Though definitions sometimes differ, cislunar space generally refers to the space between Earth and the moon, including the moon’s surface and orbit. Any nation or entity that aims to establish a presence on the moon, or has ambitions to explore deeper into the solar system, has a vested interest in operating in cislunar space, either with communication and navigation satellites or outposts that serve as way stations between Earth and the moon.
Mars, together — finally. Weng should have thought. But things are not what they seem, and nothing stays the same. Apologies, dear readers, for the endless delays in posting their story.
Recently, in Bringer of Light…
And what of Sergey?
Martin held his breath and looked around the room. It seemed even smaller and more confining with all the faction heads physically present.
And of course all the noisier, as well. The din was deafening, with each faction head clamoring to have questions answered.
Well, he thought with chagrin. More like shouting what they thought rather than asking questions.
He glanced at Captain Kragen. So this was the famous “Riss,” he thought. Medium height, dark hair that he could swear flickered Martian red. Powerful jaw and impassive face, like a block of marble…he shook his head. Martin could easily see what attracted his erstwhile water plant team chief to her.
It’s been over two months since we last saw (Ret.) Captain Sergey struck down and partially paralyzed while fleeing the Lunar Base coup with the clone Elodie Gagnon, who sought to protect him from United Americas forces. Meanwhile, Clarissa Kragen has reunited with Sam Weng (or has she?) at Ceres and are bound for Mars. Where Martin Velasquez, currently the head administrator of the newly-proclaimed United Mars Colonies is in for a short, sharp shock…
Alarms had erupted throughout the Mars Colonies. Incoming ships had been detected, but no contact had yet been made.
They were in for it now, Martin thought, stepping into his excursion suit. The UA and Greater Indian Empire at open hostility. All ships banned from the ISS. Contact between Indian settlers and UA settlers forbidden. Lunar Base experiencing an uprising of some sort. All contact with Ceres cut off. UA Allied Forces already on the way to secure their ice factories.
Martin Velasquez called up his rickety console and examined the data feed. Somebody was approaching. Rapidly. Very rapidly.
Weng? Not possible. Surely…
The comm beeped. Grabbing the helmet from a closet, he toggled the comm system on his desk for what seemed like the hundredth time during the past two days.
“Overseer, two ships have suddenly entered orbit. They are nearing the geostationary transit station and will reach normal communication range in five minutes.”
“Yes, yes, I can see that. UA forces?”
Who else could be? Central African Alliance was normally fastidious in their relays. The Chinese wouldn’t dare, not after the UN debacle. Slavic Confederacy? European? Who?
Well, he thought wryly, at least by the time the refugees arrived, they would have nobody to contest their arrival. Even two ships filled with marines might be enough. Depending on how many of the MCSF were still compos mentis.
He checked the UV shield and comm system command strip on his right wrist. Old, but functional. He hoped he wouldn’t need the shield. He was no fighter.
As Riss prepares to surrender herself to Gennaji and Ildico, Sam helplessly watches the scene unfold…
From the command seat of his tiny shuttle, Weng silently watched the face off between the Artemis and the ships of the new Ceres Mining Council. He wished he knew what they were saying.
He also wished Gen were still in the shuttle with him.
Weng grimaced. He still didn’t trust the clone, but he would feel much safer if someone obviously as highly ranked as Gen were in the shuttle. It would reduce the chance of his becoming yet another target.
Apparently, however, this was all going to plan. He mentally recalled the conversation he had with Gen just prior to arriving at Ceres.
“Gen, why are there five hunter ships here? Are we getting ready for a fight?”
“Not to worry, Sam,” Gen had told him. “There will be no fight.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Because we control the Seven Sisters, and without them, there is no fight.”
Riss and the crew of the Artemis have experimented with their strange new understanding of the universe – both physical and emotional. Still far away from Ceres or Mars and unable to contact those who may have been similarly affected by the asteroid, the crew has to find a way to traverse the vast space that lies ahead…
The banging on the door came again. A muffled shout from the corridor side.
Riss opened her eyes. Her feet were firmly stuck to the floor of her cabin. Having forgotten to remove her magboots. She was standing, swaying in place. Yawning, she stretched her arms over her head.
The geist practically fell through the opening doorway. Caught from behind by the navigator.
“Riss, are you, are you okay?”
“Yeah, fine, fine, Coop.” She turned to the fridge unit. “Water.”
The fridge rolled out, door opened. A pack of water came to her hand.
Cooper’s eye widened slightly. He straightened himself, brushing off Enoch’s grasp. “You seem to have everything under control.”
She laughed. “Sorry to make you all worry. Did I oversleep?”
“The opposite, actually,” Sanvi called out. Riss could see her now, leaning against the corridor wall with her arms crossed.
Sanvi nodded at Enoch. “Somebody has been demanding that we try the pitaya experiment again.”
Enoch shrugged. “I got hungry.”
Riss looked between the two of them. Suddenly she felt an enormous bond among them. Her friends. Her crew. It was as if she could see a glow around their rough edges.
She took a deep breath and smiled.
“I have a different idea. Let’s try to make the Artemis go faster.”
She was floating, feeling free at last. Unbound by any restraints, in control of herself. She finally knew who she was…but something tugged at her, something she had been searching for. Something calling her.
“No, no, I don’t want to go!”
Strong arms, gentle arms holding her. A needle pricks her upper arm.
“It’s okay, you’ll be safe. I promise.”
Shadows, sad shadows are all she can see. So sleepy.
“We’ll see you soon, varobushek.”
Riss suddenly sat up in her bunk.
Or, rather, tried to sit up. The sleep restrainer harness yanked her back down with a jolt. Feeling foolish, she pulled at the velcro and the straps floated harmlessly next to her. Rubbing her arms where the strap had dug in, she sat up again, slowly, and pulled her magboots on.
After her experience the previous night, she had decided to take no chances. The Artemis was beginning to slow down as they approached the Happy Hunting Grounds, returning the microgravity closer to its normal low. She should have used the harness every single night, but to tell the truth, she hated it.
Hated being restrained by anything.
What she couldn’t give for a gravity generator. Not feasible on a ship this size, given the energy consumption. In the meantime, time for her calcium supplements.
She touched a panel and removed a sealed pack of tablets from the drawer that popped out. She grabbed another pack of water, hesitated momentarily, then popped it open and inserted the straw.
Oh, well, she thought, downing the tablets and taking a big sip. Far too late to worry about what was in the water.
She leaned back in her bunk and took another long sip. The patterns suddenly came into view, dancing across the surfaces of the room. Then they faded, but she could see them.
Almost imperceptible. Everywhere.
The walls, the floor, the ceiling. The desk. The pad and its charge port in the wall. Her magboots.
She paused and rested her gaze on the motanka. It hadn’t changed back to its original color, still green with checkered red, white and yellow patterns on the skirt. The yellow hair had turned brown. No, red-brown.
The color of her own hair, she suddenly realized.
She drained the water pack and let it float to the ceiling. Maybe it was time to do some more experimenting.
She stretched out her hand and concentrated.
Nothing at first. Then she relaxed her hand, thinking of the motanka. As if in response, the doll lifted itself from the desk and floated across the room to her hand.
She nearly dropped it in surprise.
Just like the dragon fruit.
What else could she move?
She glanced at the pad, in its charger. It came tumbling across the room, straight at her forehead. She ducked, and it bounced off the wall behind her, falling onto the bunk.
It should have fallen up or floated. She thought again, and the pad floated upward, then into the middle of the room. She could see the patterns around it, the lines guiding it and molding it into shape. Gently she coaxed it back to its charger.
Could she open the door?
With a metallic clang the answer became readily apparent. The lights shut off, then on. The fridge moved toward her, opened up and flung a water pack, then rolled obediently back to its port. The door closed, softly this time.
She sighed. Didn’t even feel tired this time, unlike after the pitaya explosion incident in the mess earlier. Maybe with time they wouldn’t get tired at all. Or maybe it was just little things.
Or if they worked independently or together.
She looked at the doll in her hands.
The no-face still looked back. The colors—she could change them back to the way they had been. Yes, they did. Blue with yellow flowers and golden, flaxen hair.
No. She didn’t like the hair. Changed it back to brown, but a darker brown than before. Shorter, slightly wavy.
A memory spoke again to her.
“Why are you crying, moya kroshka?”
“At school, Elke called me a bad name. Right in front of the others.”
“A bad name? What kind of name?”
“Pig! They called me Russian pig!”
“You’re not a pig, kroshka. But you are Russian. And German, too.”
“I don’t wanna be Russian! I want to be just like Elke!”
Just like Elke. Just like the other kids. Not special. She clutched the motanka.
Dreams of a six-year-old. She couldn’t even remember where the school was, or what Elke looked like. Only the pain, the hurt was real. Even now, two decades later, it still hurt.
Who was she?
She wasn’t Russian. She wasn’t German. Barely remembered her mother, hardly any memories of her father at all. Just the last few moments as they made her go to sleep in the life pod.
True to his word, Sergey had helped her to find out who her birth parents were. At first. He had retrieved their passports from the life pod and was able to search for their names in the UN database. Her father was a chemical engineer, her mother an exobiologist — maybe she had even known of Coop’s father, who knows. Her parents apparently met in Italy at some sort of international conglomerate-financed exhibition on terraforming. In fact, that’s where Riss was born. But she had no memories of Italy, and few of her childhood.
Before the accident.
They had been in the midst of a family move to the Moon, to join the terraforming team, when their shuttle experienced a sudden power failure. Riss was the only survivor. A dozen others were never found again, presumed dead following the spaceship’s violent decompressive rupture.
But that hadn’t told her who they were.
German father, Russian mother. But those were just names of countries, just nationalities. Who were they? What were they like?
What did that make her?
“You can see any face you like on motanka,” Sergey told her, in the months after he gave her the doll. “That way she will grow with you, as you also grow.”
She looked at the doll. The crossed-out visage began to shift, softening features. Textures like slightly darkened skin, high cheekbones. Proud smile. Eyes…
She stifled a yelp and the doll leapt back to the desk.
The cross returned. Staring back at her from across the room.
She relaxed and exhaled, just then realizing she had been holding her breath.
The doll. It was just like her. Featureless. Easily changed. Controlled.
Was that why these new abilities scared her?
Or was it something that she was afraid to face?
She closed her eyes and stretched out a hand. The fields seemed to interact with her fingers, slipping between them. Around them. Through them. It was as if all she had to do was touch the fields, tease apart the threads of atoms and sub particles. Expand into the space between quarks and bosons.
The space holding the stuff of the universe together in delicate harmony.
Is this what they all were? What she really was? Empty space?
No. Not just space. A tension. A balance between matter and energy.
Light and dark. Being and not-being.
She (who was she?) stretched her fingers (what were they?) through threads (were they really threads? streams? filaments of subatomic connections?), touched another searcher, seeking answers like herself (self? unself?).
A familiar feeling, part dark part light, laughter and sadness.
Sanvi? Who was that? Riss? The same? Different?
Aspects of the same universe, elements and combinations of energy condensed, vibrating, expanding, contracting, interacting.
Aware of itself / herself / themselves.
Separate but together. Connected. Sharing space.
Joy. Pure bliss. Beyond the physical. Beyond…
A shock of recognition.
The room came back into focus. Her outstretched hand briefly glowed, luminescent, fingers trembling as if by a sudden jolt.
Lungs remembered to breathe.
Inhale, exhale. Eyelids blinked.
Riss. She was Riss. Sanvi was another person.
Riss sat back on the bunk, brushing back tears with the back of a hand.
Why was she crying? The experience hadn’t been painful. She tried to recall the sensations, but came up blank.
Only the separation remained. And a dim perception of the separateness of others in their own compartments.
She could no longer tell whether her crew were asleep or awake. The Artemis whispered to her. The autopilot stayed steady on its inbound course. Two more days, at least. Space was vast.
Physical space, between solar objects. Perhaps not so vast between people.
A wave of exhaustion came over her. Sleepily she beckoned for the pad again. It came to her. Programmed a wake-up alarm. Returned it. Fell back on the bed.
No restraints this time. A brief smile lingered on her face.
She had no more need for restraints.
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 25: Transit—Transjovial to Hunting Grounds. The Artemis comes home…to a surprise.
Riss stared down at the table in the mess galley. A dozen fruits and vegetables floated above it, gently bobbing up and down.
“How did you do that?” she demanded.
Sanvi shrugged and then yawned. “I just thought about what I wanted to eat. Made me feel a little tired, though.”
“I saw you do it, and I still don’t know how you did it.”
Cooper leaned forward and plucked out a mango. He paused, then took a small bite. “Delicious,” he said, devouring the rest.
Enoch shook his head. “I don’t know what half these things are.”
Sanvi picked up some of the fruit and passed them around, naming each.
“Purple mangosteen. Ambarella. Star fruit.”
“What’s this one?” Enoch asked. He gestured to a yellow fruit with twisted fingers stretching out in a cluster.
He made a face. “You expect me to eat this stuff? I’d rather have rations.”
Riss laughed. “Eat or not, the more important fact is that Sanvi was able to make them at all. What did you use?”
Sanvi tapped a finger on the panel next to her. “Some of the rations, of course. I reasoned that, if we can manipulate matter, we need something that’s already physical.”
Enoch sputtered. “Some of the ra—“
“So,” Riss cut in, “even though there are atoms all around us, it’s not as if we can just create something from nothing.”
“It’s not creation, is it?” Cooper said. “Nothing is new in the universe. Everything is merely one form of something already existing.”
Riss nodded. “Nothing is created; all is renewed. From either a mystical or a chemical standpoint.”
“Wait,” Enoch protested. “Are you saying that any of us — all of us — can do what Sanvi did? Make some disgusting fruit?”
Sanvi gave him the finger.
“If you’ve never heard of Buddha’s hand,” Riss said, “I doubt you’d be able to manipulate the atoms of a ration tube and turn it into one.”
“But if I know what something is,” Enoch said dubiously, “then as long as I can imagine it, I can make it?”
“Rearrange it. Not create. That’s what I must have done with the doll in my room.”
Riss briefly felt herself reddening. “Save it.”
“OK, Wiseman,” Cooper said, giving Enoch a tube. “Here’s your tube. Let’s see you turn it into something else.”
Enoch held the tube and concentrated. At first, nothing happened. After a moment, the edges of the tube began to fold in on themselves. The object became rounder, and redder, with slender green strips like fingers emerging from the surface.
Enoch gasped and nearly dropped it.
“My god,” Riss said. “What on earth is it?”
“Pitaya,” he whispered. “Dragon fruit. I’ve never eaten one. Only seen pictures from my grandfather.”
He turned it over in his hand, then placed it on the table. He took a knife out from a nearby drawer and cut the fruit in half. The inside was off-white, with tiny black seeds throughout.
“It looks like vanilla chocolate chip ice cream,” Cooper said. He stuck his finger into the pulp and licked it. “Doesn’t taste like it, though.”
Riss picked it up and took a bite. “It tastes like a bland food ration,” she said.
“Not bad for a disgusting fruit,” Sanvi said with a smirk. Enoch returned her finger to her.
“So,” Riss said, “We can’t rearrange things without direct, previous knowledge of what it is we want to make.”
“Would this also work for inanimate objects?” Cooper wondered aloud. “You know, like minerals or metals.”
“Do you mean, could we extract ore from an asteroid just by thinking about it?” Riss asked. She recalled the mask, then shook her head. “I’m not all that anxious to find out, to be honest.”
“No, no,” Cooper said, shaking his head. “I mean, how do we stop the ship? Can we, uh, rearrange part of to slow us down?”
“That’s not exactly what I had in mind,” Riss replied. “But imagine if we could somehow remotely control the catcher on Ceres.”
“I could hack the system,” Enoch said.
“No, too risky. Also probably too difficult, especially if they refuse to communicate. They probably already shut down any external grid access.”
“What if,” Sanvi suddenly said. “What if we were to combine our thoughts. You know, think about the same thing, simultaneously?”
“Here we go again,” Enoch snorted. “Voodoo magic. Ow!”
Sanvi had punched him on the shoulder. Hard.
Cooper darted an angry look at Enoch, Riss noted. She decided to distract him. “Sanvi, if I understand you correctly,” she started. “You mean, we should, individually, try to concentrate on the catcher as we approach. And then, we sort of, ah…”
She waved her arms around, at a loss for words.
“Our minds are growing closer,” Enoch intoned, holding his hands up in a Levite blessing. “Nanoo, nanoo, I bless you all, shalom, shazbot. Ow!”
“Riss,” Cooper said, shaking his head. “This is all getting just a little too, you know.”
“Mystical?” she said.
“Ridiculous?” Enoch said, rubbing his shoulder and glaring at Sanvi. She stuck out her tongue at him.
“Just roll with it. Everybody ready?”
Riss looked around the galley. Her crew stared back at her blankly. Enoch took another bite of papaya. “For what?” he said between chews.
“Ready for the next step.”
Cooper narrowed his eyes. “Riss, I hope this does not mean what I think it means.”
“I have no idea what you think it means,” Enoch said. Cooper rolled his eyes.
“If none of you think we can move the thrower,” Riss said, “why don’t we try to move something smaller first? As a test.”
“A test?” Enoch repeated. “I suck at tests.”
“Call it a trial, then. A practice. But as a group, working together.”
They all looked at Riss. She looked at each of them, then back at the table between them.
“Let’s concentrate on moving one object,” she said. “Slowly.”
“The dragon fruit,” Enoch suggested, putting the rest of the pitaya down.
“Sure. Do what I say. Lift it to eye level. Turn it around once. Aim it at me. Move it two meters, then turn it around and return it.”
They stood around the dinner table, alternately staring at the fruit and each other. A few minutes passed.
“Um,” Cooper said.
Another moment of silence.
“Well, this is awkward,” said Enoch.
“Alright,” Riss said. “This obviously isn’t working right now. Why don’t we, uh, take a break and recharge or something.”
“Wait,” Sanvi said. “Let’s try again. This time, every one should shut their eyes.”
“Shut my eyes?” Enoch said. “How can I concentrate on moving the thing if I can’t even see it?”
“Why should you need to see it?”
“What is the fruit made of?” Sanvi persisted.
Enoch shrugged. “Molecules of a ration pack that I changed into something I only…”
He stopped, then continued, “…only had imagined in my dreams.”
And closed his eyes.
“The fruit is only molecules,” Sanvi said softly. “Only atoms like everything else around us. I can feel them. I can see them.”
Riss closed her eyes and concentrated. Nothing.
No. Wait. She could sense something. She could see it. The pitaya.
“Can you see it, Coop?” she said aloud. He turned to her. But his eyes were closed. So were hers. How could she see him?
“Riss,” he said.
“Steady, people,” Riss said. “Concentrate. Lift it up.”
In her mind’s eye she saw the dragon fruit wobble. Then one end lifted off the table. Then the entire fruit.
“A little higher.” It rose to head level.
“Now. Gently. Let’s spin it around.”
The fruit hovered over the table. It jerked to the left, then back to the right.
“Clockwise,” Riss specified.
“Riss,” said Enoch. “I’m getting a little winded.”
“Same here,” whispered Cooper.
“Relax. Just a little longer.”
The fruit slowly swiveled, turning clockwise. It began to move closer to the edge of the table.
“Towards me,” Riss said.
She could feel the fruit strain to move. Something was wrong. Tension. Fighting? She opened her eyes. Enoch and Cooper were sweating. Sanvi had her eyes half-opened but otherwise appeared as if in a deep trance.
The pitaya jerked towards her. Then Enoch, then Cooper. One end began to swell.
“Slowly!” she said again, a little more forcefully. “Middle of the table!”
The fruit rose again, above their heads and began to spin wildly.
“No!” Riss shouted.
The dragon fruit burst apart, spraying chunks of fiber across the room.
Sanvi opened her eyes and laughed. She was, as Riss then noticed, the only Artemis crew member not covered in the remains of the exploded dragon fruit.
“I think,” Riss said, somewhat annoyed at Sanvi, “we need a little more practice.”
She scooped a handful of pulp from her shirt.
“And a shower, too.”
Cooper sighed and yanked a handkerchief out of a shirt pocket. “Riss,” he said glumly wiping pitaya juice from his face, “I think we need a break.”
Enoch grimaced and dragged his hands through his hair, yanking out dragon fruit seeds. “I agree with the geist,” he said. “For once. I feel, I dunno, drained?”
“All right,” Riss said with a sigh. “Let’s, let’s all sleep on it for now. We’ll give it another try in a few hours.”
Her crew left the galley one at a time, headed back to the sleeping quarters corridor. Enoch loudly yawned before Cooper smacked him on the back. The two tussled, but it was a friendly shoving match, ending with arms around shoulders. Sanvi followed, arms crossed, silent.
“And don’t forget to check the physical fitness schedule and take your calcium pills,” Riss called after them. “Some of you are beginning to get lazy.”
Sanvi paused at the doorway and looked back. For a moment, Riss thought she saw something new in Sanvi’s face. Something attractive. Reluctant.
Resisting, Riss realized. Maybe even a little scared. She felt it, too.
“Riss, all you all right?” Sanvi said hesitantly. “I—”
“I’m okay,” Riss cut in. She stopped, then nodded her head. “Sanvi, I, ah. I’m just a little tired.”
“Well, if, if you need to talk.”
Riss looked down and bit her lip.
As she watched the pilot leave, Riss hugged herself. They had all changed somehow. She could still feel the ship pulsing, like a thing alive. Sensing her fears, hopes. Desires. Things about her she barely understood, herself.
But what of Sam?
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 23: Luna – in which Sergey becomes an unwilling participant in a coup.
It’s been a while since we’ve checked in on Riss and her crew. What’s going on with Riss’s Rock, and their reactions to it? (and each other?)
Back in the command center, the four resumed their positions as if still on an asteroid hunt. Only this time, they were hunting for something else.
“Right,” Riss said. “Let’s find out where this came from. Coop, run a comparison analysis with some other extrasolar object. Like Phoebe.”
“Yes. That’s supposed to have originally come from the Kuiper Belt. A centaur captured by Saturn’s gravity well.”
“All right, I’ll give it a shot.”
Riss waited silently as the computer ran the analysis.
“No,” Cooper finally said with a tone of resignation. “There isn’t enough data to make a meaningful comparison. At least, that’s what the results indicate.”
“So it’s not a centaur?” Riss said, surprised.
“I can check it against our information on Chiron and Enceladus.”
“I thought Chiron was a dwarf planet, not a centaur.”
“Debatable. But anyway…”
“OK,” Riss said, clapping him on the shoulder. “You’re the geologist.”
She turned over her shoulder. “Enoch. Pull up that trajectory chart again.”
The 3D image hung in the space between the captain’s chair and the navigation consoles. Riss ticked her tongue as she gazed at the chart.
“I don’t see…ah, there.” She pointed. “We didn’t follow the origin line.”
“Yeah,” Sanvi said. “We were only interested in where it was going, not where it came from. We just figured – ”
“- just figured it was a centaur,” Riss concluded. She sat down in her chair and ran her fingertips over the console. “Let’s hypothesize.”
In a few moments, her best guesses appeared in an updated version of the chart. A thin blue line emerged from behind the red trajectory line and extended well away from the original chart.
“Computer, zoom out,” Riss stated. The image shrank. The red line turned into a curve. The blue line still extended out of the image.
“So it’s not a Kuiper Belt object?” Brady said.
“Oort?” Sanvi wondered aloud.
“Computer, zoom out again,” Riss ordered. “Maximum.”
The red curve became an elongated oval. The blue line remained a line. Riss was stunned.
“Coop, is this what…what I think it means?”
The geologist’s fingers flew across his pads. He switched pads and checked again.
“ES-71107 is extrasolar, all right,” he confirmed. He put the pad down slowly and looked up. “It’s from outside our solar system entirely.”
“But it was so large!” Sanvi protested. “When A/2017 skipped through, it was tiny.”
“Yes,” Riss said. “I remember reading about that during training. It was fast, too.”
“Like a pebble skipped on an ocean,” Enoch put in, mimicking with a gesture. “Scooooon.”
“Weren’t there a couple of other planetoids that people thought might be extrasolar?” Cooper asked.
They turned to him.
“Hey, I’m into rocks,” he said, shrugging. “I just don’t know the history.”
Sanvi snorted. “So much for the ‘astro’ part of ‘astrogeologist.’”
“No, no,” Enoch said, jumping into the discussion. “I think Coop is on to something.”
He looked back and forth between consoles, searching. “Ah. Here it is.”
An image of Jupiter and its moons appeared behind him, next to Riss’s chair. It began slowly rotate. More objects appeared in Jupiter’s orbit, some trailing and some preceding.
“Jupiter has a lot of Trojans,” Enoch said. His hands continued to move over his console. “Over 6,000, actually. But this one…BZ509…it isn’t a Trojan. And it goes around the Sun the wrong way.”
“The wrong way…” Cooper said. “Retrograde orbit. So…”
“That means it’s probably from outside the solar system,” Riss said. “Right?”
“Yeah,” Enoch affirmed. “But also probably billions of years ago. Just happened to get snagged by Jupiter’s gravity well.”
“But can’t Centaurs also be from outside the solar system?” Sanvi asked. “They rotate around the Sun, right? So what makes Riss’s Rock so special?”
“You mean, isn’t it just another Centaur, like we thought?” Cooper asked in return. He fiddled with his pads again. “Enoch, can you expand the Centaur’s…I mean, Riss’s Rock’s trajectory? Even further. And superimpose Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune’s orbits for scale.”
Enoch nodded. “I’ll give it a try.”
The rotating model of Jupiter and its Trojans seemed to shrink. Saturn appeared with its moons. Neptune and its oddly tilted ring. The rock appeared, its blue line trajectory once again trailing out into space.
“Maximizing,” Enoch said softly.
The three gas giants shrank. The Kuiper Belt appeared. Still the blue line stretched into the beyond.
“Inputting hypothetical location of the Oort boundaries.”
The model shrank even further. Jupiter was a tiny spec. The Oort appeared like a cloudy, partially transparent globe. The blue line began to curve, ever so slightly.
“Enoch,” Riss said. “Can you get us an image of the heliopause?”
“Not sure. The old records from the Voyagers only recorded the termination shock boundary. But I’ll see.”
The planets completely disappeared from view, and the solar system now appeared as a series of elongated bubbles. Just outside the front of the bubbles lay a wide ribbon of fuzzy orange.
“Is the bow shock really that color?” Cooper said, eyes wide.
“Um. No idea,” Enoch said, slightly embarrassed. “Nobody’s ever been out that far, and the only info was in black and white so I borrowed the color from a vid game.”
Sanvi started to laugh, but Riss pointed at the image. “Look at the trajectory.”
The blue line clearly extended through the heliopause. The opposite side from the bow shock. But the line ended once it left the bubble.
“Enoch, can we extrapolate a starting point? Based on the current vectors.”
He grumbled but set to work. “I need Sanvi.”
She stopped laughing. Paused, and raised an eyebrow. Cooper turned slightly red.
“Ah, I mean, Sanvi’s better at the calcs than me,” Enoch stuttered. “That’s all I meant.”
Riss smiled and raised a finger to her lips. She should pay more attention to her crew, she thought. Something had happened that she hadn’t caught before.
“Right,” Sanvi replied coolly, swivelling back to her console. “Let’s just see…ah. Enoch, on your console now.”
“Got it.” After another moment, the holographic image of the solar system drastically shrank. The trajectory line arced. The arm of the Milky Way containing Earth flickered, and then that also shrank. Another cloud came into focus. The blue line began to trace a vague oval.
“This is just a best guess, you know,” Enoch warned, fiddling more with his console. “There’s a whole lot of empty space between us and…wherever this came from.”
“Why is the trajectory showing up as an orbit?” Riss asked. “There seems little chance it’d be a frequent visitor.”
“That’s the way the program works,” Sanvi said. She tapped her console to confirm. “Comp’s just not able to track normal astronomical events. We’re hunters, after all.”
The holograph slowed its transformation. The Milky Way on one side. Satellite galaxies and clusters surrounding it in the local neighborhood. The blue line entered a cloud and came out the other side, tracing its path across deep space.
“I should have guessed,” Enoch said softly.
Riss glanced at him. The navigator had turned pale and seemed to shake. She had never seen him act this way.
“Feet of Canopus,” Cooper whispered. “Al-Sufi was right.”
She turned to him. He also looked pale, if that were possible. To Sanvi. She also looked odd.
“Well, I was expecting Andromeda,” she started to quip light-heartedly. “So…”
She stopped herself. It didn’t seem to fit the mood.
Riss leaned back and crossed her arms.
“OK,” she said, “What is it?”
“The Magellanic Cloud,” Enoch replied. He touched his console, and the image zoomed on a particularly bright star. “Canopus is the second-brightest star in the Earth sky. The Magellanic Cloud shows up just beneath it, but only seen from below the equator.”
He held his right hand out as if touching the sky, then turned around to face the image.
“One finger at the north unchanging star, the thumb on the south unchanging star. Straight to morning,” he intoned. “Thus did Hawai’iloa find our land.”
He dropped his hand. “We called it Ke-alii-o-kona-i-ka-lewa. The Chief of the Southern Expanse. The Wayfinders used it to get home to Polynesia.”
Riss felt a slight chill run down her spine. What?
“In the Vedas, it is a cleanser and calmer of water,” Sanvi said, although without much conviction. She tossed her head. “Agastya. A superstition from Hinduism.”
“Wait,” Riss said. “Canopus is in the Carina constellation. That’s only 300 some odd light years from here.”
“Yeah, ‘only,’” Cooper said. “But the blue line shoots underneath that. Into the Cloud.”
“How far is the Cloud?”
Enoch checked his figures. “About 160,000 light years. Give or take.”
“And how long would it take the rock to reach us from there?”
“Well, let’s see the calcs…160,000 light years is about 10 trillion AU, and one AU about 150 million kilometres, so…”
He paused, then shook his head.
“Calcs must be off on the trajectory. It’d take about 10 million years for this thing to get to us, even assuming maximum speed.”
“And if it came from Canopus?”
Enoch glanced down. “Not even a handful of years.”
He leaned back, thinking. “The real question is, why?”
“Why what?” Cooper said. “I don’t see how any of this is relevant.”
“Sure, it’s relevant,” Riss said. “I agree with Enoch. Why did this rock suddenly appear? Was it ejected?”
“Probably,” said Sanvi. “Let’s stay rational.”
“It’s tempting, though,” Riss replied, “to think of alternatives.”
“Like whether it was intentionally sent or not.”
Enoch laughed, then stopped.
Cooper closed his eyes. He seemed to be praying. Sanvi, likewise, had assumed a meditative stance, but quickly opened her eyes and stared into the distance.
After a moment, Riss broke the spell with a clap of her hands.
“Right. Interesting intellectual exercise, but Cooper is probably right in the end.”
“Yes,” Riss said with finality. “Whoever sent it, if it was sent, or whatever it is, we’re stuck dealing with this rock now. Who knows what’ll happen once the settlers on Mars drink this water?”
“I can make a couple of good guesses,” Enoch muttered, toggling the navigation controls. “We’re picking up speed as estimated, but still a few days out.”
“Sorry, Riss. Still no way of contacting Mars or Ceres. They’re just broadcasting the same message.”
Riss sat back in the command chair, steepling her fingers. She surveyed her crew. They seemed strangely subdued, but an underlying tension lay palpable in the air. The Artemis also felt somehow tense, as if it were alive, sensing their feelings.
She pondered. Maybe it was. After what they had all apparently experienced separately, who was to stay the ship wasn’t alive in a certain sense? It was made out of the same atoms, the same subatomic particles as themselves, just in different proportions. Particles that never touched. Held in covalence and nuclear bonds by the laws of physics. Full of space, no substance.
The ship breathed. Riss breathed. What was it she was breathing? Other particles of the universe, all part of the same field. The same threads, same patterns.
“No more pings,” she said suddenly. The crew reacted slowly, almost as if they had expected her to say it. They looked at one another and nodded. The Ceres Council and any other hunters around would hone in on their location if they successfully got through anyway. No need to broadcast their whereabouts until they were close enough to contact through regular comm channels.
“Riss,” Enoch said eventually. “How will we slow down? Without a response from a catcher, I mean.”
She stood up, stretching her shoulders.
“I have a couple of ideas about that. In the meantime, who’s for some tube food? I’m famished.”
“You know,” Sanvi replied, as they all made their way to the corridor. “I have a couple of my own ideas about that, too.”
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 22: The Sagittarius (in which Gennaji faces an old friend/foe and a dilemma)
When we last left Gennaji, his ship was just about to fire or be fired upon. Somewhere near Encheladus…
Gennaji looked over at his crew at the rocket launcher. Karel and Andrzej both seemed tense.
No, he silently corrected himself, he was the one feeling tense. They looked…blank. Waiting.
He shook his head.
“Ory, are they together or separate?”
“Looks like they plan to split up, heading around Encephalus. Opposite sides. Not quite in orbit yet.”
Gennaji cursed. Naturally. That’s what he would have done.
“Thrusters. Solid fuel only. Aim us at the Corvus. Shield us.”
He nodded at Karel and Andrzej. They strapped themselves down to the floor like cargo boxes, clamping suspender-like tethers wrapped around their waists to metal rings in the floor. Hurriedly he did the same, locking himself in front of the railgun console.
The Sagittarius began to peal starboard.
Starboard, he thought. Antiquated nautical term. Everything is starboard in space.
He shifted his weight and checked the railgun. All readings normal.
“Corvus is closing…they’re firing!”
Firing?! Gennaji gritted his teeth. Hamno, the Corvus captain was insane, firing laser cannon from that distance. “Ory, evasive!”
The Sagittarius shuddered again, violently. His knee buckled and he slammed his right hip against a side wall. Shit, that hurts, he thought, refusing to cry out.
Karel apparently had no such compunction, judging by the sudden yelp. Gennaji glanced over. The big helmsman had fallen down sideways on one shoulder and was groggily getting to his knees. Andrzej seemed to have already crouched in anticipation and bounced up.
The tether was merely a brace after all, Gennaji thought. He grabbed the console corner and checked the readings again.
“Captain, the shot missed by a wide margin. Looks like they forgot to compensate for the gravity well effect.”
Gennaji grinned. He figured that old hunter trick would work on a young crew like the Corvus. Now they had to wait to recharge.
“In range now.”
“Perfect. Ory, manuever us so we can get a good angle from the cargo hold.”
Gennaji felt the Sagittarius shudder as the thrusters moved them into position. He checked the console again before giving the order.
Karel depressed a switch. The sound echoed through the cargo hold.
Andrzej yanked down with both hands on the firing lever. The rocket made a little popping noise as the railgun launched it through the port into space. Like a champagne bottle, Gennaji thought.
But with much more pop.
“Ory, get us away as fast as you can. Hard right.”
“Aye. The other ship is coming into range as well.”
Gennaji glanced at the railgun. His crew were resetting the launch mechanism, but they might not have time for another shot.
“Ory, I may need to use the ballbuster after all.”
There was a pause, then static.
The Sagittarius suddenly slipped sideways. Gennaji fell to his knees again as the gravity seemed to increase.
Shit. They must be tumbling. The centrifugal force might damage the hull if they couldn’t stabilize the ship.
“Karel!” he barked. “Helm! We have to…”
The intercom crackled to life again.
“…not responding to pings, looks dead in space.”
“Ory? What happened?”
“Corvus…hit, dead in…All…down.”
Gennaji struggled to his feet, grabbing the console for support. His body still felt abnormally heavy.
“Are we spinning?” he asked. Karel held a tether hook in one hand, unsure whether he should complete his Captain’s last order.
“Aye, sir. We…close to…emp charge, so our com…not 100%. Hang on…”
The ship shuddered again. Gennaji bared his teeth. Had the other ship also fired a railgun? The gravity seemed to lessen.
At least they had stopped spinning, he thought. Probably drifting, though.
Gennaji swore. He unstrapped the tether and motioned for Karel to do the same.
“Andy, stay here and see if we can get off another…”
The com crackled to life. But it wasn’t their navigator.
“Sagittarius. This is Pleaides. We’re boarding you. Let’s talk.”
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 16: The Artemis (Coming Saturday March 13, 2021)
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