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

Bringer of Light, Chapter 6: Brady

November 28, 2020
MThomas

(In Chapter 5, we found out more about Riss. Now it’s the geist’s turn.)

Brady Cooper was typing.

It was more difficult than he thought it would be. One hand strapped into the pad case, the other single-finger typing on the pad surface, all the while trying not to float away from the bunk.

Floating made him queasy. He would never forget the embarrassment he felt just before his first launch. The “training” he received in the weightless chamber prior to joining the Lunar geological survey team simply didn’t prepare him for living on the Moon.

He lasted all of ten minutes before getting sick. All over himself, his teammates, the arrival seats in the spaceport lounge.

And it didn’t get any better from that point.

Somebody should have told me that terraforming didn’t change the gravity! he complained to his supervisor at the time. Didn’t Lunar Base have grav generators, anyway?

But that was just an excuse. Of course, he should have known. He’d forgotten. In his haste and anxiety to prove himself. The youngest geologist ever allowed to join an extra-Earth survey team, just recently out of grad school. And from Africa, no less!

No, not from Africa, he argued. American. I’m American. That was just my mother.

They always shrugged. You UA people all look alike, some told him.

Asians. He just didn’t understand them. But he knew Chinese scientists. Japanese. Indian. Malaysian. He needed to prove to them, prove that he was just as good as they were.

When the call came for a geist to join an asteroid hunting crew, he leapt at the chance. Without thinking, as usual. But he knew he could do it.

He hadn’t figured on the gravity being more or less the same. Or the equipment more complicated. Or the people more…complicated.

The recalcitrant pad was proving adept at avoiding his fingertips. Irritated, Cooper tried to sit upright. Instead, he managed to propel himself tumbling head over foot toward the closed entrance door.

Letting out a tiny yelp, he cradled the pad to his chest to protect it. His feet banged against the door, arresting his forward momentum and pushing him back towards the bunk. Calming himself down, Cooper reached down with his free hand and grabbed a boot. After a few awkward attempts, he managed to yank the boot on one-handed. The boot touched the floor, securing him in place.

He laughed. It must have looked ridiculous; anchored in place, waving his arms and left leg around like a sea anemone.

He took his hand out of the pad case and pulled the other boot on. Sitting down on the bunk, without doing a somersault this time, Cooper thought back to his near-fatal mistake. His first hunt.

What a scene he must have made, that time.

He’d been so anxious about actually stepping foot on an asteroid that he had forgotten to set his boots. One step on the asteroid was all it had taken to push him off of the surface and onto a slowly arching path out into space.

Fortunately Riss had seen him starting to float away and performed a daring rescue worthy of the popular NetStream vid “Real Space: Rock Hunters.” She turned off her own boots, grabbed the cable from the ship’s winch and launched herself as hard as she could at Cooper. A few bounding leaps onto the roof of the ship later, she crashed into him and wrapped the cable around his waist. He was only free floating for twenty seconds. But that was enough time for him to ponder having to make the choice: either slowly suffocate as his air ran out, or open his exosuit for a quick, frozen death.

Sitting on his bunk, magboots firmly attached, Cooper could now look back and wonder.

Why hadn’t he learned his lesson the first time?

He shook his head.

A better question was why he felt so drawn to seek an outer belt hunting expedition.

Chalk it up to the exuberance of youth, he heard a former teacher’s voice say.

He smirked at the memory. Mistakes, one after the other, in his doctoral studies at Boulder. Geochemistry had never been his strong point; somehow, he persevered. Even got three papers published before graduating. His professors’ lectures set his imagination on fire. To see asteroids and comets up close! To visit the Zedra fuel station on Triton and see the ice plumes of Europa!

Now, far from the colonized part of the solar system, hovering near the LaGrange points of Jupiter and Saturn, he was afraid.

All of the time.

Afraid. He had no idea the psychological rigors of deep space travel would affect him so intensely. The isolation. The emptiness. No up or down, left or right. No center.

None of his astrogeology studies had prepared him for this.

He held his head in his hands and stared at the floor.

Why had he and his mother left Tanzania?

As a high school student in Colorado, he had never fully understand the reason.

“It was time to leave Dar es Salaam behind,” she told him. “The republic is no more. The Commonwealth will not save us. Our future is with our brethren. In the UA.”

He originally thought they were searching for his father. British, he had been told. A white man from a distinguished background. Maybe even a politician. But they only stayed in Brighton for a few days. Then Chicago. Then Colorado.

His mother had never spoken of his father’s whereabouts, or why he had left. Cooper had no distinct memories of his father. Only that the man had not talked to him much, or even visited the house often.

In fact, the geologist realized he didn’t even know if his parents were married or not. He supposed now it didn’t matter. It was not something his mother wished to discuss.

“Study science,” she insisted, whenever he asked. “Listen to the rocks. Learn their story. Their past is your past.”

He did as she said. He studied. He got into his dream school. He learned. He struggled.

When he was chosen for the Mars terraforming project, his classmates told him how lucky he was. How jealous they were of his success.

But he hadn’t felt successful, somehow. Always needing to prove himself. Like he was being constantly tested, watched. Judged.

Mistakes. His work was nothing more than a giant bundle of mistakes.

Instinctively, he stood and clasped his hands. The short daily prayer, the prayer affirming the power of the divinity and its grace. In what direction Qiblih lay, he had little idea.

“…There is none other God but Thee, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting.”

He sat down again. There was no way to wash his hands in space. Sponging just wasn’t the same. Directions were meaningless. He had even skipped the long prayers for days at a time. Saying the medium prayer three times a day had proven difficult. When was sunrise? Sunset? Where could he find enough space for supplication?

He was glad nobody had yet asked him to use a gun. Violence ought to be avoided; the teachings forbade the faithful from carrying weapons or even using coarse language to criticize another. He came close to doing so, in the cargo hold, when the white hunter captain insulted him. Almost lost his temper.

White. Was that because he was white? What about his own captain?

Cooper shook his head again and closed his eyes, praying silently for the strength to remain faithful. His mother had lapsed. She was now covenant-less. Would he join her?

Only his isolation prevented the Elders from knowing his crisis of faith. He dared not contact his family. Even speaking with the covenant-less was grounds for being ostracized likewise.

Yet the isolation that saved him also condemned him. Who could he talk to?

Riss?

No, she was his captain. She had enough burdens to handle, let alone bear his. He was resolved to follow her command. She had more than earned it.

Enoch?

He hadn’t yet figured out the navigator. He didn’t seem Hawai’ian, although he claimed to be a descendant of ancient Pacific Island sailors. And his name, Enoch, was Biblical, yet the man had no interest or knowledge whatsoever of even his own faith. Cooper didn’t know what to make of him.

Sanvi?

Hm. She bothered him. In many ways. But spiritually, perhaps.

No. Not yet. He was unsure of himself, of his devotion. His own strength. He needed to be sure they could rely on him, before he relied on them.

He hoped he’d done the right thing by adding the ice to their water supply.

The pad bumped him in the back.

He turned around and plucked it out of the air, where it had floated aimlessly during his self-recriminating daydream.

He sighed and swiped it on again. Maybe another vid binge would take his mind off things for a couple of hours. Good thing the Artemis library had several thousand hours’ worth of pirated Net Stream vids.


Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 7: Sanvi (Coming 12/5)

Bringer of Light, Chapter 5: Riss

November 21, 2020
MThomas

(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.

Lena

Riss sighed and put the doll back, gently, on the desk. She kicked off her magboots, lay back on her bed.

“Artemis.”

The desk chimed.

“Play Beethoven.”

“Specify.”

“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.”

“Specify movement.”

“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.

She wondered how the rest were coping.


Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter Six: Brady

Bringer of Light, Chapter Four (Part 2)

November 14, 2020
MThomas

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?

“Mart—Overseer, I—”

Velasquez shook his head. “It’s of no matter,” he said. “We do not need more hydroengineers.”

“No?”

“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…”

He smiled.

“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?”

“Ah.”

“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.

His next vid message would need…tact.


Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter Five: Riss

Bringer of Light, Chapter 4 (Part 1)

November 7, 2020
MThomas

(Like the previous Chapter, this one is over 3,000 words. So I’m posting it in two parts.)

“Well, I’ll say one thing,” Weng muttered, stepping out of the vertical transport capsule into the Mars Colonies Receiving Station. “Mars smells much worse than I imagined.”

“You’ll get used to it,” said an approaching voice. “It’s just recycled feces. A small prize to pay for settling the universe.”

Weng looked up to see the owner of the voice; a slender East Asian man, wearing a business suit and a shoulder to waist white sash that marked him as a career politician.

“Martin Velasquez, Martian Colonies Overseer,” the man said with a practiced smile.

They shook hands. Weng almost did a double-take, but caught himself. The name didn’t seem to match his partner’s appearance.

“Weng Wei,” Weng said slowly. “But most people call me Sam.”

Velasquez laughed. “Sam. Originally from China?”

“Yes, that’s right,” Weng replied carefully. “But my allegiance is to the United Nations, not a single nation.”

Velasquez laughed again. “Not to worry, Mr Weng. We’re all friends here on Mars. No room for disagreements.”

“No room, huh.” Weng said, surveying the building surrounding them. He self-consciously touched his left wrist with his right hand. No watch. No way of using it on Mars, where the infrastructure wasn’t set in place yet. He sighed.

The geodesics were primitive by Lunar standards. The Mars Colonies primarily consisted of tall, egg-shaped semi-transparent structures connected by underground passages. All constructed by robotic drones and remote-controlled 3D printers the previous decade before the UN settlers landed. Compared to the spacious residences of the Moon, the living arrangements seemed horribly cramped.

Not to mention even less aesthetically pleasing, Weng thought. If that were actually possible. But he kept that thought to himself.

He let his hand drop awkwardly by his side. “So, uh, I gather you have a position open on your water reclamation team?”

“Yes, that’s right,” Velasquez said, smiling. “You came highly recommended.”

He gestured. “Shall we?”

They walked past the Receiving Station operator, who sat reading the latest sports news on his pad. He looked up briefly and touched a panel at the console in front of him. The transport capsule lifted and disappeared into the tube, headed back to the transit station in geostationary orbit above them.

“Mars Landers win today?” Velasquez called.

The operator waved his free hand. “Nah. Red Rocks beat ‘em. 15-7.”

Velasquez shook his head.

“Mars Baseball League,” he explained to Weng.

Weng shrugged. “I don’t know much about baseball,” he admitted.

“Well,” laughed Velasquez, “You’d better learn quickly. The colonists are crazy about it.”

He waited until they were out of earshot of the transport operator before adding, “Actually, without Marsball, many colonists probably would go crazy. It’s awfully isolating, being stuck in domes all day. The wireless network is barely adequate to support vid streaming, and even then only on UN-sanctioned pads.”

They left the Receiving Station and walked down a flight of metal stairs into a long winding corridor. The stench seemed to grow with each passing step, but Weng said nothing.

Instead, he focused his attention on the Martian Overseer, who prattled on about various problems the Colonies were experiencing.

“You know,” the Overseer was saying, “It’s so nice to finally meet a man of obvious intellect, such as yourself. I mean, a member of a terraforming design team! And a friend of the great Captain Bardish!”

Weng tried to humble himself as best he could. “Thank you for your kind words, Overseer. I’m just a company man.”

“No, no, not at all,” Velasquez retorted, waving away perceived concerns with a hand. “The Mars Colonies are desperately in need of more brain power. We’ve been applying for a qualified engineer up here for months, but with all these factional disputes Earthside…well, you know how it is.”

The Overseer paused. They stopped and he peered at Weng.

“You are a scientist, are you not?” he queried.

Weng didn’t like the suspicious tone in the voice. “Yes, yes,” he stammered, “Of course, I am. I’m eager to examine your water plant facilities.”

“Which ones?” Velasquez asked. “Desalination? Sewage? Recycling and filtration?”

“Filtration,” Weng said automatically. He’d rehearsed this bit. “I have some design ideas that may increase the regulatory capacity.”

“Ah,” said Velasquez. “But perhaps I should see if you can get some living quarters before—”

“Later,” Weng interrupted. Seeing the expression on the politician’s face, he hurried on. “I mean, I would very much like to go directly to my new workplace. Meet my new teammates. Find out what I can do.”

“Well,” said Velasquez dubiously, laying a finger aside his nose. “If it would set your mind at ease, I suppose the grand tour could wait. Still, hydroponics has some projects that might interest you. But I’ll take you directly to the reclamation plant, if you wish.”

He gestured. “This way. There’s a bit of more walking involved, I’m afraid. The underground pedestrian belt isn’t functioning at the moment.”

Weng refrained from sighing again. He had to play his cards close to his chest with this man. Bardish may have got him to Mars, but now he was on his own. Somehow he had to convince the Martian Overseer that he could be a valuable member of this fledgling Martian society.

And from there, become a valuable aide in the politician’s inner circle. This was his chance.

They resumed walking. Here and there along either side of the pathway various corridors branched off. Weng wondered how expensive it was to maintain lighting. The underground architecture reminded him of his trip to the Sudan, in the days before China and the United Americas became allies. Another waste of his talents, that trip. But at least it had taught him how to address local officials with tact.

“Overseer,” he began.

“Martin,” said Velasquez.

“Ah, Martin,” amended Weng. “I have to admit that I am not familiar with the current problems on Mars.”

Velasquez nodded in understanding. “Yes, with the tensions Earthside, and the close-minded-ness of the Lunar Council, it doesn’t surprise me. Some things don’t make NetStream News, you see.”

Weng cocked his head, feigning ignorance. “Some things?” he repeated.

The politician allowed himself a brief smirk, but returned to his empty smile. “Come now, Mr. Weng.”

“Sam.”

“Sam. We are men of intelligence. Any fool can see that if the Greater Indian Empire does not accede to the UN demands, violence is all but inevitable.”

Weng frowned in abeyance. The Overseer was an astute observer. The UN was even more ineffective than before at preventing conflicts among member nations. China and India frequently rattled sabres in the past, but things had quickly escalated with the creation of the Lunar Base. India felt slighted at not being asked to join the settlement project; China felt slighted at not being more involved in the Mars Colonies administration; the United Americas and the Slavic Confederacy still had horns locked over the ultimate fate of the Ukrainian Union.

And now the UN was demanding that India give up its claims to the old ISS, which had been earmarked for dismantlement long ago. The creation of Ceres as a way station for asteroid hunters made ISS irrelevant, the UN argued. India disagreed; their use of nuclear fissile materials rejuvenated the station, turning it into an armed outpost. They hinted the ISS harbored ship-to-ship nuclear warheads and MIRVs. Other nation-states suspected a ruse, but remained concerned that Indian warships could threaten their space interests and that the ISS, itself, represented a huge biological hazard should its systems fail.

At any rate, the ISS was a dangerous sword of Damocles. But what did it matter? Weng thought. His future lay here, on Mars. With Riss.

“Overse…Martin,” he said apologetically, “I’m not sure what use I can be politically, but I am here to help as much as I am able.”

“Of course, of course,” Velasquez chuckled, as he adjusted his sash. “But you see, politics is what makes Mars live and breathe. Refugees. Prisoners. Exiles. Or should I say, Martian settlers.”

They ascended a staircase into another domed structure. This one was much larger than others they had passed along the way. In the center of the room was an enormous computer workstation. Behind the workstation stretched several three-meter high water tanks, mounted with valve readers. Stacks of tubes in square metal racks lined the back wall, with tubes of varying sizes connecting everything in a complicated, convoluted weave across the floor. Three or four technicians in white hard hats and gray worker outfits wandered among the equipment, occasionally inputting information on touch pads. At the back of the room was a closed door, in front of which stood a cart filled what appeared to be dirt. A dull gray aluminum shovel leaned against it.

As they entered, one of the workers noticed and waved.

Velasquez returned the wave.

“Our new water reclamation system,” he explained to Weng. “Still in need of a few engineers. That’s why it’s not up to 100 percent just yet.”

Weng was about to respond when he noticed a large open slot in the wall next to the entrance doorway they had walked through. It looked almost like a cafeteria tray return window. From the slot curious glass rectangular panels ran along the walls in a strip all the way around the room.

“And this?” Weng asked, pointing at the slot.

“Ah.” Velasquez beamed. “Our pride and joy. Let me show you how it works.”

He walked over to the cart. Picking up the shovel, he scooped out a fair amount of material.

“This,” he said, while walking the shovelful to the slot, “is how we make water on Mars.”

He unceremoniously dumped the dirt into the slot. He put the shovel down, pulled a silk handkerchief out of a jacket inner pocket and carefully wiped his hands.

“Push that green button over there,” he said with a big grin.

Set into the wall above the slot was a panel, containing two thumb-size plastic buttons. One green, one red. How quaint, Weng thought, pushing the green button. Inside the slot, a whirring sound echoed. The noise of a metallic conveyor belt starting up. The dirt disappeared to the right. After a few minutes, another noise came from behind the first two glass panels in the wall.

Weng bent over and looked through the glass.

“Looks like a microwave oven,” he commented.

“It is a microwave oven, basically,” Velasquez replied. “At least, to the best of my knowledge. First, we need to cook the dirt and get the ice out of it.”

Water vapor began to cloud the panel, but the vapor quickly dissipated.

“Of course,” Velasquez continued, “with just a single shovelful of dirt, we won’t get nearly enough water vapor to bother with.”

He pushed the red button, and the noises stopped. The politician folded his handkerchief carefully and replaced it inside his jacket. Pausing to ruffle his lapels, he looked over at the technicians.

“They seem capable enough,” Weng said without thinking.

Velasquez looked back at him. “Oh, they are. That’s not the problem.”

He waited. With a start, Weng realized he was being tested. Would he know what the problem was?


Team SEArch+/Apis Cor of New York is the fourth-place winner in NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge, Phase 3: Level 1 competition.

Next: Chapter 4, Part Two (Landing at 7:00 p.m. EST on 11/14/20)

Bringer of Light Chapter 3: The Artemis (Part 2)

October 31, 2020
MThomas

(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.”

“Go ahead.”

“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.”

“Roger.”

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.”

Enoch snorted.

“Bastards probably want to keep one. They’ll pretend it didn’t arrive.”

Riss considered.

“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.”

“Check.”

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.

“Chunk it.”

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)


Children of Pella: Bringer of Light synopsis

Psyche! Uh, no, sorry, that’s not really how “value” is determined…

October 30, 2020
MThomas

“Artist’s depiction” = “we don’t really know, actually, but isn’t this cool?”

Even more intriguing, the asteroid’s metal is worth an estimated $10,000 quadrillion (that’s 15 more zeroes), more than the entire economy of Earth.

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/10/29/metal-asteroid-psyche-nasa-hubble-images/6069223002/

Leave it to USA Today—the paragon of journalistic integrity and unvarnished truth reporting—to grossly exaggerate “value.”

Imagine if someone dumped several hundred thousand tons of nickel and iron on the market?

It would immediately make nickel and iron worthless. Simple supply and demand. So it’s not monetary value that is important.

How do we create vehicles and domiciles for a space-faring future while avoiding the exorbitant cost of getting them into space in the first place? It’s the cost and weight of rocket fuel that’s the issue.

Solution: Build everything in space. No need to bring anything back to Earth.

Not needed now. Maybe someday.

Thank you to my new followers – drop me a line!

October 29, 2020
MThomas

Use a human language, preferably…

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 🎃).

Bringer of Light Chapter 3 — The Artemis (Part 1)

October 24, 2020
MThomas

(This week’s installment is over 3000 words long, so I’m splitting it into two parts for posting. Enjoy!)

“Airlock 2 engaged,” came the navigator’s voice over their helmet comms. “Seal confirmed.”

“Thanks, Enoch,” Riss replied. “Take up your position on the catwalk.”

“Roger.”

Riss removed her helmet and placed it on top of the cargo hold’s control computer stack. Riss surveyed the hold. Designed to safely transport small to medium-sized asteroids, the vast space was shaped like top half of a dodecahedron. Which, in fact, it was. The bottom half comprised the fuel storage for Artemis’s ion engines.

Behind the control computers, the main door to the hold remained closed. Wrapped around the entire cargo hold area, the walkway could be accessed only through a small square portal directly above the main door.

The hold had two access ports. Port-side, Airlock 1 was reserved for the Hopper. Starboard-side, Airlock 2 served as a backup. Riss hated using it. While Airlock 1 was almost flush with the floor, Airlock 2 was several centimeters up the wall. After several initial attempts trying to leave the airlock without spraining an ankle, she decided never to use it for the Hopper. On the other hand, the airlock was perfect for unwanted guests.

Riss motioned for Sanvi and Cooper to stand at either side of her. She readied her sidearm, an old tazer rifle. Riss prayed she wouldn’t have to use it. From the sound of things, Gennaji must still be holding the old grudge, from near the end of her time on the Sagittarius.

At the thought, her eyes hardened. Lena, I’m sorry.

Continue Reading

Bringer of Light — Chapter 2. Lunar Base

October 17, 2020
MThomas

(In Chapter 1. The Rock, Captain Riss Kragen and the crew of the Artemis prepared for a confrontation over asteroid hunting rights. Meanwhile, on Luna…)

What an absolute nightmare, Weng thought, waiting in the corridor for the machine to spit out another cup of soy coffee. He grabbed the cup, quickly walked past a row of ugly corridor paintings and headed for the Lunar architectural department office. 

If Sergey could come through for him, if Sergey could convince the Lunar Council to transfer him to Mars, Weng would owe the Captain big time. He would make it up to the old man, somehow, he vowed. For Clarissa’s sake. For his own sake.

Continue Reading

Is teleporting a death sentence?

October 15, 2020
MThomas

“Beam us down, Mr. O’Brien! No, wait, I didn’t meaaaannnnnnnnn……”

Some would argue that having one’s “molecules scrambled,” as Dr. McCoy would put it, is actually the surest way to die. Sure, after you’ve been taken apart by the transporter, you’re put back together somewhere else, good as new. But is it still you on the other side, or is it a copy? If the latter, does that mean the transporter is a suicide box?

https://arstechnica.com/gaming/2017/09/is-beaming-down-in-star-trek-a-death-sentence/

An old article (2017, whose impetus was the imminent release of ST: Discovery) but a good one.

Is the copy of you, you? Or is it a brand new person with the same memories? Would it have ANY memories? Would it have the same consciousness? (Or ANY consciousness?)

Of course, you can always stick to the “David Brin Theory” of teleportation: “Some dude in the future will figure this all out.”

Lazy writers!

(This is why, in my novel, I stick to quantum teleportation of inanimate objects only. That includes quantum communication relays, chunks of asteroids…miniature nuclear bombs…you know, “realistic” things like that.)

And, yes, quantum teleportation is real. Just very, very tiny. For now.

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