(Weng and his “assistant” Gen have arrived at Ceres, where after some difficulty they convinced the Ceres Mining Council to give them water supplies for an increasingly crowded Mars. None of them realize what the water will do…)
“Smells like the ocean,” Weng muttered.
“Yes,” Talbot said. “This used to be the Sea of Salt.”
They stepped into the room. It was an immense chamber topped by a series of metallic gates that appeared to interlock. That must be where the asteroids are caught, Weng guessed. Riss explained it to him once, but he still wasn’t exactly sure how the thrower and catcher system operated. Something to do with quantum teleportation.
The door slid shut.
“Stay here,” Talbot ordered the robot. It nodded and stood stiffly at attention.
They walked down a steep steel staircase. Embedded in the rock walls on all four sides were various gauges and panels. It resembled the machinery shown Weng on the Mars Colonies, only more streamlined. He didn’t see any plastic red buttons, though.
The metal floor lay covered wall to wall with pallets that the three walked between. Maglocked to the floor, each pallet held ten to twelve waist-high canisters, topped with high pressure nozzles.
“Seven thousand tons of water,” Talbot said. She patted a canister. “She only sent us two of the three frags we were expecting. Probably keeping one for herself and crew.”
“Or to sell to a private buyer,” Weng said.
“You?” Talbot suggested.
Weng smiled and shook his head. “No, just a hunch. It’s what I would do.”
She grinned and walked to one wall, checking machine gauges. “You know,” she said, as she worked. “I wouldn’t have pictured you as a sentimental man, Weng-shi.”
His eyes followed her. He hadn’t noticed her during their negotiations earlier. Hadn’t noticed the way she walked, held herself. Confident. Obviously intelligent. Attractive. A bit abrasive, but she was a miner, after all.
He came back to himself. He had a fiancé.
“Yes, well,” he said. “I’m more of an artist than a diplomat, really.”
She looked up from a dial.
“If I didn’t know better,” she said, “I’d guess you were more of an artist than a water plant operator, too.”
He merely smiled.
“You have a message from Riss, as well?” he asked.
She shook her head. “No, nothing.”
He considered. That was unusual. Riss usually sent something with her catches. After her initial message, he had assumed that she would follow up with an itinerary, an estimated arrival on Ceres. Something else.
Had something happened?
“Any strange readings about these fragments?” he asked.
“Nothing out of the ordinary. I’m sure the hunter’s geist checked it before throwing it in. Our system reading came out negative, in any case.”
Talbot walked to the opposite wall. A panel slid open and another canister emerged. An intercom above the panel crackled. “That’s the last of them, Tal.”
“Thanks, Dez,” she said in a loud voice. “Let’s finish up and see our guests off.”
She turned back to Weng.
“All right, you’ve got your seven thousand tons of water,” she said. Weng noted she had returned to the ice maiden manner of their first meeting. As cold as the rocks she’d just vaporized for them.
She continued, “Tell your assistant to go bring that ship of yours around to Lock 3. That’ll place him just outside this room. We’ll have the robots prepare delivery.”
They began to walk back to the metal staircase leading out of the room.
“Your process is much more efficient than ours,” he commented. He clasped his hands behind his back and sauntered to a gauge. “Where does the actual vaporization occur? Within the walls?”
“You have your secrets, I have mine,” she said. Then chuckled. “We’ve had a couple decades to perfect the procedure. Not a single atom of vapor wasted.”
He laughed. “Not one?”
“Well, maybe one or two,” she admitted. “Hence the tangy scent. But, as I said, there were no strange readings. We’re very careful.”
They reached the door. The robot remained in the room as they entered the corridor.
“It’ll take an hour or so for the robots to load up your ship,” she said. “In the meantime, I should track down our resident tech specialist and see if we can’t download the data from your infopad.”
“Your tech guy,” Weng said. “Plus your plant operator, plus yourself. How many real people live here?”
“Robots are real people,” Talbot countered. Then cocked an eyebrow. “Well, real enough, anyway. As you’ve noticed, they’re not the greatest of conversationalists.”
They reentered the main operating room, then headed to a separate room opposite from the culvert. The room was barely high enough to stand, with a small square table, a television niche, and a closet built into one wall. And no chairs.
“My office,” Talbot said by way of explanation. “Also bedroom. Space is at a premium here.”
“Comfy,” Weng said.
They sat down across the table from each other, crosslegged on top of small square cushions. It’d been ages, Weng thought. Almost like home. Talbot withdrew the pad from her pocket and started scrolling down the screen.
“So,” she said after a moment, “you’re positive that this information will be enough for us to force the UN’s hand?”
“By us, I presume you refer to the Ceres Mining Council?”
“All ten of us.”
“And how many miners on Ceres does the Council represent?”
Talbot smiled at Weng’s surprised expression. “So much for the poker face, Weng-shi.”
Flustered, he stammered, “It’s, it’s just that…Sub-chief Talbot—”
“Just call me Talbot, Weng-shi.”
“Talbot. Before we continue, shouldn’t we check in with your superior officer?”
She raised an eyebrow. “What superior officer?”
“But,” he said, “Sub-chief…?”
She laughed. Despite himself, he enjoyed the sound.
“We’re all sub-chiefs here, Weng-shi,” she said conspiratorially. “Nobody’s the boss. We’re all equal.”
“So the Council represents a commune of ten people, all of whom live here as equals?”
“No, no,” she said. “The council all live here on Ceres, and there’s only ten of us. But we represent the interests of several hundred miners and asteroid hunters who spend most of their lives in space.”
Weng paused, thinking. “Then you’re kind of a union of sorts.”
She shrugged. “If it helps to think of us that way,” she said. “There are those on Luna who think of us as a great big space pirate club.”
“But you control all of the materials retrieved from asteroids across the solar system?”
“Well, yes and no. Asteroid hunters work mostly as independent operators, but miners often work for Earthside corporations.”
Weng nodded. He knew that UN law forbade individual countries from claiming universal mining rights on celestial bodies. Just as no one country could claim to own the Moon or Mars, no one country was allowed to claim an asteroid, even a tiny one, as their property. But companies were under no such compulsion. Particularly when the asteroid itself was pulverized and no evidence remained.
“The minerals you’re extracting from these rocks,” Weng said. “They’re worth billions. How can you possibly process so much with such a small staff?”
“Robots, obviously,” she said. “Also, clones. But they’re too dangerous, too emotionally unpredictable. So they get stuck on individual rocks, for the most part.”
She cocked her head and looked carefully at him.
“You thought I was a robot, didn’t you?” she said.
Weng smiled. “No. But I think my assistant might be.”
She laughed. “Unemotional. Logical.”
“Totally incapable of laughing at my stupid jokes.”
She laughed again. He found the sound surprisingly pleasant. “So, at least that proves I’m not a robot.”
He stopped. “Talbot.”
“Susan.” Weng smiled. “I should check in with Gen at the ship.”
She placed the pad down and leaned forward. “I already messaged the supply bay. Another thirty-five minutes.”
“Oh?” He folded his hands on the table. “That seems like a lot of time to kill.”
“Believe me, Weng-shi—”
“Sam.” She pronounced the name as if she were tasting it for the first time. “Believe me, thirty-five minutes goes by quickly.”
As the ship arched away from Ceres, Weng wondered if they’d made the right choice. Turning over potentially valuable information to a tiny group of extra-governmental asteroid miners, beholden to nobody but themselves—it could prove dangerous.
Almost as dangerous as a naked decontamination shower, he thought ruefully, scratching the back of his neck. Amazing, how desperate some people can get, cooped up all alone for weeks on a big rock like that.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” he murmured.
“I didn’t know you read Hippocrates,” Gen said suddenly beside him.
“Oh, just something I picked up from the Netstream back a while,” Weng said. Wistfully.
He thought of Riss. She need never know. But at least he had managed to divert her to Mars, where they could start their new future.
“Block all incoming calls,” he suggested to Talbot just before they left. “China and India are about to come to blows. The UA and the Russian Confederacy are at loggerheads. Ceres and Mars need to stand together.”
“Mars. Mars!” she laughed, caressing his face with a gloved hand. “You say that as if the Mars Colonies stand a chance on their own. What about your food? Your electrical generation?”
“Water will provide our energy source,” he said confidently. “With your help, we’ll have enough for hydroponics until we can get rid of the UA guards and get that ice flow tapped. There’ll be plenty.”
“And when the Allied Forces arrive to take back what’s theirs?”
“They won’t,” he replied, kissing her cheek as he boarded the ship. “They’ll be too busy preventing others Earthside from invading home turf. But in the meantime, let’s assume that any incoming ping is from a hostile source. Safer that way.”
“And Clarissa?” she teased. “She ought to be heading here to pick up her pay check.”
Weng inclined his head. “She’s smart enough to figure out what’s going on. Especially if you leave a message indicating that the rocks from her were sent on to Mars.”
Talbot pulled the other glove on and checked her antigrav harness. “You act as if you expect me to do all your dirty work.”
“That smile,” she said, pulling the radiation visor down. With the complete mining suit on, Talbot looked more mechanical than human. Weng felt unsettled. Had he touched that? But he kept his emotions in check.
“I don’t expect anything,” he said calmly. “You’ve been a great help. Sub-chief Talbot.”
“Susan.” He turned to go, then turned back and said, “Keep in mind what I said. Ceres and Mars.”
She merely waved. She reached down to switch off her magboots, then bounded off. Toward another processing center, he assumed, for something more toxic than hydrocarbons.
Weng snapped his attention back to the present. Another week in this tiny ship, with only a robot for a conversation partner.
“Sir,” Gen said, interrupting his reverie, “the message has been sent to the Martian Council.”
“Thank you, Gen,” Weng said. He stretched his arms and back. “By the way, I appreciate the information you relayed from Martin. About the ice flow.”
“I was only performing my duty.”
“Even if it was an elaborate ruse,” Weng finished. He paused to gauge the assistant’s reaction.
There was none, of course.
“Are you a robot, Gen?” Weng asked quietly. “Sent to spy on me by the Overseer?”
“No, sir,” Gen replied evenly. “I am not a robot. I volunteered to keep tabs on you for Overseer Velasquez.”
“Ah.” Weng shrugged. “And the ice flow?”
“It exists. Several meters thick in some places. But too radiated for drinking usage. And electronically safeguarded. And too far from most of the colonies at any rate.”
“A shame.” Weng sighed.
“Yes,” Gen said, checking instrument readings on the navigation panel. “My father said much the same thing.”
“I can see why he liked you from the moment you met,” Gen commented. “You will be very useful to the Martian Secretariat. I hope you do understand, of course, that each of us has a specific role to play.”
He looked up at the architect with a pleasant expression on his face. “Your designs intrigue me, Dr. Weng. Once this current water situation is solved, perhaps we can address the primitive lighting scheme.”
Weng stiffened, then relaxed in resignation. He had a feeling that he still had an awful lot to learn about Martian politics.
“Sue, we got incoming.”
“Patch it through.”
One more time, Talbot thought, and this rock would reveal its treasures, like the others in this batch. Riss could keep her Centaurs, she growled inwardly. Who needed ditrium when there was plenty of iron, nickel, and titanium to be had in the Happy Hunting Grounds?
Through her radiation shield she could barely make out the object in her hands, but the readings on the inside of the helmet showed the tell-tale signs she’d been waiting for. She sighed contently, then tapped the panel on the ore processor machine.
“Well, Dez, what is—”
A ping. From deep space. It was either Riss or…
She hesitated, then let it through.
Her helmet suddenly filled with a familiar voice. She bit her lip, remembering the last time he’d visited. And now there was something he wanted her to do.
In addition to his previous request about the guest from Mars.
She reflected that she had likely gone a bit overboard with her hospitality. But then again, she was a freelancer, just like everybody else. Fortunately, she also had friends. And her own agenda. She sent a response ping.
In a few minutes, all the arrangements were made. Closing the channel, she toggled the internal com system.
“Set up a relay, Dez,” she ordered. “Then block all incoming, like we discussed.”
“Roger. For how long?”
She pondered. In front of her, the processor flashed an indicator. The iron nugget came out perfectly.
Well, more like iron goo, she thought. Still, worth just as much to space builders. Even better with the 3D printers they used.
“As long as we need to, Dez,” she replied at length. “It’s time to play the game.”
Caveat emptor, Gennaji, she thought. And, no hard feelings, Riss. But business is business. The Captain could look after herself.
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 12: The Sagittarius. Gennaji is about to have a most unwelcome visitor… Dropping on January 30, 2021.
(The Artemis crew experienced strange sensations, which they believed dreams. Now the asteroid fragment from which they already extracted water for their drinking supplies is glowing…and many contain life.)
“Coop, is there any precedent for hydrocarbon-rich asteroids containing nucleic acids?”
The geologist rubbed a hand on one arm. Where Sanvi had grabbed him, Riss realized. She slowly walked toward him, and he toward her.
“Only in theory,” he said carefully. He looked at her with a strange expression. Like he was trying to figure out if she was serious, she guessed. “It’s widely believed that amino acids were first introduced to Earth by asteroid or comet bombardment.”
He stopped. “If…”
He turned to the rock.
“Why is it glowing?” Riss said quietly.
The geologist shook his head.
“I don’t know. I’m an astro-geologist, not an exobiologist.”
“Well,” he said, rubbing his arm again, “I suppose it’s possible that, if there were any RNA, the ribose could have completely hydrolyzed, so that it bonded with any freely available compounds in the rock, such as phosphorous or sulphur.”
“O-kay,” Riss said. “And if it’s not RNA?”
“It could be some other kind of enantiomer whose chiral features—”
“All right, slow down,” she interrupted. “I followed the phosphorus bit, but what on earth are you talking about?”
“Um. Sugar. Basically.”
“Yeah. Hydrocarbons have, uh, carbon, right? So, that means carbohydrates. Starches and sugars. But molecules sometimes come in pairs. Mirror images of each other. So when one of the pair affects you one way, the other might affect you another way.”
Cooper looked at Sanvi with a frightened expression.
Sanvi opened her eyes wide and took a step forward.
“Coop,” Riss said, placing herself between the two, “you had better explain yourself.”
“Drugs,” he repeated, crossing his arms and taking up a defensive posture. “Like the pills we got from Ceres base before heading out here. You know, like the ones I got for low gravity sickness. There might be something, some natural molecule in the rock that acts kind of like that.”
Riss nodded. “Okay, I can see that. So it’s possible we all got some sort of, what, psychotropic solution from this rock?”
Cooper shook his head. “I just don’t know.”
“Whaddya you mean, just don’t know?” Enoch blurted out. “I had this crazy dream. Are you saying I was stoned?”
Cooper looked at him. “You what?”
Riss interposed. “Coop, we all had dreams. Strange dreams.”
She looked at her crew members one at a time. “Isn’t that true?”
Sanvi and Enoch both nodded.
“N, no,” Cooper murmured. “It wasn’t…”
Riss looked at him intently.
“No,” Cooper said, in a stronger voice. “No, I didn’t have any dreams. I mean, I don’t remember them.”
Riss sighed. Whatever, let him keep his secrets. She glanced at her wrist panel. They should reach Zedra point in a short while. They all needed some serious sleep by then.
“Coop, what’s the other possibility? Are there any?”
Coop stared down at his feet.
“If—if it is RNA…”
He shook his head.
“No, not possible. The filter would have detected it.”
“Coop,” Sanvi cut in. “How do you know all this? I thought you said you were a astrogeologist, not an exobiologist?”
She looked more composed than before, Riss noted.
The geologist looked up. He also looked more composed, but slightly defiant. “Yes,” he replied, “but I also studied biochemistry.”
He looked at the rock again.
“I wanted to be a biologist, like my father.”
He had never discussed his father before. Riss wondered if that had something to do with his reluctance to discuss his dreams. Or lack thereof.
“So,” Sanvi said calmly. “How do you know it’s not RNA?”
Cooper paused, then slowly walked back to the console. He kept his eyes trained on Sanvi. She stood still, returning the gaze without expression. Enoch was biting a thumbnail.
The geologist stabbed at the screen for a few seconds before responding.
“RNA has ribose, which is a kind of a saccharide. It’s pretty unstable, so it could have simply dissolved into the water supply. But I don’t see any other elements like amino acids, lipids, or other proteins.”
He straightened and rubbed his eyes with the palms of both hands.
“So we could have a virus in our water?” Riss asked.
“I—I don’t think so.”
“But you’re not sure.”
“A geologist,” Enoch interrupted. “Not a doctor.”
They all looked at him. The navigator had been silent through most of the conversation. He still looked sulky, Riss thought. But also troubled, standing apart from them, arms crossed and frowning.
“Yeah,” Cooper said. “I’m a geologist. But—”
“But nothing,” Enoch said. “Viruses don’t cause dreams. I had a dream of flying. Of Hawai’i. Of the Lunar Base. You gonna tell me a virus did that?”
“I’m not saying anything for certain,” Cooper said, indignant. “I’m a scientist. I don’t like speculation. I don’t trust guesses or hunches. Just facts.”
“The facts are—”
“The facts are,” Riss cut them both off, “that we don’t have enough facts. Coop is right. It could be a virus. It could be a sugar of some sort. It could be something else, we don’t know.”
They fell silent. The rock continued to glow behind them.
“So.” Sanvi finally said. “What do we do?”
Cooper spoke up. “I think it would be a good idea to run a med check on all of us. Just in case.”
Riss nodded. “Agreed. Enoch, get over to the med dock and start setting up the diagnostic equipment.”
The navigator turned to go, then stopped. “You know, Riss.”
“A thought just occurred to me.”
Riss crossed her arms and smiled. “A thought? You?”
Sanvi giggled. The sound made Riss feel relaxed. Finally. Maybe things might get back to normal after all.
But Enoch looked troubled still. “What about the other rock chunks?”
Sanvi stopped giggling. Cooper looked startled. Riss closed her eyes.
They ran back to the command center.
“Sanvi, get a message out to Ceres,” Riss ordered tersely as they slid into their respective seats. “Under no circumstances are they to pulverize the rock or use any hydrocarbons from it.”
“Way ahead of you, Riss,” Sanvi replied, already starting up the comm systems.
“R—Riss,” Cooper said. “I’ll prepare a more detailed report on—whatever the computer thinks it may or may not have found.”
Riss nodded. Might be useful in case someone in the guild had questions.
More importantly, though, what would she tell Sergey? His trust in her—was it unfounded?
She bit her lip.
Her own inexperience, her decision-making skills. Had she learned nothing?
“Riss,” Enoch said. “I got something here.”
“On the trajectory?”
“No, from Ceres.”
He gestured to his screen. They gathered around the console. An image appeared; a string of numbers and text detailing the successful capture of the two rock fragments they had launched from their transneptune position several days before.
“So they got the chunks with no problems,” Sanvi commented. “That’s a first.”
“That’s not all,” Enoch said. He scrolled down. “I found the Ceres Mining Consortium transportation record. Posted yesterday. Take a look at this.”
Riss read in mute astonishment. The rocks had already been pulverized into water and sent on to Mars. Why so soon?
“We need to get a message to the Mars Colonies, then. As well as to Ceres.” She went back to her chair. “Is there any way we can return to the happy hunting grounds faster than our current ETA?”
Enoch shook his head. “Probably not. The ion engine has been increasing our speed incrementally for each day. It’d throw everything off if we tried to recalibrate them. If we lost some weight somehow, then maybe.”
He shrugged and raised his eyebrows.
Riss caught his meaning. “No,” she stated flatly.
“If we dumped the rock, we could gain—”
“No!” she said, fiercely. “Even if that thing is worthless, it’s still ours. Not a chance.”
Riss turned left. “Sanvi?”
The pilot hesitated, then continued. “What if we don’t stop at Zedra point?”
“You mean, skip the refueling? We’ll run out.”
“Inertia will carry us,” Sanvi pointed out. “We’ll just have to rely on someone at Base to slow us.”
“She’s right,” Enoch said. He pointed at his console. “I just did the math. We can pick up a couple of days by skipping the refuel. And if we steer a little in the right direction, I think we can get another boost or two from Saturn or Jupiter.”
“Riss,” Sanvi said, “if we can pick up around 55 to 60 hours, we can get to Ceres without refueling.”
“You sound confident,” Riss said. “How are we doing on food and water?”
“More than enough,” Cooper said. He proffered a pad. “Even though the water may or may not be, uh.”
“Contaminated?” Sanvi suggested, smirking.
“Compromised,” Cooper retorted. “And I said ‘may.’ We still don’t really know.”
“Water with living things in it,” she replied, making a face. “Disgusting.”
The geologist shrugged. “At home in Colorado, all our well water had living things in it.”
Sanvi looked horrified.
“Didn’t know you had such a weak stomach,” Enoch chortled.
“Living things! How could you?” She shuddered.
“Weak,” he repeated.
“If you’re trying to irritate me…” Sanvi warned.
Enoch grinned and turned back to his console. “Are you irritated?”
“Then it’s working.”
“All right, people,” Riss said, suppressing a chuckle. “Let’s get that message sent to Mars. They need to know what’s coming.”
Sanvi shot one last look at the navigator and bent to her task. Enoch was also diligently tapping away, swiping a pad hanging in the air to his right while checking the console in front of him. After a few minutes, he turned to Riss.
“New course input. We miss Saturn, but Jupiter lines up nicely for a gravity well push to Ceres.”
“Well done,” she responded. “Do it.”
Enoch nodded. He touched the console again. Riss once again could have sworn she felt the Artemis buzz. As if the ship were talking with them, approving the turn to starboard.
“We’ll feel stronger gravity effects as we approach point-five g,” Enoch commented.
Cooper shook his head. “The asteroid chunk will have more weight, then.”
Riss nodded. “True. So we’ll need to use more of the hydrocarbons to reduce the mass.”
They all looked at her.
“What? We already drank the water. Another couple days won’t change anything.”
Cooper relaxed his shoulders and sighed. “I wish I had your confidence.”
Enoch just laughed. “What the hell. I don’t mind flying every night.”
Riss was about to respond when a sudden exclamation from Sanvi stopped her.
“Guys, we have a problem.”
It was Riss’s turn to sigh. “Another one?”
The pilot slapped at her console. The sound echoed in the tiny command center. Plastic and metal against skin. Riss felt the ship groan in protest. Or had she just imagined that?
“Mars is refusing our pings,” Sanvi said through tight teeth.
Riss frowned. “Refusing?”
“They won’t give permission to let the message through. Something about being unable to verify non-hostile intent from unauthorized spacecraft.”
Riss sat back in the command chair. This did not sound good.
Sanvi slapped the console again. “Already did. Same response.”
“Well,” the pilot conceded. “Not a hundred percent, no.”
Sanvi looked directly at Riss.
“There was also a message. For you. From Gennaji.”
Riss said nothing. Her hands gripped the chair’s arms. She felt strangely calm, although she knew she looked pale. Old memories resurfaced.
“He can’t have reached Base before us,” Enoch exclaimed. “In that old rust bucket?”
“Ryan, enough,” Riss whispered. She felt energy draining from her.
“The message had been relayed from some other position,” Sanvi said. “Not sure where.”
Riss breathed out, trying to relax her grip.
“What did he have to say?”
Sanvi paused. “‘I will have my own.’”
They were silent for a moment.
Then Enoch spoke up.
“Charmingly eloquent,” Sanvi said. “As usual.”
“Come on, Riss,” Cooper said, sounding exasperated. “What is it with this guy? What has he got against you?
Riss shook her head. “This is between him and—”
“No, it’s not!” the geologist said angrily.
She looked at him, shocked. Cooper seemed to have an aura around him, as if the air were charged with anger.
“Whatever vendetta or grudge or whatever this guy has against you affects us as well,” he continued.
He sat back in his chair, crossing his arms. “I think we have a right to know.”
Riss looked back and forth from Sanvi and Enoch, pleadingly. She could only respond weakly, “I—I’d rather not.”
“Not good enough, Riss!” Cooper said. He seemed on the verge of exploding.
“There was another woman,” Sanvi said softly.
Riss protested weakly. “No…” A dark void filled her eyes.
Enoch asked, “Gennaji and Riss had something?”
“No,” Sanvi said. She looked away. “Riss was the captain.”
“Somebody died,” Riss whispered to the darkness.
They looked at her again. She felt pale.
“Riss,” Sanvi began.
Riss stared into nothing. She felt the start of tears in the corners of her eyes.
No, she thought. Not now. Not yet.
She quickly composed herself, tugging down her shirt sleeves from tense shoulders.
“I’ll be in the gym,” she said brusquely, climbing out of the captain’s chair. “Continue on the new course to Ceres.”
Sanvi fell silent. Cooper raised a finger but then placed it against his lips, lost in thought.
She turned to go. She should have reprimanded the crew for not responding to a command, but she knew she had to get out of there.
“What’ll we say to the Mining Council?” Enoch called out.
Riss stopped on the threshold of the corridor and spoke without turning around.
“We’ll find out when we get there.”
Then she disappeared.
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 11: Ceres (January 16th)
Xenobots could be used to clean up radioactive waste, collect microplastics in the oceans, carry medicine inside human bodies, or even travel into our arteries to scrape out plaque. The xenobots can survive in aqueous environments without additional nutrients for days or weeks — making them suitable for internal drug delivery.
(In part 1, Weng found himself suddenly promoted and about to be thrust into the spotlight…)
He toggled the console, and the row of monitors sprang to life. Weng found himself addressing no less than half a dozen delegates, all of whom wanted to speak simultaneously.
In fact, they appeared to have already begun discussing among themselves.
“—told you that the Indian government would never—”
“—not what we ordered! And where are the supplies we requested last—”
“Hasn’t the Martian Secretariat been in—”
“Gentlemen! Gentlemen!” Martin began, holding his hands up in surrender.
“Women,” someone interrupted.
“Men and women,” Martin corrected. “We have been made aware of your food supply issues and—”
“What are you going to do about it? We’ve been waiting four days now!”
“Mr. Mbutu, believe me, the needs of the CAA settlers are well known to us—”
“The EEC has priority over African settlers! We arrived first, we have—”
The delegates raised their voices and general argument prevented Weng from understanding much. Martin smiled and raised his hands again.
“Gentlemen and women! Delegates! Please, please! I have—”
The discussion continued for another minute or two. Martin turned to Weng and nodded.
Weng coughed into a fist before speaking.
“Excuse me,” he tried. Too soft. The delegates continued.
“—Persian Empire will make you regret any theft of property from—”
“Excuse me!” Weng fairly shouted at the screens.
The voices died down. The delegates looked at him.
Weng cleared his throat.
“Gentlemen, ladies. I have spoken to many of you these past few days, about your heat, your electricity—”
“Yes, yes,” huffed one delegate. “For all the good it did.”
Weng nodded in agreement.
“I’m afraid you are correct, Ms. Pehrat. However, that has not prevented us from developing an amicable and mutually beneficial relationship, has it not?”
Silence greeted this response. Martin pinched his arm from behind. Evidently, an encouraging gesture.
“Look,” Weng went on. “I know that we are asking much of you and your constituencies. But we must ask you all to realize that our situation is quite dire at the moment.”
“Dire?” Mbutu asked. “How dire, exactly?”
Weng cleared his throat again.
“I am given to understand that, er, due to the rapid increase in the need for electricity to power new settlement districts we will need to begin water rationing.”
“Begin?” Pehrat cried. “We’re already rationing!”
Several delegates jumped in.
“Please! Please!” Martin tried to interrupt again.
The delegates shouted him down in a cacophonous paroxysm.
“Water,” Weng mused as the din rattled around him. “Water…wait!”
He grabbed the sides of the desk and shouted at the screens.
“Wait! Wait! There may be a way.”
“The electrician speaks!” Mbutu laughed. But the other voices died down.
Martin interrupted. “Dr. Weng,” he said, emphasizing the word ‘doctor’, “Dr. Weng is the head of the Martian Colony Water Reclamation Project Team.”
“Ah,” Mbutu exclaimed.
“Thank you, Overseer,” Weng said. He straightened and opened his hands. “Water is needed for producing electricity due to a lack of other energy sources.”
“Yes, yes, we know,” Mbutu commented. “And?”
“What if…” Weng began.
He paused. He raised a hand, stretched out his fingers as if to gesture, and paused again, thinking.
“I have two proposals,” he suddenly announced. “First.”
He stopped. He glanced at Martin. The Overseer maintained his politician’s smile.
“First,” Weng repeated, “We do have the capability to release more water into the water reclamation system. However, we do not presently have enough workers to dig up the regolith required for the process.”
The delegates were silent for a moment.
“What you are suggesting,” Pehrat offered, “would require many, many rounds of negotiations among our nations.”
“We don’t have time for that,” Weng said. “I don’t know the delicate nature of politics but I do know the technical possibilities and necessities of our current situation.”
Pehrat was silent, seemingly considering the truth of his statement.
“I do know,” Weng continued, “that we all need each other. To cooperate, for mutual benefit.”
He stopped and held up two fingers.
Martin briefly dropped his smile but recovered.
“Second,” Weng said heavily. “It seems likely that we may still not get the water reclamation process started in time to suit our immediate needs. I estimate two to three months before processing will be adequate.”
Martin smoothly interposed. “In that case, what do you propose? Won’t rationing be enough?”
“I’m afraid not,” Weng said. “I propose that the United Mars Colonies—”
“The what?” Mbutu blurted.
“Dr. Weng, there’s no such—” Martin began.
Weng continued, “—that the United Mars Colonies send an envoy or envoys to Ceres for the purpose of procuring an emergency supply of water strictly for the drinking supply. Not to be used for electrical generation.”
Martin grabbed his arm, hissing, “We must talk.”
Turning to the screens and smiling, he said, “Pardon us for a moment. Please hold.”
He stabbed at a button on the desk, then turned back to Weng, furious.
“What on earth do you think you’re doing?”
Weng regarded the Overseer calmly. “We’re not ‘on Earth’.”
“For the love of—you know what I mean!”
The Overseer began to pace, waving his arms. “The Moon Treaty of 1979, the Outer Space Exploration Treaty of 1991, and the Mars Mining Treaty of 2031 all forbid any one nation to act on behalf of citizens of other sovereign nations working or living off-world!”
Weng blinked. “Meaning?”
“Meaning,” he said heavily, “each group of settlers is bound by the laws of their countries, and we cannot speak for them as a group!”
“But,” Weng said, “most of these recent settlers are obviously refugees, and their governments have either not contacted us or have been evasive and vague in our communications.”
“True, all true,” Martin retorted, agitated. “But I work for the UN. Not ‘the United Mars Colonies,’ whatever the hell that is.”
He stopped pacing and frenetically ran his fingers through his hair.
“Martin,” Weng said.
The politician looked over him, and clasped his hands in front like a prayer.
“Weng, I have already had to agree to give each and every country its own territory, in stark contrast to existing UN directives. Separated each group by a minimum of 1.4 kilometers. Forbidden settlers from other nation-states to enter their territory without permission.”
“And has that prevented settlers from communicating with each other?”
“Or sharing their supplies, which they got from us?”
“Um. Not in so many words, no.”
“And yet,” Weng continued, “the UN has obliged us, as a central authority, to supply housing, food, water, power, communication facilities. All despite the fact these settler factions are supposed to be operating independently. Correct?”
“Yes, yes,” Martin replied quickly.
Weng approached the near-panicked politician. He held out his hands to calm him down.
“Look, we need water, yes?”
Martin nodded, rubbing his palms together.
“And we need water from the asteroid reclamation plants on Ceres, because we can’t get ours to produce enough water fast enough and we can’t convince the UA to give us any of theirs. Again, correct?”
“Yes, that is essentially the situation.”
“And we only have three months before we run out of drinking water?”
Martin swallowed and nodded again. “I believe those are the current estimates.”
Weng smiled. Actually, he had no idea what the current estimates were. Nor how long it would take to produce more if the settler factions agreed to donate workers. Probably he was close to accurate. But that hardly mattered, to get what he wanted.
“Now,” he continued, “if we were to ask Ceres for water, as per UN regulations, we would have to go through each country’s delegation, then wait for an answer from their respective countries, then wait for the answer to, ah, filter back through the delegates.”
Again, Martin nodded, this time with more certainty.
“So,” Weng concluded. “If we approach Ceres not as the UN, beholden to separate, divided, bickering nations, but as a sort of united group of fellow outer space residents, wouldn’t the mining community on Ceres treat us as a single entity? with slightly more respect?”
Martin looked dubious. “I’m not as confident as you on that issue,” he said slowly. “However—”
“Good,” said Weng. He strode back to the ugly yellow desk. “I’ll convince the delegates that a temporary alliance and a united front will get us more water.”
“Wait!” Martin called out. “Let me, let me stand next to you. You talk, I’ll support.”
Weng shrugged. “Support” sounded like “use you,” but he supposed they, too, needed to show a united front.
In the end, he would get what he wanted, he thought, inwardly grinning. And it would only cost him an extra trip to Ceres to see Riss.
Next: Chapter 10 (Part 1) The Artemis (Coming January 2nd)
(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…
(Riss is the leader of the Artemis Crew, Brady is the scientist, and Sanvi the pilot…but Enoch is the one who knows the way to go. He hopes.)
Kapow! Another German plane on fire, spiraling down from the sky, destroyed by a hail of bullets from his trusty Hellcat.
“Fuck you, Focke-Wulf!” Enoch chortled. His gloved hands danced in the air, finger tips wiggling as his 3D-goggled head bobbed back and forth.
He had no idea how long he’d been flying. What an addictive game! he couldn’t help thinking, as he shot down a Zero.
It made no sense, of course, but the game scenario creator allowed him to populate the battle with planes from any country, any time. He could have included a Sopwith Camel from the first world war, or a Mars Warplane from the shortly-lived Mars Colonies War if he felt like it.
But his favorite was World War II planes. Especially the Zero. How many times had he imagined himself saving the Pearl City from the Japanese invaders? Enoch, the hero, the half-Jewish, half-Irish Hawai’ian…
A stray memory entered his head as his Camel swooped over Diamond Head, strafing the dastardly Zero trying to attack hapless Waikiki swimmers as they sunned on Kahanamoku beach. He tried to push the thought away; once, twice, his fingers twitched, sending burst after burst of virtual machine gun fire into the Zero’s side. The enemy shuddered, smoke spurted from its canopy, and began its descent into the pounding surf.
He pulled back on the throttle and veered right, soaring over Nu’uanu Pali, aloft on the wind that warriors of old would challenge. Jumping contests of bravery, daring the wind to push them back over the cliff, or failing in the eyes of the gods and falling to their deaths on the rocks below.
He let go of the controls. The plane sailed straight through the valley.
The hill of Kaipu-o-Lono on one side, Napili on the other.
Enoch’s grandfather often told him the stories of the piko stones, Hapu’u and Kalae-hau-ola, twin goddesses guarding and protecting the children whose parents made the appropriate sacrifice and performed the ritual of blessing.
“The stones are gone now,” Grandfather told him, when Enoch was a boy. “Destroyed by the haule who took our kingdom away from us. But the stones will return in time. And their spirit still guards us, even now.”
But Enoch was not pure Hawai’ian. He was not even hapa haule. Not for the last time, he wished that his father had not been Irish-Hawai’ian, his mother not Jewish.
“Shit,” he exclaimed, tearing the headset off and flinging it at the floor of his sleeping cabin. He yanked the controller glove off and clenched it in one fist. But he stopped himself, released the glove. It hung mid-air, fingers gently bobbing up and down like the disembodied hands in the Evil Dead movies.
He sat up in the bunk.
Who the fuck ever heard of an Irish-Jewish Hawai’ian?
From the Moon, no less.
A sudden banging noise came from the other side of the wall. Sanvi.
“Knock it off, Karate Kid!” Enoch shouted, knowing full well she wouldn’t hear him clearly. Who cared. She hit the wall about once every two days. What the hell was her problem, anyway?
He massaged the back of his neck, resisting the urge to stand up and stretch. Being born off-Earth had its advantages. Enoch’s height gave him the reach others lacked, but it sucked to be in a cramped cabin on a ship built for four Earthers.
Loonie. Yeah, he was a Hawaiian Loonie. Who had never been to Hawaii, and never would. Not without a special pressure suit, complete with robotic supports so that he could walk in normal Earth-g. And who needed electronic implants to see, because the Moon’s low gravity had permanently effed up the fluid inside his eyeballs.
At least he could zoom-in. Definitely a targeting advantage.
He folded his hands behind his head and stared at the ceiling. The vidgame headset floated upward opposite his bunk, gently rebounding against the door.
Another loud noise from the wall. Sanvi must have hit it twice.
Enoch shrugged. He thought she was cute, on first joining the Artemis crew. Hell of a fighter. With his Loonie-bones he stood no chance against her in a scrape. But the mysticism she got so hung up on was a major turnoff.
“Aren’t you interested in Kabbalah?” she asked him once, in the mess room. “You know, being Jewish and all?”
“I’m Hawai’ian, not Jewish,” he replied.
“But it’s fascinating!” she persisted. “Elements are similar to Zen…”
He had to let her babble on while he focused on his freeze-dried beans and faux-spam. He still wouldn’t touch real pork — who knew what was in it? Especially in deep space rations — but he just wasn’t interested in religion. Any of it.
He pushed the memory away. Another came to mind; Grandfather, taking him out for a swim in the Sea of Showers.
“When I was your age,” Grandfather was saying, “there wasn’t any water on the Moon. Not above ground, anyway.”
Enoch splashed his grandfather and laughed. “Bet it was colder, too,” he joked. “Bet you froze your tuckus off!”
“Language!” Grandfather said sharply. But the old man smiled.
Enoch looked out across the sea. “I can’t see the other side,” he complained. “It curves too much. Nothing to see.”
“That never stopped your ancestors,” Grandfather said. “The great navigators of the Sea, they had only the stars, the currents, the wind to guide them. Read the stars, Enoch. Let the universe be your guide.”
Enoch frowned at the memory. The stars, he thought bitterly. The gravity wells and planetary magnetic fields. He had learned. Those who controlled his life had not.
Like those morons at Zedra. What did they know that he didn’t? He didn’t need their help plotting trajectories for the thrower. He didn’t need their stupid pings about “optimal course projections” for returning to the happy hunting grounds, either. Artemis was his ship.
Well, Riss’s ship, technically.
He grinned. He’d do anything for that woman.
Sometimes in the command center, when she was lost deep in thought, staring out the window like she usually did, Enoch would try to sneak glances back at her. A little older than him, true. But still. He had a pretty active imagination. Too bad she had a boyfriend.
He shook his head. Fiancé, he heard. Some other Loonie. Nah, had to be an Earther sent to Luna for the government. Somebody connected to Bardish. Like Riss.
He grabbed the vidset and control glove again. No point in feeling sorry for himself. His time would come. Meanwhile, there was always the Hellcat.
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 9 (Part 1): Mars Colonies (Coming 12/19)