The Diaspora Group colonized the solar system with a series of launches to the major planetary bodies. The first launches had the farthest to go, out into the dark outer reaches of the solar system.
Those left on Earth found themselves shut out from the solar system after a failed attempt to seize Diaspora’s base on Earth’s Moon.
Now Patricia Colby has an opportunity to open the door for those on Earth to join the effort to expand humanity’s frontiers.
The first successful jaunt happened on the snowball world of Haumea, at the far reaches of the solar system. One moment Patricia Colby was in the dark on Earth, and then in the next she opened her eyes in a room on another world.
As rooms went, the one she found herself in was small and bare, with dark walls and floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out on a twilight landscape of rock and ice. It seemed she was perched on the edge of an abyss. Cliffs dropped away into a wide chasm of reddish rock and bright frost. The room had an antiseptic, plastic smell common in closed in habitats and ships.
Light panels on the ceiling gave off a dim blue glow which left the room as dark the landscape outside. As Patricia sat up, the lights brightened. She felt barely tethered to the bench she found herself on, as if any movement might send her floating off to the ceiling. She moved with slow, careful movements, as she adjusted the to the circumstances of her arrival.
Arms and legs, all were working. She was wearing the same cream-colored suit that she had on when she lay down, the smart wool soft to the touch. Her feet remained bare to the cool air and looked perfectly normal, just as they had when she lay down in the sensory chamber. Even her nails were still peach-colored. Her hands also appeared unchanged. She flexed her fingers experimentally. If there was anything different about them, she didn’t detect the difference at all. Her hands looked completely normal, down to the scar over the base knuckle on her index finger where she had cut herself with a saw as a girl.
What amazing technology! If she hadn’t known that her body was still back on Earth, she wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference. Even her tongue still tasted faintly of the peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwich she had eaten before making the jaunt!
“Patricia? Are you alright?”
The voice came from behind her, a woman’s voice, pitched low, and filled with concern. Patricia twisted around, bracing herself on the bench.
There was a woman standing behind her, near the plain gray wall. She wore Diaspora’s standard workall, a black one-piece garment with many pockets, her black hair cut short above her shoulders. She had a stocky build and a wide slash of a smile. Patricia recognized her, Dr. Emily Green, the lead researcher on the Haumea jaunt project.
She wasn’t alone. Three other people stood with her. There was an older man, hair gone mostly gray that fell in waves around his broad face. He was tall, pushing against the height limits the Diaspora had in place back when the Haumea expedition set out. Dr. Max Highlet, the same Dr. Highlet that had developed the nano-neural circuitry.
Going left to right past him, was a young man, cute, with short brown hair and a scruffy beard. Patricia remembered his profile too, Dr. Riley Kinsey. A brilliant young man that had left a lucrative consulting business to join the mission.
And next to Riley was another woman with a severe, narrow face. She might have looked angry except for the fact that she was grinning. She was Dr. Corinne Shaw, one of Patricia’s personal heroes on the expedition. She’s was the one that had saved two other crew members during an impact event on the way out to Haumea.
Patricia swung her legs off the bench and stood. She bounced experimentally on her toes. Each flex took her inches off the floor and she was slow to drop back down.
“I’m fine,” Patricia said. “Everything appears to be working as expected.”
Emily studied a tablet she held, and tapped the screen. “Confirming that the link is holding strong. Neural activity looks normal.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” Patricia said, laughing. She massaged her right hand with her left. “If I didn’t know better, I’d never suspect that this was an android body with a holographic overlay.”
“It’s a lot more than that,” the young man said. “The interface taps into your sensory memory to make it all real. As far as your brain can tell, you are here, on Haumea.”
“Except I’m not. My body is back in the sensory chamber on Earth. How come it seems so real? I thought this would be like a telepresence sort of thing.”
Corinne shook her head. “Thanks to the instantaneous communications network, the android feeds real-time feedback to you in the sensory chamber. Even on Earth your senses aren’t as perfect as they seem, the brain has ways of feeling in the gaps so that you don’t notice them. The same thing here.”
“I’d say.” Patricia smoothed her jacket. “Okay, then. Let’s get to work. What’s first?”
Emily pocketed the tablet. “Right now, we want you to rest. We’re going to check on the initiator and other components.”
“Rest? I didn’t jaunt across the solar system to rest. I don’t think this body even needs rest. I’d like to see the rest of the facility. That’s what Blackstone promised us.”
The negotiations between the United States and the Diaspora Group had been tense at times, given the previous’ administrations unfortunate and embarrassing efforts to seize Diaspora outposts at the Moon and Ceres. Actions that had led to the Diaspora Groups exodus from Earth.
Corinne took a step forward. “Please, Patricia. This is new. We don’t know the psychological impacts of this sort of displacement right now. Let’s take it slow. We’ll be back soon and talk more.”
The others were already moving out the door. Max Highlet stopped on his way out. “Hang in there, kid. It won’t be long.”
Then he was gone, and with a sympathetic smile, Corinne followed Emily out. Patricia bounded across the room in one large step. She was too slow and the door slid closed. She ran her hand across the panel beside the door.
She pried open the access panel in the door and pulled the manual release. It moved easily, too easily. They’d disconnected it. The release did nothing to open the door. She was locked in.
She hit the door with her fist. It echoed dully. “Hey!”
No response from the other side. Locked in? That wasn’t part of the deal.
Patricia turned, making a slow survey of the room. As she’d seen when she woke, it wasn’t a big room. Three or four meters on a side, with big floor to ceiling windows that took in the view. Even from across the room it was as if a single step would send her flying out over the deep canyon.
According to the briefing materials, the facility was located on the equator, on the edge of the massive chasm scooped out of the surface. An impacting body had hit a glancing blow on the dwarf planet, tearing up pieces of the crust and knocking it into a dizzying spin that had it rotating in just under four hours. In the holographic recording she’d seen, it was a weird, squashed world as the spin caused the equator to bulge out. The two small moons, Hi’iaka and Namaka spun around the odd world. Hi’iaka was nothing more than the biggest piece of Haumea that had been scooped out by the impact event.
She crossed the room in two light, tip-toe steps and stopped her forward momentum by touching the windows. The glass was cool to the touch, but not cold.
Outside the ground tumbled away in fractured layers. The shine on the reddish rocks indicated a layer of hard, amorphous ice. The cracked and broken rocks ended at a wide chasm which dropped away into black shadows below. The bottom wasn’t visible from here. Distant cliffs were clearly visible. Haumea lacked an atmosphere, so no haze to hide the cliffs.
This chasm was a treasure trove of resources and knowledge about the dwarf planet. It gave the colonists ready access to the resources they had needed to build this facility. The Workshop, that’s what they called it.
Too bad there wasn’t a door to the outside. In this android body, she could go walking outside, right out there to the edge of the cliff. According to the design specs, the body was tough enough to handle any of the solar systems harsh environments. Across the solar system, in all of the established Diaspora colonies, work was underway to manufacture more of these bodies. Coupled with the instantaneous communications network, it was going to open up the solar system. All the worlds would be open, provided that she didn’t screw this up. Earth needed Diaspora’s help to solve many of the ecological and economic challenges it faced.
And Diaspora needed the one resource that Earth had in abundance. People. Lots of people. A pool of humanity that Diaspora couldn’t match, but that could visit the Diaspora worlds in bodies like this one to work. And eventually, hopefully, Diaspora would return to Earth and open up immigration launches again.
She returned to the bench and sat facing the windows. It was a high bench and she swung her legs back and forth. She wasn’t going to screw this up. They knew everything she was doing, surely they were monitoring her android body, so she’d be patient and wait. That didn’t mean that she couldn’t get work done. She activated her glasses and the holographic display unfurled like flowers around her. She focused on the Haumea briefing materials and started reviewing what Diaspora had shared about the Workshop.
After two hours of waiting, Patricia’s stomach growled. She stopped pacing and pressed her hands to her stomach. How could she be hungry? The android body wasn’t going to get hungry. It must be from her real body back on Earth. That sandwich she’d grabbed on the way into the lab obviously wasn’t enough.
It wasn’t like she could eat anything like this. It’d have to wait. She wasn’t going to disconnect without seeing anything of the Workshop.
The door chimed and she turned around to face it.
It slid open, admitting Emily Green.
“I’m sorry about the delay, Patricia. You’ve been so patient, thank you.”
Earth needed this to work. She needed it for her career. “Not at all, Dr. Green.”
“Call me Emily, please.”
“Emily. You lived in Seattle, right? Before you left to work for the Diaspora Group?”
“Yes, that was the last place I lived, not counting the time I spent at our training facility in New Mexico.”
Patricia turned her hands over, palms up. “This must be pretty amazing to everyone here, too. If we manufacture these androids back on Earth, then you could visit Earth whenever you like.”
“Maybe.” Emily gestured to the door. “Shall we take that tour now?”
Patricia smiled. “I’d love to. Thank you.”
Emily walked out into to the corridor and Patricia followed. The corridor was wide and lined with planters growing with an abundance of vegetation, all of it edible or fruit-bearing. Patricia recognized lettuce, kale and spinach. Other plants looked like herbs, but she wasn’t enough of a gardener to recognize them all. Lights on the walls glowed warmly above the plants.
“This is lovely,” Patricia said, lightly touching the leaves. One of the plants with fuzzy leaves gave off a sharp mint smell as she ran her fingers across it. She lifted her fingers and sniffed. “Wow, I hadn’t realized how strong mint could be!”
“Smell was one of the most important senses to include in the android,” Emily said. “Even the subtle smell of other people, of sweat and bad breath, and all the rest, it is the sense that grounds you in reality at an unconscious level. Without it the experience would seem much less real.”
Patricia bent closer to the plants and inhaled the mingled fragrances of mint and basil and the earthy-smell of the containers. She stood up and laughed.
“This way,” Emily said, gesturing. “We have a lot more to show you. We’re very proud of what we’ve built here.”
As they walked, the corridor curved out in the direction of the cliffs. Sure enough, as they rounded the corner one whole wall of the corridor was nothing but big windows like those in the waiting room. A transparent wall that curved out over the chasm. The whole corridor was suspended out above the drop-off.
Emily stopped beside the windows, gazing out. The icy rocks were far, far below, like looking from the top of a skyscraper at the ground below. If there were supports holding up the corridor, they weren’t visible from the windows.
“Is this safe? It’s not going to fall or anything, is it?”
Emily shook her head. “No, we’re perfectly safe. With Haumea’s gravity we can build structures that are completely impossible on a higher gravity world.”
Patricia leaned out into the curve of the window. The whole chasm lay beneath her. “You’re going to make a fortune with tourists wanting to see this!”
“If tourists ever come here.”
Emily’s face was composed and neutral. She was obviously unwilling to give anything away. Patricia smiled, trying to trigger a response, but Emily’s expression didn’t change. Patricia straightened up.
“You don’t want tourism?”
“It may have its place, provided it doesn’t jeopardize what we’re building.”
“And what’s that?”
A hint of a smile touched Emily’s lips. “That’s what you’re here to see, isn’t it? Shall we continue?”
“Yes. After you.”
Emily gestured down the corridor and they continued their walk. The corridors were clean, well-lit, and attractive with the plants growing all along the walls. It gave it a wild touch. In places where vining plants grew up across the corridor there were light frameworks of thin, spider-web thickness structures, holding the plants.
“The plants must serve a purpose other than decorative,” Patricia said.
“Yes, they are integral to our environmental systems, as well as producing much of our food. We rely on them.”
“And you created all of this in the short time you’ve been here?”
“What else could we do? We came prepared to build our colony and the Workshop is the result.”
“Workshop, it’s called that because of the team that discovered Haumea?”
Emily nodded. “You’ve done your homework. For a short time they called this world Santa. The Workshop seemed an appropriate name, particularly when we got our first glimpse of the world.”
Jagged, icy rocks didn’t really bring Santa to mind, for Patricia. But who knew with these people? They had left Earth behind for a journey that lasted years to even get here. The Haumea expedition had been one of the first missions that the Diaspora Group had launched. They headed off for the far reaches of the solar system with only what supplies they could carry. These days, thanks to the beamed power stations that Mercury had constructed, and the solar sail network they continued to expand, transportation across the solar system was much faster.
And closed off from the Earth. Because of what had happened with the launch of the Lincoln, Earth lacked any access to space beyond lower Earth orbit. It was likely to stay like that unless Patricia and the other ambassadors talking to the Diaspora worlds could heal the rift between their worlds.
Emily kept walking, obviously leading her somewhere. It struck Patricia that they hadn’t passed anyone else in the corridors. They passed closed doors, connection corridors and walked through open common areas without seeing anyone else around. And it was quiet. A ghost town, or the inhabitants were staying out of their way.
“Where is everyone?” Patricia asked.
“Busy working,” Emily answered without breaking stride. “You’ll meet more of them later. We built the Workshop to accommodate population increases.”
“Yes, and there are two Exodus transports on the way here. They’ll arrive in six months.” Emily shook her head. “It’s so much faster now that the beamed power stations are up along with the solar sail production.”
“With the jaunt program, though, you can have workers here as fast as you can produce the android bodies.”
“It’s not just workers that we want. We’re trying to build a new human world here. We need people that will call this home.”
Patricia absorbed that and didn’t respond. What could she say? How many people would voluntarily give up their lives to come out here? You didn’t get much more in the middle of nowhere than Huamea. Except Diaspora also had outposts at Pluto, Makemake and Eris.
What kind of people were attracted to these small frozen worlds at the far reaches of the solar system? This was literally the tip of the iceberg, as studies showed over two hundred dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt alone, plus thousands beyond that region. In terms of sheer numbers, these worlds won hands down. And in the wrong hands the smaller bodies of the Kuiper Belt could be turned into deadly weapons. Already rumors circulated that Diaspora was sending automated solar sail missions out into the Kuiper region and beyond to snag icy comets and begin steering them on paths into the inner solar system. That possibility had no doubt caused her bosses more than one sleepless night!
If it was true, they’d have to talk about it at some point. Diaspora might claim that they were mining the cometary resources, or using them to terraform Mars, but if they could change the orbits of the comets then they also had both the upper ground and the most powerful weapons available. Extinction-level weapons if they wanted. Back home there were people already working on response scenarios if Diaspora decided to drop comets onto Earth.
Even just seeing what they had built here at Haumea, it was hard to imagine that Diaspora would attack Earth. Why would they? It didn’t gain them anything.
At last Emily stopped in front of an elevator. They still hadn’t seen anyone, but the sheer size of the Workshop was intimidating. This wasn’t a small facility dug into the ice. It went on and on, and now an elevator?
“Where are we going?”
“You’ll see,” Emily said.
The doors slid open. Emily gestured for Patricia to enter.
“Please, it’ll be worth it. I promise.”
Patricia walked into the elevator. It was spacious and well-lit. Emily joined her and the doors slid shut. The elevator shot up rapidly and for a second Patricia felt her weight increase. Only a fraction, but noticeable. Emily stood composed, her fingers interlocked, patiently waiting as the elevator rose.
Accessing her glasses, Patricia picked up the public display on the elevator. Floor numbers spun past, already at thirty and rising. In seconds it had reached sixty. Ninety. She gasped. The numbers continued climbing. It passed a hundred and twenty and she turned to face Emily.
“How is this possible?”
Now Emily smiled. She chuckled. “This is the Workshop. Anything is possible here.”
Three hundred and climbing fast.
Patricia requested more information from the system. Denied. The only thing she had access to was the public display.
An alert blinked in the corner of her eye. She focused on it and a new window opened up. It was a status alert from her android body. Her weight was decreasing. The android body only weighed a fraction of what it would have weighed on Earth anyway, but now those numbers were dropping. Instant weight loss when she didn’t need it.
Her weight dropped, and the elevator display increased.
They weren’t on Haumea any longer. The elevator was carrying them away from the planet.
“This is a ship?”
Emily shook her head. “It’s an elevator, just as it seems.”
“An elevator –” Ah. It clicked into place. “A space elevator? You’ve built a beanstalk?”
Emily spread her hands and gave a small shrug. “It isn’t the only one, you know about the station at Ceres?”
Yes. Everyone knew about the Ceres outpost, where the Lincoln, that ill-fated ship, had gone after failing to take over the Diaspora’s base on Luna.
“We have our own plans, of course,” Emily said. “Every world is different. We’re taking advantage of Haumea’s rapid rotation.”
Haumea rotated every 3.9 hours. It made sense, given the rapid rotation and the dwarf planet’s low mass, creating a beanstalk wouldn’t be that much of a challenge and it’d create an efficient delivery system.
Patricia’s weight continued to decrease to the point where her feet barely touched the floor. She bounced her toes against the floor and rose up into the air. Emily joined her, laughing.
“I always love change-over!” Emily spun in a somersault in mid-air.
Patricia touched the ceiling and stopped her upward drift. She pushed back off into the air and tumbled. The elevator walls spun around her. A hand caught her calf, Emily was holding onto the rail mounted around the elevator and was steadying her.
“Thanks,” Patricia gasped. “I’ve never been weightless before!”
Her readout showed her weight beginning to increase again, but she was drifting toward what had been the ceiling before. “We’re still going?”
“All the way out,” Emily said.
Patricia drifted on down until her feet touched down on the new ‘floor,’ which was covered in the same textured material as the new ‘ceiling’ above. They’d passed through the geostationary point above Haumea without stopping. Now, as they continued along the beanstalk, the centrifugal forces were acting on them. Her weight continued to climb as the effective g-forces grew.
“How much longer?”
Indeed, soon the elevator slowed. By the time it came to a stop Patricia’s displays showed the effective gravity at .75 gee, three-quarters of what she would weigh on Earth.
As the doors slid open, Emily said, “Welcome to the Cottage.”
Unlike the Workshop below, the Cottage was anything but a ghost town. As soon as the elevator doors slid open, and Patricia peeked out, two people stepped up to the doors.
It was Max Highlet and Corinne Shaw, both of them grinning at her.
“Welcome!” Max boomed, throwing his arms wide and nearly hitting Corinne.
Corinne neatly avoided him, stepped forward and extended her hand to Patricia. “Come with us.”
Patricia let herself be led out of the elevator, only to discover that Emily wasn’t following. The other woman waved from the elevator.
“I’m going back down,” Emily said. “We’ll talk later!”
The doors whisked shut before Patricia could say anything.
Max took Patricia’s other elbow as Corinne released her. “Are you afraid of heights?”
“Good. Let’s go.”
She let herself be guided by him as she took in her new surroundings. The walls and floors were gray and hard beneath her bare feet, and slightly rough. The material looked almost pitted, like pumice. There was a curved wall around the elevator but no ceiling above. The wall stopped at about eight feet up, while the cylindrical elevator shaft continued on and on up for at least a couple hundred feet before it passed through a geodesic lattice across the dark sky filled with Huamea, as white as snow except for the large reddish scar.
Patricia stopped, gaping at the planet hanging above them. It filled the sky while the line of the elevator shaft shrank into nothingness before it reached the planet.
Corinne touched her shoulder. “There’s a lot more to see, and better places to see it from.”
Patricia dropped her gaze and met Corinne’s eyes. They were dark, and sympathetic.
Earth was so far behind Diaspora when it came to space exploration. Somehow Terra Blackstone had led the Diaspora Group into leap-frogging over any of the baby steps, to full-blown colonization. It was chilling, and overwhelming. Her brain skipped as the image of that elevator rising to the planet above came back to mind. She glanced up, just a second, and for a dizzying moment felt as if she would simply fall to the planet.
Patricia hugged herself. “Yeah, okay. Let’s go.”
Her guides stayed close by her sides. The curved wall ended in an opening and they walked out under what seemed like bright sunlight, except it came from lamps scattered around the habitat.
There were trees, bushes and gardens, and then open areas with tables and workstations. It looked as if someone had taken all of the areas that were normally in an office building and simply scattered them around randomly through a park. The path they were on didn’t run straight, there weren’t any straight lines, just pathways that twisted and curved around, branching and spreading throughout the habitat. It was flat either, the paths dipped and rose, climbing around and up small hills. A flower-scented breeze caressed her face. A pair of bright yellow finches flew past, in a twisting and diving chase. From somewhere out of sight came the soft sounds of a stream.
And the people! Everywhere she looked, there were people. Mostly wearing Diaspora workalls, although the color varied. Some stood or sat at workstations, while others were moving with a purpose. Still others lounged on the grass, talking or reading or interacting with interfaces only they could see on their glasses. The bustling activity of the Cottage calmed her. This was why the Workshop had been so empty.
“You’re all up here, all the time?”
“Not all the time,” Max said. “You haven’t lived until you’ve gone skiing on Mt. Warlock!”
“It’s adaptive loss,” Corinne said. “If we spent all of our time on Haumea, we’d lose muscle and bone mass in the low gravity. Out here, we need places like this for both our mental and physical health.”
“I didn’t know any of this existed,” Patricia said. “It’s incredible.”
They continued walking, and it almost seemed like there was no end to the path. With all of the branches, and the twisty, curvy nature of it, you could probably walk for hours without retracing your steps. After a few minutes the path led them to a bridge, made of pumice beams, that arched over the small stream meandering through the habitat. The stream bed was covered in rough gravel, the water was only a couple feet deep. Patricia stopped on the bridge.
“Where did all of this come from?”
Max leaned on the wide railing. “Haumea. She provides all that we need.” He pointed at the stream. “That rock. This bridge. The water flowing beneath us, it all came from Haumea. She’s the provider for us all.”
“We brought the seed stocks and animal embryos,” Corinne added. “This looked much different, not too long ago!”
Max chuckled. “Yep. When this was all bare ground? It was a mess, but almost everything we’ve planted has done well in our processed soil.”
Patricia’s stomach growled, reminding her that she wasn’t really here. No matter how it seemed at the moment. She was back on Earth, her senses receiving all of the sensory input from the android body via instantaneous communications link. She focused on her status icon lurking in the corner of her vision and it unfurled in front of her.
Nearly four hours had passed since she initiated the jaunt! Her mission parameters had put a cap on this first excursion at five hours. Then she would automatically disconnect.
“I don’t have much longer,” she said to her guides. “Maybe we should find a place where we can talk? I have several topics my superiors have asked me to address.”
“Of course,” Corinne said. “Just a little farther now.”
The conference area sat on top of a hill bisected by the outer wall of the dome. There was a stone table, impressively solid and polished to a high shine, and comfortable, printed ergonomic chairs like those you’d find in any corporate office back home. Max and Corinne took two chairs with their backs to the dome and the unnerving drop off into the void, and Patricia took a chair at the end of the table.
From this vantage point, she could see the bumpy terrain of the Cottage spread out beneath them, with the intricate swirling pathways, work areas and bountiful gardens. Overhead the elevator stalk climbed up to invisibility and the planet overhead.
“This was worth the walk,” she said, sitting down. When she looked out, through the transparent wall of the dome, there was a bright bauble far off in space. A thin line ran from that bright object toward Haumea. She slightly rose up again, leaning on the table with one hand and pointed.
“Is that another habitat?”
Corinne reached over and patted Patricia’s hand. “You should sit down,” she said.
Looking at the seriousness in Corinne’s face, mirrored in Max’s face, Patricia sank back down into the chair.
“What is it?”
“That’s not one of ours,” Max said. His gaze was on his hands, now he looked up and cleared his throat. “It was here when we arrived.”
Here when they arrived? It wasn’t possible. No one else had launched any expeditions out to Haumea. It couldn’t have happened without setting off every defense system back on Earth.
Earth. Patricia looked at Max, eyes widening in shock. Earth. Not anyone from Earth.
“Alien?” The word squeaked out.
Their expressions confirmed Patricia’s question. She sank back into the chair. Nothing in the briefing had dealt with this news, the existence of this habitat, or the space elevator. Space elevators, if she counted the alien habitat.
Max gestured and a hologram rose above the surface of the table. It was Haumea, a portion of the surface, rising up out of the stone. Down on the surface was a conical structure, from which rose a bright line that ended in a tear-drop shape. That was the habitat. Given the shape, there was more to it beneath the park-like surface. Of course there had to be systems to help manage the environment, recycle the water, and all the rest.
The holographic Haumea turned and another line rose from the surface. It was longer than the first one, and the habitat was differently shaped, conical and flattened on the top, or would that be the bottom if you were inside?
Patricia folded her arms on the tables cool surface and leaned closer to soak in as much detail as she could about the alien structure. The stalk was different, six lines rose from the surface to the habitat. The habitat itself looked solid. There were windows, but it wasn’t as open as the Cottage’s geodesic structure. It had the same sort of conical shape as the Workshop. But why would the Workshop have the same shape as the alien habitat. Unless?
“Wait.” Patricia turned to Corinne and Max. “The Workshop was already here too?”
“Yes,” Corinne said.
Stunning. Absolutely stunning.
“It was empty, and damaged,” Max said. “There was an impact event that had damaged the structure and collapsed the beanstalk.”
“So you built a new one?”
Corinne nodded. “We repaired the Workshop, restored the environmental systems and moved in. It gave us a head start. We used our own equipment to construct the beanstalk, but having the Workshop meant we didn’t need to establish the base station. We just used what was already there after we fixed it and cleared out the debris.”
A thousand questions buzzed in Patricia’s brain. Her time remaining for the jaunt was limited, and this changed everything. Still, their story bothered her, and then she realized why.
“The aliens hadn’t repaired the damage. Why not?”
“They weren’t here,” Max said.
“It was abandoned long before the impact took out the beanstalk,” Corinne added. “Dating the materials is difficult, but based on weathering from micro impacts, we estimate that the structures are at least a million years old. Possibly much older, it’s hard to say.”
Max moved his hands, pulling and manipulating the holographic display. Haumea shrank as he pulled it up, and rotated. Another beanstalk came into view, and then another. He turned the display so that the beanstalks were parallel to the table top. Haumea spun around and, Patricia counted them, there were a dozen beanstalks rising from the dwarf planet’s equator. Seen at this scale, the human-built beanstalk was obviously different. Shorter and the habitat was smaller, rounder.
“Oh. Wow,” Patricia said. “It wasn’t only the one.”
“No,” Corinne said. “Far from it. There’s a sub-surface transportation network connecting them all.”
“And it’s all abandoned?”
Max nodded his shaggy head, his face gone long and mournful. “A long time ago.”
A chime sounded in Patricia’s ear. An alert popped up in her vision. Only ten minutes left before her connection ended.
“My time for this jaunt is nearly over,” Patricia said. “I need to know what this means for our talks.”
“Our resources are limited,” Corinne said. “Our population is small. We haven’t even finished cataloging and exploring the Workshop, and there are eleven others on the surface, as well as evidence of other structures. Plus the habitats and beanstalks. We’re going to need help.”
“You’re going to give us access to all of this?”
“Supervised access, yes,” Max said. “A partnership. We have a list of scientists on Earth that we’d like to invite to jaunt out and help with this project.”
“And we get open access to everything that is discovered?”
Corinne said, “Yes. Provided that you provide open access to everyone on Earth. This isn’t information only for your country, or your government.”
That was going to be a bitter pill for some, Patricia knew. They’d have to swallow it. Without the Diaspora Group’s cooperation and technology, they were still locked up on the planet. In the exodus, the Diaspora Group had taken all their key personnel, material and had wiped what they left behind. Even with access to all of Diaspora’s old launch sites, the United States wasn’t any closer to a presence in the solar system.
“I think I can convince them of that,” Patricia said. “We want to work with you.”
“That’s good,” Max said. “Remember that and we’ll get along fine.”
The holographic model continued rotating in front of her. Patricia reached out and stopped the rotation. She gestured and the view zoomed in on one of the alien habitats. The conical structure reminded her of a seashell, spiraling around up to the point where it connected with the beanstalk. In the close-up, weathering and pitting was visible on the gray skin. The dark glints of windows refused to reveal anything of the interior. Turning it over, with the beanstalk rising above it, the shape also brought to mind yellow jacket nests. What secrets did it hold inside?
Another chime sounded. Her time was almost up.
“Are these the same aliens as the ones that visited Titan?”
Corinne glanced at him, then back to Patricia. “We don’t know. The map that the Titan visitors left behind didn’t indicate anything about Haumea, and we haven’t seen anything like it here. My gut tells me that we’re dealing with a different species here.”
“Your gut?” Max chuckled. “Truth is, we don’t know either way.”
“That’s true,” Corinne said. “Give us enough time, and I think we will know. There’s even a chance that the red spot, the impact that sent Haumea spinning like a top, was engineered by the aliens.”
“We don’t know that,” Max said quickly.
Patricia’s timer flashed. She only had another minute. There wasn’t time for everything, not with this jaunt. The idea that these visitors had engineered Haumea specifically to create this network of beanstalks was amazing. Breath-taking. The holographic display rotated in front of her like a brilliant snowflake with branches reaching out.
“Tomorrow.” Patricia said. “I’ll jaunt back tomorrow. We can start making plans. Okay?”
“Yes,” Max said.
The last thing Patricia saw was Corinne, smiling past the display and then the darkness enveloped her.
Patricia’s heart beat audibly in her ears as the light came back. The sensory chamber’s acoustic panels damped down all noises until her own pulse was loud. She hung suspended above the baffling in the interface suit that covered her entire body in the stretchy material and support bands.
The door opened as the cables lowered her to the floor, and people rushed in to help in a flurry of lab coats.
Patricia let them work at unfastening her, freeing her from the suit. It was so strange, even though only hours had passed, to be back here. On Earth. She pictured that snow-white world turning, with the alien beanstalks reaching out into space. In the space of a blink she had traveled across the solar system from the inner reaches to the outer edge.
A face appeared in front of her. She focused on the pockmarked face, the intense blue eyes. Marcus Finch, her boss, was beaming at her as her grabbed the sides of her head.
“You were fabulous!”
“I’m going back,” she said. Flatly, daring him to deny her. “Tomorrow.”
“Yes. Yes, fuck yes!”
Tomorrow, she’d jaunt back. Eventually, Diaspora would return to Earth and the launches would resume. When they did, she would go and see Haumea herself, in the flesh. Until then, there was the jaunt, which would open the entire solar system to people everywhere. And who knew? Maybe someday they would reach beyond the solar system, to other worlds, and discover more about these mysterious visitors that had left their mark and moved on.
This story is the 12th weekly short story release, and the 12th Planetary Bodies story. The last couple stories visited Pluto-Charon, a binary dwarf planet system. When I see people talk about whether or not Pluto should be called a planet, it’s often just that it was called a planet when we were kids. I grew up with the idea that there were nine planets in the solar system. Nine’s an easy number to deal with and you can remember them all without much effort. How about 10,000? That’s an estimate that includes not only potential dwarf planets in the solar system and the Kuiper belt but also those scattered beyond. Ceres, seen in Embracing Ceres, was also originally called a planet for about fifty years. Currently the International Astronomical Union (IAU) recognizes five dwarf planets, and those are the ones that I’ve included in the Planetary Bodies series.
I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links at the top of the page or on the Books page. Check back next week for another Planetary Bodies story. Next up is Makemake Released. After that is Eris Revealed, the final story in the series. Starting June 1st I’ll continue posting weekly stories but they won’t be in this series. For the most part it will be stories from a variety of genres. Even if I didn’t write a single new story I have enough to keep doing weekly releases for a long time!