emergency supplies, weren’t we?”
Gen looked up from his infopad and snapped the cover shut.
“Yes, Sam, to some degree.”
Weng tilted his head and smiled. “What does that mean? ‘To some degree.’ I thought I was rather persuasive.”
Gen raised his eyebrows. “I hadn’t thought you to be so confident,” he said. “The opposite, in fact. Quite self-effacing.”
Weng maintained his smile. The little shit, he thought. The smaller man’s face held no expression, betrayed no emotion. Was this really the Martian Overseer’s legitimate son? Something about his mannerism…
“You are broadcasting your thoughts too loudly, Sam,” Gen said in a softer voice. “I would advise you to close your mind. You never know who might be listening.”
A momentary look of shock passed over Weng’s face but he quickly composed himself.
No thoughts. No Riss.
“I see,” he said neutrally. “I did not know you were a telepath.”
“Empath. Only partial telepathy.”
Gen returned to his inventory listing. He casually scanned down the screen, occasionally poking at it. “I can’t make out specific words. Only basic ideas.”
He looked up again at Sam.
“Plus a certain understanding of human nature. And personal background.”
Weng swallowed. “I have no intention of betraying my fiancé for your sake, Gen,” he croaked. “Nor for the Mars…United Mars Colonies.”
“But I am devoted to the purpose,” Weng continued. He drained the cup and crushed in one hand. “I intend to make myself as useful as possible for the future of the United Mars Colonies. For myself, for my fiancé, and for your father.”
“That is all we ask,” Gen replied. “We are not looking for blind obedience, Sam. Only assistance.”
Weng made no reply. He returned his gaze to the robot porters and their cargo. A hatch on the Ceres-bound shuttle opened, and the porter slowly and mechanically unloaded its stacks.
“Not to worry, Sam,” Gen said, seeing his gaze. “Once the porters are done over there, we are next on their itinerary.” He tapped his info pad.
“No, Gen,” Weng said. He turned to look briefly at the man he once thought was his assistant. “That’s not what I was thinking. You do have limits, then.”
Get nodded. “I read best when strong emotions come concomitantly.”
Weng started to say something, then changed his mind.
“You know,” he said. “If you have this talent of reading thoughts…”
“Emotional thoughts,” Weng amended. “Well, then why didn’t you use it when we first approached Talbot back at Ceres?”
Gen shrugged. “There was no need. You did well enough on your own.”
Weng kept his expression as emotionless as possible. “Also, you did not trust me,” he added.
Gen nodded. “As you say. We all have secrets.”
The robots were nearing completion of their task at the other shuttle. Weng gestured to them. “Doesn’t anything about this strike you as odd?”
Gen crossed his arms and stared at the robots.
“They do not seem nearly as efficient as the robots at the Ceres Mining Station.”
“No, no,” Weng interrupted. “Not that. Hasn’t Ceres blocked all transmissions, as we suggested?”
The two men exchanged glances. Gen flipped open his infopad again, fingers hurriedly inputting commands.
“Confirmed. Incoming blocked at Ceres.”
“Gen, do you mind staying here to supervise the loading of our precious cargo for Mars?”
Across the loading dock area, a section of wall slid open. Two robotic porters detached themselves from docking sockets next to the opening and entered the new area.
“The foodstuffs will be readied momentarily,” Gen said. “You have only a few minutes. I will attempt to delay the procedure.”
“That’s all I need,” Weng said, withdrawing his long-unused wrist com from his left sleeve pocket. He felt the right sleeve pocket; damn, no earpiece. He’d have to keep his voice down. No choice.
Shoving the remains of his coffee cup into the pocket, he touched the watch to his wrist. The organoplastic wrapped itself around, just like it used to. He walked as casually as he could away from the shuttle loading area, back toward the crew entrance elevator. Glancing back, he saw Gen raise his hand to stop a porter. To double-check the inventory, he hoped.
He tapped the watch and shielded the plastic face with a hand.
No answer. He checked the connection.
Damn. The office manager was in a meeting. He’d have to try someone else.
“Elodie. Elodie, are you there? It’s Sam.”
A tiny image projected from the organoplastic surface. He adjusted the size and volume, but the voice still seemed too loud for comfort. He looked around. Automatons hadn’t made any motion toward him.
“Sam? Hi, long time no see, big shot. Didn’t know you were slumming.”
“Elodie, hi. Look, I know it’s sudden, but I need a favor.”
“Favor? You weasel your way out of a Luna architectural project into a Martian water reclamation team and now you want a favor?”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. Very uncool of me.”
“But characteristic. What do you want?”
“Thanks. I need to know if someone from Ceres managed to contact Luna within the past three days.”
“Ceres? We contact them all the time.”
“Not now we don’t. They’re blocked all incoming.”
A moment of silence. He tapped at the watch. “Elodie? Are you there?”
“Well, I’ll be. You’re right, Sam.”
He felt himself growing impatient. “Yes, I know. Listen, can you…”
“Sam, what’s going on? There are rumors of trouble here.”
He stopped. “Trouble? What kind?”
“We all heard something happened in the last UN meeting. Something between Brazil, China, India…I forget who else. We were told not to allow ships from ISS to land for the time being.”
He looked over at the loading area. Gen was still trying to delay, but it appeared as if the porters were already setting their pallets in place.
“Elodie, can you check…” His mind raced. “Can you check for any incoming from deep space? From transjovial or transneptune?”
“Miss your girlfriend, eh, Mr. Martian.”
“Elodie, come on.”
A string of words appeared across the plastic surface.
“What’s this? Code?”
“Looks like. I found it hidden in a subdirectory, addressed to Sergey.”
“Sergey? From who?”
“Can’t tell. It was definitely from a ship, though.”
The porters had finished their task. A warning alarm sounded.
“Gotta go before they open the loading dock doors. Thanks a bunch, Elodie.”
“Sam! What is going on?”
“I don’t know. Be safe.”
He cut the connection, yanked the watch off and threw it on the floor. Carefully aiming, he crunched it under a boot. From the slivers remaining, he withdrew a tiny fragment. The micro-memory chip was all he needed. The rest could stay.
He had no intention of returning. Not if what he suspected was happening came to pass.
He ran back to the shuttle. Gen had already entered and was beginning the start-up sequence. Weng climbed up the ladder and slid in from the top portal.
“OK, Gen, let’s get out of here,” he said, taking the navigator’s seat. “You can drive if you like.”
“I have no difficulties piloting the shuttle, Sam,” Gen replied. His hands flew over the console as the shuttle slowly lifted and turned. The automated porters in the loading area returned to their niches in the wall. The lights dimmed. The shuttle rose toward the semi-domed roof, arching above them.
“50 meters,” Gen said. “25.”
For a second Weng nearly panicked. Had Lunar Security caught his transmission? Would they block them?
Seams in the roof appeared. The semi-dome split into two sections that slid open like the doors of a greenhouse. The shuttle edged its way through the opening and into the thin Lunar atmosphere.
Fifty years prior, Weng realized, the decompression from the loading area would have propelled them out into space, reducing the need for thrusters. Now, with the faster than anticipated terraforming project successfully completed, the old loading area construction seemed horribly antiquated.
Gen toggled the aft thrusters, and the shuttle sluggishly lifted away from the loading station. As they turned onto their off-Lunar trajectory path toward Mars, Weng could see the station below, embedded into the lunarscape.
No wonder, he thought. All the original buildings had to be buried in the surface. Or beneath. Even with the atmosphere, the engineers never did figure out how to stop all harmful solar radiation.
Outside the Lunar Base perimeter, the gravity generators no longer held them down. They shot off toward Mars. Gen checked the console as he set the autocontrols.
“We may return in time,” he said. “Barely.”
Weng didn’t respond. Hands in pockets, he was still fiddling with the microchip with one hand, debating what to do. Fingers on the opposite hand touched the crumbled remains of the coffee cup in the other pocket. He retrieved one piece and turned in over his hand.
Strange, he mused. He almost felt a certain attachment to it. An odd feeling of…he didn’t know.
“Surely not nostalgia?” Gen asked, turning around.
Weng didn’t look up from the paper shred.
“Maybe not,” he said, giving no indication of annoyance at the unwanted mind read. “Maybe I should have told Sergey.”
“Told him what exactly?”
Weng returned the shred to his pocket and withdrew his hands. He folded them in front of him.
“Gen. We must talk,” he said calmly. “Of revolution.”
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 21: The Artemis, in which the Rock seems to have cosmic import… (dropping April 10, 2021)
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.”
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