A crewed mission to Mars may be more practical thanks to a new rocket concept developed by Fatima Ebrahimi, a physicist at the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), that uses magnetic fields to generate thrust.
A sudden pounding noise woke him. Sitting up too quickly on his bunk, he cursed and grabbed at the handrail on the wall to steady himself. His right hand gripped the aging plastic; a shard peeled off and floated by as he wrenched a boot on with the left hand.
Another piece of the Sagittarius gone, Gennaji mused, idly watching it spin toward the hatch. Just like its crew. And its Captain.
Dark thoughts pushed their way to the surface; he scowled and forced them down. First things first. Survival.
He grabbed the sliver of plastic and sealed it in his pants pocket. The air filtration system had enough problems without bits of the ship stuck in it.
Both magboots firmly on now, he pushed the open/close panel. The hatch beeped but refused to open. The noise came again, and a siren sounded followed by the navigator’s voice on ship wide speaker.
“Captain to the bridge! Captain to the…”
Hamno, Gennadi swore. Seizing an emergency handle in the middle of the hatch, he twisted with both hands. The hatch popped out, dragging him halfway into the dimly lit corridor. He squeezed the rest of his two meter frame through just as the floor shuddered.
“Karel!” he shouted. “Andrzjel!”
The siren continued. He thought he could hear someone screaming in the distance.
Gennaji staggered in the direction of the command center as the corridor tilted back and forth. Hull breach? he wondered. No, it couldn’t be. Not again…
The hatch to the command center also refused to budge. Wrenching it open, Gennaji found the entrance blocked by fallen objects. Cables. Computer panel components. Overhead exposed circuitry flickered, sending wifts of smoke swirling past his face.
Pushing his way through the debris, he saw an arm dangling from the navigator’s chair. He reached the chair and turned it around.
“Orynko, are you…?”
Lena’s eyes, wide open, stared into his. Blood trickled down her forehead from a gash in her matted brown hair. He backed away, stumbling into the panel behind.
Sergey’s voice in his ear.
“Damn you, Ser—”
He spun around. Riss. Seated in the captain’s chair.
She looked down at him without expression. “Get off my ship.”
“You have no right!” he shouted.
“Get off my ship,” she repeated. She seemed to fade from his view. Smoke rose from the panels in-between them.
“You killed her! I’ll—”
Coughing, he swatted at smoke, turning back to the navigator. Lena, no…
The ship shuddered.
Gennaji’s eyes snapped open.
He was strapped in the captain’s chair. Orynko at nav. Karel at helm.
“Where’s Andrzej?” he said numbly.
A brief silence filled the command center, then Karel responded. “Down in the cargo bay, like you asked him.”
Gennaji shook his head and hid a yawn behind a closed fist. Hamno, he must have dozed off. His shoulder twinged as he replaced his hand on the command chair console. He winced, gently rotating it. That nehr woman and her kung-fu tricks. He should have had Karel teach her a lesson or two.
“What’s our status?” he asked in a slightly more authoritative voice.
“Waiting for confirmation from Zedra,” Orynko said. Her fingers danced over the console in front of her. “We should receive a ping any minute now.”
Any minute now, he thought with satisfaction. Zedra will tell us that they only received one frag from that rock, and somehow the others didn’t arrive as expected. Because of course we were able to break the quantum encryptions and intercept the teleport…
“Coming in now, Captain.”
He leaned forward in anticipation, flicking on the command console. “Andy, get ready.”
A minute passed. Another.
“What’s the word, Ory?”
She scanned her console again, then exchanged glances with Karel.
“What?” Gennaji demanded impatiently.
Karel cleared his throat. “Sir, Zedra reports they never received any frags.”
He paused. “None.”
Gennaji smiled. “So, it worked like you said, hacker! Glad we borrowed you from that mining scow.”
“Sir,” Karel said, clearing his throat again. “Zedra didn’t get any frags because none were sent.”
Gennaji hit his palm against the console in frustration. “Didn’t send any! Then…”
He narrowed his eyes and swore. That moskal’ must have sent them all directly to Ceres. Was that possible?
“Karel, I thought you said you hacked into their thrower system.”
“I did. We should have been able to intercept if they tried sending…” Karel stopped mid sentence, thinking. “You know,” he continued. “Maybe they didn’t send them.”
“Not possible,” Andrzej’s voice came over the speakers. “The Artemis cargo hold is bigger than ours, but that rock was way too much for a single haul.”
“True,” Gennaji admitted. He slapped his cheek with an open palm. Completely forgot to turn the intercom off. “So. Straight to Ceres?”
“I’ll check,” Karel offered. “This far out, it’ll take a while.” He concentrated for a few minutes while the others waited.
“Ory,” Gennaji said quietly. “Scan the bands for incoming.”
“Hunters.” He grimaced. Now that they’d pinged Zedra and were probably going to wind up pinging Ceres, every hunter out there would know their location. The Sagittarius and Artemis both had plenty of rivals. Some might be a little more aggressive than his crew.
He drummed his fingers on the console. He had no love for Clarissa Kragen or her crew, but neither was he a killer. Despite what she did, she was still the daughter of Sergey Bardish. He’d do anything for that old man.
Damn him! Gennaji thought savagely. Damn her! He did eventually get the ship, but not in the manner he wanted.
And the price had been far too high.
“Got it,” Karel said triumphantly from the helm. “Right ascension…distance vector…straight for Ceres, all right.”
“Good job. How many?” Gennaji cracked his knuckles.
The navigator made a noise of disgust.
“Sorry, Ory. Bad habit. Well?”
The pilot scanned his console. “Looks like…two frags. Huh.” He leaned back in his chair. “I would have thought at least three, a rock that size.”
Gennaji pondered this. The Artemis might have kept the third for themselves, as a hedge against losing the profit margin. The Ceres Mining Council may have given them right of capture from the lottery, but the Council was not above a little price gouging when it suited their needs.
“Let’s ping Ceres. Ory?”
“On it. Go ahead.”
Gennaji swiped the console. His own face appeared on the tiny screen. Best this junker can do, he thought bitterly. No holographic recorder. If only he had the money for decent upgrades!
“Sue, it’s Gen. We missed the target, and the target also missed theirs. On purpose. You should get a couple pieces of the puzzle soon. And you may get some guests from Mars or Luna soon. Do your best to delay them and I’ll make it…worth your while.”
He heard Karel stifle a reaction. Orynko had rolled her eyes.
“Talk to you soon. We’re coming home.”
He swiped again to save the message. “Encrypt. Then send it.”
“Aye, sir.” Orynko did as he asked with no further comment.
He looked back and forth from navigator to pilot. They seemed to ignore him.
“Hey, you have a problem, shmatochok der’mo?” he said through clenched teeth.
The veins on Karel’s forehead seemed to bulge as the man turned red. But he shook his head, mouth tightly closed.
Gennaji sat back. “Good. Set course for Zedra. If the Artemis kept a frag, the extra weight will slow them down. Maybe with luck, we can—”
“Captain,” Orynko said suddenly. “We’ve got company.”
“Put it on the screen.”
Hands flying over the console. Nothing happened. The navigator slapped the console once, twice. A two-dimensional star map gradually crackled into life on a transparent panel between the navigation and helm. The simple Cartesian plane indicated their position in the middle.
“Lack of 3D imaging makes this a little difficult to read,” Orynko said.
“Noted,” Gennaji snapped. “If we could get those frags, maybe we could do something about it.”
Karel shifted his weight in his chair, but said nothing. Orynko bit her lip.
“Well?” Gennaji said. “Where are they?”
The crew was silent. Suddenly on the star map two diamonds appeared, running nearly parallel to each other. Probably coming from a refuel at Zedra, he figured.
“Can you plot their intercept?” he asked.
“Tak,” Karel affirmed. “Just a moment.”
His fingers danced over the console. The star map flickered again. Karel looked back and forth from the map to his console. “Come on…there.”
Solid black lines appeared behind the diamonds to show incoming trajectories. Dotted lines indicated the estimated paths.
Of course, they would guess our path, Gennaji mused. We need to refuel at Zedra. So they were waiting for us?
“Who is it?” he asked Orynko. “Can you identify?”
“Based on mass and flight path…” She paused, checking her console. “One is definitely the Corvus. The other is probably Pegasus, but could be the Pleiades.”
The Corvus, they could handle, he knew. Untested young crew. Pleiades?
Gennaji folded his hands. He hoped not. He’d rather face the Pegasus, whose captain he didn’t know very well, rather than the Sisters. The last thing he wanted to do was confront yet another former fellow Sagittarius mate.
“Both will be here in about two and half hours.”
“Good.” Gennaji swiped the console again. “Andy, get ready for some company. Charge up the railgun and get a ballbuster ready.”
“Aye,” came the answer. “Railgun’s a matter of time, but I’ll need some help with the nuke.”
“Right.” Gennaji turned to nav and helm. “We can’t outrun them, but we can outmanuever them. Those newer ships were built to carry rocks over the long haul. We can best them on strength and agility.”
“Captain,” Karel said slowly. “We may not have enough energy for more than two or three short bursts.”
Gennaji nodded. “I know. That’s why we need to enter orbit. That way we can use our thrusters instead of the ion engine.”
Karel and Orynko exchanged glances. Gennaji’s face hardened. Were they going to disobey his order? Bardish would never have stood for it.
As he was about to snap a command, Orynko spoke. “Captain, we know what the Corvus can do. But if the second ship is Pleiades…”
He stopped himself. Frowning, he knew he had to make a choice.
Sorry, Ildico, he thought. If it comes down to it, I have to survive. Even if it means I risk antagonizing the Council.
His features softened at the thought of the geist. How she had changed since the incident. He sighed and closed his eyes.
With eyes closed, he said, “Ory. Get us close to Saturn’s gravity well.”
He heard a soft voice respond. “Aye, sir.”
Gennaji opened his eyes again and locked them onto Karel’s. He would protect this crew. Unlike someone else in the past.
“Let’s get some nukes ready,” he said bluntly. “And helmets ready. Just in case.”
The helmsman nodded curtly, and he unstrapped his flight harness. Gennaji’s eyes met Orynko. She bit her lip, then turned back to her nav console. Hamno, he thought. Maybe he should have just let her sleep in that one time. Last thing they needed was an emotional crew member.
He motioned to Karel, and they made their way to the hatch. As they exited the command center, Gennaji could already feel the Sagittarius turn. The navigator had done as he asked.
In the corridor, Gennaji felt his weight increase and stretched a hand out to steady himself. The acceleration had increased the g-force slightly. They had better prepare the ballbuster before they reached high orbit. The weapon parts were heavy enough as it is, even for two people in fairly decent shape.
He massaged his shoulder again. Back in the day, he wouldn’t have had a problem with heavy weapons. Of course, Sergey hadn’t bothered with ship weapons. The old man always said they took up too much valuable space, that it was better to board and battle hand to hand. Most of the older hunter captains agreed.
The newer hunters didn’t.
After taking command of the Sagittarius, the first thing Gennaji had done was to remodel the cargo hold to accommodate defenses. It cost a pretty bitcoin but saved their asses once or twice.
If she had done that, Gennaji thought, Lena might still be alive. His face hardened as they reached the entrance to the cargo hold.
Andrzej was in the middle of the hold, straining to push the rocket launcher to the access port. Gennaji motioned for Karel to help him, then touched a panel next to the cargo hold door. The panel slid up. So did the next three, revealing a storage compartment with suits and helmets.
He retrieved four of each. Then, after a moment’s hesitation, he touched the next closed panel. The weapons locker. He withdrew three pistols. Two cartridges each. Hollow point. Strictly speaking not allowed according to international space mining treaties. He hadn’t permitted his crew to use them when they boarded the Artemis. In his eagerness to confront Riss, he had foolishly thought that including Karel and Andrzej would force her to give up at least part of her claim.
He hadn’t counted on the Loonie and his cybervision.
Gennaji gritted his teeth and pocketed the cartridges. Not this time.
Closing the lockers, he turned his attention to the computer console on the opposite wall. He checked it; the railgun needed another hour and a half to fully charge. Barely in time.
He looked up. Karel and Andrzej were still struggling with the bulky launcher.
Gennaji half-walked, half-bounced across the hold. As he reached them, the Sagittarius shuddered briefly. They all stopped and waited. Gennaji felt his legs strain under the sudden weight. The gravity had increased again.
Orynko’s voice reached them over the ship-wide.
“Captain, we’re in high Saturn orbit. Behind Enceladus.”
“They’re altered course to match.”
“Hold position until I say otherwise.”
Gennaji took out two pistols and handed them to Karel and Andrzej.
“Just in case,” he said. They nodded. Likely, there was no “in case.”
Together the three pushed the launcher platform across the metal floor. Despite the rollers, it was much heavier than he remembered. But it couldn’t be helped. They needed something to disrupt and confuse their opponents’ sensors, even if the damned thing was near impossible to accurately target anything smaller than a space station.
As long as they could get it hooked up in time. Maybe even a neighborhood buckshot would work. The question was whether to hide behind Enceladus and take them on one at a time, or come over the top and try to get both in a radiation shot.
Either way, he favored their chances. Whoever it was out there, they wouldn’t risk damaging his ship. Not if they wanted whatever rocks they thought he had. Which he hadn’t.
They kept pushing.
After twenty long minutes, they managed to slot the platform in place at the access port, which would now serve as a launch port. They remained silent as they continued to work. No need for chitchat. Save some energy and oxygen for the fight.
Karel fiddled with the port connection while Andrzej anchored the platform both physically with chains and magnetically with clamps. The rocket launch would likely alter their position, so Gennaji busied himself with preparing possible railgun targets. The Artemis was a new ship with a thick hull and strong shielding that made the railgun ineffective, but the other hunter ships were vulnerable. The Pleiades, too, if it came down to it.
He hoped he wouldn’t need to go to that extreme.
It had been some time since he fought ship to ship. And that was in the Happy Hunting Grounds, not halfway to the Oort. But Bardish had taught him well. Despite his aversion to big weapons, Bardish had a patient, tactical knowledge that left a strong impression. A smile came unbidden as he thought of the old man.
The first ten years he spent on the Sagittarius were the best of his life. Bardish, already famous as the discoverer of ditrium, hailed as the savior of the Lunar terraforming project. Gennaji, just another flyboy in the Ukrainian Union airforce. Bored by endless training exercises that seemed to serve little purpose other than antagonize their neighbors. Spending most of his free time drinking like a fish and chasing tail.
When the Union military cut their fliers due to budget constraints, he latched onto the first job available: piloting EU supply runs to the ISS. Lucky for him the Sagittarius was docking the first time he made a run, or he might still be wasting his life hauling bean curd and anti-radiation skin replenishing cream.
Spend weeks, even months at a time in the outer solar system searching for dirty rocks? Risk his life for faceless corporations that couldn’t care less if a hunter crew lost a member of two? Endure endless tubes of tasteless powder-based food rations and sleep every night trussed up like a slab of meat in a butcher’s window?
As long as he was helping a fellow Ukrainian, as long as he was getting paid and having the time of his life, he’d had done it forever.
Until Clarissa took the Captain away from him.
He was next in line to inherit the ship. He was sure of that. Who else was qualified? Who else had been in the crew so long, besides Ildico? And she was a geist, at that time.
His lip curled at the thought. A geist, becoming a hunter captain. Of course, he respected her skills as an engineer. And she certainly had the experience of the hunt, often the first to identify which rocks had the best ore.
But in charge? Of him?
Thinking back, he knew even at the time that they should have left well enough alone. The refuge ship explosion. The debris field. Retrieving a radiated escape pod.
To be sure, the metal fetched a fine price, once they had decontaminated most of it. They could have had an even higher profit margin, had Sergey agreed to dump the escape pod and cleared more room for other, more valuable ship parts.
But he wouldn’t hear of it.
“This child needs a home,” Bardish said. “We keep the pod.”
“But Sergey,” Lena protested. “She can always stay in my bunk. There’s room. She’s so small.”
“No!” Sergey barked. “This is where she stays. For now.”
Gennaji’s right eyelid twitched at the memory.
“For now” didn’t last long. Just long enough for Sergey to adopt the girl. The pod metal turned out to be worthless, selling for next to nothing. They could have made much more from engine parts. Hull pieces. Even fuel tanks with holes that could easily be patched.
At first, the crew tolerated the girl. Sergey doted on her. He struggled to speak Russian with her, though. At least until her English was good enough.
Good enough, Gennaji thought, to wheedle her way into the hearts of nearly everyone she came in contact with. Including Lena.
But not him. He knew what she was doing. He knew she had planned everything. No parents, sure. There were loads of kids who lost their folks. He, himself, never learned what happened to most of his family. Even years after the East Asian Wars ended, when the dust cleared and the burnt farms and hollowed out cities began to rebuild.
She would never know his pain.
“Captain, they’re almost in range!”
Orynko’s voice. He snapped his head up and looked over at the rocket launcher. Karel was bent over the console. Andrzej appeared to have just finished clamping the rocket in place.
“Captain, almost ready,” Karel called over to him.
Gennaji glanced down at the railgun settings. The moment of truth.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been 35 years since the disaster that claimed the lives of all seven Space Shuttle Challenger crew members.
I remember it well. Being sent home early without being told. Watching the TV news at home in silent shock with my parents and younger siblings, tears streaming down our faces.
President Reagan’s speech at Congress, made in the place of the traditional State of the Union address, ended with “they slipped the surly bonds of Earth…and touched the face of God.” Probably the finest and most decent thing he ever did (even my parents, who voted for Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale and intensely disliked Reagan and everything he stood for, couldn’t help but be moved by his words that day).
Thoughtless jokes circulated our school the next week or two. (“What’s the last thing Christa MacAuliffe said to her husband? “You feed the dog; I’ll feed the fish.”)
There was a morbid fascination with the way in which the Challenger crew met their fate. My friends came up with all sorts of gruesome stories they claimed to have “heard,” mostly about body parts washing up on beaches around the Caribbean.
The fact is, we were traumatized. Kids do all sorts of insane things to hide their fears, insecurity, and general inability to answer the question what am I supposed to feel/do/say about this?
Challenger marked a turning point in the US space program. It set NASA back in many ways but also provided great insight into what needed to be fixed, what needed to be done to push forward our knowledge of space and the great beyond.
There is/was no going back. Humanity is a space-faring race and must continue to strive to reach beyond its grasp…”Or what’s a heaven for?”
NASA ended the US’s interest in spaceplanes when it scrapped the shuttle fleet a decade ago.
But other space agencies and private companies in other countries are very much in the game. ESA, India, even the UK.
And, of course…
Whichever future the spaceplane does have, it will involve China. “We know very little about the launch [of China’s experimental spaceplane],” says Deville. “But it shows that China is serious about developing its spaceplane concepts.”
(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.