20 Years Ago
Greater Indian Empire: International Space Station
Leaning back in the Sagittarius’s command chair, Sergey Bardish calmly stroked moustache hairs away from the corner of his mouth and pinched at the tip of his goatee with one hand. His other hand covered the command chair console, fingers tightly curled over the simple, terse message from Earth. He unfurled them and glanced down again at the text.
0730 APRIL 42.
SLAVIC CONFEDERACY INVADE UKRAINIAN UNION.
STOP. NO REPLY.
Bardish made a fist again but resisted the impulse to pound the console. He knew the withdrawal from the Lunar Council last year was a bad omen. A world war would surely follow.
What did that mean for himself and his crew?
He looked around the cramped command module. Gennaji, helm. Lena, navigation. Ildico, astrogeologist.
He grunted involuntarily. Good asteroid hunters, despite their frequent arguments during the long months in the outer system. The short stay at the ISS was supposed to allow the Sagittarius to unload its cargo, refuel and replenish the water supply, and then head on its way Earthside.
Now they had to change their plans. Bardish couldn’t go home. His family, his hometown. Who knows who was in charge, how many had died. How many were about to.
Bardish frowned, pinching his goatee again as he stared into space. In front of him, crew members quietly manipulated their touch panel control consoles, confirming computer calculations of the trajectory to the Lunar Base, now their only refuge.
“Helm, estimated time of arrival,” Bardish spoke softly, still staring.
A response came from the front of command cabin. “ETA eighteen hundred hours 15 minutes, Earth Standard.”
Bardish grunted. “Let’s go.”
The spaceship veered away from the ISS external docking port, magnetic moorings disappearing from view as thrusters automatically fired to compensate for centrifugal force.
The Sagittarius was a small ship, with no weapons and few amenities. It was a sturdy craft. Slow but strong ion engines. Double-width metal casing surrounded half of its internal cargo space. Perfect design for hauling processed mineral ore from Ceres to Earth.
Bardish also found an additional purpose for the Sagittarius—cheap transport for climate refugees fleeing to a better life off-world. New residency on the rapidly expanding Lunar Base was supposed to require official approval through the UN Off-world Colonies Committee. But the UN-appointed governor tended to overlook the fact that his “crew” increased by a handful now and again. After all, it was Bardish’s recovery of an exoplanetary object that had made the Base possible in the first place. They even waived the residency requirement to get him to stay.
But Bardish had never thought of himself as an immigrant. A space worker, yes. Maybe even a UN flunky. But not an immigrant. The word seemed so…permanent.
He drummed his fingers against the command console, then glanced down at the pad in his hand. The screen still bore the news of the invasion, but the message had no useful information. He read again: The UN advised all asteroid-hunting ships to stay docked at either Lunar Base or the Ceres mining station.
No way in hell, Bardish thought savagely. Damned if he’d stay put.
“—can’t wait to see the blue sky on the Moon.” he heard Gennaji whisper to Lena.
“Yeah, beats Earthside. Did you hear they found the last caribou? Poor starving thing…”
Bardish shifted in his chair and stopped tapping his fingers. “Enough,” he snapped, then caught himself, clenched a fist.
“Sergey, we didn’t mean—”
Bardish made as if to slam the fist down on the command console, but stopped mid-motion as a sudden bright light flared off the port side.
“What was that?” he cried.
Fingers flew across the panels as crew members hurried to verify the source. “Explosion, sir. Not sure what caused it.”
The Sagittarius shuddered, slipping sideways. Bardish grabbed the chair, praying that all his crew members had remembered to keep their harnesses on following the dock departure. Judging from the sudden curse from Ildico, it sounded like she’d forgotten.
“Shockwave!” Gennaji shouted.
“Hard to port!” Bardish barked.
After what seemed like ages, the ship rolled left and headed toward the location of the explosion. Earth slowly came back into view, followed by a new field of debris streaming away from the planet.
Silence filled the command module.
“Hamno,” Bardish swore softly. The Earth loomed larger as they approached.
“Sergey, there’s too much debris for a single ship,” Gennaji said. “Two or three, maybe.”
“No way of knowing just yet.”
“How did this happen?”
“No know of knowing that, either.”
Bardish clenched his fist again. He couldn’t assume it was a Ukrainian ship, or a Slavic ship, for that matter. Plenty of nations and consortiums had their own ships. But the timing…
“I’ve got something,” Lena said.
Bardish leaned forward, gripping the console. “What? Where?”
“Bearing 330 degrees, mark 2, just at the front edge of the debris field. A solid object, maybe what’s left of a ship.”
“Let’s see it.”
A small rectangular inset appeared as a 3D grid overlay on the main screen as the computer zoomed in. Bardish’s fingers flew across the console, and the image clarified.
Surrounded by floating pieces of twisted and blasted metal, the slightly oblong metal object drifted. A lifepod, Bardish surmised. No markings could be identified, but the engines were clearly visible. The destroyed ships hadn’t been military vessels, at least. That much Bardish was sure of. But from what country? Who was on board? Where were they headed?
The why suddenly occurred to him.
Immigrants. No, refugees. Somebody must have seen what was coming and arranged for a ship or two ahead of time. He’d helped too many wanting to flee an environmentally-crippled, starving world in the past. With the use of ditrium-based energy, countries had hoped to clean the atmosphere of decades of radiation and pollution, encouraging their own citizens to stay the course and ease the pressure on the burgeoning Moon colonies. To no avail. The grass really was greener on the other side. Or on the Moon, at any rate.
“Let’s get a closer look at it.”
The Sagittarius slowly snaked through the debris, inching toward the lifepod. Bardish sat back and waited. He hated waiting.
First to capture an asteroid, the discoverer of ditrium, honored in Ukraine, a celebrity on the Moon…he ought to have been satisfied, happy, even, with his life. But he had no family. 62 wasn’t too old by modern standards, thanks to regenerative nanotech and artificially-grown bioorgans, but he couldn’t see himself getting attached. Who did he know, outside his own crew? He made his home on the Moon, having received a conapt gratis in return for the ditrium that made terraforming possible.
He lived on the Moon. When did that happen?
At the thought, he grunted and scratched his goatee, watching their winding creep through the debris field. Earth’s upper atmosphere was already crowded enough with flotsam from old satellites and discarded rocket boosters. The newest ships sent from Earthside all had lasers and rockets of their own to eliminate any dangerous objects in their path—including ships from other countries, if need be. Space travel in the inner system crawled meter by meter.
By comparison, life on the Moon had been a whirlwind of expansion. Each Earth faction vied for Bardish’s ditrium discovery, each trying to finagle a portion of his success for their own. Scientists around the globe piggybacked on the political ramifications to push for outward expansion into space. Governments and multinats alike threw billions of dollars, pounds, and yuan into terraforming and ship construction.
The Moon, made green with a sustainable, albeit thin atmosphere in a matter of decades thanks to ditrium radiation. The Lunar Base, the launching pad and dock for future space exploration by dozens of ships to Mars, to Ceres, to Titan and beyond.
All made possible by ditrium and the enormous amount of metals mined from asteroids.
In a sense, Bardish’s life had been a great success story. But in other ways, he was simply a tool, a political pawn used by the Slavic Confederacy, the Ukranian Union, the Greater Northern European Alliance, the United American Conglomerates, even the East Asian Coprosperity Partnership. Bardish gained in fame and fortune, but in the end it was peace and quiet he sought. And self-ownership. Autonomy. He preferred life in space. He revelled in the freedom and independence asteroid-hunting offered. A chance to be his own man. Free from any societal or political restraints.
He sighed. He could always go home. Back to Chernihiv. Even now he could picture Catherine’s Church, the golden domes and white stone standing high over the green grass.
No, he thought, not green. Not any more. Mongols, Tartars, Cossacks, Germans…who hadn’t invaded at some point or other? No doubt even Red Square was now little more than a shell of blasted rubble.
He quickly, quietly, crossed himself with his right hand, then coughed into a fist, glanced to see if his crew had noticed. No reaction. Good. He concentrated on the view screen as the Sagittarius finally reached the tiny metal object.
“How far?” he asked Lena.
“500 meters or so. Captain, we’d better stop here. I’m detecting low levels of radiation from the surrounding fragments.”
Bardish cocked an eyebrow. “So? How do we get the lifepod?”
A pause. “Why would we want it?”
He growled. “Money to be made from scrap metal, idiot. Think what the Lunar Base Governor might give us for a few tonnes.”
“Sergey, it’s all irradiated junk,” Gennaji said. “One single rock could—”
“Robot arm retrieval!” Bardish snapped, slamming his fist down on the chair. “Prepare two retrorockets.”
His crew obeyed. They knew better than to question their captain at times like this, when he had obviously already made up his mind. His orders were followed out quickly and efficiently. Rockets were readied to attach to the life pod and propel it toward them, the robot arm deployed to catch the lifepod at the entrance to the cargo hold.
“Just like catching a rock,” Bardish insisted. “Just as delicate. Launch!”
The rockets shot out from the Sagittarius, attaching themselves to either end of the lifepod. Computer-assisted guidance helped the crew direct the oblong metal container toward them. Just a few meters from the open cargo hold door, the arm managed to snag one end of the pod, easing it into the hold. The Sagittarius shuddered slightly as the pod landed with a thump.
“Seal the cargo door,” Bardish ordered, standing up. “Gennaji, stay here. The rest, with me. Let’s see what’s inside that pod.”
Five minutes later, after the air compressor stopped and the atmospheric pressure returned to safety limits inside the cargo, Bardish wheeled open the heavy steel door connecting the front and back of the Sagittarius. Compared to the bridge, rank with human sweat, the cargo area smelled as clean as mountain air after a heavy snowfall. The sterile, near-vacuum of space, almost oppressively light.
“Sergey, “Lena said, waving a pad. “Radiation still coming from the pod. Faint.”
He grunted. “Doubt there are any microbes left.”
“Still…” she shrugged.
Bardish nodded. He touched his wrist panel to call the bridge. “Gennaji, prep the ion decontamination showers. Just in case.”
He broke the connection, then stepped into the cargo hold. He motioned for Lena and Ildico to circle to the back of the lifepod. Hesitantly, reaching out a hand to its smooth surface, Bardish felt for any identifying marks, letters, slogans, anything. The pod was small, the size of a typical family vacation car, rounded at the front and tapering to a boxlike rear engine section. The dual retro-engines were cool to the touch and showed no signs of having been fired. Bardish rubbed his hand along one side, searching for a door or portal of some kind.
A voice came from the opposite side of the pod. “Captain…there’s somebody inside.”
Bardish ducked underneath the engines. Lena pointed at the pod, Ildico behind her with a hand on her sidearm.
A tiny ovular window, barely as wide as his forehead, chest-high on the pod’s side. To the right of the window he could see the outline of a door with a handle depression in the middle. Finally, he thought, reaching for the handle and peering into the window.
He caught his breath. It was a girl. A young child, perhaps 5 or 6 years old, lying in what appeared to be a sleeping bag, her eyes closed.
“Khrystos, nekhay ne bude…” he muttered, wrenching open the door without thinking. A sudden gust of wind let him know that the lifepod had been properly pressurized to slightly above Earth gravity. He reached into the open chamber through the squat door frame, bending at the waist and touching the foot of the sleeping bag. The girl stirred and began to move.
“Easy, easy, now,” he said, speaking softly.
There was a zipper along one side of the sleeping bag, which he carefully pulled down. The girl began to rock her head back and forth, whimpering. Her arms stuck out and waved above her head, but her eyes remained shut.
“Papa tut,” Bardish began, then caught himself. Behind him, an amused Lena repeated, “Papa? Papa’s here? Where?”
He spun and glared at her.
“Papa? Wo ist Mama?”
Bardish’s hand shook and dropped the zipper. German? She was German? But then…
The girl opened her eyes and stared at Bardish.
“Gde moy papa?” she cried, backing out of the sleeping bag. Bardish now noticed that she was fully clothed, in regular day time clothing rather than night clothes, and was even wearing sneakers. As she stood up, a small plastic pouch fell out of the pocket at the front of her sweatshirt. “Wo ist mein Papa? Wer bist du? Gde ya?”
Lena put a hand on Bardish’s shoulder. “She’s switching back and forth from German to Russian. Is she—?”
He shook his head. “Let me see what’s in the package here.”
He held his hands up to the girl, trying to calm her down. “It’s OK, it’s OK. Ah, you don’t speak English, sorry. Dobre, dobre, vse bude dobre, vse budet khorosho.”
She started shaking, holding her arms crossed in front of her.
“Do you understand me, child?” Bardish continued, first in Ukranian, then in Russian.
“Can you speak Russian?”
She shook her head.
“Just a little?”
She nodded, and tears began to burst down her cheeks.
Bardish extended his arms. “Come. I won’t hurt you. I promise. Let’s see if we can find your mother and father.”
The girl started shaking her head, then slowly nodded and came to the door. Bardish gently lifted her out of the pod and placed her on her feet. He knelt down in front of her and stroked her henna-brown hair, a gesture he hoped would soothe her.
“What’s your name?” he tried.
The girl shook her head.
“Ah. Namen. Your namen.” Bardish paused.
“Wie heißt du?” Lena said. The girl looked up at her, as did Bardish.
“Clarissa,” the girl finally said in a quiet voice.
She looked back at Bardish, defiantly. “Clarissa Kragen.”
For the first time, he noticed her eyes were hazel, a steely grey color with flecks of dancing green. Clarissa, he thought. The sole survivor of…what?
He turned back to the pod, reached in and retrieved the plastic pouch. It was a sealed bag with small red and green booklets inside. Passports.
He showed the pouch to Clarissa. “Can I open this?”
She looked at him blankly. He repeated the words twice more, gesturing, and finally she nodded. He still wasn’t sure whether it was because she couldn’t understand him, or because of what she had been through.
Bardish prised open the pouch and removed the passports. One for Clarissa’s German father, one for her Russian mother, two for her. That explained it. He sighed, scanning the faces of the girl’s parents.
Had they been in the ship? There was no way of knowing. For all he knew, the girl could have been placed asleep in the lifepod prior to takeoff. Somehow, though, that seemed unlikely. However, the girl was in no condition to be questioned right now. It would have to wait.
As he opened Clarissa’s Russian passport, confirming her identity, a small folded piece of paper fell out into his lap.
“Whoever finds this,” he read in Russian, “please take care of our daughter. She is innocent in all this.”
More was written beneath in German, which he could not read, but assumed meant the same, followed by English, which did say the same. It was as if they had known what was going to happen, but had no idea who might find their daughter.
But what had happened? He had no answers. He could not return Earthside to find out, not now, not until things settled down. The best he could do was continue on his course and bide his time.
He put the passports back into the pouch. He put the folded paper into his jacket pocket.
Clarissa looked at him. She had calmed immensely, occasionally fidgeting but maintaining her silence as she surveyed the cargo area. What must she be thinking? Bardish wondered. He’d no experience with children, being the youngest of four and having spent half his life in space surrounded by loners like himself.
A half-German, half-Slavic child.
He felt rage bubble up, his face reddening, but he forced himself to relax. Closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. He let out a deep breath before speaking again, in his rusty Russian.
“Clarissa, we’re going to the Moon. Do you want to come with us?”
She simply looked at him and folded her arms.
He sighed and tried again. “We’re going to look for your Mama and Papa. Will you help us find them? It may take some time.”
The girl pursed her lips and screwed up her face a bit before nodding curtly.
Bardish offered his hand to her. “My name is Cap…Sergey. My name is Sergey.”
She shyly took up his hand and held it to her cheek before letting it drop.
“Vy posmotrite, kak moy papa,” she said. You look like my papa. At last a smile appeared on her tear-streaked face.
Bardish thought it was the most wonderful thing he’d ever seen.
And it twisted him up inside.
Like this prologue? Fascinated by The Expanse, Ray Bradbury, and the occult? Then you’ll love Bringer of Light, the first in the Children of Pella series!
Drafts of this book are posted on a weekly basis. Check back every Saturday at 7 p.m. (EDT/EST)
Start with Chapter 1: The Rock!