Great job, NASA! Landing on Mars is always a tricky business.
Now all Perseverance has to do is find traces of life, save it without contamination, and then wait for another rocket, another rover, and a satellite to get in orbit so the samples can be sent back to Earth.
Gennaji and Riss each face their own problems, Weng has returned to Mars. His boss is not happy.
“Dammit it all! What on earth is going on, Sam?” Martin demanded.
The Martian Overseer wrung his hands as the image on his view screen smiled. Damn that inscrutable smile! And here he thought the architect was no more than a foolish artist, like clay to be molded as he saw fit.
“You sound alarmed, Martin,” Weng said. “Not to worry. We have procured the water, as requested.”
“Requested. Your request!” Martin sat down heavily, thumping his desk for good measure. “Gen!”
Martin started. What?
“Father, do not overly concern yourself. Dr. Weng is well aware of our relationship. He has readily agreed to join our cause.”
Martin frowned. Cause? That old chestnut again?
He sighed, and leaned back in the chair. The UN Security Council was definitely not going to like this. Still, they had other, more pressing concerns.
The disagreement between China and the Greater Indian Empire had worsened. Martin expected conflict to break out at almost any moment. At that point, they could no longer count on getting foodstuffs from the ISS. UN or not, India would never allow supplies to be shared with settlers from the Allied Forces, as long as China was a part of it.
“Gen. Sam. Things have taken a turn for the worst here,” he said at length. “If we don’t get new supplies soon, hydroponics estimates that we’ll run out of solid food in less than sixty Earth days.”
“Two months?” Weng replied. His face looked alarmed. A new expression, Martin thought. I should make a special note of it.
“New refugees,” Martin said. “Another group just came in. This one from Malaysia.”
“So,” Gen said monotonously. “Things are getting worse.”
“Yes,” Martin agreed. “An emergency Security Council meeting has been arranged to discuss the ongoing rift between China and India. But the cracks have appeared. The UA may decide not to take sides, which would annoy their Chinese allies.”
“Not good,” Weng said. For once, he wasn’t smiling. “I did warn Sue that the UA would not protect her, and that China might come looking.”
Weng looked flustered. Martin said nothing. But he enjoyed the architect’s discomfort. Information for future reference.
“Sue Talbot. On the Ceres Mining Council.”
“Ah. And this, Sue, what was her response?”
Gen cut in. “She gave us seven thousand tons of water. We’re bringing it back right now. And we have made an ally.”
“An ally.” Martin pondered.
He was playing a risky game, he knew. The southern ice cap could solve all their problems, but he had no immediate access to it. The settlers need not know that all he had to do was hack the ice factories and overpower a handful of guards. He still needed the settlers’ help to extract enough water from regolith for electrical generation and the hydroponic greenhouses. For now. Once the UN found out how much was potentially available for hydrogen fuel cell production, without the UA’s interference, they would surely come to him.
And then she’d see…!
“Father. Father, what shall we do about the foodstuffs?”
Martin snapped his attention back to the vidscreen.
“Ah. Ah! Well, let me first contact the UN. See what they can do.”
“And if they are otherwise preoccupied?” Weng said. “We can divert to the ISS to—”
“No, no,” Martin cut in, waving a hand. “Forget the ISS. Ping Luna and see if you can do a swing-by. You know who to get in touch with.”
Weng visibly sighed. Now it was Martin’s turn to smile. He had them.
“Yes, Overseer,” the architect said. Glumly, Martin thought.
“In the meantime,” Gen commented. “You may wish to block all incoming. We have already recommended that Ceres do so, in anticipation.”
“All?” Martin said, taken aback. “Why?”
“While you were talking with Mr. Weng, I intercepted a transmission from Earthside to the ISS.” Gen paused, concentrating on something off screen. “Here. I’ll send it to you.”
“You broke their—well, I guess quantum encryption wasn’t foolproof, after al—”
Martin broke off. He scanned the message. This was bad. Very bad.
The UA had launched several troop carriers. Somebody must have tipped them off. The refugees?
“Fortunately, the UA lacks firepower enough to disable our orbiting dock station. But they could land troops with little opposition,” Gen noted. “We must seize their ice before that happens.”
“Yes. Remember, we have about two months before our food runs out,” Martin said. “You need to drop off your water cargo, refuel and go to Luna, and convince the Lunar Council to transport us emergency food supplies. And all before the Allied Forces arrive. For leverage. Can you do it?”
Get and Weng exchanged glances. Martin wondered if the two were getting along.
“Yes, I believe so,” Weng finally said with a smile. “Unless you decide to choose a different crew member more agile than I at spaceflight.”
Martin shook his head.
“Spaceflight is child’s play, thanks to the AI onboard systems. We’re not planning on fighting anybody. What we need is a diplomat with people skills.”
“Martin, I’ve told you, I’m—”
“No diplomat?” Martin smiled. “But you want to be one. I recognize ambition when I see it, Sam.”
He could swear Weng was blushing, but the architect did well to hide it behind that smile. He practiced it, himself.
Now we know each other, he thought, feeling more comfortable. This was a game he knew how to play.
“At any rate,” he continued, “as long as you can convince the bigwigs on Luna, the quantum teleportation systems should get us enough food for a while.”
“Too bad it doesn’t work with people,” Weng said. Wistfully? Another piece of information to be stored future use. Somebody far away he wished to be nearer.
“Yes, well,” Martin replied, keeping his answer deliberately open.
“We’ll contact you as we approach lower Martian orbit,” Gen said, as if on cue. “Until then, we do recommend silence.”
Martin relaxed his shoulders and inclined his head. “Very well. Use the cypher. Out.”
He swiftly cut the connection. The five minute delay between transmission had been irritating enough. No need to wait for confirmation. He was positive Gen understood. They’d had little chance to employ their secret code, given the quantum encryptions that had come into use. But since apparently even Chinese technology was hackable, they had to rely on old methods. Even if it only worked over relatively short distances.
Now, to the business at hand. After ordering another tea, Martin ordered all outside communications blocked. This was sure to provoke a response from settler groups across the Colonies. But with the UA Allied Forces already on their way, he saw little choice. He busied himself with paperwork to the Security Council, drafting a request for supplies that was sure to be turned down, while he waited for the expected calls.
Sure enough, less than thirty minutes later his secretary was fielding multiple irate inquiries. Fortunately, the robot had little difficulty handling several simultaneous connections while relaying information to Earth. Martin was perfectly content to devote his attention to other, more pressing issues.
Let the factions complain for the time being, he thought, switching his screen to monitor Weng and Gen’s progress from the docking station. Its limited capabilities at least allowed the him to estimate a reasonable arrival time, based on their last known position. After a few moments of inputting commands, Martin had his estimate. Next, he contacted the internal Mars Colonies Security Forces. The MCSF were minimal, at best, a few dozen ex-soldiers who signed five-year UN contracts and helped maintain order in the Colonies.
The problem, Martin knew, was that almost half were ex-UA Allied Forces. If the UA arrived to firm their grip on the ice factories, whose side would they choose? The UN or the UA?
Technically, the United Americas were, of course, part of the UN. In fact, the headquarters of the UN once was located in the UA. But in the turbulent period after the Seven Years War, the UA found itself at odds with most other world powers. In a sudden pique, the UA president decided to boot the UN headquarters from UA territory. At the time, it must have seemed the right thing to do, Martin reflected, as he waited for someone in the MCSF to answer his hail.
But the result of the UN being relocated to China permanently altered relationships among the Security Council members. The UA lost not just prestige but power; its economy collapsed, the government fell, and to survive it was forced to join a coalition with East Asian countries. Humiliated, the UA impeached its president, who it blamed for the entire fiasco.
Martin gritted his teeth. Dammit, why didn’t somebody answer the damn phone?
He couldn’t bear the thought of being connected with his grandfather. His wife’s name, he thought, may not be strong enough. I need to make sure my credentials are impeccable. Outside my grandfather’s influence. Respect and authority. Fame.
What better way but to be the savior of Mars?
“That’ll show her,” he muttered.
“Sorry, sir?” came a voice on the speaker. “I didn’t catch that.”
Damn! He’d been talking aloud again.
“We need to show,” he stopped, then continued in a stronger, more confident voice. “We need to show the world that they can still depend on the UN and the Mars Colonies. To whom am I speaking?”
“I’m not sure we can show them much at this point,” the voice said. “Hamels here.”
“Hamels?” Martin frowned. He’d never heard of the woman. “Where’s the Commander?”
“Busy, sir,” came the hesitant reply. “Most of our forces are dealing with the current crisis.”
“Sir, several settlements are close to rioting against the forced block on Earthside communications. They’re also demanding more water and food rations.”
Martin nearly swore. He’d clearly underestimated the persistence of some of the factions. It was time to stall, and bluff.
“Hamels, was it?”
“You don’t sound UA. What was your original posting?”
“European Union, sir. Netherlands Division, transferred in six weeks ago.”
“Six weeks, eh. So…” He paused, mind racing. A European. Surely arrived in a group. No country would waste money on an individual trip to a remote post. “Tell me, Mr. Hamels—”
“Sergeant Major, sir.”
“Sergeant Major Hamels,” he corrected. “In the MCSF, how many units originate from the EU or other non-UA locations?”
“Non-UA? Sir, the crisis—”
“Yes, yes, we’ll deal with that in a moment. How many?”
Hamels fell silent. Martin wished they had the power for vid transmissions. He hated not seeing his interlocutor’s face.
“Well?” he said impatiently.
“Sir, I believe there are about fourteen or fifteen, out of thirty-three.”
He pondered. Not quite half. Damn the UA! Of course they would have insisted on a majority of security forces from their own units.
To safeguard their damn irradiated ice.
“Hamels, listen to me. I need you to contact all the non-UA security force members and tell them to assemble at the water plant in twenty minutes.”
“Sir! Yes, sir, but the rioting?”
“I have faith in Commander Reynolds’ persuasive abilities. In the meantime, contact as many as you can. I’ll be calling all settler faction heads and see if we can’t calm the situation down with a minimum amount of security force, eh?”
“Yes, sir. Fifteen minutes. Water plant. Acknowledged.”
“Fifteen minutes,” he repeated, then cut the connection.
Now, Martin thought. How much should he say to the settlers?
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 15: The Sagittarius (arriving February 20, 2021)
A crewed mission to Mars may be more practical thanks to a new rocket concept developed by Fatima Ebrahimi, a physicist at the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), that uses magnetic fields to generate thrust.
(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)