“No – you just look at that and tell me I’m wrong.”
Sahl had seen many dawns in her life, and Earth’s had never featured among her favourites. The Solar System colonies had so much to offer in this sense – some of them of uncanny beauty. And from the stunning, week-long West Sunrise Parties in the Venusian Floating Cities to the blue hues of the Martian skyline, Sahl had seen them all. No nostalgia or misplaced sentimentalism for a well-travelled Solar System astrobiologist born in a faraway colony. But when, embedded in her heavy exoskeleton, she went out in the frozen Eridian morning for the first time, she could not avoid gasping. There was no dawn: the sky was dark.
“Does it help knowing you’re right?” She replied with a shrug.
“We should have never come here. And not just for this bleak landscape.”
“Harris, you’re not talking seriously. We had reasons for it.”
“But I am. And for what concerns those reasons…” His voice echoed in her helmet, transmitted through the spacesuit’s internal speakers. “…We were mistaken. And now, instead of doing the only reasonable thing – get the hell out of here – we’re heading into the opposite direction. Eridians…!” He concluded on a note of contempt.
“That’s unfair, Harris. It was not their unilateral decision to come here in the first place.”
“But it has been their decision to stay put, and we were unable to do anything but watching. Well, no more. This madness has to stop.”
Sahl looked at the horizon line. It was the 3rd hour of the day, which on Eris was astonishingly similar to Earth in terms of duration – 25 terrestrial hours – a common feature for a life that had nothing else to share. She knew Harris had a point. Within a general lack of auto-determination all small colonies in the Solar System faced, Dysnomians were among the worst off. Not even the secluded and derelict souls from Callisto sounded so desperate in their reports. And yet…
“I’m not here to discuss politics with you,” she said. “Keep checking the terrain. We need to retrieve methanophages from the Axum Rift before heading back.”
“Not today. We have yet to find their pool.”
And that’s your job instead of complaining, Sahl thought, annoyed. Yes, we had a reason for establishing a permanent colony on the remote dwarf planet of Eris, and it was what the eggheads on Mars called the piggyback exploration – using the peculiar, weirdly tilted orbit which allowed Eris to weave nearby the Neptunian path at its nearest point and going as far as 98 AU from the Sun when farthest away.
It had looked such a brilliant idea.
That fateful night in 2256, July 2, when the first spacecraft left from Mars, Mons Olympus colony, directed to Eris at its perihelion after an orbit of 558 years, Sahl was a little girl living under the vaulted domes of Europa. She could still remember her parents discussing the event, disagreeing on the modalities and some technical choices, sure, but praising the endeavour.
Like everybody else. No effort had been spared for the success of that mission, and in the following months ships from other colonies of the Solar System had joined the incredible adventure. People with different views about everything, but a common aim: going where nobody had ever been before.
Sahl shivered in spite of herself. It had taken almost thirty years before the incredible challenges had been mastered and all those sacrifices and efforts had finally paid off. The Twin TransNeptunian Cities – Netsilik on Eris and Nerrivik on its moon Dysnomia – had been up and running at the exact moment when, in 2281, Eris crossed the border of the explored space, entering into a zone never reached before from Earth or any of the stations scattered here and there in the Solar System. Ten years later, and those promises had turned sour.
A grim reality was under everybody’s eyes – everybody living there. Eris system was a damned, inhospitable place and the people leading the whole colony – based in Netsilik and thus called Eridians – were of the mad scientist kind, worse than those warmongers on the Titan’s clusters and the nutheads of Umbriel. At least those ones were keeping their lunacy for themselves, not trying to make proselytism and convince anybody else. Eridians were different. Too bad for the Dysnomians, their poor siblings on Eris’ satellite, she mused. Too bad for me.
“I’m going back down, Harris.”
“We’ve still work to do.”
“I can’t do that as a dead biologist. My argon reserve is depleted under safe limit.” She checked again her wrist gauge. “I’ll see you under.”
Dysnomians wanted to leave the outpost and get back within Neptune’s orbit, Eridians wanted to stay. Simple in theory, not so in practice. Dysnomians could not leave without the spacecrafts, docked on Eris. However, Eridians had no intention to let them go, for the simple reason that they needed the nuclear fusion plants, held on Dysnomia. Without the proximity of a gas giant to supply the required Helium 3, the only alternative was to synthesize components from frozen water, and Dysnomia’s geology made the process faster and less energy-intensive.
Enough to keep the plants in there, and the people operating them, too.
Sahl extracted herself from the exoskeleton. Less than two hours, and then back home. Nerrivik, finally. Eric would have already been asleep, but she was going to enjoy his company for a few days this time. Wasn’t he the reason why she had chosen to live such a difficult existence in an already extreme environment? She had followed him in this adventure to the end of the known heliosphere, and now she forced herself to commute between the two settlements since her job required her presence on Eris, not on Dysnomia. But Eric worked in the reactors in Nerrivik, and there they had to settle.
Sahl examined the samples. Eridian bacteria were proving unique in the Solar System, as she had suspected since the beginning. She was waiting the confirmation from Mars Cydonia’s extensive database of all life forms ever sequenced, but those things took time. Being the last outpost in the Solar System had its drags even under that aspect.
She was just ready to leave, when Harris joined her in the lab. He emerged stark naked from the decontamination room and came on to her, pressing Sahl’s body against the wall. She wriggled out.
“What’s up? We still have time.”
“No. That was business of one night only,” she replied.
“A full day, actually.”
“It was over before it started. I love Eric.”
“You have quite a way to show it.”
Sahl was on the point of serving him a sharp reply, but she bit her tongue. It was not Harris’s fault if she had been an idiot. She opened the hatch leading to the spacecraft.
“See you in Nerrivik in one week. And Harris…” She looked at him straight in the eyes. “Don’t do that again.”
Sahl could clearly see the reason of the growing divide between the Twin Cities – from the vault of the underground facility she was living in since she had arrived with Eric, twelve years before.
Eridians had been broadcasting since the beginning that they were going to find Earth 2.0 from their privileged observation and exploration point. From their perspective, that was the endgame of their adventure. Dysnomians believed, however, it was a too ambitious plan, and maintained their objective was to analyse and collect data on the unknown space they were going to explore, with the untold aim to come back to the Solar System once a sufficient amount of data had been accumulated.
Also, what worried her more was not the past, but what was to come.
In 2275 Eridians had announced to the Solar System colonies that they had found the always suspected and never identified Earth-like rocky planet in the Oort Cloud, and they were determined to colonise it. Due to distance, they had devised what they thought was a smart move, using again the piggyback logic: what is better than jumping on the planet with the most elongated orbit from the Sun ever? It was what they called the Sedna Project, promising to be the final nail in the Twin Cities coffin.
She prepared for landing. She was home.
“Pass me the wine, would you, Sahl?” Harris said with a mocking stare. “According to your watch, it’s night now.”
Nights in Nerrivik were as dark and artificial as the days. That was not much of a surprise in an underground settlement built under the only rocky part of Dysnomia. Of course, Dysnomians routinely complained that Netsilik, founded in the same year on Eris but with a population of several hundred thousand people more, was far better served and organized. Netsilik’s nights were nowhere as bad as Nerrivik’s – let alone the days.
Sahl didn’t care – she hated them all. She passed the bottle over.
They were having dinner that evening, the five of them always together when their shifts allowed. Apart from her, Eric and his brother Harris, there was Tyle, a space pilot from Mars and Winnie, one of the rare Earthians living in the Eris system.
Sahl had prepared their food, and now was sitting with them, listening in silence to their endless debates. Harris had been, as usual, the most vocal of them.
She didn’t like when he behaved like that, but she couldn’t blame him either. Harris had hated the mission since day one, and only settled on Dysnomia because his older brother had decided to leave Cydonia and go there. But despite his political opinions, or maybe because of them, Harris had always been the most informed one in their group about what the Eris’s mission was going to be.
“For being Dysnomian, we’re a bunch of wimpy idiots.” Tyle said, tasting his wine. “Except you, Eric. You’ll always be an Eridian in your heart, even if you live here in Nerrivik.”
“The hell he will.” Harris sneered.
“I don’t get it,” Winnie said.
“Tyle refers to the name – the name Dysnomia means lawlessness. Not exactly what Harris thinks we are – and should be,” Sahl explained.
“No, Harris thinks we have to stop with fancy talks, and strike. Now.” He looked at Eric. “Before this Sedna madness translates into action. We need to leave the Twin Cities, yes, but to get back to the System, no farther away.”
“What do you have in mind?” Eric asked quietly. “All long-haul ships are docked on Netsilik.”
“But we have the energy. Without us, Eridians would freeze to death in less than a week.”
“And we would starve. We don’t produce anything here.” His brother replied.
“Not if we plan beforehand and store enough. Like, say, for a travel back to the outskirts of the Solar System. Colonies like Titan.”
Tyle shook his head. “We’d never be authorised to dock to Titan’s spaceport. They’ve closed their borders since their quarrels with the Earth. Same for Enceladus. And you can forget Umbriel, of course – who wants to live in that frozen hell among crazy eugenists?”
“Not me for sure – I had my fair share of madness with the bloody Eridians already.” Harris said. “What about Rhea?”
“Too many links with Mars Mons Olympus, from where the majority of the Eridians had come from.” Winnie said. “I say Iapetus.”
There was a moment of silence.
“Iapetus might work.” Tyle said. “It’s not aligned with anybody, and I used to know people living in the equatorial ridge’s settlements. They might give us clearance to land.”
“Please stop.” Sahl came to the table. “We’ve better things to do than indulging in wishful thinking.”
“The orbit around Eris lasts 16 days.” Harris said, ignoring her. “We’re not tidally locked. For half of that time they can’t see us – whatever we’re up to.”
“They can still detect our activity.” Winnie said.
“I say they won’t suspect anything. Why should they? They think we would never have the courage for break away from them.” Harris looked at his brother again. “Tell me, bro – if we go, would you be with us?”
Eric stood up and left the room in silence.
Tyle watched him leaving. “Do you think he’ll tell anybody? This amounts to treason.” He turned toward Sahl. “Sahl?”
“He’ll help us.” Harris said.
“How can you be so sure?” Sahl said, staring at Harris.
“Because I know him better than you ever will, sweetheart.”
He finished his wine and followed his brother outside.
The week after, Harris joined them later than usual, storming the room.
“They’ve done it. Those sons of rabid dogs made the announcement. Without even asking for our opinion.” Harris was livid.
“Because they already know it, probably.” Sahl said in a low voice to avoid provoking him. If that was true, a fight was the last thing they needed now.
“Countdown to Sedna has started.” He continued.
“I can’t believe it.” Winnie said. “Who told you that?”
Tyle said nothing, but went straight to the mainframe. Harris instead grabbed his brother’s arm. “Eric, are you convinced now?”
“Here, guys. Listen to this.” Tyle read out the statement.
November 17, 2291, Twin City of Netsilik: Official Statement to Earth and all 29 Earthian colonies in the Solar System.
After thoughtful considerations and years of planning, the Central Council of the Trans-Neptunian Colony of Eris has taken a final decision. We are going to leave to terraform Sedna and, using its extended orbit, reaching in approximately two generations a distance for making the travel to our new home in space – aka Earth 2.0 – suitable. As everybody knows, the window of opportunity is closing fast. Eris is almost outside the travel distance to Sedna, after having been at its closest some decades ago when both clustered together on the same side of the Solar System. To be precise, it was this stunning orbital coincidence to hint at the presence of Earth 2.0 out there in the first place. Now that its existence has been confirmed and we have the possibility to reach it, we can’t hesitate. We’ve come so far away for a reason, and now we have a duty toward mankind and its survival in space.
Departure has been scheduled in five weeks from now. Both settlements on Eris and Dysnomia will be abandoned in order to ensure a community of efforts in the right direction and use all available resources. Due to this strict schedule we expect nobody will be able to join us from the rest of the Solar System, or even provide any assistance, but you’re welcome to use whatever scrap left behind. This is the end of the TransNeptunian Twin Cities, yes, but the beginning of a whole new Era. Wish us luck.
Silence descended on the room, and only the noise of the heating system could be heard in background.
Then Eric spoke.
“We’ve no other options then.”
Harris sat down with a wide smile, forcing Tyle to join them at the table. “Here, pilot. I have a certain idea how we can proceed on this one. Are you game?”
Sahl stared at her husband in horror. “Eric…”
Harris gave her a hard look. “You do whatever you want, Sahl. Follow the Eridians if you like them so much. My brother and I go home.”
When a few days later Tyle and Harris came out with the details of their plan, Sahl decided it was the moment to speak up.
“It’s not going to work.” She said. “They’ll arrest and leave us here alone to rot.”
Harris laughed, while Tyle took her hands, and addressed her with his most persuasive tone. “No, Sahl. It can work, and it will. Harris was right, it has been years they’re preparing for it, this is why a few weeks is all they need. They have done everything in secret, to avoid alerting us – and it worked. Things are ready. There are several hundred starships of various size and kind leaving for Sedna, starting from next month. It will still take a while to have everybody gone, and they won’t lose a day. Now, the important thing is that all tiny vehicles are going to dock eventually to the big ships once resources are over, but they’ll start the voyage independently, for optimisation purposes. We’ll leave like the others, but heading to Saturn’s moons. And with what they have assigned to us, we’ll have enough to go up to Mars if we need to. Can’t be better.”
“Eridians won’t be so short-sighted to put all Dysnomians on the same transport. They know we were not so keen to stay, let alone go further.” Sahl objected.
“They are busier with other things right now than checking passenger lists for deserters. As a matter of fact, Winnie managed to put the five of us on board of one of the smallest units, which is at the moment docked to one of the motherships and that is expected to only carry technicians.”
“And what about the others on our same ship?” She said.
“What about them?” Harris asked with a nasty grin.
“We’ll simply let the Eridians be stranded. Don’t worry too much -their pals in Netsilik won’t leave any of their own behind. Us? We’ll be gone by the moment they discover it, and they won’t waste any fuel to come after us.” Tyle replied.
“Let’s say I agree. You two geniuses have still forgotten something.” Sahl said. “There are a few thousands of other Dysnomians in Nerrivik. Do we condemn them all to follow the Eridians as cattle to the processing house?”
“For once, you’ve used the right word, Sahl. Cattle.” Harris said, a grimace of contempt on his handsome face. “If they’re not going to act, this is what they are, and that’s exactly what they deserve.”
“We’ve been talking with a few of them,” Tyle said. “Some will do the same, taking over some ships like we’re planning to do. The others… for them will be business as usual: moan and follow. We can’t do anything about that.”
Sahl looked at her husband with imploring eyes. “Eric, say something. It’ll end badly, for all of us.”
“My decision is taken, Sahl. I’m sorry.”
“But you are the one that took us here, Harris and me,” she said, grabbing his arm. “We’ve followed you, we believed in you. Twelve years of struggles and sacrifices – all for nothing?”
“I know you’re unhappy, both of you. That’s why I’m making sure to get you back home now.”
Sahl tried to reply but he shook his head and went out.
The last three weeks had been frenetic, Sahl thought, zipping up her spacesuit. Especially for Eric. She had almost not seen him at all during that period. As Chief Engineer of the H3D reactors, an essential part of the cargo to Sedna, Eric was going to be part of Command Corp. Without the reactors Eridians would have never been able to terraform Sedna, and he was involved in getting them ready for the long trip. Even the travel itself presented substantial challenges – since the three motherships were going to still need energy for their fusion rockets at the moment of departure and enough when reaching their target to be able to make the insertion in orbit and land. No matter the accuracy of previous planning, there was a lot of work to do to make it happen.
The night before the countdown she couldn’t sleep. She headed to the mothership’s main deck, observing the operations with mixed feelings. Some Eridians were working on the launch procedures, double-checking the last details. They look so similar to us, she mused – after all, they could tell the difference only from the way they dressed and spoke – and yet, in less than forty years the Twin Cities have grown stranger and suspicious of each other. Who’s to blame for this?
Her eyes caught Eric’s. He was there too, discussing with two of the pilots, giving instructions.
He gestured them to leave and came near. He put an arm around her shoulders and gently pushed her away from the deck. They walked down to a remote corner of the storage areas, where they made love. Then Eric gave her a kiss and put his wedding ring into her hand.
“Why, Eric?” She said.
He smiled to her – that timid smile that had always managed to melt her heart. “I give you back your freedom, Sahl. You’ll be happy on Iapetus, or wherever you’ll decide to live.”
“What does it mean?” With her head spinning, she struggled to make sense of those words. Then she realised.
“You can’t do that.”
“I’m the one who designed the latest version of these reactors, the scientist that made them the marvel of engineering they are now. But their specifics are based on Eris’s morphology and materials; rhetoric apart, nobody knows what we’re going to find on Sedna, provided the ships really make it there.” He caressed her face. “Eridians need me more than ever. I am the only one that can fix the reactors if anything goes wrong.”
“Harris will never let you leave.”
“Harris won’t know, if you don’t tell him. And you won’t.”
“No, Eric. On this, Harris and I are on the very same page, no matter all our disagreements.”
“You owe me one, Sahl.”
Sahl tried to stop her hands shaking, but she could not. Her grip on the ring hardened, until she felt the metal hurting her skin.
“Since when did you know?”
“About Harris? Since the day it happened. With a fair amount of detail, too – more than I would have liked it.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Harris and I had been inseparable until the moment you arrived. Before that moment, we both had a lot of girlfriends, none of them lasting more than a few months. He has never forgiven you for staying over and getting in between us.” Eric smiled. “He thought I’d have punished you and sent you away.”
Sahl exhaled, as if the air had become too rarefied for her lungs. She gazed at her husband, not sure what to expect. But in Eric’s pale green eyes there was nothing but the usual kindness.
“Why didn’t you? I clearly don’t deserve you.”
“Love is not something you deserve or earn.” He took away Sahl’s tears, kissing her face.
“Eric, I’m so sorry.”
“You don’t need to be. But you’ll have to take care of my brother – I won’t be able to do it when I’m gone.” He looked away. “You were right, it was my dream. That dream has never died. I still want to find our new home in space, no matter the risk, or the cost. This is what unites us, me and those people. Eridians might be crazy, but they’re ready to die for their belief. I can’t fail them now.”
“You’re failing us.”
“I’ve failed both of you taking you here in the first place. I’m only making things right.” His eyes went back to her and he caressed her face with tenderness. “I’ve never doubted your love, and I know you’ll do the right thing.”
“Harris will say it’s my fault, and he will hate me for this.”
“Hatred is a powerful feeling and the two of you already share so much. You can learn to be happy together.”
“You will all die.” Sahl cried.
“It’s not a price too high. Better than the alternative.”
He kissed her hands, and Sahl walked away in silence, blinded by her tears.
The mothership carrying the H3D reactors undocked from Nerrivik’s terminus, her thruster set into Eris’ direction to rejoin the rest of the starships and commence the slow migration to the new, distant home.
Quietly, a small vehicle left its hangar, heading into the opposite direction. No action was taken from the main ship. No communication attempted either. The mutiny was silent and effective, seemingly undetected, and astonishingly peaceful, Sahl thought.
Inside, however, things went in a different way. Quarrels apart, Harris destroyed a piece of heavy machinery with his bare hands before passing out due to an excess of alcohol, not before having yelled at her he was going to make her pay for her mischievousness.
Sahl stood alone in front of the stern’s glass window, looking with dry eyes at the silhouette of Eris becoming smaller and eventually reducing itself to a dot into the darkness. Then she went to the main deck, and strapped herself to the chair near to the communication equipment.
“Tyle, route to Cydonia.”
“You heard me.”
“I don’t get it – we have chosen Iapetus, remember?”
“No.” She pointed at Eris’s direction. “They might be crazy, the Eridians, but they’ll need all the help they can get. Mars is where they are the most likely to obtain it.”
“You’re not thinking straight, Sahl. We’ll get arrested and thrown in jail for life – nobody pardons mutiny anywhere on Mars,” Winnie replied. “And even if they do listen to us and decide to cooperate… you know better than me that help will never reach those ships in time.”
“Not when they arrive, for sure. But when they are already there, yes, and in the form they need it.” Sahl switched on the system and started the contact procedures. “We’re the only ones that can advise, because we know Eridian technology better than anybody else. And in addition to that, we have the specs of their Sedna mission and a list of request for materials and components for the second stage of the Sedna Terraforming Plan.”
“Yes. I worked them out with Eric just before we left.” She looked into their eyes and then at the screen, at the space in front of their eyes. “I haven’t given up my husband to live as an outlaw on a remote outpost.”
“You’re as batshit crazy as he is, Sahl. Not a surprise you ended up together,” Tyle said, shaking his head. But she noticed the grin on his face while began inputting a new set of coordinates.
Winnie noticed it too. “Tyle, what’re you doing?” She asked, alarmed.
“Mons Olympus’s view is beautiful at night, even from the window of a jaildome, Winnie,” he replied. “We were all Eridians when we arrived, before we drifted away. Sahl’s just right – we’ve got to stand up for them.”
Sahl nodded. “There was a dream, once, of a new home in space – for all humans,” she said, looking at the small, luminous dot in front of their eyes, the pale Sun billions of miles away, “and this time, we’re not going to forget.”