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

Far Beyond the Stars — 1953, 1998, 2021

February 9, 2021
MThomas

The Dreamer…and the Dream

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:

Memory Alpha Wiki

Avery Brook’s “proudest moments” interview

DS9 Season 6 Extras – the actors speak (Armin Shimerman calls it “perfect science fiction”)

The Movie Blog

Star Trek Official Website: Remembering “Far Beyond the Stars”

Reel World Theology’s Trektember

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 10: The Artemis (Part 2)

January 9, 2021
MThomas

(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.”

“Speculate.”

“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.”

“Sugar?”

“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.”

“Meaning?”

Cooper looked at Sanvi with a frightened expression.

“Drugs.”

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.”

“I’m a—”

“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.”

“Roger.”

The navigator turned to go, then stopped. “You know, Riss.”

“Uh-huh.”

“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.

Shit.

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?

And Gennaji.

She bit her lip.

Lena.

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.”

“What if…”

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?”

“Yes.”

“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.”

“Say what?”

Riss sat back in the command chair. This did not sound good.

“Try Ceres.”

Sanvi slapped the console again. “Already did. Same response.”

“Same? Exactly?”

“Well,” the pilot conceded. “Not a hundred percent, no.”

“Then?”

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.

“Fuck him!”

“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)

Bringer of Light, Chapter 10: The Artemis (Part 1)

January 2, 2021
MThomas

(While Weng hatches a scheme on Mars, Riss and crew are still a long way from home…)

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.

Sanvi?

“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.

“Saw them?”

“I saw my parents,” Sanvi said. “A dream. At least, I think it was a dream. Pretty sure, anyway.”

Riss waited.

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.”

A lie.

“Then, what?”

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—”

“Coop!”

“RNA,” he said bluntly. “Maybe.”

Riss narrowed her eyes and glanced at the screen again.

“Life?”

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—!”

“Damn you!”

“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.


Next: Chapter 10 (Part 2) — January 9th

Bringer of Light, Chapter 9 (Part 2): Mars Colonies

December 27, 2020
MThomas

(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.

“Intolerable!”

“Outrageous!”

“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.

“Second.”

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?”

Martin stopped.

“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?”

“Ah…”

“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)

Iwájú = The Future

December 13, 2020
MThomas

“This show will combine Disney’s magic and animation expertise with Kugali’s fire and storytelling authenticity. Iwájú represents a personal childhood dream of mine to tell my story and that of my people.”

https://whatsondisneyplus.com/iwaju-coming-soon-to-disney/

Disney is throwing millions at boring remakes. But at least this series is new. Forget “Little Mermaid.”

You can’t rewrite the past. You can co-create the future. This is a good step.

Bringer of Light, Chapter Four (Part 2)

November 14, 2020
MThomas

In Part 1, “Sam” Weng traveled to Mars, posing as a water plant engineer, hoping to promote his architectural designs. But the Martian Overseer had other designs…

Um,” he said, touching the computer workstation nearest him. “These figures seem…acceptable. So…”

Velasquez put his thumbs into his jacket front pockets and smiled.

Weng glanced at the cart, then at the shovel. He had it.

“Workers,” he said. “There aren’t enough workers to get the quantities of dirt necessary to operate the water reclamation system properly.”

“Yes,” Velaquez said, beaming. He waggled a finger at Weng. “I knew you were a man of intellect. You’re exactly correct. In order to support a larger colony population, we need several crews to excavate literally tons of Martian regolith. Our earth-moving equipment is useless without workers.”

“But what about the ice cap?” Weng asked. “I thought there was enough water locked up there for centuries of colonists.”

“Locked up, yes,” Velasquez agreed. “Locked up by the United Americas Armed Forces stationed at the only operating ice factory on Mars. The UA insists that all reclaimed ice water be used for fuel creation.

He put his hands back in his pockets. “But we can’t drink that water, anyway. The ice cap water has too much irradiation for our purposes.”

He took a step closer to Weng and continued, “Of course, I shouldn’t have to tell you that. As a hydroengineer, you should know already.”

Weng caught the meaning immediately. He stood still, furiously thinking of what to say.

“You’re not an engineer,” Velasquez said softly. He kept his smile. “Even the Lunar Base uses a water reclamation and filtration system such as this. It’s been well-known for decades now.

“Of course,” he said, gesturing to the water tanks, “most of our reclaimed water wouldn’t be in these tanks for long. The system is designed to use the natural bedrock to filter our impurities. These tanks are to disinfect and treat recycled sewage water, mixed in with water reclaimed from the regolith. We dare not use open-face tanks until the terraforming is well under way and the atmosphere forms properly to prevent sublimation.”

Weng felt his hands forming into fists. When would the other shoe drop?

“Mart—Overseer, I—”

Velasquez shook his head. “It’s of no matter,” he said. “We do not need more hydroengineers.”

“No?”

“I know that you are an architect, Mr. Weng. A very good one, but one with a certain, shall we say, ambition. Grandiose ideas. Is that not true?”

Weng nodded curtly. “I regret the subterfuge, Overseer. I meant no disrespect.”

Velasquez smiled more broadly. “On the contrary,” he said, “I am pleased that you went to such trouble simply to find a position here in the Mars Colonies. Why give up an important job on Luna for this?”

He shook his head again.

“No, Mr. Weng. Sam. We have need of skilled individuals such as yourself. I will agree to give you a place on our water reclamation plant team so that you may remain on Mars.”

Weng relaxed and finally breathed out.

“Under one condition,” Velasquez added.

Weng started. “Condition?”

“Yes,” the politician answered. He darted glances about the room before motioning Weng closer.

“We have two or three groups of incoming settlers in a few days,” he said in a softer voice, as if not wanting the technicians to overhear. “Some are from the UA. Some are Indian. Some European.”

“That sounds potentially volatile,” Weng responded. “Even as a non-politician, I can understand that much.”

“Yes,” Velasquez said. “But we need these people. Mars needs water, and Mars also needs workers. Thanks to the UA lockout on the ice factories here, we’ve been obliged to get all our water from the plants on Ceres. It’s costing the UN an arm and a leg. If we could process our own potable water, right here…”

He smiled.

“I think I get the picture, Overseer,” said Weng dully. This didn’t sound like architectural work to him. Nor engineering work.

“Martin,” the Overseer said, clapping him on the shoulder. “I can’t talk to the settlers. I need a neutral, third party. Somebody who speaks for one of the Allied Forces.”

“Me?” Weng said, smiling. “I’m no Allied Forces representative. You’re the United Nations appointed Overseer of the Joint Martian Colonies. Why can’t you speak with new settlers?”

“Sam. When you look at me, what do you see?”

Weng looked. He held his tongue.

Velasquez persisted. “What do you see? What kind of person?”

“Ah.”

“My ancestry is Japanese,” Velasquez said. He clipped the word, as if reluctant to say it. “My family moved to Peru when I was young.”

“I see,” Weng said slowly. Why was this person telling him this? Private information was not meant to be shared so openly among strangers.

“You are Chinese,” Velasquez continued. “But like the rest of my relatives, you and your people stayed in the alliance.”

He stopped and seemed on the verge of losing his composure. Weng thought he saw the briefest glimpse of anger cross the Overseer’s face.

“I cannot speak to settlers from the United Americas, China, or Japan,” Velasquez said bitterly. “I cannot risk anyone recognizing my name.”

Weng tilted his head and frowned.

“Velasquez does not sound too terribly—”

“My wife’s name,” the politician said. He fell silent.

Weng pondered. A name that was too dangerous to mention aloud, too recognizable to say even to settlers, who likely would not be anywhere near a position of power or authority. He wondered if the Overseer suffered from sort of of paranoia.

Well, he thought, perhaps he could use this to his advantage. Chai mao qui cui, one should never blow the hair and search for ticks.

“All right,” he conceded, trying not to sound too enthusiastic. “I will talk with them.”

The Overseer immediately brightened. He clasped Weng’s right hand with both his hands and shook it vigorously.

“Excellent, excellent. I believe this is the start of a beautiful friendship!”

Weng inwardly groaned, but outwardly smiled.

“Thank you, Overseer,” he said, as sincerely as possible. “I look forward to working together with you, and with the water plant team.”

“I’ll have the papers drawn up by the end of the day,” Velasquez said. He motioned back to the entrance. “Now, let’s see if we can find you some accommodations. Not as grand as Luna conapts, I’m afraid, but I think you’ll find it pleasant enough.”

“Papers?” Weng repeated, as they returned to the corridor. He began to think that he’d never get used to the labyrinthian underground maze of walkways.

Velasquez gestured with both hands and shrugged. “Not to worry, just a formality. A contract is necessary, you understand. That’s the way we do things here on Mars.”

A contract. Ah, well, politics and business were never too far apart. Perhaps he could somehow squeeze in a reference to future architectural work on his part.

The Overseer continued to lecture him on the history of the Mars Colonies, the various factions already living in separate but equal domed sections, the disputes he might expect from newcomers. But all Weng could think about was how he would explain this to Riss.

His new position entailed supporting a process that sought to eliminate the need for water from asteroids.

His next vid message would need…tact.


Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter Five: Riss

Bringer of Light, Chapter 4 (Part 1)

November 7, 2020
MThomas

(Like the previous Chapter, this one is over 3,000 words. So I’m posting it in two parts.)

“Well, I’ll say one thing,” Weng muttered, stepping out of the vertical transport capsule into the Mars Colonies Receiving Station. “Mars smells much worse than I imagined.”

“You’ll get used to it,” said an approaching voice. “It’s just recycled feces. A small prize to pay for settling the universe.”

Weng looked up to see the owner of the voice; a slender East Asian man, wearing a business suit and a shoulder to waist white sash that marked him as a career politician.

“Martin Velasquez, Martian Colonies Overseer,” the man said with a practiced smile.

They shook hands. Weng almost did a double-take, but caught himself. The name didn’t seem to match his partner’s appearance.

“Weng Wei,” Weng said slowly. “But most people call me Sam.”

Velasquez laughed. “Sam. Originally from China?”

“Yes, that’s right,” Weng replied carefully. “But my allegiance is to the United Nations, not a single nation.”

Velasquez laughed again. “Not to worry, Mr Weng. We’re all friends here on Mars. No room for disagreements.”

“No room, huh.” Weng said, surveying the building surrounding them. He self-consciously touched his left wrist with his right hand. No watch. No way of using it on Mars, where the infrastructure wasn’t set in place yet. He sighed.

The geodesics were primitive by Lunar standards. The Mars Colonies primarily consisted of tall, egg-shaped semi-transparent structures connected by underground passages. All constructed by robotic drones and remote-controlled 3D printers the previous decade before the UN settlers landed. Compared to the spacious residences of the Moon, the living arrangements seemed horribly cramped.

Not to mention even less aesthetically pleasing, Weng thought. If that were actually possible. But he kept that thought to himself.

He let his hand drop awkwardly by his side. “So, uh, I gather you have a position open on your water reclamation team?”

“Yes, that’s right,” Velasquez said, smiling. “You came highly recommended.”

He gestured. “Shall we?”

They walked past the Receiving Station operator, who sat reading the latest sports news on his pad. He looked up briefly and touched a panel at the console in front of him. The transport capsule lifted and disappeared into the tube, headed back to the transit station in geostationary orbit above them.

“Mars Landers win today?” Velasquez called.

The operator waved his free hand. “Nah. Red Rocks beat ‘em. 15-7.”

Velasquez shook his head.

“Mars Baseball League,” he explained to Weng.

Weng shrugged. “I don’t know much about baseball,” he admitted.

“Well,” laughed Velasquez, “You’d better learn quickly. The colonists are crazy about it.”

He waited until they were out of earshot of the transport operator before adding, “Actually, without Marsball, many colonists probably would go crazy. It’s awfully isolating, being stuck in domes all day. The wireless network is barely adequate to support vid streaming, and even then only on UN-sanctioned pads.”

They left the Receiving Station and walked down a flight of metal stairs into a long winding corridor. The stench seemed to grow with each passing step, but Weng said nothing.

Instead, he focused his attention on the Martian Overseer, who prattled on about various problems the Colonies were experiencing.

“You know,” the Overseer was saying, “It’s so nice to finally meet a man of obvious intellect, such as yourself. I mean, a member of a terraforming design team! And a friend of the great Captain Bardish!”

Weng tried to humble himself as best he could. “Thank you for your kind words, Overseer. I’m just a company man.”

“No, no, not at all,” Velasquez retorted, waving away perceived concerns with a hand. “The Mars Colonies are desperately in need of more brain power. We’ve been applying for a qualified engineer up here for months, but with all these factional disputes Earthside…well, you know how it is.”

The Overseer paused. They stopped and he peered at Weng.

“You are a scientist, are you not?” he queried.

Weng didn’t like the suspicious tone in the voice. “Yes, yes,” he stammered, “Of course, I am. I’m eager to examine your water plant facilities.”

“Which ones?” Velasquez asked. “Desalination? Sewage? Recycling and filtration?”

“Filtration,” Weng said automatically. He’d rehearsed this bit. “I have some design ideas that may increase the regulatory capacity.”

“Ah,” said Velasquez. “But perhaps I should see if you can get some living quarters before—”

“Later,” Weng interrupted. Seeing the expression on the politician’s face, he hurried on. “I mean, I would very much like to go directly to my new workplace. Meet my new teammates. Find out what I can do.”

“Well,” said Velasquez dubiously, laying a finger aside his nose. “If it would set your mind at ease, I suppose the grand tour could wait. Still, hydroponics has some projects that might interest you. But I’ll take you directly to the reclamation plant, if you wish.”

He gestured. “This way. There’s a bit of more walking involved, I’m afraid. The underground pedestrian belt isn’t functioning at the moment.”

Weng refrained from sighing again. He had to play his cards close to his chest with this man. Bardish may have got him to Mars, but now he was on his own. Somehow he had to convince the Martian Overseer that he could be a valuable member of this fledgling Martian society.

And from there, become a valuable aide in the politician’s inner circle. This was his chance.

They resumed walking. Here and there along either side of the pathway various corridors branched off. Weng wondered how expensive it was to maintain lighting. The underground architecture reminded him of his trip to the Sudan, in the days before China and the United Americas became allies. Another waste of his talents, that trip. But at least it had taught him how to address local officials with tact.

“Overseer,” he began.

“Martin,” said Velasquez.

“Ah, Martin,” amended Weng. “I have to admit that I am not familiar with the current problems on Mars.”

Velasquez nodded in understanding. “Yes, with the tensions Earthside, and the close-minded-ness of the Lunar Council, it doesn’t surprise me. Some things don’t make NetStream News, you see.”

Weng cocked his head, feigning ignorance. “Some things?” he repeated.

The politician allowed himself a brief smirk, but returned to his empty smile. “Come now, Mr. Weng.”

“Sam.”

“Sam. We are men of intelligence. Any fool can see that if the Greater Indian Empire does not accede to the UN demands, violence is all but inevitable.”

Weng frowned in abeyance. The Overseer was an astute observer. The UN was even more ineffective than before at preventing conflicts among member nations. China and India frequently rattled sabres in the past, but things had quickly escalated with the creation of the Lunar Base. India felt slighted at not being asked to join the settlement project; China felt slighted at not being more involved in the Mars Colonies administration; the United Americas and the Slavic Confederacy still had horns locked over the ultimate fate of the Ukrainian Union.

And now the UN was demanding that India give up its claims to the old ISS, which had been earmarked for dismantlement long ago. The creation of Ceres as a way station for asteroid hunters made ISS irrelevant, the UN argued. India disagreed; their use of nuclear fissile materials rejuvenated the station, turning it into an armed outpost. They hinted the ISS harbored ship-to-ship nuclear warheads and MIRVs. Other nation-states suspected a ruse, but remained concerned that Indian warships could threaten their space interests and that the ISS, itself, represented a huge biological hazard should its systems fail.

At any rate, the ISS was a dangerous sword of Damocles. But what did it matter? Weng thought. His future lay here, on Mars. With Riss.

“Overse…Martin,” he said apologetically, “I’m not sure what use I can be politically, but I am here to help as much as I am able.”

“Of course, of course,” Velasquez chuckled, as he adjusted his sash. “But you see, politics is what makes Mars live and breathe. Refugees. Prisoners. Exiles. Or should I say, Martian settlers.”

They ascended a staircase into another domed structure. This one was much larger than others they had passed along the way. In the center of the room was an enormous computer workstation. Behind the workstation stretched several three-meter high water tanks, mounted with valve readers. Stacks of tubes in square metal racks lined the back wall, with tubes of varying sizes connecting everything in a complicated, convoluted weave across the floor. Three or four technicians in white hard hats and gray worker outfits wandered among the equipment, occasionally inputting information on touch pads. At the back of the room was a closed door, in front of which stood a cart filled what appeared to be dirt. A dull gray aluminum shovel leaned against it.

As they entered, one of the workers noticed and waved.

Velasquez returned the wave.

“Our new water reclamation system,” he explained to Weng. “Still in need of a few engineers. That’s why it’s not up to 100 percent just yet.”

Weng was about to respond when he noticed a large open slot in the wall next to the entrance doorway they had walked through. It looked almost like a cafeteria tray return window. From the slot curious glass rectangular panels ran along the walls in a strip all the way around the room.

“And this?” Weng asked, pointing at the slot.

“Ah.” Velasquez beamed. “Our pride and joy. Let me show you how it works.”

He walked over to the cart. Picking up the shovel, he scooped out a fair amount of material.

“This,” he said, while walking the shovelful to the slot, “is how we make water on Mars.”

He unceremoniously dumped the dirt into the slot. He put the shovel down, pulled a silk handkerchief out of a jacket inner pocket and carefully wiped his hands.

“Push that green button over there,” he said with a big grin.

Set into the wall above the slot was a panel, containing two thumb-size plastic buttons. One green, one red. How quaint, Weng thought, pushing the green button. Inside the slot, a whirring sound echoed. The noise of a metallic conveyor belt starting up. The dirt disappeared to the right. After a few minutes, another noise came from behind the first two glass panels in the wall.

Weng bent over and looked through the glass.

“Looks like a microwave oven,” he commented.

“It is a microwave oven, basically,” Velasquez replied. “At least, to the best of my knowledge. First, we need to cook the dirt and get the ice out of it.”

Water vapor began to cloud the panel, but the vapor quickly dissipated.

“Of course,” Velasquez continued, “with just a single shovelful of dirt, we won’t get nearly enough water vapor to bother with.”

He pushed the red button, and the noises stopped. The politician folded his handkerchief carefully and replaced it inside his jacket. Pausing to ruffle his lapels, he looked over at the technicians.

“They seem capable enough,” Weng said without thinking.

Velasquez looked back at him. “Oh, they are. That’s not the problem.”

He waited. With a start, Weng realized he was being tested. Would he know what the problem was?


Team SEArch+/Apis Cor of New York is the fourth-place winner in NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge, Phase 3: Level 1 competition.

Next: Chapter 4, Part Two (Landing at 7:00 p.m. EST on 11/14/20)

Thank you to my new followers – drop me a line!

October 29, 2020
MThomas

Use a human language, preferably…

Dropping a shoutout to all my followers, old and new. Thanks for reading!

I’m preparing this week’s installment of Bringer of Light (Chapter 3, Part 2), all the while scouring the web for science and tech news to share.

Anything you want to see shared (or want to share)? Comments on the story so far? Something you want to rant about? (No politics please! Waaay too much of that at home right now. I’d rather keep my head in the stars when possible…)


Bringer of Light: Chapter 3, Part 2 – dropping at 7 p.m. EDT October 31st. No Halloween theme, sorry (that’s a separate post 🎃).

Bringer of Light Chapter 3 — The Artemis (Part 1)

October 24, 2020
MThomas

(This week’s installment is over 3000 words long, so I’m splitting it into two parts for posting. Enjoy!)

“Airlock 2 engaged,” came the navigator’s voice over their helmet comms. “Seal confirmed.”

“Thanks, Enoch,” Riss replied. “Take up your position on the catwalk.”

“Roger.”

Riss removed her helmet and placed it on top of the cargo hold’s control computer stack. Riss surveyed the hold. Designed to safely transport small to medium-sized asteroids, the vast space was shaped like top half of a dodecahedron. Which, in fact, it was. The bottom half comprised the fuel storage for Artemis’s ion engines.

Behind the control computers, the main door to the hold remained closed. Wrapped around the entire cargo hold area, the walkway could be accessed only through a small square portal directly above the main door.

The hold had two access ports. Port-side, Airlock 1 was reserved for the Hopper. Starboard-side, Airlock 2 served as a backup. Riss hated using it. While Airlock 1 was almost flush with the floor, Airlock 2 was several centimeters up the wall. After several initial attempts trying to leave the airlock without spraining an ankle, she decided never to use it for the Hopper. On the other hand, the airlock was perfect for unwanted guests.

Riss motioned for Sanvi and Cooper to stand at either side of her. She readied her sidearm, an old tazer rifle. Riss prayed she wouldn’t have to use it. From the sound of things, Gennaji must still be holding the old grudge, from near the end of her time on the Sagittarius.

At the thought, her eyes hardened. Lena, I’m sorry.

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