Everything for a Chance

A young artist with big dreams, Brant Lloyd heads to the city after graduation, putting everything on the line for his dreams.

The Museum of Art, his teacher. The city, his inspiration. The girl, his future?

A story of unexpected meetings and dreams.

Brant Lloyd got off the train in the city with twenty dollars in his wallet and his most prized possession — his membership card to the Museum of Art. The orange backpack he carried held the rest of his belongings, a moleskin notebook, pencils, a change of underwear, a clean black t-shirt, eraser, pencil sharpener and a pre-paid Visa loaded with his summer savings — a grand total of $2,323.15.

At eighteen, he was undaunted. The city was his future. He felt it in his bones, had felt it since he first took a school field trip to the Museum of Art. There, in that massive edifice of marble, were paintings from around the world. Some very old, but others new. Paintings created by men and women by hand, not on a computer, but with real brushes and paints. It was a light bulb moment for Brant, when his doodles took on more importance, and a concrete reality. That’s what he wanted to do with his life, create works of art that people would still be talking about a century or more after he was gone.

Going to the local community college, the way his parents wanted, was unthinkable. He had to be in the city. They said they couldn’t afford to pay for him to live in the city. Fine, then he’d go on his own. He could make it work. He’d find ways to make money, and spend his days in the museum studying the work of the great artists.

Walking down the street, engulfed in the mass of humanity around him, Brant was happier than he’d ever been. He was doing it! He knew the way to the museum, he’d memorized the layout of the city before he had left home.

He imagined is mother finding the note he had left on the dining room table. She’d pick it up, seeing the ink and watercolor he’d done of a single rose on the front, with a smile. She wouldn’t really notice the petals that had fallen, not until she turned to the inside and saw the rest and his message.

Don’t be scared, he wrote. I’ll be okay. I can take care of myself now. I’ll write as often as I can.

Letters were cheaper than cell phones, and meant a lot more. He liked writing letters. He was the only one in his graduating class that could write cursive. Everyone else was too busy sending text messages, or emails.

He could have taken the subway but he wanted to save his money, make it last as long as possible. And why hurry? He got to see the city this way. All the masses of people, the sound of the traffic, car horns and sirens. He drank in the sights of the massive buildings rising overhead, but tried not to act too much like a tourist. He wanted to blend in, become invisible. His fingers itched to stop and draw everything he saw.

Instead he pressed on. He wanted to visit the museum first.

The main lobby echoed with the voices of everyone visiting the museum. Their voices soared up to the arched ceiling far above. Brant moved out of the main flow going in and out of the entrances.

His stomach was full of the hot dog he’d gotten from one of the carts outside. He gazed around the space and felt as if he had finally come home. It was here that he would develop his skills. He’d fill the pages of his sketch book during the day, studying. He’d roam the city to practice on portraits. Tourists would pay to have their portraits done. He could do landscapes in the park. Or images of the city overgrown and forgotten. The possibilities were endless.

He turned in place, drinking it all in, and then he saw her at the octagonal information desk in the middle of the space. She was young, his age or not much older. Her blond hair was straight, cut short, ending just above her neck. She was helping three older women, leaning over to point out information in a brochure. She wore two small pearl earrings and her fine features gave her an almost elfin look. She was dressed in a suit, complete with tie and vest.

His fingers itched for the pencil. He wanted to capture her right in that moment. He reached into his backpack, and pulled out his sketchbook and pencil. He flipped it open to a blank page and looked up.

Right at that moment she raised her eyes and met his. She smiled, a friendly, open expression, for only a moment, and then she returned her attention to the women she was helping.

Brant’s pencil danced across the page. He threw down lines, trying to capture the gestures of the scene at the desk. Loose, quick lines flowed across the page. He barely touched the three women, capturing their presence and hardly anything else. The desk was defined more by the blank space between the figures. He focused more on her delicate grace. The curves of how she stood.

“You’ve very good,” a man said behind him.

It startled him and a line shot off across the page. Brant took a deep breath, closed the sketch book and turned to face the speaker, smiling as he did. He didn’t want to be unfriendly to someone that had just complemented him.

The man was older, middle-aged maybe, and very well-dressed. His face was all planes and angles, sharp and clean-shaven. His hair was dark, but with gray liberally sprinkled throughout, thicker on the sides. Diamond cufflinks glittered on his wrist. He smiled.

“Sorry,” the man said. “I didn’t intend to startle you.”

“That’s okay,” Brant said.

The man’s eyes lifted, looking over Brant’s shoulder. “She’s lovely. I could imagine her portrait hanging on the very walls of this museum someday.”

It was uncomfortably close to his own dream. “I’m a long way from seeing that happen.”

“Maybe,” the man said. “I’ve lived a long time, and I’ve known many artists. Some of their work does grace these walls. Even in a sketch of a few seconds, I see potential in your work.”

Right. Brant eased back a step from the man. Whatever his agenda was, it was most likely not something that he could afford. “Thanks. I appreciate that, uh, I’ve got to go.”

Somewhere else, at least until this guy was gone.

“Of course,” the man said, apparently without taking offense. “There is always so much to be done.”

Brant nodded and turned away from the guy, and then wasn’t sure what to do next. He didn’t know where he wanted to go. Then he saw the old women moving away from the information desk.

He walked quickly across the space, weaving through the crowd, and reached the desk just before an Asian couple got to her. She smiled up at him. He smiled back, and noted that her name tag read, Kelci.

“Hi,” he said.

She smiled at him. “Hello. How may I help you today?”

“Do you lead tours?”

“No, I haven’t finished the program yet. I provide visitor services help. There is a tour scheduled in twenty minutes, if you’d like that?”

Brant grinned. “That’s okay. I think I’ll wander around. It’s okay if I sketch, right?”

She chuckled. “Yes. Pencil’s only, please, and respect other visitors by not blocking traffic. You’re an artist?”

“Yes.” It felt so good to say that! He took a breath. “At least that’s the plan. I just got to the city. I left home as soon as I got my membership card to the museum.”

“That’s great. The city is fantastic.”

More people were crowding around up to the desk. The other volunteers were all busy, and her eyes flicked to those behind him. She smiled, acknowledging them before looking back to him.

“Thank you,” he said. “I’m Brant Lloyd. I appreciate the help, Kelci.”

“You’re welcome.” She smiled and leaned forward. “Maybe I’ll see you around.”

Brant knew he was grinning like an idiot and didn’t care. “Oh, I’m going to be here a lot.”

“Great.”

He nodded, raised a hand, and slipped back through the crowd away from the desk. People surged into the opening he had created. He reached a space that was a bit more clear and looked around for the man in the suit. Apparently the man was gone.

Brant breathed a little easier. The man’s obvious wealth, his comments about knowing artists that had their work displayed, it sounded like a line. Maybe it wasn’t. He didn’t know.

Besides, what did it matter. He looked back at the information desk and caught a glimpse of Kelci. Heart-pounding, he looked away. He couldn’t stay here, or pretty soon she’d think he was some sort of creepy stalker guy. The best thing to do was to do what he had planned to do, and go study and practice.

He turned in place and then stopped. The Egyptians! That’s where he’d start. There were lots of cool artifacts to sketch and he could do sketches of the crowds. He went that way, through the impressive entrance to that wing.

The Old Kingdom artifacts gave Brant many subjects to work from. He flipped the page of the sketchbook, on to his fifth of the day so far, and moved to the next statue.

A standing woman, carved of wood. He worked to catch the gestures of the piece. The flow of the lines. As his pencil slid across the page Kelci came to mind. She wasn’t built like this woman, didn’t much look like her at all, really. But it was Kelci he kept thinking of.

Brant stopped and rubbed his eyes. He was being ridiculous. So he had met someone attractive. That was nice, she was nice, but she was doing her job. Most likely, she was married, or at least dating someone. It was his first day in the city.

Besides, it was unimaginable that she was single. And even if she was, so what? He was homeless at this moment. The little bit of money he had saved would go fast if he didn’t make more. He certainly didn’t have enough money to take someone out on a date. If he started doing that, he’d burn through his funds very fast.

No, the best thing he could do right now was practice. And figure out which hostel he was going to stay at tonight. Tomorrow he was going to have to put himself on a schedule, balance studying in the museum with observation practice around the city, and doing portraits and sketches for tourists. He’d need the money. He had to find a place to rent, and it wasn’t likely to end up being on Fifth Avenue. It was more likely he’d have to find a place out of the city. That was okay. The trips back and forth would give him more time to observe, to sketch, to live! He didn’t need much space. Mostly just someplace safe to sleep at night, and keep his paints. He’d meet people.

Like Kelci.

Brant closed his eyes and tapped the pencil against the sketch book. Not like Kelci. She seemed great, but he was here to start his future. This was his chance.

“Hey!”

The voice was female, familiar and close by. Brant’s eyes snapped open and there was Kelci, standing just to the right of the statue. She was shorter than him, probably only an inch or two over five feet. Dainty. That was the word, and she was starting to give him a strange look, because he was staring now.

“Hi,” Brant said. “Hi. Sorry. Kelci. How’re you?”

“I was going to ask you the same thing. Brant, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah. That’s right.”

She pointed at his sketch book. “May I?”

His throat was dry. He needed to find a water fountain or something. He handed the book over without saying anything.

She flipped it open, and of course the first page she landed on was the quick gesture sketch he was doing of her in the lobby, but she grinned. She turned to the next page, lingered, and then the next, both sketches of artifacts in this wing.

She looked at her watch, a thin gold band around her wrist. “These are great, really. I’ve got to get back. I was just on a break, or I’d stay. Are you going to be around in a couple hours? I’m off at four. We could grab coffee or something?”

“Yes.” The word came out without thought. He smiled, and said. “Great. Should I meet you out front?”

“Yeah, that’d be great.” She started to turn, then laughed and turned back to hand him the sketch book. “Sorry. I’m not trying to steal it, even though they are very good.”

He took the book back. “Thank you.”

She waved and moved off out of the wing.

His knees felt shaky and yet at the same time he wanted to run through the museum just to burn off the energy running along his nerves. She’d asked him to coffee. That had happened. It was his first day in the city, he was at the museum and possibly the most beautiful girl he’d ever met had asked him out to coffee.

And he said yes, even after all of his rationalizing. What else could he have said?

“Isn’t that always the question?” A man said.

Brant jerked around. It really was the same man, the one from the lobby, standing casually, comfortable in his skin. And he’d just —

“I didn’t read your mind,” the man said, doing it again. “It’s just my experience. A hundred and fifty-one years on the face of this planet, and I’ve seen that expression, I’ve made that expression, when we find ourselves in that deliciously complicated moment when there doesn’t seem to be any other answer to give.”

A hundred and…

“Excuse me?” Brant said. “Who are you?”

“Right now I’m called Alex Vicari. You’ve impressed me Brant Lloyd, which is unusual for anyone, much less someone as young as yourself. You’ve come here on your own, to the big city, with the burning desire to become a world-class artist. One of the greats! The ego that requires! It’s brilliant. Really brilliant.”

Brant took a breath, and said, “How could you know all of that?”

A shrug. “Easily enough to explain. I eavesdropped on your initial conversation with that charming young creature. When I had your name, it was a simple matter to pull up all of your personal details, those of your parents, everything, more or less, that is known about you this world. It is so much easier, so much quicker today than it used to be.”

“Why? What do you want?”

Mr. Vicari, there was no way Brant could think of him as ‘Alex,’ snapped his fingers and smiled. “Exactly the right question. What do I want? You are observant. You’ve already deduced that I’m wealthy, easy enough for anyone to do, and you suspect by now that I’m quite mad. That is a subject to debate another time. The crux of the matter is this: I want to help you achieve your dreams.”

Mr. Vicari stepped closer. His cologne was light, but manly. Brant never imagined smelling that good.

“I claimed I was a hundred and fifty-one, a claim that you let slide because you doubted the veracity of it, and yet I assure you, it is most definitely true. It is the result of a challenging path I set myself on, much like you are doing, when I was a young man. A path that hasn’t ended, and yet one that I do not wish to walk alone. There have been others, brave men and women who attempted to follow in my footsteps, and failed. There is no guarantee that it will work with you either.”

Now they stood very close, and Mr. Vicari put his hand on Brant’s shoulder. It was a companionable gesture, but Brant sensed the strength in that hand, as if the man might crush stone in his grip.

“If you follow me, many of your current worries shall fade. Where to live, how to get money or food, these are trivial distractions to men such as you and I. Many a potential giant has found his or her potential drowned under the burdens of an ordinary life, of obligations and mortgages and the like. Can you imagine anything more horrible than going to work day after day, spending your years upon this Earth doing work that is as impermanent as a spray of water in the desert? How many potential greats, how many brilliant minds have withered away under the oppressive weight of what other people would deem success? And all the while their own inner dreams fade, wither and die.”

Mr. Vicari released Brant and stepped back. He looked at his watch, and smiled. “Yes, Mr. Lloyd, you have great potential. You cast off your old life to come here and aspire to greatness. You may have what it takes. We shall see. I have other engagements to attend. I will give you time to consider what I have said.”

Brant’s mind was spinning. He opened his mouth and no words came out. His throat was dry. His head pounded. Mr. Vicari walked out of the gallery and was gone in an instant.

A family, parents and two children, were coming through the gallery. No one else had heard Mr. Vicari. Brant went in search of drinking fountain, considering what Mr. Vicari had said.

In his words, Brant recognized his own fears. It was what drove him away from going to the community college. His mother had even said it one day, that he could start at the community college, go to the state school after, and then maybe get a good job teaching art. Maybe at a high school.

The thought of it was terrifying. Not because it was awful, it was what Mr. Vicari had said, about withering away when you’re doing what other people consider successful. He could go to those schools, get those degrees, and he might turn out to be a really good art teacher, but inside he’d be dead. Or if he went into a field entirely different than art, became an accountant or something. How many accountants out there had unfulfilled dreams? Or any profession?

As crazy as the business was about being a hundred and fifty-one years old, the rest of it made a lot of sense.

Brant found the nearest drinking fountain and gulped down several mouthfuls of the cold, cold water. It was great. He finished and took a deep breath and felt much better.

There was an older woman watching him when he turned around. She was wearing an elegant pearl gown. Her gray hair was cut very short, sort of buzzed. A string of pearls hung around her neck. She was beautiful, even though she had to be as old as his mother. She smiled warmly at him, and extended a finger toward the fountain.

“May I?” She said, her voice deep and amused.

Brant nodded. “Yes, sorry. I’m done.”

He stepped aside. She went to the fountain and bent to drink, and moved with such fluid movements that his fingers itched to take out the sketch book and draw her, try to capture that somehow, but he rubbed his hands instead.

She stood up and met his eyes again.

“You must be an artist,” she said.

Brant nodded automatically. “Yes, ma’am. That’s the plan anyway.”

“You either are a thing, or you aren’t,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what you do in this world. If you are an artist, then you are until you decide to stop being an artist. Nothing else will, only you can do that.”

It sounded true. He wanted to believe her, but Mr. Vicari’s words hung in his mind.

“He lies,” she said, folding her hands together.

Brant’s mouth fell open.

She waved a hand. “Don’t go catching flies, son.”

He closed his mouth so fast that his teeth clicked together.

“All I meant was, whomever told you otherwise lied. Only you decide if you are an artist. It doesn’t mean you can’t have a life, or fall in love?”

Kelci’s face came to mind, her delicate elfin features and her bright smile. He must have blushed, because the woman clapped her hands.

“There is a young lady! I knew it.” She smiled. “Some people, they tell you that you must give up everything for your art. And in the end, then what do you have? Nothing. Live life to its fullest, and maybe you’ll have a chance to be the artist that you imagine yourself to be.”

Brant said, “I’m trying.”

“Good. Then keep trying. Give your young lady a chance. Things will work out as they should. You’ll see! Good luck to you.”

“Thank you.”

She smiled and walked past him and away. Then she was gone.

Brant looked at the time, and pulled out the sketch book. He’d go out into the lobby, sit on one of the benches and just draw until Kelci was done with her shift.

He was completely absorbed in the drawing when he heard Kelci’s voice behind him. “Wow, those are fantastic! Who are they?”

On the left-hand page was a drawing of Mr. Vicari, dark and shadowed in his suit. The right-hand page was a picture of the woman at the fountain, her light dress contrasting with her darker skin. It was a study in shadows and light, and drawing from memory.

He turned, and there was Kelci, just as he had pictured. He closed the sketchbook. “Just people I saw today.”

Later, he’d finish the drawing, adding her in between the two of them, spanning the page. He’d come to the city for a chance. A chance at what? The woman was right. He was an artist, here or anywhere. The city gave him the chance to learn and improve, but it gave him other chances too. He slipped the sketchbook into his backpack, and stood up. He held out his hand.

Smiling, Kelci reached out and took his hand. Her skin was warm, and soft, with a strong grip.

“Where do you want to go?”

“There’s a place I like, it’s a few blocks away, if you don’t mind walking?”

Brant shook his head. “I don’t mind at all.”

His heart was hammering in his chest as he walked with her out the doors of the museum. There, just outside the front doors, was Mr. Vicari talking on a cell phone. Brant met his eyes, and walked on past.

He smiled at Kelci. He was going to do everything he could for a chance at the life he wanted. That’s why he came to the city in the first place.

3,845 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 46th weekly short story release, written in October 2013. Eventually I’ll do a standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the story. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print 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 Monday for another story. Next up is my story Dumping Ground.

Manifesting Destiny

Coffee vats belched and farted espresso aromas so strong not even nose filters helped. Jacob, vat inspector, took his job seriously. Unstable vats threatened everyone.

Catching violators helped his career and kept people safe. Too many people looked to get rich creating vats.

A story about the next generation of genetically modified organisms .

🚀

April 13th, 2068

The air had a rich espresso aroma from all the vat farts. It soaked right in past Jacobs nose plugs. How much worse would it be if he wasnt wearing them?

Standing next to him, seemingly unaffected, Roberta sipped a hot latte supplied by the pimply, over-eager manager. In the nest boxes filling three racks stretching across the room, the coffee vats sat blinking with stupid contentment. Colors ranged from a deep, dark almost black green, to a light spring green color. They were obese, mostly boneless, with flat faces and big yellow eyes with horizontal goat-like pupils. And like goats, they chewed, continuously, a deep-throated mastication noise that had Jacob wishing hed brought earplugs too.

Everythings in order, the manager said again, for like the fifth time. Jacob had already forgotten his name. It was on the forms.

We always get the highest ratings.

One of the chubby mid-tone coffee vats belched out a house blend burp. Jacob pinched his nose. It didnt help.

Roberta lifted her tablet, flicking through the forms with her thumb. DNA samples last filed a month ago?

We drew new samples this morning and sent them off, the manager said. Theyre stable.

Stable. If vats stayed stable, then Jacob wouldnt have a job. Ever since Arvad Blum had introduced the first bioengineered vats thirty years ago, vat designers had been claiming that their designs were stable. If that was true, they wouldnt have had the outbreaks in Los Angeles, the vat swarms across Kansas, or the Paris incident.

The lure of cheap food production kept designers always working on new vats of all shapes, sizes and possibilities. The wonderland of genetics finally opened up for anyone dreaming of getting rich.

Jacob walked over to the vat nest boxes. All those chewing, belching, farting vats watched him, yellow eyes moving and tracking him with placid interest.

What if it was all an act? What if the vats tumbled out of their nest boxes in a fleshy, sticky avalanche? Of course they hardly had limbs to speak of, stumpy little legs with webbed frog-like feet. Unlikely they could even get out of the nest boxes.

A dark green vat in front of him reached up and gripped the bar along the front of the nest box. As if a signal passed among them, the others also reached up and wrapped webbed toes around the bars on their boxes.

Jacob stepped back.

Valves opened above each nest box and a cool mist sprayed out onto the vats. Each vat lifted its fat face up to the spray, opened its fat mouth and hummed a deep thrumming cry. The mist kicked off a second later, and grunting, huffing, belching and farting, the vats settled down again.

They have to stay moist, the manager said at Jacobs elbow.

Jacob didnt twitch a muscle. Roberta grinned over the top of her coffee. I think theyre cute.

Cute? Youve got weird taste, Jacob said.

Jacob ignored the manager and walked around to the back side of the first rack. Mounted at the back of each nest box was a translucent container, catching the coffee beans that each vat produced. Each was neatly labeled with the type of bean and roasting instructions right on the container.

The manager skipped around in front of Jacob. Do you want to see the beans?

Without waiting for an answer the manager pulled a half-full plastic bin from the back of the nest box. A grassy, swampy smell came from the box that didnt smell much like coffee, in direct contrast to the farts and burps. Inside the translucent box was a mass of slimy green beans.

We process and roast the beans right here in house, the manager said. All the process water, and organic waste feeds right back into the vats, each one is engineered to produce a different flavor, which we enhance with our roasting process.

Jacob ignored him. Hed heard it all before. He slipped past the manager and walked down the aisle between the nest boxes. He ignored the vats on his left watching him. The floor was clean. No spilled beans. It looked freshly mopped.

A loud flatulent ripping noise signaled another coffee blast into the air. The nose plugs were useless.

A full circuit later there wasnt anything out of place. Either the jittery manager kept the place clean, or theyd had a heads up that an inspection was coming.

Anything? He asked Roberta.

She lifted her cup. The coffee is good.

Three years theyd been partners. She was five years younger, six inches shorter, dressed better and had a PhD. His wife, Nancy, loved her. Hed asked Nancy once if it bothered her that his partner was young and pretty. Shed started laughing. So much for being jealous.

Not that hed ever hit on Roberta, thatd be wrong on so many levels. His girls loved her too, and were always on him to bring her home for dinner. With five women in his house already, why they felt the need to bring in another, he didnt understand. Even Destiny, his youngest, loved it when he brought home Aunt Berta.

The girls were asking if youre coming for dinner on Friday?

Roberta smiled and winked. Cant. Ive got a date.

He arched an eyebrow, and then turned to the nervous manager. Well file our report. Youll get a copy. Thank you for your time.

Any time, the manager gushed. Thank you. I think what you do, monitoring vats, is so important to keep us all safe.

Even with the nose plugs, Jacob could smell bullshit. He glanced at Roberta. Their eyes met and he knew shed picked up on it too.

He pointed back past the racks. Didnt we park around back? We can go out this way, right?

Ah, sure. Of course. Thats very considerate. Wouldnt want to make the customers nervous.

Of course not.

Roberta went off on the right side of the room. Jacob took the left. Gleaming stainless steel counters caught his blurry reflection, distorting it into funhouse shapes. Sinks, industrial dish washers, and ovens. Banks of drawers, no doubt filled with utensils and supplies.

Except drawers didnt belch. Not normally. Jacob pulled open the top drawer, full of rolls of foil, and paper towels.

Did you need something? The manager asked.

Jacob opened the next drawer down. A dozen fat vat faces looked up at him, only small, fist-sized, like a bunch of slimy green goat-eyed cherubs. All chewing. One belched a light coffee burp.

I found it, Jacob said.

I can explain.

Save it for your lawyer. Roberta was coming around the far side. You dont have a permit to breed vats. Roberta, will you do the honors?

🚀

Home was a yellow rancher in an older neighborhood up on the Eastside, within easy walking distance to the woodland trail. It was a quiet neighborhood, a good one to raise the girls in, with plenty of other children in the neighborhood. The sort of place where neighbors still held outdoor barbecues, and stayed up late to look at the lights on the Moon.

Jacob often joked about applying for a vat inspector job on the Moon, when the girls were grown. Everything they ate up there was vat grown.

Nancy wouldnt hear of it. What about your parents?

What about them? Their tiny blue vat-powered car was in the drive as he turned in. Odd. It wasnt like them to come by on a weekday.

As Jacob went inside he expected an orchestra of high-pitched girlish laughter and instead the place was quiet. His gut tightened. It was the same feeling he got when someone was trying to pull something over on him. Something serious was going on.

He found Nancy and his mother in the living room, alone. No sign of the girls. Both women looked up at him as he entered. Nancy, at thirty, just like him, still looked at least ten years younger. She shared the same pointed chin and tiny nose as his mother, lending some truth to the idea that you married women that resembled your mother.

Mom was, as always, fit and health-looking, white hair hanging in luxurious waves around her fine features. She was like weathered marble, elegant and grave.

Mom? Nance? Whats going on? Where are the girls?

Nancy patted the couch cushion. Theyre at Staceys, spending the night, except Destiny. Shes already up in her room reading before bed. How was your day?

Jacob considered shucking off his coat and rejected the idea. If his mother was here alone, it only meant one thing. Its Dad, isnt it? Whats wrong?

Sit down, Jacob, Mom said. Your father is okay, at the moment. Its you, were concerned about.

Me? Jacob peeled off the coat, and tossed it on the recliner. He joined Nance and looked across the coffee table at Mom. Me?

Mom picked up a steaming mug and settled back in her chair. She smiled. You look tired. Whatd you do today?

She was avoiding the issue. It was like her, raise something, then dance around it. Her tea smelled minty, a welcome change from his day. Theyd spent hours at the coffee house after shutting it down. In the end the young manager was crying.

We didnt try to breed them! We dont even know how theyre doing it! The babies just started showing up!

And now every customer that had had coffee there since the baby vats started showing up had to be contacted and tested. The investigation would turn up if the breeding had been deliberate or not. Deliberate meant breaking a zillion laws, not to mention copyright infringement, but that was easy to handle. Spontaneous reproduction? That was a bigger mess.

Actually, Roberta and I broke a huge case open. Coffee shop downtown was hiding baby coffee vats. The departments going to have to assign a whole special investigative team to it.

Nancy and Mom exchanged a look.

What is it?

Mom peered at him over her mug. She took a sip. Exasperated, Jacob collapsed back on the couch and crossed his arms. Fine. You know, you always do this, bring something up and then dance around it.

He looked at Nancy. You should have seen her about the sex talk. It took her three weeks to get around to it, as if I hadnt already read everything.

It should have been your father giving you that talk, Mom said. She put her mug down. And it should have been him now, too, except he cant.

He sat back up feeling as if an icy hand had slid down his shirt. What? Come on.

She took a deep breath. This isnt easy, Jacob. Particularly given your job.

My job?

Let me talk! If Im going to tell you this, keep your questions until Im done.

Hed rarely heard her sound like that, not growing up. Not as an adult. Okay. Sorry.

Oh Hell. His gut sank. She was going to tell him that Dad had gotten into making vats. Maybe one of those home brew vats that fermented hops in their guts and pissed out beer. Looked like barrel-shaped turtles sitting on their asses with a bony pecker where the spout would be. Some bars had those sitting right up on the counters and let customers feed them peanuts. Said it gave the beer a nutty flavor.

Theres no easy way to tell you this. Your fathers not well. She raised a hand, forestalling questions. Its not like hes going to die right now, therere changes going on. Hes a vat, son. Your father is a vat.

That wasnt a beer-pissing turtle barrel. He looked at Nancy, knowing his mouth was open. No words formed. Nancy patted his hand and her lips pressed together sympathetically. Oh, hell, Nancy believed it. If she believed it, it had to be true.

We wanted to tell you when you were young. Oh, we were so scared when I got pregnant with you. Every day we expected the, well, someone in your position, to show up and know everything. It didnt happen and the pregnancy didnt set off any alarms. When you were born, you were just so perfect, and normal. Well, it never came up.

Never came up. Jacob collapsed back on the couch. He scratched the back of his hand on his stubble. His father was a vat. That made him, what? A vat? Half a vat?

A laugh bubble up out of his chest. It slipped out, making him burp like one of the vats at the coffee house. A bit of hot vomit, tasting of bile and salami hit the back of his throat.

He swallowed and coughed. The laughter died and hot tears stung his eyes.

He shook his head. This doesnt make any sense! Ive been to the doctor! Ive had blood tests, hell, Ive passed screenings at work. We have to pass regular screenings, because we come into contact with vats all the time. If Dads a vat, that makes me a vat, and wed have been caught a long time ago.

Mom shook her head. It didnt work that way, son. Youre not a vat.

Nancy reached up and touched his arm. Apparently it skipped a generation.

🚀

They were in the kitchen, the three of them, around the oak-topped island. The lights over the island were on, but none of the others, making a spot light on the gleaming oak and the jar at the center.

It was just a mason jar, with a brass lid. Holes had been punched in the top with a nail or a screw driver, the way kids sometimes did when they wanted to keep a bug in a jar. Except this wasnt a bug.

The thing in the jar looked prehistoric. It was red and soft-looking, with bumpy skin and a clutch of legs up around one end. Fuzzy antenna spread out form the head. It was coiled around the jar, antenna drifting slowly above its rear end. Spread out it was probably under six inches long. Like the coffee vats it looked moist, almost jelly-like.

Jacobs stomach rumbled. He hadnt had anything to eat except lunch, and right now he couldnt imagine eating. He crouched down beside the island to get a better look at the thing in the jar.

What theyd said, he couldnt believe it.

This came out of Destiny?

His youngest. A perfect cherub that loved to giggle and had midnight hair that cascaded down around her shoulders. She wore princess dresses and looked like a miniature Snow White.

Heaved it right up while brushing her teeth, Mom said. Started screaming her head off.

It was horrible, Nancy said. I was so glad your mother was here to help.

Jacob moved around the island. In the jar the vat thing turned, wiggling that clutch of legs to rotate in place. Watching him. Did it recognize him?

When I saw it, I had to tell her the truth, Mom said. You recognize it, dont you?

Of course he did. Jacob rubbed his jaw. This was Arvad Blums work from thirty years ago. Or at least a copy of his designs. Something like this had infected an office building in Chicago and like the parasites that made snails climb to the tops of trees to get eaten by birds, it had driven all those people up to the top of their skyscrapers. If they hadnt been stopped theyd have gone over the roof.

His throat was dry. He stood up and backed over to the sink, bracing his hands on the counter.

How do we know that she didnt get exposed to something?

Mom pointed at the jar. Because thats what saved your fathers life.

No messing around this time, Mom. What happened?

It was just over thirty years ago. Arvad Blum was in the news with his miracle breakthrough, his gift to the world. No more hunger, no starvation, all of our ills were going to be cured. No unethical slaughter of animals, because the vats were each created by us for a specific purpose.

Mom!

She waved her hands. Sorry! Fine, Ill get to the point. Your father had leukemia

You never told me that.

Nancy touched his arm. Let her finish.

Sorry, Mom.

Leukemia. He was dying. Arvad Blum made us an offer. Part of a research trial. This thing, it would live inside him and not only kill the cancer, but take care of everything else. Give him a super immune system. Thats what it is. It bonds with the host and takes care of you. A symbiote.

Mom walked around the island, her shoes clicking on the granite tiles. She reached Jacobother side.

Only yesterday your father was complaining of a bad headache. I was worried, he never has headaches, he never get sick. You know that.

He did. He always wondered why he hadnt inherited his fathers constitution. Now he knew. Blum had given it to his father. Infecting him. Vat organisms were notoriously easy to make these days. The challenge was creating stable ones. Errant vat organisms spread, cancer-like, converting other organisms in the process.

He got sick. I was going to call the doctor when he threw up one of those. She rubbed her arms. It was much bigger, and gray. I saw it when Blum brought it, and it looked like that one. The one he threw up yesterday, it was dying. It did die, within a minute.

And Dad?

Her lips puckered slightly. She rolled her shoulders. Hes not himself. He complains that he hurts everywhere. That he doesnt feel good, cant see as well. A bunch of things. Now he knows how I feel!

Nancy leaned into Jacobs arm. Can it be a coincidence that his died and Destiny, well, that theres a new healthy one?

How the hell was he to know? This was all so far outside of the norm, they might as well be on the Moon. There were procedures for this sort of situation. People he should call. Would call, except this was his family. It complicated everything. Something about the story bothered him. He touched Moms shoulder.

You said Blum brought this to Dad. When he was arrested, they rounded up all of the people he experimented on. They went through extensive testing and quarantine.

She shook her head. Not us. Blum never made any records of giving this to your father. He was dying, Jacob. Blum knew that. He told us that this was a long shot, but your father, he figured what was there to lose?

I have to call this in.

You cant! Both of them said it together.

A soft voice spoke up from the doorway. Whats going on?

It was Destiny, in purple polka dot pajamas, rubbing her eyes.

Destiny. Oh hell. If he called them, what would they put her through, that she brought up this thing? 

Jacob smiled at her.

I thought you were sleeping, bug. He winced as the nickname slipped out. It wasnt so funny anymore. He swept her up in his arms, drawing out a familiar giggle and buried his face in her honey-scented hair. Lets get you in bed. Tell Mom and Nana goodnight.

Night Momma! Night Nana! Night Fairy Bug!

Fairy bug. Right.

🚀

After tucking Destiny back into bed Jacob returned to find Nancy and Mom back in the living room again, both on the couch this time, with Destinys fairy bug in the jar on the coffee table. Its antennae waggled at him as he sat.

Before you do anything, Mom said. I want you to think about your father. Im afraid that without his vat the leukemia is going to come back, plus who knows what else it was taking care of. I think we should consider giving this one to him.

Of all the things she could have said, that one didnt surprise him. Even so, he shook his head. We cant! We dont know anything about this one. Theres no telling what it would do to him.

It looks just like the one that he had.

You said that was bigger and gray.

Now! When Blum brought it to us, it looked just like this one.

Nancy spoke up. Jacobs right, though. Just because this looks the same, it doesnt mean it is the same.

Im worried about a lot more than that, Jacob said. You said it skipped a generation. How is that possible? How could it have passed on through me to Destiny?

I dont know, Mom said. Youre the expert on this stuff. Isnt that what you do every day?

I find people violating the laws. Im more like a dog catcher than anything.

Well I still think it means something that this one came out of Destiny when the one in your father died.

Theyd never seen a mobile home overgrown with vat tissue that had gotten out of hand, consuming the owner and his birds. That one had had strings of eyes, like beads on a string, that had watched them when they torched the place.

His precious Destiny had vomited up a vat created by Arvad Blum. It was his fault that she had done that, even if it had happened without his knowledge. He still didnt understand how itd happened, how he could have passed so many tests without it being detected.

He reached out and picked up the jar holding Destinys fairy bug. It rotated around the base on that clutch of legs and waved antennae at him. The thought of one of these things crawling out of his throat, hell, itd give him nightmares. Destiny didnt seem bothered, somehow, with the resilience of youth.

Theres only one thing we can do. He looked past the jar at Nancy and his mother. We have to protect Destiny, and help father if we can, but we cant risk letting an unstable vat loose, either.

What do we do? Nancy asked.

We need to go talk to Arvad Blum. He put the jar down on the table. Tomorrow. We take the girls, pick up Dad, and we all go see him.

Do you know where he is? Mom asked.

Yes, he did. Blum was forbidden from practicing any genetic research after his convictions. His appeals to have the sentence suspended had always failed. Vats were big business now, but no one forgot the man that first unleashed them on the world. No matter what his original intentions.

🚀

The smell of salt air and the sight of primary-colored kites dancing on the wind, greeted them as they drove into Westport.

In the back, the girls crowded against the car windows to catch the first glimpse of the ocean. Nancy had Destinys fairy bug jar in her bag. None of them had told the older girls the real reason for the trip, they were all just excited to get to take a trip out to the beach with grandma and grandpa.

Are we there yet? Cracked Dad from the first row of the minivans seats. Are we there yet?

Claire and Jolene, seven and nine, picked up the chant. Are we there yet?

Destiny laughed with her high clear voice and practically screamed it out. Are we there yet?

In the backseat ten-year-old Sarah said, Really?

Jacob watched the street signs. Hed gotten the address from the database at work, right before pleading for the rest of the week off to take care of his sick father.

The same man laughing his head off right now.
Blums position was monitored continuously. He lived in house arrest, forbidden from anything connected to his field. It had to be hell for the man, cut off from what he had loved. He made his living writing popular science articles, on anything except the field where hed made his name.

The file hadnt detailed how else Blum was monitored. Electronic communications, certainly. Was his house bugged? Jacob felt like pulling over and puking himself, except he was also terrified that he might puke up another fairy bug. What if they all started doing it?

It was enough to make his head spin.

There. Breakwater. That was the street. He turned down the quiet street running parallel to the coast.

Dad, Sarah said. Where are you going?

We need to make a quick stop, for work, he lied. Im going to see a man, ask him a question and then well get on to the beach house.

A rental. Hed rented it for the week. Therapy to make his father feel better. His mouth felt dry and sandy. He had trouble swallowing.

Visiting Blum was a bad idea. If the monitoring picked him up, given his position, itd be bad for them both. Blum might not even want to see him. It was enough to make him want to turn around and leave.

Except the house was right there. It was small, brown, with a well-maintained yard. Bright purple and yellow crocuses filled the flower beds in a colorful bounty. Gravel crunched beneath the tires as he pulled over in front of the house.

He twisted around in his seat. Girls, Moms going to take you on to the beach house. Grandpa and I are going to get out, talk to this man, and then well walk over.

We are? Dad said.

Jacobs mother elbowed him.

Oh, right. I guess were there! Dad laughed and got up, moving stiffly and climbed out.

Jacob went out his door, walking fast. He didnt want the van seen parked in front of Blums place. Better that everyone else went on to the rental. Nancy was coming around the front of the van. She handed him the bag with the jar.

Be careful.

I will. He kissed her lightly on the lips.

She slipped past him, moving around to the drivers side. Jacob didnt look back. He walked over to his father, keeping the bag in front of him.

Dad was waving as the van pulled away. Jacob took his arm. Come on, Dad.

Son, if this is going to get you in trouble, maybe we shouldnt.

Jacob shook his head. Its too late now. Come on. Lets not stand here attracting attention.

The house had glass French doors at the front. The easier for anyone to see inside, apparently. Jacob rang the doorbell.

A man moved inside. He was short, bald and round. He shuffled to the door. There was little about him that looked like the Arvad Blum Jacob knew from the old pictures, except for the beak-like nose that made him look like an owl in a moth-eaten purple bathrobe.

Blum opened the doors and squinted at them. Under the robe he wore swim trunks, a stained t-shirt and that was it except a sleek-looking bracelet on his left arm. That had to be the monitor device. Yes?

Dr. Blum —
Not a doctor anymore. Blum snorted. They took that away with everything else.
My name is Jacob, and this is my father.
Dad thrust out his hand. Michael, but weve met.
Blum didnt take the offered hand. We have?”
I was a patient of yours, Dad said. Over thirty years ago. Right before the arrests.
Blum took a wary step back. Whats this about?
Jacob didnt want to say. Instead he lifted the jar part way from the bag. Blums eyes grew larger. His hands fluttered with pushing-down gestures.
Jacob put the jar back in the bag. Blum beckoned to them and backed into the house, holding the door.

Thank you, Dad said.

They went inside. Sand gritted the wood floors. Blum closed the door behind them. The place, like Blum, could use a cleaning. It had a musty smell like day old pizza. Or maybe that was the pizza boxes piled in a bin beside the door.

Without a word Blum went on into the kitchen and disappeared into the cupboards. Jacob and his father followed Blum, who looked back and pressed a finger to his pudgy lips.

A moment later he came out with a box, matte black, with hinges on one side and a round hole. Blum unlatched the box. The inside was covered in eggshell foam, hollow at the middle. Blum put his hand in the box, and then closed it, so that the sides closed around his hand with his wrist through the round hole.

There, Blum said. They cant hear us if were quiet.

 What is that? Dad gestured at the box.

A sound-proof box. The bracelet is a listening device, as well as a tracker. The box doesnt interfere with the tracking capabilities, it just damps the noise. We cant be too long, or theyll get suspicious. Show it to me.

Jacob pulled the jar out of the bag and set it on the counter. The fairy bug looked duller today, and its antenna moved sluggishly.

It cant survive in there, Blum said. Whered you get it?

Jacob filled him in, quickly and concisely. Where hed seen Jacobs father, what happened the other day when Dads vat was regurgitated and died, and Destiny bring up this one.

Hows all this possible? Jacob asked. Did I pass this on to my daughter? What did you do?

Using his free hand, Blum stroked the glass. The fairy bug barely moved. This was my greatest creation. The cure all. It binds to the host, taking over the immune system functions, giving you a super immunity.

My leukemia went away, Dad said. I never got sick after that, not until the other day.

I always wondered how the lifespan would work. And as far as passing it on, yes, the dormant spores are in the blood stream. It was designed to spread, and when it finds an unoccupied host, it sets up home.

But my daughter vomited this one up.

Blum wobbled his hand in the air. Yes, well, thats the other mechanism. If it senses that a host has lost its symbiote it can take more direct action, if its young enough. It can leave the current host, letting a new spore mature, while it moves on to the more established host.

So this was Destinys symbiote, and it picked up and moved, to reach my father, like moving into a bigger house?

Blum laughed. Yes! Like that. I wouldnt worry about your daughter, a new symbiote would have already taken hold there, to pick up the slack.

Were all infected then, Jacob said.

Fortunately for you.

But I get sick. Im a vat inspector, Ive been tested and it never turns up anything.

Then you may have rejected the symbiote. I didnt have time to make improvements before I was caught. Maybe it didnt fully integrate, it might be dormant in you, yet produce spores which passed to your wife through intercourse, and then to your child. The spores wouldnt show up on the tests.

Jacob leaned on the counter, feeling sick. If they find out about this, what happens?

Blum shook his head. You dont want to get caught. Theyll break up your family quarantine you. Blame me, since you came here. Thanks by the way!

Sorry, we needed answers.

Dad picked up the jar. Thisll make me feel better again, like before.

Blum nodded. It should.

Dad twisted the lid on the jar. Jacob reached out and put his hand over his fathers. You dont know that! What if its changed? What if it isnt the same?

It came from sweet little Destiny, Dad said. I dont think its going to hurt me. And I dont want to feel so terrible.

You have to go, Blum said urgently. Theyll notice that Ive gone quiet. They dont like that.

Jacob took his hand off the jar. Okay, Dad. Go ahead.

Dad twisted off the lid. He hoisted it in the air and looked inside. Theres my pretty. Whatd she call it?

A fairy bug, Jacob said.

Dad laughed. Down the hatch!

Jacob turned away. He didnt want to watch. Dad made a gagging sound, and then he did turn, thinking that maybe his father was choking. A flash of a red tail disappeared past Dads lips. Then he took in a deep breath and put the jar down on the counter.

Thats better. Dad held out his hand to Blum. Thank you. You saved my life, twice now.

Blum beamed and shook his hand. Thank you. Im glad to know theyre still out there. Eventually the government will find out, maybe by then theyll spread enough. Go! You have to hurry.

Dad headed for the front door. Jacob turned to leave, then stopped and turned back. Did you keep any research on these things?

Blum squinted at him. Theres a friend of mine, from when we were kids. I trusted him. Name is Jang Sun. Hes working on the Moon now.

The Moon. Hell. Jacob followed his Dad out.

Two blocks away, a pair of big black cars, low slung models, sped past heading towards Blums house. Jacob held his fathers arm and kept walking. No one stopped them.

🚀

That night, after the girls were asleep, exhausted from an afternoon of flying kites, Jacob, Nancy and his parents sat out on the deck. The wind off the ocean was cold, so he bundled up under a rough wool blanket with Nancy. Her hand played along his leg.

Dad and Mom were laughing, heads together. They clinked glasses of root beer and drank.

Far up above the dark waves, hung the bright moon with glittering lights on the surface. The colonies were up there, and more, slowly spreading out into the solar system. Vats helped make that possible, and they always needed more trained inspectors.

He said that this man, Jang Sun had the research? Nancy asked.

Yes. He couldnt answer the questions. Why do I get sick? Mom clearly doesnt have a super immune system either. But you and the girls, you dont get sick.

She was silent for a moment.

I used to, she said. When I was younger. Remember? When we first met, I had the flu.

You were just nervous.

She laughed. But youre right. I havent been sick in a long time, not since I was pregnant with Sarah.

Itd be a risk. If the scans picked up anything, it could be tough on everyone. He couldnt even imagine it, leaving Earth.

Vats are heavily used up there. If we could work with Dr. Jang, we might get some answers.

She cuddled up against him. And could we do this, looking up at the Earth?

He kissed the top of her head. We might.

Out into the frontier, then. How was he going to break the news to Roberta? Shed have to get a new partner. Maybe shed find one that like coffee.

🚀
5,852 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 45th weekly short story release, written in March 2013. Eventually I’ll do a standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the story. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print 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 Monday for another story. Next up is my story Everything for a Chance.

Death in Hathaway Tower

The Hathaway’s held Hathaway Tower for fifteen generations, one of the older families in the Towers of Stone and Metal.

Young Emily Hathaway, the last surviving member of the family, continues their traditions. Like this dinner party, playing hostess to fascinating guests like brave Mr. Bailey who had spent time among the Salvagers.

A scream interrupts dinner, a body in the library, and a mysterious visitor makes this a dinner party to remember.

1

The whole party was enjoying the silky smooth lemon custard while Mr. Bailey related his experiences beyond the wall surrounding the Towers of Stone and Metal, when a shrill scream came from the library.

All conversation ceased. The candle flames barely flickered. The long dining hall was silent. Eight pairs of eyes in the room fixed on Emily Hathaway, the host of the evening. She was twenty, and no taller than she’d been at thirteen, though she had a more shapely figure now. Tonight she wore a shimmery gown of elvish silk, the color of fresh green leaves, that complemented her flaming red curls and matched her eyes. So pale was her skin, and so delicate her features, that some suggested there was elvish blood in her family. Unlikely, given that the Hathaway’s had held Hathaway Tower for fifteen generations, but she had some of that look about her.

Mr. Bailey coughed into his napkin. Beside him his wife clung to his arm.

Emily lifted her chin. Across the room her butler, and troll, Clasp, stood unmoving against the wall. He was a big gray-skinned figure in a dark kilt with the traditional sash, a slash of scarlet weave, across his chest. She locked her eyes on his tiny black eyes. A twitch of her head and Clasp moved like a boulder breaking loose on a mountain. Thunderous footsteps carried him across the timbered floor to the heavy oak door leading to the library. He pulled it open and disappeared through, shoulders brushing the frame on each side. The door banged shut behind him.

“Never mind that,” Emily said, “Likely one of the housemaids frightened at her own shadow. Mr. Bailey? You were talking about your time among the Salvagers?”

Mr. Bailey was her late father’s friend and the years had stripped away his handsome features along with his right ear. The scar stretched from there down across his cheek and through his lips. He tended to drool when he ate. Or spoke.

He opened his mouth to talk when the door banged open again and Clasp’s crashing footsteps returned. Emily apologetically smiled at her guests. Tall and regal Mrs. Watersmith turned her freshly powdered face to her escort for the evening, the handsome and young Mr. Dempsey, and whispered something.

Clasp’s massive head came down close to Emily’s own. She smelled grilled onions on his breath.

“A body, Miss. In the library.”

She kept her face controlled, even managed a small apologetic smile that would have made her father proud had he lived to see it.

“If you’ll excuse me? I’ll only be a moment.” She rose to her feet. The gentlemen at the table rose as well, Mr. Crane struggling to heave his bulk up. He shook the whole table in the process. His napkin tumbled onto his plate.

Emily followed Clasp, forever a child in his shadow. He stood twice her height, a moving mountain. As a small girl she had climbed those craggy heights, much to her mother’s annoyance. After the fever took her mother in the night, and Emily became the lady of the Hathaway Tower, she had left such things behind.

A body? In her library? She wished for those lost days when she wasn’t the last Hathaway.

Clasp held the library door for her and she steeled herself as she went inside.

There was a body, curled up on the mammoth-skin rug in front of the fire. Emily saw that first, right off, unable to miss it.

That wasn’t all. Anna, one of the house maids, stood just inside the library, not looking at the body but turned away. Her arms clasped her thin body as her shoulders shook.

Most shocking of all was the man that stood across the room from her. He was tall, nearly as tall as Clasp but lithe. His skin, like hers, was pale and unmarked. He wore bright green leather shorts but his chest and arms were bare. The black hilts of his knives rose above his belt on each hip. A band of silver circled his neck. A green cloak billowed around him, fastened with green leather straps to his wrists, bare ankles and thick shoulders. A long white braid, decorated with knobs of bone, stone and wood trailed down around his neck, across a hard chest, all the way down past his navel.

Piercing green eyes above high cheek bones met her gaze and didn’t look away when she took in his pointed ears. She looked back to his eyes.

He was beautiful and impossible. Not a normal man at all, but an elf. And elves never came to the Towers of Stone and Metal.

Emily looked up at Clasp. “You didn’t think to mention the elf?”

Dark eyes blinked down at her, but the troll was mute.

Frustrated, she looked back to the elf. “I am Emily Hathaway, lady of this tower. Is your business here concluded, sir?”

She glanced at the body.

The elf’s green eyes were still on her. He moved with the grace and power of the great scaled cats from Mr. Bailey’s stories. Two quick strides to stand at the edge of the mammoth-skin rug.

“I did not kill this one.” His voice and cadence sounded musical, as if he was singing the words.

Elves were seldom seen, even outside the wall surrounding the Towers. Not that the wall stopped them. Elves were said to be stronger than ten men. Some said that they had the ability to fly and most agreed that elves were only seen when they wanted to be seen. There were stories of elves seducing humans, men and women both, although she always credited that to human fantasies. Why would an elf seek out a human? It was said that elvish beauty was unmatched, true as far as she could see. In any case elves didn’t come past the wall out of choice, remaining above human affairs unless humans attempted to revert to their old destructive ways of the forgotten ages, in violation of the Treaty.

Looking at him, Emily’s heart ached. He was so beautiful, more so than she would have imagined. She steeled herself. She wasn’t some elf-struck little girl. She was the lady of Hathaway Tower and it seemed most unlikely that the body on her rug and the elf in her library were unrelated. She crossed to the other side of the rug and faced the visitor.

“If not you, then who?”

He looked at her as if he could see right through her. She shivered and refused to look away.

He turned away first, looking down to the body. “I tracked this one here, it was already dead.”

It. Emily forced herself to look down. The corpse scarcely filled out the suit it wore, like a child playing dress up. Where exposed, the limbs were wrinkled and deflated in great pink folds as if the insides were sucked away. There was a shiny, almost oily look to the skin. Most shocking of all was the face. A dear face she recognized, though the skin there too was slack and wrinkled, particularly around the bruised neck. Strangled, apparently.

It had her father’s face.

Emily lifted her head. The elf was watching her, as was Clasp, but she looked instead to the portrait above the library fireplace. Her father, in a formal black suit stood beside a chair where her mother sat in a deep iridescent blue gown. It looked like the same suit the body wore, perhaps stolen from his rooms? In the painting her father’s face was relaxed and happy. A square, handsome, kindly face on a man fond of laughter. The same face, more or less, as the body on the mammoth rug.

There was only one possibility.

“A goblinman?”

“A shifter, yes,” the elf said. “Killed while imitating the man in the painting. Have you seen this man?”

“He’s my father, and he’s been dead a year.”

“Shifters usually mimic the living, stealing their lives away.”

“Perhaps it meant to, not knowing he was already dead.”

Emily turned. “Anna?”

Anna sniffed. “Yes, Miss?”

“You screamed?”

A quick nod. Anna was only fourteen, fostered from the Vail Tower. Emily waited for more.

“I came in, meaning to check the fire before the party moved to the library. And, it was there, just as it is.”

“You didn’t touch anything? You didn’t see anyone?”

Anna shook her head twice.

“Good. Go have Mrs. Cormandy gather the staff in the kitchens. Everyone is to stay there and have their dinner until Clasp dismisses them. Understood?”

“Yes, Miss. Thank you.”

Anna hurried across the room. The elf moved around the mammoth rug to Emily’s side. Clasp stepped between her and the elf. It was a brave and loyal thing to do. Even with his bulk, Emily didn’t believe that Clasp could stop the elf if he wanted to do her harm. She put her hand on Clasp’s arm. His hard skin was hot and comforting beneath her hand.

The elf’s eyes watched Anna disappear through the door. “That was foolish, the other one, she may be.”

“Other one? You mean another goblinman?” Emily fought back her irritation. “You might have mentioned that first.”

The elf’s brow wrinkled as if he hadn’t considered that.

Leaving him confused, Emily looked up at Clasp. “Take the body and store it below. Lock it in one of the wine cellars. Secure the tower. No one leaves or enters without my permission. Rejoin us once you’ve finished.”

“Yes, Miss.”

Clasp moved between her and the elf, stooping to pick up the goblinman’s body. It looked like hardly more than a badly dressed doll in his arms. Seeing her father’s face on the thing had shaken her, but she was the lady of the tower and there was apparently another goblinman on the loose.

Carrying the body, Clasp disappeared out the same door Anna had used. The elf moved closer, and she smelled something like a fresh rain in the forest. He lifted his hand, but didn’t touch her.

“I must find the other goblinman.”

“Why? Why are you after them? And do you have a name, sir elf?”

She was testing him. Her father had told her stories of elves, when she was a girl. He always said that they guarded their names.

“I pursue the goblinmen known as thieves and killers. My common name is Brookwind, Lady Hathaway.”

Not his private name then. She was disappointed, but not surprised. She tilted her head up to look at him. She wanted to run her hand over his braid, and along the smooth pale skin. She clasped her hands together.

“How do I know you aren’t the other goblinman?”

Brookwind’s right eyebrow arched upwards. Emily felt heat creep up her neck, either from the foolishness of her question or from being close to him.

She fought down the feeling. “My guests must be getting anxious. I need to get back to them and tell them something.”

Brookwind touched the hilt of his knife. “I can force the goblinman to reveal itself.”

“How?”

He shrugged. “Pain forces shifters to reveal themselves.”

“I’ll not have my guests or staff tortured!”

“If the goblinman has replaced one of your people, then that person is most likely already dead. If I don’t capture it, others also will die.”

Brookwind moved across the room in an instant. His hands seized her upper arms and his cloak billowed around them. Her mind froze. She drew a breath and he released her left arm.

His finger went to her lips, pressing gently. He stared into her eyes as if he was looking into her, through her.

She inhaled and that rich forest scent was there, clinging to him, and beneath it something warm, yeasty, like fresh baked bread. The strength of his hand on her arm was like steel, but the finger on her lips was soft.

Looking into his eyes from this close, they weren’t only green but shot through with specks of gold and blue like a sunlight sky seen through leaves.

His breath was a warm breeze on her face. Her heart hammered in her chest. She reached out with her free hand and placed her palm flat on his muscled chest, as smooth as a sea-polished shell, to steady herself.

He jerked and twitched away like a skittish horse. She stumbled without him there.

“What was that!”

Brookwind bowed his head. “Lady Hathaway, my apologies. A soul search is an intimate thing, yet I had to know if you were the goblinman in disguise.”

Soul search? What was he doing? What did that mean?

“And?”

“I do not believe you are the other one.”

She trembled and took a deep breath to steady herself. “Can you do this with the others, to find the goblinman?”

“No.” His answer was flat, final, like a rock cracking.

“No?”

Brookwind shook his head. His long braid rolled across his chest. “It is not done with outsiders. Only those we are drawn to.”

Oh. Emily’s thoughts skipped on that. Her skin on her hand, arm and lips still tingled where they had touched. He was drawn to her? What did he mean?

She rubbed her hand where she had touched him as if she could rub out the feeling and made her decision.

“Come with me.”

“Where?”

“I will introduce you to our guests. A special surprise for them, and we will determine if any are goblinmen in disguise.”

“How will you do so?”

“I’m the lady of Hathaway Tower. I know my guests.”

“A shifter adept is skilled at imitating others. If it had access to the victim it may have absorbed memories as well.”

“Even so.” The whole thing about absorbing memories disturbed her. “I will know. And if it is not one of the guests, then we will investigate the staff, although I find that less likely.”

“Why is that so?”

“The staff know their own habits and duties. They would see if anyone was behaving oddly. It’d be easier for the goblinman to infiltrate the Towers by replacing someone with more position. As the one had attempted to mimic my father.”

Brookwind pressed his hands together in front of his chest and then spread them apart. “As you say.”

2

Emily went through the door into the dining hall first, with Brookwind following. As soon as she entered the men at the table rose, Mr. Crane struggling once more to rise. She watched their faces most carefully as they saw Brookwind coming in behind her.

Of the men, all showed surprised. A small smile played on Mr. Dempsey’s thin lips, like a kid spying a jar of candies. Mr. Crane gaped like a gasping fish landed on the shore. Drool dribbled from poor Mr. Bailey’s torn lips and he turned very pale. He reached to the table to steady himself. The last gentleman rising slowly at the table, was old Mr. Mumford. He beamed with open delight and ran a liver-spotted hand through his white hair.

The women showed equal surprise. Mrs. Watersmith pursed her lips and tilted her head. “My, he’s a big one, isn’t he?”

Mrs. Mumford giggled in a most girlish manner and grabbed at her husband’s other hand.

Mrs. Bailey’s red lips formed a round ‘o’ of surprise, while across the table the formidable Mrs. Crane pressed her hands to her plump cheeks.

“Friends,” Emily said, mustering her enthusiasm. “Tonight we have an honored guest from beyond the wall. He goes by Brookwind. If you’re all quite ready, we can retire to the library for drinks and conversation. I’m sure we’re all quite fascinated to hear from someone that lives beyond the wall.”

She looked to Mr. Bailey. “Not that your stories aren’t equally fascinating, Mr. Bailey.”

He dabbed at his dripping lip. “Not at all. Not at all! Even in my journeys, the chance to converse with the elvish folk is a rare treat. However did you manage this?”

Emily favored him with a sly smile and then stepped to the side and gestured to the open door. “If you please?”

Mr. Dempsey tossed his napkin onto the table and stepped back. “Alas, Lady Hathaway, I must bid an early night. Please forgive me.”

Mrs. Watersmith’s head snapped around and fixed on Mr. Dempsey. “Mr. Dempsey, what can you possibly be thinking? Of course we must stay!”

Mr. Dempsey’s smile faded as he turned to Mrs. Watersmith. He was sweating as he leaned close. “I have that case to prepare, you must remember it. The evening has already gone on too long.”

“Case?” Mrs. Watersmith gave a brittle laugh. “You are my escort for the night, are you not?”

“Yes.”

She raised her chin. “Then we shall go, when I say we shall go.”

While they argued the Baileys went on through into the library, Mrs. Bailey lifting her hand as if she was going to touch Brookwind when she went past. Under his gaze, she lowered her hand and Emily was glad of it.

Why? What business is it of yours if she touches him?

She shook her head. It wasn’t her business, and she was still glad. That didn’t bear much examination.

Instead she watched her guests.

The Mumfords went on in, with Mrs. Mumford giggling as they went past. Beatrice Mumford was the youngest of three daughters from the Porter family and was always a bit silly. She had married well, to Anthony Mumford, the heir to Mumford Tower. When it came to Towers, size did matter as much as placement and Mumford Tower was one of the Seven central towers that rose up on the hill next to Hathaway Tower.

The Cranes followed and then finally Mrs. Watersmith went on through with Mr. Dempsey following along much like a boy following his mother to the market.

Emily noticed Brookwind’s eyes following young Mr. Dempsey. She knew that he was a lawyer from Watersmith Tower. By all accounts good at his job, at least until he caught Mrs. Watersmith’s eye. If rumors were true, she pitied him. He was handsome with his blond hair and blue eyes, and yet as he passed Brookwind he looked little more than a child.

She hesitated before following and looked up at Brookwind. His gaze was still fixed firmly on the young man. She reached up and touched his jaw.

He turned his head, instead of jerking away, so that her hand slid along his cheek. Blushing, Emily lowered her hand.

“Your goblinman isn’t Mr. Dempsey.”

“He wanted to leave, when the others wished to stay.” Even in his musical tones, she heard the confusion.

“It wasn’t a case that he wanted to work on. He had planned to meet the girl that he is in love with tonight.”

Brookwind glanced into the library and back and remained silent.

“He’s here at Mrs. Watersmith’s behest. She’s the lady widow of Watersmith Tower. He can’t refuse her commands. If he was the goblinman he would have used the excuse of the case to leave. What does he care about Mrs. Watersmith’s opinion? If he was the goblinman it wouldn’t matter, and yet he stayed.”

“None of the others attempted to leave.”

Emily clasped her hands tightly. “No.”

“Then it could still be this Mr. Dempsey.”

She almost laughed at his confusion. “Of course not. If it was him, it wouldn’t have drawn attention to itself by attempting to leave before the others.”

“He is not the shifter because he tried to leave, and also because he stayed?”

“Exactly. Now, you must distract our guests with conversation.”

Brookwind’s eyes widened but she wasn’t going to give him a choice. She walked into the library.

3

Clasp had already returned and was pouring a brandy for Mrs. Bailey. She was setting on the antique moleskin love-seat with Mr. Bailey. The Cranes had taken up the matching couch, its ancient cushions sinking low beneath their combined weight. The Mumfords had the other couch, with the stiff floral cushions. Both Mr. Dempsey and Mrs. Watersmith were on the stiff-backed floral love-seat, but there was a wide chasm between them.

That left the two great lizard skin chairs at each end of the gathering. Emily touched Brookwind’s arm, giving him a nudge to the seat at the head of the gathering, with its back to the great fire where they’d found the body. He moved with fluid grace to the chair, his cloak billowing around him with each step. He was absolutely magnificent. She went to the chair at the other end where she could sit facing him and watch her guests.

“Will you be staying long?” Mr. Bailey asked Brookwind.

Brookwind sat perched on the edge of the chair, with his hands resting on his knees. He shook his head when Clasp offered him a drink. Then he actually smiled, an expression that brightened his face considerably.

He shook his head. “We don’t build dwellings of stone. We move with the seasons.”

“Yes, of course,” Mr. Bailey said. “In my travels outside the wall I guested one day in an elvish camp during a storm. It was marvelous. I don’t believe I’ve ever eaten so well.”

Mr. Bailey laughed and nodded to Emily. “With no insult to our gracious and beautiful host.”

Emily shook her head. “None taken.”

Clasp came around to Emily’s chair. She rose and took a few steps aside with him.

“Are the staff gathered? Are any missing?”

Clasp shook his head as he leaned close. “All accounted for, Miss.”

“Good. Thank you.” It seemed unlikely that any of them were the goblinman, but there must be a reason for the goblinman to stay. She touched his arm and returned to her seat.

“I thought we were to call them Gaians,” Mr. Mumford said.

Mrs. Crane leaned forward, sloshing her brandy. Crumbs from a small cake tumbled from her lips. “Gaian? Why do you say that, Mr. Mumford?”

Mrs. Mumford snorted. “Because some of us are polite enough not to insult our guest with slang.”

Mrs. Crane blinked in confusion and looked at Mr. Crane. He patted her arm. “Elves, dear. They don’t like being called elves.”

Brookwind pressed his hands together and parted them. “Words only, blown away with each breath. Truth resides in actions, not words.”

“Very gracious,” Mr. Bailey said. Brandy dribbled from his lip. “In any event, it was marvelous. Beautiful structures were strung between the trees in such a way that I hardly felt the storm at all. They had this wine as sweet as honey and as refreshing as cold spring water. I’m afraid I must have drank too much. When I woke the next morning it was to the birds singing and the sun shining in my face, but the camp was gone as if it had never been.”

“Perhaps you dreamed it,” Mr. Dempsey said.

Mr. Bailey laughed and lifted his glass. “Perhaps!”

“I say,” Mr. Crane said to Brookwind. “Mr. Bailey has entertained us with tales of the savage saurian beasts and the not-men that live in the wilds beyond the wall. Are the wild lands really so fierce?”

“For such as you, yes.”

Mr. Bailey traced the line of his scar with one finger. “You only have to look at me, to see that!”

Emily had sat silent through their banter, gauging their responses. Mr. Bailey was his usual self, including that gesture with the scar. He brought it up frequently, and his encounter with the raptor that had nearly taken his head off.

The Cranes were their usual jovial selves, flushed with drink and food in equal measure. Mr. Dempsey, she had already ruled out, looked uncomfortable sitting next to Mrs. Watersmith. She sat quite stiff and tall, sipping her drink the way a bird might dip its beak to drink. For her, that was normal.

On the other couch, the Mumfords were whispering to one another, following the discussion of what to call Brookwind. As far as Emily was concerned, elf was perfectly polite.

Of the whole party, only Mrs. Bailey was quiet. In fact, she hadn’t said a word most of the night. Mr. Bailey did tend to go on at length, but she’d been particularly quiet since the break just before desert.

In the awkward moment following Mr. Bailey pointing out his scar, Emily spoke up.

“I quite forgot to mention that the scream earlier was my housemaid discovering a body.” She pointed past Brookwind. “Right over there, in front of the fire.”

She watched their reactions carefully. Everyone tried speaking at once, except Mrs. Bailey who shrank closer to her husband.

Mr. Dempsey rose to his feet. “Have you called the constables?”

Emily shook her head. “Our friend Brookwind was pursuing the victim, apparently a criminal from beyond the wall.”

“Here?” Mrs. Crane squeaked.

Mrs. Watersmith rose to her feet. “Mr. Dempsey, please escort me back to Watersmith Tower at once!”

The Cranes both tried rising at once and the entire couch tipped forward. They fell back into the cushions, their brandy sloshing from their glasses. Pieces of cake tumbled down Mrs. Crane’s front.

Mr. Crane recovered first and leveraged himself up. Once on his feet, huffing hard, he helped Mrs. Crane out of the couch.

“We’re going too!” he said when he finally got her up.

Mr. Mumford shook his head. “Fools. We’re staying right here where it is safe. At least until the constables arrive and provide an escort!”

Emily rose to her feet. Across from her Brookwind also stood.

“I’m afraid I can’t let anyone leave, quite yet.”

Mrs. Watersmith looked down her nose at Emily. “You can’t keep us here!”

“Oh, I think our guest is quite capable of ensuring that no one leaves.”

Mrs. Watersmith darted a glance at Brookwind and took a small step closer to Mr. Dempsey. The young man placed himself in front of Mrs. Watersmith.

“Look here,” he said. “You can’t mean you’ll force us to stay!”

Still seating, Mrs. Bailey huddled against Mr. Bailey’s arm. He patted her hand.

Emily smiled at Mr. Dempsey. “By the Treaty, I have no say in this, it is an elvish matter.”

“Gaian,” Mr. Mumford muttered.

Brookwind looked over the others to her. “You know who the shifter is?”

“Shifter?” Mr. Bailey stood up. “I say, do you mean that the killer is a goblinman?”

Mrs. Bailey squeaked and grabbed at Mr. Bailey’s leg. He stumbled and barely avoided spilling his drink.

Emily gazed across at the others. Maybe she was elf-struck. She’d happily gaze into his eyes for hours and hours. Of course there was a killer to deal with. She smiled.

“Of course.” She pointed at Mrs. Watersmith. “She is the other one!”

“I saw her!” Mrs. Bailey shrieked, springing to her feet and clutching Mr. Bailey by the shoulders. “I saw her!”

Mr. Dempsey turned and Mrs. Watersmith snarled, her once-regal face twisting, and struck him with a back-handed blow that knocked him aside. She ran toward the servants’ door.

Brookwind vaulted over the couches and in a few swift strides caught her well before she reached the door.

“Unhand me!” She yelled.

A obsidian blade was in Brookwind’s hand and pressed to her powdery neck. She went very still.

Mr. Crane and Mr. Mumford were helping Mr. Dempsey to his feet as Emily walked over to face the impostor. Clasp’s bulk was a comforting presence behind her.

“It’s okay, Mrs. Bailey,” Emily said. “She won’t be harming anyone else. What did you see?”

Mrs. Bailey, clutching Mr. Bailey’s arm, peeked at them.

“Before desert, Mrs. Watersmith went to the powder room. Then I decided to go, and on the way, I saw her with herself going into the side hall! And one of her was wearing a man’s dinner suit! It was only a second, and I thought my eyes must be playing tricks on me. By the time I got back, she was sitting with Mr. Dempsey at the table. I thought I might have imagined it, except she kept looking at me.”

Mrs. Watersmith’s breath hissed between her teeth. Emily went to Mrs. Bailey and touched her arm.

“Thank you. I had noticed that she had freshly powdered her face when she returned, not just a touch-up, mind you, but she was entirely powdered even down her neck and hands. That seemed unnecessary, but at the time I didn’t think much of it.”

Emily walked back to face Brookwind and the impostor. “You can drop the disguise. You’ve given yourself away more than once.”

Mrs. Watersmith’s face wrinkled and sagged like collapsing bread. Her eyes rolled up, and when they came down the irises were pink shot through with red. Her mouth puckered and she sneered at Emily.

“You wouldn’t have figured it out if that fool hadn’t imprinted on her also!”

“Maybe,” Emily said. “If you hadn’t killed him and left the body you might have gotten away with it.”

“I didn’t have time,” the goblinman hissed. “I didn’t expect the elf!”

“You truly believed you could elude me?” Brookwind sheathed his knife, keeping a tight grip on the goblinman’s arm. He pulled the silver necklace free and wrapped it around the goblinman’s wrists, behind its back. The silver band constricted like a snake.

“I was more interested in your actions,” Emily went on. “You didn’t remember Mr. Dempsey’s other appointment tonight. Leaving early would make you stand out, so you insisted on staying. At least until I broke the news to everyone else. You were the first to want to leave then, when there was a good excuse. But the Watersmiths and Hathaways have always been allies. The real Mrs. Watersmith would never have left me here to deal with this alone.”

Mr. Bailey patted Emily’s shoulder. “We wouldn’t leave you, dear.”

The goblinman wasn’t looking at any of them now. Its gaze was fixed on the floor. Emily stepped in front of him. “Where is she?”

Then it looked up. “Why?”

“To save yourself pain, why else?”

Brookwind pulled up on the silver binding the goblinman’s arms. Its breath hissed between its lips.

“Closet!”

Emily turned to Clasp. “Find her, make sure she’s unharmed.”

The troll nodded and thumped off.

Emily looked up at Brookwind. “You’ll take it, now?”

“Yes. Thank you, Lady Hathaway.”

His gaze lingered for a moment, his beautiful eyes on hers, and then he moved away with the goblinman over his shoulder. The door banged behind him and she was left alone with her guests.

4

Emily stood alone on her balcony enjoying the cool night wind through her thin night gown. It was late, already well past midnight. Hathaway Tower dropped away far, far beneath her. Around her tower stood the others, including Watersmith Tower where Mrs. Watersmith was recovering from her ordeal after being rescued from the closet.

There was a soft sound behind her, like that a cat might make. She didn’t move until she felt the heat of his skin and his forest scent touched her neck. She turned and gazed up at his beautiful face.

“Are the stories true then, you can fly?”

Brookwind smiled.

“What happens to the goblinman now? Is it dead?”

His smile faded. He shook his head. “Death is not enough, for justice.”

Emily stepped close and raised her hand. Her fingers hovered above his bare chest. When he didn’t pull away she lightly touched him. The muscles jumped beneath her finger tips but he stayed.

“You came back,” she said, “why?”

Brookwind pushed closer. He ran his hands lightly along her hair as he gazed into her eyes. His eyes caught the dim light and gleamed. “The soul search, you called me back.”

Was it possible? If she was elf-struck, could he feel the same about her?

She licked her lips, watching his eyes. “What now?”

He picked her up and carried her inside.

5,334 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 40th weekly short story release, written in June 2013 at a workshop on the Oregon Coast while listening to Metric’s Gold Guns Girls. It doesn’t really have much at all to do with the story, I just kept writing with the song on repeat.

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRtd8ArvH_s&w=400]

The story went on to sell to WMG Publishing, to appear in Fiction River: Fantastic Detectives (Fiction River: An Original Anthology Magazine) (Volume 9)

Fiction River is a great anthology series. Check it out for more terrific stories. I was thrilled to be included (plus my story was next to Kevin J. Anderson’s story in the contents, so that was fun). Later on I wrote Astrasphere set in the same world.

Eventually I’ll do a standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the story. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print 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. I’m also serializing a novel, Europan Holiday, now on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my horror story Bed Bugs.

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.