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Bringer of Light, Chapter 16: The Artemis

March 13, 2021
MThomas

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.

Enoch scoffed.

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…

A scream.

What?

He turned around. From behind him. It came again.

Riss.

But Hapu’u…

He looked back to the Cloud. There it was. Waiting.

But.

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.

Was it?

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.”

“The what?”

“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?”

“Exactly.”

“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.

“Enoch. What.”

“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)

Bringer of Light, Chapter 11: Ceres (Part Two)

January 24, 2021
MThomas

(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?”

“Ten.”

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.”

“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.”

“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.”

Weng smiled.

“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.”

“Sam.”

“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.

A clone?

He wondered.

“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.”

Weng stared.

“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.

Bringer of Light, Chapter 5: Riss

November 21, 2020
MThomas

(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.

Lena

Riss sighed and put the doll back, gently, on the desk. She kicked off her magboots, lay back on her bed.

“Artemis.”

The desk chimed.

“Play Beethoven.”

“Specify.”

“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.”

“Specify movement.”

“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.

She wondered how the rest were coping.


Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter Six: Brady

Bringer of Light Chapter 3: The Artemis (Part 2)

October 31, 2020
MThomas

(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.”

“Go ahead.”

“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.”

“Roger.”

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.”

Enoch snorted.

“Bastards probably want to keep one. They’ll pretend it didn’t arrive.”

Riss considered.

“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.”

“Check.”

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.

“Chunk it.”

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)


Children of Pella: Bringer of Light synopsis

Psyche! Uh, no, sorry, that’s not really how “value” is determined…

October 30, 2020
MThomas

“Artist’s depiction” = “we don’t really know, actually, but isn’t this cool?”

Even more intriguing, the asteroid’s metal is worth an estimated $10,000 quadrillion (that’s 15 more zeroes), more than the entire economy of Earth.

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/10/29/metal-asteroid-psyche-nasa-hubble-images/6069223002/

Leave it to USA Today—the paragon of journalistic integrity and unvarnished truth reporting—to grossly exaggerate “value.”

Imagine if someone dumped several hundred thousand tons of nickel and iron on the market?

It would immediately make nickel and iron worthless. Simple supply and demand. So it’s not monetary value that is important.

How do we create vehicles and domiciles for a space-faring future while avoiding the exorbitant cost of getting them into space in the first place? It’s the cost and weight of rocket fuel that’s the issue.

Solution: Build everything in space. No need to bring anything back to Earth.

Not needed now. Maybe someday.

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