part I

Mars. Aerisian Outskirts. 2188. 308.03.12.

The old hauler rumbled down the dirt road stretching towards Aeris with three 1000 gallon plastic tanks of emerald green algae strapped to its flatbed. Roe walked alongside the driverless platform talking to a hologram of a burly bearded man emanating from a well-worn multitool wrapped around her left wrist. W0RM was perched atop the frontmost tank like a living hood ornament, hopping excitedly, enjoying the ride.

“Come on, Denga, we’re harvesting all month, so the credits will be there. You know I’m good for it,” Roe pleaded to the flickering projection.

The man shrugged and sighed, his gruff voice echoing tinnily over the line, “Sorry Roe, I would if I could, but they pre-paid for the next fifty, and, hell, it’s been at least six months since I saw a refurb.”

Roe sighed, “Alright, thanks anyway.”

He signed off, “Good luck, kid,” and the floating image flickered out.

“Freaking guilds...” Roe muttered under her breath before typing furiously on her multi-tool. After a short second, a projection of her stolen rifle appeared before her with the familiar “NO SIGNAL” flashing below it. “Okay, W0RM,” she called out, “Fly up ahead a ways. Let’s see if this works.” The robotic roadrunner chirped and flapped up into the sky toward the city skyline.

Late last night before falling asleep at the workbench, Roe had programmed W0RM to act as a booster for her rifle’s locator in hopes that, as they neared the city limits, they’d be that much more likely to get pinged and find the assholes, her rifle, and the stolen generator.

She was determined to get it back or at least find a temporary power source to get the night lights back online. She was telling Denga the truth about them harvesting all month. It was just the credit situation where she was stretching the truth. With a quarter of the pools missing their overnight growth cycle, those pools wouldn’t be fully bloomed and, therefore, ready to harvest by the end of the month. And no harvest meant no money, and no money meant no new generator. A painful catch-22.

Roe couldn’t stomach the idea of disappointing Bell any more than she already had this close to her birthday. Especially after this morning.

Who the hell did that girl think she was? Roe thought to herself, silently stewing. She did feel bad about unloading on her like that, but, still, how was she supposed to respond? “You’re the key to saving us all?” Really? That’s the best they could come up with? Besides, Roe didn’t feel key to anything but her own misery at the moment, let alone some ominous crap from a religious nut. She couldn’t even hold onto a freaking generator that was literally bolted to the ground.

She watched as W0RM became but a speck against Aeris’ skyline before returning to her multi-tool. The image of the rifle shrunk and moved above a large gridded map of the city. She stared at the hologram, expectantly. “Come on,” she said quietly under her breath, looking back towards the sky, “Come on...”

Just then, something flashed. “NO SIGNAL” flickered out, and a tiny blip appeared on the map. “Yes!” Roe rejoiced, slapping the lumbering algae tank beside her in celebration. But, as soon as it had appeared, the blip vanished. Then quickly reappeared in a completely different area. Roe’s excitement faded, as the blip began to blink in and out across the city streets at random.

Her hopes dashed, she cursed in frustration and waved the image away. “Alright, W0RM,” she said, grimly, “Come on back. It didn’t work.”

After a moment, W0RM appeared from above and landed gently on Roe’s shoulder. He squawked and tilted his head, quizzically. “Probably too much interference from Aunt Berty,” she replied, using her grandmother’s pet-name for the massive terra-mid swallowing the sky to the north that Bell had helped design and build many years ago. “We’ll have to try it again when we get closer.”

The hauler moved steadily over the packed dirt, and Roe’s mind returned to Ari. The girl had reminded her of so many of the Haematites who were raised in the Temple or its surrounding city of Coelum whom she had interacted with before: polite, oddly optimistic, a bit awkward. But, with Ari, there was still something... different. Something bordering on the familiar. Maybe it was all that time she had supposedly spent with her grandfather that edged her toward familiarity? Or was it something else? Roe sighed with a furrowed brow and tried to push it from her mind, as she looked out ahead toward the slowly approaching city.