"Jezenel Wilson, this is Markus Samuelson of the Space Authority. Please report to the Mars Grand Canals Medical Center. Your Grandfather is en route. Thank you."
She returned the com with a numb hand. They had taken Grandpa away.
Mars and her grandfather's asteroid were close to each other in their respective trajectories. That closeness had been the reason Grandpa had picked the asteroid in the first place.
Once in Mar's orbit, she got a call from the space elevator operator. After identifying herself and the purpose of her visit, she got coordinates to docking.
The ship made soft dock less than an hour later. She walked through a processing tube which checked for contagion and then traveled on to the elevator.
The trip down was nauseating. The exit terminal looked much as the one she had just left, only bigger. She entered a foyer with a clear dome. Mars lay before her in all its red, rocky glory. She scanned the broad vista and shuddered. There was too much land out there.
Keeping with the crowd, she found the tube depot and entered a train heading towards the Grand Canals Medical Center.
The tube train, like the domed foyer, provided a clear view of the Martian landscape. Domes of various sizes dotted the rolling landscape, but she didn't pay them much attention. Her thoughts centered on her sick grandpa.
Her grandfather, John Wilson, had been the first to ever mine an asteroid. After Grandpa, others had followed. The mineral wealth that had poured into the corporations had taken a poor economy and turned it into a thriving utopia. The whole of the solar system had opened up because of what Grandpa had started.
She exited the train and hopped a rolling platform. Looking up, she could see the dome that crossed the entirety of the vast canyon.
The medical center was a huge, multi-level building that reflected dully against the reddish light. The whole complex looked to be made of seamless metal. She entered a set of doors that hissed open at her approach.
Before she reached the help desk, a smiling man stepped in front of her. He wore a one-piece, white suit with the insignia of the Space Authority on his chest.
"Miss Wilson," he said, never losing his smile, "please follow me."
"What have you done with my Grandfather?" she asked.
"Miss Wilson," he said, dropping his voice. "It's all hush-hush. The populous can't know that your grandfather is here. Such a celebrity would draw the entirety of Mars upon us."
The man smiled again as she frowned up at him. She had forgotten that her and Grandfather were protected by the Space Authority due to Grandfather's achievement. Nobody was allowed anywhere near Grandfather's asteroid for safety reasons. There were always malcontents out there that would try to make a name by trying some nonsense.
"Shall we," the man said, nodding toward the elevators.
"How is he?" she asked as they entered the lift and start to rise.
"That'll be a question for Mr. Samuelson, Miss Wilson."
The doors opened to the smiling faces of more people wearing white uni-suits. A man with a large mustache stood in the middle. Two professional looking women were at each of his elbows.
"Miss Wilson," the man said. "I am Markus Samuelson. Thank you for making such good time so that we might expedite transfer." He ushered her out of the elevator and down the empty hall.
"You are to enter university in a few weeks, no?" he asked.
"How is my grandfather?" she asked. She wasn't here to talk to this man.
Mr. Samuelson pressed his lips together and held her eye for a moment before answering.
"Mr. Wilson passed away, I'm afraid. I know he had been sick for some time. I hope his passing isn't too much of a shock to you."
She shook her head. 'Too much of a shock!'
"Where is my grandfather?" she asked, louder.
Mr. Samuelson nodded. "Of course." He gestured to a door down the hall. "We will give you a few moments before finalizing affairs."
She walked to the door on shaky legs.
"We will be just outside when you are ready," Mr. Samuelson called after her.
The room was shiny white with a moving picture-screen that showed a green, rolling plain of tall grass under a blue, cloudless sky. The sound of a gentle breeze and the rustling of grass filled the room.
Grandpa lay on a narrow bed with a pastel pink blanket pulled up to his chin. The monitors on the wall were blank except for the scrolling insignia of the hospital.
"Grandpa," she said from just inside the doorway. His features were pale, his lips blue-gray and slightly parted.
She opened her mouth to call to him again, but no words came out. One of her hands went to her chest as a deep ache settled there.
Her legs felt heavy as she walked to his bedside. She lay a trembling hand upon his brow and found it cool and dry.
She fell to her knees and buried her head into the coarse blanket as her tears came. He was gone. He was really gone.
She didn't linger long. She was the last living relative of the great John Wilson, and she had a legacy to uphold. She would not let Grandpa down.
"Rest, Grandpa," she said, drying her tears on the arm of her coveralls. "I will take care of things from now on."
She kissed his forehead and left the room.
Mr. Samuelson and the two women waited in the hall. Neither of the women looked up from their pads as she made her exit, but Mr. Samuelson did. He had his head slightly down and his eyebrows up.
"I'm sorry for your loss," he said in an endearing tone.
She nodded and took a step down the hall.
"Hold a minute, Miss Wilson," he said.
"I need to get back to the mine," she called, not looking back. She needed to contact the networks and the mortuary. Grandpa's death and funeral would be big news to the worlds. The entire solar system would mourn his passing.
"You must wait," Mr. Samuelson said, his voice firm.
She turned around to face the trio.
"I assume you know of your grandfather's wishes," he said.
She shook her head. "All I know is that you took my grandfather away while I was gone collecting his medicine." If anger turned her words into an accusation, that was fine by her. Who were these people to take him from her without first informing her of what they were doing?
Mr. Samuelson's eyes got wide. "Mr. Wilson's medical unit in the mine was calibrated to set his instructions into action should he pass."
"What instructions?" she nearly yelled.
Mr. Samuelson paused for a moment to take a deep breath.
"You can't go back to the mine. Your grandfather sold it to the Space Authority the moment he died so that it may be protected and preserved. His mine symbolizes the greatness and daring of humanities' exploring spirit."
The mine sold? The only home she had ever known gone? The thought made her sick.
Mr. Samuelson smiled. "Your grandfather received a great deal of money from the transaction. He left it all to you."
One of the women handed Mr. Samuelson her pad.
"I'll just need your signature and thumbprint and you will be a very rich young lady," he said.
"No," she said "Keep your money." She turned and ran to the elevator.
"Miss Wilson," Mr. Samuelson called. "You can't go back to the mine."
"You will be hearing from my lawyer," she said as she entered the elevator. If they thought they could take her mine away without a fight then they had no clue what kind of person Grandpa had raised.
The elevator door closed as they stared at her with stunned faces.
"You didn't sign anything?" the woman, a Mrs. Riley, asked for about the fifth time. Jezenel had left the hospital and gone straight to the Solar Law Station, where she had asked for the best property lawyer that might see her that very minute. She had ended up in Mrs. Riley's office just down the hall from the station's front entrance.
"I didn't sign," Jezenel answered and fidgeted in her seat. She felt like she should be doing more, something physical and exerting, like her work in the mine, instead of just sitting here talking.
Mrs. Riley nodded, but didn't look up from the case file she studied on her pad. Jezenel hoped the lawyer knew what she was doing. Jezenel couldn't help but think of the two very smart and focused-looking women who had flanked Mr. Samuelson.
"Well, you are of age, so we have a case," Mrs. Riley continued.
"I'm not giving up the mine," Jezenel said.
Mrs. Riley looked up from her pad and smiled.
"Don't worry," she said. "The threat of a media storm alone will be enough for them to back off. The Space Authority will not want to dirty what the mine stands for to the people."
Jezenel hadn't thought of that. Such a possibility calmed her some.
"It says here that your grandfather left a package for you. Was that offered to you as well?" Mrs. Riley asked.
Jezenel shook her head. "They just wanted my signature."
Mrs. Riley nodded and returned her attention to her pad.
"The package isn't tied to the sale. You can receive that without any legal issue."
Jezenel frowned. "A package?"
Mrs. Riley nodded. "I can send out a request. It shouldn't take long."
"I'd like that," Jezenel said.
"I'll send you a com when it gets here if you'd like to walk around or get some food," Mrs. Riley said.
Jezenel nodded and nearly jumped from her seat. She needed to move.
As she walked the streets, she thought about Grandpa and why he hadn't told her of his plans. He had adopted her after her parent's accident and had always been the best of guardians. He had raised her in the mine, loved her. She had thought there weren't any secrets between them.
When Mrs. Riley's com came, she was more confused than ever.
The lawyer smiled when she entered the office. A white, plastic box sat on her desk.
"Here you go, Miss Wilson."
Jezenel grabbed the box and tore the tamper seal that held it together. With breath held, she pulled the lid off.
Inside was a book. 'The Hobbit' was written big on the cover.
Grandpa had left her the book he always said he would give her.
But, why now?
She flipped through the pages and a gold coin fell out. There was also a note wedged between the front cover and first page. She recognized her grandfather's small, blocky handwriting.
Her hands shook as she read Grandpa's words. What he had written was simple enough. He had given her a choice and she knew instantly what she wanted to do.
"Do you have the contract on your pad?" she asked Mrs. Riley.
Mrs. Riley punched a few buttons on her pad.
"May I see it?"
Mrs. Riley handed the pad over. Jezenel rested the pad on her thigh as she picked up the coin. 'XSOL' was stamped on either side.
With a sigh, she placed her right thumb on the indicated spot at the bottom of the contract then signed on the dotted line using the stylus from her com.
She handed the pad back to the lawyer.
"Thank you, Mrs. Riley. I'm sorry to have wasted your time. What do I owe you?"
She stood to go.
Mrs. Riley shook her head. "What just happened?"
Jezenel shrugged. She couldn't tell the lawyer anything. Grandpa had told her to keep it a secret.
"It's my decision," she said. "Grandpa left it up to me."
The lawyer stared at her with tight eyes.
"Just send me a bill," Jezenel said and left in a hurry.
She was going to Jupiter.
Her little ship was equipped to make the trip. She had never had a need to use the single passenger sleep tube before, but she didn't worry that it would work. She sent a tight ping out using the coordinates Grandpa had written on his note then loaded her nav with the location. She did pause a moment before hitting the 'process' button, though, because after she pressed it there would be no going back. She would be stuck in the tube sucking nutrients from an IV and getting E-stim to maintain muscle mass, along with passive ROM and bowel and bladder washings, for more than a standard year. She did not relish the idea of what waking after something like that might feel like.
"Here I go," she said.
She pressed the button and climbed inside the tube.
Everything tingled and it hurt to breathe deep.
"Calling Miss Wilson. This is Titan. Do you copy?" a man's voice announced on the little speaker inside the sleep tube.
"That's me," she said in a croak.
"You sound terrible," the man said with a laugh. "Don't you worry. I've got you headed my way. Get yourself together. I'll see you in about fourteen minutes."
She shook her head and unhooked herself from the tube then floated over to the ship's controls. Her nav had been set to new coordinates. She looked out the port window and saw a tiny smudge of color on the horizon.
"What'd you do?" she asked groggily.
"Remote software manipulation. It was all the rage back in the early days before tubes and your grandfather's great success."
"You're controlling my ship?"
"Yes mam, just like they did back when drones did all our exploring for us."
She shook her head as she pushed away from the controls. First things first – she had to have a shower.
But … did he just call her 'mam'?
Her ship achieved soft lock by the time she showered and changed into some coveralls. Taking a deep breath, she cycled open the port.
A thin man with sandy brown hair hanging to his eyebrows stood in front of her, smiling. He couldn't have been much older than her.
"Captain Tom Summers, at your service," he announced then bowed.
She stepped from the ship.
"Jezenel Wilson," she said.
"Oh, I know who you are. Come, I have to show you something. We're going to make history!"
He hopped down a short corridor to a pair of open bulkhead doors and she followed.
"Your grandfather's money made all this possible. It was tough keeping it all secret, but we managed."
They rounded a corner and entered an observation deck. Clear, plastic windows covered the walls and ceiling.
"She's a beauty, isn't she?" Tom asked.
Docked to the little station was a shuttle that looked just like the ones she had learned about in grade school, from the first days of space travel when man had first left Earth.
"What is that?" she asked.
Tom turned and pressed a button on the wall beside the doors they had just walked through.
"Our ship," he said over his shoulder. "Let me get this monitor online and we can make our announcement and get started."
Before she could tell him to wait, a large light lit on the wall.
"Hello humanity!" Tom said from beside her as he looked toward the light. She added her smile to his and tried to wipe the confusion from her face.
"I am standing here with Jezenel Wilson, granddaughter of the one and only John Wilson, and like that legendary adventurer, we are about to change everything."
He paused for affect. Jezenel added a nod to the proceedings, though all she wanted to do was shake this crazy fool and have him explain how they were going to change anything. All her grandfather's note had said was that she could fight for the mine, take the money and live an easy life, or take a chance, like he once had, and make a difference.
She had chosen to do what he had once done.
"Behind us," Tom continued, "is our ship. We will send word once we reach our destination. Wish us luck!"
He stepped forward, pushed a button, and the light went away.
He turned to her and bowed once again.
"Have you your golden coin, milady?" he asked.
"Stop," she said. "What is going on?"
He gave her a hurtful look. "Come on, humor me will ya? I've been at this all alone and in secret for years. Give a guy a break."
She sighed and dug the gold coin from the pocket of her coveralls.
"There," she said, handing it over. "Now explain."
He looked like a boy that had been handed a treasured toy.
"He didn't tell you? Really?" he asked. "Why wouldn't he tell you?"
She fought the urge to once again take him by his thin shoulders and shake the answer out.
"He didn't tell me," she said She had no idea why Grandpa wouldn't tell her. Maybe he was afraid that she would say no, or maybe he wanted her to finish school so that she would be ready. Perhaps he wanted to make sure whatever this was would work before he said anything. Whatever the reason, it didn't matter now.
"Let's get to the ship. I'll explain on the way," he said with a smile.
It only took a few hops to get to the ship.
"The anti-grav / thruster problems were figured out first," he said as he ushered her through the little port door. "My theoretical science doctorial thesis took care of that. It was because of that bit of math that your grandfather contacted me in the first place."
The inside of the ship was smaller than she had thought it should be. The living space was hardly bigger than that of the personal flier that had brought her here.
"The internal support structures took time to figure out," he continued. "I had to become a metallurgy expert. Forging, casting, machining, fabricating, extruding, cladding, all that sort of stuff, and more besides."
They passed through the living compartment and entered another. Inside was a small lander ship.
"The insulators were another issue entirely. I played with all sorts of fluids and pressure differentials, and came up with some pretty cool hull modifiers." He gave her a big smile. "Keeps us from having to turn ourselves into fish while we travel."
"Oh," he said. "The lander is our ride to the surface. This big behemoth is way too heavy to handle atmo."
She didn't know where to begin. This guy had obviously been alone for too long.
"I'm sure you did a good job," she said. "But, where are we going?"
His eyes got wide. "Right, forgot about that." He pulled her back to the living area and tapped away at one of the computer consoles there. A holo came up showing the solar system.
"Here is our flight path," he said.
A dotted line extended from Titan and crossed open space. Another star system popped into existence on the holo as the dotted line stopped.
"Alpha Cenauri B," he said. "Second planet out. It's in the habitable zone and it's rocky."
She shook her head. He really had gone crazy.
"You expect to leave the solar system?" she asked. All she could think about was the year it had taken her to go from Mars to Jupiter.
He nodded. "Twenty four trillion miles. The XSOL can do it."
She sat in one of the nearby chairs. She was in an experimental spaceship with a crazy man, a man her grandfather had financed to find a way to leave the sun.
Tom placed a hand on her shoulder.
"When your grandfather contacted me about this project, I had the same reaction," he said. His voice was softer than it had been, like he, at last, had figured out that this whole thing was scary as hell.
"Then he told me something, and it changed my mind," he continued.
"He said that everybody gets into ruts, that they get good at their routines and don't see any reason to change."
She looked up at his young face and saw a seriousness that hadn't been there before.
"He said that he had gotten into a rut too, said it was his only regret."
She looked down at her hands. She could just leave, get back in her ship, and head back to normal society and university. That's what any sane person would do.
"I think he wanted to give you the chance he waited too long to take," he said.
She nodded. Grandpa had been a great man. Everyone knew his name. But he had stopped after his first mine had been built. She had never asked herself why. She had never even thought about it. He had always seemed so content and focused on the mine. That he might have had regrets had never occurred to her.
"When do we leave?" she asked, looking back up at Tom. Grandpa had given her this chance and she would take it. She would be a part of something special, just like he once had.
"We leave right now," Tom said.
She never felt a thing.
"How can you be sure we're moving?" she asked. The ship didn't have port windows like any other ship would have.
"Sensors," Tom answered. "Designed them myself. They were some feat of engineering, if I do say so myself. Maybe someday I'll come up with a way to make a transparent hull so that we can see outside, but that is for another day."
After a while, she started to feel a soft vibration through her feet.
Tom was clicking away on his console.
"I've added a little internal gravity to toughen us up," he said. "We will have to use gravity belts when we get there, but I'd like to get us as acclimated as possible by that time."
"How long will it take us to get there?" she asked.
"Couple of months," he said offhandedly, his attention back to his console.
She shook her head, a couple of months to go twenty four trillion miles. He had not gone into detail about the ship's engine, but, if she remembered her schooling right, they had to be breaking some laws of physics.
"How fast are we going?"
"Relax," he said over his shoulder. "If you want something to do, go check out the cargo hold. Your grandfather had me load a full mining starter kit in there. I guess he assumed you'd want to do some digging when we arrive."
She smiled, despite the thought of the amazing speed they must be traveling. Leave it to Grandpa to think of mining in another solar system.
She turned to go to the cargo hold when a question she had been meaning to ask popped into her head.
"Why the gold coin?" she asked.
Tom cut his eyes her way a little sheepishly.
"It's from a book I read when I was little. This boy finds a golden ticket and with it he is granted a tour of a magical factory."
"Sounds like a good book. Do you want to be that boy?"
He shook his head. "I want to own the factory and have something amazing that nobody else has."
She patted the vibrating hull of the ship.
"Well, it looks like you've done it."
He smiled as he turned back to his console.
"I know I have."
"We're here," Tom said from the porthole between the living quarters and the cargo section where she was working. She had taken the mining equipment and had loaded it into the transport ship. Familiarizing herself with the machines had given her something to do during the trip. Tom had been busy recording and adjusting all the nuances of his starship.
"I've got us loaded and ready," she said.
"A lady and her luggage," he said with a sigh as he walked toward her.
"It's good to be prepared," she said, stepping up to sit in the ship's passenger seat.
He joined her in the cockpit.
"Better strap in," he said as he turned off the internal gravity.
She snapped her belt just as she was beginning to float from her seat. The cargo hold opened above them and Tom jetted them free of the larger ship.
The world below was big and beautiful. Ice caps extended from the poles on either end to create a smeared whitish landscape full of clouds and stark, jagged edges that she assumed were mountains. In the middle, there were patches of greens, blues and browns.
Up to this point, where they had been inside the vibrating, windowless ship, the reality of what they were doing and where there were going had been something apart, like a dream. Now, looking down on the planet, a world in a different solar system, the truth of what they had done came crashing home. She couldn't believe it, not really. They were twenty four trillion miles away from home.
"May be cold down there," Tom said. "We'll get some solar readings and record axial tilts and orbital variance as we go along. Should be quite the adventure."
Tom seemed to be taking all this in a stride she found hard to match. They were about to land on a planet humanity had only looked at with long range telescopes.
"Find me a place with a hill," she said.
Tom looked up from his controls and raised his eyebrows.
"You have a plan I should know about?" he asked.
A sudden thought had occurred to her, one that she thought her grandfather would have really liked.
"It's a surprise," she said with a smile.
"Well then, let's get down there. I like a good surprise."
They landed on a meadow of rolling yellow grass. The atmosphere beyond the ship's window was crisp and clear with just a tinge of orange. The sun was orangey-red.
There were a couple of nice sized hills nearby.
"It's perfect," she said.
"Of course it is," he said. "It's open ground. We should be able to see if any of the natives get too close. But, just to be on the safe side, I'm going to do a perimeter check and set up a few bio sensors."
He unhooked himself and grabbed a bag from behind his seat. From it, he pulled out a gun, which he handed her.
"Stunner, just in case," he said.
She took it without comment. She didn't want to think about anything out there that might try to attack her.
"You ready?" he asked.
She pointed to the nearest hill.
"I'm going over there. I have something to do while you do your check."
"Keep your com line open," he said.
"Worried about me?" she asked.
He shook his head. "No mam. I want to make sure you can come save me if something tries to eat me."
They were both laughing as they suited up and stepped from the ship. The ground felt soft under her feet. Overhead, in the distance, she noticed a group of what looked like birds.
"There is the first sign of life," she said, pointing.
He looked then turned to her.
"Be careful," he said in that serious voice he rarely used.
"I will," she said.
As he walked away, she turned to the ship's cargo hold. It was time to do some digging.
She was working an impact hammer against the hard rock under the hill when her wrist sensor alerted her that the little circular airlock she had installed was being cycled open.
Tom stepped inside the little cave she had started and whistled. After examining what she had done, he took off his helmet.
"How long was I gone?" he asked.
She smiled and put down the hammer. "It's the equipment. Grandpa had you bring along the best."
He pointed to the smooth roof of the cave. "What's all this?"
"Atmosphere vent scrubbers. We have air. And I have solar and wind power collectors wired and functioning, so power isn't a problem. There's still lots to do. Water, for example, septic, greenhouse, labs. I'll stay busy."
"Well, now I just feel lazy. I go for a walk and while I'm gone you build a house."
She shook her head. "Not a house, a hobbit hole."
He frowned as he continued to examine the seamless, rock walls.
"What's a hobbit?"
She pulled the book her grandfather had given her from the pocket of her coveralls and handed it to him. On its cover was a rolling hill full of circular doors.
"Read that and find out."