Mars Uncovered

The Diaspora Group sent out ships to simultaneously colonize the twelve worlds of the solar system.

Rhea Silvia started as the Media Coordinator on Venus — in the floating cloud city Aphrodite — and now Mars presents a new challenge, and a new opportunity to make a name for herself that will span the solar system.

1

Mars. The planet of legend and mystery, Rhea’s chance to make a name for herself that spanned the solar system. Except that the man in front of her didn’t want her on what he obviously thought was his planet.

“Ms. Silvia,” he said again, with exaggerated politeness, as if repeating her name would somehow make it clear why she was being unreasonable.

Dr. Pascal Reis, chief administrator of Pohl Station, was a small man. His silver hair was immaculately cut, his clothes reflected a retro Victorian preference. His waistcoat was a dark burgundy silk with a dark cravat and a white shirt. A dark frock coat hung on a hook on the wall of his otherwise modern office, along with a dark bowler hat.

An interesting choice, to use his weight allowance to bring a wardrobe. Many of the people she knew might have brought one or two special items, but a bowler hat?

Still, it was something interesting to catch on her cam jewelry. She wore a choker of cam beads, as well as two small cam earrings. The life-logging beads might not have the coolness of spy-eyes and other tech, but they were unobtrusive and pretty. And smart enough to grab video when they picked up people talking, and to switch to still pics every 20 seconds otherwise. Add to that the higher resolution of her glasses, and she could record anything. If she got a chance to get out and see the world.

“I’m not asking anything unreasonable, Dr. Reis,” she said. “I want to go out with the teams exploring the surface. We have to show people what a beautiful and dynamic world this is.”

“Ms. Silvia, each expedition has limited space and resources. We can’t afford to use up that space on non-essentials.”

“Non-essentials?” Rhea stood up and leaned forward on his desk, a flimsy panel desk printed from local materials. “Terra Blackstone assigned me here with a job to do. She sent me on the first rapid transit solar sail to get here! Do you think she’d do all of that for something she considered non-essential?”

 

“Maybe non-essential is not the right word to convey my meaning,” Dr. Reis said. He steepled his fingers. “You have to see the bind that I’m in. If I grant you space in the expeditions, who gets left behind?”

Rhea decided to change tactics. “Dr. Reis, why do you wear that outfit? Why not wear the standard issue workalls provided by Diaspora?”

He blinked up at her. “I think that a leader should present one’s self well to those who follow. I have noted that Dr. Blackstone is always put together well when she addresses any audience. I’m simply following her example.”

Gotcha. “You’re right, absolutely. This is what we’re talking about. Look at how people have responded to Carys Rex’s daring aerial adventures on Venus! Or the footage coming out from Mercury, showing the new microwave array boosting the solar sails to speeds unimaginable before! Or what’s happening out at Europa! Heck, Ceres is getting better publicity than Mars right now.” Rhea took a breath. “This used to be the place of imagination and dreams. Then one robotic explorer after another made it look like a place that wasn’t worth visiting. We need to change that, which means getting me out there.”

Dr. Reis smiled. “I’ll concede your point about how Mars is presented, but I can’t ask researchers to give up their spots on vital research expeditions.” He raised his hand when she opened her mouth to object. “I will, however, authorize the creation of an effort to publicize our home. Use anyone you can recruit to help out, provided that it doesn’t interfere with the work being done.”

“You mean I get my own expeditions?”

“Yes, that is one aspect to what I am saying, Ms. Silvia. I’m not unreasonable.”

“Thank you. I also need cooperation from staff as far as interviews go.”

Dr. Reis shrugged. “I will encourage your efforts, although I will not force anyone to contribute an interview.”

She’d take it. It was a lot better than she had started with today. Once people saw that better publicity would mean more support, they’d appreciate what she was doing. Look what had happened on Venus? It had been her idea to recruit Carys Rex in the first place, and now Carys had taken over the media lead position on Aphrodite to free up Rhea to turn around the impressions of Mars.

“Thank you,” Rhea repeated. She smiled. “And, for the record, I think your outfit is fantastic.”

Dr. Reis blinked and smiled. “You’re welcome. Good luck, Ms. Silvia.”

Rhea escaped out into the main balcony area, overlooking the Pohl station dome set into the steep crater wall. The outer wall of the dome was open, providing a broad terraced area for growing plants within the dome, while much of the colony burrowed back into the expanded lava tubes exposed by the crater impact.

It wasn’t anything like the cloudscape on Venus. There had been a sameness to the view on Aphrodite. Here, right out there was a whole world of rocks and cliffs and the central peak of the crater rising up above. Dusty red cloth strips cut across a section of the crater on the left, the open cuts where they had mined ice for the colony, covered to keep any exposed ice protected and frozen.

An ice truck crawled along the rocky ground, kicking up a dust cloud. There wasn’t a road yet between the base and the ice excavations, but the trucks were wearing a track into the surface. The track wasn’t straight, but twisted and turned, avoiding the areas where subsurface ice or empty passages might make the surface unsteady.

Looking at the landscape, her eyes searched vainly for any trace of green, a withered bush, or a bird circling high above. None of that existed here.

Had it ever? That question still wasn’t answered. Microbes, certainly, that had been proven already, but nothing living had been found. And so far, no fossils indicating a more diverse biosphere. Although, up to this point, survival had taken virtually all of the colonist’s resources. It might be only a matter of time before a more significant discovery was made.

Still, there had to be something else that she could seize on to propel Mars into the public imagination again. Rhea leaned on the slated wall along the balcony, resting her arms on the top. From up here, as light as she felt on her feet, it was tempting to think that she could simply fly away. Human-powered flight might be a possibility, but after Carys Rex’s adventures on Venus, flying around inside of an enclosed dome would likely feel like an also ran.

No, there had to be something else. This was her home now. Especially since the Exodus had pulled out the remaining personnel and loved ones from Earth. None of the Diaspora colonists had anything to go back to on Earth. Any Earth-based assets were seized after the exodus. An exodus caused by the United States’, United Nations-approved, effort to seize the Diaspora Base on the Moon.

Even if she could go back to Earth now, she’d be arrested as soon as she landed. All of them were stuck, live or die. Her job was to make it look like they got the better end of the deal. And to make Mars a more inviting selection for all of the people uprooted in the exodus. Terra Blackstone wanted the people on Earth to see twelve thriving colonies, more later on, an entire system of worlds, each full of possibility.

Mars should shine as one of the Crown Jewels of the Diaspora effort. With all the legends, and stories, and history of exploration, it had to come to life. She needed to uncover Mars’ secrets, and expose the whole system to the wonder this world held.

Easier said than done. Rhea pushed away from the balcony wall. At least now she had permission to run her own expeditions. She just had to find people willing to work with her. Shouldn’t be too hard, how many of these scientists could resist the urge to get out and do some extra digging around?

Quite a lot, it seemed, three hours later when her screen went blank for the umpteenth time. Dr. Hobson couldn’t be bothered with frivolous expeditions. Frivolous! She resisted the urge to hit something.

She was in her office at the time. It literally was a hole in the ground, a five meter by five meter square cubicle cut right into the rock and then sealed with interlocking printed panels. The walls were dark, stone-looking, and almost marbled in appearance. Nice, sort of. The lighting strips in the roof panels produced a bright daylight glow that grew brighter toward midday and then dropped off toward evening to mimic a day night cycle.

The decor was limited to a flimsy printed desk, paler and more red-hued than the walls, attached to a pair of automatic adjustable legs. She kept it up at a standing height while the chair sat in the corner. A flat screen, imported, hung on the wall above the desk. Four planters occupied the corners of the room, and a long planter ran along the empty wall. Each overflowed with a selection of herbs and vegetable plants.

That, at least, was a nice touch. And part of the design of the place. They weren’t going to let those lights go to waste. They needed the plants to help clean their water for recycling, for producing food, and for processing the air in the base. As far as her briefing told her, the plants throughout the base were an integral part of their survival.

Rhea brushed her hand through the mint growing near her desk, remembering Bilbo, her fat cat from childhood. He had loved cat nip. She raised her fingers to her face, inhaling the invigorating mint smell.

There was a knock on the door, and it opened. There was a man, opening the door. He was taller than her, a bit at least, which almost made him short. Cute, with a scruffy chin and dark hair that fell forward into his face. He looked like someone more at home in a punk band than wearing a brown workall, pulling the cart that blocked the door behind him.

“Should I come back?” His eyes, blue, locked on hers. He smiled warmly.

Bold. And a nice smile. His shoulders filled out the workall pretty well too. It was hard to get a good sense of his build in the baggy outfit. Dr. Reis had a point about his choice in clothes. This man would look stunning in a similar outfit.

What had he asked? “Excuse me?”

He gestured at the plants in the corner. “Your plants? Should I come back, or do you mind if I check them now?”

“No, I don’t mind,” Rhea said. “I’m glad you’re here. I was afraid I’d be held responsible if the plants didn’t do well.”

He was pulling some very techy-looking devices out of his cart. “Oh, you will. They’ve thrown people outside without a suit for sampling the veggies.”

Rhea burst out laughing. He grinned back at her. She stuck out her hand. “I’m Rhea Silvia.”

His eyes widened. He took her hand, firm grip, not too hard, a bit rough. “Like the legends? For real?”

“I know, right? I was doomed to end up here. You could thank my mother for that but she’s still back on Luna.”

“Mark Clayton,” he said. “Your family too? They were part of the exodus?”

“Yes. Got to give Blackstone credit, she showed them all back on Earth, getting our families and everyone else out right before the lockdown.”

“I heard it nearly touched off a nuclear war,” Mark said. “Scared a lot of people with all of those simultaneous launches.”

Rhea nodded. “Blackstone is handling that herself. I’ve just got to make Mars more appealing. She’s counting on us showing everyone back on Earth what they’re missing out on, trying to turn the tide of public opinion back in our favor.”

She realized that they were still holding hands and she let go, blushing. It wasn’t often that someone got to her. She was the professional, all the time.

“How’s that going for you?” Mark asked, moving over to the planters. He stuck a probe in the planter’s soilless substrate. His fingers moved across the bright display.

“Not good.” Rhea gestured at the screen, which had cycled back to a map of Mars with pins indicating the few sites being investigated. “Dr. Reis doesn’t want me out disturbing researchers in the field. He’ll let me go out, run my own expeditions, but I can’t find anyone that wants to go with me. They all say they’re too busy.”

Mark moved his probe on to the next planter. “Folks are pretty busy. Between keeping this place running, and getting the second base established for the new exodus colonists, the researchers are carefully guarding their time to explore.”

“So I’ve seen.” Rhea gestured and brought back up the personnel list. There weren’t many names remaining.

While she studied the options, she also watched Mark moving around the room. He checked all the plants on the other side of the room, but then he had to come close to where she stood working. She could have moved but she stayed where he was, to see what he would do.

He couldn’t reach the remaining plants without reaching past her. She glanced back and he was looking at her. His eyes narrowed and he shook a finger.

“You’re doing that on purpose!”

Rhea laughed. “Sorry, I just wanted to see how you’d handle it.”

Mark moved closer, setting aside his equipment on the desk. He didn’t box her into the corner. He stood to the side, but close, so that she still had an open avenue to slip aside, if she wanted.

“Is that all you wanted?” Mark asked.

Her heart was beating faster, something that hadn’t happened in a long time. Not since she was back on Earth, before being selected to join the Diaspora group.

“I don’t suppose you’d like to go out on an expedition with me?”

He grinned. “I don’t think there’s much need for a botanist out there, do you?”

“We’ve found microbes.”

“Fossilized, and not really plants,” Mark said. “Not even multicellular.”

“But that was one spot! How much of this planet is still unexplored? We’ve barely scratched the surface, literally! Who knows what we’ll find!”

“True,” Mark said. He shrugged. “I’ll go out with you, if that’s what you’re doing? Are you asking me out?”

Rhea slipped to the side, giving him access to the plants and increasing the space between them before she did something foolish. “Would you like that? A chance to see outside the dome?”

Mark nodded. “I would. It sounds like fun. We’ve got a free weekend coming up tomorrow, if you want to get out there right away?”

“Tomorrow?”

“Sure, why not? I know a few others that would like to come along, if that’s okay? Make it a proper overnight expedition?” He grinned. “Or did you want it to be just the two of us?”

“As tempting as that is, no. I’m serious about this! If you’ve got some friends that can come along, that would be great! We have to show people having fun, exploring, an adventure.”

“Like that woman on Venus?”

“Carys Rex.”

“Did you know her?”

Rhea nodded. “A little, yes. I suggested that we invite her to Venus. She took over for me when Blackstone sent me here.”

Mark moved and Rhea stepped back. He picked up his equipment from the desk and she felt foolish. It wasn’t like he was just going to jump on her, which was sort of too bad. Except, no, she needed to focus on the task at hand. She had a job to do, and it didn’t involve falling for the botanist.

She crossed her arms and watched him checking the plants near her desk. He was careful in his work, methodical. His unassuming good looks would play well on the camera. Between her jewelry and glasses, she’d have plenty of footage. You never knew what you might use.

“If you can talk to your friends, I’ll go ahead and take care of making the arrangements for transportation,” Rhea said. “I’ve already got a list of sites that I would like to visit, but if you have any suggestions, I’m happy to hear them.”

Mark pulled his probe out of the last plant container and shook his head. “No, you go ahead and pick. I’m sure it’ll be interesting.”

Rhea held out her hand. “Thank you, so much.”

Mark laughed and shook her hand. “You’re welcome.”

He lifted his equipment. “I’d better go. I’ve got a lot more plants to check before the day is over! I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow,” Rhea said.

At first Rhea wasn’t sure that she would actually be able to pull together the equipment and supplies necessary for the expedition on such short notice, but Dr. Reis approved the request through and the equipment shop had a new caravan that they wanted to field test.

“Either grab it now,” Richard down at the shop said, “or I’ll have to send one of my guys out to test it. If you do it, I don’t have to give up anyone.”

Which was great. A big part of making Mars look appealing, was to get more volunteers from the Exodus population that was currently putting enormous pressures on the Diaspora Base on the Moon. Blackstone want to get those people assigned and on transport capsules on their way to new worlds.

And succeeding here, making Mars sexy again, would go a long way to establishing her reputation in the system. Twelve new worlds, and she wanted her name known throughout.

Diaspora was a chance at great success, or terrible failure if she couldn’t pull this off. With the labor shortage they couldn’t afford to let anyone not carry their weight. She could end up shuffled off to some bureaucratic position pushing virtual papers.

With really her whole future riding on the expedition, she arrived down at the shops early. She wore the standard Diaspora workall in green. The light garment wasn’t exactly tight on her, it still showed off her curves somewhat, but by and large it was a shapeless thing. It made her rethink again what she’d first thought about Dr. Reis’ choice in bringing clothes. Maybe if this didn’t work out, she could get a business going making off-work clothing for the colonists?

She was wearing her glasses, to record the expedition, and her cam jewelry. Plenty of recording capacity. Carys Rex had brought flying spy eyes to Venus, an expensive piece of tech Rhea envied. Unlike Carys, though, she didn’t plan on being the star of the expedition. She wanted to stay behind the camera. When people looked at her they saw the pretty pixie, the cute blond with the tiny nose and fine features. Being on camera distracted viewers from the real story. Her jewelry and glasses focused on the world she saw, not her.

She wasn’t the star. That was the other people. The scientists, the ones doing the research. She was here to tell their stories, not her story. No one wanted to know her story.

A big, broad-shouldered man, easily the largest and oldest man that she had seen yet since arriving in Pohl Station, came out from behind a cluster of workstations when she entered the shop. He work the standard black Diaspora workall with a Mariners baseball cap on his head.

Rhea tapped the side of her glasses to activate the recording, then smiled as she went over to meet him, extending her hand.

“Rhea Silvia, you’re Richard?”

His hand was enormous, engulfing hers in a brief, gentle grip.

“That’s right. You’re not going out there by yourself are you? I thought you’d have someone with you.”

“I do,” she said. “It’d be pretty boring if it was just me out there. They’ll be coming along any minute. I told them to meet me down here.”

Richard pulled off his baseball cap, revealing a shiny bald head. Pale skin caught the lights from the high ceiling above. He ran a hand across his head, then put the hat back on. He clucked his tongue.

“Okay then, I guess I can show you what we’ve got while we’re waiting.” He turned and pointed. “That’s her, over there by the lock. Got her all filled up and ready to go. Charge’ll last you up to a week.”

“We’re not planning on being out that long.”

The shop was a big chamber cut into the rock beneath Pohl Station, what had once been a network of lava tubes connected and joined to create a series of uneven chambers, with reinforced printed arches and hanging lights. The natural rock was still visible everywhere else. Some of the sections were full of shelving and storage crates, others dedicated to workbenches and equipment. The sections near the wide airlock doors looked like a parking garage.

The caravan Richard had pointed at looked like bastard child between a robotic rover and an RV. The big vehicle stood on six wheels, but the body was blocky and pale pink. It was printed from native materials, like most of the base, but resembled many of the old robotic explorers that had come to Mars, like Opportunity, Spirit and Curiosity. Various equipment masts and armatures were folded up against the sides and top, and darkened windows stretched around the front.

“That’s amazing,” she said. “Is it hard to drive?”

Richard clucked his tongue again, shaking his head. “Hell, you don’t even have to drive it if you want. Probably better if you don’t. She’s smart enough to get where she’s going. Just tell her where you want to go, and let her do the rest. She knows more about the planet than you’ll know. Might not take the most direct route, but it’ll be the safest route.”

“That sounds good to me.” There were voices in the corridor outside. Rhea turned halfway. “Sounds like the others are coming.”

Mark came in first, followed by four others, all of them in brown workalls. Two men, and two women, very nicely paired from the look of it, which left her with Mark by implication. There was a lot of laughing from the two women. What had Mark told them about the expedition?

He came over to her, grinning widely. “Hey there! You actually did it, I’m impressed.”

She shook her head and gestured to Richard. “You can thank Richard, he’s the one that made the caravan available.”

Mark looked up, and gave Richard a nod. “Thanks, man.”

“Don’t mention it.” Richard looked at Rhea. “I’ve got the control cards over here, if you want to get them, you can be off?”

“Sure.” Rhea turned back to Mark. “I’ll be right back, and you can introduce me to your friends.”

“Okay. You’ll like them,” he said. “We’re all excited to get a chance to go out and explore. They’re eager to meet you.”

Rhea followed Richard over to the cluster of stations where he’d been working when she had come in. he picked up a thin digital control card from the counter and tapped the screen.

He entered a code on the translucent touch screen and handed it to her. “There you go.”

His eyes shifted, looking over his head at the group. “Are you sure you want to go out with these people?”

“Why? Do you know something about them?”

He shook his head. “No, they just don’t look like most of the groups I see go out of here.”

“What do you mean?”

“They look like tourists,” he said. “Wouldn’t a trained crew be better? Safer?”

He was concerned, she could hear it in his voice. It was sweet, in a fatherly sort of way. She smiled. “Thank you. I’ll be careful, but they’re all I got.” She glanced over at the group laughing. “And they look like fun. That’s important too. Part of my job is to make Mars look inviting.”

Richard shook his head. “This isn’t an inviting place. It’s a place that’ll kill you if you aren’t careful.”

Rhea touched his arm. “We’re only going overnight, and I’ll be careful. Promise.”

Richard scowled and picked up a tablet. “See that you do. I don’t want to be the one to explain to the powers that be what happened to the new caravan.”

“Of course,” she said. “We’ll see you tomorrow, okay? I’ll bring it back without a scratch on it.”

Richard grunted.

As sweet as it was that he was concerned, she had a job to do. She went back to the group, smiling at Mark as he came over.

“So? Are we good to go?” He asked.

“Yeah, it’s fine.”

“Great! Let me introduce you to the rest.” Mark turned and gestured at the others, as they gathered around.

“Everyone, this is Rhea Silvia, that I told you about. She’s the new PR director hired by Blackstone.”

Rhea smiled at the group and lifted her hand. “Hey. Thanks for coming out with me. Most of the scientists I talked to didn’t want to have anything to do with me.”

One of the other women moved forward. She was pretty, solidly built, with purple hair hanging into her face. “That’s because they’re all trying to cover their butts. No one wants to believe that Mars is a bust. I’m Jessi, by the way.”

“Hi,” Rhea said. “It’s my job to make sure Mars isn’t a bust. It’s a whole world out there.”

One of the guys, standing behind Jessi, raised his hand. He was bearded and thin, with a hollowed-eye, lean look of a runner. “Ruben Flores. If they’d let us have a go at it, we could make this planet into something.”

Murmurs of agreement from all of those gathered. The other man, bulkier, with reddish hair spoke up. “Barry Powell. Ruben, for once is right. You’ve got Blackstone’s ear. Maybe you can get her to change direction on this?”

“On what?”

The other woman, lean and tall, with pale skin, black straight hair, and a flushed complexion, spoke, her tone harsh. “Letting us terraform. We’ve got a bunch of possible ways we could make Mars more habitable, but it won’t happen overnight. We need to get started, except that she won’t let us do anything outside of the domes and our simulations.”

Now things clicked into place. “You’re all terraformers?”

“Yes,” Mark said. He nodded at the tall woman. “That’s Gemma Brooks. We’re all bioengineers. We’ve done good work here on Pohl station, and even better work on the new base, but some of us want to see some of our other experiments happen.”

Ruben said, “Like using some of those solar sails as mirrors to heat up an area of subsurface volatiles. If we could get those out-gassing, build up the atmosphere and raise the temperature we might see some real changes happening! Maybe with enough work we could build up a feedback cycle.”

Gemma laughed. “There’s not enough there to do what you want, but we could capture cometary material and redirect it to Mars.”

Clearly they had ideas for the planet. And it made sense that they wanted to get out of the dome, if they’d been cooped up here.

She looked at Mark. “You didn’t tell me that you were a terraformer.”

He shrugged, grinning. “I’m a botanist. I do have some ideas for some engineered lichens that we could use to change the planet.”

Rhea looked at the group. “Well, I can’t promise that I’ll have any influence on Blackstone’s decision about this. I think she probably wants to know more about the planet the way it is before she starts changing it.”

“She’ll have to come around,” Jessi said. “When the exodus populations start arriving we’re going to be hard-pressed even with the second base. As time goes on, we’ll need the space. Population pressures alone will eventually cause us to terraform the planet.”

“Or restrict growth,” Barry said.

Barry reached over and squeezed Gemma’s buttock. She yelped and swatted at his hand.

“Stop it!”

“We should get going,” Rhea said. “It’ll take a while to get where we’re headed.”

“Where’s that?” Ruben said.

Rhea grinned. “Valles Marineris, one of the tributaries north of here, that is. It’s within range, and there’s a chance that we can see some pretty spectacular views from there.”

“Alright!” Jessi said. “Let’s go!”

They all picked up their bags and moved off through the chamber toward the caravan. Rhea waited, watching them go, laughing among themselves, recording everything. Mark saw her watching and came over to her side.

“You’re recording this, aren’t you?”

She glanced at him, then back to the group. “They know that, right? I mean, that was sort of the point of all of this. To go on an expedition, something to show folks about life on Mars.”

“We’re not exactly a typical research group,” Mark said. “I think they mostly want to blow off steam, you know? Get out of the dome.”

Rhea reached over and took his hand. “That’s fine! Good, even! All sorts of people are going to come here, Mark. Some of them will be happy living in the domes, but others are going to want to get out and see the sights. Let’s show them that Mars can be fun.”

He nodded. “Okay. If that’s what you want.”

She turned and met his eyes. He had clear blue eyes, deep like tropical pools. He leaned in close, too close for her glasses, but he wasn’t trying to get in frame. He was trying to kiss her.

The realization hit at the same time as his lips.

The kiss was as surprise. A pleasant one too. His lips were soft, gentle, caressing her lips with light touches. Mark drew back, smiling.

“We’re still good?”

Rhea nodded. “Oh, yeah. We’re good, but we better go before your friends leave without us!”

He took her hand – that was sweet – and hurried off. Rhea followed, feeling like a balloon bouncing along on a string behind him.

Inside the caravan felt bigger than it had looked on the outside. It really was like a big RV all equipped to explore the Mars. The airlock opened right behind the main cab at the front, four seats up there in the cockpit. An aisle ran down the center of the bus between seating, a kitchen area, an expandable section for sleeping bunks, six total, three to a side, and past that more compact expanding areas with laboratory equipment. Across from the airlock were racks with a half-dozen Mars suits, white with bright preschool colored stripes on the helmet and joints.

Ruben, Jessi and Barry were already in the cockpit. Ruben had taken the primary pilots’ seat. Gemma was back in the booth in the kitchen area.

Ruben twisted around as Mark moved back, carrying his bag.

“You ready to go?” Ruben asked.

Rhea climbed forward and took the fourth seat, behind Jessi on the right. Barry swiveled his seat around to the console on that side.

“Let’s go!” Barry said.

Rhea nodded. “I’m ready when you are. I’ll get the coordinates loaded.”

And she turned to the console on her side, just another touch interface, the key components imported along with the rest of the colonists, the rest printed and manufactured right here on Mars. Did they stamp it with a ‘Made on Mars’ sticker? It wouldn’t change the fact that the key components inside were still made in China. In time, sooner than expected given the exodus and Diaspora pulling out of Earth, they’d have to manufacture their own replacements.

Wealth. That was an angle she could use too. The mineral resources of an entire planet at their disposal. Her fingers navigated the interface, nothing too complicated, not that different from finding a local coffee place.

There. The steep walls of a river valley that in turn ran into the Valles Marineris, one of the biggest rift valleys in the solar system. A whole host of expeditions were planned to points on the system, but not to this tributary, not yet. And this was better. A scale that she could capture on film, without having the other side lost in the distance.

“Got it,” Ruben said. “Let’s roll!”

Rhea looked up, catching the view on her glasses and jewelry. This was what she wanted. Young people having fun, and cool technology. With a low hum, the caravan rolled forward through the grotto, toward a massive open airlock door. Ruben gripped a steering wheel in his hands.

“Should you be driving?” Rhea asked. “Richard said that we were better off letting the caravan drive itself.”

Ruben laughed. “Where’s the fun in that? We can take turns.”

“Yeah!” Barry said.

Mark leaned into the cockpit, his hands braced on either side of the door. Catching her looking, he grinned. Rhea refocused on the view forward with her glasses. The cam jewelry would catch his expressions as they went out, giving her 360 degrees of footage.

Despite the caravan’s size and the tight quarters, Ruben deftly managed to drive it into the airlock without hitting any of the sides. The caravan lurched to a stop before hitting the outer door. On the rearview screens the lights around the airlock door turned amber as the doors started sliding shut.

This was it! After traveling from Venus, surviving the harrowing descent down from orbit to land near Pohl station, she was getting back out there. The view from the landing capsule hadn’t been very good when they had transported her from the landing site to the station. From her strapped in position in the landing seat, she had only been able to see a slice of sky, quickly lost by reddish dust kicked up by the transport.

The rearview showed the doors closed. The lights changed to red and those forward turned amber. With a hiss of escaping airs, the outer doors slid apart, revealing a dark stone corridor that sloped upward, getting brighter as it went.

Ruben drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. From behind Gemma spoke up.

“Are we going to get out any time soon?”

Barry twisted around, talking past Mark. “We’re waiting for the doors to open!”

It only took a few moments and then the doors were open. Strange to think that the air pressure outside was far thinner than the atmosphere at the top of Mt. Everest, so thin that they’d need the pressure suits to go outside, just like in space.

Dust swirled around the opening ahead. Even with a thin atmosphere, there was still an atmosphere. Dust particles picked up by the wind were regularly deposited on any surface, including the station domes which had to be cleaned to let in as much sunlight as possible.

The caravan moved ahead, rolling smoothly until the front wheels dropped down to the stone floor. The sound changed, a hard, grinding sound.

“What’s that noise?” Jessi asked.

“The wheels,” Barry said. He leaned closer, raising his voice. “We’ve got these composite wheels rolling on rock. It isn’t going to be quiet!”

The big guy was right. The noise of the wheels grew when the other four rolled onto the stone, then it leveled off. Not so loud that it made conversation difficult but noticeable. Something that she could turn down in processing the audio, if she wanted. Let the audience get a taste for it and then turn it down so it wasn’t quite so distracting. It was sort of like listening to a dentist’s drill on teeth, amplified and all around them.

“That’s wretched,” Gemma complained in the back.

“Deal with it,” Ruben said. “Look at this!”

The caravan was climbing up out of the repurposed lava tube, the sunlight falling across the front, flooding in through the windows.

Rhea blinked and resisted the urge to hold up a hand to shield her eyes. She let the cameras drink in the light. They’d adapt, dealing with the glare to give her a clear picture.

And what a picture it was.

The caravan rolled up onto the rocky, dusty red plain to the side of the base. That meant that Pohl Station was on their right, rising up on the crater wall. A broad expanse of the dome with the cascading terraces of green plants inside. Smaller observation domes blistered out of the rock around the large front. The sunlight gleamed off the printed framework and glass.

Ahead and left, the crater floor, rocks, sand and dust hiding the subsurface water frozen in the ground. The crater was like a bowl, worn by age and half-filled with sand that covered the ground-water seep beneath. Water, as it had turned out, wasn’t exactly uncommon on Mars, it was hidden, buried beneath the surface, until erosion exposed it to the surface where it peeled off like a ghost exposed to sunlight. Which was why they covered the dig sites, to cut down on the loss rate of the exposed ice.

The caravan bumped and rolled across the crater, making a long arc as Ruben guided it around to the slump wall, where landslides had created a rough ramp up out of the crater. Portions of the map screen in front of Ruben flashed red, indicating areas where the crust was weakened and ready to break away beneath them. Ruben skirted those zones, sometimes closer than might be considered safe but the caravan kept rolling, so Rhea started breathing easier.

It wasn’t like he would try to get them stuck or dropped down in a subsurface crevasse.

“Let’s listen to some music!” Jessi said. Her fingers danced across her consoles beside Ruben and loud space-dance beats pounded out of the speakers. Jessi pumped her arms, swaying to the ethereal sounds.

Back on Earth space-dance was no doubt losing popularity in some circles since the exodus and the backlash against the Diaspora. On the other hand, it suited the moment perfectly as the caravan drove across the Martian surface to the side of the crater.

The broken slope, where the landslides had carried down rocks and material would have been impassable, if the colonists hadn’t pulverized a path up the slope, using sealant foam to stabilize the surface. In contrast to the crater floor, the ride suddenly became much smoother as Ruben drove the caravan up the sides.

Rhea stood, holding onto a grip above her station, to get a better look out the windows. From this angle she could see back down behind them. Pohl station was a shining green jewel sticking out of the crater wall, surrounded by several smaller jewels. Bubbles of life welling out of the Martian surface. Leaning farther, she could make out the long strips of the ice mines, and the crazy meandering trails.

“It looks so small from up here,” she said.

Mark leaned over, his hand on the small of her back. “Wow. I haven’t seen it from out here. Not in person, only the sims.”

The others were looking now and the caravan swerved when Ruben leaned over to look.

“Watch it!” Barry snapped, swatting at Ruben’s head.

“No hitting the driver,” Mark said. “We don’t want him driving us into a crater.”

The caravan reached the lip of the crater, the articulated legs letting each wheel move independently, first the front left dropping down, then the right, and so it went, lurching a bit as it dropped back down to the rough tracked Martian surface at the top of the ramp. No longer a smoothed surface, nothing but rock and sand chewed by each expedition before them.

The lines of those tracks spread out across the surface, meandering like a nest full of snakes spreading out in search of prey. Eventually the wind and dust would soften the tracks, blur the lines, but that would take a long time, at least until the next big blow up. The tracks here didn’t stay like those on the Moon, or Mercury, or the other airless bodies in the system.

Rhea watched as Ruben swerved the caravan away, following a group of tracks, one overlaying the next, that followed the crater rim off to the left. It was another chance, looking past Barry who was also watching, they were all watching out the windows now, as the caravan picked its way along. The view of the crater was fantastic, and Pohl Station impossible and beautiful.

Her throat constricted. There it was, another bubble of life and humanity, fragile against a harsh universe. Aphrodite was like that too, a soap bubble blown by greater than hurricane force winds around Venus.

One by one the other tracks dropped away as the caravan circled around to the north. Rhea was standing behind Ruben when he turned the wheel, and just like that they were driving across virgin ground untouched by any humans or their machines.

“No one has ever been here before,” she said. “We’re driving across untouched ground.”

“No worries,” Rubin said, tapping the screen. Clearly not understanding what she meant. “It’s all been mapped by the orbiters. We’ve got plenty of detail to keep us out of a hole.”

She let it go. Later, she could make her point for the audience, if she used the footage.

The dentist drill noise of the wheels against the ground continued, but it had already faded from importance. They were on their way.

Ruben scratched at his crotch. “I need a break. I’m going to put this on autopilot.”

A few touches later and the screen showed the autopilot indicators. Ruben stood, climbing out of the seat. He grinned at her. “Let’s drink!”

Drink. Shocking given their location, and yet entirely in character with what Rhea had seen from people. Creative people, all cooped up in an artificial habitat on a planet where you couldn’t step outside without a thick pressure suit. Not unless you wanted to cough up a lung and die a horrible death in the red dust.

Ruben went on into the back, Barry going with him, thumping him on the back. Mark pressed against the side of the aisle to make room for them. Jessi sighed and grinned at Rhea.

“I told them not to bring the stuff. It isn’t very good, not unless you want to degrease your guts.” She rose out of her seat. “Until we can get the grapes going, it’s going to be the best we’ve got. Ruben has plans for grapes in base two.”

Jessi slipped past, heading into the back. Rhea got up as well, but she went forward and took the pilot’s seat. Mark leaned in between the seats.

“You’re not drinking?”

Rhea shook her head, ignoring the faint flush of embarrassment that came from the question. Drink? She never had, and it made her a bit of a freak among many people she knew. Even some of the most sober people that she knew still enjoyed wine on occasion.

Not her. It wasn’t that she had some horrible story to tell about an alcoholic parent, quite the opposite. Her parents never drank either. It wasn’t for religious reasons, they weren’t religious at all. She’d never known anyone killed by a drunk driver, or anything like that.

She never saw the point. She smiled at Mark. “No thanks. I’d rather watch the view. This is the first time anyone has been here! I can’t get enough of it.”

“I’ll join you,” he said, moving up and slipping into the co-pilot’s seat that Jessi had vacated.

“You don’t have to do that,” she said.

Loud cheers and shouts came from the back. Rhea leaned around the seat and looked back. The other four were gathered around the small booth table. Tiny plastic bags full of some clear liquid, it could have been water, were piled in the middle of the table.

Ruben tilted his head back, squirting the contents of a bag into his mouth until it was gone. He let out a wolf-like howl and tossed the empty bag onto the table beside the others.

The others clapped and cheered. Jessi grimaced and picked up the next bag from the pile. She twisted and tore off the sealed spout and tipped her head back to squirt the contents down her throat to the cheering of her friends.

Rhea looked at Mark. “What is that made from anyway?”

“You don’t want to know.” He pointed out the window. “I thought you wanted to watch the view?”

She did. She looked out the windows and the landscape spread out in front of them. Hills rose above the horizon on the left, hazy in the distance. Nearer, a small crater, although one that could swallow the caravan, was on the right. And in between the rocking, sand and dust-covered desert.

There was beauty in the emptiness, but it was a soul-shrinking beauty. This was a place without breath. A place of deep history recorded in stone. The sort of place that might be home to a different sort of life, one of long endurance and patience. Life that would bloom only once every eon when conditions were right, flourishing in a joyous explosion only to sink back into a deep slumber again.

“What are you thinking?” Mark asked.

“We’ve brought life back to Mars. A new sort of life. Billions and billions of us, all of the bacteria we’ve brought with us, our plants and animals. Pohl Station and base two are like seeds planted here to take root. Do you think that can happen?”

The caravan bumped and lurched over a small crater. Laughter from the back. She was recording everything. Nothing was forgotten anymore.

“Yes.” Mark looked out at the Martian landscape. His dark hair hung down, shrouding his face, except the tip of his nose, the thrust of his chin. “It’ll happen whether or not we want it too.”

He turned, facing her, smiling and tilted his head back at the others. “We want to do something now, but the planet is already being terraformed.”

“What do you mean?”

“You said it. We’ve brought billions of organisms to Mars. To an environment with water. The station leaks, at small levels. It leaks energy, heating the surrounding area. That means liquid water extending out into the region around the base where some of those microbes can survive. They’re very adaptable and will keep pushing out further and further, and in the process they’ll change the surrounding environment just as we’re doing.”

“There’s a limit to how far they can go, isn’t there?”

Mark shrugged. “In the long run? Maybe, unless other factors change.”

“Wait. We know there was some life here before, we’ve found the fossils. They died off. Why would life from Earth survive under these conditions when the native organisms couldn’t?”

“Because they were adapted to conditions as they were, and when things changed for the worse they couldn’t adapt fast enough. That’s always the case. Maybe they would have adapted if they could, or maybe they did, and still exist in pockets around the planet.”

“You’re talking about the methane?” One of the continuing mysteries around Mars, was the periodic presence of methane in the atmosphere, showing some mechanism replenishing it as it was destroyed.

“Possibly. Or maybe whatever life there is doesn’t give us any sign like that.” Mark turned his head back to gazing outside. “We don’t know what’s out there. Not yet.”

Not yet. That was the key. More laughter from the rear of the caravan.

“Hey!” Barry shouted. “Aren’t you guys going to join us?”

Rhea and Mark both turned, catching each other’s eyes for a moment, then looking back into the caravan. Barry stood, legs braced wide, in the aisle. His workall was open down the front, revealing a broad chest cover in curly brown hair. His up thrust hand held two of the drink bags.

Barry beckoned. “Come on! Is good!”

Mark waved. “No thanks. Consider us your designated drivers!”

“More for us,” Gemma said.

Another glance back saw Gemma kissing her way up Barry’s hairy chest, as if looking for something there that she had lost.

Rhea exchanged another look with Mark. “If this goes on, there’s going to be an orgy back there.”

“In that case, we might want to see how far these seats recline.”

Blood rushed to Rhea’s face, but she had been the one to bring it up. Her eyes narrowed. “Don’t count on it.”

“Oh, I won’t.” Mark pointed out the window. “Look at that!”

A dark funnel danced across the plains on the right, kicking up dust and sand. A twister moving among the rocks like a ghost in ruins. It danced about and then without warning it broke apart and was gone, the dust kicked up settling back down. Far up ahead, another twister formed, dancing and weaving among the rocks.

In front of Rhea’s seat, on the bright consoles across the front of the vehicle, was a photo-realistic 3D view of the area around them, overlaid with a faint grid. A miniature caravan rolled across that barren landscape, following a faint green line that stretched away to the top of the screen. The line didn’t run straight, but twisted and curved, snaking around the largest obstacles.

A glance back showed the others paired up, Barry and Gemi, Ruben and Jessi. They weren’t exactly naked, but there was plenty of skin visible. Ruben had his head down, suckling at Jessi’s pert round breast. Another advantage of the lower gravity that Rhea had enjoyed since coming to Mars. No need of bras, given the lower gravity. Her skin tingled watching the others making out, and she turned her view back to the desert.

“What brought you here?” Mark asked.

Apparently they were both going to ignore his friends in the back.

“A chance to make my name, to do what I can for the Diaspora effort.” Rhea’s mouth quirked in a small smile. “That, and I always loved old movies about Mars, and Martians.”

“I never thought I’d get the chance,” Mark said. “Until Blackstone came along and basically showed everyone what was holding them back.”

“’Fear,’“ Rhea quoted. “’Only true explorers embrace the fear of the unknown.’“

Mark laughed. “Exactly. She showed that it was a lack of will that prevented us from colonizing space.”

“And she jumped in with everything she had.”

“That’s what gets to them,” Mark said, clearly meaning his friends. “They want to move forward and this time it feels like she’s holding us back.”

“Hardly! How many times has she fought for our rights to colonize these worlds? She’s had the COSPAR policy wonks in fits!”

Mark laughed. “They’re out of luck now. The Diaspora has reached twelve worlds. It won’t be long before we expand out to more, especially now with the exodus populations and the expansion of the beamed-powered solar sail network.”

“True.”

A burst of laughter from the back brought a smile to her lips. This wasn’t becoming the trip she had imagined, but it might be what was needed. A story about friends going out to explore on their own, on a hostile frontier.

Goosebumps rose on her arms and she shivered. It was someone stepping on her grave, that’s what her grandmother would have said. Nana had been young when men first walked on the Moon, and she had lived long enough to see the first Diaspora missions launched.

She remembered watching the launches with Nana. Back to back launches, like nothing the world had seen.

Nana had laughed and said, “Go, Rhea! You find a way, but you get out there! That’s where the future is happening, not here!”

That decided it. There was an excitement in the air, seeing what Terra Blackstone had accomplished, and fear, but mostly excitement at first. Gradually the fear had come back, as sure as the tide, but it came back in a great wave. Not just the tide coming in but a full-blown tidal wave that swept the United Nations, and the United States up into launching the Lincoln on a mission to seize the Diaspora Base on the Moon, the headquarters of the whole Diaspora operation.

Blackstone had stopped that too. The fear was still high, but it was starting to ebb back on Earth. Many people weren’t too happy about what had been done.

Maybe seeing the human side of all of this would do it.

Eventually the party in the back faded as the day wore on, and the exhausted, hung-over scientists fell asleep draped over one another in the booth. In the co-pilot’s seat, Mark dozed too, his feet up, head to the side in the chair, reclined as far back as it’d go.

Rhea stayed awake, mesmerized by the view outside. It changed as they drove closer to Valles Marineris. They were still better than a hundred miles from the main chasm, but the terrain had become rougher, more broken and uneven, with dunes drifting along the faults that ran like cracks along the track ahead.

The whole time the caravan performed faultlessly, picking its way closer and closer to the valles tributary that she had selected. Just as Richard had said, they didn’t need to do anything to keep the caravan going.

Later, when she cut the footage, she’d have to find the perfect music. Something that capture the majestic emptiness, the loneliness of this planet. It was almost as if, having lost the life that started here billions of years ago, Mars was waiting for them. Maybe Mark was right and the bases would be the seeds of a new biosphere, gradually growing outward, changing the planet.

It was a beautiful notion, that they might bring life back to the dead planet.

But what if it wasn’t dead? Rhea rubbed her hands on her workall legs. Suppose that hardy pockets of Martian life had survived? What would happen when conditions changed? Would the Martian organisms finally succumb, or spread out in a new bloom of activity? Was there risk to them?

All of that was unknowable right now. She wasn’t going to solve all those questions now, in her first trip out. This was just the beginning.

Rhea leaned her head back, surprised as a yawn forced her mouth open. She rubbed her eyes and looked at Mark. He looked peaceful. Looking in the back, Gemma was asleep, her head and hand on Barry’s bare chest, his workall down around his waist. Ruben was lying in the aisle, and Jessi was sleeping in the booth, her head on Gemma’s hip, purple hair spilling down around her face.

Why not nap? The caravan would alert them to any problems. When they got to the valles, she’d want to be rested.

Another yawn came over her. Rhea let her eyes close. Just for a few minutes. The cam jewelry would keep recording. She wouldn’t miss anything. Even the dentist-drill noise of the wheels on the rock was nothing more than white noise, and the rocking motion of the caravan was soothing.

Rhea slept.

A steady beeping brought her around. Rhea woke, realized she was awake and sat up in the pilot’s chair. Pressure in her bladder called for attention. Groans from the back suggested the others were waking, but it was the view that arrested her attention.

Night was falling, but there was enough light still to see that maybe a half-mile ahead the ground dropped way at a sharp edge. The ground between here and there was rough, uneven and showed several drops before that final edge. Far out, nearly lost in the darkening day, the cliffs on the other side of the valles were just visible.

Mark stirred, sat up, and leaned forward, studying the view. “We’re there?”

“We’re there.” Rhea stood up, climbing out of the pilot’s chair. “Looks like we made it safe and sound.”

In the back everyone was getting up, Ruben first. He rubbed at red eyes and smacked his lips. “Shit! What died in my mouth?”

“You better brush your teeth before you kiss me,” Jessie muttered, as she sat up. Her purple hair stuck out in different directions.

“It’s getting dark,” Rhea said. “We should settle in here, and then we can explore when it gets light tomorrow.”

Ruben pushed forward, edging past her. “No way! There’s still time to look around at least.”

“Ruben,” Rhea said, turning. “You’ve been drinking. It’s better that you sleep it off before we do anything else.”

Ruben hoped into the pilot’s seat. “Nope. I’m feeling great. That stuff is hang-over free. It’s metabolized quickly. And I already slept. We all did. I want to check this place out.”

Alarmingly, he deactivated the automatic pilot and brought up the drive systems. Rhea went over to the back of the seat. “What are you doing?”

“Driving closer.” Ruben gestured at the view out the windows. “You can’t even see anything this far away!”

Mark spoke up from the co-pilot’s station. “Hey, man, let’s do what Rhea was saying. It’s getting dark. We’ll explore tomorrow.”

Ruben shook his head. “Better buckle up, this might get bumpy.”

Rhea heard the others moving up. Barry crowded into the space, zipping up his workall. “Ruben, come on.”

“He won’t listen to you,” Jessi said. “Never listens to anyone.”

Ruben laughed. His sunken eyes gleamed from the light of the console, giving him an even more maniacal appearance. The caravan lurched forward, wheels chewing up the rock and sand. Rhea braced herself on the pilot’s seat.

“Ruben, you have to stop this. It isn’t safe!” She said, and indeed there were warnings flashing on the control screens, highlighted areas ahead of the miniature caravan. Places where orbital mapping showed the ground was unstable.

That was only the parts that the satellites could detect. Ruben swept his hand across the alerts, casting them aside in a flurry like wind-blown leaves.

“Man, you have to stop!” Mark insisted. “If you get this thing stuck we’re screwed.”

Ruben shook his head. “They’d send someone to get us out. And I’m not going to get. Us. Stuck.”

The caravan swerved, tilted and the wheels screamed in protest, and Ruben skirted the edge of a small, steep-walled crater. As the caravan tilted right, Rhea reached across to brace herself on Mark’s seat.

Beside her, Barry moved to take the seat behind Mark. “You’re going to get us killed.”

Ruben didn’t look away from the view or the screens.

Short of grabbing him and yanking him out of the seat, Rhea was out of answers. Instead she went to the fourth seat behind Ruben and sat down, fastening the straps. She turned and looked back, where Gemma and Jessi were still back in the booth.

“Can you strap in back there?”

Gemma shook her head. “There aren’t any straps.”

“Then hang on,” Rhea said. “I don’t know where he’s going.”

“Just getting closer,” Ruben said. “Keep your panties on. Or not, doesn’t bother me either way.”

The caravan rocked and lurched, but mostly stayed level thanks to the six independent wheels. Rhea mirrored the pilot’s console on her screen so that she could watch what Ruben was doing.

On screen, more details overlaid the satellite projections of the surface, as data from the caravan’s own sensors and cameras filled in the gap. Tiny craters, rocks, and cracks in the surface were all highlighted if they presented any sort of hazard, coded by intensity. More layers showed subsurface defects identified by orbital mapping.

Rhea spun the display and rotated it to a cut-away side view. Here it was clear that the ground was sloping downward at a gentle grade, except that every so often a section dropped downward, leaving a sheer edge. The first ones were only a few centimeters, but zooming closer to the chasm saw drops that were up to several meters and highlighted in intense red. Even the cliff edge that they’d seen out the window was nothing more than another drop, some five meters down. Past that was the real cliff, tumbling down into the rough chasm beyond, over 4,000 meters deep.

A yellow caution showed the next drop was a full meter down.

“Hang on!” Ruben shouted.

Rhea braced herself. The whole front of the cockpit dropped down at an angle. The wheels crashed down with a deafening noise. She half expected the caravan to stop, the front wheels broken, but it continued rolling forward undaunted. Two more large jolts, drawing a scream from one of the women in the back, and the caravan was down on the next level.

“That’s enough!” Rhea said. She unfastened her straps and stood, grabbing Ruben’s workall at the shoulder. “Stop!”

Ruben grinned and the caravan shuddered to a stop, kicking up dust which blew past the windows.

“There! We’re closer now, look at that view!”

She didn’t let go until he shut down the drive commands and stood. She let go then and moved back so that he could pass.

“I’m going to suit up,” he announced. “I feel like a walk. It’s getting stuffy in here.”

Rhea opened her mouth to protest, but Mark leaned over and touched her wrist, shaking his head. She closed her mouth. Ruben hung on the sides of the cockpit.

“Who’s with me? Jessi?”

“Sure, why the hell not?” Jessi slid out of the booth and slit open her workall.

It pooled down around her feet, revealing that she had nothing on underneath, except a tiny pair of black standard issue underwear, hugging broad hips. Not fat, curvy and sexy, in an unselfconscious way. Her breasts were large, and would have been pendulous on Earth, but here benefited from the lower gravity. Jessi grinned at them all, her hands on her hips.

“What? Not exactly a lot of places to suit up, is there?”

Ruben whistled. “That’s right!”

Jessi snapped her fingers. “Get me my suit, Ruben, or I’ll change my mind.”

Ruben went into the racks across from the airlock and came back with a suit marked in bright violet stripes. It didn’t quite match Jessi’s hair, but it was close.

She took it from him, the bulky suit looking like a boneless dance partner.

“I’ll help you,” Gemma said.

Their excitement was infectious. Rhea’s lips pulled back, smiling over their antics and Jessi’s brazen attitude. Maybe that’s what they needed?

“I’ll go too,” Rhea announced. She pulled open her workall, exposing her breasts to the cooler air. Shocking, not because it was so cold, but that she had dared to do something like that.

Her breasts didn’t have the size of Jessi’s, but they were high and firm, peaches and cream, Tommy Smith, had been fond of saying. Her small dark nipples strained in the open air as she pushed the workall down past her hips. Again, she lacked the luscious curves that Jessi had, but her hips weren’t exactly boyish either.

“In that case I’m going to,” Mark said. “I’ll get the suits.”

Barry ogled her. “Want help with that?”

“No, thanks,” Rhea said. Heat was flooding her cheeks.

“Excellent!” Jessi said, stepping into the back of her suit with Gemma’s help.

There were different sorts of suits in use around the solar system, Rhea knew from training. Each model specific to conditions where it would be used.

These suits were universal, self-adjusting pressure suits with a rear entry. Jessi went first, stepping into the back of the suit while Gemma held the top portion beneath the arms. Having another person there made it a lot easier. Then she ducked down, hands going together over her head as if diving into the suit. For an instant her arms, head and shoulders were in the suit, while her butt was still sticking out. It’d have been funnier if Rhea wasn’t going to have to do the same thing in a minute.

She was trying very hard not to think about the effect the cold air was having on her nipples. She pushed the workall the rest of the way off and picked it up, essentially naked, except for her panties.

Easy to think that they were all professionals and the nudity didn’t matter, but Barry was still staring while Mark was getting her suit. Ruben was stripping down himself. His body was as lean as his face, no fat visible. Not bulky, like Barry, or hairy. His chest was essentially bare, except for a few wispy hairs around his tiny nipples.

No who was staring?

Jessi grunted and straightened up, the arms of the suit filling as she shoved her hands in. Her purple hair appeared in the helmet, and she stood completely up. The magnetic catches on the back automatically fastened, sealing her in the suit. It came to life, rippling and moving to adjust itself to her body, tightening around her.

“Here you go,” Mark said, peering past the helmet of her suit. “I’ll hold it for you.”

The color markings on the suit were a bright red. A good color, her favorite in fact. He hadn’t seen her in red, so it was interesting that he’d picked that one. Did it mean anything?

“Thanks,” she said.

“If you need an extra hand, you know, getting anything in, let me know,” Barry said.

“You’re asking for trouble,” Gemma said, glaring at him as she moved away from Jessi.

Barry gave her a sloppy grin and tried to kiss her. She pushed him away.

There was a suit in front of Rhea, the back open. She had to focus, if she wanted to get out there. She reached up and pulled the cam earrings from her ears, not wanting them to catch on the inside of the suit. The cam choker beads would be fine, there was plenty of room for them. The ones in front might actually catch some footage. She also took off her glasses. Mostly she was going to have to rely on the built in camera systems in the suit.

“Just a sec.” Rhea stepped back into the cockpit, opened one of the small compartments in the back bulkhead and put the cam earrings and glasses inside. She came back.

“Okay. Thanks. I’m ready.”

The material of the suit inside was oily, except it didn’t leave anything on the skin. It was designed to avoid any spots that might create sores, rubbing on the skin. It was a wet, sexy feeling, sliding her legs deep down inside the suit. Maybe she was weird, thinking of it that way, but that’s what it felt like. The miracles of material science. One of the offshoots of the material was to use it in sex toys, and maybe that bit of trivia was part of what she felt as she slid into the suit.

With her legs in, she took a deep breath and copied Jessi, diving forward into the slit like a baby returning to the womb. She shoved her hands up along the slick insides, reaching up to find the arms that Mark held, the edges of the suit swallowing her head, twisting to get her shoulders in. Almost as if the back of the suit was a mouth, sucking her down.

The smell of the suit was faint, a plastic, medicinal sort of smell from whatever had been used to clean it. She twisted her head around in the dark, finding the light above coming through the suit’s visor and she stood, spreading her arms wide as they slid the rest of the way down. Her fingers found the fingers of the gloves. The back of the suit slipped over her bottom and the magnetic seals snapped shut as her head made it up into the helmet.

Around her the suit came to life, the material moving and constricting on her limbs, and that part was almost erotic, like an instant massage all over her body as the suit adapted to her build. When it finished the fit was perfect, a second, bulky skin to protect her.

The heads up displays were live around the edges of the helmet. The semi-transparent icons wiggled as her gaze passed over them, eager to respond to her gaze. She focused on the system status and a window unfurled in front of her eyes showing a schematic of the suit.

All systems were highlighted in green. The lack of a Freaking Heavy Environmental Unit, F.H.E.U., noted in amber, but the hip bottles of air would last an hour each with the built-in rebreather.

Another glance opened the communications systems. The suits were automatically connected, but she blinked through the selections and activated the recording features so that the suit would log everything that happened.

“Online and good to go,” she said. Her voice carried out of the suit, thanks to external speakers. Those would be less effective on Mars, given the thin atmosphere, but still useful if other connections were down.

Jessi waved a thick-gloved hand, banded in purple at the wrists and fingertips. “Just waiting on the guys! How’s that for a change?”

Another icon flashed up as Ruben’s suit sealed and came online.

“Hey honey,” he said. “You want to go for a walk?”

“I can’t wait!”

Rhea turned, to see how Mark was doing. He straightened up, his suit looking empty and clumsy before his head rose up into the helmet. Then his seals snapped shut and he joined the connection.

Barry put his arm around Gemma’s shoulders. He winked. “We’ll keep an eye on the place while you’re out.”

Gemma shrugged him off. “Don’t count on anything. We have to watch the feed from their cameras, and make sure they stay out of trouble. Or have you never read the protocols for something like this?”

“Whatever,” Ruben said. “Can we get out of here?”

“Yes,” Rhea said. It wasn’t her idea initially to do this now, but suited up, she couldn’t wait to get out. And it was her expedition. “Mark and I will go through first, then you and Jessi follow.”

“Why you?” Ruben said.

Rhea signaled the airlock to open. She didn’t look back. “Because we’re closest, and it’s tight quarters in here. Easier for us to go first and get out of the way.”

Mark chuckled.

It was very tight quarters in the small airlock. With the suits on, they were standing facing each other when the door closed. A message popped up on her display, Mark on a private channel.

“Hi there,” he said. “Thanks for putting up with them. It’s cabin fever. Getting out like this will make things a lot better when we get back.”

“Glad I could help,” she said. “And I think I’ve got some footage I can use. We just need that last thing to give it some punch.”

“You’ll get it.”

The lights on the outer door turned amber. This was it. Time to step outside.

When the door opened the view nearly took her breath away. The cliff edge looked so close! And the canyon beyond it, was like nothing she had seen from previous robotic missions. No one wanted to drive a rover into difficult terrain where it might get stuck, but that also meant that the footage sent back tended to be the same flat, uninteresting landscape. Like pictures of wheat fields. No matter how pretty, eventually it was dull. The eye wanted more interest.

Rhea moved out of the airlock first, jumping the short distance out to the ground. She picked her jump carefully and avoided the big boulder on her right sticking out of a dune. She landed lightly and took a few bouncing steps.

More gravity than the Moon, but so much less than Earth or Aphrodite on Venus.

She turned to watch Mark. The eye said he was too high, at least a meter off the ground, but he jumped out and landed easily.

“We’re out,” she said on the general connection. “Come on out.”

“Roger,” Ruben said. “We’re on our way.”

Mark came up beside her and he reached out, brushing their gloves together. It was sweet. He whistled.

“Look at that view!”

She didn’t need any encouragement, and had to admit to herself that Ruben was right. Seeing this now, as the sun was setting behind them, made it more fantastic. The rough ground ahead dropped away into darkness, while the sunlight still lit up the distant cliffs on the opposite side of the chasm.

“Let’s go closer,” she said.

“Watch your step,” Mark said. “We don’t want to fall down there!”

The thought twisted a knot in her gut. “No! We don’t.”

She went forward in slow, bouncing steps. Not too far. Just ahead the ground broke away along a sharp edge that extended off to the right for a long ways, and to the left a shorter distance. The ground on the other side was much lower.

This was the first time she had stood upon Mars. Really on Mars, out in the open rather than from within a vehicle, isolated from the world.

Beautiful. The world was on the tip of her tongue, held there by its own inadequacy. What would people on Earth see? Images of the Grand Canyon?

Ancient lands so far untouched by any human activity. Layers of rock recording the history of a planet, cut through by this broken rift, a tear right down through time. This was a window into the past.

There, right at the top of the rim, where the sun turned the reddish sand and rock a brighter red, that was now. Mark moved just ahead of her, taking careful slow steps to the edge of the next drop down. The sunlight lit up the back of his suit, but his face was visible through the visor. He was looking at the canyon with the wonder of a small child. His mouth hung open, eyes reflecting the lights of his displays.

Kneeling, down on one knee, Rhea ran her gloved hand through the sand at her feet. It was fine and trailed through her fingers, blowing only a little as it fell back to the ground.

“Are you okay?” Mark asked. A faint echo of his voice came from outside the helmet, the sound actually carrying through the air.

“Fine,” she said. “Just fine.”

Except for Earth she’d never really been on a planet, not like this. Venus was, beautiful, and terrifying. Living on a floating city in the clouds sounded romantic, but she had lived in fear that the city would one day plunge down into the searing depths below.

It’d taken Carys Rex to show what the possibilities were on Venus. Rhea had gotten credit for bringing her to Aphrodite, when the truth of it was Carys was her way out.

And this was her reward.

A real world of rock and stone that she could touch. The suit clung to her as a second, stiffer skin, hardened against the brutal cold and thin, poisonous atmosphere outside. It was enough to show what was possible, that people could live here. It was a landscape and landscapes compelled people. Vistas like this thrilled people, and encouraged them to go places.

This was what she needed to show of Mars. If she could travel around the planet, and visit places like this, she’d have more than enough people clamoring for a chance to come to the red planet. She just had to uncover the possibilities for them.

“What are you standing around for?” Ruben said, bouncing up between them. “Don’t you want to see what’s down there?”

Mark began. “We were —”

Ruben yelled and jumped forward.

“Ruben!” Jessi appeared at Rhea’s elbow, grabbing her shoulder.

Wind-milling his arms, Ruben sailed through the air over the drop off. Rhea pushed off the ground, bouncing up back into a standing position. She eased forward a step, wary of the drop.

Ruben dropped down and landed, knees bending, falling forward. He caught himself and bounced back up onto his feet laughing.

He turned, beckoning. “Come on! We’ve got to see this before it gets too dark!”

Jessi laughed. “You’re crazy!”

“You love it!” Ruben answered. He turned away and started loping across the sand.

It was bold. Beautiful footage. Rhea took another two steps forward, right to the edge of the drop off. It wasn’t too far, a bit over a meter maybe, but there was the lower gravity to consider. And she’d just seen Ruben simply jump over.

Why not?

She took the leap coming to Mars. Why not this one too?

She jumped. It was easy. She wasn’t even falling that fast, it seemed, when she landed. Jessi squealed as she jumped down. Mark managed the jump easily and moved ahead.

Ruben raced on ahead of all of them, and hopefully had sense not to go too fast to the edge. Or get too close. No telling how stable this was, the whole thing was gradually breaking away, tumbling down into the chasm. The small map on her heads up tracked each of their positions against the terrain. He was getting closer.

The third drop was much higher, at least two meters high. Ruben still didn’t hesitate. He went over it with hardly a pause.

Mark stopped at the edge. “You’re crazy! How’re you going to get back up?”

“Gravity, man,” came Ruben’s reply. “We can jump it, or walk down to a break to climb up. Come on!”

Rhea and Jessi caught up, beside Mark. Down below, Ruben moved through the shadows closer to the canyon edge. What had seemed light and inspiring, was taking on a darker tone. What was he doing going so close?

She didn’t want to record someone falling to their deaths, or getting injured.

Ruben stopped at the edge of the next drop off. His lights came on, stabbing down into the shadows. “It’s not that bad. I think we can do it.”

“Don’t,” Rhea said. “Come back Ruben. We’ve seen the canyon.”

“If you go over that edge, I’m not sleeping with you tonight,” Jessi said.

Down below, Ruben’s space-suited figure turned around. Bright lights flashed from his helmet across them. “Really? It’s just one more drop, and then we can go right to the edge!”

“Ruben, come back up. If you want to do this, let’s do it right, tomorrow. It’ll be light. We can see better. And we can have safety lines so you don’t go spilling over the cliff!”

Mark moved closer and his icon switched to a private channel. “He’s been frustrated, not getting to move forward on terraforming plans.”

“Maybe I can help with that,” Rhea said back, on the same channel. She blinked over to the public channel. “Ruben, come back up, and like Jessi said, we’ll explore more tomorrow. And this is just the beginning, you know, I’m going to be filming sights like this all over the planet.”

“Yeah? They’re going to let you do that?”

“Yes.”

She believed it. She could already see the first video. The group going on the outing, the view of the canyon. Whatever else they did tomorrow, and suggestions of the future.

“Okay,” Ruben said. “I’ve thought of a name for your expeditions.”

“Yes?” Rhea asked.

“Sexpeditions! Keep the caravan rocking!” He laughed and bounded back over to the break.

“Careful,” Jessi said. “You get yourself killed and there won’t be any sex!”

Ruben chuckled and crouched. “Watch this!”

He jumped. Rhea’s breath caught in her throat. It looked impossible, but he rose up high enough to reach out and catch the top of the drop. Mark was there, kneeling and grabbing onto Ruben’s arm. With Mark’s help, Ruben climbed up. Red dust drifted off his suit, expelled by the faint charge in the outer layer.

“See, no problem?” He bounced over to Jessi. “Let’s get back inside.”

Rhea lingered at the edge of the drop. It was going to work out. She had lots of material to work with. She’d get more tomorrow.

Whatever else they uncovered about Mars, whatever had lived and died here before, whether or not any Martian organisms still lived? There was life on Mars. Now. Right now.

That’s what she would show the people of the exodus, Terra Blackstone, the rest of the Diaspora and those left behind on Earth.

Mark was right. Life had come back to Mars and would change it, no matter what anyone wanted. She’d start now, showing Mars as it existed in this moment, but that was only the beginning. She could spend a lifetime documenting the changes, and the people that lived on Mars.

13,527 words

Author’s Note

This story marks the fourth weekly short story release, and the fourth Planetary Bodies story. I made a choice in writing these stories to start with the inner-most world and work my way out. In some ways this story seemed harder than some others because we’ve had so many successful missions now on Mars that it seems a much more familiar world.

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

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the series links at the top of the page. Check back next week for another Planetary Bodies story, Embracing Ceres is next and appropriate given that the Dawn mission is currently in orbit around Ceres giving us our first close look at the dwarf planet.

Terra on Luna

Terra Blackstone, leader of the Diaspora Group, returns to Luna only to discover a threat that could undo everything that she has worked to create!

The control of the twelve Diaspora colonies across the solar system hangs in the balance.

1

Terra Blackstone, once named the world’s most desirable woman, caught another floating blob of what had been her dinner in the plastic bag. Chicken soup, with vegetables. Her stomach turned. She didn’t feel like the world’s most desirable woman. Her head was stuffy, her face was bloated, and her hair made a frizzy halo around her head.

The plain black, and very shapeless, workall she wore didn’t do much to paint a pretty picture either.

In fact the only thing about her that looked good, were her toenails. She’d painted them in the hour before the capsule spin was shut down. Bright green, with golden flecks. One advantage with space travel. No real need for shoes in the transport and bare feet let her show off her nails. That, and in zero-gee she had gotten adept at grabbing onto grips with her toes.

Thankfully, being the sole human occupant in the capsule, there was no one to pop up and take a picture. She could see the headline on the tabloid sites.

World’s Most Powerful Woman Chases Vomit!

Another little oscillating blob drifted past. Carefully, Terra swept it up into the bag.

It was so annoying! She’d never gotten space sick before, but every time was different. The abrupt change over from the simulated gravity to null-gee had been too much. She shouldn’t have eaten so soon.

Not that it mattered now. She barely had time to clean up before Luna Orbitals caught her capsule to take it down to the surface. The solar sail that had carried her capsule out to Earth’s orbit was following a trajectory that would take it back past Venus and Mercury. In two days a resupply capsule from Luna would match trajectory and get a free ride into the inner system.

Now that the Tolkien Outpost on Mercury was up and running, the solar sail network would grow as more and more sails were sent out in transfer orbits around the solar system.

 

Speakers came to life in the command section, with a male voice. “Orbital Command to Diana, come in. Do you read, Diana?”

Terra bagged the last large blob of soup, sealed the bag and kicked herself forward. The scrubbers would have to take care of the rest of the droplets. Fortunately, with the zero-gee effects, she didn’t have a good sense of smell right now.

As she floated past the trash storage bin behind command, she stuffed the baggy inside.

“Orbital Command to Diana, come in please.”

She pulled herself into the seat, slipping her bare toes under the elastic restraint on the ‘floor.’ She pulled an earpiece from its magnetic dock and slipped it on.

She touched the command interface, tapping in her code, then activate communications.

“Diana here, Orbital. Sorry about the delay. I was doing some housekeeping before landing.”

“Understood. Be advised that our docking has been delayed. There’s a fault with the auto-guidance routines. We have a programmed burn that will adjust your orbit to a more stable inclination while we correct the issue.”

Were they serious? Auto-guidance down? “Negative, Orbital. If auto-guidance is down, I’ll bring her in on manual. I don’t have time to spend up here orbiting.”

Her hands were already moving, calling up the command interfaces, overriding the auto-pilot lockouts. She might be the one in charge of the Diaspora Group, that didn’t mean that she didn’t know how to handle herself with a stick.

“Diana, negative on manual approach. Wait for auto-guidance.”

“Who is that?” Terra asked. “I am bringing her in. I suggest you prepare for docking.”

“Negative Diana. Negative on manual approach. Sensors are also down, we can’t ensure a positive lock.”

Now that was just wrong. Either the guy was not trained or someone wanted to stop her from docking. She didn’t accept either. The systems were set up to allow manual docking even in the event of power failures. In an emergency, docking might save lives, it had to work. Unless they’d been hit by a micrometeorite that caused significant physical damage, there wasn’t any need not to dock.

“Understood, Orbital,” Terra said calmly. “Adjusting heading now.”

It wouldn’t take long before they saw that the heading she was on was straight to docking. The on-screen projection showed the capsule moving on target right in the orbital window. Simple reaction thrusters and inertia was bringing her right down the pipe.

She was right, it didn’t take long. “Orbital here, your vectors show you on docking approach, Diana. Uploading corrected programming now.”

She diverted the incoming data stream into a buffer safe from any control functions, then pulled it up in a secondary window and put a simulation with the commands in a third. The results were not promising. If she had allowed the signal in to her command pathways it would have initiated a long burn taking her out of lunar orbit, on a spiraling path to burning up in Earth’s atmosphere.

Whoever was in control of the orbital was trying to kill her. It didn’t make a bit of difference. There wasn’t any place else for her to go. Not right now. Given enough time she might figure out a better option, but right now she wanted to get down to Diaspora and the orbital was the only way at the moment.

Flaw there, one she’d correct if she got out of this alive.

“Programming received, Orbital, thank you for your assistance,” she said.

On screen, the parameters all stayed green. She was still on track for the docking. She entered the final sequence of commands and locked them in place. Within seconds the Orbital would see that she wasn’t going to be diverted. And there wasn’t a thing they could do about it.

At least, she hoped that was the case.

No one came back on. So they knew then, and they’d be waiting for her to dock. They could lock down the dock from the inside if they wanted. No one would ever do that ordinarily, but there wasn’t anything about this that was ordinary.

The countdown to contact on the screen showed less than an hour before she reached the Orbital. It still wasn’t above the horizon. She couldn’t see it with her own eyes. For the first time since she reached the seat she allowed herself to look out.

The Moon rolled past beneath her, above her, all depending on perspective. Gray and undulating, covered in craters blasted into the surface by impacts. How long had Humanity looked at that battered and scarred face without realizing the threat represented? Even after humanity learned of the dangers, of mass extinctions, little had been done. Budgets to locate and detect impact threats were perpetually underfunded.

Not only that, as their understanding grew regarding the fragility of the ecosystem, how many took action? Most denied the truth in front of them and stuck their heads in the sand, or worse.

Terra had never been one to back down from any challenge. What had she said, over and over, until people had to be tired of her saying it? Too often fear was an excuse not to do things. Not with her.

Fact. Someone had taken control of her Orbital. The station was a way station in orbit around the Moon, serving as a docking and refueling point in orbit. A transfer port, a safe harbor providing access to the Moon, and Diaspora Base below.

Fact. The program the Orbital had sent was meant to kill her. It had failed, but that didn’t mean those on board would give up.

Fact. There’d been no communication with Diaspora on the surface, or from Earth.

Terra’s fingers danced across the control systems and quickly confirmed what she had already realized on some level. They were blocking her communications. Even those that knew she was coming, there wasn’t anything they could do to help.

Fact. She had enemies back on Earth. Entire countries worth of people who would celebrate if she died because they believed that her death would derail the Diaspora Group from its goals.

They might not be wrong. She wanted to believe that the civilization they were creating, humanity throughout the solar system, was independent and would continue without her leading the effort. But that might not be the case yet. Mercury had produced only a few solar sails so far. On Venus, the adventures of Carys Rex had gained them significant good will among some, and had stoked the anger of others. The other outposts of life scattered across the solar system were also fragile. Each was coming into its own now, thanks to timing the launches. Those in the outer system, as far as Makemake, had spent years in transit. Just getting there had been a triumph, but survival was still a question.

In another few years all twelve colonies would be secure enough to ward off efforts of Earth to control them. And by then, there would be additional outposts on each world. Humanity would grow and spread. She intended to let the genie out of the bottle for good.

Fact. If she didn’t act soon the transport capsule would dock with the Orbital and she would be captured or ejected out of the airlock. A story would get played about the dangers of space travel taking her life, and her enemies would work to seize control of her outposts, for their own profit.

Fact. She couldn’t let that happen.

Terra slipped her feet out of the floor brace and pulled herself up over the seat back.

They’d catch her if she docked and was still on board the capsule. Best option then? Don’t be on the capsule when it docked.

Suiting up usually took a minimum of thirty minutes. Terra managed it in eleven minutes, bypassing the checks, following the emergency procedures established if the capsule’s integrity was breached. It was breached, the alarms just hadn’t sounded yet.

She only had a couple more minutes before the capsule docked with the orbital. The suit was sleek and modern, white with bright green patches across the shoulders, around the wrists and ankles. It applied pressure using smart materials, eliminating the bulk of earlier suits and hugged her curves. The bulkiest part remaining was the EVU strapped to her back, and even that was trimmed down and modular. With the extra resource module she could stay out all day, but there wasn’t any point in bringing that along.

Once in the rear airlock Terra left the inner hatch open and remotely accessed the capsule’s internal systems. She brought up the fire suppression protocols. It took another minute to configure the system to compensate for what she was about to do, so that it didn’t throw off the docking procedure.

A minute before contact she braced herself against the wall between two grips and triggered the protocol.

The outer airlock door opened into space. The atmosphere in the capsule blew out past her, tugging on her, but she was prepared. In a critical fire, the quick decompression would snuff out the fire in seconds. The venting might also have thrown off her docking, except for the corrections she had made.

On the Orbital they would see the forward thrusters firing. They might not see the venting. Or what was coming next.

As soon as the venting stopped Terra propelled herself out the door, using grips to pull herself out into the shadow side of the capsule. Her lights were all off. The reflected light from the Moon below gave her enough light to see by. She’d use the EVU when necessary, but right now she wanted to stick close to the capsule, staying to the shadows, and hopefully go unnoticed.

Grips ran the length of the capsule like rungs on a ladder, there to help with repairs to the exterior. Terra pulled herself quickly along them, using only her arms, touching every third or fourth grip. The suit was stiff, making her movements slower than she would have liked. Her breath sounded loud in the helmet.

She was two-thirds along the length of the capsule when it docked. The jolt traveled through the ship, through her gloves, but of course the only sound she heard was her own breathing.

When she reached for the next rung, it jerked out of reach for a second. Glancing up ahead, exhaust caught the light as the Orbital’s thrusters fired.

They had opened the hatch without checking if the capsule was pressurized, evacuating that section of the Orbital. Whoever had been waiting for her was probably sucking vacuum now. Hopefully that only included those out to get her, and no one loyal. Automatic systems would have sealed the compartment.

The rest of the Orbital should still be secure.

A few seconds later she drifted past the junction where the capsule docked with the Orbital. As she reached the Orbital’s exterior rungs, there was a window into the interior. It was there to allow visual inspection of docking ships.

No way to avoid it. Terra looked inside. Red lights were flashing inside.

She saw a man first. Muscled, wearing only black regulation shorts and t-shirt, bald scalp and wide, bulging eyes. He shook as he floated in mid-compartment, mouth gaping like a grounded fish.

Holland Bird. He’d been with Diaspora ten years, running the Orbital for the past three. Had he betrayed her?

His eyes dimmed. His body went slack. Bubbles of urine slipped free of his shorts and floated in the compartment.

For his sake, she hoped that he had betrayed her. At least then it was self-defense. Unless he had been forced to do it, she didn’t see how someone could have sent the program to misdirect the capsule without his knowledge. But it hadn’t been his voice on the radio.

Another body drifted into view, the man was already dead. He wore a brown workall, too small for his lean body, the sleeves and pant legs were short. His back was to the window. Black hair, silvered on the sides.

There wasn’t time to waste. Terra grabbed the next rung and propelled herself on past the window. She had to assume that not all of those that wanted her dead had been caught in the compartment. If they didn’t know she was outside, they would figure it out soon.

The Orbital was big. She was on the central hub right now, pulling herself along the spine of the craft. Up ahead was the rotating crew quarters sections, like a dumbbell rotating around the central axis. A long, skinny dumbbell. Two now, with two skeletal frameworks for the next two to make a cross. When that was done the habitat modules would be connected, creating a spinning wheel around the central axis.

Those weren’t the only sections sticking out at angles, however. There were two others on each side of the rotating section, essentially more work spaces running perpendicular to the spine, with airlocks on each end. And in-between those were the large solar arrays unfurled into space.

The Orbital was big. It had been the test platform for the spacecraft sent into the outer system to colonize those distant worlds. Those ships had been even bigger, given the necessity of taking their supplies with them.

Terra’s course took her along the spine, and then she turned and pulled herself along the first perpendicular work space, called Northwest, if she was inside, as this was the North end of the Orbital and the two branches were Northwest and Southwest. Right now Northwest was in shadow.

Unless someone saw her, they wouldn’t know what she was doing. There were airlocks at each end, plus the three on the Southern end of the Orbital. Northwest was the closest, which meant those inside could get to it quickly, but they would always be able to move faster than her floating along the outside. Her best bet was to get there before they figured it out.

They couldn’t all be against her. She didn’t believe that. It could be that the incident at the North end airlock would have shaken things up enough inside that loyalists might have regained control of the Orbital. She just couldn’t count on it and couldn’t wait around.

The one window she passed along the Northwest passage was dark. Luck appeared to be in her favor. The lights only stayed on when someone was in the compartment.

Terra reached the end airlock assembly and pulled herself around to the entrance. There was a manual release override, quicker and easier than the control panel. Again, designed for emergencies, to let someone outside get in quickly. Terra braced her feet in the rungs and pulled the lever.

The door and docking assembly swung inward. That was good. She moved fast. Someone could prevent her gaining entry by barring the inner door.

It’s hard to move fast in zero gee when you have to change directions. Inertia is a bitch. She swung around the lip and launched herself into the opening. Inside she caught the open hatch to stop her progress and her body swung around. Her legs struck the hatch frame and sharp pain shot up her shins.

Shit! That was going to leave a bruise.

But she was inside. That was better than clinging to the outside of the Orbital like a bug in danger of being washed away by a storm.

Terra kicked over the other side of the hatch and braced herself against the side to get the hatch moving closed. It swung shut on its own, and she dogged over the latch to secure it.

She slapped the big button to pressurize the airlock. Nothing complicated there. Soon she heard a hissing outside and the hum of the equipment. Faint shouts that grew louder.

Terra went to the inner airlock door and pulled up the command interface. Again she accessed the fire suppression systems. It took an extra override to keep the outer door closed. The shouts were louder. People were coming.

There! She stabbed triumphantly at the panel. The inner door swung open, nearly catching her in the process. There was a brief rush of wind as the higher pressure atmosphere in the station surged into the partially pressurized lock. Equipment groaned.

“OW!”

Terra pulled herself through the hatch into the main Northwest passage. Down the long tube, in the next section, were two people.

Ahn Nguyen, thin, delicate Asian face with eyes wide with shock, and fingers on her ears. Beside her, Geoff Ryder, his body unnaturally shortened since he was missing his legs below his knees. A motorcycle accident when he was a teenager, but his engineering ability had eventually won him a place on the Orbital. He had two prosthetic gripping feet attached to each stump. His chicken feet, he called them, controlled by neural impulses.

She knew them. Both of them. Ahn was the medical officer on the Orbital, responsible for the health of the crews that rotated on and off.

Geoff pulled himself forward with powerful arms. “Who are you? Stay right there!”

The helmet’s auto visor had mirrored the outside, they couldn’t see her face. She reached up and hit the catches, then twisted the helmet free.

“It’s me,” she said. “What the hell is going on here?”

“Terra!” Ahn yelled. Her voice caught and her hand flew to her mouth. “Ms. Blackstone, I mean. We thought you were dead!”

“Terra is fine.”

Geoff pressed a hand to his chest. “You about gave me a heart attack!”

“I need to know what’s happened. Who tried to kill me?”

Geoff’s face sobered. “Holland Bird and that government fellow, Peter McNare. They took over operations, but they aren’t working alone. Diaspora Base has been seized.”

Terra released the helmet to float beside her while she worked on the straps to release the EVU. “We’ve got a lot of catching up to do, I see.”

On the way back to the Hub, which was were main operations were located, they filled her in on what had happened. The United States government had launched one of their new Galleon-class ships, the Lincoln, to the Moon. The Galleon program was an effort by the last two administrations to reclaim space for the American people, if that could be believed!

In any case, the Lincoln had transferred over Peter McNare and a team of people, including armed security, to seize the Orbital under eminent domain. Not only the Orbital, but according to Geoff and Ahn, they were seizing the Diaspora Base on the Moon.

“They can’t do that,” Terra said as they coasted to a stop in the hub. There were others in the hub, more of the standing crew, floating at stations around the Hub.

“Holland didn’t think we should resist,” Geoff said as he snagged a grip on the wall with one of his robotic chicken feet. “He said that it was a matter for lawyers to work out.”

“That’d make me feel better if he hadn’t tried to kill me.” Terra looked at the faces, all looking at her.

The Hub was the largest open area on the Orbital, a sphere around which the habitat booms rotated. The opening into each shaft was always open, in a ring that moved around the sphere, so that area was clear. If you wanted to go downstairs, into either East or West, you caught a grip on the ring, and brought yourself up to speed, then crawled into the shaft. The grips eventually became a ladder as you descended into the habitat modules.

Around the ring were workstations for communications, environmental systems, power, navigation and command. Each station, and associated sub-stations were spaced around the hub so that the faces looking at her were from all angles, some upside down to her perspective.

“I’m glad to see the rest of you are safe,” Terra said. “I’m sure you already know that Holland Bird and the government man, Peter McNare, were killed when they opened an airlock into an unpressurized transport capsule docked at the North end.”

Silence from all those gathered.

“I am indirectly responsible for their deaths,” Terra said. “A navigation program was sent from here to the transport capsule that, if I had allowed it into my systems, would have caused the transport capsule to enter a decaying orbit around Earth and burn up. I wouldn’t have had fuel left to correct the orbit. I was acting in self-defense when I exited the capsule, leaving it depressurized to prevent anyone from stopping me from entering the Orbital. If they had checked the pressurization readings at the airlock before opening the hatch, they would have seen that it was depressurized and wouldn’t have come to any harm.”

“That’s not like Holland,” Geoff said. “He’s normally so careful.”

Terra nodded. She’d been thinking the same thing. “You’re right, Geoff. Holland may have neglected that standard safety procedure intentionally. I will review the recordings. If that’s the case, he may have done so in an effort to save my life, and our dream.”

People were nodding. The faces were serious, and focused. Maybe some were scared.

“The United States government has acted illegally. The Diaspora Group is an international effort, thanks to your hard work. No single government has the authority to come in and claim our property, or tell us what we can do in space. We are independent. Apparently earlier than I expected. If, as I suspect, Holland Bird died to defend our freedoms, then we will remember him as a true hero, who died securing the future of humanity.”

Many more nods of agreement. “Right now, we’ve got a job to do. I need information. I need to know what’s happened down at Diaspora Base. What happened to the Lincoln, where is she?”

Melissa Schmidt, at the communications station, young, petite with an elfin face, raised her hand.

“Melissa?” Terra asked. “Please, what can you give me?”

“The same thing is happening back on Earth. The United States government has moved to seize Diaspora facilities across the globe. At the moment those are mostly at a stand-off. We haven’t had any communication with Diaspora Base, not since the Lincoln dispatched all three landers to the site.”

“All?” Terra’s heart sank. They only had three landers on the Orbital, and three down at the base. When one came down, one went up in rotation.

That left her with no way off the Orbital.

“Is there any way to get me down to the surface?”

Blank faces looked back at her, and each other. Not Geoff. He closed his eyes and rubbed at his jaw. She’d seen him do that before when he was thinking.

Melissa’s hand came up again.

“Yes? You have an idea Melissa?”

Melissa started to shake her head and stopped. Zero-gee training, don’t make unnecessary movements, even when your feet were braced. “No. Not about that, I mean, how could you? Get to the surface? No, I was thinking about the orders that McNare gave us. As long as we followed orders, he said we wouldn’t face criminal charges, and neither would our families back home.”

A cold chill settled into Terra, but none of it reached her face. “Yes?”

“Well, I mean shouldn’t we think about it? I don’t think they were right to try to kill you, if that’s what happened, but they’re dead and you’re not. Maybe we need someone else to be in charge right now and investigate.”

It took guts. One had to admire that, even if it was misguided. Terra looked around the room, noting some expressions that might appear sympathetic.

“This is scary, isn’t it?”

Small nods, no unnecessary movement, but agreement.

“You’re caught in the middle of big events. You’re vulnerable because we’re close to Earth. Our families are vulnerable as well. I can’t promise you that it’s going to be easy, but we are talking about fundamental rights and freedoms. We have every right to settle these worlds, to expand humanity across the entire solar system. And I will do everything in my power to make sure that happens. Right now I need to know that I can count on all of you. If that’s not the case, tell me now, and you’ll be confined to quarters until we straighten this out and can return you to Earth. If that’s what you want, I’ll happily tell the authorities of your stance.”

Terra didn’t try to keep the ice from her voice. She wanted to shake them, make them decide. Melissa looked pale. So did a couple others.

“I’m staying,” Ahn said quickly.

Murmurs of agreement.

“I’ll stay,” Melissa said. “I’m sorry, Ms. Blackstone. I didn’t mean —”

“Let’s focus on the task right now,” Terra said. “But thank you. Thank you all. I won’t forget this. Geoff? What about it? How do I get down?”

Geoff opened his eyes and gave her a toothy smile. “It’ll be a bumpy ride?”

“That’s okay. As long as I can get down there, then I can do something about what’s happening. Diaspora Base is the heart of what we’re doing. I put it here so that there wouldn’t be jurisdictional issues. I can’t let it stay in their control.”

Geoff told her the plan.

Two hours later, Terra wasn’t so sure about the idea as she climbed back into the transport capsule that had brought her to the Orbital. It’d taken that long to get it refueled, repressurized, and store the bodies.

She paused in the hatch. Geoff was there, along with several others. “You’re sure this is going to work?”

Geoff laughed. “Sure? How can I? We’ve never tried to land one of these things. It should have enough thrust to slow your descent to a survivable level. The tool kit I’ve stowed is there in case you need to cut your way out. Best I can do on short notice.”

“We need to rethink this in future designs,” Terra said. “Okay. I’m off.”

“Good luck!” Geoff said.

Terra pushed herself back into the capsule. Geoff shut the hatch. She was still suited up, but now she pulled up her helmet and sealed it. The EVU was stored on the Orbital. All unnecessary gear had already been stripped from the capsule. Everything they could do to decrease the mass.

Between the decompression and the stripping of the capsule, at least she didn’t have to worry about any vomit drops flying around the capsule.

The transport looked bare stripped down to the essentials. She’d spent months living in here, and this was like coming back home only to find everything was gone.

Not that it mattered. Transport capsules like this were designed to be interchangeable. This was one of the small ones, designed for no more than three people and limited durations like travel between the inner planets, or between Jovian moons.

Terra kicked off and floated down the empty length to the control deck. She caught the chair and let her momentum carry her legs around into the space. She pulled herself down into the seat and clamped her boots in place, then fastened the straps.

Time to go.

She pulled up the navigation console and accessed the flight plan, reviewing it carefully. She wanted to believe that Geoff and the rest on the Orbital were loyal, but if someone wanted to take another shot at getting rid of her, this insane plan was a good bet. They could say she died doing something dangerous. End of the matter.

The plan matched the simulations she had already reviewed. A short burn to get away from the Orbital, another to put her into a decaying orbit that would bring her down near Diaspora Base. The final sequence was the key. According to the simulations it would bring her to a stop relative the surface.

The capsule didn’t have any landing gear. At that point it would fall. If they were on target the drop shouldn’t cause any significant damage. If off target? The drop could rupture the capsule.

Assuming she made it down intact, she still had to get out, get to Diaspora Base, and get back in control of the facility. Simple. If only life was ever simple. The information gaps were so big that it could jeopardize everything that she was doing.

Terra accepted the navigation plans and set them in motion. A count down started. Fifteen minutes. They’d timed this all out to the last second. A few minutes later and she’d overshoot her target. Early and she would come down too far from Diaspora Base to reach it on foot, if she survived the landing at all.

While she waited she pulled up the system and started making notes, documenting everything that had happened leading up to this point. There hadn’t been time to work on it while getting the capsule ready. That had been all hands on deck.

Now that she had to wait it was a good time to write a statement laying it all out. She focused on her actions and her thought process. If the wrong hands got on the record, they’d twist it to back their case, but at least she had made the attempt.

Had Holland Bird betrayed her? The crew of the Orbital accepted her explanation of his actions at the end. He may have known what was going to happen. Everything up until then, however, demonstrated that Holland Bird hadn’t been willing to fight the McNare and the others from the Lincoln to preserve the station or to prevent their access to the base. He had allowed them to send away all three landers.

Cowardice, or concern for his people? Bird was from Oregon state, another member from the United States, maybe he still believed his loyalty was first to his country.

All of that was a question for later. After she’d had a chance to review all the evidence. Either way, he was dead, but it made a difference in how he was remembered. It was important to get that right.

The countdown reached the final sequence. Terra filed away her unfinished account. Three. Two. One.

The first kick was gentle and pushed her against the straps as the short burn moved the capsule away from the Orbital. Through the windows the Orbital rose above and passed over the capsule out of sight in seconds.

She was on her way.

From here the process was mostly automated. More burns triggered, accelerating her orbit, bringing her in closer. Lava plains gave way to airless mountains below, like flying high above everything on Earth, but this was a world stripped bare and shrouded in dust. No forests or rivers. No lakes or oceans.

Across Mare Imbruim she flew, her orbit descending gradually, with gentle burns. She didn’t want to come in too steep. Do that and she’d be like a bullet fired into a rock, crumbled up beyond recognition.

The capsule lacked good instrumentation for landing. Geoff’s scheme included using the docking range finder to determine distance to the surface and relative velocity. Although she could make adjustments, the program would land her if she let it. She trusted the program. To a point. If it crossed the line it held, then she would take over.

Otherwise she wanted to come in at “land” more or less on end, as if she was trying to dock with the moon.

Which was an insane plan, even it worked. It could also mean that the hatch wouldn’t open after the capsule fell down.

In which case she did have a tool kit stored, courtesy Geoff, that she could use to cut her own way out.

Without an atmosphere, there was no drag, no signs of her rapid descent as she streaked around the Moon. Her orbit would take her around the Moon, then back around to land near Diaspora Base.

The capsule rolled over and there was the Moon now easily visible above her. Beneath her. Whatever was to come, she enjoyed these moments close to these worlds. As a girl she had enjoyed nights out with her father on the hill behind the house, lying on a blanket while he set the telescope to different worlds.

Moon. Venus. Jupiter. Saturn with its rings. Worlds that she could see with her own eyes, looking through his telescope.

“Are there people on them, Daddy?” She had asked.

“No, sweet-pea. Once, long ago, when I was very little, and even a few years before, some men did visit the Moon. That’s as far as they’ve gone, and they haven’t been back in a very, very long time. I wasn’t even two when the last man left.”

She had laughed and shook her head, ringlets flying around her face. “You’re kidding!”

“No, sweet-pea. I’m not.”

“Really? Whole entire planets? And no one on them at all?” It sounded impossible. For one second she had the mad idea that he was showing her a secret. “Don’t other people know about them?”

“They know, but the other planets are very far away and they aren’t like here. You can’t just walk around outside on them, and lay on their hills at night.”

Since then she had visited each of the Apollo landing sites, at a distance so as not to disturb the foot prints, tire tracks and artifacts left behind. She had saved Taurus-Littrow for last, and she had stood on the hills overlooking that valley under the black sky.

Now, passing over the empty Moon it wasn’t as empty as it had been. Bright sparks flared from the surface, installations spaced around the Moon. Emergency shelters in case a lander came down far from the base. As her trajectory came around the far side, the long lines of the Far Side Observatory passed by her window, stretching off across the rough surface. The largest telescope in the solar system, still under construction, the F.S.O. would be capable of imagining Earth-like worlds around distant stars.

Diaspora wouldn’t stop at settling the worlds of this solar system. Humanity was spreading out across the galaxy. Sooner than people back on Earth imagined. Anyone that did the math could see that, even with sub-light travel, a species could spread out across the galaxy. The fact that apparently no other species was already doing that was one of the mysteries to solve.

After her father had shown her those worlds, they had locked in her imagination and she had learned everything she could about them. A firm, unshakable conviction had settled into her that she would visit those worlds herself.

All too soon she left the far side behind, passing over the terminator into darkness and then back into the light before her final descent to Diaspora Base. Night hadn’t fallen yet, which was in her favor. She was coming out of the Sun’s path, a fact that might shield her from anyone looking up.

Although the radar systems would pick up on the capsule. She had to assume that the people sent from the Lincoln were aware of her coming.

Diaspora Base didn’t have any weapons, but that didn’t mean that the people from the Lincoln hadn’t brought weapons with them.

Not that they needed to shoot her down. She was coming down one way or the other no matter what they did.

The surface was right there, in stark high resolution. No atmosphere meant no haze, no blurring of distant mountains and craters. Everything was stark, with sharp cast shadows.

The capsule shook as the thrusters kicked on. A long burn that vibrated the whole thing. The transport capsule was designed to operate outside of gravity wells. The thrusters were there for maneuvering. Secondary engines, temporary and reusable, were attached when it needed to reach higher acceleration and discarded when their job was completed. The solar sails Tolkien Base produced on Mercury were intended to tow capsules to other orbits, harnessing the power of the Sun.

Terra unfastened the straps. The Moon’s gravity was already making itself felt. It was weak, but there and changing fast. The microgravity environment at least gave her a sense of up and down.

She climbed out of the seat and bounced back into the capsule. When it came time to touch down the capsule would land rear-end first, and without anything to stabilize it, would fall over. It might even tumble. The control deck wasn’t going to be the safest place to be.

In the mid-compartment she pulled down one of the exercise seats. Geoff had hastily added straps, creating a make-shift jump seat. Given the structure of the capsule, this was likely the safest spot to be for the landing.

Terra sat down on the narrow bench and fastened the straps, pulling them down over her shoulders. They fastened into buckles on each side, and then a buckle across her breasts fastened the straps together. There wasn’t much give, the straps pressed against her breasts even through the tight suit. She folded her hands and waited.

The capsule shook. Engines burned, screaming as they poured on thrust for a burn that went on and on. Other thrusters were firing.

It rotated. Terra clutched the seat. Even if the Moon’s weak gravity, suddenly she was hanging in a seat above a pit that dropped away beneath her. With the stripped down capsule, nothing fell at least.

The burn went on and on. It was all automated. If the simulations were correct she’d come down right at the surface, within a meter, before the engines cut off.

Silence. Surprising in the absence of the engines burning. A gut-wrenching moment like the return of free fall and then a loud crashing noise and a jolt that shook the whole capsule.

Down. Still —

Slowly, then picking up speed, the capsule tipped to her left. The whole thing rotated and fell. Another bang and a strong jolt through the bench.

Metal creaked and groaned. No light coming through the windows. The capsule must have come down in a shadow. Light remained from the lighting strips, so the capsule had some power still.

No hissing noises. No explosions or sudden decompression. Apparently the capsule’s integrity was still intact. The floor wasn’t level, it was sloped toward her, but it didn’t seem like the capsule was rolling. That would have been something, if it had landed on a hill and had rolled!

Fortunately, things seemed still. All things considered, a remarkably successful landing!

Terra hit the release catch on the right strap. Nothing happened. Her heart picked up the pace. She pressed the release again, firmly. Nothing. She pressed and pulled on the strap. It was locked securely in place. She tried the one on the left side. Same thing. The one across her chest didn’t work. Impossible. How could all three buckles fail?

A laugh bubble up her throat and escaped. All this, only to get stuck here, trussed up and waiting for someone to collect her?

The laughter died. Geoff set up the jump seat. Was this a deliberate plan to set her up for capture? Or simply a malfunction? There hadn’t been much time to test things before launch, but surely he would have fastened and unfastened the buckles? The jolts from landing hadn’t felt powerful enough to damage the buckles. And all three? That sounded unlikely in the extreme.

She couldn’t wait for someone to show up and do whatever they were going to do. She needed to get out, now. Before they arrived.

Terra yanked on the straps. The buckles held securely. She worked the releases and none of them would engage. They didn’t even feel attached, sort of loose when she pulled on them.

A trap, then. Geoff had played along to get her off the Orbital and into the hands of the agents that the United States had sent to take over Diaspora. With his engineering background, he could control communications, whatever systems he needed. Without McNare, and possibly Holland, he had figured out a plan that would move her off to someone else.

Geoff would be dealt with later. After she had someone else look at the buckles to make sure that it was intentional, and not an unfortunate accident.

Not that she believed it was an accident. Given Geoff’s engineering background, and the buckles were spares, not something he had manufactured. He must have done something to them so that they would fasten and not come undone. And assuming that she got out of this, which at the moment was looking doubtful, she’d do the investigation just to be thorough.

Terra squirmed her right hand beneath her breast, under the strap, sucking in her breath as best she could. The suit wasn’t as bulky as old suits, but it was bulky enough. She couldn’t get her hand under the strap past her wrist.

That wasn’t working. If she could get her arms under and up through the upper part of the straps, then maybe she could wriggle up out of the straps.

Not while wearing the suit, at least. If she had something she could use to cut the straps, she could do that, but there wasn’t anything on her. The tools were secured in a compartment on the other side of the capsule so that they wouldn’t get loose in transit. She couldn’t get to them.

“Note to self,” she said out loud. “Make sure that Geoff, and anyone else responsible, is punished for this, if I get out of here.”

Not that she was vindictive.

There wasn’t time to waste. If she wasn’t sealed in a suit when someone arrived, they might depressurize the capsule and kill her. The capsule might also be leaking, even though pressure was strong for the moment.

The gloves were easiest. The safety catches took some work, but came unfastened as they should. She twisted and unlocked the ring that sealed them to the rest of the suit, then pulled her hands free. The gloves dangled from the wrists, attached by a thin strap.

The air was cold on her hands, free of the gloves. The capsule systems weren’t online since she was in the suit. Sitting in a shadow, it was cooling rapidly. If she got out she could get the systems going again, if she was going to stay around that long.

The helmet was next and much easier with her hands free. She pulled the helmet off and put it aside on the floor. Then she deactivated the suit. The bands constricting the suit, making it fit her form, when slack when the suit was turned off. With the pressure gone, now she had a chance. From here on out was the hard part.

Holding her right sleeve with one hand, Terra pulled her arm up into the sleeve. It was looser now that the suit was off. It took lots of wiggling and twisting around in the suit, but slowly she got her arm up the sleeve and into the main portion of the suit, down against her side, but it was now beneath the straps for all the good it did her.

Terra paused and took deep breaths. The straps weren’t as tight now that the suit had relaxed. Without its stiffness, there was a little room now to wiggle. Not much, hopefully enough.

She slid her hand up, across the thin fabric of her t-shirt, across her left breast, holding the opening of the sleeve while she wiggled and wormed her left arm up into the space. It was tight and difficult to get both arms into the main part of the suit. She managed, just, until both arms were inside, hands up by her neck.

She took as deep of breaths as she could manage and then wriggled to the side, pulling her to the left. The strap over her right shoulder slipped and slip, centimeter by centimeter. Terra fought against the pressure of the straps but it was no use. She couldn’t get the strap off her shoulder.

Frustrated she stopped fighting and breathed, sucking in air. This was how they were going to find her? Arms stuck inside her suit? Helmet and gloves off? Helpless against whatever they decided to do?

No.

No!

She needed a better angle. There was only one option. Terra wiggled down, deeper into the suit, pushing up with her hands, pulling her head down through the neck wring. Like a turtle pulling into its shell.

A lunar tortoise! A giggle escaped her lips and she paused, resting, then resumed the struggle. She got her head down, scrunched down as far as she could.

Again, she wiggled to the left, but this time she squirmed her right hand up, out the neck ring and grabbed the left strap. she pulled it up, slipping the suit to the side so that the strap went over the neck ring.

It worked! The pressure eased when the right strap slid off the empty right shoulder.

She threw herself against the suit the other way now, shoving the left strap. It too slid free and down her empty sleeve. Shuddering, Terra pressed her head back up through the neck ring and sucked lungfuls of cooling air.

It was getting colder. Her breath condensed. Now she could move. The straps lay at her sides, loose now that they weren’t up over her shoulders, though still fastened by the buckle that had gone across her chest. It was much easier to get her arms back into the sleeves, and slip her arms out from under the straps which were now nothing more than a lap belt.

Terra picked up her helmet and pulled it back on, fastening it securely. Then each glove. She activated the suit and it constricted around her, a thick, comforting presence hugging her curves.

Then it was a comparatively easy process to boost herself up, slipping the straps down over her legs. Terra stepped out of the seat and stretched out her arms and legs.

She was down on Luna. Getting free had taken time. The people from the Lincoln must be close. They could already be outside.

With no time to waste, she crossed to the compartment on the other side of the tilted capsule and pulled the door open. She half-expected the toolkit to be missing, even though she had seen it stored. It was there, a bright red case, with a long strap. She dragged it out, and opened it. Everything looked as it should. Cutting tools, and emergency gear, including extra air tanks. The EVU wasn’t designed for use on the surface, its weight would slow her down and throw her off balance.

Terra lifted the strap of the case over her helmet, settling it across her shoulder, the case beneath her right arm. If she couldn’t get to the base from here with this, then it didn’t matter. Her enemies would have won.

It was time to get out there.

The flexibility of the suit let her move easier than the old Apollo astronauts, but with the low gravity of the Moon, Terra skipped through the capsule to the airlock. Each skip carried her easily forward. It was like coming home.

The airlock controls were online. She wasn’t going to vent the capsule the way she had when she reached the Orbital. If she could get away, she wanted them to think that she might still be inside, and leaving it pressurized would help suggest that.

Inside the airlock, waiting for the cycle to complete, Terra opened the tool case and took out the laser cutter. She closed the tool case and stood ready as the cycle completed.

Indicators showed ready. She pulled the lever and the hatch open. Lunar regolith spilled inside across the floor. Lazy clouds of dust settled over the entrance.

Terra leaned out and looked around. The capsule had come down in the shadowed interior of a crater, not much bigger than the capsule itself. The crater walls were fractured and steep, with blasted rock weathered by time. The line between shadow and sunlight was sharp and clear. Brighter streaks showed where the capsule engines had cast out a fan of lighter dust and rock.

No one was waiting for her in the crater.

Terra stepped out, feeling the regolith compact beneath her feet. Heads up icons on her suit showed the cold temperatures in the shadows. Her suit compensated. She turned and kicked the rocks dust away from the hatch edge, then leaned inside and pulled the hatch closed behind her.

She brushed her foot across her footprints, obliterating them. The soil still looked disturbed, but it wasn’t as clear as a footprint showing where she was going. She walked backward, erasing each step as she went, around the far side of the capsule, deeper into shadows.

It wasn’t going to confuse them long. She turned and skipped and scrambled up the steep crater wall. Debris cascaded down, helping hide her tracks. She reached the top and checked her position map. The LPS satellites were still functioning. A map appeared on her helmet, her position highlighted as less than five kilometers from Diaspora Base.

She turned, beginning to recognize landmarks. This crater was in the rough hilly section to the south of the base. Facing that way, she saw lights moving across the surface.

A crawler, coming this way. The sturdy vehicles weren’t fast, but moved on six legs, like giant bugs, close to the ground. The lights were the bright headlights on the front. She needed to move, but she’d have to go around to avoid the crawler.

A person on the surface could move faster than the crawlers. They weren’t designed for speed, but for slow and steady progress across uneven and sometimes treacherous terrain. They could jump, if needed, right themselves if they fell over, and climb steep angles. Not much of anything stopped a crawler.

But they weren’t fast.

Terra grinned and skipped off away from the crater. Each step carried her swiftly across the surface. Mercury had been much the same, in her visit. Her path took her behind a short rise, into more shadows and more uneven terrain between her and the crawler.

Maybe they saw her, but maybe not. With the LPS she could stay on course and the passive system wouldn’t give her away.

The months spent in the capsule on the journey back from Mercury had weakened her. She skipped, walked, and skipped some more, following a course that twisted and wound around through the uneven landscape as she tried to keep obstacles between her and the landing site. If those in the crawler hadn’t seen her, they would continue to the capsule. That would take time, investigating would take time. What would they do when they discovered her tracks? Follow, or head straight back to the base to cut her off?

She’d head straight back on the assumption that there wasn’t anywhere else for her to go. Why spend time chasing her?

Which made it a race. Could she get there before they made it back?

Who was in the crawler? People loyal to her, or enemies? Traitors like Geoff? Or people from the Lincoln? It was annoying not knowing. Even if she knew, it wouldn’t change things.

She had to get to Diaspora Base and take control. Almost a thousand people worked in the base. They wouldn’t have all betrayed her. And with the landers that the Orbital had, the Lincoln couldn’t have sent down more than a dozen or so people.

Fear and intimidation might have gained them control, but it wouldn’t be enough to keep it. Not unless they stopped her.

Terra angled back more directly for the base. Her breath hissed between her lips as she skipped and she couldn’t help but laugh. She was skipping across the frickin’ Moon on her way to save everything that she had worked so hard to build! They couldn’t stop her now!

As she crested the last rise she stumbled to a stop and the laughter died.

Diaspora Base lay nestled into the craters below. The domes blended into the rough gray terrain, but the dark shadows cast straight lines and curves that were too smooth. Bright green location lights marked the airlocks, the color shocking in this shades of gray world.

That was home. That was the first permanent outpost built on another world, and the heart of the Diaspora Group. Lines radiated out from the base, roads out to the excavation sites where they mined the Moon for resources. The same resources that had made her and Diaspora wealthy beyond all Earthly measures. Most of what they mined remained in space, fueling the efforts to expand throughout the solar system, but the wealth generated was obviously enough to tempt the United States to make a grab for power.

She had to stop them.

Motion caught her eye, to her left. She turned. It was the crawler! Still some distance off, but coming straight across the rough terrain toward the base.

It was still too far off to stop her. She kicked off the surface and sailed down the steep slope, skipping ahead as if in magic boots. The tool kit bounced against her hip.

The nearest dome was also the largest, the first, the central administration dome. Terra skipped up to the airlock marked by those green lights. Looking back, she saw the crawler on the hills above. It appeared to have stopped and people in white suits had gotten out. Why?

Near her foot, dust popped up into the air. Impact!

Not from a micrometeorite, they were shooting at her! Terra bounced to the side. More dust kicked up. She turned and ran this time, long bounding skips across the surface, following the curve of the dome.

They were obviously desperate to stop her. The time for silence was over. Terra focused on her communications icon. It blinked open, and established an immediate connection to the base.

“This Terra Blackstone, calling on everyone loyal to the Diaspora Group. We must resist this hostile, and illegal action before more lives are lost! We didn’t come this far to have our independence —”

The connection blinked red. Signal lost. Terra kept moving. By now she had put the dome between her and those on the hill, but others would be coming.

She knew this outpost better than anyone. The nearest airlock was ahead, off the environmental dome. If they had people inside, that’s where they would come from.

There was another option. The loading docks, down beneath the industrial dome. It was big, designed for the crawlers, and opened directly onto the sub-levels. There were also personal locks there, for workers coming and going. It was on the other side of the base. They wouldn’t expect her to go for it.

Because they were from Earth. They’d expect her to go around the outside of the base, the way she’d been running. Not anymore.

She took the laser cutter from the toolkit, and slid it into a utility loop on her suit. She put the rest of the kit down. She couldn’t do this and carry the whole thing.

Terra turned and bounded up the steep side of the dome. It looked too steep, and hard to climb, but in the lower gravity it wasn’t a problem. She dropped into a hands and feet sort of lope, bouncing along using all four limbs. The exertions dragged her breath out of her and made her lungs and muscles burn, but she soon made it to the crest of the dome.

She turned and slid down the lunar-gray wall to the body, catching her breath in the process. The bottom was the junction between two domes. She took a second to catch her breath, then bounded up the next dome.

Reaching the top of the next, she gratefully slid down the far side, using her hands to slow her descent. She trusted that the suit could handle the rough use without failing. It was farther down this time, all the way to the ground.

She hit bottom and fell, rolling in the dirt. The jolt shook her. Focusing on her indicators, everything still looked green. A credit to the suit designers.

Here bright roads curved across the lunar terrain, cutting through craters and hills, disrupting the stark beauty of the scene. The roads came together and descended into the ground, leading beneath the edge of the dome into the sub-layers.

No one was out and around. Terra skipped on down the road.

Inside bright floods lit the cavernous space. Dormant crawlers crouched, as if she had been shrunk down and had entered a mechanical ant colony. Terra took the walkway on the right, above the main pit, to the nearest person-sized airlock, edged in green lights.

She tapped the panel and entered a general access override code, rather than her identification, in case they had that flagged.

The lights around the airlock turned amber as the chamber cycled, then the door slid open. The space was small, only big enough for two or three suited figures at a time. Inside she hit the activation button. The door slid shut and the cycle began again.

Air hissed into the chamber. The pumps sounded faint at first, then louder as the air pressure grew. From here she had access to the sub-levels, which meant getting to the server room. From there she could control anything that happened in the base.

They’d most likely have it guarded. Terra pulled the laser cutter out of the utility loop. She didn’t want to have to hurt anyone, unless there wasn’t any other option. These people had already tried to kill her several times. If it was necessary, she’d fight back.

The lights around the inner door turned green and then it slid open. She moved to the side of the entrance, checking the corridor in a quick glance.

Bright white lights and an empty, short alcove before it opened up into a locker room. No one visible right now, but somewhere water was running. The showers, presumably.

Terra walked on into the locker room. The water turned off. A rubber on metal sound was a shower door opening. Someone started whistling. Before she had a chance to move a man came around the corner from the showers into the locker room.

He was naked, his body lean and well-toned, pale skinned, and still wet from the shower. Very well-defined, with clear abs and no extra weight around the middle, it was a view that she wouldn’t have minded, under other circumstances. He had a shower over his face as he rubbed vigorously at his hair so he hadn’t yet seen her. His whistling beneath the towel sounded quite cheerful.

“Excuse me,” Terra said.

The man jerked the towel down. It was hard to judge his age from his body, but his face and hair suggested a man in his late thirties, maybe early forties. A sharp nose, and deep-set eyes, his chin darkened with a couple days growth, but flecked with lighter white hairs.

He glanced around the room and lowered the towel to cover his privates. “Sorry about that, I didn’t expect anyone else coming in with the shift lockdown on.”

He had an accent. Irish maybe, although she was never good at that. Scottish?

“What’s your name?”

“My friends call me Sully.” He grinned. “You feel free, now, to do the same.”

He didn’t recognize her. A bit disappointing, although she obviously didn’t look her best.

“You’re not going to tell anyone about me being out after the lockdown, are you?”

“I’d never!” He nodded at the laser cutter in her hand. “I value my skin.”

Terra had to get to the server room, but she hesitated. Sully might be able to answer some valuable questions, give her an idea what she was in for.

“Can I ask you something?”

His grin widened. “Aye, anything you like.”

“Where do you stand on the Americans?”

His fists clenched and his eyebrows drew together. “Don’t tell me you’re with them, I’ll be sorely disappointed!”

“No, not me. Did you hear that message earlier? Before it cut off?”

Sully nodded, his expression still dark. “Ya believe that? Blackstone herself, trying to get back to us…”

His voice trailed off and his eyes widened. He lifted his hand and the towel slipped away, exposing him again. “It’s you! You’re her!”

He scrambled for the towel.

“Sully, are you with me?”

He straightened, pulling the towel up. “Of course! Lord, that’s why I was whistling, thinking about you coming back to run those bastards off!”

“To do that I’ve got to get to the server room. I could use an extra pair of hands.”

“Let me fetch my clothes, and I’m your man,” Sully said. His smile widened. “Anything you want, anything I can do.”

To his credit, Sully dressed quickly, taking on moments pulling on a standard green workall. It fit well enough to reveal how fit he was, while proving much less distracting that a towel in danger of slipping off.

Dressed, barefoot, Sully gestured at her. “You’re going to go through wearing that?”

He had a point. “I don’t have anything to change into.”

“I’m sure there’s some spares around here.” Sully went to the nearest locker, opened it, looked inside and closed it wrinkling his nose. “You don’t want anything from that one.”

The fourth locker turned up a black workall that was her size. Terra caught it when Sully tossed it her way and then she turned, skipping toward the door.

“Hey! I thought you were changing?” Sully caught up with her at the door.

“No time. I need to get to the server room. If we get there, and get a handle on things, then I’ll change.” She handed the workall back to him. “Hang onto that for me.”

This door opened into a main corridor for this level. There would be people out there. She opened the door and looked out. The corridor was empty. Ghostly. Abandoned.

She stepped out and turned around, facing Sully. “Where is everyone?”

“Like I said, it’s after shift lockdown. They’ll all be in their quarters, except essential personnel.” Sully grinned. “Like me.”

“The Lincoln crew instituted this?”

“Aye. Mr. Cooper himself.”

“Alex Cooper?”

“That’s the one. You know him?”

“Yes.” Terra started down the corridor at a quick pace. “Senator Alex Cooper, of the United States. He’s opposed Diaspora’s work from the beginning. Any private expansion into space.”

“I know his history,” Sully said mildly, keeping pace beside her. “First thing anyone did was look up the man. He’s been suggesting that you’re out of the picture. Your little message earlier had people pretty riled up.”

A door opened on the side of the corridor. The woman that looked out was short, with straight brown hair. When she saw Terra her eyes flew wide open and her mouth dropped open.

“You’re here! Ms. Blackstone!”

A name swam to the surface of Terra’s mind. “Riley, it’s good to see you.”

Riley stepped out and spoke, her voice low. “If they catch you they’re going to take you away!”

“We’re on our way to the server room, from there I can shut down access,” Terra said.

“I don’t know about that,” Riley said. “They’ve got people in there. That was the first thing they did, seize control of all key systems. They knew what they were doing.”

Someone must have fed them information. Terra gestured at Riley’s door. “Let’s go in here.”

“My lab? Okay.” Riley opened the door.

Terra went inside fast, scanning the space for anyone else. It was empty, full of machine and robotic parts, including an intact crawler at the far end. The lab had a roll up door at the end to accommodate the larger equipment. Riley was one of the top researchers that she had on artificial intelligence.

Sully closed the door behind them.

Riley looked up at him. “Who are you?”

“Sullivan Ward, ma’am.” He gave her a charming smile and Terra wasn’t surprised to see color rising in Riley’s cheeks.

Terra reached up and unfastened the catches on the helmet, twisting it free. Cool air bathed her face. She closed her eyes for a second, savoring the feeling, before she opened her eyes and put the helmet aside on a nearby work table.

“Sully, I’m going to need that workall.”

Sully grinned and turned from Riley. “Of course.”

Terra deactivated the suit and the pressure eased as the garment relaxed around her, becoming more shapeless.

“Let me help,” Riley said.

Riley went around her backside and undid the catches from there. It was possible to do them while in the suit, just. It wasn’t always easy to reach or manipulate with the gloves on. It was still better than the extreme environment suits, like those on Mercury, but the help was appreciated.

Terra ducked her head down through the collar and shrugged her arms back up out of the sleeves. After doing it with the straps on in the capsule, this was much easier. Cool air poured in the opening at the back and through the collar, reminding her how sweaty she had gotten during her flight.

She shoved the suit off, over her head and straightened, with the suit bending over at her waist. Her thin black top barely went down far enough to cover her breasts. Sully’s eyes looked like they might pop out of his head.

It was only fair. She’d seen him fresh out of the shower, after all. Terra winked at him as she bent over, arching her back just to torture the man and stepped out of the suit.

Sully actually blushed and turned away, clearing his throat. “Excuse me, ma’am! You caught me by surprise there. I didn’t mean to stare.”

Riley giggled, helping take up the suit and pile it on the table.

“Unless you expect me to stand around in my undies, I’m still going to need that workall,” Terra said. She held out her hand toward Sully.

Sully turned just enough to hand her the workall and then turned back away again. It was dear of him to do so, after their earlier encounter. She pulled on the workall, grateful for the light loose material after wearing the suit. Her hair had come loose getting out of the suit, so she took the opportunity to pull the rubber band out and shake her hair free.

“You can turn around,” she said to Sully.

He turned, and gave her another big grin. “Thank you, ma’am. I hope I didn’t embarrass myself too much by staring.”

Terra stepped close to Sully and placed a hand on his chest. “I’d have been more bothered if you hadn’t noticed.” She tapped his chest lightly. “But right now we have more important concerns.”

She turned to Riley. “I need to borrow your expertise.”

“Of course, but what can we do?”

Terra reached out and took Riley’s delicate hands, surprising considering the work she did with heavy equipment. “We’re going to bug the server room.”

“What? How?”

Terra laid out her plan for her two accomplices. They couldn’t get to the server room, not without being captured. But the main trunk lines for the server room were accessible in the network access conduits. She proposed sending some of Riley’s micro-robots into the conduits to wire a hard tap into the trunk, which she would then use to regain control of the base.

“That’ll set off alarms,” Riley said.

Terra shook her head. “Not if I use my backdoor access. I have ultimate override authority on the system. If you can get me tapped in, I can lock everyone out. Lock everything down.”

“They’ll be searching for you,” Sully said. “They’ll know soon, if they don’t already, which way you came in.”

“They should already know,” Terra said. “All they had to do was look at the airlock logs. I didn’t use my identification, but that won’t fool them. No one else was around to open that airlock. Except you.”

“Then they’ll be looking for me too,” Sully said. “I could lead them off, give them a false trail.”

It’d put him in some danger, but she didn’t think the Americans planned to kill everyone in the base.

“Fine,” she agreed. “What’re you going to do?”

Sully winked. “Don’t worry about. I’ll head on back and buy you time. You can buy me a drink afterward.”

“It’s a date,” Terra agreed. “Thank you.”

Sully shook his head. “Just kick their asses back to Earth!”

With a nod, Sully hurried off, slipping out the door into the corridor. Riley came up beside Terra, her eyes dark and worried.

“Can you trust him?”

“What choice do we have?” Terra asked. “Show me what you’ve got.”

Riley had several candidates. Tiny, toy-like, insect-inspired bugs and snake-like robots. Each was designed to get into tight spaces and report back with a variety of sensors, including video and audio.

Several were small pill-bug like creations, rolled up in balls like shiny segmented ball-bearings. Terra pushed them around with her finger and they didn’t respond.

“How many of these do you have?”

“Several hundred,” Riley said. “And the printer can put them out in batches of a hundred and fifty per sheet.”

“Excellent. Let’s deploy them. Not just to the server. I want them in systems throughout the base. We’re going to lock out every system that they can get attached to.”

Riley nodded. “I can do that, but once they find them, they can disable or remove them and restart the affected systems, can’t they?”

Terra shook her head. “No. With my access, I can put the systems into a state where they can’t clear the lockout.”

It didn’t take long at all for Riley to gather the pill bugs. She poured out jars of them onto one of the work tables. She tapped a couple commands on a tablet and all at once the pill bugs came to life. They unrolled and scurried about, lining up in perfect formations across the table.

Riley grinned and held the tablet out to Terra. “They’re all yours. Enter your access code, and we’ll be good to —”

Shouts in the hallway interrupted her. More shouts, angry, orders to stop. Riley stabbed a finger at the tablet and the pill bug robots scattered in all directions.

Riley thrust the tablet against Terra’s chest. “Go! Get in the crawler. I’ll distract them. Go!”

There wasn’t any other choice. Terra knew it, as much as she hated it. She took the tablet. “Thank you.”

Then she ran, bounding through the lab, in long skipping steps. There wasn’t any sign of the pill bugs. Whatever Riley had done, they’d gone into hiding.

Just like she needed to do now. The shouting sounded like it was right outside the lab now, men cursing, grunts and sounds that couldn’t be anything except people fighting.

Terra reached the crawler, diving in through the open airlock into the main compartment. There wasn’t much space, it was packed with crates. She moved forward, toward the front of the crawler and sat down in one of the side-facing seats, behind the bulkhead. It had the advantage of keeping her hidden from view, while letting her peek forward through the windows into the lab and gave her a clear view to the airlock door.

She had to get the pill bugs deployed with her access code and get key systems locked down!

The interface for the pill bugs was active. Schematics showed them clustered beneath equipment and in the vents around the room.

Terra peeked out around the corner. Riley was heading for the lab’s door.

In an alternate window, Terra pulled up the tablet’s diagnostics and checked for traces and taps. She’d stayed alive by being careful, and she wasn’t going to change that now. Two traces showed immediately. Someone was watching the activity on the tablet!

If she entered her access code, whoever was watching would get it, giving them secure access to all of the Diaspora systems. In one moment they could gain everything that they had wanted by coming here.

She peeked out again. No sign of Riley.

Was the scientist in on it? After Geoff’s betrayal, she couldn’t discount the possibility. People that she had thought would back her had betrayed her already. She couldn’t take the risk.

She needed a distraction. Fortunately, the crawler was exactly what she needed. Leaving the tablet on the seat, she eased forward into the pilot’s seat. She was very exposed, if anyone came in, but it only took a moment to set up the commands on the crawlers’ command board.

Terra got up and slipped back out to the crawler’s airlock. No sign of anyone. She stepped out, and made her way around the far side of the crawler.

Voices in the hall. The sound of the door opening. Riley’s voice raised. “What are you doing?”

“Get out of the way!” A man said, his voice angry.

“This is my lab! You don’t have any right to —”

Riley let out a surprised yelp. “Hey!”

“Hold her,” the man said. “The rest of you get in here and search.”

“Let go!” Riley shouted. “What are you looking for?”

A chuckle. “As if you don’t know. We’ve been monitoring everything. Blackstone is here.” His voice raised. “You hear that, Ms. Blackstone? Come out now and save us all the bother. You’re finished!”

Terra moved along the space behind the crawler. He might be right. If she couldn’t deploy the pill bugs, what chance did she have? If they caught her they could make her disappear and claim that she hadn’t survived the landing. Or whatever story they wanted to make up.

She peeked out. Those from the Lincoln were moving around the lab. Three men and a woman, complexions colored by time spent out in the Sun (obviously from Earth), all wearing sharp blue military uniforms. They’d find her soon, it wasn’t like she could stay hidden for long. All she needed was a moment with an unwatched access point and they’d be done.

It was almost time. Beside her, the crawler stirred to life, lights coming on, and legs stomping through a systems check. There were answering shouts, and what sounded like people rushing toward her.

Terra slid along the back of the crawler, crouched and jumped.

Her Earth-adapted muscles, even with the time spent in transit in the capsule, carried her up onto the top of the crawler. She moved on hands and knees across it to the edge. The Lincoln crew rushed to the crawler, clearly convinced she was inside. One of the men stumbled and knocked over a piece of equipment, cursing as he did.

They didn’t have their lunar legs yet. In their haste to catch her, they kept forgetting how easy it was to get off balance. Skipping wasn’t coming naturally to them.

The group reached the crawler, still running through the startup test sequence she had set on a time. Three of them went up into the airlock. The last, a man with blond hair, leaned on the opening.

“Do you got her?”

Terra dropped down behind him, landing lightly on her feet. “Nope!”

He turned but she grabbed his uniform and lifted him off his feet. He yelled, his expression one of pure bewilderment, and she tossed him into the crawler. He collided with the others, and they landed in a heap against the crates stored in the crawler.

Terra wiggled her fingers at him. “Sit tight now.”

The airlock doors hissed shut, cutting the Lincoln officers off. The crawler went into lock down.

“That worked better than I expected,” Terra said.

“You did it!” Riley yelled, clapping her hands.

Riley was at the front of the lab, beside the door. Terra skipped through the lab and caught Riley’s hands when she reached her. They jumped up and down. Riley looked back across the lab.

“Can they get out?”

“Not before we take care of this problem. Your office, now.” Terra led Riley by the hand to the offices at the back of the lab.

The four Lincoln officers weren’t everyone, that much was obvious. The office was as cluttered as the lab. Riley picked up a crate of parts from a second chair. It looked like it should topple over the small woman, but that was the lower gravity for you. Those from Earth still hadn’t adjusted.

Terra sat down at Riley’s station and activated it with a touch. She was going to trust Riley hadn’t known about the tablet, at least until she investigated. If Riley had tried to set her up, Riley couldn’t say anything now without implicating her.

“What are you doing?” Riley asked.

“Activating the pill bugs.” Terra pulled up the controls in one window and a command level window in the other. She checked, always cautious, and found nothing suspicious running on the system. She switched back to the pill bugs and sent the command to scatter, identify and tap into as many systems as they could reach. With their networked intelligence the bugs would reach every system. She equipped each of them with her access code and the instruction to lock down the base. No doors would open. No systems would respond. Not even environmental system, without her approval.

Terra turned and faced Riley. The petite woman stood in the corner, a length of pipe in her hands. Terra raised an eyebrow. “What are you doing with that, Riley?”

Riley’s lower lip trembled. Tears welled up in her eyes.

“You put the traces on the tablet, to get the access code.” Terra stood slowly. “You were helping the Americans.”

“They said that they would arrest my parents, in Ohio!” Riley waved the pipe. “They wanted to catch you —”

“Kill me, actually,” Terra said.

Riley shook her head.

The fire that burned in Terra’s chest grew hotter. How dare they? She’d worked and sacrificed, ever since she was a girl, to make it possible for people to visit these worlds and make them home. And these people thought they could come in and do this?

“Yes,” Terra said. “They’ve killed. They’ve tried to kill me when I reached orbit, by sending a program to divert me into Earth’s atmosphere. They got to Geoff and he delivered me to the surface trussed up for them. They chased me. Shot at me before I got inside. They want me dead.”

The pipe fell from Riley’s hands, tumbling in the air as it fell to the floor. Terra reached out and snatched it before it hit. It was like she had all the time in the world to do so.

Riley flinched away.

“Don’t worry,” Terra said. She looked out through the office window into the lab. The Lincoln officers were still trapped in the crawler. They wouldn’t be going anywhere.

“I forgive you,” Terra said. “And when I get these people settled, we’ll send them back to Earth, where they belong. I will do everything I can to protect your parents, and any other loved ones back on Earth, but really the only way that’s going to happen is if they join us. It’s time for the exodus. Everyone that wants off Earth is going to have to get off.”

“What?” Riley wiped her face on her lab coat. “You mean that?”

“Yes. We’ve been planning for it. We have ships around the world, ready to launch. When I give the word our forces will start getting people to the ships. We’ll launch and then cut ties. At least until people back on Earth calm down, and decide to act reasonably.”

A chime came from Riley’s station. Terra glanced at the display. “The servers are ours, along with ninety percent of the other systems. Diaspora Base is locked down. Are you with me?”

Riley nodded. “I’m sorry! I didn’t want to betray you, I just didn’t know what to do.”

“I know.” Terra forced a smile. It was lonely sometimes being the one in charge. “Let’s get things settled here. We’ve got a whole solar system to worry about.”

She sat back down in front of the station, and Riley took the second chair, rolling up beside her. Terra put the pipe aside on the floor.

Using her access through the pill bugs, she activated communications.

“Attention, Lincoln crew, and any Diaspora personnel that may have been coerced into cooperating. You’ll be pleased to know that I’m back in charge!” Terra smiled for the cameras. “We’ve got some business to take care of, including your unconditional surrender, before you run out of air.”

It didn’t take long. They didn’t have any choice. Eventually the human civilization on these worlds would grow and one person wouldn’t be in charge. That day wasn’t today.

It could be lonely being in charge, but it didn’t have to be lonely all the time. After she finished, she wanted to relax back in her own neglected quarters, maybe with Sully to keep her company for dinner?

13,889 words

Author’s Note

This story marks the third weekly short story release, and the third Planetary Bodies story. I’d meant to get it up yesterday and ended up busy with other things so it’s up this morning instead.

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

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

Venus Waking

Carys Rex, professional daredevil and freelance adventure writer, wanted the next big adventure. After everything that she had tackled on Earth the next challenge was a sky city floating in hurricane force winds on another planet — Venus!

Hired by the Diaspora Group, Carys gets a chance to visit the most remarkable colony established and discover new adventures among the sulfuric acid clouds.

1

Carys Rex jumped that last step from the transport airlock, onto the brilliant green grass growing beside the path. She wriggled her toes against the cool blades, sinking her toes into the dirt beneath.

The air tasted fresh, not recycled like the on the transport. Almost like being back on Earth, rather than being in a spherical city floating around 164,000 feet above Venus’ hellish surface.

She was twenty-six, a freelance adventure writer and professional daredevil, hired by Terra Blackstone’s Diaspora Group to vlog about life on Earth’s evil twin planet. She was wearing a dark, earthy brown skirt that ended just above her knee, a light green tank top, and her black curly hair was mostly captured in a hand-crocheted red snood hat. All of her belongings were in the big, neon yellow messenger bag that hugged her hip. Except her glasses. She tapped the side to activate the recording, while her hand dug down into the messenger bag.

All things considered, you wouldn’t think that you were even on another planet. Maybe some sort of future resort city, but it didn’t look like an outpost on another planet. Buildings rose up ahead, around the plaza. A fountain sprayed water into the air, people on bicycles, and on foot, gathered around the plaza, a crowd greeting the rest of the new arrivals disembarking from the transport. No cars, of course.

Four months trapped in a the small transport space craft, one of the Diaspora Group’s new passenger capsules, launched from Earth orbit to Venus. As the new solar sail production picked up from Mercury, there’d be regular routes picking up capsules, releasing them to rendezvous with all sorts of worlds. It was almost like being back in the days of sailing ships, only these ships carried their passengers between the planetary bodies.

Tilting her head back, there was the dome framework, big triangles against the structure of the dome, across the sky. So, like a really exclusive, domed-over city, like the climate-controlled ones that they had back on Earth, where the rich people hung out and pretended that the Earth wasn’t getting hotter all the time.

 

“Time to open up guys,” Carys said.

The two spheres buzzed and uncoiled. Bright wings unrolled and snapped out, four on each, and black legs unkinked and grabbed at her hand, pinching gently.

“There you are,” Carys cooed. “Up and at em. Catch the sunlight and watch me.”

Her spy-eyes flicked their wings and took off, fat bright flies that buzzed around her before taking up positions ahead and behind. All about the footage.

Carys beamed and threw her hands up in the air. “Welcome to Venus!”

She strolled out on to the grass. “We’ve made it! We’re on Venus! This is Aphrodite, the first human colony on this world. Up here it’s heaven, while down below is quite literally hell.”

She winked at the camera. “We’re going to get to know this new world! It’s pretty much as big as the entire Earth! Think about that for a minute. Imagine it, a whole world out there! Except this is not Earth. It’s —”

Two uniformed-types, in tan ranger uniforms, a man and a woman, were coming across the plaza. Coming for her, no question of that from their looks and bearing. Carys laughed.

“Looks like we’re already getting in trouble! That’s what, five minutes on a new world? I think that’s a new record!”

Carys didn’t wait. She walked right up to them, spy-eyes filming everything, glasses filming everything, positioning themselves in pre-programmed patterns, giving her options to edit later. She smiled at the two, what? Officials? Guards? Police?

“Is this like an official greeting? Or did I break some rule by stepping on the grass?” Carys put her hand to her mouth, eyes going wide with mock shock. “Am I going to get thrown out for stepping on the grass? I saw an old show once, where the people living in paradise executed newcomers for the slightest offense.”

The pair might have been siblings. Both thin, fit, with sandy brown hair. The guy had a cleft chin. The woman had fine features, delicate with a tiny button nose. Their tan uniforms both sported the Venus astronomical symbol, Venus’ hand mirror, the round circle with the cross handle beneath.

“Carys Rex?” The woman asked, holding out her hand. “Rhea Silvia, Media Coordinator for Aphrodite.”

Carys took her hand and shook. Good grip for someone that looked like she might easily break. Rhea wore cam jewelry on her ears and around her neck. Functional tech, a bit out-dated but pretty. As Carys released Rhea’s hand, she shifted her gaze to the man.

He smiled, a warm, nice smile. Good teeth. Confident, and a bit cocky. He wasn’t with Rhea, not romantically. He reached out.

She took his hand. Firm grip, professional. She expected him to reach up with his other hand to touch her arm. He didn’t.

“Victor Crane, Residence Coordinator, basically I’m the guy that makes sure you have everything you need.”

Carys stepped closer. “I’m flattered. I didn’t expect a welcoming committee.”

Rhea laughed. “Not much of a committee, but Blackstone is excited to have you join our team. We’re eager to see what you come up with, I’ve been a big fan of your work back on Earth.”

“Is it true that you rode a mountain bike along the continental divide, across the United States, in less than three weeks?” Victor asked.

Carys reached out and ran her fingers up the front of his uniform. “The tour divide? Yeah, that was a blast. All self-supported, it’s gotten tougher as the climate has worsened. That was nothing, though, compared to the outback ride.”

Victor’s smile faded. “I heard about that.”

Rhea took Carys’ arm. “Why don’t you let us show you your new home? There’s an orientation, and then you can get settled in from the trip?”

That was the absolute last thing that she wanted to do. She pulled away. “I’ve been cooped up in that ship for the past four months. I want to check this place out, and I know my viewers want to see the super-exclusive Aphrodite colony! We’re talking a real-life cloud city! And I’ll tell you, at first look, this seems like paradise. Especially after four months in that transport!”

Rhea smiled brightly, too strained, with a glance up at the spy-eyes hovering silently behind Carys. Of course Carys saw the look, which meant that her glasses caught it too. Perfect.

“There are some things we need to go over first,” Rhea said. “Contractual matters, that sort of thing. The orientation covers everything.”

Carys shook her head. “Nope.”

Rhea and Victor looked at each other, and back to Carys. “Carys, we —”

“Nope.” Carys took a step back. “I’m independent. I’m not part of the Diaspora Group. Terra Blackstone asked me to come here, to Venus, to do what I do. Diaspora might write the checks, but I’ve been assured of my independence.”

Rhea pressed her hands together. “We understand that, we do. We’re not trying to control what you’re doing, we’re not, Carys. It isn’t like that.”

“Great! Then I’m going to take a look around on my own for a while, I’ll catch up to you later.” Carys waved and turned her back on the reception committee.

As soon as she did she pulled out her cell and touched the spy-eyes override. She tagged Rhea and Victor on Blue’s targeting.

The grass was wonderful against her bare feet. She had sandals in her bag but after months in the transport from Earth, the last thing she wanted was to put on sandals. The grass was cool, damp as if from a morning rain. She wasn’t the only one enjoying the lawns. In other sections, residents were playing or resting on the lawns. It had a college-campus feel to it, almost, like a college in a big city with students hanging out between classes.

Zoo humans, pretending that they weren’t suspended in a floating city above Hell. She had to get a shot of that. On the cell, Blue slowly floated after her, rear camera eyes and directional mic watching Rhea and Victor.

“Should we follow her?” Victor asked. “She doesn’t know her way around.”

“Actually I’m sure she does. She probably studied everything during the trip,” Rhea said. She was right there. “And where’s she going to go? She can’t leave Aphrodite? Let her go. She’s been cooped up and wants to stretch her legs.”

That was right. She did. Carys swiped the targeting from Blue, and the spy-eye picked up speed to catch up to her.

Carys skipped and smiled widely, to show off her dimples. She winked. “See? They’re already getting it. Four months on the way here, time to get outside! Even if this outside is actually inside.”

The lawn ended ahead at a wide pathway, slick and smooth. Beyond that was another strip of grass, some flowers and then a low wall, and beyond that a yellow and black rail. And on the other side of the rail — the wall of Aphrodite, the barrier between herself and Venus. Carys pointed at the rail.

“That’s what I’m talking about! Do you see it? There’s a low wall, and some sort of gap, and on the other side a warning rail, and past that, where you see those struts? That’s actually the structure that holds up this entire city! Let’s check it out!”

She ran across that last stretch of grass. It was fantastic to stretch her legs, except immediately her muscles ached. How had she gotten so weak? The transport had rotated the living areas, providing a third of a gee, but obviously not enough to keep her muscles in shape. Carys slowed as she reached the pathway, sucking air, actually winded.

Never forgetting the audience, she laughed. “Wow. Living in a tin can for months in low-gee has wiped me out! I’ll have to do some serious training to get back into shape!”

The pathway was some sort of carbon weave, firm and cool to her feet. Carbon was one of the resources that Aphrodite had in abundance. All they had to do was suck it in and process it, given that the atmosphere was primarily carbon dioxide.

Carys skipped across the path, back onto the narrow strip of grass. That ended and she stepped carefully between the flowers, marigolds in bright orange. The dirt was rough and fantastic beneath her feet. Months in the transport had left her craving being out in the wild. This wasn’t wild, but it was dirt, and the plants were alive.

She dug her bare toes into the surface and looked down so that the glasses got a shot of her bare feet, toenails bright red against her pale feet and the dark earth.

“Look at that! Venusian dirt! This isn’t dirt shipped all the way from Earth, this is material that has been brought up from the surface, more than thirty miles beneath us! And it’s growing these lovely marigolds, and the grass behind us.”

She reached the wall, a six-inch thick structure stretching to either side around the perimeter of the habitat. It came up to just under chest height. Not enough to prevent you from looking over, but a clear barrier from going further.

Green flew out ahead of her, over the wall, its cameras still focused on her.

Out past the wall, a band of water flowed through an open channel. It was only four feet or so across, but followed the wall on around the habitat. Cattails and other plants grew in the water, a lush wet lands stretching around the habitat. Obviously part of the water treatment system for the habitat.

On the other side, as if more of a warning was needed, was a narrow pathway and a clear fence topped with the yellow and black rail. And on the other side of that, the habitat dome wall rose up above. This close the double-layer honeycomb structure was clear.

It obscured the view somewhat, although not too badly. Through the wall it was foggy. Like a day on Earth when the sunlight came through the fog, giving everything a bright glow, before the fog burned off.

Only here, it didn’t burn off. Carys hadn’t gotten an audience by playing it safe.

No one was paying any attention to her, Rhea and Victor had gone off wherever they were going.

“No rest for the wicked,” she said. “Let’s take a closer look.”

She planted her hands on the wall and jumped, boosting herself up, swinging her legs up onto the wall, flashing a good deal of thigh in the process. She got her legs over the edge of the wall and sat, smoothing her skirt, and taking in the view.

Carys pointed at the far wall. “Right out there, through that double-wall, is the cloudy atmosphere of Venus. The outer surface is treated against the sulfuric acid clouds. That’s right, that fog out there? It isn’t water vapor, it is acid! A few other things mixed in, but mostly acid. The habitat is designed for this environment, even so, it requires constant maintenance.”

The audience didn’t tune in to see her sit on a wall. Carys got up, standing on the wall, no doubt attracting attention now from other people nearby. She smiled, and jumped.

Despite the long period on the transport, she managed to clear the reeds and plants in the water treatment canal, landing lightly on the smooth path on the other side. She caught herself on the yellow and black railing along the transparent wall.

Carys laughed out loud. “Yes! That’s better! Look at this!”

She leaned over the rail and on the other side was a gap between the path and the outer wall. Braces at regular intervals connected the habitat to the dome wall, but it was clear that this was only a layer within the sphere. There were more levels below her.

Seen this close, gaps and texture was visible in the clouds outside. It wasn’t as uniform as it looked at first glance. Fog whipped around the outside layers in fast streamers. Color and lightning varied. Looking up, it was clear that the brightness varied, like any cloudy day on Earth.

She looked down again, over the rail. No end to the clouds beneath her, but here it was clear that they were suspended in the air floating along with the wind.

“Look at that! Over thirty miles down to the surface! Not an Earth-like surface, it’s an inferno down there that would melt metal, with active volcanoes and a tortured rocky surface. I’m sure we’ll get to see more pictures of the surface, but wow, we’re actually flying! Not only flying, but Aphrodite floats in the atmosphere, carried along by hurricane-force winds!” Carys shook her head. “Is it any wonder I wanted to come here?”

She turned, leaning against the caution rail and smiled up at the camera. Green dropped, automatically responding to her smile, zooming in to get a good shot, not too close, she wanted the audience to see her.

“You get to come along with me! This is going to be a great adventure!” Carys looked at the channel, with the water and reeds, and the wall on the other side. No easy way back from this side.

“We’re going to have to find another way out of here, let’s follow the path, and see where it takes us.”

Carys walked along the path, her hand playing lightly along the caution rail. Aphrodite was a test case, to prove that human settlement was possible and worked. As such, it was actually a small-scale test. A small city, two miles across, with a bit under 2,000 acres of space on the main level.

All of which meant that this path, if it went clear around Aphrodite, was probably almost six miles long!

“Maybe I should have packed a bike! Aphrodite isn’t all that big, but a bike would still be fantastic for getting around. There were some people back there at the landing plaza with bikes, so I should be able to get one somewhere.” She winked. “For now, I’ll walk.”

A few minutes later, up ahead, there was a bridge straight across the channel, with a gate in the short wall. A weeping willow tree grew nearby, the long hanging branches nearly touching the wall.

“At last! We can get back into the city itself, and see what we can discover.” It was a good thing too, she was getting tired. Her stomach growled. “Maybe find a place to eat! I’m starved. The last thing I had to eat was reconstituted eggs this morning.”

Carys walked across the bridge to the gate. It wouldn’t open. She chuckled and climbed up, swinging her leg over the gate, straddling it, the cool carbon fiber clenched between her thighs. There was a sign, pressing against her bare knee.

“Authorized Personnel Only,” it read.

“Oops,” she said, winking at the camera. She blew the audience a kiss before swinging her other leg over, giving them another flash.

She dropped to the path.

Her trip along the channel had taken her away from the landing plaza into the University district. This was the section dedicated to all sorts of scientific research. In the background material, it talked about how select researchers from institutions all over Earth were sent here to study. Not just Venus studies, although there were all sorts of scientists doing that, but also anything else. Even a few lucky students, earning their degrees while doing work for the Diaspora Group.

The weeping willow was only one of several trees growing in the University district. The buildings were up to three stories tall, all appearing as if made from massive stone blocks. Carys knew that wasn’t entirely the case. The dark rock faces did come from rocks cut from the surface by robotic miners, but each ‘block’ was nothing more than a stone facade over a more light-weight structure.

Aphrodite might have plenty of lifting ability, but that didn’t mean that they wasted it.

“Look at this!” Carys gestured to the campus. “Looks like an Ivy League university, doesn’t it? That’s deliberate, part of the Diaspora Group’s plans for Venus. The stones are actually a facade, rather than being made from stone blocks, but the facade is made from stones quarried on the surface and hoisted up to Aphrodite.”

She strolled along the path between immaculate lawns and well-trimmed hedges. There were a few people out, moving between the buildings, but not many. Everyone was in class or working.

“You might wonder how Aphrodite stays afloat. How can an entire city float through the atmosphere? Well, from what I understand, it’s because the air we breathe is a lifting gas in the carbon-dioxide rich environment of Venus. At this altitude the pressure outside is about the same as inside, but our oxygen-nitrogen mix is buoyant, so the whole city floats!”

She laughed. “Don’t worry! I’m not going to turn all stuffy on you. Let’s look around and see if we can find a place to eat. There has to be something on a campus like this!”

It didn’t take long at all to find a place, Carys went around the corner of one of the big academic buildings and there was a charming little outdoor cafe. Well, as outdoor as things were in a floating city.

Tables were arranged outside. Most were empty, although at two tables were two couples. The double-doors leading into the cafe were still open.

“Gee,” she said, as she walked over. “I wonder what time it is locally?”

Between the transport and here, who knew what time it was? Carys took out her cell and switched to the settings. “Adjust to local time.”

The display shifted from just before noon to ten p.m.! “Ten P.M.? Wow, I didn’t think it was so late! I should have realized, given Venus’ slow rotation, it’s more the movement of Aphrodite itself that determines how long the days are! I’m starved, hopefully this place is still serving.”

The sign above the doors was “Cornucopia,” etched into a panel, with an illustration of a crescent planet shape surrounded by a planetary ring of food. Nice and spacey. The tables were black, hexagons, mirroring the shapes of the dome stretching above.

As she approached the building the spy-eyes dropped lower and closer, to keep their focus on her while she moved inside. They’d run through a library of positions around her based on the interior layout.

Inside was cute, small, with only a few tables. Most were outside. The guy behind the counter was handsome, with a rough black stubble over golden skin. He had dark eyes and black ringlets of hair fell down around his ears. He was wearing a tight black polo shirt, and shorts. No name badge or anything like that.

He wasn’t alone in the place. One of the three booths were occupied by more young men and women, four in the booth, plus the guy behind the counter who was talking to them.

He held up a hand to the group and moved over as she walked inside. His eyes flicked up, taking in the spy-eyes, and he smiled. “Nice gear! You’re in journalism, aren’t you?”

One of the girls at the table rose to her feet. She was a blond pixie, cute, wearing a dark brown tank top, and shorts. “You’re Carys Rex!”

Great, a fan! That made it so much easier. Carys smiled and did a small curtsy. “Yep, in the flesh! Newly arrived, and absolutely starving.”

She leaned into the counter, her fingertips playing along the edge. She locked her eyes on the guy behind the counter. “Any chance you could serve me?”

One of the guys in the booth, big and broad shouldered, laughed. “Yeah, Mitchell, you going to serve her?”

Mitchell, apparently that was his name, laughed and spread his hands. “Don’t listen to Chuck. He’s crazy. Of course, we’re still open. What can I get you?”

“What do you recommend?”

“Go with the garden burger,” the blond suggested. “It’s the best thing on the menu.”

“Thanks!” Carys nodded to Mitchell. “I’ll do that.”

“Why don’t you come join us?” The blond asked. “We can scooch over.”

“Okay.”

“Go on,” Mitchell said. “I’ll bring it over when it’s ready.”

“Thanks.” She smiled and headed over to the group.

They made room for her, and quickly introduced themselves. The blond was Amy. Chuck was the big guy sitting across the booth. There was also Joseph, round-faced, with curly read hair. And on the other side of Amy was Kirsten, beautiful, elegant features, straight hair, and a very smart tan blazer.

The remains of their meal still cluttered the table, with empty plates, but the glasses were full. The spy-eyes took up positions, Green floating above the aisle, taking in the whole booth, while Blue hovered behind Chuck, to focus on her.

Chuck twisted around, looking up at the spy-eye. “You always have those out?”

“She does,” Amy said quickly. “You should see the films she’s done, amazing!”

“Thank you,” Carys said. “That’s so sweet.”

“You’re here,” Amy said. She looked at the rest of the group. “Oh, we should so bring her in! She’d be perfect.”

Joseph laughed, snorting, and held up his hand. “Wait a sec, Amy, we’re not bringing in anyone else.”

Now she was intrigued. “In for what?”

Joseph’s lips pressed together. “It’s nothing. School project, that’s all.”

Amy shook her head. “Seriously? Do a search. See what she’s done.” Amy turned to Carys. “I loved your tour divide videos. I watched the whole thing live, and then the final cut was great too. All those ghost towns? I don’t think I could have done it.”

“There used to be more services,” Carys said. “It’s gotten tougher.”

Mitchell came out, from around the counter, carrying a glass and a plate with a burger and a pile of fries. Actual fries! Carys licked her lips as she took it, inhaling the rich scent. Mitchell put the glass of water down in front of her.

“Oh, you have no idea. Fresh food, after months on the transport here! This is heaven.”

Mitchell watched her as she took her first bite. The bun was crisp, golden on the outside, and oven-warmed with caramelized onions on top. The burger itself was a thick garden burger, crispy on the outside, and bursting with hot, spicy juices inside. The flavors spread across her tongue, the tang of the dill pickle, and it was heaven.

After she swallowed, she beamed up at Mitchell. “Oh, baby, that was great.” She laughed and picked up a fry. It was crispy and scorching hot in her fingers. She bit off half. “Heaven. Pure heaven.”

Mitchell laughed. “Glad you like it. Most new arrivals don’t make it over here so fast. What’d you do, skip the orientation?”

“Yes.” Carys winked. She took another bite then, couldn’t resist. It felt impossibly piggy to scarf the burger down in front of the group after just meeting them, but she couldn’t help herself. She spent the next few minutes focusing on eating. No one was saying anything.

It didn’t take long at all for the burger to disappear. Carys leaned back and picked up the water. It was ice cold and delicious. She took a drink then held up the glass.

“I walked along the water treatment channel to get here, where does all the water come from? I thought Venus was pretty much dry?”

“It is,” Kirsten said. “Although there is enough hydrogen and trace water vapor in the atmosphere to condense out what we need. When Diaspora gets the sail network up and running we’ll eventually divert a comet or two into orbit, to serve as extra resources for settlements.”

Carys nibbled on a fry and looked up at Mitchell. “So how about you? Are you going to tell me what you’re all doing that’s so super-secret?”

Mitchell crossed his arms. “I can’t. It isn’t up to me.”

She looked around the table. “So Joseph, you’re in charge, is that it?”

“It was my idea,” Joseph said.

“And you think what, that I’ll steal it? Leak it?” Carys laughed. “I’m here to explore, to have fun, and tell the folks back home about how great life is on another world. I can get you an audience bigger than you can imagine.”

“We should tell her,” Amy insisted. “It’s totally her sort of thing.”

Chuck shrugged. “Heck, what do I care? I think you’re all crazy anyway.”

Carys ate a couple more fries and then slid on up out of the booth. “How about I let you think about it? It isn’t like I’m going anywhere. If you want to share, I’m sure you can find me.”

Whatever they were planning, it sounded intriguing, but trying to probe too much now would only spook them. Better that they come to her.

“Thank you,” Joseph said. His neck was flushed.

“Don’t mention it.” Carys turned and Mitchell was there. He smiled at her, she smiled back.

“Hey, since I skipped the orientation, do you think you can show me back to where I’m staying. It must be getting real food, which was great by the way, but I’m suddenly beat.”

Mitchell nodded. “Sure, I’ll show you. Come on.”

“Hey, Mitchell,” Joseph said.

Mitchell waved. “Don’t worry about it, I won’t say anything, and I’ll go along with the group.”

Carys took his arm, feeling his firm muscles, and walked with him to the door. She paused. “Wait, don’t you have to worry about the cafe?”

He shook his head. “Naw, it’s more of a community kitchen, a shared space. We all just take turns. They’ll take care of it.”

Arm, in arm, they strolled out along the pathways between the young trees. “This really looks like it could be someplace back on Earth, except for the yellow light.”

“Yeah, you get used to it, but it’s strange not having blue skies. And no weather. It’s always warm and calm here.”

Carys swung her leg out, toes grazing across the grass. “Comfy, though. Don’t have to worry about getting cold.”

“Nope.”

He was young, at least a few years younger than her, but not much. She looked up at him. “So what about you, what do you do?”

“Engineering student. I work on keeping all of this running, while studying. Diaspora pays well, and covers my education. Can’t complain about that.”

“And the others?”

“All student workers. We’re the engine that keeps Aphrodite afloat. We study, we work and that’s about it. It seems exciting, being on another planet, but we do our best to keep it as boring as possible.”

“I find that hard to believe. You have to have fun around here.” Carys bit her lip and skipped away onto the grass. The cool blades tickled her feet. She ducked beneath the hanging branches of a weeping willow and swung around the trunk, laughing.

Playful always looked good on the cameras.

Mitchell laughed.

Carys laced her fingers together and strolled out, putting a sway into her walk. “I’d hate to think that I bore you.”

Mitchell shook his head. His eyes traveled down her, and back up to meet her eyes. “You don’t bore me. Not at all.”

Carys made a decision. She was going to be on Aphrodite for quite some time, so there wasn’t any sense in delaying things. Mitchell was handsome, smart and interesting. She reached him, and ran her hand along his abdomen. Through the black polo she traced the lines his abs.

“You certainly stay in shape here,” she said, tilting her head to look up at him.

Mitchell put his hands on her waist. “Mandatory requirement. Diaspora wants healthy, productive people. They make sure that we stay in shape.”

“As they should.” Carys turned, slipping her hand around his waist to the small of his back. She played her fingers along the line of his shorts. “Makes more sense to keep workers healthy than to have them call in sick all the time.”

His arm went around her back and he started walking. She moved closer to him as they strolled.

“What about you?” Mitchell asked. “You’re obviously in great shape. I doubt Diaspora had anything to do with that.”

Carys shook her head. “Nope. That’s just me. There’s always so many things I want to do, doing them keeps me in shape.”

“So you don’t train?”

“No, I do. I even wrote a book about it, if you want to download it.” Never hurt to mention things like that for the audience. “It’s more about maintaining my fitness now, and mostly I do that through having fun.”

“Amy certainly seemed like a fan of your work.”

Carys pushed away from him. “You really haven’t seen anything of mine?”

Mitchell shook his head. “Nope, sorry. We’re cut off here from Earthnet. Well, not entirely cut off, but the lag makes it difficult to get anything from Earth quickly. It’s more like sending old-time paper mail than being connected.”

“That sucks.” Carys pulled out her cell. It showed a localnet connection only. A few swipes also showed that her storage space was rapidly diminishing as the spy-eyes streamed the video to her cell, as they were programmed to do in low connection environments.

“Suck! I’m going to hit my storage limit in two days at this rate.” She looked up, and discovered Mitchell was laughing quietly. She swung her hand at him, it didn’t hit because he moved back. “It isn’t funny. Blackstone never talked about a data limit, it never even occurred to me to ask. I’m so accustomed to not worrying about storage back on Earth. Except for some of the more remote places I’ve been, a fat connection is pretty much universal.”

“It’s fine,” Mitchell said. “We can get you set up with space. Trust me, with all the data we’re generating, we have lots of data space. In fact they probably would have helped you out with that, if you hadn’t skipped the orientation.”

She smiled at him. “If I hadn’t, then I wouldn’t have met you. Or your friends with their mysterious top secret project.”

Mitchell shook his head. “I’m not talking about that.”

Carys pressed close, running her hand up his chest. “No matter what I do to you?”

He bent and — finally! — kissed her. His lips were perfect, soft and firm, and delicious. He didn’t ram his tongue down her throat right away either, waiting until her tongue flicked his top lip before meeting her. The kiss went on, drawing out her breath, and sent shivers down her spine.

Finally they broke apart. Carys started giggling, she couldn’t help it.

“What’s so funny?” Mitchell asked, although he was grinning.

“Nothing!” Carys beamed at him. “Just happy to be on Venus!”

Eventually, with a few stops for slow, lingering kisses, they reached a structure almost on the other side of the city from the university district. Carys probed her sleep-deprived brain and recognized it as one of the central residential areas. The buildings were plain, mostly dark glass panel walls, rising four stories up, a half-dozen of them arranged around a central plaza with a fountain and sculpture in the center.

The sculpture was rough-hewn stone, carved in the shape of a Classical Greek statue of Venus. The water splashed around her feet from fountains around the rim of the pool.

“So this is where I’m supposed to live?” Carys said. She flipped through her cell messages. There were several from Rhea and Victor.

“Carys!” The voice came from behind her.

She turned, and there was Victor, coming out of the nearest building. He was still wearing the same tan uniform, and carried a tablet in his hands. She smiled brightly as he got close. “Hey there, if it isn’t Victor Crane.”

Victor took in Mitchell’s presence with a nod. “No time wasted making friends, I see.”

Mitchell stepped back with a small wave. “We’ll be in touch, Carys, it was great meeting you.”

Carys waved back. She winked. “Yeah, thanks for everything.”

As he left she turned back to Victor, who was watching Mitchell leave. A muscle twitched in Victor’s jaw. Interesting.

“I’m afraid I missed orientation,” she said.

Victor turned his attention back to her, and smiled widely. “So you did. What do you think of Aphrodite?”

“It’s beautiful, amazing. I keep forgetting that I’m inside. It feels like being outside.”

“We try to use that,” Victor said. “We’ve got all the lower levels for infrastructure, support, storage and work spaces. It lets us open up most of the volume.”

“It’s brilliant.” Carys felt a yawn coming on, and covered her mouth. She squinted her eyes tight as she yawned. When it passed, Victor was closer. “I’m beat. I hadn’t realized how much the trip had taken out of me. You said something about place for me?”

“Yes, here.” Victor tapped the screen of his tablet.

Her cell buzzed. Carys checked it. A message with attached orientation materials and a digital key to her apartment located in Venera 4, 310B. A map highlighted the building on the left side of the plaza as Venera 4.

“The buildings are named for the missions?”

“Yes,” Victor said. “There’s a replica statue in the lobby when you go in. Check it out, it was shipped from Earth.”

Which meant it was valuable. Every bit of weight mattered. “Thank you. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

Another yawn was coming on. Carys fought it. Victor grinned. “Hey, get yourself settled in. My contact information is in the packet, if you need anything let me know. Have you eaten?”

That question sounded forced casual. Carys jabbed a thumb over her shoulder. “Yeah, got something over at the U.”

“Okay, well, then, good night. It’s not going to get dark tonight, I’m afraid, but the curtains are light-blocking.”

Not dark, she’d read about that and it reminded her of a question. On Aphrodite, day and night were determined more by how fast they circled the planet in the hurricane force winds. “Why don’t you move closer to the poles to get more of a standard day/night cycle?”

“Too turbulent. Not that it’s calm out there either, but it’s more stable. It takes Aphrodite about four days to circle the planet, so we get two days of light, and two days of dark. During the dark phase we use interior lighting during daylight hours and for safety.”

“Great. Something to look forward to.” Yet another yawn swept over her. Carys covered it and shook her head. “Long day. I’m going to hit the hay. Good night!”

“Good night.” Victor looked like he might say something else, but then he shook his head, waved, and headed back to the other building.

Carys tilted her head up and squinted at Green. The spy-eye picked up on her expression and moved a bit closer. She didn’t have to look to know that Blue was tracking Victor, if he looked back, the camera would catch it.

“Well! It’s been an exciting day! It’s almost time for me to get in bed —” she waggled a finger at the camera. “Get that thought out of your head! I will give you a quick tour, and then it’s time for this girl to get some sleep!”

Suddenly she was really feeling it, exhaustion in her legs, in her whole body. Nothing that she hadn’t worked through before. How many ultra-endurance events had she done? Taking the transport to a new planet might count, but that had been months of looking at the same place. This, at least, was something different.

The show had to go on. Carys walked over to the fountain and jumped up on the narrow rim around the pool. The smooth surface was slick but her bare feet gripped the edge and she walked nimbly along to the other side and jumped down.

Inside the main doors of Venera 4 was a polished lobby of dark stone. In the center, caught in a spotlight, was the promised model of Venera 4. A Russian probe, according to the plaque, it was the first probe to land on another planet. It rose up through the center of the building, over three meters high.

Clunky, old, with bulky components and none of the grace of even the transport that brought her to Venus. How far had they come! From this, to Aphrodite, the floating city that she was currently enjoying. It was humbling. She was a thrill-seeker, a professional adventurer, and so too, in a way, were the people that built this probe.

Carys looked up at Green. “That’s where it all started, isn’t it? Impressive, I’m glad that they added this replica. It’s fantastic, brilliant.”

The rest of the building was modern, indistinguishable from anything that she might find on Earth, although the pictures lining the hallway were portraits of those involved in the history of Venus exploration.

There was an elevator, which she took, to the third floor. It opened onto a narrower corridor, the floor smooth and artificial, panels instead of stone. Lights brightened the otherwise dark hall, shining on alcoves overgrowing with green plants at regular spaces down the hall.

Her door, 310B opened into a corner suite. She used the digital key on her cell to open the door and walked in to a bright apartment. All the curtains were open, and the outer walls were simply windows. Opaque from the outside, transparent in here. The glass filtered the light, giving it a bluish tint, so that even the sky outside looked somewhat more bluish than yellow.

Carys frowned and pointed at the windows. “Look at that, blue skies on Venus? I guess it makes people feel more at home or something, than always seeing that yellowish sky.”

The apartment itself was furnished simply, tastefully. No plants in here, although there were small tables and shelves that could hold plants. Probably if she asked for them, she could get them.

She wandered into the apartment, spy-eyes rotating around her to keep her in view, and took it all in. Main room, a couch, loveseat facing each other across a coffee table. Wall screen, taking up the space above an inset artificial fireplace. A dining area, with a short shelving unit helping to define and separate the space from the living area, in front of the windows. A round table, four chairs. It looked sunny and inviting.

Around the corner, a kitchen area, and beyond it an open door into the bedroom area.

Carys smiled and spun in place. “Well! This is lovely, isn’t it? I didn’t bring much, but I’ll make it home soon!”

She went to the windows between the dining area and the kitchen, there was a door and a narrow balcony outside. Down below was a park-like space with weeping willows, a few small pines, and green lawn. Beyond it, more buildings, and not too far off, the honeycomb outer barrier rising up across the sky. The colors looked more Earth-like, given the tinted glass.

“Look at that view! Yes, I definitely will be comfortable here. Diaspora does know how to treat a girl.” She covered another yawn, then winked at the camera. “Right now it’s time for lights out! I’ll see you all tomorrow.”

A couple taps on her cell, and Blue and Green descended, landing on her hand, rolling up into balls. She slipped them into her bag. They’d need to charge tonight.

Moving into the bedroom she touched her lips lightly with her fingers, thinking of Mitchell. He was nice. Real. Interesting, too. Whatever he and his friends were keeping secret, it had Joseph wound tight. Finding out what it was might turn out to be fun.

Her chance came quicker than she had expected, when Mitchell asked her to meet him at the Cornucopia the next afternoon. When he called she was fresh from the shower, wrapped in a towel. She took the call in the living room, and Mitchell appeared larger than life on the wall screen. He gaped, blushed and turned away.

Fortunately the spy-eyes were recording it all, as she laughed, delighted at his reaction. Later, when she edited the footage, she might spare him and cut that out, but she was glad to have it for herself at least.

Today she wore a short polka dot skirt (pink dots) that ended above her knees. She still wasn’t shoes, she’d brought one pair only, and was saving those for special events. With the skirt she work a light white sleeveless blouse. Her hair, which tended to escape in all directions, was mostly captured in her signature red net snood hat. The strap of her bag crossed her chest while the yellow bag hung at the small of her back.

Her spy-eyes, Green and Blue, buzzed ahead and behind, taking in everything that she was recording along with the feed from her glasses. One of the things in the download Victor had given her, were keys to Aphrodite’s cloud, so storage wasn’t an issue any longer.

Cornucopia was busier when she reached it, with groups siting at many of the outside tables, and go in and out of the door. Mitchell and his friends occupied two tables around the corner, somewhat separated from the rest. Two pizzas sat on the tables in front of them.

Mitchell waved her over, and she waved back as she approached.

“Hey there!” She said, as she reached the group. She inhaled deeply, catching the rich tomato and basil smell of the pizza. The cheese was melty, and just browning on the top. “Who do I have to kill to get a slice?”

“No one,” Mitchell said. He gestured to an empty chair beside him. “Care to sit?”

“I’d love to.”

Amy beamed at her as she sat. “Hi! Did you get settled in?”

“I did, thanks.” Carys picked up a plate and held it as Mitchell used a spatula to serve up a slice. “Oh, this looks fantastic!”

Chuck, Joseph and Kirsten all said hellos. Joseph even managed a bit of a smile, lifting a slice in a salute before taking a bite.

She couldn’t resist. She took a bite. Spicy tomato sauce exploded across her tongue, the roof of her mouth, hot but not so hot that it blistered anything. The cheese was rich and stretched as she pulled the slice back.

She swallowed. “Wow, four months in transit gives you a whole new appreciate for good food!”

Joseph put down his slice and leaned forward. “We’re celebrating.”

“What?” Carys took a bite, while looking around the group. They all looked pretty pleased.

Mitchell leaned close. “They’ve agreed to bring you on board.”

“Okay.” Carys snagged a glass of water. “I’m game. On board for what?”

Chuck grinned and held out a tablet. “This. Check it out.”

Everyone was watching. Carys reluctantly put down the slice of pizza, wiped her hands on a cloth napkin, and took the tablet. A video was on the screen, paused.

Her first impression was that she was looking at an artificial whale, one made of largely transparent materials, a honeycomb structure that mirror that of the habitat. Except it wasn’t so much a whale, as whale-like, with a fat central body, longer than wide, a whale-like flipper in the rear and two fin-like propellers on either side.

Inside the whale, visible through the mostly transparent walls, were rods and cables, and other equipment, and at the heart of it a reclining seat. Like where someone would sit.

“Play it,” Kirsten urged.

Carys shrugged, grinned and tapped play.

On the screen an animated featureless blue person climbed up into the belly of the whale, and went forward to the chair, where it sat. The feet went out into pedals and the hands dropped to handles on each side of the seat.

Then the figure started pedaling. the propellers spun and the wide tail rose and fell. The whale-vehicle rose in a spiral, yellowish clouds drifting by, and then a bubble appeared in the distance, catching the sunlight. The figure continued to pedal, using the handles on each side of the seat to change direction and pitch.

The bubble emerged from the clouds, a soap-bubble holding a city, and green trees, walkways clearly visible between green lawns. The whale-vehicle circled the city and then the video stopped.

Carys realized she was holding her breath and everyone was watching her, obviously waiting for her reaction. She exhaled, and said.

“Wow! That’s incredible. Are you telling me that you want to build this?”

“No,” Mitchell said.

“We already have,” Joseph said, smugly. He picked up his pizza and took a bite.

“We want you to come with us,” Mitchell said.

“We so need someone like you,” Amy added. “Someone that can film what we’re trying to do, you know? Experienced at that sort of thing. I showed them my recordings of what you’ve done, I’d brought them with me.”

“You’ve done some impressive feats of endurance,” Kirsten said. “This won’t be that different.”

Carys handed the tablet across the table to Chuck. She picked up her pizza and leaned back, putting her toes up on the edge of the table. “Okay. Cool! Tell me more.”

They all looked at each other. Finally Mitchell leaned close and said, “We’re going to race around Venus!”

It sounded impossibly wonderful. “What? What do you mean?”

Chuck gestured for the tablet. “I’ll show you.”

She handed it back. He took it and quickly pulled up a new display, an animated graphic showing Venus, a bright bubble that must be Aphrodite, and a pod of tiny whale-like vehicles. Red streamers flowed past the city and the pod started swimming, racing ahead of the city, racing each other. In moments they raced clear around the planet and caught up with the city.

“No!” Carys reached out and took the tablet. Her glasses were recording it all. She replayed the animation. Once again the tiny vehicles raced around the planet. “How long is going to take?”

Amy winced. “We’re not sure.”

“We think it’s going to be at least three weeks,” Kirsten said.

“Although that’s assuming everything happens perfectly,” Mitchell added.

Carys handed the tablet back to Chuck. “Wait. Three weeks? Doesn’t it only take four days for the city to get around the planet?”

“We’re not only going around the planet,” Joseph said. “We’re racing the wind ahead of Aphrodite, but it’s blowing with the wind behind us. Our tests suggest that the sky-bikes —”

“That’s what you’re calling them?” Carys asked.

Joseph nodded. “Yes. So we —”

“They don’t look like bikes.” Carys held up her hands. “Sorry, I know that’s not the point, I know you pedal, but they don’t look like a bike.”

“The sky-bikes only gain about 60 kilometers an hour on the city,” Joseph said quickly. “At this altitude that gives us about three weeks of flight time to catch back up to Aphrodite from the other side. We’re essentially chasing the city around the planet.”

“In hurricane force winds?”

“Uh, yeah.”

Amy put her hands on the table. “See this is why you’d be so great! You’ve done things like this!”

“I need more pizza if I’m going to think about this,” Carys announced.

She picked up her slice and took another bite, melted cheese dissolving in her mouth. Nothing about this suggested that any of them had experience with endurance events. And this wasn’t any ordinary effort. She would have to pack everything, no resupply on the way. Nothing beneath the sky bike except miles of air.

Carys chewed. Everyone else was eating pizza too, but what they were really doing was watching her. So were the spy-eyes. She could edit the footage, of course, but she wanted to keep editing to the minimum.

This was exactly what Blackstone hired her for, had she known about the project?

Terra Blackstone hadn’t left anything to chance, if Carys knew anything, she had already figured that out. The team stored their files in the VenusNet, so really there wasn’t anything that would have kept Terra out. And that reception party? Had Rhea and Victor been planning to tell her about the project, arrange an introduction?

It made sense.

Carys finished the slice and picked up another. Amy bit her lip. Mitchell leaned closer. Kirsten and Joseph exchanged a look.

“Okay, I —”

Amy squealed.

Carys held up her hand. “Wait. I have some conditions.”

“Conditions?” Joseph asked.

“Yes. Raise your hand if you’re a trained pilot.”

Kirsten, was that a smirk, raised her hand. So did Joseph and Chuck, but not Amy or Mitchell. Carys waved a finger at the two of them.

“Okay, first, you’re not going. You’re talking about flying around a pilot with a violent atmosphere. No one without flight experience.”

“The sky bikes are lighter than air craft here,” Joseph said.

Carys shook her head. “Nope. Doesn’t matter. And I’m not done. Out of those of you who are pilots, how many have completed an ultramarathon?”

Only Chuck raised his hand, slowly. Carys gaped at the big guy. “Really? You’ve run an ultramarathon? How far? When?”

“When I was in the military,” Chuck said. “There’s a fifty miler in the Capitol Forest near my folks’ place. I was on leave and didn’t want to get out of shape.”

He certainly was big, much more mass. “How long ago?”

Chuck grinned. “Four years ago.”

“And how much have you run since?”

“Not much.”

She nodded and looked at the group. “So I do this solo. I take a sky bike, and make the attempt. The rest of you stay here.”

“We’ve been working out,” Joseph said.

Carys shook her head. “Working out isn’t going to do it. If you don’t have the mind-set to do an ultra, then you won’t make it. Conditions out there are going to be crazy. Wind, currents, storms, lightning, it’s crazy!”

She smiled at them. “Fortunately I was born crazy.”

“What about you?” Mitchell asked. “You’ve been cooped up in the transport for four months. Are you in shape to do this?”

“I will be,” Carys said. “We start training. I need to learn to fly this thing you’ve built. We’ll do tests around the city. Out and back, that sort of thing. When I’m ready, then I’ll go.”

There were a lot of hesitant looks around the table. Kirsten spoke up. “We don’t actually have approval for all of this. We figured that once we were on the way, they couldn’t do anything about it. There isn’t really anything that could come out and get us.”

“Are you suicidal?” Carys asked. “Even out riding in remote areas on Earth, I had GPS tracking, I had planned ways to bail out, if necessary. We had my itinerary figured out, so if I didn’t make a checkpoint that help would get dispatched.”

“We didn’t think they’d approve it,” Amy said. “We’ve been doing it after hours. What do we do if we can’t get approval?”

“Leave that to me.” Carys picked up her slice of pizza. “Technically I’m independent. I’ll call Blackstone, get her to back the project. We’ll have all the support we want. That’s the deal, I do it solo, I’ll get the support we need, and you all back me up. Deal?”

She took a bite of the pizza, savory the spicy sauce while everyone looked at everyone else, but they were smiling, even Joseph.

“Yes,” Kirsten said, breaking the silence.

Everyone cheered. Carys lifted her pizza slice in salute. Absolute insanity, her favorite thing.

Getting a hold of Blackstone proved harder than Carys expected, but after getting bumped up the Diaspora chain of command, she finally was connected through to Terra in route back to Earth behind the first solar sail from Mercury. Apparently she’d taken a transport out for the first launch. Given the lag, a real-time conversation wasn’t possible. Carys outlined the proposal and waited for an answer.

It was evening, actually dark this time, as Aphrodite had moved into the nightside of the planet, when the call came back. Carys was in her new apartment, reviewing all the details on the sky bikes.

Terra Blackstone, beautiful as always, was wearing a black workall when she came on the screen. Not the baggy sack regulation version, but a custom one that hugged her curves. The top three snaps were undone, revealing a generous cleavage. Her dark hair was braided back in a complicated French braid. The transport habitat must be rotating, because she didn’t have that puffy face look that zero gravity gave everyone. And she wasn’t floating.

Blackstone smiled brightly and spoke, with solidly American Northwest accent. “Carys! I’m so glad that you made it across the void to Venus! You’re perfect for Aphrodite, exactly what it needs to liven things up! And from your report, it looks like you’ve found exactly the way to do it. I’d heard a rumor about this plan, I’m glad that it panned out.”

A rumor? Of course that’s what it was. Carys shook her head at the recording. Leave it to Blackstone to know what was going on anywhere in the solar system right now.

“I’ve already sent word to support this enterprise. We need to show people the sorts of adventures that are available out here. It isn’t all about cataloging rocks. We’re out here to live life! This is perfect. I trust you to work out the details, work with the administration to get what you need for the project.”

Blackstone pressed her hands together in front of her chest. “Carys, I have to say it, be careful. I appreciate your sense of adventure, but I also appreciate your good sense. It’s dangerous out here, and mistakes can quickly lead to disaster. We will have accidents, we can’t help that. I still want to avoid them if possible.”

Diaspora had already weathered several accidents. People back on Earth were adapting to the idea that if people were going to live in space, sooner or later they’d die there too.

Blackstone smiled. “And have fun! I can’t wait to see your footage!”

The recording ended. Carys grinned up at the floating spy eyes. “You heard it here! We’re going to race around the planet!’

Hell, she was going to race around the planet. A small part of her had been hoping that Blackstone would squash the project. But that was okay? It was normal enough to have the jitters before a big adventure. She just had to work out all the details and it’d be fine.

Her door chime rang an hour later, while she was studying atmospheric data gathered so far on Venus.

“Come in,” Carys said.

The front door opened. Green buzzed around to a new position to take in the door, her and whoever came through. Blue mirrored Green on the other side.

Mitchell walked in, all dreaming and dark. He smiled at her, and that was nice too.

“How’s it going?” He asked, letting the door close.

Carys put aside her tablet and rose up off the couch. She stretched her arms out above her head, arching her back, and really stretched, groaning appreciatively. Mitchell’s smile widened.

“Fine,” Carys said, lowering her arms and moving closer. “You?”

“Better now,” Mitchell said, taking her hands.

She drew him down for a kiss, which didn’t really end until somehow they ended up down on the couch, and she was lying half on him, half off. She rose up, kissing his nose as she pulled back.

“I heard back from Blackstone. She loves it.” Carys grinned. “We’re getting all the support we could want. Did you know that she was on Mercury?”

“What was she doing there?”

Carys trailed her fingers along his ear. “Apparently she went there to catch a ride on the first solar sail. Now she’s on her way back to Earth, or the Moon, probably.”

“You’re really going to do this, aren’t you?” Mitchell asked.

She pushed up more, planting her hands on his chest, she swung her leg over his, straddling his thigh. “What? Before I came along you were planning on doing it yourself!”

Carys squeezed her legs against his, applying enough pressure to let him know how strong she was. “I’m up for it. Are you?”

His hands came up, running up her hips beneath the skirt. “Up for something, but not the ride. We weren’t going to do it.”

“What?” Carys laughed and tugged his shirt up, exposing his stomach. It wasn’t exactly a six-pack, maybe a three-pack, with a little extra padding. “You weren’t?”

“No.” Mitchell lifted his head toward her cleavage, but she pulled back.

“What do you mean?”

Mitchell dropped back, groaning. “We weren’t. We’d talk and talk about it, but we weren’t doing anything. It was very frustrating.”

She moved up higher, rubbing against him. “And then I showed up.”

His hands cupped her bottom, shifting her over a few inches. “Yes. You showed up. You called their dare.”

She leaned forward, her blouse grazing his face. “And now we’re going to do it for real.”

“Are we?”

“Oh, yes,” Carys said.

The few weeks before launch passed quickly. The group worked on getting the sky bike operational, and Carys worked on training, using a recumbent trike that Chuck put together for her. She spent hours, racing around the paths around and through Aphrodite, tracing out a route that took her over ten miles to complete and repeated it over and over again.

Riding the trike worked different muscles than riding a mountain bike or street bike. Instead of being up she was sitting in a mesh seat slung across a metal frame, reclining with her feet up on the pedals. The first couple days she had issues with her toes feeling numb, until her legs adjusted to the new position.

The weakness induced by four months in transit to Venus melted away.

And there was Mitchell. That worked a whole different set of muscles.

In addition to the trike, she spent hours working on body weight exercises, just getting herself in shape. She’d ride the trike around Aphrodite and stop in one of the many lawn areas to stretch, jump and work out. She climbed the willow trees.

Then the day came when Joseph approached her holding a what looked like a red latex body suit, while she was stretching on the lawn near Cornucopia. He held out the suit.

“What’s that?”

“Your environmental suit,” he said.

“My what?”

“Environmental suit. For working outside in the Venus atmosphere. You don’t need a space suit, the air pressure is essentially the same outside as inside, but you need protection from the aerosol acids.”

“Yeah, that sounds good.” Carys took the suit. It was slick and shiny, and apparently it’d be skin tight if she put it on. Early on they’d done measurements with lasers, that must have been used to make this. She raised an eyebrow. “Did you have to make it skin tight?”

Joseph actually turned an interesting shade of red himself, and rubbed his scruffy beard. “If it’s loose, the acid might pool, and is harder to clean off. It needs to be, um, as smooth as possible.”

He turned redder, and took off a hard black backpack he was wearing. He held it out. “This is a breathing unit. It scrubs CO2, and provides supplemental oxygen.”

He flipped a catch and the curved neck piece opened up. “This fastens to the neck collar, making a seal so that the air doesn’t leak. The whole thing is coated, like the suit, to shed the acid.”

Carys tossed the suit over her shoulder and took the breathing unit. The backside was sculpted, clearly designed to fit her back as tightly as the suit. “Do I have to wear this while I’m riding the sky bike?”

“Well, um, it’s a precaution. If you have a leak, or have to go outside to fix something, it’ll protect you. I don’t think you’d want to have to change in an emergency.”

“A leak?” She slid the suit down her arm, running her hands over the suit. There was a seam at the front. “Speaking of that, how do I take care of business while wearing this?”

“You’d have to take it off.” The red had been bleeding from Joseph’s cheeks, now it flooded back. “We tried to minimize seams.”

“Okay. So as long as I don’t have an emergency while I’m naked, taking care of business. Maybe I should just fly naked, it doesn’t look all that comfortable.”

“Oh, it is!” Joseph smiled and rubbed at his jaw, blushing furiously. “Not that I’ve worn it! I mean, your’s. I’ve tried one made for me. A prototype test. It’s stretchy, very comfortable.”

“Glad to hear it. Thanks Joseph. Anything else?”

“Yes,” he said. “We wanted to give that to you because we’ve got the sky bike ready, two more are just about ready to go.”

“That’s great!” Carys glanced up at Green, hovering off to the side, to catch them both in the shot. “Did you hear that? Time to fly!”

“Now?” Joseph asked.

“You just said it was ready.”

“I thought you’d want more time to train, to get ready.”

“I might,” Carys said. “After I get a feel for what it’s like. Let’s take it out for a test flight, stay near Aphrodite, and see how it handles. Assuming that goes well, we’ll have more information for our planned launch.”

Joseph grinned, but it was an uneasy thing, like he was going to be sick. Carys thumped him on the shoulder. “Aren’t you glad I came along? If I hadn’t it might be you taking it out for the first test flight.”

Carys went over to the trike parked on the path and sat down, slipping her feet into the pedal straps. She held the pack and suit on her lap, awkward, but she didn’t plan to go far. “Let’s go! Lead on!”

With a nodded Joseph moved, heading up the path toward the university buildings.

Carys had been in the workshop once before, shortly after taking on the role of the solo pilot. The group had given her the grand tour of the partially built sky bike and had shown off the model versions they’d built and tested in a wind tunnel that Amy had put together.

Outside the building Carys parked the trike in a rack, took her messenger bag off the rack in back, slug it over her shoulder and carried the suit and breathing unit as she followed Joseph down into the workshop.

The workshop had changed. The sky bike hung suspended from the ceiling, facing the large airlock doors in the outer wall. This space had been chosen because it had direct access to outside, through the airlock. That had also imposed certain design limitations on the sky bike, notably that the flipper-propellers couldn’t be deployed until the bike was outside, and both airlock doors had to open at once to let it out. That had meant more work to seal the workshop so that the atmosphere could be pressurized so that it kept the Venusian atmosphere out when they launched the bike.

None of which had been accomplished until Carys had gotten Blackstone’s support on the project. Then the administration had pitched in, even as Carys insisted the team maintained control over the project.

That hadn’t made certain professors happy about being excluded.

The sky bike was magnificent. Up close, it was sleek and elegant, with a whale-like shape. The whole thing was covered in a transparent material over a honeycomb frame. the same sort of materials as Aphrodite itself. Which meant that it was tested materials, even if the shape and design differed.

Everyone was there, including Mitchell. He gestured up at the sky bike. “What do you think?”

“She’s beautiful.” Carys dropped her bag, the suit and breathing unit in a heap on the floor. Then she walked around the sky bike, reaching up to run her fingers along the skin. It was smooth to the touch, but not fragile-feeling. Solid. Ready to face the forces outside.

Amy popped up at Carys’ elbow. “What are you going to call it?”

Carys grinned. “The Vestal Virgin.”

“That’s great!” Amy clapped her hands.

Kirsten stepped in front of Carys. “Good choice, you’ll take good care of her?”

“Yes. We’ll take care of each other.”

Chuck pointed up at the Vestal Virgin. “Wait until you get up into the cockpit. I think you’ll like it. Everything cut to your measurements.”

Carys laughed. “Like the suit?”

“It has to fit like that,” Mitchell said.

She tilted her head. “I’m sure. Joseph explained it. Maybe later you can give me a hand trying it on.”

Mitchell kissed her, his lips warm. “I’d like that.”

“Enough of that,” Kirsten said. “Let’s get you up in there. See how she feels.”

“You know that sounds wrong, don’t you?” Carys asked.

Laughter all around, all good stuff for the cameras. Chuck brought over the rolling stairs and with everyone, including her audience once she published this, watching, Carys climbed up to the side.

There was a hatch on the top side, just ahead of the tail joints, leading into a small airlock space. A twist and pull, and it popped open. Not too hard. She swung her legs in and realized immediately that anyone below would be seeing right up her skirt. Her lips quirked into a smirk and she winked up at the camera.

“Don’t do this with someone beneath,” she said.

Everyone was standing back at the moment. She dropped into the small space. The spy-eyes zoomed in, programmed to follow her, but she waved them off. “Stay back, film from outside.”

The spy-eyes pulled back.

Carys crouched and pulled the hatch shut behind her.

Hot air blasted her from all sides, blowing up her skirt. Carys pressed it down and shouted. She heard laughter outside. After a moment the wind died, although strands of her hair had escaped from her net hat. She pointed at Mitchell and the rest laughing.

“What was that?”

“It’s designed to purge any outside gasses, and dry out your suit,” Joseph called, his voice only somewhat muffled. “Sorry! We didn’t think to warn you.”

Right. They just wanted to laugh about her skirt getting blown up around her waist. The space didn’t let her stand up straight. There was another hatch, in the wall this time. Another twist and pull, and it opened up. She crawled through, moving forward into the bike.

There the space opened up more. Not enough to let her stand up right, but she could move around. There was a narrow honeycomb deck that ran around the central section to the front where her seat was. The big central mass held all of the equipment for her environmental systems, and storage of food, water and everything else she needed. Before she went out, she’d inventory everything, but right now she wanted to see the pilot’s seat.

Carys moved on ahead.

The seat was comfortably familiar, much like the trike. She dropped into the seat and instantly felt at home. Two tablets mounted on armatures gave her controls over the electronic systems, but the real key were the pedals directly in front of the seat. She slipped her feet into the straps. Perfect fit.

The lock bar was down, preventing the pedals from turning. Same thing that she’d do when she slept, leaving the sky bike to drift with the wind. They’d discussed autopilots, but as soon as they automated it, she’d be nothing more than a passenger. She had insisted only on life-support, nothing more.

They’d really done it. Carys ran her hands along the steering rods on either side of the seat. Those rods controlled the flipper-propellers still stowed against the sides. The pedaling action caused the tail to move as well, providing even more thrust to propel the Vestal Virgin through the sky. Twist controls on the right handle shifted gears in the internal hub to increase power. Braking levers on both handles would slow the flippers down to provide some brake-steering capability.

Outside Blue and Green both flew around the front of the sky bike, coming closer from both sides to get a good look at her face.

She smiled widely and waved at the cameras. “This is going to be a blast!”

It took two more days to get everything ready for the Vestal Virgin’s maiden voyage.

When Carys walked into the workshop, her spy eyes ahead and behind, conversation died as all eyes were on her.

It wasn’t only the team. In addition to them, there was a crowd of nearly thirty other people gathered around the Vestal Virgin. News of the launch had spread through the tight-knit community. Someone in the crowd whistled. Carys grinned in response.

Joseph had been right, the suit was comfortable, but it left nothing to the imagination. The slick red material clung to her like a second skin, like she had been dipped into the suit rather than having pulled it on. It covered her from her toes all the way to the open seal at her neck. She’d left the front open enough to show some cleavage. She carried the breathing unit in one hand, and the transparent top of the suit was hanging down her back.

Carys paused, placing her left hand on her hip and waved her right happily at the crowd.

Now wasn’t the time to be shy. Mitchell moved out of the crowd and walked toward her. She moved, walking to meet him. They came together and she melted against him, the slick suit doing little to diminish the sensation of him touching her. They had already experimented with that when she first tried on the suit. She’d never been much for the whole latex and bondage scene, but this was very interesting. No exposed metal, of course, given the need to resist the corrosive atmosphere.

Mitchell’s lips found hers and they kissed. As she melted into his warm touch, the crowd went wild. They cheered and clapped, more whistles rang out.

He pulled back. “Everyone’s excited about the flight.”

“It’s only a test flight,” she said. “This isn’t the big launch yet.”

“Still, it’s a big deal. A new craft.”

Carys looked up past him at the camera, then away, to kiss his neck. Mitchell moaned, then pushed her gently back. “None of that, or I’m never going to let you try this. You can still back out, you know? We could do more tests.”

“No. I want to do this.” She laughed. “Come on, it’ll be a blast. Let’s go!”

She squeezed his hand and moved around him, waving again to the cheering crowd. Rhea and Victor came forward. Rhea smiled.

“This is exciting! Thanks for inviting me. I can’t believe you’re doing this, I’d be too scared!”

Carys shook her head. “I have confidence in the team. The Vestal Virgin is only the first sky bike. They’ve got several more in production. I think this is going to be a popular draw for Venus, after we prove the concept.”

“Good luck,” Rhea said.

“Yes,” Victor added. “Good luck. Be careful out there!”

Carys kept moving, then Amy was there, bouncing in front of her with a high-pitched squeal. Amy threw her arms around Carys and hugged her tight. Carys laughed, hugging her back. When Amy pulled away her eyes were watery.

“Hey!” Carys shook her head. “No tears! This will be great. Just wait and see.”

Amy blinked rapidly. “I know, I’m just excited. I get teary when I get excited.”

“Okay,” Carys said, laughing gently.

Everyone was crowding around her, but she kept moving. Now that she was here, essentially naked in this red suit, she wanted to get on the sky bike and get out there. But she had to be friendly for the crowd, so she waved, shook hands and accepted the well-wishes.

Right at the base she found the rest of the team. Chuck, Joseph and Kirsten were all standing together beneath the sky bike. Carys smiled at them.

“Hey! Look at this, you’ve got everyone excited. Nice, isn’t it?”

Chuck nodded. “Yes, it’s crazy.”

“Good luck,” Kirsten said. “You’ll be fabulous.”

“Thank you.”

“Good luck,” Joseph said.

Carys ran a hand down her side. “Thanks for the suit, it fits great.”

Once again, Joseph blushed, grinning widely. Carys grinned back. “You may have started a new fashion statement, people are going to want to come to ride sky bikes, and they’re all going to need suits. You should go into business.”

Joseph nodded. “I think we’ll all be busy with this!”

The ladder was already in place. Carys climbed up the steps. When she reached the top she waved at the crowd below. The crowd cheered, and listening to their cheers, she climbed down into the airlock. Once inside she held up her hand.

“Come on, boys!”

The spy eyes descended to her outstretched hand. Blue landed first and rolled into a ball. Green followed. She didn’t have any pockets in the suit, so she just held onto them and pulled the hatch down with her other hand.

This time, as the hatch closed, she was ready for the blasts of hot air. If she’d been outside it would evaporate and purge the Venusian atmosphere from her suit. When it stopped she opened the inner door and moved through, sealing the hatch behind her.

The breathing unit fit into a storage space within easy reach behind the seat. If she got into trouble it would only take a second to pull the suit’s hood up over her head, seal it, and get on the breathing unit.

After storing the unit, Carys dropped into the seat. Through the transparent sides the crowd was moving away, leaving the workshop. They wouldn’t want to be inside when those doors opened. The higher pressure inside the workshop would keep out most of the Venusian gasses, but not all.

Carys lifted up the rolled up spy eyes. She tapped on Blue’s shell. “Wake up!”

Blue unrolled, its wings unrolled out and it buzzed.

“Yeah, it’s time! Let’s get filming. Try not to run into the walls.”

Blue rose up and flew around the small cabin. Carys tapped on Green’s shell. “Come on, wake back up. We’ve got a flight to record!”

Green unfurled and in a few seconds had taken a perch up on the storage section behind her seat.

Carys activated the tablets mounted on either side, above her handle controls, and the radio. “This is Vestal Virgin, anyone out there?”

“Virgin, this is Aphrodite.” That was Mitchell. “The workshop is clear. We’re ready to launch if you are?”

Carys flipped through the displays on the tablets. All the sensors throughout the sky bike reported green. Navigation and external cameras all functioning. They hadn’t automated the sky bike, but there were plenty of diagnostics. If necessary, she was able to make quite a few repairs while in flight.

“Everything looks green here, Aphrodite. Let’s get those doors open and go for launch.”

“Okay, Virgin. We’re starting the launch sequence. Doors opening.”

Red strobes came on ahead around the big airlock door. The panels slid open, revealing the inner airlock. It took a few minutes. Carys grinned up at Blue.

“I hate waiting. It’s the worst. I want to get out there, and see what she can do!”

Soon the inner doors were fully open.

“Opening outer doors, Virgin. Stand by.”

“Just waiting here, Aphrodite. Maybe I’ll take a nap while you get things ready.”

Mitchell laughed. “No napping. We’ll have you launched in a few minutes.”

The outer doors cracked open.

On the other side, nothing. A void of yellowish clouds like a bright, dense fog bank. She hadn’t wanted to do the test during the passage around the night side. This was meant as a short run, a couple laps around the city to prove the capabilities.

The wind outside howled against the opening. They’d pressurized the interior, so they were actually blowing out breathable atmosphere to keep out the Venusian atmosphere.

The outer doors finished opening.

“Extending carrier,” Mitchell said. “Hang on, time to move.”

Carys dropped her hands down to the controls. The rail above moved, carrying the sky bike forward toward the doors. The Virgin wasn’t buoyant until it got outside.

The rail extended out into the airlock and the Virgin moved with it. The bright opening was closer and closer. Nothing but clouds outside. Carys breathed in and out. Nothing to worry about.

Sensors were picking up conditions outside. Just over 26 C degrees. Wind speed in excess of 321 km/h. That didn’t matter as much, everything was moving with the wind. Nothing out there except the wind. And the clouds.

The tip of the Virgin penetrated the atmosphere outside. The sky bike shook and swung on the rail as the wind grabbed at it.

Carys clutched the handles. “Launch!”

“Launching,” Mitchell’s voice said. “Hang on!”

With a snap that pressed her back into the seat, the rail flung her out into the atmosphere. The Virgin spun around and fell.

The Vestal Virgin spun out of control and Carys didn’t even try to fight it. Snap out the flippers now and the sheer forces would rip them right off. She hung onto the seat and it was almost like floating. Except every few seconds the city flipped past, dwindling as she fell away.

The rotation slowed.

“Carys! Carys!” Now she heard Mitchell, coming over the radio. His voice frantic.

“Vestal Virgin here,” she said. “Situation stabilizing. I think.”

It was. The rotation kept slowing. The Vestal Virgin rotated around and finally the orientation settled down enough that she thought it safe to move. Blue and Green took to the air again, filming the inside of the sky bike, and her.

“Descent leveling out,” Carys said, watching the readouts. “That dismount is shaky. We need to work on that for next time.”

“We’re glad that you’re okay. Telemetry looks good. Systems seem good on our end.”

Carys flipped through the tablet displays. “I’m seeing the same thing here.”

The Vestal Virgin wallowed in the air, a loose balloon at the moment, caught in the air currents and drifting. Ahead and above Aphrodite was a gigantic sphere. The only thing around with much structure, hazy already through the clouds. If she didn’t move soon, she might lose sight of the city. She needed to get back up there.

“Disengaging lock out,” Carys said.

Using her right foot, she pressed the bar locking out the pedals up, against the spring loaded resistance, until it locked into place, arching over the crank and pedals. The bar locked into position.

She dropped her feet into the pedal straps and pushed against the pedals. It was hard to make them move. She slipped her hand down to the twist grip and twisted. Four twists into the lowest gear and the pedals moved easier.

At the rear, watching the video feed on the tablets, the Vestal Virgin’s flukes rose and fell. The sky bike surged forward, rolling a bit.

“Releasing flippers,” she announced. She shoved her hands down on two release bars beneath the seat.

Clanging noises sounded through the sky bike as the flippers, folded against the sides of the body, swung out into position. The handles in her hands came to life. She moved them experimentally, and the indirect steering worked like it did with the trike. She pulled in opposite directions and the Vestal Virgin swerved back and forth through the air.

Carys let out a whoop. “It works!”

She pulled back on both levers and the flippers tilted, and the front of the Virgin came up. She pedaled harder, shifted her hand down and twisted up a couple gears. She picked up speed.

It was a fantastic, freeing feeling, to sit surrounded by walls mostly transparent, flying the sky bike up toward Aphrodite.

“We see you,” Mitchell said on the radio. “Looking good. All systems reading green, how are you doing?”

“I’m doing fantastic! This thing handles great, you guys did a brilliant job!”

Pedaling action was smooth. Smoother even than riding the trike around the city. Here there was no friction. When she turned against the wind she the sky bike shook, but the motion readouts told the story as the wind continued pushing her along. It was like swimming across a strong current, it continued to carry her forward even as she moved across.

Keeping the flippers extended and rotate, gave her the necessary lift to rise up until she neared the city. She flew along with the wind currents above the city, passing across the face of it.

Over the radio, came cheering, and down there, through the walls of Aphrodite, were people standing alongside the water processing canal. The honeycombs of Aphrodite’s structure were much bigger than those of the sky bike, but the design was the same.

Carys piloted the sky bike around the curve of Aphrodite, not getting too close, and around to the front. The sky bike lurched and dropped closer to the outer dome.

She twisted the flippers, turning the sky bike away from the city, but the wall rapidly grew closer. What had happened? She pedaled, seeming without much result. The left lever pressed against her hand. The sky bike shifted that way and then the wind caught the sky bike swinging it away ahead of the city.

There must have been an eddy in front of the city, a dead zone where the wind coming around the city on all sides met.

She pushed the left lever ahead and down, pulling back on the right, as she tried turning the Virgin to circle around the other side of the city.

The sky bike dropped down and swung away from the city. The wind was blowing her away, and the flipper orientation was carrying her down.

How then?

Instincts kicked in. She stopped pedaling and brought the left flipper up, and the right back more. Now the Vestal Virgin swung into the wind, coming around and rising back up. The city was ahead, on her left, although she had drifted back a surprising distance. The gap between her and the city stayed fairly steady as the wind carried them both along like two bubbles caught in stream.

Carys started pedaling again, now trying to fly against the wind. It wasn’t so much that she made progress, but she slowed her speed slightly. From the readouts, she watched her speed drop. It was like riding up hill. The Virgin hummed around her. She was essentially flying backward, caught in the super-fast winds, but the movement of the flukes was enough to slow her relative to the city.

Aphrodite came up alongside. Carys locked the levers in place and waved to the crowd gathered outside along Aphrodite’s walls. She couldn’t make out individuals, but it looked like the whole city had turned out to watch her fly past.

She’d have to get footage of it from the city cameras, and from those inside, to edit into her posts.

A quick hard squeeze released the lock outs on the levers and she pedaled harder, gaining speed relative to the city, while in fact slowing down.

She swept around the backside of Aphrodite, dropping down and around. The wind tried to roll her as she turned across it but she was ready for that and turned the Virgin over to cut across the wind at an angle. Her speed picked up.

Around the far side of the city she swept up alongside the sphere and picked up even more speed. This was the challenging part. She had to slow down in order to dock with the extended rail and net.

She pushed both levers forward and stopped pedaling, diving down beneath the city. Her speed picked up more as she dove deeper, then she pulled back on the levers and pedaled hard.

The Virgin climbed up, arching up and up, slowing as it went vertical. A jerk of the flippers in opposite directions and the Virgin rolled over as she reached the top. She pushed forward and leveled the sky bike off, pedaling with everything she had against the wind.

She’d timed it right, coming up just before the rail. A few tweaks got her to the right altitude and she adjusted her pedaling to match the Aphrodite’s speed. Readings from the sensors showed her the relative speed dropping.

“This is Workshop, Virgin, do you read?”

Sweat trickled down her neck. She was panting. She laughed anyway. “Yep. I read you. Coming up for the grab. Are you ready?”

“We’re ready, Virgin. Let’s bring you in,” Mitchell’s voice was smooth, comforting.

A half second pause in pedaling and a twitch of the levers and she brought the Vestal Virgin right up under the rail. Automated hooks reached out, fastening into the catches along the Virgin’s spine. The bar rotated, aligning with the rail.

The sky bike swung beneath the rail, nearly sideways. Carys pulled the levers back, locking the flippers against the sides. Then she slipped her feet from the pedals’ straps and pressed down on the bar release with her right foot. It dropped with a clang down over the pedal crank, locking that in place. She put her feet up on the bar and leaned back, unzipping the front of her suit farther. Sweat trickled down between her breasts.

“Bring me in, Mitchell. That was fantastic!”

The rail pulled the sky bike inside. The rocking from the wind stopped, then the outer workshop doors slid shut, closing her off from the outside.

She did it. She was safely back inside. Fans blew, sucking off any acid that had condensed on the Vestal Virgin’s skin. The process took long minutes.

“Are you okay?” Mitchell asked.

“I’m doing great,” she said. “That was a blast! I can’t wait for the big flight. It’ll be epic.”

Blue was hovering in front of her, just above the tablets. Through it all the spy eyes had been there, filming. She was used to tuning them out. Now she smiled at the camera and winked.

“That was a taste of what’s to come,” she said. “Stay tuned for the big adventure when I race around the entire planet, flying solo, leaving Aphrodite, and circling the entire planet to catch back up to the city!”

Carys had to get out of the seat and was surprised how hard it was, not physically, but she wanted to stay. She wanted to get back out there and start the next adventure.

There was still work to be done before then. The data from the Vestal Virgin’s maiden flight needed to be evaluated. The team had a whole sequence of follow-up test flights planned. Most were out and back, where she’d fly ahead of the city, then turn and slow for the city to catch up.

Outside, people were streaming into the workshop. Mitchell was right there in front, along with the rest of the team. She waved and blew kisses. With everyone watching, she got out of the seat.

The footage that she was going to put together, that was going to sell the trip. This was the trailer to the main event. Look at the excitement out there!

Carys grinned. She’d get out there soon. A few more weeks of preparation, lots of options for test flights, and then the big solo flight around the planet. If everything went as planned, she’d have people watching the adventure on every settled planetary body in the solar system.

She opened the hatch and ducked through. Blue and Green buzzed up and landed on her outstretched hand. There wasn’t room for them to hover in the Virgin’s airlock. It was too tight.

She sealed the inner hatch and opened the upper hatch. Cheers erupted from the gathered crowd. Carys hoisted herself up onto the edge of the hatch, and there was Chuck, pushing the ladder into place. She stepped over and tossed Blue and Green into the air. They unfurled and buzzed around the crowd, filming it all.

Mitchell bounded up the stairs with a big smile on his face. He reached up and put his hands on her waist as he climbed the last few steps. They came together and kissed, to the wild cheers of the crowd.

When they broke she leaned back and caught him glancing down at the unsealed front of the suit, with her sweat-glistening cleavage.

“Hey!”

Mitchell grinned as he met her eyes. “You can’t blame me, I didn’t design it.”

“Yeah? I’m not sure that you didn’t have a hand in it.”

“I could have a hand in it, if you want?”

Carys kissed him lightly. “You’re sweet, we’ve got to go greet everyone.”

“You were fantastic,” Mitchell said. “You’ve made this project a reality in a way we never would have done.”

She kissed him again and then turned with him to look down at all the excited faces. All of these people were adventurers, all of them living and working in a floating city on a hostile planet. They were the true heroes, and when she put together her first video about the project, the teaser, she’d be sure to show that. The footage she had shot outside, showing the city in the Venusian atmosphere would help make it all real.

She waved to the crowd and they cheered. She blew kisses and hugged Mitchell close. Venus was waking up, and the adventure was only beginning!

15,383 words

Author’s Note

Venus Waking takes us to our nearest neighboring planet (I read something recently that called Mars the closest planet, um, no), the second in the Planetary Bodies stories on my tour of the solar system. If you didn’t catch Mercury Rising, it is still posted.

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

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

Mercury Rising

Larunda Stark wants the Chief Geologist position in the Diaspora Group’s Taft outpost on Mercury. One of thirteen lucky colonies launched throughout the solar system, Mercury is key to the success of the effort and unforgiving of mistakes.

Also in the running for the position is Mason Gray. As if she needed the distraction.

Everything the Diaspora Group plans centers on success at Mercury and it could all either be her greatest success — or greatest failure.

1

Mercury runs hot and cold. What’s a girl to do? Take advantage of both! So why, with trillions of dollars at stake, couldn’t the Diaspora Group manage to create a comfortable space suit? One that kept the internal temperature and humidity in check? Not to mention one that was easy to get out of?

That’s really what was bugging Larunda Stark as she pawed at latches supposedly designed to work with the bulky gloves. Eventually, using her pinky of all things, she got the latches off and stepped away from the F.H.E.U., or Freaking Heave Environmental Unit. Why didn’t the suit room have robotic arms or something to help with this sort of thing? The F.H.E.U. settled down to the floor in front of the bench.

The magnetic seal at the back of the suit was easier, she tipped her head forward and tongued the switch with a practiced flip of her tongue.

With a snick, the magnetic catches released on the back of the suit. Larunda wiggled her arms down out of the bulky sleeves, squashing her breasts as she tucked her arms into the main body — clearly not designed for anyone bigger than an ‘A’ cup size — and then she did the only thing that you could do with the suit. Push with your arms, as you pulled your head down through the neck ring, and stick your butt out first!

Who thought that a rear entry was a good idea?!

Although the cool air was great, as she wiggled and folded herself nearly in half to get out of the suit. The edges caught her tank top, you couldn’t wear much in the suit without roasting, and pulled it up as she wriggled out.

Finally, covered in sweat, her shirt pulled up her back to her neck, she managed to get her head out. Sort of. The clasp holding back her long red hair got caught on the edge of the suit. She pulled, and the clasp popped open. She promptly fell back and out of the suit, half-naked, and one leg still caught in the suit. Only her quick reactions allowed her to catch the bench before she landed on her ass.

At least there wasn’t anyone —

Someone whistled appreciatively. And clapped.

Heat that had nothing to do with the hot suit, or Mercury’s temperature, rushed to her face. She turned, and who had to be there to witness her clumsiness? Mason Gray, of course, because life did things like that.

 

Mason wasn’t wearing any more or different than she was. Tight black briefs, and an equally tight black shirt. Clothes that covered so little that he might as well have been naked, every lean, muscled inch of him from his bare feet up to his handsome, shadowed jaw and wolfish grin. His dark hair was tousled and wet, as if he’d just come from the showers. Which he probably had since he had turned back first at sunrise.

“What are you doing in here?” She said. Here being the suit storage room, a windowless room leading to the North airlock. It wasn’t a big room, with cleaning and recharging lockers along both sides for the F.H.E.U.s and the suits. Seven hung behind the transparent doors right now, like prisoners lined up for execution with the bags over the helmets. The vacant space stood open, waiting for her suit.

“I thought you might need a hand.” Mason crossed the room and picked up the F.H.E.U. by the handles on both sides. The muscles in his arms bunched as he lifted. With Mercury’s lower gravity, just under Martian gravity, it looked a lot more impressive than it was.

A water drop rolled down one tight bicep. What would it taste like, to lick it off? Larunda pulled her leg out of the suit and stood up, refusing to be embarrassed or think any more about how he might taste.

“I could manage fine on my own.”

Mason levered the F.H.E.U. into her slot and shoved it in until the recharge connections latched into place. “I’m sure you could, but sometimes it’s nice to have another set of hands.”

She bent down and grabbed the suit. Mason’s eyes were on her chest as she straightened, her tank falling forward, and a muscle in his jaw clenched. She wrapped her arms around the suit, dark Mercury soot smearing across her sweat-slicked skin.

“Besides,” she said. “You’ll get all dirty if you help me now, after you’ve already gotten all sparkly clean.”

Mason stepped closer, smelling faintly of the company-issue, chemical soap. Beneath that was something else, that was just him. A human-scent in this place of sun-blasted rock and iron.

“I wouldn’t mind taking another shower,” Mason said.

It took some shoving to get the suit into the cubicle, the arms kept spreading out like the suit was trying to embrace her or climb back onto her. The whole time she felt Mason’s eyes on her. Was he laughing? Smirking? Both? When she finally got it in, she slapped the connections into place, and punched the big red button beside the cubicle to initiate the cleaning process.

The transparent front slid down. Red rim lighting came on around the cubicle while inside steam blasted out, scouring the corrosive Mercurial dust from the equipment. Robotic arms emerged, writhing in the steam as they blasted those hard to reach places.

Of course when Larunda turned around, Mason was still there eyeing her. “Okay, thanks. You were such a great help.”

His eyes narrowed a tiny bit, just a second, as if her sarcastic tone had hurt. She stiffened. How could he be offended? He came in her to laugh at her falling out of the suit, more or less naked, and then acts like she couldn’t handle it herself?

She walked past him without another look. What was really infuriating about the whole thing, was that he was just doing it because he was sure he was going to get the promotion to Chief Geologist. He wanted to throw her off her game, that was it.

Mason followed her out of the suit locker, there really wasn’t anywhere else for him to go, but she breathed easier when he went on straight into the Taft base while she took the turn into the locker room. Time for her to scrub all that grime and sweat off, get some food, and rest before her next excursion outside.

Food, dinner to fill that sucking, ravenous hole in her gut, today was chicken enchiladas, taken up into the cupola over-looking Taft.

She loved the outpost. It crouched like a snowflake in the middle of a deep North polar crater. Appropriate given the wealth of water ice and carbon compounds beneath the outpost. Temperatures on Mercury really did run hot and cold. Like really hot and cold, ranging from 800 F out in the blasting sun, to minus 370 F. The outpost took advantage of both, with massive towers that reached up higher than the crater walls to catch the blazing sun, providing an unending stream of power for the outpost.

Taft was only part of the plan. From here, each day they sent out crews to mark and lay plans for the mining operations, radiating out, taking advantage of the slowly moving terminator to avoid the worst temperature extremes. It was Taft that was going to fuel the Diaspora Group’s plans, producing the massive solar sails that would open up entire the solar system.

Of course there were other expeditions on each of the thirteen major planetary and dwarf planetary bodies, getting things out on the reaches ready. But she got to be here! At the heart of the solar system, the closest outpost to the Sun!

Larunda realized that her tray was empty, the chicken enchiladas already gone. Caught by the view outside the cupola she hadn’t even tasted her meal.

It was all hers, or it would be as if she got the promotion to Chief Geologist. It was that position that would tell the crews where to dig, and it would get her the recognition that she needed to advance. Give it a few years and she could be running the most important operation in the entire solar system!

“What are you doing?”

Larunda yelped and jerked around. Mason again, his head sticking up through the hatch into the cupola. He grinned up at her.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“How long have you been there?”

He didn’t answer. Instead he started climbing up into the cupola, which wasn’t really all that big. The small blister near the top of the central dome, had a single hard seat that ran around the inside, barely more than a meter across. She was sitting across the cupola, with her feet up on the other side.

That didn’t stop him. Mason bumped into her legs. He reached up and put his hand on her bare calf, just below her knee.

“Hey!” Larunda pulled her leg back. With all the heat coming down the central shaft, the outpost stayed balmy. She was wearing standard white regulation shorts, and a matching white t-shirt. No bra. That was one of the great advantages with low gravity.

Mason settled onto the seat on the other side. There wasn’t much room, so it was pretty much impossible to sit facing him with her knee touching his. He was dressed pretty much as she’d last seen him, except that he had also put on shorts over his briefs. The black regulation shorts.

It wasn’t awkward. In space you had to live in tight quarters. You saw things, you just didn’t pay attention. Although, if that was the case, why did Mason have that grin?

“What are you doing here?” She asked. The cupola felt much smaller with the two of them. With the bubble top and the close quarters, it was sort of like being in the front seat of the VW Beetle she had owned back on Earth, if you had turned the seats to face each other.

That ignored the cratered and shadowed landscape outside the windows.

“I came up here to see the sunrise,” Mason said. “You?”

“I was looking for some time alone, to enjoy my dinner.”

“I see that. I noticed when you weren’t in the galley with the rest of the team.” Mason shifted his weight, stretching out his legs to brace them on the seat beside her. The whole length of his muscular leg was pressed right against hers.

Larunda crossed her arms and refused to give him the satisfaction of noticing. She wasn’t paying any attention at all to that muscled thigh, lightly covered with dark hairs. Or to the heat of his skin against hers.

“Like I said, I was looking for some time alone.”

“They’re celebrating the initial survey results. It looks like we can practically scoop up the surface and process it.”

“I’m sure Mercury will have its surprises.” Larunda tore her gaze away from his leg and looked out at the dark, cratered landscape. “Despite what it looks like out there, this isn’t the Moon.”

“Thank the powers that be! It’s one thing to be out here. Another if you had the Earth hanging in front of you all the time, looking like a ripe peach.”

“Ripe peach?” Larunda looked back, right eyebrow arching. “I think you’d have to head out on the Jovian expeditions, maybe Jupiter or Saturn could be described as a ripe peach. Earth’s more of blueberry.”

“Good point. Still, I think I’d be more homesick if I was seeing the Earth all the time.”

“Not me.” She looked back out at the dark landscape, the only light was that spilling from the outpost itself, revealing the cratered terrain broken by their roads and tracks.

The rim of the crater glowed like molten fire from the sunlight just outside the jagged walls. In places the light seeped partway through the rough toothed wall. Eventually she imagined a construction project, like the Great Wall, stretching clear around the crater. A uniform barrier against the seething radiation, protecting them and the ice contained within the crater.

“I love it here. This is a virgin planet, ours to explore. And it is this project that will give birth to all of the solar sails needed by the Diaspora, like a seed releasing its seeds to the wind, Mercury will release its seeds out to the entire solar system.”

It was a grand dream, thousands of the gigantic sails orbiting the Sun, a complex, migratory dance across the system. Local craft had only to boost up, link up with the sail and coast the rest of the way until it was time to disengage. It all was up to them.

“That’s a beautiful dream,” Mason said.

She could almost see it, the sails up there against the black sky. There was a lot to do first, to get the mass driver up and running, the manufacturing facilities —

A hot hand lightly touched her right leg, gliding down. Larunda tore her gaze away from the black sky. Mason’s hand was on her bare calf. His hand was warm and slightly rough, callused to the touch. He ran his hand around her calf and across her ankle.

What was he..?

He brought his other hand up, taking her bare foot in both hands. Her nails were shiny red, although annoyingly the polish on her pinky toes had chipped in the surface suit. Mason’s hands massaged her foot, thumbs working into her tired arch.

“Ohhh.” It was a moan of pure pleasure, escaping without thought.

What was the big deal? It was a massage. That’s all. It wasn’t like it was going to go farther than that.

“All that walking, in those suits is tough,” Mason said. “You’d think that they were designed in a lab by people that never had to use them. Oh, wait, they were.”

Larunda smiled. He was right, of course. “Wouldn’t it be fun to get them out here? Put them out in the day and see how they do.”

Mercury orbited the Sun in a 3:2 resonance orbit. In other words, each day on Mercury was a year and a half long, for Mercury. In three Mercury years, two days passed. During those long days, lasting 176 Earth days, the surface reached upwards of 800 degrees F. Working under those conditions was difficult. Instead they focused on the terminator, the boundary between day and night, laying out markers and taking samples. By the time they finished, they’d have a plan for all the initial mining operations around the Taft outpost crater.

His hands were exactly what her tired feet needed. He slid his hands off her right foot to her left, repeating the same fantastic rhythm without a break in pace. Larunda closed her eyes, leaning her head back against the cupola’s thick windows, savoring the sensations. Hot pressure, pushing and rubbing aching muscles. Hot and wet around her toe, sucking —

What?! She jerked her foot in surprise.

“Owww!” Mason’s hands were on his face, blood oozing between her fingers.

“Oh shit,” she said. Her heel must have caught him in the face when she jerked her foot back. She hadn’t anticipated him trying to go down on her toe!

“I thut you er joyin that?” His voice was muffled, and pained. He tilted his head back, and there was more blood running down around and on his mouth.

“We have to get you to the infirmary, should I call for help?”

“No thag you. I kin wulk.” Mason turned and stepped down through the hatch, pinching his nose with one hand while climbing with the other.

His hand smeared blood on the rungs. Ick. This was all that she needed, too, with the promotion on the line. What if he filed assault charges or something? She hadn’t meant to hurt him, but he’d surprised her. And it had felt good, too, she just hadn’t expected it.

Not that he should have done it, anyway. Larunda started down the rungs out of the cupola, stopping at the last second to pick up her empty tray. Sucking on her toes definitely wasn’t something that should happen without warning, or before several dates. Not sprung on her during an innocent foot massage when her eyes were closed!

Mason held up his free, and bloody, hand when she bounced off the last rungs into the corridor. “Thag you, Stark. I’ll goo by myself.”

“I can walk you there. What if you have a concussion, or something?”

“I’m fine.” He turned and walked away. He wasn’t staggering or anything. There were a couple scarlet drops on the floor. At least his clothes were black.

A hour later her work was interrupted by a summons to the warden’s office. Jack Warden, Chief of Operations Personnel, really, how could they do that. Jack was retired military, fifty-five, gay, and bragged that he was so tough that even Mercury’s high temperatures couldn’t melt him. He wasn’t their boss, he handled staff issues and worked to make sure that they had what they needed to get the job done. His recommendation would also carry a lot of weight with the review board when it came time for promotions.

The office was on the third floor down, that is in the levels buried in the subsurface. The more ice they melted out, the bigger the outpost grew. The C.O.P. offices had a tough gray carpet formed from metal fibers harvested from the mining operations. It was short and was like walking on steel wool. It was the only place in the base where the floor wasn’t sheet metal panels over compressed pumice.

Larunda knocked on the door.

“Come in.” Jack’s deep voice carried easily through the door.

She took a breath and pushed open the door. The bottom edge dragged a bit on the carpet. Right ahead were two dark metal chairs, also made locally, and Mason Gray was sitting in one, bandages over his nose.

If this was about the promotion, it didn’t look like it was good news.

“I said come in, not stand there letting out my warm air,” Jack complained.

Larunda stepped inside and shut the door. It was warm in the office. Hot even. A dry baking heat. The chairs, including the one with Mason, faced a desk on the right side of the office. She turned and Jack was sitting there in his chair, his fingers steepled in front of his massive chest, decorated with several medals on his regulation security uniform, brown, short-sleeved, completely crisp and wrinkle free. A blue light blinked on his cell earpiece.

A beard, black and gray, gave him a wolfish look. He smiled at her, the sort of smile that might make some women melt if he wasn’t so obviously gay. Mason was muscled, but Jack out-bulked him by several inches, anywhere you looked.

Jack nodded at the empty seat. “Sit down. Tell me what’s going on between the two of you.”

Mason opened his mouth and Jack pointed at him. “I told you to stay quiet. Don’t go putting words in her mouth.”

Shit. What had Mason said? Their eyes locked for a second. The corners of Mason’s eyes narrowed. What did that mean? Was he pissed? Had he filed a complaint? She perched on the edge of the seat.

“It was an accident, that’s all,” Larunda said. “I didn’t mean to hurt him.” She looked at Mason. “Is it broken?”

“No,” Mason said, his voice mostly normal. He glanced at Jack, then back to her. “Nothing broken. Just pressure bandages, to stop the bleeding. I can take them off later.”

Jack waved a finger between them. “This isn’t the sort of thing I expect to see from the candidates for the Chief Geologist position. It’s a crucial role here at Taft. You’re going to be making the decisions where we dig. Screw that up, and you’ve screwed up the entire Diaspora project.”

“It wasn’t anything like that,” Larunda said. She didn’t want to get into the details.

Jack leaned forward. “So, it wasn’t about the promotion, then I have to assume that there’s something going on between the two of you.”

“No!” Larunda said.

“Yes.” Mason said.

Her head snapped around, eyes focused on Mason. He grinned at her and winked. Heat flooded her face. She turned back to Jack. “There isn’t.”

“There is,” Mason said. “I know the regulations, I’m sorry, it’s just —”

“There isn’t!” Larunda protested. “He forced his way into the cupola!”

“Forced?” Jack’s voice was hard.

“Hey!” Mason laughed, leaned forward. “I didn’t force anything. It wasn’t like that.”

Jack looked at Mason. “You said it happened in the locker room, trying to help put away her F.H.E.U..” He looked at Larunda. “You say it happened in the cupola. Which is it?”

“The cupola,” Larunda said, quickly and firmly. “Mason did help me with my gear, but that’s not where this happened. Check the scutter logs, they had to clean up the blood in the cupola, on the ladder, and the corridor beneath.”

A glance over at Mason revealed he was sitting back, not looking at her at all. His gaze was fixed on the small barrel cactus on Jack’s desk.

“Okay,” Jack said. “I’ll do that. Now tell me what happened in the cupola. You say there’s nothing going on between you? Then what happened?”

“An accident, that’s all. I was up there for the view, while I ate my dinner. Mason came up, it’s a small space. He gave me a foot rub —”

“A foot rub?”

Her cheeks started to burn again, so frustrating, but she ignored it and went on. “Yes. A foot rub. Spending the day out in those suits is tough. Your feet get sore. It was nice, but it didn’t mean anything.”

Jack gestured at the silent Mason. “How does a foot rub lead to a bloodied nose?”

Larunda shrugged. “Like I said, an accident. My eyes were closed and he sort of sucked on my toe. It surprised me.”

She didn’t dare even look at Mason. He still wasn’t saying anything.

“Is that right?” Jack asked, his eyes focusing on Mason.

She still couldn’t look at Mason. All she wanted was to get out of the room.

“Yes,” Mason said. “That’s it. Obviously I misread the situation. I probably deserved the kick in the face.”

“I didn’t mean to kick you,” Larunda said. “I was surprised.”

Jack nodded. “Okay. Doesn’t it feel better to have the truth out in the open?”

No. Not at all. Her stomach was a knot, her cheeks were hot, and why did Jack have to keep his office so hot? All she wanted was to get out of here, get away from them both and focus on the job. She hadn’t done anything wrong, nothing that might jeopardize her chance at the promotion.

Jack settled back. “I’ll remind you both that the regulations discourage fraternization within departments. One of you is going to end up working for the other, depending on the outcome of the review. I’m sure you see the problem. No one is expected to live a celibate life out here, heck, we came out here to live life. Give it a few years and I expect to see children running through these halls, gods help us all. Use your off-time. Get out and meet some of the other people here. We’ve got nearly six hundred people in this base right now. Look at the social calendar on the net. Otherwise, with the two of you, keep it professional. If either of you needs a massage, go see one of the masseuses, they’re quite good at their jobs. Do we understand each other?”

“Yes, sir,” Mason said.

“Yes, sir.” Larunda scooted to the edge of her seat. “Is that everything?”

“Yes.” Jack waved a hand. “Get out of here and let me get back to work. You wouldn’t believe the stack of appraisals I have to get through.”

She was out of her seat before he finished talking. When he stopped she slipped around the chair and went to the door. In the corner of her eye, Mason was up and moving toward her. Larunda opened the door and escaped outside.

She didn’t breathe easier until she made it back to her rooms and shut the door. What was Mason trying to do, claiming something was going on between them? She leaned back against the door. Maybe he thought that, maybe she should have been more careful, but he knew the rules!

A hard knock on her door drew a yelp from her lips. She jumped, bouncing away from the door in the lighter gravity. The jump took her half way across her small sitting room. She turned in mid-air and landed lightly on the balls of her bare feet.

“Yes?”

“Larunda?” That was Mason’s voice! “We need to talk.”

Mason? Here? He was crazy! “I don’t think so. I’ll see you tomorrow. At work!”

“I’m not leaving until you open the door.”

What? Larunda crossed back to the door. She hit the panel and it slid open. Mason was standing right there, hands on either side of the doorway. He’d taken off the pressure bandages on his nose. There wasn’t any bruising. He looked fine. Really fine. His lips were pressed together.

“What? You heard Jack. If he knew about this it might be misinter—”

Mason stepped close, his hands going to her waist. He pulled her against him and his lips pressed against hers. It was like the terminator had swept over her, filling her with the blazing heat of the sun.

She melted against him. Her lips parted and his responded too, moist and hot, hungry for her. His hands moved up her sides, leaving her skin beneath the thin shirt tingling. Her hands stopped fluttering and settled on the sides of his face. His stubble was rough against her palms and her lips.

They parted, both breathing heavy, and his forehead pressed against hers.

“Nothing between us?”

“Shut up.” She grabbed his shirt, slapped the door controls, and bounced back, pulling him into the room. The door slid shut.

Larunda pulled his shirt from his shorts and ran her hands over his stomach, tracing the hard muscles. He didn’t have any extra weight on him. Everything was lean and tight. He pressed close and his lips found hers again.

The second kiss was as amazing as the first. She savored each touch, each electric moment, the play of their tongues. Jack picked her up and she wrapped her legs tight around him, pressing down, and feeling the hard length of him through their shorts. She drank him down as he bounce-walked around the small table to the couch against the wall.

When they got there he twisted fast, as she laughed as he fell back onto the couch and she rode him down. With her knees on either side of him she raised herself up and pulled back. He reached for her chest but she caught his wrists.

“Nope.” She pushed his arms back down. He resisted at first, then relaxed. Leaning forward to pin his arms put her breasts right in front of his face.

Mason lifted his head and at the first light touch of his tongue along her cleavage, a shiver ran through her. His lips brushed her skin, kissing with light butterfly touches along the swell of her breasts. Larunda bent forward, closing her eyes, finding his ear and nibbled along the edge.

He let out a deep groan and pushed up with his hips. For a second he pressed against her, hard and constrained by their clothes, before she pulled away, lifting off him.

“Larunda,” he moaned.

She kissed lower, moving from his ear down to his neck. Mason’s face moved, seeking her breasts. His stubble was rough against the sensitive skin and it set her nerves alight. Her face burned. She wanted to see move of him. She kissed downward, still clutching his wrists, only to find her progress thwarted by his shirt.

Larunda ran her hands down his arms, releasing him. She drew back and ran her hands across his firm chest, then lower, tugging and pulling at the shirt. His hands moved to her waist, slipping under her shirt as well. His hands ran up the curve of her waist, pushing her shirt up.

They couldn’t both do it at the same time. Larunda yanked his shirt up, forcing his hands off and back. He sat up, helping her pull his shirt free up over his head.

“Ow!”

Larunda pulled back. “I’m sorry, your nose?”

“Forget it.” Mason took the shirt and tossed it to the side of the couch. She pushed him back with one hand.

He was smooth and perfect. A few freckles dusted his skin, but he wasn’t an hairy man. A few small hairs circled each darkened areola.

She ran her fingertips lightly down his chest. He reached for her shirt and she swatted his hand away, then went back to grazing her nails across his skin. He was beautiful, perfect, and…

What was she doing? Jeopardizing her chance at the promotion? They both were? And Jack was right, how would it work, aside from regs, whichever way the promotion went?

Mason tugged at her shirt. Larunda wanted to kiss down his chest, tongue his nipples, but she couldn’t. It wasn’t right. One of them, at least, had to think about the future.

She slid off him, and bounce-stepped back around the small table.

“What are you doing?” Mason asked, sitting up.

“Stopping us. Stopping this. We can’t. You heard Jack.”

“You want this as much as I do.”

Larunda shook her head. “Obviously not, because I’m the one that still has enough sense to stop before we do something we regret.”

Mason rolled on the couch, grabbed his shirt, and stood. He tugged the shirt on over his head. “Too late. I already do.”

He left. Just like that, his words still hanging in the air. He just bounced on out her rooms and was gone.

It hurt. Larunda clenched her fists. It was right, but damn, it still hurt. She on through to the bedroom, passing the bathroom on the way.

During the day the bedroom served as another office area, with the bed folded up against the wall, Murphy-bed style, and a widescreen monitor on the underside. A swing out armature provided a height-adjustable shelf for a keyboard and other items. It was a convenient, ergonomic set up for a stand-up workstation, which was all the more comfortable in the lower gravity.

Briefly she considered going straight to bed, but her nerves were still firing from Mason’s touch. Not to mention how she’d stopped things.

Some work before bed would help clear her head and get her focused.

Gerrold Blevins had been the chief geologist assigned to the Tolkien outpost. Back on Earth he had argued hard for establishing the base in the Tolkien crater. The evidence was all there. Spacecraft data showed a large deposit of water. Most of the crater was perpetually shadowed, except for a bright central peak. It was Gerrold’s recommendation that they build into the central peak, using it to support and provide materials for the outpost, including the large central mast and solar array reaching above the peak to catch the sun’s energy like a plant reaching out of darkness.

Trouble was, for Blevins, that he couldn’t take living in the outpost. He had become paranoid about the water and organic compounds they were mining, fearing contamination by primordial organisms that might have evolved in the interface boundary where the sun’s energy sometimes reached the crater walls.

Crazy, of course. Larunda flipped through Blevins’ reports with a practiced eye. She’d been through it all before, but reviewing it was both a good way to put herself to sleep and to clear her mind.

The Tolkien crater was around thirty miles across, and was only one of the many craters containing similar deposits. One of the difficulties they faced was not only navigating the rough terrain in and out of the crater, but deciding the first spots to mine. Test mines had already cut deep into the Tolkien crater. The Diaspora Group was going to want her recommendation at some point, and she had to have a good case for them.

As always the work pulled her in. Reports from the ground crews, her own work included. Hundreds and hundreds of samples, solar potential, ice versus mineral content. It was dangerous work.

Another yawn made her realize how much time she had spent looking at the data. Over two hours! It was getting late, and there was a staff meeting tomorrow, with the latest orders from home. Hopefully news about the next stage. Mason would be there too, of course, but she just had to be a professional. Surely he would do the same.

Larunda suspended the system, folded away the keyboard arm, and pulled the bed down from the wall. It was a simple solid panel, with a thin foam mattress attached. Given the low gravity, you didn’t really even need that much, but it was nice. If she hadn’t kicked Mason out, they might have been sharing it tonight.

She shook the thought away. It wasn’t going to happen. It couldn’t. Not if she was going to get what she wanted. She didn’t work so hard, sacrifice everything to get here including leaving her mother back home on Earth, to throw it all away now over a guy.

The next day, Larunda made her way to the Meeting Hall for the staff meeting, an amphitheater-style lecture hall built into the outer slope of the central peak. The hallways were full for once, as everyone made their way to the hall.

“Larunda!” The high-pitched voice was behind her, but she recognized it right away.

Phoebe Wilkins, worked in the hydroponics that provided most of the food they ate. Larunda stopped and turned.

Bouncing down the hallway, Phoebe looked more child-like than ever. Petite hardly covered it, Phoebe was tiny, pretty and perky. Brown ringlets floated around her pixie face. The fact that she was rather busty for her size saved her from looking too child-like, but at twenty-six she still looked like she was barely out of her teens. She was wearing green shorts and a matching shirt. Barefoot, pretty much like everyone in the base.

Phoebe caught Larunda’s arm and laughed. “I love the gravity here! Don’t you?”

“It’s great.” Larunda started walking again. “How’s life in the garden?”

“Good. We’re going to have another crop of tomatoes soon.”

“Hmmm.” Fresh tomatoes, it sounded so good. “Do you have any basil?”

“Lots. It totally flourishes down there. Warm, no growing season, what’s not to like?”

Phoebe leaned close. “I saw Mason heading away from your quarters last night, what’s going on there?”

What? Larunda lowered her voice. “Don’t say that! There’s nothing going on.”

“Really, ’cause he’s pretty hot.”

Mason, reclined on the couch, shirtless, his bare skin perfect. Larunda pushed the image out of her mind. “No comment. Nothing’s going on, please, Phoebe, don’t tell anyone? Okay? I can’t have rumors like that floating around.”

“I won’t,” Phoebe said. Her dark eyes narrowed. “Something happened, though, didn’t it? He looked sort of pissed when I saw him. Didn’t even slow down when I bounced.”

Phoebe demonstrated. Her low-gravity enhanced breasts bounced impressively. A miner in orange passing by tripped and nearly collided with two others.

Phoebe giggled.

Larunda shook her head. “Phoebe! You’re going to cause a traffic accident with those.”

“Oh, you have to admit how much fun it is! The bras I had to wear back on Earth? Ugh.” Phoebe shook her chest. “This is so much better!”

“Yes.” Larunda tugged on Phoebe’s arm. “But you’re going to get someone hurt!”

Phoebe just giggled again. “So if nothing’s going on with you-know-who, want to come on a double with me tomorrow?”

“Date?”

“Yeah! I met one of the guys from the motor pool. Suggested we take one of the ramblers out.”

“That’s against regulations,” Larunda said. “I can’t do that with the promotion coming up.”

“I want to go! I haven’t been outside the base since we got here. You get to go out every day!”

Larunda shook her head. “Not every day. Besides, it’s dark out there, and dangerous. You shouldn’t be taking unauthorized trips outside.”

Phoebe pulled away. “Listen to you! When did you become so hung up on regulations?”

“Come on, it isn’t like that. You’re right, I’ve gotten out a lot, and I’ve seen how dangerous it is. I don’t want you hurt, that’s all.”

Phoebe’s lips quirked. “Well, can’t blame you there.”

They’d reached the Meeting Hall and merged with the crowd funneling in through the doors. They were coming in near the top, and most of the seats in the upper rows were already filled with people. The colors included oranges, blues, greens, browns, blacks and whites, depending on department and preference. Mostly t-shirts and shorts, given the heat in the place. Add the warmth already from the piped in solar heating, then throw a crowd of hundreds into the room, and the place was pretty warm.

Not as bad as the suits, but hot. At least the air circulated. The tiers of seats dropped away, all facing a wall of windows. It was the most impressive view in the outpost, which helped encourage attendance.

Through the windows, the dark interior of Tolkien was visible, at least around the base. Sunlight, channeled through reflective tubes from the mast above, lit up the cratered ground around the outpost. Much of the ground was churned up by the base construction, but some craters remained. Beyond the spotlights the terrain faded into darkness. Then, in the far distance, the bright rim of the southern crater wall stretched across the view. At other times in course of the long Mercury day, the light crept further down the crater wall, but never so far as to illuminate the frozen floor.

Sitting in the Meeting Hall was like standing on the shore of vast lake, running out mountains on the distant shore. Which was, in a sense, true, given the ice deposits.

As she settled into a seat with Phoebe midway down the rows, Mason turned onto the next row down. Their eyes locked. A muscle in his jaw tensed and he hesitated. A muscled, stringy miner, her hair chopped short, behind him said something. Mason nodded and moved on down the row, coming closer.

There was an empty seat, one over on her right, in that row. Mason walked to that spot and nodded to her.

She opened her mouth, thinking to say good morning, or something equally inane, and instead nothing came out. Mason’s jaw muscles clenched again and he turned around and sat down.

Phoebe nudged Larunda’s elbow, chuckling softly.

Larunda ignored her as the transparent holoscreen rose up at the front of the stage. The lights in the amphitheater dimmed. Seen through the holoscreen, the stage changed, rippled and holographic furniture and a rich wood floor spread across the space.

The centerpiece was a massive oak desk, richly carved and shining in the center of a spotlight.

“She always likes to dress the stage,” Phoebe said.

That was true. Terra Blackstone, the leader of the Diaspora Group, never took half-measures. If she did, none of them would be on Mercury right now, and none of the other expeditions to the other eleven colonies would have been launched. Still, this was the first one to come online, all according to the schedule that Blackstone had laid out.

The conversation in the amphitheater diminished.

A spark of red surrounded by electric blue appeared in front of the desk. The bright blue glow grew, a thin line tracing the outside of what formed the toe of a shiny, red leather heel, with a pale bare foot inside. The boundary swept up, accelerating, a crawling line of electric blue, leaving behind the long sweep of a perfect bare calf, then knee, and then it spread out wider. In a rush it swept up, tracing the generous curves of the most famous woman in the solar system. In a wash of electricity, it swept up and completed the holographic version of Blackstone.

She was a tall, leggy brunette, leaning against the massive wood desk, her left leg crossed over the right. Her short skirt flared a bit at the bottom, black, but covered with a thousand points of light. A spiral galaxy of stars that wrapped around her hips, and then up over the thin top that spiraled up from her left hip to her right shoulder. The top divided to cover her breasts, fastening behind her neck while leaving her left shoulder and side bare. The low cut neckline showed off a sparkling diamond necklace.

The asteroid diamonds, her necklace. It was a signature piece of jewelry, and famous, because she had sent the first private, viable mining operation to an asteroid and had returned with a collection of massive diamonds among the samples.

Terra’s black hair cascaded down around her thin neck. She turned her head, large blue eyes taking in the crowd, with a smile on her red lips.

Except Blackstone wasn’t really seeing them, she couldn’t. The time lag between Earth and Mercury, was such that it wasn’t practical to have a live conversation. This had to be a recorded holographic transmission. Still, her performance was convincing.

“Welcome.” Blackstone’s amplified voice filled the hall. It sounded warm and inviting. Like the hologram, it was absolutely real and convincing. Knowing that there was a screen, and it was all illusion didn’t matter. It felt real.

“I’m thrilled with what has happened at Tolkien to get everything up and running to this point. You’ve all done what others might have considered impossible.” Blackstone reached up, her fingers touching the asteroid diamonds. “As you know, I believe the impossible is often a mask for our fear. When things look too big, too daunting, too _impossible_ it gets used as an excuse not to do it. We invent reasons to back up our excuses, anything except face our fear.”

Blackstone pushed away from the desk and walked forward. Her long heels tapped against the wood. She stopped near the front of the stage.

“Not you.” She pointed her finger at them, her gaze traveling across them.

Blackstone’s eyes locked with Larunda’s and an electric thrill ran down Larunda’s spine. It was so real! As if Blackstone really was seeing her. Larunda leaned toward Phoebe, about to comment on it, when Blackstone’s lips twitched. It was a small thing, a quirk, and she winked, still making eye-contact.

Larunda sat back, upright, as heat flooded her face. How? How could Blackstone have prerecorded this message and pulled that off? Did she do it in an amphitheater like this one? Did she anticipate the reaction?

Blackstone’s gaze moved on and she continued, walking slowly across the stage, following the curve. “Not you!

“You went up like Icarus, flying closer and closer to the Sun to reach one of the most difficult spots in the solar system! You built this —” her hands spread “— base here in Tolkien. You’ve established a biosphere on another world. Small, now, but growing. A seed sown under the Sun on a new world.

“Now we’re on the verge of the next phase. Not only existing. Not only surviving, but thriving! The mining and manufacturing operations you are establishing will soon send thousands of solar sails out into the solar system!”

Blackstone turned and the other half of the stage turned dark. A world appeared floating before them. Mercury, their home. A bright spark rose from the surface and the camera moved in, focusing on that spark. It circled the planet and then spun, opening wider and wider, a bright mirrored circle catching the sunlight. Really catching it. The animation accelerated and the solar sail looped around the planet, then shot off into space.

The camera pulled back and back. More planets swung into view and the Sun, a bright blaze at the edge of the stage. Hundreds of bright specks rose from the tiny Mercury, looping around a bright sun, spiraling around other planets, a cloud of flying solar sails cycling endlessly from the inner to outer solar system and back.

“Our solar transportation next work will open up the entire solar system,” Blackstone said. “Ships will catch a sail, ride it for a time, cut loose only to catch the next. Our efficient routes will mean that any destination in the solar system is available with minimal fuel, in a short time. And it is all thanks to the work you are doing here!”

Blackstone walked back to the center of the stage. The orbital simulation faded away. Larunda held her breath, sensing that Blackstone was about to say something amazing.

“Do you have any questions?” Blackstone spread her hands.

At her gesture the holographic furniture and flooring dissolved. The holographic screen lowered into the stage. And Blackstone stayed standing in the spotlight, center stage. She was really there!

The crowd went wild. They cheered and clapped as the realization dawned on everyone. Terra Blackstone, the creator of the Diaspora Group was actually on Mercury, in the flesh!

Mason twisted around in his seat, smiling. Larunda smiled back, caught up in the moment.

It strained Larunda’s imagination. How had Blackstone managed to do it? Not only travel to Mercury, but all of it? The stage effect was the easiest, there was a hologram in place, hiding Blackstone, when they all came in. The whole ‘drawing’ effect was actually revealing her, removing the hologram that hid her.

Blackstone lifted her hands and slowly the crowd settled down. “Thank you. I couldn’t send a canned message, not for this. I had to be here, thank you to those who helped, indulging my little theatrics. I really do want to hear your questions. I came all this way, don’t disappoint!”

Beside Larunda, Phoebe’s hand shot up. Blackstone pointed to her. “Yes, Phoebe?”

Phoebe’s jaw dropped. Larunda looked at her friend, obviously flabbergasted that Blackstone knew her name. Phoebe recovered.

“Hi. Sorry. Um, I wanted to ask when we’ll get a new chief geologist? I guess that’s the snag right now on moving forward?”

Blackstone nodded. “I see both of our candidates are sitting near you, I’m sure they’d like to hear the answer too. I’m sure you all do. We will have an answer very soon, I will be meeting with both of our potential chiefs after this meeting.”

“Thank you!” Phoebe said, beaming.

After this meeting? Larunda wanted to shrink away, but that would send the wrong message. She smiled confidently instead, and resisted the urge to hit Phoebe.

The next question came from an environmental tech who wanted to know where plans were for the second outpost. After that Larunda tuned out the questions. She’d watch the recording later, if she needed. She stared at the back of Mason’s head. He sat just as still during the question and answer phase. Twenty minutes later, when Blackstone ended the meeting, Larunda was out of her chair and down the aisle in moments, slipping past everyone else standing.

Her cell buzzed at her. She took it out of her pocket, stepping over near the wall outside the amphitheater, and swiped it on. A text message, from Blackstone, wanting to see her in the chief geologist’s office in fifteen minutes.

“You got one too?” Mason asked.

Larunda looked up. Mason had joined her out of the rush of people bouncing back to their jobs. Excited talk filled the hallway along with the stream of people. Mason tipped his cell, before pocketing it.

“Yes,” she answered. “You know her, she doesn’t waste time.”

“I only know her by reputation,” Mason said. “That was some trick, showing up here and doing that whole hologram illusion.”

“It was.”

A couple seconds ticked past without either of them saying anything. Mason broke the silence.

“Good luck, on the promotion. If I don’t get it, I’m glad it’ll be you.”

“Thank you.” She should say the same thing, right? The words died on her tongue. It wasn’t true. She wanted it. She didn’t want it to be him.

“Okay. I’ll see you there, then.” Mason didn’t wait for an answer. He stepped into the flow of people and bounced off out of sight.

Shit. Why did doing the right thing feel so bad? Larunda looked for an opening in the crowd and then Phoebe appeared, and caught her arm.

“Larunda! Where’d you go?” She asked, pulling Larunda along.

Larunda joined the crowd, bumping a woman in brown, apologized, and matched Phoebe’s pace. “I just needed out of there, you know? Did you have to ask that question?”

“Hey, I just want to see my friend get the job, that’s all. And we all want to get going. Since Gerrold bugged out it’s like we’ve all been stuck in a holding pattern.”

“It looks like that’s about to change.”

Phoebe beamed. “I’m sure you’ll get it.”

“I hope so. Not that Mason isn’t good, he is. I’m sure he’d do fine. Is it terrible to say that I want to be the one in charge?”

Phoebe shook her head. “Nope! I think Blackstone appreciates people that go after what they want. Don’t stress, you’ll be fine. I’ve got to go. Good luck!”

Phoebe bounced-walked away, more of a skip, really. That was so Phoebe. The text had said fifteen minutes, and several of those had already passed. It wouldn’t take long to get to the office, but she didn’t want to be late. It was down in the old prefab section, the components that had been shipped out to Mercury along with everything else. Informally the prefabs were called Bootstrap, and extended out away from the central crater peak, dug into the crater floor, with extra material piled over the top to absorb any chance impacts.

Bootstrap was always several degrees colder. Fewer heating lines ran out to the section, as it was built before the mast, and several segments were deliberately kept cold to preserve ice samples. When the time came, Larunda already planned to expand and build a new, properly heated, sub-level.

Once she got the promotion.

Over time the once white walls of Bootstrap had become stained a dull gray that even the scutters couldn’t clean out. Residue from the organic material tracked in, especially in the beginning. It also smelled slightly sulfurous, as that was a component of the material.

The door to the chief geologist’s office was a plain bluish-gray panel, hinged, not sliding. Larunda took a breath, pulled the lever down and pushed the protesting door open.

Mason was already there, standing over in front of the shelves that ran along the far wall. Container after container filled the shelves, each piled high with rock samples. Original samples, from the first surveys. Blevins had kept them here, and so far no one had bothered to do anything with them. Mason turned away from the samples.

“Hello,” he said, his voice about as warm as it was in the chilly room.

Neither of them were dressed for the chill in the room. Larunda’s nipples pressed against the thin fabric of shirt. Damn. And Blackstone was going to be there any minute.

Mason’s eyes dropped, fixed for a moment on her chest, and he turned away again, gesturing at the samples. “We should get these catalogued and moved into the library.”

Why were men so fixated on breasts? Was it evolution or culture? Whatever the reason, they were more complicated than rocks and ice. Rocks and ice she could handle. Even going out in suits that were walking ovens, the first time she had stood on the rim of Tolkien crater, the tortured and shadowed landscape tumbling away from her, she had loved this world. She loved what they were doing here, and she wasn’t going to let that go because of a man. She just wasn’t.

“Larunda?”

What? She thought back. The rocks, catalogued. “Yes. Sorry, I was thinking. You’re right, of course. This all needs to get cleared out. Blevins only stayed on as long as he did because he didn’t have a choice.”

“Poor guy. Have you heard how he’s doing?”

Larunda shook her head. “Last I heard, he was back on Earth. Probably happy to be there.”

He turned back toward her, meeting her gaze, which was nice. He had nice eyes.

“Larunda, about before, I didn’t —”

The door opened and Terra Blackstone was right there. Alone, surprisingly enough. She smiled broadly. “Well! Here you both are! That’s perfect.”

She stepped inside and shut the door. With the three of them in the room, there wasn’t much space on the front side of the desk. Mason moved around the desk and took the spot behind it. He reached across the desk, gesturing to the chairs in front of it.

“Sorry, this space is cramped,” he said. “Would you like to take a seat? Or we could go to one of the meeting rooms, if that’d be better.”

Blackstone shook her head and promptly moved to take the chair closest to the door. “This is fine. I wanted to see this place.” She craned her neck, taking in the crowded off. “About what I’d expect from Gerrold. It looks like his office still. You haven’t changed anything have you?”

Mason settled back into the chair, which left Larunda to sit in the other chair beside Blackstone. As if Mason was already the chief geologist on the project. It would have made more sense for Blackstone to take the chair, but that would have had them all having to maneuver around each other in the tight space. If she didn’t care, then was there any point worrying about it?

“No,” Mason was saying, answering Blackstone’s question. “We’ve continued working on the survey. We were just talking about the need to get the samples in here cataloged and into the library.”

“The new sample library wasn’t finished, while Mr. Blevins was still here,” Larunda said.

“Right. I read the reports. Congratulations on getting that finished! I get hammered from all sorts of preservationists upset at our exploitation of these worlds! The libraries at least give us a record of what we found before we started working.” Blackstone grinned. “Not to mention the far more important fact that they tell us what we have!”

Neither Larunda or Mason said anything. After a pause Blackstone continued.

“So, you’re both wanting to know about the promotion. I’ve reviewed all the work that you’ve both done, it’s excellent. I have no doubt that Tolkien wouldn’t be up and running if it wasn’t for the work you’ve done.”

“Thank you,” Larunda said.

Mason nodded.

Blackstone leaned forward in her seat. “None of that tells me what’s really important. Can you get the job done on time? We can’t waste time starting mining operations in the wrong place. Well, we could, but I don’t want to. I want to get this right. That means that the mass driver teams have to be set up right. The solar smelter teams need to be ready to take all the ore you can give them. And the mining groups need to know where to mine! You’re the ones that can tell me that, now, and in the future when we open more operations. This position is key, it’s the foundation of everything we do, getting those resources into the pipeline that’s going to open up the solar system.”

Blackstone took a deep breath and leaned back. “Whew! That was a speech! I don’t like speeches, even when I make them. I like to get things done. So that’s what we’re going to do. No interviews. No flipping coins. We focus on our goal.”

What did that mean? Larunda glanced at Mason, his forehead was wrinkled. Obviously he didn’t get it either, but didn’t want to ask and appear clueless, any more than she did.

Staying quiet wasn’t going to move things along. “Our goal? Of getting resources into the pipeline?”

“Yes! A gold star for you, Larunda. I want the two of you to pull together your teams, whatever you need, coordinate with the other groups, and get me a solar sail.” Blackstone stood up. “You’ve got three weeks. I need a sail up in orbit to haul my ass out of here and back to Earth. That’s your window. I think it’ll be pretty clear by then who is in charge.”

Mason leaned forward. “Three weeks, that’s not much time, Ms. Blackstone.”

She smiled at him. “Show me that you’re more than a pretty face, Mason. I didn’t launch missions to twelve major planetary bodies because it was easy. To misquote, I did it because it was hard. Buck up. Get it done. And you’ll know who is in charge, and it won’t be because I anointed anyone. Truth is, you could have done it all yourself already and saved me the trip out. Now, that I’ve come here, you’re out of time.”

She wiggled her fingers at both of them. “Have a great day!”

With a bounce she reached the door. The hinges squealed as she pulled it open as she pulled it closed behind her Blackstone stopped and poked her head back in. “And you might want to do something about the office too, if you get a chance.”

Bang! The door slammed shut behind her.

“What the hell?” Mason asked. “Did she just give us three days to get a solar sail in orbit?”

“Yes,” Larunda said. Three weeks. She didn’t even know if the mass driver or the manufacturing divisions were ready to start receiving ore. And they hadn’t done any major extraction, except tests, proofs of concepts of the various systems

“We have to do it,” Larunda said. “Remember what Blackstone said in her speech? She wasn’t saying that just to rehash what’s already been done. She was saying that for us.”

“You think?”

“She always knows what she’s doing.” Larunda stood up. “We’d better go get it done.”

Mason rose and came around the desk, his eyes fixed on her. “What about the other thing?”

The other thing. Larunda shook her head. “We’ve got three days to get a solar sail up in orbit for Blackstone. There is no other thing.”

She turned to leave and Mason caught her hand. Larunda swallowed and turned back. Mason stepped close, reaching up with his other hand to her face. Was he going to kiss her? Now?

“Mason.” Larunda stepped back. “We’ve been over this.”

“I know you feel the same way,” he said. “We can find a way to make it work.”

“Right now the only thing we have to make work is getting Blackstone what she wants. That’s it. Jack was right. We should have listened to him.” Larunda reached the door, and pulled the lever down.

“Fine,” Mason said. “Wait.”

She stopped. “What?”

“Don’t we need a plan? What are we going to do?”

“I’ll contact the department heads. We need to get everyone up to speed on what we’re doing.”

“Okay,” Mason said. “While you’re doing that I’ll compile the survey data and try to narrow down the options that we have.”

“Sounds like a plan. Let’s get on this.” She yanked the door open. The hinges squealed again. Mental note, get that fixed too.

Larunda quickly found out that everyone was reluctant to take time away from their work for a meeting, and she wasn’t the boss. Not yet. Still, she tempted them all with the suggestion the meeting was important to Blackstone. That got them to agree to meet. It so happened, it was also the truth. She just wished that she didn’t need to invoke Blackstone’s name to get them to the table.

The meeting was held at fourteen hundred hours, in the larger conference room, high on the Tolkien peak, above the amphitheater. Tall windows along the wall looked out at the rim-lit crater walls, on the other side of the shadowed interior.

Larunda was there first, pacing in front of the windows, waiting for the first department heads to arrive. The meeting would set the tone for the next few days. It was her chance to take charge and show them all that she had what it took.

The conference room door opened. She turned, smiling brightly to greet whoever was first in, and it was Mason. She kept the smile. Going forward, they’d have to keep a professional relationship, friendly, without crossing that line they’d crossed in her quarters.

He’d changed. Instead of the casual shirt and shorts, he wore sharp black pants, a matching shirt with a charcoal vest and an ice-blue tie. Mercury colors. He even had on polished black shoes. His hair was groomed, cascading back in waves. He looked really, really good, like he could have been walking into a meeting back on Earth instead of a department meeting.

She’d also taken the time to change. If she’d picked up one thing from Blackstone, she always took the time to look great. Like she had before the general staff meeting. Larunda hadn’t packed anything that dramatic, but she had used some of her personal allotment for some professional dress clothes. She was wearing a gold skirt and matching blazer, over a black blouse. She’d even gone so far as to wear hose, black pumps and the small diamond studs that she had brought. They weren’t asteroid diamonds, but it was something. She also wore the emerald necklace that her parents had given her when she received her doctorate. It was the best she had, given the weight allowances, and she thought it nicely reflected the colors of the solar sails.

Between the two of them, she and Mason had managed to accidentally coordinate on the color scheme of the entire project. Mason matched her smile, and came into the room.

He eyed her. “You look fantastic.”

“Mason! Everyone’s coming. They should be here any minute. How did it go with the survey data?”

Mason’s lips quirked, but he crossed to the big meeting room table that occupied the center of the room. He tapped the surface, activating the built-in displays.

“Good.” Windows opened, topographic maps and overlays from the survey data, radiating out from Tolkien in bright colors. “This is what we’ve got. Factoring in the material requirements for the solar sails, there are three potential sites.”

Another tap and three green circles formed on the map in areas around the crater.

“That’s great,” she said. “Good work. What’s the mood in the crew?”

“They’re all excited. Janice wished us both luck. I think they’ve got a pool going on which site we’ll select.”

The door opened again. Jack Warden came into the room. Larunda walked over to meet him, extending her hand. “Jack, thanks for taking a break from the appraisals for this. It’s important that you be here.”

Mason appeared at her elbow, as she released Jack’s hand. “Absolutely. Glad to see you Jack. Larunda’s been keeping me on track since our talk.”

“Glad to hear it,” Jack said. He shook Mason’s hand, then shook his head looking at them. “Look at the two of you. It must be big news if you’re getting all dressed up for it.”

“The biggest,” Mason said.

“Great! Everyone is very excited about Blackstone’s surprise visit. Do you know where she is now?”

“No,” Mason said. He looked at Larunda.

Shit. She hadn’t invited Blackstone to the meeting. Talk about screw ups! How did she not think to invite the head of the Diaspora Group, and her boss?

“I’ll check,” Larunda said. “One second.”

She walked away from the table, leaving the two of them chatting, and went over near the corner of the room. She pulled out her cell. “Call Terra Blackstone.”

The screen showed the spinning Mercury symbol, the winged helmet and caduceus astronomical symbol. Then the view changed. It bounced, showing the interior of a rover, the camera moving past a window showing the sun-lit cratered surface, and then Terra Blackstone’s laughing face.

“Yes? Larunda?! What can I do for you?”

“We’re having a meeting of the department heads about beginning the production of a sail. I wanted to invite you, although you look busy?”

“Thanks!” Blackstone laughed. “I couldn’t come all the way to Mercury without seeing the sites. The meeting sounds great, but I’m getting a tour of the area around Tolkien! I’ll read your report later. Thanks! Bye!”

The screen blanked.

Well, at least Blackstone wasn’t mad. It looked like she was having fun.

Other department heads had come in. Mason was standing by himself at the head of the table. Larunda walked back over to stand next to him. He glanced at her.

“She can’t make it,” Larunda said. “Blackstone. She’s out joy-riding on the surface.”

Mason’s eyes widened. He even looked a bit pale for a second, then he smiled. “Not that she needed to ask permission, I guess.”

“She said she couldn’t come here without seeing the place.”

“I understand that.”

“If we do our jobs well, eventually anyone will be able to visit, if they want.”

“Opening up the solar system,” Mason said. He lowered his voice. “How do you want to do this?”

“This?”

“Run the meeting.”

“Oh.” Right, they couldn’t very well arm-wrestle for it. “I’ll get things rolling, fill them in on what we’re faced with, then you can pick up to talk about the specifics of the sites you’ve highlighted. If that works?”

Mason nodded. “That works fine for me.”

Larunda looked around the room. Everyone was taking their seats, all present. Unlike her and Mason, most were in casual clothes, regulation shorts and shirts. Jack was the only one wearing as much clothing, with his medals catching the lights as he leaned back in his chair, midway down the table.

“Thank you for coming,” Larunda said, loud enough for her words to carry.

Sitting beside Jack was Dempsey Hamm, head the materials fabrication department. His department was the one that would actually manufacture the solar sail, once the refined materials were produced. He was thirty, lean, blonde, wearing black regulation shorts and shirt.

“Is this going to take long? We’ve got some spin tests to get done, I’d really like to get out of here quickly and get back to that.”

Some of the others around the table nodded. Stacey Jackson, communications head wasn’t even looking down the table, her attention was all on her cell, her brow creased as she focused on whatever was showing. Across from her was Tegan Powell, forty-three, black hair pulled back, in her white shirts and shorts looking like she was ready to go out and play tennis. Powell was the head of the Development teams, responsible for creating the onboard software for the solar sails. Tegan was one of those that nodded. Also Steve Carlson, in charge of the mining crews.

“Dempsey, I won’t waste your time,” Larunda said. “We all need to get out of here quickly, because we’re going to be busier than ever after this meeting.”

Stacey looked up from her cell. “What does that mean?”

At the other end of the table, Michel Tesar, in charge of the microelectronics division, said, “Does this have to do with Blackstone?”

“Yes.” Damn it. The word slipped out before Larunda could stop it. She hadn’t wanted to invoke Blackstone’s name unless it was necessary.

Mason leaned forward, smiling at the group. “Michel, we’ll answer all your questions. Go ahead, Larunda.”

As if she was here at his invitation? He was subtly trying to take the upper hand.

Larunda said, “I called this meeting because we are selecting our first dig site. We’re going online. With everything. And we’re going to deliver a completed solar sail to orbit in three weeks, right on our projected manufacturing schedule.”

Everyone around the table tried to talk at once. Dempsey actually laughed. It was chaos.

Heat rose in her cheeks. Larunda held up her hands. Slowly they stopped talking, but the looks she was getting were anything except welcoming.

“We’re not ready to go online,” Dempsey said.

“You said this had to do with Blackstone?” Michel asked. “Is that the reason for the rush?”

“Partly.” She spoke quickly before anyone else jumped in. “We can check and recheck forever. You all know how it works. We build and learn as we go.”

“That’s right,” Mason chimed in. “When we built this outpost we came out with a few prefabs and equipment. We didn’t bring everything that we have in this base.” He rapped his knuckles on the table. “Take this table. We mined resources and manufactured it right here, on Mercury.”

“We didn’t have a choice,” Stacey said. “We had to get the crew on the ground. We needed the resources if we were going to stay alive. And we had to get things ready for the second and third missions.”

“And now we’re building a complete solar sail. That’s a key reason that we’re here.” Larunda leaned forward on the table. “This is our opportunity to show everyone what this outpost can do. We get up this sail, and then we move on to the next, just like Blackstone showed in the meeting today.”

“So you’re trying to impress her, is that it?” Tegan asked.

Larunda shook her head. “No, not to impress her, although I think she will be impressed at what everyone accomplishes. It’s time to move forward.”

“Look,” Dempsey said. “I’m willing to work on the next phase. If we get the materials, maybe we can get a half-scale demonstration model manufactured in that time-frame. It won’t be flight-ready, I can speak for everyone else on that.”

This wasn’t working. It was like Blackstone said, they were letting their fear get in the way. But how could she get them to see that without just saying that? Or saying that Blackstone ordered it.

Mason stood up beside her. “Dempsey, we have to do better than that. All of you, we have to do better. We have done better. We did better when we set up the outpost. In a thousand ways since, we’ve done better and achieved more, you know you have. Years of work have gone into this already. This is like training for the race, doing all the work and practice and hours spent training, and then balking at the start line.”

“I wouldn’t say —” Dempsey started to protest.

Mason talked over him. “It is. Larunda has already told you what we need, a full-scale, functional solar sail launched in three weeks. Blackstone wants it, but that’s not why we should do it. We should do it because we are ready to start the race. We’re ready to start sending the sails out.”

The change in the room was obvious. Jack was nodding. There were still some frowns, but overall, the group was coming around.

And why not? Mason was confident. He looked like the one in charge. And people obviously wanted to listen to him.

“So are you the new chief geologist?” Steve asked. “Because our teams can’t mine anything if they don’t know where to dig.”

Mason looked at Larunda. Their eyes locked and he smiled. Then he turned back to the group. “No.”

What?

Mason went on, reaching out and touching Larunda’s arm. “Larunda is the chief. She has a better sense of the geology than anyone.”

What? Larunda eyes stung and she was so not going to tear up in front of everyone. She made herself smile at him. Why’d he’d have to go and do the noble thing? It’s not like it solved the problem between them. It didn’t work out if she was his boss, any more than if he was the boss.

Mason smiled back at her, then turned to the table. He tapped the surface, bringing up the report that he had prepared. He flicked copies off around the table.

“Larunda asked me to pull together a report on our possible dig sites. That’s what you’re looking at. Each of the areas surveyed around the crater have been ranked both on the resource content, and the difficulty to extra the ore. The three green areas are the highest probability targets.”

Larunda stepped closer to Mason, studying the report on the table surface, and whispered. “Thank you.”

His head leaned closer. “Don’t you think that this project, the outpost, needs a coordinator?”

She laughed quietly, covering her mouth. That was his plan! Devious, and perfect. It was something that they had all talked about. Someone that would work with all the different departments, with a vision of the ultimate goal. And he was perfect for it. She did love the rocks, even if she wanted to be in charge, she had a whole planet beneath her feet to study.

Larunda raised her head and looked out at the group. Everyone was paying attention now, glancing at the report, but watching them.

Jack winked at her. He was in on it! Mason must have talked to him. The thought emboldened her.

“Thank you Mason, this is excellent work. It reminds me what we’re lacking here in the outpost, something that we’ve all talked about before.”

“What’s that?” Jack asked, quick on the draw.

“We need a coordinator. All of us have our focus, which lets us solve problems quickly, but we don’t have someone that’s looking out for the overall scheme, that can help us get rid of obstacles, to deal with other outposts, heck, other worlds even.” Larunda turned to Mason. “I’d like to nominate Mason for the role. I think he’d do a fantastic job, and we’d all benefit.”

“I’ll second that,” Jack said. “Shall we vote?”

Tegan raised her hand halfway. “Um, can we just do that? Select someone?”

Jack nodded. “Diaspora policy allows and encourages outposts to self-manage. It’s entirely appropriate for the department heads to appoint someone as coordinator for the outpost, and I think it would really help our communication.”

Tegan shrugged. “Okay, then, sure. I’m for it.”

“Great,” Larunda said. “Hands up, if you’re in favor?”

Every hand at the table went up. Jack clapped his hands together. “Okay, I’ll process the paperwork, but I think we can go ahead with the rest of the meeting. Mason?”

“Thank you all,” Mason said. “I’m going to do whatever I can to help all of us meet this deadline. I know how hard it sounds. If I didn’t think we could pull it off, I’d be the first to tell Blackstone to her face that we couldn’t do it.”

Steve tapped the report on the table. “Do we have a pick?”

Yes. Larunda glanced at Mason, then at the others. “Yes. You’ll see that the alpha site on the report represents the easiest access to the resources, given terrain, depth and composition. Let’s go through the details.”

It didn’t take three weeks. They got it done in two and a half, but Blackstone waited until the end of the third week before she left. It wasn’t until then that Larunda really was convinced that they’d pulled it off.

To celebrate Mason drove the rambler up onto the Tolkien ridge, so that they could watch the solar sail leave orbit in private. Ordinarily the rambler, a big six wheeled crawler, held up to six people and their suits. With only the two of them, it felt extremely spacious. The sun was shining on the rambler from the rear, so they didn’t even need the shades down on the window when he parked it on the upslope of a small crater.

Mason leaned forward over the controls and pointed. “There she is.”

The sail was a bright disk of light, already accelerating in widening orbits powered by the pressure of the solar wind around Mercury while dragging the small capsule craft carrying Blackstone. This was the moment when it reached escape velocity and would slingshot off into space on a trajectory that would pick up a boost as she flew past Venus. Then the trajectory would carry her past the Earth’s Moon. She’d cut loose from the sail and enter orbit there, to return to the Diaspora headquarters on Luna, while the sail would slingshot around and head on out into the deep solar system. It was the first piece in the massive transit network that they were building.

They were both in shorts and t-shirts. Outside the temperature on the sunward side was a moderate 334 F, thanks to their polar position. The interior was warm, hot even, or maybe that was just her? She was fascinated by the line of Mason’s biceps, where it disappeared beneath the dark cloth of his shirt. His move to the coordinator position had taken him out of her department, putting them on equal footing. Only since then they had both been so busy pulling the team together to build the solar sail, that they hadn’t had any time together.

Until Mason asked her to join him on the field trip, officially to make observations on the solar sail’s departure with their guest, she had wondered if he had cooled on the whole idea of a relationship.

Now, it was his bicep that held her attention.

“Larunda?”

She snapped her gaze up to his face, meeting his eyes, and blushing. The heat flooded her cheeks. He smiled at her.

“Should we take some readings of the solar sail? Make sure we have something to report?”

“That’s a good idea.”

She activated the roof-mounted telescope on her console. The image jumped around, not fixing on anything. “It’s not locking onto the sail.”

Mason unbuckled and left his seat. He came over and leaned over the back of her seat, his head next to hers, his breath warm on her neck.

“What parameters did you use?”

“I told it to lock on the brightest light source in the sky,” she said.

“It’s programmed to exclude artificial objects. You just need to toggle that.” He brushed back the hair from her neck.

Larunda shivered and pulled up the telescope preferences. It was hard to focus on the menus while Mason moved his mouth closer to her neck. He didn’t kiss her. His breath tickled her ear and her neck.

She switch the toggle and closed the preferences. Now the image on the screen jumped and there was the sail, visible at optimal magnification. A mirror of the Sun, blazing in the sky. Against that bright backdrop, the capsule was a tiny black speck against the blaze.

Not unlike the dark dot of Mercury crossing the face of the Sun.

“Look at that,” Mason said, his lips brushing her neck.

She shivered and tilted her head slightly away, exposing more of her neck to him. “We did it.”

“We did.” His lips touched her skin and she nearly jumped in her seat. The kiss was soft, grazing across her neck. “The next sail will launch on schedule. We’re going to be pumping them out now.”

“Hmmm.” She turned, reaching up to run her fingers through her hair. “Pumping them out, huh?”

She kissed his lips, a soft touch, then firmer, drawing him to her. He broke the kiss, moving across to the other side of her neck. Her skin tingled. She tugged his shirt up and ran her fingers against his hard abs.

Mason moved, his hands doing something with the seat, and it dropped back, reclining flat. It surprised her and she laughed.

They would keep producing solar sails, while exploring the rest of their planet. The human settlements would grow, spreading to the other craters, mining the ice and building habitats. Eventually, like Blackstone had said, there’d be children and a whole thriving population.

And out there, spinning between the planets, their solar sails, opening up all the planetary bodies.

Mason pulled up her shirt and she helped him, pulling it up and off, breasts free and firm in the low gravity. He bent and kissed his way lower.

Larunda held his head, savoring each touch. Over the smooth plain of his shoulder the solar sail was rising on the solar wind.

13,455 words

Author’s Note

In 2013 I started my very own tour through the solar system with Mercury Rising. It became my central project for months as I visited each planetary body. I had originally intended to release each story with a fun pin-up style scifi illustration. I’d still like to do that, only I want to wait until my digital painting skills equal the vision in my head.

In the meantime I’ve decided to go ahead and release the stories, one per week, on my website. Eventually I do plan create the illustrations I want and release each as a stand-alone e-book through the various stores. I have no idea when that will happen. I’m embarking on my own journey this year by returning to school to get my MLIS degree. It’s making me rethink publishing and writing plans as I make room for full-time studies in a full-time life.

If you’ve enjoyed the story I hope you’ll come back next week for the next Planetary Bodies story.