It’s been over two months since we last saw (Ret.) Captain Sergey struck down and partially paralyzed while fleeing the Lunar Base coup with the clone Elodie Gagnon, who sought to protect him from United Americas forces. Meanwhile, Clarissa Kragen has reunited with Sam Weng (or has she?) at Ceres and are bound for Mars. Where Martin Velasquez, currently the head administrator of the newly-proclaimed United Mars Colonies is in for a short, sharp shock…
Alarms had erupted throughout the Mars Colonies. Incoming ships had been detected, but no contact had yet been made.
They were in for it now, Martin thought, stepping into his excursion suit. The UA and Greater Indian Empire at open hostility. All ships banned from the ISS. Contact between Indian settlers and UA settlers forbidden. Lunar Base experiencing an uprising of some sort. All contact with Ceres cut off. UA Allied Forces already on the way to secure their ice factories.
Martin Velasquez called up his rickety console and examined the data feed. Somebody was approaching. Rapidly. Very rapidly.
Weng? Not possible. Surely…
The comm beeped. Grabbing the helmet from a closet, he toggled the comm system on his desk for what seemed like the hundredth time during the past two days.
“Overseer, two ships have suddenly entered orbit. They are nearing the geostationary transit station and will reach normal communication range in five minutes.”
“Yes, yes, I can see that. UA forces?”
Who else could be? Central African Alliance was normally fastidious in their relays. The Chinese wouldn’t dare, not after the UN debacle. Slavic Confederacy? European? Who?
Well, he thought wryly, at least by the time the refugees arrived, they would have nobody to contest their arrival. Even two ships filled with marines might be enough. Depending on how many of the MCSF were still compos mentis.
He checked the UV shield and comm system command strip on his right wrist. Old, but functional. He hoped he wouldn’t need the shield. He was no fighter.
The sudden appearance of Riss on his monitor shouldn’t have come as a shock to Weng.
But it did.
He swallowed a nervous greeting, waved a hand over his face. There she was.
“Sam,” she said, with a little smile. “I always knew you would come to the rescue.”
“Rescue?” he repeated dubiously. It was his turn to smile. “I hardly think you needed rescuing, my princess.”
She laughed. “And you’re no shining knight. But it’s still good to see you. And we do need your help.”
Weng nodded. He had received the message from Gen moments earlier. He still had no idea how the clone had managed it, but he was sure Riss was involved somehow. Gen had also managed to contact Mars in the meantime. How, he wasn’t sure. A cypher? Things looked bad.
“I’ll do what I can,” he said. “Of course.”
“As you know, ditrium can be volatile,” she said.
“Yes. I gather you have quite a lot of it?”
“Enough to speed up the terraforming process. By speed up, I mean, drastically speed up.”
“I…see.” Weng pursed his lips. There was something she was holding back from him. She had found something during her transneptunian trip. But it hadn’t been the ditrium rocks currently in the Artemis’s cargo hold.
Unaware of events on Ceres or Lunar Base, Martin Velasquez is finding out that the “united” Mars colonies aren’t so united at the moment…
Things on Mars had gone from bad to worse. Riots had broken out all over the Colonies. The water supply was dangerously low. The hydroponic farms were about to give out at any moment. The UA forces were still on their way from Earth, and Martin still hadn’t figured out how to hack into the UA ice factory’s electronic lock systems.
And now the settler factions wanted a conference.
With the sounds of fighting in the background of nearly every speaker, Martin found it nearly impossible to hear what the leaders were saying.
“—can’t control your own people, let alone—”
“—five dead already, our children starving and running around half-mad. What are—”
“—anything at all. The situation is insane!”
“YES!” Martin shouted at them. “It is insane! I completely agree!”
“Then do something, Overseer!” the speaker from the Central African Alliance bellowed.
He looked at her. “I’m sorry, who are you? Where is Mr. Mbutu?”
“He is…otherwise occupied. As are most of my staff!”
“Mine, too!” the speaker from the Greater Indian Empire interrupted.
“Yes, here, as well.” The European Consortium.
They began to squabble again. The noise rose to a deafening pitch.
A button glowed under Martin’s left hand. He muted the conference and answered.
“Overseer, an incoming message has been attempted. It has been blocked as ordered.”
“Incoming? From where?”
“Three ships on a trajectory to intercept Mars Colonies orbit. ETA three months.”
“Thre—Where are they from?”
“The message claims they come from the United Americas.”
He calculated. No, it couldn’t be troops. The UA forces would reach them much sooner, which is why he had taken the precaution of guarding the ice factories in the first place.
“I’ll take it in just a minute. Remove the communications block temporarily and tell them to hold until I finish the conference call.”
He hesitated, covered an ear, and depressed the mute button. The deafening noise burst back into the speakers.
“Gentlemen,” he tried. They continued unabated. Some gesticulated at his direction, but he couldn’t make out what they were saying.
“Gentlemen,” he tried again. No change. Louder, if that were possible.
“WILL YOU ALL SHUT UP!” he screamed at the top of his lungs.
That seemed to have got their attention. For a moment.
“Overseer! How dare—”
“The UA is coming.” Martin said slowly, loudly, enunciating as clearly as possible.
He let the words hang there for a minute, letting the implication set in.
“I do not know what they want, but there are three ships,” he said in a more normal tone of voice, trying desperately not to let a note of panic in.
“What,” the Brazilian leader began. “What does the UA want with us?”
The Islamic Nations representative laughed nervously. “Perhaps they come with water we can actually drink without losing our minds.”
Martin glowered. “I don’t know why they are here. I don’t know how to stop the riots. I suggest you increase your own security, obey the water restrictions and food rationing. We are at a critical juncture. The UN appears to have failed. I will contact you again after I have found out what the UA ships want.”
He closed the session to somber, blank faces.
Martin rubbed knuckles into strained eyes. No water for washing. No water for tea. He dare not drink the contaminated water supply. Even using it for electricity seemed to have nearly drained what was left.
What chance had they got? Weng and Gen had not contacted him yet, so he had no idea when they might arrive with the supplies from Luna.
He sighed. Nothing else to lose, at any rate.
He clicked on the comm. “Patch through the UA ships. Visual if possible.”
A haggard white, bearded face topped with unruly dirty blond hair appeared on the aging console. The man appeared to be wearing the uniform of the UA from about two decades prior. An old Earthside airline pilot, Martin guessed.
“This is Dirk Prosser,” the man said in an exhausted, strained tone. He seemed on the verge of a breakdown. “Former Captain in the United Americas Airforce, now representing four hundred refugee families, requesting permission to dock at United Nations Mars Colonies orbiting station.”
“Refugees?” Martin asked quizzically. Not military?
“Yes, sir. Fleeing war zones in northeast UA, New York, Boston, Montreal, Halifax. Everything’s on fire.”
On the one hand, Martin felt he could relax. But on the other, this was the last thing they needed. More people. At least they weren’t invading marines.
But he had no choice.
“Go back,” Martin said curtly. “Or go to Luna. Our water and food supplies are critically depleted, and there is a medical quarantine in place throughout most of the settlements here.”
“Sir,” Prosser said, his voice quivering. “We have taken several months already. Several families are experiencing space sickness and we have virtually no medical supplies to treat them. Lunar Base is in chaos. We have nowhere else to go.”
“Go back,” Martin repeated in a calmer voice. He tried to remain emotionless, but an ugly thought entered his memories. Something from his family’s past. Something passed down to him.
“You don’t know what it’s like back there!” the representative pleaded. Martin could see the terror written on the man’s face. “Are you so heartless? We have children, infants, even. Starving! Being beaten, murdered!”
“Go back,” Martin repeated, his voice raising. “They will starve here, too. Didn’t you hear? Even if by some miracle we get new supplies, we do not have the electricity to operate enough gravity generators. The low gravity of Mars will deform the children. What kind of parents would make their children suffer so?”
“Don’t you think we thought about that?” The man seemed on the verge of hysteria. “Do you think we had any alternative?”
Something in Martin snapped.
“You should have thought of that when you denied entry to my country’s people,” Martin suddenly spat out.
“I, I don’t—”
“When the UA denied entry to refugees fleeing war and hunger. Arresting parents and returning them, separating them from their children and selling them off to the highest bidder. Leaving infants to die of thirst and hunger on the desert border. How dare you come to Mars now and ask for the same!”
“Sir! I was only a child myself at the time. How can you—?”
“How can I!” Martin shouted, slamming his hands on the console. “How can I?!”
Another beep on the console. He abruptly cut the connection to the UA ship and swore. “Dammit! What now?”
“Overseer, a message from the shuttle.”
“Gen and Mr. Weng, sir. They say they will arrive in two days.”
“What?” Martin cycled through the incoming records and known trajectories. “I don’t see any sign of incoming ships aside from the UA refugee ships.”
“They say they will arrive in two days, sir,” the Martin Colony Council receptionist robot repeated tonelessly. “They say to let all in. Everything is under control.”
Martin sat down, stunned.
He couldn’t handle this any more. With a barely suppressed giggle, he toggled the comm. The inside of the refugee ship appeared. Children crying in the background. The captain’s hand first appeared, then his bedraggled face as the man dragged himself back into view. “Yes? Yes?!”
“Mr. Prosser,” Martin said, shaking his head. “Continue on your course to Mars. I’ll see the docking station is open to you.”
“Thank you! Oh, thank you, sir!”
“Don’t thank me, Mr. Prosser,” Martin replied. He cracked his knuckles and shoved his chair away from the console and spun himself around slowly. “Enjoy your final few days in space. We may all very well die together!”
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 33: Ceres – Weng. Star-crossed lovers begin their final journey on February 5th…
The Seventh Sister finally shows her hand, and no one is particularly pleased…
Gennaji strolled forward, keeping one eye on the traitor, Andrej. But the miner was no longer paying attention to him. Riss and her crew were the star attraction now. And they seemed to have infuriated Ildico.
He was curious, yet the fate of Sergey gnawed at him. Better to glean whatever information he could here and run to Luna. The old man was stubborn and still had allies. Surely he’d hold out, regroup and bide his time until help could arrive.
“Gennaji!” Riss called. “We’ve been waiting for you. This,” she gestured, “is what we are prepared to offer you.”
Andrej gave a mild yelp and threw his weapon to the floor. “It’s burning!”
“No,” Riss said calmly. “It’s changing.”
Before their eyes, the pistol seemed to melt, then condensate. The grey metal dissipated into the air and the shimmering form emitted a vapor and slight hiss as the color changed.
It was a dull yellow and black.
Gennaji pushed through Ildico and Taygete, knelt at the former weapon. He touched it with a tentative finger, then picking it up. Heavy. Much too heavy.
Captains Clarissa Kragen, Gennaji, and Ildico square off. But something’s not quite right…
When she jumped out of the Artemis cargo hold, waving goodbye to the Hopper and her crew aboard her, Riss had experienced a familiar dread. Even the quantum entanglement cabling tether, which she knew would guide her, could not eliminate the fear that, somehow, she would veer off into the endless vacuum of space.
The blackness rushed up to meet her, envelop her.
And she embraced it. Eyes and arms wide open.
Unlike her dreams, this time a wave of acceptance seemed to pass through her.
She had walked where none had gone. She had become part of a greater whole. The darkness was within her as well as without.
She laughed, the noise sounding only inside her helmet.
Now, finally, she understood the exhilaration her navigator must feel in his vidgames. Relaxed, she toggled her suit rear thrusters. The entry port to the mining station rapidly approached, and Riss realized she had never seen the port from outside a ship. It looked so huge, and yet so tiny and fragile.
Was that all that kept the forces of chaos at bay? The only barrier preventing the internal atmosphere of Ceres from escaping, suffocating and freezing everyone inside? Surely, they could create something of more substance.
Suddenly she could sense the gravitational field of the dwarf planet. Faint, but present. Like ribbons extending, overlapping. All she had to do was tug on them a little…
In the expansive cargo hold, railgun at the ready, Gennaji waited. At any moment, Ildico would give the signal, and he would blast the Artemis with radiation. Its systems disabled, he would board it, find Riss, and do what the Ceres Mining Council should have done years ago.
At his side, cabled into place, stood Andrej.
He wasn’t sure how much he could trust the man, to be honest. As a capable defender, yes. At the helm, yes.
When it came to supporting his revenge?
Gennaji clenched a fist. He would not allow another man’s personal feelings to get in the way of his revenge.
If only he, himself, had been allowed into the Mining Council!
But, no, that wasn’t the plan. Ildico had promised him justice.
Fortunately, the Mining Council had quickly agreed to their joint demands. He had no idea where she’d managed to find two additional hunter crews willing to support them. But evidently the Pleiades was not the only ship with a grudge against Riss. At least, that’s what it seemed like, to Gennaji. What other reason could there be?
In the meantime, he wondered what to say to Sergey the next time they met. If they met. The old captain might not forgive any action taken against his adopted daughter.
Gennaji felt for the hollow point. Safe and secure in his left arm sleeve pocket. He grimaced. Soon, he would discover whether it had been worth spending depleted funds on.
Karel’s voice filled the cargo hold.
“Someone just left the Artemis on a tether. Whoever it is appears to be headed for the mining station port.”
“That must be Clarissa,” Gennaji growled. “So, she gave in, in the end. Too bad.”
He unbolted the railgun and moved to the comm panel unit. At a nod, Andrej undid the tethers from his wrists. It was just as well, Gennaji though with a chagrin.
She hadn’t called his bluff. There was no way he could have used the railgun anyway. Not if he wanted to keep his ship in one piece.
Bluster. He shook his head. Sergey would not have approved. But this was revenge.
All was fair, Sergey, he thought as he completed his final systems check. He turned to the equipment cabinet, yanked out two suits, and tossed one to Andrej. He toggled the comm again.
“Ory, Andy and I are preparing to Hop down to Ceres. Once we’re out, re-establish the solar shield.”
“Captain, we can’t possibly match the Artemis in a one-on-one fight.”
Gennaji frowned. “I know that. I doubt she’ll attack with these odds against her. Still, keep on eye on it. I wouldn’t put anything past that crew of vipers.”
“Captain,” Karel’s voice cut in. “Do you want me to prepare a ballbuster?”
“No. Too close to Ceres. We can’t risk it.”
“Hand to hand, Karel.” Gennaji grinned in anticipation. “If we’re lucky.”
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 31: Ceres – The mining station (Part 1). Things may not actually go according to Ildico’s plan, and Riss has a few surprises for Gennaji.
As Riss prepares to surrender herself to Gennaji and Ildico, Sam helplessly watches the scene unfold…
From the command seat of his tiny shuttle, Weng silently watched the face off between the Artemis and the ships of the new Ceres Mining Council. He wished he knew what they were saying.
He also wished Gen were still in the shuttle with him.
Weng grimaced. He still didn’t trust the clone, but he would feel much safer if someone obviously as highly ranked as Gen were in the shuttle. It would reduce the chance of his becoming yet another target.
Apparently, however, this was all going to plan. He mentally recalled the conversation he had with Gen just prior to arriving at Ceres.
“Gen, why are there five hunter ships here? Are we getting ready for a fight?”
“Not to worry, Sam,” Gen had told him. “There will be no fight.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Because we control the Seven Sisters, and without them, there is no fight.”
Riss opened her eyes. The Ceres mining station lay beyond the horizon, just outside the physical limits of the view screen. But not outside her awareness. Nor her crew’s awareness, she knew with conviction.
She suppressed a yawn, and rubbed her forehead with the back of a hand. Tiring, but not as much as the previous two times. Perhaps working together mitigated the effects.
They had changed. But to what degree?
Her crew gazed at the surface of Ceres above them. Cooper coughed, wiped an arm against a sweat-covered forehead. Despite all that had happened, he still felt uncomfortable approaching planetoids and ships while “upside down.”
“We’re,” he croaked, “we’re not dead.”
“Yeah, we noticed,” Enoch said. He languidly splayed his arms over the console as if hugging the ship in reassurance.
“Sanvi,” Riss asked. “What happened? I thought we were just going to try to make Artemis go a little faster as a test.”
Sanvi shrugged. “It looks like we passed the test.”
“Passed it all the way to the catcher,” Enoch said. He grinned. “Man, what a trip!”
“Riss, shall I take us into orbit?” Sanvi asked.
Riss nodded. As Sanvi slipped the Artemis into geosynchronous orbit around Ceres, Riss cast her eyes up and down the pilot. Something had passed between them, hadn’t it? Before they had combined to move the Artemis. Sanvi briefly glanced back at Riss. A look of longing, desire, hope.
Riss and the crew of the Artemis have experimented with their strange new understanding of the universe – both physical and emotional. Still far away from Ceres or Mars and unable to contact those who may have been similarly affected by the asteroid, the crew has to find a way to traverse the vast space that lies ahead…
The banging on the door came again. A muffled shout from the corridor side.
Riss opened her eyes. Her feet were firmly stuck to the floor of her cabin. Having forgotten to remove her magboots. She was standing, swaying in place. Yawning, she stretched her arms over her head.
The geist practically fell through the opening doorway. Caught from behind by the navigator.
“Riss, are you, are you okay?”
“Yeah, fine, fine, Coop.” She turned to the fridge unit. “Water.”
The fridge rolled out, door opened. A pack of water came to her hand.
Cooper’s eye widened slightly. He straightened himself, brushing off Enoch’s grasp. “You seem to have everything under control.”
She laughed. “Sorry to make you all worry. Did I oversleep?”
“The opposite, actually,” Sanvi called out. Riss could see her now, leaning against the corridor wall with her arms crossed.
Sanvi nodded at Enoch. “Somebody has been demanding that we try the pitaya experiment again.”
Enoch shrugged. “I got hungry.”
Riss looked between the two of them. Suddenly she felt an enormous bond among them. Her friends. Her crew. It was as if she could see a glow around their rough edges.
She took a deep breath and smiled.
“I have a different idea. Let’s try to make the Artemis go faster.”
Just before leaving Luna, Weng stumbled upon evidence of a conspiracy. But just who is behind it and for what purpose, he doesn’t know. Yet.
“Sam, I’m not entirely sure what you are talking about.”
Weng tapped a finger against his chair. In the other hand, he held a microchip.
“If my suspicions are correct,” he said, “this holds an encoded message from somebody on the Ceres Mining Council to a certain Captain on Luna Base.”
After a moment, Gen took the chip. He examined it.
“What makes you say so?” he asked, expressionless. “More importantly, what does this have to do with us?”
Weng gestured at the shuttle’s command console. “Just read it. I’m sure with your expertise you’ll have no problems breaking the code.”
Gen nodded. He gently inserted the chip into the side of his pad, then soundlessly tapped at the screen. His eyes scanned the text. “Sergey,” he said finally.
“Sergey,” Weng agreed. “What does the message read?”
“As you suspected, it is a request for support.”
“What kind of support?”
Gen scanned the message. “Odd. There are few details.”
“None,” Gen admitted.
He passed the pad to Weng, who swiped down a page.
“Few?” he repeated, cocking his head. “This seems pretty obvious to me. ‘The Council will reward you for your service once the new administration is in securely place.’”
“As I said, there are few details. We do not know when, who, or how this will occur.”
Weng tapped the pad. “That hardly matters. This is damning evidence of an attempted coup.”
“Perhaps. Yet there is no way to prove who sent it”
“I can make a couple of guesses.”
He felt silent. He would hate for one of his guesses to prove accurate. But a nagging thought remained. How much did Riss know, if anything?
“Sam,” Gen said. “We must not delay. This message is at least three days old. Luna must be warned.”
“It’s not Luna I’m that worried about,” Weng replied with a smile. “It’s Ceres.”
“Look at the relay information. There, just below the coded text. You’ll find that it was bounced off Ceres, and before that Zedra.”
“How would you know that?”
“Logic,” Weng said. He scratched the harness keeping him secure in the shuttle seat. At times like this, he would have preferred the ability to pace. No room in such a small ship. Also, no gravity.
He grimaced briefly, then smiled again.
“Weng, there is no need to—”
“Mind-reading still has its limits, I see,” Weng said without a trace of irritation. “And yet it is still irritating.”
Weng ticked off his fingers. “First, who has the means to start a coup against a well-fortified base such as Luna? The UA, which occasionally includes China and occasionally does not, and the Slavic Confederacy are too invested in their Earthside territorial conflict to waste resources on an assault.”
“You seem sure of that.”
“As long as the UN controls the Mars Colonies, the Lunar Base is needed to keep the Colonies supplied,” Weng reasoned. “Depriving the Colonies of food and materials would endanger settlers from all Earthside city-states, not just an opponents. Too risky.”
“Well,” Gen said. “The Greater Indian Empire, then.”
“No. They have never shown any interest in conquest. They might, of course, try to render Luna inoperable as a supply relay center, so as to force a return to the use of the ISS for such purposes. But if so, why would they refuse to allow settlers to resupply at ISS? That makes no sense.”
“Hmm. So, that leaves only one option.”
“Yes,” Weng agreed, with a heavy voice.
“The Ceres Mining Council.”
“Maybe. To what degree the Council is implicated remains to be seen. The message could have originated with a Hunter. Or a Miner. Or even from someone on Mars.”
Gen fell silent.
“Which do you think it was, Gen?” Weng asked. His companion’s sudden quiet manner disturbed him. He vainly struggled to keep his thoughts buried, his emotions flat. Gen turned as if to speak, and suddenly Weng realized from this angle that Gen resembled Martin Velasquez very, very closely.
His father? Or…?
Gen frowned as a message scrolled down the console screen. He gestured. “Sam.”
Weng leaned over. He read the text, then sat back.
“It appears that at least one of your suppositions has already been proven incorrect,” Gen said. “The UA is on the way to Luna. In force.”
“Well,” Weng said. “What’s that famous phrase?”
“‘The die has been cast’, I believe.”
Three days to Mars, Weng thought. He hoped there was still a colony left standing when they arrived.
“Gen,” he said. “How far to Ceres?”
“At our current rate, we will barely arrive at Mars in time.”
“Mars can manage for another day or two. If we swing past Ceres, we may be able to stop a war.”
Gen paused, then stabbed at the console for a few moments. “There. I have input a new path for Ceres. But it will be futile in the end, Sam.”
“Why? Isn’t it worth it if we can prevent lives from being lost?”
“No,” Gen said, sadly shaking his head. “It wasn’t supposed to be this way. This wasn’t our agreement.”
“Our?” said Weng. He suddenly caught his breath. Gen.
“Yes,” Gen said. “We caused this. But we only wanted a place for our own. Luna was not meant to be affected. One of the hunters must bear a grudge.”
“So,” said Weng softly. “I was correct about you, from the beginning.”
“Yes,” Gen nodded. “I am, indeed, a clone. Martin Velasquez is, indeed, my father.”
“Then you are also Martin.”
“In a sense. But enhanced with additional DNA from other sources.”
“And who is ‘we’? With whom did you make an agreement?”
“That,” Gen said, returning his attention to the console, “is something you will find out soon enough.”
Weng sat back, thoroughly demoralized. Ah, Riss, he thought wistfully. I should have pinged you when I had the chance.
“Don’t worry, Sam,” Gen said, hands dancing over the console. “Riss will no doubt be here soon.”
Weng opened his mouth, then closed it. There was little point in asking how Gen knew that. He obviously was being used by all the players in this game. He, himself, lacked the knowledge to be a full-fledged player.
All he wanted now was to be with Riss. As he had planned. On Mars.
“Ironic, in a way,” Gen commented. “My name in Japanese means ‘original’ although I am but a copy. And yet thanks to my father’s careful engineering — and expense — I likely feel much greater sympathy than he ever will.”
He turned to Weng with a serious expression on his face. “Sam. Here’s what I want you to do.”
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 22: The Artemis – Riss and her crew conduct an experiment, with explosive results…