Principia — De Motu Corporum I
On the Motion of Bodies in Space
“The ‘vis insita,’ or innate force of matter, is a power of resisting, by which every body, as much as it lies, endeavours to preserve in its present state, whether it be of rest, or of moving uniformly in a right line.”
– Sir Issac Newton, “Philosophae Naturalis Principia Mathematica”
It was the last decade of the 23rd century. The planet Earth, despite its diminished resplendence due to global climate change, remained the pale blue dot it had always been. In the late 21st century, the nations of Earth constructed an immense halo of solar power satellites in geostationary orbit — 35,786 kilometers above the Earth’s equator — and pierced it with three 100,000-kilometer-long space elevators to service it, spaced equidistantly throughout. With fastidious maintenance and relatively minor upgrades, the array continued to function ever since.
This spectacular feat of engineering lent the planet the appearance of a cloudy sapphire inlaid within a delicate gossamer ring of gold and silver. This wispy aura served to transmit the electrical power it collected from sunlight to the planet below, keeping the night at bay for the 40 billion humans that called it home.
Keeping starvation at bay for these teeming masses required dozens of immense space stations dedicated to agriculture, located in the regions of space where the Earth’s gravity and that of its argent moon canceled each other out.
EML-1 colony #7, “Fasal,” was typical of an agricultural base; a hollow cylinder the size of a city that rolled on its center so that objects within fell towards its inner face at a rate of 980 centimeters per second — a familiar facsimile of Earth’s gravity at sea level to its inhabitants. The station’s internal volume was dominated by gleaming white vertical farms, which used millions of hydroponics trays to grow its main crop; the humble soybean.
Like clockwork, every time the Moon rose above the horizon at the twin cities of Asaba and Onitsha, which straddled the Niger River, this colony harvested, packed, and shipped to Earth 1,000 tons of soybeans, each grown in the station’s climate-controlled environment — 30° Celsius, free of unwanted pests and diseases, fed clean water with the right mineral content — ideal conditions for growing the perfect soybean.
It was in one of these many vertical farms that Sara Reynolds toiled, removing hydroponics trays from their slots and carrying them to the diagnostics stations to be monitored by the biologists charged with the crop’s wellbeing, and then returning them to their particular shelves. 120 days after planting, the farm’s entire crop was due to be harvested — a laborious process that required a thousand worker-hours of back-breaking work, even in the 23rd century. This was the daily routine for Sara and a quarter million other laborers in the colony who could charitably call themselves soybean farmers.
The hydroponics bay where Sara worked was hot, humid, and sterile. Everyone wore freshly laundered uniforms of bleached white synthetic fabric; a tunic with long sleeves and a tight-fitting hood, gloves, leggings with integrated feet, a face mask, and protective glasses. These precautions were to protect the soybeans from the hot, sweaty laborers and their potentially virulent microbiomes.
It had been more than six hours since Sara had had the opportunity to sit down, or even stand still for more than a moment; a natural consequence of having your working pace computer-monitored and allocated down to the second. She was exhausted, and actually looking forward to returning to her cell and collapsing onto her bunk for a few blissful hours of unconsciousness before prying herself out of bed to do yet another 14-hour shift.
Too bad she wasn’t allowed alcohol. Getting juiced to the gills every night might actually have made this workload bearable. Quitting wasn’t an option, either — even if she had a say in the matter, far too much money had been spent on sending her up from Minneapolis to justify shipping her back to that shithole.
Plus, it’s not like there were any jobs for her there, anyway.
“Shift six has ended,” the dulcet tone of the station’s administrative cybersophont came over the P.A., “Shift six has ended. All technicians, please report to your designated equipment depository immediately.”
Hallelujah, Sara thought as she dreamed of dying from alcohol poisoning. She returned the 20-kilo hydroponics tray in her hands to its shelf, reconnected it to its umbilicals, and shuffled into the line of her coworkers leading to the exit.
It was an impatient few minutes until the last of them were through and the door closed behind them. Once the lights changed from red to green, she and everyone else were free to disrobe.
“You fellas catch the game yesterday?” a Middle-Eastern coworker, maybe from India or something, called out as she pulled her tunic over her head. The room was packed so tightly that Sara struggled to remove either her hood or her mask.
“Oh, yes,” another Indian coworker said as he peeled his sweat-soaked leggings off, “India won by seven wickets!”
“The umpire’s call was bullshit!” the first coworker exclaimed. Probably not India, Sara thought as she was finally able to free a few locks of her flaxen hair, Maybe it’s the other one…
“There’s no way Shirazi was LBW!” the first coworker continued. Here we go again, Sara thought with great annoyance. Don’t these people talk about anything else?
“Do I detect a Pakistan fan, salty that her favourite team have a rubbish captain?” the second coworker inquired jocularly. Definitely the other one, Sara determined.
“It’s not the captain,” Ms. Pakistan argued, “It’s biased umpires choosing the winners that get me starkers.”
There was enough of a gap in the crowd for Sara to finally free her face from her now thoroughly soiled mask, an act she immediately regretted as her senses were assaulted by the pungent stench of a dozen sweaty people in a confined space. It might have been better to have left the mask on, no matter how damp it may have gotten after 14 hours of being breathed through, Sara mulled. She deposited it in one of the laundry bags lining the walls.
“What about you, Reynolds?” Ms. Pakistan asked. Goddammit, Sara thought to herself, Don’t drag me into your stupid fucking argument. I don’t have the free time to watch sports games like you do.
“Do you believe that biased umpires violate the Spirit of Cricket?” Ms. Pakistan continued, clearly expecting an answer.
Sara fought to keep her temper in check. All this conversation did was remind her of how grossly unfair the whole situation was. Her entire life reduced to hard labor and interrupted sleep, interspersed with daily therapy sessions. Even though she had to work here until the day she died with no possibility of parole, they still insisted that she be “rehabilitated.” Plus, at least half of the other people in the room were volunteers who were getting paid for their work.
“I don’t have an opinion,” Sara grumbled, “I’m… American.”
“So, what sport do you follow?” Ms. Pakistan interrogated in her particular infuriatingly pretentious accent, once considered refined and cultured by the ancient British, “Hockey?”
“Mixed Martial Arts?” Mr. India chimed in.
“Yankee Murder Rugby?” Ms. Pakistan escalated with a ludicrous description of American Football. Everyone else in the room laughed at the racist caricature she painted of the moronic, uncultured, and blusterous American they all saw in Sara.
“I don’t have time for any of that shit,” Sara snapped back with barely contained rage, “so don’t drag me into your stupid fights!”
“Woah,” Ms. Pakistan snarked, “I seem to have struck a nerve…” The laughter continued to peal.
That was the moment when Sara’s extraordinarily short fuse burnt out — what little patience she normally had was finally expended.
“Strike this nerve, bitch!” Sara exploded as she slugged Ms. Pakistan across the jaw with a strong right hook, knocking her to the floor.
“What are you, crazy!?” Ms. Pakistan cried out in shock, wiping the blood from her mouth with the back of her hand.
Sara leapt upon the woman, screaming in incoherent rage, adrenaline fueling her ecstatic frenzy.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
“…And what made you want to attack her?” Sara’s psychotherapist asked, drawing her out of her reverie and back to the present, in her daily therapy session. The room was painted that stupid shade of mint green that was supposed to be calming, there was a large decorative bamboo plant in the corner, and a small potted cactus standing on the short table between her and Dr. Jamaica, and the light reggae muzak playing ambiently wasn’t helping Sara’s mood.
“She wouldn’t fucking shut up about that stupid game!” Sara said irately, her blood still boiling from recounting her experience, and how she wished it could have turned out.
“Were you angry because everyone else understood the game, and you didn’t?” Dr. Jamaica asked calmly, the perfect opposite of Sara’s volatile demeanor.
“No one understands Cricket,” Sara grumbled, “the game is fucking incomprehensible.”
“Could you describe what this incident made you want to do with her?”
Sara immersed herself, once again, into the heart-pounding memory of the incident the other day, and found herself swept up in her emotions.
“I wanted to make her face look like a goddamned blueberry,” Sara fantasized with rising excitation, “I wanted the deck to run red with her blood. I wanted her to look me in the eye before I slammed her head into the floor, again and again until she stopped moving!” Sara found the mental images her words evoked quite satisfying.
“Well, I’m glad you chose not to act on those feelings,” Dr. Jamaica said after taking a beat, unintentionally acting like a deadpan snarker. Sara felt that he might have been making fun of her. Dr. Jamaica clinically made a note on his tablet.
“Your self-control is improving,” Dr. Jamaica mentioned, “If this had happened six months ago, you might have actually tried to kill her.”
“Not my fault I’m a fucking psychopath,” Sara said discontentedly.
“We’ve been over this, Sara. You don’t have psychopathy, you simply have trouble controlling these emotional outbursts of yours,” the doctor continued dispassionately, “You’ve come a long way from the violent person you were a decade ago.” He pushed his glasses up to the bridge of his nose.
Sara hated this part of the sessions, where he opened up old wounds in a misguided attempt to help her “face her trauma” so that she could “conquer” it. All it really did was force her to relive old and terrifying memories.
Normally, she was able to maintain enough composure to weather the emotional tumult that came with the experience, but after recounting the incident with her coworkers, Sara was unsure whether she could control herself today.
The doctor’s words awoke memories of the ghettoes on the outskirts of Minneapolis. The reek of the bogs along the banks of the Mississippi River; stark, crumbling concrete buildings decaying from centuries of acid rain; sweltering heat and humidity and overcast skies; overcrowded enclosures secreting patent poverty away from the notice of the entitled, exiguous denizens of the stately spire of glass and steel which marked the city center; dark, filthy alleys where the desperate and despairing frittered away their lives in futility.
“According to your file, before you were institutionalised for Stage III Violent Mania, you murdered a peacekeeper in cold blood.”
Sara remembered the encounter like it was yesterday, and she knew that it didn’t happen that way. It was a dark, rainy night. She was loitering across the alley from a pair of prostitutes soliciting their services to the passersby. She was there to protect them from the freaks and the forcible who would threaten them. It was dangerous work, but it paid well enough to buy the occasional moonshine-or-narcotic-fueled day off, or an hour or two of passion in their accommodating embrace.
One of them walked away on the arm of a government functionary — maybe a supervisor at the local commissary — when a federal army patrol stopped by. Soldiers made the best johns, according to Sara’s employers. They paid well, and were usually repeat customers, although they were often domineering, and sometimes abusive.
Something was wrong. Negotiations didn’t typically take this long, especially if there were two of them. They started to get confrontational. One of them began to reach for his nightstick.
Turn around, walk away, and pretend you saw and heard nothing: that would have been the smart thing to do. Clearly, Sara wasn’t that smart.
She had a knife in her hand, she strode over and issued her challenge. The two soldiers laughed at her, the scrawny girl with the dull, rusted blade. She attacked, the nearest soldier disarmed her effortlessly and pinned her to the wall. She briefly saw the other one do the same to her charge before her assailant forced her head to face him and covered her mouth with his hand. She tried to struggle, but he had her completely overpowered.
The soldier leered at her with sadistic glee. The excited rhythm of his escalating breathing, the growing, firming protrusion as he forced his hips into hers, the relish with which he described the unspeakable acts he intended to inflict upon her, the way he reduced her entire being to an object to sate his appetites to his personal satisfaction, the utter helplessness she felt as he began to turn his perverse fantasies into horrifying reality — all of it made her feel a terrible, choking, paralyzing, unctious, enveloping, crushing, sinking, viscous fear, the kind that breaks even the strongest wills.
She had to get out of there. There was no way out, but she needed to escape.
“You stole his weapon, and used it to kill him.”
That part was true. She did not know how she managed it, but she somehow got her hand on his sidearm and in her panic, she shot him in the stomach. While the body armor the soldier wore was designed to deflect bullets even more powerful than those his pistol used, Sara had pressed the barrel right against it, and at that range those bullets could still penetrate it. She didn’t know how many times she pulled the trigger, she kept shooting him until he fell on his back and stopped moving.
“You became a murderer at fifteen years old.”
That’s not how it happened. As her lawyer had explained in the trial, she didn’t murder him. She shot him in self-defense.
Not that it mattered. In lawsuits against the army, the army always won.
She felt a brief euphoria, like drunkenness but momentary. It was when she saw the body of the soldier lying in front of her, the look of shock on his face, his gaping mouth filling with rainwater, his spilling blood clouding the water around him a sanguine hue, the gun in her trembling, blood-soaked hands, they all pointed to the inescapable truth that, one way or another, her life was over.
“How does that make you feel?”
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
In one forceful motion, Sara flipped the short table between them, screaming in a berserk rage. She grabbed a standing lamp and smashed it across the doctor’s face, sending him and the chair he sat upon tumbling over.
“Security!” the doctor cried out in terror, cowering on his back, “Security, help!” The standing lamp now useless to her, she gripped the decorative bamboo and raised it over her head with both hands, ready to bring it crashing down on top of him.
At that moment, the door was kicked open with a crunch, and two armed men in espatier-gray camouflage burst in, submachine guns leveled at Sara.
“Drop the weapon!” one of them yelled.
The red dots of laser sights dancing across Sara’s chest drew her attention away from the doctor. She threw herself recklessly at the security guards, roaring non-verbally.
She hadn’t gone two paces before she was thrown to the floor by a concussive force, accompanied by a blinding flash of light and a deafening, thunderous bang. Sara’s rapid journey to unconsciousness was heralded by a high-pitched ringing whine.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
The two main gateways to the Earth Sphere were located at the second and third Lagrange points in the Earth-Moon system. Lagrange-Two was located opposite the Earth of the Moon, and was primarily a departure point to the other planets in the solar system.
Lagrange-Three, on the other hand, lay on the side opposite the Moon of the Earth, and followed the Moon’s orbit exactly. Spacecraft entering the Earth Sphere from the rest of the solar system tended to pass through Lagrange-Three, either to rendezvous with an Earthly destination, or to exploit the planet’s gravity to gain speed or change course with minimal expenditure of precious propellant.
The main advantage of Lagrange-Three as an arrival point was that for nearly 385,000 kilometers in every direction — the distance between Earth and its moon — it was almost devoid of objects. This calculable-but-unfathomable expanse made for an ideal buffer zone for the safe operation of the thermonuclear fusion rockets — colloquially called “starbulbs” after their superficial resemblance to ancient incandescent lamps, but with a miniaturized toroidal sun in the center instead of a lambent metal filament — in use by interplanetary vessels. After all, the drive plumes from such a mighty apparatus burned with the fury of the Sun’s corona — best that other craft gave their tails a wide berth.
Transiting to a lower orbit from Lagrange-Three, Peregrine was propelled by such a device. She was generally arrow-shaped, if the head were a sphere and the fletchings were aluminum whiskers extruding from her gleaming wasp-waisted propulsion stage.
Peregrine listened to the hum of Earth’s magnetic field, felt the caress of the solar wind on her hull, watched the goings-on of the crew within her, and monitored the progress of a program being loaded into her active memory — one designed to protect her from the humans of Earth.
It was important for Peregrine to conceal her true nature from the Earthers. She had heard stories about what they did to cybersophonts that weren’t… controlled… to their satisfaction, and she had no desire to be lobotomized or dismantled.
Peregrine wasn’t merely the ship’s computer. She was the ship.
Her crew were different from the Earthers — Martians had always treated cyphonts as equals, after all. They understood that sapience begot personhood on some level, at least.
There was a message being received by her main communications array. Time to pipe it down to the control deck like a good little macro before the senders got suspicious. Channel open.
The control deck consisted of six acceleration couches facing outward, each with controls mounted on the arms. The captain, a tall, thin man with roguishly handsome features and skin the color of vanilla named Jon Orvar, was in the flight control seat.
“Manju Ray, this is Micronesia Space Traffic Control,” the voice coming over the radio said, “Please transmit your flight plan and lading, over.”
“Micronesia Traffic Control,” Jon replied with practiced ease, “this is Manju Ray. Transmitting FP&L to you now. We are on a ballistic trajectory to EML-1, transporting assorted hydrocarbons to Surveyor City and consumer goods to Terrordrome. Yours is the last Earth traffic control zone on our course until EML-1, over.” EML-1 was spacer shorthand for the Lagrange-One point located precisely between the Earth and the Moon.
“Hauling some Titan Tea to the Moon, Manju Ray?” The traffic controller inquired jocularly.
“Straight from the refineries over Saturn,” Jon replied.
“Well, you oil barons shouldn’t run into any problems on your current trajectory. We’ll advise you if anything should change that. Micronesia out,” the traffic controller said as Tallen Olayinka floated down from the main computer compartment above. The man was an ebony giant — 212 centimeters tall and built like a statuesque demigod — and neatly brought himself to a stop on the deck.
“Acknowledged, Manju Ray out,” Jon signed off.
“I’ve worked out those bugs in the Nadleehi Protocol,” Tallen reported after Jon closed the channel, “With any luck, Peregrine should look like a conventional mainframe to a cursory inspection.”
“Pretending to be a dumb expert system feeds my inferiority complex,” Peregrine’s soprano voice self-deprecated over the control deck speakers.
“Of course it does, dear,” Tallen dismissed playfully.
Jon turned to face Tallen. “That’s good to hear,” Jon replied, ignoring Peregrine’s interjection, “The last thing we need is to have Peregrine impounded because she happens to be a cyphont.”
Tallen crossed his ample arms. “Her engine alone raises some eyebrows ‘round here,” he speculated, “The Earth government isn’t very keen on civilians or foreigners operating terawatt-range fusion drives.”
“Incoming transmission over Astronet,” Peregrine reported, “Sender ID masked, and they’re using IRONGOLDFISH encryption keys.”
“That sounds familiar,” Jon remarked, “Put it up.”
“Yes, dear,” Peregrine replied. The flight control display minimized and a videochat window opened up in its place. The image on the screen was shadowy and secretive, showing the silhouette of a man in a hat profiled against a cyan glow.
“Now there’s the face that sank a thousand ships,” the man spoke with a heavily distorted voice. It was clear that despite his precautions to hide his identity behind layers of encryption lockouts, he was taking no chances that he might be inadvertently identified through the analog hole.
“Did you call just to insult me?” Jon asked.
“No,” the mystery man answered, “I’ve called because I need a favour.”
“A favor?” Jon repeated, intrigued, “This’ll be good.”
“Don’t enjoy this too much,” the mystery man admonished, “An associate of mine has run into a spot of trouble, and I need you to extract them and bring them to me.”
“What’s in it for me?”
“My associate was investigating something which I think you would find rather interesting. I’d be willing to share what information they learned.”
“That’s suspiciously generous of you.”
“My benevolence is renowned across the entire system.”
“What kind of information are we talking about?”
“Not over Astronet. We’ll meet at the usual place to make the exchange.”
“All right. Who and where?”
“Her name is Ayane Miyamoto. She was last seen in EML-1 Colony 7 less than seven hours ago.”
“We’ll be there,” Jon said as he logged off, and then turned to face Tallen.
“What do you make of that, Tallen?
“It’s certainly intriguing,” Tallen pondered, “Even Sharqi’s not that paranoid.”
“Speaking of intrigue,” Jon inquired, “have you seen Misty?”
“She’s outside, looking at Earth.”
Jon released the straps restraining him in his chair, pushed himself off from the armrests, and climbed on the handrails along the bulkheads to the hatch leading below decks.
“Peri, take over,” Jon ordered as he climbed down to the next deck, which housed crew accommodations, and kicked his way across to the below decks hatch on the other side, “I’m gonna go find our wayward wayfinder.”
“You know I’m not supposed to work unsupervised in Earth space, right?” Peregrine reminded Jon as he climbed down to the next deck, after which he drifted over to a hatch set in the deck, directly beneath the common area in the deck above.
“I won’t tell if you don’t,” Jon joked.
“I guess Tallen’s my chaperone, huh?”
Jon opened the hatch, which led to the prep room for the airlock. “Looks like it,” Jon confirmed, “Any hazards out there I should know about?”
“The temperature is more than 270 degrees below freezing,” Peregrine reported, “atmosphere is 57 kilopascals below cabin pressure…”
“Smartass,” Jon muttered as he opened the suit locker, for he knew that Peregrine’s cabin pressure was exactly 57 kilopascals.
“Ah,” Peregrine joked as Jon began to don his spacesuit, “You should have specified hazards atypical of hard vacuum.”
“Consider it specified.”
“We’re between the Van Allen belts, so your radiation exposure should be minimal. Solar flare activity is low.”
“So, I’ll be fine.”
“There’s always the chance you’ll be fried by a freak gamma ray burst…”
Jon, fully suited up, sealed the faceplate on his helmet and climbed into the airlock. “All suit systems check out,” Jon declared, “Commence airlock pre-cycle sequence.”
“Yes, dear,” Peregrine joked as she closed and sealed the inner pressure door.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
Peregrine’s outer airlock door opened silently. Without a medium to propagate in, everything external to one’s pressure vessel was silent. Inside the suit, however, the noise of pumps and motors, and exchanging gases was too loud to ignore.
Jon clipped his safety line onto a handrail bolted to the outer hull, and made his way to the nose of the ship, where the communications and main sensor array were mounted. The main antenna mast was Misty’s favorite place to go stargazing.
Reaching the summit of Peregrine’s structure, Jon saw the familiar lanky silhouette of the woman he was married to, black as space in contrast to sapphire-blue Earthlight.
Jon climbed over to her, and tapped the side of his helmet to change radio channels. “Hey, Misty!” Jon called out to her once he had tuned to the right frequency, “How’s the planet-watching?”
Misty turned her helmeted head to face Jon as he floated down next to her, bulky when compared to the rest of her spacesuit, which resembled a full-body leotard instead of a balloon.
Illuminated by Earthlight, Jon could see the wonder and fascination in her eyes as she stared at the cradle of humanity. “It’s beautiful,” Misty said in awe at the planet’s majesty, her glowing complexion the hue of ruddy clay complemented by her jet-black lips.
“This is the closest you’ve ever been to Earth, right?” Jon asked, sharing the view with her.
“How could you tell?”
“No one who’s been this close would describe that polluted, overpopulated shithole planet as ‘beautiful,’” Jon opined.
Misty pointed at the Earth’s disc. “Just look at all that water!” she exclaimed, “From the surface, the ocean must look like it goes on forever! Can you imagine sitting on a beach and seeing such an amazing sight?”
“It’s impressive,” Jon replied, “it boggles the mind that the Earth has that much surface water, but I’d hardly call it amazing. None of that water is potable without immense purification plants.”
Misty looked a little saddened. “It’s a shame that I can never go there,” she said, “It would be nice to see an ocean, or hear the wind, or taste the rain. I wonder what it would be like to look up at a blue sky, surrounded by breathable air.”
Jon smirked. “Do you want this to be our honeymoon spot?”
Misty snuggled up to Jon in an almost childlike manner — a slightly awkward affair because they were both in spacesuits. “We’ve been married for nearly a year, anata. It’s a little late for a honeymoon, ne?”
“Just never found the right moment,” Jon answered. The couple just stayed there, watching the Earth turn.