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16 March 2051

Burning Man, Nevada, USA

Earth Surface

“Mother, you can’t be serious.”

“Why not? It’s all mine in another two years; I can do whatever I want.”

Alice Kyeong scoffed, then sighed. “You should sell it and move farther out. You could retire on the profits.”

“I’m already retired.”

And that was true, in a manner of speaking. The two of them were drinking piña coladas, sitting in hammocks slung above a tasteful arrangement of grass and paving stones, set between two steel cargo containers, in the shade of a palm tree that had done surprisingly well here, all things considered. Under the Revised Homestead Act, Alice’s mother Soon-ja (or Sonya) Kyeong had acquired nine hundred square meters of bone-dry desert in the heart of the old Black Rock City, where the original Burning Man festival used to be held every year. One of the two steel containers held living quarters that were actually pretty luxe for just one person, and the other held an Intensive Grow Unit where recycled gray water and pink LED lighting fed a variety of vegetables and meat cultures that could, in theory, keep her fed indefinitely. The containers were painted a glossy white that refused to attract dust, and their roofs were adorned with photovoltaics and water-vapor-harvesting hydropanels and satellite and microwave antennas that (again, in theory) provided all the power and water and Guaranteed Personal Bandwidth, or GPB, a person or small family might require. With eighty percent internal recycling, plus free weekly trash service to pick up the sewer cake, the setup certainly covered the basics of daily life, and the Drip Feed even provided enough cash for her to order occasional clothes and stuff.

But what kind of life was that? What would she do if something broke?

“Fuck the vast resources of outer space,” Sonya had said when she moved here five years ago. “Fuck cities and self-jamming traffic. Fuck corporate farms and robot waiters, and the wonders of the cruelty-free McDonald’s hamburger. I’m going AWAY.”

Alice had thought her mother was crazy, but if so she was the leading edge of a quarter-million other crazies. As people started really buying into the new Homestead Act, and as the price of container housing dropped and the quality improved, Burning Man, Nevada, had exploded (so to speak) well beyond the concentric rings and spokes of the once-nomadic Black Rock City, soon filling the canyon end to end with the cargo-container neighborhoods of Gerlach and Sulphur and Granite Peak and Jackson, finally flattening out against the edges of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation to the south. Like some weirdo Disneyland, where public nudity and intoxication were downright encouraged, it was full of food kiosks and colorful mesh shade canopies and piped music, all connected by a crazytown monorail system. Now there were even firm plans to run a hyperloop junction from Sacramento right through to the town center, connecting them all back to the civilization they had nominally abandoned.

And so, once her seven years of homesteading were up and the property was hers to buy and sell, Sonya Kyeong would be slinging her hammocks over some very pricey real estate indeed. It wasn’t the first lucky break Sonya had blundered into through sheer randomness; she was like a car with a flat tire, unable or unwilling to drive in a straight line. Back when they’d lived in San Diego, she had once swapped Alice’s bicycle for a set of old dishes, which turned out to be a collector’s item, so she’d turned around and sold them for enough money to buy a working car and a brand new bicycle.

“I’m giving it back to the government so there’s nothing for you to inherit,” Sonya insisted now, sipping from the curved metal straw that protruded from her drink glass. “One-dollar leaseback until I die, and then poof! You’re disowned, baby girl. I can’t be associated with what you’re doing. At all.”

Alice sighed again. “Mother, that doesn’t even make sense. I don’t want your house, or your money. You’d just be hurting yourself.”

“Well, it’s my self, to hurt if I want to. Personal sovereignty, yeah? Why are you even here? Shouldn’t you be in flight training or something?”

“I’m finished with that. I finished yesterday, and came straight here to say goodbye.”

“Wonderful. I’m so glad to hear it. So this time next month you’ll be in the arms of your space pervert? ‘Bigballs’ or something? The drug addict?”

“His name is Igbal Renz, as you know—as everyone knows—and my contract doesn’t specify that I’ll get pregnant with his child. But he’s funding a space colony, and I’m a colonist, so damn it, yes, having children is part of the deal.”

“Ooh, I’ll be such a proud grandmother. How many men is he inviting up to his colony by the way? Hmm? And where exactly is it? Behind the L1 Mirror, a billion miles away? Such a man’s man, blocking out the sunlight and calling it a gift to the people of Earth! But there’s nothing there. Literally nothing, not even air. You think this is roughing it?” She spread her arms, encompassing her little square of paradise. Her cargo containers protected a fenced-in courtyard, a tiny, private oasis of green in the Black Rock Desert. “There isn’t even gravity. Your bones will turn to mush in a week.”

Alice paused, momentarily at a loss for words. Nearly everything her mother had just said was wrong in one way or another; the “L1 Mirror” was actually the Earth-Sun-Lagrange-1 Shade, or Esley Shade for short, and it wasn’t a mirror at all. It was dark gray! And there was quite a lot of human-made stuff out there by deep space standards, and it was less than a million miles from Earth—only four times farther away than the Moon. And zero-gee adaptation drugs had a long track record of preventing bone loss and muscle wasting for years at a time, and of course were widely abused by body builders here on Earth. As everyone knew.

But it was true that fewer than ten percent of the colonists Igbal Renz had accepted so far were male, and fewer still had been granted flight privileges. It was true that Alice had questioned her mother’s choice to actually live at Burning Man, full-time and forever. It might even be true that Igbal had a substance abuse problem; persistent rumors to that effect had been circulating for years. But so did Sonya Kyeong! It was half the reason people came out here—to vape and snort and inject their drugs of choice, away from disapproving eyes.

The hammocks creaked in the warm, dry breeze until the silence became uncomfortable. Finally Alice said, “Where do you think I get the impulse? You should be proud of me, for believing in something. In a better future. Like mother, like daughter, I’m going away, and I may never set foot on Earth again.”

And all of that was true. Alice believed the future of humanity was in outer space, and it sure wasn’t the governments of Earth that were making that happen. She’d waited all her life for NASA or ESA or somebody to set up real space stations and moon bases, and they hadn’t. Men like Igbal Renz and Lawrence Edgar Killian had. Whatever their flaws, the Horsemen dreamed big.

Sonya sipped her drink in silence for a long moment, and then said, “Okay, fine. When you put it like that, I suppose you’re entitled to my blessing, however strange it all seems. I suppose all this seems strange to you, so yes, I’m aware of the irony. You hear me? I’m aware. But understand this: If things went wrong here in Nevada I could just grab a parasol and hitchhike to Winnemucca. Hell, I could walk there in three days, with a backpack full of water and a Danielle Steele novel. You can’t do that. You’re going to really be at this guy’s mercy.”

“It’s not just one guy,” Alice told her.

“It is,” Sonya insisted. “Hear me, baby girl: it is. I didn’t like you going in the Air Force, either, but there was nothing . . . fishy about it. It’s not like the male officers go around, you know . . .  Yeah. And I know it gave you structure, which you seem to need. But I was glad when you got out. It meant you could finally start living! But oh, baby, this is how you do it? My heart breaks. You’re breaking your poor mother’s heart. But you’re going to be thirty years old in a few months, so I suppose I have to start letting go.”

Alice couldn’t quite suppress a derisive snort at that, because by any reasonable measure Sonya had “let go” when Alice was thirteen. Maybe younger. There were so many more pressing matters to attend to! The drinking, the drugs, the parties, the men. Hadn’t poor Sonya, the reluctant parent, waited long enough to start living her own life again? Alice had joined the Air Force not to spite her mother, but to pay for college. To pay for anything. To get anywhere at all.

Sonya glared over the rim of her glass for a moment, cold and sweaty in her hand, but then seemed to exhale her ugly thoughts, and relax.

“Can I see it from here?” she asked. “The mirror?”

“It’s not a mirror. It’s a solar collector. A solar power station.”

“Okay, solar collector.”

After a pause, and because she didn’t want to confirm her mother’s opinions about her surliness and ingratitude, Alice said, “You can kind of see it, yes. If you put on eclipse glasses, there’s a very faint little circle near the center of the solar disc. That’s where I’ll be.”

“At the center of the circle?”

“Close to the center, yes.”

“Then that’s where I’ll look.”

It was a weirdly maternal thing for her to say, and she seemed briefly smug about it. But after that, the two of them swung and sipped for a while without speaking. These were actually Alice’s favorite times with her mother: when they sat quietly, with nothing to say. It let her imagine they were two normal people, with some kind of normal relationship. An Air Force colleague had once told her that Sonya Kyeong sounded like a textbook sociopath, and Alice had denied it vehemently. Nope. No way. Sociopaths were manipulative and charming! But over time Alice had come to suspect her mother was simply too lazy to put in the effort. An incompetent sociopath, putting on the guise of motherhood from time to time because it suited her ego.

“Are you running away from a boyfriend?” Sonya asked her now.

“No,” Alice admitted. “I’ve been away from that stuff for a while now. From anything serious. You?”

Sonya shrugged. “Whatever. Nothing much. Nothing serious. I had hopes for you, Alice, to be different from your old Mommy, but the apple doesn’t fall far, does it? Who knows. Maybe Bigballs will treat you nice.”


“Okay, okay. I’ll stop. Just be careful out there, all right? I can say that much.”

“I will,” Alice assured her.

And that wasn’t true. That wasn’t even close to true, because the President of the United States her own self had asked Alice, four months ago: “Do you feel yourself to be expendable in the national interest?”

To which Alice had replied, “Yes, ma’am. Except to the extent it’s my duty to remain a functional asset.” The Air Force provided structure to Alice’s life, yes, and as its Commander in Chief, President Christina “Tina” Tompkins was at the very top of Alice’s chain of command. So yeah, even if Alice was technically allowed to say no to that question, it wasn’t really in her nature to do so. Hell, it wasn’t in her nature to even think it over.

Tompkins had replied: “My God that’s a good answer.”

What Sonya Kyeong didn’t know—what fewer than fifty people in the whole world knew—was that Alice had not retired from government service at all, but had spent most of the past four months in the Marriott Stars Hotel in low Earth orbit. Delays in opening the hotel had nothing to do with supply lines or contractor difficulties or scaling up the life-support system. In fact, the hotel had been well on track to open three weeks early, until the Feds commandeered it as an impromptu command center, conscripting the twelve employees who were on site at the time, slapping uniforms on them and swearing them to life-in-prison secrecy.

Because yes, there was something fishy going on at Esley Shade Station; a rogue trillionaire, far from the reach of Earthly law, had built a structure capable of measurably affecting the Earth’s climate, and thus the national security of the United States of America. What Sonya Kyeong didn’t know was that her baby girl was on her way to Esley to, you know, do something about that.

“The mission is to secure control, by any means necessary,” the President had said.

“Yes, ma’am. I can do that,” Alice had answered, with a calm that surprised everyone in the Oval Office, herself included. After all, she was just a glorified paramedic, never pointed a weapon at a human being who wasn’t already pointing one at her.

“Let me be clear,” the President insisted, not quite believing Alice understood her. “Space used to belong to everyone, but there are parts of it now that very definitely don’t. More and more of it is just some oligarch’s private fantasies. Four powerful men, telling the rest of us how it’s going to be. We’d be concerned even if Igbal Renz were just some sexist, hedonistic . . . person. But that’s not the case. Look, he’s a very smart man, and he’s made himself very, very dangerous. We have to intervene, and it has to be covert and deniable. Sex, lies, blackmail, pushing people out a goddamn airlock. Are you prepared to do these things for your country?”

Alice had frowned at that, not sure how to answer. “I don’t have experience in zero gravity, ma’am. That would be my primary concern.”

“Jeee-zus,” the President had said to the assembled generals. “Cancel the rest of the interviews. I want this woman in orbit by the end of the week.”

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