LEX FLOATED along with the ocean current. Her arms were spread out wide, her jet-black hair adrift on the surface of the water. For once, she felt at peace. Truly herself.
The sun shone above her, and she soaked up its rays, basking in its golden glow. Her blue eyes stared up at the equally blue sky, not a cloud in sight.
Soon she’d be called back to duty. Soon she’d once again have to face her limited, jury-rigged day-to-day existence.
Now, for a few moments, she was free to just drift.
THE DRESSLER, a Mission-class AmSplor ship, sailed steadily toward her destination, a city-sized rock named 43 Ariadne, harvested from the asteroid belt and placed in trailing orbit behind Earth.
The starfish-shaped ship flew on the solar wind, drinking in ionized hydrogen and other trace elements that allowed her to breathe and grow, coursing slowly through the dark reaches of space between Earth and the sun. The Dressler lived on solar wind and space dust, accumulating them with her web of gossamer sails between her arms, filtering them down into her compact body for processing.
The detritus flew out behind her, leaving a jet trail across the void to mark her passing, leading back to Earth.
Somewhere out there, their destination awaited them, an asteroid floating on a sea of stars.
Chapter One: The Three
“DRESSLER, SCHEMATIC,” Colin McAvery, ship’s captain and a third of the crew, called out to the ship-mind.
A three-dimensional image of the ship appeared above the smooth console. Her five living arms, reaching out from her central core, were lit with a golden glow, and the mechanical bits of instrumentation shone in red. In real life, she was almost two hundred meters from tip to tip.
Between those arms stretched her solar wings, a ghostly green film like the sails of the Flying Dutchman.
“You’re a pretty thing,” he said softly. He loved these ships, their delicate beauty as they floated through the starry void.
“Thank you, Captain.” The ship-mind sounded happy with the compliment—his imagination running wild. Minds didn’t have real emotions, though they sometimes approximated them.
He cross-checked the heading to be sure they remained on course to deliver their payload, the man-sized seed that was being dragged on a tether behind the ship. Humanity’s ticket to the stars at a time when life on Earth was getting rapidly worse.
All of space was spread out before him, seen through the clear expanse of plasform set into the ship’s living walls. His own face, trimmed blond hair, and deep brown eyes, stared back at him, superimposed over the vivid starscape.
At thirty, Colin was in the prime of his career. He was a starship captain, and yet sometimes he felt like little more than a bus driver. After this run… well, he’d have to see what other opportunities might be awaiting him. Maybe the doc was right, and this was the start of a whole new chapter for mankind. They might need a guy like him.
The walls of the bridge emitted a faint but healthy golden glow, providing light for his work at the curved mechanical console that filled half the room. He traced out the T-Line to their destination. “Dressler, we’re looking a little wobbly.” Colin frowned. Some irregularity in the course was common—the ship was constantly adjusting its trajectory—but she usually corrected it before he noticed.
“Affirmative, Captain.” The ship-mind’s miniature chosen likeness appeared above the touch board. She was all professional today, dressed in a standard AmSplor uniform, dark hair pulled back in a bun, and about a third life-sized.
The image was nothing more than a projection of the ship-mind, a fairy tale, but Colin appreciated the effort she took to humanize her appearance. Artificial mind or not, he always treated minds with respect.
“There’s a blockage in arm four. I’ve sent out a scout to correct it.”
The Dressler was well into slowdown now, her pre-arrival phase as she bled off her speed, and they expected to reach 43 Ariadne in another fifteen hours.
Pity no one had yet cracked the whole hyperspace thing. Colin chuckled. Asimov would be disappointed. “Dressler, show me Earth, please.”
A small blue dot appeared in the middle of his screen.
“Dressler, three dimensions, a bit larger, please.” The beautiful blue-green world spun before him in all its glory.
Appearances could be deceiving. Even with scrubbers working tirelessly night and day to clean the excess carbon dioxide from the air, the home world was still running dangerously warm.
He watched the image in front of him as the East Coast of the North American Union spun slowly into view. Florida was a sliver of its former self, and where New York City’s lights had once shone, there was now only blue. If it had been night, Fargo, the capital of the Northern States, would have outshone most of the other cities below. The floods that had wiped out many of the world’s coastal cities had also knocked down Earth’s population, which was only now reaching the levels it had seen in the early twenty-first century.
All those new souls had been born into a warm, arid world.
We did it to ourselves. Colin, who had known nothing besides the hot planet he called home, wondered what it had been like those many years before the Heat.
ANASTASIA ANATOV leafed through her father, Dimitri’s, old paper journal. She liked to look through it once a day, to see his spidery handwriting and remember what he had been like. It was a bit old and dusty now, but it was one of her most cherished possessions.
She sighed and put it away in a storage nook in her lab.
She left the room and pulled herself gracefully along the runway, the central corridor of the ship, using the metal rungs embedded in the walls. She was much more comfortable in low or zero g than she was in Earth normal, where her tall, lanky form made her feel awkward around others. She was a loner at heart, and the emptiness of space appealed to her.
Her father had designed the Mission-class ships. It was something she rarely spoke of, but she was intensely proud of him. These ships were still imperfect, the combination of a hellishly complicated genetic code and after-the-fact fittings of mechanical parts, like the rungs she used now to move through the weightless environment.
Ana wondered if it hurt when someone drilled into the living tissue to install the mechanics, living quarters, and observation blisters that made the ship habitable. Her father had always maintained that the ship-minds felt no pain.
She wasn’t so sure. Men were often dismissive of the things they didn’t understand.
Either way, she was stuck on the small ship for the duration with two men, neither of whom were interested in her. The captain was gay, and Jackson was married.
Too bad the ship roster hadn’t included another woman or two.
She placed her hand on a hardened sensor callus next to the door valve and the ship obliged, recognizing her. The door spiraled open to show the viewport beyond.
She pulled herself into the room and floated before the wide expanse of transparent plasform, staring out at the seed being hauled behind them.
Nothing else mattered. Whatever she had to do to get this project launched, she would do it. She’d already made some morally questionable choices along the way—including looking the other way when a bundle of cash had changed hands at the Institute.
She was so close now, and she couldn’t let anything get in the way.
Earth was a lost cause. It was only a matter of time before the world imploded. Only the seeds could give mankind a fighting chance to go on.
From the viewport, there was little to see. The seed was a two-meter-long brown ovoid, made of a hard, dark organic material, scarred and pitted by the continual abrasion of the dust that escaped the great sails. So cold out there, but the seed was dormant, unfeeling.
The cold would keep it that way until the time came for its seedling stage.
She’d created three of the seeds with her funding. This one, bound for the asteroid 43 Ariadne, was the first. It was the next step in evolution beyond the Dressler and carried with it the hopes of all humankind.
It also represented ten years of her life and work.
Maybe, just maybe, we’re ready for the next step.
THE CREW’S third and final member, Jackson Hammond, hung upside down in the ship’s hold, grunting as he refit one of the feed pipes that carried the ship’s electronics through the bowels of this weird animal-mechanical hybrid. Although “up” and “down” were slight on a ship where the centrifugal force created a “gravity” only a fraction of what it was on Earth.
As the ship’s engineer, Jackson was responsible for keeping the mechanics functioning—a challenge in a living organism like the Dressler.
With cold, hard metal, one dealt with the occasional metal fatigue, poor workmanship, and at times just ass-backward reality. But the parts didn’t regularly grow or shrink, and it wasn’t always necessary to rejigger the ones that had fit perfectly just the day before. Even after ten years in these things, he still found it a little creepy to be riding inside the belly of the beast. It was too Jonah and the Whale for his taste.
Jackson rubbed the sweat away from his eyes with the back of his arm. As he shaved down the end of a pipe to make it fit more snugly against the small orifice in the ship’s wall, he touched the little silver cross that hung around his neck. It had been a present from his priest, Father Vincenzo, at his son Aaron’s First Communion in the Reformed Catholic Evangelical Church.
The boy was seven years old now, with a shock of red hair and green eyes like his dad, and his mother’s beautiful skin. He’d spent months preparing for his Communion Day, and Jackson remembered fondly the moment when his son had taken the Body and Blood of Christ for the first time, surprise registering on his little face at the strange taste of the wine.
Aaron’s Communion Day had been a high point for Jackson, just a week before his current mission. He was so proud of his two boys. Miss you guys. I’ll be home soon.
Lately he hadn’t been sleeping well, his dreams filled with a dark-haired, blue-eyed vixen. He was happily married. He shouldn’t be having such dreams.
Jackson shook his head. Being locked up in a tin can in space did strange things to a person sometimes. I should be home with Glory and the boys.
One way or another, this mission would be his last.
He’d been recruited as a teen.
AT THIRTEEN, Jackson had learned the basics of engineering doing black-tech work for the gangs that ran what was left of the Big Apple after the Rise—a warren of interconnected skyrises, linked mostly by boats and ropes and makeshift bridges.
Everything north of Twenty-Third was controlled by the Hex, a black-tech co-op that specialized in bootlegged dreamcasts, including modified versions that catered to some of the more questionable tastes of the North American States. South of Twenty-Third belonged to the Red Badge, a lawless group of technophiles involved in domestic espionage and wetware arts.
Jackson had grown up in the drowned city, abandoned by his mother and forced to rely on his own intelligence and instincts to survive in a rapidly changing world.
He’d found his way to the Red Badge and discovered a talent for ecosystem work, taking over and soon expanding one of the rooftop farms that supplied the drowned city with a subsistence diet. An illegal wetware upgrade let him tap directly into the systems he worked on, seeing the circuits and pathways in his head.
He increased the Badge’s food production fivefold and branched out beyond the nearly tasteless molds and edible fungi that thrived in the warm, humid environment.
It was on one of his rooftop “gardens” that his life had changed one warm summer evening.
He was underneath one of the condenser units that pulled water from the air for irrigation. All of eighteen years old, he was responsible for the food production for the entire Red Badge.
He’d run through the unit’s diagnostics app to no avail. Damned piece of shit couldn’t find a thing wrong.
In the end, it had come down to something purely physical—tightening down a pipe bolt where the condenser interfaced with the irrigation system.
Satisfied with the work, he stood, wiping the sweat off his bare chest, and glared into the setting sun out over the East River. It was more an inland sea now, but the old names still stuck.
There was a faint whirring behind him, and he spun around. A bug drone hovered about a foot away, glistening in the sun. He stared at it for a moment, then reached out to swat it down. Probably from the Hex.
It evaded his grasp, and he felt a sharp pain in his neck.
He went limp, and everything turned black as he tumbled into one of his garden beds.
He awoke in Fargo, recruited by AmSplor to serve in the space agency’s Frontier Station, his life changed irrevocably.
A STRANGE sensation brought him back to the present.
His right hand was wet. Startled, he looked down. It was covered with blood.
Dressler, we have a problem, he said through his private affinity-link with the ship-mind.