Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Fields without Fences, Part Thirty-Four



           They climb, the two of them, up on a high stony promontory to take in the valley.  Annika takes the backpack; she’s packed every last corner of its many pockets with odds and ends only she could possibly inventory.  Lorena carries only the humidifier unit, less than a kilo in weight, deftly sifting moisture from Cyrene’s sultry air and depositing it into a two-liter reservoir now standing slightly more than half full.

            From the top the valley sprawls out like a vast green blanket folded down the middle.  Dark green forest clings to either wall—dank, vital, arterial green—and huddles in the valley’s steeply notched rear.  Closer to their vantage point stands acre upon acre of lighter emerald growth, cropped close and low by teeming masses of cattle.  The beasts, bison-crossed, engineered and bred to the size of small passenger shuttles, rank high on the list of Cyrene’s most valuable agricultural exports.  Lorena has seen the full list, on a glossy paper brochure lying around their lodge’s lobby.  It is impressive indeed.  As one of a precious handful of discovered worlds with rocky crusts, Earth-like masses, nitrogen-oxygen atmospheres and appropriate climates, it represented an incredible slew of business opportunities and for that reason remained largely unpopulated.  Workers the agrocorps could ship in from orbital facilities; arable land on the surface they could scarcely afford to waste on accommodations.  In any case, human habitation was terrible for biospheres—a matter of established scientific fact.  Agriculture could be managed, controlled, torn down and rebuilt anew with greater efficiency.  The livestock never complained.  People, on the other hand…people just did things.

            But there are perks to being a Federal service officer and still more perks to being Annika Murane, Deputy Director for Fleet Logistics.  She’s arranged a week on the surface, un-harried by agrocorp babysitters so long as she keeps herself far from any hazardous processes.  Easy enough.  Lorena is here because she was invited, ostensibly as the Deputy Director’s assistant though technically she’s using vacation time.  Annika pays her way, at least, though thinking about this makes Lorena so anxious she breaks into sweating.

            In this moment the sweat’s all from climate.  The sun overhead is sweltering and eerily reminiscent of Earth’s but for its vaguely red tint.  Dimmer than Sol, closer, bigger, an overripe orange in the sky.  It gives the jungle a heroic cast, Lorena decides, chest heaving as she waits for Annika to catch up.  It’s only point eight gravity, she chides herself, you shouldn’t be so winded.  But the atmosphere’s thinner by the same token, and she figures maybe the two cancel each other out.

            “Now there’s a view,” her girlfriend—though she says she hates how the term diminishes—pants from just behind.  “That’s pretty amazing.”

            “It better be, after that climb.  Who’d build a trail if it didn’t go somewhere worthwhile?”  Overgrown though it had been, they’d picked up the old road to a now-defunct surveying station that stood as a deserted one-story metal box some fifty feet below.

            Annika swings the backpack off her shoulders, sets it down and stretches out her relieved back while shielding her eyes from the glare.  “God, those cows are big.  You can still pick them apart from this height.”

            Lorena admires the way her sweat-damped shirt slides along her midriff, sticks at the base of her spine where the backpack has bunched it.  “Rather pick them apart on a plate.  It’s wild to think how far those critters will go when all’s said and done.  More mileage than most people who ever lived.”

            “Ever had one of their steaks?” Annika asks, gesturing to the device hanging from Lorena’s shoulder.

            “God, no,” she replies, unlacing her bronzed arm from the strap and handing it over for the fairer woman to drink.  Four days in and she’s already gotten a healthy base tan while Annika simply burns.  “I can’t imagine spending that much on one thing.  If I’m spending that kind of money I want more substance.  And a nice bottle of booze, at least.”

            “Something about it takes you back to old Earth.  For those of us who weren’t born there, I mean.  Just the fiber of the meet between your teeth.  You can’t get that kind of real texture from the cultured stuff.”

            “Maybe we’ll get a freebie for staying here?”

            “I think our lodge room is all we’re getting.”

            “With all this Federal corruption I keep reading about,” Lorena grins, taking the humidifier back, “I’d say we’re entitled to some petty graft.”

            “A little something’s better than nothing.  Oh look, they’re being herded!”  She doesn’t have to point.  From boxy hangars on the valley’s east side emerge two striders: industrial agromechs tiptoeing on long tapered grasshopper legs, tiny glass-fronted cockpits swinging between backturned knee joints.  These have been painted powder blue and like two pretty little insects they take off over the valley floor’s close-gnawed grass.  At astonishing speed they dash westward from their hangars, bounding over stones and the carcasses of fallen trees, skirting two masses of cattle carefully—passing on the side opposite the afternoon shadows’ slant so as not to disturb the cattle with their fast-moving projections.

At the third herd the striders slow.  One breaks away to take position on its far side.  They stare at each other for a moment over the great shaggy heads of their charges before emitting from oversized speakers a tremendously loud HONK: a bellow of moderate bovine distress, its last faint echo audible from the promontory where the two women watch the herd trudge into motion.  They start off walking in a direction and for a reason they cannot comprehend.  Nobody so much as tries to explain.

“This place is incredible.  Thank you for bringing me,” Lorena slides an arm about Annika’s waist.

“Nobody’s given me crap about it yet.”

“But I doubt we’ll ever make it back.”

“That’s probably true, but never say never.”

“Hey, I love you.”  She squeezes, plants a kiss on the nearest sunburned cheek.

“I love you too.”

*          *          *          

That stretch of space stood empty, alone for billions of years until suddenly it wasn’t.  The silver chrome horseshoe crab form of ECV Konoko shimmered into existence, light falling off her in liquid cascades as conventional physics re-asserted themselves.  There was nothing around to speak of, nothing but the starscape which seemed so vibrant in art installations but was in reality just flat and hollow.  Nothing to recommend this bit of existence over any other patch to have washed haphazardly from the universe’s initial sloshing arrangement of matter and energy.  Sitting for eons on its lazy ass, this arbitrary arrangement of cubic meters accomplished nothing.  It merely waited for the more privileged parts of the universe to organize their matter, spawn organic life, cradle that life until it evolved advanced intelligence, and finally to construct a starship to come and visit.  Congratulations, patch of remote and uncharted space!  Welcome, albeit belatedly and with no inspired effort of your own, to the Universe.

“C-H field is dispersed,” called Zachariah Obo.  “Core’s in good shape.”

“Acknowledged,” Lorena replied, and pulled open the nearest Piloting pod to reveal Vivek in his clinging back flight suit.  He rose smoothly to his knees, the trailing spinal leads oddly enhancing his jointless amphibian grace.

“We’re really in the sticks,” he declared.  “Couple dwarves, a clapped out P-nebula and a whole lot of nothing.”

“Smooth flying, then.”

“Like swimming in an open pool.  Crossing a big grassy field at night.  Quiet and empty’s only soothing for so long.”

            She helped him down from the pod, ran her eyes once again over his recorded biofeedback on the monitors.  “Well, you’re good to go.  I expect Ash will be here soon.”

            “Okay.  Did you need anything in particular from me?  If not, I’ll just crash.  Since I just spent so long avoiding that,” he quipped with a snicker.

            “Nothing springs to mind.”

            “Hey, Lor?  While we’ve got a moment I’d like to ask you something.”

            “Shoot.”

            “Think you could do something nice for Miss Leaf?  Something to reach out.  I think it’d set her at ease.  At least get her closer.”

            She was skeptical.  “What did you have in mind?”

            “Just…anything, really.  Say a nice thing.  Laugh at a joke.”

            “She jokes?”

            “She does.  Not too badly, if I’m any judge.”

            “Lord knows you’re our resident expert on eye-rollers.  But fine, I’ll see what I can do.

            “All I asked.  ’Night, Cap’n!”  With a wave Vivek left the Nav Suite.

            “What in all creation was that about?” Beatrice wondered aloud once he’d departed.

            “I suspect he feels bad about her situation.”

            “Bet he’s into her.”

            “I’m sure he can turn on the charm, but it’s a little soon for that.”

            “Didn’t mean that.  Pull it back a little.”

            “Oh.  Not impossible, I guess.  But unlike him.”

            “What’s his type?”

            “You know, I have no idea.”

            “Does he even like girls?”

            “Vivek?  Oh, yes.  Yeah.  I’m pretty sure.”

            “You’re supposed to bond with these people!  This never comes up? 

            “Not really, no.  When I think about it, seems…inappropriate.”

            “Inappropriate, like a tryst to Cyrene on the Federal dime?” Beatrice asked slyly.

            “You know, I’d been thinking about that recently,” Lorena wore a wistful smile.

            “Why drag yourself through that particular bedraggled stretch of the past?”

            “Because it wasn’t all bad,” Lorena shot back a little too quickly, bristling.  “That was a nice memory.  It’s still a nice memory, and I just wanted to smile at something.”

            Bea nodded understanding.  “My point was, it’s not as though you’re some shrinking violet.  You’re not quite the prude you’d like to be.”

“Explain?”

“Tromping through the jungle to scenic spots, getting sweatier than most.  It wasn’t all kisses up there, overlooking that valley.  Wasn’t just the striders honking!”

            Lorena blushed furiously, but then her expression changed as she thought about it.  “Wait, how’d you…you can’t know that.”

            “Whatever you say, Lor,” her friend guffawed.

            “No, I’m serious.  I never told anyone that.”

            “I promise you told me about the trip.  Before and after you got back.”

            “Not About our hike up the valley.  The rocky point, the surveying station, the cows and the striders.  I never told anyone about that.  And Annika damn sure wasn’t spreading any stories.  She wiped every trace of me, for professional reasons.”

            “Dunno what to tell you, honey.”

            “Tell me where you heard about it.”

            “From you.”

            Lorena sighed.  “Shit.  Well, if you’re going to run I won’t chase.  But there’s something you’re not saying.  I know we’ve been friends a long time, but it’s not like you sat in on my whole life.”

            “God, can you imagine?” Ashley Duggins broke in from the doorway.  “An unbroken lifetime of Lorena.  All the guilt that would entail.”

            The C.O. gave her a sharp look.  Beatrice saw this but ignored it, deciding to join in: “Wooden social interactions!  Nagging anxieties!”

            “You all should be so lucky,” Lorena grumbled, feeling picked on.  “Just how much have you two got going?  Bea, remind us all what you even do around here?” she ended on an upward inflection though it wasn’t properly a question.

            “Moral support.  Somebody’s got to do it, keeping your skulls glued together.  I mean, ostensibly it’s the good Doctor’s job to mind your minds, but I did mention something about wooden-ness.”

            “You know, Bea,” Ashley frowned, “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen your title.”

            “My title is ‘The Best.’”

            “Seriously.”

            “Civilian consultant, if you must know,” she seemed to bristle.  “It’s why I get to dress with a bit of style.  Now, not that I’m not happy as the center of attention—it’s kind of my thing, actually—don’t the two of you have some actual shipboard business.  Not to overstep my civilian expertise,” she concluded, anointing the last two words with rank sarcasm.

            “Not as slow as you’d think from those good looks.  She’s right, Ash—you good to go?”

            “Less a headache.  Think I slept on my neck wrong and it traveled up.  Though I guess when they drill my dome,” the junior Pilot joked ghoulishly, “I’ll learn to live with that.”

*          *          *          

            Vivek Mohinder was almost back to his cabin when she caught him.  She’d been halfway between the galley and her cabin door with its red painted numeral 6, heard his footsteps on the stairs and paused to see who it was.

            “Evening, Pilot,” nodded Maxi Leaf upon seeing him.  “Nice work down there.”  In one hand she carried a self-heating capsule of fragrant IndoChinese curry with chunks of cultured beef.  It was becoming something of a staple.

            He shrugged sheepishly.  “Wasn’t much.  It’s a big galaxy and this is a particularly empty part of it.  Take the Baraheni rat’s nest and imagine the polar opposite.”

            “Well, we didn’t get blown to atomic smithereens.  Take the compliment, Mohinder.  And while we’re at it, that flight suit’s very fetching.  Did you pick it out?”

            He chuckled, pinched a bit of the fabric, pulled it out from his chest and let it snap back.  “The Corps’ regular uniforms are so far from sexy; it’s kind of nice to walk around in this contact suit.  Just, you know, feeling fine.”

            “Hey, you got time for that story?  You still owe me,” she reminded him.

            He didn’t want to indulge her at this moment, worn down as he was from his stint in the pod.  But he’d always hated procrastination—far from a moralist on the topic, Vivek had found the payoff rarely matched the anxiety attached.  Few times were better than the present.  “All right,” he told her, “but I’m tired and I want to sit down in my cabin at least.”

            “That’s fine.”

            “I was referring to that,” he indicated the prefab meal in her hand, firm but doing his best not to be rude.  “Can’t have you eating in there.”

            Maxi opened her cabin door to toss the hot, sealed curry tube at the tiny, mismatched end table adjacent her bunk.  It struck the brown varnished surface, bounced, slid as it bounced and ultimately rode right over the tabletop.  Impact on the floor cracked loose its seal and the capsule’s top popped open, disgorging a healthy squirt of caramel-yellow goop over about a foot of decking.  God dammit.  No time to clean it; Vivek would think her a bumbling idiot if she explained the delay.  Ain’t it always the way, Chief Leaf had been fond of saying until his heart gave out and there was no more always.  Instead she abandoned the spill there, shrugged it off and closed the “6”-labeled door behind her.  She strode through Vivek’s cracked “2” door like nothing had happened.

            He’d concealed himself behind an open closet door, unzipping down his hips to his knees, hopping awkwardly on one foot while yanking from the other the last of his inside-out flight suit, to be discarded like a molted skin.  The soft new flesh beneath he quickly sheathed in loose grey off-duty pants.  Over his head he pulled a black short-sleeved shirt adorned with the ornate logo of a long-defunct video game.  Finally clad, Vivek took a step out and closed the closet door to see Maxi Leaf admiring his cabin.

            “You’ve done a lot with this,” she said admiringly.  He’d pushed his bed to the back corner, opening up floor space he’d covered with a thick white rug.  Large tika cloths dyed in blue and burgundy were affixed by small adhesive patches to walls and ceiling, softening the room’s corners along with its harsh overhead lighting.  Two bright, merry lamps shone from spots on his desk and night stand.  Vivek had placed a love seat and two chairs in an intimate cluster on the big white rug, loosely oriented to face the entertainment suite against the far wall.  What few open spots remained on the cabin’s drab bulkheads he’d filled with posters advertizing holo-psych metal bands.  ZERISSEN, read one, practically dripping lime green below a hand-drawn image of a mighty Lovecraftian creature.

            Vivek crossed to his desk, plucked up a red plastic water bottle standing three-quarters full and took it with him as he folded himself into one of the chairs.  He directed Maxi to the other chair and she sat.  “My first tour, I was miserable the whole time.  Thought it was homesickness—bad hang-up for a career spacer, right?—but even once I got back to my folks’ place on Oberon, it persisted.  Like I’d given up the idea of ‘home’ and couldn’t get it back again.”

            “Isn’t that almost exactly how the old saying goes?”

            “Yeah, the old saw, can’t go home again.  My mom, of all people, suggested I do up my cabin really nice so it’d feel like home.  Which I scoffed at, naturally, because what does my Mom know, but when the next tour came around I decided it wouldn’t cost me anything to try.  So this setup is what I came up, and I liked it.  It helped, so I kept it.  And with the tika cloths, they’re simple enough to rig no matter what kind of cabin I end up in.”

            “You always get private cabins, right?”

            “Yeah, as a Pilot.  We’re precious flowers, need our space and our sleep,” he smirked, tipping back his bottle.  Water slid down a throat parched by hours in the Piloting pod.

            “My Pilots on Toussaint were a couple.  Needed everything their way, but once on station they kept to themselves.  Out of my hair.”

            “Been a long time since I had any hair.”

            She chuckled.  “So what’s the story on that?  On those?”

            Vivek reached back to touch the occipital implants.  He recalled the drill and gave the slightest wince.  “I always wanted to be a Pilot.  Not always, but space was always in the cards and my first time in a sim, with a neuro-harness, that did it.  Had to Pilot, had to have my own ship.  I’d just never felt anything like it.”

            “Oh, I’ve heard it from every Pilot I ever met.  The majesty of space, all that.”

            “Right, it’s like listening to a musician talk about music.  I get it; I’ll spare you.  So I always wanted to fly.  And I had most of what you’d want going for you: parents made good money, I went to good schools.  Had all the resources you’d want, all the heart and desire.  But I didn’t have the talent.”

            “Huh?” this took Maxi aback.  “You’re a Senior Pilot.”

            “I am now.  No sane person would’ve bet any sum of money on me making it out of the Corps Academy, let alone flight school.  Wasn’t that good at class—couldn’t even sniff the Navy, applied straight to the Corps. I didn’t respond in anything like a natural way to the flight systems.  But I did get through the Academy, painfully, near the bottom of my class.”

            “That’s…impressive.”

            “No it’s not.  It’s just a privileged kid getting what he wanted.  There’s a reason nobody writes books about upper-middle-class children overcoming their own mediocrity.  I don’t consider myself a great success story.  All I did was get what I wanted.  Anyway, in flight school I hit a wall.  Hard work just wasn’t enough anymore.  I knew I wasn’t going to pass the board testing.  Everyone who saw my scores knew that.  So I’ve got three months until boards, facing the end of any hope at a Federal career.  I could’ve gone commercial, I know it’s not the worst job—no offense.”

            “None taken, the companies are awful.  Why do you think I scav?”

            “It was basically the end for me.  I was depressed about it.  So depressed that one night, in a chem stupor—“

            “Wait, aren’t you Konoko’s resident health nut?”

            “I wasn’t then.  I was just stoned and just desperate enough to try something big.  To take a major risk.  And it just popped in there.  The idea was just there, suddenly, full-formed and ready: what if you tried the implants?  I knew they were mostly for medical reasons, but if they helped somebody who couldn’t otherwise Pilot…I mean, didn’t that describe me?”

            “Must’ve been some great chems,” Maxi remarked, vaguely horrified.

            “Even once I sobered up, the idea stuck around.  And over the next month, as I really started to appreciate washing out of this Federal career I’d spent years and God knows how much of my parents’ money trying to build, it made more and more sense,” his gaze was far away, but abruptly Vivek was back in the present and barking with laughter.  “You know what, honestly, made the choice?  What made me pull the trigger?  It was the deadline for cancelling your boards.  Postponing the test without having to take a Fail or an Incomplete.  I turned in my cancel form just under the wire.  Scheduled my surgery the same day.”

            “Jesus.”

            “After that, there’s recovery and re-training.  That bought me a lot of time to study, to work myself into a shape where I could pass.  But I did, got a posting, took everything about my profession far too seriously and with all that I’ve managed to hang on.  Here I am.  That’s my story, it matters to me and I’m not sure it’s worth mattering to anyone else.”

            “I don’t think I’ve ever heard one like it.”

            “Oh, maybe, kicking around somewhere.  In an infinite universe…” he trailed off, shrugged, drained the rest of his water.

            “Feels like it should mean something, but I’m not sure what.”

            “Oh, yes.  I know the feeling.  That’s all of life, through, right?  A long, vain attempt to put what’s gone before in order.”

            “Whether making sense of things,” Maxi agreed, “or laying them to rest.”

NEXT TUESDAY: AFTER A LONG HARD HAUL, THE CREW OF ECV KONOKO SCALE BACK THEIR SCHEDULE AND LET THEIR HAIR DOWN. MAXI LEAF DOES HER BEST TO GET IN THE CELEBRATORY SPIRIT AS "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" CONTINUES!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Fields without Fences, Part Thirty-Three

Credit: Headdl


            Her legs are bare.  Bare below the knee; below the hem of her towel whose fuzzy fibers seem a satire of comfort, whose bleached white mocks the ghastly pale of her own skin now beading up from chill.  She’s always been so pale.  All her extremities are cold though her heart mallets against the hard plate of her chest.  The armor keeps her from spilling out.

            Her right hip starts to throb; it took a bad knock against the door frame and she’s been sitting on it.  There is more that hurts, but she prefers to think of her hip.  She shifts her weight, feels the towel shift and instinctively clutches it about herself.  Looking down to be sure, she sees the blood spatter down its fabric to the level of her navel.  There is a surprising amount of it.  She hadn’t meant to swing so hard.  Her eyes trace the spatter over the faux-hardwood decking until she sees the flashlight lying by the open doorway, its head cracked open like an egg amidst a pool of blackening crimson.  A lump of sodden tissue sticks to the lens.  She recalls then everything from the prior five minutes.  She leans forward on her knees, copious drool running between her teeth amidst threads of blood, and futilely battles the void swelling in her gut.

            Once the last retches wear themselves out, Maxi Leaf realizes her towel is ruined.  She would very much like to change it but she cannot remember where the clean towels are kept.  It’s only her second week aboard, after all.  Her feet plant hard on the floor and she tries to stand, but while she can feel her extremities it seems she has little control over anything upstream.  Maxi pushes herself resolutely up using her bunk for support until she’s high enough to sit on it, which seems like a good idea because by then she is tired.  Her heart slows and she feels the cored-out emptiness adrenaline left behind.  The towel is slipping again, weighed down by the dripping mess she’s puked down its front.  But she can’t drop it, can’t leave herself exposed.  She is not entirely sure what she’s afraid of.  It’s not like he’s going to get up.  Not after that.

Now at last she remembers: the towels are in a small recessed cabinet below the sink, stacked up happy and new and clean and perfect.  Maxi would rather not return to the bathroom.  Not least because she worries she’ll slip on the water the blood, the mess of its all on the tile floor.  She’ll need to clean it eventually, she supposes, but not today.  Maybe if she’s lucky one of the duct work guys will fix it for her.  That’s who she thought it was at first—a Tech who’d misread his work order and carelessly let himself into an officer’s occupied cabin.  Surely it was an accident, a misunderstanding, and so she’d called “pool’s full” in a sing-song voice and thought nothing of it until suddenly he was there, right there inside the head (which she hadn’t locked, stupid) pulling back the shower curtain and looking at her and reaching and then everything happened very quickly indeed.

The flashlight had rested atop the toilet, where she’d left it since the overhead light went out days before and left her feeling around for a toilet paper in the dark.  Fixed days before, but she’d been too lazy to replace the flashlight.  After she slid away from where he had her against the wall, he’d pushed her back and she’d half-sprawled over the toilet and there the black heavy thing was, speaking to her.  Yes, it said, God said through it.  Yes.  This is what you’re supposed to do.  After the first swing he’d been surprised, not angry but surprised, and on the second swing his eyes went back and she couldn’t really see them for all the swings thereafter.  There had been more than a few, she now recalls.  Yes, she had meant to swing that hard.  Absofuckinglutely.

She is still there, sitting on the bed wrapped in that towel, when Bosun Moon drops by to ask a question.  He knocks gently; he is so polite.  She makes a noise he can’t interpret but which prompts him to try the door and find it locked.  She cannot recall the keypad combination, nor is she comfortable altering her present position in any way.  This precise spot in the universe is tranquil, is still, and she sees no reason to leave it.  When the Bosun asks through the door whether she is okay, she manages to utter the word “No,” and that is enough for him to call the X.O., which is enough for the X.O. to release the lock on her door.  Which is when they burst in to find the mess.

He’s still alive, Doctor Cuaron declares, though barely, and what’s left of him won’t ever be him again.  It’s quite a pickle for the X.O., for the Captain, for the many concerned men who’ll be responsible for handling the voluminous paperwork associated with a full legal inquest.  The Feds doesn’t much appreciate commercial spacers dropping off their delinquents in Navy brigs; that goes for brain-damaged meat sticks who’ll never see a tribunal courtroom, let alone a real prison cell.  It is easier for everyone, wise minds decide, if things are wrapped up neatly.  No legal procedure, no corporate lawyers questioning the poor girl.  Leave the ledger as it stands.  Doctor Cuaron isn’t happy about it, but he’s also examined Maxi and he knows the score.  Into his report he inserts UICD diagnostic code 988.16: Occupational Physiological Trauma (Cranium).  The body he quietly takes off life support and bags up for its unceremonious trip out the airlock.  To Maxi he prescribes anxiety medications she won’t take, offers counsel she won’t seek.  And then he lets her go.  Dios nos da un mundo imperfecto, as he’s told his children.  Para poder mejorarlo.

*          *          *          

            ECV Konoko emerged into the wan yellow candlelight of a venerable dwarf star.  Her Chen-Hau field collapsed and her unencumbered feelers leapt out at light speed to take in the local vastness.  They singed themselves on the sun’s feeble heat, soothed the pain on the icy expanses of the old system’s sole planet.  There had been others once, mismatched acquaintances yoked by gravity into brotherhood, finally falling into and destroying one another in a positively literary display of destruction.  Of those two, only stones remained: a great stripe of an asteroid belt grinding itself ever further towards powder.  The lone survivor, some two Earth masses, had bathed its rocky core in water.  The real stuff, that serendipitous and fiercely polar marriage of hydrogen and oxygen.  This had Karl Genz excited.

            “It’s a thin layer!” he boomed too loud into his handy.

            “That’s great, Karl,” said Lorena distractedly, easing the dive pod open to reveal Ashley Duggins’ crouched form.  She stayed down a minute longer, breathing deep with her eyes closed, rising at last when Lorena put a hand on her lower back.

            “Feels good to fly,” Ashley said, and pushed herself up to a kneeling position.  Lorena plucked out her spine leads and held out a hand to help her down.

            “Okay with the drugs?”

            “Yeah.  They’re still...unpleasant, when they hit.  But yeah.  Mostly I’m happy to be in wide open space again.  Get some run in!”

            “Glad to hear it.  That was a quick run.”

            “Wide open, like I said.  Had a good connection, she knew what I wanted.  Whatever chem blend you’re using is fine by me.”

Lorena clucked her tongue.  “That reminds me, I need to spend some time communing with the nano-pharm.  Been putting it off, I hate learning new things.”

“You and me both, Doc.  I get to just strap in and fly,” Ashley grinned, scooping up her jacket and striding out the door.

            “Karl, what’s that you were saying?” Lorena asked after a touch to her handy’s screen.  “A thin layer of what?”

            “Doctor, the local planet has water-ice over a terrestrial core!  And the ice is thin enough to support a substantial ocean beneath.”

            “You think it could be inhabited?”

            “By biological life, almost certainly.  I will concede I see no obvious signs of advanced life.  But I will continue looking.”

            “Doubt you’ll have much time,” she warned him, conversing through the handy’s speaker while she prepped the Nav Suite computer to receive the next Pilot on deck.  “We’re clearing the grav disc under sublight, prepping Mister Mohinder and diving out.”

            “With respect, ma’am, my reports coming in now suggest large structures under the ice.  Conceivably artificial in origin.  If that is the case…”

            She worked to keep the irritation from her voice.  Be direct, Stay simple.  “Karl, we’re on a tight schedule.  We need a good reason to divert.  I don’t care about life; we’ll make a note of it.  Make a note of sentience.  If it can talk, let me know.”

“Might we at least take a closer path to the world, so I may employ ultrasound scanning?  The system requires at least some atmosphere for the waves to propagate.”

It wasn’t an unreasonable request.  “Fine, I’ll adjust the flight computer,” she sighed.   “Otherwise, we clear the mass disc and we dive when we dive.  Acknowledge?”

            “Acknowledged,” he audibly sulked and severed the line.

            “You’re so nice to that boy,” Beatrice marveled, standing over her friend’s shoulder as she worked.  “Much nicer than I’d be.”

*          *          *          

            It was Maxi Leaf’s first time using Konoko’s workout facilities, and it figured Vivek Mohinder would show up.  She hated exercising with others, considered it an eminently solitary pursuit, and could barely abide the occasional casual glance.  On her own ship—if they’d had a gym, which Toussaint did not—she’d have ordered a rapid scramming.  Here she was a guest and so she labored gamely under that burden, selecting machines and poses to keep him from her viewframe.  But she could only keep it up so long.

            “Coming through, don’t move,” said Vivek in an unapologetic tone, throwing one leg and then another over the base of the machine she lay on in the course of stepping over it.

            “Sorry,” he said once he’d completed his dismount.  “Space is the one thing we’re short on around here.”

            “Why don’t you open the door and let some in?” she delivered the joke so drily, it took Vivek a moment to catch up.

            “That was good,” he said once he’d finished his double take and surprised bark of laughter.  “I mean, it was bad.  But it was good.”

            Maxi finished her last repetitions, bringing her arms up and hands together against the machine’s constantly repulsing force.  When she was done she sat up, still breathing hard, and met Vivek’s eyes.  He’d waited for her to finish.  “Glad you appreciate it.”

            “Normally I’m the one making bad puns.  I’m excited to have you around; take a little heat off my back.”

            “I wouldn’t count on too many,” she deadpanned, doing her best to push him away.

            But he wasn’t having it.  “And why not?  I know you’re in a bad position, Miss Leaf.  We’re all doing our best to make it better.  Maybe we won’t get it right, but we are trying.”

            Maxi grunted, toweled the sweat off her face.

            “Even Doctor Mizrahi.  I know you don’t see it, but as someone who knows her, she’s doing her best.  You two just clash.  With some breathing room it’ll work.”

            “Didn’t we just agree there’s no space to be had?”

            “We do what we can, even those of us on the crew.  You’ve been a spacer long enough, I’m sure you know the same.  Stupid puns help; it’s a trick as old as Shakespeare.  Probably older.”

            “People talk a lot about Shakespeare,” she said, a smile breaking over her face, “but I tried reading his stuff, and it was a whole lot of dick jokes.”

            Vivek threw back his head laughing.  “There you go.  You keep that up.  If nobody else on this boat appreciates it, I will.  And I’m X.O., so you’ve got friends in high places,” he winked.

            “If you’re gonna be a prisoner, get friendly with the wardens.”

            “That’s a grim way to think about it.”

            She softened.  “I know.  You’ve been very kind.”

            “I’ve said it before, but: anything you need, just ask.”

            Up went one of Maxi’s eyebrows.  She felt emboldened.  “Okay, then I’d ask what convinced you to get those dimes drilled in your dome.”

            For the first time he looked uncomfortable.  She hadn’t expected that.  “I’m right about to head downstairs for my flight shift.  It’s not a short enough story.  I’ll tell you later if you’re really interested.  Not just needling.”

            Now it was her turn to feel defensive.  What was she, a puckish little imp?  “I wasn’t needling.  I do want to know.  Tell me when you’re ready.”

            “Okay,” he nodded, making his way around her machine from the device he’d approached but hadn’t used.  “I’m off to fly this bird at incalculable speed through space-time.  Try not to be too impressed.”

With a bright even-toothed grin he was gone.  Maxi looked around the suddenly empty gym, its machines all white and chrome but for the proud Explorer Corps blue of their pads.  She was alone and found herself strangely disappointed.

*          *          *          

            Karl Genz stared agog at his scanners’ results.  As Konoko passed swift and silver by the frozen planet, dipping her toes in upper atmosphere, he’d sent cascades of ultrasound down through thin air and deep into the icepack.  Though that too, into the sea hiding armored and secret below.  Lasers couldn’t get through anything that thick.  Stuffed tightly into supply closets he’d inventoried an assortment of direct-contact “thumper” devices, but as the name implied they’d need setting down on the surface.  Stranded in high orbit, ultrasound was by far his best option.  And lo, what it revealed!  “Burgen im Meer,” he said out loud, as if tasting the words might help him believe them.

            “’Castles’ sound a bit dramatic,” Beatrice remarked over his shoulder.

            “I cannot think what else to call them.  Look!” he insisted, striking his keyboard with a pianist’s rapid precision to bring up a three-dimensional render before her widening eyes.

            “Oh my,” she breathed, “that is quite a thing.”  It was a spire of sorts: a spire, fluted and ornately buttressed though the long-range ultrasound veiled fine detail.  It stood atop a great mountain that was itself a spire, supported by identical elbows of structure grown fractally to monstrous size.  That mountain lay atop another of the same proportions, and it was there the sensors lost fidelity though wide-area scans suggested the floor was nowhere near.

            “There are others,” Karl explained, zooming the display out so other, similar spires could be marked in glowing green over the nearest swath of planetary surface.

            “It’s a whole civilization.”

            “That depends, perhaps, on one’s definition.”

            “They’re building with stone.”

            “It’s not…” he trailed off, checking data on his console screen.  “No, it’s not dense enough.  That’s how they reach such size.  The material is something lighter.”

            “Biological?”

            “No, it is sedimentary in nature.  Oh my,” he declared, placing a palm to his forehead, “it is both!  Sediment arranged by living agency.  But that idea conflicts with the engineering we see here.  A species able to assemble such structures would surely be able to secure better building materials.”

            “You’re making assumptions,” Beatrice smiled coyly.  “Rooted in your own experience.  Picture something without a primate brain.  Something that’s not a big, centralized, mobile creature carrying tools and conquering worlds.  Use your imagination!”

            Karl pinched up his face in a way he often did when frustrated.  He rushed through possibilities, drawing on what he’d admit was a less-than-ironclad knowledge of marine biology.  “I know you know this,” Beatrice teased.

At last he seized on a spark of an idea.  “I had not considered microbial action,” he began cautiously, searching Beatrice’s face for hints that weren’t coming.  But the more he considered it, the more sense it made.  He tried to pull open Konoko’s encyclopedia to investigate marine microbes but found the entries missing along with most of the encyclopedia.  The Ouro A.I. had wiped it and so he was forced to remember: “Microbes on Earth have built sedimentary structures.  Structures with intricate layered designs, though certainly nothing this spectacular.  They are…ach, it is a long English word and I cannot recall it.”

“Stromatolites,” she bailed him out at last.

“Yes!  Thank you.  This would explain the sedimentary structure, the apparent lack of cities or infrastructure.  The repeating shapes of the spires, growing, thickening over time to support the higher reaches.  Reaching…for what?  For sunlight, I suppose,” he cradled his face in one hand and started kneading his jaw.

Beatrice peered at the hovering map of the planetary surface.  “That’s an awful lot of ice.  You think much sunlight gets through that?”

“Several kilometers,” Karl winced.  “Unlikely.  That does present an interesting question: what’s fueling the growth?  There must be an energy source.  The local sun made sense, I agree.  We cannot see the floor; perhaps they live off heat from the crust.”

“But then, why build?”

“I do not know.  Unless…unless we were, as you say, to limit our assumptions.  To ask bigger questions.  How do we know, for example, that the spires remain under active construction?”

“We don’t.  Oh, shit,” she put a hand to her mouth, placing things in a sequence.  “They’re dead, aren’t they?”

“Impossible to know for certain, but yes, upon reflection I suspect they are.  The star remains in a state of rapid contraction—at least in terms of geologic time.”

Her pale skin now looked ashen.  “They build against the ice.  While the star collapsed, the ice piled up.”

            “The spires may have been a response,” he agreed.  “But it wasn’t enough.  It could not have been enough.”

            “The whole sea’s dead.  The whole world.”

            “There is liquid still.  The heat from the planet’s crust will sustain some of it even when the star has reached its last dwarf stage.”

            “That’s so depressing.  A whole world, clearly with so much potential.  I mean, look at those things!  And they just…ran out of time?  What could they have done?  Nothing, I’m sure,” she looked to Karl, who nodded dolefully.  “That’s life, I guess.  It’s just not fair.”

            As she said it, Lorena’s voice brought intercom to squawking life.  “All hands, we’re about to engage the C-H field.  Mister Obo, kindly clear us for dive.”

            “Are you going to ask for more time?” Bea asked.

            “No.”

            “It’s a story worth documenting,” she protested.

            “Chariot’s good to ride,” Zach Obo’s voice sounded.  “Best ship?”

            “Best Tech.”

            Karl had been watching the intercom speaker like a moving mouth but now he looked back to Beatrice.  “I will make a note.  We will file it for the archaeologists.”

            “And it’ll never see the light of day.”

            “It will not,” he agreed.  “But we will know it.  Maybe there will be a note revised into the Corps archives.  And in any case, it will still be here.  The ice can only get thicker.  It seals the world in amber, keeps it safe, preserves the spires for…I cannot say what.  But the story will remain until someone arrives to tell it.”

            “However long that might be.”

            “I am not sure it matters.  If the story is good, does it matter how long it waits?  Does it matter how many eyes it reaches?  Certainly you would prefer more, but why should anyone define a story by a number?”

            She nodded soberly.  “Why, indeed?  Especially in a universe this big, this old.  Every circumstance will change, sooner or later.  Everything’s got value so long as it clings to existence.  So long as there’s someone to carry the torch.”

            The ship’s hull hummed then—sang out a low note nudging pressure into their ears, leaving a sensation like they needed popping.  “Chen-Hau field is engaged,” Obo confirmed.  ECV Konoko leapt past the speed of light and was instantly very far away from the rimy world with its sealed-in snowglobe sea.  Its fading star twinkled as the only reminder that somewhere in that vast empty nowhere waited a story worth telling.

NEXT TUESDAY: UNDER HEAVY STEAM, KONOKO APPROACHES THE BORDER. STRESSED AND STRAINED BY THE SCHEDULE, VIVEK DOES HIS BEST TO BOND WITH MAXI LEAF. "FIELDS WITHOUT FENCES" CONTINUES!