M Thomas Apple Author Page

Science fiction, actual science, history, and personal ranting about life, the universe, and everything

Bringer of Light, Chapter 22: The Artemis

July 29, 2021
MThomas

About a month overdue! Sorry once again. But life has a way of…etc etc.

Weng and Sam were on their way back to Mars but took a detour to Ceres, having realized that a conspiracy involving asteroid hunters and possibly even retired Captain Sergey on Luna has entangled the clones’ plan for an independent Ceres. Meanwhile, the Artemis continues its long journey home, and the crew decides it’s time to test out their newly acquired abilities…on some fruit.


Riss stared down at the table in the mess galley. A dozen fruits and vegetables floated above it, gently bobbing up and down.

“How did you do that?” she demanded.

Sanvi shrugged and then yawned. “I just thought about what I wanted to eat. Made me feel a little tired, though.”

“I saw you do it, and I still don’t know how you did it.”

Cooper leaned forward and plucked out a mango. He paused, then took a small bite. “Delicious,” he said, devouring the rest.

Enoch shook his head. “I don’t know what half these things are.”

Sanvi picked up some of the fruit and passed them around, naming each.

“Purple mangosteen. Ambarella. Star fruit.”

“What’s this one?” Enoch asked. He gestured to a yellow fruit with twisted fingers stretching out in a cluster.

“Buddha’s hand.”

He made a face. “You expect me to eat this stuff? I’d rather have rations.”

Riss laughed. “Eat or not, the more important fact is that Sanvi was able to make them at all. What did you use?”

Sanvi tapped a finger on the panel next to her. “Some of the rations, of course. I reasoned that, if we can manipulate matter, we need something that’s already physical.”

Enoch sputtered. “Some of the ra—“

“So,” Riss cut in, “even though there are atoms all around us, it’s not as if we can just create something from nothing.”

“It’s not creation, is it?” Cooper said. “Nothing is new in the universe. Everything is merely one form of something already existing.”

Riss nodded. “Nothing is created; all is renewed. From either a mystical or a chemical standpoint.”

“Wait,” Enoch protested. “Are you saying that any of us — all of us — can do what Sanvi did? Make some disgusting fruit?”

Sanvi gave him the finger. 

“If you’ve never heard of Buddha’s hand,” Riss said, “I doubt you’d be able to manipulate the atoms of a ration tube and turn it into one.”

“But if I know what something is,” Enoch said dubiously, “then as long as I can imagine it, I can make it?”

“Rearrange it. Not create. That’s what I must have done with the doll in my room.”

“Doll?”

Riss briefly felt herself reddening. “Save it.”

“OK, Wiseman,” Cooper said, giving Enoch a tube. “Here’s your tube. Let’s see you turn it into something else.”

Enoch held the tube and concentrated. At first, nothing happened. After a moment, the edges of the tube began to fold in on themselves. The object became rounder, and redder, with slender green strips like fingers emerging from the surface.

Enoch gasped and nearly dropped it.

“My god,” Riss said. “What on earth is it?”

Pitaya,” he whispered. “Dragon fruit. I’ve never eaten one. Only seen pictures from my grandfather.”

He turned it over in his hand, then placed it on the table. He took a knife out from a nearby drawer and cut the fruit in half. The inside was off-white, with tiny black seeds throughout.

“It looks like vanilla chocolate chip ice cream,” Cooper said. He stuck his finger into the pulp and licked it. “Doesn’t taste like it, though.”

Riss picked it up and took a bite. “It tastes like a bland food ration,” she said.

“Not bad for a disgusting fruit,” Sanvi said with a smirk. Enoch returned her finger to her.

“So,” Riss said, “We can’t rearrange things without direct, previous knowledge of what it is we want to make.”

“Would this also work for inanimate objects?” Cooper wondered aloud. “You know, like minerals or metals.”

“Do you mean, could we extract ore from an asteroid just by thinking about it?” Riss asked. She recalled the mask, then shook her head. “I’m not all that anxious to find out, to be honest.”

“No, no,” Cooper said, shaking his head. “I mean, how do we stop the ship? Can we, uh, rearrange part of to slow us down?”

“That’s not exactly what I had in mind,” Riss replied. “But imagine if we could somehow remotely control the catcher on Ceres.”

“I could hack the system,” Enoch said.

“No, too risky. Also probably too difficult, especially if they refuse to communicate. They probably already shut down any external grid access.”

“What if,” Sanvi suddenly said. “What if we were to combine our thoughts. You know, think about the same thing, simultaneously?”

“Here we go again,” Enoch snorted. “Voodoo magic. Ow!”

Sanvi had punched him on the shoulder. Hard.

Cooper darted an angry look at Enoch, Riss noted. She decided to distract him. “Sanvi, if I understand you correctly,” she started. “You mean, we should, individually, try to concentrate on the catcher as we approach. And then, we sort of, ah…”

She waved her arms around, at a loss for words.

“Our minds are growing closer,” Enoch intoned, holding his hands up in a Levite blessing. “Nanoo, nanoo, I bless you all, shalom, shazbot. Ow!”

“Riss,” Cooper said, shaking his head. “This is all getting just a little too, you know.”

“Mystical?” she said.

“Ridiculous?” Enoch said, rubbing his shoulder and glaring at Sanvi. She stuck out her tongue at him.

“Just roll with it. Everybody ready?”

Riss looked around the galley. Her crew stared back at her blankly. Enoch took another bite of papaya. “For what?” he said between chews.

“Ready for the next step.”

Cooper narrowed his eyes. “Riss, I hope this does not mean what I think it means.”

“I have no idea what you think it means,” Enoch said. Cooper rolled his eyes.

“If none of you think we can move the thrower,” Riss said, “why don’t we try to move something smaller first? As a test.”

“A test?” Enoch repeated. “I suck at tests.”

“Call it a trial, then. A practice. But as a group, working together.”

They all looked at Riss. She looked at each of them, then back at the table between them. 

“Let’s concentrate on moving one object,” she said. “Slowly.”

“The dragon fruit,” Enoch suggested, putting the rest of the pitaya down.

Riss nodded.

“Sure. Do what I say. Lift it to eye level. Turn it around once. Aim it at me. Move it two meters, then turn it around and return it.”

They stood around the dinner table, alternately staring at the fruit and each other. A few minutes passed.

“Um,” Cooper said.

Another moment of silence.

“Well, this is awkward,” said Enoch.

“Alright,” Riss said. “This obviously isn’t working right now. Why don’t we, uh, take a break and recharge or something.”

“Wait,” Sanvi said. “Let’s try again. This time, every one should shut their eyes.”

“Shut my eyes?” Enoch said. “How can I concentrate on moving the thing if I can’t even see it?”

“Why should you need to see it?”

“Well. Ah.”

“What is the fruit made of?” Sanvi persisted.

Enoch shrugged. “Molecules of a ration pack that I changed into something I only…”

He stopped, then continued, “…only had imagined in my dreams.” 

And closed his eyes.

“The fruit is only molecules,” Sanvi said softly. “Only atoms like everything else around us. I can feel them. I can see them.”

Riss closed her eyes and concentrated. Nothing.

No. Wait. She could sense something. She could see it. The pitaya.

“Can you see it, Coop?” she said aloud. He turned to her. But his eyes were closed. So were hers. How could she see him?

“Riss,” he said.

“Steady, people,” Riss said. “Concentrate. Lift it up.”

In her mind’s eye she saw the dragon fruit wobble. Then one end lifted off the table. Then the entire fruit.

“A little higher.” It rose to head level.

“Now. Gently. Let’s spin it around.”

The fruit hovered over the table. It jerked to the left, then back to the right.

“Clockwise,” Riss specified.

“Riss,” said Enoch. “I’m getting a little winded.”

“Same here,” whispered Cooper.

“Relax. Just a little longer.”

The fruit slowly swiveled, turning clockwise. It began to move closer to the edge of the table.

“Towards me,” Riss said.

She could feel the fruit strain to move. Something was wrong. Tension. Fighting? She opened her eyes. Enoch and Cooper were sweating. Sanvi had her eyes half-opened but otherwise appeared as if in a deep trance.

“Slowly.”

The pitaya jerked towards her. Then Enoch, then Cooper. One end began to swell.

“Slowly!” she said again, a little more forcefully. “Middle of the table!”

The fruit rose again, above their heads and began to spin wildly.

“No!” Riss shouted.

The dragon fruit burst apart, spraying chunks of fiber across the room.

Sanvi opened her eyes and laughed. She was, as Riss then noticed, the only Artemis crew member not covered in the remains of the exploded dragon fruit.

“I think,” Riss said, somewhat annoyed at Sanvi, “we need a little more practice.”

She scooped a handful of pulp from her shirt.

“And a shower, too.”

Cooper sighed and yanked a handkerchief out of a shirt pocket. “Riss,” he said glumly wiping pitaya juice from his face, “I think we need a break.”

Enoch grimaced and dragged his hands through his hair, yanking out dragon fruit seeds. “I agree with the geist,” he said. “For once. I feel, I dunno, drained?”

“All right,” Riss said with a sigh. “Let’s, let’s all sleep on it for now. We’ll give it another try in a few hours.” 

Her crew left the galley one at a time, headed back to the sleeping quarters corridor. Enoch loudly yawned before Cooper smacked him on the back. The two tussled, but it was a friendly shoving match, ending with arms around shoulders. Sanvi followed, arms crossed, silent.

“And don’t forget to check the physical fitness schedule and take your calcium pills,” Riss called after them. “Some of you are beginning to get lazy.”

Sanvi paused at the doorway and looked back. For a moment, Riss thought she saw something new in Sanvi’s face. Something attractive. Reluctant.

Resisting, Riss realized. Maybe even a little scared. She felt it, too.

“Riss, all you all right?” Sanvi said hesitantly. “I—”

“I’m okay,” Riss cut in. She stopped, then nodded her head. “Sanvi, I, ah. I’m just a little tired.”

“Well, if, if you need to talk.”

Riss looked down and bit her lip.

“Thanks.”

As she watched the pilot leave, Riss hugged herself. They had all changed somehow. She could still feel the ship pulsing, like a thing alive. Sensing her fears, hopes. Desires. Things about her she barely understood, herself.

But what of Sam?


Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 23: Luna – in which Sergey becomes an unwilling participant in a coup.

Mars has a really thick skin

July 28, 2021
MThomas

Well, OK, technically it’s the mantle, not the crust.

But it is thick. Super thick. And no gradations like the Earth.

Extrapolating to the known surface geology of the rest of the planet, this suggests an average thickness of between 24km and 72km. By contrast, Earth’s average crustal thickness is 15-20km.

https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-57935742

So what does this mean?

For one thing, it probably explains why there’s no breathable atmosphere on Mars.

Mars never developed a global magnetic field to block solar radiation. So it’s atmosphere was basically ripped right off.

And any terraforming attempts in the future would fail on a global scale. But maybe locally it might work…

Destination: Red Planet

June 27, 2021
MThomas

Like other nations, China “regards Mars exploration as the preferred destination for deep space exploration,” Wang said.

https://abcnews.go.com/amp/Technology/china-unveils-ambitious-roadmap-human-mars-exploration/

China’s plan calls for setting up a permanently occupied base and a fleet of interplanetary craft. Probably it’s a good idea to first see whether it can meet its goal of landing people on Mars in 2033.

Of course, China is “willing to join hands with our counterparts and partners all over the world,” but it’s unlikely NASA, JAXA, ESA, and the UAE and other countries not named Russia will “cooperate.”

The next space race is here. Just wait until multinats actually decide asteroid mining is worth the risk and expense.

Ion engines are no longer sci-fi

June 19, 2021
MThomas

The inclusion of an ion propulsion system in a long-running, Earth-orbiting space station will give researchers a chance to test out the tech while astronauts are still close to home — and if it works as hoped, it could one day ferry explorers to Mars and even more distant destinations.

https://www.freethink.com/articles/ion-propulsion

That’s a big “if.”

Another is what the price will be, since no doubt this neat new tech won’t easily be shared among nation-states.

Just yesterday Chinese astronauts entered their new space station for the first time. They weren’t allowed into the ISS. Now they don’t need the ISS.

The old rivalries will follow humanity into space…but for how long will the rivalries remain…

Bringer of Light, Chapter 20: United Mars Colonies

May 29, 2021
MThomas

The water brought from Ceres to Mars—crushed from the rock sent by Riss and her crew—is beginning to affect colonists. Weng and Gen still haven’t returned from Luna, leaving Mars Overseer Martin Velasquez to deal with the situation on his own…

“Overseer, the latest report on Settler Pod #2.”

“Thank you, Sergeant Major.”

“Should I have additional units sent?”

“No, no. Continue to guard the specified locations.”

Martin switched off the monitor and ran a hand through his thinning hair. He held out the hand; it shook slightly.

The previous week had not been easy.

First, he spent nearly an entire day convincing the settler factions that the communications blackout was necessary for the time being. When his “son” and Weng arrived at the orbital docking station and transferred the new water supply from Ceres, Martin supervised the transfer from the dock to the Colonies’ water treatment facility. Meanwhile, he had also secretly instructed the EU members of the Security Forces to post watches on three UA underground ice factories. At the same time, he busied himself trying to hack into the servers that controlled the ice factory access points. Normally he would have had Gen do the work, but of course his son had already left for Luna, leaving Martin to wonder how much Gen had told Weng about the nature of their “father-son” relationship.

Then the reports started coming in.

At first, Martin dismissed them entirely. One or two isolated cases of space sickness, he assumed. It happened sometimes. A new settler working on the electrical grid extensions would forget to pace herself and then experience fatigue from not being used to the lower gravity. Another in hydroponics would spent too much time outside the protected greenhouse domes or not wash off his farming suit thoroughly enough, exposing himself to greater levels of cosmic radiation. 

But when another fifteen settlers complained of feeling odd, he began to worry. The Colonies had a medical center, naturally—designed to treat illnesses for a colony population of a few dozen, not several hundred, rapidly approaching a thousand. And even counting the four new refugee ships that had not yet arrived (and which he could not contact and warn to return).

The rioting had been easy to handle. Identify one or two troublemakers, cut a deal with the settler faction heads, throw in a few virtual headsets.

Sickness, that was something else entirely.

He rubbed knuckles in his eyes. Caffeine withdrawal. He had cut back on water use from the reclamation station, but his private stock was running low. Little remained for drinking, let alone tea.

The reports had started only after the Ceres water was added to the system. Logically, he thought, there might be something in the water that was affecting people. He was no engineer, of course, and there were a number of other possibilities. Stress, for example. Inadequate electricity. Limited internet. The Mars Baseball League temporary suspension of games.

Lack of sex and enforced contraceptives.

That last one had not gone over well with the new settlers, particularly among the more religious.

But they agreed to restrain themselves. For the time being.

Martin worried. Despite his (extremely persuasive and charming) explanation that it would probably be impossible for normal conception on Mars, and that they did not have proper child birthing, maternity or childcare facilities, it seemed likely to Martin that at some point someone would forget themselves.

Nobody had told the refugees this, naturally. They even brought children. Children! The most recent ship had 172 adults and 25 children from age 5 to 14. The last thing they needed was more children running around the Colonies. And not enough space or supplies for new schools, even had they more licensed teachers. Oh, once things had settled down, and the UN was convinced to give them more financial and political backing, then perhaps. 

After all, if the United Mars Colonies were to survive as colonies, at some point they would have to set up an artificial birth crèche and incubation chamber. Unless they got to 5,000 colonists, the Colonies would simply remain unviable, fail to reach self-sustainability, and probably collapse at some point.

But he had no intention of getting to 5,000 that quickly. And certainly not under the current environmental conditions.

Martin slapped the console to life again and punched more buttons on the antique desk.

“Hydroponics.”

“Velasquez here. What’s the latest estimate?”

“Overseer, with this newest settler group, I’d say we’re down to two weeks now. Maybe ten days.”

“Ten! Anyway to make it stretch? Didn’t that new water supply help?”

“Sir, it takes more than a week to grow vegetables.”

Martin bit his knuckle. Of course. He knew that.

Mustn’t let it show.

“I see. Keep me updated.”

He switched off and toggled another.

“Water reclamation here.”

“This is Velasquez. Status?”

“Sir, we’re working as hard we can to pulverize the latest batch of regolith ice from Outcrop 6. But half of the new workers failed to show up last shift.”

“Failed to—did you contact them?”

“Tried to, yes. The problem is figuring out what they’re saying.”

“What, is the translation matrix down again?”

“No, it’s working just fine for once. It sounds like the workers on the other end are somewhat incoherent. The program sounds, well, drunk.”

Martin frowned and massaged his temples with one hand.

“Do we have water for the next four weeks?” he asked at length.

“That depends.”

“On what?”

“On whether any new immigrants arrive, and how much electricity we’ll need to generate.”

“I see. Well, keep me—”

“And, Overseer, I should mention that some of us here are wondering when Sa—Mr. Weng is returning.”

Oh? Martin raised his eyebrows. He hadn’t figured the architect a popular figure. Perhaps he should keep an eye out. Just in case.

“He should return soon,” he said aloud. “Hopefully with more provisions.”

“Thank you, sir. We’ve heard, ah, certain rumors.”

Martin frowned again. “What rumors?”

“Oh, it’s nothing, Overseer. Just that…some people in the Colonies are seeing strange things, and with the Marsball games shut down and not enough VR headsets to go around, everyone’s got to rely on their imagination for entertainment.”

He did not like the way this conversation was going. Best to end it.

“Your concern is noted,” he said. “I’ll see about tracking down the recalcitrant workers.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Martin cut the connection. He sat back and crossed his arms. Damn it all! Seeing things. Babbling. Not contributing to the community. And yet using up supplies at a pace they could not replenish.

They were all going to die unless he did something about it.

He punched another switch. 

“Medical Center. Liu speaking.”

“This is Velasquez.”

“Overseer. Are we glad to hear from you. Another twenty settlers just reported feeling ill.”

“Is there any way to put settlers into some sort of temporary hibernation?”

“Sir?”

Martin licked his lips. “Listen, we’re dangerously short on water and food. There are too many refugees and the new shipment from Luna isn’t expected for another two weeks.”

“But…hibernation?”

“Can it be done?”

There was a pause.

“Yes, technically, by pumping gas into the settler pods and knocking them unconscious, and then transferring them to a cold locker. But—”

“Prepare to flood settler pods with gas.”

“Overseer, Agent 15 usage is strictly prohibited! We would be violating several directives.”

“We have no choice!” Martin raised his voice. “If we don’t incapacitate at least a quarter the incoming settler population, we’ll all starve!”

“But Overseer, we don’t know that for sure.”

“Oh, yes, we do. How long will it take to prepare enough gas?”

“It’s not just the gas, it’s also preparing the cryo-lockers. And if we’re not careful with the dosage, many will experience mind-damaging hallucinations, or worse.”

Martin stopped himself. Or worse? He searched his memories. Ah. Yes. Moscow. Homs. 

New York.

Was he repeating history?

“How long?” he asked again.

A pause, then a brief cough.

“Two or three days to prepare the gas, plus another day or two to test. After that, several days for the cryo-lockers.”

“Several days?”

“Overseer, we would have to physically remove all unconscious settlers from their pods and place them in cryo-stasis. Are you sure this is the only way to—”

“Understood. Let me know when the gas is ready.”

Martin switched the comm off and sat back.

This was a huge gamble. Hundreds could die.

Either way, he thought. Unless he could break into the UA ice factories and extract the precious water reserves trapped underground. At least that way they could survive by sacrificing merely dozens.

Perhaps.

He rubbed his eyes again and bent over the aging console.

Four or five days, he thought grimly. Hurry back, Sam.


Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 21: Transit—Luna to Ceres. Weng’s suspicions about his “assistant” Gen are confirmed, and then some.

Bringer of Light, Chapter 19: The Sagittarius (Part 2)

May 28, 2021
MThomas

Unbelievably, I have forgotten to post more sections of the Children of Pellas! This was meant to be posted on May 8th, and Chapter 20 (United Mars Colonies) was to be posted on May 22nd.

To try to do a little catch-up—and to try to make it up to my readers!—I’ll post them both this weekend.

The game is afoot!

(When last we saw Gennaji, Ory, Karel, and Andy, they had been boarded at gunpoint by former Sagittarius member and now Captain Ildico…who has an offer Gennaji can’t refuse…)

The galley was clearly not designed for eleven people at the same time.

Ildico had embraced Orynko as she entered the galley, a bear hug that left the pilot gasping for air. Now the two sat side by side at the common meal table which occupied most of the room. An arm around the Sagittarius’s only female crew member, Ildico carried on as if they’d known each other all along.

Across the small table sat Gennaji and the military issue clone. Gennaji tried his best not to spend too much attention on her. Clone or not, she was a mighty attractive wo— 

Female soldier, he silently corrected himself. Well-built and no-nonsense attitude. Qualities he admired. Feared, also. Better to keep his hands and eyes to himself. For her part, the clone said little, simply staring at Ildico and Orynko. At some point she had crossed her arms, although whether in annoyance or out of habit, Gennaji couldn’t tell. Simply noted for future reference.

The remaining two Sisters stood in the corridor, right outside the door. As if guarding.

From what? Gennaji wondered. Or were they more like prison guards, preventing them from leaving without Ildico’s permission? The idea was unsettling.

He sipped from a water pack. Ildico had forgotten all about getting a drink once she saw Ory.

“Why don’t you dump these guys and come join the Sisters?” Ildico was saying.

Gennaji opened his mouth but Ory cut him off. “I’m flattered, Captain Ildico,” she demurred. “Perhaps when my contract is over, I will take you up on the generous offer.”

Gennaji covered his smirk with another sip of water. He wished they had something stronger.

Karel stood in one corner, sipping a non-alcoholic beer pack through a straw. Three of the taller clones surrounded him, staring blankly at his beard. Gennaji would normally jest about it, but the mood wasn’t right. He caught Karel’s desperate glance, and narrowed his eyes in response, holding up a finger in warning. An almost pained look crossed the big man’s face, and all Gennaji could do was grimace in sympathy.

He had no desire to start a war of words with the Sisters. Or a war of anything else.

“Gen,” Ildico said suddenly, slapping his shoulder from across the table.

He nearly spurted out the water. “Mmm?”

“Where’s the drinks? I thought this was a top-class ship.”

He gestured to Andrzej, who had taken up a position directly in front of the provisions cabinet. To protect it from the Sisters. Andrzej withdrew a water pack and tossed it over.

Ildico took it with a look of disgust. “That’s it?”

Gennaji shrugged. “Sorry, Captain. Unless you want a fake beer.”

Karel raised his pack.

“Hate that crap and you know it, Gen,” she snorted. She poked open the water and noisily sucked half the pack out. “Ah. I half-expected poison.”

Gennaji smirked. “Too expensive. I can barely afford water.”

Ildico smiled and drained the rest of the pack. Dropping it on the table, she withdrew her arm from Orynko and leaned back with an air of confidence.

“That,” she said silkily, “is where the Sisters can help you.”

Gennaji immediately perked up his ears. Perhaps something good may come of this unpleasant situation after all.

“Oh?” he said, as nonchalantly as possible.

“It just so happens,” said Ildico, idly running a finger down Orynko’s arm, “that I have my own rock.”

She looked expectedly at him. “Two, in fact.”

He arched an eyebrow. “Ditrium?”

She nodded. “Took a while, but it turned out that a patch of the Jupiter Trojans had some rare metals.”

“And the Council didn’t know?”

She grinned. “The Council forgot that one of their hunters used to be a geist.”

It figured, he thought with chagrin. Here he had wasted a trip to transneptune, chasing an old grudge, and Ildico had snared a fortune without anyone suspecting a thing.

“But surely they’ll find out at some point,” he said carefully. “And demand their fair share, of course.”

Ildico shrugged. “No doubt. But it’ll be too late by then.”

“Too late? For what?”

She glanced at Karel, then Andrzej. “Your men. Trustworthy?”

Gennaji stared at Karel, who was still surrounded by Ildico’s clones. Karel was a pain, but he had suffered Gennaji’s insults and orders so far without complaint.

Karel stared back, and briefly nodded. That was all Gennaji needed.

“Yes,” he said. He looked to Andrzej, who remained stone-faced. “I trust them with my life, because they trust me with theirs.”

Ildico suddenly became serious. “I was not questioning your qualifications as a hunter captain, Gennaji. I know you too well to dare ask such a thing.”

He drew a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Would she bring up their encounter at Vesta? Those many years ago? He hoped she had forgotten.

“What is it you need from me, Ildi? You know I have to ask.”

She stood and gestured across the table. “Taygete. Give Captain Gennaji our proposal.”

The clone uncrossed her arms and lay her hands palm down on the table as she spoke.

“The Sagittarius will accompany the Seven Sisters to Ceres. Once there, the Sagittarius and her crew will support the Sisters bid to gain control of the Ceres Mining Council.”

Gennaji began to laugh. He stopped at the look on Taygete’s stern face.

“You’re serious,” he said.

She returned the look with an even gaze. “In return,” Taygete continued, “Captain Ildico offers financial compensation.”

“Financial?” Karel blurted. “You are talking about taking over the Council! We will be executed for treason!”

Taygete stood, arms now crossed. Andrzej slowly reached for his pistol.

“Andy!” Gennaji said sharply.

Andrzej froze, but kept his hand on his weapon.

Karel pushed his way through the clones; they stood with arms crossed, in imitation of their Captain who now stood together with Taygete. The two women stared down at Gennaji with expressionless faces.

“We are not going to make any quick decisions, Ildi,” Gennaji said quietly. He glanced back and forth between his crew members. “Karel has a point. You are asking us to put both our livelihoods and our lives on the line for you.”

“Yes,” she said matter of factly. “I am.”

She smiled. Gennaji wasn’t sure he liked this smile any more than the previous ones. Now his old colleague looked like more than just a freewheeling pirate. She had the look of a conniving politician. He preferred the pirate.

Gennaji folded his hands in front of him on the table, thinking. Was there a chance that the Sisters could take over the Council? Even with his help, they would need at least two or three other ships on their side.

The Corvus.

“Ory, what’s the status of the Corvus?”

She sat up straight, startled by the sudden question. “Last time I checked, right after the detonation, they were dead in space. Comps all fried. Probably drifting toward Enceladus.”

“Andy, think we could stabilize them with a few tractors?”

“Yes.”

“Karel?”

Gennaji looked up. Karel was still standing behind the two women, the other three shorter clones behind him. His dark expression betrayed his thoughts.

“Karel,” Gennaji repeated. “What do you think about the tractors?”

“I don’t like it, sir,” Karel growled. “But if you believe this is a good move for us, then I will ready the tractors.”

Gennaji paused, then nodded.

“Well, then,” Ildico said lightly, turning to leave. “Then it’s settled. We’ll prepare to rescue the Corvus.”

“Wait a moment, Ildi,” Gennaji said, grabbing her arm. She yanked the arm away as Taygete took up a defensive posture between them. Gennaji spread his hands. “Hey, take it easy.”

“Do not touch the Captain,” the clone said. “Nobody touches her.”

He raised an eyebrow. Interesting. Similar to the earlier reaction to Ildico and Ory. Never heard of clones with strong emotional responses, he thought. He made a mental note; he might use this to his advantage at a later date. Somehow.

“Taygete, Ildi and I go way back,” he said. “Before you were even in a petri dish.”

The clone stared back expressionless and did not respond.

“It’s all right,” Ildico said, stepping in front of Taygete. “What’s the problem, Gen?”

“If,” he began, darting a glance at Karel, “if we get the Corvus up and running again, that’s only three ships. Assuming that the Corvus will find themselves indebted enough to support you, I mean.”

“So?”

“So three ships is not enough to sway the Council. You’ll need at least two or three more to force their hand. What’s the catch?”

“Catch?” she smiled sweetly. “I have my secrets, Gen.”

“Secrets,” he scoffed. “Secret plans are not enough to convince me and my crew to sacrifice ourselves for you.”

“Let’s just say I have an insider on both Ceres and Luna.”

Gennaji narrowed his eyes. On Luna? No, it couldn’t be…

“And,” Ildico continued, “I’ll throw in a freebie. I can get you what you really want.”

Gennaji’s heart almost skipped a beat.

“Revenge.”

Andrzej had spoken it aloud. Gennaji turned to him. How did he know?

“Yes,” Ildico said. “I have not forgotten, either, Gen.”

“Andy,” Gennaji started. He found himself at a loss for words.

“Captain,” Andrzej said, keeping his eyes on Ildico. “I am not sure that revenge is necessarily in the best interests of the Sagittarius.”

He paused, then added for emphasis, “Or in the best interests of the Seven Sisters.”

“Let me ask you,” Ildico asked, approaching Andrzej. She stopped a breath’s space away from him. “Who do you think the Seventh Sister actually is?”

Andrzej said nothing. The staredown continued several seconds. “I had always assumed the Seventh Sister was you, Ildico,” Gennaji said, breaking the taut silence.

“No,” Taygete said. “She is not.”

The three Sisters standing at the back of the galley formed a semi-circle around Andrzej. Gennaji stood. He did not like the way this conversation was headed.

“The Seventh Sister is always hidden,” one of the Sisters said.

Gennaji looked from Sister to Sister. All three seemed identical.

“They are very near to identical,” Ildico said, as if reading his mind. “Yet they have names. Alkyone. Sterope. Merope.”

“And I don’t suppose,” Karel interrupted, “that each of them has her own opinion about how the ship is run.”

Ildico closed her eyes. “Gen.”

“Karel,” Gennaji warned. “Hold your tongue.”

The big helmsman glared at Gennaji, but simply crossed his arms and said no more. Gennaji returned the glare and narrowed his eyes, darting them to Ildico and back again to Karel. He hoped the man would catch his meaning. No point in challenging the Sisters. Not here. Not now.

“I don’t suppose the hidden Sister is Captain Kragen,” Andrzej suddenly said.

Gennaji’s face darkened. “Do not speak that name in my presence!”

“Ha! That spoiled brat?” Ildico laughed. “Not a chance.”

Andrzej shrugged.

“Captain,” Orynko said. “What happened to make you hate her so much?”

“She…” Gennaji choked out. He sat down heavily, unable to continue. The image from his daydream earlier that day appeared in his head. The smoke. Circuits ablaze. The unseeing eyes looking up at him.

“She caused the death of our crewmate,” Ildico said softly. “I was there, too, Gen. I do remember.”

“So,” Andrzej ventured, “it was accidental?”

“Lena died!” Gennaji shouted. “Because of incompetence! Stupidity! I…” He closed his mouth and squeezed his eyes shut.

I lost Lena. No tears. Only anger.

“But the Council must have exonerated her?” Orynko asked.

“Yes,” said Andrzej. “She is still a captain.”

“The Council was soft,” Ildico said acidly. “Bardish testified on her behalf, as well. His word carries weight.”

“Leave Sergey out of it,” Gennaji said. “How could he testify otherwise? A man must protect his charges.”

“And so justice was not served that day, Gen,” Ildico replied. “And we have never forgotten, not forgiven.”

“Captain,” Karel interrupted. “Is it really justice that you are after? Seems to me there’s little profit in revenge.”

Gennaji shot him a look that would have made others wince. But Karel seemed to be getting bolder. He would have to teach the big man a lesson. Soon.

“Ildi,” he said, ignoring Karel. “Get me a chance for revenge, and I will see that you are the next Council Chair.”

She nodded in satisfaction. “Things will be different. And you and your crew will not regret this decision.”

Gennaji turned back to Andrzej and Karel. “Let’s get the Corvus under control. We may need to send someone with tools to fix their nav system. And to bring some iodine pills for radiation.”

“Aye, Captain,” Andrzej said. He left immediately. Karel stood silently, then nodded and followed.

“Well,” Ildico said with a sigh. “Finally. Things are getting underway.”

“Yes,” Gennaji said. “Ory, let’s escort the Captain to the cargo area and get her safely back aboard the Pleiades.”

“No need, Ory darling,” Ildico said with a wink. “You’re needed here. For now.”

“Fine. Right, so I’ll get one of my men over to the Corvus. We’ll need one or two of the Sisters as backup for tech detail.”

“I’m sure Taygete won’t mind. Will you, dear?”

The clone grunted, then spun on heel and left the room. Gennaji was sure it glowered as well. Again, interesting, he thought. He’d better keep an eye on this clone. It could prove useful.

“Now that that’s all settled,” he said. “How about—”

“Later,” Ildico said, cutting him off. “I know my way off the ship. Contact me when the Corvus repairs are nearly finished. We’ll rendezvous at Ceres. Six days.”

“Six?”

Before he had a chance to finish the thought, Ildico left. The three Sisters stolidly standing guard inside the galley followed. From the footsteps, it sounded as if the other two guards in the corridor likewise had gone.

Gennaji pondered, drumming his fingers on the table in the now empty galley. He had been about to ask about further details regarding her plan. Something didn’t quite fit, and he hated being left in the dark.

But to finally break out of the red! He’d been desperate for ship upgrades for at least two years. And to revenge himself on Clarissa—

He stopped mid thought.

Ildico had avoided revealing the identity of the Seventh Sister.

His fingers ceased drumming.

Perhaps, he mused. The Seventh Sister was not so secretive after all.


Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 20: United Mars Colonies. Mars settlers have begun to behave oddly, setting the stage for the coming storm…

“Wright Brothers’ moment” – helicopters on Mars

April 19, 2021
MThomas

“We together flew on Mars. We together have our Wright brothers moment.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/04/19/nasa-ingenuity-helicopter-mars/

Yeah, yeah, I know. Technically, a German immigrant in Connecticut flew a plane before Orville and Wilbur.

But PR counts. Kudos, NASA!

Bringer of Light, Chapter 18: The Artemis

April 17, 2021
MThomas

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.”

“Saturn’s moon?”

“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.”

“Roger.”

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…”

“Enoch.”

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.”

She paused.

“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.”

“I am?”

“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.”

“Damn. Sanvi?”

“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)

Bringer of Light, Chapter 17: Luna Base

March 27, 2021
MThomas

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.”

Gen waited.

“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.”

“Ah.”

Weng started to say something, then changed his mind.

“You know,” he said. “If you have this talent of reading thoughts…”

“Emotions.”

“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.

“Mai.”

No answer. He checked the connection.

Damn. The office manager was in a meeting. He’d have to try someone else.

Tap.

“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.”

“You, t—”

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)

Still, they persevered!

February 18, 2021
MThomas

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.

Piece of cake, right?

https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-56119931

Blog at WordPress.com.
Stoned Monkey Radio

Come inside, pull up a tentacle or seven.

The Heritage Herald

Heritage High School's student-run newspaper

C. L. Kagmi

Crafting strange fiction from stranger fact.

RelatoCorto

Blog Fiction

Misc. Baseball

Gathering Assorted Items of Baseball History and Trivia

Star Techie

Because romping about is not socially acceptable.

PETER GRAARUP WESTERGAARD

Independent blog about literature, philosophy and society in words and images

%d bloggers like this: