It’s been a while since we’ve checked in on Riss and her crew. What’s going on with Riss’s Rock, and their reactions to it? (and each other?)
Back in the command center, the four resumed their positions as if still on an asteroid hunt. Only this time, they were hunting for something else.
“Right,” Riss said. “Let’s find out where this came from. Coop, run a comparison analysis with some other extrasolar object. Like Phoebe.”
“Yes. That’s supposed to have originally come from the Kuiper Belt. A centaur captured by Saturn’s gravity well.”
“All right, I’ll give it a shot.”
Riss waited silently as the computer ran the analysis.
“No,” Cooper finally said with a tone of resignation. “There isn’t enough data to make a meaningful comparison. At least, that’s what the results indicate.”
“So it’s not a centaur?” Riss said, surprised.
“I can check it against our information on Chiron and Enceladus.”
“I thought Chiron was a dwarf planet, not a centaur.”
“Debatable. But anyway…”
“OK,” Riss said, clapping him on the shoulder. “You’re the geologist.”
She turned over her shoulder. “Enoch. Pull up that trajectory chart again.”
The 3D image hung in the space between the captain’s chair and the navigation consoles. Riss ticked her tongue as she gazed at the chart.
“I don’t see…ah, there.” She pointed. “We didn’t follow the origin line.”
“Yeah,” Sanvi said. “We were only interested in where it was going, not where it came from. We just figured – ”
“- just figured it was a centaur,” Riss concluded. She sat down in her chair and ran her fingertips over the console. “Let’s hypothesize.”
In a few moments, her best guesses appeared in an updated version of the chart. A thin blue line emerged from behind the red trajectory line and extended well away from the original chart.
“Computer, zoom out,” Riss stated. The image shrank. The red line turned into a curve. The blue line still extended out of the image.
“So it’s not a Kuiper Belt object?” Brady said.
“Oort?” Sanvi wondered aloud.
“Computer, zoom out again,” Riss ordered. “Maximum.”
The red curve became an elongated oval. The blue line remained a line. Riss was stunned.
“Coop, is this what…what I think it means?”
The geologist’s fingers flew across his pads. He switched pads and checked again.
“ES-71107 is extrasolar, all right,” he confirmed. He put the pad down slowly and looked up. “It’s from outside our solar system entirely.”
“But it was so large!” Sanvi protested. “When A/2017 skipped through, it was tiny.”
“Yes,” Riss said. “I remember reading about that during training. It was fast, too.”
“Like a pebble skipped on an ocean,” Enoch put in, mimicking with a gesture. “Scooooon.”
“Weren’t there a couple of other planetoids that people thought might be extrasolar?” Cooper asked.
They turned to him.
“Hey, I’m into rocks,” he said, shrugging. “I just don’t know the history.”
Sanvi snorted. “So much for the ‘astro’ part of ‘astrogeologist.’”
“No, no,” Enoch said, jumping into the discussion. “I think Coop is on to something.”
He looked back and forth between consoles, searching. “Ah. Here it is.”
An image of Jupiter and its moons appeared behind him, next to Riss’s chair. It began slowly rotate. More objects appeared in Jupiter’s orbit, some trailing and some preceding.
“Jupiter has a lot of Trojans,” Enoch said. His hands continued to move over his console. “Over 6,000, actually. But this one…BZ509…it isn’t a Trojan. And it goes around the Sun the wrong way.”
“The wrong way…” Cooper said. “Retrograde orbit. So…”
“That means it’s probably from outside the solar system,” Riss said. “Right?”
“Yeah,” Enoch affirmed. “But also probably billions of years ago. Just happened to get snagged by Jupiter’s gravity well.”
“But can’t Centaurs also be from outside the solar system?” Sanvi asked. “They rotate around the Sun, right? So what makes Riss’s Rock so special?”
“You mean, isn’t it just another Centaur, like we thought?” Cooper asked in return. He fiddled with his pads again. “Enoch, can you expand the Centaur’s…I mean, Riss’s Rock’s trajectory? Even further. And superimpose Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune’s orbits for scale.”
Enoch nodded. “I’ll give it a try.”
The rotating model of Jupiter and its Trojans seemed to shrink. Saturn appeared with its moons. Neptune and its oddly tilted ring. The rock appeared, its blue line trajectory once again trailing out into space.
“Maximizing,” Enoch said softly.
The three gas giants shrank. The Kuiper Belt appeared. Still the blue line stretched into the beyond.
“Inputting hypothetical location of the Oort boundaries.”
The model shrank even further. Jupiter was a tiny spec. The Oort appeared like a cloudy, partially transparent globe. The blue line began to curve, ever so slightly.
“Enoch,” Riss said. “Can you get us an image of the heliopause?”
“Not sure. The old records from the Voyagers only recorded the termination shock boundary. But I’ll see.”
The planets completely disappeared from view, and the solar system now appeared as a series of elongated bubbles. Just outside the front of the bubbles lay a wide ribbon of fuzzy orange.
“Is the bow shock really that color?” Cooper said, eyes wide.
“Um. No idea,” Enoch said, slightly embarrassed. “Nobody’s ever been out that far, and the only info was in black and white so I borrowed the color from a vid game.”
Sanvi started to laugh, but Riss pointed at the image. “Look at the trajectory.”
The blue line clearly extended through the heliopause. The opposite side from the bow shock. But the line ended once it left the bubble.
“Enoch, can we extrapolate a starting point? Based on the current vectors.”
He grumbled but set to work. “I need Sanvi.”
She stopped laughing. Paused, and raised an eyebrow. Cooper turned slightly red.
“Ah, I mean, Sanvi’s better at the calcs than me,” Enoch stuttered. “That’s all I meant.”
Riss smiled and raised a finger to her lips. She should pay more attention to her crew, she thought. Something had happened that she hadn’t caught before.
“Right,” Sanvi replied coolly, swivelling back to her console. “Let’s just see…ah. Enoch, on your console now.”
“Got it.” After another moment, the holographic image of the solar system drastically shrank. The trajectory line arced. The arm of the Milky Way containing Earth flickered, and then that also shrank. Another cloud came into focus. The blue line began to trace a vague oval.
“This is just a best guess, you know,” Enoch warned, fiddling more with his console. “There’s a whole lot of empty space between us and…wherever this came from.”
“Why is the trajectory showing up as an orbit?” Riss asked. “There seems little chance it’d be a frequent visitor.”
“That’s the way the program works,” Sanvi said. She tapped her console to confirm. “Comp’s just not able to track normal astronomical events. We’re hunters, after all.”
The holograph slowed its transformation. The Milky Way on one side. Satellite galaxies and clusters surrounding it in the local neighborhood. The blue line entered a cloud and came out the other side, tracing its path across deep space.
“I should have guessed,” Enoch said softly.
Riss glanced at him. The navigator had turned pale and seemed to shake. She had never seen him act this way.
“Feet of Canopus,” Cooper whispered. “Al-Sufi was right.”
She turned to him. He also looked pale, if that were possible. To Sanvi. She also looked odd.
“Well, I was expecting Andromeda,” she started to quip light-heartedly. “So…”
She stopped herself. It didn’t seem to fit the mood.
Riss leaned back and crossed her arms.
“OK,” she said, “What is it?”
“The Magellanic Cloud,” Enoch replied. He touched his console, and the image zoomed on a particularly bright star. “Canopus is the second-brightest star in the Earth sky. The Magellanic Cloud shows up just beneath it, but only seen from below the equator.”
He held his right hand out as if touching the sky, then turned around to face the image.
“One finger at the north unchanging star, the thumb on the south unchanging star. Straight to morning,” he intoned. “Thus did Hawai’iloa find our land.”
He dropped his hand. “We called it Ke-alii-o-kona-i-ka-lewa. The Chief of the Southern Expanse. The Wayfinders used it to get home to Polynesia.”
Riss felt a slight chill run down her spine. What?
“In the Vedas, it is a cleanser and calmer of water,” Sanvi said, although without much conviction. She tossed her head. “Agastya. A superstition from Hinduism.”
“Wait,” Riss said. “Canopus is in the Carina constellation. That’s only 300 some odd light years from here.”
“Yeah, ‘only,’” Cooper said. “But the blue line shoots underneath that. Into the Cloud.”
“How far is the Cloud?”
Enoch checked his figures. “About 160,000 light years. Give or take.”
“And how long would it take the rock to reach us from there?”
“Well, let’s see the calcs…160,000 light years is about 10 trillion AU, and one AU about 150 million kilometres, so…”
He paused, then shook his head.
“Calcs must be off on the trajectory. It’d take about 10 million years for this thing to get to us, even assuming maximum speed.”
“And if it came from Canopus?”
Enoch glanced down. “Not even a handful of years.”
He leaned back, thinking. “The real question is, why?”
“Why what?” Cooper said. “I don’t see how any of this is relevant.”
“Sure, it’s relevant,” Riss said. “I agree with Enoch. Why did this rock suddenly appear? Was it ejected?”
“Probably,” said Sanvi. “Let’s stay rational.”
“It’s tempting, though,” Riss replied, “to think of alternatives.”
“Like whether it was intentionally sent or not.”
Enoch laughed, then stopped.
Cooper closed his eyes. He seemed to be praying. Sanvi, likewise, had assumed a meditative stance, but quickly opened her eyes and stared into the distance.
After a moment, Riss broke the spell with a clap of her hands.
“Right. Interesting intellectual exercise, but Cooper is probably right in the end.”
“Yes,” Riss said with finality. “Whoever sent it, if it was sent, or whatever it is, we’re stuck dealing with this rock now. Who knows what’ll happen once the settlers on Mars drink this water?”
“I can make a couple of good guesses,” Enoch muttered, toggling the navigation controls. “We’re picking up speed as estimated, but still a few days out.”
“Sorry, Riss. Still no way of contacting Mars or Ceres. They’re just broadcasting the same message.”
Riss sat back in the command chair, steepling her fingers. She surveyed her crew. They seemed strangely subdued, but an underlying tension lay palpable in the air. The Artemis also felt somehow tense, as if it were alive, sensing their feelings.
She pondered. Maybe it was. After what they had all apparently experienced separately, who was to stay the ship wasn’t alive in a certain sense? It was made out of the same atoms, the same subatomic particles as themselves, just in different proportions. Particles that never touched. Held in covalence and nuclear bonds by the laws of physics. Full of space, no substance.
The ship breathed. Riss breathed. What was it she was breathing? Other particles of the universe, all part of the same field. The same threads, same patterns.
“No more pings,” she said suddenly. The crew reacted slowly, almost as if they had expected her to say it. They looked at one another and nodded. The Ceres Council and any other hunters around would hone in on their location if they successfully got through anyway. No need to broadcast their whereabouts until they were close enough to contact through regular comm channels.
“Riss,” Enoch said eventually. “How will we slow down? Without a response from a catcher, I mean.”
She stood up, stretching her shoulders.
“I have a couple of ideas about that. In the meantime, who’s for some tube food? I’m famished.”
“You know,” Sanvi replied, as they all made their way to the corridor. “I have a couple of my own ideas about that, too.”
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 22: The Sagittarius (in which Gennaji faces an old friend/foe and a dilemma)
Sorry, folks! My chapter numbering has gone a bit wonky. As I said, these are draft chapters — still a work in progress! At any rate, I hope you are enjoying the process…
Btw, WordPress is *definitely not user friendly* when it comes to anything other than a TikTok or Twitter-size micro-blogpost. I don’t do 5-minute chunks of attention-span theater, so I hope that my readers can concentrate past the 21st century style of “in your face for ten seconds!” style of online slam-bang presentation.
Is there still a place for traditional science fiction storytelling?
“You know, Gen,” Weng sighed. “When I convinced your father to let me work for the water reclamation team, I hadn’t anticipated becoming his glorified messenger boy.”
He took a sip from his cooling soy coffee and leaned against the hull of the shuttle. The decor of the inside corridors of Lunar Base were boring; the decor of the commercial loading dock was downright atrocious. He felt as if his eyes would be permanently damaged the longer he was forced to look at the drab colors and bland angles of the building.
“Sam, I don’t think…”
Weng held up a finger in warning as an automated loader passed by, carrying several stacks of dry goods. Headed not for their shuttle, but for a similar vessel.
“Where’s that one from?” he asked.
Gen shuffled through his info pad screen information.
“According to the markings, Ceres.”
“Hang on. They get priority on foodstuffs over the Mars Colonies?”
“The United Mars Colonies.”
“Yes. The Uni…Gen, are you pulling my leg?”
“No, Sam. Just reminding you of our purpose.”
Weng sipped the coffee again. The purpose. What he had got himself into? All he wanted was to be able to apply himself, as an architect, in a place that appreciated his vision.
Well, yes, he wouldn’t mind a position of authority. He needed something to show Sergey that he was worthy. The old man’s trust in him. He didn’t quite have that, he was sure.
Why hadn’t Riss contacted him in the past week? He wondered, but kept his thoughts to himself. Focus on the task.
“Gen, we were lucky to convince the Lunar Base Council we needed emergency supplies, weren’t we?”
Gen looked up from his infopad and snapped the cover shut.
“Yes, Sam, to some degree.”
Weng tilted his head and smiled. “What does that mean? ‘To some degree.’ I thought I was rather persuasive.”
Gen raised his eyebrows. “I hadn’t thought you to be so confident,” he said. “The opposite, in fact. Quite self-effacing.”
Weng maintained his smile. The little shit, he thought. The smaller man’s face held no expression, betrayed no emotion. Was this really the Martian Overseer’s legitimate son? Something about his mannerism…
“You are broadcasting your thoughts too loudly, Sam,” Gen said in a softer voice. “I would advise you to close your mind. You never know who might be listening.”
A momentary look of shock passed over Weng’s face but he quickly composed himself.
No thoughts. No Riss.
“I see,” he said neutrally. “I did not know you were a telepath.”
“Empath. Only partial telepathy.”
Gen returned to his inventory listing. He casually scanned down the screen, occasionally poking at it. “I can’t make out specific words. Only basic ideas.”
He looked up again at Sam.
“Plus a certain understanding of human nature. And personal background.”
Weng swallowed. “I have no intention of betraying my fiancé for your sake, Gen,” he croaked. “Nor for the Mars…United Mars Colonies.”
“But I am devoted to the purpose,” Weng continued. He drained the cup and crushed in one hand. “I intend to make myself as useful as possible for the future of the United Mars Colonies. For myself, for my fiancé, and for your father.”
“That is all we ask,” Gen replied. “We are not looking for blind obedience, Sam. Only assistance.”
Weng made no reply. He returned his gaze to the robot porters and their cargo. A hatch on the Ceres-bound shuttle opened, and the porter slowly and mechanically unloaded its stacks.
“Not to worry, Sam,” Gen said, seeing his gaze. “Once the porters are done over there, we are next on their itinerary.” He tapped his info pad.
“No, Gen,” Weng said. He turned to look briefly at the man he once thought was his assistant. “That’s not what I was thinking. You do have limits, then.”
Get nodded. “I read best when strong emotions come concomitantly.”
Weng started to say something, then changed his mind.
“You know,” he said. “If you have this talent of reading thoughts…”
“Emotional thoughts,” Weng amended. “Well, then why didn’t you use it when we first approached Talbot back at Ceres?”
Gen shrugged. “There was no need. You did well enough on your own.”
Weng kept his expression as emotionless as possible. “Also, you did not trust me,” he added.
Gen nodded. “As you say. We all have secrets.”
The robots were nearing completion of their task at the other shuttle. Weng gestured to them. “Doesn’t anything about this strike you as odd?”
Gen crossed his arms and stared at the robots.
“They do not seem nearly as efficient as the robots at the Ceres Mining Station.”
“No, no,” Weng interrupted. “Not that. Hasn’t Ceres blocked all transmissions, as we suggested?”
The two men exchanged glances. Gen flipped open his infopad again, fingers hurriedly inputting commands.
“Confirmed. Incoming blocked at Ceres.”
“Gen, do you mind staying here to supervise the loading of our precious cargo for Mars?”
Across the loading dock area, a section of wall slid open. Two robotic porters detached themselves from docking sockets next to the opening and entered the new area.
“The foodstuffs will be readied momentarily,” Gen said. “You have only a few minutes. I will attempt to delay the procedure.”
“That’s all I need,” Weng said, withdrawing his long-unused wrist com from his left sleeve pocket. He felt the right sleeve pocket; damn, no earpiece. He’d have to keep his voice down. No choice.
Shoving the remains of his coffee cup into the pocket, he touched the watch to his wrist. The organoplastic wrapped itself around, just like it used to. He walked as casually as he could away from the shuttle loading area, back toward the crew entrance elevator. Glancing back, he saw Gen raise his hand to stop a porter. To double-check the inventory, he hoped.
He tapped the watch and shielded the plastic face with a hand.
No answer. He checked the connection.
Damn. The office manager was in a meeting. He’d have to try someone else.
“Elodie. Elodie, are you there? It’s Sam.”
A tiny image projected from the organoplastic surface. He adjusted the size and volume, but the voice still seemed too loud for comfort. He looked around. Automatons hadn’t made any motion toward him.
“Sam? Hi, long time no see, big shot. Didn’t know you were slumming.”
“Elodie, hi. Look, I know it’s sudden, but I need a favor.”
“Favor? You weasel your way out of a Luna architectural project into a Martian water reclamation team and now you want a favor?”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. Very uncool of me.”
“But characteristic. What do you want?”
“Thanks. I need to know if someone from Ceres managed to contact Luna within the past three days.”
“Ceres? We contact them all the time.”
“Not now we don’t. They’re blocked all incoming.”
A moment of silence. He tapped at the watch. “Elodie? Are you there?”
“Well, I’ll be. You’re right, Sam.”
He felt himself growing impatient. “Yes, I know. Listen, can you…”
“Sam, what’s going on? There are rumors of trouble here.”
He stopped. “Trouble? What kind?”
“We all heard something happened in the last UN meeting. Something between Brazil, China, India…I forget who else. We were told not to allow ships from ISS to land for the time being.”
He looked over at the loading area. Gen was still trying to delay, but it appeared as if the porters were already setting their pallets in place.
“Elodie, can you check…” His mind raced. “Can you check for any incoming from deep space? From transjovial or transneptune?”
“Miss your girlfriend, eh, Mr. Martian.”
“Elodie, come on.”
A string of words appeared across the plastic surface.
“What’s this? Code?”
“Looks like. I found it hidden in a subdirectory, addressed to Sergey.”
“Sergey? From who?”
“Can’t tell. It was definitely from a ship, though.”
The porters had finished their task. A warning alarm sounded.
“Gotta go before they open the loading dock doors. Thanks a bunch, Elodie.”
“Sam! What is going on?”
“I don’t know. Be safe.”
He cut the connection, yanked the watch off and threw it on the floor. Carefully aiming, he crunched it under a boot. From the slivers remaining, he withdrew a tiny fragment. The micro-memory chip was all he needed. The rest could stay.
He had no intention of returning. Not if what he suspected was happening came to pass.
He ran back to the shuttle. Gen had already entered and was beginning the start-up sequence. Weng climbed up the ladder and slid in from the top portal.
“OK, Gen, let’s get out of here,” he said, taking the navigator’s seat. “You can drive if you like.”
“I have no difficulties piloting the shuttle, Sam,” Gen replied. His hands flew over the console as the shuttle slowly lifted and turned. The automated porters in the loading area returned to their niches in the wall. The lights dimmed. The shuttle rose toward the semi-domed roof, arching above them.
“50 meters,” Gen said. “25.”
For a second Weng nearly panicked. Had Lunar Security caught his transmission? Would they block them?
Seams in the roof appeared. The semi-dome split into two sections that slid open like the doors of a greenhouse. The shuttle edged its way through the opening and into the thin Lunar atmosphere.
Fifty years prior, Weng realized, the decompression from the loading area would have propelled them out into space, reducing the need for thrusters. Now, with the faster than anticipated terraforming project successfully completed, the old loading area construction seemed horribly antiquated.
Gen toggled the aft thrusters, and the shuttle sluggishly lifted away from the loading station. As they turned onto their off-Lunar trajectory path toward Mars, Weng could see the station below, embedded into the lunarscape.
No wonder, he thought. All the original buildings had to be buried in the surface. Or beneath. Even with the atmosphere, the engineers never did figure out how to stop all harmful solar radiation.
Outside the Lunar Base perimeter, the gravity generators no longer held them down. They shot off toward Mars. Gen checked the console as he set the autocontrols.
“We may return in time,” he said. “Barely.”
Weng didn’t respond. Hands in pockets, he was still fiddling with the microchip with one hand, debating what to do. Fingers on the opposite hand touched the crumbled remains of the coffee cup in the other pocket. He retrieved one piece and turned in over his hand.
Strange, he mused. He almost felt a certain attachment to it. An odd feeling of…he didn’t know.
“Surely not nostalgia?” Gen asked, turning around.
Weng didn’t look up from the paper shred.
“Maybe not,” he said, giving no indication of annoyance at the unwanted mind read. “Maybe I should have told Sergey.”
“Told him what exactly?”
Weng returned the shred to his pocket and withdrew his hands. He folded them in front of him.
“Gen. We must talk,” he said calmly. “Of revolution.”
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 21: The Artemis, in which the Rock seems to have cosmic import… (dropping April 10, 2021)
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.