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READ FROM THE START - Chapter 1 Scene 1 - MILAN v0.5

Chapter 1 "The Warmest Welcome" MILAN Mars. The ‘red’ planet stood firm like a semi-circular mountain against th...

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Chapter 1 Completed!

That's Chapter 1 in its entirety. Each scene has just been re-uploaded and updated with all the latest revisions and reads very well now. I think it's safe to say I might call it version 0.5.
Since I'm currently writing the end of the book, the only way this chapter will now change is if something important needs altering, but that shouldn't be too likely.

This will now free me up with time to go over Chapter 2, revise it, get it to my editor, and then chuck it up here.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Chapter 1 Scene 10 - DEELON v0.5

DEELON


The printer failed at just the wrong moment. 
“Aww, c’mon!” Deelon moaned in frustration, wishing that the machine could have at least gotten to the end of the row it was printing out. Now the break might look messy, or worse, structurally defective.
Both he and Liv worked in Borealis’ Industrial 3D Printer, a large rectangular structure that looked more like a substantial cargo container than a building.
From the outside, the facility was a worn beige box, having been sand-blasted by the wind for decades. The dust and grains had built up into piles along its edges, with the exception being the three entrances. While two of them were ordinary airlocks, yellow and black lines ran around the enormous main door. It was so large that it took up one of the four walls and part of the ceiling, and only became useful when hauling out sizeable machinery.
Inside, it had initially been white and grey with yellow railings but now came covered in whatever colors had splashed, slopped, or condensed from the materials used in the printing process. Neither Deelon nor Liv needed to wear their envirosuit helmets in here and usually covered their faces with breathing masks instead. But sometimes Deelon would rather have just wasted the oxygen on his back than suffer the harsh, dry, and occasionally toxic smelling odors that this place accumulated.
He hopped off the control rig and hurried up to the frame of the vehicle they were making. Trying to glance under the printer nozzle, without directly putting his face under the part where the hot metal came out, he struggled to see the problem. Giving it a shake, something seemed stuck so he hit it in frustration.
“Hey now!” Liv shouted from across the large room, bringing with her a full toolbox. “That’s not how we treat valuable equipment around here. What the hell has gotten into you today?”
Deelon let out a guttural and frustrated growl.
“It’s just this god-damned thing won’t stop breaking. Look, I may not have been alive when you guys bartered this thing off the corporations, but I’m tellin’ you, you guys got duped, bad. This must have been second-hand, at best, when they gave it to you, and even then was probably on its last legs.”
After carefully placing the toolbox next to the control platform, Liv leaned on a yellow railing while looking back at him and grinning. 
“You know, I think my dad told me that the day this printer arrived, the whole colony had a party.”
“Wow,” was Deelon’s sarcastic response. “They must’ve been real hard up for entertainment in those days.”
Liv took a rag out of the toolbox and threw it at his back, which made Deelon twitch and look behind.
“Hey! You live without vehicles and large-scale machinery for decades on end - then you can complain,” she said while continuing to smile. Deelon, however, still looked frustrated and down.
“I know, I know, just feels like some days we spend more time repairing this stupid thing than actually printing with it.”
Liv walked up alongside him and put an arm around his shoulder. Her blue eyes were full of mirth as she tried to catch his full attention.
“And that is why we’re called 3D printing... let me hear it.”
“Engineers, yeah yeah, I know.”
Dropping the smile as well as her arm, Liv huffed.
“What’s wrong? You’ve been down in the dumps all day long.”
“I told you, it’s this breaking all the time, it’s gettin’ me down.”
“Yeah, right,” Liv replied as she gently pulled on his right arm, making him look at her. “This is about Phobos, isn’t it?”
“What?! No.” Deelon instantly regretted his gut reaction to grimace and reply so quickly. He knew Liv would see straight through it, and she did. Sometimes she could read him like a book; it made him feel like he was nine again, like how Max probably felt.
“Oh come on, you’re feeling guilty because we found out someone died up there, and now you wish you hadn’t gone through with it.” He didn’t know what to say to that. His head was aching from going over it again and again in his mind, chastising himself at every turn for being an idiot. If Liv found out what he had done, he was convinced that she would never speak to him again. But what was stressing him out the most was the invisible countdown timer ticking in his head. It was no longer a question of if Liv and everyone else found out, as it had originally meant to be; now it was only a matter of when. “Look, I know I was the one trying to stop you from doing it in the first place, but you can’t beat yourself up about it now that it’s done. Dust only knows what was going through your head up there. You were inside one of the most stressful moments of your entire life, looking down at a drop that had every chance of killing you. I know I wouldn’t be thinking straight if that was all going on. So like I say, don’t put yourself through the grinder, okay?”
Deelon was still looking down at the floor when he replied.
“Okay, I’m sorry.”
Liv put both her hands on his arms, and gave a wry smile.
“You don’t have to apologize, but it should teach you a lesson, and you know what that lesson is?”
The young Martian contorted his face, puzzling over the correct answer.
“Don’t be a dumbass?”
“Actually, that’s a pretty good one,” Liv remarked with a chortle, “But no, the lesson is that I may not be your mother, but you should still damn well listen to what I say, got it?”
“Got it,” Deelon nodded.
“Good, now it’s getting late. What do you say we call it for the day and tackle the printer nozzle tomorrow morning, bright and fresh?”
“That sounds like a good idea.”
Liv turned to go and turn the power off at the rig’s control platform, with her straggly auburn hair dangling from side to side behind her.
“I’m full of good ideas, that’s another reason you should listen to me all the time.”
Deelon gave a thought to the decisions he might have to make over the next twenty-four-and-a-half hours. He turned to look her way.
“Liv?”
Her attention was still on the menu screen.
“Mhmm?”
“Thanks.”
“Ahh, don’t get too sentimental on me,” she replied before looking up from the console and winking. “I might tell Max, and then he’ll think you’re going soft.”
The machines, lights, and everything but the heaters died instantly, as Liv pressed the shut-down button.
Outside, the wind was howling, and the dust storm that had kicked up was so intense that neither of them could see for more than ten meters. 
Having waved Liv goodbye, Deelon began following the motion-activated streetlights to the northeast, back to his home. Despite her trying to make him feel better, his mind had quickly turned back to thinking about what he was going to do next.
After what had just happened, it was painful to contemplate just how much this would hurt Liv and his dad. He had already thought that maybe if he explained it in the order of how things happened, they might understand. But if they did, that could encourage them to protect him against the corporations, or the Russians and Chinese. If that happened, Deelon couldn’t fathom what the consequences would be for the colony.
All his trains of thought kept coming back to the same station. They would just be better off without him. It would solve all of their problems. It was the first time in his life that he considered the idea of suicide. 
The engineer trudged through the dirt, and his pace began to slow as he pondered the idea of running away instead. It eventually made him stop altogether and look around, mulling over directions. But there were so few places to go beyond Borealis that it was virtually the same as committing suicide.
‘What the hell am I going to do?’ 
His headache had finished its brief hiatus and came back with a vengeance. The thought was getting so repetitive that the streetlamp lighting up in the distance was a welcome distraction.
Someone was heading his way, but the thickness of the dust storm made it little more than a blurry figure.
Deelon waved. The other person waved back, so he pressed the comm button on his wrist.
“Hey, who’s that? It’s Deelon.” There was no response, so he tried again. “Is that you, Arlen? I can’t hear you.”
The figure had walked up to within a few meters and was wearing a grey colonist envirosuit. The person tapped their helmet near the ear and waved a dismissive gesture. It made Deelon raise his left arm and look directly at his wrist pad.
NO COMM LINK. There was not even a single bar of signal strength.
Something came at him from behind his arm, clipping his elbow before smashing into the top of his helmet, making him tumble to the ground.
A beeping noise assaulted his ears - the sound indicating damage to the suit. He tried looking back up but felt a thundering strike to his back. The momentum actually helped him roll over, enough to see a massive tool coming at him. Was it a heavy-duty wrench? Deelon rolled to the right as quickly as he could, but the weapon still caught the life-support on his back. Scrambling to his feet, he turned around just in time to see another incoming swing but still wasn’t fast enough to evade the blow, as it scored a direct hit to the left side of his faceplate. The beeping changed to a faster, undulating alarm sound.
“AIR BREACH,” his computer announced as he fell back to the ground again. With his helmet taking the brunt of the damage, Deelon still had enough wits about him to see a large rock and hurled it as hard as he could at the assailant. It hit just below the chin as the assassin was raising for another strike, and staggered him just long enough for the engineer to get to his feet and make a run for it.
Deelon discovered the acidic smell of carbon dioxide for the very first time as it began leaking into his suit. He ran as fast as he could and disappeared into the raging storm.

Chapter 1 Scene 9 - ZARINA v0.5

ZARINA


The journey from Earth back to TKR’s orbiting Ostia Space Station passed smoothly. With the flight having been chartered especially for Zarina, she nearly had the entire cabin to herself, save for an engineer snoring loudly in the back. 
The part of the trip that she enjoyed the most was always the final approach. The windows in the passenger compartment were generous, and Zarina loved looking out at the clockwork spectacle of all the moving parts that the station had on display.
Symmetrically balanced for counter-weighting, Ostia started from the central operations hub. The bulbous cylinder looked like a gigantic water tower right in the middle of the station, and above and below it was a pair of spinning structures, with each one having four soda can-like cargo containers affixed to them. Further out in the vertical directions were two gravity wheels in the shape of thin bagels, with each one having cylindrical habitats connected either side. All of the attachments were inflatable, having been reinforced with layers of kevlar and graphene to protect against the rigors of space. And, with the gravity wheels and cargo rings all spinning retrograde to one another in order to combat the torque, the entire thing looked like several clocks had been stacked on top of one another - reversing direction with each layer.
At what most people deemed the top of the station, above one of the gravity rings, was the only indulgence Ostia had to offer in the shape of a large viewing cupola. It had ten windows around its rim and a glass ceiling that was perfect for floating up against to pretend you were in space without a spacesuit.
The rest of the station, by comparison, was far more pragmatic in its design as a final-assembly yard and space-dock. Four sets of structural trusses branched outwards from the central hub in each horizontal direction. One pair of the trusses included long, tubular corridors that led to rows of solar panels, radiators, and the re-entry escape pod capsules. While the other two had thicker tubes and various modules of different sizes and colors attached to them which ended in docking ports. All of it was engineering related and dedicated to the spectacular sight of assembling ships in space.
This was evident from one of them having the first segment of a Saturn Class ship connected to it. The main hull, without its bridge, cargo containers, engines, and gravity pods, looked like a white, sharp-angled bottle. Behind it were two tubular arms, one stretching up and one down, stopping abruptly at the ends where the habitat pods were supposed to reside.
The one disappointment to the view was that Zarina couldn't see the opposite end of the station from the white bottle, where her ship, the ERV Enceladus, was docked.
The automated spaceplane was going to dock on the same arm of Ostia, and the massive ship was probably directly underneath.
Fifteen minutes later, she found herself in the viewing cupola, floating next to the ceiling window and looking out at a view of Earth's blue oceans that covered nearly all the eye could see. Eating a bag of bite-sized chocolates to pass the time, Zarina stared in peaceful wonder at the tiny islands that were gently moving before her, and the wispy trail of clouds that were heading off toward the left. She tried picturing how pretty the view must have been for whoever was living on the islands - if anyone at all.
A good portion of her wished she was there right now, even if they were uninhabited. Every time she had left Earth behind in the past, the adage of not missing something until it was gone came to mind, but never in a worrying way. Now, as Earth consumed her entire view, the thought of being gone for such an extended period made it feel daunting.
Dinesh, her youngest brother, would be twenty or twenty-one when she got back. Her shy niece Adya would be a teenager, and the little girl's younger brother about the age she was now. Birthdays, weddings, Diwali, and many other family occasions would simply be gone as if skipping through several chapters of a book. The thought of missing so much of their lives hurt this time, having never struck such a heavy blow before. 
For a few fleeting seconds, she pondered telling Tkrai to call it off and make him find someone else to sacrifice four to five years of their life. Two-year stints in the asteroid belt would probably feel like summer camp compared to this.
'You're the girl that left Chennai for a better life, remember?' The thought tasted acrid, especially considering all the men and women in the city that lived more humdrum lives. Millions of people, even in the slums, going through things much worse than her life ever suffered, but at least they were doing it together. The desperation to get away had always overridden anything more than a passing concern of what she had left behind.
It made her contemplate whether the feelings had been brought on by the row with her mother, but she wasn't allowed to spend more time puzzling it, as a ring-tone set off inside her inner ears.
Zarina swallowed the rest of the chocolate she was munching and answered.
"I'll take the call. Hello?"
Rhea, Thom Kelland's VI assistant, appeared behind her in augmented reality. The transparent yellow woman smiled brightly.
"Good morning, Commander Verma. Am I interrupting anything?"
"No, I'm good," Zarina replied.
"Wonderful. I would like to inform you that Mr. Kelland is able to bring forward the appointment that you had with him. If you are free now, we could begin immediately."
Zarina nodded, and tried to smile back, but struggled to find the same enthusiasm as she attempted to brush off the melancholic thoughts.
"I'm free. I'll head down there now."
"Perfect. Then I will see you again shortly, until then."
Rhea disappeared, and Zarina's smile vanished nearly as quickly. She turned back to the large window and took one long, last, look at the big blue ahead of her.
The outer solar system was the wild west compared to the asteroid belt. The number of drone-ships being lost was staggering, and the few human-crewed ships and outposts were disappearing at an increasingly alarming rate, which only exacerbated its danger.
Zarina didn't want to keep dwelling on nostalgia or regret, but she couldn't help it, one last thought popped into her mind.
She wondered if she would ever see this sight again.


***


The door slid open, and Zarina could feel the gravity getting stronger with every few rungs that she descended the ladder. For the second time in a row, she believed that she had reached the bottom when her feet touched a metallic floor; because the platform itself looked like an apartment - with a bed, table, chairs, a full-length wall mirror, and a fridge, even a bathroom compartment.
However, she also noticed a hatch on the other side of the ladder's base, with the designation '2C' on it. Pressing the toe of her boot down on the plate made the thin piece of metal side away, revealing another room.
"I'm down here," came a voice from below. Zarina swung herself around to the other side of the ladder and continued down. 
'Just like a rich man to take up an entire habitat for himself, when someone else could be using those beds.' Zarina thought. But she quickly admonished herself, contemplating that the other occupants might simply not be at home. She didn't feel guilty for having the thought in the first place, however. It was precisely the sort of assumption that someone with Thom Kelland's reputation brought to mind.
It was that reputation that was making her slightly nervous, as well. This was the first time she had ever met one of the owners of the network of companies that fell under the TKR umbrella. But, having heard scare stories about Ranajit Raman, she recognized that things could have been worse.
Getting to the bottom of the ladder, it was unmistakably the 'penthouse' suite, which ironically was on the lowest floor. But the lowest level in orbit meant the closest to Earth-like gravity, and as such, the most desired. The bed was far fancier than the ones above, and the dining table set was extremely chique. There was also a pair of windows that highlighted the room's value, but Thom had the glass polarized to block the view.
The Englishman was busy pouring a fizzy liquid into a champagne flute. At first, Zarina naturally thought that it must have been champagne, but upon moving around to get a better look, noticed that it was a brand-name lemon-and-lime soda.
Rhea stood alongside him, and her cheery smile was so steadfast that the expression seemed slightly creepy. It was like she was a mannequin, molded that way on purpose.
"Hello again, Commander Verma."
Zarina tried to smile back, but it was pretty weak as she returned the greeting.
"Do you want a drink?" Thomas asked, turning sideways to face her and showing off the impressive drinks cabinet. It was, without doubt, the largest and longest bar she had seen in space.
"Yes, thank you. Do you have an orange juice hidden away in there somewhere?"
"Erm, I think I remember seeing one down on the second shelf..." he replied, before trying to survey the many bottles. Rhea didn't even need to turn around to aid her owner.
"Two feet to your left, Thom, the transparent bottle with the purple label."
"Ah yeah."
The Englishman then clumsily poured the juice into another champagne flute before holding it out to her.
"So, first off, can I call you Zarina? Because Commander Verma is gonna get old really quick."
"Of course, Mr. Kelland," she replied with a slight chuckle, before taking a sip as he continued.
"And if I'm calling you Zarina, then you have to call me Thom, agreed?"
She nodded once in response, "Fair enough."
"Great. You'll have to forgive me if I fumble my way through this, I'm not used to speaking with employees."
"No problem," Zarina replied. "What do you need to talk to me about?"
"Well, let's start off with me congratulating you on your promotion. First time commanding a ship, that's got to be something special, right?"
This brought out Zarina’s real smile.
"Unbelievably so. I'm trying to find excuses to stay on the station, just so I can stare out of the windows and keep looking at her."
"I know what you mean. If I thought for one minute that my business partners wouldn't have me locked up under the mental health act, I'd be flying off in that spaceship and calling myself Captain." Thom chuckled, before letting the moment rest. "Honestly though, you've done really well to get here, considering that you had to pull yourself up out of the small-economy."
"Well, that wasn't totally down to me; it was also because of my father."
"Really?" Thom's eyebrows raised. "Wow, he must be exceptionally proud of you."
"He is." Zarina nodded in reply.
"I've got to admit, and I don't mean this to sound creepy, but I'm kind of proud of you, too, knowing your background and everything. I don't know if you're aware of this, but I'm the one that got to pick all the Commanders for these Saturn Class ships."
Zarina was beginning to wonder where this was going.
"No, I did not know that."
"Yeah, I kept badgering Tao Yin, you see, asking to take a more active role in the business. At the time, she probably thought it would be like letting a monkey drive her favorite Mercedes-Benz. So, I suggested something harmless, like naming the ships, picking the commanders, hell even designing the paint job on the hull. She was fine with that, of course. Let the kid play in the backyard with his crayons, kind of thing.
But, I wanted to prove my sincerity and show how dedicated I could be, so I took the whole thing seriously. And if there was one of those things where I felt I could make a real difference, it was in picking the commanders."
Zarina found herself sympathizing with him. Having people look down their nose at her for most of her life, she knew how it felt to be instantly disregarded. Despite this, her mind still struggled with one part of the scenario.
"But, isn't Tkrai supposed to do algorithms and probability assessments for that?"
Thom chuckled under his breath, turning to look at some of the curved art-deco paintings that hung on the wall of the circular room.
"Oooh yeah, they weren't about to go and let me pick the robot that cleans the toilet to be in charge of a spaceship. So, they got Tkrai to give me a shortlist of candidates for every ship. It was numbered from best to worst, and Tkrai had already done what he does best. He sorted out those with the most experience, the track record, and combined it with the psychological evaluations, and then counted it all together with the best grades from the best universities." The Englishman paused for a second, before looking her in the eye. "That's where you fell down. Don't get me wrong, you and your dad pulled off an incredibly amazing feat just by getting you into university. But at the end of the day, Tkrai does things logically, by the numbers, and a small university in Delhi puts you further down the list than places like Harvard or Cambridge."
Looking to the floor, Zarina sighed.
"Do I even want to know how far down the list I was?"
Thom gave a weak but sympathetic smile.
"Probably not as far down as you think, but it wasn't near the top. But, what made me sit up and take notice, was when Rhea described your background to me. It made me think about all the things that you probably had to go through just to get that far. It was that kind of dedication, the fight and determination, that I thought deserved rewarding over everyone else on that list. Call me a romantic, but I believe in a meritocracy where the most qualified person, who then tries the hardest, gets the gold medal." Thom finished with a shrug. "I thought that was you."
Zarina's mind was blank, not knowing how to respond, so she took a sip from her glass before realizing she should probably reply.
"I... I don't know what to say to that."
Thom gave a lop-sided grin.
"Thank you might be a bloody good start." He seemed to know exactly when to lighten the mood, and Zarina chuffed along with him before giving her thanks in return. Thom then sighed heavily before saying, "Unfortunately, that brings me to the bad part of this meeting." He started licking the front teeth in his mouth and looked around as if he was unclear on how to continue.
"How do you mean?"
"Well, I mean that after what I'm about to say, you might very well want to give me that gold medal back."
Zarina put her flute down on the bar.
"This is about taking the United Nations official to Phobos, isn't it?"
Nodding slowly away to himself, Thom still took a few seconds before replying.
"I'm not going to lie to you, Zarina, there's a good chance that TKR is responsible for the bombing."
The words did not surprise her as much as she thought they would. The games the corporations played on Earth were all but unspoken truths. Thom rubbed the stubble on his cheeks. "We already have someone on Mars trying to look into it, and you can guarantee all the other corporations are, as well, but with the AI on board the Enceladus, you should have the greatest advantage; until another ship turns up, of course. So I'm here to give you your new classified orders. You are to proceed to Mars and determine if it was TKR that bombed Phobos. If it wasn't, great, then one of our competition gets decimated. If it was us that did it, then your orders are to cover it up as best you can and, if possible, try implicating someone else. Window, depolarize."
The slowly spinning view of the blue ocean below appeared in the window frame, as Thom walked up to it and began staring out.
A glum look of concern came over Zarina's face.
"You say this is classified, is there anyone else on the mission that has clearance to know about this?"
Sighing again, Thom replied only with "Rhea, help me out here, would you?" before taking a long gulp of his fizzy drink.
"Certainly," she replied, with no hint of the cheery smile dropping. "Thom boarded the Enceladus shortly after we arrived here at Ostia and privately informed your AI, Saia, of her new orders. Both she and Tkrai agreed that, for psychological reasons and the state of your mental health, you would also need a human being to confide in during the mission. Therefore, you have been given carte blanche to privately inform one of your crew members about the true nature of the mission. Saia and Tkrai both highly encourage you to choose Dieter Korven, partly due to you working together on your previous mission, but mostly because of Tkrai's evaluation of your friendship during that voyage."
"Thank you. I will keep that in mind," Zarina said distractedly, as the weight of what was happening was starting to dawn on her.
"I believe you may need to keep it as more than just a side thought, Commander Verma. Thom and Mrs. Tao believe that if the bombing of Phobos was TKR's fault, then it was most likely Ranajit Raman that orchestrated it. Both Tkrai and your shipboard AI are programmed to follow the orders of TKRs owners, and also keep their privacy secret, unless it jeopardizes the company. This means that neither of the AIs can speculate on how he went about committing the crime, if he did at all. I, however, have no such restrictions. I may only be a computer software program, but even my modest predictive abilities are quite accurate. My simulations suggest that Mr. Raman has paid someone aboard the Enceladus to be an operative working on his behalf."
The look of concern on Zarina's face quickly turned to a confused frown.
"But, if we end up doing his dirty work anyway, by covering it all up, why would he need a spy?"
"Because the man is controlling, insanely driven, and has back-up plans to his back-up plans," Thom exclaimed, before turning to face her. "Especially if things don't go precisely how he wants them to. If you think you had a hard time of it, having to deal with racism, sexism, and poverty, and that you had to push through brick wall after brick wall to get where you are?" Thom shook his head. "It doesn't come close to what this man has done. Even if a quarter of the things that I've heard about him are true, then you have to be careful. Your AI will watch your back, that's my guarantee to you, but people can still influence events to manipulate her. Just yesterday, a good friend of mine made me realize that AI are not completely infallible, so you have to pick who to trust carefully, okay?"
"Understood," she sharply nodded, but the explanation of how shady Ranajit Raman was, a fellow Indian, only made her look inward and feel more concerned. She went to say something, but stopped, and Thom seemed to notice how troubled she still was.
“What is it?”
“What you’re asking of me, and another of my crew. It’s not the same as the asteroid belt, defending TKR property, our ships, or outposts. If we’re caught in an international cover-up, we could get arrested; what happens then?”
The question only seemed to drag Thom’s head down further.
“There’s no sugar-coating it; it’s a risk, and a serious one, plain and simple. You would be perfectly within your rights to quit right now and let someone else do it.” The thought stung Zarina, like her face had just brushed up against a toxic material and made her twitch; but Thom, looking to one side, didn’t notice and continued on. “But, I’ll make sure you and the person you choose to confide in will get a bonus, call it danger pay. And, should the worst happen, Tkrai will present the best defense he can for both of you, and me, probably. I can’t guarantee anything in that regard, but I’ve heard he can beat human and VI lawyers most of the time.” The man chuffed ironically and shook his head. Zarina swore she heard him mutter something under his breath about decimal places. “It’s a big gamble and, as I’m finding out myself, the higher you climb the bigger the gambles become and the harder they are to take. You just have to try and decide which ones are the best for you. So, are you still in?”
She closed her eyes briefly and took in a breath before opening them. The enthusiasm and happiness at commanding her own ship now felt as sour as if someone had poured vinegar into her tea. It tasted disgusting, and she was being asked to potentially cover up the crimes of others, the crimes of murderers; and for what? A profit margin.
But, like a tug boat dragging her back into line, the thoughts of her family’s debt yanked at her.
“Yes, I’m still in,” she glumly answered.
Thom's customary lop-sided grin half-heartedly returned, but it was far more sympathetic and strained than before.
"Great, then I guess I need to print out that gold medal."

Chapter 1 Scene 8 - MILAN v0.5

MILAN


Having asked Dovi to wake him up forty minutes earlier than the briefing, Milan only felt marginally better than when he’d dropped off back to sleep. After giving it some thought, he realized the only thing that might make him feel better before the meeting would be a trip to the greenhouse. And, after giving himself another look in the mirror, realized he didn’t want to walk around looking like a hospital patient. He consulted Dovi and decided upon a black, rugby-style skull-cap that would give his head added protection. The VI informed him that it would be finished and waiting in the 3D printer module just before the briefing.
The Russian then took his medication and entered the extremely narrow, curving corridor, which always made him feel like he was walking upwards, no matter the direction. About twenty paces later he found the gravity-wheel’s central access tube. Climbing was painful at first, but the higher and lighter he got made him feel like the aches themselves were being lifted away. His comment to Voronin the night before had proven true - micro-gravity really did take the edge off, even more than the medication. After that, his ribs and bruises didn’t stab at him quite so much. The distant headache, however, still remained.
Heading down the axis tube and finding the ground floor, he left the gravity-wheel complex and turned left to float down one of the ironically named walkway tubes. After passing through the Environmental and Command Center modules, spotting no-one, he turned right and continued through another walkway tube until he came to the Russian greenhouse.
Venturing through the two sets of doors, Milan instantly inhaled the deepest breath he could take. It wasn’t as refreshing as being in the countryside back on Earth, but compared to the rest of the station it was pure nectar for the soul.
Looking out at the large, transparent half-bubble, rows of crops lay ahead, arranged in circles that started in the center and grew in length and size the further out they reached. They ended at the edge of the module, where the grey shielding material started as a wall and ran underneath, protecting the entire area from the surface of Phobos. A small, narrow, dirt path lay ahead, where Milan could see one of the garden-specialized maintenance robots hovering along, busy tending to the plants. The tops of two more could be seen in the distance behind the sprouting green heads of a row of sweetcorn.
With a bench on both sides of the entrance, the Russian initially ignored them, and headed for the first row of vegetables to his right, the tomatoes. Tugging one off the vine and greedily shoving the entire thing in his mouth, he was busy plucking a second when he noticed the bright clothes of someone else a few rows further down, who, until now, had been obscured by greenery.
Milan swallowed the remains of the tomato in his mouth.
“Sadovsky, is that you?”
“It certainly is,” a voice behind the foliage replied in their native Russian. Standing up, whilst simultaneously being tied down by a piece of cord to a metal ring in the ground, the older man steadied himself. After rubbing his forehead with the same hand he was grasping a pair of secateurs, Oleg gave Milan a disconcerted look. “I’m surprised to see you up and about so soon.” The botanist was in his late forties, and looked relatively young for his age, but that still didn’t stop his forehead concertinaring like a curtain below his wispy, greying black hair.
“Voronin asked me to attend a briefing in thirty minutes, but I could also say the same about you. Isn’t it early for pruning?”
His fellow Russian looked back down along the row of peppers he had been trimming, before giving a sigh and shaking his head.
“I couldn’t sleep. Unsurprisingly, the thought of killer war machines coming to blow us all up stuck in my head,” he chuffed, before turning more sombre as Milan took a bite from the second tomato. “That, and Gurevich. So, I wandered around a bit. I even asked Benjamin if he needed help on the clean-up operation outside, but he said he won’t be joining the maintenance robots until after the briefing. In the end, I came here; it may be my menial, every-day job, but it focuses the mind and relaxes it, at least for me, anyway. I can easily see why you came here.”
Milan nodded.
“If you hadn’t worked it out already, this is my favorite module,” he said, while picking another couple of tomatoes. “Even without fresh fruit and vegetables being good for my recovery, this place also reminds me of the allotment that my dad used to own just outside of Rostov.” The Major pushed himself backwards and clasped onto the white metal bench near the entrance, sitting himself down.
“Sounds like someone I would’ve gotten along with,” Oleg replied. “You want anything while I’m over here?”
“Are you nearby any carrots?”
“Yes, not far, how many do you want? They’re rather chunky.”
“Just the one, then.”
Oleg bent back down, unclipped himself from the ring and reattached the carabiner to a rope following the crop row, moving along towards the carrot section. He carried a clippings bag with him as he went.
“What sort of stuff did your father grow?”
“Some of the stuff in here,” Milan replied. “Cabbage, potatoes, carrots, some beans. Probably other stuff, too.”
“Being that far south, I can imagine summer being rather nice in Rostov.” The botanist arrived at the carrots and bent down, carefully pulling one out of the ground.
“It is,” the Major admitted. “Being a kid, I originally liked the allotment because it was muddy and there was a stream nearby to play in. But, after a few years of helping my dad grow stuff, I liked it for what it was. There’s a natural simplicity to it. If I hadn’t joined the army, I wouldn’t of minded being a vegetable farmer.”
By now, Oleg had the carrot in his hand, having unclipped himself from the rope and was carefully pushing with his feet through the rows of crops towards the bench.
“I’d keep that to yourself, if I were you. The Chinese already make jokes about me being a typical Russian potato farmer.”
Milan was nonchalant as he munched on the final tomato in his possession.
“I learned a long time ago, you should only give a shit about what your family or friends think. Everyone else can go hang themselves.”
“I’ll have to remember that the next time someone insults me online,” the botanist quipped, as he reached the bench and pulled himself down onto it. With Milan looking at the carrot, Oleg began peeling the dirty edges off it with the shears, discarding the pieces into his clippings bag. “I bet that kind of thinking came in handy during your military training.”
Milan didn’t take his eyes off the carrot.
“In the army, shouting and intimidation is part and parcel of weeding out the mentally weak people, so you need a thick skin. All the pussies who whine and complain that it’s barbaric in this day and age don’t understand that, on the battlefield, your opponents don’t give a shit about morality or playing fair, only about killing you.”
“Heh,” Oleg chuckled. “I can just picture some of the insurgents and rebels holding up a protest banner or moaning about how unfair it is for them, having only guns verses you and your arsenal of war machines and robotic soldiers.”
“Exactly, life is unfair. Thank you,” Milan said, as he took the carrot and started crunching into it.
“I hope you keep that in mind when you find whoever tried to kill us all,” the botanist commented.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean a simple arrest and a trial, followed by a cushy prison sentence is far too good for them. Gurevich was a loyal friend, a humble guy, with a good sense of humor. If that wasn’t bad enough, Zhang nearly joined him, and you, too. If your big, thick head hadn’t stopped it,” they both chuckled, “we’d all be floating bits of scrap, orbiting around Phobos.” Oleg pressed his secateurs closed and snapped the clip to lock the blades in place. His tone dropped as a bitterness invaded his voice. “Life was unfair on us, it should be unfair on them, as well.” He slowly shook his head. “They don’t deserve a trial, only death.”
“Well, unless they’re stupid enough to get into a shooting match with us, you’re unlikely to get your wish.” Milan made a loud, cracking sound as he bit off another piece of carrot.

***

Liang Hanchao wore the steely eyes of a man prepared to go to war when Milan caught sight of him. Pushing along the railing into the main section of the Command Center, the Russian instantly understood why Voronin had been so concerned. The Colonel herself floated alongside the Chinese Captain at the circular operations station in the middle of the module. Benjamin Fu, the last remaining active engineer, was also in attendance - presumably to even up the numbers between the nations.
"How are you feeling, Major?" Liang managed to make it sound more like an order than genuine concern.
Milan returned the officious tone.
"Better, thank you, Captain." It was a blatant lie, one that told across his face. The instant he had left the greenhouse, the stale air made the visit seem like a dream. Travelling to the 3D printer to retrieve his new, black, rugby cap, the only thing that felt like a minor improvement was his belly. Energy was all he had gained.
"Good, then let us begin," Voronin replied before Liang could answer. She knew the pair of them had not started on the best of terms, and Milan was grateful that she was not going to let Liang goad him into small talk that would only make things worse. "First of all, I have decided that we will postpone having a funeral for Gurevich until after Zhang is out of his coma; this way, everyone will be able to attend, and it will also give us time to complete the clean-up operation. I know it will not be easy, but we will have to try as best we can to separate our grief from our work." Voronin paused for a moment as if giving everyone a few seconds to process her words before continuing. "Now, since the explosion, Dovi has been informing myself, and Captain Liang, of all the evidence the robots have discovered going through the wreckage. We have also reviewed Domovoi's security footage in light of what is now known, and Dovi has brought up a lot of relevant data that we need to go over. This briefing will form the basis of our nations' joint investigation. Understood?" Both Milan and Fu nodded, but not Liang. Technically he was her equal, and he wasn't shy in making them aware of it.
Voronin acknowledged before continuing on.
"The first question is obvious. How did a military-grade soldier unit end up here on Domovoi? If someone had sent this thing from space, or from the Martian surface, then our satellite network would have picked it up in orbit. Even if by some miracle it managed to land without detection, our external cameras would have seen it approach the base on foot."
"So you can imagine our surprise," Liang butted in, with his eyes fixed on Milan. "When Dovi highlighted the security scan anomaly from cargo bay three." Liang was pale by Asian standards, and with his face clean-shaven, the pinkish forehead and cheeks made it seem like his blood was boiling. "Being in charge of security and operations, I take it you noticed this discrepancy?"
Milan casually nodded in reply, letting his eyes go dull.
"Yes, I did. The Tuanjie spaceplane had departed to go back to Mars, so I left the customs and cargo scanning drone to do its job and check everything. It was probably half an hour later when it detected a container that it could not scan. I have done my homework on this job, Captain. A container or compartment that you cannot scan is because it has been outfitted with lead or with properly angled graphene. It is usually a smuggler on the surface or a corporation that wants to keep a secret. So, I did what my predecessor did in those situations and left Dovi to send a maintenance robot to go and open it. If you are insinuating what I think you are, then you will not find me at fault for following procedure."
Liang made use of the foot railing, keeping his feet pressed underneath it as he leaned forward against the ops station.
"I have not insinuated anything, yet. But you can now imagine how the military robot got aboard."
Voronin pressed on, probably to limit Liang talking as much as possible.
"Exactly, cargo bay three went offline just before the maintenance robot reached it, so re-routed and went via the external airlock, which is where you found it."
"But still, that does not make sense," Milan's eyebrows knotted. "The soldier had two options. Attempt to hack our systems remotely from inside its container, in which case Dovi would detect it, or get out of the container and manually take Dock Three offline, in which case our security cameras would have seen it."
Voronin was beginning to respond when Liang spoke over her.
"Indeed, and Dovi detected no such hacking attempt. So myself, Colonel Voronin, and the VI checked the camera footage. Dovi, put it up." The VI sent a communal, augmented-reality view-screen to all their EyeGlasses, centered above the ops station. The image began displaying camera footage from inside the cargo bay and zoomed-in on the most substantial container in view. 
"Who did the cargo container belong to?" Milan asked.
Liang kept his eyes affixed to the view screen.
"It's shipping was paid for by the E-Space corporation." Within a few seconds, the screen went blank. "See? The container in question never moves an inch, even when the cargo bay goes offline. You, Major, are a smart man. You have fought Russian revolutionaries using these machines. I am guessing that you can work out the rest for yourse.."
"Liang, compose yourself!" Voronin snapped. "Kalakov is an officer, just like you, and you will talk to him with respect, is that understood?" Whilst Liang and Voronin clashed, Milan had indeed thought it through, pondering the only way the military robot could pull off such a trick.
"That little shit," he muttered, before raising his voice enough to stop his superior officers' bickering. "Deelon Stafford, you little shit!"
"Ah, so you worked it out th.."
"Liang, enough!" Voronin barked, before lowering her voice. "Dovi, bring up the footage of the Martian." If Milan had thought that she looked unsettled when he first arrived in the CC, now Voronin looked like she was in the final rounds of a boxing match.
The image switched to an internal view of the airlock hatch that had connected Dock Three's docking tower to the Tuanjie spaceplane. Deelon was floating at the door as he chatted and joked with Milan, and the sight made his chest tighten up and his jaw stiffen. The longer it went on, the worse it got. He had thought Deelon was a good kid at the time. The Martian had drive, determination, goals, and records to break. He was taking his crappy, isolated life on a desolate and inhospitable world and was making the best out of it. 
'I respected that little shit! He was the first interesting person I'd met since I got here.' Milan clamped his jaw harder, straining not to say it out loud.
The footage continued, as Milan clasped Deelon's hand in a buddy shake, before heading off down the docking tower's tube below. 
"He asked if it was alright to check his parachute one last time before he left," the Russian narrated through gritted teeth. "I told him that it was fine, no problem, and went to check that the maintenance robots had finished storing the cargo from the plane."
"Uh-huh," Liang replied. "Here."
Deelon physically looked down the tube to check that Milan was out of sight before looking around. Upon spotting the very camera that they were watching through in the present, he placed his enormous parachute bag in the circular doorframe of the unused docking port across from his own. The Martian made sure the doorframe walls covered the entire bag from the camera, and then genuinely looked like he was rummaging inside it and checking his gear. At the end of it, his motion was ambiguous but different. It looked like he could have been closing the top of the bag, but he could have also been attaching something to the wall. 
Milan's gut instinct told him which - there was just something off about the movement. He was sure that the others in the room saw the same thing. Virtual Intelligence software like Dovi, however, might not. Even if it had, it would then have to connect the dots and utilize abstract thinking to put the pieces together of it being an explosive.
"This, this is why we need an AI aboard this outpost, and not some stupid calculator, like Dovi." Liang was reveling in his zeal, trying his hardest not to cross the line again. "Virtual Intelligence software can never pick up this kind of subtle clue, no matter how good it is."
Fu's mouth slowly opened.
"An electromagnetic pulse bomb."
"Exactly," Voronin nodded solemnly. "Weak enough to only destroy the electrical components in Dock Three, with the exception being one military robot safely encased in a lead-lined container. It also explains why Zhang and Kalakov found the airlock's emergency generator offline."
"Another clue that an Artificial Intelligence could have worked out," Liang chipped in.
The image on the screen showed Milan coming back and waving Deelon off. Nodding as he pressed the airlock's button, the docking port hatch closed off the spaceplane. Milan, in the present, looked down at the ops station as his right fist clenched hard.
Benjamin Fu's forehead creased as he looked at the Major in sympathy.
"How did he afford a ticket on the spaceplane?"
"He said that he fermented alcohol for months," Milan replied, "and then traded it with one of the corporations for passage."
The Chinese engineer glanced toward his two superiors.
"Do we know which one?"
"The Vekten Corporation is listed as the purchaser of Mr. Stafford's ticket," Dovi replied.
"But, that still doesn't make sense," Fu shook his head. "If they went to the trouble of smuggling an electromagnetic bomb on board, then you could just charge it up to the max and disable all electrical components in the entire outpost, without needing a military soldier."
Voronin gave a dirty glance to Liang. 
"That is what Dovi told us, as well." It was clear she was standing up for the VI slightly, but at this moment Milan didn't care why. "Which is what led him, and us, to the next piece of evidence. Dovi, bring up Kalakov's helmet camera from Dock Four, you know which part." The words distracted Milan from his unyielding stare at the ops station and mentally picturing where his fist would have made a dent in it.
The image in front of them blinked into a first-person perspective from his viewpoint, mid-way through him using the airlock door as protection from the deadly machine.
After a couple of volleys, his head twitched forward, catching that first, elusive view of the soldier unit through the airlock door's small window. Dovi enhanced the image as best it could with the night-vision footage it had to work with, and the outline became clear.
"The robot in question is a Japanese Ashigaru infantry model, created and sold by a subsidiary of the Ramuda-AMG Corporation. The serial number of the specific machine has been scratched out and painted over. But, with further analysis, an Artificial Intelligence may be able to uncover more. There may still be a chance of a partial reconstruction. I have sent the image to both of our governments on Earth."
Milan snorted in response.
"You call this evidence? All it tells me is that the Ramuda Corporation is completely innocent."
Benjamin Fu shot a frown at him.
"Excuse me?"
"What?" Milan shrugged with his shoulders. "Only an idiot sends top of the line war machine from his own corporation to go destroy an outpost which has cameras pointing everywhere. I'm willing to bet the same is true of the cargo container that it came in."
"Even if that is correct," Voronin sighed, "It is not the evidence that we mean, Dovi is getting to it. Continue."
The highlighted line around the robot's shape morphed to outline two rectangular objects attached to its back, as the VI began narrating again.
"As you can see from my outlining of the items attached to the back of its frame, there are two final explosives that the robot had in reserve. During Major Kalakov and Engineer Zhang's EVA expedition, they witnessed the military unit visit two cargo bays placing two explosives every time, one at each end of the bay."
"So four docks, two at a time; it needed eight explosives, but it only had six," Fu said it so quickly and fluently in English that Milan nearly didn't catch it.
Liang nodded.
"Whoever did this did not intend to destroy the outpost; they did not even want to destroy all four of our docking towers, just the three. They wanted to cripple us."
Milan rubbed his face and could feel the throbbing from his head injury coming back.
"Ugh, so when I caught up with the soldier, it had already completed two-thirds of its mission."
"Yes," Voronin replied. "It must have decided that trying to get past you and Zhang to Dock One may have endangered the entire mission, so decided to detonate there and then. I told you it could have been worse had you not been there." 
It was the first moment during the whole meeting that Voronin seemed to forget the blame that Liang was squarely placing at their door, as her right cheek twitched into the merest hint of a smile. Milan pursed his lips together and nodded in return, accepting that he might have been too hard on himself earlier.
Clearing his throat, Liang took the opportunity to take the lead.
"So, now that we know the particulars of how they breached our security," he said, placing his eyes yet again on Milan. "We must now look into who it was that breached our security. There are many possibilities, but the facts are simple; the Martians do not use money, so Deelon Stafford was either making a political statement or was bought by other means. The Vekten Corporation paid for his passage, but E-Space paid for the robot's cargo container. If you include the robots manufacturer, Ramuda, it is highly unlikely that three direct competitors are all working together. Someone is trying to spread the blame around, or confuse us, and we must find out who it is. One thing is for sure, there is only a single reason why they would do this, to try and limit the supply of ships to the outer solar system so that they can fight a war without as many reinforcements; or at the very least, make it far more expensive."
"Dovi also placed that as the highest probability," Voronin added, "and it seems the most obvious. Myself and Liang tried to contact the representatives of all three corporations on Mars; all of them told us to refer to their corporation AI's on Earth. And, as you can probably guess, the AI's on Earth said that they would get back to us after they have spoken with their owners or directors. We are not holding our breath on a quick response.
So, with regulations stating that either myself or Liang have to remain here on the outpost, we decided that the Captain will go down to the planet, arrest Deelon Stafford, and try to get information out of Vekten and E-Space. We want one of you two to go with him. The natural choice is you, Kalakov, since you are not only an officer, but the robots could use Benjamin’s help with the clean-up operation. Now that you are up and about, I want an honest and official answer from you, Kalakov - are you fit enough for active duty?"
Milan's eyes narrowed.
"To arrest Deelon Stafford? Yes, Colonel, I am fit for duty.

Chapter 1 Scene 7 - ZARINA v0.5

ZARINA


Her uncle once said, “It’s only when you come back to India that you realize how quiet the rest of the world actually is.”
Never before had those words felt more accurate to Zarina Verma, as her train slowed to a halt and the window filled with a faceless mass of human cattle, all waiting impatiently on the platform. It was about to get loud once more.
“Welcome to Chennai Central Station,” were the automated words that greeted her, as the doors hissed open and a boisterous white noise of chattering people burst forth. Almost as quick was the familiar wave of humidity that hit her face like an invisible blast of smoke, along with the pungent smells of spices and sweat. She blinked a few times and then stepped off the first-class carriage and into the melee.
Personal space wasn’t as much an issue for most Indians as it was for foreigners. But that didn’t appear to matter now, as a seemingly mystical and invisible force-field began pushing everyone out of her path and held them at bay. Most would think the reason for her ease of passage was the personal bodyguard - a TKR security android. Whilst it wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary by simply walking alongside her, to everyone else, Zarina may as well have been accompanied by an alien who was busy singing and dancing for all the looks she was getting. 
But the bemused, befuddled, and even suspicious gawping wasn’t totally for the android, a model variant of which they must have seen dozens of times. She knew. It was for the fact that it was escorting her - a dark-skinned Tamil Nadu woman just past thirty. Not a white western man. Not even a man. Not even a light-skinned Indian woman. Her.
Even without the android, she would have probably garnered a few odd looks and furrowed brows just by her uniform alone. It was a TKR logo-adorned jumpsuit, with a matching duffel bag slung over her torso. While western clothing was commonplace in Chennai, nothing stood out more than a corporate logo jumpsuit from of one of the largest companies of all. The stark colors of black and white with yellow trim also didn’t help amongst the more vibrant splashes of cyan, magenta, green, and purple that all the other women seemed to be wearing. On every other occasion that Zarina had returned home, there had always been a chance to change clothes and blend in, but, with the hastily arranged flight from space, there was simply no time. Still, at least the jumpsuit had a temperature control system woven into its fabric, keeping all but her face nice and cool in the searing humidity.
‘Is it worth the trade-off for being the pariah of the crowd, though?’ The thought rebounded into another. She had been a part of that crowd once and recalled how she used to stare at foreigners. Looking at them had always brought up a rush of determination inside her, that she could do the same and leave this place to experience new things. It was a heady, momentary blip as if she’d almost forgotten herself. This was what she had wanted - to be the foreigner, someone not stuck in this downtrodden life. It felt odd to be on the other side of the mirror.
“Please, do not obstruct our path, and make way,” Tkrai requested. The AI controlled the bodyguard in his usual calm manner and routinely dealt very well with crowded surroundings. But, with Zarina’s thoughts on the topic at hand, the words felt like they took on a new meaning and helped bring back the rush of determination. She set her jaw and pulled her head up proudly, striding more purposefully and ignoring the looks. 
Less the girl that left Chennai for a better life and more the Commander of the spaceship Enceladus.
Outside, the quadcar taxi she took seemed rather battered and the worse for wear, as were most things on Chennai’s streets. Upon entering, however, Zarina was pleasantly surprised by how clean it was. The security android entered the cabin on the opposite side as an automated voice welcomed them.
“Greetings. Welcome to Pila Taxis. If you wish for privacy, please say so in the next three seconds. Two. One... Beginning facial scan. Welcome, Miss. Verma, we hope you will have a pleasant journey with us. Please inform us of your desired destination.”
“Eighth Street, Chigirintha Palayam.”
“And which payment method would you like to use?”
“E-credits”
“The journey to Chigirintha Palayam will cost two e-credits. Do you consent to this payment?”
“Yes.”
“Then please sit back and enjoy the journey, Miss. Verma. The journey is expected to take six minutes. This taxi will inform you when we are close to arrival.”
The vehicle’s four rotor-blades spun up, and within moments the quadcar was hovering above the trees, waiting to join the buzzing swarm of drones and quadcars that darkened an otherwise blue skyline. Resting her head against the window, Zarina found herself appreciating the magnificent view she had of Chennai Central Station.
It was a grand old building, built during the British colonial era in the 19th century to act as the gateway for north India and the British to reach the south, back when the city was called Madras. Its glorious red painted walls and white-trimmed towers seemed as pristine as ever. But, while it had initially been created to bring people south, Zarina had always idolized it as her beacon of escape to the north. And when that turned out no better than the south, she had used it to escape to the larger world outside.
The taxi began moving again, as a gap in the swarm appeared, and before long, they were well on their way to her family home.
The streets below were undulating with the countless dots of people, slow-moving cars, bikes, tuk-tuks, trucks, and lorries. The buildings were even more of a mishmash than she remembered, with one notable point being when she spotted a new one going up. The ‘building contractor,’ if you could call them that, was using pipe scaffolding to create a home-made industrial 3D printer. It also looked like they were using a re-purposed fire-engine hose for the printer to pipe its material through. Such a rickety and haphazard structure made her wonder what the odds were of the building going up at all, or if it did, how long it would last. Then again, as she looked out at the skyline, and at all the other buildings that had probably gone up in the same manner, she remembered - that was India in a nutshell. Hundreds of millions of poverty-stricken people taking whatever they had, or could find, and making the best out of a bad situation.
As the taxi flew over the slums, Zarina’s attention was taken by the many stilt houses to her right, trying their hardest to stay high enough to keep the encroaching seawater at bay. If witnessing the poorer parts of the city weren’t enough indication that she was nearly home, then the vehicle twisting its rotors to slow down certainly did.
There were no landing pads in the small, dusty suburb of Chigirintha Palayam, so the taxi decided to land as close to Eighth Street as it could. Its chosen spot was nearby some train tracks that she used to play alongside, and the flying car kicked up a mini-dust storm just before it touched down. A group of kids playing cricket had already shuffled away but took another couple of steps farther back when she and the bodyguard stepped out. Their mouths dropped, and most were awed and fearful of the android in equal measure. One or two made a run for it, but five others huddled together and kept their distance.
“Don’t worry, he’s quite friendly,” she smiled and re-assured them. It didn’t make a blind bit of difference.
The kids weren’t afraid enough to keep themselves from following her, however, and shadowed them along the run-down street. The amount of litter and garbage on the crumbling road was matched only by the number of people standing in doorways and sitting on the steps to buildings. Some wore breathing masks, and a few others had linen cloth wrapped around their mouths; no doubt to protect from the smoke of the distant fires burning outside the city, or possibly from whatever was the latest contagion scare. None of them had their eyes covered, and all of them were on Zarina and the android as they passed by. The looks from the adults were in stark contrast to the ones from the kids. Sullen apathy, suspicious confusion, or uncaring salacious appraisals studied her up and down.
She thought she was used to the latter; having grown up here, it was merely a fact of life. It was when she left India in her twenties that she realized how scarcer it was everywhere else. Returning after such a long time away now made it feel more violating than she remembered. So, a mild relief washed over her when she turned down a cramped ally and found her family home at the end of it, cornering another street. It was a rough, plaster clad, burnt-orange building, two-stories tall and part of a row of adjoining homes. Several blue plastic barrels, a couple of brown wooden crates, a broken dresser, and a scooter were up against the wall. A communal entrance hall stairwell to this house and their neighbor’s upper floor lay beyond, and this was where she met a familiar face.
“Geetika!” Zarina cried out in surprise.
Her sister was sitting outside and scrubbing some clothes in a washbasin. She took her small breathing mask off and rose to her feet before excitedly squealing her sister’s name in response. Putting her arms out, they embraced as Zarina jogged up.
“I wasn’t expecting to see you ‘til next week.”
“That’s why I’m here,” Zarina replied, as her happiness tinged with disappointment. “My ship’s departure got brought forward. I’m going to be leaving tomorrow.”
Her sister looked crestfallen.
“Really? But, I haven’t seen you in so long, I was hoping we could spend some time together.”
“Me too, that’s why we have to make the most out of today and tonight.”
Geetika’s mouth swept into a bitter grin as she shook her head.
“Ahh, that explains it.”
“Explains what?” Zarina asked.
“Why mummy has been in such a horrible mood all day.” Her face suddenly turned sour. “You know, she didn’t even tell me. How awful is that?”
“She’s probably angry that I didn’t get married before leaving again.” They both chuckled, but for Zarina, it felt forced.
“Well, you could always lie,” Geetika replied, with a cheeky glint in her eye, “but I don’t think your friend here could be passed off as a very convincing husband.” The security android stood motionless at the remark.
They both chortled again in amusement, and this time it felt more natural to Zarina. What brought it to an end was when she spotted a dark-brown pair of eyes staring at her from around the entrance’s doorframe.
“Is that who I think it is?”
Geetika looked around, before beckoning the shy little girl over.
“Adya, come and say hello to your auntie Zarina.” The eight-year-old slowly plodded over, and Zarina squatted down to meet her eye-level as Geetika placed a hand on her daughter’s head. “Do you remember your auntie?”
Adya nodded in reply, despite looking hesitant. She returned the hug after Zarina said hello and put out her arms, but she could tell the little girl’s memory of her must have been hazy. Three years to an eight-year-old was a long time. 
Probably due in no small part to Tkrai’s android prominently standing behind her, Zarina failed to get more than a few words out of the shy girl. So she took her niece’s hand and they went inside, immediately bumping into two of her four brothers.
Mohan was in his early twenties and looked as sullen as some of the men she had passed in the street, probably due to him working all night. Meanwhile, her youngest brother, Dinesh, was far more bright and personable, and the teenager was as delighted at seeing his big sister as Geetika had been. What stopped them all catching up further was their mother turning up, curious to see what the commotion was.
Shefali was only a year past fifty but looked much older in Zarina’s eyes, and with her floral patterned red and green saree with gray pants, she looked every bit the quintessential housewife of Chennai.
“Ah, you’re here,” she announced with a weak smile, before walking over to give Zarina a kiss and a hug. “Welcome home.”
“Thank you, mummy.”
“You’re later than you said you would be.”
“I know, the train got delayed,” Zarina replied with a sigh, having been frustrated for most of the early morning. In response, her mother simply shook her head in disbelief.
“Seriously? They can send you flying around the stars, but they cannot do a two-hour train journey from Sriharikota to Chennai?”
Zarina couldn’t help it, she rolled her eyes and groaned.
“I’ve told you before - I don’t fly around the stars.”
Shefali shot her left hand up, palm towards Zarina, and closed her eyes briefly. 
“Either way, what matters is that you are here now.” She darted a glance at the two young men. “Your brothers are supposed to be helping Sanjay, and your sister offered to do the washing while she was here. So, you can come and help me prepare lunch, then, we can all catch up.”
Both her brothers grumbled but relented, giving Zarina a wave and a nod before disappearing out the back. Geetika clasped her sister’s hand with a big smile, saying she would see her later, and then went back to the washbasin with Adya. After telling Tkrai to leave the android there, she followed her mother into the kitchen.
Doing so made Zarina realize just how little the house had changed over the years. The paint on the walls was chipped and cracked, along with some of the wood on the doorframes. The light-bulbs on the ceilings were all missing their shades, but everything was always dusted and clean. The decades-old cooking utensils hanging on the walls were still immaculate, but the wooden kitchen counter-top was one of the places that showed its age, looking worn and thin. Equally as bad was the cooker, which was decrepit and rusting as a pot sat on top of it and simmered away. The heady, aromatic smell it gave off was strong with cumin and cardamom, as Shefali sidled up to a collection of pitifully thin and sorry-looking vegetables. She had been halfway through making Chana Kulcha and Rotis with a vegetable salad when Zarina had arrived, and quickly held out a knife to enlist her daughter’s help.
“So apart from the train, how was your trip?”
“It was fine. Re-entry was a bit more bumpy than usual, but we didn’t have to orbit the Earth even once, which makes a big difference.” 
Her mother took to chopping vegetables alongside Zarina, but with far greater speed and a deftness that highlighted her years of experience.
“And do you like your new ship?”
Zarina was all teeth, as her grinning smile radiated a childish glee.
“Oh, it’s simply amazing; the interior is nearly twice the size of the last one I was on. It even has a proper mess hall. Oh, and the Artificial Intelligence, I finally got to meet her.”
Her mother nodded a few times in response while not showing much in the way of emotion. Zarina knew from experience that her mother didn’t understand any of the technical details she relayed, but had always seemed a bit more invested until now.
“Mhmm, and what is she like?”
“Err, to be honest, I couldn’t tell that much difference between her and a normal VI. It’s a bit like Tkrai controlling the security robot. She seems a bit more personable to talk with, but at the end of the day, what makes her special is really under the hood if you get my meaning.”
“Mhmm,” her mother replied again. “And how long will you be gone this time, again?”
The sound of chopping from Zarina stopped as she turned to look at Shefali with a scowl.
“Don’t feign forgetfulness, I know you don’t like it, but I don’t have a choice in the matter. I go where the company sends me, no matter how many years it takes.”
Her mother kept on chopping.
“Mhmm.”
“Don’t mhmm me. You were the ones that wanted me to take this promotion.”
“Your father wanted you to take this promotion,” Shefali corrected. “I was perfectly happy with your payments as they were. Now, get back to chopping.”
Zarina snorted, before shaking her head and resumed cutting the vegetables.
“You can’t think that I want to be away for more than four years at a time. Who in their right mind would?”
“No, I don’t think that,” Shefali bluntly replied. “But I do think you will do anything to please your father.”
As she continued chopping the reedy carrots, Zarina’s face dropped into a pain of frustration.
“The more money I make in the large-economy the faster your debts are paid off.”
“And as I said, I was perfectly fine with your payments,” her mother readily retorted back. “I even accepted you leaving for two years at a time during your twenties. But you’re thirty-years-old now, Zarina, and when you get back you’ll be approaching thirty-five. Being a spinster and looking for a man will be very difficult. You already have the odds firmly stacked against you because of our dark skin. Having a job in the large-economy can’t be helping you, either. Not many men like their wives earning more than they do. Add to that your age by the time you get back, and you’ll be lucky to find a good husband at all.”
This topic had been getting more and more heated over the last few years, and Zarina was getting sick of it. It had driven a wedge between them - one that she felt was all her mother’s doing. 
“And let’s not forget how badly it will reflect upon you, as well,” Zarina added while raising her voice. “Because that’s what this is really about, isn’t it? I’m sure the neighbors are already talking about you behind your back. Aren’t you an awful mother, letting your eldest daughter become westernized and going around whoring instead of getting married.”
“Stop it, Zarina!” her mother snipped back.
Having finally had enough, a dull clink chimed as Zarina dropped the knife.
“No, I won’t! It’s not my fault that your two eldest children were girls instead of boys. It’s also not my fault that you broke the bank sending me to university. And why? To get me into the large-economy so that I can get you out of the debt that you already had.” She stopped for a moment, realizing how upset she had become. Softening her voice, Zarina struck a more sympathetic tone. “I’ve done everything that you two have asked of me, and I’ve been more than happy to do it because I love you, and I don’t want to see any of you out on the street. But it’s hard trying to make a life for myself when I spend nearly all of it up there. I know you and appa never intended to force this choice upon me but until you two are clear of debt I have to choose work first.”
A tear streaked down her mother’s cheek near trembling lips, as she grasped the hand that Zarina was using to lean against the counter-top.
“You’re a good girl, Zarina, a good girl.”


***


The final pair of Zarina’s four brothers turned up when lunchtime came around, as well as Geetika’s husband with their other child, a little four-year-old called Rajesh. It was only when they were all sat down at the table in the backyard, with the food prepared, that their father, Bharat, made an appearance. Profusely apologizing for being late, mostly to Shefali, he took his seat at the table, and they all tucked into the food as a family.
Whilst one or two could only stay for their lunch hour, the rest spent the day mingling and having a pleasant day together as they slowly congregated inside for the air conditioning. 
Zarina and her father were the last two holdouts as they sat, huddled together. Bharat continued to ask questions about the new ship and where it would be taking her in the outer solar system. Unlike her mother, his enthusiasm was genuine, with Zarina already knowing that he loved listening to her tales, living the life he had wanted in the large-economy vicariously through her.
“So, what do you do when you get to Jupiter?” he asked with eager eyes.
“Mostly, we’ll spend three years doing a route between the various mining sites on different moons. The only time that will change is if something breaks down that the robots can’t fix, then Saia will re-route us to see what the problem is.”
Bharat leaned over to her, with his beer nearly sploshing out of its bottle. 
“You better take a lot of pictures with those fancy EyeGlasses of yours. I want to see it all, you hear me? I want to see every moon and every location that you visit, promise me.”
“I promise, appa,” she smiled back. “I’ll send them the moment I take them.”
“Good.” He patted her forearm before leaning back into his chair. He seemed to let the thought settle for a moment before changing the subject. “Your mother told me about the tiff that you two had earlier, by the way.”
Zarina half scrunched her face up, while slowly shaking her head.
“It was nothing.”
“Even so,” her father replied, “just don’t be too hard on her. Despite all the talk of you not getting married and having children, I think a large part of it simply comes down to her missing you and not getting to see her eldest daughter grow up. And she has every right to be angry about that. But always remember, she’s not angry at you, she’s only angry at me; because I’m the one that got us into this mess in the first place. She loves you more than you know.”
“I know,” Zarina quietly murmured as she looked down. Her father reached across and put his hand over hers.
“Hey, if there is one silver lining to all of this, it’s that I at least got one of my children out of the small-economy. It may have hurt your mother, but don’t let it hurt you as well. You keep doing what you’ve been doing and hold onto it with both hands. Oh, and enjoy it as much as you can!” He finished with a flourish, shaking her hand from side-to-side and widely grinning as he said it.
Zarina’s smile gradually came back before she leaned over to hug him.
“I will, appa, I promise.”