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…
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…
(Weng and his “assistant” Gen have arrived at Ceres, where after some difficulty they convinced the Ceres Mining Council to give them water supplies for an increasingly crowded Mars. None of them realize what the water will do…)
“Smells like the ocean,” Weng muttered.
“Yes,” Talbot said. “This used to be the Sea of Salt.”
They stepped into the room. It was an immense chamber topped by a series of metallic gates that appeared to interlock. That must be where the asteroids are caught, Weng guessed. Riss explained it to him once, but he still wasn’t exactly sure how the thrower and catcher system operated. Something to do with quantum teleportation.
The door slid shut.
“Stay here,” Talbot ordered the robot. It nodded and stood stiffly at attention.
They walked down a steep steel staircase. Embedded in the rock walls on all four sides were various gauges and panels. It resembled the machinery shown Weng on the Mars Colonies, only more streamlined. He didn’t see any plastic red buttons, though.
The metal floor lay covered wall to wall with pallets that the three walked between. Maglocked to the floor, each pallet held ten to twelve waist-high canisters, topped with high pressure nozzles.
“Seven thousand tons of water,” Talbot said. She patted a canister. “She only sent us two of the three frags we were expecting. Probably keeping one for herself and crew.”
“Or to sell to a private buyer,” Weng said.
“You?” Talbot suggested.
Weng smiled and shook his head. “No, just a hunch. It’s what I would do.”
She grinned and walked to one wall, checking machine gauges. “You know,” she said, as she worked. “I wouldn’t have pictured you as a sentimental man, Weng-shi.”
His eyes followed her. He hadn’t noticed her during their negotiations earlier. Hadn’t noticed the way she walked, held herself. Confident. Obviously intelligent. Attractive. A bit abrasive, but she was a miner, after all.
He came back to himself. He had a fiancé.
“Yes, well,” he said. “I’m more of an artist than a diplomat, really.”
She looked up from a dial.
“If I didn’t know better,” she said, “I’d guess you were more of an artist than a water plant operator, too.”
He merely smiled.
“You have a message from Riss, as well?” he asked.
She shook her head. “No, nothing.”
He considered. That was unusual. Riss usually sent something with her catches. After her initial message, he had assumed that she would follow up with an itinerary, an estimated arrival on Ceres. Something else.
Had something happened?
“Any strange readings about these fragments?” he asked.
“Nothing out of the ordinary. I’m sure the hunter’s geist checked it before throwing it in. Our system reading came out negative, in any case.”
Talbot walked to the opposite wall. A panel slid open and another canister emerged. An intercom above the panel crackled. “That’s the last of them, Tal.”
“Thanks, Dez,” she said in a loud voice. “Let’s finish up and see our guests off.”
She turned back to Weng.
“All right, you’ve got your seven thousand tons of water,” she said. Weng noted she had returned to the ice maiden manner of their first meeting. As cold as the rocks she’d just vaporized for them.
She continued, “Tell your assistant to go bring that ship of yours around to Lock 3. That’ll place him just outside this room. We’ll have the robots prepare delivery.”
They began to walk back to the metal staircase leading out of the room.
“Your process is much more efficient than ours,” he commented. He clasped his hands behind his back and sauntered to a gauge. “Where does the actual vaporization occur? Within the walls?”
“You have your secrets, I have mine,” she said. Then chuckled. “We’ve had a couple decades to perfect the procedure. Not a single atom of vapor wasted.”
He laughed. “Not one?”
“Well, maybe one or two,” she admitted. “Hence the tangy scent. But, as I said, there were no strange readings. We’re very careful.”
They reached the door. The robot remained in the room as they entered the corridor.
“It’ll take an hour or so for the robots to load up your ship,” she said. “In the meantime, I should track down our resident tech specialist and see if we can’t download the data from your infopad.”
“Your tech guy,” Weng said. “Plus your plant operator, plus yourself. How many real people live here?”
“Robots are real people,” Talbot countered. Then cocked an eyebrow. “Well, real enough, anyway. As you’ve noticed, they’re not the greatest of conversationalists.”
They reentered the main operating room, then headed to a separate room opposite from the culvert. The room was barely high enough to stand, with a small square table, a television niche, and a closet built into one wall. And no chairs.
“My office,” Talbot said by way of explanation. “Also bedroom. Space is at a premium here.”
“Comfy,” Weng said.
They sat down across the table from each other, crosslegged on top of small square cushions. It’d been ages, Weng thought. Almost like home. Talbot withdrew the pad from her pocket and started scrolling down the screen.
“So,” she said after a moment, “you’re positive that this information will be enough for us to force the UN’s hand?”
“By us, I presume you refer to the Ceres Mining Council?”
“All ten of us.”
“And how many miners on Ceres does the Council represent?”
Talbot smiled at Weng’s surprised expression. “So much for the poker face, Weng-shi.”
Flustered, he stammered, “It’s, it’s just that…Sub-chief Talbot—”
“Just call me Talbot, Weng-shi.”
“Talbot. Before we continue, shouldn’t we check in with your superior officer?”
She raised an eyebrow. “What superior officer?”
“But,” he said, “Sub-chief…?”
She laughed. Despite himself, he enjoyed the sound.
“We’re all sub-chiefs here, Weng-shi,” she said conspiratorially. “Nobody’s the boss. We’re all equal.”
“So the Council represents a commune of ten people, all of whom live here as equals?”
“No, no,” she said. “The council all live here on Ceres, and there’s only ten of us. But we represent the interests of several hundred miners and asteroid hunters who spend most of their lives in space.”
Weng paused, thinking. “Then you’re kind of a union of sorts.”
She shrugged. “If it helps to think of us that way,” she said. “There are those on Luna who think of us as a great big space pirate club.”
“But you control all of the materials retrieved from asteroids across the solar system?”
“Well, yes and no. Asteroid hunters work mostly as independent operators, but miners often work for Earthside corporations.”
Weng nodded. He knew that UN law forbade individual countries from claiming universal mining rights on celestial bodies. Just as no one country could claim to own the Moon or Mars, no one country was allowed to claim an asteroid, even a tiny one, as their property. But companies were under no such compulsion. Particularly when the asteroid itself was pulverized and no evidence remained.
“The minerals you’re extracting from these rocks,” Weng said. “They’re worth billions. How can you possibly process so much with such a small staff?”
“Robots, obviously,” she said. “Also, clones. But they’re too dangerous, too emotionally unpredictable. So they get stuck on individual rocks, for the most part.”
She cocked her head and looked carefully at him.
“You thought I was a robot, didn’t you?” she said.
Weng smiled. “No. But I think my assistant might be.”
She laughed. “Unemotional. Logical.”
“Totally incapable of laughing at my stupid jokes.”
She laughed again. He found the sound surprisingly pleasant. “So, at least that proves I’m not a robot.”
He stopped. “Talbot.”
“Susan.” Weng smiled. “I should check in with Gen at the ship.”
She placed the pad down and leaned forward. “I already messaged the supply bay. Another thirty-five minutes.”
“Oh?” He folded his hands on the table. “That seems like a lot of time to kill.”
“Believe me, Weng-shi—”
“Sam.” She pronounced the name as if she were tasting it for the first time. “Believe me, thirty-five minutes goes by quickly.”
As the ship arched away from Ceres, Weng wondered if they’d made the right choice. Turning over potentially valuable information to a tiny group of extra-governmental asteroid miners, beholden to nobody but themselves—it could prove dangerous.
Almost as dangerous as a naked decontamination shower, he thought ruefully, scratching the back of his neck. Amazing, how desperate some people can get, cooped up all alone for weeks on a big rock like that.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” he murmured.
“I didn’t know you read Hippocrates,” Gen said suddenly beside him.
“Oh, just something I picked up from the Netstream back a while,” Weng said. Wistfully.
He thought of Riss. She need never know. But at least he had managed to divert her to Mars, where they could start their new future.
“Block all incoming calls,” he suggested to Talbot just before they left. “China and India are about to come to blows. The UA and the Russian Confederacy are at loggerheads. Ceres and Mars need to stand together.”
“Mars. Mars!” she laughed, caressing his face with a gloved hand. “You say that as if the Mars Colonies stand a chance on their own. What about your food? Your electrical generation?”
“Water will provide our energy source,” he said confidently. “With your help, we’ll have enough for hydroponics until we can get rid of the UA guards and get that ice flow tapped. There’ll be plenty.”
“And when the Allied Forces arrive to take back what’s theirs?”
“They won’t,” he replied, kissing her cheek as he boarded the ship. “They’ll be too busy preventing others Earthside from invading home turf. But in the meantime, let’s assume that any incoming ping is from a hostile source. Safer that way.”
“And Clarissa?” she teased. “She ought to be heading here to pick up her pay check.”
Weng inclined his head. “She’s smart enough to figure out what’s going on. Especially if you leave a message indicating that the rocks from her were sent on to Mars.”
Talbot pulled the other glove on and checked her antigrav harness. “You act as if you expect me to do all your dirty work.”
“That smile,” she said, pulling the radiation visor down. With the complete mining suit on, Talbot looked more mechanical than human. Weng felt unsettled. Had he touched that? But he kept his emotions in check.
“I don’t expect anything,” he said calmly. “You’ve been a great help. Sub-chief Talbot.”
“Susan.” He turned to go, then turned back and said, “Keep in mind what I said. Ceres and Mars.”
She merely waved. She reached down to switch off her magboots, then bounded off. Toward another processing center, he assumed, for something more toxic than hydrocarbons.
Weng snapped his attention back to the present. Another week in this tiny ship, with only a robot for a conversation partner.
“Sir,” Gen said, interrupting his reverie, “the message has been sent to the Martian Council.”
“Thank you, Gen,” Weng said. He stretched his arms and back. “By the way, I appreciate the information you relayed from Martin. About the ice flow.”
“I was only performing my duty.”
“Even if it was an elaborate ruse,” Weng finished. He paused to gauge the assistant’s reaction.
There was none, of course.
“Are you a robot, Gen?” Weng asked quietly. “Sent to spy on me by the Overseer?”
“No, sir,” Gen replied evenly. “I am not a robot. I volunteered to keep tabs on you for Overseer Velasquez.”
“Ah.” Weng shrugged. “And the ice flow?”
“It exists. Several meters thick in some places. But too radiated for drinking usage. And electronically safeguarded. And too far from most of the colonies at any rate.”
“A shame.” Weng sighed.
“Yes,” Gen said, checking instrument readings on the navigation panel. “My father said much the same thing.”
“I can see why he liked you from the moment you met,” Gen commented. “You will be very useful to the Martian Secretariat. I hope you do understand, of course, that each of us has a specific role to play.”
He looked up at the architect with a pleasant expression on his face. “Your designs intrigue me, Dr. Weng. Once this current water situation is solved, perhaps we can address the primitive lighting scheme.”
Weng stiffened, then relaxed in resignation. He had a feeling that he still had an awful lot to learn about Martian politics.
“Sue, we got incoming.”
“Patch it through.”
One more time, Talbot thought, and this rock would reveal its treasures, like the others in this batch. Riss could keep her Centaurs, she growled inwardly. Who needed ditrium when there was plenty of iron, nickel, and titanium to be had in the Happy Hunting Grounds?
Through her radiation shield she could barely make out the object in her hands, but the readings on the inside of the helmet showed the tell-tale signs she’d been waiting for. She sighed contently, then tapped the panel on the ore processor machine.
“Well, Dez, what is—”
A ping. From deep space. It was either Riss or…
She hesitated, then let it through.
Her helmet suddenly filled with a familiar voice. She bit her lip, remembering the last time he’d visited. And now there was something he wanted her to do.
In addition to his previous request about the guest from Mars.
She reflected that she had likely gone a bit overboard with her hospitality. But then again, she was a freelancer, just like everybody else. Fortunately, she also had friends. And her own agenda. She sent a response ping.
In a few minutes, all the arrangements were made. Closing the channel, she toggled the internal com system.
“Set up a relay, Dez,” she ordered. “Then block all incoming, like we discussed.”
“Roger. For how long?”
She pondered. In front of her, the processor flashed an indicator. The iron nugget came out perfectly.
Well, more like iron goo, she thought. Still, worth just as much to space builders. Even better with the 3D printers they used.
“As long as we need to, Dez,” she replied at length. “It’s time to play the game.”
Caveat emptor, Gennaji, she thought. And, no hard feelings, Riss. But business is business. The Captain could look after herself.
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 12: The Sagittarius. Gennaji is about to have a most unwelcome visitor… Dropping on January 30, 2021.
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)
“It is time to venture beyond the known planets, on toward the stars.”
Yes, I agree, but I don’t see how any of the ideas in this article will help us achieve that goal. I think the problem is the reliance on conventional means of propulsion. Clearly some sort of bending of space/time is needed to leave the solar system faster than, say, a decade, let alone reach other star systems.
Dawn already used an ion engine (way too slow). The solar gravitational lens is neat but it won’t take us there physically. The “space-based laser” idea is funky but impractical.
Getting off Earth should help (Moon Base, Mars, somewhere else like Triton). Escaping our own planet’s gravity well takes way too much effort. But after that, it’s time to forget about rockets and start thinking of truly “wacked out” ideas.
For starters, Discover, how about dumping your absolutely awful page design? Yeesh, this page is hard to read.