Embracing Ceres

The Lincoln crew went to Ceres with a mission: capture the Diaspora Group facilities at the dwarf planet for Earth. Establish a toe-hold in the solar system and seize a key facility.

They barely made it to Ceres.

Now Jessica Reynolds faces a choice between her mission and what she knows is right.

1

The Lincoln entered a geostationary orbit around Ceres at eleven hundred hours and it wasn’t alone. Everybody on board, including Jessica, that had access to a window or a screen was looking at the same thing.

Their one chance at survival, the Diaspora station in a stationary orbit around Ceres. The station was bright, catching the sun as it spun around a central line that ran down to the dwarf planet below. That was the skyhook! A tether that ran from the icy planet right up through the ring-shaped hub. And from the hub, two long shafts extended out into space, curving at the ends into sickle shapes pointing in opposite directions.

“It’s fucking huge!” Dwight said.

Beside him, her hands never leaving the controls and screen displays, Jessica agreed. She’d seen a lot in her time in the service, things that she couldn’t tell her mother about. Even the Diaspora station around the Moon hadn’t been like this.

“Affirmative.” She opened a channel across the ship. “We have contact. All hands to stations. All hands to stations. Captain Lawson, your orders?”

It wasn’t only the Diaspora station to consider. Ceres was a dwarf planet? Maybe, it still was larger than everything else, a complex surface marked by craters, cracks lines and valleys. She’d seen the reports. There was an ocean beneath the ice. An ocean filled with its own unique biosphere. The first, outside of Earth found, although other reports were coming in from other Diaspora-settled worlds suggesting that maybe life was common throughout the solar system.

The surface resembled the Moon as much as anything, gray and cratered. Darker than she would have expected with bright places where recent impacts and revealed newer ice. Portions looked smooth, while the area around the skyhook between the station and the surface was scored in straight lines, open pit mines dug into the surface.

How had Terra Blackstone’s Diaspora Group managed all of this? Next to the station, the Lincoln was tiny and it was the single largest spacecraft the United States had ever built. One last ditch attempt to get a handle on what was happening out here before Diaspora took over everything beyond Earth’s orbit. They’d left half the crew back at Luna, before heading out to the secondary objective. It’d taken six months, the fastest the Lincoln could do, to get here.

Jessica glanced back where Captain Lawson sat in the command seat just behind her and Dwight. Lawson was a solidly built man, apparently without a neck, a feature aggravated by months in weightlessness. The top of his head gleamed from the overhead lights, but his dark eyes were firmly fixed on the view ahead. He looked like an angry potato head, not that she’d ever give voice to such a disrespectful thought.

“We proceed with the mission as planned,” he said.

Her gut sank. Was he serious? Those plans were outdated. Since the failure at Luna, what was the point? And they were out of options. Resources dangerously low, multiple problems with key systems, critical systems. The air tasted metallic and stale, thick with the stink of unwashed bodies. They were lucky to have survived to get here at all.

 

Lawson’s eyes shifted to her. “Commander? Is there a problem?”

“No, sir.” What else could she say? She was supposed to follow orders and this mission had been built up as being for more than country, but for all those left behind on Earth while Diaspora stole away their best and brightest minds.

She opened a broadcast channel. At least that much still worked. “Diaspora station. This is the United States space vessel, Lincoln. Come in.”

The radio was silent. Then it came to life. “Lincoln, welcome! I’m Mandy Adams, administrator of Ceres operations. It’s good to see you, we thought you were lost!”

What the hell? Dwight mouthed.

Absolutely. That wasn’t at all the response that Jessica had anticipated. This Mandy Adams sounded cheerful, perky, a cheerleader type.

Jessica cleared her throat and answered. “No, not lost. I have Captain Lawson here for you.”

“Great! I’d love to talk to him. What was your name?”

“Jessica Reynolds. Here’s the Captain.”

She twisted around, looking back at the captain. Lawson leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “Ms. Adams —”

“Excuse me, Captain, I hate to interrupt. It’s actually doctor Adams.”

Lawson shook his head. “Fine. Dr. Adams. Are you in a position to speak privately?”

“Oh, there’s no need of that! We’re all alone out here, a tiny speck of humanity. Nothing we need to worry about.”

“Excuse me, doctor, I’d feel better if you and I spoke privately.”

“Captain, really, anything you have to say I’m only going to have to tell my admin team anyway. Better they hear it from your lips first.”

Jessica studied her consoles. The station was big, each side of the rotating station as long as a football field. The curved sections at the end of each shaft were wider and flatter, an oval shape in the cross-section. The tether actually continued on past the station, out to a small dark rock, another asteroid, apparently captured by Diaspora. There were metal arms coiled up around the inside of the hub, fingers visible, spinning around and around, waiting to grab pods off the line. There was one now, like a bright bead clinging to the string, rising up to the surface, and from the asteroid at the far end, another was descending.

It was amazing. It made their little ship, the Lincoln, look positively antique, a toy ship next to this beautiful spinning structure above Ceres.

“Alright then, Doctor,” Lawson said. Jessica didn’t need to look back to see he was clenching the arms of his chair. “I’ve been sent by the United States, under a joint agreement with the United Nations, to seize all properties and resources under operation on or near Ceres. I expect you and your staff to submit to our authority and surrender peacefully.”

Dr. Adams’ laughter rang out, high and girlishly, as if Lawson had made a particularly funny joke. Jessica did look back then, and seeing Lawson’s face redden, she turned her attention back to her consoles.

After a few seconds the laughter on the radio died. “Oh, I’m sorry.” Dr. Adams sniffled. “I don’t mean to be unkind, sir, I don’t. I was even expecting something like that, hearing it actually said aloud tickled my funny bone.”

“There’s nothing funny about this situation,” Lawson said.

“You’re absolutely right, Captain.” Mandy’s voice was still bright, like a sharp piece of glass. “On behalf of Diaspora, let me say that we don’t believe that the United Nations, the United States, or any other authority on Earth, has any legal basis for seizing any property or resources claimed by Diaspora. We’re hardly on Earth any longer. So you see, I can’t possibly accept.”

“I am authorized to use force in this situation,” Lawson said.

“Ah, violence, the ultimate threat of the bully. The crook. The unethical.” Now Mandy’s voice sounded angry and sharp. “We also reject that game. We left that behind when we left Earth. Maybe you haven’t heard of it, but we practice something called getting along. Helping your neighbor. Not demanding that they turn over their property, and threatening them with violence when they disagree. Shame on you!”

The connection was cut out in a wash of static.

Lawson hit the arm of his chair. “Get them back!”

Dwight immediately started calling again. Jessica swiveled around.

“Captain, maybe we should give them time to think,” she said.

“Arm the rail gun,” Lawson said darkly.

“Captain!” Jessica forced her voice lower. “We lose that station, and we all die. We don’t have anywhere else to go!”

“Are you refusing my order?”

“No, sir, I’m suggesting alternatives.”

“Waiting. While we use up our air?”

Jessica shook her head. “Give them an hour to think before we speak to them again. We can’t lose the station, sir.”

The muscles in his jaw twitched. “Fine, Reynolds. Have it your way. Stand down until I come back. In one hour.”

Lawson unbuckled and kicked off the deck, floating up. He grabbed grips on the ceiling and propelled himself back into the Lincoln‘s main shaft.

Dwight stopped signaling and leaned over, whispering. “Thanks, you probably just saved our lives!”

“Maybe.”

Jessica looked back at her screens. She wasn’t so sure. Somehow they had to deal with this situation, turn it around.

“Can you believe she laughed like that?”

“No.” Jessica shook her head. “Not the best thing to do right now with the Captain. I think his sense of humor went out the airlock a long time ago.”

“Truth.” Dwight spun back to face his console. “System review?”

“Good idea,” she said. A depressing one, but necessary. With systems failing all over the ship, they had to monitor each carefully.

Which gave her an idea. Jessica unbuckled her straps. “You start on that. I’m going to go inspect that relay fault that we picked up on the last scan.”

“Now?”

“Better now than if Lawson takes us into action.”

Dwight’s fingers danced across his screens. “Okay. Don’t be long.”

“Right.”

Jessica pushed off and twisted mid-air to pass over her seat. Zero-gee was the new normal now. You got so used to being able to float anywhere you wanted. Ignoring the stuffy sinuses and the fact of her bones leaching away, it would be hard to give this up and go back down into a deep gravity well. That’s assuming they ever got back to any deep well. Ceres hardly counted.

The body of the Lincoln was essentially a long tube, one section connected to the next, each boosted into orbit on commercial launches. This was in-orbit spacecraft construction at a rapid pace, as cheap as possible. No surface went unused. It was a lot like the old space stations, like the International Space Station before it was decommissioned, except done as a single long string. From the outside it didn’t look that different than the old Apollo Saturn stacks, except all of it up in orbit.

And it smelled like a dirty locker room, no matter how many cleaning shifts the crew pulled. They had more space now, after half the crew had disembarked at Luna. That had been a crushing blow to the Captain, hearing what happened with that mission. They’d left them behind, boosting out on a fast trajectory to reach Ceres and enter orbit. Almost no fuel left now after the burn to reach a stationary orbit near the station.

Air failing. Food rationed. There was no place for them to go now except the station. She knew the captain. Dr. Adams’ laughter was an insult he would not forgive, and he wouldn’t back down. Dr. Adams wasn’t wrong. The threats of violence, even if they didn’t need the station, were shameful. These people had done nothing except create an oasis of life in the midst of the harshest environment.

Up until this mission, Jessica had always followed orders. Now? She wasn’t so sure.

Just ahead Ethan and Daniel had panels open, Ethan’s head lost in the inner workings of the conduits. Jessica caught a grip and slowed her movement.

“Recyclers again?”

Daniel, his pale face looking lean and drawn, rotated in place. “We’re out of replacements. We’ve scrubbed and cleaned the filters as best we can. It’s not going to last more than a day or two.”

“We’re negotiating with them now,” she said. She steadied Daniel. “It won’t be much longer.”

Ethan pushed himself up out of the access port, his strawberry-blond hair stuck out in all directions. “It’d better be fucking soon or we’ll have as much luck sucking vacuum as breathing the air in here.”

“We’re working on it,” Jessica said.

She pushed off and drifted past them. It wasn’t far now, except she had to go through the living stations first. Where the captain was likely to be. If he saw her —

It didn’t bear thinking about.

The living station contained six sections, spaced around the central shaft, each four berths across. Like coffins lined up around the central shaft. Each wasn’t much bigger than a coffin, a space with a rolling door to close it off, smaller than a closet back on Earth. Not a space for anyone claustrophobic. Half of the berths were empty now, used to store waste that hadn’t been jettisoned. There’d been talk of converting them into make-shift hydroponic stations except the Lincoln hadn’t launched with any viable seeds on board. The idea was pointless.

The captain’s berth was closed. He was still inside. Jessica held her breath as she floated past, expecting the panel to roll aside and the captain to rise up like a vampire or zombie grabbing at her from the grave.

It stayed closed.

She passed through the rest of the living station. Farther down the shaft were two pairs of feet, Kirk’s big bare feet she recognized. The smaller pair in black booties, those had to be Lorna. That was the armory. They were both special forces, and might back the captain no matter what the orders.

They looked occupied, and didn’t know the systems well, though they were learning. Jessica braked herself in the next section. Her heart was hammering, and not from exertion. What she was about to do, a court-martial might be the least of her worries.

It was too late to doubt. Whatever happened, she was doing it to save them all and secure their future.

The panel came free, quietly. She let it drift and reached deep into the inside of the access point. She found the relay by touch. The next part was tricky. She couldn’t just yank it out, that’d set off alarms. She had to bypass the sensors first.

Look both ways before you cross the street, Jessi, her father always said. Back home, would he or her mother understand?

Yes. Given the same choice, she figured he’d do the same thing. Dad had never been keen on her joining up in the first place.

Fortunately the sensor wires weren’t designed to prevent tampering. The ship was wired together hastily anyway, and they constantly had components failing. She’d taken to carrying what supplies she needed for repairs on the fly. She took the wire strippers and a small section of wire the length of her pinkie, from a zippered pocket on her shorts.

No one was coming her way, or paying her any attention. The others were deeper in the ship, past Kirk and Lorna. Dwight, Lawson, Daniel and Ethan were all occupied. And even if they saw her, they’d only assume she was doing another repair on the endless series of repairs while they waited.

There wasn’t anything to worry about, as long as she didn’t look too guilty.

Jessica focused on the task at hand. It took moments to strip and attach the bypass over the relay sensor. Then a quick snip and the job would be done. The blades of the wire cutters trembled over the connection.

Cut it, and the rail gun would fail, catastrophically melting down this relay if Lawson attempted to use the gun. The resulting fire was a hazard, a potentially fatal one for them all if they didn’t get control over it. The fire would also hide any signs of tampering, and with all of their problems, it wouldn’t even come as a surprise.

Yet if Lawson saw reason and didn’t use the rail gun on the Ceres station, they wouldn’t have a problem and she could come back to remove the bypass later.

It was the right choice. She looked down the central axis. Kirk and Lorna were still doing whatever it was they were doing.

A hand closed down on her right wrist, squeezing hard. Jessica twisted, striking out with her left without thinking.

Lawson rolled, having a grip on a handle. Jessica wasn’t braced and couldn’t resist as he twisted her around and pulled her arm from the panel. The pain in her arm grew worse as his grip tightened. Wire cutters tumbled away through the air when she lost her grip.

“What are you doing?” Lawson demanded.

Their movements had knocked the access panel lid away. It tumbled over to the opposite wall, and bounced off.

“Repairs, sir.” Her tongue was thick in her mouth.

“Repairs?” Lawson shoved her.

Without being braced she was helpless to stop herself from drifting across the axis. Lawson pulled himself over to the access panel and looked inside.

She caught a grip and stopped herself from drifting as he looked back at her.

“Some funny repairs there.” His gaze shifted.

Kirk and Lorna were floating along the ship toward them. Lawson pointed at Jessica.

“Lieutenants, I want you to arrest the commander and secure her.”

“The charge, sir?” Kirk asked.

Lawson’s fat face was ruddy as he spat out, “Treason. In fact, since it is treason and we can’t keep her locked up in here using resources, I’m sentencing her to death. Shove her out the airlock without a suit!”

“Sir!” Lorna said, her eyes flying wide.

The captain had lost his shit. Specks of white spit clung to his lips. The veins in his temples were purple and his bloodshot eyes showed how much sleep he’d gotten. It was more than that, though. There was a whiskey sour smell to the man, oozing from his pores, and carried in his breath. They’d ignored it in the past, but everyone on the crew knew that Lawson had smuggled aboard a bottle or two of whiskey. No doubt planning to celebrate the successful takeover of Diaspora’s operations.

That hadn’t happened on Luna and when he’d gotten the news he had taken it badly, spending two days shut away in his sleeping quarters. He’d looked like this then too, and they’d all know that he had gotten plastered. It wasn’t like they couldn’t smell it.

He’d given up, and he was going to take everyone down with them.

“Lieutenant,” Jessica said. “The captain is intoxicated, clearly his judgment is affected. I’m assuming command of the Lincoln.”

Lawson roared and launched himself at her. She was braced now, and ready for the attack. She kicked out, hard, catching him across the jaw. His inertia kept him coming, but the kick deflected him from a direct path, into the reach of Kirk and Lorna. Both of them had braced their feet and each caught an arm.

“Let me go!” Lawson struggled. There was a grip bar across the passage by his feet, but he didn’t hook his toes under.

He twisted, using them as anchors against each other but they released their grips simultaneously, and switched, catching the other arm as it rotated around. He was still caught.

“Traitors! I’ll see you all out the airlocks!”

Droplets of sweat floated into the air.

“Bind him, secure him in his berth,” Jessica said. “Watch him. When he sobers up, we’ll see.”

“Yes, sir,” Kirk said. “We’ll take care of it.”

“While you’re doing that, I’m going to finish the negotiations with Ceres base and see if I can get us off this tin can before we all suffocate.”

“Traitors!” Lawson thrashed. “You can’t do this! You’re no better than that bitch!”

That bitch? Terra Blackstone? Jessica kicked off and floated along the axis of the ship.

She paused as she reached Ethan and Daniel. Both men looked at her, waiting. Lawson’s curses carried through the ship as the others man-handled him into his berth.

“I’m in charge now,” she told them. “Prep the suits. I think we’re going to need them, if I can negotiate with the station.”

“We’re on it,” Ethan said. “Sir.”

Jessica nodded and pushed on, still thinking about Lawson’s words.

That bitch. He had to mean Blackstone. She had created Diaspora, and successfully launched missions to twelve of the planets and dwarf planets in the solar system. She’d ignored the space treaties and had succeeded spectacularly where others had failed. There was a lot of wounded pride when she had done so.

Was Blackstone a traitor to her country? Was she? Jessica reached the bridge and caught the back of the captain’s chair to brake.

Maybe, but some definitions. So be it. She wasn’t going to kill people on that station, and doom all of them on the Lincoln, because of what essentially amounted to a case of hurt national pride.

Raised voices still floated up to the bridge, their drunk captain started pounding on the walls of his berth, from the sound of it.

Dwight looked back. “Everything okay back there?”

“I’ve assumed command,” Jessica said, pulling herself down into the pilot’s seat. “Kirk and Lorna are holding the captain in his berth.”

Dwight was silent for a second, then, “Drinking again?”

“Yes. He ordered them to eject me out the airlock. Minus the suit. You could smell the whiskey coming out of his pores.”

“Too bad he’s a mean, selfish drunk,” Dwight said.

Jessica nodded. “Too bad. Let’s raise the station. I want video this time. I want to see who I’m talking to.”

“I can do that.”

A second later a window unfurled on her screen showing a lovely blond woman with a bright, perky smile. Early thirties, if Jessica had to guess. Her hair was actually styled, in beautiful corkscrews, and it hung down around a slender neck. It couldn’t be anyone other than Mandy.

Jessica’s hand itched to reach back to her own hair, tied into a ponytail to keep it from flying around her head like a dark halo. She resisted the urge.

“Hello!” Mandy’s silky red lips twitched. “You can’t possibly be Captain Lawson.”

“I’m Lieutenant Commander Reynolds —”

“Yes! We spoke earlier, before your captain came on.” Mandy winked. “I’d rather talk to you.”

The wink, what did that mean? Jessica fought for her words, and gathered her wits. “I must apologize for the captain’s behavior earlier. There’s no excuse for it. I want to assure you that he has been relieved of his command and confined. I hope we can put that behind us, and move forward peacefully.”

“Of course! Look, it’s near dinner time and you look half-starved. We’ll send over a scut to pick you up. There are how many of you left?”

“Ten, ma’am.”

“Don’t ma’am me.” Mandy leaned closer to the camera. Her black workall was unzipped partway, reveal a hint of milky cleavage. “Can I call you Jessica?”

“Yes.” Jessica glanced at Dwight, confused by Mandy’s actions. He was grinning so big that it looked like his head would split open. Jessica looked back at the screen. “That’s fine.”

“Great! Call me Mandy. The scut’s on the way. They’ll bring you all back over. It looks like the Lincoln‘s orbit is stable for now. We can talk when you get over here. Is your captain going to be a problem?”

“Our security staff can handle that,” Jessica said.

“I’m sure they can.” Mandy waved her fingers. “See you in a jiffy!”

The connection dropped out.

Dwight started laughing.

“Stop it!” Jessica said.

“You’ve got an admirer!”

Maybe. That was too confusing to even begin to think about.

The scut turned out to be a small ovoid-shaped ship straight out of science fiction. It was smooth and gleaming in the sunlight, with dark windows across the front of the craft. Tiny puffs of gas from nearly invisible pits on the craft revealed the presence of the thrusters used to maneuver.

Jessica brought up the ship-wide channel. “All hands. We’re preparing to transfer over to a Diaspora vessel which will take us over to the station. Leave everything here. It doesn’t look like there’s much room on that thing. We’ll make arrangements to retrieve personal belongings after we negotiate that with the Diaspora personnel.”

A renewed bout of yelling and thumping answered her announcement.

“The captain doesn’t sound happy.”

Jessica entered the commands to lock down the system controls, leaving the autopilot to maintain their orbit, at least as long as they had fuel and the systems remained operative. They’d have to come back and deal with the ship soon.

“At least we’ll be alive,” she said. “If he had his way, we’d be dying or dead along with them right now.”

Dwight unbuckled. “I get that. Some of the crew might take issue with giving up without a fight.”

She paused. “Meaning?”

“You don’t have a problem with me,” Dwight said. “MacKenzie? Larkin? Those guys are soldiers. They might not like this.”

“They can follow orders. The captain was drunk. He wasn’t rational. Kirk and Lorna already backed me taking command.”

“I’m just saying.”

She nodded. “Thanks Dwight. Thanks for having my back.”

She floated on down the axis.

“I’m always happy to watch your back, Commander.”

The ship axis didn’t have much room for them all to gather. Jessica came to a stop in the living quarters section. The captain had subsided from his ranting. Kirk and Lorna were there, along with Ethan and Daniel.

The guys had done as she had asked, and had suits floating along the axis for everyone. It was a precaution, one she was going to take, even though she didn’t get the sense that Mandy had any ill feelings toward them.

And the air in the suits was going to be better than the air in the ship anyway.

On the other side of the living quarters, the axis looked stuffed full of people, but it was the rest of the crew and their suits.

“Suit up!” Jessica called. “When the Diaspora ship docks, we’re going two at a time through the airlock.”

Quieter, to Kirk. “I’ll take the captain.”

“You’re not takin’ me ‘live!” Came the captain’s muffled voice, from his closed berth beneath them.

“I can do it,” Kirk said.

“No. It’s my responsibility. I’ll need your help to get him suited up.”

“Okay.”

The suits were all labeled and sized for each of them. Not like the self-adjusting suits she’d seen at the station over Luna. In zero-gee it was a process to put on each portion of the suit, check the seals, and move on to the next. It worked better with someone helping, and still wasn’t easy. Getting the captain into his suit was going to take some work.

“Open it up,” she said to Kirk.

The lieutenant undid the tie he’d put on the berth handle. The whole thing was flimsy enough, Lawson probably could have broken out if he was sober enough to think about it.

With a rattle the berth lid rolled back. Lawson was in a fetal position, floating in the middle of the berth. He cradled an empty whiskey bladder as if it was a child’s blanket. He blinked bleary red eyes. Yellow globes of fluid floated in the berth around him.

“Is that?”

“Piss,” Lorna said. “He’s gone and pissed himself.”

Lawson giggled.

Seeing it was enough to make Jessica start smelling it. Or tiny aerosolized droplets were reaching her noise. Her throat constricted, gagging, on the whiskey and piss scent of the man, blending with his sour sweat. It was bad, but smelling it, she could suddenly smell herself too, and the others. The background stink of them all and their close quarters hit her awareness and like a optical illusion, now that she smelled it, she couldn’t stop. Great. This was the odor they were going to present when they went over.

Nothing to be done about it. They didn’t have the resources to clean up right now.

“Let’s get him out of there.”

Lawson grimaced and cried out when they grabbed his arms. He thrashed, but he was half-unconscious at this point. His skin was blazing hot beneath her hands, and slick with sweat.

It took four of them to get him suited. Kirk and Lorna took one side, she and Dwight the other. By the time they finished, he was starting to stir more and struggled. As Jessica put on his helmet he started bellowing again, calling them all traitors.

Using the exterior controls, Jessica dialed down the oxygen in his air mixture.

“What are you doing?” Lorna asked.

“Calming him down.”

It worked. Lawson’s ranting stopped. He nodded off. Through the visor, she could see his eyes closed. He snored. She readjusted the mixture. She didn’t want him to suffocate, just compliant.

It took another hour for everyone to get suited up and checked over. Lawson remained unconscious while they worked.

Jessica tested the communications channels. “Everyone ready? Signal now.”

Lights on her heads up indicated everyone was green and accounted for, except for one dark square. That was Lawson, and his indicators looked good when she selected them.

“What’s the status of our transport?” Jessica asked.

“Larkin here. I’m at the airlock. She’s hanging out there, maybe ten meters from our side.”

“I’ll contact the station,” Jessica said.

She switched over to the channel they’d used to communicate with the station. “Lincoln, calling Ceres station.”

“Ceres here,” answered a man’s voice, cheerfully.

“We’re ready here, if you want to tell your scut to dock.”

“Oh, we’re not docking,” he said. “Send your crew out one at a time. We’ll fish them up and bring them on board.”

“Excuse me?”

“Security precautions. Don’t worry, they’ll be safe.”

That wasn’t going to go over well, but she could understand their caution. The captain had threatened them all. One at a time, they could handle any problems more easily, until they got the crew secured. And in the end, what choice did they have? They’d die if they didn’t do what Ceres wanted.

“Okay,” she said. “I’ll start sending them out.”

Switching back over to the crew channel. “We’re going single-file, one at a time. Ceres’ rules. We cooperate fully, people.”

MacKenzie’s light lit up. He came on, his voice hard. “And once we’re over there? What’s the plan then?”

“We stay alive,” she said. “Larkin, you’re at the lock? You go first.”

“Thanks, boss.”

The sound of the airlock shutting echoed up through the axis.

“Someone talk to me,” she said. “How’s it going?”

MacKenzie came back on. “He’s cycling through.”

Other than the creaks and groans of the ship’s systems, the Lincoln was quiet as everyone waited.

“Outer door is open,” MacKenzie said. “Those Diaspora bastards are just hanging out there. The ship is rotating. There’s a hatch. Hell. They’re in the hatch, waving for him to jump.”

“Boss?” Larkin asked.

“They say they’ll catch you.”

“Aye, boss. Here I go!”

“He’s jumped,” MacKenzie said. “Trajectory looks solid.”

Waiting as the seconds passed.

“A web! Hell!” MacKenzie swore. “They’ve thrown out a web. It’s stuck to him and they’re pulling him in. They’ve got him.”

The indicator for Larkin went out. “Larkin?”

He didn’t respond.

“MacKenzie? What do you see?”

“He’s still moving, he’s in the ship. They must have interrupted communications.”

Jessica switched channels to the Ceres’ station. “Ceres Station, Lincoln, please respond.”

“Jessica,” Mandy’s voice purred in her ear. “Sorry, I had to step away for a minute. I see that you’ve started the transfer, that’s great!”

“We’ve lost contact with our first crew member.”

“He’s fine. The communications blackout is only a precaution.”

“It doesn’t make me feel more secure.”

“Jessica, honey. It’s only a precaution. I assure you that you’ll all be well-treated.”

“I can’t promise that all of the crew are going to be happy about this,” Jessica said.

“I understand that, these precautions protect your people as well.”

“Okay.”

Jessica switched back to the crew. “MacKenzie, you’re up. I have assurances from the Ceres administrator.”

“Commander, shouldn’t we keep a presence on the ship?”

“Do you want to be here when the air fails? Our only chance is to get over to the station.”

“Understood, sir,” MacKenzie said, his tone sharp and crisp.

What did he understand? His sudden shift in enthusiasm made her uneasy.

“Entering the airlock,” MacKenzie announced.

It didn’t matter what he was thinking. They had to abandon the Lincoln and cross over to the station. It was the only way they were going to survive.

It took time, one by one, for them to cross over. Eventually it was down to her, Lawson and Dwight. Ethan had given them a thumbs up and he was gone, drifting across the inky void to the Diaspora’s sleek ship. The web unfurled from the open hatch, enveloped him and pulled him inside.

“You’re next,” she said to Dwight.

“Let’s send Lawson next. I’d feel better than leaving you alone with him.”

Inside his helmet, Lawson’s jaw was slack. He was breathing, open-mouthed, but out of it.

“Fine,” Jessica said. “Get the airlock open.”

Dwight turned to open the airlock. She was watching him, slowly turning to the controls, when Lawson’s arm shoved her.

She wasn’t braced yet. The shove sent her tumbling across the ship’s axis, panels and storage and Dwight and Lawson, all spun around her. A grip flashed past. She grabbed and missed. The suit limited her mobility. Out of the suit she could change position in mid-air, and steady herself.

She spread out her arms and legs. Her left leg hit the side and braked some of her motion, but sent her turning back the other way. There was the airlock, the door closing.

A grip came up. She snatched and got two fingers on it. Enough to reel herself in. Her breath sounded loud in the helmet.

Secure once more, she pushed off to the airlock door. Her mouth was dry with the suit’s cold air as she peered through the airlock window. The outer door was open, before the cycle completed.

Dwight and Lawson were two small figures, locked together in their stiff white suits, tumbling away from the Lincoln. They were rotating as they tumbled, like a pair of dancers spinning away across the dance floor. They weren’t headed to the Diaspora craft.

One of the figures was reaching for his own helmet latches. The other knocked his hands away. Jessica stopped breathing. Her lungs refused to inhale.

The one reaching for his latches, that had to be Lawson. Dwight wouldn’t be doing that. It was Dwight, then, hanging on, trying to stop Lawson.

He couldn’t hold on and stop Lawson’s arms at the same time. They’d rotated away when it happened. There was a puff of escaping vapor, bright and visible in the sunlight, and the figures separated.

Jessica sucked in air, her chest heaving, eyes stinging as Lawson tumbled away. She’d seen his face, a glimpse in a split second, pale and exposed to space, and then he tumbled too far, out of sight from her window. Dwight hung in space.

It was only then that she saw the Diaspora ship moving to intercept.

*

Compared to the Lincoln, Ceres station was a paradise, an oasis in the depths of space. Jessica was in the quarters they’d assigned her, with apologies for the small size. It was a whole entire furnished room, with two hundred square feet of space! A small apartment, furnished with a sitting area, bed, little dining area and a compact kitchen. Plus a small bathroom off that, with an entire shower to herself!

Not a coffin-sized berth.

The spin gave the place the feeling of gravity. Not Earth-normal, she’d been told it was a half-gee, and she couldn’t believe how heavy she felt. It was strange not being able to kick off the floor and float across the room. And doubly-strange to have a single defined floor again, instead of every surface being used.

Not that the walls weren’t used. They were sky-blue, like a crisp sunny summer day. The light too, coming from glowing panels in the ceiling, was pure daylight. And there were plants! Not merely decorative plants, but herbs like basil. She pinched one tiny leaf inhaled the rich basil smell, bringing back memories of pesto dripping with oil on toasted garlic bread. Or pasta. Real, freshly made food. She reached out her tongue and placed the tiny leaf on the tip, closing her eyes to enjoy the flavor.

A chime sounded.

Jessica swallowed and opened her eyes. “Yes?”

The door opened and Mandy Adams stepped inside, closing the door behind her. She beamed at Jessica.

In person, the effect was even more striking. Mandy was as bright as the lights above. All she wore was a standard black Diaspora workall, Jessica had seen plenty of those when they disembarked and she was escorted here. So it wasn’t the outfit, but it worked for Mandy, hugging generous hips, and her waist. The top was still unzipped enough to reveal a hint of cleavage, and her smile was so bright, so welcoming, that Jessica felt her own lips move in response.

How could you not smile at Mandy? She had the instant charm and sensuality of a movie star.

“Jessica,” Mandy said, moving purposefully forward on bare feet. Her nails were perfect, and painted bright red, matching her hands.

Jessica was very aware of her own chipped and chewed nails as they shook. Mandy’s hand was smooth, and warm, with a firm grip. Mandy pressed her other hand over Jessica’s.

“I’m so sorry about captain Lawson. I don’t like bullies, and I’m afraid I reacted poorly.”

A flash of anger burned along Jessica’s nerves. Maybe Lawson wouldn’t be dead if Mandy had been more tactful. Jessica quickly suppressed the feeling. She had no right to be angry, they’d come out here to take what these people had built.

“He was in the wrong,” Jessica said. Her throat threatened to close. She forced the words past it. “We all were. As the senior officer, let me take responsibility for that. Don’t take it out on my crew.”

Mandy nodded, and a small smile touched her lips. “Take it out on your crew? We’re not taking anything out on anyone. Where are we?”

“What? Your station.”

Mandy’s smile broadened. She let out a little laugh, covering it with her hand. “Oh, that’s precious. My station? No. No, Jessica. This isn’t my station. This is a new outpost of humanity. We’re an independent branch of life from Earth.”

“You sound like Terra Blackstone.”

Now Mandy laughed louder. She touched Jessica’s elbow. “I’ll take that as a complement! We wouldn’t be here without Dr. Blackstone’s work.”

“Aren’t you mad?” Jessica asked. She searched Mandy’s face for some sign, some indication of anger, without finding any of it.

“Mad?” Mandy’s lips pressed together. “I’m sure some of the people here are mad, but my mother always told me not to carry grudges. As I see it, your crew, including yourself, were following orders from the United States, from the United Nations. They acted illegally when they issued those orders.”

Mandy walked around Jessica, touching her elbow again, and gestured to the dark green couch, really more of a love seat, against the wall.

“Let’s sit,” Mandy said.

Jessica followed her. Sitting on the couch, she could almost imagine herself back on Earth. She sank back into the cushions and ran her hands along the smooth linen surface.

“You’ve got couches.” Jessica shook her head. She gestured at the room. “And places like this! It makes our little ship pale by comparison. How is it even possible?”

Mandy settled onto the other side of the couch, tucking her feet up beneath her, right arm on the back of the couch. “We made it! Right here on Ceres. Well, above Ceres.”

“From what?”

“Flax.” Mandy patted the back of the couch. “Useful plant, one of the many we produce. Ceres provides water and organics that feed our biosphere, growing everything you see in the planters around the station, and our extensive hydroponics bays.”

“It’s incredible.”

“This is just the start,” Mandy said. She tapped Jessica’s knee. “You and your crew have a choice. You can join us, stay here, make a new life for yourself. We’re always short on intelligent, capable people. It takes a lot longer to make those!”

Jessica smiled while Mandy laughed, but inside her stomach knotted. Stay here? That was too much to even begin to think about.

“We don’t need an answer right now,” Mandy said. “So you can stop looking so worried. Take some time. Talk about it amongst yourself. See what we have to offer.”

“And what if some don’t want to stay?”

“We’ll help refurbish your ship, refuel and send you back to Earth.”

“Just like that?”

“Just like that.” Mandy slid off the couch, bouncing lightly on her bare feet. “I’ve got to run. Rest, Jessica. Settle in. Talk to your crew and make yourselves at home. Go to the cafeteria and get something to eat. We’ll talk again.”

“Okay.”

With a wave of her fingers, Mandy skipped out of the room, leaving Jessica alone.

The room with its friendly sky-blue walls, and luxuriant plants, was much emptier without Mandy. Jessica stretched out her legs on the couch, running her hands over the smooth fabric.

The room was quiet. No sounds of equipment running. On the Lincoln there was always noise, from the electronics to the environmental systems, or just the sound of the rest of the crew going about their business or talking. Sound had traveled up and down the length of the Lincoln.

This was the first time she’d been in a quiet space, in who knows how long? She slid lower on the couch, resting her head on the arm and closed her eyes. Inhaling deeply, she caught a whiff of the basil. Almost like being home. She slept.

*

Sleep didn’t last. An hour later, she woke and, following the directions indicated on the system in her room, Jessica found her way to the cafeteria. It was a cafeteria, big and open with round tables around which sat Diaspora personnel, mostly all wearing standard workalls in a variety of earthy tones.

At one table, looking out of place among the rest, were three members of the Lincoln crew. Larkin and Dwight were there, and Ethan. It wasn’t only the uniforms, but the way they watched everyone around them, that made the men stand out.

She’d hardly had a chance to talk to Dwight since the incident with Lawson. How was he taking it?

She turned left, going to the service line first. She followed the others in line, picking up a tray, ceramic plate, and utensils. The smells were intoxicating as she moved down the line. Baked fish, lightly herbed, and hot buttery rolls found their way to her plate. A heap of steamed broccoli, and a spoonful of rice. Drinks looked like milk or water. She took a milk and sipped. The smooth drink wasn’t cow’s milk. Rice, if she had to guess. It was smooth, cold and tasted of a hint of vanilla.

No matter what, it beat the freeze-dried and vacuum-packed meals on the Lincoln.

She carried the laden tray over to the table where the others sat. Larkin stood, saluting.

“Commander.”

“Sit down,” she said, aware of the looks they were getting.

Larkin sat.

Jessica took a seat between Dwight and Ethan, exchanging nods with the two of them. Nobody at the table had a tray.

“Did you already eat?”

“We did,” Dwight said. “Thought we’d stick around in case anyone else showed up, and here you are.”

“How are you?” She asked him.

“Okay. I tried to stop him, I did.”

Larkin shook his head, sadly. “He couldn’t stand giving up his ship. After everything, it was too much.”

“Our orders didn’t include the random slaughter of these people,” Jessica said. “The pressure got to him, and he took the easy way out.”

She took a bite of the fish. It was heavenly, melting on her tongue with butter and thyme. She pushed down the moan that threatened to spill over her lips.

“What do we do now?” Ethan asked. “The quarters they gave me were amazing. Like a little studio apartment, pretty much anything I could want. Too many plants, I warned them I’m not good with plants, but they said they had people to take care of them.”

“We need to get together, all of us,” Jessica said. She dug into the rice. Light, perfectly steamed. “Tomorrow.”

“We need a plan to take this place over,” Larkin said. “Finish the job that we set out to do.”

Jessica coughed, and took a sip of the rice milk to clear her throat.

Dwight spoke up. “Don’t do anything! If the commander hadn’t stopped Lawson, he would have destroyed the station, killing everyone here and doomed us all.”

“That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take charge,” Larkin said.

“Right now you don’t do anything,” Jessica said. “Is that understood?”

“Aye, boss.” Larkin slouched back, crossing his arms. “I’m not saying we blow the place up or anything. Just that we had a mission, that’s all. Maybe it isn’t over.”

“We assess the situation,” Jessica said. She speared another piece of fish. “And right now I’m assessing the food situation. Eleven hundred hours, tomorrow, my quarters, I guess. Get everyone there. Go, talk to the others. Be nice. Learn what you can.”

Larkin stood up. “Aye, boss, I’m on it.”

Ethan rose too, shaking his head at Larkin’s retreating back. “He’s going to be trouble.”

“That’s what I told her,” Dwight said.

Jessica waved her fork. “Go! Let me eat and think.”

Dwight rose too. The men left her alone at the table.

While eating, she watched the Diaspora crew. These weren’t soldiers. None of them, from the look of it. No security that she saw, although there must be security measures. Any group of people, in a place like this, was bound to have a few problems. It’d look tempting for those of her crew that wanted to be in charge.

*

The corridors of Ceres Station were painful reminders of home. Between the simulated gravity, the fresh plants growing in planters along the wide corridors, and the bright lights from the panels above, Jessica could have been back on Earth. True, the spinning station didn’t simulate true one-gee gravity, but after months on the Lincoln, she still hadn’t gotten her legs under her. Her muscles worked against the strain.

People walking past smiled and nodded, but everyone looked busy, on their way to somewhere else. No one stopped to talk. Her stomach was comfortably full from the dinner. Maybe she’d go back to her quarters and sleep.

Just the thought of it made her yawn. That was probably a good idea. Her nerves still felt jumpy, expecting some system to malfunction, or a critical component to fail.

None of that was her concern, here. Right now she didn’t have any role. No job to do. Nothing to worry about. Except the meeting tomorrow.

That was tomorrow. She’d lay everything out for the crew. Let them decide if they wanted to accept Ceres Station as their new home, or go back.

Up ahead a heavy set of double doors blocked the corridor, borders outlined in bright yellow and black caution markings. An airlock? There was a window in each side, showing the thickness of the doors. The light reflected on the windows, making it hard to see anything on the other side. Curious, Jessica walked over for a closer look.

It was an airlock. Manual controls were in a panel, behind glass on the wall. Next to that, a small control pad and read-out. The airlock was pressurized at the moment.

She touched the controls. The screen flashed. Biometric data unrecognized.

She snatched her hand back, expecting alarms to go off, and people to come running. She hadn’t meant —

— Nothing happened. The panel reverted back to the normal readouts.

Okay. So that didn’t set off an alarm. The corridor behind her was still empty.

Jessica went to the doors and looked through the window, cupping her hands around her face so she could see.

The airlock was big, as big as the corridor. There was another set of doors, of course. It was dark inside, which meant she could see clear through the airlock, through the windows in the other set of doors.

A skeleton framework extended out from the corridor. They were still building the station, making it longer. There were several craft out there with lights, and space-suited figures floating around the structure.

As she watched one of the long blocky vessels released a beam into the hands of the waiting workers. The guided it down to the next section. Several held it in place, while others worked on attaching it to the section. On the other side another team was doing the same thing.

In her head she pictured the shape of the station. The shafts connected to the rotating hub extended outward, widening, and then they bent, forming a sickle shape. Except it wasn’t really a sickle shape, was it? More like a gentle arc.

A piece of a circle.

The pieces clicked together in her mind. They were building a rotating wheel! Probably working from each end, adding on and adding on. Eventually the sections would reach the other side. Unless it fell apart first because of the spin.

Actually, they could probably avoid that by extending out another couple axis shafts between the hub and the ring. For all she knew, that’s what they were doing.

“Jessica?”

Jessica jumped at the sound of Mandy’s voice. Her heart started beating faster as she turned around.

Mandy stood in the middle of the corridor, flanked by a man and woman also dressed in dark workalls. They weren’t holding weapons, but those two were clearly security. Mandy wasn’t smiling this time.

“What are you doing?” Mandy asked.

“Just looking around. This is fascinating! I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Mandy smiled. “This is only the beginning. If you decide to stay here with us, there’s an exciting future ahead.”

“How did you know I was here?”

“Everything is monitored, Jessica.” Mandy walked away from her guards, close to Jessica. She took Jessica’s hands in hers, smiling. “Not to track our movements, but this is a hazardous place. If a seal should fail, if something impacted the station, we need to know what happened. And touching the panel, you piqued my interest.”

“I was exploring. I wanted to see, that’s all.”

Mandy drew her, still holding her hand, toward the panel. “Then let’s take a closer look.”

Mandy reached for the panel, then looked past Jessica’s shoulder at the other two. “You can go now. Thank you.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the woman said.

The two security guards left. Mandy giggled and leaned into Jessica’s arm. “They insisted. They had notions that you might try to vent the station, although they lacked any explanation on how you might circumvent our safety procedures.”

Although Jessica heard what Mandy was saying, her attention was far more focused on the feel of Mandy’s arm intertwined in hers, the way she pressed against her arm, and the fresh clean minty smell of Mandy’s hair.

Was Mandy coming on to her? After months on the Lincoln, the thought was foreign.

“There,” Mandy said, finishing entering some code on the panel.

Lights around the airlock flashed and the doors soundlessly slid wide. Cold air swirled out of the airlock around them. Mandy, still holding Jessica’s hand, pulled her into the airlock.

The cold was sharp and prickled her skin. Her nipples hardened beneath her shirt. Her breath frosted the air. Mandy giggled and pressed close.

“We can’t stay long! Too cold! But we can get a better look.”

The view from the outside window was clear and unbroken. Right on the other side of the airlock, the corridor continued for a stretch, then ended except for a skeletal framework of beams that traced the outline of the station to come.

Jessica placed her hand on the outer doors. “What becomes of the airlock?”

“Nothing,” Mandy answered. “It stays. Each section has airlocks. If a section does get damaged, we can seal it off in an emergency.”

The cold bit deeper. It was a deep freeze in here, but much colder outside in the shadow. Beyond that the framework extended out into sunlight, dim at this distance from the sun though still brighter than moonlight. Craning her neck, Jessica could see the planet rotating below. Except it wasn’t the planet moving, it was them, spinning around the skyhook that rose from the surface. She couldn’t see that from this angle.

“How is this possible?”

Mandy pointed out the window. “That long craft there, it’s the fabricator. It takes raw materials and prints —”

“That’s not what I mean.” Jessica turned to Mandy. Impossible, beautiful, bubbly Mandy. She was sexy and clearly smart, or she wouldn’t be out here running all of this. “You built all of this?”

Mandy shook her head, blond curls bouncing. Her eyes sparkled and her breath frosted the air between them. “No. I just help solve problems. I’d like to help you with your problem.”

Jessica shivered. “Can we do that somewhere else? I didn’t dress for this.”

Mandy’s nose wrinkled. “I know! It’s freezing in here. Come on, we’ll go back to my quarters and talk.”

*

Mandy’s quarters were up a level, and back close to the shaft up to the hub. Jessica’s breath caught when she walked in.

This was much bigger than the quarters that she had been assigned. There was a foyer when they entered, with a closet on the side, and a decorative dark side table. A sculpture of bright metal rose up in delicate spirals on the table. The living room beyond was a step lower, with a whole sitting area, a dining area up beyond that, and clearly more rooms that wrapped around out of site. It was sleek and modern, with splashes of color, like a beautiful painting of the sun coming up over Ceres hanging above an electric fireplace at the heart of the sitting area.

Meow, said a fluffy long-haired white cat on the pale linen couch.

Jessica stopped in shock. The cat stretched and blinked bright yellow eyes at them.

“You have a cat.”

Mandy nodded. “Yep. That’s Felicity. She’s my precious kitty.”

“A cat. How can you have a cat?”

Felicity sat down and started licking her paw. Mandy left Jessica standing alone, and crossed the room. She bent and stroked the cat. Felicity arched her back, pressing into Mandy’s hand.

“I brought her as a part of my personal allowance,” Mandy said.

“But it’s a cat. That’s not just stuff.”

“We’ve got quite a few other pets here too,” Mandy said. “I think Ceres station is probably one of the most pet-friendly outposts. We’d hardly be starting new branches of human civilization if we didn’t bring our pets with us.”

Felicity was as beautiful as her owner. Jessica found her feet carrying her forward until she reached the two of them. Hesitantly she reached down and stroked the so soft fur. Felicity was purring and pressed against her hand too.

Mandy laughed. “She likes you. Sit. Pet the cat while I get us some drinks.”

Jessica sat. Felicity took advantage of that, to crawl onto her legs, brushing her body across Jessica’s chest. Numbly, still feeling the chill of their time in the airlock, Jessica stroked her hand down Felicity’s soft back. The cat was so soft and warm, and she smelled. Not a bad smell, but an animal, earthy, living smell. A smell of home. She’d always had cats growing up. Even in training.

Miss Prin was back home now, staying with Jessica’s mother out in the farm house. Miss Prin had always been a dedicated mouser when she was young. These days she preferred spending her time indoors more often than not.

Throat tightening, Jessica fought back tears, and stroked Felicity’s back. The cat’s purrs unlocked something inside and broke the dam. Tears ran hot down her cheek, splashing on her hands and Felicity’s back.

That’s how Mandy found her, when Mandy came back with the drinks. She put two steaming mugs down on the black coffee table and sat. Her arm went around Jessica’s back.

“Oh, honey. What’s wrong?”

Jessica didn’t have words for it. Homesick? Shame? It was all mixed in there together, in a boiling brew of emotions. Felicity didn’t seem to mind. Miss Prin would have gotten worried and batted at her face with soft paws.

“Jessica?”

“Sorry.” Jessica wiped the tears away from her eyes. She managed a small laughed. “It’s been an emotional ride the past few months. Now, all of this, you, it’s a bit overwhelming.”

Mandy sat quietly, looking at her. Jessica marveled at the depths of Mandy’s eyes. They drew her in and convinced her to talk.

“There’s a lot of anger back on Earth, about the Diaspora. Some people are afraid that you’ll bombard the planet with asteroids. Every time a meteorite burns up in the sky they blame you now.”

Felicity rose partly, pushing against Jessica’s hands. She smiled and petted the cat more.

“We saw the footage of the exodus. That was incredible, all those launches! It nearly set off a war.” Across the globe, Diaspora had launched every launch vehicle they had to evacuate personnel and families targeted by government and private retaliation. “I was a part of that. When I left, I thought we were doing the right thing to gain control of the situation instead of letting potential radicals control space.”

Mandy shook her head. “And now? It doesn’t sound like you believe that?”

“No.” Jessica hesitated. Fear knotted her gut. What did she have to lose?

She reached up an cupped the side of Mandy’s face, running her thumb lightly around the curve of Mandy’s ear. Mandy wore a bright diamond stud earring, hard against Jessica’s thumb.

Mandy turned her head, not pulling away, apparently not shocked. Her lips kissed the inside of Jessica’s wrist. The kiss was soft and hot. It sent electric tingles through Jessica down to her toes.

On her lap Felicity continued purring happily.

Mandy looked up at her. A smile curved her red lips. “I’m glad.”

“It’s not that simple, though,” Jessica said. She dropped her hand back down to Felicity’s soft fur. “I’ve got family back on Earth. I’m the ranking officer from the Lincoln. I have responsibilities to my crew.”

“You could be happy here,” Mandy said. Her hand made circles on Jessica’s back. “It’s hard giving up everything you’ve ever known. We’ve all done that, coming out here without even knowing if we could survive or not. Just look at what we’ve accomplished! And there’s still so much to do, so much to learn.”

“I’m sure.” It was all too much just yet. She looked at Mandy and was it wrong that she wanted to kiss her? Dad never understood why she was attracted to women, but he accepted it. Mom never had that problem.

Jessica picked up Felicity and handed her to Mandy. She stood up. “It’s late. I should go. I’m planning to talk to the crew tomorrow. I’ll let you know what happens.”

Holding Felicity close, Mandy nodded, serious for once. “Think about it, Jess. I’d like you to stay.”

Jess. Her grandmother called her that. Jessica’s throat constricted. “I’ll think about it.”

She fled.

*

The meeting wasn’t going well. The remaining crew of the Lincoln were gathered in Jessica’s quarters. They hardly looked like themselves. Clean, for one thing, Even with everyone sitting around the room, some on the couch, others on the two chairs from the dining nook, or on the floor, the air smelled fresh. They were all wearing dark blue Diaspora workalls. Hair that used to float around their heads hung straight. And their faces had thinned. As a group they looked like a bunch of half-starved refugees, gaunt in cheek, with dark, haunted eyes.

She wouldn’t have noticed, if she hadn’t seen the Diaspora personnel. The change had happened over the past few months.

Standing in front of them, Jessica fought to keep her irritation in check. As Dwight predicted, Larkin and MacKenzie were being the most trouble.

“No one is saying you can’t go home if you want,” Jessica repeated. “They’re already working on restoring the Lincoln. Dr. Adams told me this morning that they’re sending over crews today to evaluate what work is needed. They’ve even calculated a trajectory to hook up with one of Diaspora’s beam-powered solar sails to take us back to Earth. It’ll cut the transit time down to a month.”

MacKenzie snorted. “That’s the plan? Tow us back in disgrace? They’d love the press. I’ll bet that’ll go over big with the brass back home.”

“It gives everyone a chance to think about what happened, without anyone else dying.”

Larkin shook his head. “Boss, the captain, God rest his soul, was a drunkard and a hot-head in the end. He didn’t start out that way. You were right to take command. He wasn’t fit any longer, no question. But we’re here now. You got us this far. I’ve been keeping my eyes open. We could take this place! It doesn’t mean that we kill anyone, we just take over. Give Earth a toe-hold out here. Do the job we were sent to do.”

A part of her wanted to go along with Larkin on that, and it was scary. But this morning, when she’d woken up in the bed, her biggest regret was that Mandy wasn’t there with her. Maybe she’d believed in the mission when they left, but no more.

“We don’t have any right,” she insisted. “These people came out here and built all of this. They literally saved our lives. Don’t you get that? We go home, like the rest of the crew we left behind at Luna.”

Serena, the one they called the mouse because she could fit into tiny spaces, spoke up. “Not everyone left Luna, thanks to that Blackstone puta.”

“This isn’t the mission anymore,” Dwight said. “That ended when Lawson opened his helmet to space. Don’t you get that? They won. They beat us here. They’re being kind enough to give us a choice to join them or go home. As nice as this place looks, I’m planning on going home. I want to see my kid again.”

Jessica felt a pang, realizing that Dwight was going to leave. But of course he was, he had family back home.

“You’re giving up, Lieutenant?” MacKenzie asked. He snapped his fingers. “Just like that?”

Jessica shook her head. “Be realistic. This is their station. You’re not going to take it over. We’re unarmed, out-numbered, and out of our depth. They didn’t have to take us in. They could have left us to suffocate. They don’t have to give us back the Lincoln, but they are, as good as new. Better, I imagine, with a quick ride home. As scare as resources are out here, they’re not scrapping the ship. I think that says something.”

“It does,” Lorna said. She stood up and faced the others. “I’ve been a career soldier my whole life. I follow orders. If it makes you feel better, think of it as being captured by the enemy. They’re releasing us, sending us back. I say we count our blessings and just go.”

“Right,” Dwight said. “We can talk this in circles. Who is heading back with us?”

He put up his hand. Lorna copied him. Kirk, Serena, and Ethan raised their hands. In the back their tech specialist Ivan Tesler raised his hand. That left her, Daniel, MacKenzie and Larkin without their hands up.

Larkin looked around. “Hell! Fine. I’ll go! And if the brass listen to me, we’ll be coming back out, better prepared the next time!”

MacKenzie scratched at his beard. “Aye, fine. I’ll go too.”

“Dan? You’re staying?” Ethan asked.

Daniel was sitting on the arm of the couch. He shrugged, a big grin splitting his broad face. “All I ever wanted to do was get out into space. Explore new worlds and all of that, you know? I’m not ready to go back. I’ll stick around here for a while, if they’ll let me. But I want to go out farther. Can you imagine seeing Jupiter with your own eyes? I’m not going back. Nothing for me there.”

Ethan lowered his hand. “Aw, shit. I can’t leave you out here alone, man. Who knows what kind of trouble you’ll get in without me?”

“I’ll probably get in more trouble with you,” Daniel said.

Ethan laughed. He looked up at her. “You’re staying, Commander?”

“Yes.” Her chest tightened. Not seeing her parents again was going to be hard. Even so, she understood what Daniel was saying. “I agree with Daniel. I think I can be useful out here.”

“It’s decided then.” Larkin stood. “Since you’re no longer one of us, I’m leaving.”

Others rose and left as well. Most of them nodded at her. Dwight stayed for last. He put a hand on her shoulder.

“Is it her?” He said. No doubt who he meant.

Mandy Adams, the administrator of Ceres with a smile like sunshine. “Partly. It isn’t only that. Like Daniel said, it’s a chance to see the future being made.”

“Even if you can’t return to Earth? If they listen to Larkin, they’ll court-martial you all for staying.”

That hurt. Surprising, but there it was. She didn’t feel like a traitor, but maybe Lawson was right before he died.

Dwight squeezed her shoulder gently. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll speak on your behalf. You did the best you could for your crew under difficult circumstances. If they have any sense they’ll see that.”

Jessica shook her head. “If I came back, maybe. Staying? No, they’ll want a scapegoat. They can pin everything on me, the mission failure, Lawson’s death. You know, it might go better for you if you stayed. What if they implicate you in his death?”

“It doesn’t matter.” Dwight managed a small smile. “Even if they lock me up, I’ll be closer to my family than I am now. And who knows? Maybe one of these days they’ll all come to their senses and open Earth back up. I might bring the family out here, some day.”

“I’d like that.”

“I’ll see you around, then.” Dwight left.

There. It was done. Jessica hugged her arms, rubbing her hand over the workall fabric. Now what? She didn’t have a job yet, or any official position.

On the wall by the kitchenette in Jessica’s quarters was a flat panel display, a sort of universal access to the station’s systems. Yesterday, she’d been too tired to pay any attention to it. Now, she touched it, activating the screen.

Glowing holographic windows filled the frame like koi swimming up out of a pool. The bright panels offered a variety of services to control the environmental settings, order goods and services, entertainment and communications.

Jessica touched communications. The contacts panel was empty. “Add new contact.”

Specify, the system said in an androgynous voice.

“Mandy Adams, and place call.”

One moment.

A wireframe icon of the station appeared, showing the completed sections in green, those under construction in yellow, and yet to be added in red. The final version was a large wheel, with multiple ring sections. This was apparently only the first.

The wireframe shattered apart, replaced my Mandy leaning in close to the hands in a prayer position on one side of her face. “Jess! How’d it go?”

Jessica let out a big breath, smiling and relieved to see Mandy’s big grin. “Good. Well, sort of terrible, but good in the end.”

“Did you convince them to stay on with us?”

“No. Most of them want to go home. Two of the guys want to stick around. Daniel Locke and Ethan Raines.”

Mandy dropped her hands. “And you? Right? You’re staying aren’t you?”

The urgency in Mandy’s voice made Jessica smile. It’d been a long time since she’d heard that from anyone. “Yes. I’d like to, what you’ve accomplished here is incredible. I’d like to be a part of it.”

“That’s the only reason?” Mandy’s eyebrow arched, and her lips twitched into a smirk.

Shaking her head, Jessica laughed. Tears stung her eyes and welled up. The dam inside broke. She buried her face in her hands as the sobs shook her shoulders. Her body shook.

“Jess! What’s wrong?”

She opened her mouth to try to explain and no words came out. Nothing came out! She was sobbing like a maniac and she couldn’t even say what was wrong.

“I’m coming down there! I’ll be right there, Jess!”

Hell. Jessica wiped at her eyes. Great. What was Mandy going to think with her blubbering like that? Keep that up, Jessica, and she’ll put you right back on the Lincoln and send you back with the rest. And she was coming down here.

Jessica went into the tiny bathroom, just past the foot of the bed. Back home this was what they’d call this a three-quarters bath. After the shared facilities on the Lincoln, it was heaven. When she turned on the faucet on the sink, cold water splashed out into the sink. She cupped her hands and splashed it up into her face.

Water from Ceres itself. Jessica stopped and turned off the faucet. Hell, she’d eaten yesterday and this morning and somehow hadn’t even thought about that fact, that the water on this station came from a whole other world.

Mandy was coming down.

Jessica grabbed the hand towel hanging beside the sink and dried her face. It wasn’t a bad face. Thin from the months in space, which actually accented her cheek bones nicely. Her eyes looked hollow, though, still giving her that starved, hungry look. She didn’t have any cosmetics, hadn’t asked for anything. Eyeliner would make her eyes look huge and haunted right now. Her lips were pale, and cracked, and her skin was flaking a bit at her scalp.

Not the prettiest picture, but really not as bad as all that, there was a gaunt beauty in her face that she hadn’t ever seen before. After her shower this morning she had at least combed her hair. It hung in soft, gentle waves around her head now.

She went back out into the other room, rubbing her hands. Thinking about her outburst, her neck reddened. It was so embarrassing. Worse than that, she didn’t even know exactly what had set it off.

The chime signaled the door.

“Come in,” she called.

The door opened and Mandy hurried inside, shutting the door behind her. Mandy looked as fantastic as ever. She came straight to Jessica and took both her hands in hers.

“Honey, what’s wrong? Why were you crying?”

“I don’t know. I feel stupid. I’m not usually like that. You don’t have to worry. I’ll be fine.”

“We’ve got some excellent counselors here, you know? Not me, even though that’s my training. I can’t counsel you.”

Jessica blinked. “What?”

Mandy pulled her closer until their faces were nearly touching. They were the same height. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, but if Jessica had been asked, she would have said that Mandy was taller. Her personality filled up the room. Her breath smelled faintly of cinnamon.

“You’ve been through an ordeal,” Mandy said, her lips nearly brushing Jessica’s. “We didn’t come out here without people trained to help us all deal with the stress of our situation. They can help.”

“That, um, sounds good.” Not as good as kissing Mandy. Jessica steeled herself to close that tiny gap.

Mandy’s nose brushed her’s, a feather-light touch. Mandy smiled.

“Good. I’ll make the arrangements.” She pulled back. “I probably shouldn’t complicate things right now.”

No! Jessica stepped forward. She wanted this, needed it right now. She kissed Mandy’s bright red lips, like ripe strawberries. No, not strawberries. Her tongue flicked lightly against Mandy’s top lip. Cinnamon candy, that was what she’d smelled.

Mandy’s hands slip up, cupping her head as the kiss deepened. Jessica’s mouth parted and their tongues touched. She pressed against Mandy, feeling the tight, athletic body, and the generous curves hidden beneath the dark workall.

It’d been far too long. Too many months on the Lincoln with only a paper-thin lid on her coffin-like berth for privacy. And before that, six months of training without a break. No time to date anyone. Longer still, since she’d been in an actual relationship.

Jessica broke the kiss, tears welling up in her eyes again.

Mandy’s hands dropped to Jessica’s waist. “Are you okay?”

Jessica sniffled and pressed her fingers beneath her eyes. “Yes. Yes! Better than okay.”

She pulled Mandy close and kissed her lightly, then hugged her close, burrowing her head into the curve of Mandy’s neck.

“I needed this,” she said, her voice muffled. She kissed the soft skin, drawing a moan from Mandy. She flicked her tongue against the taunt line. “And this.”

Mandy moaned again and took a step back. Jessica followed, leaning into Mandy’s shoulder. Together they walked over to the couch and sat down on the soft linen cushions, spooning together, Mandy sitting back with her arms wrapped around Jessica.

Hugging Mandy’s arms close, Jessica closed her eyes. “Hmm, this is fantastic. How long can you stay?”

“As long as I want,” Mandy said. “I told them I was taking the afternoon off. They can manage.”

Mandy’s hand moved up Jessica’s front and cupped her left breast through the fabric of the workall. It drew a gasp to Jessica’s lips. God, she hadn’t had anyone touch her in over a year. Not like this. It felt incredible!

“Let me help,” Jessica said. She reached up and pulled down her zipper, cool air slipping in against her skin.

Mandy responded, pushing the cloth aside, her hot hand sliding over Jessica’s breast. Her nipples hardened and her back arched, pushing against Mandy’s hand, which circled, caressing and teasing. A gasp escaped from Jessica’s lips.

Caught by Mandy. The kiss sealed in Jessica’s moan, as Mandy’s fingers deftly stroked and teased. It was intense, and if it didn’t feel so good, Jessica might have felt guilty about taking Mandy away from her duties. As it was, she didn’t care.

Let them all manage. She needed this right now.

*

An irritating chime woke Jessica from a pleasant dream involving a hot, sunny beach and rubbing oil all over Mandy. She rolled over in bed, looking for the alarm clock, but there wasn’t an alarm clock. There was Mandy, rising naked from the bed.

Mandy smiled at her and lifted a small phone. “Sorry, I’ve got to take this. They wouldn’t bother, if it wasn’t important.”

Right. They’d spent hours together, first on the couch, and then as they lost their clothes, in the bed. Gravity, simulated or not, was so good!

Mandy put the phone up to her ear. “Yes, I’m here.”

Tiny, indecipherable voices answered. Jessica didn’t care. Mandy’s skin was snowy white, alabaster skin. She’d never known anyone with that really super pale alabaster skin. Except in pictures, movies. No freckles. No moles, that she could see anywhere. Generous hips, curvy in a very good way. Blond everywhere.

“Okay. I understand. No, I’ll tell her. Thank you.”

At the ‘tell her,’ Jessica sat up. She started to lift the blankets and thought better of it. She leaned forward on her arms, which had the added advantage of pushing her breasts together. It wasn’t as much cleavage as Mandy showed, but it was something, and the past few hours had shown her that Mandy was fond of breasts.

Mandy twisted around, her own larger breasts like smooth oranges, firm and ripe, benefitted from the lower gravity.

“Jess?”

Jessica looked up, her face heating to get caught staring. Mandy’s smile made her feel better.

“Hon, I don’t mind, I like you checking me out. But we’ve got a problem.”

Jessica focused. “Problem? What’s wrong? What’d they say?”

“Your ship, it’s not going to make it back to Earth.”

“What?”

“The team I sent over found more faults than they could catalog in a first inspection.”

“We’ve been holding it together.”

“A miracle, I’m told.” Mandy shook her head. “They’ve found severe metal fatigue and structural failures. Major sections have been compromised. You’re lucky it held together as long as it did. Even if we tried, we couldn’t patch it all up, certainly not enough to handle the strain of being towed by the solar sail. And it isn’t going to survive long enough to return on its own power.”

Jessica considered Mandy’s words. For her, it didn’t matter. Most of the crew, however, were planning to go home. Dwight, Larkin, all the others except Daniel and Ethan.

“What do we do? Is there another ship that can take them?”

“Not here. Our ships are short range craft designed to operate around the station.”

“What about the ships that brought you out here?”

“Those are gone. They were used to construct the station, dismantled piece by piece. All of the Diaspora ships available are currently tied up with the exodus.”

Yes, the ‘fleet’ of ships spread around Earth’s orbit from L4 to the Moon, to L5. All of the people that had hastily evacuated Earth after the Lincoln‘s attempt to take over the Diaspora facilities on the Moon.

“You’re saying that they’re stuck here?”

“For now,” Mandy said. “I’ll talk to them personally.”

“I can do it,” Jessica said automatically.

“I’m sure you can, but I should tell them this. I want you there, to back me up.” Mandy smiled. “It’s not horrible. I promise you, and I’ll tell them, we will get them home. It’s just going to take longer than expected.”

Jessica swung her legs out of the bed. Mandy was collecting clothes. Jessica had a nice view of Mandy’s backside as she bent over.

“What about the ship? What about the Lincoln?”

Mandy turned, holding her workall. “The ship is a hazard as it is. I’ll assign crews to dissemble the ship. We’ll break it down into useful components and materials. Nothing’s going to go to waste out here.”

That hurt. Maybe their mission was wrong, but the Lincoln was the United States’ first long-range spacecraft. It’d done what no other United States ship had done, carrying people not only to the Moon, but out to another planet, out beyond the orbit of Mars!

“The government might not like that.”

Mandy shrugged. “We saved most of the crew. And we’ll get you home. I think we can consider us even.”

“They might not.”

“Oh well. I can’t leave the ship where it is at until its systems malfunction. It’s a hazard to the station and our outpost below. I can’t send it back to Earth, knowing that the systems will fail on route.”

Mandy beamed and slipped into the workall. “Best case scenario? It misses and gets sent out into deep space without hitting anything. Worst case, it does intercept Earth and makes an uncontrolled descent, potentially damaging property and injuring people. Either way, it’s a waste of resources that could help us all stay alive. And that includes your crew.”

“You’re right.” Jessica rose and tugged Mandy closer. “I’m just warning you, it doesn’t matter how logical you are about it, they aren’t going to like it.”

*

“Load of crap!” Larkin surged to his feet, knocking his chair back into Lorna.

“Hey!” She said.

The meeting was being held in one of the stations conference rooms. There were windows that looked out at Ceres. The planet was moving in the view. That’s what the eyes said, when it was really the station rotating around the hub. They’d gathered all of the Lincoln crew together. There were also four Diaspora security, same black workalls as everyone else, but they stood ready on both sides of the room.

Jessica was up front, standing beside Mandy. “Larkin!”

His eyes shifted to her, then back to Mandy. He jabbed a finger at her.

“You fed us this cock-and-bull story about sending us back. And now you tell us that our ship is too damaged to make the trip. Yeah? Send me over. I’ll fix the systems. We know them better than anyone.”

Mandy’s hand flicked and a window opened on the screen behind her. It showed a beam, from beneath one of the panels in the Lincoln. A clear, obvious crack ran through the beam.

“That’s from one of the engine mounts.” Another flick, and another picture. This one of melted wires. “An overload in one of the atmospheric pumps.”

Mandy faced Larkin squarely. “The report lists thousands of flaws. These are only the obvious structural failures, the ones difficult to catch under the best of circumstances. It doesn’t include the microfractures and tears that occur simply from use. Half the systems on the ship aren’t even working!”

“That’s why it has backups!” Larkin said. “If your solar sails and beamed power are so impressive, it should be nothing to tow us back home.”

“And we would do that, if the ship could handle the strain. It can’t.”

Ethan spoke up, raising his hand hesitantly. Mandy called on him. “Yes?”

“I’d already planned on staying. But we came out here together. You don’t have a ship that can take us back.” He shot a look at Larkin. “And I’ve fixed and coaxed as many of the systems along as anyone, but I was already warning the captain about structural failures weeks ago. I have no doubt that what they’ve found is only the tip of the iceberg.”

Larkin made a noise of disgust and dropped into his chair.

“I’m saying that you all should listen carefully. After everything that our mission tried to do, they’re still saying they’ll get you home. Just not as fast as we might have thought.”

It helped. Jessica saw the mood shifting. She spoke up. “Ethan’s right. We kept the Lincoln going as long as we could, and it got us here. That’s an incredible achievement.”

“How incredible?” MacKenzie interjected. “We’ve got these Diaspora types all the way out to friggin’ Eris! They’ve already taken over the whole solar system.”

“That’s their achievement,” Jessica said. “We can’t take that away from them, and no one can touch the fact that we built and flew a ship here to Ceres. You’ll all get back to Earth, everyone that wants to. Until then, we need to pitch in and do our best to help. As fantastic as this place is, don’t forget where we are. It’s deep space out there and we rely on each other to survive.”

Larkin snorted. “Now we’re supposed to work for them?”

Mandy walked forward, each step quiet. She wasn’t giggling or laughing now. She did smile, but it was a sad smile. “Why are you so bitter, Mr. Larkin? How did we harm you?”

He squirmed in his seat. “You didn’t have any right to come out here!”

“No?” Mandy’s eyebrows arched. “When your ancestors came to North America, and moved out West, did they have a right to do that? Did they have a right to take the land and lives of the people living there?”

“That’s not the same thing!”

Jessica had seen the tight stubbornness on his face, heard the arguments before. He was determined to cast Diaspora as the enemy, no matter what.

Mandy shook her head. “Dr. Blackstone talks about being astounded as a child that all of these worlds were sitting out here, empty, with no people. She imagined a future when there’d be a human presence throughout the system, even beyond. A humanity that wasn’t constrained to one world, or one way of living. She believed that people had the freedom to pursue their own futures. I happen to share that belief, and this time we’re doing it without displacing anyone. We’re careful with the environments we find, and yet believe that we have a place here. What do you believe in Mr. Larkin?”

He crossed his arms. “I don’t believe that you have the right to shut out the rest of us!”

“Who shut you out?” She asked gently. “This is a big solar system, and these are big worlds. Even Ceres, as small as it is, has more water than the entire Earth and its own rich biosphere. We never said that you couldn’t come out here and establish your own outposts.”

“You already laid claim to them!”

“And what would have happened if you came out here to Ceres, and built your own station? Do you think we would have attacked you?” Mandy shook her head. “We wouldn’t. We’ll defend ourselves if we’re attacked or bullied. We’ll protect the biosphere below. Diaspora never said it had sole claim to these worlds, just claim to what we’ve created and bled for. People have died, Mr. Larkin, to build this station, and the others. We honor that and protect it. That’s all.”

The room was silent. Larkin sat up, rubbed his jaw as he looked around. No one backed him up. Jessica’s heart was in her throat. Mandy was so perfect for this job. Sympathetic, yet firm. Larkin’s jaw twitched. He didn’t have an answer.

Mandy looked up, facing the rest of the group. “I’ve heard the stories, I know what was said before you came out here. You’ll have a place here until we can get you back home, and longer if you like. Maybe when you go home, you’ll have better things to say about us.”

She turned, and with a nod, gathered up her people to leave. As she passed Jessica, their eyes locked. Jessica squeezed Mandy’s hand in passing, then let her go.

*

Jessica was as light as a feather as she looked out the hub window at the ship that was going to take the Lincoln crew back to Earth.

Long and sleek, gleaming as it hung beside the skyhook that rose through the hub. The crew quarters were a dumbbell shape near the end of the craft, slowly rotating around the axis. It meant that they’d get a full quarter gee effect while in transit. From this view it was the ship rotating in space, but it was holding position alongside the skyhook while the hub continued to rotate. Here the simulated gravity was tiny.

Mandy was with her, along with half of the remaining Lincoln crew. Three months on the station had changed some minds. Not Larkin, but MacKenzie had surprised them all by staying. Love had that effect on people.

The Diaspora transport was brand new, although it included components recycled from the Lincoln. It would leave here, caught by a passing solar sail that would deliver it to Earth in only six weeks. It wasn’t a cramped tube like the Lincoln. Each of them would have private cabins, full amenities, and a Diaspora piloting crew to keep an eye on the ship.

Probably a good idea, otherwise the Lincoln crew might not want to give the ship back.

The countdown on the wall screens reached zero. The engines turned bright, a new fusion drive that accelerated the ship out away from the skyhook.

Dwight whistled. “Look at her go!”

Mandy laughed and clapped her hands, then hugged Jessica close.

Jessica turned, kissing her. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure,” Mandy purred. “That’s going to open some eyes out there.”

“Isn’t that the point? To build a new shipyard to utilize the Belt?”

Mandy smirked. “Well, yes.”

In moments the ship was only a bright speck. Soon it’d be out of sight. Jessica was okay with that. She’d left Earth under orders, now she was embracing the future. With Diaspora, and with Mandy.

She hugged Mandy close. “What do we do now?”

14,666 words

Author’s Note

This story marks the 5th weekly short story release, and the 5th Planetary Bodies story. I’m excited to get this story out at the same time that the Dawn mission is giving us our first close look at Ceres. It’s an incredible mission and I’m thrilled to see what they’ll find.

I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the series links at the top of the page. Check back next week for another Planetary Bodies story. Jupiter Sleeping is next up as we visit the largest gas giant in the solar system.

Author: Ryan M. Williams

Writer and artist, Ryan M. Williams, author of more than twenty novels, writes across a range of genres including fantasy, science fiction, romance, paranormal, and mystery. He holds a Master of Arts from Seton Hill University in writing popular fiction. His short fiction has appeared in anthologies from Pocket Books, WMG Publishing, and in On Spec Magazine. He currently attends San Jose State University, pursuing a Master of Information and Library Science degree.