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

Bringer of Light, Chapter 13: The Artemis

February 6, 2021
MThomas

While Gennaji prepares to defend himself after having revealed the Sagittarius’s location to fellow asteroid hunters, Riss discovers that trying to forget painful memories has consequences.

Riss fairly staggered out of the exercise room, more exhausted by the two-hour workout than she had expected. Increased gravity from their acceleration, plus extra weight from the rock? Or something else? Her legs felt like pieces of taffy left out in the sun too long. And there was that strange headache she couldn’t seem to shake. Maybe she was just dehydrated.

She shuffled down the corridor to her room, holding herself upright with a hand against the wall. She probably ought to go to the command center, check on the rock, talk to the crew. But first she desperately needed a rest. 

She reached her sleeping cabin and pushed the door. It seemed lighter than usual. No, not lighter. Less…dense. She shook her head and crossed the threshold. 

“Artemis. Lights.”

The sudden illumination hurt her eyes for some reason. She covered them.

“Lights at fifty percent.”

Her vision returned to normal as the lights dimmed.

No, not quite normal. Even with half-illumination, it was as if she could see perfectly. Better than perfect. The door closed behind her and she walked slowly toward her desk. The pad still plugged into the wall port seemed to hum. She gently touched its edge. Somehow it felt…transparent. Translucent. Like the pad wasn’t entirely there.

Or maybe she wasn’t?

Sighing, she slumped into the chair. Maybe it was a virus. She supposed that would explain the headache and sensitivity to brightness. But there was something different about the room. The ship. Herself.

She glanced at the motanka. 

No face. She always wondered about that.

“This doll is special. It is a protector of children,” Sergey said. “As you grow, she will grow, too.

“You mean motanka will get bigger?” she asked, eight-year-old eyes wide.

Sergey laughed. “No, dytyna. She will grow in other ways. Don’t worry. You will see.”

Riss examined the doll. Except for the cross on its face, it looked like any other doll. Two legs, two arms, long skirt. Less lifelike than the one she got from her real parents.

She picked up the doll and frowned.

Her real parents. She thought she had no memories of them. None?

No, wait. She could see something.

Her father. He gave her a doll. Once. Before they had to leave.

She squeezed her eyes shut.

Before they disappeared.

She opened her eyes again. No, she just couldn’t remember.

And looked at the doll. It had changed color.

She turned the doll around, then upside down.

Yes, it had changed color. Yellow hair, check. Black dress.

No, it was green. With light blue flowers…no, checkered red, yellow, and white patterns all over it.

That could’t be. The face was the same. The no-face.

She set the doll on her desk and flopped face-first on her bunk. What on earth was going on? Was space sickness making her lose her mind?

Weng. She needed to talk to him. Should have vidmessed him. Mars and Ceres refused their pings. Should have tried Luna.

Should have.

Magboots still on, Riss fell into a deep sleep.

Walking along the sea. Dark, artificial blue sky. Beyond that she knew lay endless darkness and empty space. Almost as empty as…

A pressure on her left hand. Weng. Holding it firmly, then gently. A squeeze followed by a caress. Like he wanted to say something to her. Like he wanted her to say something to him.

“I love the way your face looks,” Weng began.

“Stop, stop,” Riss interrupted, shaking her head.

“The blue of the Cantic Ocean,” he continued. “The blue of the sky. The constant breeze that wafts…”

Riss sighed.

“I love the way your face looks, framed by the waves of brown locks, blown by an ocean breeze.”

He smiled, then laughed.

“Hopeless romantic,” she said. “You’re just a hopeless romantic. You do know that?”

“I’m supposed to say stuff like that,” he returned. “I’m an artist. It’s what we do.”

“Oh?” she replied.

He just smiled his enigmatic smile. They fell silent.

Something was bothering him. She could tell. He’d never ask for help. Not openly. Not from her. She squeezed his hand. He sighed.

“It doesn’t look like you’ve had much time for artistry lately,” she tried.

Weng made a face. “You’re right, I haven’t.”

“So…”

He said nothing. Just coughed.

Riss looked at him as they walked, hand in hand. He stared into space. What was he thinking? She wondered. What was it he was looking for?

“I guess,” he said finally, after a long pause. “I guess you’ll be heading out again soon.”

She nodded. “You heard.”

He smiled again, looking up, above the sky.

“Sergey mentioned something about a lottery. A special asteroid of some sort.”

“Yes. A centaur. We won the rights to capture it.”

Weng shook his head. “I can’t pretend I understand how you asteroid hunters operate, but can’t you just, you know, negotiate?”

She laughed. “We did. Sort of. It’s complicated.”

She looked at him again. Her artist. Touchingly naive, stubborn and set in his ways. But that didn’t matter. He was faithful to her. Loyal to her adopted father. He had always supported her, regardless of whatever foolish thing she had said or done.

“You will come back to me, yes?” he said.

She squeezed his hand again. “If all goes well, this will be the last trip I have to make out there,” she said.

“Promise?”

“No, of course not!” she said, laughing. “No promises. No guarantees.”

“No returns,” he said. “All sales are final. Let the buyer beware!”

They giggled together. It felt good, sharing a moment with someone she could be completely honest with. Completely open.

Completely. No. She suddenly stopped and let go of his hand. They stood still.

She looked into his eyes. He was still smiling, but the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. His face fell. It was as if, for a moment, she could see who he really was. His real face. Like a cross…

“I’m sorry,” she started.

“What?” he said. “What is it?”

“This…this isn’t…”

She looked up again. The blue sky was gone. Darkness everywhere. 

The ground fell away. Weng disappeared from her sight, his outstretched hands waving uselessly in the lunar wind. No cry escaped her lips. She stared wide-eyed at the stars. The emptiness rushed down. She rushed up to meet it.

With a start, Riss realized she was floating. Outside the ship, free floating in space. No suit. No helmet. In a panic she put her hands over her mouth. But there was no breath. No sound. Silence, only silence.

She looked down. She wasn’t wearing any clothes, none whatsoever.

This must be another dream, she thought, calming herself. Well, then, let’s see where it takes me.

Ahead lay a vortex. She smiled. A vortex, in space. Drawing her closer. She felt like putting her arms in front and swimming, as if it would make any difference.

To her surprise, it did. She felt the vortex pull at her, call her, gently coax her toward its amorphous black center. Faint clouds of burgundy and crimson whisked away as she neared. With a start she found that the vortex was not a hole at all. She reached out with both hands…

And brought a small object back to her.

A small ball. Cottony.

She cupped it. The ball dissolved into a cloud and flowed up her arms, across her entire body, dissipating in the space behind her.

Sensation returned. Gravity wells appeared before her eyes. Patterns revealed themselves. Orbits of planetary objects, trajectories of comets and asteroids. Space dust. Black matter.

She suddenly knew where she was. The happy hunting ground stretched like an enormous mine field before her, blocking her view of the inner system.

Concentrating, she willed an asteroid to approach. It was small, no more than a few meters across. She floated near it, ran her hands over its rough surface. The edges, points, indents. Mostly iron ore, with other trace minerals.

With a wave of a hand, she pulled the trace minerals out, leaving nothing but a ball of pure iron. A deft thrust into the ball; it stretched and twisted like taffy. 

Into a mask.

She held it in her hands. Looked down at it.

The mask looked back at her. She tried it on and saw herself.

Her face. 

The face of the motanka. With a cross on it. 

She screamed.


Next: The game’s afoot…Bringer of Light, Chapter 14: Mars Colonies (Coming February 13, 2021, 7 PM EST)

Bringer of Light, Chapter 5: Riss

November 21, 2020
MThomas

(When last we left the crew of the Artemis, they had just fracked an asteroid, keeping part for their drinking water and sending the rest to Ceres.)

“…Love you. End transmission.”

Riss extended a hand to touch the computer panel, then leaned back in her sleeping cabin chair. Another vid message finished. The ping would probably take several days to reach Weng on Luna. She sighed. She hoped she hadn’t looked as tired as she felt.

Flying over to the Centaur had made her more anxious than she cared to admit to the Artemis crew. Her first capture of a potentially extra-solar object, one that might have originated from the Kuiper Belt. The whole way over she kept thinking of Sergey and the ditrium rock he caught. The one that made the Moon terraforming possible. The one that made him famous.

She desperately wanted the rock to be different. Needed it to be different.

She looked to her right. Barren, boring desktop space. Compared to her crew’s quarters, hers was spartan. Where they had objects that reminded them of home — photos of family, books given by relatives and friends, even freeze-dried flowers — she had practically nothing.

No family. Save Sergey. But he disliked photos, especially of himself.

So instead of a photo, she had a doll, a motanka. Given to her on her sixth birthday, to protect her. Sergey promised to find her parents. Or at least find out what happened to her parents. She couldn’t remember if she’d had dolls when her parents were still…when she was living Earthside.

At any rate, they never found out what had happened. She barely had memories of them, let alone whatever dolls they may have given her.

She stretched out a hand and picked up the doll. Slender blond tresses, tied at the end with red ribbons. A black dress and white shirt decorated with bands of bright orange and light blue. Crown of yellow flowers. 

A cross for a face.

Somehow, she couldn’t picture a German father giving her the same doll. Her Russian mother might have given her a…what was it called? A babushka. No, a matryoshka. Wooden nesting dolls. Different colors, too. Probably.

What kind of people were they, she wondered. She remembered waking up in the lifepod, in the Sagittarius’s cargo hold. Frightened by the large bearded man with the sad eyes who looked like her father but didn’t sound like him.

The woman next to him who looked nothing like her mother but would later treat her like one.

Lena

Riss sighed and put the doll back, gently, on the desk. She kicked off her magboots, lay back on her bed.

“Artemis.”

The desk chimed.

“Play Beethoven.”

“Specify.”

“Für Elise. Medium volume, slower tempo version. In the style of Rachmaninoff.”

The well-known melody did not really soothe her. But it did remind her of Sergey. And she never could decide between German and Russian composers.

Her body began to float above her bunk. It was dangerous to sleep without being strapped in, but it felt relaxing, for the moment. She lay on her back, in the air, looking at her hands. Stretching them in front of her, slowly. Henna-brown hair drifted. Ought to get a cut, she thought absently. The music swelled, repeated the main refrain.

“Artemis. Stop. Play Holst. The Planets, regular volume.”

“Specify movement.”

“Start with the second, then skip to the sixth.”

No Mars or Jupiter, she thought. Even though most of her life, she’d been in the happy hunting grounds. A lifestyle inherited from her foster father Sergey. Chasing rocks around the inner solar system, an independent operator living on the fringes of civilized space. Part of the fun of the job was that each rock was different, but really they were all the same. All variations on a theme.

Like the doll, she thought, with a smirk. Maybe.

She thought back to her last conversation with Weng, before the Artemis left for Transneptune.

“The Luna Council doesn’t want original and beautiful works of architecture,” Weng told her, as they walked along the Lunar Sea, arm in arm. “They want inhabitable cities. Ugly, soulless blocks of metal and concrete, as fast as they can be 3D printed.”

She hadn’t responded. Just stared into the cold night sky. Why argue when the stars were so beautiful?

Maybe the Council was wrong, she thought now. Maybe simply living and working wasn’t enough. Even for adventurous types like Sergey.

No, Riss decided. Maybe she was wrong. too. Maybe she wasn’t an adventurous space captain, after all. Maybe she was just a scavenger, catching ice and throwing it at Ceres, like all the other scavengers with their junky ships.

“The magician” began. She closed her eyes and allowed herself to float higher. Spread her arms out. Tilting back and forth ever so slightly. The hum of the engines below the crew bunk area reverberated.

She was so sure that this rock would be different. No doubt that had added to her getting seriously annoyed at Gennaji. At least twenty-five Earth years older than her, but he acted like sixty. And getting worse with age.

But she felt time slipping away, as well. She had wanted some time on the rock. Alone. To really get to know this one, see if it had something to tell her. To see if she had chosen the right kind of life.

Just another ice rock. Nothing different. No ditrium, no special metals. More ice.

At least the landing and recovery operations went smoothly. At least she got some sense of satisfaction out of a job well done. With a competent crew.

Well, competent, if a little dysfunctional. Sanvi’s skill as a pilot was still developing, but her martial arts talents were always beneficial. The incident in the hold a recent example. The woman occasionally bothered her, challenging her decisions. Questioning her past.

Lena. Sanvi was too much like Lena. Different ethnicity, same personality.

Was that it?

Poor Lena, I’m sorry. I…

Riss opened her eyes. She was looking down at her bunk, her back pressed against the ceiling of her quarters. Reaching back with a hand, she gave a little nudge and began to float downward.

Coming out to Transneptune always bore some risks. She supposed she should be happy they had scored anything at all. A pretty amazing catch, all things considered.

Millions of miles from civilization with an ordinary ice rock in the hold to keep them company. She sighed. 

“Artemis, stop music.”

Back on the bunk, face down, she stretched out a hand and retrieved her boots. While the crew was in rest and relaxation mode, she might as well check their reserves. It’d be a while before they reached Zedra.

She wondered how the rest were coping.


Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter Six: Brady

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