Uranus Exposed

Dia did her time. She spent years in a cramped ship to get to the ass-end of the solar system and colonize Uranus. If that wasn’t funny, she didn’t know what was.

Now she spends her days cracking jokes about cracks and keeping the floating habitat Aether operational. It might be the ass-end of Diaspora’s colonization plans, but it was home.

When things go seriously wrong, Dia follows her nose for trouble.

1

Sleep was hard to come by in the ass-end of the solar system. Uranus was the subject of plenty of school yard jokes growing up, and now as an adult stuck inside a narrow shaft, hanging upside down, it wasn’t that funny. She’d had less than four hours of sleep in the last day, but that didn’t stop Dia from cracking jokes. Or making jokes about cracks.

If anything it made it worse.

She hung upside down in the shaft, her bare legs bent over the extension bar she’d run across the shaft. She liked shorts, which showed off her legs, easily her best feature. It certainly wasn’t her boobs. Unlike some of the women that Diaspora sent out to colonize the solar system, she wasn’t stacked enough to benefit from the lower gravity of other worlds. Even back in the deeper gravity well of Earth she hadn’t bothered with a bra most days, so the floating Uranus habitat, Aether suited her fine. Ninety-percent gravity at this altitude, with one bar pressure outside. Almost like home. At least it wasn’t the first time she’d been down a shaft.

Sweat ran down into her short, spiky blue hair and dripped on down on Allison below.

“What do you call a monkey with a red ass?” Dia cracked.

Beneath her, straddling another extension bar, Allison swiped a stained cloth across her forehead. She was also small, and looked more delicate than she was. Sort of like a porcelain doll with short black hair. Also a bit of a card shark and a slut, but she had the whole innocent act down pat.

“Are you sweating on me?”

Dia leered. “Do you want me sweating on you?”

“In your dreams.” Allison grunted, and pushed on the wrench. She was trying to loosen the bolts holding the circulation fan in place without much luck.

They’d already been at this particular repair for an hour, an hour past a double shift, and the temperature was rising across the floating habitat. Allison’s breath hissed and the bolt finally came free. She twisted it off, caught it, and handed it up to Dia.

“So?” Dia took the bolt. “What’s your answer?”

Allison pried at the fan’s housing. “Answer?”

“What do you call a monkey with a red ass?”

“I don’t know, aren’t those baboons or something?”

“No. It’s a spanked monkey.”

Allison groaned. “That’s not even funny.”

More sweat rolled off Dia’s forehead, dripping down onto Allison. The whole shaft smelled of human sweat, salty and sticky.

Dia stuck the bolt into the bag that hung beside her on the bar. Drop one of those puppies and it was a thirty meter climb down the shaft to retrieve it.

Aether, their home on the ice giant Uranus, was a floating habitat similar to Aphrodite on Venus, but far less picturesque and smaller. Aether was an older design, launched years before the Venus mission. It also worked much differently since on Venus a normal breathable atmosphere was a floating gas that kept Aphrodite afloat. On the Aether, they floated in an atmosphere dominated by hydrogen, which mean great heated pontoons on each side to keep the habitat aloft. The fusion generators that powered the Aether, kept it heated against the frigid atmosphere outside, and kept them afloat, couldn’t just be shut down. With the heat-transfer system failing, they were in danger of baking within the habitat.

 

Allison grunted and jerked at the housing. No good. It wasn’t budging. “I’m going to need a hand with this.”

“Hang on.”

Dia swung up and grabbed the extension bar. She slipped her legs down off the bar, sliding smoothly to hang her legs down. Her toes found Allison’s extension bar and she gripped it with her feet.

“You’re the monkey,” Allison said. “Where’d you get green nail polish?”

“Made it.”

Dia grabbed her bar, pressing the release and twisted. The bar came free from the sides. She gave it a couple extra twists to retract the ends, then turned and crouched smoothly, knees spreading out to keep her balance on Allison’s bar. Her bare feet gripped each side of the bar while she brought her bar down between them, just above Allison’s. A couple twists to extend the ends and it was locked firmly across the shaft, making an X with Allison’s bar.

She sat down on her bar beside Allison, curled her left leg underneath, and braced her bare right foot on the shaft wall beneath the housing.

“I’ll take this side. You get the other.”

Allison slid over on her bar, and grabbed the other side of the housing. “On three.”

“Two.”

“One.”

They heaved together and with a metallic squeal, the housing slid out into the shaft, the tracks stiff and unresponsive. Dia bent down.

The tracks were bare metal.

“This needs to be greased. It looks like whoever installed it skipped that step.”

Allison was poking around in the innards of the unit. “Nothing wrong with this one except loose wires. Must have vibrated loose. I’ll have it fixed in a twist.”

Dia took out a grease tube from her utility belt and squirted a line of grease onto the stubborn tracks. She used her legs to hold on while she leaned and squirted. She chuckled as she finished.

“There you go, Ali, all lubed up for you. Should slide in real easy now.”

Allison sighed and straightened up. “You’re horrible.”

“What else am I supposed to do? I’m hot, stinky and tired. Sometimes you just have to laugh about it. You know what Lee Barton said to Blackstone before he got the job?”

“I don’t want to know.”

“He said, Terra, darlin’, Uranus fascinates me. I’ve got to be the one to explore it.” Dia laughed.

Allison shoved the fan unit housing back into place. It moved easier now. Dia reached out and caught the edge. “You’ve got to move it back and forth, in, oh, and, out!”

Allison shoved Dia’s hand away and pressed the unit firmly into place. “Leave it! Come on, let’s just get this done. I’m exhausted and I don’t want to cook. Give me the first bolt.”

Dia fished the bolts out of her bag, passing them to Allison as needed. As she handed the last one, she said, “Are you done screwing that unit yet?”

That only got her a glare.

She raised her hands in surrender. “Fine, fine. Try it out.”

Allison brought the unit online. It hummed to life and cool air blew across them. Dia peeled her shirt away from her skin and leaned forward, letting the air blow down her shirt.

“Oh, that’s good.” Dia shifted so the air blew across her left pit. “Everyone can get a whiff of eau de Dia.”

“You’re going to kill them all with that,” Allison said. “Come one. Let’s go check the next one.”

“I’ll go first this time.” Dia braced her bare feet on the sides of the shaft, holding herself in place while she twisted the bar free. She turned, putting her back against the shaft wall and walked down the shaft.

It took two more hours to get all of the units in the shaft back online, but that brought full circulation back on and carried mercifully cooler air through the station. Dead tired, Dia crawled out of the shaft after Allison, then rolled right over in the middle of the corridor and spread out her arms.

“Can’t you just carry me back to my room?”

“I’ll be lucky to get back myself. You can crawl.”

Dia groaned and rolled over onto her hands and knees. She arched her back down, then rocked back, rising up into a downward facing dog position. Slowly, letting each vertebrae rise at a time, she stood up.

Allison reached up. Dia caught her hand and pulled her to her feet.

Allison said. “What are you going to do?”

“Shower, and then grab a bite on the Strip. You?”

“Sleep.” Allison raised a hand. “I’ll see you.”

Dia waved and headed off back to her quarters.

2

The Strip was the one human place in Aether’s otherwise pristine corridors, and it was the one place where Dia was most comfortable. Particularly at Ricky’s, one of the many entrepreneurial establishments that had sprung up in this otherwise under-utilized space. It was a whole east meets west sort of thing, literally, formed between Aether’s two halves.

Aether was built in modules, assembled in pieces and lowered into the atmosphere for final construction. The orbiting sky hook rotated down through Uranus’ atmosphere, dropping off supplies and picking up hydrogen shipments which it launched out into orbit. That was the whole point to Aether, and the future habitats planned, to serve as mining colonies supplying the fuel to run the fusion generators throughout the system. Mercury’s solar sails would pick up the hydrogen shipments and take them throughout the system.

In the middle of all of that was a space between the two halves of the habitat. In the original plan it wasn’t intended to be sealed, but the enterprising inhabitants had added decking, sealed it off, and created a sort of open air market. If it was actually open to the air they’d all suffocate, of course. Even so, transparent panels were used for the decking down the middle of the strip so you got a good view of the long drop below into the distant cloud decks. If you fell, and were protected from suffocating or freezing, the pressure would eventually pulp you.

It kept things in perspective.

So did Ricky’s spicy noodles, served up today with a few shreds of fresh sprouts. There were other bits of reconstituted vegetables, and even something that might have been meat once upon a time.

Across the way a group of off-duty workers were laughing and hoisting glasses in celebration. Folks having a good time. Other people strolled through the strip, browsing the booths. There was a vibrant trade, particularly in the high-value personal goods that people had brought out from Earth with their weight allowance. Everything kept cycling around and around. Nothing was thrown out. It was repaired, reused or recycled into something new. When you lived in the atmosphere of an icy gas giant, the value of anything solid increased.

Dia twirled her fork, wrapping it up in a great ball of noodles and took a big bite. The broth and noodles slid down nicely. Her muscles ached a bit from the climbing and repair work, but a good ache, the sort that you got after a great workout or great sex. Actually, in her experience, great sex was usually a great workout. It’d been a while. The last guy that she’d hooked up with was one of the rock jocks that worked out on the Uranus moons, mining hard mineral resources and ice for the colony, down for shore leave. Rock jocks were always horny on leave, everyone knew that, and expected it.

Old man Barton, the boss of ’em all out here on the ass-end of the Diaspora, encouraged women to get pregnant. Build up the population and all that rah-rah bullshit. As far as Dia knew, only two woman in the colony had gotten pregnant so far. Most of them were a bit too busy doing science stuff or — like her — trying to keep the colony even functioning to even think about having a kid right now. You had to wonder if Barton would dare tell someone like Terra Blackstone or Carys Rex that they should have kids to boost Diaspora’s population.

Not in this lifetime.

The beer was cold at least. Dia’s glass mug was sweating on the table. She picked it up and took a deep drink. It wasn’t actually bad. Ricky brewed it herself, purportedly from an age-old family recipe. Barton might be the boss of the colony, but it was Ricky that got them organized to build the Strip and launched the first free market in Diaspora. Fundamental rights were a given, part of the Diaspora charter and all that stuff about the most valuable resource being the people themselves. You couldn’t deny them basic rights, including food, shelter, water, air and medical. Along with it was the right to self-governance.

Thanks to Ricky, they actually had the Strip. Better than anything that Barton had done.

Today it was busy. Not just Ricky’s, but the other establishments.

People liked getting out after being on shift. She wasn’t alone in pulling doubles, even triples. Lately it seemed like they were lucky enough to keep the place aloft, and on top of that they had the new folks from the exodus swelling their numbers and straining resources.

There was a group of them at a table on the other side of the Strip at the burger joint. No beef in those rat burgers. You could tell these were newbies. Four guys tucked in close to the table, wearing the generic Diaspora workalls. Back on Earth they might have been important, here they took up space. At least until Barton managed to get them shifted out. Right now they were all holed up in the dormitories which were nothing but new inflated extensions hanging off the Aether until more substantial extensions were built. Some of the exodus folks were busy working on those themselves, if they had any skills in that area.

The guys weren’t bad to look at, if a bit gaunt. It must have been something to see all those launches when the Diaspora group started the exodus to evacuate all personnel and their families from the Earth. She’d seen holograms but that still wasn’t real. Not like being there.

And none of those guys had taken the long haul out for years to reach Uranus. If they thought conditions were cramped now, they should have been on the transport ships that brought the colony out here. She still woke up in a sweat sometimes, thinking she was back on the ships.

Instead the exodus had benefited from solar sails and beamed power to cut down on the transit time to only six months.

They didn’t have to serve time. That’s the way everyone thought of it. The trip out to Uranus, that was serving time. Coffin time. You didn’t have a cell. You had a bunk, a narrow little space with a folding door. If you were short you fit, but anyone over six-feet tall couldn’t stretch out to their full length in the bunk.

Worse than anything, there wasn’t that much to do. Keep the ship running, doing routine maintenance. With a hundred and fifty people though, there wasn’t enough tasks to keep everyone busy. Instead it was all education and study. Scenarios and theories, and constant revisions to the colonization plan. That gave the decision makers something to do and left the rest of them sucking vacuum. That and wondering if they could really make a go of it at Uranus.

Dia twirled her fork in the remaining noodles and slurped them up. Cooling now, but still salty and delicious. Ricky’s had the best food on the Strip.

Those exodus guys didn’t know what the rest of them went through to get here and build this place. Some people went crazy before they even reached Uranus. Twenty-three dead since leaving Earth. She’d seen people fall screaming into deep blue void on the other side of that transparent floor. The floor really spooked the newcomers but it was perfect. It reminded them all of what they’d overcome to build this home.

Her glasses chimed. Dia looked up. Allison calling. “Answer.”

Allison, her cabin walls behind her, covered in climbing tomatoes. She traded them. “We’ve got a valve leak in the west pontoon.”

Impossible. “What the hell?”

Allison shrugged. “All I know, is it went offline.”

“Once again Uranus shits in our faces and we’re supposed to take it? Can’t they get someone else? We already did a double. I got clean.”

“Everyone else is busy. Zeke says we’ll get a full two days off after this is fixed.”

“He’s full of shit,” Dia said automatically. How the man ever was put in charge of anything escaped her, but he was Barton’s second up on the Command deck. “He can’t promise that if things keep breaking.”

“Are you coming?”

Dia picked up her bowl. “I’ll be right there.”

With a bleep, Allison was gone. Dia gulped down the broth, not wanting a drop to go to waste, and returned the bowl to the bus-bot on her way down the strip.

She passed the newbies table on her way out and made eye contact with the cutest guy, with deep dark brown skin and dark eyes. She winked, and threw a bit more sway into her hip on her way out. They’d be watching her legs the whole time.

3

The pontoons were massive clusters of reinforced inflated balloons, like a fist full of fat cigars, or giant zeppelins, all strapped together on the sides of the Aether. It’d take massive failure to take out an entire pontoon. A simple valve leak on its own wouldn’t mean a failure of the whole thing. At worst, they’d shut down one, do the repair and the bring it back online. The whole thing was so big, that no one would even notice.

Dia was halfway there, taking her time, walking the plain Aether corridors with her tool belt clinking around her waist. Most of the people she passed were serious planetary science types, with clean workalls who probably hadn’t had to pull a double yet. There was a whole team of them studying Uranus.

She snickered. A team studying Uranus. She’d share that with Allison.

The floor tilted beneath her feet. She had fast reflexes and kept her feet. Ahead of her, some three meters down the corridor, a scientist stumbled into the wall. A tablet fell from her fingers and she screamed. Seeing her blond hair, and fine features, Dia recognized her. Missy Turner, who’d once freaked out during the journey out here. She’d got completely catatonic for a whole month after staring out at space too long.

Then the whole corridor moved in an odd slip-sliding sort of way and rose back up slightly, not level, but closer. Missy screamed again.

Something was seriously, seriously fucked up. The Aether did not move like that. It did not! The whole thing was like a floating island. It drifted with the wind, endlessly circling the planet and unless you watched carefully you couldn’t even tell that it was moving.

The floor stayed at an angle. That suggested something had gone seriously wrong with the west pontoon stack. The stabilizers worked to keep things level. The only way it wouldn’t be level was if they couldn’t compensate. Except that was impossible!

Dia ran down the corridor. Missy made a grab for her, but Dia slipped past the grasping hand.

“Come back!”

No fucking way. A siren started blaring through the halls.

It wasn’t possible!

She ran faster.

4

A crowd had already formed in the pontoon access lockers when Dia skidded into the room. People were suiting up around the room. Allison was standing near the airlock, already dressed in the baggy sealed flight suit used for outside work. They didn’t need pressurized suits, just something to keep warm and a helmet so that they had breathable air. Allison’s helmet was tucked under her arm.

Dia sprinted across the room, dodged around a couple guys getting dressed, and caught Allison’s arm as she turned to the airlock.

“What’s happened?”

“Pontoon locks are failing.” Allison’s eyes were wide, dry and scared. “Gotta go, Dia.”

It was Caleb and Kathryn waiting with Allison. The two of them were fitting their helmets. Dia let go of Allison’s arm.

“I’ll get suited up.”

“Good. We’re going to need everyone.”

Dia backed away. Caleb picked up a bulky repair pack. Kathryn was lifting the wielding gear. Allison slid her helmet on.

Dia lifted her hand in a quick wave. Allison nodded back.

Then Dia walked up the sloping floor to the suit lockers. She dialed a small suit. Inside the racks spun, then stopped. She wrenched the stiff door open and took out the suit, the tanks and helmet.

Others were finishing getting dressed. A line was forming at the airlock. A failure in the pontoon locks meant they could lose the whole stack. If the locks failed completely, then the pontoons on this side would escape. It shouldn’t happen. There were multiple redundancies and safety features to prevent that sort of catastrophic failure!

There was no way this could happen.

Not unless someone did something to the locks. That’d be suicidal. If the pontoon failed completely, one pontoon wouldn’t be enough to keep the Aether aloft. The whole base would plummet into the depths and be crushed. The teams going out there now would manually seal and check each one of the locks. But was anyone checking the other pontoon?

Dia zipped up her suit and blinked open a communications line. “Command.”

It was Zeke that answered, his young angular face pale today. “Yes?”

“Zeke, is anyone taking a look at east pontoon?”

“No! The problem is at the west pontoon! Clear the channel and get over there. We need everyone out on this.”

“I’m there, but Zeke, this can’t be an accident. Someone did this.”

He scowled. “No one would —”

“It didn’t fail on its own! And if someone sabotaged this one, how do we know that they’re not over doing the other right now?”

He bit his lip.

“Look, I’ll go check it out. You’ve got enough hands out there already as it is. Send someone to back me up, though. We need to catch the person responsible!”

“Go. Call in if you find anything.”

He was gone already. Dia slipped on her helmet and twisted it in place. Better than carrying it. She grabbed a spare kit, slung it over her shoulder and started running again.

Fastest way over was down to the next cross connection, through the Strip and into Aether’s east side.

5

When Dia burst into the east pontoon locker room she expected to find it empty. Instead there was a man, by the broad shoulders, standing in front of the airlock. He was wearing a brown excursion suit, no different than hers except in size.

He spun around when she came in.

She’d seen his face before, but she didn’t know his name. He was tanned by the distant sun. From Earth, then, one of the new people that arrived in the exodus transport. Dark hazel eyes watched her warily. Behind him the panel showed the progress in the airlock cycle. Had someone already gone out? If so, why wait inside? The airlock was big enough for at least four at a time.

“What are you doing?” She asked, easing closer.

“Isn’t this where the emergency is? I thought I could help out. I worked on the floating ocean platforms back on Earth.”

“Wrong side. It’s the west side that is in trouble.”

He smiled, flat and as empty as a clown. “Really? Gosh, I’m still getting turned around here.”

Dia kept moving closer. He was right in front of the airlock. If he got inside, she’d have to wait an entire cycle to get out after him. Who know what damage he could cause before then? And what if he had a way to block her from getting out at all. She’d have to go down to the secondary access airlocks and go along the Aether’s spine. That’d take forever.

“Come on then.” She beckoned. “I’ll show you where to go.”

“If this is the wrong way, why’re you here? Why’d you come acrost to this side?”

She smiled widely. “Maybe I got lost too. Come on, let’s get back before anyone realizes that we screwed up.”

The airlock pinged behind him. He glanced back, then at her. His smile still didn’t reach his eyes. “I think I’d better go ahead and check this one out too, don’t you think? Make sure everything is okay.”

“Hey, you know what they say about Uranus?”

His brow wrinkled. “What?”

“You’re so full of shit!”

Dia charged across the room at the guy. Where the hell was her backup? Zeke!

The guy turned away, slapping the airlock control. The door slid open and he lunged through, turning to the panel on the inside. Dia was still a couple meters away.

She sprinted as fast as she could. The door started moving. She dove forward.

Her helmet struck him. He made a wheezing sort of noise before crumpling. They tumbled together into the airlock. The door was still closing. Dia tucked her feet in and rolled off the guy.

Really, she’d meant to tackle him, not head-butt his balls. The helmet got in the way. But that worked too.

The door closed.

The guy was down, on the floor, cupping his wounded pride and groaning.

Dia moved around him back to the door controls. Get the door open. Drag out the guy and sit on him if she had to, until help came. It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was best she had. And call —

A hand grabbed her ankle and yanked.

Dia yelped and rolled away as she fell. She hit on her shoulder, still rolling and twisted free from his grip. The guy’s hands grabbed at her again.

Dia kicked out at him. The blows didn’t land. He crawled forward, knocking her ineffectual kicks aside, and then threw himself across her legs.

He was heavy!

She pushed up and swung at him. The blows hit his helmet and bounced off. He grabbed for her arms. She yelled and squirmed, trying to get out from under him, but he grabbed her suit and yanked her beneath him, using his weight and size against her.

He had her down, pinned to the floor, with his weight holding her down. She tried bringing her knee up between his legs but he was ready for that and shifted, deflecting the blow with his thighs.

Then his knee shoved between her legs!

He got both of his legs between hers even as she thrashed against him. He caught her left arm and used his weight to pin it down.

She tried to hit him, but couldn’t get a good angle. She struck at his side and he tucked his arm down, blocking the blow.

Then he punched down hard, right into her side.

Pain exploded in her mid-section as her breath exploded from her shocked and open mouth. Spit sprayed across the inside of her helmet. While she was stunned from the pain, he caught her other arm and pinned her completely down. While fire burned in her side and she struggled for breath, he had her completely pinned between his body and his hands on her arms.

Dia swung her legs up, wrapping them around his waist and squeezed with everything she had. Her legs were strong. She could climb shafts, hang upside down and run with the best of them. Her legs were always her best feature.

She squeezed with everything she had, trying to crush him with her legs.

He grimaced. “Stop.”

“No.” Gasped for air. “Fucking. Way.”

Her muscles trembled against him.

He snarled and rocked back, up on his knees, pulling her up so suddenly she was straddling him. He released her arms and grabbed the front of the suit.

Oh shit!

He slammed her back down hard against the floor. Her head snapped against the helmet. The force of the blow knocked out the rest of her air. It was stunning. She was lifted up again, limbs going weak, then slammed down again.

He pulled free and stood.

Dia groaned and tried to move.

A foot flashed, slammed into her side. Something cracked. Her rib. It was on fire. Her eyes stung with tears. She couldn’t breathe or see anything. Her head swam dizzily.

Where was the backup, Zeke?

Was he in on it? Maybe no one was coming. Zeke might have deliberately sent everyone to the other pontoon, to distract them from what was happening at this one. Why?

Another kick hit her stomach, lifting her from the floor and then dropping her. Her stomach heaved and then she vomited into her helmet, the bile hot and tasting of Ricky’s noodles. Not better the second time!

She curled into a ball. She fought for air. Where was he? What was he doing?

She sensed he had moved away, but she couldn’t see. Her eyes were blurry and dark. Her mouth tasted of bile, noodles and fire. She couldn’t breathe!

Panic spread like wildfire along her nerves. She thrashed and struggled to breath, her mouth gaping wide. The darkness grew.

Then a thin hint of air made it down her gasping throat like a thread of fire. She sucked and more came. She took in great gasping gulps of vomit-tainted air and it was the sweetest thing ever. The darkness pulled back a bit, but there was a still a thin keening sound. Was that her?

No. She was crying, but that wasn’t it.

It was the outside door.

Dia arched her back, rolling to get a look.

The outside door was open. The man was gone.

He must have gone out to complete whatever sabotage he had intended. If that was destroying the pontoon locks, he was about to kill them all. Everyone on the Aether, plus the hydrogen miners and the rock jocks. Without the Aether they were all dead. Diaspora would eventually send out a new colony, fat lot of good it would do any of them. Even those in orbit, they couldn’t survive long enough on their own.

Dia got her breath back and opened a call on her glasses. “Command!”

Old man Barton answered the call himself. His face was knows as well as Terra Blackstone’s back on Earth. The handsome astronaut that had been an early proponent of the Diaspora Group back when they were first contracting for commercial space exploration. The years had aged him, turned his hair silver, but otherwise he was still the hard rocket jock he’d always been.

Right now his blue eyes looked haunted. They widened when he saw her. “Dia Rhodes? Where are you?”

“I’m at the east pontoon airlock, sir. One of the newbies got past me, he’s outside. I’m going after him, but I need backup.”

“I’ll send someone right away.”

“Sir, I called in and talked to Zeke already.”

Barton ran a hand across his buzzed silver hair. “He’s gone. We’re tracking him now, but what we’re seeing suggests that he’s involved. Be careful if you see him.”

“Understood. I’ve got to go.”

Dia crossed to the airlock. She hurt from the fight. The sour smell of vomit filled her helmet, and streaked the inside. One of her ribs burned with pain every time she drew a breath. Her lungs were sore.

The airlock opened out onto the long drop through Uranus’ cloud deck, except for the wire grating walkway that extended out from the airlock in a half-circle waiting area with a tall fence around the edges. The wind keened through the wire mesh. Dia slipped out, keeping her back to the walls, watching for the man.

He wasn’t in view. On her left the walkway extended along the Aether’s structure, then turned left and climbed up to the pontoon connections. It was the only way for him to have gone.

Dia ran for the stairs. She got there and looked around the corner. The stairs ran up to the next level, the first connection points. Above her the pontoon stack was enormous, massive long cigar-shaped and silver, bound together in a cluster. Massive cables ran from the pontoon stack to the locks that held it in place. Stairs, wrapped in a mesh fence to prevent falls, ran along the cables up to the pontoons.

The saboteur was climbing up to the first cable locks. He had a bag and was reaching inside. Dia ran up the stairs, ignoring the pain with each step. The man looked down at her, his face registering surprise.

Thought I was down for the count? She thought.

Hardly. Like she was going to let that stop her. He turned away and hurried to the first cable lock housing. There was something in his hand from the bag he carried, small and black, a device of some sort. Explosive?

Dia was still a level down when he slapped the device onto the lock housing. He sprinted down the gangway toward the next housing.

How long did she have? She was already moving. There wasn’t any chance of going back. Fail to stop him, and they died. If she died trying that was better than cowering in the airlock waiting for the Aether to drop into the void.

She climbed up the last steps and ran to the housing. The device was a round, matte-black cylinder, capped at each end with a cluster of electronics on the end. If it was counting down, there wasn’t any visible display.

“What’s going on Dia?” Barton asked.

Her eyes flicked up, acknowledging the connection.

“He’s planted an explosive on the lock housing. He’s going on to the next one. I’m going to try and take it off.”

Barton licked his lips. “If you set it off…”

“If I don’t, he’s going to blow it anyway.”

Sweat dripped into her eyes. “I have to take the chance. Leave me alone so I can concentrate.”

“Send me what you’re seeing, we might be able to help.”

Dia eyes-flicked her feed over to him, then focused on the device.

She didn’t know anything about disarming bombs. The bomb might go off no matter what she did. The housing, though, she understood that. If she removed the housing would the bomb go off? Maybe, but it seemed the best bet. Of course if she got it off she still needed to do something with it.

Dia pulled her cutting torch from her utility belt. The thin torch sucked in hydrogen from the environment, combined it with oxygen to produce a small sort flame. Useful when working outside. She turned it on the fencing next to her. The thin wire cut like butter. She sliced across it, down one side, then over. She pulled the fencing in and bent it out of the way, leaving herself with a half-meter, roughly square opening in the fence.

“What are you doing?” Barton asked.

“The only thing I can do,” she said. “Where’s the backup?”

“On their way. We ran into some other problems.”

The housing was next. She sliced through the access lock. The housing was thin and cut like tissue paper. She swung the door open, biting her lip, and the bomb didn’t go off. She sliced the torch down the hinges and the housing door came away in her hand. It almost slipped in her gloves, but she caught it.

She wasn’t breathing when she shoved it through the opening she’d cut and let it fall.

It tumbled away like a falling leaf, spinning and dropping quickly to a small dark spot against the cloud scape. Then a bright flash far below and a distant rumble like thunder.

She turned and ran for the next housing. The man was already ahead of her, planting more bombs on the remaining locks’ housings. She couldn’t get to them all, not before he could set them off. He only had three left.

At the next housing she didn’t stop. She sprinted past it and aimed for the third. If that one blew, at least there’d be space between the remaining ones.

Twelve locks. How many did the Aether need to before the others failed. If she saved every other one, was that enough?

No time to question. The decision was made. She reached the third. Her lungs were burning as she cut through the fencing and bent it out of the way. Then she turned to the housing, slicing through the lock and then the hinges, just like last time.

She shoved it through the hole and didn’t watch. She turned to run to the next. When a loud blast picked her up and dashed her against the fence. Flames licked the air around her as she dropped to the grating.

The noise had deafened her. Barton’s face was in the corner of her glasses. His mouth moved. She didn’t hear anything expect ringing. She picked herself up. Her suit was singed but the lock was intact. The bomb must have gone off sooner.

Dia picked herself up, pulling herself up the fence. The saboteur was picking himself up too. That had had been some jolt. He was picking up his bag.

Screw this!

She picked herself up and charged down the gangway. Her ribs hurt but her fingers ached as she held onto the torch. Three bombs weren’t even planted. She’d saved at two locks. If she stopped him, that’d give her at least three more. Maybe the others wouldn’t go off.

If he got to the end, if he set them off, then it really was over. The explosion would tear away the cable locks and those thick cables would run free, releasing the pontoons to float away. The Aether would drop into the depths.

Unless she stopped it. The vomit-scented air burned down her sore throat. Her ribs screamed with each step. Dia kept going. The newbie saw her and ran toward the next housing. She picked up speed and ran full out. She didn’t hold anything back.

He was at the next housing when she was only a couple meters behind him. His hand dug into the bag. She didn’t hesitate, didn’t slow, and didn’t stop. She slammed into his side, tucking to drive her shoulder into his side. The impact made her rib flare up like a nova but she kept her feet and he went down. The bag fell away. Another bomb rolled from the bag onto the gangway.

He kicked out at her legs. She jumped, lifting her feet and came down on the other side. As she landed she swung the torch across the front of his suit.

The hot flames scorched through the suit, laying it open to red smoking ruin. Frost formed across the wound as the blood and hot air inside was exposed to the cold. He screamed and thrashed away from her on the metal gangway.

Dia raked the torch across the backs of his legs. The flame burned the fabric down into his legs. Blood well from the blackened wounds and dripped down, drops freezing and falling away through the gangway into the depths below. He screamed again.

Her gut tightened, heaved and she swallowed against it. He was trying to kill them all.

He reached out, clawing the metal for toward the fallen bomb.

Dia brought the torch down on his fingers, cutting the ends of his pinky and ring fingers away. The metal glowed red hot. Frost formed across his stumps. The cold was flash freezing any exposed flesh.

“We need to talk to him, Dia!” Barton. Shouting in her ear.

“Why did you do this?” She shouted at the saboteur.

He struck out at her and she met the blow with the flame of the torch. He screamed, whimpered and tried crawling away. She pounced, searing the backs of his legs again. His suit was a bloody ruin, frozen to his legs. As long as his helmet stayed intact he would keep breathing but he’d freeze soon if he didn’t get inside. The atmospheric pressure at this altitude was essentially the same as sea-level on Earth, just not breathable. And deadly cold. A few seconds in this cold and you’d freeze solid without the suit.

“Why?”

He collapsed sobbing on the deck. His good hand moved down to his waist. Dia stabbed the torch down, searing his hand. He bucked and rolled. There was a device on his belt. She snatched it up, holding the torch ready. The device looked like a trigger, with a guard over the button. She held it and held the torch on him.

“Who sent you? Why are you doing this?”

“We shouldn’t be out here!” He said, rolling onto his back. He held his hands up, panting. “We shouldn’t be here!”

“Why the hell not?”

“We’re not ready.” His voice caught. He coughed. “You’re traitors, abandoning Earth! You deserve to die for that.”

Of all the stupid crap! “Seriously? That’s your reason for sacrificing your own life? You’re one of those origin freaks?”

Origin, preached that Earth was the only proper home for humanity, and they shouldn’t be “invading” other worlds. According to Origin, humanity was supposed to stay on the Earth until the aliens decided they were ready to ascend. Or some crazy shit like that.

“Earth is the birthplace of humanity, and the only place we can survive.”

Dia lowered the torch closer to his helmet. He whimpered and crawled backward. “We’ve been surviving just fine before you decided to try to kill us all. If your whole origin fairytale was true, where are your alien judges now?”

“You’ll doom us all!”

He lunged forward, knocking her back. She stumbled, held onto the torch but he wasn’t coming at her. He managed to get up and took off in a lurching run. It took a few strides before she realized where he was going.

The gate out to the stairs leading up to the pontoons. She ran to catch him, but he got through. He slammed the gate shut with a clang and sat down on the steps. He braced his feet against the frame.

Dia hit the gate. He had his legs locked. She lifted the torch. “I can cut that right off its hinges and drag you out. If you don’t want to talk to me, I’m sure old man Barton will find someone to get the answers out of you.”

The newbie looked back at her. Sweat was running down his face. He gulped air. Then he reached up to the helmet releases on his suit.

“No!” Dia turned the torch on the wire of the gate. It flared bright red and melted, dripping down. She pulled it down the gate, cutting the wire strands.

Not fast enough. He twisted the helmet releases free and pulled it clean off his head. His breath exhaled around him in an instant frosty cloud, forming ice on his hair and skin. His face hardened and ice traced across his cheeks. His feet kicked against the gate and then he was still, slumping forward.

Dia stepped back. Two more steps and bumped into the fence behind her. She stopped and sank down to sit. She thumbed off the torch and dropped it on the gangway. Far, far below the clouds were an unbroken haze.

“Dia? We’re almost there. It’s okay. We’ll take care of the rest. Come on in.”

Barton. His face in the corner of her eye. She blinked him off. She was done.

The body was sitting right there on the other side of the gate, as dead as if she had killed him. And she had wanted to kill him. Her rib burned, but it wasn’t the beating. The idea, that he was willing to kill them all? Over some delusional belief in ancient aliens that had supposedly visited Earth? He must have infiltrated Diaspora a long time ago, before the exodus. Before they’d even found the star map on Titan. The Origin movement had grown when Diaspora spread out into the solar system, but it hadn’t been that big of a deal until lately. This guy must have been biding his time until now.

All for the delusion that he was saving the Earth? That by destroying them, the aliens might spare the Earth? Crazy. Crazy-ass motherfucker!

Tears stung her cheeks. She put her hands up to cover her face and hit her helmet instead.

6

The Old Man’s office perched on the upper deck of Aether. It was a big round room covered in a dome. An upper deck circled the office, with two stairs that spiraled up on each side of the room so that someone could climb up and walk around the dome and look out at the wide back of the Aether. And there were stars visible up above the dome. The clouds were mostly far below where the Aether floated. To either side the silvery pontoons floated like gigantic schools of metallic whales, shepherding the colony through Uranus’ atmosphere.

It wasn’t a room that Dia normally found herself in, but she was there, answering Barton’s summons. The tape on her ribs reduced the pain to a dull, drugged ache. Her shorts and loose t-shirt lacked any formality, despite the bare limbs she still was distanced from everything around her like she was wearing the suit.

Barton rose from behind her desk like a bear rising from a stream. He stood tall, solid, with a wildness behind him. His age and lines on his face held a gentleness, and seeing him, a sigh escaped from her lips.

“Dia.” He came around the desk and he didn’t touch her. His hands hung relaxed and comfortable at his side. “How are you doing?”

“Okay. I’m okay.”

“You saved us. If you hadn’t stopped Gerard —”

“Who?”

“Kyle Gerard, the bomber.”

“Oh, right.”

Barton nodded. “Your feed caught it all. We’ve been scouring his communications. He was discreet, but there were letters from his sister back on Earth that slipped past us. Coded communications, with directions. Given his background, we put him to work on the cargo pods, which gave him access to the resources necessary to create the bombs.”

“What happened on the west pontoon?”

“He hacked controls there to create an imbalance in the cable tension. At the same time the vent controls were put off line. It made it look like the pontoon was deflating.”

“A distraction.”

“Yes. One that you saw through.” Barton shook his head. “We’ve been lax as far as security goes. Those of us that served time on the trip out, we thought we knew everything there was to know about each other.”

“That was on the ships,” she said. She moved away from him. Pissed. She didn’t want to look at him right now. “People get out, they start living their lives again. People are getting in fights, falling in love. Making money. Isn’t that the point? Aren’t we building a new world here?”

“Yes. That’s what I called you about.”

Dia turned around. “Me?”

“The colony council decided today that we need a police presence. A sheriff. They want that to be you.”

“Me?”

“Your instincts got you there. You know the colony better than anyone. People like you, they trust you. Heck, right now you could probably have my job if you wanted it.”

That was a scary thought! She shook her head. “I don’t want your job.”

He chuckled. “Glad to hear it. But will you take the sheriff job? We’ll have to give you something less lethal than a cutting torch, but we need someone to do the job.”

“Are you going to set up a whole legal system? Courts and all of that?”

“As we need to, we will.” Barton crossed his arms. “Really, right now we need someone to keep the peace. And it’s not over, not yet.”

A cold chill ran down her arms, like somewhere a heating vent had failed. “What?”

“Zeke. He’s missing.”

“Still?”

Barton nodded. “He left his station after you talked to him. We’ve got the crew confirming that, but he’s been in hiding since. Before he split, he disabled cameras around the command deck so we didn’t see what direction he went. We haven’t been able to track him since. I suspect he’s holed up somewhere.”

“Why? What good does it do to hide? He can’t stay hidden forever. The colony isn’t that big. There’s not many places that he can go to stay hidden. And then what? If he’s hiding, he’s planning to do something. Maybe he’s going to finish what Gerard started.”

The thing that didn’t make sense was that Zeke was one of them, he’d served time on the ships. He’d been a constant morale-booster. He was the one that led them in the ship-wide songs.

“The thing I can’t understand is why he’d betray us,” Barton said, echoing her thoughts. “After everything that we’ve been through together, it just doesn’t sound like him.”

“Maybe he hasn’t betrayed us.” Dia felt her gut rise like she was dropping, falling. “With everyone busy, maybe he came after me to back me up and something else happened to him.”

“I’d like to believe that, but what about the cameras?”

“Let’s look into that. What if he wasn’t the one that disabled the cameras? Someone else might have done that when he was leaving to cover his tracks.”

“I’ll have someone check it.”

Dia shook her head. “No. Who would you ask? If someone betrayed us, did something to Zeke, they must have been on the Command deck when he talked to me. It had to be someone close enough to hear the conversation —”

“That’d be most anyone there. I heard bits of it and I was focused on the other pontoon.”

“So someone that heard I was going to the east pontoon, that wanted to stop Zeke from helping me. It’d be better if we did the work ourselves, without tipping anyone off as to what we’re doing. Can you access the logs from here?”

Barton was already moving toward his desk. “Yes, of course. I know these systems.”

He stepped behind the curved desk and placed his fingers under the edge, drawing it up to a standing height. He made a scooping gesture and a holographic screen rose up from the back side of the desk.

It was a nice workstation, lots of space to work with. “Toss me the personnel roster, anyone working at that time.”

It took Barton a moment and then he slid a window across the screen to her. Dia caught it and dragged it wider and taller. A gallery of familiar faces looked back out at her, animated and lively, smiling when their official portraits were taken. All those little pairs of eyes watching her was eerie. Zeke’s portrait gazed out at her, that hint of a familiar smile on his angular face. His eyes softened the hard lines of his cheeks and jaw. A strand of dark hair fell loose across his forehead. He didn’t look as pale as the last time she saw him. When the picture was taken they hadn’t even left Earth’s orbit yet. She remembered him talking about his last vacation. They all had a story, the last place on Earth they’d visited before launch. For most of them, they knew the trip was going to be one way.

Zeke had taken a bicycle trip, riding down the continental divide across North America. Not the whole way, there hadn’t been time, but he spent a week riding through areas that were still remote and undeveloped. Beautiful, mountainous areas full of wildlife. That’s what he had done before coming out to Uranus. It didn’t sound like the sort of person that would have betrayed them.

Which left the rest of the people on the Command deck, some twenty or so personnel.

“Was this everyone that came onto the deck during the emergency? Even anyone that might have only been there for a moment?”

“As far as I remember.” Barton had logs of data up on his screen. “I’m filtering this down to the window of time. I should be able to identify where the command to disable the cameras came from, just give me a moment.”

“Can you give me the footage from the Command deck cameras too?”

Barton pulled it up and passed it over. Dia caught it and pulled it off. She spread it out on the desk, like a holographic model of the Command deck as seen from above. Barton sat on the upper row of the deck, aides on either side. Their attention was all on the main screen across the front of the deck showing the repair crew footage on the west pontoon gangway, spreading out to check the locks, and climbing up to the pontoons to check on the vent assemblies. Even though the image was small, Dia recognized Allison by her size, climbing up to the pontoons.

That wasn’t what she was looking for. She rotated the view around so that she could see the faces. Zeke was sitting in the second tier, down to the right of where Barton was. There were people around him but everyone was looking busy. No one stood out as paying any particular attention to what Zeke was doing.

She reached into the recording and spread it out, zooming in on Zeke’s station.

Zeke leaned closer to his screen, which showed her own face looking out at him. “Yes?”

“Zeke, is anyone taking a look at east pontoon?” Her voice actually sounded calm, serious. Interesting.

Zeke shook his head. “No! The problem is at the west pontoon! Clear the channel and get over there. We need everyone out on this.”

“I’m there, but Zeke, this can’t be an accident. Someone did this.”

Dia watched the people around Zeke. Was anyone watching the conversation?

“No one would —”

On his left was Tristyn Mars, the bulky engineer that had led much of the construction on the Aether. To his right, Jaimee Erickson, a biologist by trade, she’d worked on the hydroponic decks and currently was the supervisor for their agricultural division. Both glanced over but were busy with their own conversations with their people.

“It didn’t fail on its own! And if someone sabotaged this one, how do we know that they’re not over doing the other right now?”

Zeke bit his lip. His hands rubbed against the legs of his workall. He looked undecided. Then he pulled up secondary windows, views of the inside of the Aether, that obscured her image. Of course she hadn’t been able to see any of that at the time.

“Look, I’ll go check it out. You’ve got enough hands out there already as it is. Send someone to back me up, though. We need to catch the person responsible!”

He was looking for something in the footage. Maybe trying to see if he could see anything going on in that section of the ship? They didn’t have cameras everywhere. Command deck, a few key areas, but the pontoon lockers weren’t one of those areas. No one liked the idea of cameras in the locker rooms, even if they’d all seen everything in their years traveling out to Uranus.

Zeke stopped flipping through cameras and dismissed the windows with a quick swipe of his hand. He looked right at her image. “Go. Call in if you find anything.”

He killed the connection and turned to Tristyn. “I’ve got to go check something out. Watch my station, okay?”

“Of course,” Tristyn said.

Then Zeke got up and the image vanished. End of feed. Nothing about it suggested that he had disabled the cameras himself. If he had, she didn’t see him do it.

“I don’t see anything suggesting that Zeke disabled the feed,” Dia said.

Barton shook his head. “The logs show the commands coming from his station.”

“It must have been rerouted somehow from one of the other stations.”

Dia grabbed the feed and pulled it back, reversing everyone’s movements to the point just before Zeke was getting up. She zoomed in and focused on Tristyn. The big man’s screens were all focused on the work happening on the west pontoon. He was guiding the people working on the problem there. He barely looked at Zeke when Zeke left, just acknowledging Zeke asking him to watch the station. Then he slid his chair over to watch both stations.

She repeated the scene again with Jaimee as the focus. She was busy fielding calls on repairs to systems disturbed when the Aether lurched. Nothing suspicious there.

If it wasn’t them, then who? She pulled back the view from Jaimee’s screens to see the area around them and scrubbed back to the start of her call. The man sitting on the next tier down from Zeke twitched, turning when her call came in. Only a second and then his head was down and focused on his screens. Who was it?

She rotated and zoomed in on the man’s station. She recognized him. Not from the ships. He hadn’t served time with them. She’d last seen him on the Strip when she was eating noodles at Ricky’s. It was the cute newbie that she’d seen with three others on the strip. The same dark brown skin, and dark eyes. Really cute, thin and focused. To anyone looking, it looked like he was working hard, but why was her call mirrored on his screen? He was copying Zeke’s screen and that wasn’t his job. That station was assigned to atmospheric recycling. He touched his glasses and spoke too softly for the pickups to catch his words. He had called someone. The guy with the bombs?

“I’ve got something here,” she told Barton.

He leaned over, looking down at her display. She grabbed the image and threw it up onto the big holographic screen. Life-sized it, as if they were standing right next to the guy. She pointed at his screens.

“When my call came in, he was mirroring Zeke’s terminal, and watch, he calls someone.”

Dia set the scene playing back. The newbie talked for a few seconds and then turned back to his station. He pulled up command-line windows and started typing commands. He was fast and knew what he was doing. He executed his program just as Zeke was rising from his chair and the image cut out as the cameras were disabled.

“Good work,” Barton said. “See? We need you as sheriff.”

“That’s fine,” Dia said. “But there’s more. I saw that man in the Strip earlier with three other newbies. I’ll assume that the bomber was one of them. That left two others to pick up Zeke when he left the command deck. We have to assume that the three of them are planning something else. They tried to stop Zeke from helping me and counted on the bomber being able to handle me on his own.”

“They were wrong.”

Dia allowed herself a tight smile. “Yes, but their bomber friend killed himself instead of allowing himself to get captured. That doesn’t sound like people willing to give up easily. They have to have another plan to destroy the Aether. They had to know that we’d catch up to them. We need to know who we’re dealing with.”

She flipped through the roster Barton had given her of personnel on the control deck. The newbie traitor’s image looked up at her, his face serious.

“Allen Snow.” She scanned the details. Computer engineering background, with studies in management. Cute, he was the guy that she’d eyed on the Strip. Hell, why’d he have to end up being crazy? He’d worked on the exodus plan at the local level as a regional coordinator. One of the last people to leave in the final exodus launches. “I see why he was assigned to the command deck. He has the skills to severely compromise our systems. What do we have on the bomber?”

Barton flicked her another profile.

“Kyle Gerard.” His profile matched what Barton already told her. Skills that let him use the materials for the mining launches to design and build the bombs. He was one of the four men that she’d seen with Snow at the Strip.

“I need the roster of all of the new men on the Aether. If I can identify the other two that I saw with Snow and Gerard, we might have an idea of what they are planning next.”

“Give me a second,” Barton said. “I’ll pull it up.”

Barton worked. Dia tapped her foot, waiting.

“Oh hell.”

Barton turned, sliding a pair of profiles across to her side of the screen. A muscle in his jaw twitched.

“Jaylend Roy and Del Cole. I recognize their names. We considered ourselves lucky to get them. Diaspora had them working on the fusion generator projects on Earth. The idea was to install generators in cities around the world, clean, cheap power.”

“I’m familiar with it. Nobody wanted them.”

“They didn’t trust us,” Barton said. “Or believe the prices that we were willing to offer. That’s beside the point. Misters Roy and Cole traveled all over working on the generators. They weren’t the guys selling the technology, they were the guys building it. They were supposed to upgrade our generators and work on creating newer, smaller models for the ships and outposts. Blackstone wanted us shipping out generators along with the hydrogen shipments.”

It sucked. “You’re telling me that these two could compromise our generators?”

“Blow us the hell up, shut them down and let us freeze and fall, whatever they want.” Barton reached for the screen. “I’ll send out an alert. Tell everyone to be on the look-out for these three.”

Dia caught his arm. “Don’t.”

“Don’t? They could blow us up at any moment!”

“If they’re cornered, maybe that’s what they do, before we’re ready. If they think they have time? Maybe they aren’t as quick to die as their friend.”

“What do you want us to do?”

She gave him a smile and leaned into his arm. “You wanted me to be sheriff. Let me take a shot at finding them.”

It was a leap, a gamble with all of their lives, but if they did it Barton’s way she was sure that one of the three would simply blow the Aether sky high. The only reason that she even thought they had a chance was the fact that the guys hadn’t already blown them all up or froze them out, to dropped them down into the depths. It suggested that at least one of the traitors wanted to stay alive.

“Okay, sheriff Rhodes. We’ll do it your way.” He pointed a finger at her. “Pray that you’re right.”

Dia shook her head. “I never pray, but if I’m wrong, I hope you get a chance to tell me you told me so before we’re dead.”

He laughed.

7

The Aether was sort of like a brain. It had two hemispheres. Not perfect spheres either, but like a lumpy brain, the east and west halves were longer than tall. Each was divided into seven levels, eight if you counted the command deck up spanning the top across the front of the colony. The levels housed the colony residents, the agricultural levels where they grew their food in hydroponic trays, mechanical levels that kept the whole thing working, and the industrial levels that housed their manufacturing and power generation facilities. Everything that people took for granted back on Earth, was concentrated here, compressed into this sort-of brain-shaped habitat that hung between the two massive pontoons in a web of cables. The whole thing was big too, bigger than skyscrapers back on Earth in terms of the sheer volume that it enclosed. Taking just the Strip, that ran along the bottom of the colony between the two halves, there were a ton of places to hide. As people had moved in they made use of all of the small pockets and folds in the structure. Even if she could search the whole thing there was nothing to stop them from moving on from one hiding place to the next, avoiding her search.

Dia walked down the corridor from the Old Man’s office to the nearest lift.

Her, sheriff? That was a big change. Sheriff of a colony that included, original colonists and exodus personnel combined, over two hundred different people. How was she going to police all of that? How could she find the fugitives before they destroyed the Aether or hatched some other equally disastrous plan?

She couldn’t trust communications. Snow must have already planted ways to watch the official discussions. Maybe he didn’t have access to Barton’s office systems. It didn’t matter. She had to assume that he did, and knew that she had identified them, and was coming for them. If she was wrong, they’d still assume that someone was coming for them. They’d probably be expecting a lock-down on the colony. Everyone restricted to quarters, armed personnel moving through the colony, searching for them.

In that case she couldn’t give them what they expected.

The lift dinged. She stepped inside and keyed the fourth level, the lowest she could get in this section. The elevator dropped down.

Then she wouldn’t do anything. No lock-down. No search. Let Barton respond to the questions about what had happened. It’d make them wonder, no matter what they knew. What was she doing? Why wasn’t there a response? People on the colony would be suspicious and paranoid over the lack of a response from the administration. Barton wasn’t the sort to lie to his people, he’d say something like the investigation was ongoing.

And everyone would want to know what she was doing, including the traitors.

When the elevator dinged on the lowest level, Dia walked out and took the shortest route over to the Strip. She stepped out beneath the bright lights and it was almost like daylight, except upside down because of the clouds far below.

She strolled. She lingered at a keepsakes booth to admire a stuffed teddy bear with glass eyes. He was full of barley, and heavy. It been brought out from Earth, the original owner either died or traded it away. There was something lonely about the bear.

Heretic White ran the booth. He was short and thin, not a bit of fat on him. Bright tattoos covered his arms. He wore his graying hair back in a long ponytail that stretched all the way down his back over the decorated black workall he wore. Dia put the bear down.

“Cute. Probably not my style.”

“No, no,” Heretic said. “I think a teddy bear would inspire great confidence in our new sheriff.”

“News travels fast.”

Heretic cocked a head at his holographic screen. “The Old Man made an announcement. All reassuring, with Dia Rhodes, the hero of the day, being appointed sheriff and continuing the investigation into the man that tried to blow up the pontoon locks. I know I’m going to sleep better tonight.”

He picked up the bear. “Although maybe I’ll keep this close.”

“Just because someone went crazy, it’s no reason to worry. It’s not like you and I haven’t seen someone freak out before.”

In the heart of the ship. Travis Hunt claiming that space-born spiders were spinning webs between the stars to catch them all. That all that dark matter between the stars was actually spider webs. They were flying out into spider webs. She and Heretic had helped hold him down while the doc sedated him.

“No, not the first time,” Heretic said. “What’re you doing now?”

She shrugged. “My new job. Taking a look around, walking the beat, seeing what people are up too. I think it’s about time we had a police presence.”

Heretic scowled. “Before you know it, it’s going to be just like it was back on Earth!”

She laughed. “That won’t bother you — you’ll be on the first interstellar ship. Assuming, of course, that they let you on!”

Heretic pointed the bear. “You bet! Who wouldn’t?”

Dia shook her head. “I’ve come as far as I’m going to come. I don’t plan on serving time between the stars until I’m old and dead, never to see the new worlds.”

“It won’t be like that, Titan proved it. I’ll bet Blackstone’s already working on the first ships.”

“Maybe.” Dia lifted a hand. “I’ll see you Heretic. Take it easy.”

“Yeah, you too. Sheriff.”

She moved on. She stopped at some booths, greeting people she knew, taking her time. People watched her, turning around, pointing her out. She smiled and nodded, trying to look relaxed. Her muscles ached and her rib protested and what she really wanted to do was go home and sleep. But she needed to be seen, to seem unconcerned. Let the traitors think they had time to put whatever alternate plans they had into motion. She didn’t want the cornered animals to know they were cornered. The last thing she needed was a panic reaction. They hadn’t blown up the Aether, if that’s what they wanted to do, they’d have done it.

Maybe they did plan on blowing everything up, but maybe they didn’t want to take Gerard’s way out. In that case, they’d want to put an escape plan into action.

At Ricky’s she sank into her familiar old seat, stifling the gasp of pain as her rib flared up. Ricky herself came out with her big hips swaying one way and her long blond hair framing her face like a halo. Ricky had one of those faces, almost masculine, but with a strong sensuality that shone through. She gave Dia her big, and on Ricky that was really big, smile as she came to the table with a steaming bowl and a cold glass of beer.

“Food’s on the house, Sheriff! You’re a hero. Everyone’s talking about it. You saved us all from that crazy fuck!”

“In the right place at the right time.” Dia accepted the fork Ricky offered, as she set down the bowl. “But I won’t say no to your noodles! Oh, and dumplings!”

Ricky put a finger to her scarlet lips. “Those are for my special customers.”

Dia speared one of the dumplings and took a bite. It was stuffed with spicy meat and cheese! Heavenly. She moaned, and devoured the rest.

She swallowed. “You’ve been holding out on me.”

Ricky shrugged. “I have to ration what I have, same as everyone. You enjoy that now.”

“Thank you,” Dia said. “It’s perfect before I hit the sack.”

“You bet.”

Ricky headed back into her restaurant.

The noodles and dumplings were fabulous. No sense in letting them go to waste and she needed to give everyone a chance to see her anyway. She drank a bit of the beer. Not too much. She wanted to project an unconcerned image. Inside, it couldn’t be farther from the truth. Three other men were out there with connections to Gerard. She needed to find them and lock them down before they could do any more damage to her home.

Dia picked up the empty bowl and the half-empty glass of beer and returned both to the bus-bot. Time to turn in and hit the sack, or look that way. She stretched her arms out and yawned. Then she headed on out of the Strip, waving and nodding to people as she went.

If Snow was watching, the saboteurs would think that she was turning in for the day. They’d see this as their opportunity to move.

As soon as she got into her quarters she stripped off her shirt and shorts, tossing them into the cleaning bin. The tape binding her rib was uncomfortable, but not as bad as it’d be without it. She checked the tape, but it looked fine. The room was a standard small suite. One room with a bed, drawers, desk and holoscreen. It was a lot more than the exodus personnel had in their inflatable, temporary dormitories. She took a clean, almost unused workall from her narrow closest and pulled it on. She never wore the workalls, preferring her t-shirts and shorts. Everyone knew that.

She slipped on a pair of the minimal black standard issue shoes too, and pulled the hood up out of the workall’s collar over her head. A pair of tinted safety glasses, and a pair of gloves, and she looked like someone that worked around hazardous substances. But not much like a pixie sheriff with the spiky blue hair. The one thing she couldn’t do anything about was her height, but it wasn’t like she was the only one on the station that short.

Then she went to the door and opened it a crack. The corridor outside was empty. She slipped out and moved off down the corridor at a quick pace, like someone with someplace to go. Which she did have. There was a stop she had to make before she started the hunt.

Gray Ess was a white-haired radical anarchist with ambitions to run her own colony. She’d preached about it when they were serving time on the trip out to Uranus, urging the crew to elect her as their leader instead of Barton. That said, she had a sort of thing for Barton. When no one backed her position she went along with what everyone else wanted. That didn’t stop her from campaigning for less government, even while she was obviously in love with the Old Man. It was funny, and sad, all at the same time. Barton knew about her feelings and didn’t return them.

Not that Gray Ess was an unattractive woman, she was, well, elegant. Neat. And a talented industrial engineer. Dia made her ways through the corridors, unnoticed in her passing, to Gray’s workshop.

It was hot inside. Machine and bot parts covered the workbenches that filled the long, narrow space. Racks of shelving ran along the right-hand side, filled with crates of equipment and parts. This was where they came for every single spare part they needed from a washer to a whole new fan assembly. Gray stood in the middle of a wrap-around holographic screen, moving virtual machine parts in space, building something out of light.

“Gray?”

Gray walked through the hologram. “What can I do for you?”

Dia took off the glasses.

“Dia!” Gray smiled and spread her arms. “Come here!”

Dia went to Gray and embraced her, inhaling the faint oil smell of the woman. Gray felt strong beneath her arms, though thin. Dia stepped back.

“You doing okay, Gray?”

“Are you asking as the Sheriff?”

Dia shook her head.

“In that case, yes. I’m doing okay. I focus on the work, you know? The rock jocks keep me busy working on their equipment. They’re hard on it.”

“You take time to stop and eat?”

“From time to time.”

“Good. I need to ask you for a favor.”

“Anything for you, you know that.”

They’d worked closely back when they served time, keeping the ship working.

“I need a weapon. Something that can put a man down, but I’d prefer something non-lethal.”

Dia saw the uneasiness in Gray’s tightened mouth. Arming a sheriff? That was not the sort of thing that Gray believed in.

“We’ve got three men out there, with the capability of blowing up the Aether. I need to stop them. I can’t do it without something to even the odds.”

“I heard that the other man died.”

The torch swept across flesh, searing the man as he screamed. Dia pushed the image out of her mind. He had been trying to kill them all over some crazy alien fantasy. “He killed himself. I didn’t kill him.”

“You hurt him pretty bad, I hear.”

That hurt. “Would it make you feel better if I showed you the bruises? The broken rib? If I hadn’t stopped him we wouldn’t be having this conversation. He was going to blow all the locks on the pontoon. You know what that would have meant.”

Gray gave a slow nod.

“I didn’t have a choice. And as much as I’d like to think we’re safe, we have to get these three men into custody and find out what they’re planning. We also need to know if there are any more here, or at the other colonies.”

“I get it,” Gray said. “I thought we left all that behind when we left Earth.”

“People are people, no matter how far you go. It was going to happen sooner or later.”

“We should be better than that.”

“No arguments there. Are you going to help me?”

“Of course. I have something that might do the trick.” Gray beckoned, turning away.

Dia followed her around the workbenches, down the rows of shelving. Several rows down, Gray turned into the stacks. She pulled a long box from the bottom shelf. It dropped with a loud thud to the floor. Dia was intrigued.

“What’s in the box?”

Gray thumbed the biometric lock. When the light turned green she flipped the catches and shoved up the lid. It fell back to the floor.

There were three long guns nestled into the foam inside. The lid was also filled with foam, holding dozens of gray golf balls. Gray lifted one of the guns out. It was as long as her forearm, fat and a dull, dark gray color. The barrel was huge, clearly sized for the balls in the lid. Gray turned the gun and hit a released on the grip. It rotated outward, revealing a hollow interior with a track. She picked up a ball and dropped it in, then quickly added five more.

She snapped it shut. “Six shots, then you need to reload.”

“You made a cannon?”

Gray shook her head. “I didn’t make this. It was made back on Earth. Standard issue, Barton gave it to me for safe-keeping. We didn’t think we needed it.”

“It’s a cannon!”

“Actually, no.” Gray ran her hand along the barrel. “It’s non-lethal.”

“It looks pretty fucking lethal.”

“Part of the design. It’s meant to look intimidating. The spheres are bioreactive. They spread out on contact and deliver nerve-shocks when you use the panel here.” Gray’s thumb slid across the panel, which lit up from yellow, to red as she slid her thumb up the arc. “Redder is more intense. It’s direct nerve stimulation, painful but not physically harmful. Safer than electric shock weapons or drugs.”

Gray slid her thumb down the arc to the bottom and handed the gun over to Dia.

She took it. The weight was substantial, but comfortable. Over-sized in her hands but not too much. She could still reach the controls on the grip. She held it two-handed, using her left to hold the barrel and steady the weapon.

“Do you want more ammunition?”

Dia looked down. The spheres were bulky. “No. If I can’t do this with six shots, I doubt I’ll have time to reload anyway. This is perfect, thank you.”

Gray snapped the lid shut. “Don’t. I hate that this is necessary.”

“The alternative is worse,” Dia said.

Gray picked up the case and slid it back into place. She stood up. “You’re probably right. Why are these people trying to destroy the Aether?”

“They’re Origin followers. Aliens will exterminate us all for breaking quarantine, and all that nonsense. It’s gotten worse since the Titan discovery.”

“It’s sad that we haven’t moved beyond such superstitions. That might be a reason that we shouldn’t be spreading out into the universe.”

Dia shrugged. “Whatever the reason, I’m not about to let them destroy our home. Not if I can stop them.”

“Thank you,” Gray said. “I know it’s not easy. I’m not trying to make it harder.”

Dia reached out and Gray took her arm. They hugged quickly. Then Dia took the gun and headed out of the workshop. On the way she swiped a dirty towel on one of the workbenches and draped it over the gun. Walking the corridors with the weapon might draw a bit of attention.

Now all she had to do was find Snow and the others.

She went to the nearest ventilation shaft access and used Allison’s codes to gain access, logging it as routine maintenance. Nothing that would attract Snow’s attention if he was watching the systems for her. There weren’t cameras in the shafts, so she could move unseen through the Aether. All she had to do was figure out where they would be holed up.

Inside the narrow shaft she braced her legs against the opposite wall, grimacing at the pain in her cracked rib, and pulled up schematics on her glasses. She switched to projection mode and let the holographic display engulf her vision.

She was here, on the west side, third level ventilation shaft. There was a lot of the colony to search, to find the three men. They might have separated, but it was more likely that they were staying together. Easier to communicate with one another, less chances of exposure. That put them out of the main public areas. Even without a bulletin alert out on them, they had to assume that they had been identified and linked with Gerard. Since Barton hadn’t locked things down, they had to assume that she and others were actively looking for them. So nowhere with cameras. Snow had shown he was able to disable the cameras when it suited him, but a section with the feed shut down would be an obvious flag where they were hiding. They might also have Zeke with them, if he was still alive. Fifty-fifty chance there. Alive, they could move him if necessary, and use him as a hostage. A body was harder to handle, most likely if he was dead they’d already stashed his body somewhere.

Dia used all of that to filter down the remaining areas. Everything else dimmed. Quarters, access passages, storage areas, all remained. It was still a lot of areas to check. Doing so would take her forever, assuming they didn’t make their move or change their location.

Wherever they were, Snow would want access to hard-wired systems. Remote access limited what he could do. And if they had targeted the fusion generators they’d want to stay close, that put them out at the lower deck. Auxiliary access was located on the bottom level, adjacent to the main generator sections. She zoomed in on that section and pulled up the maintenance logs.

The secondary auxiliary station for generator two showed an offline status for repairs. It was Zeke’s command codes that issued the order, after he had left the command deck. Snow had had Zeke’s codes to mirror Zeke’s station. That had to be where they were hiding. The room was small, four meters to a side with only one way in. The systems there could access the controls for generator two. If they did want to blow the generator, that was a good place to be.

It did, however, also connect to the ventilation systems, to keep down the excess heat.

Dia smiled and dismissed the schematics. It was about to get hot down there.

Climbing down the shaft was a pain in the ass. This was where a lower gravity environment would have been nice. Some of those worlds out there people could almost float around, the gravity was so low. Of course they also had to deal with potential bone loss and other issues, but still. It’d be nice right now. Carrying the gun was also awkward. She ended up unzipping the front of her workall and stuffed the gun down the front, after making sure that the safety was engaged.

It took nearly a half-hour to reach the lower levels and move off into the lateral shafts. She took the main crawlspace and tried crawling quietly.

Fifteen minutes later she approached the auxiliary access room. The feeder shafts to the room were too small for her to enter. That was okay. She wasn’t planning on using it to get into the room. Checking the schematics in her glasses, she identified the fan unit on that feeder shaft.

She used her multi-tool to undo the bolts holding it in place, then pulled it out, carefully. This one hadn’t been greased either. It made a bit of noise, not much. Hopefully nothing that carried. Reversing the fan only took a moment, switching around the wires. She gritted her teeth and pushed it slowly back into place. Now, instead of drawing off the hotter air, it would blow hot air back into the room. In that small space, it wouldn’t take long before the room was becoming intolerably hot.

Grinning, Dia made her way around to the nearest access point.

Popping out the grating, Dia bent in half and slithered out. As she straightened she realized she wasn’t alone. Ted Walton’s shoulders relaxed. His wild red hair was a good match for her blue hair.

“Dia! What are you doing?”

Dia pulled the gun from the ventilation shaft. Ted’s eyes widened and his mouth dropped open. Dia put a finger to her lips. “It might be best if you don’t make any noises,” she said quietly, “the guys that are trying to destroy the Aether are around the corner.”

Ted pressed against the wall.

Dia eased along the corridor to the corner and peeked around.

The door at the end was still closed. The room might not have gotten too hot yet, but it shouldn’t take long. They’d have to open the door if they didn’t want to bake.

She pressed her back against the wall and breathed in deep, wincing as the tape around her chest squeezed her rib. She couldn’t wait too long before going in after them. If they realized that the increasing temperature was an attempt to smoke them out, then they might go ahead with blowing up the colony. The fact that they hadn’t yet, still suggested that the Origin fanatics might be planning to escape the destruction. If they didn’t want to die it’d work in her favor. Cornering them might change the balance.

Ted was watching her from across the corridor. She gestured and lightly patted the wall beside her. He rubbed his jaw then slipped across the corridor and pressed up against the wall beside her.

“What are you doing?” he said.

“Waiting for them to open the door to auxiliary control.”

“Why would they do that?”

“It’s getting hot in there by now.”

Ted glanced at the ventilation shaft and then back to her, and the gun that she held against her chest. “What if they don’t come out?”

“It be obvious if I went down and tried to open the door. If they want to lock me out, I don’t know what else I can do.”

“Why not trigger an evacuation alert for that room? It’ll automatically open the door.”

Obvious. One of the safety measures to ensure that they could evacuate people that might be unconscious. Snow might not have shut it off. It’d also completely give away any surprise. If she did this, that was it. No other option. She’d have to hit the door as she could and hope that Gray’s gun would help her take them out before they could destroy the Aether. She couldn’t call Barton and ask. There wasn’t anyone to ask. It was her decision and it had to be made now.

“You do that,” she said, “and I’ll go for the door.”

“Me?” his voice squeaked.

“Yes. Now, Ted. I have to get in there.” The fact that the door hadn’t opened yet was giving her a bad feeling. She wanted to know what was going on inside that room.

For all she knew it was already too late.

Ted pulled out a tablet and pulled up a remote access to the system. She glanced at the screen and saw he was about to trigger the alert.

Now. Now. Dia rolled around the corner and charged the door at the far end. Ted, be right about this. She wasn’t stopping, wasn’t slowing down for nothing. It’d look pretty silly if she slammed right into the door. She slid her thumb up the intensity dial on the gun, pushing it up into the red zone.

The door popped open two strides before she would have smashed right into it. A wash of hot air came out. There was a man in the doorway, his pale face shiny with sweat. She was holding the gun in front of her and she fired. The kickback was hard enough to make her stumble but the gray ball slammed into the man’s chest and threw him back like a rag doll. The ball deformed on contact. It splashed out across him, creating a network of gray strands. His limb body crashed to the ground as she ran into the room yelling.

Two men. Far side of the room. One of them standing in the middle of several holographically projected screens. Dia fired the gun. This time she was ready for the kickback. It didn’t surprise her as much. Her first shot hit the shoulder of the man in the middle of the holographic screens and threw him to the wall. He twitched and convulsed as he dropped to the floor.

The other man was moving, ducking and running behind the bulky control stations and valves that filled the side of the room.

Dia kept the gun trained on the spot where he disappeared and waited. “Come out now, hands were I can see them.”

“Why?” A voice behind the equipment taunted. “It’s not going to matter in a minute anyway.”

Hell. Dia backed across the room into the floating holographic screens. It was what she feared. They’d overridden the protocols protecting the second generator. Heat was building up and soon the superconducting fields would fail, releasing the containment in an instant. A nuclear blast that would destroy the Aether. The process was already underway.

There was movement outside the screens. The last guy standing was making a run for the doorway. She swiped her thumb across the intensity dial, turning it down and fired as he ran into the corridor. The shot took him high on his right buttocks. He yelled and pitched forward. He didn’t have control of his limbs so he hit hard, face down. His whole body shook and jerked as the nerve stimulation spread through his body, but from the yelling he was making, he wasn’t knocked out by it.

It was Snow. Dia walked out of the room, her finger on the trigger to deliver another jolt. Ted peeked around the far end of the short corridor. She jerked her thumb at the room.

“Ted, get in there. Call everyone. Fix it.”

He hesitated.

“Move now!”

He came around the corner at a run, then hugged the wall as he went past the groaning Snow. Snow started picking himself up off the floor.

“Why’d you do it?” she asked. “You’ll die with the rest of us.”

“Wouldn’t you die to save all of humanity?” Snow asked. He groaned and rolled over on his side, looking up at her with his pretty dark hazel eyes. “What’s a few hundred people against that?”

“You really believe that vengeful aliens are going to come down and smite us all if we don’t stick to our planet?”

Snow licked his lips and nodded. “It’s all there, in history. They told us the rules. That most of us forgot isn’t an excuse.”

Ted appeared back in the doorway. “Um, Dia, I don’t know if I can stop this overload.”

Her heart was already pounding. She took a deep breath and let it out. If anything she was sad. Sad, that all this work was about to be undone by a crazy man.

She swiped up the dial on the weapon just until it started into the yellow and pulled the shock trigger. Snow grunted like someone had kicked him in the balls and convulsed on the deck. Her stomach churned. She let go and his convulsions stopped. He gasped for air, and when he got his breath back, he managed a chuckle.

“Do what you want. Won’t matter. I’m not going to break in the time you have left.”

She believed him. “Ted!”

Ted popped back out. She thrust the gun into his hands. “He tries to get away, hit that.”

Inside the auxiliary control room she took in what she’d already seen on the screens. The heat building up. There wasn’t any easy way to stop the process. It was dozens of systems rerouted. Soon it’d get hot enough for the magnetic fields to fail. All it took was a tiny breach to let the fusion material escape and it’d blow the whole thing.

Unless she did something entirely different.

“Ted!” Her hands danced across the controls. “Drag him in here!”

“What?”

“Drag him in here!”

Alarms sounded in the corridors outside. She worked fast. She’d get one chance at this, if that.

Across the Aether emergency doors slid shut except in the corridors that she selected. Those doors opened up. From the bottom level all the way to the upper level.

Ted dragged Snow into the control chamber moments before the door slid shut.

She hit the last command and the outermost doors opened. The atmospheric pressure outside was the same as inside, but it was much, much colder outside. Down to around 60 degrees Kelvin. The warmer air inside boiled out into space, pulling the colder atmosphere into the reactor room. She didn’t have any way to know if anyone had gotten trapped in the corridors by the process. Hopefully not. The colder temperatures outside would hold the generator until she had time to work through what Snow had done.

“What are you doing?” Snow asked from the floor.

“Shock him if he tries anything,” she told Ted.

Then she went to work. Barton called minutes later, interrupting her. She put him off and kept working. Thirty minutes later she had enough control of the system that she was pretty sure that the generator wasn’t going to blow up. Sweat was soaking her clothes. The rerouted fan was pumping heat into the room. It was slightly better than freezing in the corridors outside but not much. It took another twenty minutes to finish the work and seal off the outer doors so that she could purge the corridors and bring everything back online.

“Someone else will stop you,” Snow said as she finished.

The door to the corridor went up. Dia walked through the holographic screens and took the gun from Ted. She dialed up the intensity.

“Maybe. It won’t be you.” She hit the button and knocked Snow out. She glanced over at Ted. “Call Barton, get someone to pick these goons up. I suggest he ship them back to Earth. I’m going to go get cleaned up and take a nap. I worked my ass off today. I deserve a break.”

Worked her ass off. She snorted a laugh. Maybe today she’d finally get some sleep.

15,853 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 8th weekly short story release, and the 8th Planetary Bodies story. It sad that Uranus is the butt of the solar system jokes. It’s a fascinating planet that deserves its own dedicated probe (I’m terrible). 😉 Tipped on its side, complete with its own ring system and bunch of moons it’s a fascinating world.

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

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the series links at the top of the page. Check back next week for another Planetary Bodies story. Next up is Neptune Bound.

Saturn Reaching

Clara Ransom rejected her parent’s fear of the future, of the universe and left their prepper homestead to embrace a life in space.

Her quest to understand life in the universe brought her to Saturn’s moon Titan. Beneath the massive ringed giant and Titan’s hazy skies she discovers one piece to the puzzle.

 

1

While pretty much the rest of the Diaspora colonists had to settle for enclosed habitats, pressure suits, and airless barren worlds, she got to take a stroll outside. Light on her feet, thanks to the low gravity, her insulated boots barely pressed into the powdery surface. Water ice “rock” pebbles dotted the landscape ahead, as it rose into two hills that ran together, smoothed by methane rains and wind.

Right over those hills was a small stream, a tributary to a larger valley, running through the site. The insulated suit wasn’t as stiff or heavy as a full space suit, and it did have a full helmet to protect her head and provide breathable air, sterile, cold air that froze her nostrils and had a metallic taste to it, but air. A mixture with outside nitrogen and bottled oxygen. Her suit trapped the carbon dioxide to return it to the base. So maybe it wasn’t entirely the same as taking a stroll outside.

Still, for a girl from the Northwest used to getting outside, it was better than nothing. Who would have imagined it? Clara Ransom, at thirty-four, was walking freely on the surface of another world. Not her parents, always feeling guilty about bringing her and her brothers into the world while they waited for it to end. For all she knew they were still holed up in their prepper compound expecting Diaspora to drop rocks on their head, attack the Earth with new scalar weaponry from space, or unleash a horde of Dr. Shelton’s mutants. And feeling betrayed by their own daughter.

She looked up from watching the ground and took in the view through the thick haze of the atmosphere. A huge round shape filled the sky above, visible despite the thick clouds. Saturn, with the thin blade of the rings reaching out into space. Impossibly huge, awe-inspiring, like an ancient god about to swallow up the sun.

Which was about to happen, in truth. Titan’s orbit was going to move into Saturn’s shadow. That was the whole reason for coming out here.

Her glasses rang for her attention. The heads-up hologram flashed a query. Incoming call.

“Ignore it,” Clara said.

The query vanished. She licked her chapped lips and wished, not for the last time, that she’d packed some lip balm or something before leaving Earth.

Through the orange haze, the bright blob of the sun hung at the edge of Saturn’s limb. The light, dim compared to being on Earth, was still over three hundred times brighter than the full moon on Earth. The haze cut into it and soon night was going to fall and last over a week.

Just like in one of those movies when the alien monsters came out at night to attack the explorers.

 

Her glasses rang again. Once more the query popped up, blinking insistently.

“Ignore it,” she said.

Clara walked forward, with the easy, bouncing gait of someone adapted to the lower gravity. She called it the penguin waddle, and the environmental suit helped cement the image. She flapped her arms and picked up speed. Put some proper wings on these things and they really could take off and fly in the thick air. She’d been pressuring Mac to authorize the work but their boss didn’t really like the idea of his team flying around the site.

It only took moments to reach the top of the “hill,” really more of a swell in the ground. She windmilled her arms to stop. Her breath sounded loud in her helmet.

Her glasses rang again.

“Ignore it.”

The site lay spread out beneath her feet. Straight lines cut through the rock-ice ground around the stream in complex geometric shapes. Pits and flat areas marked out other spaces. Sharp, unnatural lines, spreading out in a fan shape around the methane stream. A small circular pool at the intersection of three lines suggested some sort of artistic modification of the stream bed. The dark stream oozed slowly through the modified channel.

Titan was a slow world. A desert parched for the next rain, but everything moved so slowly that the stream continued to flow.

She had to be missing something. Some vital clue to explain the site. There must be something about it that she wasn’t seeing.

And when the sun passed behind Saturn, when night fell, they were going back to the colony. The others were busy right now packing everything up into the cat, getting ready to leave. They couldn’t stay. Rules, Mac wouldn’t allow it. Too dangerous to work through the dark. She was supposed to go back and spend her time reviewing the data already collected.

Five days ago Clara hadn’t even known about the site. None of them had known it existed, and she didn’t put any stock into Sanders’ notion that Terra Blackstone had known. Diaspora wouldn’t have kept it secret. She didn’t believe it. She’d had plenty of experience with paranoid conspiracy theorists dealing with her parents. God only knew why otherwise rational people believed such things.

The first images of the site had come from the jelly flock.

 

2

 

Jackie “Red” Tonner had burst into her tiny lab space, nearly tearing the flimsy door off in the process.

She yelped. Embarrassing, but he’d startled her with his big gangling frame bursting into the lab. Like her, he wore a standard black Diaspora workall, with bare feet. Tools and spare parts clanked in his bulging pockets. His stock of red hair was going every direction, as was his curly red beard. Jackie blushed and ducked his head.

He didn’t get the nickname from his hair color. He blushed all the time.

Clara pressed a hand to her chest. “Jesus! Knock before you barge in here!”

“Sorry. Really sorry.” Jackie thrust a tablet at her. “Look at this. Grabbed it out of the flock footage.”

She took the tablet and looked at the image. Greyscale, aerial image, which was what’d she’d expect from an image from the flock. The jelly flock was a bunch of brightly-colored jellyfish-inspired balloon robots deployed around Titan at different altitudes to study and monitor their new home. Each was equipped with a suite of tools to measure, analyze and photograph the environment. They swam through the thick air just like jellyfish back on Earth. And they worked in tandem with the half-dozen satellites orbiting the moon. Diaspora had sent them out with the full package to learn about the moon, thanks to Mac’s insistence on the support.

The image on the tablet was beautiful. A pattern of geometric lines and circles cut into the surface of the ice, around a small methane stream. It gave the illusion of avenues, and structures, of open public spaces and interesting diversions. Nothing as boring as a grid, it was a complex snowflake design.

Clara laughed and held the tablet out to Jackie. “Nicely done. It looks great, but it’s too complex. No one’s going to buy it.”

He held up his hands. “No, no. No! You don’t understand, it’s really real. You know?”

“Right. Look, I’ve got work to do, okay?”

Jackie shook his head and crossed his arms, hugging himself. “No, no. It’s real! That’s raw footage. I didn’t touch a pixel!”

She tipped the tablet, looking again at the image. “What are you trying to say? That this is actually out there?”

Jackie grinned widely, bit his lip and nodded vigorously. He freed his right hand and shook a finger at the tablet.

“You know what this means, right? I mean, I’m not crazy? I’m not! That’s artificial! There is no way that it is natural, right?”

A cool thread of fear ran along her nerves. A discovery like this, well, there weren’t words for it. It’d be the most significant find, ever, anywhere in the solar system. When word got out they’d be the center of attention in the solar system.

And if this was some sort of prank it could destroy careers and make them the laughing stock of the system.

She looked up at Jackie. “You’re not pulling my leg are you? I need you to level with me. If you’re joking around, fine, you got me and it stops now.”

“No!” Jackie blew out his breath and rocked on his feet. “It’s not a joke. Really. It’s real.”

He gestured at the tablet. “Swipe, come on. It’s not the only picture. There’s video too, if you want it.”

Clara swiped the image. Another picture, the same complex network of lines cut into the area around the stream, but the camera had moved closer. Swipe. Another image, the camera moving closer. The jelly bots instincts for interesting features probably drew it to the site. She swiped the other way, fast, flipping through the images.

A stop-motion parade of images in reverse, back away from the site, over a pair of small rises that hardly deserved the name of hills. The first image of the site only showed a small piece, but that’d been enough to attract the interest of the jelly bot.

She swiped back through to the close-up images of the site. The jelly bot circled around the site, taking pictures from multiple angles.

Jackie rocked in place and chuckled softly as she studied the images.

When she looked up he pointed at the tablet. “Load the video.”

A numbness, like she’d gotten zapped, filled her hands. They shook slightly as she pulled up the menus on the tablet and connected to her lab displays. She picked out the video files and sent the output to her holographic display.

Jackie jumped back as the hologram appeared like a floating table in the center of the small space. Clara rose and stood next to him.

Titan’s surface lay beneath them, as if they were on the jelly bot itself, flying over the orange hills. The view barely moved toward the hills and the tiny corner of the site visible.

“Increase playback four times,” Clara said.

Now the camera moved smoothly towards the hills with purpose, in a gliding sort of motion. The video was silent. Jackie breathed noisily. It didn’t matter. The view rose up above the hills, focused on the site. As it crested the hills the whole site was visible, spread out in complex geometric shapes from the stream. More on the far side of the stream than this side, but she saw lines that approached the stream and ran along it, while others cut right to the edge of the stream and then continued straight on the other side.

As if bridges had once spanned the stream.

“Scale,” she said.

Bright blue lines appeared over the orange surface and the playback stopped. She reached into the hologram, tapping one of the lines that approached the stream on both sides. A blue line appeared between those points. Just about four meters across. Plenty big enough for a bridge, except it was missing.

Following that logic, even if it was a big jump, suggested that these lines traced the path of roads. The circular pits at the intersections, buildings. The whole site wasn’t big, around a kilometer long, and it extended out away from the stream just over a kilometer. Big enough to hold quite a few buildings.

“Hide scale. Resume playback.”

The jelly bot camera flew closer to the site and then moved off downstream. It avoided flying directly over the site, but circled the area. On the far side Clara paused the video and looked at Jackie.

He burst out laughing.

She shook her head. “Who else knows about this? Have you told Mac?”

Jackie flushed and shook his head. “No, I mean, I wanted to show you first. That’s right, isn’t it? You’re the expert in xenobiology, right?”

Yeah. The expert in imagining what might exist, without knowing if it did exist in the universe.

“Sure. That’s right.” She took a deep breath and looked back at the site. “You did just right. We don’t want to spread word about this, not yet. Not until I have a chance to talk to Mac about it. He’s going to flip.”

“So you think it’s real, right?”

Caution reared its ugly head. “I don’t know. It looks amazing.”

A thought occurred to her. “Where is this? How far away?”

“Not far. A couple hundred kilometers from here. Isn’t that lucky?”

Suspicious was a more likely answer. What were the odds that they’d pick a spot so close to this site? Unless there were many of these sorts of sites around the planet, but so far none of the other jelly bots had picked up anything like this in the mapping. Or if they had, it hadn’t gotten flagged and tagged.

“Lucky, or it isn’t an accident,” Clara said. “You might not have done this, but it could still turn out to be a prank.”

“How?”

“I don’t know. Either way, we have to talk to Mac. Come on.”

“Now?” Jackie’s voice squeaked.

“Yes. Now. Someone else might look at the footage and then word’ll get out. We need to take this up the chain first.”

3

When Terra Blackstone and the Diaspora sent out the first launches to colonize the system they didn’t start close in with the inner system worlds. The first launches went out to the farthest reaches of the solar system. Dwarf planets at the edge of the system like Eris and MakeMake and Pluto. Small colonies under the most difficult environments imaginable, far from the warmth of the sun in the deep dark.

Next came the wave that went to the gas giants, to Neptune, Uranus, Saturn and Jupiter. Only then did Diaspora move on to the inner system.

There was a method to the madness. They wanted the colonies to come online within the span of the same year. The most distant outposts also had much longer travel times, in the days before Mercury started putting out solar sails and the creation of beamed power stations. The Diaspora’s transportation infrastructure wasn’t in place yet. And given the time involved, those early launches were the biggest, essentially flying colonies all on their own.

The Titan colony arrived ready to deploy on the surface. The main transportation ship, the Herschel, had remained in orbit and was still manned to help with the efforts below.

It was only now, months after landing, that the colony domes were finally coming to life. Vibrant plant life was filling the domes thanks to the fusion reactors that powered the base. Hydrogen was easy to come by on Titan, and they needed the power for heating and lights.

Mac had built his offices on the upper level of the main dome, a transparent-walled deck that looked out over the young trees below. Clara and Jackie were shown through to his offices by his aide, Brenda. He rose from his desk facing the windows as they entered.

At fifty-one, Mac was a powerfully built man. Not tall, but well-muscled and lean, corded and fit. He moved with easy grace in the low gravity. His graying hair was trimmed close to his head. He smiled warmly.

“Clara. Jackie. This is a surprise. How are you doing? Brenda said this was urgent. Did you find something?” He chuckled. “I’d love to find something that would trump Ceres!”

All of the colonies were eager to discover signs of alien life on their worlds. A biosphere existed below the surface on Ceres, not the most likely candidate in the solar system. Since then everyone wanted to find something more. They’d all been hoping to find some sort of non-carbon based life on Titan.

“It isn’t what we were looking for,” Clara said. “Jackie found something interesting in the jelly bot footage that you have to see.”

“Okay. Show me.”

Clara used the tablet and pulled up a clear image of the site, showing the complex network, the circular pool in the stream, and the other pits at intersections and other features. She handed the tablet to him.

Mac looked without comment. A muscle in his jaw twitched. He swiped through several images before he looked up.

“You’ve verified that the footage hasn’t been tampered with? We can’t have a hoax about something like this.”

“It’s clean,” Jackie said. “I checked twice, that’s all raw, unprocessed. Just downloaded in the link.”

Mac went back to looking at the images. Jackie chewed on his fingernails.

Out Mac’s windows was the interior of the dome. Bright lights hung from the structure to supplement the meager sunlight that reached Titan’s surface. They lived in greenhouses on the surface of another world. Odd, really, when you thought about it. Back on Earth Diaspora had built hundreds of similar habitats as high-end housing projects back before it reached the launch stage. Those projects had served as models for these habitats, letting them test out designs and ideas while raising money to help fund operations. Only one of the thousands of projects, patents and investments that had built the Diaspora Group under Blackstone’s management. Those Earth-based habitats had promised clean water and air, climate-controlled environments on a world dealing with the effects of global warming. Some of the most popular had been habitats in striking locations, where the ocean levels had risen, or the Sahara. Even the harshest environments on Earth were tamer compared to what they faced here.

Mac said, “Can we rule out a hoax by our own people? Could anyone have gone out and done this without our knowledge?”

“You mean out there? Outside?” Jackie asked.

Clara shook her head. “Look at the measurements, the size of the thing. It would have taken weeks, equipment, probably multiple cats. Plus days to get there and back. And did you notice how clean it is? Everything cut away and smooth, but there’s no obvious piles of ice left behind. No debris.”

“Maybe it was vaporized.” Mac tapped the tablet and handed it back to her. “Still, we need to check it out. I want you to pull together an expedition. We’re going out there.”

“We?”

He grinned. “No way I’m sitting here while the rest of you go have the fun. I am a scientist, remember? I’m coming with you. A small team for now. Let’s limit access to the files and details of the expedition.”

“That’ll raise questions.”

Mac shook his head. “Let them wonder. When we know something, then we’ll have a better idea of what to say.”

4

Mac only wanted four people on the initial team. Himself, Clara, Jackie and Neil Sanders, a big, quiet man with a knack for keeping equipment running. Sanders ran the shops that took care of the cats and other heavy equipment. Mac wanted him along to drive the cat and deal with any problems that might come up.

Clara had protested, arguing to include more members of the science and cultural teams to no avail. Mac wanted the team small. Officially the mission was a test case, a trial field expedition before wider operations were started. That was news which cheered the rest of the scientists and left Clara feeling rotten inside for hiding the truth from everyone.

God only knew what they were going to discover. The cat’s slow, steady motion was almost unreal as it glided along, treads carrying them across the frozen surface. Mac was up front with Sanders. Jackie was currently busy driving another jelly bot to the site so that they’d have two to help with the survey.

More and more she couldn’t shake the feeling that this was the most monumental discover in human history. She was glad to be included, but also scared to death that they might screw it up somehow.

Her glasses projected an image of the site in front of her, a virtual hologram of the surface built from the latest data on the site.

The day on Titan lasted for slightly more than fifteen Earth days, the same length as a Titan “year” as it orbited Saturn. Jackie’s news coming when it did meant that they only had about two full days left until night fell. It’d taken them the past couple days just to get out to the site. Two days to investigate and then Mac wanted them to pull out and go back rather than work through the night.

Even though it made sense it was frustrating. She studied the lines of the site, trying to figure out where to even start with the thing. The jelly bot had flown over around the site, staying out from the center thanks to its programming. If it had found a geyser, for example, they hadn’t wanted it to fly right over the geyser and get hit by an eruption, so instead the bots circled interesting features at what was a safe distance.

Mac had refused to have Jackie override the jelly bot and send it directly above the site until they arrived on site and could supervise.

The safest bet was to start further out and work their way in, studying the terrain all around the site. There might be other, less obvious features that they could damage if they rushed right in.

Clara gestured and a large semi-transparent donut-shape appeared over the holographic image of the site. It created a green buffer a kilometer out from the site, a half-kilometer thick. That was a lot of ground to cover.

Another gestured and a yellow donut-shaped region appeared inside the first from the outer boundary of the site out to the green ring.

A final gesture dropped a red region over the site itself.

Of course the site wasn’t circular, not even close. It spread out like a snowflake away from the stream, but unevenly reaching out in different directions. One particular set of lines ran out in a to the apex of a triangle, with a triangular space between them, and a circular pit at the intersection point which was well into the yellow region.

Clara dragged the circles, widening them out until the whole site was within the red circle. That left other areas within the red that showed no signs of any design. She pushed with her fingers and deformed the circles, pushing them in and dragging out until she had constrained the red region to the site, the yellow band around that, surrounded at last by the green band. The final shape was more amoebae-like than a snowflake.

As a guideline, it at least gave them some areas to look at first, and an avenue to explore. It provided a framework they needed. They wouldn’t have time to comb over the whole site before nightfall. They could move quicker through the green areas using the jelly bots. The yellow and red areas could be subdivided into sections, and each could be examined before moving forward.

Proceeding on that plan, they could penetrate into the core of the site quickly and still maintain isolation with the rest of the site and catalog anything they discovered.

She sent the image and data over to Jackie. “What do you think about this?”

Jackie’s hands moved as he accessed the image. He nodded. “Sure, sure. That’s good. That makes sense.”

“Can you program the jelly bots to start high-res scanning on the green area?”

“Beta isn’t there yet,” Jackie said. “It won’t get there until a couple hours after we arrive, it looks like. I could put alpha on it, though. If that’s okay?”

Clara nodded, already refocusing on her screen. “Great. Thanks. I’ll watch the feed for anything interesting.”

The last few hours she watched nothing. The jelly bot floated sedately around the site and took high-resolution holographic images of the green region. Her system filled in the updated images within the region.

Hydrocarbon sand, water ice rocks and no signs that any of it was disturbed. No tracks. No footprints. How was that even possible? Whatever had made the site must have left other traces but nothing had stood out in the images from the site already sent over. This was a higher-resolution pass. There had to be something.

5

Three hours later the cat slowed and stopped at the base of the small hills overlooking the stream and the site. It was well outside the safe region that Clara had defined. The cockpit door slid open and Mac came through in the main cabin.

“We’re stopping here,” he said. “I don’t want to risk taking the cat closer. At least here there’s some cover from the terrain between us and the site.”

“Cover from what?” Jackie asked. “It looks abandoned. Doesn’t it?”

“We don’t know anything about it,” Mac said. “Yet. We’re going to play this smart. Clara, what’s the plan?”

“Only two go out at a time. First trip. Thirty minutes,” she said. “I’ve defined search regions.”

Clara sent the image overlay to the general system, projecting a hologram on the wall screen. “Jackie has the jelly bot mapping the green area.”

“That’s alpha,” Jackie said. “The one that found the site. Beta will be here in twenty minutes.”

Sanders appeared in the doorway behind Mac. He crossed thick arms.

“Good work, Clara. You and I are going out. Let’s get dressed and ready to go.” Mac glanced back. “Sanders, you’re in charge here. If an emergency happens, contact the base first. Give them as much information as you can.”

“Got it,” Sanders said.

“Why would there be an emergency?” Jackie looked between them, hugging his thin chest. “Why? What would happen?”

“We’re just playing it safe,” Clara said. “I’m more concerned that we don’t accidentally mess up some vital clue. We could have used an archaeologist on this.”

“We don’t have any.” Mac crossed to the storage lockers and pulled out her suit and passed it over.

It looked more like a snow suit than a space suit. Specially designed for the Titan environment, to keep them warm in the absolute cold outside. Insulated boots, insulated suit. Light-weight, particularly in the low gravity. And unlike the rear-entry suits they had used up on the ship, these Titan suits were put on like any other insulating suit, pulling them on right over her workall and fastening them together.

While she and Mac dressed, Sanders and Jackie retreated back into the cockpit to give them room.

The last part, the helmet, was the most like a space suit. It fastened into the stiff collar on the coat and the inside had a thick insulated hood to keep their heads warm. They’d designed the suits to use outside nitrogen, warmed by the suit, and bottled oxygen. It was the same mix that they used in the cat and habitats and since they maintained the same pressure as outside, it wasn’t a big deal. Heat loss was more of a concern than anything else.

Clara finished dressing first, and Mac a second later. Her glasses projected a suit analysis and gave her green lights. She opened a channel to the others.

“I’m online. Are you reading me?”

“We hear you,” Sanders said. “You both look good. Have a nice stroll.”

“Synchronizing timer,” Clara said. The countdown popped up in the corner of her display. “Thirty minutes. Let’s go.”

The airlock was a simple design. They both stepped in, closed the door and opened the outer door. No complex system needed to purge it. After they were out the air in the airlock would be cycled to removed the traces of hydrogen cyanide.

When that door opened it was beautiful. The orange surface extended out from the cat, a mostly flat plain from this perspective, covered with pebbled water-ice rocks. She was closer to the door but hesitated.

“Go ahead,” Mac said. “You’re in charge out here. This is your discovery.”

“Thanks, but Jackie caught the footage first.”

Mac didn’t comment, and Clara stepped out. It looked like a big drop down to the surface but really, in this gravity, it didn’t matter. She floated down and touched lightly on the surface. Her feet barely made an impression.

What should she say? Anything? The moment passed. She bounced from one foot to the other away from the cat to give Mac room.

As he floated down Mac flapped his arms and tipped precipitously forward. He landed awkwardly and stumbled, but kept his footing.

“Add wings and we could fly,” Clara said.

“Tempting, but I think I might have trouble with the landing.”

He came up beside her and she tipped back to look up at him. A big grin spread across Mac’s face. He gestured.

“Lead on.”

Clara pulled up her display in overlay mode and walked around the cat and up the hill. It hardly deserved the name of a hill. It was a rise, a swell. Walking up it didn’t require any more significant effort than walking on the loose surface anywhere else. The powder orange surface wasn’t disturbed much by their passage, but when she shuffled around she could see the tracks leading down to the cat. The cat’s own treads had left a very visible trail that led off into the hazy distance.

While she walked she could almost forget that she wasn’t alone. The air tasted metallic and cold. She shivered, not from the cold as much as what she knew was right over the rise.

Then she was high enough to see the site spread out down below them, the far side hazy. Her overlay showed the ghostly regions that she had defined. She did a focus blink and hid the display. Right now she wanted to see it as it was.

The design was cut into the ice, mere centimeters in places from the look of it, deeper in others. Cut right down into the icy bedrock of the place. The lines looked, for lack of any other words, like roads. The pits the empty cavities left by buildings. Or was that only her human bias? The design was also beautiful. Maybe an artistic creation? A signature of some sort?

The stream bed through the site was natural, but not the circular pool where the lines intersected.

Whatever the explanation it was obviously not a natural phenomenon. Someone had created this mystery.

“Breathtaking,” Mac said. “It looks bigger in person.”

Did it? It looked small and isolated to Clara. One small indication of some other intelligence, but lonely. At least so far the jelly bots hadn’t found anything like this anywhere else on the moon.

A pulsing blue-green shape floated through the haze. The jelly bot, floating toward them, still within the green region that she had defined. Farther off, through the haze, was a dark spot floating in the air. That had to be the other jelly bot, coming to help out.

Actually, when it came down to it, it was unbelievable. “How can this be real?”

“What do you mean?” Mac said.

“All of it. How can this be our life? That we get out to Titan and discover this? I feel like somebody is about to jump out and laugh their heads off at our expense.”

“I get it,” Mac said. “Let’s take it a step at a time. If this is a hoax, it’s pretty elaborate. Who could have done it? Sanders already verified all of the equipment logs. We would have noticed if someone came out here and carved this out. And we’re the first people to come to Titan.”

Clara pointed. “Obviously not.”

She started walking down the slight slope toward the dark stream. Each step carried her closer. She reactivated the overlay and bounced on across the surface. Now that she was moving, the fear melted away. She wanted to see what was there. Mac was right, hoax or not, how was it done? Surely whoever did this left some sort of clue behind.

When she reached the overlay the color vanished, except the thin outline. Clara stepped into the space and stopped. She studied the ground ahead as Mac came up.

She activated the recording on her glasses and surveyed the ground ahead. Nothing to write home about. Shades of orange, with hydrocarbon and ice sand, harder clumps of water-ice rocks, all leading down to the stream itself. It could have been a rocky stream bed in the late summer back on Earth, with rocks surrounding the stream as it flowed slowly along. Except it was orange and the rocks were ice and the stream was methane.

Yet, it was all still very familiar. A slow, cold stream bed leading on into the site. From here the site was almost invisible. The closest lines were noticeable but the rest, were lost to perspective and haze.

“We need to document everything.” Clara focused on the ground and shared the overlay with Mac. “We’ll go side-by-side, and cover our way in. We come out the same way. ”

“What are we looking for?”

“Anything that doesn’t belong. A footprint.” Clara turned and pointed. Even though they didn’t leave much of a track, their footprints were still visible, disturbing the darker material on the surface to reveal lighter traces below. “Think how much a track like that could tell us?”

They moved together in silence. Her attention was all on the ground. Some of the water-ice rocks had a polished look to them, rounded, but this was essentially the stream bed. It suggested that in wetter times the stream was bigger. Maybe there were even flash floods at times. Orange hydrocarbon sand showed clear tear-drop drifts against the rocks. None of it looked disturbed.

“I’m not seeing anything unusual,” Mac said.

“Me either. Not yet. Let’s keep going. We don’t rush it. The stream might have washed out any signs that were out this far.”

They continued the survey. Jackie’s voice cut in on the channel.

“Uh, guys?”

“Yes, Jackie?” Clara answered.

“I’ve got both jellies on site now. What do you want them to do?”

“Continue mapping the green region. When they finish, send them into the yellow. I want an alert on anything that doesn’t fit. Are you watching the feed?”

“Yes. Sanders is helping me.”

“Good. Keep an eye on it. The detection algorithms on the bots might overlook something that would catch your attention.”

“Okay, okay. We’ll do it.”

Clara and Mac continued their own survey through the green band, with white lines on the overlay marking the boundaries of the area they had examined. With each step her insides tightened. They weren’t finding anything. Not a bit of trash, not a footprint, nothing. No clues on the origins of the site.

It was still early. Too early to despair, they hadn’t even reached the site itself, but her gut was telling her that they weren’t finding the answers she wanted.

They wouldn’t know until they finished surveying the site.

It took them ten minutes to cross through the green band to the yellow. There wasn’t enough time to reach the site itself, within the red band, before they had to turn around.

“Five minutes left,” Clara said.

“We can go longer,” Mac said. “We have enough air.”

“No.” It pained her to say it. “Mac, we can’t. We need our focus. We need to do this right. When the time runs out we go back, with the same focus we used going in. There might be something we see going back over the ground that we missed on the way in. Then we need to rest and review what we learned.”

Mac paused and turned to her, studying her.

“We’re wasting time,” she said.

Inside his helmet, Mac nodded. “You’re right. We’ll do it your way.”

Good. If she could only be sure that her way was right. They had to stay sharp. Stay alert. In an environment like this, with something this important, they couldn’t screw it up.

“Let’s keep going.”

Mac moved forward with a long, bouncing step. “Mac!”

He stopped. “What?”

“We keep the pace. We can’t afford to miss anything.”

“Okay. Sorry.”

Nothing about the passing terrain stood out from anything else she had seen so far on the moon. There was stark beauty in this dry landscape. Funny, that, it being dry when the rocks themselves were made from water-ice, coated in a hydrocarbon dust that turned everything an orange color. Not that it didn’t vary, there were lighter areas and darker areas, but overall a sameness about the place. A single palette like a monochromatic painting.

Still nothing disturbed the surface except their own footprints.

In the corner of her augmented display the counter spun down to the halfway mark and flashed as it reached the end.

“Turn back.”

Mac kept walking.

“Mac! We have to go back!”

“Can’t. I want to see it. Then I’ll go back.”

She didn’t move. Frozen to the spot while the timer ran down her time. She couldn’t leave him out here alone, could she? She took the first step and then fell back into the motions. She studied the ground. Hell, if she was going into the site, at least she wasn’t going to screw it up by stepping on evidence.

Mac chuckled and she wanted to grab one of the rocks and chuck it at him. Did the hydrocarbon dirt pack into clods? Her hands itched to find out.

She pushed the temptation back. One step at a time. Mac’s pace slowed until she caught up to him. Then he matched her stride.

“You want to see it too.”

She did. Of course she did. Comments were pointless.

Seen like this, the site looked even more like approaching a street. Straight ahead, on this side of the stream perpendicular to their approach was a straight line cutting through the ice, about the width of a two-lane road. Maybe ten centimeters deep, though that varied. The inner surface looked level, it was the material it was cut through that varied.

A red line flashed as Clara stepped out of the yellow region into the red.

“Uh, guys?” Jackie’s voice came over the channel. “What are you doing? Why aren’t you coming back? What’s going on?”

Clara flushed. She hadn’t even thought to tell them they were continuing. “We’re fine. We’re extending the mission.”

“Oh, oh. Okay.”

“Hang tight,” Mac said. “We couldn’t go back without getting a look at this place.”

Nothing unusual about the surface outside the “road” if that’s what it was. Clara stopped a meter away and grabbed Mac’s arm when he tried to continue.

“Let’s stop here. We’re close enough. Let’s survey what we can see before we go any closer.”

Mac pulled his arm free. “I’m a scientist first, I’m not going to destroy any thing.”

If she could count on that, they’d be back in the cat by now instead of pushing the excursion on the first trip to the site. Not that she blamed him. Going back when she had said would have been hard to do, if she was being truthful. He saved her from that decision.

“The cut is precision sharp.” Her throat threatened to close up. She inhaled the cold air and breathed out. “Clearly not a natural artifact.”

She reached up to rub her eyes and her hand hit the helmet. “Oh, my god!”

Clara laughed and reached out to Mac. He caught her arm. For a moment it was like she was going to float off the surface of the moon and drift away.

“Take slow breaths,” Mac said.

It didn’t make any sense. Why was he saying that? Then she heard it. Her breathing, harsh, sucking air. Oh god, she was hyperventilating!

“Slow, slow,” Mac said.

“Clara? Clara?” That was Jackie. “You’re heart rate shot up, what’s wrong?”

She closed her eyes. God. So embarrassing! She breathed in, and out. Mac held onto her. Kept her anchored. Her breathing improved. She opened her eyes.

There, right between them in the ground, was a quarter-sized hole. Perfectly formed. Clara tapped Mac’s shoulder.

“You okay?”

“Look down there.”

Mac moved back and bent forward. “Look at that. You’re recording right?”

“Yes.” Every bit of her embarrassment, but it was also getting this. “I can’t see how deep it goes.”

“Are there anymore?” Mac turned a bit, then pointed. “Right behind you, another one.”

“Where they there before?”

“I don’t know. I hadn’t noticed it. It’d be hard to see unless you’re right on top of it.”

“Let’s back out, carefully,” Clara said. “Don’t step on them. We need to review the footage and see if they were there before we got close to the site.”

“Agreed.”

Clara turned in place and took a careful step, picking her own footprints. No holes there. None others away from the site. There was the one Mac had pointed. And maybe one another meter or so farther down, but it was hard to see. If it was there, that was at least three parallel to the “road.”

It took a long time to get back to the cat. Her nerves buzzed with energy. At the airlock she bounced up, caught the edges and pulled herself inside. Mac floated up too, and they sealed the door. She stomped her boots. Bits of hydrocarbons fell away.

“That stuff’s going to get everywhere,” she said.

“Can’t help that.” Mac hit the button to cycle the lock.

As warmer air rushed in the hydrocarbons melted on the floor and dripped off her boots. The air continued a few more minutes and then stopped.

They moved on inside.

Clara stripped off her helmet as soon as she could. She sucked in the warmer air of the cat. There was a burnt sort of smell, from being outside? Sanders and Jackie crowded the hatch to the cockpit. Mac moved in and she stepped aside to given him room. He twisted his helmet free.

“So?” Jackie said, bouncing on his toes. “What was it like? What was it like?”

Sanders put a hand on his shoulder. “Settle down.”

The bouncing stopped but Jackie still had that eager-puppy look.

Cat tucked the helmet under her arm. “It’s hard to say. It’s really there, which is incredible, but I have no idea what we’re dealing with.”

“Ask Diaspora,” Sanders said. “Do you think it’s luck that this place was this close to our base?”

Jackie looked up at the big man. “What do you mean?”

Sanders’ shoulders rolled like a swell on the ocean. “I’m just saying. It the grand scheme of things, this might be a small moon, but it’s still pretty frickin’ big. All the places we could have landed, and we’re this close?”

“I don’t think Diaspora knew about this,” Mac said. “I didn’t.”

Sanders shrugged. “Just ’cause they didn’t tell you, doesn’t mean they didn’t know.”

“The mapping program would have found it sooner or later,” Jackie said.

“Right,” Clara added. “And we don’t know that there aren’t other sites around the moon. Not yet. Not until we’ve mapped every square meter out there.”

“Maybe so.”

Mac was unfastening his outer layer and it made her realize how chilled she still felt. The suit might keep them from freezing, but it was still damn cold out there.

She put the helmet down and started unfastening her suit too. “We’re going to rest, and then we’ll start reviewing our findings. Jackie, put the jelly bots into a spiral search pattern to the center of the site. I want them to record with everything they’ve got, highest resolution. We found some small holes along that roadway or whatever it is. I want to know if there are more, and how deep they are.”

Jackie’s head bobbed. “I’ll get on it.”

He ducked back into the cockpit. Sanders followed.

She pulled her boots free, then started shimming out of the suit. Mac was doing the same dance in the aisle. There wasn’t much space to move in the cat. It was sort of like an RV back on Earth, with spaces for living and working. Even side sections to extend and create more space when it was needed. Right now everything was pulled in, leaving them only a small booth and the racks on each side of the aisle.

“Maybe this is only the surface,” Mac said.

His eyes were distant, like he was looking off through the sides of the cat, and the hills beyond.

“Maybe there’s a whole complex dug down into the ice. Some of those pits looked deep. There could be more underneath. We need to get sonar out there too and see what we’re dealing with.”

“That’s a good idea. We can have Jackie run it while we rest.”

He sighed. “You’re right. Rest first.”

6

Rest didn’t come easily to Clara. She climbed into her bunk in the rack, one of the half-dozen along the cat’s aisle, hers was on the top. She sat, propped up by a foam pillow and displayed the live footage from the jelly bots, in two side-by-side windows. Nothing new there. Just the ground floating by beneath them. The cameras on the bot adjusted for its own movement, giving the image a steadicam quality despite the pulsations of its movement.

Clara swiped the images away and closed her eyes. It did no good. She was back out on the frozen ground, barely touching it despite her suit, like a drifting ghost.

The city, no, no. She didn’t want to jump to that conclusion but that’s what it looked like. This wasn’t like someone looking at footage from the old rovers on Mars and imagining that every rock was evidence of alien life and a NASA conspiracy.

This was real. It was really out there. Someone had come and had made those cuts into the ground outside. Roads or artwork, or some other purpose that she just didn’t understand, it didn’t make any difference. It was real. And they only had a limited window right now to figure it out before night fell.

That was it. Once night fell, once they went back to the colony, then it wouldn’t be her’s anymore. It’d belong to everyone else. Word of the discovery would spread. For people like her parents it would be adding fuel to the fire. Things with Earth had gotten bad enough already. They’d launched the Lincoln against Diaspora on the Moon. Selene Martinez, director of operations on Earth, had managed to get off the Diaspora personnel and their families but that only made the preppers and conspiracy theorists more sure than ever of their “facts.”

Except that maybe this time there really was an alien city. City or not, humans didn’t create that site out there. They were the first people to reach Titan.

Her timer rang. Rest period was over. Time to get back to work.

7

Clara rolled out of her bunk. Sanders appeared in the cockpit door.

“Good, you’re up. You want the wings extended now?”

“Yeah. That’d be great. Let’s get to work.”

Mac slid out of his bunk. He didn’t look like he had rested any more than she had, and was holding a tablet in his hands.

“Clara, look at this. It’s from the survey.”

She took the tablet.

The wire-frame view of the site showed the complexity in great detail, everything measured and rendered in full dimensions. What was more attention grabbing, was how the site extended down into the surface. She zoomed in on the section that they had visited, which was only one small piece of the whole.

The small holes they’d found extended straight down into the ice almost two meters and just stopped. If they continued on at all, the scan didn’t show it. She rotated the view and saw that the pits also extended down into the surface at varying lengths and there were other parts that extended off of the lower levels. Passages? The jelly bots scans didn’t reveal how far the passages went and they hadn’t yet scanned the entirety of the site. To get a full picture, they’d have to go on.

Mac reached over to the tablet. “Look at this.”

The image zoomed in on a region within the site. A jagged crack cut across one of the “roads” and met with others, forming a radiating pattern of cracks. Looking at the wire-frame display it was clear that the whole section was concave.

“It’s collapsing.”

“That’s what it looks like,” Mac said. “That suggests that there’s something underneath. A chamber of some sort.”

He tapped the screen, zooming in on the nearest pit. “We have to get back out there and check out those passages.”

“We’re not equipped for that.”

“Come on, you can’t tell me that you’re not curious.”

“I didn’t say that.” It’d be a lie if she did. She was dying to see what was down there. Maybe there were answers. And so help her, she did want to see it all first.

“Let’s wait and see what we can turn up on the sonar. And Sanders is extending the wings so we’ll have some room to work. We get as much information as we can and then we decide if it’s safe to go in.”

“What if that collapses the weakened section?”

“Better that it collapse now than when we’re inside. I don’t like the idea of going in blind.”

“Fine,” Mac said. “Let’s get to work then.”

8

The next three hours were busy. Sanders extended the wings on the cat, which gave them space in the main body of the vehicle to pull out compact work areas. There were four stations altogether. She, Jackie and Mac took the stations and went to work exploring the site remotely. Jackie and Mac each took one of the jelly bots while she handled the sonar survey herself with the sonar drones.

Each drone was a squat robot shaped like a mushroom cap. The three of them trundled out to the site, rolling on three spherical wheels that bumped and wobbled across the surface but their low center of gravity kept them stable. She positioned them in an equilateral triangle around the site.

“Ready,” she said when the bots were in place. “Commencing sonar readings.”

Each bot sent out high-frequency pulse. The pulses were picked up in turn by each of the other two bots, processed and sent back to the cat to build up a complex picture of the sub-surface environment.

Combined with the jelly bot measurements, the model of the underground complex grew quickly.

A network of passages connected the pits around the site. The tunnels ran straight, intersecting and creating a whole network similar to the lines on the surface, but not identical. The paths weren’t the same, they didn’t line up together.

Mac whistled. “Look at that! There’s a whole outpost down there.”

Jackie laughed and pointed at the hologram model floating in the center of the cat. He slapped his leg. “Look at it! It’s beautiful!”

Maybe so. She shivered. Each time she looked at the site she had to reminder herself that humans didn’t create it. That was the thought that kept her nerves on edge. What sort of creatures came here to Titan and created this? Where did they go afterward? There wasn’t any indication that they were still here. From what they’d seen so far, the site was abandoned.

More details poured in from the next pulse. The image of the pathways was refined. There were chambers, and a big one sat right underneath the cracked region that Mac had noticed. It was large, round and connected to four of the passages. It looked like some sort of underground hub, with a domed ceiling.

Sanders came out of the cockpit. “That’s what’s under there?”

“Yes,” Clara said.

“Glad then that we didn’t drive any closer. I wouldn’t want to risk the cat on top of that.”

“The cat doesn’t weigh as much on Titan as it would on Earth,” Jackie said. “I doubt it would cause a collapse if we drove across the site.”

“Yeah? I’m not trying that. You want to do something like that, pick someone else. ”

Mac laughed. “Look at that! It’s incredible! Right out there is proof that humanity isn’t alone out here. Someone else has been here before us.”

“And left us with a big mystery,” Clara said. “Why do all of this? And where is any sort of structure. This looks like it is all just cut right into the ice.”

“We cut into the ice to build our colony,” Jackie said.

“Yes, but we still put a structure into place. We didn’t go walking around outside in our birthday suits.”

Sanders shrugged. “Maybe they considered this homey weather?”

“But there’s nothing there! Lines cut into the ground, pits, the sonar shows the shapes of the passages underneath and they look much the same. Straight passages connecting the different chambers and pits that open to the surface.”

Mac shook his head. “We won’t know what’s down there until we go take a look.”

“If there was any way for someone else to get here, I’d think this was a hoax,” Clara said.

“It isn’t a hoax,” Jackie said. “It’s real. It can’t be humans that made it.”

“Maybe it’s like those ancient aliens people talked about back on Earth,” Sanders said.

“No!”

All three men looked at her. She rubbed her eyes. “Look, let’s not even suggest that, okay? The people back on Earth that believe that sort of thing, they’re going to go crazy enough as it is. This is going to fuel the whole conspiracy ideas about Diaspora.”

“What if they’re right?” Sanders gestured at the hologram. “We know people didn’t create it. Can we figure out how old it is?”

“We can test the levels of hydrocarbons in the excavations,” Jackie said. “With our observations on hydrocarbon deposition rates, we can get a pretty good idea how long ago it was made. It can’t be very long, though, can it? Otherwise it would have been buried already, right?”

“Titan’s a slow world,” Clara said. “It might be older than we think, but get on that. Mac and I will suit up to go back.”

9

They retraced their steps back to the site and made better time. They weren’t carefully studying every centimeter of the ground this time. This time they wanted to get to the site and reach the nearest of the pits. Their target was a circular pit some ten meters across. Two passages connected to the lower levels, and more importantly, it was on this side of the stream.

Clara dragged a sled behind her loaded with gear for the trip down into the pit. The passages were four meters down in the pit. They had ropes and other climbing gear with them to make the descent. Mac dragged a second sled with additional climbing gear and even more sample containers. They’d packed everything that they could think of onto the two sleds and still the piled sleds hardly felt like anything to drag. Back on Earth each probably weighed a couple hundred pounds and here they were only thirty pounds or so.

Coming over the hill, seeing the site down below cut into the orange landscape, brought it all back. The reality of it. How many times had she heard her father talk about ancient astronauts, visitors from space that would return some day. A bit of doubt stirred and twisted in her mind.

Could these be the same aliens?

No. She didn’t believe that. Even though this was real, it didn’t make the stories back home real too. There hadn’t been any significant evidence on Earth, at least nothing that wasn’t easily explained by more rational reasons.

Here, though. This site was unique. Proof that another intelligence had been on Titan. The fact that it was a geologically recent site, and the lack of any evidence so far for endemic organisms, it strongly suggested that whatever, whomever had created the site had not been native to Titan. This wasn’t the Titan equivalent of Stonehenge or the great pyramids.

Before she knew it they were back at the first “road” in the site. She moved carefully between the quarter-sized holes and stopped.

“Go ahead,” Mac said.

The edge was sharp, cleanly cut, but there was orange hydrocarbon dust on the bottom. Clara knelt on the edge and poked a gloved finger into the dust. It barely came up to her knuckle. She pulled out a skinny probe and poked it down into the hydrocarbons. Jackie had coated it with an adhesive to collect a sample, and measure the depth. She lifted it carefully straight up. A faint orange haze clung to the bottom of the probe. She capped it and returned it to the pouch on her suit.

“Okay. I’m stepping onto the cut now.” Clara stepped down, it was an easy step.

The surface beneath her boots was smooth, but not slippery. The icy surface wouldn’t turn slick unless there was a methane rainstorm and those were rare, as the nearly dried-up stream showed.

“It’s hard beneath my boots. Feels perfectly smooth.”

Whatever had cut this had melted and smoothed the surface out. Instant road, made of bedrock. Stable, long-lasting. Maybe not a road by design, but it would make a good road. She pulled her sled down onto the road. The edge here cut through mostly water ice rocks. The sled didn’t even leave tracks until it hit the road surface and disturbed the dust.

Mac stepped down. He laughed. “I was half-expecting it to be slippery.”

Despite the cold air in her helmet, the rock-hard ice beneath her feet, the orange color of everything made it feel more than ever like a trek along an empty desert road. Except this couldn’t be a road. It was wide enough, but off to the right was another “road” that intersected this one at a sharp angle. Who built roads like that? At least not for wheeled traffic.

Her display tracked her position against the map. The intersecting lines looked more like a complicated geometric snowflake than a map of any sort of roadway system. Even though there were pits at the intersection points, those varied in size. The spaces in between the lines were unaffected by the creation of the site. How do you dig out that much material without having it disturb the rest of the ground?

“What do you think happened to the material removed?” Clara moved to the edge of the road they were walking down and pointed at the ground.

“Look at that, undisturbed, as far as I can tell. You can see the water-ice rocks cleanly sliced by whatever cut into the ground but it doesn’t look like they moved at all.”

“Vaporized?” Mac suggested.

“If that happened, wouldn’t the escaping material have disturbed the surrounding landscape? It suggests heat, which would have deformed the whole surrounding area. It should look like a giant slagged area, melted and refrozen, but it doesn’t.”

“One of the many mysteries, but we have to keep going.”

He was right. They didn’t have unlimited time. The plan was to spend no more than two hours exploring the site. Longer than she had originally considered, yet she also knew how hard it was going to be to head back to the cat. If they got too tired it might lead to dangerous, potentially fatal mistakes.

Following this line took them closer to the dark, sluggish stream flowing along the shallow gully. It spread out among dark water-ice rocks. Hard to keep things straight, that the stream was liquid methane, that the rocks weren’t silicates but water-ice. It looked like a slow-moving stream back on Earth running through a mostly dry stream bed in late August. Without all of the trees and brush along the rocky bed. Instead, a barren orange landscape with a hazy, orange sky.

A dark jellyfish shape pulsed and swam through the haze just ahead. That was red, the jelly bot that Jackie was bringing to help them on the expedition, but it added to the unreality of the scene.

Titan wasn’t Earth, no matter what superficial similarities they shared.

They reached the line intersecting the one they were following at a thirty degree angle. Did that have significance? How could they tell?

Clara stopped to look at the sharp point where the lines came together. Perfect, sharp with no unevenness. It really did look like something removed the surface within the “roads,” just stripped it away in an instant without disturbing anything else.

Or ate it away.

She ran her gloved fingers along the smooth sides. At the top of the cut the ground crumbed at her light touch. Sand drifted down onto her fingers. The broken edge disturbed the perfect line.

“Shit.”

“What?”

Insider her helmet, Clara shook her head. “Sorry. The edge crumbled away. I barely touched it.”

“Not as many rocks here.”

She straightened and dragged her sled around to the other side. “Let’s get to the pit.”

A few minutes later they reached the target pit. Both of them stood at the edge and looked down.

The pit dropped into darkness. Clara turned on her wrist-lights and pointed at the pit.

Smooth ice walls, like polished stone. From the map this pit dropped down fourteen meters and had two passages that connected to the lower portions. One passage was just over three meters down, the other at forty degrees around the side from their position. Each passage was about three meters high and the same distance across, cylindrical in shape. Good-sized passages, at least, no crawling about in tiny tunnels. It was interesting that there weren’t smaller passages showing in the sonar maps. All of the passages were the same size.

Clara turned to her sled and pulled open the first compartment where the climbing gear was stowed. “Let’s get anchored and get down there.”

Mac went to work without comment.

Clara used her system to pull up instructions, following them carefully as she set the anchors and prepared for the descent. They’d trained on it before leaving Earth, back in the basic training that all of the colonists undertook. Survival training, necessary skills for working in extreme environments, and all of that sort of thing had been required. Still, it didn’t hurt to have a heads-up display reminding her of each step.

At last secured, roped in and ready to go, she looked over at Mac. He was finishing up.

“Ready?”

“Ready?” He gave her a thumbs up and the light came on his helmet. “See you at the bottom!”

He backed up and walked right over the edge. He dropped, slowly and laughed. “Too bad training wasn’t this easy!”

Clara didn’t look down as she stepped over the edge. She was ready to fall and it didn’t happen. She kept her feet on the smooth face of the wall and took the first two steps. With the low gravity it was no effort at all. She let out the rope slowly and walked down the wall.

Her helmet light reflected back at her from the polished surface of the wall. The wall looked like the surfaces of the lines above. Sealed tight. Put a lid on this thing, it’d probably hold an atmosphere. Of course if the air wasn’t cold, the surface would melt.

The descent continued until an opening appeared beside Clara. She kicked off and swung slowly over into the opening and landed lightly on her feet. She moved aside to give Mac room and a moment later he appeared beside her.

Their lights showed an empty passage ahead. Nothing artificial, the surface was the same sort of melted and sealed material as the lines above or the pit.

“Nothing.” Mac’s tone was disbelieving. “Why did empty tunnels?”

It wasn’t an accident. The passage was perfectly straight, smooth and bare from the orange hydrocarbon dust except traces that were right in the entrance. Clara’s lights played over the walls, revealing sedimentary layers of varying oranges. The passage was round, but it gave them plenty of room to walk. It could have been a rounded sewer tunnel at one point, except it didn’t go anywhere to empty anything out.

“It does give you a look at the geologic history.”

“That’s great, but right now I’m more interested in the ones behind digging this out.”

They were all like this, all of the passages. Clara felt it in her gut. Whoever had created these passages and the lines above, for whatever reason, they were gone. All of this was like a footprint left in the sand. Pack it in, pack it out, must apply to aliens too.

“We don’t know that is the case,” Clara said, not believing it. “Even if it is, we won’t know until we have a chance to check out all of the passages.”

“Let’s get on with it, then.”

“Jackie? You reading this? Bring down the jelly bot.”

“Yep, yep. It’s right behind you.”

“Record everything,” Clara said.

They both unclipped and walked into the passage, then looked back. A few seconds later the undulating shape of the jelly bot floated into the passage opening. It drifted into the tunnel. It was bigger in person and looked disturbingly alive. Clara and Mac moved against the sides of the passage.

The jelly bot pulsed and swam forward into the passage. It’s motion made soft sighs in the air. The trailing tentacles were all recording devices, sampling the air, imagining its surroundings and taking dozens of other measurements. Clara waited until it was a couple meters ahead and then followed it inside.

The passage continued on without break or interruption. Nothing unexpected from the sonar readings. Ahead was the first chamber, a large rectangular shape.

It was, predictably as empty as the passage. Mac swore.

“What’s wrong?” Jackie asked.

“It’s empty,” Clara answered. “Like the passage, like the site above. Whoever they were, they’re gone and took everything with them.”

“There’s a lot of the site left to investigate,” Jackie said. “We don’t know yet.”

It was an echo of her own words, and she still didn’t believe it. They left and they took their toys home. A good practice, really.

“I’ll take some surface samples,” Mac said. “Maybe there are microbes left behind.”

Good idea, if only to rule it out.

While Mac worked, she walked out into the chamber. It was large, round, dark and empty. Cold. Her suit did a good job of keeping its internal temperature above freezing, but it was still cold. And the processed nitrogen from outside was still cold. The air coming into her suit was icy. That was a detail they could work on improving, although it did give a clear reminder of where she was right now.

Titan. A whole new world, in a chamber created by non-human intelligences. If that wasn’t incredible, she didn’t know what was. Sure, the conspiracy theorists, her own parents, would imagine all sorts of stories when the news broke. That Diaspora knew about the site before the colonists landed, like Sanders had suggested. That there was alien technology present, and Diaspora had taken it to use in their undeclared war against Earth. Or that they were all in cahoots with their alien overlords bent on dominating the Earth.

The truth was less exciting and more mysterious. Someone had visited Titan before them, created this site, and then left, taking everything with them.

The jelly bot drifted around the chamber. Another passage led off the left side of the chamber. Clara walked across the empty space and looked into the passage.

Indistinguishable from the one they’d used to get here. Bare, empty, and unmarked.

“I’m done here. Anything interesting?” Mac asked.

“No,” Clara said. “It isn’t different than the passage outside.”

“So we move on?”

“We move on.”

They walked into the next passage and kept going. The next chamber they came to was also round, but smaller, with the passage continuing on the opposite side. Otherwise no different than the one they had left. The jelly bot drifted through the tunnels ahead of them, recording everything.

When Clara’s timer sounded, it was a relief. “Time to head back.”

“Great,” Mac said. “My feet are freezing and I’m tired. Let’s get back.”

Nothing changed on the way back. They got to the mouth of the passage, clipped into the ropes and walked right up out of the pit. And then they walked back to the cat.

10

That evening they sat around the table in the cat, over plates of reconstituted spaghetti Mac had prepared. The garlic smell and the spicy heat were welcome distractions from the discouraging results of the day.

“What’s next?” Sanders said.

Mac twirled his fork in the pasta. “I’m sure there are experts that will trip over themselves for a chance to wander around this ghost town. I say we let them.”

“I’d like to go out,” Jackie said. “I want to see it myself.”

“Be my guest,” Mac said.

“I’ll go too,” Sanders said. “Empty or not, that’s history out there, man! I’d like to see it before Blackstone makes it off limits.”

“She’s not going to do that,” Clara said. “If anything, they’ll give us more resources to explore.”

“Maybe, or maybe they already know about it. Maybe they stripped it before we got here.”

Clara shook her head. “Paranoia doesn’t help, and it doesn’t make sense. If they sent another expedition out here, we’d know. And even if they did know about it, what did they do to keep it hidden?”

“Right!” Jackie’s head bobbed. “Right, I mean, they could have covered it up, couldn’t they? If they could take everything away, they could have removed all traces of it. Why leave anything?”

“Maybe they didn’t have time,” Sanders’ shoulders rolled in a slow movement. “You’ll have to ask them.”

Clara let the conversation drift around her and focused instead on her food. She pushed the pasta around on the plate, making lines in the sauce. The lines intersected and crossed. She scraped and twirled her fork, making a hole. A mold for whatever had been taken out? Maybe there had been something filling the spaces. If it had been a city, an outpost of some sort, then maybe there had been buildings. Things that been in the places that were now empty?

11

The next morning Sanders and Jackie went out and spent two more hours in the site, wandering around the empty passages without finding anything. And the whole time the jelly bots were now exploring the site too, looking for any anomalies, anything that might explain what it was or why it was here.

Nothing.

Clara spent the whole day reviewing the footage and the data gathered. All the materials at the site were native. The actual surfaces showed signs of being bonded together, by heat or some other reaction, but whatever had done it had done it quickly. As she’d expected, the walls were air-tight, which suggested that they had contained some sort of atmosphere other than the native atmosphere, but none of the samples taken showed anything except native gases in the usual proportions.

Mac speculated that there had been some sort of lining within the passages, like an inflatable habitat that the aliens deflated and took with them when they left. If so, it hadn’t left any trace.

And why make it so complex? There didn’t seem to be any pattern to it that she recognized.

12

After dinner Clara retired to her bunk and pulled up a holographic overlay on her glasses of the site the way Jackie had displayed it, with the wire-frame showing details they had gathered.

She shaded the wire-frame. Now the shapes had more substance, but they were hollow and empty. She inverted the model to fill the empty spaces instead, stripping away the rest. A solid complex below, the lines radiating around the site above. She focused on the stream and where the lines ended before the stream and seemed to continue on the other side, she pulled out the surface to bridge the stream. Then she pulled up on the bridge slightly, warping it into a stable arch.

That unified the site. The placement of the bridges didn’t make much sense, but it wasn’t any stranger than the rest. It was all speculation anyway, but at least it connected things. The roads looked like solid avenues, with bridges spanning the stream. Whether or not that was the case, she had no way to know.

In for that much, she might as well carry the speculation farther. It was probably a pretty reasonable assumption that the aliens couldn’t breathe Titan’s atmosphere. Maybe somewhere on, or in, this moon there was native life, but nothing led her to think that the builders of the site were native. The site was isolated and contained within itself. Almost like an ant colony.

What if that was the case? What if the lines on the surface weren’t roads like she was thinking, but passages? She expanded each of the roads, pulling them up to match the dimensions of the underground passages. She replaced the bridges with the passages crossing the stream. It really made the stream seem irrelevant, except for the pool that happened at one of the intersections. The shapes rotated in front of her, a complex, interlocking structure on two levels. No symmetry there, but maybe the aliens didn’t look for symmetry the way humans did. Humans liked bilateral symmetry and repetition. This shape, it looked more about the intersections.

Almost like a three-dimensional model of a molecule.

Clara’s breath caught in her throat.

Could it be that?

She stripped away the information about the ground surface outside and was left with the crisscrossing designs of the lines and the circular intersections. She dropped in spheres at each junction.

Even more like a molecule now. She rotated it and turned it. It wasn’t complete. More like a simplified short-hand to the actual structure.

Or a map.

13

Everyone was busy when she left her bunk and suited up. It was against the rules to go outside by herself but Mac wanted to pull up stakes and start back after they rested. Night was coming and he was frustrated with the site.

She had to see it again for herself.

Now, standing at the top of the hill and looking at the site, she called up her model. Was she missing something, could this be the answer?

The software adjusted for distance and perspective and settled the model into place. Blue, against the orange background.

Thick lines spread out across the Titan landscape. Add in the pits and the angles and new lines formed at angles, further connecting the intersecting points.

Mac had given up trying to call. He’d be out here soon.

Clara moved her hands, manipulating the model at a distance. She narrowed the lines down to simple dotted lines, like a string of bright blue Christmas lights. That left the spheres.

“Darken the view,” she ordered. “Simulate nightfall.”

The orange backdrop faded away to a darkened, ghostly landscape lit by starlight.

Stars.

She accessed menus and pulled up models. “Replace spheres with simulated stars. ”

Bright light pierced her eyes. She squinted. “Reduce size and illumination to ten percent.”

The brilliant display faded. There were stars, bright glowing stars, connected by a network of dotted blue lines.

“Clara!”

Mac’s voice behind her, distant still.

Clara studied the image. It felt right. A map of stars and connecting lines. But what stars? What were they trying to tell us?

If it was a message there was a key.

She looked at the circular pool in the stream. That was an unique feature. She pulled up star maps and focused on the Sun. If the pool was Sol, then….

Clara rotated the star map. The nearest star was actually three stars, Alpha Centauri and its companions, which made the nearest intersection Centauri. She swapped the generic star simulation for a model of the Centauri system. She connected the model to the star map database and instructed the system to populate with other matches.

The star field changed. Large and small, stars bloomed into place around Sol at the center of the stream pool. All the pieces snapped into place, connected by the dotted blue lines.

Mac huffed to a stop next to her.

“Clara, what are you doing?”

“I’m sending you an augmented view.”

“What?”

Clara sent the view to him.

He was silent. “Is this?”

“It is,” she said. “The site is a map of star systems spreading out around us. It isn’t to scale. They’ve pulled them closer, suggesting the relationships without worrying about the details. It’s like a graphic, showing the various worlds, without any details. The one thing they did do was put Sol in a noticeable place, using the stream as a landmark to draw our attention to it.”

“Why do it this way?”

“I don’t know, a test to see if we could understand it? The site is a three dimensional sculpture, a representation that uses the empty space as much as the spaces they modified. It might not even be for us, but a marker showing the worlds they’ve visited.”

“But which one did they come from?”

That was a good question. The stream cut through other lines, but no other intersections. None of the other intersections had any distinguishing marks. Some varied in size, but that might designate the type of star, or the size of the solar system?

Then she remembered. The first line that they had walked on, it was marked with small circular pits, quarter-sized. That line ran between two stars, neither one Sol, but at the intersection another line ran off to Sol. She checked Jackie’s model. The bots hadn’t found any similar markings anywhere in the site.

She highlighted the stars at each end. “This line was marked, remember the small holes we saw? They don’t show anywhere else in the site map. It could be an indication that one of those stars was their home, or indicate something particular about that journey.”

“You’re suggesting that they’ve been to all of those stars?”

“It fits the map.”

“It’s going to sound like we’ve found a crop circle on Titan that leads to the alien home world. No one is going to believe it.”

Except her parents. It’d no doubt panic them when they found out.

“That’s their problem,” she said. She gestured and collapsed the image.

The site lay as before, at the base of the hill, along the stream. Mysterious. Made by inhuman hands, by beings that could apparently travel between the stars.

Terra Blackstone had said before that she planned for the Diaspora to continue, to reach out to other worlds entirely. There was Eris and the other projects designed to reach outside of the solar system. People that were willing to stand on the precipice of interstellar space and face that deep, deep darkness.

When word got out about the site, they’d know that they weren’t alone. Other minds were out there, reaching out. Whether they left this site as a marker, or an invitation, or even a warning, it was going to change everything.

“It’s a great discovery,” Mac said. “Congratulations. We still need to get back.”

Clara turned away from the site. “I’ve got my questions now. Let’s go home.”

Together, they headed back down to the cat.

13,268 words

Author’s Note

This story marks the 7th weekly short story release, and the 7th Planetary Bodies story. Saturn’s impressive ring system and the cloudy world of Titan has always captured my imagination. It’s a moon unlike any other with a dense atmosphere, liquid lakes and streams and a complex geology. I was very excited when the Huygens probe parachuted down to the surface.

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

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the series links at the top of the page. Check back next week for another Planetary Bodies story. Next up is Uranus Exposed.

Jupiter Sleeping

Selene Martinez knows a thing or two about rising to big-scale challenges. She faced evacuating thousands of people from Earth in dozens of simultaneous launches.

Now she crash lands on one of the oldest surfaces in the solar system between a brewing conflict that will determine the fate of a whole new branch of humanity.

On Jupiter’s moon Callisto, Selene faces her newest and greatest challenge with the eyes of everyone in the solar system watching her.

1

Selene Martinez liked the idea of building a new future for humanity on the oldest surface in the solar system.

That’s if she could get the two camps on Callisto to work with each other instead of going for each other’s throats. What a better way to do that, then have them have to rescue their new boss?

At least, she hoped they’d come to her rescue. The transport capsule had lost communications with the base as it made the final orbit around before the burn. Callisto still didn’t have a up a global satellite system. She wouldn’t be able to communicate again until she came around for the final descent.

Callisto essentially lacked an atmosphere, so no braking that way. She’d burn up all of her fuel to land at a survivable impact speed.

Too bad Callisto didn’t have its beanstalk in place, like Ceres. That’d have made it so much easier!

Still, it’d only taken three months to get to Callisto from Earth! Incredible, and possible thanks to the Diaspora’s beam-powered solar sails coming out of Mercury. More and more of them all the time, and new beam satellites coming online.

Trips that had taken Diaspora years in the beginning, were getting shorter and shorter all the time. Eventually they’d all have easy access to the worlds throughout the solar system. Well, everyone except for the folks down in the well on Earth. They could sit and stew while the future went on without them, for all she cared. After everything she had done for them!

Selene took a deep breath, which sounded loud in her helmet, and checked the holographic displays in front of her. Orbital trajectory looked good. All systems in the transport capsule were green. After three months trapped in this can, she couldn’t wait to get out and actually see real people again.

Assuming that she landed in one piece. There wasn’t much that she could do at this point. It was all gravity, orbital mechanics, and the landing program in action now. In the last few minutes she could take over and attempt a manual landing — if she was any kind of pilot. Which she wasn’t.

Her suit was on and functioning. Even if the capsule did rupture on impact, the suit gave her an increased margin of safety. She had to suit up before the final approach. No way to do it in an emergency. The suit was an extreme environments suit, armored and tight. She’d actually had to crawl in through a rear opening. First her legs, so like she was sitting half in and out of the suit, then she had to bend forward and ‘dive’ into the suit, rising up, forcing her limbs and head through the suit. It clung wetly to her, squeezing her to maintain pressure in her body.

It was a little like a reverse birth.

At just over five-feet and thin, she had it easier than anyone bigger and less flexible. Years of yoga practice made it easier. She’d also cut her blond hair very short, so it didn’t get in her way.

Everything that could be done to ensure her survival had been done.

Sometimes you just settled in for the ride.

 

Down below the moon’s landscape was very close. Craters on top of craters, and more craters. No place was free of craters of all sizes. An incredibly battered surface that hadn’t been reshaped and smoothed over by tectonic forces. Like Europa, Callisto might have a subsurface ocean, but frozen far, far below the surface.

Not at all like the ice ball world of Europa, with a surface visibly reshaped and comparatively smooth.

Ahead a massive body rose above the crater surface. Gigantic Jupiter, in all of its glory. Even after weeks of getting closer, she still hadn’t tired of seeing the planet. She’d cross around Callisto’s tidally-locked hemisphere, to come around and land on the far side of the moon.

Too bad, really, that the base was on the opposite side of the moon. She would have liked to have a view of Jupiter from her office. Assuming she had an office. She didn’t have much detail about her arrangements.

As stunning as the view was she understood the caution. Callisto was outside of the radiation belts that made visiting the inner Galilean satellites so dangerous but it was still considered safer to put the moon between them and the giant planet, if only for psychological reasons, not to have the giant planet a permanent fixture in the sky. Imagine if Callisto had been able to support terrestrial life? What would primitive cultures have done with something as dynamic as Jupiter constantly hanging over their heads?

It didn’t take long before the transport traveled far enough to leave the view behind. She’d dropped even lower. Thrusters kicked on, shaking the transport as her speed fell. She was falling from the sky.

2

Selene unbuckled the straps holding her into the transport’s seat. Landing had been a bit rough, but both she and the transport capsule were intact.

Those last few minutes had passed in an instant. A bit like the launch from Earth. She’d held on while the barren surface rose up beneath her. Lower, and lower, until she was flying just above the ground like an airplane coming in for a landing.

There was nothing down there except rough, cratered terrain. If she had hit it even at the speed she was traveling, well, she could imagine bits of the transport scattered among the cratered landscape.

At the last moment a path appeared, cut through the icy, rocky surface. The engines cut out and the transport crashed down, sliding and spinning out of control. Then it stopped.

A bit rough might be an understatement.

But she was down, shaken, but relatively unharmed and all systems still functional. Surprising, really.

She stood, holding on for stability. Callisto’s gravity was lower than the Moon. That’d take some getting used to. After months of weightlessness, though, having a sense of up and down was welcome.

The radio came to life. A man’s voice came on, deep, and friendly. “Callisto to transport, do you read?”

With an eye-blink, Selene answered the call. “Yes, I read you. I’m down and all systems are green. Anyone out there to give me a ride in?”

“Roger, transport. Yes, we’ve got a flatbed coming out to pick you up. Hang tight. They’ll be there soon.”

“What’s your name?” She said.

“Sean McBain, ma’am.”

McBain. She knew the name from the personnel roster that she’d studied. Handsome man, from his picture. An evolutionary biologist by training, he was also the assistant director, her second in command. If it worked out, her right hand.

“Don’t call me ma’am,” Selene said. “Selene is just fine. I’m looking forward to seeing everyone!”

“Right. They’ll be there soon. Callisto out.”

Okay. That was about as warm a welcome as Terra Blackstone had warned her about. Blackstone, the force behind the Diaspora Group’s colonization of the solar system, knew something about love and hate. She was the most recognizable person in the solar system and probably hated by several billion people back on Earth. All of those people that thought they had the right to tell the people of the Diaspora what they could, and couldn’t do, out in the solar system.

Selene moved carefully down the length of the transport to gather up her things. She didn’t have much. When the United States and the United Nations acted illegally to seize Diaspora facilities on Earth, there hadn’t been much time to get out. Blackstone might get the blame, but she hadn’t personally handled the details of the exodus.

That’d been Selene. Her preparations had made it possible. She’d convinced the Diaspora’s board to support the evacuation plan, with Blackstone’s backing and support. Materials, but more importantly, people. Anyone that was working for Diaspora that wanted off, as well as their families.

Watching all those simultaneous launches going off had been amazing! Even if it did nearly trigger a panic response from the nations.

Selene picked up a tablet and stuffed it into her bag. Everything else was packed. Two duffels, the sum total of her belongings now. Brought up on one of the last launches. She’d spent time with the rest of the evacuees in orbit around the Earth, in her case at L-Town 5, and then transferred here to take over the Jupiter operations.

The biggest, deadliest planet in the solar system. Essentially a whole solar system on its own, with sixty-seven moons, including some of the most likely habitats for life outside of Earth.

Which meant there were whole worlds at stake in this job. Selene grinned. Talk about fun! She bounced slightly. When would the truck get here?

3

The flatbed turned out to be something like a snow cat, with a thick tread that crawled across the uneven terrain. There was a plow at the front which could be used to clear obstacles, fill small craters and cut a path. The crane on the back had lifted up the transport and deposited it neatly onto the back of the flatbed. It stuck out pretty far, but the flatbed managed okay.

Selene was in the cab of the flatbed with the crew of four that had come out to pick her up. She recognized them all from studying the staff roster.

Jessi, Kathy, Melissa and Cole, all working out of the environment and facilities department, the people that kept the equipment and colony life support functioning.

The flatbed had space for six people in the cab with the suits on. The cab was unpressurized, so they all stayed in their suits.

Selene asked about that.

“Not worth it,” Cole said. Through his visor, she could see he was in his mid to late forties, with a short gray and black beard and buzzed hair. “It takes too long to get in and out of the suits as it is. We could pressurize her if we needed to, like if a suit was failing, but usually we have to get out and work then get back in, then back out.”

“We’re not changing suits that often,” Kathy offered. She was probably in her thirties, lean, with dark brown eyes and an amazing golden complexion that made her look like she’d been out in the sun.

Except from here the sun wasn’t all that impressive. It had to be her natural skin color.

“Well, thanks for coming to get me,” Selene said. Outside the road, such that it was, pushed on through the field of craters toward a distant cluster of lights.

“This was an easy one,” Jessi said. She laughed, her voice high and clear. “Go get the boss? Check!”

Jessi wasn’t the youngest of the group, that was probably Melissa. She was young, barely twenties, with short brown hair. Obviously shy, she’d offered a quick hello and apparently found her own gloves fascinating.

“Once we get the beanstalk up and running, we’ll be seeing a lot more people out here,” Selene said. “It won’t be such a rough landing.”

“You’re assuming we get the beanstalk up,” Cole said. “The squidders don’t want to spend time on that.”

There it was, the conflict that she’d been handed along with this post. She’d expected it to come up, maybe not this fast. “Squidders?”

“Looking for squid,” Kathy said.

“They think there’re multicellular critters beneath the ice,” Cole added. “Since Ceres, they all want to discover the next biosphere. They want us to drill, not reach up into space.”

“Isn’t true that any ocean might be up to 200 kilometers below the surface?”

“Yes,” Kathy said. “They tend to ignore that little detail.”

Cole said, “They also want us to focus our resources on Europa. You’ll have fun telling them that we’re not here only to do science. We’re trying to build something.”

All of which was true, but it wasn’t the whole picture.

“You’re right.” Selene pointed at the base coming up, a collection of domes that blended in with the surroundings. Printed from local materials, it was the lights and lines that made it stand out. “We are trying to build a home too. Still, it’d be nice to know more about any potential neighbors we might have.”

Kathy shook her head. “If we set foot on Europa we’d die from radiation exposure. That’s another little detail that they want to forget.”

“It’s an important one.” Selene looked around at the group.

Obviously, they wanted her assurances that she’d back their position. She wasn’t backing anyone’s position right now. Chances were, with a little discussion, she’d discover valid points on both sides.

“What do you want to see happen?”

“We focus our attention on our colony here on Callisto,” Cole said. “Look at our resources? We’ve got everything we need here to grow a viable colony, a real colony, not the base we have now. Let’s get that up and running. We can deal with Europa, Ganymede and the rest in the future. Right now we can protect them, rather than rushing into something.”

Behind their visors, the others were nodding. Even Jessi.

“Thanks,” Selene said. “I like knowing the facts on the ground. It’ll take me a little bit to get up and running, and then we’ll see.”

Not, perhaps, the ringing endorsement they wanted, but it’d have to do. At least until she settled in, if they gave her that long.

4

As living quarters went, Selene had seen worse. Much worse, during her college days. The space they’d given her was a couple levels down into the base, well-lit, with dark textured walls.

The rooms were sterile and cool, with dark textured walls and minimal printed furniture that matched the walls, floor and ceiling. It was all very monochromatic.

There was a mausoleum quality, if mausoleums came with a living area, bedroom and a shower. Free of the suit and wearing a standard black Diaspora workall, she felt almost like a ghost. The low gravity helped, giving each step the feeling as if she would float off the floor.

She carried her duffels into the bedroom and dropped them on the bed. What served as a bed. A thin mat and a thin blanket over the top.

This was how they were living? With no color? Plants would help, and probably would help the environmental systems. She’d seen photos of the outposts on Mars, almost overgrowing with vegetation throughout the base.

That was something to work on. People did better around other living things. There’d been a woman on her exodus transport that had brought a case with four Guinea pigs. Pets or a food source, Selene hadn’t asked.

She unzipped the first duffel. A chime sounded from the other room.

The door?

Selene left the duffel and went around to the front door. It slid open at her touch on a panel beside the door.

The man standing outside was much taller than her, she was used to that, with short brown hair and a dimpled chin. He was scruffy and dark, with loose wavy hair falling down to his shoulders. Put him in something other than a Diaspora workall and he could fit the bill for any number of fantasies. He could have a been a model on romance novel covers. Sean McBain. His picture in the file didn’t do him justice at all.

Selene pushed away the thought. It wasn’t a good idea to show up and start lusting after her people. Even if she had spent a long time alone in the transport on the way here.

“Hello!” Selene smiled brightly. “I’m Selene Martinez.”

The man stuck out his hand. “Sean McBain. I see you’ve got here okay and all. No problems with the transport?”

She took his hand. It was firm, not too tight and strong. “We spoke, on the radio. I’ve seen your file.”

He nodded and let go of her hand.

“No problems,” she said. She stepped to the side and gestured at the room. “Would you like to come in? I don’t think I have anything to offer, right now. I haven’t sorted all that out yet.”

Sean smiled and to-die-for dimples formed in his cheeks. “Actually, that’s what I stopped by for. Figured you might want some chow after your trip. I can show you, if you like, ma’am?”

She was hungry. “That sounds great, if you’ll stop calling me ma’am.”

“I don’t know, seems like there must be some regulation or another on proper address.”

Selene stepped out and tapped the panel to close the door. It slid smoothly shut. She smiled at Sean. “If there is, I’ll rewrite it. Make it required to call me by my name.”

He inclined his head with a chuckle. “In that case, let me show you to the dining hall. Selene.”

Even for a small base, the hallways seemed empty. A bit of a ghost town. With her joining the base there were only sixty-three people on Callisto. A tiny pocket of humanity tucked into a crater, something that could be easily overlooked unless you were looking for it.

“Where is everyone?” Selene asked.

“Working. Folks here don’t lack for anything to do. We don’t get bored.” He laughed, a good laugh. Warm, inviting. “Even if we only had Callisto to study we’d be busy, but there’s a whole system out there around Jupiter.”

“It’s exciting,” she said.

“Exactly! Someday, I’ll bet you, Jupiter will be the center of humanity in the solar system. Especially once we open up the way to the other Galilean satellites.”

“The radiation is a little problem.” Selene held her fingers a little bit apart.

“We’ll lick that,” Sean said confidently. “Isn’t that what Blackstone always says?”

“I don’t think she phrases it that way.”

He shrugged. “Maybe not, but it’s all the same. Diaspora hasn’t turned away from anything just because it is hard. We’re here after all.”

“And we’re here,” Selene said, indicating the cafeteria doorway, clearly marked with a sign.

The door slid open and they walked in. The place was mostly empty, but a few weary-looking people sat at isolated tables.

“Do people eat here, or back in their work areas?”

“A lot of staff just grab their food and head back to their offices, labs or whatever.”

He leaned closer, with a glance at the people in the room. “You mostly see the engineering and facilities people in here. Sometimes they take pretty long breaks. It’s a bit of a problem, actually.”

Selene pushed a tray along the counter, studying the options. Mostly green leaf choices, vegetables and golden, buttery-looking rolls. After the dried and concentrates she’d been living on, it was heaven. She piled her plate high, thinking about what Sean was saying.

The engineering and facilities staff were responsible for creating everything and keeping it running. Or retrieving new bosses from the ice. They’d made their pitch for the colony structure. Sean, an evolutionary biologist, apparently fell into the squidders group.

She turned with her laden tray and turned around. There was a man sitting alone near the center of the room. Big, broad shoulders filled the brown workall he wore. A thick black beard, trimmed short, wrapped around his face. His hands were wrapped around a steaming mug, head hanging over the steam. She didn’t recognize him right off from the files, but the pictures there might not have been current.

As Sean turned she nodded at the man. “Who is that?”

“Ah, Asher Thornton. Hydro-engineer.”

“Let’s join him.”

“I think he wants to be left alone.”

Selene ignored Sean’s comments and threaded her way among the tables to Asher’s table. She stopped beside an empty chair. He didn’t look at her.

“Mind if we join you?”

Asher lifted his mug, still not looking at her. “Lots of room.”

She chose to take that as an answer and put her tray down to pull out the chair. When she did it moved in a perfectly straight line, as if held to the floor. She moved it back, pulled it and lifted. It resisted, and then came free. The answer was obvious.

“Magnetic tracks! That’s so clever.”

Sean sat down next to her, across from Asher. “Low gravity, it’s too easy for people to tip them over otherwise.”

“Not if they’ve got any sense,” Asher said.

Selene let it go. Asher might be right, but it was also cool to have the chairs ride magnetic rails. And if it prevented accidents, what was the harm?

“I’m Selene Martinez,” she said.

“I know.” Asher sipped his drink, an herbal mix from the smell of it.

“Is everything okay, Mr. Thornton?”

Now he did look at her, and he had amazing deep blue eyes. Eyes that were as cold as the ice outside right now.

“Okay? We’re at capacity already and I don’t have the staff or resources to expand. Doesn’t matter, we’re still getting another twenty bodies from the exodus. Isn’t that right?”

“That hasn’t been confirmed,” Sean said quickly. He looked at Selene. “I’ve asked for clarification from Diaspora.”

That was alarming news. Callisto should have already been ready for the influx of new people from the exodus. She was only the first, sent on the fast track out here. The others were coming already.

“We are getting more people,” she said. “They’re already on the way. We need people. We’re one of the smallest outposts, with the largest territory.”

Selene speared her salad with her fork and took a bite. The flavor of the dressing was fantastic. The lettuce and other greens crunched lightly. She swallowed and looked at the two men.

“That’s great. I haven’t had fresh food in months. I’m going to review everything, gentlemen. If you want to highlight anything, send me an email with the key points. Right now, however, I want to take a few minutes to enjoy my food. If you want to talk, let’s keep it casual.”

Asher stood up, chair gliding back as he stood. “I’ve got work.”

He left. Sean picked at his own salad, then stood and picked up the tray.

“Sorry, I should get busy too. Are you okay?”

Selene waved her fork. “Go on, if you want.”

He left in a hurry.

She was alone. Actually, really alone. While they’d talked, the few other people in the cafeteria had left too.

“Welcome to Callisto,” she said.

She picked up the roll and bit into the golden side. Crust crunched beneath her teeth, flaking and melting on her tongue.

It was what Blackstone had promised. A new challenge.

5

There had been twenty-four of them living in an inflatable space station orbiting the L-5 Lagrange point. Two of those children, five and fourteen.

During the exodus, there had been less than forty-eight hours to safely launch the remaining Diaspora personnel and their families into Earth’s orbit. For months they’d been increasing their launches, moving material and people to orbit, but the crack down by the United States and United Nations had called for swift action.

It was a bit eerie living in an inflatable habitat. A bright orange habitat made of the latest, toughest materials, but still thin. And orange. Like super-ripe orange, orange.

The residents dubbed their new home L-Town 5 and elected Selene as their Mayor, since she was behind the effort to get them all off planet.

They each had sections of the inside surfaces where they strapped down their few belongings. The attached launch capsule that had carried them to orbit, provided work, sanitation and kitchen areas.

That had been the result of her team’s design work. A vehicle that would reach orbit, then open and inflate a habitat for the people inside. It was supposed to be a temporary measure until they could transfer off to other assignments across the solar system.

And they were one of dozens of such launches orbiting the L-4 and L-5 points and the Moon. Everyone lived in fear of a bad solar flare, or the collapse of the environmental systems. It had been a very precarious situation, but people had pulled together. They’d all given up their lives back on Earth. Everyone was in the same situation.

Blackstone’s visit was a high point. Everyone in L-Town 5 rushed around cleaning up the place in anticipation. Sanitation and washing facilities were extremely limited but people did what they could. It still smelled like a small enclosed space with twenty-four people living in it, nothing to be done about that, but people were as presentable as they could get when Blackstone’s capsule docked with the launch capsule.

The crowd was anchored around on all the faces, except the one with the hatch to the capsule. Selene had anchored herself near the hatch with one of the rubbery guidelines stretched across the inside surface.

When the hatch opened there was an intake of breath around the habitat, and then as Blackstone pulled herself up to the opening, widespread clapping.

Blackstone was wearing a workall, like all of them, except her black workall looked tailored to fit her curves. Her dark hair floated in a braid behind her. She looked elegant, casual, and perfectly put together. Next to her, they were a pretty grubby lot.

Selene found herself wishing that she’d had more than a damp cloth to wash with, but if anyone understood the situation, it was Terra Blackstone.

The clapping died and Robby, the five-year-old, said loudly into the silence, “Who is that pretty lady?”

Blackstone laughed with the rest of them. When that stopped, she spoke.

“It’s a great question. What’s your name?”

“Robby Daniels,” he said proudly.

“Well, Robby. I’m a lot like you.”

“Not un.”

Over the chuckles, smiling, Terra continued. “But I am. I was a little girl once and I wanted to go into space. Now, I got older, but part of me is that same little girl, still excited about going into space.”

“I’m not a girl,” Robby said.

More laughs. “No, you’re not, but that’s okay. You’re here, and you’re brave. That’s what counts. You’re all so brave, so courageous. And so patient! We’re building more transports each day. Mercury has increased production of solar sails, and is bringing another beamed power station online. We’ll have you all underway in the next few weeks. I know for some of you that’s going to mean a long journey, but at the end is a chance to make a new home for humanity on a dozen new worlds!”

Cheers all around, and Robby even clapped. It took a long time to settle down. When it did Blackstone touched Selene’s arm.

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to steal your mayor right off. I’ve got a job for her that can’t wait. And soon, I promise, we’ll come back for the rest of you. In the meantime, my capsule is loaded with fresh supplies for all of you, if we can arrange to get those off-loaded? Then I’ll be taking back any recyclables that have built up too.”

That made everyone even happier. It was a good move. Fresh food, supplies, and everything that used to be considered waste, was now recyclable. Diaspora didn’t waste any resources, they couldn’t afford to, being cut off from Earth.

While the other residents moved to unload the capsule, Blackstone and Selene moved aside to an empty space near the hatch.

“What’s the job?” Selene asked.

“Jupiter. Yours if you want it.”

Jupiter. Largest planet in the solar system, home to some of the most likely places in the solar system with life. It was a prize. The crown jewel. Or at least it should be, but even stuck in L-Town she’d heard suggestions that everything wasn’t as it should be.

“Of course I’ll do it,” she said. “What do I need to know?”

“A full briefing packet will be in your transport. We’ve got a solar sail lined up.” Terra’s red lips curved in a smile. “I almost wish I could take this one myself. It’ll be a challenge unlike any other in the solar system.”

6

Sitting in the empty cafeteria, Selene heard the echoes of Blackstone’s words. The challenge might be unlike any other in the solar system, but the people were the same. That hadn’t changed, and that was the real challenge.

People, as a group, did what they thought best most of the time. Defining what was best, that was the challenge. The toughest were convinced that what they wanted was the best for everyone. She clearly had her share of those here, and the whole spectrum around that. Those who inflated what they were doing, to show others their importance. The explorers that believed the reason for being here was pure science. The colonists that didn’t care about existing life-forms.

That was unfair. All of those generalizations were as much false as they were true.

The Jupiter operations needed clear, concrete plans, and a vision of where they were going.

She had to build that, quickly, before it all fell away.

Diaspora existed because of Blackstone’s dream, a dream to see humanity on every planet in the solar system. It was a dream that was already realized. The Diaspora group had launched over a dozen expeditions to the major planets and four dwarf planets, starting with the outermost destinations first and working inward. The launches had been timed so that they all arrived within the same year.

Unprecedented. Reckless, according to Blackstone’s critics. Pundits predicted the death of everyone in the colonies, morbidly anticipating the massive tragedy caused by one woman’s hubris.

Except it didn’t happen. The new colonies survived. Thrived in many cases, like the cloud city of Aphrodite speeding around the atmosphere of Venus.

Selene walked through the quiet halls of Callisto and didn’t see thriving. This place had all the charm of a lab. A boring lab in a place that shouldn’t be boring. The more she walked the stronger the sense of wrongness grew.

This place should feel lived in. Industrious. A growing community and there was nothing.

Quiet. Everyone off in their own areas, isolated and apart from one another.

This wasn’t a community. That’s what Blackstone was afraid of, the reason that she asked Selene to come here and take over.

Build a community. Build a future, on all of these worlds.

It was time to talk to the people, the colonists of Callisto.

7

Selene scheduled the meeting for the next morning, and used the base system to send out the message to everyone’s inbox. Mandatory attendance. It’d create some grumbling, but better to get them there than not.

The cafeteria was the only place in the base large enough for sixty-three people. Selene waited until the crew was assembled before she left her quarters.

She was dressed for the meeting in the one professional dress that she’d brought with her for official functions. It was charcoal and had cost a month’s salary back on Earth. Not that it mattered here, but putting it on was like putting on her armor.

Sometimes it was necessary to dress for the occasion. This was one of those times.

She carried a small pocket tablet and a holo-projector. She’d been up all evening yesterday, reviewing reports and deciding on a course of action. Her mouth was dry, tacky. She’d have to remember to get a glass of water when she reached the cafeteria.

It didn’t take long to get to the cafeteria. The base wasn’t all that big. Before she reached the doors she heard the colonists inside. It was the hum of a crowded room, of human voices in a group, like a hive of bees stirred into activity.

Bringing them together was probably stirring up conflicts that had shimmered while people remained in their own isolated areas, but it was necessary. They needed to clean the air and talk about the issues involved.

The door slid open and Selene walked inside. The room was packed. Every table was full and there were people standing around in between the tables. Everyone was talking in small groups. The colors of the workalls divided the room into black, green and browns. Few in the group were mingled. Voices started to die down as she walked to the front of the room.

The room was filled with the scent of people and food. It was a very human, comforting scent. Almost homey. Selene nodded to people as she went to the front of the room. She placed the holo-projector on the floor. People started taking seats.

She went over to the beverage station and picked up a clean glass and filled it with water. She took a sip. It was cold. Icy cold. Water from one of the most ancient sources in the solar system, purified and possibly for the first time passing through a human being.

Taking her water she turned back to the room, which was almost quiet. Everyone was watching her. She smiled and took another sip, then put the glass down on the front counter.

She folded her hands together around the tablet and looked at the colonists. Men and women, divided by their workalls, with those in black on the left, the greens in the middle toward the back, and the browns on the right. Scientists, environmental and engineering. She recognized faces from the briefing files.

Sean McBain sat surrounded by others she recognized. Asher Thornton, likewise sat surrounded by others in brown workalls, including the team that had pulled her capsule from the ice.

“Good morning,” she said, projecting her voice. “Can you hear me in the back?”

Affirmative shouts from those in green at the back.

She smiled. “Great. Thank you all for taking time out of your busy schedules. I’m Selene Martinez. I know Diaspora sent ahead my information and history, so I’m not going to spend time going into my background in detail. In brief, for the past several years, I’ve directed all Earth-based operations, including the exodus that successfully evacuated our personnel and materials before they could be seized in the illegal actions of the United States and the United Nations.”

The room was quiet now. She had their attention.

“I glad to be here. Jupiter is an exciting, dynamic system, with unlimited potential. I was talking to Asher Thornton yesterday and he brought up the concerns about more exodus personnel joining our ranks. I’ve also heard from some of you about the limits of this facility, and about the potential scientific benefits of exploring Europa. It sounds like we’re at a crossroads.”

She activated her tablet and connected to the holo-projector. With a couple taps she pulled up the simulation that she had developed.

Europa appeared floating on her left. The Galilean satellite was icy and oddly smooth compared to other bodies in the solar system. Darker, reddish lines spread across the surface like lichen. An ice-world, wrapped in ice with obvious signs that the surface had cracked, moved, and refroze over and over. A young surface.

Another tap and Callisto appeared on her right.

In contrast to Europa, Callisto was saturated with craters. It was an ancient surface, unshaped by weather or tectonics. A world hammered for billions of years by debris from the solar system.

“This is the situation we find ourselves in now.” She reached out to the Europa hologram. The world expanded slightly, rotating as she turned her hand. “Europa undoubtedly has an ocean beneath the ice. We’ve dreamed about seeing what’s there. If it wasn’t for Jupiter’s radiation field, it would have been very tempting to set up our colony on Europa. As it is, the field is deadly, and damaging to equipment. It presents a significant challenge to spending time on the moon. Even without that issue, Europa is mostly ice on the surface, perhaps lacking everything that we need to build a successful colony.”

Voices rose out from those in the black workalls. Selene held up a hand. “Please. We’re only beginning.”

Those scientists settled back. Sean was watching her intently, his lips pressed together.

Selene turned to the Callisto hologram. “Instead we’re here. Callisto. A mix of rock and ice, like a dirty slushy. Actually, a good mix of resources for the colony. Mineral resources, volatiles, and water ice. A geologically stable surface, and radiation exposure at tolerable levels. It also has the potential of housing an ocean deep beneath the crust, although the energy potential and the ability to deliver oxygenated material to the ocean is extremely limited. As a potential habitat for life, Callisto doesn’t hold much promise.”

The grumbling from the science-types grew louder.

Selene tapped on the screen. The two moons shrank and moved, speeding away from her as Jupiter moved into view next to her, as tall as her, floating a foot above the floor. The clouds of the gas giant rolled as storms moved across its surface.

“Jupiter. The giant of the solar system.” The clouds moved across the surface. She motioned and the planet shrank down until it was a quarter the size, rotating next to her. More shapes appeared around it.

Rings. Moons multiplied around her. Bright neon blue lines circled each moon and stretched out in orbits around the planet. The lines extended out into the audience, everything moving and spinning like some god’s idea of a clockwork toy.

It was a beautiful, impressive show.

“This is our new home,” Selene said. “Down here, in these quiet halls, it’s easy to sink into work and almost forget that we aren’t sitting on the sharp-edged knife of discovery. There are wonders to discover and to create in equal parts! We need to learn what we can of these worlds, and we need to build a new home for humanity.”

Another gesture and the whizzing system shrank away, tracking one small marble which grew as it moved closer and slowed. Everything else faded away to leave Callisto back hovering in front of her.

“Callisto gives us that chance.” She moved the globe to the side where it floated beside her. “Now it’s up to you. I want cross disciplinary teams to create proposals. Each proposal must address both our long-term existence here, and increase our knowledge of this system. Teams must include members from science, environment and engineering.”

Now many people started talking, shouting out questions. Selene raised a finger and talked right over them.

“This will be a competitive process, with proposals ranked off against one another on an elimination ladder. You will all evaluate the proposals and decide which will advance to the next stage of the ladder. Between each stage there will be a brief opportunity to revise your proposal. This will continue until there is only proposal. There will also be a judging panel of myself, Sean McBain and Asher Thornton to evaluate and oversee the process.”

Selene smiled at the room. “Now, I’ll take your questions.”

8

After the initial question phase, Selene left the colonists to talk about the challenge. She went with Asher and Sean up to her office for a private conversation about her plan. It was the first time she’d set foot inside the office since arriving in the colony.

It was up above the surface, with a view out onto the cratered surface of Callisto. The floor to ceiling windows were dramatic, and a bit terrifying thinking about what would happen if they were broken.

“A corner office with a window, I guess I can’t complain about that,” she said.

She turned away from the window to the two men standing in front of the desk.

“Sit down, gentlemen.”

Both went to the chairs in front of the desk and sat. Sean perched on the edge of his seat while Asher reclined back in the chair.

Selene picked up a clear pitcher filled with freshly filtered Callisto water. “Water?”

Both men shook their heads. She poured herself a glass and then sat down in her chair. She sipped the pure water. It had a fresh mountain spring flavor, probably from primordial minerals. If they could sell it back on Earth they’d probably make a fortune.

“We could have used some warning,” Sean said. “Your proposal tosses out any of the schedules our people were working with.”

Selene put the glass down on the desk, looking at Sean. “Proposal? It isn’t a proposal, it’s what we’re doing.”

Asher’s lips twitched, not quite a smile, but close.

The muscles in Sean’s jaw bunched. “Is that how you run things? By dictating?”

Selene interlaced her hands and leaned forward. “When it’s necessary. And in this case it is. As soon as I landed I heard ideas about what Callisto needed, including from you. This outpost isn’t working together in a unified direction. We have to be in this together, and everyone needs to know what we’re doing.”

“And if none of the plans are realistic, what then?” Asher asked.

“That’s why the three of us are going to evaluate the proposals. We’re not bringing anything onto the ladder that the three of us don’t agree has a chance of working. We’re the oversight.”

Sean glanced at Asher, and back to her. “We’re the oversight?”

“That surprises you?”

Sean shrugged. “Well, yes. I thought with Blackstone herself sending you out here, that she had an agenda.”

“An agenda? Of course she did.” Selene laughed. “Why would you think that there isn’t an agenda?”

“I don’t understand.”

Selene rose and walked around the desk. Both men slid their chairs further back. She leaned on the desk and crossed her ankles. The low gravity made her feel light on her feet, like she could perch that way forever. And behind her? The rugged face of Callisto seen through those windows.

“Blackstone created the Diaspora Group with an agenda. Put people everywhere in the solar system. But she’ll be the first to tell you that she isn’t interested in being some sort of dictator of the solar system.”

Asher coughed. “You sure about that?”

“I am.” Selene smiled. “Diaspora got us started. They got us here, feet on ground. What we do with it now is up to us. We define what the future looks like here. All of us, together. All ideas on the table, live or die on their merits. It’s our future to make, gentlemen. Ours. Of course we also want to keep in mind that there are other worlds out here, opportunities for trade and cooperation. But this is still our home. Now let’s work out some of the details of how we’re going to work together.”

9

When they were gone, with an assignment to draft the key points they wanted to see in proposals, Selene went to the window.

Callisto lay before her. This was home now. L-Town 5 had been special, but temporary. Earth, Earth was her birth place, but the people there had moved against them. Moved against the visionaries that set out to create a new world, more than that, twelve new worlds!

And now Earth was shut out of space. The war for the higher ground was lost as soon as the United States sent the Lincoln against Diaspora Base on the Moon.

With the solar sails, beamed power and resources at its disposal, Diaspora currently had the upper hand. People, that was their most limited resource. All of these worlds needed to expand their population and that’d take time. But it was crucial to their future. Somehow that problem had to get addressed along with everything else.

Selene walked back to her desk and picked up the glass. She took another drink. The water really was fantastic. Too bad that selling it wasn’t an option.

It did raise the question. Everyone in the Diaspora worked without pay right now. Would that continue? If there was an civilization to be built, it made sense that they’d build a new economy. Right now it was enough to get food, air, and healthcare. That’d probably always be fundamental out here. With people being a limited resource, they couldn’t afford to let anyone fall through the cracks. That was true back on Earth too, whether or not they ever realized it.

She crossed her arms, still holding the glass, cold against her arm. She turned it, watching the light refract through the glass.

This was made here, from local materials. The water came from here. It was a perfect example of what they were building. Everything, from the glasses to the very air that they breathed.

Eventually there would be children.

That meant spaces for them, an education plan, and that didn’t even touch on the impacts of low gravity on child development. That was something that was going to be looked at across the solar system. It was only in the cloud habitats on Venus that people lived in an environment truly comparable to Earth. Most of the Diaspora outposts were low gee environments.

Would people thrive in this sort of environment? That was a big question to answer, one that was raised back on Earth by Diaspora’s critics. One answer might be crèche’s to raise children on Venus, rotate pregnant Diaspora colonists to Venus to raise the children there before they moved out to lower gravity environments.

Or, for that matter, the outer gas giants could also house floating environments. Jupiter’s deep gravity well and radiation proposed a problem here, but the other gas giants were less of an issue.

Selene returned to the desk, put down the glass and pulled up her system. There was a lot of work to be done, but a population plan had to figure into any efforts.

10

The morning after the challenge started, Selene woke up to more than a hundred emails in her inbox. She ignored them all, stuffed a clean workall into her duffel along with some other necessities and went in search of the gym. After brushing her teeth to get rid of the tackiness of the night.

It wasn’t hard to find. Sub-level 3, one level below her suite. Again, she was struck by the empty corridors. It was like walking through a ghost town.

According to her files, the gym held a host of exercise equipment and showers. It been her habit to run back on Earth. The time in L-Town 5 and in transit had left her muscles feeling weak. She felt bloated and heavy, and the workalls didn’t fit as well as they had. Zero-gee exercise equipment didn’t quite cut it.

The door hissed open and she went on in, expecting to see someone inside. The place was quiet. Selene stopped.

Three treadmills, a couple exercise bikes and two rowing machines. Some free weights. All of it made from the same dark materials as the rest of the base. Locally-built, then, produced on the same printers as the rest of the base structure.

And no one was using it? It didn’t smell like a gym. It was more like an empty store room, like someone had put the equipment here and then forgotten about it.

Maybe that was another issue she needed to address.

The door slid open behind her. Selene turned around, as Asher Thornton walked through door. He was wearing brown shorts and a plain green t-shirt. His head was down but he looked up and stopped in his tracks when he saw her.

“Good morning,” she said brightly. She gestured at the equipment. “I was just trying to decide what to use? What do you use?”

Asher shook his head. “None of it.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Then what are you doing?”

He nodded, his eyes flicking across the room. “Going for a run.”

She looked where he indicated. A door, across the gym, between the exercise bikes and the treadmills. Unmarked, whereas the door to the showers had a white-lettered sign. Come to think of it, she didn’t remember the door on the map that she had pulled up.

“What’s that?”

“Perimeter corridor,” Asher said. “Spirals around the base. I like to run it.”

“That sounds better than a treadmill. Mind some company?”

He shook his head, gestured. “After you.”

Selene grinned. “Okay. Let’s go!”

The door opened onto a narrow corridor with pipes along the ceiling and walls. A light came on, dim, filling the space with a white glow. It was dark ahead and behind.

She moved aside as Asher stepped inside. “Which way?”

The corridor was very narrow. Asher moved up, facing her from inches way. He was taller, by a few inches. His shirt looked like it was poured on over his well-defined chest. His arms were massive, with thick biceps. His feet, bare.

He pointed at the darkness ahead. “That way. I’ll go first. Try to keep up, watch your head and be ready to move. There are obstacles.”

“Ready when you are,” Selene said.

Asher started running and she followed. He moved well, like he was gliding across the floor. As he slipped into the dark, another light came on ahead.

Running was like flying. She found herself leaning forward, feet hardly even touching the ground. Asher’s bare feet hardly made any sound at all. He was moving fast, easily, and Selene stayed behind him.

The first few minutes flew by in a flash. The corridor continued up, bearing slightly to the right as they spiraled around the base. Now and then she stepped wrong, pushing off too much, and bounded into the air. One of the times her hair brushed the ceiling.

That was alarming. If she hit her head, it would still hurt at these speeds. She concentrated on keeping her steps light, barely kissing the ground and chased after Asher.

Running through the tunnels was fun. Fun in a way that she hadn’t experienced in months. During the time leading up to the Exodus, running was a scheduled chore. It was something that she did so that she could keep doing everything else, and yet she begrudged the time it took.

Her breath flowed in and out. Moving seemed easy. The lower gravity, certainly. What an amazing feeling? Here was another possibility for the chronically Earth-bound: Take a vacation on a lower gravity world and move the way you haven’t since you were a child.

Asher jumped, diving forward over a pipe that made an abrupt ninety-degree turn across the corridor.

Her mind didn’t have time to make a decision. She reacted, rolling forward, beneath the pipe. Then she was up and chasing after Asher again.

Her laughter echoed down the corridor.

She pushed harder as her comfort with the stride increased. Her up and down vertical motion dropped in favor of a smooth stride that carried her forward. Bulkheads and emergency hatches created minor obstacles, a small hop and tuck through before continuing.

More obstacles appeared in the corridor. Pipes crossed the space. Cables hung in low arcs from the ceiling. Asher flowed over most lower obstacles, striding over them with the grace of an experienced hurdler. He was a like a deer at home in the forest.

Selene couldn’t match that, not yet. She vaulted several, though, using her hands to help move her forward. Momentum helped make it feel more like moving in zero-gee again. Except on the other side gravity pulled her back down.

The corridor spiraled all the way up until it ended at another hatch and bulkhead. Asher stopped and turned. He stretched one leg up behind, clasping the ankle as she closed the distance.

“So?”

She grinned as she came to a stop and caught her breath. “Amazing. Thank you.”

“We’re not done yet.” Asher gestured back down the corridor. “Now we have to run back. You lead this time.”

“Oh,” Selene laughed. “I’d hold you up.”

“You kept up this far,” he said. “I think you can manage.”

“Okay. You’re on.”

Selene turned and did a quick stretch to each side.

As she took off running, Asher said, “Now I get the view.”

In response she put on more speed. Each foot fall took forever as she glided forward down the corridor. The walls passed in a blur of conduits and piping. These corridors were part of the circulatory system of the entire base. A view of what went on behind the scenes.

Her lungs burned with the effort. All those weeks of inactivity were catching up to her. Her legs burned too, but she pushed on. Her thoughts drifted. All of the challenges that they faced, at the moment she couldn’t do anything about them. Nothing except keeping her legs moving.

Even Asher ceased to matter. His breathing kept her company, but as a distant point of interest. He didn’t talk. He didn’t disturb her, and she appreciated that. She existed in the moment, avoiding obstacles that rose out of the darkness between the lights that tracked their progress. She vaulted some, dove under others, and kept moving.

“Stop,” Asher said behind her.

It took a moment for his word to catch up to her brain, and she slowed to a stop, in the darkness between the lights. She turned.

He stood in the corridor, hands on his hips.

“What’s wrong?” She asked. “Can’t keep up?”

Asher shook his head, breathing hard, and pointed at the door she had passed. “The gym? Showers.”

She turned, looking into the dark corridor ahead. “What’s down there?”

“It doesn’t go far,” Asher said. “We’re at level three, there’s only two more down. It ends at the bottom.”

“Do you ever go down there?”

“Sometimes,” he said. “I’ll run down there at the start, then up to the top and back to here.”

She waved. “Okay, then. I’ll go down, turn around and come back up. Are you coming?”

“I think I’ll catch the shower.”

“Okay. See you later.”

She didn’t wait for him to say anything else. She turned and ran ahead. The lights came on for her and she tucked through the next bulkhead and went on down.

11

An hour later, Selene was back in her office reviewing the original plans for the base. It wasn’t only the skyhook that hadn’t been built. There were larger facilities planned. Residential, agricultural and industrial expansions planned with the increased resources coming in from the mining operations.

Operations that were only at a quarter of the estimated level.

Her door chimed.

“Come in,” she said.

The door slid open and three people entered, two men and one woman. One of them was Sean McBain. The other two she recognized from their files.

The woman, Dr. Rachel Jong. Geneticist, with a specialization in Xeno-genetics. Young, beautiful, her features a blend of her mother’s Korean heritage and her father’s Anglo-Saxon background. She was thin and short, much like Selene herself. Her black workall was neat and unwrinkled, and modified to fit better and flare out at the legs. Her feet were bare, toenails a fetching green that matched her fingernails.

Coming in last, was the oldest member of the group. Dr. Paul Nash. Distinguished, chiseled features, graying hair, he walked with an almost military stiffness and work his black workall as if it was a uniform. Like Jong, Nash was a scientist, with a background in evolutionary biology, chemistry and geology.

Selene rose and nodded. “Welcome. Dr. Jong. Dr. Nash. Dr. McBain, it’s good to see all of you. Please, have a seat.”

“Thank you,” Jong said. She took the closest chair.

Nash took the other and Sean pulled over a third chair near the desk. Selene sat back down and folded her hands together.

“What can I do for you?”

“Our science departments asked us to talk to you about the challenge,” Sean said. “I explained your position, but they’d like an opportunity to address this directly.”

“Of course,” Selene said. “I’m happy to hear what you have to say.”

Nash spoke up. “This challenge, it’s disrupting our work, and leads us in an unproductive direction. How long will this take? How much time will be lost?”

“When Diaspora let us know you were coming, we hoped it would free up support for our Europa plans,” Jong said. “We have put a lot of work into the exploration plans, but engineering and facilities consistently stalls and delays any progress on their side of the work. We had thought you might break the stalemate.”

Selene nodded. “And you don’t think that this challenge does that?”

“It does,” Sean said. “But we’re concerned that it raises the hopes of the other departments that our focus might shift in a different direction.”

“It might,” Selene said.

Jong glanced at the others. “Excuse me, but we’ve been working on this —”

“I’m aware of the work you’ve done,” Selene said. “I’ve read the reports. It’s fantastic work, it is. When we’re ready for the exploration of Europa, it’ll be extremely beneficial.”

“We’re ready now!” Nash said. “We should already have the first wave of landers on the surface. I didn’t come all this way to sit on my hands.”

“Good, because we’re going to need everyone working on this challenge.”

Nash’s neck flushed. Jong looked like she had just sucked on a lemon. Sean shook his head he opened his mouth and Selene held up a finger.

“No,” Sean said. “I won’t be quiet right now. Too much is at stake here. We’ve had these questions for too long, and we’re too close right now to stop now. Europa has to be on the table with any plan that moves forward. It has to be our primary focus.”

Selene smiled. “Or?”

“There’s no or,” Sean said. “I’m letting you know how our departments will vote. No plan without Europa as the primary focus will get the votes to move forward.”

This couldn’t degenerate into an ultimatum debate or it’d go nowhere. And what could she do without them?

Just about anything, actually. The other departments included manufacturing, life support, and every other vital system. They still didn’t get the big picture.

“I see. How many lives are you willing to sacrifice for that goal?”

Jong’s eyes flew wide. Nash sputtered. Sean settled back and crossed his arms. “We’re not sacrificing anyone’s lives.”

She rose and looked down at them. “Aren’t you? You know that there are people on their way here right now. Have you figured what it costs to support them?”

“No, that’s not my department,” Sean said.

“That’s right. It’s not. So when I have to prioritize, you’re telling me that your Europa plans are your primary goal. We’re not going to get there without everyone working on it, so what happens to those new colonists when they get here? Where do they live? Will we have enough air? Food? Water? What if we’re not up to speed in time?”

“That’s not our responsibility!” Nash said.

“No? If you take resources to build your Europa plan and it means we run short, that’s not your responsibility? Cold equations, folks, if we don’t have the capacity we need, what am I supposed to do? Shove the excess people out the airlock?”

Nash shot to his feet. “That’s offensive! I don’t —”

He was taller, but Selene faced him anyway. “Right. You don’t. You don’t come in here and dictate to me. You don’t set policy, Dr. Nash. None of you do. You will each serve on teams, as directed. Feel free to present your arguments, and put forth your proposals. If they meet all of our requirements then they’ll move forward. That includes supporting our population both now and in the long-term.”

Dr. Jong rose. “We only wanted to stress the importance of getting to Europa. The questions have been unanswered for so long.”

Selene glanced at her. “Is something about to happen to Europa?”

“Uh, no.”

“Then it’ll keep, Dr. Jong. I’m as curious as any of you. Like you, I’m dying to know what secrets Europa holds. I share your frustration. We’ll find out what’s under the ice, I have no doubt of that. But we do it together, and we do it right.”

Jong nodded. “Thank you.”

Nash started to open his mouth, closed it and followed Jong to the door. Sean started to follow.

“Sean.”

He stopped. The others hesitated and he waved them on, the came back. He shrugged. “I felt obligated to present their concerns.”

“I can’t have you delivering ultimatums, Sean. Give the process a chance. We need everyone working together to find a balanced plan.”

“A balanced plan? What does that mean?”

“One that keeps us alive and growing and learning at the same time,” Selene said. “Do you disagree with any of that?”

He was quiet for a moment, then shook his head. “No. If it’s balanced, that’s one thing. If exploration gets shelved, then that’s another. There’s no point to be out here otherwise.”

She could disagree with him on that, but bit her tongue. Exploration would happen whether they wanted to do it or not. As they grew they’d have to learn about these worlds. These people still didn’t realize that they didn’t have a whole planetary civilization backing them up.

“Sean, did you ever play the deserted island game?”

He shook his head. “I don’t understand.”

She walked toward the windows. Outside the crater landscape was unchanged. It’d stay that way for billions of years longer if humans didn’t change it.

“If you could have three things on a deserted island, what would it be?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “Most people pick a favorite book, or other items. I always want to answer food, water and shelter. Without those, I wouldn’t survive.”

“You’re saying we’re on a deserted island.”

She gestured at the window. “We are! We’re not on Earth, surrounded by billions of other people. There are sixty-three of us in a tiny habitat on this moon. No one can get here fast enough to save us if anything goes seriously wrong. We’re on our own in every significant way. I need your help, not your ultimatums.”

“I have to do what I think is right,” Sean said.

That wasn’t the answer she wanted. “Fine. Bring me your requirements when they’re ready, and keep your people on the program. Can you do that much?”

“At this point, yes. I can.”

“Thank you.” Selene reached out and touched the glass. It didn’t feel cold. It should feel cold.

She heard the door close behind her.

He was gone. She shouldn’t expect to come into the new position and not face challenges. People never made it that easy.

She went back to her desk and ran a quick search to pull up the data they had on Europa. Whatever they came up with, she needed at least enough understanding to know what was involved.

11

Over the next few days Selene proposals started to roll in across the network. The first were too brief, too sketchy and not balanced. She’d set up the system to require approval by all three of the judges, so those were easy to bounce back right away.

The proposals didn’t need to be complete, it was too early to get into the tiny details, but the broad strokes needed to be there. She also rejected proposals that didn’t have the names of people from all departments. Word got out quickly.

When she wasn’t busy evaluating the proposals, there was plenty of other work to get to seeing that the base was running well, and to get ready for the influx of new colonists. That was something they couldn’t delay. Lives were at stake there.

And she took time to run. The first few times she anticipated seeing Asher in the access passage, but he wasn’t there. Either he wasn’t running it anymore, or he was picking times when he knew he wouldn’t run into her.

By the second week, genuine proposals started coming in from the mixed teams. Soon enough, there was a half-dozen proposals in the queue with preliminary approval. It was time for the judges to meet. Selene set up the meeting in her office again.

12

Her door chimed. Selene looked at the time. Ten minutes before the appointment. She stood up. “Come in?”

The door slid open. Asher Thornton was there. He came in. He’d shaved, and his bare jaw was nearly unrecognizable. It looked good. His workall was clean, ironed even. On the whole he looked very neat, and presentable.

She was glad that she’d chosen to wear her dress again for the meeting.

Selene closed the distance between them and held out her hand. “Asher, it’s good to see you again. I’ve been down in the tunnel a few times running, I thought we might have another run again.”

She hadn’t planned on saying that, it just came out.

He took her hand. His was warm, strong and callused. His thumb slid lightly across the back of her hand before he let go.

“That’d be nice, sometime,” he said. “I hope you don’t mind my showing up early? I wanted a word before we started.”

“Of course. Do you want to take a seat? Anything I can get you to drink?”

Asher shook his head. “I’m fine. Look, I wanted to say I was wrong about your plan.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“Yes. I thought it might work, make people realize what was important, but I was wrong. They’re treating it like some sort of magic wish!”

That wasn’t the response she’d expected. Until now it had sounded like Asher was her one ally in all of this. “You passed the proposals on for our preliminary discussion.”

“Because we need to scrap the whole thing,” Asher said. “These people don’t have any idea what they’re doing!”

“They must have some idea. Diaspora recruited smart people.”

“Even smart people can be stupid,” Asher said.

It felt very pointed. Selene took a breath and let it out. She made herself smile, even if it didn’t reach her eyes. “When Sean gets here we’ll go through the proposals, and you’re free to raise any of the flaws that you see. We’re not passing anything on without our approval.”

“And while we’re doing that, I’ve got jobs piling up! This isn’t an easy, safe environment. I need people doing their jobs, not spending all their time working on the proposals.”

Selene said, “You’re right, critical maintenance needs to be done. In a hazardous environment we can’t be too careful. Do you need more personnel?”

“Where are we going to get them?”

“Anywhere we can. We’ve got over sixty people here, and I assume they all want to keep breathing. I don’t think anyone wants to die of thirst.” Selene reached out and touched Asher’s arm. “Work with me. Right now we need to keep things running, and we need to identify the best path forward. I’m not going to pretend that I know enough about all of the angles to determine that myself. I need everyone’s help.”

“The science departments aren’t going to like it.”

“Tough,” Selene said. “Those are the priorities. When Sean gets here we’ll talk to him and then we’ll let everyone know. I’m going to need a prioritized list of assignments from you. We’ll work on assigning personnel.”

The door chimed.

“Perfect timing,” Selene said. “Come in!”

The door slid open and Sean walked in. He stopped when he saw them both.

“Did you start without me?”

Selene smiled and walked to him, offering him her hand. They shook. His touch was firm and held her hand tight for a fraction of a second longer than necessary. Interesting.

“We were talking about the base maintenance. The work people are putting in on the proposals is impacting our ability to maintain the infrastructure. We need to reassign personnel.”

Sean stepped around her, staring down at Asher. He had at least three inches on Asher, but Asher looked right back at him. No backing down. It was turning in an instant into some sort of testosterone-fueled display.

Selene stepped between them, planting her hands firmly on their chests. Both strong, hard chests, although Asher had more definition. Distracting, and irrelevant right now.

“Stop it,” she said. “Sean, you want to keep breathing don’t you?”

“It’s his department to see that we do.”

“We all have a responsibility to keep this base functional,” Selene said. “Everyone may have their focus, but there are general things that we can all do to keep this place running and make it habitable.”

Sean took a step back and the tension eased. “You’re talking about scientists here, they don’t necessarily have the skills to do engineering work.”

“I’m glad to hear someone admit it,” Asher said.

“They’re intelligent. Asher’s going to help us come up with ways everyone can pitch in. We have to work together. It isn’t going to get easier. We’ve got more colonists coming, so we have to get ready for them, but they’ll also increase our workforce. Which means we might have the people to carry out our other plans.”

“Which are?” Sean asked.

“That’s what the ladder will help us identify. Now, come on. Let’s sit down and review what we have, and come up with a plan for maintenance. Okay?”

“Fine by me,” Asher said. He went over to one of the chairs beside her desk.

Sean didn’t say anything, but followed.

13

After three hours of reviewing proposals, work schedules, and maintenance needs, Selene had to get up and move. She put aside her tablet and stood, stretching, and looked at the two men.

“I could use a break,” she said. “How about we reconvene in an hour?”

Sean stood up quickly. “Sounds good. Join me in the cafeteria?”

Tempting, but right now she didn’t feel like eating. She wanted to stretch her muscles, to move. All this sitting was getting to her.

“I’ll grab a snack later. Right now I just want to stretch my legs. Rain check?”

“Sure,” Sean said.

He took a half-step, hesitated, then left without saying anything.

Asher stood. “Are you still interested in that run?”

A run sounded fantastic, but if accepting implied something more, that wasn’t a good idea. Not right now. Not with the whole process in the balance still. If she started a relationship with anyone, it could be misconstrued in the process.

“A rain check,” she said. She smiled, but damn, it would have been nice to run! “I think I’ll take a walk around and just say hello to folks.”

“They’ll try to sell you on their proposals.”

She shrugged. “That’s fine. I don’t want to be isolated from everyone. This is a small community. I plan to meet everyone.”

“Okay. I’ll get busy on these assignments we agreed to, start getting our maintenance back on track.”

“Thank you,” she said.

Asher walked out. He moved like someone comfortable with himself and his environment. It was the same as it’d been in the access tunnel, during their run. He moved easily with the low gravity.

After he left, Selene went out herself. She didn’t have a destination in mind, she just wanted to see other people. She wandered the empty corridors for a few minutes, working her way down. A door opened ahead and a young woman in a black workall came out.

She was a brunette, taller than Selene, and looked quickly away rather than meet Selene’s eyes. In her arm, she carried a tablet. In that glimpse of her face, Selene saw reddened lids and the wet shine of tears on her cheek. Before the woman could pass, Selene reached out and touched her arm.

“Excuse me, are you okay?” Seeing the woman’s round face, Selene searched her memory of the personnel files. “Kathryn, isn’t it?”

A sniffle and a nod. “You know who I am?”

“Dr. Kathryn Fields, you’re a medical doctor, right?”

“Yes, part of the medical staff.”

“Do you want to tell me what’s wrong?”

“I’ve just been told that I have to stop my bone density studies, to take on work on the atmospheric processing system.”

Oh. Selene nodded. “I understand that it’s difficult —”

“What’s the point? I’ve put months into this study, and all of that is going to be lost. We need to know what impact this environment is having on our bodies. If I break off the study now we’re going to lose all of that data!”

That didn’t sound good. Asher had moved fast to issue the new assignments.

“I know. It sucks,” Selene said.

A surprised laugh popped from Kathryn’s mouth.

Selene shrugged. “Well? It does. I hate to have to do this. We’ve got new colonists on the way. They’re packed into small transports and are going to need care when they get here. We have to scale up to handle the new population. That means air, water, heat, food, all of it has to be in place or we face even worse conditions.”

Kathryn bit her lip, and gave a small nod.

“We’ll get you back to your research as soon as we can,” Selene said. “When the new colonists get here, that’s going to help us in return by expanding our workforce.”

“I get it,” Kathryn said. She sighed. “But it does suck.”

“Hang in there. We’ll get through this together.”

“Thank you,” Kathryn said. “I’d better go report for duty.”

Kathryn moved past and Selene continued her walk. She needed to do this, needed to meet with everyone individually. It’d take time, but she had to take it.

14

The first round of proposals didn’t work for anyone. Twelve proposals, of which five were focused on Europa to the exclusion of everything else. Well, nearly so. There was basic attention given to the base, but with unrealistic expectations on what could be done with the resources allocated.

Others swung heavily the other way, with little to no exploration. The teams weren’t as cross-departmental as she had wanted. A few went in other directions, including one that suggested that a Callisto-stationary habitat, similar to what was at Ceres, was the way to go.

None struck Selene as the solution, but it was early yet. She’d expected the initial proposals all to have issues.

Selene called Sean and Asher back into her office and laid out the problems.

“What do you want us to do?” Sean asked. “Is this just a fishing explanation to come up with whatever you already have on your mind? Maybe you’d better just tell us what you want?”

“Only two of these plans even deal with the new arrivals in any meaningful way,” Asher said.

“And they also call for no exploration of Europa!” Sean rose from his chair and ran his hands through his hair. “Look, you can’t expect us to wait generations to explore Europa!”

Selene placed her hands on the desk. “This is simple. We start the ladder. That’s the point of it, to get everyone having this same discussion. We start the ladder, and develop from there.”

With a flick of her finger a holographic screen sprang up between them, with graphics of each team surrounding their proposal.

“This is my suggestions for the match-ups. It groups similar proposals with similar proposals, a gradient across the submissions.”

Sean pointed at the display. “I can see what’s going to happen. The pro-Europa side will end up against the opposite side in the end.”

“True,” Asher said. “After they have been refined. Right? Aren’t we giving them a chance to revise the proposals between each tier?”

Bless him. “Yes. That’s right. Each winning team has the opportunity to respond to feedback on their proposal, and incorporate revisions.”

Asher settled back. “So what you’re saying is that we’re going to do it all in the end.”

“How do you figure?” Sean asked.

Asher gestured. “Think about it. After the first tier, we’re going to have plans from both sides competing against one another. To move forward both sides will have to incorporate features of the others.”

Asher tilted his head, smiling at Selene. “Like running an obstacle course, they’ll have to adapt. It’s a great strategy.”

She inclined her head. “Thank you. Let’s hope that it works. Gentlemen, I want to see us succeed. We should be the crown jewel of the solar system, the hub of everything that’s exciting. We can’t do that without a thriving population, and a thriving plan of exploration.”

“I hope you’re right,” Sean said. He grinned and rubbed his jaw. “Let’s hope that everyone comes around.”

“They will,” Selene said. “Everyone will see that.”

15

Selene lifted her head and looked out at Callisto’s battered terrain outside. She’d moved her desk around to let her see the view. It was better than sitting with her back to it.

She was reviewing the results of the ladder competition before the final results came in to electrify the rest of the solar system. It was the one detail that she hadn’t brought up with the rest of the judging panel. She filed regular reports with Diaspora, including the details on the ladder competition.

The competition had fired the imaginations of people across the solar system. A growing amount of email from the rest of Diaspora was commentary and suggestions for the teams. Betting on the outcome was quickly a popular past-time. Blackstone even reported that the competition had gotten a lot of press down on Earth.

She flicked through the first screen, reviewing the sequence.

In the first round, the number of proposals was cut down to six. Four of the Europa-heavy proposals remained and the two strongest Callisto-heavy proposals. The unique idea of doing a new habitat modeled after Ceres’ was discarded. Rightly, Selene judged, since they didn’t have the time or resources to start over from scratch.

In the second round there was, predictably, the two top Europa-focused proposals and the strongest Callisto focus. But by that point the lines were already blurring. The Callisto project called for the building of the sky hook, and the expansion of the base, but also included a deep ice exploration of Callisto in preparation for exploring Europa. It made the strong argument to learn as much about the technology here, close at hand before trying something remotely. Particularly with the higher probability of life on Europa.

And who wouldn’t want to know if there was a biosphere beneath their feet?

Both of the Europa-focused proposals remaining included provisions to deal with the expanding population of the base, but neither one called for the skyhook to be built. Everything was focused on launch vehicles instead. The crucial difference was that one of the proposals actually called for a manned exploration of Europa. It was Sean’s pick, creating a radiation-shielded lander that would protect the crew long enough to burrow into the ice deep enough to avoid the radiation. There was still a risk of dangerous exposure, but the plan was to create a second outpost on Europa, deep in the ice with access to the ocean below. Long-term it conjured images of submersibles diving into that dark ocean, discovering a rich biota.

The other Europa proposal was a more modest program of escalating landers and orbiters to explore the icy moon while taking extra care to avoid contaminating the moon with possible Terran-organisms.

She grinned. All of the proposals were exciting and interesting.

Since they were down to three proposals at that point there was an elimination tier to discard one of the proposals. Betting had been fierce, with many vocal proponents.

In the end, the manned exploration of Europa emerged triumphant. Sean had a point. It was daring, exciting, and worth pursuing.

That came down to the final round between the Callisto and Europa viewpoints. And now it was time. It was like coming in to land that first day out on the ice. Today would decide the direction they were going and the entire solar system was watching.

She stood up, swiping her data onto her tablet. She turned and walked to the door. Today she wore a snow white workall, new undyed fabric from the manufacturing division. She’d ordered all new workalls for everyone. No more black and brown and green. Each workall had a swirling red logo on one shoulder, signifying Jupiter, with the planetary symbol overlaid on that background. On the other shoulder was the Diaspora logo.

Outside her office the new planters along the walls were filled with fresh young plants, reaching up eagerly to the new bright daylight fixtures above. It made the whole place brighter and more alive, banishing the mausoleum feeling the place used to have. She wasn’t leaving everything up to the proposals.

A flash of white ahead showed someone else walking her way. Selene picked up the pace and recognized the broad shoulders and dark hair filling the new workall.

“Asher!”

He turned. His bright blue eyes caught hers. He gestured to his workall. “You do know how this is going to get dirty quickly, right?”

She caught his arm, and tucked her through his. “They’ll wash. And we need this. A fresh start, no color-coding people.”

“You’ll be able to tell,” Asher said as they started walking. “It’ll be obvious who gets their hands dirty and who doesn’t.”

“Maybe. But it is still a reminder. The new auditorium looks fantastic, thank you.”

“It was a lot of people working on it.”

She laughed. “You won’t take a complement, will you?”

The auditorium was amazing. They needed a place better than the cafeteria to hold large group meetings. This new theater-style auditorium could hold up to two hundred people. They’d be there before long, but it was a start at least. The second auditorium was already planned, for a later date.

She entered with Asher on the lower level, passing through the corridor to come out at the left side of the stage. As a backdrop, they had a massive geodesic dome looking out on Callisto’s cratered terrain. It was an amazing space, with tiers of seating, large areas of grass and trees planted around the stage to combine a park-like feeling to the meeting space. It, and the planters throughout the base, had been borrowed from designs created on Mars. But here, with the airless environment outside, the gray-white rocks and ice, the green stood out against it all.

Selene took the center stage, where Sean already waited. Asher joined her. The three of them faced their people, who were quickly taking seats in front of them. The divisions were gone. It wasn’t just the sea of white workalls, but the way the people were talking to one another. As they settled in, Selene moved forward.

She spread her hands as the last of them took their seats. Silence fell.

Selene lowered the tablet and her fingers danced across the screen. The ladder display sprang up, filling the space above her and the other judges with two sets of images from the proposals. A music score played quietly in the background with soft violins. Europa hung at the center of one display, and Callisto at the other, but in both the other moon was present.

In launching the display, she had also started the live broadcast to the rest of the solar system. The time lag didn’t give them instant communication from Diaspora or the other planets, this was one way only but intimidating to know that right now she was addressing not only the colonists here but the entire solar system.

“Good afternoon to those of you here with me on Callisto. I’m Selene Martinez, with me are Asher Thornton and Sean McBain.”

Selene put her hands behind her back, holding the tablet. “We’ve had an exciting time here on Callisto, and I want to thank all of you for the work you’ve done. And I’d like to thank all of the other Diaspora colonists throughout the solar system for your interest and feedback in our process here. Particularly, I want to thank Terra Blackstone, for her ongoing inspiration and support.”

The audience clapped loudly and she waited for them to quiet again.

“We’re at the final moment now. We have two solid plans of action outlined. We’ll continue to find new details as we pursue these plans, but one of these will set the direction for the future of the Jupiter system. Either way, I think we’ve learned a great deal through this process and I appreciate the hard work that went not only into these proposals, but into the ongoing growth of the Callisto base. This beautiful auditorium is an example of what is accomplished when hard-working people work together to achieve our dreams.”

More clapping and she laughed, smiling, and raised one hand.

“I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. Everyone here has already voted. Let’s reveal the results.”

Selene brought forward her tablet again and entered the passcode to unlock the results.

Numbers appeared beneath each proposal and started counting quickly. The numbers raced forward, initially higher on the Europa mission and then the Callisto focused proposal caught up and passed the other. Then it was done.

Thirty-eight for the Callisto-focused proposal and twenty-five for the Europa proposal. Above her head, the Europa proposal material moved, with the Callisto images coming forward and the Europa images moving around behind.

Selene walked forward and pointed up at the display. “We have our direction. Expansion of Callisto, the construction of the skyhook, and the exploration of Callisto’s own hidden oceans along with unmanned research into the other Galilean satellites and the rest of the Jupiter system.”

She shook her head. “That’s a lot, but notice that the Europa plan isn’t gone. It isn’t in the forefront right now, but we won’t forget it. The work we do here, and the work done by the unmanned probes throughout this system will set a solid stage for our visits to Europa and the rest of the Jupiter system. The bulk of the solar systems resources exist right here, around Jupiter. We will grow from sixty-three, to hundreds, to thousands, millions and eventually billions of people.”

She faced the audience. “Thank you all. The seed you’ve planted today will take root and grow into a massive new tree of humanity, one of the many seeds sown by Diaspora throughout the solar system. And one day, even beyond. Thank you. Let’s get to work!”

Cheers and clapping. Everyone in the audience rose to their feet. If there was anyone disappointed, it didn’t show, thankfully. She had been confident that the mood in the colony had changed, but there’d still been that thread of doubt.

Sean and Asher came forward. Sean held out his hand. She shook and he leaned close.

“One of these days I’m going to visit Europa’s oceans,” he said.

She smiled at him. “I think you will.”

He nodded and moved off.

Asher took his place, and her hand between his. “You were great. We would have probably ended up being the greatest tragedy of the solar system if you hadn’t come along.”

Selene shook her head. “I doubt it.”

“I don’t know.” He moved closer and touched her arm. “People can work really hard and still not get anywhere. They need good leaders, like you.”

“Thank you.” She winked. “Are we still on for dinner?”

“Yes, it’s my pleasure.”

“Good. I’ll see you at eight.”

Everyone was coming down the steps now and Asher nodded, moving off with the same easy grace he showed running in the tunnels.

She looked forward to getting to know him better.

Then she turned to greet everyone else.

16

Back in her quarters after the reception and the questions, to get ready for her dinner with Asher, her system rang with a message.

Selene activated it when she saw that it was from Blackstone herself.

The system projected out a hologram of Terra Blackstone, looking just as she had when she’d visited L-Town 5. Blackstone smiled and looked right at Selene, chillingly like she was right there in the room.

“You did a fabulous job, Selene. You’ve got the whole system talking about the plans now for Jupiter. I’m going to send two more transports, another hundred Exodus personnel to you.”

“We can’t take that many,” Selene blurted out. How could they house that many more?

“I’m confident you can,” Blackstone said. “You’re growth plans are limited primarily by the available personnel, these will help you reach your goals sooner.”

“It’s too bad you can’t hear me,” Selene grumped.

Blackstone laughed. Chilling, that she could predict Selene’s responses so well.

“I’m not guessing at your responses, Selene.” Blackstone winked. “It’s our new communications net. What do you think? Real-time, instantaneous communication. Opens up a lot of possibilities, don’t you think?”

“Wait, you’re serious? You can really hear me?”

The Blackstone hologram walked around the room, looking around at it. “I love that you borrowed the environmental designs from Mars. We need plants around us to be healthy. And yes, I can really hear you.”

“How is that possible? How does it work?”

Blackstone laced her hands together. “I’ll download all the specs to your system. You’ll want to build an initiator right away. Without it, you can only receive communication, you can’t place a call yourself. And we want our networks interlinked. That’s another job for you.”

Amazing. Mind-blowing. It’d change everything. “We’ll get right on it.”

“I know.” Blackstone’s smile faded. “And there’s one other thing. While you’re building your new future I want you to keep an eye out for something they found out at Saturn. We’re not saying anything about it right now, check the secure files I’ve coded to your system.”

“Okay.”

“Now that we’ve got a solid communication plan, we’ll be talking much more often. For now,” Blackstone winked. “I’ll let you finish getting ready for your date.”

The hologram blinked out.

Selene took a breath. Wow. Blackstone never let up. Now that she’d gotten the colony on track, she had naively thought that they might be settling into a path. It didn’t look like that was going to happen.

She picked up a tablet and flipped through her system. The new files Blackstone had sent pulsed for her attention. Her finger hovered over them, and then she put the tablet aside instead.

Blackstone was right. She did have a date to get ready for, and she was going to enjoy tonight before she tackled the next challenge.

15,101 words

Author’s Note

This story marks the 6th weekly short story release, and the 6th Planetary Bodies story. Jupiter and its moons represent one of the most exciting and fascinating destinations in the solar system. I can’t wait to see what our next mission to the Jovian system reveals.

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

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the series links at the top of the page. Check back next week for another Planetary Bodies story. Next up is Saturn Reaching.

Embracing Ceres

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

They barely made it to Ceres.

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

1

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

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

“It’s fucking huge!” Dwight said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

What the hell? Dwight mouthed.

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

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

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

“Jessica Reynolds. Here’s the Captain.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The connection was cut out in a wash of static.

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

Dwight immediately started calling again. Jessica swiveled around.

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

“Arm the rail gun,” Lawson said darkly.

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

“Are you refusing my order?”

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

“Waiting. While we use up our air?”

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

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

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

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

“Maybe.”

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

“Can you believe she laughed like that?”

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

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

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

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

“Now?”

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

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

“Right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Recyclers again?”

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

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

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

“We’re working on it,” Jessica said.

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

It didn’t bear thinking about.

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

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

It stayed closed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing?” Lawson demanded.

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

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

“Repairs?” Lawson shoved her.

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

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

“Some funny repairs there.” His gaze shifted.

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

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

“The charge, sir?” Kirk asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Droplets of sweat floated into the air.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re on it,” Ethan said. “Sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

Dwight looked back. “Everything okay back there?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I can do that.”

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

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

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

“I’m Lieutenant Commander Reynolds —”

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

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

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

“Ten, ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

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

The connection dropped out.

Dwight started laughing.

“Stop it!” Jessica said.

“You’ve got an admirer!”

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

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

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

A renewed bout of yelling and thumping answered her announcement.

“The captain doesn’t sound happy.”

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

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

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

She paused. “Meaning?”

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

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

“I’m just saying.”

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

She floated on down the axis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can do it,” Kirk said.

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

“Okay.”

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

“Open it up,” she said to Kirk.

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

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

“Is that?”

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

Lawson giggled.

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

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

“Let’s get him out of there.”

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

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

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

“What are you doing?” Lorna asked.

“Calming him down.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks, boss.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Boss?” Larkin asked.

“They say they’ll catch you.”

“Aye, boss. Here I go!”

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

Waiting as the seconds passed.

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

The indicator for Larkin went out. “Larkin?”

He didn’t respond.

“MacKenzie? What do you see?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Entering the airlock,” MacKenzie announced.

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

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

“You’re next,” she said to Dwight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

Not a coffin-sized berth.

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

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

A chime sounded.

Jessica swallowed and opened her eyes. “Yes?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? Your station.”

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

“You sound like Terra Blackstone.”

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

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

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

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

“Let’s sit,” Mandy said.

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

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

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

“From what?”

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

“It’s incredible.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Just like that?”

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Commander.”

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

Larkin sat.

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

“Did you already eat?”

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

“How are you?” She asked him.

“Okay. I tried to stop him, I did.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A piece of a circle.

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

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

“Jessica?”

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

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

“What are you doing?” Mandy asked.

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

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

“How did you know I was here?”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, ma’am,” the woman said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How is this possible?”

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

“You have a cat.”

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

“A cat. How can you have a cat?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, honey. What’s wrong?”

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

“Jessica?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On her lap Felicity continued purring happily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She fled.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dan? You’re staying?” Ethan asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’d like that.”

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

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

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

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

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

Specify, the system said in an androgynous voice.

“Mandy Adams, and place call.”

One moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jess! What’s wrong?”

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

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

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

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

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

Mandy was coming down.

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

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

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

The chime signaled the door.

“Come in,” she called.

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

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

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

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

Jessica blinked. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let them all manage. She needed this right now.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jess?”

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

“We’ve been holding it together.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can do it,” Jessica said automatically.

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

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

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

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

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

“The government might not like that.”

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

“They might not.”

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

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

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

*

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

“Hey!” She said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s not the same thing!”

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

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

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

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

“You already laid claim to them!”

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dwight whistled. “Look at her go!”

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

Jessica turned, kissing her. “Thank you.”

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

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

Mandy smirked. “Well, yes.”

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

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

14,666 words

Author’s Note

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

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

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

Mars Uncovered

The Diaspora Group sent out ships to simultaneously colonize the twelve worlds of the solar system.

Rhea Silvia started as the Media Coordinator on Venus — in the floating cloud city Aphrodite — and now Mars presents a new challenge, and a new opportunity to make a name for herself that will span the solar system.

1

Mars. The planet of legend and mystery, Rhea’s chance to make a name for herself that spanned the solar system. Except that the man in front of her didn’t want her on what he obviously thought was his planet.

“Ms. Silvia,” he said again, with exaggerated politeness, as if repeating her name would somehow make it clear why she was being unreasonable.

Dr. Pascal Reis, chief administrator of Pohl Station, was a small man. His silver hair was immaculately cut, his clothes reflected a retro Victorian preference. His waistcoat was a dark burgundy silk with a dark cravat and a white shirt. A dark frock coat hung on a hook on the wall of his otherwise modern office, along with a dark bowler hat.

An interesting choice, to use his weight allowance to bring a wardrobe. Many of the people she knew might have brought one or two special items, but a bowler hat?

Still, it was something interesting to catch on her cam jewelry. She wore a choker of cam beads, as well as two small cam earrings. The life-logging beads might not have the coolness of spy-eyes and other tech, but they were unobtrusive and pretty. And smart enough to grab video when they picked up people talking, and to switch to still pics every 20 seconds otherwise. Add to that the higher resolution of her glasses, and she could record anything. If she got a chance to get out and see the world.

“I’m not asking anything unreasonable, Dr. Reis,” she said. “I want to go out with the teams exploring the surface. We have to show people what a beautiful and dynamic world this is.”

“Ms. Silvia, each expedition has limited space and resources. We can’t afford to use up that space on non-essentials.”

“Non-essentials?” Rhea stood up and leaned forward on his desk, a flimsy panel desk printed from local materials. “Terra Blackstone assigned me here with a job to do. She sent me on the first rapid transit solar sail to get here! Do you think she’d do all of that for something she considered non-essential?”

 

“Maybe non-essential is not the right word to convey my meaning,” Dr. Reis said. He steepled his fingers. “You have to see the bind that I’m in. If I grant you space in the expeditions, who gets left behind?”

Rhea decided to change tactics. “Dr. Reis, why do you wear that outfit? Why not wear the standard issue workalls provided by Diaspora?”

He blinked up at her. “I think that a leader should present one’s self well to those who follow. I have noted that Dr. Blackstone is always put together well when she addresses any audience. I’m simply following her example.”

Gotcha. “You’re right, absolutely. This is what we’re talking about. Look at how people have responded to Carys Rex’s daring aerial adventures on Venus! Or the footage coming out from Mercury, showing the new microwave array boosting the solar sails to speeds unimaginable before! Or what’s happening out at Europa! Heck, Ceres is getting better publicity than Mars right now.” Rhea took a breath. “This used to be the place of imagination and dreams. Then one robotic explorer after another made it look like a place that wasn’t worth visiting. We need to change that, which means getting me out there.”

Dr. Reis smiled. “I’ll concede your point about how Mars is presented, but I can’t ask researchers to give up their spots on vital research expeditions.” He raised his hand when she opened her mouth to object. “I will, however, authorize the creation of an effort to publicize our home. Use anyone you can recruit to help out, provided that it doesn’t interfere with the work being done.”

“You mean I get my own expeditions?”

“Yes, that is one aspect to what I am saying, Ms. Silvia. I’m not unreasonable.”

“Thank you. I also need cooperation from staff as far as interviews go.”

Dr. Reis shrugged. “I will encourage your efforts, although I will not force anyone to contribute an interview.”

She’d take it. It was a lot better than she had started with today. Once people saw that better publicity would mean more support, they’d appreciate what she was doing. Look what had happened on Venus? It had been her idea to recruit Carys Rex in the first place, and now Carys had taken over the media lead position on Aphrodite to free up Rhea to turn around the impressions of Mars.

“Thank you,” Rhea repeated. She smiled. “And, for the record, I think your outfit is fantastic.”

Dr. Reis blinked and smiled. “You’re welcome. Good luck, Ms. Silvia.”

Rhea escaped out into the main balcony area, overlooking the Pohl station dome set into the steep crater wall. The outer wall of the dome was open, providing a broad terraced area for growing plants within the dome, while much of the colony burrowed back into the expanded lava tubes exposed by the crater impact.

It wasn’t anything like the cloudscape on Venus. There had been a sameness to the view on Aphrodite. Here, right out there was a whole world of rocks and cliffs and the central peak of the crater rising up above. Dusty red cloth strips cut across a section of the crater on the left, the open cuts where they had mined ice for the colony, covered to keep any exposed ice protected and frozen.

An ice truck crawled along the rocky ground, kicking up a dust cloud. There wasn’t a road yet between the base and the ice excavations, but the trucks were wearing a track into the surface. The track wasn’t straight, but twisted and turned, avoiding the areas where subsurface ice or empty passages might make the surface unsteady.

Looking at the landscape, her eyes searched vainly for any trace of green, a withered bush, or a bird circling high above. None of that existed here.

Had it ever? That question still wasn’t answered. Microbes, certainly, that had been proven already, but nothing living had been found. And so far, no fossils indicating a more diverse biosphere. Although, up to this point, survival had taken virtually all of the colonist’s resources. It might be only a matter of time before a more significant discovery was made.

Still, there had to be something else that she could seize on to propel Mars into the public imagination again. Rhea leaned on the slated wall along the balcony, resting her arms on the top. From up here, as light as she felt on her feet, it was tempting to think that she could simply fly away. Human-powered flight might be a possibility, but after Carys Rex’s adventures on Venus, flying around inside of an enclosed dome would likely feel like an also ran.

No, there had to be something else. This was her home now. Especially since the Exodus had pulled out the remaining personnel and loved ones from Earth. None of the Diaspora colonists had anything to go back to on Earth. Any Earth-based assets were seized after the exodus. An exodus caused by the United States’, United Nations-approved, effort to seize the Diaspora Base on the Moon.

Even if she could go back to Earth now, she’d be arrested as soon as she landed. All of them were stuck, live or die. Her job was to make it look like they got the better end of the deal. And to make Mars a more inviting selection for all of the people uprooted in the exodus. Terra Blackstone wanted the people on Earth to see twelve thriving colonies, more later on, an entire system of worlds, each full of possibility.

Mars should shine as one of the Crown Jewels of the Diaspora effort. With all the legends, and stories, and history of exploration, it had to come to life. She needed to uncover Mars’ secrets, and expose the whole system to the wonder this world held.

Easier said than done. Rhea pushed away from the balcony wall. At least now she had permission to run her own expeditions. She just had to find people willing to work with her. Shouldn’t be too hard, how many of these scientists could resist the urge to get out and do some extra digging around?

Quite a lot, it seemed, three hours later when her screen went blank for the umpteenth time. Dr. Hobson couldn’t be bothered with frivolous expeditions. Frivolous! She resisted the urge to hit something.

She was in her office at the time. It literally was a hole in the ground, a five meter by five meter square cubicle cut right into the rock and then sealed with interlocking printed panels. The walls were dark, stone-looking, and almost marbled in appearance. Nice, sort of. The lighting strips in the roof panels produced a bright daylight glow that grew brighter toward midday and then dropped off toward evening to mimic a day night cycle.

The decor was limited to a flimsy printed desk, paler and more red-hued than the walls, attached to a pair of automatic adjustable legs. She kept it up at a standing height while the chair sat in the corner. A flat screen, imported, hung on the wall above the desk. Four planters occupied the corners of the room, and a long planter ran along the empty wall. Each overflowed with a selection of herbs and vegetable plants.

That, at least, was a nice touch. And part of the design of the place. They weren’t going to let those lights go to waste. They needed the plants to help clean their water for recycling, for producing food, and for processing the air in the base. As far as her briefing told her, the plants throughout the base were an integral part of their survival.

Rhea brushed her hand through the mint growing near her desk, remembering Bilbo, her fat cat from childhood. He had loved cat nip. She raised her fingers to her face, inhaling the invigorating mint smell.

There was a knock on the door, and it opened. There was a man, opening the door. He was taller than her, a bit at least, which almost made him short. Cute, with a scruffy chin and dark hair that fell forward into his face. He looked like someone more at home in a punk band than wearing a brown workall, pulling the cart that blocked the door behind him.

“Should I come back?” His eyes, blue, locked on hers. He smiled warmly.

Bold. And a nice smile. His shoulders filled out the workall pretty well too. It was hard to get a good sense of his build in the baggy outfit. Dr. Reis had a point about his choice in clothes. This man would look stunning in a similar outfit.

What had he asked? “Excuse me?”

He gestured at the plants in the corner. “Your plants? Should I come back, or do you mind if I check them now?”

“No, I don’t mind,” Rhea said. “I’m glad you’re here. I was afraid I’d be held responsible if the plants didn’t do well.”

He was pulling some very techy-looking devices out of his cart. “Oh, you will. They’ve thrown people outside without a suit for sampling the veggies.”

Rhea burst out laughing. He grinned back at her. She stuck out her hand. “I’m Rhea Silvia.”

His eyes widened. He took her hand, firm grip, not too hard, a bit rough. “Like the legends? For real?”

“I know, right? I was doomed to end up here. You could thank my mother for that but she’s still back on Luna.”

“Mark Clayton,” he said. “Your family too? They were part of the exodus?”

“Yes. Got to give Blackstone credit, she showed them all back on Earth, getting our families and everyone else out right before the lockdown.”

“I heard it nearly touched off a nuclear war,” Mark said. “Scared a lot of people with all of those simultaneous launches.”

Rhea nodded. “Blackstone is handling that herself. I’ve just got to make Mars more appealing. She’s counting on us showing everyone back on Earth what they’re missing out on, trying to turn the tide of public opinion back in our favor.”

She realized that they were still holding hands and she let go, blushing. It wasn’t often that someone got to her. She was the professional, all the time.

“How’s that going for you?” Mark asked, moving over to the planters. He stuck a probe in the planter’s soilless substrate. His fingers moved across the bright display.

“Not good.” Rhea gestured at the screen, which had cycled back to a map of Mars with pins indicating the few sites being investigated. “Dr. Reis doesn’t want me out disturbing researchers in the field. He’ll let me go out, run my own expeditions, but I can’t find anyone that wants to go with me. They all say they’re too busy.”

Mark moved his probe on to the next planter. “Folks are pretty busy. Between keeping this place running, and getting the second base established for the new exodus colonists, the researchers are carefully guarding their time to explore.”

“So I’ve seen.” Rhea gestured and brought back up the personnel list. There weren’t many names remaining.

While she studied the options, she also watched Mark moving around the room. He checked all the plants on the other side of the room, but then he had to come close to where she stood working. She could have moved but she stayed where he was, to see what he would do.

He couldn’t reach the remaining plants without reaching past her. She glanced back and he was looking at her. His eyes narrowed and he shook a finger.

“You’re doing that on purpose!”

Rhea laughed. “Sorry, I just wanted to see how you’d handle it.”

Mark moved closer, setting aside his equipment on the desk. He didn’t box her into the corner. He stood to the side, but close, so that she still had an open avenue to slip aside, if she wanted.

“Is that all you wanted?” Mark asked.

Her heart was beating faster, something that hadn’t happened in a long time. Not since she was back on Earth, before being selected to join the Diaspora group.

“I don’t suppose you’d like to go out on an expedition with me?”

He grinned. “I don’t think there’s much need for a botanist out there, do you?”

“We’ve found microbes.”

“Fossilized, and not really plants,” Mark said. “Not even multicellular.”

“But that was one spot! How much of this planet is still unexplored? We’ve barely scratched the surface, literally! Who knows what we’ll find!”

“True,” Mark said. He shrugged. “I’ll go out with you, if that’s what you’re doing? Are you asking me out?”

Rhea slipped to the side, giving him access to the plants and increasing the space between them before she did something foolish. “Would you like that? A chance to see outside the dome?”

Mark nodded. “I would. It sounds like fun. We’ve got a free weekend coming up tomorrow, if you want to get out there right away?”

“Tomorrow?”

“Sure, why not? I know a few others that would like to come along, if that’s okay? Make it a proper overnight expedition?” He grinned. “Or did you want it to be just the two of us?”

“As tempting as that is, no. I’m serious about this! If you’ve got some friends that can come along, that would be great! We have to show people having fun, exploring, an adventure.”

“Like that woman on Venus?”

“Carys Rex.”

“Did you know her?”

Rhea nodded. “A little, yes. I suggested that we invite her to Venus. She took over for me when Blackstone sent me here.”

Mark moved and Rhea stepped back. He picked up his equipment from the desk and she felt foolish. It wasn’t like he was just going to jump on her, which was sort of too bad. Except, no, she needed to focus on the task at hand. She had a job to do, and it didn’t involve falling for the botanist.

She crossed her arms and watched him checking the plants near her desk. He was careful in his work, methodical. His unassuming good looks would play well on the camera. Between her jewelry and glasses, she’d have plenty of footage. You never knew what you might use.

“If you can talk to your friends, I’ll go ahead and take care of making the arrangements for transportation,” Rhea said. “I’ve already got a list of sites that I would like to visit, but if you have any suggestions, I’m happy to hear them.”

Mark pulled his probe out of the last plant container and shook his head. “No, you go ahead and pick. I’m sure it’ll be interesting.”

Rhea held out her hand. “Thank you, so much.”

Mark laughed and shook her hand. “You’re welcome.”

He lifted his equipment. “I’d better go. I’ve got a lot more plants to check before the day is over! I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow,” Rhea said.

At first Rhea wasn’t sure that she would actually be able to pull together the equipment and supplies necessary for the expedition on such short notice, but Dr. Reis approved the request through and the equipment shop had a new caravan that they wanted to field test.

“Either grab it now,” Richard down at the shop said, “or I’ll have to send one of my guys out to test it. If you do it, I don’t have to give up anyone.”

Which was great. A big part of making Mars look appealing, was to get more volunteers from the Exodus population that was currently putting enormous pressures on the Diaspora Base on the Moon. Blackstone want to get those people assigned and on transport capsules on their way to new worlds.

And succeeding here, making Mars sexy again, would go a long way to establishing her reputation in the system. Twelve new worlds, and she wanted her name known throughout.

Diaspora was a chance at great success, or terrible failure if she couldn’t pull this off. With the labor shortage they couldn’t afford to let anyone not carry their weight. She could end up shuffled off to some bureaucratic position pushing virtual papers.

With really her whole future riding on the expedition, she arrived down at the shops early. She wore the standard Diaspora workall in green. The light garment wasn’t exactly tight on her, it still showed off her curves somewhat, but by and large it was a shapeless thing. It made her rethink again what she’d first thought about Dr. Reis’ choice in bringing clothes. Maybe if this didn’t work out, she could get a business going making off-work clothing for the colonists?

She was wearing her glasses, to record the expedition, and her cam jewelry. Plenty of recording capacity. Carys Rex had brought flying spy eyes to Venus, an expensive piece of tech Rhea envied. Unlike Carys, though, she didn’t plan on being the star of the expedition. She wanted to stay behind the camera. When people looked at her they saw the pretty pixie, the cute blond with the tiny nose and fine features. Being on camera distracted viewers from the real story. Her jewelry and glasses focused on the world she saw, not her.

She wasn’t the star. That was the other people. The scientists, the ones doing the research. She was here to tell their stories, not her story. No one wanted to know her story.

A big, broad-shouldered man, easily the largest and oldest man that she had seen yet since arriving in Pohl Station, came out from behind a cluster of workstations when she entered the shop. He work the standard black Diaspora workall with a Mariners baseball cap on his head.

Rhea tapped the side of her glasses to activate the recording, then smiled as she went over to meet him, extending her hand.

“Rhea Silvia, you’re Richard?”

His hand was enormous, engulfing hers in a brief, gentle grip.

“That’s right. You’re not going out there by yourself are you? I thought you’d have someone with you.”

“I do,” she said. “It’d be pretty boring if it was just me out there. They’ll be coming along any minute. I told them to meet me down here.”

Richard pulled off his baseball cap, revealing a shiny bald head. Pale skin caught the lights from the high ceiling above. He ran a hand across his head, then put the hat back on. He clucked his tongue.

“Okay then, I guess I can show you what we’ve got while we’re waiting.” He turned and pointed. “That’s her, over there by the lock. Got her all filled up and ready to go. Charge’ll last you up to a week.”

“We’re not planning on being out that long.”

The shop was a big chamber cut into the rock beneath Pohl Station, what had once been a network of lava tubes connected and joined to create a series of uneven chambers, with reinforced printed arches and hanging lights. The natural rock was still visible everywhere else. Some of the sections were full of shelving and storage crates, others dedicated to workbenches and equipment. The sections near the wide airlock doors looked like a parking garage.

The caravan Richard had pointed at looked like bastard child between a robotic rover and an RV. The big vehicle stood on six wheels, but the body was blocky and pale pink. It was printed from native materials, like most of the base, but resembled many of the old robotic explorers that had come to Mars, like Opportunity, Spirit and Curiosity. Various equipment masts and armatures were folded up against the sides and top, and darkened windows stretched around the front.

“That’s amazing,” she said. “Is it hard to drive?”

Richard clucked his tongue again, shaking his head. “Hell, you don’t even have to drive it if you want. Probably better if you don’t. She’s smart enough to get where she’s going. Just tell her where you want to go, and let her do the rest. She knows more about the planet than you’ll know. Might not take the most direct route, but it’ll be the safest route.”

“That sounds good to me.” There were voices in the corridor outside. Rhea turned halfway. “Sounds like the others are coming.”

Mark came in first, followed by four others, all of them in brown workalls. Two men, and two women, very nicely paired from the look of it, which left her with Mark by implication. There was a lot of laughing from the two women. What had Mark told them about the expedition?

He came over to her, grinning widely. “Hey there! You actually did it, I’m impressed.”

She shook her head and gestured to Richard. “You can thank Richard, he’s the one that made the caravan available.”

Mark looked up, and gave Richard a nod. “Thanks, man.”

“Don’t mention it.” Richard looked at Rhea. “I’ve got the control cards over here, if you want to get them, you can be off?”

“Sure.” Rhea turned back to Mark. “I’ll be right back, and you can introduce me to your friends.”

“Okay. You’ll like them,” he said. “We’re all excited to get a chance to go out and explore. They’re eager to meet you.”

Rhea followed Richard over to the cluster of stations where he’d been working when she had come in. he picked up a thin digital control card from the counter and tapped the screen.

He entered a code on the translucent touch screen and handed it to her. “There you go.”

His eyes shifted, looking over his head at the group. “Are you sure you want to go out with these people?”

“Why? Do you know something about them?”

He shook his head. “No, they just don’t look like most of the groups I see go out of here.”

“What do you mean?”

“They look like tourists,” he said. “Wouldn’t a trained crew be better? Safer?”

He was concerned, she could hear it in his voice. It was sweet, in a fatherly sort of way. She smiled. “Thank you. I’ll be careful, but they’re all I got.” She glanced over at the group laughing. “And they look like fun. That’s important too. Part of my job is to make Mars look inviting.”

Richard shook his head. “This isn’t an inviting place. It’s a place that’ll kill you if you aren’t careful.”

Rhea touched his arm. “We’re only going overnight, and I’ll be careful. Promise.”

Richard scowled and picked up a tablet. “See that you do. I don’t want to be the one to explain to the powers that be what happened to the new caravan.”

“Of course,” she said. “We’ll see you tomorrow, okay? I’ll bring it back without a scratch on it.”

Richard grunted.

As sweet as it was that he was concerned, she had a job to do. She went back to the group, smiling at Mark as he came over.

“So? Are we good to go?” He asked.

“Yeah, it’s fine.”

“Great! Let me introduce you to the rest.” Mark turned and gestured at the others, as they gathered around.

“Everyone, this is Rhea Silvia, that I told you about. She’s the new PR director hired by Blackstone.”

Rhea smiled at the group and lifted her hand. “Hey. Thanks for coming out with me. Most of the scientists I talked to didn’t want to have anything to do with me.”

One of the other women moved forward. She was pretty, solidly built, with purple hair hanging into her face. “That’s because they’re all trying to cover their butts. No one wants to believe that Mars is a bust. I’m Jessi, by the way.”

“Hi,” Rhea said. “It’s my job to make sure Mars isn’t a bust. It’s a whole world out there.”

One of the guys, standing behind Jessi, raised his hand. He was bearded and thin, with a hollowed-eye, lean look of a runner. “Ruben Flores. If they’d let us have a go at it, we could make this planet into something.”

Murmurs of agreement from all of those gathered. The other man, bulkier, with reddish hair spoke up. “Barry Powell. Ruben, for once is right. You’ve got Blackstone’s ear. Maybe you can get her to change direction on this?”

“On what?”

The other woman, lean and tall, with pale skin, black straight hair, and a flushed complexion, spoke, her tone harsh. “Letting us terraform. We’ve got a bunch of possible ways we could make Mars more habitable, but it won’t happen overnight. We need to get started, except that she won’t let us do anything outside of the domes and our simulations.”

Now things clicked into place. “You’re all terraformers?”

“Yes,” Mark said. He nodded at the tall woman. “That’s Gemma Brooks. We’re all bioengineers. We’ve done good work here on Pohl station, and even better work on the new base, but some of us want to see some of our other experiments happen.”

Ruben said, “Like using some of those solar sails as mirrors to heat up an area of subsurface volatiles. If we could get those out-gassing, build up the atmosphere and raise the temperature we might see some real changes happening! Maybe with enough work we could build up a feedback cycle.”

Gemma laughed. “There’s not enough there to do what you want, but we could capture cometary material and redirect it to Mars.”

Clearly they had ideas for the planet. And it made sense that they wanted to get out of the dome, if they’d been cooped up here.

She looked at Mark. “You didn’t tell me that you were a terraformer.”

He shrugged, grinning. “I’m a botanist. I do have some ideas for some engineered lichens that we could use to change the planet.”

Rhea looked at the group. “Well, I can’t promise that I’ll have any influence on Blackstone’s decision about this. I think she probably wants to know more about the planet the way it is before she starts changing it.”

“She’ll have to come around,” Jessi said. “When the exodus populations start arriving we’re going to be hard-pressed even with the second base. As time goes on, we’ll need the space. Population pressures alone will eventually cause us to terraform the planet.”

“Or restrict growth,” Barry said.

Barry reached over and squeezed Gemma’s buttock. She yelped and swatted at his hand.

“Stop it!”

“We should get going,” Rhea said. “It’ll take a while to get where we’re headed.”

“Where’s that?” Ruben said.

Rhea grinned. “Valles Marineris, one of the tributaries north of here, that is. It’s within range, and there’s a chance that we can see some pretty spectacular views from there.”

“Alright!” Jessi said. “Let’s go!”

They all picked up their bags and moved off through the chamber toward the caravan. Rhea waited, watching them go, laughing among themselves, recording everything. Mark saw her watching and came over to her side.

“You’re recording this, aren’t you?”

She glanced at him, then back to the group. “They know that, right? I mean, that was sort of the point of all of this. To go on an expedition, something to show folks about life on Mars.”

“We’re not exactly a typical research group,” Mark said. “I think they mostly want to blow off steam, you know? Get out of the dome.”

Rhea reached over and took his hand. “That’s fine! Good, even! All sorts of people are going to come here, Mark. Some of them will be happy living in the domes, but others are going to want to get out and see the sights. Let’s show them that Mars can be fun.”

He nodded. “Okay. If that’s what you want.”

She turned and met his eyes. He had clear blue eyes, deep like tropical pools. He leaned in close, too close for her glasses, but he wasn’t trying to get in frame. He was trying to kiss her.

The realization hit at the same time as his lips.

The kiss was as surprise. A pleasant one too. His lips were soft, gentle, caressing her lips with light touches. Mark drew back, smiling.

“We’re still good?”

Rhea nodded. “Oh, yeah. We’re good, but we better go before your friends leave without us!”

He took her hand – that was sweet – and hurried off. Rhea followed, feeling like a balloon bouncing along on a string behind him.

Inside the caravan felt bigger than it had looked on the outside. It really was like a big RV all equipped to explore the Mars. The airlock opened right behind the main cab at the front, four seats up there in the cockpit. An aisle ran down the center of the bus between seating, a kitchen area, an expandable section for sleeping bunks, six total, three to a side, and past that more compact expanding areas with laboratory equipment. Across from the airlock were racks with a half-dozen Mars suits, white with bright preschool colored stripes on the helmet and joints.

Ruben, Jessi and Barry were already in the cockpit. Ruben had taken the primary pilots’ seat. Gemma was back in the booth in the kitchen area.

Ruben twisted around as Mark moved back, carrying his bag.

“You ready to go?” Ruben asked.

Rhea climbed forward and took the fourth seat, behind Jessi on the right. Barry swiveled his seat around to the console on that side.

“Let’s go!” Barry said.

Rhea nodded. “I’m ready when you are. I’ll get the coordinates loaded.”

And she turned to the console on her side, just another touch interface, the key components imported along with the rest of the colonists, the rest printed and manufactured right here on Mars. Did they stamp it with a ‘Made on Mars’ sticker? It wouldn’t change the fact that the key components inside were still made in China. In time, sooner than expected given the exodus and Diaspora pulling out of Earth, they’d have to manufacture their own replacements.

Wealth. That was an angle she could use too. The mineral resources of an entire planet at their disposal. Her fingers navigated the interface, nothing too complicated, not that different from finding a local coffee place.

There. The steep walls of a river valley that in turn ran into the Valles Marineris, one of the biggest rift valleys in the solar system. A whole host of expeditions were planned to points on the system, but not to this tributary, not yet. And this was better. A scale that she could capture on film, without having the other side lost in the distance.

“Got it,” Ruben said. “Let’s roll!”

Rhea looked up, catching the view on her glasses and jewelry. This was what she wanted. Young people having fun, and cool technology. With a low hum, the caravan rolled forward through the grotto, toward a massive open airlock door. Ruben gripped a steering wheel in his hands.

“Should you be driving?” Rhea asked. “Richard said that we were better off letting the caravan drive itself.”

Ruben laughed. “Where’s the fun in that? We can take turns.”

“Yeah!” Barry said.

Mark leaned into the cockpit, his hands braced on either side of the door. Catching her looking, he grinned. Rhea refocused on the view forward with her glasses. The cam jewelry would catch his expressions as they went out, giving her 360 degrees of footage.

Despite the caravan’s size and the tight quarters, Ruben deftly managed to drive it into the airlock without hitting any of the sides. The caravan lurched to a stop before hitting the outer door. On the rearview screens the lights around the airlock door turned amber as the doors started sliding shut.

This was it! After traveling from Venus, surviving the harrowing descent down from orbit to land near Pohl station, she was getting back out there. The view from the landing capsule hadn’t been very good when they had transported her from the landing site to the station. From her strapped in position in the landing seat, she had only been able to see a slice of sky, quickly lost by reddish dust kicked up by the transport.

The rearview showed the doors closed. The lights changed to red and those forward turned amber. With a hiss of escaping airs, the outer doors slid apart, revealing a dark stone corridor that sloped upward, getting brighter as it went.

Ruben drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. From behind Gemma spoke up.

“Are we going to get out any time soon?”

Barry twisted around, talking past Mark. “We’re waiting for the doors to open!”

It only took a few moments and then the doors were open. Strange to think that the air pressure outside was far thinner than the atmosphere at the top of Mt. Everest, so thin that they’d need the pressure suits to go outside, just like in space.

Dust swirled around the opening ahead. Even with a thin atmosphere, there was still an atmosphere. Dust particles picked up by the wind were regularly deposited on any surface, including the station domes which had to be cleaned to let in as much sunlight as possible.

The caravan moved ahead, rolling smoothly until the front wheels dropped down to the stone floor. The sound changed, a hard, grinding sound.

“What’s that noise?” Jessi asked.

“The wheels,” Barry said. He leaned closer, raising his voice. “We’ve got these composite wheels rolling on rock. It isn’t going to be quiet!”

The big guy was right. The noise of the wheels grew when the other four rolled onto the stone, then it leveled off. Not so loud that it made conversation difficult but noticeable. Something that she could turn down in processing the audio, if she wanted. Let the audience get a taste for it and then turn it down so it wasn’t quite so distracting. It was sort of like listening to a dentist’s drill on teeth, amplified and all around them.

“That’s wretched,” Gemma complained in the back.

“Deal with it,” Ruben said. “Look at this!”

The caravan was climbing up out of the repurposed lava tube, the sunlight falling across the front, flooding in through the windows.

Rhea blinked and resisted the urge to hold up a hand to shield her eyes. She let the cameras drink in the light. They’d adapt, dealing with the glare to give her a clear picture.

And what a picture it was.

The caravan rolled up onto the rocky, dusty red plain to the side of the base. That meant that Pohl Station was on their right, rising up on the crater wall. A broad expanse of the dome with the cascading terraces of green plants inside. Smaller observation domes blistered out of the rock around the large front. The sunlight gleamed off the printed framework and glass.

Ahead and left, the crater floor, rocks, sand and dust hiding the subsurface water frozen in the ground. The crater was like a bowl, worn by age and half-filled with sand that covered the ground-water seep beneath. Water, as it had turned out, wasn’t exactly uncommon on Mars, it was hidden, buried beneath the surface, until erosion exposed it to the surface where it peeled off like a ghost exposed to sunlight. Which was why they covered the dig sites, to cut down on the loss rate of the exposed ice.

The caravan bumped and rolled across the crater, making a long arc as Ruben guided it around to the slump wall, where landslides had created a rough ramp up out of the crater. Portions of the map screen in front of Ruben flashed red, indicating areas where the crust was weakened and ready to break away beneath them. Ruben skirted those zones, sometimes closer than might be considered safe but the caravan kept rolling, so Rhea started breathing easier.

It wasn’t like he would try to get them stuck or dropped down in a subsurface crevasse.

“Let’s listen to some music!” Jessi said. Her fingers danced across her consoles beside Ruben and loud space-dance beats pounded out of the speakers. Jessi pumped her arms, swaying to the ethereal sounds.

Back on Earth space-dance was no doubt losing popularity in some circles since the exodus and the backlash against the Diaspora. On the other hand, it suited the moment perfectly as the caravan drove across the Martian surface to the side of the crater.

The broken slope, where the landslides had carried down rocks and material would have been impassable, if the colonists hadn’t pulverized a path up the slope, using sealant foam to stabilize the surface. In contrast to the crater floor, the ride suddenly became much smoother as Ruben drove the caravan up the sides.

Rhea stood, holding onto a grip above her station, to get a better look out the windows. From this angle she could see back down behind them. Pohl station was a shining green jewel sticking out of the crater wall, surrounded by several smaller jewels. Bubbles of life welling out of the Martian surface. Leaning farther, she could make out the long strips of the ice mines, and the crazy meandering trails.

“It looks so small from up here,” she said.

Mark leaned over, his hand on the small of her back. “Wow. I haven’t seen it from out here. Not in person, only the sims.”

The others were looking now and the caravan swerved when Ruben leaned over to look.

“Watch it!” Barry snapped, swatting at Ruben’s head.

“No hitting the driver,” Mark said. “We don’t want him driving us into a crater.”

The caravan reached the lip of the crater, the articulated legs letting each wheel move independently, first the front left dropping down, then the right, and so it went, lurching a bit as it dropped back down to the rough tracked Martian surface at the top of the ramp. No longer a smoothed surface, nothing but rock and sand chewed by each expedition before them.

The lines of those tracks spread out across the surface, meandering like a nest full of snakes spreading out in search of prey. Eventually the wind and dust would soften the tracks, blur the lines, but that would take a long time, at least until the next big blow up. The tracks here didn’t stay like those on the Moon, or Mercury, or the other airless bodies in the system.

Rhea watched as Ruben swerved the caravan away, following a group of tracks, one overlaying the next, that followed the crater rim off to the left. It was another chance, looking past Barry who was also watching, they were all watching out the windows now, as the caravan picked its way along. The view of the crater was fantastic, and Pohl Station impossible and beautiful.

Her throat constricted. There it was, another bubble of life and humanity, fragile against a harsh universe. Aphrodite was like that too, a soap bubble blown by greater than hurricane force winds around Venus.

One by one the other tracks dropped away as the caravan circled around to the north. Rhea was standing behind Ruben when he turned the wheel, and just like that they were driving across virgin ground untouched by any humans or their machines.

“No one has ever been here before,” she said. “We’re driving across untouched ground.”

“No worries,” Rubin said, tapping the screen. Clearly not understanding what she meant. “It’s all been mapped by the orbiters. We’ve got plenty of detail to keep us out of a hole.”

She let it go. Later, she could make her point for the audience, if she used the footage.

The dentist drill noise of the wheels against the ground continued, but it had already faded from importance. They were on their way.

Ruben scratched at his crotch. “I need a break. I’m going to put this on autopilot.”

A few touches later and the screen showed the autopilot indicators. Ruben stood, climbing out of the seat. He grinned at her. “Let’s drink!”

Drink. Shocking given their location, and yet entirely in character with what Rhea had seen from people. Creative people, all cooped up in an artificial habitat on a planet where you couldn’t step outside without a thick pressure suit. Not unless you wanted to cough up a lung and die a horrible death in the red dust.

Ruben went on into the back, Barry going with him, thumping him on the back. Mark pressed against the side of the aisle to make room for them. Jessi sighed and grinned at Rhea.

“I told them not to bring the stuff. It isn’t very good, not unless you want to degrease your guts.” She rose out of her seat. “Until we can get the grapes going, it’s going to be the best we’ve got. Ruben has plans for grapes in base two.”

Jessi slipped past, heading into the back. Rhea got up as well, but she went forward and took the pilot’s seat. Mark leaned in between the seats.

“You’re not drinking?”

Rhea shook her head, ignoring the faint flush of embarrassment that came from the question. Drink? She never had, and it made her a bit of a freak among many people she knew. Even some of the most sober people that she knew still enjoyed wine on occasion.

Not her. It wasn’t that she had some horrible story to tell about an alcoholic parent, quite the opposite. Her parents never drank either. It wasn’t for religious reasons, they weren’t religious at all. She’d never known anyone killed by a drunk driver, or anything like that.

She never saw the point. She smiled at Mark. “No thanks. I’d rather watch the view. This is the first time anyone has been here! I can’t get enough of it.”

“I’ll join you,” he said, moving up and slipping into the co-pilot’s seat that Jessi had vacated.

“You don’t have to do that,” she said.

Loud cheers and shouts came from the back. Rhea leaned around the seat and looked back. The other four were gathered around the small booth table. Tiny plastic bags full of some clear liquid, it could have been water, were piled in the middle of the table.

Ruben tilted his head back, squirting the contents of a bag into his mouth until it was gone. He let out a wolf-like howl and tossed the empty bag onto the table beside the others.

The others clapped and cheered. Jessi grimaced and picked up the next bag from the pile. She twisted and tore off the sealed spout and tipped her head back to squirt the contents down her throat to the cheering of her friends.

Rhea looked at Mark. “What is that made from anyway?”

“You don’t want to know.” He pointed out the window. “I thought you wanted to watch the view?”

She did. She looked out the windows and the landscape spread out in front of them. Hills rose above the horizon on the left, hazy in the distance. Nearer, a small crater, although one that could swallow the caravan, was on the right. And in between the rocking, sand and dust-covered desert.

There was beauty in the emptiness, but it was a soul-shrinking beauty. This was a place without breath. A place of deep history recorded in stone. The sort of place that might be home to a different sort of life, one of long endurance and patience. Life that would bloom only once every eon when conditions were right, flourishing in a joyous explosion only to sink back into a deep slumber again.

“What are you thinking?” Mark asked.

“We’ve brought life back to Mars. A new sort of life. Billions and billions of us, all of the bacteria we’ve brought with us, our plants and animals. Pohl Station and base two are like seeds planted here to take root. Do you think that can happen?”

The caravan bumped and lurched over a small crater. Laughter from the back. She was recording everything. Nothing was forgotten anymore.

“Yes.” Mark looked out at the Martian landscape. His dark hair hung down, shrouding his face, except the tip of his nose, the thrust of his chin. “It’ll happen whether or not we want it too.”

He turned, facing her, smiling and tilted his head back at the others. “We want to do something now, but the planet is already being terraformed.”

“What do you mean?”

“You said it. We’ve brought billions of organisms to Mars. To an environment with water. The station leaks, at small levels. It leaks energy, heating the surrounding area. That means liquid water extending out into the region around the base where some of those microbes can survive. They’re very adaptable and will keep pushing out further and further, and in the process they’ll change the surrounding environment just as we’re doing.”

“There’s a limit to how far they can go, isn’t there?”

Mark shrugged. “In the long run? Maybe, unless other factors change.”

“Wait. We know there was some life here before, we’ve found the fossils. They died off. Why would life from Earth survive under these conditions when the native organisms couldn’t?”

“Because they were adapted to conditions as they were, and when things changed for the worse they couldn’t adapt fast enough. That’s always the case. Maybe they would have adapted if they could, or maybe they did, and still exist in pockets around the planet.”

“You’re talking about the methane?” One of the continuing mysteries around Mars, was the periodic presence of methane in the atmosphere, showing some mechanism replenishing it as it was destroyed.

“Possibly. Or maybe whatever life there is doesn’t give us any sign like that.” Mark turned his head back to gazing outside. “We don’t know what’s out there. Not yet.”

Not yet. That was the key. More laughter from the rear of the caravan.

“Hey!” Barry shouted. “Aren’t you guys going to join us?”

Rhea and Mark both turned, catching each other’s eyes for a moment, then looking back into the caravan. Barry stood, legs braced wide, in the aisle. His workall was open down the front, revealing a broad chest cover in curly brown hair. His up thrust hand held two of the drink bags.

Barry beckoned. “Come on! Is good!”

Mark waved. “No thanks. Consider us your designated drivers!”

“More for us,” Gemma said.

Another glance back saw Gemma kissing her way up Barry’s hairy chest, as if looking for something there that she had lost.

Rhea exchanged another look with Mark. “If this goes on, there’s going to be an orgy back there.”

“In that case, we might want to see how far these seats recline.”

Blood rushed to Rhea’s face, but she had been the one to bring it up. Her eyes narrowed. “Don’t count on it.”

“Oh, I won’t.” Mark pointed out the window. “Look at that!”

A dark funnel danced across the plains on the right, kicking up dust and sand. A twister moving among the rocks like a ghost in ruins. It danced about and then without warning it broke apart and was gone, the dust kicked up settling back down. Far up ahead, another twister formed, dancing and weaving among the rocks.

In front of Rhea’s seat, on the bright consoles across the front of the vehicle, was a photo-realistic 3D view of the area around them, overlaid with a faint grid. A miniature caravan rolled across that barren landscape, following a faint green line that stretched away to the top of the screen. The line didn’t run straight, but twisted and curved, snaking around the largest obstacles.

A glance back showed the others paired up, Barry and Gemi, Ruben and Jessi. They weren’t exactly naked, but there was plenty of skin visible. Ruben had his head down, suckling at Jessi’s pert round breast. Another advantage of the lower gravity that Rhea had enjoyed since coming to Mars. No need of bras, given the lower gravity. Her skin tingled watching the others making out, and she turned her view back to the desert.

“What brought you here?” Mark asked.

Apparently they were both going to ignore his friends in the back.

“A chance to make my name, to do what I can for the Diaspora effort.” Rhea’s mouth quirked in a small smile. “That, and I always loved old movies about Mars, and Martians.”

“I never thought I’d get the chance,” Mark said. “Until Blackstone came along and basically showed everyone what was holding them back.”

“’Fear,’“ Rhea quoted. “’Only true explorers embrace the fear of the unknown.’“

Mark laughed. “Exactly. She showed that it was a lack of will that prevented us from colonizing space.”

“And she jumped in with everything she had.”

“That’s what gets to them,” Mark said, clearly meaning his friends. “They want to move forward and this time it feels like she’s holding us back.”

“Hardly! How many times has she fought for our rights to colonize these worlds? She’s had the COSPAR policy wonks in fits!”

Mark laughed. “They’re out of luck now. The Diaspora has reached twelve worlds. It won’t be long before we expand out to more, especially now with the exodus populations and the expansion of the beamed-powered solar sail network.”

“True.”

A burst of laughter from the back brought a smile to her lips. This wasn’t becoming the trip she had imagined, but it might be what was needed. A story about friends going out to explore on their own, on a hostile frontier.

Goosebumps rose on her arms and she shivered. It was someone stepping on her grave, that’s what her grandmother would have said. Nana had been young when men first walked on the Moon, and she had lived long enough to see the first Diaspora missions launched.

She remembered watching the launches with Nana. Back to back launches, like nothing the world had seen.

Nana had laughed and said, “Go, Rhea! You find a way, but you get out there! That’s where the future is happening, not here!”

That decided it. There was an excitement in the air, seeing what Terra Blackstone had accomplished, and fear, but mostly excitement at first. Gradually the fear had come back, as sure as the tide, but it came back in a great wave. Not just the tide coming in but a full-blown tidal wave that swept the United Nations, and the United States up into launching the Lincoln on a mission to seize the Diaspora Base on the Moon, the headquarters of the whole Diaspora operation.

Blackstone had stopped that too. The fear was still high, but it was starting to ebb back on Earth. Many people weren’t too happy about what had been done.

Maybe seeing the human side of all of this would do it.

Eventually the party in the back faded as the day wore on, and the exhausted, hung-over scientists fell asleep draped over one another in the booth. In the co-pilot’s seat, Mark dozed too, his feet up, head to the side in the chair, reclined as far back as it’d go.

Rhea stayed awake, mesmerized by the view outside. It changed as they drove closer to Valles Marineris. They were still better than a hundred miles from the main chasm, but the terrain had become rougher, more broken and uneven, with dunes drifting along the faults that ran like cracks along the track ahead.

The whole time the caravan performed faultlessly, picking its way closer and closer to the valles tributary that she had selected. Just as Richard had said, they didn’t need to do anything to keep the caravan going.

Later, when she cut the footage, she’d have to find the perfect music. Something that capture the majestic emptiness, the loneliness of this planet. It was almost as if, having lost the life that started here billions of years ago, Mars was waiting for them. Maybe Mark was right and the bases would be the seeds of a new biosphere, gradually growing outward, changing the planet.

It was a beautiful notion, that they might bring life back to the dead planet.

But what if it wasn’t dead? Rhea rubbed her hands on her workall legs. Suppose that hardy pockets of Martian life had survived? What would happen when conditions changed? Would the Martian organisms finally succumb, or spread out in a new bloom of activity? Was there risk to them?

All of that was unknowable right now. She wasn’t going to solve all those questions now, in her first trip out. This was just the beginning.

Rhea leaned her head back, surprised as a yawn forced her mouth open. She rubbed her eyes and looked at Mark. He looked peaceful. Looking in the back, Gemma was asleep, her head and hand on Barry’s bare chest, his workall down around his waist. Ruben was lying in the aisle, and Jessi was sleeping in the booth, her head on Gemma’s hip, purple hair spilling down around her face.

Why not nap? The caravan would alert them to any problems. When they got to the valles, she’d want to be rested.

Another yawn came over her. Rhea let her eyes close. Just for a few minutes. The cam jewelry would keep recording. She wouldn’t miss anything. Even the dentist-drill noise of the wheels on the rock was nothing more than white noise, and the rocking motion of the caravan was soothing.

Rhea slept.

A steady beeping brought her around. Rhea woke, realized she was awake and sat up in the pilot’s chair. Pressure in her bladder called for attention. Groans from the back suggested the others were waking, but it was the view that arrested her attention.

Night was falling, but there was enough light still to see that maybe a half-mile ahead the ground dropped way at a sharp edge. The ground between here and there was rough, uneven and showed several drops before that final edge. Far out, nearly lost in the darkening day, the cliffs on the other side of the valles were just visible.

Mark stirred, sat up, and leaned forward, studying the view. “We’re there?”

“We’re there.” Rhea stood up, climbing out of the pilot’s chair. “Looks like we made it safe and sound.”

In the back everyone was getting up, Ruben first. He rubbed at red eyes and smacked his lips. “Shit! What died in my mouth?”

“You better brush your teeth before you kiss me,” Jessie muttered, as she sat up. Her purple hair stuck out in different directions.

“It’s getting dark,” Rhea said. “We should settle in here, and then we can explore when it gets light tomorrow.”

Ruben pushed forward, edging past her. “No way! There’s still time to look around at least.”

“Ruben,” Rhea said, turning. “You’ve been drinking. It’s better that you sleep it off before we do anything else.”

Ruben hoped into the pilot’s seat. “Nope. I’m feeling great. That stuff is hang-over free. It’s metabolized quickly. And I already slept. We all did. I want to check this place out.”

Alarmingly, he deactivated the automatic pilot and brought up the drive systems. Rhea went over to the back of the seat. “What are you doing?”

“Driving closer.” Ruben gestured at the view out the windows. “You can’t even see anything this far away!”

Mark spoke up from the co-pilot’s station. “Hey, man, let’s do what Rhea was saying. It’s getting dark. We’ll explore tomorrow.”

Ruben shook his head. “Better buckle up, this might get bumpy.”

Rhea heard the others moving up. Barry crowded into the space, zipping up his workall. “Ruben, come on.”

“He won’t listen to you,” Jessi said. “Never listens to anyone.”

Ruben laughed. His sunken eyes gleamed from the light of the console, giving him an even more maniacal appearance. The caravan lurched forward, wheels chewing up the rock and sand. Rhea braced herself on the pilot’s seat.

“Ruben, you have to stop this. It isn’t safe!” She said, and indeed there were warnings flashing on the control screens, highlighted areas ahead of the miniature caravan. Places where orbital mapping showed the ground was unstable.

That was only the parts that the satellites could detect. Ruben swept his hand across the alerts, casting them aside in a flurry like wind-blown leaves.

“Man, you have to stop!” Mark insisted. “If you get this thing stuck we’re screwed.”

Ruben shook his head. “They’d send someone to get us out. And I’m not going to get. Us. Stuck.”

The caravan swerved, tilted and the wheels screamed in protest, and Ruben skirted the edge of a small, steep-walled crater. As the caravan tilted right, Rhea reached across to brace herself on Mark’s seat.

Beside her, Barry moved to take the seat behind Mark. “You’re going to get us killed.”

Ruben didn’t look away from the view or the screens.

Short of grabbing him and yanking him out of the seat, Rhea was out of answers. Instead she went to the fourth seat behind Ruben and sat down, fastening the straps. She turned and looked back, where Gemma and Jessi were still back in the booth.

“Can you strap in back there?”

Gemma shook her head. “There aren’t any straps.”

“Then hang on,” Rhea said. “I don’t know where he’s going.”

“Just getting closer,” Ruben said. “Keep your panties on. Or not, doesn’t bother me either way.”

The caravan rocked and lurched, but mostly stayed level thanks to the six independent wheels. Rhea mirrored the pilot’s console on her screen so that she could watch what Ruben was doing.

On screen, more details overlaid the satellite projections of the surface, as data from the caravan’s own sensors and cameras filled in the gap. Tiny craters, rocks, and cracks in the surface were all highlighted if they presented any sort of hazard, coded by intensity. More layers showed subsurface defects identified by orbital mapping.

Rhea spun the display and rotated it to a cut-away side view. Here it was clear that the ground was sloping downward at a gentle grade, except that every so often a section dropped downward, leaving a sheer edge. The first ones were only a few centimeters, but zooming closer to the chasm saw drops that were up to several meters and highlighted in intense red. Even the cliff edge that they’d seen out the window was nothing more than another drop, some five meters down. Past that was the real cliff, tumbling down into the rough chasm beyond, over 4,000 meters deep.

A yellow caution showed the next drop was a full meter down.

“Hang on!” Ruben shouted.

Rhea braced herself. The whole front of the cockpit dropped down at an angle. The wheels crashed down with a deafening noise. She half expected the caravan to stop, the front wheels broken, but it continued rolling forward undaunted. Two more large jolts, drawing a scream from one of the women in the back, and the caravan was down on the next level.

“That’s enough!” Rhea said. She unfastened her straps and stood, grabbing Ruben’s workall at the shoulder. “Stop!”

Ruben grinned and the caravan shuddered to a stop, kicking up dust which blew past the windows.

“There! We’re closer now, look at that view!”

She didn’t let go until he shut down the drive commands and stood. She let go then and moved back so that he could pass.

“I’m going to suit up,” he announced. “I feel like a walk. It’s getting stuffy in here.”

Rhea opened her mouth to protest, but Mark leaned over and touched her wrist, shaking his head. She closed her mouth. Ruben hung on the sides of the cockpit.

“Who’s with me? Jessi?”

“Sure, why the hell not?” Jessi slid out of the booth and slit open her workall.

It pooled down around her feet, revealing that she had nothing on underneath, except a tiny pair of black standard issue underwear, hugging broad hips. Not fat, curvy and sexy, in an unselfconscious way. Her breasts were large, and would have been pendulous on Earth, but here benefited from the lower gravity. Jessi grinned at them all, her hands on her hips.

“What? Not exactly a lot of places to suit up, is there?”

Ruben whistled. “That’s right!”

Jessi snapped her fingers. “Get me my suit, Ruben, or I’ll change my mind.”

Ruben went into the racks across from the airlock and came back with a suit marked in bright violet stripes. It didn’t quite match Jessi’s hair, but it was close.

She took it from him, the bulky suit looking like a boneless dance partner.

“I’ll help you,” Gemma said.

Their excitement was infectious. Rhea’s lips pulled back, smiling over their antics and Jessi’s brazen attitude. Maybe that’s what they needed?

“I’ll go too,” Rhea announced. She pulled open her workall, exposing her breasts to the cooler air. Shocking, not because it was so cold, but that she had dared to do something like that.

Her breasts didn’t have the size of Jessi’s, but they were high and firm, peaches and cream, Tommy Smith, had been fond of saying. Her small dark nipples strained in the open air as she pushed the workall down past her hips. Again, she lacked the luscious curves that Jessi had, but her hips weren’t exactly boyish either.

“In that case I’m going to,” Mark said. “I’ll get the suits.”

Barry ogled her. “Want help with that?”

“No, thanks,” Rhea said. Heat was flooding her cheeks.

“Excellent!” Jessi said, stepping into the back of her suit with Gemma’s help.

There were different sorts of suits in use around the solar system, Rhea knew from training. Each model specific to conditions where it would be used.

These suits were universal, self-adjusting pressure suits with a rear entry. Jessi went first, stepping into the back of the suit while Gemma held the top portion beneath the arms. Having another person there made it a lot easier. Then she ducked down, hands going together over her head as if diving into the suit. For an instant her arms, head and shoulders were in the suit, while her butt was still sticking out. It’d have been funnier if Rhea wasn’t going to have to do the same thing in a minute.

She was trying very hard not to think about the effect the cold air was having on her nipples. She pushed the workall the rest of the way off and picked it up, essentially naked, except for her panties.

Easy to think that they were all professionals and the nudity didn’t matter, but Barry was still staring while Mark was getting her suit. Ruben was stripping down himself. His body was as lean as his face, no fat visible. Not bulky, like Barry, or hairy. His chest was essentially bare, except for a few wispy hairs around his tiny nipples.

No who was staring?

Jessi grunted and straightened up, the arms of the suit filling as she shoved her hands in. Her purple hair appeared in the helmet, and she stood completely up. The magnetic catches on the back automatically fastened, sealing her in the suit. It came to life, rippling and moving to adjust itself to her body, tightening around her.

“Here you go,” Mark said, peering past the helmet of her suit. “I’ll hold it for you.”

The color markings on the suit were a bright red. A good color, her favorite in fact. He hadn’t seen her in red, so it was interesting that he’d picked that one. Did it mean anything?

“Thanks,” she said.

“If you need an extra hand, you know, getting anything in, let me know,” Barry said.

“You’re asking for trouble,” Gemma said, glaring at him as she moved away from Jessi.

Barry gave her a sloppy grin and tried to kiss her. She pushed him away.

There was a suit in front of Rhea, the back open. She had to focus, if she wanted to get out there. She reached up and pulled the cam earrings from her ears, not wanting them to catch on the inside of the suit. The cam choker beads would be fine, there was plenty of room for them. The ones in front might actually catch some footage. She also took off her glasses. Mostly she was going to have to rely on the built in camera systems in the suit.

“Just a sec.” Rhea stepped back into the cockpit, opened one of the small compartments in the back bulkhead and put the cam earrings and glasses inside. She came back.

“Okay. Thanks. I’m ready.”

The material of the suit inside was oily, except it didn’t leave anything on the skin. It was designed to avoid any spots that might create sores, rubbing on the skin. It was a wet, sexy feeling, sliding her legs deep down inside the suit. Maybe she was weird, thinking of it that way, but that’s what it felt like. The miracles of material science. One of the offshoots of the material was to use it in sex toys, and maybe that bit of trivia was part of what she felt as she slid into the suit.

With her legs in, she took a deep breath and copied Jessi, diving forward into the slit like a baby returning to the womb. She shoved her hands up along the slick insides, reaching up to find the arms that Mark held, the edges of the suit swallowing her head, twisting to get her shoulders in. Almost as if the back of the suit was a mouth, sucking her down.

The smell of the suit was faint, a plastic, medicinal sort of smell from whatever had been used to clean it. She twisted her head around in the dark, finding the light above coming through the suit’s visor and she stood, spreading her arms wide as they slid the rest of the way down. Her fingers found the fingers of the gloves. The back of the suit slipped over her bottom and the magnetic seals snapped shut as her head made it up into the helmet.

Around her the suit came to life, the material moving and constricting on her limbs, and that part was almost erotic, like an instant massage all over her body as the suit adapted to her build. When it finished the fit was perfect, a second, bulky skin to protect her.

The heads up displays were live around the edges of the helmet. The semi-transparent icons wiggled as her gaze passed over them, eager to respond to her gaze. She focused on the system status and a window unfurled in front of her eyes showing a schematic of the suit.

All systems were highlighted in green. The lack of a Freaking Heavy Environmental Unit, F.H.E.U., noted in amber, but the hip bottles of air would last an hour each with the built-in rebreather.

Another glance opened the communications systems. The suits were automatically connected, but she blinked through the selections and activated the recording features so that the suit would log everything that happened.

“Online and good to go,” she said. Her voice carried out of the suit, thanks to external speakers. Those would be less effective on Mars, given the thin atmosphere, but still useful if other connections were down.

Jessi waved a thick-gloved hand, banded in purple at the wrists and fingertips. “Just waiting on the guys! How’s that for a change?”

Another icon flashed up as Ruben’s suit sealed and came online.

“Hey honey,” he said. “You want to go for a walk?”

“I can’t wait!”

Rhea turned, to see how Mark was doing. He straightened up, his suit looking empty and clumsy before his head rose up into the helmet. Then his seals snapped shut and he joined the connection.

Barry put his arm around Gemma’s shoulders. He winked. “We’ll keep an eye on the place while you’re out.”

Gemma shrugged him off. “Don’t count on anything. We have to watch the feed from their cameras, and make sure they stay out of trouble. Or have you never read the protocols for something like this?”

“Whatever,” Ruben said. “Can we get out of here?”

“Yes,” Rhea said. It wasn’t her idea initially to do this now, but suited up, she couldn’t wait to get out. And it was her expedition. “Mark and I will go through first, then you and Jessi follow.”

“Why you?” Ruben said.

Rhea signaled the airlock to open. She didn’t look back. “Because we’re closest, and it’s tight quarters in here. Easier for us to go first and get out of the way.”

Mark chuckled.

It was very tight quarters in the small airlock. With the suits on, they were standing facing each other when the door closed. A message popped up on her display, Mark on a private channel.

“Hi there,” he said. “Thanks for putting up with them. It’s cabin fever. Getting out like this will make things a lot better when we get back.”

“Glad I could help,” she said. “And I think I’ve got some footage I can use. We just need that last thing to give it some punch.”

“You’ll get it.”

The lights on the outer door turned amber. This was it. Time to step outside.

When the door opened the view nearly took her breath away. The cliff edge looked so close! And the canyon beyond it, was like nothing she had seen from previous robotic missions. No one wanted to drive a rover into difficult terrain where it might get stuck, but that also meant that the footage sent back tended to be the same flat, uninteresting landscape. Like pictures of wheat fields. No matter how pretty, eventually it was dull. The eye wanted more interest.

Rhea moved out of the airlock first, jumping the short distance out to the ground. She picked her jump carefully and avoided the big boulder on her right sticking out of a dune. She landed lightly and took a few bouncing steps.

More gravity than the Moon, but so much less than Earth or Aphrodite on Venus.

She turned to watch Mark. The eye said he was too high, at least a meter off the ground, but he jumped out and landed easily.

“We’re out,” she said on the general connection. “Come on out.”

“Roger,” Ruben said. “We’re on our way.”

Mark came up beside her and he reached out, brushing their gloves together. It was sweet. He whistled.

“Look at that view!”

She didn’t need any encouragement, and had to admit to herself that Ruben was right. Seeing this now, as the sun was setting behind them, made it more fantastic. The rough ground ahead dropped away into darkness, while the sunlight still lit up the distant cliffs on the opposite side of the chasm.

“Let’s go closer,” she said.

“Watch your step,” Mark said. “We don’t want to fall down there!”

The thought twisted a knot in her gut. “No! We don’t.”

She went forward in slow, bouncing steps. Not too far. Just ahead the ground broke away along a sharp edge that extended off to the right for a long ways, and to the left a shorter distance. The ground on the other side was much lower.

This was the first time she had stood upon Mars. Really on Mars, out in the open rather than from within a vehicle, isolated from the world.

Beautiful. The world was on the tip of her tongue, held there by its own inadequacy. What would people on Earth see? Images of the Grand Canyon?

Ancient lands so far untouched by any human activity. Layers of rock recording the history of a planet, cut through by this broken rift, a tear right down through time. This was a window into the past.

There, right at the top of the rim, where the sun turned the reddish sand and rock a brighter red, that was now. Mark moved just ahead of her, taking careful slow steps to the edge of the next drop down. The sunlight lit up the back of his suit, but his face was visible through the visor. He was looking at the canyon with the wonder of a small child. His mouth hung open, eyes reflecting the lights of his displays.

Kneeling, down on one knee, Rhea ran her gloved hand through the sand at her feet. It was fine and trailed through her fingers, blowing only a little as it fell back to the ground.

“Are you okay?” Mark asked. A faint echo of his voice came from outside the helmet, the sound actually carrying through the air.

“Fine,” she said. “Just fine.”

Except for Earth she’d never really been on a planet, not like this. Venus was, beautiful, and terrifying. Living on a floating city in the clouds sounded romantic, but she had lived in fear that the city would one day plunge down into the searing depths below.

It’d taken Carys Rex to show what the possibilities were on Venus. Rhea had gotten credit for bringing her to Aphrodite, when the truth of it was Carys was her way out.

And this was her reward.

A real world of rock and stone that she could touch. The suit clung to her as a second, stiffer skin, hardened against the brutal cold and thin, poisonous atmosphere outside. It was enough to show what was possible, that people could live here. It was a landscape and landscapes compelled people. Vistas like this thrilled people, and encouraged them to go places.

This was what she needed to show of Mars. If she could travel around the planet, and visit places like this, she’d have more than enough people clamoring for a chance to come to the red planet. She just had to uncover the possibilities for them.

“What are you standing around for?” Ruben said, bouncing up between them. “Don’t you want to see what’s down there?”

Mark began. “We were —”

Ruben yelled and jumped forward.

“Ruben!” Jessi appeared at Rhea’s elbow, grabbing her shoulder.

Wind-milling his arms, Ruben sailed through the air over the drop off. Rhea pushed off the ground, bouncing up back into a standing position. She eased forward a step, wary of the drop.

Ruben dropped down and landed, knees bending, falling forward. He caught himself and bounced back up onto his feet laughing.

He turned, beckoning. “Come on! We’ve got to see this before it gets too dark!”

Jessi laughed. “You’re crazy!”

“You love it!” Ruben answered. He turned away and started loping across the sand.

It was bold. Beautiful footage. Rhea took another two steps forward, right to the edge of the drop off. It wasn’t too far, a bit over a meter maybe, but there was the lower gravity to consider. And she’d just seen Ruben simply jump over.

Why not?

She took the leap coming to Mars. Why not this one too?

She jumped. It was easy. She wasn’t even falling that fast, it seemed, when she landed. Jessi squealed as she jumped down. Mark managed the jump easily and moved ahead.

Ruben raced on ahead of all of them, and hopefully had sense not to go too fast to the edge. Or get too close. No telling how stable this was, the whole thing was gradually breaking away, tumbling down into the chasm. The small map on her heads up tracked each of their positions against the terrain. He was getting closer.

The third drop was much higher, at least two meters high. Ruben still didn’t hesitate. He went over it with hardly a pause.

Mark stopped at the edge. “You’re crazy! How’re you going to get back up?”

“Gravity, man,” came Ruben’s reply. “We can jump it, or walk down to a break to climb up. Come on!”

Rhea and Jessi caught up, beside Mark. Down below, Ruben moved through the shadows closer to the canyon edge. What had seemed light and inspiring, was taking on a darker tone. What was he doing going so close?

She didn’t want to record someone falling to their deaths, or getting injured.

Ruben stopped at the edge of the next drop off. His lights came on, stabbing down into the shadows. “It’s not that bad. I think we can do it.”

“Don’t,” Rhea said. “Come back Ruben. We’ve seen the canyon.”

“If you go over that edge, I’m not sleeping with you tonight,” Jessi said.

Down below, Ruben’s space-suited figure turned around. Bright lights flashed from his helmet across them. “Really? It’s just one more drop, and then we can go right to the edge!”

“Ruben, come back up. If you want to do this, let’s do it right, tomorrow. It’ll be light. We can see better. And we can have safety lines so you don’t go spilling over the cliff!”

Mark moved closer and his icon switched to a private channel. “He’s been frustrated, not getting to move forward on terraforming plans.”

“Maybe I can help with that,” Rhea said back, on the same channel. She blinked over to the public channel. “Ruben, come back up, and like Jessi said, we’ll explore more tomorrow. And this is just the beginning, you know, I’m going to be filming sights like this all over the planet.”

“Yeah? They’re going to let you do that?”

“Yes.”

She believed it. She could already see the first video. The group going on the outing, the view of the canyon. Whatever else they did tomorrow, and suggestions of the future.

“Okay,” Ruben said. “I’ve thought of a name for your expeditions.”

“Yes?” Rhea asked.

“Sexpeditions! Keep the caravan rocking!” He laughed and bounded back over to the break.

“Careful,” Jessi said. “You get yourself killed and there won’t be any sex!”

Ruben chuckled and crouched. “Watch this!”

He jumped. Rhea’s breath caught in her throat. It looked impossible, but he rose up high enough to reach out and catch the top of the drop. Mark was there, kneeling and grabbing onto Ruben’s arm. With Mark’s help, Ruben climbed up. Red dust drifted off his suit, expelled by the faint charge in the outer layer.

“See, no problem?” He bounced over to Jessi. “Let’s get back inside.”

Rhea lingered at the edge of the drop. It was going to work out. She had lots of material to work with. She’d get more tomorrow.

Whatever else they uncovered about Mars, whatever had lived and died here before, whether or not any Martian organisms still lived? There was life on Mars. Now. Right now.

That’s what she would show the people of the exodus, Terra Blackstone, the rest of the Diaspora and those left behind on Earth.

Mark was right. Life had come back to Mars and would change it, no matter what anyone wanted. She’d start now, showing Mars as it existed in this moment, but that was only the beginning. She could spend a lifetime documenting the changes, and the people that lived on Mars.

13,527 words

Author’s Note

This story marks the fourth weekly short story release, and the fourth Planetary Bodies story. I made a choice in writing these stories to start with the inner-most world and work my way out. In some ways this story seemed harder than some others because we’ve had so many successful missions now on Mars that it seems a much more familiar world.

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

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the series links at the top of the page. Check back next week for another Planetary Bodies story, Embracing Ceres is next and appropriate given that the Dawn mission is currently in orbit around Ceres giving us our first close look at the dwarf planet.

Terra on Luna

Terra Blackstone, leader of the Diaspora Group, returns to Luna only to discover a threat that could undo everything that she has worked to create!

The control of the twelve Diaspora colonies across the solar system hangs in the balance.

1

Terra Blackstone, once named the world’s most desirable woman, caught another floating blob of what had been her dinner in the plastic bag. Chicken soup, with vegetables. Her stomach turned. She didn’t feel like the world’s most desirable woman. Her head was stuffy, her face was bloated, and her hair made a frizzy halo around her head.

The plain black, and very shapeless, workall she wore didn’t do much to paint a pretty picture either.

In fact the only thing about her that looked good, were her toenails. She’d painted them in the hour before the capsule spin was shut down. Bright green, with golden flecks. One advantage with space travel. No real need for shoes in the transport and bare feet let her show off her nails. That, and in zero-gee she had gotten adept at grabbing onto grips with her toes.

Thankfully, being the sole human occupant in the capsule, there was no one to pop up and take a picture. She could see the headline on the tabloid sites.

World’s Most Powerful Woman Chases Vomit!

Another little oscillating blob drifted past. Carefully, Terra swept it up into the bag.

It was so annoying! She’d never gotten space sick before, but every time was different. The abrupt change over from the simulated gravity to null-gee had been too much. She shouldn’t have eaten so soon.

Not that it mattered now. She barely had time to clean up before Luna Orbitals caught her capsule to take it down to the surface. The solar sail that had carried her capsule out to Earth’s orbit was following a trajectory that would take it back past Venus and Mercury. In two days a resupply capsule from Luna would match trajectory and get a free ride into the inner system.

Now that the Tolkien Outpost on Mercury was up and running, the solar sail network would grow as more and more sails were sent out in transfer orbits around the solar system.

 

Speakers came to life in the command section, with a male voice. “Orbital Command to Diana, come in. Do you read, Diana?”

Terra bagged the last large blob of soup, sealed the bag and kicked herself forward. The scrubbers would have to take care of the rest of the droplets. Fortunately, with the zero-gee effects, she didn’t have a good sense of smell right now.

As she floated past the trash storage bin behind command, she stuffed the baggy inside.

“Orbital Command to Diana, come in please.”

She pulled herself into the seat, slipping her bare toes under the elastic restraint on the ‘floor.’ She pulled an earpiece from its magnetic dock and slipped it on.

She touched the command interface, tapping in her code, then activate communications.

“Diana here, Orbital. Sorry about the delay. I was doing some housekeeping before landing.”

“Understood. Be advised that our docking has been delayed. There’s a fault with the auto-guidance routines. We have a programmed burn that will adjust your orbit to a more stable inclination while we correct the issue.”

Were they serious? Auto-guidance down? “Negative, Orbital. If auto-guidance is down, I’ll bring her in on manual. I don’t have time to spend up here orbiting.”

Her hands were already moving, calling up the command interfaces, overriding the auto-pilot lockouts. She might be the one in charge of the Diaspora Group, that didn’t mean that she didn’t know how to handle herself with a stick.

“Diana, negative on manual approach. Wait for auto-guidance.”

“Who is that?” Terra asked. “I am bringing her in. I suggest you prepare for docking.”

“Negative Diana. Negative on manual approach. Sensors are also down, we can’t ensure a positive lock.”

Now that was just wrong. Either the guy was not trained or someone wanted to stop her from docking. She didn’t accept either. The systems were set up to allow manual docking even in the event of power failures. In an emergency, docking might save lives, it had to work. Unless they’d been hit by a micrometeorite that caused significant physical damage, there wasn’t any need not to dock.

“Understood, Orbital,” Terra said calmly. “Adjusting heading now.”

It wouldn’t take long before they saw that the heading she was on was straight to docking. The on-screen projection showed the capsule moving on target right in the orbital window. Simple reaction thrusters and inertia was bringing her right down the pipe.

She was right, it didn’t take long. “Orbital here, your vectors show you on docking approach, Diana. Uploading corrected programming now.”

She diverted the incoming data stream into a buffer safe from any control functions, then pulled it up in a secondary window and put a simulation with the commands in a third. The results were not promising. If she had allowed the signal in to her command pathways it would have initiated a long burn taking her out of lunar orbit, on a spiraling path to burning up in Earth’s atmosphere.

Whoever was in control of the orbital was trying to kill her. It didn’t make a bit of difference. There wasn’t any place else for her to go. Not right now. Given enough time she might figure out a better option, but right now she wanted to get down to Diaspora and the orbital was the only way at the moment.

Flaw there, one she’d correct if she got out of this alive.

“Programming received, Orbital, thank you for your assistance,” she said.

On screen, the parameters all stayed green. She was still on track for the docking. She entered the final sequence of commands and locked them in place. Within seconds the Orbital would see that she wasn’t going to be diverted. And there wasn’t a thing they could do about it.

At least, she hoped that was the case.

No one came back on. So they knew then, and they’d be waiting for her to dock. They could lock down the dock from the inside if they wanted. No one would ever do that ordinarily, but there wasn’t anything about this that was ordinary.

The countdown to contact on the screen showed less than an hour before she reached the Orbital. It still wasn’t above the horizon. She couldn’t see it with her own eyes. For the first time since she reached the seat she allowed herself to look out.

The Moon rolled past beneath her, above her, all depending on perspective. Gray and undulating, covered in craters blasted into the surface by impacts. How long had Humanity looked at that battered and scarred face without realizing the threat represented? Even after humanity learned of the dangers, of mass extinctions, little had been done. Budgets to locate and detect impact threats were perpetually underfunded.

Not only that, as their understanding grew regarding the fragility of the ecosystem, how many took action? Most denied the truth in front of them and stuck their heads in the sand, or worse.

Terra had never been one to back down from any challenge. What had she said, over and over, until people had to be tired of her saying it? Too often fear was an excuse not to do things. Not with her.

Fact. Someone had taken control of her Orbital. The station was a way station in orbit around the Moon, serving as a docking and refueling point in orbit. A transfer port, a safe harbor providing access to the Moon, and Diaspora Base below.

Fact. The program the Orbital had sent was meant to kill her. It had failed, but that didn’t mean those on board would give up.

Fact. There’d been no communication with Diaspora on the surface, or from Earth.

Terra’s fingers danced across the control systems and quickly confirmed what she had already realized on some level. They were blocking her communications. Even those that knew she was coming, there wasn’t anything they could do to help.

Fact. She had enemies back on Earth. Entire countries worth of people who would celebrate if she died because they believed that her death would derail the Diaspora Group from its goals.

They might not be wrong. She wanted to believe that the civilization they were creating, humanity throughout the solar system, was independent and would continue without her leading the effort. But that might not be the case yet. Mercury had produced only a few solar sails so far. On Venus, the adventures of Carys Rex had gained them significant good will among some, and had stoked the anger of others. The other outposts of life scattered across the solar system were also fragile. Each was coming into its own now, thanks to timing the launches. Those in the outer system, as far as Makemake, had spent years in transit. Just getting there had been a triumph, but survival was still a question.

In another few years all twelve colonies would be secure enough to ward off efforts of Earth to control them. And by then, there would be additional outposts on each world. Humanity would grow and spread. She intended to let the genie out of the bottle for good.

Fact. If she didn’t act soon the transport capsule would dock with the Orbital and she would be captured or ejected out of the airlock. A story would get played about the dangers of space travel taking her life, and her enemies would work to seize control of her outposts, for their own profit.

Fact. She couldn’t let that happen.

Terra slipped her feet out of the floor brace and pulled herself up over the seat back.

They’d catch her if she docked and was still on board the capsule. Best option then? Don’t be on the capsule when it docked.

Suiting up usually took a minimum of thirty minutes. Terra managed it in eleven minutes, bypassing the checks, following the emergency procedures established if the capsule’s integrity was breached. It was breached, the alarms just hadn’t sounded yet.

She only had a couple more minutes before the capsule docked with the orbital. The suit was sleek and modern, white with bright green patches across the shoulders, around the wrists and ankles. It applied pressure using smart materials, eliminating the bulk of earlier suits and hugged her curves. The bulkiest part remaining was the EVU strapped to her back, and even that was trimmed down and modular. With the extra resource module she could stay out all day, but there wasn’t any point in bringing that along.

Once in the rear airlock Terra left the inner hatch open and remotely accessed the capsule’s internal systems. She brought up the fire suppression protocols. It took another minute to configure the system to compensate for what she was about to do, so that it didn’t throw off the docking procedure.

A minute before contact she braced herself against the wall between two grips and triggered the protocol.

The outer airlock door opened into space. The atmosphere in the capsule blew out past her, tugging on her, but she was prepared. In a critical fire, the quick decompression would snuff out the fire in seconds. The venting might also have thrown off her docking, except for the corrections she had made.

On the Orbital they would see the forward thrusters firing. They might not see the venting. Or what was coming next.

As soon as the venting stopped Terra propelled herself out the door, using grips to pull herself out into the shadow side of the capsule. Her lights were all off. The reflected light from the Moon below gave her enough light to see by. She’d use the EVU when necessary, but right now she wanted to stick close to the capsule, staying to the shadows, and hopefully go unnoticed.

Grips ran the length of the capsule like rungs on a ladder, there to help with repairs to the exterior. Terra pulled herself quickly along them, using only her arms, touching every third or fourth grip. The suit was stiff, making her movements slower than she would have liked. Her breath sounded loud in the helmet.

She was two-thirds along the length of the capsule when it docked. The jolt traveled through the ship, through her gloves, but of course the only sound she heard was her own breathing.

When she reached for the next rung, it jerked out of reach for a second. Glancing up ahead, exhaust caught the light as the Orbital’s thrusters fired.

They had opened the hatch without checking if the capsule was pressurized, evacuating that section of the Orbital. Whoever had been waiting for her was probably sucking vacuum now. Hopefully that only included those out to get her, and no one loyal. Automatic systems would have sealed the compartment.

The rest of the Orbital should still be secure.

A few seconds later she drifted past the junction where the capsule docked with the Orbital. As she reached the Orbital’s exterior rungs, there was a window into the interior. It was there to allow visual inspection of docking ships.

No way to avoid it. Terra looked inside. Red lights were flashing inside.

She saw a man first. Muscled, wearing only black regulation shorts and t-shirt, bald scalp and wide, bulging eyes. He shook as he floated in mid-compartment, mouth gaping like a grounded fish.

Holland Bird. He’d been with Diaspora ten years, running the Orbital for the past three. Had he betrayed her?

His eyes dimmed. His body went slack. Bubbles of urine slipped free of his shorts and floated in the compartment.

For his sake, she hoped that he had betrayed her. At least then it was self-defense. Unless he had been forced to do it, she didn’t see how someone could have sent the program to misdirect the capsule without his knowledge. But it hadn’t been his voice on the radio.

Another body drifted into view, the man was already dead. He wore a brown workall, too small for his lean body, the sleeves and pant legs were short. His back was to the window. Black hair, silvered on the sides.

There wasn’t time to waste. Terra grabbed the next rung and propelled herself on past the window. She had to assume that not all of those that wanted her dead had been caught in the compartment. If they didn’t know she was outside, they would figure it out soon.

The Orbital was big. She was on the central hub right now, pulling herself along the spine of the craft. Up ahead was the rotating crew quarters sections, like a dumbbell rotating around the central axis. A long, skinny dumbbell. Two now, with two skeletal frameworks for the next two to make a cross. When that was done the habitat modules would be connected, creating a spinning wheel around the central axis.

Those weren’t the only sections sticking out at angles, however. There were two others on each side of the rotating section, essentially more work spaces running perpendicular to the spine, with airlocks on each end. And in-between those were the large solar arrays unfurled into space.

The Orbital was big. It had been the test platform for the spacecraft sent into the outer system to colonize those distant worlds. Those ships had been even bigger, given the necessity of taking their supplies with them.

Terra’s course took her along the spine, and then she turned and pulled herself along the first perpendicular work space, called Northwest, if she was inside, as this was the North end of the Orbital and the two branches were Northwest and Southwest. Right now Northwest was in shadow.

Unless someone saw her, they wouldn’t know what she was doing. There were airlocks at each end, plus the three on the Southern end of the Orbital. Northwest was the closest, which meant those inside could get to it quickly, but they would always be able to move faster than her floating along the outside. Her best bet was to get there before they figured it out.

They couldn’t all be against her. She didn’t believe that. It could be that the incident at the North end airlock would have shaken things up enough inside that loyalists might have regained control of the Orbital. She just couldn’t count on it and couldn’t wait around.

The one window she passed along the Northwest passage was dark. Luck appeared to be in her favor. The lights only stayed on when someone was in the compartment.

Terra reached the end airlock assembly and pulled herself around to the entrance. There was a manual release override, quicker and easier than the control panel. Again, designed for emergencies, to let someone outside get in quickly. Terra braced her feet in the rungs and pulled the lever.

The door and docking assembly swung inward. That was good. She moved fast. Someone could prevent her gaining entry by barring the inner door.

It’s hard to move fast in zero gee when you have to change directions. Inertia is a bitch. She swung around the lip and launched herself into the opening. Inside she caught the open hatch to stop her progress and her body swung around. Her legs struck the hatch frame and sharp pain shot up her shins.

Shit! That was going to leave a bruise.

But she was inside. That was better than clinging to the outside of the Orbital like a bug in danger of being washed away by a storm.

Terra kicked over the other side of the hatch and braced herself against the side to get the hatch moving closed. It swung shut on its own, and she dogged over the latch to secure it.

She slapped the big button to pressurize the airlock. Nothing complicated there. Soon she heard a hissing outside and the hum of the equipment. Faint shouts that grew louder.

Terra went to the inner airlock door and pulled up the command interface. Again she accessed the fire suppression systems. It took an extra override to keep the outer door closed. The shouts were louder. People were coming.

There! She stabbed triumphantly at the panel. The inner door swung open, nearly catching her in the process. There was a brief rush of wind as the higher pressure atmosphere in the station surged into the partially pressurized lock. Equipment groaned.

“OW!”

Terra pulled herself through the hatch into the main Northwest passage. Down the long tube, in the next section, were two people.

Ahn Nguyen, thin, delicate Asian face with eyes wide with shock, and fingers on her ears. Beside her, Geoff Ryder, his body unnaturally shortened since he was missing his legs below his knees. A motorcycle accident when he was a teenager, but his engineering ability had eventually won him a place on the Orbital. He had two prosthetic gripping feet attached to each stump. His chicken feet, he called them, controlled by neural impulses.

She knew them. Both of them. Ahn was the medical officer on the Orbital, responsible for the health of the crews that rotated on and off.

Geoff pulled himself forward with powerful arms. “Who are you? Stay right there!”

The helmet’s auto visor had mirrored the outside, they couldn’t see her face. She reached up and hit the catches, then twisted the helmet free.

“It’s me,” she said. “What the hell is going on here?”

“Terra!” Ahn yelled. Her voice caught and her hand flew to her mouth. “Ms. Blackstone, I mean. We thought you were dead!”

“Terra is fine.”

Geoff pressed a hand to his chest. “You about gave me a heart attack!”

“I need to know what’s happened. Who tried to kill me?”

Geoff’s face sobered. “Holland Bird and that government fellow, Peter McNare. They took over operations, but they aren’t working alone. Diaspora Base has been seized.”

Terra released the helmet to float beside her while she worked on the straps to release the EVU. “We’ve got a lot of catching up to do, I see.”

On the way back to the Hub, which was were main operations were located, they filled her in on what had happened. The United States government had launched one of their new Galleon-class ships, the Lincoln, to the Moon. The Galleon program was an effort by the last two administrations to reclaim space for the American people, if that could be believed!

In any case, the Lincoln had transferred over Peter McNare and a team of people, including armed security, to seize the Orbital under eminent domain. Not only the Orbital, but according to Geoff and Ahn, they were seizing the Diaspora Base on the Moon.

“They can’t do that,” Terra said as they coasted to a stop in the hub. There were others in the hub, more of the standing crew, floating at stations around the Hub.

“Holland didn’t think we should resist,” Geoff said as he snagged a grip on the wall with one of his robotic chicken feet. “He said that it was a matter for lawyers to work out.”

“That’d make me feel better if he hadn’t tried to kill me.” Terra looked at the faces, all looking at her.

The Hub was the largest open area on the Orbital, a sphere around which the habitat booms rotated. The opening into each shaft was always open, in a ring that moved around the sphere, so that area was clear. If you wanted to go downstairs, into either East or West, you caught a grip on the ring, and brought yourself up to speed, then crawled into the shaft. The grips eventually became a ladder as you descended into the habitat modules.

Around the ring were workstations for communications, environmental systems, power, navigation and command. Each station, and associated sub-stations were spaced around the hub so that the faces looking at her were from all angles, some upside down to her perspective.

“I’m glad to see the rest of you are safe,” Terra said. “I’m sure you already know that Holland Bird and the government man, Peter McNare, were killed when they opened an airlock into an unpressurized transport capsule docked at the North end.”

Silence from all those gathered.

“I am indirectly responsible for their deaths,” Terra said. “A navigation program was sent from here to the transport capsule that, if I had allowed it into my systems, would have caused the transport capsule to enter a decaying orbit around Earth and burn up. I wouldn’t have had fuel left to correct the orbit. I was acting in self-defense when I exited the capsule, leaving it depressurized to prevent anyone from stopping me from entering the Orbital. If they had checked the pressurization readings at the airlock before opening the hatch, they would have seen that it was depressurized and wouldn’t have come to any harm.”

“That’s not like Holland,” Geoff said. “He’s normally so careful.”

Terra nodded. She’d been thinking the same thing. “You’re right, Geoff. Holland may have neglected that standard safety procedure intentionally. I will review the recordings. If that’s the case, he may have done so in an effort to save my life, and our dream.”

People were nodding. The faces were serious, and focused. Maybe some were scared.

“The United States government has acted illegally. The Diaspora Group is an international effort, thanks to your hard work. No single government has the authority to come in and claim our property, or tell us what we can do in space. We are independent. Apparently earlier than I expected. If, as I suspect, Holland Bird died to defend our freedoms, then we will remember him as a true hero, who died securing the future of humanity.”

Many more nods of agreement. “Right now, we’ve got a job to do. I need information. I need to know what’s happened down at Diaspora Base. What happened to the Lincoln, where is she?”

Melissa Schmidt, at the communications station, young, petite with an elfin face, raised her hand.

“Melissa?” Terra asked. “Please, what can you give me?”

“The same thing is happening back on Earth. The United States government has moved to seize Diaspora facilities across the globe. At the moment those are mostly at a stand-off. We haven’t had any communication with Diaspora Base, not since the Lincoln dispatched all three landers to the site.”

“All?” Terra’s heart sank. They only had three landers on the Orbital, and three down at the base. When one came down, one went up in rotation.

That left her with no way off the Orbital.

“Is there any way to get me down to the surface?”

Blank faces looked back at her, and each other. Not Geoff. He closed his eyes and rubbed at his jaw. She’d seen him do that before when he was thinking.

Melissa’s hand came up again.

“Yes? You have an idea Melissa?”

Melissa started to shake her head and stopped. Zero-gee training, don’t make unnecessary movements, even when your feet were braced. “No. Not about that, I mean, how could you? Get to the surface? No, I was thinking about the orders that McNare gave us. As long as we followed orders, he said we wouldn’t face criminal charges, and neither would our families back home.”

A cold chill settled into Terra, but none of it reached her face. “Yes?”

“Well, I mean shouldn’t we think about it? I don’t think they were right to try to kill you, if that’s what happened, but they’re dead and you’re not. Maybe we need someone else to be in charge right now and investigate.”

It took guts. One had to admire that, even if it was misguided. Terra looked around the room, noting some expressions that might appear sympathetic.

“This is scary, isn’t it?”

Small nods, no unnecessary movement, but agreement.

“You’re caught in the middle of big events. You’re vulnerable because we’re close to Earth. Our families are vulnerable as well. I can’t promise you that it’s going to be easy, but we are talking about fundamental rights and freedoms. We have every right to settle these worlds, to expand humanity across the entire solar system. And I will do everything in my power to make sure that happens. Right now I need to know that I can count on all of you. If that’s not the case, tell me now, and you’ll be confined to quarters until we straighten this out and can return you to Earth. If that’s what you want, I’ll happily tell the authorities of your stance.”

Terra didn’t try to keep the ice from her voice. She wanted to shake them, make them decide. Melissa looked pale. So did a couple others.

“I’m staying,” Ahn said quickly.

Murmurs of agreement.

“I’ll stay,” Melissa said. “I’m sorry, Ms. Blackstone. I didn’t mean —”

“Let’s focus on the task right now,” Terra said. “But thank you. Thank you all. I won’t forget this. Geoff? What about it? How do I get down?”

Geoff opened his eyes and gave her a toothy smile. “It’ll be a bumpy ride?”

“That’s okay. As long as I can get down there, then I can do something about what’s happening. Diaspora Base is the heart of what we’re doing. I put it here so that there wouldn’t be jurisdictional issues. I can’t let it stay in their control.”

Geoff told her the plan.

Two hours later, Terra wasn’t so sure about the idea as she climbed back into the transport capsule that had brought her to the Orbital. It’d taken that long to get it refueled, repressurized, and store the bodies.

She paused in the hatch. Geoff was there, along with several others. “You’re sure this is going to work?”

Geoff laughed. “Sure? How can I? We’ve never tried to land one of these things. It should have enough thrust to slow your descent to a survivable level. The tool kit I’ve stowed is there in case you need to cut your way out. Best I can do on short notice.”

“We need to rethink this in future designs,” Terra said. “Okay. I’m off.”

“Good luck!” Geoff said.

Terra pushed herself back into the capsule. Geoff shut the hatch. She was still suited up, but now she pulled up her helmet and sealed it. The EVU was stored on the Orbital. All unnecessary gear had already been stripped from the capsule. Everything they could do to decrease the mass.

Between the decompression and the stripping of the capsule, at least she didn’t have to worry about any vomit drops flying around the capsule.

The transport looked bare stripped down to the essentials. She’d spent months living in here, and this was like coming back home only to find everything was gone.

Not that it mattered. Transport capsules like this were designed to be interchangeable. This was one of the small ones, designed for no more than three people and limited durations like travel between the inner planets, or between Jovian moons.

Terra kicked off and floated down the empty length to the control deck. She caught the chair and let her momentum carry her legs around into the space. She pulled herself down into the seat and clamped her boots in place, then fastened the straps.

Time to go.

She pulled up the navigation console and accessed the flight plan, reviewing it carefully. She wanted to believe that Geoff and the rest on the Orbital were loyal, but if someone wanted to take another shot at getting rid of her, this insane plan was a good bet. They could say she died doing something dangerous. End of the matter.

The plan matched the simulations she had already reviewed. A short burn to get away from the Orbital, another to put her into a decaying orbit that would bring her down near Diaspora Base. The final sequence was the key. According to the simulations it would bring her to a stop relative the surface.

The capsule didn’t have any landing gear. At that point it would fall. If they were on target the drop shouldn’t cause any significant damage. If off target? The drop could rupture the capsule.

Assuming she made it down intact, she still had to get out, get to Diaspora Base, and get back in control of the facility. Simple. If only life was ever simple. The information gaps were so big that it could jeopardize everything that she was doing.

Terra accepted the navigation plans and set them in motion. A count down started. Fifteen minutes. They’d timed this all out to the last second. A few minutes later and she’d overshoot her target. Early and she would come down too far from Diaspora Base to reach it on foot, if she survived the landing at all.

While she waited she pulled up the system and started making notes, documenting everything that had happened leading up to this point. There hadn’t been time to work on it while getting the capsule ready. That had been all hands on deck.

Now that she had to wait it was a good time to write a statement laying it all out. She focused on her actions and her thought process. If the wrong hands got on the record, they’d twist it to back their case, but at least she had made the attempt.

Had Holland Bird betrayed her? The crew of the Orbital accepted her explanation of his actions at the end. He may have known what was going to happen. Everything up until then, however, demonstrated that Holland Bird hadn’t been willing to fight the McNare and the others from the Lincoln to preserve the station or to prevent their access to the base. He had allowed them to send away all three landers.

Cowardice, or concern for his people? Bird was from Oregon state, another member from the United States, maybe he still believed his loyalty was first to his country.

All of that was a question for later. After she’d had a chance to review all the evidence. Either way, he was dead, but it made a difference in how he was remembered. It was important to get that right.

The countdown reached the final sequence. Terra filed away her unfinished account. Three. Two. One.

The first kick was gentle and pushed her against the straps as the short burn moved the capsule away from the Orbital. Through the windows the Orbital rose above and passed over the capsule out of sight in seconds.

She was on her way.

From here the process was mostly automated. More burns triggered, accelerating her orbit, bringing her in closer. Lava plains gave way to airless mountains below, like flying high above everything on Earth, but this was a world stripped bare and shrouded in dust. No forests or rivers. No lakes or oceans.

Across Mare Imbruim she flew, her orbit descending gradually, with gentle burns. She didn’t want to come in too steep. Do that and she’d be like a bullet fired into a rock, crumbled up beyond recognition.

The capsule lacked good instrumentation for landing. Geoff’s scheme included using the docking range finder to determine distance to the surface and relative velocity. Although she could make adjustments, the program would land her if she let it. She trusted the program. To a point. If it crossed the line it held, then she would take over.

Otherwise she wanted to come in at “land” more or less on end, as if she was trying to dock with the moon.

Which was an insane plan, even it worked. It could also mean that the hatch wouldn’t open after the capsule fell down.

In which case she did have a tool kit stored, courtesy Geoff, that she could use to cut her own way out.

Without an atmosphere, there was no drag, no signs of her rapid descent as she streaked around the Moon. Her orbit would take her around the Moon, then back around to land near Diaspora Base.

The capsule rolled over and there was the Moon now easily visible above her. Beneath her. Whatever was to come, she enjoyed these moments close to these worlds. As a girl she had enjoyed nights out with her father on the hill behind the house, lying on a blanket while he set the telescope to different worlds.

Moon. Venus. Jupiter. Saturn with its rings. Worlds that she could see with her own eyes, looking through his telescope.

“Are there people on them, Daddy?” She had asked.

“No, sweet-pea. Once, long ago, when I was very little, and even a few years before, some men did visit the Moon. That’s as far as they’ve gone, and they haven’t been back in a very, very long time. I wasn’t even two when the last man left.”

She had laughed and shook her head, ringlets flying around her face. “You’re kidding!”

“No, sweet-pea. I’m not.”

“Really? Whole entire planets? And no one on them at all?” It sounded impossible. For one second she had the mad idea that he was showing her a secret. “Don’t other people know about them?”

“They know, but the other planets are very far away and they aren’t like here. You can’t just walk around outside on them, and lay on their hills at night.”

Since then she had visited each of the Apollo landing sites, at a distance so as not to disturb the foot prints, tire tracks and artifacts left behind. She had saved Taurus-Littrow for last, and she had stood on the hills overlooking that valley under the black sky.

Now, passing over the empty Moon it wasn’t as empty as it had been. Bright sparks flared from the surface, installations spaced around the Moon. Emergency shelters in case a lander came down far from the base. As her trajectory came around the far side, the long lines of the Far Side Observatory passed by her window, stretching off across the rough surface. The largest telescope in the solar system, still under construction, the F.S.O. would be capable of imagining Earth-like worlds around distant stars.

Diaspora wouldn’t stop at settling the worlds of this solar system. Humanity was spreading out across the galaxy. Sooner than people back on Earth imagined. Anyone that did the math could see that, even with sub-light travel, a species could spread out across the galaxy. The fact that apparently no other species was already doing that was one of the mysteries to solve.

After her father had shown her those worlds, they had locked in her imagination and she had learned everything she could about them. A firm, unshakable conviction had settled into her that she would visit those worlds herself.

All too soon she left the far side behind, passing over the terminator into darkness and then back into the light before her final descent to Diaspora Base. Night hadn’t fallen yet, which was in her favor. She was coming out of the Sun’s path, a fact that might shield her from anyone looking up.

Although the radar systems would pick up on the capsule. She had to assume that the people sent from the Lincoln were aware of her coming.

Diaspora Base didn’t have any weapons, but that didn’t mean that the people from the Lincoln hadn’t brought weapons with them.

Not that they needed to shoot her down. She was coming down one way or the other no matter what they did.

The surface was right there, in stark high resolution. No atmosphere meant no haze, no blurring of distant mountains and craters. Everything was stark, with sharp cast shadows.

The capsule shook as the thrusters kicked on. A long burn that vibrated the whole thing. The transport capsule was designed to operate outside of gravity wells. The thrusters were there for maneuvering. Secondary engines, temporary and reusable, were attached when it needed to reach higher acceleration and discarded when their job was completed. The solar sails Tolkien Base produced on Mercury were intended to tow capsules to other orbits, harnessing the power of the Sun.

Terra unfastened the straps. The Moon’s gravity was already making itself felt. It was weak, but there and changing fast. The microgravity environment at least gave her a sense of up and down.

She climbed out of the seat and bounced back into the capsule. When it came time to touch down the capsule would land rear-end first, and without anything to stabilize it, would fall over. It might even tumble. The control deck wasn’t going to be the safest place to be.

In the mid-compartment she pulled down one of the exercise seats. Geoff had hastily added straps, creating a make-shift jump seat. Given the structure of the capsule, this was likely the safest spot to be for the landing.

Terra sat down on the narrow bench and fastened the straps, pulling them down over her shoulders. They fastened into buckles on each side, and then a buckle across her breasts fastened the straps together. There wasn’t much give, the straps pressed against her breasts even through the tight suit. She folded her hands and waited.

The capsule shook. Engines burned, screaming as they poured on thrust for a burn that went on and on. Other thrusters were firing.

It rotated. Terra clutched the seat. Even if the Moon’s weak gravity, suddenly she was hanging in a seat above a pit that dropped away beneath her. With the stripped down capsule, nothing fell at least.

The burn went on and on. It was all automated. If the simulations were correct she’d come down right at the surface, within a meter, before the engines cut off.

Silence. Surprising in the absence of the engines burning. A gut-wrenching moment like the return of free fall and then a loud crashing noise and a jolt that shook the whole capsule.

Down. Still —

Slowly, then picking up speed, the capsule tipped to her left. The whole thing rotated and fell. Another bang and a strong jolt through the bench.

Metal creaked and groaned. No light coming through the windows. The capsule must have come down in a shadow. Light remained from the lighting strips, so the capsule had some power still.

No hissing noises. No explosions or sudden decompression. Apparently the capsule’s integrity was still intact. The floor wasn’t level, it was sloped toward her, but it didn’t seem like the capsule was rolling. That would have been something, if it had landed on a hill and had rolled!

Fortunately, things seemed still. All things considered, a remarkably successful landing!

Terra hit the release catch on the right strap. Nothing happened. Her heart picked up the pace. She pressed the release again, firmly. Nothing. She pressed and pulled on the strap. It was locked securely in place. She tried the one on the left side. Same thing. The one across her chest didn’t work. Impossible. How could all three buckles fail?

A laugh bubble up her throat and escaped. All this, only to get stuck here, trussed up and waiting for someone to collect her?

The laughter died. Geoff set up the jump seat. Was this a deliberate plan to set her up for capture? Or simply a malfunction? There hadn’t been much time to test things before launch, but surely he would have fastened and unfastened the buckles? The jolts from landing hadn’t felt powerful enough to damage the buckles. And all three? That sounded unlikely in the extreme.

She couldn’t wait for someone to show up and do whatever they were going to do. She needed to get out, now. Before they arrived.

Terra yanked on the straps. The buckles held securely. She worked the releases and none of them would engage. They didn’t even feel attached, sort of loose when she pulled on them.

A trap, then. Geoff had played along to get her off the Orbital and into the hands of the agents that the United States had sent to take over Diaspora. With his engineering background, he could control communications, whatever systems he needed. Without McNare, and possibly Holland, he had figured out a plan that would move her off to someone else.

Geoff would be dealt with later. After she had someone else look at the buckles to make sure that it was intentional, and not an unfortunate accident.

Not that she believed it was an accident. Given Geoff’s engineering background, and the buckles were spares, not something he had manufactured. He must have done something to them so that they would fasten and not come undone. And assuming that she got out of this, which at the moment was looking doubtful, she’d do the investigation just to be thorough.

Terra squirmed her right hand beneath her breast, under the strap, sucking in her breath as best she could. The suit wasn’t as bulky as old suits, but it was bulky enough. She couldn’t get her hand under the strap past her wrist.

That wasn’t working. If she could get her arms under and up through the upper part of the straps, then maybe she could wriggle up out of the straps.

Not while wearing the suit, at least. If she had something she could use to cut the straps, she could do that, but there wasn’t anything on her. The tools were secured in a compartment on the other side of the capsule so that they wouldn’t get loose in transit. She couldn’t get to them.

“Note to self,” she said out loud. “Make sure that Geoff, and anyone else responsible, is punished for this, if I get out of here.”

Not that she was vindictive.

There wasn’t time to waste. If she wasn’t sealed in a suit when someone arrived, they might depressurize the capsule and kill her. The capsule might also be leaking, even though pressure was strong for the moment.

The gloves were easiest. The safety catches took some work, but came unfastened as they should. She twisted and unlocked the ring that sealed them to the rest of the suit, then pulled her hands free. The gloves dangled from the wrists, attached by a thin strap.

The air was cold on her hands, free of the gloves. The capsule systems weren’t online since she was in the suit. Sitting in a shadow, it was cooling rapidly. If she got out she could get the systems going again, if she was going to stay around that long.

The helmet was next and much easier with her hands free. She pulled the helmet off and put it aside on the floor. Then she deactivated the suit. The bands constricting the suit, making it fit her form, when slack when the suit was turned off. With the pressure gone, now she had a chance. From here on out was the hard part.

Holding her right sleeve with one hand, Terra pulled her arm up into the sleeve. It was looser now that the suit was off. It took lots of wiggling and twisting around in the suit, but slowly she got her arm up the sleeve and into the main portion of the suit, down against her side, but it was now beneath the straps for all the good it did her.

Terra paused and took deep breaths. The straps weren’t as tight now that the suit had relaxed. Without its stiffness, there was a little room now to wiggle. Not much, hopefully enough.

She slid her hand up, across the thin fabric of her t-shirt, across her left breast, holding the opening of the sleeve while she wiggled and wormed her left arm up into the space. It was tight and difficult to get both arms into the main part of the suit. She managed, just, until both arms were inside, hands up by her neck.

She took as deep of breaths as she could manage and then wriggled to the side, pulling her to the left. The strap over her right shoulder slipped and slip, centimeter by centimeter. Terra fought against the pressure of the straps but it was no use. She couldn’t get the strap off her shoulder.

Frustrated she stopped fighting and breathed, sucking in air. This was how they were going to find her? Arms stuck inside her suit? Helmet and gloves off? Helpless against whatever they decided to do?

No.

No!

She needed a better angle. There was only one option. Terra wiggled down, deeper into the suit, pushing up with her hands, pulling her head down through the neck wring. Like a turtle pulling into its shell.

A lunar tortoise! A giggle escaped her lips and she paused, resting, then resumed the struggle. She got her head down, scrunched down as far as she could.

Again, she wiggled to the left, but this time she squirmed her right hand up, out the neck ring and grabbed the left strap. she pulled it up, slipping the suit to the side so that the strap went over the neck ring.

It worked! The pressure eased when the right strap slid off the empty right shoulder.

She threw herself against the suit the other way now, shoving the left strap. It too slid free and down her empty sleeve. Shuddering, Terra pressed her head back up through the neck ring and sucked lungfuls of cooling air.

It was getting colder. Her breath condensed. Now she could move. The straps lay at her sides, loose now that they weren’t up over her shoulders, though still fastened by the buckle that had gone across her chest. It was much easier to get her arms back into the sleeves, and slip her arms out from under the straps which were now nothing more than a lap belt.

Terra picked up her helmet and pulled it back on, fastening it securely. Then each glove. She activated the suit and it constricted around her, a thick, comforting presence hugging her curves.

Then it was a comparatively easy process to boost herself up, slipping the straps down over her legs. Terra stepped out of the seat and stretched out her arms and legs.

She was down on Luna. Getting free had taken time. The people from the Lincoln must be close. They could already be outside.

With no time to waste, she crossed to the compartment on the other side of the tilted capsule and pulled the door open. She half-expected the toolkit to be missing, even though she had seen it stored. It was there, a bright red case, with a long strap. She dragged it out, and opened it. Everything looked as it should. Cutting tools, and emergency gear, including extra air tanks. The EVU wasn’t designed for use on the surface, its weight would slow her down and throw her off balance.

Terra lifted the strap of the case over her helmet, settling it across her shoulder, the case beneath her right arm. If she couldn’t get to the base from here with this, then it didn’t matter. Her enemies would have won.

It was time to get out there.

The flexibility of the suit let her move easier than the old Apollo astronauts, but with the low gravity of the Moon, Terra skipped through the capsule to the airlock. Each skip carried her easily forward. It was like coming home.

The airlock controls were online. She wasn’t going to vent the capsule the way she had when she reached the Orbital. If she could get away, she wanted them to think that she might still be inside, and leaving it pressurized would help suggest that.

Inside the airlock, waiting for the cycle to complete, Terra opened the tool case and took out the laser cutter. She closed the tool case and stood ready as the cycle completed.

Indicators showed ready. She pulled the lever and the hatch open. Lunar regolith spilled inside across the floor. Lazy clouds of dust settled over the entrance.

Terra leaned out and looked around. The capsule had come down in the shadowed interior of a crater, not much bigger than the capsule itself. The crater walls were fractured and steep, with blasted rock weathered by time. The line between shadow and sunlight was sharp and clear. Brighter streaks showed where the capsule engines had cast out a fan of lighter dust and rock.

No one was waiting for her in the crater.

Terra stepped out, feeling the regolith compact beneath her feet. Heads up icons on her suit showed the cold temperatures in the shadows. Her suit compensated. She turned and kicked the rocks dust away from the hatch edge, then leaned inside and pulled the hatch closed behind her.

She brushed her foot across her footprints, obliterating them. The soil still looked disturbed, but it wasn’t as clear as a footprint showing where she was going. She walked backward, erasing each step as she went, around the far side of the capsule, deeper into shadows.

It wasn’t going to confuse them long. She turned and skipped and scrambled up the steep crater wall. Debris cascaded down, helping hide her tracks. She reached the top and checked her position map. The LPS satellites were still functioning. A map appeared on her helmet, her position highlighted as less than five kilometers from Diaspora Base.

She turned, beginning to recognize landmarks. This crater was in the rough hilly section to the south of the base. Facing that way, she saw lights moving across the surface.

A crawler, coming this way. The sturdy vehicles weren’t fast, but moved on six legs, like giant bugs, close to the ground. The lights were the bright headlights on the front. She needed to move, but she’d have to go around to avoid the crawler.

A person on the surface could move faster than the crawlers. They weren’t designed for speed, but for slow and steady progress across uneven and sometimes treacherous terrain. They could jump, if needed, right themselves if they fell over, and climb steep angles. Not much of anything stopped a crawler.

But they weren’t fast.

Terra grinned and skipped off away from the crater. Each step carried her swiftly across the surface. Mercury had been much the same, in her visit. Her path took her behind a short rise, into more shadows and more uneven terrain between her and the crawler.

Maybe they saw her, but maybe not. With the LPS she could stay on course and the passive system wouldn’t give her away.

The months spent in the capsule on the journey back from Mercury had weakened her. She skipped, walked, and skipped some more, following a course that twisted and wound around through the uneven landscape as she tried to keep obstacles between her and the landing site. If those in the crawler hadn’t seen her, they would continue to the capsule. That would take time, investigating would take time. What would they do when they discovered her tracks? Follow, or head straight back to the base to cut her off?

She’d head straight back on the assumption that there wasn’t anywhere else for her to go. Why spend time chasing her?

Which made it a race. Could she get there before they made it back?

Who was in the crawler? People loyal to her, or enemies? Traitors like Geoff? Or people from the Lincoln? It was annoying not knowing. Even if she knew, it wouldn’t change things.

She had to get to Diaspora Base and take control. Almost a thousand people worked in the base. They wouldn’t have all betrayed her. And with the landers that the Orbital had, the Lincoln couldn’t have sent down more than a dozen or so people.

Fear and intimidation might have gained them control, but it wouldn’t be enough to keep it. Not unless they stopped her.

Terra angled back more directly for the base. Her breath hissed between her lips as she skipped and she couldn’t help but laugh. She was skipping across the frickin’ Moon on her way to save everything that she had worked so hard to build! They couldn’t stop her now!

As she crested the last rise she stumbled to a stop and the laughter died.

Diaspora Base lay nestled into the craters below. The domes blended into the rough gray terrain, but the dark shadows cast straight lines and curves that were too smooth. Bright green location lights marked the airlocks, the color shocking in this shades of gray world.

That was home. That was the first permanent outpost built on another world, and the heart of the Diaspora Group. Lines radiated out from the base, roads out to the excavation sites where they mined the Moon for resources. The same resources that had made her and Diaspora wealthy beyond all Earthly measures. Most of what they mined remained in space, fueling the efforts to expand throughout the solar system, but the wealth generated was obviously enough to tempt the United States to make a grab for power.

She had to stop them.

Motion caught her eye, to her left. She turned. It was the crawler! Still some distance off, but coming straight across the rough terrain toward the base.

It was still too far off to stop her. She kicked off the surface and sailed down the steep slope, skipping ahead as if in magic boots. The tool kit bounced against her hip.

The nearest dome was also the largest, the first, the central administration dome. Terra skipped up to the airlock marked by those green lights. Looking back, she saw the crawler on the hills above. It appeared to have stopped and people in white suits had gotten out. Why?

Near her foot, dust popped up into the air. Impact!

Not from a micrometeorite, they were shooting at her! Terra bounced to the side. More dust kicked up. She turned and ran this time, long bounding skips across the surface, following the curve of the dome.

They were obviously desperate to stop her. The time for silence was over. Terra focused on her communications icon. It blinked open, and established an immediate connection to the base.

“This Terra Blackstone, calling on everyone loyal to the Diaspora Group. We must resist this hostile, and illegal action before more lives are lost! We didn’t come this far to have our independence —”

The connection blinked red. Signal lost. Terra kept moving. By now she had put the dome between her and those on the hill, but others would be coming.

She knew this outpost better than anyone. The nearest airlock was ahead, off the environmental dome. If they had people inside, that’s where they would come from.

There was another option. The loading docks, down beneath the industrial dome. It was big, designed for the crawlers, and opened directly onto the sub-levels. There were also personal locks there, for workers coming and going. It was on the other side of the base. They wouldn’t expect her to go for it.

Because they were from Earth. They’d expect her to go around the outside of the base, the way she’d been running. Not anymore.

She took the laser cutter from the toolkit, and slid it into a utility loop on her suit. She put the rest of the kit down. She couldn’t do this and carry the whole thing.

Terra turned and bounded up the steep side of the dome. It looked too steep, and hard to climb, but in the lower gravity it wasn’t a problem. She dropped into a hands and feet sort of lope, bouncing along using all four limbs. The exertions dragged her breath out of her and made her lungs and muscles burn, but she soon made it to the crest of the dome.

She turned and slid down the lunar-gray wall to the body, catching her breath in the process. The bottom was the junction between two domes. She took a second to catch her breath, then bounded up the next dome.

Reaching the top of the next, she gratefully slid down the far side, using her hands to slow her descent. She trusted that the suit could handle the rough use without failing. It was farther down this time, all the way to the ground.

She hit bottom and fell, rolling in the dirt. The jolt shook her. Focusing on her indicators, everything still looked green. A credit to the suit designers.

Here bright roads curved across the lunar terrain, cutting through craters and hills, disrupting the stark beauty of the scene. The roads came together and descended into the ground, leading beneath the edge of the dome into the sub-layers.

No one was out and around. Terra skipped on down the road.

Inside bright floods lit the cavernous space. Dormant crawlers crouched, as if she had been shrunk down and had entered a mechanical ant colony. Terra took the walkway on the right, above the main pit, to the nearest person-sized airlock, edged in green lights.

She tapped the panel and entered a general access override code, rather than her identification, in case they had that flagged.

The lights around the airlock turned amber as the chamber cycled, then the door slid open. The space was small, only big enough for two or three suited figures at a time. Inside she hit the activation button. The door slid shut and the cycle began again.

Air hissed into the chamber. The pumps sounded faint at first, then louder as the air pressure grew. From here she had access to the sub-levels, which meant getting to the server room. From there she could control anything that happened in the base.

They’d most likely have it guarded. Terra pulled the laser cutter out of the utility loop. She didn’t want to have to hurt anyone, unless there wasn’t any other option. These people had already tried to kill her several times. If it was necessary, she’d fight back.

The lights around the inner door turned green and then it slid open. She moved to the side of the entrance, checking the corridor in a quick glance.

Bright white lights and an empty, short alcove before it opened up into a locker room. No one visible right now, but somewhere water was running. The showers, presumably.

Terra walked on into the locker room. The water turned off. A rubber on metal sound was a shower door opening. Someone started whistling. Before she had a chance to move a man came around the corner from the showers into the locker room.

He was naked, his body lean and well-toned, pale skinned, and still wet from the shower. Very well-defined, with clear abs and no extra weight around the middle, it was a view that she wouldn’t have minded, under other circumstances. He had a shower over his face as he rubbed vigorously at his hair so he hadn’t yet seen her. His whistling beneath the towel sounded quite cheerful.

“Excuse me,” Terra said.

The man jerked the towel down. It was hard to judge his age from his body, but his face and hair suggested a man in his late thirties, maybe early forties. A sharp nose, and deep-set eyes, his chin darkened with a couple days growth, but flecked with lighter white hairs.

He glanced around the room and lowered the towel to cover his privates. “Sorry about that, I didn’t expect anyone else coming in with the shift lockdown on.”

He had an accent. Irish maybe, although she was never good at that. Scottish?

“What’s your name?”

“My friends call me Sully.” He grinned. “You feel free, now, to do the same.”

He didn’t recognize her. A bit disappointing, although she obviously didn’t look her best.

“You’re not going to tell anyone about me being out after the lockdown, are you?”

“I’d never!” He nodded at the laser cutter in her hand. “I value my skin.”

Terra had to get to the server room, but she hesitated. Sully might be able to answer some valuable questions, give her an idea what she was in for.

“Can I ask you something?”

His grin widened. “Aye, anything you like.”

“Where do you stand on the Americans?”

His fists clenched and his eyebrows drew together. “Don’t tell me you’re with them, I’ll be sorely disappointed!”

“No, not me. Did you hear that message earlier? Before it cut off?”

Sully nodded, his expression still dark. “Ya believe that? Blackstone herself, trying to get back to us…”

His voice trailed off and his eyes widened. He lifted his hand and the towel slipped away, exposing him again. “It’s you! You’re her!”

He scrambled for the towel.

“Sully, are you with me?”

He straightened, pulling the towel up. “Of course! Lord, that’s why I was whistling, thinking about you coming back to run those bastards off!”

“To do that I’ve got to get to the server room. I could use an extra pair of hands.”

“Let me fetch my clothes, and I’m your man,” Sully said. His smile widened. “Anything you want, anything I can do.”

To his credit, Sully dressed quickly, taking on moments pulling on a standard green workall. It fit well enough to reveal how fit he was, while proving much less distracting that a towel in danger of slipping off.

Dressed, barefoot, Sully gestured at her. “You’re going to go through wearing that?”

He had a point. “I don’t have anything to change into.”

“I’m sure there’s some spares around here.” Sully went to the nearest locker, opened it, looked inside and closed it wrinkling his nose. “You don’t want anything from that one.”

The fourth locker turned up a black workall that was her size. Terra caught it when Sully tossed it her way and then she turned, skipping toward the door.

“Hey! I thought you were changing?” Sully caught up with her at the door.

“No time. I need to get to the server room. If we get there, and get a handle on things, then I’ll change.” She handed the workall back to him. “Hang onto that for me.”

This door opened into a main corridor for this level. There would be people out there. She opened the door and looked out. The corridor was empty. Ghostly. Abandoned.

She stepped out and turned around, facing Sully. “Where is everyone?”

“Like I said, it’s after shift lockdown. They’ll all be in their quarters, except essential personnel.” Sully grinned. “Like me.”

“The Lincoln crew instituted this?”

“Aye. Mr. Cooper himself.”

“Alex Cooper?”

“That’s the one. You know him?”

“Yes.” Terra started down the corridor at a quick pace. “Senator Alex Cooper, of the United States. He’s opposed Diaspora’s work from the beginning. Any private expansion into space.”

“I know his history,” Sully said mildly, keeping pace beside her. “First thing anyone did was look up the man. He’s been suggesting that you’re out of the picture. Your little message earlier had people pretty riled up.”

A door opened on the side of the corridor. The woman that looked out was short, with straight brown hair. When she saw Terra her eyes flew wide open and her mouth dropped open.

“You’re here! Ms. Blackstone!”

A name swam to the surface of Terra’s mind. “Riley, it’s good to see you.”

Riley stepped out and spoke, her voice low. “If they catch you they’re going to take you away!”

“We’re on our way to the server room, from there I can shut down access,” Terra said.

“I don’t know about that,” Riley said. “They’ve got people in there. That was the first thing they did, seize control of all key systems. They knew what they were doing.”

Someone must have fed them information. Terra gestured at Riley’s door. “Let’s go in here.”

“My lab? Okay.” Riley opened the door.

Terra went inside fast, scanning the space for anyone else. It was empty, full of machine and robotic parts, including an intact crawler at the far end. The lab had a roll up door at the end to accommodate the larger equipment. Riley was one of the top researchers that she had on artificial intelligence.

Sully closed the door behind them.

Riley looked up at him. “Who are you?”

“Sullivan Ward, ma’am.” He gave her a charming smile and Terra wasn’t surprised to see color rising in Riley’s cheeks.

Terra reached up and unfastened the catches on the helmet, twisting it free. Cool air bathed her face. She closed her eyes for a second, savoring the feeling, before she opened her eyes and put the helmet aside on a nearby work table.

“Sully, I’m going to need that workall.”

Sully grinned and turned from Riley. “Of course.”

Terra deactivated the suit and the pressure eased as the garment relaxed around her, becoming more shapeless.

“Let me help,” Riley said.

Riley went around her backside and undid the catches from there. It was possible to do them while in the suit, just. It wasn’t always easy to reach or manipulate with the gloves on. It was still better than the extreme environment suits, like those on Mercury, but the help was appreciated.

Terra ducked her head down through the collar and shrugged her arms back up out of the sleeves. After doing it with the straps on in the capsule, this was much easier. Cool air poured in the opening at the back and through the collar, reminding her how sweaty she had gotten during her flight.

She shoved the suit off, over her head and straightened, with the suit bending over at her waist. Her thin black top barely went down far enough to cover her breasts. Sully’s eyes looked like they might pop out of his head.

It was only fair. She’d seen him fresh out of the shower, after all. Terra winked at him as she bent over, arching her back just to torture the man and stepped out of the suit.

Sully actually blushed and turned away, clearing his throat. “Excuse me, ma’am! You caught me by surprise there. I didn’t mean to stare.”

Riley giggled, helping take up the suit and pile it on the table.

“Unless you expect me to stand around in my undies, I’m still going to need that workall,” Terra said. She held out her hand toward Sully.

Sully turned just enough to hand her the workall and then turned back away again. It was dear of him to do so, after their earlier encounter. She pulled on the workall, grateful for the light loose material after wearing the suit. Her hair had come loose getting out of the suit, so she took the opportunity to pull the rubber band out and shake her hair free.

“You can turn around,” she said to Sully.

He turned, and gave her another big grin. “Thank you, ma’am. I hope I didn’t embarrass myself too much by staring.”

Terra stepped close to Sully and placed a hand on his chest. “I’d have been more bothered if you hadn’t noticed.” She tapped his chest lightly. “But right now we have more important concerns.”

She turned to Riley. “I need to borrow your expertise.”

“Of course, but what can we do?”

Terra reached out and took Riley’s delicate hands, surprising considering the work she did with heavy equipment. “We’re going to bug the server room.”

“What? How?”

Terra laid out her plan for her two accomplices. They couldn’t get to the server room, not without being captured. But the main trunk lines for the server room were accessible in the network access conduits. She proposed sending some of Riley’s micro-robots into the conduits to wire a hard tap into the trunk, which she would then use to regain control of the base.

“That’ll set off alarms,” Riley said.

Terra shook her head. “Not if I use my backdoor access. I have ultimate override authority on the system. If you can get me tapped in, I can lock everyone out. Lock everything down.”

“They’ll be searching for you,” Sully said. “They’ll know soon, if they don’t already, which way you came in.”

“They should already know,” Terra said. “All they had to do was look at the airlock logs. I didn’t use my identification, but that won’t fool them. No one else was around to open that airlock. Except you.”

“Then they’ll be looking for me too,” Sully said. “I could lead them off, give them a false trail.”

It’d put him in some danger, but she didn’t think the Americans planned to kill everyone in the base.

“Fine,” she agreed. “What’re you going to do?”

Sully winked. “Don’t worry about. I’ll head on back and buy you time. You can buy me a drink afterward.”

“It’s a date,” Terra agreed. “Thank you.”

Sully shook his head. “Just kick their asses back to Earth!”

With a nod, Sully hurried off, slipping out the door into the corridor. Riley came up beside Terra, her eyes dark and worried.

“Can you trust him?”

“What choice do we have?” Terra asked. “Show me what you’ve got.”

Riley had several candidates. Tiny, toy-like, insect-inspired bugs and snake-like robots. Each was designed to get into tight spaces and report back with a variety of sensors, including video and audio.

Several were small pill-bug like creations, rolled up in balls like shiny segmented ball-bearings. Terra pushed them around with her finger and they didn’t respond.

“How many of these do you have?”

“Several hundred,” Riley said. “And the printer can put them out in batches of a hundred and fifty per sheet.”

“Excellent. Let’s deploy them. Not just to the server. I want them in systems throughout the base. We’re going to lock out every system that they can get attached to.”

Riley nodded. “I can do that, but once they find them, they can disable or remove them and restart the affected systems, can’t they?”

Terra shook her head. “No. With my access, I can put the systems into a state where they can’t clear the lockout.”

It didn’t take long at all for Riley to gather the pill bugs. She poured out jars of them onto one of the work tables. She tapped a couple commands on a tablet and all at once the pill bugs came to life. They unrolled and scurried about, lining up in perfect formations across the table.

Riley grinned and held the tablet out to Terra. “They’re all yours. Enter your access code, and we’ll be good to —”

Shouts in the hallway interrupted her. More shouts, angry, orders to stop. Riley stabbed a finger at the tablet and the pill bug robots scattered in all directions.

Riley thrust the tablet against Terra’s chest. “Go! Get in the crawler. I’ll distract them. Go!”

There wasn’t any other choice. Terra knew it, as much as she hated it. She took the tablet. “Thank you.”

Then she ran, bounding through the lab, in long skipping steps. There wasn’t any sign of the pill bugs. Whatever Riley had done, they’d gone into hiding.

Just like she needed to do now. The shouting sounded like it was right outside the lab now, men cursing, grunts and sounds that couldn’t be anything except people fighting.

Terra reached the crawler, diving in through the open airlock into the main compartment. There wasn’t much space, it was packed with crates. She moved forward, toward the front of the crawler and sat down in one of the side-facing seats, behind the bulkhead. It had the advantage of keeping her hidden from view, while letting her peek forward through the windows into the lab and gave her a clear view to the airlock door.

She had to get the pill bugs deployed with her access code and get key systems locked down!

The interface for the pill bugs was active. Schematics showed them clustered beneath equipment and in the vents around the room.

Terra peeked out around the corner. Riley was heading for the lab’s door.

In an alternate window, Terra pulled up the tablet’s diagnostics and checked for traces and taps. She’d stayed alive by being careful, and she wasn’t going to change that now. Two traces showed immediately. Someone was watching the activity on the tablet!

If she entered her access code, whoever was watching would get it, giving them secure access to all of the Diaspora systems. In one moment they could gain everything that they had wanted by coming here.

She peeked out again. No sign of Riley.

Was the scientist in on it? After Geoff’s betrayal, she couldn’t discount the possibility. People that she had thought would back her had betrayed her already. She couldn’t take the risk.

She needed a distraction. Fortunately, the crawler was exactly what she needed. Leaving the tablet on the seat, she eased forward into the pilot’s seat. She was very exposed, if anyone came in, but it only took a moment to set up the commands on the crawlers’ command board.

Terra got up and slipped back out to the crawler’s airlock. No sign of anyone. She stepped out, and made her way around the far side of the crawler.

Voices in the hall. The sound of the door opening. Riley’s voice raised. “What are you doing?”

“Get out of the way!” A man said, his voice angry.

“This is my lab! You don’t have any right to —”

Riley let out a surprised yelp. “Hey!”

“Hold her,” the man said. “The rest of you get in here and search.”

“Let go!” Riley shouted. “What are you looking for?”

A chuckle. “As if you don’t know. We’ve been monitoring everything. Blackstone is here.” His voice raised. “You hear that, Ms. Blackstone? Come out now and save us all the bother. You’re finished!”

Terra moved along the space behind the crawler. He might be right. If she couldn’t deploy the pill bugs, what chance did she have? If they caught her they could make her disappear and claim that she hadn’t survived the landing. Or whatever story they wanted to make up.

She peeked out. Those from the Lincoln were moving around the lab. Three men and a woman, complexions colored by time spent out in the Sun (obviously from Earth), all wearing sharp blue military uniforms. They’d find her soon, it wasn’t like she could stay hidden for long. All she needed was a moment with an unwatched access point and they’d be done.

It was almost time. Beside her, the crawler stirred to life, lights coming on, and legs stomping through a systems check. There were answering shouts, and what sounded like people rushing toward her.

Terra slid along the back of the crawler, crouched and jumped.

Her Earth-adapted muscles, even with the time spent in transit in the capsule, carried her up onto the top of the crawler. She moved on hands and knees across it to the edge. The Lincoln crew rushed to the crawler, clearly convinced she was inside. One of the men stumbled and knocked over a piece of equipment, cursing as he did.

They didn’t have their lunar legs yet. In their haste to catch her, they kept forgetting how easy it was to get off balance. Skipping wasn’t coming naturally to them.

The group reached the crawler, still running through the startup test sequence she had set on a time. Three of them went up into the airlock. The last, a man with blond hair, leaned on the opening.

“Do you got her?”

Terra dropped down behind him, landing lightly on her feet. “Nope!”

He turned but she grabbed his uniform and lifted him off his feet. He yelled, his expression one of pure bewilderment, and she tossed him into the crawler. He collided with the others, and they landed in a heap against the crates stored in the crawler.

Terra wiggled her fingers at him. “Sit tight now.”

The airlock doors hissed shut, cutting the Lincoln officers off. The crawler went into lock down.

“That worked better than I expected,” Terra said.

“You did it!” Riley yelled, clapping her hands.

Riley was at the front of the lab, beside the door. Terra skipped through the lab and caught Riley’s hands when she reached her. They jumped up and down. Riley looked back across the lab.

“Can they get out?”

“Not before we take care of this problem. Your office, now.” Terra led Riley by the hand to the offices at the back of the lab.

The four Lincoln officers weren’t everyone, that much was obvious. The office was as cluttered as the lab. Riley picked up a crate of parts from a second chair. It looked like it should topple over the small woman, but that was the lower gravity for you. Those from Earth still hadn’t adjusted.

Terra sat down at Riley’s station and activated it with a touch. She was going to trust Riley hadn’t known about the tablet, at least until she investigated. If Riley had tried to set her up, Riley couldn’t say anything now without implicating her.

“What are you doing?” Riley asked.

“Activating the pill bugs.” Terra pulled up the controls in one window and a command level window in the other. She checked, always cautious, and found nothing suspicious running on the system. She switched back to the pill bugs and sent the command to scatter, identify and tap into as many systems as they could reach. With their networked intelligence the bugs would reach every system. She equipped each of them with her access code and the instruction to lock down the base. No doors would open. No systems would respond. Not even environmental system, without her approval.

Terra turned and faced Riley. The petite woman stood in the corner, a length of pipe in her hands. Terra raised an eyebrow. “What are you doing with that, Riley?”

Riley’s lower lip trembled. Tears welled up in her eyes.

“You put the traces on the tablet, to get the access code.” Terra stood slowly. “You were helping the Americans.”

“They said that they would arrest my parents, in Ohio!” Riley waved the pipe. “They wanted to catch you —”

“Kill me, actually,” Terra said.

Riley shook her head.

The fire that burned in Terra’s chest grew hotter. How dare they? She’d worked and sacrificed, ever since she was a girl, to make it possible for people to visit these worlds and make them home. And these people thought they could come in and do this?

“Yes,” Terra said. “They’ve killed. They’ve tried to kill me when I reached orbit, by sending a program to divert me into Earth’s atmosphere. They got to Geoff and he delivered me to the surface trussed up for them. They chased me. Shot at me before I got inside. They want me dead.”

The pipe fell from Riley’s hands, tumbling in the air as it fell to the floor. Terra reached out and snatched it before it hit. It was like she had all the time in the world to do so.

Riley flinched away.

“Don’t worry,” Terra said. She looked out through the office window into the lab. The Lincoln officers were still trapped in the crawler. They wouldn’t be going anywhere.

“I forgive you,” Terra said. “And when I get these people settled, we’ll send them back to Earth, where they belong. I will do everything I can to protect your parents, and any other loved ones back on Earth, but really the only way that’s going to happen is if they join us. It’s time for the exodus. Everyone that wants off Earth is going to have to get off.”

“What?” Riley wiped her face on her lab coat. “You mean that?”

“Yes. We’ve been planning for it. We have ships around the world, ready to launch. When I give the word our forces will start getting people to the ships. We’ll launch and then cut ties. At least until people back on Earth calm down, and decide to act reasonably.”

A chime came from Riley’s station. Terra glanced at the display. “The servers are ours, along with ninety percent of the other systems. Diaspora Base is locked down. Are you with me?”

Riley nodded. “I’m sorry! I didn’t want to betray you, I just didn’t know what to do.”

“I know.” Terra forced a smile. It was lonely sometimes being the one in charge. “Let’s get things settled here. We’ve got a whole solar system to worry about.”

She sat back down in front of the station, and Riley took the second chair, rolling up beside her. Terra put the pipe aside on the floor.

Using her access through the pill bugs, she activated communications.

“Attention, Lincoln crew, and any Diaspora personnel that may have been coerced into cooperating. You’ll be pleased to know that I’m back in charge!” Terra smiled for the cameras. “We’ve got some business to take care of, including your unconditional surrender, before you run out of air.”

It didn’t take long. They didn’t have any choice. Eventually the human civilization on these worlds would grow and one person wouldn’t be in charge. That day wasn’t today.

It could be lonely being in charge, but it didn’t have to be lonely all the time. After she finished, she wanted to relax back in her own neglected quarters, maybe with Sully to keep her company for dinner?

13,889 words

Author’s Note

This story marks the third weekly short story release, and the third Planetary Bodies story. I’d meant to get it up yesterday and ended up busy with other things so it’s up this morning instead.

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.

Venus Waking

Carys Rex, professional daredevil and freelance adventure writer, wanted the next big adventure. After everything that she had tackled on Earth the next challenge was a sky city floating in hurricane force winds on another planet — Venus!

Hired by the Diaspora Group, Carys gets a chance to visit the most remarkable colony established and discover new adventures among the sulfuric acid clouds.

1

Carys Rex jumped that last step from the transport airlock, onto the brilliant green grass growing beside the path. She wriggled her toes against the cool blades, sinking her toes into the dirt beneath.

The air tasted fresh, not recycled like the on the transport. Almost like being back on Earth, rather than being in a spherical city floating around 164,000 feet above Venus’ hellish surface.

She was twenty-six, a freelance adventure writer and professional daredevil, hired by Terra Blackstone’s Diaspora Group to vlog about life on Earth’s evil twin planet. She was wearing a dark, earthy brown skirt that ended just above her knee, a light green tank top, and her black curly hair was mostly captured in a hand-crocheted red snood hat. All of her belongings were in the big, neon yellow messenger bag that hugged her hip. Except her glasses. She tapped the side to activate the recording, while her hand dug down into the messenger bag.

All things considered, you wouldn’t think that you were even on another planet. Maybe some sort of future resort city, but it didn’t look like an outpost on another planet. Buildings rose up ahead, around the plaza. A fountain sprayed water into the air, people on bicycles, and on foot, gathered around the plaza, a crowd greeting the rest of the new arrivals disembarking from the transport. No cars, of course.

Four months trapped in a the small transport space craft, one of the Diaspora Group’s new passenger capsules, launched from Earth orbit to Venus. As the new solar sail production picked up from Mercury, there’d be regular routes picking up capsules, releasing them to rendezvous with all sorts of worlds. It was almost like being back in the days of sailing ships, only these ships carried their passengers between the planetary bodies.

Tilting her head back, there was the dome framework, big triangles against the structure of the dome, across the sky. So, like a really exclusive, domed-over city, like the climate-controlled ones that they had back on Earth, where the rich people hung out and pretended that the Earth wasn’t getting hotter all the time.

 

“Time to open up guys,” Carys said.

The two spheres buzzed and uncoiled. Bright wings unrolled and snapped out, four on each, and black legs unkinked and grabbed at her hand, pinching gently.

“There you are,” Carys cooed. “Up and at em. Catch the sunlight and watch me.”

Her spy-eyes flicked their wings and took off, fat bright flies that buzzed around her before taking up positions ahead and behind. All about the footage.

Carys beamed and threw her hands up in the air. “Welcome to Venus!”

She strolled out on to the grass. “We’ve made it! We’re on Venus! This is Aphrodite, the first human colony on this world. Up here it’s heaven, while down below is quite literally hell.”

She winked at the camera. “We’re going to get to know this new world! It’s pretty much as big as the entire Earth! Think about that for a minute. Imagine it, a whole world out there! Except this is not Earth. It’s —”

Two uniformed-types, in tan ranger uniforms, a man and a woman, were coming across the plaza. Coming for her, no question of that from their looks and bearing. Carys laughed.

“Looks like we’re already getting in trouble! That’s what, five minutes on a new world? I think that’s a new record!”

Carys didn’t wait. She walked right up to them, spy-eyes filming everything, glasses filming everything, positioning themselves in pre-programmed patterns, giving her options to edit later. She smiled at the two, what? Officials? Guards? Police?

“Is this like an official greeting? Or did I break some rule by stepping on the grass?” Carys put her hand to her mouth, eyes going wide with mock shock. “Am I going to get thrown out for stepping on the grass? I saw an old show once, where the people living in paradise executed newcomers for the slightest offense.”

The pair might have been siblings. Both thin, fit, with sandy brown hair. The guy had a cleft chin. The woman had fine features, delicate with a tiny button nose. Their tan uniforms both sported the Venus astronomical symbol, Venus’ hand mirror, the round circle with the cross handle beneath.

“Carys Rex?” The woman asked, holding out her hand. “Rhea Silvia, Media Coordinator for Aphrodite.”

Carys took her hand and shook. Good grip for someone that looked like she might easily break. Rhea wore cam jewelry on her ears and around her neck. Functional tech, a bit out-dated but pretty. As Carys released Rhea’s hand, she shifted her gaze to the man.

He smiled, a warm, nice smile. Good teeth. Confident, and a bit cocky. He wasn’t with Rhea, not romantically. He reached out.

She took his hand. Firm grip, professional. She expected him to reach up with his other hand to touch her arm. He didn’t.

“Victor Crane, Residence Coordinator, basically I’m the guy that makes sure you have everything you need.”

Carys stepped closer. “I’m flattered. I didn’t expect a welcoming committee.”

Rhea laughed. “Not much of a committee, but Blackstone is excited to have you join our team. We’re eager to see what you come up with, I’ve been a big fan of your work back on Earth.”

“Is it true that you rode a mountain bike along the continental divide, across the United States, in less than three weeks?” Victor asked.

Carys reached out and ran her fingers up the front of his uniform. “The tour divide? Yeah, that was a blast. All self-supported, it’s gotten tougher as the climate has worsened. That was nothing, though, compared to the outback ride.”

Victor’s smile faded. “I heard about that.”

Rhea took Carys’ arm. “Why don’t you let us show you your new home? There’s an orientation, and then you can get settled in from the trip?”

That was the absolute last thing that she wanted to do. She pulled away. “I’ve been cooped up in that ship for the past four months. I want to check this place out, and I know my viewers want to see the super-exclusive Aphrodite colony! We’re talking a real-life cloud city! And I’ll tell you, at first look, this seems like paradise. Especially after four months in that transport!”

Rhea smiled brightly, too strained, with a glance up at the spy-eyes hovering silently behind Carys. Of course Carys saw the look, which meant that her glasses caught it too. Perfect.

“There are some things we need to go over first,” Rhea said. “Contractual matters, that sort of thing. The orientation covers everything.”

Carys shook her head. “Nope.”

Rhea and Victor looked at each other, and back to Carys. “Carys, we —”

“Nope.” Carys took a step back. “I’m independent. I’m not part of the Diaspora Group. Terra Blackstone asked me to come here, to Venus, to do what I do. Diaspora might write the checks, but I’ve been assured of my independence.”

Rhea pressed her hands together. “We understand that, we do. We’re not trying to control what you’re doing, we’re not, Carys. It isn’t like that.”

“Great! Then I’m going to take a look around on my own for a while, I’ll catch up to you later.” Carys waved and turned her back on the reception committee.

As soon as she did she pulled out her cell and touched the spy-eyes override. She tagged Rhea and Victor on Blue’s targeting.

The grass was wonderful against her bare feet. She had sandals in her bag but after months in the transport from Earth, the last thing she wanted was to put on sandals. The grass was cool, damp as if from a morning rain. She wasn’t the only one enjoying the lawns. In other sections, residents were playing or resting on the lawns. It had a college-campus feel to it, almost, like a college in a big city with students hanging out between classes.

Zoo humans, pretending that they weren’t suspended in a floating city above Hell. She had to get a shot of that. On the cell, Blue slowly floated after her, rear camera eyes and directional mic watching Rhea and Victor.

“Should we follow her?” Victor asked. “She doesn’t know her way around.”

“Actually I’m sure she does. She probably studied everything during the trip,” Rhea said. She was right there. “And where’s she going to go? She can’t leave Aphrodite? Let her go. She’s been cooped up and wants to stretch her legs.”

That was right. She did. Carys swiped the targeting from Blue, and the spy-eye picked up speed to catch up to her.

Carys skipped and smiled widely, to show off her dimples. She winked. “See? They’re already getting it. Four months on the way here, time to get outside! Even if this outside is actually inside.”

The lawn ended ahead at a wide pathway, slick and smooth. Beyond that was another strip of grass, some flowers and then a low wall, and beyond that a yellow and black rail. And on the other side of the rail — the wall of Aphrodite, the barrier between herself and Venus. Carys pointed at the rail.

“That’s what I’m talking about! Do you see it? There’s a low wall, and some sort of gap, and on the other side a warning rail, and past that, where you see those struts? That’s actually the structure that holds up this entire city! Let’s check it out!”

She ran across that last stretch of grass. It was fantastic to stretch her legs, except immediately her muscles ached. How had she gotten so weak? The transport had rotated the living areas, providing a third of a gee, but obviously not enough to keep her muscles in shape. Carys slowed as she reached the pathway, sucking air, actually winded.

Never forgetting the audience, she laughed. “Wow. Living in a tin can for months in low-gee has wiped me out! I’ll have to do some serious training to get back into shape!”

The pathway was some sort of carbon weave, firm and cool to her feet. Carbon was one of the resources that Aphrodite had in abundance. All they had to do was suck it in and process it, given that the atmosphere was primarily carbon dioxide.

Carys skipped across the path, back onto the narrow strip of grass. That ended and she stepped carefully between the flowers, marigolds in bright orange. The dirt was rough and fantastic beneath her feet. Months in the transport had left her craving being out in the wild. This wasn’t wild, but it was dirt, and the plants were alive.

She dug her bare toes into the surface and looked down so that the glasses got a shot of her bare feet, toenails bright red against her pale feet and the dark earth.

“Look at that! Venusian dirt! This isn’t dirt shipped all the way from Earth, this is material that has been brought up from the surface, more than thirty miles beneath us! And it’s growing these lovely marigolds, and the grass behind us.”

She reached the wall, a six-inch thick structure stretching to either side around the perimeter of the habitat. It came up to just under chest height. Not enough to prevent you from looking over, but a clear barrier from going further.

Green flew out ahead of her, over the wall, its cameras still focused on her.

Out past the wall, a band of water flowed through an open channel. It was only four feet or so across, but followed the wall on around the habitat. Cattails and other plants grew in the water, a lush wet lands stretching around the habitat. Obviously part of the water treatment system for the habitat.

On the other side, as if more of a warning was needed, was a narrow pathway and a clear fence topped with the yellow and black rail. And on the other side of that, the habitat dome wall rose up above. This close the double-layer honeycomb structure was clear.

It obscured the view somewhat, although not too badly. Through the wall it was foggy. Like a day on Earth when the sunlight came through the fog, giving everything a bright glow, before the fog burned off.

Only here, it didn’t burn off. Carys hadn’t gotten an audience by playing it safe.

No one was paying any attention to her, Rhea and Victor had gone off wherever they were going.

“No rest for the wicked,” she said. “Let’s take a closer look.”

She planted her hands on the wall and jumped, boosting herself up, swinging her legs up onto the wall, flashing a good deal of thigh in the process. She got her legs over the edge of the wall and sat, smoothing her skirt, and taking in the view.

Carys pointed at the far wall. “Right out there, through that double-wall, is the cloudy atmosphere of Venus. The outer surface is treated against the sulfuric acid clouds. That’s right, that fog out there? It isn’t water vapor, it is acid! A few other things mixed in, but mostly acid. The habitat is designed for this environment, even so, it requires constant maintenance.”

The audience didn’t tune in to see her sit on a wall. Carys got up, standing on the wall, no doubt attracting attention now from other people nearby. She smiled, and jumped.

Despite the long period on the transport, she managed to clear the reeds and plants in the water treatment canal, landing lightly on the smooth path on the other side. She caught herself on the yellow and black railing along the transparent wall.

Carys laughed out loud. “Yes! That’s better! Look at this!”

She leaned over the rail and on the other side was a gap between the path and the outer wall. Braces at regular intervals connected the habitat to the dome wall, but it was clear that this was only a layer within the sphere. There were more levels below her.

Seen this close, gaps and texture was visible in the clouds outside. It wasn’t as uniform as it looked at first glance. Fog whipped around the outside layers in fast streamers. Color and lightning varied. Looking up, it was clear that the brightness varied, like any cloudy day on Earth.

She looked down again, over the rail. No end to the clouds beneath her, but here it was clear that they were suspended in the air floating along with the wind.

“Look at that! Over thirty miles down to the surface! Not an Earth-like surface, it’s an inferno down there that would melt metal, with active volcanoes and a tortured rocky surface. I’m sure we’ll get to see more pictures of the surface, but wow, we’re actually flying! Not only flying, but Aphrodite floats in the atmosphere, carried along by hurricane-force winds!” Carys shook her head. “Is it any wonder I wanted to come here?”

She turned, leaning against the caution rail and smiled up at the camera. Green dropped, automatically responding to her smile, zooming in to get a good shot, not too close, she wanted the audience to see her.

“You get to come along with me! This is going to be a great adventure!” Carys looked at the channel, with the water and reeds, and the wall on the other side. No easy way back from this side.

“We’re going to have to find another way out of here, let’s follow the path, and see where it takes us.”

Carys walked along the path, her hand playing lightly along the caution rail. Aphrodite was a test case, to prove that human settlement was possible and worked. As such, it was actually a small-scale test. A small city, two miles across, with a bit under 2,000 acres of space on the main level.

All of which meant that this path, if it went clear around Aphrodite, was probably almost six miles long!

“Maybe I should have packed a bike! Aphrodite isn’t all that big, but a bike would still be fantastic for getting around. There were some people back there at the landing plaza with bikes, so I should be able to get one somewhere.” She winked. “For now, I’ll walk.”

A few minutes later, up ahead, there was a bridge straight across the channel, with a gate in the short wall. A weeping willow tree grew nearby, the long hanging branches nearly touching the wall.

“At last! We can get back into the city itself, and see what we can discover.” It was a good thing too, she was getting tired. Her stomach growled. “Maybe find a place to eat! I’m starved. The last thing I had to eat was reconstituted eggs this morning.”

Carys walked across the bridge to the gate. It wouldn’t open. She chuckled and climbed up, swinging her leg over the gate, straddling it, the cool carbon fiber clenched between her thighs. There was a sign, pressing against her bare knee.

“Authorized Personnel Only,” it read.

“Oops,” she said, winking at the camera. She blew the audience a kiss before swinging her other leg over, giving them another flash.

She dropped to the path.

Her trip along the channel had taken her away from the landing plaza into the University district. This was the section dedicated to all sorts of scientific research. In the background material, it talked about how select researchers from institutions all over Earth were sent here to study. Not just Venus studies, although there were all sorts of scientists doing that, but also anything else. Even a few lucky students, earning their degrees while doing work for the Diaspora Group.

The weeping willow was only one of several trees growing in the University district. The buildings were up to three stories tall, all appearing as if made from massive stone blocks. Carys knew that wasn’t entirely the case. The dark rock faces did come from rocks cut from the surface by robotic miners, but each ‘block’ was nothing more than a stone facade over a more light-weight structure.

Aphrodite might have plenty of lifting ability, but that didn’t mean that they wasted it.

“Look at this!” Carys gestured to the campus. “Looks like an Ivy League university, doesn’t it? That’s deliberate, part of the Diaspora Group’s plans for Venus. The stones are actually a facade, rather than being made from stone blocks, but the facade is made from stones quarried on the surface and hoisted up to Aphrodite.”

She strolled along the path between immaculate lawns and well-trimmed hedges. There were a few people out, moving between the buildings, but not many. Everyone was in class or working.

“You might wonder how Aphrodite stays afloat. How can an entire city float through the atmosphere? Well, from what I understand, it’s because the air we breathe is a lifting gas in the carbon-dioxide rich environment of Venus. At this altitude the pressure outside is about the same as inside, but our oxygen-nitrogen mix is buoyant, so the whole city floats!”

She laughed. “Don’t worry! I’m not going to turn all stuffy on you. Let’s look around and see if we can find a place to eat. There has to be something on a campus like this!”

It didn’t take long at all to find a place, Carys went around the corner of one of the big academic buildings and there was a charming little outdoor cafe. Well, as outdoor as things were in a floating city.

Tables were arranged outside. Most were empty, although at two tables were two couples. The double-doors leading into the cafe were still open.

“Gee,” she said, as she walked over. “I wonder what time it is locally?”

Between the transport and here, who knew what time it was? Carys took out her cell and switched to the settings. “Adjust to local time.”

The display shifted from just before noon to ten p.m.! “Ten P.M.? Wow, I didn’t think it was so late! I should have realized, given Venus’ slow rotation, it’s more the movement of Aphrodite itself that determines how long the days are! I’m starved, hopefully this place is still serving.”

The sign above the doors was “Cornucopia,” etched into a panel, with an illustration of a crescent planet shape surrounded by a planetary ring of food. Nice and spacey. The tables were black, hexagons, mirroring the shapes of the dome stretching above.

As she approached the building the spy-eyes dropped lower and closer, to keep their focus on her while she moved inside. They’d run through a library of positions around her based on the interior layout.

Inside was cute, small, with only a few tables. Most were outside. The guy behind the counter was handsome, with a rough black stubble over golden skin. He had dark eyes and black ringlets of hair fell down around his ears. He was wearing a tight black polo shirt, and shorts. No name badge or anything like that.

He wasn’t alone in the place. One of the three booths were occupied by more young men and women, four in the booth, plus the guy behind the counter who was talking to them.

He held up a hand to the group and moved over as she walked inside. His eyes flicked up, taking in the spy-eyes, and he smiled. “Nice gear! You’re in journalism, aren’t you?”

One of the girls at the table rose to her feet. She was a blond pixie, cute, wearing a dark brown tank top, and shorts. “You’re Carys Rex!”

Great, a fan! That made it so much easier. Carys smiled and did a small curtsy. “Yep, in the flesh! Newly arrived, and absolutely starving.”

She leaned into the counter, her fingertips playing along the edge. She locked her eyes on the guy behind the counter. “Any chance you could serve me?”

One of the guys in the booth, big and broad shouldered, laughed. “Yeah, Mitchell, you going to serve her?”

Mitchell, apparently that was his name, laughed and spread his hands. “Don’t listen to Chuck. He’s crazy. Of course, we’re still open. What can I get you?”

“What do you recommend?”

“Go with the garden burger,” the blond suggested. “It’s the best thing on the menu.”

“Thanks!” Carys nodded to Mitchell. “I’ll do that.”

“Why don’t you come join us?” The blond asked. “We can scooch over.”

“Okay.”

“Go on,” Mitchell said. “I’ll bring it over when it’s ready.”

“Thanks.” She smiled and headed over to the group.

They made room for her, and quickly introduced themselves. The blond was Amy. Chuck was the big guy sitting across the booth. There was also Joseph, round-faced, with curly read hair. And on the other side of Amy was Kirsten, beautiful, elegant features, straight hair, and a very smart tan blazer.

The remains of their meal still cluttered the table, with empty plates, but the glasses were full. The spy-eyes took up positions, Green floating above the aisle, taking in the whole booth, while Blue hovered behind Chuck, to focus on her.

Chuck twisted around, looking up at the spy-eye. “You always have those out?”

“She does,” Amy said quickly. “You should see the films she’s done, amazing!”

“Thank you,” Carys said. “That’s so sweet.”

“You’re here,” Amy said. She looked at the rest of the group. “Oh, we should so bring her in! She’d be perfect.”

Joseph laughed, snorting, and held up his hand. “Wait a sec, Amy, we’re not bringing in anyone else.”

Now she was intrigued. “In for what?”

Joseph’s lips pressed together. “It’s nothing. School project, that’s all.”

Amy shook her head. “Seriously? Do a search. See what she’s done.” Amy turned to Carys. “I loved your tour divide videos. I watched the whole thing live, and then the final cut was great too. All those ghost towns? I don’t think I could have done it.”

“There used to be more services,” Carys said. “It’s gotten tougher.”

Mitchell came out, from around the counter, carrying a glass and a plate with a burger and a pile of fries. Actual fries! Carys licked her lips as she took it, inhaling the rich scent. Mitchell put the glass of water down in front of her.

“Oh, you have no idea. Fresh food, after months on the transport here! This is heaven.”

Mitchell watched her as she took her first bite. The bun was crisp, golden on the outside, and oven-warmed with caramelized onions on top. The burger itself was a thick garden burger, crispy on the outside, and bursting with hot, spicy juices inside. The flavors spread across her tongue, the tang of the dill pickle, and it was heaven.

After she swallowed, she beamed up at Mitchell. “Oh, baby, that was great.” She laughed and picked up a fry. It was crispy and scorching hot in her fingers. She bit off half. “Heaven. Pure heaven.”

Mitchell laughed. “Glad you like it. Most new arrivals don’t make it over here so fast. What’d you do, skip the orientation?”

“Yes.” Carys winked. She took another bite then, couldn’t resist. It felt impossibly piggy to scarf the burger down in front of the group after just meeting them, but she couldn’t help herself. She spent the next few minutes focusing on eating. No one was saying anything.

It didn’t take long at all for the burger to disappear. Carys leaned back and picked up the water. It was ice cold and delicious. She took a drink then held up the glass.

“I walked along the water treatment channel to get here, where does all the water come from? I thought Venus was pretty much dry?”

“It is,” Kirsten said. “Although there is enough hydrogen and trace water vapor in the atmosphere to condense out what we need. When Diaspora gets the sail network up and running we’ll eventually divert a comet or two into orbit, to serve as extra resources for settlements.”

Carys nibbled on a fry and looked up at Mitchell. “So how about you? Are you going to tell me what you’re all doing that’s so super-secret?”

Mitchell crossed his arms. “I can’t. It isn’t up to me.”

She looked around the table. “So Joseph, you’re in charge, is that it?”

“It was my idea,” Joseph said.

“And you think what, that I’ll steal it? Leak it?” Carys laughed. “I’m here to explore, to have fun, and tell the folks back home about how great life is on another world. I can get you an audience bigger than you can imagine.”

“We should tell her,” Amy insisted. “It’s totally her sort of thing.”

Chuck shrugged. “Heck, what do I care? I think you’re all crazy anyway.”

Carys ate a couple more fries and then slid on up out of the booth. “How about I let you think about it? It isn’t like I’m going anywhere. If you want to share, I’m sure you can find me.”

Whatever they were planning, it sounded intriguing, but trying to probe too much now would only spook them. Better that they come to her.

“Thank you,” Joseph said. His neck was flushed.

“Don’t mention it.” Carys turned and Mitchell was there. He smiled at her, she smiled back.

“Hey, since I skipped the orientation, do you think you can show me back to where I’m staying. It must be getting real food, which was great by the way, but I’m suddenly beat.”

Mitchell nodded. “Sure, I’ll show you. Come on.”

“Hey, Mitchell,” Joseph said.

Mitchell waved. “Don’t worry about it, I won’t say anything, and I’ll go along with the group.”

Carys took his arm, feeling his firm muscles, and walked with him to the door. She paused. “Wait, don’t you have to worry about the cafe?”

He shook his head. “Naw, it’s more of a community kitchen, a shared space. We all just take turns. They’ll take care of it.”

Arm, in arm, they strolled out along the pathways between the young trees. “This really looks like it could be someplace back on Earth, except for the yellow light.”

“Yeah, you get used to it, but it’s strange not having blue skies. And no weather. It’s always warm and calm here.”

Carys swung her leg out, toes grazing across the grass. “Comfy, though. Don’t have to worry about getting cold.”

“Nope.”

He was young, at least a few years younger than her, but not much. She looked up at him. “So what about you, what do you do?”

“Engineering student. I work on keeping all of this running, while studying. Diaspora pays well, and covers my education. Can’t complain about that.”

“And the others?”

“All student workers. We’re the engine that keeps Aphrodite afloat. We study, we work and that’s about it. It seems exciting, being on another planet, but we do our best to keep it as boring as possible.”

“I find that hard to believe. You have to have fun around here.” Carys bit her lip and skipped away onto the grass. The cool blades tickled her feet. She ducked beneath the hanging branches of a weeping willow and swung around the trunk, laughing.

Playful always looked good on the cameras.

Mitchell laughed.

Carys laced her fingers together and strolled out, putting a sway into her walk. “I’d hate to think that I bore you.”

Mitchell shook his head. His eyes traveled down her, and back up to meet her eyes. “You don’t bore me. Not at all.”

Carys made a decision. She was going to be on Aphrodite for quite some time, so there wasn’t any sense in delaying things. Mitchell was handsome, smart and interesting. She reached him, and ran her hand along his abdomen. Through the black polo she traced the lines his abs.

“You certainly stay in shape here,” she said, tilting her head to look up at him.

Mitchell put his hands on her waist. “Mandatory requirement. Diaspora wants healthy, productive people. They make sure that we stay in shape.”

“As they should.” Carys turned, slipping her hand around his waist to the small of his back. She played her fingers along the line of his shorts. “Makes more sense to keep workers healthy than to have them call in sick all the time.”

His arm went around her back and he started walking. She moved closer to him as they strolled.

“What about you?” Mitchell asked. “You’re obviously in great shape. I doubt Diaspora had anything to do with that.”

Carys shook her head. “Nope. That’s just me. There’s always so many things I want to do, doing them keeps me in shape.”

“So you don’t train?”

“No, I do. I even wrote a book about it, if you want to download it.” Never hurt to mention things like that for the audience. “It’s more about maintaining my fitness now, and mostly I do that through having fun.”

“Amy certainly seemed like a fan of your work.”

Carys pushed away from him. “You really haven’t seen anything of mine?”

Mitchell shook his head. “Nope, sorry. We’re cut off here from Earthnet. Well, not entirely cut off, but the lag makes it difficult to get anything from Earth quickly. It’s more like sending old-time paper mail than being connected.”

“That sucks.” Carys pulled out her cell. It showed a localnet connection only. A few swipes also showed that her storage space was rapidly diminishing as the spy-eyes streamed the video to her cell, as they were programmed to do in low connection environments.

“Suck! I’m going to hit my storage limit in two days at this rate.” She looked up, and discovered Mitchell was laughing quietly. She swung her hand at him, it didn’t hit because he moved back. “It isn’t funny. Blackstone never talked about a data limit, it never even occurred to me to ask. I’m so accustomed to not worrying about storage back on Earth. Except for some of the more remote places I’ve been, a fat connection is pretty much universal.”

“It’s fine,” Mitchell said. “We can get you set up with space. Trust me, with all the data we’re generating, we have lots of data space. In fact they probably would have helped you out with that, if you hadn’t skipped the orientation.”

She smiled at him. “If I hadn’t, then I wouldn’t have met you. Or your friends with their mysterious top secret project.”

Mitchell shook his head. “I’m not talking about that.”

Carys pressed close, running her hand up his chest. “No matter what I do to you?”

He bent and — finally! — kissed her. His lips were perfect, soft and firm, and delicious. He didn’t ram his tongue down her throat right away either, waiting until her tongue flicked his top lip before meeting her. The kiss went on, drawing out her breath, and sent shivers down her spine.

Finally they broke apart. Carys started giggling, she couldn’t help it.

“What’s so funny?” Mitchell asked, although he was grinning.

“Nothing!” Carys beamed at him. “Just happy to be on Venus!”

Eventually, with a few stops for slow, lingering kisses, they reached a structure almost on the other side of the city from the university district. Carys probed her sleep-deprived brain and recognized it as one of the central residential areas. The buildings were plain, mostly dark glass panel walls, rising four stories up, a half-dozen of them arranged around a central plaza with a fountain and sculpture in the center.

The sculpture was rough-hewn stone, carved in the shape of a Classical Greek statue of Venus. The water splashed around her feet from fountains around the rim of the pool.

“So this is where I’m supposed to live?” Carys said. She flipped through her cell messages. There were several from Rhea and Victor.

“Carys!” The voice came from behind her.

She turned, and there was Victor, coming out of the nearest building. He was still wearing the same tan uniform, and carried a tablet in his hands. She smiled brightly as he got close. “Hey there, if it isn’t Victor Crane.”

Victor took in Mitchell’s presence with a nod. “No time wasted making friends, I see.”

Mitchell stepped back with a small wave. “We’ll be in touch, Carys, it was great meeting you.”

Carys waved back. She winked. “Yeah, thanks for everything.”

As he left she turned back to Victor, who was watching Mitchell leave. A muscle twitched in Victor’s jaw. Interesting.

“I’m afraid I missed orientation,” she said.

Victor turned his attention back to her, and smiled widely. “So you did. What do you think of Aphrodite?”

“It’s beautiful, amazing. I keep forgetting that I’m inside. It feels like being outside.”

“We try to use that,” Victor said. “We’ve got all the lower levels for infrastructure, support, storage and work spaces. It lets us open up most of the volume.”

“It’s brilliant.” Carys felt a yawn coming on, and covered her mouth. She squinted her eyes tight as she yawned. When it passed, Victor was closer. “I’m beat. I hadn’t realized how much the trip had taken out of me. You said something about place for me?”

“Yes, here.” Victor tapped the screen of his tablet.

Her cell buzzed. Carys checked it. A message with attached orientation materials and a digital key to her apartment located in Venera 4, 310B. A map highlighted the building on the left side of the plaza as Venera 4.

“The buildings are named for the missions?”

“Yes,” Victor said. “There’s a replica statue in the lobby when you go in. Check it out, it was shipped from Earth.”

Which meant it was valuable. Every bit of weight mattered. “Thank you. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

Another yawn was coming on. Carys fought it. Victor grinned. “Hey, get yourself settled in. My contact information is in the packet, if you need anything let me know. Have you eaten?”

That question sounded forced casual. Carys jabbed a thumb over her shoulder. “Yeah, got something over at the U.”

“Okay, well, then, good night. It’s not going to get dark tonight, I’m afraid, but the curtains are light-blocking.”

Not dark, she’d read about that and it reminded her of a question. On Aphrodite, day and night were determined more by how fast they circled the planet in the hurricane force winds. “Why don’t you move closer to the poles to get more of a standard day/night cycle?”

“Too turbulent. Not that it’s calm out there either, but it’s more stable. It takes Aphrodite about four days to circle the planet, so we get two days of light, and two days of dark. During the dark phase we use interior lighting during daylight hours and for safety.”

“Great. Something to look forward to.” Yet another yawn swept over her. Carys covered it and shook her head. “Long day. I’m going to hit the hay. Good night!”

“Good night.” Victor looked like he might say something else, but then he shook his head, waved, and headed back to the other building.

Carys tilted her head up and squinted at Green. The spy-eye picked up on her expression and moved a bit closer. She didn’t have to look to know that Blue was tracking Victor, if he looked back, the camera would catch it.

“Well! It’s been an exciting day! It’s almost time for me to get in bed —” she waggled a finger at the camera. “Get that thought out of your head! I will give you a quick tour, and then it’s time for this girl to get some sleep!”

Suddenly she was really feeling it, exhaustion in her legs, in her whole body. Nothing that she hadn’t worked through before. How many ultra-endurance events had she done? Taking the transport to a new planet might count, but that had been months of looking at the same place. This, at least, was something different.

The show had to go on. Carys walked over to the fountain and jumped up on the narrow rim around the pool. The smooth surface was slick but her bare feet gripped the edge and she walked nimbly along to the other side and jumped down.

Inside the main doors of Venera 4 was a polished lobby of dark stone. In the center, caught in a spotlight, was the promised model of Venera 4. A Russian probe, according to the plaque, it was the first probe to land on another planet. It rose up through the center of the building, over three meters high.

Clunky, old, with bulky components and none of the grace of even the transport that brought her to Venus. How far had they come! From this, to Aphrodite, the floating city that she was currently enjoying. It was humbling. She was a thrill-seeker, a professional adventurer, and so too, in a way, were the people that built this probe.

Carys looked up at Green. “That’s where it all started, isn’t it? Impressive, I’m glad that they added this replica. It’s fantastic, brilliant.”

The rest of the building was modern, indistinguishable from anything that she might find on Earth, although the pictures lining the hallway were portraits of those involved in the history of Venus exploration.

There was an elevator, which she took, to the third floor. It opened onto a narrower corridor, the floor smooth and artificial, panels instead of stone. Lights brightened the otherwise dark hall, shining on alcoves overgrowing with green plants at regular spaces down the hall.

Her door, 310B opened into a corner suite. She used the digital key on her cell to open the door and walked in to a bright apartment. All the curtains were open, and the outer walls were simply windows. Opaque from the outside, transparent in here. The glass filtered the light, giving it a bluish tint, so that even the sky outside looked somewhat more bluish than yellow.

Carys frowned and pointed at the windows. “Look at that, blue skies on Venus? I guess it makes people feel more at home or something, than always seeing that yellowish sky.”

The apartment itself was furnished simply, tastefully. No plants in here, although there were small tables and shelves that could hold plants. Probably if she asked for them, she could get them.

She wandered into the apartment, spy-eyes rotating around her to keep her in view, and took it all in. Main room, a couch, loveseat facing each other across a coffee table. Wall screen, taking up the space above an inset artificial fireplace. A dining area, with a short shelving unit helping to define and separate the space from the living area, in front of the windows. A round table, four chairs. It looked sunny and inviting.

Around the corner, a kitchen area, and beyond it an open door into the bedroom area.

Carys smiled and spun in place. “Well! This is lovely, isn’t it? I didn’t bring much, but I’ll make it home soon!”

She went to the windows between the dining area and the kitchen, there was a door and a narrow balcony outside. Down below was a park-like space with weeping willows, a few small pines, and green lawn. Beyond it, more buildings, and not too far off, the honeycomb outer barrier rising up across the sky. The colors looked more Earth-like, given the tinted glass.

“Look at that view! Yes, I definitely will be comfortable here. Diaspora does know how to treat a girl.” She covered another yawn, then winked at the camera. “Right now it’s time for lights out! I’ll see you all tomorrow.”

A couple taps on her cell, and Blue and Green descended, landing on her hand, rolling up into balls. She slipped them into her bag. They’d need to charge tonight.

Moving into the bedroom she touched her lips lightly with her fingers, thinking of Mitchell. He was nice. Real. Interesting, too. Whatever he and his friends were keeping secret, it had Joseph wound tight. Finding out what it was might turn out to be fun.

Her chance came quicker than she had expected, when Mitchell asked her to meet him at the Cornucopia the next afternoon. When he called she was fresh from the shower, wrapped in a towel. She took the call in the living room, and Mitchell appeared larger than life on the wall screen. He gaped, blushed and turned away.

Fortunately the spy-eyes were recording it all, as she laughed, delighted at his reaction. Later, when she edited the footage, she might spare him and cut that out, but she was glad to have it for herself at least.

Today she wore a short polka dot skirt (pink dots) that ended above her knees. She still wasn’t shoes, she’d brought one pair only, and was saving those for special events. With the skirt she work a light white sleeveless blouse. Her hair, which tended to escape in all directions, was mostly captured in her signature red net snood hat. The strap of her bag crossed her chest while the yellow bag hung at the small of her back.

Her spy-eyes, Green and Blue, buzzed ahead and behind, taking in everything that she was recording along with the feed from her glasses. One of the things in the download Victor had given her, were keys to Aphrodite’s cloud, so storage wasn’t an issue any longer.

Cornucopia was busier when she reached it, with groups siting at many of the outside tables, and go in and out of the door. Mitchell and his friends occupied two tables around the corner, somewhat separated from the rest. Two pizzas sat on the tables in front of them.

Mitchell waved her over, and she waved back as she approached.

“Hey there!” She said, as she reached the group. She inhaled deeply, catching the rich tomato and basil smell of the pizza. The cheese was melty, and just browning on the top. “Who do I have to kill to get a slice?”

“No one,” Mitchell said. He gestured to an empty chair beside him. “Care to sit?”

“I’d love to.”

Amy beamed at her as she sat. “Hi! Did you get settled in?”

“I did, thanks.” Carys picked up a plate and held it as Mitchell used a spatula to serve up a slice. “Oh, this looks fantastic!”

Chuck, Joseph and Kirsten all said hellos. Joseph even managed a bit of a smile, lifting a slice in a salute before taking a bite.

She couldn’t resist. She took a bite. Spicy tomato sauce exploded across her tongue, the roof of her mouth, hot but not so hot that it blistered anything. The cheese was rich and stretched as she pulled the slice back.

She swallowed. “Wow, four months in transit gives you a whole new appreciate for good food!”

Joseph put down his slice and leaned forward. “We’re celebrating.”

“What?” Carys took a bite, while looking around the group. They all looked pretty pleased.

Mitchell leaned close. “They’ve agreed to bring you on board.”

“Okay.” Carys snagged a glass of water. “I’m game. On board for what?”

Chuck grinned and held out a tablet. “This. Check it out.”

Everyone was watching. Carys reluctantly put down the slice of pizza, wiped her hands on a cloth napkin, and took the tablet. A video was on the screen, paused.

Her first impression was that she was looking at an artificial whale, one made of largely transparent materials, a honeycomb structure that mirror that of the habitat. Except it wasn’t so much a whale, as whale-like, with a fat central body, longer than wide, a whale-like flipper in the rear and two fin-like propellers on either side.

Inside the whale, visible through the mostly transparent walls, were rods and cables, and other equipment, and at the heart of it a reclining seat. Like where someone would sit.

“Play it,” Kirsten urged.

Carys shrugged, grinned and tapped play.

On the screen an animated featureless blue person climbed up into the belly of the whale, and went forward to the chair, where it sat. The feet went out into pedals and the hands dropped to handles on each side of the seat.

Then the figure started pedaling. the propellers spun and the wide tail rose and fell. The whale-vehicle rose in a spiral, yellowish clouds drifting by, and then a bubble appeared in the distance, catching the sunlight. The figure continued to pedal, using the handles on each side of the seat to change direction and pitch.

The bubble emerged from the clouds, a soap-bubble holding a city, and green trees, walkways clearly visible between green lawns. The whale-vehicle circled the city and then the video stopped.

Carys realized she was holding her breath and everyone was watching her, obviously waiting for her reaction. She exhaled, and said.

“Wow! That’s incredible. Are you telling me that you want to build this?”

“No,” Mitchell said.

“We already have,” Joseph said, smugly. He picked up his pizza and took a bite.

“We want you to come with us,” Mitchell said.

“We so need someone like you,” Amy added. “Someone that can film what we’re trying to do, you know? Experienced at that sort of thing. I showed them my recordings of what you’ve done, I’d brought them with me.”

“You’ve done some impressive feats of endurance,” Kirsten said. “This won’t be that different.”

Carys handed the tablet across the table to Chuck. She picked up her pizza and leaned back, putting her toes up on the edge of the table. “Okay. Cool! Tell me more.”

They all looked at each other. Finally Mitchell leaned close and said, “We’re going to race around Venus!”

It sounded impossibly wonderful. “What? What do you mean?”

Chuck gestured for the tablet. “I’ll show you.”

She handed it back. He took it and quickly pulled up a new display, an animated graphic showing Venus, a bright bubble that must be Aphrodite, and a pod of tiny whale-like vehicles. Red streamers flowed past the city and the pod started swimming, racing ahead of the city, racing each other. In moments they raced clear around the planet and caught up with the city.

“No!” Carys reached out and took the tablet. Her glasses were recording it all. She replayed the animation. Once again the tiny vehicles raced around the planet. “How long is going to take?”

Amy winced. “We’re not sure.”

“We think it’s going to be at least three weeks,” Kirsten said.

“Although that’s assuming everything happens perfectly,” Mitchell added.

Carys handed the tablet back to Chuck. “Wait. Three weeks? Doesn’t it only take four days for the city to get around the planet?”

“We’re not only going around the planet,” Joseph said. “We’re racing the wind ahead of Aphrodite, but it’s blowing with the wind behind us. Our tests suggest that the sky-bikes —”

“That’s what you’re calling them?” Carys asked.

Joseph nodded. “Yes. So we —”

“They don’t look like bikes.” Carys held up her hands. “Sorry, I know that’s not the point, I know you pedal, but they don’t look like a bike.”

“The sky-bikes only gain about 60 kilometers an hour on the city,” Joseph said quickly. “At this altitude that gives us about three weeks of flight time to catch back up to Aphrodite from the other side. We’re essentially chasing the city around the planet.”

“In hurricane force winds?”

“Uh, yeah.”

Amy put her hands on the table. “See this is why you’d be so great! You’ve done things like this!”

“I need more pizza if I’m going to think about this,” Carys announced.

She picked up her slice and took another bite, melted cheese dissolving in her mouth. Nothing about this suggested that any of them had experience with endurance events. And this wasn’t any ordinary effort. She would have to pack everything, no resupply on the way. Nothing beneath the sky bike except miles of air.

Carys chewed. Everyone else was eating pizza too, but what they were really doing was watching her. So were the spy-eyes. She could edit the footage, of course, but she wanted to keep editing to the minimum.

This was exactly what Blackstone hired her for, had she known about the project?

Terra Blackstone hadn’t left anything to chance, if Carys knew anything, she had already figured that out. The team stored their files in the VenusNet, so really there wasn’t anything that would have kept Terra out. And that reception party? Had Rhea and Victor been planning to tell her about the project, arrange an introduction?

It made sense.

Carys finished the slice and picked up another. Amy bit her lip. Mitchell leaned closer. Kirsten and Joseph exchanged a look.

“Okay, I —”

Amy squealed.

Carys held up her hand. “Wait. I have some conditions.”

“Conditions?” Joseph asked.

“Yes. Raise your hand if you’re a trained pilot.”

Kirsten, was that a smirk, raised her hand. So did Joseph and Chuck, but not Amy or Mitchell. Carys waved a finger at the two of them.

“Okay, first, you’re not going. You’re talking about flying around a pilot with a violent atmosphere. No one without flight experience.”

“The sky bikes are lighter than air craft here,” Joseph said.

Carys shook her head. “Nope. Doesn’t matter. And I’m not done. Out of those of you who are pilots, how many have completed an ultramarathon?”

Only Chuck raised his hand, slowly. Carys gaped at the big guy. “Really? You’ve run an ultramarathon? How far? When?”

“When I was in the military,” Chuck said. “There’s a fifty miler in the Capitol Forest near my folks’ place. I was on leave and didn’t want to get out of shape.”

He certainly was big, much more mass. “How long ago?”

Chuck grinned. “Four years ago.”

“And how much have you run since?”

“Not much.”

She nodded and looked at the group. “So I do this solo. I take a sky bike, and make the attempt. The rest of you stay here.”

“We’ve been working out,” Joseph said.

Carys shook her head. “Working out isn’t going to do it. If you don’t have the mind-set to do an ultra, then you won’t make it. Conditions out there are going to be crazy. Wind, currents, storms, lightning, it’s crazy!”

She smiled at them. “Fortunately I was born crazy.”

“What about you?” Mitchell asked. “You’ve been cooped up in the transport for four months. Are you in shape to do this?”

“I will be,” Carys said. “We start training. I need to learn to fly this thing you’ve built. We’ll do tests around the city. Out and back, that sort of thing. When I’m ready, then I’ll go.”

There were a lot of hesitant looks around the table. Kirsten spoke up. “We don’t actually have approval for all of this. We figured that once we were on the way, they couldn’t do anything about it. There isn’t really anything that could come out and get us.”

“Are you suicidal?” Carys asked. “Even out riding in remote areas on Earth, I had GPS tracking, I had planned ways to bail out, if necessary. We had my itinerary figured out, so if I didn’t make a checkpoint that help would get dispatched.”

“We didn’t think they’d approve it,” Amy said. “We’ve been doing it after hours. What do we do if we can’t get approval?”

“Leave that to me.” Carys picked up her slice of pizza. “Technically I’m independent. I’ll call Blackstone, get her to back the project. We’ll have all the support we want. That’s the deal, I do it solo, I’ll get the support we need, and you all back me up. Deal?”

She took a bite of the pizza, savory the spicy sauce while everyone looked at everyone else, but they were smiling, even Joseph.

“Yes,” Kirsten said, breaking the silence.

Everyone cheered. Carys lifted her pizza slice in salute. Absolute insanity, her favorite thing.

Getting a hold of Blackstone proved harder than Carys expected, but after getting bumped up the Diaspora chain of command, she finally was connected through to Terra in route back to Earth behind the first solar sail from Mercury. Apparently she’d taken a transport out for the first launch. Given the lag, a real-time conversation wasn’t possible. Carys outlined the proposal and waited for an answer.

It was evening, actually dark this time, as Aphrodite had moved into the nightside of the planet, when the call came back. Carys was in her new apartment, reviewing all the details on the sky bikes.

Terra Blackstone, beautiful as always, was wearing a black workall when she came on the screen. Not the baggy sack regulation version, but a custom one that hugged her curves. The top three snaps were undone, revealing a generous cleavage. Her dark hair was braided back in a complicated French braid. The transport habitat must be rotating, because she didn’t have that puffy face look that zero gravity gave everyone. And she wasn’t floating.

Blackstone smiled brightly and spoke, with solidly American Northwest accent. “Carys! I’m so glad that you made it across the void to Venus! You’re perfect for Aphrodite, exactly what it needs to liven things up! And from your report, it looks like you’ve found exactly the way to do it. I’d heard a rumor about this plan, I’m glad that it panned out.”

A rumor? Of course that’s what it was. Carys shook her head at the recording. Leave it to Blackstone to know what was going on anywhere in the solar system right now.

“I’ve already sent word to support this enterprise. We need to show people the sorts of adventures that are available out here. It isn’t all about cataloging rocks. We’re out here to live life! This is perfect. I trust you to work out the details, work with the administration to get what you need for the project.”

Blackstone pressed her hands together in front of her chest. “Carys, I have to say it, be careful. I appreciate your sense of adventure, but I also appreciate your good sense. It’s dangerous out here, and mistakes can quickly lead to disaster. We will have accidents, we can’t help that. I still want to avoid them if possible.”

Diaspora had already weathered several accidents. People back on Earth were adapting to the idea that if people were going to live in space, sooner or later they’d die there too.

Blackstone smiled. “And have fun! I can’t wait to see your footage!”

The recording ended. Carys grinned up at the floating spy eyes. “You heard it here! We’re going to race around the planet!’

Hell, she was going to race around the planet. A small part of her had been hoping that Blackstone would squash the project. But that was okay? It was normal enough to have the jitters before a big adventure. She just had to work out all the details and it’d be fine.

Her door chime rang an hour later, while she was studying atmospheric data gathered so far on Venus.

“Come in,” Carys said.

The front door opened. Green buzzed around to a new position to take in the door, her and whoever came through. Blue mirrored Green on the other side.

Mitchell walked in, all dreaming and dark. He smiled at her, and that was nice too.

“How’s it going?” He asked, letting the door close.

Carys put aside her tablet and rose up off the couch. She stretched her arms out above her head, arching her back, and really stretched, groaning appreciatively. Mitchell’s smile widened.

“Fine,” Carys said, lowering her arms and moving closer. “You?”

“Better now,” Mitchell said, taking her hands.

She drew him down for a kiss, which didn’t really end until somehow they ended up down on the couch, and she was lying half on him, half off. She rose up, kissing his nose as she pulled back.

“I heard back from Blackstone. She loves it.” Carys grinned. “We’re getting all the support we could want. Did you know that she was on Mercury?”

“What was she doing there?”

Carys trailed her fingers along his ear. “Apparently she went there to catch a ride on the first solar sail. Now she’s on her way back to Earth, or the Moon, probably.”

“You’re really going to do this, aren’t you?” Mitchell asked.

She pushed up more, planting her hands on his chest, she swung her leg over his, straddling his thigh. “What? Before I came along you were planning on doing it yourself!”

Carys squeezed her legs against his, applying enough pressure to let him know how strong she was. “I’m up for it. Are you?”

His hands came up, running up her hips beneath the skirt. “Up for something, but not the ride. We weren’t going to do it.”

“What?” Carys laughed and tugged his shirt up, exposing his stomach. It wasn’t exactly a six-pack, maybe a three-pack, with a little extra padding. “You weren’t?”

“No.” Mitchell lifted his head toward her cleavage, but she pulled back.

“What do you mean?”

Mitchell dropped back, groaning. “We weren’t. We’d talk and talk about it, but we weren’t doing anything. It was very frustrating.”

She moved up higher, rubbing against him. “And then I showed up.”

His hands cupped her bottom, shifting her over a few inches. “Yes. You showed up. You called their dare.”

She leaned forward, her blouse grazing his face. “And now we’re going to do it for real.”

“Are we?”

“Oh, yes,” Carys said.

The few weeks before launch passed quickly. The group worked on getting the sky bike operational, and Carys worked on training, using a recumbent trike that Chuck put together for her. She spent hours, racing around the paths around and through Aphrodite, tracing out a route that took her over ten miles to complete and repeated it over and over again.

Riding the trike worked different muscles than riding a mountain bike or street bike. Instead of being up she was sitting in a mesh seat slung across a metal frame, reclining with her feet up on the pedals. The first couple days she had issues with her toes feeling numb, until her legs adjusted to the new position.

The weakness induced by four months in transit to Venus melted away.

And there was Mitchell. That worked a whole different set of muscles.

In addition to the trike, she spent hours working on body weight exercises, just getting herself in shape. She’d ride the trike around Aphrodite and stop in one of the many lawn areas to stretch, jump and work out. She climbed the willow trees.

Then the day came when Joseph approached her holding a what looked like a red latex body suit, while she was stretching on the lawn near Cornucopia. He held out the suit.

“What’s that?”

“Your environmental suit,” he said.

“My what?”

“Environmental suit. For working outside in the Venus atmosphere. You don’t need a space suit, the air pressure is essentially the same outside as inside, but you need protection from the aerosol acids.”

“Yeah, that sounds good.” Carys took the suit. It was slick and shiny, and apparently it’d be skin tight if she put it on. Early on they’d done measurements with lasers, that must have been used to make this. She raised an eyebrow. “Did you have to make it skin tight?”

Joseph actually turned an interesting shade of red himself, and rubbed his scruffy beard. “If it’s loose, the acid might pool, and is harder to clean off. It needs to be, um, as smooth as possible.”

He turned redder, and took off a hard black backpack he was wearing. He held it out. “This is a breathing unit. It scrubs CO2, and provides supplemental oxygen.”

He flipped a catch and the curved neck piece opened up. “This fastens to the neck collar, making a seal so that the air doesn’t leak. The whole thing is coated, like the suit, to shed the acid.”

Carys tossed the suit over her shoulder and took the breathing unit. The backside was sculpted, clearly designed to fit her back as tightly as the suit. “Do I have to wear this while I’m riding the sky bike?”

“Well, um, it’s a precaution. If you have a leak, or have to go outside to fix something, it’ll protect you. I don’t think you’d want to have to change in an emergency.”

“A leak?” She slid the suit down her arm, running her hands over the suit. There was a seam at the front. “Speaking of that, how do I take care of business while wearing this?”

“You’d have to take it off.” The red had been bleeding from Joseph’s cheeks, now it flooded back. “We tried to minimize seams.”

“Okay. So as long as I don’t have an emergency while I’m naked, taking care of business. Maybe I should just fly naked, it doesn’t look all that comfortable.”

“Oh, it is!” Joseph smiled and rubbed at his jaw, blushing furiously. “Not that I’ve worn it! I mean, your’s. I’ve tried one made for me. A prototype test. It’s stretchy, very comfortable.”

“Glad to hear it. Thanks Joseph. Anything else?”

“Yes,” he said. “We wanted to give that to you because we’ve got the sky bike ready, two more are just about ready to go.”

“That’s great!” Carys glanced up at Green, hovering off to the side, to catch them both in the shot. “Did you hear that? Time to fly!”

“Now?” Joseph asked.

“You just said it was ready.”

“I thought you’d want more time to train, to get ready.”

“I might,” Carys said. “After I get a feel for what it’s like. Let’s take it out for a test flight, stay near Aphrodite, and see how it handles. Assuming that goes well, we’ll have more information for our planned launch.”

Joseph grinned, but it was an uneasy thing, like he was going to be sick. Carys thumped him on the shoulder. “Aren’t you glad I came along? If I hadn’t it might be you taking it out for the first test flight.”

Carys went over to the trike parked on the path and sat down, slipping her feet into the pedal straps. She held the pack and suit on her lap, awkward, but she didn’t plan to go far. “Let’s go! Lead on!”

With a nodded Joseph moved, heading up the path toward the university buildings.

Carys had been in the workshop once before, shortly after taking on the role of the solo pilot. The group had given her the grand tour of the partially built sky bike and had shown off the model versions they’d built and tested in a wind tunnel that Amy had put together.

Outside the building Carys parked the trike in a rack, took her messenger bag off the rack in back, slug it over her shoulder and carried the suit and breathing unit as she followed Joseph down into the workshop.

The workshop had changed. The sky bike hung suspended from the ceiling, facing the large airlock doors in the outer wall. This space had been chosen because it had direct access to outside, through the airlock. That had also imposed certain design limitations on the sky bike, notably that the flipper-propellers couldn’t be deployed until the bike was outside, and both airlock doors had to open at once to let it out. That had meant more work to seal the workshop so that the atmosphere could be pressurized so that it kept the Venusian atmosphere out when they launched the bike.

None of which had been accomplished until Carys had gotten Blackstone’s support on the project. Then the administration had pitched in, even as Carys insisted the team maintained control over the project.

That hadn’t made certain professors happy about being excluded.

The sky bike was magnificent. Up close, it was sleek and elegant, with a whale-like shape. The whole thing was covered in a transparent material over a honeycomb frame. the same sort of materials as Aphrodite itself. Which meant that it was tested materials, even if the shape and design differed.

Everyone was there, including Mitchell. He gestured up at the sky bike. “What do you think?”

“She’s beautiful.” Carys dropped her bag, the suit and breathing unit in a heap on the floor. Then she walked around the sky bike, reaching up to run her fingers along the skin. It was smooth to the touch, but not fragile-feeling. Solid. Ready to face the forces outside.

Amy popped up at Carys’ elbow. “What are you going to call it?”

Carys grinned. “The Vestal Virgin.”

“That’s great!” Amy clapped her hands.

Kirsten stepped in front of Carys. “Good choice, you’ll take good care of her?”

“Yes. We’ll take care of each other.”

Chuck pointed up at the Vestal Virgin. “Wait until you get up into the cockpit. I think you’ll like it. Everything cut to your measurements.”

Carys laughed. “Like the suit?”

“It has to fit like that,” Mitchell said.

She tilted her head. “I’m sure. Joseph explained it. Maybe later you can give me a hand trying it on.”

Mitchell kissed her, his lips warm. “I’d like that.”

“Enough of that,” Kirsten said. “Let’s get you up in there. See how she feels.”

“You know that sounds wrong, don’t you?” Carys asked.

Laughter all around, all good stuff for the cameras. Chuck brought over the rolling stairs and with everyone, including her audience once she published this, watching, Carys climbed up to the side.

There was a hatch on the top side, just ahead of the tail joints, leading into a small airlock space. A twist and pull, and it popped open. Not too hard. She swung her legs in and realized immediately that anyone below would be seeing right up her skirt. Her lips quirked into a smirk and she winked up at the camera.

“Don’t do this with someone beneath,” she said.

Everyone was standing back at the moment. She dropped into the small space. The spy-eyes zoomed in, programmed to follow her, but she waved them off. “Stay back, film from outside.”

The spy-eyes pulled back.

Carys crouched and pulled the hatch shut behind her.

Hot air blasted her from all sides, blowing up her skirt. Carys pressed it down and shouted. She heard laughter outside. After a moment the wind died, although strands of her hair had escaped from her net hat. She pointed at Mitchell and the rest laughing.

“What was that?”

“It’s designed to purge any outside gasses, and dry out your suit,” Joseph called, his voice only somewhat muffled. “Sorry! We didn’t think to warn you.”

Right. They just wanted to laugh about her skirt getting blown up around her waist. The space didn’t let her stand up straight. There was another hatch, in the wall this time. Another twist and pull, and it opened up. She crawled through, moving forward into the bike.

There the space opened up more. Not enough to let her stand up right, but she could move around. There was a narrow honeycomb deck that ran around the central section to the front where her seat was. The big central mass held all of the equipment for her environmental systems, and storage of food, water and everything else she needed. Before she went out, she’d inventory everything, but right now she wanted to see the pilot’s seat.

Carys moved on ahead.

The seat was comfortably familiar, much like the trike. She dropped into the seat and instantly felt at home. Two tablets mounted on armatures gave her controls over the electronic systems, but the real key were the pedals directly in front of the seat. She slipped her feet into the straps. Perfect fit.

The lock bar was down, preventing the pedals from turning. Same thing that she’d do when she slept, leaving the sky bike to drift with the wind. They’d discussed autopilots, but as soon as they automated it, she’d be nothing more than a passenger. She had insisted only on life-support, nothing more.

They’d really done it. Carys ran her hands along the steering rods on either side of the seat. Those rods controlled the flipper-propellers still stowed against the sides. The pedaling action caused the tail to move as well, providing even more thrust to propel the Vestal Virgin through the sky. Twist controls on the right handle shifted gears in the internal hub to increase power. Braking levers on both handles would slow the flippers down to provide some brake-steering capability.

Outside Blue and Green both flew around the front of the sky bike, coming closer from both sides to get a good look at her face.

She smiled widely and waved at the cameras. “This is going to be a blast!”

It took two more days to get everything ready for the Vestal Virgin’s maiden voyage.

When Carys walked into the workshop, her spy eyes ahead and behind, conversation died as all eyes were on her.

It wasn’t only the team. In addition to them, there was a crowd of nearly thirty other people gathered around the Vestal Virgin. News of the launch had spread through the tight-knit community. Someone in the crowd whistled. Carys grinned in response.

Joseph had been right, the suit was comfortable, but it left nothing to the imagination. The slick red material clung to her like a second skin, like she had been dipped into the suit rather than having pulled it on. It covered her from her toes all the way to the open seal at her neck. She’d left the front open enough to show some cleavage. She carried the breathing unit in one hand, and the transparent top of the suit was hanging down her back.

Carys paused, placing her left hand on her hip and waved her right happily at the crowd.

Now wasn’t the time to be shy. Mitchell moved out of the crowd and walked toward her. She moved, walking to meet him. They came together and she melted against him, the slick suit doing little to diminish the sensation of him touching her. They had already experimented with that when she first tried on the suit. She’d never been much for the whole latex and bondage scene, but this was very interesting. No exposed metal, of course, given the need to resist the corrosive atmosphere.

Mitchell’s lips found hers and they kissed. As she melted into his warm touch, the crowd went wild. They cheered and clapped, more whistles rang out.

He pulled back. “Everyone’s excited about the flight.”

“It’s only a test flight,” she said. “This isn’t the big launch yet.”

“Still, it’s a big deal. A new craft.”

Carys looked up past him at the camera, then away, to kiss his neck. Mitchell moaned, then pushed her gently back. “None of that, or I’m never going to let you try this. You can still back out, you know? We could do more tests.”

“No. I want to do this.” She laughed. “Come on, it’ll be a blast. Let’s go!”

She squeezed his hand and moved around him, waving again to the cheering crowd. Rhea and Victor came forward. Rhea smiled.

“This is exciting! Thanks for inviting me. I can’t believe you’re doing this, I’d be too scared!”

Carys shook her head. “I have confidence in the team. The Vestal Virgin is only the first sky bike. They’ve got several more in production. I think this is going to be a popular draw for Venus, after we prove the concept.”

“Good luck,” Rhea said.

“Yes,” Victor added. “Good luck. Be careful out there!”

Carys kept moving, then Amy was there, bouncing in front of her with a high-pitched squeal. Amy threw her arms around Carys and hugged her tight. Carys laughed, hugging her back. When Amy pulled away her eyes were watery.

“Hey!” Carys shook her head. “No tears! This will be great. Just wait and see.”

Amy blinked rapidly. “I know, I’m just excited. I get teary when I get excited.”

“Okay,” Carys said, laughing gently.

Everyone was crowding around her, but she kept moving. Now that she was here, essentially naked in this red suit, she wanted to get on the sky bike and get out there. But she had to be friendly for the crowd, so she waved, shook hands and accepted the well-wishes.

Right at the base she found the rest of the team. Chuck, Joseph and Kirsten were all standing together beneath the sky bike. Carys smiled at them.

“Hey! Look at this, you’ve got everyone excited. Nice, isn’t it?”

Chuck nodded. “Yes, it’s crazy.”

“Good luck,” Kirsten said. “You’ll be fabulous.”

“Thank you.”

“Good luck,” Joseph said.

Carys ran a hand down her side. “Thanks for the suit, it fits great.”

Once again, Joseph blushed, grinning widely. Carys grinned back. “You may have started a new fashion statement, people are going to want to come to ride sky bikes, and they’re all going to need suits. You should go into business.”

Joseph nodded. “I think we’ll all be busy with this!”

The ladder was already in place. Carys climbed up the steps. When she reached the top she waved at the crowd below. The crowd cheered, and listening to their cheers, she climbed down into the airlock. Once inside she held up her hand.

“Come on, boys!”

The spy eyes descended to her outstretched hand. Blue landed first and rolled into a ball. Green followed. She didn’t have any pockets in the suit, so she just held onto them and pulled the hatch down with her other hand.

This time, as the hatch closed, she was ready for the blasts of hot air. If she’d been outside it would evaporate and purge the Venusian atmosphere from her suit. When it stopped she opened the inner door and moved through, sealing the hatch behind her.

The breathing unit fit into a storage space within easy reach behind the seat. If she got into trouble it would only take a second to pull the suit’s hood up over her head, seal it, and get on the breathing unit.

After storing the unit, Carys dropped into the seat. Through the transparent sides the crowd was moving away, leaving the workshop. They wouldn’t want to be inside when those doors opened. The higher pressure inside the workshop would keep out most of the Venusian gasses, but not all.

Carys lifted up the rolled up spy eyes. She tapped on Blue’s shell. “Wake up!”

Blue unrolled, its wings unrolled out and it buzzed.

“Yeah, it’s time! Let’s get filming. Try not to run into the walls.”

Blue rose up and flew around the small cabin. Carys tapped on Green’s shell. “Come on, wake back up. We’ve got a flight to record!”

Green unfurled and in a few seconds had taken a perch up on the storage section behind her seat.

Carys activated the tablets mounted on either side, above her handle controls, and the radio. “This is Vestal Virgin, anyone out there?”

“Virgin, this is Aphrodite.” That was Mitchell. “The workshop is clear. We’re ready to launch if you are?”

Carys flipped through the displays on the tablets. All the sensors throughout the sky bike reported green. Navigation and external cameras all functioning. They hadn’t automated the sky bike, but there were plenty of diagnostics. If necessary, she was able to make quite a few repairs while in flight.

“Everything looks green here, Aphrodite. Let’s get those doors open and go for launch.”

“Okay, Virgin. We’re starting the launch sequence. Doors opening.”

Red strobes came on ahead around the big airlock door. The panels slid open, revealing the inner airlock. It took a few minutes. Carys grinned up at Blue.

“I hate waiting. It’s the worst. I want to get out there, and see what she can do!”

Soon the inner doors were fully open.

“Opening outer doors, Virgin. Stand by.”

“Just waiting here, Aphrodite. Maybe I’ll take a nap while you get things ready.”

Mitchell laughed. “No napping. We’ll have you launched in a few minutes.”

The outer doors cracked open.

On the other side, nothing. A void of yellowish clouds like a bright, dense fog bank. She hadn’t wanted to do the test during the passage around the night side. This was meant as a short run, a couple laps around the city to prove the capabilities.

The wind outside howled against the opening. They’d pressurized the interior, so they were actually blowing out breathable atmosphere to keep out the Venusian atmosphere.

The outer doors finished opening.

“Extending carrier,” Mitchell said. “Hang on, time to move.”

Carys dropped her hands down to the controls. The rail above moved, carrying the sky bike forward toward the doors. The Virgin wasn’t buoyant until it got outside.

The rail extended out into the airlock and the Virgin moved with it. The bright opening was closer and closer. Nothing but clouds outside. Carys breathed in and out. Nothing to worry about.

Sensors were picking up conditions outside. Just over 26 C degrees. Wind speed in excess of 321 km/h. That didn’t matter as much, everything was moving with the wind. Nothing out there except the wind. And the clouds.

The tip of the Virgin penetrated the atmosphere outside. The sky bike shook and swung on the rail as the wind grabbed at it.

Carys clutched the handles. “Launch!”

“Launching,” Mitchell’s voice said. “Hang on!”

With a snap that pressed her back into the seat, the rail flung her out into the atmosphere. The Virgin spun around and fell.

The Vestal Virgin spun out of control and Carys didn’t even try to fight it. Snap out the flippers now and the sheer forces would rip them right off. She hung onto the seat and it was almost like floating. Except every few seconds the city flipped past, dwindling as she fell away.

The rotation slowed.

“Carys! Carys!” Now she heard Mitchell, coming over the radio. His voice frantic.

“Vestal Virgin here,” she said. “Situation stabilizing. I think.”

It was. The rotation kept slowing. The Vestal Virgin rotated around and finally the orientation settled down enough that she thought it safe to move. Blue and Green took to the air again, filming the inside of the sky bike, and her.

“Descent leveling out,” Carys said, watching the readouts. “That dismount is shaky. We need to work on that for next time.”

“We’re glad that you’re okay. Telemetry looks good. Systems seem good on our end.”

Carys flipped through the tablet displays. “I’m seeing the same thing here.”

The Vestal Virgin wallowed in the air, a loose balloon at the moment, caught in the air currents and drifting. Ahead and above Aphrodite was a gigantic sphere. The only thing around with much structure, hazy already through the clouds. If she didn’t move soon, she might lose sight of the city. She needed to get back up there.

“Disengaging lock out,” Carys said.

Using her right foot, she pressed the bar locking out the pedals up, against the spring loaded resistance, until it locked into place, arching over the crank and pedals. The bar locked into position.

She dropped her feet into the pedal straps and pushed against the pedals. It was hard to make them move. She slipped her hand down to the twist grip and twisted. Four twists into the lowest gear and the pedals moved easier.

At the rear, watching the video feed on the tablets, the Vestal Virgin’s flukes rose and fell. The sky bike surged forward, rolling a bit.

“Releasing flippers,” she announced. She shoved her hands down on two release bars beneath the seat.

Clanging noises sounded through the sky bike as the flippers, folded against the sides of the body, swung out into position. The handles in her hands came to life. She moved them experimentally, and the indirect steering worked like it did with the trike. She pulled in opposite directions and the Vestal Virgin swerved back and forth through the air.

Carys let out a whoop. “It works!”

She pulled back on both levers and the flippers tilted, and the front of the Virgin came up. She pedaled harder, shifted her hand down and twisted up a couple gears. She picked up speed.

It was a fantastic, freeing feeling, to sit surrounded by walls mostly transparent, flying the sky bike up toward Aphrodite.

“We see you,” Mitchell said on the radio. “Looking good. All systems reading green, how are you doing?”

“I’m doing fantastic! This thing handles great, you guys did a brilliant job!”

Pedaling action was smooth. Smoother even than riding the trike around the city. Here there was no friction. When she turned against the wind she the sky bike shook, but the motion readouts told the story as the wind continued pushing her along. It was like swimming across a strong current, it continued to carry her forward even as she moved across.

Keeping the flippers extended and rotate, gave her the necessary lift to rise up until she neared the city. She flew along with the wind currents above the city, passing across the face of it.

Over the radio, came cheering, and down there, through the walls of Aphrodite, were people standing alongside the water processing canal. The honeycombs of Aphrodite’s structure were much bigger than those of the sky bike, but the design was the same.

Carys piloted the sky bike around the curve of Aphrodite, not getting too close, and around to the front. The sky bike lurched and dropped closer to the outer dome.

She twisted the flippers, turning the sky bike away from the city, but the wall rapidly grew closer. What had happened? She pedaled, seeming without much result. The left lever pressed against her hand. The sky bike shifted that way and then the wind caught the sky bike swinging it away ahead of the city.

There must have been an eddy in front of the city, a dead zone where the wind coming around the city on all sides met.

She pushed the left lever ahead and down, pulling back on the right, as she tried turning the Virgin to circle around the other side of the city.

The sky bike dropped down and swung away from the city. The wind was blowing her away, and the flipper orientation was carrying her down.

How then?

Instincts kicked in. She stopped pedaling and brought the left flipper up, and the right back more. Now the Vestal Virgin swung into the wind, coming around and rising back up. The city was ahead, on her left, although she had drifted back a surprising distance. The gap between her and the city stayed fairly steady as the wind carried them both along like two bubbles caught in stream.

Carys started pedaling again, now trying to fly against the wind. It wasn’t so much that she made progress, but she slowed her speed slightly. From the readouts, she watched her speed drop. It was like riding up hill. The Virgin hummed around her. She was essentially flying backward, caught in the super-fast winds, but the movement of the flukes was enough to slow her relative to the city.

Aphrodite came up alongside. Carys locked the levers in place and waved to the crowd gathered outside along Aphrodite’s walls. She couldn’t make out individuals, but it looked like the whole city had turned out to watch her fly past.

She’d have to get footage of it from the city cameras, and from those inside, to edit into her posts.

A quick hard squeeze released the lock outs on the levers and she pedaled harder, gaining speed relative to the city, while in fact slowing down.

She swept around the backside of Aphrodite, dropping down and around. The wind tried to roll her as she turned across it but she was ready for that and turned the Virgin over to cut across the wind at an angle. Her speed picked up.

Around the far side of the city she swept up alongside the sphere and picked up even more speed. This was the challenging part. She had to slow down in order to dock with the extended rail and net.

She pushed both levers forward and stopped pedaling, diving down beneath the city. Her speed picked up more as she dove deeper, then she pulled back on the levers and pedaled hard.

The Virgin climbed up, arching up and up, slowing as it went vertical. A jerk of the flippers in opposite directions and the Virgin rolled over as she reached the top. She pushed forward and leveled the sky bike off, pedaling with everything she had against the wind.

She’d timed it right, coming up just before the rail. A few tweaks got her to the right altitude and she adjusted her pedaling to match the Aphrodite’s speed. Readings from the sensors showed her the relative speed dropping.

“This is Workshop, Virgin, do you read?”

Sweat trickled down her neck. She was panting. She laughed anyway. “Yep. I read you. Coming up for the grab. Are you ready?”

“We’re ready, Virgin. Let’s bring you in,” Mitchell’s voice was smooth, comforting.

A half second pause in pedaling and a twitch of the levers and she brought the Vestal Virgin right up under the rail. Automated hooks reached out, fastening into the catches along the Virgin’s spine. The bar rotated, aligning with the rail.

The sky bike swung beneath the rail, nearly sideways. Carys pulled the levers back, locking the flippers against the sides. Then she slipped her feet from the pedals’ straps and pressed down on the bar release with her right foot. It dropped with a clang down over the pedal crank, locking that in place. She put her feet up on the bar and leaned back, unzipping the front of her suit farther. Sweat trickled down between her breasts.

“Bring me in, Mitchell. That was fantastic!”

The rail pulled the sky bike inside. The rocking from the wind stopped, then the outer workshop doors slid shut, closing her off from the outside.

She did it. She was safely back inside. Fans blew, sucking off any acid that had condensed on the Vestal Virgin’s skin. The process took long minutes.

“Are you okay?” Mitchell asked.

“I’m doing great,” she said. “That was a blast! I can’t wait for the big flight. It’ll be epic.”

Blue was hovering in front of her, just above the tablets. Through it all the spy eyes had been there, filming. She was used to tuning them out. Now she smiled at the camera and winked.

“That was a taste of what’s to come,” she said. “Stay tuned for the big adventure when I race around the entire planet, flying solo, leaving Aphrodite, and circling the entire planet to catch back up to the city!”

Carys had to get out of the seat and was surprised how hard it was, not physically, but she wanted to stay. She wanted to get back out there and start the next adventure.

There was still work to be done before then. The data from the Vestal Virgin’s maiden flight needed to be evaluated. The team had a whole sequence of follow-up test flights planned. Most were out and back, where she’d fly ahead of the city, then turn and slow for the city to catch up.

Outside, people were streaming into the workshop. Mitchell was right there in front, along with the rest of the team. She waved and blew kisses. With everyone watching, she got out of the seat.

The footage that she was going to put together, that was going to sell the trip. This was the trailer to the main event. Look at the excitement out there!

Carys grinned. She’d get out there soon. A few more weeks of preparation, lots of options for test flights, and then the big solo flight around the planet. If everything went as planned, she’d have people watching the adventure on every settled planetary body in the solar system.

She opened the hatch and ducked through. Blue and Green buzzed up and landed on her outstretched hand. There wasn’t room for them to hover in the Virgin’s airlock. It was too tight.

She sealed the inner hatch and opened the upper hatch. Cheers erupted from the gathered crowd. Carys hoisted herself up onto the edge of the hatch, and there was Chuck, pushing the ladder into place. She stepped over and tossed Blue and Green into the air. They unfurled and buzzed around the crowd, filming it all.

Mitchell bounded up the stairs with a big smile on his face. He reached up and put his hands on her waist as he climbed the last few steps. They came together and kissed, to the wild cheers of the crowd.

When they broke she leaned back and caught him glancing down at the unsealed front of the suit, with her sweat-glistening cleavage.

“Hey!”

Mitchell grinned as he met her eyes. “You can’t blame me, I didn’t design it.”

“Yeah? I’m not sure that you didn’t have a hand in it.”

“I could have a hand in it, if you want?”

Carys kissed him lightly. “You’re sweet, we’ve got to go greet everyone.”

“You were fantastic,” Mitchell said. “You’ve made this project a reality in a way we never would have done.”

She kissed him again and then turned with him to look down at all the excited faces. All of these people were adventurers, all of them living and working in a floating city on a hostile planet. They were the true heroes, and when she put together her first video about the project, the teaser, she’d be sure to show that. The footage she had shot outside, showing the city in the Venusian atmosphere would help make it all real.

She waved to the crowd and they cheered. She blew kisses and hugged Mitchell close. Venus was waking up, and the adventure was only beginning!

15,383 words

Author’s Note

Venus Waking takes us to our nearest neighboring planet (I read something recently that called Mars the closest planet, um, no), the second in the Planetary Bodies stories on my tour of the solar system. If you didn’t catch Mercury Rising, it is still posted.

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.

Mercury Rising

Larunda Stark wants the Chief Geologist position in the Diaspora Group’s Taft outpost on Mercury. One of thirteen lucky colonies launched throughout the solar system, Mercury is key to the success of the effort and unforgiving of mistakes.

Also in the running for the position is Mason Gray. As if she needed the distraction.

Everything the Diaspora Group plans centers on success at Mercury and it could all either be her greatest success — or greatest failure.

1

Mercury runs hot and cold. What’s a girl to do? Take advantage of both! So why, with trillions of dollars at stake, couldn’t the Diaspora Group manage to create a comfortable space suit? One that kept the internal temperature and humidity in check? Not to mention one that was easy to get out of?

That’s really what was bugging Larunda Stark as she pawed at latches supposedly designed to work with the bulky gloves. Eventually, using her pinky of all things, she got the latches off and stepped away from the F.H.E.U., or Freaking Heave Environmental Unit. Why didn’t the suit room have robotic arms or something to help with this sort of thing? The F.H.E.U. settled down to the floor in front of the bench.

The magnetic seal at the back of the suit was easier, she tipped her head forward and tongued the switch with a practiced flip of her tongue.

With a snick, the magnetic catches released on the back of the suit. Larunda wiggled her arms down out of the bulky sleeves, squashing her breasts as she tucked her arms into the main body — clearly not designed for anyone bigger than an ‘A’ cup size — and then she did the only thing that you could do with the suit. Push with your arms, as you pulled your head down through the neck ring, and stick your butt out first!

Who thought that a rear entry was a good idea?!

Although the cool air was great, as she wiggled and folded herself nearly in half to get out of the suit. The edges caught her tank top, you couldn’t wear much in the suit without roasting, and pulled it up as she wriggled out.

Finally, covered in sweat, her shirt pulled up her back to her neck, she managed to get her head out. Sort of. The clasp holding back her long red hair got caught on the edge of the suit. She pulled, and the clasp popped open. She promptly fell back and out of the suit, half-naked, and one leg still caught in the suit. Only her quick reactions allowed her to catch the bench before she landed on her ass.

At least there wasn’t anyone —

Someone whistled appreciatively. And clapped.

Heat that had nothing to do with the hot suit, or Mercury’s temperature, rushed to her face. She turned, and who had to be there to witness her clumsiness? Mason Gray, of course, because life did things like that.

 

Mason wasn’t wearing any more or different than she was. Tight black briefs, and an equally tight black shirt. Clothes that covered so little that he might as well have been naked, every lean, muscled inch of him from his bare feet up to his handsome, shadowed jaw and wolfish grin. His dark hair was tousled and wet, as if he’d just come from the showers. Which he probably had since he had turned back first at sunrise.

“What are you doing in here?” She said. Here being the suit storage room, a windowless room leading to the North airlock. It wasn’t a big room, with cleaning and recharging lockers along both sides for the F.H.E.U.s and the suits. Seven hung behind the transparent doors right now, like prisoners lined up for execution with the bags over the helmets. The vacant space stood open, waiting for her suit.

“I thought you might need a hand.” Mason crossed the room and picked up the F.H.E.U. by the handles on both sides. The muscles in his arms bunched as he lifted. With Mercury’s lower gravity, just under Martian gravity, it looked a lot more impressive than it was.

A water drop rolled down one tight bicep. What would it taste like, to lick it off? Larunda pulled her leg out of the suit and stood up, refusing to be embarrassed or think any more about how he might taste.

“I could manage fine on my own.”

Mason levered the F.H.E.U. into her slot and shoved it in until the recharge connections latched into place. “I’m sure you could, but sometimes it’s nice to have another set of hands.”

She bent down and grabbed the suit. Mason’s eyes were on her chest as she straightened, her tank falling forward, and a muscle in his jaw clenched. She wrapped her arms around the suit, dark Mercury soot smearing across her sweat-slicked skin.

“Besides,” she said. “You’ll get all dirty if you help me now, after you’ve already gotten all sparkly clean.”

Mason stepped closer, smelling faintly of the company-issue, chemical soap. Beneath that was something else, that was just him. A human-scent in this place of sun-blasted rock and iron.

“I wouldn’t mind taking another shower,” Mason said.

It took some shoving to get the suit into the cubicle, the arms kept spreading out like the suit was trying to embrace her or climb back onto her. The whole time she felt Mason’s eyes on her. Was he laughing? Smirking? Both? When she finally got it in, she slapped the connections into place, and punched the big red button beside the cubicle to initiate the cleaning process.

The transparent front slid down. Red rim lighting came on around the cubicle while inside steam blasted out, scouring the corrosive Mercurial dust from the equipment. Robotic arms emerged, writhing in the steam as they blasted those hard to reach places.

Of course when Larunda turned around, Mason was still there eyeing her. “Okay, thanks. You were such a great help.”

His eyes narrowed a tiny bit, just a second, as if her sarcastic tone had hurt. She stiffened. How could he be offended? He came in her to laugh at her falling out of the suit, more or less naked, and then acts like she couldn’t handle it herself?

She walked past him without another look. What was really infuriating about the whole thing, was that he was just doing it because he was sure he was going to get the promotion to Chief Geologist. He wanted to throw her off her game, that was it.

Mason followed her out of the suit locker, there really wasn’t anywhere else for him to go, but she breathed easier when he went on straight into the Taft base while she took the turn into the locker room. Time for her to scrub all that grime and sweat off, get some food, and rest before her next excursion outside.

Food, dinner to fill that sucking, ravenous hole in her gut, today was chicken enchiladas, taken up into the cupola over-looking Taft.

She loved the outpost. It crouched like a snowflake in the middle of a deep North polar crater. Appropriate given the wealth of water ice and carbon compounds beneath the outpost. Temperatures on Mercury really did run hot and cold. Like really hot and cold, ranging from 800 F out in the blasting sun, to minus 370 F. The outpost took advantage of both, with massive towers that reached up higher than the crater walls to catch the blazing sun, providing an unending stream of power for the outpost.

Taft was only part of the plan. From here, each day they sent out crews to mark and lay plans for the mining operations, radiating out, taking advantage of the slowly moving terminator to avoid the worst temperature extremes. It was Taft that was going to fuel the Diaspora Group’s plans, producing the massive solar sails that would open up entire the solar system.

Of course there were other expeditions on each of the thirteen major planetary and dwarf planetary bodies, getting things out on the reaches ready. But she got to be here! At the heart of the solar system, the closest outpost to the Sun!

Larunda realized that her tray was empty, the chicken enchiladas already gone. Caught by the view outside the cupola she hadn’t even tasted her meal.

It was all hers, or it would be as if she got the promotion to Chief Geologist. It was that position that would tell the crews where to dig, and it would get her the recognition that she needed to advance. Give it a few years and she could be running the most important operation in the entire solar system!

“What are you doing?”

Larunda yelped and jerked around. Mason again, his head sticking up through the hatch into the cupola. He grinned up at her.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“How long have you been there?”

He didn’t answer. Instead he started climbing up into the cupola, which wasn’t really all that big. The small blister near the top of the central dome, had a single hard seat that ran around the inside, barely more than a meter across. She was sitting across the cupola, with her feet up on the other side.

That didn’t stop him. Mason bumped into her legs. He reached up and put his hand on her bare calf, just below her knee.

“Hey!” Larunda pulled her leg back. With all the heat coming down the central shaft, the outpost stayed balmy. She was wearing standard white regulation shorts, and a matching white t-shirt. No bra. That was one of the great advantages with low gravity.

Mason settled onto the seat on the other side. There wasn’t much room, so it was pretty much impossible to sit facing him with her knee touching his. He was dressed pretty much as she’d last seen him, except that he had also put on shorts over his briefs. The black regulation shorts.

It wasn’t awkward. In space you had to live in tight quarters. You saw things, you just didn’t pay attention. Although, if that was the case, why did Mason have that grin?

“What are you doing here?” She asked. The cupola felt much smaller with the two of them. With the bubble top and the close quarters, it was sort of like being in the front seat of the VW Beetle she had owned back on Earth, if you had turned the seats to face each other.

That ignored the cratered and shadowed landscape outside the windows.

“I came up here to see the sunrise,” Mason said. “You?”

“I was looking for some time alone, to enjoy my dinner.”

“I see that. I noticed when you weren’t in the galley with the rest of the team.” Mason shifted his weight, stretching out his legs to brace them on the seat beside her. The whole length of his muscular leg was pressed right against hers.

Larunda crossed her arms and refused to give him the satisfaction of noticing. She wasn’t paying any attention at all to that muscled thigh, lightly covered with dark hairs. Or to the heat of his skin against hers.

“Like I said, I was looking for some time alone.”

“They’re celebrating the initial survey results. It looks like we can practically scoop up the surface and process it.”

“I’m sure Mercury will have its surprises.” Larunda tore her gaze away from his leg and looked out at the dark, cratered landscape. “Despite what it looks like out there, this isn’t the Moon.”

“Thank the powers that be! It’s one thing to be out here. Another if you had the Earth hanging in front of you all the time, looking like a ripe peach.”

“Ripe peach?” Larunda looked back, right eyebrow arching. “I think you’d have to head out on the Jovian expeditions, maybe Jupiter or Saturn could be described as a ripe peach. Earth’s more of blueberry.”

“Good point. Still, I think I’d be more homesick if I was seeing the Earth all the time.”

“Not me.” She looked back out at the dark landscape, the only light was that spilling from the outpost itself, revealing the cratered terrain broken by their roads and tracks.

The rim of the crater glowed like molten fire from the sunlight just outside the jagged walls. In places the light seeped partway through the rough toothed wall. Eventually she imagined a construction project, like the Great Wall, stretching clear around the crater. A uniform barrier against the seething radiation, protecting them and the ice contained within the crater.

“I love it here. This is a virgin planet, ours to explore. And it is this project that will give birth to all of the solar sails needed by the Diaspora, like a seed releasing its seeds to the wind, Mercury will release its seeds out to the entire solar system.”

It was a grand dream, thousands of the gigantic sails orbiting the Sun, a complex, migratory dance across the system. Local craft had only to boost up, link up with the sail and coast the rest of the way until it was time to disengage. It all was up to them.

“That’s a beautiful dream,” Mason said.

She could almost see it, the sails up there against the black sky. There was a lot to do first, to get the mass driver up and running, the manufacturing facilities —

A hot hand lightly touched her right leg, gliding down. Larunda tore her gaze away from the black sky. Mason’s hand was on her bare calf. His hand was warm and slightly rough, callused to the touch. He ran his hand around her calf and across her ankle.

What was he..?

He brought his other hand up, taking her bare foot in both hands. Her nails were shiny red, although annoyingly the polish on her pinky toes had chipped in the surface suit. Mason’s hands massaged her foot, thumbs working into her tired arch.

“Ohhh.” It was a moan of pure pleasure, escaping without thought.

What was the big deal? It was a massage. That’s all. It wasn’t like it was going to go farther than that.

“All that walking, in those suits is tough,” Mason said. “You’d think that they were designed in a lab by people that never had to use them. Oh, wait, they were.”

Larunda smiled. He was right, of course. “Wouldn’t it be fun to get them out here? Put them out in the day and see how they do.”

Mercury orbited the Sun in a 3:2 resonance orbit. In other words, each day on Mercury was a year and a half long, for Mercury. In three Mercury years, two days passed. During those long days, lasting 176 Earth days, the surface reached upwards of 800 degrees F. Working under those conditions was difficult. Instead they focused on the terminator, the boundary between day and night, laying out markers and taking samples. By the time they finished, they’d have a plan for all the initial mining operations around the Taft outpost crater.

His hands were exactly what her tired feet needed. He slid his hands off her right foot to her left, repeating the same fantastic rhythm without a break in pace. Larunda closed her eyes, leaning her head back against the cupola’s thick windows, savoring the sensations. Hot pressure, pushing and rubbing aching muscles. Hot and wet around her toe, sucking —

What?! She jerked her foot in surprise.

“Owww!” Mason’s hands were on his face, blood oozing between her fingers.

“Oh shit,” she said. Her heel must have caught him in the face when she jerked her foot back. She hadn’t anticipated him trying to go down on her toe!

“I thut you er joyin that?” His voice was muffled, and pained. He tilted his head back, and there was more blood running down around and on his mouth.

“We have to get you to the infirmary, should I call for help?”

“No thag you. I kin wulk.” Mason turned and stepped down through the hatch, pinching his nose with one hand while climbing with the other.

His hand smeared blood on the rungs. Ick. This was all that she needed, too, with the promotion on the line. What if he filed assault charges or something? She hadn’t meant to hurt him, but he’d surprised her. And it had felt good, too, she just hadn’t expected it.

Not that he should have done it, anyway. Larunda started down the rungs out of the cupola, stopping at the last second to pick up her empty tray. Sucking on her toes definitely wasn’t something that should happen without warning, or before several dates. Not sprung on her during an innocent foot massage when her eyes were closed!

Mason held up his free, and bloody, hand when she bounced off the last rungs into the corridor. “Thag you, Stark. I’ll goo by myself.”

“I can walk you there. What if you have a concussion, or something?”

“I’m fine.” He turned and walked away. He wasn’t staggering or anything. There were a couple scarlet drops on the floor. At least his clothes were black.

A hour later her work was interrupted by a summons to the warden’s office. Jack Warden, Chief of Operations Personnel, really, how could they do that. Jack was retired military, fifty-five, gay, and bragged that he was so tough that even Mercury’s high temperatures couldn’t melt him. He wasn’t their boss, he handled staff issues and worked to make sure that they had what they needed to get the job done. His recommendation would also carry a lot of weight with the review board when it came time for promotions.

The office was on the third floor down, that is in the levels buried in the subsurface. The more ice they melted out, the bigger the outpost grew. The C.O.P. offices had a tough gray carpet formed from metal fibers harvested from the mining operations. It was short and was like walking on steel wool. It was the only place in the base where the floor wasn’t sheet metal panels over compressed pumice.

Larunda knocked on the door.

“Come in.” Jack’s deep voice carried easily through the door.

She took a breath and pushed open the door. The bottom edge dragged a bit on the carpet. Right ahead were two dark metal chairs, also made locally, and Mason Gray was sitting in one, bandages over his nose.

If this was about the promotion, it didn’t look like it was good news.

“I said come in, not stand there letting out my warm air,” Jack complained.

Larunda stepped inside and shut the door. It was warm in the office. Hot even. A dry baking heat. The chairs, including the one with Mason, faced a desk on the right side of the office. She turned and Jack was sitting there in his chair, his fingers steepled in front of his massive chest, decorated with several medals on his regulation security uniform, brown, short-sleeved, completely crisp and wrinkle free. A blue light blinked on his cell earpiece.

A beard, black and gray, gave him a wolfish look. He smiled at her, the sort of smile that might make some women melt if he wasn’t so obviously gay. Mason was muscled, but Jack out-bulked him by several inches, anywhere you looked.

Jack nodded at the empty seat. “Sit down. Tell me what’s going on between the two of you.”

Mason opened his mouth and Jack pointed at him. “I told you to stay quiet. Don’t go putting words in her mouth.”

Shit. What had Mason said? Their eyes locked for a second. The corners of Mason’s eyes narrowed. What did that mean? Was he pissed? Had he filed a complaint? She perched on the edge of the seat.

“It was an accident, that’s all,” Larunda said. “I didn’t mean to hurt him.” She looked at Mason. “Is it broken?”

“No,” Mason said, his voice mostly normal. He glanced at Jack, then back to her. “Nothing broken. Just pressure bandages, to stop the bleeding. I can take them off later.”

Jack waved a finger between them. “This isn’t the sort of thing I expect to see from the candidates for the Chief Geologist position. It’s a crucial role here at Taft. You’re going to be making the decisions where we dig. Screw that up, and you’ve screwed up the entire Diaspora project.”

“It wasn’t anything like that,” Larunda said. She didn’t want to get into the details.

Jack leaned forward. “So, it wasn’t about the promotion, then I have to assume that there’s something going on between the two of you.”

“No!” Larunda said.

“Yes.” Mason said.

Her head snapped around, eyes focused on Mason. He grinned at her and winked. Heat flooded her face. She turned back to Jack. “There isn’t.”

“There is,” Mason said. “I know the regulations, I’m sorry, it’s just —”

“There isn’t!” Larunda protested. “He forced his way into the cupola!”

“Forced?” Jack’s voice was hard.

“Hey!” Mason laughed, leaned forward. “I didn’t force anything. It wasn’t like that.”

Jack looked at Mason. “You said it happened in the locker room, trying to help put away her F.H.E.U..” He looked at Larunda. “You say it happened in the cupola. Which is it?”

“The cupola,” Larunda said, quickly and firmly. “Mason did help me with my gear, but that’s not where this happened. Check the scutter logs, they had to clean up the blood in the cupola, on the ladder, and the corridor beneath.”

A glance over at Mason revealed he was sitting back, not looking at her at all. His gaze was fixed on the small barrel cactus on Jack’s desk.

“Okay,” Jack said. “I’ll do that. Now tell me what happened in the cupola. You say there’s nothing going on between you? Then what happened?”

“An accident, that’s all. I was up there for the view, while I ate my dinner. Mason came up, it’s a small space. He gave me a foot rub —”

“A foot rub?”

Her cheeks started to burn again, so frustrating, but she ignored it and went on. “Yes. A foot rub. Spending the day out in those suits is tough. Your feet get sore. It was nice, but it didn’t mean anything.”

Jack gestured at the silent Mason. “How does a foot rub lead to a bloodied nose?”

Larunda shrugged. “Like I said, an accident. My eyes were closed and he sort of sucked on my toe. It surprised me.”

She didn’t dare even look at Mason. He still wasn’t saying anything.

“Is that right?” Jack asked, his eyes focusing on Mason.

She still couldn’t look at Mason. All she wanted was to get out of the room.

“Yes,” Mason said. “That’s it. Obviously I misread the situation. I probably deserved the kick in the face.”

“I didn’t mean to kick you,” Larunda said. “I was surprised.”

Jack nodded. “Okay. Doesn’t it feel better to have the truth out in the open?”

No. Not at all. Her stomach was a knot, her cheeks were hot, and why did Jack have to keep his office so hot? All she wanted was to get out of here, get away from them both and focus on the job. She hadn’t done anything wrong, nothing that might jeopardize her chance at the promotion.

Jack settled back. “I’ll remind you both that the regulations discourage fraternization within departments. One of you is going to end up working for the other, depending on the outcome of the review. I’m sure you see the problem. No one is expected to live a celibate life out here, heck, we came out here to live life. Give it a few years and I expect to see children running through these halls, gods help us all. Use your off-time. Get out and meet some of the other people here. We’ve got nearly six hundred people in this base right now. Look at the social calendar on the net. Otherwise, with the two of you, keep it professional. If either of you needs a massage, go see one of the masseuses, they’re quite good at their jobs. Do we understand each other?”

“Yes, sir,” Mason said.

“Yes, sir.” Larunda scooted to the edge of her seat. “Is that everything?”

“Yes.” Jack waved a hand. “Get out of here and let me get back to work. You wouldn’t believe the stack of appraisals I have to get through.”

She was out of her seat before he finished talking. When he stopped she slipped around the chair and went to the door. In the corner of her eye, Mason was up and moving toward her. Larunda opened the door and escaped outside.

She didn’t breathe easier until she made it back to her rooms and shut the door. What was Mason trying to do, claiming something was going on between them? She leaned back against the door. Maybe he thought that, maybe she should have been more careful, but he knew the rules!

A hard knock on her door drew a yelp from her lips. She jumped, bouncing away from the door in the lighter gravity. The jump took her half way across her small sitting room. She turned in mid-air and landed lightly on the balls of her bare feet.

“Yes?”

“Larunda?” That was Mason’s voice! “We need to talk.”

Mason? Here? He was crazy! “I don’t think so. I’ll see you tomorrow. At work!”

“I’m not leaving until you open the door.”

What? Larunda crossed back to the door. She hit the panel and it slid open. Mason was standing right there, hands on either side of the doorway. He’d taken off the pressure bandages on his nose. There wasn’t any bruising. He looked fine. Really fine. His lips were pressed together.

“What? You heard Jack. If he knew about this it might be misinter—”

Mason stepped close, his hands going to her waist. He pulled her against him and his lips pressed against hers. It was like the terminator had swept over her, filling her with the blazing heat of the sun.

She melted against him. Her lips parted and his responded too, moist and hot, hungry for her. His hands moved up her sides, leaving her skin beneath the thin shirt tingling. Her hands stopped fluttering and settled on the sides of his face. His stubble was rough against her palms and her lips.

They parted, both breathing heavy, and his forehead pressed against hers.

“Nothing between us?”

“Shut up.” She grabbed his shirt, slapped the door controls, and bounced back, pulling him into the room. The door slid shut.

Larunda pulled his shirt from his shorts and ran her hands over his stomach, tracing the hard muscles. He didn’t have any extra weight on him. Everything was lean and tight. He pressed close and his lips found hers again.

The second kiss was as amazing as the first. She savored each touch, each electric moment, the play of their tongues. Jack picked her up and she wrapped her legs tight around him, pressing down, and feeling the hard length of him through their shorts. She drank him down as he bounce-walked around the small table to the couch against the wall.

When they got there he twisted fast, as she laughed as he fell back onto the couch and she rode him down. With her knees on either side of him she raised herself up and pulled back. He reached for her chest but she caught his wrists.

“Nope.” She pushed his arms back down. He resisted at first, then relaxed. Leaning forward to pin his arms put her breasts right in front of his face.

Mason lifted his head and at the first light touch of his tongue along her cleavage, a shiver ran through her. His lips brushed her skin, kissing with light butterfly touches along the swell of her breasts. Larunda bent forward, closing her eyes, finding his ear and nibbled along the edge.

He let out a deep groan and pushed up with his hips. For a second he pressed against her, hard and constrained by their clothes, before she pulled away, lifting off him.

“Larunda,” he moaned.

She kissed lower, moving from his ear down to his neck. Mason’s face moved, seeking her breasts. His stubble was rough against the sensitive skin and it set her nerves alight. Her face burned. She wanted to see move of him. She kissed downward, still clutching his wrists, only to find her progress thwarted by his shirt.

Larunda ran her hands down his arms, releasing him. She drew back and ran her hands across his firm chest, then lower, tugging and pulling at the shirt. His hands moved to her waist, slipping under her shirt as well. His hands ran up the curve of her waist, pushing her shirt up.

They couldn’t both do it at the same time. Larunda yanked his shirt up, forcing his hands off and back. He sat up, helping her pull his shirt free up over his head.

“Ow!”

Larunda pulled back. “I’m sorry, your nose?”

“Forget it.” Mason took the shirt and tossed it to the side of the couch. She pushed him back with one hand.

He was smooth and perfect. A few freckles dusted his skin, but he wasn’t an hairy man. A few small hairs circled each darkened areola.

She ran her fingertips lightly down his chest. He reached for her shirt and she swatted his hand away, then went back to grazing her nails across his skin. He was beautiful, perfect, and…

What was she doing? Jeopardizing her chance at the promotion? They both were? And Jack was right, how would it work, aside from regs, whichever way the promotion went?

Mason tugged at her shirt. Larunda wanted to kiss down his chest, tongue his nipples, but she couldn’t. It wasn’t right. One of them, at least, had to think about the future.

She slid off him, and bounce-stepped back around the small table.

“What are you doing?” Mason asked, sitting up.

“Stopping us. Stopping this. We can’t. You heard Jack.”

“You want this as much as I do.”

Larunda shook her head. “Obviously not, because I’m the one that still has enough sense to stop before we do something we regret.”

Mason rolled on the couch, grabbed his shirt, and stood. He tugged the shirt on over his head. “Too late. I already do.”

He left. Just like that, his words still hanging in the air. He just bounced on out her rooms and was gone.

It hurt. Larunda clenched her fists. It was right, but damn, it still hurt. She on through to the bedroom, passing the bathroom on the way.

During the day the bedroom served as another office area, with the bed folded up against the wall, Murphy-bed style, and a widescreen monitor on the underside. A swing out armature provided a height-adjustable shelf for a keyboard and other items. It was a convenient, ergonomic set up for a stand-up workstation, which was all the more comfortable in the lower gravity.

Briefly she considered going straight to bed, but her nerves were still firing from Mason’s touch. Not to mention how she’d stopped things.

Some work before bed would help clear her head and get her focused.

Gerrold Blevins had been the chief geologist assigned to the Tolkien outpost. Back on Earth he had argued hard for establishing the base in the Tolkien crater. The evidence was all there. Spacecraft data showed a large deposit of water. Most of the crater was perpetually shadowed, except for a bright central peak. It was Gerrold’s recommendation that they build into the central peak, using it to support and provide materials for the outpost, including the large central mast and solar array reaching above the peak to catch the sun’s energy like a plant reaching out of darkness.

Trouble was, for Blevins, that he couldn’t take living in the outpost. He had become paranoid about the water and organic compounds they were mining, fearing contamination by primordial organisms that might have evolved in the interface boundary where the sun’s energy sometimes reached the crater walls.

Crazy, of course. Larunda flipped through Blevins’ reports with a practiced eye. She’d been through it all before, but reviewing it was both a good way to put herself to sleep and to clear her mind.

The Tolkien crater was around thirty miles across, and was only one of the many craters containing similar deposits. One of the difficulties they faced was not only navigating the rough terrain in and out of the crater, but deciding the first spots to mine. Test mines had already cut deep into the Tolkien crater. The Diaspora Group was going to want her recommendation at some point, and she had to have a good case for them.

As always the work pulled her in. Reports from the ground crews, her own work included. Hundreds and hundreds of samples, solar potential, ice versus mineral content. It was dangerous work.

Another yawn made her realize how much time she had spent looking at the data. Over two hours! It was getting late, and there was a staff meeting tomorrow, with the latest orders from home. Hopefully news about the next stage. Mason would be there too, of course, but she just had to be a professional. Surely he would do the same.

Larunda suspended the system, folded away the keyboard arm, and pulled the bed down from the wall. It was a simple solid panel, with a thin foam mattress attached. Given the low gravity, you didn’t really even need that much, but it was nice. If she hadn’t kicked Mason out, they might have been sharing it tonight.

She shook the thought away. It wasn’t going to happen. It couldn’t. Not if she was going to get what she wanted. She didn’t work so hard, sacrifice everything to get here including leaving her mother back home on Earth, to throw it all away now over a guy.

The next day, Larunda made her way to the Meeting Hall for the staff meeting, an amphitheater-style lecture hall built into the outer slope of the central peak. The hallways were full for once, as everyone made their way to the hall.

“Larunda!” The high-pitched voice was behind her, but she recognized it right away.

Phoebe Wilkins, worked in the hydroponics that provided most of the food they ate. Larunda stopped and turned.

Bouncing down the hallway, Phoebe looked more child-like than ever. Petite hardly covered it, Phoebe was tiny, pretty and perky. Brown ringlets floated around her pixie face. The fact that she was rather busty for her size saved her from looking too child-like, but at twenty-six she still looked like she was barely out of her teens. She was wearing green shorts and a matching shirt. Barefoot, pretty much like everyone in the base.

Phoebe caught Larunda’s arm and laughed. “I love the gravity here! Don’t you?”

“It’s great.” Larunda started walking again. “How’s life in the garden?”

“Good. We’re going to have another crop of tomatoes soon.”

“Hmmm.” Fresh tomatoes, it sounded so good. “Do you have any basil?”

“Lots. It totally flourishes down there. Warm, no growing season, what’s not to like?”

Phoebe leaned close. “I saw Mason heading away from your quarters last night, what’s going on there?”

What? Larunda lowered her voice. “Don’t say that! There’s nothing going on.”

“Really, ’cause he’s pretty hot.”

Mason, reclined on the couch, shirtless, his bare skin perfect. Larunda pushed the image out of her mind. “No comment. Nothing’s going on, please, Phoebe, don’t tell anyone? Okay? I can’t have rumors like that floating around.”

“I won’t,” Phoebe said. Her dark eyes narrowed. “Something happened, though, didn’t it? He looked sort of pissed when I saw him. Didn’t even slow down when I bounced.”

Phoebe demonstrated. Her low-gravity enhanced breasts bounced impressively. A miner in orange passing by tripped and nearly collided with two others.

Phoebe giggled.

Larunda shook her head. “Phoebe! You’re going to cause a traffic accident with those.”

“Oh, you have to admit how much fun it is! The bras I had to wear back on Earth? Ugh.” Phoebe shook her chest. “This is so much better!”

“Yes.” Larunda tugged on Phoebe’s arm. “But you’re going to get someone hurt!”

Phoebe just giggled again. “So if nothing’s going on with you-know-who, want to come on a double with me tomorrow?”

“Date?”

“Yeah! I met one of the guys from the motor pool. Suggested we take one of the ramblers out.”

“That’s against regulations,” Larunda said. “I can’t do that with the promotion coming up.”

“I want to go! I haven’t been outside the base since we got here. You get to go out every day!”

Larunda shook her head. “Not every day. Besides, it’s dark out there, and dangerous. You shouldn’t be taking unauthorized trips outside.”

Phoebe pulled away. “Listen to you! When did you become so hung up on regulations?”

“Come on, it isn’t like that. You’re right, I’ve gotten out a lot, and I’ve seen how dangerous it is. I don’t want you hurt, that’s all.”

Phoebe’s lips quirked. “Well, can’t blame you there.”

They’d reached the Meeting Hall and merged with the crowd funneling in through the doors. They were coming in near the top, and most of the seats in the upper rows were already filled with people. The colors included oranges, blues, greens, browns, blacks and whites, depending on department and preference. Mostly t-shirts and shorts, given the heat in the place. Add the warmth already from the piped in solar heating, then throw a crowd of hundreds into the room, and the place was pretty warm.

Not as bad as the suits, but hot. At least the air circulated. The tiers of seats dropped away, all facing a wall of windows. It was the most impressive view in the outpost, which helped encourage attendance.

Through the windows, the dark interior of Tolkien was visible, at least around the base. Sunlight, channeled through reflective tubes from the mast above, lit up the cratered ground around the outpost. Much of the ground was churned up by the base construction, but some craters remained. Beyond the spotlights the terrain faded into darkness. Then, in the far distance, the bright rim of the southern crater wall stretched across the view. At other times in course of the long Mercury day, the light crept further down the crater wall, but never so far as to illuminate the frozen floor.

Sitting in the Meeting Hall was like standing on the shore of vast lake, running out mountains on the distant shore. Which was, in a sense, true, given the ice deposits.

As she settled into a seat with Phoebe midway down the rows, Mason turned onto the next row down. Their eyes locked. A muscle in his jaw tensed and he hesitated. A muscled, stringy miner, her hair chopped short, behind him said something. Mason nodded and moved on down the row, coming closer.

There was an empty seat, one over on her right, in that row. Mason walked to that spot and nodded to her.

She opened her mouth, thinking to say good morning, or something equally inane, and instead nothing came out. Mason’s jaw muscles clenched again and he turned around and sat down.

Phoebe nudged Larunda’s elbow, chuckling softly.

Larunda ignored her as the transparent holoscreen rose up at the front of the stage. The lights in the amphitheater dimmed. Seen through the holoscreen, the stage changed, rippled and holographic furniture and a rich wood floor spread across the space.

The centerpiece was a massive oak desk, richly carved and shining in the center of a spotlight.

“She always likes to dress the stage,” Phoebe said.

That was true. Terra Blackstone, the leader of the Diaspora Group, never took half-measures. If she did, none of them would be on Mercury right now, and none of the other expeditions to the other eleven colonies would have been launched. Still, this was the first one to come online, all according to the schedule that Blackstone had laid out.

The conversation in the amphitheater diminished.

A spark of red surrounded by electric blue appeared in front of the desk. The bright blue glow grew, a thin line tracing the outside of what formed the toe of a shiny, red leather heel, with a pale bare foot inside. The boundary swept up, accelerating, a crawling line of electric blue, leaving behind the long sweep of a perfect bare calf, then knee, and then it spread out wider. In a rush it swept up, tracing the generous curves of the most famous woman in the solar system. In a wash of electricity, it swept up and completed the holographic version of Blackstone.

She was a tall, leggy brunette, leaning against the massive wood desk, her left leg crossed over the right. Her short skirt flared a bit at the bottom, black, but covered with a thousand points of light. A spiral galaxy of stars that wrapped around her hips, and then up over the thin top that spiraled up from her left hip to her right shoulder. The top divided to cover her breasts, fastening behind her neck while leaving her left shoulder and side bare. The low cut neckline showed off a sparkling diamond necklace.

The asteroid diamonds, her necklace. It was a signature piece of jewelry, and famous, because she had sent the first private, viable mining operation to an asteroid and had returned with a collection of massive diamonds among the samples.

Terra’s black hair cascaded down around her thin neck. She turned her head, large blue eyes taking in the crowd, with a smile on her red lips.

Except Blackstone wasn’t really seeing them, she couldn’t. The time lag between Earth and Mercury, was such that it wasn’t practical to have a live conversation. This had to be a recorded holographic transmission. Still, her performance was convincing.

“Welcome.” Blackstone’s amplified voice filled the hall. It sounded warm and inviting. Like the hologram, it was absolutely real and convincing. Knowing that there was a screen, and it was all illusion didn’t matter. It felt real.

“I’m thrilled with what has happened at Tolkien to get everything up and running to this point. You’ve all done what others might have considered impossible.” Blackstone reached up, her fingers touching the asteroid diamonds. “As you know, I believe the impossible is often a mask for our fear. When things look too big, too daunting, too _impossible_ it gets used as an excuse not to do it. We invent reasons to back up our excuses, anything except face our fear.”

Blackstone pushed away from the desk and walked forward. Her long heels tapped against the wood. She stopped near the front of the stage.

“Not you.” She pointed her finger at them, her gaze traveling across them.

Blackstone’s eyes locked with Larunda’s and an electric thrill ran down Larunda’s spine. It was so real! As if Blackstone really was seeing her. Larunda leaned toward Phoebe, about to comment on it, when Blackstone’s lips twitched. It was a small thing, a quirk, and she winked, still making eye-contact.

Larunda sat back, upright, as heat flooded her face. How? How could Blackstone have prerecorded this message and pulled that off? Did she do it in an amphitheater like this one? Did she anticipate the reaction?

Blackstone’s gaze moved on and she continued, walking slowly across the stage, following the curve. “Not you!

“You went up like Icarus, flying closer and closer to the Sun to reach one of the most difficult spots in the solar system! You built this —” her hands spread “— base here in Tolkien. You’ve established a biosphere on another world. Small, now, but growing. A seed sown under the Sun on a new world.

“Now we’re on the verge of the next phase. Not only existing. Not only surviving, but thriving! The mining and manufacturing operations you are establishing will soon send thousands of solar sails out into the solar system!”

Blackstone turned and the other half of the stage turned dark. A world appeared floating before them. Mercury, their home. A bright spark rose from the surface and the camera moved in, focusing on that spark. It circled the planet and then spun, opening wider and wider, a bright mirrored circle catching the sunlight. Really catching it. The animation accelerated and the solar sail looped around the planet, then shot off into space.

The camera pulled back and back. More planets swung into view and the Sun, a bright blaze at the edge of the stage. Hundreds of bright specks rose from the tiny Mercury, looping around a bright sun, spiraling around other planets, a cloud of flying solar sails cycling endlessly from the inner to outer solar system and back.

“Our solar transportation next work will open up the entire solar system,” Blackstone said. “Ships will catch a sail, ride it for a time, cut loose only to catch the next. Our efficient routes will mean that any destination in the solar system is available with minimal fuel, in a short time. And it is all thanks to the work you are doing here!”

Blackstone walked back to the center of the stage. The orbital simulation faded away. Larunda held her breath, sensing that Blackstone was about to say something amazing.

“Do you have any questions?” Blackstone spread her hands.

At her gesture the holographic furniture and flooring dissolved. The holographic screen lowered into the stage. And Blackstone stayed standing in the spotlight, center stage. She was really there!

The crowd went wild. They cheered and clapped as the realization dawned on everyone. Terra Blackstone, the creator of the Diaspora Group was actually on Mercury, in the flesh!

Mason twisted around in his seat, smiling. Larunda smiled back, caught up in the moment.

It strained Larunda’s imagination. How had Blackstone managed to do it? Not only travel to Mercury, but all of it? The stage effect was the easiest, there was a hologram in place, hiding Blackstone, when they all came in. The whole ‘drawing’ effect was actually revealing her, removing the hologram that hid her.

Blackstone lifted her hands and slowly the crowd settled down. “Thank you. I couldn’t send a canned message, not for this. I had to be here, thank you to those who helped, indulging my little theatrics. I really do want to hear your questions. I came all this way, don’t disappoint!”

Beside Larunda, Phoebe’s hand shot up. Blackstone pointed to her. “Yes, Phoebe?”

Phoebe’s jaw dropped. Larunda looked at her friend, obviously flabbergasted that Blackstone knew her name. Phoebe recovered.

“Hi. Sorry. Um, I wanted to ask when we’ll get a new chief geologist? I guess that’s the snag right now on moving forward?”

Blackstone nodded. “I see both of our candidates are sitting near you, I’m sure they’d like to hear the answer too. I’m sure you all do. We will have an answer very soon, I will be meeting with both of our potential chiefs after this meeting.”

“Thank you!” Phoebe said, beaming.

After this meeting? Larunda wanted to shrink away, but that would send the wrong message. She smiled confidently instead, and resisted the urge to hit Phoebe.

The next question came from an environmental tech who wanted to know where plans were for the second outpost. After that Larunda tuned out the questions. She’d watch the recording later, if she needed. She stared at the back of Mason’s head. He sat just as still during the question and answer phase. Twenty minutes later, when Blackstone ended the meeting, Larunda was out of her chair and down the aisle in moments, slipping past everyone else standing.

Her cell buzzed at her. She took it out of her pocket, stepping over near the wall outside the amphitheater, and swiped it on. A text message, from Blackstone, wanting to see her in the chief geologist’s office in fifteen minutes.

“You got one too?” Mason asked.

Larunda looked up. Mason had joined her out of the rush of people bouncing back to their jobs. Excited talk filled the hallway along with the stream of people. Mason tipped his cell, before pocketing it.

“Yes,” she answered. “You know her, she doesn’t waste time.”

“I only know her by reputation,” Mason said. “That was some trick, showing up here and doing that whole hologram illusion.”

“It was.”

A couple seconds ticked past without either of them saying anything. Mason broke the silence.

“Good luck, on the promotion. If I don’t get it, I’m glad it’ll be you.”

“Thank you.” She should say the same thing, right? The words died on her tongue. It wasn’t true. She wanted it. She didn’t want it to be him.

“Okay. I’ll see you there, then.” Mason didn’t wait for an answer. He stepped into the flow of people and bounced off out of sight.

Shit. Why did doing the right thing feel so bad? Larunda looked for an opening in the crowd and then Phoebe appeared, and caught her arm.

“Larunda! Where’d you go?” She asked, pulling Larunda along.

Larunda joined the crowd, bumping a woman in brown, apologized, and matched Phoebe’s pace. “I just needed out of there, you know? Did you have to ask that question?”

“Hey, I just want to see my friend get the job, that’s all. And we all want to get going. Since Gerrold bugged out it’s like we’ve all been stuck in a holding pattern.”

“It looks like that’s about to change.”

Phoebe beamed. “I’m sure you’ll get it.”

“I hope so. Not that Mason isn’t good, he is. I’m sure he’d do fine. Is it terrible to say that I want to be the one in charge?”

Phoebe shook her head. “Nope! I think Blackstone appreciates people that go after what they want. Don’t stress, you’ll be fine. I’ve got to go. Good luck!”

Phoebe bounced-walked away, more of a skip, really. That was so Phoebe. The text had said fifteen minutes, and several of those had already passed. It wouldn’t take long to get to the office, but she didn’t want to be late. It was down in the old prefab section, the components that had been shipped out to Mercury along with everything else. Informally the prefabs were called Bootstrap, and extended out away from the central crater peak, dug into the crater floor, with extra material piled over the top to absorb any chance impacts.

Bootstrap was always several degrees colder. Fewer heating lines ran out to the section, as it was built before the mast, and several segments were deliberately kept cold to preserve ice samples. When the time came, Larunda already planned to expand and build a new, properly heated, sub-level.

Once she got the promotion.

Over time the once white walls of Bootstrap had become stained a dull gray that even the scutters couldn’t clean out. Residue from the organic material tracked in, especially in the beginning. It also smelled slightly sulfurous, as that was a component of the material.

The door to the chief geologist’s office was a plain bluish-gray panel, hinged, not sliding. Larunda took a breath, pulled the lever down and pushed the protesting door open.

Mason was already there, standing over in front of the shelves that ran along the far wall. Container after container filled the shelves, each piled high with rock samples. Original samples, from the first surveys. Blevins had kept them here, and so far no one had bothered to do anything with them. Mason turned away from the samples.

“Hello,” he said, his voice about as warm as it was in the chilly room.

Neither of them were dressed for the chill in the room. Larunda’s nipples pressed against the thin fabric of shirt. Damn. And Blackstone was going to be there any minute.

Mason’s eyes dropped, fixed for a moment on her chest, and he turned away again, gesturing at the samples. “We should get these catalogued and moved into the library.”

Why were men so fixated on breasts? Was it evolution or culture? Whatever the reason, they were more complicated than rocks and ice. Rocks and ice she could handle. Even going out in suits that were walking ovens, the first time she had stood on the rim of Tolkien crater, the tortured and shadowed landscape tumbling away from her, she had loved this world. She loved what they were doing here, and she wasn’t going to let that go because of a man. She just wasn’t.

“Larunda?”

What? She thought back. The rocks, catalogued. “Yes. Sorry, I was thinking. You’re right, of course. This all needs to get cleared out. Blevins only stayed on as long as he did because he didn’t have a choice.”

“Poor guy. Have you heard how he’s doing?”

Larunda shook her head. “Last I heard, he was back on Earth. Probably happy to be there.”

He turned back toward her, meeting her gaze, which was nice. He had nice eyes.

“Larunda, about before, I didn’t —”

The door opened and Terra Blackstone was right there. Alone, surprisingly enough. She smiled broadly. “Well! Here you both are! That’s perfect.”

She stepped inside and shut the door. With the three of them in the room, there wasn’t much space on the front side of the desk. Mason moved around the desk and took the spot behind it. He reached across the desk, gesturing to the chairs in front of it.

“Sorry, this space is cramped,” he said. “Would you like to take a seat? Or we could go to one of the meeting rooms, if that’d be better.”

Blackstone shook her head and promptly moved to take the chair closest to the door. “This is fine. I wanted to see this place.” She craned her neck, taking in the crowded off. “About what I’d expect from Gerrold. It looks like his office still. You haven’t changed anything have you?”

Mason settled back into the chair, which left Larunda to sit in the other chair beside Blackstone. As if Mason was already the chief geologist on the project. It would have made more sense for Blackstone to take the chair, but that would have had them all having to maneuver around each other in the tight space. If she didn’t care, then was there any point worrying about it?

“No,” Mason was saying, answering Blackstone’s question. “We’ve continued working on the survey. We were just talking about the need to get the samples in here cataloged and into the library.”

“The new sample library wasn’t finished, while Mr. Blevins was still here,” Larunda said.

“Right. I read the reports. Congratulations on getting that finished! I get hammered from all sorts of preservationists upset at our exploitation of these worlds! The libraries at least give us a record of what we found before we started working.” Blackstone grinned. “Not to mention the far more important fact that they tell us what we have!”

Neither Larunda or Mason said anything. After a pause Blackstone continued.

“So, you’re both wanting to know about the promotion. I’ve reviewed all the work that you’ve both done, it’s excellent. I have no doubt that Tolkien wouldn’t be up and running if it wasn’t for the work you’ve done.”

“Thank you,” Larunda said.

Mason nodded.

Blackstone leaned forward in her seat. “None of that tells me what’s really important. Can you get the job done on time? We can’t waste time starting mining operations in the wrong place. Well, we could, but I don’t want to. I want to get this right. That means that the mass driver teams have to be set up right. The solar smelter teams need to be ready to take all the ore you can give them. And the mining groups need to know where to mine! You’re the ones that can tell me that, now, and in the future when we open more operations. This position is key, it’s the foundation of everything we do, getting those resources into the pipeline that’s going to open up the solar system.”

Blackstone took a deep breath and leaned back. “Whew! That was a speech! I don’t like speeches, even when I make them. I like to get things done. So that’s what we’re going to do. No interviews. No flipping coins. We focus on our goal.”

What did that mean? Larunda glanced at Mason, his forehead was wrinkled. Obviously he didn’t get it either, but didn’t want to ask and appear clueless, any more than she did.

Staying quiet wasn’t going to move things along. “Our goal? Of getting resources into the pipeline?”

“Yes! A gold star for you, Larunda. I want the two of you to pull together your teams, whatever you need, coordinate with the other groups, and get me a solar sail.” Blackstone stood up. “You’ve got three weeks. I need a sail up in orbit to haul my ass out of here and back to Earth. That’s your window. I think it’ll be pretty clear by then who is in charge.”

Mason leaned forward. “Three weeks, that’s not much time, Ms. Blackstone.”

She smiled at him. “Show me that you’re more than a pretty face, Mason. I didn’t launch missions to twelve major planetary bodies because it was easy. To misquote, I did it because it was hard. Buck up. Get it done. And you’ll know who is in charge, and it won’t be because I anointed anyone. Truth is, you could have done it all yourself already and saved me the trip out. Now, that I’ve come here, you’re out of time.”

She wiggled her fingers at both of them. “Have a great day!”

With a bounce she reached the door. The hinges squealed as she pulled it open as she pulled it closed behind her Blackstone stopped and poked her head back in. “And you might want to do something about the office too, if you get a chance.”

Bang! The door slammed shut behind her.

“What the hell?” Mason asked. “Did she just give us three days to get a solar sail in orbit?”

“Yes,” Larunda said. Three weeks. She didn’t even know if the mass driver or the manufacturing divisions were ready to start receiving ore. And they hadn’t done any major extraction, except tests, proofs of concepts of the various systems

“We have to do it,” Larunda said. “Remember what Blackstone said in her speech? She wasn’t saying that just to rehash what’s already been done. She was saying that for us.”

“You think?”

“She always knows what she’s doing.” Larunda stood up. “We’d better go get it done.”

Mason rose and came around the desk, his eyes fixed on her. “What about the other thing?”

The other thing. Larunda shook her head. “We’ve got three days to get a solar sail up in orbit for Blackstone. There is no other thing.”

She turned to leave and Mason caught her hand. Larunda swallowed and turned back. Mason stepped close, reaching up with his other hand to her face. Was he going to kiss her? Now?

“Mason.” Larunda stepped back. “We’ve been over this.”

“I know you feel the same way,” he said. “We can find a way to make it work.”

“Right now the only thing we have to make work is getting Blackstone what she wants. That’s it. Jack was right. We should have listened to him.” Larunda reached the door, and pulled the lever down.

“Fine,” Mason said. “Wait.”

She stopped. “What?”

“Don’t we need a plan? What are we going to do?”

“I’ll contact the department heads. We need to get everyone up to speed on what we’re doing.”

“Okay,” Mason said. “While you’re doing that I’ll compile the survey data and try to narrow down the options that we have.”

“Sounds like a plan. Let’s get on this.” She yanked the door open. The hinges squealed again. Mental note, get that fixed too.

Larunda quickly found out that everyone was reluctant to take time away from their work for a meeting, and she wasn’t the boss. Not yet. Still, she tempted them all with the suggestion the meeting was important to Blackstone. That got them to agree to meet. It so happened, it was also the truth. She just wished that she didn’t need to invoke Blackstone’s name to get them to the table.

The meeting was held at fourteen hundred hours, in the larger conference room, high on the Tolkien peak, above the amphitheater. Tall windows along the wall looked out at the rim-lit crater walls, on the other side of the shadowed interior.

Larunda was there first, pacing in front of the windows, waiting for the first department heads to arrive. The meeting would set the tone for the next few days. It was her chance to take charge and show them all that she had what it took.

The conference room door opened. She turned, smiling brightly to greet whoever was first in, and it was Mason. She kept the smile. Going forward, they’d have to keep a professional relationship, friendly, without crossing that line they’d crossed in her quarters.

He’d changed. Instead of the casual shirt and shorts, he wore sharp black pants, a matching shirt with a charcoal vest and an ice-blue tie. Mercury colors. He even had on polished black shoes. His hair was groomed, cascading back in waves. He looked really, really good, like he could have been walking into a meeting back on Earth instead of a department meeting.

She’d also taken the time to change. If she’d picked up one thing from Blackstone, she always took the time to look great. Like she had before the general staff meeting. Larunda hadn’t packed anything that dramatic, but she had used some of her personal allotment for some professional dress clothes. She was wearing a gold skirt and matching blazer, over a black blouse. She’d even gone so far as to wear hose, black pumps and the small diamond studs that she had brought. They weren’t asteroid diamonds, but it was something. She also wore the emerald necklace that her parents had given her when she received her doctorate. It was the best she had, given the weight allowances, and she thought it nicely reflected the colors of the solar sails.

Between the two of them, she and Mason had managed to accidentally coordinate on the color scheme of the entire project. Mason matched her smile, and came into the room.

He eyed her. “You look fantastic.”

“Mason! Everyone’s coming. They should be here any minute. How did it go with the survey data?”

Mason’s lips quirked, but he crossed to the big meeting room table that occupied the center of the room. He tapped the surface, activating the built-in displays.

“Good.” Windows opened, topographic maps and overlays from the survey data, radiating out from Tolkien in bright colors. “This is what we’ve got. Factoring in the material requirements for the solar sails, there are three potential sites.”

Another tap and three green circles formed on the map in areas around the crater.

“That’s great,” she said. “Good work. What’s the mood in the crew?”

“They’re all excited. Janice wished us both luck. I think they’ve got a pool going on which site we’ll select.”

The door opened again. Jack Warden came into the room. Larunda walked over to meet him, extending her hand. “Jack, thanks for taking a break from the appraisals for this. It’s important that you be here.”

Mason appeared at her elbow, as she released Jack’s hand. “Absolutely. Glad to see you Jack. Larunda’s been keeping me on track since our talk.”

“Glad to hear it,” Jack said. He shook Mason’s hand, then shook his head looking at them. “Look at the two of you. It must be big news if you’re getting all dressed up for it.”

“The biggest,” Mason said.

“Great! Everyone is very excited about Blackstone’s surprise visit. Do you know where she is now?”

“No,” Mason said. He looked at Larunda.

Shit. She hadn’t invited Blackstone to the meeting. Talk about screw ups! How did she not think to invite the head of the Diaspora Group, and her boss?

“I’ll check,” Larunda said. “One second.”

She walked away from the table, leaving the two of them chatting, and went over near the corner of the room. She pulled out her cell. “Call Terra Blackstone.”

The screen showed the spinning Mercury symbol, the winged helmet and caduceus astronomical symbol. Then the view changed. It bounced, showing the interior of a rover, the camera moving past a window showing the sun-lit cratered surface, and then Terra Blackstone’s laughing face.

“Yes? Larunda?! What can I do for you?”

“We’re having a meeting of the department heads about beginning the production of a sail. I wanted to invite you, although you look busy?”

“Thanks!” Blackstone laughed. “I couldn’t come all the way to Mercury without seeing the sites. The meeting sounds great, but I’m getting a tour of the area around Tolkien! I’ll read your report later. Thanks! Bye!”

The screen blanked.

Well, at least Blackstone wasn’t mad. It looked like she was having fun.

Other department heads had come in. Mason was standing by himself at the head of the table. Larunda walked back over to stand next to him. He glanced at her.

“She can’t make it,” Larunda said. “Blackstone. She’s out joy-riding on the surface.”

Mason’s eyes widened. He even looked a bit pale for a second, then he smiled. “Not that she needed to ask permission, I guess.”

“She said she couldn’t come here without seeing the place.”

“I understand that.”

“If we do our jobs well, eventually anyone will be able to visit, if they want.”

“Opening up the solar system,” Mason said. He lowered his voice. “How do you want to do this?”

“This?”

“Run the meeting.”

“Oh.” Right, they couldn’t very well arm-wrestle for it. “I’ll get things rolling, fill them in on what we’re faced with, then you can pick up to talk about the specifics of the sites you’ve highlighted. If that works?”

Mason nodded. “That works fine for me.”

Larunda looked around the room. Everyone was taking their seats, all present. Unlike her and Mason, most were in casual clothes, regulation shorts and shirts. Jack was the only one wearing as much clothing, with his medals catching the lights as he leaned back in his chair, midway down the table.

“Thank you for coming,” Larunda said, loud enough for her words to carry.

Sitting beside Jack was Dempsey Hamm, head the materials fabrication department. His department was the one that would actually manufacture the solar sail, once the refined materials were produced. He was thirty, lean, blonde, wearing black regulation shorts and shirt.

“Is this going to take long? We’ve got some spin tests to get done, I’d really like to get out of here quickly and get back to that.”

Some of the others around the table nodded. Stacey Jackson, communications head wasn’t even looking down the table, her attention was all on her cell, her brow creased as she focused on whatever was showing. Across from her was Tegan Powell, forty-three, black hair pulled back, in her white shirts and shorts looking like she was ready to go out and play tennis. Powell was the head of the Development teams, responsible for creating the onboard software for the solar sails. Tegan was one of those that nodded. Also Steve Carlson, in charge of the mining crews.

“Dempsey, I won’t waste your time,” Larunda said. “We all need to get out of here quickly, because we’re going to be busier than ever after this meeting.”

Stacey looked up from her cell. “What does that mean?”

At the other end of the table, Michel Tesar, in charge of the microelectronics division, said, “Does this have to do with Blackstone?”

“Yes.” Damn it. The word slipped out before Larunda could stop it. She hadn’t wanted to invoke Blackstone’s name unless it was necessary.

Mason leaned forward, smiling at the group. “Michel, we’ll answer all your questions. Go ahead, Larunda.”

As if she was here at his invitation? He was subtly trying to take the upper hand.

Larunda said, “I called this meeting because we are selecting our first dig site. We’re going online. With everything. And we’re going to deliver a completed solar sail to orbit in three weeks, right on our projected manufacturing schedule.”

Everyone around the table tried to talk at once. Dempsey actually laughed. It was chaos.

Heat rose in her cheeks. Larunda held up her hands. Slowly they stopped talking, but the looks she was getting were anything except welcoming.

“We’re not ready to go online,” Dempsey said.

“You said this had to do with Blackstone?” Michel asked. “Is that the reason for the rush?”

“Partly.” She spoke quickly before anyone else jumped in. “We can check and recheck forever. You all know how it works. We build and learn as we go.”

“That’s right,” Mason chimed in. “When we built this outpost we came out with a few prefabs and equipment. We didn’t bring everything that we have in this base.” He rapped his knuckles on the table. “Take this table. We mined resources and manufactured it right here, on Mercury.”

“We didn’t have a choice,” Stacey said. “We had to get the crew on the ground. We needed the resources if we were going to stay alive. And we had to get things ready for the second and third missions.”

“And now we’re building a complete solar sail. That’s a key reason that we’re here.” Larunda leaned forward on the table. “This is our opportunity to show everyone what this outpost can do. We get up this sail, and then we move on to the next, just like Blackstone showed in the meeting today.”

“So you’re trying to impress her, is that it?” Tegan asked.

Larunda shook her head. “No, not to impress her, although I think she will be impressed at what everyone accomplishes. It’s time to move forward.”

“Look,” Dempsey said. “I’m willing to work on the next phase. If we get the materials, maybe we can get a half-scale demonstration model manufactured in that time-frame. It won’t be flight-ready, I can speak for everyone else on that.”

This wasn’t working. It was like Blackstone said, they were letting their fear get in the way. But how could she get them to see that without just saying that? Or saying that Blackstone ordered it.

Mason stood up beside her. “Dempsey, we have to do better than that. All of you, we have to do better. We have done better. We did better when we set up the outpost. In a thousand ways since, we’ve done better and achieved more, you know you have. Years of work have gone into this already. This is like training for the race, doing all the work and practice and hours spent training, and then balking at the start line.”

“I wouldn’t say —” Dempsey started to protest.

Mason talked over him. “It is. Larunda has already told you what we need, a full-scale, functional solar sail launched in three weeks. Blackstone wants it, but that’s not why we should do it. We should do it because we are ready to start the race. We’re ready to start sending the sails out.”

The change in the room was obvious. Jack was nodding. There were still some frowns, but overall, the group was coming around.

And why not? Mason was confident. He looked like the one in charge. And people obviously wanted to listen to him.

“So are you the new chief geologist?” Steve asked. “Because our teams can’t mine anything if they don’t know where to dig.”

Mason looked at Larunda. Their eyes locked and he smiled. Then he turned back to the group. “No.”

What?

Mason went on, reaching out and touching Larunda’s arm. “Larunda is the chief. She has a better sense of the geology than anyone.”

What? Larunda eyes stung and she was so not going to tear up in front of everyone. She made herself smile at him. Why’d he’d have to go and do the noble thing? It’s not like it solved the problem between them. It didn’t work out if she was his boss, any more than if he was the boss.

Mason smiled back at her, then turned to the table. He tapped the surface, bringing up the report that he had prepared. He flicked copies off around the table.

“Larunda asked me to pull together a report on our possible dig sites. That’s what you’re looking at. Each of the areas surveyed around the crater have been ranked both on the resource content, and the difficulty to extra the ore. The three green areas are the highest probability targets.”

Larunda stepped closer to Mason, studying the report on the table surface, and whispered. “Thank you.”

His head leaned closer. “Don’t you think that this project, the outpost, needs a coordinator?”

She laughed quietly, covering her mouth. That was his plan! Devious, and perfect. It was something that they had all talked about. Someone that would work with all the different departments, with a vision of the ultimate goal. And he was perfect for it. She did love the rocks, even if she wanted to be in charge, she had a whole planet beneath her feet to study.

Larunda raised her head and looked out at the group. Everyone was paying attention now, glancing at the report, but watching them.

Jack winked at her. He was in on it! Mason must have talked to him. The thought emboldened her.

“Thank you Mason, this is excellent work. It reminds me what we’re lacking here in the outpost, something that we’ve all talked about before.”

“What’s that?” Jack asked, quick on the draw.

“We need a coordinator. All of us have our focus, which lets us solve problems quickly, but we don’t have someone that’s looking out for the overall scheme, that can help us get rid of obstacles, to deal with other outposts, heck, other worlds even.” Larunda turned to Mason. “I’d like to nominate Mason for the role. I think he’d do a fantastic job, and we’d all benefit.”

“I’ll second that,” Jack said. “Shall we vote?”

Tegan raised her hand halfway. “Um, can we just do that? Select someone?”

Jack nodded. “Diaspora policy allows and encourages outposts to self-manage. It’s entirely appropriate for the department heads to appoint someone as coordinator for the outpost, and I think it would really help our communication.”

Tegan shrugged. “Okay, then, sure. I’m for it.”

“Great,” Larunda said. “Hands up, if you’re in favor?”

Every hand at the table went up. Jack clapped his hands together. “Okay, I’ll process the paperwork, but I think we can go ahead with the rest of the meeting. Mason?”

“Thank you all,” Mason said. “I’m going to do whatever I can to help all of us meet this deadline. I know how hard it sounds. If I didn’t think we could pull it off, I’d be the first to tell Blackstone to her face that we couldn’t do it.”

Steve tapped the report on the table. “Do we have a pick?”

Yes. Larunda glanced at Mason, then at the others. “Yes. You’ll see that the alpha site on the report represents the easiest access to the resources, given terrain, depth and composition. Let’s go through the details.”

It didn’t take three weeks. They got it done in two and a half, but Blackstone waited until the end of the third week before she left. It wasn’t until then that Larunda really was convinced that they’d pulled it off.

To celebrate Mason drove the rambler up onto the Tolkien ridge, so that they could watch the solar sail leave orbit in private. Ordinarily the rambler, a big six wheeled crawler, held up to six people and their suits. With only the two of them, it felt extremely spacious. The sun was shining on the rambler from the rear, so they didn’t even need the shades down on the window when he parked it on the upslope of a small crater.

Mason leaned forward over the controls and pointed. “There she is.”

The sail was a bright disk of light, already accelerating in widening orbits powered by the pressure of the solar wind around Mercury while dragging the small capsule craft carrying Blackstone. This was the moment when it reached escape velocity and would slingshot off into space on a trajectory that would pick up a boost as she flew past Venus. Then the trajectory would carry her past the Earth’s Moon. She’d cut loose from the sail and enter orbit there, to return to the Diaspora headquarters on Luna, while the sail would slingshot around and head on out into the deep solar system. It was the first piece in the massive transit network that they were building.

They were both in shorts and t-shirts. Outside the temperature on the sunward side was a moderate 334 F, thanks to their polar position. The interior was warm, hot even, or maybe that was just her? She was fascinated by the line of Mason’s biceps, where it disappeared beneath the dark cloth of his shirt. His move to the coordinator position had taken him out of her department, putting them on equal footing. Only since then they had both been so busy pulling the team together to build the solar sail, that they hadn’t had any time together.

Until Mason asked her to join him on the field trip, officially to make observations on the solar sail’s departure with their guest, she had wondered if he had cooled on the whole idea of a relationship.

Now, it was his bicep that held her attention.

“Larunda?”

She snapped her gaze up to his face, meeting his eyes, and blushing. The heat flooded her cheeks. He smiled at her.

“Should we take some readings of the solar sail? Make sure we have something to report?”

“That’s a good idea.”

She activated the roof-mounted telescope on her console. The image jumped around, not fixing on anything. “It’s not locking onto the sail.”

Mason unbuckled and left his seat. He came over and leaned over the back of her seat, his head next to hers, his breath warm on her neck.

“What parameters did you use?”

“I told it to lock on the brightest light source in the sky,” she said.

“It’s programmed to exclude artificial objects. You just need to toggle that.” He brushed back the hair from her neck.

Larunda shivered and pulled up the telescope preferences. It was hard to focus on the menus while Mason moved his mouth closer to her neck. He didn’t kiss her. His breath tickled her ear and her neck.

She switch the toggle and closed the preferences. Now the image on the screen jumped and there was the sail, visible at optimal magnification. A mirror of the Sun, blazing in the sky. Against that bright backdrop, the capsule was a tiny black speck against the blaze.

Not unlike the dark dot of Mercury crossing the face of the Sun.

“Look at that,” Mason said, his lips brushing her neck.

She shivered and tilted her head slightly away, exposing more of her neck to him. “We did it.”

“We did.” His lips touched her skin and she nearly jumped in her seat. The kiss was soft, grazing across her neck. “The next sail will launch on schedule. We’re going to be pumping them out now.”

“Hmmm.” She turned, reaching up to run her fingers through her hair. “Pumping them out, huh?”

She kissed his lips, a soft touch, then firmer, drawing him to her. He broke the kiss, moving across to the other side of her neck. Her skin tingled. She tugged his shirt up and ran her fingers against his hard abs.

Mason moved, his hands doing something with the seat, and it dropped back, reclining flat. It surprised her and she laughed.

They would keep producing solar sails, while exploring the rest of their planet. The human settlements would grow, spreading to the other craters, mining the ice and building habitats. Eventually, like Blackstone had said, there’d be children and a whole thriving population.

And out there, spinning between the planets, their solar sails, opening up all the planetary bodies.

Mason pulled up her shirt and she helped him, pulling it up and off, breasts free and firm in the low gravity. He bent and kissed his way lower.

Larunda held his head, savoring each touch. Over the smooth plain of his shoulder the solar sail was rising on the solar wind.

13,455 words

Author’s Note

In 2013 I started my very own tour through the solar system with Mercury Rising. It became my central project for months as I visited each planetary body. I had originally intended to release each story with a fun pin-up style scifi illustration. I’d still like to do that, only I want to wait until my digital painting skills equal the vision in my head.

In the meantime I’ve decided to go ahead and release the stories, one per week, on my website. Eventually I do plan create the illustrations I want and release each as a stand-alone e-book through the various stores. I have no idea when that will happen. I’m embarking on my own journey this year by returning to school to get my MLIS degree. It’s making me rethink publishing and writing plans as I make room for full-time studies in a full-time life.

If you’ve enjoyed the story I hope you’ll come back next week for the next Planetary Bodies story.