China’s plan calls for setting up a permanently occupied base and a fleet of interplanetary craft. Probably it’s a good idea to first see whether it can meet its goal of landing people on Mars in 2033.
Of course, China is “willing to join hands with our counterparts and partners all over the world,” but it’s unlikely NASA, JAXA, ESA, and the UAE and other countries not named Russia will “cooperate.”
The next space race is here. Just wait until multinats actually decide asteroid mining is worth the risk and expense.
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…
“This assumption is consistent with recent theoretical studies of the solar system’s evolution that suggest that asteroids rich in small, volatile molecules like water and carbon dioxide formed beyond Jupiter’s orbit before being transported to areas closer to the sun.”
However, it does show the need for STEM students and researchers in Japan to improve their English. For every study like this published in English there are many more only published in Japanese. Lots of interesting research going on in Japan that people *outside* Japan need to know about!
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.
Getting water supplies from the Ceres processing plant turned out to be more difficult than Weng had expected.
For starters, he had thought he’d be dealing with a group of stubborn asteroid miners like Sergey. Independent-minded people whose sense of rebellion and anti-authority sympathies he could appeal to. He hadn’t expected to be dealing with a facility represented by robots.
He also had expected to go alone. He certainly hadn’t anticipated an assistant. The young man had been assigned to him by the Martian Council, ostensibly to help him navigate the politics of the situation. More likely Gen was there to keep tabs on him for the Martian Overseer, Weng guessed. After all, that’s what he would have done.
The face with a perpetual Mona Lisa smile on the shuttle’s vidscreen stared at him like he was a strange lab specimen. It reminded Weng of the Mars Central lobby receptionist. He repressed a shudder and did his best to return the half-smile.
“Ah, I, that is, we, represent the—”
“Who are you?”
The robot was smirking. No, it couldn’t, Weng told himself. Concentrate on the task.
He cleared his throat.
“We represent the United Mars Colonies, on a mission of urgency.”
The impassive face was motionless for a moment, then the artificial lips opened. “We have no record of that organization in our database.”
At Weng’s right, his personal assistant Gen squirmed uncomfortably in his seat.
“We are just beginning the process of establishing ourselves as a political entity,” Weng said smoothly. He’d rehearsed this part. “We are a loosely affiliated—”
“State your urgent message, please.”
Weng stopped. He hadn’t expected to be interrupted by an automaton. Weren’t they programmed to listen to all incoming requests in full?
“We, uh, we desperately need additional water supplies due to a sudden increase in refugees from Earth. Our water facilities are not yet operating at peak capacity.”
There was a pause from the other side. Then, “Please hold while I confer with my superior.”
The monitor went black.
Weng stared at the screen. What now?
“Sir, if I may venture a suggestion?”
He turned to his assistant and cocked an eyebrow. “Go ahead.”
“Sir, I understand that you are on terms with Captain Bardish.”
Weng felt his jaw dropping but controlled himself. Obviously he had underestimated how fast rumors spread in the Colonies.
“I—I suppose that’s true,” he replied evasively. “To a certain extent.”
“In that case,” the assistant continued, “why not mention your relationship with the Captain? The miners on Ceres respect him.”
Weng pursed his lips and crossed his arms, frowning.
“Revere wouldn’t be too strong a phrase, either,” Gen added.
Weng sighed. He owed the old man too much already, but the Martian had a point.
“All right, it’s worth a try,” he said, chagrined. “Let’s see what the androids say first.”
After another few moments of silence, the monitor flicked on again. This time, a human face appeared. The “superior,” Wang surmised. The person certainly looked like an asteroid miner. She still wore her anti-grav harness and hard helmet, albeit with the radiation visor up.
“This is Ceres Mining Council Sub-chief Talbot. What can I do for you?”
Straight forward. Wang relaxed.
“Mr. Talbot, pleased to make your acquaintance. I—”
“Cut to the point. What do you want?”
Wang felt himself reddening. He breathed in, exhaled quickly and smiled.
“Water,” he said as plainly as he could. “There are too many refugees for the Mars Colonies to handle right now.”
Wang pondered. “Several thousand tons. Eight or nine, at the very least.”
Talbot sighed and took a glove off. “You know, I thought I might actually make it through a normal 16-hour work day with no complications for once.”
She pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes.
After a moment that seemed to drag on forever, Talbot lowered her hand and opened her eyes.
“We can’t accommodate you,” she said in a matter of fact voice. “I’m sorry.”
Weng frowned, but before he could speak, Gen suddenly cut in.
“Chief Talbot,” he started.
“Sub-chief,” she interrupted. With a note of irritation? Weng wondered.
“Sub-chief,” Gen amended. “I hesitate to interrupt—”
“You already have,” Weng pointed out.
“—but you may not be aware that Weng-shi has been appointed directly by Captain Sergey Bardish to the Martian Council as head of the water commission.”
This was of course not entirely true, but Weng decided to play along. He resisted the impulse to glare at Gen for his insubordination and trained an even gaze on Talbot instead.
She returned the gaze and pursed her lips. Evidently the name of Bardish did carry some weight, Weng thought. Perhaps he should have not been reluctant to bring it up before.
“The Captain does not choose his candidates lightly,” Talbot said slowly.
“I have known the Captain for some time,” Weng admitted. “Sergey and I are…close friends.”
Talbot paused. She seemed to be internally debating something.
“Sub-chief Talbot,” Weng added, “we would not have come unless the situation were very, very urgent. At least allow us to land and discuss the matter. In person.”
Talbot nodded finally. “Very well. But our daily mining schedule has been disrupted enough as it is. Come down and state your case plainly.”
The screen went blank.
“Sir,” Gen said looking down at the panel in front of him, “we now have the proper landing authorization code.”
“For unlocking the landing bay. And for undergoing the microbe decontamination process.”
Weng grimaced. Nothing was going according to plan. He had half a mind to severely tongue-lash Gen, but he had no idea what kind of secret report the assistant might send to the Overseer. The prudent course would be to talk less and listen more.
He needed water. And more political experience. He was determined to get both, no matter the cost.
Weng tugged at the worksuit collar. The drab grey clothing might protect his skin from whatever chemicals were being used to help the miners process asteroid ore, but it was uncomfortable as all hell. The decontamination procedure had already irritated his skin enough. First baked by microwaves, then slow cooked in nanofibers. He felt like an overcooked pork dumpling.
He glanced at Gen, standing impassively next to him in the control room. The younger man didn’t seem overly irritated by the material. Maybe he, too, was a robot, Weng mused. The assistant seemed to have no emotions whatsoever.
He looked around the control room. Pre-war. Cut into the rock surface, no windows or doors. Little more than a side culvert from the main mining operating chamber. The only object in the room was a large metal desk with what looked like an old-fashioned computer terminal and keyboard pad. He could hear the hum of a cooling fan from inside the desk. A computer heatsink?
He nearly sneered, then caught himself. Of course, their operation would be primitive. He should have expected no less. He wondered what else…
A voice called out from behind him.
“Jiǔyăng, Weng-xiānshēng. Welcome to Ceres.”
He stopped tugging at the collar and turned around. Talbot entered, accompanied by a slightly shorter person with an eerily smiling face. Both wore the same dull grey suit. Talbot carried her gloves and hardhat under one arm. The other walked stiffly, moving with a shuffling gait. As if its feet were permanently attached to the ground. A robot, then.
“Very nice to make your acquaintance, as well,” Weng replied smoothly. “Compliments on your accent.”
Talbot shrugged. “Thank you, but I know it’s rusty. We don’t get much opportunity to talk with UN diplomats.”
Weng shook his head. “I’m not UN. As I said, I represent the interests of—”
“The United Mars Colonies?” Talbot finished.
She walked around them to the desk, touching the computer terminal. Weng stayed silent as she scanned something on the screen. She looked up at him.
“There is no such organization,” she stated bluntly. “Who are you, really?”
The robot had taken up a position directly behind them, Weng noted. It still smiled at them. Weng smiled back, disarmingly, he hoped. He folded his hands in front of him.
“Sub-chief Talbot,” he began.
“Just Talbot,” she said.
“Talbot, then.” Weng continued. “The Joint Martian Colonies were founded by the UN under direct control of the Martian Council some twenty years ago. From last year, Martin Velasquez began his tenure as Overseer.”
“Yes, yes,” Talbot snapped. “For this you came all the way here to demand water?”
Weng shook his head. “No, of course not. I came here because the UN has failed its duties on Earth. We have received many more—many hundreds more—new settlers during the past two months than we have had throughout the entire twenty years of the Martian Colonies existence.”
Talbot stared at him.
“Hundreds?” she said. “That, I’m not sure I can believe that.”
“It’s true, Ma’am,” Gen interrupted, speaking for the first time.
He withdrew a mini-tablet from a small suits pocket and handed it to her. “Here, you can see for yourself. We prepared an updated list of colonists and their needs.”
Weng hid his surprise. He supposed he should have anticipated this. Martin had obviously trained Gen to do all the hard data work, while Weng’s connection to Captain Bardish got them the desired access. Well, let them think he was their pawn, he thought. I’ve always been good at games.
Talbot accepted the tablet, holding it in both hands as if a precious, rare object. She looked back and forth from Weng to Gen, then slowly, unsteadily, swiped down the tablet.
“As you can see,” Weng said, glancing at Gen, “we really have little choice. The situation is desperate.”
The miner suddenly stopped and looked up in alarm.
“Do, do you know what this means?” she asked, shaking the device.
“Yes?” Weng answered mildly.
“According to this, the Colonies won’t need any water from the Ceres processing facilities, thanks to a new supply of subterranean ice just found on Mars!”
Weng looked at Gen. “Ah, yes, well, as you can see, there are still insufficient numbers of workers—”
“You expect me to give you water for a workforce that will put us out of business?” Talbot demanded, slamming the tablet onto the desk. The robot took a step forward.
“Sub-Chief Talbot,” Gen appealed, raising his hands. “The ice flow is not under our control. The UA claims close to 90% of the supply.”
Talbot stared at him. “The UA?” she repeated. “Not the UN?”
“The United Americas,” Gen confirmed. “They claim that the water is too irradiated and too difficult to convert for civilian use. They propose to use it all for hydrogen cell purposes.”
The same had been done for Luna, Weng realized. Before terraforming nixed the idea. He wondered how much longer terraforming would take for Mars.
“Talbot,” Weng said aloud. “How much would this information be worth to you?”
He felt the robot stop a hairs-breadth behind him. The short stature of the humanlike animatron didn’t fool him. Once held, he wouldn’t be able to wrest free of its grip without breaking a bone or two.
“What do you mean?” Talbot said slowly.
Weng glanced over at Gen. “Well,” he started, then caught himself. “Gen, would you tell Talbot what we had in mind?”
“If we return empty handed, without the water supply we promised the new settlers, we will be forced to step up production and attempt conversion of the underground ice flow into drinkable water for civilian use.”
“Subsequently, the Martian Council will notify the UA that their reduced hydrogen cell replenishment is due entirely to the Ceres processing facilities refusal to abide by the UN Inner Planetary Colonial Law, which specifies that Ceres supply water and other construction materials to any UN entity that requests them.”
Talbot shrugged. “We’ll just find a new buyer. The Chinese. The Indians, perhaps.”
Ah, Weng thought. I know why I’m here.
“I see,” he said with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Yes, I’m sure the Republic would be happy to take Ceres.”
Talbot looked at him. “What?”
“The Allied Forces won’t need to protect Ceres from outside threats, once the ice on Mars is ready to fuel their supply and military vehicles from Earthside to Luna and Mars,” he said.
“Yes,” Gen added, “and the Greater Indian Empire has never shown interest in Ceres. They still insist the ISS is all they want. But as for China, I’m positive that they would be happy to come in and find a use for the facilities.”
Talbot raised a hand to pinch her nose bridge. The other hand waved the robot away. It stepped back.
Weng reached past the sub-chief and picked up the tablet from the desk. He brushed it off and gently swiped the screen. It was undamaged, thankfully.
He gestured with the device. “As you saw, the workforce is still insufficient to retrieve enough ice to supply water for the colonists. Given the UA’s need for hydrogen. This means the Ceres Mining Council has leverage.”
“Leverage,” Talbot said slowly. “You mean blackmail.”
Now it was Weng’s turn to shrug. “Think of it as a negotiating tactic,” he suggested. “Trade secrets. Desperate times and all that.”
“I still don’t see how this can possibly benefit miners and asteroid hunters,” Talbot said, shaking her head.
“Easy,” Weng said. “Simply tell the UN that Ceres can no longer supply the required ditrium and other rare metallics for continued terraforming and settlement of Mars.”
“But that’s not true!” Talbot said.
“What difference does that make?” Weng replied, raising his eyebrows. “You have something they want. They have something you wish them not to use. Correct?”
“So you use this information as a bargaining chip. Remind the UN and the UA that they are obliged by the law to purchase all supplies from Ceres.”
Talbot’s eyes widened. “We can’t fight off the UA!”
“You won’t have to,” Gen interposed. “The UA doesn’t have very many interstellar craft.”
“But the asteroid hunters do,” Weng said aloud. It all fit together now. At least, he thought so. “Just like Sergey told me.”
“This was Captain Bardish’s idea?” Talbot asked incredulously.
Weng shook his head. “No, of course not. Sergey is not interested in politics. Only in saving his beloved homeland. And his daughter.”
Talbot said nothing for a moment. Then, “He’s not the only one with an interest in Clarissa Kragen.”
Weng narrowed his eyes. He had regretted bringing up the old man in the first place. Now, the last thing he wanted was to be reminded of Riss. And of how absent he felt without her.
“So…” he said, expectedly, crossing his arms.
Talbot looked at him calmly. “All right,” she breathed out. “We’ll give you your water. Leave the infopad with me.”
Weng looked at Gen, who motioned his approval. The tablet was handed back to Talbot, who this time gently pocketed the device.
“Right,” she said, gesturing to the robot, who had been standing without a word through the entire exchange. “Take us to the water processor.”
“Yes, Talbot.” The robot left the room.
“You’re in luck, actually,” Talbot said as they followed the android. The three walked slowly to match its ungainly gait through the narrow rock corridor. “We just got a couple rock frags a day or so ago. We’re pulverizing them right now.”
“Oh?” Weng replied. “Where from?”
“The outer ring, Trans-neptunal,” she said.
Weng’s heart skipped a beat. “Riss?”
“Yes,” Talbot replied.
She stopped mid-stride. “How did you guess that?”
She looked at him intently, as if she could read his thoughts. She nodded.
“I see. And here I thought you were just bluffing.”
“Bluffing? About what?”
“About knowing Sergey,” she said.
They resumed following the robot. The corridor widened as they reached a metal door to the main processing chamber. The robot stood in front of the door, which emitted a soft blue light from a pinhole in the middle of the door. ID verified, the robot placed its palm on a wall panel. The door slid open.
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 11: Ceres (Part Two) – January 23, 2021
(The Artemis crew experienced strange sensations, which they believed dreams. Now the asteroid fragment from which they already extracted water for their drinking supplies is glowing…and many contain life.)
“Coop, is there any precedent for hydrocarbon-rich asteroids containing nucleic acids?”
The geologist rubbed a hand on one arm. Where Sanvi had grabbed him, Riss realized. She slowly walked toward him, and he toward her.
“Only in theory,” he said carefully. He looked at her with a strange expression. Like he was trying to figure out if she was serious, she guessed. “It’s widely believed that amino acids were first introduced to Earth by asteroid or comet bombardment.”
He stopped. “If…”
He turned to the rock.
“Why is it glowing?” Riss said quietly.
The geologist shook his head.
“I don’t know. I’m an astro-geologist, not an exobiologist.”
“Well,” he said, rubbing his arm again, “I suppose it’s possible that, if there were any RNA, the ribose could have completely hydrolyzed, so that it bonded with any freely available compounds in the rock, such as phosphorous or sulphur.”
“O-kay,” Riss said. “And if it’s not RNA?”
“It could be some other kind of enantiomer whose chiral features—”
“All right, slow down,” she interrupted. “I followed the phosphorus bit, but what on earth are you talking about?”
“Um. Sugar. Basically.”
“Yeah. Hydrocarbons have, uh, carbon, right? So, that means carbohydrates. Starches and sugars. But molecules sometimes come in pairs. Mirror images of each other. So when one of the pair affects you one way, the other might affect you another way.”
Cooper looked at Sanvi with a frightened expression.
Sanvi opened her eyes wide and took a step forward.
“Coop,” Riss said, placing herself between the two, “you had better explain yourself.”
“Drugs,” he repeated, crossing his arms and taking up a defensive posture. “Like the pills we got from Ceres base before heading out here. You know, like the ones I got for low gravity sickness. There might be something, some natural molecule in the rock that acts kind of like that.”
Riss nodded. “Okay, I can see that. So it’s possible we all got some sort of, what, psychotropic solution from this rock?”
Cooper shook his head. “I just don’t know.”
“Whaddya you mean, just don’t know?” Enoch blurted out. “I had this crazy dream. Are you saying I was stoned?”
Cooper looked at him. “You what?”
Riss interposed. “Coop, we all had dreams. Strange dreams.”
She looked at her crew members one at a time. “Isn’t that true?”
Sanvi and Enoch both nodded.
“N, no,” Cooper murmured. “It wasn’t…”
Riss looked at him intently.
“No,” Cooper said, in a stronger voice. “No, I didn’t have any dreams. I mean, I don’t remember them.”
Riss sighed. Whatever, let him keep his secrets. She glanced at her wrist panel. They should reach Zedra point in a short while. They all needed some serious sleep by then.
“Coop, what’s the other possibility? Are there any?”
Coop stared down at his feet.
“If—if it is RNA…”
He shook his head.
“No, not possible. The filter would have detected it.”
“Coop,” Sanvi cut in. “How do you know all this? I thought you said you were a astrogeologist, not an exobiologist?”
She looked more composed than before, Riss noted.
The geologist looked up. He also looked more composed, but slightly defiant. “Yes,” he replied, “but I also studied biochemistry.”
He looked at the rock again.
“I wanted to be a biologist, like my father.”
He had never discussed his father before. Riss wondered if that had something to do with his reluctance to discuss his dreams. Or lack thereof.
“So,” Sanvi said calmly. “How do you know it’s not RNA?”
Cooper paused, then slowly walked back to the console. He kept his eyes trained on Sanvi. She stood still, returning the gaze without expression. Enoch was biting a thumbnail.
The geologist stabbed at the screen for a few seconds before responding.
“RNA has ribose, which is a kind of a saccharide. It’s pretty unstable, so it could have simply dissolved into the water supply. But I don’t see any other elements like amino acids, lipids, or other proteins.”
He straightened and rubbed his eyes with the palms of both hands.
“So we could have a virus in our water?” Riss asked.
“I—I don’t think so.”
“But you’re not sure.”
“A geologist,” Enoch interrupted. “Not a doctor.”
They all looked at him. The navigator had been silent through most of the conversation. He still looked sulky, Riss thought. But also troubled, standing apart from them, arms crossed and frowning.
“Yeah,” Cooper said. “I’m a geologist. But—”
“But nothing,” Enoch said. “Viruses don’t cause dreams. I had a dream of flying. Of Hawai’i. Of the Lunar Base. You gonna tell me a virus did that?”
“I’m not saying anything for certain,” Cooper said, indignant. “I’m a scientist. I don’t like speculation. I don’t trust guesses or hunches. Just facts.”
“The facts are—”
“The facts are,” Riss cut them both off, “that we don’t have enough facts. Coop is right. It could be a virus. It could be a sugar of some sort. It could be something else, we don’t know.”
They fell silent. The rock continued to glow behind them.
“So.” Sanvi finally said. “What do we do?”
Cooper spoke up. “I think it would be a good idea to run a med check on all of us. Just in case.”
Riss nodded. “Agreed. Enoch, get over to the med dock and start setting up the diagnostic equipment.”
The navigator turned to go, then stopped. “You know, Riss.”
“A thought just occurred to me.”
Riss crossed her arms and smiled. “A thought? You?”
Sanvi giggled. The sound made Riss feel relaxed. Finally. Maybe things might get back to normal after all.
But Enoch looked troubled still. “What about the other rock chunks?”
Sanvi stopped giggling. Cooper looked startled. Riss closed her eyes.
They ran back to the command center.
“Sanvi, get a message out to Ceres,” Riss ordered tersely as they slid into their respective seats. “Under no circumstances are they to pulverize the rock or use any hydrocarbons from it.”
“Way ahead of you, Riss,” Sanvi replied, already starting up the comm systems.
“R—Riss,” Cooper said. “I’ll prepare a more detailed report on—whatever the computer thinks it may or may not have found.”
Riss nodded. Might be useful in case someone in the guild had questions.
More importantly, though, what would she tell Sergey? His trust in her—was it unfounded?
She bit her lip.
Her own inexperience, her decision-making skills. Had she learned nothing?
“Riss,” Enoch said. “I got something here.”
“On the trajectory?”
“No, from Ceres.”
He gestured to his screen. They gathered around the console. An image appeared; a string of numbers and text detailing the successful capture of the two rock fragments they had launched from their transneptune position several days before.
“So they got the chunks with no problems,” Sanvi commented. “That’s a first.”
“That’s not all,” Enoch said. He scrolled down. “I found the Ceres Mining Consortium transportation record. Posted yesterday. Take a look at this.”
Riss read in mute astonishment. The rocks had already been pulverized into water and sent on to Mars. Why so soon?
“We need to get a message to the Mars Colonies, then. As well as to Ceres.” She went back to her chair. “Is there any way we can return to the happy hunting grounds faster than our current ETA?”
Enoch shook his head. “Probably not. The ion engine has been increasing our speed incrementally for each day. It’d throw everything off if we tried to recalibrate them. If we lost some weight somehow, then maybe.”
He shrugged and raised his eyebrows.
Riss caught his meaning. “No,” she stated flatly.
“If we dumped the rock, we could gain—”
“No!” she said, fiercely. “Even if that thing is worthless, it’s still ours. Not a chance.”
Riss turned left. “Sanvi?”
The pilot hesitated, then continued. “What if we don’t stop at Zedra point?”
“You mean, skip the refueling? We’ll run out.”
“Inertia will carry us,” Sanvi pointed out. “We’ll just have to rely on someone at Base to slow us.”
“She’s right,” Enoch said. He pointed at his console. “I just did the math. We can pick up a couple of days by skipping the refuel. And if we steer a little in the right direction, I think we can get another boost or two from Saturn or Jupiter.”
“Riss,” Sanvi said, “if we can pick up around 55 to 60 hours, we can get to Ceres without refueling.”
“You sound confident,” Riss said. “How are we doing on food and water?”
“More than enough,” Cooper said. He proffered a pad. “Even though the water may or may not be, uh.”
“Contaminated?” Sanvi suggested, smirking.
“Compromised,” Cooper retorted. “And I said ‘may.’ We still don’t really know.”
“Water with living things in it,” she replied, making a face. “Disgusting.”
The geologist shrugged. “At home in Colorado, all our well water had living things in it.”
Sanvi looked horrified.
“Didn’t know you had such a weak stomach,” Enoch chortled.
“Living things! How could you?” She shuddered.
“Weak,” he repeated.
“If you’re trying to irritate me…” Sanvi warned.
Enoch grinned and turned back to his console. “Are you irritated?”
“Then it’s working.”
“All right, people,” Riss said, suppressing a chuckle. “Let’s get that message sent to Mars. They need to know what’s coming.”
Sanvi shot one last look at the navigator and bent to her task. Enoch was also diligently tapping away, swiping a pad hanging in the air to his right while checking the console in front of him. After a few minutes, he turned to Riss.
“New course input. We miss Saturn, but Jupiter lines up nicely for a gravity well push to Ceres.”
“Well done,” she responded. “Do it.”
Enoch nodded. He touched the console again. Riss once again could have sworn she felt the Artemis buzz. As if the ship were talking with them, approving the turn to starboard.
“We’ll feel stronger gravity effects as we approach point-five g,” Enoch commented.
Cooper shook his head. “The asteroid chunk will have more weight, then.”
Riss nodded. “True. So we’ll need to use more of the hydrocarbons to reduce the mass.”
They all looked at her.
“What? We already drank the water. Another couple days won’t change anything.”
Cooper relaxed his shoulders and sighed. “I wish I had your confidence.”
Enoch just laughed. “What the hell. I don’t mind flying every night.”
Riss was about to respond when a sudden exclamation from Sanvi stopped her.
“Guys, we have a problem.”
It was Riss’s turn to sigh. “Another one?”
The pilot slapped at her console. The sound echoed in the tiny command center. Plastic and metal against skin. Riss felt the ship groan in protest. Or had she just imagined that?
“Mars is refusing our pings,” Sanvi said through tight teeth.
Riss frowned. “Refusing?”
“They won’t give permission to let the message through. Something about being unable to verify non-hostile intent from unauthorized spacecraft.”
Riss sat back in the command chair. This did not sound good.
Sanvi slapped the console again. “Already did. Same response.”
“Well,” the pilot conceded. “Not a hundred percent, no.”
Sanvi looked directly at Riss.
“There was also a message. For you. From Gennaji.”
Riss said nothing. Her hands gripped the chair’s arms. She felt strangely calm, although she knew she looked pale. Old memories resurfaced.
“He can’t have reached Base before us,” Enoch exclaimed. “In that old rust bucket?”
“Ryan, enough,” Riss whispered. She felt energy draining from her.
“The message had been relayed from some other position,” Sanvi said. “Not sure where.”
Riss breathed out, trying to relax her grip.
“What did he have to say?”
Sanvi paused. “‘I will have my own.’”
They were silent for a moment.
Then Enoch spoke up.
“Charmingly eloquent,” Sanvi said. “As usual.”
“Come on, Riss,” Cooper said, sounding exasperated. “What is it with this guy? What has he got against you?
Riss shook her head. “This is between him and—”
“No, it’s not!” the geologist said angrily.
She looked at him, shocked. Cooper seemed to have an aura around him, as if the air were charged with anger.
“Whatever vendetta or grudge or whatever this guy has against you affects us as well,” he continued.
He sat back in his chair, crossing his arms. “I think we have a right to know.”
Riss looked back and forth from Sanvi and Enoch, pleadingly. She could only respond weakly, “I—I’d rather not.”
“Not good enough, Riss!” Cooper said. He seemed on the verge of exploding.
“There was another woman,” Sanvi said softly.
Riss protested weakly. “No…” A dark void filled her eyes.
Enoch asked, “Gennaji and Riss had something?”
“No,” Sanvi said. She looked away. “Riss was the captain.”
“Somebody died,” Riss whispered to the darkness.
They looked at her again. She felt pale.
“Riss,” Sanvi began.
Riss stared into nothing. She felt the start of tears in the corners of her eyes.
No, she thought. Not now. Not yet.
She quickly composed herself, tugging down her shirt sleeves from tense shoulders.
“I’ll be in the gym,” she said brusquely, climbing out of the captain’s chair. “Continue on the new course to Ceres.”
Sanvi fell silent. Cooper raised a finger but then placed it against his lips, lost in thought.
She turned to go. She should have reprimanded the crew for not responding to a command, but she knew she had to get out of there.
“What’ll we say to the Mining Council?” Enoch called out.
Riss stopped on the threshold of the corridor and spoke without turning around.
“We’ll find out when we get there.”
Then she disappeared.
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 11: Ceres (January 16th)
Riss woke with a start. Something…no, somebody…it felt like somebody was calling her…
Unstrapping her sleeping harness, she slowly sat up in the dim cabin. The only light came from the faint glow of her pad, casting a barely discernible sheen out from its wall recharging socket. The doll cast an eerie shadow across the room.
“Artemis. Water,” she croaked. No response.
She coughed. “Water,” she repeated in a stronger voice. Her throat felt raw.
The refrigerator unit beeped and disengaged from its cubby beneath the rechargers. It slid on a magnetic track across the cabin and stopped arms-distance from her bunk.
Riss opened the door and withdrew a plastic drink sleeve. It seemed a good idea at the time. Six days into the return trip to Zedra point, she’d decided that each crew member would benefit from a few new packs of water, freshly squeezed from the rock fragment safely stowed in the cargo hold. They’d already used some in the hydroponic lab, after all.
“Return,” she ordered, and the boxy robot rolled back to its wall nook.
Hindsight was foresight, she mused, but now it seemed prescient. The ship’s normal water recycling system had a glitch which would have made things more than uncomfortable without the new water source.
Squeezed, she thought, plucking back the drink tab and drawing out the straw for a sip. More like reconsti—
She gasped and nearly dropped the pack. Cold. So cold!
It was as if she could feel icy vapors sublimating as the water turned directly into gas inside her. She coughed, and coughed, almost a dry cough despite the water.
Now her entire body felt icy cold. She barely managed to lower the pack to her bedside table as the cold sensation spread to every extremity. She lay back and forced her eyes to stay open, focusing on the ceiling.
Heavy. So heavy.
The cold feeling began to dissipate, leaving her with a tingling in fingertips and toes. She tried to lift her head, but instantly dizzy. She closed her eyes, then opened them again.
Objects on the captain’s desk seemed to glow. No, that must be the portable…no, it wasn’t. She stared. The darkness of the cabin seemed strange, out of place. Not true darkness, but the darkness left by the absence of light rather than true darkness.
Layer upon layer of semi-transparent, translucent geometric patterns assaulted her vision. Some were colorful, like spinning pieces of stained glass.
Riss closed her eyes. She could still see the patterns. Random. She opened her eyes again. It was as if she could see the room…through the patterns. As if the patterns were real and the room a mere reflection.
The patterns. Were they in her head?
She heard a soft buzzing noise. No, a squeezing noise. As if her head were being squeezed. Like the water from the rock.
No, she thought, detached. Not squeezed. Released—
The ceiling blew up. Fragments flew away and the rushing darkness enveloped her. She stared up at a vast, limitless height.
Space was a machine. A living, endless machine, filled and surrounded and controlled by patterns.
She felt the patterns shifting, colliding, rotating around a core she couldn’t quite grasp but could sense.
Heavy. She felt heavy. A gravity well…sinking, sinking, sinking through the patterns back…back…
She closed her eyes. An odd sensation filled her.
Blue sky. Grass. The feel of mild wind and warm sunlight caressed her face. The scents of a beach…a Luna beach! She smiled, content, floating…
A feeling of detachment, separated from herself yet part of herself. Part of something much larger. Infinite.
She opened her eyes.
The patterns in the darkness slowly faded; she reached out a hand, as if she could touch them, alter them, change the way they interacted. She sat up, stretching her fingers—
No. No, the patterns were gone.
Or were they?
Riss let her hand drop. She stared at her hand, then at the water pack on the table. Nothing out of the ordinary. Still, she could swear she still felt something. Some kind of new awareness of things around her.
Riss picked up the water pack and looked at the straw. Did she dare?
Carefully, slowly, as if the pack were a fragile flower, she touched the straw to her lips and took the tiniest of sips.
Water. Slightly tangy and metallic, but otherwise.
She sipped more. Just water.
Shaking her head, Riss stood and arched her back. Suddenly she felt incredibly refreshed. How long she slept?
She pulled the pad from the charging socket and swiped it on. The time. She rubbed her eyes and looked again. Almost an entire day? That couldn’t be.
No wonder she felt refreshed.
Yanking her boots on, Riss shoved the pad into a shoulder carrier. She’d better check up on the crew. Should she mention her dream? If it had been a dream.
She paused before the door. No. She’d first stop by tactical. Autopilot or not, she trusted only herself.
She touched a panel and entered the corridor.
The Artemis was quiet. Or rather should have been quiet. As Riss walked down the narrow corridor connecting the living quarters and tactical, she thought she felt something…different. A mild humming in the bulkheads. Barely perceptible vibrations, like the Artemis were trying to soothe her, comfort her.
Ahead, she heard voices. She couldn’t quite make out the words, but the tone was pleading. A woman and a man. But not her crew.
Then a sniffling noise, followed by a loud thump.
“Is anyone here?” Riss called. She stepped into the room and made for the navigator’s console.
The pilot was holding a pad in both hands and her shoulders were shaking. Abruptly the voices cut off. Sanvi stood, wiping her eyes with a sleeve.
“Riss, it’s…sorry, I…”
Riss stopped. She’d never seen Sanvi like this before. The woman appeared on the verge of a completely breakdown.
“Those voices…” Riss began. She stopped, wondering what to say. Then took a guess. “Your family?”
Sanvi nodded. She held the pad in front of her with hands, staring at the empty screen.
“My parents,” she replied. “Their last vidmess before I joined up.”
She lay the pad down on her console and closed her eyes.
“I haven’t spoken to them since.”
Riss crossed her arms and sat in the captain’s chair. “They were against your joining the crew?”
“They were against me leaving Lunar Base,” Sanvi replied, snapping her eyes open. Riss was quiet. This defiant look wasn’t something she’d seen in her pilot before. Something terrible must have happened, she thought. Just like—
“Sanvi,” she said softly, “is there anything you want to talk about?”
Sanvi started to shake her head, then looked at the pad again.
“I saw them,” she said flatly.
“I saw my parents,” Sanvi said. “A dream. At least, I think it was a dream. Pretty sure, anyway.”
Sanvi sat down, her hands in her lap. She seemed lost, if Riss hadn’t known better.
“I had a strange dream, too,” Riss said suddenly.
Sanvi looked up at her in surprise. Riss was surprised somewhat herself. Why had she said that?
“I, uh…” She wasn’t sure how to continue.
“You saw your parents?” Sanvi asked.
Riss shook her head. “No. No, I’ve never—”
She stopped and bit her lip.
“I haven’t seen them in my dreams for, uh, several years now.”
Riss hesitated, then, “It was nothing, just an odd dream about the rock. That’s all.”
Sanvi sighed, then snorted.
“If I didn’t know any better,” she said, slightly sarcastic, “I’d think you were holding out on me.”
Now it was Riss’s turn to snort.
“Well, then, you do know better,” she retorted, with a slight grin. “Maybe I’ll have another, stranger dream tomorrow to tell you.”
She stood and stretched her back.
“In the meantime, I think I’d better go down to the hold and check on things.”
Sanvi nodded. “Want me to stay here?”
“Nah. Nothing to check here, so long as the auto is working as it should.”
Sanvi glanced at the console, and shrugged. “So far.”
The ship’s internal comm clicked on.
“Hey, is anybody there? Anyone driving this thing?”
The geist. Riss touched a panel on the captain’s chair.
“Coop. We’re here.”
“I, I think you may want to come to the hold.”
Riss caught her voice in her throat. Had he found something he’d missed before? The rock, was it actually special?
“Be right there.”
She motioned to Sanvi, who calmly picked up her pad and followed her into the corridor.
On the way, they ran into Enoch, floating outside his room holding a mag boot in each hand. He looked disheveled, as if he had just jumped out of bed.
“Guys, hey, I had this most amazing dream,” he said happily.
“You mean you actually sleep sometimes?” Sanvi smirked.
“It was like—man, it was like, like I was flying. No, like I was the plane, flying by myself.”
Riss almost stopped to ask him about it, but changed her mind and kept walking.
“Follow us,” she said.
He looked a little surprised. “Uh.”
“You can tell us all about it later.”
“Okay, but I don’t have my mag boots on yet.”
The navigator looked at Sanvi, but she simply shook her hand and motioned for him to come along. They walked. Enoch started swimming.
“Hey, wait up!” Enoch shouted, trying to yank his boots on mid-air.
After a few minutes they reached the hold. As they entered, Riss called out, “Coop, what’s going on? Did you fi—”
She stopped abruptly. Sanvi and Enoch bumped into each other and then squeezed into the room behind her.
The rock was glowing.
It still lay carefully within its “cage” of polystyrene cables, strapped in the corner of the hold across from the hopper port. Cooper was standing at the console, gazing intently at the screen and flicking the surface with his fingers.
“Cap—Riss,” he said, turning around.
“It’s glowing,” she said.
“Yeah. I kinda noticed that.”
“The rock,” she repeated, more urgently. “It’s glowing!”
Cooper spread his hands. “Now, don’t panic. I know it’s glowing. I’m still checking things out.”
“Hang on,” Enoch said. “Didn’t we chip off some stuff and put it in our drinking supply?”
“Yes,” Riss replied. “I helped him do it.”
“You…” Sanvi hissed. She stepped forward and grabbed him by the shirt collar. “What have you done to us? Poisoned? You some sort of spy?”
He frantically batted at her arm and sputtered. “Wha—what on earth are you talking about?”
“Sanvi,” Riss interposed. “Let go.”
Sanvi shoved the geologist back and glared. “You’d better explain yourself, geist,” she huffed.
“Yes,” Riss agreed.
Cooper quickly backed away, glaring at Sanvi. He stood behind the console and placed his hands on top of it, swallowing a retort.
Riss took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Well? What’s making this…glow?”
Cooper gestured to the console.
“You can see for yourself,” he said.
Enoch cut in. “Just explain it, bro. We don’t have all day.”
“Ryan,” Riss said sharply.
She looked down at the monitor. It was filled with lines of chemical symbols and numbers. She scrolled and images of various molecular chains appeared.
“This,” she asked haltingly, “this shows, ah…”
“Carbon,” Cooper said. “Hydrocarbon.”
“We already knew that, geist,” Sanvi cut in. “So what?”
The geologist took a deep breath.
“Not just any hydrocarbon. There are signs of—I don’t know exactly if it’s nucleic acids, or some simple polymeric—”
“RNA,” he said bluntly. “Maybe.”
Riss narrowed her eyes and glanced at the screen again.
Both Sanvi and Enoch lurched across the console and grabbed the geologist. A brief scuffle followed, with Riss in the middle, vainly trying to separate them.
“What the f—!”
“Stop! Let him go!” Riss ordered, trying to control her temper.
Cooper fairly fled to the asteroid chunk. “The filter system still says it’s just water!” he shouted at them from across the cargo hold. “The computer didn’t even notice anything until I made it run a more detailed analysis!”
The pilot and navigator made as if to rush after him, but Riss held their arms.
“Sanvi! Enoch! As you were!” she demanded.
They both stopped and looked at each other, then at Riss. Enoch seemed to be sulking, but Sanvi shuddered and closed her eyes.
Riss had expected the navigator to lose his cool, but Sanvi’s reaction surprised her. It almost looked as if she was trying to meditate.
“Cooper,” Riss called out to the geologist. He looked like a trapped animal, ready to bare his teeth. “Brady. Nobody’s accusing you of anything.”
She looked back at Sanvi and Enoch. “Nobody is accusing him of anything,” she repeated. “Got it?”
Enoch nodded curtly. Sanvi breathed out and opened her eyes, then followed suit. Good, Riss thought. This was not the time to lose their collective cool.
(When last we left the crew of the Artemis, they had just fracked an asteroid, keeping part for their drinking water and sending the rest to Ceres.)
“…Love you. End transmission.”
Riss extended a hand to touch the computer panel, then leaned back in her sleeping cabin chair. Another vid message finished. The ping would probably take several days to reach Weng on Luna. She sighed. She hoped she hadn’t looked as tired as she felt.
Flying over to the Centaur had made her more anxious than she cared to admit to the Artemis crew. Her first capture of a potentially extra-solar object, one that might have originated from the Kuiper Belt. The whole way over she kept thinking of Sergey and the ditrium rock he caught. The one that made the Moon terraforming possible. The one that made him famous.
She desperately wanted the rock to be different. Needed it to be different.
She looked to her right. Barren, boring desktop space. Compared to her crew’s quarters, hers was spartan. Where they had objects that reminded them of home — photos of family, books given by relatives and friends, even freeze-dried flowers — she had practically nothing.
No family. Save Sergey. But he disliked photos, especially of himself.
So instead of a photo, she had a doll, a motanka. Given to her on her sixth birthday, to protect her. Sergey promised to find her parents. Or at least find out what happened to her parents. She couldn’t remember if she’d had dolls when her parents were still…when she was living Earthside.
At any rate, they never found out what had happened. She barely had memories of them, let alone whatever dolls they may have given her.
She stretched out a hand and picked up the doll. Slender blond tresses, tied at the end with red ribbons. A black dress and white shirt decorated with bands of bright orange and light blue. Crown of yellow flowers.
A cross for a face.
Somehow, she couldn’t picture a German father giving her the same doll. Her Russian mother might have given her a…what was it called? A babushka. No, a matryoshka. Wooden nesting dolls. Different colors, too. Probably.
What kind of people were they, she wondered. She remembered waking up in the lifepod, in the Sagittarius’s cargo hold. Frightened by the large bearded man with the sad eyes who looked like her father but didn’t sound like him.
The woman next to him who looked nothing like her mother but would later treat her like one.
Riss sighed and put the doll back, gently, on the desk. She kicked off her magboots, lay back on her bed.
The desk chimed.
“Für Elise. Medium volume, slower tempo version. In the style of Rachmaninoff.”
The well-known melody did not really soothe her. But it did remind her of Sergey. And she never could decide between German and Russian composers.
Her body began to float above her bunk. It was dangerous to sleep without being strapped in, but it felt relaxing, for the moment. She lay on her back, in the air, looking at her hands. Stretching them in front of her, slowly. Henna-brown hair drifted. Ought to get a cut, she thought absently. The music swelled, repeated the main refrain.
“Artemis. Stop. Play Holst. The Planets, regular volume.”
“Start with the second, then skip to the sixth.”
No Mars or Jupiter, she thought. Even though most of her life, she’d been in the happy hunting grounds. A lifestyle inherited from her foster father Sergey. Chasing rocks around the inner solar system, an independent operator living on the fringes of civilized space. Part of the fun of the job was that each rock was different, but really they were all the same. All variations on a theme.
Like the doll, she thought, with a smirk. Maybe.
She thought back to her last conversation with Weng, before the Artemis left for Transneptune.
“The Luna Council doesn’t want original and beautiful works of architecture,” Weng told her, as they walked along the Lunar Sea, arm in arm. “They want inhabitable cities. Ugly, soulless blocks of metal and concrete, as fast as they can be 3D printed.”
She hadn’t responded. Just stared into the cold night sky. Why argue when the stars were so beautiful?
Maybe the Council was wrong, she thought now. Maybe simply living and working wasn’t enough. Even for adventurous types like Sergey.
No, Riss decided. Maybe she was wrong. too. Maybe she wasn’t an adventurous space captain, after all. Maybe she was just a scavenger, catching ice and throwing it at Ceres, like all the other scavengers with their junky ships.
“The magician” began. She closed her eyes and allowed herself to float higher. Spread her arms out. Tilting back and forth ever so slightly. The hum of the engines below the crew bunk area reverberated.
She was so sure that this rock would be different. No doubt that had added to her getting seriously annoyed at Gennaji. At least twenty-five Earth years older than her, but he acted like sixty. And getting worse with age.
But she felt time slipping away, as well. She had wanted some time on the rock. Alone. To really get to know this one, see if it had something to tell her. To see if she had chosen the right kind of life.
Just another ice rock. Nothing different. No ditrium, no special metals. More ice.
At least the landing and recovery operations went smoothly. At least she got some sense of satisfaction out of a job well done. With a competent crew.
Well, competent, if a little dysfunctional. Sanvi’s skill as a pilot was still developing, but her martial arts talents were always beneficial. The incident in the hold a recent example. The woman occasionally bothered her, challenging her decisions. Questioning her past.
Lena. Sanvi was too much like Lena. Different ethnicity, same personality.
Was that it?
Poor Lena, I’m sorry. I…
Riss opened her eyes. She was looking down at her bunk, her back pressed against the ceiling of her quarters. Reaching back with a hand, she gave a little nudge and began to float downward.
Coming out to Transneptune always bore some risks. She supposed she should be happy they had scored anything at all. A pretty amazing catch, all things considered.
Millions of miles from civilization with an ordinary ice rock in the hold to keep them company. She sighed.
“Artemis, stop music.”
Back on the bunk, face down, she stretched out a hand and retrieved her boots. While the crew was in rest and relaxation mode, she might as well check their reserves. It’d be a while before they reached Zedra.
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