They couldn’t possibly outrun the hunter ship. Sergey couldn’t identify the vessel, not from his prone position, certainly not in his physical condition. But he knew from experience that any hunter ship could run faster than them, even if the lunar skiff had more maneuverability. And he had a strong suspicion who it was, anyway. Someone he probably should have dealt with in the past.
Music was playing now. He caught just a few refrains. Piano. Ah. Moonlight Sonata. A bit melodramatic, he thought, but appropriate.
He returned his thoughts to this Elodie person who had chosen his adopted daughter’s favorite composer. He still had no idea why she had rescued him from Lunar Base. Or even why he needed rescuing in the first place.
Somebody wanted him. Badly. But why?
In the end, it mattered not to him. All that he wanted was what he had always wanted.
To remain free and independent. Owned by and beholden to no one.
Not even his rescuer, no matter her taste in music.
“El-Elo-die,” he croaked. “W-what now?”
There was no sound from the front of the little ship. He tried again, a bit louder. Still nothing. The music swelled.
He closed his eyes, making a fist with his good hand. No, he wouldn’t die like this. Lying down and useless.
With every ounce of willpower he could muster, Sergey struggled to his feet. Foot, he corrected himself, grabbing onto anything he could to get upright. It took considerably longer than he thought. After a few excruciatingly long moments he found an arm looped round him, assisting him the length of the ship. He was helped into the navigator’s chair, next to the pilot’s chair.
No captain needed on a two-person ship. He would’ve smiled with chagrin, if he could still smile.
“I guess you just aren’t the kind of person who is willing to stay still,” Elodie said. She had sat next to him, almost as if by magic, without his noticing.
He flickered his eyes at the console.
“Where is the approaching ship?” she guessed. He tried to nod his head, but it hurt too much. But at least he could still grunt.
She called up the flight and intercept trajectories and overlaid them so that he could clearly see them.
“No ship registered ID. Most likely hunters. Perhaps pirate.”
He examined the readout, then tried to shake his head, slowly. It came out looking more like a twitch to the right.
“No? Do you know who it is?”
“Captain, before you tell me what you’re thinking, I want to tell you something.”
He continued to gaze at the trajectories in front of them. The dot representing the hunter ship slowly closing in.
“I received a transmission from Ceres. The mining council was briefly taken over by a hunter captain named Ildico. I think you know her.”
He blinked his eyes to show that he did. And waited.
“Ultimately she was unsuccessful. The Artemis showed up. Helped depose her. Now it’s on its way to Mars. The Sundering has begun. We will no longer bow to the whims of the old order, no longer be their mining slaves. No longer be powerless, controlled by—”
He sighed, waved his hand. Enough with the speeches and politics, he thought. It had nothing to do with him. At least he knew that Riss was safely away from whatever coup, whatever powerplay had occurred. She had chosen independence, as did he. He was satisfied.
Only one thing left to do now.
“Captain,” Elodie said forcefully. “You must come with me to Ceres. The remaining hunter ships will listen to you. They respect you.”
He tilted his head to the side, waving his hand again. Then gestured at the screen in front of them.
“Yes, I am not sure how to evade this ship, if it proves hostile. The message I received did not talk about any kind of rescue ship coming. I think the mining council still believes I am on Luna, safe and soundly hidden. But somehow, somehow—”
He gestured with his right hand. “Pen. Pen.”
She complied, setting down a pad and stylus for him. Sergey tried in vain to write a few letters, managing only to scrawl indecipherable scribbles. He seemed on the verge of tossing the pen when Elodie said, “Captain. Don’t write. Draw.”
He stopped, then began to draw images. Two ships. One small, one large. Lines between them. An even smaller, tubelike ship. An asterisk, covering the tubelike ship.
He pointed to the asterisk, then to himself. Then from the small ship to Elodie. Then drew a circle and added stick figures around it. He made one hold what looked like a pad or some similar device. He then drew a line from the small ship to the circle again pointed to Elodie.
“You want me to go to the circle? Is this Ceres?”
“You want to stay in the small ship. This one we are in?”
He tilted his head to the side.
“No? Then, you want to go to the big ship?”
He tilted his head again and closed his eyes.
She suddenly grasped his design.
“Captain, I can’t let you do that. My duty is to prevent your capture and escort you safely to—”
He grabbed her arm with his good hand and held it firmly. Looked her in the eyes. Then said as clearly as possible, “Elo. Dee. Give. Mess. Age. All. Hear.”
He kicked his right foot on the floor and pointed at it. She looked down at it, then up again at him. He gestured again and grunted. Carefully, she removed his boot.
Bardish couldn’t see her remove the chip from an inner pocket in the back of the boot, but he was sure she would find it with little trouble. An old hunter tradition. A final, farewell message. He had always carried it with him, occasionally re-recording it before he thought he might meet his fate. He couldn’t remember when he had last done so. Probably well before the attempted coup. Possibly before Riss had left to track down her rock.
It was just as well. His mind hadn’t changed about many things. Especially since the trial.
The trial that had never should have happened.
Elodie showed him the transponder capsule, with the chip inside.
“Captain, do you want me to broadcast this?”
He blinked, grunted, and pointed at the image of the tubelike ship.
“I understand,” she replied. She held his good hand with both of hers. “You are a legend, Sergey. To all of us. I will make sure that everyone will hear.”
He smiled. Only half his mouth moved, making it appear more like a grimace.
“Well, at least those who care to hear, at any rate.”
He grunted, then looked at the console. Their pursuer had gained considerable ground on them. Most likely would demand to board them. For what purpose, he did not know. But at least this way he would stay free.
If only he knew where Riss was. And that good-for-nothing fiancé of hers.
As the clone pilot assisted his entry into the pod, he prayed for their success. For Riss and Weng. Not for himself. He cared not whether the stratagem worked. This clone, Elodie, she was capable enough of defending herself.
He lay in the tiny pod, hands clasped together in prayer. He only wanted to sleep. Sleep, and to face the darkness on his own terms.
He nodded in response.
The door above his head closed. The music stopped. The pod launched.
Sergey closed his eyes.
Green grass, flowing light blue banners and red rising spires floated before them.
The dirge began.
Beside his old horse a soldier is lying
Beside the soldier his mother is crying…
Above them in circles the bird is flying…
My body pale white, like seeds of poppy–
wounded sore in desperate flight.
O mother mine, do not sorrow so
To see your son in such plight…
Search for a doctor, a carpenter, as well.
The doctor cannot help but
The carpenter a small house will make…
When all is lost and all is finished,
My builder and my war, farewell and good-bye.
O mother mine, cease all your weeping,
Because your poor son is going…
Next:Bringer of Light, Chapter 37: Transit, Ceres to Luna. Gennaji and Karel finally come to an agreement, and things do not go well.
Where’s the Artemis?? What’s up with Mars? And Ceres seriously…?
Sorry I haven’t kept up the story posts, everyone.
I know it’s been almost a month since the last Bringer of Light episode. Work just got dumped on me, and I can barely find time to give my writing students feedback. We switched back to face to face classes…with live streaming on Zoom for students who couldn’t or wouldn’t go back to campus…which is definitely NOT a teaching style I would recommend to anybody, anywhere, ever.
It’s been like laying down tracks in front of an oncoming train. Every day.
There is lots more good stuff for Riss and her crew, I swear. I’ve got drafts up to Chapter 42, and plots to the end after that. Let me see if I can get the next one up for you all in a day or two…
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.
Unbelievably, I have forgotten to post more sections of the Children of Pellas! This was meant to be posted on May 8th, and Chapter 20 (United Mars Colonies) was to be posted on May 22nd.
To try to do a little catch-up—and to try to make it up to my readers!—I’ll post them both this weekend.
The game is afoot!
(When last we saw Gennaji, Ory, Karel, and Andy, they had been boarded at gunpoint by former Sagittarius member and now Captain Ildico…who has an offer Gennaji can’t refuse…)
The galley was clearly not designed for eleven people at the same time.
Ildico had embraced Orynko as she entered the galley, a bear hug that left the pilot gasping for air. Now the two sat side by side at the common meal table which occupied most of the room. An arm around the Sagittarius’s only female crew member, Ildico carried on as if they’d known each other all along.
Across the small table sat Gennaji and the military issue clone. Gennaji tried his best not to spend too much attention on her. Clone or not, she was a mighty attractive wo—
Female soldier, he silently corrected himself. Well-built and no-nonsense attitude. Qualities he admired. Feared, also. Better to keep his hands and eyes to himself. For her part, the clone said little, simply staring at Ildico and Orynko. At some point she had crossed her arms, although whether in annoyance or out of habit, Gennaji couldn’t tell. Simply noted for future reference.
The remaining two Sisters stood in the corridor, right outside the door. As if guarding.
From what? Gennaji wondered. Or were they more like prison guards, preventing them from leaving without Ildico’s permission? The idea was unsettling.
He sipped from a water pack. Ildico had forgotten all about getting a drink once she saw Ory.
“Why don’t you dump these guys and come join the Sisters?” Ildico was saying.
Gennaji opened his mouth but Ory cut him off. “I’m flattered, Captain Ildico,” she demurred. “Perhaps when my contract is over, I will take you up on the generous offer.”
Gennaji covered his smirk with another sip of water. He wished they had something stronger.
Karel stood in one corner, sipping a non-alcoholic beer pack through a straw. Three of the taller clones surrounded him, staring blankly at his beard. Gennaji would normally jest about it, but the mood wasn’t right. He caught Karel’s desperate glance, and narrowed his eyes in response, holding up a finger in warning. An almost pained look crossed the big man’s face, and all Gennaji could do was grimace in sympathy.
He had no desire to start a war of words with the Sisters. Or a war of anything else.
“Gen,” Ildico said suddenly, slapping his shoulder from across the table.
He nearly spurted out the water. “Mmm?”
“Where’s the drinks? I thought this was a top-class ship.”
He gestured to Andrzej, who had taken up a position directly in front of the provisions cabinet. To protect it from the Sisters. Andrzej withdrew a water pack and tossed it over.
Ildico took it with a look of disgust. “That’s it?”
Gennaji shrugged. “Sorry, Captain. Unless you want a fake beer.”
Karel raised his pack.
“Hate that crap and you know it, Gen,” she snorted. She poked open the water and noisily sucked half the pack out. “Ah. I half-expected poison.”
Gennaji smirked. “Too expensive. I can barely afford water.”
Ildico smiled and drained the rest of the pack. Dropping it on the table, she withdrew her arm from Orynko and leaned back with an air of confidence.
“That,” she said silkily, “is where the Sisters can help you.”
Gennaji immediately perked up his ears. Perhaps something good may come of this unpleasant situation after all.
“Oh?” he said, as nonchalantly as possible.
“It just so happens,” said Ildico, idly running a finger down Orynko’s arm, “that I have my own rock.”
She looked expectedly at him. “Two, in fact.”
He arched an eyebrow. “Ditrium?”
She nodded. “Took a while, but it turned out that a patch of the Jupiter Trojans had some rare metals.”
“And the Council didn’t know?”
She grinned. “The Council forgot that one of their hunters used to be a geist.”
It figured, he thought with chagrin. Here he had wasted a trip to transneptune, chasing an old grudge, and Ildico had snared a fortune without anyone suspecting a thing.
“But surely they’ll find out at some point,” he said carefully. “And demand their fair share, of course.”
Ildico shrugged. “No doubt. But it’ll be too late by then.”
“Too late? For what?”
She glanced at Karel, then Andrzej. “Your men. Trustworthy?”
Gennaji stared at Karel, who was still surrounded by Ildico’s clones. Karel was a pain, but he had suffered Gennaji’s insults and orders so far without complaint.
Karel stared back, and briefly nodded. That was all Gennaji needed.
“Yes,” he said. He looked to Andrzej, who remained stone-faced. “I trust them with my life, because they trust me with theirs.”
Ildico suddenly became serious. “I was not questioning your qualifications as a hunter captain, Gennaji. I know you too well to dare ask such a thing.”
He drew a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Would she bring up their encounter at Vesta? Those many years ago? He hoped she had forgotten.
“What is it you need from me, Ildi? You know I have to ask.”
She stood and gestured across the table. “Taygete. Give Captain Gennaji our proposal.”
The clone uncrossed her arms and lay her hands palm down on the table as she spoke.
“The Sagittarius will accompany the Seven Sisters to Ceres. Once there, the Sagittarius and her crew will support the Sisters bid to gain control of the Ceres Mining Council.”
Gennaji began to laugh. He stopped at the look on Taygete’s stern face.
“You’re serious,” he said.
She returned the look with an even gaze. “In return,” Taygete continued, “Captain Ildico offers financial compensation.”
“Financial?” Karel blurted. “You are talking about taking over the Council! We will be executed for treason!”
Taygete stood, arms now crossed. Andrzej slowly reached for his pistol.
“Andy!” Gennaji said sharply.
Andrzej froze, but kept his hand on his weapon.
Karel pushed his way through the clones; they stood with arms crossed, in imitation of their Captain who now stood together with Taygete. The two women stared down at Gennaji with expressionless faces.
“We are not going to make any quick decisions, Ildi,” Gennaji said quietly. He glanced back and forth between his crew members. “Karel has a point. You are asking us to put both our livelihoods and our lives on the line for you.”
“Yes,” she said matter of factly. “I am.”
She smiled. Gennaji wasn’t sure he liked this smile any more than the previous ones. Now his old colleague looked like more than just a freewheeling pirate. She had the look of a conniving politician. He preferred the pirate.
Gennaji folded his hands in front of him on the table, thinking. Was there a chance that the Sisters could take over the Council? Even with his help, they would need at least two or three other ships on their side.
“Ory, what’s the status of the Corvus?”
She sat up straight, startled by the sudden question. “Last time I checked, right after the detonation, they were dead in space. Comps all fried. Probably drifting toward Enceladus.”
“Andy, think we could stabilize them with a few tractors?”
Gennaji looked up. Karel was still standing behind the two women, the other three shorter clones behind him. His dark expression betrayed his thoughts.
“Karel,” Gennaji repeated. “What do you think about the tractors?”
“I don’t like it, sir,” Karel growled. “But if you believe this is a good move for us, then I will ready the tractors.”
Gennaji paused, then nodded.
“Well, then,” Ildico said lightly, turning to leave. “Then it’s settled. We’ll prepare to rescue the Corvus.”
“Wait a moment, Ildi,” Gennaji said, grabbing her arm. She yanked the arm away as Taygete took up a defensive posture between them. Gennaji spread his hands. “Hey, take it easy.”
“Do not touch the Captain,” the clone said. “Nobody touches her.”
He raised an eyebrow. Interesting. Similar to the earlier reaction to Ildico and Ory. Never heard of clones with strong emotional responses, he thought. He made a mental note; he might use this to his advantage at a later date. Somehow.
“Taygete, Ildi and I go way back,” he said. “Before you were even in a petri dish.”
The clone stared back expressionless and did not respond.
“It’s all right,” Ildico said, stepping in front of Taygete. “What’s the problem, Gen?”
“If,” he began, darting a glance at Karel, “if we get the Corvus up and running again, that’s only three ships. Assuming that the Corvus will find themselves indebted enough to support you, I mean.”
“So three ships is not enough to sway the Council. You’ll need at least two or three more to force their hand. What’s the catch?”
“Catch?” she smiled sweetly. “I have my secrets, Gen.”
“Secrets,” he scoffed. “Secret plans are not enough to convince me and my crew to sacrifice ourselves for you.”
“Let’s just say I have an insider on both Ceres and Luna.”
Gennaji narrowed his eyes. On Luna? No, it couldn’t be…
“And,” Ildico continued, “I’ll throw in a freebie. I can get you what you really want.”
Gennaji’s heart almost skipped a beat.
Andrzej had spoken it aloud. Gennaji turned to him. How did he know?
“Yes,” Ildico said. “I have not forgotten, either, Gen.”
“Andy,” Gennaji started. He found himself at a loss for words.
“Captain,” Andrzej said, keeping his eyes on Ildico. “I am not sure that revenge is necessarily in the best interests of the Sagittarius.”
He paused, then added for emphasis, “Or in the best interests of the Seven Sisters.”
“Let me ask you,” Ildico asked, approaching Andrzej. She stopped a breath’s space away from him. “Who do you think the Seventh Sister actually is?”
Andrzej said nothing. The staredown continued several seconds. “I had always assumed the Seventh Sister was you, Ildico,” Gennaji said, breaking the taut silence.
“No,” Taygete said. “She is not.”
The three Sisters standing at the back of the galley formed a semi-circle around Andrzej. Gennaji stood. He did not like the way this conversation was headed.
“The Seventh Sister is always hidden,” one of the Sisters said.
Gennaji looked from Sister to Sister. All three seemed identical.
“They are very near to identical,” Ildico said, as if reading his mind. “Yet they have names. Alkyone. Sterope. Merope.”
“And I don’t suppose,” Karel interrupted, “that each of them has her own opinion about how the ship is run.”
Ildico closed her eyes. “Gen.”
“Karel,” Gennaji warned. “Hold your tongue.”
The big helmsman glared at Gennaji, but simply crossed his arms and said no more. Gennaji returned the glare and narrowed his eyes, darting them to Ildico and back again to Karel. He hoped the man would catch his meaning. No point in challenging the Sisters. Not here. Not now.
“I don’t suppose the hidden Sister is Captain Kragen,” Andrzej suddenly said.
Gennaji’s face darkened. “Do not speak that name in my presence!”
“Ha! That spoiled brat?” Ildico laughed. “Not a chance.”
“Captain,” Orynko said. “What happened to make you hate her so much?”
“She…” Gennaji choked out. He sat down heavily, unable to continue. The image from his daydream earlier that day appeared in his head. The smoke. Circuits ablaze. The unseeing eyes looking up at him.
“She caused the death of our crewmate,” Ildico said softly. “I was there, too, Gen. I do remember.”
“So,” Andrzej ventured, “it was accidental?”
“Lena died!” Gennaji shouted. “Because of incompetence! Stupidity! I…” He closed his mouth and squeezed his eyes shut.
I lost Lena. No tears. Only anger.
“But the Council must have exonerated her?” Orynko asked.
“Yes,” said Andrzej. “She is still a captain.”
“The Council was soft,” Ildico said acidly. “Bardish testified on her behalf, as well. His word carries weight.”
“Leave Sergey out of it,” Gennaji said. “How could he testify otherwise? A man must protect his charges.”
“And so justice was not served that day, Gen,” Ildico replied. “And we have never forgotten, not forgiven.”
“Captain,” Karel interrupted. “Is it really justice that you are after? Seems to me there’s little profit in revenge.”
Gennaji shot him a look that would have made others wince. But Karel seemed to be getting bolder. He would have to teach the big man a lesson. Soon.
“Ildi,” he said, ignoring Karel. “Get me a chance for revenge, and I will see that you are the next Council Chair.”
She nodded in satisfaction. “Things will be different. And you and your crew will not regret this decision.”
Gennaji turned back to Andrzej and Karel. “Let’s get the Corvus under control. We may need to send someone with tools to fix their nav system. And to bring some iodine pills for radiation.”
“Aye, Captain,” Andrzej said. He left immediately. Karel stood silently, then nodded and followed.
“Well,” Ildico said with a sigh. “Finally. Things are getting underway.”
“Yes,” Gennaji said. “Ory, let’s escort the Captain to the cargo area and get her safely back aboard the Pleiades.”
“No need, Ory darling,” Ildico said with a wink. “You’re needed here. For now.”
“Fine. Right, so I’ll get one of my men over to the Corvus. We’ll need one or two of the Sisters as backup for tech detail.”
“I’m sure Taygete won’t mind. Will you, dear?”
The clone grunted, then spun on heel and left the room. Gennaji was sure it glowered as well. Again, interesting, he thought. He’d better keep an eye on this clone. It could prove useful.
“Now that that’s all settled,” he said. “How about—”
“Later,” Ildico said, cutting him off. “I know my way off the ship. Contact me when the Corvus repairs are nearly finished. We’ll rendezvous at Ceres. Six days.”
Before he had a chance to finish the thought, Ildico left. The three Sisters stolidly standing guard inside the galley followed. From the footsteps, it sounded as if the other two guards in the corridor likewise had gone.
Gennaji pondered, drumming his fingers on the table in the now empty galley. He had been about to ask about further details regarding her plan. Something didn’t quite fit, and he hated being left in the dark.
But to finally break out of the red! He’d been desperate for ship upgrades for at least two years. And to revenge himself on Clarissa—
He stopped mid thought.
Ildico had avoided revealing the identity of the Seventh Sister.
His fingers ceased drumming.
Perhaps, he mused. The Seventh Sister was not so secretive after all.
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 20: United Mars Colonies. Mars settlers have begun to behave oddly, setting the stage for the coming storm…
While Gennaji and the Sagittarius prepare to encounter an old friend/rival, the Artemis crew has internal issues…
He had done it. He had finally flown out to the Kuiper Belt. Him, Enoch Ryan. The solar system’s only Jewish-Irish-Hawai’ian navigator. He was the best.
And they all called him a loonie.
He wondered, though, why he was sitting in the pilot’s chair of an old Sopwith. Surely…surely, this wasn’t necessary.
He stood up, thinking he would simply…stretch.
Hands out like airplane wings, the plane dropped from beneath his feet. Body flattening as he rushed out to meet the edge of the Belt.
Next stop, the Oort Cloud. A shimmering field crossed his vision. Ice and dust particles swirling. Like dirty sherbet. Like when his Grandfather bought him one.
And he dropped it onto the Lunar surface. Only now all around him. It really was a cloud. He smiled, embracing it. Embracing him. He could see the long-lost planet in the distance. Planet X. Nibiru.
No, it was Hapu’u. Guiding him. All he needed was to find the Twin sister. A new future…
He turned around. From behind him. It came again.
He looked back to the Cloud. There it was. Waiting.
He turned away. The Artemis. He needed to be on the Artemis. Stop dreaming, he told himself. Wake up!
Eyes opened, he found himself floating in his cabin. How had he returned so quickly? No, it was a dream. He pushed against the ceiling and fell toward the bed. Grabbing a wall rail, he yanked himself down.
Yes, a dream, he thought. He put a magboot on and saw his hands. Dust.
He heard voices in the next cabin. No screaming.
Maybe he should’ve stayed in the Cloud.
Shaking his head, he got a drink pack from the minifridge and took a few sips. Didn’t seem to be anything other than regular water. Tasteless.
He couldn’t wait to get back to Luna and grab a Longboard Ale.
He released the pack, left it floating head-high, opened the door. In the next cabin, he found Riss and Sanvi arguing.
“I know what it was!” Riss was saying, hands on hips.
Enoch smirked. He liked those hips. Fiancé or not.
“I don’t question your experience,” Sanvi was saying, with a little wag of her finger. “But you have no way of knowing it was mystical or not.”
“As if you do!” Riss retorted. “You’re an expert on mysticism now?”
“Not an expert, no,” Sanvi replied coolly. “But I have training, yes. My martial—”
“Your martial arts training, yes, yes,” Riss cut in. “We all know that. That doesn’t give you the sole privilege of understanding the nature of other people’s experiences.”
“What experiences?” Enoch said.
They stopped arguing and looked at him.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m here. On the ship. You know, the one I fly?”
“Sorry, Enoch,” Riss said. “Didn’t notice you.”
“Yeah, so…” He raised his eyebrows.
Riss and Sanvi glared at each other.
“You know,” Enoch offered, “I kind of had this strange dream. Was it a dream? Not sure. You know, this dream of kind of flying.”
“Flying,” Sanvi snorted. “So?”
“Outside the ship,” Enoch said. “By myself.”
Riss stared at him. Sanvi closed her eyes.
“Without a ship. All alone in the Belt. Like I could sort of, I dunno, control things around me?”
“The fields,” Riss said bluntly. “That’s what Sanvi calls them.”
“Fields,” Sanvi said, still with eyes closed.
She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “The material of the universe, shared matter. Currents. Atoms. Subatomic particles. The working of the cosmos.”
Enoch laughed. “Sounds—”
“Mystical?” Sanvi said, opening her eyes wide. “Remember when you said you didn’t want to talk about anything mystical?”
Enoch shrugged. “Yeah. But this cosmic working or whatever, it seemed like a dream to me.”
“Like you were walking outside your body,” Riss said. “Right?”
He paused, then nodded. “Yeah. Like I could control things around me. How far they were. How far I was.”
“Control,” Riss agreed. “Understanding.”
“And fear,” came a quivering voice from the hallway.
All three turned. The geist leaned against the corridor wall, as if for support. His ragged breath came to them.
“I, I was alone. All alone. Floating. My boots, they failed, and I was just…”
“Coop,” Riss said, with a note of sympathy.
The geist shook his head and waved a hand frantically. He was sweating, Enoch noted.
“I was just…drifting, for how long, I can’t say. But then…then I saw…”
Cooper’s eyes grew wide and he began to shake and mumble. Enoch could barely make the words: “O God, I will no longer be full of anxiety, I will not let trouble bother me. O God, purify my heart, illumine my powers—”
“God?” Enoch said aloud. “You saw God?”
Cooper stopped and grabbed Enoch’s shoulders.
“Dare you! How dare you!” he snarled. “You blaspheme…”
Just as Riss and Sanvi moved to intervene, all strength left the geist’s arms and he slumped. Enoch made as if to slap the hands away, but his anger was replaced by surprise.
Cooper was sobbing.
“O God,” he cried, “O God, you are the Powerful, the Gracious, the…”
He seemed to lose his voice and continued to sob in silence for a moment. Then he looked up.
Sanvi had knelt and was holding his hand.
“All that we are,” she spoke slowly, with conviction, “is the result of our thoughts. If one speaks or acts evil thoughts, pain follows. If one speaks or acts pure thoughts, bliss follows.”
Cooper made as if to remove his hand, but then looked up, seemed to calm down.
“I,” he started. He took a deep breath. “I’m not sure what I saw. What I was capable of doing, though. It frightened me. The power.”
“The beauty of the fear of Heaven,” Enoch found himself saying, “is noble performance.”
They all looked at him.
“The Talmud,” he replied, without being asked. Why did that suddenly come into my head? He felt compelled to add, sheepishly, “‘Love Heaven, and fear it.’ My dad used to always quote from it. I was named after one of the characters.”
“Whoever possesses God in their being,” Riss suddenly said, “has him in a divine manner and he shines out to them. In all things.”
“What is this?” Sanvi demanded. “Are we competing for the right to be mystical?”
Riss shook her head. “Memories. Snatches, clips of dreams. Things Sergey used to say to me, I think.”
“Sergey? Captain Bardish? Really?”
Riss smirked. “Actually, he usually said stuff like ‘the church is near, but the road is icy; the tavern is far, but I will walk carefully.’”
Cooper and Sanvi laughed. A welcome sound, Enoch thought, chuckling despite himself. But he was still feeling embarrassed. What ever possessed him to say the Talmud aloud? He hadn’t thought of it since…
Since Granddad died, he realized.
“‘Always confess to the truth’,” he said aloud. “Stuff my Grandfather used to say to me when I was a kid.”
Sanvi stood, pulling Cooper to his feet. The geist brushed off invisible dust, rearranging his shirt.
“What else did he say?” she asked.
Enoch paused. “‘Do not seek to wrong he who wronged you.’”
He looked at Cooper, then held out his hand. The geist hesitated, then took it.
“I think,” the astrogeologist said slowly, “that we have all been experiencing something unusual. Odd.”
“Wonderful,” Enoch said, still shaking Cooper’s hand. He let go and stared at his hand. “Exhilarating.”
“Yes,” Riss said. “Something entirely extraordinary. And frightening. And something that no one person owns.”
Sanvi bit her tongue. “Riss, I—”
“Look,” Riss said with a wave of her hand. “I think we all need a little time to sort our thoughts out. It does seem as if we are all basically having the same sort of experiences.”
“Dreams,” Enoch said.
“Experiences,” Sanvi said. “I’m not so sure they’re dreams.”
“What do you mean?” Cooper asked. “What else could they be?”
“Have you heard of astral projection?”
“What, you mean out of body experiences, that sort of thing?”
“I can’t believe that I was actually ‘out of my body’,” Enoch said with a smirk. “It felt more like a hallucination, or a really good trip.”
Sanvi nodded. “Yes, it probably does. Did.”
“Isn’t it possible that we’re all just tired?” Riss asked. “Sometimes people feel like this because they have some sort of inner ear problem, or they change air pressure too quickly because of a faulty air lock, things like that.”
“Well,” Sanvi said, then pursed her lips. “Do you think it’s possible that all four of us, suddenly, right after we started drinking water from that rock, started having the same trips, hallucinations, or whatever. Even though we’re all experienced asteroid hunters who have spent years in space without ever having such an experience?”
“Not all of us,” Cooper said glumly.
“And not all the experiences were just about projection,” Riss said, with a look. Enoch caught the look, wondering. What had happened before he entered Sanvi’s cabin? She wasn’t telling him and Coop everything.
“Projection?” Cooper asked.
“Astral projection,” Riss clarified. “That would explain how our experiences seem so real, and yet have a dreamlike quality. But it doesn’t explain being able to manipulate objects.”
“Is that why,” Enoch began. He stopped himself.
“What is it?” Riss asked.
He didn’t respond.
“Why did you cry out? You know. Uh. Scream.”
Riss was silent for a moment.
“I was scared,” she replied curtly.
Enoch opened his mouth, then thought better of it and closed it again.
Riss? The Captain, scared? Jeez.
“Well, that’s enough of that,” Riss said with a tone of finality. “We still have several days before we reach Ceres.”
“Yeah,” Cooper muttered. “Don’t remind me.”
Sanvi chuckled and nudged the geist with her shoulder. Which Enoch noted, with a sudden pang of jealousy. He narrowed his eyes briefly before relaxing. Things were moving too fast for his liking.
“What do you want us to do, Captain?” he said aloud. “You know, I don’t much feel like sleeping right now, if you know what I mean.”
She nodded. “I don’t expect that any of us are quite ready to return to Ceres that way. How about…”
She paused, then turned to the geist.
“Coop, have you finalized that analysis of the rock?”
He nearly flinched, Enoch thought. Then relaxed when Sanvi briefly touched his shoulder with a fingertip.
Dammit, he inwardly grumbled.
“No, R, Riss. I had nearly finished when, uh, when we were all gathered in the cargo hold.”
He looked at Sanvi worriedly. She closed her eyes and shook her head, smiling.
Something unspoken had happened, Enoch thought. He frowned. So why was he upset about it all of a sudden?
“Well,” Riss said, in a determined voice. “This piece of dusty ice clearly has some secrets. I think it’s time to finally see where our rock comes from.”
Next: Weng discovers a conspiracy in Bringer of Light, Chapter 17: Luna Base (dropping March 27, 2021)
While Gennaji prepares to defend himself after having revealed the Sagittarius’s location to fellow asteroid hunters, Riss discovers that trying to forget painful memories has consequences.
Riss fairly staggered out of the exercise room, more exhausted by the two-hour workout than she had expected. Increased gravity from their acceleration, plus extra weight from the rock? Or something else? Her legs felt like pieces of taffy left out in the sun too long. And there was that strange headache she couldn’t seem to shake. Maybe she was just dehydrated.
She shuffled down the corridor to her room, holding herself upright with a hand against the wall. She probably ought to go to the command center, check on the rock, talk to the crew. But first she desperately needed a rest.
She reached her sleeping cabin and pushed the door. It seemed lighter than usual. No, not lighter. Less…dense. She shook her head and crossed the threshold.
The sudden illumination hurt her eyes for some reason. She covered them.
“Lights at fifty percent.”
Her vision returned to normal as the lights dimmed.
No, not quite normal. Even with half-illumination, it was as if she could see perfectly. Better than perfect. The door closed behind her and she walked slowly toward her desk. The pad still plugged into the wall port seemed to hum. She gently touched its edge. Somehow it felt…transparent. Translucent. Like the pad wasn’t entirely there.
Or maybe she wasn’t?
Sighing, she slumped into the chair. Maybe it was a virus. She supposed that would explain the headache and sensitivity to brightness. But there was something different about the room. The ship. Herself.
She glanced at the motanka.
No face. She always wondered about that.
“This doll is special. It is a protector of children,” Sergey said. “As you grow, she will grow, too.
“You mean motanka will get bigger?” she asked, eight-year-old eyes wide.
Sergey laughed. “No, dytyna. She will grow in other ways. Don’t worry. You will see.”
Riss examined the doll. Except for the cross on its face, it looked like any other doll. Two legs, two arms, long skirt. Less lifelike than the one she got from her real parents.
She picked up the doll and frowned.
Her real parents. She thought she had no memories of them. None?
No, wait. She could see something.
Her father. He gave her a doll. Once. Before they had to leave.
She squeezed her eyes shut.
Before they disappeared.
She opened her eyes again. No, she just couldn’t remember.
And looked at the doll. It had changed color.
She turned the doll around, then upside down.
Yes, it had changed color. Yellow hair, check. Black dress.
No, it was green. With light blue flowers…no, checkered red, yellow, and white patterns all over it.
That could’t be. The face was the same. The no-face.
She set the doll on her desk and flopped face-first on her bunk. What on earth was going on? Was space sickness making her lose her mind?
Weng. She needed to talk to him. Should have vidmessed him. Mars and Ceres refused their pings. Should have tried Luna.
Magboots still on, Riss fell into a deep sleep.
Walking along the sea. Dark, artificial blue sky. Beyond that she knew lay endless darkness and empty space. Almost as empty as…
A pressure on her left hand. Weng. Holding it firmly, then gently. A squeeze followed by a caress. Like he wanted to say something to her. Like he wanted her to say something to him.
“I love the way your face looks,” Weng began.
“Stop, stop,” Riss interrupted, shaking her head.
“The blue of the Cantic Ocean,” he continued. “The blue of the sky. The constant breeze that wafts…”
“I love the way your face looks, framed by the waves of brown locks, blown by an ocean breeze.”
He smiled, then laughed.
“Hopeless romantic,” she said. “You’re just a hopeless romantic. You do know that?”
“I’m supposed to say stuff like that,” he returned. “I’m an artist. It’s what we do.”
“Oh?” she replied.
He just smiled his enigmatic smile. They fell silent.
Something was bothering him. She could tell. He’d never ask for help. Not openly. Not from her. She squeezed his hand. He sighed.
“It doesn’t look like you’ve had much time for artistry lately,” she tried.
Weng made a face. “You’re right, I haven’t.”
He said nothing. Just coughed.
Riss looked at him as they walked, hand in hand. He stared into space. What was he thinking? She wondered. What was it he was looking for?
“I guess,” he said finally, after a long pause. “I guess you’ll be heading out again soon.”
She nodded. “You heard.”
He smiled again, looking up, above the sky.
“Sergey mentioned something about a lottery. A special asteroid of some sort.”
“Yes. A centaur. We won the rights to capture it.”
Weng shook his head. “I can’t pretend I understand how you asteroid hunters operate, but can’t you just, you know, negotiate?”
She laughed. “We did. Sort of. It’s complicated.”
She looked at him again. Her artist. Touchingly naive, stubborn and set in his ways. But that didn’t matter. He was faithful to her. Loyal to her adopted father. He had always supported her, regardless of whatever foolish thing she had said or done.
“You will come back to me, yes?” he said.
She squeezed his hand again. “If all goes well, this will be the last trip I have to make out there,” she said.
“No, of course not!” she said, laughing. “No promises. No guarantees.”
“No returns,” he said. “All sales are final. Let the buyer beware!”
They giggled together. It felt good, sharing a moment with someone she could be completely honest with. Completely open.
Completely. No. She suddenly stopped and let go of his hand. They stood still.
She looked into his eyes. He was still smiling, but the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. His face fell. It was as if, for a moment, she could see who he really was. His real face. Like a cross…
“I’m sorry,” she started.
“What?” he said. “What is it?”
She looked up again. The blue sky was gone. Darkness everywhere.
The ground fell away. Weng disappeared from her sight, his outstretched hands waving uselessly in the lunar wind. No cry escaped her lips. She stared wide-eyed at the stars. The emptiness rushed down. She rushed up to meet it.
With a start, Riss realized she was floating. Outside the ship, free floating in space. No suit. No helmet. In a panic she put her hands over her mouth. But there was no breath. No sound. Silence, only silence.
She looked down. She wasn’t wearing any clothes, none whatsoever.
This must be another dream, she thought, calming herself. Well, then, let’s see where it takes me.
Ahead lay a vortex. She smiled. A vortex, in space. Drawing her closer. She felt like putting her arms in front and swimming, as if it would make any difference.
To her surprise, it did. She felt the vortex pull at her, call her, gently coax her toward its amorphous black center. Faint clouds of burgundy and crimson whisked away as she neared. With a start she found that the vortex was not a hole at all. She reached out with both hands…
And brought a small object back to her.
A small ball. Cottony.
She cupped it. The ball dissolved into a cloud and flowed up her arms, across her entire body, dissipating in the space behind her.
Sensation returned. Gravity wells appeared before her eyes. Patterns revealed themselves. Orbits of planetary objects, trajectories of comets and asteroids. Space dust. Black matter.
She suddenly knew where she was. The happy hunting ground stretched like an enormous mine field before her, blocking her view of the inner system.
Concentrating, she willed an asteroid to approach. It was small, no more than a few meters across. She floated near it, ran her hands over its rough surface. The edges, points, indents. Mostly iron ore, with other trace minerals.
With a wave of a hand, she pulled the trace minerals out, leaving nothing but a ball of pure iron. A deft thrust into the ball; it stretched and twisted like taffy.
Into a mask.
She held it in her hands. Looked down at it.
The mask looked back at her. She tried it on and saw herself.
The face of the motanka. With a cross on it.
Next: The game’s afoot…Bringer of Light, Chapter 14: Mars Colonies (Coming February 13, 2021, 7 PM EST)
A sudden pounding noise woke him. Sitting up too quickly on his bunk, he cursed and grabbed at the handrail on the wall to steady himself. His right hand gripped the aging plastic; a shard peeled off and floated by as he wrenched a boot on with the left hand.
Another piece of the Sagittarius gone, Gennaji mused, idly watching it spin toward the hatch. Just like its crew. And its Captain.
Dark thoughts pushed their way to the surface; he scowled and forced them down. First things first. Survival.
He grabbed the sliver of plastic and sealed it in his pants pocket. The air filtration system had enough problems without bits of the ship stuck in it.
Both magboots firmly on now, he pushed the open/close panel. The hatch beeped but refused to open. The noise came again, and a siren sounded followed by the navigator’s voice on ship wide speaker.
“Captain to the bridge! Captain to the…”
Hamno, Gennadi swore. Seizing an emergency handle in the middle of the hatch, he twisted with both hands. The hatch popped out, dragging him halfway into the dimly lit corridor. He squeezed the rest of his two meter frame through just as the floor shuddered.
“Karel!” he shouted. “Andrzjel!”
The siren continued. He thought he could hear someone screaming in the distance.
Gennaji staggered in the direction of the command center as the corridor tilted back and forth. Hull breach? he wondered. No, it couldn’t be. Not again…
The hatch to the command center also refused to budge. Wrenching it open, Gennaji found the entrance blocked by fallen objects. Cables. Computer panel components. Overhead exposed circuitry flickered, sending wifts of smoke swirling past his face.
Pushing his way through the debris, he saw an arm dangling from the navigator’s chair. He reached the chair and turned it around.
“Orynko, are you…?”
Lena’s eyes, wide open, stared into his. Blood trickled down her forehead from a gash in her matted brown hair. He backed away, stumbling into the panel behind.
Sergey’s voice in his ear.
“Damn you, Ser—”
He spun around. Riss. Seated in the captain’s chair.
She looked down at him without expression. “Get off my ship.”
“You have no right!” he shouted.
“Get off my ship,” she repeated. She seemed to fade from his view. Smoke rose from the panels in-between them.
“You killed her! I’ll—”
Coughing, he swatted at smoke, turning back to the navigator. Lena, no…
The ship shuddered.
Gennaji’s eyes snapped open.
He was strapped in the captain’s chair. Orynko at nav. Karel at helm.
“Where’s Andrzej?” he said numbly.
A brief silence filled the command center, then Karel responded. “Down in the cargo bay, like you asked him.”
Gennaji shook his head and hid a yawn behind a closed fist. Hamno, he must have dozed off. His shoulder twinged as he replaced his hand on the command chair console. He winced, gently rotating it. That nehr woman and her kung-fu tricks. He should have had Karel teach her a lesson or two.
“What’s our status?” he asked in a slightly more authoritative voice.
“Waiting for confirmation from Zedra,” Orynko said. Her fingers danced over the console in front of her. “We should receive a ping any minute now.”
Any minute now, he thought with satisfaction. Zedra will tell us that they only received one frag from that rock, and somehow the others didn’t arrive as expected. Because of course we were able to break the quantum encryptions and intercept the teleport…
“Coming in now, Captain.”
He leaned forward in anticipation, flicking on the command console. “Andy, get ready.”
A minute passed. Another.
“What’s the word, Ory?”
She scanned her console again, then exchanged glances with Karel.
“What?” Gennaji demanded impatiently.
Karel cleared his throat. “Sir, Zedra reports they never received any frags.”
He paused. “None.”
Gennaji smiled. “So, it worked like you said, hacker! Glad we borrowed you from that mining scow.”
“Sir,” Karel said, clearing his throat again. “Zedra didn’t get any frags because none were sent.”
Gennaji hit his palm against the console in frustration. “Didn’t send any! Then…”
He narrowed his eyes and swore. That moskal’ must have sent them all directly to Ceres. Was that possible?
“Karel, I thought you said you hacked into their thrower system.”
“I did. We should have been able to intercept if they tried sending…” Karel stopped mid sentence, thinking. “You know,” he continued. “Maybe they didn’t send them.”
“Not possible,” Andrzej’s voice came over the speakers. “The Artemis cargo hold is bigger than ours, but that rock was way too much for a single haul.”
“True,” Gennaji admitted. He slapped his cheek with an open palm. Completely forgot to turn the intercom off. “So. Straight to Ceres?”
“I’ll check,” Karel offered. “This far out, it’ll take a while.” He concentrated for a few minutes while the others waited.
“Ory,” Gennaji said quietly. “Scan the bands for incoming.”
“Hunters.” He grimaced. Now that they’d pinged Zedra and were probably going to wind up pinging Ceres, every hunter out there would know their location. The Sagittarius and Artemis both had plenty of rivals. Some might be a little more aggressive than his crew.
He drummed his fingers on the console. He had no love for Clarissa Kragen or her crew, but neither was he a killer. Despite what she did, she was still the daughter of Sergey Bardish. He’d do anything for that old man.
Damn him! Gennaji thought savagely. Damn her! He did eventually get the ship, but not in the manner he wanted.
And the price had been far too high.
“Got it,” Karel said triumphantly from the helm. “Right ascension…distance vector…straight for Ceres, all right.”
“Good job. How many?” Gennaji cracked his knuckles.
The navigator made a noise of disgust.
“Sorry, Ory. Bad habit. Well?”
The pilot scanned his console. “Looks like…two frags. Huh.” He leaned back in his chair. “I would have thought at least three, a rock that size.”
Gennaji pondered this. The Artemis might have kept the third for themselves, as a hedge against losing the profit margin. The Ceres Mining Council may have given them right of capture from the lottery, but the Council was not above a little price gouging when it suited their needs.
“Let’s ping Ceres. Ory?”
“On it. Go ahead.”
Gennaji swiped the console. His own face appeared on the tiny screen. Best this junker can do, he thought bitterly. No holographic recorder. If only he had the money for decent upgrades!
“Sue, it’s Gen. We missed the target, and the target also missed theirs. On purpose. You should get a couple pieces of the puzzle soon. And you may get some guests from Mars or Luna soon. Do your best to delay them and I’ll make it…worth your while.”
He heard Karel stifle a reaction. Orynko had rolled her eyes.
“Talk to you soon. We’re coming home.”
He swiped again to save the message. “Encrypt. Then send it.”
“Aye, sir.” Orynko did as he asked with no further comment.
He looked back and forth from navigator to pilot. They seemed to ignore him.
“Hey, you have a problem, shmatochok der’mo?” he said through clenched teeth.
The veins on Karel’s forehead seemed to bulge as the man turned red. But he shook his head, mouth tightly closed.
Gennaji sat back. “Good. Set course for Zedra. If the Artemis kept a frag, the extra weight will slow them down. Maybe with luck, we can—”
“Captain,” Orynko said suddenly. “We’ve got company.”
“Put it on the screen.”
Hands flying over the console. Nothing happened. The navigator slapped the console once, twice. A two-dimensional star map gradually crackled into life on a transparent panel between the navigation and helm. The simple Cartesian plane indicated their position in the middle.
“Lack of 3D imaging makes this a little difficult to read,” Orynko said.
“Noted,” Gennaji snapped. “If we could get those frags, maybe we could do something about it.”
Karel shifted his weight in his chair, but said nothing. Orynko bit her lip.
“Well?” Gennaji said. “Where are they?”
The crew was silent. Suddenly on the star map two diamonds appeared, running nearly parallel to each other. Probably coming from a refuel at Zedra, he figured.
“Can you plot their intercept?” he asked.
“Tak,” Karel affirmed. “Just a moment.”
His fingers danced over the console. The star map flickered again. Karel looked back and forth from the map to his console. “Come on…there.”
Solid black lines appeared behind the diamonds to show incoming trajectories. Dotted lines indicated the estimated paths.
Of course, they would guess our path, Gennaji mused. We need to refuel at Zedra. So they were waiting for us?
“Who is it?” he asked Orynko. “Can you identify?”
“Based on mass and flight path…” She paused, checking her console. “One is definitely the Corvus. The other is probably Pegasus, but could be the Pleiades.”
The Corvus, they could handle, he knew. Untested young crew. Pleiades?
Gennaji folded his hands. He hoped not. He’d rather face the Pegasus, whose captain he didn’t know very well, rather than the Sisters. The last thing he wanted to do was confront yet another former fellow Sagittarius mate.
“Both will be here in about two and half hours.”
“Good.” Gennaji swiped the console again. “Andy, get ready for some company. Charge up the railgun and get a ballbuster ready.”
“Aye,” came the answer. “Railgun’s a matter of time, but I’ll need some help with the nuke.”
“Right.” Gennaji turned to nav and helm. “We can’t outrun them, but we can outmanuever them. Those newer ships were built to carry rocks over the long haul. We can best them on strength and agility.”
“Captain,” Karel said slowly. “We may not have enough energy for more than two or three short bursts.”
Gennaji nodded. “I know. That’s why we need to enter orbit. That way we can use our thrusters instead of the ion engine.”
Karel and Orynko exchanged glances. Gennaji’s face hardened. Were they going to disobey his order? Bardish would never have stood for it.
As he was about to snap a command, Orynko spoke. “Captain, we know what the Corvus can do. But if the second ship is Pleiades…”
He stopped himself. Frowning, he knew he had to make a choice.
Sorry, Ildico, he thought. If it comes down to it, I have to survive. Even if it means I risk antagonizing the Council.
His features softened at the thought of the geist. How she had changed since the incident. He sighed and closed his eyes.
With eyes closed, he said, “Ory. Get us close to Saturn’s gravity well.”
He heard a soft voice respond. “Aye, sir.”
Gennaji opened his eyes again and locked them onto Karel’s. He would protect this crew. Unlike someone else in the past.
“Let’s get some nukes ready,” he said bluntly. “And helmets ready. Just in case.”
The helmsman nodded curtly, and he unstrapped his flight harness. Gennaji’s eyes met Orynko. She bit her lip, then turned back to her nav console. Hamno, he thought. Maybe he should have just let her sleep in that one time. Last thing they needed was an emotional crew member.
He motioned to Karel, and they made their way to the hatch. As they exited the command center, Gennaji could already feel the Sagittarius turn. The navigator had done as he asked.
In the corridor, Gennaji felt his weight increase and stretched a hand out to steady himself. The acceleration had increased the g-force slightly. They had better prepare the ballbuster before they reached high orbit. The weapon parts were heavy enough as it is, even for two people in fairly decent shape.
He massaged his shoulder again. Back in the day, he wouldn’t have had a problem with heavy weapons. Of course, Sergey hadn’t bothered with ship weapons. The old man always said they took up too much valuable space, that it was better to board and battle hand to hand. Most of the older hunter captains agreed.
The newer hunters didn’t.
After taking command of the Sagittarius, the first thing Gennaji had done was to remodel the cargo hold to accommodate defenses. It cost a pretty bitcoin but saved their asses once or twice.
If she had done that, Gennaji thought, Lena might still be alive. His face hardened as they reached the entrance to the cargo hold.
Andrzej was in the middle of the hold, straining to push the rocket launcher to the access port. Gennaji motioned for Karel to help him, then touched a panel next to the cargo hold door. The panel slid up. So did the next three, revealing a storage compartment with suits and helmets.
He retrieved four of each. Then, after a moment’s hesitation, he touched the next closed panel. The weapons locker. He withdrew three pistols. Two cartridges each. Hollow point. Strictly speaking not allowed according to international space mining treaties. He hadn’t permitted his crew to use them when they boarded the Artemis. In his eagerness to confront Riss, he had foolishly thought that including Karel and Andrzej would force her to give up at least part of her claim.
He hadn’t counted on the Loonie and his cybervision.
Gennaji gritted his teeth and pocketed the cartridges. Not this time.
Closing the lockers, he turned his attention to the computer console on the opposite wall. He checked it; the railgun needed another hour and a half to fully charge. Barely in time.
He looked up. Karel and Andrzej were still struggling with the bulky launcher.
Gennaji half-walked, half-bounced across the hold. As he reached them, the Sagittarius shuddered briefly. They all stopped and waited. Gennaji felt his legs strain under the sudden weight. The gravity had increased again.
Orynko’s voice reached them over the ship-wide.
“Captain, we’re in high Saturn orbit. Behind Enceladus.”
“They’re altered course to match.”
“Hold position until I say otherwise.”
Gennaji took out two pistols and handed them to Karel and Andrzej.
“Just in case,” he said. They nodded. Likely, there was no “in case.”
Together the three pushed the launcher platform across the metal floor. Despite the rollers, it was much heavier than he remembered. But it couldn’t be helped. They needed something to disrupt and confuse their opponents’ sensors, even if the damned thing was near impossible to accurately target anything smaller than a space station.
As long as they could get it hooked up in time. Maybe even a neighborhood buckshot would work. The question was whether to hide behind Enceladus and take them on one at a time, or come over the top and try to get both in a radiation shot.
Either way, he favored their chances. Whoever it was out there, they wouldn’t risk damaging his ship. Not if they wanted whatever rocks they thought he had. Which he hadn’t.
They kept pushing.
After twenty long minutes, they managed to slot the platform in place at the access port, which would now serve as a launch port. They remained silent as they continued to work. No need for chitchat. Save some energy and oxygen for the fight.
Karel fiddled with the port connection while Andrzej anchored the platform both physically with chains and magnetically with clamps. The rocket launch would likely alter their position, so Gennaji busied himself with preparing possible railgun targets. The Artemis was a new ship with a thick hull and strong shielding that made the railgun ineffective, but the other hunter ships were vulnerable. The Pleiades, too, if it came down to it.
He hoped he wouldn’t need to go to that extreme.
It had been some time since he fought ship to ship. And that was in the Happy Hunting Grounds, not halfway to the Oort. But Bardish had taught him well. Despite his aversion to big weapons, Bardish had a patient, tactical knowledge that left a strong impression. A smile came unbidden as he thought of the old man.
The first ten years he spent on the Sagittarius were the best of his life. Bardish, already famous as the discoverer of ditrium, hailed as the savior of the Lunar terraforming project. Gennaji, just another flyboy in the Ukrainian Union airforce. Bored by endless training exercises that seemed to serve little purpose other than antagonize their neighbors. Spending most of his free time drinking like a fish and chasing tail.
When the Union military cut their fliers due to budget constraints, he latched onto the first job available: piloting EU supply runs to the ISS. Lucky for him the Sagittarius was docking the first time he made a run, or he might still be wasting his life hauling bean curd and anti-radiation skin replenishing cream.
Spend weeks, even months at a time in the outer solar system searching for dirty rocks? Risk his life for faceless corporations that couldn’t care less if a hunter crew lost a member of two? Endure endless tubes of tasteless powder-based food rations and sleep every night trussed up like a slab of meat in a butcher’s window?
As long as he was helping a fellow Ukrainian, as long as he was getting paid and having the time of his life, he’d had done it forever.
Until Clarissa took the Captain away from him.
He was next in line to inherit the ship. He was sure of that. Who else was qualified? Who else had been in the crew so long, besides Ildico? And she was a geist, at that time.
His lip curled at the thought. A geist, becoming a hunter captain. Of course, he respected her skills as an engineer. And she certainly had the experience of the hunt, often the first to identify which rocks had the best ore.
But in charge? Of him?
Thinking back, he knew even at the time that they should have left well enough alone. The refuge ship explosion. The debris field. Retrieving a radiated escape pod.
To be sure, the metal fetched a fine price, once they had decontaminated most of it. They could have had an even higher profit margin, had Sergey agreed to dump the escape pod and cleared more room for other, more valuable ship parts.
But he wouldn’t hear of it.
“This child needs a home,” Bardish said. “We keep the pod.”
“But Sergey,” Lena protested. “She can always stay in my bunk. There’s room. She’s so small.”
“No!” Sergey barked. “This is where she stays. For now.”
Gennaji’s right eyelid twitched at the memory.
“For now” didn’t last long. Just long enough for Sergey to adopt the girl. The pod metal turned out to be worthless, selling for next to nothing. They could have made much more from engine parts. Hull pieces. Even fuel tanks with holes that could easily be patched.
At first, the crew tolerated the girl. Sergey doted on her. He struggled to speak Russian with her, though. At least until her English was good enough.
Good enough, Gennaji thought, to wheedle her way into the hearts of nearly everyone she came in contact with. Including Lena.
But not him. He knew what she was doing. He knew she had planned everything. No parents, sure. There were loads of kids who lost their folks. He, himself, never learned what happened to most of his family. Even years after the East Asian Wars ended, when the dust cleared and the burnt farms and hollowed out cities began to rebuild.
She would never know his pain.
“Captain, they’re almost in range!”
Orynko’s voice. He snapped his head up and looked over at the rocket launcher. Karel was bent over the console. Andrzej appeared to have just finished clamping the rocket in place.
“Captain, almost ready,” Karel called over to him.
Gennaji glanced down at the railgun settings. The moment of truth.
(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.
(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.
(Part 1 ended with a brief confrontation, and a bad memory…)
Riss pushed the thought away. Not a time for reminiscing. Or for reminders of failure.
Upon reaching the command center, she turned on her boots with another touch to the wrist. She stepped up into the captain’s chair and touched the communications panel.
“Enoch, how’s it coming?”
“Ready here. Waiting for the ping from Zedra.”
Riss drummed her fingers on the chair’s arm. Zedra Point. She hated having to wait for telemetry from an outpost. As if some desk jockey knew more than her crew members.
“Riss. Sanvi here.”
“Coop’s got more samples. Hydrocarbons, he says. Nothing much interesting.”
“Safe to drink?”
“He thinks so.”
“Well, he’s the geist. Get off the rock and bring the Hopper back.”
Riss turned off communications as Enoch floated in from the corridor. Being born on Lunar Base, the navigator was even more at ease than she was in micro-grav. His bones probably were brittle enough to snap, thought Riss. He had little trouble on Ceres during their last visit, but he’d struggle on Mars if they had to stop by for any period of time. Certainly he’d never survive Earthside. Good thing they saved a few extra exoskeletons.
“That ping should come soon,” Enoch said. He grabbed his chair, settled down, and strapped in.
“Thrower ready?” Riss asked. She had already seen all the figures; she knew what they could handle.
“Yep. I’m positive we could get it all the way to the Ceres crusher in one shot.”
“Hang on,” Riss said, seeing a notification on her console. “Here comes the ping.”
She scanned the message. It was short, mostly filled with calculations that she had already computed herself.
“Cowards,” she blurted.
“What do they say?” Enoch asked.
“None of these inner system catchers have the balls to catch a 12-stopper,” Riss said in disgust. “First they say we need an intermediate catcher at Zedra. Then they say they want us to frac it into three pieces.”
“Bastards probably want to keep one. They’ll pretend it didn’t arrive.”
“Well, if we do ignore Zedra and send the entire rock on to Ceres, what are the chances some greenhorn catcher fucks it up and we get credit for nothing?”
“Imagine,” Enoch laughed, “five thousand tons of rubble strewn across space.”
He made an exploding noise while drawing his hands apart.
“Nice,” Riss said. Another notification on her console told her the Hopper was approaching.
“Check Airlock 1,” she told Enoch. “Hopper’s back.”
“Roger,” Enoch said casually, spinning his chair around once before handling the request. His fingers flew across his panel. “Check, check, and…check.”
“All right,” Riss said. “While we wait for Sanvi and Coop to get up here, let’s go over our options.”
Riss held up a hand.
“Enough with the checking. Listen. We throw, they fracture anyway. We fracture, they keep one. Either way, we stand to lose part of the rock.”
Enoch nodded. “Rock’s too big to fit all of it in the hold.”
“Yeah,” Riss agreed. “So here’s what we do. Frac it. Take the most valuable section. Send the rest. Sell what we have when we get back.”
Enoch shrugged. “Most valuable on this rock? Coop says it’s a big dirty ice ball.”
“Water, Enoch,” Riss said. “Mars needs water. At least until they get their equipment working properly. Lunar Base probably won’t say no, either. Everybody needs hydrocarbon for fuel, and after the terraforming it takes a lot of agua to keep everyone breathing.”
The Artemis shuddered briefly. Riss glanced at her console.
“Hopper’s docked,” she said. “Right. Let’s get the system set to frac. Coop should be able to tell us which part to hang on to.”
“Thrower’s already set,” Enoch said. “I’ll have to recalibrate for a lighter load.”
She nodded, and called up the telemetry sent from Zedra. Now all she had to do was reply to the ping. By the time the intermediate way station got her message, they would already be throwing the rock. After that, it was a long way home.
A few moments later, Sanvi and Coop floated in. The geist held a box in his arms, presumably filled with samples, Riss guessed.
“You look none the worse for wear,” she said to the geologist. He swallowed but nodded, briefly. Riss took the box from him.
“Can I, uh—“
“Coop doesn’t enjoy floating,” Sanvi interrupted. Her eyes showed her amusement.
“Have a seat,” Riss said, gesturing to the console. Cooper grasped the back of the seat and hoisted himself into the harness. His face was still working, as if caught up in a desperate struggle. Riss felt a stab of sympathy. She had no memory of her life on Earth, before…before whatever had happened to jettison her into space. All that remained were vague impressions of floating…floating…
“Riss…” Sanvi’s voice came.
The box was floating above her head. Abruptly, Riss snatched it down.
“Ah,” she said, apologetically, “I must have accidentally let go.”
“So,” Sanvi said, sitting in the pilot’s chair. “What’s the plan?”
Riss briefly explained what she and Enoch had discussed.
“All we have to do is have Coop tell us which section to keep,” she said, looking over at the geologist.
He didn’t look much better than before. The geologist swallowed once, twice, then closed his eyes before speaking.
“I—I’ll send Enoch the coordinates of the largest source of clean hydrocarbons.”
“Coop, you okay?” Riss asked.
The geist nodded unconvincingly.
“Yeah. I’ll be fine.”
His hands unsteadily tapped out a pattern on his console.
“Got it,” Enoch said. Two more seconds of tapping. “Driller’s ready.”
“Shield us,” Riss said.
A barely discernible simmering cocoon enveloped the Artemis. The magnetized screen would protect them from microscopic particles they were about to create, but the power drain meant the shield lasted just long enough for the cutting and retrieval procedure.
A thin stream of ionized particles shot out from underneath the ship, striking the Centaur. Plumes of steam rose, then dust. Tiny sparks here and there on the screen indicated the shield effectiveness.
After one or two minutes, the ion stream stopped. The Artemis crew waited. The rock slowly and silently split apart into three not-so-even sections. Dust and water vapor surrounded them. It would be dangerous for individual crew members to venture outside the ship now.
“Engage the thrower.”
The robotic retractor slowly unfolded and extended toward the nearest rock section. Over the next several hours, the Artemis crew worked nonstop. The smallest chunk was safely stored in the cargo hold for later use. Telemetry provided by Zedra, input into the thrower system. The two larger sections transported along the predetermined quantum path to Ceres. A ping sent to the catchers, a response obtained.
When the entire retrieval procedure had finished, Riss gave the signal. The Artemis got underway; once they had cleared the dust cloud left behind by their handiwork, the shield shut off and the crew breathed a sigh of relief.
“Time to get out of here,” Riss said. “Before the other hunters follow up on our ping location.”
“Course plotted for Zedra,” Enoch said, a trace of exhaustion in his voice.
“Confirmed,” Sanvi added. “ETA 14 days 4 hours. Autopilot…engaged.”
“Fourteen,” Cooper moaned. He slumped over the console in front of him. “That long to Triton?”
Riss mustered up the energy to laugh. “And another five to Ceres. If we take it easy during the refueling. Alignment of the planets.”
“Or not,” Enoch muttered.
Riss released her harness. Floating forward, she clapped the geist on a shoulder. “Good job, newbie.”
Sanvi and Enoch chimed in with congratulations as well. The geist gave a half-smile through sleepy eyes. He raised a hand to wipe away sweat from slightly clammy skin.
“OK, people,” Riss said, stretching her back. “The rocks are on their way. The autopilot is in control. Time to rest up and recuperate.”
None too soon, she thought. Time to send an encrypted vid message to Weng. If she could stay awake long enough.
Next: Chapter 4 – The Mars Colonies (November 7th)