Previous: The Sagittarius, now captained by the grudge-bearing, foul-tempered Gennaji, has been boarded. The adversary? A former crewmate…
“Dammit, Ildico, you have no right being here!”
Opposite Gennaji, facing him with laser rifle drawn, his former crewmate stared him down with a no-nonsense visage. She still wore the drab grey-green outfit of a geist, he noted. Kept her hair short. Built like a block of granite.
Standing in a rough triangle formation behind her, the other six Pleiades crew members similarly sported weapons of various types. All deadly. All nearly identical.
And all foolish to shoot inside a spaceship, Gennaji thought. Likely Ildico also thought. But standard procedure when boarding another hunter’s ship. Particularly given their personal history.
“Captain Gennaji,” she said in a loud voice. “Surrender your vessel to me, and there will be no reprimanding or punishment. I swear.”
Gennaji paused. This was by the book dialogue, as according to the Rules of the Ceres Mining Council and Mining Privateer Regiments. Pirate-brothers-in-arms, he thought sourly. Or Sisters.
“And why should I just give the Sagittarius to you?” he demanded. Next to him, pistols drawn and levelled along sizeable forearms, Karel and Andrzej waited patiently. Silent. Waiting for the appropriate response.
Ildici kept her composure as long as she could. But her face twisted, she burst into laughter, and shouldered her weapon.
“Gennaji! You xitruga old devil, how are you?” she shouted in a booming voice. She threw her arms open and strode forward. Gennaji pocketed his pistol as Ildico grabbed him in a bear hug.
“I’m…uff…fine, Ildi. Yourself?”
She laughed and slapped him on both shoulders. “You are even bigger than I remember. Too many deep space rations, not enough exercise, tak?”
“Ah. Ildi…would you mind?” he nodded at her crew. The Pleiades Sisters were still in formation, weapons pointed; the Sagittarius crew likewise hadn’t budged.
“You first, Gen,” she snorted. “We’re your guests, after all.”
He motioned for his men to lower their pistols; they did so slowly, eyes never leaving the Sisters. “Now, Ildico?”
“Captain,” she said.
“Call me ‘Captain Ildico,’ Gen.” A smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes.
Something was up, he thought. Better play it safe and lose face now rather than lose Sagittarius.
“Captain Ildico,” he said pleasantly. “Welcome to the Sagittarius. Please do us the honor of disarming your escort and inviting them to join us.”
She laughed again and gestured. The Sisters lowered their rifles and shouldered them, approaching like a troop of soldiers.
“Well trained,” Gen commented. “Some I don’t know. New military-grade?”
She shook her head. “Only the first one. The rest are on loan as a favor.”
He looked more closely at the six women. Not women, he silently corrected. Ildico was right; the tallest and most muscular one was obviously military design. She carried herself with officer-like bearing. The remaining five looked more civilian-issue. One was even smaller than his pilot, if that were possible.
“The Seven Sisters,” he said. “It’s been a long time.”
“Too long,” Ildico said coyly. Yes, but not long enough, Gennaji thought. He was in no mood for a repeat of their last encounter.
“You didn’t come all the way out here for a nice chat,” he said to her. “What is it you really want? A rematch?”
“A drink,” she replied. She looked him up and down. “Looks like you got a couple bumps and bruises from the Corvus. Better get that fixed up.”
He snarled. “Corvus. What were you doing with that bunch of infants?”
She smiled again. “Just happened to be in the neighborhood. They were eager to find out what you did with the rock.”
“Look around you,” he said, gesturing. “We don’t have any rocks. It’s been a complete waste of time and money.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head. “After all, the Pleiades are not here for your rocks.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, eyes narrowing. He wasn’t sure so he liked this game.
“I know the way to the galley,” she said, pushing him aside. “Come on, girls. Let’s take five.”
The Sisters brushed past the three Sagittarius men and disappeared one by one into the main corridor. Karel and Andrzej both put away their pistols, standing side by side and looking into the corridor.
“Clones?” Karel asked, scratching his beard. “The biggest, it looks like someone I once dated.”
“You?” Gennaji laughed. “Dated?”
Karel growled. “I need a drink, too,” he said, and went into the corridor.
Gennaji ran a hand over his shaved head. A bump, just like she said. Damn.
“She seemed…manly,” Andrzej commented. “Impressive woman.”
“Yes,” Gennaji reflected. In all honesty, he did respect her. “But also incredibly dangerous.”
“And only clones for crew,” Andrzej continued. “So she values loyalty above all else.”
“Loyalty,” Gennaji said. “Or obedience. Unquestioning. The only one she trusts completely is herself.”
For good reason, he thought. Which is why he had to be very, very careful while she and her “Sisters” were anywhere near his crew.
Next: Ildico makes Gennaji an offer he can’t refuse: the chance for revenge. In Bringer of Light, Chapter 22: The Sagittarius (Part 2), dropping on May 8th.
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)
While Gennaji and the Sagittarius prepare to encounter an old friend/rival, the Artemis crew has internal issues…
He had done it. He had finally flown out to the Kuiper Belt. Him, Enoch Ryan. The solar system’s only Jewish-Irish-Hawai’ian navigator. He was the best.
And they all called him a loonie.
He wondered, though, why he was sitting in the pilot’s chair of an old Sopwith. Surely…surely, this wasn’t necessary.
He stood up, thinking he would simply…stretch.
Hands out like airplane wings, the plane dropped from beneath his feet. Body flattening as he rushed out to meet the edge of the Belt.
Next stop, the Oort Cloud. A shimmering field crossed his vision. Ice and dust particles swirling. Like dirty sherbet. Like when his Grandfather bought him one.
And he dropped it onto the Lunar surface. Only now all around him. It really was a cloud. He smiled, embracing it. Embracing him. He could see the long-lost planet in the distance. Planet X. Nibiru.
No, it was Hapu’u. Guiding him. All he needed was to find the Twin sister. A new future…
He turned around. From behind him. It came again.
He looked back to the Cloud. There it was. Waiting.
He turned away. The Artemis. He needed to be on the Artemis. Stop dreaming, he told himself. Wake up!
Eyes opened, he found himself floating in his cabin. How had he returned so quickly? No, it was a dream. He pushed against the ceiling and fell toward the bed. Grabbing a wall rail, he yanked himself down.
Yes, a dream, he thought. He put a magboot on and saw his hands. Dust.
He heard voices in the next cabin. No screaming.
Maybe he should’ve stayed in the Cloud.
Shaking his head, he got a drink pack from the minifridge and took a few sips. Didn’t seem to be anything other than regular water. Tasteless.
He couldn’t wait to get back to Luna and grab a Longboard Ale.
He released the pack, left it floating head-high, opened the door. In the next cabin, he found Riss and Sanvi arguing.
“I know what it was!” Riss was saying, hands on hips.
Enoch smirked. He liked those hips. Fiancé or not.
“I don’t question your experience,” Sanvi was saying, with a little wag of her finger. “But you have no way of knowing it was mystical or not.”
“As if you do!” Riss retorted. “You’re an expert on mysticism now?”
“Not an expert, no,” Sanvi replied coolly. “But I have training, yes. My martial—”
“Your martial arts training, yes, yes,” Riss cut in. “We all know that. That doesn’t give you the sole privilege of understanding the nature of other people’s experiences.”
“What experiences?” Enoch said.
They stopped arguing and looked at him.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m here. On the ship. You know, the one I fly?”
“Sorry, Enoch,” Riss said. “Didn’t notice you.”
“Yeah, so…” He raised his eyebrows.
Riss and Sanvi glared at each other.
“You know,” Enoch offered, “I kind of had this strange dream. Was it a dream? Not sure. You know, this dream of kind of flying.”
“Flying,” Sanvi snorted. “So?”
“Outside the ship,” Enoch said. “By myself.”
Riss stared at him. Sanvi closed her eyes.
“Without a ship. All alone in the Belt. Like I could sort of, I dunno, control things around me?”
“The fields,” Riss said bluntly. “That’s what Sanvi calls them.”
“Fields,” Sanvi said, still with eyes closed.
She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “The material of the universe, shared matter. Currents. Atoms. Subatomic particles. The working of the cosmos.”
Enoch laughed. “Sounds—”
“Mystical?” Sanvi said, opening her eyes wide. “Remember when you said you didn’t want to talk about anything mystical?”
Enoch shrugged. “Yeah. But this cosmic working or whatever, it seemed like a dream to me.”
“Like you were walking outside your body,” Riss said. “Right?”
He paused, then nodded. “Yeah. Like I could control things around me. How far they were. How far I was.”
“Control,” Riss agreed. “Understanding.”
“And fear,” came a quivering voice from the hallway.
All three turned. The geist leaned against the corridor wall, as if for support. His ragged breath came to them.
“I, I was alone. All alone. Floating. My boots, they failed, and I was just…”
“Coop,” Riss said, with a note of sympathy.
The geist shook his head and waved a hand frantically. He was sweating, Enoch noted.
“I was just…drifting, for how long, I can’t say. But then…then I saw…”
Cooper’s eyes grew wide and he began to shake and mumble. Enoch could barely make the words: “O God, I will no longer be full of anxiety, I will not let trouble bother me. O God, purify my heart, illumine my powers—”
“God?” Enoch said aloud. “You saw God?”
Cooper stopped and grabbed Enoch’s shoulders.
“Dare you! How dare you!” he snarled. “You blaspheme…”
Just as Riss and Sanvi moved to intervene, all strength left the geist’s arms and he slumped. Enoch made as if to slap the hands away, but his anger was replaced by surprise.
Cooper was sobbing.
“O God,” he cried, “O God, you are the Powerful, the Gracious, the…”
He seemed to lose his voice and continued to sob in silence for a moment. Then he looked up.
Sanvi had knelt and was holding his hand.
“All that we are,” she spoke slowly, with conviction, “is the result of our thoughts. If one speaks or acts evil thoughts, pain follows. If one speaks or acts pure thoughts, bliss follows.”
Cooper made as if to remove his hand, but then looked up, seemed to calm down.
“I,” he started. He took a deep breath. “I’m not sure what I saw. What I was capable of doing, though. It frightened me. The power.”
“The beauty of the fear of Heaven,” Enoch found himself saying, “is noble performance.”
They all looked at him.
“The Talmud,” he replied, without being asked. Why did that suddenly come into my head? He felt compelled to add, sheepishly, “‘Love Heaven, and fear it.’ My dad used to always quote from it. I was named after one of the characters.”
“Whoever possesses God in their being,” Riss suddenly said, “has him in a divine manner and he shines out to them. In all things.”
“What is this?” Sanvi demanded. “Are we competing for the right to be mystical?”
Riss shook her head. “Memories. Snatches, clips of dreams. Things Sergey used to say to me, I think.”
“Sergey? Captain Bardish? Really?”
Riss smirked. “Actually, he usually said stuff like ‘the church is near, but the road is icy; the tavern is far, but I will walk carefully.’”
Cooper and Sanvi laughed. A welcome sound, Enoch thought, chuckling despite himself. But he was still feeling embarrassed. What ever possessed him to say the Talmud aloud? He hadn’t thought of it since…
Since Granddad died, he realized.
“‘Always confess to the truth’,” he said aloud. “Stuff my Grandfather used to say to me when I was a kid.”
Sanvi stood, pulling Cooper to his feet. The geist brushed off invisible dust, rearranging his shirt.
“What else did he say?” she asked.
Enoch paused. “‘Do not seek to wrong he who wronged you.’”
He looked at Cooper, then held out his hand. The geist hesitated, then took it.
“I think,” the astrogeologist said slowly, “that we have all been experiencing something unusual. Odd.”
“Wonderful,” Enoch said, still shaking Cooper’s hand. He let go and stared at his hand. “Exhilarating.”
“Yes,” Riss said. “Something entirely extraordinary. And frightening. And something that no one person owns.”
Sanvi bit her tongue. “Riss, I—”
“Look,” Riss said with a wave of her hand. “I think we all need a little time to sort our thoughts out. It does seem as if we are all basically having the same sort of experiences.”
“Dreams,” Enoch said.
“Experiences,” Sanvi said. “I’m not so sure they’re dreams.”
“What do you mean?” Cooper asked. “What else could they be?”
“Have you heard of astral projection?”
“What, you mean out of body experiences, that sort of thing?”
“I can’t believe that I was actually ‘out of my body’,” Enoch said with a smirk. “It felt more like a hallucination, or a really good trip.”
Sanvi nodded. “Yes, it probably does. Did.”
“Isn’t it possible that we’re all just tired?” Riss asked. “Sometimes people feel like this because they have some sort of inner ear problem, or they change air pressure too quickly because of a faulty air lock, things like that.”
“Well,” Sanvi said, then pursed her lips. “Do you think it’s possible that all four of us, suddenly, right after we started drinking water from that rock, started having the same trips, hallucinations, or whatever. Even though we’re all experienced asteroid hunters who have spent years in space without ever having such an experience?”
“Not all of us,” Cooper said glumly.
“And not all the experiences were just about projection,” Riss said, with a look. Enoch caught the look, wondering. What had happened before he entered Sanvi’s cabin? She wasn’t telling him and Coop everything.
“Projection?” Cooper asked.
“Astral projection,” Riss clarified. “That would explain how our experiences seem so real, and yet have a dreamlike quality. But it doesn’t explain being able to manipulate objects.”
“Is that why,” Enoch began. He stopped himself.
“What is it?” Riss asked.
He didn’t respond.
“Why did you cry out? You know. Uh. Scream.”
Riss was silent for a moment.
“I was scared,” she replied curtly.
Enoch opened his mouth, then thought better of it and closed it again.
Riss? The Captain, scared? Jeez.
“Well, that’s enough of that,” Riss said with a tone of finality. “We still have several days before we reach Ceres.”
“Yeah,” Cooper muttered. “Don’t remind me.”
Sanvi chuckled and nudged the geist with her shoulder. Which Enoch noted, with a sudden pang of jealousy. He narrowed his eyes briefly before relaxing. Things were moving too fast for his liking.
“What do you want us to do, Captain?” he said aloud. “You know, I don’t much feel like sleeping right now, if you know what I mean.”
She nodded. “I don’t expect that any of us are quite ready to return to Ceres that way. How about…”
She paused, then turned to the geist.
“Coop, have you finalized that analysis of the rock?”
He nearly flinched, Enoch thought. Then relaxed when Sanvi briefly touched his shoulder with a fingertip.
Dammit, he inwardly grumbled.
“No, R, Riss. I had nearly finished when, uh, when we were all gathered in the cargo hold.”
He looked at Sanvi worriedly. She closed her eyes and shook her head, smiling.
Something unspoken had happened, Enoch thought. He frowned. So why was he upset about it all of a sudden?
“Well,” Riss said, in a determined voice. “This piece of dusty ice clearly has some secrets. I think it’s time to finally see where our rock comes from.”
Next: Weng discovers a conspiracy in Bringer of Light, Chapter 17: Luna Base (dropping March 27, 2021)
When we last left Gennaji, his ship was just about to fire or be fired upon. Somewhere near Encheladus…
Gennaji looked over at his crew at the rocket launcher. Karel and Andrzej both seemed tense.
No, he silently corrected himself, he was the one feeling tense. They looked…blank. Waiting.
He shook his head.
“Ory, are they together or separate?”
“Looks like they plan to split up, heading around Encephalus. Opposite sides. Not quite in orbit yet.”
Gennaji cursed. Naturally. That’s what he would have done.
“Thrusters. Solid fuel only. Aim us at the Corvus. Shield us.”
He nodded at Karel and Andrzej. They strapped themselves down to the floor like cargo boxes, clamping suspender-like tethers wrapped around their waists to metal rings in the floor. Hurriedly he did the same, locking himself in front of the railgun console.
The Sagittarius began to peal starboard.
Starboard, he thought. Antiquated nautical term. Everything is starboard in space.
He shifted his weight and checked the railgun. All readings normal.
“Corvus is closing…they’re firing!”
Firing?! Gennaji gritted his teeth. Hamno, the Corvus captain was insane, firing laser cannon from that distance. “Ory, evasive!”
The Sagittarius shuddered again, violently. His knee buckled and he slammed his right hip against a side wall. Shit, that hurts, he thought, refusing to cry out.
Karel apparently had no such compunction, judging by the sudden yelp. Gennaji glanced over. The big helmsman had fallen down sideways on one shoulder and was groggily getting to his knees. Andrzej seemed to have already crouched in anticipation and bounced up.
The tether was merely a brace after all, Gennaji thought. He grabbed the console corner and checked the readings again.
“Captain, the shot missed by a wide margin. Looks like they forgot to compensate for the gravity well effect.”
Gennaji grinned. He figured that old hunter trick would work on a young crew like the Corvus. Now they had to wait to recharge.
“In range now.”
“Perfect. Ory, manuever us so we can get a good angle from the cargo hold.”
Gennaji felt the Sagittarius shudder as the thrusters moved them into position. He checked the console again before giving the order.
Karel depressed a switch. The sound echoed through the cargo hold.
Andrzej yanked down with both hands on the firing lever. The rocket made a little popping noise as the railgun launched it through the port into space. Like a champagne bottle, Gennaji thought.
But with much more pop.
“Ory, get us away as fast as you can. Hard right.”
“Aye. The other ship is coming into range as well.”
Gennaji glanced at the railgun. His crew were resetting the launch mechanism, but they might not have time for another shot.
“Ory, I may need to use the ballbuster after all.”
There was a pause, then static.
The Sagittarius suddenly slipped sideways. Gennaji fell to his knees again as the gravity seemed to increase.
Shit. They must be tumbling. The centrifugal force might damage the hull if they couldn’t stabilize the ship.
“Karel!” he barked. “Helm! We have to…”
The intercom crackled to life again.
“…not responding to pings, looks dead in space.”
“Ory? What happened?”
“Corvus…hit, dead in…All…down.”
Gennaji struggled to his feet, grabbing the console for support. His body still felt abnormally heavy.
“Are we spinning?” he asked. Karel held a tether hook in one hand, unsure whether he should complete his Captain’s last order.
“Aye, sir. We…close to…emp charge, so our com…not 100%. Hang on…”
The ship shuddered again. Gennaji bared his teeth. Had the other ship also fired a railgun? The gravity seemed to lessen.
At least they had stopped spinning, he thought. Probably drifting, though.
Gennaji swore. He unstrapped the tether and motioned for Karel to do the same.
“Andy, stay here and see if we can get off another…”
The com crackled to life. But it wasn’t their navigator.
“Sagittarius. This is Pleaides. We’re boarding you. Let’s talk.”
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 16: The Artemis (Coming Saturday March 13, 2021)
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)
On February 9, 1998, Star Trek Deep Space 9 broadcast one of the most important episodes in the entire history of the franchise.
And what it said about society back in 1953 was just as relevant as for 1998. And perhaps even more important for 2021.
Others have written more eloquently about the plot line, the characterizations, the background, the actors (Avery Brooks directed himself, and his performance should have earned him an Emmy). So I’ll just link to:
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.
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.
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…”
“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.”
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.
“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?”
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.
The face of the motanka. With a cross on it.
Next: The game’s afoot…Bringer of Light, Chapter 14: Mars Colonies (Coming February 13, 2021, 7 PM EST)
(The Artemis crew experienced strange sensations, which they believed dreams. Now the asteroid fragment from which they already extracted water for their drinking supplies is glowing…and many contain life.)
“Coop, is there any precedent for hydrocarbon-rich asteroids containing nucleic acids?”
The geologist rubbed a hand on one arm. Where Sanvi had grabbed him, Riss realized. She slowly walked toward him, and he toward her.
“Only in theory,” he said carefully. He looked at her with a strange expression. Like he was trying to figure out if she was serious, she guessed. “It’s widely believed that amino acids were first introduced to Earth by asteroid or comet bombardment.”
He stopped. “If…”
He turned to the rock.
“Why is it glowing?” Riss said quietly.
The geologist shook his head.
“I don’t know. I’m an astro-geologist, not an exobiologist.”
“Well,” he said, rubbing his arm again, “I suppose it’s possible that, if there were any RNA, the ribose could have completely hydrolyzed, so that it bonded with any freely available compounds in the rock, such as phosphorous or sulphur.”
“O-kay,” Riss said. “And if it’s not RNA?”
“It could be some other kind of enantiomer whose chiral features—”
“All right, slow down,” she interrupted. “I followed the phosphorus bit, but what on earth are you talking about?”
“Um. Sugar. Basically.”
“Yeah. Hydrocarbons have, uh, carbon, right? So, that means carbohydrates. Starches and sugars. But molecules sometimes come in pairs. Mirror images of each other. So when one of the pair affects you one way, the other might affect you another way.”
Cooper looked at Sanvi with a frightened expression.
Sanvi opened her eyes wide and took a step forward.
“Coop,” Riss said, placing herself between the two, “you had better explain yourself.”
“Drugs,” he repeated, crossing his arms and taking up a defensive posture. “Like the pills we got from Ceres base before heading out here. You know, like the ones I got for low gravity sickness. There might be something, some natural molecule in the rock that acts kind of like that.”
Riss nodded. “Okay, I can see that. So it’s possible we all got some sort of, what, psychotropic solution from this rock?”
Cooper shook his head. “I just don’t know.”
“Whaddya you mean, just don’t know?” Enoch blurted out. “I had this crazy dream. Are you saying I was stoned?”
Cooper looked at him. “You what?”
Riss interposed. “Coop, we all had dreams. Strange dreams.”
She looked at her crew members one at a time. “Isn’t that true?”
Sanvi and Enoch both nodded.
“N, no,” Cooper murmured. “It wasn’t…”
Riss looked at him intently.
“No,” Cooper said, in a stronger voice. “No, I didn’t have any dreams. I mean, I don’t remember them.”
Riss sighed. Whatever, let him keep his secrets. She glanced at her wrist panel. They should reach Zedra point in a short while. They all needed some serious sleep by then.
“Coop, what’s the other possibility? Are there any?”
Coop stared down at his feet.
“If—if it is RNA…”
He shook his head.
“No, not possible. The filter would have detected it.”
“Coop,” Sanvi cut in. “How do you know all this? I thought you said you were a astrogeologist, not an exobiologist?”
She looked more composed than before, Riss noted.
The geologist looked up. He also looked more composed, but slightly defiant. “Yes,” he replied, “but I also studied biochemistry.”
He looked at the rock again.
“I wanted to be a biologist, like my father.”
He had never discussed his father before. Riss wondered if that had something to do with his reluctance to discuss his dreams. Or lack thereof.
“So,” Sanvi said calmly. “How do you know it’s not RNA?”
Cooper paused, then slowly walked back to the console. He kept his eyes trained on Sanvi. She stood still, returning the gaze without expression. Enoch was biting a thumbnail.
The geologist stabbed at the screen for a few seconds before responding.
“RNA has ribose, which is a kind of a saccharide. It’s pretty unstable, so it could have simply dissolved into the water supply. But I don’t see any other elements like amino acids, lipids, or other proteins.”
He straightened and rubbed his eyes with the palms of both hands.
“So we could have a virus in our water?” Riss asked.
“I—I don’t think so.”
“But you’re not sure.”
“A geologist,” Enoch interrupted. “Not a doctor.”
They all looked at him. The navigator had been silent through most of the conversation. He still looked sulky, Riss thought. But also troubled, standing apart from them, arms crossed and frowning.
“Yeah,” Cooper said. “I’m a geologist. But—”
“But nothing,” Enoch said. “Viruses don’t cause dreams. I had a dream of flying. Of Hawai’i. Of the Lunar Base. You gonna tell me a virus did that?”
“I’m not saying anything for certain,” Cooper said, indignant. “I’m a scientist. I don’t like speculation. I don’t trust guesses or hunches. Just facts.”
“The facts are—”
“The facts are,” Riss cut them both off, “that we don’t have enough facts. Coop is right. It could be a virus. It could be a sugar of some sort. It could be something else, we don’t know.”
They fell silent. The rock continued to glow behind them.
“So.” Sanvi finally said. “What do we do?”
Cooper spoke up. “I think it would be a good idea to run a med check on all of us. Just in case.”
Riss nodded. “Agreed. Enoch, get over to the med dock and start setting up the diagnostic equipment.”
The navigator turned to go, then stopped. “You know, Riss.”
“A thought just occurred to me.”
Riss crossed her arms and smiled. “A thought? You?”
Sanvi giggled. The sound made Riss feel relaxed. Finally. Maybe things might get back to normal after all.
But Enoch looked troubled still. “What about the other rock chunks?”
Sanvi stopped giggling. Cooper looked startled. Riss closed her eyes.
They ran back to the command center.
“Sanvi, get a message out to Ceres,” Riss ordered tersely as they slid into their respective seats. “Under no circumstances are they to pulverize the rock or use any hydrocarbons from it.”
“Way ahead of you, Riss,” Sanvi replied, already starting up the comm systems.
“R—Riss,” Cooper said. “I’ll prepare a more detailed report on—whatever the computer thinks it may or may not have found.”
Riss nodded. Might be useful in case someone in the guild had questions.
More importantly, though, what would she tell Sergey? His trust in her—was it unfounded?
She bit her lip.
Her own inexperience, her decision-making skills. Had she learned nothing?
“Riss,” Enoch said. “I got something here.”
“On the trajectory?”
“No, from Ceres.”
He gestured to his screen. They gathered around the console. An image appeared; a string of numbers and text detailing the successful capture of the two rock fragments they had launched from their transneptune position several days before.
“So they got the chunks with no problems,” Sanvi commented. “That’s a first.”
“That’s not all,” Enoch said. He scrolled down. “I found the Ceres Mining Consortium transportation record. Posted yesterday. Take a look at this.”
Riss read in mute astonishment. The rocks had already been pulverized into water and sent on to Mars. Why so soon?
“We need to get a message to the Mars Colonies, then. As well as to Ceres.” She went back to her chair. “Is there any way we can return to the happy hunting grounds faster than our current ETA?”
Enoch shook his head. “Probably not. The ion engine has been increasing our speed incrementally for each day. It’d throw everything off if we tried to recalibrate them. If we lost some weight somehow, then maybe.”
He shrugged and raised his eyebrows.
Riss caught his meaning. “No,” she stated flatly.
“If we dumped the rock, we could gain—”
“No!” she said, fiercely. “Even if that thing is worthless, it’s still ours. Not a chance.”
Riss turned left. “Sanvi?”
The pilot hesitated, then continued. “What if we don’t stop at Zedra point?”
“You mean, skip the refueling? We’ll run out.”
“Inertia will carry us,” Sanvi pointed out. “We’ll just have to rely on someone at Base to slow us.”
“She’s right,” Enoch said. He pointed at his console. “I just did the math. We can pick up a couple of days by skipping the refuel. And if we steer a little in the right direction, I think we can get another boost or two from Saturn or Jupiter.”
“Riss,” Sanvi said, “if we can pick up around 55 to 60 hours, we can get to Ceres without refueling.”
“You sound confident,” Riss said. “How are we doing on food and water?”
“More than enough,” Cooper said. He proffered a pad. “Even though the water may or may not be, uh.”
“Contaminated?” Sanvi suggested, smirking.
“Compromised,” Cooper retorted. “And I said ‘may.’ We still don’t really know.”
“Water with living things in it,” she replied, making a face. “Disgusting.”
The geologist shrugged. “At home in Colorado, all our well water had living things in it.”
Sanvi looked horrified.
“Didn’t know you had such a weak stomach,” Enoch chortled.
“Living things! How could you?” She shuddered.
“Weak,” he repeated.
“If you’re trying to irritate me…” Sanvi warned.
Enoch grinned and turned back to his console. “Are you irritated?”
“Then it’s working.”
“All right, people,” Riss said, suppressing a chuckle. “Let’s get that message sent to Mars. They need to know what’s coming.”
Sanvi shot one last look at the navigator and bent to her task. Enoch was also diligently tapping away, swiping a pad hanging in the air to his right while checking the console in front of him. After a few minutes, he turned to Riss.
“New course input. We miss Saturn, but Jupiter lines up nicely for a gravity well push to Ceres.”
“Well done,” she responded. “Do it.”
Enoch nodded. He touched the console again. Riss once again could have sworn she felt the Artemis buzz. As if the ship were talking with them, approving the turn to starboard.
“We’ll feel stronger gravity effects as we approach point-five g,” Enoch commented.
Cooper shook his head. “The asteroid chunk will have more weight, then.”
Riss nodded. “True. So we’ll need to use more of the hydrocarbons to reduce the mass.”
They all looked at her.
“What? We already drank the water. Another couple days won’t change anything.”
Cooper relaxed his shoulders and sighed. “I wish I had your confidence.”
Enoch just laughed. “What the hell. I don’t mind flying every night.”
Riss was about to respond when a sudden exclamation from Sanvi stopped her.
“Guys, we have a problem.”
It was Riss’s turn to sigh. “Another one?”
The pilot slapped at her console. The sound echoed in the tiny command center. Plastic and metal against skin. Riss felt the ship groan in protest. Or had she just imagined that?
“Mars is refusing our pings,” Sanvi said through tight teeth.
Riss frowned. “Refusing?”
“They won’t give permission to let the message through. Something about being unable to verify non-hostile intent from unauthorized spacecraft.”
Riss sat back in the command chair. This did not sound good.
Sanvi slapped the console again. “Already did. Same response.”
“Well,” the pilot conceded. “Not a hundred percent, no.”
Sanvi looked directly at Riss.
“There was also a message. For you. From Gennaji.”
Riss said nothing. Her hands gripped the chair’s arms. She felt strangely calm, although she knew she looked pale. Old memories resurfaced.
“He can’t have reached Base before us,” Enoch exclaimed. “In that old rust bucket?”
“Ryan, enough,” Riss whispered. She felt energy draining from her.
“The message had been relayed from some other position,” Sanvi said. “Not sure where.”
Riss breathed out, trying to relax her grip.
“What did he have to say?”
Sanvi paused. “‘I will have my own.’”
They were silent for a moment.
Then Enoch spoke up.
“Charmingly eloquent,” Sanvi said. “As usual.”
“Come on, Riss,” Cooper said, sounding exasperated. “What is it with this guy? What has he got against you?
Riss shook her head. “This is between him and—”
“No, it’s not!” the geologist said angrily.
She looked at him, shocked. Cooper seemed to have an aura around him, as if the air were charged with anger.
“Whatever vendetta or grudge or whatever this guy has against you affects us as well,” he continued.
He sat back in his chair, crossing his arms. “I think we have a right to know.”
Riss looked back and forth from Sanvi and Enoch, pleadingly. She could only respond weakly, “I—I’d rather not.”
“Not good enough, Riss!” Cooper said. He seemed on the verge of exploding.
“There was another woman,” Sanvi said softly.
Riss protested weakly. “No…” A dark void filled her eyes.
Enoch asked, “Gennaji and Riss had something?”
“No,” Sanvi said. She looked away. “Riss was the captain.”
“Somebody died,” Riss whispered to the darkness.
They looked at her again. She felt pale.
“Riss,” Sanvi began.
Riss stared into nothing. She felt the start of tears in the corners of her eyes.
No, she thought. Not now. Not yet.
She quickly composed herself, tugging down her shirt sleeves from tense shoulders.
“I’ll be in the gym,” she said brusquely, climbing out of the captain’s chair. “Continue on the new course to Ceres.”
Sanvi fell silent. Cooper raised a finger but then placed it against his lips, lost in thought.
She turned to go. She should have reprimanded the crew for not responding to a command, but she knew she had to get out of there.
“What’ll we say to the Mining Council?” Enoch called out.
Riss stopped on the threshold of the corridor and spoke without turning around.
“We’ll find out when we get there.”
Then she disappeared.
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 11: Ceres (January 16th)
Riss woke with a start. Something…no, somebody…it felt like somebody was calling her…
Unstrapping her sleeping harness, she slowly sat up in the dim cabin. The only light came from the faint glow of her pad, casting a barely discernible sheen out from its wall recharging socket. The doll cast an eerie shadow across the room.
“Artemis. Water,” she croaked. No response.
She coughed. “Water,” she repeated in a stronger voice. Her throat felt raw.
The refrigerator unit beeped and disengaged from its cubby beneath the rechargers. It slid on a magnetic track across the cabin and stopped arms-distance from her bunk.
Riss opened the door and withdrew a plastic drink sleeve. It seemed a good idea at the time. Six days into the return trip to Zedra point, she’d decided that each crew member would benefit from a few new packs of water, freshly squeezed from the rock fragment safely stowed in the cargo hold. They’d already used some in the hydroponic lab, after all.
“Return,” she ordered, and the boxy robot rolled back to its wall nook.
Hindsight was foresight, she mused, but now it seemed prescient. The ship’s normal water recycling system had a glitch which would have made things more than uncomfortable without the new water source.
Squeezed, she thought, plucking back the drink tab and drawing out the straw for a sip. More like reconsti—
She gasped and nearly dropped the pack. Cold. So cold!
It was as if she could feel icy vapors sublimating as the water turned directly into gas inside her. She coughed, and coughed, almost a dry cough despite the water.
Now her entire body felt icy cold. She barely managed to lower the pack to her bedside table as the cold sensation spread to every extremity. She lay back and forced her eyes to stay open, focusing on the ceiling.
Heavy. So heavy.
The cold feeling began to dissipate, leaving her with a tingling in fingertips and toes. She tried to lift her head, but instantly dizzy. She closed her eyes, then opened them again.
Objects on the captain’s desk seemed to glow. No, that must be the portable…no, it wasn’t. She stared. The darkness of the cabin seemed strange, out of place. Not true darkness, but the darkness left by the absence of light rather than true darkness.
Layer upon layer of semi-transparent, translucent geometric patterns assaulted her vision. Some were colorful, like spinning pieces of stained glass.
Riss closed her eyes. She could still see the patterns. Random. She opened her eyes again. It was as if she could see the room…through the patterns. As if the patterns were real and the room a mere reflection.
The patterns. Were they in her head?
She heard a soft buzzing noise. No, a squeezing noise. As if her head were being squeezed. Like the water from the rock.
No, she thought, detached. Not squeezed. Released—
The ceiling blew up. Fragments flew away and the rushing darkness enveloped her. She stared up at a vast, limitless height.
Space was a machine. A living, endless machine, filled and surrounded and controlled by patterns.
She felt the patterns shifting, colliding, rotating around a core she couldn’t quite grasp but could sense.
Heavy. She felt heavy. A gravity well…sinking, sinking, sinking through the patterns back…back…
She closed her eyes. An odd sensation filled her.
Blue sky. Grass. The feel of mild wind and warm sunlight caressed her face. The scents of a beach…a Luna beach! She smiled, content, floating…
A feeling of detachment, separated from herself yet part of herself. Part of something much larger. Infinite.
She opened her eyes.
The patterns in the darkness slowly faded; she reached out a hand, as if she could touch them, alter them, change the way they interacted. She sat up, stretching her fingers—
No. No, the patterns were gone.
Or were they?
Riss let her hand drop. She stared at her hand, then at the water pack on the table. Nothing out of the ordinary. Still, she could swear she still felt something. Some kind of new awareness of things around her.
Riss picked up the water pack and looked at the straw. Did she dare?
Carefully, slowly, as if the pack were a fragile flower, she touched the straw to her lips and took the tiniest of sips.
Water. Slightly tangy and metallic, but otherwise.
She sipped more. Just water.
Shaking her head, Riss stood and arched her back. Suddenly she felt incredibly refreshed. How long she slept?
She pulled the pad from the charging socket and swiped it on. The time. She rubbed her eyes and looked again. Almost an entire day? That couldn’t be.
No wonder she felt refreshed.
Yanking her boots on, Riss shoved the pad into a shoulder carrier. She’d better check up on the crew. Should she mention her dream? If it had been a dream.
She paused before the door. No. She’d first stop by tactical. Autopilot or not, she trusted only herself.
She touched a panel and entered the corridor.
The Artemis was quiet. Or rather should have been quiet. As Riss walked down the narrow corridor connecting the living quarters and tactical, she thought she felt something…different. A mild humming in the bulkheads. Barely perceptible vibrations, like the Artemis were trying to soothe her, comfort her.
Ahead, she heard voices. She couldn’t quite make out the words, but the tone was pleading. A woman and a man. But not her crew.
Then a sniffling noise, followed by a loud thump.
“Is anyone here?” Riss called. She stepped into the room and made for the navigator’s console.
The pilot was holding a pad in both hands and her shoulders were shaking. Abruptly the voices cut off. Sanvi stood, wiping her eyes with a sleeve.
“Riss, it’s…sorry, I…”
Riss stopped. She’d never seen Sanvi like this before. The woman appeared on the verge of a completely breakdown.
“Those voices…” Riss began. She stopped, wondering what to say. Then took a guess. “Your family?”
Sanvi nodded. She held the pad in front of her with hands, staring at the empty screen.
“My parents,” she replied. “Their last vidmess before I joined up.”
She lay the pad down on her console and closed her eyes.
“I haven’t spoken to them since.”
Riss crossed her arms and sat in the captain’s chair. “They were against your joining the crew?”
“They were against me leaving Lunar Base,” Sanvi replied, snapping her eyes open. Riss was quiet. This defiant look wasn’t something she’d seen in her pilot before. Something terrible must have happened, she thought. Just like—
“Sanvi,” she said softly, “is there anything you want to talk about?”
Sanvi started to shake her head, then looked at the pad again.
“I saw them,” she said flatly.
“I saw my parents,” Sanvi said. “A dream. At least, I think it was a dream. Pretty sure, anyway.”
Sanvi sat down, her hands in her lap. She seemed lost, if Riss hadn’t known better.
“I had a strange dream, too,” Riss said suddenly.
Sanvi looked up at her in surprise. Riss was surprised somewhat herself. Why had she said that?
“I, uh…” She wasn’t sure how to continue.
“You saw your parents?” Sanvi asked.
Riss shook her head. “No. No, I’ve never—”
She stopped and bit her lip.
“I haven’t seen them in my dreams for, uh, several years now.”
Riss hesitated, then, “It was nothing, just an odd dream about the rock. That’s all.”
Sanvi sighed, then snorted.
“If I didn’t know any better,” she said, slightly sarcastic, “I’d think you were holding out on me.”
Now it was Riss’s turn to snort.
“Well, then, you do know better,” she retorted, with a slight grin. “Maybe I’ll have another, stranger dream tomorrow to tell you.”
She stood and stretched her back.
“In the meantime, I think I’d better go down to the hold and check on things.”
Sanvi nodded. “Want me to stay here?”
“Nah. Nothing to check here, so long as the auto is working as it should.”
Sanvi glanced at the console, and shrugged. “So far.”
The ship’s internal comm clicked on.
“Hey, is anybody there? Anyone driving this thing?”
The geist. Riss touched a panel on the captain’s chair.
“Coop. We’re here.”
“I, I think you may want to come to the hold.”
Riss caught her voice in her throat. Had he found something he’d missed before? The rock, was it actually special?
“Be right there.”
She motioned to Sanvi, who calmly picked up her pad and followed her into the corridor.
On the way, they ran into Enoch, floating outside his room holding a mag boot in each hand. He looked disheveled, as if he had just jumped out of bed.
“Guys, hey, I had this most amazing dream,” he said happily.
“You mean you actually sleep sometimes?” Sanvi smirked.
“It was like—man, it was like, like I was flying. No, like I was the plane, flying by myself.”
Riss almost stopped to ask him about it, but changed her mind and kept walking.
“Follow us,” she said.
He looked a little surprised. “Uh.”
“You can tell us all about it later.”
“Okay, but I don’t have my mag boots on yet.”
The navigator looked at Sanvi, but she simply shook her hand and motioned for him to come along. They walked. Enoch started swimming.
“Hey, wait up!” Enoch shouted, trying to yank his boots on mid-air.
After a few minutes they reached the hold. As they entered, Riss called out, “Coop, what’s going on? Did you fi—”
She stopped abruptly. Sanvi and Enoch bumped into each other and then squeezed into the room behind her.
The rock was glowing.
It still lay carefully within its “cage” of polystyrene cables, strapped in the corner of the hold across from the hopper port. Cooper was standing at the console, gazing intently at the screen and flicking the surface with his fingers.
“Cap—Riss,” he said, turning around.
“It’s glowing,” she said.
“Yeah. I kinda noticed that.”
“The rock,” she repeated, more urgently. “It’s glowing!”
Cooper spread his hands. “Now, don’t panic. I know it’s glowing. I’m still checking things out.”
“Hang on,” Enoch said. “Didn’t we chip off some stuff and put it in our drinking supply?”
“Yes,” Riss replied. “I helped him do it.”
“You…” Sanvi hissed. She stepped forward and grabbed him by the shirt collar. “What have you done to us? Poisoned? You some sort of spy?”
He frantically batted at her arm and sputtered. “Wha—what on earth are you talking about?”
“Sanvi,” Riss interposed. “Let go.”
Sanvi shoved the geologist back and glared. “You’d better explain yourself, geist,” she huffed.
“Yes,” Riss agreed.
Cooper quickly backed away, glaring at Sanvi. He stood behind the console and placed his hands on top of it, swallowing a retort.
Riss took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Well? What’s making this…glow?”
Cooper gestured to the console.
“You can see for yourself,” he said.
Enoch cut in. “Just explain it, bro. We don’t have all day.”
“Ryan,” Riss said sharply.
She looked down at the monitor. It was filled with lines of chemical symbols and numbers. She scrolled and images of various molecular chains appeared.
“This,” she asked haltingly, “this shows, ah…”
“Carbon,” Cooper said. “Hydrocarbon.”
“We already knew that, geist,” Sanvi cut in. “So what?”
The geologist took a deep breath.
“Not just any hydrocarbon. There are signs of—I don’t know exactly if it’s nucleic acids, or some simple polymeric—”
“RNA,” he said bluntly. “Maybe.”
Riss narrowed her eyes and glanced at the screen again.
Both Sanvi and Enoch lurched across the console and grabbed the geologist. A brief scuffle followed, with Riss in the middle, vainly trying to separate them.
“What the f—!”
“Stop! Let him go!” Riss ordered, trying to control her temper.
Cooper fairly fled to the asteroid chunk. “The filter system still says it’s just water!” he shouted at them from across the cargo hold. “The computer didn’t even notice anything until I made it run a more detailed analysis!”
The pilot and navigator made as if to rush after him, but Riss held their arms.
“Sanvi! Enoch! As you were!” she demanded.
They both stopped and looked at each other, then at Riss. Enoch seemed to be sulking, but Sanvi shuddered and closed her eyes.
Riss had expected the navigator to lose his cool, but Sanvi’s reaction surprised her. It almost looked as if she was trying to meditate.
“Cooper,” Riss called out to the geologist. He looked like a trapped animal, ready to bare his teeth. “Brady. Nobody’s accusing you of anything.”
She looked back at Sanvi and Enoch. “Nobody is accusing him of anything,” she repeated. “Got it?”
Enoch nodded curtly. Sanvi breathed out and opened her eyes, then followed suit. Good, Riss thought. This was not the time to lose their collective cool.
(In part 1, Weng found himself suddenly promoted and about to be thrust into the spotlight…)
He toggled the console, and the row of monitors sprang to life. Weng found himself addressing no less than half a dozen delegates, all of whom wanted to speak simultaneously.
In fact, they appeared to have already begun discussing among themselves.
“—told you that the Indian government would never—”
“—not what we ordered! And where are the supplies we requested last—”
“Hasn’t the Martian Secretariat been in—”
“Gentlemen! Gentlemen!” Martin began, holding his hands up in surrender.
“Women,” someone interrupted.
“Men and women,” Martin corrected. “We have been made aware of your food supply issues and—”
“What are you going to do about it? We’ve been waiting four days now!”
“Mr. Mbutu, believe me, the needs of the CAA settlers are well known to us—”
“The EEC has priority over African settlers! We arrived first, we have—”
The delegates raised their voices and general argument prevented Weng from understanding much. Martin smiled and raised his hands again.
“Gentlemen and women! Delegates! Please, please! I have—”
The discussion continued for another minute or two. Martin turned to Weng and nodded.
Weng coughed into a fist before speaking.
“Excuse me,” he tried. Too soft. The delegates continued.
“—Persian Empire will make you regret any theft of property from—”
“Excuse me!” Weng fairly shouted at the screens.
The voices died down. The delegates looked at him.
Weng cleared his throat.
“Gentlemen, ladies. I have spoken to many of you these past few days, about your heat, your electricity—”
“Yes, yes,” huffed one delegate. “For all the good it did.”
Weng nodded in agreement.
“I’m afraid you are correct, Ms. Pehrat. However, that has not prevented us from developing an amicable and mutually beneficial relationship, has it not?”
Silence greeted this response. Martin pinched his arm from behind. Evidently, an encouraging gesture.
“Look,” Weng went on. “I know that we are asking much of you and your constituencies. But we must ask you all to realize that our situation is quite dire at the moment.”
“Dire?” Mbutu asked. “How dire, exactly?”
Weng cleared his throat again.
“I am given to understand that, er, due to the rapid increase in the need for electricity to power new settlement districts we will need to begin water rationing.”
“Begin?” Pehrat cried. “We’re already rationing!”
Several delegates jumped in.
“Please! Please!” Martin tried to interrupt again.
The delegates shouted him down in a cacophonous paroxysm.
“Water,” Weng mused as the din rattled around him. “Water…wait!”
He grabbed the sides of the desk and shouted at the screens.
“Wait! Wait! There may be a way.”
“The electrician speaks!” Mbutu laughed. But the other voices died down.
Martin interrupted. “Dr. Weng,” he said, emphasizing the word ‘doctor’, “Dr. Weng is the head of the Martian Colony Water Reclamation Project Team.”
“Ah,” Mbutu exclaimed.
“Thank you, Overseer,” Weng said. He straightened and opened his hands. “Water is needed for producing electricity due to a lack of other energy sources.”
“Yes, yes, we know,” Mbutu commented. “And?”
“What if…” Weng began.
He paused. He raised a hand, stretched out his fingers as if to gesture, and paused again, thinking.
“I have two proposals,” he suddenly announced. “First.”
He stopped. He glanced at Martin. The Overseer maintained his politician’s smile.
“First,” Weng repeated, “We do have the capability to release more water into the water reclamation system. However, we do not presently have enough workers to dig up the regolith required for the process.”
The delegates were silent for a moment.
“What you are suggesting,” Pehrat offered, “would require many, many rounds of negotiations among our nations.”
“We don’t have time for that,” Weng said. “I don’t know the delicate nature of politics but I do know the technical possibilities and necessities of our current situation.”
Pehrat was silent, seemingly considering the truth of his statement.
“I do know,” Weng continued, “that we all need each other. To cooperate, for mutual benefit.”
He stopped and held up two fingers.
Martin briefly dropped his smile but recovered.
“Second,” Weng said heavily. “It seems likely that we may still not get the water reclamation process started in time to suit our immediate needs. I estimate two to three months before processing will be adequate.”
Martin smoothly interposed. “In that case, what do you propose? Won’t rationing be enough?”
“I’m afraid not,” Weng said. “I propose that the United Mars Colonies—”
“The what?” Mbutu blurted.
“Dr. Weng, there’s no such—” Martin began.
Weng continued, “—that the United Mars Colonies send an envoy or envoys to Ceres for the purpose of procuring an emergency supply of water strictly for the drinking supply. Not to be used for electrical generation.”
Martin grabbed his arm, hissing, “We must talk.”
Turning to the screens and smiling, he said, “Pardon us for a moment. Please hold.”
He stabbed at a button on the desk, then turned back to Weng, furious.
“What on earth do you think you’re doing?”
Weng regarded the Overseer calmly. “We’re not ‘on Earth’.”
“For the love of—you know what I mean!”
The Overseer began to pace, waving his arms. “The Moon Treaty of 1979, the Outer Space Exploration Treaty of 1991, and the Mars Mining Treaty of 2031 all forbid any one nation to act on behalf of citizens of other sovereign nations working or living off-world!”
Weng blinked. “Meaning?”
“Meaning,” he said heavily, “each group of settlers is bound by the laws of their countries, and we cannot speak for them as a group!”
“But,” Weng said, “most of these recent settlers are obviously refugees, and their governments have either not contacted us or have been evasive and vague in our communications.”
“True, all true,” Martin retorted, agitated. “But I work for the UN. Not ‘the United Mars Colonies,’ whatever the hell that is.”
He stopped pacing and frenetically ran his fingers through his hair.
“Martin,” Weng said.
The politician looked over him, and clasped his hands in front like a prayer.
“Weng, I have already had to agree to give each and every country its own territory, in stark contrast to existing UN directives. Separated each group by a minimum of 1.4 kilometers. Forbidden settlers from other nation-states to enter their territory without permission.”
“And has that prevented settlers from communicating with each other?”
“Or sharing their supplies, which they got from us?”
“Um. Not in so many words, no.”
“And yet,” Weng continued, “the UN has obliged us, as a central authority, to supply housing, food, water, power, communication facilities. All despite the fact these settler factions are supposed to be operating independently. Correct?”
“Yes, yes,” Martin replied quickly.
Weng approached the near-panicked politician. He held out his hands to calm him down.
“Look, we need water, yes?”
Martin nodded, rubbing his palms together.
“And we need water from the asteroid reclamation plants on Ceres, because we can’t get ours to produce enough water fast enough and we can’t convince the UA to give us any of theirs. Again, correct?”
“Yes, that is essentially the situation.”
“And we only have three months before we run out of drinking water?”
Martin swallowed and nodded again. “I believe those are the current estimates.”
Weng smiled. Actually, he had no idea what the current estimates were. Nor how long it would take to produce more if the settler factions agreed to donate workers. Probably he was close to accurate. But that hardly mattered, to get what he wanted.
“Now,” he continued, “if we were to ask Ceres for water, as per UN regulations, we would have to go through each country’s delegation, then wait for an answer from their respective countries, then wait for the answer to, ah, filter back through the delegates.”
Again, Martin nodded, this time with more certainty.
“So,” Weng concluded. “If we approach Ceres not as the UN, beholden to separate, divided, bickering nations, but as a sort of united group of fellow outer space residents, wouldn’t the mining community on Ceres treat us as a single entity? with slightly more respect?”
Martin looked dubious. “I’m not as confident as you on that issue,” he said slowly. “However—”
“Good,” said Weng. He strode back to the ugly yellow desk. “I’ll convince the delegates that a temporary alliance and a united front will get us more water.”
“Wait!” Martin called out. “Let me, let me stand next to you. You talk, I’ll support.”
Weng shrugged. “Support” sounded like “use you,” but he supposed they, too, needed to show a united front.
In the end, he would get what he wanted, he thought, inwardly grinning. And it would only cost him an extra trip to Ceres to see Riss.
Next: Chapter 10 (Part 1) The Artemis (Coming January 2nd)