Tessa had everything she wanted on Earth. Her daughter, Kiera, and the opportunity to do pure research into the underpinnings of the universe.
Now, after ten months in space fleeing the anger and attacks on Earth, she faces an impossible moment in orbit around Neptune — a moment that will redefine her life forever.
The planet had hung in the dark sky for the past few weeks like a glass blue float, the sort that used to float up onto the beach back home. Now it was too big and the cloud layers were too visible to be a float any longer. It had become a world in its own right, one holding the keys to their futures.
When Kiera turned away from the ship’s observation window her plump face was bright with excitement. “Is that it, Mommy? We’re going to live on that planet?”
Tessa ignored the knot in her stomach and wrapped her arms around her daughter. “Pretty much, hon. Pretty much. We can’t actually live on Neptune. Liberty station floats in the clouds.”
If their names were drawn in the lottery for a spot on the Liberty. Out of the sixty people on the exodus ship Trident, only a third were going to the main colony. The rest of them would get divided up between Triton and the other orbital projects.
Liberty circled the planet with the rapid winds at one bar of atmospheric pressure. Not that the mixture of hydrogen, helium, methane and a few other hydrocarbons was a breathable atmosphere, but it did give the planet a pretty blue color. Almost the same shade as the exercise ball she had back on Earth. The main colony station was a multi-layered habitat suspended between two long pontoons, zeppelin-like clusters filled with hydrogen and heated to produce enough lift to keep the whole colony afloat. Same sort of habitat as the Aether back on Uranus. One of the early models, fusion powered, and growing. They were already talking about building a second colony, from scratch. Eventually there could be thousands of habitats circling the planet.
For now there wasn’t enough space for them all on Liberty. Which left them either on Triton or out on the lesser moons mining resources to keep the main colony functioning and growing. In other words, not getting selected in the lottery meant a life in micro or null gee environments, with all the attendant impacts that implied from bone and muscle loss, to radiation exposure. A few years of that, of adaptive loss, and there’d be no going back. The colony, Earth, any semi-normal environment was lost to them forever.
Tessa prayed every night as she rolled into her narrow berth, with the sounds of the ship around her, that they’d get selected in the lottery. The last thing she wanted for Kiera was for her to grow up in a dangerous environment. Half the time she wished that they had stayed back on Earth. So she had worked for the Diaspora Group? She was a scientist and they’d funded her research into quantum structure. Mostly theoretical stuff, but the Diaspora Group was big on science and funded lots of research. They provided state-of-the-art labs, work environments, and great benefits. But the hate mail, the threats left in her mailbox, the madness that seemed to descend on everyone regarding the Diaspora, it had scared her enough that when the exodus started she grabbed Kiera and allowed herself to get swept along.
Now this was where it had taken them. Eight long months in space on the Trident, and that was after two months waiting in orbit around Earth. Then they had boosted out, matched up with a solar sail created on Mercury, and were propelled outward by beamed power from the Diaspora’s power stations in orbit around the Sun.
Amazing, compared to the years that the original expeditions took to get out this far, but after ten months in cramped quarters she wanted out. There wasn’t ever going to be an “out” any more. They would spend the rest of their lives in artificial environments. At least on the Liberty there was more space than on the Trident. There, people actually had small apartments all to themselves. She and Kiera could have their own place. There was work that they could do, and with decent gravity and protection from radiation exposure. An environment that would give them the option of getting back home to Earth someday. If not her, at least Kiera would have the option. The choice, without suffering the effects of adaptive loss.
Kiera was a six-year-old little girl. The lottery couldn’t be entirely random. That didn’t make any sense. There were five children on the Trident, with eight adults. That was thirteen people that should go to the Liberty. But if that was the case, then it only left seven slots for everyone else. Nothing had been said about the families getting a spot on the colony. When asked, the folks on Liberty hadn’t answered the question.
Strands of Kiera’s brown hair escaped from her clip and drifted into Tessa’s face, tickling her nose. Tessa pulled back and licked her lips. Her mouth was dry, tacky. She’d given her last water ration to Kiera. Since the blow-out last month they’d all been on limited resources with water rations and were encouraged to keep activity to a minimum. A lot of the crew spent their time locked in their narrow berths watching shows or reading until their next turn on the exercise equipment. If they exercised at all. She made sure that she and Kiera made every session. Bad enough to be weightless this long, how much worse would it be if they didn’t at least try to stay in shape? Plus it helped Kiera burn off her childish energy, which seemed inexhaustible even with the limited rations.
“Are we almost there yet?”
“Almost. The second solar sail has been slowing the Trident down so that we can enter orbit. We’re only three days away now.”
“And then we go to the colony? If we’re picked in the lottery?”
“That’s right,” Tessa said past the lump in her throat. They had to be picked. They had to.
She checked the time. The lottery was in thirty minutes. They’d all been instructed to be in their berths for the drawing. The crew wanted to minimize any disturbances. It made sense. Did she want to see the faces of anyone that won the lottery, if she and Kiera didn’t?
She gave Kiera’s thin shoulders a gentle squeeze. “Let’s get back to our berths. It’s almost time for the lottery.”
“Okay!” Kiera kicked off, and drifted up out of the observation bubble. She flipped in mid-air, pushing off the wall to swim forward into the main shaft that ran the length of the torpedo-shaped ship.
She was like a fish in zero-gee. Her, and the other kids, moved with automatic grace and ease. Children were so adaptable at that age. Two of the other kids, Jon and Dean, were each only seven and eight years old respectively. The three of them had bonded and were often flashing along the Trident like a tiny school of human fish. But Tessa saw how thin they were. Back on Earth they would look frail and weak. Too much time in this environment, and they wouldn’t even be able to stand on Earth, or any other higher gravity environment, again. Not Liberty, Aether back on Uranus, or Aphrodite on Venus. Or any rotating habitat that approached Earth-normal gravity. The only thing that made sense was for them to go to Liberty and grow up in the closest thing to home that they’d find this far out from the Sun.
Tessa followed Kiera back to their berths. Each was a small coffin-like compartment, with a flimsy rolling door that slid across the top to close it off. No bed or anything like that, you just sort of floated in it when sleeping. It wasn’t for the claustrophobic, although with the lights off it was mostly dark. Never quiet, with the sounds of other people and the pumps and electronic equipment humming, but it didn’t feel quite so small. Kiera dove into her berth, hooked her bare feet under restraints and waved.
They had adjacent berths, side-by-side. Tessa pulled herself down into her own berth and floated there, looking across at her sweet daughter.
“Go ahead and close up,” Tessa said. “You need to visit the facilities before bed?”
Kiera shook her head. “I’m not tired. I’m staying up for the lottery.”
“I can always tell you when you get up.”
Kiera laughed. “I want to see it. You said.”
“I did,” Tessa allowed. “No matter what happens, we’ll make it work.”
So long as they ended up on Liberty. Otherwise? She really didn’t know what she’d do. They had to put the kids on the Liberty, didn’t they?
Kiera pulled her berth door closed. The magnetic latches clinked into place. Tessa let out a breath she’d been holding. The tiny green dot indicating a secure seal was a reassuring safety measure. Each of the berths was sealed. If the main compartment suffered a breach, they’d be okay in their berths. At least until someone could repair the problem. A theory put into practice when they had the blow out on the way. People had lived because they were in their berths. Others hadn’t made it.
After she sealed her own berth she activated her glasses display to the general channel. Status reports about the Trident appeared as floating holographic screens around her. The narrow walls of the berth appeared more distant as she focused on the screens.
Everything operating normally, orbital approach right on target. She dismissed the windows with a swipe of her hand. There wasn’t anything to do but wait and stay positive. It’d all work out.
When the results of the lottery came in twenty minutes later Tessa stared at them with incomprehension.
Kiera’s status showed her updated for assignment on the Liberty. It should have been a huge weight lifted off Tessa’s shoulders, except Tessa’s own status showed an assignment on Proteus, with the mining outfit there.
It made no sense. It was a mistake, obviously. Tessa opened a channel to the crew. The call rang. And rang. It was a full ten rings before anyone answered.
The window showed Melia Wren, her thin lips tight. “Yes, Tessa?”
“The lottery —”
“Was handled by Liberty command. We don’t have anything to do with it.”
“I know that, but there’s been a mistake.”
“And you’re the thirty-first person to call and tell me that. I’ve got five other calls stacking up, and I’ll bet that they’re all going to say the same thing.”
Tessa clenched her hands tight, nails digging into her palms. Her voice still shook. “They’re splitting us up. That can’t be right. They can’t take my daughter away.”
“Kiera?” Melia’s forehead furrowed. “They’ve given your daughter a different assignment than you?”
“That’s what I’m saying. They show her assigned to Liberty —”
“Good for her.”
“— and me on Proteus. What sort of work am I supposed to do on Proteus? It sounds like that’s a mining operation. I doubt they need someone to do theoretical physics there.”
Melia sighed. “I don’t know what that’s about. I’ll check, okay. Kiera and Tessa Hamilton, I’ll follow up, and let you know.”
Tessa shook her head. “Turner. Kiera’s last name is Turner.”
“She has her father’s name. I went back to my maiden name when we split.”
Melia nodded. “Okay. Maybe that’s why. I’ll check, but I can’t promise anything.”
“Thank you.” A window popped up, Kiera calling. “I’ve got to go.”
“I’ll let you know.”
Melia vanished. Tessa blinked Kiera’s call open. Her daughter’s beautiful face appeared in front of her, beaming wide. “They picked me for Liberty!”
“I know hon, I saw that.” Six-years-old and already Kiera was a digital native, navigating interfaces without a second thought. And why not? She’d grown up around them.
“Your name was on Proteus. That’s a moon. Does that mean you won’t be with me on Liberty?”
“I don’t know what it means. I’m trying to find out.”
“If they won’t let you come to Liberty then I’m not going.”
Tessa shook her head. “No, hon. You have to go to Liberty no matter what. You have to grow up in a healthier environment. Otherwise your choices will always be limited.”
“But I want to be with you!”
Tessa blinked back tears that threatened to spill out of her eyes. “Don’t worry about it. We’ll get it all sorted. Until I know more, let’s not say anything, okay. Not to your friends, even.”
“I mean it. People are going to be upset right now.”
“Because people that wanted to get picked in the lottery, they’re going to be unhappy if they weren’t selected for the Liberty.”
Tessa pressed her finger beneath her nose. “Yes —” her throat caught. She took a breath. “Yes. I talked to command. We’ll get it sorted, but we don’t want to other people to know. Not right now. Not until we have to leave the Trident. Okay?”
“Are you ready for bed?”
“Good. Then settle down and get some rest.”
“Good night, Mommy.”
“Good night, sweet girl.”
Kiera broke the connection and it was as if she was already far away rather than just inches away in the next berth. Tessa touched the panels that separated them. It wasn’t possible that they really meant to separate her from her daughter. It wasn’t. She wasn’t going to dwell on it. She turned out her lights and drifted in the darkness. The hiss of air circulating, the sound of voices carrying through the ship, those things kept her anchored on the Trident rather than being cast adrift with her own thoughts. Eventually she slept.
It was almost time for Tessa’s lunch break when Melia pinged her glasses. Tessa pushed away her other work, writing code to analyze readings taken by the Trident, to take the call. Melia’s holographic likeness appeared in front of her. From her down-turned lips, she didn’t have good news. Just seeing her, looking into her eyes, Tessa knew. She knew what Melia was going to say before she said it.
“Liberty command gave everyone on the Trident an equal shot in the lottery. They didn’t look at family ties at all.” Melia’s tone conveyed her disgust at that idea. “They said that considering family ties would give those with relatives an unfair advantage over the rest. You’re not the only one with this problem. Without giving away names, there are two other family units were one of the members was selected in the lottery and the others weren’t.”
“So what do they expect to do? Have a six-year-old on Liberty without a parent? Who would look after her? Surely it makes more sense for me to go with her!”
“They say it’s up to you. If Kiera goes to the Liberty they assure me that she’ll be taken care of, looked after, educated, everything. They’re setting up what’s essentially a boarding school, a crèche, with the idea that most people will want their children raised under as close to Earth-normal conditions as possible. Kiera and any other kids will only be the first.”
“So I’m supposed to go off and work on Proteus while she’s raised by strangers?”
“They also said that you could refuse winning on her behalf, in which case the winning berth goes on to the next alternate.”
“And she stays with me?”
“Yes. That’s my understanding.”
Tessa shook her head. It was an impossible decision. Taking Kiera to Proteus, that was insane. She’d never have the choice of going to any higher gravity environment. Not Earth, not even a rotating facility like Ceres. But giving her over to strangers?
“I need to talk to them directly,” Tessa said. “Face-to-face. I want them to explain to me how this makes any sense whatsoever!”
“I’m not authorized to give anyone direct access at this point,” Melia said.
“Not authorized? What does that mean?”
“Just what it sounds like. Liberty is swamped right now getting ready for our arrival and they’ve asked that we restrict communications to crew only.”
“You’re not serious, I need access!”
Melia shook her head. “I can’t do it, sorry Tessa. The captain’s going to make an announcement later, final details on the approach and orbit, disembarkation procedures. We’re going to need a decision by tonight so that everything can be prepared.”
Tessa bit back the scream that threatened to erupt. “I’ll call back.”
She killed the connection. Call back? The next time she was going right up to the command deck to confront them personally. No access? That was ridiculous. They were afraid to talk to them, that was all. In fact why wait? She could go up there now and —
She twisted in space. Claire Rood floated behind her. Claire was a biologist, one of the minds behind the Trident’s small, but productive hydroponic gardens that had provided them with a small supply of greens on the trip out. They’d met at launch, two single mothers shepherding their kids onto the transports to leave it all behind. Otherwise they couldn’t be more different. Claire was in her forties, stylish, tall and well-liked. They had bonded over a shared interest in science, even with working in different fields. Claire’s son, Jon, was seven years old and had quickly become fast friends with Kiera. Tessa, on the other hand, knew how people saw her. She was geeky, and proud of it, and of being a scientist. Back on Earth she’d not only been short, but slightly overweight. It was hard not to be overweight in the lab when people were always bringing in food, or ordering pizzas. She’d lost that weight on the journey out. Maybe she wasn’t the world’s greatest mother, bringing Kiera out here, but she loved Kiera with all of her heart.
Tears welled in Claire’s eyes and broke away and drifted through the air. Tessa swept the tears from the air and caught Claire’s arms. They rotated around the space between them.
“What’s happened?” Tessa asked.
“We didn’t win the lottery,” Claire said. “They’ve assigned us to the mining facilities on Triton. There’s hardly anything there! It’s not a good environment for Jon. I don’t know what I’m going to do!”
“You’ll be together at least,” Tessa said.
Claire obviously saw something in Tessa’s face. Her eyes narrowed. “What is it? You and Kiera didn’t win, did you?”
She’d told Kiera not to say anything, but asked straight out, she couldn’t lie. “Kiera did. I didn’t. They’ve assigned me to Proteus, but she was picked in the Liberty lottery.”
They pulled closer and their spin increased. The walls of the Trident spun around them.
“What are you going to do?” Claire asked.
“I have to let her go to Liberty.” Saying the words out loud, it made it real. As real as a knife through her chest. But what other choice was there? She’d decided that much already. “She’ll be safer there.”
Pain went through Claire’s eyes.
“Sorry,” Tessa said. “I know you’re worried about Jon being on Triton.”
“I can’t imagine what you’re going through. At least I’ll have him with me.”
“Sometimes I wish we’d stayed back on Earth,” Tessa said.
“You know what they were doing. They’d have locked us up and taken our kids away. The mobs would have taken everything. They killed people.”
It was true. Diaspora personnel had been turning up dead before the end there, but the police had insisted that the cases were unrelated. They were supposed to believe that it was all a coincidence that people working for Diaspora were being killed, even abducted in some cases. Some of the people she worked with had thought that the government was behind the abductions, trying to capture key people involved with Diaspora. Sometimes she forgot how scary it was toward the end.
“I know,” Tessa said. “We couldn’t stay, but I feel guilty, you know? It was my job that landed us here.”
“It wasn’t your fault. If the governments hadn’t moved against the Diaspora, trying to illegally seize everything, we’d still be back there working our jobs, paying our taxes, living like everyone else.”
“All that’s true, but it doesn’t change what’s happening now, to our children. You probably understand what happens in a low-gee environment better than I do. Why aren’t they taking that into consideration?”
Claire let go and drifted away. She let out a small, hiccupy laugh. “I’m sure they have. They’ve always planned on us having kids out here. Isn’t that what Blackstone has talked about? The whole future of the human species spreading out to new worlds, evolving to meet the challenges?”
The words wouldn’t come. Claire was right, that’s what Diaspora and Blackstone had always said. They’d talked about people on every world in the solar system, even in free habitats out in the Oort cloud. Enough space and resources for trillions of human beings. And in time, even spreading out to other systems. Everyone knew that the long-term goal behind the solar sails and the beamed power station was to create ships capable of traveling to other systems. They’d be generation ships, but they’d get there following a fleet of probes and automated power stations that would set up automatically in other systems.
Of course that was the plan before the discovery on Titan. No one was saying much about that, what it meant. Things might have changed now.
Claire rubbed her eyes. “Look at me. I’m a mess. I’m sorry, Tessa, I freaked out a little there. It’s hard to see the big picture when it comes to Jon, you know?”
“I do.” Kiera was going to Liberty without her. It didn’t seem real. Not now. If there was a way to change it, she would.
“It’ll work out,” Claire said. “I’ll work on it. And there’s still the possibility that Triton’s subsurface ocean might have life. We’ll get down there eventually. Between that, and working on the adaptive loss problem, I’ll be busy.”
“I’m sure.” Tessa took a deep breath and let it out again. She wasn’t even listening to Claire any more. All she could see was watching Kiera leaving on some transport down to Liberty.
Claire was drifting away, but caught Tessa’s fingers. Tessa looked down, seeing Claire’s dark fingers curled around her paler ones. Friendship. Bravery. She looked up, meeting Claire’s sympathetic dark eyes.
“I can’t imagine being without her,” Tessa whispered. “But I want what’s best for her.”
“Then you know what to do,” Claire said. “Sometimes, often, life is just hard. You and I know that as well as anyone. We’ll stay in touch. They’ve got a network and everything. You’ll be able to talk to Kiera at least, and even visit her, I’m sure, from time to time.”
Tessa seized onto that thought, nodding. “Yes. You’re right. We’ll make it work. If I know she’s being taken care of, I can make it work.”
They drifted apart. Claire lifted a hand and then pushed off, drifting away down the Trident‘s long spine.
The Trident achieved a stable orbit around Neptune three days later. Kiera joined Tessa in her berth for the event. Everyone was on lock down, berths sealed as a precaution, and to simply keep everyone out of the crew’s way. The feed from the exterior cameras, however, let them all experience it in full holographic splendor.
In the past few days Neptune had grown in size and it filled the dark sky before Tessa. She’d selected a minimal environment, a simulated dome around her and Kiera, with light supports tracing geodesic lines across the sky. They couldn’t actually fly around the dome, they were still in Tessa’s berth, but their glasses projected the image in full immersion mode.
Kiera let out an awed sigh. “It’s beautiful!”
She was right. Neptune was beautiful. A deep blue color, like a jewel. Not at all the blue and white sphere that had been Earth. This was a giant world with bands of clouds and dark gigantic super storms. It had the fastest winds in the solar system. And she was going to send Kiera down into that. Seeing it like this, that was almost terrifying. The Liberty drifted on those winds, avoiding storms while speeding around the planet. Supposedly you hardly even noticed when you were on the colony.
Kiera’s arm shot out. “Look! I see the rings!”
She was right. Faint ring structures spread out around the planet. They were incomplete rings and hard to see at this angle, but there all the same. Nothing like the grandeur of Saturn’s rings. Tessa twisted in place, and found a second world, bright and straight ahead. She pointed at it.
“There’s Triton. Do you see it?”
“I do! That’s where Jon and his mother are going, right?”
“Yes.” Of course Kiera already knew that. So did everyone else now. Word had gotten out about the results from the lottery. Tessa had gotten ten private messages from people that wanted her to let them take Kiera’s spot on Liberty.
“It looks like a cantaloupe.”
Part of the moon’s surface was wrinkled, covered in ridges and pits pretty much like the skin of a cantaloupe. There was a variety of terrains, but few craters on the moon.
“It does,” Tessa agreed.
“Are we going there first?”
Tessa shook her head. “We’re going to fly by it, and use its gravity to help slow us down to alter our orbit around Neptune. We’ll meet up with local transports to take us where we’re going.”
“Do I have to go to Liberty without you?” Kiera asked in her quiet, baby voice.
“It’ll be like going to a boarding school back on Earth. People would do that so their kids got the best opportunities in life. Same here. You’ll learn from experts, and be right in the middle of the main Neptune colony. You’re going to have so much fun!”
“But there’s hardly any kids there, and you won’t be there.”
“No, but we can talk, and see each other. With a hologram, it’s almost the same as being there.”
“You can’t give hugs.”
Tessa fought the tears stinging her eyes. “No. You can’t. Not yet at least. But I’ll come visit and you can save them up for then.”
Kiera turned away, her eyes searching the view. “Where’s Proteus?”
Tessa pulled up a control panel and checked. “It isn’t visible right now. It’s a very small moon. Triton is much, much bigger.”
“Jon says they have geysers and volcanoes there, except they’re ice, not lava.”
“And he says there’s a secret ocean under the ice that might actually have alien fish and stuff.”
“We don’t know about that part. Water, yes, but so far we haven’t found evidence of life.”
“Jon says that aliens were on Saturn.”
Tessa smiled. “Not on Saturn, but it looks like some aliens visited Titan, one of the moons there, a long time ago.”
“But they could come here too, then, couldn’t they?”
Tessa shrugged. “I guess, but it looks like they didn’t stick around.”
“Maybe they’ll come back,” Kiera said wistfully.
Triton grew bigger and bigger in the view, and soon the changes were enough that Tessa could feel that they were flying right at the moon. It grew so large that it dwarfed everything else, even Neptune. Everything was so clear and strange, a world of pinks and blues and darker streaks. It had valleys and cracks in the surface, frozen peaks and all sorts of other interesting features that she didn’t know the names for. She could pull up explanations, but didn’t. They were getting so close now it was almost like being in a plane flying high above the surface, except higher, because she could still see the curved limb of the moon and the black sky above.
Kiera grabbed her arm and hugged her close. “Are we going to crash into it?”
Tessa rubbed Kiera’s back, her hand moving in circles. “No, hon. Watch! We’re going to fly right around it!”
Seemingly faster and faster now, the tortured terrain below swept past them and then it was falling away, receding behind them. Tessa twisted around, carrying Kiera with her, and together they watched Triton drop away behind them.
“What’s going to happen now?”
“Well, flying by Triton, it’s slowing us down and changing our orbit. Next we’ll be flying past and around Neptune, as we settle into a new orbit around the planet. It has to be done carefully, because we don’t want to end up in the plane of the rings, since that might damage the ship.”
“And then we leave?”
“Right.” Tessa’s throat closed up again. She fought against it. “It’ll be okay, hon. And when I get the chance, I’ll come to Liberty and see you.”
Kiera threw her arms around Tessa and hugged her tight. Tessa hugged her back and closed her eyes. She murmured the disconnect command and the hologram faded away around them, replaced by the close walls of her berth.
A day later the time had come for Kiera and the other lottery winners to disembark. The mood on the Trident was tearful, and for some, resentful. The twenty lucky lottery winners all had to suit up for the transfer. The kids went first, three of the children, including Kiera. Their small space suits were first in front of the airlock, waiting, and around them, up and down the ship, were the other twenty and then almost everyone else gathered behind them. For once the Trident was crowded with humanity, the most that Tessa had seen out of their berths since departing Earth. No matter what shift people were on, they were up for this. The transfer had come during Tessa’s off-shift, which was good, because there was no way she was working when her daughter was leaving. She floated against the wall, near the front, mostly surrounded by other figures in spacesuits. No one made her move back. They knew that her daughter was leaving.
Right at the airlock, next to the kids, Captain Jocelyn Saack hung on a grip. She wore a standard issue black Diaspora workall over her strong frame, but with the legs cut at mid-thigh and sewed shut. Saack had lost her legs in a bombing back on Earth, and then had pursued a career with Diaspora, rising quickly to her position as a ship’s captain. Her graying hair was pulled back and tied with a leather strap into a stiff pony tail that ended at her neck. She raised her free hand.
The crowd quieted. Kiera floated right in front of Saack, her small face looking up out of her helmet at the captain. They were all a little in awe of Saack, and that was visible in Kiera’s face. Tessa pressed a hand to her mouth.
“My friends,” Saack said, “we’ve been together for most of the past year on this long and historic journey. The colonists that are here were specially selected to blaze the trail and set up a foothold here for all of humanity but you are the reason for their work. You embody the brave souls of every pioneer that has set out for a new horizon, taking your families, your lives, into your own hands for the chance of a brighter future. With such determination and bravery in the face of sacrifice, I have no doubt that you’ll make Neptune a crown jewel in the expanding humansphere!”
People cheered. Kiera’s high-pitched cheer carried even with her suit. Tessa laughed, and cried, and it wasn’t only her tears that floated free. Let the scrubbers grab them, she had every right to cry right now.
The airlock pinged.
“Looks like their ready for us.” Saack touch the panel beside the airlock.
The hatch slid open with a hiss. Two space-suited figures appeared in the open hatch, faces visible through their visors. The one on the right was a woman, young, with a flushed red face and wide eyes. She smiled happily down at Kiera. The other was a man, his face lined and eyes sunken, dark, but he also smiled out at the waiting crew.
“All aboard, the Liberty’s Bell is ready and waiting,” the woman said. “I’m Becca Keen, pilot and boss for this trip. My pal here is Steven North, my co-pilot. Let’s get everyone that’s going on and settled in quickly. We’ve got a narrow window to hit our reentry point.”
Then she looked down at the children waiting at the front. “Come on, dears. You’re first. You get to sit up front, right behind the cabin.”
Keen touched Kiera’s shoulder, and Kiera twisted away, her face screwing up as her eyes locked on Tessa’s. It tore at Tessa’s heart. All she wanted was to grab Kiera, hold her and keep her with her but doing that meant cutting off Kiera’s choices in the future.
Fighting her trembling lips, Tessa made herself smile. “Go on, hon. It’ll be okay. I’ll call you once you get settled in, and see how you’re doing. Okay?”
Still pouting, tears leaking free into her helmet, Kiera still nodded. Keen gave Tessa a sympathetic smile over Kiera’s head, as she guided Kiera forward into the airlock. As soon as Kiera was out of sight, Tessa pushed off the wall. She used the crowd as hand-holds as she pulled herself through the crowd up the Trident’s shaft until she reached her berth. She pulled herself into it and shut the door before covering her face and sobbing into her hands. Her body shook, it was as if her whole chest would split open. She tried not to make too much noise, to be quiet, but some wails escaped her lips, impossible to contain.
She heard the clanks and thuds as the ships detached. The Liberty’s Bell was away. Kiera with it. Tessa shoved at the tears and snot on her face. She pulled out an absorbent towel and mopped at her face, then used it to sweep up the floating spheres drifting around her berth. When she finished she brought up a wall screen view of the departing ship.
It was already hard to see. A bright spot, like a needle in space, falling away from them toward the blue swirling planet. The transport rolled, showing thin swept-back wings. It was a space plane, capable of matching up with the Liberty as well as reaching orbit. No doubt Keen and North were experienced pilots. They’d probably done the trip a bunch of times before, ferrying resources between Liberty and orbit.
When she lost sight of the ship she switched to the tracking graphic on the system. It showed the progress of the transfer ship as it sped around Neptune, entering the atmosphere on approach for Liberty. At the same time that was going on the Trident was also speeding around Neptune, but on a different course, one that would put them into their desired orbit around the planet. Other transfer craft would rendezvous with them from Triton and Proteus to off-load the rest of the exodus crew.
Tessa watched the display until it showed Liberty’s Bell successfully dock with Liberty. It was done. Kiera was safe. As safe as she could be this far from Earth. There was a hollow emptiness inside Tessa. But Kiera was alive. She clung to that fact. Her daughter was alive, it wasn’t any different than sending her off to boarding school back on Earth. They’d still talk, she’d call Kiera later, once she’d had a chance to get settled in. They’d talk all the time. And eventually she’d be able to take a trip to Liberty. She’d read about it, the rock jocks, as the mining crews were called, had two weeks on Liberty ever three months. Not so much a vacation as a chance to get checked over by the doctors, and get treatments to deal with any issues that had developed from their adaptive losses and radiation exposure.
It was a chance to see her daughter, that’s what counted.
Another day later it was Tessa’s turn to leave the Trident, along with the other fourteen people selected to join the small outpost. Tessa had barely stirred from Kiera’s berth in the three days since Kiera left. She had spoken to Kiera and put on a brave face while Kiera told her excitedly about Liberty station, the other kids, how tired she was from walking everywhere, and how she missed floating anywhere she wanted to go. At the same time, the station was so big with different levels and gardens and even a park that stretched the whole length of the station and was lit up with bright lights. Miss Greenly, that was her teacher, said that she’d be able to run in the park once she built her muscles back up. She remembered running back on Earth and she was looking forward to running again. Wasn’t that wonderful?
It was, Tessa had reassured her. She clung to that fact. It was wonderful. Kiera running again in a park was terrific, it was exactly what she wanted for her.
Except that it felt as if Tessa’s heart had been ripped out of her chest. She hated Miss Greenly, who got to see her daughter happy and playing. How was that fair? Yeah, maybe some parents sent their kids away to boarding school. How did they manage that? There was an empty Kiera-shaped hole in her life. Sure, some day she had imagined Kiera going off to college and living her own life. It just wasn’t supposed to start at six-years-old.
Liberty command had turned down her appeal to join Kiera, citing the strain on their resources already in taking on as many of the exodus population as they had. The systems just weren’t in place to accommodate a larger population right now. There were plans to expand the habitat just as soon as enough resources were made available.
When would that be? They couldn’t say. It depended on the work that was done on Proteus and Triton, getting the resources that they needed. She still wasn’t sure how she fit into that picture. And they also had to be sure to provide resources for the habitats on the moons as well. Everything needed to be carefully considered, but she could rest assured that they would do everything to support Kiera and take care of her.
Of that, Tessa didn’t doubt. Surely Miss Greenly and all the rest would do their best by Kiera. It wasn’t that. She missed Kiera. It was that simple. For so long, Kiera had been everything to her, and the focus in her world. Back on Earth Diaspora had provided daycare right in the building, so she could pop down on breaks to visit her. And full-time work was considered thirty hours a week, which left far more time to spend with Kiera. And for the past ten months, the better part of this last year, they’d been together on the Trident. She’d always been able to find Kiera in the limited environment of the ship.
Who knew when she’d get to hold Kiera again? She was going to have to go to a place she didn’t know, with new people, where life hung by a tenuous thread at best.
The door on Kiera’s berth pinged. Tessa didn’t move to open it. She didn’t want to go to Proteus. What if she refused? Would they force her into a suit and down to the tiny moon? She’d seen it, an irregularly shaped moon not big enough to pull itself into a sphere. It was cratered and ugly, nothing but a big dirty snowball crudely packed.
Another ping on the door.
“Tessa, it’s time for you to come on out of there.” That was Captain Saack’s voice, firm, but kind. Sort of like her mother. Heat rushed to Tessa’s face, the same way it’d done as a kid when she did something wrong. She never could hide anything.
Tessa hit the release on the door and pushed it back. Stray tears stuck to the door wobbled and tiny droplets broke free to tumble through the space.
Saack hung in front of the opening, using one hand to anchor herself, looking just the same as she had when Kiera left the ship. Her full lips pressed together.
“You’re hurting, I get that. It’s still time to go get suited up.” Her tone didn’t leave any room for discussion.
For a brief wild second Tessa considered fighting, but to what outcome? If she threw a big enough fit would they take her back to Liberty? Unlikely. Hunger strike? Other demonstrations? All that would probably do was convince them that she wasn’t a fit mother for Kiera.
“Okay.” Tessa took a deep breath and blew it out. She did it again. “Okay.”
She planted her hands on each side of the berth and pushed herself up and out. Saack extended a hand and Tessa caught it, her hand wrapped in Saack’s warm, strong grip.
“Are you going to be okay?” Saack’s expression was open, concerned.
“Thanks, Captain. Yes. I’m going to be okay.” If she said it enough times, maybe eventually it’d be true. Until then, she’d keep saying it and do her job. Tessa pushed off and floated down the spine of the ship.
The Trident felt emptier with a third of the population gone. The sounds of people talking were more muted than before. Tessa’s companions in the trip to Proteus were suiting up near the airlock. At the moment it looked like a crowd of astronauts had exploded, with free-floating helmets, gloves and other parts of the spacesuits. Crew members in black workalls, as well as those going on to Triton, drifted around the exodus members suiting up, helping here and there with getting people into their suits. Most of them had only worn the suits at launch and in drills since. It was still unfamiliar even after months in space.
Tessa pulled her suit from its locker, her feet braced while she turned it around and unsealed the back side. Rear-entry suits, overkill probably for this trip, but the necessary inconvenience. She put her feet into the legs, pulling up on the suit and in the process started a slow backward tumble. She slipped her hands into the opening and dove forward into the suit, spreading her arms out into the arms, ducking her head down into the opening. She spread her arms out and straightened out her body into a spread-eagle pose. Her head passed through the neck ring. The smart catches on the back of the suit engaged and she was sealed in. She reached out to the nearest surface and stopped her stumble. Her glasses connected to the suit’s systems automatically and gave her a run-down. Green across the board.
She turned around and pulled her helmet from the locker. It snapped into place. She was sealed in and protected from the hazards outside. It was a comforting feeling.
A clang rang through the ship. She felt the impact through her grip. It wasn’t cause for alarm. She focused and opened up a ship status window.
Successful docking with Proteus transport.
Her ride was here. It was time to go down to the moon. Around her the others were getting themselves sorted as well. Everyone oriented themselves around the airlock. Saack swam through the crowd, murmuring words to those she touched as she made her way. She took up the same spot beside the airlock that she had taken when Kiera left the Trident. Tessa pushed the image away. Kiera was fine. Good, even. She was where Tessa wanted her to be, where she’d stay healthy and safe and have lots of options. She’d be recovering soon from the months spent in weightlessness. And she’d be able to run!
“It fills my heart to see such bravery,” Saack said. “You’re embarking on a great adventure. I know some of you are hurting, are disappointed. Maybe Proteus wasn’t your first choice of places to go.”
“Got that right,” a man in the crowd said, loudly, amused.
He was behind some others, out of sight, but he sounded like he was from back east, on Earth, that is, in the United States. Many of the people were from other countries, but they all worked for the Diaspora Group.
Chuckles spread through the group. Some of the tension in the group ebbed. Even Saack managed a small smile.
“Yes. I’m sure. And yet Proteus is a new world, mostly unexplored, and rich in resources. It is a center of learning and discovery.”
A hand touched Tessa’s suited arm and squeezed. She rotated and saw Claire, with Jon at her side.
Claire smiled. “Hey.”
“Hi, Ms. Hamilton,” Jon said in his sweet, high voice.
“Hi yourself,” she said.
“You are the new explorers,” Saack was saying. “Your skills, your knowledge, will unlock what Proteus has to offer, not only to those here in Neptune space, but the whole of the humansphere. Be great. I wish you all the best, as do we all.”
Someone in the group clapped. Others joined in. Tessa’s throat tightened but she clapped as well. As the clapping died down the rest of the crew and the Triton exodus group moved among those going to Proteus, offering well-wishes and farewells.
“Good luck,” Claire said. “Stay in touch. I want to hear from you!”
“I will,” Tessa said, “I wish that we could get together more often, but I don’t think that travel is going to be much of an option.”
“Not right now, but who knows?” Claire pulled Jon close and ruffled his hair. “If aliens can visit the solar system, I’m going to believe anything is possible.”
Anything was possible. Echoes of Blackstone in that. The head of the Diaspora Group was famous for her anything is possible philosophy. When others said that colonizing other worlds was too hard, too dangerous or not worthwhile she set out not only to prove them wrong and colonize one world, but set her sights on the entire solar system. Twelve worlds became targets for colonization, including all of the major planets and four dwarf planets, demoted Pluto among them. That didn’t even count the fact that, like here at Neptune, they really had three main outposts plus the various transports and mobile habitats moving around the system.
If anything was possible, then she would get the chance to be with Kiera again.
She pulled Claire, and Jon, into a clumsy hug. “Thank you.”
“You’ll get back to her,” Claire said. “I know it might not seem like it right now, but you will.”
“I’ll make it happen,” Tessa said. Saying the words, it made it true. She took a deep breath until her chest ached, and let the air out. “You two take care of each other.”
The airlock pinged. Tessa turned and watched as the door slid open. A figure wearing a spacesuit like theirs, but streaked with black marks and gray with wear, appeared in the doorway. His visor was up, revealed handsome, chiseled features darkened with a day’s stubble. His eyes were a rich, dark amber as he took in the assembled group. He settled his attention on Captain Saack.
She extended her free hand. “Right on time, Dr. Shelton. Everyone’s ready to go.”
Dr. Shelton braced himself in the airlock opening. He smiled, showing perfect teeth.
“Now I’m envious,” Claire murmured to Tessa.
Tessa gave her a nudge. He was handsome. She’d seen his picture before, Dr. Alex Shelton, a noted researcher studying adaptive genetics. Back on Earth there had been conspiracy theorists that believed he would create mutant monsters on other worlds. Not that she believed the stories, but his work on in vitro genetic repairs had raised the ire of those believing that he was somehow playing god. It had been big news when he accepted the Diaspora Group’s invitation to continue his work off-world. Diaspora hadn’t said anything about where he had gone, or what he was doing now.
This was where he had ended up, on Proteus orbiting the last significant planetary body in the solar system.
Dr. Shelton turned his warm smile to those assembled. “I’m Alex Shelton. We’ll save the rest of the introductions right now, we’ve got a reception planned when we get down to Proteus so we’ll get to know each other better there. We’re thrilled to have you join us. I know some of you might not be as excited to be joining us as we are to have you, but we’re going to do our best to convince you that you were actually the winners in the lottery. I think you’ll be surprised what we’ve accomplished here.”
He paused, watching them. No one said anything. He moved to the side of the airlock, across from Captain Saack. “Well, let’s get everyone aboard. No shoving, please.”
The people closest to the airlock moved on in and everyone else started lining themselves up. Tessa hung back a second with Claire and Jon.
“Okay. I’m going. I’ll miss you.”
“We’ll see you again,” Claire said.
“And Kiera too, right Mom?” Jon asked.
“Yes,” she said, pulling him close. “Kiera too. We’ll all get together sometime. I’m sure something can be arranged.”
“Yes,” Tessa said past the lump in her throat. The line to the airlock was getting short. She lifted a hand in farewell. “Bye.”
She pushed off, turning as she did. She caught a grip, steadied her rotation and glided on to the airlock. As she got close Dr. Shelton put out a hand, providing her a quick grip to slow her motion. Through two thick spacesuit gloves it was impossible to get any sense of his hand. His eyes held streaks of green and gold. His smile widened.
“Dr. Hamilton, I’m happy to see you.”
His words stunned her. He knew who she was? Why was he happy to see her? “You know my work?”
“Yes, of course. I’ve studied the profiles of everyone joining us.”
Oh, right. That made sense. Of course he’d want to know who was coming in Proteus.
His next words through her back into doubt.
“I think you’ll be happy with the lab we’ve set up for you.”
He touched her arm. “Don’t worry, there will be a thorough orientation when we land. We’d better move along now, we’re holding up the line.”
Tessa pulled herself forward and kicked on through the airlock into the transport. A robot stood in the opening to the transport’s cabin. It was all smooth ceramic lines, a dirty ash color, but smooth and polished with black, rubbery joints. It was a bit like an artist’s mannequin brought to life. The eeriest thing about it were the eyes. Its eyes were big and cartoony, human-like, but over-sized with deep, gemstone blue irises. It was almost cute, but as its eyes moved to watch her with unblinking intensity, it crossed the line to creepy.
The rest of the squat transport looked pretty much like a plane back on Earth, with two rows of seats, two on each side and an aisle down the middle. Those that had gone before her were pulling themselves into seats and strapping in.
The robot spoke, startling her. Its mouth and thin lips didn’t move. Couldn’t move from the look of it. “If you’ll have a seat, Dr. Hamilton. We need to disembark soon.”
“Right. Okay.” Tessa used grips along the ceiling above the seats to pull herself along.
She swung into an aisle seat still open, mid-way down the transport. She got her boots under the brace beneath the seat in front of her and used the handholds to pull herself into the seat. Straps crawled out across her suit and she yelped.
“Are you okay?” Asked the woman in the seat beside hers. It was Nita Malone, materials science if Tessa remembered right. Tessa didn’t really know her, except to recognize her after the months out to Neptune. Nita was a small woman, petite, with short black hair and a tiny upturned nose. She had an over-sized laugh for someone so small.
Tessa pulled the straps the rest of the way down to the buckle. “Yes, it just surprised me. I think I was spooked by the robot.”
Malone leaned closer and her lips, bright purple today, quirked in a smile. “Creepy-O, right?”
Tessa laughed. “Exactly.”
Nita was studying her. “You’re Tessa Hamilton, your little girl won a spot on the lottery, didn’t she?”
Unsure where this was going, Tessa nodded. The rest of the new Proteus crew were filling the seats. Creepy-O stayed at its post blocking the way into the front cabin, watching all of the people coming on.
“That must have been so hard to let her go to Liberty.”
“It’s temporary,” Tessa said. “I’ll get a chance to be back with her, as soon as we can figure something out. Until then, it’s a lot healthier environment for her.”
“You’re right. It is, she’s lucky.” Nita gestured and an invite popped up on Nita’s glasses. “Have you looked at this? We’re pretty lucky too?”
Tessa focused on the invite and blinked her acceptance. The window opened up, a holographic representation of the base on Proteus. A series of domes, connected together, around the rim of a crater. It was like a beaded necklace, half-buried in the sides of the crater, with subsurface tunnels linking it to a large central dome. The image automatically zoomed in on that point as she focused on it, revealing elegant structures and a park-like agricultural environment. It was beautiful and green. It wasn’t anything like the grim mining environment she had pictured.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” Nita said. “Idyllic living conditions, and the labs! Wait until you see what they have for us. It beats anything I had on Earth, hands down.”
“How’d they do all of this?”
“Up until the Exodus, they were still getting regular shipments from Earth, thanks to all the wealth that Diaspora brought down to Earth, they could afford it. That was part of the reason that the countries were so up in arms over Diaspora, they were getting wealthy on all the space-based resources and no one else was in a position to match what they were doing. So they tried to take it.”
“This is incredible.”
“You really hadn’t looked?”
It seemed silly. Tessa shook her head. “No. Not the details like this. I assumed it was a mining facility. I was more focused on Liberty. I wanted us to both get there.”
“Mining is part of what they’re doing at Proteus, except I think it’s automated. It isn’t like they were going to put shovels in our hands and send us out to scoop up the minerals ourselves.”
No, because that would just be silly. “I guess so. I hadn’t thought about it much.”
“They want us for our scientific skills, not our ability to dig rocks. Besides,” Nita lowered her voice and leaned so close that their helmets almost bumped together, “I think they might have even rigged the lottery to get people where they wanted.”
It was a shocking idea. Tessa didn’t say anything. The words wouldn’t form. If that was true then Diaspora had deliberately taken her daughter away from her.
Nita touched her arm. “I’m kidding. I don’t really believe that! I think they were prepared for any outcome. After all, we don’t know when they actually did the drawing for the lottery. It could have been weeks or months ago and we wouldn’t know any different. They just waited until we were close to announce the results.”
“Could be,” Tessa allowed. That actually made sense. Why wait to do the drawing until they arrived? Nita was right. Diaspora could have drawn the names at any point, and then prepared for the outcome. All they had to do was give themselves enough time to get everything read.
Of course that meant that Diaspora and Liberty had known she was going to be separated from Kiera for that same length of time. And hadn’t said anything. They’d let her believe, to kid herself, that she’d be able to stay with her daughter, while all along knowing that Kiera was going to Liberty. It made her feel manipulated. Like she was some sort of puppet made to dance to their tune. Like the Exodus all over again. It wasn’t safe to stay behind on Earth, they said. She could have everything seized, Kiera taken away, but that had happened anyway. She’d lost everything now, including Kiera.
“Hey, are you okay?” Nita asked.
She was spared from answering when Dr. Alex Shelton, their new boss, came into the cabin and activated the airlock behind him. The hatch slid shut. He pulled himself over to aisle between the chairs and caught the grips overhead. Behind him, Creepy-O turned and moved back into the cabin with easy grace, twisting and pushing off with the perfect trajectory and speed, like a fish at home in water. It made sense that the robot was adapted to zero-gee, he was built that way.
“Welcome aboard,” Dr. Shelton said. “No more speeches, I promise. I want everyone to stay suited up. The cabin is pressurized but there is a lot of debris floating around the system. Neptune’s space is a bit of debris field. The chance of anything impacting the transport is remote, but let’s not risk it. Suited up already we’re in a better position to deal with any problems. And the trip down will only take a few minutes. We’ll have an orientation when we’re down. So stay strapped in, and we’ll be on the ground soon.”
Ground. Wow, that was a thought. She hadn’t been on the ground since Earth. She was about to set foot on another world. It was exciting, even with the Kiera-shaped hole in her life right now. It was so strange not to have her daughter there, with her. It was like the first time that she had left Kiera with a sitter, to go out on what turned out to be a disastrous date. She’d spent the whole time consciously aware of the gap, the absence, of Kiera being with her. The guy, she couldn’t even remember his name, was probably fine but she excused herself and left early. Poor guy didn’t have a clue what had gone wrong. That was the last she’d heard from him.
This time was different. Kiera was on a whole other planet for Pete’s sake! Tessa closed her eyes. She couldn’t do anything about that right now. She opened her eyes and found Nita watching her, brow wrinkled with concern.
Tessa smiled. “I’m okay. I haven’t adjusted to not having Kiera, my daughter, with me.”
“Do you have any kids?” Tessa asked.
“No. Never took the time. It was always about the science and career for me, I never took the time.” Nita’s voice turned wistful, softer. “There was one guy, he asked me to marry him right before the exodus. He wanted me to stay behind. I considered it, but I’d always planned on moving out into space. If I stayed, I knew I’d regret it.”
The transport shuddered. Tessa grabbed onto the seat’s arm rest. Another jolt and then nothing for the moment they were drifting free.
Engines kicked in and she was pushed against her straps. Hard at first and then much, much harder. The whole ship shook. Tessa focused on her glasses, blinking through screens to the public status, a view of what was happening.
The hologram enveloped her vision, washing away the cabin. It was as if she was sitting on the outside of the transport’s pitted gray skin. It was dingy and worn with use. The sun was shining in her face. It was a bright ball, smaller than she would have expected. At the end of the transport, four engines poured out a bright blue glow. The transport was slowing. It turned and there was Proteus hanging against the black sky above her. A whole world spread out below, immense and pitted with craters. The moon was weirdly-shaped, sculpted in an irregular mass that wasn’t quite spherical, more like a pitted and bug-riddled apple than a round moon. But this close, it was still a whole other world.
The cigar-shaped transport was flying over the tortured and blasted surface below. Proteus was like a rocky snowball, packed together by a giant. The ground below was pitted and twisted, with violent features frozen in time. It was an old surface, one created when Neptune captured Triton, which would have been a dwarf planet in its own right like Pluto if the massive ice giant hadn’t ensnared it.
What it would have been to see it happen!
When all was said and done, Proteus remained almost unchanged since its formation. Until now, with people coming to live here.
The transport was dropping faster. Alarmingly fast. Her heart raced as the surface rushed up beneath her. This was like coming in for a landing at an airport, when you couldn’t see the runway, except worse. There was nothing beneath her. Nothing but that blasted surface.
Were they about to become another crater in the surface?
The transport shook as more thrusters kicked on. Tessa sank into the seat as the forces built. In the holographic illusion around her she saw peaks rising up ahead. All sense of the whole world was gone. A wall of sharp-edged mountains sketched a line across the world in front of them and still the transport dropped lower. Now it not only looked like they wouldn’t have a place to land, but that they were about to crash right into the face of the mountains. Everything was barren, pitted, old and lifeless. The mountains showed cracks and avalanche slopes of material that had cascaded down their sides. It was a crater wall. The mountains created by some impact that had blasted down and thrown up mountains of rubble.
If they were going to crash, at least Kiera wasn’t with her.
Just when the mountains filled her field of view, every detail clear down to tiny rocks and pitted craters, the transport blasted right over the peaks. For a brief second the knife-edged peaks were right there, no more than a fifty feet below, and then they were past and dropping away. More than that, a ring of light blazed along the inside of the peaks.
It was the outpost that she’d seen in Nita’s plans. A bright necklace of emerald green blazing away against the dark. It circled the crater, bigger than she’d imagined. A wide ring that encompassed an area bigger than the campus where she had worked back on Earth. The transport had slowed even more. It drifted like a feather above the surface, but a feather with direction. It drifted sideways and dropped more, coming down in the empty wedge space between the buried tunnels that connected the central dome to the outer ring. And the wedge wasn’t empty. Not entirely. There was a large area like a football field, groomed and smooth, with bright blue lights around the perimeter and two rows down the center. Pale figures scrambled around the landing pad, running with exaggerated ballet-dancer moves around the field.
Robots. At least a dozen of the Creepy-O type of robots, all running out to line up alongside the landing area. Robots were common back at Diaspora facilities, and even on the Trident, but they were little devices that climbed in the walls, or scrubbed the floors. Scrubbers and cleaners, or big automated machines that assembled 3D-printed components. Nothing like these humanoid robots, these androids, but there they were, lined up and waiting. Big, liquid, and unreadable, eyes gazed up at the descending transport.
Then, it happened so fast that she couldn’t even pinpoint the exact moment, the transport touched down and stopped. It took Tessa a second to recognize that they’d stopped. Straight ahead of the transport the central dome rose up above the surface, an immense geodesic structure light with lights that shown down on bright buildings inside. Domescrapers, rather than skyscrapers, they rose up near the upper reaches of the dome.
Tessa deactivated the hologram. It was time to go.
When it came time to leave, Dr. Shelton announced that they’d be taking a space walk across the surface.
“Another reason I wanted you all to stay suited up. Check the person in the seat next to you, make sure everyone is in a functioning suit.”
Tessa pinged Nita’s suit. The readouts came up green across the board.
“You’re good,” Nita said.
Nita placed a gloved hand on Tessa’s arm. “Let’s get to know each other better, okay? We’ll have coffee, or whatever they have available here.”
“I’d like that.”
Around them everyone was rising to their feet and shuffling into the aisle exactly like people did when planes landed back on Earth. This wasn’t Earth, it was Proteus, a moon around Neptune, and her trip was only starting. She still had to get back to Kiera. In the meantime, though, this was still pretty exciting. She couldn’t wait to share it with Kiera the next time they talked. It be something to share the videos of her trip across the surface. Feeling gravity again was odd. There wasn’t much. She felt somewhat like a balloon floating along the aisle after the others, as if with each step she would float off into the sky. Some people did bounce up, catching themselves against the ceiling and laughing.
At the front of the aisle, Dr. Shelton spoke up. “Yes, surface gravity is low. Be careful. I don’t want any accidents while we’re on the surface. The roadway is graded, it shouldn’t be a problem, but no acrobatics, please. We’ve got facilities devoted to low-gravity exercise for those interested, but let’s wait until we get inside. Our android surface crew is outside, you’ve met my co-pilot on the trip, Cliff.”
Creepy-O raised a hand in the air at the cabin entrance.
“They’ll transfer your luggage and take care of the transport itself. You’ll see a lot more of them in the base, where they fill a variety of roles. We’re the test site for using the androids to expand our work pool. Eventually they’ll be working throughout the system. It looks like everyone is ready. Let’s go. Stay in line, stay with the group and call out if you have any problems. We’re going to depressurize the cabin now.”
There was a hissing noise that gradually diminished along with the other sounds from the others. Tessa shivered. Not from cold, just the thought of the vacuum of space. Even though she had gone from Earth to orbit, to the Trident, and now this transport, she hadn’t ever had to go out into an environment where she was totally reliant on a spacesuit. How weird was that? She had traveled across the solar system but hadn’t been out in any extra-vehicular activity in all that time, until now.
The suit held as the heads-up display showed the pressure drop.
Dr. Shelton’s voice came over her comm speakers. “Okay. Hatch is opening.”
The outer hatch opened up in the side of the transport. Bright bluish light flooded in and highlighted Dr. Shelton. He beckoned. “Follow me, watch the steps.”
He disappeared out the hatch. Creepy-O, Cliff, stayed in his position, watching the line with his unblinking stare as everyone shuffled forward. One at a time, they stepped out. Tessa moved forward with the rest, one bouncy step at a time. There wasn’t anything to it. A quick stroll across the surface and then they’d be back outside. At the same time it was a big deal. She hadn’t been “outside” in almost a year. Not since leaving Earth.
Cliff was still standing in the entrance to the cabin when she got to the head of the line. Tessa studied the robot’s expressionless face and his big, unblinking eyes.
Her comm display showed an open connection with the android. “You don’t blink.”
He stared back at her. “I lack eyelids to blink.”
“It’d make you seem less creepy.”
Cliff tilted his head to the side. “Is that important?”
Nita touched her back. There was space ahead for her to move.
“It is,” Tessa assured the android.
“I will pass on the suggestion,” Cliff said. “Thank you.”
Tessa turned into the light. It was bright. She lifted a hand to ward off the bright blue light. It came from a light post at the side of the landing field, bright spot lights blasting out light at the dull gray landscape. As her eyes adjusted she dropped her hand and took the next step right to the edge.
A wheeled staircase led down to the ground. The others that had gone ahead bounced across the surface like a group of kindergarten kids on a field trip, shepherded by the unblinking androids outside. Each one of them looked like Cliff and watched the new arrivals with the same unblinking stares.
That really needed to get fixed.
“Do you need help, Dr. Hamilton?” Cliff’s voice came over her speakers. The heads-up display showed his avatar labeled CLIFF.
“No. I’m fine.”
She held onto the railings and stepped down the stairs. She took each step carefully, not wanting to stumble and fall. In this low, low gravity, such a fall was unlikely to cause any harm except to her pride.
Kiera would love this.
But Kiera was having fun back on Liberty, in a full one-gravity environment. Which was what she needed. There weren’t a lot of choices this far out. It wasn’t like they could pop back to Earth if they had an emergency. She had to do what was best for Kiera. That’s what counted right now.
Her boot pressed against the compacted gray surface. She let go of the railings and stood on her own two feet, on another world. Tessa turned and looked up at the sky and gasped.
Neptune hung in that black sky. It was a big, bright blue sphere hanging against the dark. At this distance it wasn’t overwhelming, but it was so clear. There wasn’t any atmosphere to blur the features. She could see the subtle banding of the clouds. It was clearly different than Earth. A whole other planet, right there in the sky. Tears stung her eyes. Kiera was there, flying around that world right now. Her breath caught in her throat.
Tessa lowered her eyes. Right now she had to focus on what was in front of her, here on Proteus. The central dome rose up on her left like a fairy city stuck in a geodesic snow-globe. That’s where everyone was heading, the line of other new arrivals bounced ahead toward the airlock, tiny at the base of the dome. There were more androids, watching the humans move along. Others moved to the transport and across it. One bounded up onto the top of the transport with ease and grace.
She followed the rest to the dome.
The airlock was big. Plenty big for all of them to fit inside. Semi-trucks could fit in the airlock, probably up to four across. Dr. Shelton stood near the front beside the massive doors as they all came in and milled about.
“You’re all doing great,” he said over the channel. “As soon as everyone is inside, we’ll cycle through into Xanadu.”
Xanadu? That’s what they called this place? It seemed a fantastical name for a base on such an insignificant moon as Proteus, but after seeing what she could of the city through the dome, maybe it was justified. And this was only the large central dome. There were also the other domes, like beads on a string, circling the crater. Maybe the name was appropriate. They’d talked about labs. What would she discover in Xanadu?
Finally everyone was into the airlock and Dr. Shelton started the cycle. Soon she heard a faint hissing noise dust swirled off the spacesuits in bright motes lit by the bluish overhead lights. Her mouth was dry. Voices came through as the airlock pressurized and the sounds of feet shuffling. Someone bounced in place, rising at least a couple feet off the ground before settling down. Someone laughed.
“Exciting, isn’t it?” Nita asked at Tessa’s elbow, surprising her.
Tessa turned. “Yes. It is.”
Nita giggled. “I can’t wait.”
Unexpectedly, Tessa felt a yawn build. She reached up to cover it and her glove hit her helmet.
Nita giggled again. “Can’t do that until we get inside.”
Tessa smiled. “I guess not.”
Green lights flashed on the panel beside the massive doors. Smoothly, silently, the doors slid open. Blue light poured into the airlock and through the doors the sense of a fairy-tale city grew even more pronounced.
A wide avenue ran away from the entrance, dipping down slightly before rising toward the spires that reached for the dome above. The dome blazed with light that pushed back the dark beyond. It was like looking into a bright blue sky near the sun. You couldn’t look too long before looking away. Trees and bushes and wide green lawns filled the spaces between the avenue and the building. People and androids moved about the space with graceful, athletic leaps. On Earth moving like that would have required wire rigs, but none of that was evident here.
Dr. Shelton opened his visor, shoving it up with his hand. His laughter rang out as he swung his arms wide. “Welcome to Xanadu!”
The reason for the people along the avenue became obvious as the newcomers wandered, overwhelmed by the base, out of the airlock behind Dr. Shelton. Everyone had turned out to welcome the newcomers. Many of the people wore bright white Diaspora workalls, but not all. Some wore flowing, loose clothes that trailed behind them. Tessa was approached by one of the crowd. A young woman, very pretty, with high cheekbones and her golden hair neatly French braided. She was wearing a modified workall with strips of loose, sheer material added in long strips along the arms, legs and side. She smiled brightly at Tessa.
“Dr. Hamilton! We’ve been expecting you. I’m Dr. Cynthia Wells, your lab partner and guide. I’m here to show you around.”
Dr. Shelton’s voice rang out. “Please go with your guides! They’ll get you settled into your new quarters and answer your questions about life here. Relax, rest. Take time to recover from your long voyage. Your work will be there when you’re ready.”
Cynthia laughed and leaned closer to Tessa. “He says that, knowing that most people will want to see their labs before they see their living quarters.”
Tessa had been curious about the lab, but hearing that she changed her mind. “Actually, my quarters would be great. I’m beat. I feel like I could sleep a year.”
“Of course. Come with me. We’ll get you out of that suit. You can rest and recover.”
Tessa shook her head. “I don’t think I’ll really recover until I get Kiera back.”
“Your daughter.” Cynthia’s eyes were sympathetic. “I heard about that. If there’s any way I can help, let me know. My daughter stayed behind on Earth when I joined Diaspora. I used to get emails from her, but not since the exodus.”
Tessa reassessed her guide. Between her looks, and the almost frilly workall, she had made certain assumptions. But putting that aside, Cynthia looked so young to have a daughter back home.
“How old is she?”
“Six, now,” Cynthia said. Her lips pressed together for a moment. She shook her head. “I regret leaving her every day.”
“Then why’d you do it?” The words came out before Tessa thought about it. She lifted her hand. “Sorry, it’s not my business. I’ve got no right to judge.”
Cynthia gave her a sad smile. “No, that’s okay. I’ve thought a lot about it. My ex was becoming more religious all the time. He was anti-Diaspora. Naturally we were having problems. I wanted the opportunity Diaspora offered but there was no way he was going to let me take Helen with me. I knew if we had a custody fight, he’d win. He’s a successful lawyer, and I was the crazy idealist that wanted to fly off into deep space. So I left.”
Tessa couldn’t imagine it. It was hard enough leaving Earth, but to leave her daughter there, with someone like that?
“I can tell what you’re thinking,” Cynthia said. “I don’t regret what I’ve been able to accomplish, but I don’t think I’ll every regret giving her up. At least you’ll get to talk to your daughter tonight.”
“Yes.” Tessa decided that she liked Cynthia. And the space suit was not the most comfortable thing. “Let’s go see my quarters. I’d like to get out of this thing. We can talk more.”
Maybe, it wouldn’t be so bad, if she had friends.
Time passed faster than Tessa had imagined it could since coming to Xanadu. Before she knew it four weeks had passed. She’d been on Proteus for a month, getting acclimated to the facilities and trying, not very successfully, to pick up her work that she had left back on Earth. Whenever she looked at it now, though, it seemed flat and uninspired. Who cared about quantum structure in the beginning of the universe? It was all theoretical work and right now she was having trouble putting herself back in that place.
She kicked back in her chair. Her glasses chimed. With a flick of her eyes, she opened the call. It was Dr. Shelton, appearing in a holographic window in front of her. His full lips spread in a smile.
“Dr. Hamilton,” he said, drawing out her name. She shivered. “Can you come to my offices? There’s something that we need to talk about.”
What could he want? She hadn’t talked to him since arriving in Xanadu. Like everyone she was given a living space — spacious, full of plants with an whole suite of robotic assistants to keep the place for her — and a lab. And complete freedom to pursue whatever research she wanted. Diaspora wanted them to do pure research, with complete freedom. It was scary, and contributed to her current block. There were no research grants to apply for, or funding concerns. No classes to attend. Except for Kiera’s absence, it was wonderful.
Mostly. The meager gravity opened up many possibilities, but at the same time she knew that they were all suffering from adaptive loss. If she stayed long enough, she wouldn’t even be able to visit Kiera on Liberty. She’d find out just how much muscle and bone loss was affecting her when her leave came through in five months. Five more months until she got to hold Kiera.
“Yes?” She nodded. “Of course. I’ll be right there.”
Dr. Shelton’s offices occupied the upper floors of the Spire, the central building in the main dome. Tessa hadn’t been there since arriving in Xanadu, but she’d seen the information in the orientation that showed off the central Proteus complex. She’d been amazed to discover that most of Xanadu was empty space just waiting for people to fill it up. There were buildings and parks and domes around the outer ring, all sitting empty except for the androids and robots that kept everything up and pristine. No other Diaspora base was so automated, or had autonomous androids. They were a direct product of work done here in Xanadu, and the whole base was a reflection and demonstration of that work. It was no wonder that they could afford to let her spin her days on research, when everything else was done for her.
As a result, she traveled by herself to Dr. Shelton’s offices. First she took a communal pod, a small gleaming blue passenger vehicle that seated four. It took a rail down into the sub-level tunnels and zipped across from her dome to the central dome. Once there the rail rose up and curved around through the central city. Other pods joined hers as they floated along the magnetic rail into the city. The whole trip took less than ten minutes before the pod glided to a stop on the landing platform at the Spire. The door rose up and Tessa ducked out. The moment she moved away from the pod onto the marbled platform, the door dropped an the pod zipped off.
There was an android waiting for her just inside the doors, with his long limbs folded in a picture of contemplative patience. His neck bent and his big eyes blinked slowly at her.
Tessa laughed. “Cliff? Is that you?”
“Yes.” Cliff’s eyelids fluttered at her. “Is this what you had in mind?”
He’d gone from being creepy, to almost comical. Tessa smiled. “Yes. That’s much better.”
Cliff gestured. “Dr. Shelton is waiting. I will show you the way.”
“Thank you. I’m sure I could have found my way, you didn’t have to do this.”
“I asked Dr. Shelton if I could greet you. I wanted you to see my upgrade.”
Tessa hesitated and then continued walking toward the elevators. Cliff matched her stride.
“You wanted to show me?”
“Yes. People seem to appreciate follow through on their questions.”
“You’re right about that.”
They reached the elevator. There was no waiting. The doors opened automatically. Tessa went inside, but Cliff stayed out.
“Are you coming up?”
Cliff shook his head. “I have other work to do, Dr. Hamilton. It was good to see you. Have a good day.”
“You too,” she said, as the door closed.
Weird android. Xanadu was highly automated, but semi-sentient androids still seemed odd. And there was, well, something distasteful, about them if she was honest with herself. The whole thing skirted close to crossing the line from a useful machine to enslaving an intelligent species. Maybe she was projecting too much onto Cliff’s behavior. The scutters that cleaned the Trident sometimes seemed like they had personality, becoming annoyed with people that were continually messy, but it wasn’t on this level. Cliff seemed like a person, more than a machine. It was unsettling.
The elevator came to a smooth stop and the doors slid quietly open. The whole floor was open, broken only by slender pillars that reached up to the tall roof. It was open, but not empty. Translucent holographic screens floated around the space, and it buzzed with activity. People and androids were busy working in the space, yet it had the same hush as entering a university library as she stepped out of the elevator. An android approached her, more feminine in design than Cliff, with high cheekbones and liquid blue eyes. The android blinked slowly.
“Dr. Hamilton. We’re pleased to see you. Let me show you to Dr. Shelton.”
As the android spun gracefully on her heel and set off with a long, bounding stride, Tessa kept up.
“What’s your name?”
The android glanced at her. “Gwyn.”
“There are a lot of people working on this floor.”
“Dr. Shelton oversees all projects in Xanadu, and research and development across the solar system. It keeps him busy and he does require assistance to keep up with it all.”
“Across the solar system?”
“Of course. He is Diaspora’s scientific coordinator for all development and research.”
“I didn’t realize that.”
Gwyn’s metal mouth curved into a smile. It wasn’t much of a smile, but it was something. That uneasy feeling came back strong. These androids were becoming so human.
“Dr. Shelton is over here.”
There was a featureless static holographic wall blocking off a corner of the room. Gwyn stopped and pointed. “Through the exclusion barrier, please.”
Exclusion barrier? That was a visual and auditory barrier. Handy, if you wanted privacy. But why did Dr. Shelton need privacy to talk to her? She wasn’t going to find out standing outside the barrier.
Tessa walked through the barrier. There was a wash of static and then she was inside. It was a quiet space, with a couple deep blue stuffed chairs facing a desk that faced out toward the windows. Through the massive floor to ceiling windows, the dome over Xanadu was visible and a long drop down to the smaller buildings around the Spire. Dr. Shelton stood in front of the desk, his arms crossed, wearing a standard black Diaspora workall. He wasn’t alone.
A woman leaned on the desk, her hands down at her side. Her fingernails were bright red, her dress like a band of the night sky wrapped around her body, glittering with stars. Her hair was piled up on her head and her face, that, was perhaps the most recognizable face in the solar system. The head of Diaspora, Terra Blackstone. It was impossible for her to be on Proteus. She was back on Luna running Diaspora. There was a shine about her, an inner glow that had nothing to do with her beauty and everything to do with being a hologram. Of course.
What was weird, was that both of them were watching Tessa.
Tessa put her hands behind her back and clasped her fingers together. She looked at Dr. Shelton. “What’s this?”
The holographic Dr. Blackstone straightened, stepping away from the desk, her eyes fixed on Tessa. It was unnerving for a recording to seem so present.
“Dr. Hamilton,” Blackstone said. “Can I call you Tessa?”
What? How? “Of course. Yes.”
Dr. Blackstone lifted a hand, her red lips curving into a smile. “I know. I get that all the time.”
It was a hologram. That was obvious, but it was like a live projection, which was impossible because the time lag back to Earth.
“We’ve had a breakthrough in instantaneous communications,” Dr. Blackstone continued. She folder her hands together. “We can initiate the connection remotely, which is how I’m able to tap into your systems here and project this hologram. We need you to build an initiator, so that we have true two-way communications.”
Dr. Shelton nodded. “You’re uniquely qualified to lead the project. After all, it’s based on work you did.”
Tessa blinked. “Work I did?”
Dr. Blackstone chuckled. “Your work opened the door. It gave us the insights we needed to work out the tech. You’ll see when you study the file. It’s important that we get our new communications network up and running. With this we can create a data-communications network that spans the entire solar system.”
Blackstone walked closer, seeming so real that it looked like you could reach out and touch her. She turned and looked out the windows. “With this, and our holographic technology, it’s almost like being there. I know that I’m in my office on Luna, but the with the immersion environment it really feels like I’m here with you in Xanadu.” Her head turned and she smiled at Tessa, her eyes sympathetic. “I’m sure you can appreciate what the possibilities.”
Kiera. It wasn’t the same thing as being there in person, but it would mean that they could see each other like this, and interact as if they were in the same room. Incredible, but even with that, they couldn’t touch.
“Okay. Sure, this is incredible,” Tessa said. This was the director of Diaspora, how often was she going to get this chance? “I want to be with my daughter.”
Dr. Blackstone came closer. “I understand. As soon as Liberty has the new expansion completed, you’ll be at the top of the list. If you want. Space is a limited resource in a place like Liberty. We don’t have the room to spread out like you do here. Or the resources to do the sort of science you can do here. I hope you’ll consider staying on here, but I understand if you can’t.”
Tessa blinked back tears that threatened to form. “I’ll think about it. Right now, it sounds like I have work to do?”
Dr. Shelton nodded. “The files are in your system, call on whatever resources you need to get the work done. We want to get Xanadu up and online as soon as we can.”
“I’ll get right on it.” Tessa nodded to them both. “Thank you.”
“Thank you, Tessa,” Dr. Blackstone said. “I appreciate everything you’re doing for us, and the sacrifices you’ve made for your daughter.”
Sacrifices that she wouldn’t have had to make if the lottery hadn’t turned out the way it did. Tessa’s throat constricted. She took a breath, why the hell not?
“Was the lottery rigged? Was a decision made to separate us?”
Dr. Blackstone shook her head, her lips pressed together. “No, Tessa. I completely understand why you might feel like that, I do. We didn’t rig it. It was as fair and as random as we could possibly make it. After the names were chosen, then we prepared.”
“If you had won,” Dr. Shelton said, “I would have asked you to join us anyway. The work you’ve done, the things you could do, are most likely going to happen here on Proteus.”
Her work. There was a time when her work was everything. When understanding the basic fundamentals of how the universe worked was all that she wanted to do. Right up until Kiera was born and then her attention was divided. She wanted to understand how Kiera worked the same way that she had wanted to understand the universe.
“Okay. Thank you. Thank you both. I knew it was silly, it’s just been hard to be apart from Kiera.”
Dr. Blackstone came closer. “It’s a small consolation, I’m sure, but once you get the initiator online, it’ll be like she’s in the same room.”
“Except I can’t hug her. I can’t touch her.” Tessa sighed. “It’s still amazing. I’ll get to work.”
Tessa left them, walking away out through the exclusion barrier. Everyone else on this floor of the Spire was busy working, so no one paid much attention to her. The view out the far window caught her eye. It was Neptune, hanging in space. She threaded her way among the people on the floor. No one paid too much attention as she made her way over to the far side of the room.
There were big sliding doors and curved balcony that extended out in a large half-circle platform away from the Spire. Tessa kept walking, right up to the doors and they slid open at her approach. Warmer air blew gently against her face. She walked outside. Not so far above, the central dome stretched across the sky. The struts were hard to see against the glare of the lights above, but looking straight out she could see past the dome, over the rocky and uneven surface of Proteus beyond the dome, to Neptune hanging in space.
The huge blue planet didn’t look so far away today. Soon she’d get the initiator up and working, the fact that Terra Blackstone could call out here and have a real-time conversation showed that the technology worked. Her mind was buzzing already, leaping ahead to think about how it must work. It had to be based on her ideas on quantum particle coordinates. Why did the universe hold together and form complex structures? What gave order to the chaos? Questions like that had led her research. There were underlying rules to the universe, understand those and all sorts of things were possible. Like making a particle that was here think it was there or the other way around. She’d seen the possibility of communication in her research, but hadn’t pursued practical applications. She was more interested in the deep research. Obviously someone else had developed her work to create the tech.
Kiera was out there, on Neptune. First things first, Tessa had to build the initiator for the communications network. A solar system-wide data/communications network with real-time capabilities would revolutionize the Diaspora effort.
Better than that, it’d bring her closer to her daughter. Maybe they wouldn’t be together, in person, often but this technology could open up the solar system to everyone, even people on Earth. Her thoughts jumped forward. She looked down over the railing at the ground far, far below. Androids glinted in the light as they moved around on the ground far below, very noticeably different than the people. What if they covered the androids in a holographic skin? They could serve as a remote body for a person on a whole other planet and relay back sensory information. Full immersion suspension rigs already existed for virtual holographic environments, it’d be easy to integrate that tech into the whole thing. Instead of a virtual environment, it would receive data from the android. And the android could look exactly like the person that was driving it. They could go for a walk on other worlds without needing a space suit, without risk.
It had its risks too. Any time a new technology like this came about, someone would try to use it as a weapon. How long before enemies on Earth tried to use the technology to infiltrate or take over Diaspora again? They’d tried it once already when they launched the Lincoln to take over the Luna bases.
Tessa reached out and grabbed the railing. She ran her hands along the smooth metal. They’d have to develop safeguards. The androids were smart, they could refuse commands to harm anyone. Right now you could recognize holograms, that might not always be true. It’d be up to Diaspora’s security to be alert to the dangers. But the advantages were tremendous.
She could be with Kiera on Liberty. Together, they could visit any place in the solar system they wanted. Go see the alien site on Titan, or visit Aphrodite on Venus.
Tessa smiled. There was a lot of work to do, but she was about to help open up the solar system and create a way to spend more time with Kiera. She pushed away from the rail and bounded back inside, eager to get back to the lab where she could unlock the keys to their future.
This story is the 9th weekly short story release, and the 9th Planetary Bodies story. Neptune is another of those worlds that has so much potential if we could learn more about it and its moons.
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. Next up is Touching Pluto.