Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Fields without Fences, Part Forty-Nine

Credit: goottipoju



            They’d never severed the link.  Though Lorena, Karl and Ashley had crossed back to Konoko, they’d closed only the outermost door.  Sensors showed the same atmosphere on the far side and so returning became a simple matter.  Karl folded himself through the Pre Chamber’s bottleneck to emerge on the far side, stretching to full height in the Ouro reception room where the ceiling glowed like morning sun above the walls’ grey fog.

            “Guten Abend, mein Herr,” Abei called, spreading his hands beatifically, hovering near the door at the room’s far side.  Karl saw it was open now, but the space beyond was dimly lit and obscured by the alien herald.

            “Charmed,” Karl replied in the same tongue.  He thought to approach Abei but thought he’d better wait for the others.  “But you say the Rs too hard.  Let them float a little higher, towards the back of your mouth.”  Having just said this, it dawned on Karl that Abei’s mouth was more affectation than orifice.

            The android bobbed his head in understanding but then, as the rest of the genuine humans pulled themselves into the room, switched back to English.  “Good evening to you all!  Please the Kin to see you, the six!  For they who now we meet, I is Abei by name.  Come well in peace and hospitality to our home.”

            “Introduce yourselves,” Lorena instructed.

            “Vivek Mohinder, Senior Pilot and Executive Officer, ECV Konoko.”

            “Zachariah Obo, Systems Tech, Konoko.”

            “Maxine Leaf.  Uhh, civilian,” she added.

            “I don’t know that.  Civilian,” Abei frowned.  “The word known, its use confounds.  Explain, with grace?”

            Maxi was frozen, mentally pinned between the room’s disorientation, Abei’s striking features and his queer speech.  What’s more, she had no idea how to answer his question and guessed Lorena wouldn’t appreciate any unscripted speech.  “I’m…not an Explorer Corps officer.  Not working for the government.  Just a, uhh, a passenger.”

            He seemed to understand.  “To travel over the empty in search of new truths.  This is known among Kin much honored.”

            “Thank you,” she managed, desperate for those silver eyes to leave her.

            Abei obliged, shifting his attention back to Lorena.  “Doctor Mizrahi, awaiting your vehicle.  All accommodations made in hospitality’s interest!  We seek ease upon the guests, aware like we are on the lighter truth you navigate.”  Gliding smoothly backward down an ephemeral slope of gravity, he gestured to the open hatch.

            Lorena approached slowly, doing her best to maintain an appropriate level of suspicion.  The Ouro interpreter’s whimsical grammar and guileless manner made this harder than it should have been.  “I’m sorry, I don’t understand how you’re using the word ‘truth.’”

            “Truth, it surrounds!” he waved his hands about in an intricate pattern none of them could decipher.  “Here and in those human homes.  In your craft.  Here too about the Kin—denser.”

            “Denser?”
 
            “Refers the minds are to the concept, simple!  Mass by volume sundered.”

            Ashley let out a giggle swiftly suppressed.  To dissolve Lorena’s instant glare she explained, “It’s atmo.  He means atmo.  Suspension fluid for them.  Or water, I guess, on their homeworld.”

            Abei looked as happy as they’d yet seen him, which was clearing a fairly high bar.  “Makes perfect sense if you think about it,” Ash continued.  “A fish wouldn’t say he swims in water.  He wouldn’t even know what water was!  It’d just be this constant, right?  Something taken for granted.”

            “Didn’t someone famous say that?” Vivek knotted his thick eyebrows, trying to recall.

            “Pretty sure I just made it up.”

            “Mister Abei,” Lorena said, “we’re happy to accept the Kin’s gracious invitation.”

            “Excellent well!  This one, myself, to follow.”  He drifted back and turned suddenly to the open door without moving an artificial muscle, slipping into shadow past the threshold.

*          *          *          

            It was a bubble of sorts—a sphere of glasslike material several meters across, its transparency broken only by a black metal ring presently mated to the open hatch and a dozen fist-sized thrusters studding the exterior.  An ocean of orange suspension fluid limited visibility and filled the bubble with a kind of ruddy twilight.  Karl saw lights through the cloudy stuff, apparently quite close, and placing his face just inches from the glass he could feel warmth through it.  His boots fixed themselves easily to any spot on the pod’s inner hull; his magnetized fingerpads the same.

            “Not sure what I expected,” Zach Obo remarked, pulling himself through the hatch.  “But it wasn’t this.”

            “Whoa,” seconded Ashley.  “I like it.  How do you fly it?”

            “A.I. control, I suspect.”  Karl rotated, climbing the pod walls, trying to orient himself in space.  The Ouro solution made determination difficult at any range, but it seemed as though the reception room sat suspended in space at the cap of a long slender tube running what his brain coded as “down,” though it was merely the habitat’s coreward.

            He thought of the tower they’d approached.  “We will likely go down from here into the habitat itself,” he told his crewmates who seemed not to listen.

            They were all in the pod now.  Abei entered last, drifting to the sphere’s center and anchoring himself there like a lodestar.  “Safeguarding the self please upon bulkheads, against the inertia.”

            “They are magnetized,” Karl informed them.  There were thumping sounds and once they’d secured themselves the hatch shut itself with a businesslike click.

            “Life support shall not require.  All administered,” said Abei as the pod slid perceptibly into motion.

            “It’s a remarkable system you’ve set up,” Lorena marveled.  “Have you hosted human guests here before?”

            “The first, the six.  Developed these systems periods past, for facilitation should serendipity arise.  As, pleasing, it has!”

            “Do most habitats have them?”

            “Of all in system, only this.”

            “But there are others elsewhere.”

            “Yes.”

            “Are there more of you?”

            “Of Abei, there is one.”   He seemed pleased with this.  The pod fell past great machines, themselves on the move though not nearly so fast.  White lights too, spaced at even intervals to mark their descent.

            “What’s this place called?” Ashley asked.

            “The phrasing in your tongue?  No consensus between minds.  To say a place among the Kin—for places it gives many kinds,” he shrugged.  “In the skein or in the truth.”

            “It doesn’t matter where you come from?” she interpreted.

            “Only consequence that you are.”  Light built in the murk below their feet.  Karl swung around, inverting himself so he seemed to be rising.  Maxi dodged his legs and rolled her eyes.

            The light below expanded as though an aperture were opening and abruptly the tube walls fell away.  They were in the clear, in open-ended space below a receding ceiling of seemingly infinite dimensions; a bulwark that must mathematically have curved but did so somewhere past sight.

            The pod changed course, smoothly pressing them against the walls as it did so.  Large shapes resolved from the orange murk, dark blots cloaked in coruscating colors.  Floating free in the soup and anchored by independent drive systems, each was roughly a kilometer across and frankly abuzz with activity.  Vehicles they recognized from far out, but as the pod drew closer tiny motes could be seen against fizzling multichrome backdrops.

            “Lord have mercy,” hissed Beatrice in Lorena’s ear.  “There they are.”

            Kin beyond counting moved in every imaginable space—running with their mobility harnesses between the lumbering vehicles, schooling in and out of lit portals, over the ignited screens that flushed their skins and tattooed them with intense sensation.  Vessels dilated and finely nested nerves squealed with delight and the onlooking humans could only imagine what they felt.

            “Residential habitation,” Abei noted.

            Maxi frowned.  “Where are the industrial centers?”

            “Production concentrated offsite, toxins better to manage.”

            “Gotta keep that fluid clean,” said Obo.  “Polluting in here would literally be shitting where you eat.”

            “Precision in reasoning, Mister Obo.  Terribly suffering in early Kin stories.  Much sacrifice, the damage to heal.  Greater perspective than even the Codes of Carbon known from Terran accounts.”

            “So you move workers from here to the factories?  Using shuttles, or a mag-rail?” As a lifelong veteran of spaceborne habitats, Maxi knew how societies were built and felt she had to be missing something.

            “Efficiency through automation,” Abei shone with pride.  “Phrase taken off recordings.  Output exceeding demand estimates, local and over the Kin’s breadth.  At which juncture, peace and ease both.”

            “Commercial districts?” Maxi was growing frustrated.

            “Requisitionary applications, should one need.  For major of the vast does the skein suffice.”

            “They don’t really buy things,” Lorena explained.  “Just like they don’t really work.  The fluid takes care of their bio-needs.”

            “So no possessions?  Like that old song?”

            “The idea to own, admittedly foreign.  Admittedly troubling at first the skein but with time and study, satisfied.  The Kin see now the physiological accomplishment of needing.”

            “Funny way of putting it,” chuckled Maxi, shooting a look at Vivek.  He immediately looked away, like a teenager caught staring, and she found this utterly charming.

            “Hard to imagine, huh?” Ashley marveled.  “Not much caring what food tastes like, what music sounds like.  If we spent our lives just hanging out with one another, talking.  I think I’d rather go senile.”

            Lorena shook her head.  “More than talking.  Feeling with one another.  We’ve got no idea what that’s like.”

            “Maybe like the best sex ever?” Ash suggested.

            “That is your example precisely because of a limited perspective,” Karl broke in.  “The two species’ neurology is so differently configured—“

            “I get it, Genz.”  Now Ashley looked to Maxi and they both smiled.  This guy.

            “Precise reasoning behind the minds’ eager welcome,” Abei said as they passed closely by one residential block.  At this range, what first had seemed a sphere was in fact a sneakily irregular polygon comprised of blocks plated with swirling screens.  Arranged in an improvised manner, they created bizarre non-Euclidean bulges and indentations that loomed suddenly at the passing pod.

            “Are these areas pre-fabricated?” Vivek asked.

            “Indeed the cores, the systems of support.  But in the particulars assembled by the ambitious.”

            “Like an art project?” Ashley wondered.

            “Like Sumarae.  Any of those unincorporated mega-habs back on Earth.  People build what they need.  Here I’d guess it’s what they like to see.”

            “Of many filaments the skein knows all.  Still their knots are not prescribed.”  A few Ouro had taken notice of the pod and approached, pulling into formation alongside it and looming large through the glass.  Ashley found herself physically recoiling, pushing herself to the back of the bubble and glancing over her shoulder to see yet another of the creatures.  Bigger than she remembered from the first Ouro craft—several meters of muscular tentacles and billowing mantle all skinned in undulating mucous membrane—it wore a black mobility harness sporting a ring of thruster nozzles winking blue.  A tawny-green eye the size of her fist panned over the spectacle, focused on each of the odd primates in turn.  Red and gold blossomed on its skin.  An arm reached to touch the pod, grazing it in an idly unconscious manner as tube feet planted hundreds of kisses on the glass and left satisfied.

            “The Kin give ecstatics,” Abei translated, explaining the display as an amalgamation of joy and curiosity rewarded, which may have been the same thing.  Regardless, diamond-shaped pupils left the humans feeling distinctly cold.  A crowd of sorts gathered around the pod as it circled the glowing block.  News of the exotic visitors propagated quickly and gawkers were quick to arrive.  Ashley began to relax; somehow dozens of the creatures unnerved less than just one.

            “If they’re all connected right now,” asked Lorena, “how is that done?  Implants?  Can everyone see what anyone sees?”

            “The transmit, un-visual and apart from the conceptions evinced.  Electronics low on overhead enhance experience and differentiate data.  Similar perhaps with those Pilot Mohinder wears.”

            “That’s an exception from the general rule,” said Ashley as Vivek instinctively reached back to touch the cold metal in his scalp.

            “The practice, known.  Accepted as faith practice.  Cultural penumbra.”

            “It’s not faith.  We just think the body’s sacred—though that’s the wrong wording, obviously.”

            Maxi chipped in: “You’re born with it, you die with it.  Doesn’t need elevation, just respect.”

            “What you really mean is,” said Obo slowly, “We can’t have anyone putting himself over the rest.  Changing the rules like that.  One man does the work of two men, he’s put someone else out of a job.  And that man’s either taking a third man’s job or he’s fighting the first man for taking what’s his.  That’s why you don’t see ‘borgs the way you used to—not in my time, you understand.  Way before.  But we tried that, and it didn’t work.”

            Abei nodded agreeably.  “Observed and discussed in length prodigious.  Advanced species, the minds in main agree, showing tragic little guide.  Each multi-determined in fashion fractal.  Metaphor,” he added as though it were needed.

            Ash took a stab at philosophizing.  “There’s got to be something—besides dumb luck, I mean—that links them.  I mean, we’re talking, right?  Through however many devices, we’re still talking.  So there has to be something shared.”

            “Universal,” seconded Vivek.  “Even if it’s not predictive.  Sufficient but not necessary.”

            “In this again we agree to degrees unanticipated.  And with this reason commissioned the minds our installation so witnessed!”

            Lorena narrowed her eyes.  “The station we found?  The station that called you?”

            “Inferencing correct.”

            “Is that what you meant by science research?  When Tech Genz asked about the Open Territory provisions.”

            Abei seemed to think for a moment.  “Demonstration warrants,” he said at last, and as he did so the humans felt inertia’s nag.  The pod changed course, extricating itself politely from the clutch of escorting Ouro who parted for its passage.  They felt it accelerating, and though the ride was smooth the alarming pace with which the kilometer-wide floating baubles retreated suggested some technology beyond simple thrusters.  The unyielding elemental wall appeared in the gloom and the humans found this comforting in its assertion of plane, form and order.  Bulges, towers and other utilitarian structures revealed themselves as the pod slowed again.

            The brightest lights had receded into the volumes behind and so this place was dimmer than the rest—colder somehow, grey like the soggiest days of autumn.  A few Ouro near the wall meandered about with no obvious purpose.  As the pod slowed it cut beneath an egg-shaped craft disgorging more tentacled creatures from an open trellis-like hull.  The forms motored themselves down toward the mouth of a wide, shallow bowl sunk into the wall.  Lower Abei brought them, and as they cleared the transport’s bulk they saw colored lights playing on its undersurfaces.  Sourcing the light, their eyes found a spot at the bowl’s epicenter.  There they saw an obelisk, at least a hundred meters and high and surrounded at its base by dark fleshy knots of Ouro.  Rolling against each other and absently caressing with their arms, they bathed in truths liquid and luminous.

            “In long twilight holds skein the more beauty,” Abei’s tone approached reverence.

            “How is the central structure distinct from the broadcasting devices in the residential segment?” asked Karl.

            “Great intensity; luminosity corresponding to twilight obscuring.”

            “Of course,” Ashley’s voice was hushed as if the still water’s peace was not to be broken.  “If they go senile like Contact told us, skin absorption might not be enough.  They’d need something stronger to break through.”

            Lorena chewed her bottom lip.  For a moment she worried about giving offense, but if the artificial man had any capacity for anger she’d yet to see it.  “Abei, we’d like to know about the end of the Ouro life cycle.  We understand—we are told in our schooling—that the Kin are less…active after a certain point.  That their behavior changes.”  The pod was near enough the obelisk to reveal its most basic, low-resolution patterns.  They pushed at Lorena’s temples and through her retinas with the buzzing, boring pressure of a lucid dream.

            “Agreed, honored, though minds note non-static conditions inherent to biology.  Post-reproductive Kin often encountering twilight in chances asymptotic.”

            “Well, if that weren’t clear enough,” Ashley joked, looking to Lorena for confirmation.  Instead a worried look spread over her face.  “Ma’am, are you all right?”

            “Now this is interesting,” said Beatrice.  “You can sense it too.”

            “Fine,” Lorena managed, unconvincingly.  She took a deep breath and tried to focus on Abei’s unmoving shape.

            “Pardon our interlopement,” said Abei, “but physiological observers note alterations in one Doctor Lorena Mizrahi.”

            Lorena found things were easiest if she turned away completely—if she looked to the boxy utility structures in the distance, the buzzing settled.

            “Something with the obelisk,” Vivek guessed, and as they rushed to comfort her Abei took the pod up higher, away from the wall and the crowded amphitheater.

            “Profusely apologizing!” he was saying.  “Equipment untested against non-Kin physiology.”

            “I feel fine!” Ashley volunteered.  “Everyone else seems fine, right?”

            Breathing deep to combat the nausea welling up her throat, Lorena decided she wouldn’t hide any longer.  She’d never get a solo audience; besides, it was time Karl and Ashley knew.  “It’s from the first obelisk.  From the first Ouro ship; Subject Zero Zero.”

            Her fellow officers froze, looking quickly between each other for any hint at her gambit.  Why would she divulge that, particularly to those for whom it would be most sensitive?  But she only continued: “Some months back, we happened to encounter an Ouro civilian vessel, derelict in the Open Territory.  Not the destroyed ship I’ve already told you about; this was intact.  It didn’t respond to hails, so we tried to render aid.  I boarded the vessel along with Pilot Duggins and Tech Genz.  While aboard we found a device like the one you’ve just showed us and experienced its effects at close range.”

            “Fascinating!  For what were these events not heretofore described?”

            “They happened earlier.  They might not have been relevant.  I worried how the Kin perceive it.  And while I’m being honest, I was afraid of telling my crew every detail.”

            Obo scowled.  “What detail have we missed?”

            “Something I’ve hidden.  From all of you, even those it affected.  And I’m sorry.”

            “Lorena, what are you talking about?” Vivek was incredulous.

            “When I passed out in that ship, something…happened.  I picked it up then and it hasn’t left.  It’s…a passenger in my head.  A person; a woman.  Someone I thought was my friend.”

            “Here we go,” sighed Bea.       

            “A woman’s in your head?  Jesus Christ, Lorena—“

            “I know what I said and I meant it.  In the midst of all those dead Ouro, one of them jumped onto me and stole a ride.  The obelisk beamed her into my head when it activated and whatever it left took that shape.  She’s a woman named Beatrice.  Tall, light skin, dark hair.  Mean sense of humor.”

            She looked up to seven wildly diverse expressions, from Vivek and Maxi’s contemptuous disbelief to Abei’s delight.  Ashley and Karl were aghast, pale as sheets; Abei wore a gleeful look and Beatrice watched fascinated.  Only Zach Obo stayed unreadable, his eyes yellow-sclera’d slits.  “Karl and Ash, you know her.  You’ve talked to her; I’ve seen it myself and I’m sure it also happened when I wasn’t around.  But you know it’s true.  You know Beatrice is real, and again I’m sorry you have to see her.  It’s not your fault.  It’s not anyone’s fault.”

            Vivek shook his head.  “That’s ridiculous.  Look, I’m sure whatever you’re feeling feels very real.  Once we get you back to Konoko we can—“

            “She’s real, Vee,” Ashley’s voice was suddenly ragged.  “She’s standing here with us right now.”

            “Guilty!” Bea chimes without much vigor.

            “Genz, is this true?”

            Karl paused at this.  Surely the woman had seemed real—he couldn’t deny his own perceptions—but neither could he easily bring himself to admit his place in anything so outlandish.  So he paused, and sputtered, and in the end it was the accusing stares of the three women that broke his pride.  “Yes, Mister Mohinder,” he said at last.  “I have observed the phenomenon as described.  Though I never connected it with the chronology the Doctor describes.”

            “To them, it’d seem like she was always there.  It seemed like that to me too, for a long time.  She really nested herself deep.  And that’s why,” Lorena turned once again to Abei, “I want it out.  Out of my head and out of my life.”

            He tapped fingertips together before answering.  “In main the minds agree, events occurring as described.  Would the Kin assume deedship, ethics demand we acquiesce.  But in the very moment I am told and therefore tell: we return to the craft Konoko.”

            Now Lorena was confused.  “What?  Now?”

            “Indeed for a visitor appears!  Unexpected for the minds local but known to those more distant, from Terra space arrived!  And first is the Doctor’s presence asked.”  His silver eyes flicked upward and once again they felt the pod accelerate.

            “I don’t understand what’s going on,” Lorena said insistently, as though she could will his words into perfect sense.

            In response Abei opened his mouth and the voice that emerged was not his but high, smoother, unaffected and more obviously human.  Lorena felt cold chitinous needles up the side of her neck.  “Terran special courier TFV Schmetterling requesting permission to dock, citing the Interspecies Repatriation Treaty. Diplomatic ticket marker now transmitting.

            “Authorization type Emissary Plus Ultra.  Saint Julien, commanding.”

NEXT TUESDAY: KONOKO'S CREW WAS PREPARED FOR ALMOST ANYTHING, BUT THE SUDDEN RETURN OF YANA ST. JULIEN THROWS A CHILLY CYBERNETIC WRENCH INTO THEIR PLANS. CATCH UP WITH THEIR STRUGGLE AS "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" CONTINUES!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Fields without Fences, Part Forty-Eight



            “Need a read on him.”

            “He’s said a good bit already.  Artificial, not cloned.  External A.I. control, likely with a solid internal system for low-order processing and backup autonomy.”

            “We’ve got to do better.  Is it a shielding issue?”

            Obo cleared his throat too close to the microphone.  “Sort of.  Too much for passive pickup, but active scans would work.  Assuming our hosts don’t mind a high-energy rad sweep.”

            “Which they very well might,” Vivek sighed.

            “As you say.”

            “What about Genz’s hand unit?”

            “Yeah, that’d work.  But it’s not active.”

            “And they took their helmets off,” groaned the Executive Officer.  “Can’t relay a message without the Ouro hearing.”

            “I’d rather not interrupt what the Doc’s got going.”

            “Same.  So we’ll wait.  Get anything from the cameras?  Just the eyeball test?”

            “Whatever they’re using for skin makes him look like a corpse.  The color at least.  Can’t say anything about the texture.  They could’ve just pulled it over a metal frame.”

            “No vessels, no organs?”

            “Speaking, he showed teeth but no tongue.  And the lips didn’t seem right.  Makes me think sound’s coming from a speaker, which means no airways.”

            “At which point, why bother with the rest?”

            “Right.  Oh, and the way he moved in zero G—no Third Law momentum.  I bet he’s got his own grav-pulse drive.”

            “No way.  The kind of reactor you’d need…”

            “You got a better explanation for Sir Newton?” Obo chortled.

            “Guess not.”

            “So we watch and wait.”

            “Guess so.  At least she kept the cams on.”  Vivek scratched at a stubbly spot where jaw met throat.  The screen before him showed Lorena’s feed: the Ouro welcoming room’s interior, its maddeningly blank walls and the cadaverous form of Abei all turned ninety degrees to the left.  The helmet still rested in the crook of Lorena’s elbow.

            “And when we emerged at the last location—again, I can’t say why the Kin A.I. didn’t use U.G.S.—we found an installation,” she was saying.  “A Kin installation, very large.  Hails went unanswered, so we attempted closer observation with a small drone.”

            Abei chose this moment to break in.  “Of this we’ve come to know.  Take apology: a system meant for other bodies.”

            “Point defense, as we thought.  P√ľnkteverteidigung,” Karl added, as their interlocutor had asked he do for unusual terms.

            “Concurrence.  Though with this event we came to acquaint you, and sound assistance to dispatch.”  His language skills had indeed improved in just minutes and his quease-inducing face wore a pleased expression.

            “Yes, the corvette—I mean, the Kin warships—appeared not long after.  But before that, I want to talk about the station.  What is it?”  She decided not to mention the Open Territory or the associated treaty.

            “The query, vague,” Abei attempted an apologetic look but only managed a compromise between the verge of laughter and physical pain.

            Karl tried to assist.  “The installation emitted six continuous beams of exotic matter unknown to our systems.  It was only by coincidence we discovered them.  What was their function?  By corollary, in what way does that function comport with the Galactic Interspecies Diplomatic Preserve Establishment Treaty?”  And then he repeated the question in German.

            Lorena screwed her eyes shut with exasperation and rage, but opened them again to preserve the illusion of a long blink.  Abei regarded them blankly for a long moment, mirrored eyes unfocused before momentarily re-acquiring the humans.  “The device referenced; research in nature, chasing enumerated exceptions.  Section Fourteen Bee Cee.  Construction the end result of a project long ongoing.”

            “I see,” murmured Konoko’s C.O., unsatisfied.  Karl’s bald question was easily riposted.

            “Respectfully how,” asked Abei pensively, thumb and forefinger pinched near his lips as though addressing Socrates himself, “did systems Terran evaluate the materials presented?  We ask for one has said, ‘coincidence.’”

            “It’s a long story,” Lorena interrupted before Karl could answer, angry he’d ineptly handled the treaty question and unwilling to give the Ouro anything further.  “And perhaps you can discuss it with Technician Genz later.  Once the Kin warships arrived, we hailed them and began a conversation.  We followed them and here we are.”

            “I see,” said Abei, nodding slowly, hands once again steepled in a gesture drawn from a seemingly limited catalogue.

            “We would like to discharge our data cargo into your care, make any needed repairs to our vessel, and be on our way.”

            “The need, understands.  And granted with every haste!  But this cargo intrigues and very much would the Kin appreciate examining.”

            “Perfectly fine.  Technician Genz opened our systems to yours so adroitly before; I’m sure he can do it again,” she shot Karl a pointed look, which he gamely endured.

            Abei got that distant look again.  “Honored, minds accept.  Easily cooperated.”

            “Thank you.”

            “Gratitude instead to you, Doctor Mizrahi!” he grinned.  She wished he would stop and to her surprise he quickly did.  “What cargo you bring is nearly lost.  Fear always the Kin our loss.  Fear always, to fall through the skein.”

            She sensed a change in Abei’s tone—more open, almost introspective in a way he surely lacked the capacity to be.  Another step forward in his learning process?  She decided to poke at it, to see if it would shrivel or stick.  “You used the word ‘skein.’  What does that mean to the Kin?  What’s the skein, to you?”

            He gave an odd look, as though it were a silly question.  Almost disdainful.  “Hardly can it say, skein and Kin to be separate.  Skein is the truth through that we walk.  For between the many truths is empty.”

            Lorena nodded, overselling her half-comprehension.  He meant the Ouro network, didn’t he?  A universe nested in nutshells of steel and silicon.  She found herself glancing to Bea for a hint, the splash of shame soaking in as the other woman nodded.

            But then Abei spoke again and parsing his sentences took all her attention.  “Bid am I to throw another invitation.  The minds and all the Kin beloved seek audience.”

            The word audience that threw her off; as though they were being worshipped, in accordance with so many tales of colonial ages past.  Lorena frowned: “Are you saying you want us speaking to the Kin?  On your network, on the ‘skein?’  Instead of just you, and your minds.”

            “A near miss at the barn’s broad side!”  Abei looked smug, convinced he’d pulled off a tricky idiom.  “Invited, all ECV Konoko, to works of the kin.  To walk in our truth, through welcome shelter provided.”

            Ashley Duggins, who had stood only slightly more silent than Karl during this conference, was the first to understand.  “They want to take us on a tour.”

            “Precision!” Abei clapped his hands.

            Lorena struggled for a polite way to refuse.  “We’ve got to file reports,” she said apologetically, “and start up the file transfer.  Of the cargo, I mean.”

            “The need, understands.  Commence our business; knows not when you prefer.  Suggest two hower?”

            This violently confused Lorena.  She was sheepish a moment later: “Two hours.  It…it would be possible.”

            “Then we expect the six!  So lucky, auspicious arriving in such legion!”

            All of us?  It seemed a poor idea.  Corps regulations had been amended in years past, no longer mandating a full-time human presence aboard clippers, but the opposite impulse was thoroughly baked into Academy courses.  The specter of emptying Konoko terrified Lorena so thoroughly and immediately, it surprised her.  Something to grind against, Annika might have said.  “Thank you for the offer.  We would enjoy seeing your habitat.  But I don’t think everyone will want to come, and one of us is…is not crew.  Not an officer.  A passenger.”

            “Passengers surely welcome with the rest.  And how says, six visitors!  A figure meaning great.  The Kin reaching; water-bound atoms of oxygen.  Many are the sixes.  Proportions serendipitous.”

            “I’ll see what I can do,” said Lorena in the historical fashion of countless people fobbing off petitioners.  Lifting the Marina’s blue helmet from beneath her arm, she popped it over her head and engaged the seals.  Karl and Ashley did the same as Abei grinned with his awfully perfect teeth—enamel unblemished behind anthocyan lips.

*          *          *          

            “You’re kidding me.”  Obo stood with arms crossed and chin dipped to his chest, eyes swiveled up like disbelieving floodlamps.

            “I had the same thought when Abei told me.  But the Ouro seem quite serious about it.”

            “Doesn’t matter what they think.  They can’t compel us to leave the ship.”

            “Yeah, no way that’s legal,” Ashley chimed in.

            Lorena shot her a withering look.  “There’s no law or treaty governing polite invitations.  This is something our hosts want us to do.  They want all six of us—including Miss Leaf, which is why I’ve brought her into this discussion.”  Maxi, standing deliberately opposite the Galley table from Vivek, gave the slightest nod.  She knew better than to voice an opinion.

            “You’re honestly okay with this?” asked Vivek.

            “Color me surprised too,” smirked Beatrice.

            “Look, I don’t like the idea of leaving Konoko any more than the rest of you—even less, I’d bet.  But we’ll need to shut down most of her systems anyway, right?”

            Karl nodded.  “For the transfer, yes.  I would expect three to four hours of downtime while the Ouro A.I.s investigate our computer.”

            “So it’s not as though they’d steal the ship.  What would they see in it, anyway?”

            “Still not chuffed to suit up and take a bath,” Obo said gruffly.

            “Where’s your sense of adventure?”

            “I’ll stay, thank you.”

            “No you won’t.  We’ve been invited and it behooves us to keep the Ouro happy.”

            “Why would they possibly care whether a Tech comes on their tour?”

            “Because, as I’ve already said, they want all of us.  Something about the number six.  It had them very excited.”

            “I know it sounds dumb, but that’s what the guy said,” Ashley seconded.  “Six arms, six visitors.  They’re a-twitter over it.”

            “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

            “That being as it may,” Lorena cocked her head, “you’re all coming.  We’ve no idea what we might need to ask from our hosts these next few days.”

            “We’re already returning their data; a job we didn’t ask for,” Vivek reminded her.

            “All the more reason to pile up chits while we can.  Now, that’s the end of it.  Thirty minutes from now, I want everyone mustered in the Bay.  Miss Leaf, you’ll use your personal suit.  Make it clear you’re a civilian.”

            “Yes,” Maxi avoided any honorific.

            “I feel I should state for the record,” Karl spoke up, “that I remain tremendously excited for the opportunity presented, and I feel we should all approach this visit in the spirit of inter-species cooperation.”

            “Thank you, Karl.  I think that’s the right attitude,” said Lorena, thoroughly charmed by his earnestness.  “You’re all dismissed.”

            They filed out in various emotional states: the seething Obo and sympathetic Ashley, unreadable Maxi and eager Karl Genz.  Vivek gave her a searching look—you sure about this?—but said nothing once she met the gaze.  In the end she was left alone with Beatrice in the Galley.

            “Gotta hand it to you, Lorena.  This whole thing’s changed you.”

            “We’re all the products of our lives,” she replied, shutting the door and slumping into a seat at the table.  It felt outrageously comfortable and she wanted to stay seated until at least the end of time.

            “Whipping up the crew to curry favor with the Ouro!  Contact will have a position for you yet.  If you don’t mind a few nips and tucks in a cybernetics lab,” Bea grinned.

            “For what I’m about to ask them, I’ll need anything I can get.”

            “What’s that, exactly?”

            Lorena drew a deep breath and exhaled, shuddering.  “I’m going to tell them about the first Ouro ship.  About you, and me, and Karl and Ashley.  I’m going to tell them everything and then I’ll ask them to get rid of you.”

            She didn’t meet Beatrice’s eyes but hardly needed to.  “And then what?” her friend asked at last.  “You’ll head back home to your full, fantastic life?  Christ, Lor, you don’t even have a cat.”

            “I’ll figure something out.  There’s always the cross-service dating boards.  Or knitting.”

            Beatrice cackled.  “See, it’s a bad joke even when you say it.”

            Now their eyes met.  Lorena took in her friend’s chiseled features, willowy frame, alabaster skin.  She admired it all but the last gave the game away—too clean, too smooth, too china-perfect to have been anything but a fantasy like the android Abei.  “You’re not real.  You don’t belong here.”

            “But I am here and we are talking.  Why’d you close the door, Lorena?”

            “So my crew doesn’t realize I’m as crazy as I obviously am.”

            Bea let out a disgusted noise.  “Did Moses argue with the burning bush?”

            “That’s a hell of a comparison to make.”

            "Yeah, well, I made it.  Did it ever occur to you that there might be some reason behind all this?  That somehow the universe’s threads put us together—whoever I was and whoever you are—and maybe that means something?”

            “It means I’ve got years of therapy ahead.  While you can…flit off into the Ouro network.  The skein.”

            “Lorena, I’m just a reflection.  A formula, a program running in your brain.  I’m what you make me and nothing more.”

            “So you’ll just vanish?”

            “I don’t know.  That’s not even why I’m upset—it’s because you’ve got an incredible opportunity in front of you and don’t care to take it.  The first time in recorded history two species share the same brain and all you can think of is how badly this disrupts your life.  A sad, lonely life if ever there was one.  For all the leaps you’ve made, you won’t take this one and it’s killing me.”  She paused to let out a bitter laugh.  “Quite literally!”

            “That can’t be my problem.  Too many things are already my problem.”

            “We both know you’ll go back home, file your reports, request commendations and get turned down.  Then it’s back to the grind, tour after tour, never once doing anything as important as you’re doing now.  This could be a giant moment in galactic history and all you can think about is check-out processing at Mars Dock.”

            “All I can hear is this crazy bitch who’s ruined my life and now wants to cast herself as…what, exactly?  My guardian angel?”

            “If that’s the case, nobody ever gave a briefing.  There wasn’t a meeting to attend where God said, ‘here’s what we’ll do with Lorena.’  And besides, no angel would dress this well.”

            “If God’s got a plan here, it’s some real roundabout shit.”

            Beatrice didn’t seem to find this funny.  “He’s holding His tongue, eh?  You’ve certainly been asking a lot.”

            “Fuck you.  That’s not for you to see.  Or hear.  That’s for me.”

            “I can’t hear.  That’s funny, isn’t it?  I can hear everything else going on in there, if I care to.  Not that; you wall it off, which is interesting.  Maybe it means something.  But either way, I don’t know what you really want—just that you’re asking.  Asking and wanting so badly it makes you sick for Him not to answer.”

            Lorena shut her eyes and was surprised to find sudden tears running from under the lids.  She drew breath and it seared badly as anything.  “I just want to go back,” she whimpered, pathetic and hating herself for it.

            “Back to what?”

            “To knowing who I was.  However shitty I was.”

            Bea squatted alongside her chair, put a hand on her knee and forced their gazes to lock.  “No one gets to go back.  Not ever, not really.”

            “I know,” Lorena swallowed and wiped her wrist across her face.  Embers breathed in her eyes once the sleeve came away.  “But I’m going to try.”

*          *          *          

            They stood, four of them in blue and one in purple, displaying various nervous tics while awaiting the last.  Ashley drummed fingers over her helmet’s crown; Maxi held one arm at her side, gripping its tricep with the other; Vivek shifted his weight from one hip to the other in a constant tidal slosh.  Lorena kept trying to check her watch though the slim wristbound anachronism was hidden under the Marina’s padded sleeve.

            At last there came a ringing of boots on metal panels and Karl Genz descended from above, hurrying, doing his best to keep one great lembic foot from catching the other.  “I have opened the gates!” he called to them.  Konoko’s computer is engaged with the Ouro A.I.s.”

            “Here’s hoping they leave her in a flyable state,” Obo grumbled.

            Reaching the Bay floor, Karl crossed quickly to his locker and pulled on his Marina boots.  Vivek and Obo approached to assist him with the rest of the suit and grudgingly, fussily, he accepted.  At last they stood together in a loose circle, holding their helmets while Lorena laid out her expectations.

            “Address Abei as you would a human being, with one exception: always keep in mind he’s a puppet on strings.  Anything you say to him you’re functionally saying to Ouro network.  He calls it the ‘skein,’ which is a little precious.”

            “Most of what he says sounds bizarre at first—you have to think about it for a moment,” said Ashley.

            “You showed great facility interpreting him,” said Karl, doling out a rare compliment.  “I must confess I was lost for most of the conversation.”

            “Martian public schools.  You get good at bad English.”

            “That being as it may,” Lorena interrupted, “the moment we cross that airlock, it’s a public performance.  We’re representing our entire species to their entire species.”

            “Good thing we’re such a virtuous, upstanding group of individuals,” Vivek flashed a grin as acid bubbled up his esophagus.  Maxi smirked to herself.

            “You’ve already done the service proud.  This is just another step before we’re on our way back home.”

            Obo cleared his throat.  “Speaking of which, ma’am…how exactly are we getting home?  Contact gave us a mission.  I don’t like it—sure nobody likes it—but we don’t have the goods they asked for, and they asked for something very specific.”

            Lorena nodded.  “You’re right.  The information we’ve collected is almost certainly valuable, and that might satisfy them.  Just in case, I’m planning on asking our hosts for some help in that regard.”

            “Meaning what?” the Systems Tech frowned.

            “Not sure.  Contact doesn’t care about getting their hands on Ouro tissue; they care about the tech they think it’ll lead to.  From what we’ve seen, the Ouro have tech coming out their siphons.  They might be feeling generous.  And we have done them a favor.”

            Obo seemed to accept this, nodding and crossing his arms.  “Speaking of tech, you ever ask about that big honking station that vaped our drone?”

            “Scientific data collection,” Karl answered.  “Permitted under the Treaty’s enumerated exception for such projects.”

            “Seems a bit much for an experiment.  You could fit a hundred habitats in that volume.  And why there?”

            “It only came up briefly,” said Lorena, “and only in the context of the treaty.  It’s not a priority, as far as I’m concerned.”

            “Yes, ma’am.”

            “All right.  Now, Karl—you want to be first through the airlock?”

            “Yes, ma’am!”

NEXT TUESDAY
: STRIDING BACK THROUGH THE AIRLOCK, KONOKO'S CREW TAKES A GRAND TOUR OF THE VAST OURO HABITAT. SENSES ARE STRAINED AND MINDS EXPANDED AS "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" CONTINUES!