Lay of the Land

“Wait. Slow down,” the Ranger gasped to Sr. Nemesis, as he bent over with his hands on his hips and tried to catch his breath. “Do you mind if we take a break?” 

Mary Margaret looked sympathetically at her patient, the Ranger. By way of an answer, she sat down on a garden bench and waited for the Ranger to sit down beside her and rest. Three times a day, the nun and the patient walked several circuits around the formal garden that encircled the clinic where the Ranger was recuperating. “You’re doing quite well,” Mary Margaret said encouragingly. “Exercise is doing you good. You’re healing much faster than I would have expected.” 

The Ranger was loudly panting in rhythm, but he still managed to sarcastically gasp, “Do you think so? It doesn’t feel that way to me.” But he didn’t mean it. Being cooped up in a private hospital wing with no patients other than himself had been driving the Ranger mad. As a cure, Sr. Mary Margaret had suggested they stroll around the garden. At first, they took only a couple of excursions a day; and even then the patient didn’t actually walk, but instead floated in a levitation chair that trailed slightly behind Sr. Nemesis like a dog following its mistress. But in time, he was walking the circuit on his own two legs. Sr. Nemesis set a challenging pace, more like a soldier marching to Jerusalem than a therapist setting a healthy cadence, but the Ranger genuinely enjoyed the physical exertion his companion demanded. And more than that, he enjoyed the company.

As the Sister and the Ranger sat on the bench, they enjoyed the scent of night-blooming flowers, and marveled at the jet black night sky filled with scores of the moonlike planetesimals that were the signature characteristic of the Hydra Complex. The multitude of tiny and large moons, colored variously yellow, tan, pink, or blue, reminded the Ranger of a drift of hot air balloons. That was a strange thought, he thought. When had he ever been anywhere he would have seen hot air balloons?

“Your body is healing,” said Sr. Mary Margaret, “but what about your memory? Is it still spotty?” Sr. Nemesis genuinely wished her patient well, but the mission Cardinal Starr had assigned her was to discover what happened to Fr. Francis, the academic cleric who was caught up in the ambush of the Ranger’s squad, and the fate of the relic the Father had found. Sr. Nemesis would never find answers until the Ranger could remember again.

“My memory’s got as many holes in it as a hunk of Swiss cheese,” said the patient with a twinkle in his eye and an aw-shucks grin. The Ranger was practicing looking and talking like various celebrities, and he currently was wearing the face of William Penn Adair Rogers, a homespun actor and humorist from the early years of cinema. The Ranger enjoyed playing the rustic orator and columnist, but Sr. Nemesis found it distasteful talking to the long-dead, faux Will Rogers. 

“Please talk to me as yourself,” requested the Sister, “I like you better that way.” The patient graciously complied and let Will Roger’s face fade away. In a moment, the patient was sitting beside his companion with his own default face, the blandly nondescript visage that was made exceptional only by the black band across his eyes. “Thank you,” said the nun, “but you didn’t answer my question. How’s your memory?”

“I feel like I’ve got an entire database of knowledge stored up here,” said the Ranger, tapping his forefinger against his temple, “but whenever I try to recall anything complex, the facts get stuck on the tip of my tongue and I can say nothing. It’s frustrating; it feels horrible. 

“But something happened yesterday for the first time that I think might help,” he said. “We were walking and debating about one thing or the other, and you were trying to explain how the Sisters of the Church of Man and Machine were like Jesuit priests in that you advocate unconditional faith and unbounded peace while simultaneously being scholarly academics and dedicated warriors. What I noticed was that as soon as we discussed particular facts out loud, like the way your Fr. Francis was a recognized expert in history and archaeology, I could suddenly access what I know about archaeology.”

Sr. Nemesis exclaimed in surprise. “So you think talking about different things unlocked your memory? That’s wonderful! Let’s try it. What should we talk about…?”

The Ranger raised his hands toward the night sky and said, “Let’s talk about…,” then he waved both his hands in frustration, “…all those miniature planets, and this strange colony, and the organization that manages colonization, and the way we go to the stars. You know who I mean—!” The Ranger grunted angrily as he tried to force the right words out of his mouth, but failed.

“You mean the Exploration Guild?” guessed Sr. Nemesis. 

“Yes, the Exploration Guild,” the Ranger confirmed, now that the words were suddenly free to exit his mouth, “and star-gates, and provisional colonies, and…and… Help me out, I’m stuck again,” he said sheepishly. Sr. Nemesis put her palm on the Ranger’s nondescript hand to console him. He recognized her kindness and relaxed a little.

Sr. Nemesis began an elementary narrative, as if she was teaching the Mysteries to a young novitiate. “Humankind colonized the Sol system, starting with the Moon, then Mars, the asteroid belt, the satellite world at L-5, the twelve Zodiac satellites ringing the Sun, and even the cloud colonies floating above Venus. 

“Does this description help, or is it too simplistic?” Sr. Nemesis paused to ask. The Ranger said it was fine, and she continued.

“But even though we were successfully colonizing the Sol system,” she said, “we were frustrated because we were trapped in the vicinity of our home star. We couldn’t travel faster than the speed of light, so we thought we could never colonize distant stars. But as we explored our own solar system, we happened to discover the star-gates, which are apparently naturally occurring space-warps centered about two million kilometers above the Sun’s north and south magnetic poles. Then someone had the crazy idea to see what happens if you launch a drone through a star-gate.

“It turned out that the star-gates enable instantaneous travel to and from distant stars with a matching star-gate. Furthermore, the star-gates are networked in crisscross fashion, so you can hopscotch across the galaxy even if you can’t travel in a straight line. Suddenly Humankind wanted to colonize distant worlds.”

“People should have guessed that would happen,” the Ranger quipped. “The first rule of real estate, you know: location, location, location.”

The nun grudgingly permitted herself a half-smile, then said, “The Exploration Guild was created to manage the search for habitable worlds, administer provisional licenses to groups of colonists to develop those worlds, and to enforce law and order until the worlds were self-sufficient and could enforce laws themselves.”

“Of course,” said the Ranger, as if he knew this information already but had forgotten it for a moment—which was, in fact, exactly what had happened. “But this colony,” he said incredu­lously, waving at the night sky, “has…so many moons, and they feel so…wrong.”

“The Hydra Complex colony is wrong, in many ways,” said Mary Margaret. She kept it to herself that she thought the colonists who settled the Hydra Complex were not all good or noble men. Nor did she share her belief that beneath the surface of this raw, wild colony, the Hydra Complex was one of the most wicked worlds she had ever had the misfortune to be assigned to. And that she would not be here if Cardinal Starr himself had not assigned her to both protect and spy on the Ranger. But Sr. Nemesis was a well disciplined soldier who did not share her personal feelings. 

Mary Margaret stated matter-of-factly, “Most colony worlds are either a single planet, moon, asteroid, or manmade satellite circling a star. The Hydra Complex, on the other hand, is 96 planetoids of wildly different sizes orbiting each other and a common center of gravity like a swarm of bees.”

The Ranger tilted his head and Mary Margaret could read his confusion even if he didn’t currently have a face to express it. “Unless their orbits are in resonance, they can’t just orbit each other,” said the Ranger. “They wouldn’t be dynamically stable. No, it’s not physically possible. Besides, they would be bound to eventually collide with each other.”

“And yet they dance around each other anyway,” said Sr. Mary Margaret, as she remained undaunted by the Ranger’s observation. Despite his memory loss, the patient had a clear grasp of astrophysics, which the nun found encouraging. She pressed on. 

“The early settlers rejected the standard astronomical naming convention for the 96 planetoids as being too boring, too lacking style,” she said. “Instead, they optionally combine ‘Hydra’ with one of the first four letters in the Greek alphabet: ‘alpha,’ ‘beta,’ ‘gamma,’ or ‘delta;’ and then one of the entire Greek alphabet’s 24 letters, except in the four special cases where the two letters are the same.

“The names of the planetoids range from Hydra Alpha to Hydra Delta Omega. Their sizes range from several tens of kilometers in diameter to a few thousand. That means most of them should have a surface gravity too small to keep them from being little more than flying piles of rubble. And yet each of them—from the largest to the smallest, from desert worlds to water worlds to garden worlds, from barren wildernesses to crowded metropolises—each miniature planet has a surface gravity of exactly one gee. And along with having an Earth-like gravity, they’ve also somehow acquired a breathable atmosphere nearly two hundred kilometers thick. 

“Along with a sinful rabble of treasure-seeking colonists who regularly violate every law of God, man, and machine,” said Sr. Nemesis, “the Hydra Complex of colony worlds itself violates the laws of physics. These worlds shouldn’t exist—for many reasons—and yet they do.”

The Ranger reared back on the garden bench he and the nun were sharing and lightly grasped the temples of his unwrinkled forehead with the tips of his featureless fingers. Knowledge that had been just out of his mind’s grasp a moment ago, suddenly snapped into place so sharply he could almost hear it click in his brain. 

The Hydra Complex made no physical sense to the Ranger, but it made no sense in a way that was familiar. “The Hydra Complex has always been like this; ever since I was a child,” he said, his mind ablaze with wonder. 

Now it was Sr. Nemesis’ turn to be surprised. “You grew up on this colony?” she asked, not certain that the Ranger was clearheaded.

“Yes. Didn’t I mention that before?” said the Ranger excitedly. “I grew up in a small town on Hydra Gamma Tau. I remember as a kid going into the mountains with my father to prospect for rare minerals like gold, rhodium, platinum, and ‘silvermind’. Dad did find a few nuggets of silvermind, in fact—which was fun because when you think at silvermind, it glows. When I was a kid, Dad even gave me some nuggets to use as a nightlight—but he never did strike it rich.

“I didn’t care about failed treasure hunts though. I just enjoyed camping with my Dad while we watched the sun set, scores of planetoids rise like moons, and hundreds of dust plumes cut across the horizon.” Mary Margaret looked perplexed and the Ranger explained. “Hundreds of feral Walking Sticks trudge aimlessly back and forth across the desert, and their footsteps kick up dust plumes you can see from kilometers away.”

Sr. Nemesis reminded the Ranger to not be late for his hand therapy session with Dr. Cyril, and coaxed her companion to get up and start walking back to the clinic’s entrance. But all the while they lumbered along, the Sister was thinking how the Ranger’s recovering memory had revealed unexpected clues. She said nothing, but could hardly wait to make a situation report to Cardinal Starr’s avatar during her next confession.

The Cosmos was full of mysteries, she thought, and the Hydra Complex most certainly was one of them.

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