The Wind of Rushing Trees

EEQ-14, the 14th Earth-Equivalent planet surveyed lay outside the ship out of Kyle’s reach since his parents didn’t let him out.

Regulations. Rules. Worry that he might get hurt by the planet’s unusual plants.

Only what more could they do? He was already trapped inside.

A story for anyone who longs for an adventure.

🚀

Kyle watched the golden sunset through a porthole pitted with the years of micrometeorite impacts. The glass, called glass even though it wasn’t really but because that’s what people called it, gave the scene outside a fuzzy, dreamy quality. Complicated growths rose up from the surface of the planet outside. Trees. That’s what people called them, though they weren’t. At least the trees he’d read about, the ones from Earth, those didn’t walk on thick gnarled legs that would take a chain of a dozen adults to reach around.

These trees walked.

From the safety of the Earthseed’s living quarters Kyle watched the trees walking outside, taller even than the huge vessel that had brought his parents to this planet. To EEQ-14, the fourteenth Earth-Equivalent planet found by some survey done back in the solar system he’d never seen. Here, on this planet, trees hundreds of feet tall walked toward a golden sunset.

No one tree looked just like any of the others. He could see one close now to the window. The bark of the trunk-legs looked rough and dark like the scab he’d gotten on his knee after falling down while running on the track around the habitation deck. As the trunks rose they melded together into a fantastically massive solid trunk bigger than the survey shuttles that hung in the Earthseed’s hangar deck. Thick branches stuck out at all angles from the trunk, writhing and lashing about, always moving as if propelled by a strong breeze. The end of each branch was covered in broad round gray-green leaves. The tree leaned forward, branches blowing back and snapping forward whip-like as it strode after the setting sun. Old leaves twirled and spun off in its wake.

Hundreds of trees, thousands of trees, a whole parade of trees, chased the sunset in a sort of mad stampede. Kyle worried about the Earthseed. If those trees collided with the ship even the defensive shields wouldn’t hold. He pictured those massive limbs, those scabby trunk-legs, ripping through the skin of the ship, casting the crew down, crushing them beneath the branching “feet” at the bottom of each trunk.

“Clive,” he asked the ship. “Is the ship in any danger from the trees?”

The ship answered, calm tones soothing. “I don’t believe so. This island was monitored by remote probes for the three weeks we stayed in orbit. None of the trees crossed the river to the island.”

“Can you give me audio? I want to hear what it sounds like out there.”

“Of course, Kyle.”

A loud rushing sound filled the room like a gale. It roared and pulsed through the room. He heard branches creaking, snapping, the creak and groans of wood tortured and twisted. The din filled the room. He pressed his hands against his ears.

“Turn it down!”

“My apologies,” Clive said. “That was the decibel level outside.”

The sound dropped. Still loud, but not so loud that Kyle felt the need to cover his ears. He pressed his face against the warm glass, looking through the many layers as the trees rushed by. He heard the water rushing over the rocks below the island where the Earthseed perched. Another tree came into view, easily twice as massive than those in front of it. Two lesser trees scattered from its path. One of the smaller trees, still at least a hundred feet tall, slipped at teetered on rocks along the river’s edge. Branches whipped and snapped as it fought to keep its balance. He heard the cracking booms of its limbs and trunks. Then the giant was past and the smaller tree regained its footing.

EEQ-14’s sun sank lower. Only the tops of the trees still glowed with that golden light. Above them the blue sky, laced with bits and pieces of clouds scattered across the sky, dimmed.

“Okay, restore the sound to the outside level.”

“As you wish.”

The sound rushed as if he had been dropped into a storm. It battered at his ears but Kyle didn’t cover them. He stood, bracing himself against the window. If he focused he could hear the river, or the sounds of the smaller tree stomping away through the rocks, kicking some in sharp cracks like gunfire. But the din didn’t sound quite as loud as it had been only a minute earlier.

While he watched the trees started to slow and the sound of wind dropped. He heard the river clearly.

Behind him the door hissed open.

“Kyle! What is that racket?”

Kyle turned around as his mother rushed into the room. Claire Mainter, biologist and well-liked on the crew. Petite, dressed in her tight blue uniform, her blond hair pulled back into a pony tail. Kyle had once heard Assistant Director Pete Collins refer to her as a pixie. When he had told her that she had grinned and laughed, but Dad hadn’t looked happy about it. When he had asked what it meant she said that it meant that she reminded Mr. Collins of people from fantasy stories, but if that was the case then he didn’t know why it bothered Dad.

“Clive,” Claire snapped. “Turn that off.”

The sound cut off immediately. “My apologies, Dr. Mainter.”

“What were you doing?” Kyle’s mother asked again.

“I wanted to hear what it sounded like outside.”

A smile crossed her face and was gone like a flash of sunshine. “It sounds like a storm, doesn’t it?”

Kyle nodded enthusiastically.

“The thing is they only move when there’s been good weather. It’s like they have to build up their reserves and then they make a run for it all at once. Unless there are other trees in their way and then they just wait, like at the start of a race when you’re in the back and can’t start running for several minutes, not until the people in front of you are going.”

Kyle hadn’t ever been in a race. He hadn’t been anywhere expect on the Earthseed. First in space, and then here on EEQ-14. Running wasn’t allowed in the ship corridors. But he didn’t point that out to his mother.

“I think we’ll see a few more stampedes like this one before the season ends.”

“They don’t move when it gets colder?” He knew the answer, Calvin had showed him the survey videos done.

But knowing the answer and hearing it from his mother were two different things. He so rarely saw her these days. It was always survey this, survey that. The trees rushing to get nowhere gave him a rare chance to have her home. Even now, though, he saw her eyes starting to drift to the door that led into her small office. If she went in there she wouldn’t come out again, not for hours and hours.

“Why do they do it?” he asked, trying to keep her talking. “Why do the trees move like that? They don’t do that back on Earth, do they?”

She shook her head, blond ponytail bouncing. “No. Trees on Earth stay rooted in one spot. They do move, growing to get the best light, but that happens slower than we can see most of the time. The trees here evolved this unique survival mechanism. Basically if there’s space on one side and trees on the other they build up energy and then dash away, as far away as they have energy to travel, before putting down more roots. That creates a gap that then the next trees rush to fill and so on until some trees aren’t ready or it gets too cold.”

Kyle’s forehead wrinkled. “Wouldn’t they all just stop, I mean like even out so no one is too close to anyone else?”

His mother reached out and pulled him close into a hug. She crouched down beaming at him. “You’re so smart! It does seem like that’d happen, wouldn’t it? There’s more going on here than just access to light, though. Soil properties, terrain barriers, and injuries or death of trees. Sometimes they end up clustered together and then the cluster runs apart only to encounter others, and well, it’s a very chaotic system.”

“It sounds cool,” Kyle said enthusiastically. “Couldn’t we go out and see them closer?”

“Sorry honey, it’s dangerous. Once we understand the details more of what’s going on, and find a way that’s safe for the trees to keep them out, then maybe we’ll be able to claim a section of land for our settlement. For now we’ve got to stay in the ship.”

She stood up and touched his shoulder. “In fact I’ve got lots of work to do. Are you okay playing by yourself for a while longer? If I could just work for an hour then I’ll make dinner. Deal?”

Kyle kicked at the featureless floor. “Sure.”

“Thanks honey. I’ll see you at dinner. If your father gets back in before then maybe he’ll join us.”

Fat chance of that happening. Kyle forced a smile on to his face. “I’m fine. Go ahead.”

With a final wave his mother disappeared through the door into her office. She wouldn’t come out in only an hour, despite what she said. Time always got away from her and if he tried reminding her she’d just say that she couldn’t stop yet. He’d find something else to do and if it got too late he’d fix dinner for himself. Chances were he’d go to bed without seeing either of his parents again tonight.

🚀

Life on the Earthseed hadn’t changed much with landing on EEQ-14. Kyle had his studies and his parents had their work. They all stayed busy all the time, except for brief moments like earlier with his Mom when their paths crossed. As Kyle sat at the slide out table eating his reheated meal of roast beef and roasted vegetables, he looked out the window at the trees still rushing on even as the sun had nearly set.

A whole group rushed into view, jockeying about for position. A tall thin tree with many whip-like branches was gaining ground on the others, widening its lead. Then it suddenly slowed. A few more faltering steps and it stopped in its tracks. Kyle put a piece of zucchini in his mouth and chewed, enjoying the slightly rubbery garlic and oil flavor of the zucchini while watching the show outside. The other trees caught up almost immediately but one big tree with gnarled dark brown bark failed to change course fast enough.

It smashed into the thinner tree! Branches whipped out grappling with each other as both trees tottered. Kyle rose from his seat and pressed his face to the window. The other trees in the crowd managed to change course, parting to pass around the two struggling trees. The trees that had collided rocked back and forth, smashing at one another in an effort to get disentangled.

“Let me hear it, Calvin, but keep the volume down so we don’t bother my mother.”

“Of course,” Calvin answered.

With the volume low it sounded like a distant wind blowing in the trees, but wasn’t overpowering like it had been before. It was still enough that Kyle could hear the snapping cracks of the branches as the two trees fought.

It looked like a fight now. They pummeled each other and staggered around, some branches always locked together. The other trees had already gone past and were in fact slowing but these two trees seemed determined to fight over that spot.

The fight didn’t last long. The thinner, maybe younger, tree that had stopped first ripped itself free of the other’s grip, leaving behind branches in the process. It ran away on two massive trunks. The bigger victor settled down in the vacated spot. Thick tendrils at the bottom of its trunk sank into the earth. The branches shook and broken bits, including those torn from the other tree, rained down on the ground beneath it. The sun had nearly set when its branches drooped down and hung still at last.

The other trees had also stopped. The wind of the rushing trees died down and the forest was silent. A large gap remained around the victorious tree, while the loser had moved as close to others as it could.

“Okay, thank you Calvin, that’s enough.”

“As you wish.”

Kyle rocked back in his seat. The trees had finally stopped moving. Shouldn’t it be safe to go out among them? He knew that some of the biologists did that, went out at night to collect specimens. He’d get in trouble if he was caught, not just from his parents but for breaking ship regulations.

But it might be worth it, too. A chance to get out of the ship and explore? What could they do except confine him again, just like now?

🚀

Thinking about sneaking out of the Earthseed and doing it were two very different things. Kyle finished up his meal, put the dishes and utensils in the recycler and then headed back to his room to get his stuff.

His pod, for one, so that he could record and document what he saw. The emergency flashlight from his room because it was getting dark. He wanted some sort of bag and settled on grabbing one of his spare shirts. He knotted the sleeves together and tied off the bottom of the shirt, leaving the neck open. It gave him a basic bag. He tossed the pod and flashlight into it, then slung rolled the whole thing up into a bundle which he tucked under his arm. Carrying it like a bag might draw attention, the bundle shouldn’t get much notice.

As big as the Earthseed was, it didn’t take very long to get where Kyle wanted to go. All he had to do was walk down the corridor to the nearest transit car, get in and use his palm authentication to give the car his destination. The forward, main airlock. The car took him to the hub lobby just off the main airlock bay.

It was very busy. Kyle had only ever been here once before, with his father for a class assignment to see where most of the activity in and out of the ship happened. There were other ports of entry, but the primary one was at the Earthseed’s fattest point, mid-section, part of the wider bulge that wrapped around the ship. Everything connected up to it, all of the vehicles and shuttles, and maintenance droids. As the car came to a stop Kyle had his face pressed to the car’s bubble top, just trying to take it all in.

The hub lobby ceiling was far above. Actually, ceiling was all relative since the Earthseed maintained an internal gravity field. The dock his car stopped at was only one of dozens strung like beads along a string that curved up, away and overhead at least 50 meters above. Transit cars buzzed in and out constantly, docking only long enough to pick people up or let them get out, and the string he was in was only one of a dozen other tracks suspended above the main floor.

The canopy top slid silently back and warm air that smelled of machines and people flooded the car’s interior. But beneath that familiar smell was something else, richer and organic. The smell of the air outside?

“Please disembark,” Calvin’s voice said. “In order to facilitate the timeliness of the transit system, please disembark.”

Kyle grabbed his bundle and scrambled out of the car onto the platform. He glanced up at the cars and docks overhead, the swallowed when his stomach wanted to do somersaults. He focused on the dock beneath his feet but the scuffed deck plating showing the wear of so many feet did little to comfort him.

“Thank you,” Calvin’s voice said again.

“You’re welcome,” Kyle said automatically, even though he knew that Calvin wasn’t really focused on him at the moment. That voice was nothing more than a subordinate program running simultaneously along with thousands upon thousands of others at the moment. The ship’s artificial intelligence wasn’t really paying attention to him. At least Kyle hoped that Calvin wasn’t paying attention. But if Calvin was, he wasn’t questioning what Kyle was doing down at the main docks.

Kyle hurried on, just in case Calvin had some program watching to see if anyone lingered on the transit docks. He took the ramp down to the main concourse and headed toward the main airlock.

Calling it the main airlock made it sound like there was only one, when in fact there was a whole complex of airlocks. Big ones designed for vehicle use that could accommodate entire convoys, as well as all sorts of specialized airlocks for different equipment. He didn’t really know all the details, but he had learned that the smaller maintenance locks were individually keyed while the bigger ones allowed entire groups through. He didn’t really have a plan except to get close and see what happened. If anyone asked, he could always claim he came down to find his Dad and see when he would be home.

Like the transit car docks, the lock doors followed the curve of the ship up around but the lower locks were all lined with red indicators. Kyle knew what that meant. Those pointed down with respect to the planetary gravity field. If you opened those doors you’d fall. They’d talked about that during his field trip. Kyle kept walking until he got to the green lit locks. The whole time it looked like he was walking down a slope, but felt perfectly flat thanks to the Earthseed’s artificial gravity.

People were busy all around. Researcher types in their light blue uniforms like his mother, and the engineering types wearing uniforms marked in light green. There were loaders and lifts moving crates around, people shouting, talking and hurrying around. Kyle hugged his stuff close and tried not to look lost or afraid. That’d attract attention. He walked straight ahead as if he knew where he was going. If he had to he’d walk clear all the way around the ship rather than look lost, but he hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

Then, just up ahead, Kyle saw an open airlock and a crowd of people moving in and out. It looked like they were bringing in crates from outside. Samples, most likely, maybe specimens from the island and the river. That’s as far as people went. Kyle clutched his bundle tighter and kept going.

His heart hammered and his mouth felt dry. As he got closer he could see over the heads of the people in the lock. Both doors were open. Exobiology had already judged EEQ-14 within habitable parameters as far as pathogens were concerned. It didn’t make it safe, but safe enough. He’d heard that enough from his mother.

Kyle squared his shoulders and walked straight toward the lock. If everyone kept thinking that he belonged there then he’d get away with it, just slip out in the confusion.

And he’d almost made it too when a hand grabbed his shoulder.

Kyle jumped and twisted around. A pretty woman, younger than his mother maybe, but wearing the green of the engineering crew stood behind him. She had a soft round face with big dark eyes and matching dark hair. Her lips looked very red when she smiled. She bent at the waist and pressed her hands together.

“Very sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.” Her voice sounded soft, like a breeze just rustling the trees. “I’m Megan. Are you lost?”

Kyle shook his head. “No. I’m not.”

Megan’s smile widened. “I think you’re a little young to be on this work detail. What’s your name?”

“Kyle.” Kyle made himself laugh even though he felt like he was going to puke. He had to think of something to say, but his mind had gone into complete melt-down. He couldn’t think of anything.

“What’s that?” Megan nodded at the bundle he held.

The bundle! That was it. “Stuff for my Dad.” Kyle turned and looked at the people at the lock. A man turned and glanced in their direction. Kyle waved his hand vigorously. The man waved back. Kyle looked back at Megan and grinned. “Okay?”

Her smooth forehead wrinkled and then she nodded. “Okay. But don’t hang around, alright? I know it’s interesting, but the locks aren’t really a place for a kid. You don’t want to get run over by a loader or anything.”

“I’ll go straight home after,” Kyle promised. After he had a chance to see the outside for himself.

Megan touched his shoulder, then stepped back. She gave him a small wave. “Go on, then, Kyle.”

Not believing his good luck, Kyle turned around and walked quickly toward the open lock. The man that he’d seen was busy loading sample crates onto a trolley. Kyle walked straight toward him, but when Kyle got there he slipped past the man and kept walking.

All around him the lock rang with the noise of the activity. People rushed around him but no one really paid him any attention, they were all so busy with what they were doing. Before Kyle knew it he stood right at the top of the ramp with the world right there, right down in front of him.

It smelled real. Not like the men and machines smell of the Earthseed. It smelled like dirt and plants and water and he could hear the sound of the river rushing past even though he couldn’t see it. This low he couldn’t see much of anything except dirt and rocks, and the springy sorts of blue-green plants that grew everywhere. Bushes covered the hillside on his right, crawlers that moved too, but not like they trees. The bushes rolled, slowly, from place to place as they jockeyed for the best position.

“Hey, kid!”

Kyle didn’t even look to see who had called out. He bolted down the ramp. He ran as fast and as hard as he could, his lungs sucking in the outside air. He felt like he could fly down the ram. More shouts behind but he didn’t look back, he didn’t hesitate. He hit the ground running and turned right, running in the shadow of the ship toward the far side of the valley. He wanted to get high enough up to see the trees, maybe down the other side as far as the river. It didn’t matter.

🚀

Fifteen minutes later Kyle crouched by some rocks down at the river’s edge. Lights danced along the ridge. Search parties. He couldn’t believe he had managed to stay away from them so long. Once he had gotten up among the crawling bushes he had dropped down and scrambled up the hillside. The crawlers shivered as he passed but were too slow to really react.

On the horizon the sun dropped completely out of sight. Kyle was surprised it didn’t immediately get dark, like when you switched off a light. Sure, everything wasn’t as bright, but he could see well enough to make his way even without using his light. Well enough to make it all the way down here to the river.

It looked narrow at this point and dark. The sound of it rushing past reminded him of the wind of the rushing trees, a constant powerful white noise behind him. He made his way upstream, away from the search parties with the lights. Soon they’d send out fly cams with all sorts of tech to find him. He couldn’t believe he’d gotten this far, but he couldn’t very well get in more trouble now so he figured he might as well keep going.

Kyle was moving from boulder to boulder, trying to keep the big rocks between him and the search parties with something wet and hard lashed around his thigh. It squeezed hard and yanked him off the rocks!

Before he could yell he plunged into the river. Kyle splashed his arms, dropping his stuff in the process. Whatever had him hung on like a clamp, pulling him under. He couldn’t see anything in the dark water. It was cold and took his breath away. His chest burned. Real fear seared along his nerves. He wished he had never run out!

Kyle reached down and felt what grabbed him. It felt rough but pieces rubbed off when he grabbed it. Kyle tried getting his hand beneath what held him and the instant he did he felt something else in his head.

Darkness. Fatigue. Panic.

Kyle recognized the feelings, but they weren’t his. His chest burned. He needed air!

Abruptly whatever held him thrust him up, rushing through the water. His face burst out of the river into the air. He gasped and breathed in hungry gulps.

Light. Light!

Searchers, shining their lights on the ridge line, looking for him.

Kyle got an impression of many limbs, of the thing holding him. A tree! A tree submerged in the water, washed up on the shore of the island. Disorientated. Confused. A tree didn’t have eyes. They sensed the light, the warmth of the sun. It grabbed him trying to pull itself out of the river.

He reached down and grabbed the branch still holding his leg with both hands. He pictured it loosening, letting go.

Confusion. Hesitation.

Please, Kyle thought. Let go!

The branch uncurled. Kyle held on and floated with his head out of the water. In his mind he pictured the tree pushing down with branches on the river bottom side, lifting itself up out of the water.

Fatigue. Weakness.

Kyle concentrated. Try! Push!

The tree shuddered beneath him and then he felt it move. The surge of water rushed around him, almost tearing him free. Kyle wrapped his legs around the branch and held on. Two smaller branches on that side of the tree steadied him. With the sound of wood groaning, the tree broke the surface of the water. Kyle hung on as the tree rose higher and higher, carrying him with it. It crawled up until it regained its footing. He sensed how tired and weak the tree felt but now that it had gotten out of the river it seemed in a hurry.

Hunger! Fatigue! Sleep!

The tree staggered up onto the rocky beach. Search lights on the ridge turned and pointed down. Bright lights fell across the tree and Kyle, almost blinding him.

Light!

With big cracking steps the tree stomped across the beach, grinding rocks with loud crashing noises. Shouts went up on the ridge. Kyle squinted through the lights, seeing people running down the side of the hill. The tree kept going until it passed the last of the rocks. When it reached the ground it stopped moving. Thick tendrils or roots around its legs burrowed themselves into the ground, anchoring it.

Sleep!

The tree’s limbs drooped. Kyle slid down the thick branch that he was on, sliding down until he could drop safely to the ground.

Then the search parties reached him, gathered around him, shouting questions. Two pushed to the front. His parents! Kyle staggered when his mother grabbed him and pulled him into a hug.

🚀

Kyle expected to get in trouble, but he didn’t expect to have to face the ship’s Board and Director. He’d never even been up onto the Earthseed’s Command deck. Now he walked between his parents down a huge hallway light with soft warm lights and shockingly bright green Earth plants growing out of pockets in the walls. After spending so much time looking out at the gray-green of EEQ-14’s plants he hadn’t remembered what really green plants looked like.

His mother touched his shoulder. “It’s okay, Kyle. They want to hear what you have to say, that’s all.”

Kyle looked at the floor and nodded. Getting yanked into the river by the tree was one thing, but this? He rubbed his hands on his pants and somehow kept walking.

At the end of the corridor was a smoky glass door that slid silently to the left out of their way when they approached. A tall thin man, almost no hair on his head and what was there was white, stood just inside. He wore the bright blue uniform of command. And his deeply lined face was split by a broad smile. He reached out to Kyle.

“There you are, lad! Come in! Come in! We’re eager to hear what you have to say!”

Kyle couldn’t do anything except blink at the man. Not just any man, that was the Director, waiting here for him at the door! Director Reynolds.

“Sir. Sir.” Kyle heard his mother and father say.

Director Reynolds nodded. “Thank you so much, quite the brave lad you’ve got.” The Director winked. “If a bit disobedient!”

“Sorry, sir,” Kyle whispered.

The Director wave his hand and made a dismissive noise. “At least you weren’t hurt! We have protocol for a reason, young man. To protect people from harm. But don’t worry about that, you’ve got time to learn all about it. You’re the first person to communicate with the trees and we want to hear it from you, first hand, what it was like! You may have just found the key to let us truly settle this planet. We’re very excited.”

The Director’s hand fell on Kyle’s shoulder and guided him on into the chamber. It was big with a large U-shaped table surrounded by people. And they all were watching him walk in, but their faces looked happy.

Kyle felt some of the tension loosen in his chest. Another person walked across the room, but it wasn’t really a person at all, but a silver-skinned, willowy android with large blue eyes. The soft-metal face formed a smile.

“Welcome to the Ship’s meeting,” Calvin said. “I apologize if my inattention allowed you to come to any harm.”

“He’s fine,” Director Reynolds said, scowling. “Are we ready?”

“Yes, sir,” Calvin said smoothly.

Director Reynolds patted Kyle’s shoulder and gave him a little nudge. “Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce a brave young man, Kyle Mainter, he’s going to tell us about his adventure.”

Kyle swallowed nervously, took a breath and looked around at all the faces watching him. It felt good. It felt right. Everything was going to be alright after all. He wasn’t in trouble, they just wanted to know what happened. What it was like to talk to the tree. He smiled. He couldn’t wait to tell them, and maybe, just maybe, he’d get to go out and climb in the trees again!

🚀
5,117 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 44th weekly short story release, written in August 2011. Eventually I’ll do a standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the story. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Manifesting Destiny.

2015 Pac West Spartan Race

On Saturday, August 8th I finished my second Spartan Race.

I didn’t train. Crazy, I know.

It didn’t start out that way. I signed up for the race last October. I also planned to do a Spartan Race Sprint in Montana, in May, and possibly the longer Super in October 2015. My enthusiasm had me out training each day — slowly. I walked. I bought SandBells. I made my very own Spartan spear. I bought a massive concrete block, attached a chain and dragged that around our property. I planned to build my upper body strength and work up from regular walking to running. With seven months before the Montana Sprint I figured I had time to get in better shape than when I did the first race last August.

Then on February 2nd my ankle flared up on my walk with sharp, hobbling pain. I saw a physical therapist I had already seen for problems in my right shoulder. She put me on a slow plan of stretching and generally discouraged me from pursuing the Spartan Race plans.

It took a long time for my ankle to feel better and I canceled the trip to Montana — and with it any plans to complete any other races this year.

However…

I talked to my brother about the Spartan Race and he wanted to do the Sprint in August. I decided to go. And as we got close to the race day I found it harder to imagine going and NOT racing. Surely I could take it easy, and try to finish.

Crazy, I know.

I think I forgot how I felt after the last Spartan Race. It doesn’t sound bad, 4+ miles and 23 obstacles. I could walk. I hadn’t trained — still, didn’t I know what to expect? Tough it out. I couldn’t go just as a spectator.

I told my brother I’d be slow. He was okay with that.

I left the house at 5:30 a.m. to meet him and head to Washougal, WA for the race. We didn’t start until 11:15 a.m., but it would take a couple hours and I didn’t want to rush. I wanted time to check out the festival area too, and see some of the elite runners.

IMG_20150808_093556I took time to check out the map before this race. I noticed familiar obstacles and new ones that I didn’t face last year.

We saw the elite women finish.

IMG_20150808_092619Amelia Boone came in second right at the last minute.

IMG_20150808_092626Rose Wetzel finished seconds behind her.

Eventually it was time and my brother and I hopped the wall into the starting area. No going back. I had committed myself to the race. I was laughing — because it was insane. I took snacks in my zippered pouch on my shirt because I knew I’d be out there for hours.

Hills. The first obstacle (not counted on the map). Leave the start, turn and run up a hill. Initially the same route that it followed last year, then it changed. I didn’t even try to run up the hill.

Moats. After a bunch of hills — water. Just a big, long pit of muddy water. Nothing to do but jump in and get through. Back to hills after.

Dust. Not on the map. The ground was very, very dry and in places inches deep in powdery dust. Not fun to breathe.

Hurdles. Flat stretch with hurdles to climb over. Jump over if you had the energy and strength to do so.

Vertical Cargo Net. No idea how high (high) this was basically a big cargo net wall to climb up and over. Straw at the bottom in case of falls. No problem except high.

Trails. Long trails up and down through the woods and rocks. I ran some flat and down sections without pushing too hard. Trying to conserve what energy I had.

Sandbag carry w/over wall. SandBell carry (40lbs) up a very steep hill, then around to a wall. Put the bag on the wall, climb over, bring SandBell over and continue on down around to where you started. Heavy but familiar since I’ve carried mine around. Despite my slow pace I was having fun — despite having a hard time believing I was doing the race.

Log Carry. Same spot where I did the gravel bucket carry the last year. Big logs. Heavy logs. Which nonetheless made me happy because it wasn’t the gravel bucket carry.

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This was coming up on the end of the log carry. Oh, and this year I wore gloves and tighter shorts. Both worked great! The woman and guy in the black tank look like the same people that were behind me in the picture of the gravel bucket carry last year. Weird.

Monkey Bars. Up to this point I was feeling pretty good. I laughed when I saw the monkey bars. Not even straight, they alternated high-low, high-low. I knew going into the race that this sort of obstacle was my greatest weakness with the shoulder troubles I’ve had. I tried, didn’t make it across, and did my first burpees. Demoralized, tired, I staggered on.

Inverted Wall. Might have been feeling tired — it looked bigger this year. Still, not too much trouble climbing up and over. Give me an inverted wall any day over what was to come.

Atlas Lift. Shortly after mile two I hit the atlas lift. Check out this video for an idea of it.

Got it? Carry a 100 lb ball. Do 5 burpees. Carry back. Insane. I managed. Somehow. Worn out.

Plate DragImpossible. At least for me. This was a metal plate loaded with heavy sandbags, attached to a rope. You had to sit down and pull it to you. The ground was so full of holes the plates just got stuck. Couldn’t budge it out of the hole. Finally gave up on this one and pulled it (with the chain on the plate) back to the starting position.

Beginning to think doing the race wasn’t the best idea.

Wall Series. This killed me. Okay, not all of me, but my shoulder. High walls. Trying to get over the first my right shoulder flared up and I thought I was done. I spent too long looking at the wall, watching other people doing it, not wanting help but having no idea how to get over the wall and it was only the first. They did have boards on each side to help those who needed help and I used it and still barely got over.

The next walls were higher.

I helped a woman get over the next wall and then had to try. I managed to get up and over. Two down, so I helped her with the next and then dragged myself over too.

My shoulder was painful but I was relieved to be over the walls.

A-Frame Cargo. I had a blast with this one. Maybe 20′ high? Not good for someone afraid of heights, fortunately I didn’t have a problem this that and crawled up and over quickly while a few people around me fought their fears and made it over. Awesome.

Spear Throw! I laughed when I got to the spear throw. One, everyone was groaning anticipating the burpees to follow. As I walked up I saw the woman I’d helped over the walls already doing burpees. Two, I didn’t know with my shoulder if I could throw — but it sounded better than burpees.

nailed it. Center mass. Stuck in place. I did a spontaneous fist bump into the air.

I was seriously happy. The volunteer congratulated me. Best moment right there.

Horizontal Rope Traverse. Right after the spear throw, and again, I didn’t know how my shoulder would take it, but it looked like fun. No water or anything underneath, just a few feet above the ground. Cross out to the bell and done. A lot of folks were standing around like they weren’t sure about doing this one.

I got right up, swung my legs up and my shoulder didn’t seem to care. I rocketed across it like a mad squirrel. Hit the bell, swung my legs free and my hands lost my grip. I landed on my ass.

A volunteer checked if I was okay, gave me a high-five and I was on my way. Shaky dismount, but one of my better obstacles.

Slip Wall. Past the third mile, water trench and slip wall. It looked bigger too this year. It’s a big slippery sloped wall with ropes. I waded out to the wall, crawled up and grabbed the rope. The trick is to lean back so your legs remain perpendicular to the wall surface and walk up. Just as I was about to reach the top a big guy next to me made a desperate grab for the top, missed and fell. He slid to the bottom, rolled into the water and got up, hopefully okay. I swung my foot over and took in the view.

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Herc Hoist. I don’t have the upper body strength for this one. Last year I made it about half way up before having to lower it down. This year, with my shoulder, I couldn’t budge it. Burpees.

Barbed Wire Crawl. It made me laugh crawling under low barbed wire through mud that was both very slippery and rough enough to shred my knees and elbows. Also killed my shoulder so I mostly went through on my left side and belly, hence the uneven mud distribution.

20150816014634The other reason I’m smiling is what I see ahead. I thought I was safe from it this year.

Gravel Bucket Carry. I hated this obstacle last year. Take a heavy, muddy bucket with ~75lbs of gravel and carry it over rough terrain. After carrying the log I thought I was safe. No. This time it was the hill where I carried the SandBell last year. Very steep up, and back down in a loop. I was so tired by the time I got there I didn’t know if I could even lift the thing.

It took a long time. I stopped and rested. The hill was steep enough (like so many on the course) that falling was a real possibility. I eventually made it, don’t know how, except I kept going.

Z-Walls. This is the traverse wall in a ‘Z’ shape. With my shoulder and arms I couldn’t do it. I didn’t have a problem last year. Burpees.

Dunk Wall. Deep water pit with a wall across. Dunk under the wall and come up on the other side spitting muddy water and try to clear your eyes without rubbing more mud into them.

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Cliff Climb. Last year this was a steep muddy barbed wire crawl. The top gets so steep that there are ropes. This year water was running down the hill. It was very slippery but you could walk it. Some people fell. I didn’t, so that was something.

Clif Multi Bar. Like monkey bars but with a set of rings, then a horizontal bar, then more rings. I didn’t make it across. Burpees.

Rope Climb. A bit of a traffic jam at this point. I eventually got into the water and attempted to get on the rope. With my shoulder it wasn’t happening. Burpees.

“Fire” Jump. This year the wood wasn’t on fire given the dry conditions but the jump was a ramp up to the wood and then a deep pit of water on the other side. Some people hesitant to jump made me wait but by that point I was done, so who cares?

Conclusion

Finish time: 3:00:27

I finished. Confession: with my shoulder hurt I didn’t complete a full 30 burpees at each obstacle failed. I did early in the race and cut the number down to ten by the end when my shoulder was killing me. I probably shouldn’t have even done those. Even that was painful and difficult.

It took me fifteen minutes longer this year. Of course different course route, different obstacles and I didn’t hurt my shoulder last time. And I had actually managed some training.

My brother managed in 1:50:55, a great time, I thought given he hadn’t trained extensively either.

In the past eight days I’ve mostly recovered. I couldn’t hardly move the next day. My main problem now is my shoulder. It still is giving me trouble, so I’ve got to work on that.

I don’t have any plans to complete another Spartan Race. I may. I just don’t have any plans. With going back to grad school I also don’t anticipate having time to do any serious training. I’m not setting any goals for that either. I do hope that if I’m crazy enough to try a Spartan Race in the future that I’ve done a lot more serious strength training to protect my shoulders — and can run 10+ miles comfortably.

Then maybe I’ll be ready to tackle something like this again. I’m glad to have completed the race, overcoming the difficulties to finish. I’ll need that same determination to finish my degree despite whatever obstacles come up.

 

 

 

Updates and the costs of learning

I plan to continue the weekly short story posts, I just don’t know how much more I’m going to be able to do.

Story Organization

I’ve been adding stories to the site and I’ve decided to change the post publication dates to reflect when I wrote the stories. Each week I’ll post the new story as a featured post for a week and then it’ll drop back to when I wrote it. I’ve added a Stories link to the menu and moved the list from the Books page. I’m tagging the stories for each year so it’ll be easy to bring up those posts. Eventually I plan to have a post for each title in my inventory. As I write and release new stories I’ll follow the same pattern — though I will of course send new stories out to magazines first.

Costs of Learning

I don’t know how much more I’m going to be able to do because I’m starting at the SJSU iSchool of Information in a Master of Library and Information Science program. It’s been a long time since I got my Master of Arts degree — 13 years — in writing popular fiction. I’ve been working in libraries for considerably longer. I’m excited to be starting this program, and this new phase of my library career.

That said, devoting this much time and effort — a full-time degree program on top of a family and a full-time career — means something has to give. I won’t have as much time to devote to writing and illustration. I will do what I can, but it’s going to have to take a back seat to my work on the MLIS program. If you’d like to follow along, visit my library blog BooksAreForUse.com — I plan to post (when time allows) about the program and libraries.

Every opportunity, every chance to try something new, comes with risks and obstacles. There’s a lot I want to do. This is the next chapter.

Caressing Charon

Going to a new world doesn’t mean leaving everything behind. Sharon excelled when it came to science. With people? Not so much.

When the first exploration of Charon takes an unexpected twist, and the mission commander takes an unplanned trip to Pluto, Sharon improvises while she seeks answers to questions she has asked her entire life.

1

On the fourth day without word from the Veil, Sharon went outside and looked up at Pluto hanging in the sky overhead. She bounded across Charon’s icy surface—it was a dirty snowball of a moon—in great seven-league steps like a superhero.

Okay, so each leap wasn’t seven-leagues, but it was still pretty freaking amazing. Zero-gee on the ship always felt like falling. Falling and falling for months on the way out. Here gravity held sway but only a fraction of that on Earth. Far less, even, than on Earth’s moon.

Her spacesuit smelled of days of sweat and trapped farts. She hadn’t left her suit since the trouble started. The others didn’t even notice when she left, they were too busy having sex. Almost non-stop. They’d take breaks to eat, sleep, and even use the lavatory, but that was all that they did. The six of them had been sent by their commander, Angie Tran, to establish a toehold on Charon and evaluate its potential to resupply the Veil. At first, that’s what they’d done.

Until it all changed.

The holographic heads-up display highlighted a dot in a bright orange highlight. A point of light that moved in the sky across the Pluto’s rusty face. The Veil. Two weeks ago, she’d gotten the message that Angie Tran had abandoned the ship for Pluto’s surface, leaving McMurty in charge. That didn’t make any sense at all. Angie would never give up command of the ship or the mission. It was all their petite commander had ever dreamed of, or had wanted. She’d made that clear on the way out. Never pairing up with anyone.

Sharon landed, and slowed, one smaller bounce following the next. No way to come to a sudden stop, not without toppling over onto the crusty ice. Windmilling her arms didn’t help, but that was instinct. She’d always been tall, pushing the limits the Diaspora Group set for crew members, and she’d always joked that her feet were so far from her head that the two didn’t communicate.

Kicking up final sprays of sparkling ice crystals, she managed to stop. Her rank breath echoed in her helmet. She squinted at the display and blinked open the communications channels.

Veil, come in please. Veil, this is Sharon Calvert on Charon. Come in.” Sharon on Charon. She’d heard the jokes about that and always pronounced Charon with a hard ‘k’ sound. Not that it helped.

I’ve got a bone for you, Sharon, Boyd had said back when they were still on the Veil. Now he was busy giving it to everyone else back at the habitat.

Hilarious stuff.

It was all a joke to them. All those months on the Veil, watching the others pair off, break up, and pair off with other partners. It wasn’t like there was any privacy. Nancy Walters squealed like she had won a big prize whenever she came. She and McMurty were an item at first, but by the time the ship had reached Pluto-Charon, she must have gone through half the men on the ship.

 

Not Sharon. No one sought out her company after hours. She was tall and plain. Horse-faced, according to kids in school. None of that mattered when it came to getting the work done. Then she had their respect. She was always smart. She’d seen Terra Blackstone give a speech early on about the potential of the Diaspora Group and her bold vision of sending out missions to every world in the solar system. Why decide which world to colonize, to put all of humanity’s hopes into one basket, when there was so much to choose from? It had sounded impossible, but Blackstone lived to make the impossible a reality. Sharon had applied for a position immediately.

And she’d never looked back. She’d worked on every stage of the missions, working her way up, and made it onto the crew of the very first ship to launch, the Veil. All of the outer worlds launches were happening first because they had the farthest to go. Just the opposite of what others would have done, going for the nearby worlds first.

Veil. This is Sharon Calvert. Come in.”

No response. The ship was right there, tracking across the sky. They should be picking up the transmission. What was going on up there that Angie Tran was off the ship? Soon the Veil would head back the other direction. It orbited the barycenter of the Pluto-Charon system, on a faster track than Pluto and Charon spinning around the same point in space. The position gave them ready access to either world.

“Sharon Calvert, calling Veil. Come in.” Please.

Silence. Sharon focused on the command menus and blinked her way to the diagnostics. Displays flitted across her view. All of the communications equipment reported functional.

“Calvert, calling Veil, come in.”

Sharon bounced in place. Charon, the trampoline world. Except the icy ground didn’t give much when she came down.

Veil. Come in. Come on, McMurty, Tran, somebody up there must be in charge! Answer me!”

She landed and ice crumbled beneath her boot. Not much, a few inches compacted by her jumping but she stumbled. She fell forward, but even that was happening slowly. She had plenty of time to get her hands beneath her. Her thick gloves touched the dirty ice and stopped her fall. She flicked her fingers against the ground and that was enough to get her started up.

Once she regained her feet she turned carefully away from the view. Time to go check on the pod.

2

The Charon landing site was only a couple kilometers from where they’d set up base as near to the geysers as they dared to get. Sharon bounced to a stop and sucked in big gulps of her foul tasting air. Although she had recharged the system only yesterday, her air was turning foul. The suit wasn’t designed to be lived in around the clock for days. Even with the catheter, it wasn’t like she could actually clean herself down there. The suit did its best to remove waste into the external storage bags but she still was beginning to smell like the inside of an outhouse crossed with a gym locker room.

The landing pod that had brought them to the surface squatted just down the slope, on a relatively smooth patch of rocky ground. Rocks from the size of boulders, down to pebble-size littered the field. Ice frosted the ground between the rocks. It wasn’t a clear landing place, only thirty meters behind the pod was a boulder that out-massed the pod. Despite the hazards, the rocky field presented one of the best opportunities to land. The worst case would have been to come in to land on a surface that was mostly ice where the landing thrusters might vaporize the ice and cause all sorts of hazards.

And they had the advantage of the pod’s six legs and flexible feet to deal with the uneven terrain. Sharon had a hand in designing the pods. The ability to land on uneven terrain was one of the key design features.

She bounced over to the lander in small leaps, watching her footing. The suit protected her to a point, but a bad landing could still break an ankle or leg.

The pod was a lot bigger close up. It rose above, sleek and bullet-shaped. A fine frost made the hull glisten and sparkle. Even with the rocks, there had been enough ice for the rockets to kick up a fine cloud of water vapor that instantly froze out on the hull.

Beneath the pod was a big gaping opening. That’s where the habitat sled and their supplies had been stored for the journey. The Veil carried a number of the landing pods, each equipped with the same habitats and supplies. A colony in a box, Blackstone had called it. Enough to get them established while they developed local resources and built a permanent colony.

Sharon moved into the shadow. The temperature readout along the edge of her vision dropped even more as the temperature plunged in the shadow. The suit fans and pumps kicked a notch higher to keep her from freezing. Alongside one of the legs was the ladder leading up into the shadowy belly of the pod.

She climbed up.

The hatch was clear of any frost. It had been protected on landing and without any atmosphere, there wasn’t anything to cause more frost to form. Sharon’s suit system interfaced with the pod’s, waking the dormant systems. A holographic access control appeared on the hatch. Sharon entered her code. Bright blue lights twinkled on around the hatch and pulsed as the hatch slid smoothly open.

She climbed up into the airlock and activated the cycle.

3

An hour later Sharon stepped from the pod’s tiny shower feeling clean for the first time in days. Her short blond hair was damp as she scrubbed at it with her towel. Her underwear clung to her skin and the cold air raised goosebumps on her arms. Still, she was loathe to even put on one of Diaspora’s standard issue workalls. She was clean!

The pod was small. In a pinch it served as a habitat itself. It was a multifunctional vehicle capable of taking off and returning her back to the Veil.

Except she couldn’t launch. Not without knowing the situation on the Veil, and not until she understood what was happening back at Charon Base. So far whatever had happened in the habitat hadn’t affected her, or infected her. That’s why she was staying in the suit while she tried to figure it out. Either something about the moon, or something that the others were exposed to, was behind this. Even if she was in touch with the Veil she couldn’t go back until she knew it was safe. She’d meant to inform Veil that Charon was quarantined, except she couldn’t get in touch with them.

Sharon climbed up into the cockpit at the top of the pod. It wasn’t difficult in the low gravity. She swung her legs up around and settled on her back in the command chair. She fastened the safety belts out of habit, and brought up the main system.

The pod controls came online. Sharon brushed aside the launch controls, and selected the communications system. She brought up the radio systems.

Veil, come in. This is Sharon Calvert, calling Veil. Please respond.”

Dead air answered.

Sharon pulled up the interfacing controls and pinged the Veil. A response came back as expected. Good. The ship wasn’t dead then. She opened up a socket and stabbed the command to make a network connection.

A miniature solar system model spun in front of her, Diaspora’s logo, and progress icon. The planets spun around and around. After a few seconds a message appeared on the screen.

“Bandwidth unavailable. Retry?”

Bandwidth? How was that even possible? There wasn’t anyone out here for the Veil to communicate with, and if there was, they should still have plenty of bandwidth to handle all the traffic that was necessary.

She dug deeper, running remote diagnostics. The Veil’s response was sluggish. It took the better part of an hour before she unearthed an answer.

Almost all of the Veil’s computing and communications capacity was being used. Other than normal life-support and other key ship systems, everything else was taken up with something else.

What? Sharon couldn’t get an answer from the system. Her access was extremely limited, down to a few basic diagnostics. She couldn’t change anything on the Veil, couldn’t even get access.

Sharon stabbed her fingers into the holographic controls to disconnect.

She leaned her head back and looked out through the windows. Pluto hung up there in the dark sky. From here it didn’t look small. It looked like a whole planet, dwarf planet or not. The view reminded her somewhat of seeing the Earth from the moon’s surface in training.

What was going on with the Veil? Angie Tran had left the ship for Pluto, after she’d taken the time to set up automated monitoring stations and was insistent on learning all they could about the planet before landing?

And why would Veil cut off communication with Charon?

Was it related to what was happening here, with the others? Was that why Angie had left the ship? Had she picked up on the signs, the same as Sharon had, and fled to Pluto’s surface? If that was the case then the only other person that could help her was up there, on Pluto. And out of reach.

Unless Sharon launched the pod and flew it to Pluto. If she could do that, and find Angie, maybe together they could figure out what was happening.

Except the major flaw with that plan was that the pod was not equipped for the trip. Sharon could take off, even plot an orbit that would send her to Pluto’s surface, but she wouldn’t have enough fuel to land when she got there. Crashing on Pluto didn’t sound like the best option. If that wasn’t enough, she also didn’t have any idea where Angie was on the surface. Pluto might be a small planet compared to others in the solar system but it still had over six million square miles of surface area, almost as big as South America. Any way to look at it, that was a lot of area to cover.

Sharon rubbed her eyes. She hadn’t gotten much sleep the past few days. She was tired. Exhausted from trying to figure out what was happening to her team, and from spending days in that suit. She needed rest. Then maybe she could figure out something else to do.

The chair was comfortable. She closed her eyes. She’d rest here, and figure it out tomorrow. Maybe the Veil would be back in communication then, and she could get some help. Until then, at least she was safe.

4

A dull clang rang through the pod. Sharon woke, her heart racing. For a second she didn’t even recognize where she was, except she was out of her suit and only wearing her underwear. The others!

Again, something banged against the pod.

Sharon rolled off the cockpit chair and dropped down into the living quarters section beneath. She landed lightly on her bare feet. The indicators on the airlock showed the exterior door was open.

She crouched and opened the interface. There wasn’t a locking mechanism on airlocks. She opened the internal comm system and cameras. Two of them, in spacesuits, were in the airlock. It didn’t give her a good look into their helmets. She couldn’t see who it was.

“Go back,” she said. “Stay out!”

“Sharon, come on.” That was Boyd. Golden-skinned, seductive dark eyes and lush lips. “We’re not going to hurt you.”

“It’s okay, Sharon.” That was Nancy the squealer. Her voice was high, but soft.

The last time Sharon had seen her, Nancy was on top of Terry, her back arching, while Jenny suckled at her pert white breast. She was such a tiny thing and spunky.

“It’s not. It’s not okay,” Sharon said. “You have to stay out. You’re all sick! Infected with something. Something from the ice, maybe. There’s something about this place, and it’s gotten into you.”

“There’s nothing wrong with us,” Boyd said. “Maybe we’ve gotten carried away, but we’re fine.”

Sharon shook her head. Her breath caught in her throat. Normal people. Rational people, they didn’t spend days in a never-ending orgy. They did research. They explored.

In her mind she saw Boyd intertwined with Kevin, who reminded her of Mr. Miller, her sixth-grade math teacher. Like Mr. Miller, Kevin had a round belly that went with his round face. They even both had curly hair. It was completely wrong to see Kevin like that!

“Sharon, we’re going to come in and talk to you,” Nancy said.

The airlock cycle was nearly complete. They’d be in and she’d be exposed. She couldn’t get back into her suit before the airlock finished its cycle. There wasn’t time.

“Don’t,” Sharon said. “Just stay out. When I get in touch with the Veil, we’ll figure out how to help you.”

“We’re worried about you, Sharon.” Boyd’s voice did sound concerned. “We invited you to join us.”

“No one meant for you to feel excluded,” Nancy said. “You chose not to join in. That wasn’t our fault.”

Sharon hugged her arms, nails digging into her skin. That wasn’t the way it was. They were all like animals, wallowing in sex. Back on the Veil people partnered up, but even in Nancy’s case it was normal. People found privacy where they could on the ship and if you heard something you pretended that you didn’t. On a voyage that long it wasn’t realistic to expect people to remain celibate. She knew that, whether or not anyone was interested in her. She was okay with being the odd-ball, on her own. That wasn’t a problem. It was just people, finding what comfort they could, not a ship-wide orgy.

The indicator on the airlock showed seventy-five percent pressure inside the airlock. When it reached a hundred percent the inner door would open and Nancy and Boyd would climb inside. They’d take off their helmets and she’d be exposed.

Would they try to touch her? She shivered.

What if they didn’t?

Which would be worse?

Ninety-five percent.

The cockpit! It had its own door, and could be closed off from the rest of the ship. Sharon moved, leaping up the shaft, using the ladder as she moved up past the living quarters to the cockpit. She was almost there when the hatch abruptly hissed shut in front of her.

“No!”

Sharon hit the hatch and bounced off. She caught the rungs inset into the wall/floor and struck the hatch with her feet. The indicator on the side showed it was sealed.

Something moved beneath her. Sharon looked down, past her bare feet, down through the living areas arranged around the central shaft. The first person was climbing through. The bright green on the shoulders, and the smaller size, meant that it was Nancy coming through first. Visible behind her was Boyd’s suit with his bright blue shoulder patches.

Sharon swung into the nearest workstation behind the cockpit bulkhead. It was only a gimbaled seat with holographic screens. One of four identical workstations set up around the shaft behind the cockpit where the crew could work using the pod’s systems. She tucked her feet up on the seat and hugged her knees to her chest.

“Sharon, honey? You don’t need to be scared.” Nancy’s voice was soft, and clear. Not coming through speakers. That was just her talking.

Sharon leaned enough to look down.

Nancy stood on one side of the hatch. Her helmet was off. Her black pixie-cut hair hung loose around her pale face. She had beautiful skin and pale pink lips.

Across from her, Boyd lifted his helmet free. He twisted around to stow the helmet and then looked up. His dark eyes met hers. He smiled, his full lips parting to reveal perfect white teeth.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of, Sharon. We’re not going to hurt you.”

A sigh escaped from Sharon’s lips. That was it then. If they were infected with something, some ancient microorganism that had been sleeping in Charon’s ices, she was exposed now. When this had all started, she had come back from a survey mission, gathering core samples from a search grid around the geyser field. When she had come back into the habitat, they were all naked. All of them, together. She had just turned around and gone back outside.

After all her time on the Veil, and in training for the mission, she hadn’t realized how much she missed simply going outside. Of course on Charon she still had to wear a suit, but she didn’t care about that. It was just like wearing clothes.

She’d never seen a landscape like Charon’s before. It was a bluish tan gray color, not that different from the moon, but with much more water ice. The areas around the geysers were brighter and sparkled from frost. From space it looked something like a speckled egg with the older surfaces being darker than the fresh younger surfaces where water ices coated the surface. The surface was rippled in spots too, from impact shockwaves that had traveled through the surface and froze in place before settling. The bright distant sun was small, and yet still illuminated enough of the surface to see. That alone made it look much more alien than the Earth’s moon.

“Sharon?” Boyd said. “What are you doing?”

She took a breath. “Nothing. Thinking.”

“We didn’t mean to exclude you,” Nancy said. “We’re sorry. One thing led to another, we were fooling around, and got carried away.”

“You could have joined in,” Boyd said. “No one would have minded.”

They wouldn’t have minded? What did that even mean?

“You didn’t seem interested.”

“No one ever asked me,” Sharon said, her voice barely a whisper.

“What?” Boyd said.

She couldn’t say it again. It was too embarrassing. She wasn’t a virgin. There was Chad Gehrke, her first year in college. Her only one-night stand, and it was an awkward, uncomfortable experience. The condom he wore had actually come off during sex and she spent the next two weeks until her period terrified that she was going to get pregnant the first time she had sex. And after that, she’d dated Steven Painter. Sex with Steven was just something they did like clockwork once a week, on Saturday night. It never lasted more than a few minutes, after which Steven fell asleep.

No one had ever made her squeal like Nancy.

Nancy appeared beside her, hanging onto the rungs with one hand and boot. Sharon shrank back in her chair but there was nowhere she really could go. She filled the space. She’d made sure the seats were built to accommodate someone her size, but they still felt like kid chairs.

Nancy wasn’t wearing her gloves any more. She had on the rest of her suit still, but her hands were as bare as her head. Her nails were painted green, like her suit. She reached out.

Sharon watched Nancy’s hand. It was small, the nails neatly trimmed and short, but green. A shiny lime green color. She must have used a portion of her personal weight allotment to bring cosmetics, which was just weird. Of all of the things to bring out to the far reaches of the solar system, Nancy had brought fingernail polish? Or had she manufactured it on the ship? It might be possible, but Sharon had never stopped to ask the question. She wouldn’t have thought about it.

Nancy’s fingers brushed Sharon’s ankle, caressed the smooth skin and then higher, tickling the soft hairs on her leg. Sharon closed her eyes, her throat tightening while Nancy’s hand moved in small circles against the light hairs. Nancy shaved her legs, and more, Sharon had seen that in the habitat.

“No one is going to hurt you, Sharon.”

She didn’t open her eyes but she smelled Boyd when he drew close, the salty masculine smell of him. His breath was warm against her shoulder. His soft lips touched the skin and she shivered again.

Her eyes opened. She looked at the two of them, hanging easily beside her chair. “Why? What caused this? There has to be something about Charon that caused it!”

Nancy’s pink lips twitched in a small smile. “In a way, I guess. At least for me. It was one thing on the ship. Cramped. Everybody was always around. Then we came here.”

“It’s so big,” Boyd said. His lips grazed her shoulder. “We walked out on the ice and there was a whole world.”

“That’s right.” Nancy looked at Sharon with bright eyes. “You’ve seen it. A whole empty world. We’re alone out here, this small pocket of humanity. It’s beautiful and terrifying all at the same time.”

It was. It was. The first time Sharon had walked outside after the landing, she had turned to the light. The sun was bright but tiny, like a flashlight far off in the darkness. She’d seen the Earth fade away to invisibility when they left, but here she had stood on a ridge of fresh ice and the sun was so far away.

“Blackstone understood it,” Boyd said. “I don’t know how, when she’s never been out here, but she gets it. She talked about each one of these worlds being a new start for humanity. We’re a tiny pocket of life on a dangerous world.”

“We’re not as strong as you,” Nancy said. Her hand slid up Sharon’s leg, past her knee, circling the smooth skin on her inner thigh. “You looked at it all, and you went to work. It impressed the hell out of me. Nothing fazes you. Not during the trip, not even coming here.”

Boyd kissed her shoulder again and looked at her with dark eyes. “So we lost it a bit. In a way it was Charon, it’s just so far removed from everything we left behind. We took comfort in each other, all of us, except you. You walked away.”

Sharon drew in a shaky breath. Her cheeks were hot. Nancy’s hand was warm and stroked higher on Sharon’s leg.

“I didn’t know how, I’ve never, not like that.” She couldn’t continue. She couldn’t think.

“It’s okay,” Nancy said. “When you left we realized what we’d done, how isolated you must have felt. That’s why we came after you.”

“There’s a lot of work to do,” Boyd said. “We can’t do it without you, and we can’t fool around forever. We have to come up for air sometime.”

Nancy winked. “If you’re interested, though, we can have some fun before we go back.”

Nancy’s finger grazed along the edge of Sharon’s panties. Her legs parted. Her breath caught in her throat.

“Yes. Please.” She closed her eyes.

Maybe it was the moon, something about Charon that had infected the others, and now infected her. Maybe it was simply feeling small and alone on the edge of the solar system. How could she know without running tests and experiments? There was so much about this world that they didn’t know yet. Either way, did it really matter?

Nancy’s lips grazed Sharon’s thigh and she gasped. Strong, masculine hands slid up her shirt and she surrendered to their touches.

5

Communication with the Veil was restored three days later. Angie Tran contacted them.

“Charon Base, this is Veil command. Come in.”

Sharon crossed the main room of the habitat. Around the edges were the six chambers that led to their personal rooms. Everyone was back at work, at least during the regular work shifts. They still paired off in the evening, the pairings changing each night. Sharon activated the holographic screen.

Angie Tran appeared. “Sorry we’ve been out of touch, Sharon. Terra Blackstone was visiting from Diaspora Base on the moon.”

Blackstone? That wasn’t possible. “Excuse me?”

“Yes, they’ve developed a new communications technology. It eats up a lot of bandwidth, but allows real-time holographic communication. We’re working on our own initiator up here. How do things stand there?”

They had all agreed not to bring up the incident with the Veil. They all were fine, and further analysis of the water ice mined failed to show any presence of unknown microorganisms.

“We’re fine,” Sharon said. “Our survey is progressing well.”

“Glad to hear it. We’re going to start plans to establish a permanent presence on Pluto. I’ve discovered something there that we can’t explain yet. I’d like your help with it.”

“You’re abandoning Charon?”

Angie shook her head. “No. We need Charon’s water. Pluto can supply nitrogen and methane we need, between the two worlds we have an opportunity to build our new future.”

“In that case, if it’s okay, I’d like to lead up the efforts here on Charon.”

“As you wish. I’d still like your input. I’ll forward you everything as we get it.”

“I’d appreciate that.”

“Okay.” Angie smiled. “I’m glad our communications blackout didn’t cause any problems. We’ll be in regular touch after this.”

“That’d be good,” Sharon said. “Thank you.”

They ended the call.

Boyd was over at the kitchen station, a pot steaming as he worked with Terry to fix dinner. Sharon rocked back in her chair. Charon was home now. More people would come and join them. This was her world, her family, and her future.

4,793 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 11th weekly short story release, and the 11th Planetary Bodies story. It’s the companion piece to Touching Pluto, because it made sense to me to write a binary story to the main story. Interestingly, this was also the first story published in the series, appearing in WMG Publishing’s Fiction River: Moonscapes anthology.

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

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

Neptune Bound

Tessa had everything she wanted on Earth. Her daughter, Kiera, and the opportunity to do pure research into the underpinnings of the universe.

Now, after ten months in space fleeing the anger and attacks on Earth, she faces an impossible moment in orbit around Neptune — a moment that will redefine her life forever.

1

The planet had hung in the dark sky for the past few weeks like a glass blue float, the sort that used to float up onto the beach back home. Now it was too big and the cloud layers were too visible to be a float any longer. It had become a world in its own right, one holding the keys to their futures.

When Kiera turned away from the ship’s observation window her plump face was bright with excitement. “Is that it, Mommy? We’re going to live on that planet?”

Tessa ignored the knot in her stomach and wrapped her arms around her daughter. “Pretty much, hon. Pretty much. We can’t actually live on Neptune. Liberty station floats in the clouds.”

If their names were drawn in the lottery for a spot on the Liberty. Out of the sixty people on the exodus ship Trident, only a third were going to the main colony. The rest of them would get divided up between Triton and the other orbital projects.

Liberty circled the planet with the rapid winds at one bar of atmospheric pressure. Not that the mixture of hydrogen, helium, methane and a few other hydrocarbons was a breathable atmosphere, but it did give the planet a pretty blue color. Almost the same shade as the exercise ball she had back on Earth. The main colony station was a multi-layered habitat suspended between two long pontoons, zeppelin-like clusters filled with hydrogen and heated to produce enough lift to keep the whole colony afloat. Same sort of habitat as the Aether back on Uranus. One of the early models, fusion powered, and growing. They were already talking about building a second colony, from scratch. Eventually there could be thousands of habitats circling the planet.

For now there wasn’t enough space for them all on Liberty. Which left them either on Triton or out on the lesser moons mining resources to keep the main colony functioning and growing. In other words, not getting selected in the lottery meant a life in micro or null gee environments, with all the attendant impacts that implied from bone and muscle loss, to radiation exposure. A few years of that, of adaptive loss, and there’d be no going back. The colony, Earth, any semi-normal environment was lost to them forever.

Tessa prayed every night as she rolled into her narrow berth, with the sounds of the ship around her, that they’d get selected in the lottery. The last thing she wanted for Kiera was for her to grow up in a dangerous environment. Half the time she wished that they had stayed back on Earth. So she had worked for the Diaspora Group? She was a scientist and they’d funded her research into quantum structure. Mostly theoretical stuff, but the Diaspora Group was big on science and funded lots of research. They provided state-of-the-art labs, work environments, and great benefits. But the hate mail, the threats left in her mailbox, the madness that seemed to descend on everyone regarding the Diaspora, it had scared her enough that when the exodus started she grabbed Kiera and allowed herself to get swept along.

 

Now this was where it had taken them. Eight long months in space on the Trident, and that was after two months waiting in orbit around Earth. Then they had boosted out, matched up with a solar sail created on Mercury, and were propelled outward by beamed power from the Diaspora’s power stations in orbit around the Sun.

Amazing, compared to the years that the original expeditions took to get out this far, but after ten months in cramped quarters she wanted out. There wasn’t ever going to be an “out” any more. They would spend the rest of their lives in artificial environments. At least on the Liberty there was more space than on the Trident. There, people actually had small apartments all to themselves. She and Kiera could have their own place. There was work that they could do, and with decent gravity and protection from radiation exposure. An environment that would give them the option of getting back home to Earth someday. If not her, at least Kiera would have the option. The choice, without suffering the effects of adaptive loss.

Kiera was a six-year-old little girl. The lottery couldn’t be entirely random. That didn’t make any sense. There were five children on the Trident, with eight adults. That was thirteen people that should go to the Liberty. But if that was the case, then it only left seven slots for everyone else. Nothing had been said about the families getting a spot on the colony. When asked, the folks on Liberty hadn’t answered the question.

Strands of Kiera’s brown hair escaped from her clip and drifted into Tessa’s face, tickling her nose. Tessa pulled back and licked her lips. Her mouth was dry, tacky. She’d given her last water ration to Kiera. Since the blow-out last month they’d all been on limited resources with water rations and were encouraged to keep activity to a minimum. A lot of the crew spent their time locked in their narrow berths watching shows or reading until their next turn on the exercise equipment. If they exercised at all. She made sure that she and Kiera made every session. Bad enough to be weightless this long, how much worse would it be if they didn’t at least try to stay in shape? Plus it helped Kiera burn off her childish energy, which seemed inexhaustible even with the limited rations.

“Are we almost there yet?”

“Almost. The second solar sail has been slowing the Trident down so that we can enter orbit. We’re only three days away now.”

“And then we go to the colony? If we’re picked in the lottery?”

“That’s right,” Tessa said past the lump in her throat. They had to be picked. They had to.

She checked the time. The lottery was in thirty minutes. They’d all been instructed to be in their berths for the drawing. The crew wanted to minimize any disturbances. It made sense. Did she want to see the faces of anyone that won the lottery, if she and Kiera didn’t?

She gave Kiera’s thin shoulders a gentle squeeze. “Let’s get back to our berths. It’s almost time for the lottery.”

“Okay!” Kiera kicked off, and drifted up out of the observation bubble. She flipped in mid-air, pushing off the wall to swim forward into the main shaft that ran the length of the torpedo-shaped ship.

She was like a fish in zero-gee. Her, and the other kids, moved with automatic grace and ease. Children were so adaptable at that age. Two of the other kids, Jon and Dean, were each only seven and eight years old respectively. The three of them had bonded and were often flashing along the Trident like a tiny school of human fish. But Tessa saw how thin they were. Back on Earth they would look frail and weak. Too much time in this environment, and they wouldn’t even be able to stand on Earth, or any other higher gravity environment, again. Not Liberty, Aether back on Uranus, or Aphrodite on Venus. Or any rotating habitat that approached Earth-normal gravity. The only thing that made sense was for them to go to Liberty and grow up in the closest thing to home that they’d find this far out from the Sun.

Tessa followed Kiera back to their berths. Each was a small coffin-like compartment, with a flimsy rolling door that slid across the top to close it off. No bed or anything like that, you just sort of floated in it when sleeping. It wasn’t for the claustrophobic, although with the lights off it was mostly dark. Never quiet, with the sounds of other people and the pumps and electronic equipment humming, but it didn’t feel quite so small. Kiera dove into her berth, hooked her bare feet under restraints and waved.

They had adjacent berths, side-by-side. Tessa pulled herself down into her own berth and floated there, looking across at her sweet daughter.

“Go ahead and close up,” Tessa said. “You need to visit the facilities before bed?”

Kiera shook her head. “I’m not tired. I’m staying up for the lottery.”

“I can always tell you when you get up.”

Kiera laughed. “I want to see it. You said.”

“I did,” Tessa allowed. “No matter what happens, we’ll make it work.”

So long as they ended up on Liberty. Otherwise? She really didn’t know what she’d do. They had to put the kids on the Liberty, didn’t they?

Kiera pulled her berth door closed. The magnetic latches clinked into place. Tessa let out a breath she’d been holding. The tiny green dot indicating a secure seal was a reassuring safety measure. Each of the berths was sealed. If the main compartment suffered a breach, they’d be okay in their berths. At least until someone could repair the problem. A theory put into practice when they had the blow out on the way. People had lived because they were in their berths. Others hadn’t made it.

After she sealed her own berth she activated her glasses display to the general channel. Status reports about the Trident appeared as floating holographic screens around her. The narrow walls of the berth appeared more distant as she focused on the screens.

Everything operating normally, orbital approach right on target. She dismissed the windows with a swipe of her hand. There wasn’t anything to do but wait and stay positive. It’d all work out.

 

2

 

When the results of the lottery came in twenty minutes later Tessa stared at them with incomprehension.

Kiera’s status showed her updated for assignment on the Liberty. It should have been a huge weight lifted off Tessa’s shoulders, except Tessa’s own status showed an assignment on Proteus, with the mining outfit there.

It made no sense. It was a mistake, obviously. Tessa opened a channel to the crew. The call rang. And rang. It was a full ten rings before anyone answered.

The window showed Melia Wren, her thin lips tight. “Yes, Tessa?”

“The lottery —”

“Was handled by Liberty command. We don’t have anything to do with it.”

“I know that, but there’s been a mistake.”

“And you’re the thirty-first person to call and tell me that. I’ve got five other calls stacking up, and I’ll bet that they’re all going to say the same thing.”

Tessa clenched her hands tight, nails digging into her palms. Her voice still shook. “They’re splitting us up. That can’t be right. They can’t take my daughter away.”

“Kiera?” Melia’s forehead furrowed. “They’ve given your daughter a different assignment than you?”

“That’s what I’m saying. They show her assigned to Liberty —”

Good for her.”

“— and me on Proteus. What sort of work am I supposed to do on Proteus? It sounds like that’s a mining operation. I doubt they need someone to do theoretical physics there.”

Melia sighed. “I don’t know what that’s about. I’ll check, okay. Kiera and Tessa Hamilton, I’ll follow up, and let you know.”

Tessa shook her head. “Turner. Kiera’s last name is Turner.”

“Turner?”

“She has her father’s name. I went back to my maiden name when we split.”

Melia nodded. “Okay. Maybe that’s why. I’ll check, but I can’t promise anything.”

“Thank you.” A window popped up, Kiera calling. “I’ve got to go.”

“I’ll let you know.”

Melia vanished. Tessa blinked Kiera’s call open. Her daughter’s beautiful face appeared in front of her, beaming wide. “They picked me for Liberty!”

“I know hon, I saw that.” Six-years-old and already Kiera was a digital native, navigating interfaces without a second thought. And why not? She’d grown up around them.

“Your name was on Proteus. That’s a moon. Does that mean you won’t be with me on Liberty?”

“I don’t know what it means. I’m trying to find out.”

“If they won’t let you come to Liberty then I’m not going.”

Tessa shook her head. “No, hon. You have to go to Liberty no matter what. You have to grow up in a healthier environment. Otherwise your choices will always be limited.”

“But I want to be with you!”

Tessa blinked back tears that threatened to spill out of her eyes. “Don’t worry about it. We’ll get it all sorted. Until I know more, let’s not say anything, okay. Not to your friends, even.”

“Okay.”

“I mean it. People are going to be upset right now.”

“Why?”

“Because people that wanted to get picked in the lottery, they’re going to be unhappy if they weren’t selected for the Liberty.”

“Like you.”

Tessa pressed her finger beneath her nose. “Yes —” her throat caught. She took a breath. “Yes. I talked to command. We’ll get it sorted, but we don’t want to other people to know. Not right now. Not until we have to leave the Trident. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Are you ready for bed?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Then settle down and get some rest.”

“Good night, Mommy.”

“Good night, sweet girl.”

Kiera broke the connection and it was as if she was already far away rather than just inches away in the next berth. Tessa touched the panels that separated them. It wasn’t possible that they really meant to separate her from her daughter. It wasn’t. She wasn’t going to dwell on it. She turned out her lights and drifted in the darkness. The hiss of air circulating, the sound of voices carrying through the ship, those things kept her anchored on the Trident rather than being cast adrift with her own thoughts. Eventually she slept.

3

It was almost time for Tessa’s lunch break when Melia pinged her glasses. Tessa pushed away her other work, writing code to analyze readings taken by the Trident, to take the call. Melia’s holographic likeness appeared in front of her. From her down-turned lips, she didn’t have good news. Just seeing her, looking into her eyes, Tessa knew. She knew what Melia was going to say before she said it.

Liberty command gave everyone on the Trident an equal shot in the lottery. They didn’t look at family ties at all.” Melia’s tone conveyed her disgust at that idea. “They said that considering family ties would give those with relatives an unfair advantage over the rest. You’re not the only one with this problem. Without giving away names, there are two other family units were one of the members was selected in the lottery and the others weren’t.”

“So what do they expect to do? Have a six-year-old on Liberty without a parent? Who would look after her? Surely it makes more sense for me to go with her!”

“They say it’s up to you. If Kiera goes to the Liberty they assure me that she’ll be taken care of, looked after, educated, everything. They’re setting up what’s essentially a boarding school, a crèche, with the idea that most people will want their children raised under as close to Earth-normal conditions as possible. Kiera and any other kids will only be the first.”

“So I’m supposed to go off and work on Proteus while she’s raised by strangers?”

“They also said that you could refuse winning on her behalf, in which case the winning berth goes on to the next alternate.”

“And she stays with me?”

“Yes. That’s my understanding.”

Tessa shook her head. It was an impossible decision. Taking Kiera to Proteus, that was insane. She’d never have the choice of going to any higher gravity environment. Not Earth, not even a rotating facility like Ceres. But giving her over to strangers?

“I need to talk to them directly,” Tessa said. “Face-to-face. I want them to explain to me how this makes any sense whatsoever!”

“I’m not authorized to give anyone direct access at this point,” Melia said.

“Not authorized? What does that mean?”

“Just what it sounds like. Liberty is swamped right now getting ready for our arrival and they’ve asked that we restrict communications to crew only.”

“You’re not serious, I need access!”

Melia shook her head. “I can’t do it, sorry Tessa. The captain’s going to make an announcement later, final details on the approach and orbit, disembarkation procedures. We’re going to need a decision by tonight so that everything can be prepared.”

Tessa bit back the scream that threatened to erupt. “I’ll call back.”

She killed the connection. Call back? The next time she was going right up to the command deck to confront them personally. No access? That was ridiculous. They were afraid to talk to them, that was all. In fact why wait? She could go up there now and —

“Tessa?”

She twisted in space. Claire Rood floated behind her. Claire was a biologist, one of the minds behind the Trident’s small, but productive hydroponic gardens that had provided them with a small supply of greens on the trip out. They’d met at launch, two single mothers shepherding their kids onto the transports to leave it all behind. Otherwise they couldn’t be more different. Claire was in her forties, stylish, tall and well-liked. They had bonded over a shared interest in science, even with working in different fields. Claire’s son, Jon, was seven years old and had quickly become fast friends with Kiera. Tessa, on the other hand, knew how people saw her. She was geeky, and proud of it, and of being a scientist. Back on Earth she’d not only been short, but slightly overweight. It was hard not to be overweight in the lab when people were always bringing in food, or ordering pizzas. She’d lost that weight on the journey out. Maybe she wasn’t the world’s greatest mother, bringing Kiera out here, but she loved Kiera with all of her heart.

Tears welled in Claire’s eyes and broke away and drifted through the air. Tessa swept the tears from the air and caught Claire’s arms. They rotated around the space between them.

“What’s happened?” Tessa asked.

“We didn’t win the lottery,” Claire said. “They’ve assigned us to the mining facilities on Triton. There’s hardly anything there! It’s not a good environment for Jon. I don’t know what I’m going to do!”

“You’ll be together at least,” Tessa said.

Claire obviously saw something in Tessa’s face. Her eyes narrowed. “What is it? You and Kiera didn’t win, did you?”

She’d told Kiera not to say anything, but asked straight out, she couldn’t lie. “Kiera did. I didn’t. They’ve assigned me to Proteus, but she was picked in the Liberty lottery.”

They pulled closer and their spin increased. The walls of the Trident spun around them.

“What are you going to do?” Claire asked.

“I have to let her go to Liberty.” Saying the words out loud, it made it real. As real as a knife through her chest. But what other choice was there? She’d decided that much already. “She’ll be safer there.”

Pain went through Claire’s eyes.

“Sorry,” Tessa said. “I know you’re worried about Jon being on Triton.”

“I can’t imagine what you’re going through. At least I’ll have him with me.”

“Sometimes I wish we’d stayed back on Earth,” Tessa said.

“You know what they were doing. They’d have locked us up and taken our kids away. The mobs would have taken everything. They killed people.”

It was true. Diaspora personnel had been turning up dead before the end there, but the police had insisted that the cases were unrelated. They were supposed to believe that it was all a coincidence that people working for Diaspora were being killed, even abducted in some cases. Some of the people she worked with had thought that the government was behind the abductions, trying to capture key people involved with Diaspora. Sometimes she forgot how scary it was toward the end.

“I know,” Tessa said. “We couldn’t stay, but I feel guilty, you know? It was my job that landed us here.”

“It wasn’t your fault. If the governments hadn’t moved against the Diaspora, trying to illegally seize everything, we’d still be back there working our jobs, paying our taxes, living like everyone else.”

“All that’s true, but it doesn’t change what’s happening now, to our children. You probably understand what happens in a low-gee environment better than I do. Why aren’t they taking that into consideration?”

Claire let go and drifted away. She let out a small, hiccupy laugh. “I’m sure they have. They’ve always planned on us having kids out here. Isn’t that what Blackstone has talked about? The whole future of the human species spreading out to new worlds, evolving to meet the challenges?”

The words wouldn’t come. Claire was right, that’s what Diaspora and Blackstone had always said. They’d talked about people on every world in the solar system, even in free habitats out in the Oort cloud. Enough space and resources for trillions of human beings. And in time, even spreading out to other systems. Everyone knew that the long-term goal behind the solar sails and the beamed power station was to create ships capable of traveling to other systems. They’d be generation ships, but they’d get there following a fleet of probes and automated power stations that would set up automatically in other systems.

Of course that was the plan before the discovery on Titan. No one was saying much about that, what it meant. Things might have changed now.

Claire rubbed her eyes. “Look at me. I’m a mess. I’m sorry, Tessa, I freaked out a little there. It’s hard to see the big picture when it comes to Jon, you know?”

“I do.” Kiera was going to Liberty without her. It didn’t seem real. Not now. If there was a way to change it, she would.

“It’ll work out,” Claire said. “I’ll work on it. And there’s still the possibility that Triton’s subsurface ocean might have life. We’ll get down there eventually. Between that, and working on the adaptive loss problem, I’ll be busy.”

“I’m sure.” Tessa took a deep breath and let it out again. She wasn’t even listening to Claire any more. All she could see was watching Kiera leaving on some transport down to Liberty.

Claire was drifting away, but caught Tessa’s fingers. Tessa looked down, seeing Claire’s dark fingers curled around her paler ones. Friendship. Bravery. She looked up, meeting Claire’s sympathetic dark eyes.

“I can’t imagine being without her,” Tessa whispered. “But I want what’s best for her.”

“Then you know what to do,” Claire said. “Sometimes, often, life is just hard. You and I know that as well as anyone. We’ll stay in touch. They’ve got a network and everything. You’ll be able to talk to Kiera at least, and even visit her, I’m sure, from time to time.”

Tessa seized onto that thought, nodding. “Yes. You’re right. We’ll make it work. If I know she’s being taken care of, I can make it work.”

They drifted apart. Claire lifted a hand and then pushed off, drifting away down the Trident‘s long spine.

4

The Trident achieved a stable orbit around Neptune three days later. Kiera joined Tessa in her berth for the event. Everyone was on lock down, berths sealed as a precaution, and to simply keep everyone out of the crew’s way. The feed from the exterior cameras, however, let them all experience it in full holographic splendor.

In the past few days Neptune had grown in size and it filled the dark sky before Tessa. She’d selected a minimal environment, a simulated dome around her and Kiera, with light supports tracing geodesic lines across the sky. They couldn’t actually fly around the dome, they were still in Tessa’s berth, but their glasses projected the image in full immersion mode.

Kiera let out an awed sigh. “It’s beautiful!”

She was right. Neptune was beautiful. A deep blue color, like a jewel. Not at all the blue and white sphere that had been Earth. This was a giant world with bands of clouds and dark gigantic super storms. It had the fastest winds in the solar system. And she was going to send Kiera down into that. Seeing it like this, that was almost terrifying. The Liberty drifted on those winds, avoiding storms while speeding around the planet. Supposedly you hardly even noticed when you were on the colony.

Kiera’s arm shot out. “Look! I see the rings!”

She was right. Faint ring structures spread out around the planet. They were incomplete rings and hard to see at this angle, but there all the same. Nothing like the grandeur of Saturn’s rings. Tessa twisted in place, and found a second world, bright and straight ahead. She pointed at it.

“There’s Triton. Do you see it?”

“I do! That’s where Jon and his mother are going, right?”

“Yes.” Of course Kiera already knew that. So did everyone else now. Word had gotten out about the results from the lottery. Tessa had gotten ten private messages from people that wanted her to let them take Kiera’s spot on Liberty.

“It looks like a cantaloupe.”

Part of the moon’s surface was wrinkled, covered in ridges and pits pretty much like the skin of a cantaloupe. There was a variety of terrains, but few craters on the moon.

“It does,” Tessa agreed.

“Are we going there first?”

Tessa shook her head. “We’re going to fly by it, and use its gravity to help slow us down to alter our orbit around Neptune. We’ll meet up with local transports to take us where we’re going.”

“Do I have to go to Liberty without you?” Kiera asked in her quiet, baby voice.

“It’ll be like going to a boarding school back on Earth. People would do that so their kids got the best opportunities in life. Same here. You’ll learn from experts, and be right in the middle of the main Neptune colony. You’re going to have so much fun!”

“But there’s hardly any kids there, and you won’t be there.”

“No, but we can talk, and see each other. With a hologram, it’s almost the same as being there.”

“You can’t give hugs.”

Tessa fought the tears stinging her eyes. “No. You can’t. Not yet at least. But I’ll come visit and you can save them up for then.”

Kiera turned away, her eyes searching the view. “Where’s Proteus?”

Tessa pulled up a control panel and checked. “It isn’t visible right now. It’s a very small moon. Triton is much, much bigger.”

“Jon says they have geysers and volcanoes there, except they’re ice, not lava.”

“Jon’s right.”

“And he says there’s a secret ocean under the ice that might actually have alien fish and stuff.”

“We don’t know about that part. Water, yes, but so far we haven’t found evidence of life.”

“Jon says that aliens were on Saturn.”

Tessa smiled. “Not on Saturn, but it looks like some aliens visited Titan, one of the moons there, a long time ago.”

“But they could come here too, then, couldn’t they?”

Tessa shrugged. “I guess, but it looks like they didn’t stick around.”

“Maybe they’ll come back,” Kiera said wistfully.

Triton grew bigger and bigger in the view, and soon the changes were enough that Tessa could feel that they were flying right at the moon. It grew so large that it dwarfed everything else, even Neptune. Everything was so clear and strange, a world of pinks and blues and darker streaks. It had valleys and cracks in the surface, frozen peaks and all sorts of other interesting features that she didn’t know the names for. She could pull up explanations, but didn’t. They were getting so close now it was almost like being in a plane flying high above the surface, except higher, because she could still see the curved limb of the moon and the black sky above.

Kiera grabbed her arm and hugged her close. “Are we going to crash into it?”

Tessa rubbed Kiera’s back, her hand moving in circles. “No, hon. Watch! We’re going to fly right around it!”

Seemingly faster and faster now, the tortured terrain below swept past them and then it was falling away, receding behind them. Tessa twisted around, carrying Kiera with her, and together they watched Triton drop away behind them.

“What’s going to happen now?”

“Well, flying by Triton, it’s slowing us down and changing our orbit. Next we’ll be flying past and around Neptune, as we settle into a new orbit around the planet. It has to be done carefully, because we don’t want to end up in the plane of the rings, since that might damage the ship.”

“And then we leave?”

“Right.” Tessa’s throat closed up again. She fought against it. “It’ll be okay, hon. And when I get the chance, I’ll come to Liberty and see you.”

Kiera threw her arms around Tessa and hugged her tight. Tessa hugged her back and closed her eyes. She murmured the disconnect command and the hologram faded away around them, replaced by the close walls of her berth.

5

A day later the time had come for Kiera and the other lottery winners to disembark. The mood on the Trident was tearful, and for some, resentful. The twenty lucky lottery winners all had to suit up for the transfer. The kids went first, three of the children, including Kiera. Their small space suits were first in front of the airlock, waiting, and around them, up and down the ship, were the other twenty and then almost everyone else gathered behind them. For once the Trident was crowded with humanity, the most that Tessa had seen out of their berths since departing Earth. No matter what shift people were on, they were up for this. The transfer had come during Tessa’s off-shift, which was good, because there was no way she was working when her daughter was leaving. She floated against the wall, near the front, mostly surrounded by other figures in spacesuits. No one made her move back. They knew that her daughter was leaving.

Right at the airlock, next to the kids, Captain Jocelyn Saack hung on a grip. She wore a standard issue black Diaspora workall over her strong frame, but with the legs cut at mid-thigh and sewed shut. Saack had lost her legs in a bombing back on Earth, and then had pursued a career with Diaspora, rising quickly to her position as a ship’s captain. Her graying hair was pulled back and tied with a leather strap into a stiff pony tail that ended at her neck. She raised her free hand.

The crowd quieted. Kiera floated right in front of Saack, her small face looking up out of her helmet at the captain. They were all a little in awe of Saack, and that was visible in Kiera’s face. Tessa pressed a hand to her mouth.

“My friends,” Saack said, “we’ve been together for most of the past year on this long and historic journey. The colonists that are here were specially selected to blaze the trail and set up a foothold here for all of humanity but you are the reason for their work. You embody the brave souls of every pioneer that has set out for a new horizon, taking your families, your lives, into your own hands for the chance of a brighter future. With such determination and bravery in the face of sacrifice, I have no doubt that you’ll make Neptune a crown jewel in the expanding humansphere!”

People cheered. Kiera’s high-pitched cheer carried even with her suit. Tessa laughed, and cried, and it wasn’t only her tears that floated free. Let the scrubbers grab them, she had every right to cry right now.

The airlock pinged.

“Looks like their ready for us.” Saack touch the panel beside the airlock.

The hatch slid open with a hiss. Two space-suited figures appeared in the open hatch, faces visible through their visors. The one on the right was a woman, young, with a flushed red face and wide eyes. She smiled happily down at Kiera. The other was a man, his face lined and eyes sunken, dark, but he also smiled out at the waiting crew.

“All aboard, the Liberty’s Bell is ready and waiting,” the woman said. “I’m Becca Keen, pilot and boss for this trip. My pal here is Steven North, my co-pilot. Let’s get everyone that’s going on and settled in quickly. We’ve got a narrow window to hit our reentry point.”

Then she looked down at the children waiting at the front. “Come on, dears. You’re first. You get to sit up front, right behind the cabin.”

Keen touched Kiera’s shoulder, and Kiera twisted away, her face screwing up as her eyes locked on Tessa’s. It tore at Tessa’s heart. All she wanted was to grab Kiera, hold her and keep her with her but doing that meant cutting off Kiera’s choices in the future.

Fighting her trembling lips, Tessa made herself smile. “Go on, hon. It’ll be okay. I’ll call you once you get settled in, and see how you’re doing. Okay?”

Still pouting, tears leaking free into her helmet, Kiera still nodded. Keen gave Tessa a sympathetic smile over Kiera’s head, as she guided Kiera forward into the airlock. As soon as Kiera was out of sight, Tessa pushed off the wall. She used the crowd as hand-holds as she pulled herself through the crowd up the Trident’s shaft until she reached her berth. She pulled herself into it and shut the door before covering her face and sobbing into her hands. Her body shook, it was as if her whole chest would split open. She tried not to make too much noise, to be quiet, but some wails escaped her lips, impossible to contain.

She heard the clanks and thuds as the ships detached. The Liberty’s Bell was away. Kiera with it. Tessa shoved at the tears and snot on her face. She pulled out an absorbent towel and mopped at her face, then used it to sweep up the floating spheres drifting around her berth. When she finished she brought up a wall screen view of the departing ship.

It was already hard to see. A bright spot, like a needle in space, falling away from them toward the blue swirling planet. The transport rolled, showing thin swept-back wings. It was a space plane, capable of matching up with the Liberty as well as reaching orbit. No doubt Keen and North were experienced pilots. They’d probably done the trip a bunch of times before, ferrying resources between Liberty and orbit.

When she lost sight of the ship she switched to the tracking graphic on the system. It showed the progress of the transfer ship as it sped around Neptune, entering the atmosphere on approach for Liberty. At the same time that was going on the Trident was also speeding around Neptune, but on a different course, one that would put them into their desired orbit around the planet. Other transfer craft would rendezvous with them from Triton and Proteus to off-load the rest of the exodus crew.

Tessa watched the display until it showed Liberty’s Bell successfully dock with Liberty. It was done. Kiera was safe. As safe as she could be this far from Earth. There was a hollow emptiness inside Tessa. But Kiera was alive. She clung to that fact. Her daughter was alive, it wasn’t any different than sending her off to boarding school back on Earth. They’d still talk, she’d call Kiera later, once she’d had a chance to get settled in. They’d talk all the time. And eventually she’d be able to take a trip to Liberty. She’d read about it, the rock jocks, as the mining crews were called, had two weeks on Liberty ever three months. Not so much a vacation as a chance to get checked over by the doctors, and get treatments to deal with any issues that had developed from their adaptive losses and radiation exposure.

It was a chance to see her daughter, that’s what counted.

6

Another day later it was Tessa’s turn to leave the Trident, along with the other fourteen people selected to join the small outpost. Tessa had barely stirred from Kiera’s berth in the three days since Kiera left. She had spoken to Kiera and put on a brave face while Kiera told her excitedly about Liberty station, the other kids, how tired she was from walking everywhere, and how she missed floating anywhere she wanted to go. At the same time, the station was so big with different levels and gardens and even a park that stretched the whole length of the station and was lit up with bright lights. Miss Greenly, that was her teacher, said that she’d be able to run in the park once she built her muscles back up. She remembered running back on Earth and she was looking forward to running again. Wasn’t that wonderful?

It was, Tessa had reassured her. She clung to that fact. It was wonderful. Kiera running again in a park was terrific, it was exactly what she wanted for her.

Except that it felt as if Tessa’s heart had been ripped out of her chest. She hated Miss Greenly, who got to see her daughter happy and playing. How was that fair? Yeah, maybe some parents sent their kids away to boarding school. How did they manage that? There was an empty Kiera-shaped hole in her life. Sure, some day she had imagined Kiera going off to college and living her own life. It just wasn’t supposed to start at six-years-old.

Liberty command had turned down her appeal to join Kiera, citing the strain on their resources already in taking on as many of the exodus population as they had. The systems just weren’t in place to accommodate a larger population right now. There were plans to expand the habitat just as soon as enough resources were made available.

When would that be? They couldn’t say. It depended on the work that was done on Proteus and Triton, getting the resources that they needed. She still wasn’t sure how she fit into that picture. And they also had to be sure to provide resources for the habitats on the moons as well. Everything needed to be carefully considered, but she could rest assured that they would do everything to support Kiera and take care of her.

Of that, Tessa didn’t doubt. Surely Miss Greenly and all the rest would do their best by Kiera. It wasn’t that. She missed Kiera. It was that simple. For so long, Kiera had been everything to her, and the focus in her world. Back on Earth Diaspora had provided daycare right in the building, so she could pop down on breaks to visit her. And full-time work was considered thirty hours a week, which left far more time to spend with Kiera. And for the past ten months, the better part of this last year, they’d been together on the Trident. She’d always been able to find Kiera in the limited environment of the ship.

Who knew when she’d get to hold Kiera again? She was going to have to go to a place she didn’t know, with new people, where life hung by a tenuous thread at best.

The door on Kiera’s berth pinged. Tessa didn’t move to open it. She didn’t want to go to Proteus. What if she refused? Would they force her into a suit and down to the tiny moon? She’d seen it, an irregularly shaped moon not big enough to pull itself into a sphere. It was cratered and ugly, nothing but a big dirty snowball crudely packed.

Another ping on the door.

“Tessa, it’s time for you to come on out of there.” That was Captain Saack’s voice, firm, but kind. Sort of like her mother. Heat rushed to Tessa’s face, the same way it’d done as a kid when she did something wrong. She never could hide anything.

Tessa hit the release on the door and pushed it back. Stray tears stuck to the door wobbled and tiny droplets broke free to tumble through the space.

Saack hung in front of the opening, using one hand to anchor herself, looking just the same as she had when Kiera left the ship. Her full lips pressed together.

“You’re hurting, I get that. It’s still time to go get suited up.” Her tone didn’t leave any room for discussion.

For a brief wild second Tessa considered fighting, but to what outcome? If she threw a big enough fit would they take her back to Liberty? Unlikely. Hunger strike? Other demonstrations? All that would probably do was convince them that she wasn’t a fit mother for Kiera.

“Okay.” Tessa took a deep breath and blew it out. She did it again. “Okay.”

She planted her hands on each side of the berth and pushed herself up and out. Saack extended a hand and Tessa caught it, her hand wrapped in Saack’s warm, strong grip.

“Are you going to be okay?” Saack’s expression was open, concerned.

“Thanks, Captain. Yes. I’m going to be okay.” If she said it enough times, maybe eventually it’d be true. Until then, she’d keep saying it and do her job. Tessa pushed off and floated down the spine of the ship.

The Trident felt emptier with a third of the population gone. The sounds of people talking were more muted than before. Tessa’s companions in the trip to Proteus were suiting up near the airlock. At the moment it looked like a crowd of astronauts had exploded, with free-floating helmets, gloves and other parts of the spacesuits. Crew members in black workalls, as well as those going on to Triton, drifted around the exodus members suiting up, helping here and there with getting people into their suits. Most of them had only worn the suits at launch and in drills since. It was still unfamiliar even after months in space.

Tessa pulled her suit from its locker, her feet braced while she turned it around and unsealed the back side. Rear-entry suits, overkill probably for this trip, but the necessary inconvenience. She put her feet into the legs, pulling up on the suit and in the process started a slow backward tumble. She slipped her hands into the opening and dove forward into the suit, spreading her arms out into the arms, ducking her head down into the opening. She spread her arms out and straightened out her body into a spread-eagle pose. Her head passed through the neck ring. The smart catches on the back of the suit engaged and she was sealed in. She reached out to the nearest surface and stopped her stumble. Her glasses connected to the suit’s systems automatically and gave her a run-down. Green across the board.

She turned around and pulled her helmet from the locker. It snapped into place. She was sealed in and protected from the hazards outside. It was a comforting feeling.

A clang rang through the ship. She felt the impact through her grip. It wasn’t cause for alarm. She focused and opened up a ship status window.

Successful docking with Proteus transport.

Her ride was here. It was time to go down to the moon. Around her the others were getting themselves sorted as well. Everyone oriented themselves around the airlock. Saack swam through the crowd, murmuring words to those she touched as she made her way. She took up the same spot beside the airlock that she had taken when Kiera left the Trident. Tessa pushed the image away. Kiera was fine. Good, even. She was where Tessa wanted her to be, where she’d stay healthy and safe and have lots of options. She’d be recovering soon from the months spent in weightlessness. And she’d be able to run!

“It fills my heart to see such bravery,” Saack said. “You’re embarking on a great adventure. I know some of you are hurting, are disappointed. Maybe Proteus wasn’t your first choice of places to go.”

“Got that right,” a man in the crowd said, loudly, amused.

He was behind some others, out of sight, but he sounded like he was from back east, on Earth, that is, in the United States. Many of the people were from other countries, but they all worked for the Diaspora Group.

Chuckles spread through the group. Some of the tension in the group ebbed. Even Saack managed a small smile.

“Yes. I’m sure. And yet Proteus is a new world, mostly unexplored, and rich in resources. It is a center of learning and discovery.”

A hand touched Tessa’s suited arm and squeezed. She rotated and saw Claire, with Jon at her side.

Claire smiled. “Hey.”

“Hi, Ms. Hamilton,” Jon said in his sweet, high voice.

“Hi yourself,” she said.

“You are the new explorers,” Saack was saying. “Your skills, your knowledge, will unlock what Proteus has to offer, not only to those here in Neptune space, but the whole of the humansphere. Be great. I wish you all the best, as do we all.”

Someone in the group clapped. Others joined in. Tessa’s throat tightened but she clapped as well. As the clapping died down the rest of the crew and the Triton exodus group moved among those going to Proteus, offering well-wishes and farewells.

“Good luck,” Claire said. “Stay in touch. I want to hear from you!”

“I will,” Tessa said, “I wish that we could get together more often, but I don’t think that travel is going to be much of an option.”

“Not right now, but who knows?” Claire pulled Jon close and ruffled his hair. “If aliens can visit the solar system, I’m going to believe anything is possible.”

Anything was possible. Echoes of Blackstone in that. The head of the Diaspora Group was famous for her anything is possible philosophy. When others said that colonizing other worlds was too hard, too dangerous or not worthwhile she set out not only to prove them wrong and colonize one world, but set her sights on the entire solar system. Twelve worlds became targets for colonization, including all of the major planets and four dwarf planets, demoted Pluto among them. That didn’t even count the fact that, like here at Neptune, they really had three main outposts plus the various transports and mobile habitats moving around the system.

If anything was possible, then she would get the chance to be with Kiera again.

She pulled Claire, and Jon, into a clumsy hug. “Thank you.”

“You’ll get back to her,” Claire said. “I know it might not seem like it right now, but you will.”

“I’ll make it happen,” Tessa said. Saying the words, it made it true. She took a deep breath until her chest ached, and let the air out. “You two take care of each other.”

The airlock pinged. Tessa turned and watched as the door slid open. A figure wearing a spacesuit like theirs, but streaked with black marks and gray with wear, appeared in the doorway. His visor was up, revealed handsome, chiseled features darkened with a day’s stubble. His eyes were a rich, dark amber as he took in the assembled group. He settled his attention on Captain Saack.

“Captain?”

She extended her free hand. “Right on time, Dr. Shelton. Everyone’s ready to go.”

Dr. Shelton braced himself in the airlock opening. He smiled, showing perfect teeth.

“Now I’m envious,” Claire murmured to Tessa.

Tessa gave her a nudge. He was handsome. She’d seen his picture before, Dr. Alex Shelton, a noted researcher studying adaptive genetics. Back on Earth there had been conspiracy theorists that believed he would create mutant monsters on other worlds. Not that she believed the stories, but his work on in vitro genetic repairs had raised the ire of those believing that he was somehow playing god. It had been big news when he accepted the Diaspora Group’s invitation to continue his work off-world. Diaspora hadn’t said anything about where he had gone, or what he was doing now.

This was where he had ended up, on Proteus orbiting the last significant planetary body in the solar system.

Dr. Shelton turned his warm smile to those assembled. “I’m Alex Shelton. We’ll save the rest of the introductions right now, we’ve got a reception planned when we get down to Proteus so we’ll get to know each other better there. We’re thrilled to have you join us. I know some of you might not be as excited to be joining us as we are to have you, but we’re going to do our best to convince you that you were actually the winners in the lottery. I think you’ll be surprised what we’ve accomplished here.”

He paused, watching them. No one said anything. He moved to the side of the airlock, across from Captain Saack. “Well, let’s get everyone aboard. No shoving, please.”

The people closest to the airlock moved on in and everyone else started lining themselves up. Tessa hung back a second with Claire and Jon.

“Okay. I’m going. I’ll miss you.”

“We’ll see you again,” Claire said.

“And Kiera too, right Mom?” Jon asked.

“Yes,” she said, pulling him close. “Kiera too. We’ll all get together sometime. I’m sure something can be arranged.”

“Yes,” Tessa said past the lump in her throat. The line to the airlock was getting short. She lifted a hand in farewell. “Bye.”

She pushed off, turning as she did. She caught a grip, steadied her rotation and glided on to the airlock. As she got close Dr. Shelton put out a hand, providing her a quick grip to slow her motion. Through two thick spacesuit gloves it was impossible to get any sense of his hand. His eyes held streaks of green and gold. His smile widened.

“Dr. Hamilton, I’m happy to see you.”

His words stunned her. He knew who she was? Why was he happy to see her? “You know my work?”

“Yes, of course. I’ve studied the profiles of everyone joining us.”

Oh, right. That made sense. Of course he’d want to know who was coming in Proteus.

His next words through her back into doubt.

“I think you’ll be happy with the lab we’ve set up for you.”

“Lab?”

He touched her arm. “Don’t worry, there will be a thorough orientation when we land. We’d better move along now, we’re holding up the line.”

Tessa pulled herself forward and kicked on through the airlock into the transport. A robot stood in the opening to the transport’s cabin. It was all smooth ceramic lines, a dirty ash color, but smooth and polished with black, rubbery joints. It was a bit like an artist’s mannequin brought to life. The eeriest thing about it were the eyes. Its eyes were big and cartoony, human-like, but over-sized with deep, gemstone blue irises. It was almost cute, but as its eyes moved to watch her with unblinking intensity, it crossed the line to creepy.

The rest of the squat transport looked pretty much like a plane back on Earth, with two rows of seats, two on each side and an aisle down the middle. Those that had gone before her were pulling themselves into seats and strapping in.

The robot spoke, startling her. Its mouth and thin lips didn’t move. Couldn’t move from the look of it. “If you’ll have a seat, Dr. Hamilton. We need to disembark soon.”

“Right. Okay.” Tessa used grips along the ceiling above the seats to pull herself along.

She swung into an aisle seat still open, mid-way down the transport. She got her boots under the brace beneath the seat in front of her and used the handholds to pull herself into the seat. Straps crawled out across her suit and she yelped.

“Are you okay?” Asked the woman in the seat beside hers. It was Nita Malone, materials science if Tessa remembered right. Tessa didn’t really know her, except to recognize her after the months out to Neptune. Nita was a small woman, petite, with short black hair and a tiny upturned nose. She had an over-sized laugh for someone so small.

Tessa pulled the straps the rest of the way down to the buckle. “Yes, it just surprised me. I think I was spooked by the robot.”

Malone leaned closer and her lips, bright purple today, quirked in a smile. “Creepy-O, right?”

Tessa laughed. “Exactly.”

Nita was studying her. “You’re Tessa Hamilton, your little girl won a spot on the lottery, didn’t she?”

Unsure where this was going, Tessa nodded. The rest of the new Proteus crew were filling the seats. Creepy-O stayed at its post blocking the way into the front cabin, watching all of the people coming on.

“That must have been so hard to let her go to Liberty.”

“It’s temporary,” Tessa said. “I’ll get a chance to be back with her, as soon as we can figure something out. Until then, it’s a lot healthier environment for her.”

“You’re right. It is, she’s lucky.” Nita gestured and an invite popped up on Nita’s glasses. “Have you looked at this? We’re pretty lucky too?”

Tessa focused on the invite and blinked her acceptance. The window opened up, a holographic representation of the base on Proteus. A series of domes, connected together, around the rim of a crater. It was like a beaded necklace, half-buried in the sides of the crater, with subsurface tunnels linking it to a large central dome. The image automatically zoomed in on that point as she focused on it, revealing elegant structures and a park-like agricultural environment. It was beautiful and green. It wasn’t anything like the grim mining environment she had pictured.

“Impressive, isn’t it?” Nita said. “Idyllic living conditions, and the labs! Wait until you see what they have for us. It beats anything I had on Earth, hands down.”

“How’d they do all of this?”

“Up until the Exodus, they were still getting regular shipments from Earth, thanks to all the wealth that Diaspora brought down to Earth, they could afford it. That was part of the reason that the countries were so up in arms over Diaspora, they were getting wealthy on all the space-based resources and no one else was in a position to match what they were doing. So they tried to take it.”

“This is incredible.”

“You really hadn’t looked?”

It seemed silly. Tessa shook her head. “No. Not the details like this. I assumed it was a mining facility. I was more focused on Liberty. I wanted us to both get there.”

“Mining is part of what they’re doing at Proteus, except I think it’s automated. It isn’t like they were going to put shovels in our hands and send us out to scoop up the minerals ourselves.”

No, because that would just be silly. “I guess so. I hadn’t thought about it much.”

“They want us for our scientific skills, not our ability to dig rocks. Besides,” Nita lowered her voice and leaned so close that their helmets almost bumped together, “I think they might have even rigged the lottery to get people where they wanted.”

It was a shocking idea. Tessa didn’t say anything. The words wouldn’t form. If that was true then Diaspora had deliberately taken her daughter away from her.

Nita touched her arm. “I’m kidding. I don’t really believe that! I think they were prepared for any outcome. After all, we don’t know when they actually did the drawing for the lottery. It could have been weeks or months ago and we wouldn’t know any different. They just waited until we were close to announce the results.”

“Could be,” Tessa allowed. That actually made sense. Why wait to do the drawing until they arrived? Nita was right. Diaspora could have drawn the names at any point, and then prepared for the outcome. All they had to do was give themselves enough time to get everything read.

Of course that meant that Diaspora and Liberty had known she was going to be separated from Kiera for that same length of time. And hadn’t said anything. They’d let her believe, to kid herself, that she’d be able to stay with her daughter, while all along knowing that Kiera was going to Liberty. It made her feel manipulated. Like she was some sort of puppet made to dance to their tune. Like the Exodus all over again. It wasn’t safe to stay behind on Earth, they said. She could have everything seized, Kiera taken away, but that had happened anyway. She’d lost everything now, including Kiera.

“Hey, are you okay?” Nita asked.

She was spared from answering when Dr. Alex Shelton, their new boss, came into the cabin and activated the airlock behind him. The hatch slid shut. He pulled himself over to aisle between the chairs and caught the grips overhead. Behind him, Creepy-O turned and moved back into the cabin with easy grace, twisting and pushing off with the perfect trajectory and speed, like a fish at home in water. It made sense that the robot was adapted to zero-gee, he was built that way.

“Welcome aboard,” Dr. Shelton said. “No more speeches, I promise. I want everyone to stay suited up. The cabin is pressurized but there is a lot of debris floating around the system. Neptune’s space is a bit of debris field. The chance of anything impacting the transport is remote, but let’s not risk it. Suited up already we’re in a better position to deal with any problems. And the trip down will only take a few minutes. We’ll have an orientation when we’re down. So stay strapped in, and we’ll be on the ground soon.”

Ground. Wow, that was a thought. She hadn’t been on the ground since Earth. She was about to set foot on another world. It was exciting, even with the Kiera-shaped hole in her life right now. It was so strange not to have her daughter there, with her. It was like the first time that she had left Kiera with a sitter, to go out on what turned out to be a disastrous date. She’d spent the whole time consciously aware of the gap, the absence, of Kiera being with her. The guy, she couldn’t even remember his name, was probably fine but she excused herself and left early. Poor guy didn’t have a clue what had gone wrong. That was the last she’d heard from him.

This time was different. Kiera was on a whole other planet for Pete’s sake! Tessa closed her eyes. She couldn’t do anything about that right now. She opened her eyes and found Nita watching her, brow wrinkled with concern.

Tessa smiled. “I’m okay. I haven’t adjusted to not having Kiera, my daughter, with me.”

Nita nodded.

“Do you have any kids?” Tessa asked.

“No. Never took the time. It was always about the science and career for me, I never took the time.” Nita’s voice turned wistful, softer. “There was one guy, he asked me to marry him right before the exodus. He wanted me to stay behind. I considered it, but I’d always planned on moving out into space. If I stayed, I knew I’d regret it.”

The transport shuddered. Tessa grabbed onto the seat’s arm rest. Another jolt and then nothing for the moment they were drifting free.

Engines kicked in and she was pushed against her straps. Hard at first and then much, much harder. The whole ship shook. Tessa focused on her glasses, blinking through screens to the public status, a view of what was happening.

The hologram enveloped her vision, washing away the cabin. It was as if she was sitting on the outside of the transport’s pitted gray skin. It was dingy and worn with use. The sun was shining in her face. It was a bright ball, smaller than she would have expected. At the end of the transport, four engines poured out a bright blue glow. The transport was slowing. It turned and there was Proteus hanging against the black sky above her. A whole world spread out below, immense and pitted with craters. The moon was weirdly-shaped, sculpted in an irregular mass that wasn’t quite spherical, more like a pitted and bug-riddled apple than a round moon. But this close, it was still a whole other world.

The cigar-shaped transport was flying over the tortured and blasted surface below. Proteus was like a rocky snowball, packed together by a giant. The ground below was pitted and twisted, with violent features frozen in time. It was an old surface, one created when Neptune captured Triton, which would have been a dwarf planet in its own right like Pluto if the massive ice giant hadn’t ensnared it.

What it would have been to see it happen!

When all was said and done, Proteus remained almost unchanged since its formation. Until now, with people coming to live here.

The transport was dropping faster. Alarmingly fast. Her heart raced as the surface rushed up beneath her. This was like coming in for a landing at an airport, when you couldn’t see the runway, except worse. There was nothing beneath her. Nothing but that blasted surface.

Were they about to become another crater in the surface?

The transport shook as more thrusters kicked on. Tessa sank into the seat as the forces built. In the holographic illusion around her she saw peaks rising up ahead. All sense of the whole world was gone. A wall of sharp-edged mountains sketched a line across the world in front of them and still the transport dropped lower. Now it not only looked like they wouldn’t have a place to land, but that they were about to crash right into the face of the mountains. Everything was barren, pitted, old and lifeless. The mountains showed cracks and avalanche slopes of material that had cascaded down their sides. It was a crater wall. The mountains created by some impact that had blasted down and thrown up mountains of rubble.

If they were going to crash, at least Kiera wasn’t with her.

Just when the mountains filled her field of view, every detail clear down to tiny rocks and pitted craters, the transport blasted right over the peaks. For a brief second the knife-edged peaks were right there, no more than a fifty feet below, and then they were past and dropping away. More than that, a ring of light blazed along the inside of the peaks.

It was the outpost that she’d seen in Nita’s plans. A bright necklace of emerald green blazing away against the dark. It circled the crater, bigger than she’d imagined. A wide ring that encompassed an area bigger than the campus where she had worked back on Earth. The transport had slowed even more. It drifted like a feather above the surface, but a feather with direction. It drifted sideways and dropped more, coming down in the empty wedge space between the buried tunnels that connected the central dome to the outer ring. And the wedge wasn’t empty. Not entirely. There was a large area like a football field, groomed and smooth, with bright blue lights around the perimeter and two rows down the center. Pale figures scrambled around the landing pad, running with exaggerated ballet-dancer moves around the field.

Robots. At least a dozen of the Creepy-O type of robots, all running out to line up alongside the landing area. Robots were common back at Diaspora facilities, and even on the Trident, but they were little devices that climbed in the walls, or scrubbed the floors. Scrubbers and cleaners, or big automated machines that assembled 3D-printed components. Nothing like these humanoid robots, these androids, but there they were, lined up and waiting. Big, liquid, and unreadable, eyes gazed up at the descending transport.

Then, it happened so fast that she couldn’t even pinpoint the exact moment, the transport touched down and stopped. It took Tessa a second to recognize that they’d stopped. Straight ahead of the transport the central dome rose up above the surface, an immense geodesic structure light with lights that shown down on bright buildings inside. Domescrapers, rather than skyscrapers, they rose up near the upper reaches of the dome.

Tessa deactivated the hologram. It was time to go.

When it came time to leave, Dr. Shelton announced that they’d be taking a space walk across the surface.

“Another reason I wanted you all to stay suited up. Check the person in the seat next to you, make sure everyone is in a functioning suit.”

Tessa pinged Nita’s suit. The readouts came up green across the board.

“You’re good,” Nita said.

“You too.”

Nita placed a gloved hand on Tessa’s arm. “Let’s get to know each other better, okay? We’ll have coffee, or whatever they have available here.”

“I’d like that.”

Around them everyone was rising to their feet and shuffling into the aisle exactly like people did when planes landed back on Earth. This wasn’t Earth, it was Proteus, a moon around Neptune, and her trip was only starting. She still had to get back to Kiera. In the meantime, though, this was still pretty exciting. She couldn’t wait to share it with Kiera the next time they talked. It be something to share the videos of her trip across the surface. Feeling gravity again was odd. There wasn’t much. She felt somewhat like a balloon floating along the aisle after the others, as if with each step she would float off into the sky. Some people did bounce up, catching themselves against the ceiling and laughing.

At the front of the aisle, Dr. Shelton spoke up. “Yes, surface gravity is low. Be careful. I don’t want any accidents while we’re on the surface. The roadway is graded, it shouldn’t be a problem, but no acrobatics, please. We’ve got facilities devoted to low-gravity exercise for those interested, but let’s wait until we get inside. Our android surface crew is outside, you’ve met my co-pilot on the trip, Cliff.”

Creepy-O raised a hand in the air at the cabin entrance.

“They’ll transfer your luggage and take care of the transport itself. You’ll see a lot more of them in the base, where they fill a variety of roles. We’re the test site for using the androids to expand our work pool. Eventually they’ll be working throughout the system. It looks like everyone is ready. Let’s go. Stay in line, stay with the group and call out if you have any problems. We’re going to depressurize the cabin now.”

There was a hissing noise that gradually diminished along with the other sounds from the others. Tessa shivered. Not from cold, just the thought of the vacuum of space. Even though she had gone from Earth to orbit, to the Trident, and now this transport, she hadn’t ever had to go out into an environment where she was totally reliant on a spacesuit. How weird was that? She had traveled across the solar system but hadn’t been out in any extra-vehicular activity in all that time, until now.

The suit held as the heads-up display showed the pressure drop.

Dr. Shelton’s voice came over her comm speakers. “Okay. Hatch is opening.”

The outer hatch opened up in the side of the transport. Bright bluish light flooded in and highlighted Dr. Shelton. He beckoned. “Follow me, watch the steps.”

He disappeared out the hatch. Creepy-O, Cliff, stayed in his position, watching the line with his unblinking stare as everyone shuffled forward. One at a time, they stepped out. Tessa moved forward with the rest, one bouncy step at a time. There wasn’t anything to it. A quick stroll across the surface and then they’d be back outside. At the same time it was a big deal. She hadn’t been “outside” in almost a year. Not since leaving Earth.

Cliff was still standing in the entrance to the cabin when she got to the head of the line. Tessa studied the robot’s expressionless face and his big, unblinking eyes.

Her comm display showed an open connection with the android. “You don’t blink.”

He stared back at her. “I lack eyelids to blink.”

“It’d make you seem less creepy.”

Cliff tilted his head to the side. “Is that important?”

Nita touched her back. There was space ahead for her to move.

“It is,” Tessa assured the android.

“I will pass on the suggestion,” Cliff said. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

Tessa turned into the light. It was bright. She lifted a hand to ward off the bright blue light. It came from a light post at the side of the landing field, bright spot lights blasting out light at the dull gray landscape. As her eyes adjusted she dropped her hand and took the next step right to the edge.

A wheeled staircase led down to the ground. The others that had gone ahead bounced across the surface like a group of kindergarten kids on a field trip, shepherded by the unblinking androids outside. Each one of them looked like Cliff and watched the new arrivals with the same unblinking stares.

That really needed to get fixed.

“Do you need help, Dr. Hamilton?” Cliff’s voice came over her speakers. The heads-up display showed his avatar labeled CLIFF.

“No. I’m fine.”

She held onto the railings and stepped down the stairs. She took each step carefully, not wanting to stumble and fall. In this low, low gravity, such a fall was unlikely to cause any harm except to her pride.

Kiera would love this.

But Kiera was having fun back on Liberty, in a full one-gravity environment. Which was what she needed. There weren’t a lot of choices this far out. It wasn’t like they could pop back to Earth if they had an emergency. She had to do what was best for Kiera. That’s what counted right now.

Her boot pressed against the compacted gray surface. She let go of the railings and stood on her own two feet, on another world. Tessa turned and looked up at the sky and gasped.

Neptune hung in that black sky. It was a big, bright blue sphere hanging against the dark. At this distance it wasn’t overwhelming, but it was so clear. There wasn’t any atmosphere to blur the features. She could see the subtle banding of the clouds. It was clearly different than Earth. A whole other planet, right there in the sky. Tears stung her eyes. Kiera was there, flying around that world right now. Her breath caught in her throat.

Tessa lowered her eyes. Right now she had to focus on what was in front of her, here on Proteus. The central dome rose up on her left like a fairy city stuck in a geodesic snow-globe. That’s where everyone was heading, the line of other new arrivals bounced ahead toward the airlock, tiny at the base of the dome. There were more androids, watching the humans move along. Others moved to the transport and across it. One bounded up onto the top of the transport with ease and grace.

She followed the rest to the dome.

The airlock was big. Plenty big for all of them to fit inside. Semi-trucks could fit in the airlock, probably up to four across. Dr. Shelton stood near the front beside the massive doors as they all came in and milled about.

“You’re all doing great,” he said over the channel. “As soon as everyone is inside, we’ll cycle through into Xanadu.”

Xanadu? That’s what they called this place? It seemed a fantastical name for a base on such an insignificant moon as Proteus, but after seeing what she could of the city through the dome, maybe it was justified. And this was only the large central dome. There were also the other domes, like beads on a string, circling the crater. Maybe the name was appropriate. They’d talked about labs. What would she discover in Xanadu?

Finally everyone was into the airlock and Dr. Shelton started the cycle. Soon she heard a faint hissing noise dust swirled off the spacesuits in bright motes lit by the bluish overhead lights. Her mouth was dry. Voices came through as the airlock pressurized and the sounds of feet shuffling. Someone bounced in place, rising at least a couple feet off the ground before settling down. Someone laughed.

“Exciting, isn’t it?” Nita asked at Tessa’s elbow, surprising her.

Tessa turned. “Yes. It is.”

Nita giggled. “I can’t wait.”

Unexpectedly, Tessa felt a yawn build. She reached up to cover it and her glove hit her helmet.

Nita giggled again. “Can’t do that until we get inside.”

Tessa smiled. “I guess not.”

Green lights flashed on the panel beside the massive doors. Smoothly, silently, the doors slid open. Blue light poured into the airlock and through the doors the sense of a fairy-tale city grew even more pronounced.

A wide avenue ran away from the entrance, dipping down slightly before rising toward the spires that reached for the dome above. The dome blazed with light that pushed back the dark beyond. It was like looking into a bright blue sky near the sun. You couldn’t look too long before looking away. Trees and bushes and wide green lawns filled the spaces between the avenue and the building. People and androids moved about the space with graceful, athletic leaps. On Earth moving like that would have required wire rigs, but none of that was evident here.

Dr. Shelton opened his visor, shoving it up with his hand. His laughter rang out as he swung his arms wide. “Welcome to Xanadu!”

The reason for the people along the avenue became obvious as the newcomers wandered, overwhelmed by the base, out of the airlock behind Dr. Shelton. Everyone had turned out to welcome the newcomers. Many of the people wore bright white Diaspora workalls, but not all. Some wore flowing, loose clothes that trailed behind them. Tessa was approached by one of the crowd. A young woman, very pretty, with high cheekbones and her golden hair neatly French braided. She was wearing a modified workall with strips of loose, sheer material added in long strips along the arms, legs and side. She smiled brightly at Tessa.

“Dr. Hamilton! We’ve been expecting you. I’m Dr. Cynthia Wells, your lab partner and guide. I’m here to show you around.”

Dr. Shelton’s voice rang out. “Please go with your guides! They’ll get you settled into your new quarters and answer your questions about life here. Relax, rest. Take time to recover from your long voyage. Your work will be there when you’re ready.”

Cynthia laughed and leaned closer to Tessa. “He says that, knowing that most people will want to see their labs before they see their living quarters.”

Tessa had been curious about the lab, but hearing that she changed her mind. “Actually, my quarters would be great. I’m beat. I feel like I could sleep a year.”

“Of course. Come with me. We’ll get you out of that suit. You can rest and recover.”

Tessa shook her head. “I don’t think I’ll really recover until I get Kiera back.”

“Your daughter.” Cynthia’s eyes were sympathetic. “I heard about that. If there’s any way I can help, let me know. My daughter stayed behind on Earth when I joined Diaspora. I used to get emails from her, but not since the exodus.”

Tessa reassessed her guide. Between her looks, and the almost frilly workall, she had made certain assumptions. But putting that aside, Cynthia looked so young to have a daughter back home.

“How old is she?”

“Six, now,” Cynthia said. Her lips pressed together for a moment. She shook her head. “I regret leaving her every day.”

“Then why’d you do it?” The words came out before Tessa thought about it. She lifted her hand. “Sorry, it’s not my business. I’ve got no right to judge.”

Cynthia gave her a sad smile. “No, that’s okay. I’ve thought a lot about it. My ex was becoming more religious all the time. He was anti-Diaspora. Naturally we were having problems. I wanted the opportunity Diaspora offered but there was no way he was going to let me take Helen with me. I knew if we had a custody fight, he’d win. He’s a successful lawyer, and I was the crazy idealist that wanted to fly off into deep space. So I left.”

Tessa couldn’t imagine it. It was hard enough leaving Earth, but to leave her daughter there, with someone like that?

“I can tell what you’re thinking,” Cynthia said. “I don’t regret what I’ve been able to accomplish, but I don’t think I’ll every regret giving her up. At least you’ll get to talk to your daughter tonight.”

“Yes.” Tessa decided that she liked Cynthia. And the space suit was not the most comfortable thing. “Let’s go see my quarters. I’d like to get out of this thing. We can talk more.”

Maybe, it wouldn’t be so bad, if she had friends.

7

Time passed faster than Tessa had imagined it could since coming to Xanadu. Before she knew it four weeks had passed. She’d been on Proteus for a month, getting acclimated to the facilities and trying, not very successfully, to pick up her work that she had left back on Earth. Whenever she looked at it now, though, it seemed flat and uninspired. Who cared about quantum structure in the beginning of the universe? It was all theoretical work and right now she was having trouble putting herself back in that place.

She kicked back in her chair. Her glasses chimed. With a flick of her eyes, she opened the call. It was Dr. Shelton, appearing in a holographic window in front of her. His full lips spread in a smile.

“Dr. Hamilton,” he said, drawing out her name. She shivered. “Can you come to my offices? There’s something that we need to talk about.”

What could he want? She hadn’t talked to him since arriving in Xanadu. Like everyone she was given a living space — spacious, full of plants with an whole suite of robotic assistants to keep the place for her — and a lab. And complete freedom to pursue whatever research she wanted. Diaspora wanted them to do pure research, with complete freedom. It was scary, and contributed to her current block. There were no research grants to apply for, or funding concerns. No classes to attend. Except for Kiera’s absence, it was wonderful.

Mostly. The meager gravity opened up many possibilities, but at the same time she knew that they were all suffering from adaptive loss. If she stayed long enough, she wouldn’t even be able to visit Kiera on Liberty. She’d find out just how much muscle and bone loss was affecting her when her leave came through in five months. Five more months until she got to hold Kiera.

“Dr. Hamilton?”

“Yes?” She nodded. “Of course. I’ll be right there.”

8

Dr. Shelton’s offices occupied the upper floors of the Spire, the central building in the main dome. Tessa hadn’t been there since arriving in Xanadu, but she’d seen the information in the orientation that showed off the central Proteus complex. She’d been amazed to discover that most of Xanadu was empty space just waiting for people to fill it up. There were buildings and parks and domes around the outer ring, all sitting empty except for the androids and robots that kept everything up and pristine. No other Diaspora base was so automated, or had autonomous androids. They were a direct product of work done here in Xanadu, and the whole base was a reflection and demonstration of that work. It was no wonder that they could afford to let her spin her days on research, when everything else was done for her.

As a result, she traveled by herself to Dr. Shelton’s offices. First she took a communal pod, a small gleaming blue passenger vehicle that seated four. It took a rail down into the sub-level tunnels and zipped across from her dome to the central dome. Once there the rail rose up and curved around through the central city. Other pods joined hers as they floated along the magnetic rail into the city. The whole trip took less than ten minutes before the pod glided to a stop on the landing platform at the Spire. The door rose up and Tessa ducked out. The moment she moved away from the pod onto the marbled platform, the door dropped an the pod zipped off.

There was an android waiting for her just inside the doors, with his long limbs folded in a picture of contemplative patience. His neck bent and his big eyes blinked slowly at her.

Tessa laughed. “Cliff? Is that you?”

“Yes.” Cliff’s eyelids fluttered at her. “Is this what you had in mind?”

He’d gone from being creepy, to almost comical. Tessa smiled. “Yes. That’s much better.”

Cliff gestured. “Dr. Shelton is waiting. I will show you the way.”

“Thank you. I’m sure I could have found my way, you didn’t have to do this.”

“I asked Dr. Shelton if I could greet you. I wanted you to see my upgrade.”

Tessa hesitated and then continued walking toward the elevators. Cliff matched her stride.

“You wanted to show me?”

“Yes. People seem to appreciate follow through on their questions.”

“You’re right about that.”

They reached the elevator. There was no waiting. The doors opened automatically. Tessa went inside, but Cliff stayed out.

“Are you coming up?”

Cliff shook his head. “I have other work to do, Dr. Hamilton. It was good to see you. Have a good day.”

“You too,” she said, as the door closed.

Weird android. Xanadu was highly automated, but semi-sentient androids still seemed odd. And there was, well, something distasteful, about them if she was honest with herself. The whole thing skirted close to crossing the line from a useful machine to enslaving an intelligent species. Maybe she was projecting too much onto Cliff’s behavior. The scutters that cleaned the Trident sometimes seemed like they had personality, becoming annoyed with people that were continually messy, but it wasn’t on this level. Cliff seemed like a person, more than a machine. It was unsettling.

The elevator came to a smooth stop and the doors slid quietly open. The whole floor was open, broken only by slender pillars that reached up to the tall roof. It was open, but not empty. Translucent holographic screens floated around the space, and it buzzed with activity. People and androids were busy working in the space, yet it had the same hush as entering a university library as she stepped out of the elevator. An android approached her, more feminine in design than Cliff, with high cheekbones and liquid blue eyes. The android blinked slowly.

“Dr. Hamilton. We’re pleased to see you. Let me show you to Dr. Shelton.”

As the android spun gracefully on her heel and set off with a long, bounding stride, Tessa kept up.

“What’s your name?”

The android glanced at her. “Gwyn.”

“There are a lot of people working on this floor.”

“Dr. Shelton oversees all projects in Xanadu, and research and development across the solar system. It keeps him busy and he does require assistance to keep up with it all.”

“Across the solar system?”

“Of course. He is Diaspora’s scientific coordinator for all development and research.”

“I didn’t realize that.”

Gwyn’s metal mouth curved into a smile. It wasn’t much of a smile, but it was something. That uneasy feeling came back strong. These androids were becoming so human.

“Dr. Shelton is over here.”

There was a featureless static holographic wall blocking off a corner of the room. Gwyn stopped and pointed. “Through the exclusion barrier, please.”

Exclusion barrier? That was a visual and auditory barrier. Handy, if you wanted privacy. But why did Dr. Shelton need privacy to talk to her? She wasn’t going to find out standing outside the barrier.

Tessa walked through the barrier. There was a wash of static and then she was inside. It was a quiet space, with a couple deep blue stuffed chairs facing a desk that faced out toward the windows. Through the massive floor to ceiling windows, the dome over Xanadu was visible and a long drop down to the smaller buildings around the Spire. Dr. Shelton stood in front of the desk, his arms crossed, wearing a standard black Diaspora workall. He wasn’t alone.

A woman leaned on the desk, her hands down at her side. Her fingernails were bright red, her dress like a band of the night sky wrapped around her body, glittering with stars. Her hair was piled up on her head and her face, that, was perhaps the most recognizable face in the solar system. The head of Diaspora, Terra Blackstone. It was impossible for her to be on Proteus. She was back on Luna running Diaspora. There was a shine about her, an inner glow that had nothing to do with her beauty and everything to do with being a hologram. Of course.

What was weird, was that both of them were watching Tessa.

Tessa put her hands behind her back and clasped her fingers together. She looked at Dr. Shelton. “What’s this?”

The holographic Dr. Blackstone straightened, stepping away from the desk, her eyes fixed on Tessa. It was unnerving for a recording to seem so present.

“Dr. Hamilton,” Blackstone said. “Can I call you Tessa?”

What? How? “Of course. Yes.”

Dr. Blackstone lifted a hand, her red lips curving into a smile. “I know. I get that all the time.”

It was a hologram. That was obvious, but it was like a live projection, which was impossible because the time lag back to Earth.

“We’ve had a breakthrough in instantaneous communications,” Dr. Blackstone continued. She folder her hands together. “We can initiate the connection remotely, which is how I’m able to tap into your systems here and project this hologram. We need you to build an initiator, so that we have true two-way communications.”

“Me?”

Dr. Shelton nodded. “You’re uniquely qualified to lead the project. After all, it’s based on work you did.”

Tessa blinked. “Work I did?”

Dr. Blackstone chuckled. “Your work opened the door. It gave us the insights we needed to work out the tech. You’ll see when you study the file. It’s important that we get our new communications network up and running. With this we can create a data-communications network that spans the entire solar system.”

Blackstone walked closer, seeming so real that it looked like you could reach out and touch her. She turned and looked out the windows. “With this, and our holographic technology, it’s almost like being there. I know that I’m in my office on Luna, but the with the immersion environment it really feels like I’m here with you in Xanadu.” Her head turned and she smiled at Tessa, her eyes sympathetic. “I’m sure you can appreciate what the possibilities.”

Kiera. It wasn’t the same thing as being there in person, but it would mean that they could see each other like this, and interact as if they were in the same room. Incredible, but even with that, they couldn’t touch.

“Okay. Sure, this is incredible,” Tessa said. This was the director of Diaspora, how often was she going to get this chance? “I want to be with my daughter.”

Dr. Blackstone came closer. “I understand. As soon as Liberty has the new expansion completed, you’ll be at the top of the list. If you want. Space is a limited resource in a place like Liberty. We don’t have the room to spread out like you do here. Or the resources to do the sort of science you can do here. I hope you’ll consider staying on here, but I understand if you can’t.”

Tessa blinked back tears that threatened to form. “I’ll think about it. Right now, it sounds like I have work to do?”

Dr. Shelton nodded. “The files are in your system, call on whatever resources you need to get the work done. We want to get Xanadu up and online as soon as we can.”

“I’ll get right on it.” Tessa nodded to them both. “Thank you.”

“Thank you, Tessa,” Dr. Blackstone said. “I appreciate everything you’re doing for us, and the sacrifices you’ve made for your daughter.”

Sacrifices that she wouldn’t have had to make if the lottery hadn’t turned out the way it did. Tessa’s throat constricted. She took a breath, why the hell not?

“Was the lottery rigged? Was a decision made to separate us?”

Dr. Blackstone shook her head, her lips pressed together. “No, Tessa. I completely understand why you might feel like that, I do. We didn’t rig it. It was as fair and as random as we could possibly make it. After the names were chosen, then we prepared.”

“If you had won,” Dr. Shelton said, “I would have asked you to join us anyway. The work you’ve done, the things you could do, are most likely going to happen here on Proteus.”

Her work. There was a time when her work was everything. When understanding the basic fundamentals of how the universe worked was all that she wanted to do. Right up until Kiera was born and then her attention was divided. She wanted to understand how Kiera worked the same way that she had wanted to understand the universe.

“Okay. Thank you. Thank you both. I knew it was silly, it’s just been hard to be apart from Kiera.”

Dr. Blackstone came closer. “It’s a small consolation, I’m sure, but once you get the initiator online, it’ll be like she’s in the same room.”

“Except I can’t hug her. I can’t touch her.” Tessa sighed. “It’s still amazing. I’ll get to work.”

Tessa left them, walking away out through the exclusion barrier. Everyone else on this floor of the Spire was busy working, so no one paid much attention to her. The view out the far window caught her eye. It was Neptune, hanging in space. She threaded her way among the people on the floor. No one paid too much attention as she made her way over to the far side of the room.

There were big sliding doors and curved balcony that extended out in a large half-circle platform away from the Spire. Tessa kept walking, right up to the doors and they slid open at her approach. Warmer air blew gently against her face. She walked outside. Not so far above, the central dome stretched across the sky. The struts were hard to see against the glare of the lights above, but looking straight out she could see past the dome, over the rocky and uneven surface of Proteus beyond the dome, to Neptune hanging in space.

The huge blue planet didn’t look so far away today. Soon she’d get the initiator up and working, the fact that Terra Blackstone could call out here and have a real-time conversation showed that the technology worked. Her mind was buzzing already, leaping ahead to think about how it must work. It had to be based on her ideas on quantum particle coordinates. Why did the universe hold together and form complex structures? What gave order to the chaos? Questions like that had led her research. There were underlying rules to the universe, understand those and all sorts of things were possible. Like making a particle that was here think it was there or the other way around. She’d seen the possibility of communication in her research, but hadn’t pursued practical applications. She was more interested in the deep research. Obviously someone else had developed her work to create the tech.

Kiera was out there, on Neptune. First things first, Tessa had to build the initiator for the communications network. A solar system-wide data/communications network with real-time capabilities would revolutionize the Diaspora effort.

Better than that, it’d bring her closer to her daughter. Maybe they wouldn’t be together, in person, often but this technology could open up the solar system to everyone, even people on Earth. Her thoughts jumped forward. She looked down over the railing at the ground far, far below. Androids glinted in the light as they moved around on the ground far below, very noticeably different than the people. What if they covered the androids in a holographic skin? They could serve as a remote body for a person on a whole other planet and relay back sensory information. Full immersion suspension rigs already existed for virtual holographic environments, it’d be easy to integrate that tech into the whole thing. Instead of a virtual environment, it would receive data from the android. And the android could look exactly like the person that was driving it. They could go for a walk on other worlds without needing a space suit, without risk.

It had its risks too. Any time a new technology like this came about, someone would try to use it as a weapon. How long before enemies on Earth tried to use the technology to infiltrate or take over Diaspora again? They’d tried it once already when they launched the Lincoln to take over the Luna bases.

Tessa reached out and grabbed the railing. She ran her hands along the smooth metal. They’d have to develop safeguards. The androids were smart, they could refuse commands to harm anyone. Right now you could recognize holograms, that might not always be true. It’d be up to Diaspora’s security to be alert to the dangers. But the advantages were tremendous.

She could be with Kiera on Liberty. Together, they could visit any place in the solar system they wanted. Go see the alien site on Titan, or visit Aphrodite on Venus.

Tessa smiled. There was a lot of work to do, but she was about to help open up the solar system and create a way to spend more time with Kiera. She pushed away from the rail and bounded back inside, eager to get back to the lab where she could unlock the keys to their future.

15,853 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 9th weekly short story release, and the 9th Planetary Bodies story. Neptune is another of those worlds that has so much potential if we could learn more about it and its moons.

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

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

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.

Last Day for Trow Forge Special Price

Buy Now

Today is the last day to get Trow Forge for the special pre-order pricing of .99¢! I’m excited that the book will finally be out, I’m very fond of the Goblin Alley series and glad to have the initial trilogy of books done and available. Will there be more Goblin Alley books? Yes, I can’t imagine that I won’t return to the Goblin Alley story again, I just don’t know when it’ll be. I have some other projects to work on right now.

 

 

Daily Update, or Launching a New Novel

Land Lubbers: Sea Legs Launched
Land Lubbers: Sea Legs Launched

Current Word Count Stats

Today: [postwc] | Month: [postmonthwc] | Year: [postyearwc]

 Today

I had today off from the Day Job, but I had another job to complete today. Yesterday I finished a new short story and I was trying to decide whether or not to try and start my new novel, or start a new short story.

I really wanted to get underway with the new novel. A few years ago I wrote the first Land Lubbers novel, Cabin Boys. I haven’t released it yet because I wanted to do illustrations at the start of each chapter and I hadn’t really started practicing my drawing/painting skills at the time. But it was a book that I enjoyed writing.

Interestingly, it was a novel inspired by a craft activity for kids during the Summer Reading Program at the library. While I was setting up the craft I had the idea, and during my break I had written down the key details of what would become the first novel a few months later when I started writing it in the fall. It was one of those cases when the inspiration is so strong that I simply had to write the book.

Since then, I’ve wanted to get back to those characters, and I had put the second and third book on my calendar for this year.

The Benefits of Outlines

I don’t outline books before I write. I trust my creative unconscious to tell the story that needs to be told, so I don’t really plan out my novels ahead of time. I may write a one page summary of what I think will happen, but then I rarely refer back to that or feel compelled to stick to it, when I write. For me (and all writers are different) outlining kills my interest in the project.

I have outlined. I’ve done index cards, scene outlines, chapter outlines, brief ones and detailed ones. When it comes to writing the book, though, I’ve found it works best not to have an outline ahead of time.

Outlines do have their place in my workflow. Especially when it comes to series. I wrote Cabin Boys years ago. I sent it to my Kindle and started reading to get a feel for the story and the characters, but what I really needed was an outline of the book. I needed to remind myself of the details of what happened, who all the characters were, and what the rules are in that world.

That’s what I spent my time today doing. After running errands this morning, I came back and worked for a time on the next story to release, preparing files, and then I started the outline.

Chapter by chapter, I reviewed the previous novel and made notes. I made a character list. I noted important details. I went through the entire book from first to last page. And you know what? I enjoyed it.

Now, if I was smart, I would have created the outline as I went while I wrote the book. Then I could have reviewed it, read over key sections and been ready to jump back into this world much faster. That’s what I think I’ll do in the future, whether or not I plan to write more books, just so I have a quick way to review my novels.

Because I spent so many hours working on the outline, I didn’t  have much time left to write. I got started, though, and kept my streak going. That’s enough for today. Tomorrow I’ll try and get my word count back up where I like. In terms of overall word count, outline plus this post, I wrote quite a bit, but I only count new fiction in my tracking.

To catch up on other posts in this series, check out the contents page: Working Creatively With a Day Job.

If you enjoy these posts, please comment and share with others. It does take time that could be spent on other projects, so if you want to show additional support, consider picking up copies of my books or stories either for your own enjoyment, or for someone else.

Trow Forge Finished

A week ago I wrapped up the last bit of Goblin Alley: Trow Forge, the third book in my fantasy adventure series featuring runner Dalton Hicks. It was great getting back to that world again, and it reminds me how much I want to run more! Anyway, the books are on their way. First up, Goblin Alley: Bloodied Fang, scheduled for reissue in May. Then new books in the series,  Goblin Alley: Eleven Lords follows in June and Goblin Alley: Trow Forge arrives in July! Check back here for more news.