It Takes a Crèche

Jeffery Finney brought his daughter Alice to the beautiful world of Cardinal to start a new life on a peaceful planet safe from the troubles of the Reach.

His work as a botanist involved studying native vegetation — which begged the question why the Reach’s ambassador wanted to meet him.

An impossible choice for Jeffery and his daughter Alice jeopardizes their entire future on Cardinal.

A short story for science fiction readers eager to explore alien worlds and new cultures.

 

As worlds went, and assignments, it didn’t get  better than the planet Cardinal. Jeffrey Finney stood at the window of the fourth floor conference room, in the new Reach embassy, wondering why he’d been summoned. He’d been called off his botanical studies without any explanation.

Cardinal was the second planet from the local G-type sun. It had minimal axial tilt, a temperate climate, and three major, four minor, continents sporting a full diversity of life. It also had four sentient, amphibious species, all sharing a common ancestor, who also shared a peaceful existence among their various geo-political alliances.

That made it unique in the worlds discovered so far by the Reach exploratory teams. And a good place to give his daughter, Alice, a fresh start. Safer even than some of the Reach worlds. He took the posting as a sort of foreign exchange program, one that would get her away from some of the bad influences she’d been messing with back home.

Outside, sunlight sparkled on the shallow waterways surrounding the pearly buildings, their rooftops vibrant gardens. Natives crowded the waterways with their tiny conchs. Those weren’t primitive crafts. The natives made them with advanced composites, smart A.I.-based navigation, and electric jet drives. They rivaled anything made in the Reach.

Large red wood doors at the end of the conference room swung open, admitting a woman and one of the natives.

The woman, Jeffrey recognized. Serena Thompson, the current Reach ambassador. She had a reputation as a smart negotiator, ambitious, and held her doctorate in xeno-political science. She was a standard base-gene human, no mods, but had a record of supporting mod-sapiens and cyber-sapiens rights. She wore a cerulean toga-like native wrap, diamond ear-rings and a diamond necklace. All very traditional in the native culture.

She was also several bosses removed from him in the hierarchy on Cardinal. He couldn’t think of any reason she would need to talk to him. His work was mostly involved collecting genetic samples from local plants and working with the native botanists.

She crossed the conference room and extended her hand. “Dr. Finney, thank you for coming on such short notice.”

Her grip was strong, dry and brief. She turned away and gestured to the native standing in the doorway.

“Allow me to introduce Rrr’kulp Pok, director of the local crèche.”

Pok was one of the Southern sentients, local to this continent. Biped, with backward jointed knees from a human perspective, webbed feet and hands, six digits on each. The bright orange cheeks indicated he was male, as did his robin’s egg blue skin elsewhere. Women of his species had a duller coloration. His neck wattles hung in folds. Like the ambassador, he wore a toga, but his was striped, yellow and black. His diamonds were on a modest gold necklace, with only a few small gems. He brought a peaty aroma, with a hint of ammonia, to the room. It was a faint smell, familiar from working with the natives. Actually Pok smelled pretty good. Some of the scientists in the field started smelling more and more like a litter box the longer they went without getting in the water.

Fist-sized moist eyes gazed at Jeffrey with a look of great sadness, emphasized by the down-turned mouth. Whether or not Pok was sad, Jeffrey had no idea. After three months on Cardinal, he still couldn’t get the natives’ expressions figured out.

“Nice to meet you,” Jeffrey said.

Pok’s neck wattles thrummed, then he said, “This is a joyous day.”

Not sad then. Jeffrey waited for more of an explanation.

Pok’s webbed hands slapped together. “Ambassador Thompson tells me you will arrange the transfer date with our crèche.”

“What?” Jeffrey looked at the ambassador for an explanation.

“Director,” she said. “I explained that we must speak to Dr. Finney first since he is the young woman’s father.”

Young woman? Alice? “What’s wrong with Alice?”

The ambassador touched his arm. “Let’s sit down, and talk about this.”

He wasn’t moving. “Tell me what’s going on.”

Pok thrummed, and said, “We need to arrange the transfer of the offspring to the crèche for maturation and assignment.”

“Maturation?” Jeffrey rubbed his head. “Alice is already grown. She’s not a little kid, she’s seventeen.”

“The Director isn’t talking about Alice,” the ambassador said. “He means Alice’s child. Your grandchild. Alice is pregnant, just over three months, apparently.”

What? That didn’t make any — Rafael. Jeffrey closed his eyes for a second. Cocky, dimpled chin, blue-eyed, cyber-sapiens Rafael had been dating Alice before Jeffrey took this assignment. He knew Alice, he didn’t have any illusions, but he had trusted that she was smart and took precautions.

“Dr. Finney?”

He opened his eyes. “Why am I hearing this from you?”

He shifted his gaze to the sad-eyed Pok. “And why is he involved? How is this their business?”

“Birthing is the business of the crèche,” Pok said.

The ambassador place her hand on Jeffrey’s right arm again, just above his elbow. “Fertilized eggs are cared for in the crèche. When the young hatch they are looked after in the crèche pools until their lungs fully develop and they can leave the pools. Then they are assigned to prospective parents.”

“So? Alice’s child isn’t going to live in some pool. That doesn’t have anything to do with us.”

Pok thrummed, but the ambassador moved to stand closer to Jeffrey, in between him and Pok. She looked up at Jeffrey. Her eyes were worried, but it was the salty hint of sweat that caught his attention.

This was serious. She was nervous.

“Jeffrey, this is a lot. I know. It’s complicated.”

Her mouth was tight. He got the message. She wanted him to play along. Whatever this was, it had involved her for a reason.

He put his hand on her left arm, mirroring her touch. He looked over her head at Pok.

“Director,” he said. “May I have a moment alone with the ambassador?”

Pok thrummed and blinked his eyes. “I am very busy.”

Serena turned without moving away from Jeffrey, which left him smelling her hair, a faint, sweet honey scent.

“I appreciate that, Director,” she said. “Thank you for coming, we appreciate your attention. We will contact you soon.”

Pok’s neck bulged and he blew out the air with a flatulent sound. “Very well.”

He turned and left the conference room, his feet making slapping noises on the floor. When the door shut, Serena stepped away and turned around.

“Thank you.”

She was the ambassador again. That moment, whatever it was, had passed. Jeffrey rubbed his jaw.

“Tell me what I’m missing here. Are we really talking about giving them my grandchild?”

“We’re in a precarious position right now. We have one embassy on one continent, in one alliance. There are four sentient species on this world, they’ve got many, many different cultures and no wars. There’s not a single armed conflict right now anywhere on this world.”

“So? I thought they were natural pacifists.”

“No, it’s more complicated than that. We’re still figuring it out. One thing we do know, the crèches are part of the whole picture. Prospective parents apply for parental rights to the crèche system. It’s different in different alliances, but it is a global, inter-connected system.”

“And?”

She stepped back closer to him, and said, “Children are often assigned across alliances, even across species. It’s a foundational pillar of their peace. Would you go to war with people raising your children?”

 

2

 

Home on Cardinal was a small bamboo cabin on stilts, up on the drier hills above the city, in the reservation set aside for Reach personnel. The smell of chocolate chip cookies filled the cabin. Jeffrey took the last tray out of the oven and placed it on a rack. He’d been baking since he got home, to have something to do until Alice returned from her classes.

He wasn’t looking forward to the conversation. Not about this. It hurt that she hadn’t confided in him yet, that he had to hear about it the way he did. Regulations required birth control in all adults on a non-Reach world, to avoid potential complications.

Like this one.

It was just the timing of the thing. Alice couldn’t have known yet that she had conceived when they left, but that must have been when it happened. She’d been very angry, threatened to run away with Rafael, but at the last minute she had agreed to come. She had seemed heart-broken, and he had assumed that she and Rafael had broken up. She’d never told him exactly what happened, but he thought the fresh start would do them both good.

“Dad? Are those cookies I smell?”

“Fresh out of the oven.”

She came into the kitchen. His beautiful little girl wasn’t little anymore. Taller than him by several inches, she had her mother’s height and green eyes. But she wasn’t the awkward young woman anymore. She’d come into her own. She wore a long green summer dress today as she came into the room.

He looked, but he couldn’t see that she was showing yet.

Alice stopped and put her hands on her belly. He looked up and found tears welling up in her eyes.

“You know,” she whispered.

Tears stung his own eyes, but he blinked them back. He picked up a plate of cookies. “Have a cookie, sweetie. I’m not mad.”

She made a hiccup sound, and covered her mouth. One tear escaped and ran down her cheek.

Jeffrey walked over and wrapped his free arm around her, drawing her close. She flung her arms around his neck and buried her face in his shoulder. Her body shook.

He rubbed her back, just as he’d done when her mother had left. “Hey, hey. It’ll be okay.”

It hadn’t ever been entirely okay, but they’d both survived and moved on. Sometimes he blamed Elise for the problems Alice had, but mostly he blamed himself. He was the parent that was around, after all. Elise had wanted a different life, so she went after it. That was all.

Alice calmed down, sniffled and finally lifted her head.

They sat down at the table. The plate of cookies was between them. Alice picked up one and nibbled at the edge.

Jeffrey picked up one and took a bite so he wouldn’t have to say anything yet. Hot melted chocolate threatened to scald his tongue.

Alice put down the cookie. “How’d you find out?”

It didn’t take her long to get to that. Jeffrey swallowed.

“I was called to the embassy today. Ambassador Thompson told me.”

“What?”

“That’s what I said. She got involved because the natives, their crèche system, they assign children all over to different parents.”

“They also lay eggs,” Alice said. “It’s not the same thing.”

“It’s not. But they still expect that our children will enter the crèche system to get assigned to native parents.”

Alice jumped up, knocking her chair back and over. Her arms folded protectively over her belly. “I’m not giving my child to those frogs!”

“Alice!” He snapped without thinking, shocked that she would use that word.

She backed away from the table, shaking her head. Her face was flushed.

He stood and held out his hand. “Sorry. I didn’t say we were going to give them your baby. Alice, please.”

He picked up her chair and backed up. “Let’s sit down. We need to talk about this, what it means.”

She shook her head. “No. What’s there to talk about? I’m keeping my baby. That’s it. Discussion over.”

She walked out.

Jeffrey resisted the urge to go after her. When she got like this, she needed time to cool down. He needed time too, but he couldn’t just sit on his hands waiting. He needed to do something.

 

3

 

Jeffrey went back to the embassy. Earlier Serena, the ambassador, had agreed that he needed a chance to talk to Alice. Nothing was decided, she had said, but they had both had agreed that he was the person to tell Alice what was going on.

He wasn’t so sure now. It hadn’t gone well. He knew that Alice was impulsive and had a temper, but in this case he couldn’t even blame her because what they were talking about was so insane to start with.

The embassy staff showed him through the marble halls to the ambassador’s penthouse suite on the fifth floor, and a private sitting room done in bamboo panels. Wall hangings, native woven art, decorated the walls. The common thread between all of them was the depiction of sunrises, but the styles varied, as did the vegetation and locations. Some were beaches, others wetlands, rivers and waterfalls. If he had to guess from the plants picture, these were samples from each continent.

A minute later Serena — the ambassador, he had to keep that in mind — came into the room. Her eyes searched his face, and she bit her lip.

“It didn’t go well?”

“Not really. How could it? It’d be hard enough just finding out without all of this going on.”

She gestured to one of the overstuffed couches in the room. It looked like a good couch for a nap, but with the white fabric you wouldn’t want to drink anything that could stain it. He sat down, and it was comfy. He leaned back and groaned as he rubbed his eyes.

The couch moved a bit.

She had sat down, tucking up her legs, arm on the back of the couch to face him.

“Rrr’kulp Pok has already filed notices with the local alliance, citing unwillingness to cooperate on our part.”

Jeffrey sat up. He clenched his hands. “What does he want? To rip the fetus out of her? She’s not due for six more months!”

“I know,” she said. “We’re delaying. We sent them data on human reproduction. They are familiar with mammalian-types of native animal species that have live births. It’s one of the things about us that makes them uneasy.”

“Why? That makes no sense.”

“It does to them. Historically, many of those species are described as egg-stealers, species that consumed their eggs. Like the trunk wolf.”

He’d seen pictures in briefings of what to watch out for when he was out collecting plant samples. The trunk wolf was a long-legged, bipedal, stripped animal with a flexible trunk. Superficially like an elephant’s trunk, except it was actually the animal’s mouth, and the inside was ringed with teeth. Various sub-species stalked the rivers and swamps using the trunk to feed on small animals and vegetation. Or eggs. Sometimes packs would go after larger prey and their trunks would burrow in to suck out the juicy organs. To Pok’s people, it probably was a terrifying creature, like a real-life vampire.

“Fine,” he said, “so we make them uneasy. That’s too bad. We have to stop delaying and tell them the truth. They can’t have my grandchild. It’s that simple.”

“If we do that, they may insist we leave. Everything we’ve worked for, gone. And potential membership in the Reach, lost.”

Jeffrey shrugged. “Oh well. Then maybe we should leave. If we’re going to work with these people, they can’t insist that we give them our children.”

“And they don’t see how we can work with them and not exchange children. It’s not a one-way arrangement. Reach citizens could apply to raise their children as well.”

“You’re not going to get many takers there.”

She sighed. “There’s also the legal issue.”

“Legal issue?”

“When we came here, we agreed to respect and obey their laws,” she said. “Reach law requires us to respect local laws wherever we go outside of the Reach. Each world, each country or alliance, or whatever geopolitical structure exists, has its own sovereign rights.”

Jeffrey stood up. “We also have our rights. We don’t forfeit those in the process. You have to protect your people first.”

She stood and stepped closer, reaching out. Jeffrey stepped back. She let her hand drop.

“We’re working on that. I’m trying to find a way to save our mission here, and protect Alice, her grandchild, and you.”

It had to infuriate her. A seventeen-year-old girl had thrown a major wrench in Serena Thompson’s career plans. If they all got kicked off Cardinal, if she lost a whole world, that had to be a major career derailment.

But it was his daughter, and his grandchild. That was his priority.

“You’re going to have to make a choice,” he said. “It doesn’t sound like they’re going to let you have everything you want.”

Her shoulders dropped. “I will keep trying. You can help too.”

He wasn’t sure what she meant, but she seemed sincere. “How?”

“Convince Alice to meet with Rrr’kulp Pok. I’ll be there too, and you. If we can make him understand the connection, the bond we have with our children, that might help.”

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

She spread her hands. “I’m trying Jeffrey. I’ve seen your files. I know about your ex-wife, the troubles Alice had. You saw Cardinal as a fresh start, didn’t you? That’s what I want it to be. These are good people, smart people, with a lot to offer the Reach. We need people like them. Help me. I don’t want to give up.”

It was easy to see why she had her job. “I’ll try. If Alice agrees, we’ll give it a shot.”

 

4

 

Jeffrey headed back home after leaving the embassy. He tried calling Alice on the way, but she didn’t answer. He left a message.

“Alice, come home, please. I’m on my way there now. I spoke to the ambassador again. I don’t think they’ll try anything, but I’d feel safer if I knew where you are.”

He only felt slightly guilty for implying that the natives would do something. He had a hard time imagining them arresting Alice, but if she was worried about it then she might come home anyway.

When he got home Alice was sitting in the egg-shaped hammock chair hanging in the corner of the room. A plate decorated with cookie crumbs sat on the stand beside the chair. She had the same sulky look she’d had as a little girl, when she’d gotten in trouble for doing something that she wanted to do.

He shut the door gently and took a seat across the room on the couch. It wasn’t nearly as comfortable as the one in the embassy. The cushions dropped too far, making a V-shape beneath him.

“Are you okay?” he said, breaking the silence.

“I’m fine,” she said. “No one tried anything.”

“You heard my message.”

“Why’d you go back and talk to her? Did you tell her they could have my baby?”

Jeffrey shook his head. “No one is taking your baby. I’m not letting anything happen to you or my grandchild.”

She blinked and wiped at her eyes.

“So why then?”

“That’s how we solve problems. We talk things through. And I told her that we weren’t giving up the child to anyone.”

Alice kicked her legs, making the chair swing. “Why don’t we just leave? We can catch the next transport, and go somewhere else. If we’re not here then there won’t be a problem.”

“What about art school? I thought you were enjoying it.”

“I am, it’s great. I have this friend — but none of that matters, right? I have to do what’s right for my baby. I’m not going to leave my child.”

He knew what she wasn’t saying. Not like Elise had done. In so many ways she was like her mother, but not that way.

He shook his head. “We can’t go. We can’t afford it, for one thing. I can bid for a different assignment, but there’s no telling when something will open up. Or where. Most of the worlds outside the Reach aren’t like Cardinal. And I don’t think leaving is going to solve the problems here.”

“I can’t do anything about that,” she said.

“Actually, you might be able to help.”

“How?”

“The ambassador wants us to sit down with Rrr’kulp Pok, he’s the local crèche director. She thinks it might help if we can make him understand the bond humans have with their children.”

“I don’t want to talk to him.”

“I know,” he said.

She sighed. “But if it helps them understand that I’m not giving up my baby, I’ll talk.”

Jeffrey got up and crossed the room. Alice stood up and came into his arms. Taller or not, she was his little girl and he was proud of her.

 

5

 

For the third time in the same day, Jeffrey found himself back in the embassy. Serena had set up the meeting back in the conference room where he’d first met her. He sat on one side with Alice, their backs to the window, facing the door.

Serena was at the end of the table. She had greeted Alice with a hug when they came in. Alice was chewing on a strand of hair when the door opened and Rrr’kulp Pok walked in.

Jeffrey stood, and Serena. Alice spit out her hair and stood too, smoothing down her summer dress.

Pok tugged at his toga and thrummed deep in his throat.

“I am Rrr’kulp Pok, Crèche Director,” he announced. “This day has had much muddy water. Thank you for helping clear it.”

That sounded polite. Jeffrey nodded.

“Uh, okay. You’re welcome,” Alice said.

“Director,” Serena said, gesturing to a chair across the table. “Please be seated. Can we get you anything?”

Pok sat down. “No, thank you.”

They all sat down.

Serena folded her hands on the table. “Director, we do want clear waters for all people. I trust you received the files we provided?”

“Yes,” he said. He thrummed a moment and went on. “Very informative.”

He turned his big liquid eyes to Alice. “You carry your crèche inside, so you are also a director.”

Was that a joke? It was impossible to tell from Pok’s expression. Jeffrey took Alice’s hand.

Alice leaned forward. “I suppose, but it’s more than that. My child is part of me.”

Pok’s throat made a flapping noise. Laughter? Or did the thought make him sick?

“Indeed,” Pok said. “We understand now, that even after birth, the human offspring remains undeveloped. Breathing, but unable to ambulate or vocalize. Assignment will require much study.”

Alice shook her head. “We’re not assigning my child anywhere. I’m keeping my baby.”

Pok’s wide mouth dropped open and nothing came out.

Serena said, “The material we provided spoke of the familial bonds between parent and child. You can see that here, Dr. Finney is Alice’s biological father. There is a strong paternal bond, even though Alice has reached adulthood.”

The director’s big eyes blinked at them both. Finally his mouth closed and he thrummed quietly for a moment before speaking.

“We also experience familial bonds with our children,” he said. “Does this not happen with you, if the biological parents are not present? Who raises those offspring?”

“We do have adoptive parents,” Serena said. “And yes, they do bond with their children.”

“Then you must understand that no harm would come to the child. We have rigorous standards for prospective parents, to ensure children receive every opportunity.”

That sounded good, for their children. Jeffrey jumped in. “We believe our children are best served by staying with their parents while growing up, whenever that possible.”

Pok’s webbed hands tapped on the table. “And what if the parents are not prepared for raising a child? If they lack the resources, due to youth or circumstances?”

“I can take care of my child,” Alice said. “I’m not stupid. I can work.”

Pok thrummed rapidly. “I intend no insult to you, Alice Finney, but surely you want the best for the child?”

“The best thing for my child is to be with me.” Alice stood up. “You’ll have to accept that, because you’re not taking my baby!”

Jeffrey stood up as well. “Maybe we’d better go.”

Serena stood and held out a hand. “Wait. Please. These sort of issues come up when different species interact. That doesn’t mean we can’t find common ground for cooperation.”

Pok slowly stood as well. He touched his diamond necklace. “Cooperation comes through trust. If you fail to extend trust with your young, why should we trust you on lesser matters?”

“We can say the same,” Serena said. “If you won’t trust us on our biological differences, why would we trust you on other matters?”

Pok sucked in his neck and it flared out twice, making hard knocking noises. Without a word, he turned to leave.

“Wait!” Alice said.

Pok stopped. He turned. His wattles shook. Jeffrey wasn’t sure what the natives looked like when angry, but he thought this might be it.

Alice was squeezing Jeffrey’s hand, but now she let go and moved around the table. “I have a question for you.”

“Yes,” Pok said.

“What do you get out of this?”

Pok’s wattles shook and flared up. He seemed unable to speak, then finally thrummed and said, “Clear your meaning.”

Alice crossed her arms. “I get what everyone’s been saying. It even makes sense. I see how it works for your people. But you lay your eggs, or fertilize them, and leave. It’s great that you care for your children, but you don’t carry them inside you for nine months. We’re different species, but we’re not all that different. What does Rrr’kulp Pok, Crèche Director get out of making a big deal out of this? You’re not the only crèche director, we just ended up here, in your jurisdiction. So what do you, Rrr’kulp Pok, get out of this?”

Jeffrey covered his mouth to hide the smile. He didn’t know if Pok has trouble reading human expressions or not. Alice certainly had her mother’s boldness and temper, but the question was a good one.

Serena leaned forward on the table. “Director?”

Pok’s wattles shook. He made a coughing noise deep in his throat. Finally he said, looking at Alice, “I mean you no ill, Alice Finney. Placing the first child between our peoples, that is a great honor, a great responsibility.”

“One for the history books?” Alice said.

Pok thrummed. “Yes, perhaps, a note.”

“I get that,” Alice said. “What if I had another option?”

“I am listening,” Pok said.

They were all listening. Jeffrey wondered what she had in mind.

Alice glanced at him and smiled. For an instant it was the smile of a five-year-old Alice, after reading aloud for the first time. And at ten when she played her solo violin recital. Or when she was fourteen, the first time that smile reappeared after Elise left, when she won the local artists competition and announced that she wanted to study art professionally.

“I have this friend,” she was saying. “She’s in my classes, a Southern native, and an amazing artist. She’s also got a child, so she’s on your list of approved parents. She’s got a second level on her home, and she’s offered to let me rent it. If I moved in there we’d be house-mates, we could raise our kids together, and you could say that you’d placed me and my child in a local home.”

Jeffrey didn’t breathe. It was a bold idea, even if it felt like the floor dropping out from under him to think of Alice moving out.

But that was going to happen, sooner or later. Serena met his eyes and her eyebrow raised slightly, asking him silently.

He nodded.

“That sounds like a perfect solution,” Serena said. “We would all gain a better understanding of each other, with these two parents raising their children together.”

Pok thrummed. His wattles rose, fell. “Yes, I believe that could work. We would need to file a variance, but those are details we can work out.”

Alice clapped her hands. “Great! I’m sure Trill will agree.”

She spun around and came back to Jeffrey. “Sorry, Dad. I’d talked to Trill, you’d like her, but I didn’t want to leave you.”

Serena had moved around the table and was speaking to Pok. Jeffrey took Alice’s hands.

“It’s fine, sweetie,” he said. “I always knew you’d move out eventually, that’s normal. It’s not the same thing as your mother leaving.”

“We don’t have to do it right away,” she said. “I’ve got six months, right? It could be after the baby is born.”

“We’ll figure it out,” he said.

Pok turned to face them across the table. “I must leave, now that our waters forward are clear. My department will begin the work required.”

“Thank you again, Director,” Serena said.

“Thank you for understanding,” Alice said.

Pok’s wattles shook, and he walked out, feet slapping the floor.

When he was gone, Serena came around the table. She hugged Alice, and rubbed her arms.

“Thank you, Alice,” she said. “Are you sure art is your calling? You’d do well in the diplomatic corp.”

Alice laughed. “I think I’ll stick to art, see how that communicates to other people.”

Serena turned to Jeffrey and touched his arm again. “Thank you, too.”

Alice squeezed Jeffrey’s hand and stepped back. “Dad, I know it’s crazy, with everything going on, but I’ve got an assignment due to finish. I’ve got to split. I’ll see you later, okay?”

“Yes,” he said.

She waved, and an instant later the door swung shut behind her.

He stepped over to the windows and looked out at the sun setting on all the pearly buildings with their rooftop gardens. Serena joined him, and her arm brushed his. He looked down at her, his heart suddenly beating fast, took a breath and let it out.

“I guess if the kids are getting along, there’s hope for our future here?”

“I think so,” she said. “You know, when I came here I saw it as a stepping stone to other postings. But this is a beautiful world, fascinating people. I don’t really want to go anywhere else.”

The hi-tech conchs below zipped through the waterways.

“So you think you want to settle down here?” he said.

“I do.”

He smiled, and turned away from the window. She looked up at him. He had to agree. As assignments went, this was just about perfect.

5,074 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 26th weekly short story release, written in October 2013, at a workshop in Lincoln City with a great group of professional writers. I introduced a world and universe in this story that I’d like to explore more in future work. I had fun with it and hope others will enjoy it too.

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. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is a science fiction / fantasy story, Astrasphere.

Magic is Life

Cameron hates the intrusive little gods that did nothing to save the lives of his wife and son. He distrusts their motives and insistence on worship.

That doesn’t mean that he can ignore an official summons to investigate a crime scene, one that will lead him to questions he’d rather not ask, and a new partner he doesn’t want.

1

The headache was a sign from the little gods, those shriveled pricks, those intrusive, callous weasely bastards —

Careful, Cameron. Wendy’s voice, sweet and high, like the perfect note of a harp. As if she was still there. Careful, Cameron. What if they heard?

What if, indeed?

Cameron shoved the heels of his hands against his gritty eyes until he saw spots of blue. He scraped the slime of the night from his tongue with his teeth and grimaced. Why had he woken up anyway?

The bell had sounded. The tiny brass bell that sat above the hearth on the mantel. Mrs. Book’s bell.

Cameron sat up, the mattress squeaking beneath him as he moved. The tiny flat, nothing more than a single room that smelled of the Chinese restaurant downstairs, was apparently empty. Even in the dim dawn light from the open curtains (he had closed them last night), he could see that. Outside, Three Rivers, called the new heart of the Northwest, was waking up to honks and clatter, the sharp snap of a casting chased by a smattering of applause. Some street magic, entertainment for the busy workers on their way to the office, the store or the train.

Past dawn, what time was it anyway? Cameron groped for his watch on the nightstand. The heavy gold band slipping comfortably around his wrist. His Father’s Day gift from Wendy and Peter, one of the few things he had kept. The display was dim, faded. He blinked. Damn, hadn’t charged it last night.

A deep breath. Ignoring the headache that pounded on the inside of his skull like miners hard at work, Cameron extended his index finger to the watch face and concentrated. A dog barked outside. A child wailed. He ignored all of that. Drew in breath and focused.

He panted between clenched teeth. A deep blue glow filled the veins on the back of his hand, the light turning the surrounding tissues a deep reddish purple. Breathing faster now, he pushed and the blue glow swam down his hand, tracing his veins around his finger. It burst out, that flash of pain like popping a pimple, the tiny splash of relief, and dripped down into the watch.

In the watch the blue glow lit up the face. Dark numbers swam into focus. Seven thirty-eight already, too early to get up. Wendy was the one who got up early. The seconds counted away.

The bell sounded again, sharp and insistent.

 

“I heard,” Cameron grunted, turning to the hearth. Was that a bit of burgundy disappearing behind the Urn? He caught glimpses, best not mentioned.

The mantel was a massive dark beam, stained by soot and age. The Urn was tall and dark, lovingly polished to a shine. Nearby, the brass bell gleamed. And this morning, behind the bell, propped between it and the wall, a folded piece of paper, sealed in a dab of cherry red wax.

Shit on toast! A summons. An official, report your ass to work summons. Praise the fucking little gods.

Cameron stood up, running his hands down his rumbled black suit coat. He pulled the tie free on his way to the hearth, tossing it in the wicker basket next to the cold stones, and pulled a clean one from the brass hooks driven into the front of the mantel. The paper of the summons was crisp and somehow cold to the touch, but there was a cinnamon toothpick tucked in the top. That was from Mrs. Book.

He took that, put it between his lips, shoved the summons into his pocket, and grabbed the badge and gun from where they lay on the mantel. Shoes were by the door. Coffee on the way, wherever it was the summons was sending him.

A glimpse of broken glass and an open place between buildings. A flash of green trees blowing even without wind, leaves ripped free and spinning, edges charred.

His headache stabbed at his temples again, driving the vision away in a wash of red. The room spun around him. He braced himself on the door frame.

Not good then. Uptown, that open space with the tall gleaming spires rising around. Something bad had happened.

2

Bad was an understatement. That much was obvious when Cameron arrived on the scene, pushing his way through the crowd gathered around the scene. That was the first sign it was bad. Crowds didn’t stick around unless there were gory bits to look at, and this was big crowd. Mostly business types in expensive suits worth more than he made in a month. Men and women who took their success as proof that they were favored by the little gods.

Maybe they were, he sure the hell wasn’t. Cameron held up his badge. “Excuse me! Make room! Make room!”

The crowd was reluctant, but he was determined. Funny, since he didn’t really want to get to other side of this mass of humanity. When he finally broke through the very first thing he saw were the white backs of the Priesthood.

That was the second thing that told him this was bad. The Priesthood shouldn’t be here. Not on scene like this. A half dozen of them knelt at points around the perimeter, hands clasped in front of their bowed heads. It was more than praying to the little gods. The waves of compulsion coming off them kept the crowd back more effectively than any crime scene tape ever did.

Each wave was like whispers in his ears, telling him to move back. Look away. Forget what you saw.

Cameron sucked on the chewed cinnamon toothpick, rolled it around with his tongue and sucked on the other end. That last bit of the compulsion pissed him off. Did the damn arrogant priests ever consider that there might be witnesses in the crowd? People that they needed to talk to? If the compulsion drove them off, made them forget what they saw, how effective was this investigation going to be?

He ignored the compulsion. His peculiar talents helped. He shoved through it, and stepped out away from the crowd.

The third bad thing was the scene itself. Shoving the compulsion aside made his head ache more, like an ice pick behind his eyes, but it gave him clarity.

The place was a fucking mess. Rubble and blown glass. Tattered cloth. Bodies covered in dark cloths, he skipped over those right now. The Lunar Cafe was, had been, one of those upscale coffee places, the sort that served really good coffee, not the burnt brew he’d gotten from the cart at the train station. This place catered to the Three Rivers elite, business types that worked in the surrounding spires.

Something had blown it up. Few people channeled that sort of destructive magic. Flashes of pain hit his nerves. Screams assaulted his ears. Cameron grimaced. A glimpse, that was all. No detail.

Inside the priests’ line, the place crawled with first responders. Constables, healers, and fire charmers moved around the scene. And more members of the Priesthood, standing straight and gleaming white vestments. They were calling out all of the stops on this one, why? An itch like a sneeze building warned him from going closer. What hadn’t he seen yet?

Cameron rolled the toothpick in his mouth, barely a hint of the cinnamon flavor remained. Only one way to find out. He’d have to go closer to the scene.

He’d barely taken a step, when a group of the constables moved, and a lean tall man stepped away, pale eyes fixed on Cameron. His suit was expensive and perfectly tailored. The little gods had to be fucking with him now. The man was chief constable Noah Redfield, and at his side was one of the Priesthood, a woman, one of the maters, with long straight red hair. Young, her face pale and flawless, but dusted with freckles like fairy dust. She was so bright in the sunlight. And she was also looking at him. Too late to turn back now.

“Chief,” Cameron said, as he reached them. This far into the scene the smoke and stink of burnt flesh stabbed at his senses, making his head pound more.

“Cameron,” Redfield said. “I see you got the summons.”

“Praise them,” the mater at his side murmured.

The chief glanced at the mater and continued. “We need you on this one.”

“I barely got any sleep last night,” Cameron said. “It looks like you’ve got all the help you need here.”

“I asked for you,” the mater said. Her voice was deep, throaty. “The Chief says that you see things, surely a gift from the divinity.”

More like a curse. Cameron, Wendy’s reproachful tone was faint in his thoughts.

“Of course,” Cameron said. “Anything I can do to serve.”

“This is mater Elizabeth,” the chief said. “She’s been appointed liaison in this matter.”

She took a step forward, her intense green eyes searching his face. Looking for what? Awe? Worship of her precious little gods?

“This investigation must go without flaws,” she said. “If people were to learn of the victim, it would cause great distress.”

Victim? Four bodies lay beneath sheets outside the destroyed cafe, and there were more dark sheets inside.

“You need to show him,” Redfield said.

Cameron held up his hand. “Wait a second.” He pointed at the kneeling priests. “They need to stop what they’re doing first. How are we going to canvas witness statements, if they’re driving off our witnesses and making them forget?”

Mater Elizabeth shook her head. “There’s no need of any canvasing. Better for all that this incident go unremarked. You’ll understand when you see.”

He held his ground. “If we can’t investigate properly, how do we build a case? I am assuming you want the person responsible caught?”

“We know who is responsible,” she said. “The investigation will be brief. The witness statements are not needed.”

“Work with the mater,” Redfield said. “You’ll understand.”

Understand that the Priesthood was screwing with the investigation. And who got the blame when it went bad? Not those chosen by the little gods, that was for sure.

“Please,” she said.

It was the please that got him moving. In his experience the Priesthood didn’t ask nicely. The fact of the please told him two things. One, that he already knew, was that the case was serious. But she could have taken it different, commanded him, rather than asking. That told him something about her, something he hadn’t known.

A red-haired child ran through a field, sunlight setting her hair ablaze. Her laughter was deep and full, she looked over her shoulder

“Constable?”

Cameron stirred. “Yes, okay. Show me.”

She moved with steady grace into the crime scene, as if somehow apart from it, while he crunched along like a clumsy ape. The debris field fanned out from the cafe. The blast had turned glass to tiny bits. Splintered and charred wood littered the ground among the bodies.

That glimpse, of the child, that had been her, mater Elizabeth. A happier time in her childhood. Before being adopted into the Priesthood?

The mater stepped out of the sunlight into the smoky shadows inside the cafe. Cameron followed.

Right there, near the right side of the room, that’s where the blast came from. A glimpse of heat, shearing his skin. Cameron jerked and his breath hissed between his teeth. Elizabeth turned, her pale freckled brow wrinkling.

“Are you well, Constable? Do you need me to pray to the gods for you?”

“I’m fine.” Cameron moved past her, pointing unnecessarily at the blackened scorch marks. “That’s where the blast originated.”

There were bodies nearby, dark mounded shapes on the floor surrounded by debris. A large one, and a much smaller one next to it. Cameron bit down on the toothpick, breaking it in half. He took it out of his mouth and shoved it in his pocket. His eyes skipped across that smaller shape and away.

“Is the one responsible one of these?” He gestured at the other bodies in the cafe. A blast like that, enough magic to cause all of this, was probably equally fatal to the one responsible. Even if he hadn’t died, it would have taken years off his life.

“No,” she said.

“No? You know that how? Did they tell you?” His words came out harsher than he meant.

No need to define who they were. They might not show themselves often, but they were always around. Watching. Intrusive little bastards when you didn’t want them, and useless when you did. Like this.

Elizabeth’s eyes watered, just a bit. Shit on toast! This had to be upsetting for her too. Cameron shook his head.

“I didn’t mean —”

“It’s not that,” she said. She took a deep breath, composing herself. “This wasn’t a magical attack. The ones responsible weren’t here at all.”

She moved before he could frame the questions that piled on his lips. She walked to the bodies nearby, crouching beside the smaller one even though her vestments dragged on the sooty floor. Cameron wanted to look away, and couldn’t. Elizabeth pulled the dark cloth back.

Peter. Not a glimpse, a memory. Peter’s face ashen, except the flecks of blood on his plump cheek. It’d been dark that night, not sunny like now.

Cameron stabbed his eyes with his finger and thumb, squeezing on the bridge of his nose. He looked again.

This wasn’t Peter. The features were fine and sharp, masculine despite the beautiful fair skin. Not a child’s face at all. One side torn and bloody, ragged with bright bits of metal. Shrapnel from the explosion. Adult proportions, in a height no more than thirty inches tall. A tiny, delicate man wearing a earth-brown tunic. The upper tips of his ears bent slightly outward and down, just a bit. Long fair hair spilled out around him, turned reddish-brown with blood.

One of the little gods, dead. A brownie, probably one that lived here in the cafe, looking over the place and its patrons. Dead. As dead as any of the other victims.

Cameron did get a glimpse then. A brown satchel, something inside irresistibly flashing inside, with tiny green glints escaping like sparks from the satchel. A tiny fair hand undoing the clasp and then a green flash too bright to look at. He squinted his eyes closed and turned away.

“You saw it, just then, didn’t you?” Mater Elizabeth asked.

When he looked she was standing again, the body at her feet covered once more.

His head pounded like the little gods themselves were knocking on his skull. His tongue tasted of ashes and soot. The light from outside was bright, blinding, hiding everyone else even though he could hear them out there.

“Yes,” he croaked. He coughed, and tried again. “Yes. A glimpse, that’s all. I don’t see much.”

“Enough, to confirm what we think?”

“Which is?”

“An explosive device was planted, set to go off the minute that it was opened by, by the victim. Loaded with salt and silver.”

“I don’t know. It was only a glimpse, but I saw his hand,” a nod at the body, “opening the clasp. At least I think it was his hand, it’s hard to say. That’s all I got.”

“Can you try again?”

“Maybe.” Cameron rubbed his lips. He went to the body beside the little god. “Who’s this?”

“A member of the Priesthood, Pater Samuels.”

Cameron crouched, and flipped back the corner of the blanket. Charred and blackened skin, red beneath, was all that was left of the pater’s face. Lips burned away, teeth exposed in an endless scream. The same sort of shrapnel embedded in the charred skin. He was burned much worse than the little god. Cameron pulled the cloth back over the pater’s face.

“How was he identified?”

“His signet ring,” Elizabeth said. “Merely unfortunate that he was caught in the blast.”

Cameron rotated without rising and with a flat hand, gestured out from that spot to the others. “The explosion went that way. Presumably unfortunate for all of them too. Any other members of the Priesthood? Any gods?”

“No. All of the others were customers or staff or those passing. None of that is relevant. Someone set a device to kill the god of this establishment.”

The blast had radiated outward, blowing apart the tables and chairs as if insubstantial, burning —

heat and flames brighter than the sun. Deafening. Glass fragments everywhere

Cameron shook off the glimpse. “You said you knew who was behind this?”

“Unbelievers. We thought they were harmless nonconformists, obviously that’s not the case!”

“Unbelievers?” He rubbed his head, thinking about the possibility. “What would this gain them?”

“Nothing,” Elizabeth said. “It will, however, cost them a great deal!”

“It’s a place to start,” Cameron said. “I know a guy we can talk to, but you follow my lead on this.”

“As you wish. Shall I drive?”

“After you,” Cameron said. Last thing he needed to do was pour more magic into a car.

3

As it turned out, Elizabeth wasn’t offering to drive the car herself, and what more should he have expected from someone serving the little gods? That she should pour her own life’s magic into the machine? Of course not, there was a man to do that, hawk-faced Kevan that took the wheel while they rode in the back.

Wesley Sheldon lived in a shabby loft in a converted warehouse down on East River Bank. Two years ago Cameron had helped Sheldon get over a counterfeiting operation turning out fake IDs. Sheldon was an open unbeliever, which basically made him ape-shit crazy. Cameron got being pissed at the little gods, but in a pissing contest a human was always going to lose. Besides, it wasn’t like the little gods were fucking made up or something. Maybe they usually went without being seen, but the small body on the floor made it clear that they were real flesh and blood. The dying, that was new.

Inside the building’s lobby was cracked tile, stained by the passage of feet over the years, and a whole wall taken up with brass-fronted mailboxes. Cameron didn’t bother with the lift, running that sort of thing was a waste of magic. He headed for the stairs instead. Elizabeth followed him up without comment. It was only to the third floor. There, a long hallway stretched out in front of them, apartments on either side. Stained concrete floors, dirty and scuffed with age, smelling faintly of old piss. Light came from weakly illuminated bulbs hanging naked down the middle of the hallway. Whoever did their lighting wasn’t expending much energy for it. Who could blame them?

“This man will help us?”

“If he knows what’s good for him. He may have some names, people we can talk to, to get the person responsible.”

Wesley lived all the way at the far end of the hall. He opened the door at Cameron’s second knock. Wesley looked like he had goblin blood in his family line somewhere, he was short, warty and covered in wiry brown hair that stuck out from everywhere, his nose and ears included, as if it couldn’t get far enough away from his head.

“Constable!” Wesley licked his lips, wringing his hands. His eyes went to Elizabeth and he gulped. He bowed deep. “Honored mater, please, please come in.”

Cameron went in, forcing Wesley to scurry back. The place was a labyrinth of boxes and papers, stacked on every available surface. Elizabeth lingered in the doorway, her hands pressed together, as she took in the view.

“What is all of this?”

“Historical research!” The sweep of Wesley’s arm nearly upset a pile on an overloaded table.

The cat piss smell was stronger here and Cameron saw other eyes watching them. Cats. Many cats, tucked in between or on the stacks. Slitted eyes watched them both.

The bridge of Elizabeth’s nose wrinkled slightly. Cameron caught a glimpse of her dismay, carefully contained, and took the lead.

“Wesley, there was an explosion up town. Non-magical, what can you tell me about that?” He didn’t say anything about the victim. That wasn’t knowledge that the Priesthood, or the constables, would want spread.

“Explosion!” Wesley turned and scurried around a pile. He picked up a small fluffy black cat and scratched behind its ears. The cat sat contentedly in the crook of Sheldon’s arm, purring. “Nothing. Nothing. What would I know about explosions? I’m a researcher!”

Elizabeth looked down her nose at the papers on the nearest stack. “Researching what, exactly?”

“Um, our history, that’s all. Not enough people are interested in our history.”

“Our gods tell us all we need to know of history,” Elizabeth said. “What else is there to research?”

Cameron reached out and placed his fingers on top of a teetering stack. “Who would know, Wesley? You talk to other unbelievers, you must have heard something?”

“I’ve heard nothing!”

Cameron gave the stack the gentlest nudge. It tipped, tipped and spilled, papers flying up in a brief flurry before they settled down. Wesley let out a yelp, then bit his bottom lip.

“How can you disbelieve, when the evidence is right before your eyes?” Elizabeth asked. “The gods actions are visible all around us, and they show themselves to the faithful. What is there to disbelieve?”

Wesley’s face screwed up and turned red but he was still biting his bottom lip and wasn’t saying anything. It wasn’t going to take long before his lip turned purple.

Cameron put his fingertips on the next stack of papers. It wobbled and Wesley’s eyes bulged. The place might look chaotic, but Cameron knew that the man had a system, and could lay his hands on any piece of paper in moments, if he wanted.

“We’re asking for a name. Someone we can talk to, and we’ll go, and you can go on with whatever you want to do. Give me something, Wesley. You don’t want to be the center of attention on this.”

With a sickly wet splat, Wesley spit out his bottom lip. He cuddled the cat close to his chest. “Eugene Hodgson, talk to him. Leave me alone. He might give you something.”

Where the windows were, in the reflections, Cameron caught a glimpse of an older man, at least in his mid-forties, elegant, surrounded by books.

Cameron lifted his fingers from the pages, leaving them intact. “Thank you.” He gestured at the piles. “You might want to do something about this, Wesley. It doesn’t look healthy.”

Turning to Elizabeth, he said, “Come on. The name is good. This Hodgson, can you get his info? We need to move quickly.”

“I’ll pray to the gods for you,” Elizabeth said to Wesley.

The short man’s face went pale beneath all the bristly hair. He swallowed and looked ready to faint. Elizabeth was already moving to the door. Cameron managed not to laugh and winked at Wesley as he left.

As the door closed behind Cameron, he heard Wesley wailing to his cats.

“That was wicked,” he said to Elizabeth. “You terrified him good. Put the fear of the little gods to him.”

Her lips tightened. “You should not refer to them as such, and I meant only well-wishes for that sad little man.”

It was okay to call the man little, but not her oh-so-precious gods. Cameron sighed. “How about a prayer for that information we need?”

“Oh, I’ve already done that,” Elizabeth said. “I’m sure the information will be forthcoming soon.”

4

Forthcoming, in fact the moment they stepped foot outside the warehouse. A flock of pigeons came over the edge of the roof and descended on them in a flapping storm of blue-gray feathers. Cameron raised his hands to ward off the flying rats, but the pigeons circled them and landed in front of mater Elizabeth. It was only when she crouched that he saw the pale tiny naked people clinging to their backs.

Nasty, sharp tooth little fucking gods, pixies!

Cameron! Wendy’s voice scolded in his thoughts. More distantly, Peter’s high giggles.

Not even glimpses. His imagination playing tricks on him. He rubbed his temples, waiting while Elizabeth knelt down in front of the pixie flock. One of the pigeons took off in a flutter, landing on her shoulder. She kept her head bowed as the pixies leaned close, whispering in her ear.

Elizabeth nodded.

The pixie’s head snapped over, snake-fast, nipping at her ear. Then it was sitting back on its bird, the nasty thing with red, red lips. Beady dark eyes narrowed, looking back at him.

Shit on toast. Cameron looked down. He didn’t need to piss off the fucking little gods. Not any more than he had obviously already done.

A loud flurry of flapping and the whole flock took off, swirled around them in a dusty rush and were gone. Something hit Cameron’s shoulder, and when he looked there was white pigeon shit running down his suit coat. He groaned.

“I have the information,” Elizabeth said.

She was standing. Her eyes flicked to the mess on his coat, but she didn’t say anything. Her red hair fell down around her face. He couldn’t see her ear.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” She smiled. “Shall we go?”

5

While Kevan drove the sleek white car, Elizabeth filled Cameron in on what the nipping pixie had shared. He listened, and tried using a tissue to clean the mess off his suit coat. A hopeless attempt, it was going have to go to the cleaners. Just another shitty sign from the little gods.

Eugene Hodgson, a professor of economics at the Three Rivers University, up in the university district along Crescent Lake. Tenured. Confirmed unbeliever.

“Confirmed how, exactly?” Cameron asked.

Elizabeth’s brow wrinkled. “The gods told me.”

Ah, right. The nippy, pigeon-riding shitty god, that one.

Cameron, Wendy would say, in her soft, disapproving, exasperated tone. Ice-picks stabbed the backs of his eyes. He rubbed the heels of his hands against his eyes, then dragged his hands down his face, yawning. His stomach rumbled.

“Are you unwell?”

He shook his head. “Fine. Let’s get this done.”

As the car pulled into the University parking, they found it blocked off, barricaded by constables and Priesthood vehicles. Their car was waved on through. Cameron twisted around, watching as the barricades were replaced. He turned to Elizabeth.

“What’s going on? What’s all of this? I thought we were just going to talk to this guy?”

“The unbelievers are behind this attack,” she said. “The Priesthood feels that our tolerance to heresy has gone on too long.”

“But you don’t know that Hodgson had anything to do with this!’

“Perhaps not, but we are taking no chances. We will listen to what he says.”

“And justice? Don’t the gods care about that?”

“Justice for whom? For the god brutally murdered? Or the other innocent bystanders, one of them a member of the Priesthood? Oh, I assure you, constable, they care.” Her voice deepened. “But they are vengeful gods. It isn’t wise to incur their wrath!”

For a while he had forgotten that she was a mater. Her harsh tone made it abundantly clear. Cameron rubbed his hands on his pants.

“And if Hodgson had nothing to do with this crime?”

The car stopped. “Then he will be set free, on notice that heresy does not go unnoticed, or unanswered.”

Right. Cameron followed her out of the car.

Hodgson’s office was elegant, book-lined and formal, much like the man that stood stiff-backed in front of them. His hair, oddly, was white, immaculately coiffed, as was his beard. Clear blue eyes looked at them.

“What is the meaning of all of this? I have classes to teach!”

Elizabeth looked at Cameron. Ah, the appearance of impartial investigation. Cameron pulled out a notebook and a small pencil. He flipped it open.

“Dr. Hodgson, there was an explosion this morning just after seven at the Lunar Cafe, uptown on 7th. People were killed.”

“I was nowhere near there!”

“And where were you?”

“At home, in bed. Alone.”

tangled white sheets, a slim, perfect leg sticking out, dark brown skin contrasting with the sheets. The curve of a bottom swelled the sheets. The woman turned, sheets spilling away from her smooth young skin like milk. A cascade of curly dark hair spilled across the pillows around her smiling face

“Alone? There wasn’t a woman with you? Young, a student? Beautiful dark brown skin, bright smile, curly hair?”

The muscles in Dr. Hodgson’s jaw clenched. “Yes, well, obviously you know that, or you wouldn’t ask.” He smiled. “Which also means you know I had nothing to do with the attack.”

“You’re an unbeliever!” Elizabeth said.

Dr. Hodgson nodded. “Yes, I suppose you could say that, which is also reason that I would never do what you suggest.”

“Meaning?” Cameron asked.

“Unbelievers, skeptics, whatever you want to call us, we believe in a reasoned life. How old do you take me for, constable?”

The white hair was striking, suggesting advanced age. “Forty-five?”

Dr. Hodgson shook his head slowly. “No. In point of fact, I am fifty-four years old, as of last March. As the years have passed I have used less and less magic in my daily life, and this is the result, a longer life. It is because of this, and other details, that I don’t accept everything that I’m told.”

Fifty-four! It was staggering to hear him say it. Cameron wrote the number down in his notebook, and that still didn’t make it real. But why lie? They could verify his age.

“Magic is life,” Dr. Hodgson said, looking at Elizabeth. “That what the gods say, correct?”

Dumbly, Elizabeth nodded.

“And yet I get by just fine without it. How many more years have I got? Ten? Twenty? Even more?” Dr. Hodgson shrugged. A small smile touched his lips for a moment. “The gods only know. I have no interest in shortening anyone’s life. I recommend you look at the evidence again, constable. Look to the cause, who the victims were, who might have wanted to harm them? It is only reasonable that the answers are there.”

The man made sense. Cameron touched Elizabeth’s arm. “Let’s go.”

She stepped aside with him. “Where?”

“Like he says. Back to the crime scene. Maybe the answer is there.”

6

The bodies were gone, taken away, but Cameron did have the reports as he moved through the scene. The other evidence remained, organized and sorted. A puzzle with a solution. Elizabeth stood near the boarded up front with her arms crossed. She’d been silent since they left the university. Fuming over what Dr. Hodgson had said?

Cameron was good at compartmentalization. It was one of the things that allowed him to function as a constable. And to function at all after the accident that cost him his family.

I’m worried about you. Wendy whispered, her breath touching his ear.

Except that was only his imagination. He wasn’t haunted. Certainly not by the ghosts of his wife and son. Memories, yes. Not ghosts.

Right now, he would focus on the case. That’s what mattered. The evidence was organized into a grid, taped out sections collecting related evidence together. Redfield had told them all to leave it, clear out until Cameron did his thing.

One square held all of the pieces of the device that had been recovered so far. Cameron crouched beside it, not touching anything yet, looking. A leather case, mostly gone to ash. Bits of twisted metal, some simple, others complex. Parts of a timer?

He tasted copper in his mouth, clinging to his throat. Glimpses came and went, but touching things made it worse. He rubbed his fingers together and picked up a melted lump with wires.

A watch face, green tendrils of magic reaching up from the palm of a hand, drilling deep into the device… The watch glowing in the darkness of the case as the clasp snapped shut.

“The timing device was a normal watch, magical, not mechanical,” he said.

Elizabeth stirred. “What does that mean?”

Cameron shook his head. “If other unbelievers are like Hodgson, they wouldn’t have used magic.”

He put it down and reached for the charred handle of the case. The sour taste was stronger. The pain in his head was blinding, and grew worse as his fingers touched the leather.

A hand reached for the case, white gloves, with a bright white sleeve, the edge embroidered in gold stitches.

Cameron jerked away, gasping.

Elizabeth crossed the room quickly, reaching for him. He scooted backwards on his hands and feet, his eyes on the sleeve of her vestment as it fell around her hand. Her hand was delicate, bird-like bones. Not the hand in the glove. That was a man’s hand.

“What did you see?”

He realized she had already asked, and was repeating her question.

“A hand,” he swallowed, squeezed his eyes shut against the pain. “White gloves, he was wearing vestments. Like yours.”

She stood up straight. Her voice shook. “You’re saying a member of the Priesthood did this? Why?”

“I don’t know. We’ll have to ask them.” He opened his eyes. The pain ebbed some. “We have to look at everything.”

“No.” Her head shook once, decisively. “They killed a god!”

Killed a god. If word got out people would panic. If the little gods could be killed, what else could happen?

The same little gods that had allowed his family to die.

You never liked them, Wendy’s voice admonished. Even before.

True. They were manipulative, sometimes cruel, and intrusive little bastards, controlling everything from behind the scenes. But he hadn’t felt such a cold hatred before the accident. The one time when they could have used their powers to do something good where were they?

“Constable? Are you okay?”

Boxes. Compartments. Maybe he wasn’t doing as good of a job as he thought. He pulled out his pencil and flicked through the debris in the square.

“Fine,” he grunted. “This was the watch.”

A lump of metal, shattered and melted. If you squinted, you could make out a bit of the band.

He poked through the rest. Other metal bits, shrapnel apparently put into the bomb. Discs, it looked like, small. Coins. Silver coins? He picked through the coins and found one less melted, bent in half, blackened on one side.

He picked it up. There was a woman, seated, a shield on the floor in front of her and worn letters up the side. United was the only word legible. At the bottom of the coin were two numbers ’18’.

It was a dime. An old one. He held it up to Elizabeth. She took it, turning it in her fingers.

“A dime?”

Cameron stood up, knees aching. “Yes. A silver dime. Dimes aren’t made with silver today.”

“Of course not!” She thrust the coin at him. “Why would we make coins out of a metal toxic to the little gods? It’s an offensive thought!”

He took it, and pulled an evidence bag from his pocket. He slipped the coin inside. “Does it remind you of what Sheldon told us? And Hodgson?”

“What do you mean?”

He held up the bag, shaking the coin inside. “Clearly dimes were made with silver content in the past. Why would they do that?”

“They wouldn’t! It must be a fake!”

His gut told him otherwise. He hadn’t gotten any glimpse from the coin, it didn’t always happen when he wanted, or it was convenient. And with his head hurting, he didn’t care. He slipped the bag into his pocket.

“Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, though, it takes us closer to our bomber. How did he come by the dimes? He had to get them from somewhere. We knock on a few coin dealers, we might get some answers. There can’t be too many places that deal in silver coins.”

7

Elizabeth had refused to pray to her gods for guidance. “They aren’t a business directory!”

Kevan pulled the car over at the third coin shop they’d visited. At the first two, the dealers had recoiled from the coin as if it was toxic for humans to touch.

Camera got out of the car. The sign across the face of the shop was Edgehill Coins. Gold bought and sold. Now gold, that was something the little gods fucking loved. Greedy bastards.

The other car door opened and Elizabeth got out. He turned. “You could wait, if you want.”

“No,” she said. “My presence might encourage truthfulness.”

It might at that. Cameron went to the door, and waited for her to catch up. He opened the door automatically, stepping aside to let her enter first.

“Welcome! Many blessings of the day…”

The voice trailed off as Cameron stepped inside the dimly lit store. As his eyes adjusted he saw the man behind the counter. A man, soft and baby-faced, still. Bright red pimples scattered like constellations across his forehead.

The man smiled at Elizabeth, looked nervously at Cameron, and back to her again, as if his dark eyes couldn’t decide which of them to address first. He focused on Elizabeth.

Probably smart.

“Ah, are you together? May I help you?”

“We are,” Cameron grunted. He went to the counter, and pulled out his notebook, letting his badge flash the guy. “Are you the owner?”

The young man nodded quickly. “That’s right. Rod Edgehill, it’s been in our family for generations. I’ve taken it over now that my father can’t run it.”

“Aren’t you young for such responsibility?” Elizabeth asked. “You must be blessed by the gods.”

A nod, jerking his head. “Yes, mater. We are blessed. The gods see that we receive the rarest, most precious coins and gems, and we pay appropriate tribute in return!”

“How long have you been running the store?” Cameron asked.

“A year now. I grew up here in the store, though, apprenticed to my father.”

Good enough. Cameron hauled out the evidence back and held it up in front of Rod. “You ever see dimes like this before?”

“No. It doesn’t ring any bells.”

The answer was too quick. The kid hardly even looked at it. He pushed it closer to Rod’s face. “Maybe you better take a closer look, son.”

Rod recoiled. Drops of sweat beaded on his pimply face. “I haven’t seen it before!”

Elizabeth, turned away from the counter, placing her hand on Cameron’s arm. “Another dead end?”

It wasn’t. Cameron shook her off, turning back to the kid, which was right when he bolted. He sprinted along the aisle behind the counter.

“Hell.” Cameron shoved the dime in his pocket and took off after the kid. “Hold it!”

The kid ignored him, disappearing through a beaded curtain that whipped around him.

At the end of the counter Cameron banged through the swinging gate marked No Admittance. He drew his gun and peeked around the corner through the swinging beads.

A back room, narrow, and empty. Cameron looked at Elizabeth, still standing where he’d left her. “Go out front! Keep an eye for him.”

He didn’t wait for an answer. He went through the curtain.

The work area was cluttered with tools and books. Ahead it turned, a set of stairs leading up, and the hallway continuing to the left. Cameron moved forward quickly, cautiously. Anyone willing to blow up a cafe probably wouldn’t worry about shooting a constable.

He hugged the wall where the hallway turned, then looked around, a quick look.

Empty. A long corridor, waste bins and an outer door swinging shut.

He ran to the door at a full sprint, and caught it with his foot. Peeked, out, weapon ready.

Rod, already a good distance down the alley running behind the store.

Cameron burst through the door and gave chase. “Stop! By order of the law!”

Edgehill wasn’t stopping. Damn him! He was younger and faster. Cameron sucked air and ran full out, his legs already burning. He shoved the gun back into the holster. It wasn’t like he was going to shoot the kid. He really needed to spend more time exercising.

Where were the little gods now? He was trying to solve the murder of one of their own, the least they could do was help out!

A delivery truck pulled into the alley in front of Rod. The boy tried to swerve and wasn’t fast enough. He ran smack into the front of the truck as the tires squealed on the asphalt.

No! Cameron didn’t have the breath to shout.

Rod flew back from the truck as batted into the outfield. He tumbled and rolled, landing hard in the alley. Foul ball!

If the fucking little gods caused this, killed this boy—

He couldn’t even finish the thought. He reached Rod moments later. The kid was lying sprawled on the asphalt, clothes scraped, blood on his face. He groaned and blinked up at Cameron, trying to shield his eyes.

Sucking air, Cameron put his hands on his hips. It looked like the kid would live. The delivery drive climbed down out of the truck, pulling off his baseball cap and wringing in his hands.

“Oh, gods! Is he going to be okay?”

Cameron flashed his badge. “Why don’t you do that? Pray to the gods to send us some help. Or better yet, run and get help.”

The driver pressed his hands together. “Of course! Constable. Of course!”

He dropped to his knees in the alley and bowed his head. “Please the gods, send us help for this injured boy.”

Cameron, shook his head, tuned out the litany and knelt beside Rod, who looked like he was trying to get up. Cameron put a hand on Rod’s shoulder.. “Don’t try to move. Wait for help to come.”

Rod groaned and lay back, sobs wracking his body. “I’ve ruined us!”

“How?”

Cameron heard sirens and an ambulance turned into the alley at the other end. Now the gods act.

“Merciful gods be praised!” The driver called out.

“How?” Cameron pressed.

“I bought the coins,” Rod said. He groaned. “Can’t be real, thought they’d have novelty value.”

“Who’d you sell them too?”

Rod coughed. “Didn’t. He came, the pater. Confiscated them.”

“How’d he know you had them? Did he give you a name?”

“No.” Rod coughed more, a ragged sound.

The medics ran up from the ambulance. Both were women, young and fair, but light and dark.

The one with the dark hair, and deep brown skin touched Cameron’s shoulder. “Constable, do you know his name?”

“Rod Edgehill,” Cameron said. He stood up.

Elizabeth was coming down the alley, walking quickly past the ambulance.

“Is he going to be okay?”

The blond woman was holding her hand above Rod’s head. A faint red glow surrounded her hand, and extended down to Rod. “Yes. We can heal his wounds.”

“Thank you,” Cameron said.

“Thank the gods, not us.”

Yeah, right. Cameron bit back the comment as if he was under Wendy’s both amused and disapproving gaze. He walked away, meeting Elizabeth before she reached the scene.

Her eyebrows drew in. “Why did he run?”

“He was afraid. He did say that he bought the coins for their novelty value, but a pater came to the store and confiscated them.”

“A pater? Who?”

“He didn’t know.” Both medics had their hands over the kid, magic spreading out in a fine mist of blues and greens. The blond closed her hands, rocked back on her heels and stood.

She came over to them. There was a red rash now on the side of her face. Stigmata from the healing.

“He’s going to need surgery. There are internal injuries.” She looked to Elizabeth. “With your permission, mater, we’ll take him to the Grove Hospital.”

Elizabeth nodded.

“He’ll live though, right?” Cameron asked. If the kid died, so did one of their clues.

“I believe so, gods willing. We’ve stabilized him, but it will take many sessions, with his body helping, to heal.”

“Thank you,” Elizabeth said.

The medic went back to help her partner load Edgehill into the ambulance.

Cameron shoved his hands into his pockets and started walking. His fingers found the chewed and broken toothpick. He ran the tip along the splintered wood, wishing he had a fresh one. Elizabeth kept pace at his side as they left the alley and started around the building back to the front.

“What now, constable? Didn’t you get any insights?”

“Glimpses.” When she looked at him, he explained. “I call them glimpses. They’re flashes of sensory details. The fire burning me, the hand reaching for the case, the glow of the watch. I don’t control it.”

“Of course not, the gods do.”

He snorted. “Then they’re capricious li—. Why do this? If they know who’s responsible, why not tell me? Or you at least?”

Elizabeth stopped catching his arm. “They don’t answer to us. It isn’t our place to judge them.”

The familiar old anger rose up, the smoke before the flame. He tried to push it back. “They’re vengeful gods, right?”

“They can be.”

“Then why not go get vengeance?” Cameron thrust his hands out to his sides and turned in a circle, looking up at the buildings. “Why don’t you go get vengeance?”

Again, Elizabeth touched his arm. Her lips pressed together as she looked at him. “What made you hate them so much? How have you gone so far from them?”

He started to deny it. But why? Here he had one of their maters, and she was listening. Why not lay it all out?

Careful. Wendy’s voice said, faint in the back of his mind. He pushed that away. No. I won’t be.

He shook his head. “Where do I start? I could say it was because my wife and son died. Would that make sense? That I blame the gods for their death? They could have done something to save them, and nothing.”

Her eyes closed for a moment and then opened, moist. “I’m sorry.”

Cameron shook his head harder. “Don’t. Don’t be sorry. Why should you? Yeah, the fucking little gods could have done something if they bothered. Had the car break down. Or something else, so at least when Wendy died, she wasn’t behind the wheel!”

Bleeding magic into the car, giving it life, until her own ended. Young, at twenty-five to go. Not unheard of. Hodgson’s words, his age, more than twice Wendy’s drifted in Cameron’s mind. He didn’t know what to do with that. He pushed it all away.

Because it wasn’t true. Their deaths cemented his hate, it didn’t create it.

Cameron stepped closer. “Think about it. They lie. We know they do.”

Elizabeth’s mouth opened, as if to protest. Cameron barreled on.

“They manipulative, greedy little fuckers! They demand tithes of food and blood and gold. They interfere in everything. We can’t do anything without them being in the part of it. If I’m out on a case and I need help, I have to pray that the gods will send it. And if they’re pissed at me? Then I’m screwed. So be it!”

He stopped, breathing hard.

“Everything you see,” Elizabeth said softly. “And yet you fail to see so much of the good they do. What about the simple tasks that they provide? Is there not a brownie or house elf that has done you a kindness?”

Mrs. Book. Cameron fingered the broken toothpick. Peter gave her that name, no idea where he got it from, but they’d all used it.

Elizabeth touched his arm. “Even if we don’t understand it, they have a bigger plan for us. You can’t turn to unbelief, constable. Without them, we’re forsaken.”

Her words, her face was sincere. He believed she meant well. Today, he wasn’t particularly swayed. “What about Hodgson? About his age, that rather than magic being essential to life, it is actually draining life?”

“He lied.” Elizabeth folded her hands together. “I’m sure any documentation he provides would prove fabricated. You know, as well as I do, what happens when people stop using magic.”

Headaches. Like the one that still pounded on his temples. Most people didn’t resist using magic, there was no reason to. It ran everything. It’d be difficult to function, without using it.

In his other pocket, he touched the plastic bag holding the dime. He pulled it out. “What about this?”

“A fabrication. Nothing more.”

Maybe, maybe not. “We know that they were used in the bomb. Edgehill said a pater confiscated them. How would the pater have known about the dimes? Why take them? And how did they end up in the bomb?”

“Without his help identifying the man claiming to be a pater, we may not find out the answers.”

Cameron shook his head. “There’s a pater we haven’t investigated yet. Pater Samuels. He was at the site of the blast. Maybe he was a random victim, or he may have been the target. Or the one responsible.”

“I don’t like where this is going.” She crossed her arms. “What did you have in mind?”

Cameron started walking again. “Let’s find out.”

8

Despite Elizabeth’s considerable reluctance to look into Pater Samuels, she agreed to let Cameron see his quarters and his office.

The Priesthood headquarters flagrantly declared the wealth bled off the people of the city. It was a massive, twisted cluster of reflective spires rising up out of the dense dark woods of Priest Park, at the heart of Three Rivers. The massive park stretched along a half-dozen city blocks, and another three blocks wide. The ground rose, a hill rising toward the heart, where the headquarters glimmered like something from another realm.

Cameron’s throat was dry as Kevan threaded the car into streets around the park, clogged with a mass of humanity. Merchants of all stripes sold from booths that spilled out into the streets. Pedestrians and cyclists moved through the crowds. Pilgrims lined the rugged stone fence surrounding the park, poor souls who came here to pray to the fucking little gods. Elizabeth seemed unaffected by the crowd, no doubt used to having them fawning over her.

Watching the crowds, Cameron’s disgust grew. Why should people do this? Why scrape and bow, leaving their offerings at the fence? Anything of value was more likely to get picked up by those that worked the crowd, than by any little god.

“Does this ever bother you?” He asked, looking at the young mater.

Her shapely eyebrows drew together in apparent confusion. “Why would it bother me? Don’t pilgrims have a right to petition the gods, and the Priesthood?”

“What good does it do?” Cameron waved to the tinted window, the people outside peering at the car, fruitlessly eager for a look at the priests inside. They’d sure be disappointed if they could see him.

“They’re the ones to judge if it does them good or not. We don’t ask them to come. It isn’t something we demand. They choose this. I’ve heard testimony from many of the faithful that the visit has help them, even that the gods have granted special favors.”

“To some, not all,” Cameron said.

“Yes. The gods select those worthy of their favor, just as they’ve chosen you.”

“Me? They’ve cursed me.”

“If you’ve been punished, then you haven’t learned the lesson the gods meant to teach. They granted you the gift of insight, constable. How well have you used it?”

He clenched his teeth. His headache was back in force, pounding at his temples. Hadn’t learned the lesson? Who gave them the fucking right? His temples pounded and he rubbed them, and his eyes. His tongue clung to his mouth. His gut churned. He hadn’t had anything since the coffee from the cart this morning.

“Are you okay?”

He blinked and looked at Elizabeth. The car stopped. Ahead of them the gate was opening. Priesthood guards kept the people back from the gate.

“Sure, it’s nothing,” he lied.

“You’re tired. We haven’t taken a break since this morning. When we reach the Spires, I’ll send for refreshments.”

Why’d she have to be so damn nice? “That’s not necessary.”

“It is. I need to you well to solve this case.”

“Why not ask the gods who set the bomb? Don’t they know?”

Elizabeth’s eyes were sad as she gave a little shake of her head. “They’re not omnipotent, omnipresent beings. They have great power, yes. And they could be anywhere at any time. That doesn’t mean they are everywhere, all the time. As you saw, one was present at the explosion.”

The car pulled through the open gate, leaving the gathered pilgrims behind.

Elizabeth leaned closer. “Don’t forget, constable, who the victims were in this crime. Maybe you feel wronged somehow by the gods, yet they lost one of their own, as well as the others that died.”

She leaned back, turning away. The rebuke tasted sour. Was she right? Was he letting his feelings about the gods interfere? So much for compartmentalization. He looked out as the car drove slowly into Priest Park.

He’d never been, and only had a vague idea of what lay beyond the tall stone walls. A forest at the heart of the city, with thick, twisted trees that rose higher than the walls.

It was all of that, and more. The dense forest cut off all sounds from the city surrounding the park. They might has well have been plunged into a massive wilderness, were it not for the road which snaked and twisted through the woods, with barely enough room to pass on either side. The trees above leaned together over them, like weary giants leaning on each other’s shoulders. The thick canopy shut out much of the light except a dim greenish yellow that filtered down through the leaves.

Yet, looking forward through the front, the road was bare cobblestones, free of any leaves or plants growing up between the stones. It was smooth, as if each stone was at the perfect height. The road rose and fell, turning and twisting through the woods as if laid only with the goal to avoid any trees at all. Likely true, living trees were originally homes for many of the gods.

Then the car went up over a small hill and down and the road was gone. Not covered. Not blocked or gated, simply gone. Kevan stopped the car. Just ahead the road formed a small circle of stones, hardly enough room to turn around, should they try.

A massive black oak squatted straight ahead, two dark trunks rising together into a twisted mass.

Cameron coughed, his throat dry. His head ached as if the fucking little gods were trying to claw their way out of his skull through the back of his eyes.

“Honored mater?” Kevan asked, turning in the driver’s seat to look back.

Faint blue wisps floated out of the woods. No more substantial than patches of fog caught in the light, but they swam through the air like fish, twisting and turning, circling the car.

“What’s going on?” Cameron asked.

Elizabeth reached for her car door handle. Cameron grabbed her other arm.

“You can’t go out there!”

She smiled, and opened the door. “I’m one of the Priesthood, who else should commune with the gods?”

Her arm, warm and smooth slipped free from his grasp as she pushed the door open and stood.

The wisps spun around, sweeping down at her in a swarm.

“Elizabeth!” Cameron yelled, lunging across the car seat.

She cried out and fell back, into the car. Cameron grabbed her under the arms as the swarm circle and came back. They weren’t aiming for her, they were aiming for the door!

Cameron grunted and heaved her across the back seat, across his legs into his lap. The wisps hit the car door en mass, and it slammed shut!

Outside the swarm circled around the car, slowing.

“Mater?” Kevan asked.

Her red hair was in Cameron’s face. She moved against him, extricating herself from the tangle. She blew hair out of her mouth and brushed it away. Her eyebrows drew together as she glared at Cameron.

“How, how dare you!”

Oh, frickin’ gods! “I was trying to get you back inside before they hurt you!”

Kevan was watching, his face dark.

Elizabeth’s mouth tightened, then she said, “It wasn’t up to you to protect me from the gods, constable!”

“Next time I won’t bother!”

Outside the wisps hand stopped circling the car. Instead they floated in place, right outside Cameron’s door. “What are they doing?”

He looked to Elizabeth.

Her glare faded. She took a deep breath. “Perhaps I misunderstood. It looks like they don’t want to speak with me.”

“If not you —”

Kevan gave a little shake of his head.

They meant him. Cameron groaned. “You can’t be serious! What would they want with me?”

“There’s only one way to find out,” Elizabeth said. “They didn’t make the road disappear for no reason, constable.”

Both of them, Elizabeth and Kevan, were watching him. Expecting him to get out there? With the little gods in the middle of their fucking magic forest?

He’d have to be crazy.

Of course, gods being what they were, they could probably get him out of the car if they wanted.

“Fine!” Cameron grabbed the door handle. “I hope they have a good reason for interfering with the case.”

He opened the door, slowly. The wisps floated and moved, like nothing more than a patch of ground fog, except illuminated from within by an icy blue light.

Cool air bathed his face. A drop of water hit his cheek. Cameron brushed it with the back of his hand and looked up.

A little god crouched on a twisted tree branch above his head. She was tiny, no more than a couple feet high, with mossy green hair pulled into two fluffy pony tails on each side of her head. Her skin was darker green. She wore a filmy light green tunic, belted at the waist, but falling open. Tears hung in her large yellow eyes, the whole things yellow with a tiny black pupil. A tear rolled down her cheek, across her button nose and hung there shining for a moment.

It fell. A tiny twisting drop. Blue wisps like fog swirled around him.

The tear drop splashed into his eye.

Cameron fell back.

9

It was October 4th, three years ago, almost eight o’clock and already dark on the road out of the city. The smell of burnt rubber hung in the air like overdone coffee.

Lights flashed nearby.

A glimpse of the past. No! Cameron tried turning away. He couldn’t move, bound by the sprite’s tear to see.

The car, broken, windows shattered, sparkling like icy on the cold pavement. It wasn’t ice that caused the accident. Wendy, her head down, dark hair covering her face, a mercy.

Until she lifted her head.

No, Cameron moaned silently.

Her face was pale and eyes dark, drooping, sad eyes, and yet a touch of a smile on her lips?

Cameron. It was her voice, though her lips didn’t move. We’re moving on, Peter and I. It isn’t time for you.

Why? Why now? Why couldn’t he come?

Her head moved, almost imperceptibly. It’s our time. Don’t blame the gods, we’re with them now.

It wasn’t fair! How could they go, and leave him alone?

You’ll join us, one day. Almost she smiled. In time.

I can’t. I can’t keep doing this. Not without you, what’s the point?

You’ll know that one day, too, Cameron. Believe.

This is a trick. The fucking little manipulative —

Cameron! It isn’t a trick. We’re with them now.

If that was true, why? Why her? Why take Peter, when he was so young?

This isn’t the time to explain. Look after Elizabeth. Look to the ring, Cameron.

Blue mists swept across his vision, blocking out Wendy, sweeping it away.

No!

10

Dark green leaves covered the sky above in a blanket of foliage. The green sprite still crouched on the branch, tilting her head to watch Cameron. He rubbed his eyes. The headache was gone. He was lying on his back, on the soft ground.

The sprite looked up sharply, looking at something else, beyond him.

Cameron rolled over, fingers digging into moss and leaves. The dark trunks of the Priest Park forest covered the mossy slope in front of him. At the top fingers of granite thrust out of the small hill, like the nose of a sleeping giant. He had the sense of something moving, dropping out of sight on the other side of the rocks, but his eyes may have just caught the dance of shadow and light from the canopy overhead.

There was a sound like laughter, familiar boyish laughter that sent a shock through his heart. He scrambled to his feet, moss and leaves falling from him.

His heart was beating so loud how could he hear anything! He listened, and only heard the thick canopy rustling above.

“Cameron?”

The voice startled him. He turned.

There was the car, sleek and black, out of place in the forest. The road continued on ahead as if never blocked. The massive black oak that had squatted in front of the car was somehow off to the side now, crouching, stooped, as if watching them from the craggy bark folds.

Elizabeth, gleaming white in her vestments, her red hair like an aura of flames around her pale face, stood beside the car. Her hands were pressed together in front of her chest.

“Are you okay, Cameron?”

He didn’t answer. Words spun in his head. What had that sprite done to him? He looked up at the branch above, but the green sprite was gone.

His dry throat cracked. He coughed. “I’m fine.”

The glimpse, the vision of Wendy, it couldn’t have been real, could it? A trick of the little gods? It didn’t feel like that. Her voice, it sounded like her. It was fading already. The details slipping away like a glimpse of the sun through the clouds.

He stomped down to the car.

“Pranks and games,” he said. “That’s all. Let’s go.”

Elizabeth didn’t protest. She got into the car, sliding across the seat. Cameron climbed in and slammed the door.

11

Whatever else anyone might say about the Priesthood, they served good coffee. Cameron sipped the piping hot brew, perfectly roasted, a hint of sugar, no cream. It slid smoothly down his throat as he looked around pater Samuels’ chambers.

Elizabeth was with him, and pater Bracken, a tall stooped fellow with a flat boxer’s nose.

“We’re happy to assist the investigation,” Bracken said. “Although I confess only the gods know what you hope to find here.”

Cameron didn’t comment. The pater’s chambers were earthy, natural, with wood paneling and shelves along one wall were filled with bound volumes. Mrs. Book would no doubt love this room.

There was a big desk, the back facing the windows that wrapped around that wall. The view out the windows looked down on the park below.

He moved around the desk. The chair looked expensive, big and imposing, leather-backed. No wheels. It sat firmly in front of the desk on four clawed feet.

Cameron sat. The desk itself looked old, but gleamed with polish. “This desk has been cleaned?”

“The gods grant us such favors,” Bracken said. “Many take great joy in such simple tasks.”

Mrs. Book came to mind. How many of the little gods were watching right now? Lurking behind books or curtains, observing everything they did. Thinking about it was like having fingers crawling up his spine. He pushed it aside and focused on the desk.

It was clean, spotless. A blotter, ink well and pen occupied the desk. Nothing else. Cameron grabbed the side door to pull it open —

The same room, at dusk. His hand extended out a signet ring, handing it to someone.

“Cameron?”

Elizabeth had moved. She was standing in front of the desk, her fingertips resting lightly on the surface. “Did the gods grant you a vision?”

Wendy. She’d said something about the ring. And Elizabeth. Whatever that had meant. He left the desk. “I was thinking we should pay our respects to the man himself.”

She grimaced. “Why?”

“Yes, indeed,” Bracken said. “What do you hope to gain by that constable?”

“I’ll see when I see him. He’s still at the morgue?”

“Yes,” Bracken said. “Arrangements have to be made.”

Cameron looked up at the pater. “And the god, the one that died, what happened to him?”

Bracken stood a little straighter. “The gods took him.”

Of course. Cameron headed out of the chambers. Elizabeth caught up with him and followed.

12

On the drive over to the morgue, Cameron stared out the window without paying too much attention to the buildings and people they passed.

His headache was gone, apparently cured by the sprite’s tear. Bottle that, and it could make a million.

The vision of Wendy, that was different than the usual glimpses he got of other places, other times. It felt like he’d talked to her and the thought twisted in his heart. Could it have been? Was what she said true, that she and Peter were with the gods, whatever that meant?

The laugh. That fair laugh in the woods. Real or imagined?

With the little gods, who knew? He didn’t, and he wasn’t about to ask Elizabeth about it. He could feel her fuming on the other side of the car, angry that he hadn’t explained his purpose.

He wasn’t sure of it himself.

Except he didn’t believe that the glimpses came directly from the gods. Maybe they gave him the ability, maybe they didn’t. Curse or gift, he got glimpses of things that maybe even the gods didn’t know. Elizabeth said as much.

13

The morgue was cold and sterile with a harsh chemical scent that did little to mask the scent of death. Beneath it all, was the odor of a butcher shop. The lights glowed bright, recently infused by somebody.

What if that was his job? Nothing but day in and day out, climbing ladders and pouring magic into the lights to make them work.

Dr. Hillman, the coroner, was stout and round, with a ruddy complexion and thin, oily black hair combed over his egg-shaped head. He moved with small prancing steps and spoke in a voice hardly more than a whisper.

He received them both in the main operating theater surrounded by slabs with covered bodies. His beady eyes glittered like wet raisins in soft dough as he held up a folded piece of parchment.

“An official notice!” His voice showed his delight. “From the gods themselves! I’ve prepared the body for your inspection, mater, constable, right this way.”

Someone had prayed to the little gods to let the coroner know they were coming. Apparently they were in a cooperative mood.

The body lay naked on the slab, charred and torn by the blast, stained by blood. Face a red ruin. Cracked red skin showed through the blackened areas. The shrapnel was gone, picked clean of the flesh.

Elizabeth pressed a finger to her nose and moved to stand near the head. Cameron walked around the coroner to get a clear view of the body.

Adult, white male. Approximately 130 pounds, slender. No real muscle definition. What was left of his hair was brown, darkened and charred, lighter on the back side.

“What are we doing here?” Elizabeth asked.

“Looking for clues, a glimpse of what happened?” Cameron walked around the body, then looked up at Dr. Hillman. “His personal belongings, do you still have them?”

“Yes, certainly,” Dr. Hillman said.

“Bring them, please.”

Cameron resumed studying the body. Something about it felt wrong, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. Finger. The ring. Wendy had mentioned the ring, and the glimpse he’d had, of giving the ring to someone.

The pater’s hands weren’t badly burned. They must have been above the table when the bomb went off, and it would have shielded them from the blast that caught him from below, at his side.

Where the bomb had sat.

Which suggested that the pater had placed the case beside his chair.

Why? Why would a pater blow up a cafe? And himself in the process?

Suicide bomber, but why? There wasn’t a reason, unless it wasn’t him.

“What are you thinking?” Elizabeth asked.

Cameron ignored her, bending to look at the man’s hands. The fingers were long, and slender. The nails were chipped and marked. Not from the explosion, there was dirt beneath the nails.

The tap, tap of footsteps on the stone floors announced Dr. Hillman’s return. He carried a card board box. “Here it is! All of his personal effects, I made the inventory myself!”

“Put it down here,” Cameron pointed to the counter at the side of the room.

Elizabeth came around the slab, her lips pressed together in a tight line of annoyance.

Dr. Hillman stepped back and Cameron poked through the box. The signet ring lay on top, in a small plastic bag along with some cash and a packet of cigarettes. Cameron grinned. That was it!

He picked it up —

A slice of fresh apple pie and a steaming cup of coffee sat on the table, the cinnamon-sugar smell of the pie vying for attention with the coffee. His stomach growled. He dug his fork into the pie and reached for the coffee with his other hand. A bright green glimmer caught his attention beneath the table. He turned, looking down

That glimpse, those hands were the hands of the man on the slab. It was more than a bit of dirt and worn nails. The man’s hunger gnawing at his gut had been familiar, a constant thing, never satisfied. Sitting in the cafe, eating and drinking with the rest of the people, that had been a treat. When people had looked at him, at the victim, it was with respect and quiet words to the gods.

Cameron licked his lips, almost tasting the coffee. The man was enjoying an opportunity to be someone else, for a time, the knowledge was in the back of his head that it was all temporary.

He hadn’t been thinking about being blown up. The look into the bag, that’d been surprise.

“Constable,” Elizabeth said. “Please tell me what you’re thinking!”

Cameron turned and pointed to the body. “That’s not pater Samuels.”

“His ring was positively identified. Are you saying that this man stole it?”

Cameron shook his head. Dr. Hillman leaned in close. Cameron picked up the box with the personal effects found on the body.

“Thank you, Doctor. We’ll need to take these.”

“Oh yes, of course.”

Cameron tucked the box beneath his arm, and with the other, pulled Elizabeth along. She made a noise of protest and pulled away, but continued to follow him.

14

Back in the car outside, they sat with the box between them. Elizabeth’s face was pinched with annoyance.

“Now will you tell me what’s going on?”

“Yes.” Cameron picked up the bag with the ring. “This is pater Samuels’ signet ring, you’ve identified it and are convinced it is genuine?”

“Yes, the gods identified it themselves.”

Okay, if the little gods said it, that must make it true. “My glimpses never give the full picture, but I saw this ring handed over to our victim in there. And I saw him eating and drinking in the cafe right before the explosion. It’s more than seeing, it’s like I am that person, experiencing things as they did. He wasn’t the pater, and he was surprised as anyone about to die.”

Few people going about their normal routines expected to die. It happened without warning. According to the little gods, people died when the magic ran out. But sometimes someone else helped that happen.

“I don’t understand. You’re saying that he gave the ring to this man? But that man in there was wearing vestments. He’s the right size. And on the basis of your glimpse, you don’t believe he is the pater?”

“That’s right.” Cameron tapped the bag, or more specifically, the cigarettes inside. “He must have had these in his pocket, on the side away from the blast. Do you know if the pater smoked?”

“I don’t know.”

“We should find out. It might be important. This is what I think. I’m guessing there’s no one that would report our victim missing. Your pater sent him into the cafe, dressed as a pater, in his vestments, with the ring, and with the bomb. If anyone talked to witnesses, they’d describe someone matching the pater’s description. That didn’t even happen, because your priests sent everyone away and made them forgetful.”

Elizabeth’s mouth tightened but she stayed silent.

“With the bomb set off, everyone assumed that he was dead.” Cameron fished in his pocket and came up with the bag holding the dime. “I’ll bet if we show a portrait of the pater to Edgehill that he’ll recognize the pater that confiscated the dimes. He wanted everyone to think he was dead, but not without sending a message.”

“But why?” Elizabeth’s voice was soft. “Why would he do all of this?”

“If I’m right, we’ll get a chance to ask him.”

“How will you find him?”

“I’ve got a hunch. He’d need a place to hide. Someplace to stay. What place is better than wherever our victim lived? He knows that it’s empty. If anyone sees him, he matches the general description of the man. He hides out until things quiet down and then he moves.”

“We don’t even know who he is,” Elizabeth said. “How will you find out?”

Cameron shrugged. “Can’t you ask the gods for help?”

She shook her head. “Not without a name.”

“We don’t need a name,” Cameron said. He waved the dime bag. “What about these? He might not have used them all. If they can pick up on the silver, it might lead us to him.”

Elizabeth’s lips parted in a slow smile. “That might prove possible. There are gods with an affinity for metals. One of them may be able to track the scent.”

“Good.” Cameron settled back against the car seat. He laced his fingers behind his head and closed his eyes. “Let me know when we’re ready to go.”

15

“Ugly. Rude,” said a strange voice, one rough and deep.

Cameron stirred, opening his eyes. He was still in the car, but one of the little gods was standing on the seat beside the evidence box, his head even with Cameron’s own.

The god was dark of skin, like lava rock, rough and covered in sharp burrs, so much so that he almost looked like rocks himself. His build was extremely muscular, every muscle showing in definition. The only thing he wore was a furry-skin wrap around his waist and crotch. Shriveled mole heads and hands hung from the bottom of the wrap like a decorative fringe.

It was his eyes, that were most telling. They glittered with an inner orange light, sparkling facets fixed on Cameron.

A dwarf. A genuine fucking dwarf.

Cameron slowly lowered his arms, careful not to move unexpectedly. “I’m Cameron —”

“I know,” the god said. “Call me Mal. Show me this coin!”

Elizabeth was still in her seat on the other side of the car. She nodded quickly.

Cameron held out the plastic bag with the burned dimes.

“Bah! Plastic! How can I do anything with plastic!”

“I thought —”

“I didn’t ask what you thought! Give it to me!”

Cameron fished the coin from the bag. It was light and cool to the touch. He held it out. Mal extended his hand, palm up. Cameron placed the coin gently in Mal’s hand, not surprised to feel warmth radiating up from the dwarf.

Mal peered at the coin. “Silver, mostly.”

Dexterous fingers spun the coin over as the god examined the sides. “Trace other metals.”

Mal flicked the coin at Cameron, who caught it. He slipped it back into the evidence bag. “Well?”

“Well, I can find its mates. Isn’t that what ya asked for?”

Elizabeth bowed her head, pressing her hands together. “Gratitude, wise one.”

Mal coughed and thrust the dime back at Cameron. The coin was warm to the touch. He dropped it back in the bag.

When he looked up, Mal was now in the front seat, standing with his legs spread wide and hands on the dash. He pointed. “That way!”

16

Following Mal’s turn-by-turn directions, even though sometimes they seemed to be going in a circle, eventually brought them to an older undistinguished apartment complex on the east side of the city. This was one of those places on the outskirts of a neighborhood. Cameron knew as you moved deeper there’d be duplexes, and then single-family homes of more middle-class families.

There were five buildings in the complex, each with a half-dozen apartments, none of the buildings over two stories tall. The city’s population had been decreasing for years, and a complex like this would have plenty of vacant units. The populations tended to come and go quickly.

It was the perfect place for pater Samuels to hide out. No one paid any attention to anyone else in places like this.

Mal tapped the side of his nose, the sound of it like a rock hammer tapping on rocks. He pointed at the building coming up on the left. “That one, second floor. The silver’s up there. The nearest apartment on the left.”

“Yes, Holy One,” Kevan said.

Cameron leaned forward. “Pull in here, behind this garage.”

Kevan did as asked without question, swinging the car around beneath the car port between garages. The structure would prevent anyone in the building Mal had identified from seeing the car. A Priesthood vehicle would likely send the pater fleeing.

“I’ll go in, identify him, and take him into custody,” Cameron said. “The rest of you stay here.”

“I don’t take orders from you,” Mal said.

Cameron refused to let the little god’s presence scare him off. “It’ll be better if I go alone.”

“Don’t ya worry about me,” Mal said. His chuckle sounded like a small avalanche. “Consider me backup. He won’t even know I’m around, not unless I want him to.”

Great. Another intrusive little god shoving his, no. Cameron stopped himself. He didn’t even need to imagine hearing Wendy’s voice. The god had a point.

He looked at Elizabeth. “Stay here, in the car.”

Cameron slid out of the car and walked around the garage. He adopted a slouch and shoved his hands deep into his pockets. No looking around, just a guy tired after a long day of work.

That much was true, at least.

The complex might be one of the most gods forsaken places he’d been lately. Usually there were signs that the gods were present, well-tended plants, or other small signs of favors from the gods. None of that was present here. The lawn was dying, the shrubs twiggy and weak-looking. The building itself looked old and tired, slumping in on itself, paint peeling and cracking. There were concrete steps leading up to the second floor, but the first was broken in two pieces and propped up with a piece of firewood shoved underneath.

As Cameron climbed the steps, he realized that he was alone. If Mal was around, the god wasn’t showing himself.

Dust and cobwebs gathered in the corners of the stairwell. The whole place felt abandoned, but Cameron believed the god that the dimes were inside.

He stepped to the side of the door and drew his gun. Then he knocked, hard, with his knuckles.

He waited. If he didn’t have to announce who he was, he didn’t want to until that door opened. The apartment was quiet. Then he heard a dull snick as a deadbolt was unlocked.

The door opened an inch.

Cameron pointed the gun. “Constable. Open the door all the way.”

A chain rattled. A man spoke. “Constable? What’s this about?”

The door opened wider.

The man was unarmed. Cameron moved into view, keeping the gun on the suspect. He pulled his coat back, to show his badge.

For someone at gun point, the man was calm, give him that much. His general build and height more or less matched the man in the morgue, minus the hunger and the chipped fingernails. He had the posture and the poise of a priest, even wearing a plain black t-shirt and blue jeans. His feet were bare, so he probably wasn’t planning on going anywhere.

Cameron moved into the apartment, and kicked the door closed behind himself, without letting the gun waver. He gave a little nod of his head.

“Move on, keep your hands visible. Are you alone here?”

The man sighed and did as he was told, backing up slowly, hands out at his sides. “You know I am.”

There wasn’t much to the apartment. A living room, with a ratty old red couch, slumping into the carpet. Black plastic trash bags, stuffed full, stood against the sliding glass door leading out onto a definitely unsafe balcony. Someone had been cleaning up.

Off the living room, a kitchen, with a bar between it and the living room and a small dining room. Straight ahead, past the kitchen, a short hallway which lead to three doors. Bedrooms, bathroom, and the according door along the hall on the right must be a closet.

“This is a gods forsaken place, isn’t it?” Cameron asked. “What’s driving them all away? Is it the company, pater Samuels?”

Samuels opened his mouth and closed it. He shook his head. “How’d you find me?”

“I can’t give away all my tricks,” Cameron said. “What would the other constables say? Why’d you do it? Why blow up a cafe?”

Samuels shook his head. “You don’t want to know, constable. No one does.”

“Know what?”

“Let’s say, I lost my faith.” Samuels pointed his finger at the gun. “Why don’t you shoot me now, constable? The gods you worship won’t let this go to a trial.”

Cameron held the weapon steady, and didn’t pull the trigger. “Why? What’s this all about?”

He pulled the evidence bag with the dime out of his pocket. “These dimes? They’re real?”

“Would you believe me if I said they were?”

Samuels moved, slowly, carefully toward the kitchen counter. He pointed at the piles of papers on the counter. “If you really want to know, constable, the answers are there. Documents preserved and copied over the years. The gods are deceitful. They lie. I couldn’t turn away from it anymore.”

“And for that, you kill innocent people?” Cameron shook his head. “That’s —”

“Innocent?” Samuels laughed. “The gods feed on people like that, draining them, making them worship, and —”

A loud crack sounded from the kitchen. Mal was on the counter, his rocky face twisted into a cracked grimace. He slammed his hand down on a stack of papers.

“That’ll be enough!” His voice was the roar of an avalanche.

The papers beneath the god’s hands burst into flames.

Cameron jumped forward and grabbed Samuels’ arm. He propelled him at the door. “Go! Come on!”

“Blasphemy!” Mal’s fist hit another stack and the papers combusted, rising up in a whirlwind of flame.

They reached the door. Cameron yanked it open and shoved the man through. Together, Samuels going first, they headed down the stairs. Cameron kept a tight grip on him, and the gun pointed at his back.

By the time they got down the stairs glass shattered in the building and flames leaped out to the roof. Elizabeth and Kevan were by the garage where they’d parked the car, looking up at the building going up in flames.

“Put your hands behind your back!” Cameron said.

Samuels complied. Cameron pulled the cuffs off his belt, slapping one, then the other on Samuels’ wrists. “I’m arresting in on the charge of murder.”

He read Samuels his rights, then shoved him further from the burning building. Maybe people were praying to the gods to send help, fire charmers or someone, but if so, no one was responding. When they reached Elizabeth and Kevan, Cameron looked back at the burning building. It was engulfed in flames, along with all of the evidence. If any dimes remained, they’d be melted bits by the time the fire finished.

“Pater Samuels,” Elizabeth said. “The Priesthood will demand an inquisition into your actions.”

“Of course they will.” Samuels turned deep, sad, brown eyes to Cameron. “Constable, my actions may have been unconscionable, but I was trying to send a message. To wake people up to the truth —”

A loud snap and a smell like sulfur hit Cameron’s nose. Mal stood in front of Samuels. The black asphalt at his feet bubbled and steamed. He pointed a stony finger at the pater.

“You’ll shut your gob, if you know what is good for you!”

Samuels glared down at the god. “Do what you will, since you do anyway!”

Mal glared and turned his gaze to Cameron. “Ya have done us a service, Constable. We won’t forget.”

The little god turned, around, molten tar sticking to his feet. “Bah!”

He stomped over to the ground and dove forward, vanishing into the earth without a ripple. The ground looked undisturbed. Across the lot, the building continued to burn.

17

By the time Cameron got home, banging through the door, he was bone-tired. He put his badge and gun on the mantel, along with a fortune cookie for Mrs. Book.

The intrusive little gods had made a mess of the case, no doubts there. The Chief didn’t care. As far as he was concerned, the guilty party was in custody, being turned over to the Priesthood as soon as they convened their inquisition. Cameron didn’t want any part of that, although he might be called upon to testify.

As far as the evidence went, that was thin. When he got back to the constabulary, the dime from evidence was missing. He must have dropped it trying to get Samuels out of the apartment building before it burned to the ground. None of that mattered with the former pater’s confession.

Still. Cameron dropped into his chair at the small table. He pulled containers of Chinese out of the bag, popping open the spicy fried rice, and unwrapping the chop sticks. His stomach growled eagerly as he dug in, eating from the box. Why dirty up dishes?

What had Samuels meant? Deceitful, yes, anyone would say that the gods spoke the truth to suit themselves. The dimes, if those were real, it suggested a time when silver was used in coins. Except every coin dealer he’d spoken to insisted that such a thing had never happened.

It sounded like more of Wesley Sheldon’s paranoid ramblings. It didn’t excuse what Samuels had done, but maybe the unbelievers were on to something.

Whatever it was, it had big caution signs all over it. The gods were also vengeful.

And yet, thinking back to his vision in Priest Park, was it possible that Wendy and Peter were with the gods? What if that was true? As disturbing as it’d been, it had sounded like her. And that laugh, hadn’t it sounded like Peter?

Maybe the gods lied. Maybe they also held the key to his reunion with his family. If so, what would he do to see that happen?

He could probably start by watching his language towards them. It’d make Wendy happy, anyway. That was a place to start.

14,656 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 17th weekly short story release. This story introduces characters and a world that I’d like to return to in the future. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Cameron or the little gods.

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. Stories will remain until I get up the e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links at the top of the page or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is Farm of the Dead Things, the first of four stories that make up my Filming Dead Things collection. I’d originally published these as written by my pen name Tennessee Hicks along with the rest of the Dead Things series.

Makemake Released

Nothing went the as they had expected. Nellie Walker and her brother Ash left Earth with their mother for a new world. A chance to participate in the creation of something wonderful.

Until the sickness took their mother and August Partel seized control of the Makemake colony. Stranded in the distant reaches of the solar system, what chance did they have?

1

Nellie’s teeth pierced the roll’s crisp crust as she swung through Makemake’s corridors with the speed and grace of a monkey back on Earth. Her tongue softened the salty bread and her stomach growled.

It wasn’t safe to stop and eat. Not now. Not in the public corridors where any grasping grown-up might cuff her and take the roll. Besides, it was mostly for Ash.

She’d snatched it, nimble fingers quick to filch it from the baker’s shelf. Quick and light, she’d bounced up to the grips and swung off through the crowd before the old man could catch her. There wasn’t even time to shove it in her sling.

It was like playing tag back on Earth. She still remembered running on the grass beneath the sun, but it was dim. Something from before. Before, before, before everything. The rockets and the years spent cooped up in the transport when Mama died and left her and Ash alone. Before everyone got sick, and Director Partel took over the mission. When they came here to Makemake, which people said ‘MAH kay,’ like saying okay, except it wasn’t.

Nothing was okay. Not the hot and damp tunnels. Not the weak gravity that made walking clumsy and hard. Easier to swing and bounce than walk.

Nellie caught a side grip, letting her momentum swing her thin body and legs around the corner, feet-first. A shuffler, an oldster woman with weights on her legs, shrieked at Nellie.

She released at the right moment and rocketed down the corridor past the woman. She rotated, feet striking the floor as her knees bent and she pushed off, bouncing back up to the grips to swing on.

Fast, fast, that was the key. Never stop. Never let them grab you.

2

Ten minutes later she swung through the curtain sheltering her comb in the warren. The hexagonal room was small but it was only Ash and her, that was all since Mama died. The room was a converted storage container, repurposed from the transport that had brought them out from Earth. The hexagons were stacked up in the warren, one row on top of the next, with curtains hung over the openings for privacy. Add grips by the hatches, and you had everything you needed to create a private space for all of the colonists.

Ash stirred and woke. He rubbed dark, shadowed eyes which fixed on the bread still held in her teeth. He was small and thin. Too small for eight, four years younger than her, and weak. He’d only been four when Mama took them to the rockets saying that they had to leave. Everyone that worked with Mama was leaving, they were all leaving Earth to new worlds. Better worlds, Mama promised. She lied. At first there wasn’t any other world at all, just big balloon rooms floating in space and then the transport and then here.

 

Back on Earth Ash had run on the green grass. He had even laughed. He threw his ball. He jumped and rolled, and chased Spunky, the little rat terrier dog they hadn’t been able to bring with them, around the yard. Now Ash hardly left the comb at all, and only when he was with her.

Nellie landed lightly on her feet. She bit through the roll, taking the part that was already in her mouth. It was a bit salty, crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside with bits of egg, meat and vegetables. She handed the rest to Ash.

He clutched it close and tore at the roll with his fingers. Each tiny piece disappeared into his mouth. Quick fingers shuttled back and forth from the roll to his mouth like a raccoon she’d seen eating the time Mama took them to the zoo, except Ash didn’t wash his food first.

He needed a washing himself. He smelled sour. The comb smelled of their sweat and the chamber pot that needed to be emptied. Nellie leaned against the wall, crossed her arms and watched him eat.

His eating slowed when most of the roll was gone. One end remained. He looked up at her, then held out the end. Nellie’s stomach tightened but she shook her head.

“I’ll get something later. You eat.”

Later, if there was anything it’d be the green soup. Healthy, they said, but not appetizing. It kept them alive. There was never enough real food to go around. Nellie did what she could for Ash, like Mama would have wanted.

Ash tore at the remaining end. Piece by piece disappeared into his mouth.

He finished and tucked his knees up under his chin. He wrapped his thin arms around his legs.

“Thank you.” His voice was barely above a whisper.

Nellie shrugged.

“Are you going out today?”

She nodded. “I have to work. We need the credits.”

Credits to pay the protection fees. Their air, water and food tax. The housing tax. It was never enough. She did what she could, taking whatever jobs they’d let her do. Sometimes it was watching babies. Other times cleaning out chamber pots in the composting chambers. Dirty work, but it paid and it wasn’t what the older girls did, the ones that lay with the water miners. She knew all about sex. The vids showed anything she wanted. There’d been miners grabbing and pinching her, so she knew they would pay her if she wanted to do that, but cleaning the chamber pots was better. If the thought of a big smelly miner pawing at her wasn’t bad enough, the chance that she might get pregnant, that was worse. She hadn’t had her cycle yet, but you never knew. Nothing on Makemake was like what Mama had promised.

“Do you have to?”

Nellie closed her eyes for a second and took a breath. She wouldn’t get mad. She opened her eyes. “You know I have to. We don’t want to end up debtors.”

Ash hugged his knees tighter and bit his lip.

Debtors were the lowest of the low, those that had fallen behind on what they owed. They got the most dangerous jobs. People spit on them. They often didn’t last long and then they did their final duty to the colony by being composted themselves.

“Hey,” Nellie said softly. She stepped lightly over to the cot and squatted beside it. She put her hand on Ash’s arm. His skin was cool to the touch. “Put on your hoodie and stay inside. Work on your vid lessons. That’s your job, remember? You have to study and learn, and someday you’ll get a supervisor position. Or maybe even a pilot slot.”

“What about you? Don’t you need to study?”

“Tonight,” she promised. “You can sit with me while I study. Okay?”

His head moved in two quick jerks.

Nellie pulled him close and kissed the top of his head. His dark hair tickled her nose. Suddenly he grabbed her and hugged her tightly. The move pulled her off balance but the cot braced her. She hugged him back for a moment and then gently disengaged.

“I’ll swap the chamber pot first. Back soon.”

“Back soon,” Ash whispered.

Nellie picked up the chamber pot, twisted the lid to secure it and stuffed it into her sling. She didn’t like going out with the bulky chamber pot. It slowed her down and threw off her center of gravity, but she shouldn’t run into any problems now. The wardens wouldn’t come looking for her over the roll.

3

Even with the chamber pot sloshing in her sling, Nellie swung with more grace than the oldsters. They dangled and swung with slow, slothy movements while she looped around them with full releases between grabs. Too many years stuck in the deep belly of Earth’s gravity well, the oldsters hadn’t adapted to life on Makemake. Some of them even wore shoes for Sun’s sake! They also bundled up in extra thick hoodies over their workalls. It only took her a few minutes to work her way around the spiral down to the lower levels housing the composting chambers.

The air here was stifling and hot. The hottest place in the warren. All that compost, it produced heat which was carried up on rich air currents laden with the scents of fresh night soil. Close in the air was sharp against her eyes. She swung around to the head of the line and landed lightly in front of a shuffler clutching her chamber pot. The oldster’s hair had mostly fallen out, except for a few moldy patches clinging to her peeling scalp.

“Hey!” The oldster squawked.

Nellie narrowed her eyes and stared back at the oldster from the depths of her hoodie.

The oldster gummed her chapped lips together and averted her eyes.

That was better. It wasn’t that Nellie wanted to push around an oldster, most of them came along in the exodus out to Makemake, just like her. It was tough, was all. None of them found the world what they thought it’d be. Blackstone had broken her promises, just like Mama. You had to look after you and yours, was all.

Nellie reached the main desk, pressing up to the counter as she swung her sling around and pulled out the full chamber pot. The front chamber wasn’t that big, just the lobby with the crowd of people bringing in full pots and exiting with empty ones. The counter cutting the room in half was made from dirty gray printed panels, just like everything else. It came up to her chest.

Today Jason Hamilton was behind the counter, running things as he did most days. As oldsters went, he wasn’t all bad. He was also the fattest man that she knew and spent most of his time sitting in his sling on the pulley he’d rigged up behind the counter. His hair was white and wavy, his cheeks round and flushed red most of the time. His breath stank almost as bad as the rest of him. But you always knew where he was and he did what he said, not like some.

His blue eyes widened as she hoisted the chamber pot up to the counter. “Nellie, you looking to work today?”

She shrugged as if it wasn’t important. “If you’re asking for help, I suppose I could.”

Jason grunted as his puffy hands slapped down on the chamber pot’s slate gray sides. He dragged it off the counter and dropped it down behind where it clanked dully against the others building up in the bin on his right. He swiveled around and fetched an empty chamber pot out of the bin on his left, which was already half empty. Someone had to take the full pots, clean them out, and return the empty pots back to reception. She was one of Jason’s fastest workers, and most regular. It paid better than some jobs, if you could handle the stink of it.

Nellie took the empty pot and slipped it into her sling. “I’ll be right back, after I drop this off for Ash.”

“Better hurry, or I might have to give the work to someone else.”

“Someone else won’t do the job as well, or as fast.”

Jason grunted and waved a hand at her. “Someone else won’t block my counter.”

She resisted the urge to stick out her tongue and instead moved off with a leap to the ceiling bars, swinging wide out of the path of a low-hanging oldster, and releasing just a moment to bounce to the wall and back up to the bars. A quick swing up to their comb to drop off the chamber pot for Ash, and then she’d be back to help Jason with the chamber pots before he ran out of empties.

4

In the middle of Nellie’s third hour working in the compost chambers, she pushed a fresh empty bin into the front lobby. A nose clip kept out the worst smells, and the thin mask over her mouth supposedly prevented her from inhaling anything she shouldn’t. Neither measure was completely effective. Either that or her brain just wouldn’t let her get away with not smelling the shit when she saw it. She mostly tried not thinking about the smells and what she was doing. It was messy, hard, hot work but it paid for her and Ash. That’s what mattered.

She locked the wheels on the bin, and was about to shove out the next bin, half-full of loaded chamber pots when she saw one slate gray pot beneath the counter.

“You missed,” she said, bending to get the pod.

Jason swung his seat and stomped down on the pod with a hairy foot. “That’s a special request. I’ll take care of it, and if you want to work here again, you’ll forget you saw it.”

His fat face was serious. Nothing about the way he looked, or his voice suggested he was joking.

Nellie bounced back lightly on her toes. “I didn’t see anything.”

Her heart pounded away as she shoved the bin out of the reception area as fast as possible. She ran it down into the processing bay to the cleaning section. She plucked the first chamber pot out of the bin and unlocked it before tossing it onto the wheel.

Special request? What could he mean? The only thing that made sense was some sort of delivery. Not the shit that was usually in the chamber pots, but something else. Some contraband that he was dealing in. There wasn’t any way to find out what, even if she wanted to know. Which she didn’t. Whatever oldster business was going on, it was nothing to her. She wanted to go on breathing, and the best way to stop that was to get too curious about things that weren’t her business.

5

The next time Nellie went out front, with a bin full of spun and cleaned chamber pots, she kept her head down and her mouth shut. In fact she moved so fast that she had barely locked down the wheels on the bin before she was turning around to head into the back. Although even in that second, she had seen that the special request pot wasn’t beneath the counter any more. It was none of her business.

“Hold up,” Jason grunted.

Nellie froze in her tracks and didn’t turn around. She hadn’t seen anything. Didn’t want to know anything. She leaned on the empty bin. “Mostly all done, that last batch was only a half-wheel load. I can get it cleaned out, if you don’t think we’ll have more?”

“Naw, you go ahead and skip that today. You’ve worked hard, and I appreciate that. I do. But as an official employer, I also have to spread it around, you know. Come back in a few days, a week, and I’ll have some more work for you then.”

Her heart sank. Kicked off latrine duty? If they started falling behind on the payments, they’d never dig out. Not even if she started spreading her legs for the water miners. She couldn’t protest, though, not without touching on the real reason behind this. That chamber pot, that was the source of the problem.

“Okay,” she said, with mock cheerfulness. Her eyes burned. She still didn’t turn around. “I’ll scrub out. Thank you for the work.”

“Don’t mention it,” Jason said.

His tone said it all. She wasn’t to tell anyone what she saw. Her throat closed up. She nodded and pushed the bin out.

6

Nellie swung down through their curtain over the comb and saw the two men in the comb. She braked her forward motion with the grip by the door, and resisted the urge to swing on back up out and away.

Ash was right between the two men.

They weren’t doing anything to him, just standing on either side of the cot where he sat, his thin legs draw up to his chest. His arms were wrapped around his legs, face buried in his knees. His head snapped up when she came through. Dark eyes locked on her, filled with hope, but he didn’t move from that spot. His mouth opened and nothing came out.

Nellie dropped lightly to the floor. The sling at her back held two bottles of hot green soup, like coals against her back. Hot didn’t help the flavor, but it helped it go down. Until this moment, she was looking forward to a quiet evening with Ash. Dinner and then some storybooks before sleep.

That didn’t look likely, from the look of the two men.

They were big, with oldster bulk. Both wore thick long coats over their workalls, and rubberized toe-shoes on their feet. They might have been brothers, for all the difference between their dark, scruffy beards and hair. They smelled of men and oddly, enough, soap. They weren’t dirty, these two. And that meant that they carried enough clout to actually bathe. Maybe even in water? That was rare, when most folks used fine sand to scrub themselves and their clothes. Enforcers, then, that worked for Director Partel.

The one on her right spoke first. “Nellie Walker?”

“Who’s asking?”

The man on her left moved fast, holding onto her folded hammock to brace himself, his foot lashing out to clip Ash’s shoulder.

Ash screamed and tumbled away, hitting the side of the comb.

Hot rage burned through Nellie. She wanted the man dead. But there were two of them, big and strong men who had eaten recently and she was just her and there was Ash. She went to Ash, picked him up and he wrapped his arms tightly around her. His body shook as he cried silently into her shoulder.

“You were working at the waste reclamation facility today?” The first man said.

She understood what he meant, even if she never called it that. Then, because he seemed like he was waiting for an answer, she said, “Yes.”

“Did you see anything unusual with Hamilton? Did he take any suspicious packages?”

The special request that she was supposed to forget. They might be working for Partel, they might not. But they had hurt Ash.

She shook her head. “I didn’t see anything.”

“You’re sure.”

The second man took a step forward.

“All I saw was shit and piss. I spin ’em, blast ’em, and send out the empties. That’s it.”

The first man moved and she flinched, turning to cover Ash. The man didn’t hit her, he was holding something out. A card of some kind.

Nellie took it. The face was a blizzard of block dots.

“Scan that,” the man said, “and it’ll connect you to me. Go back to Hamilton for more work. Watch him. You see anything odd, don’t say anything, just call us. You’ll be rewarded for your service.”

Nellie nodded and slipped the card into her sling. She waited for something more.

Without another word the two men swung out of her comb, launching themselves out to catch the main line grips and swung off. Oldsters, but adapted and capable. She peeked out the curtain until they were lost in the crowds outside, everyone scattering from their path. People glanced at her comb and she ducked back inside.

She ran her hand across Ash’s head. “Hey there, you okay?”

Ash sniffled and looked around the comb. “They’re gone.”

“Yes.”

“They just came in and —” Ash’s voice rose until she pressed her finger against his lips.

“Let’s eat.” She pulled the soup bottles, still warm to the touch, from her sling. “Here you go.”

She twisted off the lid and guzzled it down. It wasn’t all that hot anymore and was starting to thicken. The green soup clung to her teeth and tongue as she drank it down as quick as she could. It never quite tasted the same, depending on what plant stock was blended with the algae. She didn’t even try to taste it, better that way.

The last bits she had to use her fingers to wipe out, licking off every last drop. Nothing wasted. Ash finished his just as fast.

“Let’s get the hammocks hung, and I’ll read to you, okay?”

Usually Ash was eager to hear stories read to him. The tablets could read aloud, of course, complete with holographic animations and sound effects. He just preferred to hear her read the plain text words aloud. It was something Mama had done, and something that Nellie had continued when Mama died. She had found that she enjoyed it more than she would have thought, even though she didn’t sound like Mama, and sometimes stumbled over words. Not often, anymore. Tonight, however, Ash didn’t move. He rubbed his hands together, rubbing off the soup that had dried onto his skin. Small beads drifted downward from his hands.

“What is it?”

“Will those men kill us?”

Nellie crouched and pulled him in close against the chill. “No. No, they aren’t going to kill us. They work for the Director, is all. They want me to spy at work, and let them know if I see anything wrong.”

Ash pulled away. She let him go. His eyebrows dropped.

“I don’t think you should.”

She shivered. “What?”

“Don’t do it!”

“Ash, we don’t —”

“No! They’re bad. It’s all their fault. Things weren’t supposed to be like this!”

“Maybe not, but they are like this. If we want to keep eating and breathing, we don’t have much choice. I have to keep you safe.”

“You can’t.” Ash’s voice was flat and hard. “You’re gone working. And you aren’t big enough. But you still shouldn’t help them. The rebels should win.”

Now she was really scared. “What? Ash, where’d you hear that?”

“Around,” he said defensively. “Tommy Smith says that the rebels are gonna fight the director!”

Tommy Smith was a boy a few combs over that lived with his parents, both of whom had survived the exodus.

“What does Tommy know about it?”

Ash shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. But if you turn over the rebels, then you’re just as bad as the director. You’re working for him!”

“I am not,” Nellie said. “But if I don’t work, we could end up debtors. You don’t know what could happen to you!”

“Do too.”

“You don’t!” Nellie lowered her voice. It wouldn’t do for the neighbors to hear them fighting.

Especially not when they were talking about rebellion. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d heard people saying things like that, she just hadn’t known that Ash was hearing things too. What else did she expect? She couldn’t think he was always going to stay in their comb when she was gone. The thought of him swinging through the corridors chilled her.

“How often do you go out?”

Ash crossed his arms and didn’t answer.

Nellie rubbed his arms. “I just want you safe.”

“You’re not Mama,” he said.

That surprised her. She struggled not to let it show on her face. “I know that, but I’m still your big sister. It’s my job to look out for you.”

“We shouldn’t have left Earth.”

That was better. That was something she could deal with. “If we’d stayed behind Mama would have been arrested and they would’ve taken us away.”

Maybe. Mama had feared that would happen, but she didn’t really know. They probably could have gone somewhere else and started over on Earth, except that Mama had always dreamed that they would go into space and live in the new worlds Diaspora was building. She had believed.

“You don’t know that,” Ash said, echoing her thoughts.

Nellie sighed. “Maybe not. It doesn’t matter, does it? We’re here. This is the way the world is. What do you want me to do about it?”

“Nothing.”

He didn’t believe that she could do anything. It was written all over him, and he resented her for it. She was his big sister, was supposed to look out for him, and she was failing.

He moved away, unhooking his hammock to string it across the comb. From outside came the normal sounds of their neighbors. Muted voices rising and falling. A thump when someone hit a wall. The hexagonal combs were stacked all around the central passage, full of humanity instead of honey. They hardly had any space or privacy.

Was this what Diaspora had planned? It didn’t seem so, when Mama had talked about the colony they were going to on Makemake. She had said that things would be hard, that each day would be a challenge but that they were building a new world. That had to be exciting, didn’t it?

Mama hadn’t said anything about the way the Director ran the colony. That the whole thing was rigged. You had to work to pay for your air, water and food. For the space you used, and the waste you produced even though everything was always recycled over and over. By the time you did all of that, any credits you earned by working were eaten up by the system.

After stringing his hammock across their quarters, Ash unclipped the one end of hers and bounced across the small space. He moved through the air almost as if he could fly, with a quick snap of the hammock. It carried him across to the other side where he deftly caught a grip and absorbed the impact with his bare feet. He moved easily, naturally, but then he had known zero-gee and micro-gee for most of his life. He probably didn’t even remember being stuck on the ground unable to move so easily.

He clipped in her hammock.

“Do you need to use the chamber pot before bed?” She asked.

“No.” He rolled into his hammock and pulled the blanket over himself from the coil along the side.

The trick with the hammock, that was neat. She might be able to do something with that, if she could figure it out.

Tomorrow. Nellie grabbed her tablet and rolled into her own hammock. She pulled out her blanket and tucked it around beneath her, and under her arms. She thumbed open the book she was reading to Ash, something called Goblin Alley: the Bloodied Fang, a fantasy adventure set on Earth and in the world of fairy, connected by alley ways, and a boy with a talent at running. Ash loved the book, and secretly, so did she. Especially the romance, which was the part that Ash didn’t care for, although he agreed that Mingmei’s ability to shapeshift into a fox was neat.

If only they had alley ways like those in the book, that they could use as shortcuts back to Earth. She’d brave all the goblins and geists to take Ash back home.

She hadn’t finished a chapter before his breathing changed and he was asleep. She marked a spot a bit before that, and then continued reading on ahead, partly to make it easier when she read it to Ash, but mostly because she enjoyed the story. She finally stopped when she couldn’t fight sleep any longer herself.

7

The next day she went back to the compost center early and pounded on the access hatch. Finally the hatch opened a few inches and Jason looked out. When he saw her, he scowled, bushy eyebrows dropping.

“Walker. I thought I told you not to come back until next week?”

“Yep, and when I got home, there were two of the Director’s goons waiting for me. With my brother!”

“What?” Jason pulled back and the hatch opened wider. “Get in here.”

He tried to grab her, but she bounced away, caught the grip above the hatch and swung right over him into the corridor beyond.

The rich compost air enveloped her as she swung on a few grips into the corridor, caught and spun around to kill her forward motion. She hung by one arm.

Jason swore and shoved the hatch closed. He threw over the bar to lock it.

He tiptoed down the corridor, looking up, still scowling. “Into my office!”

She swung along easily ahead of him to the office door, and only then dropped down lightly to the corridor floor. Jason tiptoed up a moment later.

He typed in a code into the access panel beside the door. The panel slid open. This time she waited for him to go first, then followed.

She’d been in the office before, and it hadn’t changed much, except it had gotten messier. Stacks of discarded non-compostables, broken panels, worn clothing, and broken electronics, gathered around the small clear area surrounding his sling chair. It hung in the center of the tiny circular area.

Jason caught the sling chair and climbed in. He activated a box hanging on his belt and an exclusion bubble formed around them, filling that small space.

“There,” he said. “Now we can talk. Tell me what happened.”

Nellie told him about the men that came to her comb. She’d given it a lot of thought after her conversation with Ash. Sure, he was only eight, but he had a point. Things on Makemake weren’t what Mama had promised. It wasn’t anything like what they had been told. Back right after the exodus, when they were in the temporary habitats above Earth, Terra Blackstone had come to see them. Blackstone! Not them, specifically, but everyone in their habitat. She had spoken to them and talked about the new worlds.

This didn’t sound like what she had wanted.

Since those men wanted her to watch Hamilton, maybe Ash was right. The rebels must be real, otherwise the men wouldn’t have come to her, and Hamilton had to be involved. Or at least the Director’s goons thought he was involved.

He took it pretty well, just listening while she spilled it all out. If she was wrong, if it’d been some sort of test, then she was probably in trouble.

“See? I had to come back,” she said. “They told me too. If I didn’t, it would have looked suspicious.”

Jason put his fingers together and swung his legs, setting the sling chair swinging. “You were right. Absolutely right.”

He laughed and spun the chair.

“So what do I do? How do I help?”

Jason dragged his foot to stop the chair and dropped the exclusion field. The normal hum of the place popped back into existence, noticeable after the quiet in the field.

“Now? You can get out there and start getting empties ready for the morning rush. There’s also a quarter-bin of last minute pots that came in last night, so you can start cleaning those. By the time you finish the early risers should be showing up.”

“What about —”

He raised a finger and waggled it. “We’ll see how it goes. You do good work, maybe I’ll let you come back.”

Right. No exclusion field. Someone might be listening.

She pointed to the stack of worn workalls. “Can I take a couple of those old workalls? I’ve got some patching to do.”

“Sure,” Jason said, waving his hand. “Go ahead.”

Nellie pawed through the stack and pulled out two larges. She stuffed them into her sling. They’d be much too big for her and Ash, but she didn’t plan on wearing them. She had another idea.

8

After work, after waiting in the chow line to pick up two more bottles of the green soup and turn in their empties, Nellie swung into her comb. She tensed, half expecting the men from yesterday to be back but they weren’t. It was empty. No Ash.

For a second her muscles refused to move. She looked around the small chamber. The hammocks hung on the wall. Their table was folded up on the large back wall. Her tablet sat on the narrow back shelf, where she always kept it next to their spare workalls. Everything looked normal down to the chamber pot in the right corner. Just no Ash. But his tablet and sling were gone too. She relaxed a bit.

If his sling and tablet were gone too, then he must have gone out. He did go out, whether she liked it or not, but usually he was back home before she finished work.

He’d be back, probably soon. If she went looking for him, then he’d come back to an empty comb as well. She’d wait, and trust him to return.

While she waited she tried to keep busy. She lifted the table from the wall so that the single leg swung down to support the surface. There wasn’t much material to the table or leg. Back on Earth they would have looked especially thin and spindly, but under Makemake’s tiny gravity they were easily strong enough. She pulled the soup bottles out of her sling and put them on the table’s surface. Her stomach growled but she ignored that. She’d wait for Ash to get back.

To keep her mind busy, she pulled the worn workalls out of her sling. Mostly the material had worn at the edges and seems, but large sections looked fine. She could make so many things with it, but she had something particular in mind. She kicked over to her shelf and picked up her tablet and began to draw.

9

An hour passed before Ash returned, swing through the curtain to land in the comb. Nellie looked up from her work, needle in hand.

“Ash! Where have you been?”

“Out.” He skipped over to the table and picked up one of the bottles.

Nellie put down what she was working on and joined him. “It’s not going to be hot. I’ve been back over an hour.”

Ash shrugged and squirted the soup into his mouth.

He wasn’t talking. Probably still mad at her. This morning he hadn’t been happy that she was going back to work at the compost center, but she couldn’t really tell him what she had planned. Or anything about what she and Jason talked about. Secrets didn’t last long in the warren. Not when everyone was piled one on top of the next in the thin-walled combs.

She took a long drink of the soup. It tasted a bit minty today, covering some of the bitterness. It wasn’t hot. She was hungry enough that she just drank it as fast as she could, and then she didn’t have to taste it.

“Where’d you go?” She said, when she had drained most of the soup.

Ash twisted off the wide top and ran his fingers around the inside of the bottle. “Out. Just around.”

“You have to be careful,” she said. “You watch out for perverts?”

He licked his fingers clean. “I do. They couldn’t catch me anyway. I’m fast.”

Then he let a small grin onto his face. “Faster than you.”

Smiling now, Nellie said, “No way.”

“I’m smaller and lighter.”

“Doesn’t matter. I’m stronger. And I get more momentum.”

“Just makes it harder for you to stop!”

“I’ve got a secret weapon.”

His eyes widened. “What?”

Nellie kicked back to the workall on the floor. It was one of her two spares. She lifted it up and held out the sleeve. A membrane ran from the sleeve on down the side of the leg. It was made from the old workalls she’d gotten from Jason. She spread the leg and showed the membrane sewed between the legs.

Ash bounced over the table, landing silently on his bare toes. He reached for the workall.

Nellie pulled it back. “It isn’t ready yet. Almost. I thought I might test it out tonight.”

“What’s it for?”

“You gave me the idea.”

“I did?”

“Yep.” She pointed at the hammocks. “I noticed that thing you did with the hammocks, snapping it to fly across the room.”

“That was just something I figured out.”

“I know. It was smart. I got the design for this from the library. It’s based on wingsuits back on Earth. I modified it a bit to handle my sling, but that wasn’t hard. Skydivers used the wingsuits on Earth, with parachutes.”

“We don’t have a sky.”

“We don’t need a sky. We could fly through the tunnels.”

Ash’s eyes widened. “Like really fly?”

Nellie sat down where the wall slope up to meet the straight wall. She turned the suit to the section she was still sewing.

“Sure, mostly. Kick off and just soar above and around everyone. Fold up your arms and legs to gain speed, then back out for lift. Once I get going I won’t hardly have to touch a grip again. Not unless I want to land or make a fast turn.”

“Can you make me one?”

Nellie pointed the needle at the other spare workall Jason had given her. “I think I have enough fabric for it. But you have to promise not to break your neck!”

“I won’t,” Ash said seriously. “Everyone is going to want one.”

She’d thought about that already. Assuming it worked. “This might be a good business for us. We can make ’em and sell ’em to make money.”

“If the Director lets you.”

“He’d just tax us for it, like any business. More money in the government’s pockets.”

She sewed and Ash stood fidgeting and watching her. After several minutes Nellie looked up at him. “Don’t you have some studying to do?”

“I’d rather watch you.”

She pointed the needle at his tablet. “And I’d rather not be watched. Get you studying done. I’ll finish this, and then we’ll take it for a test flight, okay?”

“Yes!”

Ash bounced over the table.

“And fold up the table if you’re not using it,” Nellie said.

He did that, clearing away their bottles to the shelf above the table. Then sat on the sloped wall section on the other side of the comb with his tablet on his knees. She still caught him glancing up at her now and then, but he mostly focused on his studies.

10

Nellie hung from the grips on the North down shaft. The tunnel fell away down a smooth spiral slope. There wasn’t anyone around except her and Ash. They’d swung along the grips like normal to get here from the warren. There were too many eyes around there, she didn’t want her test flight witnessed by so many.

This tunnel spiraled on down to the industrial tunnels that housed the colony’s environmental systems, machine shops, and hydroponic gardens. Eventually it also led to the mining tunnels that spread off through the ice following the veins of water ice. The lights were widely-spaced along the tunnel ceiling, creating alternating pockets of bluish light and darker areas. The air rising from below was warmer and scented with dust from the diggings.

Ash dangled from the grip beside her. “Well? Are you going to do this?”

“Yes, just give me a second.”

“You’ve already had a second.”

Brother. Still, it was good to see him excited about something. Nellie took a deep breath. What was the worst that could happen? Even falling wasn’t going to hurt here.

She spread her hands on the grip and brought her feet up, pressing them against the bar between her hands. Just a normal kick off.

She jumped, aiming low so that she didn’t hit the next grip.

She shot forward into the tunnel. The floor was approaching fast.

She thrust her arms out and spread her legs.

It was as if a hand had grabbed her and yanked her up toward the ceiling. She twisted and dropped her arm and rolled just in time to miss slamming into one of the grips.

The wall was right there!

Nellie rolled the other way, spread her arm and caught the air.

She brought in her arms, just a hair, and dropped slightly.

There was a noise behind her. She dared a glance back over her shoulder and saw Ash, swinging along the grips, skipping every other one, yelling his head off.

She grinned and drew in her arms a bit more. Her speed increased as she dove through the tunnel.

As the tunnel turned she banked and followed the curve. It was faster than she had ever gone through the tunnels. She couldn’t help but grin as the wind rushed past her.

Then an oldster shuffled out of a side tunnel, right into her path!

Nellie reacted instinctively, snapping open her arms. The wingsuit caught the air and she rose up over the oldster, buzzing past his balding head.

“What?”

Then she was past, and diving down the tunnel again, laughing now.

All too soon the tunnel leveled out on the industrial level. Steam blew past her head. The air was hot and moist.

Nellie dragged her legs in the air, and embraced it with her arms. The drag slowed her quickly and she dropped. A quick flap of her arms at the last moment, and she landed lightly on her feet.

She turned around, looking for Ash but there was no sign of him. A chill pushed aside the exhilaration of the flight. Taking him out here? This late? What was she thinking?

She bounced up to the grips, caught one and swung forward. As she built up speed she let go and spread her arms. Flying up the slope, the ground came up quickly. She flapped her arms experimentally.

It worked!

She rose up. Flapping faster, she flew up the tunnel. After every few flaps she rest her arms and rode the air until she had to flap again.

Still no Ash.

She was starting to panic when she finally saw him as she rounded the curve in the tunnel. He was swinging gamely along the grips toward her.

Even though her own arms were tired, she flapped up to meet him and caught a grip to stop.

She was breathing hard, but said, “See? I am faster.”

Ash grinned. “Only because you’ve got the wingsuit! Wait until I get mine!”

“I’ll work on it,” Nellie said. “But it’s late, and probably not a good idea to be out here. Let’s get back.”

“Okay.” Ash yawned. “That was amazing.”

Amazing. Imagine that. Nellie swung alongside Ash, letting him set the pace.

Back at the comb he hooked up the hammocks without complaints, rolled into his and was asleep before she got out of the wingsuit to sleep. She folded it carefully and climbed into her hammock.

In her mind, the tunnel walls were a blur. She’d never felt so free, not since running on the green grass back on Earth.

11

When Nellie went back to work at the compost center the next day she wore the wingsuit but she didn’t fly along the corridor. She did extend an arm as she made a quick turn, catching the air to help make the move, but that was all. It was different with so many people out and about. The tunnel was crowded, and she didn’t want to draw too much attention. Not unless she had to.

Jason let her in without commenting on her modified workall. He disappeared quickly with instructions to start cleaning out the leftovers before the main rush started. Not a word about anything.

She went to work thinking about it. Was it because he didn’t trust her? Or because someone might be listening? The Director probably had bugs and stuff all over the place. When they had talked Jason had used the exclusion field to prevent anyone from listening. Actually, thinking back on that conversation, had he said anything about being part of the rebellion? Not really. He had listened to what she had to say, and then he had dropped the exclusion field. That was all. He hadn’t said he was part of the rebellion, or anything.

Nellie picked up a full chamber pot. She twisted the lid off and stuck the pot in the big wheel, clamping it in place. The lid snapped into place beside the pot. She gave the wheel a turn to the next position and picked up the next pot. It sloshed as she twisted the lid off, and the smell! Her eyes stung. Some were worse than others, and that was nasty. She quickly snapped the pot into place, the lid and turned the wheel. Once she got the wheel filled, then she’d drop the lid, and power it up. It spun to draw out all of the material from the pots, which was carried off to the compost chambers. After that that dry sand and heated air would blast the pots and the wheel clean, before spinning up again to remove the sand. She always like the blasting the best. Everything scrubbed away.

The next pot was light. She twisted the lid off, expecting a mostly empty pot, and instead there were some electronic components at the bottom. She recognized one crystalline piece as a quantum computer core stone. That definitely wasn’t what she normally saw in the pots!

She put it aside and quickly finished loading the wheel. She activated the sequence, scooped up the pot with the components and slipped it into her sling.

Chances were, she wasn’t supposed to have found it. There was that special pot the other day that Jason had, and this was probably the same sort of thing. He was connected to the rebels!

But what were they doing?

Did she trust him, or report him?

It wasn’t a hard decision.

He was out front, at the counter, with a line of people dropping off pots when she shoved in a full bin of cleaned chamber pots. Jason barely glanced at her as he took a pot from a needle-thin oldster, dropped it in the dirty bin and registered her deposit before taking one of the last clean pots out of the clean bin.

The woman looked down her nose at the chamber pot he put on the counter. “You should have someone else handling the clean chamber pots. And the counters should be separate.”

Hamilton grinned at her. “Budget cuts, ma’am. Feel free to complain to the Director, maybe he’ll increase my budget and I can hire some decent help. Have a nice day now.”

Nellie moved the remaining clean chamber pots into the full bin of clean ones, and swapped the bin positions. The woman focused her attention on Nellie.

“You’ve got her. She could handle the clean ones, while you take the dirties.”

“You wouldn’t want me to do that, ma’am,” Nellie said, grinning. “I’m the one that has to open the pots and get ’em cleaned.”

The oldster wrinkled her nose and picked up the clean chamber pot from the counter. “Someday we’ll have decent plumbing and you’ll be out of a job!”

“Don’t hold your breath,” Jason said. “Thank you for your business.”

She made a noise in her throat and shuffled out of the way of the other people waiting. Nellie took advantage of the moment to get close to Jason.

“I’ve got a pot that’s got something in it I’ve never seen before. I think you should take a look at it.”

Jason picked up a sign from beneath the counter and plunked it down before the next customer could put down his chamber pot. The customer was a young man, with dark eyes and pale, pale skin. Sort of cute. He looked at the sign on the counter and then down at the chamber pot her held.

Nellie smiled at him. “Break time. We’ll be back in ten minutes!”

“Thank you for your understanding,” Jason said.

The young man looked like he wanted to say something, but couldn’t think of the words.

Jason slipped out of his sling and hurried out of the lobby area. Nellie grabbed the empty bin and pushed it after him.

She left the bin in the back and followed Jason to his office. As soon as they were inside, Jason activated the exclusion field. The static filed popped into existence around them and cut off all the noises outside. He snapped his fingers, loud in the field.

“Show me.”

Nellie slipped the chamber pot out of her sling and twisted off the lid. Jason reached for it and she pulled it back, tipping it so he could see but not letting him take it.

“Give it over,” Jason said.

“No.” Nellie tucked it back to her side. “What is it?”

“Nothing that concerns you!” He made a grab for the pot.

She bounced out of his reach.

“I want to help. What’s going on?”

“You don’t want to get involved,” Jason said. “You want the Director’s goons back after you?”

“No, but I want to know what’s going on. Things can’t stay like this.”

She hadn’t ever said it out loud like that, but it was true. Makemake couldn’t go on like this. It was getting worse.

Jason raised his hands in surrender, showing his palms, and stepped back. “Fine. We have to be quick, before the people out there get impatient. Those are components for an initiator, for Diaspora’s instantaneous communications network.”

“What’s that?”

“Think of it like a radio with no lag. We can call Luna in real-time. Better than that, they can do full holographic calls over it. Diaspora is getting everyone hooked up, but the Director has delayed building the initiator. Without it only Diaspora can initiate an instantaneous connection, and it ties up the main communications station. Since he controls that, he can tell them anything he wants about conditions here.”

“He’s lying to Blackstone?”

Jason nodded. “Yes. But we have people that got the plans for the initiator, and they’ve been fabricating parts. That’s the last of it, but something’s wrong. My contact should have given the pot to me. It shouldn’t have ended up in the back.”

“What does that mean?”

Jason rubbed his chin. “I don’t know. Look, we have to get that to the ones building the initiator. They have to get a call out to Blackstone, and let her know what’s going on. I can’t leave here.”

“I can do it,” Nellie said quickly.

“It might be dangerous. If the Director’s people are on to us, you could be asking for trouble.”

Nellie put the lid on the chamber pot and twisted it into place. She slipped the pot into her sling and settled it against her back. “Where do I go?”

12

After leaving the compost center, Nellie felt like every eye was on her as she swung along the grips through the tunnels. According to Jason, the rebels were holed up in a played out series of water mines. That meant going into the lowest levels, into sections she normally avoided. The closest way down was the South down tunnel, much like the North tunnel where she had tested the wingsuit. All she had to do was get down there and find her way through the industrial areas to the mining entrances. Jason had shown her a map and made her memorize it, rather than risk having it on her if she was caught. He was trusting her.

She caught a grip and swung her body around an oncoming guy. For a split-second his dark eyes were on her — was he one of the Director’s men, he had that look? Then she was past him. She didn’t look back. She didn’t dare.

A woman ahead, tall with her black hair closely braided to her head, was watching Nellie. The woman wore a smooth, crisp workall. And glasses. Not the prescription kind, but the data kind, with full holographic capability. Not someone that was struggling to get by then, which meant she was most likely working for the Director. She moved casually, taking a step before jumping up to catch a grip.

Two more swings and Nellie was getting close. The woman wasn’t looking at her, she was looking at something else that Nellie couldn’t see, something projected by her glasses. But then she looked up and her eyes met Nellie’s. There was recognition there. The woman’s red lips parted a bit.

Nellie looked back. The guy that she’d swung past, he was back there, swinging lazily behind her. His dark eyes met hers too, and a muscle in his jaw jumped.

They were following her.

Now she was truly scared. If the Director was after her, if the rebels were caught, then it was all over. Except, if that was the case, why come after her? She wasn’t important. She was a messenger, at best.

The woman was right there, a couple grips away and moving now to block her.

Nellie released the grip she was on and caught the next with both hands. She swung up, not releasing, twisting around and switching her hands. Her feet came right up to the next grip and she let go, bending her knees.

For an instant it was like she had landed on the grip and the floor was only the wall in front of her.

Nellie jumped, in an instant reversing her direction and going back toward the man.

Now the floor was back to being a floor again and she was flying toward it. The man was in front of her. His eyes widened with surprise but he let go of the grip and dropped.

Just as she’d expected. He thought she was going to ground to try and get past him.

Surprise! She thrust her arms out. The wingsuit caught the air and she swooped up. He had nothing, wasn’t touching the ground yet, didn’t have a grip, and she dipped one arm to twist sidewise as she flew past him.

Someone shouted, she didn’t see who. Now that she was past him she was gliding down the tunnel. She whooshed over the heads of a couple oldsters shuffling on the ground. The man’s up-turned expression of shock was hilarious, but not more than the woman’s delighted smile.

Clear of them, Nellie flapped her arms. The wings caught the air and thrust her forward. She flapped hard, a swimming motion, reaching forward and then thrusting down against the air. Chalk one up for Makemake, that wouldn’t have worked under Earth’s gravity.

She banked into a side tunnel and caught a passing grip to make the quick turn. She swung and released, catching the next, and continued. She glanced back behind her. No sight of the two goons. Not yet at least. She had to get out of this tunnel, and head up to the North access. Hopefully they’d just picked her up leaving the compost center and hadn’t been waiting to cut her off.

They’d have back up coming and now that they’d seen what she could do in the wingsuit, they’d be better prepared. She had to get ahead of them, find the rebels and deliver the components.

Through the warrens, that was her best bet. Lots of people. She could blend in and get past. Not by swinging, though. They’d be expecting her there.

Two quick tunnel sections took her up past the baker’s and the other shops. She dropped off the grips and landed lightly on her feet. She took one shuffling step, then another, bending over as if her sling carried a heavy load. Tiptoe, as if she was afraid of losing her balance, of tripping over her own feet.

God, it was slow. She didn’t see how the oldsters could handle it. What did they think when they saw the younger members of the colony swinging past overhead? Did they even notice?

A gray-faced woman, gray hair, was just ahead of her, shuffling along with each step. Her face might have once been pretty but it was lined and haggard. Her eyes were fixed on the ground. Her arms hugged her body. From the dark circles beneath her eyes, she looked like a ghost.

Nellie mimicked the woman’s posture. If she moved like that woman, the Director’s people might not see her. They’d be looking for someone swinging along the grips like a monkey, or flying free. Not a tired, worn oldster.

The crowd thickened as she entered the warrens. The hum of voices filled the air. Most of the people just stood around. Some sat in the openings of their combs, legs hanging out. A lot of people didn’t have jobs. She shuffled past a group of men standing in a circle and caught fragments of the conversation.

“— don’t know. That’s what I heard.”

“A crack down? What…”

She didn’t stop. It sounded like people were talking about something going on. She wanted to find Ash and make sure he was okay, but going back to her comb right now was a stupid idea. That’s where they’d look for her. All she’d do by going home was put Ash in danger.

A commotion up ahead. She heard voices raised. Someone shouted. Then an amplified voice rang out.

“All of you back to your quarters! Off the streets. Director’s orders! Back to your quarters!”

She froze in place. She wasn’t the only one. Voices rose up again near the front, angry questions shouted out. A half-dozen enforcers in clean black workalls swung into view above the crowd. Batons hung from their belts. A big man hung in the center, like a gorilla studying the crowd. He had a wide, brick-like face with small eyes and almost no neck. He spoke, and his voice was picked up and amplified throughout the warren.

“Back to your quarters. We have an active terrorist threat. For your safety, clear the streets!”

People bounced up the faces of the combs. Others carefully climbed the ladders. Many of those sitting in the openings to their combs pulled back inside.

She’d have to get past them to even get to her comb, and they were searching each person that tried to pass. Looking for her, or other rebels? It didn’t make any difference. If they searched her they would find the components hidden in the chamber pot. Not only that, if they saw her close up they’d see how her workall was modified. She’d be arrested. They’d arrest Jason, if they hadn’t already, and maybe even Ash just because he was her brother.

Her only chance was to get past them, get away, down to the rebel’s tunnels. Maybe they wouldn’t find her there, if she was fast enough to get away.

Nellie took a deep breath and let it out. The crowd was thinning. Her time was running out, she had to move even though her feet felt like they were frozen in place. She took one shuffling step forward, then another. It wasn’t hard to mimic the oldster shuffle, not when she was facing the Director’s goons.

Three of them had dropped down to search the crowd, while the others, including the big man that had spoken, remained above to watch the people. She’d have to surprise them and be quick.

One of the enforcers, a young man with blond hair, roughly patted down a woman ahead of her. He smirked as he ran his hands over the woman’s breasts and body. She kept her head up, eyes straight ahead. Nellie was approaching on the woman’s left, one shuffling step at a time. If she could slip past while the man was distracted, she might have a chance.

The woman’s eyes flicked over and focused on Nellie. Her lips tightened and she lowered her hand to the man’s face. Her fingers ran along his cheek as he straightened, grinning. She leaned closer.

Nellie took the chance the woman was offering her. Why this stranger was doing it, she didn’t know, but she was grateful.

She took two bounding steps, picking up speed, and jumped to the wall. The man jerked away from the woman, lunging for her, shouting.

Nellie’s feet hit the wall and she jumped off into the air. She did a big flap with her arms and once again felt the rush of air past her face as she flew higher in the warren. Here there was lots of air between the grips and the floor.

A black shape flew at her from her right!

An enforcer, one of those from above, leaping to catch her!

Nellie tucked in her arms, twisted her legs, and rolled away under the grasping hands. She stuck out her arms, catching the air and swerving madly toward the floor.

She corrected, caught the air, and flapped up. There were shouts behind her, orders to stop. She ignored them and picked up speed by angling her arms back so that she dropped slightly. Just like sliding down a hill on a sled. She brought her arms forward, caught the air and rose back up. Then down again. It was faster than swinging grip to grip or trying to run along the warren.

The tunnel leaving the warren was much smaller. She tucked in her arms and shot toward it like a bullet. Two enforcers stood in the tunnel, batons in hand.

They saw her. Two men, eyes wide. It had to be a sight, a girl falling from up high, head-first right at them. Nellie swung her fists forward in front of her head.

The men held their ground.

She kept coming, falling faster and faster. Too fast to pull out of the dive? She didn’t know. The wind tore tears from her eyes, blurring her vision.

She screamed in the last moments before she reached the men.

At the last second they bounced out of her way, rather than be hit by her.

Nellie thrust her arms out and was yanked upward. She buzzed right above the tunnel floor, barely missing it. Her arms ached from the strain. She dropped them back, sacrificing lift before she smashed into the ceiling.

She gained control and soared on down the empty tunnel. The enforcers must have driven everyone before them into the warren. She twisted, taking one side passage and then another. The shouts behind her faded.

Her arms were very tired already, but she flapped on to the North tunnel. The familiar spiral passage down was a welcome change. She coasted, gliding down into the depths.

13

The empty tunnels were eerie. Nellie hung from grips in one of the side passages and listened to the sounds in the corridor she had just left. It was people. Enforcers, from the sound of it, sweeping through the industrial tunnels, ferreting out anyone caught hiding. She’d gotten out of the main tunnel before being spotted. For now.

She swung quietly away. This was a narrow connecting tunnel and it twisted and turned as it bore downward into the rock. Maybe it’d once been a water ice seam back when the colony was first dug out. Robots were sent down to Makemake to dig and chew into the crust of the planet. Water ice was rarer on this planet. She didn’t know why, maybe the scientists did, but she’d studied it before they even left to come out here. There was other sorts of ices on the surface, methane, ethane and other stuff, the tholins. Not much water ice. What there was, it was in fissures in the crust and as hard as rock. The robots dug down to harvest the ice and left behind passages that the colonists sealed and pumped full of air before they moved in.

It was all ancient history, as far as she was concerned, but here it was very real.

She was below the industrial level now and the lights ended, leaving the tunnel ahead dropping away into blackness. Nellie stopped.

The way down was this way. Deeper down, away from the improved passages, off into some played out shaft. How was she supposed to find her way in the dark? There wasn’t any light down there. None.

She couldn’t do it swinging, or flying. If she was going to do this, she had to do it on foot.

First, she needed a light. She pulled herself up onto the grip, hooking her legs over to keep herself in place as she reached out to where the last light glowed. It was self-contained, driven into the rock. She dug her fingers around the sides of the light and twisted. At first it didn’t budge. She wrapped both hands over the light and twisted harder, anchored with her legs.

It gave way, a tiny bit. Dust floated away from the hole and slowly drifted downward. Nellie twisted until her fingers hurt and slowly, scratching, the light unscrewed from the anchor in the rock. Two more turns and it began turning more easily. A minute later she had twisted it free entirely.

The end was pointed, and threaded where it went into the anchor. The top was bulb-shaped and dim, but it produced enough light for her to make her way. She held it up and took cautious, short bounding steps down into the tunnel. It shouldn’t be much farther now.

14

Nellie eased along an uneven floor, watching her step as best she could in the dim light from the bulb she held. It was a self-powered area light from the tunnel above. There wasn’t anything like it in this tunnel. Nothing about this tunnel was developed.

The floor was uneven, and covered in rock chips. Threaded marks on the walls and floor showed the passage of the robots that had chewed out this passage. Hacked out, smashed out. There wasn’t anything neat about the tunnel. No smooth floors or squared-off sides. No lights, grips or planters. It was a dry and empty tunnel on the ass-end of the colony.

It had to be the right tunnel. She ran her fingers along the rough surfaces of the walls. She traced the marks left by the robots, and the others no doubt done by men and women mining the tunnel.

This looked like the tunnel Jason had described, but so did the last three tunnels she had passed through. This one didn’t look like anything special.

At least right up to the point when a section of the rocks moved on both side of her and a cool metal barrel was pointed at her head.

They wore camouflaged clothes that blended into the rocks and shadows. She hadn’t seen them at all until they moved. There were at least two of them, but she had the impression that there were more behind her. A woman moved in front of her, putting her weapon back in a pocket in her outfit. The woman’s skin was naturally dark. She had high cheek bones and black hair cut short. A pair of glasses were pushed up on her head. Her dark eyes were fixed on Nellie’s.

“Who are you? Why are you here?” The woman demanded. Her tone was calm, but serious.

“Jason Hamilton sent me. I’m Nellie.”

The woman studied Nellie’s face. “You? A child? Why?”

“I was working in the compost center with him. He couldn’t get away, and I found the special chamber pot. There was a lock down. The enforcers were sweeping the tunnels, making everyone go back to their combs.”

“Ambra, what do we do?” Said a man on Nellie’s left.

The woman didn’t look at the man. She stayed focused on Nellie. “You have it, this pot? Hamilton gave it to you?”

“Yes.”

The woman plucked the light from Nellie’s hand. “No lights.”

She took Nellie’s other hand in hers and then pushed the buttons that turned off the light. Absolute darkness enveloped Nellie. If it wasn’t for the woman’s warm hand holding hers, Nellie would have been scared.

“Come with me,” the woman said in the darkness.

Nellie followed the woman through the dark and wished that she had glasses to see where they were going. They walked and walked through the dark. At times Nellie stumbled, tripping on the uneven floor, but the woman steadied her each time. She didn’t speak. Nellie couldn’t tell if the others followed or not. If they did, she didn’t hear them. They turned several times, taking other passages, or the tunnel just turned, she had no way to know.

Finally, they stopped. Nellie heard a hissing noise and then light poured into the tunnel. She blinked against the bright light, shielding her eyes with her arm. A hatch was opening. The light gushed from the space around the hatch. She barely had a moment to adjust to the light before the woman pulled her into the opening.

As soon as they were inside the door slid closed behind them and the woman let go of Nellie’s hand.

They were in a room. A real room, with a floor and walls and a high ceiling. It was a pale rusty red color. The light came uniformly from white panels in the ceiling. Planters along the sides of the room were filled with green growing plants.

Plants! There were tomato plants with small bright red tomatoes just hanging all over the plant. Nellie’s mouth watered. She hadn’t had cherry tomatoes since Earth!

“Have some, if you like,” the woman said, gesturing at the plant.

Nellie looked at the woman. She was smiling, but also looked sort of sad. She was really beautiful. Ambra, the man had said. Was that her name?

“It’s okay,” the woman said.

Nellie bounced over to the plant and inhaled the tomato scent of the plant. Her stomach growled. She picked one, then two more because they were right there in that cluster. She made herself stop then and popped one into her mouth. The skin burst and sweet tomato juices and pulp flooded her mouth. She chewed with relish. There hadn’t ever been a better tomato. Not ever!

At least until she ate the next one. She swallowed it and slipped the last one into her sling. She’d take that one back to Ash. More, if she was allowed.

The woman just stood there watching her.

Nellie swallowed. “Your name is Ambra?”

“Yes. And you’re Nellie Walker, one of the children that came here with the exodus transport.”

How? Her glasses, of course. The woman, Ambra, had looked her up while they were walking.

“Nellie, do you still have what Jason Hamilton gave you?”

“Yes.” Nellie pulled the bulky chamber pot out of her sling, glad to get it out. She held it out to Ambra.

Ambra took the pot in both hands. “Thank you, Nellie. You may have saved us all.”

She twisted off the lid and looked inside. She smiled a little, then smiled much wider, flashing white teeth. She laughed and looked back up at Nellie.

“This is perfect. I have to get this to our engineers. Come on, we’ll get you a real meal and a place to rest.”

“I have to get back,” Nellie said. “My brother, Ash, he’s alone.”

Ambra shook her head. “I can’t let you go yet, Nellie. You said it yourself, that they have the upper levels locked down. We’ll keep you safe. The faster we work, the better we’ll be able to help your brother, and everyone else.”

“What are you going to do?”

“We’re going to save the colony. Let me show you how.”

Nellie took a breath. Ash was going to be scared that she wasn’t in the comb. The Director’s enforcers might already be questioning him, demanding to know where she was. He couldn’t tell them, he didn’t know. But if she went back, Ambra was right. They’d catch her and make her tell them everything that she knew.

“Okay.”

15

There was a whole other colony hidden down here. Nellie followed Ambra, amazed at what she saw. These weren’t simply tunnels cut through rock and sealed. They had to be that much, but in these corridors the surfaces were all covered. The light was uniform and as bright as sunshine on Earth. And everywhere, plants grew in containers along the corridors, mounted on the walls, and in planters at the center of intersections.

It was busy too. They passed people swinging through the tunnels on ceiling grips, just like above, but here there didn’t seem to be any people shuffling along. Even those that walked, they took long bounding steps. Everyone wore standard black Diaspora workalls, new, just like the Director’s people.

“How do you have all of this?” Nellie asked.

“We have our own fusion generator and printer,” Ambra said. “It’s let us build this outpost under the Director’s nose. And we’ve hidden the entrance. So far, they haven’t found us.”

“If you could do all this, why haven’t you just taken over?”

“We don’t have enough people. This is a small example of what the Makemake colony should have been like, if Partel hadn’t seized power.”

Ambra stopped outside of a door and touched a panel on the wall beside it. The panel flashed and the door slid open. “What you’ve brought us will change things.”

She went in, and Nellie followed her.

The room was small, but there were holographic displays all around the room with people working at them. In the center of the room was a table, and some sort of machine sitting at the center. The people in the room, three of them, all stood up as Ambra came in. A man with a round face and curly brown hair broke into a big smile.

“Ambra! You’re back.” He looked at the pot she held. “Is that it?”

“Yes.” Ambra handed it over.

“Awesome!” The man said, looking inside.

He looked up, at Nellie. “Who’s this?”

Ambra stepped back and touched Nellie’s shoulder. “Nellie Walker. She’s the one that brought us the parts, evading a lockdown in the process.”

Ambra pointed at the man. “This is Dr. Rick Banner. He’s in charge of this project.”

She pointed at a short woman, not any taller than Nellie, with long blond hair. “Dr. Rachel Dexter.”

Then Ambra pointed at the last person, an oldster with gray hair and a lined face. “Dr. Stan Anderson. This is our team that’s putting together the initiator.”

“Why’d you need these parts?” Nellie asked. “If you have a printer, couldn’t you just make your own?”

“Good question,” Banner said. “She’s smart. We could make most of the things we needed but not everything. The printer can’t make everything, and these needed specialized equipment to manufacture. We had people upstairs that managed to use the equipment there to make the parts for us. It was risky, and dangerous, but it looks like they’ve done it. Now it’s up to us to finish putting this together.”

Nellie looked at the machine. “And this will let us talk to Diaspora? We can tell Blackstone what’s happening here?”

“Yes,” Ambra said. “Thanks to you. What do you say that we get you something to eat, and a place to rest? We’ll let them work?”

“Okay.” Nellie waved at the people “It was nice meeting you.”

“You too,” Banner said. “And thank you.”

“Yes,” Anderson said, his voice deep. “You may have saved us all.”

Nellie blushed and turned away. Saved them all? Was that possible?

16

The next afternoon there was a chime from the door to Nellie’s room. It was twice as big as the comb, with real furniture instead of hammocks, and its very own plants growing along one wall. It was like having her very own garden. Ambra had brought her to the room after they had a meal in the rebels cafeteria. She had just been watching an old holographic movie from Earth, trying not to think too much about what was happening right now. She hadn’t had any word yet, and she was worried about Ash.

Nellie shut off the holographic screen and faced the door. “Come in?”

The door opened. It was Ambra. She stepped inside and the door slid shut behind her. Ambra gave her a small smile.

“How are you doing, Nellie?”

“Okay, I guess.” Nellie spread her hands. “What’s going on? I couldn’t get any information on the system.”

“Sorry about that. We’ve gotten by this long by being very paranoid. But I do have news for you.”

Nellie hugged herself. Mama had said that, before they left Earth. Honey, I have news for you.

Ambra’s eyebrows went up and she held out a hand. “No, it’s not bad. Just the opposite. With the parts you brought they’ve finished the initiator. It’s ready to go. I wanted to invite you to be there when we make the call. If you want?”

Nellie nodded quickly. “Yes, please.”

Ambra turned and palmed the panel to open the door. She smiled. “Let’s go.”

Nellie followed Ambra through the rebel outpost to a large round room. It was dimly lit, mostly by dozens of holographic stations. She saw views of the inside of the colony, with enforcers watching lines of people.

“What’s going on?”

“Partel is trying to root us out, but he can’t keep the people just sitting in their combs. He’s got to let them out, but he’s clamped down on everything.”

“And you can see all of this?”

“Yes, we’ve been monitoring the situation. He’s offering incentives for people to come forward with information on us.” Ambra’s pointed ahead. “We’re going to use the main display.”

Nellie recognized some of the people present. The team from the lab that she had met yesterday, Banner, Dexter and Anderson. There were other people waiting, all of them looking at her and Ambra as they approached.

“Ready for the big moment?” Dr. Banner asked Nellie.

She nodded.

Banner gestured to Ambra. “If you’d like to do the honors?”

“Thank you,” Ambra said.

Everyone around the room had stopped what they were doing and were standing, watching. Nellie felt very conspicuous standing in the center of it all, but no one looked unhappy. They were all watching Ambra.

“Thank you,” Ambra said again, louder. She turned, looking at the people. “Your sacrifices, everything we’ve accomplished has led to this moment. We almost didn’t get the chance.”

She put a hand on Nellie’s shoulder.

“This young woman, Nellie Walker, risked everything to get us the last few components we needed. Without her, we might have lost our chance. I’ve asked her to stand with us.”

Ambra’s hand dropped from Nellie’s shoulder. She gestured and a holographic display opened up before her at the center of the room.

“Initiator online,” Banner said.

“Okay. Let’s make the call. Give me Diaspora Base, Terra Blackstone.”

The Diaspora Group logo of planetary orbits appeared in the floating middle of the room. The tiny planets spun around the sun.

“I hope we don’t get a busy signal,” Ambra quipped.

Nellie grinned as nervous laughter flew around the room. The tension in the room eased up.

The logo faded away and a woman stepped out of nothingness. It was Blackstone, just as Nellie remembered her when she had visited the exodus habitat above Earth, before they left for Makemake. Blackstone was beautiful, with fair skin and wavy black hair. She wore a black workall, but on her it wasn’t baggy and shapeless. Her feet were bare, but her toenails were painted bright red, with golden flecks, just like her fingernails. It looked like she was really there, right in the room with them, but it had to be a holographic display. She looked around the room, and then focused on Ambra.

“Ambra Smith, it’s good to see you. I didn’t expect this call.” Blackstone’s red lips broke into a grin. “Really good considering Director Partel reported you as lost months ago.”

“There’s a lot that he’s been lying about, Terra. We need your help.”

Nellie listened as Ambra summed up what had happened since Partel had taken over. As she talked Banner started a data transfer, sending all the details, all the information on the illness that had swept over the exodus mission. Partel had seized the opportunity to gain power, and when they arrived at Makemake, he had used his people to seize control of the colony facilities. It was only then that Nellie realized, with a start, that Ambra Smith was the woman that had been in charge of Makemake before Partel arrived and took over.

When Ambra finished summing up what had happened, Blackstone spread her arms.

“I wish I could give you a hug! All of you!” Blackstone looked around the room. “I commend you all for your bravery. And I can help. Together, we can make things better. Now that you’ve created an initiator we can use that to seize control of the Makemake command core. I’ve got overrides to make that possible, but I haven’t been able to use them. Partel isolated the core from outside connections or I could have already used them to find out what was going on. He’s been using an isolated system to send us false reports.”

“We’re already tied into the colony systems,” Ambra said. “Just give us the word and we’re ready. If we can gain control of the command core, he won’t have any choice but to step down and face charges.”

Blackstone grinned. “It’s good to have you back. You’ve pulled off a miracle. It’s like you’ve come back from the dead, and I couldn’t be happier.”

“We almost didn’t make it,” Ambra said. “For all of our sacrifices, it eventually came down to a few key components and one brave young woman.”

Shocked, Nellie realized Ambra meant her again. Blackstone looked at her, and there was recognition in her eyes.

“This is Nellie Walker,” Ambra said. “She created a clever wingsuit, and used it to evade Partel’s people and get us the parts we needed to make this call. We wouldn’t be talking without her help.”

“I remember you,” Blackstone said. “You left here with your mother and your brother. Are they okay?”

Tears stung Nellie’s eyes. She shook her head. “Mama died when people got sick on the ships. It’s just been Ash and I since, and I don’t know what’s happened to him since the lockdown.”

Blackstone looked at Ambra.

“We’ll find out,” Ambra said. “We’re going to do everything we can to get you back to him safe.”

“We’ve got a lot to do,” Blackstone said. She looked back at Nellie. “Thank you, Nellie. Let’s take our colony back and make it what it should have been all along.”

Nellie nodded. “Okay.”

As the adults discussed what to do, Nellie bounced up and caught a grip in the ceiling. No one was using them, so she hung above it all by herself. It gave her a great view as Ambra, Blackstone and the rest planned what to do. Apparently Blackstone could use their connection and the initiator, to activate deep overrides in the colony’s command core that controlled, well, everything. Air, water recycling, power, the economy that Partel had set up, security, all of it. They could even control the emergency hatches and doors.

17

In the end, taking the colony back went smoothly. Partel never knew what was going on. Blackstone locked the place down, locked Partel and his people where they were and the rebels went out to seize control. As soon as the people realized what was happening, there was cheering throughout the colony.

Nellie followed the rebels back up to the colony, but then she left them and flew through the tunnels, using the wingsuit. She made it back to the warren in record time. She reached her comb and swung through the curtain to land on her feet.

Ash yelled and jumped at her. She was so surprised that she barely caught him with one arm, and a grip with the other to stop them from falling right out through the curtain.

He squeezed her tight and his body shook against hers. Nellie hugged him back.

“It’s okay. We’re okay,” she said. “Ambra Smith is back, she’s taking back over with Terra Blackstone’s help.”

Sniffling, Ash pulled back. “Really?”

“Really.” Nellie put Ash down. “They’re going to make things better, the way it should have been, the way Mama talked about it.”

“Where did you go? I thought they had arrested you!”

Nellie shook her head. “Sorry, Ash. I had to help, and Partel’s people chased me. I found the rebels, though, and helped them.”

“You did all of this?”

Nellie shook her head. “I only helped a little.”

“More than a little,” a voice said, behind them.

Both Nellie and Ash turned quickly. Terra Blackstone’s face was on Nellie’s tablet on her shelf, smiling.

“You must be Ash.”

He rubbed his nose and nodded.

“Your sister is very brave. She came through when it was needed and saved the colony.”

Nellie blushed. “I didn’t —”

“You made a difference,” Terra insisted. “And you’ve been carrying a bigger burden than you should have to carry alone. I’m going to personally make sure that you get the help you need. I’ll be checking up on you, I expect great things from you, and you, Ash, but you shouldn’t have to do it alone.”

“Thank you,” Nellie said.

“You’re welcome.” Blackstone grinned. “And that wingsuit you made? That’s a great idea for low-gravity worlds. I’m going to have someone work with you on getting that design out. I saw you on the cameras, amazing, beautiful. Are you okay?”

Nellie hugged Ash close. “We’re okay.”

“Great. I’ve got to go make sure Ambra has things in hand. We’ll be talking. Bye!”

Ash waved and then the tablet went blank. He turned and gaped up at Nellie.

“Don’t look at me like that.” She pointed at his tablet. “Just because we helped save the colony, it doesn’t mean that you get away with not studying. You still need to learn.”

Ash grinned and bounced over to pick up his tablet.

Nellie sat down on her side of the room, leaning against the wall. She wasn’t tired. Not yet. She was energized, like when she flew through the tunnels. All of that fear that she’d been carrying around was melting away, releasing her to soar.

14,359 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 13th weekly short story release, and the 13th Planetary Bodies story.

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 links at the top of the page or on the Books page. Check back next week for another Planetary Bodies story. Next up is Eris Revealed, the final story in the series. Starting June 1st I’ll continue posting weekly stories but they won’t be in this series. For the most part it will be stories from a variety of genres. Even if I didn’t write a single new story I have enough to keep doing weekly releases for a long time!

Haumea Exultant

The Diaspora Group colonized the solar system with a series of launches to the major planetary bodies. The first launches had the farthest to go, out into the dark outer reaches of the solar system.

Those left on Earth found themselves shut out from the solar system after a failed attempt to seize Diaspora’s base on Earth’s Moon.

Now Patricia Colby has an opportunity to open the door for those on Earth to join the effort to expand humanity’s frontiers.

1

The first successful jaunt happened on the snowball world of Haumea, at the far reaches of the solar system. One moment Patricia Colby was in the dark on Earth, and then in the next she opened her eyes in a room on another world.

As rooms went, the one she found herself in was small and bare, with dark walls and floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out on a twilight landscape of rock and ice. It seemed she was perched on the edge of an abyss. Cliffs dropped away into a wide chasm of reddish rock and bright frost. The room had an antiseptic, plastic smell common in closed in habitats and ships.

Light panels on the ceiling gave off a dim blue glow which left the room as dark the landscape outside. As Patricia sat up, the lights brightened. She felt barely tethered to the bench she found herself on, as if any movement might send her floating off to the ceiling. She moved with slow, careful movements, as she adjusted the to the circumstances of her arrival.

Arms and legs, all were working. She was wearing the same cream-colored suit that she had on when she lay down, the smart wool soft to the touch. Her feet remained bare to the cool air and looked perfectly normal, just as they had when she lay down in the sensory chamber. Even her nails were still peach-colored. Her hands also appeared unchanged. She flexed her fingers experimentally. If there was anything different about them, she didn’t detect the difference at all. Her hands looked completely normal, down to the scar over the base knuckle on her index finger where she had cut herself with a saw as a girl.

What amazing technology! If she hadn’t known that her body was still back on Earth, she wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference. Even her tongue still tasted faintly of the peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwich she had eaten before making the jaunt!

“Patricia? Are you alright?”

The voice came from behind her, a woman’s voice, pitched low, and filled with concern. Patricia twisted around, bracing herself on the bench.

There was a woman standing behind her, near the plain gray wall. She wore Diaspora’s standard workall, a black one-piece garment with many pockets, her black hair cut short above her shoulders. She had a stocky build and a wide slash of a smile. Patricia recognized her, Dr. Emily Green, the lead researcher on the Haumea jaunt project.

She wasn’t alone. Three other people stood with her. There was an older man, hair gone mostly gray that fell in waves around his broad face. He was tall, pushing against the height limits the Diaspora had in place back when the Haumea expedition set out. Dr. Max Highlet, the same Dr. Highlet that had developed the nano-neural circuitry.

Going left to right past him, was a young man, cute, with short brown hair and a scruffy beard. Patricia remembered his profile too, Dr. Riley Kinsey. A brilliant young man that had left a lucrative consulting business to join the mission.

And next to Riley was another woman with a severe, narrow face. She might have looked angry except for the fact that she was grinning. She was Dr. Corinne Shaw, one of Patricia’s personal heroes on the expedition. She’s was the one that had saved two other crew members during an impact event on the way out to Haumea.

Patricia swung her legs off the bench and stood. She bounced experimentally on her toes. Each flex took her inches off the floor and she was slow to drop back down.

 

“I’m fine,” Patricia said. “Everything appears to be working as expected.”

Emily studied a tablet she held, and tapped the screen. “Confirming that the link is holding strong. Neural activity looks normal.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Patricia said, laughing. She massaged her right hand with her left. “If I didn’t know better, I’d never suspect that this was an android body with a holographic overlay.”

“It’s a lot more than that,” the young man said. “The interface taps into your sensory memory to make it all real. As far as your brain can tell, you are here, on Haumea.”

“Except I’m not. My body is back in the sensory chamber on Earth. How come it seems so real? I thought this would be like a telepresence sort of thing.”

Corinne shook her head. “Thanks to the instantaneous communications network, the android feeds real-time feedback to you in the sensory chamber. Even on Earth your senses aren’t as perfect as they seem, the brain has ways of feeling in the gaps so that you don’t notice them. The same thing here.”

“I’d say.” Patricia smoothed her jacket. “Okay, then. Let’s get to work. What’s first?”

Emily pocketed the tablet. “Right now, we want you to rest. We’re going to check on the initiator and other components.”

“Rest? I didn’t jaunt across the solar system to rest. I don’t think this body even needs rest. I’d like to see the rest of the facility. That’s what Blackstone promised us.”

The negotiations between the United States and the Diaspora Group had been tense at times, given the previous’ administrations unfortunate and embarrassing efforts to seize Diaspora outposts at the Moon and Ceres. Actions that had led to the Diaspora Groups exodus from Earth.

Corinne took a step forward. “Please, Patricia. This is new. We don’t know the psychological impacts of this sort of displacement right now. Let’s take it slow. We’ll be back soon and talk more.”

The others were already moving out the door. Max Highlet stopped on his way out. “Hang in there, kid. It won’t be long.”

Then he was gone, and with a sympathetic smile, Corinne followed Emily out. Patricia bounded across the room in one large step. She was too slow and the door slid closed. She ran her hand across the panel beside the door.

No response.

She pried open the access panel in the door and pulled the manual release. It moved easily, too easily. They’d disconnected it. The release did nothing to open the door. She was locked in.

She hit the door with her fist. It echoed dully. “Hey!”

No response from the other side. Locked in? That wasn’t part of the deal.

Patricia turned, making a slow survey of the room. As she’d seen when she woke, it wasn’t a big room. Three or four meters on a side, with big floor to ceiling windows that took in the view. Even from across the room it was as if a single step would send her flying out over the deep canyon.

According to the briefing materials, the facility was located on the equator, on the edge of the massive chasm scooped out of the surface. An impacting body had hit a glancing blow on the dwarf planet, tearing up pieces of the crust and knocking it into a dizzying spin that had it rotating in just under four hours. In the holographic recording she’d seen, it was a weird, squashed world as the spin caused the equator to bulge out. The two small moons, Hi’iaka and Namaka spun around the odd world. Hi’iaka was nothing more than the biggest piece of Haumea that had been scooped out by the impact event.

She crossed the room in two light, tip-toe steps and stopped her forward momentum by touching the windows. The glass was cool to the touch, but not cold.

Outside the ground tumbled away in fractured layers. The shine on the reddish rocks indicated a layer of hard, amorphous ice. The cracked and broken rocks ended at a wide chasm which dropped away into black shadows below. The bottom wasn’t visible from here. Distant cliffs were clearly visible. Haumea lacked an atmosphere, so no haze to hide the cliffs.

This chasm was a treasure trove of resources and knowledge about the dwarf planet. It gave the colonists ready access to the resources they had needed to build this facility. The Workshop, that’s what they called it.

Too bad there wasn’t a door to the outside. In this android body, she could go walking outside, right out there to the edge of the cliff. According to the design specs, the body was tough enough to handle any of the solar systems harsh environments. Across the solar system, in all of the established Diaspora colonies, work was underway to manufacture more of these bodies. Coupled with the instantaneous communications network, it was going to open up the solar system. All the worlds would be open, provided that she didn’t screw this up. Earth needed Diaspora’s help to solve many of the ecological and economic challenges it faced.

And Diaspora needed the one resource that Earth had in abundance. People. Lots of people. A pool of humanity that Diaspora couldn’t match, but that could visit the Diaspora worlds in bodies like this one to work. And eventually, hopefully, Diaspora would return to Earth and open up immigration launches again.

She returned to the bench and sat facing the windows. It was a high bench and she swung her legs back and forth. She wasn’t going to screw this up. They knew everything she was doing, surely they were monitoring her android body, so she’d be patient and wait. That didn’t mean that she couldn’t get work done. She activated her glasses and the holographic display unfurled like flowers around her. She focused on the Haumea briefing materials and started reviewing what Diaspora had shared about the Workshop.

2

After two hours of waiting, Patricia’s stomach growled. She stopped pacing and pressed her hands to her stomach. How could she be hungry? The android body wasn’t going to get hungry. It must be from her real body back on Earth. That sandwich she’d grabbed on the way into the lab obviously wasn’t enough.

It wasn’t like she could eat anything like this. It’d have to wait. She wasn’t going to disconnect without seeing anything of the Workshop.

The door chimed and she turned around to face it.

It slid open, admitting Emily Green.

“I’m sorry about the delay, Patricia. You’ve been so patient, thank you.”

Earth needed this to work. She needed it for her career. “Not at all, Dr. Green.”

“Call me Emily, please.”

“Emily. You lived in Seattle, right? Before you left to work for the Diaspora Group?”

“Yes, that was the last place I lived, not counting the time I spent at our training facility in New Mexico.”

Patricia turned her hands over, palms up. “This must be pretty amazing to everyone here, too. If we manufacture these androids back on Earth, then you could visit Earth whenever you like.”

“Maybe.” Emily gestured to the door. “Shall we take that tour now?”

Patricia smiled. “I’d love to. Thank you.”

Emily walked out into to the corridor and Patricia followed. The corridor was wide and lined with planters growing with an abundance of vegetation, all of it edible or fruit-bearing. Patricia recognized lettuce, kale and spinach. Other plants looked like herbs, but she wasn’t enough of a gardener to recognize them all. Lights on the walls glowed warmly above the plants.

“This is lovely,” Patricia said, lightly touching the leaves. One of the plants with fuzzy leaves gave off a sharp mint smell as she ran her fingers across it. She lifted her fingers and sniffed. “Wow, I hadn’t realized how strong mint could be!”

“Smell was one of the most important senses to include in the android,” Emily said. “Even the subtle smell of other people, of sweat and bad breath, and all the rest, it is the sense that grounds you in reality at an unconscious level. Without it the experience would seem much less real.”

Patricia bent closer to the plants and inhaled the mingled fragrances of mint and basil and the earthy-smell of the containers. She stood up and laughed.

“That’s amazing!”

“This way,” Emily said, gesturing. “We have a lot more to show you. We’re very proud of what we’ve built here.”

As they walked, the corridor curved out in the direction of the cliffs. Sure enough, as they rounded the corner one whole wall of the corridor was nothing but big windows like those in the waiting room. A transparent wall that curved out over the chasm. The whole corridor was suspended out above the drop-off.

Emily stopped beside the windows, gazing out. The icy rocks were far, far below, like looking from the top of a skyscraper at the ground below. If there were supports holding up the corridor, they weren’t visible from the windows.

“Is this safe? It’s not going to fall or anything, is it?”

Emily shook her head. “No, we’re perfectly safe. With Haumea’s gravity we can build structures that are completely impossible on a higher gravity world.”

Patricia leaned out into the curve of the window. The whole chasm lay beneath her. “You’re going to make a fortune with tourists wanting to see this!”

“If tourists ever come here.”

Emily’s face was composed and neutral. She was obviously unwilling to give anything away. Patricia smiled, trying to trigger a response, but Emily’s expression didn’t change. Patricia straightened up.

“You don’t want tourism?”

“It may have its place, provided it doesn’t jeopardize what we’re building.”

“And what’s that?”

A hint of a smile touched Emily’s lips. “That’s what you’re here to see, isn’t it? Shall we continue?”

“Yes. After you.”

Emily gestured down the corridor and they continued their walk. The corridors were clean, well-lit, and attractive with the plants growing all along the walls. It gave it a wild touch. In places where vining plants grew up across the corridor there were light frameworks of thin, spider-web thickness structures, holding the plants.

“The plants must serve a purpose other than decorative,” Patricia said.

“Yes, they are integral to our environmental systems, as well as producing much of our food. We rely on them.”

“And you created all of this in the short time you’ve been here?”

“What else could we do? We came prepared to build our colony and the Workshop is the result.”

“Workshop, it’s called that because of the team that discovered Haumea?”

Emily nodded. “You’ve done your homework. For a short time they called this world Santa. The Workshop seemed an appropriate name, particularly when we got our first glimpse of the world.”

Jagged, icy rocks didn’t really bring Santa to mind, for Patricia. But who knew with these people? They had left Earth behind for a journey that lasted years to even get here. The Haumea expedition had been one of the first missions that the Diaspora Group had launched. They headed off for the far reaches of the solar system with only what supplies they could carry. These days, thanks to the beamed power stations that Mercury had constructed, and the solar sail network they continued to expand, transportation across the solar system was much faster.

And closed off from the Earth. Because of what had happened with the launch of the Lincoln, Earth lacked any access to space beyond lower Earth orbit. It was likely to stay like that unless Patricia and the other ambassadors talking to the Diaspora worlds could heal the rift between their worlds.

Emily kept walking, obviously leading her somewhere. It struck Patricia that they hadn’t passed anyone else in the corridors. They passed closed doors, connection corridors and walked through open common areas without seeing anyone else around. And it was quiet. A ghost town, or the inhabitants were staying out of their way.

“Where is everyone?” Patricia asked.

“Busy working,” Emily answered without breaking stride. “You’ll meet more of them later. We built the Workshop to accommodate population increases.”

“Children?”

“Yes, and there are two Exodus transports on the way here. They’ll arrive in six months.” Emily shook her head. “It’s so much faster now that the beamed power stations are up along with the solar sail production.”

“With the jaunt program, though, you can have workers here as fast as you can produce the android bodies.”

“It’s not just workers that we want. We’re trying to build a new human world here. We need people that will call this home.”

Patricia absorbed that and didn’t respond. What could she say? How many people would voluntarily give up their lives to come out here? You didn’t get much more in the middle of nowhere than Huamea. Except Diaspora also had outposts at Pluto, Makemake and Eris.

What kind of people were attracted to these small frozen worlds at the far reaches of the solar system? This was literally the tip of the iceberg, as studies showed over two hundred dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt alone, plus thousands beyond that region. In terms of sheer numbers, these worlds won hands down. And in the wrong hands the smaller bodies of the Kuiper Belt could be turned into deadly weapons. Already rumors circulated that Diaspora was sending automated solar sail missions out into the Kuiper region and beyond to snag icy comets and begin steering them on paths into the inner solar system. That possibility had no doubt caused her bosses more than one sleepless night!

If it was true, they’d have to talk about it at some point. Diaspora might claim that they were mining the cometary resources, or using them to terraform Mars, but if they could change the orbits of the comets then they also had both the upper ground and the most powerful weapons available. Extinction-level weapons if they wanted. Back home there were people already working on response scenarios if Diaspora decided to drop comets onto Earth.

Even just seeing what they had built here at Haumea, it was hard to imagine that Diaspora would attack Earth. Why would they? It didn’t gain them anything.

3

At last Emily stopped in front of an elevator. They still hadn’t seen anyone, but the sheer size of the Workshop was intimidating. This wasn’t a small facility dug into the ice. It went on and on, and now an elevator?

“Where are we going?”

“You’ll see,” Emily said.

The doors slid open. Emily gestured for Patricia to enter.

“Please, it’ll be worth it. I promise.”

Patricia walked into the elevator. It was spacious and well-lit. Emily joined her and the doors slid shut. The elevator shot up rapidly and for a second Patricia felt her weight increase. Only a fraction, but noticeable. Emily stood composed, her fingers interlocked, patiently waiting as the elevator rose.

Accessing her glasses, Patricia picked up the public display on the elevator. Floor numbers spun past, already at thirty and rising. In seconds it had reached sixty. Ninety. She gasped. The numbers continued climbing. It passed a hundred and twenty and she turned to face Emily.

“How is this possible?”

Now Emily smiled. She chuckled. “This is the Workshop. Anything is possible here.”

Three hundred and climbing fast.

Patricia requested more information from the system. Denied. The only thing she had access to was the public display.

An alert blinked in the corner of her eye. She focused on it and a new window opened up. It was a status alert from her android body. Her weight was decreasing. The android body only weighed a fraction of what it would have weighed on Earth anyway, but now those numbers were dropping. Instant weight loss when she didn’t need it.

Her weight dropped, and the elevator display increased.

They weren’t on Haumea any longer. The elevator was carrying them away from the planet.

“This is a ship?”

Emily shook her head. “It’s an elevator, just as it seems.”

“An elevator –” Ah. It clicked into place. “A space elevator? You’ve built a beanstalk?”

Emily spread her hands and gave a small shrug. “It isn’t the only one, you know about the station at Ceres?”

Yes. Everyone knew about the Ceres outpost, where the Lincoln, that ill-fated ship, had gone after failing to take over the Diaspora’s base on Luna.

“We have our own plans, of course,” Emily said. “Every world is different. We’re taking advantage of Haumea’s rapid rotation.”

Haumea rotated every 3.9 hours. It made sense, given the rapid rotation and the dwarf planet’s low mass, creating a beanstalk wouldn’t be that much of a challenge and it’d create an efficient delivery system.

Patricia’s weight continued to decrease to the point where her feet barely touched the floor. She bounced her toes against the floor and rose up into the air. Emily joined her, laughing.

“I always love change-over!” Emily spun in a somersault in mid-air.

Patricia touched the ceiling and stopped her upward drift. She pushed back off into the air and tumbled. The elevator walls spun around her. A hand caught her calf, Emily was holding onto the rail mounted around the elevator and was steadying her.

“Thanks,” Patricia gasped. “I’ve never been weightless before!”

Her readout showed her weight beginning to increase again, but she was drifting toward what had been the ceiling before. “We’re still going?”

“All the way out,” Emily said.

Patricia drifted on down until her feet touched down on the new ‘floor,’ which was covered in the same textured material as the new ‘ceiling’ above. They’d passed through the geostationary point above Haumea without stopping. Now, as they continued along the beanstalk, the centrifugal forces were acting on them. Her weight continued to climb as the effective g-forces grew.

“How much longer?”

“Not long.”

Indeed, soon the elevator slowed. By the time it came to a stop Patricia’s displays showed the effective gravity at .75 gee, three-quarters of what she would weigh on Earth.

As the doors slid open, Emily said, “Welcome to the Cottage.”

4

Unlike the Workshop below, the Cottage was anything but a ghost town. As soon as the elevator doors slid open, and Patricia peeked out, two people stepped up to the doors.

It was Max Highlet and Corinne Shaw, both of them grinning at her.

“Welcome!” Max boomed, throwing his arms wide and nearly hitting Corinne.

Corinne neatly avoided him, stepped forward and extended her hand to Patricia. “Come with us.”

Patricia let herself be led out of the elevator, only to discover that Emily wasn’t following. The other woman waved from the elevator.

“I’m going back down,” Emily said. “We’ll talk later!”

The doors whisked shut before Patricia could say anything.

Max took Patricia’s other elbow as Corinne released her. “Are you afraid of heights?”

“Not really.”

“Good. Let’s go.”

She let herself be guided by him as she took in her new surroundings. The walls and floors were gray and hard beneath her bare feet, and slightly rough. The material looked almost pitted, like pumice. There was a curved wall around the elevator but no ceiling above. The wall stopped at about eight feet up, while the cylindrical elevator shaft continued on and on up for at least a couple hundred feet before it passed through a geodesic lattice across the dark sky filled with Huamea, as white as snow except for the large reddish scar.

Patricia stopped, gaping at the planet hanging above them. It filled the sky while the line of the elevator shaft shrank into nothingness before it reached the planet.

Corinne touched her shoulder. “There’s a lot more to see, and better places to see it from.”

Patricia dropped her gaze and met Corinne’s eyes. They were dark, and sympathetic.

Earth was so far behind Diaspora when it came to space exploration. Somehow Terra Blackstone had led the Diaspora Group into leap-frogging over any of the baby steps, to full-blown colonization. It was chilling, and overwhelming. Her brain skipped as the image of that elevator rising to the planet above came back to mind. She glanced up, just a second, and for a dizzying moment felt as if she would simply fall to the planet.

Patricia hugged herself. “Yeah, okay. Let’s go.”

Her guides stayed close by her sides. The curved wall ended in an opening and they walked out under what seemed like bright sunlight, except it came from lamps scattered around the habitat.

There were trees, bushes and gardens, and then open areas with tables and workstations. It looked as if someone had taken all of the areas that were normally in an office building and simply scattered them around randomly through a park. The path they were on didn’t run straight, there weren’t any straight lines, just pathways that twisted and curved around, branching and spreading throughout the habitat. It was flat either, the paths dipped and rose, climbing around and up small hills. A flower-scented breeze caressed her face. A pair of bright yellow finches flew past, in a twisting and diving chase. From somewhere out of sight came the soft sounds of a stream.

And the people! Everywhere she looked, there were people. Mostly wearing Diaspora workalls, although the color varied. Some stood or sat at workstations, while others were moving with a purpose. Still others lounged on the grass, talking or reading or interacting with interfaces only they could see on their glasses. The bustling activity of the Cottage calmed her. This was why the Workshop had been so empty.

“You’re all up here, all the time?”

“Not all the time,” Max said. “You haven’t lived until you’ve gone skiing on Mt. Warlock!”

“It’s adaptive loss,” Corinne said. “If we spent all of our time on Haumea, we’d lose muscle and bone mass in the low gravity. Out here, we need places like this for both our mental and physical health.”

“I didn’t know any of this existed,” Patricia said. “It’s incredible.”

They continued walking, and it almost seemed like there was no end to the path. With all of the branches, and the twisty, curvy nature of it, you could probably walk for hours without retracing your steps. After a few minutes the path led them to a bridge, made of pumice beams, that arched over the small stream meandering through the habitat. The stream bed was covered in rough gravel, the water was only a couple feet deep. Patricia stopped on the bridge.

“Where did all of this come from?”

Max leaned on the wide railing. “Haumea. She provides all that we need.” He pointed at the stream. “That rock. This bridge. The water flowing beneath us, it all came from Haumea. She’s the provider for us all.”

“We brought the seed stocks and animal embryos,” Corinne added. “This looked much different, not too long ago!”

Max chuckled. “Yep. When this was all bare ground? It was a mess, but almost everything we’ve planted has done well in our processed soil.”

Patricia’s stomach growled, reminding her that she wasn’t really here. No matter how it seemed at the moment. She was back on Earth, her senses receiving all of the sensory input from the android body via instantaneous communications link. She focused on her status icon lurking in the corner of her vision and it unfurled in front of her.

Nearly four hours had passed since she initiated the jaunt! Her mission parameters had put a cap on this first excursion at five hours. Then she would automatically disconnect.

“I don’t have much longer,” she said to her guides. “Maybe we should find a place where we can talk? I have several topics my superiors have asked me to address.”

“Of course,” Corinne said. “Just a little farther now.”

5

The conference area sat on top of a hill bisected by the outer wall of the dome. There was a stone table, impressively solid and polished to a high shine, and comfortable, printed ergonomic chairs like those you’d find in any corporate office back home. Max and Corinne took two chairs with their backs to the dome and the unnerving drop off into the void, and Patricia took a chair at the end of the table.

From this vantage point, she could see the bumpy terrain of the Cottage spread out beneath them, with the intricate swirling pathways, work areas and bountiful gardens. Overhead the elevator stalk climbed up to invisibility and the planet overhead.

“This was worth the walk,” she said, sitting down. When she looked out, through the transparent wall of the dome, there was a bright bauble far off in space. A thin line ran from that bright object toward Haumea. She slightly rose up again, leaning on the table with one hand and pointed.

“Is that another habitat?”

Corinne reached over and patted Patricia’s hand. “You should sit down,” she said.

Looking at the seriousness in Corinne’s face, mirrored in Max’s face, Patricia sank back down into the chair.

“What is it?”

“That’s not one of ours,” Max said. His gaze was on his hands, now he looked up and cleared his throat. “It was here when we arrived.”

Here when they arrived? It wasn’t possible. No one else had launched any expeditions out to Haumea. It couldn’t have happened without setting off every defense system back on Earth.

Earth. Patricia looked at Max, eyes widening in shock. Earth. Not anyone from Earth.

“Alien?” The word squeaked out.

Their expressions confirmed Patricia’s question. She sank back into the chair. Nothing in the briefing had dealt with this news, the existence of this habitat, or the space elevator. Space elevators, if she counted the alien habitat.

Max gestured and a hologram rose above the surface of the table. It was Haumea, a portion of the surface, rising up out of the stone. Down on the surface was a conical structure, from which rose a bright line that ended in a tear-drop shape. That was the habitat. Given the shape, there was more to it beneath the park-like surface. Of course there had to be systems to help manage the environment, recycle the water, and all the rest.

The holographic Haumea turned and another line rose from the surface. It was longer than the first one, and the habitat was differently shaped, conical and flattened on the top, or would that be the bottom if you were inside?

Patricia folded her arms on the tables cool surface and leaned closer to soak in as much detail as she could about the alien structure. The stalk was different, six lines rose from the surface to the habitat. The habitat itself looked solid. There were windows, but it wasn’t as open as the Cottage’s geodesic structure. It had the same sort of conical shape as the Workshop. But why would the Workshop have the same shape as the alien habitat. Unless?

“Wait.” Patricia turned to Corinne and Max. “The Workshop was already here too?”

“Yes,” Corinne said.

Stunning. Absolutely stunning.

“It was empty, and damaged,” Max said. “There was an impact event that had damaged the structure and collapsed the beanstalk.”

“So you built a new one?”

Corinne nodded. “We repaired the Workshop, restored the environmental systems and moved in. It gave us a head start. We used our own equipment to construct the beanstalk, but having the Workshop meant we didn’t need to establish the base station. We just used what was already there after we fixed it and cleared out the debris.”

A thousand questions buzzed in Patricia’s brain. Her time remaining for the jaunt was limited, and this changed everything. Still, their story bothered her, and then she realized why.

“The aliens hadn’t repaired the damage. Why not?”

“They weren’t here,” Max said.

“It was abandoned long before the impact took out the beanstalk,” Corinne added. “Dating the materials is difficult, but based on weathering from micro impacts, we estimate that the structures are at least a million years old. Possibly much older, it’s hard to say.”

Max moved his hands, pulling and manipulating the holographic display. Haumea shrank as he pulled it up, and rotated. Another beanstalk came into view, and then another. He turned the display so that the beanstalks were parallel to the table top. Haumea spun around and, Patricia counted them, there were a dozen beanstalks rising from the dwarf planet’s equator. Seen at this scale, the human-built beanstalk was obviously different. Shorter and the habitat was smaller, rounder.

“Oh. Wow,” Patricia said. “It wasn’t only the one.”

“No,” Corinne said. “Far from it. There’s a sub-surface transportation network connecting them all.”

“And it’s all abandoned?”

Max nodded his shaggy head, his face gone long and mournful. “A long time ago.”

A chime sounded in Patricia’s ear. An alert popped up in her vision. Only ten minutes left before her connection ended.

“My time for this jaunt is nearly over,” Patricia said. “I need to know what this means for our talks.”

“Our resources are limited,” Corinne said. “Our population is small. We haven’t even finished cataloging and exploring the Workshop, and there are eleven others on the surface, as well as evidence of other structures. Plus the habitats and beanstalks. We’re going to need help.”

“You’re going to give us access to all of this?”

“Supervised access, yes,” Max said. “A partnership. We have a list of scientists on Earth that we’d like to invite to jaunt out and help with this project.”

“And we get open access to everything that is discovered?”

Corinne said, “Yes. Provided that you provide open access to everyone on Earth. This isn’t information only for your country, or your government.”

That was going to be a bitter pill for some, Patricia knew. They’d have to swallow it. Without the Diaspora Group’s cooperation and technology, they were still locked up on the planet. In the exodus, the Diaspora Group had taken all their key personnel, material and had wiped what they left behind. Even with access to all of Diaspora’s old launch sites, the United States wasn’t any closer to a presence in the solar system.

“I think I can convince them of that,” Patricia said. “We want to work with you.”

“That’s good,” Max said. “Remember that and we’ll get along fine.”

The holographic model continued rotating in front of her. Patricia reached out and stopped the rotation. She gestured and the view zoomed in on one of the alien habitats. The conical structure reminded her of a seashell, spiraling around up to the point where it connected with the beanstalk. In the close-up, weathering and pitting was visible on the gray skin. The dark glints of windows refused to reveal anything of the interior. Turning it over, with the beanstalk rising above it, the shape also brought to mind yellow jacket nests. What secrets did it hold inside?

Another chime sounded. Her time was almost up.

“Are these the same aliens as the ones that visited Titan?”

Max shrugged.

Corinne glanced at him, then back to Patricia. “We don’t know. The map that the Titan visitors left behind didn’t indicate anything about Haumea, and we haven’t seen anything like it here. My gut tells me that we’re dealing with a different species here.”

“Your gut?” Max chuckled. “Truth is, we don’t know either way.”

“That’s true,” Corinne said. “Give us enough time, and I think we will know. There’s even a chance that the red spot, the impact that sent Haumea spinning like a top, was engineered by the aliens.”

“We don’t know that,” Max said quickly.

Patricia’s timer flashed. She only had another minute. There wasn’t time for everything, not with this jaunt. The idea that these visitors had engineered Haumea specifically to create this network of beanstalks was amazing. Breath-taking. The holographic display rotated in front of her like a brilliant snowflake with branches reaching out.

“Tomorrow.” Patricia said. “I’ll jaunt back tomorrow. We can start making plans. Okay?”

“Yes,” Max said.

The last thing Patricia saw was Corinne, smiling past the display and then the darkness enveloped her.

6

Patricia’s heart beat audibly in her ears as the light came back. The sensory chamber’s acoustic panels damped down all noises until her own pulse was loud. She hung suspended above the baffling in the interface suit that covered her entire body in the stretchy material and support bands.

The door opened as the cables lowered her to the floor, and people rushed in to help in a flurry of lab coats.

Patricia let them work at unfastening her, freeing her from the suit. It was so strange, even though only hours had passed, to be back here. On Earth. She pictured that snow-white world turning, with the alien beanstalks reaching out into space. In the space of a blink she had traveled across the solar system from the inner reaches to the outer edge.

A face appeared in front of her. She focused on the pockmarked face, the intense blue eyes. Marcus Finch, her boss, was beaming at her as her grabbed the sides of her head.

“You were fabulous!”

“I’m going back,” she said. Flatly, daring him to deny her. “Tomorrow.”

“Yes. Yes, fuck yes!”

Tomorrow, she’d jaunt back. Eventually, Diaspora would return to Earth and the launches would resume. When they did, she would go and see Haumea herself, in the flesh. Until then, there was the jaunt, which would open the entire solar system to people everywhere. And who knew? Maybe someday they would reach beyond the solar system, to other worlds, and discover more about these mysterious visitors that had left their mark and moved on.

6,241 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 12th weekly short story release, and the 12th Planetary Bodies story. The last couple stories visited Pluto-Charon, a binary dwarf planet system. When I see people talk about whether or not Pluto should be called a planet, it’s often just that it was called a planet when we were kids. I grew up with the idea that there were nine planets in the solar system. Nine’s an easy number to deal with and you can remember them all without much effort. How about 10,000? That’s an estimate that includes not only potential dwarf planets in the solar system and the Kuiper belt but also those scattered beyond. Ceres, seen in Embracing Ceres, was also originally called a planet for about fifty years. Currently the International Astronomical Union (IAU) recognizes five dwarf planets, and those are the ones that I’ve included in the Planetary Bodies series.

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 links at the top of the page or on the Books page. Check back next week for another Planetary Bodies story. Next up is Makemake Released. After that is Eris Revealed, the final story in the series. Starting June 1st I’ll continue posting weekly stories but they won’t be in this series. For the most part it will be stories from a variety of genres. Even if I didn’t write a single new story I have enough to keep doing weekly releases for a long time!

Caressing Charon

Going to a new world doesn’t mean leaving everything behind. Sharon excelled when it came to science. With people? Not so much.

When the first exploration of Charon takes an unexpected twist, and the mission commander takes an unplanned trip to Pluto, Sharon improvises while she seeks answers to questions she has asked her entire life.

1

On the fourth day without word from the Veil, Sharon went outside and looked up at Pluto hanging in the sky overhead. She bounded across Charon’s icy surface—it was a dirty snowball of a moon—in great seven-league steps like a superhero.

Okay, so each leap wasn’t seven-leagues, but it was still pretty freaking amazing. Zero-gee on the ship always felt like falling. Falling and falling for months on the way out. Here gravity held sway but only a fraction of that on Earth. Far less, even, than on Earth’s moon.

Her spacesuit smelled of days of sweat and trapped farts. She hadn’t left her suit since the trouble started. The others didn’t even notice when she left, they were too busy having sex. Almost non-stop. They’d take breaks to eat, sleep, and even use the lavatory, but that was all that they did. The six of them had been sent by their commander, Angie Tran, to establish a toehold on Charon and evaluate its potential to resupply the Veil. At first, that’s what they’d done.

Until it all changed.

The holographic heads-up display highlighted a dot in a bright orange highlight. A point of light that moved in the sky across the Pluto’s rusty face. The Veil. Two weeks ago, she’d gotten the message that Angie Tran had abandoned the ship for Pluto’s surface, leaving McMurty in charge. That didn’t make any sense at all. Angie would never give up command of the ship or the mission. It was all their petite commander had ever dreamed of, or had wanted. She’d made that clear on the way out. Never pairing up with anyone.

Sharon landed, and slowed, one smaller bounce following the next. No way to come to a sudden stop, not without toppling over onto the crusty ice. Windmilling her arms didn’t help, but that was instinct. She’d always been tall, pushing the limits the Diaspora Group set for crew members, and she’d always joked that her feet were so far from her head that the two didn’t communicate.

Kicking up final sprays of sparkling ice crystals, she managed to stop. Her rank breath echoed in her helmet. She squinted at the display and blinked open the communications channels.

Veil, come in please. Veil, this is Sharon Calvert on Charon. Come in.” Sharon on Charon. She’d heard the jokes about that and always pronounced Charon with a hard ‘k’ sound. Not that it helped.

I’ve got a bone for you, Sharon, Boyd had said back when they were still on the Veil. Now he was busy giving it to everyone else back at the habitat.

Hilarious stuff.

It was all a joke to them. All those months on the Veil, watching the others pair off, break up, and pair off with other partners. It wasn’t like there was any privacy. Nancy Walters squealed like she had won a big prize whenever she came. She and McMurty were an item at first, but by the time the ship had reached Pluto-Charon, she must have gone through half the men on the ship.

 

Not Sharon. No one sought out her company after hours. She was tall and plain. Horse-faced, according to kids in school. None of that mattered when it came to getting the work done. Then she had their respect. She was always smart. She’d seen Terra Blackstone give a speech early on about the potential of the Diaspora Group and her bold vision of sending out missions to every world in the solar system. Why decide which world to colonize, to put all of humanity’s hopes into one basket, when there was so much to choose from? It had sounded impossible, but Blackstone lived to make the impossible a reality. Sharon had applied for a position immediately.

And she’d never looked back. She’d worked on every stage of the missions, working her way up, and made it onto the crew of the very first ship to launch, the Veil. All of the outer worlds launches were happening first because they had the farthest to go. Just the opposite of what others would have done, going for the nearby worlds first.

Veil. This is Sharon Calvert. Come in.”

No response. The ship was right there, tracking across the sky. They should be picking up the transmission. What was going on up there that Angie Tran was off the ship? Soon the Veil would head back the other direction. It orbited the barycenter of the Pluto-Charon system, on a faster track than Pluto and Charon spinning around the same point in space. The position gave them ready access to either world.

“Sharon Calvert, calling Veil. Come in.” Please.

Silence. Sharon focused on the command menus and blinked her way to the diagnostics. Displays flitted across her view. All of the communications equipment reported functional.

“Calvert, calling Veil, come in.”

Sharon bounced in place. Charon, the trampoline world. Except the icy ground didn’t give much when she came down.

Veil. Come in. Come on, McMurty, Tran, somebody up there must be in charge! Answer me!”

She landed and ice crumbled beneath her boot. Not much, a few inches compacted by her jumping but she stumbled. She fell forward, but even that was happening slowly. She had plenty of time to get her hands beneath her. Her thick gloves touched the dirty ice and stopped her fall. She flicked her fingers against the ground and that was enough to get her started up.

Once she regained her feet she turned carefully away from the view. Time to go check on the pod.

2

The Charon landing site was only a couple kilometers from where they’d set up base as near to the geysers as they dared to get. Sharon bounced to a stop and sucked in big gulps of her foul tasting air. Although she had recharged the system only yesterday, her air was turning foul. The suit wasn’t designed to be lived in around the clock for days. Even with the catheter, it wasn’t like she could actually clean herself down there. The suit did its best to remove waste into the external storage bags but she still was beginning to smell like the inside of an outhouse crossed with a gym locker room.

The landing pod that had brought them to the surface squatted just down the slope, on a relatively smooth patch of rocky ground. Rocks from the size of boulders, down to pebble-size littered the field. Ice frosted the ground between the rocks. It wasn’t a clear landing place, only thirty meters behind the pod was a boulder that out-massed the pod. Despite the hazards, the rocky field presented one of the best opportunities to land. The worst case would have been to come in to land on a surface that was mostly ice where the landing thrusters might vaporize the ice and cause all sorts of hazards.

And they had the advantage of the pod’s six legs and flexible feet to deal with the uneven terrain. Sharon had a hand in designing the pods. The ability to land on uneven terrain was one of the key design features.

She bounced over to the lander in small leaps, watching her footing. The suit protected her to a point, but a bad landing could still break an ankle or leg.

The pod was a lot bigger close up. It rose above, sleek and bullet-shaped. A fine frost made the hull glisten and sparkle. Even with the rocks, there had been enough ice for the rockets to kick up a fine cloud of water vapor that instantly froze out on the hull.

Beneath the pod was a big gaping opening. That’s where the habitat sled and their supplies had been stored for the journey. The Veil carried a number of the landing pods, each equipped with the same habitats and supplies. A colony in a box, Blackstone had called it. Enough to get them established while they developed local resources and built a permanent colony.

Sharon moved into the shadow. The temperature readout along the edge of her vision dropped even more as the temperature plunged in the shadow. The suit fans and pumps kicked a notch higher to keep her from freezing. Alongside one of the legs was the ladder leading up into the shadowy belly of the pod.

She climbed up.

The hatch was clear of any frost. It had been protected on landing and without any atmosphere, there wasn’t anything to cause more frost to form. Sharon’s suit system interfaced with the pod’s, waking the dormant systems. A holographic access control appeared on the hatch. Sharon entered her code. Bright blue lights twinkled on around the hatch and pulsed as the hatch slid smoothly open.

She climbed up into the airlock and activated the cycle.

3

An hour later Sharon stepped from the pod’s tiny shower feeling clean for the first time in days. Her short blond hair was damp as she scrubbed at it with her towel. Her underwear clung to her skin and the cold air raised goosebumps on her arms. Still, she was loathe to even put on one of Diaspora’s standard issue workalls. She was clean!

The pod was small. In a pinch it served as a habitat itself. It was a multifunctional vehicle capable of taking off and returning her back to the Veil.

Except she couldn’t launch. Not without knowing the situation on the Veil, and not until she understood what was happening back at Charon Base. So far whatever had happened in the habitat hadn’t affected her, or infected her. That’s why she was staying in the suit while she tried to figure it out. Either something about the moon, or something that the others were exposed to, was behind this. Even if she was in touch with the Veil she couldn’t go back until she knew it was safe. She’d meant to inform Veil that Charon was quarantined, except she couldn’t get in touch with them.

Sharon climbed up into the cockpit at the top of the pod. It wasn’t difficult in the low gravity. She swung her legs up around and settled on her back in the command chair. She fastened the safety belts out of habit, and brought up the main system.

The pod controls came online. Sharon brushed aside the launch controls, and selected the communications system. She brought up the radio systems.

Veil, come in. This is Sharon Calvert, calling Veil. Please respond.”

Dead air answered.

Sharon pulled up the interfacing controls and pinged the Veil. A response came back as expected. Good. The ship wasn’t dead then. She opened up a socket and stabbed the command to make a network connection.

A miniature solar system model spun in front of her, Diaspora’s logo, and progress icon. The planets spun around and around. After a few seconds a message appeared on the screen.

“Bandwidth unavailable. Retry?”

Bandwidth? How was that even possible? There wasn’t anyone out here for the Veil to communicate with, and if there was, they should still have plenty of bandwidth to handle all the traffic that was necessary.

She dug deeper, running remote diagnostics. The Veil’s response was sluggish. It took the better part of an hour before she unearthed an answer.

Almost all of the Veil’s computing and communications capacity was being used. Other than normal life-support and other key ship systems, everything else was taken up with something else.

What? Sharon couldn’t get an answer from the system. Her access was extremely limited, down to a few basic diagnostics. She couldn’t change anything on the Veil, couldn’t even get access.

Sharon stabbed her fingers into the holographic controls to disconnect.

She leaned her head back and looked out through the windows. Pluto hung up there in the dark sky. From here it didn’t look small. It looked like a whole planet, dwarf planet or not. The view reminded her somewhat of seeing the Earth from the moon’s surface in training.

What was going on with the Veil? Angie Tran had left the ship for Pluto, after she’d taken the time to set up automated monitoring stations and was insistent on learning all they could about the planet before landing?

And why would Veil cut off communication with Charon?

Was it related to what was happening here, with the others? Was that why Angie had left the ship? Had she picked up on the signs, the same as Sharon had, and fled to Pluto’s surface? If that was the case then the only other person that could help her was up there, on Pluto. And out of reach.

Unless Sharon launched the pod and flew it to Pluto. If she could do that, and find Angie, maybe together they could figure out what was happening.

Except the major flaw with that plan was that the pod was not equipped for the trip. Sharon could take off, even plot an orbit that would send her to Pluto’s surface, but she wouldn’t have enough fuel to land when she got there. Crashing on Pluto didn’t sound like the best option. If that wasn’t enough, she also didn’t have any idea where Angie was on the surface. Pluto might be a small planet compared to others in the solar system but it still had over six million square miles of surface area, almost as big as South America. Any way to look at it, that was a lot of area to cover.

Sharon rubbed her eyes. She hadn’t gotten much sleep the past few days. She was tired. Exhausted from trying to figure out what was happening to her team, and from spending days in that suit. She needed rest. Then maybe she could figure out something else to do.

The chair was comfortable. She closed her eyes. She’d rest here, and figure it out tomorrow. Maybe the Veil would be back in communication then, and she could get some help. Until then, at least she was safe.

4

A dull clang rang through the pod. Sharon woke, her heart racing. For a second she didn’t even recognize where she was, except she was out of her suit and only wearing her underwear. The others!

Again, something banged against the pod.

Sharon rolled off the cockpit chair and dropped down into the living quarters section beneath. She landed lightly on her bare feet. The indicators on the airlock showed the exterior door was open.

She crouched and opened the interface. There wasn’t a locking mechanism on airlocks. She opened the internal comm system and cameras. Two of them, in spacesuits, were in the airlock. It didn’t give her a good look into their helmets. She couldn’t see who it was.

“Go back,” she said. “Stay out!”

“Sharon, come on.” That was Boyd. Golden-skinned, seductive dark eyes and lush lips. “We’re not going to hurt you.”

“It’s okay, Sharon.” That was Nancy the squealer. Her voice was high, but soft.

The last time Sharon had seen her, Nancy was on top of Terry, her back arching, while Jenny suckled at her pert white breast. She was such a tiny thing and spunky.

“It’s not. It’s not okay,” Sharon said. “You have to stay out. You’re all sick! Infected with something. Something from the ice, maybe. There’s something about this place, and it’s gotten into you.”

“There’s nothing wrong with us,” Boyd said. “Maybe we’ve gotten carried away, but we’re fine.”

Sharon shook her head. Her breath caught in her throat. Normal people. Rational people, they didn’t spend days in a never-ending orgy. They did research. They explored.

In her mind she saw Boyd intertwined with Kevin, who reminded her of Mr. Miller, her sixth-grade math teacher. Like Mr. Miller, Kevin had a round belly that went with his round face. They even both had curly hair. It was completely wrong to see Kevin like that!

“Sharon, we’re going to come in and talk to you,” Nancy said.

The airlock cycle was nearly complete. They’d be in and she’d be exposed. She couldn’t get back into her suit before the airlock finished its cycle. There wasn’t time.

“Don’t,” Sharon said. “Just stay out. When I get in touch with the Veil, we’ll figure out how to help you.”

“We’re worried about you, Sharon.” Boyd’s voice did sound concerned. “We invited you to join us.”

“No one meant for you to feel excluded,” Nancy said. “You chose not to join in. That wasn’t our fault.”

Sharon hugged her arms, nails digging into her skin. That wasn’t the way it was. They were all like animals, wallowing in sex. Back on the Veil people partnered up, but even in Nancy’s case it was normal. People found privacy where they could on the ship and if you heard something you pretended that you didn’t. On a voyage that long it wasn’t realistic to expect people to remain celibate. She knew that, whether or not anyone was interested in her. She was okay with being the odd-ball, on her own. That wasn’t a problem. It was just people, finding what comfort they could, not a ship-wide orgy.

The indicator on the airlock showed seventy-five percent pressure inside the airlock. When it reached a hundred percent the inner door would open and Nancy and Boyd would climb inside. They’d take off their helmets and she’d be exposed.

Would they try to touch her? She shivered.

What if they didn’t?

Which would be worse?

Ninety-five percent.

The cockpit! It had its own door, and could be closed off from the rest of the ship. Sharon moved, leaping up the shaft, using the ladder as she moved up past the living quarters to the cockpit. She was almost there when the hatch abruptly hissed shut in front of her.

“No!”

Sharon hit the hatch and bounced off. She caught the rungs inset into the wall/floor and struck the hatch with her feet. The indicator on the side showed it was sealed.

Something moved beneath her. Sharon looked down, past her bare feet, down through the living areas arranged around the central shaft. The first person was climbing through. The bright green on the shoulders, and the smaller size, meant that it was Nancy coming through first. Visible behind her was Boyd’s suit with his bright blue shoulder patches.

Sharon swung into the nearest workstation behind the cockpit bulkhead. It was only a gimbaled seat with holographic screens. One of four identical workstations set up around the shaft behind the cockpit where the crew could work using the pod’s systems. She tucked her feet up on the seat and hugged her knees to her chest.

“Sharon, honey? You don’t need to be scared.” Nancy’s voice was soft, and clear. Not coming through speakers. That was just her talking.

Sharon leaned enough to look down.

Nancy stood on one side of the hatch. Her helmet was off. Her black pixie-cut hair hung loose around her pale face. She had beautiful skin and pale pink lips.

Across from her, Boyd lifted his helmet free. He twisted around to stow the helmet and then looked up. His dark eyes met hers. He smiled, his full lips parting to reveal perfect white teeth.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of, Sharon. We’re not going to hurt you.”

A sigh escaped from Sharon’s lips. That was it then. If they were infected with something, some ancient microorganism that had been sleeping in Charon’s ices, she was exposed now. When this had all started, she had come back from a survey mission, gathering core samples from a search grid around the geyser field. When she had come back into the habitat, they were all naked. All of them, together. She had just turned around and gone back outside.

After all her time on the Veil, and in training for the mission, she hadn’t realized how much she missed simply going outside. Of course on Charon she still had to wear a suit, but she didn’t care about that. It was just like wearing clothes.

She’d never seen a landscape like Charon’s before. It was a bluish tan gray color, not that different from the moon, but with much more water ice. The areas around the geysers were brighter and sparkled from frost. From space it looked something like a speckled egg with the older surfaces being darker than the fresh younger surfaces where water ices coated the surface. The surface was rippled in spots too, from impact shockwaves that had traveled through the surface and froze in place before settling. The bright distant sun was small, and yet still illuminated enough of the surface to see. That alone made it look much more alien than the Earth’s moon.

“Sharon?” Boyd said. “What are you doing?”

She took a breath. “Nothing. Thinking.”

“We didn’t mean to exclude you,” Nancy said. “We’re sorry. One thing led to another, we were fooling around, and got carried away.”

“You could have joined in,” Boyd said. “No one would have minded.”

They wouldn’t have minded? What did that even mean?

“You didn’t seem interested.”

“No one ever asked me,” Sharon said, her voice barely a whisper.

“What?” Boyd said.

She couldn’t say it again. It was too embarrassing. She wasn’t a virgin. There was Chad Gehrke, her first year in college. Her only one-night stand, and it was an awkward, uncomfortable experience. The condom he wore had actually come off during sex and she spent the next two weeks until her period terrified that she was going to get pregnant the first time she had sex. And after that, she’d dated Steven Painter. Sex with Steven was just something they did like clockwork once a week, on Saturday night. It never lasted more than a few minutes, after which Steven fell asleep.

No one had ever made her squeal like Nancy.

Nancy appeared beside her, hanging onto the rungs with one hand and boot. Sharon shrank back in her chair but there was nowhere she really could go. She filled the space. She’d made sure the seats were built to accommodate someone her size, but they still felt like kid chairs.

Nancy wasn’t wearing her gloves any more. She had on the rest of her suit still, but her hands were as bare as her head. Her nails were painted green, like her suit. She reached out.

Sharon watched Nancy’s hand. It was small, the nails neatly trimmed and short, but green. A shiny lime green color. She must have used a portion of her personal weight allotment to bring cosmetics, which was just weird. Of all of the things to bring out to the far reaches of the solar system, Nancy had brought fingernail polish? Or had she manufactured it on the ship? It might be possible, but Sharon had never stopped to ask the question. She wouldn’t have thought about it.

Nancy’s fingers brushed Sharon’s ankle, caressed the smooth skin and then higher, tickling the soft hairs on her leg. Sharon closed her eyes, her throat tightening while Nancy’s hand moved in small circles against the light hairs. Nancy shaved her legs, and more, Sharon had seen that in the habitat.

“No one is going to hurt you, Sharon.”

She didn’t open her eyes but she smelled Boyd when he drew close, the salty masculine smell of him. His breath was warm against her shoulder. His soft lips touched the skin and she shivered again.

Her eyes opened. She looked at the two of them, hanging easily beside her chair. “Why? What caused this? There has to be something about Charon that caused it!”

Nancy’s pink lips twitched in a small smile. “In a way, I guess. At least for me. It was one thing on the ship. Cramped. Everybody was always around. Then we came here.”

“It’s so big,” Boyd said. His lips grazed her shoulder. “We walked out on the ice and there was a whole world.”

“That’s right.” Nancy looked at Sharon with bright eyes. “You’ve seen it. A whole empty world. We’re alone out here, this small pocket of humanity. It’s beautiful and terrifying all at the same time.”

It was. It was. The first time Sharon had walked outside after the landing, she had turned to the light. The sun was bright but tiny, like a flashlight far off in the darkness. She’d seen the Earth fade away to invisibility when they left, but here she had stood on a ridge of fresh ice and the sun was so far away.

“Blackstone understood it,” Boyd said. “I don’t know how, when she’s never been out here, but she gets it. She talked about each one of these worlds being a new start for humanity. We’re a tiny pocket of life on a dangerous world.”

“We’re not as strong as you,” Nancy said. Her hand slid up Sharon’s leg, past her knee, circling the smooth skin on her inner thigh. “You looked at it all, and you went to work. It impressed the hell out of me. Nothing fazes you. Not during the trip, not even coming here.”

Boyd kissed her shoulder again and looked at her with dark eyes. “So we lost it a bit. In a way it was Charon, it’s just so far removed from everything we left behind. We took comfort in each other, all of us, except you. You walked away.”

Sharon drew in a shaky breath. Her cheeks were hot. Nancy’s hand was warm and stroked higher on Sharon’s leg.

“I didn’t know how, I’ve never, not like that.” She couldn’t continue. She couldn’t think.

“It’s okay,” Nancy said. “When you left we realized what we’d done, how isolated you must have felt. That’s why we came after you.”

“There’s a lot of work to do,” Boyd said. “We can’t do it without you, and we can’t fool around forever. We have to come up for air sometime.”

Nancy winked. “If you’re interested, though, we can have some fun before we go back.”

Nancy’s finger grazed along the edge of Sharon’s panties. Her legs parted. Her breath caught in her throat.

“Yes. Please.” She closed her eyes.

Maybe it was the moon, something about Charon that had infected the others, and now infected her. Maybe it was simply feeling small and alone on the edge of the solar system. How could she know without running tests and experiments? There was so much about this world that they didn’t know yet. Either way, did it really matter?

Nancy’s lips grazed Sharon’s thigh and she gasped. Strong, masculine hands slid up her shirt and she surrendered to their touches.

5

Communication with the Veil was restored three days later. Angie Tran contacted them.

“Charon Base, this is Veil command. Come in.”

Sharon crossed the main room of the habitat. Around the edges were the six chambers that led to their personal rooms. Everyone was back at work, at least during the regular work shifts. They still paired off in the evening, the pairings changing each night. Sharon activated the holographic screen.

Angie Tran appeared. “Sorry we’ve been out of touch, Sharon. Terra Blackstone was visiting from Diaspora Base on the moon.”

Blackstone? That wasn’t possible. “Excuse me?”

“Yes, they’ve developed a new communications technology. It eats up a lot of bandwidth, but allows real-time holographic communication. We’re working on our own initiator up here. How do things stand there?”

They had all agreed not to bring up the incident with the Veil. They all were fine, and further analysis of the water ice mined failed to show any presence of unknown microorganisms.

“We’re fine,” Sharon said. “Our survey is progressing well.”

“Glad to hear it. We’re going to start plans to establish a permanent presence on Pluto. I’ve discovered something there that we can’t explain yet. I’d like your help with it.”

“You’re abandoning Charon?”

Angie shook her head. “No. We need Charon’s water. Pluto can supply nitrogen and methane we need, between the two worlds we have an opportunity to build our new future.”

“In that case, if it’s okay, I’d like to lead up the efforts here on Charon.”

“As you wish. I’d still like your input. I’ll forward you everything as we get it.”

“I’d appreciate that.”

“Okay.” Angie smiled. “I’m glad our communications blackout didn’t cause any problems. We’ll be in regular touch after this.”

“That’d be good,” Sharon said. “Thank you.”

They ended the call.

Boyd was over at the kitchen station, a pot steaming as he worked with Terry to fix dinner. Sharon rocked back in her chair. Charon was home now. More people would come and join them. This was her world, her family, and her future.

4,793 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 11th weekly short story release, and the 11th Planetary Bodies story. It’s the companion piece to Touching Pluto, because it made sense to me to write a binary story to the main story. Interestingly, this was also the first story published in the series, appearing in WMG Publishing’s Fiction River: Moonscapes anthology.

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 Haumea Exultant.

Touching Pluto

Angie Tran knew a thing or two about being underestimated, yet she still earned command of the first Diaspora mission to launch — to Pluto-Charon, the binary dwarf planet brought back into the spotlight by the New Horizons probe when she was a girl.

She felt a kinship to these worlds. She wanted her colony to have every advantage. Yet when some of the crew turn mutinous she faces her greatest challenge alone on Pluto.

1

Angie planted her foot in a fringe of ice and tested the footing. Hard. Not the rotten ice that hid leg-breaking shafts. Around her was a fresh landscape sculpted by the slow processes of this frozen world. It was a twisted and frozen world covered in frost. A nitrogen and methane cycle in the thin atmosphere had reshaped the world over its long seasons. Above her Charon hung large above the twisted horizon. As long as it stayed visible, she was visible, and they’d be coming for her.

It was a whole other world up there, a moon that wasn’t a moon, but a partner in a gravitational dance. Pluto and Charon whirled around like a pair of ice-skaters. A bright light glowed on Charon’s surface like a fire seen from space. Charon base. If you could call it that, a toe-hold at best. Two worlds for the price of one, that was the deal she had extracted from Diaspora, in agreeing to take the mission to Pluto-Charon. Maybe it wasn’t as sexy as one of the big Jovians, or as thrilling as flying a human-powered zeppelin around a planet like Carys Rex had done on Venus. And so far there wasn’t any sign of alien visitors like on Titan.

None of that mattered. She’d been in love with Pluto-Charon since she first heard about the planets in school. Pluto, the planet demoted to dwarf planet status. She got that. Angie Tran knew a thing or two about being over-looked by those bigger than her. When you’re only a couple inches past four feet, and popularly described as a “China doll” (forgetting the fact that she wasn’t Chinese at all, but was born to Korean immigrants), getting people to pay attention to her ideas, her plans, was sometimes a challenge.

Two worlds, that was the deal. Two worlds and she had meant to colonize them both. Another bright light sparked in the sky. That wasn’t on Charon, but in the space between. That was the Veil, her ship, orbiting the barycenter of the Pluto-Charon system. Orbiting the same point that Pluto and Charon orbited. She’d lost the Veil to those traitors McMurty and Lee.

They’d be coming for her soon to try and get her to come back. Her and the Veil’s command core which she had on the sled.

Maybe they worked for Earth. The Veil had launched years before the more recent troubles when the United States had tried and failed to seize control of Diaspora’s Luna base. They were the first full-fledged colonization mission to launch. The other outer system expeditions to Huamea, Makemake, and Eris had left within weeks of the Veil‘s departure, but thanks to orbital mechanics those missions had reached their destinations a few weeks and months before the Veil reached the Pluto-Charon rendezvous. First launched, last to get established.

 

Could McMurty and Lee have been agents planted that far back? There was a lot of furor over their missions. The popular media called the Veil‘s launch a stunt, a reality TV show, and gleefully anticipated the deaths of all seventy-two would-be colonists. Maybe the government had decided early on to plant agents in Diaspora’s ranks, to report back on what Terra Blackstone’s private space colonization effort was doing. The only trouble with that idea was that the Diaspora Group had never been quiet about their plans. From the education and medical centers they had set up on Earth, to the asteroid mining missions, and even the development of the first commercially-viable fusion generators, Diaspora had made their agenda clear. The complete colonization of the solar system.

Maybe the government agents were there to make sure that the plans didn’t work.

Angie’s breath echoed in her suit helmet. She blinked through her suit’s heads-up system screens. Everything was functioning normally. Her mouth was dry. She took a sip of processed Charon water from the spout. It was cold, refreshing and pure water. Water was water, but this water was water melted and purified from ice mined on Charon. They had replenished their supplies locally when reaching the system. It was as safe as anything, but it was still thrilling to drink a bit of pure water that had never passed through any other organism.

The sled stuck in a wrinkle in the frost. Angie leaned into the strap and pulled. It came free and scraped along the icy ground. She didn’t hear it. What atmosphere Pluto had was thin and didn’t carry the sound well. Add the noise of her suit and her own breathing, she wasn’t going to hear it over all of that. But she felt the vibrations traveling up the strap. She was like an ant, carrying an impossibly large load, possible thanks to the low gravity. The sled held everything she needed to survive on Pluto. An inflatable six-person habitat, micro-fusion generators, grow lights, planting medium, seeds, packaged food, medical equipment, tools, 3D printers, spare parts, and anything else she needed. Part of the live off the land plan for colonization. The Veil carried dozens of these sleds, all packaged up and waiting to be deployed to the surface for colonization. Linked up the habitats would provide a base from which to construct more long-term habitats from locally-sourced materials.

This sled was also special because it held the Veil‘s command core. Which she had thanks to Greg, who stayed loyal when the mutineers tried to take over. He’d seen what was happening and had taken action to get her and the command core to safety. Without it the mutineers couldn’t take full control of the Veil. They needed it back, and her to unlock it, in order to have full control over the ship and the people on these worlds. She couldn’t give that to them.

Angie grunted and pulled on the sled again. Where other colonies were already well-established, they only had one team on Charon along with automated stations scattered across the two worlds and the smaller moons — Nix, Kerberos, Hydra and Styx. She hadn’t been in any hurry. If they over committed early and ran into problems they wouldn’t be able to pick up and try their luck elsewhere. The more they learned about the system the better their chances in the long run.

Ice crumbled beneath her feet, the rotten thin crust giving way but she found firmer footing beneath and trudged on. McMurty, he had appeared in the primary leader of the mutiny. He was a big man, so big he might have pushed at the upper limits of what they could take. His pale freckled face and curly red hair gave him the look of a snotty kid even with his big barrel chest and thick hands. He had one of those crude laughs, it didn’t matter what he was laughing about, it sounded dirty somehow. He had demonstrated himself a capable engineer and had gained popularity when he went out during a micro-meteorite shower to patch the damage to one of the primary oxygen tanks on the journey out. If someone hadn’t taken the risk the Veil would have lost a quarter of the stored oxygen. They wouldn’t have had air enough to keep everyone breathing before they reached Pluto-Charon and mined new resources.

She’d never liked the man, but she had respected him. Brash, rude and self-centered, he’d done his job and had stayed out of her way. She didn’t believe people needed to like everyone to do their jobs, but she had secretly wished that she didn’t have to have his genes in her colony. If there’d been anyone on the Veil that she would have suspected of mutiny, it was McMurty.

A small crater, like an empty swimming pool, blocked her path. Angie leaned into the straps and dragged the sled at an angle to miss the crater. Bright, fresh ejecta raised rougher bumps that crumbled beneath her boots and the sled runners.

Lee, on the other hand, was nothing like McMurty. He stood on the smaller side of average. A man with close cut hair and a mustache that was always trimmed and neat. He had a compact body and the sunken cheeks of a runner. He was agile and comfortable in zero-gee and extremely adept at using his bare feet as an extra pair of hands. She’d seen him working in the ship’s hydroponics, he was a botanist on the team responsible for keeping them fed, using his hands and feet interchangeably to work. Once she’d heard him say that the real trick in the future would be to engineer people with longer toes and an opposable big toe. After they licked the problem of bone and muscle loss in those environments. People always said they didn’t have enough hands, but that wasn’t the problem. It was gravity. Remove that and with a few modifications our feet would give us an extra pair. He didn’t really seem to need the modifications as it was.

Seeing him back McMurty’s take-over was a shock. She’d never suspected Lee of lacking loyalty.

What brought them to the point of mutiny after the years spent trying to reach Pluto-Charon? Was that always the plan? Wait until they arrived and then just quietly take over? They didn’t say that they were doing it for the governments back on Earth. Instead they said it was about her leadership, her refusal to get them off the ship and down on the ground. They got others to fall in behind them by claiming that she was keeping them on the ship so that she could stay in control, that she wanted absolute power over the colonists. It’d all started coming apart when she refused to hold elections for leadership. That was their first tactic, to push for elections that she couldn’t endorse. Not yet. Not until they were safely established. Then, and only then, would she relinquish command of the mission.

It was the element of truth that made their accusations carry weight. As soon as she denied them the elections, they accused her of planning to hold onto power even after a colony was established. It’d gone downhill from there. Years that she had worked to get them here safe, and McMurty had people believing all sorts of crazy nonsense about her secret agenda. There was even a rumor that she was keeping them on the ship because the aliens that had visited Titan had a secret, active base on Pluto. And she was supposedly following Diaspora orders to hold off on going to Pluto until some sort of agreement could be reached with the aliens. That was why, the claim went, that she had sent Sharon Calvert to establish their first beachhead on Charon, instead of Pluto. Countering such rumors only gave them weight, her denials, the fact that they had placed the monitoring stations on Pluto, all of it used as evidence of deception. The stations were only put there to build the fictional cover-up.

Angie cleared the crater and dragged the sled onward. The whole thing was crazy. Despite that a small minority was solidly behind McMurty and Lee. A larger portion of the crew was unwilling to go either way. She still had her allies, or she wouldn’t have managed to escape the ship at all.

One of those was Greg Coveney, thirty-three, skinny, with dark eyes and short dark hair. A quiet man, he was her second in command for the mission. A veteran of wars back on Earth, he had joined Diaspora as a chance to escape the endless warfare and paranoia that steeped the planet. Divorced, his wife had refused to join him in the effort. No children. He told her once that he hadn’t wanted to bring a child into that world.

It was Greg that had pulled the command core and stashed it in the sled. Last night, was it only last night?

2

The chime on her berth door was shrill and had brought her instantly awake. She touched the lock release and the door slid open. Greg floated outside her birth, and put his finger to his lips. She nodded.

He beckoned. She was wearing a standard Diaspora workall, there didn’t seem much point to change unless she was getting cleaned up. She kicked off out of the berth as he pushed away. She caught one of the grips beside her birth. The lights were dim. Night cycle. The Veil‘s habitat modules held rows of births on each side of the hexagonal module. Thirty-six in this section, and the same in the next. The ones that were open were the night shift, although it looked like there were more open than usual. Most of the Veil was a long passage along the spine of the ship, with each compartment serving various functions. Even for the night shift, it looked emptier than usual. Where was everyone?

Greg came close, very close, embracing her. She started to push away but he held her close. He smelled faintly of sweat. His breath tickled her ear as his mouth moved close.

“They think you’re asleep. This is the only chance you’ll have. Come with me.”

She hadn’t known then what exactly he was talking about, but she suspected. She’d noticed the whispers, the way people looked away or broke up conversations when she floated through the ship. She knew there was some discontent with staying on the ship but where she had really screwed up was not realizing how far and deep-reaching it had become. Fueled, no doubt, by the mutineers.

She and Greg floated down the spine without encountering anyone. For that to happen that meant people had to be in the rear compartments, down in the engineering sections at the far end of the ship. That was the only section where the bulkhead doors were always closed. Restricted sections, kept sealed except as needed for maintenance. At least in theory. People went in there for privacy as it was the one place on the ship where you could go and not be overheard throughout the ship.

By then she knew something was wrong. Even more so when Greg stopped outside the airlock to launch hatch three. He activated the controls. She grabbed his arm and caught a brace with her other hand.

“What are you doing?”

“McMurty and Lee are talking right now about removing you from command. They mean to do it while the rest of the crew is sleeping, and expect the others to fall in line.”

His words sank into her brain one at a time, as if she could hold them back and look at each one. He was talking about mutiny. “Mutiny? That’s what you’re saying?”

“I’ve stashed the command core in the sled. You have to go and keep it out of their hands until we get the situation under control.”

“The command core! Are you crazy?” Without it the crew couldn’t control the ship. The Veil would be crippled. Before long the orbit around the barycenter would deviate too far and without the command core they wouldn’t be able to correct. They’d either get flung out of the system altogether, or more likely, the Veil would spiral in and crash on Pluto’s surface.

The hatch slid open with a hiss. Greg pointed at the open hatch. “You have to go, Captain! There’s no other choice unless you want to surrender the ship.”

Even then she hesitated. What if this was the ploy? Greg might have been sent to convince her to get onto the launch and then they just eject her out. They could let her die on the surface, alone.

“You have to tell me what’s going on?”

“They’re planning on taking the ship. McMurty wants to be in charge.”

“How do you know this?”

Greg ran a hand through his hair. “They tried to recruit me. I complained about being stuck on the ship when we’ve got two worlds right there, and the most we’ve done is set up one temporary base on Charon.”

“We have to evaluate the best site. We only get one shot at this.”

“I know. They don’t care. They’re tired of staying on the ship.”

“But without the command core, the ship won’t last.”

“It’ll be fine long enough to get people to see reason. Most of the people are just afraid.”

“Then I should stay, I’m not afraid. I can convince people that we need to hold strong.”

The hatch slid shut. Greg swore and turned to the control panel beside the hatch. There was another sound, a knocking noise and the voices. Angie drifted away from the hatch. People were floating through the ship from the rear hatches. A whole group of them, with McMurty’s blocky shape in the lead.

Maybe Greg’s plan was the best.

“Can you open it?”

“Working on it.”

Angie pressed off one of the grips and caught the next ones past the hatch. She hung there and waited for McMurty, Lee, and the rest to get closer. McMurty caught a grip a couple meters away and stopped his progress. He hooked his toes beneath and faced her. Lee came to a stop beside him, neatly catching one of the grips on the side while catching another with his toes. The rest braked behind the ring-leaders.

“What’re you doing?” McMurty said, his puffy red face splitting into a ghastly smile. “Not thinking of going anywhere are you?”

Greg was still working. He hadn’t responded to the arrival of the others.

“Just doing some maintenance,” Angie said. She eyed the crowd. “What were you all doing away from your stations?”

“Captain,” Lee said, his measured voice calming. “We had a conference to discuss our current situation. While the rest of Diaspora’s colonies have established significant outposts, we remain on this ship.”

“It’s time for new leadership,” McMurty said.

“New leadership?”

“Turn over command to me,” he said. “We’ll build a new base that’ll make us the envy of the system.”

“We’re not ready,” Angie said. “What if the ground beneath your base evaporates when summer comes to Pluto? What if there are instabilities that you’ve missed, in your haste to get a base established?”

“We can’t sit here in this can forever,” McMurty said. “We didn’t come out here to do nothing.”

“Mr. Coveney,” Lee said. “Please move away from the airlock.”

Greg didn’t move. He didn’t respond. They might as well have not been there at all, for all the reaction he gave.

“You were told to move,” McMurty said, his tone threatening.

Angie’s heart was racing. Mutiny! She had to delay. “You don’t get to take charge by force, that’s not the way things work. I’m sure you’ve filed reports with Diaspora. If Dr. Blackstone wanted me replaced, don’t you think they would have sent orders by now?”

McMurty scowled. “They aren’t here! They don’t get to decide what we do. What happened to our independence? Wasn’t that part of the deal?”

“It still is. When we have a colony safely established, then the colony as a whole will have the right to determine its structure.” Angie looked past McMurty at those gathered. They’d obviously manipulated the schedules, volunteered to take the night shift, to give them time to plan together. “I don’t see everyone here.”

She pointed back up the Veil’s spine. “I think the majority of the crew are asleep right now in their berths. Don’t they get a say?”

“Sure.” McMurty scowled. “Step down first. Then we’ll see what they have to say.”

“No. I’m not stepping down.”

McMurty shrugged. “Then you don’t give us much choice. We’ll confine you until we can set up a new government. Let’s get her.”

The airlock hissed open. Greg grabbed her arm. Angie opened her mouth to protest, but he had already pulled her into the lock, swinging her around into the opening. Angie tucked into a ball and let him.

McMurty roared and they were all coming. She spread out her limbs in the airlock, catching grips with her hands and feet. Greg met her eyes and hit the controls. The hatch shut.

The small window in the hatch let her see a slice of the interior. Greg’s back to the window, blocking the way to the hatch. Hands grabbed him and ripped him away. If they blew the lock before she —

Angie twisted and dove into the pod. She hit the controls on the hatch and the door slid shut, sealing her off from the Veil. The pod was a small vehicle designed for orbital to ground and back trips. Each carried a sled in the cargo space, and room for up to a half-dozen people. She didn’t have time to suit up. They’d get the hatch open soon and drag her out if she didn’t launch.

The cockpit was small, designed for three people, but one could fly it. Angie slid into the seat and strapped in, pulling the straps tight. The sun was a bright ball, small, but intense and bright even out this far. She brought up the pod systems and started the launch sequence. There wasn’t much too it, just a selection of trajectories. The next possibility was coming up in seconds. A course down to Pluto. She stabbed the selection and braced herself.

3

It might have been her imagination, but pale Charon looked closer to the horizon now. Angie studied the sky. She didn’t see the Veil. It had to be out there, they couldn’t have moved without the command core stashed in the sled, but she was far enough that the horizon blocked her view.

She focused on her display icons and brought up the map overlay. The region ahead was one of the younger surfaces on Pluto. Slow processes had sculpted the surface. The tidal interactions with Charon kept both worlds more active than they’d be otherwise. They’d detected cryo-volcanism in this region, with geysers spewing out water ice into Pluto’s thin atmosphere. The surfaces could prove more unstable and difficult to navigate. There might be hidden dangers.

There could be crevasses covered with thin layers of brittle nitrogen ice ready to swallow her up at the first step. Or other hazards that she hadn’t even thought of. Since fleeing the ship she had been moving. First she had suited up once she was safe and on the ground, then she had freed the sled and started moving away from the pod. The Veil could watch her for a time, until she moved far enough over the horizon to be hidden from view. Without the command core they couldn’t reposition the ship to get a better view. And with no access to the remote monitoring stations or satellites, they didn’t have a chance to find her that way.

All of which meant that McMurty and Lee would have to come down after her. They’d have to find her and get the command core from her to take control. She had a head start but they’d be coming.

What was she going to do when they came down?

Ice crunched beneath her feet, giving way, and for a heart-stopping moment she thought she was going to fall through into a crevasse after all. Then her foot hit the bottom and stopped.

Carefully, slowly, she pulled her foot free from the orange-pink ice and found stronger footing.

She stopped and just stood for a moment. Pluto’s uneven plains stretched out around her in a twilight landscape of ice and rock. It was an unearthly landscape, a primordial planet frozen in place. Except this was mostly new surfaces, sculpted by the cold processes of this place.

Her heart raced in her chest. If she fell, if the sled and the command core was lost, it would doom the whole colony. They could evacuate the ship in the pods to set up what sort of base they could manage on the surface but they’d have to leave so much behind. The printers on the ship, designed to print out what they needed from locally sourced resources would be lost. The habitats they had on the sled were meant as temporary structures. Without the Veil their chances of surviving fell precipitously.

Why? Why the mutiny? What had she done in fleeing with the command core? Greg had acted without her orders, trying to preserve her command, but he had overreached. If things went badly now, they could all die. She wanted to save the people, to find the right place for the colony, not destroy them in the process.

Angie picked a direction at forty-five degrees to her right, away from the shining distant sun. The dark would be colder and more dangerous, but it would help conceal her until she could come up with a plan.

The sled grated and jolted across the surface. She leaned into the straps and pressed on.

The simplest plan was probably the best. Evade capture when McMurty and Lee came after her, and then get back to the pod and return to the ship. Once she got back aboard with the command core she’d have control again. If she had the command core back in place she could keep anyone out that she wanted. They couldn’t dock the pods or get back inside without her permission.

A cold seeped into her limbs. It wasn’t the cold from outside. The suit protected her from that. If anything it was the chill from sweat drying on her skin. Doing work in the suits, you could get overheated. They’d been cautioned about that during training back on the Moon. All of them had done work on the night side of the Moon (as if it was the only one in the system). Diaspora base on Luna was the first permanent off-world colony, created before the other missions were launched. It served as the administrative facility and training ground for new colonists. Now that there were many more colonies, there were other opportunities for training.

The sled stuck fast. The strap went taunt around her shoulder and her feet twisted out from under her. For a moment there was a familiar sense of weightlessness and then she fell.

It was a gentle bump as she hit the icy ground. The gravity on Pluto was less than half the gravity on the Moon. If she wasn’t burdened by the sled she could bounce across the landscape much faster (provided she didn’t land on her head). Of course if the gravity wasn’t so minimal she wouldn’t be able to move the sled at all. She really was like an ant carrying a burden much larger than itself.

She hit the ground, bounced, and hit again. The gentle bumps didn’t do any damage. She rolled and bounced back up onto her feet and steadied herself with the strap on the sled. It still didn’t move.

Moving carefully, Angie worked her way around the side of the sled. One of the wide runners had slid beneath the front edge of a large, icy, rocky, mass. It might be water frozen in the cold to a stone-like substance, or an actual rock. Maybe a rocky body that had impacted at an angle and bounced around on the surface. They’d already documented many of these ‘skip-tracks’ like skipping a stone on a flat body of water on Earth. They left a trail across the surface until finally you found the stone just sitting on the surface.

Stone or not, it had stopped the sled. This was probably only the top of a larger object embedded in the ice. No wonder it had taken her off her feet.

Angie grabbed the tube frame of the sled and pushed. At first the sled didn’t move, then it broke free and slid back from the rock. She braced a foot against the rock and hauled the whole sled around until the skids would miss the rock. That done, she picked up the strap, planted her feet, and pulled the sled past the obstacle. She kept going.

Her eyes searched the frozen landscape for a landmark, something to shoot for among all the sharp shadows and twisted shapes. A bright spot far ahead caught her eye. It caught the sun and gleamed like polished ice, but the sharp-edged shadows were too perfect. Too artificial. It was a monitoring station. Angie called up the map overlay. Her indicator identified her position and sure enough, to the northeast not far off was one of the monitoring stations. It was essentially a robot. Mobile, if necessary, to adjust its position given local conditions, but designed to remain within a certain radius of its landing coordinates and relay data back to the Veil. Its cameras may have already picked her up, giving away her position to those on the ship.

She studied the map. If she headed northwest of her current position, the terrain should shield here from the monitoring station. There were ripples in the terrain, caused by an impact further west, one of the larger craters in this region. It had fractured and melted the surface, leaving the rippled terrain visible on the map. As long as she walked along the bottom of the troughs she’d be hidden from view, deep in the shadows.

She tugged the sled around and set off. This could actually work in her favor for the plan. If she headed for the crater and set up the sled’s habitat she could make it look like she had stopped. When they came down, they’d find her tracks and follow her to the habitat. But by then she’d be long gone. It could work.

4

When Angie neared the crater she knew it was an odd crater. For one thing, there was no crater rim, no ejecta, no sign that anything was thrown up or out of the crater. Instead the ground in front of her dropped down in a series of cracked rings, each several centimeters lower than the next. It wasn’t a crater at all, but some sort of sink hole where the ground had slumped down, but the lower it got it was smooth with fine frost distributed across the flat surface at the bottom. A lake? It had that look about it, as if heat from beneath had melted the surface above.

She stopped pulling the sled and considered the landscape in front of her.

It was obvious. If she wanted to draw the mutineers out, this might work. The habitat would be visible in the crater, the long shadows might suggest that she was trying to hide it from view, but it’d still be visible enough to be found. That was the basic idea. If she hid it too well, then they’d never find it. She needed to draw them out, make them think that they’d discovered where she was hiding.

Chances were that McMurty would fall for it. Lee, maybe not. Succeed or fail, partly depended on who came down after her. One of the ringleaders would come. Not alone, no. They wouldn’t come alone. Both coming down would make things easier, but she couldn’t count on that either. It’d make more sense for one to stay with the ship and one to come down after her. McMurty would hate to give up his presence on the ship, but he’d also want to be the one that came down after her. Either seemed equally plausible.

There wasn’t anything she could do about that. All she could count on was that someone would come.

Angie dragged the sled down the slope. It wasn’t slippery, and with the low gravity the slope didn’t matter much anyway. The sled bounced over the cracked tiers after her down to the flat bottom. Another time it’d be interesting to figure out what had melted the ice here, causing this sink hole and frozen lake. Any volcanic activity they’d seen so far on Pluto was cryo-volcanism at very cold temperatures. This looked like something else. It was a mystery to solve another day.

It was funny. It put her right into the position that she had fought against since their arrival. The haste. So many of the colonies established by Diaspora happened after only a preliminary survey of conditions and possible sites. On some planets it didn’t matter much. Aphrodite was floating around Venus with the clouds. Hard to worry about a location when your habitat circles the planet every few days. Pohl Station on Mars had the advantage of decades of rovers and satellites studying the planet and its changing conditions in detail. What did Pluto have? New Horizons, and little else.

Now it was her turn to work in haste. This interesting spot was going to be the base of her operation to take back her ship because it was convenient and in front of her. Hopefully it would work out.

She unstrapped the habitat module from the tubular frame of the sled. As it activated, it established a connection to her glasses.

[Placement]? Flashed in her eyes. A translucent orange model of the deployed habitat appeared in front of her over the uneven slope.

Angie extended her hand and dragged the model around onto the flatter part of the ice. The model updated, parts flickering green as it found areas of even footing. At last it all turned green above the flat frozen ice. She slid the model across into the shadows. The model updated appropriately, showing how the shadow would fall across the habitat. She left the opening sticking out of the shadows and released her grip on the model.

[Confirm]?

“Deploy.”

Beside her the habitat module came to life. It crawled down from the sled, deploying fat tires. In its compact form it was the size of a large sedan, but with six-legs and enough intelligence to navigate across the surface. She stood back and let it work as it rolled out to the selected site.

Panels unfolded. It was like a rose blooming as orange fabric spilled out between the hard panels. Air tanks inflated the structure as smart struts unfolded and lifted the insulating material out of the body of the module. It crawled like a man dragging himself out of a hole, reaching and pulling itself out of the module. The structure grew and spread and in a span of a few minutes it filled up into a habitat the size of a small house, capable of housing a half-dozen people. The small fusion generator on the module, if kept supplied with more hydrogen, could keep the module powered and warm for weeks. Months if necessary. Each habitat module was designed for long-term occupancy while they built more permanent structures. Just like the exploratory crew she’d sent to Charon. Even that hadn’t silenced her critics.

Angie turned back to the sled. There was a bright blue crate forward of where the habitat module had taken up the rear half of the sled. It sat among darker gray crates. That blue crate was the command core. In the final phase of habitat construction, it was designed to be removed and used as the command core of the new base, once the Veil was recycled into parts and they were all on the surface.

This was always designed as a one-way trip for the Veil. Future opportunities to travel would come from the new, faster, beam-powered, solar sail-equipped transport ships being produced by Diaspora. The network would establish continual transit for trade and personnel among the various worlds.

But even with that, out here, any trip into the inner solar system was going to take a long time. She didn’t plan on going back to Earth. And in the long-term, as her body adapted to the lower gravity conditions, the bone and muscle losses would probably preclude her from ever returning to a higher gravity world.

Not that there was a reason to do that anyway.

The main thing was the command crate. She needed to take that with her. The rest could be left behind. She accessed her ship systems and checked her status. Air and power supplies were down. She needed to recharge before she could safely make the trek back to the pod. And somehow she had to do that without attracting notice.

She heaved the command crate off the sled and carried it over to the habitat and sat it on the ice in front of the airlock. There was a fine layer of frost covering the frozen lake, bluish and lacy. It caught her suit lights and sparkled. Where the habitat had moved as it settled the frost was crushed to dust and scattered.

She went back for more crates. It had to look like she was planning to stay for a time. Plus she needed some supplies before making the attempt on the pods.

5

Three hours later she was ready for the attempt. McMurty, or Lee, had to be coming by now. The longer she stayed with the habitat, the more likely she was of being caught without options.

She had recharged her suit from the habitat supplies, purged filters and even took a moment to enjoy — if that was possible — a brief meal of turkey-flavored paste. More importantly, she had finished her other preparations. The crate with the command core was strapped to her back, low to help with her balance. She’d overridden her suit and turned off all external illumination and had minimized her displays. Over it all she had used blankets taped together to create a dark cloak to hide her suit even more. In the realm of ice and shadows surrounding the habitat, she could become nothing more than an odd lump on the ground. A rock, a chunk of ice, but not a woman in a space suit.

Unburdened by the sled, Angie bounded up the cracked slope away from the lake. Her muscles sang as she put effort into each leap. It was almost as if she had superpowers, or seven league boots. Two leaps, and she had reached the top of the crater. At the top she paused and looked back down. The main body of the habitat lurked in the shadows, the neck extending out into the sunshine like a turtle looking around cautiously. It looked isolated and lonely. But the crates, the unloaded sled and the disturbed frost around the habitat made the site look fresh and active like a new construction site. She had purposefully tracked around the lake, as if she had been testing the ice, and in the process covering evidence of her departure. Her other tracks were small and difficult to see.

Angie bounded away into the darker night.

Moving into Pluto’s night side, away from Charon’s glow and the Sun’s own light, the landscape around her was lit only by starlight. But what light! There was never a night like this on Earth. Even out in the country, away from city lights, it wasn’t like this. The closest she had gotten was on training expeditions to Antarctica, and even there the thick atmosphere had impacted viewing the stars.

But out here there was none of that! What atmosphere there was on Pluto, it was so thin as to have little impact. The whole of the Milky Way stretched across the sky, a true river of stars crisp with startling clarity. On the Veil she had admired the views, but that was always seen through a window, a tiny slice of the sky. This was the whole vista spread out right in front of her! With each bounding step she floated up feeling as if she could simply fly away into that starry river. Yet each step ended, as she came back down to the ice and rock.

Bounding away through the night like this was hazardous. She shoved the thought aside and tried to aim for views of clear ice. Each time her boots landed she tensed, ready for the ice to give away and collapse beneath her. The star-lit landscape was eerie and cold, details washed away by shadows. She slowed, taking smaller leaps. Her heart raced at her recklessness. It wasn’t only her future, but everyone’s future that rested on getting the command core back to the ship.

She stopped.

Bending over, making sure that the blankets covered her helmet, she pulled up her map overlay. She was in the region past the terminator between day and night. Far enough now that she didn’t need to go farther in, instead she should turn and make her way along parallel to the terminator until she was close to where her pod had landed. Then she could make for the pod, assuming that they had landed already.

They must have. Why wait longer?

The map couldn’t tell her if they’d landed. Her suit sensors accurately tracked where she had traveled on the map, but that was it. If she had access to a satellite network with real-time feeds of the surface, maybe she could find out. The monitoring stations might potentially capture her pursuers on camera but she didn’t have direct access to them. That all went through the Veil.

What if they didn’t come after her?

That didn’t make sense. Without her, without the command core, everything was at risk. They couldn’t do anything. They’d have to abandon the ship. Greg Coveney had taken a big risk in getting her and the command core off the ship.

A really big risk. Too everyone on the ship, including him.

He had stayed on the ship.

Why?

Why hadn’t he come with her?

He could have followed her into the pod, but he hadn’t. At the time it had seemed like he was trying to protect her. What if that wasn’t it?

Angie shrugged off the blankets, pulled them free to float slowly down to the ice. She pulled the straps that held the command core free and swung the blue crate around.

How had Greg released the command core without triggering alarms? The shut-down procedure required her authorizations, which he didn’t have. That meant that he had to pull it out without shutting it down. There should have been alarms blaring as soon as the core was disconnected without going through the proper procedure.

She hit the releases on the crate and lifted the lid. Her heart sank. The gray segmented balls curled up in the crate weren’t the command core at all, but scutters. Nothing but the robot cleaners that worked through the tight areas of the ship to scrub away moisture and debris for recycling. It had all been just for show, to get her off the ship without a real fight!

Angie rocked back, and sank down on her knees. She didn’t have the command core. No one was coming after her. With her removed Diaspora wouldn’t have any choice except to give one of the others command override for the mission. McMurty? Lee? Terra Blackstone wouldn’t like it, but she was all the way back on Luna. She wouldn’t have any choice except to do what they wanted, or risk the loss of the whole colony.

Her breath caught in her throat. For long seconds she might as well have been trying to suck Pluto’s almost non-existent atmosphere. Her limbs hung like dead wood inside her suit. Or ice. They’d find her like this, kneeling on the ground, frozen solid. A monument to her colossal failure.

How had it gone so wrong?

Obviously Greg Coveney was in on the plan. He was good. He had told her enough of the truth to make it believable. He set her up for the others.

Terra Blackstone might not like the news, but what could she do? What should she do for someone that had failed so spectacularly?

Angie’s breath hissed through her teeth and tears stung her eyes. She blinked them away. She couldn’t cry. Not here, not now.

She had failed. She hadn’t realized that the complaints about staying longer on the Veil were as serious as they had turned out to be. Mutiny and exile, that was the outcome. Oh, they’d set her up well. With her out of the way on the surface they could continue with their plans for building a base without her interference. The fact that they hadn’t simply killed her showed intelligence too. Blackstone might not have agreed if they’d killed her, but with her alive they could simply say that they removed her from command. It was a local decision, not Diaspora’s decision.

Blackstone would have to give them local control. Even though the Diaspora Group worked together, they’d carefully stayed away from any idea of establishing some sort of central government. Each world was free and independent, working together for common goals, true.

Exile, then. She could go back to the pod and try to return to the Veil. Maybe they’d let her back on, but maybe not. She couldn’t force her way in. Beg?

Angie shook her head. Sniffled. She wouldn’t beg. She had the habitat and supplies. She’d be fine for a long time with what she had. In fact, letting her leave with the loaded sled was a big sacrifice for the establishment of the new colony. They’d wanted her out of the way that bad.

With glacial slowness, she shut the crate that should have held the command core. She fastened the catches. She stood up.

For a few seconds she stared at the bright blue crate sitting on the ground, then she lifted it by the straps and fastened the straps back over her suit. On a world like this, she didn’t dare give up any of her resources. Scutters might prove useful in the habitat. Even the crate could prove useful.

She pulled the blankets over her suit again. Not to hide, but she didn’t want to leave them either. The cloth was stiff from cold but it was designed for a wide temperature range, like her suit.

The suit was going to be a key piece of survival gear. If she took care of it, it would serve her well for a long time. Without it she was stuck inside the habitat, and she couldn’t live like that.

The first step was the hardest. She took just a small step back the way she had come. Then another, and more. One after another. No bounding leaps. Almost as if the gravity had increased to the point where just taking a step was hard. Each step was chosen with care, picking her way across the star-lit landscape.

6

Being in the inflated habitat was almost like being back out in the Antarctica desert again. Except she was alone with no one except the scutters for company. The outside of the habitat was orange, but the inside depended on the current theme displayed on the smart fabric. The default them was an unimaginative forest green on the lower half, and sky blue on the upper half. The colors were textured and subtly animated. Out of the corner of her eye it looked like grass moving slightly in the breeze, and hints of clouds drifting across the sunny blue sky. The theme was picked, no doubt, to remind people of being on Earth. Except when she grew up, she lived in the city and most of the green she saw was on the trees along their street. The rest was all asphalt, glass, concrete and steel, and the sky was hidden behind tall towers. She was used to crowds and cars and noise. Not this pastoral scene. None of the available themes were urban landscapes. Something to bring up with the designers, should she ever talk to them again. She settled on a transparency theme that turned the walls of the main habitat transparent, while leaving the alcoves spaced around the sides opaque. It was an illusion. The outside sensors embedded in the habitat took in the view, which the smart fabric mimicked. Much like the “invisibility” outfits that were popular back on Earth.

Each alcove was equipped with sealable curtains for privacy. Those were the private dwelling spaces, with storable bunks, and spaces for personal storage, as well as their own individual interior themes. The habitat was designed for a half-dozen people, which gave her plenty of space. Around the common room were spaces and connections to set up work stations, a kitchen, the lavatory and a shared dining space.

Angie didn’t sit on her hands. She made trips, filling the airlock with crates from the sled, then cycling through when she could only squeeze inside. All the furnishings, the food supplies and everything else she needed was in those crates. She worked for six hours, well into her first ‘night’ before succumbing to exhaustion. She crawled out of the suit like a newborn out of a womb, dripping with sweat, and barely plugged in the suit to recharge before she collapsed on a foam mattress in one of the alcoves.

According to her glasses, she had slept for the first twelve hours and spent upwards of sixty percent of that time in R.E.M. sleep. She didn’t remember the dreams, except that she was chased across dark, twisted landscapes. Rubbing sleep from her eyes, her dreams weren’t that far from the reality that had brought her to this point.

“What have you done?” Angie said in a whisper, and even that was shocking. She hadn’t spoken to anyone since leaving the Veil.

She cleared her throat and sipped cool water from a pre-filled pouch. A scutter rose up above one of the crates, it’s frilly front sensors waving as it tasted the air. Dim blue eyes glowed.

“I wasn’t talking to you,” she said to the scutter.

It whirred and spun around, a slivery segmented backside visible before it disappeared behind the crate. That was her company here.

There was so much to do. She needed the rest of the supplies, and she needed to put the place in some sort of order. There was no telling how long McMurty would leave her exiled down here on the ice. Somewhere among the crates should be communications gear. Once she got that set up, the tower erected outside and dishes aligned, she should be able to establish a connection to the monitoring stations, and through them to the ship. Later, if the Veil put the communications network into orbit, she’d be able to connect that way too. If she wanted to talk to anyone back on the ship.

Just thinking about it made her stomach churn. When she had believed Coveney, she had thought that at least some of the crew, maybe even most of the crew, were still behind her. Now? The mutineers had made their move at night, which had given at least the impression that most of the crew was asleep. Was that even true? Or was it simply a convenient excuse, a fiction? Maybe word had spread through the crew beforehand. Just stay in your berth, we’ll take care of it.

Angie pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes. Maybe it was true, maybe not. It didn’t matter. She dropped her hands into her lap. Right now communications equipment was the least of her concerns. She needed to get everything else sorted out first. She needed a full inventory of everything that was on the sled. There were still some crates outside. The sled itself was designed to be taken apart, and the parts used to create tools, smaller sleds, and furniture.

Once she was settled in, then maybe she would open communications. Not right now.

 7

For the next day, Angie worked to turn the habitat into a home. She left the main body of the habitat transparent, leaving only the alcoves opaque and private. The stark icy lake bed outside had its own beauty. It was night when she had landed, but Pluto’s first sunrise was coming the next day. She suited up for the event and went out onto the ice to watch.

The light wasn’t there and then the bright point of the Sun appeared at the horizon as if a match had been struck in the distance. It was brilliant, tiny, but bright. Her helmet automatically corrected to shield her eyes. The light filled the landscape like magic. Sharp-edged shadows, lurking beneath the starlight, became dark pools highlighting each fold and wrinkle in the landscape. The light lit the far side of the lake bed crater and splashed across the habitat, bringing out the bright safety orange color, dusted with a faint sparkling frost that had slowly settled on the fabric. The radio tower, raised but still unused, thrust upward into the light at the upper edge of the crater behind the habitat. Dark power lines snaked across the ground from the tower to the habitat generator.

Her new home looked isolated. Lonely. And strange. In the light the frozen lake looked even more odd than when she had first stumbled across it. The ice was flat, perfectly flat as far as her eye could tell, as if someone had run a Zamboni across it to make it ready for a hockey game. The shape was crater-like, mostly circular, but sloping down to the lake surface, the sides cracked and split in the tiers that she had noticed when she first stumbled across the crater.

Like a cake, that was falling into the center.

But what could have caused something like that to happen? It didn’t look like a standard impact crater. And if liquid had welled up from the interior, bubbling up to the surface or spewing out into the atmosphere like the geysers they’d already seen, then there would have been a slumped mound, not a crater.

This looked melted.

Angie studied the surface. Almost as if a heat source had been applied from above. What if there was a heat source above the surface? The frozen nitrogen would vaporize and escape. Depending on the temperatures in question the water and ammonia might have also escaped. With the loss of material, the ground around the melted lake would have slumped downward, fracturing in braking as they did to create the tiers around the lake. And when the heat was gone, any remaining liquid would have cooled and settled down into a smooth lake that froze.

It was as good a hypothesis as any, except that she didn’t have any explanation for a possible heat source.

Well, there was one possibility.

The aliens that had visited Titan had carved out pits and lines to create their map of their journeys. It was only detailed down to the stars that they had visited, and said nothing about what planets or other orbiting bodies they might have explored. It was that very reason that the Diaspora Group had alerted all of the colonies to be on the alert for signs of the ancient visitors. There’d even been those rumors that McMurty had spread, suggesting that the reason she had delayed colonization was because the aliens had an active base on Pluto.

What if this was one sign?

That was probably too much of a leap. She wasn’t a geologist, climatologist, or physicist. Her specialty was in management, not that anyone could tell from her current situation. Otherwise she was a generalist, but in the years out from Earth she had learned everything that she could about the Veil and the proposed base.

There might be a perfectly reasonable explanation for this formation that didn’t invoke aliens from beyond the solar system. But it was tempting.

As a first test, she could simply check the ice and see what it was made of, and take a look at the layers. She wasn’t a specialist, but she could at least determine the compositions and relative thicknesses. That would be a start, and what else did she have to keep her mind occupied? The habitat was functioning, even her hydroponic trays were seeded. Studying the lake would give her something to do, for now. And the day on Pluto lasted as long as its month, over six days on Earth. She had to do something to fill the time before the next night.

8

The habitat system didn’t have the full databases that the Veil carried, but it did have enough information to help Angie get the drill set up and extract a core from the ice. She set the rig up out near the center of the lake after taking careful measurements to pin-point the spot and mark it on the map.

The framework for the drill rose up above the ice. It took her another day to get everything set up. It would have gone faster with another pair of hands, but she was on her own with this. Working in the suit was hot, awkward work. The one saving grace was the lower gravity. Without it, raising the tower alone might have proved much more difficult. As it was, she managed to get it up and the anchor lines driven into the ice. Everything was set.

Angie called up her heads-up controls of the drill. The overlay popped up status displays as she connected to the drill systems.

Online. All systems ready.

“Activate.” Her voice sounded loud in her helmet. She wasn’t talking to herself yet, at least. That meant that she didn’t hear other voices all day long. Even hearing herself speak was a bit of a surprise.

The drill spun up and moved smoothly downward. Everything was functioning the way it should. The drill was fine and tipped with laser guides. The drill itself was five meters long, assembled, and self-propelled. It would drill down around the core sample, before crawling back up out to deliver the sample. Then it could go back down into the shaft and collect the next sample. There was a twenty kilometer safety guideline attached in case the drill malfunctioned. That was the maximum limit that she could drill but she didn’t expect to get down far at all right now. One core sample, to begin with, and then she’d consider whether or not she wanted more.

The drill head reached the ice and fine vaporized material rose up around the drill. In the near vacuum it didn’t make much noise, but she heard an extremely faint, extremely high-pitched whining noise. The drill or her own imagination?

What difference did it make? The drill was doing its job. With each centimeter it sank into the ice, her excitement grew. This was the reason she had wanted to come out here. To explore, to understand this world. Tyson Lake, that’s what she would name this place, assuming she eventually made contact with anyone else again. Tyson’s writings and shows had inspired her from a young age. Growing up she’d sat with her father and watched all of those old shows. Her father was one of those people that was fascinated with space. During the day he spent his time working for the postal service, but he was always fascinated with space exploration. They watched countless hours of shows and space footage. Her great regret before this was that he hadn’t lived long enough to see her join the Diaspora Group and eventually get selected to lead this mission.

Although now she was glad that he wasn’t seeing what had happened.

An alert popped up on her heads-up. The drill was encountering resistance, a harder material just over three meters down, that the drill wasn’t penetrating. The automatic safeguards had backed off from the material before friction increased the temperature enough to damage the core sample.

She pulled out the displays into a virtual interface floating at arms’ length in front of her. She used the controls to trigger the drill to retract back up the shaft. A rock? There were other instruments that she could put on the drill and send down to test the material, and other drill heads. For now she’d take the core sample she had and be satisfied with it. She’d already spent enough time today anyway. There wasn’t any rush.

9

Two weeks passed and Angie hadn’t solved the mystery beneath Tyson lake. She’d drilled six more core samples now, all stored safely outside the habitat in the preservation sheaths. Each was a fascinating record of Pluto’s climate. The upper third of the core samples showed layers of nitrogen ice in varying thicknesses, with thinner layers of hydrocarbon dust in between each. It marked the seasonal changes on Pluto. This was why she had wanted to wait to establish the base. Pluto was a living, breathing world where ice caps migrated from one pole to another over the course of the seasons. It swung around with Charon while the audience of lesser moons circled them both. Pluto-Charon, the binary dwarf planet was as fascinating and as full of mystery as any of the other worlds.

This mystery was perplexing. Whatever was beneath the ice, it was essentially the same distance down at three of her drill sites, but she’d noticed a couple centimeters of drop off with the second and third core sample. From there she had moved further out, a meter at a time, and the core samples went a little deeper each time. After four in a line running north, she did two  more on the same line going south. It showed the same gradually increasing depth before she hit the hard layer.

Whatever was down there was curved. Not much. It wasn’t that much of a drop, but the curve was the same on each side. After some calculations she had determined that the high point, assuming no variation, wasn’t far from her first drill site near the center of the lake. She hadn’t pin-pointed the center, but when she did map it out she found she was less than a half-meter off and that point corresponded to the peak of the curve.

Back in the habitat, Angie sent holographic displays floating around her. The scutters perched on the crates around her workstation, watching her with glowing blue eyes. She’d never known scutters on the Veil to watch people. Maybe they did, lurking behind panels. It was eerie, but when she connected to the command channel all their systems reported green, in stand-bye. With only one person living in the habitat to clean up after, the scutters didn’t have much work to do. They were apparently programmed to make themselves visible and available for direction when they ran out of things to do.

“You don’t have to watch me,” she said. She bit her fingernail on her index finger and spit it out toward the scutters.

The central scutter scurried forward. It was a mechanical trilobite. The waving antenna, the legs, and the segmented body. Clearly an example of biologically-inspired technology. It’s busy front legs picked up the fingernail and the traces of saliva. Both disappeared into the machine. It spun on its tail and ran smoothly back up onto the crate. Then it turned around and watched her some more.

She was apparently their sole source of purpose. They watched her to clean up after her.

“I should reprogram the lot of you,” Angie said. “Maybe you could help me out on the ice.”

Nice idea, if she knew a thing about reprogramming scutters. What would they make of the object beneath the ice?

The shape was suggestive of something artificial. A green line linked the points measured by the depths of her drilling. It was a smooth line that rose in a gradual arc. The whole thing was shallow and consistent. She spun the line, duplicating it over and over at ten degree marks in a pale green.

A glowing saucer-shape emerged.

A flying saucer?

Impossible to say. Maybe only the smooth top of a bubble, frozen beneath the ice, that had filled with something harder than the nitrogen ice that she had dug up. It wasn’t water ice. Those layers were easily identifiable and the drill didn’t have any trouble cutting through them.

Every probe that she had used to gather a sample of the material had failed. It was hard, whatever it was down there. Metallic?

Maybe what had melted the crater had then settled down into the space that remained. The lake had frozen over it and left a smooth surface. If it had stayed there, then the years of nitrogen freezing and evaporating had gradually covered up the object in ever deeper layers. Each year the hydrocarbon dust kept a portion of the nitrogen beneath from returning to a gas and escaping. So layer upon layer, the lake had filled in over the original melted lake. Enough years and the whole thing would have filled in.

That scenario sounded unlikely.

Angie looked over at the scutters. “Any thoughts?”

The scutters’ waved their antennae but didn’t offer any suggestions. She would have been shocked if they had. She sighed.

This mystery, it was too big for her. She didn’t have the tools that she needed. She couldn’t just keep drilling into the lake until she had riddled it with more holes than Swiss cheese. She needed other’s help to come down and map it out properly, before she did any more damage than she had already done.

Maybe then she would get answers.

Help, however, meant talking to the Veil and the mutineers. They might simply dismiss her claims as the desperate attempt to get back on board. But if they’d listen to the evidence, then they wouldn’t have any choice. They’d have to come down here and investigate.

It was time to activate the radio.

The system was ready. It had been ready for more than a week while she worked. She had gotten it ready along with the rest of the habitat. Angie took a deep breath, and pulled up the menu. A few blinks and the system was online and transmitting.

That easy, and that hard.

“Veil command, come in. This is ” Angie swallowed and said, “Tyson lake base. Come in, please.”

The route trace showed acknowledgments from the automated monitoring stations within range, and from the Veil’s systems. They were still there. And receiving the signal as far as she could tell.

A woman’s voice came on, her tone amused. “Tyson Lake? That’s nice, Dr. Tran. We’ve been wondering how you were doing, since you weren’t answering our signals.”

Who was that? The voice sounded familiar, but she couldn’t place it. “I, uh, hadn’t activated the radio yet.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yes. Excuse me, who is this?”

“Maybe it’s better if I show you.”

Angie’s system reported a holographic signal coming in. She stood up. The scutters disappeared over their crate and scurried out of sight. The place was fine. Neat. She didn’t keep a messy place, but that didn’t stop her from looking around to make sure she hadn’t left her underwear out.

A woman appeared near the main table at the center of the habitat. Not much taller than Angie, with dark waves of hair, bright red lips and a devastating smile. Her hand was on her hip as she surveyed the habitat. She wore a tailored version of the standard black Diaspora workall, one that had a little more style too it, and a rainbow shimmer in the dark fabric. Her feet were bare, toenails and fingernails both a dark shimmering red that matched her lipstick.

Terra Blackstone. Which was absolutely, completely impossible. She was back on Luna, running the whole Diaspora Group’s efforts. Any signal from there was going to take hours to get back and forth but Blackstone’s hologram was indisputably checking the place out. Her eyes came back to meet Angie’s gaze.

“Surprised?”

“You can’t really be Blackstone, the signal —”

Blackstone waved a hand. “I know. Speed of light and all that, it takes too long to reach way out here. Good thing I’ve got something better now. An instantaneous communications network. I’ve got your crew back on the Veil working on an initiator, long-story short, you need that to open communications yourself. We can use the system to tap into any existing communications network but you can’t call out without it. We’re doing the same thing at the other colonies. Soon we’ll have a real-time communications network spanning all of our colonies.”

Angie’s nerves sang. She shivered inside. “You know what happened here? On the Veil?”

Blackstone nodded. “Oh yes. As soon as they sent their signal, I opened real-time communications. It sounds like the situation could have been handled better.”

A deep shame burned in Angie’s cheeks. She dropped her eyes. “I —”

“Made some mistakes.” Blackstone’s tone softened. “Not without good reasons.”

Angie dared to lift her head.

Blackstone smiled. “Don’t look so glum. I’m not about to turn control over the Veil to anyone that seized control illegally and exiled one of their own to the surface alone. They counted on being able to state their demands, but once I received their transmission I used our initiator to take control of the Veil’s systems. Nothing they could do about that. I’ve been in control, getting things in shape while we were trying to figure out what to do next. I was about to send a mission down to retrieve you. I think your vacation has gone on long enough.”

“My vacation?”

Blackstone shrugged. “That’s what I’m calling it. Once I took control of the ship, most of the crew came forward to back you. The malcontents are re-thinking their position. They aren’t all wrong. You do need to establish a permanent base. True, we don’t know everything that might happen with Pluto’s environment but you’ll have to adapt. That’s what every settlement has to do. The faster you establish a strong presence, the more likely you are to be able to adapt to whatever comes.”

“You’re right,” Angie said. Blackstone was right. After weeks alone on the surface, Angie was beginning to understand this world more than ever. “I think I was afraid to get started. Pluto was like a blank canvas for my dreams. They did me a favor, McMurty, Lee and Coveney, in forcing me down here. I had to make a start. I put boots on the ground I got to see this place up close. I’m absolutely ready to take it to the next step. Thank you for having confidence in me.”

Blackstone raised a finger. “Confidence, yes, but you’re going to need to regain the confidence of your crew. We’ve got too many worlds now for me to spend this much time in one place. Thanks to work being done now on Proteus, we’re soon going to have android bodies in each colony. Our holographic bodies will take on solid forms, operated remotely by telepresence. We’re going to have regular meetings with all colony leaders, a sort of Solar Congress. With the evidence of starfarers visiting the system, we need to get organized.”

Aliens! “Dr. Blackstone! That sounds great, really. I didn’t place the call because I was lonely. I wanted to share with the crew the work I’ve been doing.”

Angie pulled up the core sample data, and the graph of the depths. “I don’t know what it is that’s down there. Maybe it’s natural, but this whole lake is strange. We need to get more people down here, and find out what this is.”

Blackstone studied the displayed holograms. Her smile broadened. “Excellent work. You weren’t idle down here, that’s for sure. It sounds like you might have a potential site for your base after all. Something nearby, for easy access to Tyson Lake?”

“I think that’d be a good idea. But not too close, just in case. And I’d like to be able to see Charon.”

Blackstone winked. “Smart thinking.”

One of the scutters poked its head up over the crate, watching them. Blackstone noticed, then turned back to Angie.

“Dr. Tran, I’m returning control of the Veil to you. Get your colony established. Find out what’s under that lake. Establish a future here and get that initiator online. Got it?”

Angie nodded. “I’ve got it. Thank you.”

Blackstone faded away. Angie took a moment and looked around the habitat. She’d have to share it soon. Most of the crew could focus on the base, but she was going to wait here until a relief team could take over the investigation of the site.

Veil,” Angie said. “Are you ready to get started? We have a lot of work to do.”

Pluto-Charon was still hers. Two worlds of mystery and promise to explore, and build a new future. She had a second chance.

12,134 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 10th weekly short story release, and the 10th Planetary Bodies story. I can’t wait for New Horizons to reach Pluto-Charon. Even now it’s on the way, taking initial pictures of the binary pair. Maybe it’ll change things about how I wrote this story but I couldn’t be happier. I’m looking forward to seeing the pictures — the same way I’ve been enjoying Dawn’s images of Ceres.

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 Caressing Charon, a companion story to this one that was published in Fiction River: Moonscapes.

Neptune Bound

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.

1

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.

 

2

 

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.”

“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.”

“Okay.”

“I mean it. People are going to be upset right now.”

“Why?”

“Because people that wanted to get picked in the lottery, they’re going to be unhappy if they weren’t selected for the Liberty.”

“Like you.”

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?”

“Okay.”

“Are you ready for bed?”

“Yes.”

“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.

3

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 —

“Tessa?”

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.

4

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.”

“Jon’s right.”

“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.

5

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.

6

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.

“Captain?”

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.”

“Lab?”

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.”

Nita nodded.

“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.

“You too.”

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.”

“You’re welcome.”

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.

7

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.

“Dr. Hamilton?”

“Yes?” She nodded. “Of course. I’ll be right there.”

8

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.”

“Me?”

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.

15,853 words

Author’s Note

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.

Uranus Exposed

Dia did her time. She spent years in a cramped ship to get to the ass-end of the solar system and colonize Uranus. If that wasn’t funny, she didn’t know what was.

Now she spends her days cracking jokes about cracks and keeping the floating habitat Aether operational. It might be the ass-end of Diaspora’s colonization plans, but it was home.

When things go seriously wrong, Dia follows her nose for trouble.

1

Sleep was hard to come by in the ass-end of the solar system. Uranus was the subject of plenty of school yard jokes growing up, and now as an adult stuck inside a narrow shaft, hanging upside down, it wasn’t that funny. She’d had less than four hours of sleep in the last day, but that didn’t stop Dia from cracking jokes. Or making jokes about cracks.

If anything it made it worse.

She hung upside down in the shaft, her bare legs bent over the extension bar she’d run across the shaft. She liked shorts, which showed off her legs, easily her best feature. It certainly wasn’t her boobs. Unlike some of the women that Diaspora sent out to colonize the solar system, she wasn’t stacked enough to benefit from the lower gravity of other worlds. Even back in the deeper gravity well of Earth she hadn’t bothered with a bra most days, so the floating Uranus habitat, Aether suited her fine. Ninety-percent gravity at this altitude, with one bar pressure outside. Almost like home. At least it wasn’t the first time she’d been down a shaft.

Sweat ran down into her short, spiky blue hair and dripped on down on Allison below.

“What do you call a monkey with a red ass?” Dia cracked.

Beneath her, straddling another extension bar, Allison swiped a stained cloth across her forehead. She was also small, and looked more delicate than she was. Sort of like a porcelain doll with short black hair. Also a bit of a card shark and a slut, but she had the whole innocent act down pat.

“Are you sweating on me?”

Dia leered. “Do you want me sweating on you?”

“In your dreams.” Allison grunted, and pushed on the wrench. She was trying to loosen the bolts holding the circulation fan in place without much luck.

They’d already been at this particular repair for an hour, an hour past a double shift, and the temperature was rising across the floating habitat. Allison’s breath hissed and the bolt finally came free. She twisted it off, caught it, and handed it up to Dia.

“So?” Dia took the bolt. “What’s your answer?”

Allison pried at the fan’s housing. “Answer?”

“What do you call a monkey with a red ass?”

“I don’t know, aren’t those baboons or something?”

“No. It’s a spanked monkey.”

Allison groaned. “That’s not even funny.”

More sweat rolled off Dia’s forehead, dripping down onto Allison. The whole shaft smelled of human sweat, salty and sticky.

Dia stuck the bolt into the bag that hung beside her on the bar. Drop one of those puppies and it was a thirty meter climb down the shaft to retrieve it.

Aether, their home on the ice giant Uranus, was a floating habitat similar to Aphrodite on Venus, but far less picturesque and smaller. Aether was an older design, launched years before the Venus mission. It also worked much differently since on Venus a normal breathable atmosphere was a floating gas that kept Aphrodite afloat. On the Aether, they floated in an atmosphere dominated by hydrogen, which mean great heated pontoons on each side to keep the habitat aloft. The fusion generators that powered the Aether, kept it heated against the frigid atmosphere outside, and kept them afloat, couldn’t just be shut down. With the heat-transfer system failing, they were in danger of baking within the habitat.

 

Allison grunted and jerked at the housing. No good. It wasn’t budging. “I’m going to need a hand with this.”

“Hang on.”

Dia swung up and grabbed the extension bar. She slipped her legs down off the bar, sliding smoothly to hang her legs down. Her toes found Allison’s extension bar and she gripped it with her feet.

“You’re the monkey,” Allison said. “Where’d you get green nail polish?”

“Made it.”

Dia grabbed her bar, pressing the release and twisted. The bar came free from the sides. She gave it a couple extra twists to retract the ends, then turned and crouched smoothly, knees spreading out to keep her balance on Allison’s bar. Her bare feet gripped each side of the bar while she brought her bar down between them, just above Allison’s. A couple twists to extend the ends and it was locked firmly across the shaft, making an X with Allison’s bar.

She sat down on her bar beside Allison, curled her left leg underneath, and braced her bare right foot on the shaft wall beneath the housing.

“I’ll take this side. You get the other.”

Allison slid over on her bar, and grabbed the other side of the housing. “On three.”

“Two.”

“One.”

They heaved together and with a metallic squeal, the housing slid out into the shaft, the tracks stiff and unresponsive. Dia bent down.

The tracks were bare metal.

“This needs to be greased. It looks like whoever installed it skipped that step.”

Allison was poking around in the innards of the unit. “Nothing wrong with this one except loose wires. Must have vibrated loose. I’ll have it fixed in a twist.”

Dia took out a grease tube from her utility belt and squirted a line of grease onto the stubborn tracks. She used her legs to hold on while she leaned and squirted. She chuckled as she finished.

“There you go, Ali, all lubed up for you. Should slide in real easy now.”

Allison sighed and straightened up. “You’re horrible.”

“What else am I supposed to do? I’m hot, stinky and tired. Sometimes you just have to laugh about it. You know what Lee Barton said to Blackstone before he got the job?”

“I don’t want to know.”

“He said, Terra, darlin’, Uranus fascinates me. I’ve got to be the one to explore it.” Dia laughed.

Allison shoved the fan unit housing back into place. It moved easier now. Dia reached out and caught the edge. “You’ve got to move it back and forth, in, oh, and, out!”

Allison shoved Dia’s hand away and pressed the unit firmly into place. “Leave it! Come on, let’s just get this done. I’m exhausted and I don’t want to cook. Give me the first bolt.”

Dia fished the bolts out of her bag, passing them to Allison as needed. As she handed the last one, she said, “Are you done screwing that unit yet?”

That only got her a glare.

She raised her hands in surrender. “Fine, fine. Try it out.”

Allison brought the unit online. It hummed to life and cool air blew across them. Dia peeled her shirt away from her skin and leaned forward, letting the air blow down her shirt.

“Oh, that’s good.” Dia shifted so the air blew across her left pit. “Everyone can get a whiff of eau de Dia.”

“You’re going to kill them all with that,” Allison said. “Come one. Let’s go check the next one.”

“I’ll go first this time.” Dia braced her bare feet on the sides of the shaft, holding herself in place while she twisted the bar free. She turned, putting her back against the shaft wall and walked down the shaft.

It took two more hours to get all of the units in the shaft back online, but that brought full circulation back on and carried mercifully cooler air through the station. Dead tired, Dia crawled out of the shaft after Allison, then rolled right over in the middle of the corridor and spread out her arms.

“Can’t you just carry me back to my room?”

“I’ll be lucky to get back myself. You can crawl.”

Dia groaned and rolled over onto her hands and knees. She arched her back down, then rocked back, rising up into a downward facing dog position. Slowly, letting each vertebrae rise at a time, she stood up.

Allison reached up. Dia caught her hand and pulled her to her feet.

Allison said. “What are you going to do?”

“Shower, and then grab a bite on the Strip. You?”

“Sleep.” Allison raised a hand. “I’ll see you.”

Dia waved and headed off back to her quarters.

2

The Strip was the one human place in Aether’s otherwise pristine corridors, and it was the one place where Dia was most comfortable. Particularly at Ricky’s, one of the many entrepreneurial establishments that had sprung up in this otherwise under-utilized space. It was a whole east meets west sort of thing, literally, formed between Aether’s two halves.

Aether was built in modules, assembled in pieces and lowered into the atmosphere for final construction. The orbiting sky hook rotated down through Uranus’ atmosphere, dropping off supplies and picking up hydrogen shipments which it launched out into orbit. That was the whole point to Aether, and the future habitats planned, to serve as mining colonies supplying the fuel to run the fusion generators throughout the system. Mercury’s solar sails would pick up the hydrogen shipments and take them throughout the system.

In the middle of all of that was a space between the two halves of the habitat. In the original plan it wasn’t intended to be sealed, but the enterprising inhabitants had added decking, sealed it off, and created a sort of open air market. If it was actually open to the air they’d all suffocate, of course. Even so, transparent panels were used for the decking down the middle of the strip so you got a good view of the long drop below into the distant cloud decks. If you fell, and were protected from suffocating or freezing, the pressure would eventually pulp you.

It kept things in perspective.

So did Ricky’s spicy noodles, served up today with a few shreds of fresh sprouts. There were other bits of reconstituted vegetables, and even something that might have been meat once upon a time.

Across the way a group of off-duty workers were laughing and hoisting glasses in celebration. Folks having a good time. Other people strolled through the strip, browsing the booths. There was a vibrant trade, particularly in the high-value personal goods that people had brought out from Earth with their weight allowance. Everything kept cycling around and around. Nothing was thrown out. It was repaired, reused or recycled into something new. When you lived in the atmosphere of an icy gas giant, the value of anything solid increased.

Dia twirled her fork, wrapping it up in a great ball of noodles and took a big bite. The broth and noodles slid down nicely. Her muscles ached a bit from the climbing and repair work, but a good ache, the sort that you got after a great workout or great sex. Actually, in her experience, great sex was usually a great workout. It’d been a while. The last guy that she’d hooked up with was one of the rock jocks that worked out on the Uranus moons, mining hard mineral resources and ice for the colony, down for shore leave. Rock jocks were always horny on leave, everyone knew that, and expected it.

Old man Barton, the boss of ’em all out here on the ass-end of the Diaspora, encouraged women to get pregnant. Build up the population and all that rah-rah bullshit. As far as Dia knew, only two woman in the colony had gotten pregnant so far. Most of them were a bit too busy doing science stuff or — like her — trying to keep the colony even functioning to even think about having a kid right now. You had to wonder if Barton would dare tell someone like Terra Blackstone or Carys Rex that they should have kids to boost Diaspora’s population.

Not in this lifetime.

The beer was cold at least. Dia’s glass mug was sweating on the table. She picked it up and took a deep drink. It wasn’t actually bad. Ricky brewed it herself, purportedly from an age-old family recipe. Barton might be the boss of the colony, but it was Ricky that got them organized to build the Strip and launched the first free market in Diaspora. Fundamental rights were a given, part of the Diaspora charter and all that stuff about the most valuable resource being the people themselves. You couldn’t deny them basic rights, including food, shelter, water, air and medical. Along with it was the right to self-governance.

Thanks to Ricky, they actually had the Strip. Better than anything that Barton had done.

Today it was busy. Not just Ricky’s, but the other establishments.

People liked getting out after being on shift. She wasn’t alone in pulling doubles, even triples. Lately it seemed like they were lucky enough to keep the place aloft, and on top of that they had the new folks from the exodus swelling their numbers and straining resources.

There was a group of them at a table on the other side of the Strip at the burger joint. No beef in those rat burgers. You could tell these were newbies. Four guys tucked in close to the table, wearing the generic Diaspora workalls. Back on Earth they might have been important, here they took up space. At least until Barton managed to get them shifted out. Right now they were all holed up in the dormitories which were nothing but new inflated extensions hanging off the Aether until more substantial extensions were built. Some of the exodus folks were busy working on those themselves, if they had any skills in that area.

The guys weren’t bad to look at, if a bit gaunt. It must have been something to see all those launches when the Diaspora group started the exodus to evacuate all personnel and their families from the Earth. She’d seen holograms but that still wasn’t real. Not like being there.

And none of those guys had taken the long haul out for years to reach Uranus. If they thought conditions were cramped now, they should have been on the transport ships that brought the colony out here. She still woke up in a sweat sometimes, thinking she was back on the ships.

Instead the exodus had benefited from solar sails and beamed power to cut down on the transit time to only six months.

They didn’t have to serve time. That’s the way everyone thought of it. The trip out to Uranus, that was serving time. Coffin time. You didn’t have a cell. You had a bunk, a narrow little space with a folding door. If you were short you fit, but anyone over six-feet tall couldn’t stretch out to their full length in the bunk.

Worse than anything, there wasn’t that much to do. Keep the ship running, doing routine maintenance. With a hundred and fifty people though, there wasn’t enough tasks to keep everyone busy. Instead it was all education and study. Scenarios and theories, and constant revisions to the colonization plan. That gave the decision makers something to do and left the rest of them sucking vacuum. That and wondering if they could really make a go of it at Uranus.

Dia twirled her fork in the remaining noodles and slurped them up. Cooling now, but still salty and delicious. Ricky’s had the best food on the Strip.

Those exodus guys didn’t know what the rest of them went through to get here and build this place. Some people went crazy before they even reached Uranus. Twenty-three dead since leaving Earth. She’d seen people fall screaming into deep blue void on the other side of that transparent floor. The floor really spooked the newcomers but it was perfect. It reminded them all of what they’d overcome to build this home.

Her glasses chimed. Dia looked up. Allison calling. “Answer.”

Allison, her cabin walls behind her, covered in climbing tomatoes. She traded them. “We’ve got a valve leak in the west pontoon.”

Impossible. “What the hell?”

Allison shrugged. “All I know, is it went offline.”

“Once again Uranus shits in our faces and we’re supposed to take it? Can’t they get someone else? We already did a double. I got clean.”

“Everyone else is busy. Zeke says we’ll get a full two days off after this is fixed.”

“He’s full of shit,” Dia said automatically. How the man ever was put in charge of anything escaped her, but he was Barton’s second up on the Command deck. “He can’t promise that if things keep breaking.”

“Are you coming?”

Dia picked up her bowl. “I’ll be right there.”

With a bleep, Allison was gone. Dia gulped down the broth, not wanting a drop to go to waste, and returned the bowl to the bus-bot on her way down the strip.

She passed the newbies table on her way out and made eye contact with the cutest guy, with deep dark brown skin and dark eyes. She winked, and threw a bit more sway into her hip on her way out. They’d be watching her legs the whole time.

3

The pontoons were massive clusters of reinforced inflated balloons, like a fist full of fat cigars, or giant zeppelins, all strapped together on the sides of the Aether. It’d take massive failure to take out an entire pontoon. A simple valve leak on its own wouldn’t mean a failure of the whole thing. At worst, they’d shut down one, do the repair and the bring it back online. The whole thing was so big, that no one would even notice.

Dia was halfway there, taking her time, walking the plain Aether corridors with her tool belt clinking around her waist. Most of the people she passed were serious planetary science types, with clean workalls who probably hadn’t had to pull a double yet. There was a whole team of them studying Uranus.

She snickered. A team studying Uranus. She’d share that with Allison.

The floor tilted beneath her feet. She had fast reflexes and kept her feet. Ahead of her, some three meters down the corridor, a scientist stumbled into the wall. A tablet fell from her fingers and she screamed. Seeing her blond hair, and fine features, Dia recognized her. Missy Turner, who’d once freaked out during the journey out here. She’d got completely catatonic for a whole month after staring out at space too long.

Then the whole corridor moved in an odd slip-sliding sort of way and rose back up slightly, not level, but closer. Missy screamed again.

Something was seriously, seriously fucked up. The Aether did not move like that. It did not! The whole thing was like a floating island. It drifted with the wind, endlessly circling the planet and unless you watched carefully you couldn’t even tell that it was moving.

The floor stayed at an angle. That suggested something had gone seriously wrong with the west pontoon stack. The stabilizers worked to keep things level. The only way it wouldn’t be level was if they couldn’t compensate. Except that was impossible!

Dia ran down the corridor. Missy made a grab for her, but Dia slipped past the grasping hand.

“Come back!”

No fucking way. A siren started blaring through the halls.

It wasn’t possible!

She ran faster.

4

A crowd had already formed in the pontoon access lockers when Dia skidded into the room. People were suiting up around the room. Allison was standing near the airlock, already dressed in the baggy sealed flight suit used for outside work. They didn’t need pressurized suits, just something to keep warm and a helmet so that they had breathable air. Allison’s helmet was tucked under her arm.

Dia sprinted across the room, dodged around a couple guys getting dressed, and caught Allison’s arm as she turned to the airlock.

“What’s happened?”

“Pontoon locks are failing.” Allison’s eyes were wide, dry and scared. “Gotta go, Dia.”

It was Caleb and Kathryn waiting with Allison. The two of them were fitting their helmets. Dia let go of Allison’s arm.

“I’ll get suited up.”

“Good. We’re going to need everyone.”

Dia backed away. Caleb picked up a bulky repair pack. Kathryn was lifting the wielding gear. Allison slid her helmet on.

Dia lifted her hand in a quick wave. Allison nodded back.

Then Dia walked up the sloping floor to the suit lockers. She dialed a small suit. Inside the racks spun, then stopped. She wrenched the stiff door open and took out the suit, the tanks and helmet.

Others were finishing getting dressed. A line was forming at the airlock. A failure in the pontoon locks meant they could lose the whole stack. If the locks failed completely, then the pontoons on this side would escape. It shouldn’t happen. There were multiple redundancies and safety features to prevent that sort of catastrophic failure!

There was no way this could happen.

Not unless someone did something to the locks. That’d be suicidal. If the pontoon failed completely, one pontoon wouldn’t be enough to keep the Aether aloft. The whole base would plummet into the depths and be crushed. The teams going out there now would manually seal and check each one of the locks. But was anyone checking the other pontoon?

Dia zipped up her suit and blinked open a communications line. “Command.”

It was Zeke that answered, his young angular face pale today. “Yes?”

“Zeke, is anyone taking a look at east pontoon?”

“No! The problem is at the west pontoon! Clear the channel and get over there. We need everyone out on this.”

“I’m there, but Zeke, this can’t be an accident. Someone did this.”

He scowled. “No one would —”

“It didn’t fail on its own! And if someone sabotaged this one, how do we know that they’re not over doing the other right now?”

He bit his lip.

“Look, I’ll go check it out. You’ve got enough hands out there already as it is. Send someone to back me up, though. We need to catch the person responsible!”

“Go. Call in if you find anything.”

He was gone already. Dia slipped on her helmet and twisted it in place. Better than carrying it. She grabbed a spare kit, slung it over her shoulder and started running again.

Fastest way over was down to the next cross connection, through the Strip and into Aether’s east side.

5

When Dia burst into the east pontoon locker room she expected to find it empty. Instead there was a man, by the broad shoulders, standing in front of the airlock. He was wearing a brown excursion suit, no different than hers except in size.

He spun around when she came in.

She’d seen his face before, but she didn’t know his name. He was tanned by the distant sun. From Earth, then, one of the new people that arrived in the exodus transport. Dark hazel eyes watched her warily. Behind him the panel showed the progress in the airlock cycle. Had someone already gone out? If so, why wait inside? The airlock was big enough for at least four at a time.

“What are you doing?” She asked, easing closer.

“Isn’t this where the emergency is? I thought I could help out. I worked on the floating ocean platforms back on Earth.”

“Wrong side. It’s the west side that is in trouble.”

He smiled, flat and as empty as a clown. “Really? Gosh, I’m still getting turned around here.”

Dia kept moving closer. He was right in front of the airlock. If he got inside, she’d have to wait an entire cycle to get out after him. Who know what damage he could cause before then? And what if he had a way to block her from getting out at all. She’d have to go down to the secondary access airlocks and go along the Aether’s spine. That’d take forever.

“Come on then.” She beckoned. “I’ll show you where to go.”

“If this is the wrong way, why’re you here? Why’d you come acrost to this side?”

She smiled widely. “Maybe I got lost too. Come on, let’s get back before anyone realizes that we screwed up.”

The airlock pinged behind him. He glanced back, then at her. His smile still didn’t reach his eyes. “I think I’d better go ahead and check this one out too, don’t you think? Make sure everything is okay.”

“Hey, you know what they say about Uranus?”

His brow wrinkled. “What?”

“You’re so full of shit!”

Dia charged across the room at the guy. Where the hell was her backup? Zeke!

The guy turned away, slapping the airlock control. The door slid open and he lunged through, turning to the panel on the inside. Dia was still a couple meters away.

She sprinted as fast as she could. The door started moving. She dove forward.

Her helmet struck him. He made a wheezing sort of noise before crumpling. They tumbled together into the airlock. The door was still closing. Dia tucked her feet in and rolled off the guy.

Really, she’d meant to tackle him, not head-butt his balls. The helmet got in the way. But that worked too.

The door closed.

The guy was down, on the floor, cupping his wounded pride and groaning.

Dia moved around him back to the door controls. Get the door open. Drag out the guy and sit on him if she had to, until help came. It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was best she had. And call —

A hand grabbed her ankle and yanked.

Dia yelped and rolled away as she fell. She hit on her shoulder, still rolling and twisted free from his grip. The guy’s hands grabbed at her again.

Dia kicked out at him. The blows didn’t land. He crawled forward, knocking her ineffectual kicks aside, and then threw himself across her legs.

He was heavy!

She pushed up and swung at him. The blows hit his helmet and bounced off. He grabbed for her arms. She yelled and squirmed, trying to get out from under him, but he grabbed her suit and yanked her beneath him, using his weight and size against her.

He had her down, pinned to the floor, with his weight holding her down. She tried bringing her knee up between his legs but he was ready for that and shifted, deflecting the blow with his thighs.

Then his knee shoved between her legs!

He got both of his legs between hers even as she thrashed against him. He caught her left arm and used his weight to pin it down.

She tried to hit him, but couldn’t get a good angle. She struck at his side and he tucked his arm down, blocking the blow.

Then he punched down hard, right into her side.

Pain exploded in her mid-section as her breath exploded from her shocked and open mouth. Spit sprayed across the inside of her helmet. While she was stunned from the pain, he caught her other arm and pinned her completely down. While fire burned in her side and she struggled for breath, he had her completely pinned between his body and his hands on her arms.

Dia swung her legs up, wrapping them around his waist and squeezed with everything she had. Her legs were strong. She could climb shafts, hang upside down and run with the best of them. Her legs were always her best feature.

She squeezed with everything she had, trying to crush him with her legs.

He grimaced. “Stop.”

“No.” Gasped for air. “Fucking. Way.”

Her muscles trembled against him.

He snarled and rocked back, up on his knees, pulling her up so suddenly she was straddling him. He released her arms and grabbed the front of the suit.

Oh shit!

He slammed her back down hard against the floor. Her head snapped against the helmet. The force of the blow knocked out the rest of her air. It was stunning. She was lifted up again, limbs going weak, then slammed down again.

He pulled free and stood.

Dia groaned and tried to move.

A foot flashed, slammed into her side. Something cracked. Her rib. It was on fire. Her eyes stung with tears. She couldn’t breathe or see anything. Her head swam dizzily.

Where was the backup, Zeke?

Was he in on it? Maybe no one was coming. Zeke might have deliberately sent everyone to the other pontoon, to distract them from what was happening at this one. Why?

Another kick hit her stomach, lifting her from the floor and then dropping her. Her stomach heaved and then she vomited into her helmet, the bile hot and tasting of Ricky’s noodles. Not better the second time!

She curled into a ball. She fought for air. Where was he? What was he doing?

She sensed he had moved away, but she couldn’t see. Her eyes were blurry and dark. Her mouth tasted of bile, noodles and fire. She couldn’t breathe!

Panic spread like wildfire along her nerves. She thrashed and struggled to breath, her mouth gaping wide. The darkness grew.

Then a thin hint of air made it down her gasping throat like a thread of fire. She sucked and more came. She took in great gasping gulps of vomit-tainted air and it was the sweetest thing ever. The darkness pulled back a bit, but there was a still a thin keening sound. Was that her?

No. She was crying, but that wasn’t it.

It was the outside door.

Dia arched her back, rolling to get a look.

The outside door was open. The man was gone.

He must have gone out to complete whatever sabotage he had intended. If that was destroying the pontoon locks, he was about to kill them all. Everyone on the Aether, plus the hydrogen miners and the rock jocks. Without the Aether they were all dead. Diaspora would eventually send out a new colony, fat lot of good it would do any of them. Even those in orbit, they couldn’t survive long enough on their own.

Dia got her breath back and opened a call on her glasses. “Command!”

Old man Barton answered the call himself. His face was knows as well as Terra Blackstone’s back on Earth. The handsome astronaut that had been an early proponent of the Diaspora Group back when they were first contracting for commercial space exploration. The years had aged him, turned his hair silver, but otherwise he was still the hard rocket jock he’d always been.

Right now his blue eyes looked haunted. They widened when he saw her. “Dia Rhodes? Where are you?”

“I’m at the east pontoon airlock, sir. One of the newbies got past me, he’s outside. I’m going after him, but I need backup.”

“I’ll send someone right away.”

“Sir, I called in and talked to Zeke already.”

Barton ran a hand across his buzzed silver hair. “He’s gone. We’re tracking him now, but what we’re seeing suggests that he’s involved. Be careful if you see him.”

“Understood. I’ve got to go.”

Dia crossed to the airlock. She hurt from the fight. The sour smell of vomit filled her helmet, and streaked the inside. One of her ribs burned with pain every time she drew a breath. Her lungs were sore.

The airlock opened out onto the long drop through Uranus’ cloud deck, except for the wire grating walkway that extended out from the airlock in a half-circle waiting area with a tall fence around the edges. The wind keened through the wire mesh. Dia slipped out, keeping her back to the walls, watching for the man.

He wasn’t in view. On her left the walkway extended along the Aether’s structure, then turned left and climbed up to the pontoon connections. It was the only way for him to have gone.

Dia ran for the stairs. She got there and looked around the corner. The stairs ran up to the next level, the first connection points. Above her the pontoon stack was enormous, massive long cigar-shaped and silver, bound together in a cluster. Massive cables ran from the pontoon stack to the locks that held it in place. Stairs, wrapped in a mesh fence to prevent falls, ran along the cables up to the pontoons.

The saboteur was climbing up to the first cable locks. He had a bag and was reaching inside. Dia ran up the stairs, ignoring the pain with each step. The man looked down at her, his face registering surprise.

Thought I was down for the count? She thought.

Hardly. Like she was going to let that stop her. He turned away and hurried to the first cable lock housing. There was something in his hand from the bag he carried, small and black, a device of some sort. Explosive?

Dia was still a level down when he slapped the device onto the lock housing. He sprinted down the gangway toward the next housing.

How long did she have? She was already moving. There wasn’t any chance of going back. Fail to stop him, and they died. If she died trying that was better than cowering in the airlock waiting for the Aether to drop into the void.

She climbed up the last steps and ran to the housing. The device was a round, matte-black cylinder, capped at each end with a cluster of electronics on the end. If it was counting down, there wasn’t any visible display.

“What’s going on Dia?” Barton asked.

Her eyes flicked up, acknowledging the connection.

“He’s planted an explosive on the lock housing. He’s going on to the next one. I’m going to try and take it off.”

Barton licked his lips. “If you set it off…”

“If I don’t, he’s going to blow it anyway.”

Sweat dripped into her eyes. “I have to take the chance. Leave me alone so I can concentrate.”

“Send me what you’re seeing, we might be able to help.”

Dia eyes-flicked her feed over to him, then focused on the device.

She didn’t know anything about disarming bombs. The bomb might go off no matter what she did. The housing, though, she understood that. If she removed the housing would the bomb go off? Maybe, but it seemed the best bet. Of course if she got it off she still needed to do something with it.

Dia pulled her cutting torch from her utility belt. The thin torch sucked in hydrogen from the environment, combined it with oxygen to produce a small sort flame. Useful when working outside. She turned it on the fencing next to her. The thin wire cut like butter. She sliced across it, down one side, then over. She pulled the fencing in and bent it out of the way, leaving herself with a half-meter, roughly square opening in the fence.

“What are you doing?” Barton asked.

“The only thing I can do,” she said. “Where’s the backup?”

“On their way. We ran into some other problems.”

The housing was next. She sliced through the access lock. The housing was thin and cut like tissue paper. She swung the door open, biting her lip, and the bomb didn’t go off. She sliced the torch down the hinges and the housing door came away in her hand. It almost slipped in her gloves, but she caught it.

She wasn’t breathing when she shoved it through the opening she’d cut and let it fall.

It tumbled away like a falling leaf, spinning and dropping quickly to a small dark spot against the cloud scape. Then a bright flash far below and a distant rumble like thunder.

She turned and ran for the next housing. The man was already ahead of her, planting more bombs on the remaining locks’ housings. She couldn’t get to them all, not before he could set them off. He only had three left.

At the next housing she didn’t stop. She sprinted past it and aimed for the third. If that one blew, at least there’d be space between the remaining ones.

Twelve locks. How many did the Aether need to before the others failed. If she saved every other one, was that enough?

No time to question. The decision was made. She reached the third. Her lungs were burning as she cut through the fencing and bent it out of the way. Then she turned to the housing, slicing through the lock and then the hinges, just like last time.

She shoved it through the hole and didn’t watch. She turned to run to the next. When a loud blast picked her up and dashed her against the fence. Flames licked the air around her as she dropped to the grating.

The noise had deafened her. Barton’s face was in the corner of her glasses. His mouth moved. She didn’t hear anything expect ringing. She picked herself up. Her suit was singed but the lock was intact. The bomb must have gone off sooner.

Dia picked herself up, pulling herself up the fence. The saboteur was picking himself up too. That had had been some jolt. He was picking up his bag.

Screw this!

She picked herself up and charged down the gangway. Her ribs hurt but her fingers ached as she held onto the torch. Three bombs weren’t even planted. She’d saved at two locks. If she stopped him, that’d give her at least three more. Maybe the others wouldn’t go off.

If he got to the end, if he set them off, then it really was over. The explosion would tear away the cable locks and those thick cables would run free, releasing the pontoons to float away. The Aether would drop into the depths.

Unless she stopped it. The vomit-scented air burned down her sore throat. Her ribs screamed with each step. Dia kept going. The newbie saw her and ran toward the next housing. She picked up speed and ran full out. She didn’t hold anything back.

He was at the next housing when she was only a couple meters behind him. His hand dug into the bag. She didn’t hesitate, didn’t slow, and didn’t stop. She slammed into his side, tucking to drive her shoulder into his side. The impact made her rib flare up like a nova but she kept her feet and he went down. The bag fell away. Another bomb rolled from the bag onto the gangway.

He kicked out at her legs. She jumped, lifting her feet and came down on the other side. As she landed she swung the torch across the front of his suit.

The hot flames scorched through the suit, laying it open to red smoking ruin. Frost formed across the wound as the blood and hot air inside was exposed to the cold. He screamed and thrashed away from her on the metal gangway.

Dia raked the torch across the backs of his legs. The flame burned the fabric down into his legs. Blood well from the blackened wounds and dripped down, drops freezing and falling away through the gangway into the depths below. He screamed again.

Her gut tightened, heaved and she swallowed against it. He was trying to kill them all.

He reached out, clawing the metal for toward the fallen bomb.

Dia brought the torch down on his fingers, cutting the ends of his pinky and ring fingers away. The metal glowed red hot. Frost formed across his stumps. The cold was flash freezing any exposed flesh.

“We need to talk to him, Dia!” Barton. Shouting in her ear.

“Why did you do this?” She shouted at the saboteur.

He struck out at her and she met the blow with the flame of the torch. He screamed, whimpered and tried crawling away. She pounced, searing the backs of his legs again. His suit was a bloody ruin, frozen to his legs. As long as his helmet stayed intact he would keep breathing but he’d freeze soon if he didn’t get inside. The atmospheric pressure at this altitude was essentially the same as sea-level on Earth, just not breathable. And deadly cold. A few seconds in this cold and you’d freeze solid without the suit.

“Why?”

He collapsed sobbing on the deck. His good hand moved down to his waist. Dia stabbed the torch down, searing his hand. He bucked and rolled. There was a device on his belt. She snatched it up, holding the torch ready. The device looked like a trigger, with a guard over the button. She held it and held the torch on him.

“Who sent you? Why are you doing this?”

“We shouldn’t be out here!” He said, rolling onto his back. He held his hands up, panting. “We shouldn’t be here!”

“Why the hell not?”

“We’re not ready.” His voice caught. He coughed. “You’re traitors, abandoning Earth! You deserve to die for that.”

Of all the stupid crap! “Seriously? That’s your reason for sacrificing your own life? You’re one of those origin freaks?”

Origin, preached that Earth was the only proper home for humanity, and they shouldn’t be “invading” other worlds. According to Origin, humanity was supposed to stay on the Earth until the aliens decided they were ready to ascend. Or some crazy shit like that.

“Earth is the birthplace of humanity, and the only place we can survive.”

Dia lowered the torch closer to his helmet. He whimpered and crawled backward. “We’ve been surviving just fine before you decided to try to kill us all. If your whole origin fairytale was true, where are your alien judges now?”

“You’ll doom us all!”

He lunged forward, knocking her back. She stumbled, held onto the torch but he wasn’t coming at her. He managed to get up and took off in a lurching run. It took a few strides before she realized where he was going.

The gate out to the stairs leading up to the pontoons. She ran to catch him, but he got through. He slammed the gate shut with a clang and sat down on the steps. He braced his feet against the frame.

Dia hit the gate. He had his legs locked. She lifted the torch. “I can cut that right off its hinges and drag you out. If you don’t want to talk to me, I’m sure old man Barton will find someone to get the answers out of you.”

The newbie looked back at her. Sweat was running down his face. He gulped air. Then he reached up to the helmet releases on his suit.

“No!” Dia turned the torch on the wire of the gate. It flared bright red and melted, dripping down. She pulled it down the gate, cutting the wire strands.

Not fast enough. He twisted the helmet releases free and pulled it clean off his head. His breath exhaled around him in an instant frosty cloud, forming ice on his hair and skin. His face hardened and ice traced across his cheeks. His feet kicked against the gate and then he was still, slumping forward.

Dia stepped back. Two more steps and bumped into the fence behind her. She stopped and sank down to sit. She thumbed off the torch and dropped it on the gangway. Far, far below the clouds were an unbroken haze.

“Dia? We’re almost there. It’s okay. We’ll take care of the rest. Come on in.”

Barton. His face in the corner of her eye. She blinked him off. She was done.

The body was sitting right there on the other side of the gate, as dead as if she had killed him. And she had wanted to kill him. Her rib burned, but it wasn’t the beating. The idea, that he was willing to kill them all? Over some delusional belief in ancient aliens that had supposedly visited Earth? He must have infiltrated Diaspora a long time ago, before the exodus. Before they’d even found the star map on Titan. The Origin movement had grown when Diaspora spread out into the solar system, but it hadn’t been that big of a deal until lately. This guy must have been biding his time until now.

All for the delusion that he was saving the Earth? That by destroying them, the aliens might spare the Earth? Crazy. Crazy-ass motherfucker!

Tears stung her cheeks. She put her hands up to cover her face and hit her helmet instead.

6

The Old Man’s office perched on the upper deck of Aether. It was a big round room covered in a dome. An upper deck circled the office, with two stairs that spiraled up on each side of the room so that someone could climb up and walk around the dome and look out at the wide back of the Aether. And there were stars visible up above the dome. The clouds were mostly far below where the Aether floated. To either side the silvery pontoons floated like gigantic schools of metallic whales, shepherding the colony through Uranus’ atmosphere.

It wasn’t a room that Dia normally found herself in, but she was there, answering Barton’s summons. The tape on her ribs reduced the pain to a dull, drugged ache. Her shorts and loose t-shirt lacked any formality, despite the bare limbs she still was distanced from everything around her like she was wearing the suit.

Barton rose from behind her desk like a bear rising from a stream. He stood tall, solid, with a wildness behind him. His age and lines on his face held a gentleness, and seeing him, a sigh escaped from her lips.

“Dia.” He came around the desk and he didn’t touch her. His hands hung relaxed and comfortable at his side. “How are you doing?”

“Okay. I’m okay.”

“You saved us. If you hadn’t stopped Gerard —”

“Who?”

“Kyle Gerard, the bomber.”

“Oh, right.”

Barton nodded. “Your feed caught it all. We’ve been scouring his communications. He was discreet, but there were letters from his sister back on Earth that slipped past us. Coded communications, with directions. Given his background, we put him to work on the cargo pods, which gave him access to the resources necessary to create the bombs.”

“What happened on the west pontoon?”

“He hacked controls there to create an imbalance in the cable tension. At the same time the vent controls were put off line. It made it look like the pontoon was deflating.”

“A distraction.”

“Yes. One that you saw through.” Barton shook his head. “We’ve been lax as far as security goes. Those of us that served time on the trip out, we thought we knew everything there was to know about each other.”

“That was on the ships,” she said. She moved away from him. Pissed. She didn’t want to look at him right now. “People get out, they start living their lives again. People are getting in fights, falling in love. Making money. Isn’t that the point? Aren’t we building a new world here?”

“Yes. That’s what I called you about.”

Dia turned around. “Me?”

“The colony council decided today that we need a police presence. A sheriff. They want that to be you.”

“Me?”

“Your instincts got you there. You know the colony better than anyone. People like you, they trust you. Heck, right now you could probably have my job if you wanted it.”

That was a scary thought! She shook her head. “I don’t want your job.”

He chuckled. “Glad to hear it. But will you take the sheriff job? We’ll have to give you something less lethal than a cutting torch, but we need someone to do the job.”

“Are you going to set up a whole legal system? Courts and all of that?”

“As we need to, we will.” Barton crossed his arms. “Really, right now we need someone to keep the peace. And it’s not over, not yet.”

A cold chill ran down her arms, like somewhere a heating vent had failed. “What?”

“Zeke. He’s missing.”

“Still?”

Barton nodded. “He left his station after you talked to him. We’ve got the crew confirming that, but he’s been in hiding since. Before he split, he disabled cameras around the command deck so we didn’t see what direction he went. We haven’t been able to track him since. I suspect he’s holed up somewhere.”

“Why? What good does it do to hide? He can’t stay hidden forever. The colony isn’t that big. There’s not many places that he can go to stay hidden. And then what? If he’s hiding, he’s planning to do something. Maybe he’s going to finish what Gerard started.”

The thing that didn’t make sense was that Zeke was one of them, he’d served time on the ships. He’d been a constant morale-booster. He was the one that led them in the ship-wide songs.

“The thing I can’t understand is why he’d betray us,” Barton said, echoing her thoughts. “After everything that we’ve been through together, it just doesn’t sound like him.”

“Maybe he hasn’t betrayed us.” Dia felt her gut rise like she was dropping, falling. “With everyone busy, maybe he came after me to back me up and something else happened to him.”

“I’d like to believe that, but what about the cameras?”

“Let’s look into that. What if he wasn’t the one that disabled the cameras? Someone else might have done that when he was leaving to cover his tracks.”

“I’ll have someone check it.”

Dia shook her head. “No. Who would you ask? If someone betrayed us, did something to Zeke, they must have been on the Command deck when he talked to me. It had to be someone close enough to hear the conversation —”

“That’d be most anyone there. I heard bits of it and I was focused on the other pontoon.”

“So someone that heard I was going to the east pontoon, that wanted to stop Zeke from helping me. It’d be better if we did the work ourselves, without tipping anyone off as to what we’re doing. Can you access the logs from here?”

Barton was already moving toward his desk. “Yes, of course. I know these systems.”

He stepped behind the curved desk and placed his fingers under the edge, drawing it up to a standing height. He made a scooping gesture and a holographic screen rose up from the back side of the desk.

It was a nice workstation, lots of space to work with. “Toss me the personnel roster, anyone working at that time.”

It took Barton a moment and then he slid a window across the screen to her. Dia caught it and dragged it wider and taller. A gallery of familiar faces looked back out at her, animated and lively, smiling when their official portraits were taken. All those little pairs of eyes watching her was eerie. Zeke’s portrait gazed out at her, that hint of a familiar smile on his angular face. His eyes softened the hard lines of his cheeks and jaw. A strand of dark hair fell loose across his forehead. He didn’t look as pale as the last time she saw him. When the picture was taken they hadn’t even left Earth’s orbit yet. She remembered him talking about his last vacation. They all had a story, the last place on Earth they’d visited before launch. For most of them, they knew the trip was going to be one way.

Zeke had taken a bicycle trip, riding down the continental divide across North America. Not the whole way, there hadn’t been time, but he spent a week riding through areas that were still remote and undeveloped. Beautiful, mountainous areas full of wildlife. That’s what he had done before coming out to Uranus. It didn’t sound like the sort of person that would have betrayed them.

Which left the rest of the people on the Command deck, some twenty or so personnel.

“Was this everyone that came onto the deck during the emergency? Even anyone that might have only been there for a moment?”

“As far as I remember.” Barton had logs of data up on his screen. “I’m filtering this down to the window of time. I should be able to identify where the command to disable the cameras came from, just give me a moment.”

“Can you give me the footage from the Command deck cameras too?”

Barton pulled it up and passed it over. Dia caught it and pulled it off. She spread it out on the desk, like a holographic model of the Command deck as seen from above. Barton sat on the upper row of the deck, aides on either side. Their attention was all on the main screen across the front of the deck showing the repair crew footage on the west pontoon gangway, spreading out to check the locks, and climbing up to the pontoons to check on the vent assemblies. Even though the image was small, Dia recognized Allison by her size, climbing up to the pontoons.

That wasn’t what she was looking for. She rotated the view around so that she could see the faces. Zeke was sitting in the second tier, down to the right of where Barton was. There were people around him but everyone was looking busy. No one stood out as paying any particular attention to what Zeke was doing.

She reached into the recording and spread it out, zooming in on Zeke’s station.

Zeke leaned closer to his screen, which showed her own face looking out at him. “Yes?”

“Zeke, is anyone taking a look at east pontoon?” Her voice actually sounded calm, serious. Interesting.

Zeke shook his head. “No! The problem is at the west pontoon! Clear the channel and get over there. We need everyone out on this.”

“I’m there, but Zeke, this can’t be an accident. Someone did this.”

Dia watched the people around Zeke. Was anyone watching the conversation?

“No one would —”

On his left was Tristyn Mars, the bulky engineer that had led much of the construction on the Aether. To his right, Jaimee Erickson, a biologist by trade, she’d worked on the hydroponic decks and currently was the supervisor for their agricultural division. Both glanced over but were busy with their own conversations with their people.

“It didn’t fail on its own! And if someone sabotaged this one, how do we know that they’re not over doing the other right now?”

Zeke bit his lip. His hands rubbed against the legs of his workall. He looked undecided. Then he pulled up secondary windows, views of the inside of the Aether, that obscured her image. Of course she hadn’t been able to see any of that at the time.

“Look, I’ll go check it out. You’ve got enough hands out there already as it is. Send someone to back me up, though. We need to catch the person responsible!”

He was looking for something in the footage. Maybe trying to see if he could see anything going on in that section of the ship? They didn’t have cameras everywhere. Command deck, a few key areas, but the pontoon lockers weren’t one of those areas. No one liked the idea of cameras in the locker rooms, even if they’d all seen everything in their years traveling out to Uranus.

Zeke stopped flipping through cameras and dismissed the windows with a quick swipe of his hand. He looked right at her image. “Go. Call in if you find anything.”

He killed the connection and turned to Tristyn. “I’ve got to go check something out. Watch my station, okay?”

“Of course,” Tristyn said.

Then Zeke got up and the image vanished. End of feed. Nothing about it suggested that he had disabled the cameras himself. If he had, she didn’t see him do it.

“I don’t see anything suggesting that Zeke disabled the feed,” Dia said.

Barton shook his head. “The logs show the commands coming from his station.”

“It must have been rerouted somehow from one of the other stations.”

Dia grabbed the feed and pulled it back, reversing everyone’s movements to the point just before Zeke was getting up. She zoomed in and focused on Tristyn. The big man’s screens were all focused on the work happening on the west pontoon. He was guiding the people working on the problem there. He barely looked at Zeke when Zeke left, just acknowledging Zeke asking him to watch the station. Then he slid his chair over to watch both stations.

She repeated the scene again with Jaimee as the focus. She was busy fielding calls on repairs to systems disturbed when the Aether lurched. Nothing suspicious there.

If it wasn’t them, then who? She pulled back the view from Jaimee’s screens to see the area around them and scrubbed back to the start of her call. The man sitting on the next tier down from Zeke twitched, turning when her call came in. Only a second and then his head was down and focused on his screens. Who was it?

She rotated and zoomed in on the man’s station. She recognized him. Not from the ships. He hadn’t served time with them. She’d last seen him on the Strip when she was eating noodles at Ricky’s. It was the cute newbie that she’d seen with three others on the strip. The same dark brown skin, and dark eyes. Really cute, thin and focused. To anyone looking, it looked like he was working hard, but why was her call mirrored on his screen? He was copying Zeke’s screen and that wasn’t his job. That station was assigned to atmospheric recycling. He touched his glasses and spoke too softly for the pickups to catch his words. He had called someone. The guy with the bombs?

“I’ve got something here,” she told Barton.

He leaned over, looking down at her display. She grabbed the image and threw it up onto the big holographic screen. Life-sized it, as if they were standing right next to the guy. She pointed at his screens.

“When my call came in, he was mirroring Zeke’s terminal, and watch, he calls someone.”

Dia set the scene playing back. The newbie talked for a few seconds and then turned back to his station. He pulled up command-line windows and started typing commands. He was fast and knew what he was doing. He executed his program just as Zeke was rising from his chair and the image cut out as the cameras were disabled.

“Good work,” Barton said. “See? We need you as sheriff.”

“That’s fine,” Dia said. “But there’s more. I saw that man in the Strip earlier with three other newbies. I’ll assume that the bomber was one of them. That left two others to pick up Zeke when he left the command deck. We have to assume that the three of them are planning something else. They tried to stop Zeke from helping me and counted on the bomber being able to handle me on his own.”

“They were wrong.”

Dia allowed herself a tight smile. “Yes, but their bomber friend killed himself instead of allowing himself to get captured. That doesn’t sound like people willing to give up easily. They have to have another plan to destroy the Aether. They had to know that we’d catch up to them. We need to know who we’re dealing with.”

She flipped through the roster Barton had given her of personnel on the control deck. The newbie traitor’s image looked up at her, his face serious.

“Allen Snow.” She scanned the details. Computer engineering background, with studies in management. Cute, he was the guy that she’d eyed on the Strip. Hell, why’d he have to end up being crazy? He’d worked on the exodus plan at the local level as a regional coordinator. One of the last people to leave in the final exodus launches. “I see why he was assigned to the command deck. He has the skills to severely compromise our systems. What do we have on the bomber?”

Barton flicked her another profile.

“Kyle Gerard.” His profile matched what Barton already told her. Skills that let him use the materials for the mining launches to design and build the bombs. He was one of the four men that she’d seen with Snow at the Strip.

“I need the roster of all of the new men on the Aether. If I can identify the other two that I saw with Snow and Gerard, we might have an idea of what they are planning next.”

“Give me a second,” Barton said. “I’ll pull it up.”

Barton worked. Dia tapped her foot, waiting.

“Oh hell.”

Barton turned, sliding a pair of profiles across to her side of the screen. A muscle in his jaw twitched.

“Jaylend Roy and Del Cole. I recognize their names. We considered ourselves lucky to get them. Diaspora had them working on the fusion generator projects on Earth. The idea was to install generators in cities around the world, clean, cheap power.”

“I’m familiar with it. Nobody wanted them.”

“They didn’t trust us,” Barton said. “Or believe the prices that we were willing to offer. That’s beside the point. Misters Roy and Cole traveled all over working on the generators. They weren’t the guys selling the technology, they were the guys building it. They were supposed to upgrade our generators and work on creating newer, smaller models for the ships and outposts. Blackstone wanted us shipping out generators along with the hydrogen shipments.”

It sucked. “You’re telling me that these two could compromise our generators?”

“Blow us the hell up, shut them down and let us freeze and fall, whatever they want.” Barton reached for the screen. “I’ll send out an alert. Tell everyone to be on the look-out for these three.”

Dia caught his arm. “Don’t.”

“Don’t? They could blow us up at any moment!”

“If they’re cornered, maybe that’s what they do, before we’re ready. If they think they have time? Maybe they aren’t as quick to die as their friend.”

“What do you want us to do?”

She gave him a smile and leaned into his arm. “You wanted me to be sheriff. Let me take a shot at finding them.”

It was a leap, a gamble with all of their lives, but if they did it Barton’s way she was sure that one of the three would simply blow the Aether sky high. The only reason that she even thought they had a chance was the fact that the guys hadn’t already blown them all up or froze them out, to dropped them down into the depths. It suggested that at least one of the traitors wanted to stay alive.

“Okay, sheriff Rhodes. We’ll do it your way.” He pointed a finger at her. “Pray that you’re right.”

Dia shook her head. “I never pray, but if I’m wrong, I hope you get a chance to tell me you told me so before we’re dead.”

He laughed.

7

The Aether was sort of like a brain. It had two hemispheres. Not perfect spheres either, but like a lumpy brain, the east and west halves were longer than tall. Each was divided into seven levels, eight if you counted the command deck up spanning the top across the front of the colony. The levels housed the colony residents, the agricultural levels where they grew their food in hydroponic trays, mechanical levels that kept the whole thing working, and the industrial levels that housed their manufacturing and power generation facilities. Everything that people took for granted back on Earth, was concentrated here, compressed into this sort-of brain-shaped habitat that hung between the two massive pontoons in a web of cables. The whole thing was big too, bigger than skyscrapers back on Earth in terms of the sheer volume that it enclosed. Taking just the Strip, that ran along the bottom of the colony between the two halves, there were a ton of places to hide. As people had moved in they made use of all of the small pockets and folds in the structure. Even if she could search the whole thing there was nothing to stop them from moving on from one hiding place to the next, avoiding her search.

Dia walked down the corridor from the Old Man’s office to the nearest lift.

Her, sheriff? That was a big change. Sheriff of a colony that included, original colonists and exodus personnel combined, over two hundred different people. How was she going to police all of that? How could she find the fugitives before they destroyed the Aether or hatched some other equally disastrous plan?

She couldn’t trust communications. Snow must have already planted ways to watch the official discussions. Maybe he didn’t have access to Barton’s office systems. It didn’t matter. She had to assume that he did, and knew that she had identified them, and was coming for them. If she was wrong, they’d still assume that someone was coming for them. They’d probably be expecting a lock-down on the colony. Everyone restricted to quarters, armed personnel moving through the colony, searching for them.

In that case she couldn’t give them what they expected.

The lift dinged. She stepped inside and keyed the fourth level, the lowest she could get in this section. The elevator dropped down.

Then she wouldn’t do anything. No lock-down. No search. Let Barton respond to the questions about what had happened. It’d make them wonder, no matter what they knew. What was she doing? Why wasn’t there a response? People on the colony would be suspicious and paranoid over the lack of a response from the administration. Barton wasn’t the sort to lie to his people, he’d say something like the investigation was ongoing.

And everyone would want to know what she was doing, including the traitors.

When the elevator dinged on the lowest level, Dia walked out and took the shortest route over to the Strip. She stepped out beneath the bright lights and it was almost like daylight, except upside down because of the clouds far below.

She strolled. She lingered at a keepsakes booth to admire a stuffed teddy bear with glass eyes. He was full of barley, and heavy. It been brought out from Earth, the original owner either died or traded it away. There was something lonely about the bear.

Heretic White ran the booth. He was short and thin, not a bit of fat on him. Bright tattoos covered his arms. He wore his graying hair back in a long ponytail that stretched all the way down his back over the decorated black workall he wore. Dia put the bear down.

“Cute. Probably not my style.”

“No, no,” Heretic said. “I think a teddy bear would inspire great confidence in our new sheriff.”

“News travels fast.”

Heretic cocked a head at his holographic screen. “The Old Man made an announcement. All reassuring, with Dia Rhodes, the hero of the day, being appointed sheriff and continuing the investigation into the man that tried to blow up the pontoon locks. I know I’m going to sleep better tonight.”

He picked up the bear. “Although maybe I’ll keep this close.”

“Just because someone went crazy, it’s no reason to worry. It’s not like you and I haven’t seen someone freak out before.”

In the heart of the ship. Travis Hunt claiming that space-born spiders were spinning webs between the stars to catch them all. That all that dark matter between the stars was actually spider webs. They were flying out into spider webs. She and Heretic had helped hold him down while the doc sedated him.

“No, not the first time,” Heretic said. “What’re you doing now?”

She shrugged. “My new job. Taking a look around, walking the beat, seeing what people are up too. I think it’s about time we had a police presence.”

Heretic scowled. “Before you know it, it’s going to be just like it was back on Earth!”

She laughed. “That won’t bother you — you’ll be on the first interstellar ship. Assuming, of course, that they let you on!”

Heretic pointed the bear. “You bet! Who wouldn’t?”

Dia shook her head. “I’ve come as far as I’m going to come. I don’t plan on serving time between the stars until I’m old and dead, never to see the new worlds.”

“It won’t be like that, Titan proved it. I’ll bet Blackstone’s already working on the first ships.”

“Maybe.” Dia lifted a hand. “I’ll see you Heretic. Take it easy.”

“Yeah, you too. Sheriff.”

She moved on. She stopped at some booths, greeting people she knew, taking her time. People watched her, turning around, pointing her out. She smiled and nodded, trying to look relaxed. Her muscles ached and her rib protested and what she really wanted to do was go home and sleep. But she needed to be seen, to seem unconcerned. Let the traitors think they had time to put whatever alternate plans they had into motion. She didn’t want the cornered animals to know they were cornered. The last thing she needed was a panic reaction. They hadn’t blown up the Aether, if that’s what they wanted to do, they’d have done it.

Maybe they did plan on blowing everything up, but maybe they didn’t want to take Gerard’s way out. In that case, they’d want to put an escape plan into action.

At Ricky’s she sank into her familiar old seat, stifling the gasp of pain as her rib flared up. Ricky herself came out with her big hips swaying one way and her long blond hair framing her face like a halo. Ricky had one of those faces, almost masculine, but with a strong sensuality that shone through. She gave Dia her big, and on Ricky that was really big, smile as she came to the table with a steaming bowl and a cold glass of beer.

“Food’s on the house, Sheriff! You’re a hero. Everyone’s talking about it. You saved us all from that crazy fuck!”

“In the right place at the right time.” Dia accepted the fork Ricky offered, as she set down the bowl. “But I won’t say no to your noodles! Oh, and dumplings!”

Ricky put a finger to her scarlet lips. “Those are for my special customers.”

Dia speared one of the dumplings and took a bite. It was stuffed with spicy meat and cheese! Heavenly. She moaned, and devoured the rest.

She swallowed. “You’ve been holding out on me.”

Ricky shrugged. “I have to ration what I have, same as everyone. You enjoy that now.”

“Thank you,” Dia said. “It’s perfect before I hit the sack.”

“You bet.”

Ricky headed back into her restaurant.

The noodles and dumplings were fabulous. No sense in letting them go to waste and she needed to give everyone a chance to see her anyway. She drank a bit of the beer. Not too much. She wanted to project an unconcerned image. Inside, it couldn’t be farther from the truth. Three other men were out there with connections to Gerard. She needed to find them and lock them down before they could do any more damage to her home.

Dia picked up the empty bowl and the half-empty glass of beer and returned both to the bus-bot. Time to turn in and hit the sack, or look that way. She stretched her arms out and yawned. Then she headed on out of the Strip, waving and nodding to people as she went.

If Snow was watching, the saboteurs would think that she was turning in for the day. They’d see this as their opportunity to move.

As soon as she got into her quarters she stripped off her shirt and shorts, tossing them into the cleaning bin. The tape binding her rib was uncomfortable, but not as bad as it’d be without it. She checked the tape, but it looked fine. The room was a standard small suite. One room with a bed, drawers, desk and holoscreen. It was a lot more than the exodus personnel had in their inflatable, temporary dormitories. She took a clean, almost unused workall from her narrow closest and pulled it on. She never wore the workalls, preferring her t-shirts and shorts. Everyone knew that.

She slipped on a pair of the minimal black standard issue shoes too, and pulled the hood up out of the workall’s collar over her head. A pair of tinted safety glasses, and a pair of gloves, and she looked like someone that worked around hazardous substances. But not much like a pixie sheriff with the spiky blue hair. The one thing she couldn’t do anything about was her height, but it wasn’t like she was the only one on the station that short.

Then she went to the door and opened it a crack. The corridor outside was empty. She slipped out and moved off down the corridor at a quick pace, like someone with someplace to go. Which she did have. There was a stop she had to make before she started the hunt.

Gray Ess was a white-haired radical anarchist with ambitions to run her own colony. She’d preached about it when they were serving time on the trip out to Uranus, urging the crew to elect her as their leader instead of Barton. That said, she had a sort of thing for Barton. When no one backed her position she went along with what everyone else wanted. That didn’t stop her from campaigning for less government, even while she was obviously in love with the Old Man. It was funny, and sad, all at the same time. Barton knew about her feelings and didn’t return them.

Not that Gray Ess was an unattractive woman, she was, well, elegant. Neat. And a talented industrial engineer. Dia made her ways through the corridors, unnoticed in her passing, to Gray’s workshop.

It was hot inside. Machine and bot parts covered the workbenches that filled the long, narrow space. Racks of shelving ran along the right-hand side, filled with crates of equipment and parts. This was where they came for every single spare part they needed from a washer to a whole new fan assembly. Gray stood in the middle of a wrap-around holographic screen, moving virtual machine parts in space, building something out of light.

“Gray?”

Gray walked through the hologram. “What can I do for you?”

Dia took off the glasses.

“Dia!” Gray smiled and spread her arms. “Come here!”

Dia went to Gray and embraced her, inhaling the faint oil smell of the woman. Gray felt strong beneath her arms, though thin. Dia stepped back.

“You doing okay, Gray?”

“Are you asking as the Sheriff?”

Dia shook her head.

“In that case, yes. I’m doing okay. I focus on the work, you know? The rock jocks keep me busy working on their equipment. They’re hard on it.”

“You take time to stop and eat?”

“From time to time.”

“Good. I need to ask you for a favor.”

“Anything for you, you know that.”

They’d worked closely back when they served time, keeping the ship working.

“I need a weapon. Something that can put a man down, but I’d prefer something non-lethal.”

Dia saw the uneasiness in Gray’s tightened mouth. Arming a sheriff? That was not the sort of thing that Gray believed in.

“We’ve got three men out there, with the capability of blowing up the Aether. I need to stop them. I can’t do it without something to even the odds.”

“I heard that the other man died.”

The torch swept across flesh, searing the man as he screamed. Dia pushed the image out of her mind. He had been trying to kill them all over some crazy alien fantasy. “He killed himself. I didn’t kill him.”

“You hurt him pretty bad, I hear.”

That hurt. “Would it make you feel better if I showed you the bruises? The broken rib? If I hadn’t stopped him we wouldn’t be having this conversation. He was going to blow all the locks on the pontoon. You know what that would have meant.”

Gray gave a slow nod.

“I didn’t have a choice. And as much as I’d like to think we’re safe, we have to get these three men into custody and find out what they’re planning. We also need to know if there are any more here, or at the other colonies.”

“I get it,” Gray said. “I thought we left all that behind when we left Earth.”

“People are people, no matter how far you go. It was going to happen sooner or later.”

“We should be better than that.”

“No arguments there. Are you going to help me?”

“Of course. I have something that might do the trick.” Gray beckoned, turning away.

Dia followed her around the workbenches, down the rows of shelving. Several rows down, Gray turned into the stacks. She pulled a long box from the bottom shelf. It dropped with a loud thud to the floor. Dia was intrigued.

“What’s in the box?”

Gray thumbed the biometric lock. When the light turned green she flipped the catches and shoved up the lid. It fell back to the floor.

There were three long guns nestled into the foam inside. The lid was also filled with foam, holding dozens of gray golf balls. Gray lifted one of the guns out. It was as long as her forearm, fat and a dull, dark gray color. The barrel was huge, clearly sized for the balls in the lid. Gray turned the gun and hit a released on the grip. It rotated outward, revealing a hollow interior with a track. She picked up a ball and dropped it in, then quickly added five more.

She snapped it shut. “Six shots, then you need to reload.”

“You made a cannon?”

Gray shook her head. “I didn’t make this. It was made back on Earth. Standard issue, Barton gave it to me for safe-keeping. We didn’t think we needed it.”

“It’s a cannon!”

“Actually, no.” Gray ran her hand along the barrel. “It’s non-lethal.”

“It looks pretty fucking lethal.”

“Part of the design. It’s meant to look intimidating. The spheres are bioreactive. They spread out on contact and deliver nerve-shocks when you use the panel here.” Gray’s thumb slid across the panel, which lit up from yellow, to red as she slid her thumb up the arc. “Redder is more intense. It’s direct nerve stimulation, painful but not physically harmful. Safer than electric shock weapons or drugs.”

Gray slid her thumb down the arc to the bottom and handed the gun over to Dia.

She took it. The weight was substantial, but comfortable. Over-sized in her hands but not too much. She could still reach the controls on the grip. She held it two-handed, using her left to hold the barrel and steady the weapon.

“Do you want more ammunition?”

Dia looked down. The spheres were bulky. “No. If I can’t do this with six shots, I doubt I’ll have time to reload anyway. This is perfect, thank you.”

Gray snapped the lid shut. “Don’t. I hate that this is necessary.”

“The alternative is worse,” Dia said.

Gray picked up the case and slid it back into place. She stood up. “You’re probably right. Why are these people trying to destroy the Aether?”

“They’re Origin followers. Aliens will exterminate us all for breaking quarantine, and all that nonsense. It’s gotten worse since the Titan discovery.”

“It’s sad that we haven’t moved beyond such superstitions. That might be a reason that we shouldn’t be spreading out into the universe.”

Dia shrugged. “Whatever the reason, I’m not about to let them destroy our home. Not if I can stop them.”

“Thank you,” Gray said. “I know it’s not easy. I’m not trying to make it harder.”

Dia reached out and Gray took her arm. They hugged quickly. Then Dia took the gun and headed out of the workshop. On the way she swiped a dirty towel on one of the workbenches and draped it over the gun. Walking the corridors with the weapon might draw a bit of attention.

Now all she had to do was find Snow and the others.

She went to the nearest ventilation shaft access and used Allison’s codes to gain access, logging it as routine maintenance. Nothing that would attract Snow’s attention if he was watching the systems for her. There weren’t cameras in the shafts, so she could move unseen through the Aether. All she had to do was figure out where they would be holed up.

Inside the narrow shaft she braced her legs against the opposite wall, grimacing at the pain in her cracked rib, and pulled up schematics on her glasses. She switched to projection mode and let the holographic display engulf her vision.

She was here, on the west side, third level ventilation shaft. There was a lot of the colony to search, to find the three men. They might have separated, but it was more likely that they were staying together. Easier to communicate with one another, less chances of exposure. That put them out of the main public areas. Even without a bulletin alert out on them, they had to assume that they had been identified and linked with Gerard. Since Barton hadn’t locked things down, they had to assume that she and others were actively looking for them. So nowhere with cameras. Snow had shown he was able to disable the cameras when it suited him, but a section with the feed shut down would be an obvious flag where they were hiding. They might also have Zeke with them, if he was still alive. Fifty-fifty chance there. Alive, they could move him if necessary, and use him as a hostage. A body was harder to handle, most likely if he was dead they’d already stashed his body somewhere.

Dia used all of that to filter down the remaining areas. Everything else dimmed. Quarters, access passages, storage areas, all remained. It was still a lot of areas to check. Doing so would take her forever, assuming they didn’t make their move or change their location.

Wherever they were, Snow would want access to hard-wired systems. Remote access limited what he could do. And if they had targeted the fusion generators they’d want to stay close, that put them out at the lower deck. Auxiliary access was located on the bottom level, adjacent to the main generator sections. She zoomed in on that section and pulled up the maintenance logs.

The secondary auxiliary station for generator two showed an offline status for repairs. It was Zeke’s command codes that issued the order, after he had left the command deck. Snow had had Zeke’s codes to mirror Zeke’s station. That had to be where they were hiding. The room was small, four meters to a side with only one way in. The systems there could access the controls for generator two. If they did want to blow the generator, that was a good place to be.

It did, however, also connect to the ventilation systems, to keep down the excess heat.

Dia smiled and dismissed the schematics. It was about to get hot down there.

Climbing down the shaft was a pain in the ass. This was where a lower gravity environment would have been nice. Some of those worlds out there people could almost float around, the gravity was so low. Of course they also had to deal with potential bone loss and other issues, but still. It’d be nice right now. Carrying the gun was also awkward. She ended up unzipping the front of her workall and stuffed the gun down the front, after making sure that the safety was engaged.

It took nearly a half-hour to reach the lower levels and move off into the lateral shafts. She took the main crawlspace and tried crawling quietly.

Fifteen minutes later she approached the auxiliary access room. The feeder shafts to the room were too small for her to enter. That was okay. She wasn’t planning on using it to get into the room. Checking the schematics in her glasses, she identified the fan unit on that feeder shaft.

She used her multi-tool to undo the bolts holding it in place, then pulled it out, carefully. This one hadn’t been greased either. It made a bit of noise, not much. Hopefully nothing that carried. Reversing the fan only took a moment, switching around the wires. She gritted her teeth and pushed it slowly back into place. Now, instead of drawing off the hotter air, it would blow hot air back into the room. In that small space, it wouldn’t take long before the room was becoming intolerably hot.

Grinning, Dia made her way around to the nearest access point.

Popping out the grating, Dia bent in half and slithered out. As she straightened she realized she wasn’t alone. Ted Walton’s shoulders relaxed. His wild red hair was a good match for her blue hair.

“Dia! What are you doing?”

Dia pulled the gun from the ventilation shaft. Ted’s eyes widened and his mouth dropped open. Dia put a finger to her lips. “It might be best if you don’t make any noises,” she said quietly, “the guys that are trying to destroy the Aether are around the corner.”

Ted pressed against the wall.

Dia eased along the corridor to the corner and peeked around.

The door at the end was still closed. The room might not have gotten too hot yet, but it shouldn’t take long. They’d have to open the door if they didn’t want to bake.

She pressed her back against the wall and breathed in deep, wincing as the tape around her chest squeezed her rib. She couldn’t wait too long before going in after them. If they realized that the increasing temperature was an attempt to smoke them out, then they might go ahead with blowing up the colony. The fact that they hadn’t yet, still suggested that the Origin fanatics might be planning to escape the destruction. If they didn’t want to die it’d work in her favor. Cornering them might change the balance.

Ted was watching her from across the corridor. She gestured and lightly patted the wall beside her. He rubbed his jaw then slipped across the corridor and pressed up against the wall beside her.

“What are you doing?” he said.

“Waiting for them to open the door to auxiliary control.”

“Why would they do that?”

“It’s getting hot in there by now.”

Ted glanced at the ventilation shaft and then back to her, and the gun that she held against her chest. “What if they don’t come out?”

“It be obvious if I went down and tried to open the door. If they want to lock me out, I don’t know what else I can do.”

“Why not trigger an evacuation alert for that room? It’ll automatically open the door.”

Obvious. One of the safety measures to ensure that they could evacuate people that might be unconscious. Snow might not have shut it off. It’d also completely give away any surprise. If she did this, that was it. No other option. She’d have to hit the door as she could and hope that Gray’s gun would help her take them out before they could destroy the Aether. She couldn’t call Barton and ask. There wasn’t anyone to ask. It was her decision and it had to be made now.

“You do that,” she said, “and I’ll go for the door.”

“Me?” his voice squeaked.

“Yes. Now, Ted. I have to get in there.” The fact that the door hadn’t opened yet was giving her a bad feeling. She wanted to know what was going on inside that room.

For all she knew it was already too late.

Ted pulled out a tablet and pulled up a remote access to the system. She glanced at the screen and saw he was about to trigger the alert.

Now. Now. Dia rolled around the corner and charged the door at the far end. Ted, be right about this. She wasn’t stopping, wasn’t slowing down for nothing. It’d look pretty silly if she slammed right into the door. She slid her thumb up the intensity dial on the gun, pushing it up into the red zone.

The door popped open two strides before she would have smashed right into it. A wash of hot air came out. There was a man in the doorway, his pale face shiny with sweat. She was holding the gun in front of her and she fired. The kickback was hard enough to make her stumble but the gray ball slammed into the man’s chest and threw him back like a rag doll. The ball deformed on contact. It splashed out across him, creating a network of gray strands. His limb body crashed to the ground as she ran into the room yelling.

Two men. Far side of the room. One of them standing in the middle of several holographically projected screens. Dia fired the gun. This time she was ready for the kickback. It didn’t surprise her as much. Her first shot hit the shoulder of the man in the middle of the holographic screens and threw him to the wall. He twitched and convulsed as he dropped to the floor.

The other man was moving, ducking and running behind the bulky control stations and valves that filled the side of the room.

Dia kept the gun trained on the spot where he disappeared and waited. “Come out now, hands were I can see them.”

“Why?” A voice behind the equipment taunted. “It’s not going to matter in a minute anyway.”

Hell. Dia backed across the room into the floating holographic screens. It was what she feared. They’d overridden the protocols protecting the second generator. Heat was building up and soon the superconducting fields would fail, releasing the containment in an instant. A nuclear blast that would destroy the Aether. The process was already underway.

There was movement outside the screens. The last guy standing was making a run for the doorway. She swiped her thumb across the intensity dial, turning it down and fired as he ran into the corridor. The shot took him high on his right buttocks. He yelled and pitched forward. He didn’t have control of his limbs so he hit hard, face down. His whole body shook and jerked as the nerve stimulation spread through his body, but from the yelling he was making, he wasn’t knocked out by it.

It was Snow. Dia walked out of the room, her finger on the trigger to deliver another jolt. Ted peeked around the far end of the short corridor. She jerked her thumb at the room.

“Ted, get in there. Call everyone. Fix it.”

He hesitated.

“Move now!”

He came around the corner at a run, then hugged the wall as he went past the groaning Snow. Snow started picking himself up off the floor.

“Why’d you do it?” she asked. “You’ll die with the rest of us.”

“Wouldn’t you die to save all of humanity?” Snow asked. He groaned and rolled over on his side, looking up at her with his pretty dark hazel eyes. “What’s a few hundred people against that?”

“You really believe that vengeful aliens are going to come down and smite us all if we don’t stick to our planet?”

Snow licked his lips and nodded. “It’s all there, in history. They told us the rules. That most of us forgot isn’t an excuse.”

Ted appeared back in the doorway. “Um, Dia, I don’t know if I can stop this overload.”

Her heart was already pounding. She took a deep breath and let it out. If anything she was sad. Sad, that all this work was about to be undone by a crazy man.

She swiped up the dial on the weapon just until it started into the yellow and pulled the shock trigger. Snow grunted like someone had kicked him in the balls and convulsed on the deck. Her stomach churned. She let go and his convulsions stopped. He gasped for air, and when he got his breath back, he managed a chuckle.

“Do what you want. Won’t matter. I’m not going to break in the time you have left.”

She believed him. “Ted!”

Ted popped back out. She thrust the gun into his hands. “He tries to get away, hit that.”

Inside the auxiliary control room she took in what she’d already seen on the screens. The heat building up. There wasn’t any easy way to stop the process. It was dozens of systems rerouted. Soon it’d get hot enough for the magnetic fields to fail. All it took was a tiny breach to let the fusion material escape and it’d blow the whole thing.

Unless she did something entirely different.

“Ted!” Her hands danced across the controls. “Drag him in here!”

“What?”

“Drag him in here!”

Alarms sounded in the corridors outside. She worked fast. She’d get one chance at this, if that.

Across the Aether emergency doors slid shut except in the corridors that she selected. Those doors opened up. From the bottom level all the way to the upper level.

Ted dragged Snow into the control chamber moments before the door slid shut.

She hit the last command and the outermost doors opened. The atmospheric pressure outside was the same as inside, but it was much, much colder outside. Down to around 60 degrees Kelvin. The warmer air inside boiled out into space, pulling the colder atmosphere into the reactor room. She didn’t have any way to know if anyone had gotten trapped in the corridors by the process. Hopefully not. The colder temperatures outside would hold the generator until she had time to work through what Snow had done.

“What are you doing?” Snow asked from the floor.

“Shock him if he tries anything,” she told Ted.

Then she went to work. Barton called minutes later, interrupting her. She put him off and kept working. Thirty minutes later she had enough control of the system that she was pretty sure that the generator wasn’t going to blow up. Sweat was soaking her clothes. The rerouted fan was pumping heat into the room. It was slightly better than freezing in the corridors outside but not much. It took another twenty minutes to finish the work and seal off the outer doors so that she could purge the corridors and bring everything back online.

“Someone else will stop you,” Snow said as she finished.

The door to the corridor went up. Dia walked through the holographic screens and took the gun from Ted. She dialed up the intensity.

“Maybe. It won’t be you.” She hit the button and knocked Snow out. She glanced over at Ted. “Call Barton, get someone to pick these goons up. I suggest he ship them back to Earth. I’m going to go get cleaned up and take a nap. I worked my ass off today. I deserve a break.”

Worked her ass off. She snorted a laugh. Maybe today she’d finally get some sleep.

15,853 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 8th weekly short story release, and the 8th Planetary Bodies story. It sad that Uranus is the butt of the solar system jokes. It’s a fascinating planet that deserves its own dedicated probe (I’m terrible). 😉 Tipped on its side, complete with its own ring system and bunch of moons it’s a fascinating world.

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 Neptune Bound.

Saturn Reaching

Clara Ransom rejected her parent’s fear of the future, of the universe and left their prepper homestead to embrace a life in space.

Her quest to understand life in the universe brought her to Saturn’s moon Titan. Beneath the massive ringed giant and Titan’s hazy skies she discovers one piece to the puzzle.

 

1

While pretty much the rest of the Diaspora colonists had to settle for enclosed habitats, pressure suits, and airless barren worlds, she got to take a stroll outside. Light on her feet, thanks to the low gravity, her insulated boots barely pressed into the powdery surface. Water ice “rock” pebbles dotted the landscape ahead, as it rose into two hills that ran together, smoothed by methane rains and wind.

Right over those hills was a small stream, a tributary to a larger valley, running through the site. The insulated suit wasn’t as stiff or heavy as a full space suit, and it did have a full helmet to protect her head and provide breathable air, sterile, cold air that froze her nostrils and had a metallic taste to it, but air. A mixture with outside nitrogen and bottled oxygen. Her suit trapped the carbon dioxide to return it to the base. So maybe it wasn’t entirely the same as taking a stroll outside.

Still, for a girl from the Northwest used to getting outside, it was better than nothing. Who would have imagined it? Clara Ransom, at thirty-four, was walking freely on the surface of another world. Not her parents, always feeling guilty about bringing her and her brothers into the world while they waited for it to end. For all she knew they were still holed up in their prepper compound expecting Diaspora to drop rocks on their head, attack the Earth with new scalar weaponry from space, or unleash a horde of Dr. Shelton’s mutants. And feeling betrayed by their own daughter.

She looked up from watching the ground and took in the view through the thick haze of the atmosphere. A huge round shape filled the sky above, visible despite the thick clouds. Saturn, with the thin blade of the rings reaching out into space. Impossibly huge, awe-inspiring, like an ancient god about to swallow up the sun.

Which was about to happen, in truth. Titan’s orbit was going to move into Saturn’s shadow. That was the whole reason for coming out here.

Her glasses rang for her attention. The heads-up hologram flashed a query. Incoming call.

“Ignore it,” Clara said.

The query vanished. She licked her chapped lips and wished, not for the last time, that she’d packed some lip balm or something before leaving Earth.

Through the orange haze, the bright blob of the sun hung at the edge of Saturn’s limb. The light, dim compared to being on Earth, was still over three hundred times brighter than the full moon on Earth. The haze cut into it and soon night was going to fall and last over a week.

Just like in one of those movies when the alien monsters came out at night to attack the explorers.

 

Her glasses rang again. Once more the query popped up, blinking insistently.

“Ignore it,” she said.

Clara walked forward, with the easy, bouncing gait of someone adapted to the lower gravity. She called it the penguin waddle, and the environmental suit helped cement the image. She flapped her arms and picked up speed. Put some proper wings on these things and they really could take off and fly in the thick air. She’d been pressuring Mac to authorize the work but their boss didn’t really like the idea of his team flying around the site.

It only took moments to reach the top of the “hill,” really more of a swell in the ground. She windmilled her arms to stop. Her breath sounded loud in her helmet.

Her glasses rang again.

“Ignore it.”

The site lay spread out beneath her feet. Straight lines cut through the rock-ice ground around the stream in complex geometric shapes. Pits and flat areas marked out other spaces. Sharp, unnatural lines, spreading out in a fan shape around the methane stream. A small circular pool at the intersection of three lines suggested some sort of artistic modification of the stream bed. The dark stream oozed slowly through the modified channel.

Titan was a slow world. A desert parched for the next rain, but everything moved so slowly that the stream continued to flow.

She had to be missing something. Some vital clue to explain the site. There must be something about it that she wasn’t seeing.

And when the sun passed behind Saturn, when night fell, they were going back to the colony. The others were busy right now packing everything up into the cat, getting ready to leave. They couldn’t stay. Rules, Mac wouldn’t allow it. Too dangerous to work through the dark. She was supposed to go back and spend her time reviewing the data already collected.

Five days ago Clara hadn’t even known about the site. None of them had known it existed, and she didn’t put any stock into Sanders’ notion that Terra Blackstone had known. Diaspora wouldn’t have kept it secret. She didn’t believe it. She’d had plenty of experience with paranoid conspiracy theorists dealing with her parents. God only knew why otherwise rational people believed such things.

The first images of the site had come from the jelly flock.

 

2

 

Jackie “Red” Tonner had burst into her tiny lab space, nearly tearing the flimsy door off in the process.

She yelped. Embarrassing, but he’d startled her with his big gangling frame bursting into the lab. Like her, he wore a standard black Diaspora workall, with bare feet. Tools and spare parts clanked in his bulging pockets. His stock of red hair was going every direction, as was his curly red beard. Jackie blushed and ducked his head.

He didn’t get the nickname from his hair color. He blushed all the time.

Clara pressed a hand to her chest. “Jesus! Knock before you barge in here!”

“Sorry. Really sorry.” Jackie thrust a tablet at her. “Look at this. Grabbed it out of the flock footage.”

She took the tablet and looked at the image. Greyscale, aerial image, which was what’d she’d expect from an image from the flock. The jelly flock was a bunch of brightly-colored jellyfish-inspired balloon robots deployed around Titan at different altitudes to study and monitor their new home. Each was equipped with a suite of tools to measure, analyze and photograph the environment. They swam through the thick air just like jellyfish back on Earth. And they worked in tandem with the half-dozen satellites orbiting the moon. Diaspora had sent them out with the full package to learn about the moon, thanks to Mac’s insistence on the support.

The image on the tablet was beautiful. A pattern of geometric lines and circles cut into the surface of the ice, around a small methane stream. It gave the illusion of avenues, and structures, of open public spaces and interesting diversions. Nothing as boring as a grid, it was a complex snowflake design.

Clara laughed and held the tablet out to Jackie. “Nicely done. It looks great, but it’s too complex. No one’s going to buy it.”

He held up his hands. “No, no. No! You don’t understand, it’s really real. You know?”

“Right. Look, I’ve got work to do, okay?”

Jackie shook his head and crossed his arms, hugging himself. “No, no. It’s real! That’s raw footage. I didn’t touch a pixel!”

She tipped the tablet, looking again at the image. “What are you trying to say? That this is actually out there?”

Jackie grinned widely, bit his lip and nodded vigorously. He freed his right hand and shook a finger at the tablet.

“You know what this means, right? I mean, I’m not crazy? I’m not! That’s artificial! There is no way that it is natural, right?”

A cool thread of fear ran along her nerves. A discovery like this, well, there weren’t words for it. It’d be the most significant find, ever, anywhere in the solar system. When word got out they’d be the center of attention in the solar system.

And if this was some sort of prank it could destroy careers and make them the laughing stock of the system.

She looked up at Jackie. “You’re not pulling my leg are you? I need you to level with me. If you’re joking around, fine, you got me and it stops now.”

“No!” Jackie blew out his breath and rocked on his feet. “It’s not a joke. Really. It’s real.”

He gestured at the tablet. “Swipe, come on. It’s not the only picture. There’s video too, if you want it.”

Clara swiped the image. Another picture, the same complex network of lines cut into the area around the stream, but the camera had moved closer. Swipe. Another image, the camera moving closer. The jelly bots instincts for interesting features probably drew it to the site. She swiped the other way, fast, flipping through the images.

A stop-motion parade of images in reverse, back away from the site, over a pair of small rises that hardly deserved the name of hills. The first image of the site only showed a small piece, but that’d been enough to attract the interest of the jelly bot.

She swiped back through to the close-up images of the site. The jelly bot circled around the site, taking pictures from multiple angles.

Jackie rocked in place and chuckled softly as she studied the images.

When she looked up he pointed at the tablet. “Load the video.”

A numbness, like she’d gotten zapped, filled her hands. They shook slightly as she pulled up the menus on the tablet and connected to her lab displays. She picked out the video files and sent the output to her holographic display.

Jackie jumped back as the hologram appeared like a floating table in the center of the small space. Clara rose and stood next to him.

Titan’s surface lay beneath them, as if they were on the jelly bot itself, flying over the orange hills. The view barely moved toward the hills and the tiny corner of the site visible.

“Increase playback four times,” Clara said.

Now the camera moved smoothly towards the hills with purpose, in a gliding sort of motion. The video was silent. Jackie breathed noisily. It didn’t matter. The view rose up above the hills, focused on the site. As it crested the hills the whole site was visible, spread out in complex geometric shapes from the stream. More on the far side of the stream than this side, but she saw lines that approached the stream and ran along it, while others cut right to the edge of the stream and then continued straight on the other side.

As if bridges had once spanned the stream.

“Scale,” she said.

Bright blue lines appeared over the orange surface and the playback stopped. She reached into the hologram, tapping one of the lines that approached the stream on both sides. A blue line appeared between those points. Just about four meters across. Plenty big enough for a bridge, except it was missing.

Following that logic, even if it was a big jump, suggested that these lines traced the path of roads. The circular pits at the intersections, buildings. The whole site wasn’t big, around a kilometer long, and it extended out away from the stream just over a kilometer. Big enough to hold quite a few buildings.

“Hide scale. Resume playback.”

The jelly bot camera flew closer to the site and then moved off downstream. It avoided flying directly over the site, but circled the area. On the far side Clara paused the video and looked at Jackie.

He burst out laughing.

She shook her head. “Who else knows about this? Have you told Mac?”

Jackie flushed and shook his head. “No, I mean, I wanted to show you first. That’s right, isn’t it? You’re the expert in xenobiology, right?”

Yeah. The expert in imagining what might exist, without knowing if it did exist in the universe.

“Sure. That’s right.” She took a deep breath and looked back at the site. “You did just right. We don’t want to spread word about this, not yet. Not until I have a chance to talk to Mac about it. He’s going to flip.”

“So you think it’s real, right?”

Caution reared its ugly head. “I don’t know. It looks amazing.”

A thought occurred to her. “Where is this? How far away?”

“Not far. A couple hundred kilometers from here. Isn’t that lucky?”

Suspicious was a more likely answer. What were the odds that they’d pick a spot so close to this site? Unless there were many of these sorts of sites around the planet, but so far none of the other jelly bots had picked up anything like this in the mapping. Or if they had, it hadn’t gotten flagged and tagged.

“Lucky, or it isn’t an accident,” Clara said. “You might not have done this, but it could still turn out to be a prank.”

“How?”

“I don’t know. Either way, we have to talk to Mac. Come on.”

“Now?” Jackie’s voice squeaked.

“Yes. Now. Someone else might look at the footage and then word’ll get out. We need to take this up the chain first.”

3

When Terra Blackstone and the Diaspora sent out the first launches to colonize the system they didn’t start close in with the inner system worlds. The first launches went out to the farthest reaches of the solar system. Dwarf planets at the edge of the system like Eris and MakeMake and Pluto. Small colonies under the most difficult environments imaginable, far from the warmth of the sun in the deep dark.

Next came the wave that went to the gas giants, to Neptune, Uranus, Saturn and Jupiter. Only then did Diaspora move on to the inner system.

There was a method to the madness. They wanted the colonies to come online within the span of the same year. The most distant outposts also had much longer travel times, in the days before Mercury started putting out solar sails and the creation of beamed power stations. The Diaspora’s transportation infrastructure wasn’t in place yet. And given the time involved, those early launches were the biggest, essentially flying colonies all on their own.

The Titan colony arrived ready to deploy on the surface. The main transportation ship, the Herschel, had remained in orbit and was still manned to help with the efforts below.

It was only now, months after landing, that the colony domes were finally coming to life. Vibrant plant life was filling the domes thanks to the fusion reactors that powered the base. Hydrogen was easy to come by on Titan, and they needed the power for heating and lights.

Mac had built his offices on the upper level of the main dome, a transparent-walled deck that looked out over the young trees below. Clara and Jackie were shown through to his offices by his aide, Brenda. He rose from his desk facing the windows as they entered.

At fifty-one, Mac was a powerfully built man. Not tall, but well-muscled and lean, corded and fit. He moved with easy grace in the low gravity. His graying hair was trimmed close to his head. He smiled warmly.

“Clara. Jackie. This is a surprise. How are you doing? Brenda said this was urgent. Did you find something?” He chuckled. “I’d love to find something that would trump Ceres!”

All of the colonies were eager to discover signs of alien life on their worlds. A biosphere existed below the surface on Ceres, not the most likely candidate in the solar system. Since then everyone wanted to find something more. They’d all been hoping to find some sort of non-carbon based life on Titan.

“It isn’t what we were looking for,” Clara said. “Jackie found something interesting in the jelly bot footage that you have to see.”

“Okay. Show me.”

Clara used the tablet and pulled up a clear image of the site, showing the complex network, the circular pool in the stream, and the other pits at intersections and other features. She handed the tablet to him.

Mac looked without comment. A muscle in his jaw twitched. He swiped through several images before he looked up.

“You’ve verified that the footage hasn’t been tampered with? We can’t have a hoax about something like this.”

“It’s clean,” Jackie said. “I checked twice, that’s all raw, unprocessed. Just downloaded in the link.”

Mac went back to looking at the images. Jackie chewed on his fingernails.

Out Mac’s windows was the interior of the dome. Bright lights hung from the structure to supplement the meager sunlight that reached Titan’s surface. They lived in greenhouses on the surface of another world. Odd, really, when you thought about it. Back on Earth Diaspora had built hundreds of similar habitats as high-end housing projects back before it reached the launch stage. Those projects had served as models for these habitats, letting them test out designs and ideas while raising money to help fund operations. Only one of the thousands of projects, patents and investments that had built the Diaspora Group under Blackstone’s management. Those Earth-based habitats had promised clean water and air, climate-controlled environments on a world dealing with the effects of global warming. Some of the most popular had been habitats in striking locations, where the ocean levels had risen, or the Sahara. Even the harshest environments on Earth were tamer compared to what they faced here.

Mac said, “Can we rule out a hoax by our own people? Could anyone have gone out and done this without our knowledge?”

“You mean out there? Outside?” Jackie asked.

Clara shook her head. “Look at the measurements, the size of the thing. It would have taken weeks, equipment, probably multiple cats. Plus days to get there and back. And did you notice how clean it is? Everything cut away and smooth, but there’s no obvious piles of ice left behind. No debris.”

“Maybe it was vaporized.” Mac tapped the tablet and handed it back to her. “Still, we need to check it out. I want you to pull together an expedition. We’re going out there.”

“We?”

He grinned. “No way I’m sitting here while the rest of you go have the fun. I am a scientist, remember? I’m coming with you. A small team for now. Let’s limit access to the files and details of the expedition.”

“That’ll raise questions.”

Mac shook his head. “Let them wonder. When we know something, then we’ll have a better idea of what to say.”

4

Mac only wanted four people on the initial team. Himself, Clara, Jackie and Neil Sanders, a big, quiet man with a knack for keeping equipment running. Sanders ran the shops that took care of the cats and other heavy equipment. Mac wanted him along to drive the cat and deal with any problems that might come up.

Clara had protested, arguing to include more members of the science and cultural teams to no avail. Mac wanted the team small. Officially the mission was a test case, a trial field expedition before wider operations were started. That was news which cheered the rest of the scientists and left Clara feeling rotten inside for hiding the truth from everyone.

God only knew what they were going to discover. The cat’s slow, steady motion was almost unreal as it glided along, treads carrying them across the frozen surface. Mac was up front with Sanders. Jackie was currently busy driving another jelly bot to the site so that they’d have two to help with the survey.

More and more she couldn’t shake the feeling that this was the most monumental discover in human history. She was glad to be included, but also scared to death that they might screw it up somehow.

Her glasses projected an image of the site in front of her, a virtual hologram of the surface built from the latest data on the site.

The day on Titan lasted for slightly more than fifteen Earth days, the same length as a Titan “year” as it orbited Saturn. Jackie’s news coming when it did meant that they only had about two full days left until night fell. It’d taken them the past couple days just to get out to the site. Two days to investigate and then Mac wanted them to pull out and go back rather than work through the night.

Even though it made sense it was frustrating. She studied the lines of the site, trying to figure out where to even start with the thing. The jelly bot had flown over around the site, staying out from the center thanks to its programming. If it had found a geyser, for example, they hadn’t wanted it to fly right over the geyser and get hit by an eruption, so instead the bots circled interesting features at what was a safe distance.

Mac had refused to have Jackie override the jelly bot and send it directly above the site until they arrived on site and could supervise.

The safest bet was to start further out and work their way in, studying the terrain all around the site. There might be other, less obvious features that they could damage if they rushed right in.

Clara gestured and a large semi-transparent donut-shape appeared over the holographic image of the site. It created a green buffer a kilometer out from the site, a half-kilometer thick. That was a lot of ground to cover.

Another gestured and a yellow donut-shaped region appeared inside the first from the outer boundary of the site out to the green ring.

A final gesture dropped a red region over the site itself.

Of course the site wasn’t circular, not even close. It spread out like a snowflake away from the stream, but unevenly reaching out in different directions. One particular set of lines ran out in a to the apex of a triangle, with a triangular space between them, and a circular pit at the intersection point which was well into the yellow region.

Clara dragged the circles, widening them out until the whole site was within the red circle. That left other areas within the red that showed no signs of any design. She pushed with her fingers and deformed the circles, pushing them in and dragging out until she had constrained the red region to the site, the yellow band around that, surrounded at last by the green band. The final shape was more amoebae-like than a snowflake.

As a guideline, it at least gave them some areas to look at first, and an avenue to explore. It provided a framework they needed. They wouldn’t have time to comb over the whole site before nightfall. They could move quicker through the green areas using the jelly bots. The yellow and red areas could be subdivided into sections, and each could be examined before moving forward.

Proceeding on that plan, they could penetrate into the core of the site quickly and still maintain isolation with the rest of the site and catalog anything they discovered.

She sent the image and data over to Jackie. “What do you think about this?”

Jackie’s hands moved as he accessed the image. He nodded. “Sure, sure. That’s good. That makes sense.”

“Can you program the jelly bots to start high-res scanning on the green area?”

“Beta isn’t there yet,” Jackie said. “It won’t get there until a couple hours after we arrive, it looks like. I could put alpha on it, though. If that’s okay?”

Clara nodded, already refocusing on her screen. “Great. Thanks. I’ll watch the feed for anything interesting.”

The last few hours she watched nothing. The jelly bot floated sedately around the site and took high-resolution holographic images of the green region. Her system filled in the updated images within the region.

Hydrocarbon sand, water ice rocks and no signs that any of it was disturbed. No tracks. No footprints. How was that even possible? Whatever had made the site must have left other traces but nothing had stood out in the images from the site already sent over. This was a higher-resolution pass. There had to be something.

5

Three hours later the cat slowed and stopped at the base of the small hills overlooking the stream and the site. It was well outside the safe region that Clara had defined. The cockpit door slid open and Mac came through in the main cabin.

“We’re stopping here,” he said. “I don’t want to risk taking the cat closer. At least here there’s some cover from the terrain between us and the site.”

“Cover from what?” Jackie asked. “It looks abandoned. Doesn’t it?”

“We don’t know anything about it,” Mac said. “Yet. We’re going to play this smart. Clara, what’s the plan?”

“Only two go out at a time. First trip. Thirty minutes,” she said. “I’ve defined search regions.”

Clara sent the image overlay to the general system, projecting a hologram on the wall screen. “Jackie has the jelly bot mapping the green area.”

“That’s alpha,” Jackie said. “The one that found the site. Beta will be here in twenty minutes.”

Sanders appeared in the doorway behind Mac. He crossed thick arms.

“Good work, Clara. You and I are going out. Let’s get dressed and ready to go.” Mac glanced back. “Sanders, you’re in charge here. If an emergency happens, contact the base first. Give them as much information as you can.”

“Got it,” Sanders said.

“Why would there be an emergency?” Jackie looked between them, hugging his thin chest. “Why? What would happen?”

“We’re just playing it safe,” Clara said. “I’m more concerned that we don’t accidentally mess up some vital clue. We could have used an archaeologist on this.”

“We don’t have any.” Mac crossed to the storage lockers and pulled out her suit and passed it over.

It looked more like a snow suit than a space suit. Specially designed for the Titan environment, to keep them warm in the absolute cold outside. Insulated boots, insulated suit. Light-weight, particularly in the low gravity. And unlike the rear-entry suits they had used up on the ship, these Titan suits were put on like any other insulating suit, pulling them on right over her workall and fastening them together.

While she and Mac dressed, Sanders and Jackie retreated back into the cockpit to give them room.

The last part, the helmet, was the most like a space suit. It fastened into the stiff collar on the coat and the inside had a thick insulated hood to keep their heads warm. They’d designed the suits to use outside nitrogen, warmed by the suit, and bottled oxygen. It was the same mix that they used in the cat and habitats and since they maintained the same pressure as outside, it wasn’t a big deal. Heat loss was more of a concern than anything else.

Clara finished dressing first, and Mac a second later. Her glasses projected a suit analysis and gave her green lights. She opened a channel to the others.

“I’m online. Are you reading me?”

“We hear you,” Sanders said. “You both look good. Have a nice stroll.”

“Synchronizing timer,” Clara said. The countdown popped up in the corner of her display. “Thirty minutes. Let’s go.”

The airlock was a simple design. They both stepped in, closed the door and opened the outer door. No complex system needed to purge it. After they were out the air in the airlock would be cycled to removed the traces of hydrogen cyanide.

When that door opened it was beautiful. The orange surface extended out from the cat, a mostly flat plain from this perspective, covered with pebbled water-ice rocks. She was closer to the door but hesitated.

“Go ahead,” Mac said. “You’re in charge out here. This is your discovery.”

“Thanks, but Jackie caught the footage first.”

Mac didn’t comment, and Clara stepped out. It looked like a big drop down to the surface but really, in this gravity, it didn’t matter. She floated down and touched lightly on the surface. Her feet barely made an impression.

What should she say? Anything? The moment passed. She bounced from one foot to the other away from the cat to give Mac room.

As he floated down Mac flapped his arms and tipped precipitously forward. He landed awkwardly and stumbled, but kept his footing.

“Add wings and we could fly,” Clara said.

“Tempting, but I think I might have trouble with the landing.”

He came up beside her and she tipped back to look up at him. A big grin spread across Mac’s face. He gestured.

“Lead on.”

Clara pulled up her display in overlay mode and walked around the cat and up the hill. It hardly deserved the name of a hill. It was a rise, a swell. Walking up it didn’t require any more significant effort than walking on the loose surface anywhere else. The powder orange surface wasn’t disturbed much by their passage, but when she shuffled around she could see the tracks leading down to the cat. The cat’s own treads had left a very visible trail that led off into the hazy distance.

While she walked she could almost forget that she wasn’t alone. The air tasted metallic and cold. She shivered, not from the cold as much as what she knew was right over the rise.

Then she was high enough to see the site spread out down below them, the far side hazy. Her overlay showed the ghostly regions that she had defined. She did a focus blink and hid the display. Right now she wanted to see it as it was.

The design was cut into the ice, mere centimeters in places from the look of it, deeper in others. Cut right down into the icy bedrock of the place. The lines looked, for lack of any other words, like roads. The pits the empty cavities left by buildings. Or was that only her human bias? The design was also beautiful. Maybe an artistic creation? A signature of some sort?

The stream bed through the site was natural, but not the circular pool where the lines intersected.

Whatever the explanation it was obviously not a natural phenomenon. Someone had created this mystery.

“Breathtaking,” Mac said. “It looks bigger in person.”

Did it? It looked small and isolated to Clara. One small indication of some other intelligence, but lonely. At least so far the jelly bots hadn’t found anything like this anywhere else on the moon.

A pulsing blue-green shape floated through the haze. The jelly bot, floating toward them, still within the green region that she had defined. Farther off, through the haze, was a dark spot floating in the air. That had to be the other jelly bot, coming to help out.

Actually, when it came down to it, it was unbelievable. “How can this be real?”

“What do you mean?” Mac said.

“All of it. How can this be our life? That we get out to Titan and discover this? I feel like somebody is about to jump out and laugh their heads off at our expense.”

“I get it,” Mac said. “Let’s take it a step at a time. If this is a hoax, it’s pretty elaborate. Who could have done it? Sanders already verified all of the equipment logs. We would have noticed if someone came out here and carved this out. And we’re the first people to come to Titan.”

Clara pointed. “Obviously not.”

She started walking down the slight slope toward the dark stream. Each step carried her closer. She reactivated the overlay and bounced on across the surface. Now that she was moving, the fear melted away. She wanted to see what was there. Mac was right, hoax or not, how was it done? Surely whoever did this left some sort of clue behind.

When she reached the overlay the color vanished, except the thin outline. Clara stepped into the space and stopped. She studied the ground ahead as Mac came up.

She activated the recording on her glasses and surveyed the ground ahead. Nothing to write home about. Shades of orange, with hydrocarbon and ice sand, harder clumps of water-ice rocks, all leading down to the stream itself. It could have been a rocky stream bed in the late summer back on Earth, with rocks surrounding the stream as it flowed slowly along. Except it was orange and the rocks were ice and the stream was methane.

Yet, it was all still very familiar. A slow, cold stream bed leading on into the site. From here the site was almost invisible. The closest lines were noticeable but the rest, were lost to perspective and haze.

“We need to document everything.” Clara focused on the ground and shared the overlay with Mac. “We’ll go side-by-side, and cover our way in. We come out the same way. ”

“What are we looking for?”

“Anything that doesn’t belong. A footprint.” Clara turned and pointed. Even though they didn’t leave much of a track, their footprints were still visible, disturbing the darker material on the surface to reveal lighter traces below. “Think how much a track like that could tell us?”

They moved together in silence. Her attention was all on the ground. Some of the water-ice rocks had a polished look to them, rounded, but this was essentially the stream bed. It suggested that in wetter times the stream was bigger. Maybe there were even flash floods at times. Orange hydrocarbon sand showed clear tear-drop drifts against the rocks. None of it looked disturbed.

“I’m not seeing anything unusual,” Mac said.

“Me either. Not yet. Let’s keep going. We don’t rush it. The stream might have washed out any signs that were out this far.”

They continued the survey. Jackie’s voice cut in on the channel.

“Uh, guys?”

“Yes, Jackie?” Clara answered.

“I’ve got both jellies on site now. What do you want them to do?”

“Continue mapping the green region. When they finish, send them into the yellow. I want an alert on anything that doesn’t fit. Are you watching the feed?”

“Yes. Sanders is helping me.”

“Good. Keep an eye on it. The detection algorithms on the bots might overlook something that would catch your attention.”

“Okay, okay. We’ll do it.”

Clara and Mac continued their own survey through the green band, with white lines on the overlay marking the boundaries of the area they had examined. With each step her insides tightened. They weren’t finding anything. Not a bit of trash, not a footprint, nothing. No clues on the origins of the site.

It was still early. Too early to despair, they hadn’t even reached the site itself, but her gut was telling her that they weren’t finding the answers she wanted.

They wouldn’t know until they finished surveying the site.

It took them ten minutes to cross through the green band to the yellow. There wasn’t enough time to reach the site itself, within the red band, before they had to turn around.

“Five minutes left,” Clara said.

“We can go longer,” Mac said. “We have enough air.”

“No.” It pained her to say it. “Mac, we can’t. We need our focus. We need to do this right. When the time runs out we go back, with the same focus we used going in. There might be something we see going back over the ground that we missed on the way in. Then we need to rest and review what we learned.”

Mac paused and turned to her, studying her.

“We’re wasting time,” she said.

Inside his helmet, Mac nodded. “You’re right. We’ll do it your way.”

Good. If she could only be sure that her way was right. They had to stay sharp. Stay alert. In an environment like this, with something this important, they couldn’t screw it up.

“Let’s keep going.”

Mac moved forward with a long, bouncing step. “Mac!”

He stopped. “What?”

“We keep the pace. We can’t afford to miss anything.”

“Okay. Sorry.”

Nothing about the passing terrain stood out from anything else she had seen so far on the moon. There was stark beauty in this dry landscape. Funny, that, it being dry when the rocks themselves were made from water-ice, coated in a hydrocarbon dust that turned everything an orange color. Not that it didn’t vary, there were lighter areas and darker areas, but overall a sameness about the place. A single palette like a monochromatic painting.

Still nothing disturbed the surface except their own footprints.

In the corner of her augmented display the counter spun down to the halfway mark and flashed as it reached the end.

“Turn back.”

Mac kept walking.

“Mac! We have to go back!”

“Can’t. I want to see it. Then I’ll go back.”

She didn’t move. Frozen to the spot while the timer ran down her time. She couldn’t leave him out here alone, could she? She took the first step and then fell back into the motions. She studied the ground. Hell, if she was going into the site, at least she wasn’t going to screw it up by stepping on evidence.

Mac chuckled and she wanted to grab one of the rocks and chuck it at him. Did the hydrocarbon dirt pack into clods? Her hands itched to find out.

She pushed the temptation back. One step at a time. Mac’s pace slowed until she caught up to him. Then he matched her stride.

“You want to see it too.”

She did. Of course she did. Comments were pointless.

Seen like this, the site looked even more like approaching a street. Straight ahead, on this side of the stream perpendicular to their approach was a straight line cutting through the ice, about the width of a two-lane road. Maybe ten centimeters deep, though that varied. The inner surface looked level, it was the material it was cut through that varied.

A red line flashed as Clara stepped out of the yellow region into the red.

“Uh, guys?” Jackie’s voice came over the channel. “What are you doing? Why aren’t you coming back? What’s going on?”

Clara flushed. She hadn’t even thought to tell them they were continuing. “We’re fine. We’re extending the mission.”

“Oh, oh. Okay.”

“Hang tight,” Mac said. “We couldn’t go back without getting a look at this place.”

Nothing unusual about the surface outside the “road” if that’s what it was. Clara stopped a meter away and grabbed Mac’s arm when he tried to continue.

“Let’s stop here. We’re close enough. Let’s survey what we can see before we go any closer.”

Mac pulled his arm free. “I’m a scientist first, I’m not going to destroy any thing.”

If she could count on that, they’d be back in the cat by now instead of pushing the excursion on the first trip to the site. Not that she blamed him. Going back when she had said would have been hard to do, if she was being truthful. He saved her from that decision.

“The cut is precision sharp.” Her throat threatened to close up. She inhaled the cold air and breathed out. “Clearly not a natural artifact.”

She reached up to rub her eyes and her hand hit the helmet. “Oh, my god!”

Clara laughed and reached out to Mac. He caught her arm. For a moment it was like she was going to float off the surface of the moon and drift away.

“Take slow breaths,” Mac said.

It didn’t make any sense. Why was he saying that? Then she heard it. Her breathing, harsh, sucking air. Oh god, she was hyperventilating!

“Slow, slow,” Mac said.

“Clara? Clara?” That was Jackie. “You’re heart rate shot up, what’s wrong?”

She closed her eyes. God. So embarrassing! She breathed in, and out. Mac held onto her. Kept her anchored. Her breathing improved. She opened her eyes.

There, right between them in the ground, was a quarter-sized hole. Perfectly formed. Clara tapped Mac’s shoulder.

“You okay?”

“Look down there.”

Mac moved back and bent forward. “Look at that. You’re recording right?”

“Yes.” Every bit of her embarrassment, but it was also getting this. “I can’t see how deep it goes.”

“Are there anymore?” Mac turned a bit, then pointed. “Right behind you, another one.”

“Where they there before?”

“I don’t know. I hadn’t noticed it. It’d be hard to see unless you’re right on top of it.”

“Let’s back out, carefully,” Clara said. “Don’t step on them. We need to review the footage and see if they were there before we got close to the site.”

“Agreed.”

Clara turned in place and took a careful step, picking her own footprints. No holes there. None others away from the site. There was the one Mac had pointed. And maybe one another meter or so farther down, but it was hard to see. If it was there, that was at least three parallel to the “road.”

It took a long time to get back to the cat. Her nerves buzzed with energy. At the airlock she bounced up, caught the edges and pulled herself inside. Mac floated up too, and they sealed the door. She stomped her boots. Bits of hydrocarbons fell away.

“That stuff’s going to get everywhere,” she said.

“Can’t help that.” Mac hit the button to cycle the lock.

As warmer air rushed in the hydrocarbons melted on the floor and dripped off her boots. The air continued a few more minutes and then stopped.

They moved on inside.

Clara stripped off her helmet as soon as she could. She sucked in the warmer air of the cat. There was a burnt sort of smell, from being outside? Sanders and Jackie crowded the hatch to the cockpit. Mac moved in and she stepped aside to given him room. He twisted his helmet free.

“So?” Jackie said, bouncing on his toes. “What was it like? What was it like?”

Sanders put a hand on his shoulder. “Settle down.”

The bouncing stopped but Jackie still had that eager-puppy look.

Cat tucked the helmet under her arm. “It’s hard to say. It’s really there, which is incredible, but I have no idea what we’re dealing with.”

“Ask Diaspora,” Sanders said. “Do you think it’s luck that this place was this close to our base?”

Jackie looked up at the big man. “What do you mean?”

Sanders’ shoulders rolled like a swell on the ocean. “I’m just saying. It the grand scheme of things, this might be a small moon, but it’s still pretty frickin’ big. All the places we could have landed, and we’re this close?”

“I don’t think Diaspora knew about this,” Mac said. “I didn’t.”

Sanders shrugged. “Just ’cause they didn’t tell you, doesn’t mean they didn’t know.”

“The mapping program would have found it sooner or later,” Jackie said.

“Right,” Clara added. “And we don’t know that there aren’t other sites around the moon. Not yet. Not until we’ve mapped every square meter out there.”

“Maybe so.”

Mac was unfastening his outer layer and it made her realize how chilled she still felt. The suit might keep them from freezing, but it was still damn cold out there.

She put the helmet down and started unfastening her suit too. “We’re going to rest, and then we’ll start reviewing our findings. Jackie, put the jelly bots into a spiral search pattern to the center of the site. I want them to record with everything they’ve got, highest resolution. We found some small holes along that roadway or whatever it is. I want to know if there are more, and how deep they are.”

Jackie’s head bobbed. “I’ll get on it.”

He ducked back into the cockpit. Sanders followed.

She pulled her boots free, then started shimming out of the suit. Mac was doing the same dance in the aisle. There wasn’t much space to move in the cat. It was sort of like an RV back on Earth, with spaces for living and working. Even side sections to extend and create more space when it was needed. Right now everything was pulled in, leaving them only a small booth and the racks on each side of the aisle.

“Maybe this is only the surface,” Mac said.

His eyes were distant, like he was looking off through the sides of the cat, and the hills beyond.

“Maybe there’s a whole complex dug down into the ice. Some of those pits looked deep. There could be more underneath. We need to get sonar out there too and see what we’re dealing with.”

“That’s a good idea. We can have Jackie run it while we rest.”

He sighed. “You’re right. Rest first.”

6

Rest didn’t come easily to Clara. She climbed into her bunk in the rack, one of the half-dozen along the cat’s aisle, hers was on the top. She sat, propped up by a foam pillow and displayed the live footage from the jelly bots, in two side-by-side windows. Nothing new there. Just the ground floating by beneath them. The cameras on the bot adjusted for its own movement, giving the image a steadicam quality despite the pulsations of its movement.

Clara swiped the images away and closed her eyes. It did no good. She was back out on the frozen ground, barely touching it despite her suit, like a drifting ghost.

The city, no, no. She didn’t want to jump to that conclusion but that’s what it looked like. This wasn’t like someone looking at footage from the old rovers on Mars and imagining that every rock was evidence of alien life and a NASA conspiracy.

This was real. It was really out there. Someone had come and had made those cuts into the ground outside. Roads or artwork, or some other purpose that she just didn’t understand, it didn’t make any difference. It was real. And they only had a limited window right now to figure it out before night fell.

That was it. Once night fell, once they went back to the colony, then it wouldn’t be her’s anymore. It’d belong to everyone else. Word of the discovery would spread. For people like her parents it would be adding fuel to the fire. Things with Earth had gotten bad enough already. They’d launched the Lincoln against Diaspora on the Moon. Selene Martinez, director of operations on Earth, had managed to get off the Diaspora personnel and their families but that only made the preppers and conspiracy theorists more sure than ever of their “facts.”

Except that maybe this time there really was an alien city. City or not, humans didn’t create that site out there. They were the first people to reach Titan.

Her timer rang. Rest period was over. Time to get back to work.

7

Clara rolled out of her bunk. Sanders appeared in the cockpit door.

“Good, you’re up. You want the wings extended now?”

“Yeah. That’d be great. Let’s get to work.”

Mac slid out of his bunk. He didn’t look like he had rested any more than she had, and was holding a tablet in his hands.

“Clara, look at this. It’s from the survey.”

She took the tablet.

The wire-frame view of the site showed the complexity in great detail, everything measured and rendered in full dimensions. What was more attention grabbing, was how the site extended down into the surface. She zoomed in on the section that they had visited, which was only one small piece of the whole.

The small holes they’d found extended straight down into the ice almost two meters and just stopped. If they continued on at all, the scan didn’t show it. She rotated the view and saw that the pits also extended down into the surface at varying lengths and there were other parts that extended off of the lower levels. Passages? The jelly bots scans didn’t reveal how far the passages went and they hadn’t yet scanned the entirety of the site. To get a full picture, they’d have to go on.

Mac reached over to the tablet. “Look at this.”

The image zoomed in on a region within the site. A jagged crack cut across one of the “roads” and met with others, forming a radiating pattern of cracks. Looking at the wire-frame display it was clear that the whole section was concave.

“It’s collapsing.”

“That’s what it looks like,” Mac said. “That suggests that there’s something underneath. A chamber of some sort.”

He tapped the screen, zooming in on the nearest pit. “We have to get back out there and check out those passages.”

“We’re not equipped for that.”

“Come on, you can’t tell me that you’re not curious.”

“I didn’t say that.” It’d be a lie if she did. She was dying to see what was down there. Maybe there were answers. And so help her, she did want to see it all first.

“Let’s wait and see what we can turn up on the sonar. And Sanders is extending the wings so we’ll have some room to work. We get as much information as we can and then we decide if it’s safe to go in.”

“What if that collapses the weakened section?”

“Better that it collapse now than when we’re inside. I don’t like the idea of going in blind.”

“Fine,” Mac said. “Let’s get to work then.”

8

The next three hours were busy. Sanders extended the wings on the cat, which gave them space in the main body of the vehicle to pull out compact work areas. There were four stations altogether. She, Jackie and Mac took the stations and went to work exploring the site remotely. Jackie and Mac each took one of the jelly bots while she handled the sonar survey herself with the sonar drones.

Each drone was a squat robot shaped like a mushroom cap. The three of them trundled out to the site, rolling on three spherical wheels that bumped and wobbled across the surface but their low center of gravity kept them stable. She positioned them in an equilateral triangle around the site.

“Ready,” she said when the bots were in place. “Commencing sonar readings.”

Each bot sent out high-frequency pulse. The pulses were picked up in turn by each of the other two bots, processed and sent back to the cat to build up a complex picture of the sub-surface environment.

Combined with the jelly bot measurements, the model of the underground complex grew quickly.

A network of passages connected the pits around the site. The tunnels ran straight, intersecting and creating a whole network similar to the lines on the surface, but not identical. The paths weren’t the same, they didn’t line up together.

Mac whistled. “Look at that! There’s a whole outpost down there.”

Jackie laughed and pointed at the hologram model floating in the center of the cat. He slapped his leg. “Look at it! It’s beautiful!”

Maybe so. She shivered. Each time she looked at the site she had to reminder herself that humans didn’t create it. That was the thought that kept her nerves on edge. What sort of creatures came here to Titan and created this? Where did they go afterward? There wasn’t any indication that they were still here. From what they’d seen so far, the site was abandoned.

More details poured in from the next pulse. The image of the pathways was refined. There were chambers, and a big one sat right underneath the cracked region that Mac had noticed. It was large, round and connected to four of the passages. It looked like some sort of underground hub, with a domed ceiling.

Sanders came out of the cockpit. “That’s what’s under there?”

“Yes,” Clara said.

“Glad then that we didn’t drive any closer. I wouldn’t want to risk the cat on top of that.”

“The cat doesn’t weigh as much on Titan as it would on Earth,” Jackie said. “I doubt it would cause a collapse if we drove across the site.”

“Yeah? I’m not trying that. You want to do something like that, pick someone else. ”

Mac laughed. “Look at that! It’s incredible! Right out there is proof that humanity isn’t alone out here. Someone else has been here before us.”

“And left us with a big mystery,” Clara said. “Why do all of this? And where is any sort of structure. This looks like it is all just cut right into the ice.”

“We cut into the ice to build our colony,” Jackie said.

“Yes, but we still put a structure into place. We didn’t go walking around outside in our birthday suits.”

Sanders shrugged. “Maybe they considered this homey weather?”

“But there’s nothing there! Lines cut into the ground, pits, the sonar shows the shapes of the passages underneath and they look much the same. Straight passages connecting the different chambers and pits that open to the surface.”

Mac shook his head. “We won’t know what’s down there until we go take a look.”

“If there was any way for someone else to get here, I’d think this was a hoax,” Clara said.

“It isn’t a hoax,” Jackie said. “It’s real. It can’t be humans that made it.”

“Maybe it’s like those ancient aliens people talked about back on Earth,” Sanders said.

“No!”

All three men looked at her. She rubbed her eyes. “Look, let’s not even suggest that, okay? The people back on Earth that believe that sort of thing, they’re going to go crazy enough as it is. This is going to fuel the whole conspiracy ideas about Diaspora.”

“What if they’re right?” Sanders gestured at the hologram. “We know people didn’t create it. Can we figure out how old it is?”

“We can test the levels of hydrocarbons in the excavations,” Jackie said. “With our observations on hydrocarbon deposition rates, we can get a pretty good idea how long ago it was made. It can’t be very long, though, can it? Otherwise it would have been buried already, right?”

“Titan’s a slow world,” Clara said. “It might be older than we think, but get on that. Mac and I will suit up to go back.”

9

They retraced their steps back to the site and made better time. They weren’t carefully studying every centimeter of the ground this time. This time they wanted to get to the site and reach the nearest of the pits. Their target was a circular pit some ten meters across. Two passages connected to the lower levels, and more importantly, it was on this side of the stream.

Clara dragged a sled behind her loaded with gear for the trip down into the pit. The passages were four meters down in the pit. They had ropes and other climbing gear with them to make the descent. Mac dragged a second sled with additional climbing gear and even more sample containers. They’d packed everything that they could think of onto the two sleds and still the piled sleds hardly felt like anything to drag. Back on Earth each probably weighed a couple hundred pounds and here they were only thirty pounds or so.

Coming over the hill, seeing the site down below cut into the orange landscape, brought it all back. The reality of it. How many times had she heard her father talk about ancient astronauts, visitors from space that would return some day. A bit of doubt stirred and twisted in her mind.

Could these be the same aliens?

No. She didn’t believe that. Even though this was real, it didn’t make the stories back home real too. There hadn’t been any significant evidence on Earth, at least nothing that wasn’t easily explained by more rational reasons.

Here, though. This site was unique. Proof that another intelligence had been on Titan. The fact that it was a geologically recent site, and the lack of any evidence so far for endemic organisms, it strongly suggested that whatever, whomever had created the site had not been native to Titan. This wasn’t the Titan equivalent of Stonehenge or the great pyramids.

Before she knew it they were back at the first “road” in the site. She moved carefully between the quarter-sized holes and stopped.

“Go ahead,” Mac said.

The edge was sharp, cleanly cut, but there was orange hydrocarbon dust on the bottom. Clara knelt on the edge and poked a gloved finger into the dust. It barely came up to her knuckle. She pulled out a skinny probe and poked it down into the hydrocarbons. Jackie had coated it with an adhesive to collect a sample, and measure the depth. She lifted it carefully straight up. A faint orange haze clung to the bottom of the probe. She capped it and returned it to the pouch on her suit.

“Okay. I’m stepping onto the cut now.” Clara stepped down, it was an easy step.

The surface beneath her boots was smooth, but not slippery. The icy surface wouldn’t turn slick unless there was a methane rainstorm and those were rare, as the nearly dried-up stream showed.

“It’s hard beneath my boots. Feels perfectly smooth.”

Whatever had cut this had melted and smoothed the surface out. Instant road, made of bedrock. Stable, long-lasting. Maybe not a road by design, but it would make a good road. She pulled her sled down onto the road. The edge here cut through mostly water ice rocks. The sled didn’t even leave tracks until it hit the road surface and disturbed the dust.

Mac stepped down. He laughed. “I was half-expecting it to be slippery.”

Despite the cold air in her helmet, the rock-hard ice beneath her feet, the orange color of everything made it feel more than ever like a trek along an empty desert road. Except this couldn’t be a road. It was wide enough, but off to the right was another “road” that intersected this one at a sharp angle. Who built roads like that? At least not for wheeled traffic.

Her display tracked her position against the map. The intersecting lines looked more like a complicated geometric snowflake than a map of any sort of roadway system. Even though there were pits at the intersection points, those varied in size. The spaces in between the lines were unaffected by the creation of the site. How do you dig out that much material without having it disturb the rest of the ground?

“What do you think happened to the material removed?” Clara moved to the edge of the road they were walking down and pointed at the ground.

“Look at that, undisturbed, as far as I can tell. You can see the water-ice rocks cleanly sliced by whatever cut into the ground but it doesn’t look like they moved at all.”

“Vaporized?” Mac suggested.

“If that happened, wouldn’t the escaping material have disturbed the surrounding landscape? It suggests heat, which would have deformed the whole surrounding area. It should look like a giant slagged area, melted and refrozen, but it doesn’t.”

“One of the many mysteries, but we have to keep going.”

He was right. They didn’t have unlimited time. The plan was to spend no more than two hours exploring the site. Longer than she had originally considered, yet she also knew how hard it was going to be to head back to the cat. If they got too tired it might lead to dangerous, potentially fatal mistakes.

Following this line took them closer to the dark, sluggish stream flowing along the shallow gully. It spread out among dark water-ice rocks. Hard to keep things straight, that the stream was liquid methane, that the rocks weren’t silicates but water-ice. It looked like a slow-moving stream back on Earth running through a mostly dry stream bed in late August. Without all of the trees and brush along the rocky bed. Instead, a barren orange landscape with a hazy, orange sky.

A dark jellyfish shape pulsed and swam through the haze just ahead. That was red, the jelly bot that Jackie was bringing to help them on the expedition, but it added to the unreality of the scene.

Titan wasn’t Earth, no matter what superficial similarities they shared.

They reached the line intersecting the one they were following at a thirty degree angle. Did that have significance? How could they tell?

Clara stopped to look at the sharp point where the lines came together. Perfect, sharp with no unevenness. It really did look like something removed the surface within the “roads,” just stripped it away in an instant without disturbing anything else.

Or ate it away.

She ran her gloved fingers along the smooth sides. At the top of the cut the ground crumbed at her light touch. Sand drifted down onto her fingers. The broken edge disturbed the perfect line.

“Shit.”

“What?”

Insider her helmet, Clara shook her head. “Sorry. The edge crumbled away. I barely touched it.”

“Not as many rocks here.”

She straightened and dragged her sled around to the other side. “Let’s get to the pit.”

A few minutes later they reached the target pit. Both of them stood at the edge and looked down.

The pit dropped into darkness. Clara turned on her wrist-lights and pointed at the pit.

Smooth ice walls, like polished stone. From the map this pit dropped down fourteen meters and had two passages that connected to the lower portions. One passage was just over three meters down, the other at forty degrees around the side from their position. Each passage was about three meters high and the same distance across, cylindrical in shape. Good-sized passages, at least, no crawling about in tiny tunnels. It was interesting that there weren’t smaller passages showing in the sonar maps. All of the passages were the same size.

Clara turned to her sled and pulled open the first compartment where the climbing gear was stowed. “Let’s get anchored and get down there.”

Mac went to work without comment.

Clara used her system to pull up instructions, following them carefully as she set the anchors and prepared for the descent. They’d trained on it before leaving Earth, back in the basic training that all of the colonists undertook. Survival training, necessary skills for working in extreme environments, and all of that sort of thing had been required. Still, it didn’t hurt to have a heads-up display reminding her of each step.

At last secured, roped in and ready to go, she looked over at Mac. He was finishing up.

“Ready?”

“Ready?” He gave her a thumbs up and the light came on his helmet. “See you at the bottom!”

He backed up and walked right over the edge. He dropped, slowly and laughed. “Too bad training wasn’t this easy!”

Clara didn’t look down as she stepped over the edge. She was ready to fall and it didn’t happen. She kept her feet on the smooth face of the wall and took the first two steps. With the low gravity it was no effort at all. She let out the rope slowly and walked down the wall.

Her helmet light reflected back at her from the polished surface of the wall. The wall looked like the surfaces of the lines above. Sealed tight. Put a lid on this thing, it’d probably hold an atmosphere. Of course if the air wasn’t cold, the surface would melt.

The descent continued until an opening appeared beside Clara. She kicked off and swung slowly over into the opening and landed lightly on her feet. She moved aside to give Mac room and a moment later he appeared beside her.

Their lights showed an empty passage ahead. Nothing artificial, the surface was the same sort of melted and sealed material as the lines above or the pit.

“Nothing.” Mac’s tone was disbelieving. “Why did empty tunnels?”

It wasn’t an accident. The passage was perfectly straight, smooth and bare from the orange hydrocarbon dust except traces that were right in the entrance. Clara’s lights played over the walls, revealing sedimentary layers of varying oranges. The passage was round, but it gave them plenty of room to walk. It could have been a rounded sewer tunnel at one point, except it didn’t go anywhere to empty anything out.

“It does give you a look at the geologic history.”

“That’s great, but right now I’m more interested in the ones behind digging this out.”

They were all like this, all of the passages. Clara felt it in her gut. Whoever had created these passages and the lines above, for whatever reason, they were gone. All of this was like a footprint left in the sand. Pack it in, pack it out, must apply to aliens too.

“We don’t know that is the case,” Clara said, not believing it. “Even if it is, we won’t know until we have a chance to check out all of the passages.”

“Let’s get on with it, then.”

“Jackie? You reading this? Bring down the jelly bot.”

“Yep, yep. It’s right behind you.”

“Record everything,” Clara said.

They both unclipped and walked into the passage, then looked back. A few seconds later the undulating shape of the jelly bot floated into the passage opening. It drifted into the tunnel. It was bigger in person and looked disturbingly alive. Clara and Mac moved against the sides of the passage.

The jelly bot pulsed and swam forward into the passage. It’s motion made soft sighs in the air. The trailing tentacles were all recording devices, sampling the air, imagining its surroundings and taking dozens of other measurements. Clara waited until it was a couple meters ahead and then followed it inside.

The passage continued on without break or interruption. Nothing unexpected from the sonar readings. Ahead was the first chamber, a large rectangular shape.

It was, predictably as empty as the passage. Mac swore.

“What’s wrong?” Jackie asked.

“It’s empty,” Clara answered. “Like the passage, like the site above. Whoever they were, they’re gone and took everything with them.”

“There’s a lot of the site left to investigate,” Jackie said. “We don’t know yet.”

It was an echo of her own words, and she still didn’t believe it. They left and they took their toys home. A good practice, really.

“I’ll take some surface samples,” Mac said. “Maybe there are microbes left behind.”

Good idea, if only to rule it out.

While Mac worked, she walked out into the chamber. It was large, round, dark and empty. Cold. Her suit did a good job of keeping its internal temperature above freezing, but it was still cold. And the processed nitrogen from outside was still cold. The air coming into her suit was icy. That was a detail they could work on improving, although it did give a clear reminder of where she was right now.

Titan. A whole new world, in a chamber created by non-human intelligences. If that wasn’t incredible, she didn’t know what was. Sure, the conspiracy theorists, her own parents, would imagine all sorts of stories when the news broke. That Diaspora knew about the site before the colonists landed, like Sanders had suggested. That there was alien technology present, and Diaspora had taken it to use in their undeclared war against Earth. Or that they were all in cahoots with their alien overlords bent on dominating the Earth.

The truth was less exciting and more mysterious. Someone had visited Titan before them, created this site, and then left, taking everything with them.

The jelly bot drifted around the chamber. Another passage led off the left side of the chamber. Clara walked across the empty space and looked into the passage.

Indistinguishable from the one they’d used to get here. Bare, empty, and unmarked.

“I’m done here. Anything interesting?” Mac asked.

“No,” Clara said. “It isn’t different than the passage outside.”

“So we move on?”

“We move on.”

They walked into the next passage and kept going. The next chamber they came to was also round, but smaller, with the passage continuing on the opposite side. Otherwise no different than the one they had left. The jelly bot drifted through the tunnels ahead of them, recording everything.

When Clara’s timer sounded, it was a relief. “Time to head back.”

“Great,” Mac said. “My feet are freezing and I’m tired. Let’s get back.”

Nothing changed on the way back. They got to the mouth of the passage, clipped into the ropes and walked right up out of the pit. And then they walked back to the cat.

10

That evening they sat around the table in the cat, over plates of reconstituted spaghetti Mac had prepared. The garlic smell and the spicy heat were welcome distractions from the discouraging results of the day.

“What’s next?” Sanders said.

Mac twirled his fork in the pasta. “I’m sure there are experts that will trip over themselves for a chance to wander around this ghost town. I say we let them.”

“I’d like to go out,” Jackie said. “I want to see it myself.”

“Be my guest,” Mac said.

“I’ll go too,” Sanders said. “Empty or not, that’s history out there, man! I’d like to see it before Blackstone makes it off limits.”

“She’s not going to do that,” Clara said. “If anything, they’ll give us more resources to explore.”

“Maybe, or maybe they already know about it. Maybe they stripped it before we got here.”

Clara shook her head. “Paranoia doesn’t help, and it doesn’t make sense. If they sent another expedition out here, we’d know. And even if they did know about it, what did they do to keep it hidden?”

“Right!” Jackie’s head bobbed. “Right, I mean, they could have covered it up, couldn’t they? If they could take everything away, they could have removed all traces of it. Why leave anything?”

“Maybe they didn’t have time,” Sanders’ shoulders rolled in a slow movement. “You’ll have to ask them.”

Clara let the conversation drift around her and focused instead on her food. She pushed the pasta around on the plate, making lines in the sauce. The lines intersected and crossed. She scraped and twirled her fork, making a hole. A mold for whatever had been taken out? Maybe there had been something filling the spaces. If it had been a city, an outpost of some sort, then maybe there had been buildings. Things that been in the places that were now empty?

11

The next morning Sanders and Jackie went out and spent two more hours in the site, wandering around the empty passages without finding anything. And the whole time the jelly bots were now exploring the site too, looking for any anomalies, anything that might explain what it was or why it was here.

Nothing.

Clara spent the whole day reviewing the footage and the data gathered. All the materials at the site were native. The actual surfaces showed signs of being bonded together, by heat or some other reaction, but whatever had done it had done it quickly. As she’d expected, the walls were air-tight, which suggested that they had contained some sort of atmosphere other than the native atmosphere, but none of the samples taken showed anything except native gases in the usual proportions.

Mac speculated that there had been some sort of lining within the passages, like an inflatable habitat that the aliens deflated and took with them when they left. If so, it hadn’t left any trace.

And why make it so complex? There didn’t seem to be any pattern to it that she recognized.

12

After dinner Clara retired to her bunk and pulled up a holographic overlay on her glasses of the site the way Jackie had displayed it, with the wire-frame showing details they had gathered.

She shaded the wire-frame. Now the shapes had more substance, but they were hollow and empty. She inverted the model to fill the empty spaces instead, stripping away the rest. A solid complex below, the lines radiating around the site above. She focused on the stream and where the lines ended before the stream and seemed to continue on the other side, she pulled out the surface to bridge the stream. Then she pulled up on the bridge slightly, warping it into a stable arch.

That unified the site. The placement of the bridges didn’t make much sense, but it wasn’t any stranger than the rest. It was all speculation anyway, but at least it connected things. The roads looked like solid avenues, with bridges spanning the stream. Whether or not that was the case, she had no way to know.

In for that much, she might as well carry the speculation farther. It was probably a pretty reasonable assumption that the aliens couldn’t breathe Titan’s atmosphere. Maybe somewhere on, or in, this moon there was native life, but nothing led her to think that the builders of the site were native. The site was isolated and contained within itself. Almost like an ant colony.

What if that was the case? What if the lines on the surface weren’t roads like she was thinking, but passages? She expanded each of the roads, pulling them up to match the dimensions of the underground passages. She replaced the bridges with the passages crossing the stream. It really made the stream seem irrelevant, except for the pool that happened at one of the intersections. The shapes rotated in front of her, a complex, interlocking structure on two levels. No symmetry there, but maybe the aliens didn’t look for symmetry the way humans did. Humans liked bilateral symmetry and repetition. This shape, it looked more about the intersections.

Almost like a three-dimensional model of a molecule.

Clara’s breath caught in her throat.

Could it be that?

She stripped away the information about the ground surface outside and was left with the crisscrossing designs of the lines and the circular intersections. She dropped in spheres at each junction.

Even more like a molecule now. She rotated it and turned it. It wasn’t complete. More like a simplified short-hand to the actual structure.

Or a map.

13

Everyone was busy when she left her bunk and suited up. It was against the rules to go outside by herself but Mac wanted to pull up stakes and start back after they rested. Night was coming and he was frustrated with the site.

She had to see it again for herself.

Now, standing at the top of the hill and looking at the site, she called up her model. Was she missing something, could this be the answer?

The software adjusted for distance and perspective and settled the model into place. Blue, against the orange background.

Thick lines spread out across the Titan landscape. Add in the pits and the angles and new lines formed at angles, further connecting the intersecting points.

Mac had given up trying to call. He’d be out here soon.

Clara moved her hands, manipulating the model at a distance. She narrowed the lines down to simple dotted lines, like a string of bright blue Christmas lights. That left the spheres.

“Darken the view,” she ordered. “Simulate nightfall.”

The orange backdrop faded away to a darkened, ghostly landscape lit by starlight.

Stars.

She accessed menus and pulled up models. “Replace spheres with simulated stars. ”

Bright light pierced her eyes. She squinted. “Reduce size and illumination to ten percent.”

The brilliant display faded. There were stars, bright glowing stars, connected by a network of dotted blue lines.

“Clara!”

Mac’s voice behind her, distant still.

Clara studied the image. It felt right. A map of stars and connecting lines. But what stars? What were they trying to tell us?

If it was a message there was a key.

She looked at the circular pool in the stream. That was an unique feature. She pulled up star maps and focused on the Sun. If the pool was Sol, then….

Clara rotated the star map. The nearest star was actually three stars, Alpha Centauri and its companions, which made the nearest intersection Centauri. She swapped the generic star simulation for a model of the Centauri system. She connected the model to the star map database and instructed the system to populate with other matches.

The star field changed. Large and small, stars bloomed into place around Sol at the center of the stream pool. All the pieces snapped into place, connected by the dotted blue lines.

Mac huffed to a stop next to her.

“Clara, what are you doing?”

“I’m sending you an augmented view.”

“What?”

Clara sent the view to him.

He was silent. “Is this?”

“It is,” she said. “The site is a map of star systems spreading out around us. It isn’t to scale. They’ve pulled them closer, suggesting the relationships without worrying about the details. It’s like a graphic, showing the various worlds, without any details. The one thing they did do was put Sol in a noticeable place, using the stream as a landmark to draw our attention to it.”

“Why do it this way?”

“I don’t know, a test to see if we could understand it? The site is a three dimensional sculpture, a representation that uses the empty space as much as the spaces they modified. It might not even be for us, but a marker showing the worlds they’ve visited.”

“But which one did they come from?”

That was a good question. The stream cut through other lines, but no other intersections. None of the other intersections had any distinguishing marks. Some varied in size, but that might designate the type of star, or the size of the solar system?

Then she remembered. The first line that they had walked on, it was marked with small circular pits, quarter-sized. That line ran between two stars, neither one Sol, but at the intersection another line ran off to Sol. She checked Jackie’s model. The bots hadn’t found any similar markings anywhere in the site.

She highlighted the stars at each end. “This line was marked, remember the small holes we saw? They don’t show anywhere else in the site map. It could be an indication that one of those stars was their home, or indicate something particular about that journey.”

“You’re suggesting that they’ve been to all of those stars?”

“It fits the map.”

“It’s going to sound like we’ve found a crop circle on Titan that leads to the alien home world. No one is going to believe it.”

Except her parents. It’d no doubt panic them when they found out.

“That’s their problem,” she said. She gestured and collapsed the image.

The site lay as before, at the base of the hill, along the stream. Mysterious. Made by inhuman hands, by beings that could apparently travel between the stars.

Terra Blackstone had said before that she planned for the Diaspora to continue, to reach out to other worlds entirely. There was Eris and the other projects designed to reach outside of the solar system. People that were willing to stand on the precipice of interstellar space and face that deep, deep darkness.

When word got out about the site, they’d know that they weren’t alone. Other minds were out there, reaching out. Whether they left this site as a marker, or an invitation, or even a warning, it was going to change everything.

“It’s a great discovery,” Mac said. “Congratulations. We still need to get back.”

Clara turned away from the site. “I’ve got my questions now. Let’s go home.”

Together, they headed back down to the cat.

13,268 words

Author’s Note

This story marks the 7th weekly short story release, and the 7th Planetary Bodies story. Saturn’s impressive ring system and the cloudy world of Titan has always captured my imagination. It’s a moon unlike any other with a dense atmosphere, liquid lakes and streams and a complex geology. I was very excited when the Huygens probe parachuted down to the surface.

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 Uranus Exposed.

Jupiter Sleeping

Selene Martinez knows a thing or two about rising to big-scale challenges. She faced evacuating thousands of people from Earth in dozens of simultaneous launches.

Now she crash lands on one of the oldest surfaces in the solar system between a brewing conflict that will determine the fate of a whole new branch of humanity.

On Jupiter’s moon Callisto, Selene faces her newest and greatest challenge with the eyes of everyone in the solar system watching her.

1

Selene Martinez liked the idea of building a new future for humanity on the oldest surface in the solar system.

That’s if she could get the two camps on Callisto to work with each other instead of going for each other’s throats. What a better way to do that, then have them have to rescue their new boss?

At least, she hoped they’d come to her rescue. The transport capsule had lost communications with the base as it made the final orbit around before the burn. Callisto still didn’t have a up a global satellite system. She wouldn’t be able to communicate again until she came around for the final descent.

Callisto essentially lacked an atmosphere, so no braking that way. She’d burn up all of her fuel to land at a survivable impact speed.

Too bad Callisto didn’t have its beanstalk in place, like Ceres. That’d have made it so much easier!

Still, it’d only taken three months to get to Callisto from Earth! Incredible, and possible thanks to the Diaspora’s beam-powered solar sails coming out of Mercury. More and more of them all the time, and new beam satellites coming online.

Trips that had taken Diaspora years in the beginning, were getting shorter and shorter all the time. Eventually they’d all have easy access to the worlds throughout the solar system. Well, everyone except for the folks down in the well on Earth. They could sit and stew while the future went on without them, for all she cared. After everything she had done for them!

Selene took a deep breath, which sounded loud in her helmet, and checked the holographic displays in front of her. Orbital trajectory looked good. All systems in the transport capsule were green. After three months trapped in this can, she couldn’t wait to get out and actually see real people again.

Assuming that she landed in one piece. There wasn’t much that she could do at this point. It was all gravity, orbital mechanics, and the landing program in action now. In the last few minutes she could take over and attempt a manual landing — if she was any kind of pilot. Which she wasn’t.

Her suit was on and functioning. Even if the capsule did rupture on impact, the suit gave her an increased margin of safety. She had to suit up before the final approach. No way to do it in an emergency. The suit was an extreme environments suit, armored and tight. She’d actually had to crawl in through a rear opening. First her legs, so like she was sitting half in and out of the suit, then she had to bend forward and ‘dive’ into the suit, rising up, forcing her limbs and head through the suit. It clung wetly to her, squeezing her to maintain pressure in her body.

It was a little like a reverse birth.

At just over five-feet and thin, she had it easier than anyone bigger and less flexible. Years of yoga practice made it easier. She’d also cut her blond hair very short, so it didn’t get in her way.

Everything that could be done to ensure her survival had been done.

Sometimes you just settled in for the ride.

 

Down below the moon’s landscape was very close. Craters on top of craters, and more craters. No place was free of craters of all sizes. An incredibly battered surface that hadn’t been reshaped and smoothed over by tectonic forces. Like Europa, Callisto might have a subsurface ocean, but frozen far, far below the surface.

Not at all like the ice ball world of Europa, with a surface visibly reshaped and comparatively smooth.

Ahead a massive body rose above the crater surface. Gigantic Jupiter, in all of its glory. Even after weeks of getting closer, she still hadn’t tired of seeing the planet. She’d cross around Callisto’s tidally-locked hemisphere, to come around and land on the far side of the moon.

Too bad, really, that the base was on the opposite side of the moon. She would have liked to have a view of Jupiter from her office. Assuming she had an office. She didn’t have much detail about her arrangements.

As stunning as the view was she understood the caution. Callisto was outside of the radiation belts that made visiting the inner Galilean satellites so dangerous but it was still considered safer to put the moon between them and the giant planet, if only for psychological reasons, not to have the giant planet a permanent fixture in the sky. Imagine if Callisto had been able to support terrestrial life? What would primitive cultures have done with something as dynamic as Jupiter constantly hanging over their heads?

It didn’t take long before the transport traveled far enough to leave the view behind. She’d dropped even lower. Thrusters kicked on, shaking the transport as her speed fell. She was falling from the sky.

2

Selene unbuckled the straps holding her into the transport’s seat. Landing had been a bit rough, but both she and the transport capsule were intact.

Those last few minutes had passed in an instant. A bit like the launch from Earth. She’d held on while the barren surface rose up beneath her. Lower, and lower, until she was flying just above the ground like an airplane coming in for a landing.

There was nothing down there except rough, cratered terrain. If she had hit it even at the speed she was traveling, well, she could imagine bits of the transport scattered among the cratered landscape.

At the last moment a path appeared, cut through the icy, rocky surface. The engines cut out and the transport crashed down, sliding and spinning out of control. Then it stopped.

A bit rough might be an understatement.

But she was down, shaken, but relatively unharmed and all systems still functional. Surprising, really.

She stood, holding on for stability. Callisto’s gravity was lower than the Moon. That’d take some getting used to. After months of weightlessness, though, having a sense of up and down was welcome.

The radio came to life. A man’s voice came on, deep, and friendly. “Callisto to transport, do you read?”

With an eye-blink, Selene answered the call. “Yes, I read you. I’m down and all systems are green. Anyone out there to give me a ride in?”

“Roger, transport. Yes, we’ve got a flatbed coming out to pick you up. Hang tight. They’ll be there soon.”

“What’s your name?” She said.

“Sean McBain, ma’am.”

McBain. She knew the name from the personnel roster that she’d studied. Handsome man, from his picture. An evolutionary biologist by training, he was also the assistant director, her second in command. If it worked out, her right hand.

“Don’t call me ma’am,” Selene said. “Selene is just fine. I’m looking forward to seeing everyone!”

“Right. They’ll be there soon. Callisto out.”

Okay. That was about as warm a welcome as Terra Blackstone had warned her about. Blackstone, the force behind the Diaspora Group’s colonization of the solar system, knew something about love and hate. She was the most recognizable person in the solar system and probably hated by several billion people back on Earth. All of those people that thought they had the right to tell the people of the Diaspora what they could, and couldn’t do, out in the solar system.

Selene moved carefully down the length of the transport to gather up her things. She didn’t have much. When the United States and the United Nations acted illegally to seize Diaspora facilities on Earth, there hadn’t been much time to get out. Blackstone might get the blame, but she hadn’t personally handled the details of the exodus.

That’d been Selene. Her preparations had made it possible. She’d convinced the Diaspora’s board to support the evacuation plan, with Blackstone’s backing and support. Materials, but more importantly, people. Anyone that was working for Diaspora that wanted off, as well as their families.

Watching all those simultaneous launches going off had been amazing! Even if it did nearly trigger a panic response from the nations.

Selene picked up a tablet and stuffed it into her bag. Everything else was packed. Two duffels, the sum total of her belongings now. Brought up on one of the last launches. She’d spent time with the rest of the evacuees in orbit around the Earth, in her case at L-Town 5, and then transferred here to take over the Jupiter operations.

The biggest, deadliest planet in the solar system. Essentially a whole solar system on its own, with sixty-seven moons, including some of the most likely habitats for life outside of Earth.

Which meant there were whole worlds at stake in this job. Selene grinned. Talk about fun! She bounced slightly. When would the truck get here?

3

The flatbed turned out to be something like a snow cat, with a thick tread that crawled across the uneven terrain. There was a plow at the front which could be used to clear obstacles, fill small craters and cut a path. The crane on the back had lifted up the transport and deposited it neatly onto the back of the flatbed. It stuck out pretty far, but the flatbed managed okay.

Selene was in the cab of the flatbed with the crew of four that had come out to pick her up. She recognized them all from studying the staff roster.

Jessi, Kathy, Melissa and Cole, all working out of the environment and facilities department, the people that kept the equipment and colony life support functioning.

The flatbed had space for six people in the cab with the suits on. The cab was unpressurized, so they all stayed in their suits.

Selene asked about that.

“Not worth it,” Cole said. Through his visor, she could see he was in his mid to late forties, with a short gray and black beard and buzzed hair. “It takes too long to get in and out of the suits as it is. We could pressurize her if we needed to, like if a suit was failing, but usually we have to get out and work then get back in, then back out.”

“We’re not changing suits that often,” Kathy offered. She was probably in her thirties, lean, with dark brown eyes and an amazing golden complexion that made her look like she’d been out in the sun.

Except from here the sun wasn’t all that impressive. It had to be her natural skin color.

“Well, thanks for coming to get me,” Selene said. Outside the road, such that it was, pushed on through the field of craters toward a distant cluster of lights.

“This was an easy one,” Jessi said. She laughed, her voice high and clear. “Go get the boss? Check!”

Jessi wasn’t the youngest of the group, that was probably Melissa. She was young, barely twenties, with short brown hair. Obviously shy, she’d offered a quick hello and apparently found her own gloves fascinating.

“Once we get the beanstalk up and running, we’ll be seeing a lot more people out here,” Selene said. “It won’t be such a rough landing.”

“You’re assuming we get the beanstalk up,” Cole said. “The squidders don’t want to spend time on that.”

There it was, the conflict that she’d been handed along with this post. She’d expected it to come up, maybe not this fast. “Squidders?”

“Looking for squid,” Kathy said.

“They think there’re multicellular critters beneath the ice,” Cole added. “Since Ceres, they all want to discover the next biosphere. They want us to drill, not reach up into space.”

“Isn’t true that any ocean might be up to 200 kilometers below the surface?”

“Yes,” Kathy said. “They tend to ignore that little detail.”

Cole said, “They also want us to focus our resources on Europa. You’ll have fun telling them that we’re not here only to do science. We’re trying to build something.”

All of which was true, but it wasn’t the whole picture.

“You’re right.” Selene pointed at the base coming up, a collection of domes that blended in with the surroundings. Printed from local materials, it was the lights and lines that made it stand out. “We are trying to build a home too. Still, it’d be nice to know more about any potential neighbors we might have.”

Kathy shook her head. “If we set foot on Europa we’d die from radiation exposure. That’s another little detail that they want to forget.”

“It’s an important one.” Selene looked around at the group.

Obviously, they wanted her assurances that she’d back their position. She wasn’t backing anyone’s position right now. Chances were, with a little discussion, she’d discover valid points on both sides.

“What do you want to see happen?”

“We focus our attention on our colony here on Callisto,” Cole said. “Look at our resources? We’ve got everything we need here to grow a viable colony, a real colony, not the base we have now. Let’s get that up and running. We can deal with Europa, Ganymede and the rest in the future. Right now we can protect them, rather than rushing into something.”

Behind their visors, the others were nodding. Even Jessi.

“Thanks,” Selene said. “I like knowing the facts on the ground. It’ll take me a little bit to get up and running, and then we’ll see.”

Not, perhaps, the ringing endorsement they wanted, but it’d have to do. At least until she settled in, if they gave her that long.

4

As living quarters went, Selene had seen worse. Much worse, during her college days. The space they’d given her was a couple levels down into the base, well-lit, with dark textured walls.

The rooms were sterile and cool, with dark textured walls and minimal printed furniture that matched the walls, floor and ceiling. It was all very monochromatic.

There was a mausoleum quality, if mausoleums came with a living area, bedroom and a shower. Free of the suit and wearing a standard black Diaspora workall, she felt almost like a ghost. The low gravity helped, giving each step the feeling as if she would float off the floor.

She carried her duffels into the bedroom and dropped them on the bed. What served as a bed. A thin mat and a thin blanket over the top.

This was how they were living? With no color? Plants would help, and probably would help the environmental systems. She’d seen photos of the outposts on Mars, almost overgrowing with vegetation throughout the base.

That was something to work on. People did better around other living things. There’d been a woman on her exodus transport that had brought a case with four Guinea pigs. Pets or a food source, Selene hadn’t asked.

She unzipped the first duffel. A chime sounded from the other room.

The door?

Selene left the duffel and went around to the front door. It slid open at her touch on a panel beside the door.

The man standing outside was much taller than her, she was used to that, with short brown hair and a dimpled chin. He was scruffy and dark, with loose wavy hair falling down to his shoulders. Put him in something other than a Diaspora workall and he could fit the bill for any number of fantasies. He could have a been a model on romance novel covers. Sean McBain. His picture in the file didn’t do him justice at all.

Selene pushed away the thought. It wasn’t a good idea to show up and start lusting after her people. Even if she had spent a long time alone in the transport on the way here.

“Hello!” Selene smiled brightly. “I’m Selene Martinez.”

The man stuck out his hand. “Sean McBain. I see you’ve got here okay and all. No problems with the transport?”

She took his hand. It was firm, not too tight and strong. “We spoke, on the radio. I’ve seen your file.”

He nodded and let go of her hand.

“No problems,” she said. She stepped to the side and gestured at the room. “Would you like to come in? I don’t think I have anything to offer, right now. I haven’t sorted all that out yet.”

Sean smiled and to-die-for dimples formed in his cheeks. “Actually, that’s what I stopped by for. Figured you might want some chow after your trip. I can show you, if you like, ma’am?”

She was hungry. “That sounds great, if you’ll stop calling me ma’am.”

“I don’t know, seems like there must be some regulation or another on proper address.”

Selene stepped out and tapped the panel to close the door. It slid smoothly shut. She smiled at Sean. “If there is, I’ll rewrite it. Make it required to call me by my name.”

He inclined his head with a chuckle. “In that case, let me show you to the dining hall. Selene.”

Even for a small base, the hallways seemed empty. A bit of a ghost town. With her joining the base there were only sixty-three people on Callisto. A tiny pocket of humanity tucked into a crater, something that could be easily overlooked unless you were looking for it.

“Where is everyone?” Selene asked.

“Working. Folks here don’t lack for anything to do. We don’t get bored.” He laughed, a good laugh. Warm, inviting. “Even if we only had Callisto to study we’d be busy, but there’s a whole system out there around Jupiter.”

“It’s exciting,” she said.

“Exactly! Someday, I’ll bet you, Jupiter will be the center of humanity in the solar system. Especially once we open up the way to the other Galilean satellites.”

“The radiation is a little problem.” Selene held her fingers a little bit apart.

“We’ll lick that,” Sean said confidently. “Isn’t that what Blackstone always says?”

“I don’t think she phrases it that way.”

He shrugged. “Maybe not, but it’s all the same. Diaspora hasn’t turned away from anything just because it is hard. We’re here after all.”

“And we’re here,” Selene said, indicating the cafeteria doorway, clearly marked with a sign.

The door slid open and they walked in. The place was mostly empty, but a few weary-looking people sat at isolated tables.

“Do people eat here, or back in their work areas?”

“A lot of staff just grab their food and head back to their offices, labs or whatever.”

He leaned closer, with a glance at the people in the room. “You mostly see the engineering and facilities people in here. Sometimes they take pretty long breaks. It’s a bit of a problem, actually.”

Selene pushed a tray along the counter, studying the options. Mostly green leaf choices, vegetables and golden, buttery-looking rolls. After the dried and concentrates she’d been living on, it was heaven. She piled her plate high, thinking about what Sean was saying.

The engineering and facilities staff were responsible for creating everything and keeping it running. Or retrieving new bosses from the ice. They’d made their pitch for the colony structure. Sean, an evolutionary biologist, apparently fell into the squidders group.

She turned with her laden tray and turned around. There was a man sitting alone near the center of the room. Big, broad shoulders filled the brown workall he wore. A thick black beard, trimmed short, wrapped around his face. His hands were wrapped around a steaming mug, head hanging over the steam. She didn’t recognize him right off from the files, but the pictures there might not have been current.

As Sean turned she nodded at the man. “Who is that?”

“Ah, Asher Thornton. Hydro-engineer.”

“Let’s join him.”

“I think he wants to be left alone.”

Selene ignored Sean’s comments and threaded her way among the tables to Asher’s table. She stopped beside an empty chair. He didn’t look at her.

“Mind if we join you?”

Asher lifted his mug, still not looking at her. “Lots of room.”

She chose to take that as an answer and put her tray down to pull out the chair. When she did it moved in a perfectly straight line, as if held to the floor. She moved it back, pulled it and lifted. It resisted, and then came free. The answer was obvious.

“Magnetic tracks! That’s so clever.”

Sean sat down next to her, across from Asher. “Low gravity, it’s too easy for people to tip them over otherwise.”

“Not if they’ve got any sense,” Asher said.

Selene let it go. Asher might be right, but it was also cool to have the chairs ride magnetic rails. And if it prevented accidents, what was the harm?

“I’m Selene Martinez,” she said.

“I know.” Asher sipped his drink, an herbal mix from the smell of it.

“Is everything okay, Mr. Thornton?”

Now he did look at her, and he had amazing deep blue eyes. Eyes that were as cold as the ice outside right now.

“Okay? We’re at capacity already and I don’t have the staff or resources to expand. Doesn’t matter, we’re still getting another twenty bodies from the exodus. Isn’t that right?”

“That hasn’t been confirmed,” Sean said quickly. He looked at Selene. “I’ve asked for clarification from Diaspora.”

That was alarming news. Callisto should have already been ready for the influx of new people from the exodus. She was only the first, sent on the fast track out here. The others were coming already.

“We are getting more people,” she said. “They’re already on the way. We need people. We’re one of the smallest outposts, with the largest territory.”

Selene speared her salad with her fork and took a bite. The flavor of the dressing was fantastic. The lettuce and other greens crunched lightly. She swallowed and looked at the two men.

“That’s great. I haven’t had fresh food in months. I’m going to review everything, gentlemen. If you want to highlight anything, send me an email with the key points. Right now, however, I want to take a few minutes to enjoy my food. If you want to talk, let’s keep it casual.”

Asher stood up, chair gliding back as he stood. “I’ve got work.”

He left. Sean picked at his own salad, then stood and picked up the tray.

“Sorry, I should get busy too. Are you okay?”

Selene waved her fork. “Go on, if you want.”

He left in a hurry.

She was alone. Actually, really alone. While they’d talked, the few other people in the cafeteria had left too.

“Welcome to Callisto,” she said.

She picked up the roll and bit into the golden side. Crust crunched beneath her teeth, flaking and melting on her tongue.

It was what Blackstone had promised. A new challenge.

5

There had been twenty-four of them living in an inflatable space station orbiting the L-5 Lagrange point. Two of those children, five and fourteen.

During the exodus, there had been less than forty-eight hours to safely launch the remaining Diaspora personnel and their families into Earth’s orbit. For months they’d been increasing their launches, moving material and people to orbit, but the crack down by the United States and United Nations had called for swift action.

It was a bit eerie living in an inflatable habitat. A bright orange habitat made of the latest, toughest materials, but still thin. And orange. Like super-ripe orange, orange.

The residents dubbed their new home L-Town 5 and elected Selene as their Mayor, since she was behind the effort to get them all off planet.

They each had sections of the inside surfaces where they strapped down their few belongings. The attached launch capsule that had carried them to orbit, provided work, sanitation and kitchen areas.

That had been the result of her team’s design work. A vehicle that would reach orbit, then open and inflate a habitat for the people inside. It was supposed to be a temporary measure until they could transfer off to other assignments across the solar system.

And they were one of dozens of such launches orbiting the L-4 and L-5 points and the Moon. Everyone lived in fear of a bad solar flare, or the collapse of the environmental systems. It had been a very precarious situation, but people had pulled together. They’d all given up their lives back on Earth. Everyone was in the same situation.

Blackstone’s visit was a high point. Everyone in L-Town 5 rushed around cleaning up the place in anticipation. Sanitation and washing facilities were extremely limited but people did what they could. It still smelled like a small enclosed space with twenty-four people living in it, nothing to be done about that, but people were as presentable as they could get when Blackstone’s capsule docked with the launch capsule.

The crowd was anchored around on all the faces, except the one with the hatch to the capsule. Selene had anchored herself near the hatch with one of the rubbery guidelines stretched across the inside surface.

When the hatch opened there was an intake of breath around the habitat, and then as Blackstone pulled herself up to the opening, widespread clapping.

Blackstone was wearing a workall, like all of them, except her black workall looked tailored to fit her curves. Her dark hair floated in a braid behind her. She looked elegant, casual, and perfectly put together. Next to her, they were a pretty grubby lot.

Selene found herself wishing that she’d had more than a damp cloth to wash with, but if anyone understood the situation, it was Terra Blackstone.

The clapping died and Robby, the five-year-old, said loudly into the silence, “Who is that pretty lady?”

Blackstone laughed with the rest of them. When that stopped, she spoke.

“It’s a great question. What’s your name?”

“Robby Daniels,” he said proudly.

“Well, Robby. I’m a lot like you.”

“Not un.”

Over the chuckles, smiling, Terra continued. “But I am. I was a little girl once and I wanted to go into space. Now, I got older, but part of me is that same little girl, still excited about going into space.”

“I’m not a girl,” Robby said.

More laughs. “No, you’re not, but that’s okay. You’re here, and you’re brave. That’s what counts. You’re all so brave, so courageous. And so patient! We’re building more transports each day. Mercury has increased production of solar sails, and is bringing another beamed power station online. We’ll have you all underway in the next few weeks. I know for some of you that’s going to mean a long journey, but at the end is a chance to make a new home for humanity on a dozen new worlds!”

Cheers all around, and Robby even clapped. It took a long time to settle down. When it did Blackstone touched Selene’s arm.

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to steal your mayor right off. I’ve got a job for her that can’t wait. And soon, I promise, we’ll come back for the rest of you. In the meantime, my capsule is loaded with fresh supplies for all of you, if we can arrange to get those off-loaded? Then I’ll be taking back any recyclables that have built up too.”

That made everyone even happier. It was a good move. Fresh food, supplies, and everything that used to be considered waste, was now recyclable. Diaspora didn’t waste any resources, they couldn’t afford to, being cut off from Earth.

While the other residents moved to unload the capsule, Blackstone and Selene moved aside to an empty space near the hatch.

“What’s the job?” Selene asked.

“Jupiter. Yours if you want it.”

Jupiter. Largest planet in the solar system, home to some of the most likely places in the solar system with life. It was a prize. The crown jewel. Or at least it should be, but even stuck in L-Town she’d heard suggestions that everything wasn’t as it should be.

“Of course I’ll do it,” she said. “What do I need to know?”

“A full briefing packet will be in your transport. We’ve got a solar sail lined up.” Terra’s red lips curved in a smile. “I almost wish I could take this one myself. It’ll be a challenge unlike any other in the solar system.”

6

Sitting in the empty cafeteria, Selene heard the echoes of Blackstone’s words. The challenge might be unlike any other in the solar system, but the people were the same. That hadn’t changed, and that was the real challenge.

People, as a group, did what they thought best most of the time. Defining what was best, that was the challenge. The toughest were convinced that what they wanted was the best for everyone. She clearly had her share of those here, and the whole spectrum around that. Those who inflated what they were doing, to show others their importance. The explorers that believed the reason for being here was pure science. The colonists that didn’t care about existing life-forms.

That was unfair. All of those generalizations were as much false as they were true.

The Jupiter operations needed clear, concrete plans, and a vision of where they were going.

She had to build that, quickly, before it all fell away.

Diaspora existed because of Blackstone’s dream, a dream to see humanity on every planet in the solar system. It was a dream that was already realized. The Diaspora group had launched over a dozen expeditions to the major planets and four dwarf planets, starting with the outermost destinations first and working inward. The launches had been timed so that they all arrived within the same year.

Unprecedented. Reckless, according to Blackstone’s critics. Pundits predicted the death of everyone in the colonies, morbidly anticipating the massive tragedy caused by one woman’s hubris.

Except it didn’t happen. The new colonies survived. Thrived in many cases, like the cloud city of Aphrodite speeding around the atmosphere of Venus.

Selene walked through the quiet halls of Callisto and didn’t see thriving. This place had all the charm of a lab. A boring lab in a place that shouldn’t be boring. The more she walked the stronger the sense of wrongness grew.

This place should feel lived in. Industrious. A growing community and there was nothing.

Quiet. Everyone off in their own areas, isolated and apart from one another.

This wasn’t a community. That’s what Blackstone was afraid of, the reason that she asked Selene to come here and take over.

Build a community. Build a future, on all of these worlds.

It was time to talk to the people, the colonists of Callisto.

7

Selene scheduled the meeting for the next morning, and used the base system to send out the message to everyone’s inbox. Mandatory attendance. It’d create some grumbling, but better to get them there than not.

The cafeteria was the only place in the base large enough for sixty-three people. Selene waited until the crew was assembled before she left her quarters.

She was dressed for the meeting in the one professional dress that she’d brought with her for official functions. It was charcoal and had cost a month’s salary back on Earth. Not that it mattered here, but putting it on was like putting on her armor.

Sometimes it was necessary to dress for the occasion. This was one of those times.

She carried a small pocket tablet and a holo-projector. She’d been up all evening yesterday, reviewing reports and deciding on a course of action. Her mouth was dry, tacky. She’d have to remember to get a glass of water when she reached the cafeteria.

It didn’t take long to get to the cafeteria. The base wasn’t all that big. Before she reached the doors she heard the colonists inside. It was the hum of a crowded room, of human voices in a group, like a hive of bees stirred into activity.

Bringing them together was probably stirring up conflicts that had shimmered while people remained in their own isolated areas, but it was necessary. They needed to clean the air and talk about the issues involved.

The door slid open and Selene walked inside. The room was packed. Every table was full and there were people standing around in between the tables. Everyone was talking in small groups. The colors of the workalls divided the room into black, green and browns. Few in the group were mingled. Voices started to die down as she walked to the front of the room.

The room was filled with the scent of people and food. It was a very human, comforting scent. Almost homey. Selene nodded to people as she went to the front of the room. She placed the holo-projector on the floor. People started taking seats.

She went over to the beverage station and picked up a clean glass and filled it with water. She took a sip. It was cold. Icy cold. Water from one of the most ancient sources in the solar system, purified and possibly for the first time passing through a human being.

Taking her water she turned back to the room, which was almost quiet. Everyone was watching her. She smiled and took another sip, then put the glass down on the front counter.

She folded her hands together around the tablet and looked at the colonists. Men and women, divided by their workalls, with those in black on the left, the greens in the middle toward the back, and the browns on the right. Scientists, environmental and engineering. She recognized faces from the briefing files.

Sean McBain sat surrounded by others she recognized. Asher Thornton, likewise sat surrounded by others in brown workalls, including the team that had pulled her capsule from the ice.

“Good morning,” she said, projecting her voice. “Can you hear me in the back?”

Affirmative shouts from those in green at the back.

She smiled. “Great. Thank you all for taking time out of your busy schedules. I’m Selene Martinez. I know Diaspora sent ahead my information and history, so I’m not going to spend time going into my background in detail. In brief, for the past several years, I’ve directed all Earth-based operations, including the exodus that successfully evacuated our personnel and materials before they could be seized in the illegal actions of the United States and the United Nations.”

The room was quiet now. She had their attention.

“I glad to be here. Jupiter is an exciting, dynamic system, with unlimited potential. I was talking to Asher Thornton yesterday and he brought up the concerns about more exodus personnel joining our ranks. I’ve also heard from some of you about the limits of this facility, and about the potential scientific benefits of exploring Europa. It sounds like we’re at a crossroads.”

She activated her tablet and connected to the holo-projector. With a couple taps she pulled up the simulation that she had developed.

Europa appeared floating on her left. The Galilean satellite was icy and oddly smooth compared to other bodies in the solar system. Darker, reddish lines spread across the surface like lichen. An ice-world, wrapped in ice with obvious signs that the surface had cracked, moved, and refroze over and over. A young surface.

Another tap and Callisto appeared on her right.

In contrast to Europa, Callisto was saturated with craters. It was an ancient surface, unshaped by weather or tectonics. A world hammered for billions of years by debris from the solar system.

“This is the situation we find ourselves in now.” She reached out to the Europa hologram. The world expanded slightly, rotating as she turned her hand. “Europa undoubtedly has an ocean beneath the ice. We’ve dreamed about seeing what’s there. If it wasn’t for Jupiter’s radiation field, it would have been very tempting to set up our colony on Europa. As it is, the field is deadly, and damaging to equipment. It presents a significant challenge to spending time on the moon. Even without that issue, Europa is mostly ice on the surface, perhaps lacking everything that we need to build a successful colony.”

Voices rose out from those in the black workalls. Selene held up a hand. “Please. We’re only beginning.”

Those scientists settled back. Sean was watching her intently, his lips pressed together.

Selene turned to the Callisto hologram. “Instead we’re here. Callisto. A mix of rock and ice, like a dirty slushy. Actually, a good mix of resources for the colony. Mineral resources, volatiles, and water ice. A geologically stable surface, and radiation exposure at tolerable levels. It also has the potential of housing an ocean deep beneath the crust, although the energy potential and the ability to deliver oxygenated material to the ocean is extremely limited. As a potential habitat for life, Callisto doesn’t hold much promise.”

The grumbling from the science-types grew louder.

Selene tapped on the screen. The two moons shrank and moved, speeding away from her as Jupiter moved into view next to her, as tall as her, floating a foot above the floor. The clouds of the gas giant rolled as storms moved across its surface.

“Jupiter. The giant of the solar system.” The clouds moved across the surface. She motioned and the planet shrank down until it was a quarter the size, rotating next to her. More shapes appeared around it.

Rings. Moons multiplied around her. Bright neon blue lines circled each moon and stretched out in orbits around the planet. The lines extended out into the audience, everything moving and spinning like some god’s idea of a clockwork toy.

It was a beautiful, impressive show.

“This is our new home,” Selene said. “Down here, in these quiet halls, it’s easy to sink into work and almost forget that we aren’t sitting on the sharp-edged knife of discovery. There are wonders to discover and to create in equal parts! We need to learn what we can of these worlds, and we need to build a new home for humanity.”

Another gesture and the whizzing system shrank away, tracking one small marble which grew as it moved closer and slowed. Everything else faded away to leave Callisto back hovering in front of her.

“Callisto gives us that chance.” She moved the globe to the side where it floated beside her. “Now it’s up to you. I want cross disciplinary teams to create proposals. Each proposal must address both our long-term existence here, and increase our knowledge of this system. Teams must include members from science, environment and engineering.”

Now many people started talking, shouting out questions. Selene raised a finger and talked right over them.

“This will be a competitive process, with proposals ranked off against one another on an elimination ladder. You will all evaluate the proposals and decide which will advance to the next stage of the ladder. Between each stage there will be a brief opportunity to revise your proposal. This will continue until there is only proposal. There will also be a judging panel of myself, Sean McBain and Asher Thornton to evaluate and oversee the process.”

Selene smiled at the room. “Now, I’ll take your questions.”

8

After the initial question phase, Selene left the colonists to talk about the challenge. She went with Asher and Sean up to her office for a private conversation about her plan. It was the first time she’d set foot inside the office since arriving in the colony.

It was up above the surface, with a view out onto the cratered surface of Callisto. The floor to ceiling windows were dramatic, and a bit terrifying thinking about what would happen if they were broken.

“A corner office with a window, I guess I can’t complain about that,” she said.

She turned away from the window to the two men standing in front of the desk.

“Sit down, gentlemen.”

Both went to the chairs in front of the desk and sat. Sean perched on the edge of his seat while Asher reclined back in the chair.

Selene picked up a clear pitcher filled with freshly filtered Callisto water. “Water?”

Both men shook their heads. She poured herself a glass and then sat down in her chair. She sipped the pure water. It had a fresh mountain spring flavor, probably from primordial minerals. If they could sell it back on Earth they’d probably make a fortune.

“We could have used some warning,” Sean said. “Your proposal tosses out any of the schedules our people were working with.”

Selene put the glass down on the desk, looking at Sean. “Proposal? It isn’t a proposal, it’s what we’re doing.”

Asher’s lips twitched, not quite a smile, but close.

The muscles in Sean’s jaw bunched. “Is that how you run things? By dictating?”

Selene interlaced her hands and leaned forward. “When it’s necessary. And in this case it is. As soon as I landed I heard ideas about what Callisto needed, including from you. This outpost isn’t working together in a unified direction. We have to be in this together, and everyone needs to know what we’re doing.”

“And if none of the plans are realistic, what then?” Asher asked.

“That’s why the three of us are going to evaluate the proposals. We’re not bringing anything onto the ladder that the three of us don’t agree has a chance of working. We’re the oversight.”

Sean glanced at Asher, and back to her. “We’re the oversight?”

“That surprises you?”

Sean shrugged. “Well, yes. I thought with Blackstone herself sending you out here, that she had an agenda.”

“An agenda? Of course she did.” Selene laughed. “Why would you think that there isn’t an agenda?”

“I don’t understand.”

Selene rose and walked around the desk. Both men slid their chairs further back. She leaned on the desk and crossed her ankles. The low gravity made her feel light on her feet, like she could perch that way forever. And behind her? The rugged face of Callisto seen through those windows.

“Blackstone created the Diaspora Group with an agenda. Put people everywhere in the solar system. But she’ll be the first to tell you that she isn’t interested in being some sort of dictator of the solar system.”

Asher coughed. “You sure about that?”

“I am.” Selene smiled. “Diaspora got us started. They got us here, feet on ground. What we do with it now is up to us. We define what the future looks like here. All of us, together. All ideas on the table, live or die on their merits. It’s our future to make, gentlemen. Ours. Of course we also want to keep in mind that there are other worlds out here, opportunities for trade and cooperation. But this is still our home. Now let’s work out some of the details of how we’re going to work together.”

9

When they were gone, with an assignment to draft the key points they wanted to see in proposals, Selene went to the window.

Callisto lay before her. This was home now. L-Town 5 had been special, but temporary. Earth, Earth was her birth place, but the people there had moved against them. Moved against the visionaries that set out to create a new world, more than that, twelve new worlds!

And now Earth was shut out of space. The war for the higher ground was lost as soon as the United States sent the Lincoln against Diaspora Base on the Moon.

With the solar sails, beamed power and resources at its disposal, Diaspora currently had the upper hand. People, that was their most limited resource. All of these worlds needed to expand their population and that’d take time. But it was crucial to their future. Somehow that problem had to get addressed along with everything else.

Selene walked back to her desk and picked up the glass. She took another drink. The water really was fantastic. Too bad that selling it wasn’t an option.

It did raise the question. Everyone in the Diaspora worked without pay right now. Would that continue? If there was an civilization to be built, it made sense that they’d build a new economy. Right now it was enough to get food, air, and healthcare. That’d probably always be fundamental out here. With people being a limited resource, they couldn’t afford to let anyone fall through the cracks. That was true back on Earth too, whether or not they ever realized it.

She crossed her arms, still holding the glass, cold against her arm. She turned it, watching the light refract through the glass.

This was made here, from local materials. The water came from here. It was a perfect example of what they were building. Everything, from the glasses to the very air that they breathed.

Eventually there would be children.

That meant spaces for them, an education plan, and that didn’t even touch on the impacts of low gravity on child development. That was something that was going to be looked at across the solar system. It was only in the cloud habitats on Venus that people lived in an environment truly comparable to Earth. Most of the Diaspora outposts were low gee environments.

Would people thrive in this sort of environment? That was a big question to answer, one that was raised back on Earth by Diaspora’s critics. One answer might be crèche’s to raise children on Venus, rotate pregnant Diaspora colonists to Venus to raise the children there before they moved out to lower gravity environments.

Or, for that matter, the outer gas giants could also house floating environments. Jupiter’s deep gravity well and radiation proposed a problem here, but the other gas giants were less of an issue.

Selene returned to the desk, put down the glass and pulled up her system. There was a lot of work to be done, but a population plan had to figure into any efforts.

10

The morning after the challenge started, Selene woke up to more than a hundred emails in her inbox. She ignored them all, stuffed a clean workall into her duffel along with some other necessities and went in search of the gym. After brushing her teeth to get rid of the tackiness of the night.

It wasn’t hard to find. Sub-level 3, one level below her suite. Again, she was struck by the empty corridors. It was like walking through a ghost town.

According to her files, the gym held a host of exercise equipment and showers. It been her habit to run back on Earth. The time in L-Town 5 and in transit had left her muscles feeling weak. She felt bloated and heavy, and the workalls didn’t fit as well as they had. Zero-gee exercise equipment didn’t quite cut it.

The door hissed open and she went on in, expecting to see someone inside. The place was quiet. Selene stopped.

Three treadmills, a couple exercise bikes and two rowing machines. Some free weights. All of it made from the same dark materials as the rest of the base. Locally-built, then, produced on the same printers as the rest of the base structure.

And no one was using it? It didn’t smell like a gym. It was more like an empty store room, like someone had put the equipment here and then forgotten about it.

Maybe that was another issue she needed to address.

The door slid open behind her. Selene turned around, as Asher Thornton walked through door. He was wearing brown shorts and a plain green t-shirt. His head was down but he looked up and stopped in his tracks when he saw her.

“Good morning,” she said brightly. She gestured at the equipment. “I was just trying to decide what to use? What do you use?”

Asher shook his head. “None of it.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Then what are you doing?”

He nodded, his eyes flicking across the room. “Going for a run.”

She looked where he indicated. A door, across the gym, between the exercise bikes and the treadmills. Unmarked, whereas the door to the showers had a white-lettered sign. Come to think of it, she didn’t remember the door on the map that she had pulled up.

“What’s that?”

“Perimeter corridor,” Asher said. “Spirals around the base. I like to run it.”

“That sounds better than a treadmill. Mind some company?”

He shook his head, gestured. “After you.”

Selene grinned. “Okay. Let’s go!”

The door opened onto a narrow corridor with pipes along the ceiling and walls. A light came on, dim, filling the space with a white glow. It was dark ahead and behind.

She moved aside as Asher stepped inside. “Which way?”

The corridor was very narrow. Asher moved up, facing her from inches way. He was taller, by a few inches. His shirt looked like it was poured on over his well-defined chest. His arms were massive, with thick biceps. His feet, bare.

He pointed at the darkness ahead. “That way. I’ll go first. Try to keep up, watch your head and be ready to move. There are obstacles.”

“Ready when you are,” Selene said.

Asher started running and she followed. He moved well, like he was gliding across the floor. As he slipped into the dark, another light came on ahead.

Running was like flying. She found herself leaning forward, feet hardly even touching the ground. Asher’s bare feet hardly made any sound at all. He was moving fast, easily, and Selene stayed behind him.

The first few minutes flew by in a flash. The corridor continued up, bearing slightly to the right as they spiraled around the base. Now and then she stepped wrong, pushing off too much, and bounded into the air. One of the times her hair brushed the ceiling.

That was alarming. If she hit her head, it would still hurt at these speeds. She concentrated on keeping her steps light, barely kissing the ground and chased after Asher.

Running through the tunnels was fun. Fun in a way that she hadn’t experienced in months. During the time leading up to the Exodus, running was a scheduled chore. It was something that she did so that she could keep doing everything else, and yet she begrudged the time it took.

Her breath flowed in and out. Moving seemed easy. The lower gravity, certainly. What an amazing feeling? Here was another possibility for the chronically Earth-bound: Take a vacation on a lower gravity world and move the way you haven’t since you were a child.

Asher jumped, diving forward over a pipe that made an abrupt ninety-degree turn across the corridor.

Her mind didn’t have time to make a decision. She reacted, rolling forward, beneath the pipe. Then she was up and chasing after Asher again.

Her laughter echoed down the corridor.

She pushed harder as her comfort with the stride increased. Her up and down vertical motion dropped in favor of a smooth stride that carried her forward. Bulkheads and emergency hatches created minor obstacles, a small hop and tuck through before continuing.

More obstacles appeared in the corridor. Pipes crossed the space. Cables hung in low arcs from the ceiling. Asher flowed over most lower obstacles, striding over them with the grace of an experienced hurdler. He was a like a deer at home in the forest.

Selene couldn’t match that, not yet. She vaulted several, though, using her hands to help move her forward. Momentum helped make it feel more like moving in zero-gee again. Except on the other side gravity pulled her back down.

The corridor spiraled all the way up until it ended at another hatch and bulkhead. Asher stopped and turned. He stretched one leg up behind, clasping the ankle as she closed the distance.

“So?”

She grinned as she came to a stop and caught her breath. “Amazing. Thank you.”

“We’re not done yet.” Asher gestured back down the corridor. “Now we have to run back. You lead this time.”

“Oh,” Selene laughed. “I’d hold you up.”

“You kept up this far,” he said. “I think you can manage.”

“Okay. You’re on.”

Selene turned and did a quick stretch to each side.

As she took off running, Asher said, “Now I get the view.”

In response she put on more speed. Each foot fall took forever as she glided forward down the corridor. The walls passed in a blur of conduits and piping. These corridors were part of the circulatory system of the entire base. A view of what went on behind the scenes.

Her lungs burned with the effort. All those weeks of inactivity were catching up to her. Her legs burned too, but she pushed on. Her thoughts drifted. All of the challenges that they faced, at the moment she couldn’t do anything about them. Nothing except keeping her legs moving.

Even Asher ceased to matter. His breathing kept her company, but as a distant point of interest. He didn’t talk. He didn’t disturb her, and she appreciated that. She existed in the moment, avoiding obstacles that rose out of the darkness between the lights that tracked their progress. She vaulted some, dove under others, and kept moving.

“Stop,” Asher said behind her.

It took a moment for his word to catch up to her brain, and she slowed to a stop, in the darkness between the lights. She turned.

He stood in the corridor, hands on his hips.

“What’s wrong?” She asked. “Can’t keep up?”

Asher shook his head, breathing hard, and pointed at the door she had passed. “The gym? Showers.”

She turned, looking into the dark corridor ahead. “What’s down there?”

“It doesn’t go far,” Asher said. “We’re at level three, there’s only two more down. It ends at the bottom.”

“Do you ever go down there?”

“Sometimes,” he said. “I’ll run down there at the start, then up to the top and back to here.”

She waved. “Okay, then. I’ll go down, turn around and come back up. Are you coming?”

“I think I’ll catch the shower.”

“Okay. See you later.”

She didn’t wait for him to say anything else. She turned and ran ahead. The lights came on for her and she tucked through the next bulkhead and went on down.

11

An hour later, Selene was back in her office reviewing the original plans for the base. It wasn’t only the skyhook that hadn’t been built. There were larger facilities planned. Residential, agricultural and industrial expansions planned with the increased resources coming in from the mining operations.

Operations that were only at a quarter of the estimated level.

Her door chimed.

“Come in,” she said.

The door slid open and three people entered, two men and one woman. One of them was Sean McBain. The other two she recognized from their files.

The woman, Dr. Rachel Jong. Geneticist, with a specialization in Xeno-genetics. Young, beautiful, her features a blend of her mother’s Korean heritage and her father’s Anglo-Saxon background. She was thin and short, much like Selene herself. Her black workall was neat and unwrinkled, and modified to fit better and flare out at the legs. Her feet were bare, toenails a fetching green that matched her fingernails.

Coming in last, was the oldest member of the group. Dr. Paul Nash. Distinguished, chiseled features, graying hair, he walked with an almost military stiffness and work his black workall as if it was a uniform. Like Jong, Nash was a scientist, with a background in evolutionary biology, chemistry and geology.

Selene rose and nodded. “Welcome. Dr. Jong. Dr. Nash. Dr. McBain, it’s good to see all of you. Please, have a seat.”

“Thank you,” Jong said. She took the closest chair.

Nash took the other and Sean pulled over a third chair near the desk. Selene sat back down and folded her hands together.

“What can I do for you?”

“Our science departments asked us to talk to you about the challenge,” Sean said. “I explained your position, but they’d like an opportunity to address this directly.”

“Of course,” Selene said. “I’m happy to hear what you have to say.”

Nash spoke up. “This challenge, it’s disrupting our work, and leads us in an unproductive direction. How long will this take? How much time will be lost?”

“When Diaspora let us know you were coming, we hoped it would free up support for our Europa plans,” Jong said. “We have put a lot of work into the exploration plans, but engineering and facilities consistently stalls and delays any progress on their side of the work. We had thought you might break the stalemate.”

Selene nodded. “And you don’t think that this challenge does that?”

“It does,” Sean said. “But we’re concerned that it raises the hopes of the other departments that our focus might shift in a different direction.”

“It might,” Selene said.

Jong glanced at the others. “Excuse me, but we’ve been working on this —”

“I’m aware of the work you’ve done,” Selene said. “I’ve read the reports. It’s fantastic work, it is. When we’re ready for the exploration of Europa, it’ll be extremely beneficial.”

“We’re ready now!” Nash said. “We should already have the first wave of landers on the surface. I didn’t come all this way to sit on my hands.”

“Good, because we’re going to need everyone working on this challenge.”

Nash’s neck flushed. Jong looked like she had just sucked on a lemon. Sean shook his head he opened his mouth and Selene held up a finger.

“No,” Sean said. “I won’t be quiet right now. Too much is at stake here. We’ve had these questions for too long, and we’re too close right now to stop now. Europa has to be on the table with any plan that moves forward. It has to be our primary focus.”

Selene smiled. “Or?”

“There’s no or,” Sean said. “I’m letting you know how our departments will vote. No plan without Europa as the primary focus will get the votes to move forward.”

This couldn’t degenerate into an ultimatum debate or it’d go nowhere. And what could she do without them?

Just about anything, actually. The other departments included manufacturing, life support, and every other vital system. They still didn’t get the big picture.

“I see. How many lives are you willing to sacrifice for that goal?”

Jong’s eyes flew wide. Nash sputtered. Sean settled back and crossed his arms. “We’re not sacrificing anyone’s lives.”

She rose and looked down at them. “Aren’t you? You know that there are people on their way here right now. Have you figured what it costs to support them?”

“No, that’s not my department,” Sean said.

“That’s right. It’s not. So when I have to prioritize, you’re telling me that your Europa plans are your primary goal. We’re not going to get there without everyone working on it, so what happens to those new colonists when they get here? Where do they live? Will we have enough air? Food? Water? What if we’re not up to speed in time?”

“That’s not our responsibility!” Nash said.

“No? If you take resources to build your Europa plan and it means we run short, that’s not your responsibility? Cold equations, folks, if we don’t have the capacity we need, what am I supposed to do? Shove the excess people out the airlock?”

Nash shot to his feet. “That’s offensive! I don’t —”

He was taller, but Selene faced him anyway. “Right. You don’t. You don’t come in here and dictate to me. You don’t set policy, Dr. Nash. None of you do. You will each serve on teams, as directed. Feel free to present your arguments, and put forth your proposals. If they meet all of our requirements then they’ll move forward. That includes supporting our population both now and in the long-term.”

Dr. Jong rose. “We only wanted to stress the importance of getting to Europa. The questions have been unanswered for so long.”

Selene glanced at her. “Is something about to happen to Europa?”

“Uh, no.”

“Then it’ll keep, Dr. Jong. I’m as curious as any of you. Like you, I’m dying to know what secrets Europa holds. I share your frustration. We’ll find out what’s under the ice, I have no doubt of that. But we do it together, and we do it right.”

Jong nodded. “Thank you.”

Nash started to open his mouth, closed it and followed Jong to the door. Sean started to follow.

“Sean.”

He stopped. The others hesitated and he waved them on, the came back. He shrugged. “I felt obligated to present their concerns.”

“I can’t have you delivering ultimatums, Sean. Give the process a chance. We need everyone working together to find a balanced plan.”

“A balanced plan? What does that mean?”

“One that keeps us alive and growing and learning at the same time,” Selene said. “Do you disagree with any of that?”

He was quiet for a moment, then shook his head. “No. If it’s balanced, that’s one thing. If exploration gets shelved, then that’s another. There’s no point to be out here otherwise.”

She could disagree with him on that, but bit her tongue. Exploration would happen whether they wanted to do it or not. As they grew they’d have to learn about these worlds. These people still didn’t realize that they didn’t have a whole planetary civilization backing them up.

“Sean, did you ever play the deserted island game?”

He shook his head. “I don’t understand.”

She walked toward the windows. Outside the crater landscape was unchanged. It’d stay that way for billions of years longer if humans didn’t change it.

“If you could have three things on a deserted island, what would it be?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “Most people pick a favorite book, or other items. I always want to answer food, water and shelter. Without those, I wouldn’t survive.”

“You’re saying we’re on a deserted island.”

She gestured at the window. “We are! We’re not on Earth, surrounded by billions of other people. There are sixty-three of us in a tiny habitat on this moon. No one can get here fast enough to save us if anything goes seriously wrong. We’re on our own in every significant way. I need your help, not your ultimatums.”

“I have to do what I think is right,” Sean said.

That wasn’t the answer she wanted. “Fine. Bring me your requirements when they’re ready, and keep your people on the program. Can you do that much?”

“At this point, yes. I can.”

“Thank you.” Selene reached out and touched the glass. It didn’t feel cold. It should feel cold.

She heard the door close behind her.

He was gone. She shouldn’t expect to come into the new position and not face challenges. People never made it that easy.

She went back to her desk and ran a quick search to pull up the data they had on Europa. Whatever they came up with, she needed at least enough understanding to know what was involved.

11

Over the next few days Selene proposals started to roll in across the network. The first were too brief, too sketchy and not balanced. She’d set up the system to require approval by all three of the judges, so those were easy to bounce back right away.

The proposals didn’t need to be complete, it was too early to get into the tiny details, but the broad strokes needed to be there. She also rejected proposals that didn’t have the names of people from all departments. Word got out quickly.

When she wasn’t busy evaluating the proposals, there was plenty of other work to get to seeing that the base was running well, and to get ready for the influx of new colonists. That was something they couldn’t delay. Lives were at stake there.

And she took time to run. The first few times she anticipated seeing Asher in the access passage, but he wasn’t there. Either he wasn’t running it anymore, or he was picking times when he knew he wouldn’t run into her.

By the second week, genuine proposals started coming in from the mixed teams. Soon enough, there was a half-dozen proposals in the queue with preliminary approval. It was time for the judges to meet. Selene set up the meeting in her office again.

12

Her door chimed. Selene looked at the time. Ten minutes before the appointment. She stood up. “Come in?”

The door slid open. Asher Thornton was there. He came in. He’d shaved, and his bare jaw was nearly unrecognizable. It looked good. His workall was clean, ironed even. On the whole he looked very neat, and presentable.

She was glad that she’d chosen to wear her dress again for the meeting.

Selene closed the distance between them and held out her hand. “Asher, it’s good to see you again. I’ve been down in the tunnel a few times running, I thought we might have another run again.”

She hadn’t planned on saying that, it just came out.

He took her hand. His was warm, strong and callused. His thumb slid lightly across the back of her hand before he let go.

“That’d be nice, sometime,” he said. “I hope you don’t mind my showing up early? I wanted a word before we started.”

“Of course. Do you want to take a seat? Anything I can get you to drink?”

Asher shook his head. “I’m fine. Look, I wanted to say I was wrong about your plan.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“Yes. I thought it might work, make people realize what was important, but I was wrong. They’re treating it like some sort of magic wish!”

That wasn’t the response she’d expected. Until now it had sounded like Asher was her one ally in all of this. “You passed the proposals on for our preliminary discussion.”

“Because we need to scrap the whole thing,” Asher said. “These people don’t have any idea what they’re doing!”

“They must have some idea. Diaspora recruited smart people.”

“Even smart people can be stupid,” Asher said.

It felt very pointed. Selene took a breath and let it out. She made herself smile, even if it didn’t reach her eyes. “When Sean gets here we’ll go through the proposals, and you’re free to raise any of the flaws that you see. We’re not passing anything on without our approval.”

“And while we’re doing that, I’ve got jobs piling up! This isn’t an easy, safe environment. I need people doing their jobs, not spending all their time working on the proposals.”

Selene said, “You’re right, critical maintenance needs to be done. In a hazardous environment we can’t be too careful. Do you need more personnel?”

“Where are we going to get them?”

“Anywhere we can. We’ve got over sixty people here, and I assume they all want to keep breathing. I don’t think anyone wants to die of thirst.” Selene reached out and touched Asher’s arm. “Work with me. Right now we need to keep things running, and we need to identify the best path forward. I’m not going to pretend that I know enough about all of the angles to determine that myself. I need everyone’s help.”

“The science departments aren’t going to like it.”

“Tough,” Selene said. “Those are the priorities. When Sean gets here we’ll talk to him and then we’ll let everyone know. I’m going to need a prioritized list of assignments from you. We’ll work on assigning personnel.”

The door chimed.

“Perfect timing,” Selene said. “Come in!”

The door slid open and Sean walked in. He stopped when he saw them both.

“Did you start without me?”

Selene smiled and walked to him, offering him her hand. They shook. His touch was firm and held her hand tight for a fraction of a second longer than necessary. Interesting.

“We were talking about the base maintenance. The work people are putting in on the proposals is impacting our ability to maintain the infrastructure. We need to reassign personnel.”

Sean stepped around her, staring down at Asher. He had at least three inches on Asher, but Asher looked right back at him. No backing down. It was turning in an instant into some sort of testosterone-fueled display.

Selene stepped between them, planting her hands firmly on their chests. Both strong, hard chests, although Asher had more definition. Distracting, and irrelevant right now.

“Stop it,” she said. “Sean, you want to keep breathing don’t you?”

“It’s his department to see that we do.”

“We all have a responsibility to keep this base functional,” Selene said. “Everyone may have their focus, but there are general things that we can all do to keep this place running and make it habitable.”

Sean took a step back and the tension eased. “You’re talking about scientists here, they don’t necessarily have the skills to do engineering work.”

“I’m glad to hear someone admit it,” Asher said.

“They’re intelligent. Asher’s going to help us come up with ways everyone can pitch in. We have to work together. It isn’t going to get easier. We’ve got more colonists coming, so we have to get ready for them, but they’ll also increase our workforce. Which means we might have the people to carry out our other plans.”

“Which are?” Sean asked.

“That’s what the ladder will help us identify. Now, come on. Let’s sit down and review what we have, and come up with a plan for maintenance. Okay?”

“Fine by me,” Asher said. He went over to one of the chairs beside her desk.

Sean didn’t say anything, but followed.

13

After three hours of reviewing proposals, work schedules, and maintenance needs, Selene had to get up and move. She put aside her tablet and stood, stretching, and looked at the two men.

“I could use a break,” she said. “How about we reconvene in an hour?”

Sean stood up quickly. “Sounds good. Join me in the cafeteria?”

Tempting, but right now she didn’t feel like eating. She wanted to stretch her muscles, to move. All this sitting was getting to her.

“I’ll grab a snack later. Right now I just want to stretch my legs. Rain check?”

“Sure,” Sean said.

He took a half-step, hesitated, then left without saying anything.

Asher stood. “Are you still interested in that run?”

A run sounded fantastic, but if accepting implied something more, that wasn’t a good idea. Not right now. Not with the whole process in the balance still. If she started a relationship with anyone, it could be misconstrued in the process.

“A rain check,” she said. She smiled, but damn, it would have been nice to run! “I think I’ll take a walk around and just say hello to folks.”

“They’ll try to sell you on their proposals.”

She shrugged. “That’s fine. I don’t want to be isolated from everyone. This is a small community. I plan to meet everyone.”

“Okay. I’ll get busy on these assignments we agreed to, start getting our maintenance back on track.”

“Thank you,” she said.

Asher walked out. He moved like someone comfortable with himself and his environment. It was the same as it’d been in the access tunnel, during their run. He moved easily with the low gravity.

After he left, Selene went out herself. She didn’t have a destination in mind, she just wanted to see other people. She wandered the empty corridors for a few minutes, working her way down. A door opened ahead and a young woman in a black workall came out.

She was a brunette, taller than Selene, and looked quickly away rather than meet Selene’s eyes. In her arm, she carried a tablet. In that glimpse of her face, Selene saw reddened lids and the wet shine of tears on her cheek. Before the woman could pass, Selene reached out and touched her arm.

“Excuse me, are you okay?” Seeing the woman’s round face, Selene searched her memory of the personnel files. “Kathryn, isn’t it?”

A sniffle and a nod. “You know who I am?”

“Dr. Kathryn Fields, you’re a medical doctor, right?”

“Yes, part of the medical staff.”

“Do you want to tell me what’s wrong?”

“I’ve just been told that I have to stop my bone density studies, to take on work on the atmospheric processing system.”

Oh. Selene nodded. “I understand that it’s difficult —”

“What’s the point? I’ve put months into this study, and all of that is going to be lost. We need to know what impact this environment is having on our bodies. If I break off the study now we’re going to lose all of that data!”

That didn’t sound good. Asher had moved fast to issue the new assignments.

“I know. It sucks,” Selene said.

A surprised laugh popped from Kathryn’s mouth.

Selene shrugged. “Well? It does. I hate to have to do this. We’ve got new colonists on the way. They’re packed into small transports and are going to need care when they get here. We have to scale up to handle the new population. That means air, water, heat, food, all of it has to be in place or we face even worse conditions.”

Kathryn bit her lip, and gave a small nod.

“We’ll get you back to your research as soon as we can,” Selene said. “When the new colonists get here, that’s going to help us in return by expanding our workforce.”

“I get it,” Kathryn said. She sighed. “But it does suck.”

“Hang in there. We’ll get through this together.”

“Thank you,” Kathryn said. “I’d better go report for duty.”

Kathryn moved past and Selene continued her walk. She needed to do this, needed to meet with everyone individually. It’d take time, but she had to take it.

14

The first round of proposals didn’t work for anyone. Twelve proposals, of which five were focused on Europa to the exclusion of everything else. Well, nearly so. There was basic attention given to the base, but with unrealistic expectations on what could be done with the resources allocated.

Others swung heavily the other way, with little to no exploration. The teams weren’t as cross-departmental as she had wanted. A few went in other directions, including one that suggested that a Callisto-stationary habitat, similar to what was at Ceres, was the way to go.

None struck Selene as the solution, but it was early yet. She’d expected the initial proposals all to have issues.

Selene called Sean and Asher back into her office and laid out the problems.

“What do you want us to do?” Sean asked. “Is this just a fishing explanation to come up with whatever you already have on your mind? Maybe you’d better just tell us what you want?”

“Only two of these plans even deal with the new arrivals in any meaningful way,” Asher said.

“And they also call for no exploration of Europa!” Sean rose from his chair and ran his hands through his hair. “Look, you can’t expect us to wait generations to explore Europa!”

Selene placed her hands on the desk. “This is simple. We start the ladder. That’s the point of it, to get everyone having this same discussion. We start the ladder, and develop from there.”

With a flick of her finger a holographic screen sprang up between them, with graphics of each team surrounding their proposal.

“This is my suggestions for the match-ups. It groups similar proposals with similar proposals, a gradient across the submissions.”

Sean pointed at the display. “I can see what’s going to happen. The pro-Europa side will end up against the opposite side in the end.”

“True,” Asher said. “After they have been refined. Right? Aren’t we giving them a chance to revise the proposals between each tier?”

Bless him. “Yes. That’s right. Each winning team has the opportunity to respond to feedback on their proposal, and incorporate revisions.”

Asher settled back. “So what you’re saying is that we’re going to do it all in the end.”

“How do you figure?” Sean asked.

Asher gestured. “Think about it. After the first tier, we’re going to have plans from both sides competing against one another. To move forward both sides will have to incorporate features of the others.”

Asher tilted his head, smiling at Selene. “Like running an obstacle course, they’ll have to adapt. It’s a great strategy.”

She inclined her head. “Thank you. Let’s hope that it works. Gentlemen, I want to see us succeed. We should be the crown jewel of the solar system, the hub of everything that’s exciting. We can’t do that without a thriving population, and a thriving plan of exploration.”

“I hope you’re right,” Sean said. He grinned and rubbed his jaw. “Let’s hope that everyone comes around.”

“They will,” Selene said. “Everyone will see that.”

15

Selene lifted her head and looked out at Callisto’s battered terrain outside. She’d moved her desk around to let her see the view. It was better than sitting with her back to it.

She was reviewing the results of the ladder competition before the final results came in to electrify the rest of the solar system. It was the one detail that she hadn’t brought up with the rest of the judging panel. She filed regular reports with Diaspora, including the details on the ladder competition.

The competition had fired the imaginations of people across the solar system. A growing amount of email from the rest of Diaspora was commentary and suggestions for the teams. Betting on the outcome was quickly a popular past-time. Blackstone even reported that the competition had gotten a lot of press down on Earth.

She flicked through the first screen, reviewing the sequence.

In the first round, the number of proposals was cut down to six. Four of the Europa-heavy proposals remained and the two strongest Callisto-heavy proposals. The unique idea of doing a new habitat modeled after Ceres’ was discarded. Rightly, Selene judged, since they didn’t have the time or resources to start over from scratch.

In the second round there was, predictably, the two top Europa-focused proposals and the strongest Callisto focus. But by that point the lines were already blurring. The Callisto project called for the building of the sky hook, and the expansion of the base, but also included a deep ice exploration of Callisto in preparation for exploring Europa. It made the strong argument to learn as much about the technology here, close at hand before trying something remotely. Particularly with the higher probability of life on Europa.

And who wouldn’t want to know if there was a biosphere beneath their feet?

Both of the Europa-focused proposals remaining included provisions to deal with the expanding population of the base, but neither one called for the skyhook to be built. Everything was focused on launch vehicles instead. The crucial difference was that one of the proposals actually called for a manned exploration of Europa. It was Sean’s pick, creating a radiation-shielded lander that would protect the crew long enough to burrow into the ice deep enough to avoid the radiation. There was still a risk of dangerous exposure, but the plan was to create a second outpost on Europa, deep in the ice with access to the ocean below. Long-term it conjured images of submersibles diving into that dark ocean, discovering a rich biota.

The other Europa proposal was a more modest program of escalating landers and orbiters to explore the icy moon while taking extra care to avoid contaminating the moon with possible Terran-organisms.

She grinned. All of the proposals were exciting and interesting.

Since they were down to three proposals at that point there was an elimination tier to discard one of the proposals. Betting had been fierce, with many vocal proponents.

In the end, the manned exploration of Europa emerged triumphant. Sean had a point. It was daring, exciting, and worth pursuing.

That came down to the final round between the Callisto and Europa viewpoints. And now it was time. It was like coming in to land that first day out on the ice. Today would decide the direction they were going and the entire solar system was watching.

She stood up, swiping her data onto her tablet. She turned and walked to the door. Today she wore a snow white workall, new undyed fabric from the manufacturing division. She’d ordered all new workalls for everyone. No more black and brown and green. Each workall had a swirling red logo on one shoulder, signifying Jupiter, with the planetary symbol overlaid on that background. On the other shoulder was the Diaspora logo.

Outside her office the new planters along the walls were filled with fresh young plants, reaching up eagerly to the new bright daylight fixtures above. It made the whole place brighter and more alive, banishing the mausoleum feeling the place used to have. She wasn’t leaving everything up to the proposals.

A flash of white ahead showed someone else walking her way. Selene picked up the pace and recognized the broad shoulders and dark hair filling the new workall.

“Asher!”

He turned. His bright blue eyes caught hers. He gestured to his workall. “You do know how this is going to get dirty quickly, right?”

She caught his arm, and tucked her through his. “They’ll wash. And we need this. A fresh start, no color-coding people.”

“You’ll be able to tell,” Asher said as they started walking. “It’ll be obvious who gets their hands dirty and who doesn’t.”

“Maybe. But it is still a reminder. The new auditorium looks fantastic, thank you.”

“It was a lot of people working on it.”

She laughed. “You won’t take a complement, will you?”

The auditorium was amazing. They needed a place better than the cafeteria to hold large group meetings. This new theater-style auditorium could hold up to two hundred people. They’d be there before long, but it was a start at least. The second auditorium was already planned, for a later date.

She entered with Asher on the lower level, passing through the corridor to come out at the left side of the stage. As a backdrop, they had a massive geodesic dome looking out on Callisto’s cratered terrain. It was an amazing space, with tiers of seating, large areas of grass and trees planted around the stage to combine a park-like feeling to the meeting space. It, and the planters throughout the base, had been borrowed from designs created on Mars. But here, with the airless environment outside, the gray-white rocks and ice, the green stood out against it all.

Selene took the center stage, where Sean already waited. Asher joined her. The three of them faced their people, who were quickly taking seats in front of them. The divisions were gone. It wasn’t just the sea of white workalls, but the way the people were talking to one another. As they settled in, Selene moved forward.

She spread her hands as the last of them took their seats. Silence fell.

Selene lowered the tablet and her fingers danced across the screen. The ladder display sprang up, filling the space above her and the other judges with two sets of images from the proposals. A music score played quietly in the background with soft violins. Europa hung at the center of one display, and Callisto at the other, but in both the other moon was present.

In launching the display, she had also started the live broadcast to the rest of the solar system. The time lag didn’t give them instant communication from Diaspora or the other planets, this was one way only but intimidating to know that right now she was addressing not only the colonists here but the entire solar system.

“Good afternoon to those of you here with me on Callisto. I’m Selene Martinez, with me are Asher Thornton and Sean McBain.”

Selene put her hands behind her back, holding the tablet. “We’ve had an exciting time here on Callisto, and I want to thank all of you for the work you’ve done. And I’d like to thank all of the other Diaspora colonists throughout the solar system for your interest and feedback in our process here. Particularly, I want to thank Terra Blackstone, for her ongoing inspiration and support.”

The audience clapped loudly and she waited for them to quiet again.

“We’re at the final moment now. We have two solid plans of action outlined. We’ll continue to find new details as we pursue these plans, but one of these will set the direction for the future of the Jupiter system. Either way, I think we’ve learned a great deal through this process and I appreciate the hard work that went not only into these proposals, but into the ongoing growth of the Callisto base. This beautiful auditorium is an example of what is accomplished when hard-working people work together to achieve our dreams.”

More clapping and she laughed, smiling, and raised one hand.

“I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. Everyone here has already voted. Let’s reveal the results.”

Selene brought forward her tablet again and entered the passcode to unlock the results.

Numbers appeared beneath each proposal and started counting quickly. The numbers raced forward, initially higher on the Europa mission and then the Callisto focused proposal caught up and passed the other. Then it was done.

Thirty-eight for the Callisto-focused proposal and twenty-five for the Europa proposal. Above her head, the Europa proposal material moved, with the Callisto images coming forward and the Europa images moving around behind.

Selene walked forward and pointed up at the display. “We have our direction. Expansion of Callisto, the construction of the skyhook, and the exploration of Callisto’s own hidden oceans along with unmanned research into the other Galilean satellites and the rest of the Jupiter system.”

She shook her head. “That’s a lot, but notice that the Europa plan isn’t gone. It isn’t in the forefront right now, but we won’t forget it. The work we do here, and the work done by the unmanned probes throughout this system will set a solid stage for our visits to Europa and the rest of the Jupiter system. The bulk of the solar systems resources exist right here, around Jupiter. We will grow from sixty-three, to hundreds, to thousands, millions and eventually billions of people.”

She faced the audience. “Thank you all. The seed you’ve planted today will take root and grow into a massive new tree of humanity, one of the many seeds sown by Diaspora throughout the solar system. And one day, even beyond. Thank you. Let’s get to work!”

Cheers and clapping. Everyone in the audience rose to their feet. If there was anyone disappointed, it didn’t show, thankfully. She had been confident that the mood in the colony had changed, but there’d still been that thread of doubt.

Sean and Asher came forward. Sean held out his hand. She shook and he leaned close.

“One of these days I’m going to visit Europa’s oceans,” he said.

She smiled at him. “I think you will.”

He nodded and moved off.

Asher took his place, and her hand between his. “You were great. We would have probably ended up being the greatest tragedy of the solar system if you hadn’t come along.”

Selene shook her head. “I doubt it.”

“I don’t know.” He moved closer and touched her arm. “People can work really hard and still not get anywhere. They need good leaders, like you.”

“Thank you.” She winked. “Are we still on for dinner?”

“Yes, it’s my pleasure.”

“Good. I’ll see you at eight.”

Everyone was coming down the steps now and Asher nodded, moving off with the same easy grace he showed running in the tunnels.

She looked forward to getting to know him better.

Then she turned to greet everyone else.

16

Back in her quarters after the reception and the questions, to get ready for her dinner with Asher, her system rang with a message.

Selene activated it when she saw that it was from Blackstone herself.

The system projected out a hologram of Terra Blackstone, looking just as she had when she’d visited L-Town 5. Blackstone smiled and looked right at Selene, chillingly like she was right there in the room.

“You did a fabulous job, Selene. You’ve got the whole system talking about the plans now for Jupiter. I’m going to send two more transports, another hundred Exodus personnel to you.”

“We can’t take that many,” Selene blurted out. How could they house that many more?

“I’m confident you can,” Blackstone said. “You’re growth plans are limited primarily by the available personnel, these will help you reach your goals sooner.”

“It’s too bad you can’t hear me,” Selene grumped.

Blackstone laughed. Chilling, that she could predict Selene’s responses so well.

“I’m not guessing at your responses, Selene.” Blackstone winked. “It’s our new communications net. What do you think? Real-time, instantaneous communication. Opens up a lot of possibilities, don’t you think?”

“Wait, you’re serious? You can really hear me?”

The Blackstone hologram walked around the room, looking around at it. “I love that you borrowed the environmental designs from Mars. We need plants around us to be healthy. And yes, I can really hear you.”

“How is that possible? How does it work?”

Blackstone laced her hands together. “I’ll download all the specs to your system. You’ll want to build an initiator right away. Without it, you can only receive communication, you can’t place a call yourself. And we want our networks interlinked. That’s another job for you.”

Amazing. Mind-blowing. It’d change everything. “We’ll get right on it.”

“I know.” Blackstone’s smile faded. “And there’s one other thing. While you’re building your new future I want you to keep an eye out for something they found out at Saturn. We’re not saying anything about it right now, check the secure files I’ve coded to your system.”

“Okay.”

“Now that we’ve got a solid communication plan, we’ll be talking much more often. For now,” Blackstone winked. “I’ll let you finish getting ready for your date.”

The hologram blinked out.

Selene took a breath. Wow. Blackstone never let up. Now that she’d gotten the colony on track, she had naively thought that they might be settling into a path. It didn’t look like that was going to happen.

She picked up a tablet and flipped through her system. The new files Blackstone had sent pulsed for her attention. Her finger hovered over them, and then she put the tablet aside instead.

Blackstone was right. She did have a date to get ready for, and she was going to enjoy tonight before she tackled the next challenge.

15,101 words

Author’s Note

This story marks the 6th weekly short story release, and the 6th Planetary Bodies story. Jupiter and its moons represent one of the most exciting and fascinating destinations in the solar system. I can’t wait to see what our next mission to the Jovian system reveals.

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 Saturn Reaching.