|Credit: Alex Zutsy|
Vivek and Maxi walked uncomfortably down to the Equipment Bay. For the first time they could operate with nothing to hide but the new situation seemed somehow more burdensome than the last. Subterfuge was straightforward; bring in the daylight and judgment’s pall cast the gnarliest of shadows. So they walked side by side for the very first time but hadn’t the courage to speak on their way down, lest they remind everyone of their mutual sin. It wasn’t the best way to conduct a relationship.
They arrived in the Bay to find it blessedly empty. Obo wouldn’t have stopped them, but he would have looked and that look would have been excruciating. “Should we suit up?” Vivek asked her.
“Why? Lock integrity’s held.”
“If Contact is watching, we’ll look suspicious without suits.”
“If Contact’s watching, we’ll look suspicious no matter what.”
He couldn’t argue with that. Straightening his jacket to look his best—assuming the Ouro had any notion of professionalism—he climbed down through the Pre chamber until a queasy shift in his gut signaled gravity’s departure. His muscles relaxed and he continued down gingerly so as not to separate himself from the wall. Federal service-issue shoes assisted him, adhering themselves to the rungs. At the bottom he pushed off gently, rotated in the air and bent his knees coming to rest on the tiled floor. A glance upward satisfied him Maxi was following without trouble.
“Honored, many welcomes!” Abei announced himself. The hovering scarecrow was erected just a few meters before them. “Unexpected to witness.”
“Yes! Well,” Vivek began, stopped, cleared his throat and began again: “We’d like to help our C.O. Doctor Lorena Mizrahi, you remember? Yes, well, Konoko’s crew would like to assist with the removal of her…uh, her projection. The network processes buried in her brain. We want to help you remove them, if it’s at all possible. Does that make sense? Do you understand?”
“Indubitably! Comprehended are the minds and always dissension to be supported when in earnest conducting.”
“Dissension? Explain that,” Maxi frowned.
“Always the Kin embroil with discussion. Dissension, inevitable in events passing, must sanction to be. Indispensible with the fabric of skein. Terran cognition rarely so proceeding, pleased and surprised are minds in a wider negotiation to resolve.”
“We should’ve brought Ashley to interpret,” Maxi groaned.
“I think he means they get we’re not with Contact. Acting on our own. Only for them it’s not mutiny or insubordination—more of a spirited discussion. They thrive on interaction, right? We’re just offering alternatives to whatever the Emissary offered. Abei, do you think your minds can remove the projection from Doctor Mizrahi?”
“At present unknowable. Researching operates by hindrance, absent the subject Mizrahi, but highly positive the prognoses gathered.”
Vivek’s eyes widened at the welcome news. “You think you’ll be able to? Do you need more time?”
“Preliminary collection gifts to reveal crucial processes of Mizrahi the Doctor. Spoken in juxtaposition to Kin-derived skein data already established—retrieving from craft Konoko, by way of Kin deceased—the minds arrive at superior understandings. Regarding, with best specificity, skein data compressed within the Terran mind.”
All this took a moment to digest. “But our computers aren’t proper artificial intelligence, the way yours—the way the Kin have built theirs. Are you sure it’s analogous?”
Abei gave a smile more knowing than he’d yet shown. “Evolutionarily iterated structures—organic neurology the priming exemplar—build naught but what from which they themselves presume construction. Data structures flowing in natural order from microbiology superficially incidental.”
“If he says it, I’m just going to believe it,” Maxi declared, crossing her arms.
“That’s great to hear. What do you need from us? We’ll do anything we can to facilitate this.”
Abei pursed his purple lips in an excellent impression of thought. “Requiring once and foremost the subject oneself. From telemetry have we acquired perspectives on these processes whilst eschewing intricate detail. Presenting the subject in situ,” he brightened at the Latin, “ought predict direct methodology.”
“They need Lorena back,” Maxi interpreted. “Is that all?”
“Still a tall order,” Vivek reminded her.
Abei bobbed his head like a bird. “Emphasizing secondly no guarantees established. However, absent the subject, impossible.”
“We understand. Thanks so much, Abei,” Vivek nodded earnestly. “If you’ll excuse me a minute, I’m going to try and reach her.” He pulled out his handy and shot Maxi a hopeful smile.
“Watch out what you say,” she cautioned. “Need to be subtle.”
“I know,” he shot back, slightly peeved.
While he made his way through Schmetterling’s interface, Maxi turned back to Abei. She’d thought of a gambit. “So, what’d you discuss with the Emissary?” she asked with all the innocence of a child at a sucker. The Ouro loved discussion, after all. Perhaps they’d like to share.
“Incensed the Emissary claims, on account of Kin development long ongoing. With minds apologizing at misconceptions, nonetheless insisted our interpretation. The Emissary position we filter through skeining and still are they unpersuaded. At that juncture of which concession cannot for principle exist, other interest notwithstanding. A separation, then, episodal in nature. Talks inevitably to resume.”
Maxi nodded along, following just a moment behind. She was opening her mouth to ask what other “interest” the Ouro might hold, but Vivek’s tone swiveled her head. “You’ve got to slow down, Lor. Slow down and tell me everything, from the top.”
He listened then and Maxi watched with intense curiosity. She heard Lorena’s voice coming through the tinny speaker at high speed and register but couldn’t make out the words. “Shit,” Vivek said sympathetically. “Jesus.”
A while longer, a few more exchanges. “Be safe and try not to worry. We won’t be leaving without you,” he signed off and looked to Maxi. “They found something—some reaction she showed to Ouro comms. Seems like the experience shook her up pretty badly, and now she’s on indefinite medical hold.”
“Because she freaked out?”
“No, just for observation. More testing or something. She’s obviously still got her handy, but the Emissary can keep her locked up as long as she wants.”
“Shit,” Maxi huffed.
“I don’t see how we’re supposed to get her out,” Vivek sighed, rubbing at his face.
“Doesn’t matter,” she shook off his despair. “Not right now, anyway. Abei, if we can deliver Doctor Mizrahi, are the Kin prepared to help?”
“Without guarantees are agreed.”
She gave a curt nod. “Right. Now, Vivek, with that taken care of, we need to find a way to pry her loose.”
“I can’t imagine Contact’s going to hand her over. They placed the medical old specifically because she wanted to leave.”
“Perhaps inappropriate advising,” Abei broke in with one china-white index finger extended upwards, “but in estimation of the minds are Terran-betwixt conflicts nascent. Unwilling are the Kin pragmatically to accept marked deterioration in relations interstellar.”
Vivek tried to clarify: “So we need Contact on board for the release?”
“Not in all precision. Risks taken, often mitigated in parallel concession. With appropriate assets, compromising eased in passage. Always, from our perspective, dialogue with constant transaction proceeding. As every cell of its neighboring must always.”
“Something to sweeten the pot,” Maxi translated. “Ideally for all parties.”
Vivek thought about his. He’d always been horrendous gift-giver, accustomed to the disappointed faces of friends and family. Skipping major holidays he considered a perk of his job. “Abei, is there anything we can do to thank the Kin for their aid and hospitality?”
“Questions persisted in the skein,” he answered quicker than Vivek expected. “Concerning most priority the scanning happenstance of vessel Konoko. Curious the minds remain, honored—with what implements came Technician the Genz upon our sight farthest reaching?”
The humans exchanged a look, each hoping the other knew what exactly the android had said. Vivek took a stab: “You want to know how Genz found…what? What’s ‘sight furthest reaching?’”
Abei worked his mouth in a way he likely meant to seem frustrated. “Six sights positioned and programmed, from Open Territory across reaches large and through great obscuration.”
Six sights. Components shifted in his skull, locked grindingly into place. “He means the station. He wants to know how Karl spotted the beams from that station.”
She scrunched up her nose, confused. “It was just the stupid photino bird. He picked it up and started flashing once we got close.”
“Curious, honored: defining as a necessity with the phrasing used, ‘photino bird.’”
“It’s a, uhh…” she trailed off, frowned. “Damn, how to put it? An animal living in deep space, shaped a little like a Terran bird? Eats exotics.”
“They’re probably familiar with the species, if we found one in the O.T.,” Vivek theorized.
“Oh hey, I’ve got it!” Maxi snapped her fingers and dug into her left hip pocket. Producing her handy, she activated its screen and began flipping through menus. “I took some pictures and video, figuring I’d never see one that close again.”
She found the media she sought and stepped forward, holding the little machine up to Abei’s glittering curious gaze. “This. You know these, yeah?”
“Minor in population and with regard to transit incidental.”
“Yeah, well, that’s how Genz picked up on your emissions.”
“It fascinates!” Abei chirped. “Unknown in character the interaction but surely can investigations run in pursuit. Possession still Konoko maintains?”
Vivek nodded. “It’s in our Equipment Bay right now, along with its containment field. Though I’m sure you could build a better one.”
“Obo wouldn’t like hearing that,” Maxi mused.
“Correspondence betwixt skein, sight and flesh considering rarest indeed!” Expressive fingers fluttered with excitement. “Mitigating in potential the setbacks inevitably along with process removal proceeding. Long built, hard maintained the project—both Doctor the Mizrahi and Kin-external sight interaction promising avenues represented.”
“Are you saying they’re the same?” Vivek pondered this, chewing the slick meaty inside of his cheek. He looked to Maxi: “Does that make any sense to you? How are they the same?”
“Maybe they’re not. Maybe they just hold something in common.”
“It’s the interaction,” Vivek suddenly realized. “That’s got to be it: why Contact wants Lorena, why the Ouro want her too. The thing she picked up bonded with her brain, which…Abei, has that ever happened before?”
“In all the skein undocumented.”
“Okay. So Lorena’s special because of that interaction. The photino bird showed the same thing: non-Ouro response to Ouro tech.”
“I think it’s more than that. Remember the end of the tour, right before that Emissary bitch showed? Someone asked about the point of that big-ass station and Abei took us up near those obelisks. He talked about bright lights being needed to go vast distances, to cut darkness.”
“He was talking about the obelisk and getting through to the senile Ouro.”
“It’s all the same thing, don’t you see?” She found her pulse quickening. “The tech is designed to keep dead Ouro around in their network—call it a simulation or a projection if you want, that’s what it does. And it’s a two-way street, at least for Ouro. Lorena proves something that’s not Ouro can still use that street. It’s not just about accessing tech, it’s about transferring consciousness. Even beyond death. The station wasn’t collecting observational data—it was scouring the galaxy for souls.”
This was a lot to take in. “How would that even work?” was the most intelligent thing Vivek had to say.
“The physics? Beats me. But their A.I.s obviously know how to deal with minds in different states. If they can take an image of an Ouro at the moment of death, what’s to say that can’t transfer?”
“Pleased fantastic at such harmoniousness!” Abei broke in. “In matters so concerning discover the minds themselves at a depletion of linguism in nature. Poor seem the tools before us until belonging ignorance such pleasingly demonstrated. Thanks be, honored! With consideration upon this shall we prevail the Emissary, her comprehension limit no longer in linguism deficiency.”
“She’s must still be convinced it’s military,” Vivek said to Maxi.
“I’m not sure we could persuade her. It’s in her interest to believe that, right? To use as a chip in the talks. And she’ll question whatever you tell her about it, because of course you want everyone to buddy up and release Lorena.”
He scratched his chin, where tenacious stubble was sprouting. “So where does that leave us? I can probably persuade Obo to part with the bird if the Doc’s on the line. But then we still need the Doc.”
Maxi let her mind run—the brain she’d always treasured for its scheming capacity. For rodent-like survival skills the gods had apparently compensated her with a ghostly complexion, crooked teeth and a flat chest. She tried to think of everything on Konoko, every bolt and girder and piece of gear she knew of, considering the gnarled paths sucking open and shut like ventricles before her. Negotiation with the Emissary wouldn’t work, she decided. Even the idea would offend her, would yield cries of insubordination at best and mutiny at worst.
If you can’t come by things honestly…
She got an idea. Just an inkling, just the barest hint of possibility, but the start was most important—the big outline into which smaller solutions could be written as needed. “Vivek,” she said, breaking his considerably less effective reverie, “I think we should get back to Konoko and mull our options. Mister Abei has been so kind and we know what he needs from us. We should leave him to rest.” She did not know whether this last bit was true and decided it probably was not.
Still, Vivek got the message. “Okay. We’ll regroup and discuss everything with the crew. Thank you very much, Abei. We’ll stay in touch.”
“Overjoy! Much exceeding are the pleasures of the company.” He raised an arm and waggled it from the elbow, his grin as always an unnerving rictus.
* * *
“This strikes me as a poor idea.” Karl Genz gnawed at his already ragged right thumbnail. They sat in the Galley where Vivek had convened them: Karl leaning forward with gangly elbows on the table, Obo reclining as far as the white plastic chair would allow with hands settled on the swell of his belly. Vivek had stood to speak while Maxi sat quietly near him. Ashley paced about the table’s far side, too upset to sit.
“You strike me as a clueless asshole,” the junior Pilot fired back. “They’ve kidnapped Lorena. Fuck them.”
“The Federal Service Charter authorizes detainment for medical observation.”
“She’s not sick and she’s certainly not contagious.”
“With respect, Miss Duggins,” Karl replied, cool and condescending, “the both of us have found ourselves afflicted by the same condition. For that reason alone, I would categorize it as contagious.”
“And for that you’re willing to leave her.”
“I do not believe we can positively influence the outcome by challenging the Emissary. That leaves aside the question of any further degeneration.”
“Degeneration? I’m fine, and so are you. It’s Lorena we’re trying to help. And, yes, I think that’s more important than whether or not a scary woman chews us out.”
“You really think that’s the problem?” Obo broke in. “Tell you what scares me: court-martial. Prison. Hell, even an admin discharge zeroes out your pension.”
Ashley was defiant. “Fuck my pension. I don’t care. This is about what’s right.”
“That’s very easy for you to say,” he said wearily. “And I’m sure you even believe it. But I’m not twenty-four, hopped up on Piloting adrenaline and sanctimony. I’m an old man—an old goddamned man, Ash. We get back, I’m never setting foot on a starship again. I got a plan. That plan is supporting my wife, my girls, and the grandkids I’d like to be a free man to see. That plan is everything. I didn’t hop land mines on the way to school, get off the island and work thirty-three years in deep space to run it all into the ground. So fine, fuck your pension. But I’m getting mine.”
Obo let it stand in the air, rising and looming like a column of smoke. He looked about; nobody would gainsay him. Vivek, still standing, endured the long silence by looking at a spot on the floor where an enterprising spatter of marinara sauce had managed to evade the cleaning drones. He thought about what to say and came up empty. It was no man’s place to tell another man his business—even less so given the physical embodiment of indiscretion by his side.
Yet it was Maxi who next spoke. “Fuck you.”
Heads snapped to her. Anyone lost in his thoughts now turned all his focus to the diminutive woman in her hand-me-down fatigues. Obo’s face had just begun to register his incredulous outrage when she followed up: “Seriously, fuck you. Spawning young and getting old doesn’t entitle you to a different moral standard. We’ve all got things we care about, Zach: shit we’d rather do than this, places we’d rather be than here. But here we are, and all we can really know is what’s in front of us. Right now, that’s the fact your C.O.’s missing.”
“Kidnapped,” Ashley added.
“She’s being held against her will. And if she stays, if things keep going the way they’re going, you won’t get her back. They’ll hold her and pick her brain apart until she’s comatose or half-crazed from that squid bitch in her head.”
Vivek cringed a little at the slur, but he let her continue. “So at best—at best—she’s in serious trouble. At worst it’s mortal fucking danger. Which brings me to the rub of all this. If it were you—any of you—in the same spot, what do you think she’d do? That’s an honest question. I don’t know her; she’s your C.O. What would she do?”
Quiet. She crossed her arms and glared about the table. “Personally, I see no chance in the galaxy she’d leave you in that hole. I don’t know her, but I’ve seen how she works—that bitch could core through a planet. And that’s coming from me, who hates her fucking guts. Come hell or high water, she’d do what she could. She’d do what she could,” Maxi concluded with a long hard stare at the Systems Tech.
Zach Obo stared back, his prior fire snuffed to a smolder by the diatribe. He wiped his face with one hand, from the height of his receding hairline to his jaw’s budding grey whiskers. He looked at his palm at it came away, the creases and calluses under a sheen of sweat. “What did you have in mind?” he asked at last, the creak of an old oaken door in his voice.
“That Contact ship is tiny. Simple axial layout, likely minimal crew, run by a woman who thinks we’re cowed. I say we bust her out.”
Ashley gave an involuntary snort of laughter. “Maxi, I like the spirit, but that’s a Contact Emissary running the show.”
“Accompanied by a detachment of Marines,” Karl reminded them.
“I’m not suggesting we kick down the door. I’ve got a plan, or most of a plan, to get us aboard. From there we can sneak her out or run for the airlock they’ve been keeping open. We get her to the Ouro, hand her over and let them do their thing. Afterward…well, there might be some music to face. Vivek and I will take the blame. And the biggest risks.”
“That’s generous of you,” grumbled Obo, “but frankly the risks are fucking stupid. These people are ruthless. You don’t understand what a Contact priority really means.”
“I’m hardly an innocent flower,” Maxi shot back, slightly offended.
“They sent us on a mission to find dead Ouro and armed an Explorer Corps ship, shredding protocol all the way.”
She leaned back in her chair, eyes wide with surprise. “Konoko’s armed?”
“Just shipboard carbines; nothing external. Still, they’re not fucking around. They find you out, they’ll waste you without a second thought. Mohinder they might not shoot to kill.”
NEXT TUESDAY: WITH THEIR CAREERS AND POSSIBLY THEIR LIVES ON THE LINE, KONOKO'S CREW MAKE A DANGEROUS PLAY TO SAVE THEIR LEADER. "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" KEEPS ON BURNING THROUGH THE IONOSPHERE!