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)
(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.
Riss woke with a start. Something…no, somebody…it felt like somebody was calling her…
Unstrapping her sleeping harness, she slowly sat up in the dim cabin. The only light came from the faint glow of her pad, casting a barely discernible sheen out from its wall recharging socket. The doll cast an eerie shadow across the room.
“Artemis. Water,” she croaked. No response.
She coughed. “Water,” she repeated in a stronger voice. Her throat felt raw.
The refrigerator unit beeped and disengaged from its cubby beneath the rechargers. It slid on a magnetic track across the cabin and stopped arms-distance from her bunk.
Riss opened the door and withdrew a plastic drink sleeve. It seemed a good idea at the time. Six days into the return trip to Zedra point, she’d decided that each crew member would benefit from a few new packs of water, freshly squeezed from the rock fragment safely stowed in the cargo hold. They’d already used some in the hydroponic lab, after all.
“Return,” she ordered, and the boxy robot rolled back to its wall nook.
Hindsight was foresight, she mused, but now it seemed prescient. The ship’s normal water recycling system had a glitch which would have made things more than uncomfortable without the new water source.
Squeezed, she thought, plucking back the drink tab and drawing out the straw for a sip. More like reconsti—
She gasped and nearly dropped the pack. Cold. So cold!
It was as if she could feel icy vapors sublimating as the water turned directly into gas inside her. She coughed, and coughed, almost a dry cough despite the water.
Now her entire body felt icy cold. She barely managed to lower the pack to her bedside table as the cold sensation spread to every extremity. She lay back and forced her eyes to stay open, focusing on the ceiling.
Heavy. So heavy.
The cold feeling began to dissipate, leaving her with a tingling in fingertips and toes. She tried to lift her head, but instantly dizzy. She closed her eyes, then opened them again.
Objects on the captain’s desk seemed to glow. No, that must be the portable…no, it wasn’t. She stared. The darkness of the cabin seemed strange, out of place. Not true darkness, but the darkness left by the absence of light rather than true darkness.
Layer upon layer of semi-transparent, translucent geometric patterns assaulted her vision. Some were colorful, like spinning pieces of stained glass.
Riss closed her eyes. She could still see the patterns. Random. She opened her eyes again. It was as if she could see the room…through the patterns. As if the patterns were real and the room a mere reflection.
The patterns. Were they in her head?
She heard a soft buzzing noise. No, a squeezing noise. As if her head were being squeezed. Like the water from the rock.
No, she thought, detached. Not squeezed. Released—
The ceiling blew up. Fragments flew away and the rushing darkness enveloped her. She stared up at a vast, limitless height.
Space was a machine. A living, endless machine, filled and surrounded and controlled by patterns.
She felt the patterns shifting, colliding, rotating around a core she couldn’t quite grasp but could sense.
Heavy. She felt heavy. A gravity well…sinking, sinking, sinking through the patterns back…back…
She closed her eyes. An odd sensation filled her.
Blue sky. Grass. The feel of mild wind and warm sunlight caressed her face. The scents of a beach…a Luna beach! She smiled, content, floating…
A feeling of detachment, separated from herself yet part of herself. Part of something much larger. Infinite.
She opened her eyes.
The patterns in the darkness slowly faded; she reached out a hand, as if she could touch them, alter them, change the way they interacted. She sat up, stretching her fingers—
No. No, the patterns were gone.
Or were they?
Riss let her hand drop. She stared at her hand, then at the water pack on the table. Nothing out of the ordinary. Still, she could swear she still felt something. Some kind of new awareness of things around her.
Riss picked up the water pack and looked at the straw. Did she dare?
Carefully, slowly, as if the pack were a fragile flower, she touched the straw to her lips and took the tiniest of sips.
Water. Slightly tangy and metallic, but otherwise.
She sipped more. Just water.
Shaking her head, Riss stood and arched her back. Suddenly she felt incredibly refreshed. How long she slept?
She pulled the pad from the charging socket and swiped it on. The time. She rubbed her eyes and looked again. Almost an entire day? That couldn’t be.
No wonder she felt refreshed.
Yanking her boots on, Riss shoved the pad into a shoulder carrier. She’d better check up on the crew. Should she mention her dream? If it had been a dream.
She paused before the door. No. She’d first stop by tactical. Autopilot or not, she trusted only herself.
She touched a panel and entered the corridor.
The Artemis was quiet. Or rather should have been quiet. As Riss walked down the narrow corridor connecting the living quarters and tactical, she thought she felt something…different. A mild humming in the bulkheads. Barely perceptible vibrations, like the Artemis were trying to soothe her, comfort her.
Ahead, she heard voices. She couldn’t quite make out the words, but the tone was pleading. A woman and a man. But not her crew.
Then a sniffling noise, followed by a loud thump.
“Is anyone here?” Riss called. She stepped into the room and made for the navigator’s console.
The pilot was holding a pad in both hands and her shoulders were shaking. Abruptly the voices cut off. Sanvi stood, wiping her eyes with a sleeve.
“Riss, it’s…sorry, I…”
Riss stopped. She’d never seen Sanvi like this before. The woman appeared on the verge of a completely breakdown.
“Those voices…” Riss began. She stopped, wondering what to say. Then took a guess. “Your family?”
Sanvi nodded. She held the pad in front of her with hands, staring at the empty screen.
“My parents,” she replied. “Their last vidmess before I joined up.”
She lay the pad down on her console and closed her eyes.
“I haven’t spoken to them since.”
Riss crossed her arms and sat in the captain’s chair. “They were against your joining the crew?”
“They were against me leaving Lunar Base,” Sanvi replied, snapping her eyes open. Riss was quiet. This defiant look wasn’t something she’d seen in her pilot before. Something terrible must have happened, she thought. Just like—
“Sanvi,” she said softly, “is there anything you want to talk about?”
Sanvi started to shake her head, then looked at the pad again.
“I saw them,” she said flatly.
“I saw my parents,” Sanvi said. “A dream. At least, I think it was a dream. Pretty sure, anyway.”
Sanvi sat down, her hands in her lap. She seemed lost, if Riss hadn’t known better.
“I had a strange dream, too,” Riss said suddenly.
Sanvi looked up at her in surprise. Riss was surprised somewhat herself. Why had she said that?
“I, uh…” She wasn’t sure how to continue.
“You saw your parents?” Sanvi asked.
Riss shook her head. “No. No, I’ve never—”
She stopped and bit her lip.
“I haven’t seen them in my dreams for, uh, several years now.”
Riss hesitated, then, “It was nothing, just an odd dream about the rock. That’s all.”
Sanvi sighed, then snorted.
“If I didn’t know any better,” she said, slightly sarcastic, “I’d think you were holding out on me.”
Now it was Riss’s turn to snort.
“Well, then, you do know better,” she retorted, with a slight grin. “Maybe I’ll have another, stranger dream tomorrow to tell you.”
She stood and stretched her back.
“In the meantime, I think I’d better go down to the hold and check on things.”
Sanvi nodded. “Want me to stay here?”
“Nah. Nothing to check here, so long as the auto is working as it should.”
Sanvi glanced at the console, and shrugged. “So far.”
The ship’s internal comm clicked on.
“Hey, is anybody there? Anyone driving this thing?”
The geist. Riss touched a panel on the captain’s chair.
“Coop. We’re here.”
“I, I think you may want to come to the hold.”
Riss caught her voice in her throat. Had he found something he’d missed before? The rock, was it actually special?
“Be right there.”
She motioned to Sanvi, who calmly picked up her pad and followed her into the corridor.
On the way, they ran into Enoch, floating outside his room holding a mag boot in each hand. He looked disheveled, as if he had just jumped out of bed.
“Guys, hey, I had this most amazing dream,” he said happily.
“You mean you actually sleep sometimes?” Sanvi smirked.
“It was like—man, it was like, like I was flying. No, like I was the plane, flying by myself.”
Riss almost stopped to ask him about it, but changed her mind and kept walking.
“Follow us,” she said.
He looked a little surprised. “Uh.”
“You can tell us all about it later.”
“Okay, but I don’t have my mag boots on yet.”
The navigator looked at Sanvi, but she simply shook her hand and motioned for him to come along. They walked. Enoch started swimming.
“Hey, wait up!” Enoch shouted, trying to yank his boots on mid-air.
After a few minutes they reached the hold. As they entered, Riss called out, “Coop, what’s going on? Did you fi—”
She stopped abruptly. Sanvi and Enoch bumped into each other and then squeezed into the room behind her.
The rock was glowing.
It still lay carefully within its “cage” of polystyrene cables, strapped in the corner of the hold across from the hopper port. Cooper was standing at the console, gazing intently at the screen and flicking the surface with his fingers.
“Cap—Riss,” he said, turning around.
“It’s glowing,” she said.
“Yeah. I kinda noticed that.”
“The rock,” she repeated, more urgently. “It’s glowing!”
Cooper spread his hands. “Now, don’t panic. I know it’s glowing. I’m still checking things out.”
“Hang on,” Enoch said. “Didn’t we chip off some stuff and put it in our drinking supply?”
“Yes,” Riss replied. “I helped him do it.”
“You…” Sanvi hissed. She stepped forward and grabbed him by the shirt collar. “What have you done to us? Poisoned? You some sort of spy?”
He frantically batted at her arm and sputtered. “Wha—what on earth are you talking about?”
“Sanvi,” Riss interposed. “Let go.”
Sanvi shoved the geologist back and glared. “You’d better explain yourself, geist,” she huffed.
“Yes,” Riss agreed.
Cooper quickly backed away, glaring at Sanvi. He stood behind the console and placed his hands on top of it, swallowing a retort.
Riss took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Well? What’s making this…glow?”
Cooper gestured to the console.
“You can see for yourself,” he said.
Enoch cut in. “Just explain it, bro. We don’t have all day.”
“Ryan,” Riss said sharply.
She looked down at the monitor. It was filled with lines of chemical symbols and numbers. She scrolled and images of various molecular chains appeared.
“This,” she asked haltingly, “this shows, ah…”
“Carbon,” Cooper said. “Hydrocarbon.”
“We already knew that, geist,” Sanvi cut in. “So what?”
The geologist took a deep breath.
“Not just any hydrocarbon. There are signs of—I don’t know exactly if it’s nucleic acids, or some simple polymeric—”
“RNA,” he said bluntly. “Maybe.”
Riss narrowed her eyes and glanced at the screen again.
Both Sanvi and Enoch lurched across the console and grabbed the geologist. A brief scuffle followed, with Riss in the middle, vainly trying to separate them.
“What the f—!”
“Stop! Let him go!” Riss ordered, trying to control her temper.
Cooper fairly fled to the asteroid chunk. “The filter system still says it’s just water!” he shouted at them from across the cargo hold. “The computer didn’t even notice anything until I made it run a more detailed analysis!”
The pilot and navigator made as if to rush after him, but Riss held their arms.
“Sanvi! Enoch! As you were!” she demanded.
They both stopped and looked at each other, then at Riss. Enoch seemed to be sulking, but Sanvi shuddered and closed her eyes.
Riss had expected the navigator to lose his cool, but Sanvi’s reaction surprised her. It almost looked as if she was trying to meditate.
“Cooper,” Riss called out to the geologist. He looked like a trapped animal, ready to bare his teeth. “Brady. Nobody’s accusing you of anything.”
She looked back at Sanvi and Enoch. “Nobody is accusing him of anything,” she repeated. “Got it?”
Enoch nodded curtly. Sanvi breathed out and opened her eyes, then followed suit. Good, Riss thought. This was not the time to lose their collective cool.
(When last we left the crew of the Artemis, they had just fracked an asteroid, keeping part for their drinking water and sending the rest to Ceres.)
“…Love you. End transmission.”
Riss extended a hand to touch the computer panel, then leaned back in her sleeping cabin chair. Another vid message finished. The ping would probably take several days to reach Weng on Luna. She sighed. She hoped she hadn’t looked as tired as she felt.
Flying over to the Centaur had made her more anxious than she cared to admit to the Artemis crew. Her first capture of a potentially extra-solar object, one that might have originated from the Kuiper Belt. The whole way over she kept thinking of Sergey and the ditrium rock he caught. The one that made the Moon terraforming possible. The one that made him famous.
She desperately wanted the rock to be different. Needed it to be different.
She looked to her right. Barren, boring desktop space. Compared to her crew’s quarters, hers was spartan. Where they had objects that reminded them of home — photos of family, books given by relatives and friends, even freeze-dried flowers — she had practically nothing.
No family. Save Sergey. But he disliked photos, especially of himself.
So instead of a photo, she had a doll, a motanka. Given to her on her sixth birthday, to protect her. Sergey promised to find her parents. Or at least find out what happened to her parents. She couldn’t remember if she’d had dolls when her parents were still…when she was living Earthside.
At any rate, they never found out what had happened. She barely had memories of them, let alone whatever dolls they may have given her.
She stretched out a hand and picked up the doll. Slender blond tresses, tied at the end with red ribbons. A black dress and white shirt decorated with bands of bright orange and light blue. Crown of yellow flowers.
A cross for a face.
Somehow, she couldn’t picture a German father giving her the same doll. Her Russian mother might have given her a…what was it called? A babushka. No, a matryoshka. Wooden nesting dolls. Different colors, too. Probably.
What kind of people were they, she wondered. She remembered waking up in the lifepod, in the Sagittarius’s cargo hold. Frightened by the large bearded man with the sad eyes who looked like her father but didn’t sound like him.
The woman next to him who looked nothing like her mother but would later treat her like one.
Riss sighed and put the doll back, gently, on the desk. She kicked off her magboots, lay back on her bed.
The desk chimed.
“Für Elise. Medium volume, slower tempo version. In the style of Rachmaninoff.”
The well-known melody did not really soothe her. But it did remind her of Sergey. And she never could decide between German and Russian composers.
Her body began to float above her bunk. It was dangerous to sleep without being strapped in, but it felt relaxing, for the moment. She lay on her back, in the air, looking at her hands. Stretching them in front of her, slowly. Henna-brown hair drifted. Ought to get a cut, she thought absently. The music swelled, repeated the main refrain.
“Artemis. Stop. Play Holst. The Planets, regular volume.”
“Start with the second, then skip to the sixth.”
No Mars or Jupiter, she thought. Even though most of her life, she’d been in the happy hunting grounds. A lifestyle inherited from her foster father Sergey. Chasing rocks around the inner solar system, an independent operator living on the fringes of civilized space. Part of the fun of the job was that each rock was different, but really they were all the same. All variations on a theme.
Like the doll, she thought, with a smirk. Maybe.
She thought back to her last conversation with Weng, before the Artemis left for Transneptune.
“The Luna Council doesn’t want original and beautiful works of architecture,” Weng told her, as they walked along the Lunar Sea, arm in arm. “They want inhabitable cities. Ugly, soulless blocks of metal and concrete, as fast as they can be 3D printed.”
She hadn’t responded. Just stared into the cold night sky. Why argue when the stars were so beautiful?
Maybe the Council was wrong, she thought now. Maybe simply living and working wasn’t enough. Even for adventurous types like Sergey.
No, Riss decided. Maybe she was wrong. too. Maybe she wasn’t an adventurous space captain, after all. Maybe she was just a scavenger, catching ice and throwing it at Ceres, like all the other scavengers with their junky ships.
“The magician” began. She closed her eyes and allowed herself to float higher. Spread her arms out. Tilting back and forth ever so slightly. The hum of the engines below the crew bunk area reverberated.
She was so sure that this rock would be different. No doubt that had added to her getting seriously annoyed at Gennaji. At least twenty-five Earth years older than her, but he acted like sixty. And getting worse with age.
But she felt time slipping away, as well. She had wanted some time on the rock. Alone. To really get to know this one, see if it had something to tell her. To see if she had chosen the right kind of life.
Just another ice rock. Nothing different. No ditrium, no special metals. More ice.
At least the landing and recovery operations went smoothly. At least she got some sense of satisfaction out of a job well done. With a competent crew.
Well, competent, if a little dysfunctional. Sanvi’s skill as a pilot was still developing, but her martial arts talents were always beneficial. The incident in the hold a recent example. The woman occasionally bothered her, challenging her decisions. Questioning her past.
Lena. Sanvi was too much like Lena. Different ethnicity, same personality.
Was that it?
Poor Lena, I’m sorry. I…
Riss opened her eyes. She was looking down at her bunk, her back pressed against the ceiling of her quarters. Reaching back with a hand, she gave a little nudge and began to float downward.
Coming out to Transneptune always bore some risks. She supposed she should be happy they had scored anything at all. A pretty amazing catch, all things considered.
Millions of miles from civilization with an ordinary ice rock in the hold to keep them company. She sighed.
“Artemis, stop music.”
Back on the bunk, face down, she stretched out a hand and retrieved her boots. While the crew was in rest and relaxation mode, she might as well check their reserves. It’d be a while before they reached Zedra.
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